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A Trip To The Moon - Part 1

3-4 December 1966

Part One

       A particularly biting chill pervaded the air this cold December morning. Deathly stillness lay over the land like a ghostly blanket. Through the clouds that mottled the ebony sky, the waning moon cast its cold radiance upon the scene, lending to the unreal atmosphere of the night. The diamond stars, when not engaged in a frivolous game of hide and seek with the gray clouds, seemed to shiver in the icy breath of nature.

       Into this frigid tableau I thrust myself, a lone figure disrupting the frozen serenity of the morning, an intruder bringing warmth to be snatched away by the frosty fingers of the wind. Slowly, I scanned the celestial sable, watching for… a sign. As I directed my gaze toward Orion, Betelgeuse flashed, and vanished. In seconds a widening circle of obscuration signaled the arrival of my Korendian friends, and the beginning of another wonderful experience with these riders of the stars.

       Behind the huge black form, I thought that I recognized a ship that I had ridden several times before. Each time I was aboard, I was filled anew with its diverse wonders. From the edge of the disk, a flash of light darted earthward, settling a few feet in front of me. Its polished glass-like dome lifted open silently, and I was aboard in seconds.

       The dome whirred closed above me, and as I strapped myself into the seat, a familiar velvet voice purred through the communicator, "Good morning, Bob. Astra here, waiting for you." Before the sweet music of her words faded away, I replied, "I'll bet you are, too. Be there before you can say floccipaucinihilipilification." I eased the tiny ship upward and headed for the opening in the hull of that monstrous form hovering a mile above me.

       Within a minute, I was aboard ship, and the first of many surprises came. This was a totally unfamiliar ship, larger than the other that I mentioned. It appeared to be mere days old. Everything had a sparkle to it. So wrapped up in this mechanical beauty was I that I failed to notice the entry of the loveliest of all. Only when she placed her soft hands over my eyes and whispered, "Guess who?" did I realize her presence. "No need to guess, "I said. "It’s Wanda the witch."

       She folded her arms and pursed her lips slightly. "You're MEAN!" Assuming an expression of abject contrition, I clapped my hand over my heart and in my most sorrowful voice, I confessed, "It’s true. I’m so terrible that it hurts even me."
       "As it certainly should. Wanda the witch, indeed," she pouted.
       "Would you believe Mary Poppins?" I asked.
       "I don't think so." She turned her back to me. "Terrible!"
       "I concede. Mercy, your highness, for this poor peasant."
       "I’ll consider it, serf."
       "Oh thank you, gracious lady."

       Turning to face me again, she flashed a bright smile, than abruptly assumed a very studious attitude. "Young man, "she said, "I should like your assistance in a most interesting scientific experiment. Being a game sort, I nodded affirmatively. "Come here then, in front of me, please. Now remember, this is purely in the interest of science." Before I fully realized what was happening, she slipped her arms about my neck and kissed my cheek. For a moment I was stunned, speechless, not knowing what to do. That passed quickly, however, and murmuring, "Interest of science," I returned the embrace.

       A long, delicious moment passed, an instant of springtime in the autumn skies. Invisible choruses sang softly in my head, a rhapsodic refrain from the very melodies of the angels. I was a million miles high, flying like a bird among the stars, wanting never to come down. Alas, such bliss must always have an end, and I forced myself to drift back to reality. We paused, looking into each other’s eyes, saying nothing. There was nothing to say.

       Astra broke the stillness. "Isn't science wonderful?" she asked softly. "I never knew," I agreed, "just HOW delightful science really is." Orii-Val’s voice interrupted our rapport.

       "We're ready to leave if you two romanticists will join us."
       "You shouldn't have been listening, "Astra chided.
       "I tried not to, believe me I did."
       "You have no will power, Orii-Val."
       "I'm not laughing. Isn't THAT proof enough that I do?"
       "You're mean, TOO! You men are all alike."

       "Aw," I sulked, "now you’ve cut me to the QUICK." She giggled, a little tinkle of bells, and offered her most profuse apologies for her indiscretion, which I of course accepted on the condition that we engage in further scientific research later. She took my hand and we walked together to the control room.

       This chamber is a masterpiece of engineering. Spacious, roomy, yet so compact and efficiently arranged. The pilot's area was a circular platform about a foot above the floor level. A curved console formed an almost complete circle around his seat, which swiveled to allow him quick access to any control, and also afforded him an effortless view of the telescreens and the various instruments located about the room. His area was illuminated by soft, yet bright light from a fixture recessed into the dimly luminescent ceiling.

       Around the walls, various consoles manned by men and women flickered with lights. Like the pilot’s, these were illuminated by fixtures in the ceiling. They cast a reddish-tinted light for maximum visibility, which contrasted with the light blue walls, slate gray carpeting, and the near-white glow of the ceiling panels. Everything not finished in a deep-looking, paint-like coating was polished to dazzling brightness. Here was a ship constructed with tender, loving care by craftsmen skilled beyond our understanding.

       The captain of the craft, Elor-Corel, welcomed us into the room, and called me over to explain the various panels he was using. After a last touch of fingertips, Astra took a seat at a communications console and proceeded to make contact with the Mass. base. My double, Arta Dorrec, had taken my place at home, and we were on our way into the blackness of space.

       After a quick familiarization with the pilot’s controls, he pointed out a pedestal on the floor near his platform. On it rested a globe, perhaps a foot in diameter. He threw a switch, causing an intriguing glow to come from a spot in the very center of the sphere. He explained, "This is our environmental Radar Display Sphere. The dot in the middle represents this ship, and the interior represents an area of space surrounding us for a radius of 50 miles. The range can be changed from one mile up to about 500. As you can see, we cannot be approached from any direction without immediately seeing the other object and its exact position with respect to us. It is possible to safely pilot the ship using the globe alone for observation. However, that large telescreen provides me with a view of the exterior as I see fit."

       He set the course on the autopilot, and excused himself. He Joined Orii-Val at one of the computer panels, and I busied myself with a detailed study of this fascinating little radar ball. It was only because of this close observation that I noticed the dot of light that appeared at the edge of the sphere for an instant, then moved out of range once again. "Captain, could you come here for a moment, please? There seems to be another ship out there, toward Earth."

       He and Orii came to my side quickly, and I indicated where the blip had appeared. Elor reached over one of his consoles, and tapped a range select button, enlarging the radius. A dot appeared half-way from the sphere's center, and as quickly as before darted out of range. "Hmm," Orii mused aloud, "cat and mouse." Again a range doubling, and a repeat performance from the other ship.

       Elor resumed his place quickly and called to Astra, "Open the Call frequency." Her fingers flew over the switches and she nodded readiness. He reached over his head and lowered the suspended mike to mouth level. "This is Captain Elor-Corel of the Alliance Craft KR-2. I wish to speak with the captain of your craft." His request was greeted by stony silence. With a puzzled expression coming over his ruddy features, he repeated his Call. The response was the same.

       "Are they transmitting any ID pulses, Astra?"
       "Nothing, Captain."
       "Odd. Try the Federation frequencies."

       After a minute of checking several channels, she said, "I get no signal on any of the regular channels, but I’ll keep trying." Elor flipped an intercom switch. "Scope deck, see if you can get an optilock on that thing out there. If you succeed, switch it into the main screen." We waited a moment, watching the floor-to-ceiling telescreen panel. Abruptly, a fuzzy blob appeared in the center of the viewing area. He reached over and expanded the view until the glow nearly filled the image, then backed it off to its former size.

       Again over the intercom, "Scope deck, is that the clearest image you can get?" The reply sounded a bit worried. "Yes, sir. Apparently, there’s an ionized field around it, preventing our getting a usable image." Elor limply released the switch, and stared silently at the image for a few moments. We were offering conjectures on whose it was, when a tingling sensation in my head alerted me to an unseen force, "Do you feel that?" Orii nodded affirmatively, and turned toward one of the monitor consoles. The attendant, a young woman, informed us, "We're being psychprobed, Captain. Shall I jam their beam?"
       "Yes. Astra, switch on the Omnicall unit."

       He spun around to face the mike again. "Attention, unidentified craft. I am Captain Elor-Corel, Fifth Level Officer of the Alliance Interstellar Force. You are in violation of established procedure for refusing to answer our transmissions or to broadcast identity pulses. If you continue to ignore our requests, I will see that you are subjected to whatever penalties the Space Control board might choose to impose. We are now interfering with your psychprobe, as it is a very serious offense to use such devices without authority. If you are listening, I order you to reply at once."

