Straker sat up on the examination table and swung his legs over the edge. Grimly, silently he picked up his shirt and slipped it on. His face unfathomable, expressionless as he began to button it up, only the slightest tremble in his fingers betraying his emotional state.
The consultant finished washing his hands and turned around.
‘You understand what this means Mr Straker?’
‘I’m not a fool. I’d expected this for months now. And when the symptoms reappeared, well….. I knew then.’ He looked up, clear blue eyes coldly warning the young consultant against giving any platitudes or false words of comfort. ‘How long?’
‘Without treatment? Three weeks, possibly. If you start therapy immediately it could give you another six weeks on top of that. Maybe. Shall I organise the first course for tomorrow?’
‘I don’t think so.’ Straker was curt, abrupt. ‘There seems little point in extending my life by a few more weeks, especially as I’ve already had two previous courses of treatment. Just give me something to keep me going for a fortnight. Painkillers. The stronger the better. I have to organise things at work, you see.’
Straker was silent in the car on the way back to HQ. It was the only good thing about having a chauffeur. He didn’t have to worry about his reflexes being slowed by the dihydrocodeine. Although the new prescription was much, much stronger. And it needed to be. He was already feeling the first signs of the pain reoccurring. And he was only just coping with it as it was. It was going to get worse, he knew.
Three weeks. Three weeks if he was lucky, or unlucky depending on how things progressed. Then it would all be over. Everything.
In a way he looked forward to it. An end to this constant pain, the secrecy, the furtive visits to hospitals and consultants, trying to hide the agony with medication that simply was not strong enough.
And, sitting in the back of the car, he relaxed. For the first time in months he felt his body loosen its tension and his mind ease. Now it was definite. Now he knew. And with that confirmation, with that certainty, came acceptance.
He leaned forward to speak to the driver, ‘Mayland Hospital.’ It was time to visit Alec.
Alec’s room looked much as it had last week. He stared through the glass pane in the door. The flowers were different, that was about it. Ed had arranged for fresh flowers to be delivered every few days. Alec liked fresh flowers and they brightened up the drab room.
It was about the only thing he could do for his friend now. He pushed open the door with a sigh of regret and went in.
‘Hello Alec,’ he smiled wearily.
Straker opened the door to his small, neat flat. He always felt tired after visiting Alec. It was the stress probably. He hated the hospital, the faint smell of antiseptics, the heat, the clinical staff, all efficiency and no humanity. He wondered how many of them had actually spent time with Alec, talking to him, holding his hand, telling him jokes, simply talking to him about everyday things.
Probably none of them.
So it was left to him to do the talking. He hadn’t minded in the past, but today it had been different. Today he was aware, with a heightened sense of understanding, of his own mortality, of the death that was waiting for him.
He laughed ironically. It seemed that he would, after all, be the first one to die. He had often joked about Alec’s drinking sending him to an early grave. Well, now it seemed that Alec would have the last laugh.
There was a pile of mail behind the door. Mostly junk mail, as usual. He had always intended arranging to have junk mail stopped. Too late now. He flicked through the pile tossing the unwanted leaflets and adverts for car insurance and pensions into the wastepaper basket. Pensions. He smiled thinly. No need to worry about that any more.
There was a post card at the bottom of the pile. A picture of trees. Actually, to be precise, a clearing in a forest. Light dappled tree trunks and beams of sunshine. A pleasant view. One of those ubiquitous postcards that could be from anywhere. He turned it over, curious. No-one sent him postcards, ever.
Ed. Shadows in the darkness are drawing nearer. I’ll be waiting when you need me.
No signature, no postmark.
He put it down carefully, trying not to handle it more than he already had. Security could deal with it. Sometime.
Tomorrow he was going to have to start putting his affairs in order.
Perhaps the card had been from her… he picked it up again. No, not her writing. This writer had a firm hand, the letters written decisively, boldly, in a beautifully calligraphic style. It was a puzzle, and one, frankly, that he could do without.
