Rachel Chronicles 3: Redacted

October 2009

Thursday

The alarm sounded. A hand reached out, fingers groping until they found their target, then blessed silence.  The arm slunk back under the covers, pulling the pillow closer to the tousled head. A snort of inhaled  breath as the sleeper reluctantly emerged from the warmth and security of the bed.

The sheets were crumpled and irritatingly twisted around his legs. Alec grunted in annoyance and tried to extricate himself from the tangle, but he was unsuccessful. In the end he gave up. Opening his eyes he realised that he could see little beyond a blur. He rubbed his face, hands feeling the coarse bristles on his unshaven cheeks.

God, what time did he get to bed last night? He felt like death. He had to cut down on the alcohol.

Turning onto his side he leaned forward and stroked his fingers down the nape of her neck, then put his arms around her. He snuggled closer, murmuring in her ear and she giggled as his hand explored her warm softness.

The phone rang. Not just any phone. That phone; the one that he could not ignore.

‘Damn.’ He stretched out, pawing around until his fingers made contact. ‘What.’ he grumbled as a hand slid across his chest and fingernails dug into his skin.

‘Colonel Freeman, this is General Henderson’s office. The General would like to see you, alone, at oh nine  hundred hours at his office. Please confirm your attendance.’

Alec Freeman opened his eyes and tried to focus on his clock. Eight o’clock. There might be enough time, if he really hurried.

‘Tell the General I’ll be there.’ He put the phone down and sat up, rubbing his eyes in an attempt to get his eyes to focus. He stood up, tucking the sheets around his bed partner, now asleep again. Heading for the shower he pondered over the call. Why would Henderson want to see him? It was usually the big boss who got dragged across to the IAC building for interrogation. Alec Freeman had been to the offices about three times since SHADO began operations in 2005 and only on one of those times had he been by himself.

Of course, Ed had only just returned to SHADO HQ. Freeman had insisted that Ed should spend as much time as necessary recuperating, although he knew how unlikely it was that he would do anything as sensible as that.

It was more probable that Straker would throw himself into his work in an attempt to exorcise the demons that still haunted him. Alec Freeman, however, had other plans for his commanding officer. And his plans involved getting Colonel Rachel Philips to help organise Ed’s life amongst other things.

He hurried through his shower, dressed and managed to get a quick cup of coffee before going out to his car for the drive to the IAC headquarters. Perhaps Henderson just wanted a friendly chat.

As if.

Chapter 1

The dark grey Saab pulled into a parking space and remained there, stationary, engine idling, exhaust quietly humming. The driver turned to his passenger. ‘Okay. Here we are. What now?’ his voice, although quiet and curious had an undertone of slight annoyance to it.

‘Now we go inside and see this apartment.’ She turned to face him, her long dark hair framing an oval face with deep brown eyes and a generous wide mouth.

He grimaced as if reluctant to get out of the vehicle. ‘I’m not sure about this, Rachel. Base rooms are okay for now, really.’ He looked out over the quayside at the heaving, grey, sullen water that seemed to reflect his own feelings.

It was still early on a miserable morning, overcast and chilly, and the apartments, converted from old warehouses, looked somehow cold and unwelcoming. He disliked the thought of further upheaval, of having to deal with the complications that renting a place out here would involve.

‘Out. Now.’ Her voice was sharp and incisive. He turned quickly towards her, taken aback by the unexpected command. ‘You heard me. Switch off the engine, and get out. We are going to look at the penthouse whether you want to or not. There is no way you can go on living at HQ. I can’t stand it there and I can get out by myself anytime I want to. You, however, are stuck in your rooms unless you’re under heavy guard, and I am saying now that you are going to come with me to look round this apartment.’

He looked at her with an expression of resignation. ‘You enjoy ordering me about don’t you Colonel. Okay. Let’s go and see this wonderful penthouse that is going to solve all my problems. I know you and Alec won’t give me any peace until I do.’

Rachel hid a smile as she waited for the lift, the apartment keys in her hand. He stood beside her, unwilling to admit to his growing anxiety at having to use the lift, but also unwilling to disappoint her, after she had gone to the trouble of organising this viewing. The doors opened. He stepped in. Breathed deeply to try to dispel the slowly increasing panic. She didn’t seem to notice.

Commander Ed Straker, ex- astronaut, Military Intelligence officer and USAF Colonel, stared tensely at the confining walls as he waited for the lift to stop and the doors to slide open.

‘I hate lifts, even ones as large as  this.’ he confessed.  He found it hard to keep from clenching his fists in apprehension.

Rachel sighed.  ‘Well, if you really want to look at this apartment then the lift is the quickest way up. Come on Ed, it’s only for a moment or two; and here we are.’ she remarked, heaving a sigh of relief as the doors slid open almost before the lift had come to a halt. For one moment she almost regretted bringing him here. It had not occurred to her that he would struggle with his overriding claustrophobia in such a spacious lift. It seemed nearly as big as her own room in HQ. She put her hand out and reached for his, and to her relief he smiled squeezing her fingers gently in apology.

‘There are three apartments on this floor; the largest, the one we are looking at today, has great views. It’s also very convenient from the security aspect; in fact I think the smaller one  next door to it would make a suitable base for the  protection detail. Your government readily agreed to fund the extra agents to be assigned to you, and you will get to meet some of them tomorrow.’ She was amazed that he hadn’t objected to that last point. Perhaps the recent events had made him realise the error of his ways when it came to personal safety. In the past he had made appoint of rebelling against having any security detail when living in his converted farmhouse.

They were on the  top floor of the apartment block. She unlocked the door to the main apartment and ushered him through a small entrance hall into a practical open plan living area, decorated in the modern fashion, neutral colours as bland and inoffensive as possible. The room was spacious, and he was surprised to find that it was already furnished in a style remarkably similar to his old residence.  It seemed very familiar and comforting, and immediately he felt as if he could relax here. Turning round to look at the whole room he was surprised to find a Clavinova in one corner, with sheet music on the stand. And he noticed other signs of habitation; fresh flowers, today’s newspaper, clean mugs on the worktop in the kitchen.

‘Colonel Philips?’

‘Yes?’  All innocence and wide-eyes, but he noticed that there was a smug look of satisfaction behind the smile.

‘Would you like to explain exactly what is going on here? Why have you brought me to see an apartment that is not for rent? It’s pretty obvious that someone is already living here.’

‘The reason is that, yes this has been rented out. It’s the new SHADO safe house and, hopefully you are going to be its first occupant. Alec and I decided when you were in the hospital, that you needed somewhere to stay while your house was being rebuilt. We found this place and decided it was perfect as a short term solution. I’ve had great fun ordering stuff for you. I tried to get it as similar to the style in your farmhouse so it would feel comfortable. I didn’t think you would be happy if I bought a Steinway without consulting you, so you will have to make do with a Clavinova until you can choose your own. So, what do you think?’ she waited, worried that she had pushed him into this, that he would resent the intrusion into his privacy.

As he looked around his analytical mind assessed the practicalities, the security implications and the advantages of finally, after so many weeks, having a place to which he could retreat, lock the door behind him, and relax. South facing, with huge almost floor to ceiling windows overlooking the quayside, and a large screened  private balcony it seemed an ideal short term residence. Hateful though the lift was he knew that he was unlikely ever to have to go in it alone, and besides he liked using stairs; he enjoyed, and needed, the exercise. Colonel Philips, in her role as SHADO Security Chief, had organised his protection detail and he knew how stringent it was. It was acceptable though; he had been through more than enough recently, and he knew that the protection detail would take one worry off his mind for the time being. He turned to her. Smiling.

‘I think it’s perfect. Six months should see me through until the farmhouse is finished. I also think renting the other flat is an excellent idea. I really don’t want security all over this place. The only concern I have is regarding the other apartment on this floor. It could be potentially embarrassing if I bump into the occupant when I’m being shadowed by a couple of burly agents with earpieces and shoulder holsters. The  Secret Service is not renowned for the ability to blend in with its surroundings.’ He grinned at the thought.

‘Oh, there’s no need to be concerned about that. SHADO has done a full G6 on the new leaseholder and has given their  approval.’

‘You’re hiding something.’ He stared at her quizzically, blue eyes meeting brown.

She grinned back. ‘Meet your new neighbour, Commander. I move in as soon as my furniture arrives, probably by the end of next week.’

He stood still, his expression one of stunned silence, and for one long hideous moment she thought that she had made a dreadful mistake, both in arranging this transfer for him, and for intruding on his personal space by moving so close.

Then a wide, joyous smile lit up his face. She had not seen him smile with such sheer pleasure before and she realised that it was all going to work out just fine.

‘Come on.’ She led the way, ‘let’s look round the rest of this place. You haven’t seen the balcony yet. It’s much larger than mine and looks over the quayside.’

He looked round the expanse of the waterfront development, at the wide open space, the freedom to move. He would be able to go running at dusk and  dawn, be able to sit on the balcony and watch the activity on the marina, and hopefully, to share some evenings with Rachel.

‘I shall have to find some way to say thank you for finding this place and getting everything organised. Any suggestions?’

‘‘Oh I think you owe me a meal don’t you? I seem to recall that you abandoned me last time.’ She grinned up at him. ‘And I always enjoy shopping so it was great fun getting things for you. I’m afraid SHADO accessed your bank accounts to fund these purchases.’

‘Oh, so you liked spending my hard earned cash?’ he joked. ‘I was beginning to wonder why you were interested in me.’

‘Guilty as charged m’lord. Don’t worry, I didn’t spend too much.’ she laughed. ‘This place is ready for you to move into as soon as you want. I’ve organised security, the windows have been replaced with  bullet proof glass and the balcony has protective screens. We are just finalising details for the guard post next door, but that will be ready by tonight. You could go back to base, pack your bags and move in here this evening. Everything is ready for you. Even the kitchen is fully stocked’

He looked at her thoughtfully. ‘I hope you will be able to spend some time here with me. That is, if my protection detail allow you in.’

‘Oh I don’t think there will be any problems there.’ she replied wryly, ‘after all I am going to responsible for preparing the rotas.’

‘Well then, perhaps you can arrange to be on my evening shift. It would be infinitely preferable spending the time with you rather than having a couple of anonymous guards standing watch outside. What do you think?’

She glanced up at him beaming with pleasure. ‘Oh I think that can be sorted quite easily.’ and he took her hand and gently, leaning down to kiss, pulled her close to him.

Chapter 2

Alec Freeman stormed out of Henderson’s office and thumped the lift button. ‘Damn him.’ he muttered pushing the button again in sheer anger. ‘Who the hell does he think he is?’

The lift doors opened and he stepped in, viciously punching the button for the ground floor as he did so. He would have paced up and down in the lift had there been room, but as it was he simply stood there and waited, arms tightly  folded, his mind turning over the short  conversation he had just had with James Henderson.

It had not gone well.

Hendersonhad, quite bluntly, demanded that a full psychological  assessment of the SHADO commander had to be done before the IAC would allow Straker to continue in the post. Alec, appalled, had tried to argue against it, but Henderson was adamant.

‘Tell Commander Straker to report to Dr Jackson first thing in the  morning.  I want Jackson’s report by sixteen hundred hours tomorrow. And you can tell Straker that if he doesn’t have this assessment, then I will have his resignation instead.’Henderson smirked at Alec Freeman.

