A UFO story by
The roads were busy with revellers heading into town to celebrate, noisy groups of party-goers filling the evening with their shrieks of laughter and the once pristine snow covering the carpark when he arrived three days ago was now little more than a thin covering of slush spattering the windscreen with clods of brown half-rotted ice.
Straker flicked the radio on, more in the hope of erasing the aching silence and to him help stay awake than any desire to listen to music. He had not expected to hear children singing, not at this time of the evening, although he should have known. It was Christmas Eve after all. The carol ceased and he reached out to change stations but drew back as one boy began a solo. ‘Once in Royal David’s City…. ‘ John had sung that carol. Not a solo performance, but with a group of other boys in the school Christmas concert. It had been John’s his last concert, his last ever Christmas.
He remembered it as if it was yesterday, his son standing there on the front row looking small and casting around to see whether his dad was in the audience. It was standing room only and Straker, arriving late after a long day and a frantic drive out to the school, struggled to find space at the back, ending up half-hidden behind other tardy parents. John had seen him and given a huge smile of recognition and then a tiny wave, nothing more than a flick of his wrist.
Their teacher played one note on the piano and the boys began singing. The room hushed instantly as clean and light and pure voices, reaching high notes, filled the hall, and after the last notes died away the audience demanded an encore. Standing there at the back, his eyes blurred with more than just exhaustion, Straker watched and listened with quiet pride, thankful that on this occasion for once he had managed to get away from work.
That was in the past. Straker hadn’t listened to carols at Christmas since. He blinked, rubbing tired eyes with a knuckle, trying to concentrate on the road ahead, the slutch accumulating at the edges of the windscreen before dropping off into the darkness. The hiss of tyres, the swish of wipers, the choir boys continuing the anthem. ‘…Mary was that mother mild…..’ He turned the radio off, his fingers gripping the steering wheel.
Tomorrow was the first day of the Christmas holidays, not that one day counted as much of a holiday, and he would go into Headquarters at some stage just to check on things. Always had done on those rare occasions when he had not scheduled himself for duty. He’d stayed on too late today as it was more out of an excuse not to go home than any need to oversee the control room or complete the relentless and unending piles of work.
Christmas would soon be over. It was just another empty day, like Sundays. A day most people spent with family. He’d thought about putting a tree up this year with tinsel and the usual decorations; in fact he had even gone as far as getting the boxes down from the attic but as soon as he opened the smallest of them, forgetting what it contained, he’d known that it was a mistake. The Christmas tradition. A new bauble every year for John. Eight of them.
When he pulled it out, he noticed how shabby the box looked, the lettering faded, not by sunlight, but from time. Faded like his memories and his hopes for the future. He’d brushed away the dust before opening the box, then in a sudden blur of activity closed the lid and packed it away again at the back of the attic behind the miserable detritus that cluttered up the small loft: suitcases from his past travels, bundles of old newspapers, mouldering offcuts of carpet left behind by a previous owner, a roll of unused wallpaper, hideous in its garish stripes. The box was too painful to keep in sight, yet far too precious to discard.
The house had no decorations this year. He’d intended to buy some new ones: a fake tree, a few lengths of tinsel, some lights. No more than a passing nod to the season in some respects. It would be something to brighten the place when he returned late, something to welcome him for a change. But in all the rush of work it never happened. The last three days were a blur of work and worry, a constant battle against the enemy, giving him not even time to go home and sleep let alone put up decorations or prepare for Christmas. The presents were unwrapped, cards unwritten and unopened. He always left things to the last minute, each year promising to be more organised next time.
Yet every year was the same; work taking over his life. And once the enemy had retreated, and it looked as if SHADO might have a quiet Christmas Day, he’d spent a few hours clearing the most urgent files off his desk and then left, creeping away before anyone could notice his absence. The usual after-shift Christmas party was getting underway as he walked out into the dark, but he was too tired and grubby to join in the celebrations. And he really didn’t feel in the mood for singing carols and dancing. That was best left to the couples. He would only stand there on the fringe looking… alone as usual.
The gritters had been busy and the main roads were free of slush. He turned the wipers to intermittent, accelerating into the darkness, not out of any eagerness to get home but because he was duty bound to get at least some sleep before the morning. And a shower. And a shave. He felt jaded. Too many hours spent searching for the enemy, and now he was fighting not only the recalcitrant weather but also exhaustion. And hunger. He hit the steering wheel with one leather-clad hand. He’d not had the chance to take the joint out of the freezer. Not that it mattered. He wasn’t cooking a meal tomorrow for a change.
There was an open invitation at Alec’s for Christmas Day this year and several of the staff were going, as well as Alec’s current girlfriend from the Medical Department, all of them couples including a couple of newer recruits who were from other countries and had no family here. He’d declined the invite, telling Alec that the staff wouldn’t feel able to let their hair down if the boss was there. Not the real reason and both of them knew it. When it came down to it, the truth was that he couldn’t face the thought of sitting there watching couples holding hands, sharing presents and secret looks and kisses under the mistletoe. Those quick glances of pity.
He’d told Alec he was going to have a quiet day and enjoy the peace and quiet for once. He was still was unsure whether Alec’s frown was annoyance or concern, and the Colonel’s sharp comments about Ebenezer Straker and the ghosts of Christmas were a little close to the bone, but the matter was dropped. Not mentioned again until earlier when Alec came into the office as he was putting on his overcoat to leave. Alec had muttered a few words about getting into the spirit of Christmas, raised an eyebrow and shrugged. Straker had walked past him in silence.
He turned the heating up in the car. It was too late to do anything about food tonight. He’d find something tomorrow, no point in making a special effort for just one person, was there? He would drop into Headquarters for a brief visit, and maybe have something to eat at the staff buffet at lunch time, but that might be intrusive and anyway he’d made enough unpopular decisions over the last few months to warrant some cutting sobriquet or other.
He didn’t want to think about it. Better to stay away and let everyone enjoy themselves without having to be on their best behaviour. They didn’t want him standing around, not the boss. And it would look pathetic anyway. As if he had no one waiting for him at home. His breath caught in his throat and his hands tightened on the wheel.
He pulled the car to a halt, heedless of the cold now, of other cars passing him by. A horn blared, lights flashed as a vehicle sped past, and with a guilty flush he switched on the hazard lights, their monotonous clicking chasing away the silence, tapping away the seconds. No one at home. It was then that it hit him; Christmas. Alone in an empty and undecorated house. He knew enough not to think of it as his home. The word was a token gesture, a convenience and nothing more. Home to Straker meant warmth and lights and family. Home meant love and friendship, parcels under a tree laden with bright lights, the fragrance of cinnamon and cloves and orange slices. And he had not had those for more years than he wanted to recall.
