It was getting on for midnight when he finished his late night run and jogged, sweaty and tired, back up the stairs to the apartment. He had gradually built up his distance and he was back to his old running habits, now comfortably over three miles when possible. The escorting runners were not happy, as usual. They hated it when he went out in the dark, vehemently complaining about the dangers. He ignored them, as usual.
Since taking up running again in the Autumn, his stress levels had gone down dramatically and most nights he managed to sleep without being disturbed by nightmares. Not every night though, but he was dealing with that, and Rachel was helping as well.
The apartment was quiet, but not deserted. Random signs of her presence were scattered around the living area; her jacket, flung over a chair, her briefcase in one corner and faintly, an unmistakable hint of her perfume. He smiled, realising that she had arrived home while he was out exercising and would probably still be awake.
‘And what time do you call this?’ her muffled voice from under the duvet. ‘You finished work ages ago. I should know, I was there. I was expecting you back ages ago.’
‘Sorry.’ He was apologetic and contrite, sitting on his side of the bed to take off his trainers and socks. Slipping his Glock from its shoulder holster, he checked it was secure and slid it, without thinking, under his pillow. His mobile placed on the bedside table, ready to be answered quickly if needed. ‘We had unexpected visitors before I left and I had to sort them out. It took rather longer than anyone anticipated. Will you forgive me?’
‘I don’t know.’ Still deep under the covers. ‘It depends.’
‘On whether you get me coffee and croissants in the morning. I don’t have to get up until after ten. If you remember I am jetting off world in the afternoon.’ Her head emerged from where it had been hiding and she smirked at him. ‘So you can bring me breakfast in bed before you leave.’
‘Is this what I have been reduced to? Commander in Chief of SHADO, and making coffee for the minions? You’ll have me taking the rubbish out next.’ She laughed at his fake discomfort and tossed a pillow at him as he crossed to the bathroom. He caught it and threw it back, fast and accurately. Then shut and locked the bathroom door before she could get out of bed to grab him.
She reached for her mobile and speed dialled the Night Controller in HQ. ‘Colonel Philips here. Commander Straker has a wake-up call at five thirty this morning. Please put that call back to seven o’clock. On my responsibility. And notify the protection detail of the change in the Commander’s schedule.’
‘Certainly Colonel.’ Her staff knew better than to question her decisions. She settled back, listening to the splash of the shower and his voice, softly singing. It was another surprising facet to his personality; SHADO staff in HQ would be astonished to know that he had a well-trained, tenor voice. One day she would succeed in getting him to sing with the SHADO choir at one of the informal staff get-togethers. SHADO staff were, by now, used to hearing him play the piano, especially at the end of a long, difficult day. He, in turn, was getting used to people coming into the Staff Lounge just to listen as he let the stresses of the job fade away under the spell of playing pieces by Chopin, Bach and Beethoven with the occasional Ligeti sonata thrown in for good measure.
The shower and the singing stopped. He was rubbing his hair dry as he came back into the bedroom, with another towel around his hips. She leaned back on the pillows and watched him, noting the subtle changes in his physique over the past three months. He had put on weight and now looked fit and more robust, especially as he still had a slight suntan. The short post-Christmas break in Antigua was to thank for that.
A few days spent sunbathing and swimming and relaxing. Just what Dr Jackson had ordered. It was a pity that she had been unable to join him, but Alec had managed to get away for a couple of days. Both of them had come back refreshed and recharged. And it was a good thing too; the aliens had attacked in force straight after their return and SHADO had been inordinately busy for several long exhausting days.
He turned to her. ‘Anything I should know about?’ he asked her in a mildly ironic yet questioning tone.
‘Such as?’ she queried.
‘Oh, such as,’ he paused, looking at her quizzically, ‘my alarm call being put back ninety minutes?’
She had the good grace to blush. ‘Sorry,’ she pleaded, ‘You didn’t get much sleep last night with the raid, and you’ve been working late tonight. I just thought you needed to catch up. I shouldn’t have done it without asking you but it’s too late now.’
‘It isn’t. I could call and change it back but I won’t; this time. I do need to catch up. It’s been a tiring few days.’ He sounded slightly annoyed as he pulled back the covers, stripped off the bath towel and lay down, wrapping himself in the warmth of the soft bedding. She lay there for a moment, disconcerted at his seeming indifference to her. He turned off the light on his side, and rolled over, his back to her. ‘G’night’ he muttered and shortly she heard a faint snore.
She lay still, unwilling to speak, unwilling to make a move towards him if he was feeling so tired. She lay still. He snored again, quietly, and then she heard him desperately trying to control his laughter under the covers.
‘You…. You…’ words failed her and she resorted to grabbing his pillow and trying to hold it down over his face. It was futile, against his superior strength and the fact that she was laughing so much. He reached for her, drawing her closer and pulling her down to kiss her with passion and desire.
‘Mmnnn..’ his head emerged from under the cover, ashen blonde hair tousled as he reached for the ringing mobile. He fumbled sleepily for the answer button.
‘Straker…………… thank you.’ Putting the phone back on the table he rolled over, staring at the ceiling, as if to orientate himself. Seven o’clock. He had to admit he felt better for the extra sleep. Surprising how much difference ninety minutes could make. Rachel was still asleep, her back to him, black hair strewn across the pillow like silk strands.
Gently, carefully so as not to wake her, he stroked her cheek with the back of his hand, enjoying the softness of her skin, her beauty, her delicate features and yet the hidden strength in her personality. He was beginning to realise just how much he relied on her presence to help him through the stresses of his everyday life. Even after just a few months he could not imagine life without her. With a thrill he realised that he was deeply, deeply in love with her.
Unable to resist, he leaned closer and kissed the nape of her neck. She snuggled against him and muttered in a drowsy voice. ‘G’morning. Don’t forget you promised to make me coffee.’ And he could have sworn he heard her giggle.
Reluctantly he got out of the inviting comfort of the warm bed into the cool chill of the bedroom, the wooden floor cold to his feet. Naked, he headed for the bathroom, to shower quickly before his morning run.
It was a perfect day, bright, with a crisp sharpness in the air. Hoar frost jewelled the cobwebs on the bushes and late winter red sun hung low over the horizon, just visible under the layer of high cirrus cloud that covered the sky. He ran a new route today, further than usual and keeping up his pace so that eventually he was forced to stop just to allow the escort to catch up. He hadn’t felt this good in weeks, no, months. Leaning on the rails breathing deeply and comfortably, looking over the quay at the distance apartment block on the other side he felt at ease with life, with himself.
Then the proximity alarm on his wristband sounded with a warning shriek. He spun around looking for trouble at ground level. Nothing visible. Then he heard it, the unmistakable high pitched whine of an approaching spinner.
‘Damn.’ The chase car was suddenly beside him, on the pathway, pedestrians scattering as it braked, the door open and ready. Straker slid into the back seat without hesitation and the secret service agent moved to sit next to him, gun out, eyes watchful and alert.
‘Go.’ His escort shouted and the car sped off, across the pavement and heading for the turning onto a wide dual carriageway where it could gain speed and make its escape.
The car veered wildly as a blistering flash of green light sizzled the tarmac in front of it. The roads were busy with early rush hour vehicles, and it was difficult to get a clear path through the heavy traffic, difficult to drive at a speed that would enable them to outrun a UFO. Sirens blaring, lights flashing, the Volvo threaded its way through the traffic, while in the back Straker calmly picked up the car phone and contacted HQ.
‘Straker. What’s the situation there?’ he listened intently to the reply. ‘I see. Would you ask Colonel Foster why he didn’t notify HQ immediately when he realised that the sensors were not operating at full capacity. His reticence is unacceptable. I want to see him in HQ as soon as transport can be arranged. Colonel Philips is heading out to Moonbase this afternoon for the quarterly security inspection. If necessary she will have to take temporary command until a suitable replacement can be found. Get me Colonel Freeman………………. Alec. What the hell is going on with Foster? ……………… Yes, I understand, but we’re the ones sitting in the car being shot at, not him. Thank the gods for an efficient protection detail. Where is …’ he paused for a brief moment, mentally summoning up the current positions of all the Skydivers. ‘Sky 4?’ his voice was calm and controlled despite being targeted by the aliens yet again.
‘Should be overhead any second now Ed.’ Alec Freeman’s reassuring reply was nearly drowned out by the thundering roar of the fighter as it raced into action, hidden in the thick mist that fortunately still obscured much of the sky. There was a sudden blaze of light followed by a rolling thunderclap that reverberated across the sky as the jet fighter’s newest weapon obliterated its target.
‘I’m impressed Alec.’ Straker told his second-in-command. ‘That new weapon she has looked just like a lightning flash. Okay, is that it? Do you need me to come in immediately or have I got time to get changed?’
‘There’s no rush now Ed. Carlin reports that there is left practically no debris to clear up; that UFO simply evaporated. The fun and games are over. There’s nothing else going on so I’ll get Sky 4 to fax their report a.s.a.p. and see you later. I’ve got a studio meeting in half an hour so I’ll sort something out with Foster before that.’
‘Good. He needs some guidance and maybe some further experience. Have a think and see if you can come up with any ideas. See you shortly.’ He closed the connection and put the phone away. ‘My apartment.’ he instructed the driver. ‘Oh and thank you both, good work this morning. There will be a commendation in your service files.’
They smiled in appreciation of a rare compliment from the SHADO chief and put away the weapons that had been readied.
He endured the journey up to his apartment in the lift, unwilling to subject his escort to more hassle. Rachel had obviously been forewarned and was waiting for him as he opened the door toApartment24, his home.
His home. He used the word automatically, but hadn’t really thought of it as that before today. Home. A warm, welcoming word. He looked at her with new eyes; seeing his future clearly laid out in front of him. And suddenly he realised exactly what he wanted.
He turned to her, ready to speak, but his mobile interrupted him.
‘Straker……… Yes Alec?’ the call had broken his train of thought, and the moment had passed. He sighed and went to get ready for the day ahead.
Driving himself to work was one of the few pleasures he was still allowed. Of course his car was tailed: he expected no less from his protection detail, but it was relaxing to be alone, to be able to have music on as loud as he liked, and his own choice of music as well. He had always enjoyed driving, the feel of being in control, of being able to go where he pleased, to have the freedom to drive as fast as he liked; although he tried not to break speed limits unless necessary.
The chase car kept in the distance knowing from past experience that if they got too close to him he was liable to get annoyed. Then he would endeavour to lose them just to prove that he could, but also to piss them off. On several previous occasions they had ended up being hauled over the coals by his Security Chief. Not a pleasant experience.
So they remained a couple of cars behind the dark grey Saab, ready to move into action if needed. Their black Volvo appeared innocuous, but SHADO technicians had been at work on it, and it had power reserves that put it in the top range for speed and agility.
He was almost on autopilot as he drove, his mind wandering over the events of the morning. How on Earth did the aliens always seem to know where he was? He was beginning to think seriously that SHADO itself might have a traitor working deep within the organisation.
If respected and highly paid IAC members such as Buckley and Packard could switch sides and collaborate with the aliens for financial rewards, how tempting would it be for a lesser-paid SHADO operative to cross sides and betray his own people? Rachel did frequent stringent background checks on everyone, but money could be laundered and double agents could easily hide their tracks.
