Looking to the Horizon
A sequel to "The Last Sunset". Paul & Sandra decide to marry as a sign of hope for the future, making John Koenig rethink his reticence towards a relationship with Helena Russell.
2350 hours lunar time, Command Centre...
John Koenig approached Paul Morrow's desk. "I'm turning in the for the night. It's been one hell of a day and you're still not entirely out of the woods. Dr. Russell recommends that you rest for the next forty eight hours. Kano can take over here." He looked across at Paul's chief data analyst, "That goes for you too Sandra."
Koenig watched as his two key Operations personnel exchanged a meaningful glance that he could not interpret. It was Sandra who spoke up. "We'll be fine Commander, honestly. Frankly we would rather keep busy just now...try and get back into our normal routines..."
Paul Morrow glanced away but his Commander caught the glint of barely suppressed tears. They had all gotten their hopes up way too soon : Paul & Sandra most of all. It was the two of them who had risked their very lives to be the guinea pigs to first sample Ariel's approximation of an Earth atmosphere. Having survived that, they had joined Helena and Alan on the ill-fated reconnaissance mission to find a suitable site to relocate the Alphans to before the Base was submerged when it's crater became a lake, or - as would have transpired without the intervention of the Arians, - a glacier several hundred feet deep!
After myriad life threatening complications, Helena's quick thinking had allowed himself and Bob Matthias to locate the four of them just in the nick of time before the last vestiges of the atmosphere had been removed by the rulers of the planet Ariel. Neither malevolent or benevolent : just isolationists. Or so they claimed. But it sure felt like the former to him. It was cruel to raise their hopes then tear their dreams to shreds. John Koenig felt sure that the aliens knew all along that their moon would never achieve orbit. They had then cynically ensured that by the time the Alphans knew for sure, any chance to exodus to Ariel would have long since passed. Now they all had to mentally re-group. Put their dreams of starting a new life back on hold until...
John Koenig shrugged off that line of thought and decided to give Paul and Sandra their privacy. "Fine, but I want you to promise me that the moment your exhaustion catches up with you, you'll call Kano and Fredericks to take over. Understood?"
"Yes, Commander" that last from the two of them in unison. He nodded and did his best to summon a reassuring smile before striding out towards his quarters.
Paul watched him leave and wondered - is he really that pragmatic and able to summon such equanimity or just a very good actor? He supposed it was a necessary attribute to pass the psychological profiling requirements paramount to be offered command of Alpha. Then again, Gorski had been a pompous jerk and an easily manipulated puppet working for Commissioner Simmond's office. John Koenig was his own man and could not be more different. Thank goodness Gorski had been relieved of command before breakaway!
Whatever the deal was with their current commander, he knew what he and Sandra were feeling. Gutted - plain and simple! It was Sandra who had had the good sense to suggest they took tonight's shift. He had initially wanted to drink as much Scotch as he could lay his hands on then pass out in his quarters for the next forty eight hours of blissful oblivion. And she had known that, as she always knew just what was going through his head and what he really needed. So she had sensibly decided they both needed some normalcy tonight. Routine and... work to pass the time. They certainly had enough of that! Detailed mission reports on every aspect of their ill fated excursion; organising repair crews to retrofit all twenty seven non-graphene coated Eagles; extensive repairs to the Base itself to audit; updating the inventories detailing all commodities lost or damaged beyond repair etc. etc. If only he could summon the enthusiasm to begin. It all just seemed so pointless, going through the motions ad nauseum.
His depressing reverie was interrupted by a steaming mug of coffee being thrust under his nose. He looked up to see Sandra smiling down at him with a compassionate understanding in those deep brown orbs of hers. "I know Paul. I feel just the same way, but dwelling on what we cannot change and becoming maudlin will not help us in the long run."
He grimaced "or in the short term either. I know : you're right as always. I just wish it was easier sometimes..."
