By the time she told him to slow down he was shaking with cold and heat and fear. He pulled the car over to the side of the road, switching on the hazard lights. They had not seen one other vehicle on the roads since leaving… leaving…
He opened the door, desperate to get out, tangling his arm in the seat belt for a frantic moment. He made it to the safety of the hedge before he was sick, bending over hands on his knees and gasping for breath afterwards, before spitting the final residue from lips that were numb. He pulled the handkerchief from his pocket. It was damp and he wiped his face with it, then his mouth, before wadding it into a ball and stuffing it back into the depths of his pocket.
He went back to the car, leaning against the frame and shivering, the cold piercing even the heavy wool of his overcoat. She was waiting for him, standing by the edge of the road, her arms and legs bare. He hadn’t thought about that and he shrugged out of the coat, even though his bones shrieked for the warmth and the protection.
‘Here. You need this.’ The gruffness in his voice surprised him. His throat was raw, his mouth numb, his whole face frozen. He rubbed his cheeks. ‘It’s too cold out here.’
The coat looked ludicrous on her, the shoulders far too broad, her small hands hidden by the long sleeves. She didn’t fasten the buttons, it was too wide for that but she wrapped it around her slender frame and smiled at him before holding her hand out. His fingers engulfed hers, and she smiled again and led the way, not through a garden with neat paths and lopped trees, but along a rough and uneven shingle path that wound its way through tall indistinct shapes. He slipped, almost fell against one, grabbing hold of it to prevent himself tumbling and maybe pulling her down with him. It was stone and he could feel letters cut deep into the smooth surface. Gravestones.
He pulled himself free of her hand and stood there, unable to take another step forward. Anger and fear in equal amounts. He clung to the stone, refusing to let go, until another wave of nausea swept through him and he had to bend over again. Not on a grave, he thought to himself, managing to stagger away and fall to his knees to retch in the rough undergrowth, hands on the floor, his head brushing the lower leaves of the scrubby privet hedge. She was looking at him in concern when he pulled himself to his feet and she stepped forward, holding his damp handkerchief out in silence. He took it and wiped his mouth again before throwing the sordid cloth into the bushes. He hoped she might take pity on him, but she beckoned him on, and like a chained slave he trailed behind, unable to stop himself following to wherever, whatever, she was going to show him next.
He almost bumped into her when she stopped. She gestured and moved away into the gloom in silence and he forgot about her for a moment, looking at the closest gravestone and wondering what he was supposed to see.
The stone was not ancient and weathered, neither was it clean and new. A patina of mildew and lichen covered the incisions and he started brushing it away with his gloved hand, grateful for the moonlight that now illuminated the scene. Why was he here? For one ludicrous moment he imagined that this was going to be his own grave with all the warnings and dire prophecies that entailed. The ghosts of Christmas visiting him, to show him his selfishness and greed.
The letters emerged. H E …
A surge of relief. Not his own grave then or John’s. He carried on scraping the green mould.
Henderson. James Henderson. But Henderson was not dead. And anyway, if this was as he began to fear, a warning from the past and the future, Henderson was not a modern Jacob Marley. Henderson was a decent man, an honourable man. Hardworking and dedicated, and although they had their arguments, there was considerable respect for each other. Both of them striving to do their best. This was all wrong. Straker looked up at the woman. She shrugged. There was nothing for it but to carry on, and he knelt on the frozen ground, moving aside the dry and dead remnants of a long forgotten floral tribute.
When did James die?
And he saw. The date was etched not only in his mind and across his ribs in those faint scars still visible after so many years, but there in front of him, carved in deep lines in the stone. The crash.
But James had escaped hadn’t he? Straker had flung the door open, grabbed Henderson’s sleeve and jumped, pulling the General out of the car before it rolled over. No chance to save the other man, but Henderson survived. But he hadn’t had he? Not according to this stone. Straker let his fingers travel over the letters and numbers, undeniable proof. James. Dead. His friend, his mentor.
‘James. Why? How could this happen?’
‘I told you.’ The voice behind him was sad, and yet there was recrimination in the tone. ‘In this world you had your wish. This is the result. This.’ She waved a casual hand at the tombstone. ‘The responsibility was yours and no-one saved him. He was trapped in the car and he burned to death. Because of you.’ The last sentence was said in the same casual tone one might use to order a pizza. She walked away as Straker stood up, looking at her in horror. He had done this? He had killed Henderson?