       When a reasonable period of time elapsed with no reply, Elor called to Astra again. "Switch me in on Lunar Control channel M....... Lunar Control, this is Alliance Craft KR-2. We are being followed by a ship using an ion-screen and which does not reply to our transmissions. Do you have any crafts in the area, or know of any?"

       "Lunar Control. No crafts are logged in your area. We have the other on our imaging radar. It appears, Captain, that you are being followed by a Kalran scoutcraft." A moment of shocked silence enveloped the crew. Several whispered incredulously, "Kalran? Here?" Elor, visibly shaken, replied, "Thank you, Control." After a second of meditation, he asked, "You're sure it isn't one of ours or from the Federation? You're positive it's Kalran?"

       "So it appears, Captain Corel. We can offer no advice on what your course of action should be. That depends entirely on the events which will occur up there. As you know, you have Alpha Clearance to act as you see fit, without question, in this case." The news relieved him somewhat. He thanked Control, cleared the channel, and resumed watching the screen. "Maintaining course until further notice. Report on any changes."

       Our speed was 50,000 MPH, yet the other craft matched us exactly in course. After about ten minutes of uneventful travel, one of the young men at a console suddenly shouted, "It's closing in on us, Captain." Everyone was instantly on alert. Elor jabbed the intercom button. "All levels, stand by. I'm going to manual. We'll try to lose this Kalran tail. Secure yourselves." As he finished speaking, he wrapped his hands about the control sticks and thrust the left one forward. The huge ship responded instantly, making a 90-degree turn sending it to the left. The pursuer shifted its course to match ours, and continued to close the gap between us.

       There followed a dizzying series of abrupt maneuvers, each paralleled by the Kalran craft. Finally, the Captain, wiping the perspiration from his forehead, decided upon the one action the antagonist would not be expecting. He rammed the controls hard, reversing the flight of the great vehicle, and turned toward the Kalran ship on a direct collision course. There was a noticeable hesitancy from the other craft, and it managed to evade us by mere yards, darting upward as we reached its position. The lights flickered as we brushed the strong ionic field.

       The smaller craft retreated quickly to a point about a thousand miles from us. Elor seemed greatly relieved. "Resume course, but maintain alert condition." Again we were on our way to the moon. The Kalrans followed us from what it apparently assumed was a safe distance, seemingly having second thoughts about further approaches. For the next half-hour, they remained content to follow at that range, making no further hostile actions. The tension relaxed as we decided that our pursuer had learned his lesson.

       The situation had returned to a guarded normalcy when from a monitor area, a panic-stricken voice cried out, "CAPTAIN! THERMAL DART!" He whirled to face the screen. A bright speck of light was approaching us at a fantastic speed. It would be upon us within seconds. Elor reacted almost instinctively, a blurred motion as he slammed the controls. A shudder rippled through the ship as it shot straight upward. The dart was a streak as it passed within a foot of the lower hull. It traveled about a mile beyond us, and erupted in a blinding explosion. A blast of raw energy swept over the ship, jarring it severely. Alarms sounded in a strident chorus. From the monitor, a second warning. "They've sent more... must be a dozen of them." Astra interrupted with her own piece of news. "Sir, homing pulses from the darts."

       Elor jabbed the intercom switch. "Disruptor deck, lock on and fire at command." He kept his eyes glued to the screen, counted aloud and abruptly shouted, "Disruptors, FIRE!"

       From a point behind the telecameras, searing bolts of energy shot out at the darts. The three leaders disintegrated in a hellish fury; the remaining darts plunged into the conflagration and themselves exploded. A glowing wall of naked power rushed toward us. Elor shouted, "BRACE! Shock in 5 seconds."

       We grabbed with death grips to the nearest hand-holds, and waited. It hit. A violent tremor rocked the craft, ramming it brutally upward. Loose objects dislodged, flying haphazardly into anything that had not joined them in flight, crashing against walls, consoles, and people. The shock subsided. Elor snapped, "Disruptors, can you get that far?" The answer was equally brusque. "No. Limit is fifty miles." He thought for a few seconds, then barked, "Power level, fade to zero power. Disruptors, stand by on auxiliary source." The lights faded and died. Instrument power was gone. There was darkness, silence, eerie and intense. "Screen on auxiliary."

       The panel glowed again. In the distance, the Kalran ship paced our unpowered flight. Long minutes ticked by in total death-like stillness. We waited. We watched. At last, a sign of movement. The image expanded on the screen. Elor spoke softly. "They think we've been disabled. They'll come in to investigate." He said into his communicator. "Disruptors, you know what to do." Switching his attention back to the screen, he began pacing off the miles. "900... 800... 700..." The count proceeded steadily. "200... 100..."

       Twin beams of consummate energy enveloped the approaching craft. A ball of staggering brilliance obscured the craft, an expanding miasma of seething vapor that faded and was gone. The Kalran ship was no more. There remained only a cloud of metallic vapor, the sole remnant of an alien spaceship. "Power on. Resume course."

       His voice was heavy with the signs of exhaustion. He leaned forward, elbows on his control panel, and buried his face in his hands. The crew remained respectfully silent. It had been an emotionally wearying experience, a battle of nerves to the very end. He had played the game well, and the win was his.

       Astra came over to my side. "He's thinking of the lives of those aboard the Kalran ship," she whispered. "It is a terrible burden to be the cause of another human being's death." She looked into my eyes searchingly. "What would you have done?"
       I could only reply, "There was no choice." Clutching my hand firmly, she managed a weak smile, and returned her attention to the Captain.

       After a moment, the stillness was interrupted by Elor, who had regained his strength and composure. "Damage report, please," he requested. The various sections of the ship reported only moderate injuries and damage, with mostly small items on the casualty list. One deck reported a technician had been gashed by a sharp-edged instrument that fell onto him during the shock, but the medical techs had cared for it. The condition was classified as livable.

       The reports offered Elor a modicum of comfort. He asked for a channel to Lunar Control. Astra quickly made the required connections. "Lunar Control, this is Captain Elor-Corel of Alliance Craft KR-2. I am reporting the destruction by disruptor fire of a craft identified as of Kalran manufacture."
       "Lunar Control. We watched it all on our screens."
       "I wonder how many men were aboard."
       "None that we know of, Captain. We detected control data signals from the vicinity of the orbit of Mars. Apparently it was a remotely-controlled ship, unmanned."

       Elor closed his eyes and sighed in relief. "Thank you. control. We are on course for Plato. I'll make a complete report when we land." The voice from the moon conveyed understanding of the Captain's feelings. "There is no hurry, Captain. Lunar Control clear." He replied quietly, "KR-2 off," and leaned back in his seat, thinking aloud to himself. "A robot warship. What will they think of next?" A moment later, he straightened himself, and, smiling, he announced to no one in particular, "Well, let that be a lesson to those who would dare challenge the best pilot in the Alliance." So saying, he resumed his duties with a new-found zest. After the shattered remains of broken articles had been removed, we settled down for a quiet finish to our journey.

Part Two

       The rugged surface of the moon loomed magnificently in our screen, the eons-old terrain flowing by as we slipped over the lunar landscape toward our objective in Plato. We noted an occasional ground vehicle plying the rough ground. We often received a flashed greeting from its occupants, which we returned with our landing lights. After a moment of skimming the craters and hills, we slowed to a stop in the middle of an immense mountain-ringed area.

       "This is Plato, Bob, although you would never recognize it from this vantage point." We watched as an iris opened in the floor of the crater, and we quickly descended, emerging into a huge hangar. Vast rows of ships of every description were berthed in this expansive chamber. We glided over a number of them, finally settling into a football-field-sized area. Attendants quickly came up to the ship, and began checking it from stem to stern for damage.

       After convincing an emergency medical crew that was waiting for us that aside from the injured crewman, we were none the worse for wear, we boarded an elevator and dropped to the lowest deck. I counted eight separate levels as we descended. This ship was larger by far than I had even suspected. When we left the elevator, we walked about twenty feet down a corridor, then turned right into the entry room. The ramp was already lowered, and the stairway in place, so we went out without stopping. Once on the ground, I looked up at the ship sitting on its massive tripod landing gear. It curved out of sight in all directions. I could see no distorted reflection in the polished hull, even though the thermal blasts had pitted and dulled the finish considerably. The craft was built to take abuse.