And now Alec had to go and tell his boss.

The studio entrance was relatively quiet when he arrived, smiling and flirting with Miss Ealand in an attempt to keep up appearances. She brushed him off with her usual efficient professional and gentle charm and he went through to the inner room and then down to HQ.

One day, he mused, one day she would smile back at him, look deep into his eyes and ………. No she wouldn’t he admitted to himself. She was far too professional for that. He went into the main control room. All quiet there. In fact there was nothing going on at all. He headed for Ed’s office. All quiet there as well. In fact the whole darned place was like a grave.

He sat down behind the desk tapping his fingers on the Perspex surface, then flicked the intercom. ‘Ford, can you tell me where Commander Straker is? I thought he would be in this morning.’

‘Yes Colonel, he’s out with Colonel Philips looking at some location sites I think. I can get him for you if you want to speak to him urgently.’

‘No it’s not important Keith, just let me know when he gets back.’

……………………

‘So Henderson wants me to see Dr Jackson this morning. For a psyche assessment. Very good of him to tell me himself.’ Straker, back in his office after the morning’s excursion, was surprisingly calm and controlled. ‘Well, no time like the present. If anyone calls, tell them I am otherwise engaged. At least for the next couple of hours.’ He smiled with resigned acceptance. ‘Don’t worry Alec; I have been expecting this since I came back.’  He paused, ‘I’ve just agreed to move into that apartment that you and Colonel Philips have been organising for me. IfJacksonfeels that I need to take some medical leave, well I have plenty to keep me occupied for a couple of days. Okay, I’m off to the lion’s den. I might see you later depending on the good doctor.’

He looked around the office, at all the familiar, memorable reminders of his past; his glass paper weight, crystal obelisk, the lunar map, and the large abstract mural behind the conference table, almost as if he did not expect to ever see them again.  Then, without looking back he headed for whatever was waiting for him.

……………………….

Colonel Philips examined the neat arrangement of holes in the target. It was good to know she hadn’t lost her touch despite missing practice for the last couple of weeks. She needed to keep her skills sharp, especially as she had her position as Security Chief to consider. The shooting range was deserted and she was surprised to hear footsteps coming towards her.

‘Hello Colonel. I thought I’d find you here.’ He was subdued and seemed depressed.

‘Commander. Is anything the matter?’

‘I need you to know I will be taking some leave, starting tomorrow, so you will have to rearrange the rota for my security. I’ve spoken to Colonel Freeman and I’ve arranged to spend the time organising things in the flat. Is that going to cause you any problems?’

He sounded very calm, very controlled as if he welcomed the opportunity to take an enforced vacation. She knew differently however.

‘Ed. What’s happened?’ she spoke softly, concerned at his demeanour.

‘Nothing. Nothing at all.’  A cynical, mocking laugh. ‘Just Henderson riding me again and Dr Jackson doing his job.’

She reached out, her arms holding him close to her.  He stood, unhappy and wretched; head down on hers, arms around her body, comforted by her closeness, her warmth, her touch. She waited, patiently, hoping that he trusted her enough to share with her the reason for his misery.

‘I’m sorry.’ Quiet and subdued. He breathed slowly, gradually relaxing in her embrace.

‘Tell me what’s happened, please.’

‘It’s nothing really.Jackson feels that I haven’t come to terms with what happened. He’s told General Henderson that I should be relieved of duty for a week until I have written my report. I have to write everything down. To have to relive it, hour by hour. I think I would rather hand in my resignation right now and be kicked upstairs into the IAC.’

He stared into space, thinking about the nightmare hours he had spent isolated and cut off from reality. He couldn’t go through it all again. It would do the one thing he had feared most; break him.

It was so much easier to simply disregard what had happened, to wipe out the memory of what he had been through, of what he had put his friends through. But deep inside he knew that he would never, could never, forget. Just as he could never erase the memory of John, lying crumpled and still by the roadside.

‘Ed, you can do this, you know you can. Alec and I can help you if you want. You don’t have to do it alone; you don’t ever have to be alone.’

He gazed at her, thoughtful and considering. ‘I don’t suppose I could persuade you to take a few days sick leave on some pretence or other? You could act as my secretary and bodyguard and interior designer all at the same time?’

‘I think not,’ she laughed. ‘My boss is very particular about his staff moonlighting, you know. I could get the sack if he caught me bunking off work. Look Ed, it will be fine. Stop worrying.  You never know, it could be just what you need. It will give you chance to get the apartment just the way you want it, and to start replacing some of your books and music. As a matter of interest, exactly what did the good Doctor Jackson ask you to do?’

‘His exact words, as far as I can remember were; “You have one week to write your report for me  before I can authorise your return to work.” And he left me in no doubt what would happen if I didn’t.’ He frowned at the mere thought.

‘Well then it strikes me that the good Doctor Jackson has just either made an error or else he is on your side.’

He looked askance at her. ‘Dr Jackson make a mistake. I think not. What gives you that impression?’

‘Simple. He says that you have to write it down for him, not Henderson.Jackson hasn’t asked for a detailed account; he only wants to know what happened. It’s probably just his way of making sure you get some recovery time as well as making sure that Henderson stops hassling you. And all you have to do is write a few lines stating the bare bones of what happened. Easy. Hand it in to him, and he will probably flick through it and give you the all clear. And you get a vacation. Don’t tell me you don’t need that.’

‘There must be a catch somewhere in your logic. It can’t be that straightforward. Can it?’ He sounded hopeful and relieved. The thought of having time to relax and get his life back in order was actually quite appealing although he would never have dared to admit it to either Alec or Rachel.

Chapter 3

He had forgotten to cancel his alarm call and it woke him from a deep sleep. It was unusual for that to happen. He was generally up and about well before any wake-up call. He wondered if he would ever need, or get, an alarm call from SHADO Control again. Not if Henderson got his way he wouldn’t.

He pushed back the covers and sat on the edge of the bed, stretching and yawning. He had not slept so well for a very long time. Perhaps it was the gentle background noise of the busy city streets, perhaps it was, perish the thought, the presence of the secret service agents just next door that made him feel more secure, more protected.

He was just beginning to appreciate how much the last few weeks had taken out of him. Dr Jackson was probably correct, he needed time to recover. Time to build up his strength and his resilience; time to get to know her properly. Time for living instead of just being totally immersed in the job, important though it was.

He had a token two minute wake-up shower, dressed in his tracksuit, then buzzed the team next door to let them know he was ready. They were waiting for him, as he had anticipated and expected. He jogged down the stairs to warm up then set off, round the brick-paved pavement  setting a good pace, not caring if the team were keeping up with him or not.

That was their problem, not his. He spotted the escort car, trailing behind. It was good to know that security was doing their job.

He ran on, building up speed and pushing himself to his limits. Damn. He used to be faster than this. He needed to build up his endurance again. Completing his planned circuit he headed for the entrance to the apartments and paused momentarily. Stairs or lift? No contest. He started up the stairs, hearing his escorting agent groan.

‘Look, if I can do it, you can. Or you’re in the wrong job.’ Straker called out and grinned to himself as he jogged up the four flights. There was an agent already outside, ready to open the apartment door as he approached. Straker nodded an acknowledgement and slowed to a walk down as he entered his apartment.

The shower was powerful and hot and he stood under it for a long time, enjoying the heat on his aching muscles. It seemed an age since he had been able to go running, and he had missed the feeling of independence and  freedom it gave him. It was good to be able to stand in the steamy atmosphere of his own bathroom and to stretch his body to its limits.

Looking in the mirror he could see that he had lost considerable muscle tone and mass; his ribs were far too prominent and he made a mental note to monitor his weight carefully. He flicked a towel off the pile and wrapped it round his hips, then wiped the condensation from the mirror and picked up his razor. He shaved with care, as usual; having thankfully shaved off the beard he had grown while in the Recovery Unit he had no intention of sporting a designer stubble look.

With the towel still wrapped around him, he wandered in to the living area, switching on the coffee percolator before opening the sliding doors to the balcony. The mirrored screens that SHADO security had erected provided an opaque barrier that prevented outsiders from looking into the apartment, although he could see through quite clearly. The cool, late autumn air felt good on his bare skin.

Running fingers through his damp hair, he ruffled it into a reasonably tidy style. There was no need to worry about whether his hair was neat enough, there was no-one here to notice. It was surprisingly calming, not having to be concerned about appearances, about what other people thought, or saw, not having to worry about anything other than what he was going to have for breakfast this morning.

And the thought came to him; what was he going to have? He could send out one of the agents to get something, but his independent streak came to the fore. No; he didn’t want to get them too involved in his life. The coffee was ready so he padded, still barefoot, still stripped except for his bath towel, into the kitchen area. There was a knock at the door, and then another. Not the guards. They would knock once as matter of courtesy, and then come in if they needed to. Of course in an emergency they would simply invade the apartment in force.

No it would have to be someone else, approved by the agents. Probably Alec checking up on him like the mother hen he was at times. Walking over, coffee mug in hand, he opened the door.

‘Good morning Commander.’ she walked past him nonchalantly, into the living area, carrying a paper bag. ‘Glad to see you up and ready for work.’ An amused tone accompanied the twinkle in her eye as she regarded his state of undress, looking him up and down with undisguised approval.

‘My flat, my dress code.’ His response was as amused and teasing. ‘To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit? Or were you simply hoping to catch me unawares? You know my schedule for today; you should be since you authorised it.’ He smiled at her, refusing to acknowledge the fact that he was wearing just a bath towel. She wondered what some of the female, and some male, operatives in SHADO would give to see their Commander as he was right now.

‘I thought you might like some breakfast.’ She held out the bag. ‘Fresh bagels and  cream cheese, with either  pastrami or smoked salmon.  Will that do for today? I don’t really know your breakfast preferences.’

Bagels. He couldn’t remember the last time he had had bagels and cream cheese for any meal, let alone breakfast. He usually made do with coffee and toast, if he had the chance, which wasn’t very often.

‘Sounds great, just let me get dressed.’

He put his coffee down on the small table, before crossing over to the bedroom. She watched him surreptitiously; noting that he appeared almost skeletally underweight for his height. A series of long jagged scars crisscrossed his shoulder and chest; there was a small, deep disfigurement on his upper back from a bullet entry and an adjacent crater-like one from where it had been extracted. Silvered and stretched, they marked his pale skin.

His medical records detailed others; scars on his abdomen, his hip, his scalp. And other incidents, comparatively minor but still leaving traces of their occurrence, a deep slash on his thigh, a compound fracture of his left tibia and fibula from a car crash, the damage to his wrist from his recent imprisonment, to name but  a few.

She silently wondered how he had survived, not just the physical injuries, but the emotional damage as well. How had he managed to stay sane and in control of his life with all the traumas that had happened in the past?

It was only just over a year since the death of his son. She could not imagine how anyone could ever recover from such a terrible event, let alone continue to work 24/7 in such a demanding place as SHADO.

She did not know if their relationship had any viable future; she hoped it did. He was a man she admired, respected and had come to love, deeply and passionately; but she knew that he was cautious of relationships and it was still very early days for both of them. SHADO was his existence but if he could share just one small fraction of his time with her she would be more than content. She was beginning to realise that she wanted him in her world, and she hoped that there would be a place for her in his world as well.

