Steel

‘So it must be that UFO that came in a month ago under our radar blind spot.’ I said. The report was there, on his desk, but Straker was thinking, his arms folded, eyes half-shut in thought for a moment or two.

‘And if it stayed underwater it would escape deterioration in Earth’s atmosphere.’ He shook his head in annoyance, arms wrapped around himself as if in protection. I could see the muscles in his jaw clenching with tension maybe, or annoyance. It was not like Straker, reacting like that. I wondered what he was thinking.

‘They could even have slipped in an underwater craft in component sections.’ I said. It was the scenario we feared most, a UFO escaping detection and then hiding somewhere under water. Their only place of safety. It made our task almost impossible; I mean, we have the subs, but the oceans are vast and it’s impossible to patrol every square mile. The only good thing was so far only one ship had been destroyed. That was no consolation though, it was one UFO too many. And they were still out there, deep under the ocean, waiting for their next victims.

I walked over, reaching behind him to pick up the folder. He didn’t move, his arms still folded as if he was holding himself together, afraid he might fall apart if he slackened his grip and I wondered what the problem was. It was clear he was uncomfortable, but that was Straker through and through. Kept his emotions to himself. He’d tell me, if he wanted me to know. If not, well I was used to it. I’d known him long enough not to intrude on his thoughts.

‘Possibly.’ He frowned. ‘They seem to have perfected life maintenance in a liquid environment.’

‘Right.’ I leaned closer, just letting him know I was aware. ‘What do we do next?’ I waited. There was something wrong, I just didn’t know what.

He straightened up, stiffened his shoulders, as if steeling himself for battle. A long, deep breath. Now for it.

‘A detailed search of the entire area. I’ll go myself.’ He moved away from me and sat down.

I looked at him, saw the tautness stretching his body to its limits. ‘In Skydiver?’ The last place I expected.

‘What else?’ He gave me that look. The ‘don’t push it, Colonel Freeman’ look.

I ignored it and pushed anyway. ‘Well. Wouldn’t you rather I took over?’ I tried to make it nonchalant, as if he had better things to do than go gallivanting off on a wild goose chase, but he was too sharp.

‘Oh. That…’ He gave me one of those rare smiles that took years off him. And there he was –  the Ed Straker I had first known all those years ago. I hadn’t seen him look like that for a while. He paused, leaning back, tapping his fingers together and ignoring me, focusing those blue eyes on the far wall as if afraid to focus on the here and now. ‘Well the dictionary defines it as a morbid dread of confined spaces.’ He tilted his head. ‘Skydiver’s not all that small.’

‘And you’re not always morbid.’

‘Exactly.’

He gave another of those quick grins, but I could feel the nervousness lurking there in the background, his reluctance to make the first move as if scared he might reveal his true feelings. I leaned across the desk, flicking the intercom to connect with Johnson in the Control room.

‘Get me Skydiver’s positional chart.’ Straker was sitting there, waiting. He knew the position of every Skydiver, there was no need to tell him, but I needed to break the silence, to be doing something to take his mind off the thought. ‘It’s in the South Atlantic area about 400 miles south of St Helena.’

He leaned forward, in control once again, his thoughts now on the practicalities of planning. ‘Is there a rendezvous point there where we could exchange the sub crews?’ I could still hear a faint undercurrent of tension in his voice. The words cut short. No unnecessary details. The facts. Nothing else.

‘Well, there are dozens of small atolls in the area. Mostly uninhabited.’

I went over to the map on the far wall, trying not to watch his face, the irrational fear he was trying to contain behind his mask of Commander. Bloody fool. I could have gone in his place. Claustrophobia never bothered me. Now spiders? They’re a different matter. No spiders on Skydiver thank heavens, or anywhere in headquarters. But he was probably right. He was the best man for the job. He was the one who could work out what they were up to most of the time. I didn’t envy him though. Who would?

‘Good. I want to be aboard with the best available sub crew as soon as possible.’

‘Who do you want to take?’ It wouldn’t be me, I wasn’t up to speed on Sub rotation, and I know my strengths. Moonbase at a pinch but I’m best at home here in Headquarters or flying a plane.

‘Waterman’s got a good hold on things so no need to replace him. I’ll take …’ He steepled his fingers. I could see his mind running through the available personnel, dismissing some as unavailable, considering others. ‘Foster, Chin and Lt. Barry. She can be back here in less than ten hours. Set it up will you Alec? I’ll finish up here and then I’m going to get some sleep.’

