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Second Moon Trip

28 July 1967

Part One

       As my regular readers will recall, the contact of early December of last year was not one of extreme serenity and, as a result of the various experiences and occurrences which transpired on those two days, the occasions for really comprehensive study of our moon were abbreviated. Therefore, on the 20'th of this month, my Korendian friends made contact with me via our usual radio channel, and informed me that if I were willing, they would enjoy taking me again to the moon, this time for an opportunity to learn the answers to many questions which have come up since man has been pondering the lunar surface and its mysteries, and further, to correct many impressions given by the widely divergent reports of the contactees who claim to have been there, and who saw such interesting features as flowers, furry animals, lakes, and the like, while strolling the countryside. Of these I will only say that the old grain-of-salt adage is a wise policy to follow.

       The events of the morning began at 0145, with a short communication with their base control on the moon, making arrangements and final instructions. I went outside about five minutes early, to enjoy the cool, silent atmosphere of the morning, with only the stars and the crickets for company. The five minutes passed in a flash, and at precisely two AM a low swish from overhead signaled the arrival of a small scoutcraft. I watched as it descended to within a foot of the ground and hovered silently, awaiting my entry.

       I was aboard in a few seconds, and while the dome closed about me, I made a scan of the skies, looking for the circle of darkness that would be this scout's carrier. After a three-time scrutiny, none of which revealed the expected mother craft, I switched on the communicator, identified myself, and queried, "Well, where did you folks hide the carrier this fine morning? " In reply, a familiar voice, that of Lin-Erri, said, "No carrier today, Bob. This little scout is equipped for deep space. We'll expect you in the Plato base in an hour or less."

       After the initial shock wore off, during which period I had sat staring numbly upward, contemplating what had been said, and musing on the late date for an April Fool joke, I finally asked, "You expect me to fly this clear to the moon, right?"
       ”That's right."
       ”OK. I give up. What's the punch line?"
       "We’re quite serious, Bob. There are only a few minor differences between atmosphere and deep-space travel, which you'll discover along the way."
       "Thanks loads. You don't know how much comfort that gave me."
       "We thought you'd be delighted."
       "I’ll bet you did. Well, here goes nothing."

       The controls were laid out in a manner almost identical to those of my personal craft, so that familiarization was unnecessary. Drawing back on the V/B* stick, I brought the scout some two miles up, and using the O/V** stick to tilt it almost vertically, I set the controls for linear acceleration and sat back for what I felt certain would be an uneventful trip through space.

       Within seconds I had shot beyond the atmosphere, and watched as the slight glow at the fringes of the scout's propulsive field first brightened, then dimmed and vanished. An occasional flash of light indicated a micrometeor slamming into the protective screen about the craft. I watched the velocity indicator as the craft accelerated. The velocity stabilized at a bit over 350,000 miles an hour.

       Switching on the viewscreen, I panned until the Earth was centered in the image, and watched as it shrunk into the distance. For a long moment, I pondered that azure globe that receded behind me, thinking about how beautiful it looked from this high vantage point so many thousands of miles out in space. Truly it was a sight that would awe even the most cynical and hardened individual, a glorious panorama that would bring second thoughts about man's eagerness to blast its surface into sterility with his eternally war-mongering attitudes.

       My reverie was broken from a voice which crackled in the communicator. "Attention, small scoutcraft. This is Patrol ship AGP-01668, Danel-Vordek speaking. Identify yourself, please."
       Quickly, I replied, "This is an Alliance scoutcraft, registration KBS-14862, Bob Renaud of Earth in command. Good morning."
       Danel, sounding a bit puzzled, said, "Good morning to you. Did you say you're an Earthman?"
       "Quite so, brother."
       "This is quite irregular indeed. By whose authority do you have that, craft, brother? This is not to question the fact, as you most certainly didn't get it WITHOUT authority. I am, however, very much curious as to who would permit a Terran to operate an Alliance craft."

       I was about to tell him, when a very imposing, and very familiar voice saved me the effort. "This is Master Kalen-Li RETAN. Bob has my full authorization to pilot this or any other small scout. Is this satisfactory, my son?"

       Danel spoke as though he had heard the voice of his dear, departed great-grandmother. "Yes, sir. I'm very sorry. I didn't know... " He cut off in mid-sentence, apparently trying to shake off the stunned feeling that was evident by the tone his voice.

       The Master said, "Quite all right, Danel-Vordek. Your duty is to question such matters. Proceed with your patrol. Kalen-Li clearing from Plato Control."

       As his voice faded away, I caught sight of the Patrol craft to my right, running parallel to me about a mile away. I flashed my running lights in a recognized pattern of acknowledgement of another ship, and the police craft responded the same way. When he had completed his signal, Danel said, "Well, Bob, I'll know which Terran to look for the next time. If you will accept my apology for my abruptness, I'll be on my way." I acknowledged his transmission, and a few seconds later the patrol ship veered off and disappeared into space. I was again alone in the void.

       I was about fifteen minutes away from the moon when a thought occurred to me. There have been, in a few contact cases, a reference to a phenomenon known as the “black sun". According to this theory, the light from the sun is actually invisible, and becomes visible only upon passage through the atmosphere. In space, it is allegedly impossible to see the sun. I decided to once and for all answer this silly notion with the facts. I of course could not expect to use my eyes for a final refutation, as I was, after all, in an atmosphere within the scout. Therefore, I switched on the externally mounted and therefore airless telescreen camera, and observed on the screen the flaming, glowing ball of yellow-white heat that is our parent star. This was the final refutation. It is one thing to see a conversion of light in an atmosphere, and quite another for the light to be recorded and reproduced by a vacuum-surrounded electronic camera. This served as the final word on the subject. The sun is not black, but indeed it is very hot and very bright, atmosphere notwithstanding. I leaned back into the comfortable seat, and enjoyed the rest of the flight, content in my knowledge that one favorite theory of the fringe contactees had been blasted to dust.

       Thirty-five minutes after leaving Earth, I was in the lunar skies. I decided to kill a few moments, and began a short cruise at low level to lay to rest a few more stories. As I skimmed along the mountains, craters, rills, and valleys, I was impressed by the singular lack of any form of life. There was no vegetation, no insects, no animals - just barren, parched, sand and rock as far as the eye could see.

       Tiny craterlets were in uncountable abundance. As I looked toward a manned vehicle travelling along the upper slopes of a low crater's wall, a puff of dust caught my eye. As I watched, it rose some thirty feet into the air and dropped back with abnormal slowness, even for the moon. Further, it seemed to drift slightly while settling, as if due to a breeze. I dropped my ship to within a few feet of the seared ground, switched off the shield and hovered, noticing how the dust cloud rolled slowly by me, to settle some sixty feet beyond the crater that now existed where a meteor had just impacted. There would be no doubt - there is a very thin atmosphere of some form, at least near the ground.

       When the dust began to settle on the scout's hull, I decided it was time to move on, as my Korendian friends awaited my arrival. Resuming my former altitude, I swung the ship around, and headed for Plato, guided by the regularly placed marker transmitters along the way. In a few minutes, I arrived at a familiar spot, and stopped for a moment to look on in wide-eyed wonder. Directly to my right, in the side of a mountain, a huge, reflectionless glass window overlooked the at once grotesque and lovely landscape. I recalled those precious moments almost eight months ago, when I had spent a few rapturous minutes alone with my lovely star lady, Astra Lari, contemplating the wonders of the heavens and of our own emotions. With this pleasant thought in mind, I glided across the floor of Plato. Two minutes later I was over the opening to the underground hangars.

