by Kelson Vibber

1. Jay

Jay Carter carried the empty spacesuit lightly in Pandora’s low gravity. The two similarly-suited figures at his side kept pace as they grimly returned to the installation. Up ahead lay the mosaic of interconnected cylinders that was Pandora Installation. Turned on their sides, half-buried in dirt, the cylindrical buildings were connected by a series of tubes. Off to the north, they could plainly see the landing pad used by the periodic freighters that exchanged new supplies for new processed ore.

When they came within thirty meters of the compound, a door in the nearest building slid open. Someone must be waiting for them. Someone impatient.

They stepped inside the airlock, letting the door close behind them, and waited for the green light. Before anyone could open the inner door, it whooshed up to reveal the installation’s security chief, a short but powerful man in his mid-40s.

“Raelle?” Chief Kaufmann’s voice was muffled through Jay’s helmet.

Jay nodded lifelessly.

“Damn!” Kaufmann exclaimed. He took the suit from Jay, then began inspecting it while Jay removed his helmet. “Something’s out there, I guarantee it. For Christ’s sake, look at this! No tears or anything!”

“We were only separated for a few minutes,” said Jay.

Kaufmann finished his cursory examination of the suit, apparently finding agreement with Jay’s observations. “I tell you, Jay, something came in on that supply ship. I knew it was trouble the minute it showed up. Look, I want all three of you in my office in fifteen minutes. I want to go over everything that happened out there before the commander calls a general meeting. Get suited down, then get right over.”

The three of them started heading for one of the doors across the way.

Kaufmann grabbed Jay’s arm to stop him momentarily. “Oh, and Jay? I’m really sorry. For your sake, I wish it had been anyone else.”

“Jay!” Her voice called out from the doorway. “I heard. I’m so sorry.” He turned to face Michelle Kim, Pandora’s senior communications officer. She was about 5′6″, had dark hair, brown eyes, a beautiful face and a figure to die for. Yet it was for other reasons that Jay felt very lucky to have found her. Especially now.

She crossed the room and embraced him.

“God, Michelle,” he whispered. “It was bad enough when Charlie disappeared, but Raelle? My own sister. Gone. Like she was never there.” A tear traced its way down his cheek. “Look, I’ve got to see Kaufmann. He wants me debriefed yesterday. I’ll see you tonight?”

“My shift starts in a few minutes anyway. Take care of yourself.”

“We knew Charlie was headed north when they lost his signal,” Jay said, “but Raelle had this feeling we should go south instead. We must’ve followed the rocks for about a kilometer, when something caught her eye. She went to investigate while I stayed back for a few seconds. It was only a minute or so. I couldn’t raise her on the com, and so I followed... I thought I caught a reflection from her faceplate, disappearing into a cave... but then I saw her suit. It was just crumpled down on the ground. I thought she was in it, at first. That she’d just blacked out. But her suit was empty. I went a little bit into the cave, but I couldn’t find....”

“What?” Kaufmann asked. “What couldn’t you find?”

“I was looking for her body.”

Kaufmann just stared at him, then looked down at the data pad in his hands. He looked at the other two members of the search party. “Neither of you found anything, right?”

“Right,” said Katrina Odinov.

“You know that Harper’s suit was found near a cave, right?”

“Yes,” said Joseph Whitney.

“There’s no way this is a coincidence. We’d better steer clear of those caves for a while. Joseph, Katrina, I’m gonna need you to help me a bit here. Jay... take the rest of the day off. The commander’s sure to call a meeting. I’ll see you there.”

“I know it’s irregular to call the entire crew together at once,” Commander Huston said, “but we’re in the midst of a crisis here.”

Twenty-eight men and women were crowded into Storage Bay 3, one of the few rooms large enough for a full assembly. The commander continued. “We’ve just lost two of us out on the rocks. Rules against going out alone are still in effect. What’s important now, though, is that no-one gets separated from his partner. Furthermore, the caves out on the rocks are off-limits except for a small team Chief Kaufmann will assemble to investigate. Chief?”

