This story first appeared in Issue 107 of the Power Star Fanzine, February 1997, published by the team of Jerry Seward and Kimberly Murphy-Smith (Editors), Walter M. Scott III, (Graphics Editor), J. Calvin Smith (Manuscript Editor) and Anthony Van Pyre (News Editor). Text taken from the fanzine. Story by Ellen Lindow.
This story is posted without the author's permission - with due acknowledgment - hoping to attract her attention. If you wish it to be removed, please contact the webmaster without any delay.
Helena Russell propped her feet on the chair across the table from her and stared at her coffee mug. She seldom drank alcohol, but she wished she had something stronger right now. This mission had been a beast from the beginning and had gotten steadily worse. Despite the fact that the rest of Alpha was fighting for a spot on the mission, she had not wanted to go. Commander Koenig had insisted. "I don't care whether you want to go or not, Helena. I need someone who has the best interest of all of us in mind. It may not be to our advantage to go back to Earth. Other than myself, you're the only one I'd trust to make that decision."
Helena knew he was right. Koenig was more than her commanding officer and lover, he was also her best friend and they had spent many hours arguing about the future of Alpha and its people, personal survival, racial survival and cultural survival. They didn't always agree, but respected and understood each other's viewpoint. They had no contact with Earth for over three years and the velocity of their moon and the several space warps they had been through meant that hundreds of years could have passed on Earth. Their last contact had been with people nearly five hundred years after their own time.
The contact had been short-lived, but the changes since the moon left Earth orbit had been staggering: Pollution had run rampant, killing everything on the planet not inside one of the huge domed cities that had been built. Koenig was reluctant to exchange one cage for another, albeit a larger one. The Alphans now had their own means of returning to Earth, an F-T-L drive dreamed up by the combined talents of Professor Bergman and Maya.
Koenig and Helena chose a crew of six for the new ship. Alan Carter as pilot; his constant companion, and current love, Jamie August, co-pilot; Patrick Osgood, chief engineer; Darryll Winger assistant engineer; Shermeen Williams, botanist; and Helena herself.
The ship, christened "Starfire", was loosely based on their standard transport, the Eagle, but enlarged to accommodate the new drive mechanism, more supplies, and better living quarters for the longer flight. The F-T-L drive was the product of their meetings with various aliens over the years, combined with the technology Maya brought from Psychon and the genius of Victor Bergman. The Professor had practically become a hermit in his laboratory while designing the drive. At first the ship had only been an idea, the pursuit of which Koenig approved. Then Maya became enthusiastic about the project and once the project changed from theoretical to practical, Alan Carter and Pat Osgood got involved as well.
One thing Alpha did not have a shortage of was brilliant minds and expert technicians. Everyone became involved, and Victor kept his notes on the open computer net so anyone who wished could pose questions or make suggestions. Helena Russell felt the Starfire project was at least good therapy, creating hope in a hopeless situation even if the ship never flew.
But fly it did. And quite well. The preliminary test to the two nearest stars brought fast and favorable results. The next step, emotionally if not logically, was a return to Earth. Even if a return of all personnel to Earth was deemed unfeasible, everyone was obsessed with curiosity about what had happened since their last contact.
Maya estimated that the Starfire would take them to Earth over a thousand years after the moon and its inhabitants had left. Perhaps by then the pollution in the atmosphere would have precipitated out. Perhaps there was still some life left on the planet. Perhaps they could go home.
It was for this reason Helena had asked Shermeen to accompany them. The young botanist had collected samples from every planet they had been to. She and Helena would search for some sign of life.
The trip to Earth took nearly two months. The pilots stayed busy creating navigation as they went along. The engineers were wrapped up in the workings of their engines and Helena tried to keep herself and Shermeen busy programming the computers for the parameters they wanted to use when they came within scanning distance of Earth. But they all still found time to worry.
Space travel was boring. They had read any good books to be found on Alpha over the years. Computer games could only be played so much. Helena missed Koenig. They could spend hours together and never run out of things to talk about, but she understood his reasons for not coming. There would be people on Alpha who would not understand if the commander took the first ship back to Earth.
By the time they reached the solar system they were all restless and ready--they thought--for anything. Their trajectory took them close--within a few million miles--to Neptune and Saturn but Earth remained our of sight until they were within the orbit of Mars. The computer confirmed by the relative position of the planets that they had returned in the year 3035.
Helena and Shermeen manned computer consoles as Earth came in view, coaxing out data as quickly as they could. The others hovered around, anxious to know. Helena wanted to know the conditions on Earth before trying to contact anyone on the surface.
"It's cold down there," Helena said as the data began streaming across her screen. "And the air is a lot thinner than we're used to."
"How thin?" Alan asked from his pilot's chair as he checked their orbit carefully.
"Around twelve PSI at sea level. That's what it was like in the Andes when we left. Average temp at the equator is about 15 degrees Celsius."
"Is the atmosphere breathable?" Pat asked.
"It seems to be," Shermeen replied. "But then there's been over a thousand years for the hydrocarbons to precipitate out. There are indications of life in the oceans." She offered a grim smile. "That's hopeful."
They had agreed to scan the oceans first. It would be almost impossible to destroy all life in the ocean. If they were dead there would be little hope of finding life on Earth.
Their ship passed to the night side of the planet and Helena shifted scanners to check for any lights or radiation signaling human life. Jamie August took the co-pilot's seat and helped with a visual search.
The planet was quiet and dark. They passed over Africa, looking northward for any signs of life in Europe and then the Middle East.
India was silent as was Asia above it.
No lights showed in Australia as they reached the southern tip of their orbit.
