Straker put the phone down, sighing. Another problem sorted and yet another late night. He pushed his chair back, allowing himself the luxury of a lengthy stretch and a yawn, then checked his watch. Eighteen hours behind him and a full shift ahead. The problems involving Skydiver’s resupply schedule had taken hours to rectify and he was simply too weary to go home, not that there was much point in that. He had enough time for a shower and maybe a catnap before his first meeting of the day.
Sometimes it was an impossible task running the studio as well as SHADO. There were moments when he got confused as to who he was supposed to be; Commander of a Film Studio or executive producer of a super-secret organisation. The demarcation lines blurred into each other at times and he had, on occasions, half-forgotten which job he was doing.
It didn’t help that the studios were currently in the throes of the latest trend and were filming, not only an action-packed time-travelling series, but also a Sci-fi film based on a programme from the seventies. But it would make money, keeping the studios busy and profitable. As long as he didn’t start shouting ‘Cut!’ in the control room when the action was over.
The insistent growling from his stomach was a further annoying distraction and he set about contacting one of the duty staff before heading for the small suite of rooms on the lower floor, which he used on occasions such as this.
It took him but a few minutes to turn on the shower and undress, shedding clothes with careless abandon on the floor of the small bedroom, before stepping under the hot jet of the shower. He groaned as stiff muscles began relaxing and for once he was oblivious to the world outside. Anyone passing by, although there was no one around, not at this time, not in this place, so far away from the busy environs of the upper levels, might have heard an unusual sound. So unusual that they would perhaps have paused there, outside the unmarked and locked door leading to the small suite of rooms. And perhaps they would have listened for a few moments, smiling.
But no one heard, no one smiled, no one even knew that there was anyone singing loudly under the shower, washing away the sweat and strain of the long night. The splashing of water did little to mute the baritone strains of ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky’ and the odd muffled and embarrassed mumbles as lyrics were forgotten.
Almost directly above the singer, unseen and unnoticed, a door was opening, quiet footsteps moving across the floor, the sound of an object being positioned on the conference table, then the footsteps retreating again. But there was no-one listening. No one watching here either. The door slid open with a gentle hiss then the figure departed, walking on soft-soled and silent shoes back along the corridors.
There was no one to witness as the man returned to his own small office where he opened a cupboard, replacing a small dark container on the top shelf before re-locking the door. Only two men had the codes for that particular cupboard. He shuddered with distaste, but the orders had come from the highest authority and who was he to disobey? Even so, the thought filled him with revulsion.
Dr Jackson was absorbed in his task when the alarm sounded; a medical emergency in the Commander’s office, and grabbing his bag, he hurried along the corridor. It would be unseemly to run, but his quick strides covered the distance in short time.
Unpleasant possibilities raced through his mind. Straker. A heart attack, although the commander kept himself pretty fit, or perhaps an alien attack within Headquarters, although again that was unlikely. In the eventuality of anyone getting into Headquarters, the intruder alarms would go off automatically. The more realistic scenario was an accident; perhaps an electric shock from a faulty piece of equipment, or a minor cut from broken glass. Something less threatening. He turned the corner, slowing down so as not to appear to be dashing inappropriately, before walking briskly into the Commander’s office. He came to a sudden stop.
Paul Foster. That was not what he had expected, nor was the sight of Foster on the ground, writhing, hands frantically pawing at his mouth, froth on his lips. The thought was immediate. Poison.
‘Stand aside please.’ Jackson pushed Lt Johnson away, fearful that whatever it was that had reduced Paul Foster to this condition might be airborne, or could be transferred by skin to skin contact. He snapped on latex gloves; two pairs just to be on the safe side, and a mask, before he bent over the still-writhing figure.
‘Colonel. Can you hear me?’ There was no answer, just further moans from Foster, now beginning to sweat as he continued to rub at his lips. There was a dark stain on the back of his hand. ‘Colonel. What happened to you?’
Foster looked up at him, eyes wide with horror, forcing himself to take a breath, to control his body’s trembling for long enough to speak just three garbled words. ‘Straker. My mate…’ Then bouts of uncontrollable vomiting wracked his body, as he made desperate attempts to clear the ingested toxin.
‘Straker?’ Jackson stood up and turned to Lt Johnson. ‘Where is the Commander?’
She shook her head. ‘I have no idea. He was here about ten minutes ago. Colonel Foster arrived, went into the Commander’s office and then I heard screaming. I came straight through.’
Jackson took her to one side and spoke softly. ‘It is imperative that you locate Commander Straker immediately. He may be in deadly peril.’ He knelt beside Foster again. ‘Colonel I am going to sedate you. It might slow your body down and prevent the poison spreading. Understood?’
Foster nodded, but his eyes were anxious as Jackson slid the needle into a vein. ‘Straker. He…’ The anaesthetic took hold and he slumped in silence. Jackson sat back and observed him for a moment.
‘Pulse rate deceasing, breathing becoming steady. Good, good. The sedative seems to be working. We must now find the source of the poison, as well as find the whereabouts of the Commander to ensure that he is unaffected.’ The doctor beckoned to the medics. ‘Take Colonel Foster to sick bay. Run a complete diagnostic on him. Full bloods. Alert the pathology team that I will require their total cooperation. Everything else is secondary to finding this pathogen.’
Jackson stood aside as a security team dashed past. ‘Lt Johnson?’ he called, ‘Any news on the Commander?’
‘Nothing sir. He hasn’t responded to the alarm, or to his mobile. No one has seen him for several minutes. I’ve instigated a full search of the complex, but he could have gone up top and there is no-one in the studio office to let us know.’ She bit her lip, her nervous fingers fiddling at the pendant around her neck.