       After a quick series of identifications and codes, the iris spun open, and I descended into the bowels of the moon. On the far end of the hangar, a group of people apparently awaited my arrival, so I made haste to land this scout in a convenient berth, and half-walked, half-ran to meet them. The familiar faces that greeted me belonged to Orii-Val, Kalen-Li, Darrin-Sen, and Lin-Erri. After a moment of renewed acquaintance, we headed off toward the exit. I felt a twinge of regret that my pretty princess was not present, but accepted the fact without comment. There would be many more opportunities to see her and share in her world.

       We made our way through the exit, and entered a reception room. I showed my clearance card and received an ID badge from the young lady attendant, who smiled at my companions. We left the room by a side door, and entered a waiting lounge. It was not large as their lounges go, but was nonetheless every bit as lovely, and no less than their best. The Master bade me to wait there for a moment while they attended to some details, saying that they would return shortly. As they left the room, I began to feel anew that little touch of regret and disappointment, and a new sensation, that of loneliness.

       I decided to try my best to push the thoughts from my mind by concentrating on other matters less personal. I began to review in my mind the novel discovery of a lunar "wind”, when from someplace behind me, a soft, gentle voice called my name. All else was forgotten in that instant, as I spun around to face the bearer of that sweet voice, and knowing at that same instant that they had not neglected any detail. It was so typical of them that I should have known from the start that she was not forgotten.

       Standing about ten feet away, with a radiant beauty unlike anything I had ever before seen, was my Astra. It was like a shot of electricity to me, an exhilaration that made me want to shout for joy. She ran toward me, threw her arms about me, and we shared a long, wonderful kiss. When we ended that moment of aetherial bliss, she looked into my eyes in a way which sent delicious tingles racing up my spine and caused my pulse to quicken. Though she wore a smile of joy, a tear or two glistened like dewdrops on her cheek as she whispered, ”I missed you, darling!" Gently I brushed away the little droplets, confessing, "I never thought eight months could be so like eternity. It might sound corny, but I've counted the hours. Now, what say we take a little advantage of the occasion, princess."

       She backed away from me a few feet, and asked quietly, "Do I look different to you tonight? I spent hours preparing for this moment." I could only nod in agreement. There was something remarkably different, and the difference was spectacular. No, I take that back. There were a number of things, subtle changes, combining in a most captivating manner. The way her hair fell like a golden veil about her face and shoulders, the slightest trace of cosmetics that perfected her already exquisitely beautiful face, the delicate fragrance of some outrageously costly perfume, the poise with which she held herself. Everything, like pieces in a puzzle, united to form an entirely new image, one that made me more than ever aware of my feelings toward her, and revealed her innermost feelings toward me. My spirits soared like an eagle, to a new height of happiness and peace.

       The difference became more obvious to me by the second. When last we were together, I had been with a girl, grown up in every way, but nonetheless, a girl. Now there stood before me a polished work of art, a block of marble that had been chiseled, engraved, and formed into a masterpiece of everlasting elegance. In the eight long months that had intervened since our last meeting, she had become mature. She had put aside the ways, the mannerisms, the appearances of the girl, for the alluring charm and grace of a young woman. Never again would she mean the same to me. Gone were my unavoidable feelings of brotherly fondness for her. I felt welling up within me the age-old emotions that mark the beginning of a mature and lasting relationship, the harbingers of that fanciful, yet irresistible state of perpetual euphoria called love.

       Although it seemed like merest seconds, our group finally rejoined us, and informed us that fully fifteen minutes had passed since that first thrilling moment. So, without further dalliance, we left the lounge, and seated ourselves in an electric car outside the main doorway. With a silent surge of power, we headed for an elevator at the far end of the corridor. A few minutes later, we stopped near one of the three large entry doors on this huge shaft, and waited for the platform to reach our level. As it did, the curved door slid up out of sight, with the muffled sound of a hydraulic cylinder. Once we entered, the door closed, the massive platform smoothly accelerated, and we headed for points downward.

       Our descent lasted perhaps ten seconds, and we slowed to a smooth stop. The panel opposite our entry point disappeared into the ceiling, and we drove out into a room from which ran six equally-spaced hallways, like the spokes of a wheel, each one dwindling to a tiny square at the far end about a mile away. We took one labeled #3, and quickly reached an apparently blank wall at its end. The Master placed his security card on a metal plate near the corner of the corridor, and with a distinctly audible pop, the wall vanished. I had once before seen this type of dematerializing doorway, but still I was startled as it abruptly vanished. "If I live to be a hundred, I'll never become accustomed to that."

       The room beyond the wall was not exposed to view at first. An odd mist drifted about us as we drove through a short tunnel. Curious, I asked about its function, and Orii explained, "The mist is a form of antiseptic that cleanses our clothing of all contaminants of organic nature. This is what we call, in your vernacular, the superclean room. We thought it might interest you, as we are in the midst of cultivating a number of lichen-like plants and several insects that we found outside a few days ago. It shook us up a great deal.

       We deboarded at a ramp, and in turn, stopped at a structure that looked like a telephone booth with two entrances. As I went into it when our friends had passed through, it seemed that everything had suddenly gone silent. I felt a most unusual sensation of heating in my skin. When it stopped, a draft of warm air blew down from above for about fifteen seconds. As it subsided, the exit door opened, and I stepped out to rejoin the troop. The expression on my face must have told of my questions. Darrin-Sen offered an unasked-for description. "That device is an ultrasonic cleaner. It literally disintegrates contaminants as dust, dirt, or oily materials. Once they are reduced to molecular dimensions, you are given a slight electrical charge. The walls are oppositely charged, which attracts the particles. They enter the surrounding air, and the draft carries them to a microfine filter assembly that removes them from the air. In short, you have just taken an electronic bath.

       I looked at my fingernails, which, when I had come here, had borne traces of the previous day's work under my car. They were spotless. I shook my head in amazement and commented, "This will ruin the soap business."

       The group enjoyed my musing, and Orii said, "It will do wonders for reducing water pollution, you must admit." I couldn't argue with that. Anything that would alleviate the unsightly blight on our national image would be welcomed with arms extended;

       "The life forms," the Master said, "are in that enclosed area." We stopped in front of it and observed it via one of the telescreen monitors. There were a half-dozen insects visible, somewhat similar to beetles, with very large thoracic regions, sturdy legs and diminutive eyes. Their bodies seemed to expand and contract at regular intervals, as if from breathing. The technician who had joined us affirmed that this is precisely what they were doing.