The Pacific Ocean put them in daylight again and they saw their first megacity on America's California coast. It was beyond belief, plainly visible from the coast to the Sierra Nevada, extending from far north of San Francisco to San Diego; domes rising high enough to enclose sky scrapers and small mountains. But the human eye could tell something was wrong. Angles that should not be there and domes collapsed told quickly of a city fallen to the vitality of the earth's plate tectonics.
The Starfire's fast orbit carried its crew quickly away from the devastation and on to new wonders before anyone could comment. "Texas City" was the next city, extending from Austin past New Orleans, now much farther away from the Gulf of Mexico, made smaller by this new ice age.
Then it was dark again. All had been held spellbound as they crossed North America. With the exception of Shermeen, all had lived in Houston which had long been the center of all space related activity. Knowing things had changed and actually seeing the changes were two very different things. The shock was just now setting in about homes, family and friends still much alive in their memories and now irrevocably lost.
Helena shook herself back to reality first. "Jamie, did you get pictures of Texas City?"
There was a collective sigh as everyone stopped holding their breath. Jamie answered, "The cameras were rolling--shall I call them back up?"
"Print up hard copies. Shermeen and Jamie, stay here and watch for any signs of life. The rest of you come back to the galley and lets take a good look at that city."
Darryll grabbed four coffee cups and a pot of coffee from the small kitchen unit and brought them to the table where the others had spread the photos. They went through them carefully, noting that the domes all appeared intact as did the connecting walkways or transportation tubes. Infrared scanning showed the buildings to be heated. The city seemed to be fully functional, unlike the others they began to spot on successive orbits.
They spent an entire day checking out other cities--Boston/New York, Northern Europe, Cairo, Bombay, Beijing, Sydney/Melbourne. Japan might also have had domed cities at one time, but volcanic activity had eliminated any traces of such visible from space. Jamie and Shermeen sent a steady stream of information back to the galley and the four there took turns taking food and coffee to the girls in the control room.
Finally Helena called a halt to the search efforts. They gathered in the galley to confer, red-eyed and exhausted. "It looks like Houston is the only place left," she stated wearily.
"All those people..." Jamie started weakly, shaking her head.
Alan Carter put his arm around her shoulders and she leaned against him gratefully. "Even as huge as those cities are, they couldn't have held the total population that existed when we left," he said.
"They may not have had to," Pat Osgood countered. We know there must have been major destruction when the Moon left orbit. Then the pollution which forced them into the domed cities probably killed off many more before the cities were completed."
Darryll asked the question all were thinking. "Do you think there's anyone left alive?"
"If there was, wouldn't they have contacted us by now?" Shermeen asked.
"Not necessarily," Carter answered. "If there's only one city left, they may not be looking for a signal. If they're not listening they can't answer."
"We'll just have to go down and have a look then." Helena said firmly. "After we all get some sleep. Alan, is there any reason we can't all sleep for a while?"
"Not that I know of. We haven't had any kind of signal from the planet's surface." He no longer thought of this planet as Earth. "And there's no space debris in orbit with us. If they had any kind of space program after we left, nothing remained in orbit."
"When is sunrise over Texas City?" Helena asked Shermeen, who was sitting beside the computer terminal.
After checking she replied, "Thirteen hours from now."
"Good. Alan, we'll look over the aerial photos in eight hours and find a likely spot to land. We'll land just after sunrise."
Carter nodded and the meeting broke up, each headed for some much needed rest.
They chose a landing spot just south of the city on what appeared to be the remains of an airport. There was a long strip of concrete close to one of the city domes. Hopefully there would be some kind of entrance nearby. This would be the first test of the Starfire in an atmosphere and Alan and Jamie took her in cautiously. They set her down gently in the middle of the expanse of cracked and crumbling concrete and they all took a look at the city rising above them to the north.
The domes rose above them on huge pylons, the nearest one resembling a domed football stadium from their era sitting atop a fishing pier. To the east and west other domes, mostly larger than their nearest neighbor, extended as far as they could see.
To the south the concrete extended for about a hundred yards, sand-covered in some areas with low-growing vines creeping onto the surface of the runway. Beyond that there appeared to be a kind of jungle of plants, in colors of blue grey to dusty brown.
All was quiet as the engines powered down, the crew taking in the new alienness of their home world.
Something hit the forward viewport with a thump.
All jumped as if they had been shot. Reflexes had each of them checking for the nearest pressure suit and hand laser.
Another thump followed, and another and more causing a sound like rain against the Starfire.
"Bugs!" Jamie exclaimed. In her seat as co-pilot she was closest to the port. "My God, look at the size of them!" Helena leaned over her for a closer look at the insects that now covered all viewports and perhaps all the ship. They were various shades of brown, matching the plants they had been able to see before, and they were very large--the smallest appeared to be about the size of her hand. They seemed to be completely occupied with attacking each other. "They were probably attracted by the heat our ship is radiating. Any heat source would potentially be a source of food. Pat, could they hurt the ship?"
"Not unless they can chew through metal and ceramics, or secrete some kind of acid. The fact that those domes next to us are intact suggests that we should be all right."
Helena nodded with relief. They had not really expected to find anything alive out here. After thinking about it she was not all that surprised to find that the descendant of the things she used to chase out of her kitchen in Houston were still alive and well.
"What would happen to us if we went out there?" Shermeen asked.
"Probably nothing," Helena answered. She headed for the cabinet holding the specimen bags. "Alan, get a hand laser and let's take some samples while the ship is cooling off. We won't be checking out the city until the Starfire no longer attracts them."
As they made their way to the airlock, Alan put a hand on her shoulder. "Helena, I'm not sure I want these things on my ship."