He turned on the ignition, pushed the gear stick into first, then second and on, driving the car forward, the revs increasing as he strained the engine. Faster, the darkness welcoming him, the car’s headlights not powerful enough to break through the blackness ahead or the blackness within. He no longer cared. And that was the worst thing of all. There was a sense of resignation in his actions. Acceptance that, should this journey end in tragedy, in death – his death – then no one would really mourn his passing. No need for careful driving now, whatever happened – happened. An end to it all? It was out of his hands.
The car sped on, charging up inclines and leaping over gentle summits, cornering with casual disregard and crushing speed limits in its wake. He had no idea where he was heading, and that was of no importance now. There was no one waiting for him, no anxious wife, no child pleading for just one more bedtime story and a goodnight kiss on this most special of evenings.
He raced down dark slopes into those empty spaces hidden by shadows, nothing slowing his headlong rush, no traffic lights or roundabouts to make him ease up on the pedal or bring the car to a sensible speed. He was unaware that the speedometer was creeping upwards and touching 80 at times, not that it would have made any difference. Nothing mattered here. Not life, or SHADO or such frivolities as the studio. He was blinded to everything apart from the knowledge that he had…… nothing.
He wiped tears away with a curt brush of his hand, before reaching in his pocket for a handkerchief to stem the sobs that burst from deep within and threatened to blind him beyond any ability to drive. What was the point in carrying on? He had done his best, and it had not been enough. He had given everything and SHADO wanted more and more. Never satisfied. There was nothing left for him to give. Nothing. His son, his wife, his friends. All sacrificed to SHADO. And tomorrow, on the one day of the year that friends and family gathered together in sharing, what did he have?
Nothing. He said the word aloud, shouting it, whispering it, the answering silence mocking him with its indifference.
The car was now speeding through the night, unhindered by speed restrictions or perhaps uncaring. After all, he had sufficient clearance to evade any speeding ticket. But the police were busy with late night drunks and he was left alone to push the car to its limits, not in any attempt to test its abilities but rather in a desperate plea. Someone to care, someone to know he was here. But no one came and, gulping back a sob, he knew his life was pointless, without worth. And he wished that he had never been born. He said the words aloud, but there was no comfort, no one in the car to reassure him.
If, by some miracle, he had never existed, then he could not be here facing a solitary Christmas. Would not have suffered the loss of John or Mary. He drove on, tears blinding him at times but his sense of right refused to take the easy route of closing his eyes and letting the car drive on unguided until something brought its journey to an abrupt end. Brought his life to a welcome end.
In the end it was not the police who stopped him, or road works, or even something as mundane as traffic lights.
She was standing on the other side of the road under a flickering street light. He caught one brief glimpse as the car raced past. For a moment he thought it was his imagination, but a glance in the rear-view mirror showed an ethereal figure, pale under the harsh glare of the sodium light. Not his fevered imagination then. He slowed down without realising what he was doing. It took him less than a minute to turn the car around and drive back to where she was still waiting. He noticed, when he saw her again, that she had blonde hair.
Stupid; hitching a lift out here. You could never tell who was out there waiting in the dark, hidden in the night. He’d seen the aftermath enough times. Humans left shredded and torn, destroyed beyond all hope of survival. He pulled up, not next to her but close enough so that she could see him behind the wheel. He sat there feeling foolish and asking himself what he was doing. She didn’t move.
In the end, he got out of the car and walked towards her, moving with caution, fearful she might run away from him if he got too close. Arms away from his sides, hands open and palms facing her, trying not to be intimidating. He did not want to scare her, just see if she needed help. She watched him in silence and he wondered if she was lost or drunk, perhaps on drugs, and yet somehow there wasn’t that look about her.
He stopped, a few yards away, waiting for a response. Her legs were bare and she was wearing flat, gold coloured pumps and a thin dress. No coat, and the thought flashed through his mind that this was a set-up, a means to trick him, maybe car-jacking. A solitary driver, an easy target this late at night in the dark on a quiet road. For a moment he considered getting his gun, but it was tucked deep beneath his heavy winter coat.
He shrugged his shoulders. What did it matter anyway? It was not as if there was anyone at home worrying about him. If she wanted the car she could have it. He looked around for an accomplice. There was no one. But there wouldn’t be. They would be hiding somewhere out of sight, ready to act when he was at his most vulnerable.
There was no point in standing there on the pavement. She had not moved, not even acknowledged his presence apart from the fact that he knew her eyes were watching him. He was half-way between her and the car now. There was enough time for him to make it back to the safety of the vehicle. Although… And then he knew. He knew with a sickening clarity that if someone burst from the undergrowth and threatened him, he would not fight back. Whatever they threatened.
The knowledge frightened him. Did he really welcome death that much? Was his mind deliberately seeking a way to end it all? A ludicrous thought leapt into his mind, treacherous and frightening in its calm acceptance of what was going to happen next: I don’t care anymore. Just let it be quick. Let it be over soon. He closed his eyes. He could hear the car engine thrumming behind him, the sounds of vehicles in the far distance, and he waited, if not at peace, then with endurance. He had no other options and at least the girl was not an alien. Even in his despair he would never have submitted to them.
The gentle touch on his arm was … breath-taking. Literally. He gasped, opening his eyes and pulling back from her in a reflex action of shock. She was in front of him, one hand light on his wrist, her head tilted as she regarded his face, her blonde hair falling in a thick fringe over huge eyes. He stumbled back, away from her, unsure now of what was happening here. He could not have said how old she was, late teens maybe, or early twenties.
‘You were in a hurry.’ Her voice was dark and low. A rich voice, sounding older than she appeared.
‘No.. Not …’ He faltered. He wasn’t in a hurry to get anywhere, and yet he had been pushing the car to its limits in the hope that…. ‘I.. ‘ He took another breath.
‘I saw you drive past just a minute ago. You were going far too fast you know.’ There was recrimination in her voice.
He shrugged. There was no answer to that. ‘Can I help you at all? I mean….’ He was still expecting several accomplices stepping forward and demanding his wallet and keys, maybe even someone driving off with the car and leaving him at the mercy of whoever was there, hiding in the darkness, waiting to act. He turned round. No. The car was still there, keys in the ignition, the engine idling with a soft purr.
