Rachel Chronicles 2: Surrendered

August 2009

Friday:

The restaurant, off the beaten track and advertised only by word of mouth, was small and exclusive, and the majority of the  tables  already occupied. It felt strange going in by herself, even though her driver was waiting to ensure that she was  inside. It was strange as well, having to be driven; she didn’t like the feeling of not being in control of her own life. Straker almost certainly felt the same way, which was probably why he refused to have a driver or protection detail. Still, she mused, he would have had to be driven here tonight. He had finally been released from the hospital this afternoon and with broken fingers he would not be in any fit state to drive; besides which, his much-loved Saab was neatly parked under a pile of rubble at the ruins. She knew that he had, as soon as possible, gone to HQ to catch up on recent reports and events before meeting her here.

She hoped he had arrived before her. They had both agreed that it would be easier and more circumspect, if they met at the restaurant. The manager approached. ‘Ah, Miss Rachel? It is a pleasure to meet you. Please come this way. Mr Straker has telephoned to apologise that he will be delayed and he will be with you as soon as possible. May I show you to your table?’

She was a little thrown by the message, but was determined not to let it show. The manager seated her at a quiet table away from prying eyes, brought her a glass of wine, and left her alone.

The small restaurant was full of wealthy people. She recognised more than a few well-known actors from the studio and one or two wealthy businessmen from the city.

She sat fiddling with the cutlery, and thinking. At least he had phoned and not left her abandoned to suffer pitying looks from waiters. And they seemed to recognise his name. Perhaps he came here with all his women…. no, that was unfair. Straker was never seen dating. SHADO security would soon know if he had been having liaisons with any of the studio starlets, and he never involved himself with any of the operatives either. Was she just fortunate or perhaps he was simply being kind to her, repaying her for helping him?

Doodling with fingertips on the cloth, sipping her wine, turning towards the entrance so that she would be able to see him when he arrived, simply being patient, she marked time until he arrived.

And then the door opened and he entered, confident, poised, nodding a casual greeting to the manager; Alec Freeman close behind him. So that was how it was going to be. He didn’t want to be alone with her after all. She was not surprised; she had half-expected this all along, but it was a blow to her pride.

They moved easily across the crowded room, Freeman smiling self-assuredly at those diners who obviously recognised the two men. It was clear that both were well-known here, and she was puzzled that he would ask her to meet him somewhere so public if he was going to embarrass her by inviting Colonel Freeman along as well. She could see the bruises on his face, faded somewhat, but still distorting the fine bone structure. She had not had the opportunity to see him since arranging this evening, and he still looked tired. His hands, half hidden under the cuffs of his jacket, were partially bandaged, with a couple of fingers strapped together.

Straker walked directly across to her, ignoring everyone else in the room, smiled contritely and sat down opposite. Alec stood behind him, still with a grin on his face, in bodyguard pose.

‘Rachel, I am so sorry, we had some incoming earlier and I wanted to check the clear-up operation before I left.’ Straker apologised immediately, then turned around and frowned. ‘Are you going to stand there all evening, Alec? I asked you to drive me here, not play chaperone. You have my permission to go.’ His voice was dry and sarcastic, but there was an undercurrent of humour.

‘Just thought I’d make sure the two of you were alright.’ Freeman laughed. ‘Now remember what the doctor said, no strenuous…..’

‘Alec, shut up and go home. Please.’ Straker stared at him, a piercing look that made Freeman blush with embarrassment.

‘Sorry.’ the older man muttered. ‘The car’s waiting whenever you need it. Just call. I presume you are both going back to base later?’

Straker looked ruefully at Rachel. ‘Seeing as everything I own is now under about ten feet of rubble, including my bed and practically all my personal belongings, I don’t have much alternative. My quarters at HQ will have to do for now, at least until I get something else organised.’

He tugged at the sleeve of his cream jacket, sorrowfully. ‘I don’t even have much left in the way of clothes any more. If it hadn’t been for my spare wardrobe at the base I would probably be wearing scrubs tonight.’ The image of the usually impeccably dressed Commander coming to the restaurant in green surgical scrubs was so ludicrous that Rachel burst out laughing, and after a moment he joined in with her. She knew then that it would be alright, that she could begin to relax and enjoy the evening, however it ended.

Alec Freeman, ignored by both, quietly left and, outside, approached a nondescript car parked nearby. The driver’s window opened. ‘Hello Colonel, is there a problem?’ one of the security team asked.

‘No, everything’s fine James. Just checking who’s on protection detail tonight. There’s a driver on call for later. I expect that the Commander and Colonel Philips will travel back to base together. Just keep out of sight.’ Alec Freeman knew that Straker would deeply resent the intrusion into his privacy if he was aware of the watching security teams. However, after recent events, General Henderson had directed Freeman to put Straker under protective watch. Alec Freeman dreaded the moment when the Commander realised what was happening; it was only that Straker just been discharged from Mayland and had not caught up on all the reports and day to day minutiae, that Alec felt he was able to get away with tonight’s subterfuge.

Freeman drove himself home, pleased with the way things were looking. He was cautiously optimistic that Ed and Rachel would be able to work something out. It was about time that Ed had something good in his life, and, just possibly, Rachel Philips was the one to give it to him.

******************

Rachel sat back in her chair and looked at her companion. ‘You were right about the food. This is the best I’ve had since I visitedItaly. How long have you been coming here?’ she nearly said ‘Commander’ but just managed to avoid it.

He smiled across at her. ‘Oh, for about three years now. Believe it or not, I met the owner when his family were involved in a UFO incident. Their daughter had been abducted and we were fortunate enough to be able to retrieve her before it was too late. We gave them the amnesia drug, but ever since then I’ve never had any problems getting a reservation here, despite this place being so popular. I think he must remember something about the whole episode, but I really don’t want to investigate. I enjoy coming here too much and so does Alec.’

‘So he knows you fairly well then?’ she queried, ‘I thought it might be because of the studio connection’

‘Ah well, there is that aspect,’ Straker replied, sipped his iced water, ‘but I seriously doubt whether my being an executive film producer would get me a table here whenever I wanted it. The owner has been known to turn away politicians and minor royalty.’

The conversation continued, relaxed and comfortable. She was still finding it difficult not to refer to him by his title; it seemed presumptuous to just call him Ed, but, as the other diners left and the restaurant gradually emptied, he leaned across to her and quietly asked, ‘I think it’s time we should go. I would very much like to do this again, soon, but only if you can summon up the courage to call me by my name. It’s going to be a little difficult if you keep nearly calling me Commander.’ He grinned at her, a slight, crooked smile that lit up his eyes.

‘I have had a wonderful evening….Ed. Thank you. I would certainly love to do this again.’ she looked at him thoughtfully, ‘but I do know that you have other responsibilities. I won’t be one of those women who insist on you always being on time and keeping your promises. Because I know it can’t happen.’ she told him gently. ‘SHADO has to come first.’

He gazed at her appreciatively and reached across the table to take her hand, ‘I won’t be able to see much of you in HQ for the next couple of days. I am going to be very busy trying to put my life back into some semblance of order, but may I see you again as soon as possible? Your next off-duty day is Tuesday. I really have to get a new car. Perhaps you’d like to help me? And I want a piano.’ he said ruefully, thinking of his 1910 Steinway crushed under the weight of the debris. Although the salvage team sent to clear any signs of SHADO operations from the site had managed to retrieve some of his personal belongings, his piano had been a total loss.

He paid the bill, helped into her coat, and escorted her out past the only other couple, a young man and woman, still in the dining area. Straker stopped as he reached the occupied table and stared contemptuously at the man.

‘So who organised this? General Henderson or Colonel Freeman?’ he interrogated them quietly. ‘Please don’t take me for a fool. I marked both of you immediately. Is it not enough that there is a detail outside as well? In future I want to be kept informed of any surveillance operation before it starts. Is that understood?’

The couple looked embarrassed. ‘My apologies Commander,’ the woman stood up, respectfully. ‘we were told that you were to be under close watch after the recent events. Colonel Freeman knew nothing about this, it was authorised and arranged by General Buckley.’ Her tone was deferential and subdued. Her partner, a man with the build of a security agent, heavy-set and strong, stayed in his seat, refusing to meet Straker’s glare.

‘Very well.’ Straker was ice cold and quietly furious. ‘You can tell Buckley that if he, or anyone in the IAC, continues to interfere in my private life GeneralHendersonwill have my resignation immediately. I also suggest that you refrain from talking about tonight with anyone, including the General. If I hear that you have been discussing Colonel Philips you will answer to me.’

Straker took Rachel’s arm and moved away from the occupied table, ‘I am sorry to have involved you in that,’ he said contritely, stepping outside as the car pulled up alongside them. ‘It’s an unpleasant way to have had to end the evening.’

She smiled up at him and shook her head, reluctant to speak openly in the presence of the driver, but it was clear that he was troubled at the intrusion.

They did not speak much on the journey back, but once at the studios he took her into his studio office and activated the elevator. She wondered what would happen next; going through HQ could be potentially embarrassing for both of them, but he had obviously considered that, because he stepped up to her, took her in his arms and kissed her firmly and with assurance, then letting her go before the doors had time to open.

‘I’ll follow you shortly,’ he said, and she walked out, looking back at him with a sigh, before heading for her own rooms. Reluctantly he watched her go, waited for a minute or two, and then walked to his office. Unfortunately, he still had to catch up on essential paperwork, whatever the time of night, however much he wanted to relax. The evening had been enjoyable, no, far more than enjoyable. He wished that he had been able to spend longer with her, to have been able to really talk with her. It was impossible to unwind properly knowing that one’s every move was being scrutinised by security. If this relationship was to have a chance, he would have to sort out appropriate protection for the both of them.

Much later that night he finally left the office, automatically heading for the studio exit, before recalling that the only place he had to go to was his bleak suite of rooms in the secondary basement section of HQ. He hated the rooms; soulless and box-like, they merely provided a place to sleep, to get showered and changed, not a much-needed haven to escape from the stresses of work. He couldn’t ease his tension with music either, now that his Steinway was ruined. He could, of course, have played on the small grand in the Staff Lounge, but he chose to leave that to other people. He hadn’t played in public for more years than he could remember, and although he felt that he was still a very competent player, he preferred to keep his music skills, like much of his life, private.

He keyed in the code to his suite, noticing that the light was on; someone had been in the room. Probably Alec he mused, then he saw the neat package on the desk. Curiously he picked it up and examined it. It looked harmless, and he knew that it would have passed security to have got this far. Still, it was puzzling. He sat on the edge of the bed and carefully unwrapped it, not sure what it contained.

It was a photograph. The photograph of John. The photograph that had been on the table at his house. He had never thought to see it again. He had been convinced that it had been lost along with everything else of personal value. It was unframed, and, as he examined it closely, he saw that it had been damaged and then painstakingly and professionally repaired. There was a note with it. He recognised the writing.

‘Ed, thank you for a wonderful evening. This was recovered from your house and I had it restored. It was delivered to Security tonight and I thought you would want it as soon as possible. See you on Tuesday for car hunting! Rachel’

Smiling, he placed the photograph carefully back on the desk. Later, in bed, tired and on edge with the thousand niggling worries that constantly gnawed at him, he remembered the warm contact of Rachel’s lips on his, her hand in his, and he breathed deeply, calmly, and fell into a dreamless sleep.

***************************************

The car salesman, obsequiously reminiscent of a young Dr Jackson, watched as Straker and Rachel Philips wandered around the showroom. Straker, dressed, for him exceedingly casually, in black jeans, dark grey sweatshirt and trainers, was making sardonic comments about the various vehicles on show, and Rachel was playing along with him.

‘I’m not sure about this one, Rachel.’ He sat behind the wheel of a stunning, violently-red Saab 93 convertible, Rachel in the passenger seat. ‘I don’t like red cars, they remind me of Porsches – all flash and no substance. Besides, red stands out too much.’

‘Oh honestly Ed,’ she chuckled ‘you’re worried about standing out in a crowd? You are the head of the biggest film studio inEurope. Of course you’re going to stand out, even if you drove a ten year old Fiesta.’

They burst out laughing, and, suitably chastised, he got out to speak to the waiting rep.

‘Does this come in dark grey?’ Straker had a particular liking for dark cars; he had found they provided excellent camouflage when trying to evade non-humans at night.

‘It comes in Carbon Grey, available in metallic for an additional cost. Our wide range of pre-owned vehicles are on the forecourt if sir would like to go outside.’ the deliberately derisive tone spoke volumes. Oops, thought Rachel, bad move.

Straker smiled the predatory smile of a tiger that had just spotted its prey and was waiting to pounce. ‘I think not. I’m actually looking for a 95 saloon, charcoal grey, metallic finish. How soon can you get one for me?’ he asked nonchalantly, an undercurrent of seriousness in his voice.

The salesman, hisEssexdialect scornful, posed the question, ‘And what finance package would you be interested in… sir.’