She leant over and placed a chaste kiss on the top of his head before heading back to her desk to tackle the mountain of reports all demanding her immediate attention and meticulous eye for detail. No doubt she looked suitably professionally engrossed. If only he knew! She was staring at spreadsheets of endless computer readouts and seeing not one word of it, so absorbed was she in the memories of the last nine days playing through her mind. Most vividly she recalled her walk with Paul before the first rainstorm. Their shared, unspoken, need to get beyond sight of Moonbase Alpha. Unlike the others, they had remained in uniform, prioritising their need for some privacy and tranquility above 'fun and games'.
She had understood his meaning straight away although she had played dumb. Needing him to spell it out clearly to her. She had so often hoped, but he had never openly voiced his feelings towards her before. Hinted yes, but actually admitted that he wanted to share his life with her specifically...raise a family together... that was the first time. And now she had a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach that it would be the last, given that they were once again confined to barracks. It would be up to her to ensure that now that the genie had been released from the bottle - it had no chance to return. She would smash it to smithereens with the force of her will if necessary!
Meanwhile, Commander John Koenig's quarters ...
It was impossible to sleep. Every time he closed his eyes so many regrets flooded his mind. His gut had told him to persevere with his initial plan to prioritise the assessment of planet Ariel, mysterious alien object notwithstanding, so why had he allowed himself to become distracted? He knew the answer to that : Victor Bergman. No : perhaps that was not entirely fair. More accurately Victor's enthusiasm for the possibility of terraforming their moon once they achieved the hypothetical orbit his computer models had predicted. Even that had not been enough in and of itself. It had been Helena's reaction to the initial data and her obvious desire to believe the best case scenario...and what it would mean for them.
It was his instinct as Base Commander that had given her command of the reconnaissance mission to find a re-location site for their would-be settlement. He knew that he needed to put some distance - literally - between them to allow him to think clearly : critically...
The consequences of which were that he had almost sacrificed his Chief Medical Officer ; Chief Eagle pilot; Chief Operations Officer and the best data analyst on the entire Base - all because he had not thought to check the obvious... Hell, it was fundamental physics!Even a rookie astronaut knew that flying an Eagle through a planetary atmosphere was to be kept to the absolute minimum. They were designed to operate in the vacuum of interplanetary space, with the secondary ability to lift of and land on Earth's surface briefly : when the remit absolutely required it. There were strict restrictions based on local weather patterns and how recently that particular ship had been serviced and overhauled. And that was Earth's atmosphere over a very restricted geographical locale. The synthetic atmosphere 'gifted' them by the Arians, coupled with the lunar terrian was a complete unknown to them. It had been madness, and gross negligence on his part, to have signed off on the mission without a second thought. What had happened to him?
John Koenig knew the answer to that too. He had allowed himself to indulge an impossible daydream. Just as he suspected Paul had done too. At least Paul had a rational excuse after ingesting those alien fungi. He on the other hand, had none. Loneliness? Desperation? Guilt? Frustration? ...Yup, all those and no doubt a whole lot more. He may not be responsible for the events of Breakaway, but he was responsible for leading these people ... and his had to be the voice of caution. They had already lost forty one personnel over the last fourteen months since the events of that fateful day. Through Eagles engaging with unknown, potentially hostile entities out here; through attacks on the Base; sickness; even a couple of suicides. With a crew of only three hundred to begin with, every loss pushed those hopes of a second chance...a new life...ever closer to the abyss.
Forcing himself to wash and dress, he decided to take a walk to the botany research facility. He needed to clear his head and escape their synthetic world for short while. It was only 0415 hours so he would have the place to himself for a couple of hours at least. No one would expect him in Command Centre before 0700.
Paul glanced at his chronometer, 0426 hours. Good. He would be left in peace for a while longer, though he still felt guilty about paging David Kano to relieve him at 0300. He had tried to fool himself that it was for Sandra's benefit but every time he had glanced in her direction he had seen her happily engrossed in her work. At least she looked happy. Perhaps she was just better at letting go than he. Accepting the inevitable, compartmentalising it and moving on. He was glad for her but it still irked him. He felt...inadequate...impotent...trapped : on Alpha ; in an existence of eternal limbo ; it was all so futile...
