The mid-night revellers outside the apartment block didn’t care that they were keeping people awake with their rowdy noises. A number of tired residents were woken from sleep by the chorus of football anthems from the celebrating supporters. The couple in the penthouse were no exception.
The man sighed with annoyance and got out of the bed to look out over the quayside below. Standing behind the bullet proof glass that ensured his privacy, and safety, he watched, annoyed as the group roamed across the paved areas, shouting, laughing, singing.
‘It’s so tempting to go down there and sort them out,’ he told the woman lying there, her brown eyes watching him, her black hair tousled and tempting. ‘Is it too much to ask for a little peace and quiet? I could do with some sleep tonight. Why must they make such a noise?’
‘Forget them. They’ll give up soon and go home. Come back here.’ she pulled the covers back and grinned at him. He shook his head in mock refusal, but slipped back under the sheets, and soon the noises that had kept him awake faded into the distance.
And Ed Straker didn’t get back to sleep, for quite a while. But this time he didn’t mind.
There were no unruly partygoers disturbing the peace in Mare Ibrium. The landscape surrounding Moonbase was as peaceful as hard vacuum could be. Even the returning Lunar Shuttle was soundless as it slowly descended onto its cradle.
Inside the domes it was quiet as well. There was no sense of urgency, no rush to complete paperwork. The latest batch of reports had been completed and faxed to HQ with two days to spare and Gay Ellis, now relaxing in Central Park, was chatting to Mark Bradley and James Grey.
Moonbase had had a quiet month so far and it had been an excellent opportunity to catch up on inspections, reviews and personnel assessments. Now she was up to date with all the boring and pointless administration exercises that the IAC demanded. PDI’s, Annual Appraisals, Target Setting, the list was endless.
She often wondered how Straker kept his temper when dealing with Henderson and his cronies. Pathetic paper pushers she called them, knowing that the Commander and Colonel Freeman used somewhat stronger language to describe the time wasting and inane activities that the IAC insisted they had to complete. Still, if it brought in the funding, she would go along with it.
She picked up her empty coffee cup and put it in the disposal chute, and turned back to Mark, ‘So Mark, who’s …………….’
‘Positive Contacts area 135 276 Green. Speed SOL 5. Six confirmed UFO sightings’ Gay was already on her way through the narrow corridor that led to the hub of Moonbase.
Entering Moonbase Control Sphere she nodded to her Second in Command. ‘I have control Nina.’ Ellis confirmed as she slid into her seat at the central console and glanced at the information pouring into her computer displays. She activated her intercom.
‘Red Alert, Red Alert. All Interceptors immediate launch. Positive contacts. Six UFOs bearing 43* SOL 5. Sector Blue, course, 637 decimal 9 . Computer plotting and guidance systems operational. Attack and destroy.’
Shortly afterwards three brilliant multi-coloured explosions bloomed in
space, but there was nothing that Moonbase could do about the remaining three UFOs. Gay Ellis looked glumly at the monitor screen. ‘We really need those extra Interceptors Commander Straker’s been trying to get. Okay, put me through to HQ.’
‘Moonbase to Shado Control. Three, repeat three targets destroyed. Remaining three UFO’s on Earthbound trajectory, ETA Earth atmosphere 28 minutes.’ Gay Ellis notified SHADO Control.
‘Shado Control to Moonbase. Receiving you strength 9. Can you give us an estimated termination point yet? ‘
‘Moonbase to Shado Control. Target zone England, Southeast region, Trajectory termination grid reference Hotel Pappa 65 mark 7 Oscar Lima 44 mark 3. ETA 02.35 hours ’
‘Acknowledged Moonbase. Shado Control out.’
‘Shado Control to Skydiver 5. Red alert, Red alert. Immediate launch, I say again; Immediate launch. 3 repeat 3 UFOs on EOI. Trajectory termination point Hotel Pappa 65 mark 7 Oscar Lima 44 mark 3. ETA 02.35 hours ’ Lt Ford’s clear, concise tones relayed the information to Lew Waterman..
‘Skydiver 5 to Shado control. Launch in T minus 20 secs. Trajectory termination course plotted and all systems ready and armed.’ The response was instantaneous.
Damn, thought Alec Freeman approvingly, these guys are on the ball. The Control Room was hushed as operatives waited for Sky 5 to report in. Freeman clenched his fist, wanting to be in the action, not merely controlling it. Come on Lew he thought, you have to get all three. Don’t miss.
‘Sky 5 to Control. Two, repeat two UFOs destroyed. The third one veered away and is well out of my range. Sending new trajectory termination now.’ Lew Waterman was apologetic, but Freeman knew that getting two UFO’s was excellent work.