"I don't want them inadvertently brought back to Alpha either, Alan. But I do want to take a look at them. Their biochemistry can tell us quite a lot about conditions here. I'll stand in the airlock and open the doorway. Some should make their way in. We'll close the lock and I'll catch some of the ones that come in, then we'll use the laser on any we don't want. You watch the door as I come back in and then we'll cycle the lock down to zero pressure to make sure we kill them all."
About three minutes later, Helena had collected as many specimens as she could possibly use and there were plenty still on the floor and walls of the airlock to dispose of. She sprayed the lock around her with the highest stun setting possible, every nerve in her body jangling from the reflection of the beam in such tight quarters.
Carter opened the door as she stopped and half carried her from the lock. She leaned against the wall shuddering from the stun effect as he cycled the lock to zero pressure. He watched through the window, making a face as the insects exploded from decompression. "Look at this mess, will you?" Carter exclaimed.
Helena turned to look. Ugh. "Keep it at zero pressure for a while and the stuff should dry out--then maybe we can scrape it off."
"Terrific. I suppose we'll have to go through this every time someone goes EV?"
"Most likely, once the ship cools they shouldn't be as attracted to the ship so it shouldn't be quite so bad. Let me know when we can see out the ports again. We won't go out until some of these bugs go away. I'll be in the lab."
"What if they don't go away?" Carter asked as she retreated.
"Don't be such a pessimist, Alan...they'll leave."
Twelve hours later Helena slipped into a seat in the galley and accepted a cup of coffee from Darryll. "What are the bugs like?" he asked as the others gathered around eagerly.
"Most are not too different from various species of roaches and flies the computer could find information on. These have better developed respiratory systems than the insects from our time, and their body fluids contain some chemicals which allow them to survive at lower temperatures," she reported. "How are things going outside?"
"The sun set about an hour ago and things have been settling down," Alan replied. "I didn't want to turn on the lights, but some lights have come on inside the dome nearest us."
"Any sign of life in there?"
"Nothing other than the lights coming on. No interest has been shown in us. You'd think they'd have some sort of curiosity or some kind of defense..." Alan trailed off, frustrated at the lack of response from the city.
"Alan, " Helena said gently, "there may not be anyone in there. It's something we're all going to have to face." She looked around at the sober faces. "We'll find out tomorrow. The bugs should be gone by then. The Starfire's extreme temperature should be the same as the surroundings so there will be nothing to attract them. Pat, Darryll, and I will try to get into the city and find out if anyone is home. Shermeen, if things are quiet in the city you and Alan can take a look around outside. You're to stay within commlock range of the ship at all times."
Shermeen nodded her head and the six sat down to dinner, trying to discuss things other than the world outside their ship.
Helena, Darryll and Pat left the Starfire at first light. The air was thin and cold, but breathable. They stood at the bottom of the stairs and looked around, expecting something--bugs, humans, anything--but things remained quiet.
"Let's go," Helena said, breaking the silence. She stepped toward the nearest pylon supporting the city which towered above her.
The concrete of the jetport was covered with sand. Occasional low vine-like plants grew in cracks in the concrete. They kept their commlocks open and Darryll was holding a camera to transmit what they were seeing.
Shermeen called to them, "Darryll, can you get a closeup of those vines?"
"You'll get your chance, Shermeen," Helena replied. "Once we are inside Alan will come out with you and you can poke around all you want."
"Understood." Shermeen replied tersely, her voice full of impatience.
Helena smiled to herself. John had chosen her team well, they were all more enthusiastic about doing their jobs than "going home to Earth". Shermeen was much more concerned with finding new specimens than exploring the city. Not everyone could have as easily adapted to the alienness of this planet Earth, but the Starfire crew had simply begun to think of this as a different planet, not the world of their birth.
Indeed, the taste of the air, the sounds around them were nothing like their homeworld. Sounds traveled differently in the thinner air. And the familiar sounds of human life were absent. No traffic, airplanes or other machinery. Even the familiar sounds of nature, such as wind through the trees or birdsong, were missing.
The city towered over them, silent and somehow oppressive. The lack of response to their presence worried Helena more than she cared to admit. If anyone was still alive, what had happened to basic human curiosity...and what other changes might have occurred over the last 1,000 years?
The nearest support column for the city was made of concrete and at least twenty meters around. Two hundred meters above them, it met the domed platform. Each dome was kilometers across and supported by many such columns. They found a steel door in the concrete, unlabeled and with no visible door mechanism. Pat and Darryll examined the door and found a panel frozen in place from age covering the opening mechanism. They tried activating it.
The electronic lock creaked and strained, the solenoid stuck in place. Then it gave with a thud.
Pat and Darryll frowned, then pried the door open. It soon became obvious it had not been opened in many years.
Florescent lights came on as Helena stepped through the doorway. The room was small, circular, and in the center was an elevator with a call button on the wall beside it. As the other two entered the room, Helena stepped forward and pressed the call button. They waited for the elevator and looked around the small room. It was completely bare, utilitarian whitewashed and clean to the point of sterility.
"Helena," Pat spoke first. "That door hadn't been opened in ages, but this room has been maintained. The sensors for those lights worked promptly and this place is clean. No matter how well-sealed and what kind of climate control, there's going to be dust."
Helena nodded her agreement. "Perhaps they just aren't interested in the outside world any more. Maybe they will be more interested when we get up to the city. Alan," she called over her commlock.
"Yes, Helena," Alan answered quickly.
"We're going up the elevator. If we lose contact we'll come back down to contact you in six hours. You and Shermeen can take a look around outside in the meantime."
"Right. Good luck."
"Thanks." The elevator opened as she replaced her commlock on her belt. The three of them stepped onto the elevator. By the door were two buttons with arrows pointing up and down.
"Going up?" Darryll asked with a smile.
Helena smiled back and nodded. Darryll pressed the up button and the elevator doors closed silently and efficiently.
