Chapter 1: Under the Ice

"Slowly, lower it some more, slowly!" Victor Bergman called to the team of technicians hard at work with him on Erath.

While all the Alphans had eventually settled on planet Berg in Alpha Nova due to serious structural issues with the second planet they discovered in their new solar system, continued exploration of Erath was still being done. The current team on Erath was exploring the immense crater on the dark side of Erath, and more specifically attempting to drill through the enormous sheet of ice filling the crater. Professor Angela Robinson had placed probes in the ice, and those probes had picked up several large organic structures under the ice. The team was attempting to reach one of those structures.

While the principle of the drill was fairly simple, the execution was not. Professor Bergman had designed a laser drill that would drill a hole with a diameter of about 2 meters in the ice, and it was a large machine. Furthermore, though the ice was strong, the tunnel had to be kept from collapsing inward due to the immense pressure from the sides as the hole grew deeper, so large pipe-like mesh units of graphene-strenghthened material was slowly being lowered into the already completed parts of the tunnel. Above the hole an elaborate winch had been set up, and it was from this winch that Victor was dangling in the hole in a specially designed cradle, a few hundred meters under the ice.

They had been at it for several days, drilling a section, pumping out the water, then lowering a man into the hole to oversee the careful placement of a section of pipe. It was a cold and forbidding work environment, with temperatures hovering around -150 Celsius and the men working changed shifts every hour. Platforms had been drilled into the ice around the worksite where eagles could set down for prolonged periods without freezing to the surface, and these platforms were connected with catwalks to each other and the central tower which housed the drill bit and the winch.

"We're hauling you up, Professor!" Toshiro Fujito, who was medical officer as well as technical support during this particular work detail, called on his commlock. "Your hour is up!"

The work detail from Berg generally spent about two earth weeks on Erath. The Alphans had simply continued using an earth calendar and lunar time despite the differences in orbital times of their new solar system to that of earth and the absence of night and day on their new home planet. After two weeks they were relieved by a new team from Berg, and the routine had become familiar in the few weeks since all the Alphans had relocated to Berg.

The cradle appeared at the top rim of the tunnel and started swinging slowly to the platform. Victor Bergman, chief scientist for the Alpha community, waved enthusiastically. The men working on site were always suited up in their old Alpha spacesuits because of the unforgiving cold. As soon as he was unstrapped out of the cradle, they headed for one of the eagles, where they gratefully removed their clumsy helmets.

"900 Meters!," Victor exclaimed. "We are making good progress!"

"We still have a long way to go, Professor," Toshiro said as the two men helped themselves to cups of hot cocoa offered them. "Over 5 000 meters, in fact."

The drilling had started at the site where probes found the organic structure closest to the surface of the ice plate: 6 km.

John Koenig joined them from the control pod of the eagle. "Computer estimates it will still take several more weeks to break through. I'm sending you home, Victor. You two weeks are almost up!"

"No, John," Victor replied almost petulantly. "I want to finish my shift; we can do another few hundred meters."

John pulled the older man into the eagle cockpit by his sleeve. "I just spoke to Helena. She wants you to come home, Victor."

Sudden concern flashed on the scientist's face. "Is she ok, John?"

"Helena is fine, Victor, no need for concern. It was a request she made, and she did say that if it couldn't be done, it would be ok too, but I already have a new team on the way from Berg. When they get here, you can go home with the eagle."

"It's fascinating work, John, even from an engineering point of view. Drilling 6 km into an ice plate… I predict that as we go deeper, it will be getting warmer as we get nearer the core of Erath. We may even come up against bodies of water under the ice… just think about it, John…"

John studied his friend's face. Victor was sold out completely to his job, always excited about science, about discovery. That he had been on Moonbase Alpha on 13 September 1999 when the moon was blasted out of earth's orbit by a huge nuclear explosion created by the nuclear waste that had been stored on the moon, had been fortuitous. Many a time it had been his creative thinking and uncanny understanding of physics that had saved Alpha from disaster.

