Paul Foster had only arrived back at his flat two hours ago, after a long arduous stint in control of Moonbase. He was still jet-lagged, or to be more precise he thought, lunar-shuttle-lagged. He knew that he had to face Straker first thing in the morning to explain how, last month, two UFOs had managed to evade the Moonbase tracker systems, not to mention SID.
Fortunately, Sky 4 had destroyed one of the UFOs, but the other one, coming in piggy-back on the static trail of the first, had caused huge disruption in SHADO with its Gamma Ray weapon that was targeted at the SHADO C-in-C. He had been fortunate that Straker, once recovered from the effects of the GRB, had not demanded his instant return to SHADO HQ, but had insisted that Paul remain where he was to ‘get a better understanding of the role of Moonbase Command.’ In other words – stay put and learn to do the job properly.
Foster was not looking forward to the meeting the following day. The SHADO leader was someone who expected all his subordinates to be as perfect as he himself was, and Paul was convinced that Commander Ed Straker was undoubtedly lying awake right at that very minute, planning some appropriate punishment for Foster.
Damn it all, hadn’t they done enough to him recently? There had been the interminably long stint in the Falklands, where the only other senior members of staff had been the competent, delightful, and extremely attractive Communications officer and her equally competent and possessive husband, the base leader. There had of course been several thousand penguins as well.
The South Atlantic job was followed by his sudden and unexpected posting to Moonbase.
He had not been home for over three months and his flat was cold, unaired, and unwelcoming. It wasn’t as if he had any company either. Most of the girls he had dated in the past had ended their relationship because of his habit of leaving them waiting in restaurants, or abandoning them in cinemas, or simply not being available for weeks at a time. SHADO always came first, but he was beginning to resent the constant intrusion into his private life.
He laughed ironically. What private life? They monitored everything he said and did. It was almost as if they couldn’t trust him. And in a way, he couldn’t blame them. The recent incident on Moonbase had made even Paul himself doubt his own abilities.
Perhaps Straker was, even now, planning to remove him from the command structure. It would be a dreadful wrench, but the alternative of total amnesia, or even a bullet through the brain, was even worse. Foster decided that he would deal with whatever Straker threw at him, and would persevere.
SHADO was too important now in Paul’s life. He needed to be a part of it, to be up there with the rest of them, with Freeman and Ginny and Lew Waterman, yes, and even with the iceman himself, Straker, helping to make a difference.
He poured himself a gin and tonic, preferring bourbon on ice, but he had finished his last bottle, all his bottles in fact, apart from the dregs of a bottle of gin, in that party he had held just before heading to the South Atlantic. He had only found the gin after a scrabble at the back of the cupboard in his search for some, in fact any, alcoholic drink to welcome him home. The tonic was nearly flat. There had been no opportunity to restock either the kitchen or the bar.
There was a loud knock at the door. Ah. Pizza. That was quick. Paul fumbled for his wallet among the detritus of old papers and letters on the table. The knock sounded again. Urgently.
‘All right I’m coming,’ he yelled, his fingers finally grabbing the wallet. He opened the door. Not a sullen young pizza delivery boy with scooter behind him; instead, heavily armed SHADO security officers with a waiting 4WD transport vehicle, complete with sirens and flashing lights.
‘Come with us, sir,’ he was ordered as his arm was grabbed, and he was almost forcibly escorted to the waiting vehicle.
’What the hell…………….’
He was interrupted by the leader of the armed group.
‘There has been a major incident at SHADO HQ. You are needed there immediately. Fasten your seatbelt. Please.’ The curt instructions were spoken in almost a monotone. Nothing else was said.
Foster, stunned at the suddenness of events, strapped himself in as the vehicle sped away. He looked back over his shoulder to see two outriders catching up with the vehicle.
The journey to SHADO HQ took less than ten minutes. The convoy, sirens blaring and lights proclaiming their inalienable right of way over all other vehicles, including police, fire engines and ambulances, broke all speed restrictions as it raced along the road.
Foster, despite the seat belt, had to cling to the door handle as he was flung around by the excessive speed.
There was no conversation. No one looked at him or made any attempt to look at him. The escort, sitting next to him, concentrated on watching the other vehicles on the road as if anticipating an attack from another car.
Foster began to panic. What had happened at HQ? Were the aliens attacking in force? He knew that Straker was expecting a major assault from the enemy any day soon; they had been exceptionally quiet in the last weeks and this usually foreshadowed an all-out offensive. But in that case Ed would have simply called him and told him to get his butt down to HQ immediately. No, it couldn’t be the aliens.
They drove recklessly into the entrance to the studios, then round the back to the cargo access lift. Why not the usual executives’ lift, or even the staff entrance hidden in Sound Stage 4?
With a squeal of brakes and a plume of gravel, the convoy halted.
‘This way, sir.’ The escort was respectful, but Foster knew that they would have been as polite to anyone; their manner was not deferential, simply a matter of training. The only person in SHADO that they actually respected was Straker; and as far as they were concerned, the rest of the SHADO operatives were simply his minions, to be treated with outward respect, but in reality to be discounted as unimportant.
Colonel Foster unstrapped and slid out of the rear seat. Once more his arm was grabbed firmly, and he was hurried, or rather rushed, through the empty storage section to the concealed cargo lift.
Foster had never travelled in the lift before, although he knew of its existence. It was bleak, empty, grungy, with oil stains and dust in the corners. There was no Voice Print Identification system, but as the lift descended far more rapidly than he was used to, he noticed that the silent guards were readying their weapons.
The lift stopped. The wide doors slid open soundlessly and smoothly, and suddenly he was surrounded by guards, weapons pointing at him.
‘Sir?’ the leader pointed.
There on the wall was a retinal scan system. Foster stepped closer and carefully positioned himself so that his right eye was directly in front of the glass lens.
For one terrible moment he had the thought that he might fail the scan. He waited for the bullets to strike him, to tear through his flesh, to rip apart his body, but; no.
‘Retinal Scan Positive. Paul Foster.’
There was an audible sigh of relief from the surrounding guards, and he heard the sound of guns being secured.
‘Colonel Foster, this way.’
He followed, still totally confused, as they headed for SHADO Control room.
‘My God.’ He stopped, appalled and horrified. Spatters of dark crimson and bright scarlet decorated the once pristine white walls of the control room and the corridor from the executive lift. Computer consoles flickered with random electric sparks, and on the floor, motionless in a spreading pool of blood, was Lt Southey, one of SHADO’s newest recruits.