‘I was waiting for someone.’
‘Oh. Right.’ He was making a fool of himself. ‘I’m sorry. Didn’t mean to bother …’
‘No. I’m glad you stopped. Can I sit in your car? It’s too cold out here.’
What the hell. If she had designs on him she was going to be disappointed. He stepped back and waved a hand. ‘Sure.’
She got in the passenger side. He closed the door and walked around to slide behind the steering wheel. He glanced over at her. Slender hands folded in her lap, silk dress covering her knees, bare shoulders and arms pale with cold. He turned on the heaters and waited, hands on the wheel where she could see them. This was not what he anticipated. But there again, ten minutes ago he had not expected to be sitting here in the dark with a young woman in his car.
‘Nice car. Is it …?’ She stroked the dashboard with one hand, glanced across at him, her eyebrows raised in an unfinished question.
‘Must be fun, being wealthy enough to own one of these.’ She didn’t look at him again, her fingers busy tracing the neat leather stitching around the edge of the seat.
‘Fun? I wouldn’t exactly call it fun.’ As if his work could ever be described as enjoyable. The daily grind of fighting aliens or arguing with producers. The car was warm enough now and he turned the heating down a notch. The dashboard clock said 20.43, later than he realised. ‘How long will you have to wait for your friend?’
‘Friend?’ The look she gave him was amused. ‘I was waiting for a man. Not a friend. Work stuff. You know.’ She smiled.
‘Oh.’ That explained the skimpy clothes. He reddened. A prostitute. The potential to be very embarrassing. He could imagine the headlines. ‘Studio Boss in Christmas Eve Assignation’. A great way to celebrate Christmas. That would be the icing on the cake, giving Henderson and the IAC the perfect opportunity to make his life hell. He should have known better than to stop, to allow himself to get caught up in such a compromising position as this. But she had seemed so fragile and alone and … lonely. He knew that feeling only too well. ‘I hope he arrives soon.’
‘Oh it doesn’t matter.’ Her fingers caressed the round knob of the gearstick. ‘You’re here now.’
Straker looked at her. ‘I think you may have …’
‘Misunderstood you? No. I don’t think so. I know exactly what you want.’ She fastened the seat belt before he could protest. ‘You can drop me back here when we’ve finished, if that’s okay?’
‘No. I’m sorry, but I don’t.-‘
Laughter interrupted him. ‘So, why were you driving so fast? Tell me the truth and I promise I’ll get out of the car.’ She smiled at him. ‘Cross my heart and hope to die.’
‘Get out.’ He stared straight ahead, fingers tapping with impatience on the steering wheel. ‘I have no intention of giving you anything. Do I have to call the police?’ He looked at her with contempt.
‘I know. I mean, I know what you want.’ She put her hand on his wrist again. A tender touch of affection and understanding, and for a frightening moment he believed her. It took all his strength, all his will-power not to admit the truth to her. A prostitute. And he had picked her up at the side of the road like some sad individual desperate for sex. Not love. Just sex. Animal lust. Bodies slotting together. Exchange of fluids. That was all. No thought of love or tenderness. He shuddered with revulsion.
‘Please.’ He tried to remain calm, unthreatening. He leaned across her and opened the passenger door aware of her fragrance, the closeness of her body, his arm brushing across her. ‘I’ll call you a taxi, give you the fare. Whatever you want.’ Damn, now he was pleading like some pathetic beggar. All he wanted was to leave, to drive off into the night and maybe… just maybe, get through the next couple of days.
She sighed and turned to him. ‘Look. It’s simple. I want to show you something, that’s all. It won’t take long, I promise.’ She pulled the door closed and leaned back, crossing her arms in a gesture that was more child-like than petulant. ‘Nothing …. Trust me. Please?’
There was little else he could do apart from drag her from the vehicle and he was not going to even attempt that. And anyway, he had nothing else planned for this evening. He looked at his watch. ‘I’ll give you until nine o’clock.’ He fastened his seat belt, watching her from the corner of his eye. Fifteen minutes. That might be enough to placate her and then he could find somewhere safe to drop her off.
‘Perfect.’ Her enthusiasm was worrying, but he followed her instructions and drove off, keeping to the speed limits now and wary of the twisting bends of the road, the need to be alert behind the wheel. They came to a crossroads. ‘Left.’ She directed him for several more miles, the once familiar roads now behind him, an alien land here and the road a mere blur beneath the wheels. He concentrated on driving, switching the lights to high beam on the winding country lanes. ‘Pull up just ahead.’ She was unfastening her seat belt before the car had stopped.
‘Where are we?’ Enough. He refused to play her game. He would wait until she got out and then he would drive off. Leave her here in the dark. Alone. He peered through the windscreen. ‘What the..’
‘Come on. Trust me.’ She was outside the car now, holding the door open and leaning in to peer at him. ‘It’s fine. Honestly. You have to believe me.’ A gust of cold air made him shiver. He couldn’t drive off now, she might get dragged under the car. He surrendered. She waited until he was standing beside her then she took the key from his hand and hurried away into the darkness. There was nothing he could do now but follow her, even if it was a trap.
The house looked strangely familiar, the white gate in the fence giving a familiar and welcoming creak as he pushed it open, the path curving around the bole of a heavy tree. He stopped, fearful, his heart pounding now, not from exertion, but dread.
‘Come with me.’ She was there beside him, her fingers on his elbow, guiding him, gentle hands leading him towards the windows with their bright lights and drapes pulled back. He was powerless to do anything other than walk beside her. He knew every step of this path, every uneven slab, the treacherous part where a leaky downspout always left a trail of ice in winter. He knew where he was and yet this was impossible. He did not want to go any further. Not to see …
It was too late. One last step, and he was outside the window looking into the warmth of a family room, seeing a fire burning in the hearth, decorations on the Christmas tree, cards on the mantelpiece. This was not just any family room. He knew what he would see, without even needing to look. The furniture, the wallpaper, the old mahogany table that was big enough to seat eight, every single part of it. He could even smell vanilla and pine and cinnamon, though that had to be his imagination.
This was his childhood home. He lived here until he went away to school and then to college and university, coming back whenever possible at vacations and furlough to spend time with his family, his only family.
