Our fears do make us traitors Macbeth Act 4 Sc 2
(All times are given in relation to the following event:)
The announcement cut through the quiet chatter amongst the seated crowd, who instantly ceased their idle speculations, and discussions, and gossip.
And they stood, tense and ready, waiting while the three stern and silent men entered and sat, solemn and serious, behind the plain unornamented table. To an outsider it was almost anachronistic, this formality in such a drab, austere room. But the formality was a requirement, a necessity; without the formality there would be no legal standing.
Once everyone had settled into their seats again, silently this time, and the door had closed, they waited, again, patiently. There could be no hurrying, no unseemly haste today. The process was slow, methodical and orderly, and it was only right and proper that it was so. There was too much at stake, far too much, to hurry over the slightest detail, however insignificant or apparently trivial.
The accused, the prisoner, sat at one side of the room, clearly visible at the front of the watching crowd but not appearing concerned that he was the focus of so much attention. Armed guards stood behind him, ensuring that no attempt would be made to escape. As if it would have been possible to escape from such a fortified and secret location.
As the spectators and witnesses waited in silence for the proceedings to begin; the accused, the prisoner, sat uncaringly on the hard plastic chair, at the front of the assembled gathering, not looking at anyone or anything, his eyes randomly scanning the room as if searching for blemishes in the paintwork, or rough patches in the concrete walls. He had seen all that he needed to see, and was content.
He ignored the people sitting in neat rows in front of him, although he must have been aware that their eyes, their thoughts were on him. It was as if he was the only person in the room. He fiddled for a moment with a hangnail on one finger, the cuffs of his rumpled and creased jacket partially, but not quite, hiding the handcuffs on his wrists, while the judge read out the charge against him. There was no reaction from the man in the rumpled suit, no indication that he had even heard the judge, that he was even aware that the judge was speaking to him.
The gathered spectators relaxed. This was the beginning. Now it would all be clarified and justified; the explanations, the reasons and presumably, eventually, clearly; the acquittal. The judge finished reading and turned to the man seated at the side of the room.
‘How do you plead?’
There was a moment of anticipation. The accused, the prisoner, didn’t even bother to look up as he spoke. ‘Guilty.’ He carried on examining his fingernails, carefully inspecting them for microscopic traces of dirt or roughness.
His reply was casual, almost an afterthought, and fell like a physical blow into the silence of the room. He crossed his legs and leaned back, staring at the ceiling as if to calculate how much paint it would take to change its colour from fading off-white to something more pleasing, more soothing to the eye. A pale blue perhaps, or soft dove grey. It was as if he was the only person in the room, as if nothing else existed, apart from the hard plastic chair, the handcuffs and himself.
Alec Freeman half-rose at the back of the courtroom, before resuming his seat. He shook his head in utter disbelief and dismay. How could this be happening? He turned to Paul Foster, sitting beside him.
The two men were at the back of the room that, up until this morning, had been a conference room for use by the science and technology teams in SHADO. It had been hastily transformed into its current role. The Court Martial chamber.
The chairs, the tables, the necessary paraphernalia of a court room had been brought in, complete with the rows of seats for the many witnesses that had been expected to give evidence in his defence.
But there would be no persons called to give witness today. The accused had pleaded guilty. The trial was over almost before it had begun.
‘Paul, what the hell is going on? He can’t do that.’ Alec straightened to face the man at the front, the man who had pleaded guilty.
Ed Straker, Commander-in-Chief of SHADO, looked back at the man he once called his friend, Colonel Freeman; looked at him and looked through him, without expression, without recognition, without acknowledgement.
He spoke to the Military officer at the centre of the tribunal. ‘I plead guilty to the charge of Treason. I freely admit attempting to collaborate with a foreign government. You probably want to know the reason? Well that’s very easy. I have had enough. It has become increasingly obvious that the aliens are going to beat us eventually. In fact I think we should stop fighting them and surrender. Let them have what they want. It will be easier in the long run, instead of wasting time and money and resources in a futile battle we cannot win.’
He stared at the court scornfully, defiantly then leaned back, unconcerned and relaxed, in his hard chair in front of the assembled crowd. There was silence. A heavy, solid silence that reached into every corner of the room. No one moved for a long moment.
General Henderson, shaking his head in anger and confusion, conferred in quiet whispers with the men on either side of him, obviously thrown by the unexpected plea from the accused.
Straker sat, composed, his hands together on his lap, fingers still now, eyes focussed on a point in the corner of the room. The Acting Chief of Security, Mark Butler, stood at the entrance to the room, watching the proceedings, watching his team do their duty.
The crowded room was still, motionless, as the assembled witnesses and spectators waited. No-one had anticipated this.
‘You realise what your confession means?’ Henderson asked the accused man.
‘Absolutely.’ The reply was almost contemptuous. The voice calm and controlled.
‘Then we have no choice but to pronounce sentence.’
‘Of course. I’m not a fool General, I do understand the purpose of a court-martial. I fully accept the consequences of my actions.’
‘Very well. The prisoner will rise for sentencing.’ Henderson also stood.
Straker rose to his feet, hands clasped loosely in front of him, not looking at anyone. He was perfectly still, perfectly serene. Spotlights glinted off his shaggy, ruffled hair and the ash-blonde stubble that shadowed his jaw. Despite his casual, noncommittal attitude he somehow looked haggard and pale, with dark circles under his eyes.
‘Edward Straker, you have pleaded guilty to the charge of treason in that you deliberately attempted to collaborate with a foreign government during a time of war, in an attempt to assist the enemy. Therefore it is the sentence of this court that you be executed for your crime. Sentence to be carried out in five days at an hour and a place to be determined. Do you have anything to say to this court?’
The SHADO Commander sat down, relaxed and at ease, crossing one leg over the other, his hands clasped around his knee. He looked around the room, at the SHADO staff members watching, at the guards, at his friends sitting helplessly at the back of the room.
‘Just one request, James,’ his insolent tone made General Henderson scowl. ‘I really don’t fancy dying here in this sordid underground prison that has taken everything from me. If you are really determined to end my miserable existence, please have the decency to do it in a place of my choice. I would prefer it to be at the SHADO Medical Facility, on the hill by the trees.’
He paused, as if contemplating a view only he could see, and continued, his eyes far away, his voice quiet and heartfelt, ‘At midnight, so I can see the stars for one last time. Give me a gun and I’ll quite happily do it myself. It will save you the loathsome task of having to put together a firing squad.’
He stared at the blank walls, ignoring the faces of all the people in the room, his friends, his colleagues. There was no sign of any emotion in his appearance, not a flicker of regret, or remorse, or even guilt. It was as if he was a robot, his response automated and totally unfeeling.
Alec Freeman put his head in his hands. It was last year when Ed had broken down and tried to kill himself there on that hill, at night. Dear God, had Ed had another breakdown? Is this what all this had been about?
It would be too late to save him from execution. Nothing could prevent that now. Treason was punishable by death, no matter the excuse. But if Ed had finally broken after so long, that would explain everything.
Ten weeks earlier
‘This is Space Intruder Detector. Red Alert Red Alert. UFO on positive track. Bearing GR 238 KS. SOL 3. Trajectory termination; Anchorage, Alaska. 42 minutes.’
‘Damn.’ Commander Straker swore wearily as the warning came in. ‘Moonbase hasn’t a chance against a UFO on this bearing, especially with the solar flares making detection virtually impossible. How the hell do they always know when to attack?’
There was no answer to his question and he didn’t expect one. But it seemed that the aliens were always at least two steps ahead of SHADO, always there before them, always seeming to know exactly what the SHADO organisation was planning, sometimes even before Straker had formalised his own plans.
For one ludicrous moment he seriously considered whether he had had an alien implant put into his head at some stage; that might account for the success that the UFOs were enjoying.
Don’t be ridiculous, he told himself. Your last security CT scan was two weeks ago. All clear. Stop getting paranoid. You’re just overtired.
But he knew that it was more than that.
The UFOs had attacked in force non-stop over the last few days and he was beginning to think that SHADO was losing the battle. There had been numerous attacks, so many that he had in fact stopped counting. One of the attacks had resulted in the deaths of two SHADO operatives, caught in the blast from one of the UFOs as they closed in on it.
Fortunately, the aliens had been unsuccessful in their primary aim of harvesting organs from the local population. Straker had no intention of letting this UFO be any luckier, but he was getting tired, not just physically, but mentally tired, and he knew that he was likely to make a wrong decision soon if he didn’t get some sleep, or at least some sort of rest.
It didn’t help that the other senior staff members were just as exhausted as he was. In fact he had had to order Colonel Freeman home a few hours ago when the Commander found his second-in-command asleep at his desk, snoring. Not from alcohol either. Straker had been so tempted to take a photograph of Alec, head down on the Perspex table, hand still clutching his pen where he had been writing his report.
But that would have been unfair. Straker knew that he himself used to fall asleep in his office, especially after a particularly long and arduous UFO hunt. It didn’t happen so much now, now he had a Security Chief, not to forget fiancée, who would forcibly drag him back to his apartment when he simply could not continue to function through extreme tiredness. But she, too, was at home, asleep. With Paul Foster on leave, and Colonel Lake in Moonbase, he seemed to be running the whole place by himself. Hell, he had to admit to himself, he wasn’t just tired, he was exhausted.
Was he the only one who was capable of staying awake? Or did it just seem like that? He yawned surreptitiously, and reached for a mug of coffee, black, extra strong. It was not how he liked his coffee, but it might help keep him awake long enough to oversee this attack. He hoped.
He paused, considering the few options available to him. The trajectory termination point was just within the capabilities of Sky 3 but that could be risky, especially given the speed at which the UFO was coming in. If the UFO managed to evade the Sky fighter, then it could easily get lost in the wilderness of Alaska. He debated whether to bring in reinforcements from the nearest military forces.
He really didn’t want to do that. It meant tedious hours of work afterwards, debriefing non-SHADO military staff who had been involved in the assault, and treating them with the amnesia drug, and he would have to oversee that as well. He didn’t dare leave Doug Jackson unsupervised when it came to psychological aspects of SHADO’s work; the doctor was renowned for his rather lax attitude when it came to the ethics of human experimentation.
The other problem was that the USA didn’t have a very substantial force on the ground in the area, and he would have to contact the Canadian Prime Minister and the Russian President as a matter of courtesy, as well as ordering POTUS to give Straker control over the somewhat limited Air Force squadrons currently based in Alaska. He didn’t really have time for all that right now, not with a UFO on the loose.