He would have to be extra careful in future and avoid taking the same route on a regular basis. Great, his agents would love that, he thought sarcastically, grimacing as he imagined their response. They hated his running, hated the fact that he was out in the open, a target for aliens and any other fanatics who might fancy having a shot at him.
Given the chance they would have him confined to HQ wearing full body armour and never setting foot outside the place.
The junction to the Studios was just ahead, and he slowed down, waiting for a gap in the traffic. Turning right, he saw in his rear view mirror that his chase car had got caught up in the queue and was stuck. It was only another few miles to HQ on what was a relatively quiet road. As most of the studio traffic tended to arrive later than this he would have a clear run to base. He put his foot down for the home stretch.
Keith Ford stared at the monitors. Something was not quite right. He had the distinct feeling that the last UFO assault had merely been a dummy run, a smokescreen to hide some other purpose. There had been something about the way the UFO had appeared so conveniently just when Moonbase sensors were not functioning at full capacity, almost as if they had had some part to play in the loss of instrumentation. It had been all too easy for Sky 4 to latch on to it with its targeting systems and blow it away. The whole set up was wrong.
‘ColonelLake?’ he called over to the current officer in charge. ‘Can you spare a moment?’
‘Sure Keith. What’s the problem?’ She moved over to stand next to the communications chief. It was not like Keith Ford to ask for assistance.
Ford hesitated slightly before explaining his concerns to her. ‘So you see Colonel,’ he concluded, ‘all the evidence suggests that the first UFO was merely a decoy. It was travelling far slower than normal and there was little debris after the missile hit, which suggests that this UFO was not carrying the usual array of weapons or explosives. They generally make a real mess when we blast them. This one didn’t. And yes I know the new system is supposed to vaporize them, but surely not as effectively as that? It was destroyed far too easily, in conditions that were perfect for it to have actually escaped or at least done some serious damage to Commander Straker. Why would the aliens waste a perfectly good opportunity to kill him unless they had another objective in mind? It could be that the UFO that was destroyed was simply a smokescreen to hide another, more powerful one following closely in its trail. It’s also worth considering that the only time the Commander is not under close protection is when he is driving to and from work.’ Ford looked at Virginia Lake, a worried look on his handsome face.
‘Where is Commander Straker now, Keith?’ she asked quickly, her heart racing as she realised that Straker was probably, as they spoke, en route to the studio.
Ford’s expression confirmed her worst fears. ‘Warn him and get help out there now.’
Straker’s alarm went off. ‘Not again.’ he muttered wearily, reaching for his weapon as he prepared to defend himself. ‘Twice in one day is going a bit too far even for you guys.’ He slowed down to give the Volvo chance to catch up, but it was nowhere to be seen.
Then his Saab was caught in an intense flash of light that was so short, so transitory it could have been his imagination. There was no noise, no pain, no sensation of anything except that fleeting moment of light; bright, brilliant blue and luminescent. He covered his eyes but the light flared through, searing his retina and leaving a long, lingering afterflash that blinded him. The engine died and the car rolled to a silent halt, skewed across the road, all electrical circuits dead.
Pushing open the door he staggered out, trying to get to safety but unable to see where he was heading. The light flared again, and he fell, surrounded by a halo of light that flickered over him like writhing sparks.
‘SHADO Control to Commander Straker. Come in please.’ There was no reply, only a hiss of static as if the radio was on the frizz. ‘No response Colonel.’ Ford tried connecting to the carphone. ‘Phones are out as well. It’s as if there’s been a strong electro-magnetic surge in the area. Satellite links are off line and all communications are disrupted. I can’t get hold of his detail in the protection car so I’ve alerted Security and they are on the way to the area.’
‘Good. Get Colonels Freeman and Philips here as soon as possible will you Keith. I have a nasty feeling about this.’ Ginny Lake headed for the office to contact General Henderson.
It was almost as if he was sleeping when they found him. Curled up in semi-foetal position, he looked peaceful and relaxed, breathing calmly and evenly. Flickers of electrical currents crawled over and around him where he lay, asleep and unresponsive.
An aura of faint blue light encircled him and when the Response team bent down to check his pulse they were jolted back by a strong electrical charge that leapt up from his motionless body.
‘A incredibly brief, focussed GRB; a gamma-ray-burst at the lowest possible level. That’s what Shroeder thinks has happened to him. Though why is anybody’s guess.’ Alec Freeman, head in hands, stared down at the desk, unable to look Rachel in the face. ‘He’s still asleep and nothing the doctors do has managed to wake him. There are no indications of anything else wrong with him; he simply won’t wake up.’
The phone rang. ‘Freeman…….. Yes Dr Shroeder…………….. We’ll be right there.’ He put the phone down and turned to Colonel Philips. ‘Shroeder wants us in the Mayland Unit now.’
The doctor was waiting for them in his outer office, his face troubled. ‘Please come with me. There are some developments I need to show you.’
He took them into his private secure office. ‘Sit down please. In the last two hours I have subjected the commander to three separate MRI scans…..’
‘Was that absolutely necessary Doctor? Surely there are some risks involved.’ Rachel was instantly defensive.
‘Let me explain Colonel. I compared the first scan with the commander’s medical records and the scan he had done last September after he was trapped in his house. There were some differences. Sufficient differences to necessitate further scans. And each following scan has been different to the last. It would be easier if I showed you.’ He pulled up the scans on the display screen. ‘As you can see, this, the first, shows the rebuilt shoulder and arm with the pins that were fitted in the process. However, there is no evidence of any of the subsequent injuries and scarring that occurred in the following years. There is also an indication of plastic surgery to repair some of the more unsightly scarring on the shoulder.’
Rachel Philips interjected. ‘But that’s ridiculous. This can’t be Ed. I’ve seen his scars; he still has them all. I saw them this morning.’ Alec Freeman looked across at her, one eyebrow raised.
‘But it gets more intriguing Colonel. This is the second scan. Look at this.’ and Shroeder displayed a second series of images. ‘See here, and here and here. The right knee has been virtually destroyed. It must be extremely painful and make walking very difficult. There is a particularly vicious scar, probably from a fairly recent injury, running across the right side of his face, through the eye and then across and down to the base of the throat. It would have rendered the eye useless and an injury such as that would probably have been done deliberately. Commander Straker does not have any such injury. Neither does he have the many other injuries to his body that this particular scan shows. ‘
‘And… ‘ Freeman waited expectantly. ‘The other scan? What does that show?’
‘Good question Colonel. The third scan shows images identical to those from the commander’s own MRI scan from last year. I took the decision that it was not in Commander Straker’s best interest to subject him to any further tests without discussing my findings with you.’
The stared at each other, confused and disbelieving.
‘I don’t like practical jokes at the best of times, Doctor, and it seems to me that this one is in particularly bad taste.’ Alec Freeman stood up in disgust.
‘Colonel, I assure you this is no joke. These really are the scans from Commander Straker. I don’t understand it either, but I am working with our scientists to see if we can come up with any ideas. The latest theory is that it is somehow linked to the GRB that hit him. Some radical physicists in SHADO,ColonelLakeincluded, have been working with the Commander on the speculation that because gamma rays form gravitational waves they provide the means to create black holes in hyperspace. This has led to the hypothesis that a tightly focussed GRB in the right wavelength and intensity could, in theory I hasten to add, be used to create divergent or even parallel universes.’ He paused, waiting for the inevitable outburst of incredulity.
There was silence.
‘Well?’ Shroeder asked.
‘Well what?’ Colonel Philips answered sharply. ‘You have the theory. What are you going to do now?’
‘Well, I’m not really sure what to do now, even supposing the theories are correct. This is a unique situation. I need to do some investigations first. Unfortunately the person who has the most up-to-date understanding of the particular strand of physics involved in this is Commander Straker. He was leading the team of astrophysicists who were studying this phenomenon. We need time to get our research together and come up with some ideas. I could do to set up a meeting with some of the SHADO people who have been working in this area.’
‘Look Doctor, Ed might not have time for you to sit there chatting with scientists.’ Alec Freeman retorted, sharply, ‘I suggest that you come up with some answers quickly. If this divergent universe theory is the best one SHADO scientists can come up with then you need to look for a solution. Get Colonel Lake in here now to help you. I’m going to check on Ed. Coming Rachel?’
Together they headed to his private room, guarded by SHADO security. Rachel looked down at her Commander, her lover. He was asleep, the white covers drawn up to his waist, his arms by his side. There were no monitors disturbing the quietness of the room, just the sound of slow, even, deep breaths, no movement, apart from his chest rising and falling almost robotically in its regularity.
He looked as he had last night, when she had leaned over to kiss him in his sleep. Peaceful and resting, seemingly not a care in the world. But he simply would not wake up. She hoped he was not having nightmares, that if he was dreaming that his dreams were pleasant.
Taking hold of his hand on top of the sheet she leaned forward and whispered in his ear. ‘Ed, time to wake up, you’ll be late for work.’ It had never failed before. But he did not move.
She turned to his friend. ‘Alec? Any ideas?’
Freeman shook his head. ‘The only good thing is that he hasn’t suffered any physical injury and doesn’t seem in any distress but I don’t like the fact that he isn’t responding to you Rachel. I’d have thought he would wake up to your voice.’ He took Straker’s other hand in his own knotty fingers, his large knuckles closing around Ed’s long slender ones. ‘Come on Ed. Wake up. I have better things to do than sit around here all day while you catch up on your beauty sleep.’ It was no use.
Colonel Lake arrived and began fixing monitors and sensors to him before starting numerous inexplicable tests. Slowly the room filled with more computer terminals, electronic systems and stern-faced scientists taking readings and inputting data. Rachel and Alec stood apart from the bustle, unable to help, unable to understand what was going on.
The hours passed and he slept on
Eventually Colonel Lake, her eyes strained with tiredness, put down her notepad and sighed. ‘I think we may have something here.’ she said hopefully. ‘I’m working on the theory that the GRB that affected the Commander also affected the immediate area of space and time that he was experiencing. Short GRBs tend to leave a long-lasting aftermath of different wavelengths that severely disrupt visual and audio communications. The radios and all communications were out for some time after the incident and we know that the rescue team experienced electric shocks which confirm my theory. Now we simply need to find a way to reverse the aftereffects.’
She went over to check on her sleeping subject. ‘Dr Shroeder, come here for a minute will you.’ Her voice had an undercurrent of concern.
‘What’s the matter?’ Rachel Philips was instantly at the bedside, looking down at Ed. He was beginning to shiver, almost unnoticeably, but when she placed her hand on his chest it was cool to the touch.
‘Why is he getting cold? Isn’t it warm enough in here?’ she asked. Shroeder was busy taking Straker’s temperature and pulse. He frowned.
‘His temperature has dropped slightly. It was 36.3 which is normal for the lowest point in the sleep cycle but its fallen to 35 now. Not too serious in the short term, but it mustn’t be allowed to drop further. I need to get him warmer.’ He unfolded the thermal blanket at the end of the bed and covered him with it, tucking it around. ‘Get me a couple more blankets please and a heating pack and I would like to some warm humidified air for him to breathe. That should make a difference. Can I ask all the non-medical staff to leave for a while until we get his condition stabilised? Colonels, you are welcome to remain, but please do not get in the way.’