‘Oh I don’t know. I think I might use some of my loose change, and I have a couple of piggy banks that are getting a bit full.’ Ed was beginning to enjoy himself. He didn’t like to see people judged solely on their appearance; true he was casually attired, but out of necessity. His few remaining suits were needed for the studio, and he had resorted to wearing informal outfits until he had a chance to visit his tailor. Actually he was pleasantly surprised how relaxing it was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. He had discovered that, dressed as he was, he tended to be disregarded by the paparazzi and film starlets who did not instantly recognise him without his trademark high-collared suits. In fact Rachel and he had had a very agreeable afternoon without being hassled by potential film makers and news hounds.

Rachel turned round and saw the manager approaching. ‘Oh oh, trouble,’ she warned Ed, giggling. ‘I think we may have to leave.’

‘Come on Rachel, let’s go.’ Straker handed one of his studio business cards to the salesman and introduced himself. ‘Ed Straker, Harlington Straker Studios. Get your manager to give me a call; if that is, he wants to sell me a car. Charcoal, or Lava, I’m not fussy.’ His dry, sarcastic voice echoed through the showroom as he opened the door for Rachel, leaving the startled youth lost for words.

They drove back to HQ in one of the company cars, followed at a discrete distance by the ubiquitous protection detail. ‘I quite enjoyed that.’ Straker admitted to his companion. ‘Would you mind helping me find a piano before I take you out for dinner?’

‘That could be fun,’ Rachel wondered if she would ever get to hear him play. ‘Where do you go to buy a piano? It’s not something I usually put on my shopping list.’

‘No,’ he replied thoughtfully with a grin, ‘you simply can’t get them delivered with the groceries nowadays. It’s something I have really missed though; playing. It’s a great stress reliever.’

‘I’ve never heard you perform though. How good are you? Or is that cheeky?’

‘Well, all I can say is that I enjoy it. I can play most classical sonatas, and some of the more intricate modern pieces. I don’t ever consider whether I’m any good, I just find it immensely relaxing. However I’ve never played for anyone else, just myself. I don’t think even Alec has ever heard me. Certainly I’ve never touched the baby grand in the Staff Lounge. I leave that to other people.’

He turned and smiled at her, somewhat reluctant to continue a conversation that touched on such a private area of his life. ‘Tell you what, let’s forget about pianos and go for a walk. The weather is great and I have been stuck indoors for too long. How about it? SHADO can do without us for an afternoon I’m sure.’ He indicated the two agents assigned as protection detail, ‘Besides, if there are any problems Tweedledum and Tweedledee can get us back to base quickly.’

*******************************************

September 2009

Alec Freeman, in the vilest of tempers, stormed through Control and into Straker’s office without bothering to knock.

‘Which imbecile organised this update atHawaii? Why the hell am I not going?’

‘Morning, Alec’ Straker looked with amused tolerance at his friend. ‘Imbecile? Not a very polite way to speak about your commanding officer, especially in front of him as well.’

‘You mean you planned this? I could chew a pencil and spit a better plan. You can’t seriously expect to fly toHawaii and then oversee the new updates in just three days. It’s going to take at least a week to iron out the problems just fitting the damn parts, let alone test them and get the first set of data. Security is going to be a nightmare and you expect to go out there and leave me in charge here? Why can’t this trip be delayed for a couple of weeks? With Foster stuck on Moonbase for the next rotation we’re going to be short –staffed here without you gallivanting off for an easy couple of days.’

‘A couple of days? You just said that it was going to take a week at least. Make your mind up Alec.’ He grinned at the older man, standing in front of his desk. ‘I know what your problem is. You’re jealous. Just because I’m taking the new Gulfstream out there.’

‘Damn right I’m jealous. You know how long I’ve been waiting for this plane, Ed. And a trip toHawaii would have given me a real chance to assess it.’

‘Okay Alec, you take my place then.’ Straker said, leaning back in his chair and looking smugly at his Second in Command over his steepled fingers. ‘In fact, now I come to think of it, that’s just what I arranged this morning before you came in here and had a hissy fit. You didn’t honestly think I was going to swan off for a week or more. That was Packard’s idea, not mine. He was also most insistent that the updates are installed before the end of this week. ’

Freeman stared at his boss. ‘if I didn’t know better I’d think you planned this. Packard; that’s the new liaison officer isn’t it? Works for General Buckley at the IAC and a bit of a stickler for procedure?’ he growled, before helping himself to a drink from the small array of decanters that graced the conference area of the office.

‘Careful Alec – remember, no alcohol 24 hours before a flight?’ Straker commented, getting up to remove the glass from Freeman’s hand. ‘You’re right about Packard. He’s an odd character; can’t think outside the box, has to rely on set-game scenarios instead of instinct. For the life of me I don’t know how he managed to get appointed. He’s the sort of character that has his own hidden agenda. Now go and get your bags packed. One more thing, don’t let Buckley know you’re taking my place otherwise he’ll be round here pestering me about the next financial budget and how to cut costs.’

He turned back to his desk to deal with the ever present backlog of paperwork and reports.

‘Well, don’t just stand there Alec, get moving. Oh and by the way… enjoy the flight, and I’ll need a full flight-test analysis when you get back as well as your report on the adaptive optic updates.’ He managed not to smile at Freeman’s vexed expression. ‘Come on, if you test-fly the plane, then you write the report. It’s the price you have to pay. Remember Alec, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.’

****************************************

Colonel Freeman completed his pre-flight checks and stashed the paperwork away. This was what he really enjoyed doing; flying. In fact if SHADO had not taken over his life he would have probably ended up as an airline pilot. But then again, that would have no doubt entailed transporting coachloads of drunken tourists to the holiday hellholes that he so studiously avoided. No this was much better. Getting to fly some of the best jets in the world, and for free. He even enjoyed the regular but sometimes monotonous trips to Moonbase.

It was a pity that SHADO had retired their Delta wing. Now that had been a plane and a half. He loved going faster than the speed of sound, but there was no chance of that today, Mach 0.92 was the best that he could get out of this, but it was good enough. A leisurely trip across the ocean, a quick stop inVancouverfor a rest, and then just a short run down toHawaiiand a week’s holiday.

Alec was under no illusions about the amount of work that would be necessary when he reachedMauna Kea, but, he had lots of energy, and he couldn’t be expected to work all day without a break, could he? And there were plenty of capable, and attractive, female scientists out at the Keck telescopes site; he had been there before and had very pleasant memories.

He was somewhat surprised that Ed let him go in his place, but he knew that the big boss was really too busy to spare time away from the base, especially as his association with Rachel seemed to be flourishing. The couple had managed to keep their developing relationship quiet so far, but Alec knew that is was only a matter of time before some sharp-eyed operative put two and two together.

Still, he had not seen Ed as happy and relaxed as this for a very long time. He was even coping with living in the base accommodation while his farmhouse was being rebuilt. Alec knew how difficult it was for Straker, being constantly cooped up in the SHADO HQ, unable to escape from the stresses of work. Ed had seriously considered moving into a hotel for the duration, but had decided against it, due to the constraints of security. Alec decided that, on his return to HQ he would suggest to Rachel that Ed rent an apartment on a short lease. That way he would at least get a break from work and it would give him somewhere to take Rachel.

Air traffic cleared him for take-off and he powered the craft down the runway, delighting, as ever, in the thrill of flying. Once in the air he retracted the undercarriage, checked all the systems and turned to his co-pilot.

‘Eight hours to Vancouver, Simon. Plenty of time to see what this bird can do. Let’s get up to altitude and have some fun.’ He grinned in anticipation. ‘Straker doesn’t know what he’s missing, stuck at HQ.’

***************************************************

Vancouver Air Traffic control handed them off as Freeman eased the plane on its new heading to Kona International. It had been a peach of a flight so far; the re-fuelling stop atVancouverhad gone smoothly, helped by having the studio’s logo on the plane. Although Alec frequently, and fluently, cursed the fact that he had to masquerade as a studio executive on a regular basis, he was not above using the name to assist in the more important SHADO operations; as long as security was not compromised.

Handing the controls over to Lt. Conroy, Alec went back to get a brief rest before the approach for landing. The plane had performed as well as he had anticipated, and he was already planning his next trip in her. Next time, he decided, he would take Ed and Rachel up for a flight; perhaps somewhere romantic. His mind sifted through various possibilities, the Aurora Borealis perhaps, or even the Ice Hotel in Jukkasjarvi. Actually, he decided, an ice hotel was not very romantic, although it did suit Straker’s facade perfectly. No; Rachel deserved something a little more luxurious than that. He really wanted their relationship to work, and if he could do something to help push it along, well and good.

He reclined his seat and closed his eyes, ready to catch some sleep before preparing for the landing at Kona International.

The SHADO Commander picked up his coffee and sipped it. With a grimace he realised that it had gone cold. Tossing the remaining dregs down the disposal chute, he poured himself a fresh cup, breathing in the fragrant aroma appreciatively before stirring in sugar and milk. He was tired, he seemed to be permanently tired at the moment, and coffee helped him to concentrate on all the necessary but tedious paperwork he had to do. Alec, enjoying himself somewhere over thePacific Ocean, had no idea how lucky he was. Ed Straker sighed with regret at the lost opportunity. If Alec had not been so insistent on trying out the Gulfstream then………………………… his reverie was interrupted by a familiar voice.

‘This is Space Intruder Detector. We have a Yellow Alert. Possible UFO sighting; Sector 128.342. Awaiting confirmation.

Straker, coffee abandoned on his desk, headed for Control.

‘Get me Moonbase, Ford.’ he ordered.

‘Nina, anything yet on the radar?’

‘Hello Commander, no nothing yet. The residue from the recent solar flares is still creating problems with our tracking. The interceptors are ready for launch, but as yet SID hasn’t been able to…………………………’

‘This is Space Intruder Detector. Red Alert. Red Alert. Sighting confirmed. One UFO bearing Sector 128.343 Speed SOL4.5. Trajectory termination….North Pacific Ocean. Grid reference; 4 QFJ 15’

‘Okay Nina, that puts it on target for Colonel Freeman’s flight. Are you still tracking Falcon1?’

‘Yes Commander, we have him on radar, and we have been in regular contact with him. He is approaching Kona International and should be on their screens in the next ten minutes.’

‘Fine. I’ll give him a call from here just to keep him in the picture. Let me know if anything changes won’t you?’ Straker cut the connection and got Ford to connect to Alec Freeman.

‘SHADO Control to Falcon1, Red Alert, Red Alert. UFO confirmed. Trajectory Termination 4 QFJ 15 .’ Ford swung the microphone across for Commander Straker.

‘Alec.SID confirms a UFO sighting. Moonbase are on Red Alert, and hopefully should be able to deal with it, but the trajectory termination is in your area and I wanted you to be forewarned. It wouldn’t be the first time they have attacked one of our planes, especially one carrying new technology. Keep a sharp eye out there. Sky 4 will be patrolling in the area as soon as she gets airborne.’

‘Will do Ed. Don’t worry, we’ll look after your new toy here,’ Freeman signed off and turned to Conroy. ‘Ok Simon, let’s reduce altitude. If a UFO gets through I don’t want to be so high that Sky 4 isn’t able to protect us.’

Falcon 1 skimmed across the ocean, as low as Freeman dared. This was the one aspect of flying that he didn’t enjoy; low flying was generally exhilarating, but not when it was necessitated by the threat of a UFO attacking them.

Straker waited In the Control room, watching, analysing and putting together various strategies in his mind. He knew the importance of being prepared for whatever the aliens might throw at Earth. His vigilant mind filtered information and compartmentalised data, sorting through facts and discarding those that were irrelevant. He leaned against the concrete wall, silently evaluating the latest information. It was all a little too convenient. Alec Freeman, en route toHawaiiwith a cargo of the latest technological advancements. The flight approved and authorised by someone inHenderson’s  office to occur when Moonbase was still recovering from the effects of the recent solar flares. An incursion by aliens, coinciding with Alec’s flight. Too many coincidences? He considered the specifics.

‘Moonbase to SHADO Control. Sorry Commander, it slipped past us in the solar disruption. We couldn’t get an accurate radar fix on it in time. It’s out of Interceptor range now and will enter Earth’s atmosphere in nine minutes.’ Nina Barry apologised to Straker.

‘Get me Alec Freeman. Now.’ he leaned over Ford, a note of urgency in his voice. ‘Alec. Falcon 1 is going to be under attack in just under ten minutes. You need to get down as low as you can and head for safety.’

‘Already at sea level Ed. We should be under Kona’s air-control shortly. Where is Sky………..?’

His question was interrupted by another incoming call. ‘Falcon 1, Sky 4 here. Just coming up on your position. Covering you at 5,000 feet. Nice plane Colonel. You’d better not scratch it, or the Commander will have you transferred toGreenland.’

‘Thank you Sky 4.’ Straker’s sardonic voice cut into the idle chatter. ‘I’m sure Colonel Freeman knows how to look after his aircraft. And it would be the South Polar Research Centre he would end up in, notGreenland. We don’t allow alcohol in the Antarctic centres.’ the interjection was not lost on Keith Ford who smirked at the Commander’s dryly amused statement.

‘You’d better be extra careful then, Colonel,’ Lew Waterman, well aware that Straker had been on line, replied. ‘Control, I have Falcon 1 on visual and am keeping patrol to the north. No sign of UFO on radar. Falcon 1 approaching Kona International. Will escort her down and return to patrol when she’s landed.’