The bedroom door opened and he came out, tucking his Glock, almost automatically, into his belt at the small of his back. Sweatshirt, jeans, trainers; he looked relaxed and comfortable.

They sat in comfortable silence on the balcony, eating bagels, drinking coffee, watching  the painted  barges moored along the quayside.

‘Well I suppose I had better get started.’ he eventually admitted, with some reluctance. ‘The sooner I get this report written the quicker I can start to relax and enjoy this enforced vacation.’ He grimaced as he said it, but she had the distinct feeling that he was secretly looking forward to the extended break from his exhausting duties as Commander-in-Chief.

‘Good idea’ she agreed, ‘where are you going to start? At the beginning?  Actually,’ she said, tentatively, unsure how he would take her proposal, ‘why don’t you go all out and make it a really detailed report?’

He looked at her with horror.

‘I’ve been thinking about it.’ she explained. ‘Jackson asked you to write him a report. Why don’t you? Everything. Except that he didn’t specify  the incident. He just said a report. So do it. Write about some of the things that have happened in the past – important things, things that made a difference to you, events that framed your life, events that changed you. It could be very satisfying and liberating. Just think. The chance to write your own personal record. You don’t keep a diary do you Ed?

He smiled, somewhat pensively, ‘No; SHADO actively discourages its staff from keeping personal records of their activities so I never write anything down outside formal reports. Actually your idea is rather good. I would probably benefit from recording some of the things that have happened, to get them in perspective as it were. Thank you, I’ll make a start this morning.’

Later, when she had left and he had chosen some music to listen to; Alan Hovhaness’s ‘And God Created Great Whales’, he went onto the balcony, pen and paper in hand. It would have been easier to use the laptop, but he had always felt that anything worth writing should be written in pen and ink. First hand, without corrections, without re-drafting, without editing to death and leaving a bland, sterilized account without any emotion.

Now, where to start?  When did it all begin?

Blue/black ink made elegant patterns over the heavy unlined paper as he put down his thoughts in graceful calligraphy.

 

Chapter 4

News , 27th June 1997

The Space Shuttle Discovery was launched today on a   mission to service the Hubble telescope. NASA reported that the mission had been brought forward by several weeks due to a slight deterioration in Hubble’s LEO (Low Earth Orbit). Officials reported that the Hubble, although still well within safety parameters, required an adjustment in its orbital path in order to prevent it moving into too low an orbital altitude. Astronauts are also expected to complete some minor repairs to the telescope and renew power cells as well as fitting some new monitoring equipment. NASA gave no information as to the identity of the crew members although it is believed that Major Ed Straker, USAF pilot, has been appointed Mission Commander.

25th  June 1997

The resupply ship powered by delicate thrusters inched closer and closer. It was almost routine by now, this gradual, slow, precise approach to mate with the Russian space station. The cosmonauts on board Mir peered out of the portholes as the automated Progress Supply ship carefully positioned itself alongside the airlock.  A propulsion jet fired a precisely calculated ignition to put the ship in the exact spot.

But unknown to the ground staff in the Space Control Centre and to the crew on board the orbiting station, one tiny, infinitesimal micrometeorite had punctured the pipeline from the fuel tank, producing a miniscule pocket of frozen hydrogen.

That one tiny fragment of ice was sufficient to create an immediate and uncontrollable eruption of flame from the thrusters. Only for a microsecond, but it was enough to slam the supply ship sideways into Mir’s fragile framework.

With a soundless crunch of colliding metal, the unmanned craft impacted into the Spektr module. A bright fountain of escaping air sparkled brilliantly in the sunlight as it plumed from the crippled unit, and Mir began to spin uncontrollably, only slowly, but sufficiently to destabilise the whole station.

Inside Spektr the three cosmonauts, realising their danger, swiftly evacuated into the Priroda module, but it would only offer them a safe haven for a limited time. Priroda, designed for monitoring Earth’s atmosphere, had no solar array and therefore no power output. It was only when they had started to put on their partial pressure suits that they realised that the fourth member of the crew, American astronaut John D. Harlington, had not appeared. J.D. had been working  in the Mir core module, checking thermal controls and power systems. They could get no response from him.

Mir continued to tumble; jets of escaping gases streaming from her damaged body. The cosmonauts moved through the compartments towards the main core module, cautiously opening the sealed compartments. The airlock to Mir Core was tightly closed, but the outer dials indicated that pressure had decreased and that internal power output was down nearly 7 KWh.

Clearly something serious had happened to the module. The cosmonauts stared at each other, not daring to speak. If Mir Core had been compromised, and Spektr was out of commission, then they had limited survival time without air and power.

They opened the airlock, and a gush of hot, burnt air pushed past them into the module as the craft fought to equal the pressure throughout. J.D. was floating, unconscious, burned and blistered from the short but violently explosive fire that had swept through the module when Spektr’s solar arrays had broken off and  hit the core unit.

Small sparks still flashed in the exposed wiring and floated in the weightless environment, burning tiny holes in the dark green carpeting that marked the floor of the module. They grabbed hold of the injured astronaut and pulled him back into Priroda, sealing  the airlock behind them. There was little else they could do apart from using their fairly inadequate first aid kit to try to treat the worst of his burns.

The food supplies, spare water and emergency power cells were all in Spektr. They would have to wait, confident that the Russian Space Agency in Kaliningrad would have picked up the automated distress signal. But would they be able to get help to them in time?

MCC–H was busy with visitors, scientists, researchers and control crew; just as usual. Mission Control was always busy, monitoring, testing, recording. Communications from all over the world, and from off world, flooded into the Centre. It was noisy, hectic and at times downright chaotic.

‘Mission Control Centre, Houston, this is Russian Space Centre. May we speak to your Flight Director please.’ The heavily accented voice seemed almost a joke, initially, but Houston Control soon realise that it was deadly serious. Within minutes of the Flight Director ending the call from his counterpart in Kaliningrad, he was in video conference with NASA’s CEO and the President of theUnited States.

Major Ed Straker, Military Intelligence, currently seconded to NASA to help research the Single Stage to Orbit development, was called out of his small cramped basement office. Relieved to get away from analysing projected costs, proofreading data and annotating blueprints, he slung his jacket over his shoulder and set off gratefully; he had never expected, or indeed intended, to be flying a desk instead of an F16 when he joined the Air Force. He walked across the base to the Flight Director’s private office, and was immediately announced by the secretary.

‘Major Straker, come in and sit down.’ the Director gestured to a chair. ‘You’re probably wondering what this is all about. First of all I need you to understand that what is said here, now, is absolutely confidential. Under no circumstances whatsoever, are you to divulge any details of what I am going to tell you. Is that understood?’

‘Certainly, sir.’ Straker, as a  military officer, was comfortable with the notion of absolute secrecy. He sat, waiting patiently while the director marshalled his thoughts. Then he listened, as the events of the past few hours were explained.

‘So you see Major, the only chance that those cosmonauts have is if we at NASA can get a Shuttle up  there in the next 24 hours to resupply them with air and power. If we can also get Harlington back alive that would be a bonus. He is a very valuable member of our scientific research team. However, the whole operation must be done without anyone realising just how badly damaged Mir is. The Russians have agreed to share their blueprints and research for the next generation of Space exploration vessels, if we help them. But they stand to lose all credibility with the Russian people if word gets out that Mir has failed, and failed disastrously. If those cosmonauts die, the Russian government will never consider sanctioning further space development.’

Straker was silent. Thinking.

‘One more fact, Major. NASA is currently in negotiations with the Russians to cooperate in building a joint Space Station. We need the Russians to be successful. We need to get Mir up and running again, and if we can save Harlington as well, so much the better.’

‘So what do you want me for?’ Straker was blunt and to the point.

‘There’s a shuttle ready. Discovery. She was due to take off in three weeks time to service Hubble, and she’s on the launch pad now for pre-flight tests. You’ve had more than sufficient flight experience in F 16’s; you’ve tested out in the simulators and also crewed as astrophysicist on the last mission. Discovery’s yours. I want you to take her up, with a skeleton crew, as soon as she’s ready in about 15 hours. Your mission is to get Mir operational again and bring Harlington back, alive if possible. There will be no recognition, no medals, no news reporting. Take her up, do the job, get back quietly. I’m asking you because I can trust you to keep silent and because the other astronauts are, shall we say…..’ he paused.

‘You mean I’m expendable and the others are not?’ Straker replied, a wry grin on his lips. ‘That doesn’t bother me sir, I know I’m not one of the cohort for astronaut training this year. I consider the fact that I managed to get into space on the last mission as incredibly fortunate.  Yes, I’ll take Discovery. What crew will I have?’

‘We can only risk sending the bare minimum with you; three others have volunteered; Walter Czuma as pilot, Griff and Ben as repair specialists, and support. Griff and Ben have crewed in a shuttle before on missions to Mir. You know all three don’t you?’

‘Yes, they’ll make an excellent team. Czuma is a very capable pilot and Griff has considerable experience in maintenance and repair. Ben has a reputation of being tenacious and determined. The mission stands a fair chance of success with that team. Have you given us a designation or are we going to be anonymous?’

‘I’m afraid there will be no patches to sew on your uniform Major; we can’t admit to anyone what we are doing, but we have given the mission the code name Maverick and your personal call sign is Iceman. One more thing; if you are successful then your name will be on the approved list for the next cohort of astronauts and you will begin formal training in 1999 with your name pencilled in for your own shuttle command in 2000.  A suitable reward for volunteering for this mission don’t you agree?’ He smiled at Straker, acknowledging the younger man’s commitment to the programme.

Ed Straker smiled in return. ‘I had better get going then. There’s a lot to do in a short time. Thank you for giving me the opportunity sir. I hope I can live up to your expectations.’

‘And I hope you can bring off this mission Major Straker, for everyone’s sake. They are waiting for you in the preparation centre. I will not be able to speak to you again until all this is over, but be aware that I will be following your mission attentively. A great deal rests on your shoulders. Good luck and may God go with you and your crew.’

The two men shook hands and Major Ed Straker hurried off to begin the preparations for his first shuttle command. There was an incredible amount to do in a very short time.

The four-man crew met up later in the vast room where astronauts were fitted with their partial pressure suits for wearing in the shuttle, and the vitally important EMU spacesuit which they would have to wear for extravehicular work when repairing the damaged modules.

Straker had already trimmed his fingernails down as much as possible. From reading reports and discussions with experienced astronauts he knew that the space suit gloves were poorly fitting. Very short nails were vital if you were to avoid painfully bruised and bleeding fingertips.

He waited to be fitted with the orange suit that would be worn in the shuttle for launch and landing and watched as his crew members adjusted their helmets and tested the external communication assemblies.

Then it was his turn. He had been through this before and was patient. It took time to get the suit adjusted, but he knew how important it was to get this right. It was easier with the brightly coloured partial pressure suit; they already had his measurements from his earlier trip into space, but fitting the Extravehicular Mobility Unit suit took much, much longer.

Eventually the controller was satisfied with the fit of the suit and Straker gratefully unfastened the helmet and stripped off the stiff, cumbersome gloves.