       ”These are the most unusual creatures we’ve ever encountered," he explained. "Actually, they are a good part plant. Let me elaborate, As you know, the little air, if it could be called air, that we have found is primarily carbon dioxide, with the remainder being other heavy gases. The body of this insect is a miniature chemical reactor. In the region where we found it, there is a natural abundance of calcium, magnesium, and aluminum hydroxides. The insect literally eats these minerals, and they are sent into its catalytic organs, as we have named them. There, through a process which we are still studying, the hydroxides are broken down. The metals are expelled as waste, and the hydroxyl radicals are stored. These hydrogen-oxygen units pass into the insect's second catalytic organ, where a process very similar to photosynthesis takes place, using the CO2 in the 'air' to form carbohydrates, upon which the insect subsists. It obtains its body moisture the same way. We consider this the most complete case of adaptation to an environment on record. The conditions in this chamber are identical to those where we found the creatures. We are studying these animals closely, to learn exactly how this transformation from mineral to carbohydrates is accomplished. It might prove to be a new and valuable way of making foodstuffs and water on planets devoid of either.

       "In this other case, we have the plant life we mentioned. We found it in a natural cavern not far from here, living in an atmosphere that would be almost instantly fatal to any normal life form. We know nothing about it as yet, but our studies will begin in earnest later this morning.

        "This,” I said with awe, "would seem to be proof of the old theory that life will exist wherever it is even remotely possible. It would seem to be contrary to every known law of biology to find such totally alien life forms, but here they are.” The thought lingered with me for a long while, as I watched the 'beetles' scurrying about in their case, occasionally stopping long enough to chew at a piece of rock or to crumble and devour some of the dust and powder beneath their feet. I could offer no explanation for the existence of these two anomalies, except to credit them to some high authority in the unknown realms who is partial to life.

Part Two

       We left the room after about twenty minutes, and reentered our car. We headed back for the central room, and in a minute were on our way to another long corridor, Once again, we came upon a blank wall that evaporated in response to e security card. We entered what seemed to be a garage, with a number of impressive-looking ground vehicles in numerous berths around the walls, and a repair shop in the center of the room. To one side, a number of small, single-person vehicles attracted my attention. Looking like a motor scooter without wheels, they rested instead on a flat plate on their underside. We went over to that area, and withdrew from the racks six of these scooters. We registered their numbers on a control panel that then issued cards coded to activate each one, a sort of electronic key. We took these cards and passed through a nearby door into a locker room. It was divided into men's and ladies' sections. Lin-Erri and Astra went one way, we men went the other.

       Once in the men's section, Orii sized me up, and removed from a cabinet what seemed to be a light weight space suit, complete with air tanks, recirculators and purifiers. I followed their instructions, and in about two minutes I had fastened the last of the sealing strips. the helmet, seemingly of fiberglass and light plastics, weighed next to nothing when I put it on. A large visor, taking up almost half of the helmet’s surface, allowed a wide range of view, with absolutely no internal reflection or distortion. I had to rap the view plate a few times to assure myself that it was in fact there.

       Altogether, the suit, resembling a one-piece ski outfit, weighed perhaps twenty pounds complete. The power and air pack added about eight pounds to the total, not at all uncomfortable. As soon as the helmet was in place, Orii switched on our air conditioning, and in seconds the was enjoying the delightful feeling of cool, pure air. He then activated the suit communicator, and told me that anytime I wanted to talk, just wait for a clear moment and speak. My voice would switch on the transmitter.

       Once suited up. we rejoined the ladies in the garage area. Even under these suits, their distinct femininity showed through very well. I marveled at the way those outfits formed themselves to the contours of the wearer, and silently thanked their inventor that they did. With her blush-pink suit, my Astra would be easy to tell from Lin-Erri, whose suit was light blue. The men's were a uniform gray and red, rather drab, I thought.

       Each of us selected one of the scooters, and climbed aboard. The older folks were familiar with them, but Astra and I were novices, and simply sat dumbfounded. The Master laughed heartily, and proceeded to demonstrate one to us, by riding it around the immediate area in a series of intricate maneuvers. He swung around next to us, and pointed out a trio of switches that we must close in sequence.

       The first caused a whirring beneath the seats, which he explained was a stabilizing gyroscope, to rule out tipping over, sway, or uncontrolled turns. The second switch activated the flotation grid. The little scooter rose about six inches off the floor and hovered there. I bounced up and down a few times, noting the resiliency of the flotation field. It responded like springs under my weight, although there was no noticeable bounce that I did not directly cause. The third switch activated the propulsion, which was controlled by a foot pedal. Press it, and the thing moves forward. Release it and it stops. As simple as that.

       I took a trial spin, slowly at first, but gradually faster as I became accustomed to its operation. Turning the 'handlebars' turned it the same way as a regular scooter. The unit compensated for our every turn and twist, banking enough to allow me to remain perfectly vertical with respect to the seat. There was no tendency whatever to slide sideways on sharp turns, and I was in absolute control of its motion every instant. It would make driving a car seem very complex by comparison.

       With the training period over, we slid silently above the floor toward a small elevator, and once aboard, we started to rise. We were perhaps ten feet below the surface when we stopped. An iris spun open above us, and the platform rose until it became flush with the ground level. As the last of us left it, it disappeared back into its shaft and the iris reclosed. Its top was camouflaged to resemble the terrain, so it was nearly invisible to us.

       The first thing I did as to look about, trying to drink in all the stark beauty of the lunar landscape, enhanced by the sun in the lower eastern sky, which cast weird shadows of almost pure blackness. Testily, I climbed off my scooter, and stood firmly on the surface. It crunched under my feet, as the various sizes of pebbles shifted under my weight. Yet, it was an odd sensation, because the much lower gravity enabled me to stand with no effort at all. In fact, all my muscular activity, no longer fighting Earth's gravity, became considerably easier. Reaching down, I picked up a rock, which on Earth would have weighed a couple of pounds, brought back my arm, and threw it with a mighty thrust. It arced upward some hundreds of feet, and descended with a disconcerting slow-motion. Finally, it hit some two hundred feet from where I stood, bounced off of a rock, and in another easy arc, hit a spot ten feet farther away.

       A small puff of dust rose upward and drifted to one side as it settled back to the lunar surface. That 'wind' again. I could feel no trace of atmosphere, and yet these fine particles were borne by it over a distance of almost four feet, evidence that it does exist in trace quantity. It certainly wouldn't be breathable, but it is capable of carrying thin dust.

       As I turned to face my party, a thump of the ground under our vehicles, which I felt because I was standing on it, signaled the hit of a rather large meteoroid. I pointed out the fact and a quick scan showed where it had hit the surface. A dust cloud soma forty feet high marked the impact point. I leaped aboard my scooter, and we headed for the spot. When we arrived, I was the first one on the scene, with Astra close behind. It had been a substantial chunk of rock, to be sure, perhaps three to four inches in diameter. It had blasted a crater some fourteen feet wide and several feet deep at the center, which afforded me a view of the ground beneath the surface. The upper six to eight inches were the granular stones and pebbles. Below that the ground became very hard and dense, turning into rock about two feet down.

       Evidently, then, our astronomers are quite correct in their assumptions about the moon's surface, and their interpretations of the Surveyor photos had been quite accurate. Orii, noting my thoughts, commented, "Your recent lunar probes have been quite sophisticated devices, for a race such as yours that applies nearly all its scientific advances to the art of destruction. I must commend them for that, and say that it does show hope for the future." I thanked him for his somewhat unusual compliment to our people, and returned to observing the immediate area.

