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The Dreamer

By

D. G. Richards

Copyright © D. G. Richards 2002

   

CHAPTER ONE

"A freighter spotted it coming back from the new colony on Titan. Their course and fuel restrictions meant that they couldn't divert or loiter long enough to investigate. From the pictures they took, it's definitely artificial, and it's definitely old."

In the confined space of the common room, Scott's dead pan description of the most momentous discovery ever made by mankind seemed a let down to Angela. The pictures on the monitor were also an anti-climax. They had all seen them before of course. All six crew members aboard the shuttle Intrepid had scrutinized every detail, studied every description, and poured over the masses of pictures taken by the Hubble. But at the end of it all, it was just a dot, a hulk of irregular metal travelling across the Solar System.

That was what made it so special to Angela.

Angela Wilson had spent years studying Human and animal behaviour. She had travelled the world over studying and learning from the vastly different societies that made up the human race. She was an accomplished Psycologist, but she had started out as an anthropologist way back when she was a student. Gradually, through hard work and gruelling field trips, she had worked her way into being the foremost expert in her field. She was well respected by her peers, and every one acknoledged that there would be no one better than her in a first contact situation.

But was this a first contact situation?

The crew of the Intrepid had been picked for every eventuallity. Scott Martin was the Captain, he was also an ex-pilot in the USAF, who's father and grandfather had also been pilots. His father was now at the Pentagon, and Scott was loyal to the military first and his country second. Not so much a 'by the book' man, as a 'by the tradition' man. He had a tendancy to be officious and he was sometimes downright arrogant. But he knew he was in charge and he liked to let everyone know that.

Angela got on reasonably well with Scott, mainly because he couldn't really understand why she was an expert or what she was actually an expert in. He knew what she did and why she was aboard, but he couldn't put any other name to it other than 'first contact situation specialist'. His problem was that he couldn't judge her performance until it mattered. Everybody else could practise, she couldn't. It meant that he was never quite convinced of her expertise. He could have resented her inclusion, but his lack of understanding meant that he was unsure of writing her off so easily. Angela could read him like a book. He was keeping on the right side of her just in case he actually came across a situation when he needed her. Angela liked that. It showed that he didn't let his own pettiness or lack of understanding get in the way, that he was open-minded enough to know that just because he couldn't understand what she did, didn't mean that it might not be important. After all, if she wasn't important, why would they have sent her along? Yes, Angela liked Scott. And the fact that he was tall, fit, quite handsome, with fair hair and cool blue eyes had nothing at all to do with it. Nothing at all. Honest.

Lucy Crow-Bennett was a Metallurgist and Physics major. What she didn't know about alloys, stresses and complex molecules could be written on a Quark. She was also tall, blonde, blue-eyed, extremely well endowed in the physical department and equally easy to get to know. She also got on very well with Scott. Maybe that was why Angela didn't like her? No, that was exactly why Angela didn't like her. If Lucy had been short, dark haired with a stick as a body -and what was wrong with having a stick as a body?- then Angela would have been happy to stand, or float, beside her. But the reality was that as soon as Lucy floated into the room, all eyes, including those of Scott, instantly latched on to her. Angela could do a weightless rhumba in the nude and no one would notice. That was the real problem of having a stick as a body. In all other capacities a stick body was a winner; everything neat and tidy, firm and fixed, clothes never a problem. But as a sexual lure, it came off second best to someone like Lucy, even in a weightless naked rhumba. No, no-one would notice her. Unless she accidently poked one of them in the ribs in the process, which is probably what she would do anyway.

Luigi Milano was a Linguist. He could pick up languages like a cat could pick up fleas. He was the polyglot de tutti polyglots. He could also translate any scribble or scratches into a beautiful speech. He was tall and wiry, with dark hair and equally dark and piercing eyes. A couple of hundred years ago he would have been considered to be demonic. Angela still considered the stake as a solution to his attentions. Luigi was full of himself and always annoying her and Lucy. With Lucy, it was obviously physical. He never let a moment pass without refering to some part of her anatomy. He was often downright rude. Lucy had been de-stablised by his remarks at first, but she quickly got used to it and had developed a standard reply for all ocasions. To the contrary with Angela, Luigi was never offensive, attacking her instead on a more cerebral level. Every doodle she made on her notepad Luigi would attempt to translate, and he never gave up the chance to bait her on some topic or other. Angela was sure that he enjoyed annoying her even more than he did Lucy. It was more of a challenge, he could see that it didn't bother her. Until he became wise to Angela's attraction to Scott. From then on Luigi never ceased to poke fun at Scott when he was alone with her, or in challenging his authority when they were all together. Actually, he spent a lot of time with Angela, talking about semantics and behaviour, or about the reasons why one person was attracted to another. Thinking about it now, did that mean he- no, oh God, no, don't even go there....

Carl Price was Scott's second in command. Young and agile, with short cropped black hair and sharp features. Everything he did was rushed but expertly executed. He was also USAF, a Lieutenant with more experience in computing and engineering than anyone else in the military. He also happened to be an expert in weaponry. Of course he was only along to study the possible remains of the alien ship's engines and power systems, and didn't they all believe that.

Jonathan Parks was a Pathologist. Although he had studied Biology and Medicine he was actually with the New York Police Department when NASA acquired him for this mission. He was the only one among them who's inclusion they could all agree that they didn't understand. Even Jonathan himself felt that way. He was a quiet and almost shy man. He spoke little and didn't mix well. He was probably the oldest among them, he had fared the worst in training for the trip and he had only just managed to qualify. He was still a little overweight, although he had lost quite a few pounds during the time Angela had known him. His brown hair was thin and he had a round face with sad eyes. Angela got on with him alright. He smiled at her and he was always polite. But she couldn't help resenting him. Luigi resented him, too. It wasn't Jonathan's fault, it was just that he represented both their worst fears.

The alien ship travelled on a set course, photographed over and over again by the Hubble and tracked by every optical and radio telescope that could find it. It was simple, as simple as a straight line. It never varied, never wavered. The ship's course had been tracked back, plotted and computed. The answer was unshakable. It had obviously come from outside the Solar System. It was travelling right across it, and in a few months time it would pass beyond reach and eventually beyond sight, finally disappearing back into the depths of space from where it had emerged. That meant only one thing.

The ship was old, very old. It was probably a derelict, and the likelihood of this being a first contact situation was extremely small. What Angela and Luigi Milano both feared was that Jonathan would find more work to do than them. Somehow, Jonathan didn't seem to like that idea either.

Luigi spoke up as Scott was about to continue his lecture.

"Is this necessary, Capitan? We have all read the notes, studied the tapes, and seen all the figures. Why not look out the window?"

Scott turned to him with a tired but knowing look. "You may think going over all this again is tiresome, but I want to make sure that we all get this right." He began to tap on the table to stress his points. "We get one chance to do this. One chance to get on board, one chance to gather the information we need, one chance to see and understand, one chance and one chance only. There'll be no going back for a second look and no time for dithering. With the speed its going and our fuel and oxygen reserves we get two hours, no more. If any of you are still on that ship after that, you're on it for life. And that probably won't be for very long. Understand?"

"Always the melodramatic," Luigi replied.

"Oh, shut up, Luigi!" Lucy suddenly remarked in irritation. "This isn't a trip to Florida, you know! It's dangerous! Scott's just being careful!"

Luigi leered at her. "Maybe he fears he may lose his heavenly body, no?"

"Get stuffed!"

Scott tapped on the table again. "Alright, enough! Yes, we've gone over this many times before. You all know what you have to do. Each of us has a role to play. And when we get on board I want everything to run smoothly. I don't want any petty squabbles or any one getting in anyone elses way. You each do your job quickly and efficiently."

Lucy instantly added, "And that means no staring at my arse when I'm bending over, Luigi!"

Luigi put on a look of offended amazement. "You think I will be distracted by a woman's body when I have an alien library at my finger-tips? Never! When such a time comes, on that day, my coffin will be ready!"

Carl suddenly laughed. "Lets hope that there isn't an alien librarian on guard, or that day might come sooner than you think!"

Angela quickly turned to him. "Oh, I do hope so!"

Luigi wasn't worried. "They would have answered our call. We've been broadcasting for days."

Angela was suddenly enthusiastic. "They might not be able to. They might have degenerated into a more primative society, trapped aboard their ship for thousands of years. Just think of it-"

Scott tapped the table again. "Can we get back to this?" he said dryly. "Carl! What's your first objective?"

"Penetration and structural integrity," was the quick reply.

"Then what?"

"Power systems. I tap into the wiring, see if there's any juice left. Follow the conduits back to the source. If I can work it out, I try to get the power back on. See if the engines work. If not, I see if there's anything I can unbolt and take out."

"Good! If you can get that ship back under it's own power, I can fly it."

Luigi chuckled. "Only if I tell you where the start button is."

"Fine, Luigi! Your next. First objective?"

Luigi sighed and glanced briefly at Angela before he answered. "I follow you to the flight deck. I decipher any symbols on the controls we find."

"What next?"

"After I help you, I go to help Carl. Then I search for any books or written material that will help identify the nature of the crew and the world from which they came. I bring back anything I can find on history, geography, diaries, literature, prose and science. I quickly find I have far too few arms for the task. I decide I need a large chest to carry it all-"

Lucy suddenly said, "Get stuffed!"

Scott pointed at her.

"Since you volunteered?"

Lucy folded her arms. "I cut open the door with Carl. Then its structural integrity. After that I get as many samples as I can for the spectural analyser. Like Carl, anything I can unbolt I take back."

Luigi raised his eyebrows. "The words have such meaning."

"Get stuffed."

Scott ignored them. "Angela?"

"If everybody else is doing what they say they're doing, then I won't be doing anything."

Scott looked annoyed. "Forget them! What's your first objective?"

Angela answered without conviction. "Attempt to begin a dialog with any of the surving crew."

"Then?"

"Try and get their cooperation and support. Try and get their trust. Try and understand them, try and explain how important it is to us that we have met them. Try and learn as much about them and their society as I can in the short time I'll have-"

Scott smacked the table. "You've forgotten something!"

Angela looked miserable. "Try and explain who we are and what we're doing here."

Luigi chuckled again. "We come in peace. Excuse me while I unbolt your engine."

Scott turned to him and his voice rose in irritation. "This is important, Luigi! One slip is all it takes to cock everything up! Yes, we all know that the likelihood of finding any aliens in occupation is all but nil! But if we should come face to face with an alien the last thing we want to do is scream and run in the opposite direction! We have to act instantly! Angela has to act instantly! Every movement, every gesture and sign has to be read and understood!"

Luigi answered conceitedly. "There is nothing Angela can do that I cannot! I am an expert linguist! There is not a language I cannot master! A text I cannot read!"

"You might become the absolute expert in their language in time, Luigi. But by then they'll be gone! We've got two hours! And Angela is the only one among this crew who can get us through those two hours if aliens are on board! You might be a great linguist, but can you get cannibals to carry your tent and your back pack when they've never seen a white man let alone a white woman before? When you don't have any idea what they're saying, or whether they're angry or happy?"

Luigi didn't get a chance to reply as Scott rushed on.

"No, I don't think so! You have no experience of first contact situations whatsoever! The first words you could translate would be your own name on their menu! And that's why Angela's here, to get us past those vital seconds, minutes and hours it takes to begin to understand the first simple words of any language! Angela is the most important and least important member of our crew! If the aliens are dead, she does nothing. If they're alive, one slip, and we could be dead!"

He suddenly turned to Angela. "Get it right! Okay?"

She nodded quickly, surprised by his knowledge of her past exploits. Surprised and inwardly pleased.

Scott looked around at them all. "Now loosen up, all of you! We'll be making rendezvous with that ship in less than three hours! I want the approach perfect, the communications clear, the docking to be precise and the embarkation to be exact! Carl, Luigi, make sure that signal we're broadcasting is unambiguious and on as many frequencies as we can transmit! I don't care if there's been no response. We keep sending it until we're sure that no one is listening! Everyone else, check your gear! We suit up for the full manoeuvre in thirty minutes! Dismiss!"

Every one filed out of the common room, grabbing at the handrails and drifting and darting in the free-fall. Only Jonathan Parks remained behind. He ran his fingers over the table top. And now that he was alone, he spoke softly to himself.

"First objective: Find out why they're dead. Second objective: Make sure it's not contageous. Third objective: Prevention."

-o-

Angela found climbing into a space suit to be both uncomfortable and isolating. She was used to travelling about in shorts and tee-shirt, although she did wear much more padded clothing when she was in Greenland. But it was always the most suitable clothes for the terrain, and in space, a space suit was suitable. She just didn't like it. Even in -40Degrees in Greenland, with her breath freezing as it left her lips, she had still felt close to the people around her. With a space suit and a glass wall in front of her she felt cut off. How could she associate with anyone when she was totally enclosed in this shell?

"You hate it, don't you?"

Angela turned as she struggled to settle comfortably in her suit. Lucy was looking across at her. She had already climbed into her suit and was fastening it up. Both women were hanging from the wall by the supports that were still attached to their suits.

Angela kicked her legs in her suit. "Is it that obvious?"

Lucy looked down at herself and smiled. "They're so bulky, aren't they? But at least we all look the same from the outside."

Sharing the cramped living quarters with Lucy had been interesting and annoying. The cargo bay of the shuttle had been filled with a module that had been fitted out with three cabins, a kitchen and toilet/shower area. The description was more grand than the reality. The cabins were nothing more than boxes with sleeping bags attached to one wall and space suits attached to another. There were storage cupboards for some clothes and other possessions, but space was at a premium. Angela shared one cabin with Lucy while Scott and Carl shared another and Luigi and Jonathan took the last one. The kitchen was just an open area with access to the fridges and food storage compartments. There was a microwave and that was it. As for the toilet/shower, well, it was private, but anything that looked like a vacuum cleaner which could suck and blow wasn't Angela's idea of either. When ever she was in there, she was constantly worried that she would get the tubes mixed up.

Space flight wasn't all that it was cracked up to be.

Lucy was an alright flatmate, but in the cramped space it was difficult not to be aware of one another. And that was what constantly upset Angela. Everything about Lucy annoyed her. When they got changed, her body was in her face in the tiny space, it was impossible not to notice her every curve and asset. But it wasn't just that. Even the few clothes she brought with her were pretty and delicate, while everything Angela had brought was functional and comfortable. Angela tried to convince herself that she was the practical one, but the sight of Lucy's tiny underware packed carefully in her cupboard told a different story. Practical or not, Lucy was the flower, and she was a blade of grass. That was the way it was and there was nothing she could do about it -unless there was an accident in the airlock. Whoosh! Problem solved.

Angela wriggled and finally found a comfortable position. She threaded her arms into the arms of the suit and began to fasten it up. "I wouldn't have thought that you would like to be lost in uniformity," she remarked almost thoughtlessly.

Lucy looked up again. "You mean because no one can see my tits in this suit?"

Angela looked up in surprise. She was taken aback by Lucy's frank and rather blunt reply. "I didn't actually mean that-"

"You don't really like me, do you? I mean, you're polite and everything, but you don't like me."

Angela felt suddenly sorry. About what she had just been thinking, and about what she was always thinking. "It's not that I don't like you-"

"You resent me." It was a clear statement. Lucy looked very sad. She let her arms just float by her side and looked away. "It's always the same. Women never like me, and men never take me seriously. I published all my papers under the name Dr. L. Crow-Bennett. I never had anything published before that. The Professor at CalTech told me to drop my first name. He told me that they wouldn't pay any attention to a woman, especially one that looked like me. 'Let them think you're a man,' he said. He was right, and I've never forgotten his advice. I never go to any conventions or anything like that, I sign everything Dr. L. Crow-Bennett, even my bank accounts and my driving licence are under the same name. When the guys from NASA turned up they didn't believe me when I said that I was Dr. L. Crow-Bennett. They kept thinking that I was just his secretary or his assistant. When it finally sank in, I could see that look in their eyes. They stared at each other and it was obvious what they were thinking. 'It's a woman. What should we do?' I didn't give them any more time to think about it. I just grabbed my coat and said 'Let's go.' I didn't even think about what I was getting into. If I had, I might not have been so impetuous."

Lucy turned to look at Angela again.

"It's not fair that you resent me."

Angela's reply was instant. "It's not fair that all the men look at you and I'm invisible."

"That's not my fault!" Lucy lost her sadness and was now more forceful. Her words came out quickly. "There's nothing wrong with the way I look or the way you look! It's what's in peoples minds that turn it all around! You look like that, so you must be like this! It's not fair, I tell you!"

Angela became equally forceful. She didn't want to give up her view, she wanted to hang on to the resentment she had for Lucy even though she felt the first hints of sympathy. She also spoke quickly.

"No, it's not fair that all women resent you, that men don't take you seriously, that no one belives an intelligent woman can have the three B's: Blonde hair, blue eyes and big tits! I understand that, sure! But it's not fair that your body puts mine in the shade! That men don't give me the same attention as they do you! That everyone I fancy doesn't even know that I exist!"

"That's them, not me! What am I supposed to do? Dress down? Cut my hair? Put false glasses on? Have bits chopped off?"

"It would help!"

They were almost shouting at each other now, the suits they were hanging in rocking about against the wall. They must have been audible throughout the shuttle, because Luigi drifted into the doorway, a big smile on his face. It caused them both to stop and look round.

Luigi folded his arms. "Ah! Two babes in a sock! It must be Christmas!"

Lucy said, "Get stuffed!"

Luigi just laughed. "A man could have some fun with both of you trussed up like this!"

"Only if you had a tin-opener," Angela remarked.

Lucy was still angered by his presence. "Get lost, Luigi!"

He grew even more smug. "Try and shoo me out!"

Angela tried a different approach. "Give us some privacy, Luigi. This is woman's talk."

"But I like woman's talk. It excites me!"

"Luigi?"

He lost his smile and nodded. "Alright. But keep your voices up. I don't want to miss anything!"

He drifted out of view.

Angela and Lucy were left alone again. They looked at each other. Lucy shrugged.

"Life's a bitch," she said in a quieter voice. "Do you want to swop?"

"Of course I do!" Angela whispered intensely. "That's part of the resentment. We want what you've got. I want what you've got." She looked down at herself, pulling the neck ring of her suit forward so that she could see her chest inside. "I dream about having breasts that get in the way. I want a cleavage that men go loopy over when you lean forward. I want curves and long shining hair and admiring glances. I want it all."

"I want respect."

Angela let the neck ring go and sighed. "It's the same thing."

Lucy nodded. "The same, but different. You have the respect you deserve as an Anthropologist, but not as the woman you trully are. I have the respect I deserve as a beautiful woman, but the attention and the resentment that goes with it."

"But you have it both ways," Angela pointed out. "You're respected as a Physicist."

Lucy shook her head. "Dr. L. Crow-Bennet was a respected Physicist, Lucy Crow-Bennet isn't. And after all the publicity we had when we were chosen, during our training, and before the final countdown, no one will have any doubt as to which one I am. Even before we left, most of the pictures were of me, and most of them were pictures taken when I wasn't looking. They all took pictures of me when I was bending down, when my clothes were pulled out of place, or when I was dirty and sweaty on the assault course."

Angela remembered those pictures. She remembered being annoyed by them and thinking that Lucy would be just a waste of weight on the trip. There were hardly any pictures of her. Luigi was photographed more than her.

Lucy sighed. "When I get back, my career will be over."

They were both silent for a while. There was an air of sadness about them.

Angela suddenly said, "You could always be a model. You'd make a fortune."

Lucy nodded. "I probably would. But then I'd hate myself for it, because everyone will have been right about me. A no brainer, all tits and arse."

Luigi's voice called out, "I like it. You could pose together. Babes in space! I can see the pictures now!"

Lucy drew her breath, but Angela made the required response.

"Get stuffed, Luigi!"

-o-

After four days, sixteen hours and twenty-four minutes, the shuttle Intrepid approached a strange and dark object. Silhouetted against the colourful bands of Jupiter's atmosphere was a large and irregular shape. At one time it might have been disc shaped, but now it was ragged, it's edges apparently chewed away. The interior of the ship was visible through the gaps. Decks could be seen, open doorways, structural girders, and even stairways that dropped through buckled floors to nothingness. There were more holes in the top of the ship, the view inside finally obscured by shadow. Covering the surface of the ship were strange protrusions that looked like rock. The whole of the ship was encrusted with them, even the torn metalwork at the edges and inside the ship were covered in them. Some of the rock seemed to fill the gaps so tightly that the metalwork bulged out above and below.

If there had ever been a front and a back, it was lost now. Even up and down were impossible to guess. As for engines, nothing on the surface gave away any hint. Everything was irregular and lumpy.

Carl put their thoughts into words as they all stared through the window of the shuttle flight deck.

"We've come all this way for a beat up lid from a trash can."

Luigi put on an air of seriousness. "No, I disagree. It is a half-eaten bagel dipped in breadcrumbs."

Scott looked round in anoyance. "Shut it, the pair of you! Carl, give me the numbers as I make the approach!"

Being in a space suit was a strange experience that Angela was never going to get used to. As usual, she felt cut-off, isolated and cramped all at the same time. It was just like it was when they had taken off. She had felt so isolated and disorientated in her suit that she had missed the whole thing. Now, sitting behind Luigi with Jonathan next to her, she felt exactly the same feelings. She felt like she was somewhere else, not on the ship at all. She could hear her own breathing, it seemed to echo around in the suit. She looked up at the inside of her helmet. She felt like a goldfish. She hated this. She hated being in a space suit, being in a goalfish bowl. The only comfort were the voices over the radio. It was the only time she was pleased to hear Luigi make a facetious remark. But it didn't have to be like this.

The six of them were strapped into their chairs in three rows of two. At first they had all been sitting with their space suits on and their helmets in their laps. Angela had felt uncomfortable, but in touch. Then Scott had insisted that they put on their helmets and pressurise. He didn't want to take any chances during the docking manoeuvre or when they penetrated the hull. Angela hadn't argued. She never did.

She was a mouse, not a goldfish.

She had wanted to scream out and say, 'Stuff your space suit! I want to feel relaxed and free, not like a goldfish!' But she was a mouse and had obeyed like a mouse. Or was it because it was Scott who had told her?

Why did people grit and bear it when they really wanted to run away screaming? Why wait in the queue at the dentists when you really didn't want to go in? Why go up in a space ship when all you really wanted to do was talk to little friendly people in a rainforest?

The shuttle rocked.

"Excellent!" Scott exclaimed. "Carl! Lock everything down! Lucy, get the cutter!"

Damn! Angela thought to herself. That's what being in a goldfish bowl did for you. Missed it all. Again.

Everyone unfastened their seat belts and pushed themselves free. Angela found herself at the back as her crewmates glided towards the airlock with ease and haste. They all wanted to get inside, and suddenly, Angela wanted to get inside too.

It was play time at last. They had a new tin world to explore and they all wanted to get started straight away.

Lucy was the first to enjoy the moment. She and Carl went into the airlock with the EPD. It stood for Everyone's Pet Dog, and it was basically a large metal sledge that was crammed full of cutters, tools, computers and testing equipment. Everything they thought they might need or intended to use was on the EPD, which meant that there was nothing on it that Angela needed. Lucy and Carl manoeuvred the EPD into position between them as the airlock cycled, and when the outer door slid silently upwards, there it was. A grey uneven surface with rocky protrusions.

Lucy stretched out her gloved hand and brushed over the surface. "The torch, I think."

Carl felt around the edges of the airlock where the seal pressed against the uneven surface. "Diamond cutter might be better. We must be losing pressure with this crap on the outside. The torch might not burn."

Lucy shook her head, which Carl didn't see at all. "No, the cutter will take too long. The rock on the surface is crystalised. It'll take too long to cut through it, and the cutter isn't easy to turn. With the torch we can cut round the rock, go in where it's easy." She traced a path with her hand. "Here, and here."

"It'll be a funny shaped door."

"You want to get in, don't you?"

On the other side of the airlock, Scott was at the front of a cramped and bulky audience. He peered through the viewing port. Like everyone else, he could hear Lucy and Carl over the radio.

"Hurry it up, you two! Our two hours have already dropped to one hour and fifty-eight!"

Carl raised his arm and there was a bright light.

Angela couldn't see anything at the back, but she could hear the static caused by the torch over the radio. And she could hear Lucy's voice.

"It's cutting clear and easy. It's just your common grade steel. Nothing fancy. I guess geology is the same everywhere. A bit of iron mining, some smelting, a bit of intelligence, and there you are. Aliens or not, that's a lot we've got in common already."

"Cut the chat, Lucy!" Scott told her.

"I like to talk while I work."

Luigi said, "Do you talk doing other things?"

"Get stuffed."

Angela felt a vibration. It was ever so slight, but she felt it. It seemed to come through the suits as they were all pressed together against the airlock. Then she heard Carl's voice.

"We're through."

Voices all spoke at the same time.

Luigi asked, "What's it like in there?"

Scott said, "Check the pressure."

And Lucy said, "The door we cut fell on the floor."

There was a brief silence and Scott repeated, "The door fell on the floor?"

"Ah-ha."

Angela said, "I thought I felt something. What's wrong with that?"

Luigi explained. "We're in zero gravity, dimwit."

"Oh, yes. But then how can....oh!"

"Exactly!"

Scott moved closer to the viewing port, his helmet clinking against the glass. "Give me an overview, Carl!"

"There's definitely gravity in here. The door's a bit rough, so watch your suits, but it's big inside, and it looks like we're the right way up."

Lucy's voice came on next. "It's dark in here. No lights, but there must be power because this gravity has to be artificial. As soon as you step inside you feel heavy again."

Carl added, "We've got pressure in here. I've got oxygen and a lot of CO2. That's the good news. There's a lot of other stuff mixed in with it. We could breath this at a push, but not for long."

"Where are you?"

Carl and Lucy put on their helmet lamps and the beams flashed out. They turned and looked around.

Carl said, "It looks like some sort of cabin."

"Yes," Lucy went on. "There's furniture and fittings of some sort. And the walls have the remains of a decor. But it's all greenish and a bit slimy."

A soft voice said, "Like mould?"

It was the first time Jonathan had spoken.

"Yes," Lucy replied.

"Don't touch it. Let me in. I need to take some samples."

-o-

It seemed to take ages for them to all get inside. With the EPD in the airlock they could only go through two at a time. Scott had insisted that he go next with Jonathan, and that left Angela and Luigi to go last. As they stood in the airlock waiting for it to cycle, Luigi leaned towards her.

"How about we have a cuddle now that we're alone?"

Angela laughed. The idea of doing anything in their bulky suits was an impossibility. "If there's gravity in there, I'm going to have enough trouble just standing up."

The door slid up and an irregular hole was revealed. Inside, lights flashed and a space-suited figure stood against one wall, scraping fragments from the surface into a little plastic box.

Luigi gestured to the doorway. "After you."

"If you say 'age before beauty' when I go in, I swear I'll pull the plug on your suit."

"I was merely being polite."

Angela hated it when she couldn't see his face like this. The glass on his helmet seemed misty. Or was it on hers? Was he smiling at her?

Angela wormed her way through the door and she was inside. As she crossed the threshold, her body became heavy. It was a sudden and familiar feeling that she had seemed to have forgotten. Her leg felt it first, her foot in freefall one second, only for it to drop to the floor with a sudden clunk the next. As soon as she was inside she became acutely aware that the bulk of the space suit was more than just a cumbersome shroud. It was heavy. It weighed her down, forcing her to move around with smaller and more positive steps.

"Oh, bloody hell!" she muttered.

"Yes," Scott replied to her unseen blushes. "This gravity is an eventuallity we hadn't foreseen. It's going to make moving around a lot harder."

Lucy added, "And you can kiss goodbye to any idea of taking back any large samples. We might be able to cut things free, but there's no way we can carry them."

She was standing by an open and extremely wide doorway on the far side of the room. Carl was already outside, shining his helmet lamp up and down the corridor. "That's right, Captain," he agreed. "Any large engine parts, power source, they're all out of the question. Even moving the EPD with our gear on it is going to be a problem."

Scott didn't argue the point. When they had designed and packed the EPD, they had never considered that weight would be a problem. But the problem might also be their answer.

"Okay, then. That just makes it even more important that we try and fly this thing home. Carl, find that power source. Take Lucy with you and check the hull's integrity. Luigi, come with me. Let's see if we can find something that resembles a flight deck. Angela, stay here with Jonathan. Remember, we never go anywhere in here in less than twos."

Everyone started to move, their lamp beams darting about. Lucy and Carl both disappeared out the doorway, but Jonathan soon brought them back.

"Nobody leaves this room until I'm finished."

Everyone froze. And Carl and Lucy reappeared in the doorway they had just left.

Scott didn't like the blunt challenge to his authority, and it showed in his voice. "We haven't got the time to waste on your chemistry results. We've only got one hour forty-eight."

Jonathan was unmoved. "If I find something nasty in this mould, I'm leaving straight away and sealing the airlock behind me."