Virginia Lake perched at a console in the corner of the room, reading through her notes and tapping at the computer keyboard as she reviewed the facts they had already discovered. She stood up, and spoke urgently.
‘Dr Shroeder, can you get me a reading of the Commander’s brain waves at the present moment? I need to compare it with the last reading he had done before this incident.’
‘Of course Colonel. I can have that for you in ten minutes or so. Is there anything in particular you are looking for?’
‘We may have been looking in the wrong direction all this time. It’s not just divergent or parallel universes we should be considering. We have not considered the black hole effect. You see, the GRB could have created an instability or flux between universes and Commander Straker would then be the focal point around which the other universes link. It might explain why his temperature is dropping; in theory he is providing the energy which keeps the link from closing.’ She stopped speaking as Alec and Rachel looked at her in confused bewilderment.
‘You lost me when you said black hole effect, Ginny,’ Alec Freeman muttered. ‘What I want to know is whether you can help Ed or not.’
‘I honestly don’t know Alec. This is all pretty much new territory in the field of physics, and most of it is beyond the realm of accepted science. It is however an area that SHADO scientists and the Commander have been researching recently. We thought there might have been a use for GRBs as a form of weapon against UFOs. It’s interesting that they may have come to the same conclusion. All I can say is that I will do my best. My concern is that if we don’t close the connection that has opened between the Commander and these other universes, then his temperature will continue to drop as he loses energy to the link between the worlds. Dr Shroeder, at what temperature will Commander Straker begin to experience problems?’ Colonel Lake asked.
Shroeder’s tone was serious. ‘If his temperature should drop below 31 degrees then clinical death will occur. And it appears that his temperature is continuing to fall as we speak.’
GinnyLakelaid her hand on Straker’s forehead, feeing the chill. His shivering had become more violent, despite the attempts to rewarm him. Her expression was impassive and unemotional but Alec knew that in the past she had been intensely attracted to Ed and that she still had serious feelings for him. It was not reciprocated though.
Straker, although he admired and respected Colonel Lake, saw her as a SHADO member first, a colleague second and a friend third. Colonel Freeman suspected that Ed would have been quietly amused to think that she felt anything for him other than respect as her superior.
Alec however, had long admired Ginny, since the day he first met her, and had enjoyed a fairly serious relationship with her while she was based in SHADO HQ. It had petered out however when she had been promoted to the temporary command of Moonbase in order to gain experience.
Now that she was back in HQ he hoped to have the chance to rekindle it, but Ed’s recovery was the greater priority. Alec had no time, or energy, to spend chasing after her at the moment.
Shroeder set to work fitting the electrodes that would record Ed’s brain pattern and switched the EEG machine on. There was silence as he waited for the results to show on the screen, Colonel Lake looking over his shoulder to get a better view.
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘it’s as I thought. Comparing this current pattern with his previous one indicates a definite alteration in his brain activity. I would expect someone who is asleep to have a fairly steady pattern, with minimal activity and with slow wavelengths in the Delta band.’ She indicated on the screen. ‘But this is the pattern of someone who is experiencing intense brain activity, far more so than a normal person even in a wide awake state. It’s as if the whole of his brain is processing information all at the same time. There are patterns in both the Beta and Gamma wavelengths, indicating that he is alert and anxious but also that his cognitive functions are operating. It is simply not possible for this to be normal. I think the Commander’s mind has been linked with at least two other minds in the other universes, and he is being subjected to their thoughts.’
She paused, considering what to say next. ‘I need to study all the data and run some tests and simulations. But to be honest I don’t know if we will be able to do anything to help. This is a totally obscure branch of science and even those of us who are experimenting in this field don’t really understand its effects and outcomes. I’ll do my best, that’s all I can promise.’ She looked down at Ed, wistfully, then bent and kissed him lightly on his forehead, the only kiss she would ever be likely to give him. She looked up defiantly at Colonel Philips, but Rachel smiled and nodded in understanding, then held out her hand to Ginny Lake.
‘Come on Ginny, we both need a coffee. Alec will watch him for thirty minutes while we have a break.’ Together they left the small room, Colonel Lake surreptitiously wiping her eyes and Freeman, ever obedient, sat down and watched over his friend. ‘Damn you Ed, why won’t you wake up?’ he cursed, despairingly.
In his dreams he saw himself, his doppelganger as it were, limping painfully along a grey corridor, dressed in military style uniform. It wasn’t him, and yet it was. A different Ed Straker, an Ed Straker who existed in another place and time. And yet at the same time he was somewhere else as well. It was very confusing and he didn’t like being confused. He would have to sort it all out before he could go back to sleep. And he was cold and getting colder. It really was quite annoying. There was something important he had to ask Rachel; in fact he should have asked her before he came to work today.
Rachel entered the room quietly, hoping against hope that he would be awake, but instead she saw Alec, also asleep, in the chair beside the bed. She smiled fondly at the sight. She did not know what the future held for her and Ed, but if there was a future then she knew that Alec would have to be a part of it. Ed and he had been friends for far too long for her to come between them.
She should try to find a partner for Alec; he was too good a man to be alone in this world. Perhaps she could make that her next project; Ed would certainly approve. He had often talked about his fears for Alec, that he was becoming too reliant on alcohol for company and Alec was becoming increasingly depressed about growing old.
For heaven’s sake he was only a few years older that Ed. Plenty of time for him to meet someone, fall in love and get married; even have children. She knew what the problem was though. SHADO. It was difficult to have a serious relationship with someone who didn’t know about SHADO, and as there were only about a hundred people in the world who knew about the organisation, apart from those who worked for it, relationships were always going to be difficult.
She sat down, scraping the chair and waking Alec as she did so. He stood up yawning and stretching to ease the kinks from his spine. ‘Ginny okay?’ he asked in a carefully neutral voice.
‘Yes, she’s fine, just tired, but aren’t we all.’ Rachel said then noticed that Ed had stopped shivering momentarily, and was lying still and pale. Under the oxygen mask his lips were blue with cold despite the blankets and heaters and his eyes were open a fraction as if he was watching her.
A tear tracked from the corner of his eyes, down the side of his face and she bent over him, wiping it away before leaning closer, lifting the mask aside for a brief moment and kissing him, not with regret as Virginia Lake had kissed him, but with devotion.
‘It’s alright,’ she said softly, though she did not think he was aware of her, ‘I’m here, Alec is here. Don’t worry.’ There was no response. His hands, folded on his chest, moved fractionally and instinctively she grasped them in her own hands, shocked at their coldness. She tried to warm them, rubbing them between her own hands, but there was no change, no response from him. Distressed at how chilled he was becoming she turned away.
She needed something else to think about, something that would take her mind away from how cold he must be. He had even stopped shivering, a sure sign of serious hypothermia. She prayed that Ginny would find an answer soon, before it was too late.
‘Alec, is there anything between you and Ginny?’ she asked quietly, although her mind was far from quiet and calm.
‘Not for want of trying on my part,’ he admitted ruefully. ‘She always held a candle for Ed and I knew I would probably end up playing second fiddle to him.’
‘Well, Ginny and I had a serious chat and I think that she has finally realised how important you are in her life. I suggest, when all this is over,’ she indicated the room, the bed, the sleeping man, ‘you ask her out for a meal and ask her to explain her black hole theory. You could be very pleasantly surprised.’
They looked at each other and Freeman smiled his wide, sensuous smile that so many women found irresistible. The door opened and Colonel Lake entered, unaware of their conspiratorial glances at each other. Her expression was serious and she immediately checked on Straker’s temperature and his current EEG.
‘I have some rather disturbing information. The Commander was studying the effects of GRBs and gravitational wave formations before this incident and I have managed to download the data from the computer simulations he was running. He had already reached the same conclusions that we have come to, that a link can be set up between universes through a person or persons, and that there can be some type of transference between these universes. Commander Straker, however, was unable to safely break the link between these different worlds and finally concluded that there was no viable way to create a connection, as it would involve the death of the central individual when it became necessary to sever the link.’
Alec and Rachel stared at her in horror.
‘There must be something you can do Ginny. You can’t just give up.’ Rachel pleaded with her.
‘I have no intention of giving up, Rachel. I have an idea but I need to discuss it with Dr Shroeder first. It will be risky, but it’s the best chance for Ed. Give me about half an hour to go over the facts with the doctor and then I’ll explain it to you.’
Shroeder went over the details with them, Colonel Lake supplying additional information when necessary. They explained that the only way the link would close would be when Straker finally succumbed to the hypothermia that they were desperately trying to keep at bay.
Colone lLake’s radical suggestion was to encourage the hypothermia, to allow Straker’s core temperature to drop to below 31 degrees as rapidly as possible. Clinical death would ensue, but as Ginny emphasised, there were countless instances of people who had died and been subjected to rapid cold, and had been revived successfully. It was his best chance, his only chance.
‘Go ahead.’ Alec told them after talking it over with Rachel. Neither of them were convinced, or happy, but they trusted Colonel Lake and Shroeder implicitly. ‘What do you need to do?’
‘We just need to allow his temperature to drop as quickly as possible. We can achieve that by doing the exact opposite of what we are doing now, which is trying to keep him warm. We need to lower his temperature by using ice packs and fans as well as stop the warm air mask. Monitoring his condition is even more important now and we will need to move very quickly when his heart stops and the EEG indicates that the link has closed.’
They watched and waited as his temperature dropped and he began to struggle to breathe. The monitors warned of his erratic heartbeat, and the EEG showed a decrease in the abnormal brain activity. Then it was all over. Flat line. Brain activity minimal.
Ginny nodded to Shroeder. ‘Now.’ she commanded.
Shroeder had already assembled a team to help him. Immediately he set to work, pulling back the sheet to expose the rib cage and placed the pads in their correct positions. The team, well trained, went through the familiar process of shocking a heart back into life. Another team concentrating on getting his lungs to breathe independently and getting his temperature to rise.
In the corner of the room Rachel held Alec’s hand so tightly that her nails dug into his flesh.
They waited. Alec, his arm around her, imagined what it would be like to have a woman like this standing next to him, supporting and being there for him. He was becoming increasingly aware that his life outside SHADO was getting emptier as he grew older. He had joked to Ed about it, but there had been a sharp sting of truth behind the laughter.
He didn’t really want that much, just someone to hold, someone to share his life with him, someone to be there when he got home, tired and worn out. Was it too much to ask for? He was only 45, still young enough to have children, to enjoy life, not to have to moulder away like some old bachelor uncle while everyone around him got married and settled down. He could see Rachel becoming more and more a part of Ed’s life. Where would that leave him? He waited as the teams worked, quickly, efficiently but with an undercurrent of desperation.
Despite frequent demands from the environmentalists, the private apartment block remained brightly floodlit every night. Its huge floor to ceiling windows looking over the marina, where a sleek powerboat gently rocked in the breeze. Smartly uniformed doormen secured the entrance, welcoming approved visitors and keeping the paparazzi at bay with a combination of stern faces and brute strength whenever necessary.