       There were the usual number of large and small craters, and a few odd ones. I counted almost a dozen long gouges in the gravel, evidence of meteors that had come in on a low trajectory and had torn up the ground horizontally as well as vertically, upon hitting the surface. Leading off toward the mountains at the crater's edge were an unusual series of elongated holes in a long straight line. The Master explained that a rather large meteor had come in almost parallel to the ground and had bounced over a hundred times before smashing itself on rocks along the crater wall. This was a rare occurrence, he said, as the meteors usually hit the walls rather than following such a path. He added that they had followed the line of the holes and had discovered a spot on the opposite wall where the meteor had ripped off a chunk of a mountain peak on its flight, which apparently deflected it into a more nearly level flight.

       In the distance, I was fascinated by the seeming closeness of the horizon. The far wall was invisible beyond the curve of the lunar surface, and the limit of vision seemed to be scant few miles at most. Earth was visible, hanging about halfway to the zenith, in the southern sky. It was a most awesome sight, like a giant bluish half moon, brilliantly glowing in the sun's rays. On the dark side one could almost see the lights of the largest cities, like specks of fire in the darkness. An occasional flash signified the presence of a large electrical storm sending forth its billion-volt spears of lightning to sear the ground beneath in its fury.

       My eye was caught by a hint of motion above us. Looking up, I saw a large carrier ship gliding over our heads, with its landing lights flashing in a pattern of greeting. The ship drifted toward the south, stopped, and descended to a point below the horizon, doubtless entering one of the main openings to the underground hangars. Seconds later, a large, treaded ground car rumbled by us, returning from a research trip, I supposed. The Master signaled them, and headed in that direction. He returned after conversing with its driver for a few minutes, and joined us in watching it lumber toward the west wall and begin a slow, but steady climb toward the top, where it was lost to sight as it moved behind an intervening peak.

       Orii pointed to a cave in the nearest part of the crater wall, and we took off in that direction. Astra and I allowed ourselves to drift behind the main group a few hundred yards, until we thought the privacy was sufficient. She pulled up close to my own sled, turned her transceiver output down to a gnat's whisper, and told me softly, "This is almost as romantic as watching the moon from the Earth, and much more exciting." I concurred with her thoughts, but countered, "Some warm night. when the air is just so, and the crickets are singing, and the fireflies are flashing, I'll take you out to some secluded lake shore, where we can loll under a big tree and appreciate the beauty of the moonlight on the water. Of course, I may not do too very much moon-watching, but that's a calculated risk you'll take by going with me." She laughed sweetly, and replied, "I'll take the risk, darling." Moving just a little closer, she leaned toward me until our helmets almost touched, and whispered, "One other thing, mialani. I love you."

       The words were as the song of a lark to my ears. I could feel a new warmth and well-being surging through my very being, now aware more than ever of the bonds that tied me to her, growing with each day to new heights of happiness. I reached out and touched her hand, and in her native tongue, told her, "May ama aven alad, mialana." She said nothing, but I could sense her feelings, and words were not needed. We were oblivious to all but each other. The moon could have been a rose garden, or a verdant meadow. The moment was one of joyous serenity, that somehow gave new life to the starkness and barrenness about us.

       Everything seemed less desolate to me, and I began to appreciate the power of that emotional narcotic, that state of selective blindness that allows you to see only the good, the beautiful, and the wonderful things of life. I knew that there was no longer any hope for me. I had become addicted to the oldest and most gratifying of man's emotions, and was content to thus remain.

       Our rapport lasted but a few minutes, being abruptly interrupted by the good natured mockery of Orii, who called out, "Let's hurry, you two. There are better things to do with our time than waste it on that love nonsense." I was about to fire off a rejoinder when Lin Erri advised, "Just ignore him, kids. He's jealous."

       With a tone of feigned hurt, he said, "After living so long with the beauty and perfection of mathematics, you can accuse me of being jealous of something as imperfect and as useless as love?"
       Kalen decided to enter the repartee, commenting, "Orii is right, of course. Love tends to make a man inefficient and ruins his sense of practicality and value." Darrin completed the round robin, adding, ”I agree a hundred percent. I think it ought to be abolished as a menace to mental stability."
       Astra jumped into the fray, with an indignant, "Hah! You...you incorrigible... BACHELORS! Your hearts are nothing but hydraulic circulators. No wonder you don't love. It wasn't programmed into you!"

       Lin-Erri shot in a quick, elated, "TOUCHE!", after which I threw my hands up in an attitude of affected frustration, and in my most pleading voice, said, "Please, brothers! Let us have PEACE and HARMONY. Let us not forget ourselves in a moment of passion, lest we become no better than those we spurn. I have spoken. So shall it be."
       "You stay out of this, you agitator type. You haven't been rational since you found your little mialana in the lounge. Besides, I was just beginning to enjoy this, and now you want to spoil all my fun. Fink!” Orii sounded as mean as he could manage, while trying to suppress the laughter that one could detect beneath his counterfeit pique. Astra addressed me in a stage whisper, saying, "Speaking of being emotional...." to which Orii fired back. "I AM NOT emotional. I'M NOT! I'M NOT! So there.“
       I injected, "The great Orii-Val is being EMOTIONAL! Listen to THAT, world."

       Kalen-Li finally ended the festivities, informing us, "Our destination is at hand, if anyone is interested." And so it was. We stopped at the mouth of a large tunnel that snaked out of sight into the depths of the mountain. We switched on the scooter lights and twisted our way in as far as our sleds would carry us, and then going on foot through the rest of the passageway. After about three minutes of walking, we came into a large cavern in which had been built, eons before, a small town. It had been preserved perfectly, though its age must have been several million years. We cautiously navigated the narrow stairway hewn into the rock, and descended to the ground level some thirty feet below the tunnel. We walked along what appeared to be the main street. The buildings were remarkably well kept, with only an occasional crack, missing masonry, or crumbling mortar to be seen.

       To be sure, there was nothing ornate about the architecture. Everything was simple and quite plain, without embellishments. It seemed as though this place had some very businesslike purpose, rather than being merely a settlement.

       The Master began a commentary on our surroundings.

       "This establishment has been determined to be a sort of base, a headquarters for a race of aliens who arrived on this moon over ten million Earth years ago. They were treated as gods by the backward inhabitants of the moon, who themselves were the degenerate descendants of a previous visitation by a vasty advanced race that had terraformed the moon, as you might call it. They constructed this section as a temple for them to use during their stay. Due to its underground location, it is the only remnant of a nuclear war which broke out between these aliens and another group of highly advanced but culturally primitive natives who had their main domed city in the location that is now the crater Copernicus. This race took offense at the ingress of the aliens into their domain, and demanded their withdrawal or face annihilation. The aliens refused, and defied the Lunarians to do anything to them, without themselves being obliterated.

       "Things had reached a stalemate, and remained so for some ten years, during which time both sides stockpiled immense reserves of weaponry of increasing power and sophistication. Finally, the Lunarians made a sudden, mass attack on the alien base on the surface, almost totally destroying it. They had not known of this under-surface HQ, or it would not be here today. From various points surrounding the main Lunarian city, missiles were launched at it, each one bearing lithium bombs. They met in midair, and exploded simultaneously, in the most awesome blast one can conceive. The city was instantaneously vaporized, and the explosion blasted out the crater that exists today as Copernicus. It also had another effect, much more deadly.