Shermeen stood in the airlock with Alan. Both wore bulky jackets and carried specimen cases She could feel the excitement she had felt before on alien worlds finding new plant specimens to study. She didn't think of this planet as Earth. It was too different. Besides, she was only fifteen when she had last seen Earth. She was one of a handful of honor students who had won top prize in a worldwide science fair--a trip to the research station of Moonbase Alpha. When the nuclear accident stranded them on the moon, the students, who had the adaptability of the young, quickly began to think of Alpha as home and the scientists of Alpha their teachers. Botany was Shermeen's passion and within a few years she was one of the foremost botanists on Alpha. She specialized in the specimens of any planets they had passed by. She enjoyed collecting them, studying them, growing the plants and adapting them to the needs of the Alphans.
The cold air hit them abruptly as the lock opened and they stepped onto the sand covered concrete. Shermeen took the lead, circling the ship and heading away from the city. She stopped at one of the vines growing out of the cracks in the concrete. The leaves were broad and waxy, a grey green in color. She carefully took cuttings, including the small clusters of blossoms along the vine, then she continued on to the edge of the concrete. She dictated notes into her commlock, barely noticing Alan following behind her.
Carter tagged along for two hours trying to keep thoughts of the Houston he had known out of his mind. He kept an eye on the city and his ship. His ship. He liked the sound of that. He was a born flyer. His entire life had been geared toward designing, building and flying better spaceships. The Starfire was the piece de resistance of his career. He wondered what the future held for himself and the Starfire. This Earth they had returned to didn't look as if it would be too interested in a space program.
"Alan, take a look at this," Shermeen called. She was pointing at a peculiar circular pattern in the sand. The sand was powder fine here and pushed up like ripples on a pond.
As Alan walked up next to her, the sand fell away from their feet and the pattern of ripples turned into dust.
They slid down a steep incline and when they stopped they were sliding head down in a funnel shaped depression. They turned and tried to scramble up the side of the depression but the walls collapsed as fast as they tried to climb.
Shermeen's commlock slipped from her grasp and slid down to the bottom of the funnel. She bent down to get it, causing more sand to trickle down and bury the device.
"I'll get it," Alan said. "Hold still." He twisted around and reached into the sand. As his hand closed around the commlock something grabbed his wrist and a burning sensation quickly spread up and down his arm. He pulled his hand out of the sand tossing the commlock like a hot potato.
"Ouch, ouch, ouch!" he howled, holding his arm and writhing in pain. He stopped wiggling the moment he realized he was beginning to slip further down the funnel. He didn't want to give whatever had grabbed him the opportunity to get a better grip. "Jesus Christ, that hurts!"
The rescued commlock slid back into the sand and he gripped Shermeen's wrist to keep her from diving after it. "Hold still," he ordered. "Let it go and take my commlock. Call Jamie and have her come get us with a rope."
"She can't leave the ship--" Shermeen started.
"She'll bloody well have to!" Alan shouted. His arm was swelling quickly and he was beginning to sweat. Once on a camping trip, he'd been stung by a wasp and had a bad reaction to it. A dose of antihistamine by a quick thinking friend had saved his life. This bite felt like about a gallon of the same poison had been pumped into his veins. He shivered and gritted his teeth to stop them from chattering. "Have her recall Helena. I think I need a doctor."
He closed his eyes as Shermeen took the commlock and was only partially conscious that Shermeen had put her jacket over him.
She activated the commlock and was rewarded with a gritty clunk as she pushed the call button instead of the familiar beep pattern. She looked it in surprise. It was covered in the powder fine sand they were surrounded by. She beat it against her hand, creating a cloud of dust, and tried again--with the same results.
Shermeen was beginning to worry. It would be some time before Jamie would miss them and then she wouldn't know where to look. She turned toward Alan who was ashen and sweating. His eyes were closed and his arm and hand were swollen alarmingly. Alan might not last long enough for someone to find them.
A rope of vines flopped down between Shermeen and Alan. She rolled over and looked up at the edge of the hole.
"Jamie?" she called, but the only answer was a tug on the rope and some sort of high pitched chittering noise. Deciding to take advantage of the rescue no matter who was on the other end of the rope, Shermeen quickly make a loop in the rope and carefully placed it around Alan, who didn't even notice. They both slipped down some more as she settled it under his arms, but she gave a tug and shouted "O.K.!" to the rescuer above. She rolled away from Alan, nervously glancing at the bottom of the pit, a funnel of sand the only evidence he had ever been there. The sky was a dome of deep blue above her. Through the stillness she heard a rustle at the bottom. "Hey, hurry up!" she shouted as the sand at the bottom of the cone began to bubble alarmingly.
The vine rope landed next to her and she was scrambling up it immediately, away from the clawlike mandibles of the biggest bug she had ever seen.
Oh, I hate bugs, she thought as she crawled over the lip of the pit and past the edge of the ripples of sand which had drawn her here in the first place. The thought was immediately arrested when she looked up at her rescuers at the other end of the rope.
There were about twenty of them--most dropping the rope now to lift the unconscious Alan. They were about 18 to 20 inches tall with small woven belts worn between their first and second pairs of legs. Some had pouches on the belts and all wore small stone knives. Their wings were painted in various swirling patterns in a variety of colors, but Shermeen decided they must not be functional since the belts were belted over them. Her gut reaction was that they were the biggest damn roaches she had ever seen in her life!
Resisting the unrealistic urge to stomp on her rescuers she managed to mumble her thanks, even though she knew they didn't understand her. Then she noticed the direction they were carrying Alan.