‘Approved and authorised, Sky 4. We are tracking you on satellite. Be careful. That UFO has gone off the screens but will be aiming for Falcon 1. With any luck she should be down before it manages to reappear.’ Straker continued his vigilant patrol of the control room, moving impatiently from console to console, unable to relax until he knew that Falcon 1 was down and safe; that Alec Freeman was down and safe.

And then, dropping vertically, like a sudden flash of lightning, the UFO appeared directly above Falcon 1. Sky 4, caught unawares by the abruptness of the arrival could do little more than radio a quick warning to Alec Freeman.

Sky 4 banked in a sharp curve, striving to bring its considerable weaponry to bear on the UFO. The Gulfstream, already flying as low as possible, had little room for manoeuvring, but Alec Freeman had no intention of letting any alien craft get the better of him.

Lifting the nose of the plane he brought it sweeping up into a smooth loop to gain altitude as rapidly as possible, and then expertly inverted her so that at the top of the curve she was flying level and straight. The UFO was now some distance below them, still re-orientating itself after such a rapid descent. Sky 4, although still several hundred feet away sighted on the alien craft and fired its Stinger missiles, in a desperate attempt to halt the UFO before it could attack Falcon1.

There was an explosive flash of coruscating light, and Falcon 1 shuddered violently as the percussion from the blast hit it broadside on. Freeman struggled to maintain control as the Gulfstream was thrown across the sky. Flames erupted from the port engine and she suddenly veered uncontrollably in that direction.

‘Simon,’ he yelled, above the noise of the cockpit alarms, ‘damage report.’

He looked across at his co-pilot in the right hand seat. Conroy was unconscious, or dead; it was impossible to tell. Freeman fought with the controls, desperately trying to level the plane out so that he could at least make a crash landing in the ocean if necessary. With the Gulfstream still out of control he didn’t stand a chance of survival.

Straker, hands clenched in fists, knuckles white with tension, listened to the commentary from Sky 4. He knew better than to sidetrack Falcon 1 with unnecessary radio calls, however much he wanted to find out exactly what Alec’s status was. He could visualise the scene. Sky 4, annihilating the UFO only to have the Gulfstream caught in the backlash of the explosion; Alec and Simon Conroy fighting to regain control of the plane so that they could bring it in to land. He knew how good a pilot Alec was, but what he didn’t know was how this Gulfstream would perform under these conditions. He waited, breathing tightly, lips pursed, waiting. Waiting.

‘Falcon 1 to SHADO control.’ Alec Freeman’s tense voice crackled over the radio. ‘Ed, we’ve lost an engine and Conroy is injured. Trying to level out. Will make emergency landing at Kona. Should be able to make it as long as there’s nothing else broken.’ The terse message ended. Keith Ford looked up, querying whether he should initiate a response. Straker, having listened intently to his friend’s voice, shook his head. ‘No, Keith, he has enough to do. I’m not going to distract him. See if Sky 4 can get a visual on Falcon 1 to check for signs of any other damage. That would be more help to Colonel Freeman.’

SHADO Control to Sky 4. Captain, Commander Straker would like you to do a visual check on Falcon 1 to see the extent of the damage.’ Ford immediately put the request through.

Alec Freeman fought to prevent the plane turning its nose to port. The dead engine, streaming smoke and debris, was forcing the port wing to drop and he had to work hard to compensate. Conroy was still non-responsive and Alec knew that he would have to land the Gulfstream solo. He stepped on the starboard rudder to cancel the yaw of the working engine, and used the port aileron to lift the dead engine. It was a well-rehearsed manoeuvre, but in an untested aeroplane he had no idea how she would respond. Eventually, after several difficult minutes, the aircraft reluctantly came under control.

‘Sky 4 to Control, she’s lost her port engine, but the fire has been extinguished. Can’t see any other damage, he’s got her under control and has lowered the undercarriage. All seems to be ok.’

Freeman’s voice broke in to the three-way conversation. ‘Thanks Lew, I owe you one. Ed. ..’

‘Here Alec. Good flying by the way.’

‘Sorry I’ve scratched your new toy. I’ll pack my bags forAntarctica.’ Freeman quipped, ‘I should be able to get her on the ground in one piece though. Speak to you later.’

Freeman switched the radio frequency to 121.50 MHz. ‘Kona International this is Falcon 1 requesting emergency landing. Situation critical. Port engine failure. Please respond.’

‘KonaTowerto Falcon 1, we have you on radar. Alter course to bearing one three seven. Runway cleared for you. Emergency services will be ready.’ The air traffic controller’s voice an oasis of calm in the rattling noise of the cockpit.

Freeman carefully banked the craft onto the correct heading and levelled her out. Checking the airspeed indicator, he pulled back on the throttle to lower the nose, and lined up on the runway. At the last moment he raised the nose to flare the plane and bring her down on her rear wheels first. She hit the tarmac, hard, bouncing a couple of times with ear-piercing screeches of tortured tyres.

In the control room they held their breath and listened as Colonel Freeman brought the crippled aircraft in to land. Straker flinched imperceptibly when they heard the long sound of screaming tyres on the tarmac. Then there was a sudden silence.

‘Falcon 1 to Control. Down safely.’ Alec sounded tired. ‘Conroy’s dead. Looks like he broke his neck. Just waiting for emergency services now. I’ll get back to you later.’

‘Okay Alec. I’ll get Captain Waterman to finish the search and then ask him to check in with you. Do you need any assistance with the cargo?’ Straker, all business now, was thinking about the task ahead.

‘No, should be fine Ed. I’ll sort out things at this end and contact you when I get toMauna Kea.’

Captain Lew Waterman, having overseen the safe landing of Falcon 1 returned to the crash site and prepared for the obligatory search and rescue mission. It was usually a forlorn hope. Only on very rare occasions had an alien body been recovered intact from a UFO, but there was always the possibility that some useful wreckage might be found. And he knew how vitally important any information about the aliens was in the continuous fight against them.

He skimmed the surface of the ocean, spray flying up behind his jets as he approached the co-ordinates of the crashed UFO. There was the usual debris; bubbles, shards of bent and twisted metal, an oily, multicoloured slick, and he was about to contact HQ when he noticed the scarlet shape bobbing just beneath the surface. He overflew to confirm.

‘Sky 4 to SHADO Control.’

‘Come in Sky 4’

‘I’ve seen what could be an alien in the water, beneath the surface, so probably dead. I’m going to rendezvous with Diver 4 and then surface to investigate fully.’ Waterman’s calm and composed voice belied his excitement at the discovery.

***************************************************

‘Periscope up.’ Captain Waterman, once more in the control centre of Skydiver, held onto the periscope handles, looking through the viewscreen at the surface of the ocean. He could see remnants of the UFO still floating; pieces of ultra lightweight material scattered chaotically over the water and the greasy, rainbow-hued slick pinpointing the exact site where the enemy craft plunged to its destruction. Turning in a circle, he was following a gently bobbing section of outer hull when a green tinged face loomed into view, a face distorted not only by the refraction of the water but also by the effects of rapid decompression and loss of its protective oxygenated liquid.

‘Shit.’ Waterman lurched back from the periscope, his heart pounding with the sudden shock. He took a deep breath and stepped forward to grasp the handles once more.

‘Okay,’ he reported to his crew, recovered from the unpleasant surprise, ‘one alien corpse, suffering severe facial injuries, note co-ordinates on my mark…………Mark. Let’s surface gently so we don’t create a wash and lose it. Straker will probably give us a medal for this.’

Shortly afterwards, SkyDiver 4 was once more running silent and deep in the Pacific Ocean, unseen by any casual observers.

Captain Waterman helped his navigator carry the dead-weight body of the enemy through to the miniscule sickbay, where it was strapped to an examination table.

‘Hmm. Not very pretty is it? I’ve never seen one this close up before.’ his navigator remarked, grimacing as he covered the battered corpse.

‘Pretty or not, this guy could provide us with some answers. He’s unusual in that he isn’t as green-tinged as the other aliens I have seen. Let’s get him back to the rendezvous point. I think HQ will want to get their hands on him as soon as possible.’ Lew Waterman ordered the crew to plot a course for the rendezvous with the SHADO Pacific carrier. A transport plane would then airlift the corpse to HQ for examination and further study. Waterman anticipated that it would take at least 12 hours to get his extra passenger back toEnglandeven using SHADO’s supersonic aircraft. .

He headed for his cabin, planning to get a few hours sleep before his next shift.

SHADO HQ was gearing up for the arrival of the transport with its precious cargo. Straker in particular was impatient. There had been previous alien bodies recovered from crashed UFO’S, but on the majority of occasions they had suffered from premature aging. Waterman hoped that this corpse would be the exception to the rule. He was certainly an odd one, with his almost human colouring.

Hours later the private ambulance pulled up outside Mayland’s SHADO Unit, doors swinging open to allow the scientists access to their target. The shrouded body, in its refrigerated container, was wheeled inside and they set to work.

Straker was back in the Control room after a break for a few hours. He had showered and changed, and was now anticipating the scientists report. He no longer felt compelled to pace outside the examination room, but he was acutely aware of the implications that this body could have for SHADO. He was particularly intrigued by the lack of colouration in its skin and wanted answers.

Mayland Unit to SHADO Control. Put me through to Commander Straker please.’ The senior scientist called in.

‘Straker here.’

‘Commander, are you in your office right now?’ Dr Shroeder enquired.

‘’No, I’m in Control. Is there a problem?’

‘I need to speak to you on your secure line Commander. Urgently. Please call me back from your office, and make sure you are alone.’ Shroeder was insistent.

Straker looked askance at Ford, before heading for his office, and closing the door. ‘Ford, secure line please.’ He waited. ‘Straker here. What do you have for me?’

‘Commander, this alien corpse is not what it seems. We have doneDNAtests on all the organs as per usual, to establish which organs have been harvested. Commander, are you sure this line is absolutely safe?’

‘Yes Shroeder, now just what exactly do you need to tell me.’ Straker was getting impatient by now.

‘This is absolutely unexpected Commander. From theDNAresults we have established beyond all doubt that the alien body is human, is in fact the body of a man whoseDNAwe have on record.’

‘For heaven’s sake doctor, get to the point.’

‘Commander, the body appears to be that of Colonel James Packard, the IAC liaison officer assigned to General Clifford Buckley.’

‘Ford, get me Alec Freeman immediately.’ Straker ordered Lt. Ford over the intercom, and returned to his secure line. Shroeder, how positive are you of this.’

‘As sure as I need to be Commander. The body is Packard. And yet it can’t be. James Packard was here just two days ago, to discuss our requirements for the next financial year.’

Straker answered his flashing intercom.

‘Straker.’

‘Ed, do you know what time it is here? We’re eleven hours behind you. This had better be important.’ Alec Freeman sounded half-asleep, as well he might. It was three in the afternoon GMTand the middle of the night in Hawaii. Freeman was not pleased.

‘Alec. The production of Protocol Agreement 7 has run into problems with copyright issues. I need you to contact the scriptwriters and arrange for them to meet the author in Los   Angeles first thing in the morning. If we don’t get it sorted out quickly, then we could be looking at delays in filming.’

Colonel Freeman stopped blustering when he heard the word Protocol, SHADO code for serious security breach.

‘Okay Ed. No problem. I’ll sort something out as soon as possible. How are the actors holding up?’ Freeman decoded the message; Copyright – urgent problem in HQ, your presence required. Protocol 7 – use alternative ID and passport. First thing – immediately.

‘Fine Alec, anyway I’ll let you get back to sleep. Enjoy the rest of your holiday. Straker out.’ He put the phone down. Alec would be on his way back to HQ within the next few hours depending on the availability of flights. He had a bank card for his alias account and a standby passport with bogus name. Straker was probably being ultra cautious, but Packard had arranged the flight toHawaiiand Straker didn’t want him tracking Alec home from the islands.

****************************************

David Michaels, aka Colonel Freeman, deplaned at Heathrow and wearily walked to the exit. He had travelled light, hand luggage only, and had been careful not to attract any attention on the flight. It had been one of the rare times he had flown economy as a matter of security; people tended not to notice the ‘cattle class’ passengers, and anyone looking for him specifically would have been concentrating on the business section of the plane. He was stiff, cramped and tired. It had been a mad rush to arrange for the safe storage of the Gulfstream’s precious cargo of updates until someone could return to Hawaii to install them in the telescopes. He needed, boy, how he needed, a decent meal, a long hot shower and some sleep, not necessarily in that order. He grimaced as he realised that Colonel Philips was waiting to collect him from the airport; no chance of going home then.

He smiled at her as he approached, then, mindful of the need to maintain his cover, hugged her and planted a kiss on her mouth. ‘Darling, good of you to pick me up. Hell of a flight; I’m absolutely knackered.’ The weary business man, being met by his wife. It might just sidetrack anyone who had suspicions about him.

She looked at him, appraisingly, for a minute fraction of a second, a quirky smile on her face, and then fell in with his plan.