He had been a solitary child, but it was a good childhood for all that, and standing there on the outside, Straker smiled to himself at the memory of his father teaching him to play baseball in the yard, of long companionable fishing trips where they spent more time talking round their camp fire and watching the stars than fishing, of his father’s quiet pride and unashamed tears at Straker’s graduation from Air Force College.
And, of course, his mother. A quiet woman, undemonstrative and shy, but like his father, she encouraged his passion for physics and mathematics and taught him those values that he still held, even today. Persistence, duty, determination. Good values.
They supported him in every way, driving him to the weekly CAP meetings at first, and the longer courses in summer. He still remembered the Christmas Day when he was thirteen, sitting there, hands trembling as he opened their present, the expectant, half-scared look on their faces as if they were worried that he would not appreciate the gift.
Flying lessons. He was unable to speak for excitement. That was so long ago, yet it was the pivotal point of his life. Everything he achieved in the years following that Christmas stemmed from their gift and their encouragement and approval. Would they be there in the living room? But that was ridiculous. How could they be? He bit his lips, afraid that if he saw them, heard them, however impossible all this was, that he would finally break. They may have been elderly parents but they had cherished him, and he had loved them and although he never spoke of his childhood he missed them. He turned away, taking several paces back along the path, desperate to avoid being seen.
‘No.’ Her voice was not kind now nor was it gentle. Determined. Insistent. Just like his mother. She tugged him forward, to stand right outside the window. ‘You need to see this.’
‘Please. Don’t.’ He could feel himself begin to lose all control. He didn’t want to be reminded of that childhood, the joys and the love and his heartbreak when they died. When they left him. His only consolation that they died before John, not suffering that loss as well. But she forced him. With a strength that he could not resist she turned him around so that he looked straight into the room. And they were there. He pushed a sob down, fists clenching.
There was something different about the room when he looked closer. He took a pace forward, and another. This was … all wrong. The tree was a false one, half decorated, the tinsel tatty and askew, a few baubles clinging to branches. A handful of cards on the mantelpiece, that was all. There were usually so many cards from friends that his mother hung them on ribbons on either side of the fireplace and doors.
Straker put a gloved fist on the window, leaning closer, heedless now that he might be seen by the couple inside. His father was sitting on one side of the room, watching the television, a half-empty whisky glass on the small table beside him. He looked shabby and unshaven, hair untidy and in need of cutting, and not just a trim either. As if there was no point in making any effort. His father?
‘Dad?’ It was a mere whisper. He spread his fingers wide on the glass as if that might blot out the view. The table was laid, the Christmas cloth in place. He looked for the poinsettias that his mother had embroidered one year, each scarlet leaf done in hundreds of tiny stitches. He remembered watching her while he sat at the same table doing his homework. And when, after weeks of patient work it was completed, she had taken a small piece of spare fabric and sewn a bookmark for him, with the Moon and the Earth.
He still had it. Somewhere.
The tablecloth – this tablecloth – had one flower, its leaves half finished as if the embroiderer had lost interest, had given up after a few hours work, or had seen no point in continuing. And then he saw there were only two places at the table. Opposite each other, mis-matched glasses beside each setting and paper napkins instead of linen. Unpolished silver.
That was his job at Christmas; polishing the rarely-used knife holders and the napkin rings. It was a family tradition, started when he was five and barely able to bring more than a dull gleam to the silver. But no one had ever commented and over the years, even when he was a Colonel and home for the Christmas break, he still polished the silver while his mother made stuffing and his father chatted about baseball and the garden and his friends at the golf club and poured a single glass of beer for himself. Why had these been left tarnished? Why only two places at the table?
His mother pushed herself out of the chair and walked towards the place where Straker was still standing, his hand flat on the glass as if he wanted to reach into the room. She looked old. Not the old of years, that natural progression of time, white hair, skin wrinkled from laughter and smiles, but a different kind of old. One that comes from boredom and the lack of joy. Perhaps ‘old’ was the wrong word. She looked somehow apathetic as if her life had little meaning and there was no reason to get up in the mornings.
She stood at the table, re-arranging the glasses, the napkins, the tarnished silver, all the while ignoring the man sitting nearby. Moving things from one place to another and back again as if she would never be satisfied with the final placement. The couple had not spoken one word not even acknowledging the presence of the other person in the room. And yet, as a child this house, his home, had been filled with conversation and music and laughter. He leaned forward, banging his forehead on the glass and jerking back, fearful that the couple must have seen him by now. No. Not the couple. His mother. His father.
‘Who? I mean…?’
The girl was there beside him now, looking into the room, her voice full of sadness. ‘You know who they are, Edward. You know this house, those people. This is your home. Your parents, but -‘
‘No,’ he hissed. He didn’t care that she had spoken his name, that she knew who he was. That was unimportant now. It was his turn to grab an elbow and pull her away down the path to stand under the maple tree. He’d learned to climb this tree before he was seven. Fallen out of it more than once. He still had the scar on his ankle. Didn’t he? ‘Those are not them. I know my parents. I … I knew them.’ He pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his eyes, blew his nose, hating her for what she had shown him, and hating his own weakness in letting his emotions out. Tiredness. That was the reason. Nothing else.
‘Believe me Edward. I have no reason to lie to you. This is where you should have lived as a child. Where you should have grown up, and played with your father, been loved and cherished. But that didn’t happen in this world. In this world you have your wish.’ She waved a hand at the house, at the bright window with such misery hiding behind the glass. ‘They had no son to cherish. You were never born. Your mother blamed herself, and then your father. They tried everything, for years, until they lost hope and became bitter, envious of other families, of friends who had children.’
She touched his face with her fingers. A chill touch like ice. ‘It’s time we moved on. There is a lot to do still before we finish.’ She walked away from him into the night and in silence he followed, not knowing where this night would take him, or how it would end, but also knowing that somehow he had started this and he had to see it through, whatever the cost.
He found himself driving once more, the tyres gripping the wet road, his hands tight on the wheel. How long had he been here, driving through the night, the world outside the car a blur of darker shadows and eerie shapes? She only spoke to give him directions. He felt nauseous, feverish and hot. He wiped his forehead with the back of one hand but that was no help.
He could see the two of them in that room, could see with frightening clarity those things he had refused to acknowledge: the shabby wallpaper, the stained carpet, the faded and worn drapes, the half-empty glass of alcohol beside his father, the neglect. He opened the car window for some fresh air, or perhaps because he feared that he might be sick, but the cold was bitter, stinging his face, and he closed it and drove on into the night, endless mile after endless mile it seemed, white lines on the road flashing past.