Kaufmann began to speak. “I’ve been going through the logs from last week’s supply ship. Taking into account everything unloaded and loaded, there’s a 72-kilogram discrepancy between mass at touchdown and at liftoff. My guess is that we have a stowaway. Someone who managed to get away from the landing site with a suit and is hiding out in the caves, and doesn’t want anyone to know where he is.

“The next ship doesn’t arrive for two months. I know a lot of you are looking forward to going home when the new crew comes in. So am I. But if this keeps up, we won’t get the chance... Let’s not blow it, okay?”

Jay sat on his bunk, looking at a picture of his sister. He had this brief time to himself, since his roommate Erik was on duty. He usually appreciated his retreat. Had the station stuck to the original design, he would have shared this room with four people. Between the automated launch of the buildings and the launch of the crew, however, advances in artificial intelligence had made it possible to run the installation with half the crew. So when the first complement arrived two years ago to complete the assembly, one of the first things they did was to convert the old four-person quarters into doubles.

He and Raelle had the same hair: brown, straight, cut short. Dark brown eyes. The Carter Twins, so inseparable they even came to this hellhole together. What no challenge, no enemy, no lover could accomplish, this unknown stowaway had done: they had been separated. Assuming, of course, it was a stowaway.

The door chimed. “Come in,” he said. “It’s unlocked.” It swiveled open, and Michelle stepped in.

“Hi,” she said, sitting next to him. “How are you?”

“As well as can be expected,” he said. He turned to look at her. “We’ve never been apart for any length of time. We’ve always been together.”

“I know,” she said, smiling. “Sometimes I’d get jealous.”

“Of my sister? I could never have let her get between us.”

“Maybe.” She sighed. “Oh, Jay, you can’t just stay like this. We’ve got to find out what’s happening. And stop it.”

“Will that bring her back?”

“Jay — fine, it won’t bring her back. But, dammit, it just might keep us alive long enough to get home ourselves! Ever thought of that? There’s something out there, Jay. Something Kaufmann and Huston are keeping quiet. I was the base contact when Charlie disappeared. When Corie found his suit, she reported seeing some sort of eerie light, a kind of yellowish glow — like ball lightning — in the cave, heading deeper in. She didn’t pursue very far, because Huston ordered her back here.”

“Keeping it quiet? We’re disappearing right and left and they’re keeping something quiet! Who the hell are they to—” He got up and marched to the door, slamming the open button.

“Jay, what are you doing!” She pursued him into the corridor. “Are you crazy?”

“Don’t you get it? That... thing that Corie saw killed my sister! It’s after all of us. I’m not going to let them keep this thing under wraps!”

“We have a potential first contact situation on our hands,” Commander Huston contended. “Kaufmann has assembled a qualified team to investigate while we wait for the team from Earth. You are not to interfere with our investigation. Is that understood?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. Now that—”

“What I don’t understand, sir, is why he’s sticking to that story about a stowaway.”

“It hasn’t been ruled out yet. And you must realize how delicate this situation is. If this news got out, everyone would want to be the first to contact an alien lifeform. We’re down by two already. We can’t afford to have anyone neglecting their duties at a time like this.”

“With all due respect, sir, it sounds as if you wanted the glory yourself.”

“Make no mistake, Carter: if this turns out to be the real thing, Corie will be the one who goes in the history books. I only have the interests of this station at heart.”

Jay walked angrily through the sections toward his room, Michelle rushing to keep up.

“You should have heard him!” he said. “‘I only have the interests of this station at heart.’ Where does he get that, the Politician’s Handbook?”

“Jay, get a hold of yourself! This isn’t going to help Raelle...”

They reached his door. He stopped, whirling to face her. “I know that. You were right. This thing is going to pick us off, one by one, unless someone stops it. Kaufmann and his team don’t want to stop it. They want to communicate with it! I’m sorry, but I think it’s demonstrated its intent already!” He walked inside his door.

Michelle followed. “Jay, listen to me! Let them take care of it! Pardon me for asking, but what the hell can you do about it! You don’t think you can kill it, do you?”

He focused himself. “That’s exactly what I’m going to do. I’m going to get some explosives from the mining supplies. Then I’m going to find that thing and blast it to Hell.”