‘Yes dear, you look worn out. Come on, the car’s waiting and you can tell me all about it on the way home. Did you manage to get everything done?’ she chattered on as she led the way. The car, innocuous enough, was parked near to another SHADO vehicle; the two agents inside the second car nodding to Colonel Philips as she walked past.

Rachel got in the driver’s side. ‘Sorry Colonel, I know you don’t like being driven, but this does fit in with your cover story, besides which, you look too tired to be safe behind the wheel.’ She drove off steadily, followed at a discrete distance by the security agents.

‘I bet Ed wants me at HQ immediately.’ Alec spoke reluctantly. ‘I really want a shower and a change of clothes after nearly sixteen hours of travelling, but I don’t suppose there’s time.’

Rachel looked briefly at him, before bringing her attention back to her driving. ‘Actually Colonel, I agree. You really do need a shower.’ She smiled at him understandingly. She knew how exhausting long haul flights were, especially in economy class. ‘Ed doesn’t need to know exactly what time I picked you up. I think SHADO can spare ten minutes for you to get changed and so on.’

He smiled at her, thankful that this intelligent, thoughtful woman had been assigned to collect him. He felt perfectly comfortable with her and relaxed as she radioed the tailing car to tell them of the alteration to the plan.

Rachel escorted Alec to his apartment and waited inside while he hurried through a shower and quick change. He looked much more presentable when he reappeared and she handed him a mug of coffee. He drank it quickly, mindful that Ed would be waiting at HQ and would not appreciate any unnecessary delays.

Dr Shroeder and Ed were in the Commander’s office when Alec Freeman arrived. He joined them at the large conference table and Straker, after one look at his executive officer’s tired face, poured him a measure of Ardbeg.

‘Here, you look like you need it.’ he commented sympathetically as he handed Alec the glass. ‘Good flight?’

‘What red-eye flight in economy is ever good?’ Alec took an appreciative sip, savouring the heady smokiness of the pure malt, then put the glass down. ‘Right, you’ve not dragged me back from the other side of the world to drink your whisky, good as it is. What’s going on?’

Straker picked up a folder from the table and handed it to Colonel Freeman. ‘That alien corpse Sky 4 retrieved. It was unusual, to say the least. Read the report. I’d like to have your unbiased opinion.’

Freeman flicked through the details, reading swiftly and occasionally going back to check a previous paragraph. Eventually, putting the papers down, he looked at Ed.

‘Is this for real? Not some kind of joke?’

‘The report is completely accurate Colonel.’ Dr Shroeder answered in an aggrieved tone.

‘Alright Alec. Your first impressions. What do you make of it?’ Straker stared at him, eyes meeting in an unspoken understanding. Both men knew that this was a serious development in the aliens continued assault on Earth.

‘Well, the way I see it, Packard can’t be in two places at once. We know that the aliens have cloned humans before, but those have only been SHADO operatives. The IAC Packard must be, can only be a clone considering the level of genetic manipulation detailed in this report. But why? It doesn’t make any sense. I can’t see what benefit it would give the aliens; he has been supportive of SHADO all along.’

‘So, think outside the box. Let’s go over the facts again, as we know them. One, this alien does not have the green colouring we have come to expect from being immersed in oxygenated liquid for months. Two, his DNA is, to all intents and purposes identical to that of a man who has connections to this organisation. Three, we know that the aliens have the technology to clone humans. Four, the aliens, in the past have used cloned humans under their control, to replace operatives. Now let’s twist those facts around. We are making assumptions based on the little evidence we have gathered about the aliens. What if….’ Straker was silent for a moment, wondering if Alec Freeman would be able to make the same intuitive leap. ‘What if the alien Packard was the clone? What if our Packard, our unimaginative, blinkered liaison officer is the original? Could that be the case? It would explain the lack of green colouration. Dr Shroeder speculates in his report that this reproductive clonal manipulation could affect the skin’s ability to absorb the pigmentation.’

There was a stunned silence from the other two at the conference table.

‘That would mean that the aliens have managed build themselves a power base on Earth. I’m not comfortable with that hypothesis, Ed.’ Colonel Freeman mused. ‘but let’s explore it a little further. You are speculating that the aliens have been using humans as the basis for creating clones that are, to all intents and purposes, aliens. Are these clones then taken back to the aliens’ home world? If so, how?’

‘Perhaps the basic genetic material is the only thing that is transported and the clones are matured on the home world, ready to be used as pilots for attacking Earth. Straker countered, ‘But that still doesn’t explain Packard’s involvement.’

Dr Shroeder leaned forward. ‘Cloning on this level involves complicity on behalf of the donor. We know that previous clones have been very immature mentally, unable to speak or act as naturally as humans. If, as you suggest, Packard has been the donor he must have undergone several medical procedures. I doubt if he would have become involved without some form of recompense or reward.’

Straker was even paler than usual. ‘You are saying that Packard is voluntarily working for the aliens? Is, in fact, betraying his own people for either financial reward or some other incentive?’ He looked sickened at the thought.

‘That is a strong possibility, Commander.’ Shroeder confirmed. ‘By participating in the cloning procedure Packard would be providing the enemy with vitally important genetic material that could be used to develop a whole legion of healthy, strong humans under alien control. It is also possible that the aliens simply want to avoid using their own people as UFO pilots due to the fact that the attrition rate is so high. A civilisation that is virtually sterile and facing extinction may well be reluctant to put its own people at risk, but would not object to clones being used. The clone is, itself, sterile, so it cannot be used for reproduction purposes, and cloned organs at this level of genetic manipulation are still not as viable as healthy organs harvested from living human donors, which is why the aliens continue to attack Earth. Human clones will not provide them with what they really need; a regular supply of vigorous donors of all ages from which they can take the organs they need.’

‘And Packard has been helping them.’ Straker looked across at Alec. ‘Suggestions?’

‘Let me bring him in and question him.’ a blunt answer from a blunt man.

‘Okay Alec, he’s all yours.’ Straker stood up. ‘Let me know what you find out. Dr Shroeder and his team can help you.’ He leaned on the table. ‘I need answers Alec, and to be honest, I really don’t care how you get them.’

**********************************

Packard was just exiting the IAC building, heading for his car, when the SHADO team sprang into action. In less than thirty seconds they had quietly surrounded him and marshalled him into the nondescript saloon car with tinted windows, which pulled up alongside. Colonel Philips, in the rear of the car looked contemptuously at Packard, who was now sitting, still dazed at the sudden turn of events, next to her.

‘Hold your hands out.’ The order was brusque.

‘What the hell is………………?’ Packard got no chance to continue.

‘Shut up and do as you are told.’ Rachel examined Packard’s wrist as he snapped the handcuffs together. ‘Nice watch. Rolex? How does someone on an IAC salary afford one of those? No don’t bother to answer, we’ll find out soon enough.’

Arriving at SHADO, she handed him over to the security team to be checked in. Packard would undergo thorough medical and psychological testing before Colonel Freeman or the psychologists would be allowed to start the interrogation. It would not help SHADO if Packard died from the effects of an alien implant before they managed to get some answers.

Straker waited patiently. There was no need to rush, no need to hurry. These things took time and time was one thing he could spare. He called Rachel on her mobile.

‘Hello Commander,’ she was pleased to hear from him, he could tell by the sound of her voice. ‘What can I do for you?’

He got straight to the point; this was not the time or place for pleasant conversations ‘Can you run a full G6 on everyone in Packard’s department as soon as possible? I hate the thought of there being more quislings like him, but it’s something we have to consider.’

‘Yes sir, I’ll get started on it right away. When do you need it for?’

‘Unfortunately I shall be meeting General Henderson this afternoon to discuss the latest events here, and I probably won’t be back until quite late. Oh yes, one more thing,’ He paused, unsure whether it was appropriate to continue, but he really wanted to see her soon. ‘Tomorrow night. Will you meet me at the restaurant at the usual time? I have not seen much of you this last week. And I am going to be occupied with things here for the next twenty four hours’

‘I’d love that, thank you, Commander,.. Ed. See you there.’ She ended the call, a broad smile on her face despite her concerns over the security issue at HQ.

***************************************

She had been waiting for some time, not impatiently; she knew that events often conspired to make him late, or even to prevent him coming at all. SHADO HQ had always come first, and she didn’t mind. It was surprising that they had managed to keep their developing relationship such a secret over the past weeks; the only person who knew about Straker’s involvement with Rachel was Alec Freeman and for all his bluff manner and sometimes tactless approach, she knew that he would never betray either of them.

The waiter approached her. He was accustomed now to this dark-haired, confident woman waiting for the man who courted her with such consideration and charm.

‘Ah Miss Rachel. He is busy again I see? Can I get you anything while you are waiting?’ he asked her jovially.

‘No I’m fine thank you.’ she replied, ‘in fact I can see him arriving now.’

She watched as he approached the entrance and noticed how tired and stressed he appeared.

And then, abruptly, they were there, surrounding him, close and confining. There was no way out. Three of them, taller than he was, and very heavy-built. His eyes met hers, and she saw in that moment that he knew what was going to happen and could do nothing to prevent it. With a horrified expression of apprehension, his hand already at the door, he pushed forward and managed to open it, just as they grabbed him violently.

Rachel,’ he yelled in a tone she had never heard before. ‘Run!’ His shout startled the other diners and in the sudden disturbance that followed she turned, headed for the emergency exit at the back of the restaurant, and, reluctantly following his order, ran, just as they dragged him away. He stood no chance against their superior size and weight, despite his frantic struggles.

‘This is Colonel Philips to SHADO HQ. Maximum Security. Maximum Security. Class A alert. All units to my location.’ Frantically she radioed into HQ. But she needed to get more information if she was to help Ed. She sprinted through the alley to the front of the building, just in time to see a dark van drive rapidly away, no number plates, no marks, nothing that could help to identify it. There was not even a car nearby for her to requisition so that she could pursue.

‘Colonel Philips, Ford here. Units on way to your location. What is the nature of the Alert?’ Keith Ford, competent and calm. She was glad he was on communications tonight. She would need his expertise.

‘Ford; Commander Straker has been taken. I don’t know by whom, but there were three of them, waiting for him. I think they drove off in a van, but I have no other details. I can’t find his protection detail. I am going to look for them now. Get Colonel Freeman down here.’

She came upon the protection detail around the corner, sitting quietly, too quietly in their pursuit vehicle. Neat bullet holes accurately positioned. She waited by their car, not wanting to disturb the bodies, until assistance arrived.

It was nearly midnight when a parcel was delivered to the studio late night security group. SHADO trained and ultra-cautious, they immediately notified Control, and transported the suspect package down to the waiting bomb disposal team. Alec Freeman, called from his fruitless hunt for Straker, arrived just as the package was declared safe to open. Carefully Rachel removed the outer wrappings, mindful of the need to retain any forensic evidence. It was as she feared. Inside, a small plastic box, the sort used for sandwiches, wiped clean of any fingerprints, and inside that, Straker’s watch, his medical bracelet and a close-up photograph; head and shoulders. He was bleeding and bruised, eyes closed and leaning against a rough whitewashed wall under the glare of a harsh light. Blood stained his torn jacket. On the back of the photograph, scrawled in block capital letters, a warning. ‘Release Packard and you get his location 48 hours later. Don’t mess us about. He has water for 2 days’

Freeman turned to Colonel Philips. ‘Rachel. What do we do?’

‘You know the answer to that Colonel. We do nothing. Packard stays here. No way do we let him go. He is too dangerous.’

‘But Rachel, what about Ed? How can you stand there and just give up a chance we may have of rescuing him?’ Alec Freeman said, horrified.

‘Come on Colonel. You know the rules. You know what Ed would say as well if it were either one of us in that photograph. Commander Straker wouldn’t hesitate to make the same decision. You and I are both emotionally involved and that clouds our judgment. This is a SHADO matter and our personal feelings cannot be allowed to affect our professional decision.’ Rachel finished speaking and looked up at Alec Freeman, eyes brimming with tears. ‘Alec, what else can we do? He would never forgive us for surrendering to them, would he?’

Alec put his arm around her shoulders. ‘Rachel, I hope Ed knows how lucky he is to have you. I hope one day I am as lucky as he is.’

‘Well, I’d better find him soon then, hadn’t I?’ she held his hand tightly as if to draw strength from his touch. ‘Dear God Alec, where do we begin?’

‘Oh that’s easy Rachel. I begin with Packard. Dr Jackson has some rather effective interrogation techniques that might give us some information. You, however, can go and get some rest. We will need you fresh and rested tomorrow when the forensics team bring their evidence back. Go on now, get some sleep. Don’t come back until5 am at the earliest.

‘Yes sir, Colonel. Sir.’ she replied to his gentle order, with a sad slight smile.

************************************************

He was in the dark when he woke up, dazed and nauseous. Propped up against a rough wall. Carefully he put one hand up to his head, feeling blood crusted around the cut and his face.

‘Awake at last then.’ The voice was close by but he could not see a figure.

‘What do you want from me?’ he replied cautiously, aware that this could, possibly, be a simple kidnapping for money; unlikely, but one never knew.

‘Packard. In exchange for you, Commander Straker. Plain as that.’

