Foster was disgruntled to say the least. What a shitty shift to pull. The graveyard shift, twenty hundred to oh six hundred. And on Christmas Eve as well. It was his first ever Christmas Eve night shift. And he would make damned sure it was the last time he got lumbered with it.
A skeleton staff only so he couldn’t even have a sneaky drink in Straker’s office, or a mince pie for that matter. No he had to be on duty, on watch in the Control Room. Even Keith Ford had managed to get home early. Straker had always given priority to those operatives who had young children at home.
Paul was beginning to see the benefits of having a couple of children. Perhaps he could arrange to borrow some next year.
Glumly he surveyed the room. Straker did not allow any festive decorations in the Control room or any of the serious work areas in SHADO, but the Staff Lounge was a different matter. ‘As long as I don’t have to take any off them down afterwards.’ Straker had commented when asked for his approval for the reams of tinsel and baubles.
Paul had noticed however, that Straker, for all his seemingly curmudgeonly attitude, was more than happy to play the piano for the staff choir, and he could be heard, sometimes, after a long stressful session at work, playing carols and Christmas music in the dead of night.
Lucky Straker, at home with Rachel. They made a good couple, Paul had to admit.
It was so much easier having a relationship with someone who knew about SHADO. Paul had had some girlfriends in Shado, in fact had worked his way through most of the available females but had not struck lucky. Oh they were great to go out with and take to parties and so on, but when it came to finding that special one he had not been successful.
It looked like Ed and Rachel were settling down together, at least they often left work at the same time, shared the same car, and arrived back at base together much of the time. Of course, she lived in the same apartment block as Ed but…..adding two and two together you always came up with four.
Anyway Straker was in his apartment now, while he, Paul was lumbered with this dead end shift.
This is Moonbase calling SHADO HQ. Come in Control.’ Nina Barry, also relegated to the midnight shift, looked at him over the videolink.
‘Hello Colonel Foster, we have reports of an unusual sighting outside our solar system. Not a UFO we think. It’s moving too slowly for one of those, and its mass is barely registers, but it’s magnitude is minus 4.6. We can’t give any more information at the moment as it doesn’t seem to register properly on our sensors.’
‘Thanks Nina, we’ll take a look from this end.’ Paul replied. ‘What terrible thing did you do to Straker to get stuck on this shift?’
She laughed, ‘Oh no Paul, this is the best shift to be on over Christmas. We get to see Santa arriving and giving out his presents.’ Foster joined in the laughter and wondered why it was that the women in Moonbase always had such a positive and optimistic viewpoint. Perhaps it was that attitude that made them so successful at coping with the daily grind in the Lunar Base.
Moonbase, small, constricted and lacking in any luxuries, was not an easy place to work, especially if, like Paul, you enjoyed having fun.
His mind went back to Straker. It should have been Straker here tonight, on this shift. Straker never indulged in alcohol or willingly attended parties, so he should have come here instead and then Paul would have been able to go to that Christmas Eve party above in the studio. Even Alec Freeman had gone home and was, no doubt, enjoying a long drink of malt whisky.
Paul had to make do with coffee. Damn. If he drank any more of the stuff he would never sleep when he got back to his flat.
‘Moonbase to SHADO Control. Come in Colonel Foster.’ Nina again. Probably gloating over the fact that she was having more fun that he was.
‘Colonel, that anomalous blip has entered the Solar System. Heading on a trajectory that will intercept Earth’s orbit in ……. ‘ she paused, checking the monitors, ‘ in thirty-five minutes, at twenty-one fifty-nine. it still doesn’t register in our usual sensors. We are only able to monitor it using Hubble. It hasn’t been recorded on SID’s displays either.’
‘Thanks Nina, I’ll check out SID’s data and get back to you.’ He closed the connection and instructed the operators to download all the data stream from the Space Intruder Detector currently in low earth orbit.
SID had no data, no information, nothing. Yet Moonbase reported the sighting, and Hubble was never mistaken. Hubble was one of SHADO’s best kept secrets; a world famous telescope ostensibly for searching out distant galaxies and photographing them. In reality, SHADO’s deep space reconnaissance telescope, with the primary objective of searching for the origins of the alien’s planet and alerting the Shado defences whenever a UFO was heading for Earth. Of course Hubble had its other uses, such as today, when it backed up the Moonbase sensors.