It was quiet in Control once he’d left. Gave me time to get things organised. And there was enough to do: getting Nina on the first available transport back from Moonbase, the drive out to SHADO’s private airport to board Seagull X-Ray, and then a chopper out to one of those atolls. I knew Ed wouldn’t relax on the flights, he’d be going over the reports and running through various scenarios in his mind. I wondered how it would work out; Ed there in the sub, trapped, confined and claustrophobic. For all his blasé assurance that Skydiver wasn’t that small I knew better. And so did Straker.

He came in briefly on his way to the airport. He looked drawn and pale, as if he hadn’t slept at all. I knew what he’d been doing: immersing himself in the reports and details, making sure he knew all there was to know. There was no need for him to come in either, but that was Straker for you. ‘Control freak’ some people might have called him, but I prefer to think of him as obsessed. He’d lost enough to the aliens and SHADO over the years, and I could understand his need to make sure everything was in order. Once he’d gone I took the chance myself for a break. It would be at least five hours before the rendezvous with Skydiver and there was nothing I could do now.

***

I was in my office, half-heartedly leafing through paperwork, unable to settle to the mundane task of approving supply rotas when Ford called me through. I could tell by the tone of his voice something was wrong. He handed me the printouts and I swore to myself, unable to do anything other than listen and wait and hope. The control room was pretty quiet, people eavesdropping in on the communications and yet not saying anything. Nothing anyone could say really. Then the radio went dead and we were left imagining the worst.

It was some reassurance when we got the call came through from Waterman. At least the sub was intact when he left although that was no guarantee it was still in one piece. I let Ford handle it; he’s our designated officer in these situations although I wanted to say something, do something. Even take over.

Pointless really. The radio link to Skydiver was down, and not from our end. I knew Moonbase was listening in, and the other Skydivers. I put everyone on Red Alert; better to be safe than sorry. I didn’t want the other stations getting distracted by what was happening here, only to find themselves under attack because they hadn’t been paying attention.

‘Sky 1 to SHADO Control.’ Waterman sounded composed. It didn’t surprise me. We don’t recruit men who might have a tendency to panic. ‘Over-flying last known position. Still no radio contact. Wreckage apparent. Re-docking negative.’

Keith gave me a quick glance, and I waved a hand at him to continue. His responsibility. He took a breath. ‘Roger Sky 1. Proceed to nearest SHADO base. Starting sub-smash procedure.’ No hint of concern in his voice, or apprehension. That’s why he’s here, in HQ.

‘Roger.’

I forgot Waterman, instead turning my attention to the Emergency Procedures manual. Sub-smash. The word was bad enough, conjuring up images of crushed bulkheads and water gushing in to flood compartments, circuits exploding in showers of sparks and crackles of static, power failures, and the tiny space left in total darkness. The sub diving head down to the seabed even. God. And Straker was there.

‘Ford.’ I tried to keep my voice calm. ‘I’ll go myself.’ The words sounded familiar somehow. I went through to the main office, leaving Ford to set things up; the practicalities – transport, divers and so on. He knows the routines. I wanted to head off straight away but there was no point until the team was ready. We’re organised here, very organised, but even SHADO can’t perform instantaneous miracles. I stood in the office, looking around, wondering how I could fill in the long minutes, anything to keep me from pacing the floor and metaphorically biting my nails.

In the end I opened the drawer in his desk. It was there, under his netbook and the everyday minutiae of his everyday work; an unremarkable book with no distinguishing features. Nothing to say it was of any importance. No one else knew it was here, apart from the other command staff and of course, Jackson.

Ed’s personal log book was just that. Personal. I’d noticed it out on the desk a couple of times, even seen him write in it, but it wasn’t official.

I had my own log book, as did Paul. They were Jackson’s idea – keeping a record of events from a personal perspective, that sort of thing. It was supposed to help with de-briefings and such, not that the command staff often had those.

Straker’s book was the same as mine, black leatherette cover, A4 size, quality lined paper. I lifted it out feeling slightly embarrassed, as if I was intruding on a private moment. It was unmarked, looked like new, unlike mine which had coffee stains on the cover and a couple of dog-eared corners. It was almost an instinctive reaction to look up and make sure I was unseen.