Inside the block, shielded from prying eyes by the mirrored glass at ground level, his personal assistant tapped at her computer interface, checking the current status of the world’s stock exchanges. The whole of the ground floor was given over to her reception area decorated in ultra modern style, steel and glass contrasting with huge original works of modern art. Brilliant spotlights reflected off the polished granite floor, casting shadows across the sparse pieces of furniture. This outer sanctum was designed to unsettle unwary visitors, and it worked well.
Upstairs, in the luxuriously appointed treatment room, away from the distractions, the tall blonde male lay face down on the massage table, his naked body tanned to perfection. He smiled to himself as she finished his morning treatment with gently soothing strokes down his spine and then affectionately patted him on his perfect buttocks before leaving him to get up and dressed.
He reached for his mobile, wrapping the expensive Egyptian cotton towel around himself.
‘Janice, what time’s my first appointment this morning?……………. okay, can you cancel that and rebook it for later in the week. I have a meeting at 11 in the studio and it will definitely go over lunch. Let Miss Philips know I will be late for her appointment as well. Actually, cancel the rest of my appointments for today.’
He flung the phone down casually and wandered into his dressing room, flicking through the racks of beautifully tailored, perfectly designed expensive suits that hung in neat ordered rows behind the American mahogany doors. Picking out a charcoal grey suit, he selected a fashionable hand-made pure cotton shirt to complement, together with large engraved platinum cufflinks.
Tucking the bath towel in firmly he went through to the bedroom and sat in front of his mirror, looking carefully to see if last night’s drinking session had left its mark on his appearance. No, he looked fine, his designer stubble a mere silver sheen on his jaw.
He took time getting ready; toner, moisturiser, an expensive deodorant and even more expensive cologne. Then dressed meticulously carefully in the clothes he had chosen, slipping his feet into hand-crafted shoes and fastening an exclusive, and expensive, watch on his right wrist. He wore a heavy platinum signet ring on his left hand, which matched his equally heavy engraved bracelet.
Hair neatly in place, a pleasing scent of masculine cologne surrounding him, Eddie Straker checked in the mirror to make sure his appearance was as it should be and then headed for work, scooping up his car keys from his bedside table and bending to kiss the young woman still sleeping in the tangled silk sheets. He couldn’t for the life of him remember her name, but that was of no concern. She would be gone when he returned. They were always gone when he returned, he made sure of that.
He had no place in his life for a long term relationship. He had tried that once before and it had ended badly. So now he kept his personal life simple. One night, maybe two if they were lucky and he found them interesting. But mostly it was just one night.
He drove his aubergine Audi R8 far too fast for the currently icy road conditions, but being careful to avoid speed cameras. He really didn’t need any more points on his license. Beautifully manicured fingers resting lightly on the steering wheel, changing gear with a smooth economy of movement. The car wove almost recklessly through the slower traffic, heading purposefully out to the studio, his studio.
The ever present paparazzi were waiting at the gates as he swung the car in, engine revving powerfully. He flashed them a smile, slowing down just enough so that they would be able to get a decent shot. Straker Studios owner and Chief Executive arriving for his meeting with MGM’s top producer.
Just the sort of headline he liked to see in the celebrity magazines. The car looked good and so did he. Appearances were important, which was why he had undergone that expensive plastic surgery last year to remove some of the ugly scarring from his shoulder.
He stepped out of the car, tossing his keys to the valet, and as he did so Straker felt a sharp twinge in his arm. It still did that on occasions, when the weather was particularly cold. It was a reminder of what had happened, an unpleasant reminder of an unpleasant time.
The helicopter appeared suddenly over the nearest dune, incredibly huge, incredibly noisy, closer and lower than he had thought possible, sweeping low over the ground, 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.’ 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. He jerked at the impact and wrenched forward, out of Freeman’s grasp, and the second stray bullet, that should have missed both men, slammed into Alec Freeman’s back, severing his spine, and both men fell heavily to the floor of the cabin. Straker had never flown again and Freeman died shortly after arriving back in England for urgent medical treatment.
Eddie reviewed his life from that turning point. He had finished with flying for good and gone back to England where he had renewed his friendship with Harlington’s son, J.D. and had eventually been offered the opportunity to run Harlington’s latest venture; a film studio based in England.
Straker, never one to pass up a chance had readily agreed on condition that he had a majority shareholding in the enterprise. It had been the best decision he had ever made. The shelves in his penthouse office were heavy with Oscars and other less prestigious awards, the studio was unbelievably profitable and he was now, as his Grandmother would have disparagingly said, ‘filthy rich’. And he fully intended to get even richer.
Confidently, assuredly and with elegant strides he entered the Main Reception area, where assorted starlets and producers waited to greet him, hoping that he would bestow a smile on them today. The consummate film executive, he nodded greetings, shook hands, signed autographs, and accepted copies of unsolicited scripts before heading for the safety of his luxurious office.
Tossing the scripts, unseen, disdainfully into the nearest waste bin, he sat and picked up an envelope that had been left on his desk.
‘Janice, why is this letter here? I employ you to deal with all my correspondence.’ Even over the intercom she could tell he was annoyed.
‘My apologies Mr Straker, but it is from a firm of solicitors and marked Private and Confidential. I thought you might prefer to open it yourself.’
‘I’ll deal with it his time, but in future I expect you to answer all my mail. I hope that is clearly understood.’ His voice was sharp and abrupt. He didn’t like having to deal with lawyers; they usually meant trouble. He slit open the envelope and pulled out the contents. A couple of photographs. The first of a woman in her thirties. She looked very familiar. Oh yes, now he knew her; Mary Nightingale, or Mary Straker as she was, briefly.
What did she want with him? It was over seven years since he had divorced her and he hadn’t had any contact with her since, although he vaguely recalled setting up an account for her with a generous monthly allowance, not that he had any legal obligation to do so. He read the start of the letter, picking up the second photograph as he did so.
‘Damn.’ He flicked the switch that would lock his office door and signal to his secretary that he was not to be disturbed. He reread the opening sentences, while scrutinising the photograph. The boy definitely looked like him, same shaped face, same colouring, same bone structure. And she said she had irrefutableDNAproof. He must have been conceived just before the split.
Straker hadn’t seen Mary since he walked out of the house after accusing her of being unfaithful. He had since discovered that the evidence was false, but by then it was too late to repair the damage, and besides, he had a new life to lead, unencumbered by the shackles of a wife. But a child?
He wondered why she was contacting him now, after all these years. The boy, John, she had called him, looked to be about six. Did she want more money? That would not be a problem; he would get his lawyers to set up a trust fund, after all, he had money to spare.
He finished the letter. No. No, he would not meet with her and the boy. He did not want to get involved with a child, even if it was his son. She had no right to ask him to do that. His life was perfect as it was; and he was not going to give up his freedom just because she wanted her son to meet the father he had never seen.
He threw the letter in the bin and went to his first meeting of the day.
Lunch, a serious affair with champagne and caviar in the boardroom, was spent thrashing out the details of the contract with MGM’s Chief Executive Producer. As usual he succeeded in getting the best of the deal, and, handshakes over, he returned to his office to celebrate with a crystal flute of the champagne that he kept for his own personal consumption.
Glass in hand he relaxed on the leather sofa, feet up, relishing the thought of the publicity that this latest merger would bring. Straker Cinema Incorporated and Films Industrial were already the biggest producers of Sci-Fi and were now set to be the leading producer of action films in the western world.
He had bought out Harlington a couple of years previously, and now his SCI-FI company had already supplanted Harlington Films as the most successful in the Western hemisphere. Now all he had to do was to break into Bollywood. That was next year’s project.
He put the glass down and rubbed the bridge of his nose; boring contractual meetings always gave him a headache. He closed his eyes against the bright lights in the office and;
He was standing in a hospital ward, looking down at a still, small boy. The child was unconscious, bruised and bloody. Three adults, a woman and two men were standing around the bed. He recognised the woman, Mary as she was in the photograph. Despite her obvious distress she still looked as lovely as the day he married her and he was shocked to realise that he still had feelings for her. There was something terribly familiar about one of the men, the taller one, the slim one dressed in a well-fitting cream suit. Eddie stepped closer to the bed.
His movement roused the attention of the tall man. He turned to Eddie, and looked straight at him, with a look of such profound grief and desolation that Eddie Straker felt that his heart would break with sorrow for him. No one should have to suffer such despair as this man was suffering.
And then Eddie Straker woke up, his face wet with tears, tears he had wept for a man he had never met, whose life he had never encountered. He had no idea why he had cried, why he, Eddie Straker, movie executive and sophisticated cosmopolitan was getting emotional.
He picked up his glass and drained the last of his champagne. Enough of this sentimental rubbish. He was probably overtired, that was all. He needed to get a bit more sleep and stop dozing off during the day. He decided that he would finish up here and go and watch the rushes from the latest sci-fi in production. That would settle him.
In the dark of the studio he sat alone, watching disinterestedly as the rough drafts of the film played in front of him. The new girl his casting agent had found was good in the role. What was her name? Rachel. That was it, but of course the publicity people had changed it. Rochele they preferred her to be called now. He could see some potential in her; a very good figure, brown eyes and a sensuous face. And a good smile. That was so important.
She could act as well. That was even more of a bonus. He would have to look for more roles for her. Perhaps the next film he had agreed to produce for MGM, the one about UFOs attacking Earth and the secret organisation set up to protect human kind. Yes a definite possibility. She would make a pretty good operative, with maybe some love interest?
He imagined her in the clothes that the wardrobe designer was already planning for the film; close fitting leather and lycra, in silver and purple. Yes, definitely. She might have to wear contacts though, especially with those eyes.
His professional mind was busy, checking the quality of the production and the overall effect, but his inner thoughts drifted away and he found himself concentrating on the image of the boy in the bed. And the man in the cream suit. Who was he? Why did he seem so familiar? And why did he have such an overpowering effect on Eddie?
Eddie Straker didn’t want his calm, ordered and well-structured world disrupted by messy emotions. He had learned to live without close friends. Most of his current acquaintances, he was honest enough to admit, were shallow, one-dimensional characters without real affection for him. He knew they were merely attracted to his money.
He thought back over past friends. What was the name of that pilot in Prince Sultan Air Base? Alec… Alec Freeman. He recalled the nights out drinking with Alec. They had been good friends, close friends, and if Alec had lived then …………… but it was no use reliving the past. The dead were dead.
In the dark he sat, thinking about the past and the future until the silence, the aftereffects of the alcohol and the warmth of the room conspired against him and he relaxed into the deep comfort of his chair and drowsed.
He was back beside the child’s bed and the man in the cream suit approached him, eyes brimming with unshed tears, his hands trembling with suppressed emotions. With horror Eddie looked into his own tearfilled eyes; his own face stared back at him. In terror he tried to turn away, but his alter ego grabbed his arm and held him fast.
Eddie was pulled towards the child’s bed and forced to look down at the boy, lying cold and still. He was dead. With mounting horror Eddie Straker recognised the boy; John Straker, his son, the son he had not known about in the past, who he did not want to know in the future. John; who he would never get to know now. He put his hands over his eyes in an attempt to blot out the sight of the pale bruised body on the white bed. He was shaking with dread, and called out to his doppelganger. ‘What do you want from me? Why am I here?’