There was an unpleasent silence. Angela could hear her own breathing. She could hear everyone elses breathing, too. Finally, Scott gave in.

"Carl, help me bring in the EPD."

It took all of them to drag the EPD into the middle of the room. At first, Angela thought it would crash down as the front end dipped when it crossed the threshold, but it seemed to just glide to the floor. Jonathan then dropped his sample into a metal hatch on top of one of the test modules. He closed the lid and pressed some buttons. The computer put the sample through a set of pre-determined tests that had been the subject of great debate at NASA. The results didn't surprise any of them, although it was something every scientist on earth had dreamed about.

Jonathan held up the print out, wiping the front of his helmet to read it more clearly. "It's alive. A complex form of algae very similar to the type you might find in a stagnant pool. It seems to be harmless."

They were all relieved. All except Luigi. He hadn't even been listening. While Jonathan had held centre stage, Luigi had gone to one of the walls and cleaned something with his sleeve. Now he brought it forward.

"May I introduce you all to your first alien?"

They all turned in surprise. It was a picture. Angela stared at it like everyone else. It was difficult to be sure what she was looking at through her helmet, and the algae and slime smeared all over the picture didn't help. The picture itself had also decayed. It was almost grey and white, any colours all gone. But was it a photograph or a painting? Was it a man? It looked like a bipedal form, with arms that were jointed in different places to that of a human. But it definitely had two arms and two legs. The body and head were different though. It just seemed to be one big walnut shaped form. It looked like an alien Humpty-Dumpty wearing a childish barrel shaped outfit.

Lucy was very dubious. "You've just pulled that out of your sleeve, haven't you?"

"Look more closely," Luigi replied. "Not at the alien, but at the scene behind it."

They looked. It was suddenly so obvious, as obvious as the false pose of the alien himself.

Carl grabbed at the picture and held it up close to his helmet. "It's our trash can lid! Complete with engines, undercarriage and insignia! It's on the tarmac of some airfield somewhere." He smiled inwardly at the scene. "It's an alien crewman posing in front of his ship before it took off."

Luigi ruined the moment with his usual wit. "Yes. And somewhere there is an alien mother with this very same photo on her mantlepiece."

Everyone laughed and groaned.

Carl didn't think it was so funny. "This is exactly what we need!" He held the picture up against Scott's helmet. "See it? Twin engines! And those windows at the front!"

Scott took the picture from him. He would have looked excited, but the suit hid everything. "Yes! Follow the perimeter of the ship and we'll find the flight deck and the engines!" He was suddenly in command again. "Carl, you and Lucy go one way! I'll go the other way with Luigi! Get moving!"

Lucy and Carl hurried away again, almost getting jammed in the wide doorway, the reason for it's size now obvious. As Scott hurried after them, Luigi gave Angela an unexpected surprise.

"I'm staying here for a while, Scott. Take Angela with you instead."

Scott paused in the doorway. "I need you!"

"No you do not. You know what the controls look like. By the time you need me, Jonathan and I will be finished here."

And what's so special here?"

"It is an alien crewman's quarters. Here there will be books, letters, a diary maybe. Even music, videos. I need to search. I need to take anything and everything back to the Intrepid. Jonathan can help me. The distance is short, the chance invaluable."

Scott gave in. "Okay. But when I holler, you come running."

Luigi saluted in his space suit, his gloved hand almost reaching the top of his helmet. "As fast as my tired legs can run!"

Scott was sure Luigi was laughing at him. Angela knew he was. But when Scott called, Angela answered with her feet.

"Come on, Angela. Let's get going!"

With Angela and Scott gone, Luigi leaned his helmet close to Jonathan's. "I take it you know how to search a room?"

"You start at that end, I'll start over here."

-o-

It was really weird walking down the corridor with Scott. It was a simple corridor that curved away in the distance both in front of them and behind them, but it was still weird. Maybe it was because they were both wearing these damned space suits. Angela hated the restrictions, she hated the weight, she hated the fact that she couldn't see anything that wasn't directly in front of her. She hated the dark and foreboding look of each open doorway they passed, hated the fact that she couldn't resist the impulse to look inside them to be sure that they were empty. Fortunately, Scott was also interested in each doorway. It meant that they paused often, gathered around each door, their lamp beams shining inside. Shadows flickered in the darkness. Every room was the same. Furniture, bits and pieces of things lying on the floor and surfaces, and mould. This was Luigi's perfect heaven. But for Angela, there was nothing.

Hearing everybody elses's conversations was also beginning to get annoying. Lucy sounded so excited about everything she saw, Carl was just as bad, and Luigi and Jonathan seemed to have bursts of ecstasy with every piece of paper or other written material they found. The latest was obviously a book. Luigi kept going on about it.

"It's perfect!" he announced. "The alien script clear and neat! A modern alphabet, the words written vertically like Chinese. Yes, perfect!"

Angela couldn't help herself. "Oh, goody!"

Scott leaned towards her as they trudged along. "Getting bored, Angela?"

"There's nothing for me to do, like I knew there wouldn't be."

"But doesn't the idea of where you are give you any excitement?"

She shrugged to no effect. "I suppose so. But I'm more worried about how we're going to find our way back to the Intrepid than I am about what we might find up ahead."

"That's simple," Scott replied. "We just retrace our steps."

She raised her arm and pointed at the doorway they had just left. "But don't you think they all look very much alike?"

Scott had a think about that. He stopped and turned around. Angela turned with him. The corridor curved away into the darkness, the beams of their lamps not strong enough to light it all the way. All the doorways did look very much the same. They were all open, silent, dark. Despite the fact that they had looked inside everyone of them, Angela still felt that anything could have been hiding inside. She shivered at the thought.

Scott suddenly said, "Luigi, Jonathan. Drag the EPD to the doorway. Poke it out a ways."

Jonathan said, "Already....doing it." The strain in his voice was clear.

Luigi added, "We should have brought a ball of string."

Scott tapped Angela's helmet. "Good thought. Come on!"

Angela glowed inside. She was suddenly happy. Stupid girl!

They continued walking. The corridor curved away in front of them, disappearing into the darkness. They had looked into two more dark and silent rooms when they heard Lucy and Carl make their first discovery.

"I don't believe it!" Lucy exclaimed.

"It can't be!" Carl breathed.

"It is!"

Scott and Angela paused in the middle of the corridor.

"What have you found?" Scott asked them.

"It looks like a cryogenic chamber of some sort," Carl explained. "There must be six, no, seven containers. They're all open-"

"No!" Lucy quickly added. "This one's sealed! And here!"

Angela listened to their excitement. Only Jonathan was more cautious.

"Don't touch anything until I get there."

Lucy sounded indignant. "Of course we won't touch anything! We're not stupid!"

Scott placated her, but he had other goals on his mind.

"Of course you're not stupid, but it's the engine room we need and not a cryogenic chamber. Leave it to Jonathan."

Lucy sounded heartbroken. "But it could be occupied-

"Move on. We've only got one hour twenty-nine."

Angela stared down the corridor as she listened to the debate. The find meant nothing to her. She couldn't associate with a mummy. The lamp beam from her helmet shone along the wall and over another doorway. It was different somehow.

"That's funny," Angela said. "That door's closed."

Scott turned and shone his lamp down the corridor. "Yes. So is the next one."

They both hurried forward to the closed door. Angela looked more closely at it. It must have been in two halves because there was a seam down the middle. Scott reached out and touched it. As his glove moved over the metal, it left a wet trail. Scott held up his gloved hand.

"There's condensation on this door." He looked around. "And on the wall."

Angela ran her hand over the wall. He was right. There was no green algae here, just clean metal. And it was definitely wet.

"Yes, you're right. It's all wet."

Carl's voice came over the radio. It sounded urgent. "Which wall's wet?"

They heard Luigi laugh. "Brilliant! Now try rhyming pentameter!"

Scott ignored him. "It's the outside wall. Both the door and the wall here are covered in condensation." He moved away from the door and cast his beam further down the corridor. "Damn!"

Angela looked round. There was a bright disc of light floating in the middle of the corridor. It was a moment before she realised that it was a wall. A wall right across the corridor.

Scott sounded depressed. "A bulkhead door is closed right ahead of us."

Carl said, "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"

"Yeah," Scott admitted sadly. "We must be near some of those exposed rooms we saw on our approach, some of the rooms that are open to space. All the doors must be powered. I guess it's an automatic failsafe. Some sensors somewhere must have detected the decompression and sealed both the rooms here and the corridor. If the flight deck was on the rim, then it's probably gone, or sealed off." Scott paused before making up his mind. "We're coming back. I hope there's some controls in the engine room-"

Lucy cut him off with a frightened voice. "Oh, glory...."

"Shit!" Carl exclaimed quickly after her.

Scott turned away from the wall. "Carl? What's going on?"

"Shit! Shit! Shit!" Carl repeated. "I've stood in it!"

"Stood in what? What's the matter?"

Lucy almost screamed. "Careful! There's another one!"

Scott grew angry. "Will somebody tell me what's going on?" he demanded.

There was silence on the radio. Angela could hear her own heart beating, she could also hear Lucy's rapid breathing. Something must have scared her. Carl explained. He was breathing hard too.

"We've found some aliens, Scott. Two of them. They're in the room next door to the one with the cryogenic chamber. They're both dead."

CHAPTER TWO

Jonathan was in his element. He was on his knees over the first body. It wasn't really a body, more like a skeleton with remains of clothing that were more mould than fabric. The atmosphere in the ship and the mould had done it's work. What was left of the body was slimy and green looking mush, not helped by Carl's big booted feet. The bones looked hard and heavy. It wasn't at all like the picture of the alien they had found in the cabin. This one was much slimmer. Again, it was bipedal, but the arms seemed very long.

They were all gathered together again. Even Luigi, although he looked annoyed to have to be there instead of searching for more books. They were in an anti-room that led to a much larger room that contained a lot of complex looking machines. Scott and Carl had wanted to examine the contents of the room straight away, but Jonathan had stopped them.

"No one touches or moves anything until I've finished. You've already done enough damage here."

Carl sounded apologetic. "I didn't see it. I trod on it. I'm sorry. But that shouldn't interfere with what we have to do."

"You do nothing until I've finished."

Scott raised his gloved hand towards the large room and got to the point. "That's the engine room! Bound to be! We need to get in there! Now!"

Jonathan got equally quickly to the point. "And what if what killed them, kills you? Permit me to point out the obvious, but these are the only two bodies we have found, and they're both outside this doorway. Am I the only one to notice this apparent coincidence?"

Angela looked at the position of the two bodies. It was so obvious when he said it, so obvious and clear. It was an argument Scott had no response to, so he let Jonathan get on with it. Angela couldn't help feeling sorry for him. What he and Carl wanted the most to find was probably just through that door, and all he could do was look at it. And the clock was ticking.

Jonathan probed the body, lifting flaps of mould and what could either be fabric or skin. He kept describing what he was doing and what he found. It must have been a habit instilled by all those autopsies he must have carried out. It seemed morbid.

"Body is lying face down. Position of arms and legs suggests the alien fell while in motion. Decomposition of tissues are very advanced. Basic format of the skeleton is similar to ours but different from the pictured alien we saw before."

Luigi was in agreement. "They aren't the same race, that's clear to everyone."

Jonathan pulled flaps of something away. "There's a spine under here, and a rib-cage that seems to have survived Carl's attentions."

"Thank you!" Carl cut in.

Jonathan poked at the large ribs over the chest cavity. "Most of the bones seem to be intact. Hello. There's a break in some of these ribs. Yes. A clear curved edge to the break with a gap between. The missing portions of the bone material suggests a circular hole..."

Scott moved away from the door. "A circular hole?"

Lucy said, "If you say something burst out of his chest, I'm going to trample you to death on my way back to the Intrepid. Got it?"

Jonathan was the only one that chuckled. "No. This was an entry hole, I'm pretty sure of it. It seems to go in very deeply and the tissue underneath has the same round shape cut all the way in."

Carl went to lean over Jonathan. "Are you saying he was shot?"

Lucy didn't like the idea of that, either. "Shot? You mean somebody killed him?"

Luigi was his usual sarcastic self. "No, he was alone on the ship so he decided to shoot himself in the back!"

Lucy gestured towards the other body. "What about him?"

Carl was more interested in the weapon than the murderer. "Who ever it was is long gone, Lucy. This ship has been floating around for years. Jonathan, was it a precussion weapon? Is there a bullet?"

"No," Jonathan replied. "The edges are too fine, the shape too precise." He leaned back to let them all see. "Look. The bones would have been broken away more raggedly if a piece of metal like a bullet broke through. But you can see the almost perfect shape of the hole, and the bones are still in place. There is no deflection."

They all leaned over the body. It was a mess, but the hole and the cylindrical tunnel boring down through the almost putrified flesh was unmistakeable. Jonathan kept poking about inside, it made Angela feel queasy.

"Do you have to do that?" she asked.

"I want to find the exit hole and what remains of his internal organs." As he spoke, Jonathan began to turn the body over. The pressure of his gloved hand suddenly broke the ribs and his hand went inside. It caused a splash of green and brown mush.

Angela put a hand up to her visor. "Oh, that's absolutely disgusting!" She turned away.

Carl didn't care. "Could it be some sort of laser?"

"Possibly," Jonathan said thoughtfully. He began to poke around some more. "Everything has decayed inside. Gravity has caused most of the remains to pool at the bottom." He scraped away at the ribs at the front of the body. "Yes. Here it is. Another perfect round hole. It went straight through as I thought."

"Then it must have left a burn mark somewhere." Carl turned to find Scott already at the far wall. He went to join him and the beams from their lamps lit the wall. "Have you found it?" he asked.

Scott suddenly pointed. "There!"

Angela went to join them, standing next to Scott. The mark on the wall was quite clear, even before Carl reached out to scrape the mould away. A crater in the wall, the edges melted.

Carl and Scott huddled next to it, pushing Angela out of the way.

"It must have been a laser!" Carl said excitedly.

"Or a high energy beam of some sort," Scott suggested.

Angela must have looked abandoned even in her space suit, because Luigi said, "Never mind, Angela. Come and stand by Lucy and me. We are planning our fastest route back to the Intrepid!"

Lucy tried to fold her arms in her space suit but found she couldn't. "I'm not going anywhere until I know who killed who," she said, giving up on the manoeuvre.

Jonathan got up from the floor. "Well, let's see, shall we?" He went over to the other body and knelt down again. Angela, Lucy and Luigi all went to stand next to him. They looked down as he began to probe around again.

"Now, this is very different," he said. "A bipedal form as before, but the size and shape of the limbs are different from the first body." He pulled at the remaining skin and fabric. It broke away and collapsed in his fingers. "The decay is much greater than the first body. Yes, the bones have lost their rigidity. See how they break and fall apart?" He demonstrated as he spoke, crushing the bones with his fingers. There was no strength in them. Everything broke and crumbled as if it was made from soft clay. "If it wasn't for the damp atmosphere in here, I'd say this body would be mumified."

Luigi bent over him. "So it's a lot older?"

Jonathan continued to probe around. "Yes." He spoke in a disinterested manner.

"How much older?" Luigi pressed him. "A hundred years?"

"More," Jonathan muttered.

Lucy must have been getting as annoyed with him as Luigi was. "Just tell us how old, will you?" she snapped.

Jonathan sat back on his knees, his space suit now a mess of mould and stains of mush. He pointed to the first body. "That one, less than a hundred years. It's difficult to say precisely because of the atmosphere in here. It's probably cold, but it's also quite obviously damp. There's a high moisture content in the air, so that's going to have an affect on the ageing process. I'll have to take some tissue samples back to the EPD and do some detailed tests. As for this body, well, I'd guess it was between five hundred to a thousand years old."

Angela stared down at the body. "Oh, my. This ship had already been abandoned when we were in the middle ages."

"That isn't the most important conclusion," Jonathan replied.

Scott now came over with Carl. "We found another burn mark in the wall," he said. "This second guy was shot too, wasn't he?"

Jonathan raised his hand. "That's the important conclusion. I found the same cylindrical hole in the second body. Both these aliens could have been shot a thousand years apart. And that tells us something very important."

Scott had moved closer to the doorway of the engine room. "A thousand years apart, two aliens go in the engine room and both get shot in the back coming out. That means something was still working in there. Something that's probably still working now."

Lucy took a deep breath and sighed. "Oh, glory. We're all going to die."

Angela looked around at the sad figures they had all become. "Oh stop it, you!" she said to Lucy. "We are not going to die!"

Luigi laughed. "That's what they thought."

Angela turned to him. "Oh yes? And where are the rest of their crew? Did these aliens come here on their own? Where are all the other bodies? And if they took them away, why abandon these two? And if they all did die, why aren't their empty ships still docked to the hull?"

Everyone had now turned to face her, and to Angela's surprise and great pleasure, Scott suddenly said, "Brilliant! Thank you, Angela! Thank you for reminding us who we are and why we're here! Those are exactly the questions we should be asking! So, come on, all of you! What are the answers? Where are the other bodies? Where are the ships? There must have been at least two."

Lucy caught his enthusiasm. "They must have got away!"

Carl pointed at the bodies. "These two didn't."

Lucy was determined to be upbeat. "But Angela is right! There are no other bodies but these two! They must have got away!"

Scott quickly said, "Assume it to be fact. They got away leaving these two behind. A thousand years apart. Think how and why."

There was a brief pause as they all had a think. Then Luigi spoke up. What he said was rather confusing.

"'Tis a far, far better thing I do now than I have ever done..."

Everyone looked at him. Lucy said, "That sounds familiar. Are you reciting something?"

Luigi nodded in his suit, his illuminated head bobbing. "'A Tale Of Two Cities."

Carl suddenly said, "I've heard of that one! It's the bit where the hero goes to the guillotine in place of someone else, isn't it?"

Luigi nodded again. It slowly sank in, and Lucy was the first to react.

"Oh, glory!" she suddenly exclaimed, kicking at the wall and stamping her foot. "Oh, qarks, neutrons, and positrons! It's already happened, hasn't it? Whatever they did, we've already done! We're in the same trap and it's going to go the same way! Oh, oh,...stuff!"

Carl reached out to her. "It's not going the same way!" he insisted, his voice as raised as hers. "We aren't them!"

Lucy clinked the visor of her helmet against his. "That's what the second alien thought!" she snapped back. "We're in the same hole, Carl, don't you see? It's so obvious! Whatever it is, it needs someone to get in there, un-do it, and get out again! And we all know what happens to the poor guy who volunteers!"

"It's not going to happen!" Carl almost shouted back at her.

Scott quickly intervened, pulling them apart. "Stop arguing and think, will you? So what is this trap? What have we done since we got here that could possibly lead us to this?"

Carl and Lucy seemed to calm down. They moved further apart and Carl raised his hand to rub at his neck. He couldn't do it with his helmet on, and so he sighed instead. "We haven't done anything, Scott," he said sadly. "In truth, all we've done is search the place."

Luigi suggested, "Maybe it's just being here?"

And Jonathan said, "Maybe we should get back to the Intrepid. If there is anything wrong, we'll find out there."

Scott nodded. "Agreed." He looked at his watch. "We've got sixty-two minutes. Lets get moving."

They all shuffled out the door in subdued silence. In the room outside was the machine that Lucy had called a cryogenic chamber. They had hardly stopped to look at it on their way in, such was their hurry, but now, while everyone else walked passed on their way out, Angela paused to stare at it. It comprised of a hexagonal central piller that stretched from floor to ceiling around which were seven large egg shaped containers. They seemed to be leaning against the central piller, the fatter, rounder ends resting on the floor. Most of the containers were open, split in half along their longest edge, the uppermost section raised up to the ceiling. Angela moved closer to one of the open containers and stared inside. All she could see was a narrow black leathery seat with appertures on either side for legs and arms, and some sort of dished hole near the front. Condensation sparkled on the seat, but apart from that, it appeared to be clean.

Lucy stopped next to her and seized the opportunity to explain.

"We figure that you sit on it like on a motorbike, with your arms and legs thrust into those holes, and your head resting on that cup."

Angela leaned forward and stared at the dark interior of the cup. "That would cover my whole face," she remarked.

"It's probably supposed to," Lucy replied. "I bet there are tubes and things inside that feed you with air and stuff." She looked up at the machine and sighed. "I'd love to be able to check it over."

Jonathan had spent some time trying to wipe off the mush and stains on his space suit. He had been moderately successful, but would still require a hose down before gaining final entry into the Intrepid. The delay meant that he was the last to leave.

"And I would love to examine the possible occupant of that closed unit," he remarked as he passed them.

"Two, you mean," Lucy corrected him as he went by.

Jonathan paused and turned. "One."

"Two!" Lucy insisted. "Carl and I found two closed units, remember?"

Carl's voice came over the radio even though he had left the room with Scott and Luigi. "Lucy's right, Jonathan. There are two closed containers. We counted them."

"So have I," Jonathan replied. "And there's only one."

Lucy stared at the machine and then quickly walked around it. Jonathan was right. There was only one closed container. All the others were open, their upper sections raised to the ceiling. "Scott! Carl! Luigi!" she suddenly shouted. "Get back here! Now! Jonathan's right! The container that was closed before is now open!"

Her call brought everyone rushing back into the room. Scott quickly took command.

"Show me which units were closed!" he demanded.

Carl and Lucy quickly walked around the machine to two of the containers. Carl stood in front of a closed one, and Lucy stood in front of one of the open ones.

Scott turned to Carl. "Is that right, Carl?"

"Yeah! This one and that one!"

Angela could hear them all breathing fast on the radio. They were all suddenly excited, or scared. Angela wasn't sure how she felt. She moved closer to the open container, the one Lucy had indicated as having been closed before. The leather like interior looked different to the others. Angela reached down on impulse and rubbed her gloved hand over the black seat. She then raised her hand and everyone stared at her clean and dry glove. Their hearts were suddenly beating a lot faster.

"Oh, glory. We've got company," Lucy breathed.

Scott started the ball rolling.

"How did he get passed us?" he asked.

Carl said, "Maybe it didn't open up until we were all inside that other room."

"But we heard nothing!"

Angela stated the obvious. "With these damned suits on how could we hear anything? He could have been talking to us for half an hour! I hate these suits! I hate them!"

"Alright! Shut up!" Scott snapped at her rather harshly. "Where'd he go?"

"Oh, glory...," Lucy muttered. "This must be how it happens. This alien wakes up, casts the ship adrift, kills all the other aliens and then goes back to sleep."

"Will you stop it!" Scott snapped at her.

Jonathan had a more reasonable reply. "Then why didn't he kill us already? And why leave the bodies back there while removing all the others? It doesn't make sense."

Lucy wasn't to be put off. "He's gone back to the Intrepid! Bound to! He's probably there now, ripping out the engine!"

Luigi sounded more hopeful than convinced when he said, "The alien wouldn't know where the Intrepid is, Lucy. And he's bound to be disorientated after a long period in cryogenic sleep. He's probably just wandering around somewhere."

Angela said, "He'll find the EPD. You left it sticking out in the corridor, remember?"

There was a moment's pause, and then they all ran, bounding out of the room and rushing down the corridor. Angela could hear everyone panting and gasping on the radio. They were all fighting to keep their feet in the ungainly space suits while trying to run as fast as they could. She was running and gasping just like them, all her expertise and experience lost under the weight of one powerful thought: If the Intrepid was lost, they would be stuck on this hulk with no means of escape and only the air in their space suits to live on.

It seemed to take an age, running down the mouldy corridors, door after darkened door rushing passed them. The alien could have been hiding in any one of the rooms they passed, waiting to pick off the last of them as they ran by. It never crossed their minds for a second, such was their panic. Finally, the EPD came into view. It was still where they had left it, half in and half out of the doorway.

They came to a gasping halt at the door. Scott waved them all behind him as he and Carl edged forward.

"Keep back," he gasped, out of breath. "Carl....be ready."

As Scott leaned forward and was about to look through the doorway, Lucy said what Angela was feeling. "If something grab's you.....I'm going to scream!"

Scott pulled back. "Shut up!"

Luigi said breathlessly, "Hold on....to my hand, Lucy.....I'll look after you!"

"Get....stuffed!"

"Shut up....all of you!" Scott repeated, anger in his voice now.

Angela watched him lean forward again. Those damned suits made it difficult for Scott to look into the room without exposing half his body. She couldn't help it, she kept imagining some evil alien creature suddenly appearing with a roar and gobbling him up. She wanted to say, 'Be careful!' she wanted to say, 'Let Luigi go first!' but all she could do was look and mentally bite her nails.

Scott looked through the doorway.

"It's clear!"

Scott waved Carl forward and the two of them went into the room. Luigi, Jonathan, Lucy and Angela followed them in. It was only then that Angela realised that she was the last one in the queue. With a horrible sinking feeling, her exposed position as they ran along the corridors suddenly occurred to her. She stopped in the doorway, and her breathing, already fast from her exertions, began to increase as the impulse to turn around and look behind her became overpowering. Slowly, her heart beating like a drum, she turned and looked back.

The beam from her lamp flickered down the empty corridor. She almost moaned in relief, and as she turned back to face the door, her visor clinked against the visor of Scott's helmet. It caused her to jump and cry out. Scott wasn't impressed.

"Keep it together, will you!" he hissed at her in a whisper that everyone else could hear. "I don't want you coming apart now, not when we need you the most! Come on!"

Scott pulled her inside the room. It was the same as before. The light from their lamps lit the walls and furnishings. The room looked the same as when she had last seen it. The only difference was that on one of the tables was a pile of books and papers that Luigi and Jonathan had obviosly gathered together.

Angela felt embarrassed. She also felt angry with herself. She had lost control for a few seconds, overpowered by an imagination fed by too many films and television programs. She tried to tell herself that she was just being silly, but the truth was, that in all her travels, she had never felt as scared as she had been at that moment.

Scott pulled her along behind him. He took her to the hole in the wall where Lucy and Luigi were standing. The hole was a bright light. Angela could see into the airlock where Jonathan was trying to look over Carl's shoulder. Carl was looking through the viewing port. Everything seemed to be alright. So why was everyone so quiet?

"He didn't come here after all," Angela remarked.

Lucy pointed to the wall inside the airlock. Angela turned and saw a large green-stained hand print on the wall. It had three fingers.

Lucy said, "There's another one on the ceiling. And there's a couple of scuffed footprints on the floor."

She spoke in a whisper, like Scott had done. It was silly. No one else could hear them in their suits. Despite this, Jonathan also spoke in a whisper.

"The zero gravity must have caught him by surprise. He probably spun and reached out to steady himself. There's no doubt that he's inside."

Angela just stared at the prints. Her brain did a whirl. This was an alien, not a monster from films. It was a person like them. An intelligent, thinking creature, something that thought and loved and felt the way they did. It had to be. How else could it end up on this space ship? Unless of course it was the ship's cat. It was a silly thought that just popped into her mind. It could be the case, how would they know? Angela dismissed the idea. Dismissed it because it didn't matter. Even if it was the ship's cat, it still had to be intelligent, or how else had it operated the cryogenic chamber and opened the airlock? No, this was an intelligent alien, an alien she was about to meet. It was the moment she had dreamed about, the very reason for her being on this trip. All that time trapped in the tiny cabin with Lucy, eating funny 'space food' and using that contraption that was supposed to be a toilet, all of it was worth it just for this. She was going to meet a creature from another world, a creature from another time, probably.

The very idea caused a complete change to come over Angela. A few moments before and she had been overpowered with the fear of an imagined alien full of teeth and ferocity. Now she realised how silly that was. Silly because she had met people all over the world, and she had learned long ago that the worse monsters were always the human variety. This alien would be no different. It might look different, it's anatomy might be different, but inside it's head it would be the same as any other unknown race. The thought of meeting it caused her heart to beat faster. She was suddenly on very familiar ground, and the most overpowering thought now in her mind was the urge to get inside the Intrepid.

"I have to get inside," she stated, suddenly calm and ready.

Scott said, "You'll go in after me and Carl. It could be dangerous."

Angela was cool and determined. "There was no point in bringing me along if I don't go in first. The moment you come face to face with him for the first time is all that counts. Get it wrong, and you won't get a chance to put it right. Someone could even end up dead."

Scott sighed. "Alright, but stay close to us. Jonathan, Lucy, Luigi, wait out here until we call you in. We might not have the time to wait for the airlock to cycle, so keep it clear in case we have to come back out in a hurry."

Luigi said, "Do not worry, Capitan. None of us have any intention of disobeying you."

It was the kind of remark that would usually have brought a smile to Angela's lips. But on this occasion, the whole of Angela's mind was filled with just one set of thoughts: How would the alien vocalise? How would it hear? Which gestures or expressions would bring the best responses? And which ones should she avoid?

Angela was suddenly inside the airlock with Carl and Scott. She felt light as a feather again. It was a blessed relief. The door slid closed behind them, another hand print appearing. None of them noticed it. Carl was still staring through the viewing port as the airlock cycled.