‘I don’t think so. He’s too dangerous.’ There was no point now in prevaricating. They knew about SHADO and who he was. His main concern was that someone had betrayed the organisation, someone who knew about Packard and that SHADO had him under guard. There were a limited number of people who had that information; himself, Alec, Rachel, amongst others, but also Henderson and Buckley.

‘You had better hope that Alec Freeman and Rachel Philips disagree with you, and decide to let him go.’

‘And what happens when they don’t release him?’

‘Simple. You stay here until they do, or until they find your body, if ever. You’ve got enough water there for two days. If Packard hasn’t been freed by then, well, you can probably guess the rest. This is a derelict mill, on a deserted brownfield site and no one comes near. We’ll give Colonel Freeman the address if he does the right thing, otherwise…….’

‘You really think Alec Freeman will give in to your demands? I doubt very much if your friend Packard will ever get out of SHADO, certainly not alive at any rate.’ Straker was coldly scathing in his condemnation.

‘Well then Commander, this is goodbye. You’d better get used to your new accommodation; you’ll be spending a long time here, unless, that is, Colonel Freeman sees the error of his ways.’

He heard the door slam, and bolts slide across, rusty, disused bolts from the grating sound. He was pretty sure he was alone, but where? He felt for his watch; gone, as were his phone and medic-alert bracelet. He didn’t bother to check his shoulder holster; he could tell by the lack of weight that his gun was missing. There was the thrum of traffic and vibrations of heavy vehicles in the distance. As his night vision gradually developed he began to make out a rectangular patch of slightly paler light against the darkness. It puzzled him at first, then he realised that it was the window opening up onto the ground outside, a basement window, heavy glass blocks overgrown with mildew and mould. He got up and moved towards it, but a sudden tug on his wrist held him back.

Damn. There was a chain securing him to the wall. The single shackle, on his left wrist was tight and uneven and had already rubbed his skin raw in a couple of places. The chain was a decent length though, long enough for him to be able to move several paces, and to lie down. He sat down again and leaned against the rough wall. There was no point in wasting energy in the dark. When daytime arrived he would be able to assess the situation properly and make a plan of action.

The cold stone floor was damp and he tucked his hands under his armpits to try to retain some warmth. He had been in this situation before. It was just a matter of waiting it out, knowing that Alec and Rachel would find him, and that he would be able to survive until they did.

Colonel Philips stared, bleary-eyed at the CCTV footage from outside the restaurant. There was something niggling at the back of her mind, something just out of sight, but constantly there, just out of range. She stopped the tape, stood up and stretched, easing the knots out of her neck before getting herself another hot chocolate. She was hungry as well and her thoughts strayed to food. What to have for supper. Pasta; that would be ………and then it came to her, clear and concise.

The restaurant. The couple. From Buckley’s office. One of the men who grabbed Straker had been in the restaurant that first night. She remembered his face, his build and the way he avoided Straker’s eyes. She remembered who had authorised and paid for the surveillance that night.

‘Colonel Freeman, I have something.’ she called him to her office and recounted the events of that evening. ‘So it appears that General Buckley could also be involved. I cleared all of Packard’s team of any involvement, but I hadn’t looked at General Buckley or any of his group. ’

‘Shit.’ Freeman cursed quietly. ‘Packard works for Buckley. Ed had a meeting withHendersonyesterday afternoon and must have told him that SHADO had got Packard in custody. Buckley and Packard must be in this together. Good work Rachel. Now go and bring Buckley in, and make sure he doesn’t talk to anyone outside SHADO.’

**************************************************

Despite all the chemical persuasion that SHADO could bring to bear, Packard remained stubbornly silent. He resisted all attempts to plead with him to talk and eventually Alec Freeman stopped trying to persuade him and resorted to sheer, unpleasant, physical brutality. By the time he had finished, James Packard was slumped in a corner, bloodied and battered beyond recognition; but still refusing to divulge where Straker was being held.

For one of the few times in his life, Alec Freeman admitted defeat. He called the medics to treat Packard, and walked despondently back to Straker’s office, his office for the immediate future. He was not proud of what he had done, especially as it had not achieved its objective. Ed would, no doubt, have done things differently, but Ed was not here, and he, Alec Freeman was. He wondered how Rachel was faring with her pursuit of General Clifford Buckley.

Buckley, it had transpired, had been alerted to his Liaison Officer’s arrest by one of Packard’s security team, and had promptly made a bolt for freedom. He had been apprehended on his arrival in New Yorkand was currently heading back to England under arrest and escorted by SHADO security. More time wasted, while Ed waited to be rescued. He had been missing for over four days now. How long could he survive?

****************************************

The scant supply of water had nearly all gone now, although he had tried to ration it. He coughed painfully and wrapped his hands around his chest, trying to hold his ribs so that the coughing would not burn quite so badly. He had no idea how much time had elapsed since he had been brought here, days and nights had gotten confused in his mind. He was desperately hungry and cold, and the shackle on his wrist had rubbed to the bone, despite his attempts to wrap a piece of cloth around it. The pain sharp and relentless.

Straker sat in the darkness and feverishly reconsidered all his options, shuffling them in his mind to see if he had missed anything that would help him get out of here.

Zero.

************************************

The SHADO transport plane landed at the private airfield and they dragged their prisoner to Colonel Philips waiting in a nondescript van. She was desperate to begin questioning the traitor immediately, but Alec Freeman had specifically ordered her to bring Buckley to HQ where Dr Jackson was waiting.

Buckley, handcuffed and blindfolded, shaking with fear, was sweating profusely even before Dr Jackson entered his cell. The questioning began at once.

Alec paced the office, waiting for news. Unable to concentrate, unable to think, unable to do more that hope that Jackson could break Buckley and get the information Freeman so desperately needed.

Buckley held fast.

************************************

He was thirsty, very thirsty. And cold. He couldn’t remember the last time he had been warm or had had something to drink. His parched lips were cracked, and he could taste the salt sting of blood. It was increasingly difficult to get his breath, and he could hear fluid crackling deep in his lungs. He tried to bring to mind the faces of his friends, but his memory betrayed him and he was unable to picture them. It had been a long time since he had heard the sound of a voice; any voice, even an unfriendly one. He had been deserted.

************************************

Jacksonpulled the syringe out of Buckley’s vein. ‘Well, General, you have had your chance to volunteer the information we need, but you are stubborn. Very stubborn.’Jackson’s voice was almost hypnotic with its quiet, whispered monotone. ‘No matter. You will soon begin to feel very drowsy, very drowsy indeed, and you will want to sleep. Oh, you will want to sleep. But you will be unable to rest, unable to sleep. You will feel a slight itch begin, so small, so very small at first, somewhere on your skin. It will spread, gradually, inexorably, until your whole body is crawling with unbearable, intolerable itching; as if your skin is alive with tiny little creatures. Can you feel it beginning, General? I can stop it. Just tell me where Commander Straker is being held and I will stop it. Just tell me, and it will all stop and you will be able to sleep.’

Alec watched, mesmerised and horrified byJackson’s implacably cold and calculating manner. But if this was what it took to get information, then Colonel Freeman, SHADO executive officer, approved wholeheartedly.

Buckley lasted longer than either man thought possible. But everyone has a breaking point. Even Generals and Commanders-in-Chief.

**********************************************

He remembered the day his son died. Every time he closed his eyes he was back there, in the hospital, waiting. He had tried to save John, but it had been futile. Everyone knew that Death was invincible. Death was coming for him, now. He struggled to escape, fighting vainly to free himself from the chain tying him to this prison.

******************************************

Buckley had, finally, admitted to ordering three of his operatives to kill the protection detail and apprehend Straker, but was unable to give any more information. He had not seen or heard from the three kidnappers since the event, and he assumed that they had gone to ground, possibly even abroad. Eventually, after further persuasion from Dr Jackson, he remembered two particular places that Packard had been known to frequent for his meetings with the aliens.

It was better than nothing. Alec and Rachel decided to attack both sites concurrently, using two security teams, in the hope that one team would be successful. It would take Rachel nearly four hours to get into position for her assault, time that Alec would have to spare. He would be in place at least two hours before Rachel’s team. Two long hours, waiting, wondering, hoping.

*****************************************

Curled up on the chill, flagged floor, he waited, no longer afraid, no longer trying to evade Death’s embrace. Death would reunite him with John, would free him from this now intolerable existence. He thought regretfully of Rachel, but there was nothing else he could do. Alec would be fine without him, SHADO would find a replacement for their Commander, and life would go on for them. But not for him.

And, finally, he was at ease. He had endured enough, had given enough, and it was time to let it all end.

He surrendered himself to his fate and waited, peacefully and calmly prepared.

*****************************************

The SHADO vehicles moved swiftly into position, facing the mill entrance and waited. The building, massive in its brick built construction, had been disused for decades, its chimneys demolished years ago, its windows smashed by feral delinquents. The area surrounding the structure was as derelict, weeds growing between the flagstones, broken fences and tangles of barbed wire indicating its slow demise.

‘Freeman to all units. Ready to move on my mark.’ He checked the status of the group. Satisfied by their responses he ordered them to begin their search.

‘We don’t know who is in there, if anyone. Be vigilant and take all necessary precautions. Contact me as soon as you find anything.’ he instructed, as he moved cautiously towards the entrance.

Keeping under cover, the team slipped from point to point, advancing on the building in stages. It took time, too much time, Alec thought to himself. But this was the only other lead they had. Damn Packard and Buckley and their cronies. Alec was determined that if anything had happened to Ed, then Packard would face a firing squad; trial or no trial. In fact Alec would pull the trigger himself, willingly.

He reached the safety zone of the mill entrance, and eased himself into the building, gun ready and senses alert for any sign of danger. He indicated to the teams that they should proceed up the wide metal stairways at one end of the building to search the upper levels. The ground floor was one huge open expanse of workspace, with rusting and derelict machinery haphazardly positioned on the concreted floor. There was neither sight nor sound of anyone, alive or dead.

He watched as the others climbed the rusting steps, careful to avoid noises that might alert the enemy. It was difficult to know what to do for the best. Should he stay down here and direct operations? He was so tempted to run through the giant, empty building, shouting out for Ed, but he knew that his strengths lay in overseeing the operation as a whole. He stood, his back protected by a flaking steel pillar and waited.

Lt Green approached him, her medical bag on her shoulders. ‘Sir,’ her voice was hesitant, ‘just come over here will you?’ Freeman followed her to an area that appeared to have been used as an office. One corner of the building had been partitioned off. It had a wooden floor, not a solid stone flagged floor as elsewhere. And, there, partially hidden behind an abandoned cupboard which seemed to have been dragged across the floor, a door, secured with rusting bolts.

Alec Freeman turned to Suzanne Green, a look of hope on his face.

Colonel Philips knew in her heart that it was a forlorn hope. The second location that Buckley had given them had turned out to be the site of a disused 1960’s warehouse, a steel carcass with corrugated walls and roof. The recent storms had finally removed what little had remained of the roof, and debris was scattered everywhere. The site felt wrong, felt too recent and light to fit in with the image that she had of Straker in a dark room with the rough whitewashed walls. No, she was more or less convinced that he wouldn’t be here, but she knew that she had to check anyway. She organised the search teams, sure that they would be unsuccessful, hoping that Alec and Suzanne were going to be more fortunate.

Freeman kicked open the basement door. The space was gloomy, and he could not find a light switch. Lt Green, one step behind, handed him a torch. Carefully he stepped down damp, slimy steps, one hand pressed against the wall for stability. There was no rail on the edge of the stairs, which were crumbling and uneven. It had been nearly six days now. He was terrified what he might find.

At first he could hear nothing, then punctuating the silence, faint shallow breaths, fast and uneven.

He reached the last step and flashed the beam around the room. In the corner. Huddled tightly, curled up, arms round his chest, head down, gaunt and filthy. Straker, rasping breaths in the chill, damp air, a manacle and chain on one wrist securing him to the wall. Freeman halted, shocked beyond movement, and then fell on his knees beside his commanding officer.

With infinite gentleness he held his friend, arms supporting the shaking body. Lt Green unstrapped her medic pack and wrapped a thermal blanket around her Commander. Freeman stared uncomprehendingly at Green.

‘Get the team down here.’ he pleaded, caressing Straker’s head as he continued to hold him. ‘How soon can we get him out? Ed, it’s Alec. Can you hear me? You’re safe now. Everything’s going to be alright.’ he continued to murmur, gently rocking the man lying oblivious in his arms, as if holding a helpless child.

The blonde head shifted slightly and Straker opened eyes clouded with distress. Barely audible words, voiced by bloody, cracked lips, fell into the echoing cellar. Freeman held back his tears as Straker, fighting to get air, looked up and made a despairing plea to his long-time friend. Each whispered word punctuated by a frantic struggle to breathe.

‘Alec….. No doctors……No hospital. Please…….not afraid any more……… Just stay here….. With me……Tell Rachel, sorry.’ He lay still; eyes closed, body limp and unresisting as Freeman continued to hold him tightly, refusing to let anyone hold him. Lt Green moved closer, reaching out despite Freeman’s objections, to feel for a pulse. She looked up at the Colonel, her face taut with worry.

‘Colonel, if we don’t get him treated very soon he might not make it. It’s going to be touch and go as it is.