"And you can come back with the next team, Victor," John smiled. "You know as well as I that every fragment of data from this site will be at your disposal instantaneously."

"I know, John," Victor drawled in his familiar way when he didn't want to concede a point. "But it so much more exciting on site!"

"I understand Victor, but I've made my decision. You'll be going home on the next eagle for Berg."

"Yes, John," Victor smiled. "I'll go. I'm just giving you hard time for old times' sake."

The men joined the others in the passenger pod of the eagle. The next group of workers was suiting up, getting ready to resume drilling and strengthening the tunnel.

"Anything we should know about, Professor?" Chris Potter asked.

"Watch it in that cradle, Chris. We need to find a way to stabilize it. As the cable gets longer, it tends to swing more, and a hard crash against the sides of the tunnel might result in injury. Keep your hands from getting between the cradle and the tunnel."

John looked concerned. "How can we stabilize it, Victor?"

"I'm not sure yet, John. Adding side protectors to the cradle will make it difficult to reach the sides of the tunnel, which is exactly where we need to be to fit the pipe. We may have to drill down deeper for each section of pipe and create some sort of platform where the cradle can be detached."

"And have a man work completely unattached to the surface in those circumstances? I won't allow that Victor. Anything can go wrong in that tunnel, and I want us to be able to haul up the men independently to the surface."

"We check the equipment very carefully at the end of each day, Commander," Toshiro said. "Nothing has gone wrong so far. The cradle limits our ability to move around down there."

John shook his head firmly. "While I am just as curious what we'll find at the end of that tunnel, I will not allow un-tethered workers down there. That's final. Now, Victor has been summoned back to Berg, so a replacement team is on its way. Anyone else who would like to be relieved of duty a few days earlier is welcome to go back too."

"What about you, John?" Victor asked.

"I arrived only two days ago. I'll stay for another day or so, and then go back to Berg. I would like my own turn down in that tunnel!"

The men laughed. It was exciting work, and had the conditions not been so treacherous, they would have spent far more time in the intriguing and slowly growing tunnel.

Victor piled his stuff on the floor in the living area of their residential unit. "Helena?" A quick glance at the time showed him it was 17:45 lunar time, near the end of their scheduled workday on Berg. Helena was most probably still in the medical unit. He had time…

He dashed over to his computer bank, directly connected to the mainframe in Kukua and David Kano's territory. As on Alpha, Victor had direct access to the powerful heart of their communities. He punched some buttons and eagerly ripped the latest printouts from Erath from the panel. His eyes lit up. During his trip back to Berg, the men had drilled another two sections of tunnel, finally reaching the depth of 1 km. He knew that the deepest drilling that had ever been done on earth had taken place on the Kola Peninsula in Russia and that the scientists had reached the staggering depth of 12 km in 1994. It had taken them 20 years, but he knew their technology here on Berg was far superior. They had taken about two weeks to reach 1 km, so in another two months or so, bar any unexpected delays, they might break through to the organic structure.

"Victor! You're home," Helena exclaimed behind him. She rushed up to him, wrapping her arms around him. "What are you looking at that's making you so excited?"

"They got to 1 km, Helena," he replied, his voice filled with excitement. "We'll be through in no time. Isn't that exciting?"

She smiled. His enthusiasm was always so infectious. She took his hand and dragged him to the couch, flopping down beside him. "It is, Victor. But you know I don't like you going down into that tunnel. John neither. There are younger, far more agile workers who could do that part. You guys can coordinate from above."

"Are you calling us old?" he grinned, then pulled a face. "It's not as exciting as being there, Helena. Surrounded by tons and tons of ice, in that cold and stillness, on a still fairly unknown planet. Who knows what could be down there! And to be the one who discovers it…" He paused, capturing her eyes with those light green ones of his. "But John told me you wanted me home." He reached out to cup her cheek in his palm. "Are you ok?"