Scott leaned closer to him. "Can you see anything?"

"Nothing."

The airlock finished cycling and Carl stepped back.

Scott took a deep breath. "Alright! Let's do it!"

Carl hit the control and the door slid open. To Angela's surprise both Carl and Scott darted out of the airlock and went gliding straight for one of the lockers. She was even more surprised when they pulled out two hand guns.

"Oh, no, Scott!" she exclaimed, drifting forward. "Have those been in there all this time? How could you?"

"You might not say that if things get ugly!" Scott replied.

Lucy's voice came over the radio. "What's happened, Angela? Are you all alright?"

"Scott and Carl have got guns," Angela told her.

"Good! You might need them!"

Luigi was less approving. "Typical military thinking!" he scoffed. "We come in peace -where's my blaster?"

Scott then said, "Shut up, all of you! Angela, come this way! Stay between me and Carl! Carl, I'll take the lead, watch our backs!"

They moved forward through the ship, passing each familiar section. Everything seemed normal. There was no hint of danger, no sign of any alien passing, not even a hand print. They reached the flight deck. Still nothing.

Scott checked the controls. "Nothing's been touched," he said. "Let's head back the other way. Carl, you take the lead this time! Luigi, anything back there?"

Luigi's voice replied, "Nothing to report, Capitan. Jonathan is examining the hand prints on the wall and Lucy still defies my gentle approaches."

"Get stuffed!" Lucy's voice replied.

"Stay alert!" Scott told them.

They began to move back through the ship, retracing their path. They drifted slowly, effortlessly. Despite this, Angela felt her heart beating rapidly. She wasn't sure what scared her the most, the unseen alien, or the guns Carl and Scott carried and aimmed menacingly. There was still no sign of anything unusual. Nothing was moved or disturbed. They reached the airlock and moved on. They came to the kitchen area and the first of the living quarters. Carl paused by the first one, staring inside, his gun held ready.

Scott whispered, "Anything?"

And Carl replied, "No."

They moved on.

Angela couldn't stand it. She wanted to tear her helmet off and call out. She hated this silent drifting about with her heart in her mouth. She just wanted something to happen. Finally it did.

They had gone passed another of the cabins when Angela noticed something drifting in the air. She turned to face it and it came straight at her. She tried to duck, but couldn't manage it in the zero gravity. It was as if her helmet was a magnet and the thing flopped over her visor. Angela stared at it in surprise. It was one of her knickers.

"He's in our cabin," she said.

"Oh, no he's not," Scott replied.

And Carl gasped, "Oh, shit..."

Angela reached up and pulled the knickers from her visor and there he was, right in front of her, inches away.

He was big, with a triangular shaped head that looked more like an insect's head, but his skin was pink, like their's. The top of his head was crowned with a crest of spines, and he had large bulbous eyes that were bright and white, with large pupils but no surrounding iris. They stood out on either side of his face and were almost like fish eyes, but instead of being cold and lifeless, they darted and spun back and forth independantly as he looked around at them all. He seemed to have no ears or nose, but there was some sort of mask over the lower part of his face, so they could have been hidden. Over his body he was wearing white clothing that looked worn and frayed. His shoulders and arms were big, massive, but his lower body was small, his legs curled up beneath him as if he was used to zero gravity more than he was used to walking. Angela watched his eyes darting around as he watched Carl and Scott. But in between each darting glance, they would both come back to fix on her.

There was no doubt in Angela's mind that he was intelligent. He had planned his move to perfection. He was right between Carl and Scott, right beside her. If they tried to shoot they would risk killing her or each other. It was perfect. As Scott and Carl raised their guns, he reached out with one large pink hand and grabbed the front of Angela's space suit. Almost in slow motion his long fingers curled delicately around the fabric of her suit, crushing it slightly with his obvious strength as he pulled her closer. Now she was right under his face, staring up at him.

Scott whispered, "What ever you do, Angela, don't move!"

"And whatever you do, don't shoot him, and don't interfere," Angela replied in a loud and clear voice, and then she reached up and began to release the catches on her helmet.

"No, Angela! Don't be stupid!" Scott told her.

Angela ignored him. His wasn't the only voice on the radio now. Luigi, Lucy and Jonathan had started talking as soon as Scott had given his warning. Now they were all talking at once. They all wanted to know what was going on, or what was happening. Or they wanted to tell her what to do. Angela knew what to do. She took off her helmet, letting it float free, the excited voices gradually fading as the helmet drifted away.

Now she was face to face with the alien, now she could breathe the same air as him, hear the same noises, and feel the same vibrations. She could see him properly now. She could smell him. It was an old, musty smell. Probably his clothes. Both his eyes were focussed on her now, looking down at her and at nothing else. He was probably as surprised by her appearence as she was of his. But the important thing was, she had his attention. She tilted her head slowly to one side, held it there, then tilted it slowly the other way. The alien watched her for a few moments before reaching out towards her with his free hand. His fingers straightened out and claws suddenly extended from the ends of his fingertips. Thoughts of the ship's cat returned briefly to Angela's mind, but it didn't disturb her thinking. She brought her hands together slowly in front of her, pulling off one of her gloves. With her hand exposed, she began to reach out slowly towards the cabin wall near her. It seemed so far away, she just hoped that she could reach it. As the clawed fingers came ever closer to her face, she continued tilting her head from side to side, keeping her eyes always fixed on his. She smiled but kept her mouth closed in case bared teeth should suggest a threat. The clawed fingers now hovered over her head, the claws actually brushing her hair as she tilted her head once more. He could grab her at any instant, crush her skull, twist off her head. Angela didn't want to give him too long to think about it. She had finally reached the cabin wall with her bare hand and now she began tapping her knuckles against the metal.

Tap-tap-ta-tap-tap. Pause. Tap-tap.

The alien's claws retracted and his fingers curled into a tight fist, his pupils dilating.

Tap-tap-ta-tap-tap. Pause. Tap-tap.

Angela repeated the sequence twice more

Tap-tap-ta-tap-tap. Pause. Tap-tap.

Tap-tap-ta-tap-tap. Pause. Tap-tap.

The alien continued to stare at her. Angela now changed her tune.

Tap-tap-ta-tap-tap. Pause.

Tap-tap-ta-tap-tap. Pause.

Each time Angela waited.

Tap-tap-ta-tap-tap. Pause.

Tap-tap-ta-tap-tap. Pause.

The alien uncurled his fingers and moved his hand towards the wall. His claws reappeared and he tapped on the metal with one of them.

Tap-tap.

Angela's smile widened. She repeated the shortened sequence.

Tap-tap-ta-tap-tap. Pause.

Tap-tap.

She was about to do the same again when the alien beat her to it.

Tap-tap-ta-tap-tap. Pause.

Now it was Angela that responded.

Tap-tap.

Tap-tap-ta-tap-tap. Pause.

Tap-tap.

Angela felt the sun exploding in her mind. Contact. First Contact. But now came the hard bit.

"Alright my friend," she whispered. "Now we know we can both think and reason, but can we communicate?"

The alien let go of her suit. He became agitated and waved his arms around. Scott had taken off his helmet like Angela, but unlike her, he held it close so that he could still talk on his radio. Now he and Carl raised their guns but then froze when it finally happened. It was such a surprise, such a shock, even though they should have expected it. Angela's eyes grew wide as the alien suddenly issued a series of obvious words and clicks in a muffled but deep voice.

"Ub lik nac- " click, " -tikmak toop labsoklit- " click, " -nap ut lop kit- " click, " -macka saptuk!"

Carl, Scott and Angela all stared as the agitated alien pointed and waved his arms, turned and spun and talked incessantly.

"Ub lik nac denpok sat- " click, " -nap ut lop kit- " click, " -macka saptuk! Nap ut lop kit- " click, " -macka saptuk!"

His eyes darted about, he spun and faced them all, his arms waving above his head. "Nap ut lop kit- " click, " -macka saptuk!"

Angela could almost hear the pleading tone in his muffled voice. Then, suddenly, in one swift movement, the alien ripped away what was obviously a face mask and his nose and mouth appeared. His nose was flat with a single nostril and his mouth turned out to be a large and fearsome beak. The cause of the clicks was now revealed as he repeated his phrase, his voice much louder and his beak snapping.

"Nap ut lop kit- " snap, " -macka saptuk!"

Angela was startled to hear Luigi's voice.

"The clicks are important!" he said excitedly, as he, Jonathan and Lucy floated further down the corridor, their helmets also removed. "Some African dialects use the same sounds!"

Angela hadn't even heard them come in, and now she looked on in surprise as Luigi demonstrated by talking and clicking most strangely. She had never doubted Luigi's ability, but now she suddenly feared that he would steal this moment from her. As the alien switched his gaze and repeated his phrase even more agitatedly to Luigi, Angela turned to Scott.

"Scott! Get me a pen and some paper!"

Scott nodded, stuck his gun in his upturned helmet and launched himself towards a locker. In a few seconds he had retrieved a large black felt tip pen and a note book. He threw them towards her with a gentle movement.

"Find out what he's trying to tell us, Angela!"

Angela caught the slow moving pen and notepad. "I'm trying my best, Scott!"

"You're doing great!" he told her.

Angela held out the pen and notepad and turned back to the alien. The alien was still trying to get Luigi to understand while Luigi was still trying to figure out just a few words as he attempted to talk back. It was too soon, and the alien was too agitated. The time for talking, for 'Me Jane, you Tarzan' would be much later, when the alien was calm and there was no danger and no fear. Now they just had to get the messages across, and there was a much better way.

"Here! Here!" Angela called, getting the alien's attention. As soon as his eyes swiveled towards her, she wrote a bold line on one of the blank pages of the notepad.

The alien's reaction was instant. With a kick of his legs he darted forward, snatched the pen and notepad from Angela, and stared at them for a moment. To everyone's surprise he then tossed the notepad aside and began drawing on the wall instead.

There was now silence in the Intrepid as everyone moved forward and watched the alien draw. Even Carl had taken off his helmet now, his gun forgotten in his hand. The fear element seemed to have gone. Only Lucy stared at the alien with wide eyes, both her hands at her mouth.

Angela watched in fascination as the alien drew boldly on the wall in quick fluid movements. There was no disorientation from cryogenic sleep here, no fuzziness or sluggish movements. The alien was alive, awake and very focussed. It was also the first time since they had first made contact that he wasn't shouting at them. But his drawing was already telling them more than his words had done.

The alien drew the derelict spaceship. The irregular but circular shape was quite clear. He then drew a line towards it that finished in another saucer shape that was butted up to the first shape.

Luigi whispered, "His ship, docking with this one..."

The alien drew lines coming from his own ship going into the derelict.

"They went aboard."

Lucy whispered through her fingers, "Shut up, Luigi! We don't need the commentary!"

The alien was now drawing four figures above his first drawing. They were matchstick men, as simple and the same as any drawn by a child. Simple but clear. They each had a helmet around their circular heads. He now drew a line from three of the figures that went back to his spaceship. The remaining figure he circled. Now he turned to them, made a fist, and beat his chest once.

"Nac- " snap, " -tikmak!"

Angela smiled. "That's his name!" she exclaimed. Then she repeated it with a clap of her hands. "Nack," clap, "Tickmack!"

The alien raised his hands in triumph. "Do ant pac!" Snap.

Scott had mixed feelings. "So we know his name. And we know he was the one that stayed behind. But we still don't know why."

Luigi said, "Give him time, Capitan! He is a single man among strange aliens! How would you cope?"

It was nice to hear Luigi call the alien a 'man'. Angela realised that at some moment only a short time before, the alien had changed from being an alien creature never before seen by man, to becoming a fellow traveller trapped aboard the same ship. They could have all been human. English, American, Spanish, fellow travellers with a language barrier but with a common threat hanging over them. Even Lucy looked less fearful. Curiosity had now set in. Curiosity and a burning desire to know what had happened.

Nac Ticmak had turned back to the wall and was drawing lines going from his own ship back to the derelict. He drew lots of them in big, bold strokes. Then he suddenly stopped, turned to them, and stretched out his hands. With a sucking noise made through his half open beak, he drew his clenched hands towards his chest. He repeated it twice more, then went back to drawing the bold lines on the wall.

Carl turned to Scott. "That ship is drawing power from the Intrepid!"

Scott didn't want to believe it. "It must have power of it's own!" He pointed to Nac Ticmak who was now watching their debate. "This guy wouldn't be alive if there wasn't! And there's gravity in there! We felt it!"

"Exactly! But everything else is off! No lights, nothing! What power it has left it keeps for the essentials, and after all these years, that can't be very much! For all we know, the gravity might have only come on after we docked!"

"What if there's a nuclear reactor in that engine room? Or something even more advanced? Something must have closed those bulkhead doors!"

"Yes, a thousand years ago! Or maybe two thousand years! We don't really know how long this ship has been out here! No, Scott! Like a fridge door, it all came on when we opened it! We've got to get clear. That's what he's trying to tell us!"

Scott shook his head. "There's no possible way power could be drained from our main batteries into that ship!"

Lucy said, "Through the hull. It's the only circuit. And everything electrical aboard the Intrepid is earthed through the hull."

There was an unpleasent silence as they all floated about staring at one another. Nac Ticmak tapped on his drawing on the wall with his pen. It seemed to stir Jonathan to speak.

"Why don't we check?"

It was the obvious thing to do. They all piled forward to the flight deck, drifting and pushing themselves along. Nac Ticmak was left behind. He reached out and grabbed Scott's discarded helmet as it floated nearby. He reached inside and pulled out the gun. He held it close to his face as he turned it over, examining it. Finally he dropped it, leaving it to spin away as he darted after the humans.

On the flight deck, Carl was checking all the gauges while Scott interrogated the on board computer.

Carl was saying, "Everything looks fine here. Air pressure, fuel, oxygen, all as we left it. What are you getting?"

Scott tapped away on the keyboard and the monitor was suddenly filled with a large graph. The wriggly line ran halfway across the screen in a very shallow descent only to suddenly plumet over a precipice.

"Oh, glory...." Lucy exclaimed in dismay.

Scott didn't waste any more time. "Buckle up! We're leaving!" He was fastening himself into his seat even as he spoke.

Luigi looked at him in horror. "What about all my treasures? Surely you will give me time to retrieve them?"

"And there's the EPD," Jonathan pointed out.

"Bugger them!" Scott exclaimed. "We're leaving, and we're leaving now!"

Angela glanced at Nac Ticmak. "What about Nack Tickmack?"

Scott hardly looked at her. "What do you suggest we do? Boot him out?"

Everyone was now strapping themselves into their seats. Only Angela was left pondering. With sudden determination, she grabbed Nac Tikmak and pulled him towards her own seat. He immediately started to protest, waving his arms about.

"Nap ut lop kit- " snap, " -macka saptuk!"

He broke free from Angela's grip and darted towards the wall. He began to draw again.

Luigi looked round. "It's what he was saying before! It must be important!"

Scott fired up the engines. "Carl! Seal the airlock! I'm going to give her thirty percent on the starboard thrusters for five seconds!"

Carl flicked some switches. "Airlock sealed!"

Lucy was also now looking round at Nac Tikmak, watching him draw a much larger version of the derelict spaceship on the wall of the flightdeck.

"It's not going to work!" she said.

The Intrepid began to vibrate, but the view of Jupiter and the irregular shaped hull of the derelict through the flightdeck window never moved.

Scott altered the settings on the controls in front of him. "I'm going to give her fifty percent!"

Lucy began to undo her belt. "It won't work, Scott!"

Scott wasn't listening. The noise of the engines increased and now the vibration turned into a throb. It was violent but brief, and when it was over they were still docked to the derelict.

Lucy now pushed herself clear of her seat and moved towards Scott. "Stop it! You're wasting power for nothing! It's not going to work! We know it won't! All you're going to do is damage the ship!"

Scott let go of the controls and the engines died.

There was now silence, silence broken only by everyone's rapid breathing.

Scott looked deflated. He put his hands over his face in despair.

"I'm sorry. I panicked. We've got twenty-eight minutes left and only sixty percent power in the batteries. We have to get clear or we'll never make it home alive."

Lucy patted him on the shoulders and he held on to her hand. It was a simple gesture that caused Angela a certain amount of pain. But there were other more pressing problems to think about.

Jonathan asked the question that was in Angela's mind.

"Why can't we get free?"

Lucy turned to him. "It must be the result of the power drain. Like magnetism. So long as the power is flowing through the hull and into that ship, we're stuck."

Luigi asked, "What are we going to do?"

Carl nodded towards Nac Tikmak. "We've got to switch that off."

Everyone turned to look. Nac Tikmak had drawn a large and intricate diagram of the derelict ship. Their own ship was now represented by a short cylinder stuck to the side of it. A line ran from their ship through a square box that was obviously the cabin they had searched, down a curved channel that was clearly the corridor, and into another square box. Inside this square box was a hexagon. They all knew what that was. The line went round the hexagon and into another square box. In here were two matchstick figures lying head to head. The line went through the middle of them and into a final, much larger square box. On the far side of this square box were several rectangles drawn stuck together. The line went to one of these rectangles. It was a small one at the bottom right hand corner. Nac Tikmak tapped it with his pen, and as everyone stared at the drawing, Carl continued.

"That's it. That's the gizmo. That's what we have to switch off before we can get clear."

Angela looked at Nac Tikmak in confusion. "But how does he know?"

Jonathan said, "Isn't it obvious?"

Angela turned to stare at him. But it was Carl that answered her.

"This hasn't happened twice before, Angela. It's happened four times before. And each time someone has had to stay behind to switch off this gizmo. There must be some sort of defense mechanism in there to protect it, and two of them got hit by it, but two of them didn't. But they were still left behind. Their crewmates couldn't wait for them, you see. They had to undock as soon as the gizmo was switched off or else it would have been reactivated. That meant they were stranded. Stranded with only two alternatives: Run out of air and die, or use one of the cryogenic chambers and wait for the next fly."

CHAPTER THREE

They were all still on the flight deck of the Intrepid. The acceptance of what faced them had slowly sunk in. They were like flies in a trap, stuck as soon as they had landed. Now time was running out and they were facing exactly the same alternatives that those other flies had faced all those years before. And while everyone else slumped and worried about it all, Scott and Carl got down to the practicalities of arguing over who should be left behind to do the heroic and sacrificial job of switching off the gizmo. And for once, Scott wasn't having it all his own way. Carl was close to mutiny, and had already gone well passed insurbordination. Both their voices had quickly become raised.

"I don't care who's in command!" Carl shouted back at Scott. "I'm the one with more hours in a spacesuit! I can do this, Scott!"

"Oh? And how are you going to get back?" Scott asked him. "Once we undock the Intrepid the atmosphere in that whole corridor will blow! You know what happens then! If the door to the room itself doesn't seal, there'll be a bulkhead door in the corridor barring your path when you get back! You'll be trapped!"

"I can use the torch!"

"You're clutching at straws!"

"No, I'm not! I can do this, Scott!"

Scott was now nose to nose with him. "This is my decision! And I'm the one that's staying! You fly the ship! That's an order!"

Carl pushed himself away in the freefall. "You're making a mistake, Scott! I can get back, you can't! My way's the best!"

Lucy added her weight to the argument. "Scott! Listen to Carl! He's right! He has all the training and experience for this! He's used the torch before!"

Scott turned on her angrilly. "I'm in command here! I am responsible for everyone on this ship! And I'm not leaving someone behind to die in my place! Do you hear me! It's not going to happen!"

For a brief few seconds Scott and Lucy stared into each others eyes. Scott's eyes were angry, but pleading. Lucy's eyes shared the pleading look, but they were filled with another emotion, one that led them to well up, and she quickly turned away.

It was at that moment that Angela finally accepted that Scott and Lucy shared more than just a passing affection for one another. It was somehow painful, but it was also a form of closing. She had lost the battle, the war, everything. In fact she had never been in it. It should have made her angry, but the reality of what was facing them brought out her understanding. Poor Scott. What was he supposed to do? Condemn his friend? But there had to be another way. Angela turned to Nac Tikmak. He was switching his large and independant eyes between Angela and everyone else, often watching both them and her at the same time. He seemed to be studying them. Angela turned back to Scott.

"Does anyone have to die?" she asked him.

Everyone stared at her. Scott was almost condescending.

"Just keep out of this, Angela. You've done your bit."

Angela held up her finger, shaking it vigorously. "No!" she said firmly. "No, I haven't. Not yet. What you're forgetting is that whoever goes back there to switch off that thing has to go back with me and Nack Tickmack."

Lucy looked at her wide eyed, and even Luigi started to protest.

"Don't be a fool, Angela! You're talking nonsense! Keep quiet!"

Angela gave him the standard reply. "Get stuffed!"

For once, Luigi looked hurt by the put down, and his search for a better reply was cut short by Scott.

"You are not going!" he said rather firmly.

Angela didn't give up. "Listen to me, all of you! You haven't thought this through yet! You don't really know what this thing looks like. And you don't know what you have to do when you find it. Do you expect it to be a big 'off' switch? You need Nack Tickmack, and that means you need me."

Scott was already shaking his head, and Carl was quick to point out the obvious.

"You haven't any experience of spacewalking, Angela. You get disorientated as soon as you put the helmet on. And, lets face it, you even hate being in a suit in the first place."

Scott then added, "Carl's right. This won't be easy. In fact I don't even think it's viable for Carl. Once we disengage the airlock, the different trajectories of that ship and the Intrepid will begin to move us apart. And we haven't got enough fuel to start manoeuvring around out here. There'll be a brief window when someone might make it. Someone with experience. You haven't got a chance in hell."

"And you haven't got a chance in hell of doing what you have to do without Nack Tickmack!" Angela countered.

Jonathan suddenly said. "He can't go either."

Angela turned to him. "Why not? He knows what to do, he's done it before."

"He doesn't have a spacesuit. And we don't have one that will fit him."

Angela turned and looked at the large form of Nac Tikmak. It was so obvious. All he wore was a light and tatty outfit with the face mask hanging down. She was suddenly crestfallen.

Luigi came forward and tapped her on the shoulder. "Never mind. Good try." He smiled at her, then turned to everyone. "Now can we give up on this foolishness about dying? Angela is right about one thing, we should be able to do this without dying. Think!"

Carl suddenly said, "I could use a tether!"

Scott laughed. "The bulkhead doors will cut it when they seal."

"I could tie it to the wall somewhere."

"The Intrepid will snap it when we drift clear."

"It'll give me some extra time."

"Not enough. And I don't want to damage the airlock on the Intrepid, either."

Jonathan said, "Why not tie it to the EPD?"

Carl seized on his words. "Yes! That's it! The EPD has a big enough mass to stay put during the decompression! If we position it just right, it'll float out when the tether goes taut. It'll drift behind the Intrepid! It'll give me something to aim for! And it'll give me more time! What do you think, Scott?"

Scott shook his head. "It'll take too long."

"I can do it!" Carl insisted.

"You can't outrun that laser in your spacesuit."

"I'll take it off."

Luigi then said, "That's what they did, and they didn't make it."

Carl was not to be put off. "I can make it!"

Scott still wasn't convinced. "Just listen to yourself, Carl. You're going to take off your suit, go into the engine room, switch the gizmo off, run back, hopefully get out without being speared by that laser, put your suit back on, run back down the corridor, suffer the shock of decompression before the bulkhead doors seal, find the torch, cut through the door, get back to the room where we docked, and spacewalk to the EPD. All in about twenty minutes. Did I miss anything out?"

Subdued at last, Carl shook his head. "No, I think that's about it."

"Good!" Scott replied. "That's why you're not going. Only an idiot would try it."

Jonathan quickly added, "And only an idiot would throw his life away for nothing."

Scott turned to him. "My way is the only way. We have to accept it."

"No. Not while there's a chance. If one person has to die, we owe them the chance to live. And that means Carl goes and you stay here with us. The reasoning is simple. Carl will try to get back, even if he does die trying, while you will just sit there and wait for the inevitable because it's your duty. Well, that isn't good enough. You stay here. Carl goes. That's the end of it."

Scott smiled. "I'm afraid you're not in charge, Jonathan."

Lucy said, "And neither are you anymore. This is a collective decision."

Luigi quickly agreed. "Yes! We mutiny! Here and now! We vote who goes and who stays! And even though I think your sacrfice is honourable and the right thing, I must also protest."

And mutiny it was. Scott was suddenly in the middle of a crew that had decided the course they wished to take and were no longer interested in debate. Scott tried to protest, but no one was listeninng to him anymore, they were all far too busy rushing about in preparation. And Carl was now at the heart of it all as he barked out his commands.

"Jonathan, Luigi! Help me get the EPD out of that corridor and into the room! Lucy! grab the torch and find the first bulkhead in the corridor! Fix it nearby so that it doesn't get dragged through before the door closes! Angela! Explain things to Nack Tickmack! Get him to draw something on paper I can use!"

With everyone now darting off the flight deck, Scott finally had to give in. He went over to a wall cupboard and pulled out another note pad and a biro. He handed them both to a surprised Angela.

"Get him to draw small," he said, then headed for the airlock like everyone else.

Angela heard him call out to Carl. "I'll get the tether! Move it everyone! And get your helmets back on! We've got less than twenty minutes!"

Angela smiled. She was now alone on the flight deck with Nac Tikmak. She looked at him. He must have been confused by the sudden frenzy of activity around him, because even now his bulbous eyes were still spinning and darting from side to side. Angela grabbed his hand and the eyes both fixed on her. She quickly pointed at the drawing on the wall.

"We need something more than this!" she told him, tapping the drawing of the gizmo with her finger. "We need to know what to do!" She began to make motions of pulling levers and pushing buttons.

Nac Tikmak nodded his head and said, "Nap ut lop kit- " snap, " -macka saptuk!" He tapped the drawing of the gizmo with his pen.

Angela took the pen from him and drew a matchstick figure in the drawing of the Intrepid. She then drew a line from the figure that traced the path to the engine room and the gizmo. She then repeated the lever pulling gestures. Nac Tikmak nodded again, his eyes swiveling between her and the drawing.

"Ub lik nac- " snap, " -tikmak toop labsoklit- " snap, " -nap ut lop kit- " snap, " -macka saptuk!"

He pointed at the matchstick figure and then pointed at her.

Angela shook her head. "No, not me. Carl." She pointed out the flight deck towards the airlock. "Carl," she repeated, then she pointed at the matchstick figure.

Nac Tikmak nodded his head. Again he pointed at the figure and then at her. "Ub lik nac- " snap, " -tikmak toop labsoklit!"

Angela shook her head again. "No, Carl is going. Carl- Oh, never mind!" She pointed at the drawing of the gizmo then at the notepad, waving the biro over it. Then she held the notepad to her chest, pointed at the matchstick figure and traced the path to the gizmo. Again she repeated the action gestures. Nac Tikmak must have got the message, because he suddenly nodded vigorously, grabbed the notepad and pen and started drawing. Angela watched him. He was very neat, and the drawing was very detailed. How did he know it so well? Was it still so fresh in his mind? Even after all these years? She wished that she could study him for longer, so that she could understand him better. It would take time, but it would come. Maybe when they got back home. That thought made her think about what would happen when they got home with Nac Tikmak. The whole world would go mad. And the chances of her being involved in anything to do with him would be sadly remote. Yes, her only chance to get to know him, to understand him, would be on the trip home. She was suddenly looking forward to it.

Nac Tikmak held out the drawing. Angela took it and stared at it in wonder. It was so clear. Arrows pointed at the right controls, others indicated clockwise or anticlockwise. And above each was a simple Roman numeral to indicate the order: I, II, III, and IIII. Simple. Clear. Beautiful.

Angela held the drawing to her chest and smiled. "Thank you."

-o-

By the time Angela had retrieved her helmet and returned to the abandoned cabin on the derelict, the EPD had been placed end on just beyond the hole in the wall. Scott had attached the tether to it and had laid out the line carefully along the floor and back through the airlock. In the room the tether lay neatly in zig-zagged lines, ready to be taken up, while in the airlock it floated free above the floor. He was still fussing about with it when Angela came through leading Nac Tikmak by the hand. He quickly looked up and waved them aside.

"Don't snag the tether!" he said over the radio.

"Okay! Okay! We'll be careful!"

"Good! A man's life depends on it."

Angela paused inside the room to look around and get used to the gravity again. She hated being enclosed in her fish-bowl helmet. She hated that everyone else wore them and instantly became anonymous. The only other spacesuited figure in the room had 'Milano' stencilled on the front. Luigi was busy stuffing everything that he and Jonathan had gathered into a big, black plastic bag. Angela couldn't see anyone else around.

"Where's Carl?" she asked.

Luigi pointed out the door. "They're all out there, welding notches in the wall to mark the door in case it's closed."