President and Prime Ministers tended to want to spend long, inefficient minutes chatting to him when he contacted them, always wanting to find out how things were going with the organisation over which none of them had any control. He got the impression that they were trying to make friends with him, to get on his team as it were.
Straker didn’t have the time to spend wasting precious moments on idle chit chat. Not when lives were at stake and UFOs at large. It was quite irritating having to put the phone down on POTUS in the middle of a long rambling sentence from the President. And the Russian President was even more verbose, if that was possible.
Sky 3 it was then. He would deal with Presidents and Prime Ministers later, if necessary.
‘Alert Sky 3. Captain Carlin should be able to get in position in time.’ He turned from the radar screen, monitoring the rest of the activity in the control room.
There was nothing to do but wait, and hope; hope that he had not made an error of judgement, that his strategy of relying solely on Sky 3 would be successful. He waited, patiently, outwardly calm, spending the long minutes visualising in his mind the launch of Sky 3 from her parent craft, and the chase through the skies as she sought out the spinning alien invader.
He knew Peter Carlin, currently on the Bering Straits duty, was the best choice to intercept the UFO and bring it down. If Carlin couldn’t then no-one could, but he still waited anxiously for the first communication from the Captain of Sky 3.
‘Sky 3 to SHADO Control.’ Straker held his breath. His fists clenched, his knuckles white against his skin, as he waited for news.
‘Go ahead Sky 3.’
‘Successful attack. The UFO has been damaged, although at the present moment I am unable to say how severely. It’s going to crash land in the sea. I will reconnect with Diver before a reconnaissance attempt to retrieve any significant wreckage.’
‘Acknowledged Sky 3. Well done Captain. Straker out.’ He stepped back, pleased that things were finally looking up. He deserved a decent cup of coffee, with cream and sugar. And he really needed to make those phone calls to update the leaders on what had just happened over Alaska. All part of the job. The time-consuming, pointless, political side of running SHADO.
He went through to his office, closed the door and tried desperately not to fall asleep at his desk.
It was just twenty-four hours later that he was called to Dr Schroeder’s office and his world began to fall apart.
Six weeks earlier;
The beginning of another day at SHADO. Staff quietly slipping into their places behind computer consoles, the subdued sounds of hand-over conversations as one shift ended and another began, and the constant chatter of the data stream from the Space Intruder Detectors in low Earth orbit.
Alec Freeman closed the last file, slipped it into its neat plastic holder and placed it on the pile with the rest of the night’s paperwork. Yawning, he stretched his arms to relieve the stiffness.
He had, in a moment of utter madness, reluctantly agreed to take over the responsibility for some of the more mundane paperwork that the IAC and Henderson insisted upon, and Straker had been only too happy to let Alec have the task.
Only now was Alec beginning to realise the consequences of his offer. He had been stuck here well past the time when he should have been heading for home, just to finish the month’s analysis of psyche reports. They should have been completed two days before, but he had been pre-occupied with other matters and had let it slide. Perhaps subconsciously he had been hoping that Ed would relent and do the reports for him, seeing as how Straker was so used to doing them. But it was not to be.
Straker had not been pleased and had insisted that Alec complete the paperwork today. Well, last night really. Alec would have got it done sooner, had it not been for the red alert from SID at nearly 2 am in the morning. That had turned out to be a false alarm after all and Alec had had to write up that report as well.
Sometimes he wondered if SHADO would be able to function better without all the damned red tape. He wondered who ever actually read the reports, and he was tempted to put some random, obtuse phrase in the middle just to see if anyone ever noticed it. Something along the lines of ‘..her dress as it slipped up over her warm thighs’ . That would make any reader sit up and take notice, if anyone actually did read it.
Straker would undoubtedly spot it. The man read everything. And then he would find some meaningless, pointless activity for Alec to do, simply for the hell of it. It would be just like Ed Straker to order Alec to read all the psyche reports from the previous year, just to check for unnecessary phrases.
Alec read what he had to read, and nothing else. If it was not handed to him in a folder marked, ‘For Alec Freeman’, he ignored it.
He grunted with stiffness, and stretched. It hadn’t helped that Ed had been so preoccupied recently with meetings and conferences. All to do with next year’s finances he had told Alec; and the IAC, and Henderson in particular, were being obstructive, penny-pinching and miserly.
Straker was looking rather weary these days, but wouldn’t let Alec get involved in the long tedious meetings where he obviously spent most of his time arguing and disagreeing with the man in charge of the purse-strings.
Not for the first time in his life, Alec Freeman was exceedingly glad that he was not the SHADO Commander.
With a sigh he stood up, his back complaining painfully about the lack of exercise and his head fuzzy with focussing on the small print on the pages for so long. A drink; that would relax him. He didn’t have to worry about driving either; Rachel, with her customary efficiency and security conscious mind, had organised a regular driver for him, just as Ed now had his obligatory security detail.
He headed out for the Control room, for one last check before opening that bottle of single malt that Ed kept especially for him, one ear listening to the background noise of communications chatter and computer language. The sound level was normal, so that was a good sign; nothing untoward happening, although he knew that he would have been the first to know if there had been a problem.
‘Morning Keith,’ he greeted Lt Ford amiably. ‘Where’s the Commander?’
‘Morning Colonel,’ Ford turned to face him. ‘Commander Straker hasn’t arrived yet. I was just going to call…….’
Ford was interrupted by Lt Johnson. ‘Sir, there’s an alert from the Commander’s detail. They say he has been involved in some sort of incident at the studio gatehouse. They are taking him straight to sick bay.’ She looked concerned as she passed the message on.
‘Damn. Tell them I’m on my way.’ Alec Freeman barked over his shoulder as he headed out, the comforting taste of whisky instantly forgotten.
He hurried along the bleak corridors, mind racing, thoughts jumbled. What had happened this time? Should he call Rachel? Or would he be better waiting until he had seen Ed?
The Security detail were waiting for him outside the sickbay. ‘Colonel Freeman…..’ the officer in charge started to explain, but was silenced by Freeman’s angry scowl.
‘There’d better be a very good reason for this.’ he stormed at them. ‘You’re supposed to be protecting him. How badly hurt is he?’
‘Not much, Alec.’ the familiar voice was slightly shaken, but lucid. Straker, standing in the open door way, looked at his friend. ‘I thought I’d better rescue these guys from your wrath. As you can see I am fine, just a bump on the head.’ He was holding a bloodstained dressing behind his right ear. ‘Some idiot thought he’d be able to persuade me to read his new film script if he threw it in the car as I passed through security. Unfortunately it hit me. I didn’t think those things could be so dangerous.’ There was a smile on his face, but not in his voice and Alec could see something else as well, a hint of unease, of apprehension, almost a sense of fear.
Dr Shroeder appeared. ‘Commander, do you want me to stitch that cut any time soon, or are you just going to bleed elegantly all over my sickbay entrance?’ he said acerbically.
Straker raised an eyebrow at Freeman. ‘I’m fine Alec. Go home. Your shift ended some time ago. If I need any help here today I’ll call Paul.’ He turned and stepped inside the sickbay, the doors closing behind him, effectively shutting Alec out.
Freeman stared at the closed doors, confused and more than a little concerned that Ed had dismissed him so quickly, without even asking about the events of the night shift. Then he shrugged.
If Ed wanted some privacy and peace while Shroeder was patching him up, who was he to object? He knew that Straker hated being treated by the doctors, and after all, having stitches in one’s scalp was painful. He walked back through Control and into Straker’s office to finish tidying away his paperwork, the promised reward of alcohol forgotten in the aftermath.
The Commander went back into the sick bay, his eyes reluctantly meeting those of the older man who had been sitting there, unseen by Freeman, listening to the conversation. Straker grimaced in dismay. ‘Alec.’ he said as if that one word was sufficient.
James Henderson looked at his protégé, ‘Is he likely to cause any problems?’ he asked the younger man.
‘Alec Freeman? No. At least, not yet. Maybe later on. But I’ll deal with him. I’ll have to, at some stage.’ Straker replied, his hands clenched with tension almost as if to stop them shaking. He turned away so that he was no longer facing his mentor. Staring at the bland, inoffensive walls of Sick Bay, as if trying to forget the world around him.
‘You don’t have to go through with this you know. There must be another way. Harlington is concerned. He told me that he doesn’t think it will work in all areas.’ Henderson said, quietly, with concern in his voice.
‘We both know there is no other way, James. Have you come up with another option? Has anyone? No. So let’s just get on with it. I only hope they forgive me afterwards. If there is an afterwards.’ He muttered more to himself, than to the man watching him.
Straker sat hunched on the examination table, head bowed, his hands tightly holding the edges on either side of him, almost as if he needed the support in order to stay upright, as Shroeder approached to deal with the small wound at the base of the skull behind Straker’s right ear.
It took longer than expected before Shroeder was ready to close the deep incision. It was sharply painful, and Straker hissed with the discomfort as the neat stitches went in, leaving a raised, swollen ridge. Shroeder fixed a dressing over the wound. ‘All done Commander. Keep it dry and come back tomorrow to have it re-dressed. I suggest you just sit there for a few moments until the dizziness has passed.’ He left the two men alone.
Straker looked grimly at Henderson. ‘So, James, are you ready for this? There is a strong possibility that it may end badly you know, for both of us.’
‘As you say Ed, we have no other choice. Just remember, whatever happens, I’ll be behind you. Even if it comes to the worst.’
‘Dear God, you should start praying now that it doesn’t get as far as that. Just make sure that he is in the Court room at the right time.’ Straker blanched, his hands tightening on the edge of the bed.
He grimaced, and slowly stood up, holding onto the frame until he felt sure of his balance, confident that he could finally stand upright without stumbling. ‘This had better work,’ he muttered, gingerly touching the painful area behind his ear.
He took a deep breath, smiled bleakly at the General, flung his grey jacket, now with a dark crimson stain on the collar, over his shoulder, and walked out. Henderson could hear him chatting amiably to the agents in his detail as he headed down the corridor back to SHADO HQ.
Henderson sighed. He was getting too old for this sort of thing. Too old to be involved in plots and intrigues. If this worked out, and he hoped and prayed that it did, then he would have to seriously think of retiring in the next few months. It was about time he spent his days with his wife and children and grandchildren rather than cooped up in his office worrying about appropriations and budgets and plots.
He thought about Straker, heading back to his subterranean world of sinister secrets and aliens. He would have to keep a close eye on him over the next few weeks.
