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 PHOENIX OF MEGARON part 6

The old man, hardly more than a skeletal frame held together by the
force of his mind, walked slowly to an instrument spread. On arrival, he
leaned both hands on the console and gathered himself for the next move.
Helena, with a medico's interest, was half out of her chair to go to him,
but he said, without turning around, "Thank-you, Dr. Russell, but there is
nothing you can do for me."
In the centre of the lounge area, there was a circular feature of blue
tiling, like a large, empty plinth waiting for a statue. It began to fill
from edge to edge with a swirling, blue cloud. It grew thicker and more
intense and then abruptly cleared, leaving in its place a 3-D miniature of
the space base.
Tiny air cars drawn up on the terrace around the rock showed that the
Megaronians had come in strength to hound the fugitives. Men were posted all
around the admin silo.
The outer areas began to peel away as Cydon zoomed for a closer scan.
They saw their own abandoned cars and the head of the elevator shaft. Men
were climbing down, carrying shoulder packs of what looked like blowtorch
gear. Maya asked, "Will they be able to break the seal?"
Still busy and changing the picture, Cydon said, "No. all of the
barriers are lined with infrangom. It is a metal that would interest you,
Maya of Psychon. Under pressure or in thermal agitation, it gains greater
strength. They have nothing which can penetrate it."
The scene had moved to the interior of the rock. They were seeing the
inside of a spherical bunker with launch and guidance systems that were
familiar enough to the four Earth-born Alphans. A hatch opened. They were
now looking along a connected corridor to a second hatch which opened like
an iris eye to let them through a gantry. It dissolved to a long shot from
a high point down an immense wall, ringed every few metres by gantries and
spidery stairways. In the centre, the whole space was occupied by a long,
slender rocket ship.
Cydon slowly panned down its length. Silver cone, brilliant white
superstructure, huge hydraulic jacks, red and black propulsion units. At the
waist, there was a stylized emblem, a great, golden bird rising from tongues
of vermillion flame. Below it was the motto: "Wisdom shall rise again."
Alan said, "Holy cow. That is a spaceship if I ever saw one! Did she
ever fly?"
"Phoenix is a new ship. Her prototypes successfully probed to the nearer
stars. She incorporated all the best features of her predecessors, with some
refinements. She would fly. Of that there is no doubt."
Alan said bitterly, "We were just a few millennia late for the passage.
She only needs fuel and a back-up team. Little things like that."
Cydon went off on a tangent, his voice gaining a little strength as he
spoke with pride of the past. "Three hundred of the elite corps of
scientists and technicians sealed themselves away in this sanctuary when the
world of Megaron went mad in an orgy of destruction. The secret of life is
energy. Energy is life. Food, heat, light, power. That we could organize,
though we were cut off from the tidal generators which once supplied the
base."
Maya queried, "Reactors?"
"Not reactors, nor solar energy, though either would have been
technically possible. No, the brief was to organize a simple, inexhaustible
supply with no complications. The answer lies in the residual heat of the
planet itself."
"Geothermal energy," Maya said as she raised her eyebrows in
fascination.
"Correct. A deep shaft was sunk. A heat exchange system using liquified
gas was set up and is working to this day. There is no reason why you should
not live out your lives here and other generations after you."
The human angle interested Helena. "And the others? Finally, you are
alone."
"Ah, yes... You must understand. We are speaking of many, many
centuries. We endured here longer than most civilizations take to rise and
flower and fall. Looking back over that history, I believe that at some
point, a psychic weariness must have blunted the life-force. The waiting was
too long. Even hope does not endure forever. Fertility levels dropped. The
community ceased to replace itself. Helice and I, the last pair to remain,
had no children."
It was a sad story, but glint of hope was building in John's eyes. There
was an idea in his mind which he hardly dared to give house room, but he had
tp broach it. "Would the power from the geothermal well be enough to service
Phoenix and launch her?"
"No."
Alan leaned forward in his chair. "Is there fuel for her?"
"There is fuel, but the power needed to open the silo and activate the
control gear is beyond what I can command."
Tony spoke excitedly. "John. The portable generator we brought with us."
John nodded in full recognition of the prospect. "If we supplied an
atomic power source and patched it into your energy channeling system,
might that be enough to launch Phoenix?"
