©Jan 2013 (work in progress.)
Straehk reached the end of the path and turned to look back. This season’s crop promised to excel even his expectations, the fields full, the plants weighty with enough seed to keep the colony provided for next year and beyond. He had done his last walk-through just an hour before, trailing fingers though the heavy-headed ears of grain. Dark golden and ripe, they bobbed under his touch. It was only right that he should feel a sense of achievement in his work. Not pride, just satisfaction. A job well done. He would begin harvesting in the morning when the crew arrived, but his work here was completed and he could rest for a while.
The cave to which he was heading was unknown to anyone else, not because he wanted it a secret, but for the simple reason that no-one came here apart from himself and T’Shaan. The mouth of the cave was little more than a low-roofed tunnel opening out into a wide cavern, smooth walled and clean, washed through by flood waters in the wet season and drying out in the hot summer sun; a fault line in the strata, widened over millions of years by the stream trickling through the darkness.
Straehk headed for the waterfall at the far end, a mere trickle in the summer drought, compared to the torrent that gushed forth from the cavern in later months. The gloom inside the cave made him blink, but after three years he knew his way and walked sure-footed towards the far wall, where he tugged his shirt over his head, the soft material sticking to sweat-soaked skin, then removed sandals, trousers and loincloth with a sense of relief. He stepped beneath the small cascade, the sharp sensation of cold water on sun-scorched shoulders and weary muscles enough to make him gasp and flinch away for a moment. He was more patient this time, putting his hands under the downpour and splashing his arms and chest for a few moments, even that brief contact enough to make him shiver.
Holding his breath, he stepped the under the stream allowing the water to cleanse dirt and soil from his legs, letting it pour down his back and over his head, then he lifted his face to its cold kiss and drank it in. His hands reached for his bound hair, fingers untying the strip of leather that held it confined until the whole length was free. The sunshine would dry it later, but for now he relished the caress of the water as it refreshed him.
A long time he stood there until he could feel himself shivering. The cloth once again wrapped around his hips, he ventured into the sunshine for a few moments to dry in the warmth. There was no need to return yet; T’Shaan was still in the town and as he thought her name and pictured her face, he sensed her in his mind, there in the background, part of him, just as he was part of her. She was holding a length of blue material. He could feel her delight, and the touch of silken soft fabric as if he was holding it himself.
Perhaps this evening he would be able to continue his studies. Perhaps, but it was likely that his betrothed would want to discuss the final plans for their wedding. And it was hard to resist her. The sense of quiet amusement filling his mind right then was hers, and he sighed and promised he would spend this evening with her, instead of his books. Again. She was more important than his studies anyway and he felt her laughter this time as he shook his head to let the sunshine dry his hair, bleaching it even lighter. Only ten more days and he would be sitting in their home, T’Shaan’s sisters and nieces and nephews gathered around watching, and the married menfolk of the family behind him. He wondered how it would feel to have short hair, and he heard her giggle.
‘Shh..’ he said aloud, although there was no one to hear his words. ’Leave me in peace now. I will see you this evening.’ Her thoughts retreated, but she was still there, now quiescent in the furthest reaches of his mind. A comforting presence, his future wife, his joy and his laughter. His loved. And, reassured, he went back into the soft darkness to rest after another day working the fields, pulling on his loose trousers then lying on the stone slab that made this cave more than just a place to cleanse himself. The smooth, water-washed shelf of rock was more than long enough to accommodate his height and he closed his eyes and began the mental exercises that preceded his daily meditation.
T’Shaan examined the length of material at the trade stall. A beautiful piece, fine- woven with an intricate pattern of silver threads running through, and an exact match to the blue of Straehk’s eyes. She could feel him in her mind, sharing her enjoyment of the day. The town square was busy with stallholders hoping for a brisk trade on this first day of the harvest festival. She agreed a price and waited as the piece was folded and wrapped. ‘For Straehk?’ Yarvik enquired, holding out the parcel as T’Shaan counted out tokens.
‘For Straehk,’ she confirmed. ‘It will make a fine wedding tunic.’ She turned to call to a group of children playing in the cool shade of the russet-leaved hushnar trees edging the town square. ‘Come now. Or we will be late.’ There were groans of dismay from the youngest, but they gathered around her obediently. She handed each of them a small bag. ‘Share these with your brothers. Promise?’
T’Prala, the open-eyed innocence of an infant still just a toddler, stared into the bag with delight before lisping a promise, even as she helped herself to one of the sticky sweets, cramming it into her mouth and already reaching for another one.
T’Shaan sighed and took the bag away, with a pledge to return it when the others arrived. ‘Don’t you want to see the Heads of House? They arrive soon and we’ll miss them if we don’t hurry. T’Prala, hold my hand please.’ She led the way across the market square, heading for the raised steps at the far side where the children would be able to see the Heads of the Nine, robed in traditional garments, in their procession through the square.
A couple of the farmers moved aside to make a place for her and the children under the shade and she thanked them, offering each one of the biscuits that she had bought to share with Straehk later. There was a shout from one of her nieces and she saw her sisters, husbands and sons in tow, hurrying through the gathering crowd towards the cluster of children. ‘Welcome. And in time,’ she greeted them, stepping aside to let the boys join their siblings, the crowd stirring as the first of the Nine stepped onto the dais.
‘Straehk?’ her elder sister whispered.
‘The fields. He wanted to come but the crop is ready. He sends his greetings.’ T’Shaan repeated her fiancé’s words from the morning. ‘And he asks me to tell you that he looks forward to Betrothal Day.’
‘Not long now. Ten days, and he will be part of our family. A welcome addition. The children are also looking forward to the day.’ The crowd around them stilled then, and there was no more chance to talk. T’Shaan watched the simple ceremony without seeing the elderly Heads of the Nine Houses in their formal robes, nor her siblings or even her much loved nieces and nephews. From the quiet silence in her thoughts, she was aware that Straehk was meditating and she should watch the ceremony to describe it to him later, but she let her mind drift into pleasurable daydreams instead. Ten days. He would no longer be her betrothed, he would be her husband. After what seemed like a lifetime of waiting they would make their vows and be joined as one.
She smiled to herself. As one. There was deep passion within Straehk, unseen by those who only saw the dutiful and sometimes stern farmer at work in the fields. A quiet man, shy and diffident, yet he was devoted to her, so devoted that he had refused a place at the Academy in order to come here to Ochio and share her life. She looked down at the neat parcel she was carrying and pulled it open, lifting out the material to run it through her fingers and imagine him standing before her. She would make loose trousers in a darker shade of blue, or perhaps cream. Cream would be preferable, to match his hair. The stallholder would know where to get some. The voices of the Nine carried across the square, even the children quiet now, listening to the ceremony.
The distant thrumming was enough to make the Nine stop their recitation and look around, perplexed, the onlookers turning to see the cause of the interruption and then screams broke the silence. Terrible screams, not just of fear and pain, but strange high-pitched sounds from the numerous craft spinning from the sky and sending beams of destruction across the square. The Nine tumbling, bloodied and silent from the dais, farmers scrabbling away from the steps only to be caught in more blasts, everyone huddling together an a futile attempt to avoid what was coming as death rained from the sky. The beams came closer and T’Shaan had no time to do anything other than grab the nearest child and run in a vain attempt to protect the toddler, to save at least one member of her family. T’Prala’s face was still sticky from the sweets, and as the blasts rained down on the crowd, as her sisters and brothers-in-law and precious children fell, and as the red-suited strangers walked out, killing without thought, T’Shaan held the child close, kissing her one last time before reaching out to him…..
The stone was cold at first to bare skin and he allowed the sensation to flow through, accepting the chill, and welcoming it with disciplines instilled in him from his childhood on Vulcan. He lay there, stiff and weary muscles relaxing, interlaced fingers resting on soft flesh of his belly, hair loose beneath him, and his mind clearing itself of worries and work as the cascade of water had cleansed his body. No dreams disrupted his thoughts, only the slightest movement of his chest as he breathed, and a gentle pulse in his throat as his heart rate slowed until all that remained was stone beneath him and his empty mind, devoid of cares yet filled with contentment. Time passed, as slow as the sun moved across the sky and as swift as the water flowing from the cave. He lay there, at peace with this word; his world now, and he drifted into warmth.
The faint sounds in the distance and then the horror flooding his mind, were enough to jolt him awake, to tumble from the slab onto hands and knees, scuffing his palms on the ground. He dragged himself upright, half-stunned with dread, gathering his thoughts and awareness and then ran to the brightness outside. Only a few minutes since he had lain down, and yet everything here, outside in the heat and sunshine had changed forever. He could do nothing but watch as strange craft flew overhead, emerald beams of light destroying everything they touched: his crops burning and crumbling to dust, his home ablaze in the distance, trees exploding into flame as sap ignited, and in the distance, so far away, clusters of the same ships hovering over the valley where the colony had set up their first town.
Thick clouds of black smoke boiled into the sky. There was a single shout in his mind. A shout of such anguish and regret and terror that he fell to his knees, clutching his head. One word. He had time for just one word. ‘TShaan.’ and he put everything into that one word: all his love, all his hopes and wishes, his regret and despair and what little comfort he could offer her. A last desperate effort to ease her passing, to know he cherished her. It was too late to do anymore than that. Far too late. And she heard him. As one of the craft neared where he was standing, he felt her reach out with one last message. ‘Peace and long life, beloved.’
Then he flung himself into the cave and out of sight. A tearing sound, then the roof fell, crushing him down into welcome unconsciousness.
He was aware of groans, deep in his throat, and he opened his eyes to darkness and pain. But those were nothing compared to the silence. Not of sounds, but in his mind. There was no-one with him. No-one in the quiet backwaters of his thoughts, smiling as he tended his seedlings, or held a bird in his hands, or picked the first fruits of the season. No-one there comforting him as she had when hungry voles made short work of his tender salads. No-one. She was not there. He searched for her, calling to her with his thoughts, but there was no reply and he knew, though he could not admit it, not yet. He was alone, deafened and blinded, bereft of any sense. Friends and family all gone from him. No-one. He reached out further, pushing his thoughts and striving to feel any contact, with someone, anyone, but there was only empty silence and then his courage broke and he screamed her name over and over, his throat raw, the syllables echoing through the darkness to mock him.
He stopped in the end. No one answered him, but he had a thought, a tiny thought, deep at the back of his mind, that maybe they were unconscious. Maybe. There might be a response, later. But he knew the truth and wept dry tears, choking on the dust and grit that seemed to fill the space. Exhausted at last, he drowsed, a fitful sleep of little rest, but he dreamed of her and was comforted for a while.
He awoke to the reality of thirst, desperate for water, licking his lips to try to ease the need, but that was no help; if anything it made his craving even more urgent as the soil and dust and grit on his lips stuck to his tongue. It hurt to swallow, to move, to blink, his legs numb, his lower back an agony of sharp pressure on his spine. He could move his arms, just, but the rubble pressing down on him made it impossible to escape. Fingers scrabbling on the ground, he levered his shoulders up, crying out before collapsing again onto the rough floor. Grit cut his cheek, there was blood in his mouth and he swilled it around his parched tissues, welcoming even that scant liquid. He could hear water trickling nearby, but he could not reach it. No one would be coming to save him, he knew by now. T’Shaan would have found him, had she still been alive. But she was not.
None of them were. He could not sense anyone in his thoughts, not T’Shaan or her family or his few friends or anyone, and so he closed his eyes and waited, letting himself drift into sleep, forcing himself to lower his breathing and his heart rate far below that of normal meditation. The only way he might survive this was to go into the deepest trance, and even then survival might not be possible. But it would allow him to die in peace, if he could achieve such a profound state.
The grating sound of shifting rocks woke him from the nightmare; rocks trapping him, unable to move. He took a gasp and coughed, spluttering and choking, his chest burning, tongue swollen with thirst. Not even fresh blood in his mouth to give him any relief. It was not a nightmare, it was real.
Listening to his body as it groaned awake, every muscle shrieking with stiffness and disuse, cracked bones a sharp agony, his thirst unbearable, aware that hours had passed. He could hear the earth itself groaning as if it too was in pain and he reached out into the darkness, searching for something, anything to hold, anything to touch as a reminder of his life outside. Then the rubble moved, dirt pouring onto his neck, sharp edges of broken rocks piercing skin until he could hold back the screams no longer. And, as the earth shifted, as his screams were crushed by the weight on his back and shoulders, as rawness silenced his harsh voice so that he could nothing more than whimper in fear, he allowed one last emotion to fill him. Sorrow for a life ending alone and unmourned, and for a world destroyed by invaders. But there was a greater sadness, as, with a desperate breath he whispered her name.
But she did not answer.
The earth shifted beneath him and pain lanced through cramped fingers and numb limbs. A sudden easing of the weight and he could breathe again, could move his legs, force aching, stiff hips up from the ground, scraping his knees to drag himself free of the debris. He lay still for a while, panting with the effort and then hauled himself over to the stream and drank, deep and long, before scooping up handfuls of the precious liquid to splash over his face. It took a while for him to crawl to the entrance, scrabbling over rubble and shards of splintered rock. The stream had saved him. Small though it was, it dislodged smaller stones and these in turn had allowed larger ones to shift. He might be able to force a way through.
By the time he had dragged some of the larger rocks away and inched his way through the narrow gap, he was exhausted. Fingers broken and bloodied, knees scraped raw, his trousers hanging in tattered shreds. But he was outside. The sun was lowering over fields of grey ash, the tall trees of the woodland were nothing more than burned stumps. He did not even look at the distant corner where his home had been. Nothing would remain of it, he knew that and anyway she was not there, so he set off, running barefoot over scorched and ruined earth towards his town.
The devastation of the valley was complete. No farmsteads remained untouched, no fields unburned. He saw no-one else though he did not waste precious time searching the burned shells of barns or farmhouses in the hope of finding survivors, he simply ran, on feet that were soon bloody and raw. He ignored the pain. It was of no importance. His feet would heal, his heart would not.
The market square was quiet when he arrived, the stall holders silent, townspeople watching the skies with sightless eyes. The Houses extinct, all the ancient families dead or taken. An entire town exterminated. All except one. He halted, afraid to go further, to discover for himself what he already knew to be true. But he had to see. Just to be sure. He could be mistaken.
He knew where she had been standing, over there in the corner on the steps by the trees. More blackened stumps. He tried to ignore the bodies as he stepped over them, his footprints creating a bright blood-stained trail across the darker green discolouration on the stones, then a child caught his eye. A boy, blonde-haired and gangly, eyes closed as if in sleep, but the gaping wound from chest to groin was enough to make Straehk bend over the child for a closer look. The flies were already gathering and he brushed them away. The child had been gutted. He vomited, turning away so as not to besmirch the body, and walked with more care now, looking around to see how many others had been desecrated in a similar fashion.
Hundreds of bodies, crumpled and distorted and huddled. Some burned beyond recognition or ripped apart. Others lying as if asleep. Husbands protecting wives, mothers huddled over children, small groups in corners, all dead. All. He found her sisters and husbands and their children clustered together at the base of the steps, but she was not there. He did not look at those bodies; the pain of losing his family-to-be was enough without seeing how they had died, but he said words of loss and love and carried on searching.
And then a flash of blue caught his eye, brightest blue, glinting with silver. He had seen that before, earlier. She had bought it for him and he hurried over to pick up the length of fabric, ignoring the ominous marks tainting the cloth. She would be near at hand. He took his time, brushing away the flies congregating for the feast, his eyes flickering over the corpses and back again, hoping that she was not one of the burned.
And then she was there. Sitting, unseen in one corner, her arms holding a child. Both of them asleep. He called to her, softly, but she did not stir and when he knelt beside her and stroked her face she was cold, as was the child. T’Prala. Only three years old. Her face besmirched with soot and yet somehow peaceful. No gaping wound, no defiling slash on the plump little body. T’Shaan was untouched as well. He had no idea how they had died, but it did not matter anymore. He was here with them and he tucked the blue fabric that would have been his wedding tunic around them and sat there, keeping the flies from disturbing their sleep.
As the sun began to set behind the hills, he tore the remaining shreds of his trousers and wrapped his feet and hands, knowing that otherwise she would fuss over him, then settled back to wait with her until morning. Tomorrow he would find some way to take his family back home, all of them if he could, and bury them in the fields. His fields, where he had grown his crops. He had no idea what he would do after that. But he would willingly give his life to stop this happening again.
Well before dawn the first rescue ships arrived, too late to do anything other than search for survivors and bury the dead. They found him sitting there, one hand resting on hers, half-mad with grief and the unbearable, aching emptiness in his mind.
The voices were not a distraction, neither were the figures coming closer to lean over his shoulder and inspect his work. He ignored them all, his eyes focussed on the screen as equations appeared in rapid succession. There was no sigh of satisfaction as the final question flashed up; his fingers typed the answer without a moment’s hesitation, the screen closed and he leaned back, wondering if he should disturb the group clustered around his chair in order to get a drink of water. Dehydration would have a negative effect on his performance and he could feel the onset of the symptoms. The day was young, but already he had worked for several hours. He stood up, nodding his respect to the elders behind. So many of them? He folded his hands in deference and waited, eyes downcast and serene, as only proper in such unusual circumstances.
‘Your teachers express approval with your work, Straehk.’ The chief elder inclined his head in acknowledgement. ‘We have a … request.’
The statement was so unexpected that Straehk would have looked up had he not composed himself. As it was, one eyebrow betrayed him with a twitch before he could halt its response. He took a slow breath and calmed himself further, aware even that small reaction would have been documented by the elders.
There was only one answer. ‘I am yours to command.’ Straehk bowed his head. His blond hair, loose-bound within a narrow strip of blue and silver cloth, fell over elegant ears with only the gentlest hint of a point. A rarity in the Northern regions of Vulcan; blond hair of such a light hue, and such vivid blue eyes, the eyebrows hardly tilted at all. If it had not been for his impeccable lineage, some might have questioned his right to be here, in the Academy.
There were rumours among the other students about his past, that he was the last of a colony that had failed some two years ago but Straehk kept himself apart, attending some lectures and teaching others, retiring each night to his own rooms. He was not cloistered along with other students in the warren of small cells carved out of the red sandstone cliff or the more comfortable and more spacious rooms of the senior teachers in the inner confines of the complex. His rooms were on the ground floor of one of the older buildings, out of the way and overlooking the less formal gardens and sometimes he could be seen there, hands stroking the blooms of the plants, or trailing his fingers through the tops of the tall grasses. But he was always alone. A quiet and secret Vulcan, still in his prime and yet seeming older than his years as if something in his past had aged him, burned away the spark of youth and left only the dying embers of life.
He waited, taking deep breaths, calming himself. Perhaps there was news of… but no. That would be impossible. No one had found any trace of the alien race who had devastated his world, killing so many. Despite all their attempts, even the greatest Vulcan minds had not learned from where the craft had come, or what had happened to those they had taken with them.
His only relief was that his wish was respected; T’Shaan and her family taken to the fields that she loved and the proper rituals spoken. He had not been back to the place where she now lay. Perhaps he never would; there was nothing there for him now. He may be the last of his people but he was also a Vulcan by birth and he would live the rest of his life here, teaching and learning with the secret hope of one day discovering more about the people who had destroyed his future.
‘We cannot command you in this, we can only ask. Please.’ The Elder gestured to a nearby alcove. ‘May we talk?’
There was silence in the room, a hush that was nothing to do with work, or concentration. Everyone listening to the conversation. It was unheard of for any Elder to interrupt a student, even a teacher, although their presence here was not unusual. But the library was a place where no one spoke apart from brief whispered requests, and for Elders to speak in such an open manner and then to ask a student, even one as accomplished at Straehk, if he would talk to them, was unusual enough to make the other students stop their tasks and turn around.
Straehk lowered his head further as if he might somehow avoid the gaze of those around him, but there was no way he could ignore the Elders, not ones wearing the insignia of Vulcan High Command.
He looked up. They were waiting, ‘Of course.’ He followed the group into the niche, waiting until they had taken their seats and then sliding into the place indicated, appreciative of their consideration that he was not crowded into a corner and unable to leave quickly. But they must be cognisant of his medical reports, of his need to be able to get outside into fresh air. He took a moment to calm himself, using techniques learned in the weeks after his rescue. His reaction to enclosed spaces was…. irrational, illogical. It was childish. Perhaps they were here to request his removal from the Science Council? He could see the gardens outside, the soft pink blooms of the cassarians with their dark green leaves, the waving fronds of sellis pattricius a sea of dark gold. His crops had looked like that when ready for harvesting. His crops. He had not allowed those thoughts to intrude for many months. He was an astrophysicist now, an associate member of the Vulcan Academy and his past life was just that; past.
‘Vulcan High Command and the Science Council requests your assistance in a matter. We do not expect your answer immediately and we will understand should you refuse. However, there is some urgency.’ The Elder glanced outside, as if reluctant to meet the eyes of the young man.
‘Straehk,’ another of the group interjected. ‘We know that the alien race that destroyed the colony on Ochio has another world in its sight. We want your help.’
‘My help? How? I am not a soldier, not -’
‘We cannot fight them; we do not even know where their world is, or who they are. We have searched but they are cunning. They travel at speeds greater than warp drive, crossing the galaxy in their search for compatible life forms. You have seen what they can do. Ochio was the first of our colonies to be attacked. Others were attacked in the following days but we were prepared by then and the enemy retreated. They will not take any more of our people.’
‘So why do you need me?’
There was a pause, a shared look between the scientists, as if they were each reluctant to speak.
He knew of the planet, technologically backward, reliant on dwindling natural resources for its power supplies, a world where countries fought each other for no reason, where the desire for power and money ruled instead of the desire for knowledge. Terra. A beautiful planet, rich with plant and animal life and water. Huge expanses of water, so large that one could travel for days crossing from one side to another. And the races on Terra, different colours, different languages and cultures and beliefs. ‘I know of Terra.’ A terrible thought crossed his mind. ‘The destroyers, are they from Terra? I mean, are they humans?’ Unseen, his fingers tightened in the long sleeves of his robe,
‘No They are not. Humanoid yes, we know that much. Wherever they come from, they did not come from Terra, but they have found it and they have been visiting it unnoticed and unseen for years, taking what they want.’ The Elder sighed, the only outward sign of his unease. ‘They are wary of being discovered though, and as yet they have not attacked in force. We fear it is only a matter of time. When a planet is heavily populated, and they cannot do as they did at Ochio, they will send small raiding parties for years, testing the defences of the world and then, once assured of success, they attack in force. The results are.. unpleasant.’
‘This has happened before? To how many worlds?’
‘Enough. We are not able to determine the precise number, our ships have discovered other more primitive worlds that have been devastated by invaders and evidence leads us to the conclusion that the same creatures are responsible each time. Which is why we are here.’ He held his hands out in a gesture of openness. ‘Terra will be next. It is not too late though. We cannot intervene, at least not openly, but we can aid the humans if you, Straehk, are willing to help us.’
‘Help you? How can I do that?’
