(Link to story so far – The Needs of the Many )
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, 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.