But surely SID should also have detected an object entering the Solar System. Paul decided to call for assistance. This was a little beyond him, and with a skeleton staff he was limited with the resources he could spare to investigate properly.
He headed for Straker’s office. Sitting behind the desk he looked at the glass sphere. He had always admired it, and had often wondered from where Ed got it and why he kept it on his desk. He might ask him next time he saw him.
Oh well, better ask for advice now than later, in the middle of the night. No good putting off the dreaded moment. He speed dialled Straker’s mobile.
‘Straker.’ A gruff, almost sleepy voice answered.
‘Paul Foster here, Commander. Sorry to disturb you,’ no I’m not, he thought to himself, ‘but Moonbase reports an object entering the Solar System on a heading for Earth…’
He was interrupted by an ice-cold reply. ‘And you called me just to tell me you have a UFO? Very noble of you Paul. Deal with it.’ Straker curt and abrasive.
‘Sorry sir, but it doesn’t appear to be a UFO. It’s too slow a velocity and SID doesn’t register it at all.’
There was a pause; a long pause. ‘Okay Paul, what’s its speed, mass and magnitude?’ The voice was slightly more amenable this time.
‘Speed is just under SOL 2, mass appears to be negligible and magnitude is minus 4.6. It will reach Earth in approximately 27 minutes, at ten pm.’ Paul confirmed.
‘Ah.’ There was more silence. ‘I’ll let you deal with it Paul. You don’t need my help tonight. Just keep a close eye on it for the time being, a very close eye.’ And Straker put the phone down, but not before Paul heard a muffled comment from someone else in the room with his boss.
Paul Foster sat, almost stunned by Straker’s lackadaisical attitude. He headed out in to Control again. The time was 21.45. Fifteen minutes to E.O.I.
‘Tell Moonbase to put all interceptors on alert and ready for immediate launch. And contact all Skydivers and warn them to be prepared for Battle Stations.’
If this anomaly came into a Low Earth Orbit, he wanted to be ready to blast it to pieces. Paul Foster didn’t like mysteries and he certainly didn’t want to be spending his Christmas Day here in HQ searching out a missing UFO while Straker gave him hell about being so incompetent as to let one through.
The mere thought of Straker getting angry with him was enough to make Foster squirm. Perhaps he should get some more help. Yes, that would be prudent.
He went back into the office not bothering to sit down this time. ‘Alec, sorry to bother you so late,’ he began, and went on to explain the reason for his call.
‘So it’s speed is SOL 2, mass hardly worth measuring and magnitude minus 4.6. Heading on a bearing for Earth and due to enter Low Earth Orbit at 22.00?’ Freeman repeated back to him. ‘Ah, yes,’ Foster could almost hear the smile in his voice. ‘No worries Paul, Ed’s right, you’ll be able to deal with it no problem. Have a quiet remainder of the shift. Might see you later in the morning.’ And Alec put the phone down.
Shit. What the hell was going on with the senior staff tonight? No-one seemed to give a damn about his dilemma. Well, he would just have to do his best and to hell with the consequences.
He waited, pacing up and down the control room, watching the approaching blip as it traversed the millions of miles of space on its route to the third planet.
21.57 .Nearly ten pm He should be at that party, getting ready to welcome in Christmas Day, not stuck here watching some fuzzy blip speed across space towards his home planet. And Straker and Freeman didn’t care. It was almost as if they had been expecting it to happen.
Was this a joke? Had he been set up?
He remembered seeing the shift rota when Straker had finalised it early in November. Paul had vehemently objected to doing this shift, but Straker had insisted. ‘I’ve done it for more years than I can remember Paul, and Alec had also done his fair stint. Your turn now. Don’t worry, it’s usually quiet.’
Alec Freeman had offered to swap shifts with Paul, but Straker had overruled him telling Alec that it was about time Paul had a Christmas Eve duty. Alec had looked at Ed, a long, thoughtful look and then almost reluctantly agreed. Paul had had the definite feeling that Alec enjoyed this particular duty.