Cydon nodded pensively in the affirmative. "If there is a way of
achieving what you suggest, yes." He went on. "I, too, would like to see
Phoenix rise from Megaron as one last gesture from her days of greatness and
perhaps even as a symbol of regeneration. As in all matters of real
importance, there is a choice. You have reached a certain sanctuary. Here,
you can live a comfortable life. That way, you can put all at hazard for a
single chance of venturing again into the unknown."
John had a prompter mobility in mind. All eyes were looking his way. He
inquired slowly, "How is Phoenix manned? What numbers is she designed to
carry?"
"A crew of eight. The key decks on the command island are only four but
require manning by two. Navigation, power, communication, and command."
Urion said, "I would not leave Megaron. If it will help you in your
decision, Commander, do not consider me."
Hepa said quickly, "Nor I. Even if it is possible- and how can that be?-
I would stay with Urion."
Alan did the count. "That leaves us with five Alphans- and three
Outfarers needed."
"For what?" Rhoda asked. "Are you thinking that you can go back to your
Moonbase in that?"
"It would seem our only chance, Rhoda," John answered. "And if we're
going to try it, we must act immediately."
"No contest, John," Tony declared. "If we can launch Phoenix, we must
go."
Helena added, "I know you, John. You could never live with yourself if
you missed a chance to reach Alpha. We must try."
It was a difficult decision for the Outfarers in the party. Who knew
what the future would be for the Outfarers and for Caster? They might yet
live to see a change and the beginning of a new way of life on Megaron. Then
again, revolution can be slow and painful. Change might not happen in their
lifetimes, and if it did, there could be resistance to it and further
conflict. Their Alphan friends needed their help, and there would be a life
for them on Moonbase Alpha. For Rhoda, the choice was tilted in favor of the
latter. Alan wanted to go home, and she did not want to part from him.
"Do you want to come with us?" Alan asked her. "Commander Koenig will
give you a place on the ship."
"But I wouldn't be going for him." She looked at John with hope that her
stance was not an offense. John smiled reassuringly, and her golden eyes
again fixed on Alan.
A simple man of action, Alan had not thought that his position could be
in any doubt. But he wanted it in clear terms. He swept her out of her chair
and held her high in his arms. "Rhoda, really you have no choice. I have to
go. Either you come quietly, or I'll shanghai you. I can't leave half my
life on this rock."
"Shanghai? What sort of word is that?"
"Shanghai. Abduct. Carry away. Anything like that."
"You want me to go?"
"I love you."
"Well, why didn't you say that in the first place?"
"I thought it was obvious."
"Let me down, then."
"Will you come?"
"Of course."
Karl and Gelanor knew that their daughter was a woman in every sense.
She would be all right apart from them now, but more Megaronians were needed
on Phoenix. Karl was a skilled technician. If Phoenix were to fly, he was
indeed qualified to be in the crew. Gelanor said, "Wherever you go, I must
follow. I sense that you are going to choose to accompany the Alphans. If
so, count me in, too."
Melas and Deana were young. Space held infinite unknowns and many
awesome adventures. They both volunteered to join the Phoenix eight. There
were passenger seats on Phoenix, and Deana and Gelanor would fill them. A
full compliment was assembled. All that remained now was to prepare Phoenix
for lift-off.
To Cydon, John inquired, "What is your estimate of the time it will take
to prepare Phoenix for countdown?"
"When I was a young man, I was given instruction in the launch
procedures. It was a long time ago. All the information you need is to be
found in the control bunker at the silo. Fueling alone, as I remember,
takes twenty-four hours. But while that is going on, you can familiarize
yourself with the other details."
"Will power sources be enough for that?"
"I believe so."
"Then we should start right away."
"I will direct you to the control bunker. You must excuse me if I stay
here, but I will be available to give any help that is in my power.
"We will also need to know the location of the switchgear for activating
the control gear and opening the silo in order to hook up our portable
nuclear generator."
"I will direct your party there also."
"There's one more thing. You said you could raise Alpha. I'd like to
speak with Command Centre there."
Cydon inclined his head and walked slowly to a long, elaborate
communications spread. His bony fingers flipped switches in a row, and a
large screen glowed with silver rain. As it cleared, a gaunt sphere filled
the frame, pockmarked with craters and lava dykes. The Alphans had seen it
countless times below the jacks of their hurrying Eagles. Helena said, "Our
Moon!"
It was no paradise to offer to an impressionable girl, and Alan said
defensively, "Think of it as a spaceship in mid-passage. Moonbase Alpha is
comfortable enough."