       Several of the crewmen left the craft after we had stepped aside, and walked off in a group to some unknown destination. We - Orii-Val, Astra, Captain Corel and I - waited without moving. Astra was holding my hand again, and she confided to me, "This is the first time here for both of us. It's so thrilling!" I agreed whole-heartedly with her choice of adjectives, and added my own. "It's inspiring."

       In the back of my mind, an oddity was gnawing at me. I couldn't place it, exactly, but something was amiss here. Orii sensed my thoughts, and said, "The gravity here is that of Earth. You were expecting the normal 16%. We keep it this way to avoid any need for constant adaptation from one to another." THAT was it, indeed, I was thinking on this when a small car pulled up in front of us. It was driven by, of all people. Master Kalen Li. As we climbed aboard, he clasped my hand in the standard greeting, and smiled broadly. "It's good to see you again, Bob." I thanked him and said the pleasure was mine. We headed for the far end of the hangar.

       A door opened in the wall, revealing a long tunnel, the end of which was as yet invisible, so great was its distance from us. As we settled down for the long ride, the Master addressed me in his typically friendly way. "We were wondering for a time whether you would make it here. That nasty little skirmish gave us grave doubts. However, Captain Corel didn't earn his rank by making mistakes, and we should have known better than to worry about a Fifth Level officer's choice of action. I must say, that was extremely clever, feigning being disabled to draw the craft into disruptor range. I liked that." Elor smiled broadly, and thanked the Master for his high compliment.

       "Now, Bob," Kalen-Li continued, "we had no special reason for choosing this time to bring you on a tour of our lunar bases. We simply decided that, as your people say, there's no time like the present, to show you and your lovely lady friend around." Astra blushed slightly, and squeezed my hand a little more tightly. I put my arm about her and whispered in her ear, "He speaks truth, squaw." She looked at me with an impish grin and grunted, "Ugh. Squaw thank brave. Not speak with forked tongue. One question. What brave do with headdress squaw make for him?"
       "Brave lose feathers. Be-um scalped by Cavalry."
       "Ugh. Bad show, Running Giraffe. Not likum."
       " How. R.G. agree. Jolly well filthy business."
       "Hmm. Where Running Giraffe educated?"
       "What squaw mean, 'Oh'?"
       "Well, gee. I not know. Leaking Faucet think was appropriate to say at time."
       "Leaking Faucet have deep psychological disturbances. Go to witch doctor. He cure. Graduate of John Hopkins."
       "Hum. Witch doctor QUACK. Not USE spells and herbs. Try use little white things from bottle. Tell me last time, 'Take two and call in morning.' Him PHONY. Me report him to IMA."
       "IMA? What that, as if brave not know what coming next?"
       "Indian Medical Association. What else?"
       "Ugh. That what Running Giraffe thought. Sorry I ask."

       This nonsensical tension-relieving dialogue brought us to the far end of the tunnel. Astra's infectious laughter died away in the tunnel as we slowed to a stop. A security guard stood to one side. Astra leaned toward me and mumbled, "I dunno, Rocky, place is crawlin' wit fuzz. Ya tink dey're on ta sumptin?" In my most Edward G. Robinsonish tones, I replied, "I dunno. If dey asks queschuns, cool it. Lemme do de talkin'."
       "Okay, Rocky. you're de boss. You got yer gat?"
       "Yeh. Never know when I'll need it."
       "Smart t'inkin'. You got brains, Rocky."
       "You know it. baby."

       Astra recognized the guard from the Massachusetts base. He checked our credentials, then said, "I hope you enjoy your stay here." Astra, a pixieish expression on her lovely face, muttered, "T'anks, cop. You're all right, fer a fuzz." He smiled and nodded acceptance of her somewhat unconventional compliment, saying, "T'anks, sister." She laughed aloud, and between giggles, she told me his name is Keri-Aldek, a school mate.

       Keri opened the door before us and we drove through quickly. A ramp ahead led up to a level some hundreds of feet above us. A minute of further travelling brought us to a well-lighted garage containing a number of these vehicles. We parked close to an exit door, and entered the reception room on the other side of the door. A pretty young lady greeted us warmly, gave us badges to pin to our clothing, and after calling for someone over her intercom, she resumed her work.

       In a moment, another security guard came into the office, and bid us follow him. We left the room, walked the length of a corridor, and waited for a few seconds as an elevator stopped at our level. An instant after we boarded, we were on our way to the top floor of whatever this place was.

       The doors slid open when we had stopped, revealing a large room. As we entered, everyone stopped long enough to acknowledge our presence and greet us. A tall gentleman of a fortyish appearance came forward to welcome us. "This is Lunar Control. All our moon operations are controlled from this room." Noticing that Astra and I were hand in hand, he smiled and said, "If you young folks would like to look around, feel free to do so. I have some business with your companions." We thanked him far his offer, and he left with the others toward his private office.

       What a situation! Get picked up by a flying saucer, nearly meeting my Maker in the depths of space, and now, here I stand, in an alien base on the moon, with the most wonderful little girl in all of space standing by my side, feeling with me the great sense of wonder and excitement of this experience. For a long moment, we simply stood there, drinking in the sweetness of our euphoria, lost in thought,

       Once we had regained our sensibilities, we began an exploration of this splendid room, with its myriad marvels intriguing us every second. One side held a bank of communications equipment, keeping constant touch with all the other lunar bases, as well as half-dozen space-crafts. On another wall, a large computer hummed busily. Astra enjoyed this especially, since her specialty was computer operations. She spent about five minutes in shop talk with one of the ladies at a console, while I busied myself looking over wiring diagrams that I found in a manual lying on a piece of test equipment near the brain.

       Presently. when Astra had rejoined me, an attendant pointed out an intriguing door in the far wall. Its legend, Observation Deck, piqued our curiosities, and we quickly passed through. We found ourselves in a short hallway. As the door closed behind us, the sounds and lights of the control room vanished. We made a right turn and we entered a room of indescribable beauty.

       It had been hewn from the solid rock of the mountain, in a circular domed shape. Every inch of the surface had been meticulously polished to perfection, its iridescent colors radiating an almost hypnotic aura. A single glow panel illuminated the room dimly. In the center, a marble fountain bubbled and glistened in the light of a dozen multi-colored spots set into the rim.

       All this magnificence was yet overshadowed. Around the outer perimeter of the room, a ten-foot high reflectionless window looked out upon a panorama of unforgettable splendor. The sun was low on the horizon, its stark brilliance casting surrealistic shadows on the vast floor of the crater. From our vantage point, 300 feet above ground, we surveyed almost the entire expanse of Plato. As we leaned on the low rail surrounding the window, a further spectacle caught our attention. High in the star-filled sky, Earth shone down upon us, an azure ball of subdued radiance, resplendent in the sunlight.

       We were enraptured, filled with awe. Astra spoke in soft, almost reverent tones. "It's so BEAUTIFUL! I've never seen it this way before..." Her voice trailed off to a mere whisper. She stood unmoving, eyes turned skyward. And as I gazed upon her, I saw a beauty, a loveliness that rivaled even the glory which held her spellbound. Within that perfect profile, I discerned a little girl's innocence and a woman's maturity, a child's sense of wonder, and an adult's understanding. For the first time, I became fully aware of the magnetic attraction which she holds for me, and I offered silent gratitude to the Infinite One that I should be given such a blessing as to be in the presence of this goddess.

       I joined her in contemplation of the unending grandeur of the universe. Slowly she turned to face me. In her expression I saw an inner peace, in her sparkling eyes a serene happiness. Those shining orbs conveyed more than she could ever say; even as we stood, two alone beneath the panorama of the lunar evening, I could feel a deep bond growing within me, doubly wonderful because I knew that she, too, shared in this joyous emotion.

       For a long moment we said nothing, preferring to savor the delicious pleasure of this intimate solitude. After an eternity, or so it seemed, had passed, the little girl in my arms became again the woman. Drawing her close, I whispered, "Not for science.... for me." We met in a tender embrace that spanned the gap of our separate worlds. Above us, the music of the spheres chimed their ethereal symphony.