One more load to bear on shoulders that even now were close to breaking. It was all he could do to move, to drag one foot in front of the other, to take those steps back to his car. He wanted to sleep, to close his eyes, curl up like a child and never wake. It would be so much easier than this, but even as he thought about lying down in the dark somewhere quiet and cold, he found himself back at the car. She held the door open for him this time as if she knew he was beyond thinking for himself. Henderson, burning to death. His parents, bickering, slovenly, friendless. This was all wrong. This was not how it should be.
It took him several attempts to get the car started. His hand was shaking too much to activate the fob, but he managed it in the end and dazed with dread he pulled the heavy saloon back onto the road, heading … heading… he had no idea. She was silent this time. He twisted his head to speak but she was looking out of the passenger window and so he drove on, heedless of directions, taking whichever road was darkest, most desolate, praying that this night would somehow end soon.
There were no stars in the sky, and even the silver ball of the moon was hiding behind tattered clouds that decorated the sky. Another painful reminder of Christmas, of his empty house and loveless existence.
His mind registered her voice a second after he had reacted. The car pulled to a halt and he opened the door, climbing out, every movement weary and strained, his bones aching. He wondered how long it would be before she left him alone and let this night be over. His eyes followed her as she walked over to inspect the ruins of buildings nearby. Not ancient dwellings or derelict farm buildings; this was a small estate of houses, modern, a neat cul-de-sac of exclusive properties as the estate agent’s blurb would say. Not that old either.
The road had a look of recent newness, the tarmac unsullied by repairs, and the houses – what remained of them – were built in the fashion of mock Georgian, complete with sash windows and tall chimney stacks. But the houses were uninhabited now, their walls broken, roofs collapsing, double glazed windows shattered. Nobody lived here.
Bloodstains decorated the walls and there were dark and ominous stains on the once pristine lawns, and wide circles of scorched earth where UFOs had landed. Straker did not question how he knew this, how he could see this evil and destruction at such a late hour on a winter’s night. He knew what had happened here, he could almost hear the sound of UFOs descending from the skies, hear the screams as aliens emerged to wreak death on the innocent.
‘How many?’ he whispered.
‘Do the numbers really matter? Enough.’
Such a callous answer. He turned on her. ”How many!’ and he saw her flinch under his onslaught.
‘Aliens or….’ She had the grace to look away from the devastation.
‘People. How many people died here?’ How many. Women, children, men. How many members of SHADO? How many of his people.
‘Over two dozen adults, nine children. The adults killed, the children taken. As usual.’
This was beyond his comprehension. He had never seen devastation at this level before. Not here in England. In this country, so close to headquarters. And SHADO had not protected these people? Years of knowledge, of learning and of fighting the enemy pushed his fear aside. He began analysing the debris, the devastation, turning around to take in all the available information. He stared at her in horror. ‘Six? There must have been at least six of them. UFOs I mean. That’s not possible.’
‘Yes there were six.’ she said.
‘What about SHADO? What about Moonbase, and the Skydivers? Why did no one stop them?’ The need for secrecy was forgotten in the urgency of his question.
She laughed, and this time there was nothing gentle or soft in the sound. It chilled him more than the freezing air.
‘This is your fault; it’s what you wanted, remember?’ She began walking back to the car and he hurried after, grabbing her arm in a fierce hold and swivelling her round to face the ruins.
‘My fault? This?’ He put his hands on her shoulders, making her look up at him. ‘I have given my life to protecting people from them. My life. Do you understand?’ He was shouting now, his voice dark with rage. How could she blame him for this?
‘As I said, this is what you wanted. Now, we must leave. There are still things I need to show you.’ She twisted out from his hands, turning her back on him and he tore off his gloves, letting them fall to the ground and reaching into his jacket. His fingers touched the cold metal of his gun but sanity prevailed and he withdrew his hand, fastening the jacket once again with a savage movement. She walked away to stand by the car, the collar of his coat turned up to protect her face from the cold and her hands pushed deep into the pockets.
He ignored her and strode across the lawns to the nearest house, clambering over rubble until he was able to stand in the door way and look up. The ruin was open to the sky and he could see the stars above, hear the creak of wood from straining timbers, the rattle of slates and tiles as they trickled down from the upper storey.
There was a faint smell of dampness and decay. A family home. His foot caught on something and he looked down to see a tumble of photo frames on the floor, the glass shattered but the images intact. He bent down, rifling through the small pile and picked one out, brushing the dirt and grit away so that he could see the photograph beneath. A middle aged couple and a boy. A teenager. Smiling. He let the frame drop to the ground before turning away sickened yet steeling himself for the next part of this unending nightmare.
He stood there in the rubble for a moment. Was it a nightmare? Was that the answer? This whole experience nothing more than an unpleasant dream brought about by exhaustion and that overwhelming sense of despair? And yet it was so real. So believable in a terrible way.