He gasped as the pain started again, his hand shaking as he reached for the small box in his pocket. He managed to tear it open and tipped three of the little pills out into his hand before swallowing them dry. He counted the seconds until the pain eased somewhat and he could breathe more easily.
They took longer to work than he had anticipated, and he frowned. It would make it difficult at work, if he couldn’t rely on the medication. He might have to rethink his plans. Might have to let Schroeder and Jackson in on the secret. Damn. That was the last thing he wanted to do.
He showered carefully, and put on pyjamas, not something that he ordinarily did, but the sight of his gradually weakening, naked body, with its slow-burning assassin lurking within, offended him more than he could bear.
He slept surprisingly well, considering.
The next couple of days were spent quietly, discreetly, sorting things out. Finalising details. Final details. Communications to solicitors, to the IAC, to the new commander of SHADO, all neatly typed, neatly signed, neatly piled on the table ready to be delivered. After.
Everything in order. He could return to work tomorrow.
The post arrived early the following morning.
Standing at his breakfast bar in pyjamas and dressing gown, sipping coffee, Ed Straker heard the soft thud of letters falling onto the parquet floor. More junk mail he sighed, wearily, but even so, curiosity overcame him and he went through to pick it up.
A postcard. The same view, but slightly darker now, the sun beginning to set, the shadows deeper, as if the day was coming to an end.
Ed. Still here, still waiting. You’ll know where. And when.
What the hell was going on?
He put it down with the other card and went to shower and dress. His suit no longer fitted well. Loose on his shoulders and hips. Dammit, it no longer fitted, full stop. He hoped no-one would notice, but probably they wouldn’t. They had other things on their minds.
Alec would have noticed weeks ago, would have spotted the signs, the nausea, the lack of appetite, the tiredness. Alec would have come with him to the hospital, accompanied him when he went for treatment, would have been there to hold him when he was so very very sick afterwards.
Straker had gone back to his own empty flat after each course of medication and had shaken with cold sweats and nausea. It had been so hard, so lonely and hard being by himself. He had longed to hear Alec’s voice, to be held by him, to be comforted by the soft voice, the gentle hands. His friend. The only one.
But Alec was not here anymore. Well, the physical form that was Alec Freeman was still here, but Alec Freeman, wit, flirter, drinker, close friend; that person was long gone.
Ed fastened his jacket. It was looser than ever, now he was not wearing his shoulder holster. But he could no longer tolerate the weight of the gun on his shoulders, or the pressure of it against his ribs.
Dressed and as ready as he could be, he looked in the mirror, reluctantly, to check.
His face gaunt and pale, his hair thinning and lifeless. Lines at the edges of his eyes, lines furrowing his cheeks, his forehead. Lines everywhere, communicating their own story.
It was as if death itself was writing its own message on his face. And it was there for everyone to see, if they looked closely enough. If.
He frowned, more lines furrowing his brow. Three weeks. Although realistically it was more likely to be ten days. At the most. At the very, very most.
And there was so much still to be done. So much to organise. So much to sort out. He would never get it all written down in time now. Never. He shook his head despairingly. But he would have to do it. Somehow.
Commander Straker, pale and thin, picked up his keys then dropped them swiftly as he bent over clutching his abdomen and, vomiting fresh blood onto the floor, collapsed.
He opened his eyes as the hand stroked his head. ‘Ed.’ The voice soft and sultry, a voice that he would have found seductive. Before.
He stirred, slowly, stiffly. ‘I’m alright. Really.’ His voice trembling. But he knew he wasn’t, really. Her hand was cool on his face, soft but not a weak softness. A hand with hidden strength, with power and control.
He tried to lift his head, but he was too weak, too tired. The pain had eased but the breathlessness was worse. Ten days? He would be lucky to have three the way he felt. It had progressed far quicker than he had anticipated.