Alec Freeman watched as the computer located the new grid reference points. ‘Shit.’ He muttered to himself. Keith Ford looked up at him in surprise. ‘Sorry Keith, took me by surprise that’s all. They haven’t targeted HQ for quite some time now. Ok, Alert Sky 3 and all mobiles in the immediate zone. We have about 30 minutes before it gets within range.
‘Well done Captain, return to Skydiver and resume patrol. We’ll handle it from here. Freeman out.’ Alec turned to Keith Ford.
‘Ford, get me in touch with the Mobile leader so we can coordinate our attack. We will need to notify the commander. He’ll want to get here as soon as possible.’ Freeman was already planning his next move in the operation.
Colonel Alec Freeman crossed the Control room and entered the small neat office usually occupied by his Commander. Sitting behind the classic style slate and chrome desk, he steepled his fingers, unconsciously mimicking Straker’s mannerisms, then abruptly pushed his chair back and went to the large conference table.
He hated being in the responsibility seat. He often wondered how Ed could stand it, day after day, month after month, with no let up, no prospect of winning, no recognition of the work that he did.
Dedication without a doubt, but also an extremely large measure of sheer bloody-mindedness. He pulled up the aerial photographs of the Studio complex and the surrounding district and began studying them.
The full moon tinged the landscape with cold dark shadows that contrasted eerily with the silvered silhouettes. Straker drove into the Studio grounds without noticing the icily stark beauty around him. His mind was engrossed with other, darker, thoughts.
Why had the aliens decided to target HQ again? After the previous three attempts had failed miserably, exacting a high price from the invaders in terms of lost spaceships and men, if you could call those that piloted the UFO’s men, Ed Straker had thought that the SHADO base would be safe for a few months.
But obviously not. Either the aliens had not learned from their mistakes, or else they had developed some nefarious new technology that they wanted to try out.
Not on my HQ, Straker thought grimly to himself as he parked his Saab and strode into his office. There was no one around in the studio at this time of night, no directors, or producers, no actors or would-be actors trying to get noticed. Just Ed Straker, on his way to his other job. The one that very few people knew about.
He entered the Control Room just as Sky 3 was engaging the alien craft high in the atmosphere above the Harlington Straker Studios. Keith Ford handed him the logs of the recent events and Straker skimmed through, getting up-to-date on flights, positions and communications. Satisfied, he authorised the accounts and handed the record back to the Communications Officer.
Ed Straker stood, arms folded, watching the screens as they relayed information. ‘Alec,’ he turned and acknowledged his second-in-command who had come into the Control room to meet him. ‘Moonbase did a good job. It’s just unfortunate that we haven’t got those other Interceptors yet. ‘
Alec Freeman grimaced. ‘Any possibility of the IAC finally seeing sense?’
‘Come on now Colonel. We’re talking about General Henderson and his little cohort of buddies. Do you think they will ever see sense?’ Straker grinned ruefully at his friend then turned to listen as the reports started to filter in from Sky 3 and the ground troops.
It was soon clear that Captain Carlin had everything well in hand. His hypersonic jet had engaged the enemy with extreme force and the UFO was soon struggling to evade the SHADO fighter. It was a foregone conclusion. The operatives in the control room could hear the explosion as Sky 3’s missile sideswiped the enemy spinner.
‘Sky 3 to Control. The UFO is out of control. It’s going down … crashed in an area of waste land. Looks like it’s in part of the Studio complex. Just to the north of the lake.’ Carlin’s report was concise and direct. ‘It’s appears to be reasonably intact although severely damaged, so I’ll circle overhead until the support team get here.’
Straker beckoned to Colonel Freeman. ‘Send the reconnaissance team over. I’ll go up and supervise. Warn Research that I’ll want a draft report on everything that they retrieve, first thing in the morning, so they’d better get prepared. And then go home, Alec, and get some rest. Can you be back in at noon? It’s going to be a busy day tomorrow.’
Freeman nodded as Straker left the Control Room and headed for the surface. It was quiet here, just the odd rumble of passing traffic on the road, the eldritch barking of dog foxes raiding on the rough ground that surrounded the complex and, high above the sound of a jet plane.
But it was not flying to holiday destinations. No tropical island paradise awaited this aircraft. Sky 3 was circling, watching, monitoring, guarding the downed craft. Waiting for the SHADO team to begin the dangerous task of exploration.
And then the UFO exploded.
The reconnaissance team, suited up in their Bio suits and looking for all the world like aliens themselves, were still quartering the ground when Ed Straker finally got to the crash site.
The explosion had set off numerous alarms in the Harlington Straker Studios and he had been busy dealing with those.
A waste of time, he knew, but it had to be done. The night-security staff, although SHADO trained and well-equipped, were simply not able to cope with the sudden influx of over twenty alarm systems all going off at once.
Straker had been forced to waste precious time accessing the main computer frame and inputting his personal codes in order to stop the cacophony of noise from the various alarms. The one thing he certainly didn’t need right now was an invasion of fire engines, police cars and other emergency services all responding to the alarms at the studio.
