© Ltcdr. 21.09.2019
The events in this story occur shortly after the episode ‘Mindbender’
Straker dropped his suitcase in the boot, lamenting the mechanics that denied him the satisfaction of slamming the lid down again. A minimum of ten days enforced medical leave ahead of him because his psyche report was five points down. If Jackson had delayed the tests for just a couple of days or so, he would have been fine; back to normal, the nightmares and sleepwalking a mere inconvenience that would disappear. Eventually.
But no. Five points. He scowled and opened the car door, slipping behind the wheel and starting the engine before he noticed his briefcase lying half-hidden on the floor beneath the passenger seat where he had thrown it earlier in a rare fit of pique. A quick grin. They’d forgotten about that: laptop, files, phone. All he needed to keep up with work. He still had the incident report to finish, though Henderson wasn’t pushing, at least not this time, and they were both a little more tolerant now.
His fingers tightened on the steering wheel as he recalled the fear on his superior’s face, his own confusion and sheer exhaustion when it was all over and the memories of a different world, a different existence. For the last few days he had half-expected the far wall of his office to slide away, revealing a group of cameramen all waiting for the call to start filming.
Five points. He shook his head in quiet anger at Jackson’s refusal to compromise and Alec’s tacit concern. In the end it was easier to co-operate than argue. He punched in the postcode for the hotel Jackson had suggested, not that he had been there before. A small country house within a few miles of a secluded beach. He would follow Jackson’s inflexible orders: walk, relax, catch up on sleep, watch the tides and the birds. A few days in the fresh air to give the nightmares a chance to fade. Then he would be back in work, regardless of the medical officer’s orders.
The drive was pleasant once he was off the M25 and out of the heavier traffic, the weather unseasonably hot for mid-September, the tarmac shimmering in the distance and the air-con set to ‘high’. The guidance system ordered him to turn right and he frowned, leaning forward to switch it off. No need to rush, he was not expected until late evening so he would take his time, enjoy the drive for once. Maybe see some of the countryside. As long as he headed northeast he would be fine.
He made a quick stop at a roadside café for a mug of coffee and a chance to stretch his legs, the coffee hot and strong and sweet, the walk less satisfying as if he needed more than a quick stroll along a layby, and with a start he realised just how tired he was, how bone-weary and drained after too many nights disturbed by dreams of Beaver James and stage sets and the utter terror of being lost and unable to find the way back to reality. Waking to find himself in the kitchen or hall with no idea of how long he had been standing there.
The heat was more oppressive than he expected, the air heavy with the threat of thunder and he finished the coffee in silence and got back in the car wondering where to go next. The hotel, some thirty miles from Boston, was less than an hour away if he took the main roads, but he put the thought aside, not wanting to admit his tiredness.
In the end he drove on, taking quieter lanes through small villages and the odd hamlets with church spires and hump-backed bridges, small copses, tall hedges. Fields of golden wheat and bright yellow rapeseed, grass turning brown in the dry air, tractors busy with hay-making. The quintessential English countryside, a little parched at the edges and beginning to curl up in the heat.
On the other side of a tiny village he came across a farm shop and, more from a sense of obligation than any real desire to eat, bought a home made sausage roll and a small bilberry and apple pie then parked up a couple of miles further on in the entrance to a field. He leaned against the car while he ate, the pastry crumbling and rich and surprisingly tempting and for the first time in days he was hungry, eating every last scrap of the pie, and wishing he had bought another. Perhaps in the next village. He needed fuel anyway and there was sure to be a village pub where he could get something more substantial to eat.
The ground was dry, the wheat field nothing but short stubble now, a few twisted and scrubby trees on the far side. The air was still and hot and smelled of dry earth and sunshine. He could hear the car engine ticking as it cooled. The gate was old, its timbers weathered to a silvery grey and splitting apart. Heat haze made the distant hills blurry and despite the threat of thunder the sky was cloudless. A sparrow dropped from the safety of the hawthorn hedge and began pecking the crumbs round his feet.
A perfect day. The heat on his shoulders was bliss, soothing away the aches and tension. He watched the horizon for a while, wondering what was on the other side of the low rise of hills but his route lay in a different direction. It was a relief to sit back in the shade of the car and he glanced over at the briefcase. Tempting. Jackson wouldn’t know if he made one quick phone call. Just to check.
He swore to himself. No secure phone, only his personal one, no laptop, nothing connected with work apart from one folder and he lifted it out and opened it, reading the familiar handwriting of the attached note with a growing sense of betrayal.
‘Commander, I insist you refrain from attempting to contact headquarters while on medical leave. I have taken the liberty of providing you with some appropriate reading material – a script set in the autumn of 1919 – at the suggestion of Colonel Freeman. It might be a suitable addition to the Studio’s portfolio and form the basis for a profitable series.