He rubbed his hands in an attempt to restore some feeling in to his numb, tingling fingers. It was going to get much worse but he was more than willing to put up with the discomfort. His thoughts turned to the plight of the cosmonauts, trapped in the slowing tumbling station, running out of breathable air, gradually expending the last of their power reserves, and with no idea of whether they were going to be rescued in time. He headed for the simulator to rehearse with his crew.

Ed Straker put down his pen, flexing his stiff fingers. He would continue this in the morning.

 

Chapter 5

‘Mission Control Centre Houston. Countdown commencing for Discovery Mission SS D 32 Maverick.’

‘Control to Maverick. Close and lock visors’

‘T minus 2 minutes’

‘T minus 90 secs’

‘All systems go.’

‘Sixty seconds and counting.’

Ed Straker leaned back in his seat and relaxed. There was little he could do now; mission control was running everything and he was just along for the ride, at least at first. He listened to the communications from Mission Control Centre Houston.

‘Transferring to internal power, coming up to a GO for autosequence start.’

‘GO for primary control to onboard computers’

‘T minus 30 seconds GO for Auto sequence’

‘T minus ten seconds; GO for main engine start’

‘Nine; eight; seven; six;’

‘Main engine 3 start command, main engine 2 start command, main engine 1 start command,’

‘Five; four; three; liquid fuel main engines, commanded to lift off; two, one’

‘T -zero  Ignition. Holddown release command

Discovery has Lift Off.’

There was a tremendous vibration. The crew shuddered in their seats; even tightly strapped in they were jostled and shaken by the power as the immense engines lifted Discovery into the air.

‘T plus twenty seconds. Roll 180 degrees;  78 degrees pitch’

‘T plus twenty-six seconds. Main engines to throttle down.’

‘Three and a half miles altitude. 750mph.’Missioncontrol continued its monitoring, calmly reporting Discovery’s status.

‘T plus sixty  seconds. Main engine throttle to one hundred and four per cent’

‘One minute forty-seven  seconds. 2,600 mph.’

‘Two minutes zero six seconds Solid rocket booster separation’

‘Two minutes thirty seconds. Altitude 39 miles, speed 3,200 mph.’

As Discovery curved  elegantly  into the indigo darkness of space and the first effects of weightlessness began to be felt, the crew unlocked their visors and opened them, relief showing in their faces.

Ed Straker confirmed their position with MCC, and set to work monitoring systems to ensure that they were on course for Mir. He was too busy to spend time looking out of the window at the view of Earth. He would do that on his next mission he promised himself.

Mir was a tumbling dragonfly gleaming golden with outstretched wings sparkling in the unfiltered sunlight. As Discovery approached however, they could see parts of the station had been battered by micrometeorites pockmarking the arrays with ragged holes. Older solar blankets, initially bleached white, were yellowed with age.

With infinite care and precision they moved  Discovery for her mating  with the Kristall module. Straker knew that without Czuma’s expertise, he would have struggled to get accurately positioned. This was unknown territory to him and he was not too proud to admit that Czuma was better able to make the delicate adjustments to Discovery’s position to enable a successful link.

Czuma, an experienced Shuttle crew member, had been passed over previously for his own command, for reasons that Straker could not fathom, but believed to be that Czuma was considered too young to be selected. Ed hoped that if the Maverick mission was successful, that his pilot would get the chance to command his own shuttle mission. He certainly deserved to, considering his proficiency in manoeuvring the huge spacecraft in such a delicate situation.

Discovery hung there, pristine white and seemingly motionless but in reality dancing in perfect symmetry with Mir as the two ships gracefully pirouetted across the blackness of the void. Earth, a gloriously huge marble of blues and white, lay seemingly just out of reach, a mere 307 kilometres away.  Straker could have stared at her forever.

Shaking his head, he helped his pilot power down the computer and then they moved to the cargo bay and into their cumbersome EMU suits. At last they were ready. The mission directives had been specific. Repair the damage to Mir’s structure and then resupply the modules. They needed to go EVA in order to assess the injury to the Mir and Spektr modules and then they could begin the difficult and dangerous task of restoration.

Commander Ed Straker paused in his writing as he remembered.

That first view of Mir, as it tumbled obscenely and uncontrollably over and over in the distance; the feel of the EMU, heavy and constrictive; his fingertips bruised and blistered after wearing the short, constricting  gloves; the seemingly endless and futile struggle to find and repair all the damage to the core module; the thickness and unpleasant warmth of the stale atmosphere inside Mir; the weary elation as the crippled space station slowly regained its viability and powered up without losing pressure; the sharp vinegar-sour smell of sweat surrounding the shuttle crew after four days.

He looked down at his hands. The middle finger on his right hand still had a slightly flattened nail even after all these years, a lasting relic of the permanent damage done to his finger.

They had, after far too many hours of arduous labour, finally patched up Mir Core sufficiently for the cosmonauts to be able to move back into the habitation module. Griff, in particular, had worked continuously to find and patch all the punctures in Mir’s core module as well as repairing the electronics and power supply. Once more airtight and refuelled with food stores and vital supplies replenished, Mir core would be able to sustain life.

But Straker knew that the Spektr module was finished. There was no way that such a small team as his could find and repair all the damage. Reluctantly he gave the order to cease the futile attempts to mend the terminally impaired module and return to Discovery. Harlington, heavily sedated and strapped in the crew cabin, was still alive and Straker took a command decision to abort the mission and get JD home to Earth while he had a chance of survival.

He hoped the Flight Director would agree with his decision. But to be honest, he had no other options available to him. The Maverick team had done everything possible to achieve the mission objective and although it was not a qualified success, at least Mir was operational and functioning.

He remembered the stench of burned flesh, the blistered skin, the bloodstained coveralls and the quiet moans as Harlington was stretchered off Discovery when they had safely touched down on Earth. JD’s father was waiting; a tall, sparse man, grey haired and quietly elegant, only his eyes betraying his emotions.  He had stopped to shake Straker’s hand and to thank him from bringing his son home.

Straker had gone to see JD later in the specialist burns unit at the hospital. It had not been an easy experience, but JD had been almost pathetically grateful to see him. Ed Straker had arranged for unofficial mission patches to be made for the Maverick team –a square peg sliding neatly into a round hole somewhat in the style of M. C. Escher with the motto. ‘There Are No Limits’

‘Just something to remember us by.’ Straker smiled as he handed one patch over to J.D. ‘The doctors say you will be up and about fairly soon. Come over and see me in the research department if you can.’

He remembered being called into the Flight Director’s office a couple of days later. He had already had quiet, discrete congratulations from NASA and a sealed commendation in his personnel file. He had wondered what this summons would be about.

His mobile rang and with an effort he brought his thoughts back to 2009, to the here and the now.

‘Ed, how are things going? Just to let you know there’s nothing happening here so I’m going to come out to your place.Henderson wants the final details of the appropriation budget for next year and  I need to discuss it with you if that’s okay. Do you mind spending a few hours going over the figures?’ Alec Freeman, boisterous and intrusive as ever.

‘No we can always get a take-away if necessary. Look Alec, would you mind bringing over my personal file from Records when you come. I just need to check some details.’

‘No problem; just warn the guys next door that I’ll be round in about thirty minutes. Oh, and get the coffee on.’

Straker picked up the sheaf of paper that he had used and flicked through. He was surprised how much he had actually written; and how easily he had put his thoughts and memories onto paper. Rachel had been right, as usual.

He got coffee ready and sat in the thin autumn sunshine on the balcony, thinking back to 1997.

 

Chapter 6

The Flight Director had got out of his chair to shake hands as Straker had entered the office for the second time in just over a week.

‘Major Straker, how are things going with your research? There have been some promising reports from the tech boys, but it’s always useful to get first hand information.’

‘It’s showing some promise sir, but it’s very early days, especially after the HOTOL fiasco. I think it is worth pursuing in the future, especially as it promises to be a much more viable and economical system.’

‘Excellent. But I didn’t actually call you in here to discuss your research. The Russian President has asked me to give you this.’ and he handed a small plain box to  Straker who,  puzzled, opened it. Inside a five pointed solid gold star on a white red and blue ribbon, and a card bearing the legend; Hero of the Russian Federation. Awarded to Major E. Straker and the date; June 1997.

‘I can’t accept this, can I?’ he asked, pleased and yet confused at the same time.

‘You can accept it, as long as you never announce the fact that you have it. Just keep it somewhere safe and don’t let anyone see it. You do deserve it you know. If you hadn’t volunteered Mir would be a dead hulk with four corpses floating in space. Not a good advert for the Russians or us either. Harlington wanted the President to publicly acknowledge the mission, but I’m afraid he was turned down. Anyway, the Russians are grateful and so are NASA. Here is the list of successful applicants for the next astronaut training programme, starting in December next year. Your name is at the top. Congratulations Major, you will have your own full Shuttle command within two years, and this time it will be a recognised mission. You know we are looking to return to the moon sometime in the next two decades? Well, you could end up there, all being well.’

Straker, overwhelmed by the confirmation of his promotion to the astronaut programme, was initially silent. He held the neat box with its bright gold star and ribbon and wondered where he would put it for safe keeping.

‘Major? Any comments?’ the Flight Director  interrupted his thoughts.

‘Sorry sir, I was just thinking about the Discovery’s crew. How are you going to reward them?’

‘I was going to ask you about that Ed.. Have you any suggestions?’

‘That’s relatively easy sir. Czuma should be given command of a Shuttle mission as soon as one becomes available. He is an exceptional pilot, clear-headed, calm and very capable. I think his age has been held against him, but it seems wrong to penalise someone because they are younger than other astronauts. Get him into command as soon as possible, before he becomes disillusioned and leaves to work for a more financially profitable organisation.’

‘Okay Major, I’ll look into his record and make a decision by the end of the week. What about the other two; shall I put them on the Command schedule?’

‘Absolutely. They risked an awful lot to go out there, and they proved that they can cope with some of the worst situations.’

Ed Straker, sat in the sunshine on the balcony, waiting for Alec Freeman to call and remembered the heady feeling of excitement and anticipation that he had felt, leaving the Fight Director’s office on that crisp March morning in 1997.

His future was clearly laid out in front of him; all he had ever really wanted was to get into space. All his career moves up to this point had led him inexorably in this direction and now, now it was within his grasp. He had put the small box safely in his pocket and gone back to his paperwork, with a renewed sense of commitment.

But it was not to be. Just months after the Maverick mission he had been recalled to serve with the USAF in the run up to Desert Fox. Straker had reacquainted himself with the F16 fighter and been deployed to Prince Sultan Air Base southeast of Riyadhas part of the 4404th squadron.

PSAB was hot; hot and sandy and uncomfortable, especially for someone used to the luxuries afforded to trainee astronauts. His room in the Housing Complex had some basic comforts, but most of his spare time was spent in the air-conditioned library, continuing his research and studies.

NASA set high standards for its potential astronauts, and, having been given the chance, he was not going to let a little setback such as being reassigned here prevent him from his ultimate goal of one day standing on the moon. His name was still on that list of accepted candidates and nothing was going to stop him.

He was in the library one evening, completing his latest assignment for his thesis in astrophysics, for submission to MIT. He was concentrating on finishing the paper when his computer screen was partially covered by a large hand.

He looked up to see the face of one of the RAF officers he had seen around the base recently.

‘Do you mind? I’m trying to work.’ Straker, quiet and polite, but with an undercurrent of annoyance.