‘Ed, listen to me.’ Her voice was almost hypnotic, and he felt as if he could drown in the richness of the syllables. A voice like molasses, thick and dark and rich.
‘I have to get to work.’ He refused to be drawn into the calm peace of the voice. He had to get to HQ. There was so little time now. But he simply couldn’t summon up the energy, the courage needed, to get up off the floor.
‘No you don’t. Lie still for a minute. Listen to me.’
Her hand stroked his hair again, smoothing it into place, easing the lines of pain. Tears of anguish and sadness damped his eyelids. He felt ashamed. Ashamed of his weakness, his inability to do something as simple as get to his feet, even lift his head up off the smooth polished surface of the floor.
‘It won’t be long now. You know that. You’ve known that for a while now, haven’t you, Ed.’
He nodded, eyes still closed, still aware of her hand, caressing his face.
‘I’ll be waiting for you. You’ll know where. And Ed, don’t worry. It will be alright. Everything will be alright.’
And with a sudden jolt of loneliness he realised that she was no longer there. He was alone again. As he had been alone for so long. It had all been a hallucination. The medication probably.
He opened his eyes, wearily pushed himself upright. Looked with disgust at the blood on the floor.
It took him longer than usual to clean up the mess, and then to change into clean clothes. He didn’t even bother putting the stained suit out to be cleaned. There probably wouldn’t be the need now. He bagged it up to go out with the rubbish later.
Commander Straker, looking pale and grey and tired, stepped out into the bright sunshine and headed for the car that was waiting to take him to work.
‘Sorry to keep you waiting,’ he apologised to the driver and he slid carefully into the rear of the car and eased the seatbelt cautiously over his waist. He closed his eyes and thought of what had happened, and what was still to come.
He managed to get to his office without being stopped by studio staff, for once. Miss Ealand looked up as he entered, concern on her face.
‘Good morning sir, there’s a message from General Henderson waiting on your desk. It’s rather urgent I gather. The General wanted to make sure you read it immediately.’ She tilted her head slightly as if to scrutinise him.
Henderson. That was all he needed today.
He went through to the office, sat in his chair and opened the letter as the room descended into ….. Hell.
‘Jesus, no,’ he whispered to himself as he read and reread the neatly printed lines on the paper. Henderson hadn’t even had the courtesy to sign the communication himself. It was the mortal blow that Ed Straker had feared might happen. Worse, far worse than what was happening to him right now on a personal level.
This letter was a death sentence. A death sentence for SHADO.
He crumpled it tightly in one hand, a hand no longer strong and agile, but getting frailer. He looked appraisingly at his fingers, the bones beginning to stand out, the flesh gradually diminishing.
And yet it seemed that no one else had seen what he had seen. No-one looked at him and wondered why Ed Straker was losing weight, was getting old rapidly, was missing appointments, was late for work. Perhaps they put it down to recent events.
Alec. Christ. Who would see to Alec now? No one in HQ that was for sure. None of them had visited the hospital for months.
No-one really cared did they? Or if they did, they were too wrapped up in their own world to worry about one man. One solitary man. A man who wouldn’t be around much longer anyway.
And it was then, with a flash of insight, of clarity, of pure logic, that he realised exactly what he could do. It would cost him his honour, his reputation, all the things he had held dear, but it would be worth it.
It would save everything.
But he no longer mattered.
And with a slight smile, the first smile for a long time, Ed Straker walked into his secret office deep below the Studios, and closed, and locked, the door.
It took him longer to arrange than he had thought. The codes to subvert, the protection and guards to overcome before he could get into the main computer system and set into place his plans.
But he was methodical, and thorough, and knew what he was doing. By the end of the day he had done everything necessary, had set the process in motion, and nothing, not his death, not the shutdown of any computer systems could prevent what was going to happen.
‘I always tried to do my best,’ he whispered to himself as he took one long, last look around the office. ‘I didn’t think it would end like this. I’m sorry, but there isn’t anything else I can do.’