Paul, his face ashen with shock, hands suddenly, uncontrollably, trembling, turned to see Lt. Ford, who was watching helplessly as the medics worked frantically on the young lieutenant.
‘Ford, what the hell happened?’ Foster could hardly speak, he was so shaken.
Keith Ford turned unfocussed, shocked eyes to Foster.
‘Colonel, thank God you’re alright. It’s dreadful. There was a bomb in Commander Straker’s studio office. He was in there with Freeman and Lake. They were all hit by the blast, and when we finally managed to get the door open, another bomb went off, ripping through all the power and communications conduits into Control. The short circuits caused massive damage to all the computer systems.’ He paused, reluctant to continue the litany of devastation. ‘Lt Southey caught the full force of the second blast.’ His voice trailed away as he watched the medics step back from the young woman’s body and silently, reverently, cover her lifeless corpse with a white sheet that slowly became stained with her blood.
Foster turned away, sickened, then realised.
‘Keith. For God’s sake, what happened to Commander Straker and the others? Are they alright?’
Ford looked at him with eyes full of anguish. ‘Commander Straker was sitting behind his desk. He was the least seriously hurt.’
Foster heaved a sigh of relief. ‘So he’ll be back at work soon?’
‘Colonel,’ Keith Ford whispered. ‘The Commander has a serious skull fracture and probable brain damage. There were reports that he has suffered shrapnel injuries to his face and eyes, and he was unconscious when we found him. Colonel Freeman and Colonel Lake were even more seriously injured. Colonel Freeman has severe internal and spinal injuries, and Colonel Lake has compound fractures to both legs and abdominal injuries. She also lost her right arm. She had stopped breathing when the medics arrived, but they resuscitated her eventually.’
He stopped, almost in tears as he recounted the catalogue of disasters suffered by the senior staff. ‘They were all alive when the medics took them to Mayland, but we haven’t heard anything since then, and now Lt Southey……..’
Foster felt his legs give way under him. He collapsed onto the steps in the empty, blood-splashed Control room, his head down in his shaking hands. How could this have happened? He looked up at the surrounding banks of computers and interactive displays, all now blank and non-operational. Fat sparks of short-circuited electricity spat across cables and consoles. Lights flickered, and dimmed, static noises crackled from speakers, and he could taste the stench of spilled blood in the back of his mouth.
Ratification of Chain of Command
‘Colonel.’ Keith Ford, sitting next to him, put one hand on his shoulder.
‘Yes, Keith.’ Paul could hardly speak.
‘Colonel, you are the next in the chain of command. There is no one else. You need to take control of SHADO and help us to get operational again. The Control room here is out of action until we can get the power lines and communications repaired. We need to transfer to Auxiliary Control and get that running. Colonel. You must give the order.’
Foster took a deep breath. And another. By sheer force of will he managed to control his emotions. He wanted nothing more than to run to Mayland, to see the three senior staff members, to make sure that they were still alive. But he could not do that now. SHADO came first.
‘Lt Ford, give the order to transfer all controls to Auxiliary. Notify all units that, until further notice, SHADO will be operating from there, and they will need to adjust their frequencies and wavelengths accordingly. Had Moonbase been informed?’
‘Yes Sir. Lt Ellis has been notified and is in frequent contact with HQ.’
‘Very good. I’m going over to Auxiliary now. Send all available personnel there as soon as possible. Can you contact Mayland and get an update on the condition of the three of them there? In particular, the Commander? I need to know when he is likely to be able to have visitors. I am going to need some help and advice from him.’
Ford left the echoing room, his footsteps loud on the hard floor. Foster, still sitting on the steps, wiped his eyes clear of the tears that were threatening to overwhelm him. He desperately wanted to do nothing more than break down and cry, but he knew that he had no other option but to take command.
He stood up, resolved. He had to get over to Auxiliary immediately and get things sorted there.
Straightening his jacket in an unconscious imitation of Straker, he looked around the bleak control room for the last time, and then left, not looking back, his footsteps echoing behind him.
Auxiliary was heaving with excess staff, those who had been off shift and had come in to assist, and those who had been on rota at the time of the bomb blast and were reluctant to go home until they had had news from Mayland. He organised them into teams and set them to work repairing and restoring the systems.
Paul joined in the activity, thankful that Ed Straker had been insistent on running frequent simulated attacks which involved transferring operations to this smaller centre in the HQ. What no-one had seemingly ever considered, however, was a bomb that would damage not only the main Control centre, but would also impair the vital cables that led to the auxiliary room.
Several hours later he was still hard at work, still desperately trying to get the power reconnected and the communications systems reinstalled. Without the communications, SHADO was effectively blind and deaf. It had always seemed so easy when Straker transferred command here. But Paul was beginning to realise that running SHADO took more than training; it took expertise and an almost instinctive ability to assess situations and predict what would happen next. He didn’t think he had that gut instinct. He didn’t think he would ever have Straker’s analytical skills.
The only good thing was that Moonbase was fully operational, and Foster was relying heavily on the capability of the lunar base staff to help detect any incoming UFOs.
He leaned, exhausted, against the wall in the small, grey-painted room, pinching the bridge of his nose to try to ease the pain of his developing headache.
Keith Ford, eyes red-rimmed with tiredness and stress, handed him a coffee, light and sweet, just as Straker took his. Foster gulped the hot brew and grimaced. He preferred his coffee black, but this was no time to be fussy. He still had to get the remaining power linkages connected before he could even think about taking a breather.
‘Any news from Mayland?’ he asked for what seemed like the hundredth time.
‘Nothing yet, Colonel. They are still waiting for Colonel Freeman to come out of surgery. Colonel Lake has been transferred to ICU in a critical condition. The Commander is still unconscious and is not expected to wake up for at least another six hours.’
Foster went chill at the news. He was on his own then, with no senior staff to back him up. He hoped he would be able to deal with any attacks that might occur.
He began to realise that he had, in the past few months, become increasingly complacent, almost slapdash in his attitude. He had been responsible for several avoidable errors on the part of Moonbase personnel, and although the last incursion had not, technically, been his fault, he should have been monitoring the sensors more thoroughly. He had known about the minor ion fluctuation after all and had known how it would affect Moonbase systems, and yet he had done nothing to enhance the coverage of the sensors. He had just assumed that the Moonbase personnel would cope.