He glanced at her once. She was sitting there, hands once more folded in her lap, the expression on her face unfathomable. He caught sight of his own face in the mirror. Gaunt and white. The face of an old man. Or perhaps a ghost. He averted his gaze and drove on.
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.’
The main control room, and yet it was not. So different, so very different. Oh it was SHADO, there was no questioning that, but these people were not his, this was not his Control room. His SHADO was not a jumble of burnt out and wrecked consoles, of exhausted and filthy staff clustered around the few remaining machines that still seemed to be active. Wires and cables looping from broken conduits and from spaces between blackened ceiling tiles. No one in uniform, only one or two faces that he recognised. The alarms were sounding and yet no one was reacting, as if they were past caring or were too numb to react.
Red Alert. The colour bathed the room in blood. They were all watching one sensor as if they had nothing better to do. He could see the screen, the incoming UFOs, more than he could count. And yet the men and women were silent, the dark-haired man in the centre of the room standing, arms folded, watching without any sign of reaction, head lowered.
Why weren’t they doing something?
‘Moonbase. For god’s sake, what’s happened to Moonbase?’ The words burst from him but no one turned round at the sound of his hoarse shout. He stepped through the arch, heedless now of all thoughts of security. The enemy were coming and his world was in danger. And they were doing nothing.
Where was Alec? And who was the man standing there in his place? His place; Straker’s place? A SHADO Commander would never submit, would never surrender. It was his duty to fight, to guard humanity, whatever the cost. Straker moved closer, reaching out to the man, but she was there again, taking his wrist in her cold fingers and pulling him away.
He tried to free himself, to speak, but he could not utter any words, could not extricate himself from her grasp, her hold on him. She was his commander now and he obeyed her without question, following her out into the corridor like a child.
‘Shh.’ She cupped his face between her hands. ‘Be strong Edward. Stay with me. You need to listen, and learn.’
He was about to speak but she pulled him closer, giving him a quick hug and then releasing him. Small comfort. His hand hurt where the concrete had skinned his knuckles, and he lifted it to his mouth, the taste of his blood salty, like tears. ‘Help me.’ It was an admission of his weakness, and he half-expected her to reject him, but she nodded and led him back to the archway, her hand holding his in a grip that was so tight he could not have pulled away, whatever happened.
‘I can’t help you. You have to do this yourself. It won’t be long now. I promise.’ He could hear the sadness in her voice, and he wondered at that for a moment, then he heard the man speak and if her fingers had not been so tight on his he would have deserted her, would have gone back into the control room.
His control room.
‘This is Thomson to all units. This will be the final message from Headquarters. All mobiles and defence units-.’ The man paused and took a deep breath. ‘As from this moment, you are on your own. Do whatever you can. This base will be under attack in the next few minutes. I commend your bravery and thank you all for your support through the last months. I will remain here until the end but those of you who wish to leave have my permission and my blessing. Thank you and may God go with you all.’ The man wiped his eyes, before continuing. ‘This is Commander Peter Thompson, SHADO Headquarters. Signing out.’ He gave a sharp slice of his hand and the link was cut. No one moved.
Straker could hear the crackles of failing communications systems, smell the pungent stench of burning electronics. SHADO, his life’s work dying. His world left unprotected.
And who was Peter Thompson? Frantic by now to learn more, to find out what had happened here Straker tried to free his hand from her grip only to find himself forced back towards the emergency stairs. He was unable to resist the girl pulling on his arm as if she was desperate to get away from the subterranean complex.
Her determination was too much to resist and as the basement door slammed shut behind them she hurried up the steps, dragging him up the first few until the shock had waned somewhat and he was able to make his own stumbling way out to the darkness towards the car. He was utterly bemused by now, unable to speak, his thoughts a jumble of words and visions and emotions. The events of the evening had confused him beyond the ability to rationalise the situation.
Or perhaps that was his mind shunning the reality, rejecting the words he had heard in that strange place, that alternate SHADO. Not his SHADO. He was sure of that.
He stumbled towards his car, the one consistent thing in this world, the one thing he trusted. It was just a car, nothing special but it was the same car that he had driven to work a few days ago. It was everything else that was different. This world and the people in it. He was the alien here, the intruder in a strange land, drawn here by the girl and imprisoned. Nothing in this world was real: his parents, Henderson, the perpetual darkness that overlay the land like a suffocating blanket. Even this SHADO was false. His SHADO would prevail against the enemy. Whatever they did, however many there were. The aliens would never win. He would not let them. Ever.
The cold night air, its touch like ice on his skin, was a shock after the staleness of the underground space, but it cleared his thoughts and filled him with purpose. He would get into the car and drive away, drive through the night until he left the thick and foul night far behind him and dawn broke the spell. He was close to the car now, her fingers still clamped on his arm like a vice.
Then he heard the sounds in the distance, saw lights brightening the darkness above him, and he knew what was about to happen. The enemy. And there were too many of them to count. He would never leave this place. There was but one thing he could do now, in a final act of duty and sacrifice.
He spun round, his momentum dragging her closer so that he was able to kick her feet from under her and fling her to the ground. She cried out in fear and pain, but he ignored her cries, dropping on top and covering her with his own body, her head beneath his chest and her arms trapped under his.
There was no time to do anything else before the first blasts from the UFOs could hit the studio complex, to drill through foundations and bedrock and reinforced steel. He put his free hand over his face, a futile gesture but it was instinctive. She might survive, but there was no way that, unprotected as he was, he would last more than a few seconds and his mind flashed back to those treacherous thoughts earlier in the evening before this nightmare began. I don’t care anymore. Just let it be quick. Let it be over soon.
It would be quick but, he suddenly realised with horror, he did care. That, despite everything that he had endured, he wanted to live. It was too late. He would never get to wrap those parcels, or deliver the cards. Or have a second chance.
His last thought, as he waited for the wave of super-heated air to sear the skin from his body, and the ensuing shrapnel to tear the flesh from his bones, was that Alec would never know what happened. And that was….
There was a flash of such coruscating brilliance that it was visible even through fingers pressed against his face and through eyes scrunched shut. He would have time for one last gasping breath before the burning air scorched his lungs. And he crushed the fragile body beneath him, feeling her desperate gasp for air, her quiet cry as rough ground scored her face, as he tried to protect her. Maybe his coat would be provide some extra cover. But that was a foolish thought. She would die as well, only hers would be a slower death. There was no way he could save her from this.