I look forward to seeing you no sooner than ten days from now, when I anticipate your score will be at a level commensurate to allow a return to duty.
D. Jackson. Chief Medical Officer.’
And to add injury to insult, there was even a copy of his test results attached, with ‘five points below acceptable level’ underlined.
He flung the file down on the seat, pages slithering out and spilling across the leather. The untidiness irritated him and he gathered the papers up and started putting them in order. It was quite some minutes later when he realised he was reading through, visualising the scenes and hearing the voices in his mind. A murder mystery in the gothic tradition and a potential money-maker as well. A long time since he’d read something so promising, so atmospheric. He put the papers away with more respect and fastened his seat belt. Time to move on.
Fresh-baked ham sandwiches and a glass of ginger beer in a pub an hour later, a conversation with the barman about farming and the local economy and he was on his way again. Driving. Leaving the nightmare behind and heading for a week of nothing to do but idle his time away in rest and recuperation with no one monitoring his stress levels or watching his every move. But until then he was his own man, free to do as he wished. And if that meant taking the long road, so be it. There was no one here in the car to stop him.
The Audi purred on, navigating the bends with ease, cocooning him in soft leather and cool air and tranquillity. No music, no bland female voice urging him to take the second turning on the right or warning him of the need to turn round. He needed quietness, the hiss of tyres and the tap of his own fingers on the steering wheel, the satisfying click of the gear-shift, the surety of being in control, of being himself.
He was following a single-track road alongside one of the many deep culverts that drained the fenlands when the first clouds appeared, dark and ominous and growing heavier with each passing minute. Then the rain started. A few warning splots before descending in earnest; a torrential outburst and the wipers struggling to keep the screen clear until in the end he decided to pull into a passing space and wait it out as rain flooded the road. The first crack of lightning was enough to warn him of the storm’s severity. It was safer to stay here, off the road and out of the way until the deluge stopped. He turned off the engine and waited, counting the seconds between flashes and the following cracks like he used to do when he was a child.
The rain eased enough for him to see water pour down the embankment on his left and flood across the road, carrying a mass of mud and stones and then the car, despite its weight, lost contact with the ground and was swept sideways across the tarmac on a rush of water and soil and god-only-knew what else. There was no time to open the car door and make a run for it, and even if he had there was nowhere safe, not with over two tons of reinforced metal and bullet-proof glass sliding out of control. He closed his eyes, not wanting to watch the ensuing landslide engulf the car. Maybe even pushing it into the fast-flowing culvert. All he could do was trust in the strength of the vehicle to keep him safe.
Stones rattled against the underside, bounced off the doors, clattered against toughened glass and still the car slithered. It seemed an age and yet it could only have been a few seconds before the torrent subsided and the wheels touched down again, a jolting bounce for a moment before taking purchase once more on solid earth. He dared a single, half-terrified look and breathed a shudder of relief at the realisation that the driver’s door was not trapped in the landslide of mud and stones now blocking the road. He unfastened his seat belt and scrambled free, despite the rain that soaked him within seconds.
Then the storm ceased as abruptly as it had begun: a final vicious spatter against the windscreen, a fading grumble of thunder, the last few stones rolling down the slope to add their weight to the thick layer of mud burying the tarmac. He stood there, taking slow deep breaths and calming himself and watching the water rise in the sluice until it was close to overflowing. The thinning clouds revealed a pattern of contrails in the sky. Businessmen on work trips, couples going on holiday now that children were back at school, maybe even the SHADO transport on its run to Oslo. A final gust of wind sprinkled his face with a last flurry of raindrops from the trees and he fumbled in the pocket of his jacket for a handkerchief to wipe them away.
A sparkle of light caught his eye as something tumbled into his palm and he froze, staring down at the small crystal lying there, his heart pounding with terror. A remnant from the alien rock, caught in the material when the device shattered, flinging tiny crystals across his desk and the floor of his office. Horror filled him. ‘Twists the mind…’ his own words echoed in his head. He was alone out here and utterly vulnerable to whatever demons the crystal might visit on him here, miles from anywhere. There would be no movie studio, no auditorium with the day’s rushes on the screen, no Paul Foster to hold back the armed guards as the world righted itself. No coming back into the safety of the control room shaken and confused and utterly exhausted. He was lost.
And then his world lurched, the hedges rippling and the wet grasses of the bank spattering their burden of raindrops as if disturbed by some unseen hand. He was flung against the car and the dark line of hills in the distance disappeared, the worn tarmac transformed into a rough gravelled track and he had no time to react before…