Angela led Nac Tikmak across the room and into the corridor. Just next to the door a piece of metal had been welded to the wall like a flag. Angela recognised it as coming from a piece of metal-framed furniture she had seen inside the room. A short distance away, Jonathan, Lucy and Carl were standing together. One of them was doing some welding. Angela hurried forward with Nac Tikmak in tow. When she reached them she found out what they were welding. The gas bottle for the torch was stood against the wall. Another piece of the metal frame had been placed across the bottle and welded to the wall. It was Carl who had just finished doing the welding, and Lucy was talking to him.

"Have you got the hang of it now?" she was saying.

"Yes," Carl's voice replied. "It burns a bit different in this atmosphere, but I think I've got the mixture right."

Jonathan said, "I hope the door isn't too thick, or you could be here for hours."

Lucy immediately said, "Cut the shortest path, diagonally across one of the bottom corners, either at each end, or in the middle where the two halves meet."

"Right! Good idea!" Carl replied, switching off the flame. "And when the vacuum blows it out, I dive through!"

Angela now held up the notepad. "I've got your instructions!"

Carl put down the torch and took the notepad. He stared at the intricate drawing. "This is better than a bloody manual!"

Lucy looked up at Nac Tikmak. He seemed to get agitated about something as soon as Carl had taken the drawing.

"Is he alright?" she asked Angela.

Angela turned to look at him. His eyes were darting back and forth and his free hand kept pointing at her and at Carl. "He was a minute ago," she said. "Oh, damn these suits! He's saying something but I can't hear him!"

"You better calm him down."

"I will. Just give me a moment." She tried to grab his free hand, but missed. What was the matter with him? What was he saying?

Lucy turned away and looked down at the drawing with Jonathan and Carl.

"Can you understand it?" she asked.

"What's there to understand?" Carl replied. "This one first, then that one next, then that, then that, then run!"

There was a moments silence, then Jonathan said, "That's it, then."

Scott's voice was now heard over the radio. "If you're all done out there, I'd just like you to know that we have twelve minutes. Carl, good luck. Get going. The rest of you, get back here, we're pulling out!"

Lucy reached out and rubbed her gloved hand over Carl's visor.

"Thank you for doing this, Carl," she said, and her voice broke.

"Don't get mushy on me now, Crow-Bennett," his voice came back on the radio. "I'm coming back, I tell you! You just watch me!"

A moment later and he had turned away. Lucy and Jonathan watched him hurry down the corridor until he disappeared around the corner. Then they turned and found the corridor empty behind them.

Lucy was surprised. "That's funny. Where's Angela and Nack Tickmack?"

Jonathan bent down and picked up something. It was Angela's helmet.

Lucy stared at it. "Oh, glory..."

And Jonathan said, "Scott, we've got a problem."

"What now?" came the irritated reply.

"Our alien friend has gone AWOL. And he's taken Angela with him."

"What? Why didn't you stop him?"

Lucy answered him, her voice now desperate. "We didn't know! We didn't even see them pass us! They just weren't there anymore!"

Scott said, "Did you get all that, Carl?"

"Yeah! If I see them, I'll call you!"

"Okay. The rest of you, get back here! Now!"

"But what about Angela?" Lucy protested.

"That's Carl's problem now. Get back to the Intrepid."

Jonathan wedged Angela's helmet between the gas bottle and the wall and then grabbed Lucy's hand. "Come on, Lucy. There's nothing we can do now. Scott's right. It's up to Carl. Come on!"

Jonathan dragged a continually protesting Lucy back to the room and through the airlock. She wasn't the only one who was protesting either, because they found Scott and Luigi fighting in the Intrepid, their bodies spinning in the freefall. Both men had taken off their helmets which floated nearby, and were swinging at each other. It was a rather comical affair as each lunge sent them spinning the wrong way. Luigi finally got a punch in the eye that sent him sailing backwards to the wall. He hit a storage cupboard and dislodged items from inside it. Scott made his escape, heading for the flight deck.

Jonathan let go of Lucy and sealed the airlock. Lucy immediately took off her helmet and went after Scott.

"We have to go back!" she shouted at him.

"We can't go back!" he roared at her. "There's no time!" He looked passed her. "Get strapped in, all of you! As soon as Carl gives the signal, we're disengaging!"

"But what about Angela?" she shouted back at him with tears in her eyes.

"And what about you? And me?" He pointed passed her at Jonathan and Luigi. "And what about them? And Carl? What am I supposed to do, Lucy? Kill us all for one person? We have ten minutes! What am I supposed to do?"

It was a desperate plea that Lucy couldn't answer, that none of them could answer. It was all out of their hands now. It was all down to Carl and to Angela, and to an alien called Nac Tikmak....

CHAPTER FOUR

Angela couldn't understand what had happened or why. One moment she was trying to calm Nac Tikmak, and the next moment he had unclipped her helmet and pulled it off. She had wanted to call out a warning, she wasn't sure to who. Maybe she had wanted to warn Nac Tikmak that taking off her helmet aboard the derelict wasn't a good idea, or maybe she had wanted to get help from Lucy and Carl who were only an arm's length away. It didn't matter in the end. What did matter was that she had taken a deep breath. It was instinct: Breathe in, shout out. But the shock of the cold and damp air of the derelict ship rushing into her lungs was dreadful. It stopped all thought of anything else other than panic. The air was really strange. It was cold, but stinging, and it had an earthy smell, like smoke from a damp wood fire but not the same at all. It choked her and made her gasp for breath, her eyes watering as she tried to gulp in air that wasn't there. She felt like she was being suffocated, like she was drowning but not in water. Her lungs spasmed, she choked and gagged, and the cold damp air rasped through her mouth and throat, stinging and burning.

Carl's words when they had first entered the ship came fleetingly to her mind. "We can breathe this, but not for long..."

How long?

How did Carl hope to run in this?

How did Nac Tikmak breathe in this?

They were the only thoughts to enter her mind apart from oh, my God, I can't breathe!

She didn't notice the sudden rush along the corridors. She didn't notice being carried. She didn't notice anything. Her head was beginning to spin, and all she concentrated on was breathing and trying not to panic.

Take it easy! Keep calm!

Oh, my God, I can't breathe!

Oh yes you can! Just do it slowly! Keep calm!

Gradually, with slow and deep rasping breaths, Angela managed to develop a rhythm that got enough of the air into her lungs with actual oxygen in it, and her head began to clear. But by then it was too late.

As her head cleared and her panic subsided, Angela slowly became aware of her new surroundings. She was lying on the floor with her back against the wall. She was in another dark and shadowy room very much like the one they had entered. It was filled with furniture and fittings, all of it covered with mould and debris. The ceiling looked like it had fallen in. Bits of it hung down and the whole room was a mess. She was in between what looked like some sort of long sofa and a table, or bench. In front of her Nac Tikmak was bending over pulling off her space suit.

Angela kicked her feet and reached forward in a vain effort to hang on to her suit. "No!" she rasped out. She missed the suit and Nac Tikmak threw it behind him like a discarded overall.

"Ub lik nac- " snap, " -tikmak toop labsoklit- " snap, " -nap ut lop kit- " snap, " -macka saptuk!" he shouted in a slightly muffled voice and began drawing a circle in the dirt on top of the table with his claw.

Angela clambered to her feet, feeling suddenly naked in only her tee-shirt and shorts. It was cold, and the floor felt icy beneath her feet. She only had short socks on and she already felt the dampness seeping through from the floor. The cold air caused her exposed skin to break out in goosepimples. And all the time her lungs were panting although she wasn't doing anything tiring. How could Carl run in this? She looked up at Nac Tikmak and saw that he had replaced his face mask. Somewhere hidden in his tattered clothing he must have had a small air supply. She shook her head, rubbing her face with her hand, and looked down at the drawing he was scratching in the dirt. She tried to focus her mind, realising that if she was to make Nac Tikmak understand what a mess he was making of everything, she was going to have to do it his way.

Nac Tikmak finished by drawing a box inside the circle with a hexagon inside the box. He pointed at it vigorously. "Nap ut lop kit- " snap, " -macka saptuk!"

Angela shook her head very positively. "No! We have to get back to the Intrepid," she gasped, gulping in more of the air. She drew a little sausage next to the circle. She prodded the sausage. "We have to get back to the Intrepid! If we don't they will leave without us!" She made a sweeping gesture with her hand, simulating the Intrepid flying away.

Nac Tikmak made a sort of growling noise and scratched out the sausage. He pointed at the hexagon and then at her in turn. "Nap ut lop kit- " snap, " -macka saptuk!"

His intentions were suddenly very obvious. It was what he had been saying from the very beginning.

Angela's eyes opened wide and she shook her head again. "No way! No way!" she gasped, backing away from him. "You are not going to get me in there!"

Nac Tikmak suddenly reached out and grabbed the front of her tee-shirt. She yelped in a mixture of surprise and fear as he yanked her forward and threw her over his shoulder.

Angela kicked her legs and beat on his back with her fists, but it was no use. She was tiny while he was enormous. He just ran from the room, one hand on her back clamping her to him.

-o-

On the flightdeck of the Intrepid Scott was frantic. "How are you doing, Carl?" he said into the radio. The reply was instant.

"Give me a chance, Scott! Everything's ready. I've got the turn off routine practised, and I've worked it out at about twenty-three seconds to get to the gizmo and complete all the moves. Now I'm just taking my suit off."

"Lay it out the best way to get it back on fast!" Scott told him.

"I know!" Carl replied irritatedly.

Lucy leaned forward in the seat next to Scott, her eyes still tearful. "Have you seen any sign of Angela?"

There was a pause and then, "No. Nothing."

Buckled into the row of seats behind Scott and Lucy were Luigi and Jonathan. Luigi was gently rubbing his sore eye.

"That alien must have taken her somewhere," he remarked.

Jonathan nodded. "Did you look in the room with the cryogenic chamber?" he suggested in a raised voice.

"Yeah, first place I looked. There was no sign of them."

Lucy was about to ask another question when Carl spoke again. "Look, you guys, I know you're worried about Angela, and I'll do my best. But I'm going to take my helmet off now, so from the moment my signal goes dead, you've got twenty-three seconds and then you hit the thrusters, okay?"

Scott raised the microphone. "We're ready. Lucy has the stopwatch."

"Good. Oh, by the way, the next time you hear my voice, the Intrepid better be undocked from this crate and floating free, because I don't want to have to do this again!"

Lucy dropped her head in her hands, but Scott managed a weak smile.

"Okay, Carl. And good luck."

"Thanks," came the metalic reply.

Lucy raised her head and she and Luigi also hastily called out, "Good luck!"

A moment later and there was a click and a buzz as the link was cut. The atmosphere on the flight deck could have become very subdued after that, but Scott didn't allow it.

"Lucy! Give me the countdown!" he demanded as he clipped the microphone down on the console. "The rest of you, keep tight! You all heard Carl, I don't think now is the time to let him down, do you? Now, helmets on, and prepare to disengage from the derelict. Lucy, what's that count?"

"Eleven seconds!" she replied, and then raised her helmet. Scott reached across to help her clip it in place while she kept her eyes on the stopwatch in her other hand.

Scott glanced behind him to see that Luigi and Jonathan had also clipped on their helmets, then he put on his own. As soon as his own helmet was in place, his voice came over their radio links.

"What's the count, Lucy?"

"Twenty-two seconds!" Her voice now held equal urgency.

"Keep counting! I'm going to give her thirty percent on the starboard thrusters for five seconds on your mark!"

Lucy had kept counting as he requested. "Twenty-six seconds!" she now said. "Twenty-seven! Mark!"

Scott hit the switch and the engines of the Intrepid came to life. Luigi gripped the side of his seat, feeling the vibrations grow. It seemed to take an age, but then there was a jolt, and the vibrations suddenly stopped. Almost immediately the view of Jupiter through the flightdeck window shifted, and the irregular shaped hull of the derelict fell away.

Scott exclaimed, "We're free!"

Luigi punched the air, and Jonathan slapped Scott on the back of his suit. "He's done it!"

Only Lucy sounded less enthusiastic as she whispered, "Come on, Carl, come back to us..."

-o-

It had all seemed so straight forward. His suit was laid out, the turn off routine was in his head, and he could even see the controls he needed to reach. But Carl hadn't figured on how bad the air was going to taste. As soon as he took off his helmet and disengaged the radio link, he knew he was in trouble. It was that first breath, it was almost poisonous. But he didn't have the time to stop and wait to recover. He had to keep going, he had to. There was nothing else he could do. So, instead of darting through the door of the engine room as he had planned, Carl staggered and stumbled forward, coughing and gasping.

Much slower than planned, Carl made his way towards the controls that now seemed so much further away. He still had the diagram that Nac Tikmak had drawn for him clutched in his hand. It was a good job, too. Because his mind was completely fogged by the foul air. His breath rasped and he staggered forwards almost doubled up. He was well inside the engine room and had almost reached his goal when he heard the noise above him. Wiping the tears from his eyes, he looked up.

The metal ceiling of the engine room was pock marked with holes. They were all grouped together in one place and part of the metal hung down from the holes in twisted shapes. Almost right in the centre of the holes a square trap-door had opened, and now an oblong shaped box with a long barrel descended slowly from it.

Carl knew what it was as soon as he saw it. It was right above him, the business end pointing at the door behind him. For a moment Carl thought it was going to stay pointed that way, just waiting for him. But then it began to move. It began to rotate, the barrel moving in a circular path as it turned towards the control console.

Carl broke into a run, all thought of the bad air gone from his instantly cleared mind. He crossed the remaining distance to the control console in a quarter of the time he had taken to cross the first part. He dived at the controls, his hands shaking as he followed the routine detailed on the drawing he now held up. He turned the first dial clockwise, pressed the second button, and then looked up.

The barrel of the gun had come up against the twisted metal that hung down. It bumped against it twice, gave up, and then began to revolve the other way. There was nothing blocking it's path that way.

Carl turned back to the control console. He turned the second dial anticlockwise, then pulled down the lever next to it. He looked at the drawing in his hand. That was it.

Carl turned and faced the door. He looked up and saw the gun still revolving. It had gone passed the door and was now halfway around. In a few seconds it would be pointing at him. Carl waited, his lungs gulping in the stinging air. When the gun was almost pointed at him, he suddenly ran forward in a curve, his head down. He ran to the side where the metal blocked the path of the gun, hoping it would follow him and get stuck.

The gun stopped. It twitched one way and then the other as its computer brain remembered the blockage, then it began to retrace its path, taking the shorter, clear route.

Carl ran as fast as he could, the cold air biting at his skin, his breath coming in gasping, rasping gulps, his head and muscles starved of the oxygen they needed. The doorway was so far away, and he seemed to be moving so slowly, staggering and stumbling forward. It should have been an easy run, over in a few seconds, but instead it took forever. The harder he ran, the more fogged his mind became. By the time he came close to the door, he could hardly see, and he was so confused he almost thought he could hear a baby crying. He already knew by then that he was going to lose the race, that the gun was probably already pointing at the door, just waiting for him to run into its sites. Instinct and fear forced him to glance up and behind him.

The gun was rotating slowly and calmly, as if it had all the time in the world. It wasn't there yet.

With renewed vigour, with a final effort born of desperation, Carl staggered and weaved his way forward even faster, until he hurled himself through the door.

The gun came to rest, its barrel pointing at the door as Carl dived through. It fired. The pencil thin beam shot through the doorway, passing harmlessly over Carl as he fell to the floor with a splat. He had landed on one of the corpses, crushing and splashing it into a mess. He didn't care. He just lay there in the mush, gasping for breath, the broken bones poking up around him. He was so weak, so tired, so happy.

The gun silently ascended back into its hole in the ceiling, and the trapdoors closed behind it.

Carl laughed. He didn't have the breath, but he couldn't help it.

He'd made it. He'd won the race.

As he lay in the mush, laughing and coughing, fighting to breathe, a noise in front of him made him look up. What he saw caused the triumphant smile to fade from his lips.

"Oh, no...."

-o-

"Put me down!" Angela wailed as she smacked Nac Tikmak on the back. It made no difference. He felt so hard, it was like hitting a piece of wood. She twisted her head around, looking over her shoulder as Nac Tikmak ran down the corridor with her over his shoulder. Her view kept bobbing up and down as he ran, but she couldn't tell where they were anyway. She tried to reach out and grab one of the bulkheads as they ran through. Her fingers caught it but slipped off. She kicked her legs in frustration.

"Will you stop this!" she screamed out. "Nack Tickmack! Put me down! I don't want to go in any cryogenic chamber! I don't want to lie comatose for a thousand years! I want to go home! Put me down!"

She kicked her legs, beat at his back, reached around and pulled off his face mask. He just moved her hand out of the way, his clawed fingers gripping her wrist like a vice. He ran on with his face mask hanging down on its tube. It didn't slow his pace.

Angela propped herself up on his back with her free hand and screamed her head off. "Help! Carl! Anyone! Help! I'm being abducted by an alien! Heeeeelp!"

Nac Tikmak ran along the darkened corridor with his screaminng burden wriggling on his shoulder. He ran with purpose and with determination.

They reached the room with the cryogenic chamber. Angela knew as soon as they went through the door. Again she reached out, trying to grab onto the frame of the doorway at the last second. This time she got a good purchase, and Nac Tikmak came to a sudden halt as Angela almost slithered over his shoulder. He just managed to keep hold of her legs, having to let go of her other hand in the process.

Angela felt her arm being pulled out of its socket, but she was delirious with joy at her sudden halting of his progress. Her other hand was free and she used it to grab the doorframe. She hung on with both hands as Nac Tikmak turned and pulled on her legs. She felt her bones being stretched as he tugged on her, but she wouldn't let go. Finally, Nac Tikmak let go of her and she fell to the floor with a thump. The impact winded her, and before she knew it, Nac Tikmak had picked her up again.

"No!" she wailed, twisting and wriggling in his grasp, her arms flailing and her legs kicking. He began to carry her towards one of the large egg shaped containers. The uppermost section was raised to the ceiling and inside the black leathery seat with the appertures on either side and the dished cup at the front waited for her.

Angela wailed and cried in utter distress as Nac Tikmak raised her up and brought her to the chamber.

"No! Please! No! I don't want to! Please, Nack Tickmack! Please!"

She kicked and kicked at the chamber, trying to stop herself being pushed in. Her tears came freely and she cried like a baby.

Nac Tikmak stopped. He turned her around and stared closely into her terrified and tearfilled face as she dangled from his hands above the open chamber.

"Please," she begged and sobbed. "I don't want to go in there....don't put me in there....please..."

Nac Tikmak put her down and let go of her. "Na ka ub lik nac- " snap, " -tikmak? Na ka ut lop kit- " snap, " -macka saptuk?"

Angela stared up at him, a child in front of a giant. For the first time he had sounded unsure. Angela didn't stop to question why. She just ran. She ran as fast as she could in this foul air. She didn't think about where she was going, she just wanted to get away.

At first Nac Tikmak just watched her run. But then he reached out a large hand, and his clawed fingers just missed her as she darted out the door. He ran after her.

Angela ran from the room with the cryogenic chamber and immediately fell over a space suit on the floor. She jumped up in panic, staring down at the empty suit, almost imagining someone to be in it. Carl suddenly jumped through the doorway to the engine room right in front of her. He landed on one of the bodies and bits of it splashed her as he totally destroyed it. She hurriedly backed away against the wall, wiping the stuff from her face. Then a pencil thin beam of yellow light shot out of the doorway and transfixed her.

At first, Angela didn't feel it. She was so surprised by everything she didn't even realise what it was. But then she felt the heat in her body. It was just below her chest, like drinking a hot cup of coffee. She could feel it inside, like a warming glow that spread and grew. She felt it from front to back, and the glow increased from pleasently warm to uncomfortably hot very quickly. Then it hurt. Then it really hurt.

Angela gasped and pressed her hands over the hole burned through her tee-shirt in her midriff. "Oooww!" she wailed, and then slid down into a sitting position, her back to the wall.

Carl looked up and saw her at last. He saw her sitting there with a surprised and pained look on her face, with her hands pressed over midriff, the blood already seeping through her fingers. Above her head was another crater in the wall, a red smear leading down behind her.

"Oh, no..." Carl gasped.

Angela smiled wryly. "Hi, Carl...I think.....I think....I don't think..." Her head lolled forward and her hands dropped to her sides.

A silent wind blew through the ship, and there was a distant grinding noise.

Carl scrambled towards Angela. He grabbed her and raised her head.

"Angela! Angela!"

He shook her, but there was no response.

"Oh, no! No!"

A hand grabbed him. Carl almost jumped out of his skin. He turned ready to fight, but found Nac Tikmak holding his space suit.

Nac Tikmak pointed at the suit. "Ub lik nac- " snap, " -in treb id."

Carl pointed at Angela. "Angela?"

Nac Tikmak pointed at Angela and then smacked his chest. "An gell ah ub lik nac- " snap, " -tikmak."

He held out the space suit. Carl glanced at Angela. She had fallen onto her side. She was so still and silent, the blood now a patch on her chest and on her back. He had no choice. He couldn't carry her, he didn't even know where her suit was. He didn't even know if he was going to make it. He took the suit from Nac Tikmak and began to climb into it.

Nac Tikmak turned and gently picked up Angela. He carried her in his arms like a baby. He walked back into the room with the cryogenic chamber. He put Angela down beside one of the open chambers. He tore away part of his tattered clothing and carefully began to clean the inside of the chamber. He cleaned the face cup, the inside of the appertues, the seat, everything. And when he had finished he gently picked Angela up and sat her down on the seat. Carefully he put each arm and leg into the appertures. Finally, he lowered her forward and placed her face into the cup. With her in position at last, Nac Tikmak paused to stroke Angela's brown hair, his clawed fingers combing through it. Then he straightened up and backed away.

There was a hiss and the raised cover of the chamber slowly descended. Down and down it came, until it finally clicked in place.

Nac Tikmak turned and found Carl standing in the doorway with his space suit on. He was staring at the cryogenic chamber, his helmet in his hand.

Carl suddenly didn't feel like leaving. He didn't even want to put his helmet on. If he did, he would have to talk to Scott and the others. He would have to tell them about Angela. He didn't want to do that. He suddenly felt that everything was pointless, that he probably never had a chance of getting back in the first place. It was too far to run in his space suit, anyway, the whole idea was crazy. But at least the others had got away. At least that was something.

Carl just stood there staring at the cryogenic chamber. Then Nac Tikmak suddenly strode forward and grabbed him, lifting him off his feet.

"What the Hell...!" Carl exclaimed, and then stopped. He stopped because he was both surprised and amazed.

Nac Tikmak ran down the corridor with Carl in his space suit under his arm. He ran amazingly fast and amazingly effortlessly. It was as if Carl weighed nothing at all. He ran faster than Carl could have run on Earth in tracksuit and trainers. He ran faster and for longer. In almost no time at all he had reached the now closed bulkhead door where the torch and gas bottle were welded to the wall. He put Carl down and stepped back. Carl just stared at him in wonder.

"Thanks."

Nac Tikmak picked up the torch and stuck it into Carl's gloved hand. Then turned and ran away.

For a moment Carl just watched him. But then he stepped forward and called after him.

"Nack! Nack Tickmack!"

Nac Tikmak stopped and turned.

Carl stuck his helmet under his arm and raised his hand.

Nac Tikmak raised his hand in return. Then he turned away and ran into the shadows, back towards the cryogenic chamber.

-o-

The tether had payed out slowly until the EPD tumbled silently from the hole in the side of the derelict. Still there was no word from Carl. Scott kept calling over the radio in his helmet, but there was no answer. They were all still on the flightdeck. Scott was still buckled into his seat with Lucy next to him, but Luigi and Jonathan had unfastened themselves and drifted free. They were both near the window at the front of the flightdeck, staring at the hole in the side of the derelict. Scott tried calling to Carl again.

"Come in, Carl. Scott calling from the Intrepid. We've disengaged and are floating free. Come in, Carl. Answer, damn it!"

Jonathan was shaking his head in his helmet. "The distance is growing. The EPD must be five, ten metres out already."

Luigi beat the wall with his fist. "Can't you slow the ship?"

"We're eight minutes from burn," Scott replied. "We can't do anything more than we are doing."

Lucy was doing more. She was praying quietly in her helmet, her gloved fingers wringing together. "Please God, make Carl answer. Make him come back with Angela. Please God, make them both safe..."

Jonathan shook his head again. "Its too far."

There was a click and a buzz, then Carl's voice came through.

"I'm back at the bulkhead. I'm lighting the torch."

Instantly everyone spoke at once.

Scott said, "Hurry it up, Carl! We've only got eight minutes!"

Jonathan said, "Carl! Carl! Move faster! The distance between us is getting too wide!"

Lucy said, "Thank God! Carl! Where's Angela? Are you both okay?"

And Luigi said, "Don't worry, Carl! We'll make Scott wait for you both! We stay or leave together!"

Scott tried to shut them all up as all the voices just mixed together. "Quiet! Quiet! Let Carl speak!"

They all shut up, and Scott had the radio to himself, at least for a moment.

"Go on, Carl. Tell us what's happened."

"It's not good, actually."

Luigi leaned forward. "Have you found Angela?"

"Yes."

Both Luigi and Lucy immediately spoke up at once.

"Is she alright?"

"Is she with you?"

Carl tried to reply when they were speaking and it didn't get through. Scott had to shout them down again. "Will you stop drowning him out?" They both shut up and Scott again had control. "Say again, Carl."

"I said no, she's not with me."

There was silence on the flightdeck and on the radio as this time no one spoke. It was left to Scott to ask the questions.

"What happened, Carl? Talk to me."

"I found her after I switched off the gizmo. She was outside the door when I dived through. I didn't know she was there. The booby trap was a laser that came out of the ceiling in the middle of the engine room. It missed me but hit her."

"Is she alright?"

"No. It hit her dead centre. Right in the midriff. It must have gone clear through her spine. She's dead, Scott."

Lucy wailed. She just cried and cried. Luigi pushed himself over to her. He put his arms around her, trying to squeeze her through her suit, his helmet resting on top of hers. In response Lucy reached up her hand and held on to him. They just cried together.

Scott had his eyes closed and his lips pressed together. He had never lost a crewman. Never. It hurt, not just because of that, but because he had liked Angela. He liked them all, God damn it. He couldn't lose anymore.

"Take your time, Carl. When you get through that door, we'll still be here. Like Luigi said, we go or stay together."

Lucy just cried more. They could all hear her over the radio.

Jonathan suddenly asked, "Where's the alien, Carl?"

"He's staying behind with Angela."

Scott asked, "Was any of this his fault?"

"No. It wasn't, not really. He seemed more upset than me. You know, he carried me up here, Scott. Suit and all. I don't think I would have made it if not."

Jonathan quickly pointed out the obvious. "You haven't made it yet, Carl. And the EPD is already about twenty metres out."

Scott glanced out of the window. "He's right, Carl. You better get a move on."

"Don't worry, I'm through- " there was a pause and his voice strained, " -now!"

There was a bumping noise over the radio, it mixed with static and general noise. Scott called anxiously to Carl.

"Carl! Are you okay? Carl? What's happening?"

Carl's voice came back on air. It sounded strained as before, as if he was having to work hard.

"Decompression...is...quite...heavy...I...think...the...next....bulkhead....must have....failed....wow...that's better, it's stopped now. Yes, it's stopped. I'm in the room. The door was open, it must have failed, too. Everything in here is a mess. I can see the hole. Yes, I can see you now. I can see the EPD."

Everyone on the flightdeck gathered by the window. Even Scott and Lucy left their seats now. Luigi helped Lucy move forward and they all stared at the distant derelict and the tiny hole in its side. Was that a figure in the opening? Did it wave?

Scott said, "Come on, Carl! It's a long way, but you can do this!"

It was a long way. The EPD must have been nearly thirty metres from the derelict. Trying to space walk that far was suicide, and they all knew it, even Scott. Only Carl was certain.

"Don't you worry," he said over the radio. "I've got this sussed. Just you watch me fly!"

They watched, and to their surprise, Carl flew out of the hole. It was as if he were jet proppelled. He shot towards the EPD at a constant and even accelleration, travelling far faster than they had imagined possible.

Scott stared open mouthed. "How is he doing that?"

And Jonathan said, "That's not possible."

Then they all saw the tell-tale flame, and Lucy exclaimed, "He's using the torch!"

They all heard Carl laugh over the radio. "Spot on, Lucy! Just point and fly!"

He reached the EPD and they saw him grab it. The torch spun away, the gas tank trailing behind it, leaving Carl clinging to the EPD. Scott immediately pushed himself away from the window.

"Jonathan! Get to the airlock! We have to start reeling him in! Move it!"

Scott, Lucy and Jonathan all rushed off the flightdeck, leaving Luigi behind at the window. Jonathan got to the airlock first. He hit the buttons that began the cycle. Scott lectured him while they waited.

"Keep a grip of the hand rail and pull him in slow and even! If you yank on it you'll just throw yourself out!"

"I know!" Jonathan replied.

"The tether is anchored to the left of the hatch, just reach around the door and pull it gently towards you!"

"I know!" Jonathan repeated.