‘Ed, dear God, no.’ Alec Freeman, holding his friend’s head pressed against his chest, was deaf to her pleas.

‘Colonel, please. Let me have him.’ She reached out to the stricken man, kneeling on the stone-flagged floor. Freeman’s anguished expression betrayed his uncertainty.

‘Suzanne, what should I do? He doesn’t want treatment. I can’t let that happen. For God’s sake help him, please. I’ll take full responsibility, just do something.’ His voice was determined and assured and terrified.

She turned to her team. ‘Peters,Davis, get the rest of the medical team down here right away. Hurry gentlemen, time is of the essence.’

Short minutes later, the hastily assembled team of medics were busy working. Suzanne Green, bent over Straker, had started intravenous drips; with anti-biotics for what she suspected was pneumonia. All the medical teams carried a range of broad-spectrum drugs to treat infections, and were aware of Straker’s allergies. He had been unconsciousness since his entreaty that he should be allowed to die.

Lt Green fervently hoped that Commander Straker survived. If he did however, then she doubted that he would ever forgive her. In fact she could be facing a court-martial. It would be worth it though. She bent to help carry the stretcher; they were only 20 minutes from Mayland and she prayed that they would get to its Level 1 Trauma Centre in time.

Freeman watched as the hastily-called air ambulance lifted off, unable to be with his commander and friend on the journey. He prayed that, if Ed did not survive the journey that at least someone was holding him, cherishing him. He should have been there, should have insisted that the doctors let Ed die calmly, with composure and at peace with himself.

Wracked with guilt he called SHADO control and let them know what had happened. He couldn’t bear to speak to Rachel; it would have been far too difficult to explain to her what had happened, what he had done. Instead he asked Keith Ford to contact her and ask her to meet him at Mayland, as soon as she could get there.

Please God, he prayed to whatever gods might be listening, let Ed be okay. Whatever that might entail.

*****************************************

Alec Freeman sat on the grubby plastic chair outside the trauma unit. He had expended energy pacing up and down the bleak corridor, until he realised that he was achieving nothing except tiring himself out. There had been no news from inside the unit. He had watched anxiously as the swing doors opened and closed, as nurses and doctors and consultants came and went, too occupied with their immediate concern to spare time for idle chatting or even to tell him if Straker still lived.

He stood up, and tried to peer through the frosted glass of the door without success. He went back to his seat, uneasy, and tormented by his inability to help. The subdued night-lighting in the corridor made it difficult to see beyond the shadows, and it was only when the approaching figure was a few yards away that he recognised Rachel Philips, hurrying towards him, Paul Foster, newly returned from Moonbase, close behind.

‘Rachel, Paul, thanks for coming. I haven’t any news yet, still waiting. He’s been in trauma for nearly an hour now. It’s not looking good.’ Alec Freeman was outwardly calm as he gave them the news, but he was ashen with the strain of worry. ‘The Commander was in a pretty bad way when we found him. He ….’ Freeman realised that his face was damp with uncontrolled tears. ‘He… Ed… wanted to die. He told me that he didn’t want any doctors, he wanted it all to end.’ He was unable to continue.

Rachel stepped forward and wrapped her arms around him, holding his head firmly against her shoulder, as he wept, with unspoken grief and regret. Paul Foster watched, concerned, unable to really understand the nightmare that Colonel Freeman had experienced. Foster, an outstanding test pilot, excellent SHADO recruit and all round action hero, did not, for all his skills, have much experience of dealing with emotional issues. He stepped back, to give Alec a little privacy and at that moment the trauma unit doors opened and the team began to emerge, stripping off masks and gloves.

Freeman stepped forward, barring the way. ‘Is he…’ He couldn’t continue, his mouth dry with fear and dread.

Lt Green stepped to one side to talk to the waiting SHADO personnel. ‘He’s alive. That’s all we can say at the moment. We are doing the best we can, but the next forty-eight hours will be critical. We are moving him to ICU now. Give us about 30 minutes and you will be able to see him then. But please, don’t expect much. He doesn’t seem to be making any effort to live, and that’s not like him at all. We have him under sedation and on life support, and we’ll keep him like that for at least 72 hours.’

She touched Colonel Freeman sympathetically on the shoulder and then headed for ICU. Paul Foster stared after her, silent and shocked.

‘Paul, can you head back to HQ and keep things going there for the next 12 hours or so?’ Freeman had no intention of leaving Ed’s side unless exhaustion or alien incursions forced him to take a break. ‘Rachel, you’ll want to stay?’ he asked her, knowing that she would wait with him until they knew what was going to happen. If Straker woke up, Alec wanted someone else with him, haunted as he was by the memory of Ed yearning for the end.

Some five hours later, Colonel Freeman was still sitting, Rachel next to him, in ICU as he seemed to have done so many times before. There was no change and they were both weary to the bone. But there was nothing to do but sit, drink coffee and try to fill in the empty hours with random, meaningless snippets of conversation.

Eventually, worn out and emotionally drained, they were persuaded to leave and get some rest. It was a futile exercise sitting by the bedside, unable to doze because of the constant background noises of monitors and alarms. They would be better off coming back later, when he was due to come off the respirator and the medication that was keeping him in an induced coma. It felt traitorous walking out of the ICU, but Freeman was outwardly pragmatic.

‘It’s silly tiring ourselves out now, when he will need us later. Go back to base Rachel and get some rest.’ he defended his actions. But even so, a couple of hours later in his own bed, he found it hard, very hard to sleep. The three days were going to be difficult, until Ed woke up.

******************************************

Each breath hurt. That was the first sensation. Followed by the realisation that he was alive, still. He was aware of the beeps and humming sounds from machines and the quiet voices of nurses. It was difficult to move his eyelids but eventually he managed to prise them open just a crack. The ICU. He had been here before. He recognised the bland, colourless walls, the ceiling with its water-stained tiles. Dear God no. Please no. Why had they done this to him?

Rage grew within him, all consuming rage. They had betrayed him, had dragged him back to this miserable existence without any thought for what he had been through. Furious with irrational anger he struggled weakly to sit up and instantly Rachel was awake and leaning over him.

‘Ed. Ed, it’s Rachel, everything is all right, and you are safe now.’

No, go away. Leave me. Please; leave me. You should have left me.’

‘Ed. What’s the matter? Do you want me to get Alec? He’s just talking to Suzanne’

‘No, no-one. I don’t want to see anyone. I don’t want you here or Alec. I don’t want anyone. Go. Don’t come back.’

‘Ed… .’

‘I mean it. Get out of here.’ the stark anger in his voice scared her and she hurried from the room, calling for the doctor.

*********************************

Straker lay motionless, staring up at the blotched ceiling, ignoring the medical staff in the room. For nearly two weeks now he had refused to speak to anyone, refused to react to any questions or treatment. He lay as if dead, unresponsive and uncaring. Even Alec Freeman had been unable to get him to talk. It was only when the staff left him alone that he curled up and fell asleep, each time to nightmares from which he woke terrified and distressed. He had not uttered a sound, not spoken a word, since sending Colonel Philips from his room, and Alec Freeman was getting desperate. He could think of only one place that could now help his friend.

**************************************

In its previous existence the SHADO Medical Facility, based outsideCambridge, had been an Edwardian mansion. Now, however, it housed one of SHADO’s medical research teams, as well as having a separate purpose as a Recovery Unit for injured operatives. It was an amalgam of different building styles, from the original Edwardian up to modern glass and concrete, and had a somewhat haphazard, disorganised appearance. Despite its architectural faults, though it was recognised to be a first-rate centre for the treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

It was early in the morning, a bright, promising morning, when the convoy of three black nondescript saloon cars, drove swiftly into the driveway of the Facility and pulled up in tandem outside the Main Entrance. Rear doors opened, almost before the vehicles had come to a standstill and two agents each stepped out from the lead and chase cars, and approached the central vehicle.

They waited, jackets open, hands held loosely by their sides, until the driver switched off the engine and got out. He walked to the rear passenger door and released the security lock. The door swung open and the four security agents took up their positions.

Hesitantly, falteringly, squinting against the glare of the bright sun, Ed Straker stepped out of the vehicle and stood, looking unsure and bewildered in the centre of the group. His driver collected luggage from the boot and the small band, Straker in the centre, headed inside. In his favoured dark suit and white shirt, his slight frame, made even more slender by his recent trials, looked frail against the heavy-set bodyguards who ushered him swiftly into the building.

Once inside he looked around, as if remembering previous times he had been here. They were expecting him of course, and were prepared; he had been assigned a large ground floor suite of secure, pleasant rooms overlooking the lake. His agents, moving assuredly towards the designated room halted suddenly when he spoke. The first words he had spoken for days.

‘No. Room 7. Or I am not staying.’ He was quiet but determined, his clear American accent unwavering.

Confused and uncertain, the guards clustered around him in an attempt to make him change his mind. Straker, surrounded by them, pressed into the corner, his arms wrapped around himself in as if to protect himself from their intrusion into his personal space. A hand reached out and took his arm as if to lead him away. He stood motionless for a long second, then there was a blur of movement as he twisted out of the grip and pitched the man aside with a surprising show of strength.

‘Don’t ever, ever, touch me.’ he hissed vehemently. ‘Now, Room 7, or do I leave now?’ They were the last words he was to speak for the next nine days.

Later, safely transferred to his chosen quarters, he sat in the high-winged chair, his back to the ever-present, ever vigilant agents, and looked out of the window at a distant copse of trees. He had refused to speak after the incident and had returned to his previous indifference despite all attempts to engage him. The rumours spread – Commander Straker was comatose, was paranoid, was suffering from hallucinations. What was not rumoured, and was in fact the truth, was that he was under twenty four hour suicide watch, forbidden to have access to anything with which he could harm himself.

They watched him hour after hour, as he remained withdrawn, uncommunicative; only moving when necessary, to sleep, to eat, to comply with the doctors’ requests for treatment or physiotherapy. Colourless and drawn, his thick dressing gown white against his ashen face, he stared out of the window, unseeing and silent. Freeman, coming by helicopter each and every day, was unable to see him. Straker became almost fearful when told that Alec was in the building, and eventually the doctors simply stopped mentioning Colonel Freeman. Alec continued to visit each day, spending his time walking in the grounds, hoping that Ed would see him and maybe, just maybe respond. It was a forlorn hope, however.

Ed Straker, closely guarded, medicated and drugged to make him sleep, sat in the chair, watching, waiting for an opportunity to end the desolation that enveloped him with such blackness.

He sat, patient, uncomplaining, thinking, recalling.

Planning.

The days passed, each the same. The monotonous constancy of the long hours, the inconsolable isolation and fear of the future, the remembered horror and pain. And then, one evening, some nine days later, he had his chance. And took it.

******************

Elizabeth Anderson, Lieutenant in SHADO Security, currently assigned to provide additional security for the SHADO Commander, knocked on Straker’s door. There was no answer. She tried again with the same result. His protection detail should have answered by now. Worried, she used her pass key to unlock the door, opening it slightly. ‘Lt Anderson here. Just making sure that everything’s ok. You missed your 2 am check in.’’

There was still no response. She pushed the door fully and went in. She took everything in, in one single glance. The two agents, both deeply, unnaturally, asleep on the wide sofa, empty coffee cups on the table in front of them. The bed, sheets crumpled and pushed back, his charcoal-grey jacket, neatly hanging in the alcove, the empty place where his shoulder holster had been stored, the gaping doorway, black against the whiteness of the walls where the hidden passageway had opened, giving Straker the opportunity to evade his comatose guards and get outside, unprotected and unwatched. She guessed that he had stockpiled his sleeping tablets and managed to drug the guards before making his escape.

‘Damn him.’ She swore to herself. Straker had helped design this building and must have planned the siting of the various emergency escape routes, just as he had organised the secret tunnels from SHADO HQ. No wonder he had insisted on having this room. And now he was by himself, outside, unprotected, unguarded, in the middle of the night. She was well aware of his mental condition and her immediate concern was whether he might have taken a weapon with him. She made a brief, perfunctory search, but to no avail. Both sleeping guards still had their firearms secured in shoulder holsters. She was wasting precious time.

It was difficult to know what to do for the best. Should she initiate a full search or simply go outside and look for him by herself? Her training told her to alert the whole unit for a complete pursuit, but, training aside, she couldn’t bring herself to put him through more distress; besides which, after keeping watch over him for some considerable time these last days, she had a pretty good idea of where he was.

She closed the door and locked it, checked her firearm, slipped on her parka, and went out, picking up another cold-weather coat as she did so. The night was cloudless, and she could see myriad stars glinting across the sky. Quietly, cautiously, she made her way to the copse of trees on the top of the low ridge in the distance.

By the time she reached them she was beginning to feel the chill of the night, despite her heavy parka. She radioed control and curtly informed them what had happened, that she was looking for the Commander and would notify them when she found him. It was too late now for security to launch a mass search, especially for someone who was determined not to be found, at least not alive.

The path to the copse was rarely used by residents at the Recovery Unit and its once-gravel surface was overgrown with tall grass and weeds. Her footsteps made little noise apart from the occasional rustle of long nettles. She pulled her Beretta 92 out of her holster as she came into the darker night shadow of the trees.