Part Three

       "Well. isn’t THIS a pretty scene? I don‘t know WHAT I‘m going to do with you young'uns. l leave you alone for a minute and THIS is what happens. SHOCKING!" Orii stood in the doorway, his arms folded, shaking his head slowly. Astra looked at him with wide-eyed innocence, but didn’t take her arms from around my neck. "This," I explained, with feint indignity, "is an important technical experiment in biological compatibility, my good man."

       He leaned against the doorjamb, an expression of resignation on his face. "A likely excuse. Well, come on, lovebirds. We have more sights to see today." As an afterthought, he added, "Although I've seen enough sights for THIS day." My little doll, not to be outdone, mimicked Orii's stance, and muttered in a deep grumble, "A likely excuse..." For a few seconds they attempted to stare each other down. Astra gave up first, filling the room with her merry laughter. We left together, joined Elor and Kalen in the control room, and boarded the elevator.

       When we had reached the bottom level, we boarded the little car and retraced our earlier path up the ramp. Once we had reached the bottom of the incline, we turned sharply to the left and entered another tunnel, this one only a hundred or so feet long, with a number of stalls at its end. Kalen parked the vehicle in an open berth, and we entered the open door on the end wall. A large, well filled room stretched out before us. Against one wall, three huge racks of tube-like vehicles reached to the ceiling some fifty feet above. These cars were wheel-less and seemed to be designed for travel in a pneumatic tunnel system. Kalen corrected me. "The analogy is good, but the projectiles are propelled, not by air, but by ring magnets in the tubes, which switch on in sequence as we travel along the length of the tube.

       He crossed to the other side of the chamber, and pressed a number of buttons on a control panel. Whirring from the vicinity of the racks drew our attention, and we watched as a crane-like device lifted one of the projectiles from its place in the rack and brought it to a loading platform to our right. The Master joined us aboard the vehicle, and pressed a red button on its dash panel. We began to move along a concave roller conveyor and soon found ourselves in a dispatching room with seven groups of four tubes each, spaced at intervals about the chamber's curved wall. We slid onto a highly polished section of metal hollowed to fit our vehicle. Once on this carrying device, automatic equipment brought us in line with one of the upper tubes, and gently deposited our projectile into the opening. An almost inaudible hum appeared, and I noticed that the segmented lighting strip along the tunnel's upper surface began to pass overhead at an ever-increasing rate.

       The acceleration was so smooth as to be almost unnoticeable. Gradually the segments vanished and the lighting appeared to be one solid strip. Except for the hum, there was utter silence, with no rush of air, no sign of contact with the walls. Orii explained, "This car is centered in this tunnel. with about an inch of clearance on all sides, held in place by the propulsive field. When a vehicle is in transit, the tube is sealed and evacuated to reduce air friction to an insignificant amount.

       "Our destination is Hipparchus. If you have any questions, this is as good a time as any to ask them."
       "Maybe later." I leaned back in the seat, and turned toward Astra. "Right now, I think I'll just enjoy the ride."
       My little princess flashed a sweet smile and slid over next to me. "Please don't think I‘m too forward, good sir. It's cold over there."
       "Maybe this will help," said I, slipping my arm around her.
       "That’s SO much better," she cooed, and snuggled a little closer.
       "It'll never last," Orii injected, without turning to face us.
       "What do YOU know, you.... BACHELOR!"
       "Be nice to me, Astra. I'm very sensitive, you know."
       "That hurt."
       "You should be more like Bob," she scolded. Delicately caressing my ear with her fingertips, she added, "He's so sweet and gentle."

       I raised my free hand quickly. "Heeeey! Don't bring ME into this. I'm just an innocent bystander here." Orii ignored my protest. "I’m sweet and gentle, too, you know," he muttered mockingly.
       "You‘re just cold and all you love is your numbers."
       She looked up into my eyes and asked, "What do YOU think of Orii, my good fellow?"
       Playing on an inspiration, I replied, "I really couldn't say, never having had the opportunity to be intimate with him."

       The little group collapsed in laughter. Orii finally stopped long enough to gasp, "You win! I be quiet." Astra, in her most awe-filled tones, whispered, "All this and he works miracles, too."
       She kissed my cheek, and in her softest stage whisper, said "I offer you my congratulations. You have just performed a feat considered impossible by all the authorities."
       Returning her affection, I replied self-consciously, "Oh, it was nothing, really."
       From the front, a muttered, "Your humility underwhelms me."
       "My humility, sir, is my greatest asset. I pride myself in it."
       "How about your sweetness and..."

       His question was interrupted by a screech of metal against metal. We were buffeted about violently as our little projectile slid along the floor of the tube, yawing roughly as its nose bounced between the walls. "The field's been shut off," Kalen shouted. "Hold on tightly."
       He pressed a recessed button on the dash. A hissing blast of air from the front of our vehicle stopped us without further difficulty, throwing us forward as it fired.

       When we had regained equilibrium, we found ourselves stopped, halfway through our journey. The lights above glowed dimly, from residual phosphorescence, gradually fading into darkness. No one spoke for a moment, adding ominous stillness to the eerie blackness that sent shivers up my back. Apparently Astra had similar fears, as she was holding tightly to me, breathing in quick, shallow breaths. I squeezed her hand gently, and echoed her apprehensions. "We'll get out of here, love. Have faith."

       Turning my attention to our distressing situation, I asked, "Can we get out by ourselves? Help might not arrive for some time."

       From beneath the dash panel, Kalen replied, "Our communications are dead. Unless we can get some brilliant suggestions, we are stuck here until aid arrives." Our eyes had adjusted to the darkness by now, and further up the tunnel, perhaps a quarter of a mile, we noticed that the lights, and consequently the field, were operating normally. The brainstorm hit seconds thereafter.

       "I noticed," I began, "that on those vehicles in the berths, there were casters or rollers along the sides. Does this one have them?" Orii replied, "Yes. We didn't have time to bring them out when we were stopping, but they are engaged now."

       "This is excellent." The idea was rapidly developing. "You said these tubes are evacuated?" To this another affirmation. Orii then asked, quite puzzled, "What exactly are you thinking of?" I turned around and looked toward the rear. "The last section of powered tunnel is about an eighth of a mile back. Suppose, just suppose, that we fire the brake jets, and ram this vehicle backward into the field behind us. What happens?"

       Orii began, "Why, we'd be shot out....... " His voice trailed off, as he and the Master simultaneously grasped the idea. Kalen warned us to hold on, and hit the switch. The three gas jets roared, accelerating us rapidly. We hit the field at what seemed like a hundred miles an hour. It felt like hitting an invisible rubber band, which was stretching as we forced our way into it. Finally, the jets roared futilely, as we could go no further. At that instant, Kalen switched them off. A thrust like a hammer blow rammed us back into the seats, and we were flung forward as the magnetic elastic recoiled. Within seconds we reentered the darkened section, felt the jolt as the rollers contacted, and crossed our fingers.

       We slowed down gradually, and were travelling at only a few miles per hour when the energized section of the tunnel ahead of us caught us up like a giant hand. Again the powerful acceleration, and very shortly we were up to normal tube speed again, continuing our delayed trip to Hipparchus.

       Elor, who had been silent since we started out for Hipparchus, and who was in any case a man of few words, finally offered us his impressions. "It would seem that this is rather good evidence why Earthmen have advanced so far and come through so many adverse situations unscathed. They seem to be uniquely adapted to rapid decisions under duress and danger. We of Korendor have never known the need for a constant watchfulness, a nurturing and development of the survival instinct, so to speak. Bob, who has lived this life on Earth, has been naturally subjected to those types of environments which breed quick thinking and action. I venture that none of us would have come up with that solution so quickly, if at all, because it would not occur to us that there was a solution. We are not equipped to handle situations of this type because we never experience them."
       Embarrassed by the admiring tone of his voice, I confessed, "Actually, Captain, I have a thing about being trapped."

       Elor continued, "That is precisely my point, brother. We who are not accustomed to living under constant danger would probably have settled back and opened up a discussion while waiting for assistance to arrive. You, on the other hand, who live every day of your life with one foot in the grave because of the very nature of your planet's warlike people, saw in our situation a threat to your well being, and reacted in a manner which, though normal to you, causes us to wonder and to admire. Frankly, try as we may, we cannot hope to match Earthmen for quick decisions in these types of emergencies.