‘Come along Edward,’ she called and, drained of all emotion now and unable to do anything else, he obeyed her. The soft leather of his seat clasped him in its cold embrace, the belt tightened, trapping him. His numb fingers held the wheel, turning the car to wherever she directed. He was unsafe, he knew that, the car lurching across the road, swerving almost out of control at times, blinding sweat stinging in his eyes despite the cold.
He hunched forward, peering through the windscreen in a vain attempt to spot any familiar landmark; the glow of streetlights in the distance or brighter lights from buildings in a nearby town. Anything. This was not some barren and deserted wasteland. There had to be some houses nearby, something. He could stop the car and ask for help. Tell them he was ill. They would let him inside.
‘Don’t bother looking.’ She leaned across and placed one hand on his, guiding the car back onto the left side of the road. ‘There’s no one around now. Not at this time of night. Not here. And no one would help you anyway.’
How did she know what he was thinking? He shook his head, trying in vain to concentrate, to push aside the haze of confusion filling his mind: seeing his parents like that, grown old before their time, seeing Henderson’s grave and the devastating attack by the enemy with no sign of any intervention by SHADO. He licked more sweat from his lips, salt and sharp and drove on, aware of the woman beside him, his tormentor.
He was driving in a bubble of darkness, no illumination anywhere, and when he dared look into the rearview mirror it was like peering into a black hole. A total absence of any light. Stars, moon, street lights. Nothing. All sucked into the darkness. He could have been anywhere: in any country, even in the depths of the deepest abyss or out beyond the farthest reaches of the solar system. The headlights slicing the night and the soft lights on the dashboard were the only comfort to his burning eyes.
It was not her voice that made him ease the Jaguar to a halt the next time. The car had made its way up a steep incline and the view changed from one moment to the next as if he had driven out of a fog of gloom into clear and pure air at the summit. He could see stars again, familiar constellations, the moon in the distance shining down on a vast network of lines and dark rectangles. Roads and suburbs and shopping malls, the creations of man staining and scarring the land.
He took a deep breath. This was his world. He could even see the outline of runways, paler ribbons against the sombre black. Heathrow? It had to be that. There were no other airports in the area, not that expansive. And the studios were nearby. He could find his way there. He would ignore any directions that she gave him and head for Harlington, over there in the distance. He could seek shelter at headquarters if nowhere else.
Then he realised that the power was out. Everywhere. And that was not possible. Heathrow was never dark, and for the whole area to have a power failure was so ludicrous as to be laughable. The hospitals, the emergency services, even the Studio had their own emergency power supplies. And he could see no car lights. He spun round to look at the woman. ‘What’s going on?’
‘Curfew? In London? That is London over there, or is this just another of your tricks, trying to make an even bigger fool of me?’
‘No trick, Edward. By this time every city and town and village are under dusk to dawn curfew. Not that anyone would dare go out at night. The government enforced martial law as well, a few weeks ago. It makes life….. ‘ she paused, shrugging her shoulders, and he realised just how much he was beginning to hate that gesture of uncaring nonchalance. ‘… difficult at times, but it helps. A little.’ She pointed across the valley. ‘You know where you are now. Our next stop is the studios. No need to rush. You have time to spare.’
Not another car on the road. No lights. No movement. Shops closed and silent and shuttered. He drove slowly, looking for any signs of life but even the houses were dark. Not a chink of light escaping from the edges of drapes. He stopped the car at a familiar crossroads. The local pub on one corner was always open till after midnight but tonight its car park was empty, the windows boarded up. Desolate. He turned off the engine and climbed out, as stiff and aching as if he had been driving for hours, days even. He could hardly move his shoulders.
The air was warmer here and he leaned on the car taking deep breaths, stretching his fingers and listening for any sound in the distance. Any sound of life. An aircraft, car, siren. It was no use; they were alone here and it was with reluctance that he opened the car door and sat on the edge of the seat with his back to her. He lowered his head, fingers tight in his hair, face twisted with anguish.
‘What have you done here? To my world? Are you..?’ He hunched even deeper, ‘One of them? An alien?’ There was no point in trying to escape now. And anyway he needed to find out what she wanted from him, and, if possible, try to undo the damage she had caused. This huge city living under fear, his mentor dead. And he was useless, unable to resist her, unable to protect his world from her. Useless. He shook his head in disgust. It all came down to one thing in the end. He should never have stopped for her. It was all his fault.
‘No.’ The shock in her voice was the last thing he expected. He turned around to face her as she continued, one hand now reaching out to him in a gesture of compassion. ‘Edward, trust me. Please. I want to help you.’