‘Commander Straker. Lt Anderson here. Are you armed sir?’ she couldn’t see him, but she was sure that he would be here. After the silence of the past days she was not expecting any reply and his voice startled her.

‘Hello Elizabeth, no; I’m not carrying. I’m not dangerous; at least I like to think so.’ His voice, resigned and weary, came from behind her. She turned. He was there, sitting on the ground, leaning back against an oak tree on the edge of the grove, his hands clasping his knees. Dressed in dark jeans, sweatshirt and leather jacket, it was no surprise that she had not seen him. Only his fair hair was visible, catching glints of silver moonlight. His short beard, thick and sealskin soft, looked unexpected on a man usually so meticulous about his appearance.

‘May I sit down?’ she did not approach him, but waited for his answer.

‘I don’t suppose I can stop you, can I,’ he answered ruefully. ‘When are the rest of the team arriving to take me back?’ He sounded worn out and exhausted beyond belief, a man who had reached the end of his endurance and simply wanted to be left alone.

She moved closer and eased herself onto the bare soil near to him. The ground was dry, which was a bonus, and free from undergrowth. ‘I’m afraid I’m ‘it’ sir. There’s no one else coming out; unless of course you really want a full search party?’ her tone was light and jovial and he looked at her with renewed respect and appreciation.

‘So why are you here?’

‘I was worried about you.’

‘There’s no need to worry about me. I’m fine, although there are those who would disagree. I just wanted some freedom, that’s all. Have you ever been under 24 hour watch, let alone suicide watch, Lieutenant?’

She had the good grace to remain silent; after all she was on the team that was responsible for organising the intensive surveillance.

‘There is always someone there, watching, waiting for me to make a move, checking everything I do, everything I take. Even when I sleep they are there. I wake up from my nightmares and I can see them, watching me. I can’t relax, I can’t let go. I just wanted to see the stars, to look at the moon, to be able to track the Space Station across the night sky, without having someone checking that I wasn’t about to blow my brains out.’

‘Are you likely to blow your brains out?’

‘Not tonight, unfortunately; I haven’t got my gun. I haven’t had it since I was taken. They don’t think I can be trusted with one. They are right as usual.’

Do you want to talk about it, Commander?’

‘What is there to talk about?’ He leaned back against the tree, his haggard face catching the silver light reflected from the moon. ‘I was ready for death; in fact I welcomed it with open arms. For more years than I can remember I have striven to stay alive even in situations where it all seemed hopeless. When I was a prisoner of war inIraqI desperately wanted to live, even though every moment was torture.’

He paused, remembering the horror.

‘This time I realised that wasn’t frightened by death, I wanted it. I knew it was coming and I just wanted it all to end. I knew that I just wanted to be with my son again. And just when I thought it was all over, when I could finally rest and leave it all behind; all the hurt and the loss and the empty years; just as I had fully accepted it, I get dragged back to face this almost unbearable existence. And I know it will all happen again and again. No, there’s nothing to talk about.’ His voice broke with the strain of talking.

She could see his eyes glinting with unshed tears.

He rested his head on his knees for a moment, as if in prayer. ‘The worst part is that I know they were right. Alec, Rachel, Lt Green. I would have done the same if I had been in their place. And now I am here, and there is nothing. I have pushed them away; my friends, and there is no going back. I am alone and bereft, and I can see only one way out.’ He took a deep shuddering breath and turned to her. ‘Does that shock you?’

‘Commander, I have two failed marriages behind me and I worked for more than twenty years as an officer in MI6. There is very little that you can say that will shock me.’ She smiled at him. ‘We have all evening, the stars are out and I can see Mars over there. Why don’t we sit here and enjoy the peace and quiet. I just need to let them know that I have found you, so they won’t worry.’ She radioed in, her report brief and non-committal. ‘There, now we will be left undisturbed. Security thinks I am guarding you, and in a way I am. Are you cold? I have a spare coat here I thought you might appreciate.’ she passed it over to him and he shrugged into it, comforted by its warmth over his short leather jacket. It was too large for him and the sleeves hung over his slender hands. He pulled them down further to warm his fingers and turned up the collar of the coat as if trying to hide from view.

‘Did you worry that I might die of hypothermia? I don’t think it’s cold enough for that, but thank you anyway. What do you expect from me now?’

You can talk to me if you want to, but I don’t mind if you don’t. Just let me stay here so I can make sure you’re safe.

‘From what? Aliens landing in the gardens, Dr Jackson with his theories about my mental state. Or perhaps more security agents leaping from the bushes. I’m sorry,’ he apologised to her. ‘that was rude of me. I don’t mind if you stay, but I should warn you I’m not very good company at the moment.’

‘That’s alright, I don’t mind sitting in silence, but would you mind if I moved a bit closer. There’s a particularly knotty root digging into my back and at my age I like to be comfortable when I am sitting on the ground.’ She shifted her position without waiting for his reply. ‘Do you know Commander, I have a son almost your age; he’ll be thirty six this year. He’s my eldest. I don’t see nearly enough of him and I miss him dreadfully.’

He realised that she was now almost next to him, practically touching him; he could hear her breathing, smell the perfume she used. Without intending to, he relaxed, his hands unclenched and he could feel himself calming down. She had a soothing presence. Perhaps it was the fact that she was so much older. If he recalled correctly, she was nearly sixty, a motherly figure, excellent at her job of shadowing and protecting vulnerable assets. He wondered who had assigned her to follow him.

‘I wish it could all stop, here, tonight. Out here, under the stars. An end to everything. For my life to just stop in the space between one heartbeat and the next. A gentle, quiet death with no fuss. Not to have to worry about what is going to happen next, not to have to live with the emptiness and silence. To be at peace at last after so much isolation and loneliness. To see my son again.’

‘Is that what you really want Ed?’

‘I think so. It’s just that I am so tired, tired of being hurt, physically and mentally, of being constantly under threat. We know there are humans collaborating with the aliens, we have apprehended alien clones inside our organisation and I suspect that there are now aliens living on Earth, hiding among us, ready to attack. What I don’t understand is why I was the target once more. I can’t go through that again,Elizabeth. I don’t think I have the strength. Or the courage. I just know that it’s too late to turn back. I’ve gone too far now.’

‘What do you mean, gone too far?’

‘Do you really think I can go back? Go back to SHADO after what I have done to Alec, to Rachel, to everyone? Could you go back? It was hard enough before, even knowing that they were there, believing in me, and trusting me to make the right decisions. What would it be like for me without them, seeing them every day, and knowing they despised me for the way I treated them. If Alec had not found me until later, none of this would probably ever have happened.’

‘But Alec did find you. And now you have to find a way back, or a way forward.’

He turned to her, a stranger intruding in his private hell. ‘A way forward? I can only see one way forward and unless you are willing to lend me your firearm for a while, there is not much chance that I will be able to achieve even that.’ His voice harsh with misery.

Her smile was hidden in the moonlight-dappled shadow of the overhanging trees. ‘I agree, so perhaps you should consider your options.’

‘Oh yes.’ he said bitterly, his mouth tight behind his unfamiliar beard. ‘My options; don’t think I haven’t considered those. One, resign and spend the rest of my life a mindless imbecile. I know what the required dose of amnesia drug would do to my mind. Two, go back to SHADO and continue as if nothing had happened; carry on doing my duty, friendless and loveless. How long do you think Dr Jackson would give me before I actually cracked up? Three, pass command over to someone else. The only problem is that there is no-one else. Alec doesn’t want it, and admittedly he isn’t the ideal candidate; Foster is too ambitious and doesn’t have the capability and Colonel Lake hasn’t enough expertise, yet. No, unfortunately the job is mine, at least until I finally break. Which may not be too far off. Are you sure you won’t lend me your gun? It would only be for a moment or two?’ There was more than a touch of dry humour in his voice, but also an undercurrent of truth.

‘I think not. SHADO are very particular about staff lending their firearms to just anyone.’ she laughed. ‘Tell me, Ed, why do you think that if you went back to work you would finally break? Don’t you honestly think that you have already been broken?’

He stared at her, bewildered and appalled by her question.

‘What do you mean, broken?’

‘Well you are aren’t you? The aliens have got what they wanted, which is you; out of action and out of SHADO. If it results in your death then all the better for them. Seriously Ed, SHADO exists today only because you had the strength of character to get it up and running. It has been phenomenally successful; due mainly to your leadership. Don’t you see? The aliens are scared, not of SHADO, but of you. SHADO can’t function without you, Commander. If breaking you means that the aliens have won, then yes, you have been broken.’ she carried on, heedless of his body shaking silently. ‘All I can do is help you decide. Do you want to stay like this, broken and drifting, or would you rather find a way back, a way to beat them and live the rest of your life knowing that you have done your best, despite everything that they have thrown at you. It may not be the easy option, but then you never were someone who looked for the easy answers.’

There was no reply.

‘Ed…., Commander….? ‘

His voice was quiet and hesitant. ‘Can you help me? Find the way, I mean?’ He hunched up and tightened his grip around his knees. She wanted to hold him, like she used to hold her sons when they were younger.

‘You don’t need my help, Ed. You know the answers already. All you have to do is to trust in yourself and your friends.’

‘Meaning what, exactly?’

‘Commander, for all your intelligence and analytical expertise you really are quite blind to the facts sometimes.’ She mocked him gently, with affection.

‘Being rude to your commanding officer, Lt Anderson? That’s not the way to get promotion you know.’ His reply was as mild and teasing.

‘Ed, don’t you realise that Alec Freeman has been here every day since you arrived, despite you refusing to see him. Colonel Philips spent hours on duty outside your hospital room each night, guarding you, without your knowledge. Do you actually think they would turn down any opportunity to help you? All you have to do is ask them. It’s easy to find the way back, Ed. It takes just one step. You are on the very edge of a precipice; all you have to do is to make sure you don’t take one more step forward, just a step back. Your friends are there, waiting. They have been waiting all this time.’ She reached over and, finally, held him, tightly, safely, as a mother comforts her crying child.

He leaned into her, his head against her shoulder, her arms around him; and gradually his breathing eased. She continued to hold him closely, until she was sure that he was finally calm, and hopefully reconciled to whatever the future held for him.

She looked down at him; eyes closed peacefully, blond eyelashes still damp, and stroked his hair as she had done so often with her sleeping sons. ‘Ed Straker,’ she whispered softly, sadly, ‘you’re at the very gates of Hell itself. I hope you can come back. For everyone’s sake.’ She smiled sadly and prepared for a long night.

**********************************************

She awoke, stiff and uncomfortable but aware that she was alone. It was still dark and, looking at the stars she estimated that she had been asleep for no longer than ninety minutes. Straker had gone, and more than that, had taken her Beretta with him. It was too late to panic; too late to do more than head back to the Centre and confess that she had messed up. It was surprising that the sound of a single shot had not woken her; she must have been more tired than she had thought. She hoped that she would not find him on the path, that he had gone somewhere else, somewhere quiet and peaceful. She said a silent prayer for his tormented soul.

Ed Straker woke from a dreamless, natural, nightmare-free sleep. He was cold and he could feel someone’s arms around him, then memory came flooding back. He breathed deeply, inhaling the fragrant night air, revelling in the silence and calm. He could have stayed there forever, held in the gentle embrace of a woman old enough to be his mother. He grinned to himself. Alec would have a field day if he was ever to find out.

He stretched carefully, easing the kinks out of his spine, and slipped out from Elizabeth’s arms to stand up, determined and focussed. He knew what he had to do now. Very, very carefully he reached out and pulled the Beretta from her holster, hefting it in his right hand to get accustomed to its weight. Then, with one last look down at the sleeping woman, he strode back along the path to the main building.

He entered the building as easily as he had left it. The passageway, although thick with dust through lack of use, had not been discovered by anyone else, and he was soon back in his room, the two sleeping agents just as he left them. Moving as quietly as possible, he wrote a short note, placed it on the table, then, just as carefully, slipped back into the passageway to make his way to freedom, leaving everything behind him.

It was a relatively simple job to get one of the SHADO cars out of the garage; after all, as SHADO Commander-in-Chief he had all the master access codes, and then just as simple to find the necessary keys, start the engine and leave. The only tricky part was getting through security at the gate, but, as with so many security guards, they were more concerned with incoming traffic rather than checking the driver of every vehicle leaving. He simply high-beamed the headlights to dazzle the guard, waved his ID card quickly and he was through and heading for the quickest route back to HQ.

For the second time that night Lt Anderson approached Room 7 but this time she did not hesitate. Unlocking the door she went in, dreading what she might find. All was as it was before, except that the parka he had been wearing was on the bed and there was a handwritten note on the table in his distinctive elegant script.

‘Elizabeth, thank you for the loan. I will let you have it back when I replace my Glock. A Beretta is okay, but each to his own firearm as they say. Just a warning from a senior officer; make sure your gun is secured in its holster! I am heading back to HQ now to try to put right the mess I have made. Please don’t contact security until the morning; I would like a chance to sort this out without anyone else interfering. Ed.’

She smiled with relief and gratitude, and sat down to wait for sunrise.