       "Our computers have placed the odds at over fifty billion to one, after much computation based on available data. Because of the combinations of gases that formed the atmosphere on this low-gravity body, the blast acted as a trigger that initiated an explosion of the atmosphere. In a sheet of blistering, self-propogating flame, the atmosphere underwent a continuous chemical reaction, of an intensity too staggering to estimate. This wall of fury spread like a huge ripple of fire from the center of the blast, and in less than an hour it had completely encompassed the moon. The explosion also blew away the mantle of atmosphere into space.

       "In its wake was total devastation. All organic forms had been seared to ash, without exception. Plant and animal alike had been reduced to almost nothingness, The buildings, the vehicles, and the rest of the artifacts, were vaporized or pulverized into dust by a shock wave which defies description, and a heat in the tens of thousands of degrees.

       "It was over in an hour. The surface of the moon had been stripped clean of every trace of life. In its place was a bleak, airless, arid wasteland, slowly cooling in the cold vacuum of space. This town is all that remains. It escaped the wall of fire that wiped out the surface. However, the air was sucked out when the atmosphere was ejected. Everyone in this cavern died almost instantly.

       "All that I have said has been determined from records found in this town. They recorded even the final moments of life, and the hell that ended it so suddenly."

       Everyone was silent, each with his own thoughts. Somehow, I felt that he was addressing himself more to me than to the others, as well he might. Even now we possess the capability to do the selfsame thing to our lovely Earth, on a much grander scale. The thought was sobering, and made ma want to pray for the advent of sanity before it is too late.

       We finished our brief tour of this ghost town in silence, occasionally stopping to look in varying degrees of horror at perfectly preserved corpses, lying where they had fallen ten thousand millenia in the past, the airlessness preserving their bodies far better than even the best form of mummification. It was a grotesque, distressing place, and we expressed mutual relief when we finally left it behind, heading back for the base. Our return trip was silent, the memories of that bizarre town still fresh and still frightening to contemplate. Only when we had reentered the garage did the Master break the stillness. "We have one more place to show you, Bob, on this trip." As we walked toward the exit, he continued, "You and your people have long puzzled at the appearance of the hidden side of the moon. You are about to see it for yourself."

       The thought excited me beyond words. Here was the opportunity to confirm or deny the reports given by various of my counterparts at one time or another. This would be the last word, so to speak.

       After a few minutes of travelling through the maze of corridors in our electric car, we arrived at a small scoutcraft hangar. One had already been prepared for us and awaited our entry. It was of the domed type, and comfortably sat the six of us in its bucket seats. The dome sealed over us, and we were off. We rose until we stopped within a foot of the ceiling, and hovered while the Master talked in Korendian with the base control. As he finished speaking, an iris opened overhead, and we went through into an airlock. The cycle ran its course, and seconds later we were once again looking out at Plato.

       We skimmed close to the surface for a moment, heading northward. As we reached the wall, the scout arced upward and leveled off at an altitude of about two miles above the highest mountains. I watched as the earth dipped closer to the horizon, finally sinking out of sight behind a low range of hills. We flew onward, for many miles. As I watched the terrain below, I noticed that it seemed a great deal rougher than the other side, with more craters, steeper mountains, and less open land. Here and there a domed base provided a contrast with the rugged, irregular surface features. An occasional ground vehicle made is way through craters and hills, twisting, turning and bouncing along in what seemed to be a hopeless fight against a relentless enemy - the moon itself.

       After seeing what I wanted to see, I observed, "It would seem that this side is like the other, only more so." The Master affirmed my analysis, adding, "The tales of lakes, forests, and sprawling cities are just so much nonsense. You will see more surface bases, of course, since there is no reason to hide them on this side, but otherwise things are pretty much the same on the entire moon."

       "There are more and larger craters, you will notice. This is logical, since on this side, not only is there no Earth to take up a large number of the meteors, but you have the combined gravity of Earth and the moon pulling them down with great force. On the other side, the Earth acts as a shield for many of the incoming meteors, and its gravity slows them down somewhat to lessen their impact on the moon. It is more or less as your own astronomers have projected all along."

       There seemed to be no object in going further, so we turned back and retraced our course, Earth rose once more into the sky, a most welcome sight to my eyes. The ground flashed by under us, and within five minutes were descending into the airlock. The Master informed that dinner had been prepared for our group, and was awaiting us in the restaurant section. Now that he had mentioned it, I did feel hungry, and the thought of food as well-prepared as the rest of their commodities filled me with anticipation.

       The restaurant was but a few minutes from the hangar. As we entered, the singular beauty of this room left me in awe. The lighting was low, from a number of multi-vaned fixtures hanging from the ceiling, which itself glowed ever so slightly in a pink light. The floor was covered by a deep forest-green carpet, contrasting in a beautiful way with the light tan walls, and the mahogany-like furniture. There were a number of most lovely and delicately fragrant plants randomly scattered about the room, adding an aroma that instilled a sense of relaxation and tranquility into us. In the background, a faint music added the final touch. I was informed that it was from the Galaxy Radio Service in a system similar to our Musicon.

       As we took our places at a circular table, an immaculately-dressed waiter brought out a cart with six silver trays bearing covered plates of the finest China. He was quick and efficient at distributing them to us. He rolled the cart aside when he had finished, and from a recess under it, he brought forth six crystal goblets, which he filled with a liquid of the color of honey, and the consistency of thin oil. Placing the container of the liquid in a receptacle in the table's center, he smiled and left us to our feast.

       The ladies removed the covers first, placing them in slots under the edge of the table. We followed suit, and for a moment were content to savor the delicious vapors that wafted toward us. It was a dinner unlike anything I'd ever seen, yet it seemed so Earthly. A thick steak done to the precise way I like it; baked potatoes; green peas in butter sauce; steaming hot rolls. Truly a meal fit for royalty. However, that liquid fascinated me, as I recall reading a description by Adamski of a similar drink. I sipped it, and instantly wished it were on the counters on Earth. It was not especially sweet, but neither was it tart, a sort of delicate balance of the two. It had a flavor not too unlike that of the syrup one finds in fruit cocktail, yet with a noticeable trace of lemon added. Altogether, an absolutely exquisite nectar.

       I decided to take on the steak, eager to sink my teeth into an all-too rare type of meat on my normal bill-of-fare. The knife was most interesting. It began a very low vibration as I took it in hand, and as I drew it across the meat, the hum increased ever so slightly. I might have been slicing air for all the effort I used. Yet, it cut through with surgical precision. Orii explained that it cut by ultra-high-frequency sound generated by circuitry in the handle. It would slice any organic matter short of petrified wood, without any effort at all. As fascinated as I was by this utensil, still I could not turn my attention from that magnificent piece of beef before me. Slicing off a small, bite-sized chunk, I slipped it into my mouth and sampled its flavor. Sheer heaven! There was simply no way to compare it with any previous steak I'd eaten, as it would be like comparing the first taste of champagne to cheap beer. It was simply out of the same league altogether.

       Lin-Erri noticed my appreciation, and asked, "How is it?" I told her, and she stunned me by informing me, "What you are tasting is in fact synthetic meat, grown in nutrient tanks. We long ago dispensed with the brutal practice of raising and butchering animals for food. But, being carnivores by nature, we found this infinitely better substitute. In addition, the nutritional value of these synthetics is a hundred-fold beyond the real thing, with the harmful elements absent as well." I replied that I could not care less where it came from - it was better by far than even the finest of animal meats could ever be.