No wonder Straker had been so livid with him. Foster paused, considering. Would he ever see Ed again? To be able to apologise to him? Please God let them all be okay.
He couldn’t imagine carrying on here without them, without their presence; Freeman, loud, boisterous and bluff, but always there, ready with a supporting word; Ginny, perfectly groomed, calm, confident, and with a brilliant mind; and Straker; Straker, who he had first met in the studio lot outside, just two years ago, pretending to be merely a film executive.
Straker, with his ice-cold attitude, his black and white viewpoint, his reliance on computer analysis, but also his incredibly detailed knowledge of all things SHADO.
No, Foster could not envisage SHADO without these three. Nor could he imagine himself as its commander, sitting behind Ed’s desk with its crystal obelisk and paperweight.
He would do Ed’s job for now, would act as ostensible Commander until one or all of them recovered and took over. Please God, let that be soon, he prayed.
He was still there, hours later, despite protests from staff. Keith Ford had left some time before, after Paul had ordered him off the premises for some rest. All the crucial systems were now operational, and Paul was beginning to feel more confident about SHADO’s capability to defend Earth against attacks that might come in the next hours or days, but he was still working to repair the backup systems and secondary lines.
Desperately tired, his eyes gritty with sleep and tiredness, he struggled to stay awake. It was no use; he simply had to get a few hours rest if he was to function with any reasonable level of competence.
He finally gave up the fight and headed down to the base accommodation section where he had been assigned a room. He didn’t bother to undress, simply lay down, sweaty, grimy, and exhausted, on the bed, in the dark. He had arranged a wakeup call for four hours time. That would give him some rest, enough to face what the new day would bring. He thought of that glass of gin and tonic abandoned on the coffee table in his flat. It seemed as if it was years ago that he had stood there, waiting for his pizza.
His last thought before he fell deeply asleep was of his friends in Mayland, fighting for their lives. When he woke up, he decided, he would head over there and demand to see them.
The best laid plans of mice and men………..Paul Foster thought to himself as he stood, just two hours later, watching the radar as it tracked an incoming UFO . He had been wakened, after only ninety minutes sleep, by the Red Alert signal and had immediately gone to the small control room to take charge of operations.
He rubbed a hand over his dirty, unshaven face, desperate for a wash and change of clothes, but there was no let up.
‘Sky 4 to Control, UFO sighted and targeted. Firing missiles now.’ There was a percussive noise over the radio, almost like a blast of static, as the air to air missile hit its intended target. ‘Direct hit. UFO breaking up; will follow it down and see if I can retrieve any components.’
‘Thank you, Sky 4. Report to Control if you find anything.’ Foster was about to close the connection then added, ‘Good shooting, by the way.’
‘Thank you, Colonel, sorry, Commander. Have you heard anything from Mayland yet?’ Lew Waterman, like all the staff, wanted regular updates.
‘Not yet, Lew. I’m going over there shortly. I’ll put out a general broadcast as soon as I get any news. I’m hoping that it’s true about no news being good news. With any luck Commander Straker will be awake shortly, and I can talk to him. I don’t think that Alec Freeman or Ginny will be fit for visitors any time soon though.’
Foster cut the connection and, having determined that there was nothing else that he needed to do in the small confined control room, headed along the corridors to Mayland. He had to pass the access corridors to the main control room on his way and was shocked to see that the whole area had been sealed off, with guards ensuring that no one entered.
‘Who ordered this?’ he demanded.
‘Sorry, sir, this is standard protocol in the case of damage to this specific area. No personnel are allowed in the vicinity until it has been thoroughly checked by the forensics experts. We are still trying to establish how the bombs were put into place and if there are any other explosive devices remaining in the zone. We anticipate that it will be at least another six days before all the damage is repaired and the area can be put back into operation.’ The guard in protective armour was polite, but firm.
‘Hell and damnation.’ Foster swore, shocked at the length of time it was going to take before he could get back into the nerve centre of SHADO. He couldn’t even get to Ed’s office. He had been relying on using Straker’s personal computer system to access some of the data that had been lost in the explosions.
Head down in frustration and tiredness, he set off along the underground corridors to Mayland and its Trauma Unit. Thank God for Mayland, he thought as he trudged with weary feet down the echoing empty passageways. How many people would SHADO have lost over the years without the services of the hospital? It was more than likely that Ginny would not have survived had it not been for Mayland.
And then the thought struck him. If she was as badly injured as Ford had said, she might never return to SHADO, might never walk along these corridors again. He stopped, appalled at the idea, and leaned against the wall, trying not to break down.
He took a deep breath and straightened up. No, he would not fail them, he would do his best and hope that they would, all three, recover and return to lead the men and women who had dedicated their lives to SHADO.
Mayland Hospital. The sign ahead appeared and he prepared himself for whatever he would see when he finally got to visit them. But it was not to be. Through the glass pane in the door, he could see Colonel Philips, her uniform blood-spattered and besmirched by dirt and smoke, sitting at the side of the bed, holding the hand of the patient who could only be Ed Straker. Blonde hair, tall and slender, he was still, motionless, hooked to monitors and alarms, covers pulled up to his chest, thick dressings covering his head and eyes, arms splinted and bandaged.
‘Definitely not. Commander Straker is not able to have any visitors under any circumstances. Even if he were willing, we would not let you into his room. He is still undergoing tests to establish how much damage he has sustained to the frontal lobe of his brain, and to what extent his vision has been compromised, and until the tests are complete, he has to be kept completely calm and quiet. The only non-medical person allowed in his room is Colonel Philips.’ The doctor called to the security guard who was outside Straker’s room. ‘Colonel Foster is not allowed access to the Commander’s room under any circumstances, is that understood?’
‘Perfectly, Doctor.’ The guard, heavily armed, put one hand on his weapon as if to emphasise that Foster would be in serious trouble should he attempt to gain access to Ed’s room.
Defeated, Foster left, sick at heart. Brain damage? Please God, no. Not Ed, not that brilliant, calculating mind that could see patterns and explanations that other men never noticed. How would SHADO function without him?
He had no further success with Alec or Ginny. Alec was still in Recovery waiting to regain consciousness after over twelve hours of intensive surgery, and Ginny Lake was in an induced coma to give her body some chance of dealing with the trauma it had experienced. He was told the same thing each time. No, no visitors, no access, come back in forty-eight hours when the doctors might be able to give some better indication of their long-term prospects. The only positive aspect was that they were, all three, still alive — just.