‘No I don’t mind. In fact I’m here to stop you working. It’s about time you came out from under that computer and got drunk.’ The bluff voice was friendly but firm. ‘I’m Freeman and I know who you are; Straker, the guy from NASA. What are you working on? Plans for a new space programme? Don’t bother. They’ll never get the funding. Come on, give it a rest and come and get drunk with me. This place should be dry, I can always sniff out the alcohol. No flights tomorrow so we can have a few rounds. What do you say?’

Major E. Straker sat back, feeling the tense muscles in his shoulders and spine. He was tired, now that he thought about it, and getting out would be a pleasant change. Switching off the laptop he stood up.

‘Okay.’ he replied, ‘but there’s one thing you should know first.’

‘Don’t tell me; you’re gay?’ Freeman, a jovial expression of fake horror on his face, stepped back out of reach.

Straker laughed. ‘No, it’s worse than that. I don’t ever touch alcohol.’ He looked at Alec apologetically.  ‘Sorry.’

‘It’s your funeral.’ Come and watch me get drunk then, and you can always carry me back to my tent afterwards. That’s one benefit of having a sober drinking partner.’

Commander Straker heard the familiar knock on his door. Alec Freeman. There was no mistaking his distinctive, emphatic thump of heavy hand on wood. He walked over and opened the door before Alec had time to dent it.

‘I was just writing about the first time we met Alec.’ he said amiably. ‘You dragged me off to watch you get drunk, which you did most effectively. I seem to recall practically carrying you back to your quarters afterwards, not for the last time either.’

‘Ah, those were the days Ed. Wine, women and song. Well not really; if I remember correctly your Air Force didn’t allow alcohol on base whereas ours do. Oh what fun, getting quietly drunk in front of all those pissed-off Americans who couldn’t touch a drop. Great times eh?’ Alec Freeman laughed and handed his friend a thick folder. ‘Here; your personal file. Plenty in there to read. What exactly are you looking for?’

‘I’m not really sure, there’s something niggling at the back of my mind that I can’t quite remember. You know how it is. I think I will find the answer in here, at least I hope so.’ He picked up the folder and placed it carefully in the safe. ‘I’ll read through it tonight – it will probably send me to sleep in record time. Right, coffee’s ready, come and sit down and bring me up to date with what’s happening.’

Later that evening he sat, quiet and alone, in the gathering gloom of dusk. The familiar barges, looking like brightly lit accordions, rocked gently on the unsettled surface of the water below. Taking the folder from the safe he opened it, leafing through the long-unread pages. His personal history unfolded before his eyes; family, schools, career; all detailed, all checked and inspected by SHADO security.

And there. He had hoped he would find it in here. He was inordinately glad that it had not been misplaced over the years.

The letter confirming that NASA had appointed Walter as mission commander for the first ISS construction mission. The note at the bottom;  Acted on your recommendation Major. Griff and Ben also on Shuttle Command rota.’ It had been signed by the Flight Director.

And he found the official mission report; unopened for years. He picked up the file and read the title page; Classified NASA file 23SD/EJS/βθ Maverick Mission March 1997. One day he would tell Alec about it. One day.

Ed Straker carefully put the letter back. He had not thought about the crew of Discovery for years and had no idea what they were doing now. He made a decision to track them down: it would be good to see if their lives had worked out.

It was quiet in the apartment; Rachel was on duty until very late tonight and he had spent the afternoon discussing work and projects with Alec. Now he was alone, apart from the agents next door, but he was comfortable and content: being by oneself was not the same as being solitary.

He picked up his writing and turned to the last entry. Ah yes. Alec. And  Desert Fox.

Perhaps it would be wiser to leave that train of thought until daybreak. It wasn’t always wise to rake up the past, especially that particular part. Tired but relaxed he headed for an early night, having notified the guys in the adjoining flat of his intentions. Colonel Philips would be checking on them later, and he didn’t really want to cause any problems. He noticed that it was threatening to rain heavily.

Late that night asleep in bed he stirred, tossing restlessly, twisting the sheets in trepidation as the recurring nightmare began to make its presence felt. Despite being deeply asleep, he knew what was going to happen, but  he was powerless to prevent the images and experiences from entering his mind, however much he tried.

He was protecting the no-fly zone from Iraqi MiGs. His F16 suddenly juddered horribly, losing power and failing to respond, despite all his efforts. The alarms sounded. It was catastrophic engine failure. He had no other option but to jettison the canopy which, as the wind pulled it away from the cockpit, triggered the ejection seat rockets. He arched his back as he relived the shock of the rockets’ blast, then the nightmare took its inexorable hold on his mind and he was totally lost in its grip.

They had captured him almost as soon as he had hit the ground. Nearly paralysed by the shock of the impact he had been unable to prevent them dragging him away. His shoulder, dislocated during the ejection had been quickly and painfully reset before his captors started. They had not resorted to modern methods of interrogation; they simply forced him down into what was no more than metal cage with solid walls, almost like a pit with a metal grid as a cover. Once down inside, his arms twisted behind, they closed the heavy grid over him. He could not move, could hardly breathe. His body started to cramp, the pain becoming almost unbearable. Then they started the questioning.

He remembered relentless pain, remembered them water pouring over his upturned face so that he gasped desperately for air and nearly, so nearly, it felt, drowned. It was standard torture technique and one he had been prepared for, but the effects were utterly horrendous. He had not given them what they wanted though.

Trapped in his sleep Ed Straker relived the torture he had suffered, unable to break out from the scenario which he had relived so many times in the past. In terror, still in a haze of nightmare memories, he struggled from the bedroom, desperately seeking escape. Unaware of his actions he opened the doors onto the balcony.

The coolness gave his confused mind some comfort and he crouched down as if to avoid detection.  Huddled in a corner, deeply asleep, he was still enveloped in panic. Torrential rainfall soaked the balcony open doors rattling under the lashing rain, as he crouched, tormented; his nightmare exacerbated by the water pouring down over his head and body.

Colonel Philips approached the guard post on her nightly check before heading for bed. All seemed under control, all working as it should  when she heard faint noises from the Penthouse. Unable to identify the sound she listened at his door.

Straker cried  out in  terror  and Rachel responded instinctively; Glock out and ready, she opened his door with her security pass and dashed in, eyes searching in the darkness for dangers. She heard, behind her, the agents hurrying to support her. She turned on the lights. Nothing. Motioning to the agents to spread out through the rooms, she moved cautiously across the space towards the open balcony doors.

He was there. Outside. In the heavy rain. Water pouring off him in rivulets, soaking his pyjamas and  bare feet, his fists tightly clenched, unaware of her presence. Kneeling beside him, she touched him gently on his arm and he wrenched away from her with a violent jerk, eyes open but unseeing. She knew what was happening; he was reliving past experiences.

There was little she could do to help him until he was awake, or ready to be woken. A movement inside caught her eye; the Secret service agents were watching, wondering what to do. Standing up, she moved quietly towards them.

He’s having a nightmare. I may need some help with him tonight if one of you would stay here.’

She was glad that Johnson volunteered to remain. A competent and considerate agent he was an ex- SAS Captain, with years of experience, and a physique that bodybuilders envied. Sitting down beside Straker in the rain she talked quietly, constantly, hoping her voice would penetrate his distress and he would hear her.

He remained hunched up, ignoring the rain, ignoring her, his world restricted to a narrow nightmare. Johnson crouched next to her, his company providing her with a feeling of security. She turned to him.

‘Should we move him inside do you think?’

‘No, I’ve seen this sort of thing before. It’s best to let him wake up in his own time, here. If we try to disturb him he could hurt himself.’ Johnson confirmed her own gut instincts, and they waited patiently, worriedly.

The rain gradually eased off and a chill breeze made its presence felt. Straker began to shiver uncontrollably; slowly his eyes opened and he stared around in bewilderment and confusion. Johnson acted immediately, bending down and lifting him up like a child, carrying him inside to the safety and warmth of the master bedroom.

The nightmare had ended; he was safe, rescued. He relaxed and let himself slip back into sleep, as Johnson stripped off the sodden clothes, towelled him dry and covered him with the duvet.

Later that evening she went into his room; Ed was running a temperature and the old scars stood out sharply against the slight flush of his fever-bright skin. She watched him breathing, shallow uneven breaths: she checked the pulse in his throat; it was thready and rapid and they sat down to watch over him, checking his temperature and pulse regularly. It was nearly daybreak before he began to settle and quieten.

Chapter 7

Over the years he had cultivated the habit, when he woke, of remaining as if asleep until he was sure where he was. He lay perfectly still, listening, giving no indication that he was awake. He remembered getting ready for bed, but he was conscious of the fact that now he was unclothed beneath the bedcovers.

Nearby rustling sounds suggested someone close by was reading a newspaper. The raucous skrieks of seagulls sounded outside. Everything seemed familiar, seemed as it should and he willed his eyes to open just a fraction. It was dim, the  curtains closed, but sunshine was stitching lines of bright light down  the edges of the windows. It was late; much later than normal for him.

What had happened? He couldn’t recall anything out of the ordinary; Alec had been round in the afternoon and they had started on the interminably boring appropriation draft for Henderson; they had sent out for a take-away – Chinese for both of them; and then Alec had left at about 22.00 hours. It had been an interesting day, recording what had happened  to him in 1997 and …………………

He sat up, slowly, carefully, shuddering breaths as his memory returned and he began to relive the events of the night. A movement next to him as a newspaper was folded down. He stared into the face of one of his security agents. What was his name? Yes; Johnson, that was it.

‘So what happened this time?’ The SHADO commander’s voice was resigned and held an undercurrent of exhaustion. ‘I suppose I had a nightmare again.  Did I create much of a nuisance this time?’

‘Not really sir. Colonel Philips was checking up on us and heard you. I gave her a hand and I put you back to bed when it was all over. Dr Shroeder came during the night when it seemed that your temperature was getting too high and checked you over.  Would you like a cup of coffee now you’re awake, Sir?’

‘Please.’ Ed watched as Dave Johnson went to get the drink. He could not remember exactly what had occurred in the night, but he knew that it had been a particularly bad experience. He recalled being drenched in water and shivering with cold. He also remembered the horrendous dream; the same one he had had numerous times since his capture.

The mere memory of his experience as a prisoner-of-war was enough to make him tremble with suppressed emotion and sweat broke out on his brow. With shaking hands he pulled back the covers and slipped out of the bed, putting on his dressing gown and heading for the bathroom.

The sound of the toilet flushing must had alerted them because no sooner had he started to get his clothes out of his closet ready to wear after his shower, than the bedroom door opened and Alec Freeman stood there, coffee mug in hand. ‘Can’t trust you to stay still for longer than five minutes can I? Get back in that bed or you don’t get this.’ and he held out the mug.

Straker looked indecisive for a long moment, then shrugged his shoulders and slid under the duvet again, with a silent sigh of relief. ‘Ok Alec, I’m behaving myself. Now hand it over.’ He took a deep appreciative drink and leaned back on the pillows, relaxing again under the warmth and comfort of the duvet.

‘Right, finish that and I’ll be back shortly with breakfast. Don’t you dare get up or I’ll send Rachel in to put you back in bed.’ Alec Freeman threatened.