So, he had decided to follow John Koenig's advice and hand the burden over to Kano for what remained of the night. Then he had sought out refuge, here. On the only place within the entire complex that did not smell, taste, feel like a sterile technologically driven barracks wandering eternally through the ether. The Hydroponics Research Facility. Specifically the Temperate Zone which harboured a deciduous arboretum. There were birch, cherry and chestnut trees housed here and when he glanced up at the ultra violet reflective screens, he could almost believe he was back in New England on a warm Spring Day.
Sighing he mulled over the last ten days. At least he could do so objectively now that the hallucinogens in his system had been neutralised by Dr. Russell. Grimacing, he knew he owed her a heartfelt apology. He had no excuses for his conduct but it had made him face the truth at long last. He had been so desperate to hold onto his dreams for a future with Sandra that he had been willing to kill anyone threatening to get in his way. Oh she'd been gracious about it, once they had returned to Base and Bob Matthias had purged his system of the alien proteins he had ingested. John Koenig less so, unsurprisingly. He'd been lucky to escape with no more than a few cuts and bruises to his body and one massive dent to his sense of self worth. But the ever present open ended question of what to actually do about any of it hung in the air around him with hope dissipating as rapidly as Alpha's recycling systems were purging the last of the 'Ariel atmosphere'...
John Koenig had entered through the service access twelve minutes earlier. It was at the far end of the temperate climate facility and he had wandered towards the arboretum in search of sanctuary and privacy. It was ironic that he should find the one person he was most seeking to avoid sitting under a chestnut tree! Paul had not yet noticed him and John had positioned himself out of his COO's line of sight whilst he debated whether to make his presence known or slip back, retracing his steps. The very fact that they were both here in the small hours of the morning, unable to sleep or work, kept his feet rooted to the spot.
As Commander he had been furious once the full facts of their ill fated reconnaissance mission had come to light. Paul's irrational actions, long before he had ingested the alien 'mushrooms' had put the lives of the others in danger...put Helena in danger. Although he had nominally assigned Dr. Russell as mission commander, Paul was his right hand man and 'number two' on Alpha. It was understood that should anything cause the demise of John Koenig then Paul Morrow would assume Command. So it had not been unreasonable of him to expect Paul to act accordingly. Instead he had allowed Carter to fly far too low over the Taurus Mountains and failed to ensure that Helena and Sandra were strapped into their seats before they crash landed, and then the rest of the fiasco unfolded apace! Had Helena's last minute desperate ploy to attract their attention failed then...
He was abruptly pulled from his rapidly building rage by the sound of sobbing. John Koenig was brought back the the here and now with a large metaphorical bump. Focussing on the man before him he saw Paul sitting with his head in his hands and his whole body was trembling. In that moment it really hit home, Paul carried the burden and responsibilities of command just as much as himself only in the latter case he had to defer the final decisions to the one person above him in the chain of command : himself. So he felt all of the responsibility without having that crucial outlet of being able to act on his own judgment. John thought about it and wondered just how well he would be coping if their roles were reversed. Honestly? He wouldn't. Actually he had no doubt that he would be making a far worse job of things than Paul. John Koenig had always had a volatile nature which he had learned to channel in a positive direction, most of the time. Then again, whenever he was about to go iff the deep end he had the calming voice of reason in the form of his old mentor, Victor Bergman, to hold him in check. Paul Morrow just had to 'roll with the punches' and defend his Commander's decisions to the rest of the senior staff whenever a policy met with any serious reservations. `He was not a fool : he knew that Paul's tacit support on more than one occasion - particularly in the early days with Simmonds still ever present - had held the command structure in place. They had started out as colleagues but since Breakaway they had evolved into much more. These days he could honestly say that he regarded Paul as one of his inner circle of friends. Feeling his own sadness and frustrated hopes rapidly surfacing he stepped out of the shadows to confront their joint demons.