Rhoda replied, "Are you afraid that I can't stand a few problems? The
particulars of the place are unimportant, if you like the company you are
with."
Sandra's patient voice sounded over. "This is Alpha calling Commander
Koenig. We think you are still in range. Come in, Commander Koenig."
Cydon beckoned, and John joined him. The Megaronian was tuning for
magnification, and the edges of the still were peeling away as the probes
bore in. There was the silver glint of the domes and corridors of the
sprawling base and then a last spurt, as though they had broken through
the doorway to the underground Command Centre. Sandra was looking at the Big
Screen, dark eyes wide with surprise as she stared at John's stark face
looking down at her.
"Bill! David! It is the Commander!"
Fraser and Kano were conferring privately at John's command desk and
cocked their heads upward to behold their leader. All others in Command
Centre gathered to look at the Big Screen with them.
John said, "It's good to see you. We have a race on, against the clock.
There's an outside chance we might get a spaceship off the ground and catch
up with you. Maya, Tony, and Alan will need technical help. Keep the link
open and have computer keyed on the remote.
Bill spoke. "Check, Commander. Shall we meet you in space?"
"That might be necessary. You know the drill on Eagle rescue procedure,
Bill. Still, there's a whole lot of maybe on the equation. We'll keep in
touch."
Cydon blanked the screen and said, "We must conserve power where we can.
You will be able to communicate from the control bunker or from the command
cabin of Phoenix."
Rhoda said, "I like your people, Alan. Particularly the fair one who
just spoke."
"Bill? Hey, you don't think I'm going to let you talk to people, do you?
You'll be locked in my cabin and only allowed out on my personal direction.
Very likely on a short length of silver chain."
Cydon moved to position himself deep in the recess of a horseshoe
console. "You are anxious to make a start, Commander. I can no longer make
the journey into the silo. But I will lead you."
For a moment, John believed that senility had won the day and that
perhaps the whole of Cydon's offer had come from an unhinged mind. Then, the
old man was bathed in a shaft of brilliant light. When his voice came again,
it was from an archway almost opposite to the one through which they had
entered. All eyes tracked from the illuminated man to his doppelganger,
which stood in the arch, looking the more solid of the two.
"This way, my friends. After all these years, the plan of the sanctuary
is as vivid to my mind as the palm of my hand."
Certainly, there was no hesitation as Cydon projected himself through a
maze of corridors, moving firmly at a good pace. Rounding a long, circular
gallery, he explained, "There are three silos. Phoenix is in the centre one.
We are passing the first. The ship here is unfinished. A small military
craft, started when the intercontinental conflict became inevitable."
Tony asked, "And the third silo?"
"A missile. Against the wishes of the scientists, the government of the
day insisted that the facilities of the base would be used for the war
effort. Launching it would have brought swift reprisal. The people here
contrived to delay, until the government was swept aside in the public
upheaval. It was disarmed and made safe."
At the centre silo, Cydon stopped and indicated a massive hatch, sealed
by wheeled gear. He said, "Through here, you will be in more familiar
territory than I am. I shall be ready to answer any questions you may ask."
Tony said, "Well, I have a question." Something was nagging at him.
"Suppose we're successful at launching Phoenix. What's to stop Caster from
bringing it down, like Eagle One? They're already well established outside
the sanctuary. They're bound to see us launching."
It was a good point, and one that had been forming in the minds of the
others. Tony, Security expert and always a tactician, was naturally the
first to articulate the concern.
John looked at Helena. "Can we assume that your reagent is already doing
its work? Could we count on a break-up of the chain of command?"
"This soon? Probably not. The people in the city have gotten so used to
receiving and adhering to orders, and the launch of Phoenix is bound to be
so alarming to them that the Caster soldiers will likely do as they're
told."
"You mean they'll fall back on the thought patterns they're accustomed
to when they see something as unusual as Phoenix rising?" Tony asked.
"Very probably," said Helena. "They'll just follow orders."
"Well, maybe we can give them new orders. Tap into their communication
system somehow. Cydon's communication device may be capable of it." Maya
speculated.
They all turned to the image of Cydon for an answer. "Yes, as you know,
my communicator can penetrate through most walls, including those of Caster.
