‘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.