John Koenig, Victor Bergman and Helena Russell had met many years before when they were all three part of the space exploration programs on earth during the late 1990s. They had become firm friends. Koenig had been an astronaut on early space missions, and was assigned to the Ultra probe mission at the same time Victor had been working on establishing Moonbase Alpha and Helena Russell, having lost her husband a few years earlier in the Astro probe mission, had been assigned to the medical unit on Moonbase Alpha. John Koenig had just been assigned as Commander of Moonbase Alpha, and the three friends had found themselves united there on 13 September 1999 when the moon was blasted out of earth's orbit. That had started an uncharted and at times frightening journey into unknown space, where every moment had been occupied with their quest for survival. Nothing on Alpha had ever been natural, and though John and Helena had at times seemed strongly attracted, nothing ever came of it, as emotional entanglements were almost frowned upon during their long, unexpected journey. Helena had had some history with Victor Bergman though, having leaned on him a great deal after her husband, Lee's disappearance, but they too, had never pursued any romantic feelings.

When Victor discovered their new solar system, Alpha Nova, after they had been adrift in space for nearly two years, they had found not one, but two habitable planets. They had evacuated Moonbase Alpha, leaving the barren lunar surface that had seemed destined to become their tomb and colonized both planets, split into two groups. Away from the restricting confines of Moonbase Alpha, and having chosen the group originally led by Victor Bergman, Helena had realized that she still had deep feelings for Victor, confided it to him, and though circumstances had eventually forced the Alphans to all move to one of the two planets, thereby reintroducing the presence of John Koenig, she had elected to pursue a relationship with the older scientist.

The people, who had originally settled on Berg before the discoveries that had shown Erath to be unsuitable for long term development, had accepted this turn of events without much reaction. Some, however, who had been in John Koenig's group originally on the second planet, Erath, had only slowly become aware of this once they had to relocate to Berg, and some were quite openly hostile and rejecting this outcome. John Koenig, although initially devastated when Helena approached him about this, had also come to accept it, and often found himself rather pleased for his friends. He knew Victor was a good man, a gentle man, and if not him, then she could simply not be in better hands.

They had all been united on Berg for about two earth months now, and Helena often had to deal with snide remarks and crude jokes when dealing with patients. Victor seemed to simply take it in his stride, but then he had always been an unflappable character, keeping his emotions to himself. He had learned, however, that when she came home after work, Helena often needed reassurance and comfort to help her cope with these cruel, unthinking remarks. They had discussed speaking to their Commander about it, but in the end decided that they would fight this battle together. If things were meant to last, it would.

"I'm fine, Victor," she reassured him, studying his face tenderly. "But I do have something to tell you…"

His eyes, which had been filled moments ago with mischievous excitement, now projected his curiosity.

She stared down at her hands, fidgeting nervously. "Well?" he asked, tilting her face up to him, placing his hand over hers to still them.

"You know that Sandra is about 5 months advanced in her pregnancy," she began. Sandra Benes had married Paul Morrow not long after their exodus to Berg, and was expecting the first baby in their community.

He looked at her uncomprehendingly. "Yes, and we are all very excited," he said, smiling. "Our first child, our future. She is ok, isn't she?"

"She's doing very well, actually." She took a deep breath, slowly wrapping her arms around his neck, laying her head against his shoulder. She felt his hand rub her back in a soothing way, closed her eyes, and whispered softly: "We're going to have a baby, Victor."

His hand stopped moving, and she felt him take a deep breath. When she sat up to look at him, he was staring at her with… disbelief? Wonder? It was hard to tell. She wanted him to grab her and dance through their living room, but she knew she had to let him process this in his own way. Victor was a complicated man, and he simply did not always react as was expected. His mechanical heart also caused some physiological detachment from normal sudden emotion, often resulting in a delayed, but no less honest reaction.

He reached to gently caress her face, his mouth literally hanging open, and she felt him consciously make an effort to compose himself.