Straker drove through the remains of the night, stopping only once for a coffee when tiredness threatened to dull his reflexes. His mind was clear, he knew what he had to do and there was no point in delaying the moment. Dawn was breaking as he arrived at his destination. A new day, a new beginning, a chance to start again.

He parked, walked up to the large door of the old Victorian building and then, overcome with sudden panic, nearly lost his nerve. Pausing apprehensively to tug his jacket straight, he took a breath and pressed the intercom button. He looked at his watch; it was just coming up to half six. Alec should be getting ready to go to HQ.

There was a moment of silence, and he could have walked away, but he stayed. ‘Just one step.’ he muttered to himself.

‘Freeman’ a disgruntled voice crackled through the intercom grille.

Straker, heart pounding, stepped closer. He swallowed nervously, ‘Alec, I know it’s early but could I come in and have a coffee.’ His voice was hesitant, diffident, unsure. He waited. Hoping, but not hopeful. There was silence.

He turned away, forlorn. For one eternally long second he envisaged his future, desolate and alone. Then he paused at the sound of footsteps pounding down the wide, curving stairway inside. The door wrenched open and he was enveloped in a hold that nearly crushed him. A grip that eradicated all his doubts and fears, from a man who he had thought would never want to see him or speak to him again.

Slowly, tentatively, he wrapped his arms around Alec and stood, motionless, unable to speak for the rush of thankfulness that overtook him.

‘Ed. Thank God you’re alright. Come in.’ It was as if nothing had happened, as if he, Straker, had simply been away for a few weeks, and had not spent those weeks rejecting any attempt by his friends to help him. Freeman, leading the way, turned once to be sure that Straker was following, and took him into his apartment.

‘Sit down, you look shattered. I’ll get the coffee on. Have you had anything to eat?’ Freeman headed for the kitchen, while Straker stood motionless, still overwhelmed by the welcome he had received.

‘Alec I need to explain…’ he started, but was prevented from speaking further.

‘Ed, take your jacket off and sit down, before you fall down. There will be time enough for explanations later. It’s just so good to have you here. We have missed you, all of us. Rachel has been driving me mad these past days, worrying about you.’

‘Please give me a chance Alec. I need to apologise…’

‘No. No you don’t. Apologise? For what? Ed, we can’t possibly understand what you went through, but we do know that you would never hurt any of us. Ever. There is nothing, nothing, to be sorry for.’

‘I drove you away, refused to see anyone…..’

‘And I never did that to you? Come on, Ed. I walked out on you more times than I can remember, handed you my resignation at least twice.’

‘That was different.’

‘Here, drink your coffee. And shut up. I don’t want to talk about this again. Ever, do you understand? As far as I am concerned it’s over. Just come back. Lord knows we need you; I need you.’

‘I don’t know whether I have the courage Alec. When you found me, I had given up and ………….’

‘Enough. Don’t say anything else Ed. Courage is facing death and not being afraid. It’s being able to carry on, day after day knowing that the next attack might well be aimed at you. Courage? You have it in spades.’ Freeman sat next to his friend and placed his strong hands on Straker’s slender shoulders. ‘Ed, you are here now. That’s all that matters.’

There was silence. Straker held his coffee mug tightly in trembling hands, knuckles white in his pale skin. He looked up; gazing into the distance, focussing on some far away point, then shook his head as if to clear it and smiled uncertainly at his friend.

‘I was looking for a way to end it all last night Alec. I had managed to get away from my guards, and I was hoping that one of them would find me. I intended taking their gun and ……………’ he couldn’t carry on.

‘What stopped you?’

‘Elizabeth Anderson. Unfortunately for me, she was the one who turned up. She didn’t try to take me back. She just sat and listened. She has a son nearly as old as I am. I couldn’t let her take the blame for my suicide.’ he said quietly, and smiled as he told Alec about the conversation he and Elizabeth had had, and about its conclusion.

‘What do I do next, Alec? Where do I go from here?’

‘That’s easy, Ed. You need to see Rachel and spend time with her. She has missed you desperately you know. How serious is it between you two anyway?’

‘I don’t know now. I hope she will forgive me, but, now I’m prepared for the fact that she might not. I had thought ………’ his voice trailed away as he recalled how he had spoken to her in the ICU.

‘Look Ed, let’s have some breakfast and then I’ll drive us to the studio. By the way, how did you get here? I was under the impression the Security goons had you under close arrest or something.’

‘Or something exactly.’ Straker replied, with a quiet laugh, ‘I’m afraid I left two of them sleeping like babies and I appropriated a car from the garage. They are probably frantically searching for me right now.’

‘Okay then, let’s inform Elizabeth that you’re okay and then we’ll have breakfast, otherwise they’ll be down here dragging you back to the delights of the Recovery Unit. You don’t want to go back there do you?’

Straker looked at him, and Alec could see, reflected in his eyes, some miniscule fraction of the horrors he had endured during the interminable days spent at the SHADO unit.

‘No, of course you don’t.’ Freeman answered himself.

He got up to make the call and Straker leaned back in the deep leather sofa. He was tired, bone tired, but there was also a contentment and calmness that he had not felt for a long time. Everything would be alright now. He closed his eyes briefly, listening as Alec relayed the news to Lt Anderson. It was difficult to stay awake; the stress of the past hours had tired him more than he could have believed, and he slipped, without realising it, into sleep.

He awoke gradually, slowly becoming aware of the sounds around him; the rustle of a newspaper, a coffee percolator, and quiet music in the background. Warm and infinitely comfortable, he was curled up under a soft wool throw on Alec’s sofa. He felt refreshed and rested, for the first time in weeks.

He had dreamed about Rachel, about seeing her again, and, now awake, he knew with a certainty what he needed to do.

‘Morning.’ Alec Freeman, sitting opposite reading the paper, peered over the top of the broadsheet. ‘Feeling better? Ready for action?’

‘Give me a chance Alec; I could do with a wash and a shave. I really didn’t intend growing a beard, but it was about the only thing I had any control over. Besides which, they would only let me have an electric razor, which I absolutely loathe. Can I borrow your razor and try to make myself presentable? These clothes must look like I’ve worn them for days, but all my other suits are at HQ. Damn, I hate feeling scruffy.’

‘No problem. While you were asleep I asked Keith Ford to bring some of your stuff over on the pretence that you needed it at the Unit today. It’s all in the bedroom. Look, go and have a shower; you know where everything is.’ Alec volunteered, busying himself clearing away the detritus of the morning; coffee cups, newspapers and mail, while Straker headed for the bathroom.

Sometime later Colonel Alec Freeman, accompanied by a passenger wearing a charcoal grey suit, crisp white shirt and dark sunglasses, drove through the entrance of Harlington Straker Studios. He was waved through the security gate and parked his Saab in its allocated space.

‘I was going to take your parking spot, Ed.’ he told him, ‘but then Miss Ealand made me see the error of my ways.’

‘Ah yes, Miss Ealand. I wonder what she will have to say about all this. I hope she doesn’t get angry with me. Secretly I am terrified of the woman. Her super efficiency always makes me feel inadequate. I’m convinced that she harbours a hidden desire to take over my job.’ he commented wryly.

They walked briskly through to the reception area to his secretary’s office, then continued past an astonished Miss Ealand as if she did not exist, as if the past few weeks had never happened. Somehow it made it so much easier just to erase the memory of those long days, to act as if everything was normal. Perhaps that was the best thing to do. Alec knew what he intended doing today; in fact he had been positively enthusiastic.

‘You first, Commander.’ Alec smugly grinned, ‘hope they haven’t removed your name from the voice prints.’

‘If they have then I’ll just breach security and travel on your pass. It won’t be the first time I’ve faked my ID’ Straker replied half-jokingly as he sat behind his desk.

The room was comfortable in its familiarity. It was an instinctive act to pick up the cigarette box, flick up its lid with one smooth practised movement and say his name.

Identification Positive.

He tried to relax as the room moved down; taking him closer to whatever fate awaited him. The only thing he was certain of was that he would not give the aliens the satisfaction of beating him. The only thing that mattered now was not giving in, not breaking. Alec preceded him out of the room, into the corridor that led to the Staff Lounge. It was fairly busy at this time of the day, with the Alpha shift off duty and relaxing. Most of the sofas were occupied, and several members of staff were grouped around the small cinema system, watching the latest Harlington Straker Sci-fi block-buster, complete with popcorn and soft drinks.

‘Are you sure you want to do this Ed.? Alec Freeman enquired seriously, all pretence at levity gone. ‘I know how fanatical you are about your privacy, especially with regards to music.’

‘I honestly don’t know Alec. Let’s just say that it’s probably about time that I stopped being so obsessed with solitude and started to trust people a little more. In any case, if this doesn’t work what have I lost? Don’t answer that.’ as Freeman began to reply. ‘Look, this is going to take just about everything I have, so why don’t you go to Control and sort out things there. I’ll see you shortly. Maybe.’ Straker replied, apprehensively. ‘Depends on how things work out here. You know what to do don’t you?’

He walked across to the piano in the shadowy corner, unnoticed in his dark outfit, his steps quiet. Sitting down he stroked the keys with his slender fingers and a delicate susurration of sound echoed through the room as he tested the tuning with soft arpeggios and scales. Gradually, his body relaxed, and the tension in his shoulders and arms eased. It had been too long, far too long. Gently, softly he started to play; the first time he had ever played this piano. It had a rich, sonorous quality and he had a moment of regret that he had not played it before. The music began filling the space around him; the acoustics of the Lounge enriching and enhancing the sound.

Straker played effortlessly, perfectly, without a missed note or a wrong step, his supple fingers stretching across octaves with ease. He made no pretence of dramatic movements, or great crashing chords, but remained almost still, just his hands touching, caressing the smooth keys. The world around him faded into insignificance as he immersed himself in the music. Gradually, the gentle strains of the sonata spread out through the tranquillity of the building. In the Staff lounge, the DVD was muted, conversations ceased, allowing the music to dominate the room. The sound unfolded, flowing through the white, soulless corridors. Alec Freeman, in the main office, switched communications to transmit the music into the control room where Rachel Philips paused, mesmerised by the sound.

‘Rachel, you need to go to the Staff Lounge right now.’ Alec smiled encouragingly at her. ‘Hurry up, it’s important.’

Straker was too absorbed in the music to be aware that off-duty personnel were slowly coming into the room. He had missed this. Missed the intimacy of releasing emotions through music, missed the thrill of playing, the technical difficulties that had to be overcome, the mathematical intricacies involved in translating the written score into sound, but most of all he missed the sheer contentment that is to be had in creating something beautiful.

Rachel Philips stood in the doorway and looked at him. He was oblivious to her presence, but she knew beyond doubt that he was doing this for her. Slowly, carefully, so as not to cause a distraction, she walked towards him and stood behind, within touching distance. She was aware that both of them were the centre of attention. Well, he had chosen this course of action and she would support him, wherever it led.

The music swelled to a crescendo of anger and despair, and then gradually came to a gentle close, a soft finale that told of regret and sorrow, love and desire. At last his fingers stilled on the keys and he sat, elated and at peace with himself, breathing deeply, stretching fingers and loosening his wrists. He remained still, waiting, hoping. He didn’t dare look round the room.

A hand on his shoulder. He turned. She was there, waiting for him. He stood up and she stepped into the safe circle of his strong embrace, her face scarcely visible against his shoulder.

‘I have missed you so much.’ she whispered.

‘I am so sorry.’ his lips against her ear. ‘Can you possibly forgive me? Please?’

She reached up, her hands on either side of his face. ‘There is nothing to forgive.’ He bent down to meet her lips with his. His kiss was long and tender and she held him tightly, thrilled that he had returned to her. Standing together, centred in the Lounge, they had no thought for anyone else. It made no difference. The crew, quietly, amused and approving, had exited the room, and when Commander Straker and Colonel Philips looked around they were alone.

He took her hand and led her towards the nearest sofa, pulling her down beside him. He ran his fingers through her hair and kissed her fiercely, holding her with an intensity that took her breath away.

‘Rachel,’ he whispered, ‘do you think anyone noticed?’

And she burst out laughing, and leaned forward to kiss him again.

 

Copyright LtCdr. August 2009

This was only my second ‘foray’ into writing UFO stories. I was naive and  inexperienced, and it shows. Oh how it shows! The adverbs, the passive voice, the dreadful dialogue”!  The only good thing is that I don’t think Rachel comes across as a total ‘Mary Sue’. Straker does though, but there again he IS Ed Straker!

I was going to re-write this story, but then I would not be able to look back and see how much I have developed.

But also, I was very proud of these stories. And that, I hope,  is a good enough reason to keep them as they were written.

LtCdr Aug 2009/June 2012

 

One thought on “Rachel Chronicles 2: Surrendered

  1. It is a pleasure to see the more hidden side of Straker. It is a beautiful story. I certainly would not find fault with it. Personally I dont think adverbs and passive voice detract from this particular story at all. Sometimes writing in that way is a concious choice for some writers. It can convey things differently. It may not be for you in this piece but this is still a good read. Thankyou for writing it and posting it unchanged.

    It’s not the first time I have read it either. well worth reading again.

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