On the way back through the deserted corridors, he could no longer hold back the tears. He told himself that it was the overwhelming tiredness and stress, but he knew differently. He managed to wipe his eyes and compose himself before anyone saw him.
In the small bleak office next to Auxiliary, he sat behind the utility desk, devoid of any ornamental glass spheres and obelisks, and tried to read the updates with eyes that refused to focus. He rested his head in his hands, only for his eyes to close involuntarily.
He was wakened from his catnap by a knock on the door frame. Startled, he looked up to see Lt. Baxter waiting in the doorway.
‘Yes? What is it?’ he asked the communications operative.
‘Excuse me, sir, but Lt. Ellis is waiting to speak to you from Moonbase. We are unable to transfer the call through to this office yet. Can you come into Control?’
Wearily he pushed himself to his feet, hands on the table, arms shaking with fatigue. He staggered unsteadily with exhaustion, bumping against the edge of the desk, as he made his way out of the office.
‘Lt. Ellis. What can I do for you?’ His voice was almost slurred with tiredness.
‘Colonel, sorry, Commander……’
She was interrupted by Foster.
‘Colonel is fine, thank you, Gay. We all know that there is only one real commander here, and with any luck he will be back in charge very soon.’
‘Very well,… Colonel. I need to warn you that, due to an unexpected surge in solar flares, SID and the Moonbase sensor systems will be operating at reduced capacity from 15.34 hours for approximately 45 minutes. We will be able to provide some coverage, up to thirty percent if we are lucky, but it will be patchy, to say the least. All interceptors are on Red Alert, and Moonbase defences are at Defcon 2.’
She paused, knowing that her news was just one more blow for Paul Foster.
‘Thank you, Gay. I’ll notify the Skydivers and put them on alert as well. It’s probably best to be overcautious in this situation.’
He turned to the current communications officer. ‘Inform all Skydivers that they are to be at full alert readiness from 15:20 hours. Explain the situation and tell all captains to have sensors operating at maximum capacity during the reduced coverage from Moonbase. I know it will increase their power consumption and will make them more vulnerable to detection from surface ships, but it’s the only way we can ensure adequate protection.’
‘Sir.’ The communications officer got to work immediately. Foster watched him, wanting to check that the systems in the control room were working satisfactorily. Pleased with the result, he stepped back to allow the operative to continue his task. All seemed to be working well now, and he nodded approvingly to Baxter in recognition of a job well done.
There was nothing else he needed to do yet. The Skydivers had all been alerted, Moonbase was coping well with the situation, and SHADO was functioning to the best of its reduced capabilities.
Time for a coffee. And maybe even a sandwich, if he was lucky. He doubted that he would have time for a shower or a change of clothes, not with Moonbase losing its eyes in just under thirty minutes.
Losing its eyes. He thought about Straker. No. There was no time for that. No time to worry about them. He had to focus on the task ahead. He had to ensure that Earth was protected from the aliens.
The clock ticked by, seconds dripping away, slowly, inexorably, until the digits read 15:34, and he knew that in Moonbase monitor screens were beginning to flicker and sputter with the white shimmer of static.
Now. The aliens would attack now if he was right. Under the cover of the diminished sensors, they would be able to get much closer to Earth before being detected by SID or the Skydivers. It would make it so much easier for them to get into the atmosphere and down onto the ground.
‘Contact Moonbase,’ he ordered the operative. ‘Tell them to launch all interceptors into high lunar orbit for visual and radar detection of incoming UFOs.’
‘Sir.’ The affirmative was crisp and approving. It was good to know that the staff were on his side. He was still a relatively new boy here, untried and untested, and in the current situation he needed all the moral support he could get.
They waited, anticipating the call from the Skydivers. And waited.
The tension mounted. Foster, realising that he was doing no good standing there, stressing the already harassed staff, headed for the office to gulp down another coffee, strong and black this time, with sugar. At least the caffeine would help keep him awake.
Then the call they had all been expecting.
‘Moonbase Control to SHADO. Interceptors report UFOs on Positive track. Speed 150 thousand. Three, repeat, three UFOs outside lunar orbit. Earth Orbit Insertion in 9 minutes. Trajectory termination South West England. Grid Reference; 34H 290FK’
Paul Foster looked quizzically at the communications operative. ‘Target?’
‘This studio, sir. That’s our best estimate. There are no other prime objectives in the immediate area. Trajectory termination in approximately …… 15 minutes.’
Foster realised that he had no idea which Skydiver was covering the target zone. Damn. Ed would have had the information waiting in his head, ready to be unwrapped and produced at a moment’s notice. Paul simply didn’t know. So, he cheated.
‘Alert the nearest Skydiver. Get all the ground defences in the area mobile. All air defences to battle stations. Evacuate all unnecessary personnel from SHADO HQ.’
He thought for a moment. ‘Is there any way we can evacuate the studios without creating a panic?’
‘We could have a practice bomb threat, sir. Commander Straker did that once before when the Studios were under threat. It worked quite well and got everyone off the premises very quickly. Do you want to do that?’
‘Yes please, as soon as possible. Explain that it is a practice and that the Studios will close down for a full evaluation of the exercise immediately after the evacuation for the rest of the day. That should encourage everyone to leave as quickly as possible. Good thinking. Thank you.’
There was a flurry of movement in the room, and Foster saw that Keith Ford had returned to the HQ, still looking drawn and tired, but obviously determined to help deal with the situation.
‘Commander Foster, what would you like me to do?’
Foster grimaced. ‘Stop calling me Commander for a start please, Keith. We have UFOs heading our way, and I’m glad you’re here to help. It makes a big difference having your expertise in communications. Can you monitor all frequencies and check that there are not going to be any aircraft in the attack zone? I don’t want to have any innocent people caught up in this, if possible.’
Foster remembered his own introduction to SHADO, when Straker had disregarded the danger that Foster was in and had sent Skydiver in to destroy a UFO. Foster’s plane had been damaged in the aftermath of the explosion, and he had barely survived. Straker had never apologised for his actions, and Foster was just now fully coming to the understanding that the destruction of a UFO took precedence over any other consideration.
If there were civilian or military flights in the UFO target zone, he would endeavour to get them to safety, but he was determined to destroy the invaders at any cost. How the hell did Straker and Freeman make decisions like this every day without going crazy worrying about the morals and ethics of what they were doing?