There was a pause, as if the group were discussing the question among themselves, yet there were no words, no signs. Straehk looked around the library. The other students, sitting still, not even any pretence of working now, all eyes watching the small alcove where he was sitting. The elders rose as one, nodding to him and he stood as well, following them out of the huge room, its intricately carved ceilings contrasting with the modern workstations at which most of the students were working. His robes brushed the floor as he walked in silence, his mind filled with thoughts of what he could possibly do to help Terra, he, Straehk, the newest member of the Academy, and to be the centre of such attention was disquieting to say the least. He walked on, outwardly composed and at peace, yet inwardly struggling to stop his body trembling. The thought of what they might ask of him was a matter of concern.
The leader stopped outside one of the old and lesser-used meeting rooms, giving the doors a gentle push. They swung open without a sound, balanced on massive hinges. He entered behind them and the doors whispered shut once more under yet another gentle touch.
The table in the centre of the room was a circle of stone inlaid with bands of polished metal. They stood around the table, one space left and he stepped forward to take his assigned place. There were no windows. That was his first thought. No natural light, no way to get out apart from the huge door, now closed, the roof curving over him, oppressive and dark, the table a massive bulk of solid rock and there was no space under it, no niche in which he could fling himself should the roof crack and start to fall. He rested his hands on the table; pressing down to stop shivers betraying his fear to these most respected men. The stone was cold under his palms. He closed his eyes for the few moments needed to compose himself once more and then straightened. They were watching him; he could see unspoken compassion in their eyes. They knew then about his fear and the nightmares that made sleep impossible. This, then, was yet another a test.
The door was still closed. There was no escape. He pressed down harder, stone smooth under his fingers, and concentrated on listening.
It took time and he was weary long before they finished explaining the facts. Earth. It would become his home if he agreed to their request. A new world, a new life. The scientists in the Council had done the research. It would be easy for him to slip into that world, to make a life there after they had completed the necessary modifications. He half-heard the details as if though a haze: minor cranio-maxillo-facial surgery, changes to his blood pigmentation on a genetic level, intensive programs in language and behaviour and culture before liaising with a senior member of an Earth force who was already aware of the existence of Vulcans and was preparing to welcome one of them. His mind filled with one fierce thought. He could help Terra fight the enemy.
Straehk had no illusions as to why they had selected him from all the available candidates. His inherited characteristics made him an ideal choice – pale skinned, requiring only minimal surgery to disguise his Vulcan traits and his lack of family or bondings was an advantage. No one to leave behind him. Furthermore, he would be no real loss to the Academy. Sometimes he wondered if they had invited him out of pity rather than a need for his abilities. He looked up. The Elder paused, all faces were turned to him.
‘In your honour.’ He pressed his hands down with greater force, his limbs now shaking with exhaustion. ‘I will do my best.’
A hand reached out to him, and he found himself accepting the touch, welcoming the brief contact on his own arm. There were no words spoken now; the Elders bowed in a rare gesture of respect and acknowledgment, and then the door was opened and they walked out in single file, leaving Straehk alone in the room, his hands still pressed on the table. It took time for him to stand upright, to drag himself free of the table, leaving dark handprints in sweat on the stone. The corridor outside was cool and quiet and he found a secluded bench and sat, contemplating his future. Earth. A new life. A new person. He would have a new name from today.
‘No. Your inflection is still incorrect. Read the poem again, Straker. From the beginning.’
It was still difficult to accept his name. He had been Straehk for over thirty years, and one did not cast aside so much time with callous ease. But no-one called him that name now and although there were times he longed to hear his given name he knew that it was a necessity, that they were moulding him into someone new. Straker. A human. They even encouraged him to smile and laugh but it was strange and made him uncomfortable. These were not family, or friends, they were his superiors, and each time he smiled at them, the sensation forced and grating in his thoughts, he knew it was unseemly. But like everything else it was crucial if he was to integrate himself into human society.
‘From the beginning, then, although I believe that Donne was not an American.’ Straehk gave a brief questioning look at his tutor before he lowered his head to the page and began reading aloud once more. ‘No man is an island, Entire of itself. Each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less as well as if a promontory were. As well as if a manor of thine own or of thine friend’s were. Each man’s death diminishes me for I am involved in mankind. Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.’
He was aware of the door to the small chamber opening but continued reading, concentrating on the soft and slow accent he needed to perfect. He finished the passage and waited, reading the lines again in his mind, thinking about the English sound, although he was speaking American. It still confused him at times.
‘Better. However, you will need to continue your studies. The Boston accent that was selected for Straker is close to your own dialect, but there is still work to be done.’ The tutor nodded. ‘Elder?’
Straehk looked up from his book and stood in deference to the visitor. The Elder waited, his head tilted and Straehk remembered. He held out one hand. ‘Good afternoon sir. It’s a pleasure to see you again.’ The contact, one hand against another, formal strangers as they were, was strange, but protocols had to be learned. He released his grip after a second.
‘Good afternoon.’ The reply was unusual, but everything was unusual now. ‘You are making excellent progress.’
‘Thank you.’ Straehk noticed his tutor leave the chamber in silence. Alone with the Elder now, he gestured to a seat. ‘Please. May I get you a drink?’ He noticed with some pleasure that his accent was just the right tone. Boston. He had studied the pictures; a beautiful city. One day he might actually visit it.
‘Thank you. Refreshment would be appreciated.’ The Elder sat, waiting as Straehk poured chilled water into a glass, passing it with a hand no longer showing any hint of its previous copper-coloured tinge. ‘The doctors tell me that you require only a few more treatments. The genetic modifications are nearly complete?’
Straehk held out one hand, turning it over and displaying his wrist, the tracery of fine veins looking almost blue under the transparent skin. ‘Yes. I have the final session this evening.’ He busied himself pouring another glass of water, unwilling to think about the treatment and its effect on his body, and then sat as well, not the proper actions of a student in the presence of an Elder, but aware that this too, was a test. ‘Is the ship ready?’
‘The question is – are you? Tell me the truth, Straehk. Not what you think I desire to hear.’
His own name. A precious word given with meaning. He bowed his head, the loose-bound queue of hair hiding the surgically neat curve of his ears. Everything hinged on this moment. There was the briefest of pauses before he spoke.
‘Straker. My name is Edward Straker.’ The personal name sounded clumsy, over long, the second syllable extended. It was his first time of speaking it, and he frowned, clasping long fingered hands together and saying the words again, in the required accent. ‘Ed. Ed Straker. That sounds better.’ He lifted his face and stared at the Elder, blue eyes under curved brows meeting dark Vulcan eyes that held no sign of emotion. ‘If the doctors are satisfied with the results, I should be ready to travel in three days.’
The Vulcan stood. ‘Then the ship will depart in three days. The Council thanks you, Ed Straker. We owe you a debt of gratitude and we wish you well in your endeavours. Should you require our help during your work, you will only have to ask, but if all goes as planned, you will be given the role of aide to General Henderson. Once Earth is protected, we hope you will return to Vulcan to take up your teaching post in the Science Academy. But that may be some years in the future. Does that concern you?’
‘No.’ Straehk shrugged, another Earth gesture, ‘I have nothing holding me to Vulcan. If it takes ten years or tens of years, it is of no import. It is an honour to serve.’
‘I must speak of more personal matters now… Straker.’ The Elder folded his hands together. ‘Your culture and your family are gone. You will be alone on Earth, isolated from us and from our ways. An altered Vulcan. You may find that there is a price to pay for your willingness to be of service.’ There was a pause. ‘You will pass as human. You will be human. A single man of marriageable age on Earth. Are you prepared for the consequences?’
Straehk lowered his head. ‘I am no longer bonded. My betrothed died on Ochio along with the rest of my people. If I were to find love again, from wherever it came, I would welcome it and embrace the gift. But it is unlikely. I will be a stranger in a strange land, with secrets I cannot reveal.’
‘We will see. You will do what you must in order to be accepted on Earth. Your presence there is vital to Earth’s safety.’ The Elder put his glass aside and stood, hand raised in the familiar gesture for a moment. ‘Ed Straker. Live long and prosper.’ Then he was gone.
Later that evening Straehk tried raising his head from the pillow, but dizziness swept through him and with a groan he realised that he was going to vomit again. He retched, bringing up nothing but more sour bile, all the while trying not to disturb the assistants, but even so he was aware of someone approaching. He kept his eyes closed, hoping that he might be left alone, the vile taste of acid burning his raw throat. Sickness did not repel him, nor was he frustrated at his weakness but the nausea was worse than after any previous treatment and the thought of further examinations and tests while he was still incapable of speaking, let alone opening his eyes, was more than he could bear.
Strong hands lifted his head, the pillow was removed and a fresh cool one slid into place before he was lowered once more. A damp cloth touched his lips, wiping the sourness away. More cloths now, over face and eyes, cooling his neck and arms, wiping fingers and then a final caress over his forehead. ‘Better?’ A soft voice close to his ear. He managed a single mumble, monosyllabic and barely audible, but she seemed content with his reply and moved away, leaving him more comfortable, the nausea still there but bearable as long as he remained motionless. The final treatment completed and now just the after-effects to deal with. The sickness rose again and he curled up, clutching his stomach and wondering when this torment would cease.
The voices in the background were too soft for him to hear the words, but he recognised one of the speakers; the senior geneticist, in charge of his management. Straehk concentrated, pushing his discomfort away, and letting other sounds in the room fade. They were talking about him. He could hear his name, his new name. Straker. Perhaps they were coming to do the tests now. A groan slipped out before he could suppress it. He was too tired and sick and thirsty and unable to keep anything, even rehydration fluids, down. A healing trance would not help this, the changing of his body at a molecular level.
They warned him it would be unpleasant, but each treatment had worsened the symptoms until he was here, unable to move without retching, the slightest movement making his head throb even more. And yet the transport ship would be waiting, and he could not delay it. He would have time to recover on the voyage but he still had final preparations to complete, and assignments to mark, his last personal items to pack; not that there many of those. He tried to push himself up in a last effort, only to flop down again on the thin pillow. Enough. The world spun around him in a swirl of pain and sickness and, distressed, he cried out. The hand on his face was stronger this time, not the gentle touch of the assistant, cool and comforting. The voice was darker, masculine. He knew that sound. The senior physician.
Straehk lay still under the touch of fingers on his face, not moving, just holding him still. He kept his eyes closed, aware of bright lights above his bed, more voices, the rattle of instruments close by his bed. The hand moved to his wrist, pressing to feel the pulse, lifting his limp hand away from the sheets. He felt sick again. Not here. Not with the senior physician examining him. The fingers lowered his hand and he would have curled up under the sleek cover, but even that slight movement would have resulted in him disgracing himself.
He swallowed, forcing down thin acid rising yet again from his stomach, and the physician laid one hand on his shoulder. ‘Straehk. Your body is rejecting the new coding. Without further treatment the process will fail. You must decide whether we may proceed or not and there is a seventy-eight point six two probability the changes will be irreversible.’ There was a pause. ‘You have to make the choice. There will be no turning back later.’
A Terran, an Earthman, human. Permanently. Was he willing to make that decision? He would not fit in either world, Terra or Vulcan, would not find a mate here when he returned, might not even live a full life span. He opened his eyes, seeing the physician close to him, watching with open sympathy. ‘Straehk? You need to decide, and quickly, if we are to make this work.’
Vulcan. Hot and dry. His work on the Academy, teaching physics and studying, and always thinking of his lost people, his lost life. Hating the enemy, and knowing that they were still out there, unstopped, killing and stealing and destroying. And he was safe.
Terra. Green lands, blue seas, rich forests. Once his work was done and Earth protected, he might be able to find somewhere he could farm and grow crops and be at peace.
There was only once choice. He managed to force one croak from his parched throat. ‘Continue.’ The hand on his shoulder squeezed once and then he felt the needle and closed his eyes as fire swept through him, searing his blood and burning away the last remnants of his past and he screamed.
Straker put down his pen and closed the journal with a sigh. A human response and one that he was beginning to appreciate. It fitted his feelings. He was weary of this enclosed space, but although he was free to leave whenever he chose, he had not ventured beyond the confines of his cabin. It was not that he was forbidden, although the First Officer suggested, in a caustic tone that was almost an order, that his presence in the more spacious passenger areas of the ship might cause concern. So he had remained here in this small cabin, well out of the way, reading and studying and recovering, his meals brought by a silent ensign and visited on occasions by the ship’s physician.
The intense program of accelerated learning given to him by the Council was completed, his English was fluent, even to the use of idioms and generalities, and the last time he had spoken more than a few words in Vulcan to anyone other than the physician, was six weeks ago when he had been brought on board half-dazed and drugged, well before the other passengers. No one else had visited him, perhaps few of the crew knew he was on board even. After all, Terra was a prohibited planet, considered too volatile to trust with the knowledge that other races existed in the galaxy. And yet the High Command were in league with some humans. A dangerous secret, and one that could have unpleasant consequences, for both sides if it ever got out.
The subtle changes in his skin colour had become more noticeable once the treatment had finished and after some thought he had talked with the physician. Practical matters; he would never be able to bond with a human female, but one day he might find a companion. What then? And pon farr? That might cause problems. There would be no Vulcan females on Earth and no way to get back to Vulcan if necessary. In the end he agreed to more tests, painless yet uncomfortable in their own way, and waited for the results.
When they came he read them with trepidation. It was little comfort to know that the uncontrollable urge might yet be a problem for him on Earth; He resolved to work more on learning the appropriate meditation techniques to diminish the hunger. He had not yet reached the age where it manifested itself and had no real desire to experience the feeling, so he worked on, immersing himself in his work, during the day learning about Earth and its politics, its legal systems and current, and to him archaic, technologies. Each night he would sleep fitfully as more mundane lessons filtered into his subconscious: how to drive a vehicle, etiquette, dress codes, even shopping and how to use money. The everyday facts that would enable him to live as a human.
It was a source of regret that he had not had the chance to see Vulcan for one last time, before the ship left the system, but on reflection it was for the best. He may never be back, he knew that by now, and severing the ties to his old life would be easier without the memory of his planet fading into the distance. His new world waited, and he was ready.
The loud knock on his door startled him; it was not yet time for the mid-day meal, his lessons had finished for the day, and he was not expecting any visitors. He never expected visitors. He slid his journal into the tiny drawer of the desk. ‘Come in.’ Once he would have said ‘enter’ but that was a lifetime ago and anyway the door was opening already.
‘Straehk.’ There was a hint of disapproval in the First Officer’s voice as he stepped inside, curious eyes looking around the room as if expecting it to be somehow alien. He continued speaking in precise and strict Vulcan, a master to a servant, not looking at the other man, ‘The ship has entered the Terran system and will arrive in orbit in five point two hours. Once communication with your contact in the United States has been affirmed, we will beam you down. Someone will come to escort you to the transport room when the time is ready. Ensure that you are ready, we must not remain in Earth orbit for longer than necessary.’ The officer left without another word, closing the door behind him as if eager to remove himself from the tainted presence of an altered Vulcan, and one willingly altered at that. Straehk breathed out, wondering if his contact on Earth would have the same aversion to a man who was neither a true Vulcan nor a born human. He would find out soon enough.
Once he had packed the few items in his cabin, he lay down on the narrow bunk. A final chance to meditate before arriving on Earth. He tried quelling the apprehension and also excitement now filling him but it was hopeless, and after a while he gave up, resigning himself to spending the next few hours sitting here alone, waiting. Another knock at the door. A soft tap this time, diffident and gentle as if the person outside was hesitant. Straehk did not move. The tap came again, and he stood and opened the door. ‘Captain?’ The last person he expected to see.
‘May I enter?’
Not Vulcan. English. Perfect, cultured English in an accent he had come to recognise as Scottish. Edinburgh, if he was not mistaken. He had not been informed that the Captain spoke the language. But he had not been told much about the crew, or this ship, or even his journey. He held the door open and stepped back. ‘You are most welcome.’
There was only the bed to sit on, or the small chair. ‘I wish to speak with you Straehk, before you leave for Earth.’ Captain T’Lia looked around the small room, taking in the tiny desk and chair, bedding folded at the end of the narrow bed, Straehk’s holdalls on the floor, before sitting on the bunk, a slight smile on her face. ‘A long time since I was last in one of these cabins. Perhaps we should have given you somewhere larger. I understand you have some problems with confined spaces? I left your accommodation in the hands of my First Officer. I apologise if you have been inconvenienced.’
‘There was no problem. I knew I could leave if necessary,‘ Straehk lied.
‘But you didn’t. You remained here, as requested. And I am grateful. You have been a considerate guest. But it must have been a difficult time for you. Am I right?’
There was no answer. Straehk looked round the tiny space, remembering nights lying on his narrow bunk and sweating, not from the lessons filtering into his brain, although accelerated learning made one uncomfortably hot, but from the fear of the walls closing in and the door being locked and trapping him. He was used to getting up several times in the night, simply to open the door. Not looking outside, just opening it for a moment. As long as it opened, he was safe. He sat on the chair facing T’Lia, his hands clasped together.
‘Anyway, that is not why I am here. I invite you to accompany me to the bridge, Straehk. Earth will be visible soon, and I think you might want to watch the approach. It may be your only opportunity to see your new home from space.’ T’Lia shrugged. ‘And perhaps I can tell you a little of what I know of Earth from my own visits there.’
‘I have been liaising with your contact, the man who will introduce you to Henderson. I think it will be a good partnership; he is keen to discuss how you can help Earth. Straehk?’ She paused.
‘This is going to be difficult for you. I know what happened, not only on Ochio, but also to you, yourself. A Vulcan who looks human? It will not be easy, but Earth is a good place and Henderson will benefit from your support in its fight against the invaders. We have promised your contact as much help as possible, but it will be Henderson who needs you most, beside him, guiding his steps. Now Straker.’ T’Lia stood and inclined her head in a rare gesture of deference. ‘Shall we go to the bridge? ’
The crew ignored him, not from impoliteness, for one of them handed him a bubble of chilled water, an unexpected privilege on the deck of any ship, but it was clear that they knew not to speak or even acknowledge his presence. He did not mind. The cameras picked up Earth in the distance and he stood beside the captain’s chair, watching the screens as the ship sailed past Saturn and Jupiter, rounding Mars and slowing, until they were close enough to see the small blue sphere through the main viewport. T’Lia talked to him in English about Earth, about the weather and the people, recommending places to visit once his work was done and Henderson’s organisation was running with efficiency. There was no mention of him going back to Vulcan afterwards.
And standing there, looking at the planet, his worries eased. He might fail in his task of helping Henderson, but he hoped not. Earth would be his home and looking down at the huge expanse of ocean he felt a thrill of excitement. Who knew what the future might bring?
‘Captain?’ The Communications officer interrupted the silence. ‘An answer to our hail.’
Straehk glanced at T’Lia. No one spoke. Then a voice sounded over the speakers. ‘Ready when you are Captain. Let’s get this transfer over and done with. We’ve got bad weather here.
‘Time to go.’
Straker followed her through deserted corridors to the transporter room. His bags were there, waiting. Two holdalls; not much baggage for thirty years. He brought nothing that might cause any interest, apart from himself. The rest of his possessions were back on Vulcan: his books and research, his lyre, nothing from Ochio though. The only thing surviving was a narrow piece of blue fabric shot through with silver, torn from the length before he wrapped her in the rest of it, ready for burial. The strip bound his hair now. It was a long time since he had been through a transporter and the discs looked smaller and more fragile than he remembered. He hesitated at the base of the steps.
‘Straehk?’ He turned to face the captain. ‘Live long and prosper, Ed Straker. I hope to have the honour to meet you again one day.’
He looked around the room one last time, bleak and undecorated, yet it was Vulcan. It was his last view of his own world. ‘Ready?’ T’Lia asked. He swallowed once, unable to speak all of a sudden, nodded and the room disappeared in a swirl of sparkles.
Straker staggered, nearly tripping over his bags before regaining his balance on the green floor beside him. No, not floor. Grass. Thick soft growth. And he lifted his head to the breathtaking sensation of heavy rain falling on his face.
‘Your hair needs cutting. Surprised they didn’t tell you that,’ the man said, once the two of them were inside his car and Straker was rubbing the water from his face. His contact had said very little, just a quick handshake and a curt greeting before leading the way to the shelter of the car.
Straker pulled the thick plait over his shoulder and looked at it. ‘Cutting? Is this unsuitable?’ he frowned, digging in the recesses of his mind for facts about hair. ‘Ah. Yes. I understand. Military short hair. I had not appreciated the term. I will see to it.’ He had fallen into formal speech, he realised with a start; it was something that he would need to control in future.
The man shrugged. ‘No problem. I know a barber. He’ll do a good job. Tomorrow.’ He started the engine and drove off, the pouring rain making visibility difficult. ‘You Straker? That’s what she told me. Your Captain. T’Lia.’ He glanced sideways at his passenger. ‘Should introduce myself. Name’s Thornton. I work for the US Government. Special Operations, that sort of thing.’ He concentrated on driving for a moment and then gestured at the passenger footwell. ‘Briefcase down there has your details. Passport, birth certificate, driving licence and so on. You should get familiar with them.’
Straker leafed through the papers. ‘Lieutenant Colonel? Air Force?’
‘Yep. Henderson’s been on the lookout for an aide for a while now. No one’s taken his fancy. Has to be someone with experience. He won’t even look at anyone below that. Birth certificate puts you at 27, early for that rank, but that’s to attract the General.’ There was a pause as he changed gear and the car accelerated. ‘I’ve arranged for you to stay in a hotel for the first few weeks. Out of the way. Just until you’ve settled. Now. Cover story. Best we could come up with at short notice was a repatriated ex-POW. Explains your unfamiliarity with current systems. Won’t give any details though; let everyone assume you were working covert ops. That way no one’s gonna ask awkward questions. If all goes well I’ll arrange a bump promotion to full bird by presidential order later.’ He took his eyes of the road, glanced over at Straker and grinned. ‘Can’t have Henderson’s aide a mere short bird can we? Besides it’ll give you more clout.’
Clout. Straker accessed his memories again. Not a blow with the hand, but power and influence, especially political power. An interesting word. He read the other documents. Nothing unexpected or likely to cause difficulties. The Master’s degree in astrophysics was far below his own level, and he should have no problems fitting into the USAF Military Intelligence group, just until Henderson noticed him and if all went according to plan, recruited him.
By the time they reached the hotel Thornton had chosen, it was getting late. The hotel was geared to business men, the rooms bland and modern, the staff efficient and uninterested in the guests and no one commented on his hair or unusual clothing. Just another traveller. His room was on the first floor and Thornton accompanied him, carrying one of the bags like a porter. ‘Best if you stay in here. Get whatever you want on room service and I’ll be round in the morning first thing with a barber. We’ll get that hair cut and then breakfast at work. There’re clothes inside that should fit.’ And then he was walking down the corridor and into the lift without looking back, a short figure, incongruous in casual clothes, the only sign of any link to the military his steel grey, short-cropped hair. Straker wondered if his own would be that short tomorrow.
He put his bags down and closed the door. Another room. Another order to stay hidden. He wondered if he would ever be free. But at least this room was spacious and had a window. He opened the blinds and looked out. Stars in the sky, and a sliver of moon. Such an insignificant moon, and so colourless, so dull in some respects. Would he ever get to see it close up?