Straker’s personal thoughts. I had no real reason to read it, although the book was not locked away and I know Jackson, on regular occasions, read it. I often wondered what the doctor thought about my logbook, with its rather bland statements and dry facts. I was never one to bare my soul.

I opened the book. Pages of neat writing, some entries only a few lines or so, others longer. I flicked through to the last page of writing, then paused, wondering if perhaps I should close the book and remain ignorant. In the end, curiosity got the better of me and I turned to the final entry, began reading it and found myself listening to the words almost as if he was saying them to me.

I’d rather not do this, and I’m aware Alec knows full well how I feel about it, but I have little other option available to me. I’m the one person who has studied every recent report pertaining to the Kingston, and I now have, at least I hope I have, the full picture of what is going on down there below the surface. It would take too long to bring anyone else up to scratch, and anyway, as Commander, it is my sole responsibility. The buck stops with me.

The other factor is, if I am there, on the spot, then I can see everything for myself and maybe I can assess the situation better. I have a few hours to prepare myself, and hopefully the search will be brief. My real concern is I might fail, I might not be able to control the panic I can already feel building up. That’s why I’m taking Paul. If the worst comes to the worst I will be forced to hand the mission over to him. However, the team I have selected are good. The best in fact.

Lt. Barry is our most experienced sonar operative and I know I can rely on her to decipher signals that would confuse others. Waterman and Lewis have proved themselves enough times as has Chin. An excellent team. There is only one weak link – myself – and I hope I will not become a burden, that I can put that irrational fear aside for the duration of what will hopefully be a short trip. It’s a stupid fear but however much I try to rationalise it, I cannot.

Claustrophobia.

It seems a simple word for such a complex and illogical fear. Perhaps this voyage will help me control it; teach me some means of defeating it, but somehow I doubt that very much. I have no other choice. I have to go. There is no other way. But I wish there was.

I closed the book, feeling ashamed of snooping, and yet at the same time amazed he could put down in writing, such honest and raw emotions. I thought about him trapped there in the sub and I hoped he was okay, that he was keeping the demon at bay. Waterman had told us they were all still alive when he left, but… anything could have happened, especially once the radio link had gone down. God. What if the emergency power failed and they were left in the dark, waiting to suffocate? I didn’t want to imagine what would happen.

Ford called to tell me everything was ready, and I slid the book back into the drawer and walked out. The cars were outside reception, engines running, but I took a moment for one quick reassuring word with Miss Ealand before we set off for the airport and the waiting SHADO Sea-rescue plane. I read through procedures on the journey, all the time thinking about Ed’s words. ‘I have to go. There is no other way. But I wish there was.’

***

It took a long time. Too long. We’d picked up the beacon signal pretty quickly, about 50 minutes flight time from the crash site, I know the Albatross is faster than most aircraft of its type, but dammit it felt slow. ‘Can you get any more speed out of this thing?’ I pestered the pilot and all the time I knew he was pushing it to its limit. I wouldn’t have expected anything less, but the plane seemed to be crawling and the ocean, miles below hardly changed. I turned to stare at the sky, aware he was looking at me. I knew what was going to come next.

‘You know Commander Straker pretty well, don’t you?’

It wasn’t an intrusive question; I could hear real concern in his voice. How does one reply to such a question? I looked away, an admission of truth.

‘Yes. Pretty well.’

As well as anyone I think, or at least as well as he will allow me to know him. Ed Straker, solitary, reclusive. We’d grown apart over the last few years, he’d distanced himself from me and I’d allowed it to happen. Encouraged it in some ways. It was easier. Easier for me that is. I didn’t have to look at him and worry if he was overworking, or not eating, or becoming more and more reclusive. I missed the camaraderie we used to have, but after all he is the boss.

Pretty well? Yep. I guess you could say that.

The surface vessel was still hours away, no chance that she would be able to assist, but the divers sounded confident, or perhaps it was just a white lie told to placate me.

We spotted the trail of dye from the marker buoy and followed it to the crash site, wreckage from the sub bobbing in swelling waves. A smooth touch down. We could see Lewis in the water, clinging to the buoy and looking exhausted. At least someone had managed to get out. Perhaps the others were even now making their way up to the surface. There were three escape hatches after all. I scanned the surface, looking for the others. Nothing. I wanted to go out with the divers, but they’re always the first out in these situations. Best to leave them to do their job.