Somebody needed to.
Ed Straker was about to get very, very lonely.
Five weeks earlier
The security detail, waiting outside their flat in the shared hallway, heard most of it. Not all, by any means; some of the argument had been quiet and vehement, but the raised voices were easy to hear. They listened, uneasily, unsure whether to intervene or not. It was not as if they did not know the two people involved, in fact that made it harder to decide. If one had been a stranger, or even someone less familiar, they would have simply intruded on the scene and dealt with the repercussions later.
But this was different.
Commander Straker, obviously in a vile mood, was shouting at his partner Rachel Philips in their apartment. They could hear her infuriated response and the sound of doors slamming. They heard her yelling; angry, hurtful words, threats and insults spattering her sentences. Then silence. They looked at each other, wondering what action to take.
The apartment door opened and Straker walked out, speaking furiously over his shoulder to her as he left the apartment. ‘Very well then, I’ll authorise your transfer back to Norway with immediate effect. I expect you to have cleared your things from here before I return this evening.’ His voice was bitter with rage and fury.
He stopped when he saw the security detail outside on the shared hallway, staring at them with ice cold eyes that dared them to comment.
‘Yes?’ his voice curt and brusque. ‘Heard enough? Good. Then get me to work, on time if you can possibly do that for once.’ He headed for the stairs and they followed at a discrete distance, glancing at each other in dismay at his behaviour. He was renowned for his abrupt manner, but they had never seen him like this before.
He practically ran down the stairs, as if desperate to get away from the angry scene in the apartment, away from her betrayal of him. How could she do that?
At the car he waited, hands clenched in anger, lips tight, eyes focussed on a single point in the distance. His chauffeur arrived, unlocking the car as he approached.
Straker looked at him with undisguised contempt.
‘Well? Isn’t it part of your job to open the door?’ he asked scornfully, although in the past he had never expected that, had never wanted to be treated with deference. He even preferred to sit in the front next to the driver if he did not have paperwork to do on the drive in. More often than not he would drive himself in to the Studios, with his security detail trailing him at a discrete distance.
‘My apologies Commander.’ his driver muttered and swiftly opened the rear door to allow Straker to get in.
The journey to the studios was undertaken in absolute silence. Straker didn’t even open his briefcase. He simply stared, with unseeing eyes out of the window at the passing scenery, his hands clenching and unclenching, breathing deeply as if to try to calm himself, occasionally touching the small, neat dressing behind his ear as if to assure himself that it was still there.
HQ was busy when he arrived, ignoring Miss Ealand and striding from the office along the corridor to Control. There was an instant reaction to his presence. The idle chatter ceased and the operatives quickly turned away from his icy expression, frantically trying to avoid catching his eye.
With Colonel Freeman in Moonbase for the next three weeks and Virginia Lake on her Skydiver rotation, Straker was not going to have any senior staff members around to talk him out of his rage. It had happened before of course, and the HQ staff knew what to do. The word quickly went out; keep your head down and watch out.
He flung his briefcase onto his desk, picked up the pile of folders waiting in his in-tray and dumped them unceremoniously on the conference table, where he had room to work. He set to work, flicking through them almost carelessly, skimming the pages and scrawling his signature at the end of each. As he neared the end of the pile he did not even make pretence of reading, simply scribbled an indecipherable scribble on the last page before tossing them onto the heap of chaotic files sprawled on the table.
Even working so haphazardly it still had taken him a couple of hours to complete all the necessary paperwork and authorise the next month’s rotas and training timetable, practice launches, and refuelling schedules. Pointless, futile activities.
Enough. Pouring himself a coffee he sat down at his desk. He picked up the coffee mug, and tasted it, replacing it on the table before putting his head in his hands and taking a deep, deep breath.
Shuddering, he paused, then crossed to the conference table, picked up the bottle of Ardbeg that he kept for Alec, and returned to his desk. The bottle was unopened. He prised away the edge of the soft metal cover, ripping it away and flinging it into the nearby bin. Then he twisted the cork from the bottle, listening to it squeak as he pulled it out to smell the heavy smoke-laden alcohol contained within.
He contemplated the bottle for a few moments then quickly poured a generous measure of the peaty malt into his coffee. He sat back, sipping the potent mixture appreciatively, his thoughts elsewhere, his mind focussed on the events of the morning.
Damn her. Why wouldn’t she accept that he couldn’t spend all his time with her? That work came first, had always and would always have to come first. Work had taken everything from him, and would continue to take, sucking the life from him and removing all hope of a normal existence.
A normal existence. He could have laughed. Cynically he reviewed the last week. The attack at the gatehouse; the stitches in his head, still painful and swollen; the argument this morning; her vicious comments, thrown at him in anger, but still true nonetheless. Who could ever have called that normal?
Shit. He’d had enough. It was about time he took control of his own future and started to do things the way he wanted. And right now, he decided, he wanted another drink. He could see why Alec enjoyed drinking; it numbed the pain of shredded emotions, deadened that raw sense of loss and loneliness. He reached for the heavy cut-glass tumbler that Alec used whenever he drank. Straker picked up the glass, looking at the light refracted through its deep, crystal patterns. It was like looking through a kaleidoscope of swirling, rotating patterns that deceived the eyes and confused the mind.
He poured himself a second liberal measure and gulped it down, neat, quickly, without even tasting it. It burned his mouth and throat, and he welcomed it.
Now, enough of work. Let someone else sort out the pointless paperwork that no one ever bothered to read. Let someone else stand in the control room for hours on end trying to make sense of the aliens’ latest line of attack. He was through with working every hour God had given him. He was going home. No, not home. It would no longer be home. He was going back to the apartment. His apartment.
‘Ford. Call Colonel Lake back in. I’m going home for the rest of the day.’ he brusquely informed the Chief Communications officer over the intercom.
He picked up the bottle to put it back in its place, then almost on an impulse, changed his mind and locked it in his briefcase instead, before walking out leaving the pile of paperwork strewn haphazardly across the table. He ignored the stares from the staff on duty and headed for the lift. There was no one else around, he was alone. And as he walked into his office to go up to the Studio reception, he took one long moment to gaze intently at the SHADO logo on the wall. He shook his head imperceptibly, worriedly, and grimaced as if he could taste something unpleasant.
Then he left.
His apartment was empty when he arrived back. All traces of her were gone apart from a delicate hint of her favourite fragrance on her pillow. He lay on the bed, holding it and breathing in the scent of her presence. It was all he could do not to break down.
He wondered if he could continue, if he could carry on. But he had no other choice. Not now. He touched the raised ridge of stitches behind his ear. It was still very tender and painful and he muttered quietly to himself in the peace and stillness of his bed.
Eventually his eyes closed as the unfamiliar alcohol in his bloodstream befuddled him, and he drowsed, fitfully, in the daylight, holding her pillow tightly and dreaming of her.
Four weeks earlier
‘Colonel Foster, SHADO Control here.’
Paul Foster acknowledged the call and frowned. It was his off duty time, he had done ten long, hard night shifts on the run and he had plans for today. Nothing special, mind you, but it was good to have something else to think about instead of SHADO. To just lie in bed and do nothing, or go far a run, or do anything other than track aliens across the universe.
‘Commander Straker wants to see you in his office as soon as possible.’ The impersonal voice informed him without a trace of emotion.
Why would Straker wish to see him today?
‘Tell the Commander I’m on my way,’ he replied wearily. If Straker wanted him, then he’d better get there sooner rather than later. The rumours over the past couple of days had been unsettling to say the least. Keith Ford had been waiting for Paul out in the studio reception area yesterday and had expressed serious doubts as to Straker’s mental condition.
‘Since Colonel Philips left last week, he simply doesn’t care, Paul. He leaves us to get on with dealing with UFOs and sits in his office. Fortunately, there have been no serious incidents recently, and we’ve been able to deal with everything relatively easily. However, I think he may be drinking as well.’ Keith looked embarrassed as he spoke quietly to his superior. ‘I’m sure I could smell whisky on his breath this morning when he arrived. I am hoping Colonel Freeman will be back tomorrow from Moonbase. It’s not looking good, Paul. People are beginning to notice.’
Paul Foster had hoped the rumours were false. If Straker was having problems dealing with Rachel’s transfer back to Norway, then it would affect SHADO. By now every member of staff had heard the story of the argument and how Rachel had effectively vanished from SHADO HQ. She had not even come in to clear her desk. Straker had done that, putting everything into a box and sending it to storage. Even her picture had gone from his desk.
He had not mentioned her name since then. It was as if she had never existed.
As he walked through the outer office Miss Ealand stopped him. ‘Colonel Foster, is the Commander all right? He has seemed very withdrawn recently. In fact he hasn’t said a single word to me.’
‘I think he just has a lot on his mind,’ he tried to reassure her, but he knew that for all her outwardly blonde-secretary image, Miss Ealand possessed a keen, sharp mind and was perfectly capable of assessing a situation. She wouldn’t have been Ed Straker’s secretary otherwise. She looked at him, considering, then nodded. ‘I’ll keep an eye on him Colonel, and let you know if I have any further concerns.’
Paul shrugged his shoulders in resigned acceptance. ‘There’s not a lot anyone can do Miss Ealand. He’s obviously going through a rough time, but he’ll come out if it soon; he always does.’ You hope, he thought to himself.
Straker had gone through some difficult times in the past couple of years, particularly with the death of his son, but had never let it affect his work. If anything he had worked even harder, involving himself in the job to the exclusion of everything else. It was only some time after John’s death that Paul realised what had happened, Straker and Freeman had kept it so closely concealed.
But this, this was different. Straker seemed to be gradually losing control of his personal life and his command of the organisation. It did not augur well for SHADO. Paul Foster might feel that Straker was a dictator who cared little for the lives of the people who worked for him, but even Paul had to admit, Straker got the job done.
However unpleasant, however difficult or dangerous, Commander Ed Straker knew what to do and was not afraid of doing it. Paul thought back to one recent event; Buckley and Packard. There was no way he could have done what Straker did. No way anyone else in SHADO could have done it; and Straker knew that. Knew that no-one else would have been able to take two men and shoot them in cold blood. It had needed to be done. And Straker had done it. But what had it cost him in terms of his sanity?
As Commander, he had executed them. But now it seemed that Straker had lost his ability to stay dispassionate, detached, in control. What did that mean for SHADO? Foster was beginning to get more than a little concerned.