"Does John know?" That response was so unexpected, yet so totally Victor, that she burst out laughing.

"No, Victor. I wanted to tell you first. I only requested John to send you home, if possible."

Finally his arms reached out for her, pulling her to him tightly. "Oh, Helena…" His voice was hoarse. He kissed her hair, her forehead, her cheek, stopping in bursts to just stare at her before pulling her close again, and she giggled, realizing that he really did not know how to react.

"Are you happy, Victor," she asked when he next met her eyes.

"Happy? Happy? Of course I'm happy… I'm… I'm… I don't know what I am, Helena, but I am happy. I'm over the moon happy… I'm…" He finally jumped up, pulling her to her feet into his embrace; then just as quickly stepped back. "I'm sorry… I didn't hurt you, did I? You're ok, right?"

She stepped back into his arms, smiling. "Of course I'm ok, Victor. I'm just having a baby; I'm not turning into some fragile glass sculpture!"

"Of course, of course," he said. "Oh, Helena, I love you so much, and…"

But he never got to say what he wanted he wanted to say, as an alarm started ringing loudly in their quarters, the internal communications panel flashing a stark message in red not seen since they had left Alpha: "Red Alert, Red Alert, Red Alert." It was followed by a disembodied voice: "Professor Bergman, report to Command Center urgently. Professor Bergman, report to Command Center urgently."

He held her for a moment by her shoulders, his eyes still searching hers, but she said: "Go, Victor! You need to go!"

He grabbed his commlock and ran for the door. Helena too took a deep breath before following him, a sudden fist of fear forming in her stomach. They had been living in relative peace for so long now, and she had no idea what danger they could suddenly be facing.

Paul Morrow and David Kano were in the command center, studying their big screen with alarm.

"Professor, our scanners just picked this up!"

Victor raced to join them, glancing up at the screen. "What is it, Paul?"

"A large object, Professor. Initial readings confirm that it is some kind of spaceship, but it's still too far for us to be sure. But it is powered."

"John needs to know immediately."

"David has already sent the information."

At that very moment a communications console lit up, the face of John Koenig appearing. "I'm getting your data, Paul. Get Victor in there. I'm recalling the entire team on Erath as we speak. We'll be heading to Berg immediately."

"The Professor is already here, Commander."

"Victor! I need you to find out what that thing is. By the time we get there, I need as much information as you can find."

"Yes John, I'm on it."

"Alert Carter. As soon as an eagle can be sent, let him go. Alert our team at the armory. Get a few eagles equipped with long range weapons. If it is a ship, and it is hostile, we need to be ready."

"Yes, Commander," Paul replied. The Alphans sprung into action seamlessly. This they had dealt with often before. Unlike the new planet that was now their home, and often still baffled them, this alert was familiar territory. Barely a minute later Alan Carter burst into the control room, still pulling on his old Alpha tunic.

"What is it, Paul?"

"Our scanners have picked up some kind of ship," Paul said. "It is powered artificially."

"The Commander is on his way," Kano commented, pulling yet another printout from Computer.

"Alan, get an eagle ready. John wants you to go take a look as soon as it comes within range. And we need better pictures. If you go now, and fly some sort of holding pattern between us and the ship, your scanners could provide us with better data."

"On my way, Professor," Alan said with a smile. The brave young Australian was always ready for action.

"Johan Burger will be waiting for you at the eagles, Alan. I've already alerted him."

Helena appeared in the doorway, her arm around the shoulders of Sandra Benes Morrow. Paul jumped up and rushed to her. "Sandra! You should not have come!"

"I tried to stop her, Paul," Helena said. Paul's bride was more than halfway through her pregnancy. But it was more than her and Paul's pregnancy: it belonged to all of them, as it was the first time since their moon had left earth that there was a true chance at building a future and she had been treated like a porcelain princess by everyone alike.

Sandra leaned against Paul. "I wanted to come," she said.