Then the scene changed, as if he was watching a film. Gentle hands had grasped his and held them. He was lying in a bed, looking up into an oval face surrounded by a frame of dark hair. He saw compassion in her eyes, concern and care for him and he stared with a shock of recognition. And he knew the man standing next to her. Alec Freeman, standing next to the bed that he himself was lying in.
Alec, standing there alive and well. What had happened? Why was he here, in this strange place with a woman he had last seen acting in a film of his, and a man he knew was dead? She moved closer and bent over him, and she kissed him, gently and with concern and love.
He closed his eyes and tried to retreat back to the world he knew, but the image of himself, in the cream suit, standing by John’s bed followed him. He was unable to get away from the spectral image, and he curled up, like a scared child, his hands over his eyes as if to blot out the visions.
There was a gently touch on his shoulder, not a heavy hand, but still masculine. He looked up, again into his own eyes. His other self, the Eddie Straker without the designer stubble, in the pale suit, was hunkered down next to him, understanding and concern in the blue eyes that matched his own. He started to speak, softly but with intensity so that Eddie had to strain to hear him.
One would have expected the building to be quiet and dark at four a.m. on such a cold morning, but lights were still on and, downstairs, people could be seen moving around behind the thick windows with their faint green bullet proof glass. Armed guards patrolled corridors, nodding acknowledgments as they silently passed each other. Thick carpets deadened the sounds from inside, and outside, more guards, camouflaged to blend in with the night, guarded the perimeter from any outside attack.
Inside, in a bland, busy office room a phone rang. It was answered almost immediately.
‘Claybourne.’ He listened for a moment. ‘I’ll wake him. Expect us in twenty-five minutes’
Claybourne put the phone back and grimaced before standing up and heading out. He walked quickly through the darkened passageway to an innocuous, unmarked door with two heavily armed marines standing outside.
‘He’s needed. Go get his aide.’ The words were enough. The guards nodded in sympathy and one opened the door, then stepped back to allow Claybourne to enter.
Colonel Peter Claybourne looked at the soldier asleep in the narrow bed. The years had not been kind to the slumbering man. He was just forty, but looked considerable older, his ash blonde hair, cut in a severe military style, was now sprinkled with silver and his face showed the ravages of exhaustion and stress. Claybourne looked down sadly at his General, at the profile that, from the left hand side showed a once handsome, strong countenance and fine bone structure. He reached out and carefully tapped him on the shoulder.
The touch on his shoulder woke him from a restless sleep. His dreams had been particularly unpleasant this time. He recalled feeling as if he had been torn asunder, as if part of him had been wrenched away but the sensation quickly faded into the back of his mind as he dragged himself back to reality. Opening his eye he realised that it was still dark outside. Damn, how much sleep had he managed to get this time?
‘Yes’ he growled sleepily and looked up, the ruined side of his face coming into view.
‘Incoming, General. About 50 minutes out. It’s oh four sixteen hours. Do you need any help?’
The man in the bed tried to roll over and winced in pain. ‘Yes. Sorry, my leg has stiffened up again. Give me a hand will you.’
Claybourne pulled the covers off the bed and eased his superior into a sitting position. ‘Okay Sir?’
‘Thank you Peter, I can manage now.’ The General waited until his Colonel had left before easing himself off the bed. He reached out for the walking stick leaning against the bleak, military style bedside cabinet, and cautiously stood up, testing his right leg carefully to ensure that it didn’t betray him by giving way unexpectedly. Warily he limped to the bathroom. He had enough time for a quick shower, but probably not a shave.
Looking in the mirror he tried to ignore the vicious scar that tore from his forehead across his sightless right eye to just above his collarbone, but it was difficult. It was a constant memento. He closed his eye to blot out the vision, but his mind betrayed him and he was back there, being hauled out of the wrecked car, leaving the horribly injured driver screaming, screaming. The aliens had dragged him to his knees, his hands pinned behind him, one of their arms tight around his throat, throttling him so that he could hardly breathe, the stench of its foreignness rank in his nostrils.
He had been forced to watch as the other, pulling out a razor sharp implement, had ripped through the injured driver’s clothes with swift strokes and tossed aside the ruined clothes. Then with almost gentle, surgical precision had cut through his flesh. The already fatally injured man had died mercifully quickly, and they had worked rapidly, removing his organs and storing them. They had turned to do the same to him. Struggling in vain against their superior strength and unable to move he could only watch in dread as they approached, the hooked and vicious blade still slick with blood. They had slashed his clothes off with long, downward, casual strokes. The blade cut through his skin, deeply in places.
He tried not to make a noise, not to give them the satisfaction of hearing him scream, but they did not intend to kill him immediately. Like a cat plays with a mouse they toyed with him. They pulled his head back, exposing his throat and he waited for the feel of the blade, the gush of hot blood on his bare chest.
But no; one of them placed its blade on his temple and began to drag it slowly down across his face, watching with almost clinically detached interest as the cutting edge sliced open his forehead, grating on the bone before moving inexorably across the eyebrow and down over his eye. He was no longer able to keep quiet and he screamed in agony.
And the indescribable pain continued as the knife worked its way past his jawline and then almost gently sliced the skin down his throat to just above his trachea. He knew then that they were going to continue cutting; forcing the blade deep into his flesh from the top of his sternum down through his abdomen. He prayed he would lose consciousness soon.
It was only the arrival of the rescue team that prevented them from leisurely eviscerating him. There was the sound of gunfire close by and the restraining arms fell away from him as the alien toppled over. He himself had collapsed forward, face down on the rough ground, his remaining eye watching dispassionately as blood pooled beside him. He had lost consciousness by the time the rescue party reached him.
He had often wondered, afterwards, when he was healed, when the pain was only an ingrained and deep-rooted memory, if the aliens had enjoyed what they had done to him. The unexpected arrival of the rescue team had stopped them from finishing the job. The doctors had thought he would not survive. He nearly hadn’t. He had so desperately wanted to die, afterwards, when he was alone.
He ran a hand over his face; yes he needed a shave, but there simply wasn’t time. It didn’t matter; shaving was not important, he could always do that at HQ when the alert was over.
He turned the hot water on full, needing the sharp sting of heat to help ease the trembling tiredness in his body. He couldn’t remember the last time he had managed to get anything like decent night’s sleep. It had been aftermidnightwhen he had finally got into bed: less than four hours ago. God he was tired; so tired he wondered if he could carry on. But he had to. There was no one else.
Under the searing heat of the water he briefly stretched his body, releasing some of the tension from his stiff muscles. He spared a couple of minutes for a quick soap down and rinse, then ended with a blast of icy cold spray in an attempt to wake himself up.
A scrubby towel wrapped around his waist, he limped back into his bedroom to begin the process of getting dressed.
His uniform had been laid out, the bed remade neatly in preparation for the next time he might be fortunate to get some rest. Sitting on the edge of the bed he dried himself off, and dressed, as quickly and efficiently as possible, no preening in mirrors, no careful combing of hair, no tugging jackets straight.
His aide, waiting discretely at one side, stepped forward to help him, fitting the leg brace and ending by fastening the shoes that the lame man could not bend to reach. The obligatory bullet-proof vest was cumbersome beneath his regulation dark grey uniform jacket with its high collar. Four bright stars on the high collar and medal ribbons provided the only splashes of colour on the deliberately drab, utilitarian outfit.
The only jewellery he permitted himself to wear; his wedding ring and another similar but narrower, gold band on the ring finger of his right hand. A cheap replaceable watch fastened onto his left wrist, a thin stainless steel medical band on his right.
The General, mouth tight with annoyance, tolerated the unwelcome but necessary attentions from his aide, and as soon as he was ready stood up and headed for the door, still relying heavily on his walking stick.
‘Sentinel on the move.’ The guards outside the room radioed ahead.
The car was waiting outside, engine running, outriders alongside. Press photographers, always on the watch for opportunities, flashed cameras as he limped towards the guarded vehicle. He ignored their shouted questions, as always.
The agents opened the door and protected him as he eased into the back seat, his aide sliding in next to him. Lights flashed, sirens screamed and the car and outriders set off, out of the heavily fortified base onto the main road where they were joined by a further convoy leading the way along the almost deserted main roads.
Having fastened his seatbelt, the General looked across to the other passenger.
‘Okay. Details.’ Terse and to the point. There was no need to waste time on unnecessary words. They had been through this countless times before.
‘Moonbase Central reports UFOs on attack approach. Possibly as many as fifty, but unable to confirm definite numbers as yet. Moonbase is not in the optimum position for accurate data collection, unfortunately. HEROD is tracking as we speak, and has alerted all ground stations in the termination area. We predict they are aiming forMicronesia; it’s somewhere they have never tried before. All Skydivers and MiG 45s are at REDCON 2. HQ is at DEFCON 2. Leaders of the main powers have been notified.’ A concise, rapid account of the facts to date.
The General leafed through the papers handed to him. ‘Good. Tell Moonbase Commander I want a full update when we get to base. I also require a SHIELD satellite moved into geosynchronous orbit over the target area and I’ll need real-time imagery. And tell HQ I have to see Dr Jackson when we get in.’ He put his head back and closed his eyes as the aide began making calls. A fifteen minute drive to HQ gave him a chance to rest and to think. And to try to control the pain from what remained of his right knee.
Micronesia. They hadn’t tried that before. Such a vast area. So many hiding places. With the Yap Trench the UFOs had the advantage of the abyssal deeps for concealment. The Skydivers would have to be prepared to bomb underwater if necessary. The new depth charges would probably help there, especially as they had been designed to home in on the UFOs ultrasonic wavelengths which were emitted when they entered the atmosphere.
He hoped that the air cover would be adequate. With three Skydivers and up to 20 high altitude MiG Fighters in the immediate area they should be okay, but he had seen the aftermath of previous successful attacks; the devastated habitats, the mutilated corpses, the empty beds where innocent children had been abducted. The aliens came and took. Tens, hundreds, sometimes thousands of victims. And he was in charge of trying to stop them. God help him.
The car arrived at HQ; stopped and the waiting agent opened his door, nodding a formal greeting. Good morning General Straker.’
Edward Straker gingerly eased his leg out of the car, testing it before putting any weight on it. Limping slowly and painfully, he made his way into the Headquarters of SHIELD, the Strategic Headquarters of the International Earth and Lunar Defences, the largest and most powerful international military force in existence.
His ground level office, deep within the heavily guarded building, was austere and clinical as befitting a military man’s workplace. No ornaments or superfluous items marred the surface of the large unpretentious desk. Concrete walls, painted in what was affectionately known as ‘pond scum grey’ were devoid of decoration, apart from huge, annotated maps of the Earth, the solar system and the known galaxy. A large globe of the Moon stood in one corner.
Straker sat down in his worn, shabby chair behind the desk, flinching as his knee bent slightly. After the attack Jackson had been insistent that he should have taken the time to have it properly rebuilt, but Straker knew that every day spent away from SHIELD was one day too many. The aliens were the foremost threat to the world’s safety, and, as long as SHIELD was there, protecting Earth and the developing Lunar colonies, there was some small measure of safety for the human race.