“I don’t suppose you’ve thought about how you’re going to get back from this little adventure, have you?”

“I don’t need to. I just need to stop—”

“And suppose there’s more than one of them? Suppose it’s not even related? Suppose it’s just a glowing ball of gas held together by — surface tension or something? Jay, don’t go off like this. You don’t know enough about it yet.”

“Maybe you’re right,” he said. “Maybe... I don’t know.” He sank to the bedframe.

She sat as well, and reached out to soothe him.

He turned to face her. “I’m sorry, Michelle... I just want to be alone for a while.”

“All right. But if you need me, you know where I am. I’ll always be here for you, Jay.” She touched his cheek with her hand and kissed him, then got up and wordlessly left the room.

“Hey,” Erik said. “Sorry I missed you at the meeting. You doing okay?”

“Why does everyone keep asking me that!” Jay said.

“Hey! Take it easy!” Erik was a rather large sort of fellow, very muscular. In the wrong sort of situation, he could be very intimidating. Fortunately, in his element — machinery — he was perfectly happy to ignore most discourtesy.

“Look, I’m upset, okay? I have every reason to be upset. Something took my sister and now it’s after us all.”

“Hey, look, I’m scared too. I mean, two of us gone in two days? But what can I do? Kaufmann knows how to investigate. He’s picked a good team.”

“Who’s on it?”

“Rob, Thuy, Lakesha, and Corie. It sounds like a—”

“Wait, did you say Corie?”

“Yeah,” Erik said. “Why?”

“It’s just that she was the one who found Charlie, and...”

“And what?”

“Oh, nothing.”


“Erik, you’ve been out here, what— half a year, right?”

“Four months. I arrived—”

“And Corie came in with your group too. But Charlie was part of the original crew, with me and Raelle..... We’ve been out for sixteen months now.”


“I’m just wondering if there’s a connection to... maybe you haven’t noticed.”

“What? The whole psionics thing? Look, the way I see it, the reason you guys can do things better now than when you got here is that you’ve had a lot of practice. I don’t buy into that psychic garbage.”

“Suit yourself. But Michelle keeps knowing things about people that she shouldn’t, and I keep finding things by accident, and Kaufmann knew there was something wrong on that last ship before it landed. And Raelle... until today, she always made the right choices. Even if something seemed the worst thing she could do, in the end she would be the one who got what she wanted. But this time... She was looking forward to going home again in two months. Now she’ll never make it. I don’t want anything to keep Michelle from seeing a blue sky again, and trees. To breathe fresh air, to go outside without a suit...”

Erik looked at him for a few moments, then turned away.

The next morning, Jay started on the job at his usual time, hunting down damaged circuit pathways and keeping the station’s AI net intact. He slipped up, though, and had to go over a bundle of conduits several times to find a blown junction he normally could have found in one pass. He had always had a talent for finding things, especially with his sister around, and it had become stronger here on Pandora. As good as he was with electronic systems, Raelle was with biological ones. She was the primary physician at the installation. While she had two assistants who were quite capable, neither could match her ability to diagnose and locate problems quickly. Today, however, Jay knew he was alone.

You are not alone.

What was that? he wondered. It was as if he had heard a distant voice inside his head. Now he was hallucinating — was it stress? lack of sleep? Something made him believe what it said, though. He thought of Raelle... There was her memory. And then there was Michelle. He still had her. His link to sanity in a world suddenly going mad.

The last three hours of his shift passed quickly and successfully. He decided to visit Michelle; her shift ought to be over by that time.

He reached her door and pressed the chime. “Come in,” he heard. He pressed another button, and the door swiveled out of his way. Michelle was rereading one of the precious novels she had smuggled in those two long years ago. Whenever she was depressed, she would pull out one of these books. Today it was a classic by Arthur C. Clarke. She set down the book when she saw him.

“Jay!” she said. “How are you? You look better.”

They hugged briefly. “Oh, mostly I’ve been thinking. About home, about Raelle, about what she would have wanted.”

“What do you mean?”