The reports came in from the studios; all sound stages and film areas evacuated. Excellent. That was one less thing to worry about.
Now he had to try to protect SHADO HQ. ‘Ford, alert all mobiles in the termination area to be at maximum readiness. They will have very little warning when the UFOs get overhead. Ford…,’ Paul Foster lowered his voice. ‘Can you think of anything else I should be doing?’
‘No, Colonel.’ Ford’s reply was as quiet and discrete. ‘You seem to have covered everything. There is little else to be done now apart from wait and hope that the mobiles are in place.’
Foster put his hand on Ford’s shoulder in thanks and stepped back, thinking about the current situation. The last time the HQ had been under attack had been when the aliens had expanded a fractional moment of time, and had trapped Straker and Ginny Lake within that frozen moment. They had then sent a UFO to attack the HQ believing that SHADO’s defences were paralysed. Fortunately Straker and Lake had ………………
That was the solution. It had worked before; there was no reason to assume that it would not work again. Paul picked up a radio, told Keith what he intended doing, and ran from the control room, heading for the Armoury. He didn’t have access to Straker’s private armoury, but he knew where to get a suitable weapon. And he knew how to use it.
The Armoury was well stocked with an eclectic arsenal of weapons; rifles, knives, machine guns, and more. There, in the locked, secure cabinet at the back of the room, was another of SHADO’s secrets, a missile that had been designed to be fired by a single person, yet with the firepower of an Exocet. It had an onboard targeting system and could track and destroy any moving object up to five thousand metres away.
It could be the one thing that made the difference.
The cabinet opened to Paul’s handprint, and he grabbed the Mimas surface-to-air missile system. He knew what it would take to fire it. He needed to be high up, on a rooftop with a good view of the horizon. The roof garden; the perfect spot.
He headed for the lift, struggling under the weight of the equipment. He realised that he was not as fit as he would have liked to be; a stint on Moonbase tended to soften the muscles, despite the full Earth gravity and exercise regime.
Perhaps it was psychological. Whatever it was, he had definitely lost some muscle over the past weeks. Damn. The lift stopped, and he ran as fast as possible up the final flight of stairs to the roof level.
Breathless and gasping, he pushed open the door and worked his way to the edge of the garden, kneeling down behind a convenient screen of plants and shrubs.
He loaded the missile, settled himself into a position where he had a clear view over the surrounding buildings, and contacted Keith Ford.
‘Keith, I’m in position now. Any news from Skydiver?’
‘Nothing as yet, sir, from Sky 1. Mobiles now tracking the UFOs. They have split up and are still heading for this location from the south west, but at different heights. One is coming in at 10,000 feet and Sky 1 is on its trail. The other two are much lower, one at 3,000 feet and the third practically at ground level.’
‘Okay, Keith. Tell the mobiles to focus on taking out the UFO in the middle. I’ll deal with the one at ground level; they won’t be able to get a clear shot at it anyway with all the buildings. Keep me informed.’
He turned to align himself in the direction of the approaching UFOs. The sun was in his eyes, and he blinked to clear his vision. Shit. Why hadn’t he thought before dashing up here? He should have brought his binoculars and sunglasses.
It was going to be hard enough spotting the fast moving UFO as it drew nearer to his position without having to deal with the effects of the sun in his eyes. Freeman or Straker wouldn’t have made that mistake. He would know for next time; if there was a next time.
He shaded his eyes with one hand and waited, apprehensive and dry-mouthed. What if he didn’t spot it in time? What if he missed, although he knew that the missile would lock onto its target and destroy it, if given a reasonable sighting and bearing.
It was down to him now. He mustn’t mess this up. If just one UFO got through to the HQ, it would be likely to take out the whole area; the studio, Mayland, the government block next door.
He concentrated, trying to remember to breathe evenly and deeply so that when the time came, he would be able to hold his breath while he focussed the projectile and fired it.
The news came over the radio. Sky 1 had attacked and destroyed the high altitude spinner. The mobiles were ready and waiting for their prey, and all he had to do was to watch, watch for a small, black speck that would be moving rapidly towards him, hugging the ground and making itself as difficult as possible to spot.
He could feel his heart beating in his throat, feel the blood pounding in his ears, his hands sweaty and slipping on the firing mechanism. Frantically he wiped them on his jacket, peering constantly through the sights for the first glimpse of the enemy.
And there. He shifted the weapon slightly to the left before realising that he had been deceived. A small black speck, yes, but it was a bird, close to him. Funny how distances became confused sometimes when you really needed to be accurate.
He looked back at the original bearing. Was it? Could that be it? He waited a moment or two to confirm his suspicions.
Yes. Here it came.
He prepared. Checked the firing mechanism, snuggled the weapon a little closer into his shoulder, knowing that the recoil would be ferocious, composed himself and took a deep breath, holding it, holding it, holding it, until…. the light flashed, confirming target lock, and he pulled the trigger. The recoil was worse that he had ever anticipated; he was flung backwards, brutally, the weapon falling from his numb shoulder, but it didn’t matter. The missile sped towards its acquired target, accurately honing in on the approaching UFO.
With an incandescently radiant flash and the deafening sound of igniting explosives, the UFO disintegrated into a blur of shredded scraps that fell in a shower of metallic sparks.
Paul Foster, stunned, deafened, and aching from the impact, looked up as the glittering fragments of the alien spacecraft flickered around him. He exhaled, a long slow breath, and swore gratefully and expressively. ‘Damn.’
He grimaced as he felt the bruises on his back and slowly eased himself off the grassed surface of the roof garden to stand, shakily, leaning on the now defunct firing tube of the missile.
‘SHADO Control to Colonel Foster, come in, Colonel.’ Keith Ford’s voice was blurred, or was it because his hearing had been damaged by the explosive detonation?
‘Yes, Keith, what is it?’ He tried to speak clearly and distinctly, but it was difficult with the buzzing noise in his ears.
‘Sky 1 reports UFO destroyed, and the mobiles have brought the other one down in woodland about 3 miles away. They are closing in on the wreckage as we speak.’ Ford’s voice was gradually becoming clearer and louder.
Paul heaved a sigh of relief. At last something was going okay. He waited for a few moments, catching his breath before making the trip down to the temporary HQ again.
As Paul arrived in the Auxiliary control room, Captain Carlin was reporting in from Sky 1.