The wardrobe held an assortment of clothes including military suits, and he opened his bags, hanging his tunics alongside the unfamiliar and somewhat fussy clothes, jackets with medals and insignia, uniform trousers and some decidedly non-military garments. He examined a pair of trousers, the material stiff and blue, the seams oversewn. Denim. That was what the material was called; these must be jeans then. They looked decidedly uncomfortable. Thornton had provided shirts and ties, shoes, socks, even some items of underwear, although in a style very different to his usual garment.
There was a box inside one of his holdalls, not one he had seen before, wrapped in hand-crafted sandstone-red tissue, the folds of the paper precise and beautiful, exquisite calligraphy on the tiny card written in ancient Vulcan. He translated it. Straehk. May you live long and prosper. There was no clue as to his benefactor. It was almost a shame to unwrap the parcel, and he folded the tissue with care, smoothing out creases before opening the lid of the box and lifting out a glass ball, cradling it in long fingers, aware of a sensation of heat on stone. A memory globe. He had heard of them but never thought to see one, let alone hold such a rare and precious object. He loosened his fingers and the sensation changed, cool breezes over the desert at night, the shirring of sand in the wind, and the scuffles of lizards scurrying for cover before the temperature dropped. He held the globe for a long time, just remembering, before putting it back in its box and returning to his tasks.
The bathroom was larger than his cabin on the ship, and he explored the facilities, eventually undressing to step under the warm water that fell like rain. Afterwards, a long time afterwards, he dabbed himself dry with one of the thick towels and sat on the bed combing his hair and plaiting it, fingers twisting the thick, damp strands into place as he had done every night for as long as he could remember.
One single plait. The mark of his tribe. It was foolish to be sentimental about something as unimportant as this, and yet the thought of some stranger cutting it from him in the morning was wrong. It was family who cut hair, who severed the five-stranded plait of a single male on the occasion of his marriage. There would be no betrothed waiting for him tomorrow, no family gathered, sharpened blade ready, giggling children watching from the corners, unmarried nieces blushing as he was given advice by T’Shaan’s sisters and his hair was cut with slow sweeps of the blade by the married menfolk. There were no women here to trim the rest of his hair into a neat shape and ready him for the ceremony. He would have gifted the plait to his wife. A pledge of his commitment to her and their life together, presenting it across open palms for her acceptance. T’Shaan had talked about what she would do with his gift: weave it into a tapestry, or sew the seams of a first-born’s naming robe, or simply hang in a thick swathe beside their bed. But he had never given it to her. And never would.
He put the thought away and undid his workday plait, combing the blonde fall of damp hair until it was sleek and ready. Standing there, alone in the room, he plaited it again. Five strands now. He took his time, twisting thick ropes of hair into place, fingers supple and practiced, though he had never done this to his own hair before. The only time. It had to be right, and he murmured the traditional words spoken at this event, ending with the final blessing just as his fingers completed the last twist. The single ribbon of her cloth to hold the strands together and it was done.
He found his knife.
It was sharp and made short work of the task, and afterwards, when it was over, he held the promise to T’Shaan in his hands and said the time-honoured words of giving, unable to prevent tears falling. He wrapped it with care in the tissue paper from the globe before tucking it at the bottom of one holdall, safe and out of the way. He would burn it later. The traditional end, the right and proper thing to do.
Room service brought a simple meal later, the only foods he could recognise on the intricate and confusing menu: vegetable soup, fresh bread and butter, fruit juice and a sweet pastry filled with baked apple. Unusual flavours, yet satisfying enough. He put the tray outside, closing the door and then opening the window a few inches to let warm air into the room. One hand rubbed the back of his neck as if testing the thick and uneven wedge of rawcut hair. It felt draughty and weightless. Tomorrow the barber would trim it into a style appropriate for his future life. He would get used to it. Eventually.
The night passed without incident although the noises outside his room perturbed him at times. Cars in the distance, the doppelganger of a siren rising and falling, shouts and laughter. The bed was larger and softer than he was used to, the room over-warm after the cool of his cabin on the ship. And he rose with the sun, well before anyone else in the building, dressing in his own clothes for a final time before going into the grounds of the hotel to walk, alone as always.
Thornton was waiting in his room when he returned, another man with him, slender and small, thin faced. ‘Beginning to wonder where you’d got to. In future, don’t go anywhere without letting us know.’ It was a curt reminder of Straker’s position here and he bowed his head in contrition. Thornton gestured at the other man. ‘This is Jackson. Among his many hidden talents is the ability to cut hair. I’ll leave you in his tender care and see you both later at the office. You know what you’re doing Jackson?’ There was a note of amusement in Thornton’s voice and Jackson tilted his head and gave a quirky smile.
‘Of course, General.’
Straker watched Thornton leave, then turned. ‘A General? Thornton?’ It seemed ludicrous that a man of such informality and brevity of words, as well as so casual in manners and dress, could have such status.
Jackson frowned. ‘But of course. Lieutenant General Thornton. A high ranking officer. It requires a man of influence to get you into a position to help Earth and he works in covert operations for much of the time. General Thornton is one of the few men on Earth who know of the existence of Vulcan. That is your world? Am I right? You are the first Vulcan, in fact the first alien I have encountered.’
‘Then. Welcome to Earth, Colonel Straker. I am Dr. Jackson, one of General Thornton’s assistants, but today I am merely your barber. Now, if you would sit down I can….’ He frowned as Straker turned. ‘Thornton said you had ..?’ His accent was difficult to understand at first, but Straker knew what the small man was asking.
‘I cut it last night. Easier for you I hope?’ The single chair was waiting in the middle of the room, one of the bath towels spread out underneath and he sat down, self-consciously running his fingers up the thick swathe of rough cut hair tousled by the breeze. Jackson stepped forward and began work, lifting jaw-length strands hair and ruthlessly cutting away the choppy remnants as Straker closed his eyes against the never-before sensation of severed hair falling onto his face and neck, tickling his skin and lips.
Jackson’s fingers ruffled through thick wedges of blonde hair, scissors snipping with what appeared to be almost casual haste, yet there was a sense of skill in his movements, as if this was something he did often. No one spoke as blonde strands shimmered like rain onto the towel. A last flourish of scissors, then fingers ran up his neck and scalp as Jackson’s hands made sure that the final result was suitable.
‘Done. Go and shower. You wear the uniform for work, blue shirt, tie, jacket and trousers to match. You’ll be fitted for a flight suit and other items once we get to the base. Do you need any help?’ There was an droll tone to the question.
‘Suit. Tie. That sort of thing. Your people don’t wear those, I believe, judging from your own clothes.’
‘Should I require help, I will inform you.’ Straker felt a tinge of dislike for the man. No adult Vulcan required help dressing, and to offer assistance, unasked, was tantamount to an insult. But, he reasoned, he was the outsider and perhaps this was Jackson’s attempt to be friendly. He undid his outer jacket, slipping it off his shoulders and laid it on the bed, aware of the other man’s eyes watching every move, then he waited, arms folded, until Jackson nodded and left him in peace.
It was a relief to close the door and strip off the now itchy garments, shaking them free of shorn hair, folding them and then cleansing his body under water again. An unheard-of luxury, such abundant warm water, pouring down over him with no thought of restrictions. One quick remembrance of standing in the darkness as cold water fell over him. he put the thought aside and washed his hair, smoothing the strands back from his face. It felt… neat. And light after so many years of the weighty plait.
The natural fabric of underclothes and socks was close to the texture of his own clothes and pleasing to the touch as he dressed, fastening buttons of the shirt with care and frowning at the unusual metal fastener of the trousers. Shoes next. They fitted as well as new shoes can ever fit, the leather stiff but well-polished. He lifted the tie from its hanger and closed his eyes to bring the instructions to mind. Fingers moved, the thin material twisting and looping as he pulled it around his neck. A strange sensation, but he tugged it into position and reached for the jacket, pausing to slide one finger over the rows of ribbons and wondering what each signified. Honour in battle no doubt, though the thought was somehow repelling. But a necessary evil, this pretence of being a heroic war-monger, a fighter. And yet, was that not what he was doing here, on this planet? Helping to wage war?
He shook his head at his own foolishness and went to meet Jackson.
It was with some trepidation that Straker followed his erstwhile barber into the building. His credentials had passed the scrutiny of the guards at the entrance without question, but to be outside the car and surrounded by so many humans was an uncomfortable feeling, even though most of them ignored him. Jackson walked on, giving short explanations, nodding to several people and eventually taking him into one of the base refectories. He gestured to a table. ‘Sit down. Thornton will meet us here so you might as well have breakfast while we wait. What do you usually eat?’
There was no answer to that. Straker thought for a moment. ‘I often don’t, until mid-day. Fruit? I don’t know.’ He felt awkward, as if he was inconveniencing the other man, like a child, unable to make his mind up. Breakfast. Thoughts and images entered his mind as if the word had unlocked previously hidden memories. Eggs and bacon and toast. Sausages, pancakes. Porridge. A confusion of ideas, of unknown tastes and textures.
‘Leave it with me then. I’ll bring a tray. Something easy to start with.’ Jackson headed off, leaving Straker sitting there, conscious of a sudden lowering of voices in the room and people turning to stare. He folded his hands together and remained calm, looking at the table to avoiding watching eyes. Jackson would not have left if there was any danger of someone approaching to ask awkward questions. The noise in the room resumed its previous level, and he sensed Jackson’s return.
‘There.’ A tray put in front of him. He looked at the plate. ‘Waffles.’ Jackson explained. ‘Vegetarian. I wasn’t sure, and I thought you might…?’
‘Yes. Thank you. I prefer not to eat meat unless there is no alternative. Waffles.’ Straker picked up the knife and cut into the crimped circle on the plate, butter melting into the dimples and thick syrup pooling on one side. It smelled edible, similar to the pastry he had eaten the previous night. He took a bite. It was food. It would be enough. The mug on the tray held a brown liquid, steam rising from it and he took a cautious sip. Bitter and strong and he put it down again.
‘Do you want sugar in that?’ Jackson stirred in two spoonfuls of white crystals from the bowl on the table. ‘Try it now.’
A marginal improvement, the bitterness now masked and he drank more and then finished the waffles, eating in silence while Jackson worked his way through his own breakfast. Thornton arrived, dressed in uniform, walking through the room straight for their table and pulling out a chair to join them. The voices in the room hushed again, everyone attentive once more.
‘Colonel. Good to have you back with us. How are you? Settled in alright?’ The voice was loud, deliberately loud, and carried across the room.
Straker had no idea how to answer. But it was clear that Thornton did not expect any response. He continued talking, dropping references to ‘repatriation’ and getting Straker back up to speed, then with an abrupt movement pushed back his chair and held out his hand. ‘Take your time Colonel. We’re all here to help you and Jackson will get you anything you need. Just ask.’ One firm clasp of his hand and he was walking away, Straker acutely conscious that everyone had been listening. He busied himself with finishing his drink and then followed Jackson out of the room, head down, avoiding the interested glances and mutters.
The day passed in a blur of activity. The comprehensive and impersonal medical examination performed by Jackson was only to be expected, but he had not anticipated standing in the middle of the room as the doctor, with almost purring with delight, made yet another note about blood pressure or pulse rate or reflexes. Vulcan discipline enabled him to ignore the more intimate probing and he answered the questions with as few words as possible, shivering though the room was not cold, as Jackson prowled around and took photographs. The more invasive tests were unpleasant to say the least, but he prepared himself, and made no indication of distress though it was a relief to don his clothes again and compose himself in the quiet of the room once the doctor finished.
Afterwards he was kept busy, collecting equipment, getting his security upgraded from Visitor status to Staff, finding his way around the maze of corridors to an office on the fourth floor and then finding his way back again after he had been down to the stores mid-afternoon. His office was yet another small room. Bleak and sparse. One desk, a phone, cupboards, a wall safe. But at least the window overlooked the grounds of the base. He disliked the lift, a narrow windowless box, but it was a necessity until he discovered the little-used stairwell on the second day. He wondered how long he would be here, confined in yet another place and unable to walk free.
Thornton left him with Jackson for the rest of the time; days spent learning the protocols and accessing files in hidden deep inside Project Blue Book, nights spent in his hotel room reading and memorising reports about alien attacks on Earth, or making rough notes on the design of vehicles and even a base on the Moon with which to defend Earth. Idle speculation in some respects, but he believed the concepts were both practical and achievable, even with Earth’s current state of technology. Besides, that was why he was here wasn’t it? To make ‘suggestions’ to Henderson, and help get the ideas turned into reality. If he could persuade Henderson to take him on board.
He had little time to explore Earth, or even his local surroundings. He had no real idea where he was; just that he was on Earth and in this Air Force base somewhere in the USA. He kept himself to himself, nodded a greeting to Thornton whenever they met, but that was all. After seven days he was restless, aching for wide spaces in which he could walk, for the heat of a harsh sun on his face, for fields and plants and cool stone, but mostly, for a real purpose to his days instead of hiding himself behind Jackson’s protective facade.
Not that Jackson was a difficult person. He picked Straker up from the hotel every morning and took him back each evening. Pleasant conversation in the car about the weather, or what Straker had been doing that day. No unreasonable orders, no snide comments, or even probing questions about his own world. Jackson was polite at all times, composed and calm, explaining simple matters with a genuine charm; but there was something about the small man that made Straker a little uncomfortable, as if Jackson stripped him naked again with every look, every meeting, every innocent question about his family or his preferences for food or even his opinion about the aliens. After a while Straker came to understand that Jackson was like the members of the Science Council, far more capable and cunning than anyone realised, until it was too late.
It was towards the end of his third week before he met anyone else other than Jackson and the odd assistant silently bringing files or documents from the archives. He was making himself a cup of coffee in the open staff area further down the corridor, adding his usual two sugars in an attempt to make the drink more palatable. Few people talked to him here, for which he was grateful. His was an uncomfortable position, not part of the group, yet not a civilian either. And all the talk of his recent status made it harder; no one wanting to be the first to broach the subject. Yet sometimes he watched the other men, lower ranked and older, chatting in small groups, laughing about women or sports and he wondered if he would ever fit into this strange world. He was unaware of footsteps behind him until someone spoke.
The accent was strange, not the slow American drawl that he was now accustomed to hearing. He analysed it. English. Southern counties. He turned. ‘Yes.’ The man in front of him was craggy, older. A Lt. Col as well.
‘Alec Freeman. General Thornton asked me to look you up. Said you needed some flight time? You’ve been out of it for a while?’
Of course. Thornton had him listed as an experienced fighter pilot and at some stage he would need to prove his ability. It should not be a problem; the accelerated learning course had been thorough, to say the least and he had flown powerful single-seater jets on Vulcan, but he could not risk taking a plane up alone, not without some preparation first. He put his cup down and held out a hand. ‘Sure. Hope you don’t mind?’ Freeman’s grasp was firm, the fingers calloused and strong.
‘Nope. Any chance to get away from the office. I can take you up whenever you want. Thornton told me not to ask questions, so I won’t, but I can give you some practice time, give you a chance to get up to speed. If that’s what you want?’
A perfect solution. He would be able to try out his skills without fear. ‘Thanks. Appreciate it. Have you known Thornton long?’ His conversational speech was improving, he noted with some approval.
Freeman gave a cynical laugh. ‘I wouldn’t say I know him. I’ve been working for him for a year now, mostly intell stuff, but he’s a difficult man to get to know. Keeps himself to himself if you know what I mean.’ He looked around before continuing in a softer voice. ‘Thornton says you’re an ex-POW. Recently home. Out of the loop for a few years.’
It wasn’t a question, but Straker could sense the interest. Easier to confirm it now and put the rumours to rest at last. ‘Yes. You could say a few years.’ He turned away to pick up his mug, then hesitated. Freeman seemed genuine enough and if he worked for Thornton he was not a threat, might even be more help in the future. The thought of learning to drive a car was even more of a worry. And it would be pleasant to talk to someone other than Jackson for once. ‘Coffee?’
‘Okay. Final turn and bring her in to land. I’ve cleared it with ATC to have an F-16 waiting for you tomorrow. Eleven hundred hours. ’ Freeman said from the rear seat of the T-38. Their sixth flight together, Straker letting the other man pilot at first then taking over the controls until he was sure of his ability.
‘Sure. You can do it. Just needed get back in the seat. Like riding a bicycle. You never forget.’ Alec paused. ‘Though I can’t remember when I last rode a bicycle. All yours now.’
Straker felt the jet twitch as Freeman took his hands off the controls. He let his fingers rest on the stick, sensing each vibration and movement of the jet and enjoying being in control again as the jet screamed through the air. It was several minutes before he finished a gentle series of curves and began guiding the jet back down for a smooth and gentle touch-down. Freeman was silent, a welcome sign of approval and Straker relaxed, easing muscles tensed by stress as he taxied the jet to the end of the runway where the team were ready for him.
And he had solved a personal problem as well. There was a wide swathe of land outside the base, beyond the runway, quiet and undisturbed with a small woodland and no sign of buildings. He would walk round there in a day or so to see if there was somewhere appropriate. The plait was still at the bottom of his holdall, an undignified place for something so important, and waiting for him to dispose of it in the proper way, as was seemly and fitting. Before anyone found it and asked questions.
Later that night he left the hotel and went out into the dark to look up at the stars. Different constellations, a different moon. He could see brighter stars and his memory rewarded him with the information that these were planets. Mars and Venus and Saturn, though they were mere specks in the sky. He traced the lines of Ursa Major and the Pleiades and turned to look in the direction of Vulcan and Ochio, so far away. A lifetime away. Then he went inside to his room and lay there, trying as usual, to sleep.
The Falcon was prepped and waiting for him in the morning. The only flight that hour. He walked out with Freeman, running through the procedures in his mind and ignoring the small groups of pilots who had gathered to watch. Another test. Not just of his capabilities, but his courage. If he failed at this, then his prospects would diminish. It needed more than a simple flight. He looked at his mentor and allowed himself one tight grin.
Freeman stood at the bottom of the steps, one hand on Straker’s arm. ‘Relax. Forget the onlookers, you’ve nothing to prove. Just … enjoy it.’
Straker nodded and began to climb and Freeman moved away to watch, half-anxious as the jet taxied to the runway.
‘You owe me a drink. Several actually.’
‘Beer. Although the beer is rubbish here. They’ve no idea of how to put a decent head on a pint. But you owe me one.’ Alec rubbed his hands together. ‘Had me worried at one stage but that was nice work.’
‘It was just flying.’
‘But impressive.’ Alec Freeman stopped walking and turned to look at him. ‘You know Thornton was watching. If you’d cocked it up he’d have looked an idiot bringing you back into active service.’
‘Was it wrong?’ Straker asked. ‘I mean…’ The thrill of taking the jet through a series of manoeuvres was something he would cherish for a long time. A sense of freedom and oneness with the elements. Fire behind him, thrusting the jet to its limits, earth beneath, far beneath, and air around them as together they screamed over the base.
Freeman laughed. ‘No. I just expected you to do the basics. You know. Take off. Couple of passes and then in for landing. That was all. Anyway. Drink? After work?’
After work. He never socialised after work with people. Just returned to the hotel, ate a meal in solitary silence in his room, the same meal every night, too hesitant to risk ordering something that might have an adverse effect on his stomach, and then spent the rest of the evening working. ‘Yes. I’d like that.’ A very formal and stilted statement, but this was not something covered in the learning courses. How did one reply? Was his answer incorrect, inappropriate even?
It seemed not, for Freeman nodded. ‘You don’t know the bars here do you?’ he asked before answering himself. ‘No of course not. I’ll pick you up from your place about seven. That okay?’
Straker noticed Jackson in the distance, watching. ‘Yes. Seven.’ A change of scenery would be pleasant for once, even if his mentor disapproved. He went back to his office and his work, with a feeling that this just might work out.
Freeman was waiting in the reception area when Straker arrived, unsure about the civilian clothes he was wearing. Like all the other pilots he had worn his uniform to work each day but there had always been some distance between him and the others, as if he was an imposter and not worthy of the rank. It was a relief to leave it off for once. His own clothes were still in the wardrobe yet he could not wear those, much as he might wish to don the supple boots and lightweight trousers and tunic. The jeans would suffice, he hoped, together with a soft fabric sweater with lettering on the front. It felt surprisingly comfortable, but the trousers needed a belt to make them fit. He used the one from the uniform, aware that the buckle needed moving in a notch, if not two, from when he first used it. He went downstairs with some hesitation.
Freeman, chatting to the woman behind the desk, looked over as Straker arrived. ‘I’m hungry. Want to eat here or get something decent?’
‘Decent? Is this not..?’
Freeman chuckled. ‘Hotel food is never any good. I can’t wait to get back to England for proper fish and chips. Not these thin ones they call fries. Come on. You owe me a pint and I know a good bar.’
Straker lifted the top of the bun and peered at the burger. ‘This is..?’
‘Where the hell have you been for the last decade? Outer Mongolia? Although even they have……….’ Freeman stopped, embarrassed. ‘Sorry. No more questions. That …,’ He pointed one finger at the bun, ‘is the best burger you can buy around here. Hand made. Rump steak.’ He took a mouthful of beer. ‘Pity they don’t have cask ale.’
Straker took a tentative bite. Meat. Freeman had brought him to the bar and ordered burgers and beer for both of them without any warning. He had not even mentioned payment, and that was another problem to face. Thornton had given him a quantity of cash, and Jackson had mentioned in passing that he would provide more when necessary, but most of the money was back in his room, untouched. He had brought some with him, but the etiquette in these matters was still an unknown and he did not wish to offend Freeman.
He took another bite. The flavour was better than he anticipated, the texture moist and tender and he could taste herbs and delicate seasonings. A simple meal, as well as going some way to satisfying his ever present hunger. The beer however was another matter altogether, tasteless and thin, with none of the dark strength that made ale worth drinking. He drank a few mouthfuls anyway, out of politeness, glad to put the glass down and concentrate on his food.
Freeman noticed his grimace. ‘Exactly. They don’t have cask Guinness here.’ He gave a snort of disapproval, but finished his drink anyway. ‘Another? Or something else.’
‘I’m used to drinking just water. Or do they not serve that here?’ He lowered his head, embarrassed by his failure to conform.
Freeman shook his head. ‘Water’s fine. I’ll get you one.’ He stood up, resting one hand on Straker’s shoulder for a brief second. ‘It will get easier you know. No one expects you to act as if nothing’s happened. Give yourself time.’
The unforeseen touch on his shoulder was enough to open Straker’s already sensitive mind to raw emotion rushing through him, unstoppable and painful after so long in isolation A quick flash of shared anguish and concern for a fellow man who had been through hell and returned. It had been a long time since he had felt such emotions from anyone, let alone a human. His mind had been devoid of contact since his rescue, apart from a very few mind-melds to help overcome his mental state. But those melds were long gone, as were the soothing words of the physicians. He had never thought to have another mind in his, not here on Earth and although Freeman’s was little more than a passing thought, a brief contact and gone like the touch of a brother or uncle, it was enough for now. Nothing remained, no lingering afterthought, just that one moment but it was a comforting reassurance in a bleak and empty world and he allowed himself to relax a little, picking up his burger to finish eating while Freeman flirted with the barmaid and ordered a glass of water.