‘Exactly how many people are out there Alec? The entire SHADO contingent? Or just the population of Greater London?’ Straker complained, beginning to feel that his privacy was being invaded.

‘Just Rachel, Dave Johnson and me. Is that enough? Rachel and I are off shortly and Dave is finishing his shift so you’ll be stuck with the day shift detail for a few hours, but they’ll keep out of your way unless you need them. I’ll be back here after lunch so we can finish sorting outHenderson’s budget. Get some sleep first or I won’t bring doughnuts this afternoon.’

‘Doughnuts? When did you last eat doughnuts Alec?’ Straker asked, finishing his coffee and settling down. He was nearly asleep before Colonel Freeman had left the room, and fast asleep when his friend returned with breakfast.

He woke later, refreshed and ready to face the day. It was peaceful in the flat but he missed the company of Rachel and he looked forward to seeing Alec later. It was good to have people around him, he realised. He had spent too many evenings in the farmhouse, alone and silent.

Showered and dressed he sat at the Clavinova and practised the latest piece that he was working on. Step by step the phrases began to flow together, until he felt sufficiently pleased to attempt the first section from the beginning. Good. He preferred the sound of a real piano, but this was the next best thing. He would give it a go on the piano in the staff lounge next time he was in HQ.

When Colonel Freeman returned late in the afternoon Straker was sitting  at his desk. He put down his pen and tidied up the stack of papers he had been working on.

‘More secrets from your past Ed? When are you going to tell us where all the bodies are buried?’ Alec Freeman quizzed him.

‘Sorry to disappoint you Alec, this is the latest report from Foster. He faxed it over to me earlier on. I’ve just finished reading it. So anything I should know about? What’s happening at HQ.’

‘Absolutely nothing. It’s as quiet as the proverbial grave. Moonbase is up to date with all their reports, all systems have been fully overhauled and we are beginning to get terminal boredom. It comes to something when I am hoping for an alert. Still it gives me a chance to assess the new recruits that started last month.’

Freeman, a definite ‘people’ person, enjoyed working with the new recruits. Besides giving him a chance to get to know them, he also used it as an opportunity to get to know the female operatives in a more friendly way. Ed  grinned, knowing full well what Alec had in mind.

The afternoon continued, hassle-free and undisturbed by annoying and inconvenient intrusions from aliens. Once the budget report was completed they worked their way through most of the other necessary paperwork for the month.

Straker didn’t manage to get any more of his report written that day. He annoyed his protection detail by going for a late run after dark and finished the evening with a long shower before bed. His sleep was dreamless and healing and he woke refreshed.

Running in the early morning thin sunshine, a haze of soft mist clouding the horizon, breakfast while sitting watching a peaceful world wake up and get ready for work. It was a good start to the day. Undisturbed by visitors, by the stress of work or by tiredness, he sat and prepared to continue his commentary.

Desert Fox.

That had been the beginning of the end, or so it seemed at the time. He picked up a clean sheet of paper and began to write.

The desert night was cold, bitterly cold and he was shivering uncontrollably. His captors had finally dragged him from the cramped prison in which he had been trapped, and he lay out in the open air, feverish and aching, hands and feet tied.  He could hear the distant sounds of airplanes, streaking across the sky, and then a helicopter, progressively getting closer and closer.

Suddenly he was alone, unguarded and forgotten, as his captors clustered together listening to the encroaching enemy. With shouts of alarm they headed for the ramshackle building where he had been held during the day, emerging with weapons which they readied for action against the oncoming threat.

The helicopter appeared suddenly over the nearest dune, incredibly huge, incredibly noisy, closer to the ground than he would have thought possible, sweeping low, gunfire spraying across the ground, flashing in the darkness and illuminating the outline of its open door.

The pilot, with consummate skill from years of experience, brought the huge craft swinging over the camp and then almost with prescient knowledge halted just feet above where he lay, cringing in the hurricane force of its downdraft.

Eyes tightly closed against the stinging sand, he did not see the burly figure leap down from the body of the copter, covered by the heavy gunfire from inside the machine. Straker felt himself lifted roughly, flung over a shoulder and then carried; he had no idea what was happening, and struggled to get free.

‘It’s okay Ed, it’s me. Stop struggling mate.’ A familiar voice shouted as he was manhandled in through the open door. It was then that it happened. One single round, fired wildly by one of the captors, sped across the void, smashing into Straker’s left shoulder just as he was thrown into the cabin. One microsecond earlier or later and it would have hit the metal frame of the open door, just as the second bullet did.  And in that one infinitesimal moment, Ed Straker’s life changed irrevocably.

It had taken him nearly six months to regain mobility in his pinned and reconstructed shoulder.  NASA sent their regrets, and commiserations, but his name had been removed from all future cohorts for  Astronaut training.

They were sure that he would understand and hoped that he would consider coming to work for them in a consultancy capacity, but, as he was aware, candidates needed to be one hundred per cent fit. In despair he had torn the letter into shreds and gone home toBostonfor a long break before returning toEngland.

Promoted to Lt Colonel, reassigned to USAF Military Intelligence he had kept himself busy, but it was not what he had planned for his life and he was desperately unhappy.  He had kept in touch with Alec Freeman; letters, phone calls, the occasional meeting where Freeman got drunk and Ed looked on, amused.

Freeman had finished his tour of duty while Ed was still recuperating in the military hospital, and the Australian had elected to stay in the Air Force where he could indulge in his passion for flying a wide variety of planes. He was destined for Test pilot school and spent his last meeting expounding his latest theories regarding High Altitude flying. He was too engrossed in his ideas to notice that Straker was quiet and still, depressed and withdrawn over his failure to achieve his main goal in life.

The evening ended as usual. Freeman too drunk to drive and Straker taking the car keys off him and helping Alec into the passenger seat. As usual.

Freeman liked to sing when drunk, and Straker endured several interminable minutes of almost deafening noise from his passenger before Alec finally fell asleep. He looked across and wondered why he still kept in contact with a man who was so unlike himself. Freeman was a Casanova, a drinker, a man-about-town, the guy you always wanted at your party.

Ed knew that he himself was the exact opposite, quiet, studious, determined, loathing socialising and crowds, and preferring to remain in the background. He and Alec were absolute  opposites, yet they were completely at ease with each other. It was a purely platonic friendship; both men had enjoyed close relationships with a number of women, and there was a friendly, and at times fierce, competition between them when it came to sports, careers or relationships with the opposite sex.

Straker drove carefully; he was not really comfortable driving on the left; it was dark and the road was unlit. Primitive backwater of civilisation, he thought to himself, and then he noticed the full moon shining above the car, almost following the vehicle as he drove.

No that was wrong, the moon tonight was gibbous, not full. What the hell was going on? He stopped the car, switched off the engine and got out, leaving Alec Freeman still snoring in the passenger seat.

Commander Straker looked pensive as he recollected seeing that UFO. His first; the first of so, so many. Alec had remained asleep while he had watched the spinning cone whirl across the sky. An intense beam of green light had flared from the circling object, and had blasted the road surface just yards in front.

Without hesitation he opened the passenger door and dragged Freeman out, slinging him over his shoulder in imitation of that night when Alec had done the same for him in the desert. He wasn’t quite as strong as Alec, but he still managed to get him into the scrubby undergrowth at the side of the road where they huddled until he was sure that it was safe to emerge.

The following morning, after reading of mutilated corpses found in the same area later that night, Straker wrote a terse report for his Commanding officer. He handed it in, never expecting to hear anything further, except maybe a few laughs at his expense. He was called to the Base Commander’s office within the hour.

‘Come in Colonel. This is General Henderson. He’s seen your report and has some questions for you.’ It was obvious that the base commander had serious doubts as to the veracity of Straker’s report and was inclined to treat the whole episode as a practical joke.

Straker had come out of his meeting with General Henderson a changed man. He had been assigned to the General’s staff with the mandate and the authority to investigate the increasing number of apparent incursions into the atmosphere by Unidentified Flying Objects that seemed to come from outside the solar system.

Operation Angel. Straker often thought of it afterwards as his Guardian Angel, the one that saved his life. If he hadn’t been assigned to the post he would probably have resigned from the military and gone home to a dead-end job with no future. A grey life of nothingness.

It was just what Straker had been seeking; a purpose, a direction, a career path that gave him the opportunity to work with some of the foremost scientific brains in the world, and in the field of space exploration.  And there was another bright star on the horizon. Mary Nightingale.

They had only recently met, but already the relationship was serious. Ed hoped that his new career, working for a four star General would impress Mary’s father, who so far had been rather dismissive of the young American ex pilot.

Enough. Ed Straker, SHADO chief, didn’t really feel the need to relate the details of his failed marriage; he had relived his deeds too many times in the past to want to write them down forJacksonto gloat over. Mary had no part to play in this narration.

Alec Freeman however, was a thread that ran through his life, constantly there, helping to tie together the loose strands of his existence, supporting and guiding him in his life’s work. Writing all this down, he realised with a sudden shock that he could not have survived the past years without the blunt, outspoken Londoner at his side.

He picked up his mobile and speed dialled Alec’s private number.

‘Afternoon Ed. What can I do for you?’ Freeman sounded unusually chirpy. Ed wondered if Colonel Freeman had spent last night ‘assessing’ one of the new recruits. Well it was one way of getting exercise. Straker preferred running. It was easier and didn’t involve long, difficult relationships. He would go jogging again tonight; he had slept exceptionally well after last night’s run and as he didn’t have to worry about security it was something to look forward to. He hoped the agents assigned to him tonight were a little fitter. It was embarrassing this morning having to wait for the secret service to catch up with him. At least he was getting faster.

‘Alec. I need SHADO to run a G6 check on some names, and also get psyche evaluations on the same. Czuma, Griff and Ben all worked for NASA in 1997 and went into the shuttle programme. I need to know where they are and what they are doing now and can you check to see if any of them have come the attention of our team in the US.’

‘Sure, any particular reason for the G6?  Any security risk we need to be aware of?’

‘No Alec, just personal interest that’s all. Something that I should have done a long time ago.  There might be a recruitment opportunity there, but nothing definite.’

‘Okay, I’ll get right onto it. Anything else?’

‘Just one more thing. I’ve got a reservation at the restaurant for tonight. Rachel can’t make it; she’s overseeing the security updates in Miss Ealand’s office. Do you fancy pasta? Usual time?’  A nonchalant and casual invitation to a friend.

‘Absolutely. See you there. You can drive me back afterwards.’

‘Don’t I always? It was driving you back that got me into this line of work if I remember correctly.’ And with a grin Straker put the phone down.

He spent the rest of the day relaxing, working on his music, catching up on some light reading (Dan Brown; like eating candyfloss; all froth and no substance), then drove out to see how much work had been done in rebuilding his farmhouse. He was surprised to find that he no longer felt any attachment to the old place. It had been somewhere to live, and now he had somewhere different, somewhere more convenient and pleasant, with happier memories and hopefully a future. Even if he decided to move out of the apartment the farm was too far out and too isolated to be a sensible choice.

He shrugged his shoulders, discussed the schedule of works with the site manager and mentally decided to put the building on the market as soon as it was completed. He would have to notify Colonel Philips of course; there were aspects of the farmhouse that would not be needed any more; the panic room, the secure office and so on. He wondered if he would be able to purchase the apartment instead. It would be better than renting it out, and he had the money, thanks to Harlington, more than sufficient money to purchase the entire block if necessary.