‘All clear, HQ. The UFO was totally destroyed. It must have been loaded with explosives. There’s virtually nothing left of it.’
‘Very good, Captain,’ Foster answered him. ‘We’ll send out a clean-up squad. Excellent work, by the way.’
‘Say, Colonel, is there any news about the command staff yet? We’re getting a bit anxious here.’ Carlin voiced his concerns.
You and me both, thought Foster, wondering how soon, if ever, Straker and Freeman would be able to return to HQ, if not to resume their posts, at least to provide him with advice and support.
‘Sorry, Peter, still no news. I’m going back there soon to get an update. I’ll contact you and everyone else as soon as I hear anything.’ Foster closed the link, and looked at Keith Ford. ‘Put me through to the mobiles, please.’
‘Mobile Leader to SHADO Control, receiving you loud and clear.’
‘Foster here, Mobile Leader. What is your situation?’
‘We are approaching the downed UFO. It looks pretty intact, although it’s clearly been damaged. There are no signs of any activity coming from it. I am deploying ground forces to check that no one has exited the craft, and we will advance to 100 metres. We will be in place in approximately ten minutes,’ the mobile’s leader told Foster. ‘What are your instructions when we are in position, Colonel?’
Paul Foster didn’t have a clue. Should he send the teams in to try to force an entry to the UFO? Should he tell them to wait, wait to be sure that it was not going to disintegrate with a massive explosion that would certainly kill any SHADO member close by?
He wondered what Straker would have done in this situation. Would he have insisted on going out to the crash site to supervise the operation himself? Possibly, but Paul knew that the mobile’s leader had it all under control, and he would only get in the way if he hurried out there. What was that phrase? Discretion is the better part of Valour?
It seemed as if he had been standing there, thinking, for an eternity; but in fact it was only a couple of seconds before he responded. Calmly, clearly, with a touch of assurance in his voice, he ordered the teams to advance to within ten metres of the craft and to await further instructions. Although what those instructions were going to be, he had currently no idea. But he had a few minutes breathing space. That would have to do.
He really could do with some decent advice right now. But he was on his own. Totally.
He took a deep breath and forced himself to slow down. Think about the situation in hand. And then he heard footsteps as someone came into the control room. Foster turned to see who it was.
It couldn’t be.
But it was.
‘Hello, Paul.’ The familiar voice was gently amused and sympathetic. ‘You’d better sit down before you fall down.’ Ed Straker took his arm and guided him to the nearest chair. ‘Okay, take a deep breath. And no, I’m not a ghost.’ He looked at Paul Foster, blue eyes twinkling with appreciation at Paul’s aghast expression.
‘What the hell is going ………’ Foster didn’t get the chance to finish his sentence. Alec Freeman, Alec Freeman who was supposed to be unconscious in Mayland, entered the room and interrupted him. Freeman, as fit, smiling, alert as Ed . Had he dreamed it all?
‘Going on? Well, Paul, you have just been put through the IAC Verification Procedure. We’ll tell you about it when you have got over the shock. Suffice it to say, the command staff are all fit and well; we’ve just been held under close confinement for the last 16 hours while you have been in charge.’ Freeman smiled a rueful smile at the younger man.
Straker looked around the Auxiliary Control room at the operatives who were smiling at him and relaxing in their seats as if they knew what was going to happen next. Lt. Johnson was chatting to Ford as if there was no emergency, and Evan Pierce had actually switched off his console and was beginning to power down the computer systems.
‘Alright, everyone. Thank you for the hard work. You can go back to Main Control now. I think they’ve finished cleaning up the mess they made there. Oh, Keith.’ Straker placed on hand on the Communications Officer’s shoulder. ‘Excellent acting, as usual. I’m pleased to report that I have fully recovered from my non-existent injuries, and there’s a job for you upstairs any time you want to star in your own movie.’ He winked at Ford, as if sharing a secret joke between the two of them.
Keith Ford grinned at his commanding officer, then shrugged his shoulders at Paul, as if to apologise for the subterfuge.
Paul Foster watched in stunned silence, still assimilating the fact that the whole episode had been a fake, a ruse, a plot against him. He could feel the rage growing inside, rage that they had deliberately played with him, had taunted him with the reports of their horrific injuries and for what… so that they could come in here, now, and laugh at him, laugh at his attempts to run the HQ. He stood up, his face burning with suffused anger, ready to lunge at the SHADO Commander standing there calmly watching him, arms folded, a slight grin of amusement on his sharp-boned face.
‘Hold on a minute, Paul.’ Alec Freeman grabbed his arm. ‘This has nothing to do with us, so don’t lose your temper with Ed.’ He nodded at Straker. ‘Remember my reaction?’
‘Quite painfully.’ Straker laughed and rubbed his jaw as if recalling a blow. ‘You were most definitely not pleased. Neither was Colonel Lake when her Verification assessment was over. I seem to recollect coming off worst in both those situations, although you can hit harder than Ginny. She did scream a lot more though, if I recall.’
‘What the hell…..’ Foster started again, but again was forestalled by Alec Freeman.
‘Let’s go to Main Control and get a drink. We’ll tell you all about it there. You look like you need a drink, and not just coffee.’
‘Hang on, what about the UFO, the one that’s crashed?’ Paul was not about to walk away from his responsibilities that easily.
Straker smiled, ‘It doesn’t exist, Paul. The only one that did exist was the one you shot down. Well done for that, by the way. I was waiting with a team and a couple of missiles on the rooftop behind you in case you missed, but I thought you handled it quite well.’
The Commander led him out of the small room, and through the now empty Auxiliary Control Centre. ‘Right, let’s get to my office, and I’ll explain everything to you….on condition that you keep your fists to yourself,’ he emphasised.
Foster was too tired and stunned to argue any more. He followed the two men back through the corridors to the main control room, now fully operational, cleaned of the dirt and blood and debris that had soiled its appearance last time he saw it.
There was no evidence of any explosion. No blood marks, no fire-blackened paintwork, no burnt-out wiring systems; nothing untoward at all, in fact. Keith Ford was sitting at his usual consol as if he had never been anywhere else, and then Lt. Southey came in. Paul gaped at her, and she smiled at him, a wry grin of sympathy and understanding.