"Hey, wait a minute, the ship is in the other direction. We appreciate the help, but--"
The roaches weren't paying any attention to her. The dozen or so who were carrying Alan headed out at a fast march away from the ship and the city. One of the tallest roaches turned to her and spoke in their high pitched chittering language.
Shermeen felt completely helpless as the small being talked and gestured with four arms/legs. They simply had no language or gestures in common. Shermeen couldn't call for help, or go back to the ship for fear she wouldn't find Alan again.
The roach who was trying to communicate continued to chitter and point away from the city, then finally walked over and pulled at her pants leg.
"O.K., O.K., I'll follow." Shermeen said. She couldn't stand the thought of leaving Alan alone with these bugs anyway.
She followed them for about 2 kilometers into a shallow ravine with shallow caves hollowed into the sandstone. The bugs carried Alan to one of the largest. Shermeen concluded that it must be a natural cavern since she didn't have to do more than bend over at the lowest spots. She worried as they left the cavern mouth and darkness began to descend. As her eyes adjusted to the dimmer light she began to realize that darkness was not total. Some kind of growth glowed coldly on the walls and ceiling. Even in her present state of almost shock her scientist's mind prevailed and she paused to pull a small portion of the stuff off the wall for the specimen case that was still attached to her belt.
Her escort chittered at her and tugged at her pants leg. She nodded absently and followed along.
After nearly seven hundred meters of twisting trail the procession slowed. Shermeen could hear the faint sound of running water and they came into a large cavern. The glowing walls and ceilings gave everything a shadowless blacklight effect. Sticks about half a meter high held globs of the glowing stuff were scattered around the cavern close to heaps of things she could not quite see. She later decided they were less than huts but more elaborate than nests.
Alan was gently placed against one wall of the cavern and Shermeen sat beside him uncertain of what else to do. The bug she assumed to be leader chittered at his company and they scurried off purposefully in several directions. At least it's warmer down here, Shermeen considered. She was about to decide to try to find the source of the water sound to get the feverish Alan a drink when the bugs began to return.
Several carried small shells with water in them. They stood by Alan's head, chittering to each other, and one began to lift the shell to Alan's mouth. Shermeen made the most assertive move she had so far and took the shell from the bug's hands. She tasted the water. It had a mineral flavor but was clear and slightly warm. The cavern must have some kind of hot spring in it. She held Alan's head up and poured the rest of the water into his mouth. The helpful creatures offered each shell in turn and Shermeen rubbed Alan's throat to encourage him to swallow.
Another bug arrived. This one had multicolored markings and was obviously of higher status. The others made way for him. He carried a box in his four upper hands. He sat the box down carefully by Alan's swollen right hand an opened it up.
Shermeen watched with interest as he inspected Alan's hand. She realized that the bugs had no fingers. Instead, each appendage ended in a flexible knobby pad with something like short cilia covering it. The pad could flex around an object to pick it up and the cilia must be able to hold it tight with their constant movement.
She watched the new creature select one of an array of thorns from the box and dexterously picked it up.
Shermeen was fascinated by these creatures. She no longer considered them bugs--and she was surprised to find she trusted them. She had no way to communicate with them but they had already saved her life and she was sure they were doing all they could to save Alan too. She experienced a moment of fear again as the "doctor-thing", as she thought of this one, thrust the thorn deep into the back of Alan's swollen hand. The next two punctures were more gentle as the doctor-thing pierced Alan's jacket and skin at his forearm and then in his upper arm.
All the creatures continued chittering at a fast rate throughout the operation. Their "language" was almost musical and the chittering was a constant sound in the cavern--like a summer evening in the country, Shermeen thought.
Most of the creatures scurried away to other duties. They all seemed to be busy and move with a purpose. The low light prevented her from seeing what kind of activities were taking place around the village and she was reluctant to leave Alan's side, despite her curiosity. She sat propped against the wall and held his good hand. The adrenaline which had kept her going for the last few hours filtered our of her system, the musical language of the creatures around her and the low level of light lulled her into a gentle sleep.
The elevator doors opened onto a large plaza. The domed ceiling was high overhead and the decor was light and airy. The silence was deafening. Nothing stirred, there was no sign of life. The plaza was the size of a football stadium. The rim contained spaces for small shops and businesses. There were wide promenades through the center of the plaza with silent fountains, artificial bushes and conversation pits scattered pleasingly across the dome.
They stood on the edge of the plaza on a wide curving walkway. Helena gestured to the left and without a word the three began to follow the outer walkway around the plaza. There were no signs or lights on any of the shops they passed. In fact they saw no signs at all. After a thousand years Helena wondered if these people would still be using English. Could they still read? She wasn't prepared yet to ask if there was anyone left.
They had walked over a hundred yards when Pat spotted the information post. A column with a flat glass surface at eye level caught his eye. There were no buttons and no sign, but its location at the intersection of two walkways was prominent and promising.
"What is it?" Darryll asked.
"The top part looks like the screens the people in the 24th century were using," Helena replied.
Pat nodded agreement. The Alphans had run across similar technology on several occasions and a hobby of his had been trying to duplicate them. "The trick," he said, looking it over carefully, "is to figure out how to activate it. Most likely it's voice activated and there's a key word that will trigger the information system."
Information request received. Standing by.
The voice was completely neutral and accentless. It spoke the standard Midwestern English such as TV actors or news commentators. It was modulated so that it sounded neither male nor female.
Helena raised an eyebrow and nodded her congratulations to Patrick, then she stepped forward and spoke to the comm panel. "We are seeking information on the inhabitants of this city."
I can connect you with any specific individual. General information regarding Texas City is also at your disposal. Please specify.
Helena considered how to rephrase her question. She had been through plenty of semantic arguments with Alpha's computer and knew any information could be obtained by asking the right question. "Connect me with the individual in charge of the government or security of Texas City."