Helena suddenly became aware of Victor Bergman studying her intensely, concern on his face. She realized he was probably feeding off Paul's reaction, and now that she had told him, she would be the one having to reassure him constantly that she was ok.

More people had arrived, galvanized into action by the Red Alert, and Paul punched a few more buttons. "Attention all Berg residents. Attention all Berg residents. Our scanners have picked up an approaching ship, but we in no immediate danger. Commander Koenig is returning to Berg immediately with the work team from Erath. We are sending out an exploration eagle to take a look at that ship, but you can stand down, I repeat, you can stand down. If you are scheduled for a work duty, please return to your duty station. The Red Alert is now lifted, but you will be informed if it changes."

"Eagle 3 ready for liftoff," Carter's voice broke in.

"Go, go, go!" Paul shouted. "Good luck Alan. We've not had any signals from that ship, so be careful out there." He then punched up the console to contact the eagle on its way back to Berg. "Commander, Alan has just left to approach that ship and send us more information."

"Is he armed, Paul?"

"I'm not sure, Commander, but I would think so."

"Find out, Paul. And if not, at the slightest hint of aggression from that ship, recall Alan and send the armed eagles. We'll be touching down shortly. Don't do anything else until I get there."

"Yes, Commander."

Paul looked back at Sandra and Doctor Russell. "Doctor Russell, could you please take her back home. We're not in any danger. I'll come as soon as the Commander gets here."

Helena nodded, her arm around Sandra's shoulder. The young woman was reluctant to leave, but eventually relented and allowed herself to be led out. Before she exited the door, Helena was aware again of Victor's eyes on her, and all she could do to assuage whatever fears he was trying to deal with, was wave him a quick surreptitious kiss.

The men left in the control room kept glancing at the screen, the continuous printouts being spewed from computer, their restlessness apparent. Victor was pacing up and down, obviously in deep thought, and Paul wondered for a moment if it was just about the ship. But then after a while Alan's voice came through: "Ready to activate scanners. Stand by."

"Go ahead Alan," the Professor called, rushing to the nearest monitor, punching a few buttons. Their eyes lifted to the big screen.

Slowly the ship started coming into view: an elongated object fitted with panels and boosters, large cylinders nestled around its slowly gliding main body. The ship glided on serenely, but the silence in the control area was suddenly broken by Victor's excited voice: "It's a Superswift! A modified Superswift, amost resembling the Ultra Probe! That's a ship from earth!"

"Are you sure Professor?" Paul asked, incredulous.

"Yes, yes, of course I'm sure! They were working on it during project Meta, but it was not ready yet." He punched up a communications panel again. "John! John did you get that."

"We're just landing, Victor. What's up?"

"It's a Superswift, John. That ship is from earth!"

Minutes later, while then men were still staring at the video feed from Alan's eagle, John Koenig burst through door, then froze in his tracks.

"You are right, Victor," he exclaimed. "It's the Superswift design, somewhat modified, but unmistakable!"

"What does it mean, Commander?" Paul asked, still somewhat confused. But Koenig had punched up the connection to Alan Carter.

"Alan! That ship… that ship is from earth! Are you picking up any signals?"

"None whatsoever Commander… what do you mean… from earth?"

"That is the Superswift design from just before they started working on the Meta probe. It's somewhat modified, but then it was incomplete when our moon was blasted out of orbit."

"You mean they're looking for us?" Alan exclaimed.

"I don't know what it is doing here, Alan, but it is an earth vessel. Keep calling on all channels."

"Should I approach when in range, Commander?" Alan asked. Excitement was etched on the faces of all those gathered around the screen, as well as that of Alan Carter.

"No… no…" John suddenly said. "If there are people on that ship, remember, they don't know we are here. They might regard an approach as a sign of aggression."

"But surely they'll recognize the eagle, Commander?" Alan retorted.

"Do not approach until we've established contact, Alan. That's an order. Hold your position and keep trying to reach them."