       We lingered over that repast for about an hour, engaging in small talk as we dined. Fine food with great friends. This was simply too good to rush through, although they made a practice of taking their time with meals in any case, for health reasons, and, I might add, for sheer pleasure. One would not conceive of bolting down this food of the gods.

       As we finished, I checked my watch. 1540 hours. We had been there over thirteen hours, though it seemed like only minutes. Alas, the greatest of pleasures are always the ones which pass so swiftly, leaving only a vivid memory. Yet, I could feel no sorrow, because I knew that there would be many more such wonderful times as these for me in the future, and that my pretty miss would be awaiting me whenever I came. This in itself offered me comfort and lessened the pain of separation.

       Kalen, rising from his chair, said to Astra and me, "Orii, Darren, Lin, and I will be occupied for about an hour with official matters, so if you would like to look around the base, feel free to do so. We'll meet you in the main lounge at 1700. Astra knows where it is." The four of them left, and as they stepped out the door, Orii turned back, and with a sly smile, cautioned, "Try not to get into too much of that lovey stuff, okay? It's bad for your health."

       When they had departed, we took a moment to survey the grand opportunities that presented themselves to us in an hour of unrestrained freedom, doubly enthralled by the prospect of so long a time alone together. Astra, with the glint of stars in her yearning eyes, said softly, "I know just the place to spend an hour, sweetheart. Come on." Taking my hand, she led me a short distance down the hallway and into an elevator, which brought us rapidly upward for what seemed to be several thousand feet. When it stopped, we left, walked along a short corridor, and through a curtained door into a truly exquisite room.

       It was softly illuminated by low-level lighting from multi-colored recessed fixtures in the ceiling. The walls were pale blue, the carpeting a much deeper shade. A number of back-lighted tridim landscape photos were spaced around the walls, lending a most soothing air to the place. The trace of floral fragrance that could be sensed in the air currents contrasted beautifully with her own delicate perfume, the combination acting as a stimulant to my emotions, in a frankly seductive manner.

       She crossed the room, and switched on a control panel. The far wall, heretofore an opaque blue, became transparent, and we looked out from a high vantage point over the still, breathtaking panorama of the mountains, with their high spires, rugged sloped, and stark, stygian shadows. In the skies, the stars seemed as diamonds on a sable tapestry, with Earth like a crown jewel in its center. Our little blue world cast its soft glow into the room, and illuminated it with lovely color. The ceiling lights dimmed and extinguished.

       Touching another button, she activated an audio deck on the console, filling the lounge with a sweet symphonic music. Motioning toward a luxurious couch, she awaited me. When I had joined her, we sat back to enjoy the solitude while it lasted.

       At her invitation, I slipped my arm around her shoulders, offering my own as a place for her lovely head to rest. She accepted it instantly and sighed, like the whisper of a breeze in a willow. She cuddled close to me, cooing her contentment. I could see the little girl, not completely concealed beneath that lovely façade of womanhood. She was like a kitten — soft, gentle, helpless, purring with happiness in the security of my embrace. I couldn't help feeling a hundred feet tall, imagining myself a fearless guardian who would forever protect her from harm, and who would shelter her from the cold, harsh world. Yet, was I her captor, or was I her captive? Was I indeed a prisoner to her whims and desires, and merely living under a delusion that I was the victor, when in fact she ensnared me with her innocent, calculated entrapment, a fate into which I had rushed with my eyes wide open, without seeing anything beyond what I wanted to see? It was of no importance now. The road that one follows is immaterial when the destination is so satisfying. It mattered little now who had captured whom. The ecstasy I enjoyed made such matters fade into insignificance.

       The hour passed in but the space of a breath. I woke her from the peaceful sleep into which she had drifted, with a gentle kiss, and told her, ”Time to go, princess. Our court awaits without." She turned her head, and looked into my eyes with an expression that would have thawed the iciest of souls, and whispered, "I don't ever want to leave here, mialani. May ama aven." The words were like a caress to my heart, and with a conviction borne of an ever-expanding love, I echoed her sentiment, and brought her to me in a final, rapturous kiss that made time itself stand in envy. There was no longer any doubt in my mind about her. There could never be another for me, not as long as the stars still shone, and the sands of eternity still flowed. Though I knew I could never fully possess her in this life, still I took comfort in knowing that death on this planet would bring me true life at last.

Part Three

       As much as it saddened us, we were finally forced to end our intimate reverie and rejoin our four elders in the main lounge. We walked slowly, hand in hand, through the corridors, oblivious to our surroundings, not really noticing the smiling men and women who occasionally passed us in the halls. We did acknowledge two other young couples seeming to be as much distant from reality as were we.

       We arrived at the lounge. I smoothed out my shirt as best I could, combed my tousled hair into some semblance of order, and went in after Astra. Our group pretended not to notice our entry, affecting a conference on some sort of report. I waited for the inevitable jibe from Orii, who didn't fail my expectations. ”You look ill, Bob," he said as he turned to face us. "I warned you that emotionalism could be dangerous to your well-being. but you insist on ignoring my sage advice, based on the accumulated wisdom of over ninety years of life. You'll be sorry.”

       Lin-Erri flashed a look at Orii, at once disapproving and slyly appreciative. He curled his lower lip in a simulated pout, and slid down into the chair like a sulking child whose fingers had been slapped for stealing cookies. Astra nearly collapsed in laughter as I reached over the back of his chair, patted his head gently, and soothingly said, "There now. Wipe off that rainy face, little guy. We love you anyway,” to which he exclaimed in exasperation, "AUGHHH! That word again."

       Astra joined me, leaned over, kissed his forehead, and said, "You are SO cute when you're like this." All that evoked was a disgruntled, "Humph."

       After allowing us our moment of fun, the Master brought things back to a more serious level. "We have only a few hours left, so we might do well to finish our tour of the moon for our young Terran brother. I think that he would be most interested in Mare Criseum." Without further comment, we left for the scout hangar once again. This time dressing in pressure suits before boarding one slightly larger than the one we had used in our excursion to the "dark side" of the moon.

       Once in flight, the Master explained that Mare Criseum was a center of activity at one time for the local planets, who had among other things, built a bridge a little over twelve miles long, arching over the walls of the area to a large area on the edge of the moon as we see it. They still found extensive use for the area, but not nearly so massive an operation now that we had the potential to attack them there. They had dismantled many of their bases, leaving only a few for research purposes. The bridge had been removed once its usefulness in transporting a huge number of ground vehicles over the mountains had come to an end.

       We reached the area as he finished speaking. For miles upon miles, it stretched out with an almost desert-like barrenness, with very few immediately evident features save the usual variety of craters and pits. We swung low over the surface and cruised toward the western edge of the sea. An occasional dome appeared beneath us, and a flash of recognition followed, which we returned. Orii mentioned that these were Venusian and Martian satellite bases, mobile stations which could be dismantled and rebuilt in a new location in two days.