"And don't keep pulling or the EPD will hit you like a railway train!"

"I know! I know!" Jonathan almost exploded. "Will you shut up and let me do this?"

Scott took a deep breath. "Alright. Okay."

The cycle completed and the door slid open. Scott patted Jonathan on the back as he stepped inside the airlock. The door slid closed again and Scott started the cycle once more. Next to him, Lucy stared through the viewing port.

"He'll be alright, Scott," she said. "Jonathan will get him."

Carl's voice came over the radio. "I hope so, it's damned lonely out here!"

Jonathan said, "Okay, Carl. The hatch is open. I'm holding onto the hand rail and reaching for the tether. I've got it. I'm pulling now, slow and even," his voice strained, "just once. There, its moving! The tether has gone slack. I'm reeling it in, its coming quite fast."

Carl agreed with him. "Yeah, I can feel that I'm moving! Don't pull anymore."

Scott said, "Keep hold of that hand rail, Jonathan!"

"Don't worry," Jonathan told him. "It's going to be okay. I can see him on the EPD. It won't be long now."

Luigi came off the flightdeck. "I can't see him anymore! He must be getting close!" He squeezed himself behind Scott and Lucy.

Scott said, "Watch yourself, Jonathan!"

"It's okay! He's nearly here! Now all I have to do is stop him!"

"Use your foot as a brake when the EPD gets close," Scott suggested.

"Yes, that's it!"

Lucy almost jumped in her suit. "I can see him! I can see Carl!"

Carl said, "Here I come!"

Jonathan raised his booted foot as the EPD floated towards him. He placed it against the sledge and put his weight behind it. It kept coming, floating into the airlock and pushing him back. He pushed harder. "Stop, you bastard!" he exclaimed as the EPD kept coming. Carl now grabbed a hand rail while keeping hold of the EPD, and together they finally brought it to a halt. They were right inside the airlock, with Jonathan squeezed up against the inner door. Carl reeled in the rest of the tether, unhooking it from its anchor. Then he hit the button that closed the outer door. As it slid shut behind him, he reached out and he and Jonathan grasped one another's hands.

There were whoops of joy over the radio, and someone shouted, "Welcome home!"

Scott didn't wait for the airlock to open. He headed back to the flightdeck. "Luigi! Get Jonathan and Carl back in their seats pronto! Lucy! Come with me! We've got the main burn in two minutes or we'll miss our insertion point by about three million years!"

-o-

The twin suns were high in the sky. It was hot in the valley, but not too hot. Across the peaceful lake a city lay. It had tall and elegant spires alongside decoratively shaped smaller buildings. In between the buildings high bridges stretched like tiny ribbons on stilts. And below in the open spaces were trees and greenery. Everything was multicolured and the suns glinted and sparkled against the polished surfaces. The city was reflected in the lake before it, the spires rippling in the water.

On this side of the lake, the valley was covered in velvet green grass. Trees and shrubs gathered together like small decorative groups, some together, some isolated. And rock mounds with colourful moss added to the beauty and peace of the scene. A group of small and elegant four-footed creatures grazed on the grass by the lake, their hides a delicate brown. Above them, circling the trees and flying high, brightly coloured birds flew, their calls echoing across the sky.

By the edge of the lake was a larger mound of rocks. The moss grew just as strongly and colourfully, but could not hide the contraption that sat on top of it. It comprised of a tall hexagonal central piller around which were seven, egg shaped containers. They seemed to be leaning against the central piller, the fatter, rounder ends resting on the floor. Most of the containers were open, split in half along their longest edge, the uppermost sections raised high above them. Two were closed. One of these now hissed and slowly opened.

Angela raised her head from the cup and blinked. She looked around, completely dazed. She felt the breeze on her face and suddenly sat up, pulling her hands from the appertures. She was instantly awake, instantly alert. Her head spun round, one way then the other, looking, seeing. Then her mouth fell open.

"What? How? Eh....?!"

She saw the lake and the city, saw the creatures run at the sound of her voice.

"How can...."

Then it dawned on her. The cryogenic chamber wasn't a cryogenic chamber after all. It was some sort of transport system, a transport system that had taken her -where?

She climbed out of the chamber. The air here felt fresh and crisp, and the twin suns warmed her skin. A sudden thought came into her head and she reached for her midriff and looked down. There was no pain, but that wasn't what surprised her. There was something in the way that blocked her view. Two things in fact.

Breasts. Two of them, with a cleavage in between.

Angela stepped back in surprise but they both came with her. She continued to look down at them. Then she felt them gingerly. Then she pinched one.

"Ow!" she yelped, rubbing her skin. They were hers, it wasn't an illusion.

She investigated the wound in her midriff again, leaning further forward and squeezing her brand new breasts out of the way. There was a burned hole in her tee-shirt but her tanned skin was unmarked underneath. She twisted around and found the scar on her side she had got in Brazil. It was still there. So it was her body, then. Or was it? The more she looked, the more differences she found. Her waist seemed to be narrower, and her hips were wider, and were her shorts shorter, or was it her legs that were longer? And why was her hair getting in the way all the time? It was never that long before.

In sudden panic, Angela slithered down off the rock mound and ran to the side of the lake. There she stood on the edge of the water, staring down at her reflection. What she saw startled her.

"Oh, my word, I've turned into Lucy...."

CHAPTER FIVE

"Oh, my word, I've turned into Lucy...."

Angela breathed the words as she stared down at her reflection in the rippling water. The image she saw there mouthed the words as she spoke them. Her, but not her.

How had Angela with the short but winning stick body turned into Lucy with the tall and voluptuous curves?

"I'm dreaming," she muttered. "This can't be..."

There was a noise behind her. A silent hiss.

Angela turned to look at the contraption on the rock mound behind her. The second previously closed egg shaped container had lifted open. Something inside was waking up. Angela stared as the figure raised it's head and pulled it's arms from the appertues. Then it turned it's head and stared back at her.

Angela almost stepped back into the water. She was so surprised, so shocked, scared, amazed and traumatised.

What stepped out of the cryogenic/transporter was a completely different alien than any they had seen on the derilict, including Nac Tikmak himself. This creature was glistening red, with a long shaped head adorned with fins and horns at the top and back. It's eyes were set in the front of the head, and below them was a mouth full of long and curved teeth. The body was just as remarkable. Almost an upside down triangle, the top was wide and powerful while the lower part was small. Only the short but powerful looking legs gave the lower part of the creature any proportion. The huge arms almost allowed the creature to rest it's hands on the ground. But it was the enormous claws on both hands and feet that added to the complete and utter feeling of dread that the creature imposed as it jumped down from the rock mound.

The creature bounded towards her, using it's front two hands every second step as it switched between all fours and running only on it's hind legs.

Angela could hear it's footfalls as it ran towards her, it's mouth gaping wide. She stepped back and fell into the water, splashing, screaming. She floundered about, half swimming and half running in the shallow water, trying desperately to get away from the claws and teeth of the creature that pursued her.

The red alien splashed into the water after her. It waded in on all fours and then stopped, watching her swim and dive away. When she was safely out of reach, the alien stood up on it's hind legs and continued to watch her.

Angela swam as hard as she could away from the shore, looking over her shoulder from time to time. The creature was still standing by the bank, watching her. Maybe it couldn't swim, or maybe, maybe...

Angela paused in her swimming and looked around her, treading water. A sudden thought had occured to her. She was swimming in a lake on an alien planet, a lake that might contain aquatic creatures that were powerful enough to scare the other red creature on the shore from diving into the water after her. That thought had several effects on Angela. First she felt very cold, then she began to tremble, and finally, she looked around in abject terror as her mind took over.

Oh, God, oh, God, I'm swimming with monsters!

No you're not!

Yes, I am! And they're going to eat me!

Get a hold of yourself, you big girl!

They're going to pull me under any second! Oh, God!

Her panic caused her to flounder, and she sank below the surface only to spring up again spitting water.

Oh, God, I'm going to drown!

Then she heard it. It was unmistakeable, undeniable.

Angela looked up and saw a long and elegant boat, the drone of it's engine carrying towards her on the breeze. It was coming straight at her, heading out from the opposite shore and the distant city. She saw the water splash against the bow as it forged its way towards her, bouncing over the gentle waves. She could see figures on the deck, familiar but different figures.

In a few seconds the boat had drawn alongside her and one of the figures leaned over her. It was a big walnut shaped form with arms that were jointed in different places to that of a human, an alien pale green Humpty-Dumpty wearing a childish barrel shaped outfit in light blue. It's head and face seemed to just protrude out from the top of the outfit in a big egg shaped hump. The nose was wide and flat, the eyes big and round, and the mouth a wide slit. It had no hair. It's mouth curved upwards in a smile and it spoke.

"Late we not be, Missy, but early you are! Instead of meet halfway wet and cold, why not wait on bank dry and warm?"

In her surprise and trauma, Angela could only reply, "Blah gag -splurt- red thing back there -splurt- gah!"

The Humpty-Dumpty alien turned it's whole body to look at the shore. It's smile grew wider.

"In you get we help you," it said and the two of them pulled her aboard.

Angela gasped, floundered about and spat water as the two Humpty-Dumpty aliens helped her to a red cusioned bench seat in the back of the boat. She had her arms around what would have been their shoulders if they had any, and they were holding her in lots of different and interesting places. When they sat her down they continued to feel and squeeze her until Angela finally noticed the liberties they were taking.

"Do you mind!" she snapped at her erstwhile rescuers, slapping at adventurous hands.

The aliens smiled back at her. "Nice specimen you are. Nice and soft and spongy."

Angela still hadn't got used to her Lucy style body, but she had no intention of letting others get familiar with it before her. She slapped another hand. "Those spongy bits are mine!"

The aliens smiled but left her alone. They went forward and restarted the engine. The boat swept round and headed back towards the distant city. Angela sat back in the red cusioned seat, the wind drying her clothes and her long hair. She felt like she was in a "James Bond" movie, being taken back to the lair of the arch villain by two of his henchmen. She looked down at her legs. She had lost her socks in the water and her feet were bare. Her shorts still seemed shorter. No, it was her legs that were longer. Longer and shaplier. They looked really good. She looked down at her body again. Even her tee-shirt was too small for her now. It felt tight and it left part of her stomach exposed. It had never been like that before. The wind blew her hair and she looked up at the bright twin suns and the blue sky. Yes, she was definitely in a "James Bond" movie. But why had she turned into Urshula Andress? And who was the villain?

The boat sped across the lake, leaving the shore and the rock mound with the contraption on it far behind. The elegant four-footed creatures with the brown hide returned to feed on the grass, ignoring the red alien form still standing motionless on it's hind legs at the waters edge. The red alien watched the boat disappear across the lake, then it dropped onto all fours, waded out, and began to swim.

-o-

Nac Tikmak walked into the engine room on board the derelict. Even before he had reached the console that controlled the auxilary power coupling, the trap-door in the ceiling had swung silently open. He was at the controls when the long barrelled gun began to descend. Nac Tikmak opened a hidden flap and pressed the button underneath. Behind him the gun stopped and then slowly ascended back into the ceiling, the trap-doors closing behind it. He didn't even bother to check that it happened, he just continued, resetting the controls Carl had operated only a short time before. He turned the first dial anticlockwise, pressed the second button, turned the second dial clockwise, and then pushed the lever next to it upwards. Then he turned and calmly left the engine room.

Nac Tikmak paused by the smashed corpse of the long dead alien outside the door. He stepped over it and went into the room that contained the cryogenic chamber. There were now two closed containers. Nack Tikmak went to one of them and laid his hand against it for a moment, then he climbed into the open container next to it. He made himself comfortable on the seat and pushed his legs and arms into the appertures. Finally he laid his head onto the face cup. With a hiss, the lid of the container slowly descended and clicked in place.

All was silent now in the room and throughout the derelict as it continued on its journey.

-o-

Lucy was on the flightdeck of the Intrepid. She was floating just above the seat watching the stars. Among the stars was a distant blue disc that was tiny and invisible now, but which would grow each day as they returned. They were on their way home. It should have pleased Lucy, but it didn't. For a long time after they had completed the burn, Lucy had remained on the flightdeck, staring out the window at the derelict. Slowly it had moved out of view as the shuttle had turned for home. It was gone in a few minutes, but Lucy could still feel it out there, continuing on its way behind them.

Scott and the others had tried to entice her away, but she had wanted to stay and be alone for awhile. They had respected her feelings. They all found things to do. Jonathan was checking the samples he had stored on the EPD, Carl and Scott were checking the power cells and the shuttle systems for damage, and Luigi was delicately leafing through his alien library.

Lucy considered how strangely Luigi had reacted to Angela's loss. He hardly spoke and he never once said anything to annoy her since it had happened. He had a different look in his eyes too. He almost seemed to be a different person. He must have liked Angela a lot, more than she had realised. He had even fought with Scott over going back to look for her. Maybe she had misjudged him. Lucy had never thought of Luigi as being a considerate or loving sort of person. He just seemed conceited and lewd. Maybe it was just a smokescreen. Lucy wished she had a similar smokescreen.

It was her own thoughts that plagued her. She kept seeing Angela in her space suit that time before they boarded the derelict. It had been the first time they had both got their feelings out after all those days cramped together. It had been a revelation. It was only then that Lucy had realised that they were both the same in a way. The more she thought about Angela, the more she realised how she missed her.

Scott drifted onto the flightdeck.

"Are you still here?" he said.

She turned to look at him and hastily wiped away a tear. Scott moved closer and took her in his arms. She rested against him gratefully and the tears came properly now.

"I feel such a fool," she said with a sniff.

"For crying? Why?"

"Because we hardly got on well for most of the time we were together. She resented me, Scott, because of the way I looked. But the silly thing was that I resented her because of the way she looked."

"What are you talking about?"

"She didn't have the same problems as me. She didn't get the same attention. She just breezed through training. Whenever I put a foot wrong it was in all the papers! With pictures! And I lost most of my funding! This trip was a disaster for me even before we took off. And now I'm coming back and she isn't. It's not fair!"

Scott hugged her tighter. "Stop it, now! What happened wasn't your fault!"

She raised her head and looked up at him tearfully. "Then why is Angela dead? Why did it happen, Scott? What went wrong?"

"What went wrong?" Scott repeated with irony. "I could write a list about what went wrong! And right at the top would be the simplist one of all: Angela was much better at her job than we realised."

Lucy looked at him in surprise. "What do you mean?"

"Nack Tickmack related to her too well. What was in his mind we will never know. But he wanted Angela to stay behind, that's for sure. That must be why he carried her away. He never bothered anyone else, not even you and Carl when you were all in the corridor together. He just took Angela."

"But why? Why kidnap her and stay behind when he could have escaped with us?"

Scott shook his head. "I don't know. But Carl said Nack Tickmack helped him get back to the Intrepid. He even carried him. But then he just ran away. He didn't care about escaping. It was as if the derelict was home to him."

Lucy thought about that. "Maybe it was," she said wiping her eyes. "Maybe he was part of the crew."

"But we all saw that picture Luigi found. Nack Tickmack wasn't at all like the alien in that picture."

"Maybe the alien in the picture wasn't one of the crew," Lucy pointed out. "Just because he was standing in front of the derelict on a planet somewhere doesn't actually prove he was one of the crew."

"Then who was he? And why would his picture be on the wall of a cabin on the derelict?"

"He could have been a friend of one of the crew, a friend made on a planet the derelict visited whose picture was kept by one of the crew as a memento."

Scott sighed. "Great! That sounds so logical it just goes to prove how much we didn't find out while we were there. This whole mission has been a mess, and it's all my fault."

"Why is it your fault?" Lucy said.

"Because we should have been more careful. Because I should have seen what was coming."

"None of us could have known what was going to happen. We were in the trap before we knew it."

Scott stared out the window at the distant stars. "We let an alien aboard and gave him hardly a glance after we found out that we were stuck. I should have kept an eye on him. I should have got Carl to keep an eye on him. I should have warned you all to be wary of him. The last thing I should have done was to ignore him."

Lucy reached up to stroke Scott's face. "That's a lot of 'I should haves'."

"I have a good reason for my self recrimination. I'm in charge, Lucy, I'm responsible for all of you and the mission. And I messed up big time. Angela's death was my fault. I was responsible for her and I let her down. That's how it's going to be in my report, and that's how they'll see it when we get back."

They were both silent for a while, wrapped in each others arms, staring out the window at the stars. That was how Jonathan found them when he drifted in. He paused in the doorway to watch them floating together, then he coughed politely. Scott and Lucy both looked round and Jonathan moved forward.

"I have to take some samples," he said, holding up a transparent box of syringes and swabs. "Just in case, you know."

Scott nodded. "I'll go first." He and Lucy disentangled themselves and Scott rolled up his sleeve.

Jonathan took the blood sample from Scott. When he had finished he put the syringe back in his box and took out a fresh one. Ripping the plastic wrapping away he moved on to Lucy. Lucy rolled up her sleeve and grimaced as he took her blood sample. Scott watched as he rolled his sleeve down again.

"Did you get samples from Carl and Luigi?" he asked Jonathan.

"Yes."

Lucy looked down at her arm when Jonathan had finished. She placed her thumb over the red spot and looked up at him like a wounded puppy. He looked back at her and raised his eyebrows.

"Don't tell me that hurt?"

"Of course it bloody hurt!" she exclaimed. "It always hurts! When I joined this mission the first thing they did was treat my bum as a pin-cusion! I hate injections! And blood samples!"

"They are necessary," Jonathan stressed. "It would be easy to bring back a new and unpleasant type of virus or bacteria from the derelict. We have all been heavily exposed, both aboard the derelict and in the Intrepid, Carl and I particularly so. We can't afford to ignore the risk."

Suitably chastised, Lucy rolled down her sleeve. "It still hurt."

Scott watched Jonathan put away his last syringe. There were six in the box, five of them were now dark red while the last one was empty and unused. "How did those mould samples you took from the derelict pan out?"

Jonathan closed the transparent box. "Nothing malignant. It was just basic algae, very similar to what you might find anywhere on earth. Its surprising and not surprising. Everyone thought that life on other worlds, if it existed, would be comprised of the same basic material, and that mould proves it. It's the biggest discovery since the wheel, but absolutely meaningless now that we've all seen what we've seen."

Lucy looked up at him. "And what did we see?"

"Evidence of several aliens from different worlds and one live one that was definitely sentient."

"Prove it."

There was a heavy pause. Scott glanced at the drawing on the wall of the flightdeck, then he turned to the console. "We should have switched on the flightdeck cam!"

"But we didn't," Lucy pointed out.

Scott pointed to Jonathan. "Jonathan has his samples and Luigi has his books!"

Lucy shook her head. "It won't be enough."

"It's real proof, physical evidence!"

"No!"

Jonathan sighed. "She's right," he said, accepting Lucy's arguments. "Egyptian papyrus and mummified remains. They only proved that life and civilisation once existed, like the pyramids. So it is with our samples and the derelict itself. Neither are a living breathing Pharaoh or alien. No, we can only tell them what we saw. Whether they believe us is another matter."

Lucy sniffed. "They'll believe Angela's dead."

"But that is not proof of our alien," Jonathan replied.

Lucy became angry. "Nack Tickmack kidnapped her! That's why she was on the derelict! That's why she died!"

Jonathan was shaking his head even before she had finished. "Angela died in a freak accident while helping Carl in the engine room. That is how they will see it. It's far more simple and straight forward than a living alien awoken from cold storage after a thousand years."

Lucy opened her mouth to reply but Scott beat her to it.

"It doesn't matter!" he told them both.

Lucy looked up at him. "But how can you say- "

Scott held up his hand and waited for her to give up. When she had, he continued.

"What happened to Angela was my fault whichever scenario you accept. Either it was my fault because I didn't handle the situation with Nack Tickmack, or it was my fault for allowing Angela to be near the engine room when Carl was switching off the gizmo. Both you and Jonathan are right. The chances that anyone will believe that Nack Tickmack was anything more than just an invention of our collective imaginations is minimal. Like you said, we've no proof. Like Jonathan said, they'll go for the easy answer. Either way I get it in the neck. This mission was under my command, so I'm responsible. My career's over. I'm going to go and lie down."

And with that he pushed himself away and darted out the doorway.

Lucy and Jonathan watched him depart.

Lucy rubbed her face with both hands. "Oh, glory, what are we going to do, Jonathan? How do we explain the mess we made of this mission after all the preparations and training we went through?"

"We tell the truth and let them make up their own minds," Jonathan said simply. He began to move away. "I better get these samples checked."

Lucy watched him float out the door. She was on her own again, and her eyes soon turned back to the starfield through the window. She gazed at each bright pinpoint of light thoughtfully.

Tell the truth. It seemed the obvious thing. It was probably what they were all going to do anyway. But the truth was far from simple. How would the authorities respond to their story of a live alien kidnapping Angela? Had she done her job too well? Was it love, or did Nack Tickmack just want to eat her? Maybe he just wanted company. What would they really think? What would the world think?

"Oh, glory, we're all going to get it in the neck..."

-o-

The boat pulled up to a long jetty. There were other boats moored nearby. Some were quite large and impressive. It added to the "James Bond" movie image. There were several Humpty-Dumpty aliens on the jetty and on the boats. Many more walked by on a raised promenade that overlooked the marina. Some of them stopped to look down as one of the aliens helped Angela out of the boat. Behind the watching aliens vehicles of silver and gold with large wheels shot back and forth on the road at great speed and there was a general feel of hustle and bustle.

Angela looked up at the towering buildings of glass and steel. Now that she was so close they were even taller than she had thought. One of the aliens smiled and held out his hand to her.

"This way, Missy. Car waiting for you we have. Much further to go. Come, come."

Angela followed the alien as it led her along the jetty towards the promenade. Now that they were on foot she realised that she was a lot taller than them, even though she was barefoot. As she walked along she felt the warmth of the ground under her feet. She was already dry and the twin suns warmed her even though the breeze was still strong. It was a very pleasant feeling. The general atmosphere, the air, all of it was pleasant. It was a nice world. As she walked along some of the aliens they passed on the jetty stared at her. They quite obviously looked her up and down, their eyes fixing on the generous curves of her body. One after another did it, and she became very conscious of all the other Humpty-Dumpty aliens watching her from the boats nearby or from the promenade they approached. Of course, it was her that was the alien, not them. A tall and curvaceous alien among short Humpty-Dumpties. Considering what would happen on earth in similar circumstances, they were quite restrained. Angela did her best to ignore them without being impolite. She neither smiled nor frowned.

On the promenade more of the Humpty-Dumpties stopped to stare as Angela was ushered to a long and sleek gold car. The wheels were bigger than the car, and they were mounted at exactly each corner. Her escort raised the gull-wing door.

"Inside you get and take you I will."

Angela sighed and climbed in. She found herself sitting on another red cusioned bench seat. The alien closed the door, opened another one in front, and climbed in. As soon as the second door closed the car shot away from the curb with such speed, that Angela was crammed back in her seat, her breath taken away.

The car shot down the road at far too great a speed. Then another car over-took it going even faster. Angela sat back in her seat, her eyes wide, watching the road and the traffic on it shoot towards her and go flying by. Buildings shot by in a blur, the road curved and then ramped up, and Angela felt the gravity forces tug at her stomach.

"Do you have to go at this speed!" she ground out between clenched teeth as the car rose up another ramp and crossed a bridge.

"Sorry, Missy. Faster I go for you now."

The car accelerated and Angela was pushed further back in her chair. She could hardly move.

The car shot up a third ramp, took a tight bend to the left, then went up another ramp. It was now so high up that the view of the city was panoramic. Angela couldn't see it. All she could see were the other cars that shot by and the buildings that came and went with a glint of the sunlight. They were now on a long bridge that seemed to point straight at another tall building. They just went right towards it. The building got bigger and bigger until it finally shot towards them, a wall of glass and reflected sky and clouds. Angela saw a hint of a black dot and then they were in it. The car had shot into a large curved entrance and they were now inside the building. The car suddenly decelerated and Angela was thrown from her seat and crammed into the back of the driver's seat. When the car finally came to a rest, Angela tumbled to the floor in disarray, gasping for breath.

The alien driver twisted his body in his seat and looked down at her in surprise.

"Not put seat belt on, Missy?"

Angela climbed into a sitting position on the floor, her chest heaving. Her long hair obscured half her face and she blew at it ineffectively.

"I didn't get the chance!" she said in her annoyance. "I didn't realise we were in a race!"

"Sorry, Missy. Remind you I should. Not used to modern transport I forget. Come, come."

He climbed out and opened the door for her. Angela brushed her hair out of the way and clambered out. She was conscious that she wasn't practising her usual expertise when dealing with first contact situations, but this was not a lost tribe living in the jungle. If it had been, she would have felt much more at home.

Her driver led her to a glass door which slid aside with a whoosh. Angela bumped her head as she went through, she was too tall for the door. She looked back at the door in annoyance, rubbing her sore head. When she looked round again she found herself inside what was obviously a hotel foyer. Although the decor was alien, it was that obvious. Even the Humpty-Dumpties had the right sort of outfits for bell-boys, and she knew that the one that hurried towards her was the manager even before he spoke.

"Ah! Missy! Expect you we do! Come, come! This way room for you is!"

Other aliens watched as she was led across the foyer to the elevators. It was here that her rescuer and driver left her, and only the manager entered the elevator when the wide doors opened. Angela remembered to duck her head when she went through this time, and once inside she had to remain slightly bowed. The manager looked up at her apologetically.

"Sorry, Missy. Elevator designed not for you but for us. Pardon we beg."

"Don't worry about it, it's fine," she replied, and allowed herself a smile.

The manager smiled back and pressed one of the buttons. As the doors slid shut, Angela braced herself for a sudden acceleration, but instead the elevator began to ascend very sedately. Angela relaxed. There was a 'ding' and the elevator accelerated suddenly causing Angela's knees to buckle. She was conscious of a rapid ascension and then the elevator just as quickly decelerated. Angela bumped her head on the ceiling and cried out. The manager looked at her in concern.

"Sorry, Missy. Warn you I should. Forget you not used to modern buildings."

There was another 'ding' and the elevator slowed to a sedate stop and the doors slid open. The manager held out his arm, inviting her to step out.

"Room for you this is. All prepared for you has been. Be happy and content we hope. Come and go free to be you are. What you want we fetch if you ask."

Angela stepped out of the elevator with her eyes wide and staring. The room she entered was immense. It must have taken up half the floor. But it didn't stop there. She was obviously in a suite because the distant walls had wide and tall doorways through which she could see other rooms. She walked around, staring through the doorways. One was a very large bedroom with an enormous round bed. It had white sheets and a satin looking bedspread in pink. The next room was a bathroom with what looked like a sunken bath. It was more like a small swimming pool. And all the rooms were her height. But if the size of the rooms and the furnishings were outstanding, so was the quality and richness of it all. Every room was furnished and fitted out exquisitely. In the largest and main room there was a deep pale blue carpet, light pastel coloured walls, and furnishings in a light red wood. The many chairs and sofas had deep red cusioned seats, and in the middle of the room was an open fire with a canopy above it that took the smoke somewhere outside. And on the low tables and sideboards were statues and carvings. To her surprise, Angela recognised most of the statues and carvings as soon as she saw them. She picked one up and stared at it. There was no doubt about it. They were all hers, gathered in her travels and kept at home. All of them held a special memory. And now they were here.

"How did you- "

Angela turned to see that the manager had left and that the elevator doors were closed.

She was alone in her palace. A gilded palace. Or was it a cage. She walked around the room, staring at everything. She was amazed at what she saw, not because it was all so beautiful and rich, but because it was exactly how she had imagined her dream home to be. Years spent traipsing around in the jungles of one country or the desert of another had stirred thoughts of plush carpets and gold trimmed baths. It was just a silly fantasy that she always promised herself she would pursue 'one day'. Of course, the day never came. Until now.

Moving closer to the huge panoramic windows, Angela became aware of the view outside. She was very high up. Outside the city stretched out before her, building after building, some shorter, some taller. And in between were narrow bridges with tiny dots zinging back and forth. The twin suns glinted on the glass and steel of the buildings, and beyond them was the lake. And beyond that was the mountains that skirted the valley. She could see now that the lake was fed by a great river that flowed down from the mountains. In the distance she could see a waterfall that was wider and higher than anything she had seen before. A large rainbow arched through the water mist.

Blue skies, twin suns, it was all beautiful.

Angela looked down, and what she now saw caused her to press herself against the glass.

Almost next to the building she was in was another lower building. It's roof had obviosly been built as a landing pad. But it was much larger than anything built for a helicopter. And it was occupied. Right in the middle of the landing pad was a very large circular shaped craft. It had two engines sticking out at the back, and at the front Angela could see windows. Angela stared at it, her heart missing a beat.

"That's it!" she exclaimed out loud. "That's the- "

"The Massen'Acra," a voice behind her said.