“Michelle... We’ve been together practically since training for this post. I’ve never been with anyone so long. They’ve always been... well, intimidated by Raelle... I think she would have wanted what I’m about to say. Michelle... if we both make it back to Earth alive... will you marry me?”

She looked away. “Jay, I know you’re sincere— I can feel that— but...” She looked back at him. “We’ve never spent time together outside of this... bubble. We’re not in the real world here. How can we know that we’ll stay together when we return?”

Jay took a breath, about to speak.

Michelle interrupted. “Besides, how do you know what Raelle would want?”

“When we first met, she’s the one who encouraged me. I might have said nothing, but she kept pushing me. It certainly sounds like approval.”

“But that’s all our past! We’re talking about our future! Just going home’s a big enough adjustment already... There’s just too many unknowns. I’m sorry, Jay, but I can’t answer you yet. Ask me again in four months.”

“I will. I can promise you that.”

2. Michelle

In the station’s communications center, Michelle’s console blared to life in front of her. “Lawson, Smith,” Chief Kaufmann’s voice spoke. “You two check inside. Whatever you do, don’t get separated.”

Michelle was still thinking of Jay’s marriage proposal. Maybe she was wrong to turn him down when he needed her so much, but she had to take into account the fact that neither had any idea what would happen once they got home. He was the best man she’d ever met, and she wanted to believe they’d still love each other, but could they handle the transition? Suppose someone new caught his eye? Or hers, for that matter. Neither had seen anyone unfamiliar since the first crew rotation half a year ago, and for a year before that. They were so isolated...

“Chief!” Rob Smith’s voice came over the radio. “We’ve got something up ahead!”

“That’s it!” Corie chimed in. “That’s what I saw!”

“What’s it doing?” Kaufmann asked.

“It’s just hovering,” said Rob. “Wait, it’s moving toward us a little. Whoa! We stepped back and it just jerked away from us! Chief, it’s reacting to us!”

“Jesus H. Christ, we’ve done it!” said Kaufmann. “A new lifeform! Congratulations, Corie! You’ve made history!”

“Wait!” said Rob. “It’s moving closer to us again.”

“Stand still this time,” said Kaufmann.

“It’s moving towards me,” said Corie.

“Don’t let it—”

“It’s okay,” she said. “I have this strange feeling that it’s okay... as if it knew me.”

Something was wrong with Jay. Michelle didn’t question these impulses anymore. They always seemed to be right. She began scanning frequencies.

Corie continued. “It’s reaching out a tendril—”


“Rob, no! Let go! It’s okay! ... Chief... it’s amazing... when it touched me... even through the suit, it’s like I’m seeing Charlie’s last thoughts. He didn’t see it at all. He just... Rob!”

Sounds of a struggle ensued.

“What the hell is going on in there!” Kaufmann shouted.

“Rob, stop it! It’s not hurting me! Dammit, look, you’ve scared it away!”

“What the— Chief, it went into the wall — through it!”

“That’s it!” said Kaufmann. “Both of you, head back now. We’ve got it placed at the scene, and that’s enough for now. Let’s not give it any more targets.”

Erik ran into the communications room. “Jay’s gone! I checked everywhere, and there’s a suit missing!”

“Oh, my God,” Michelle said. The damn fool had gone off anyway. “Erik, check the explosives!” She increased her scan as Erik rushed out.. “Chief, I think Jay’s headed out your way — he wants to kill the lifeform!”


“He’s taken some explosives! He’s going—”

“Can you raise him on the com?”

“I’m trying! Wait! I’ve got him! Jay! Listen to me, don’t do this! They’ve just found out, it’s alive, it — it goes through walls! It won’t—”

“I’m not after it!”

“Jay, come back!”

“Don’t you understand? It’s Raelle! She’s still alive out here somewhere, I can feel it! She wants me to find her!”

“Listen, Jay, there’s no way she could have survived without her suit. Now just—”

“That’s how I knew yesterday what she wanted. I felt her presence.”

Michelle depressed a button to mute her transmission to Jay. “Chief, I’ve triangulated his signal. He’s about eight hundred meters to your north, about fifteen degrees west. Bring him back!