       "But when we were attacked in space, Captain, you handled it as though it were routine. If that weren't quick decision..." He sighed, then replied, "True, but that is due to years of training. It actually WAS routine to me. As Captain of a ship, I have a great many lives and an expensive mass of equipment under my command. I cannot afford to be lax. But this is not the core of the matter. The fact is that my training is specialized. Earthmen seem to be able to grasp control of ANY situation and turn it to their advantage, almost automatically. This amazes us no end."

       The Master added his thoughts. "I agree fully. It seems to be an inbred trait of the Terran species. This is one reason why your people would be so valuable to the Alliance. You are natural leaders, whereas we of the Alliance are more suited to following. It is with great difficulty that we choose our leaders, because there are so few occasions that arise to demand leadership abilities. We live, for the most part, a quiet, peaceful life, with almost an anarchist government. There is not much governing to be done, in truth. It is small wonder, then, that we have so few 'born leaders', as you say.

       "Indeed, you Earthmen have a brilliant future in universal government if you can only stop your petty bickering and warring long enough to develop this potential properly."

       I was stunned by this admission of their weaknesses, It was seldom that I had heard such an open and frank laying out of the problem, and my admiration for these people grew the more because of this. The remainder of the trip was in silence. We were all lost in thought.

       The end of our journey was upon us before any of us realized. We stopped long enough for the airlock to open, then were brought out on powered conveyors to an unloading platform. As we stepped off, half a dozen medical men and several miscellaneous personnel were there, all with concerned looks on their faces. We received quick physical exams to check for hidden injuries; finding none, we were directed to three gentlemen standing near the entryway.

       The men introduced themselves as Alor-Kesla, Hari-Zemal, and Petr-Solen, respectively the Commander, Controller. and Security Officer of the base. Alor spoke first. "We knew you were in the tube, but had no idea where, whether the failure had affected you, and a dozen other questions. It is a relief to see you are all right, uninjured, and reasonably sedate. Did you encounter the fault... although looking at your vehicle, the question is obviously superfluous. How did you get by it?" The Captain began a quick explanation of the events, while Astra and I turned our attentions to the damaged projectile. The hull had been scraped and dented by the bouncing about we had received, but nothing serious had come of the incident. Elor was finishing his outline when we rejoined the group.

       The Commander excused himself for a moment, to answer a call on his communicator. His face gave us answers without a word. Something was going on that wasn't particularly encouraging. He turned to us when he had finished, and intoned, "Gentlemen, the tunnel was sabotaged. When the initial shock had worn off, he continued. "Our repair crews arrived at the breakdown, and for a moment could find no trouble. One of them, looking into a main duct, noticed a burned, blackened area near a cable, and pulled out the severed conductors. It had been sheared off by a thermal bomb. No trace was found of the saboteurs. As of about two minutes ago, the entire Lunar Operation was placed under Delta Alert by Lunar Security Control in Plato Alpha."

       "But," Orii wondered aloud, "those service areas are inaccessible to anyone but our own maintenance crews. How did they get in there?"
       "There are traces of residual energy of the type associated with point-to-point teleportation," the Security officer said. "The question is, from whence did they teleport?”

       Elor ventured, "The Kalrans, possibly? We had a tangle with them on the Terra-Lunar flight."
       "Impossible," Alor replied. "They haven't left their station near the orbit of Mars since we discovered them."
       "There haven't been any unidentified ships in the area?"
       "Negative. Our scan radar got no blips at all, and as you know, a fly couldn't escape our radar."

       "I gather from brother Petr's comment," I interjected. "that the Kalrans have teleport technology."
       "Yes," the Master replied. "Theirs is very sophisticated."
       "That includes point-to-point receiverless technology, I would assume."
       "Again, yes."
       "Suppose," I said, wheels turning in my head again, " that whoever hit the tube bypassed the radar field. No, not by radar negator or the like. Is it possible to transmit PTP to the surface from the Mars orbit area?"
       "It can be done, but PTP over a long range requires a signal source for establishing the targeting coordinates."
       "Hmm… has there been any significant meteor activity lately?"
       "Nothing out of the ordinary," Petr replied. "A small, high-metal content meteor struck a few days ago. Our radar caught it as it came down and lost it near the surface. We didn't have time to compute the impact point. But, it wasn't unusual. We track several metal-containing meteors every year. Security receives the reports of anything that enters our area as a matter of procedure."
       "Was it in the general direction of the attack today?" Petr made a quick call on his communicator, and then said, "It was in that direction."

       "The plot thickens. Another question. Do the Kalrans have the ability to send something as large as a small scoutcraft by PTP?"
       "They could do it if they have a cargo transporter," Petr said, "but cargo portals are not designed for living beings. In any event, our radar would have picked it up the instant it appeared."
       “IF it appeared in the radar's range," I continued. "Why did they pick that section of the tunnel over any other? I have been looking at your map on the wall over there as we've been discussing this, and if you would come with me for a minute..." We walked over to the huge chart of the surrounding environment. It was crossed with lines denoting tubes to and from the base.

       "Let's consider the situation from the Kalran viewpoint. You want to terrorize the Korendians on the moon by exposing their vulnerability to attack. Examining all the alternatives, you decide to use a very small, portal-equipped scout to send a couple of agents to disable one of the main underground travel ducts." Everyone was standing by silently, waiting for my analysis. I developed a sense of belonging heretofore not experienced.

       "They choose their spot carefully, based on information obtained from an inside source, which I'll leave to you good people to address. You have only one way to place your saboteurs on the moon, and that is to transmit the scoutcraft through a point to point, receiverless transmission. This is a prodigious task from the orbit of Mars, and the less precision required, the better. But, you want to avoid scan radar, be as close to your target as possible, and be able to leave on an instant's notice. Where do you go?"

       I pointed to a spot on the map. "This is, I assume, approximately where the fault occurred, correct?" A technician nodded affirmatively. "Gentleman, please note this interesting natural structure." I indicated a high-walled crater less than a mile from the tunnel. "Would it not be the least challenging to remat the scout inside this crater, to avoid the scan radar. which is blocked by the crater's walls? It would be far a less complex operation." My companions nodded in agreement.

       "My guess is that the meteor was in fact a probe that acted as a signal source once it landed inside the crater. Based on Petr's just saying that a cargo portal is not suitable for lifeforms, I'd guess that the scout contained a personnel portal, and perhaps was designed for that specific purpose. Once the scout was in place, its portal was used to bring a couple of agents. After they were aboard, they moved the scout to a point as close as possible to the tunnel. A further short-range PTP into the service area would be, as we say on Earth, child's play. No one would suspect a thing until they had planted a timer-activated bomb, returned to the scout, and left to rejoin their fleet."

       They were speechless, so I decided to expound a bit more, as long-winded as I tend to get when making a point. "This, gentlemen, is elementary military strategy. If I were a Kalran officer, this would be exactly my course of action. It is primarily psychological warfare. It demonstrates that they can launch attacks in ways that would leave your defenses ineffective. And, they have an immense advantage, because from what I've concluded, the Kalrans are a warrior society. They use instilling fear and insecurity as a weapon.

       "Naturally, you being unfamiliar with the tactics of what we call covert action and guerilla warfare because of your peaceful way of life, contact with an alien force that employs this devious type of activity would leave you, so to speak, with your pants at half-mast." A chuckle rippled through my audience, which I noted had expanded since I began my lengthy monologue.

       The base commander nodded his head slowly, apparently agreeing with my analysis. After a moment, he said, "It seems that scan radar is not sufficient. Perhaps we ought to initiate patrols of armed scouts to ward off further assaults of this nature."
       "It might work, sir, but they can't be everywhere at once, and the Kalrans may not try that again, deciding not to press their luck. Might I instead recommend motion sensors in the service areas, and in any lightly populated base areas where that kind of natural formation could act as a shield?" I was really hot, and they were good listeners. "This way, you have your scouts free for other uses, yet have an instant intrusion alarm."

       Commander Alor considered the suggestion, then decided it would be the best way to prevent future problems of that type. He then said only half-jokingly, "I am beginning to believe that we should employ an Earthman full time as a strategist."
       "An excellent suggestion, sir. May I offer my services? I work cheap and play dirty."
       "We’ll take it up with the Council at the next meeting, my son. We need somebody with your talents."