Later that evening Freeman dropped him off at the hotel and he went into the bar for a few moments, fumbling with the strangeness of money, before going up to his room, thoughtful and with a sense of relief. Another hurdle over, his acceptance as a pilot as well as a colleague. He undressed, glad to be out of the clothes, then lay down on the wide bed, and tried to shut out the sounds from outside.
Perhaps tonight he might sleep. It had been nearly two weeks since he last managed more than a few minutes slumber before waking from hideous nightmares sweating and confused. There had been no opportunities to meditate, no space or calm within the small room and even when he tried, the unfamiliar noises outside were sufficient to jolt him out of any trance. It was becoming a matter of concern. He could do without real sleep for this long if the proper mental techniques were in place, but without those, or the necessary meditation to ensure that his mind would cope, he would soon falter. One night’s rest. That was all. Proper sleep without disturbances from people walking past his room, or cars outside. Maybe even without the horror of waking to think he was back on Ochio, trapped under the stones.
He closed his eyes, working through relaxation exercises practiced for years until dreamless sleep overtook him. Not for long though. His own whimpers were enough to wake him and send him tumbling from the bed to fall in a huddle, legs tangled in the covers, pillows strewn across the room. A thin crack of light under the door told him it was still night, and he wrapped the covers around himself, hunching up in a corner of the room, his eyes wide open to stop himself falling asleep again, stop himself being trapped again in the nightmare. Eventually, exhaustion made his eyelids close and he slept, fitfully, limbs twitching, murmuring to himself as the ghosts of the past haunted his dreams.
Jackson was waiting when Straker made his way down in the morning, more than a few minutes late. The smaller man tilted his head. ‘Colonel? I wondered where you were. I was about to come and look for you.’ He frowned. ‘You look tired. I understand you were out with Colonel Freeman last night?’
‘I cleared it with the General. He had no objections.’ Straker kept his voice passive, but the uncertainty was there.
‘I see. I will discuss it with him later. Now, shall we get to work?’
Straker rested one hand on his briefcase. ‘Would it be possible to explore the base later? Get some fresh air and exercise. I would like to ….’ He tightened his lips, and then continued. It didn’t matter what Jackson thought, or what anyone thought really. ‘I would like to see some of the plants that grow here on Earth. Wild flowers and trees. Will that be a problem? If I go out this afternoon and walk?’
‘I don’t see why not. Please inform either myself or the general beforehand.’ The short journey continued in silence, Straker looking out of the window and wondering if Freeman would stop by this morning as promised.
Breakfast in the refectory. He was beginning to tire of waffles by now, but the sight of Jackson’s fried eggs and sausages and black pudding was enough to have his stomach roiling in disgust, and he had learned enough to know that it was better to stick to familiar food rather than risk offending anyone. But the burger last night had been delicious, as if his whole being had craved the sustenance. He would try one in the hotel tonight.
He spent the morning roughing out designs for a space-borne weapons system to intercept alien craft, frustrated that he could not use the latest Vulcan technology. But he could suggest advancements: nuclear cluster missiles, with a wide ranging detonation, improvements to current propulsion systems. Simple things that might be a deciding factor in protecting Earth. It might never come to fruition, but he needed something to do to pass the time instead of sitting here in isolation. Thornton assured him that there would be a chance to meet Henderson soon, but with each passing day it seemed as if he was trapped here in this office, kept under guard and doing nothing worthwhile. He might as well have stayed on Vulcan where he could have done his own research into the invaders. He kept himself busy correlating data, completing reports and preparing files with the few scant details garnered over the last few years.
At lunchtime, when everyone else was eating and he would not be disturbed, he phoned Jackson’s office and left a message with the secretary. As few words as possible: he was going out as mentioned this morning and should be back in a couple of hours. He put the phone down, heedless of any comeback and, as an afterthought, left a brief note on his desk, in case Freeman should come by. He opened the briefcase, pulling out the small bottle he purchased the night before and slipping it into one pocket. The briefcase contained only one other item, bound in a narrow strip of cloth and wrapped in tissue. He lifted it with care and reverence. It was too bulky to fit in a pocket and he would have to carry it. He hoped no one would question him. It was unlikely though; he was almost invisible here, an air force officer returned from overseas, from years spent in some enemy prison. Covert Operations. No one talked to those officers, not from dislike, but for the simple reason black ops were just that. Black. Non-existent. Like aliens.
He answered the security guards at the exit with patience. Yes, he wanted to go off the base for a couple of hours. No, he didn’t have a car and yes he was going to walk. Just up the road, that was all. He would be fine, he insisted. They watched him set off, then made a phone call.
The road bordering the base was busy, cars speeding by or occasionally slowing to watch jets take off from the runways. He set off, crossing the road to walk closer to the open land on the other side. A long walk, his feet beginning to hurt in the still-stiff shoes but he ignored the discomfort. If his feet blistered, he would walk barefoot, he had done so before. The sun was behind him and he concentrated on his journey, unaware of a car following him at a distance. Each step took him nearer to his target, the plait getting heavier in his fist, the bottle bouncing against his hip with every step.
It took longer than he had thought to reach the small wood and he was glad to stand beneath heavy-leaved branches for a few minutes, taking off his jacket, catching his breath and cooling down before walking further into the shade of the interior. He found a small clearing where one tree had fallen years ago, its trunk rotted away and sunlight pouring onto the ground. There were no signs of anyone else having been here, no footprints or rubbish sullying the ground. A fitting place. The soil was baked dry, the grass withered and brown but he managed to scoop out a hollow in the earth, lining it with stones before loosening the spiral of plaited hair in its tissue wrapping and laying it in the hole. He sat there, crossed legged, murmuring words to himself before unscrewing the bottle. The brandy poured over the coil, soaking into hair and stone-red paper and dry soil and stones, darkening the earth like blood. There were no leaves or twigs nearby, nothing that could burn apart from the paper and the plait. He traced a finger along its length. Five strands.
He closed his eyes and let the memories fill him one last time: his crops, the cave, the physical pain of the changes he had undergone, the harder anguish of severing his hair, severing his old life. He did not hear the car pulling up at the roadside, or the two men clambering over the low fence nearby while he sat there, contemplating the remnant of his former life and hopes. The wood was silent and peaceful, the air full of the scent of hot earth and sun and plants, and he was unable to prevent his head drooping, eyes closing as he drifted into sleep.
Freeman and Jackson watched in silence. Stillness filled the air. Straker sitting there, head bowed, hands lying open on his lap, the odd twitch of shoulders and spine the only sign of movement as his subconscious fought to keep him upright, dark stains on his shirt, sweat stiffening his light blonde hair and in front of him in a hole in the ground, a parcel wrapped in dark paper. The smell of brandy wafted across the clearing and the two watchers looked at each other, perplexed.
‘What the hell’s going on?’ Freeman murmured and took a step closer. It was enough to startle a bird into chattering noisy flight and Straker jerked awake, gasping, looking around as if terrified, then scrabbling upright to stand, swaying as the onlookers came out. The transition from sleep to alertness was too much and Freeman stepped forward in time to catch him as he slumped, limp and helpless.
‘Please don’t ask. This is something I have to do.’ Straker, recovered and sitting on the ground again with Freeman close by ready to help, looked up at Jackson. ‘I have to burn it. It’s the only way I can move on. Put the past behind me.’ He twisted his fingers together. ‘I know you don’t understand. You can’t. But …’ He gestured to the bottle. ‘I hoped this would help it burn quickly. I couldn’t risk using wood. I didn’t drink any, if that’s what you’re wondering.’ He was unable to prevent the trembling in his voice.
‘I was not wondering anything Colonel. I was merely concerned for your well-being, as was Colonel Freeman here. When gate security notified me that you had left I asked Alec to accompany me. Just in case.’ Jackson reached down and took Straker’s wrist for a few moments. ‘Yes. That is better. Getting back to normal. You should rest for a while. We’ll take you back to your hotel and you can get some sleep. Much more comfortable than out here.’
‘No. Not yet.’ Freeman interjected. ‘Ed. You said you have to burn it? What exactly?’
Straker knew there was no way he could avoid explanations, or being taken by force if necessary back to his rooms, even kept under guard in future. Maybe an ignominious return to Vulcan, his mission a failure before it even started. There was only one thing he could do now; tell the truth and pray that Freeman would not ask awkward questions.
‘That. My …my hair. From.. from…’ He swallowed and carried on. ‘I came here to burn it. No one should know, no-one.’ The desperation in his voice made Freeman move closer. ‘I cut it before Jackson saw it. I can’t throw it away, it has too many memories.’ He looked up at Freeman, eyes haunted and wide with dread. ‘Please.’
The coil of hair was longer than any Freeman had seen, and he reached out to touch it with a surprisingly delicate hand, wondering how many years it had taken to get to that length, how many years Straker had been held prisoner. And under what conditions. No wonder the man was scared and unsure and hesitant. ‘Fuck.’ The curse was barely audible. He stood up. ‘We’ll help you, won’t we?’ He glared at Jackson. ‘Have you got a lighter, Doug?’
There was a pause as Jackson considered the situation; Straker still hunched on the ground and Alec standing almost protectively over him like an older brother. It was not something that he had intended, but perhaps it would enable the alien to settle into his life here. He seemed to be struggling to find his place at the moment. And once Freeman was on board, as it were, and not just as a flying instructor, things might go a lot easier for the displaced Vulcan.
‘I have a light.’ Straker pulled a small firestarter from his pocket.
‘Well then go ahead. Or do you want us to leave?’ Freeman bent over him, not too close now.
Straker thought for a moment. Male family and friends were the only witnesses to this rarest of ceremonies in his tribe; there for support as the link to a lost betrothed was severed and burned. ‘It would be an honour if you would both remain.’ He got to his feet, rejecting Freeman’s offer of a hand, then hunkered down to strike the flint close to the wafer thin edge of the paper.
The first bright sparks took hold and flames spread, crackling as the tissue curled and withered into dust, as the hair disintegrated to ash until there was nothing left. No one spoke. The smell of burned hair dissipated, the birds resumed their soft rustles in the branches, a jet thundered down the runway in their direction, lifting into the air to scream overhead and soar upwards. The wind from its passing disturbed the grey ash, sending it floating into the air. The flames had long since died, the embers cooling. Straker bowed his head and in the silence of his heart said the final words of the ceremony. He straightened his shoulders.
‘I thank you for sharing this with me.’ He led the way, not looking back, for there was no reason now. It was over. He had done all he could.
Jackson held Freeman back. ‘Colonel. I think what has happened here should remain between us, do you not agree?’
‘What do you take me for? The last thing he needs right now is anyone talking about this.’ Freeman pulled his arm from Jackson’s grasp and hurried on, watching the man ahead climb over the low fence, his movements slow and laborious. They would be taking him back to the hotel, to a bare and impersonal room where he would sit and watch television and let the horrors of the past fester in his mind. No.
‘Yesss?’ The voice was an amused drawl as if the doctor had anticipated this very moment, may even have brought Freeman along in the expectation of this event.
‘He can stay with me. I’ve got a couple of rooms spare. I can keep an eye on him. Better than …..’ His voice trailed away.
‘That would be most generous of you. I am sure that Colonel Straker will appreciate the offer.’ The quirk on Jackson’s lips was enough. ‘I will authorise the move but perhaps you should ask him first? And Alec,’ he said, looking over at Straker, now leaning on the car, head down, his back to them. ‘Look after him, please. He could be of more importance than you or anyone else might possibly imagine.’
Straker sat on the bed, hands clasped together, wondering what to do now he was here. Another room in another building; Freeman’s house this time, yet it was still a prison cell. He had stayed silent in the car while the two men explained what they had in mind. There was no point in talking; he knew he had no say in the decision, he was now nothing more than a pawn, looked after while of use and then maybe discarded when he had played his part and was no longer of value. Perhaps Henderson would treat him in the same way; keep him locked away in yet another room until they had taken everything from him and sucked him dry. And then? Who could say what would happen then.
Maybe Jackson would get his wish to do more tests. He shivered. He had read about past atrocities carried out in the name of science. They might do the same to him. After all he was as much an alien here as the ones who had murdered his family and who were now attacking Earth. And that fact, the realisation that he no longer knew what was going to happen to him, was more frightening that anything else he had undergone. He just wanted to do his work here, to be trusted and to help humanity. That was all. But if imprisonment, and whatever came next, was the price to pay, then somehow he would deal with it. He would have to; he made his choice on Vulcan, a lifetime ago it seemed.
The room was quiet. He watched dust motes floating in narrow sunbeams, listened to footsteps downstairs as Freeman went about his business. He could see faint traces of ash on his fingers, could smell smoke on his skin and in his hair. Short hair. He blinked away the thought and let one hand stray to his scalp. It still felt…different. There was nothing to do but wait here until he had permission to leave. Freeman’s words, earlier, had been clear. Another order to obey without question. ‘This can be your room. Put your feet up and I’ll bring you a drink later.’ It was marginally bigger than the one in the hotel and closer to the base, but that was all. No lock on the door but a cell just the same, even to the lock on the window. Perhaps Jackson was relying on the older Colonel to keep him contained here. It would not be a difficult task. There was nowhere else for him to go.
He stood up and started unpacking, leaving his own personal clothes at the bottom of one holdall where Jackson had placed them after helping him pack. There was no need to hurry: shirts and grey sweatshirt on hangers, his jacket hung by the open window to freshen, socks and smallclothes tidy in drawers. Everything put away out of sight, even his personal belongings: razor and soapstone, knife and comb, and the memory globe, still in its box. He looked around. An impersonal room. Anyone could be living here. There was no sign of his presence and that was the way he wanted it to be. And there was nothing left of her either. He was on his own. It was the only way forward now.
With nothing else to do, he stood by the window, staring at the patch of scrubby lawn, its grass dry and withered in the heat. His aching hunger was a constant companion since his arrival here and a discomfort that made it increasingly difficult to concentrate on his work. There was no connecting bathroom and he hoped that Freeman would remember that he was here and escort him, later, to the facilities. For now, it was not a problem, but his thirst was. In the end, he took off his sweat-stained shirt and stretched out on the bed, his mind unable to stop its restless worrying. The ceiling blurred and he wiped his eyes clear, rolled onto his side, curling up in an attempt to ease the discomfort and let tiredness overtake him.
He became aware of T’Shaan, close by, laying one hand on his bare shoulder and leaning over as she used to do at home when he was sleeping. He could feel her breath on his face, her words soft in his ear. Where had she been? The bond was no longer there and he had despaired of ever touching her thoughts again, but now she was with him once more and so he reached up, pressing fingers against her face to repair the link. Skin touching skin, fingertips firm against temple and cheek. Freeman’s face, craggy and pockmarked, but Straker’s fingers didn’t feel the roughness, or the afternoon stubble or the man himself, frozen with shock. It was T’Shaan’s face under his hand, her hand on his shoulder, as he opened his mind and drew her in, desperate to be cherished once more.
Dark warmth enveloped his thoughts. An unexpected sensation and he froze, unable to pull away from the compassion engulfing him, a level of empathy he had not expected. A quick mind, alert, intelligent, and thoughtful but not T’Shaan’s mind. Whose then? He explored further, a tentative journey through a stranger’s thoughts, rifling through memories, sharing childhood recollections and steering his own thoughts away from intimate memories hidden deep within. He knew who was standing over him now, and he knew without doubt that he was safe.
It was hard to pull away from the strength of such a reassuring masculine presence. He wanted to sink into the promise of comfort and security, of not being alone any more, but it had to be done. A sigh of regret escaped his lips as he began his slow and careful retreat from the meld in order to leave Freeman unharmed from the experience.
By the time they were separate he was shaking and exhausted. Freeman had not moved from his position by the side of the bed. Eyes closed as if in sleep he was still leaning forward, supporting himself with one hand on Straker’s shoulder. He shuddered, jerking backwards out of reach and Straker rolled away from him as Freeman, frowning as if he had forgotten something, blinked with bewilderment. ‘You’re awake. I thought…. I thought you were asleep.’
‘No. I was just resting. Should I have been?’
‘You look tired.’ Freeman waved a hand. There was a mug on the small bedside table. ‘I brought you a drink.’
‘Thank you.’ He reached for the mug. Coffee. But it was sweet and hot and he sipped, grateful that he did not have to ask. It tasted better than usual, or perhaps he retained some residue of Freeman’s own tastes or of the man himself. It was not an unpleasant thought; if anything it gave him a sense of peace, as if he needed that infinitesimal presence in the back of his mind in order to be whole again. Freeman sat on the end of the bed and watched.
‘Jackson wants me to report to Thornton. You okay with that?’
‘Report?’ Straker put the mug down and pushed himself upright. ‘About today?’
Freeman shook his head. ‘No. What happened today remains private. Between us. No one else.’ He frowned. ‘He’s worried that you’ve lost weight since arriving. Have you?’
The belt, two notches tighter, his constant hunger, the increasing weakness he could sense in his body. There was no way to answer. He could feel his face flush and he clasped his hands together.
‘Base food isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.’ Freeman gave a brief grin and stood up. ‘Give me a couple of hours and we can go out and get something. Okay with you?’
‘If I may be permitted to use the bathroom?’ Straker lowered his head.
Freeman looked at him. ‘What?’
‘The bathroom. Before you go downstairs. Please?’
There was a long silence. ‘Christ, Straker, you don’t need to ask. Or …’ Freeman paused again. ‘You’re not a prisoner now. Whatever’s happened, you can walk out of here anytime you want.’ He opened the door. ‘Two hours. Get some proper sleep or come down and watch TV. Go for a walk. Whatever you want. I’ve got some work to do, but you won’t disturb me.’ He nodded and went out and Straker heard footsteps going downstairs. The bedroom door was still open and he ventured out onto the landing. No-one stopped him and, once finished in the bathroom he went back into his room, wondering with some trepidation how long he would be staying in this house but, for the first time in days feeling that his mission and his future here on Earth, might just work out.
It was just a case of being patient. Henderson would arrive sometime. Until then, he would spend his time learning about this world. And preparing for the fight against the aliens.
‘Colonel Straker. Jackson tells me you’ve settled in, all things considered.’ Thornton pulled out a chair and sat down. ‘Nearly three months now.’
Straker nodded. ‘General.’
‘And Freeman here has nothing but good things to say about you. Says you’re up to speed on everything.’ Thornton gave a quick sideways glance at Freeman on the other side of the refectory table. ‘Thank you Colonel.’
Freeman nodded, crumpling his napkin and tossing it on his empty plate. ‘Don’t forget Ed, your turn to cook tonight.’ He pushed back his chair and left.
Straker waited, silent, concentrating on the last of his scrambled eggs. A relatively new taste, but enjoyable nonetheless. As with many experiences over the last weeks: driving Freeman’s car, going to the pub, buying provisions in local stores. Adaptation, he realised with a start. He was becoming accustomed to these impulsive, emotional humans with their openness and enthusiasm. A difficult race to understand, but he was aware of one fact. He would have struggled, might even have failed, without the support of Alec Freeman.
‘So, Colonel. Are you ready?’ Thornton leaned across the table.
‘To do what you came here for. You don’t imagine I’ve been ignoring you these last weeks, that I’ve not been watching you? Closely? I was worried at one stage. You seemed to have problems adjusting to life here.’ He shook his head and reached out to take a spare slice of toast from Straker’s plate. ‘And you’re an … ‘unknown quantity’ I suppose is the best description. I couldn’t risk letting you loose. Not until I was sure.’
Straker looked up at him. ‘I understand. I would have done the same in your position. But now?’
Thornton leaned back, tapping on the table with the fingers of one hand. ‘Henderson’s coming over to see me later. I’ll mention your name and your interest in, should we say, recent unexplained activities.’ He grinned. It made him look different, as if the smile washed away the cares of the world, leaving a younger man sitting opposite Straker, eating a slice of pilfered toast. ‘Should get him interested. We’ll see what happens after that. But I think he’ll take the bait.’ He dropped a small corner of crust on Straker’s sideplate, winked and stood up. ‘Keep up the good work. I’ll be in touch. Very soon.’
He took a couple of paces before turning. ‘Oh. I forgot. Your back pay’s finally been credited to your bank account. Sorry it’s taken so long. Jackson has the details. Don’t spend it all at once.’ Another boyish grin and he was off.
The buzz in the dining room resumed its usual level. Straker cleared the last pieces of toast, and drank the dregs of his orange juice. No need to rush, he had time to get a coffee as well, but there was a strange feeling in his stomach. Not hunger. That was in the past. His integration into this world was complete, his hunger and fears a thing of the past. All thanks to Alec Freeman, his mentor and more important, his friend. His only concern now was ensuring that his cover story remained intact. It was not pleasant, lying to a friend, but it had to be so. Alec could never know the truth. Ever. It would be too dangerous.
The sensation in his stomach increased. A fluttery feeling; not nausea, not pain either, more a feeling of anticipation. Strange. He picked up his cap and left the room, hoping that he was not going to be ill. He would spend the day reading the Astrophysics books Jackson had loaned him; it would pass a few hours and be a pleasant distraction, though not very challenging and he wondered about Thornton’s final comment. ‘Don’t spend it all at once.’ Perhaps he might have enough money to buy some more clothes. He hoped so. And it was Freeman’s natal day at the end of next month and the RAF officer was planning a party. Now he would be able to buy a gift. Another problem solved.
It was hard to concentrate on the text books; the maths and equations were not taxing by any means, but his thoughts kept straying to Henderson. He knew what the man looked like, but photographs could only tell you so much. In the end he put the books aside and went back to his blueprints for a proposed base on the moon. One day he might get to walk there. He smiled at the thought. And then shook his head. A Vulcan, getting excited about walking on an airless barren satellite. His tutors at the Academy would have been perturbed to say the least, though they would never let such an emotion reveal itself. Perhaps the influence of humans was more intense than he anticipated, or perhaps it was that deep inside, he still onto held a tiny fragment of Freeman’s mind, a calm and gentle touch that pervaded his waking thoughts, and gave him hope. He determined to spend more time meditating tonight, once he had made the evening meal, and he put frivolous thoughts of the Moon aside and worked on, at peace with himself.
He was in the kitchen when Freeman arrived back, later than usual and looking a little rushed.
‘Leave that. Thornton wants to see you. His house. Right now.’
‘General Thornton?’ Straker put down a handful of chopped mushrooms and slid the pan off the heat.
‘Jackson’s waiting outside. Two minutes. I’ll see to that. Get changed.’
It took longer than two minutes to change and ensure he was presentable and Jackson was tapping the steering wheel with impatient fingers when Straker hurried out.
‘Took your time Colonel.’ He drove off at speed.
‘Is there a problem? Something happened?’