“You heard the woman, let’s go!”

She released the mute. “Jay, you’re distraught. Just keep yourself calm and come back to the station.” Please!

“Michelle, I can’t. I have to do this — Wait! I see it! A ball of light, just like you said! I see it — Raelle!”

His com system went dead.

“Jay!” Michelle frantically began trying frequencies again. “Jay! Answer me, Jay! Jay!”


Michelle let her head sink to the console. “I love you, Jay,” she whispered.

“We’ve spotted the lifeform,” Kaufmann said. “No! Two of them! It’s not alone! They’re riding out of a ravine up ahead!”

Michelle knew what they would find. Nothing but his empty spacesuit. Her stomach knotted as the impact of what she had lost set in.

Erik rushed into the room. “No sign of any explosives missing— hey, what’s wrong?”

“Bad news,” Kaufmann’s voice crackled. “It looks like they got to him before us. Pandora? Did you get any of that? Michelle? Michelle?

Michelle had heard it. She just didn’t care. A sob escaped, tears already running down her face.

“Dammit, he knew he wasn’t supposed to go out on his own!” Kaufmann said to Commander Huston. “What the hell did you expect me to do, put him under surveillance?”

“I want you to restrict access to the airlock and spacesuits until this crisis is resolved.”

“Hold it, now, we’re getting into a safety hazard there. If something goes wrong, and people can’t get suited up—”

“Link it to the alarm or something.”

“Excuse me!” Michelle shouted. “Aren’t you supposed to be questioning me?”

“Of course,” the commander said, suddenly composed. “Mr. Kaufmann, ask away.”

“Sorry about that. I heard pretty much everything you did over the com system. You said something about him wanting to kill or trap the creatures?”

“He’d said something about it to me yesterday. But when Erik checked, there were no explosives missing.”

“So you think he was really looking for his sister?”

“He thought yesterday... I don’t know. He started talking about what he thought she would have wanted. As if he knew, and maybe he did. You know, the supposed bond between twins. I know it’s supposed to be between identical twins, but they did have something. Look, can I go now? There’s nothing more to tell.”

“Just one more question. Did he give any indication what it was he believed Raelle wanted?”

She bit her lip. “Yes. He asked me to marry him.”

Kaufmann looked at Huston, his curiosity definitely piqued.

“May I ask if you accepted his proposal?”


“Is that no, you didn’t accept, or no, I can’t ask?”

“Just no. Please, I want to be alone for a while.”

“Okay, just head back to your quarters. I may need to ask a few more questions later on, depending on what the investigation turns up.”

Michelle had no idea how dependent she’d become on the Carters. Everyone got to know each other well under these circumstances, but she’d become very close to Raelle as her relationship with Jay deepened. She should have said yes. She knew he was right for her. Why did she have to be so afraid of that final step? And now she was alone. He had died with her refusal etched in his thoughts.

She lay in bed, sleepless, remembering the times they would have picnics in the maintenance room, or would watch a video together. She remembered his laugh, the touch of his hand on her back, the warmth of his kiss, the day they stopped meeting secretly and made their relationship open. Life in isolation is very boring, and any sustained interaction becomes trying at times, but being with him was the one thing that kept her happy through the whole experience. Certainly she would not apply for another such position; she’d stay back on Earth, where she belonged. Where she could run around outside, roll in the grass, feel the warmth of the sun instead of watching the cosmic ray detector. Somewhere she’d feel alive. Until today, she’d had someone to share all that with. Now he was gone because of some damn creatures that chose this moment to show themselves.

Maybe Jay was right. Maybe they could be stopped. And maybe Michelle was the one to do it.

Michelle placed a small amount of stolen plastic explosive near the detector. It should be enough to set off the alarms, but not to breach the hull. The confusion among the rest of the crew would give her enough time to suit up and get out.

Here goes, she thought, stepping quickly away.