His fingers tightened on hers, a single gasp of fear, of sorrow and regret. No time left for anything else. He knew what was happening now, had seen those beams of light destroy buildings and ships. Strong enough to blast through earth and concrete and reinforced bunkers deep underground. There were enough of them in the sky to obliterate any trace of SHADO.
He waited for the sound of explosions ripping apart the air, tensed himself against the pain of metal slammed into him. Nothing. A waft of air brushed over him, ruffling his hair with a gentle warmth, nothing more than a late summer afternoon’s sunshine, then the darkness returned. He lay still for long moments, aware of her shaking beneath him, and then when all was still he pushed himself off, rolling away from her and then levering himself onto his knees, one hand splayed on the car. He was unable to stop the trembling.
He felt utterly stupid. Such a ridiculous reaction, thinking that there was going to be an explosion. He groaned and used the bulk of the car as a support in his efforts to stand and then he bent down, reaching out with one hand to help her to her feet. Bare feet. She had lost her thin gold pumps when he pushed her to the ground. He turned to look for them and halted.
Just a few yards away from the car the tarmac was bubbling and melting, thick rivulets of asphalt oozing like black lava across the rutted ground. Smoke – no, not smoke – dense clouds of roiling darkness blotted out whatever remained of the complex. And yet he had not heard or felt anything other than that gentle breath of warm air on his cheek. The devastation was total. He did not need to inspect the damage, to clamber down the emergency access route once more to check for survivors. The size of the crater in front of him was enough.
The beams from the UFOs had burrowed down to the heart of the underground complex, leaving a vast crater in their wake and in the flames that flickered from the ruins, he could see, open to the skies, the central control room, its floor buckled, its charred remains slowly turning from red to black as the incredible heat of the aliens weapons dissipated. The walls were starting to collapse in on themselves even as he watched. No one could have survived.
The girl’s shoes were beside the car. Numb with shock he picked them up and handed them over to her without a word. The air was fresh, no stench of death or smoke or burning, and yet the smoke was laden with filth.
‘What’s happened?’ His voice was dull now, all the fight gone, all the strength, as if someone else was speaking.
‘Get in the car. Please.’ She was busy slipping her feet into the shoes and did not look up at him.
In the car? Why? Did she think they could simply drive away from here, over the melted remains of the driveway, the road now buried beneath rubble? He could see the mangled remains of the studio sign, warped by heat and the blast of an explosion. The letters half-burned away. Harlington Studios. As if he had never existed here. He bent forward, resting his head on the edge of the car. More tricks, then her hand touched his shoulder and he spun around.
‘Or shall I drive?’ She was about to slip under his arm and get into the driver’s seat but he straightened up.
‘Drive? Drive where?’ He stared at her in disbelief, incredulity in his voice.
‘Home.’ She seemed unperturbed by her surroundings, as if this was an everyday occurrence. She put her hands in the pockets of his coat and shivered. ‘It’s getting late.’
He waved one hand at the barely discernible road. ‘Home? You think we can just drive away from here? We’ll be lucky to make it to the main road on foot and if the UFOs are still around we won’t get very far before they find us. We need to find somewhere safe. Hide out until help arrives.’
‘There is no help for us here. No one comes to save this world. The aliens have won. We need to leave now.’ She pushed him down into the car then slammed the door shut and ran to the passenger side. He hadn’t moved. ‘I told you. Drive,’ she said.
The car moved forward, inching towards the melted and twisted carnage and he flinched in anticipation of the inevitable collision but nothing stopped their progress. He could see the rubble, the holes in the road, the smashed bricks and slabs that barricaded the route but they seemed to fade as the car approached. He had no difficulty seeing the road, a ghost-like track shimmering in the dark. The buildings behind were still burning, the crater still there and yet it was as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred here.
They drove past the abandoned pub without stopping and he drove faster, a strong sense of urgency now. Not much time left, but for what, he had no idea.
He glanced at the dashboard, checking the time. 20:45. Impossible. He reached forward to tap the display just as it clicked over. 20:46. He took his eyes off the road for a moment to look at his passenger.
She was half-asleep, curled up in his coat, her feet tucked under the excess length and her arms wrapped around herself. She looked ashen even in the soft glow from the dashboard lights. He had no idea what to do, apart from drive on and hope that somehow he would wake up from this or someone would appear to help him escape. One thing was certain; he could not leave her now. Not here, in this strange place where the dead came to life and the living died and aliens invaded the earth. He wiped his eyes on his sleeve, and headed north, keeping Polaris in front of him in the night sky. As good a direction as any. Wherever the journey took him, it had to be better than this horror.
Northwards, the clock on the dashboard changing. 20:52, 20:54, 20:55. He found a motorway, he had no idea which one and it was deserted, but he pushed the car faster, tearing down the outside lane in fear of coming up behind some slow driver on the inside.
Faster. She was asleep now, her head drooping on the upturned collar of his coat. Then, a wide expanse ahead and lights. The first he had seen since leaving the devastation behind. Houses, roads, cars. People. He gave a sob of relief and slowed the car down, pulling over to leave the motorway at the next junction, still heading north. So far it hadn’t failed him.
He would wake her in a while and find out where she lived. Drop her at home. It couldn’t be that far from Harlington, or his own house. And then he could put this evening behind him, and get some sleep. Try to forget. If that was possible. The memories would haunt him for a long time.
‘You can stop just over there.’ Her voice startled him and he found himself following her directions once more, pulling over to the side of the road and turning off the engine.
A familiar spot. The street light where she had been standing still flickering. The clock flickered as well. 20:59. She sighed and stretched, unfurling herself from the seat and yawning.
‘Where should I drop you?’ His voice was a whisper.
She laughed and put her hand on his, cool fingers interlacing with his for a moment before she released him. ‘We’ve not finished yet, Edward. I’m sure there are questions you want answering. So …?’
Questions. What did he want to ask here? Everything and yet nothing. Did he really want to know what he had seen? The truth? That his world was going to end in that way, torn apart by the enemy? Sometimes it was better not to know. To face each day with a brave heart, not fearing that the night might bring the end. But his curiosity, as always, made him ask.
‘Was that…’ He grimaced, swallowed, coughed. Tried again, his voice stronger this time. ‘Was that my world, my parents, Henderson’s grave? I mean. It all seemed so real and yet now I don’t know.’