He took one of the hidden exits out to the upper world, and stood in the late afternoon sun looking around at the bustling studio.
There was a SHADO car and driver waiting for him at the gatehouse. He handed an envelope over to the security guard, ‘For Keith Ford. Please give it to him when he arrives this evening,’ then got in the back of the car. The journey to visit Alec was short, but he had no energy to walk along the underground corridors to Mayland from the SHADO HQ. He asked the driver to wait for a few minutes.
A few minutes was all it took to say goodbye to his friend, to unplug the alarms and then, with desperate regret and sorrow, to switch off the life support. Straker bent over and kissed Alec on his forehead before turning and walking out of the room.
The driver took him home and Straker watched the car drive away. His last link with his life, the life he had led for twenty years.
He went inside the small flat. Another postcard. This time the trees were in darkness, the shadows almost black. The trees hidden in the night, but there was a gleam of light from the moon, silvering the leaves, glistening on the bark of the oak trees. And stars in the sky above the treetops.
Almost fearfully he turned it over.
‘The day draws to an end. Time to come home, Ed.’ Neat lines written in the same handwriting.
He threw it down on the table, picked up his passport, phoned for a taxi and waited. The beach was waiting for him, the beach and the waves and the peace and, eventually, an ending.
‘Heathrow,’ he told the driver, but after a short time in the cab, he began to feel unsure, uncertain, as if he was being pulled in a different direction. He looked out of the window at the hoardings.
Adverts for cars, for beer, for sofas, all flashed past. Then he saw it. The taxi pulled up at the lights, and on the corner a newly posted hoarding; a poster for holidays in the country. Trees, thick ancient trees clustered around a clearing. Beams of sunlight sparkling between the leaves. It seemed to reach out and grab him.
He felt the tug as surely as if he was connected to a line that was pulling him in another direction.
‘Sorry,’ he spoke to the driver. ‘Change of plan. I need you to head north. Just drive north. I’ll tell you when to stop.’
It was obvious that the driver thought he was mad, but Straker just handed him some money, he wasn’t sure how much, but certainly sufficient to cover at least two hours travel.
But it didn’t take that long.
He sat in the back of the cab, content to let the driver get on with it. North. It would take him to his final destination. The trees. That was all he was sure about, but it was enough.
The evening was closing in, the cab still heading north, on quiet roads now, less traffic, fewer houses, out into the countryside. He directed the driver each time there was a crossroads, a junction, a decision to be made. North, always north, on unfamiliar roads now, but he knew that it would lead to the wood, to the clearing.
And then on narrow lanes with fields and trees, small copses, woods, but none of them were quite right until……….
‘Stop. Stop here please.’ He waited until the cab had pulled up. ‘Thankyou. This is fine.’ He handed over money, uncaringly, and waited until the door was opened. Stepping out onto the road he wondered how he could ever have doubted that he would find the place.
There was nothing remarkable about it. A thick, almost dense, small forest, more than a wood, of old trees. Oak, beech, elm. Beautiful deciduous trees, heavy with leaves overhanging the road on either side, branches meeting in the middle to create a tunnel under green cool leaves. There was an overgrown path under the branches on one side of the road. He stepped onto it and was immediately snagged on the branches of a gnarled Holm oak that leaned like a sentinel over the faded path.
He stood still. Listening. Waiting.
He heard the cab drive away, the engine harsh and alien in this quiet oasis of peace and calmness.
The branch that had caught in his jacket moved back in a sudden gentle breeze, freeing him to walk along the gradually disappearing trail. He knew where it would end. What it would end in.
The clearing, and death.
He moved slowly now, unwilling to hasten the end, even though in a way he wanted the end to come. He leaned against the smooth bark of the comforting trees when he needed to rest. Sunbeams lit his way, glowing lines that showed him the path forward. He followed them, deep into the ancient forest.
And then he was there.