I hung around in the divers’ cabin, desperate to speak to Lewis and get any news. They set up the telephone link while Lewis was explaining it all to me, and then when they gave me the nod I tried it, dreading there would be no reply. Even though I knew Ed was alive there was still that fear the link would not work and we might not be able to get him and the others out in time.

I gripped the phone. I could hear it connect. What if there was no answer? What would we do then?

‘Straker.’

The familiar voice. He sounded calm. Well, not exactly calm, but he was holding his own. I closed my eyes for a moment in relief.

‘Ed, It’s me.’ I still wasn’t sure if he could hear me.

‘Alec, Thank god.’

No time for pleasantries, the line was dodgy to say the least. ”We’ve got Lewis.’ I needed to give him something positive.

‘What did you say?’ The line was bad, hard to hear his voice over the crackles.

‘I said we’ve got Lewis. He’s quite safe. He’s explained the situation. Now look Ed. Just hang on.’ It should have reassured him, but his reply was unexpected. I strained to hear.

‘Alec, have you got Nina?’

I looked at the diver who had retrieved Lewis. He shook his head. Lewis shrugged his shoulders, looking worried and I lifted the receiver again.

‘Nina? No.’ Hell. Nina was missing?

‘She went out right after Lewis.’ Even with the crackle of static, I could hear the concern in Ed’s voice.

I tried to think of something to say to reassure him, but it was difficult. What does one say in that situation? There was no sign of Nina, and the water was cold. Very cold. Lewis had been close to hypothermia by the time we hauled him on board.

‘Well don’t worry. Don’t worry, we’ll get her, we’ll find her.’ I needed to change the topic. ‘Look Ed. You’ve got to conserve your air supply. Now just rest and stay as quiet as possible. The divers are coming down now. They’ll get you up -.’

A burst of static drowned out his reply, and then the connection failed. I turned to Lewis. ‘Right. Start from the beginning, Lewis. Tell me again, which systems were still working?’

***

Time dragged. I watched, helpless as the divers, working in relays, struggled to find some way into the stricken sub. I kept looking for Nina, even though it was hopeless by now. If she managed to make it to the surface she would have been swept away in the swell by now. A vile way to die. Spluttering to a lonely and cold death. No one there as she took her last breath. I would have hated it. I hoped Ed hadn’t realised she was dead. He needed all his strength right now. No time for regrets. No time for anything other than the task in hand. Rescue. And not just Ed. Paul was down there as well. But he would be out soon enough if Lewis was correct with his information.

I could imagine the situation. And, all things considered, I was angry. Not about the accident; these things happen, it’s the risk we take every time we go out to fight the enemy. It’s the price we pay, one Straker knows as well as anyone. I am angry about him. Insisting he goes last. Hasn’t he given enough to SHADO and the enemy? After all he lost his marriage to them, and his child.

Sometimes I wonder if that’s the reason he is so reckless in a way with his own life. As if he doesn’t really care. No. That’s wrong. He does care, but there are times when his own life becomes less important in the greater scheme of things.

Me? I like living. Oh, hell yes, I’d do the decent thing if it came to me or a child, but Straker has a deeper commitment. You know what I mean. He puts others first. Just as he did down there. Barry Lewis, Chin, Foster. In that order. Straker last, as if he is of no consequence. And to himself that is exactly the way things are. He IS of no consequence. A man alone and unloved.

He needs to get laid once in a while. Realise people do appreciate him, that we care. The idiot.

The divers kept radioing for more equipment, cables and so on. There was little I could do apart from get in the way, so I kept in the background. Still no sign of Nina. Then. A flurry of activity, and a figure breaking the surface, accompanied by Holden. It was Paul. We pulled him on board, shivering and gasping. It took a while for him to warm up enough to talk coherently.

Bad news. The worst. Any thought of getting an air supply down there was pointless. The escape hatch was flooded and from what he was saying the pumps had packed up. There was no way Ed would be able to get out now. No way we could get to him in time.

His words burned in my mind. I have to go. There is no other way. But I wish there was.

And I started to pull off my jacket. There had to be another way.

‘You’ll have to go down there again. And get me a suit.’

‘What are you going to do?’ Paul asked.

I told him the truth. ‘I don’t know. But we’re going to get him out of there. Somehow.’

And it was the truth. Somehow or other I was going to rescue him, even if it meant I had to drag the wreck up to the surface myself, inch by bloody inch. I was not going to let him die there, alone and so close to rescue.