       The lunar night was firmly settled here, yet the Earthlight lit the ground below to a fairly bright level. Ground vehicles plied the sea's floor, their laser lights sending long beams of brilliant bluish radiance into the semi-darkness. Our own landing lights swept the terrain with a bright circle of white luminance, rippling and slithering like a thing alive over the many depressions. mounds and craters that passed below our ship. A rare burst of light from the surface indicated a reflection from some highly-polished metallic surface, such as a groundcar, a scout, or a dome. I tried to count the number of craters as we illuminated them, but lost track at about sixty, when we overflew a cluster of several dozen, caused by a large mass that had shattered before striking the surface, due perhaps to the effects of the Roche Limit on it as it hurtled downward. Possibly it had been a sub-satellite that spiraled inward and blew to pieces when it headed downward. One could offer many conjectures to explain it, and one was as good as the next.

       We descended near the base of a large pylon-like construction, evidently artificial. It was a massive piece of masonry, perhaps a hundred feet high, and several hundred feet across the base. As we left the scout and walked the few hundred remaining yards to it, it seemed to rise like some massive temple to the stars. Kalen said, ”This is one of four main pylons of the Criseum Bridge that so disturbed Messrs. O'Neil, Wilkins, and Moore in 1953. The bridge itself arched downward to that barely visible mound over there, about a mile away."

       I could just make it out in relief against the background of the dark sky. If this was one continuous span, it had been a phenomenal engineering feat. Curious, I turned the other way, hoping to perhaps catch sight of a central pillar. I was duly rewarded by the sight of an evident flattened protrusion against the ragged upper line of the range of mountains, Kalen said, ”That column is about three and one-third miles away. The other two, on the far side, are similarly spaced. You will notice that the course of the bridge had followed not the lowest point in the hills, but the most comparatively even section. This saved a great deal of time and effort. When it was constructed, it followed a wide hyperbolic arc over the hills, at one point 500 feet from the ground, and at others scant inches, due mostly to the highly irregular topography.

       ”There is some question as to whether these pillars will be left here or be blasted into dust by energy weapons, to destroy them as evidence of alien presence there. Some tend to doubt the wisdom of dismantling the bridge itself, not to mention the columns. This is a red-tape situation, but we expect that will be demolished."

       In the base of the pylon, a small door had been made, leading to a staircase running up inside it to what seemed to be an observation deck near its top. I suggested that we find out what it looked like from that height. Astra was with me, but the others bade to be excused, Kalen claiming, "I'm getting too old for that now. You young folks go ahead, while we look around out here."

       Without further ado, we ran toward the immense stone pillar, and disappeared into its interior. The stairway was a long spiral type, which, due to the light gravity, we took two and three steps at a time, watching the dust puff from under our feet as we hit each step. In a matter of seconds, we reached the upper level, It was nothing more than a hollowed-out room in the material of the pylon, without furnishings of any sort.

       The only light came through a large opening in the outside wall, without glass, rails, or any other sort of protection against leaning too far and falling about ninety feet onto the rocks below. Nonetheless, in foolhardy courage, I gripped the edge tightly and leaned forward until I could see the base of the pillar. Our group had stopped to examine a tool that had been lying near the doorway, and so was right beneath us. Turning to Astra, I mused, "I wonder what it would be like to jump from this height?" I noticed four heads rapidly jerk upward to observe my head showing over the window's edge. Orii shouted, ”Be careful, Bob. You might fall and land on me. Wait until I move away." Lin-Erri countered sarcastically, "Dear, dear Orii-Val, always the considerate one."

       Astra, with satire dripping from her voice, responded, "I wouldn't let him jump, Orii. He might land on your head and be speared to death." Lin laughed aloud, and cheered, "Touche again! Orii, you’ll never learn not to try to match wits with the younger generation, I fear. Ah, well." Things were quiet again for a moment, until Astra discovered a small notebook in a dark corner. She brought it over to me. "Can you read it? " I stared at the heiroglyphics for a moment, then said, "It's Greek to me, doll."

       I leaned from the window again and, calling to Orii to catch it, I tossed it down to him, requesting that his logical, mathematical mind afford us a translation of its contents. He studied it intently for a minute or so, and thought aloud, "Most interesting. It seems to be very recently filled, with no language I've ever seen before. This might be an interesting task for our computers later in the day. Is there anything else like this up there?" The reply was in the negative.

       We searched every inch of the walls for a sign of hidden openings, but finding none, we decided to abandon our high perch, and rejoin the others. Astra led the way down, and was perhaps ten feet from the lower landing when she suddenly put her hands up in front of her helmet and screamed in terror. In an instant, I was by her side. She pointed, trembling, to a dully-glowing pair of crimson eyes that peered at us from a grotesque, grayish head on the lower level. Kalen called out, "Bob! Astra! What’s wrong?" I was at a loss for words momentarily, but managed to stammer. "I don't believe this... animal... on the lower landing... gray and huge..."

       At that point Astra grasped me in her arms and buried her face in my chest. She was crying softly.

       Until the four showed up in the doorway, the animal, or whatever it was, simply remained motionless, observing us with an unblinking stare, the glow from its eyes seeming to pulsate slowly. When Orii appeared, the huge beast spun with lightning speed, leaped through the open doorway and bounded off with consummate grace and litheness, and incredible speed, toward the mountain. Darrin was carrying a hand disruptor, standard issue in view of past events. I quickly slipped it from its holster, took deadly aim and cut loose with a short stun blast. The thing dropped in its tracks, rolled some fifteen feet downhill, and lay very still. We were upon it in a matter of minutes, excitedly discussing what such a fantastic and unprecedented discovery could mean. I noticed a gash in its skin where it had fallen on a razor-sharp rock. There was no blood. Curious, I knelt by it, and felt the skin texture.

       My first reaction was confusion, then wonder, then scientific curiosity. They looked at me, expecting an unexpected announcement. They were not disappointed. "Plastic. Skin-like plastic.” I brought the disruptor down to a fine, needle-point beam, and sliced the skin open for about a foot, then cut two edge slices, and folded back the flap. Underneath, a framework of metallic tubing, flexible and intricately designed, formed its "skeleton". Within it was a complex maze of hydraulic actuators, servos, and electronic controls. This "animal" was a machine, built for some unknown purpose by some equally unknown intelligence. We turned to the direction it was heading, and caught the briefest hint of motion, as another similar monster sprang from its perch and raced over the edge of the mountains.

       We had the identical thought - follow it in the scout. We ran hard back to the little ship, in twenty foot strides, boarded as quickly as possible, and shot upward and over the hilltop. A quick scan located the rapidly moving beast hurtling down the foot of the mountain, and across the open plain of a flat-bottomed crater. We followed it at about a half-mile altitude until it dashed under a protruding rock and disappeared. Kalen brought the ship down about a hundred feet from the rock, and, disruptor at full stun, we cautiously approached the point where the "cat" had vanished. A thorough search revealed no opening of any sort - no doors, no cracks, nothing, Just a rock that swallows up mechanical cats.