Particularly as the effect of entropy has weakened their resistence to
penetration. Even the most top secret meetings and discussions can be
witnessed and heard. Very recently, I was able to obtain the code to the
Spadec computer system, the one that orally transmits the suggestive
phraseology that coincides with the effect of the drugs. Spadec control can
therefore be overridden from here by using the code."
"How come you haven't used it?" Tony asked the old man.
"There would have been no point. My voice is too feeble, and I am an old
man. The computer would not recognize my voice as coming from someone in
authority. Even if it did, the Council could move in and countermand any
change of command with little confusion among the populace. But now that you
have introduced an antidote into the city food supply, the result could be
different."
John thought that Spadec was the oracle in the cave. Even if it did not
initiate policy, it was the ultimate director. The Council framed a
question, and Spadec came up with the answer in line with a detailed
program, which had been stored in its memory in the long-distant past. The
people in the city had been programmed to obey the oral transmission for
centuries, but now, there was a difference. Perhaps, just perhaps, a drastic
change in the programming would take root.
Helena said, "If our antidote is having preliminary effects, then the
Council may not be able to direct its forces to bring us down, if we did
somehow alter the computer's directive to the people."
John inquired, "Cydon, could you provide the code to my Science
Officer?"
"I have it in writing in my workbench drawer. It may take some searching
to find it."
John said to Maya, "Work with Cydon on that. When you have the code and
are convinced we can break into the city's computer, let me know."
"Right," the Psychon replied as she walked back to the bona fide Cydon.
Cydon's image faded away. One second, he was there in full flower; the
next, he was gone, and they were alone. Now, it was time for them to have a
close look at Phoenix. John spun the release wheels. A motor whined on load
and slowly opened the hatch, which was a full metre thick. They stepped over
a coaming to a gantry, and the immense scale of the undertaking silenced
all hands.
They had seen Phoenix scaled down, as a model to wonder at, in Cydon's
lounge. At close quarters, brilliantly lit along its shining length, it was
a triumph of the humanoid mind. Untold years of evolution had engendered the
race which had produced this marvel to carry them to the stars.
Both hands on the rail, John looked up and down the sleek hull. "Let no
one say that the humanoid is insignificant. One way or another, he will make
his mark on the universe."
Helena said, "They could do this and yet they could not work out their
relationships. Why?"
It was the ultimate question. Tony responded. "Not only here. Earth had
the same problem. Science was ahead of the techniques of government. We
almost destroyed ourselves. The spirit of intelligent life, human, humanoid,
whatever, must be the same everywhere."
They clattered down a spiral staircase to a lower gantry and found the
entrance to a control bunker. It was, as Cydon had said, a straightforward
layout. Alan, excited as a schoolboy, went from console to console and
already making racing calculations on how they could be manned.
Controls were labeled in a language which was not familiar to the
Outfarers; but, in addition, there was a pictograph system, which was plain
enough to a newcomer to the great bird. Alan settled himself at the
command desk and after a concentrated scan, picked out the start sequence
for the fueling system.
As though inspired by the spirit of the long-gone Megaronian controller,
he went along the instrument spread, selecting switches. From the depth of
the silo, there was the hum of machinery starting up. A stylized flow chart
glowed on a monitor. They were in business. Phoenix was taking a transfusion
of life blood.
John and Tony dropped down two more gantries to reach the waist.
Opening below the brilliant flames of the ship's emblem, the main hatch was
reached by a broad ramp that lipped into the reception area. A central trunk
with a hoist ladder, that could be a walkway when the ship was in flight,
led to all sectors.
It was built in modules: a power pack with its control cabin; a well-
found ward room; the command cabin with four decks and on a command island;
a dormitory module; a hydroponic tank section; and a communications outpost
in the cone. The problems of spaceflight were that for any people at any
time, and the Megaronian designers had come up with solutions that both of
the Alphans had seen before. But there was no doubt of the quality of the
craft. A superb piece of engineering. They rejoined Alan and told him of
their findings.
"What do you think, Alan?" John asked.
"She'll go, and we can fly her."
"So, all we have to do to get it airborne is open the gate.
"That's all."
"Let's do that thing, then. Alan, Tony, get in touch with Alpha and
start connecting our portable generator. I'm going to see what progress
Maya is making."
"Check," came the chimed response.