His office door opened. ‘Good Morning Edward. You wanted to see me?’ Dr Jackson, one of the few people that Straker, the Commander-in-Chief of SHIELD, allowed to call him by his first name, walked in, carrying his medical bag. ‘Still having trouble with the knee? I can give you some more painkillers, but you realise that soon you will need more surgery on it to help rebuild the joint.’
‘Yes, and one day the aliens will all decide to take a long vacation on Antares and I will be able to catch up on some sleep.’ Straker replied curtly. ‘Sorry Doctor, this leg’s been getting worse and I need something stronger than the stuff you’ve been giving me so far. Just get me through this latest attack and I promise I will rest it for a day or so.’
Jacksonfrowned but then handed his boss a couple of small white tablets. ‘Take these, but you can’t have anything else for at least another six hours. They won’t make you feel drowsy, but they will ease the pain considerably, so be careful not to damage that leg any more. Oh and another thing, try to get something to eat while you are working. You haven’t had a decent meal for ages. Starving yourself won’t help your body to heal, you know.’’
‘Yes I do know. I can’t remember the last time I had something other than sandwiches at my desk. Christ, Doctor, this has to ease up soon doesn’t it?’ His voice had a touch of desperation in it. The voice of a man at the very limits of endurance and exhaustion.
The proximity alarm from Moonbase Central sounded and Straker, holding carefully onto the edge of his desk for support, stood up and headed for SHIELD Control, the nerve centre of the whole organisation. Doug Jackson watched him walk past and shook his head in exasperation at the General’s stubborn attitude.
‘Attention.’ The Communications Controller acknowledged Straker’s arrival in the Control room. There was an immediate flurry of movement as everyone stood.
‘As you were.’ Straker received their recognition of his presence and moved on, eye flicking rapidly over the consoles, screens and personnel to check that all was in order and as it should be.
Relying on his stick for support he went over to supervise the latest reports from the High Earth Reconnaissance Orbital Defences.
‘Captain Ford, latest intell.’
‘Reports indicate that HEROD has tracked upwards of fifty UFOs heading for Earth. All Moonbases are at alert and Lunar Shuttles and orbital defence systems are fully operational. All Skydivers and MiGs are on patrol in the anticipated target zone and awaiting your command to go to REDCON 1. We are holding for confirmation from Moonbase Central Commander before deploying the Lunar Nuclear Strike Force.’ Captain Ford, a long serving member of the SHIELD team, knew exactly what information was required.
‘Get Commander Bradley for me.’
‘Moonbase Central. Bradley here, General. We are at REDCON 2. Initial reports are still sketchy, but we can confirm incoming in large numbers. Time to Earth Orbital Insertion now 20 minutes.’
Straker leaned towards the microphone. His voice was clear and concise. ‘Go to REDCON 1. All hands to Red Alert, all personnel to Battle Stations. Prepare to engage the enemy Commander. Yes, I know it’s at the limit of your range. But get them out there. Use all available force, including your nuclear capability interceptors. I don’t want a single UFO getting through to Earth. Not after the last time.’
‘Sir.’ Bradley confirmed his orders and closed the connection.
Edward Straker waited, watching, anticipating, planning. His one sharp eye noting every monitor, every detail, every change in circumstances.
He was aware that he had surely sent men and women, good men and women, to their deaths just now. Attacking from Moonbase Central was always risky, but at this distance, with the moon unfavourably positioned, he knew that some pilots would not make it back to base before they ran out of fuel, or air.
Using nuclear weapons was also extremely dangerous. Inexperienced Interceptor pilots who were not very adept, tended to get caught in the aftermath of the explosion and thrown out of orbit. He loathed having to give orders such as these but it was the price he had to pay. The price that every SHIELD soldier knew might, one day, be asked of them.
He had been willing to pay the price himself; the damage to his leg and his scarred face and the burns on his body were testimony to that, but he had survived. His wife and child had not. Mary and John. It was nearly one year ago.
The nightmares still haunted him; arriving at the scene to find their bodies, slashed open and gutted. In a perverse way he was grateful that he had found John’s body. The aliens generally abducted youngsters and many children of John’s age had never been found.
What would have been better? To have never seen him again and to have always lived with the horror of wondering what John was suffering at their hands, or as he did, to find his small, innocent body, torn and desecrated.
His fingers unconsciously twisted the ring on his right hand. Mary’s wedding ring. He had removed it from her finger after he had found her and had never taken it off since.
Straker put aside the thoughts and concentrated on his work. He could spare no time or energy for pointless reminiscences. He had work to do. Children to save. He could not save John but he would do his damndest to save others.
Gradually the information filtered in. Moonbase Central; confirming the approach of 53 UFOs. Why, Straker wondered, did their formations always seem to be Prime numbers? Were they trying to tell Earth something? He needed to continue the SHIELD research into that train of thought.
He also needed a cup of coffee. And a chance to consider the current data away from the noise of the control room with its distractions. Turning carefully to avoid putting stress on his knee he saw his personal aide, Colonel Philips watching him.
She made a brief gesture, unnoticed by anyone else. He nodded a curt agreement to her, collected his stick from where it was leaning against Captain Ford’s console and followed her slowly into his office.
‘You need to take off your Kevlar vest General.’ she ordered him, brusquely. ‘There’s coffee at your desk; sit down for a few minutes. You really must rest your knee.’
Shrugging his shoulders in resignation he slipped off the charcoal grey uniform jacket and unfastened the heavy protective vest, dropping it onto the chair behind him. ‘I can’t sit down Colonel,’ he finally admitted, with a rueful sigh. ‘This leg of mine has finally decided to call it quits. If I sit down now I may never get up. I’m alright standing here; just pass me the coffee.’
He drank it as it came, black and unsweetened, although he used to enjoy it white with sugar. He simply had no time for indulging in a fussy habit. Coffee was coffee. It kept you awake and that was all he needed.
He gulped the hot bitter brew, hardly tasting it, while he mulled over the facts and figures of the latest attack in his mind. He realised that he had not eaten since the previous lunch time and even that had been a hastily snatched sandwich, eaten on the go, while he had supervised the destruction of a large underground alien staging post found on an isolated island off the coast ofNorway.
SHIELD had lost three crewmen in the action. He had not even had chance to write to the families to express his regrets, although he had formally notified them late last night.
He perched on the edge of the desk, suddenly feeling off kilter, as if he had been drugged or was running a temperature. ‘Did you put something in my coffee?’ he asked, sharply.
‘Absolutely not Sir.’ Her shocked response confirmed his initial feeling. She was totally trustworthy, still, he felt, not strange exactly, more a feeling of emptiness, as if something had vanished from his life.
He suddenly had the peculiar feeling that there were things missing from the office, a glass paperweight, a large multi-coloured mural of shifting shapes behind the desk, bottles of alcohol and crystal glasses.
He nearly laughed out loud. Alcohol in his office. He had never allowed any officer to drink alcohol, and any that were found to have been drinking on duty were summarily dismissed. Still he could almost see the bottles from the corner or his eye; a bright splash of colour in the otherwise drab room.
There was something else bothering him as well. He could hear the echo of an English voice, a big, noisy voice, shouting orders and speaking to him in a way that would never be permitted in the Headquarters. Ordering him about, disagreeing with him.
What the hell was the matter with him today? It must beJackson’s tablets. Yes that was it. They didn’t make him feel drowsy, just gave him very mild hallucinations. He should never have taken them. He would speak toJacksonabout this later.
Coffee finished, uniform jacket neatly fastened once more, he made his way carefully back to the Control room, leaning even more heavily on the stick. Colonel Philips followed him shifting her shoulders to settle her holster more comfortably in place.
Her role as Personal Aide and bodyguard to Edward Straker did not leave her much time for herself, but she was married to Colonel Foster and her life was heading in the right direction. This post was good for her career prospects and she was looking forward to promotion in the coming months.
She respected the General, but his methods, although highly successful in dealing with the aliens, were also very harsh. His codename ‘Sentinel’ suited him perfectly: a cold, calculating machine with only one objective – the total obliteration of the alien threat. She knew that many of the officers in SHIELD were almost scared of his dedication and unwavering commitment to destroy the enemy at any price.
She recalled a time when he had been far more approachable, when he would go home to his wife and child, would smile and joke with the officers. It had all changed on that day when the aliens had attackedLondonand he lost his family.
Straker leaned against the concrete walls of the Control room, resting his leg, watching everything going on around him. Reports from Moonbase Central poured in; number of UFOs destroyed, pilots MIA or confirmed killed, successful nuclear strikes.
His intellect assimilated the available data, processed it, analysed it and spat out theories and solutions. Tiredness crept up on him as he stood there, and for a brief moment he was transported back into a time he had forgotten.
The helicopter appeared suddenly over the nearest dune, incredibly huge, incredibly noisy, closer and lower than he had thought possible, sweeping low over the ground, 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.’ 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. He jerked at the impact and wrenched forward, out of Freeman’s grasp, and the second stray bullet, that should have missed both men, slammed into Alec Freeman’s skull, causing immediate and appalling brain damage. Freeman never regained consciousness and died on the transport plane back to England.
Straker gave a short gasp and opened his eye. He was still in Control, leaning against the scuffed and shabby wall, his leg stiff and aching, his shoulder sore with recalled pain. He hadn’t thought of Alec Freeman for years. Alec would have made a brilliant SHIELD officer, dedicated but audacious, daring yet gallant. If Freeman had lived then he would doubtless have been appointed Straker’s second-in-command. Freeman had all the qualities necessary to be a great deputy, excellent interpersonal skills, superb combat skills and the ability to step in just at the right time. Freeman; that was the voice he heard in his office. How strange. He would definitely have to discuss this withJacksonsometime soon. It was rather worrying and perplexing.
He continued to monitor events in Control, noting that Moonbase had achieved over 77% success rate, but 12 UFOs had evaded the defences and were headed for their primary target. Not really good enough. The Moonbase Commander would have some explaining to do when all this was over, and a very good reason for the failure to eradicate all the UFOs, if he wanted to keep his post.
‘Straker to Skydivers and MiGs. Go to REDCON 1.Battlestations, battle stations. Engage the enemy with extreme force.’ He turned to the communications officer. ‘Micronesia. Satellite real time imagery. Now.’ he ordered abruptly.
Within seconds the screen lit up, the pictures blurred and indistinct to the untrained eye. In silence he concentrated on interpreting the images. Aircraft contrails crisscrossed the sky, explosive detonations blazed in neon bright flashes, multi-coloured particles spinning uncontrollably as UFOs disintegrated in mid-air.
Straker watched it all, seemingly not noticing as the images showed SHIELD aircraft tumbling out of control and down into the azure sea so far below.
Eventually it was over. No innocent children had died. No aliens had survived to return to their homeworld laden with bloodied organs ripped from living, breathing men and women. Another victory for SHIELD, but no one cheered or congratulated each other. The cost was too high.
Although SHIELD only accepted the very best recruits, and the training was intense and exhaustive, the attrition rate was horrendous. There had been so many dedicated, devoted soldiers killed in the battle to save their world, their fellow humans and their families. It didn’t deter people from volunteering though.