Once underground and in the corridors he noticed other disturbing signs. The normally immaculate control room looked untidy and one or two members of staff had coffee mugs on their consoles. Uniforms were ever so slightly scruffy, and there was an air of indifference, as if the teacher had left the classroom and the pupils were beginning to take advantage. He frowned. Surely Ed would have noticed this?
The office door was closed. Unusual. He approached, expecting it to open as he got nearer, but it remained firmly shut. He would have to knock. Embarrassing.
He stood outside, like a naughty schoolboy, waiting to be admitted to the head teacher’s sanctum. The door opened, eventually, grudgingly, he felt. He went in.
Straker was sitting, slouching even, behind his desk, a glass tumbler in his hand. There was an almost empty bottle of whisky on the desk, within reach. Paul noticed the stubble on his face, the slightly crumpled suit, the faintly grubby edges to the shirt cuffs peeking out.
Two blue eyes stared at him, cold and unfeeling. ‘About time you turned up Foster.’ Paul could hear the contempt in Straker’s slightly slurred voice. ‘Taking it easy were you? With some little tart no doubt. Well, sorry to spoil your plans for a cosy couple of days, but you can take over here for the day. I’ve got things to do, people to see.’
He grinned almost maliciously, picked up the bottle and looked at its contents. ‘Hmm.’ He drained the dregs from his glass and then refilled it with the last dregs from the bottle, admiring the rich beading of the liquid against the side of the glass. He stood up, tossing the empty bottle into the waste bin, and gulping down the pale amber liquid.
‘Here. Take the bloody seat. You always wanted it anyway didn’t you Paul. See how you enjoy it.’ he spat the embittered words at Foster, picked up his briefcase, looked at it with disgust and dropped it onto the desk. ‘Have the paperwork as well. I’ll be back in a couple of days. Think you can manage SHADO for that long? Try not to let the aliens destroy the place.’
Straker walked out of the room, bumping slightly against the door frame as he did so and headed for the lift. Paul followed him, aghast at the change in the man. What the hell had happened to Ed? Drinking, and drinking heavily from the look of it.
He had never known Ed drink anything, apart for a sip of champagne on very rare occasions. And here he was, knocking back whisky as if it were orange juice. Paul Foster was worried, very worried. It was time he called Moonbase.
Ed Straker prowled the corridors of SHADO. He had come in, unexpectedly, at the beginning of the graveyard shift, to use his secure office computer after a couple of days away. It was midnight, the very witching hour, as Shakespeare had described it, and he could almost feel hell’s contagious breath in the air. The place was sullen and cold, dark shadows lurked in corners and he could sense the animosity towards him from the members of staff that were on duty. He didn’t care; didn’t care about anything now. He had lost everything that mattered, but he had found some small shred of comfort in alcohol.
It was quiet in the corridors, very quiet. The Staff lounge was also deserted; no-one wanted to be in there when he was wandering around. The rumours had spread; it was best to avoid the big boss if you didn’t want to get hauled over the coals for any minor infringement. He rubbed his face, the stubble was uncomfortable but he had stopped shaving a few days ago. There was no reason to try to be smart or well-presented. His life was a sham, a fake; the studios a lie, his life here in SHADO a lie as well.
Nothing was as it seemed.
He turned the corner into a deserted corridor and leaned exhausted against the wall, his face drawn and pale. It was too long since he had seen a friendly face, or had had a conversation with someone. Foster was going out of his way to avoid him and the staff answered his questions with morose, curt replies. He supposed he deserved it. In a quiet corner of one of the less used corridors he leaned against the wall and slowly slid down to sit on the floor, arms folded tightly across his chest, head down, thinking.
Reaching up he winced as his fingers probed the sore spot behind his ear. Even with the stitches removed it was still very painful and inflamed. He grimaced as his finger pressed it a little harder than he had intended, and then he put his head to one side, as if listening to a far-off sound. The team monitoring the security cameras in the corridors watched in bewilderment as he began talking quietly, seemingly not concerned that he was being recorded and filmed.
It was most disquieting. The team watched, listened and wondered, listening to him holding an inaudible one-sided conversation with himself. Then they reported to Colonel Freeman in Moonbase.
Arriving at Ed’s apartment two days later after arranging an urgent trip back from Moonbase, Alec Freeman was concerned to see that the guard post on the top floor of the apartment block was apparently deserted. Usually the security detail were forewarned by the approaching lift and were waiting to see who was arriving.
This time however, there was no welcoming agent to nod him through the hallway to Ed’s door. Perhaps they were in the apartment with Ed? That would explain it. Alec had heard the reports from Keith Ford and the others; he’d had a long radio conversation with Paul Foster last night on the flight back, he’d seen the film of Ed talking to himself in the corridor and he’d come to Straker’s place to see exactly what was going on.
Alec couldn’t believe that Rachel and Ed had separated; they had seemed perfectly happy and relaxed with each other and had even started, informally, to plan their wedding for later in the year. Rachel had seen Ed through some pretty difficult times in the last months and they had come through everything fine, with no problems. So what exactly had happened? He intended getting some answers today.
He knocked on Ed’s door. There was no answer. As a Senior staff member Colonel Freeman had pass keys to all residences, although he had never used this one before. There was a first time for everything though, and he unlocked the door, tapping again as he did so, to warn Straker that he was entering.
The room was chaotic. It looked almost as if it had been deliberately trashed. Papers, books, CDs, strewn in complete disarray across the floor, dirty mugs and the mouldering remains of barely eaten take-away meals lay everywhere.
Straker lay sprawled asleep on one of the sofas, dishevelled and unkempt, his usually immaculate trousers creased unforgivably. His eyes were closed and he made no acknowledgement of Freeman’s presence. Unshaven and scruffy he had the air of someone who had given up on the world around him, who had sought solace in other comforts.
Alec bent over him. He could smell the stale whisky from a distance.
‘Ed. What the hell’s going on with you,’ he hissed angrily. ‘Foster said you’d been drinking but I didn’t believe him. Look at you.’ Concerned at the sudden change in his friend he leaned closer to try to wake him.
‘Alec,’ the slurred voice startled him, ‘always there with a helping hand. Did you never get drunk Alec? Oh pardon me, how many times have I had to drive you home? Don’t you dare lecture me about drinking. I know all about you, Colonel,’ he answered his friend scornfully. ‘So what brings you here? Come to gloat?’ He sat up carefully, an empty whisky bottle rolling onto the floor.
‘Ed. Stop this, this isn’t right, this isn’t you. For God’s sake pull yourself together. Come on, get up and get showered, you reek of alcohol.’
Straker hauled himself upright, swaying slightly, ‘And thank you so much for those kind words, my friend. Nice to know you still have some respect for your commanding officer. Now get lost. Before I throw you out.’
‘Just you try, Ed Straker. I’ll get your security detail in here if necessary.’
‘Oh yes? In case you hadn’t noticed Colonel, there’s no one there anymore. I got rid of them the same time I got rid of that woman who used to live here.’ He slumped back on the sofa, his hands reaching out for the bottle on the floor.
Alec grabbed him by the shoulders, ‘That woman?’ he hissed angrily, in Straker’s face, ‘that woman was your fiancée, the woman you love, the one you wanted to spend the rest of your life with. What sort of cold blooded monster are you?’
‘Me? I’m the man who spends his entire life lying. I’m the man who is too preoccupied with work to take a day off. I’m the man who’s lost everything to the real monster in this world; SHADO, and right now I really don’t care what happens to SHADO or any of its grubby little minions, including you. I am getting drunk. When I’m drunk I forget what I’ve lost, for a while anyway. Why the hell didn’t you tell me before how good alcohol makes you feel? Now get out and leave me in peace, unless of course you’ve brought another bottle with you. I seem to have finished this one.’ He leaned forward to pick up the empty bottle, nearly falling off the sofa in the process.
Alec Freeman looked at him with disgust. ‘Pull yourself together Ed, before Henderson finds out what sort of state you’re in. If he sees you like this you’ll be kicked out and I wouldn’t blame him.’
Straker managed to get to his feet, swaying and holding the arm of the sofa to keep himself upright. ‘Last chance, Freeman. Close the door on your way out. Don’t expect to see me at work for a while. I’m taking a well-earned furlough. You and that little upstart Foster can run the place for a while. It might teach you both a few things.’
Alec Freeman turned his back, sickened by the sight of his friend’s disintegration into a stumbling drunk. ‘Go and sleep it off Ed, I’ll clear up in here for you.’ he commented, scornfully before his shoulder was grabbed and he was forcibly turned round to face the bloodshot eyes of his commanding officer.
‘I told you to get out Colonel. Or are you incapable of following a simple order? Yes? Well then. Let me show you what to do.’ And with a surprisingly sober show of strength, Straker yanked the older man by his jacket towards the door. Alec Freeman found himself being pushed out of the apartment and the door slammed shut behind him.
Straker leaned against the locked door, trembling. He looked down at his shaking hands and slowly slid down till he was sitting on the floor, his head resting on his knees, trembling. He half expected Alec Freeman to force his way back into the apartment and he didn’t have the faintest idea what he would do if that happened. But no. He heard the lift doors open and the heavy sound of footsteps going in.
Alec had gone. He leaned back, his head against the door, alone. He breathed a sigh of relief, of regret.
He rubbed the painful area behind his ear and then he started talking.
Three weeks earlier
There was no jovial tone to be heard in Colonel Freeman’s voice, no Shakespearean quote, no slightly risqué comment for the Voice Print Identification system to analyse. Just his name. Bleak and concise. He had no heart for anything resembling good humour or cheerfulness.
There was not much to be cheerful about.
He had smiled despondently at Miss Ealand as he passed through the outer office and she had smiled sadly back at him. Unspoken words passed between them. Nothing was said, nothing needed to be said, but they both knew what the other was thinking.
Alec Freeman would have sat down behind the desk, but he couldn’t face the thought of sitting in Straker’s chair, even though it was only his studio chair. He had absolutely refused to sit behind Straker’s Perspex desk in the SHADO HQ. That would have been too much like stepping into a dead man’s shoes.
The office door opened and he walked out, into HQ. His HQ for the immediate future. He hated this, hated being in charge, even though he knew he was coping well with the responsibility. Freeman knew his failings though and was simply grateful that the aliens had not chosen this time to launch one of their random perplexing strategies. It took Straker, with his logical mind and devious thought processes to make sense of the sometimes bewildering tactics employed by the enemy. So far Straker had always managed to outwit the aliens. So far. But what would happen if Straker was not there? When Straker was not here?