       We enjoyed a good laugh, relieved that the tension has been reduced. My companions rejoined me and we left, heading for the upper levels and the awesome telescopes that peered into the stygian blackness beyond the stars.

Part Four

       All too soon, we were on our way again, zipping through the sublunar shafts. Destination - Ptolemaeus. We had settled back for the trip, and I decided it was time to ask a bothersome question. "Who, pray tell, are the Kalrans?"

       Kalen took the ball." The Kalrans are inhabitants of the planet Kalran, fifth planet of the star Vega. Their planet developed along lines almost identical to ours, but with an emphasis on military power. Once they had achieved space travel, they colonized the remaining suitable planets of the Vegan system. They established an impregnable fortress in that system, which the infant Alliance could not hope to tackle. The Alliance members decided upon a complete isolation of Kalran, economically, culturally and scientifically. We feel now that this may have been our greatest error.

       "The Kalrans, left to their own devices, expanded their power and capabilities, developing an awesome military force second to none in this part of the galaxy. Still, they made no attempt to disturb outside planets, and we in turn, continued our policy of isolation. An occasional patrol vessel kept check on their activities, but for several hundred years, the Kalrans lived in relative coexistence with the Alliance, each ignoring the other.

       ”The Alliance had expanded to over 200 planets in nearby sectors of space. Our discovery teams drove ever farther into space, locating and enlisting new worlds into our group. It was upon one such a mission that we discovered that our head-in-the-sand policy had backfired.

       "Probing into space around the Kalran system, we chanced upon a previously uncharted system of four worlds. Our instruments showed life, so we sent embassadorial ships to the major city of one of them, to extend our friendship and our offer. We were met by Kalran warships. The embassy ships were destroyed. We retreat and attempted to make sense out of this unexpected development. Patrols had shown no expansion by Kalran forces, yet they had taken over this system. A serious compromise of security obviously existed, since these warriors had slipped out from under our noses and occupied an entire planetary system.

       We headed back to Alliance HQ with the disturbing news. We were paced to the edge of the system by three Kalran warcrafts, which then turned and headed back to their base.

       “This was many decades ago. We were unable to stop the spread of Kalran influence, as their science was a match for ours and their methods were completely ruthless. They continued to harass our shipping and passenger crafts, make sneak attacks upon Alliance planets, and in general make blasted nuisances of themselves.

       ”To this very day, they remain the major 'dark force' in the known galaxy. They control over 150 systems in a tight net that is impossible to penetrate. Over the last several decades, it appeared that they had decided to stop annexing systems, and instead concentrate on spreading their influence by less violent means. Or so we thought, until today. Their presence here in this system confounds us, yet confirms a concept that one of our theorists had proposed, that the Kalrans had in fact joined forces with another group, or several other groups, to the end of creating an empire equal or superior to the Alliance in size and influence.

       "If this is indeed true, and it would seem that there is in fact no other assumption to be made, then we may find ourselves, willingly or not, mandated to stop them by force. Here we have the edge, for the present, as we have developed highly sophisticated military capabilities. We have psychprobes that can affect an entire populace simultaneously, disruptors capable of pulverizing the very moon we stand on..." He continued listing the weapons that had been developed as a result of the dangers that the Kalran empire posed. They were fearsome indeed.

       "These are hideous weapons, and we hope beyond hope never to use them, but, for the safety of the alliance, it may become necessary. Earth may be the crux. If we allow them to take over hare, we will have no choice except war. If we stop their advances here, they may very well choose to live and let live. It remains to be seen.

       "It appears that our destination is at hand." As he spoke, we began our deceleration. The end of the tunnel became visible in the distance, and in a moment we were again on our feet in a dispatch room. It was identical to the others in nearly all respects. We left and boarded an electric car, heading for a ramp leading to the main communications nerve center for the moon.

       "This will interest you especially, Bob. This base is..." He was cut short by the sight of a bright red car with four armed men racing down the ramp. The Master turned our car around and we took off in pursuit down through a maze of tunnels. We stopped outside a large door marked "Power Generation and Main Transmitters - No Admittance to Unauthorized Personnel."

       The leader of the armed group pressed a button on the intercom unit on the doorsill, and said, "You will surrender immediately. You cannot escape." He ran his security card through the scanner, shoved the door open, leveled his hand disruptor, and cautiously slipped into the darkened room. The others followed closely. We watched from outside, our bravery being exceeded by our good sense.

       With each passing second, we grew more tense. The ominous silence from within the room invoked within us a variety of horrible images. Finally I could restrain myself no more. I had to be where the action is. Reaching into my inner coat pocket, I took out my ever-present penlight. "Hmm, maybe I can blind them," I said sarcastically. I checked it to be sure it would work if needed, and headed for the room. My companions' jaws dropped simultaneously. Astra grabbed my arm and, her voice filled with fear, pleaded with me not to go in.

       "You'll be killed," she warned. Kissing her cheek, I reminded her, "Remember what Elor said about the Earthling instinct for survival. I'm uptight and ready to fight." I turned and slipped silently into the room. I noticed that the guards had turned the light switches on, suggesting that the intruders had shut off the power to them. Damn!

       Concealing myself behind a cabinet, I allowed a moment for my eyes to become accustomed to the dim light. I looked around the room. There were a thousand places someone could hide. In the far corner of the room, two of the four guards were carefully examining every possible nook and cranny. The other two saw me come in, but said nothing.

       Movement was slow and silent. The guards stalked like cats, their every step taken carefully. I hoped the intruders had not detected my entry, because as yet I was not yet sure what to look for. From the corner of my eye, a sudden, almost unnoticeable flash of light caught my attention. Riveting my gaze on the spot where it appeared, I made my way stealthily toward the source, using the equipment in the room as a shield. Soon, I was less than fifty feet from the spot where I had seen the glimmer of light. I envisioned half a dozen burly, unshaven types with their nervous fingers wrapped around the butts of disruptor pistols, ready to blast the first sign of movement. Although it was a bit late for second thoughts, I began to wonder why I'd ever started this hero bit in the first place. Was it to show our friends I could handle myself? Was it to impress Astra? Was it sheer, blind foolhardiness?

       No time now for rationalizing. There would be time later for self-examining my sanity. I was in the thick of it, and I'd need every iota of my wits directed toward survival. Quickly I relocated the four guards, who were closing in on the hiding place of the intruders. Who would see who first? Who would be the victim and who the victor? The enemy, from their position, commanded a good view of the room, and most assuredly were watching every step the guards took. Would the agents, in desperation, open fire on the security men, or would they try to capture them as hostages? Had they seen me? How many were there? I had a million questions without answers.

       From my vantage point, I could make out faint outlines in the dim light from a rack of power indicators nearby. There seemed to be four of them. Another flash of light, the reflection of the glow from a gleaming disruptor case. I felt sure that it was trained on the head of one of the guards. Turning to determine their progress, it appeared that they were as yet unaware of the enemy's position and armament. I had to get their attention and give them warning before they were either killed or captured.

       I cupped the penlight in my hand and flashed it a couple times to draw the attention of the guard nearest me. I pointed to the location of the intruders. He acknowledged my signal without seeming to notice, and rejoined the other man of his team. A whispered message and they made their way over to the other two guards. Once the warning had been passed on, they again separated into pairs.

       From their hiding place, the intruders slipped silently around a large panel, and split up into two pairs. Their blasters were held steadily aimed at the guards as they slithered about, trying to enclose the Guards in a crossfire. There was no way to pass on this new information to the guards, so if anything was to happen it would have to occur quickly. The nearer of the two agents was less than twenty feet from me now, his back to me, unaware of my presence. Did I dare attack him and risk being blasted into vapor, or should I stand by and let come what may?

       There was no choice to be made. He was now fifteen feet away, concealing himself behind a control console, his weapon poised and aimed squarely at the nearest of the guards. His associate had positioned himself about forty feet away behind a generator. I'd have to be as silent as the Sphinx to pull it off. but I couldn't let men be killed because of my inaction.

       Between us, five feet behind him, there was a small control desk, just large enough to hide me until I summoned the courage to make my play. Keeping the unit interposed between me and my prey, I crawled as silently as possible toward this way station. I was perhaps two feet from my chosen sanctuary when from behind I heard a low but sharp snap as a relay clicked. My prey turned to see what caused the noise. I froze like death, knowing that if I moved it would be the real thing. After a moment of contemplating, he apparently decided that it was only equipment operation, and returned his attention to the guards.