Ah yes, money. And Harlington. That should be written down as well. When he returned to his apartment he settled down to scribe the next episode in his career.

Project Angel had been underway for several months, very difficult months. From his research and the little data that was filtering in, he had discovered that UFOs had been attacking Earth for several years, initially unrecognised and ignored by governments around the world.

Eventually, of course the political leaders were forced to take notice and Military Intelligence units around the world were conscripted to investigate.Hendersonwas the man in charge of the whole operation. The incursions were always accompanied by mutilated bodies or unexplained disappearances but no-one could give any reason for the attacks, just that something had to be done to stop them.

And so SHADO was formed and, through an accident of fate he became its Commander. He had not intended for that to happen; newly married he had a wife to consider, and SHADO took up most of his time. It had been a brilliant suggestion to base the HQ in the basement of a film studio. And Harlington, head of the world’s foremost Satellite, Communications and Electronics Company, with subsidiary interests in film, television and radio, had been approached by the IAC.

On hearing that Ed Straker, the ex astronaut who had saved his son’s life, had been put in charge of the development, he had readily agreed to fund the setting up of an independent film studio as a cover for the operation, on condition that Straker received some percentage of the profits from the studio. The outcry from the IAC was deafening.

Eventually the IAC capitulated; Harlington put millions into developing the studio and as the studio prospered, SHADO linked its research and development groups with Harlington’s company. Straker, now extremely wealthy, thanks to his role as Executive Producer, could afford to indulge in his few leisure activities; hence the Steinway.

Harlington, still a consultant member on the IAC board, kept a fatherly eye on him, often visiting the studios to see the latest developments but also to inspect SHADO’s innovative technology. Harlington Communications even had a Medical Research section and had funded theMaylandHospitalcomplete with its Trauma Unit and SHADO section.

Ed Straker had often wondered how successful SHADO would have been without the support from Harlington.  Certainly SHADO would not have had as much access to some very ground-breaking technological developments. He understood they were working on developing intradermal transponders and communicators. Interesting thought.  He would have to speak to Harlington sometime soon about the new advances in bioelectronics.

Looking at his watch, the watch that Alec had given him, he realised that he would be late unless he hurried. Quickly he tidied up the papers and notified his agents that he was going out. They hurried to get ready and followed him out as he went to get his car. They hated it when he drove himself, and pursued his Saab as closely as they dared through the busy streets to the restaurant. Alec was already there, prompt as always.

‘About time too. I was beginning to think you’d stood me up.’ Freeman joked as Straker sat down. ‘What were you writing about this time?’

‘Ah well, the sordid topic of money actually. I was telling Jacksonjust how wealthy I really am.  He always thought I was dependent on my salary and I never found a reason to disillusion him. Oh well, all good things come to an end. I expect his begging letters will start soon.’  He picked up the menu and glanced through it, before handing it back. ‘I’ll have the usual please,’ he
smiled up at the waiter.

‘Certainly Mr Straker, and you Mr Freeman?’

‘Oh I’ll have the same. Thanks.’ Alec Freeman turned to his friend. ‘So Ed, this record of yours, are you going to put everything in it?’ He glanced sideways with a quizzical look. ‘I’d like to read it before you give it toJacksonif that’s alright with you. I might need to edit some parts.’

Straker thought for a moment. ‘Well, I might let you see it, but I would have to kill you afterwards. Or there’s the amnesia drug. I can always administer that if you prefer?’ He laughed at Alec’s expression. ‘Seriously Alec, I’d rather no one else read it. It’s not been easy writing it all down, although it has helped me to rationalise decisions that I made in the past. There are also some details that are still considered Top Secret and you really don’t want to go there. One day maybe.’ He stared honestly into Alec’s eyes. Freeman stared back but couldn’t faze his boss.

‘Okay Ed. I’ll take your word for it. Just remember you owe me.’

‘I owe you an awful lot Alec and I’m not likely to forget. Now did you get those G6 reports for me? ’

‘Sure, they’re in the car. Do you want them now?’

‘No, I’ll look through them tonight and see if they come up with anything useful. Thanks for doing them Alec, I appreciate it.’

 

Chapter 8

The G6 profiles and initial  psyche evaluations on the three NASA crewmen were interesting to say the least. Walter had married shortly after the Maverick mission and had gone onto command three Shuttle missions before being transferred to the Research and Development Department. Straker knew what that involved; long hours of paperwork, long hours spent watching others advance their careers while you sat and slowly stagnated.

He wondered if Walter was happy; if he was achieving his dreams. He knew that he had expressed a desire to be in the team that returned to the moon one day. Straker read through the report again. The SHADO recruitment team in theUShad already marked Walter for possible recruitment. All indications were that he had the necessary qualifications to be worth approaching.

Griff and Ben. They too had progressed as far as possible and were now sidelined for promotion, as the Shuttle programme ground to a slow, inexorable halt after the two tragedies. The Ares system, due for testing in late 2009, was reserved for the new group of astronauts, and the old boys were out in the cold; redundant and outmoded. Ed Straker, who had experienced deep disappointment in his own career, but had been given a second chance, sat back, fingers steepled, thinking. He reached for his phone. Late though it was there was always a senior staff operative on duty in Communications.

‘Straker here. I need transport tomorrow toHoustonto arrive mid-morning.’

He paused, listening to the reply. ‘No, just me, no one else. I don’t know exactly when I will be returning, probably within a couple of days. …….Yes; arrange accommodation for me as well. Two nights should be sufficient. Please notify Colonel Philips that I will be leaving for the States tomorrow. She can contact me at my home address this evening for further details. ……………………. Excellent. I’ll be ready.’

He put his phone down and went to warn the detail next door.

The flight to Houston was long but uneventful. Eight  hours in the air, so he  took the controls for takeoff and the first couple of hours of the flight. It was either that or sit in the Gulfstream’s plush cabin being watched by the ever present security force. He needed to build up his flight time anyway.

He had hoped to leave  his security  behind in England, but after an extremely stern, and amusingly threatening phone call from his Security Chief, he had capitulated and agreed to have them on board. He wouldn’t need them in the Space Centre though, security there was pretty tight. A visit to Discovery was on his agenda; he wondered if any of the technicians had found the miniscule  patch of hidden graffiti that he and the others had etched on her cargo bay. ‘MaverickMission, June 1997’ and their names. He hoped not.

Three days later in Houston it was all done. He had met with his crew, and found, as he had hoped and anticipated, that they were restless in their dead end posts. NASA had moved on from the Shuttle and was forging ahead with its Ares programme, leaving the well-trained shuttle crewmen and women behind, to flounder in the mire of broken promises and unfulfilled dreams.

Walter, Griff and Ben had met him in his hotel on the first night and had enjoyed a quiet celebratory meal together, reminiscing about the mission. None of them drank alcohol, Ed was interested to note. Gently, unobtrusively he quizzed them to ascertain if they were up to speed on NASA’s latest developments.

There  would be no point  trying to recruit men who didn’t have the enthusiasm or the mental capacity to learn new skills. He also sounded them out about career changes. All three were actively looking for new challenges, but with so many redundant Shuttle astronauts in the jobmarket, they were not hopeful.

He went to bed that night having notified Alec Freeman that he might  be putting three candidates forward for processing in the next couple of days.

But he also took the amnesia drug with him when he next met the crew. It was better to be safe than sorry.

‘You mean there are bases on the Moon?’ Walter, incredulous yet excited, couldn’t take his eyes off the photographs of Moonbase and the Interceptors. ‘Count me in Ed. When do I start training? Is that your task; to organise training?’’  Straker was not about to explain that he was, in fact the Commander-in-Chief of SHADO. If they wanted to believe that he was assigned to train recruits for SHADO, he was not about to argue with them. It made his life a little simpler. It they passed the training then they would find out soon enough exactly what he did.

Griff was as enthusiastic and accepted the need for intense security. However Ben had his doubts. He was about to get married again and didn’t think that relocating to England would go down well with his fiancée. Straker smiled understandingly and poured him a cup of coffee.

‘It’s no problem Ben, I do understand your concerns. Just get in touch with me if you change your mind at any time.’ He handed him the drink, knowing full well that shortly Ben would not recall any of the conversation. The other two watched perplexed as Ben easily and gently fell asleep.

‘Don’t worry, he isn’t harmed in any way at all. He’ll just not have any memory of this conversation when he wakes up.’ Straker assured the other two. ‘Okay, if you are both serious about joining us, then I need to get things moving as quickly as possible. The sooner you are away fromHoustonand in the training centre the better. SHADO HQ will organise accommodation and sort out removal and all necessary requirements.’ He smiled at them, ‘It will be good to have you on board and you will both definitely get to walk on the moon in the not too distant future.’

He spent his final day in Houston taking advantage of his security clearance and getting details of NASA’s latest technology. Some of it could be useful to SHADO and he arranged to collect the coded discs for transport back to base.

He even spoke to the Flight Director who had shelved him all those years ago, and who was now a senior management consultant. It was rather satisfying in a way to be able to look back and see how dull his life would have been had he simply become an astronaut. He would doubtless have been heading for the ‘consultancy’ side of NASA and would have been pushed aside  in favour of younger men.

All in all a very worthwhile journey, he mused on the way home late on the third day, while reading the reports on the Ares development. Two new interceptor pilots both with the potential to make Moonbase Commanders and the insider information on NASA’s planned High Orbital Vehicle.

The apartment was in darkness when he got back. The security guys insisted on opening the door and checking  through the building to ensure it was clear before they would let him in. On the balcony in the quiet of the night he sat under the starlight thinking about his first trip to Moonbase. That had been a defining moment in his life, one of those moments that he  wished he had been able  to  wrap up and freeze-dry just so that he  bring it out and relive it over and over again.

The soundless scrunch of dust under his boots like walking on burnt toast crumbs. The brightness of the light, the darkness of the shadows, the gloriously indescribable sensation of moving in one sixth gravity. And looking up at Earth.

That  tiny bubble of life, so perfect and so beautiful, the target for obscene alien attacks, that planet that was his home. Where he belonged.  He thought about Walter and Griff, getting ready for their flight to England, their new lives, and he was confident that in six months time he would be able to formally welcome them into SHADO upon completion of the training schedule.

Tired and jet lagged he headed for bed, part of him wishing that he was not alone, that he had her with him tonight. It was not to be however. He had too many responsibilities to be able to indulge in what could turn out to be a short term relationship, although he personally had no intention of ending his closeness with Rachel.

He dreamed of her that night. Dreamed of her and wanted her.

 

Chapter 9

Lying awake in the pale October morning, he watched the thin sunlight washing through the windows and speckling patterns across the polished floor. There was nothing to get up for, no early meeting, no emergency calls to get into HQ to deal with incoming, just his early morning  run round the quayside. He was going to take it easy today and finish his account forJackson.  It was time to bring this to an end, to complete his writing and hand it in for the psychiatrist to dissect and evaluate.

SHADO was his priority now, and although he had to be honest and admit that he had benefitted from the enforced break, he was desperate to return to the underground HQ and restart his life. He had come to terms with the events of the past few weeks and, although he still had to deal with Packard and Buckley, who were both being held in SHADO’s security section awaiting execution, he knew now that he had the support and love and trust of his two closest friends.