Maya and Cydon had found the code and used it to give to John the option
of stirring the inhabitants of Caster out of their servile sleepwalk. Should
he wait, to give the reagent more time, or should he attempt it now? John
weighed his choice below conscious level, where the holographic web of the
human mind lived its own particular life. When a thread of light separated
out at the end of the long conduit, a decision surfaced as though it had
been inevitable all along. Do it as the silo would be opening and Phoenix
was about to launch, while the Caster toy soldiers would be most receptive
to orders of action from their tinkered computer, when Mestor would be
frazzled and would have the least time possible to reverse the new directive
and wreck Phoenix's lift-off.
With help from Technical Section on Alpha, the Alphans and Outfarers
combined their wits and sinews to adapt the portable nuclear generator to
the base's power system. Wiring was the problem, but Alphan and Megaronian
technology was compatible enough that the problem was soluble within a few
hours of work. Cydon provided all of the needed tools and instructions on
their use. Energy flowed. The great pit was glowing with a new brilliance.
Phoenix was soaking up power like a greedy sponge.
"I have Alpha standing by," Maya said to John in the control bunker.
"Fuel?" John inquired of Alan.
"There's a crash program. As soon as the full power came on, I switched
to it. Halves the time."
"So, where are we now?"
"Thirty percent on board?"
"What do we need?"
"For lift-off- a minimum of twenty percent. Full thrust to clear
Megaron's gravisphere- another ten percent. David's been running some
calculations. He reckons we need to maintain full thrust to match the Moon's
speed and claw back some distance."
"Forty percent would give us a chance."
"Fifty would be better. Sixty would be safe to break into Eagle range.
We'd need the full hundred to land Phoenix on the Moon's surface."
"That's not on. But she would be no more than a museum piece anyway. We
couldn't refuel her from Alpha. I'll talk to Command Centre. Meanwhile, open
the lid and clear Phoenix for launch, while we have the power." He was
uncertain that the jury-rigged connection to the portable nuclear generator
would last.
John sat at the communications desk. The Space Corporation sign glowed
on a blue background on the screen. He said, "Koenig to Command Centre," and
Sandra, tuned meticulously to make a composition, with her chocolate-milk
eyes on the upper Golden Section, said, "Commander?"
It was like rubbing a lamp and producing a beautiful genie. John felt a
surge of optimism. If he had been nearer, he would have been moved to pat
her sleek head. "Sahn, there's a computer here that's gotten too big for its
pedestal feet. I've set an override to respond on fourteen-twenty. I want a
signal probe, with all the power you can give it, to trigger it off. Then,
put me through on a link, so I can talk to it through Alpha." Doing so, he
believed, would complicate Caster tracing the transmission source to a point
on Megaron long enough to insure an unimpeded Phoenix launch.
For a count of five, he could only see the top of her head. Then she
looked up, "Go ahead, anytime you like, Commander."
"Thank-you, Sahn. Keep it open."
John allowed an hour by the clock and found time to shower and eat a
quick Last Supper with Cydon and Urion and Hepa, the Megaronians who were
staying behind, who would wait in their sanctuary until it had become clear
that revolution had taken root in Caster and that perhaps the Outfarers too
would have dispensed with authoritarianism as a mode of government.
The ten who would fly in Phoenix to a destination in space embarked upon
the ancient spaceship. Helena and Rhoda occupied the communications outpost
when Rhoda seemed lost in thought.
"What is it, Rhoda?"
"I ask myself if I am doing the right thing."
"In what sense? For Alan? Or for you?"
"For Alan. Will I fit into your world? Are there differences between us
which will make him unhappy?"
"Nobody can legislate for the long term, Rhoda. Forever is a long time.
We all change. Hopefully, two people who love each other, change in the same
direction. But love is love, and there is a great deal to be had of it in
the universe. The Alphans will accept you as they accepted Maya- and like
you just as they like her. Your parents are coming with you, and two of your
friends. All of you will adapt together and fit in, and you do have four
Alphan friends already, plus Alan, who is a loyal and honest man. There are
not many like him, anywhere."
"For me, there is nobody like him."
"Well, then. I don't think you need my opinion; but for what it's worth,
I give it to you. We need a compliment of eight to make the voyage. Your
parents are coming. Karl is adamant that he come, and Gelanor loves him. If
you were to stay on Megaron, you would live with regret, knowing your
parents are somewhere in space, knowing that Alan is beyond reach. If you
come with us, you will share our dangers, but you will share our hopes. So,
any way you look at it, there is no real choice. You have to come."