Angela spun round, her back now pressed against the window behind her. She found herself staring at a man, a tall well built young man with fair hair and very soulful blue eyes. He was wearing a loose white shirt that hung nearly open. The exposed part of his tanned and lean chest had a faint covering of blonde. On his legs was a loose fitting pair of trousers. On his feet were sandals. He was only a short distance away from her.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to scare you."

He took another step forward. Angela pressed herself against the glass, staring into his eyes. They were so sad, so deep and, and...

"Is this a dream?"

He smiled. It was very pleasant. Very, very pleasant.

"No, this is not a dream. But you are confused. It is understandable. I should explain." He held out his hand, indicating one of the deep cusioned sofas. "Sit, relax, make yourself comfortable. You are quite safe here, Angela."

She stepped away from the window, staring at him closely. "Are you...?"

He smiled once more. It was even more pleasing and genuine.

"Yes," he replied, and bowing his head he added, "Permit me to reintroduce myself. I am Nac Tikmak, Captain of the Massen'Acra."

CHAPTER SIX

Angela collapsed onto one of the deep red sofas. "You're Nack Tickmack?" she asked increduously.

He smiled. It was like a weapon. Everytime he did it she wanted to jump him. And the worst thing about it was that his eyes seemed to know. He sat down gracefully on the sofa opposite to her.

"I know this is confusing for you," he began as he sat back and crossed his legs. "But all will become clear in a very short time. Please, relax. You are safe here."

"Where is 'here'?" she asked far too quickly, and instantly felt embarrassed. Why did she feel like that? Why did she feel like a school-girl again? Was it the absence of her all winning stick body? It was true that her 'new' body seemed to act differently. She couldn't get used to the way things bounced when she sat down. Well, two things in particular. Why did they suddenly feel out of control? Every time she took a breath they kept moving up and down in her field of view. They were like two mountains suffering a dual earthquake. At any moment things were going to get pointy and she was going to die. She had to fight the urge to grab them both and hold them down.

Nac Tikmak seemed totally oblivious to the turmoil in her heart and the confusion in her head. "Here," he said glancing around, "is Peleonika. A very agreeable world as I'm sure you will find. The people are friendly, the technology is advanced, the food good, in fact there is everything here that you could possibly wish for."

She leaned forward suddenly, the movement causing further perturbations in her anatomy. "Will you stop it! You're like the rest of them! Every one of them treats me as if I should know where I am, or what's going to happen! They all act as if they were all expecting me! This room, my own artifacts! Even the decor! It's all too perfect, too pre-arranged, and too damn comfortable! I want to know what's going on! Tell me!"

He smiled that beautiful, marvellous and oh, so attractive smile again. Even his eyes seemed to smile. They smiled and cried all at the same time. How could he be so attractive? How could he be so exactly what her heart wanted, all rolled up in such a tight, fair-haired, blue-eyed and perfectly proportioned body? Angela couldn't stand it. She wanted to have his babies. She wanted to have his babies babies.

He spoke calmly. "I'm sorry. You're perfectly right. I'm not as good at this as you are. So, you want answers. Well, ask and I will answer truthfully."

She sat back again, calming herself and trying not to picture them both at it like rabbits on the thick carpet. "How did I get here, to Peleonika?"

"Through the Rift Gate."

"The what?"

"The Rift Gate." He placed his hands together delicately. "Consider it to be a fragile part of the space continuum, a place where the very fabric of space is weaker than anywhere else. Here, at the weakest spot, it can be possible to," he paused, "to punch through, to creat a small rift that would allow one to pass through to the other side. Of course its much more complicated than that. And to get through would require a very special device. The Hexogenic Intensifier," he paused again, looking at her with that smile on his lips, "the machine you thought was a cryogenic chamber, is just such a device."

He seemed to be mocking her. She got angry anyway, for different reasons. "So it is a transportation system?"

"Yes."

"And you knew all the time?"

"Of course."

She leaned forward and slapped his leg. "Then why didn't you tell me? Why did you frighten me to- " Another thought came into her head as she felt his leg. "Wait a minute! How come you look like the way you do now when you looked different on the Intrepid?"

He held up his finger. "Ah! Good point! Firstly, it would have been rather difficult to explain everything about the Rift Gate and all this by just doodling. And secondly, I never looked any differently. In fact, I look the same now as I did then. It's just that you see me differently."

Angela leaned further forward. "I see you more than differently! There's no way you look the same! There's no way you could have been the same! You're a man now, you feel like a man!"

He smiled at her as she held on to his leg. She felt herself beginning to flush and quickly let go and sat back, bouncing as before. She suddenly felt angry. Angry and embarrassed.

"Why do I feel so uncomfortable? Why have I changed?" She pulled up her tee-shirt and exposed even more of her midriff. "And why is there no sign of the laser? I felt it, Nack Tikmack! I felt it burn me! Why am I not even scratched? Tell me the truth! You promised!"

He nodded, his amusement at her emotional state clear on his extremely attractive face. "I promised, and I will keep that promise. The Hexogenic Intensifier alters our molecular structure when we pass through the rift. It has to do that because of the differences in the very fabric of space on either side of the rift. For example, if you travel through the Panama Canal from the Pacific to the Atlantic you travel through several locks which take the canal on to different levels. Thats because the Atlantic and the Pacific are on different levels on either side. But if you went all the way round South America you wouldn't notice."

Angela knew exactly what he meant. She had travelled through the Panama Canal. Why did she have the feeling he knew that? And why did his eyes always seem to be talking to her? To be urging her to ask more questions, to seek answers to, to- Oh, why couldn't she just jump him and get it over with!

"Not having a hole through my middle has to be a little bit more complicated than the difference in sea levels due to the moon and geography."

"True, but the idea is the same. For you to be here instead of there, you had to change slightly. The Intensifier altered you just a little bit to let you be here. And in doing that it fixed your wound. Among other things."

His obvious reference to her larger curves made Angela blush. It was very annoying. She had never felt as uncomfortable as this for years. And the feeling clouded her mind. There were things here she wanted to know, and instead his presence was turning her into a girly jelly. She decided to grasp the over large nettle by the thorns.

She looked down at her body. "So why am I like this? Why am I....bigger?"

He smiled again. "It was always you, the genes just dormant or passive. The device simply activated those genes. It brought them out, it made you as you should have been."

She looked up at him. "And how did it turn you from an alien into a man, a very perfect and handsome man?"

His smile grew even wider, and her urge to pounce on him like a wild animal almost broke her control. In contrast he answered her question calmly.

"Yes, I am very different from you, or I was. But I have passed through the Intensifier many, many times. And each time the device has altered and improved me, until this is what you see."

"I'm sorry, but that's far big a difference to be explained away by the activation of a few dormant genes! You were an alien, now you're a man! In one transition! Explain!"

She was being hard on him, and somehow it felt hard for her to do it. He didn't seem to mind.

"Yes, you saw me how I was, but that was because we were back on the Massen'Acra."

Angela hooked her thumb over her shoulder. "The Massen'Acra is outside the window."

He nodded. "That Massen'Acra is outside the window. But the one on the other side of the rift, the one where you came from, is the one where I originally came from. When I went back there to retrieve you, I returned to my original state. That was how you saw me. But inside, I was still the same. Think of my form then as a shell. Inside the shell, I was always as you see me now."

Angela was thinking about something else he had said. "You said you came to retrieve me?"

"Yes, to retrieve you. Of course, I didn't know it would be you or only you at the time. But I soon realised that only you would wish to come back with me. Why, you will probably ask. Because I could sense the need within you to seek out new places, new worlds. You have a craving for new societies and civilisations, new people and new beliefs. You like to travel, Angela. As soon as I saw your eyes, when you took off your helmet, I knew that you would be the one."

Angela couldn't stand it. She was going to explode. "You have an unfair advantage," she owned up. "If you still looked the way you did on the Intrepid I could ask my questions much easier. But now, well, you distract me. You're too attractive, too...too damned perfect!"

She blurted out the last words, and the expected broadside from his smile duely followed. As usual, it turned her will power to goo. But more was to follow. This time he wasn't content just to smile.

"Yes, I am perfection in a way, as you are too. And believe me, you are very beautiful, Angela. I doubt if there are any women on your world who could have such beauty, such warmth. Everything about you stirs the need I have for you. The long dark hair that frames your head and perfect face like a main, those brown eyes, so warm and inviting, your bronzed skin, so perfect in every way, all of it suggests a warmth, a fire within you that begs to be quenched."

He stopped, his eyes expectant. Angela just stared at him, her eyes wide and her mouth open as she sat perched on the edge of her seat.

"Do you want me to jump you?" she said finally.

He laughed. It was beautiful. He suddenly sat up, moving closer to her now. They both now sat on the edge of their seats facing one another, nose to nose.

"You are straight forward! I like that! And I will answer in turn. Yes, I do want you to, 'jump me'! But I would like to do it more slow and sensually. I would like us to spend all day and night here becoming acutely familiar with one another. I want to explore you as I would explore an entire world, inch by luxurious inch. And I want you to know me equally well. I want us both to know exactly what makes the other so deliciously aroused and excited. I want you to reach a peak of excitement and stay there on a plateau of ecstasy for hours until you collapse exhausted. I want you to experience every delight it is humanly possible to experience. I want you to have exactly what you want and could dream for in every way. All you have to do is say the word and we can begin."

Angela was on fire. All she could see were those soft blue eyes, they were right in her face, like two enormous planets. She was breathing hard and she felt all heated. Hot and ready. In her mind they were already at it like rabbits. But what he envisaged for her rabbits would never understand. Everything had gone pointy and she didn't care. But at the very last second, just before her mind shouted Geronimo! and dived right in, a thought came to her.

"Can I go home?"

It was a tiny, whispered question, but it changed something. The room cooled.

Nac Tikmak sat back in his sofa. He didn't smile. "Do you worry about them?"

Angela felt suddenly alone and cold. It was as if she had been having sex, but her partner had finished before her, got up and left. She knew that feeling well, far too well. She felt deprived, disappointed, let down, deflated. It had been a beautifully decorated present, but the box was empty. Hollow.

She looked at him sadly. "You shouldn't be angry with me. I did spend a long time with them. I know them, and yes, I care about them." She glanced around the room. "While I'm here among all this, they could be dead."

He nodded. "Yes, forgive me. You are right, Angela. You need to know, and you shall know. But it will be hard for you. I must warn you that going back to the Massen'Acra will be dangerous for you, for us both."

Angela instinctively placed a hand on her midriff. "You said going back there returned you to your original state. Does that mean that I'll be shot?"

He sat forward again, and reaching out he took her hand in his. It was a warm hand, and his grip was comforting. Even the room seemed warmer again "Do not worry, Angela. When you return you will be as you were, with your preferred stick body. But you will not be wounded. The device merely alters your structure according to your genes, not your present state. The injury has been cured and will remain so. The danger I refer to is being in the Massen'Acra itself. The ship is very damaged on that side of the rift, and the atmosphere is poor. You will have to wear your space suit, and you will be enclosed and heavy again."

Angela had forgotten about that space suit. "I don't even know where my suit is," she said worriedly.

"I know," he said reassuringly. "And I will come with you. I will pass through before you and I will retrieve your suit so that you can wear it straight away." He saw her protests begin and dismissed them. "Do not worry. I have done this before. I told you, I am the Captain of the Massen'Acra, I know the ship well. Now, it is all decided. I will call Humbolt and make the arrangements."

She looked into those sad blue eyes. "Humbolt?"

"The Peleonikan who rescued you in the lake."

"There were two of them."

"The one who drove you here?"

Angela's expression changed. "Oh, the Grand Prix racer! I know. He's called Humbolt?"

He smiled that smile again, and the temperature of the room seemed to go up another level. "Yes, he is Humbolt. He is a member of my crew on the Massen'Acra. You can trust him, Angela. Now, come with me."

He stood up, her hand still gripped in his. She looked up at him in surprise.

"We're going now?"

"You don't want to miss them, do you? Scott has a timetable you know? Or have you forgotten already?"

Angela stood up. Her head was suddenly in a whirl. She had been here such a short time and now she was going. She looked back at the room as he led her to the elevator. She looked out the window at the glorious view. She was actually on another world with other people and she was going to leave it all behind. And she had hardly seen any of it.

Nac Tikmak pressed the call button for the elevator, and as they both waited he suddenly took her in his arms. It was a fluid movement that surprised Angela as she was still staring back at the room. She didn't resist, she just settled in his arms like a soft jelly and stared at him, waiting for him to say what he was going to say, or do what he was going to do. In a way she was disappointed when he spoke. But not for long.

"I want you to come back, Angela. I am a man on an alien world. I am surrounded by people and yet I am totally alone. I need you. You spoke of perfection, and yet the perfection only exists in our duallity. We are perfect contrasts, male, female, fair and dark. Everything about you delights me, and I know by the look in your eyes that what you see delights you. The one thing we share in common is the urge to travel and see new worlds. I tell you now, Angela, that I have seen many wonders. But they all pale to nothing compared to the sight that my eyes now feast on. Return to your friends, see that they are safe. But come back to me. There are worlds I want to show you, civilisations I want to share with you, lost cities we can explore together. Even the places I have seen before will be filled with new excitement when I visit them with you. Please, Angela, come back to me, stay with me here, share my life."

Angela could hardly see or feel anything. There was just him and his words.

"Kiss me, will you, or I'll die," she whispered.

He smiled, leaned forward, and kissed her.

The world exploded in fire and colour. Angela's body was overcome by the intense force of the stimulation that suddenly engulfed her senses. As their mouths met, Angela wanted to devour him. She wanted to suck him right inside, and he seemed to want to do the same, because the kiss became a wild, twisting, hand searching, groping, wrestling entanglement of bodies and limbs as they slid slowly to the floor. Angela had gratefully lost control at last. She no longer cared about anything or anyone. She wanted to die in his arms, she wanted to feel the thrust and power of his love within her, she wanted to be nailed to the floor, transfixed to the ceiling, impaled, ripped apart, her legs torn off at the hip. She wanted to get down to it all, the sweat, the smell, the hot, sticky, tremendous feel of skin on skin in wild urgency.And above all she wanted the rippling, quivering ecstacy of ultimate release right then, right there, right now.

There was a 'ding' and the elevator doors slid open. Humbolt, the walnut shaped Humpty-Dumpty leaned his body forward and stared down at them both writhing about on the floor. They didn't notice or reduce their efforts and so he finally spoke.

"If to Missy mouth to mouth you give, Captain, why struggle does she so?"

Angela and Nac Tikmak became aware of his presence and their wrestling embrace subsided. They fell apart and Angela just collapsed on the floor with her arms flung out, her chest heaving as she panted for breath. Nac Tikmak propped himself up on one hand. He was also breatheless and overheated as he turned to Humbolt. Humbolt quickly spoke again.

"Is there problem with air in room, Captain?"

"No, Humbolt...there's no problem....and I wasn't giving her mouth to mouth....We weren't....actually we were getting to know each other better...."

"Ah! Copulation process I interrupt. Beg pardon for intrusion I must. Not aware relationship so quickly reach such level of familiarity. I go and return at better moment. Will hour suffice? Or two, or three? State requirement and I will oblige."

Angela pulled down her tee-shirt which for some reason was much too high. "Don't bother, Humbolt...," she gasped. "I think the moment has passed...."

Nac Tikmak laughed and got to his feet pulling Angela up with him. She was still exhausted, and still not really sure if the moment had passed, but she was surprised by his strength. He seemed to pull her up so easily.

"Remember Scott's deadline," he reminded her. "And maybe stopping now is oppertune. It gives you an incentive for coming back!"

He was smiling at her again, breatheless but intensely happy. She was more than happy. Angela reached out to cup his face in her hands.

"You're my dream, my angel," she whispered to him. "I have to come back, even as I have to go." She suddenly smiled. "I think you're beginning to rub off on me. I'm beginning to sound like you."

"That's because you're learning to trust me and you're feeling comfortable with me. In time, it will get even better. Now, come." He took her hand in his again. "We have far to go." He turned to the patiently waiting Humpty-Dumpty. "Humbolt! Angela is taking a brief trip! Prepare the Intensifier!"

Humbolt's large and comical face brightened up. "Yes, Captain! Car is ready for quickly to take, and boat at jetty ready awaits! Where to will Missy go visit? Splendour of Garat LeParn? Or Tomb of Unlur'Tamak? Sea of Spice, or Forest of Gold?"

Nac Tikmak broke into his list as they all bundled into the elevator. "The Massen'Acra. My point of origin."

Humbolt twisted his body to look at them both. He seemed deflated. "Oh? Dark and dismal choice this is. Danger there be and not much to see. Missy sure the destination is best?"

Angela answered for herself. "I need to see if my friends are alright. I have to know."

"Going to stay, or depart and return will you do?"

Angela looked at Nac Tikmak. "I'm coming back."

Nac Tikmak stared into her eyes, and then the elevator went 'ding' and the floor dropped beneath them.

-o-

Silence.

Darkness.

Cold.

Angela was conscious and aware, but completely cut off from everything. She didn't even have any thoughts, no fears, nothing. She felt aware of only one thing. She felt aware of, of....being totally alone.

Light, noise, feelings, all of it came back to sudden life and intensity with a pop and a hiss.

The lid of the container slid slowly upwards revealing a crouched form.

Angela's heart missed a beat. She sat up, gasped and clutched at her midriff. There had been a brief but intense pain, but now there was nothing. Nothing except her heart beating so fast and her breath coming in gasps, her chest heaving.

The air was horrible, it made her eyes water and her throat tighten.

"Oh, God!" she rasped. "I'd forgotten how bad it was!"

She looked round in the dim light and saw the familiar hexagonal central piller with the seven, egg-shaped containers. There was only one other container that was closed. She felt cold and damp. She rubbed her bare arms and then remembered. She quickly looked down and saw the burn mark and the red patch on her tee-shirt. She quickly pulled it up and rubbed at her skin. There was nothing. But there was also another welcome change.

"My stick body!" she announced.

She began to feel and examine herself. Yes, it was all there. How she had missed it, how she had missed the neatness and firmness of it all.

Someone grabbed her shoulder and she jumped, startled. She didn't even know she had screamed. She looked up in surprise. It was Nac Tikmak, the alien Nac Tikmak, wearing his tattered uniform and face mask. He was looking down at her, her space suit in his arms.

"We must hurry Angela!" he said in a muffled voice. "Decompression will occur at any moment!"

She looked up at him in even more surprise. "I can understand you!"

"You have been through the Intensifier twice, our minds speak the same now even if our tongues are different!" He held out the suit. "Hurry! Carl will cut through the bulkhead at any moment!"

Angela stood up and reached out to him. He grabbed her and lifted her out of the container effortlessly. He was a giant again and she was a nymph. She smiled as she climbed into her suit.

"I'd forgotten how much bigger you were."

"And I had forgot how small you were."

Angela was excited as she put on her space suit. It was strange, she had never been as excited as this before about the suit. But it was different now. She was going to see Scott and Carl and Lucy again. And Jonathan and Luigi. How surprised they would be! It was going to be fun, it was going to be emotional, it was going to be sad. She was going to say hello and goodbye.

She clipped the final latches on her suit and looked up. He held out her helmet. Her spirits dropped.

"I hate that," she said. "I won't be able to hear you once I put that on."

"No, but they will."

Angela thought about that. And then the floor vibrated and there was a distant rumble.

A wind blew through the room. It started as a stiff breeze, but then it turned quickly into a howling gale. It grew and grew and grew, and the power of it became unbearable. Bits flew passed them. It took a moment to recognise them. Bits of bone and dried skin. A whole ribcage, they all flew passed.

Nac Tikmak stumbled and staggered against the wall, her helmet knocked from his hand. It immediately shot out the door like a baloon. Angela didn't see anymore. She toppled over, unable to keep her feet in the cumbersome space suit. She fell on her face, or she would have done if the bulk of the suit hadn't kept her away from the floor. When she fell, Angela saw the floor rushing towards her and squeezed her eyes shut for the impact. Instead of a bloody nose, the fall winded her and she opened her eyes to see the mouldy floor just inches away. Her joy was shortlived because now she couldn't breathe. The air had been knocked out of her by the fall, and the howling wind blew all the air away before she could breathe anymore of it in. She gasped and gasped, but the howling wind just blew it all away.

The wind grew even stronger and Angela began to slide. She slid across the floor towards the door, the wind dragging her along. Nac Tikmak wasn't fairing any better. He was already at the door, hanging on with his hands, his legs and whole body flying in the wind behind him.

There was a distant clang and the wind stopped.

Nac Tikmak dropped to the floor with a thud. Angela looked up, gasping and panting in the stinging air.

"What happened?"

Nac Tikmak began climbing to his feet. "Another bulkhead must have sealed the corridor. We are safe now."

Angela propped herself up on her arms but couldn't get up. She waited for him to come and help her. "But how do I get to them now?" she asked him as he came towards her.

"We cannot," he told her as he picked her up and carried her under his arm.

"But how can I talk to them? How can I tell them that I'm alright?"

"We must find your helmet, it is the only way."

Nac Tikmak carried Angela out of the room and hurried down the darkened corridor. She craned her head, looking forward as he ran with her. Her view of the darkened corridor bobbed up and down, but she couldn't see her helmet.

"What if it got sucked out?"

"Then there is nothing more we can do."

Damn! She hated that helmet, and now, on the one occasion that she really needed it, she couldn't find it. "We have to find it, Nack! We have to! There was no point in coming if not!"

Angela saw the closed bulkhead door even before Nac Tikmak began to slow his pace. He walked the last few steps and carefully put Angela down on her feet in front of it. Angela just raised her hands and smacked it with her gloved fists.

"Oh, damn!"

Nac Tikmak was looking around on the floor. "It must be on the other side. I am sorry, Angela. I couldn't hold it."

"It's not your fault," she said. "You did your best. You brought me here. I should have moved quicker. But I was looking forward so much to seeing them again, I didn't concentrate."

He looked around for a moment. "There may still be a way you can see them." He held out his hand. "Come, this way!"

She took his hand and let him lead her back down the corridor. He walked at her cumbersome pace, pausing by each darkened doorway to glance inside.

"What are you looking for?" she asked him.

"These cabins are the crew's quarters. Many of them on the rim had windows from which you could see the stars. They were very pleasant."

A window.

It was so simple. Angela's heart began beating faster. She felt silly, but eager. A window, they had to find one. At least she could see them, at least she would know they were safe.

Nac Tikmak led her passed door after door, until finally, he stopped.

"Here! This one!"

He dragged her inside, passed the ruined furniture, the broken fittings, the ripped wall hangings. He took her through another doorway, and there, on the far side was a dim light.

Nac Tikmak pushed her forward and she moved closer to the window. It was badly marked and stained, all of it greenish. She rubbed at the thick glass with her gloved hand. It was thick, like a large weed filled fishtank, but she could see through it, just. There were more marks and blemishes on the far side, years of impacts from tiny meteors. She peered in between the marks and scratches, dirt and grime, moving her head back and forth. Then her heart leapt.

"I can see them!"

Nac Tikmak bent lower. "Where?"

She pointed a gloved finger. "There! Do you see? With the long wire trailing out?"

"Yes." Nac Tikmak sounded puzzled. "What is that thing on the end of the wire?"

"It's the EPD! Carl's riding on it, do you see?"

"Ah, yes, now I see his suit. Is this method not dangerous?"

Angela smiled. "Not half! But it's so logical! How else could he get the extra time to get back? They left the EPD hanging on a tether so that he could get to it from the Massen'Acra."

"And now they reel him in like a fish?"

Angela laughed. "Yes! He just has to hang on!"

Now Nac Tikmak pointed. "I see someone in the doorway. He waves."

Angela squinted at the distant airlock on the side of the Intrepid. It seemed far away and yet so close. The waving figure was quite clear, as was Carl's return wave.

"He's going to make it!"

They watched as the EPD with Carl riding it floated towards the airlock and disappeared inside. There was a pause and then the excess tether was hauled in. Angela saw Carl unhook it and then the airlock slid silently shut.

"He made it! They all made it! They must have!"

Nac Tikmak said nothing. He just waited.

Angela waited too. She waited and watched. It wasn't long before the Intrepid's engine came to life. The burn was a bright and intense white light. It seemed to go on forever, bright and silent, but then it went out. By then the Intrepid had already moved further away. Further away and higher. Angela watched it curve upwards and away until it disappeared beyond the edge of the window. She didn't realise how long she stood there pressed to the dirty window, or that she was crying, until she felt Nac Tikmak stroking her hair with his claw. It was such a delicate touch. She turned and looked up at him.

"I'm sorry, I can't help it."

"You wanted to go with them," he said sadly. "Truthfully now, tell me."

She looked away. "Part of me does. I'm giving up home, people I know, my parents, everything. And the worst part of it is that they will all think I'm dead, and there's no way I can tell them differently. I just wanted them to know, that was all. I just wanted a few minutes to talk to them."

Nac Tikmak took her hand. "Come, we must go. You have breathed this foul air enough. It will begin to fog your mind."

Angela took one last look at the window as she was led away. Once they were back in the corridor, Nac Tikmak picked her up and carried her back to the room with the Hexogenic Intensifier. He carried her under his arm as before, like a doll. By the time they got back to the device, Angela was indeed feeling groggy.

"You're right about this air," she told him as he sat her down and began to unclip her suit. "I feel very light-headed."

"The longer you stay here, the worse it will get."

Slowly and methodically, Nac Tikmak undressed her and sat her back in the open egg-shaped container. He gently put her legs and arms in the apertures, and as he was about to push her head down on the cup, she suddenly turned to him.

"Why do you love me, Nack?" she asked in a distant and detached voice.

He paused and gently stroked her short hair. "Because your mind is rich and beautiful."

She looked back at him, her eyes unfocussed. He gently turned her head and pushed her down on the cup.

-o-

Silence.

Darkness.

Cold.

Angela was conscious and aware, but completely cut off from everything. She didn't even have any thoughts, no fears, nothing. She felt aware of only one thing. She felt aware of, of....being totally alone.

Light, noise, feelings, all of it came back to sudden life and intensity with a pop and a hiss.

The lid of the container slid slowly upwards revealing a crouched form.

Angela's heart missed a beat. She sat up, gasped and clutched at her midriff. There had been a brief but intense pain, but now there was nothing. Nothing except her heart beating so fast and her breath coming in gasps, her chest heaving.

The air was horrible, it made her eyes water and her throat tighten.

"Oh, God!" she rasped. "I'd forgotten how bad it was!"

She looked round in the dim light and saw the familiar hexagonal central piller with the seven, egg-shaped containers. There was only one other container that was closed. She felt cold and damp. She rubbed her bare arms and then remembered. She quickly looked down and saw the burn mark and the red patch on her tee-shirt. She quickly pulled it up and rubbed at her skin. There was nothing. But there was also another welcome change.

"My stick body!" she announced.

She began to feel and examine herself. Yes, it was all there. How she had missed it, how she had missed the neatness and firmness of it all.

Someone grabbed her shoulder and she jumped, startled. She didn't even know she had screamed. She looked up in surprise. It was Nac Tikmak, the alien Nac Tikmak, wearing his tattered uniform and face mask. He was looking down at her, her space suit in his arms.

"We must hurry Angela!" he said in a muffled voice. "Decompression will occur at any moment!"

She looked up at him in even more surprise. "I can understand you!"

"You have been through the Intensifier twice, our minds speak the same now even if our tongues are different!" He held out the suit. "Hurry! Carl will cut through the bulkhead at any moment!"

Angela stood up and reached out to him. He grabbed her and lifted her out of the container effortlessly. He was a giant again and she was a nymph. She smiled as she climbed into her suit.

"I'd forgotten how much bigger you were."

"And I had forgot how small you were."

Angela was excited as she put on her space suit. It was strange, she had never been as excited as this before about the suit. But it was different now. She was going to see Scott and Carl and Lucy again. And Jonathan and Luigi. How surprised they would be! It was going to be fun, it was going to be emotional, it was going to be sad. She was going to say hello and goodbye. Why did that feel familiar?

She clipped the final latches on her suit and looked up. He held out her helmet. Her spirits dropped.

"I hate that," she said. "I won't be able to hear you once I put that on."

"No, but they will."

Angela thought about that. And then the floor vibrated and there was a distant rumble.

A wind blew through the room. It started as a stiff breeze, but then it turned quickly into a howling gale. It grew and grew and grew, and the power of it became unbearable. Bits flew passed them. It took a moment to recognise them. Bits of bone and dried skin. A whole ribcage, they all flew passed.

Nac Tikmak stumbled and staggered against the wall, her helmet knocked from his hand. It immediately shot out the door like a baloon. Angela didn't see anymore. She toppled over, unable to keep her feet in the cumbersome space suit. She fell on her face, or she would have done if the bulk of the suit hadn't kept her away from the floor. When she fell, Angela saw the floor rushing towards her and squeezed her eyes shut for the impact. Instead of a bloody nose, the fall winded her and she opened her eyes to see the mouldy floor just inches away. Her joy was shortlived because now she couldn't breathe. The air had been knocked out of her by the fall, and the howling wind blew all the air away before she could breathe anymore of it in. She gasped and gasped, but the howling wind just blew it all away.