Governmental and security duties are handled by Texas City Central System. Please state your purpose.
"There is no human in a position of authority?"
Helena looked blankly at the computer for a moment.
Pat touched her elbow to get her attention. "You asked if there was no human in charge. It affirms that. The computer system is in charge."
Helena nodded. She had always hated conversations with computers. She decided to try a different tack. "We are from Moonbase Alpha. Are there any humans available to talk to us?"
Negative. All human inhabitants of Texas City are currently occupied.
"Where are they?"
Helena expected the literal mind of the computer to begin running a list of locations around the city. The answer was not one she expected.
All human inhabitants are currently in the Entertainment Complex.
"All of them?" Darryll asked in surprise.
"Where is the entertainment complex?" Helena asked quickly.
"How do we get there?"
A map appeared on the screen. It was a typical "You Are Here" city map with the domes carefully labeled. A red line traced form their location to a travel tube located near and continued to Dome 2347.
"It appears to be about 100 miles away," Pat said. "We may not want to be out of contact so long."
"How long will a trip to the entertainment complex take?" Helena asked.
"Will we be able to return to this location at any time?"
"What dome are we in now?"
"Well," Helena turned to her companions. "We can play twenty questions with this computer all day or go find some real people and still be back before our deadline."
Pat and Darryll nodded. "You're the boss, Helena." Pat said.
"Then let's go."
They boarded a travel tube which politely inquired about their destination. Helena asked to be taken to dome 2347 and the acceleration began as soon as they took their seats.
The tube was very similar to Alpha's travel tubes, but larger. The ten seats here were more comfortable than those on the Alphan travel tubes and meant for longer journeys. Each seat had its own computer screen and a privacy shield which could be arranged to form a complete wall around one or a group of chairs. Like the rest of the city they had seen so far everything was spotless and well maintained.
Helena suggested they use the time to learn as much as they could, so each called up the information system on their screens and began asking questions.
Pat and Darryll were both interested in the design and technology of Texas City. Pat began quizzing the computer about availability and duplication of such information to take back to Alpha. Helena suggested that Darryl ask about various minerals and other materials needed on Alpha which might be available here and how to acquire them. Then she turned to quiz the computer about the people of Texas City.
It seemed as if the people of Texas City had handed over control of the city to their computers and retreated to the entertainment complex. The population was less than 1000 people and no new births had occurred in over thirty years. Texas City was a dead city that hadn't realized it yet.
The information system gave vague answers concerning the nature of the entertainment complex. Each person seemed to have their own entertainment room with a library of "scenarios" to chose from. "Direct holography" was provided to each individual and "all physical needs" were attended to.
Helena did not like the sound of this. The people she had spoken with in the twenty-fourth century had said that holographs could provide the illusion of any place or time. It seemed that trend had continued with disastrous results. She could find no reference to group experiences--which explained the zero birth rate--but could not understand why these people avoided contact with each other. She wondered what effect contact with herself and the other Alphans would have on these people.
She did not have long to wait. Before she could share her findings with the two men a quick deceleration signaled the end of their journey. Darryll turned to her with a smile. "According to their computer, anything in stock can be delivered to any location upon request. They have some kind of automated system. I've already requested a cubic meter of titanium and three liters of inertium be delivered to the airlock of Dome 1791."
"Can they spare that much?" Helena asked in amazement.
"I assume so. The computer confirmed my order."
"We'll have to make out a list, then," Patrick said as the tubeway came to a stop.
They exited the tube into a foyer with corridors leading in three directions. There was the now familiar information column in the center of the intersection. There was a faint odor of antiseptic in the air giving Helena the feeling this place was more like a hospital than an entertainment complex. She had expected this dome to have an ambiance similar to the plaza in the dome they had recently left. She stepped up to the information column and addressed it. "Information system, is this the entertainment complex?"
"Give me the location of the nearest human inhabitant in this dome," she commanded.
A diagram of the dome appeared on the screen. A blinking square covered a room down the left corridor about 500 meters away.
The three smiled in satisfaction at each other and set off down the hallway. Helena was unsure of what to say to these people of Earth who had given control of their city to computers and retired to their entertainment complex. They had spent the last 10 years trying to return to Earth but once the goal was attained they had expected someone to welcome them back to Earth, or at least meet with them. These people had showed no interest at all. Their computers had not even shown an interest.
Darryll was in the lead and arrived at the door first. He pressed a stud next to the door, thinking it was a bell, and was surprised when the door opened immediately. Pat and Helena, a few steps behind watched Darryl freeze and turn pale, then turn aside, retching. They approached cautiously.
Pat stepped back involuntarily as he saw the contents of the room.
Helena's stomach turned more from the horror that someone would do this thing to themselves than the sight of the body.
She could no longer call this a person. The cubicle was filled with every kind of life support equipment possible. There were no readouts or monitoring units because the entire process was computer controlled with no human monitoring. A tube was connected to the mouth for feeding purposes and the air supply was pumped directly into the trachea through an incision in the throat. Similar tubes were connected to the urethra and anus to remove wastes. The body did not lay in a bed, which would have impeded circulation; instead, key joints such as hips, knees and shoulders had been pierced and the body was suspended from wires in the ceiling. All sensory organs were covered and wired for direct stimulation. The eyelids had been surgically removed to eliminate the blinking reflex.
Helena walked completely around the body, examining everything without touching and making as little noise as possible. She used the diagnostic instrument in her medical kit and noticed the IV tube in its arm, which delivered any medication necessary.
Pat and Darryll stood at the door in silence. Darryll held the camera and kept recording while Helena completed her examination. She pushed past them and moved down the corridor to the next door, opened it, found the same thing and tried several other rooms in quick succession.