1900 hours, Paul Morrow's quarters...
Dinner was almost ready, he just hoped she would appreciate it. After all, it was a very rare occurrence for anyone to prepare more than a simple snack in their own quarters. Cut adrift in space, Alphans had long since learned that everything was, by absolute necessity, rationed. So meals were at set times for each shift in the large Mess area. An occasional exception was made, usually for John Koenig as Base Commander, when they were entertaining an alien delegation for example. The fact that he had been given permission by the only person authorised to give it, for tonight, would not be lost on Sandra.
He had no idea how she would react when she found out the reason why. He knew how he hoped she would feel and what he desperately wished she would say. But he couldn't be sure...after his recent behaviour...
He felt his courage deserting him as his commlock chimed but put on what he fervently hoped passed as his best poker face before pressing the door release for her to enter.
Sandra had had no idea what to expect. In the back of her mind she knew Paul well enough to realise that his conscience must be getting the better of him and, no doubt, he felt he owed her an apology for the events of their away mission. Perhaps he would make them both a coffee and initiate some small talk whilst he assessed her mood and plucked up the courage to make his peace with her. Although John Koenig and Paul Morrow shared a lot of the command responsibilities they were cut from very different cloths. John Koenig was a force of nature : an abrupt, assertive character...sure of himself and his ability to make the right decisions for them all. Paul on the other hand was more of an introvert. He was quieter, a deep thinker, more...much more like herself. She had often privately questioned some of their Commander's decisions over the last year or so and she knew she was not alone. Alan Carter would be loud and vocal in support of his Eagle team whenever he felt it necessary and Helena Russell very seldom needed to openly challenge him. She had her own ways of bringing John Koenig around to her point of view. But for Paul and, to a lesser extent, David Kano the only buffer was Victor Bergman who would disappear into the Commander's inner sanctum - sometimes for several hours - before emerging with a 'compromise' that Paul could live with. The last fourteen months had been particularly challenging for him and she knew he was mentally and emotionally exhausted. So, she had been relieved when he had invited her over this evening after their shift ended. He was beginning to reach out, emotionally, for her. Something she instinctively knew was a major hurdle for him to overcome, especially now after...
So she had walked through the door with a friendly smile on her face expecting to be met with a couple of coffee cups on the small table by the sofa where, of late, she sat curled in the corner whilst they chatted about life in general. Often with Paul strumming or tuning his guitar. What she had not expected was the small dining table laid out in the middle of the room, complete with candles no less, and a full silver service dinner! Not knowing what to say or how to react she found herself sitting in the left hand chair that he had just pulled out for her and watching Paul pour two glasses of red wine. It was only as she detected the tremble in his hand as he handed her glass to her that the gravity of the whole situation hit home.
"Sandra, these past few days I've been doing a lot of thinking about...well everything but mostly about us. After...after, well you know...I've come to a realisation. We have to stop existing in this eternal limbo, waiting for our futures to begin. We have to start living in the present, however restricted the here and now inevitably has to be. We are materially restricted and some aspects of life have to be put on hold but not all..." . She was watching him intently, glass suspended mid air. She probably thought he had finally flipped, rambling on like this.
In an instant she saw the fear written in the back of his eyes and knew she had to help him. She thought she knew where this was going but if she was wrong...well, she'd probably need the rest of that bottle before making her escape! Struggling to find her voice she prompted him. "I'm listening Paul. Is...is there something on your mind that you wanted to ask me about?" That was as obvious as she would get! Using every ounce of courage she had left she forced herself to sit back in the chair and sip her wine, adopting a supposedly relaxed pose.
He fell silent as he observed her. She has no idea! She probably thinks I'm going to suggest we go to a movie showing or the next chess tournament together, or perhaps I'm going to ask her opinion on my latest composition...I can't do it! She'll either think it's a joke or that I've finally flipped and those damned Arian 'magic' mushrooms have addled my brain irreparably.