SHADO Control was used to seeing Colonel Freeman in charge by now. It had been two weeks since Rachel Philips had left, abruptly, without any warning and no-one knew where she was. She had not reported for duty at the Oslo base and nothing had been heard of her.
That was not the case however with the Commander. Everyone knew where he was; at his apartment, drunk no doubt. He had not returned to HQ since throwing Alec Freeman out of the place several days ago and despite several attempts, no-one had been able to see him. Even Henderson had been refused entry.
The staff got on with their work, and it seemed as if shortly Straker would sort himself out and return like the prodigal son, or else suffer the consequences.
As a matter of standard security Alec Freeman had authorised Straker’s computer usage and phone calls monitored. If Ed was that drunk, Alec needed to be sure that he was not going to pose a security risk, highly unlikely though that might be.
But no-one, least of all Alec Freeman or Paul Foster, could ever have imagined what would transpire in the days to come.
Two weeks earlier
The Acting Security Chief gave the order and the heavily armed task force positioned themselves for the assault, not knowing what to expect on the other side of the door.
A few minutes earlier they had moved swiftly and efficiently up the stairs, having put the lift out of action for the duration of the assignment. They reached the apartment, paused, and then at the given signal, quietly unlocked the door using their pass key and prepared to storm in, guns ready.
On the signal they entered, ready to shoot down anyone who presented a threat. Nothing. The main living area was a shambles. Curtains closed, festering remnants of food littering the floor. But there was no-one in sight. Carefully they moved to the main bedroom door, opening it so, so cautiously, half expecting to be met by gunfire. He was an Olympic grade marksman after all. They were expecting anything, but not what they found.
He was deeply asleep in his bed, unshaven and reeking of alcohol despite it being early afternoon. They looked down at him, contemptuously, before shaking him awake. He didn’t seem perturbed to see them. Didn’t, in fact, make any objections any comments or demands; simply sat up and stared at the well-armed team surrounding his bed with its grubby sheets and discarded clothes scattered around on the floor. He didn’t even attempt to reach for his pistol, placed, as usual, under his pillow.
‘Good afternoon. How nice to see you all.’ Sarcasm dripped from his tongue. ‘I don’t suppose this is a social visit? No? Well then, perhaps you would let me get dressed first.’ He flung back the bedcovers and stood, unconcerned, stretching as if waking from a long night’s sleep. ‘Excuse me for one moment while I go to the bathroom. Or perhaps you would like to accompany me there as well?’
Disconcerted, almost embarrassed, they stepped back and watched as he walked with the easy confidence of a man who has drunk too much alcohol, across the bedroom to the adjoining bathroom.
The toilet flushed, they could hear water running and then the sound of him cleaning his teeth. The door opened.
’Still here?’ He was wearing a dark blue dressing gown and had had a wash, although he still needed a shave. ‘You will allow me to get dressed?’
‘Yes.’ the answer was curt.
He gazed at them with a look full of contempt and loathing. ‘I don’t suppose one of you would go and get me a drink while I get ready? No? Oh well, all good things, as they say.’
He opened his closet doors, selecting clothes carelessly without thought; a navy blue suit and white shirt, the nearest that came to hand, and flung them on the unmade dishevelled bed. He dressed swiftly, without discomfort at doing so in front of others. He didn’t bother combing his hair, just ran his fingers through it, and then smiled thinly at them.
‘Well? Shall we go gentlemen?’ His voice was nonchalant and disinterested, and he led the way out of his apartment, picking up his keys on the way out and handing them to the team leader. ‘Make sure you lock up properly before you go, won’t you, Butler? Oh. Handcuffs? Really? Very well if you must, although I have no intention of trying to escape. After all, where could I possibly go to?’ He held out his wrists, compliantly, then headed for the stairs, surrounded by the guards.
Once inside the armoured vehicle, one wrist chained to the seat, he closed his eyes and leaned back against the hard metal. He put his free hand up to feel the inflammation behind his ear. Still raised and sore. He rubbed it gently, trying to ease the persistent discomfort.
‘I assume that I am under arrest. It would be courteous to tell me why. And where you are taking me. Or do I need to call my lawyer?’ he spoke clearly, enunciating the words precisely.
The team leader looked uncomfortable. ‘We have been ordered to take you to SHADO HQ, Straker…….’he was interrupted by the ice cold voice.
‘The last time I looked it was Commander Straker. Innocent, until proven guilty? Am I correct?’
Sir, ..Commander, we have been ordered ……’
‘Yes, I understand, SHADO HQ, but on what charge?’
‘I’m not at liberty to say sir,’
‘I see. I suppose I shall just have to wait then. Am I permitted to know exactly where in HQ you are taking me?’
‘Sir, we have orders to take you to the detention centre.’
‘Oh well, I suppose someone will get round to telling me what all this is about eventually.’ And with a resigned sigh he closed his eyes, relaxing back in the uncomfortable seat as if he was in his familiar, comfortable, leather chair behind his desk.
Henderson was waiting for them in the outer office, glowering and red-faced with suppressed anger. They went through the formalities of voice print identification, Straker smiling with sarcastic satisfaction when he was identified as ‘Commander Straker’, and the room descended, Straker standing in the centre of the office, surrounded by the guards instead of sitting, as usual in his chair. He looked around at the armed escort before speaking to the General.
‘Well, Henderson, are you going to have the decency to let me know what exactly is going on?’
‘You know full well, Straker. I’ve had the reports from Security. How the hell did you think you’d get away with it? Sending information about SHADO to a foreign government. What on earth did you hope to achieve? Did you need the money?’
‘Money? Need money? Don’t make me laugh, Henderson. I have more money than I could ever hope to spend. You could not possibly understand my reasons.’ He turned scornfully away from the older man, as if he could no longer be bothered to look at him.
They waited to formally question him after he had been processed through the system. They allowed him to keep his own clothes and watch, but he was moved into one of the larger cells, partly out of respect for his status but also partly due to his claustrophobia. However, he was kept under close guard, and handcuffed when taken out.
And even then he refused to explain why he acted as he had. Why he had contacted a foreign government to try to arrange a meeting. Why he had collated SHADO data on the aliens and coded it ready for transmission to the, so far, unfriendly government. His crime had been discovered when the security team processed his computer records, as ordered by Colonel Freeman. Despite his expertise in coding and ciphers, they had been able to decipher his transcripts easily. Too easily, really.
Both before and after the Court Martial he continued with his policy of silence and refusal to co-operate. The days, defined only by meals, pointless, one-sided interviews and sleep, dragged by. There was nothing to do, nothing to say, nothing to stare at. He lay there on the thin mattress, thinking and talking to himself occasionally.
The morning before his execution was scheduled, he was taken for the last time to see Henderson. They had brought his breakfast, but, as usual, he hadn’t eaten much. As he was escorted out, handcuffed, his attention was caught by a small satsuma on the tray, unnoticed before.
He picked it up, closing his fingers around it to prevent it being taken off him. He sat on the single empty chair in the room, hands now free and resting on the table, the fruit in front of him, a small splash of vibrant colour in the otherwise drab, utility grey room. Henderson, sitting opposite him, started with the questions.
Straker, his full and absolute attention focussed on the small fruit, rolled it between the fingertips of one hand, feeling the texture and the smoothness of the yielding skin. Nothing else mattered, just the fruit, its brightness, its promise.
Henderson’s voice was hushed, almost desperate, as he pleaded with the SHADO Commander to justify his actions, to give some rational explanation, to account for the indisputable fact that he had betrayed the organisation to which he had devoted so many years of service.
Straker dug his thumb nail into the soft, supple skin of the satsuma, easing it away to reveal the fat segments underneath. Methodically, meticulously, he peeled back the skin in one piece with a soft ripping sound, being careful to leave as little pith as possible attached to the rounded sections below.
With fastidious attention he pulled off any remaining fragile spines of the soft yellow underlayer that still clung to the orange sphere, before examining the naked fruit carefully, as one might examine a jewel, holding it up to inspect it for flaws or blemishes that would deter him from savouring it.
Finally satisfied that it was ready to eat, he began to slowly tear it apart into its tidy individual portions, putting each part into his mouth and eating it leisurely, with obvious pleasure, as if he had never tasted anything like it before in his life, and would not taste its like again.
Nothing else was important, nothing else existed in this time or place, but the fruit, and the tangy, sharp taste of its flesh on his tongue.
He finished the last segment almost regretfully, and his fingers played with the tangled scroll of discarded peel on the table for a few moments, before he picked it up and tossed it carelessly into the waste bin at the side of the room.
Sighing, he stood up, pushing his chair back from the table, and holding his hands out to the guard behind him, continuing to ignore Henderson as if he did not exist at all, as if there was nothing in the room but the table and chairs and, in the still air, the faintest pungent tang of the zest of the eaten fruit.
‘I’m finished here.’ he curtly informed the guard in an authoritative tone and stepped towards the door. It was clear that he would not co-operate any further and so, handcuffed once more, he was taken back to the small detention area, to the small cell that had been his only place of residence for his last weeks.
Lying down on the thin, plastic-covered mattress he put his hands behind his head and closed his eyes. They had not even given him access to any books. He had finally managed to catch up on some, though not all, of the sleep he had missed recently though, so that was a bonus. And now he was getting tired of waiting.
Still, it wouldn’t matter for much longer. He was due to be transferred to the Medical Facility that evening. The journey that would bring all this to an end. There was only one more thing he had to do now. He opened his eyes and sat up, ready now. It was time.
He called to the guard.
The message that Colonel Freeman received later that morning puzzled him. Why would Ed want to see him now, when it was clear that he had completely foresworn all previous attempts by friends to visit him? Alec felt compelled to go, though. Despite everything, Ed was still a man he had respected and cared for over the years. Perhaps this visit would be his chance to learn exactly what had gone wrong.
Freeman stood in front of the cell door, looking through the small window. Straker sitting, head down with shaggy, unkempt hair and hands clasped in front of him was trembling very slightly. He looked pale and fatigued.
The guard unlocked the door and stood back, unwilling to be involved in the meeting.
‘Sir,’ he indicated for Colonel Freeman to enter the cell. Straker looked up, bleary eyed and tired.
‘Colonel Freeman, as I live and breathe. Well not for much longer that is, for either of us. I suppose you’ll be Commander Freeman tomorrow, and I’ll be a lifeless corpse. May I be the first to congratulate you on your promotion. What was it the old naval officers used to toast? To a bloody war or a sickly season?’ he said scornfully.