They found a suit and I got ready. A long time since I had done any serious diving, and perhaps it was foolish, but, just like Ed, I need to go down there. To see for myself and assess the situation. Dammit. I was even beginning to sound like him now.

The wreck was larger than I anticipated. Yes I know, I’d seen Skydiver enough times not to be surprised by its sheer size but somehow, under the murky water, it loomed there like some leviathan of the depths. The damage was pretty extensive. But at least the reactor was safe. If the shielding had gone then there would have been no hope for any rescue whatsoever.

I let the divers show me the escape hatch – still flooded – and it was pretty obvious the level wouldn’t decrease in time. So that was hopeless as well. I swam over the conning tower and down the length to the connection port with Sky One, hoping for some flash of insight that would solve everything. Nothing. My mind as murky as the water.

I let myself sink down to inspect the missile tubes, hoping against hope that perhaps the divers were mistaken that maybe one of the tubes was accessible. It was a waste of time and energy. The rock ledge was blocking them. No way could anyone get at them. We would have to retrieve the missiles, later. Afterwards. When all this was over. They were far too dangerous to be left there lying in their racks. The reactor would be safe enough behind its shields, but those deadly explosives were unpredictable, even though the hull was strong enough to withstand most explosions….

Explosions.

I pushed myself off the hull, floating there, and looking down. It might work. It had to work. I signalled to Holden and together we worked out the finer details. It took longer to set up and I was desperate by now wondering whether the oxygen was holding up, whether the emergency power was still operating. We worked with as much haste as possible, extra lights needed as we set about the task in the darkness underneath the stricken hull. It was a good job I wasn’t claustrophobic. There were times when I was working in such a confined space even I was concerned I might get stuck, especially when I was scraping out a channel in the layers of mud under the hull. I could hear her creaking above me, and at one point my tank got caught and I panicked. Stupid really, but fora brief instant I knew a little of how Ed might be feeling. It was not a pleasant sensation and there was a tremendous sense of relief when I freed myself and wriggled out into clear water once more.

Then it was done. The explosives in place, or as close to position as we could get them. I hoped Holden had done the calculations accurately. The last thing we needed was to blow a hole in the plates. Holden lit the fuse and we backed away. The detonation was deafening, but we had to be close enough to get into position in case she settled down on the ledge once more. One chance, that was all, and I was waiting in line behind Holden.

She lifted herself up from the mud and clay, wallowing under the influence of the blast that had freed her. I followed Holden into the nearest tube, a tight squeeze but once inside it got easier. I could sense her floating freely, but it was unlikely she’d manage to get to the surface without assistance. That didn’t matter now, the tubes were accessible and we could get air inside. I scrabbled my way to the control room, the tilted floor making it feel like I was inside a fairground ride, you know, one of those with walls and floors all at angles. Not easy.

Ed was there.

And.

I clung to the frame in relief.

Nina.

Nina. Her uniform in tatters, her knuckles broken, blood on her hands, her eyes closed but I could see her chest moving. Ed was slumped on the floor close to her, gasping for air, one hand reaching out, his fingers touching hers.

I knelt there while Holden worked on them. Nina first, then Ed, ashen, grey and yet drenched in sweat. I took my mask off for a moment hoping to speak to him, but the air was thick and foul and anyway he was unconscious. But he was breathing easier now, the oxygen hissing in the mask.

Holden nodded at me and pulled off his own mask. ‘They’ll be fine. Just have to wait for the ship. No rush though. Not now.’ He leaned over Nina again, checking her pulse and looking into her eyes and then moved to do the same to Straker. He must have been satisfied because he stood up, stretching before moving away to explore the confines of the space.

We ignored the body lying under the thin silver cover. Chin. We had done what was necessary, checked for a pulse, but he was already cooling and Holden drew the cover over once more. I moved away, not wanting to be so close. Ed was still out of it, as was Nina, but they were looking more alive now.

I hoped we would get him out of here before he woke. Somewhere safe and in the open air, away from this submerged world of death and destruction.

There was no chance for conversation so I just sat there, the hiss of oxygen loud in my ears, short-circuits snapping in the background as sparks cascaded from consoles. I shivered for a moment, fearful. What if there was a fire now? The submarine was dying around us, even as it was wallowing beneath the surface of the ocean. The damaged plates creaking under the strain. I checked the time. We had to have been here longer than fifteen minutes, surely? I tapped the dial, frowning, then a movement caught my eye. Holden nodding as if he understood what I was thinking, and perhaps he did. After all he was used to this situation. He was SHADO’s expert in sub smash procedures, not that these were frequent occurrences. We’d had two in ten years. Not bad considering.