‘All I know is that the General asked me to drive. He wants to see you right now. I have no idea why.’ Jackson concentrated on driving as Straker ran through possible scenarios: an alien attack or a problem with his security, even a message from Vulcan, though that was improbable. In the case of any emergency they would contact him first. And there had been nothing since arriving here. Nothing at all. Not that he was desperate for any contact. His former life no longer filled his waking thoughts or his dreams and with a tinge of guilt he realised that he had not thought of T’Shaan for several days either. But that was to be expected, it was the mind’s natural defence when a link was torn apart. In due course it healed itself, leaving only a sense of peace. He still loved her, and always would but her death was over two years ago, on a far distant planet. This was his home now, for as long as was necessary.
The car pulled up. A large house, cars parked round the edge of the wide sweeping driveway, lights blazing in the windows. He could see silhouettes inside, figures moving about. Music poured into the night.
Straker undid his seatbelt and opened the car door, stepping out onto the pea-shingle. A moment to neaten his hair with a brush of one hand, cap put in place and adjusted, jacket tugged straight. He took a deep breath and hesitated, one hand still on the car door, until Jackson leaned across. ‘I’ll wait here,’ he said and pulled the door shut.
He was on his own. Again. Several steps to the front door, his hand reaching out just as the door opened. A rush of confusing sensations: music and loud voices and laughter, unfamiliar faces turning to him, women in elegant dresses, men in suits and smart casual clothes. He felt awkward, standing there in his stiff military outfit. He tugged off the cap, tucking it under his arm. ‘Colonel Straker. To see General Thornton.’
More faces staring at him now. He stood in the light, blinking and uncomfortable, aware that he was intruding into a private gathering. The crowd in the spacious entrance hall parted. ‘Straker.’ Thornton beckoned to him. ‘Come in. This way,’ he gestured, then turned to a waiter. ‘Find Jackson and tell him not to wait.’
Straker followed, head down to avoid the curious looks that followed the two men. ‘Excuse the chaos,’ Thornton said, opening a door at the other end of the vast living area. ‘Birthday party. Wife insisted. You know women.’ He sounded embarrassed and stepped inside to allow Straker to enter the room. Straker had a brief impression of polished oak panelling and bookshelves, leather chairs, decanter and half-filled glasses on a side table before Thornton spoke again. ‘Someone I want you to meet. Henderson?’ He stepped forward. ‘This is the officer I was talking about earlier. Ed Straker.’ He picked up one of the glasses and drained it. ‘God, I needed that. Okay gentlemen, I’ll leave you in peace. Duty calls. Oh, and Straker?’
‘Find me when you’ve finished here. I’ll organise a driver.’ The door closed behind him and Ed Straker turned to face the man sitting there. Lt. General James Henderson. A man trying to save his world.
‘Straker? Come and sit down.’ The voice was gruff, the accent difficult to place, but the tone of command unmistakeable. Straker lowered himself into the other chair. ‘Thornton tells me you’ve been investigating some unexplained events. Military Intelligence stuff. Incidents that have no logical explanation. Missing people. That sort of thing.’ Henderson leaned forward. ‘You know what I’m talking about don’t you. What I mean. Unidentified Flying Objects.’
‘Yes, I do.’ Straker put his hands on his knees. ‘I’ve been searching for any pattern to the raids, maybe trying to find what they want. And I’ve been looking at possible ways to create some form of defence, some way to stop them. Whoever they are.’
The older man rubbed his hands together and smiled with relief. ‘So you believe they exist? Aliens from another world? Coming here, killing and mutilating?’
There was only one answer. ‘Yes.’
Henderson picked up his tumbler and took a mouthful, then sighed in relief. ‘I’ve been trying to tell governments for a while now. Difficult job, persuading desk-bound bureaucrats what’s happening. Most of them don’t want to believe. Frightens them I think. And they worry about mass panic.’ He stood up. ‘Drink?’
Straker sat in silence as Henderson took the stopper out of the decanter. There was a chink of glass on glass, a slosh of liquid, and the tumbler passed across. He took a couple of sips in silence then cradled the glass, his eyes watching Henderson.
‘Right. Let’s get down to it. I need someone to help me. Someone with military and intelligence experience. Dammit no. Someone with real talent and intellect, who can see beyond the smokescreens. And who understands what I am talking about. Do you?’ Henderson took another mouthful of whisky and put the glass down hard on the table. ‘Do you Straker?’
‘I believe so, General. I know these aliens have been coming here for longer than we might expect. We have to find a way to protect Earth and yet keep that knowledge secret.’
‘Exactly. We think along the same lines.’ Henderson sat back and gave a brief smile. ‘Get yourself comfortable Colonel. You and I are going to have a long talk.’
Henderson had finished his second glass of whisky and started on a third long before they finished. Straker had not touched his since the first sip, too engrossed in talking about his research and theories and explaining some of his ideas.
‘A base on the Moon eh? That won’t come cheap.’ Henderson muttered.
‘No. but you have to look at the advantages. With sensors linked to a manned satellite in an opposing orbit, we’d have a clear view across the solar system. Be able to detect any UFOs long before they came into range. It would give us time to organise a defence, maybe even intercept them out in space.’ Straker pointed to the rough sketch he had drawn. ‘Here. And another one here. We could – ’
‘We, Colonel? Actually that sounds fine to me.’ Henderson grinned and then stood up, grunting with the stiffness in his back. ‘Go and ask Thornton if he can spare me a few minutes will you, but don’t leave just yet. I want to see you afterwards.’ He held out his hand. ‘Hadn’t intended to talk so long. Thank you Ed. You’ve given me a lot to think about.’
The brightness and noise outside was startling after the quiet of Thornton’s study. He stood back, watching people move to and fro, helping themselves to the buffet and drinks. Thornton was nowhere to be seen and so he moved away from his quiet niche into the bustle, searching for the one person he might recognise.
‘You must be Ed Straker.’ He turned at the sound of a woman’s voice, soft and amused from behind. ‘Are you’re looking for my husband? I’ll go and find him.’
‘Actually, ma’am, General Henderson would like to speak to him, if possible. I was asked to wait.’
The woman sighed with amused exasperation. ‘I knew Josiah would end up working tonight, even if this is his party. Stay right there.’ She turned and put her hand on the arm of a young woman. ‘Mary, this is Colonel Straker. Take care of him while I go drag the birthday boy away from his battle games.’ She grinned at Straker. ‘Don’t frighten her with war stories Colonel. She’s a college friend of my daughter, staying with us for a few weeks.’
Mary. He held out his hand. ‘Pleased to meet you.’ She had blue eyes and ash-blonde hair, her hand felt small and warm in his and he let go with a sense of regret. She said something to him but he didn’t catch the words. ‘Sorry?’
‘A drink? What can I get you? Champagne?’ She looked around for a waiter.
‘Sorry.’ Another apology. He shook his head. ‘Something non-alcoholic, please? If that’s possible?’
‘Sure.’ She wandered off and he watched her, hoping Thornton would not appear too soon.
‘Thank you.’ He took the glass she offered and tasted. ‘That’s fine.’
‘So you work for the General? Or should I not ask?’ She blushed and bit her lip. ‘I don’t know much about the military. This is all new to me.’
It was easy changing the subject to ask about her own career plans and her family and her holiday, and then, their drinks finished, get a refill for both of them, and a plate of food to share. She chattered about her parents and her university course, and it was only when Thornton arrived after more than half an hour that Straker realised he was reluctant to leave.
‘Straker. Enjoying yourself? Sorry to drag you away, but James wants a final word. Okay with you Mary?’ He grinned at the young woman. ‘Colonel Straker has work to do right now, but I’ll return him as soon as possible.’
It took a moment to adjust to the calm and relative darkness of the library after the noise outside, and he hesitated on the threshold, aware that the General was sitting at the desk now, reading through papers.
Henderson looked up. ‘Come in Ed. Do you want to stay as well Josiah?’
‘No. Best if I leave the two of you to sort it. Colonel?’ Thornton gave another boyish grin. ‘There’ll be a driver waiting whenever you’re ready, but there’s no rush. I’ll see you tomorrow at some stage.’
Straker stepped inside as the door closed behind him. For an irrational moment he wondered if Mary would be waiting once he was finished here. ‘You wanted me sir?’
‘I do. In fact, Straker, I want you to come and work for me, for this new organisation I’m setting up. That is, as soon as Thornton’s department can expedite the paperwork. How do you feel about that?’
A wave of relief swept through Straker. Justification of everything he had endured. There was only one answer and the formal and archaic words came easily to mind. ‘I am yours to command.’ An echo from the past and he gave an infinitesimal bow, unnoticed in the dim light at the corner of the room.
‘Then welcome aboard Colonel.’ Henderson seemed to relax at last, his face losing its stiffness, heavy jowls creasing in a smile of genuine relief. ‘There’s a lot you need to do. And as soon as possible. Advanced astronaut training for example. Thornton likes your idea of satellites and a lunar base as much as I do. Original thinking on your part. But I will need you to oversee those developments. Now,’ He pushed the papers and a briefcase across the desk. ‘This is as far as I’ve got with my own ideas for what we need. Go through it, see what you think works and what doesn’t, add your own ideas and get back to me with revisions and suggestions in thirty-six hours. Think you can handle that?’
It was hard to keep the sheer relief from his voice. ‘Yes, General.’ He picked up the thick file, giving it a quick glance. Five stark letters on the front. He slipped it into the briefcase and locked it.
‘I’ve been looking for someone for a while. Nearly gave up hope until Thornton mentioned you.’ Henderson stood up, reached out one hand. A firm grip, confident, assured. And welcoming. ‘So, Colonel Straker. Welcome to SHADO.’
He walked out in a daze, his mind full of the things he needed to do; read Henderson’s proposals, revise his own list of ideas and incorporate them if necessary, draw up his blueprints and get the measurements checked, work out a time schedule for construction, and .. a touch on his shoulder stopped him. Thornton’s wife.
‘Colonel? Leaving us already? I think Mary would like to say goodbye. There are so few people of her age here, and she enjoyed talking to you.’
He could see her in the corner, watching him, a hopeful look on her face. It would have been impolite to refuse, he told himself, and he took a firm grip on the briefcase and went over to say a brief goodbye.
It was later, much later, when he finally found the driver assigned to take him home, having talked about art and music and aircraft, then London and her home country, England. For some inexplicable reason he found himself promising to come over at the weekend and take her for a tour of the base. He would have to ask Alec for the loan of his car. But tonight he had work to do. He sat in the back of the vehicle, weary after the stresses of the evening and yet too excited to contemplate sleeping. Anyway, sleep could wait. He would do a brief meditation once he got back to refresh himself for the hours ahead, and then set to work.
Straker opened the front door and listened. Alec was still up, watching the late night news. The remains of the evening meal were waiting to be heated, but the kitchen was spotless as usual. He went through to the living room.
‘Back? What happened?’ Freeman turned down the volume. ‘Want a drink?’
‘No, I have work to do. I met General Henderson. He…’ And then it hit him. He couldn’t tell Alec what had happened, couldn’t tell him that this was the most important thing he had ever achieved. And he would leave here, in a couple of weeks no doubt, and might never see Freeman again. He shook his head. ‘Doesn’t matter. I’ll tell you later.’
‘Bad news? Something wrong?’ Freeman looked up, concerned.
The truth had to be told at some stage. Maybe it would be easier to do it now, while he still had that sense of accomplishment, of exhilaration at the prospect of working with Henderson. ‘He wants me to work for him doing lunar research, that sort of stuff. Says we need to look out to space if we want to develop new technology.’ He shrugged and tried to hide the grimace of regret. ‘Means I’ll be moving on shortly. Sorry. It’s been…’
‘No problem. Been good having you here.’ Freeman hauled himself out of the deep sofa. ‘I’m off to bed. Don’t stay up to long, you look tired.’
‘Yes. Commander.’ Straker gave a mock salute and Freeman tilted his head, thoughtfully.
‘You’re more relaxed than I’ve ever seen you before. Whatever Henderson said, it seems to agree with you. Something to get your teeth into at last, a purpose in life. God. I’m sounding philosophical.’ He put his hand up to hide a yawn. ‘Risotto in the pan. Beer in the fridge. I’m off to bed.’
The television was still blaring out its stories. Always the bad news; after all, who wanted to hear about good things, about kindness and friendship and taking care of a fellow man? Straker turned it off and went back into the kitchen, thinking about Alec and SHADO, and his thoughts then turned to the weekend ahead. And Mary.
‘Excellent work Colonel Straker. I’m impressed, and that’s not an easy thing to do. You’ve given me a great deal to think about.’
‘Thank you General.’ Straker stood easy, waiting for the older man to finish leafing through the papers: blueprints, schematics, proposals and even finance matters. Three months of solid work condensed in the last frantic hours into a working document.
‘Thornton tells me he needs at least two weeks to get your transfer sorted, but that gives me time to get things started at this end. There’s a lot of work to do before we can put this before government. Any government.’ Henderson closed the file. ‘I’m going to get you on the Advanced Astronaut training course at NASA. Against all the rules of course, but I know which strings to pull. Thornton won’t give me details, but you’ve previous experience?’
Previous experience. Straker thought about the training that humans received, the primitive spacesuits, the inadequate and flimsy craft, their overwhelming excitement at simply escaping Earth’s gravity. He had done so much more: ventured to several of Vulcan’s huge space stations, traversed parsecs of empty space at warp speed, piloted shuttles from the colony transporter down to the surface of the new world. ‘I am familiar with most astronaut procedures, yes.’
‘Good. The sooner you are qualified, the quicker we can set to work. Now. Tell me more about this Moonbase scheme. Is it really going to be worth the cost?’
‘Financial? Or in terms of human life.’ Straker leaned on the desk. ‘No project of this magnitude is without serious risk. But I believe the benefits will far outweigh any..’ he paused, searching for an appropriate word.’…difficulties encountered during construction.’ He closed his mind to the thought of the deaths laid at his feet, of the remorse he would feel. Sacrifices sometimes had to be made, whatever the cost. ‘It will not be easy but it has to be done, if we are to be effective.’ Somehow he managed to keep his voice free of distress. There would be fatalities and injuries. Lives and limbs lost, families left without husbands or brothers or sons. Memories surfaced; a small boy ripped open, a child asleep in the arms of her beloved aunt, the vile blackness of flies clustering on dark, dry blood. T’Shaan and her beloved sisters. His entire family-to-be; wiped away in an instant. He ran a hand through once long hair.
A high price to pay. And he had paid it. Now it was his duty to make sure that no-one else suffered such bereavement, and after all, it was the logical thing to do; the needs of humanity were more important than a few individual lives. He would deal with his guilt and sorrow in privacy, once the base was finished and Earth protected. He focused his attention once more and began explaining the logistics of his ideas, making a mental note to check the requirements for astronaut training later on.
‘I can’t. I never learned.’ Straker gave a shrug of embarrassment. ‘It was never considered necessary.’
‘Well, you have to.’
‘Learn? Yes. I know. I just don’t know where I go to do that.’
‘How long have you been here? Nearly four months? There’s a pool in the gym.’ Freeman gave a vague wave of his hand. ‘You can probably get lessons.’ He looked at Straker’s expression of unease and shook his head. ‘No. Perhaps not. Could I help you? What exactly do you need to do?’
Straker handed over the print-out and waited.
Freeman scanned through the details with a slight grin, before passing it back. ‘Seems to me all you have to do is learn the basics. Not that difficult. You need some swimshorts first. And,’ he hesitated for moment, unsure whether to continue. ‘You could get more clothes as well.’
‘Jesus Ed. Swimshorts. Trunks. Bathers. What the hell do you think you wear to swim?’ Freeman gave an exasperated sigh. ‘Get your coat. I’ll take you shopping. And bring your wallet.’
There was another shrug, accompanied by a slight twist of chiselled lips. ‘I don’t have one of those either.’
Alec Freeman tossed his car keys over with a snort. ‘For that you can drive. And you buy the drinks afterwards as well.’
Midnight. The pool was deserted, the only illumination the silver beams that sliced down through huge windows. Straker stood on the edge, watching moonlight reflecting on still water. No one knew he was here, Freeman was sleeping off several beers, and the adjoining gym was as devoid of life as this vast space. It took him but a minute to strip off, draping his clothes over the rail at the front of the seating area. The thin and skimpy garment Alec had made him purchase was, to his mind, superfluous, but he pulled the snug-fitting shorts on and then sat, feet in the water, enjoying the solitude and silence.
It was warmer than he expected. A pleasant surprise and he lowered himself, twisting around to hold onto the edge in order to keep his head above the surface. A very different sensation, the water embracing him in cool silk. He lowered his face, letting the liquid wash over him, then pushed himself under the surface for a moment, his cheeks puffed out with air, his eyes adjusting to this new world of blurred shadows as ripples of moonlight stabbed into the depths. He pulled himself up, letting his breath out in one long sigh and checked the depth again. Three metres. Deep enough to drown in. He wondered if perhaps he should have informed Alec of his intentions, but no; this was something he had to do alone.
Time to go. He pushed off, floating on his back, letting the water support his slender body. Small flicks of fingers, deep breaths, keeping his back straight and staring up at the ceiling as he moved away from the safety of the edge. Water sloshed over his face and he gasped, the instinctive reaction to sit up enough to send him under the surface, spluttering and choking, eyes burning. He flung his arms out, reaching.. reaching… as water filled his mouth and throat and he felt himself sinking.
Legs thrashing, he scrabbled for purchase, but only to encounter more water, luring him down until his head was trapped beneath its surface. He arched his back and managed to half-fill his lungs before it filled his mouth again. It was not enough, and he slipped down, his frenzied struggles to escape a waste of effort, his lips closed tight, his eyes seeing blurred shadows in the water. Then sanity prevailed for a second, and he stilled, raising his arms above his head and quelling the ever-growing surge of terror as he dropped deeper and deeper, lungs burning, keeping himself immobile against every impulse to try to surface. It would be too long until he touched the tiled floor, and with all the strength in his body he brought his arms down in one rapid move, pushing against the dragging embrace. It was sufficient to force him upwards, arrow-swift and straight to the surface, dashing his head back to fling water from his face as he breached the boundary between death and life
His hand touched something, such a fleeting contact that his desperation might have caused him to imagined it, but he reached out again, catching hold and then gripping with frantic strength the thin rail that was just above the water. Two hands now, clinging as the rail moved and he felt himself pulled through the water until his shoulder collided with the edge of the pool. Safety. He let go of the pole and hung there, fingers clawing the tiles. There was a clatter of metal against the floor and a hand grabbed his wrist, hard enough to leave bruises.
‘You bloody idiot.’
He knew that voice, that hand, but he was too exhausted to do more than stay there, arms outstretched on the hard surface. He let his head rest on the rim, his heart beating faster than usual and air filling his lungs as he hung there, gasping, summoning the strength to heave himself to safety. His hands were numb now, fingers tingling from lack of oxygen. There was nothing he could do apart from wait and breathe, until he could haul himself out to face Alec’s wrath. The hand stayed fastened to his wrist, a firm grip, sure and safe. He managed one gasp. ‘Sorry.’
‘You should be. Good job I worked out where you’d gone. For god’s sake Ed-‘ Freeman broke off as Straker began coughing, waiting until the spasm was over and he was breathing once more. ‘You okay?’
‘Yes.’ His voice was hoarse and miserable. He spat water from his mouth.
‘Come on then. Let’s get you out and dry.’ Alec loosened his grip, his other hand moving to support Straker’s elbow.
‘No.’ Straker pulled away from the contact, his fingers still gripping the edge. ‘I have to do this Alec. You saw the requirements. Three lengths without stopping, and then three more wearing flight suit and tennis shoes. Not to mention treading water for ten minutes.’ He stared into the darkness.
Moonlight illuminated the two men, glinting on the droplets of water on Straker’s wide shoulders, gleaming on his pale, wet hair, on the dark figure of Alec Freeman bent over at the water’s edge, his hands reaching out. The only sounds Straker’s harsh breathing and the slap of water as it washed over the rim of the pool.
‘I suppose if I drag you out of here now, you’ll find some way to come back won’t you.’
There was no answer. Straker concentrated on slowing his breathing and his heart rate, until the pounding in his ears was gone. He avoided looking up. He could hear the slurring of material, of a zip, a sharp intake of breath close to him and then a hand on his shoulder for a moment. A wet hand, a body next to his own, then hands close to his on the tiles. Freeman.
Straker managed a brief grin. ‘Hope you’re wearing swimming shorts.’
‘No one around to care. Better hadn’t be either.’ Alec tapped him on the shoulder. ‘Come on, let’s get started. I’ll be alongside, so don’t panic. Whatever happens, I won’t let you drown. Trust me.’
His second attempt was more successful, face down this time under Alec’s guidance, arms windmilling as he turned his head sideways to take in air. Better. He made it more than halfway across, before faltering, and the last few yards were an undignified and unpractised version of a doggy-paddle, but he reached the other side with a surprising thrill of accomplishment, aware that Freeman was just a yard or so away keeping guard. Another deep breath and he turned, ready to push off again, this time watching Freeman and copying his actions.
And again. Faster this time, a nod of approval from his lifeguard as he reached the other side and rested for a minute. Again. And again. Over and over. Pushing himself harder with each stroke, each width.
In the end only the realisation that he was getting too cold and his muscles cramping that made him swim to the steps and clamber out, gravity pulling on his lean body as he emerged, exhausted and yet elated. He could swim. Not with efficiency, not yet, but further practice would improve his ability. And tomorrow, if he had the chance, he would return. He grinned at Freeman, noticed the other man’s shivering and handed him the thick towel he had brought. A raised eyebrow and a quick look at Freeman’s naked form. ‘You need this more than me.’
He rubbed his arms as he waited for Alec to get dry then stripped off his clinging shorts and dropped them to the floor. A few brisk sweeps of the towel, his own clothes tugged on over still damp and resisting skin then he scooped up the shorts and headed for the exit, his friend close behind. A comforting presence. And one he knew he would miss in the months to come.
Alec had driven over, his car parked round the side of the building, out of sight of any late-night passers-by. It was a relief to sink into the leather seat, to close his eyes and drowse as Freeman drove the short distance home. He stumbled upstairs yawning, only to stop as Freeman called after him.
‘Try anything like that again, and you won’t be borrowing my car this weekend. Got it?
He turned round. ‘Better dig your shorts out then. I’m going back tomorrow night with a flight suit.
A muttered curse floated up from the darkness and Straker grinned.
Straker parked the car in its usual place and unlocked the front door, easing it shut with one cautious hand. Well past midnight. Later than he had intended even though it was the weekend. He listened for any noise from the other bedroom, Alec’s latest girlfriend maybe, or the man himself, snoring. Nothing. The door was closed. No sounds. A long day and a long evening. Too long really, but with one thing and another he had forgotten the time until Mary looked at the stars and asked him to name some of the constellations. Only then did he realise how late it was. Mary had just laughed and refused to get in the car. She demanded…. he felt himself redden at the memory. Just that one brush of her lips against his. He touched his cheek, remembering the feel of soft breath on his face, her hair tickling his ear.
‘Good evening? ‘ Somehow Alec had appeared and was standing there, towel draped around his hips. Girlfriend no doubt awake in the bedroom, Straker assumed, otherwise he wouldn’t have bothered with the wrap.