She turned to her companions, "Let's go. They're all alike and I don't think they would survive being taken off the machines to talk to us."
They took the tubeway back to the dome they had originally entered. They spent the trip back questioning the computer, in unison this time--none of the three wished to be closed away from the others in any manner. They concentrated on asking the information system for historical data and questions concerning supplies Alpha might need and made no mention of the "human" population of Texas City.
Helena wanted to take back data from the computer as much as she wanted the titanium, inertium and other physical supplies. Knowledge accumulated by the human race over the last thousand years could mean more to their small outpost of humanity than all the heavy metals they could find. Since such information was freely available Patrick began investigating ways to store such data in ways compatible with Alpha's computer system.
They arrived at the original dome which now seemed deathly quiet to them, but they knew there was no danger here. As they approached the information terminal they had originally used Patrick turned to Helena. "Do you think it would be all right for me to stay here and set things up to transfer data to our system?"
"I don't see anything wrong with that. Do we have enough storage space in our computer?" Helena replied.
"No, but I think we can use a couple of data disks as examples and have the city's computer system create more and fill them. It's very sophisticated and its self programming devices seem to be able to build just about anything."
"Will you have to leave this dome for any reason? I don't want to be separated any more than necessary."
"I agree," Pat said emphatically. "This place gives me the creeps. If I do have to go to another dome I'll let you know first. I'll need Darryll to bring me a few things from the Starfire. This could take a while to get all the scientific technical and historical knowledge from the computer."
"I know. Our schedule gives us two weeks here on Earth. We'll get what we can and leave on schedule. John can always send the Starfire back if we need anything else. Tell Darryll what you think you'll need and let me ask the computer a few questions. Once we leave I want your first priority to be finding some way to stay in contact with Starfire while any of us are in the city."
Patrick nodded his agreement and pulled Darryll to the side.
Helena approached the computer alone. "Information system."
"Did all the humans submit to the entertainment complex voluntarily?"
"Other than the three humans here in this dome, are all living humans in the entertainment complex?"
"By what procedure are humans admitted to the entertainment complex?"
The human must present himself to the main information terminal in the entertainment complex and state his command to begin life support procedures. An entertainment room is provided and an oral anesthetic is provided. Upon acceptance of the anesthetic the citizen must repeat his command to begin life support procedures. The citizen will then be connected to intravenous and monitoring equipment and will remain unconscious until all...
"Stop." Helena commanded.
The computer complied.
Helena thought for a moment, then asked another question. "Will any human being be connected to the entertainment complex against his will?"
Darryll and Pat were standing behind Helena. She smiled sheepishly at them. "I guess I watched too many horror movies as a child, but I didn't want any of us to stay here if there was a chance we might end up in the entertainment complex."
"You won't get any argument from me." Pat replied with a smile. "I'll get working on trying to contact the ship."
Helena nodded and left for the elevator with Darryll. Waiting for them were two automated carts with the supplies Darryl had ordered. They rolled the carts into the elevator and headed down, back to Starfire. There was nothing left here for anyone any more.
When they walked out the door of the entrance room Helena's commlock began beeping. A distraught Jamie peered out of the screen. "Thank God!" she cried out in relief. "Helena, Alan and Shermeen have missed their last check in and I can't find them."
Helena frowned. "They were supposed to stay in sight of the ship."
Jamie nodded. "Alan checked in over an hour ago and I could still see them. Then they missed their last scheduled check in and I used the scanners and can't find any sign of them.
Helena and Darryll were at the Starfire by then. Helena turned to Darryll. "You go aboard and get whatever Patrick needs. Then wait and see if he manages to contact us. Jamie, get out here and show me where you last spotted them. Maybe we can pick up their tracks."
Darryll nodded and opened the airlock. As soon as he was through, Jamie cycled out, handing Helena an extra jacket and the gloves from her pressure suit.
As they walked toward the spot on the horizon where Jamie had last seen their missing friends Helena filled Jamie in on the condition of Texas City's population and all they had seen in the last few hours. The two explorers had meandered across the landscape and Helena began following the tracks as they reached the spot Jamie thought they had been when she last saw them. In the hours they followed the meandering trail the temperature began to drop and the sun began to set. Darryll remained on board the Starfire and Helena stayed in constant contact. Patrick was soon hooked into the system too and Helena had him using the resources available in the city to locate Shermeen and Alan.
They reached the ant lion nest as the sun was touching the horizon. The funnel-shaped depression in the sand was nearly three meters deep and powder fine. The nest itself was smooth and trackless, but insect tracks and one set of footprints led away from the funnel in the sand. they tried to follow the tracks but the wind was picking up as the temperature dropped and the light was fading fast.
Helena reluctantly called a halt to the search. Jamie wanted to continue with torches from the Starfire but Helena insisted they start again in the morning. She tried not to mention some of the more obvious possibilities to Jamie although all four of the Alphans were undoubtedly thinking of plenty of unsavory things that could have happened to their friends. She didn't want anyone out on the surface at night.
Before arriving on Earth she had believed there to be no life outside the domes. That had been proved horribly incorrect. Although she would have believed that nothing would be moving about in the deadly cold of the night, she would not risk their lives on that now.
Patrick met them halfway back to the ship with torches and extra jackets. Darryll had prepared coffee and a hot meal for them upon their return and then Helena gave Jamie a tranquilizer and put her to bed.
Jamie and Alan had worked closely on the Starfire project and Helena knew their relationship on a personal level was very deep. They had even talked of marriage, although Helena wasn't sure her friend Alan Carter would ever settle down with anyone.
Darryll and Patrick worked at the computer system until Helena sent them to bed too. She sat in the pilot's seat in the control room and stared out at the night. She knew she would not be able to sleep anyway, knowing her friends might be out there dead or dying. Exposure was sure to kill them if the creatures who built that nest didn't. It was going to be a very long night.