Ed stirred. A small movement, one hand reaching up a few inches. I leaned closer, wanting him to see a familiar face if he opened his eyes.

I have to go. There is no other way. But I wish there was.

Dear Lord Ed, What did you go through, here in this godforsaken death trap? And what the hell is Nina doing here?

The slight tilt of the deck was tiring. Even though the sub was floating free, the flooded compartments were dragging it down on one side. I gave up trying to sit upright and leaned back on the bulkhead. Damn, Skydiver was small, all things considered. I’d forgotten just how cramped it was in here. The walls looming over me and I wasn’t someone who bothered about that sort of thing.

Holden touched me on the shoulder; I’d forgotten he was here, sitting beside Nina just as I was beside Ed. Easier for him as well, having me here. After all, we had only anticipated one person, not two. Nina was an added encumbrance in some respects. But a welcome one. The flush of relief when I saw her lying next to Ed. That she was alive, but more than that. He had not been alone. She had been with him.

It would be alright. Whatever had happened, it would be alright. So would Ed. His hand shifted again. Searching. So I held it, my thumb rubbing the loose skin between his thumb and forefinger as he settled down, the colour returning to his skin. I watched his breathing ease, watched his eyes flutter open for a moment and then close again, watched him relax into sleep. Good.

Just a case of waiting now for the salvage vessel to reach us. Not long now. Plenty of air in the tanks. It was going to be fine. There was little to do now apart from wait. I noticed the log book in its protective pouch and, feeling like an intruder for the second time in twenty four hours, I pulled it closer and opened the seal.

‘Emergency dive – suspected UFO attack. Air pressure falling – emergency supplies malfunctioning. Oxygen count down to 15.1. Emergency power failing. Commend captain, crew and rescue team – no one could have done more. Note for Dr Shroeder, – subject myself. Pulse rate 105, claustrophobia negative.’

I closed the logbook, put it away and sat there thinking. One word came to mind. Liar. He’d written the last sentence as a sop to Nina perhaps, or maybe the retrieval team, trying to give some slight comfort to anyone reading his last words. Nina might have been fooled, but I wasn’t. I held his hand again, needing the contact myself.

There was a clatter of metal on the bulkhead, clanging, the screeching of cables as they scraped across the hull before looping under her. The creak of protesting steel was startling, and then the sub began to shift, wallowing from side to side like a beached whale as the salvage ship hauled her up to breach the surface. A nauseous sensation until she was finally tethered to the salvage ship and settled to rest. At last. I pushed myself up, grateful to be able to stand on level deck plates once more. Ed was still lying motionless, as was Nina, but only a minutes more before the access hatch opened to let fresh air and sunlight into the dismal interior.

Freedom. I had been down here less than an hour. I couldn’t wait.

The conning tower hatch opened, letting a blast of icy air into the control room and I removed my mask with a sigh of relief as someone climbed down the ladder.

Paul. There was no need to say anything. We shared a look and I could see him relax. He came to sit beside me and I took off my scuba gear while we waited for the rescue team to join us.

‘He…..’ Paul’s voice was gruff. He tried again. ‘He told me I was wasting his oxygen. It should have been me here. The last one.’

‘Straker doesn’t think like that. You should know well enough by now.’ And yet I also thought the same, that it should have been Paul lying here. But that was Ed for you. The captain, going down with his ship. Bloody fool.

It took time to get both of them out through the main access hatch and onto the ship and Ed was waking up by then although he was still pretty groggy at first. The cold air on the deck helped revive him. They took Nina straight to sickbay but Ed refused, insisting he was fine. The Corpsman had hold of his arm and was about to take him anyway, but Ed looked at me, a sick look of fear in his eyes, and I knew. I stepped forward, taking control of the situation.

‘No. I need to talk to Commander Straker right now. If he needs you, I’ll call. Thank you…’ I looked at his name tag. .’.. Morris.’

I stood there, waiting until he had let go of Ed to step back, frowning.