‘Why did you ask to see me Ed? Was it just to insult me? If so I’m not going to hang around to listen to you.’ He turned to go.
‘That’s right, turn and run like the coward you are, Freeman. I didn’t think you would have the courage to come today, let alone help me. I was right after all.’
Alec turned back, his face dark with anger. ‘How could I possibly help you?’ he demanded.
‘Simple, Colonel, I need a clean suit for tonight. They are taking me out of here at 20.00 hours and I would like to make a decent impression, a lasting impression. In fact my very last impression, as one might say. Get me a set of fresh clothes from my apartment this afternoon.’ his voice was cold and monotonous. Then he spoke again, rapidly, in an almost inaudible whisper, his voice sincere and nearly desperate. ‘Alec, please. This afternoon.’
Alec turned to face his commanding officer in surprise, but it was as if Straker had never spoken. He was lying on the thin mattress, his hands behind his head, staring at the ceiling with intent.
‘See you later, Colonel,’ the last word almost dripping with contempt. Straker closed his eyes and started muttering to himself.
The apartment, on the top floor of the block, overlooking the quayside, had been meant as a temporary base for Straker to move into after the destruction of his farmhouse residence. Alec wondered what would happen to the place after tomorrow. Would SHADO take it over, as originally planned, as a safe house? Or would it be better to sell it and try to wipe clean those memories of Ed Straker, commander, friend. Traitor.
Given the chance Alec would have burned the place to the ground. His heart felt unbearably wrenched with the loss of his friend and he dreaded having to go into the apartment where he had spent time with Ed and Rachel.
But it had to be done. It was the last thing he could do for Ed Straker. His friend.
The door opened on the small entrance area, and he stepped into the living room. And stopped, unsure of what to say or do. She was standing there, in the midst of the room, looking somewhat perplexed, and yet almost amused, at the mess, the unfamiliar chaos everywhere.
‘Rachel’ he said. ‘What on earth are you doing here?’
She smiled at him, that wide generous smile that transformed her face and he wondered again how Straker could possibly have let her go.
‘Alec, come in, thank God you’re here. Come with me.’ And she led him through to the main bedroom, now immaculately tidy, clean, fresh. Her coat on the bed. Suitcase open and empty on the floor. Flowers on the windowsill. Indications of her presence everywhere he looked.
‘We need to talk.’ she said seriously, ‘I’ve just finished my security sweep of the whole place. There are no bugs so it’s safe, at least for a short time. And I’ve finally finished cleaning up in here. Sit down.’
And he sat and listened as she talked; talked about the past weeks, talked about Ed and his trial, talked about the past and their plans for the future. Putting his head in his hands he sat, hunched and silent until he could bear it no longer and rose to his feet, hugging her closely as she wiped away her tears. He held her for a long moment, tightly, before releasing her with a gentle kiss of understanding.
Later that afternoon he returned to HQ carrying a small overnight bag. ‘These are for Straker.’ he informed the guards and, after inspecting the contents they let him into the small room.
‘I got the stuff you wanted from your apartment this afternoon.’ he told the man lying on the narrow bed.
Straker took one look at Freeman, and an expression of immense and utter relief flashed fleetingly across his drawn face, so swiftly Alec could not have been sure he had seen it.
‘Good. About time you showed up,’ Straker looked up at him from his position on the mattress. ‘Excuse me not getting up to greet you, but as you can see I have far more important things to do with my time.’
Alec looked down at him in disgust. ‘You make me sick, acting as if you’ve done nothing wrong. How can you just lie there while we try to sort out the mess you’ve made? You not only tried to betray SHADO, you betrayed your friends and all the people who worked for you. You deserve everything you are going to get tonight.’
Straker raised an eyebrow at Alec. ‘That’s not a very nice thing to say Alec. I think you’d better go now, before I get angry. I really don’t want to have to hit you; it will spoil the formal photographs tomorrow when you are sworn in as Commander. I suppose I will see you later this evening? About midnight? At the Medical Facility? I do hope so. Seeing your face for the very last time will make it so much easier for me.’ He looked with contempt at his former friend. ‘Go on, get out. Now.’ and he spat at the man.
Incensed, Alec Freeman lunged at him, but Straker, expecting the attack, rolled off the mattress and was standing upright before Alec had chance to grab him. The two men grappled furiously with each other, Freeman, with his greater body mass and strength, clearly having the upper hand. He grabbed Straker in a bear hug to try to prevent the younger man from hitting him.
Straker leaned forward, ‘Is that the very best you can do?’ he hissed contemptuously, ‘I won’t pull my punches when I get the chance.’ And with that, Freeman head butted him hard, before punching him on the side of his face and knocking him over.
‘You should be thankful I didn’t break your jaw….. Commander.’ Freeman bent over him, venom in his voice. Straker rolled away from him, his eyebrow split and bleeding and beginning to swell already from the heavy blow.
Colonel Freeman walked out, shaking his hand to relieve the pain in his knuckles and shaking his head in contempt at the pitiful wreck of the man he had once admired and respected.
Scornfully he informed the guard. ‘Straker slipped and banged his head. He may require some minor medical attention, but I don’t think there’s any need to rush.’ He smiled cynically at them and left.
Straker lay on the floor, holding his head and groaning quietly, blood seeping through his fingers. A small smile formed behind his hands and he suppressed it quickly.
All was well.
The transport had been arranged for 20.00 hours. They had let him have a shower, earlier, and he had stood under the hot spray for a long, long time, one hand pressed against the wall, head down, feeling the water pour over his shoulders, over his body, washing away his tension and tiredness. He turned the heat up gradually, until it was as hot as he could bear, and then just stood, leaning, thinking, as the water cascaded over him.
Breathing the hot, moist air, he slowly relaxed, slowly tried to come to terms with what was going to happen to him. He thought of her, of Alec, of his past and whatever future he would be facing in the next hours. There were regrets, certainly, but also an acceptance of what had happened, what must be. And finally, resigned, he lifted his face up to the spray, the water washing away any tears that he may have shed, unseen.
Enough. He known what might happen when he had set out on this course of action, and now he must see it through to the end.
A bitter end though.
He closed his eyes in silent prayer.
And then he rubbed his fingers through his drenched hair, switched off the shower and stepped out into the heavy steamy atmosphere. He stood, naked, rubbing his face with the small hand towel that he had found, neatly folded, at the bottom of the small overnight bag. It had been Rachel’s. He could sense the fragrance of her still clinging faintly to the soft fabric, or perhaps it was just his imagination, his desperate loneliness, wanting it to be so. He held onto it until he could no longer discern the scent. Then he folded it carefully, meticulously, and put it aside.
He finished drying himself, briskly and efficiently now, and dressed in the clean clothes Alec had brought. Pale jumper, dark suit. His hair was still too long though. He frowned as he felt it hang over his collar. An impressive bruise had formed over one eye and another was beginning to make itself felt on his jaw. He grimaced as he gently massaged his sore skin, feeling the unwelcome heavy stubble. Still, in a while it wouldn’t matter.
Silently they entered his cell and handcuffed him. There was no conversation. It was past the time for that.
He was used to the routine by now; hands out, cuffs on; follow the guard, no talking. And they anticipated no problems with him. But when he left the building and saw the discreetly armoured van pulled up outside, with the supervising officer who would be travelling inside with him he halted, shocked and despairing. As if he had suddenly realised exactly what was going to happen to him in the next hours.
There was only one thing he could do now to try to save the situation. With an angry roar of rage he lunged for her, grabbing her by the throat in an attempt to throttle her.
‘This is all your fault. If you had only lent me your gun as I pleaded,’ he managed to shout hoarsely before they forced him to the ground and restrained him, despite his desperate, frantic struggles.
Elizabeth Anderson gasped for breath, the marks from his clutching, strangling, strong fingers livid on her throat. She looked down at him, saddened and dismayed.
‘I can’t go with him now,’ she told the duty officer. ‘It’s not fair on either of us. It will only distress him more. He’s clearly no longer rational.’
She turned away distressed. She had transferred to the SHADO HQ a few weeks earlier with Straker’s approval, and had recalled that night on the hill last year when he had talked about killing himself, when she had refused to lend him her gun, when he slept in her arms like a child. She had volunteered for this duty, knowing what he had suffered the last year and how he had responded to her on the hill.
She was hoping to be able to bring him some sort of peace before they carried out the execution. She hoped to be able to talk to him about his son, about how death was not the end, and how he would be reunited with John, as he had wanted so much to be reunited with him last year.
‘I’ll go. After all it was initially my job. I’ve no worries about him attacking me. Once we’ve got him confined in the van he won’t be able to cause any problems.’ Mark Butler, the Acting Chief of Security stepped forward to take the position that he had been assigned before Lt Anderson’s request to travel with the prisoner was approved.
Straker was suddenly still. Pinned down on the ground he was unable to move, but he was frozen, rigid, as if waiting for a momentous event to occur. It all hinged on this one moment in time.
Alec Freeman, waiting in the background, stepped forward, his face bleak and unfathomable. He nodded.
‘Very good, Mark. You can take Lt Anderson’s place.’ the duty officer agreed, and Ed Straker slowly relaxed, as if he was no longer able to fight against the overwhelming strength of the team holding him securely pinned to the ground.
They dragged him, unresisting, into the van, and chained him securely to the bench, his arms twisted to one side, so that he was not able to move easily. It would not be a comfortable ride, or a short one, but that was of no concern now.
He was quiet now, not making a sound. As if he had finally given up all hope.
They set off. It was a small convoy, only the van, unmarked and unremarkable, and one car, following behind, driven by Colonel Freeman, grim faced, silent, alone. The others, Foster, Henderson, the firing squad selected by Freeman from the SHADO security team, had gone ahead. They would be waiting for his arrival.
Straker, chained in the van, arms aching with the discomfort of the unaccustomed position, was silent. He had nothing else to say, nothing else to do now, just wait. A long thirty minutes went by, seemingly endless. Straker sat, and thought, and hoped. And prayed.
Butler leaned forward. ‘Sir,’ he spoke in a courteous tone, ‘if I remove your handcuffs, will you give me your word that you won’t attack me?’
‘My word? What value does the word of a self-confessed traitor have?’ Straker voice dripped with cynicism.
‘Commander. If you give me your word, then I will release you. I need to talk to you, but I would prefer to do it from a position of trust, not coercion.’
Straker took a deep breath. He closed his eyes and leaned back against the hard, bare metal of the van. Then he lifted his hands as far as possible, to have the cuffs removed.