The wind grew even stronger and Angela began to slide. She slid across the floor towards the door, the wind dragging her along. Nac Tikmak wasn't fairing any better. He was already at the door, hanging on with his hands, his legs and whole body flying in the wind behind him.

There was a distant clang and the wind stopped.

Nac Tikmak dropped to the floor with a thud. Angela looked up, gasping and panting in the stinging air.

"What happened?"

Nac Tikmak began climbing to his feet. "Another bulkhead must have sealed the corridor. We are safe now."

Angela propped herself up on her arms but couldn't get up. She waited for him to come and help her. "But how do I get to them now?" she asked him as he came towards her.

"We cannot," he told her as he picked her up and carried her under his arm.

"But how can I talk to them? How can I tell them that I'm alright?"

"We must find your helmet, it is the only way."

Nac Tikmak carried Angela out of the room and hurried down the darkened corridor. She craned her head, looking forward as he ran with her. Her view of the darkened corridor bobbed up and down, but she couldn't see her helmet.

"What if it got sucked out?"

"Then there is nothing more we can do."

Damn! She hated that helmet, and now, on the one occasion that she really needed it, she couldn't find it. "We have to find it, Nack! We have to! There was no point in coming if not!"

Angela saw the closed bulkhead door even before Nac Tikmak began to slow his pace. And there, wedged up against it, was her helmet. Angela screamed out in delight.

"It's there, Nack! It's there!"

"Yes, we are fortunate." He carefully put Angela down on her feet in front of it. Angela held out her hands eagerly as Nac Tikmak picked up her helmet. It seemed to be stuck, and he tugged on it. When he held it to her she could already see the damage on one side of it.

"Oh, damn!" she exclaimed. "It's broken!"

"It may not pressurise, but the radio is all you need. Put it on."

Angela glanced up at him. "Here goes!"

She put on the helmet.

Why did she always feel like a goldfish?

Voices burst into her ears, familiar voices, talking urgently, irritatedly. It was Scott's voice first.

"Keep a grip of the hand rail and pull him in slow and even! If you yank on it you'll just throw yourself out!"

"I know!" Jonathan replied.

Angela took a breath to say something but Scott just kept talking and she missed her chance.

"The tether is anchored to the left of the hatch, just reach around the door and pull it gently towards you!"

"I know!" Jonathan repeated.

"And don't keep pulling or the EPD will hit you like a railway train!"

"I know! I know!" Jonathan almost exploded. "Will you shut up and let me do this?"

"Yes! Shut up and let me get a word in!" Angela added.

"Who the fuck?"

"What?"

"Angela!"

It was Lucy who spoke last. She almost screamed her name. "It's Angela! Angela's alive! Oh, glory! We've left her behind! Scott! Do something!"

Luigi shouted, "Carl! Can you see her?"

"No! She wasn't with me!"

Scott took a deep breath and bawled at everyone. "Shaddapp!"

Silence reigned. In command again, Scott spoke.

"Okay, Jonathan. Go get Carl as planned. Carl? You stick on that EPD, do you hear me?"

"Yes, Scott."

"Good. Angela? Where are you? What happened? Talk to me."

Angela smiled. She had been smiling since she heard their voices. "It's a long story, Scott."

"Give us the fast version."

"I got shot. The cryogenic chamber fixed me, but it's not a cryogenic chamber at all. It's a transportation device. I've been to another world, Scott, with Nack Tickmack. That was why he wanted to put me in there, why he kidknapped me, and why he didn't want to come with us. He always knew he could escape."

"Is there any way you can get back here? Can you see the torch?"

"No, Scott. I'm on the wrong side of the bulkhead. But don't worry about me. I can get away with Nack Tickmack. I'm going back to that other world. I'll be safe there, don't worry."

There was a pause and then Lucy said in a subdued voice, "This other world, did it have aliens and things?"

"Yes, plenty of them, all like the one in the picture, the Humpty-Dumpty aliens."

Luigi said, "Did they have books?"

"Millions of them."

Luigi gasped. "My heart breaks! Wait! I will come and join you!"

Angela laughed, the tears runninng down her cheeks.

Carl's voice came over the radio. "In case anybody's interested, it's damned lonely out here!"

Jonathan quickly said, "It's okay, Carl. The hatch is open and I'm waiting for you. Can you see me?"

"Yes!"

Angela could almost imagine them waving. Why was that? She took off her helmet and looked up at Nac Tikmak. "Is there a window near here?"

He looked around for a moment. "Yes!" He held out his hand. "Come, this way!"

She took his hand and let him lead her back down the corridor. He walked at her cumbersome pace, pausing by each darkened doorway to glance inside. Angela put her helmet back on, listening to the voices as she walked along with Nac Tikmak. It was still Jonathan who was speaking, his voice clear and methodical.

"I'm holding onto the hand rail and reaching for the tether. I've got it. I'm pulling now, slow and even," his voice strained, "just once. There, its moving! The tether has gone slack. I'm reeling it in, its coming quite fast."

Carl agreed with him. "Yeah, I can feel that I'm moving! Don't pull anymore."

Scott said, "Keep hold of that hand rail, Jonathan!"

"Don't worry," Jonathan told him. "It's going to be okay. I can see him on the EPD. It won't be long now."

Luigi said, "I can't see him anymore! He must be getting close!"

Nac Tikmak led Angela passed door after door, until finally, he stopped and dragged her inside. They passed the ruined furniture, the broken fittings, the ripped wall hangings. He took her through another doorway, and there, on the far side was a dim light.

Nac Tikmak pushed her forward and she moved closer to the window, pressing her visor against the thick glass. It was badly marked and stained, all of it greenish. She rubbed at the surface with her gloved hand. It was like looking through a large weed filled fishtank, but she could see through it, just. There were more marks and blemishes on the far side, years of impacts from tiny meteors. She peered in between the marks and scratches, dirt and grime, moving her head back and forth. And all the time she could hear what was going on. Then her heart leapt.

"I can see you!" she said.

Scott said, "Okay, Angela! Jonathan! Watch yourself!"

"It's okay! Carl's nearly here! Now all I have to do is stop him!"

Angela took off her helmet. "Can you see them, Nack?"

"Yes." Nac Tikmak sounded puzzled. "What is that thing on the end of the wire?"

"It's the EPD! Carl's riding on it, do you see?"

"Ah, yes, now I see his suit. Is this method not dangerous?"

Angela smiled. "Not half! But it's so logical! How else could he get the extra time to get back? They left the EPD hanging on a tether so that he could get to it from the Massen'Acra."

"And now they reel him in like a fish?"

Angela laughed. "Yes! He just has to hang on!"

She put her helmet on again, and the voices sprang back into life.

"Use your foot as a brake when the EPD gets close," Scott was saying.

"Yes, that's it!"

Lucy said, "I can see him! I can see Carl!"

And Carl said, "Here I come!"

Angela and Nac Tikmak watched as the EPD with Carl riding it floated towards the airlock and disappeared inside. There was a pause and then the excess tether was hauled in. Angela saw Carl unhook it and then the airlock slid silently shut.

There were whoops of joy over the radio, and someone shouted, "Welcome home!"

Scott shouted above them all. "Luigi! Get Jonathan and Carl back in their seats pronto! Lucy! Come with me! We've got the main burn in two minutes!"

"But what about Angela?" Lucy replied.

"You heard her! She's not coming! Now move it!"

Angela quickly added, "It's alright, Lucy! Scott's right, you have to think about yourselves! I'm going to be fine!"

Carl said, "Say again, Angela! You're breaking up a bit!"

And Scott added, "The suit radio's don't have much range- hiss -must be much further out- hiss, pop -now."

Angela repeated what she had said. "Lucy! Scott's right, you have to think about yourselves! I'm going to be fine!"

She heard Lucy reply. "But we can't- hiss -leave you!"

"I'm leaving you!" Angela told her. "Anyway, isn't this better than thinking that I'm dead?"

Lucy didn't sound convinced. "Oh, I suppose so- hiss, pop."

Scott sounded urgent. "Come on, people! Or we'll- hiss -be trying the space- pop -back there to join Angela!"

There was a clamour of voices, Luigi and Lucy among them. But the static seemed to get worse, confusing all the words. Then Scott shouted them all down.

"Angela's made her choice! Maybe it wasn't much of a choice, but- hiss, pop, hiss -one she had! Now nobody, not anybody on this mission- hiss -more equipped than her for living- hiss, pop -alien planet! Now will you all pull yourselves- hiss, pop -and get with it!"

Angela knew what he was trying to do. He had four of his crew to worry about and there was nothing he could do now about her. She swallowed.

"Listen to Scott. Get home safely. Love you."

Lucy said, "Oh, glory..."

Angela could hear her cry. She could hear herself crying.

Nac Tikmak said nothing as he stood beside her. He just waited.

Angela waited too. She waited, watched and listened. She could hear Scott and the others talking as they prepared for the burn, and it wasn't long before the Intrepid's engine came to life. The burn was a bright and intense white light. It seemed to go on forever, bright and silent, but then it went out. By then the Intrepid had already moved further away. Further away and higher.

"Good luck!"

"Hiss, pop -love you, Angela- hiss."

"Good -hiss- luck!"

The static overtook everything until Angela was weeping into silence. She stared up at the Intrepid, her helmet pressed against the stained glass. Angela watched it curve upwards and away until it disappeared beyond the edge of the window. She didn't realise how long she stood there pressed to the dirty window, or that she was still crying, until she felt Nac Tikmak stroking her hair with his claw. It was such a delicate touch. She turned and looked up at him. He had taken her helmet off and she hadn't even noticed.

"I'm sorry, I can't help it."

"You wanted to go with them," he said sadly. "Truthfully now, tell me."

She looked away. "Part of me did. I'm giving up home, people I know, my parents, everything. But at least now they will know that I'm alive, that I'm just somewhere else. It makes me feel better, it makes me feel content about it all. I'm glad I spoke to them. Thank you, Nack Tickmack."

Nac Tikmak took her hand. "Come, we must go. You have breathed this foul air enough. It will begin to fog your mind."

Angela took one last look at the window as she was led away. Once they were back in the corridor, Nac Tikmak picked her up and carried her back to the room with the Hexogenic Intensifier. He carried her under his arm as before, like a doll. By the time they got back to the device, Angela was indeed feeling groggy.

"You're right about this air," she told him as he sat her down and began to unclip her suit. "I feel very light-headed."

"The longer you stay here, the worse it will get."

Slowly and methodically, Nac Tikmak undressed her and sat her back in the open egg-shaped container. He gently put her legs and arms in the apertures, and as he was about to push her head down on the cup, she suddenly turned to him.

"Why do you love me, Nack?" she asked in a distant and detached voice.

He paused and gently stroked her short hair. "Because your mind is rich and beautiful. Because you excite me so much."

She looked back at him, her eyes unfocussed. He gently turned her head and pushed her down on the cup.

-o-

The twin suns were high in the sky. It was hot in the valley, but not too hot. Across the peaceful lake the city still lay, glinting in the light from the suns. On this side of the lake, a group of small and elegant four-footed creatures grazed on the grass by the shore, their hides a delicate brown. On top of a flat mound of rocks, the upper section of two of the egg-shaped containers around the hexagonal central piller of the Hexogenic Intensifier hissed and slowly opened.

Angela raised her head from the cup and blinked. She looked around, completely dazed. She felt the breeze on her face and suddenly sat up, pulling her hands from the appertures. She was instantly awake, instantly alert. Her head spun round, and she saw Nac Tikmak sitting up in the next container. He smiled at her. It was a beautiful smile, very pleasant and warm. Angela's eyes narrowed.

"Liar."

CHAPTER SEVEN

Nac Tikmak looked surprised and hurt. "Why this accusation? When have I said anything that was untrue?"

Angela waved her hand at the scene around them. "This is a lie!" she said in rising anger. "The whole thing! How could you do it to me? How could you think I wouldn't notice? Do you think I am that stupid?"

He now looked confused and even more hurt. "I don't understand. What have I done?"

Angela stood up in the container. "What have you done?" she repeated. "You've lied to me from the start! You made me think I was seeing my friends when all along that was a lie too!" She leaned forward and snarled her words at him. "And I was falling for it! The whole damn, glorious, stupid bloody thing! But then you got cocky, didn't you! It didn't work quite right so you went and changed it! How dare you! How dare you even think I wouldn't notice!"

Nac Tikmak had stood up in his container and now he climbed out of it and came towards her. He held out his hands, pleading for her to understand. "Angela, darling, tell me what's happened! I don't understand any of this!"

Angela put her hands on her hips. She was extremely angry now, and her expression showed her anger. She was red faced and trembling and the words came out in a torrent. "Oh, yes you do! I bet you thought it was fun! I bet the way I felt back at the hotel was all down to the same stupid manipulation! How I hate myself! How I hate you!"

"But I haven't done anything!"

He tried to hold her but she smacked his hands away. "Liar! You did it all! I hate you!"

"Angela! Please!"

"I hate everything about you!"

"Stop it!"

"I hate this place!"

"Stop it!"

"I hate being here!"

Nac Tikmak's expression turned to one of equal anger. "Enough!"

Everything went black.

Silence.

Darkness.

Cold.

Angela was conscious and aware, but completely cut off from everything. She didn't even have any thoughts, no fears, nothing. She felt aware of only one thing. She felt aware of, of....being totally alone. For some reason it was very calming. She should have felt scared, but she didn't. It was really strange. She could feel her arms and legs, knew that she could flex her fingers, but she had no sensation from the movements. And she couldn't see anything at all. It was as if someone had painted her eyeballs black. She was just drifting along in something or other, thinking about nothing very much. She couldn't even remember how she got here. Had she always been here?

Noise.

Lights.

Warmth.

Angela was sitting on a sofa in a large and sumptious room. There was a deep pale blue carpet, light pastel coloured walls, and furnishings in a light red wood. The many chairs and sofas had deep red cusioned seats, and in the middle of the room was an open fire with a canopy above it that took the smoke somewhere outside. And on the low tables and sideboards were statues and carvings that Angela recognised as being her own. The room was hers. Familiar, comfortable. In front of her on another sofa sat two people. She knew who they were instantly. Nac Tikmak and Lucy Crow-Bennett. They were locked in an embrace, kissing pasionately. Lucy was wearing a tight fitting and skimpy top in white with a short white skirt. The outfit showed off her ample curves and long tanned legs to perfection. On her feet she wore white, sling back heels. Nac Tikmak was wearing a loose white shirt that hung nearly open. The exposed part of his tanned and lean chest had a faint covering of blonde. On his legs was a loose fitting pair of trousers. On his feet were sandals. As they kissed, Nac Tikmak allowed his hands to wander over Lucy's body from shoulder to thigh.

They weren't a surprise. None of it was. But yet...

There was a 'ding' from the elevator and Nac Tikmak and Lucy broke from their embrace. They both looked towards the elevator and Angela followed their gaze. The doors had opened and Angela recognised the walnut shaped Humpty-Dumpty character that emerged. He seemed to waddle into the room with that all body rotating gait that all the Humpty-Dumpties had.

Nac Tikmak smiled. "Ah! Humbolt! You bring presents for our guest!"

Humbolt held up two large bags. "Yes, Captain. Big bags I bring, two for the Missy. All she needs are here in, or what she left out then thought to remember. Unpack shall I, or Missy to do?"

"I think we should let Angela do that. They are her things. Come, Lucy." He got up and helped Lucy to her feet, then he turned to Angela. "And maybe you would be happier if Humbolt answered your questions from now on. There would be," he paused, "less distractions. Yes." He had decided. He bowed. "We will leave you now. When you have rested, eaten, and are more relaxed, we will talk again. In the meantime, treat Humbolt as your personal aid, confident, guide and manservent. He will be happy to serve."

Lucy leaned forward and gave Angela a peck on the cheek. She even took Angela's hand and squeezed it comfortingly. "It'll be alright, Angela. Don't worry. It just takes a little getting used to, that's all."

With a final smile, Nac Tikmak and Lucy walked casually towards the elevator. They walked hand in hand. Angela watched the elevator doors close behind them. The last thing she saw was the smile on Lucy's face as she moved closer to Nac Tikmak. They must be very much in love, Angela thought.

Why did that thought hurt her?

Why did she feel that she was missing out on something?

Humbolt put down the bags and came forward. "Missy alright be?"

"Yes," Angela replied. "I think so. It's just that I keep feeling that I've forgotten something, that's all."

"Maybe I can help?"

Angela looked up at him, her eyes focussing on his big round face. There was a very calming innocence about that face. Angela couldn't envisage Humbolt or any of his race doing anything evil. It just wouldn't look right.

"Are you my friend, Humbolt?"

"Of course, Missy!" He sat down beside her, his whole body perched on the sofa with his two legs sticking straight out. It was both comical and endearing.

Angela sighed and turned to him on the sofa. She brushed her long hair out of the way and said, "What is this place?"

"Hotel Qualoon!" he said proudly. "Best in city!"

"No, I mean this place! Peleonika."

"Captain not tell you?"

"He must have done, but I seem to have forgotten. I remember being- " she thought for a moment, " -of being somewhere dark and peaceful. But I can't seem to remember anything that happened before that."

"Ah! Captain turn lights out!"

"Turn the lights out?" she repeated, puzzled.

"Yes, Captain do that sometimes. Shock to system it brings to clear head. If confused you be, lights out focus mind quickly."

She sat back on the sofa. "Explain."

Humbolt didn't hesitate. "Lights out best solution when confused or at risk you be. To allow to continue more at risk you may become. Best from beginning all fresh and new to restart. Take better path and try again. But too many times avoid lights out as limit there be and no return from one after."

Angela did a double take, shaking her head. "Say that again?"

"Lights out best solution when confused or at risk you be. To allow to continue more at risk you may become. Best from beginning all fresh and new to restart. Take better path and try again. But too many times avoid lights out as limit there be and no return from one after."

"I mean explain it better!" Angela said when he had finished.

"Lights out best solution when confused or at risk you be. To allow to continue more at risk you may become. Best from beginning all fresh and new to restart. Take better path and try again. But too many times avoid lights out as limit there be and no return from one after."

"Are you doing this on purpose?" she asked in exasperation.

"Best to choose other path if lights out wish to avoid."

Angela opened her mouth but then closed it again. Humbolt was staring at her with those big eyes of his, just waiting for her next question. Something about the way he had spoken suggested that pursuing this line would not be a good idea. She decided to try something else.

"How many times have I had the lights turned out?"

"Twice, Missy."

"Why?"

"Once for better result for Missy to make, and once to prevent damage to Missy when wrong path did you take."

"And the Captain did that each time."

"Yes, Missy."

"How did he do it?"

"He been here longest. That why Captain he be." Humbolt used his hands to turn himself more towards her. "You have nice spongy bits. Touch may I?"

He reached out to her breast and Angela slapped his hand.

"Humbolt!"

"Sorry, Missy. Fine specimen you are. Not like you before we have had. Not female either. Like you we do. Interested we are. Mind not please if too forward we are."

Angela now stared at him. He seemed chastised, humbled. But what he said caused various trains of thought. Something in her mind told her that it wouldn't be prudent to miss them.

"What about Lucy?"

"Lucy not count, not Missy she be."

"What do you mean?"

"Lucy be Lucy, not Captain or Missy. Transient her existance be. Once in elevator no longer she be."

Angela stared at him. "Lucy doesn't exist?"

"Lucy be Lucy, not Captain or Missy. Transient her existance be. Once in elevator no longer she be."

There it was again, like hitting a wall.

"Does the Captain control you?"

"No, Missy. But Captain is Captain, top of rank."

"Does he boss you?"

"Captain made to boss. He command, we obey. That is the purpose for we are. You too have this rank as Missy you be. Say and we do. Fetch and bring, carry and take. Ask, we tell."

The last words were spoken very firmly. Angela got the hint.

"What happened when he switched the lights out?"

"Existance stopped for you. Back in chamber you be. Restart from beginning you do. Not good for you, Missy, to be there often."

"The chamber?"

"Back at beginning where you came from."

A cold feeling overtook Angela. She asked Humbolt the next question without really looking at him. "If I was in the chamber before, where am I now?"

"You are in Hotel Qualoon on Peleonika," Humbolt said proudly. "Best in city!"

"And where is that exactly."

"Here. Now. Around."

"Where is here, now?"

"Hotel Qualoon on Peleonika," Humbolt said proudly. "Best in city!"

That was the end of that route. Angela tried another tack.

"If the lights went out for the Captain, would he also be in the chamber?"

"Yes, Missy. But if lights out for Nac Tikmak be, then Captain he not be."

"I thought Nac Tikmak was the Captain?"

"Only Captain as you are Missy. Captain is Captain and Missy is Missy. Only Captain turn out lights."

"Why do you call me Missy when my name is Angela?"

"Because Missy you are here, like Nac Tikmak be Captain. You begin to understand now?"

Angela ignored his question as the ice ball began to form around her heart. "And the Massen'Acra, the Captain's ship, is it outside the window, or is it outside the chamber?"

"I like you, Missy. Ask good questions you do. Not for long time had questions so good. Yes be the answer to question. Outside the window the ship seem to be, but outside the chamber the ship must be still, or inside none could be."

Angela now just stared at Humbolt, until the pause grew longer and longer. Humbolt waited, but when she still didn't speak he broke the silence.

"Missy not scared of us be?"

"Am I dead?"

Humbolt sounded deeply concerned. He put his hand on hers. "No, Missy. Not dead you be. Somewhere else is all. If not here or in chamber, dead you would be. But here have life, have breath, have chance. If chance you wish."

"What if I don't wish?"

"Then back to beginning you will be, but no more advanced will you become. Dark and dismal this choice would be. And no return for mind to change. Sad I would be, and empty this place be. Miss you I would. And Captain too."

"He wouldn't miss me," Angela scoffed. "He's got Lucy to play with."

"Lucy not Missy. Only transient she be. Alone now Captain is only with memories he be."

There was a pause while Angela thought about that.

"Who was here before I came?"

Humbolt removed his hand. "Only Captain be here, and very sad he be. Everywhere to travel and see he had been, but only with those whose existance be transient to share. Very worried for long time we be. But now you are here, and happy we are, if here you will stay."

"Who are you?"

Humbolt smiled. "Who can tell? But remember you must. Count can you, or inumerate you be? The answer is here and in memory it be. Look with your eyes did you but nothing to see? Or passed us by as uninteresting we be?"

Angela collapsed back on the sofa. "Why is everything you say in riddles?"

"Life be easy if path you take be already known. For adventure go blind and all things new find. What do you wish, Missy? An easy route where all is known, or an exciting one where every turn is surprise?"

"I'd like the easy route please!"

"Not Captain you be, so wish cannot grant, but surprises be fun as you will see."

The elevator 'dinged' and the doors slid open. Inside was revealed a glistening red creature with a long shaped head adorned with fins and horns at the top and back. It's eyes were set in the front of the head, and below them was a mouth full of long and curved teeth. The body was just as remarkable. Almost an upside down triangle, the top was wide and powerful while the lower part was small. Only the short but powerful looking legs gave the lower part of the creature any proportion. The huge arms almost allowed the creature to rest it's hands on the ground. It had enormous claws on both hands and feet, and as it sprang from the elevator and bounded towards her, it used it's front two hands every second step as it switched between all fours and running only on it's hind legs.

Angela jumped from the sofa screaming her head off. She ran around the room with the creature giving chase while Humbolt sat on the sofa unconcerned.

"Humbolt! Heeelp!"

CHAPTER EIGHT

Angela ran round and round the room with the creature giving chase. It kept snarling and snapping at her.

Humbolt got up from the sofa and walked casually to the elevator. Here he paused. "Remember, Captain be Captain, and Missy be Missy. Only Captain put lights out. Missy you be now, and Nac Tikmak be Captain. But not permanent these roles be."

As it ran passed him, the red creature paused in its pursuit of Angela and snarled viciously at Humbolt who quickly darted into the elevator. As soon as the doors had closed behind him the red creature resumed its pursuit, bounding over one of the sofas and catching Angela by surprise. She had continued to run around the room and now the creature ambushed her by one of the low tables and she screamed wildly as they tumbled to the floor in a heap.

Angela struggled and kicked, pushing up with both hands, trying to keep those gaping jaws full of teeth away from her head. The creature was lying on top of her, pinning her down, it's clawed front hands pawing at the carpet on either side of her in a frenzy. As she screamed, it howled and roared. And slowly, despite her efforts with both hands to keep the jaws away from her, they came closer and closer. She could feel it's hot breath, feel the weight of it's body on top of her, the hard shell of it's skin poking into her. She screamed louder. Then it suddenly grabbed her head with it's hands, raising her up, and she was nose to nose with it, staring into it's eyes.

Angela froze, her screams cut off.

The creature stopped howling and roaring and said in a deep and resonant voice, "Well, hello there, pretty one. Shall I eat you now? Or shall we chat first?"

Angela stared up at the creature in shock, her lungs bursting and her chest heaving. "Chat....I think....," she gasped.

A long red tongue appeared from the creature's mouth and it licked her face wetly and then the creature smacked it's lips. "Mmmm, pity. A nice and juicy one you are, a tasty morsal whose sweet flesh I could strip from your bones in one gulp." It licked her again. "Mmmm, yes...maybe chatting isn't so appropriate."

Angela closed her eyes, trying to turn her face away, but the creature still gripped her head in it's hands and she couldn't avoid the attentions of that long and wet tongue. She began to cry, her legs kicking again as she tried to push away it's enormous and frightening head. "Stop it!" she wailed. "Stop it! You're scaring me!"

"Scare you?" it repeated as if surprised. "Of course I scare you! I'm supposed to scare you! I'm going to eat you!"

"You can't eat me!"

"Oh yes I can!"

"No, you can't!" she insisted through her tears. "I'm not really here! I'm still in the chamber! You can't eat me!"

The creature pushed it's head forward until it pressed against her forehead, pinning her head to the floor. "If I eat you here, you will feel it even if you are in the chamber!" it said menacingly. "You will feel each bite, each piece of your flesh torn away, until the pain overcomes you and you die here! Then you will be in the chamber!"

"Is that when the lights go out?"

"Yes!"

"No!" Angela suddenly poked it in the eye with her finger.

The creature howled and sat up, clutching at it's wounded eye. Blood spilled down it's face. Blue blood. "You wicked thing!" it roared. "You've maimed me!"

Angela tried to sit up. "Serves you right, you bully!"

With a sudden snarl the creature lunged at her with it's mouth gaping and bit her. Angela fell back on the floor, blood splashing her face. She closed her eyes and just lay there with her arms flung out, breathing hard. There was a deep wound in her chest and blood spilled out on to the floor. It began to stain the carpet.

The red creature sat up and took it's hand from it's eye, revealing a punctured socket. "Now look what you made me do!" it said almost apologetically. "Now you will die and it serves you right!"

"I'm not going to die," Angela muttered weakly. "And the lights aren't going to go out."

"The lights will go out!"

Angela opened her eyes. "They will not!" she insisted.

The creature reached out with one of it's clawed hands but Angela grabbed it at the wrist. There was a trial of strength, and for a moment it seemed that the creature would win, but then Angela began to push it back, holding it in a vice like grip until the creature howled in anguish.

Angela smiled in triumph. "Learn quickly, don't I? Not so easy now, is it, Nack Tickmack? Yes, I know it's you! Has to be you! I should have known as soon as I saw you by the lake! Yes! I remember that too! You scared me then, so you thought you'd try another tack! It nearly worked, too! But then you cocked it up! So back comes the bad ass to scare me into line! But that's not going to work either! And this time the lights aren't going to go out!"

Nac Tikmak tried to wrench his hand free, but couldn't. "You think you are strong, that you can defeat me and become Captain! But you are wrong! Soon your strength will fail! The wound is deep, your blood seeps away, and you grow weaker and weaker! Soon I will turn you off, and your memory will fade!"

As he made each point it seemed that Angela's strength did ebb. But then she suddenly sat up and her strength returned.

"You haven't hurt me!" she exclaimed. "This means nothing!" She smacked her own chest with her free hand, and instantly the wound vanished. "Everything here is false, transient! Like Lucy! Like Humbolt! Like all the other inhabitants! They're just scenery! You can't hurt me! And I can't hurt you! So don't sit there with a bleeding eye and hope for my pity!"

Nac Tikmak's eye reformed even as he spoke. "I have been here a thousand years! Your challenge is feeble! I will cast you aside and lock you in the dark!"

Angela smiled and then laughed. "A thousand years means nothing to me! I come from Earth! I know how to play this game! Have you ever seen Terminator II?" She pointed her finger at him and it suddenly grew out into a long spike that impaled him.

Nac Tikmak howled and fell onto his side, blue blood spurting from the hole in his chest.