‘It was real, Edward, That couple should have become your mother and father. Not in this world, but in that other one. Everything you witnessed tonight was from that other world, its past and its present and …’ she stared at him. ‘Its future. A world about to be conquered by the aliens. It loses the battle to defend itself, even with worldwide night-time curfews and fuel rationing. That world suffered massive incursions by the aliens. You saw some of the houses they attacked, you saw SHADO headquarters destroyed. Moonbase and the Skydivers were lost months before. SHADO was never going to win especially after Commander Freeman died.’
‘Alec? The Commander? I mean, he would have done a good job, don’t misunderstand me. But what happened to …’ Straker turned to face her and she squeezed his fingers.
‘You? You made a wish, remember? You wished that you had never been born. And on that world your wish was granted. Commander Straker was not there to convince the United Nations of the need for SHADO and as a result it never had real power or sufficient financial and technological support. Most governments mocked it until it was too late. And after Alec was killed by Collins, things got worse. It took months to find anyone willing to take on the job. It was an impossible and thankless task.’
‘What about Paul?’
She turned away. ‘You were not there to fight Colonel Foster’s cause. He was executed for treason. Colonel Freeman blamed himself.’
Alec, Paul, Henderson. His parents. His world. All because of one selfish desire. ‘How do I stop it? What can I do?’ He clasped his head in his hands.
‘Stop it? Do you want to stop it?’
He gave her a look of loathing. ‘What do you think I am? A murderer? I would give my life to save this world. You know that.’
‘Yes, I do. But do you? Do you know what you are saying? I am not asking that you sacrifice your life, Edward. That would be easy. Too easy. Instead I am asking you to live. That is the only way to save this world, your world. Can you do that?’
His words came back to haunt him. A solitary Christmas, and the thought in his mind that he ‘wished he had never been born’. A just punishment for such inconsiderate thoughts. He had been selfish and she had shown him the consequences.
And yet, the thought of the next day was painful. He rubbed his eyes in an attempt to ease the stinging. ‘Yes,’ he said, his voice a mere whisper again. ‘I never thought, I never-.’
His words were cut short. She held his face in her hands, warm hands now, and kissed him for the second time. A tender kiss, her lips gentle and soft against his own, fingers stroking his tears away and soothing the fear. He let his own hands rest on her face, tracing her eyebrows, her eyelids with the lightest of touches, aware of her relief and her happiness, that sense of a world being put right and set on its true course once more. The kiss ended and she snuggled up against him, her head on his chest and he let himself lean back, closing his eyes and falling asleep in an instant.
He knew he was dreaming; there was a part of him that was separate, watching from the sidelines as the young boy sat beside the fireplace opening the present from his parents then looking up at them, his eyes wide with delight. He saw the young officer polishing the silver napkin rings at the table, his elderly parents sitting beside him, chatting about work and friends, delighted to have him home for the holidays.
He was there in the car as the Rolls swerved, and he saw Straker risking his own life, taking those precious few seconds to lunge forward, grabbing Henderson’s wrist and dragging him from the car. He flinched as he saw himself hit the ground, rolling over and over, coughing blood before recovering enough to look around in fear. He saw Straker crawl over to Henderson, unconscious and yet alive, saw the car a burning wreck at the bottom of the hill.
He stood beside him in the security chamber in New York, and was there as he entered the room to sit at the head of the table while the world’s most influential men prepared to interrogate him. He was watching as Straker walked through the half-built control room, clambering over wires and cables, avoiding the consoles that were in the process of being installed, and through to the empty office, no desk yet, no furniture at all. He listened to the argument with Alec Freeman.
He was in the car with Straker on the way home to Mary, was at his side in the hospital, waved his own unseen greeting to the baby in the small cot, sat in the vintage fire engine beside John, was at the edge of the road when the car came round the corner, in Paul’s apartment, when they found the evidence. He looked on as Craig floated away into space and Straker clung to the handhold on the outside of SID. He was there, cheering silently, when Straker slammed the rock against the wall, and he strode beside Straker down the path, away from Catherine’s body, Lake hurrying after in a futile effort to be of some comfort.
He was there. Through the joys and the pain and the loss.
And then Straker turned round and saw him. And held out his hand.
He grasped it in his own fingers, staring into his own eyes. Then there was only one. Only himself – Ed Straker – alone in the dark, but this was not the darkness of fear and death and that other world. This was just night-time, a much needed respite between one day and the next, a time of rest and recuperation, nothing more sinister than that. He allowed himself to relax for a moment before a surge jolted through him, as if the world had moved around, settling into a new position and then shuffling to get comfortable. He took a deep breath, feeling as if he had slept for hours. It was a long time since he had felt so refreshed by sleep.
There was a distant sound, and a blaze of light that came closer, blinding him for a moment. A car driving past them; the first one since he had stopped here – how long ago? Hours? There was no way to tell. He kept still, aware that she was still there, pressed against him. He could have stayed there all night, holding her and being held, but in the end he bent down to kiss the top of her head. Not a lover’s kiss. A kiss of gratitude. He could never love this girl, he feared her too much, but he owed her more than he would ever be able to repay. His life, his future, his world.
She stirred and lifted her head to look up at him, before moving back. ‘Time for me to go,’ she said and opened the car door, yawning. The street light was still flickering and he saw that the dashboard clock hadn’t changed. 20:59. He didn’t waste the effort in wondering. This night had been full of surprises.
‘Will you be all right?’ The question was foolish; he knew the answer already.
‘Of course I will. And so will you.’ She leaned in, one last time. ‘Happy Christmas Edward. Don’t forget. This world needs you.’
‘I won’t.’ There was not much more he could say to her. He didn’t dare say much anyway.
The door slammed, the street light went out for a brief moment and when it came back it was no longer flickering. He craned forward, but there was no sign of the girl. He was not worried, he knew she would be safe. The cold air had chilled the car and he shivered, then remembered his coat. She was still wearing it. Nothing he could do about that, and anyway, it was just a coat. He could get another, next week.
He rubbed his hands together to warm them and then, with a sigh, started the engine. The numerals changed. 21:00. Still Christmas Eve. Time enough to drive home, have that early night and then, in the morning, finish wrapping parcels and writing cards. He could deliver most of them on his way to Headquarters before spending a couple of hours at work, maybe even join the staff for a few minutes before the lunch break.
It was too late to accept Alec’s invitation, but there would be other years, other Christmases. In the future.