‘You’d better have a good reason for this.’ he said quietly to Butler as the chains were removed. Rubbing his wrists and arms, and stretching to relieve the aching discomfort, he peered at the young Security team leader in the gloom of the interior. ‘Butler. You joined SHADO some eighteen months ago. Moved up the promotion ladder and now you’re Acting Security Chief. Why risk everything by taking my cuffs off?’
Butler paused, then opened his jacket and took out a second gun. ‘Here sir, you might need this.’ he said, handing it over to Straker.
‘What in Hell’s name is going on, Butler?’ Straker felt the gun, tested its weight, its sights, its balance, the magazine, then slipped it easily and naturally into his waistband at his back. For all his concern at the surprising turn of events, he was not about to forego the opportunity to be armed.
‘Sir, if I might explain,’ Butler began but was halted by Straker’s expression.
‘I could shoot you right now.’ Straker told him coldly.
‘But you won’t sir. I know you won’t. You want to know what is going on? Very well then.’ Butler took a deep breath and began.
‘For some time now there has been a small, but gradually increasing group of us who feel that the aliens are gaining the upper hand in their battle and that SHADO are destined to be defeated in the near future. We have been in contact with some of these aliens in their nearby base here on Earth, and we think that it is about time that the people of our world knew exactly what was going on in SHADO. We need your help…’ Butler paused, and stared at his superior officer.
Straker stared back. Not blinking, not speaking, not moving. Butler began to fidget uncomfortably, his hands twisting together, his eyes flickering around the close confines of the small transport vehicle.
‘What do you need me to do?’ The question brought a short gasp of relief from the security man.
‘No, not now. Never again. Call me by my name; Ed.’
‘Very well,…Ed. We want to help the aliens establish a proper base here on Earth. A base that they can use to develop their technology so that they can begin to gain access to our planet. To do this they need to be able to get here safely, without fear of being attacked. You can help us, sir. You still have the master command codes and gateway codes for all SHADO forces. If you give us those codes so that we can help the aliens to secure a secure haven here on Earth, we will ensure that you are given safe passage to anywhere in the world. Or of course, you could stay here and help us.’ Butler waited.
‘Help you in what way?’ Straker was interested, leaning forward, wanting to know more.
‘You said at your Court Martial that SHADO is fighting a losing battle. That the aliens are going to win. You are right of course. They are going to win, so why not be on the winning side? Work with them to help them in their fight. Who knows where that might lead to? They are not interested in politics, simply survival. There will be positions of great power and influence to be filled when they are in control. You could fill one of those positions.’ He stopped, waiting for Straker to reply.
‘Interesting.’ The reply was curt and thoughtful. Straker pulled out the gun that Butler had given him. ‘There’s only one problem.’
Mark Butler blanched as Straker sighted down the gun.
‘No Mark, not you. I am very tempted by your offer. The problem is currently not far behind us. Alec Freeman. He will have to be dealt with, sooner rather than later. He knows too much. He will be in charge of SHADO shortly, and he has the expertise and knowledge to circumvent any attempts by outsiders to assist the aliens. Tonight at Midnight, whatever happens to me, he will be given control of the new command codes and I will no longer be able to access them. He needs to be eliminated. Is the driver of this van working with your group?’ Straker asked.
‘Then get him to stop. Alec Freeman will come up to see what has happened. I can get rid of him quickly and we can be on our way. You did say the aliens have a base nearby? Once Alec is out of the picture you can take me there and I can give you all the information you need, including the additional recognition ciphers for Moonbase and the Skydivers. In the confusion following Colonel Freeman’s death, I anticipate we will have quite some time before the IAC will be able to make any rational decision on a successor for the post of SHADO Commander.’ He smiled a predatory grin at Butler, running his fingers along the smooth barrel of the gun. ‘Well? Your move I think.’
Butler leaned against the partition separating the driver from the cargo hold and thumped twice. The van careered off the road, slamming to a halt, and throwing the two passengers onto the floor.
‘Sorry,…Ed.’ Mark helped him back onto the hard bench seat. ‘We planned what to do in this situation, but Philip there has obviously been watching too many action films. Our plan was to make it look like we had a blow-out or something.’
Straker smiled thinly.
They could hear a car brake suddenly, tyres screeching on the tarmac, could hear the driver get out and head for the front of the van.
Alec Freeman’s voice. Calling to ask the driver of the van if he was okay.
It all happened so suddenly, so quickly, even Straker, afterwards had difficulty in recalling the precise sequence of events. But it was not the sort of thing that you wanted to recall anyway. He hoped he would not have too many nightmares about it, afterwards.
They heard the driver stumble out of the cab, vociferously complaining about the burst tyre. They heard Alec Freeman walk down to the back of the van, heard him unlock the door from the outside, heard his voice asking if Butler was alright.
The door swung open, moonlight silhouetting the burly figure of Colonel Freeman in the doorway.
Straker leaned forward. ‘Hello Alec,’ his voice sarcastically cool. He aimed his gun. ‘Sorry to spoil your plans. But you would never have made a good job of being Commander. You’re too trusting.’ And he pulled the trigger.
The bullet hit Alec in the chest, blood instantly spurting from the wound. Freeman gasped in shock, his eyes starting to glaze over as he staggered backwards into the moonlight, blood frothing on his lips as his punctured lungs fought to breathe.
Straker stepped out and stood over him where he lay, struggling to get up. ‘Change of plan Colonel. I get to live. You get to die. Tough.’
Freeman dragged himself up on one arm, a great crimson stain covering the front of his jacket. He was unable to speak but glared at his executioner with hatred and loathing.
Straker fired again. The second bullet again hitting Freeman in the chest and knocking him to the ground, where he lay, writhing slowly, in the last throes of agony, bloodied and dying, hands clutching at the fatal wound in a futile attempt to stave off the inevitable darkness of death.
‘Well, shall we go then?’ The Commander took one last look at the body of his erstwhile friend. He was perfectly calm and detached, as if he had simply fired at a paper target instead of a living, breathing human.
Straker’s cold, clinical attitude sent shivers down Butler’s spine, but it was clear that the alien faction needed him, needed him desperately if they were to succeed in their aim of overthrowing Earth.
Butler stepped forward to talk to the driver of the transport.
‘Everything as planned.’ he said tersely. ‘Let’s get to the base quickly. There might be others following Freeman.’
‘What shall we do about him?’ the driver gestured to the still, spread-eagled form of Alec Freeman, blood oozing slowly from his chest, pooling on the dark, charcoal-coloured tarmac.
‘I’ll deal with him.’ Straker stepped over to the corpse, bending down and dragging it into the cover of the hedge at the side. He checked to make sure it was not visible from the road, quickly going through the pockets to search for a phone or transmitter, and then bent to remove the gun from Freeman’s holster, wiping the blood from it as he carried it back to the van.
He tossed the gun Butler had given him into the undergrowth. He had a decent gun now. He no longer needed someone’s spare. Someone else’s cast offs.
‘Well, gentlemen. I’m ready. Shall we continue?’ He stepped into the van and sat down, calm and controlled as if he had just swatted an annoying fly, not murdered the one true man he had been able to call his friend. Butler joined him. Silently.
The journey to the base took only a few more minutes. Straker was unable to see exactly where the van was going, but he knew that the driver took several turns and the road became bumpier. He could hear the sound of gravel under the wheels.
The van stopped. Butler opened the door and jumped down. Straker, more cautiously, peered out, seeing a series of rambling, shabby buildings surrounding a paved area. A large neglected farmhouse. Perfect. The ideal location; quiet with plenty of buildings for storage, accessed by a single, well-guarded farm track and no neighbours to wonder what was going on. The age of the original farm house indicated that it probably had cellars and attics as well. A veritable warren of rooms.
The main problem would be securing all the internal areas. It was easy to secure the outside – a couple of men on the entrance to the track might be sufficient, but once the enemy got inside then it would be a different matter. He would have to make sure that he helped them with their security. That was of paramount importance.
He winced as his jacket collar caught the still painful lump behind his ear. He would have to get it dealt with shortly; it was causing him too much discomfort. Schroeder should have made a better job of closing the wound. He rubbed it very gently in an attempt to ease the soreness.
‘So, Butler, exactly where are we? What is this place?’ he enquired casually, half expecting to be rebuffed.
‘It’s called Home Farm, used to be part of the local landowner’s estate, but it closed down several years ago and no-one wanted it. When the group got organised, and needed a proper base to work from, we rented it out. It’s very cheap really and as long as we pay on time no one bothers us. Plenty of space as you can see, and far enough away from the main roads so that no one gets suspicious.’
They headed towards the main building, Straker commenting favourably on the perimeter guards that they had in place, and noting the heavily armed trio watching from inside the farm house.
He stepped inside. There was silence as they saw him, their nemesis, entering and waiting to be welcomed as one of them.
He grinned coldly at them. ‘Well, aren’t you going to at least say hello?’
There was a muttered response and he raised an eyebrow. ‘Not very friendly are you? Never mind, I’ve brought you all a gift.’
A brief look of bewilderment flashed across the faces of Butler and the three armed guards standing facing him. He reached into his pocket, bringing out a small flattened sphere, the size of a satsuma and putting it on the dirt encrusted wooden table in the centre of the room.
He stepped back, still smiling. ‘There you are gentlemen, a small surprise for you all.’ He turned away, quickly.
And the room exploded with a blinding, incandescent light and a thunderous shattering sound.
Ed Straker, forewarned, and having taken the precaution of closing his eyes tightly and putting his hands over his ears, was less affected by the flash/bang grenade, but even he was slightly thrown by the violence of the explosive device.
He hesitated for one microsecond, then recovered and had his weapon, the Glock that he had taken from Alec Freeman earlier, along with the grenade; his own Glock with which he was totally and utterly familiar, aimed and firing at the completely disorientated individuals in the room.
Four single shots.
They stood no chance.
Butler was first.
The others died almost within the space of a single second. Straker had no regrets. None at all.
He could hear other noises outside; Alec’s team, following the signal from the transponder in Straker’s skull behind his ear, had arrived and were dealing with the perimeter guards and the van driver, as well as any insurgents who had been in the outbuildings.
Stepping over the bodies of Butler and the guards, he opened the door to see the Colonel’s SHADO group racing in his direction. Smiling a grim welcome, he nodded to them and proceeded to lead them through into the inner hallway of the house.
Guns drawn, stealthily they moved along the narrow passageway, flinging open doors as they went to flush out any other traitors.