‘Commander? This way.’ I waved my hand towards the open part of the deck, away from the rest of the team. Ed gave me a look of utter gratitude that said more than any words could have done. I led the way slowly, giving him chance to appreciate the fresh air, the expanse of sea, the open sky. Skydiver was tethered beside the ship and he paused, holding tight to the guard rails as he looked down at the hull. She was a mess, plates buckled from the alien attack, the cables linking her to the hoisting gear still taut and holding her in place. We could probably salvage her. It would be difficult, but that was a concern for the future, not right now. I had other things to worry about right now.

I leaned on the rail next to Ed. He was trembling, not from the cold, but deep shivering, like a terrified child. He didn’t seem aware of me, his whole body shaking, his eyes blinking rapidly, knuckles white as he clutched the steel rail. I could hear footsteps approaching behind. I knew who it was. I hoped Paul would have the sense not to stand too close to Ed, or say anything, and he didn’t, just handed me a polystyrene mug and then moved away leaving us alone. I flicked the lid off. Hot chocolate. Thick with cream and sugar.

‘Ed?’ I held the mug out to him. He was rigid now, desperate to suppress the shivering wracking his whole body. No way could he release his grip on the rails or take his eyes away from the sight of Skydiver. I didn’t know what to do. I knew if I said anything he might shatter and yet there was no way I could stand there and let him suffer alone.

‘Ed.’ I tried again, putting my hand on his arm. Petrified. That was the literal word. Turned to stone. I’d seen this before, many times. Oh, not Ed. Other men, in other circumstances. Once the worst was over, once the action came to an end then it struck home. The reality of what had happened. How close he had come to not being here, not waking up, and the worst thing was, he would relive each moment over and over and over. He stiffened even further, if that was possible. Not stone now. Steel, hardened over years by the hammer blows of life. A core of steel beneath skin still shivering, no longer from fear, but from cold. He gave one last shudder, one final convulsive twist of his hands on the rail before wrenching his fingers loose, stepping away from the edge and turning his back on Skydiver.

‘Coffee?’ He nodded towards the mug in my hands. Straker, composed and calm as if the last hours were nothing more than a slight inconvenience, a few minutes of unpleasantness soon forgotten.

‘Chocolate. Here. You look like you need something warm.’ I handed it over, noticing his hand was still, not the slightest trace of tremble now.

He didn’t look at me, just drained the mug in one go, crumpling it in his fingers before tossing it over the rails. It blew away in the breeze, a white speck on the narrow band of water slopping in the gap between the hull of Skydiver and the ship. ‘Nina? Any news?’ He stared down. At any moment the two vessels could swing together in the swell and the tiny white speck would be crushed out of existence.

‘I’ll check. Give me a minute.’ I stepped back. Paul was waiting and I asked him to find out. Ed didn’t turn round. I wanted to go back to the rails, be there for him, but he would have realised what I was doing and, after all, we hadn’t been particularly close in the last months. Things would change now.

I’d make sure of that.

Paul tapped me on the shoulder. I listened to him and then, and then, I went to stand at the railings, Ed staring out to sea. ‘She’s fine. Recovering. Nothing to worry about.’

He lowered his head. ‘Thank you.’ There was a long pause. ‘I was….I thought she… Alec?’ He turned to me. The fear returning as he remembered.

‘Don’t. It’s over now.’ I moved closer to stand beside him. The last hours had shown me even the toughest person can break under sufficient pressure but I knew Straker. He would pull himself together, hide the fear and submerse himself in work. As I said.

Steel.

 

LtCdr: 

Started this as a very short story (aiming for a couple of thousand words) I wanted to explore the ‘other side’ of Sub-smash and the effect that it had on Alec. The main problem was not only trying to intertwine the dialogue, without getting too ‘dry’ but also working out exactly how the rescue was effected. In the end I had Skydiver rescued by the salvage vessel. It seemed the most logical method anyway. I don’t think a submarine would conveniently float to the surface and simply ‘bob’ there while the rescue team opened the access doors to let Straker and Nina walk out. I ‘fertled’ a little with canon,  allowing Alec to come up with the idea instead of Holden, as was stated in the episode, but there again, it would be just like Alec to give someone else the credit for the idea. So this is my solution. I think it works.

© Lightcudder

Disclaimer: All publicly recognisable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The plot is the property of the author of this story. The original characters belong to their respective owners. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any previously copyrighted material. No copyright infringement is intended. Dialogue and events taken from the UFO episode Sub-smash

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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