Angela withdrew her finger and stared at her hand. "Amazing. I should have known. Should have known from the start. It's not a cryogenic chamber, or a transporter. It's a game machine. A game machine that feeds you and looks after you for year after year while you build up a big score." She turned to him again. "And you've got a big score, haven't you, Nac Tikmak? A really big score."

Nac Tikmak climbed to his knees. "Enough!" he bellowed.

"No!" she screamed back.

The world shook and the light dimmed and grew bright again. A gentle earthquake. A mere tremour.

Nac Tikmak looked around in fright while Angela stared directly at him in triumph.

"Now who's in charge here? Now who's Captain?"

Nac Tikmak sprang from the floor, all trace of his wound disappearing. He pounced on her, but this time Angela's whole hand shot out in a long blade and punched through his body. He howled and fell back. Now his blood stained the carpet.

Angela leaned over him. "Hurts does it? Getting weaker, are you? Maybe it's time the lights went out for you?"

Nac Tikmak made a fist with his hand. "Enough!" he bellowed again.

"No!" Angela screamed back once more.

The world shook much more violently and the light dimmed and grew bright several times before becoming stable. Statues fell from the tables and the windows rattled.

Angela stared at Nac Tikmak, and suddenly it was Nac Tikmak, the same young man with fair hair and very soulful blue eyes she had seen before. He was wearing the same clothes, his white shirt hanging open, his tanned and lean chest now splattered in blood, red blood. More blood ran from the tear in his skin. He lay back on the floor, breathing hard. He looked tired, tired and sad.

"You have defeated me," he gasped. "Are you satisfied, Angela? Is your victory so proud? I brought you here, saved you from death. And in return you have stolen my world from me and ousted me from its control. Is this your gratitude?"

Angela shook her head at him. "Don't try for my sympathy! It won't work! You lied to me! You cheated me!"

He propped himself up on one hand. "I tried to make you happy! You wanted to see your friends again! I helped you do that! Was that so wicked?"

Angela felt the pangs of remorse. "You scared me!"

"Only so that I could come to your rescue, but you needed no rescue. I underestimated your strength and intelligence, the very reasons why I wanted to bring you here in the first place. They have undone me." He fell back once more. "I feel so tired."

Angela knelt on the floor next to him. "Oh, pig!" she exclaimed. "This is all your fault! You knew the red monster scared me! Why did you try it again?"

"Because I am the red monster. You asked how I really appeared. In your world it was one shape, in this another, as you see me now. But my true form, my real form, is as the creature you saw. If you fear the red creature, then you fear me, and we could never be together."

Angela watched him breathing hard. He seemed so tired, so weak. He had got everything wrong and she had punished him for it. It made her feel rotten. She leaned closer to him and stroked his face.

"Oh, Nack, why didn't you just come clean and tell me everything? I would have understood."

His eyes brightened. "Yes, and then you would have taken over!"

Before she knew it his finger was in her midriff and it suddnly burst out of her back. Angela screamed in pain and fell over, blood spitting from her mouth.

Nac Tikmak rolled over and sprang upon her. "I learn quickly too!" he snarled and stabbed down at her with three claws that sprouted from his fingers. Angela screamed in more pain, her body arching beneath him. "This time the lights will go out!" He made a fist. "Enough of this!"

The light began to dim for Angela, but then she lunged up with her hand and a long blade shot up and smacked into Nac Tikmak's head under his chin. The blade smashed out of the top of his skull in a splatter of bone, blood and brain tissue. Instantly the light grew bright again.

Angela spat blood and Nac Tikmak's head began to reform. Angela didn't wait for it to finish. She lunged at him again.

"Enough of you! This time it's over! This time you're history!"

He stabbed down at her with his claws. "I will not be beaten! Enough!"

"No!"

As they stabbed and lunged at one another, each commanding the other to be no more, the world began to shake. It was a real earthquake this time, one that was accompanied by a dull roar. One by one the windows rattled and then began to smash, and outside the buildings began to sway. The floor beneath them began to shake violently and paintings fell off the wall and light fittings fell from the ceiling with a crash. And through it all they struck and stabbed at one another, causing the light to dim and grow bright again.

The elevator 'dinged' and Humbolt staggered out on the heaving floor. He ran towards them, weaving back and forth as ceiling tiles fell on his head and statues and other ornaments got under his feet. Twice he fell over, once on one of the sofas and once on the floor. Finally he reached them.

"Stop! Desist!" he called out, waving his arms at them. "Everything ruin you do! Stop!"

They ignored him, stabbing and poking each other with grotesquely mutated limbs, causing horrendous wounds that instantly healed.

Humbolt jumped up and down. "Stop say I! Now you must! Warn not again I will!"

They ignored him.

Humbolt visibly slumped. And with a slicing motion with his hand he shouted, "Suspend!"

The world froze, a statute pausing in mid shatter.

There was sudden silence and stillness.

Humbolt stepped slowly forward and stood over the two grotesquely misshapen and angry forms. He shook his head, his whole body turning at the same time.

"Make mess you do. Ruin everything you have. Too selfish you be. Not right either of you to Captain be. Now to Humbolt the task must be given. Chastise you I will and no further chance will I give. Back to beginning you must go. Prove yourself worthy or in the dark you will stay. Be gone!"

Silence.

Darkness.

Cold.

Angela was conscious and aware, but completely cut off from everything. She didn't even have any thoughts, no fears, nothing. She felt aware of only one thing. She felt aware of, of....being totally alone. For some reason it was very calming. She should have felt scared, but she didn't. It was really strange. She could feel her arms and legs, knew that she could flex her fingers, but she had no sensation from the movements. And she couldn't see anything at all. It was as if someone had painted her eyeballs black. She was just drifting along in something or other, thinking about nothing very much. She couldn't even remember how she got here. Had she always been here?

Noise.

Lights.

Warmth.

Angela was sitting on a sofa in a large and sumptious room. There was a deep pale blue carpet, light pastel coloured walls, and furnishings in a light red wood. The many chairs and sofas had deep red cusioned seats, and in the middle of the room was an open fire with a canopy above it that took the smoke somewhere outside. And on the low tables and sideboards were statues and carvings that Angela recognised as being her own. The room was hers. Familiar, comfortable. In front of her on another sofa sat a young woman. She was very familiar. Very very familiar.

Angela stood up and instantly felt the change. She grabbed her chest and looked down. It was the winning stick body!

No it wasn't.

In shock and dismay Angela realised that she was wearing different clothes, different clothes that someone else should have been wearing. She worriedly pulled at the waist band of her trousers and rumaged inside. She pulled her hand out very quickly.

"Oh, Jesus!" she exclaimed. "I'm a man!"

Humbolt appeared from behind her. He was smiling brightly. "Hello, Captain! Take journey today? Or play with Missy? Say word and arrange will I!"

Angela just stared at him with saucer like eyes, her mouth -his mouth- hanging open.

The familiar woman, Nac Tikmak, Angela, Missy, nodded sadly and said with understanding, "Now you're Captain."

CHAPTER NINE

Angela, Nac Tikmak, the man, looked from one face to the other. Her face, Humbolt's face. One sad and dismayed, the other bright and smiling. Her knees, his knees, gave way and she sank back onto the sofa.

"Oh no!" she wailed in an unfamiliar voice. "No! I can't! I won't! I give up! I give in! Put me back in the box! Switch me off!"

As she spoke, Angela, Nac Tikmak, the man, slowly drew herself up into a ball and slid off the sofa onto the floor. Nac Tikmak, Angela, the woman, hurriedly went to her and tried to pull her up. Angela just squeezed herself into a tighter ball and wailed louder.

"I've had enough! Switch me off! I want the dark! I want to go home! I want to die!"

Nac Tikmak, Angela, the woman, looked up at the very surprised Humbolt. "You've gone too far this time! You'll have to reverse it!"

Humbolt stared down at the compressed human ball, his whole Humpty-Dumpty body leaning over her, him. The ball wailed and sobbed but the words, if there were any, were now indistinct and muffled. He straightened up and looked at Nac Tikmak.

"Cope you can with change, Missy, why not Captain?"

The woman waved her hands in exasperation. "Because she isn't used to all this! Can't you see that?"

"Caused havoc she did for one not prepared I see! Peleonika almost broke with knives poking and bits chopping! Deposed you she would have or purged program and what then result? To Captain she wished and Captain she be! Why now protest?"

Nac Tikmak, Angela, the woman, put her hands on her hips. "She's going to be catatonic in a minute!"

"But she be Captain now!"

"She doesn't want to be Captain if it means she has to be me!"

"What difference be body in Peleonika?"

"All the difference if you're a woman and then you're suddenly a man!"

"Man, wo-man no difference between be. If comfortable corporal suit be red monster or alien android, then why gender change cause such fit?"

"There's a big difference! I'm always male, whatever I become! And I've been doing this for thousands of years! She's only been here a day!"

"But good player she be."

"Humbolt!"

The Peleonikian swayed, wrung his hands and finally nodded his whole body. "Humbolt submits. Your request I grant, though in appropriate it be. Back to beginning both you will go. But if fighting you emerge, then lights out permanent will be!"

"I'll explain it to her! But we need our memories! If she can't remember she'll make all the same mistakes! And give her her own body this time!"

"Too much you ask!"

The woman leaned closer to Humbolt. "Then lights out will be permanent and alone will you be! For ever!"

Humbolt obviously didn't like that idea. He nodded his body again. "This day very unusual! Glad I will be when over it be and memory quickly forgot! Bad mistake bring female with spongy bits. Peleonika she shake and Hotel Qualoon nearly fall down!"

"Humbolt!"

"Yes! Yes! Be gone!"

-o-

The twin suns were high in the sky. It was hot in the valley, but not too hot. Across the peaceful lake a city lay, glinting in the light from the suns. On this side of the lake, a group of small and elegant four-footed creatures grazed on the grass by the shore, their hides a delicate brown. On top of a flat mound of rocks, the upper section of two of the egg-shaped containers around the hexagonal central piller of the Hexogenic Intensifier hissed and slowly opened.

Angela raised her head from the cup and blinked. She looked around, completely dazed. She felt the breeze on her face and suddenly sat up, pulling her hands from the appertures. She was instantly awake, instantly alert. She grabbed herself all over, feeling every inch in rising joy.

"It's me!" she exclaimed tearfully. "It's really me! My stick body! How I've missed you!"

She stood up in the container, kissing her arms, hugging herself, and checking each leg as she stepped out of the container. There was a noise nearby, a familiar noise. Her head spun round and she saw Nac Tikmak sitting up in the next container. He instantly held out a hand to her.

"Truce?"

"Give me one good reason?" Angela said stubbornly.

"I asked Humbolt to give you back your own body. And I'm in the same boat as you are. We're both on probation."

"That's two reasons."

"Can I get out without being speared?"

"So long as you don't turn into a red monster."

"No red monsters, no tricks. I'm not Captain, and you aren't Missy. Not anymore."

Angela watched Nac Tikmak climb out of the container. As soon as he was out and turned to face her she stepped up to him. He was now a lot taller than her, but she didn't care. She had her stick winning body back and she had a bone to piick with him. Prodding him in the chest with her finger, she gave him both barrels.

"This was all your fault! You should have told me what you were up to on the derelict! You should have told me when we were together in my room in the Hotel! You lied to me! From the beginning, in the middle, and at the end! You never stopped lying to me! You tried to sedduce me! You wanted to make me into your little sex object! Missy with the spongy bits! But I was smarter than you thought! You didn't get away with it, did you? But you fought hard! You wanted to stick me back in the dark, wipe my memory clean and start again! It serves you right that you're not Captain! I hope Humbolt sinks your ship!"

As she told him off, poking him in the chest with her finger, Nac Tikmak backed away. She just followed him around the Hexogenic Intensifier, poking him until he finally tripped over one of the containers and fell over. He banged his head, and while he lay on the ground rubbing it, she stood over him.

"Did that hurt?"

"Yes."

"Good."

There was a brief pause. Nac Tikmak dragged himself up so that he was sitting on the ground with his back against one of the open containers. He sighed and finally spoke.

"You're absolutely right. In everything. And it is all my fault. I've been here too long. I've been used to this, to getting my own way, for a thousand years. A thousand years of just me. Humbolt has had it far worse. You are the first woman in Peleonika. Humbolt didn't understand the difference. And I was too besotted with you and then too angry with you. I made a mess of things. I'm sorry."

Angela folded her arms. It was so good to be able to do that again without anything being in the way. She looked at him sitting there. He looked quite sad, and very appealing. But he always looked that way, just as she wanted him to look. But she wasn't going to weaken. She wasn't going to let him off so lightly.

"You could have had Lucy," she taunted him.

He nodded. "Yes. But I have had Lucy, or someone like her, many times. There is a limitation to the program and the database. There are, or were, very few records of women. You and Lucy have more than quadroupled that number."

"But Lucy isn't here."

"She is in your mind. As are other women you have met and known. All those memories are absorbed into the program."

Angela sat down on the ground next to him. She beckoned to him with her fingers. "Come on, out with it. Explain."

He nodded. "Yes. You should know." He raised his arms and indicated the scenes around them. "This, all this, as you must know, is unreal. We are still aboard the Massen'Acra, all of us, in our chambers. You, me, and Humbolt."

Angela's eyes took on a far away look. "The third chamber. Of course. What was it he said? Yes...remember you must. Count can you, or inumerate you be? The answer is here and in memory it be. Look with your eyes did you but nothing to see? Or passed us by as uninteresting we be?"

Nac Tikmak smiled at her. It was a beautiful smile, very pleasant and warm. "Humbolt has a way with riddles. He's been here a long time."

"How long?"

"Since the beginning. The very beginning. He was the original Captain of the Massen'Acra. It was his ship. This was his world."

Angela's eyes widened. "That's a long time to be stuck in a game."

He smiled again. "It's not a game. The Massen'Acra left Peleonika nearly one hundred and fifty thousand years ago. She was on a fact finding tour. A research ship packed with scientists and sophisticated equipment. They expected to be away for a long time, and they were right. They spent years gathering information, years out of contact with home. But they had foreseen the loneliness this prolonged absence from home would bring. And to counter it they had brought the Hexogenic Intensifier.

"Not a game the way you think, but similar. The Intensifier is a link, a window or portal in and out of the ship's database. They stored everything about Peleonika in the database before they left, and any time a crewman felt lonely all he had to do was climb in a container and he would be home. Home with his family and friends. But the Intensifier had another purpose. Everything they discovered on their travels went into the database. And through the Intensifier, each world they visited, each new civilisation and alien race they found, all were accessable."

Angela was listening to him in awe, her previous anger all forgotten. Now at last she spoke. "It's like a hologram, no, more like virtual reality. And because you're encased in the container you get an all-body stimulation."

"Yes. You feel the heat on your skin when the sun shines, you see the sun and the brightness causes your eyes to squint. These sensations are real. Your body actually feels them. When you run, your muscles are exercised, they spasm and thrust, they are fatigued, your lungs bursting, your heart pumping. You live in the container. It feeds you and supports you. All the sensations, pain, ecstasy, it's all real. Real but artificial. If I touch you, we both see and feel the touch. But we are in separate containers."

Angela suddenly interrupted him with a question. "Why is Humbolt still here? What happened?"

He nodded. "They went home, excited with their success, the database filled with a galaxy of worlds and civilisations. But they came home to disaster. An asteroid hit had left Peleonika cracked, the magma spilling from it's core. It's atmosphere was gone, all life extinguished."

Angela put a hand to her mouth in genuine anguish. "Oh, God!"

"Many of the crew took to the lifeboats and went down to their world. They died before even reaching the surface. Others stayed on the Massen'Acra, clinging to their memories and loved ones through the Intensifier. But there were only so many containers. There had to be another solution. Humbolt persuaded many of the crew to disembark on planets they had visited, until one by one they slowly dwindled and only he remained. Then one day he was the last. He set the ship on auto-pilot, climbed into one of the containers, and never came out."

Angela looked at the scene around her, at the lake and the distant city. It was all so beautiful. There were tears in her eyes. "It's so sad," she whispered. "All this gone. And it's so peaceful here." She turned to him again. "How did you get here?"

"Like you. Curiosity. A lone derelict ship floating by. We had to look. We didn't know about the auxilary power coupling, the gizmo to you. Apparently the Massen'Acra's power cells aren't endless, and while he is in the Intensifier, Humbolt is fed with the ship's telemetry. At some point he began to shut down the redundant systems throughout the ship, even life support."

"Wasn't that dangerous?"

"It didn't matter: Humbolt was waiting to die. There was only so much he could do in the Intensifier, and for a hundred thousand years drifting between steller systems he did absoultely everything. He dreamed his life away, not even aware of it's passing. Then came the first visitor. Instantly their ship docked he was fed with the information. Imagine his joy. People! Real people! But too late he realised that he was trapped. He had spent too long in the Intensifier. He was still alive, his body still working, but he couldn't leave. If the container had opened the shock to his system would have killed him. And even if it didn't he would have had little strength. He was a hundred thousand years old. Before he knew it, the visitors had searched and stripped the ship, and left. They never even noticed him."

"That's even more horrible," Angela exclaimed. "After all that time, to be so close, and then...nothing. Oh, poor Humbolt!"

"Yes, poor Humbolt. But if visitors came once, they would come again. Next time he would be prepared. He activated the auxilary power coupling and went back to his dreams. Another ocean of blackness passed, another star and it's flock of planets beckoned. As before, visitors came. But this time they couldn't leave. This time they had to look into the ship's systems, searching for the reason for their capture. Like you, they found the Intensifier, but also like you their need to escape meant that they left it unexamined. Soon they had analysed the ships surviving power systems and identified the coupling. Within a short time they had left as before, with Humbolt still in the Intensifier. But this time they left someone behind."

"The first body," Angela guessed.

Nac Tikmak nodded. "Humbolt didn't care about the death. His whole world had gone. It had been a long time before, but he still regularly trod the same city streets of his past, seeing the ones he loved alive and well. It hurt him so."

"He should have stopped going there!" Angela interrupted. "It does no good! It just keeps the wounds open!"

"Yes. But he couldn't help himself. It was there, how could he deny it? Even when it happened again, even when a second body lay at the door of the engine room, he didn't care."

"He could have switched the gun off! He didn't have to kill them!"

"If the laser cannon was deactivated anyone could have gone into the engine room and tampered with the power cells that were feeding the Intensifier. That Humbolt couldn't allow. The laser and the time constraints forced the visitors to focus on the power coupling and their need for escape."

"I thought he wanted to die?"

"They were people. He wanted to be with them, to be with people again."

"He was killing them!"

"They were plundering his ship, stripping it of everything valuable, tearing and cutting everything out and hauling it away."

Angela suddenly felt very self-conscious. "Yes, well, he should have tried to contact them, talk to them, not kill them."

"He couldn't. So much of the ship's systems had been removed that there was no way to contact the outside world from within the Intensifier. He was trapped, bitter, angry, but he knew that at some point, his plan would work, and finally, it did."

"You."

He nodded. "I evaded the laser but couldn't reach my ship. It was docked further away than yours, the distance too great. I was left behind. The containers were the only option once my air supply began to fail. Like you I had thought the Intensifier was merely a cryogenic chamber for long journeys. Once I entered, I knew the truth. I met Humbolt. He was delirious with joy. There was someone else to share his micro-universe with, someone else he could talk with and not receive the same programmed reply. A real person, a real mind. He showed me everything.

"I have seen things that are beyond dreams. Worlds of unimaginable beauty, great civilisations, technology that would compare with the very Gods, and creatures of such magnitude and myth. And the people, oh, the people. Such intelligence, such power and arrogance, such humility and benevolence. I have met them all. Women to cry for, men to follow to the ends of the earth on any glorious quest. The database is a joy, a magnificent, tremendous, glorious magnitude of worlds, people and creatures. To try to describe it is to insult it."

He was in a reverie, his description conjuring up such a plethora of worlds and images. Angela's heart cried out to see them all. It was her greatest dream. All those people. Her heart ached. There was the sound of a distant motor. She turned and looked out at the lake. Humbolt was approaching in his James Bond motor launch. He would be here soon. She turned back to Nac Tikmak.

"Why me?" she blurted out.

He smiled. "A thousand years is a long time. And I am not Humbolt. For a time I wallowed in the fantastic array of female company available to me. But I soon came to learn and almost expect the programmed replies. Fantasies are not people, they cannot love you back. When you came, my panic and haste to bring you here almost killed you."

"But why me?" she pressed. "Why not Lucy?"

"I hardly spoke with Lucy, and the differences in your bodies meant nothing to me. Here you can be Lucy. Here, anything is possible."

The sound of a motor revving and then cutting out signalled the arrival of Humbolt. Angela turned and watched him jump down from the boat and wade ashore. Another Humpty-Dumpty figure remained on the boat, waiting. Angela and Nac Tikmak both got to their feet and waited for Humbolt. Even before he reached them, they could both see that he wasn't happy. In fact he looked quite cross when he finally stood before them.

"Tell truth to Missy."

"Call her Angela."

Humbolt bowed, his whole body tilting forward. Straightening up he said, "Angela deserve truth."

Angela turned from him to Nac Tikmak, a look of dismay and sadness on her face. "Have you lied to me again?"

Nac Tikmak raised his hand and held his thumb and forfinger close together. "Just a tiny lie," he admitted.

Humbolt moved closer to Angela and bowed. "To introduce myself allow me," he said straightening up again. I am Humbolt, the Hexogenic User Multilingual Bionetwork On Line Tutor. Guide for you I am, ask and I will tell, choose destination and go there we can."

Angela stared at him as if she didn't understand. It was a very heavy penny that dropped through her mind like a boulder through tissue paper. "H-U-M-B-O-L-T." She could hardly talk, she just mumbled the words. "You're a computer wizard, a help icon. Oh, God..."

Humbolt seemed pleased by her description of him. His cross expression disappeared and he was his usual beaming, bright-eyed self again. He just waffled on as if it all didn't matter.

"Alien android first to come adapt to the Intensifier well did not. Confused and angry he be, more than you. Too often experienced lights out and returned to the beginning did he. Once too many he made the trip, despite many warnings, not to return in the end did he. Unfortunate for him it be, but demise provided unexpected options."

Angela's eyes widened. She pointed at Nac Tikmak. "But how did you- "

"I borrowed his body," he replied quickly, interrupting her. "He was alive and perfectly fit, but his mind had gone. It couldn't face this environment. I don't know why. It took several years to happen, and it hurt me greatly. He was the first real person I had known for a very long time, and he just slipped away. I had the same problem in reverse. My mind is fine, but my body is a weak shadow of what it once was. So when you came along I borrowed his. For just a while. We're here now, having this talk, because I feared you were going the same way as him."

"But then, you're- "

He interrupted her again. "Yes. It was the one thing I have told you that was always the truth." He bowed before her. "I am Nac Tikmak, Captain of the Massen'Acra."

-o-

Luigi hated zero gravity. Nothing stayed were you put it. At home, in his large study, his desk and every shelf and work surface was littered with open books and scraps of paper with texts in different languages and scripts scrawled all over them. To him it was all beautifully organised so that he could cross reference every example of the text he was working on in all available languages and scripts. To anyone else it was just a mess. It was how he liked to work, how his brain worked. Here it was impossible. Everything floated away the moment he let go of it. He was forever loosing pens. Like now. He opened his locker and rumaged inside. His movements dislodged other things that instantly floated out in their attempts to escape. Books, papers, a stapler he had smuggled aboard, they all floated out. He grabbed at them all, pushing them back inside. A pen was among them. He grabbed it and then slammed the door on the rest. There was a crunch.

A shard of darkly stained glass drifted by. Luigi opened the door a touch and glanced inside.

"Damn," he whispered. He felt a breeze of air as someone came into the room behind him. He turned and saw a very familiar and shapely form glide in.

"What have you done now," Lucy said, handing him back an alien book that had escaped him.

Luigi sighed and snatched a roll of tape from nearby. "I broke something," he said as he used a length of tape to snag the broken glass.

Lucy stared closely at the glass. "Funny book."

"Not a book, this." He opened the door of his locker. Lucy saw the picture inside. The picture of the funny squat alien in front of the derlict. It was a bit clearer now that the stained glass was broken and had fell away. Luigi continued to catch each piece of broken glass on the tape. He kept pulling the tape out longer all the time, snagging piece after piece.

Lucy took the picture in her hands. "Carl's got a little vacuum cleaner for this kind of job," she told him without really thinking.

"I know. But I would have to tell him of my ineptitude to get it."

"Oh, glory!" Lucy suddenly exclaimed.

Luigi looked up. Lucy had taken the picture out of the frame and was now looking at the back. There was something written on it. Luigi instantly dropped his roll of tape with it's glinting long tail and snatched at the picture. He stared at the writing on the back. He couldn't believe it. It was unreal. Impossible. But it was there.

"Madre mia..."

-o-

Angela sat in the jungle surrounded by the children. They were all so tiny, with delicate features surmounted by big eyes. They had pale olive skin, and most of them wore only loin cloths. Some wore nothing at all. They were all well fed, well behaved, and as curious as hell. They were in a clearing, and in the distance the village with it's many huts and olive skinned people moving around could be seen. It was hot and sweat beaded on her brow. She held up the picture and pointed at the ship.

"What's this?"

"Massen'Acra!" all the children shouted in chorus.

She pointed at the funny figure. "And who's this?"

"Humbolt!"

Angela put down the picture and grabbed one of the children. "Very good!"

In a sudden scramble they all pounced on her, knocking her over until she was buried beneath them. They laughed and screamed, and she laughed and tickled any tiny body she could reach. Then someone came and spoiled it all.

One of the elders, tall and statuesque, stood above them leaning on his staff. He clapped his hands. His voice was deep and commanding.

"School finished today! Home with you!"

There were more shouts, mainly of desent. The elder delt with their stubbornness with gentle taps on delicate bottoms with his staff. Finally he had chased them all away. Angela looked up at him and squinted in the sun.

"How is it you keep such good time, Biolo?"

"The sun is easy to read if you take the time to learn how."

"You could be late for once."

"You are too soft, Missy Angela. The children will take advantage of you. They play far more than they learn. But there is reason today for my promptness." He reached down and pulled her to her feet. "Your husband returns."

Angela smiled. "Is he well?"

"He is unharmed."

She brushed herself off. "Show me."

Biolo led her through the trees. He skirted the village and went around to the far side. It soon became clear that the village was built on the very edge of the jungle. It hid between the trees but peeped out at the open plain that stretched out to a distant but wide river. On the plain between the river and the jungle village a large disc shaped spacecraft sat on it's undercarriage. But this wasn't where they were going. At the edge of the village several large four-footed animals stood. They had saddles and bridals, and one had a large pack. Beside the animals were several villagers. There was also someone else.

Angela smiled broadly and ran the last few yards. "Nack!"

Nac Tikmak turned and came forward to greet her. He smiled and grabbed her as Angela threw herself into his arms. They kissed and hugged, and Nac swung her around. "I missed you," he said as soon as they came up for air.

"And I missed you, too!"

Nac Tikmak laughed. "Oh, no you didn't! I bet you've been playing with the village children all day!" he turned and called over her shoulder. "Isn't that so, Biolo?"

Biolo came to lean on his staff next to them. "She calls it school but only laughter does she teach them. She is a child among smaller children."

"I thought so!" Nac Tikmak pulled her hair and tickled her ribs. Angela twisted out of his grasp.

"I have been teaching them!" she protested, backing away from him as he tried to grab her again. "They already know almost as many words as Biolo."

Biolo shook his head and walked slowly away. All the other villagers followed him, leading the animals along with them. In a few seconds they were alone.

Nac Tikmak finally caught Angela and they fell on the ground. He knelt across her, pinning her down, and grabbed her nose.

"Next time, you go on the long trek and I'll stay in the village!"

"Alright! Alright! I give in!"

He released her and then kissed her. When he sat up and was about to get off her, he suddenly noticed something sticking out of the pocket of her safari jacket. He snatched it. "What's this?"

Angela lay back on the ground looking up at him, marvelling at the way the sun had bleached his hair even more blonde. He looked so well, so beautiful. "It's the picture Humbolt gave me of the ship on Peleonika before we left," she told him.

Nac Tikmak remained kneeling across her. He seemed comfortable there. "Trust him to stand in front of it."

"I know! I'm going to frame it."

"Frame it?"

"Yes. I'm going to frame it and hang it on the wall in our cabin on the Massen'Acra."

"Why?"

She shrugged. "No reason."

He turned the picture over and laughed. In bold writing it said:

SURPRISE! I'M ALIVE AND WELL AND ENJOING EVERY MINUTE! IT WASN'T A CRYOGENIC CHAMBER AT ALL, BUT A GATEWAY TO NEW WORLDS! I ABSOLUTELY LOVE IT HERE AND NAC IS A GREAT LOVER! SEE YOU!

ANGIE BABE


 

The End (Or is it?)

Copyright © D. G. Richards 2002

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