       I made the remaining two feet in a breath’s time. Inhaling deeply, I wiped the sweat from my forehead, and began to gather up the courage I'd need to make my move. As I rested there, from a far corner a generator set revved up, its whine providing me with a blessed cover of sound. Hastily, I made sure of his associate's position, then searched through my memory for a recall of the pressure points I'd read about in a self-defense manual. The information came to me after a moment, and I decided - this is it. Now or never. It never occurred to me to wonder if the Kalran physiology had the same layout as ours, because they were apparently quite human.

       I crept from my shelter, to a point scant inches behind him. Very slowly I raised my hands, and abruptly, clamped my fingers hard into nerve areas. He jerked spasmodically, then slumped to the floor, his grunt and fall masked the loud whining noise of the generator set. Gingerly, I lifted the disruptor from his hand. I'd never handled one before, but its design was similar to a handgun complete with trigger, so using it would pose no problem, if it came to that.

       Encouraged by this success, I looked at his unsuspecting partner, trying to decide whether or not to pull the same attack on him. I was still pondering it when he answered my question for me. He slipped a signaling device from his pocket. A couple of seconds later, his two other partners on the far side of the room stood up in an attitude of surrender, hands behind their heads. The four guards spun around to face them. As they did, my intended target stood up suddenly, took aim with his disruptor and ... without thinking, I fired. It caught him squarely in the back. He screamed in agony and crumpled to the floor, lifeless. His body, having absorbed a full blast, smoked from the charred circle burned into him.

       The full impact of my act did not hit me for some moments. I stood there staring expressionlessly at the corpse. Two of the guards rushed over to discover what was going on. They found the body first, then saw me standing behind a tall cabinet. One heaved a sigh of relief, and came over. He said something. I didn't hear him.

       The numbing shock of what I had done was beginning to overcome me. I had killed a man. This thought above all filled my mind. I was numb with horror, unable to see anything but that lifeless form, his dying scream still echoing in my brain, the acrid smell of charred flesh assaulting my nostrils. I tried to say something. All that emerged was garbled noise. The room began to swim around me, and I collapsed. Everything faded.

Part Five

       Consciousness returned slowly. At first, a maze of swirling light and color; detached, meaningless sounds, like the buzzing of bees, filled my head. As I regained my senses, the scene formed itself into the room. The lights were on now, and a considerable crowd had gathered. Against the wall, the two who surrendered earlier and my own first victim stood, hands behind their heads, glaring at me with consummate hatred in their eyes.

       Around me stood two medics, several base officials, and my tour group. Astra was kneeling beside me, her soft hands on my forehead. She said nothing, but I could read her eyes. They told me things better than could be expressed in mere words. I managed a weak smile, then decided that a prone position was unbecoming. I therefore proceeded to erect myself. Abruptly, my knees felt like rubber, and things began doubling themselves. Little hammers careened off my skull, and I leaned back against the nearest support. The feeling soon dissipated, and, turning to the docs, I asked, "Who slipped me the mickey?"

       They laughed, and the younger of the two replied, "It’s just a mild sedative and anti-depressant. You'll be fine in a moment. "The hammers stopped pounding, and Astra, now by my side, asked softly, "Are you feeling better now, sweetheart?" The word hit me like a blockbuster, because it confirmed all my hopes and dreams. I replied, "Now, yes. I don't mind the going to sleep. It's the waking up that ruined me."

       A few moments passed, during which Astra and I enjoyed a deep rapport in the midst of this crowd. The guards finally joined us, and in turn, delivered the standard handclasp signifying friendship. Their leader told me, "You saved our lives. brother. We find no words to express our gratitude." I acknowledged their thanks with, "Aw, shucks, t'weren’t nothin' any scared stiff Earthling wouldn't have done."

       "It never occurred to us, "he continued, "that there were more than two, leading us into a trap by decoying us, so that we might be killed by others from behind."
       "You should watch the late shows more often. It's really an old Terran tactic. I'm surprised, really, that such an advanced bunch as these seem to be should use such a trite old trick."
       "It is precisely because we weren't expecting it that they would have succeeded, had you not been here."
       "Well, I suppose that years of living dangerously on Earth enables one to spot a trap where you wouldn't, not being exposed to constant peril. I can see that Elor had a very good point."
       "Whatever the reason, we owe our lives to you. Thank you."

       I turned my attention to the three prisoners, who had not let up in their hateful stare. Their leader spoke with sharp. vicious tones, spitting out his words vehemently. "When we conquer Earth, YOU will be the first one we will seek out and kill." I laughed in his face and fired back, "The day THAT happens, I'll be waiting for you. If you're as clumsy then as you were today, I'll be able to stop your invasion by myself."

       The leader, livid with rage, cursed me in some alien tongue, and shouted, "Mark my words, Earthman. YOU WILL DIE IN AGONY!" Perhaps it was the drug, but I was feeling a bit light-headed. I sneered at him and, holding out my hand, I shook it in a mockery of trembling, stammering, "Ooooh. I'm f-f-frightened. See me sh-sh-shake."

       "You will pay dearly for this, Terran. "His hand flashed to his belt, touching a stud. His compatriots did likewise. He glared at me, and with a voice seething with living hate, warned, "I shall return to find you and destroy....." His speech was interrupted by three simultaneous explosions, as suicide devices in their belts detonated. They fell forward, blood gushing from the gaping holes in their abdomens. Everyone turned away in horror, made ill by the sight. Even I was sobered instantly by the occurrence.

       Taking Astra by the hand, I told her, "This place has an aura of death. Let's leave." She needn’t have been asked, and in a moment we were back in the electric car outside. The crowd of people was beginning to disperse as everyone returned to his or her work. Only a few remained to aid in cleaning up and checking for damages.

       We spent ten blissful minutes alone together before our group rejoined us, ten relaxing, enjoyable and tender minutes that flew by all too quickly. The events of the preceding moments of violence and destruction were forgotten in the warmth of her embrace. Her very being radiated a gentle, serene happiness that brooked no sorrow or pain.

       The Master, Elor and Orii joined us and we proceeded to our original destination. Kalen spoke. "You know, Bob, you become an indispensable assistant to us at times like these. Being of Earth is certainly no handicap, that is obvious."

       "I try not to think of myself as handicapped, at least. Now, what did those three kill themselves for, especially that one clown who said he'd be back for my skin?"
       "He may very well be back, brother," Orii answered. "The Kalrans, which is what they were, have the secret of reproducing physical bodies just as we do. I imagine they are alive and well in their command ship out near Mars-orbit, plotting their revenge .
       "Rather a distressing thought. I seem to attract all kinds of nasties these days. It's going to be one hell of a life. I'm a human meanie magnet." But, I had to look on the bright side of it. "Well, at least I didn't really kill him. I only detoured him a little."

       We stopped outside the main communications room. A group of people leaving the area waved as we approached. We returned the salute and entered the room. About twenty seconds later, I realized that this was just not going to be our day. All communications ceased simultaneously, From every telescreen, snowy blankness. From the audio units, only a hiss that I recognized as white noise.

       I looked blankly at the Master, and pondered, "Maybe I should go home. I bring bad luck." He replied, "Actually, we'd rather you stayed. You're learning about the true situation in the galaxy, and we seem to be reaping unexpected benefits from your Terran knowledge. You are getting a first-hand look at your enemies in space, and you will find out what you and the Alliance are and will be contending with as time passes."

       The Base Commander, who came in shortly after the vast blackout began, made his decision. Pressing an all-units intercom switch, he spoke, quietly but firmly. "Attention, all sections. As of this moment, this base is on Red Alert. I repeat that - Red Alert."

       "Can you put us on a wire line the other bases?" He directed his question to one of the console operators. "I'll try, sir," he replied, somewhat nonplussed. It took him fully a minute to find open lines. The Commander spoke to the other bases in simple, direct words. "This is Commander Alor-Kesla of Ptolemaeus Communications Base. We have established a Red Alert condition here, and recommend that your bases do likewise. All radio-based communications have been blocked by strong interference, indicating the possibility of imminent attack by hostile forces. This base will remain open on these wire channels only, and all communications will have to go through them. Any unnecessary communications should be curtailed, to allow unimpeded emergency coverage.