Silence for the space of a single breath, then leather creaked as he twisted round, there was the soft rattle of the engine and the click of the handbrake as he released it, the sudden screech of rubber on tarmac as he accelerated away from the deserted building. He knew these roads well, the small shops on the corners, the petrol station, closed here in this time and place, with tattered and faded ‘No Fuel ‘ signs on the barriers across the entrance. Nothing had the power to startle him now. He was numb and worn out. ‘Running on empty’ as his mother would have said. He couldn’t recall the last time he had slept, or even eaten.
Harlington approaching and then they were passing High School on the outskirts, the small park, the entrance to the golf club. The junction for the studios was ahead, and even though the roads were empty, it was force of habit that made him flick the indicators and slow down before turning right onto the main drive.
The studio was not there. At least, not the studio that he knew so well. A squat building instead of the tall multi-storey block in the distance. No sign of the water feature on the left as he passed the deserted gatehouse. The main sign appeared in the headlights but he ignored it in his anxiety and the rush to get into headquarters, to find Paul, Jackson, anyone, and get help.
He slewed to a halt and was out of the car, aware of her close behind him now as he ran into the Reception area, pausing for a moment in a futile effort to get his bearings in this strange place and then beginning the search for that familiar door to Miss Ealand’s office. He hurried on, down unlit corridors, trying handles, hammering on locked doors, desperate to find some way down to his only hope of rescue, of finding some sanity in a world gone mad.
‘Edward. Here.’ She stood in a doorway, waiting, still wearing his coat. ‘This way.’
Enough of her games. He pulled out his gun. ‘You go first.’ It was cowardly to make her lead, but he had no idea what trickery was at work here, or what would be awaiting them at the bottom of the stairs.
The dim light in the stairs was the first man-made illumination they had encountered and he put one hand on her shoulder as she led the way, taking each step slowly and listening for any sound of danger. He could feel her shoulder shaking and then it became apparent that the trembling was not under his fingers. It was his hand that was shaking. Quiet and cautious footsteps, one after another, down and down and down into the darkness below.
The steps were dusty with disuse and small piles of rubble had accumulated in unswept corners, scraps of paper and dust motes drifting in the breeze of their passing. He frowned. He did not remember any of SHADO’s emergency access routes ever being this neglected. Light spilled into the stairwell below them and he pushed the girl on, his hand clamped on her shoulder now, his other hand holding the gun next to her, ready for anything. He could no longer trust his senses, or his knowledge.
They reached the bottom. ‘Stop.’ His fingers dug into the cloth of his overcoat, pulling her back against him. He had a sudden awareness of the feel of her hair against his throat, a fragrance of sunshine, the sound of her breathing calm and measured compared to his own harsh gasps. He inched around, unwilling now to subject her first to whatever was out there, bending, his lips close to her ear, whispering the words even as his fingers readied the gun. ‘Stay here.’
Then he took the first steps into the light, and into the corridor. He knew where he was now. Corridor 18, the main control room a few yards down on the right.
Relief swamped him, allowing him to forget the horrors of the night in the familiarity of these surroundings, the passages he had walked so many times. His mind filled with feverish words; it was all a mistake, a nightmare, a prank even and his friends would be waiting for him to arrive. He stumbled forward, one hand on the wall for support, the gun forgotten in the limp fingers of his other hand, the girl forgotten as well. He turned the corner into the doorway. And stopped.
She was beside him again. And he was glad of her presence this time, of her arm around him, not to stop him from walking into the room ahead but to support him. For all her outward fragility her strength was astonishing and he felt himself fall against her as all his resolve and his endurance over the last long hours, deserted him.
There was a hand on his face, a cool hand, stroking his cheek. Someone murmuring in his ear, but he could not hear the words for the pounding of his heart in his ears. He concentrated on those sensations: the touch on his face, the warmth of her breath against his neck, her voice.
Her voice. He pulled himself away from her embrace, reached out to the wall and let himself rest against the concrete, the uneven surface pressing into his cheekbone, hurting his face, his knuckles grating on the rough surface. Pain. He dragged them harder, hoping that it might wake him from this. Anything to stop this, to let him wake in his own world. Not this. Please not this. He needed to get away before anyone realised that he was here.
‘Let me go, please. They mustn’t …’
‘See you? Don’t worry Edward. No one can see you. Not in this time and place. You do not exist here. You never existed in this world. Look around you.’ She turned him to face the opening into the room once more. ‘Look at it Commander Straker. Take a long hard look at what you wished for.’
Next part: Thursday 24th Dec.