‘Ah, yes. Lt. Southey, one of General Henderson’s staff members,’ Straker informed him. ‘Lt. Southey is responsible for ensuring that the senior staff members are confined to the Mayland Unit or some other appropriate holding area until the Verification Procedure is deemed to be completed. I was allowed out only to supervise the operation on the rooftop. I’m sure she will be willing to talk about her role in all this afterwards, Colonel Foster. You should ask her out for dinner sometime.’ The Commander grinned at him and led the way into his office.
He sat behind his desk with a sigh of relief, as if glad to be back where he belonged, back holding the reins, in charge. ‘Paul, help yourself to a drink, and pour one for Alec as well. You both look as if you need it.’
The door opened again and Colonel Lake entered, carrying two mugs of coffee. ‘Well, Commander, has he hit you yet?’ she laughed, glancing over at Paul, who was beginning to redden with embarrassment.
‘No, but there’s still time, Ginny. Thanks for the coffee, the stuff in Mayland is pretty dire, and I need a decent drink. Who’s the other one for?’ he asked as she put the second mug down on his desk and poured herself a drink from the bottle of Ardbeg that Alec had opened.
‘Me.’ Rachel Philips, still dressed in a blood-smutched outfit stood there, holding a thick folder which she handed to Straker. ‘It’s alright for you lot. You all had a nice long lie down in Mayland while I had to pretend to be the distraught fiancée. And I haven’t had a chance to get changed yet. Henderson wanted to debrief me before he finished the report. Yuck, studio blood always smells so sickly.’ She moved across the room, pausing to kiss Paul briefly on the cheek.’ Well done, Colonel. Thank you for not hitting my future husband.’
Ed Straker watched her, frowning a little, but in jest, as she kissed Foster. He picked up the mug, taking a long drink with obvious pleasure before he turned to the group. ‘Right, everyone’s here; let’s get down to business.’
He flicked the intercom switch. ‘Straker. Security now, please.’ He waited until two armed security personnel had positioned themselves outside, then closed his office door, stood up, and put the thick file that Rachel had handed him, labelled Paul Foster Verification Procedure, on the conference table.
He looked up at Paul, his face suddenly sombre and unsmiling. ‘Ready, Colonel? Crunch time.’
They moved to sit at the table, Straker at the head, now looking stern and grim and forbidding. This was the deadly serious part of the whole procedure. He opened the folder and took out four copies of a report, several pages long, from the looks of it. These were handed out to all except Foster
They sat in silence, reading. Straker, leaning back in his chair, legs crossed, relaxed, making notes on the pages in his elegant script, his expressionless look now not revealing any clues as to his thoughts. Alec, frowning as he read one part; Ginny, reading with utter concentration; Rachel, flicking back and forth through the pages to confirm facts.
The minutes passed. There was no noisy clock in the office to tick the seconds away, but Paul had the sensation that his future in SHADO was being assessed and either approved or rejected depending on the outcome of the report, and what Straker had to say about it. Paul sat there, almost too tense to breathe. He knew that everything hinged on the outcome of the next few minutes.
For make no mistake; if Ed Straker disapproved of Foster’s leadership abilities, then there was no way that Foster was going to walk out of this office — alive. He knew that; knew that everything depended on the SHADO Commander being totally satisfied with Foster’s performance today, and satisfied with his performance over the past two years as well.
Even if the entire IAC backed Paul, Ed Straker had the last say in the matter.
Paul remembered the recent months; his mistakes, his lack of concentration when he was bored, his complacency that had led to the aliens successful attack on Ed. He almost didn’t dare look at the Commander for fear that he would see nothing but contempt in Ed Straker’s eyes. And he didn’t think he could bear that.
And then the SHADO Commander put his papers down. He looked at Foster and sat up straighter in his chair, leaning forward to rest his interlaced fingers on the desk as if to pronounce judgement. ‘Colonel, if you would wait outside while we discuss your future with SHADO?’ His office door opened and Paul stood up, nodding a formal salute to his commanding officer before walking out and heading for the Control room, escorted by the two waiting guards.
Straker watched him leave, and then closed the door.
He turned to his senior staff members, ‘Well? I’ll listen to any reasonable arguments, and then I’ll tell you how it’s going to be.’ And leaned back, waiting for their responses.
Alec Freeman nodded his head. ‘I know what the report says. Satisfactory responses, acceptable procedures and use of resources.’
‘Exactly, Alec,’ Virginia Lake said quietly. ‘Satisfactory. Are we happy with satisfactory?’
‘It’s what I got in my report,’ Freeman glared at her.
‘Come on now, Alec, that was different and you know it,’ she countered. ‘You were virtually by yourself, and the organisation had only been up and running a few months. Paul had the support of Keith Ford and all the control room staff. And remember, SHADO runs smoothly thanks to Ed and you. Paul had very little to do really, apart from use his brains. And that’s what we need to discuss. Did he use his brain? Or did he simply rush into his decisions?’
Straker sat there, letting the argument flow around him, back and forth across the table. He looked enquiringly at Rachel Philips. She shook her head, obviously unwilling to get involved in the discussion at this stage.
‘Rachel, you’re part of this procedure. I would appreciate some input from you. How did you feel about Paul’s overall performance?’ He leaned back in his seat studying her as if to gauge her reaction.
‘Well…’ she hesitated.
‘Go on.’ Alec encouraged her with a smile.
‘I don’t really know what you expect from anyone in the procedure. Is it enough to simply be successful? If so, well, that’s what Paul Foster did. He succeeded. Is that enough? Or do you need more? After all, I wasn’t there to watch his reactions. Although I do think he coped well with the fact that the three of you were badly hurt.’ She grinned at them. ‘I think I’d have gone to pieces in that situation.’
Straker nodded. ‘Yes, but we train our command staff to deal with those circumstances, should they arise. Heaven knows, Alec coped without any difficulty last year when I was kidnapped. And so did you, Rachel. And Colonel Lake has proved that she can remain focussed and detached in very difficult situations.’ He turned to the blonde SHADO scientist. ‘Virginia? Your honest opinion, please.’
She looked at him as if to assess his mood, his response. ‘No, he’s not ready,’ she said hesitantly. ‘Maybe in a few years time, maybe then, but right now Paul is still too young to be able to do what it takes to keep SHADO operational. He still dreams about commanding SHADO in the future. I don’t think he would be able to make the ultimate decision, do you?’ and she looked at Alec Freeman questioningly.