‘I see. Check his office for signs of any poison, but make sure you wear gloves. Keep me informed; I need to be told the moment the commander is located.’ He hurried after the stretcher, Foster’s garbled words still echoing in his mind. ‘Straker. My mate.’
Was it possible that Straker had poisoned Foster? That would explain why the commander was nowhere to be found. But why? And there was still no clue as to the source of the toxin. Jackson gave a sigh of satisfaction. This was turning out to be a most intriguing dilemma.
Ayshea walked round Straker’s desk, searching for the source of the toxin. Nothing. It was neat and organised as always. Nothing out of place, no signs of anything untoward. She wiped a gloved finger over the surface, but it came up clean. This was pointless, there was nothing here that could have affected Colonel Foster with such speed. And where was the Commander? Why had he not responded to his intercom?
She carried on the search, examining the air-conditioning inlets, the neat array of glasses on the shelf above the drinks dispenser, making her way over to the conference table. There. Of course. She knew better than to touch anything, and so she hurried back to the desk to call Jackson.
Straker put his head back letting water fill his mouth, his gargled words drowning out any sounds from the outer room.
Their craft are made of fire and their helmets made of steel.
Their suits are red and shiny and their faces they are green.
A bolt of fear goes through me as they thunder through the skies.
And I see the aliens coming and I hear their awful cries.
As the alien craft came closer I heard one call my name
‘If you want to save your Earth from us and beat us at our game
Then Straker just remember that SHADO rules the sky,
And we can never conquer you.’ I heard his mournful cry.
There was the obligatory yet somewhat bubbled chorus of Yippie yi Ohhhhh, Yippie yi Yaaaaay Ghost Riders in the sky………….. followed by a final long, and tuneless gargle, a splash of water and then the shower stopped. He emerged from the bathroom, a wraith-like figure wrapped in a cloud of steam, stifling wide yawns before flopping onto the bed with a sigh.
Ten minutes. Breakfast could wait another ten minutes. But then he remembered. It might be too late, but even so he rubbed himself dry, pulled clothes on, cursing as the zipper stuck as usual at his waist. The neck of the sweater resisted every attempt to settle neatly into place and in the end he gave up and hurried out. How could he have been so foolish as to have forgotten? He hoped it was still there, untouched. The consequences might be …… He hurried on.
Foster remained unconscious as the team began work, taking blood samples and then carefully scraping the remains of the gluey brown substance from his hand and lips. Jackson ordered an immediate analysis of the sample. It was not nicotine, he knew that from its peculiar, almost vinegary smell, but it was unknown to him and that made him uneasy. He considered himself an expert on all things medical and to find his knowledge to be lacking in this respect was a blow to his pride.
He stood back, considering all the possibilities: an alien chemical, a plant grown on their home world, even an animal excretion. His lips twisted in a thin smile.
An alien poison. Fascinating. If he was able to extract the molecular details, or perhaps DNA, he might be able to synthesise the toxin, and create an antidote, or perhaps even more exciting, use the information to develop a biological weapon that was effective against the alien homeworld, a catalyst that might bring the aliens to their knees. He looked over at Foster. It would be a shame if the Colonel died.
His intercom sounded and he answered, before hurrying out of the medical unit and back to Straker’s office.
Jackson turned around as the office door opened to reveal a somewhat dishevelled and damp Commander who hurried past, ignoring his protestations and questions.
He stood at the conference table for one moment before speaking, his voice hard with anger. ‘Who was it?’
‘Commander? Who do you mean?’
‘Who was in here? Just a few minutes ago. The evidence is conclusive.’ Straker held out a piece of toast from the breakfast brought while he was showering. ‘Somebody has taken a bite.’
Jackson stared at him. ‘Commander, there is a poison of some description on your breakfast toast. Colonel Foster must have decided to help himself to a slice when he came into your office. He is in sick bay now, in a critical state and I am endeavouring to isolate the toxin before it is too late.’ He reached out to take the slice of toast with its bite-shaped crescent missing from one edge. ‘Give it to me Commander, before it comes into contact with your skin. We have no idea how dangerous it might be.’
‘Poisoned?’ Straker looked at the triangle of neatly browned bread that was starting to soften. ‘What do you mean?’ He replaced the slice on the plate and selected another, examining it with care, twisting it under the light and then lifting it up to sniff at the faint smear of brown that was hardly noticeable on the toasted surface.
‘Commander. Please. You are unprotected and we have no idea of the toxicity of this substance. It could already be in your bloodstream just from that single contact. We need to get you to the medical unit immediately.’ Jackson stepped closer, waving Ayshea to safety. ‘Lt. Evacuate headquarters. I require a full decontamination of this office and an isolation unit to be set up where the Commander can be monitored.’
Straker sighed. ‘It’s been too long a day for practical jokes Doug. I simply want my breakfast, undisturbed and in peace before it goes cold and soggy.’ He bit into the toast. ‘Mmm. What?’ He pulled his hand out of Jackson’s steely grip and took another bite, tearing into the slice with relish. ‘I have to have this brought in specially. The chef refuses to buy it just for one person and he absolutely hates the stuff himself. Keeps it locked away out of reach.’
There was a slight smear of brown paste on his lips, and the faintest vinegary smell wafted from the slice as he bit into it again, with obvious relish. Straker finished eating and sighed with pleasure, wiping his mouth with the back of one hand and then licking his lips. ‘I really needed that. Now, Jackson, you were telling me about some poison or other?
Marmite. Do you love it….or loathe it?
I do not own these characters. I do not own the tradename Marmite either.
I do however, own several jars of the stuff.
And a Marmite recipe book.