       Playing a wild hunch, I borrowed the gun again and switched it to the disruptor mode. I backed off a few yards and sprayed the rock with bursts of energy. The surface crumbled and fell away, to reveal an electronic device, which Orii instantly recognized, "A teleportation unit. The cat's circuits must activate it as it approaches. I wonder if the triggering device on the other one is still functional." No one could say. The intensity of a stun blast could very well have blown out every circuit in its body. Nonetheless, it was worth an effort. Orii and Kalen took the scout back to pick up the "cat". Five minutes later, they returned. We helped to unload the machine and lay it on the ground some hundred feet from the teleporter. "Well," I asked, "do we chance it? What if it simply takes the cat. Then we lose IT as well. If it doesn't are we ready to face up to wherever it does bring us?" I had just finished my question when a grayish streak flashed across the sand toward the rock. I brought up the disruptor, switched to stun, and... before I could fire, the beast vanished into neverneverland in a pulse of greenish light.

       We had finally decided to try our luck when a rumble beneath our feet signaled something very dangerous on the verge of happening. I sensed imminent peril and shouted, ”Down! Eat dirt!" Everyone dropped automatically, just as the entire rock and its box disintegrated in a fierce explosion that scattered fragments for a hundred yards. When we were certain that the danger was over, we stood and looked helplessly at the machine lying before our feet. It would matter little now whether the triggering circuits were operable. The teleporter had been wiped out by a destruct mechanism, to assure against our intervention in clandestine affairs.

       Kalen asked no one in particular, "How many more are there? A few, a dozen, a hundred, a thousand? How many more rocks? And why? For what purpose do they send robotic beasts to prowl the lunar surface. Who are they, for that matter?" There were a million questions without answers now. Perhaps something could be learned by disassembling the machine. We could perhaps even locate the trigger mechanism, and duplicate it. But, would anyone use it to go to the source of the machine. If he did, what kind of reception would he get? Would they be friendly, or kill him on the spot as a spy?

       I had a far-out theory, but at this stage anything was possible. "Suppose that an alien race — a hostile power, let's say — desired to eventually take over this satellite for some nasty purpose. The first thing they would do is try to get as complete a picture as possible of the way things are set up here. They wouldn't dare to use discs or scouts. They would be too obvious. They want extreme mobility, high concealability, and practically undetectable operation from their monitors. And, the shock factor of a totally unexpected appearance if the thing is discovered would give it some time to escape. They therefore decide to use the form of an animal to carry their cameras and telemetry devices. The best is the cat, with its supple movements, quick reactions, extreme speed, and the instinctive fear that a big, evil-looking cat generates in humans, multiplied tenfold if it's seen roaming around the moon."

       Astra nodded and said, "If that's what they wanted, it works. I was never so terrified in my life. I'm still shaking."

       "Precisely, sweetheart. That's what they hope for. Once these cat-robots are built, the next step is to give them ready access to and from the moon. This they do by providing them with homing circuits, and a trigger device which will activate a teleportation unit when the robot is within range. This unit was, as we found, concealed in an innocent looking rock, and to all intents and purposes, it is nothing more than a rock. It operates only when activated by a coded sequence from the trigger, ignoring all other signals, to minimize the chance of someone finding a way through the teleportal into their headquarters.

       ”These robots are set loose to prowl about the moon's surface, photographing, recording, observing, and scaring the hell out of young ladies. Once their data banks are filled, they return to the rock, or whatever other form it might take, and are sent back to the alien HQ, where the data is transferred to storage and the banks cleared. They are then dispatched again to continue their work."

       The others pondered long on my theory. Kalen said at last, "As insane as the concept sounds, you may be right, but WHO is putting them here?"

       I had a ready answer to that question, because it had occurred to me as he asked it. "Who do you know that has shown designs on this system, and has the technology to create such magnificent robots?" The answer came to them like a bolt of lightning. "The Kalrans! It's so OBVIOUS now! We thought they had merely set up an observation base on the asteroid, but now we may be assured that they are anything but merely looking on. Still, we have no real proof. What can we do? They can claim that they have nothing to do with these things, and we have no evidence to back up our charges. I doubt that there's a 'Made On Kalran' label anywhere on this thing.”

       I had to concede that the objection was irrefutable. We had absolutely no way to pin the blame on the Kalrans, even though we can be certain beyond doubt that it was in fact they who were sending this type of spy device to the moon.

       "All I can suggest," I said without a lot of enthusiasm, "is to capture one and equip it with a tracking transmitter, to lead you to its origin. I don't believe that these robots are equipped with any sort of communications, because the signals would be detectable by outside receivers. It is most likely just a recorder, and a data recorder can be erased or tampered with to eliminate any record of the capture and the bugging."

       Orri nodded, but with a sigh, he pointed out, "Easier said than done. They must know by now that we are in possession of one of their robots, and they will be many-fold more cautious as a result. It may be a nearly impossible task to take one without damaging it."

       We placed the automaton in a baggage compartment, and we boarded the scout to return to the base. On the way, I postulated a food-for-thought idea. "Your operations are fairly well established now, so you won't find many of these robots near your locations. BUT, suppose you begin some obvious sort of mysterious project in a wide open but easily monitored location. It must be something that the Kalrans, or whoever is putting these here, will be forced to examine with one or more of these machines. This will reduce the problem of capturing one, especially if you allow them to roam unmolested for a few weeks, to drop their guard a bit and make the robots a little bolder. As to the way to capture one, I have several possible suggestions, but I fear that each one carries the risk of damaging such a delicate mechanism. I'm stymied on this point."

       The remainder of the trip back to the base was taken up by a round-table discussion of ways and means to an end. We had about agreed on a course of action when we found ourselves dropping into the entry iris in Plato. Even as we descended, I knew in my bones that there were at least a pair of eyes watching our descent from someplace high on the mountainside. It was an eerie feeling, and in a way, I felt relief when the iris sealed above us, and we came to rest in the hangar.

       Kalen hurried over to a communications console, and placed a call for a crew of technicians to get the robot and begin immediate disassembly. At first the voice on the other end sounded incredulous, but the tone of authority of the Master soon won the contest. He joined us, and we left for the lounge again. The time was growing late, and I had to leave. The thought filled me with regret, but there were still the days to be spent with them in the future to look forward to with eagerness.

       The elders seemed to sense the feelings that were coursing between Astra and me, and left the lounge without a word. My princess came to me and wrapped her arms around my neck. She said nothing, but her face told all. That little tear had come back to the corner of her misty eyes, as she looked longingly at me. I felt a lump in my throat, and tried to speak, but found no voice, Gently, I whisked the little teardrop from her cheek, and, as if it had been a catalyst, she leaned forward, place her head on my shoulder. and cried.

       Never before had I experienced such devastating emotions as now welled up within me. It was all I could do to keep from joining her in her unashamed expression of sadness. Wrapping my arms tightly around her, I tried to think of some consoling or cheery words to whisper to her, but my mind had given control of my speech over to my heart, and all that I could say was, "I love you."

       Over and over I tried to say something more, but each time, those same three words issued from my mouth. It was a long moment before she brought her head up once more. In a soft, almost aetherial voice, she confided, "I'm sorry.... I didn't mean to..." She never finished her sentence. Instead, our lips met in a tender kiss that spoke for both of us. I knew it would heart-breaking to bid her goodbye, and yet, our two different worlds would be a barrier between us for the rest of my life, making each sorrowful parting the way it must be, until my final release from the Earthly shell frees me to devote myself forever to her.

* Vertical/Bearing
** Orientation/Velocity

© 2008 Robert P. Renaud -- all rights reserved