Alec Freeman paused, thinking, considering.’ The ultimate decision? Who knows. Who can honestly say, here and now, that they are ready to make that decision?’ He looked at Straker. ‘Yes. You could. And have. I know that much. But it’s quite a different matter when you are faced with the theoretical question, not the reality. In reality, Paul Foster could well have taken that choice to sacrifice his own life to save SHADO. We simply don’t know. I don’t know,’ he qualified his statement.
Straker leaned forward. ‘I need an answer. Do I approve his Verification or not? Henderson and the IAC are agreed that he has done well enough to pass. Has he? I don’t pay any attention to what the military minds upstairs have said. It’s up to us, here and now, to decide.’
Colonel Philips reached out and touched his hand. ‘Ed, what do you think? Is Paul ready? You should know better than anyone else. What thoughts do you have about his performance?’
He looked at her, grimly. ‘Where should I start? Well, there are several points.’ He paused, looking at the other staff members. ‘Firstly, he should have known straight away which Skydiver was in the immediate vicinity. I expect all my senior staff to be able to give locations of the main attack and defence forces at any given moment. He failed on that point, and if it had not been for Keith Ford, any UFO might have got past our defences. Secondly, his action in leaving Control in order to deal with the UFO himself was, while highly commendable, also extremely foolish. He left HQ without a leader. He did not appoint anyone else to take over his post in the event of his death, and he failed to ensure continuity of command. Both could be considered serious failings. There are other minor points, but I won’t bother with the fine details. It comes down to one fact. Can he be relied upon to take charge of this organisation in the event of a real emergency?’
He paused, picking up his coffee for a drink, before continuing. ‘Now let’s think longer term. Falklands, Moonbase, those are the starting points. How well did he do in those bases? And not just as a potential commander, but also as a general member of SHADO. Does he fit in well? Does he cope with the isolation, the stresses, the everyday petty niggles? Is he able to stay alert and focussed despite everything that may be going on around him? And is he able to look at the bigger picture; to see past the immediate here and now and see how current events might affect the future? Above all, does he have the absolute and total understanding of SHADO and all its operations that any future commander must have?’ He looked intently at each of them. ‘Those are the questions that we need to answer, here, now.’
Paul Foster paced impatiently around the Control room, unwilling to stop or talk to any of the operatives. This could be the last time he walked the corridors of SHADO. He could not bear to look at Keith Ford, who he knew was sitting watching him with concern. The two guards were there, in the background, discreet and unobtrusive, but Foster was well aware that any move on his part to leave the underground HQ would result in his immediate arrest.
There was a tap on his shoulder and he turned, startled.
‘Keith?’ Paul looked into Ford’s amused eyes.
‘Here, Colonel, have a coffee and please, stop worrying. I’ve been in charge of several Verification procedures, and yours was just fine. Commander Straker just likes to make his senior staff sweat, if you want my opinion.’ Keith Ford handed him a mug of strong, black coffee. ‘There, black, just as you prefer.’ He grinned at the bemused Colonel. ‘I have my orders, Colonel, and I obey them, just as you do. I may not like them, but Commander Straker gets the job done, and done well. There is no one I would rather see in command of SHADO than Ed Straker, but one day we may need someone else, and that’s why you went through today’s test. I don’t want someone at the helm who hasn’t experienced a full verification. I want to know that whoever is in charge can deal with anything. Colonel.’ He smiled at Foster.
‘I just hope that Ed Straker feels that I’ve done well enough, Keith.’ Paul replied quietly, concern still showing in his face. ‘What happens if he doesn’t?’
Keith Ford simply looked at him, expressionless, and indicated the two guards. He raised an eyebrow and shrugged, then turned back to his console.
There was a movement from the office, and Alec Freeman came towards him.
‘Colonel Foster, will you come with me, please?’ His voice was quiet and gave no hint as to the outcome of the meeting.
Paul took a deep breath and followed. Straker was still sitting at the conference table, his Glock no longer in its holster, but in front of him on the table within easy reach. He looked up. ‘Colonel. Take a seat.’
Paul sat at the vacant seat opposite the Commander. He perched on the edge like a schoolboy in front of his headteacher.
‘Right, let’s get this over and done with and back to work.’ Straker was all SHADO Commander now, wanting to get the messy business over and done with. He turned to Paul. ‘Colonel, would you care to evaluate your own performance today?’
Paul swallowed. ‘Not really, Commander. I know that I made several mistakes and rushed into things without really planning or thinking through to the eventual outcome. Looking back, there are several areas where I really let the side down, and to be honest, I’m not at all proud of my performance.’ He stopped, unsure of what else to say.
Straker smiled coldly at him. ‘Very good, Colonel. If you had said your performance was satisfactory, I would probably have fired you here and now. We, as a staff, are agreed that you have fulfilled the requirements of the IAC procedure, and therefore you are now formally recognised as one member in the chain of command. Don’t get too excited about that prospect though. I have no intention of retiring at any time in the future, and I am sure that Colonels Freeman and Lake feel the same way.’ He looked enquiringly at the two colonels.
‘No complaints from me, Ed.’ Alec Freeman laughed, and Virginia Lake nodded in agreement.
‘Very well then. Colonel Foster.’ And Ed Straker stood up, walking to the end of the table to where Paul sat, stunned with relief. The Commander held out his hand. ‘Congratulations. Here is your new identity card. It’s identical to your last one, apart from the small letter ‘v’ in one corner. I’m sure you can work out what it means.’ He shook Paul’s hand. ‘Okay, transport is waiting for you. Go home now and take the next week off.’
He nodded to Paul in dismissal. Foster stood up, almost shaking with relief and grinning widely. They watched him leave the room, watched him shake hands with Keith Ford who had been waiting outside.
Paul was nearly asleep in the car on the way home. Exhausted and thoroughly bemused and bewildered by what had happened to him, he was in no mood to make pleasant conversation with his driver.
They arrived at his flat and escorted him inside the building. A pizza box was on the floor outside the door. Cold. It was nearly eighteen hours since he had been dragged from his modern, spacious flat to the claustrophobic confines of Auxiliary Control, and he had not had anything decent to eat. He nodded to the driver and security agent, went inside, almost unable to walk in a straight line, he was so tired.
With a sigh of relief, he collapsed on top of his neat, unaired, unslept-in bed and fell asleep, worn-out, exhausted but also unbelievably elated, and in his dreams he walked through the SHADO corridors, in a cream high-collared suit, Commander of all that he surveyed.
LtCdr March 2010