‘Alec. Sorry if I disturbed you. And…..’ He gestured at the half-open door.
‘No problem. I was awake anyway.’ Freeman pulled the door shut. ‘Just wondered how it went.’
‘Yes. She’s fine.’
‘Got her home okay?’
‘Yes.’ Straker shuffled his feet. ‘I’m tired. See you in the morning.’ He closed the bedroom door and stood there in the darkness, thinking. In less than two weeks he would be leaving here. His preparations were complete and there was nothing left for him here, apart from saying his goodbyes and spending time in meditation and resting. That would ensure he was at optimum mental and physical efficiency to commence astronaut training. Jackson would be accompanying him to NASA, at least for the initial weeks, overseeing the problematic medical assessments, but then he would be on his own again until the training was complete. It was important to remain detached and not become distracted by irrelevant thoughts; he had made friends here, good friends. There was no reason why he could not make others.
No reason at all.
He undressed and lay on the bed, hands behind his head, thinking. Plenty of opportunities to visit Mary again before he transferred, and show her the surrounding area. He would like to see it as well. Might be the last chance once work started in earnest. And all of a sudden he wanted to stay here.
A foolish thought, he was a Vulcan, not human, but …there was something wonderful about her, something that made him feel needed. He pulled the covers up and prepared for sleep, knowing that he would dream of her.
‘Thank you.’ There was a slight pause. Straker held out his hand. ‘For everything. I couldn’t….’
Freeman’s thin lips twisted in a smirk. ‘Forget it. Glad I was able to help, though I have to say, spending several hours teaching you to tread water was not my idea of a good night out.’ He clasped the hand in a firm grip. ‘Take care Ed. And keep in touch. You never know, I might join you one day if Henderson needs more staff. Always fancied going into space. Seeing what’s out there.’
‘I will. And..’ Straker swallowed, bright sunlight making him blink. He paused again, as if he could not say the real words. ‘Thank you.’ He bent to pick up his bags. The last day. He had said his goodbyes to Mary the night before, with a promise to write to her, and even phone if he had the chance. But this was the hardest parting. He would keep the memories close, and maybe, one day, he would meet with Alec Freeman again. But, whatever happened, he still had that faint link, that precious bond, tenuous though it was. He wiped a hand over his brow as if to sweep loose hair away from his face and nodded. Nothing else to say.
Jackson was waiting at the end of the path. ‘Ready Colonel?’ He nodded at the two small holdalls Straker was carrying. ‘Any other luggage?’
Straker shook his head and put the bags in the trunk. ‘This is all.’ He looked up as the car drove off. Alec was still watching. He saw him turn away and go indoors and he clasped his hands together in his lap for a moment.
‘Look in the glove box, Colonel.’ Jackson said.
There was a folder. Similar to the one Thornton had given him several months ago. Manilla card, bland, his name on the front. Lt. Colonel Edward Straker. It was still a strange sensation strange, seeing his name. He opened it.
‘Your medical records. I took the liberty of, should we say, ‘falsifying’ some details. Please familiarise yourself with them. It would be most inconvenient, not to say complicated, if the doctors at the Centre were to request a full physical.’ Jackson gestured at the file. ‘This shows the results of your most recent medical assessment. Blood tests, psychological evaluations, scans, everything down to the tiniest detail. There should be no need for anyone to do more than check your blood pressure and heart rate occasionally. I understand you have some control over both of those?’
Straker closed his eyes for a minute, and concentrated, aware of his heart rate slowing and his blood pressure rising under his control. ‘Yes.’ He twisted in his seat to face the other man. ‘I have that ability, at least for a few hours if not longer.’
‘Good. Should make life easier, though Henderson is insisting on everything we expected so far. Rapid induction into the programme, bypassing the more basic courses and tests. Unfortunately it will not be possible to get you an exemption from the mandatory survival training course.’ Jackson slowed the car and pulled it to a halt then switched off the engine. ‘Let me speak frankly, Colonel Straker. We are all grateful for your contribution to our work. However, it is not too late to change your mind. I can inform General Henderson that medical tests revealed an abnormality, one that had not been detected previously. Give you an excuse if you want. You have given us far more assistance than we anticipated, with your suggestions and the blueprints. SHADO will be considerably more effective thanks to your input and if you wish to return to Vulcan we would understand. That decision has to be yours.’ He stared ahead, not daring to look at the slender figure in the passenger seat.
‘Why would I wish to return?’ Straker put the papers on his lap, frowning.
‘You have done more than we asked. Far more. And I have some idea of the sacrifices you have made. We can manage. If we have to.’
‘Are you afraid that I will fail? I can assure you I will not.’
‘I think you might struggle. And the survival training? It’s tough. Very tough. Designed to weed out the weaker members.’
‘I am sure it is. But I have no concerns about my success.’
‘You’re very confident.’ There was a note of disapproval in Jackson’s voice.
Straker opened the folder and carried on reading, and after a moment Jackson shrugged, started the engine and drove on. Their flight to Texas was waiting. He wondered if Straker would be as self-assured once the training began in earnest. It looked easy enough on paper, but the reality was much more difficult.
One more stroke and he touched the wall, completing his three lengths then pushed away leaving clear space around him, his head clear of the water, the flight suit dragging him downwards. It was tempting to kick off his shoes, but then he would fail and the thought of Jackson’s smug expression spurred him on. Slow rhythmical movements of hands and arms, legs treading water. He let himself relax, let his mind become calm, pushing away the tiredness.
This was the latest in a line of strenuous physical endurance tests today, and although Vulcans were far stronger than humans, his altered physiology seemed to have weakened him and he was now beginning to appreciate the implications. Certainly the day, in fact this whole first week, had been more tiring than he might have anticipated and he had not met any of the second year astronauts with whom he would be working later. It would be difficult, fitting into a tight-knit group, with friendships already formed. He would be an outsider, but that was only to be expected.
He carried on treading, the only sounds the splashing of water and occasional grunts from one of the others in the pool. Jackson would be around, somewhere, watching. Minutes passed, counted off in his mind as he went through his meditation routine in order to keep from panicking. A loud splash, a curse from close by causing a momentary falter in the rhythm of his actions and he felt himself slipping under, only for a voice to reach out and save him. ‘Slow and steady. Don’t thrash around. If you go under, keep still and you’ll come back up. Take a breath. And another.’ Freeman’s voice. Not beside him this time, but in his mind. He let the water support him this time, welcomed its touch, letting it do the work and befriending it instead of fighting. And it was as easy as that.
He was the last to swim to the edge, climbing out of the pool unaided and glancing up at the balcony to see a few of the advanced astronauts watching with interest, and Jackson as well, hands on the rails, a look of concern on his thin face. Straker slipped the tennis shoes off his feet and unfastened his sodden and heavy flight suit, aware that one of his classmates was lying exhausted on the floor, having been pulled out before the end of the exercise. There might be a space tomorrow in the training session. But, so far so good. The worst was over and he had survived. He leaned over, hands on knees to ease the ache in his shoulders and still his trembling legs. In two more days the initial tests would be complete and he would be transferred over to the second year group ready for serious training. He would have to send a postcard to Alec about his success this evening. His friend would no doubt appreciate it.
Dry and dressed once more, he returned to his room and opened the secure laptop kept hidden in his small wardrobe. Henderson’s latest emails required answering, the budget estimations adjusted yet again following latest revisions and then he needed to work on the proposal for a network of smaller bases across the world to support the main headquarters. A never-ending task, the paperwork almost stifling, but vital if they were to persuade governments and Defence Chiefs of the need for SHADO. And tomorrow there were more physical tests. The knock at his door startled him, and he closed the laptop and hid it under the mattress.
‘Straker? You asleep in there?’ A loud voice, confident, brash. He knew that voice, had heard it in the distance. One of the second year men who had been watching earlier.
Straker frowned. ‘Come in.’
‘Thought you might be getting some rest.’ Craig Collins pushed the door open and grinned. ‘You need it more than I do. Fancy a drink? Looks like you’ll be joining us next week.’
He was tempted to refuse, but it would be discourteous. And he needed to integrate himself into the group if he was to be accepted. Being on the outside could make things very difficult, given the competitive nature of the team.
‘Just one then. I have work to do.’
‘Letters to a girlfriend eh? You old dog. Promise won’t keep you up late.’
The bar was busy with workers relaxing. A few curious glances as they entered, but it was not forbidden to socialise. Collins grabbed a seat at the bar and made himself comfortable as Straker looked around. There were no other trainees in sight. It was going to be a long evening, he realised as Collins began talking, but it was good to have made an acquaintance here. He sipped his tomato juice and listened, nodding in the right places and letting the buzz of conversation wash over him.
‘So, Straker, how come you jump the first year? Special privileges and all that?’
‘Previous experience.’ Jackson’s suggestion. An honest enough answer, yet designed not to encourage further investigation. Combined with his rank, the answer was, more often than not, sufficient.
Collins looked at him and grinned. ‘Okay. I get the picture. No more questions. Another drink?’ He looked around the room, winking at one of the woman nearby. ‘Maybe some company?’
‘Not for me. I have an early morning.’ Straker slid off the stool and tried to stifle a yawn. ‘Thanks for the drink. I’ll see you next week.’
Another late night. Straker sighed as he got into bed, Henderson’s email answered at length, but none of the other tasks done. He would need to rise even earlier than planned. And he had not written to Mary as promised. He tugged the covers over his shoulders and let himself relax. There was time. Vulcans were patient and he was still a Vulcan.
‘Sir.’ He waited. The final day of preliminary assessments, his scuba qualification approved, all assignments completed.
‘Your instructors inform me you have passed the mandatory qualifications.’ A grudging acknowledgement, and only to be expected from someone who had undergone the full training programme and become a successful astronaut.
‘Sir.’ It was best to stand there. To let the quiet contempt wash over him.
‘I don’t approve of these orders Straker. I don’t care what General Henderson says. If I had my way you’d be out of here. Or else you’d be doing the full training course, d’you hear? Not just the technical aspects. Learning the ropes. Doing a proper job of it.’ The Chief Astronaut stared at him.
‘Sir.’ He didn’t blink, didn’t look away. Waited.
‘I can’t pull you out, much as I’d like to; Henderson’s made that quite clear, but if you don’t come up to scratch, I’ll take whatever steps I think necessary. Whatever steps.’ He paused to let the unspoken words sink in. ‘Do we understand each other?’
‘Very well then. You have six months advanced training ahead of you. I will be keeping a close eye on your progress. Colonel.’
Collins was hanging around outside the office, waiting. ‘Well?’
‘Passed. Through to advanced.’ Straker felt the tension leave him. ‘I’ll be joining your group from next week.’
‘Great.’ Collins slapped him on the shoulder. ‘How about a night on the tiles? I can tell you all about the rest of the group.’
‘Sorry Craig. I’ve planned to go and visit a friend this weekend. Perhaps another time?’
‘Girlfriend?’ A look of anger flashed over the other man’s face, so fleeting that Straker could have been mistaken, then Collins smiled. ‘You kept that quiet, old man.’ He was back to his usual jovial self, as if the moment of jealousy, or whatever, was imagined, but Straker went back to his rooms with a slight sense of unease.
Girlfriend. Why should Craig be concerned? It was not as if Straker had a girlfriend, not even many friends here. The closest thing to a girlfriend was Mary, now back home in England although he made a point of writing to her as often as time permitted. The next few months would be hard work and this weekend, spent at Alec’s, a final chance to relax. He would try to forget aliens and SHADO, try to enjoy himself, although the latest reports from Henderson were worrying.
More incursions; people killed, or more worrying, missing. No trace of their bodies. And still no clue as to the aliens; who they were, what they wanted. Were these attacks in the name of research, to get information about humans, much as humans had done to some animal species in the past, or was there a far more malevolent reason? He had no idea. Images of death and destruction flooded his mind, of bodies slumped in the darkness of the town, of a piece of bloodstained fabric and a child’s face and he shivered.
It would not be long now, only a few months before he gained enough experience to be accepted as an astronaut, his training pared to the bone. Nothing but the minimal requirements: how to use the cumbersome and primitive spacesuits, how to fly one of their rockets, how to stay alive. Then he could leave here and the real work would begin. With any luck, he might be able to persuade Henderson that someone of Alec’s intelligence and expertise would make a good recruit, maybe second-in-command even. They got along well and it was important to have someone experienced to take charge of the day-to-day running. He was under no illusions about his role in the organisation. Back-room boy. But that was fine. He could use his expertise to SHADO get on its feet and then, in a few years from now when it was running smoothly, disappear with the minimum of fuss. To where, though, was anyone’s guess. Vulcan or Earth?
‘Good to see you again Straker. Fully qualified astronaut now?’ Thornton held out his hand. ‘Six months. You beat my estimate. Here.’ He handed over a small box. ‘Unusual I know, but if you want SHADO to be taken seriously, you need these.’
Straker eased the lid off and stared.
‘Presidential orders.’ Thornton grinned at Straker’s expression. ‘Told you at the start. Congratulations, Colonel Straker. Oh, and Henderson is waiting for you. Wants to get started as soon as possible. I doubt if I’ll see much of you in the future so perhaps this is the time to say thank you.’
Straker rubbed one finger over the silver eagles in the box. He had forgotten the conversation, almost forgotten his arrival on Earth so many months ago. The rain falling on his face, the drive to the hotel. He touched his head, self-consciously, the thick blonde strands swept back from his forehead. As close as he could get to the traditional style of his tribe. He put the box in his pocket. Colonel. A step up the ladder. No. A giant stride. He would be one of the youngest ever in history. A tremendous responsibility and there was a moment of panic. ‘I.. Sir, I….’ The obvious confusion in his voice made Thornton smile.
‘You deserve it. Ed. And as I said, you need it. Who knows what the future holds? Anyway,’ he held out his hand once more. ‘Hope all goes well and tell Henderson I wish him success. We all do. God knows we need it the way things are looking.’
Straker watched Thornton drive away. It seemed to be a time of farewells. He’d said goodbye to Craig yesterday, his team mate for the last few months. A good partnership on the whole; Collins jovial and enthusiastic with a tendency to act the fool, the life and soul of the party, with Straker in his shadow at social events, the quiet loner, happy to be on the fringe. But it was Straker who came top of the classes, who passed the desert survival test with a somewhat amused nonchalance and ease, and Straker who spent evening tutoring Collins in astrophysics. But Craig had passed and was staying on to do Command training. Another friend left behind.
Now it was time for one last meeting with Alec. A few drinks, a chance to catch up on news and then …. then it would be farewell until his friend returned to England sometime in the future. Next week he and Henderson were booked to fly to London for their first meeting with the Prime Minister. London. Mary lived near London and SHADO’s main headquarters would be near the capital if everything went according to plan. He put his hand on his stomach to calm that inexplicable fluttering sensation.
Straker folded the newspaper and put it on the table before fastening his seatbelt. Henderson had been busy for most of the flight, reading through his presentation and making sure all the details were correct. A silent flight for the most part, neither of them willing to talk much in front of the steward. He looked out of the window as the plane approached the private airfield, the chain on his left wrist rubbing the skin a little and restricting his movements. Awkward as well, having to take the case with him to the toilet. But it was too important to be left unattended, even in Henderson’s care. He wondered how the Prime Minister would react, given the contents of the case.
There had been another incident only a few weeks before he finished training. The facts still fresh in his mind: one woman killed and mutilated and another taken, one male survivor, and even he was still in hospital, lucky to have survived. But they had taken pictures of the UFO. The film found undamaged in the camera. Final proof, irrefutable and positive. The last piece of evidence needed.
The plane touched down and taxied to the waiting car. Straker hung back, letting Henderson leave first and pausing for a moment in the doorway, hesitant and unsure. Another strange land, new people, new customs. A dull sky with a thin blanket of cloud. For a moment he longed for the feel of heat on his face, the dry heat of Vulcan instead of this cool air, even though it was early autumn, but the car was waiting and after a brief look around he hurried down the steps to take his seat in the vehicle. Straker sighed, wishing he had brought the memory globe with him, but it was too precious. He had left it at Alec’s the last time he visited. The safest option; such an unusual item would have attracted attention. But he would have liked to hold it for a moment again, though not for long –its touch was too tempting and seductive and he might lose himself in its false promise of home — but long enough to let him remember.
On Henderson’s orders, and with some reluctance, he opened the case and handed the file to the Minister. A secure enough environment, here in an enclosed vehicle, with outriders, but even so he was on edge as if anticipating a disturbance or interference. There was something amiss, something not right. Perhaps it was his own nervousness, after all the meeting today at Chequers would be a testing time for both of them, although Henderson was used to conferring with senior members of state. He glanced out of the window again, while the Minister skimmed through the file. Nothing to be seen, yet he could almost feel it, there above them.
The vehicle accelerated and Straker held out his hand. ‘I’ll take the file, sir.’ He slid it into the case, locked it and hung on as the car swerved to avoid the blasts from above. A wild journey, the car veering from side to side as more beams of light pierced the road. He saw one of the outriders fall, and another then, as he twisted round to look ahead, a single flash pierced the windscreen, shattering the glass, the driver slumping sideways. Henderson was fumbling with his own seatbelt and Straker leaned forward in a vain attempt to help the co-driver, but the car swerved again and he was thrown to the floor.
Unguided now, the Rolls careered out of control, spinning off the road to crash through the drystone wall at the edge. Straker’s door burst open, and he took his chance, aware of a hand flailing nearby. He grabbed onto the arm, pulling one of the other passengers out with him as he leapt. Henderson or the Minister? He could not tell. The car rolled down the incline, over and over as he himself rolled, unable to stop, ribs cracking and breaking under the impact, hips bruising, his whole body wracked with pain. The explosion was deafening, the heat from the flames scorching his face. Blood in his mouth and throat. He coughed, painful shallow retching. Stabbing at his chest. He wiped blood from his mouth with one trembling hand.
Red blood. Human blood. He had forgotten. Such a fundamental change. Yet still the distinctive taste of copper. He stared at his fingers as even more coughs wracked him, blood filling his mouth, choking him, then, ignoring the pain, he dragged himself down the slope towards the man lying crumpled among the displaced stones of the wall. Henderson. The only other survivor. A flutter of paper caught his eye. His briefcase open close by, photographs burning and crinkling into ash. He looked down at his hand, the wrist band still there, but the chain broken.
He could do little more than lie there on the ground beside Henderson until sirens in the distance drowned out the crackle of flames from the still burning wreck. Time to stop fighting the darkness and allow it to overwhelm him. In the moments before he lost consciousness, he hoped that, in the unlikely event that he survived, the hospital would contact Jackson. Otherwise there might be problems. But there was one thing he could do. One last task. It was necessary to appear human and so with the remnants of his strength he focussed his mind, sinking deep inside himself to slow his heart until it was well below normal for one of his kind. It would stay like that until he restored its natural rhythm. Or he died. There was nothing else he could do now other than close his eyes and let go. But he was not alone this time. Alec was with him and Straker held onto the comforting memory of a hand on his shoulder, a concerned voice, and a lasting friendship.
The face in front of him was blurred in the blinding lights from above and for a moment he thought he was under the water again, drowning. He tried reaching out for the pole, but his hands were pinned down and he could not lift them. He was trapped. He could hear strange noises, unfamiliar voices, but the words were inaudible, a susurration of murmurs too far away to make sense. He fought to take shallow breaths even as his lungs filled with air, forcing its way inside, each lift of his ribs an agony. His back and hips hurt, and his chest, pain so severe that he wanted to scream. But he could not speak, his mouth was filled with something hard, choking deep in his throat. All that escaped his lips was the faintest of groans as he twisted his body in a vain attempt to get to the surface. His hands restrained, his feet as well. Something heavy holding him down. No, not under water. Not on Earth. He was back on Ochio, in the tunnel. The aliens had come and he called for T’Shaan, all the while knowing it was hopeless. She was long gone from his mind, from his life. Then a hand stroked his face and he turned into the touch, blinking unbidden tears from burning eyes as air filled his lungs again and urgent voices spoke around him.
‘Shh… Don’t fight it. You’re safe Colonel. Go back to sleep.’ Not her voice, but a kind one, and trustworthy. Like his friend. And, despite his panic, obedient as ever he closed his eyes and let himself drift into the trance that would ease the pain, help his body heal. There was a moment of dread, but someone was there in his mind, easing the panic, soothing the fear; not T’Shaan but someone else. Someone he trusted. A friend. And there was no greater honour than to have a trusted friend.
Brightness woke him; patterns reflecting from shining metal, the intensity of clinical lighting above him. Nothing choking in his mouth or throat. He swallowed with care, anticipating pain with the simple movement, but it was bearable. He let the world come to him in dribs and drabs; a sound here, a touch there. The monotone beeps of a machine, dry lips sticking together as he tried opening his mouth, the smell of blood and antiseptic. The touch of cotton on skin. Copper in his mouth. A blur of movement close by as someone leaned over him. An unfamiliar face. A straw against his lips and water, cold and fresh. He drank thirstily, greedy for the moisture, aware that the fingers on his wrist were, even now, taking his pulse. There was a moment of panic before he felt the slow, almost painfully slow, beat of his heart. It all fell into place. Earth. He was on Earth. A Vulcan, pretending to be human. He felt his heart beat faster, moving into its normal rhythm as he stirred, but he forced it to slow again. An uncomfortable sensation but one that he could endure as long as he rested.
The fingers let go, his hand replaced by his side, the sheet straightened and smoothed. He watched her write details on a clipboard and check her watch before she looked up at him and smiled. ‘Awake now? Good. I’ll get the doctor.’
‘The General?’ His voice was a mere croak, rough and dry and she smiled again as if she had not heard him.
‘Don’t go back to sleep.’ She closed the door to the small room, leaving him alone with his thoughts. He closed his eyes and concentrated, pushing the pain away, refusing to acknowledge its existence.
It seemed a long time before the door opened again, but he was still awake. He lay there, reluctant to disturb the precious fragment of serenity he had achieved.
A familiar voice this time, a slow and amused drawl yet with a hint of concern. ‘Causing problems again, Colonel?’
Jackson. Straker struggled to sit up, only for Jackson to move forward, one hand raised. ‘No. Don’t move.’ A definite command, and so he did as ordered, relieved that one of the only two people on Earth who knew who he was, what he was, had arrived here.
He tried again. ‘Henderson?’ Less of a croak, the word audible this time.
Jackson tilted his head. Raised an eyebrow. ‘In intensive care. Multiple injuries, but the prognosis is somewhat encouraging.’ He put the chart back. ‘You have been unconscious for three days, even so you are recovering rather more rapidly than we anticipated. Is that normal? I mean….’ He sounded embarrassed.