The clearing was empty. Of course, stupid thought. Clearing. A space. It had to be empty. But his fevered mind had expected something else. Not just this bowl shaped depression in the ground, surrounded by trees and with short, neatly cropped grass covering the soil.
Something. Anything. The reason why he had been drawn here. He moved to the centre of the circle, soothed by the peace and tranquillity and silence, looking around him at the canopy and the leaves and the quiet stillness in the dark shadows under the trees. He was not afraid any more, not scared, not even anxious.
As good a place as any to end one’s life, he thought. Not the beach, with the warm sand and water lulling him to sleep, but this was home in a way. This was England, and, although he was by birth, an American, he had, over the years, come to think of this place as home.
Sunlight faded slowly as he stood there, the shadows gradually darkening, deepening, the trees seeming to move closer and closer. Tiredness crept over him, as gently as the shadows, and he sat down on the warm damp soil, smelling the grass, the scent of pollen.
Surprisingly relaxed and unafraid, he lay down on his side and curled up, like a child, hands together under his head, eyes slowly drifting into sleep. The smell of warm earth comforted him, reassured him, reminded him of his childhood and he smiled as he slumbered and dreamed.
The lines of light that descended into the clearing were bright enough to waken him. One by one they floated down to the ground, slowly at first, then increasingly faster, and more of them, until the whole space became filled with golden columns.
He lay there, quite still, surrounded by pillars of light, the reflections sparkling in his hair, brightening the dullness of his skin. Still unafraid, still calm. Almost as if he had been expecting this to happen.
A voice from behind him. ‘Hello Ed.’
He rolled onto his back, and looked up. She was there, as he had seen her in his dream. Tall, she would be nearly as tall as he himself was, tall and slender. Her hair, long and golden, falling in waves down over her shoulders to her waist.
He sat up, slowly, carefully, mindful of the pain that threatened his every move.
She held out one hand to help him stand.
‘I know you, don’t I?’ he asked wonderingly, cornflower blue eyes staring into golden ones.
‘Not really, but I know you. I’ve known you all your life, Ed,’ and smiling, she leaned forward and kissed him.
And in that one moment of contact, as her honeyed lips touched his, as her eyes stared into his, as her hands reached out and caressed his face, he knew who she was.
She held him firmly, as his legs gave way, as the dizziness overwhelmed him, and she lowered him to the soft, warm grass, supporting his frail body in her arms. He leaned against her, gasping for breath, his hands reaching out to her, wanting her to simply hold him tightly, to protect him as she had protected him throughout his life.
‘You’ve always been here haven’t you?’ he said softly, as her fingers stroked his hair, touched his lips, smoothed away the lines of pain. ‘Always been with me, besides me, guarding me. And I never saw you.’ His voice, thin and fading was sad now, sad with the regret of lost chances.
‘But of course. I couldn’t let you see me, not until now. Now at the end, everyone gets to see their own guardian.’ And she held him close, cradling him in her arms, rocking him gently as he wept quietly.
‘I failed, didn’t I? I failed Alec and everyone. I didn’t want it to end like this, not like this. To be alone.’
Her laughter resounded through the air, joyous laughter, clear and harmonious. ‘Ed, dearest, my dearest love. Look around you. Alone? Never. Not in a million years.’
He lay there in the centre of the clearing, head resting against her shoulders, her arms clasping him lovingly, surrounded by pillars of light. And as he gasped for breath, he saw the lights change, focus, become distinct shapes. Thousands of them, all around him, all smiling, and he felt their love wash over him in waves.
He was by now almost too tired to speak.
‘Who? Ed, my love, my one true love, these are the guardians of all those whose lives you have saved over the years, all those who would have died at the hands of your enemies, had you not been there to protect the world. They are here today to welcome you with love and reverence. All of them Ed. All of them. You are not alone, you have never been alone. We have always been here, watching you, loving you. Waiting for you, the guardian of this world, to join us.’