Finally he was free to head for the crash site.
Good evening. Commander,’ the leading officer came over to meet him. ‘It’s all pretty much under control here now. No sizeable debris, as usual, and no alien remains at all, which isn’t usual. We generally find some evidence of the corpse, but there isn’t anything. Of course, this could have been an unmanned craft.’ But his tone was dubious.
‘Unlikely,’ Straker commented, dryly, ‘If this was unmanned, then it’s the first time they’ve tried that. Start looking for that alien. I want it found.’ He turned away, annoyed.
If the alien had got away from the UFO before it self-destructed, then it should have been seen by Sky 3. So where the hell was it? Damn, now they had one of the enemy on the loose, probably armed and right on their doorstep.
He sighed and pulled out his phone to call the woman who had been sleeping next to him earlier, and whom he had left asleep when the call came through earlier. ‘Colonel Philips, we have a problem…….’
Despite an intensive search of the grounds, they found nothing. Nada. Zilch. Zero. Any alien that might have been there had vanished. But that was simply not possible. The studio complex, although extremely large, was surrounded by high level protective fencing, as well as being guarded by SHADO security and no-one, alien or otherwise would be able to get over, or indeed under, the perimeter boundaries.
Dawn was beginning to brighten the horizon before he finally managed to get back in to HQ to check on the rest of the night’s activities, and then he had to oversee the clearance operation. In the end it was nearly ten thirty before he managed to get back to his office and get a chance to look at the interim intelligence notes from the research team.
He flicked through the papers. Spheres. Well, to be precise, icosahedrons. Three of them. That was all they had found, intact? He frowned, annoyed. Surely, with all the resources that SHADO put into its research department, they should be able to come up with more evidence than three small metal polyhedrons.
Angered, and although he would not openly admit it, tired, he headed for the R and D Section.
They were waiting for him, as if knowing what his reaction would be.
‘Commander…’ Frobisher tried to placate him, unsuccessfully.
‘Three small objects? Is that all you retrieved? A UFO. Right in our own backyard, and all you can come up with is that?’
Frobisher hesitated before replying. ‘Well, Commander, we think that the objects could have been designed as communications disruptors, or possibly positioning devices. We are still examining one of them, and hope to have a more definite answer later. ’ He looked at Straker as if for approval and then handed him one of the innocuous looking shapes.
The Commander held it in his hand, surprised by its unexpected weightiness. Almost the size of a golf ball, the slightly dimpled sphere reflected abstract patterns of light from each of its twenty concave surfaces.
‘So this is now inert? Disarmed?’ Straker asked curiously.
‘Oh, totally harmless, Commander. The three devices were emitting a radio signal at a specific wavelength and we used white noise to block out the signal and negate its effect. But, as I said, what they are meant to do is anybody’s guess at the present time.’
‘Damn!’ Straker almost dropped the sphere that he had been holding. He put it down on the table and looked closely at the palm of his hand.
‘This device of yours may be inert Frobisher, but it felt like it just bit me.’ He examined the troublesome object closely. ‘Yes, there’s a needle just sticking out.’ Straker put the polyhedron down again, carefully. ‘Be a little more careful in future, Frobisher. That could have been a triggering device.’
He smudged the drop of blood from his palm with his thumb, nodded at the scientist and left, intending to get himself a well-earned coffee.
All that manpower, all that money and nothing of value. Nothing that would help them unravel the alien technology.
And they still had a missing alien to find. He sighed and looked at his watch. Time for a break; time for some fresh air. Perhaps it would help him to think.
It was hectic out on the sound stages. A good sign really. It was when everywhere was quiet that he began to get concerned. Noise meant that the studio was busy, that the stages were in use, that money was being made. And SHADO needed some of that money.
Ed Straker the Executive Producer wasn’t worried about the finances of the studio, but the SHADO Commander was always looking for ways to ‘divert’ funds from the film company to finance the less glamorous side of SHADO.
Funds to provide decent equipment in the Moonbase leisure sphere, funds to provide anonymous ‘donations’ to the families of operatives killed in action, funds to help develop some of the more esoteric research projects.
Sound Stage 3 was the setting for the interior shots of that new romance. Chick-flick was its unofficial genre. Personally he loathed light-weight frothy films. But the last one had won the studios an Oscar, and Oscars brought in the cash. He headed for the stage to have a quick look at the action.
He stood there, behind the cameras, watching the action; relaxing, his mind involved in the intricacies of filming; lighting, angle of shots. It was a pleasing diversion and he felt the tension fade away as he leaned surreptitiously against the back wall, submerging himself in the world of make-believe.
The cameras and lights faded into the background, the false world became almost real as he followed the action..