In silence he headed for his office. Reluctantly sitting down in his familiar, comfortable chair he stretched his leg out under the desk, wincing as his knee made its presence felt. He leaned forward and carefully massaged the wrecked joint, trying to restore some sense of normal feeling. His office door opened and he looked up ready to complain at the intrusion.
‘Stay there. Don’t get up General. Everything is being dealt with in Control. I can get your car ready outside in five minutes if you want to go home for a break, or I can get you something to eat here and you can supervise the cleanup operation. Also, the press have been in contact and would like to interview you as soon as possible.’
Straker leaned back in his chair, steepling his fingers and considering his options. ‘I’d better stay here Colonel. If you can get me something to eat that would be appreciated. Tell Commander Bradley that I want a full report in two hours time and ask him to prepare a detailed account of all the assets that we need to replace after this attack. I want casualty and damage reports from all stations within the hour. We’ll need to speed up the training schedule to fill the gaps in our deployment. As for the press: get Captain Ealand to talk to them. That’s why she’s the Liaison Officer. If they demand a Press Conference they will have to wait until later today, I’ll speak to them at fourteen hundred hours.’ He leaned back in the chair tiredly, and she realised that he was forcing himself to stay awake.
‘Sir.’ She nodded a silent salute and went out, closing the door quietly behind herself. Outside in the corridor she beckoned to the guard. ‘Don’t let anyone, and I mean anyone, go into the General’s office. My orders.’
He dreamed of a changed world. A world still with the threat of aliens, but a world where mankind knew nothing of the battle against the invasion. He could see on the bleak walls of a corridor an acronym, but his tired eyes could not focus well enough to read it clearly. Eyes. He had two eyes. Had anything else changed? In his dream he stood up: his leg strong and true, his uniform was different, styled in a similar fashion, with the high collar, but not a military uniform, an elegant, expensive suit, perfectly cut to fit. Feeling for the medal ribbons on his breast, he realised that both of his hands were devoid of rings. Mary’s ring. Where was it? What had happened to it? He began to panic.
And suddenly someone outside his vision took hold of his hands, clasped them and held them firmly. No one had done that for a very long time. No one ever, ever touched him like that, with such familiarity. A face came into view, long dark hair framing an oval face, with brown eyes. Not Mary with her blonde hair, blue eyes. Who was it?
Startled he jerked away from the touch, and realised that he had dozed off, only for a moment or two but it was enough to disconcert him. The dream faded, as most dreams do, into obscurity.
The office door opened and his aide entered. ‘Right General, Dr. Jackson’s expecting you in Sick Bay for some physiotherapy on your leg. I told him you’d be there directly. Would you like some assistance?’
He glared at her, angry that she had arranged it without consulting him. ‘I have more important things to do Colonel. Jackson will have to wait until later this afternoon, after the Press Conference.’ He picked up a folder from the desk and began to read it, annotating it in red biro as he did so.
Out of the blue it was pulled out of his grasp and flung onto the desk, sheets of paper scattering haphazardly across the surface. ‘SickBay. Now. Or I will get the good doctor to come and certify you medically unfit for duty. And you know I can, and I will.’ Her voice was harsh with ferocity; her eyes stared into his intently.
It was no use arguing; he knew when he was beaten. Perhaps some treatment on his knee would keep him from having to have it operated on again. It was difficult to stand up and pitifully he had to rely on her strength in order to get on his feet.
‘Shall I get a wheelchair?’ she asked, quietly, knowing full well what his response would be.
‘No.’ Incensed and infuriated he struggled to the doorway and leaned against it, marshalling his strength for the walk to Sick Bay. He had not felt as exhausted as this for a very long time. But there again, the aliens had not given Earth a break from their more or less continuous attacks from a very, very long time.
The corridors were traffic free and he wondered if she had cleared them before ordering him to the medical unit. He limped on, resting occasionally to catch his breath against the sharply painful protests from his leg. She walked besides him, not out of concern, but to ensure that she was in a position to catch him should he fall.
He considered her, running through her personnel file in his thoughts. Colonel Philips was an excellent aide, but had little empathy for others. Perhaps that was why she was so efficient at her job. She followed the rules, ensuring that everything ran smoothly. That was all he asked of her. And that was what she did.
Her husband, Colonel Foster, currently on rotation in theSouth Atlantic, was leading the task force there. The Falklands was a bitterly unpleasant place to be stationed and had been attacked by the aliens on numerous occasions, due mainly to its isolation, but Foster had done a sterling job of defending the islands in the last nine months.
Straker knew that Colonel Philips hoped Paul would be transferred out of theSouth Atlantic in the spring, and then she would apply for that promotion to Commander of the Mauritius Sector. She had a good chance of getting it as well.
Ahead on the scuffed and stained walls of the corridor Colonel Philips could see the Base symbol, the stylised shield overlaid with Earth and Moon with its world famous acronym underneath. It had been there since the first days of SHIELD, in 2001 when the alien threat had become common knowledge. Straker, then a Brigadier General in the USAF had been appointed as the C-in-C of the newly formed organisation, and the rest of the story was well documented.
His rapid rise to four star General and his dedication and commitment to protecting Earth made him a force to be reckoned with and it was a brave person indeed who dared to question his authority. Straker had single-handedly dragged the countries of the world together around the conference table and had forced them to co-operate in financing the huge deployment of military forces across all continents.
In the years since then SHIELD had defended the Earth and the increasing number of Lunar settlements from the ever mounting attacks. UFOs arrived relentlessly, in numbers ranging from just a handful to over a hundred, always in groups of prime number, always with the purpose of swamping an inhabited area and harvesting organs from all the viable donors as well as abducting any children between the ages of 4 and 7.
John Straker was just approaching his eighth birthday when he had been slaughtered last year.
And now, Colonel Philips mused, the General himself needed to be forced to co-operate with the demands of his doctor. She was determined to make sure that Edward Straker, General or no General, did as he was told by Dr. Jackson. Without Straker, SHIELD would be leaderless and without direction. It was only his ruthless leadership and brilliant analytical mind that enabled SHIELD to be as successful as it was.
The Leaders of the world’s foremost nations were involved in a desperate race to find a suitable second-in-command for SHIELD, but it had been a fruitless search so far. They had, as yet been unable to find anyone with the knowledge and experience required for the position.
They reached the door marked ‘Sick Bay’ and Colonel Philips knocked once and opened it.
‘Come in General.’Jackson was waiting like a spider welcoming a fly into his web. ‘Go through to the treatment room. Thank you Colonel Philips. I will call when I have finished.’
Once inside the sparse room Jackson lowered the medical bed to a comfortable height. ‘Right General, let’s see what we can do for that knee. Undress and get on the bed. Do you need a hand with the leg brace?’
‘No. Look: is this necessary?’ Annoyance sounded in the gruff voice.
‘Yes it is Edward. You can hardly stand up, let alone walk. Give me an hour to use the ultra-sound on that joint and it might very well reduce the swelling up to the extent that you will be able to walk out of here without leaning on the wall every couple of yards. Now, jacket, t shirt and trousers off and stretch out on the bed. No arguments.’ He bent to remove the General’s shoes and socks for him.
Reluctantly Straker complied, hissing with suppressed pain as he lifted his injured leg onto the couch.
‘Good. Now keep still while I get these in place. You can sit up while this is functioning, in fact you should have something to eat while you are in here. Two birds with one stone you might say.’ He raised the head of the bed as he spoke. Straker continued to glower at him, until he realised that the deep wrenching ache in his knee was easing as the ultra-sound got to work on the fragmented bones and swollen and inflamed flesh.
‘All right Jackson, you’ve convinced me. I’ll go along with your quackery, for now.’ a small smile creased the corners of his mouth. ‘Did you mention something to eat?’
‘It’s on its way. Get comfortable. Here.’ Jackson remarked as he pulled a sheet and blankets up.
Some thirty minutes later, after ensuring that his boss had eaten his first decent meal for several days and had finally succumbed to tiredness, Jackson dimmed the room lights, tucked the blankets closer around the sleeping form and raised the safety bars on the bed. ‘Sleep well, Edward.’ he muttered.
He knew it was a dream; it wasn’t real. He was asleep in the sick bay wasn’t he, while Jackson treated his shattered knee, but he was here as well. Here in this dream world that seemed so genuine, so … complete. SHIELD. No; that wasn’t the name. It was something similar though, some sort of acronym.
He could see the badge, not a shield, a silhouette with a shadow. Strange. The corridors were cleaner and wider. He couldn’t see any windows, anywhere. Underground? And there was this oppressive feeling of weight pushing down on him.
It was as if he was an invisible intruder, standing there in the corner of this bizarre room, watching people work. Serious men in long sleeved coveralls, competent women in tightly fitting and revealing body suits. Electronic interfaces and screens that made the SHIELD computers look as if they had come out of theArk.
Bright lights, smooth clean walls, and inhuman electronic voices. This was a world he didn’t understand. Not military, but not civilian either. He walked without pain or the aid of a stick. He headed towards a door that unexpectedly slid sideways as he approached. He had not expected that. No one had yet managed to get sliding doors to work quickly enough.
A room, or was it an office? It was hard to tell. His own office indicated clearly that it was the office of a military man, but this room was different. He had seen it somewhere before. Oh yes, the desk that should have a glass paper weight, the room that had bottles of alcohol on the table, the mural on the wall. He had seen this before. Where the hell was he?
Another room. This was more familiar; medical equipment and a clean sterile look, just as in Jackson’s Sick Bay. He was lying in a bed, not in pain, just lying there, resting.
Then she came into view again. Black hair, long and soft, brown eyes smiling into his and sensuous lips that gently whispered words he could not hear, however much he strained. This was not his world but for a long moment he wished that he belonged here, here with her.
It was Colonel Philips, but there again it was not. This woman, so different from his aide, yet seemingly so similar, was surrounded by an aura of compassion and love. Although he did not know her he felt that he would have been able to trust her with his very life. She moved away and he tried to call her back, but without success.
And there in the background he could see a heavy set man, brown haired and stern, strong minded and determined, reliable and resilient. Arms folded, leaning against a wall, watching. Alec Freeman. Older now, but still recognisable with that handsome face, that indefinable quality of compassion and understanding. Alec. A man he would have been proud and honoured to call a friend.
There were others as well, people that worked with him, that respected him, that shared their thoughts and fears with him, that shared good times and the bad times.
General E. Straker, in his dream, wept for the friendships he had lost, the men and women he had sent to early graves and the unfulfilled existence he had been forced to endure. An empty life filled with empty hours.
An unbidden tear formed at the corner of his eye and tracked down the side of his face. Her face moved into focus and she gently wiped the tear away, before leaning forward so that her lips touched his. Her kiss felt as warm as sunshine on a hot summer’s day and he reached for her, striving to touch her face before it faded with the memories of this perfect dream.
And then he woke up. Or at least he initially thought that he was awake. He was still in the bleak medical room, but this was the SHIELD sick bay. However he was not alone; there was another man in the room, his back to the General. There was something remarkable about him, some aspect of him that the General could not identify but that surrounded him like a visible aura. And then he turned round and smiled.