He stared at the guardians surrounding him, his sight blurring, his senses beginning to fade. ‘How many?’
‘More than you could imagine Ed, more than you ever dreamed of. Over fifty thousand of us are gathered here. And one in particular. Waiting here to see you.’
Ed Straker heard a familiar voice, felt a familiar hand touch his face. ‘Ed. It’s me. Alec. I’m here. Time to come home, Ed. Time to join us and come home.’
‘Alec.’ there was a world of emotion in that one word. ‘Alec, I betrayed them, I betrayed SHADO. Can you forgive me?’
His friend smiled. ‘Oh my best beloved friend. You never betrayed them. I know what is going to happen now, when the world finds out about SHADO, about what you have spent your life doing. The world will unite behind SHADO, will finally work together to fight the aliens, and will succeed. All because of you, Ed. Come home, Ed,’ and he bent to lift his friend in his arms as Ed Straker breathed out one last gentle, soft sigh, and peacefully, gladly, joined his family.
By the time you read this I should, hopefully, no longer be around.
If my calculations are correct you now have about four hours before the world media frenzy begins. I have sent comprehensive accounts of SHADO’s existence, operations and current activities to all the global news networks and press, as well as internet pages timed to activate in 5 hours.
Don’t try to stop them. I am pretty good at security as you know and the codes are unbreakable. Please forgive me.I had no other option.
The IAC have decided that, in this world of international terrorism, it is no longer viable to support SHADO to the extent that they have been doing for the past 20 years. In four months time all but one of the Moonbases will be retired, and the Skydiver fleet will be halved. This cannot be allowed to happen, so after much painful deliberation I decided that the world needs to know what is happening. It is the only way I can ensure that the work we have done is not wasted.
The worldwide outrage at what has been happening should ensure sufficient support for SHADO for the foreseeable future.You will no doubt consider me a traitor. I really don’t care any more. The cancer has returned and I only have a few days left.
I was going to spend those days on a beach somewhere, safe in the knowledge that you were the next in line for the post of Commander. But things have changed. I have a flight booked, my painkillers are in my pocket and I will spend my final hours shortly on that beach, but watching the tide come in for the last time. If I have planned this correctly my body will never be found.
On my way home I intend to visit Alec Freeman for the last time. I don’t think he has had many visitors in the last year. I shall turn off the alarms and switch off his life support. The last gift I can give an old friend. He deserves better than to be left like this.
You will make an excellent Commander. I was tough on you over the years, partly because you needed toughening up, but also because I saw the potential in you. You never let me down.You have a very difficult time ahead of you, but I know that you will be able to ride it out.
Look after my people. I don’t think many will be able to pardon me for what I have done, but I have given everything to SHADO, my family, my friends, my health and finally the only things I have left to give are my life and my reputation.
I hope you understand. Goodbye Commander Ford, and may God go with you and guard you.
Commander E. Straker
He held her hand and kissed her again, as the other guardians slowly faded away, back to their own places, their own responsibilities, in the world of humans. That world was over for him, but he had a new world now, a place filled with love, and family, and her. And Alec was there as well, with his own guardian, his own true love, just as Ed had now discovered his life companion.
There was no longer any regret, any sadness, any pain. Just joy and the promise of the future.
Ed Straker looked around the empty clearing. There was nothing now that tied him to this earth. His work was done.
‘Well, shall we go then?’ he asked softly, and she kissed him once more as he held her hand and drifted slowly upwards into the brilliant star-lit sky.
The trees sighed as the breeze gently stirred their leaves. The moon shone down onto an empty clearing in a small forest. Two almost translucent feathers, one as golden as ripened wheat, one as silver as the moon, floated down together to lie on the short, close-cropped grass.
And much later, somewhere far away from worries and pain and cares, a flaxen haired woman tenderly, adoringly, held her lover, the man whom she had guarded and treasured for years, and who would now be with her for eternity.