It no longer mattered what Jackson or Henderson said or did. Alec Freeman and Rachel would never let anything happen to him, just as he would fight to the death to protect them at all costs. That was the true meaning of friendship; to know that whatever you did they would still be there, waiting for you.

Alec had come for him in the desert when he was a prisoner, had rescued him from the cellar and ignored his pleas to be left to die, had welcomed him back as if nothing had ever happened. Alec was his counterpart, his mirror image, the warmth to Straker’s ice. He knew that without Alec he would never have survived those utterly desperate times when his marriage failed and when his son died.

Alec was as much a part of the SHADO success story as he himself was. And looking back over his pages of writing Straker realised that he needed Alec to read them, to understand what had driven Straker to become the Commander of SHADO. What had driven him since then.

He stacked the papers together and realised  that there was nothing else that he needed to write at the moment, or that he wanted Jackson to read about. It was time to put his life back together, to get back to work and to hell with Henderson and his threats. Shado needed its Commander and he needed to be there, helping to keep the world safe.

He spent the remainder of the morning doing random insignificant things; replacing his music collection, going for a brief stroll , buying a hotdog just from the hell of it, then settled down in the afternoon  to some serious work. He had always loved doing research and began his long-delayed exploration of the effects of Gamma Rays, hoping to find some practical applications that would be useful to Shado. He worked solidly until after midnight.

He was awake before the alarm call. No running today. He picked at his breakfast, and sipped his coffee unable to still the fears at the back of his mind.

He got ready for work, dressing with care and wearing uniform as opposed to his usual high collared suit that was appropriate for his alter-ego as Film executive as well as Commander. The uniform, severely cut and undecorated, highlighted his features, bringing into sharp relief his bone structure; the rows of medal ribbons on his breast the only  bright flash of colour. The uniform would unsettleJacksonand remind him that Straker was, after all a Colonel in the USAF as well as C-in-C of SHADO, and Jackson, as a civilian, had no jurisdiction over him.

There was another reason for the uniform, although he tried not to think about it.

Today was the last day for Packard and Buckley. He had missed their court martial, having been in the Recovery Unit at the time, but had not been surprised at the outcome. Traitors paid the highest price. And Henderson and the court had designated today as the day of execution.

Straker knew what that involved.

There were two options. Either get a security detail to form a firing squad; unpleasant and with long lasting repercussions for the men and women involved, or do the job himself.

He had done it before. It was a truly  vile thing to have to do, but if it needed to be done, if it helped keep SHADO  secure, then he would do it again, as many times as necessary.

He checked his appearance in the mirror, straightening his jacket, then headed for his car. Outside, about to open the car door, he paused, thinking, and turned to his two escorts.

‘I’ll need you to drive me today.’ His request puzzled them, but they did not argue. He sat in the back seat, quiet and pensive, knowing that after dealing with the two collaborators later in the day he would not want to drive himself home. He would deal with the emotional after-effects later.

Miss Ealand stared as he walked with long, confident strides into her office. ‘Good morning Mr Straker.’ She picked up his briefcase, that he had placed on her desk for the obligatory security scan, and followed him through into the inner office. He sat in the leather chair, behind the desk with its esoteric and eye-catching sculpture of a winged horse.

‘Messages?’ It was as if he had never been away. She dictated a long list for his attention, then left the office. The door slid shut behind her.

He paused, hand ready to pick up and open the cigarette box.Jacksonwas waiting. His future was waiting. It was time to get it over and done with. Finally.

‘Straker’

‘Voice Print Identification Positive; Commander Straker.’

He smiled.

The rumour raced through HQ Control with the speed of a UFO. Commander Straker was back, and in uniform. Operatives craned their necks to try to catch a glimpse of him as he walked briskly, stern and forbidding, through the corridors to the Medical Section for his appointed meeting withJackson.  And as he walked through the familiar corridors he came to a decision. Jackson would not be happy.

Jackson was waiting. ‘Good morning Commander.’ he said. ‘Did you have a pleasant break?’

‘Very enjoyable actually.’

‘And you have your report for me?’

Straker took a breath. ‘No. I have written it, but I have decided that you may not read it. It is my personal account, and as such has no relevance to you or to my ability to do my job.’

‘I see  Commander. Will I ever get a chance to read it?’

‘Perhaps in twenty five years or so, when I retire.’ Straker looked at him, blue eyes daring Jackson to argue back.

‘Very well Commander. I will look forward to reading it sometime in the future. I am glad to see you back in SHADO. The efficiency rating always increases when you are in the Headquarters.’Jackson turned away as if in dismissal.

Straker stared at him. ‘So that’s it? I can get back to work?’

‘Oh absolutely Commander, you are obviously fully recovered from the recent events and I am sure that SHADO is eager to have you back at the helm. I will tell General Henderson that I have authorised your return to work.’ and he  smiled his infuriatingly  enigmatic smile.

Straker stood for one long moment looking at the psychiatrist almost in disgust, then, shaking his head in disbelief walked out, back to his office.

Alec Freeman was waiting there for him, a mug of coffee ready on the desk next to the glass sphere.

‘Here Alec, some bedtime reading, for those rare nights when you are all alone and can’t sleep.’ Straker handed  his carefully written account to his friend, with a smile.

‘Are you sure Ed?’ Freeman asked. ‘I would very much like to read it, but I know how private it is.’

‘Look, Alec, I thought we had decided that I needed to be a bit more open with my friends. Read it and tell me what you think. I might have a new career ahead of me as a writer of fantasy novels.’

Alec laughed and moved towards the conference table where the day’s stack of paperwork was waiting to be dealt with. Then an all too familiar voice interrupted them.

‘This is Space Intruder Detector  I have UFO’s on positive track….’

‘Typical,’ Freeman grimaced as they hurried to the control room. ‘They must know your schedule. How is it that we’ve had nothing for the last two weeks and the minute you’re back they decide to visit?’

There was no answer to that, thought Straker, whose mind was now directed on the task ahead. They worked together, efficiently organising and deploying attack forces and monitoring the outcomes, until eventually, after several  hours it was all over.

‘Good result.’ Freeman concluded as they headed back to Straker’s office. ‘Any plans for this evening? Fancy a take away at mine?’

Straker stopped almost in mid stride. ‘I have to deal with something first Alec, and it might be late when I have finished. Perhaps we could do it tomorrow?’ He suddenly looked dejected and tired, his mind clearly focussed solely on something that was bothering him.

‘Sure, no problem.’ Freeman assured him, looking closely at his boss.  ‘Catch you later.’  He watched Straker walk away, fully aware of what his friend was going to face, but unable to support him. Straker would never let anyone get involved in what he was about to do.

Later that evening, after completing the day’s paperwork and reports, Straker, heading for his meeting with Packard and Buckley, paused as he passed by the Staff Lounge. It was dark and deserted and after a moment’s hesitation he went and sat at the piano, lifting the lid and resting his fingers on the keys.

Closing his eyes he began to play; the music, melancholy and slow, telling a tale of sorrow and desolation. Alec Freeman heard the gentle, heartbreaking sound, but there was nothing he could do to help.

The music ceased. For long minutes the Commander sat there, fingers clenched, then stood up, turned, and strode from the room, determined and resolute.

The cells, down in the secondary basement section of the HQ were small and not intended for long term use. Packard and Buckley had both been confined there for over four weeks and were looking pale and haggard from the lack of sunlight and exercise.

Straker had them both brought out and taken, handcuffed and under heavy guard, to the secure sound-proof Armoury.  He had no intention of using his own weapon today. A spare gun would do. One he would never have to use again.

Opening the gun cabinet he picked up  a Glock, the gun that he was most familiar and comfortable with, loaded it and checked the balance and sighting. He needed to do this right, the first time, with no mistakes.

Packard and Buckley stood in the room, held firmly by the guards. They did not speak, just looked at him and at each other, as if they knew that it was a hopeless cause.

‘Thank you. You may go now.’ In a quiet, controlled voice that belied his distress at what he was about to do, he ordered the guards out of the room. They left hurriedly, knowing what was about to happen and wanting to have no part in it, however much they agreed with the decision.

He turned round  to stare at  the two men.

‘Do you have any last words? Either of you?’

‘You can’t do this, Henderson won’t let you.’ Packard blustered desperately.

‘Yes I can, andHendersoncan do nothing to stop me.’ His voice a cold monotone.  There was no point prevaricating any longer. They had had long enough to make their peace with whatever was facing them after death.

He raised the gun, pointing it accurately at Packard and shot him cleanly through the forehead, then swiftly, even before Buckley had time to assimilate what had happened, Straker had shot him too just as precisely. Blood and brain matter spattered randomly across the white walls, as both men crumpled in untidy heaps.

Straker removed the magazine from the gun, calmly tidied it up and locked it away in the cabinet. He  made  a mental note to have the gun destroyed at a later date. Wiping  his hands on a cloth as if to remove non-existent blood stains he looked down at the corpses on the floor, blood slowly oozing from  beneath their shattered skulls.

‘A quick clean death. More than you deserved. More than you were prepared to give me.’ He turned his back on them and walked out, hands trembling ever so slightly with suppressed emotions.

His driver was waiting for him. The journey home was silent. He just put his head back and closed his eyes, reliving again that moment when the back of Packard’s skull fragmented into shards as the bullet exited; over and over again

He didn’t think he would be going running tonight. Too many conflicting emotions twisted themselves in his head; getting back to work, dealing successfully with the alien  incursion and finally closing the file on Buckley and Packard.

He knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep. And he was at work in the morning.

Epilogue

The apartment was in darkness when he arrived. The guard opened the door for him before leaving and Straker switched on the light, unwilling to enter the gloom of the living room, although it had never bothered him before.  The shadowy murkiness in the corners of the spacious living area seemed to conceal dark nightmares that threatened him.

He sat down, head in his hands, thinking about what he had done. He had taken two lives today, killed two men in cold blood, monstrously evil though they had been. The sound of their bodies hitting the floor echoed in his mind. He began to shake, with dread at what he was becoming, with the release of tension, and with the reliving of the moment.

A hand touched his shoulder and, startled though he was, he was on his feet instantly, turning to face his assailant, his gun out and pointing at head height. She remained calm, as if she had been expecting his reaction and smiled sadly at him.

‘Rachel?’ His voice shook as he recalled holding a gun in that same way, in that same hand, just hours earlier. He collapsed back onto the sofa, the gun falling from his trembling hand onto the cushions, forgotten.

‘Alec told me about Packard and Buckley. He told me you might need someone tonight. I’m here Ed, if you want me.’

He clung to her, desperately trying to blot out the vision of the two bodies. She held him closely as he began to weep and, eventually, as he calmed and quietened, she led him to bed, helping him undress and later, getting undressed herself and lying next to him, her arms holding him firmly, safely.

She remained there holding him and soothing away the distress of the day, until, presently, in the dark of the night, he turned to her and reached for her, wanting her to comfort him and need him and love him. And so, she did.

 

This was my third ‘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. I made a couple of changes though, to remove parts where Alec is referred to as an Australian, and to remove a rather derogatory reference to Paul Foster, who I have grown to love as a character.

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

Ltcdr. Oct 2009/June 2012

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