(Link to story so far: The Needs of the Many)
‘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.