       "I need not remind you of the gravity of the situation. We have had an attempt here by infiltrators to destroy our transmitters. We recommend that all bases undergo immediate security checks. I am standing clear."

       He switched off the intercom, and stood staring at the useless telescreens, apparently trying to plan a next move. My group decided that there was nothing further that we could do at this base. After quick goodbyes, we boarded the car and headed for the tube room. Fifteen minutes later we emerged at the Archimedes end of a high- speed tunnel. The Master said, "While there is a lull in the, uh, fun and games, shall we say, we might be able to complete a tour of this base. Archimedes is our lab section for lunar operations. All scientific research is carried out within this complex.

       "We'll start with the electronics lab, since of course our Terran bodyguard here has a passion for that field of endeavor." We enjoyed his little joke, and as we walked toward a small room ahead of us, Astra confided to me, "You can guard MY body ANYTIME."
       "Are you sure you can trust me? I’m lecherous, you know."
       "Hmmm. That does put things in a new perspective, and yet.... you're hired, sport, I’ll take the risk."
       "Game girl. I like that."

       The Master resumed his spiel. "This is a unique feature of this base. There are no corridors or connecting passageways in the entire complex. All rooms are instead joined by this closed teleportation system. We set our destination on this panel, so..... step through the door, and we're there. Follow me, please."
       "Why," I asked no one in particular, "does this give me an uneasy feeling?" Nobody offered an answer, nor was one expected.

       We walked single file through this unique doorway, just as anyone would travel from room to room in a house. As I entered, the peculiar tingling sensation and the instant of blankness, as my body was dematerialized and reassembled at the receiver, renewed themselves in my mind. Once before I had used this fantastic means of transportation, in my tour of the undersea California base. This is a frankly indescribable sensation that must be felt to be understood.

       Their entire technology seemed to be so beyond our scope that they took for granted forces and capabilities which are still the dreams of science-fiction writers. It seems difficult to believe that these people can enter a code and be transmitted electronically halfway across the galaxy if need be, with no more concern than we would give to driving a car to the corner drugstore. Their daily lives are filled with these miraculous creations, and they are accepted matter-of factly, just as we use a radio, electric range, or telephone with indifference to the wonder behind them. It is truly said that familiarity breeds contempt.

       Returning to the story. we arrived in a spacious, hypermodern engineering laboratory that any Terran scientist would give his right arm to see, not to mention actually working here. This room had a strictly business-like arrangement, with no frills or unnecessary accoutrements. On racks of shelves and compactly arranged tables, there were a thousand devices alien to us, used for unguessed purposes.

       Shortly, an engineer who introduced himself as Agran-Eltar offered his services as a guide, to explain some of these little wonders to me if I so desired. This was tantamount to dangling a steak before a hungry dog, and we wasted no time beginning our tour. Our first stop was at a cabinet replete with a hundred odd looking devices of various descriptions. He took out a box about the size of a transistor radio. It had one square plastic button in its center. On his instruction, I pressed it. It appeared that nothing whatever had happened, and maybe the thing wasn't working, or.... he noted my confusion, and pointed out. "It's very definitely working. I'm going to show you. Have implicit faith in what I am going to do. You won’t be harmed.

       He took from a drawer an awesome-looking weapon of Terran manufacture. "This is a .45 caliber pistol with the heaviest load available on Earth, silenced for our comfort." He abruptly swung it up, took point-blank aim at my chest, and fired a round, then another. In a few seconds he had emptied the clip at me. Each time he shot, I felt a dull thud, like being tapped with a finger, and watched in awe as the bullets vaporized in a flash of light.

       He placed the gun on the table near us and said, "You seem to be still alive. How does it feel to be shot with enough firepower to destroy an automobile engine? " I had no ready reply to that one, so he continued. ”This is what we call a skin-effect force field. It forms itself around the body of its user like a second skin, protecting him from every firearm known to Earth. Unfortunately, it won't stop disruptor blasts. We're working on that problem now. However, you would be invulnerable on your home world. Let me show you a few devices that would make you literally invincible.

       When I had returned the force-field generator, he gave me yet another little case. Taking it, I turned it per his instructions. Again, apparently nothing happened. He suggested that I try touching the ceiling. Still half-dazed, I reached upward. As I did, my body shot into the air. Panicked, I tried to stop. My motion was arrested instantly. It took some moments to stop shaking and to regain control. I must have been quite a sight, hovering silently near the ceiling, with no support at all.

       "How do I get down?" I asked, somewhat unnerved by this unusual situation. He replied matter-of-factly, ”Try." I did, and within a second I was solidly on the ground again. "This apparatus is a combination psychprobe and gravity control. In use, the person need only think of going somewhere, and this little box will bring him there. It depends entirely upon signals from the brain, and is in fact controlled by it exclusively. Just as you would unconsciously walk across this room, so a trained user of this device could as routinely fly there. It takes but a few days to make it an automatic, almost reflex control. It becomes, in essence, a muscle which operates at your will, and you need only visualize yourself flying to do so.

       ”Actually, it is similar to driving an automobile. You don't consciously tell your arm to turn the wheel, press the brake, or shift the gear-lever. It is conditioned reflex. You do it without thinking, letting your attention be directed to the road ahead."

       With this explanation in mind, I decided to make a short test flight, to try out my wings, so to speak. I traveled upward very slowly at first, until the technique began to firm itself in my mind. The device was reacting to my mind in a feedback loop. Gradually, my apprehensions having been alleviated, I decided to attempt a little aerobatics. The box responded instantaneously to my every command, and I spun myself about in a dizzying series of flips, cartwheels, dives, and spins. Finally, I brought myself back to the floor and reluctantly handed the pocket-sized flying machine to Agran. "I have GOT to get me one of these!" I said with unconcealed enthusiasm. "It made me feel like Superman."

       He grinned, and said, ”With the devices in this cabinet you could have all of his powers, and a number he never dreamed of - invisibility, mind control of environment, and immunity to Kryptonite, to name a few." His last rather dubious benefit brought laughter to the assemblage, and we moved over to a work table on which stood three large projector-like machines.

       "These are most interesting, and we use them extensively in our work. The unit on the right is capable of locking onto a single molecule or atom and tracking it throughout the test sample. It in turn guides the scanning beams of these other two components, the center one being connected to a display screen to give us a visual image of the selected particle as well as of its environment, in three dimensions. The unit on the left is capable of freezing microcosmic motion at any point we desire, literally stopping time within the sample.

       "With these three instruments, we have learned more about the nature of matter than with any other machine we have used in a thousand years. We have literally cracked the secrets of nature, and this has enabled us to design equipment capable of doing anything with matter and energy that we may see fit to do. From this has come teleportation, transmutation of elements, high-temperature superconductors, and direct, reversible matter-energy conversion for power sources. Even now, we can build a million-watt generating device into a case the size of a cigar box, and with the superconductors for power transmission, it is perfectly useful in portable power supplies, carried on the person.

       "In fact, we have done preliminary tests on personal communicators that will reach out over ten light years in sub-space, that will fit onto into a shirt pocket with room to spare."

       Every bit of new information impressed me still further. There could be no doubt in my mind now that Korendor is in fact the most highly advanced planet in the galaxy for science and technology. He continued, pointing out that bulky fuel cells, atomic generators, and the rest would be obsolete in a very few years, now that this energy-from-matter source has been finally controlled and harnessed. The ship that had brought us to the moon used such a power supply, the size of an office desk, with a peak output capability of some 10,000 megawatts intermittent, It had the power necessary to run a city for years, stored right in its depths. It was capable of making twelve round trips across our galaxy without replacing its ’fuel' supply.

       I could only consider the amateurish attempts to get to the moon that we carry on now. We have long since disallowed interstellar flights beyond a few light years, blissfully unaware that such flights were being made in the wink of an eye, or the space of a breath, by beings so far beyond our conception as to make a full understanding of them an impossible task. And yet, these same people have retained their human nature. We do find it possible to identify with them and they with us. This is truly the greatest mystery of all, and we should be thankful that it is so, without attempting to rationalize or to explain it to ourselves. We are the students, they are the teachers. Let that suffice.


© 2009 Robert P. Renaud -- all rights reserved