She was still sitting there when dawn broke the next morning.
Shermeen came to consciousness with a start as something large moved beside her. As a vertigo of disorientation passed and she realized where she was, she found out that large something was Alan. His left hand was rubbing his forehead and his eyes were open and trying to focus in the dim light.
"Alan, are you all right?" she asked with excitement.
"Shermeen? Yeah, I'm O.K. What happened?" Alan replied in bewilderment.
Relief flooded through Shermeen. She was sure she had never been happier in her life than she was at this moment. "Oh, Alan, thank God! I've been so worried!"
"That pit--" Alan began to remember. "I got bitten. Helena must have gotten there pretty fast with an anti-histamine. Where is she? Wait a minute. Where are we?" Alan looked around him realizing suddenly that they were neither outside or on the Starfire. He tried to sit up but his right arm and hand were still somewhat swollen and nonfunctional.
Shermeen helped him into a sitting position. "We're in a cave. A couple of kilometers away from the city." The story of the last few hours poured out of her as if she could not take a breath until she was finished. Alan listened in a daze as she spoke. Finally she wound down.
Alan stared at her for a second, not quite sure he believed her, but accepting his swollen aching arm and the cavern around him as evidence. "Altruistic roaches. That's a little hard to accept," he said shaking his head.
" I don't think of them as roaches any more. They're more like people. And they're nice too," Shermeen defended them.
Alan smiled and flexed his right hand. Since he'd woke the swelling had continued to go down. "I won't argue with you, but we'd better get back. Jamie and Helena will be going crazy trying to find us. How long have we been down here?"
Shermeen shook her head and handed him the broken commlock. "I don't know. At least 4 or 5 hours, maybe longer."
"We've got to get back." Alan struggled to stand.
"Are you sure you're up to it?" Shermeen asked.
"We've got to go before it gets dark. The temperature will drop and we won't be able to get to the ship."
Shermeen helped Alan up and they headed slowly up the tunnel toward the cave entrance. They had gone about a hundred feet when several of their hosts came chittering up the passageway. They stood in front of the humans fussing like jaybirds.
"You're sure they're friendly?" Alan asked doubtfully.
"They have been until now," Shermeen said cautiously. "They don't have any weapons. Let's just walk past them and see what they do."
The two walked forward purposefully and the diminutive beings stepped aside although they continued to chatter at them. "Thanks for the hospitality guys, but we don't want to wear out our welcome." Alan said as he took Shermeen's arm and picked up the pace.
They were not followed as they make their way up the passageway, but the temperature began to drop as they approached the entrance. They rounded a corner in the tunnel and the wind whipped sharply at them. The sky was dark through the mouth of the cave and stars shone with a brightness they had not seen on Earth before. They backed around the corner again, out of the wind.
"Now we know why they didn't want us to leave." Shermeen said.
"Come on, let's go back down. No sense freezing to death. We'll leave in the morning."
Shermeen nodded and they returned to the cavern. The creatures gave no notice of their return. Shermeen and Alan settled against the wall of the cave and were both asleep within minutes.
"Are you still here?"
Helena looked up as Patrick entered the galley and headed straight for the coffee pot. "I never sleep well away from home," she lied.
Patrick handed her a cup of warmed-over coffee and made a face as he drank his own. "The temperature is beginning to increase," he remarked, looking over her shoulder at the sensor screen.
"Slowly," she nodded. "How do you feel about an early morning walk?"
"Sounds good to me. Our pressure suits should keep out the cold."
"You wake Darryll to stay here and keep an eye on us. I'll get the suits."
Patrick nodded. "Has the wind been up all night?" He was still looking at the computer screen.
"Yes it has." Helena said calmly.
"You know there won't be any tracks to follow."
Helena got out of the pilots seat and headed for the airlock. "Patrick, we're not leaving this planet until we find them." The tone she used was not to be argued with.
Walking in the sand was not easy in a pressure suit, but the bulky suit did keep out the biting wind. Starfire's computer system had noted a cold front sweeping from the northwest and the thin bitter air with it was almost unbreathable. Patrick and Helena headed straight for the funnel shaped trap. It was once again covered over with powder-fine sand, but the break in the foliage was enough to alert them now that they knew it was there. The sun was well above the horizon by the time they got there but it held no warmth today. They cast about for any signs of their companions but the wind, feeble compared to the winds they grew up with, had eliminated all traces.
Staying in contact with Darryll and Jamie, who had awakened, the two began a search pattern in widening semicircles around the nest. Since they had seen one set of footprints walk away from there, they concentrated their hope on that.
By noon they were cold, hungry, and out of breath in the thin air. Helena sat warily on a rock, hating to admit that they might soon have to give up the search. Patrick sat next to her and placed his hand on her shoulder. Then both of them looked up to see the sight they had begun to lose hope of seeing.
Shermeen and Alan were walking across the sandy ground, a bit dusty and mussed, but apparently in excellent shape.
Both Patrick and Helena whooped with joy and jumped up, fatigue forgotten and went running toward their friends.
Helena took another sip of her coffee and glared at the computer on the other side of the room. She would have to start working on an official report soon. She knew the crew of the Starfire wanted no more to do with the Earth in its present condition. Others would be harder to convince.
There had been good points to their voyage. They were returning with enough inertium, milgonite and titanium to last centuries. The information now stored in the Starfire computer's expanded memory would be invaluable to them. And they had a proven working star-drive which they could send exploring for a new planet, or new allies.
One thing Helena was sure of--the Age of Man had passed on Earth. Earth belonged to others now. The future of the human race was among the stars.
THE END... OR THE BEGINNING