Paul stood by the radar screens and watched. The blip was slowing down as it slipped past Mars and into High Earth Orbit. It seemed to brighten and pulse, and then radar and all Shado sensors reported that it was in geostationary orbit around Earth in LEO. Just sitting there above one fixed point on the surface of the planet.
‘Grid Reference?’ he asked.
‘ED 45 RSF 32’ didn’t mean much to him; Straker could probably name the nearest street given a grid reference, but all Foster could recall was that this reference was somewhere near Lebanon, or Cyprus or somewhere like that.
The blip was still in position, not threatening anything, not moving, unless you counted moving with the Earth’s rotation, and seemed to just hang there, in its low orbit. Just doing nothing.
There was the sound of familiar footsteps, and he turned to see Straker enter the Control room, nodding to the operatives on duty, and closely followed by Colonel Philips.
‘So Paul, let’s see this strange object. Where is it now?’ His tone was amiable and he looked at Paul with a slight smile on his face.
‘Arrived yet?’ Alec Freeman entered the room, smiling in anticipation. He grinned at Straker. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘are you going to explain or shall I?’
Foster looked at the two of them, side by side, smiling at his discomfort. ‘Very funny,’ he grumbled, ‘but it would help if I knew what the joke was.’
‘There is no joke Paul.’ Straker was serious now. ‘This is what happens on Christmas Eve, every Christmas Eve as far as I am aware. I have seen it happen five times now. You are privileged to be part of it really. All you have to do is wait.’ He stood, still and silent, as if he could wait for ever. Alec Freeman leaned against the wall, watching the monitors.
Another movement. Keith Ford, quietly slipping into his usual place at the communications post. Paul Foster wondered who would turn up next. He would not have been surprised to see a red suited Santa Claus walk round the corner, but this being SHADO, Santa would probably be wearing a space suit with a helmet filled with green liquid
Straker smiled at him. ‘Hello Keith, thought you’d be here. Can we get the Hubble images up now? Is it time?’
‘Very nearly Commander.’ Keith flicked switches and dialled controls and the viewscreens changed to an image of the Earth from above; a glorious deep blue crescent shrouded in white fading into the shadowy night regions.
There moving in perfect orbital harmony with the planet below, was a tiny glowing sphere, sparkling and shimmering in the darkness of space.
Straker looked at it silently. Rachel, on this, her first SHADO Christmas Eve in England, was watching enthralled, her eyes shining with the reflected light from the globe.
‘And …Now.’ Straker muttered to himself as he saw the seconds tick by on the Control room clock to 22.00. At that precise moment, the globe flared for a fraction of a second into a radiant, blinding light, illuminating everything around itself.
And then it was gone. Just the glorious memory of its brilliance remained forever in his mind.
It was as if everyone had been holding their breath. There was an almost universal sigh as the assembled onlookers relaxed.
Foster turned to Ed Straker, hand in hand with Rachel Philips. ‘What just happened?’ he asked his commanding officer.
‘Keith, can you tell Colonel Foster the grid reference for the spot directly below that light?’ Straker asked his communications officer.
‘ED 45 RSF 32’ the reply assured and efficient.
‘Paul?’ Straker looked at him.
‘Well, the nearest place to that grid reference? Come on Paul you should know this, you took the advanced geopolitics course. You should be able to work out a simple position.’ Straker looked sternly at him, but Paul knew that it was in jest, that Straker, like everyone else in the room was feeling content, cheerful and at peace. Just as Paul was feeling.
‘Sorry Commander, my mind’s gone blank. You’ll have to help me out on this one.’ He felt no shame in admitting his failings, in asking from help. Tonight was a time for forgiveness and friendship, for truth and openness.
Straker smiled, a wide generous smile that lit up his eyes. ‘All right Paul. I’ll help you out, just this once. That light appears every Christmas Eve, exactly on that same spot, at that same time, ten in the evening here in England, midnight in the city below it, but its light never appears in the sky. Only those of us in SHADO seem to witness it, perhaps because our Hubble telescope is attuned to it. No one else has ever mentioned seeing it.’