‘For me, for my people?’ Straker nodded. ‘Yes, we can assist our bodies in the healing process.’ It was difficult to speak, gasping the words, and he was aware of his heart, of the need to keep still, of the monitor close by, sounding out every slow methodical beat. ‘Can you remove…’ he gestured to the machine. ‘I need…’
‘Of course. I had forgotten. Is it causing you discomfort?’ Jackson took the clip from Straker’s finger and flicked a switch. ‘You can do whatever is necessary to restore normal functionality now. I will instruct the staff that they are not to do any further observations. May I?’ Without waiting for an answer he put his fingers on Straker’s wrist and watched with a glint of curiosity as Straker took several deep breaths and released the tight control, letting his heart return to normal rhythm. ‘Fascinating. Perhaps one day you will allow me to study the process. It might have very beneficial uses.’
A clinical subject. An intelligent laboratory rat. That was all he was to Jackson, nothing more. There would never be any relationship between the two of them other than doctor and patient, but that was not important. He lay there as the doctor examined him, probing bruises and fractures, checking dressings and tubes. ‘I will remove the stitches later today; they are healing well. The chest drain however should stay in for at least another twenty-four hours.’ He washed his hands and sat down. ‘Now Colonel. Perhaps you can tell me what happened?’
Straker gave a bland recitation of the details, as far as he could remember them, but kept quiet about pulling Henderson out of the car, after all it had not been intentional, more a matter of being in the right place. ‘No one else survived did they,’ he ended. It was not a question. He knew the answer, but even though it was not his doing, not his fault, he grieved. More lives lost to the enemy.
He wondered what had happened to the remaining contents of his briefcase. The steel cuff was still around his wrist; it would need the key to remove it, but the only spare one was back in Henderson’s office. He fiddled with it, counting the links that remained, the last link scorched and warped as if caught in a flame and wrenched apart. There was nothing he knew of that could do that with such ease. He shivered and let go of the chain, sliding his hand under the sheet to hide the band from sight as Jackson talked about press releases and cover-ups and blow-outs. None of it mattered. He heard the details as if they were spoken to someone else; Henderson, should he survive, would be out of action for a very long time, and the whole series of meetings had been put on hold for the foreseeable future.
All his work, all his hours and effort wasted. Nothing would happen now. This world would be undefended, easy-pickings to be ravaged by aliens. Blood on his hands. Red blood. He looked at Jackson. ‘Please. I’m tired. Can we finish this later?’
‘Of course. I have all the relevant information I need. I will be here should you want me Colonel. I will let you know if there is any news.’
There was a serviceman in USAF uniform outside the door and for a moment Straker wondered if he was to be a prisoner here, but Jackson turned round, as if aware of his concern. ‘Just to stop any journalists now you are finally awake. They have been very persistent. Get some sleep Edward. I will see you this evening.’
When the next visitor entered the room, he was asleep. She stood beside the bed for a few moments before leaning over and kissing his forehead. So gentle a kiss that even he did not wake. One finger stroked his cheek, tracing the outline of soft bristles, the lightest touch on his lips. He took a deeper breath as if even asleep he was aware of her touch, then relaxed back into his dreams. She smiled and sat down, took a book out of her handbag and began to read, but every few moments she glanced up, seeing the slow rise and fall of his chest, the slight flutter of eyelids, fingers on his exposed hand twitching. Mary settled back, content to wait for him.
‘Ready for this Colonel?’ Jackson laid the pad on the bed. ‘I will be as quick as I can but I should warn you that the procedure will be uncomfortable. Are you sure you do not wish to wait for your next medication?
Straker shook his head. Even that small movement hurt, tugging at the stitches holding the drain in place. ‘Let’s get on with it, doctor.’ He lay still as Jackson raised the head of the bed and then scrubbed his hands at the small sink before returning to rest his fingers on Straker’s wrist.
‘That is fine. Now.’ He glanced at Straker’s pale face, seeing blue eyes lined with unspoken pain. ‘When I tell you, take a deep breath, hold it, and I will pull out the drain at that point. It is important you remain completely still until I have finished.’ He pulled on sterile gloves and leaned over the bed, fingers probing the site, a slight hiss of dismay when he saw swollen skin. He peered closer, one hand on Straker’s shoulder, not in comfort but to restrain should his patient make an untoward move. ‘Very good.’
It was a relief when Jackson stepped back for a moment, giving Straker a chance to compose himself. The touch on his shoulder was not like Alec’s, comforting and strong. It was cold. Ruthless in some respects. No, that was wrong; Jackson had nursed him with clinical efficiency, staying on duty until late at night and arriving early each morning.
Now it was the final procedure. Nothing else to do after this but regain his strength and wait for his orders. He forced himself to relax, aware that the effects of his last analgesic tablets, some three hours ago, were waning. He gripped the sheet, clutching it in rigid fingers as Jackson’s own fingers stretched wide the skin of his ribs and clamped the tube.
‘Deep breath and hold… Good. Now. Do not move Colonel.’ There was a brief agonising stab, a dragging sensation of something tearing itself from his ribcage, and then a cessation of the pain. Only a brief respite, as Jackson began removing the last stitch. A vicious burn. He was unable to stifle his gasp, gritting his teeth in anguish but even so, remaining frozen in place, unable to move for fear of awakening a deeper torment. He lay there, dazed, while Jackson dressed the wound with careful hands then picked up his equipment and tidied it away in silence.
Minutes passed. Straker lay still, sweat drying on bare skin while the throbbing faded. Jackson went to the sink, stripped off his gloves, washed his hands again and dried them. Neat, precise actions. In the quiet calm of relief, Straker’s eyes closed and he concentrated on loosening those tight muscles held rigid in anticipation of pain. He was aware of Jackson’s fingers brushing feather-light across his cheek, a rare touch given in solace and understanding, before the doctor closed the door leaving him in peace.
‘Here you are. I saved them for you.’ Mary put several newspapers onto the bed as Straker raised himself up. ‘How are you today?’
He shrugged, leaning forward for the topmost paper and she pulled one of his pillows out, fluffing it up before tucking it beneath his shoulders. Her hand touched his shoulder and he looked up at her. ‘I’m fine. Jackson says I can leave in another week or so.’ He spread the newspaper out and concentrated on the words.
‘Oh. Will you go back to the States straight away?’
‘I don’t know. I doubt it though, until James is recovered. A lot depends on that. But…’ Straker held out his hand, letting his fingers touch hers for a moment. ‘I’m sorry. I was hoping…. ’ He pulled his fingers away. ‘Thank you for bringing these in.’
‘You’re on the front page of most of them. The young American Colonel.’ She smiled at him. ‘It’s a good picture.’
He dropped his gaze to the words again, fumbling fingers smoothing across the page as Mary perched on the edge of the bed.
‘Yes?’ He wondered how a photographer managed to get that picture, syndicated as well, the same shot on each front page. He wondered why they had not shown Henderson; perhaps consideration for the seriousness of the General’s condition.
‘What happens next?’
‘I mean. Well.’ She twisted one edge of the sheet in her fingers. ‘With us.’
‘Oh. Us.’ He put his hand on top of hers, thinking about her kindness over the last few days. Waking to see her there beside his bed, No awkward questions, no tiring conversation. She was just there. Every day. His only visitor apart from the police asking questions and government investigators demanding answers that he couldn’t give. Henderson still in Intensive Care, no word from Thornton or any other senior minister. Not that he had cared much until the constricting tubes and drains were removed and he was able to get out of bed for the first time. She had bought him pyjamas and a dressing gown, pestered Jackson to get a locksmith to remove the wrist cuff, even brought in all his postcards and letters from the last few months and read them back to him. Sharing memories and laughter.
A newspaper slid off the bed and she pulled away to grab it. It was an instinctive reaction to reach out for her hand again, catching her fingers, holding them and staring into her eyes as if seeing her for the first time. Mary.
He had no idea what to say. He was a Vulcan but that was no defence against the surge of emotion rushing through him without warning. Gratitude, friendship, pleasure. Relief. And with a shock he sensed a deeper emotion behind them. One that he never expected. Not here. Companionship maybe in later years, a friend such as Alec, but not this. He thought his ability to love again had died alongside T’Shaan. But T’Shaan would not resent this, she would rejoice for him. She would smile and tell him to be happy. ‘Peace and long life.’ He murmured her last words under his breath, his eyes closed now yet still clasping Mary’s fingers, aware of her closeness, her perfume. The softness of her hair. Her smile. But he was a Vulcan. How could he ……?
His fingers tightened, a painful grip and she winced. ‘Ed?’ He let go with a look of guilt, lifting her hand to his lips to soothe the brief discomfort.
‘I’m sorry Mary. I wasn’t thinking.’ He reached out to stroke her face with his other hand, a hitch in his voice as he answered. ‘I don’t know what is going to happen now. I might have to go back to the States. It depends on work.’
‘Military Intelligence? I know that’s what you do. Look Ed,’ she blushed, ‘Why don’t we stop worrying about where you might end up, and just enjoy ourselves? At least until you know for definite.’
‘Enjoy ourselves? You mean ..’.
‘Silly. I mean spend time together. Dates. That sort of thing.’
A slow smile now. ‘Yes. I’d like that.’ Not a binding commitment. He could not tie her to that. It was too soon anyway. It was enough to be together for now and when it was time to leave .… well, that was in the future. A long time in the future. James would need help once he was out of intensive care and it looked like it would be a slow process of recovery. ‘I’d like that very much.’
Straker signed his name on the discharge papers and reached out to catch the walking stick before it clattered to the floor. An encumbrance, but necessary all the same, at least until he had regained full use of his knee, but his fractured ribs were healing well and the worst bruises reduced to dark smudges on pale skin. Two more weeks, Jackson said, two weeks until he would be mobile and by then Henderson would be out of his induced coma. But it might be months before the General was well enough to resume his duties. Until then, as far as he was concerned, SHADO was on hold.
He was booked into a nearby hotel for the immediate future, close to the hospital and under Jackson’s careful supervision. Another anonymous room, another rootless existence. More waiting. He turned as Jackson appeared, holding the door open and looking at his watch. ‘Come with me, Colonel, if you please. We have an urgent appointment.’
He followed at a distance, stumbling a little in his attempt to keep up, as the doctor hurried along several of the quieter corridors of the hospital into a delivery area well away from the main exits, unseen by most visitors.
There was a car waiting outside, nothing special: an ordinary 4 by 4, tinted windows, dirt encrusted number plate, slight scuffs on the bodywork. The sort of vehicle seen on every road everyday, taking children to school or in Sainsbury’s carpark. Jackson opened the rear door and held his hand out, taking the walking stick as Straker hitched himself onto the seat expecting Jackson to join him, but the doctor handed him the cane, nodded once and slammed the door shut. There was a bang on the roof and the car drove off. Straker, caught unawares, was still pulling the seatbelt across his chest, wary of the pressure on sensitive skin.
He twisted round with a sharp intake of breath as his ribs complained, then saw a motorcyclist alongside of them, pacing the car. Another one behind as well. Both riders well-masked, on powerful, unmarked bikes.
With a desperate lunge he reached out for the door handle, alarmed at what appeared to be a kidnapping, and the driver turned his head for a moment. ‘No need to panic, Colonel. A senior government official wants to meet with you. Security thought this would be safer. The motorcyclists are our men.’
Straker leaned back with a sense of relief yet still wary, watching the outriders weaving their way through the traffic, never too close to be noticeable, yet near enough to take action should there be any problems. But if a UFO attacked them here, there would be little hope of evasion, not on these busy roads. He wondered if whoever had planned this had considered putting in air support. That would have been his first priority. There was nothing he could do now apart from wait, and hope the car was not an obvious target.
The meeting would no doubt be another interrogation about the accident, though there was little more he could say without getting into awkward and embarrassing explanations about aliens and UFOs.
There was a briefcase on the seat beside him and he twisted it round. Identical to the one destroyed in the crash. More of Jackson’s work, he realised with a grim smile and he slid the name plate across, hesitating for a moment before opening it.
A leather-bound file. Copies of all the documents, all the photographs. Everything. And a note in Jackson’s thin, spidery writing. ‘Colonel, when you meet the Prime Minister, please give him my warmest regards. Doug Jackson.’ The Prime Minister. Straker leaned back. No wonder everyone was cautious. There was nothing to do now but prepare himself. This was Henderson’s purview, not his. He was a researcher, a scientist, mathematician, farmer even, not a mediator trained to deal in the finer nuances of diplomacy and international politics. It would be very easy to make a mistake, to say the wrong thing and ruin everything. He clenched one fist, swallowed the lump of fear in his throat. He could do this; he would have to do it.
He opened the folder and started reading. Familiar words, the pictures as vivid as the originals, the reports and details as he remembered. In the end he put it back in the case, wary of what had happened last time. They were on country roads now, out of the town and he looked at his watch. Not Chequers. They would have arrived there by now. He stretched his leg out and rubbed his knee, easing the stiffness and then, unable to do anything else, relaxed. If the aliens found them again, well, he had survived one attack. And this time he was prepared.
Narrow country lanes now and slower speed, the driver ignoring him, the outriders closer to the vehicle now and watchful. He could see them, looking up at the sky every few moments as if they were expecting something to appear between the canopy of tree branches that overhung the narrow lane.
The car turned off, bouncing along a well-used farm track between flailed hedges. The farmhouse at the end was half-hidden behind a collection of barns, most of them in use and well maintained. As the vehicle drove into one of the traditional barns, slewing to a halt among rusting farm equipment and dusty remnants of hay, a small group of armed police stepped forward from the shadows. He flinched. They had deceived him; it was all a trap.
He grabbed the stick, a futile action he knew, but as the barn door slid closed he recognised a familiar figure standing to one side. His fingers released their grip, and he gave a long sigh of relief as Josiah Thornton came round to open his door and offer a hand before leading him through an access door into another outbuilding. A modern one this time, milking machines lining the sides of the barn, the ripe smell of dung filling the air, water puddling on the floor from recent hosing. A working farm then, and he wondered why he was meeting the Prime Minister here of all places.
He followed the other man across to one corner and a steel door, heavy and solid from the way it swung open. Steps leading down. Steep and stone. He hesitated for a moment, and Thornton took hold of the briefcase and started making his way down. Straker followed holding the rail and hobbling his way, his knee protesting at each step. Another armed guard at the bottom, waiting for them. Straker handed over his credentials and gave Thornton a questioning look.
‘This way gentlemen.’ The guard preceded them down a narrow corridor, its roof curving over them. Straker kept his head lowered to avoid grazing his scalp on the rough stonework above, trying to still the rising panic. Such a tiny space; they were walking in single file and he could almost feel the walls brushing against his shoulders, a sharp bend ahead in the tunnel. He could not see the exit. There was no escape. He paused for a moment to catch his breath, his hand trembling on the stick, his leg aching from the unaccustomed strain of walking on the uneven flagged floor.
‘Straker?’ The murmur from behind startled him and he twisted round to see Thornton’s concerned face. ‘You okay? Jackson warned me you might have problems in confined spaces. Came out in one of the psycho-analytical tests. Hang on, it’s not much further.’ It was enough to spur him on. A few more paces and they were round the curve and he could see space ahead.
A different world now. Large rooms opening onto each other, well-lit with a high ceiling. An everyday office environment, people working at computers, answering phones, maps and charts on display boards. It seemed normal somehow, apart from the lack of windows and the whitewashed stone walls with random touches of colour from the vibrant modern artwork that relieved the rough interior. He straightened up with a sigh, rolling his shoulders to release the tension.
‘Josiah. And you must be Ed Straker. Welcome to Westminster Farm, Colonel.’ The Prime Minister held out his hand. A firm grip, intelligent eyes regarding Straker with interest. ‘A working farm and a prize winning herd of Jerseys. Supplies the House with cream and so on. It’s a good cover.’ He waved a hand at the activity. ‘This used to be a system of cellars. They were bunkers during World War Two and I had them restored couple of years ago. Solid steel above us, virtually bomb-proof. Useful for back-ups and security and so on, especially at times like this.’
He led the way to a group of leather chairs around a coffee table with tray and teapot and cups waiting for them. ‘Josiah, I’ll catch up with you later at the defence briefing. Ed? We have forty minutes. Take a seat. I want to know all about your plans for SHADO.’
‘So, a base on the Moon. That’s rather ambitious. Not to mention expensive.’ The PM added sugar to his tea and stirred it.
‘It’s doable. Expensive, yes, but the pay-off would be a much higher interception rate. That in itself should justify the initial cost.’ Straker looked at his watch. Well over an hour now and no sign of the inquisition ending. No one had interrupted them, apart from the arrival of an assistant bringing a fresh teapot. Tea. He disliked the taste as soon as he tried it, having got used to drinking coffee for so long, but his mouth was dry from talking and he drank it gratefully, before letting the assistant refill his cup. A civilised meeting, the formalities adhered to, the brief message from Jackson delivered, the unpleasant topic of aliens and abductions hinted at in guarded words and phrases: incursions, enemy, unexplained disappearances.
‘Very good. You’ve convinced me Colonel, not that I was in much doubt before. I now have to persuade the other members. Not about the threat – we are all in agreement that something has to be done about the enemy – but about the funding required. Not an easy task, but we have time. I understand that General Henderson is likely to be incapacitated for some weeks yet?’
‘Dr Jackson says at least three months before he’s fit for work.’ Straker waited for objections.
‘It will take that long to get agreement on your proposals.’ The PM gave a brief laugh at Straker’s expression. ‘Colonel. Politicians work slowly, especially where inter-governmental cooperation and funding on such a massive scale is required. May I suggest that you go away and relax for a few weeks? Do some sightseeing while I talk to my friends in other places? Take time to recover and get yourself properly fit. Because once approval is granted, both you and the General will be too busy getting SHADO set up.’ He held his hand out across the table. ‘Nice to have met you Colonel. Oh, and tell Dr Jackson I still bear the scars from our last encounter, will you?’ The PM turned away as one of the officials approached to speak, and Straker eased himself up and stood there for a moment until someone came forward to escort him back to the car.
The tunnel was just as narrow as before, his leg even stiffer, and it was a relief to sit in the car and unwind as he was driven to his hotel. It was raining, a tangible reminder of his arrival on Earth so many months ago. And so much had happened since that first night, the hotel room then so empty and quiet and lonely, as this one was tonight after the warmth and bustle of the hospital. But he had found his place here on Earth, found his purpose and found something he had not expected in the last nine months. Nine months. He had not reckoned the number until now. Longer than a year on Vulcan, but that world was behind him, in the past. It was time to look to the future.
He shook his head in amusement at the over-sentimental human emotion then paused. He had not thought about his home for a long time, as if his mind was quietly preparing him for his life on Earth. And he stumbled to the bed and sat before his legs gave way with the shock of real understanding. He would never return to Vulcan now. His place was here. Whatever happened, he was bound to this world. Mentally as well as physically.
He clenched his fists in fear, then let go with a long sigh of acceptance. He had made his choice a long time ago, not on Vulcan but before, there in the darkness of the market place, sitting close to T’Shaan and holding her hand. This was his home now. Not such a bad place when all was said and done.
His stomach disturbed his thoughts with a growl of hunger and he shook himself free of the past, bringing his mind back to his current situation; an evening alone by himself, Jackson busy at the hospital with Henderson and he had nothing to do, so after only a moment’s hesitation he picked up the phone and called Mary.
‘Good to see you.’
‘I wanted to come out when I heard about the accident, but work…’ Alec Freeman shrugged and dropped his bag in the boot of Straker’s car. ‘You know how it is. Couldn’t have come now but for the transfer. Anyway, you look well. How’s the General?’
‘Convalescing. Slowly.’ Straker took his cap off and smoothed his hair back into place. ‘Three months isn’t very long though.’
‘Long enough for you.’ Freeman grinned and clapped Straker on the back. ‘That was the last thing I expected. An invite to your wedding.’
Straker busied himself with opening doors and getting into the car. ‘A lot can happen in three months Alec.’
‘Obviously. Damn, I’ve missed this weather.’ Freeman brushed the fine droplets of rain from his coat and fastened his seat belt.
‘There’s something I need to ask.’ Straker took a deep breath. ‘I need a best man. Would you..?’
‘Me?’ Freeman leaned back in his seat. ‘No one else? No family?’
‘No. There’s no-one.’ Straker bit his lip. ‘Of course, if you’d rather not..’ His voice trailed away.
‘Ed, I’d be honoured. Really. I just thought there might be someone closer.’
‘No. No one.’ He gripped the wheel tighter, stared ahead.
‘Stag night?’ Freeman rubbed his hands together. ‘We’ve got a week before the wedding. Just enough time for me to arrange something.’
The car swerved to avoid a puddle. Straker peered forward through the fine spray of drizzle. ‘There’s no need for that. A couple of drinks is fine, something like that.’
‘Leave it to me Ed. Best man’s job. You just have to turn up and enjoy the evening.’
Straker could hear unfeigned glee in Alec’s voice but it was too late to reverse his decision. And anyway, what could Alec manage to organise in one week; Mary’s party had taken the best part of two weeks to organise, so it was unlikely that his own bachelor party or stag night as Alec called it, would be easier whatever it entailed. He took one hand from the steering wheel and felt the shortness of his hair again. No ceremonial cutting of hair, no traditional meal surrounded by family and friends.
But this was Earth and he would comply with its traditions, uncomfortable though they might be. It was only one evening. What could go wrong?
‘So, the Embassy for the wedding. Who decided that?’ Alec shuffled deeper in his seat, and leaned back with a sigh of contentment. ‘You know, it’s good to be back.’
‘Mary’s idea. I’m going to be busy helping Henderson once he’s up on his feet, so it seems sensible to get married before I start.’
‘Sensible?’ Alec frowned. ‘Pull over Ed. There’s a pub just over there. I need a pint.’
A pint. Straker sipped tomato juice while Alec downed his glassful in one long draught and sighed. ‘Now. Sensible; does that mean she’s… you’ve..?’ He took one look at Straker’s somewhat blank expression. ‘No. Obviously not. Quick work though.’ He grinned. ‘Another drink? And you can bring me up to date with what’s been going on.’
Straker tugged at his collar again. The striped open-necked shirt, Alec’s purchase for him to wear tonight, was uncomfortable, not just the stiffness of the new material but the colour and pattern. But it would have been churlish to refuse. He would insist on returning home before midnight, despite Alec’s warning that it would be the early hours before he got back to the small apartment he was renting from the embassy for the duration of his stay here.
The taxi was waiting, horn blowing and Alec leaning out of the window making raucous comments. Straker hurried down, fastening his jacket and thankful that the weather was still mild for mid-November.
‘So. Ready for a good evening?’ Alec had that look on his face, indicating trouble ahead. It was too late to make his excuse. He swallowed nervously, but the evening would soon pass, and after all, he had made few enough acquaintances here to make it anything more practical than a few drinks in a pub and maybe Alec’s choice of take-away on the way home afterwards. He would stick with tomato juice and let his friend take charge.
The taxi pulled up outside a long row of restaurants and bars facing the waterfront, not Alec’s usual choice, modern clean lines, huge windows, bright lights and live music. Alec handed over notes. ‘Back here at 2 to pick us up?’
‘Sure thing.’ The driver touched his forehead in a mock salute. ‘Try to behave yourselves, gentlemen.’ He drove off, and Straker stood on the pavement looking around. This area was new to him. He recognised the buildings though; the symbols of money and prestige and power. CanaryWharf. The bars still busy with financiers celebrating the end of another week, mostly men but a few women in sharp suits and high heels. A man’s world here, even in this time of equality.