In a desperate attempt to escape, the remaining members of the faction rushed at them in one well-armed, organised, group, but it was futile against SHADO’s extremely competent, extremely confident and extremely angry team.
Bullets spanged into the walls, lumps of plaster and shards of splintered wood were sent flying and Straker suddenly found himself manhandled firmly to the floor and protected by one of the team to prevent him getting harmed in the assault. He tried to get up but a steady, decisive hand pushed him back.
‘Please stay down, Commander.’ the familiar voice was stern and forbidding. Straker looked up somewhat amused, but definitely appreciative, taking some small pleasure in seeing the security group so well disciplined and trained. Rachel smiled down at him, her eyes sparkling with pleasure at being so close to him after weeks apart. ‘I don’t want you getting killed now Ed, not after all the trouble we’ve had arranging to have you executed at midnight.’
She grinned, quickly, and headed down the corridor behind the others in the team, leaving two members behind to protect him. He sat there, guarded, safe, watching, leaving the job to the experts. He would only get in the way, would only be an encumbrance, an unnecessary distraction if he tried to get involved in the final bloody assault.
Although he knew he was undoubtedly the best marksman, he also knew he was an obvious target and the security team had enough to do, dealing with the traitors, without having to worry about his safety as well.
Eventually, finally, it was all over. Finished. Completed.
The invading team had killed all the insurgents in the main building. Straker had hoped for some prisoners, but it had been impossible to take anyone alive. They had fought furiously against the group led by Alec Freeman and Rachel. Straker was horrified by some of the faces that he recognised; faces of men that he had thought were loyal, were faithful to SHADO.
But there they were, besmirched by blood, lifeless and unmoving; men he had once considered to be dedicated to the same cause that he pursued. But traitors. Men who would have willingly sold their world for what? Power? Money? He shook his head with the futile nature of it all.
Sitting there, leaning against the wall in the corridor as Alec Freeman busily supervised the removal of the corpses, his tired mind recalled the events of the last few weeks.
The recovered UFO in Alaska, with its cargo and crew intact, and Schroeder’s dreadful discovery that there were more clones, more than one of them in fact, from one of the SHADO operatives, a man working even now, in the Security section. Mark Butler.
Then there had been the documented evidence found in the UFO that the aliens had a rapidly growing power base on Earth, somewhere in the region of SHADO’s Medical Facility, and operating with the assistance of at least one other SHADO member. No wonder the aliens had always seemed to know where he was. They had first-hand inside information. Well not for much longer, if things went to plan.
He recalled the long, angry arguments over the following weeks with Henderson and Rachel, discussing the options that they had. It had finally, reluctantly, been agreed that the only way to flush out the collaborators once and for all was to get someone inside the group.
But who? Any member of the security team would be instantly suspect; far too obvious a plant.
No. It had to be someone who was beyond doubt, someone who they would never have imagined could betray SHADO, someone who was totally, utterly, believable. Henderson and Rachel both considered Alec Freeman, but ruled him out as being too honest, too decent, too kind.
It had to be Straker.
He had hated the idea. Losing Rachel was the hardest part, but so, so necessary if he was to be believable. It was only when Harlington suggested using the new intradermal transponders that he began to think it might work out. That he began to seriously consider the idea.
At least he would be able to keep in contact with her, to talk to her and keep her informed of the situation. To have some contact with her even if he could not physically touch her, caress her and kiss her. He would be able to close his eyes and imagine that she was there, beside him. And she would be able to track him, to find out where he was at any time.
It became necessary for him to take on the role of a man slowly heading for a breakdown, fuelled by the loss of his fiancée and his increasing reliance on alcohol. To act as he would never normally act; drunken and disillusioned with life. A man who had lost everything and decided to take his revenge on the one thing that he felt was to blame for his loss; SHADO.
Just as it was necessary for the suspect collaborator to be involved at the highest level in the arrangements for his transfer to the Medical Facility. Which was why he had reacted to seeing Elizabeth Anderson. She was the wrong person in totally the wrong place.
If she had travelled with him then all their careful plans, all their machinations, would have been for nothing. It had to be Mark Butler in the transport, just as Butler had to have been in the Court Room to witness Straker’s confession to the act of treason. A crime that he and Henderson had faked in order to get the collaborators to trust him.
The other part that he had dreaded was having to lie to Alec. They had been friends for too long, but he could not, dared not, let Alec know what was happening, at least until near the very end. Alec would never have been able to keep up the pretence. Alec was too decent, too trustworthy, too good a friend.
Straker despised himself for deceiving his closest friend, for treating him with such contempt, with such a betrayal of their close friendship, but if this whole sordid and sorry mess was to be sorted out once and for all, then Alec Freeman simply had to be kept in the dark.
There were only four other people in the loop up until this afternoon; Henderson, Rachel, Harlington and lastly, Schroeder. It had been Schroeder who had inserted the implant into Straker’s skull after the staged incident at the studio gatehouse. The implant that was activated by touch, that transmitted a continuous signal verifying Straker’s location at all times, and that was constantly monitored by Henderson and Rachel.
Straker had been impressed with the technology, but soon realised that there were limits to its range and effectiveness. In fact, it would only work in certain zones in Shado, hence his night time wanderings, talking to himself.
Fortunately, transponder reception was good in the Detention area; otherwise he would have struggled to cope with the isolation. Talking to Rachel, who had stayed hidden at James Henderson’s house, was one of the few things that kept him going during the long lonely fortnight before the trial and the days afterwards. That and his determination to find the real traitors in SHADO HQ, and deal with them once and for all.
She hurried back towards him, down the corridor littered with the debris of the fight and he stood as she approached and flung his arms around her, holding her tightly as if he would never let her go, almost lifting her off her feet. He stood motionless, his face buried in her hair, overwhelmed by her presence after being apart from her for what seemed like an eternity. With deep shuddering breaths, he clung to her, revelling in simply holding her, being with her, feeling her body against his. It had been too long.
Then he released her and bent to kiss her, tenderly, lovingly. She put her hands on either side of his face, the solitaire diamond shining on her left hand as she met his lips with hers.
Alec appeared, having completed the final security sweep, his heavily blood stained jacket punctured by two neat holes close together in the chest. Ed walked down to meet him, his arm around his fiancée, both of them smiling. Now he had the chance to talk to his closest, most trusted friend. Alec had been too busy in the melee before to even nod hello.
‘Alec, glad you’re alright. Did I hurt you?’ He put his hand on Freeman’s shoulder in concern, his eyes saying wordlessly what he could not express.
‘Not really Ed, except I didn’t think you’d fire twice. The second one caught me by surprise that’s all.’ He winced as he removed his ruined jacket, pulling out the emptied blood pack purloined from the studio’s special effects department earlier, and then removed the bullet proof vest beneath. Carefully he unbuttoned his shirt to see what damage had been done,
‘Ouch. That looks sore.’ Ed laughed as he saw the bruises already forming on Freeman’s chest. ‘Still, fair’s fair. You did give me two good thumps you know, and these bruises hurt as well. At least my blood is real.’ And he touched the swollen and blood stained bruise on his eyebrow in confirmation.
General Henderson walked towards them, stiffly, slowly. ‘Ed, Colonel Freeman.’ He acknowledged their presence with a nod. ‘It’s over then?’ Henderson looked old. Older than Straker had seen him for some time. The SHADO Commander realised that these past weeks had been hard on others as well. He reached out and grasped Henderson’s shoulder in sympathy and understanding. And, yes, with unspoken gratitude as well. He might not always agree with James L. Henderson, but today, at this moment, they were united in a common cause.
‘Yes James, it’s over. We got them all. Well, all the ones here at any rate. Certainly this faction has been completely annihilated. That’s all we were aiming for. One less problem for SHADO to deal with. Just the clean up and removal of any equipment that might give us more information. We should eventually know a great deal more about their cloning procedure, although I don’t think we will ever be able to create our own clones. At least I hope not.’ Straker looked at the bodies of the alien collaborators with an expression of utter bewilderment. ‘Why would anyone want to help the aliens? For power? That’s what baffles me. And perhaps that’s the question that we will never be able to answer.’ He turned away, his arm still around Rachel. ‘Shall we go home? Or would you rather not be seen in the company of a drunken traitor who wanders around SHADO talking to himself?’
She laughed, and pulled him closer to kiss him again. He winced as she touched the swollen ridge that Shroeder had stitched all those weeks ago. ‘You can have that taken out first.’ she laughed. ‘I don’t want everyone hearing what we say on your own private communicator. It was bad enough the first few days, having to be careful what we said, especially as James was monitoring us, but now the entire security team are listening in.’
He grinned at her, ’But it worked didn’t it. If Harlington hadn’t suggested using this, I don’t know how we would have managed to keep in touch, and I don’t care who is listening in, Rachel,’ he paused and caressed her face with his hand, holding her close to him, not wanting to spend another second apart from her, ‘but I couldn’t have gone through the last weeks without being able to talk to you.
‘Oh really’ she arched an eyebrow at him, ‘I thought it was the alcohol that kept you going. You seemed to really enjoy it. Do you want me to stop off and get you a bottle of Alec’s favourite whisky for later?’
‘I think not.’ He looked at the group of officers and security men around them. ‘I only had two glasses you know, the first time in my office. I needed to know what it felt like to be drunk. Not pleasant at all. After that I relied on fooling you all with apple juice and iced tea. Regrettably I was forced to use whisky as a mouthwash in order to convince you all I was drinking heavily.’ He grinned at their discomfort. ‘It obviously worked, although I would be grateful if you would immediately forget watching me wander drunkenly across my bedroom.’ He stared at them all, smiling, but there was a serious, and almost grim, undercurrent of truth behind his voice. ‘You should have seen their faces Rachel. I wish I’d had a camera. But there again, I bet some of them wish they’d had one as well.’ He raised an eyebrow at the security group who had arrested him, then turned to Alec Freeman and Paul Foster, who had come in after completing the clearance of the outer perimeter.
‘Alec. Off home with you now. Virginia will have a fit when she sees those bruises, so stay at home for a few days until you are fully recovered. Paul, can you look after HQ for a the next twelve hours? I need to get some sleep if I am going to be able to function with any level of competence. You’d better warn the staff in HQ that I will be in later on tomorrow, and there had better be no coffee cups or any other mess in my control room. I am coming back, bruised and battered thanks to Colonel Freeman, but also sober, clean-shaven and with a vengeance.’
And he bent over to share a long kiss with Rachel, before heading out to freedom, surrounded by his loyal friends.