"I um...wanted to ask you whether you'd like some tartare sauce with your sole?"
It was so absurd that she couldn't help it : she burst out laughing! Then, seeing the expression on the poor man's face she reacted out of instinct for the man she had loved dearly for a long while now. She stood up, went i er to him and wrapping her arms around his neck, pulled his mouth down to her. Finally releasing him she stepped back enough to look into his eyes. Smiling through her welling tears she whispered "My answer's yes Paul. I thought you'd never ask...and...I will have some of the sauce too!"
It took a moment for realisation to dawn on him and when it did she felt her heart almost leap out of her chest. He was such a handsome man when he truly smiled : from deep within. Something she had not seen on Alpha in a very long time. The next thing she knew was that she was being twirled around in the air before being carried through to his inner sanctum where a small box sat on his bedside table. He sat her down on the edge of the bed and handed it to her. As she opened it she saw the most beautiful silver band engraved with their names and a date ten days hence. She looked enquiringly at him.
Paul looked down, blushing, before answering her unspoken question "A friend made it for me and I engraved it in the hope..."
Forcing himself to look her in the eye and desperately hoping she would understand "It was John Koenig. He's offered to officiate for us if ...if it's what you want too."
So she had misjudged their commanding officer, she owed him big time and the least she could do was return the favour. Once she had thanked him tomorrow, she planned to go speak to a certain doctor ...
John sat in his office, supposedly catching up on Technical Section status reports. At least that was the excuse he gave Victor for not joining him for dinner. Helena was working the night shift in Medical anyway and it was unlikely that anyone else would disturb him. Which was just as well.
His mind drifted back six days to his encounter with Paul Morrow in the arboretum. It had been an awkward meeting to begin with, understandably given the circumstances at the moment he had made his presence known but they had wound up talking until almost 0700 and it was only the sound of the science department technicians arriving for work that had alerted them to just how long they had been sitting there. They had slipped out through the service access hatch and endured a rather cramped crawl through the maintenance passage before slipping out at the nearest tube entrance, dusting themselves off and heading for Command Centre. During those intervening hours they had out the world to rights : specifically their world - right here on Moonbase Alpha.
They may not have gone into orbit, thus losing the opportunity to terraform the lunar surface, but the experience had made them assess their feelings about what actually constituted 'home'. Or more specifically who. As commander he had accepted that fact that his life would be synonymous with his job. Hell, his life was his job, full stop. He had fervently believed that until Paul had opened up to him. Sure, he'd known that Paul and Sandra were fond on one another and in the back if his mind he'd assumed they would gravitate towards each other given the right circumstances...but they had only experienced a temporary reprieve from the artificial reality they had come to accept as 'the new norm'. Ten days, that was all...yet it had profoundly affected them. Making him wonder just how many others felt the same way. Making him question how much he was repressing too.
Was Paul right? Was it as simple as taking that step? Forming a permanent partnership in the hope of a normal future, eventually. Or was it simply offering false hope? Always looking to a hypothetical future on some new planet somewhere when they should be focussing only on survival in the here and now? Realising that's what Paul needed to do he had offered to craft the ring for him though he had had his doubts about Paul proposing so quickly. He knew that Sandra cared for him but did she feel strongly enough to agree to marriage? Glancing at his chronometer he winced inwardly, aware that Sandra would be at Paul's this very moment. It was out if his hands and all he could do was wait until the morning ...either Paul would tell him that he needed his services to rubber stamp the deal or... or Helena and Bob Matthias would need to brush up on their counselling skills !