‘I need to talk to you.’ He said in a quiet, determined voice. Edward Straker lay on his bed, staring up into his own face. Was he losing his mind? Was this a side effect of his treatment? He tried to press the call button for Jackson, but he was paralysed, unable to move his arm. ‘Who are you?’ he eventually managed to blurt out, almost stammering with the shock.
‘You. And me. At the same time. Don’t try to understand. I’m not really sure how it happened myself and I specialise in this branch of science. That isn’t important. I know what is happening in your world and I think I can help you, in more ways than one. I don’t know how long this link between our worlds will last so you need to listen carefully and try not to interrupt.’
‘But how are you here?’
‘I’ve been in your mind, in your world, for a while now; I’m not really sure how long, but I know you and what has happened in your past. The years have been somewhat kinder to my world. I am also fighting the aliens on my Earth, but we have been more successful and I think we might just win out against them in the long run. There again, I have the benefit of having Alec Freeman to help me. It all seems to have gone wrong for you when he died, almost as if the universe fractured into three separate units at that moment. Your world is a far poorer place for not having him in it.’ His voice trailed away as if he was only just beginning to realising just how very important Alec Freeman was. He paused for a moment, thinking, then carried on talking to the General.
‘Your technology is very different to ours; we haven’t got Lunar settlements, but you haven’t made the computer advances that we have. Now, the first thing you must do is find a woman called Virginia Lake. If she is alive, and I have no reason to doubt that she isn’t, then the chances are high that she will be a theoretical physicist. There are amazing parallels between people in my world and yours, so I am hoping she can help you. You need to get her to research the effects of gamma ray bursts and electromagnetic pulses. The gamma ray bursts might contain the ability to be used to create a barrier that will be impermeable to the alien ships power systems. The electromagnetic pulses will help you block the aliens communications between themselves and will render them far more susceptible to attack by remote controlled missiles. There’s a tremendous amount of physics involved and I have been researching them on our world. The electromagnetic pulses have another even more direct effect. If you can target the alien homeworld and blanket it with a really, really powerfulEMP, it could wipe them out. Completely. ’
He grinned at the General, a sardonic smile that expressed his frustration. ‘I hoped to be able to use the gamma rays against them myself, but it’s useless on my Earth. Fortunately the so-called universal laws of physics don’t apply to all universes so you should be able to achieve more than I have, here on your Earth. I have written down some of the equations that should operate in this world. Here.’ and he handed the General a sheet of paper covered in neat script. ‘Good thing I have some physical attributes here, otherwise I would have had to dictate this to you. It should work; I hope it does for the sake of your world. I have to go now, I’m getting too cold and my time is running out here.’
Shivering he started to flicker with a faint blue haze. ‘Oh; one more thing Edward. Relax a little, enjoy the music and start playing again. And Ginny Lake is a very attractive woman.’ He faded away, leaving an aftershadow nimbus like a patch of summer sky.
Eddie Straker woke up in the darkness of the studio, the day’s rushes still playing unwatched before him. He shook his head as if to clear it and stood up, hesitantly at first as if he might lose his balance. At least he had not lost his mind. He relived the conversation he had had in his sleep, if sleep it was. It was all so real, so believable.
His other self had told him about linked universes and convergent lives. Eddie had not believed any of it at first, but as the tall man in the cream suit (Eddie could not think of him as Ed Straker) had talked, Eddie had gradually begun to accept it as the truth. Eddie had listened as his double had talked about how Mary had divorced him and about his own son, John, who had died aged seven in a car accident. How his life had been empty and unfulfilled apart from work and the single friend who was always there to support him.
‘Alec Freeman, your Alec Freeman, is dead in your world.’ He had told Eddie. ‘In my world Alec is alive and working with me to protect the world from danger. He has been the one constant in my life, the person who has always been there to support me, and perhaps that is why my life has been so different from yours, or the other Ed Straker that I have met. I used to think I was alone, but it’s nothing compared to the loneliness that you and he have experienced. I have some advice for you. I suggest that you take it, before your life spirals down into emptiness and you decide to end it all one day. Mary wants to meet you and you have a son who wants to meet his father. Don’t throw away the opportunity. John is the greatest thing to have happened to you, and you have already missed watching him grow up. And Mary. You wronged her all those years ago, yet she still wants to share her son with you. Make the phone call Eddie, and set up a meeting.’ He shivered as if with cold. ‘I haven’t much time left here. Don’t waste the chance to have a real family. I would give anything to have my son back again. Oh yes, one more thing; lose the stubble, it really doesn’t suit you.’ And, grinning, he was gone in a sparkle of azure light like the aftermath of a lightning flash.
‘Got it!’ Shroeder was exultant as the heart monitor showed a steady even pulse. ‘Right, let’s get him warmer.’ They replaced blankets and the heated air, and waited patiently as his temperature slowly increased to a satisfactory level.
‘It should be safe to bring him out of his sleep soon don’t you think Colonel?’ he directed his question to Ginny who had been standing in the background, unwilling to interrupt.
‘His brain patterns have returned to normal and it appears that the link has been broken, so, yes, we should be able to wake him up whenever you feel he is ready Doctor.’ She smiled at the other woman standing there. ‘We’ll leave that to you Rachel. He will probably appreciate you being here when he wakes.’
‘Hello.’ His voice was hesitant and soft. ‘Is it over?’
‘Yes, you’re safe now.’ she held his hand tightly, and smiled up at Ginny and Alec standing on the other side of the bed.
He turned his head to stare at Ginny Lake. ‘Gamma ray bursts I take it? How did you negate the effect? I couldn’t find any way to close the link when I was running computer simulations.’
Colonel Lake smiled ruefully. ‘I’m afraid we had to create a terminal condition in the link which connected the universes. It has obviously worked.’
He was silent for a few moments, assimilating the information she had given him. ‘Oh. Oh, I see. Well I don’t think I will volunteer to go through that again.’ He grinned up at her. ‘Colonel, you look exhausted. Alec, take her home and make sure she gets some rest. And the same goes for you as well Alec. Go on, the pair of you.’ He watched them head for the door and added, ‘And thank you, both of you.’
He turned to Rachel, sitting on the side of the bed, holding his hand. ‘As for you shouldn’t you be in Moonbase right now? I close my eyes for a moment and you are off doing your own thing. Heavens, how long have I been here?’ his voice held a touch of panic.
‘Only about ten hours Ed, it’s just after seven in the evening. Don’t worry everything is fine. Mark Bradley volunteered to end his vacation early and return to Moonbase in a couple of days. Paul will be heading for Earth next week, with a very good explanation for what happened at the base. It seems that it is not all his fault. And you, you have been lying here doing nothing at all. Lazy thing.’
‘Au contraire, I have been very busy I will have you know and one day maybe….’ He paused, remembering what he had seen, had experienced, had done in those other worlds. He knew he would never know how things worked out for his other selves. He had done his best for them, that was all that he could do, the rest was up to them. He hoped they were happy, as he was. ‘I don’t know; perhaps it’s all better forgotten.’
‘What have you been up to?’ she demanded. ‘You have a very satisfied look about you.’
‘I got involved in some matchmaking actually, and I think I may have managed to help save a world from aliens.’ he replied smugly, ‘Can you raise the bed so I can sit up to talk to you? It’s very awkward lying down like this.’
‘Of course, but wouldn’t you rather get some rest? You do look tired you know.’ She adjusted the bed so that he was sitting more comfortably.
‘Not yet. There are things I need to tell you.’ He looked serious and she had a sudden dread that he was going to end their relationship. She took a deep breath, and prepared herself for the worst. ‘Rachel, I know this isn’t perhaps the best time or place to say this……….’
She had a desperate desire to run from the room, or at least to cover her ears. Anything rather than listen to what he was about to say. She felt hot tears building up inside. No; she was determined not to break down in front of him; she would not give him the satisfaction of seeing her cry.
‘I’m sorry; do you want to get off home? You’ve gone very quiet. You must be tired and I’m keeping you here. I think I might have to stay in here overnight knowing how fussy the doctors are.’ He looked at her, concerned blue eyes staring at her tear filled brown eyes. ‘You’re crying. Dearest, what’s wrong?’ He reached out for her and she leaned against him, her head on his chest. He could feel her heart racing, and her breaths ragged and uneven as if she was on the edge of breaking down. ‘Rachel, tell me what’s wrong. I hate to see you crying. Please.’
She shook her head, still leaning against him, unable to look in his eyes. He stroked her head, smoothing her hair with his fingers and murmuring softly in her ear. Gradually his words filtered through her distress.
‘Do you know how much I love you? I looked at you this morning when you were asleep and I realised just what you have given me these past months. How much you have changed my life. I don’t know how I lived before without you. I can’t ever see myself living without you.’
He lifted her head from his chest, stroking her hair away from her face and looking into her eyes. ‘I’m sorry Rachel, as I said, it’s not the perfect time or place but I need to tell you something. I love you, totally and utterly. I’ll be the first to admit I’m not an easy person to live with, and SHADO will always have come first in my life but I need to know. Will you marry me? Please?’
For a heart stopping moment, she was still and silent. Then she held him tightly, almost crushing the breath from him.
He held her close, thinking of the two men he had met, hoping that they would be as happy as he was right now. A future to look forward to, a future together with her.
General Edward Straker watched with satisfaction as the massive Jupiter One rocket, the first in a planned series of eight such unmanned rockets, launched towards the stratosphere, on its journey to the aliens’ home world. Loaded with the innovativeEMPweapon which had proved so devastatingly successful against the enemy in the solar system, the unmanned rockets were destined to target the alien world and destroy their entire technological capability.
His second-in-command, civilian Virginia Lake, stood at his side, holding his hand tightly. He smiled down at her as they watched the immense rocket tear through the clear blue sky. His world was now safe, and he was looking forward to a future with Virginia, a future with a woman whom he cherished and who would very soon become his wife. And he had started to play the piano again.
The Volvo stopped outside the main entrance of the studios. ‘Okay John? You didn’t mind coming out here today with me, did you?’ his father asked. ‘I thought you might like to go on the studio tour with me and check out the new film we are making before we go to see how the Alec Freeman Foundation is getting on. Our first paraplegic patients are arriving next week, and I want to make sure they have everything they need. I think he would have been pleased with what I have tried to do. Then we can meet up with your mum and go home for tea.’
Eddie Straker, smooth shaven and sober, looked across at the small boy safely strapped into the front seat of the saloon car and lovingly ruffled his short ash blonde hair with a hand devoid of any jewellery except a thick platinum wedding band. His life was full and complete at last.
2009 Author’s note: This follows on from Process of Elimination, Surrendered and Redacted. It actually started with Last Post when I thought about a different ending for SHADO, and then continued the idea in New Beginning. I wrote this story as I was writing Redacted, which isn’t really a story, more of a recount. But I got a kick out of writing it and that’s all that matters. To be continued…………… possibly involving Alec, Ginny and Paul but definitely Ed and Rachel. Just to let you know…….Eddie and Edward lived happily ever after. You will not meet them again (in this universe).
LtCdr Nov 2009
2012. I loved writing this story, with the three parts intertwining. Perhaps one day I will revisit this plot bunny, and maybe make a better job of it.