‘But what is it?’ Paul asked, desperately.
‘All I can tell you Paul,’ Alec Freeman said seriously, his inner eye still seeing the brilliance of the light, ‘is that it is positioned directly over Bethlehem, on this night of the Christian year. The star that guided the three kings. At least that’s what I like to think. I’ll leave you to make your own decision.’
Alec and I decided that this year you should have the privilege of witnessing it for yourself.’ Straker told him ‘but as you can see we couldn’t resist coming along as well.’ He turned to the assembled staff.
‘Go on, off home with you all, we’ll take over here now. Nothing else will happen tonight.’ Straker nodded a goodnight to each one as they left, until only Rachel, Alec, Paul and Keith remained. ‘Alec, get yourself a drink, and get Paul and Keith one as well. Rachel? What about you?’
She looked at him, a faraway dreamy expression still on her face. ‘I wouldn’t mind a glass of champagne if there is any.’
He looked at her for a moment. ‘I’ll find some.’ She went into his office with the others and sat down. Foster was holding the glass sphere.
‘I was meaning to ask Ed about this at some time.’ he told Alec. ‘I suddenly realised that it reminds me of that light tonight, the way it reflects things, the way it glows in the lighting. When did Ed get this?’
‘I bought it for him after our first SHADO Christmas Eve.’ Alec told him. ‘Our first encounter with the thing we saw tonight. Before SHADO was fully operational. Don’t ask me to explain it Paul. I won’t be able to, but I can tell you that its once of the things that keeps us going here, when times get really tough and I wonder if we are ever going to win, I remember this night. I don’t know where it comes from, or what it means, but there are forces out there besides the aliens, who mean us no harm. That gives me the strength to carry on. Ed feels the same, although he would never admit it to me.’
‘Admit what?’ Straker interrupted him, coming back carrying a bottle of champagne and a small box.
He handed the bottle to Keith who uncorked it with competence and more than a little expertise, earning himself a raised eyebrow from his boss. Straker handed the parcel to Foster. ‘Here you are; a little memento of your first SHADO Christmas Eve.’
It was a small glass sphere, not as large as the one on the desk, but similar. ’They are getting harder to find.’ Straker explained. ‘Alec bought me the one on my desk, and I got him one the following year. It’s become a sort of tradition to give one to each SHADO member on their first sighting.’
‘I’ve had mine for three years now,’ Ford confirmed.
‘Yours is waiting for you at home, Rachel.’ Straker told her putting his arm around her and pulling her closer.
Keith Ford poured out the champagne, even daring to hand a flute to Straker.
‘Happy Christmas,’ he raised his glass and they responded, even Ed, who took one small sip from his drink before thankfully putting it aside.
‘Now, Ladies and Gentlemen, if you don’t mind, I have a control centre to run.’ He strode out into the empty room, enjoying the peace and silence, the solitude and calmness.
The aliens might attack in force later on in the day, but he knew that now, this evening, the Earth would be safe for a short while.
He sat at Keith’s console, the bright lights from overhead catching his ash blonde hair and casting a crown of palest silvered gold around his head.
Lightcudder Dec 2009
Wrote this and liked the last line, so I decided to virtually rewrite it as Geostationary 2.
Then decided to keep this version for any Paul Foster fans.
with special thanks to RHO (B.Sc.Hons. Space Science) for input and advice x x
This started out as a Paul Foster story, due for Christmas. I had to get help with the scientific aspects of it! Honestly – minus magnitudes – who thought of that! But that’s how they are done! (thanks to RHO for advice!)
Again, fun to write, but the first story rather ran away with itself and when I had written the last line I suddenly realised that there was another story just waiting to be written.
So I wrote it.
I know some people may be offended by the last line of Geostationary 2 but I loved it! I was also pleased to get the glass sphere in to the stories at some point. I have wanted a glass sphere since I was a child, but had never really thought about getting one!. Then I watched the programmes again and it reminded me of how much I had always wanted one. So I got one for Christmas this year! Thankyou KMO! The glass sphere re-appears in A Matter of Degree ( later in 2011 hopefully!)