Helena initiated a scan of the space centre on one of her screens. Light
levels were falling. Cars were drawn up beside the rock with two in the air
on patrol circuits, in case there was another exit from the burrow and the
Alphans broke cover.
Tony said from the power station that he was sharing with Melas, "All
set to open, John."
"Go ahead."
Helena knew what he was thinking even before he called through the
communicator to Cydon, "We're all set to go."
"Very well, Commander."
"Tell me. Are there any defensive weapons to protect Phoenix, when the
silo is open?"
"None. I have told you. The base was designed for peaceful uses. The
scientists here would have prevented war, if they could have."
Gelanor and Deana in their ward room passenger seats viewed from
monitors there what everyone else was regarding on the screens in the
various decks relayed from Helena's station as Tony activated the opening
mechanism. Lights in the bunker were dimming as power switched to the load.
Tony crossed his fingers, trusting to luck that the portable generator would
supply the additional needed energy.
There was a rumbling in the silo and a vibration that shook the bunker
floor. The Phoenix occupants could also feel the tremor. A slit appeared in
the huge dome and widened as two great segments reacted into their housing.
Then, it was done, and the lights brightened, sending a yellow column into
the gathering dusk.
The two patrolling cars changed course and ran in to check this new
phenomenon. Others began to rise from the apron. It was now or never. John
began to talk to Alpha and through Alpha to Spadec. "This is Spadec
Directive Omega-one. You will disregard all Spadec instructions other than
this. All previous commands are null and void. When you hear this, you are
free. You are on your own. Your life is your own. You are free to act in any
way that is human and reasonable. Any future Spadec instruction will be
false. The Social, Political, and Defense Computer has done its work and
preserved you from many problems over the long years. But now, that work is
done. It is time for you to wake from your long sleep and see what is done
in your name. Be active, meet, talk, and discuss your problems. Life is not
easy. It is not meant to be easy. Living is struggling. You must learn to
like it. There are great rewards. Make the future of Megaron equal in
greatness to her past. As a symbol of renewal, a great ship, built by your
ancestors, will be launched in a bid for the stars. Some of your people are
aboard it. Watch her and know that she bears the message of your ancient
thinkers: 'Wisdom shall rise again.'"
Everyone on Phoenix was profoundly impressed by the oratory. If anything
would succeed in irrevocably persuading the people of Caster to change their
ways, it was the speech that John had just made. Rhoda spoke to John through
the intercom, "Thank-you, Commander. Now, I know I shall be happy on Alpha."
"So shall we all," Karl added, from his post with Maya in navigation.
"Your visit to Megaron will be a turning point."
"Perhaps it was ordained," Rhoda said, "as I believe it was ordained
that I should meet Alan."
They watched their screens. All the cars were airborne and circling the
rock, nosing in to look at the brilliantly lit silo and then turning off to
circle again. But the overall impression that they gave was more of curious
moths around a flame than of aggressive hawks looking for a place to
strike.
Cydon said his farewell message as everybody on Phoenix looked at his
image on their monitors. "That was well done, Commander. I must revise my
opinion of planet Earth and of military men. you have struck at the mind and
not the body. Who knows? We three, Urion, Hepa, and myself, may very soon-
in our lifetimes- witness great changes."
"Nevertheless, you must close the silo again and stay watchful, until
you are sure of a change of heart in Caster. There are some who went beyond
the call of duty in Spadec's interests. True democracy may not suit all
tastes. Things could go worse before they get better. Even the Outfarers
had their dissidents. Good-bye, my friends. And thank-you!"
"Good-bye," followed everyone else on Phoenix. On the gantry, Urion and
Hepa stood with the shadow figure of Cydon. They waved and withdrew to the
bunker.

John called for reports.
"Navigation?"
Maya answered, "Navigation. Ready, Commander."
"Power?"
Tony said, "Power. All systems go, John."
"Communications?"
Helena, the least sure, in an unfamiliar slot, managed an even tone.
"All set, John."
John rapidly cleared his desk in a sequence that brought the firing pin
alive. A muted pinger on orchestral A sounded through the ship. as he heaved
down the lever for a full due, a sweep hand began to count down.
As he waited, he thought that he could have brought his people to strap
themselves in on a bomb. Any one of a hundred systems could fail and anchor
Phoenix into a pit that would turn into an inferno. The pinger cut out.