A flash of light accompanied a loud pop!, blowing a crater in the floor. A stray piece of shrapnel caught Michelle on her left leg, cutting a gash in her calf. Well, when she was finished either she could get it treated, or it wouldn’t matter. She went straight for the closets with the suits, dragging one on as quickly as she could. As soon as she’d sealed the helmet, she grabbed the rest of the explosives and went straight for the airlock. She hoped she could get far enough away that they couldn’t catch up to her when they realized she was leaving the base.

The outer door closed behind her, and she started limping towards the jagged ridge west of the station. Never before had there been any problems out here except for falls. Now there were the creatures. She kept looking over her shoulder to see if she was being pursued. About six hundred meters out, she turned and saw someone heading towards her. She had deliberately switched off her com system to prevent them from triangulating her signal.

The rocks loomed ahead. She would just have to hope to find one of these creatures. Her talent was reading people, not finding things. Well, the creatures would have to find her.

The ground became rougher, and boulders more frequent — no doubt the remains of some ancient volcanic eruption. The feeble atmosphere belched out with the rocks had evaporated long before erosion could smooth the crags and soften the landscape.

She reached the first of the caves that riddled this ridge. They were generally believed to be ancient lava tubes, formed by the same geologic upheavals that formed the ridge so rich in ore. Michelle couldn’t understand why these thoughts were going through her mind, now especially. It was as if she were seeing again, but into whose mind she could not tell.

Her injured leg collapsed and she fell. The back of her neck prickled as she felt an electric charge build around her. Looking up, she saw them. Not one, not two, not even three, but four. They hung in the shadows just inside the mouth of the cave, and watched her. That was so clearly what these featureless globes of yellow-orange light were doing: watching her.

Strangely, she felt no sense of malevolence from them. They seemed almost familiar, as if she’d known them for years. All but one, which slowly moved toward her. She was rooted to the ground, all thoughts of escape flown from her mind. It reached out a tendril, and she saw...

A frightened man, huddled in the hold of a freighter. Living on vitamin supplements and recycled water for two months in the darkness. Elation as the ship decelerates. Land! Freedom! Gravity! Stealthily creeping outside, fully suited just in case, he finds a dead world, a small mining installation the only evidence of humanity. Fear. A sharp jab of fear — not the station! Run! The hills! Those rocks — here! Hide, deep, there are caves. Deep inside, miles of darkness, a light! Faint, it beckons, and he enters a smooth, hexagonal chamber. From each corner of the room, a faint glow emanates. In the center, a cone-shaped object. The key... Carvings; ancient runes that seem to change as he watches. He reaches out, touches the key... a white light envelops, and—

The tendril snapped back. It didn’t seem to want to share anymore. The others began floating toward her, and she knew instantly: they were her friends. She looked toward the nearest light, and smiled.



Her body dissolved, and she drifted out of her crumpling suit. She could recognize them now. She knew. She saw without eyes, and heard without ears, sights and sounds beyond the human senses. She saw a race dying, a few fringe mystics and scientists learning on a remote planetoid to transcend the corporeal. The race died around those few who succeeded. Saddened, they left, seeking the answers that still eluded them, hoping to find newer races and prevent them from repeating the same mistakes. For thousands of years the mechanism of transformation slept, until awakened by an intruder. An intruder from a race that the originators had touched.

She could direct thoughts to anyone now. The walls around her were only shadow, no true substance. She was connected to everything. The faint sun, the distant stars, her home on earth, and worlds she’d never seen: they were all linked together in some great web of infinite complexity. So many new mysteries to explore, mysteries she’d never dreamed existed. They could travel these links, learn everything. Her second chance...

Raelle moved aside as Michelle slowly drifted toward Jay. They touched, two lights merging in happiness beyond anything she’d ever known before. She felt his soul, knew everything he had known. They were truly one. The composite being sensed Raelle’s unhappiness. She had held her brother for the last time.

“Michelle! Michelle! Dammit, turn on your com system, I know you’re around here somewhere!” Kaufmann’s voice carried perfectly through the vacuum to the composite’s mind. “Michelle—!”

Kaufmann stepped into the cave. He saw the four globes before him, and his mind went completely blank. It was clear that this time he could sense... if not who they were, certainly what they meant. The four globes slowly rose, then shot off to the stars. They knew his time would come.

March 1996