The pub at the crossroads was emptying, last orders called, boisterous drinkers spilling out into the night in groups heading for waiting taxis. He stopped for a moment and imagined it as he had seen it in that other world. Boarded up, abandoned. A world too afraid of the enemy to dare venture out for an evening with friends. He let the handbrake out and moved forward, but then slammed to a halt as a group of women staggered across the road right in front of the car, tipsy and giggling and harmless, wearing Santa Claus hats and making their way home to waiting families and boyfriends.
Time for him to get moving as well, but there was no need to rush. The drunks were out in force, and he had no wish to run someone over; he had seen enough people hurt tonight. He was aware of the need to drive with care and not just because the police were out in force. Her words echoed in his ears as he drove home. ‘This world needs you.’ He had a second chance and he was not going to waste it.
Gravel crunched beneath the tyres and he parked the car, sitting behind the wheel for a minute, loathe to break the silence. He could see the street lights nearby and the porch light from his nearest neighbour. Home. It was past nine o’clock now, though he checked his watch just to make sure, and he closed the car door with a soft clunk, looking up at the swathe of stars in the Christmas sky before heading inside. The pile of letters and Christmas cards behind the door could wait until morning.
He tossed his jacket on the back of the sofa, heaved a sigh of relief and, without any hesitation, poured himself a brandy. He took a small sip, relishing the warmth in his throat and held the glass in his hand for a moment, thinking, before he put it down on the table and headed upstairs. A very quick shower, a shave, changing into casual trousers and shirt, and he was out again in less than ten minutes. The car was still warm.
The Studio reception area was bright with Christmas lights and a decorated tree. Sunk in his misery he hadn’t noticed it when he left earlier, but now he stood back, admiring the effect before walking down the corridor to Miss Ealand’s office. It was empty, as he expected, but that made no difference; the senior access to SHADO operated twenty-four hours a day. He waited by the door as the elevator descended, feeling a little uneasy and not sure how his presence would be greeted. Alec had been curt earlier. But it was merited. After all, he’d behaved like an idiot, rushing off like that and getting himself into such a state. A shiver ran through him as he recalled his wish.
He had no idea who the girl was, or what she was and, in some respects, he had no desire to find out. She had opened his eyes to his selfishness and without her intervention he might not be here today. His headlong drive into the darkness would have ended in death, maybe more than just his own death. But the overwhelming, and quite frankly, nauseous despair clouding his thoughts was gone. He looked at his watch again. A quarter to ten. So much had happened in the last hour to make him reassess his life. Oh there was still the loneliness, the aching sense of loss, but he was needed here and it was that knowledge that made the emptiness bearable.
He shook his head, the door slid open and he stepped out, for once hesitant in these familiar surroundings. A rush of memories: the wreckage of the Control room in that other SHADO, so many deaths, so much destruction. He found himself heading with brisk steps towards ‘his’ control room, ignoring the laughter and music and a distinctive sound in the distance. Henderson’s unmistakeable voice and the sound of heavy footsteps approaching. He stopped as the General came round the corner.
‘Ed? Freeman said you’d gone home a while ago.’
Was that disapproval? Should he have stayed away, spent the evening alone at home, drinking brandy? He would have turned and walked away but it was too late now. More footsteps and he was trapped, as Alec appeared. A pause, a frown and then a look of quiet satisfaction and relief. ‘Wondered who it was, arriving late. Come on Ed, everyone’s in the staff lounge.’
‘Catch you later Ed. Good to see you.’ Henderson headed off towards the men’s cloakroom, and Alec held out his hand. Forgiveness?
Straker grasped it, a wry grin on his face. No need for words. But even so it was his turn to shrug this time, embarrassed. ‘Alec. Tomorrow? Could I – ’
Freeman smiled. ‘Join us for dinner? I was hoping you’d change your mind. Now, Commander,’ and there was more than a touch of respect in that word. He put a hand on Straker’s shoulder. ‘Come and have a Christmas drink with the rest of us. Punch?’
Straker felt his tension ease. It would be fine. He shook his head in dismay. ‘The Alec Freeman Special Concoction? I’ll stick with champagne, thanks. That way I know what I’m drinking.’
They both laughed and he stepped aside to let Alec go through the doorway first, slipping behind him and trying not to make an obvious entrance. The lounge was filling up and it was easy to make his way, unseen, over to a quieter corner of the room, picking up a glass on the way, and then standing there, watching the rest of the crowd. These were his people, and he realised that he was at home with them, as comfortable and relaxed as if they were his family.
And in many respects they were. There was no need to feel lonely here; he was surrounded by friends, even if he was by himself. Ford wandered over to get a glass of ‘something drinkable’ as he put it, and they spent a few minutes trying to work out the ingredients of Alec’s punch, both agreeing that perhaps it was better not to know. Miss Ealand offered him mince pies and tiny home-made pastries, wished him a merry Christmas and, blushing somewhat, gave him a peck on the cheek. He realised with surprise, that he was enjoying himself.
There were things he needed to say to Henderson later. Not tonight though. It could wait. Inconsequential things yet important. A good man, James. They needed to work together in the future instead of being on edge all the time and bickering about finances. And tomorrow he would find a quiet moment and talk to Alec. Maybe even get there early and tell him about tonight.
He finished his drink, and went to get a fresh one. The room was busier now, couples talking in corners, holding hands, discreet kisses. The music slowed, Alec and his girlfriend heading onto the dance floor with all the other couples for a slow waltz. Straker closed his eyes for a moment, put down his untouched glass and headed outside. Time for some fresh air, while everyone else was busy.
The lights on the tree twinkled at him as he walked into the Reception area and listened as music drifted across the empty space. This was the hardest moment, the ache to hold someone in his arms, to dance with a woman close to him. There was a brief touch on his hand and he flinched, remembering other flickering lights, other fingers on his wrist and then, he turned around.
She was the last person he expected to see here, smiling, her hands held out for him to grasp. He had no idea how she came to be here tonight, but he needed someone to hold and someone to hold him. He needed her.
He hoped she needed him.
He was not aware of the door opening, or the sound of footsteps as Alec, unseen in the shadows at the perimeter, came searching. He was only aware of hands pulling him closer, of the warmth of her skin as he bent to murmur in her ear, and Nina lifting her face to meet his. A lover’s kiss, stolen in the shadows, no-one watching them now, as Alec crept away, leaving them in peace.
And all was well with the world.
Ltcdr. Copyright. Dec 2015
This story uses the canon-based biography for Ed Straker written for the Herald. The biography can be found here: Straker’s Age