Not his world though, these bright lights, the outward signs of control and wealth and influence. His world was secret, hidden away from sight. Yet SHADO, if it was approved, would have more power than all these companies put together. And more financial backing as well. He looked around, taking in the views: the skyscrapers with lights on in supreme defiance of energy-saving requests, the guarded roadways devoid of vehicles apart from taxis, the still water in the small docks glistening with reflections from lights festooning bare trees. A beautiful environment in its own way, yet a monument to pride and greed and success. A hand grasped his elbow.
He followed as Alec headed for the first of the bars, pushing the door open and walking in with a grin. A sense of disquiet filled him as he saw familiar faces ahead. Jackson and others. Seats reserved for them at a table. He cast one alarmed look at Alec, busy greeting everyone at the table.
‘Ed. Sit down. First round’s on me.’
He sat. Nothing else to do. Jackson purred a greeting in his inimitable Eastern European accent, the other men raised their glasses as Alec poured a couple of beers from one of the jugs already on the table. He recognised acquaintances, men he spoke to on his frequent visits to the Embassy, collecting official documents sent from the States, and reporting on Henderson’s status. He’d eaten with them in the Embassy restaurant a few times, enjoying the conversation, the sense of camaraderie. ‘Mike, Dan, Victor..’ he scanned the men sitting round the table, alarmed to see so many here. Over a dozen all together including Alec and himself. He wondered if he had brought enough money for the evening, although the bar would accept cards.
‘Looking forward to the evening?’ Jackson murmured, hooded eyes regarding him with interest.
‘I am not sure what to expect. This was never part of our customs.’ A more formal response than was necessary given the situation. He lowered his eyes, took a mouthful of beer. A stronger brew than he had tasted for some time. The last drink with Alec in the States before flying over here. He could feel the bite, the strength of well-brewed beer. The taste of sunshine and hops. He took another drink and wiped froth from his lips. A few pints wouldn’t do him any harm once in a while.
‘Your customs? I would like to know more about those. I find other cultures most intriguing.’ Jackson raised his glass in salute. ‘However, I believe Colonel Freeman has a relatively restrained evening planned for you, considering the usual entertainments on these occasions. It will be an opportunity for you to experience some of the more fascinating delights of the city.’ He finished his own beer and poured another, then turned away as Alec sat down, wrapping one arm around Straker’s shoulder.
‘Come on Ed. Drink up. We’re a couple of pints behind the rest of everyone else and there’s a lot to get through before we move on.’ Alec lifted his glass. ‘Gentlemen. A toast. To Full bird Straker; a fledgling about to leave the nest for the first time. Here’s to your maiden flight, Colonel. And a safe landing.’ There was a raucous burst of laughter, and Straker gulped a few more mouthfuls, ears burning as he deciphered the thinly-veiled meaning. Alec downed his own pint then poured another before slapping Straker on the shoulder again. ‘Don’t worry Ed, there’s more to come. I promise.’
Straker wasn’t sure if his friend was referring to the beer or jokes. He searched remembering Alec’s kindness and the calm presence in the back of his mind. There was no malice here, nothing more than a friend wishing to make sure the evening went well. And, after all, there would have been the gentle yet ribald comments on the occasion of having his hair cut and in the presence of family as well. He realised with a shock that this was, in some ways, his rite of passage. And not just that, it was the cementing of a true friendship; one that would endure for years. He felt the tension leave his shoulders and he picked up his glass and drained it, then pushed it over for refilling. He had done his research; his role tonight was to play the role of innocent dupe, and he would fulfil his duties as groom-to-be and go along with what Alec had planned.
It was a couple of hours later, in the third bar along the row, when Alec looked at his watch and called a halt to the third round of Pass the Camera and the jokes about wedding nights and the discussions about dream baseball teams and the arguments about the lack of decent sports in the UK, ordering everyone to drink up and move on again.
‘Come on Ed. Keep up. Next place is round the corner. You can sit down there.’ Alec was wandering away and Straker hurried to catch up, nearly missing his footing on an unexpected step close to the dock edge.
‘Oops.’ He caught hold of the rail, looking down into dark water as Alec took his arm.
‘You’re not allowed to stop yet. We’re just getting started. The night is young.’
The walk round the corner gave him time to clear his head and steady his feet, time for his senses to realise that the beer was stronger than anticipated. But it had tasted good. Very good. All of it. He’d drunk at least four pints, if not more, plus the couple of shots, or was it more, of vodka in that rather infantile game with the camera. It was hard to keep track of exactly how much, with the way Alec and the others refilled his glass every time he put it down. But even he had laughed when the flash went off as Alec was pulling a face, only to drop the camera and earn the penalty of an extra shot to be downed. He hoped the photographs would not surface sometime soon, if ever.
‘This way.’ The doors opened and they heard singing, a woman’s voice, off key and shrill and drunken. Not a professional singer then. Straker winced as he heard a high note turn into little more than a creak. Alec called out. ‘Jackson? Got a table reserved. At the front.’ Straker headed across, but Alec stopped him. ‘Not so fast Ed. This is for you.’ He handed over a small package.
A gift? He held it in careful fingers, turning it over for inspection.
‘Well, open it.’ Freeman’s voice had that curious note of stifled laughter. The other men waiting as well, and grinning.
It was a length of wide ribbon, pale blue, shot through with silver and fastened together at one end to form a sash. His hands trembled as he lifted it up, memories of another length of material, another time, and then he saw the lettering. ‘Very funny Alec.’ He managed to sound amused.
‘Put it on then,’ Alec said even as he was lifting the loop of ribbon over Straker’s head and raising his arm to push it through. ‘There. Identification. Now you can come in. The first song is yours by the way.’ There was more laughter from the other men and he wondered what it was that could be so humorous. The sash was tight over his shoulder, the vivid lettering, ‘Groom To Be’, clashing with his shirt, with everything really. He shifted his shoulders to get it settled into place and, slightly bemused and feeling as if he was the focus of all attention in the room, followed the others to a table near the stage, wondering if it was too late to make a discreet exit as he realised what was in store next. The night was going to be longer than he thought. At least Alec hadn’t made him wear a costume. He had seen some of them when he researched the traditions of a night such as this. The thought made him shudder.
‘Didn’t know you could sing like that.’ Alec burped and raised his glass in a toast. Straker sidled back into his seat and reached for his own drink, gulping it down with a sigh of relief. Alec leaned over wrapping a heavy arm round Straker’s shoulder, beery breath in his friend’s ear. ‘Should’ve told me. Could have done a duet.’
Straker reached across for the bowl of pistachio nuts and took a couple, splitting the shells open with his thumbnail to get at the kernels. The actual singing had not caused him a problem, once he found the tune after a few opening bars, but it was an illogical thing to do really, none of the volunteers trained singers or musicians, in fact some of them appearing to be tone deaf. And yet the audience had cheered and clapped, whistling along with the melodies or even joining in the words when the singer struggled. It was the choice of song that seemed most irrational though. ‘My Way’ and ‘Love Shack’. Not even current popular songs, not that he listened to those, but it was only sensible to keep abreast of current trends. After all, he needed to fit into this world. His world now.
Alec’s own performance of had been the cause of much hilarity among the crowd for some reason. Straker decided not to ask why he chose that specific song; After all, ‘Like A Virgin’ was not within Alec’s vocal range, and in fact the whole evening was still somewhat of a mystery to him, this desire to drink as much as possible in as many places as possible instead of sharing the evening in quiet discussion about marriage and preparing for the binding the following day. Some shared meditation, playing harps and singing the traditional songs. But the words of his own song still resonated in his head, blotting out the well-known ancient lyrics of traditional betrothal songs. When I fall in love, it will be forever, or I’ll never fall in love. He wondered why Alec selected that particular one for him. Perhaps it was the sentiment – love and devotion and a future forever. The words might not be as poetic as the traditional Vulcan avowal of commitment, but it was good enough for him, for tonight. He passed his glass down to be refilled and then sat back and listened as Jackson, after considerable persuasion, allowed himself to be dragged onto the stage, scowling. A quiet cough, a glare from narrowed eyes, a deep breath and the music began.
‘Moon River, wider than a mile..’ The accent was interesting to say the least, but Jackson’s light tenor was pitch perfect, each word enunciated with precision, and the noise in the room died away. There was an aching note of regret in the words and in Jackson’s eyes as he stared out of the window, ignoring the cue board, and everyone else in the room, a frightening look of raw hunger on his face as if he was searching for someone.
It was almost painful to watch and Straker closed his eyes and listened, aware of an unexpected ache in his own chest, a sharp pain of homesickness and regret. He wondered what Jackson had endured in the past to make him sing with such intensity. Perhaps love songs were not appropriate on a night such as this; they could only bring sorrow to those who had loved and lost. Jackson was quiet for a while afterwards, ordering a vodka, sipping it while a couple of others got up to take their turns before Alec gathered them altogether and began shepherding everyone outside.
Another change of venue, another walk in the cold. He watched ice crystals floating in the air, his own breath a cloud of vapour, the chill seeping through his jacket. He wished he had worn a sweater instead of the somewhat inadequate shirt. The sash snagged on something, tugging him off balance and he twisted round in an effort to remove the garish embellishment.
‘Hey. Leave that on.’ Alec stopped him and pulled it back in place. ‘You okay? Enjoying yourself?’ He grinned and wrapped an arm around Straker and leaned on him. ‘Good night isn’t it.’
There was no answer, so he didn’t even try. Just eased himself out from the arm and looked around for Jackson, just a little concerned. The doctor was standing off to one side head tilted as if listening to something. Their eyes met. Jackson nodded, once, a slow blink of understanding. No explanation. No words. They moved on, round the corner, heading for one of the busier clubs on the other side of the water.
He followed, a little unsteadily, but that was tiredness no doubt. He still had very little idea how his genetic changes might have affected his physiology, other than altering his blood chemistry. Perhaps they had affected his ability to metabolise alcohol; he had never thought to test the theory. And he’d never drunk so much either, at least not since arriving on Earth. Straker leaned against one of the pillars outside, taking deep breaths to clear his head, aware of amused looks from others. The last bar had been warm and stuffy and noisy and it was only tiredness making his legs a little….. wobbly. The word made him laugh. Wobbly.
‘Wobbblee.’ He said it aloud and looked around for somewhere to sit as the others headed off. ‘More beer?’ He heard himself giggle, a most unseemly thing, and he leaned against a convenient pillar and hiccupped. It hurt and he rubbed his chest with a quick return of sobriety as he remembered pain in his ribs, red blood on his fingers, Jackson tugging the tube out. He winced. That was in the past. He had moved on. He straightened up, tugging his jacket into place and then shifting the sash so that it hung across his chest. He looked up. Alec was watching him, eyes slightly anxious.
‘You okay? Want to stop?’
There was a hand on his shoulder, Alec’s hand. Close and comforting. It was so easy to relax, to welcome that presence into his own mind once more and let the emotions flow through him. Alec’s emotions: concern tinged with guilt, alcohol induced giddiness and yet, underneath these, there was an undercurrent of contentment, a sense of belonging.
‘Ed?’ The hand gripped a little tighter.
Straker pulled himself back with a sense of guilt; the alcohol in his system to blame for his inability to remain detached, that had to be the reason. ‘I’m fine, just a bit tired.’
The hand twisted him round so that he was staring into Alec’s eyes. ‘I mean it. We can stop now – go home. Jackson can look after the others. He’s good at that.’ There was an amused grin on Alec’s face and Straker shook his head.
‘No. It’s fine. I just needed some fresh air.’ He straightened up, stepping away from the security of Alec’s hand. ‘So, Colonel Freeman. You’re in charge. What’s next?’
‘Specially for you Ed. There’s a new lapdancing club round the corner.’
There was a pause. ‘That sounds…. uncomfortable and…‘ Another pause. ‘Alec?’ Straker looked down, embarrassed. ‘I can’t dance.’
Freeman’s guffaw of laughter was loud enough to startle him. ‘Trust me Ed, you won’t need lessons. Come on, the others are waiting.’
Straker undressed with meticulous care despite the shirt buttons that refused to obey his fingers and the laces on his shoes knotting themselves in a deliberate effort to trip him up. Even his socks were recalcitrant tonight, requiring an extra firm tug to remove them. He ended up tumbling backwards on the bed and once there it was too much of an effort to sit up again and finish getting ready for bed. He sighed and gave up. He would sleep like this for once. A long evening and he was bone tired. He opened his eyes to see Alec standing there, a mug in each hand, the smell of coffee wafting towards him as he lay sprawled across the bed. ‘Alc?’ Damn, even his voice was refusing to obey him tonight, his tongue stumbling over the syllables. He tried again. Slower, each movement carefully planned. ‘Al-ec.’ That was better. His brain was gyrating in his skull and it was difficult to get his eyelids to stay open, or his eyes to remain still. Perhaps someone had poisoned him, or he was sick. He felt sick, that was clear enough, his stomach churning, his mouth tingling. He lay still, hoping the sensation would pass.
‘Come on. You can’t sleep like that. I’ll give you a hand.’ Alec’s voice. A nice voice. He liked Alec. He told him as much. He felt fingers unfasten his trousers, pulling them down, tugging them off legs which refused to co-operate. His feet were cold. And he told Alec that as well.
‘Well get into bed then. Here.’ The duvet was pulled away from underneath him, and strong arms hauled him up the bed until his head was on a cool pillow. The duvet was tucked over him and he sighed.
‘S’nice. Th’nky’ Alec.’ He closed his eyes, and hoped his brain would stop turning inside his skull. At least it didn’t hurt. Vague memories surfaced: women leaning over him, loud music and laughter, Alec handing him some notes, a woman bending over him and ……. he winced and burrowed deeper into the bedding, trying to forget the images. It didn’t help that the whole event had been greeted with delight by the others members of the party. It seemed to have no purpose whatsoever, apart from the dancers’ inexplicable behaviour and the requirement to donate money to each woman.
He had sat there, perplexed, drinking more than he intended in an effort to stop the women from sitting on his knee. His lap. Lapdancing. The women seemed to desire him, and yet he knew that they felt nothing for him as he felt nothing for them. It was all so illogical. A waste of effort really. He had not even thought they were attractive. Not like Mary. ‘Mary,’ he muttered.
‘Shut up and go to sleep Ed. You’ll be fine. I’ll let myself out and see you at lunch time.’
‘G’night Alec.’ He snuggled down, letting his body relax, the effects of the alcohol slowly dissipating as he drifted on waves of dizziness. Lap dancing. Such an immature activity, and he sighed, wondering if he would ever understand these humans. But it had been a good evening and two weeks from now he would be married.
Sleep washed over him and he drifted into dreams of Mary and their future, together.
‘I know how to fasten a bow tie, Alec.’ Straker brushed the hands away with a feeling of irritation. It was bad enough having the fluttery feeling in his stomach again, but Alec’s persistent questions and attempts to help him were only making him uncomfortable. A wave of heat coursed through him and he wiped his brow, expecting to feel sweat there, a fever, or perhaps the start of an illness. Too late to do anything now, the service in just over an hour, the honeymoon booked. He would have to trust that he could throw off whatever it was, cold or flu. December was supposed to be the worst time for catching the virus. He stepped away from his best man and turned to the mirror to fasten the thin ribbon in a neat bow, tugging the ends into position and giving one last tweak to straighten the knot. ‘Will that do?’ The touch of sarcasm was lost on Alec, busy getting Straker’s uniform jacket out of the protective wrapping and brushing it down with one hand to ensure it was spotless before holding it out.
Straker shook his head. The feeling of restlessness and unease increased, his head pounding now, his heart rate uneven, the fluttering in his chest making him light-headed and dizzy. He sat down on the bed trying to calm himself, to bring his body under control; after all this was no different to any formal ceremony or gathering. The fact that he would shortly legalise his betrothal to Mary was no reason to feel this way. Or was it? He swallowed the fear down. ‘Alec, can I have a few minutes. Alone.’
A glint of concern flashed over Alec’s face then he nodded. ‘Sure thing. I’ll go and find out where the buttonholes have got to. Back in ten.’
‘Make it half an hour. Have a drink. We have time.’
A frown. ‘Having second thoughts?’
‘No. I just need… some time alone. Please?’
Alec paused, one hand on the door handle. ‘Thirty minutes. I’ll wait for you downstairs.’ He went out, and Straker waited, hearing the footsteps retreating down the corridor before going over to lock the door.
Could it be? Over the months since arriving here he had lost track of his biological cycle, had been too busy to even contemplate his old persona of a Vulcan with all its associated problems. He was human now, living as one of them, thinking as one, even loving as one. He had thought long and hard about proposing to Mary, but once he had considered every aspect, it was the logical thing to do; it would cement his life here on Earth, would ground him in the culture and give him a life outside Henderson and SHADO. He was under no illusions that he would be returning home to Vulcan anytime in the next few decades; supporting Henderson and protecting Earth would be a lifetime’s service. Good work though, and there were benefits. Mary and Alec and his friends here. He took his pulse again before lying down, arms folded on his chest in preparation.
Pon farr. It might be too late to assuage his craving or even to calm the fever. But he would try. There were no drugs available here on Earth to help, and for a moment he wondered if he could somehow contact T’Lia and ask for her help, but he dismissed the thought almost immediately. The service could not wait. He would have to go into deep meditation and hope that he could ease the worst of the symptoms. He allowed himself one wry, human grin. Of all the problems that he had considered over the last few months, once he realised the strength of his feelings for Mary, pon farr had never entered his mind. He thought he was free of it, but the ancient Vulcan instinct was more powerful than any of the changes his body and mind had undergone.
He put aside the thought, stood and opened the window, the air chilling his lungs and cooling the heat in his face. A few minutes breathing, then he closed the sash, lay down, forcing himself to relax and begin the first of the mental exercises. They would help soothe him: they would cool the heat, ease that almost unbearable desire building inside him.
They had to.
It took all his strength to control his breathing and slow the frantic beating of his heart. Minutes passed while he lay there, eyes closed, hands outwardly relaxed on his chest as he fought the urge. He was unaware of Alec returning and standing outside in silence before walking away down the corridor, craggy face lined with concern.
There was nothing here but the room, the slight ticking of the radiator, a thin caress of cold December air on his cheek from the window that was still open a crack. Memories filled his mind: T’Shaan’s last words to him, still deep in his mind – ‘Peace and long life, beloved.’ , the earth beneath bare feet as he ran to find her, that scrap of blue cloth, his years as a Student teacher in the Science Academy, the changes he underwent in order to get here and live as among the people he wanted to help. A slight smile marred the stillness of his lips. A resident of Earth. He had accepted that fact a long time ago. Ed Straker. Human.
No going back now; today was more than commitment to Mary and a recognition of his feelings for her, it was his own acceptance that Earth would be his home for the foreseeable future. In seventy years or so, he might return to Vulcan to live his last years there, but even that was not set in stone. It was of no import though. He would happily live on whatever planet accepted him and he had made more friends on this vibrant world with its oceans and clouds and forests, than he ever made on Vulcan. Ochio was a different matter, but there was no point in thinking of what might have been. That part of his life was long over. He lay still, trying to concentrate, seeking that deep, pellucid calm that would enable him to enter the necessary trance.
But however much he tried, it eluded him, fluttering at the very edge of his thoughts like a butterfly and darting away whenever he tried reaching out. It was futile. Over the past months, with SHADO consuming every waking moment and invading his dreams as well, he had allowed his mental disciplines to weaken. It was a shock to realise that he could not do it, could not appease the craving. There was only one hope; pon farr was a Vulcan syndrome, unheard of in any other sentient species. And he was no longer Vulcan, not fully. Not just by virtue of having red blood and the other physical alterations, but in those small changes that made it possible for him to be accepted.
Humans did not suffer from pon farr. Alec would be returning soon. He had to stop this, before it was too late.
He took a deep breath, welcoming the tension and fear, trapping it, letting it to grow stronger to push against the boundary of his control. The burn increased, pain in his body and bones, pounding in his head, making him gasp now. Shallow breaths as the tension cramped fingers and muscle. He forced himself to lie still, even though his muscles crawled with the need to move, to get up from here and run away; somewhere safe and dark and cool. He resisted.
Humans did not go through pon farr. And he was a human. An man of Earth. He slowed his heart, let those emotions he had suppressed for so long, run free. Joy and grief, wonder and fear. Tears flowed from his eyes as he remembered T’Shaan, laughter on his lips as he recalled swimming with Alec, and cleansing warmth filled in his heart as he thought of Mary. His Mary. His life.
A new life ahead of him now. One long, slow exhalation and the heat within died away, the urge fading to a mere shadow of its former strength, leaving him calm and at peace.
By the time Alec returned again, Straker was ready.
A life ahead of him, hard work and sacrifice, but he had come this far and survived. Who knew what the future would hold for him? He brushed one hand over his short hair to smooth it in place, smiled, and followed his friend down to the waiting car.
Copyright: Ltcdr 01.09.2013
I know this breaks (shatters.??) canon in two different universes, but the idea was simply too tempting to ignore once I saw that photograph of Ed Straker looking just like a Vulcan. I have done some serious research about a couple of points in the story. The general consensus of opinion on the Star Trek sites is that although there were some blond Vulcans, these were very much in the minority. As Vulcan is a very hot and harsh planet, pale skinned and blonde Vulcans would be at a disadvantage to ones with darker skin/hair.
There were undoubtedly different ethnic groups on Vulcan, much as we have on Earth. These would differ in small degrees from each other and would have developed their own rituals – not religions- within their groups. Emotions were not suppressed by all Vulcans, they were visible at times and were kept ‘controlled’ rather than banished. Alcohol was drunk, and vegetarianism was not the rule, though it was usual.
There is a reference in Star Trek to a medical procedure in which a human has her blood altered so that she can fit into Romulan society, only I have reversed the process. (Hemoplasmic pigmentation tagging.) It is also mentioned that Vulcan venous blood would be rust coloured as opposed to green and I was going to use that, but the hemoplasmic scenario was more ‘user-friendly’.
Pon farr can be halted by meditation and the Vulcans had a colony on a planet prior to 1957, so I am speculating that they may have had other colonies at that time. Vulcan High Command controlled the Vulcan Science Council. (Not the ScienceAcademy, which was an educational establishment) They were watching Earth from as early as 1957, and were well placed to know what was happening with the aliens, as well as making contact in 1957 (ENT Carbon Creek). There is nothing to suggest that the Vulcan who remained on Earth in that episode (Mestral) did not play some role in the events leading up to this story, possibly by influencing Thornton’s attitude and acceptance of Straker. However, most of this is pure fun. No offence to either universe is intended!
And YES!!! I have just watched Enterprise. The next to last episode.. and a human and Vulcan CAN conceive a child.
Special thanks to The Ed Straker Herald whose biography of Ed Straker I used as the major guideline for events in his life, eg. Astronaut training aged 26/27 just prior to joining Henderson for example.
One day I may well continue this story – I feel in a way that I have ‘copped out’ by not doing his wedding night!
to be continued…???