Helena... he doubted that he felt any less strongly for her than Paul did for Sandra. Only his situation was so much more complicated. He was the Base Commander; they were older and had both been married in a previous life; Helena was the CMO which meant she was the one person on Alpha with the authority to relieve him of duty ...necessitating her objectivity at all times. How could they form a romantic relationship and still keep the confidence of their fellow Alphans? No, not only was it unprofessional, for both of them, but it would make working together every day impossible if they should have a falling out. Suppose one of them wanted to end things or maybe found someone else? Here on Alpha they all had to live in one another's pockets day in and day out. There would be no escape...
As he was valiantly talking himself out of progressing his friendship with Helena into anything more he could hear Paul's counter-arguments playing in his head. There were several married couples already on Base and they managed just fine; he would know in his heart when he found 'The One' and that one was Helena just as Paul was sure of his commitment to Sandra; what was the point of going through the motions simply to survive if there was no one there for you at the end of the day...
So what should he do? Follow his head - as he had done for the last forty eight years - or take a leap of faith and cast his reservations aside?
"A penny for them?" He almost jumped out of his chair at the sound if Victor's voice. "Sorry to startle you John, I did knock but you were miles away..."
Victor took the seat opposite John's desk. "So what has you so deep in thought?"
John sighed, the last person he wanted to bare his soul to right now as Victor. He would think him a sentimental old fool and wonder whether he was losing his marbles. He was the Commander and he needed to snap out of it tight now! "It's nothing Victor, I'm just finding it hard to focus on these status reports. All pretty tedious stuff."
Victor regarded his friend closely. So, he was agonising over his feelings for Helena once again. John didn't need to vocalise them, he could guess the gist. And he knew the real cause of John's reticence : he was afraid that Helena would not reciprocate. Victor wondered what had precipitated this old chestnut just now. He'd noticed a new bonhomie between John and Paul in recent days and had been glad that the whole Ariel incident and it's aftermath had appeared to have blown over, perhaps there was something he was missing? Deciding to test the water, so to speak, he asked, "How's Paul bearing up? Any residual effects from those hallucinogenic alien fungi? You two certainly seem to have buried the hatchet in recent days."
So Victor had noticed. His keen observational eye went with the territory of being an established research scientist but in the past his observations had been strictly those of scientific nature, at least that is what he had always assumed from their past conversations. Perhaps he had underestimated his old mentor once again.
"I'm sure he's fine. Dr. Matthias cleared him to return to active duty and I've exonerated him from any blame for the Away Mission incidents. He was under an alien influence after all."
Victor just smiled before retorting "Not all that alien to him John...or to you. It's just that - as scientists - we deny ourselves so much in the name of 'professional integrity'."
John could feel himself getting hot under the collar. Victor had with scientific precision cut to the chase, Perhaps he could deflect him a little. "Alright you have me. I was actually thinking about Paul...and Sandra. I'll let you into a secret on the strict understanding it goes no further." Victor nodded his assent. "Paul is this very moment proposing marriage. I'm not sure whether Sandra will agree so..."
Victor was curious as to how John Koenig had gotten Paul Morrow to divulge something so personal, before it was a fait accompli no less. Raising an eyebrow "John?"
Victor had taken the bait so John relayed their heart to heart in the arboretum that night, at least the aspects relating to Paul's life.
Victor sat and listened, mentally filling in the blanks from John's perspective. So Paul had finally found the courage to take the next step. He was sure that Sandra would reciprocate his feelings. They were perfect for each other, the one complementing the other - cancelling out the foibles; insecurities; offering much needed moral support and comfort. Just as John and Helena so obviously did for one another.
Picking his words carefully Victor chose to give his friend a gentle nudge in the right direction. " You know John, I'm sure we still have a few grams of unprocessed white gold in the metals store should anyone decide to follow Paul and Sandra's example." Rising from his chair and heading towards the door before his friend could find the words to respond. "I must be getting back to the laboratory, Helena's due to pick up some materials during her break around 0300 and I plan to retire for the night long before then. Goodnight John."
As he headed back down the corridor towards his workshop he smiled to himself. Somehow he had a sneaking feeling that there would be two significant announcements in the coming days...