There was a second of utter silence and stillness, as though they had
dropped to the still point of the turning world, and then a vibration beat
the deep-foam insulation of the acceleration couches.
The watchers in the bunker heard the roar as the motors began to
deliver. They saw streams of vermilion and cadmium-yellow flame jet from the
tubes and break in a rolling surge along the blast trenches. The rock itself
was shuddering under the savage storm of power that Phoenix was hurling into
the foundations.
Then, it was rising, slowly at first, jacking itself a metre at a time
through the maze of gantries, until its gleaming cone was thrusting out into
the darkening sky. Its immense strength crept from the silo, as though there
would be no end.
Suddenly, an air car broke from the circling squadron. Mestor was now
aware that the Alphans had taken him all of the way. His occupation was
gone. Rage burned out all thought of Spadec Instruction Omega-one. He pushed
his pilot aside. Teeth set and eyes bleak, he aimed the air car for the
shining tower that was materializing out of the rock.
"That could only be Mestor," Tony commented.
John saw the move and knew for a truth that he could do nothing to stop
it. thumping the console with a bulky fist, he willed Phoenix to rise.
Phoenix was accelerating, even as Mestor commenced his run. The great
bird at its waist leveled with the rim of the silo, glowing crimson in the
Promethean fire below. It hurled itself from its long resting place, as
though eager to reach its true home in the interstellar wilderness.
Mestor had the emblem dead ahead, and the car was roaring in on full
power. Them, it had gone and he was plunging forward into the incredible
brilliance of the fireball. It was so quick that Urion and Hepa in the
bunker could hardly remember whether they had seen anything or not. One
second, the black car was arrowing over the rock. The next, it was gone,
reduced to molecular trash, as though it had plunged into the surface of the
Sun.
John called Alpha.
"Phoenix to Command Centre. Do you read me?"
Sandra appeared on the screens throughout Phoenix. "Command Centre to
Phoenix. Loud and clear. Go ahead."
"We're off. Heading your way."
"Bill is in orbit around the Moon right now. When he sees you
approaching, he will move in for a docking."

It was a textbook perfect procedure. Phoenix circled Megaron for an
orbital boost from the planet's gravity toward the Moon. Alan proved himself
the expert pilot once again. All hands worked with equal efficiency at their
stations, especially at power and navigation, for Phoenix to arrive at the
rendezvous point with Bill's Eagle with scarcely a minute or inch
discrepancy from target. The five Alphans and five Megarons marched
triumphantly from Phoenix to the Eagle through the Eagle docking corridor.
Last to leave, John had set the onboard computers for a course change
that would take the ship off at a tangent. There was no power to land it,
and he did not fancy leaving even the outside chance that it might tunnel
through the roof of Main Mission Tower. Once the Eagle had separated from
the bird from Megaron, Phoenix commenced its drift beyond the meandering
Moon, into an infinity of time and space, the proud symbol of the humanoid
mind and the great statement of humanoid aspiration.
The intrepid ten watched Phoenix from the monitors of the Eagle's
passenger section. By any standards, it was the most elegant piece of
craftsmanship that any culture could boast.
Helena touched John's arm. He knew what she was thinking. He said, "I
know. In a way, it's sad- and in a way, it's great."
"Where will she end?"
"Who knows? Drawn into some sun that her builders never dreamed of.
Launched in flame and ending in flame. But in a way, it doesn't matter. It's
what she stands for.
"Wisdom will rise again?"
"Something like that."
They were closing in on the Moon. They could pick out the metallic
glint of the sprawling base. Eagles were making proving runs on the approach
lanes. For the five Alphans, it was a homecoming, and for their five
Megaronian comrades, a new beginning.
John said to his Psychon Science Officer, "Nothing to log, Maya, except
experience."
"I wouldn't say that, Commander." The Psychon held up a large jar with a
ventilated screw top.
"What have you got here?"
"If you'll recall, the briefing for the mission included a sampling
survey for new strains of hydroponic spread. These are from Cydon's store.
Intended to supply the Phoenix. Very vigorous."
John thought of the enclave in the rock, which had endured through the
millennia and had shrunk to one frail old man and his electronic shadow. It
was a warning to Alpha to resist complacency. He had told the Megaronians
that living was struggling. He gave himself another shot of ancient wisdom.
Do not emotionalize over experience. Life is one thing after another. Look
for the next challenge. The quest was still on.

 

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