"Do you know what that means, John!" Victor exclaimed, grabbing his friend's sleeve. "There could be people on that ship! They would know the relative position of earth. If they traveled here, we could go home!"

"Yes, Victor. While we're still not in range, their silence bothers me though. By now they must be receiving our navigation signal. If they had progressed as far as to launch a Superswift, surely their other technology has advanced too."

They turned to see Helena returning. She nodded reassuringly to Paul, then hurried to Victor's side. "What is it?"

"An earth ship, Helena!" His voice was filled with awe. "We're being visited by an earth ship!"

She looked from him, to John, who nodded. "It's a Superswift, Helena. Victor is right. But we're getting no signals from them."

She stared at the screen in amazement. "What are we going to do, John?"

"As soon as we've established contact, we'll go over, of course."

Paul kept punching buttons, repeating their call signal. They could hear Alan doing the same. They were terribly excited, but it was somewhat tampered by the ominous silence.

Victor pulled his friend aside. "John! You do realize that everyone on that ship could be dead?"

John nodded. "But there should still be a navigation signal of some kind. All our craft had one."

"Yes," Victor said, scratching his chin. "Unless all their onboard computers are dead."

"If that's the case, then anybody on that ship would be dead too," John whispered to his friend.

John thought for a minute, then turned to his people. "Paul, keep calling them. Alan, return to base. Don't stand down the armed eagles yet. When we get within range, we'll prepare and eagle and attempt to dock with that ship. Start preparing an eagle. I want the very best team to go with me…" He glanced around. "Alan to fly us, Helena, medical," he glanced briefly at Paul, "Tony Allen, security, Bill Steiner, technical, Peter Reeves, communication." His eyes rested on Victor Bergman for a moment. "Jim Haines, scientific." He saw the disappointment on his friend's face, but quickly countered: "I need you here, Victor. While I'm gone, Berg is yours. Whatever we find on that ship, I don't really expect problems… but we can never be sure. Let's saddle up, people. We lift off as soon as we are in range." He strode to the door, but was suddenly aware of a frantic tug on his sleeve.

"Victor? I really need you here. I know you'd love to see that ship, and you will. This is just a reconnaissance trip. You'll go as soon as we know what's going on."

"No, no, John. Not me. It's Helena… can Matthias go? Or Vincent?"

John was suddenly puzzled at the vehemence of Victor's request. "She'll be fine, Victor. I'll take good care of her. You have my word."

His friend's eyes filled with sadness, and was it… desperation? Confused, John steered his friend outside. "OK, Victor. What's going on? Helena looked fine to me, and eager to go."

Bergman clutched his hands behind his back, staring up into the sky. John realized there was some sort of battle raging inside the man, but he simply could not fathom what it was. But he had seldom seen his friend so frantic and unglued.

"John…" Victor swung around, facing the Commander, but then his words seemed to dry up. John realized that this was the first time they had faced any kind of threat since they had left Alpha, and he remembered the times he had been frantic for Helena's safety during their desperate journey through space. It was endearing that his friend was now exhibiting the same symptoms, but it was just not like the man. As he was about to say something, he heard footsteps and turned to see Helena coming towards them.

"Helena? Are you ok?" Koenig asked. "Victor seems rather convinced that you should not go."

Helena looked at John, and then at Victor, who stood looking down rather dejectedly. She stepped up to him, placing her palm against his chest, then faced John Koenig.

"I'm fine, John." She smiled. "But I think Victor is suffering from a bit of 'expectant daddy' syndrome. You see, I just told him a couple of hours ago he's going to be a father."

This time it was John's face that filled with astonishment. "Oh, Victor," he energetically pumped his friend's hand, then swung Helena around in an exuberant hug. "Of course Bob can go! Why didn't you say anything? Congratulations! Oh my goodness, congratulations you two, that is wonderful news!" And as he hugged both his friend to him, he realized that he really meant it, that his heart was really filled with joy for these two dear friends of his.

(To be continued…)

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