A simple love story. The usual. Boy meets girl, boy leaves girl, boy returns to girl and so on. The usual little subplots, the usual intrigues, but it was well-acted, well-directed and Ed Straker watched the scenes develop and just let the world flow around him quietly for once.
‘Cut. Well done everyone.’ The director brought the master shot to a successful close and turned around.
‘Mr Straker. Didn’t see you there. What do you think?’
‘Very impressive Mark,’ Ed Straker smiled and stepped forward, his blond hair glinting under the powerful lights. ‘You have a good crew here. It’s looking very promising. I’ll check out the rushes later today.’ He nodded to the crew, ‘Thank you.’
He put his sunglasses on as he walked across the complex, and just managed to avoid getting caught up in one of the guided tours of the Studio.
‘Excuse me.’ A hand grabbed his arm and he stopped, alarmed at the intrusion.
‘Do you work here?’ The tour guide was new. He hadn’t seen here her before, but he recalled authorising her clearance recently. She obviously had not read her briefing notes. He was annoyed by her lack of knowledge but also slightly amused that she had not recognised him, here on his own territory.
‘Yes.’ He wasn’t about to give anything away.
‘We’ve lost a small child. She’s seven years old and must have wandered away from the group. Her parents are frantic. Can you give us any help?’
He paused, considering, looking at his watch. There was no rush; Lt Johnson would have bleeped him if he had been needed downstairs.
He sighed. ‘Yes,’ he answered again, almost reluctantly. He hated getting involved in the tours. ‘Tell her parents to go to Main Reception. I’ll meet them there and organise a search of the area. What’s her name and where was she last seen?’
He stood and listened as she gave him the information. He wondered how she had managed to get a job as a studio tour guide, especially as she was unable to recognise the Executive Producer, even if he was wearing sunglasses.
Armed with the details of the missing girl, he headed back to his studio office intending to hand the problem over to Miss Ealand.
He was just passing the open park area when he began to feel dizzy. His head suddenly felt like it had been stuffed full of sand, and the palm of his hand, where the sphere had scratched it, was burning and throbbing. He felt faint.
There was a bench nearby and he headed for it, and sat, putting his head in his hands, his eyes closed, trying to push the dizziness away. It was his own fault really. He should have made time for something to eat this morning instead of rushing around madly trying to deal with the situation. He breathed deeply, feeling his head clear gradually, and then he heard it.
Quiet sobbing. Next to him.
Damn. Another sad reject from the auditions in Lot 8 probably. Some would-be Angelina Jolie who had recognised him, and was willing to offer him anything, absolutely anything, in return for a role in a film, any film. It happened a lot.
Just what he didn’t need right now.
Opening his eyes he looked up.
She was standing there, her thick bright red hair, its golden strands glinting in the sunlight, falling in gentle waves to her shoulders. Eyes, a bright emerald green, but now blotchy with tears, one fist held against her mouth as if to hold back another sob.
He sat up, slowly, recalling the name the guide had given him. ‘Marie?’ The light-headedness subsided a little.
She nodded, eyes watching him almost in fear.
‘I was just about to start looking for you. Come on. I know where your mum and dad are. I’ll take you to them now.’ and he stood up, holding onto the bench arm to steady himself against a fresh wave of faintness.
She grabbed his arm as he staggered slightly, and at that moment he saw, from the corner of his eyes, a red-suited figure step out from behind one of the facades and aim its weapon directly at him.
It was too late to do anything other than pull the child to one side, out of the way, as the brilliant flash streaked across the intervening space and enveloped both of them.
Then everything went hazy and silent.
It was a glorious day, one of those perfect days; not too hot, not too bright, cloudless sky and the feel of the controls under his fingers, responsive, finely tuned, obeying his every ………
Lt Johnson interrupted Alec’s day dreams as he came back into H.Q. refreshed and cheerful after a break from work and a decent few hours sleep.
‘Colonel Freeman, did you see Commander Straker on your way in?’
‘No Ayshea, is there a problem?’
‘I can’t locate him, sir. I haven’t managed to contact him since he went topside an hour ago. His personal locator is giving off peculiar signals as if it’s stopped working, and he’s not answering his phone. I’ve called Colonel Philips and she’s gone up to find him, but it’s most unusual.’
Alec frowned. ‘I’ll go up and help the colonel. Knowing the Commander, he’ll have got involved in watching rushes and hasn’t heard his phone.’ But Alec knew how improbable that scenario was.
He found Rachel Philips directing her security team near Stage 3. She turned to him, her expression worried. ‘Alec, I can’t get in touch with him and the transponder signal is just weird. Look,’ and she held out the recorder. The signal was erratic, pulsing so quickly that it was almost a blur of movement. ‘I simply can’t get a fix on him anywhere.’
‘I’ll get some more people up here to help. Is there anything unusual to report, anything that happened here in the last half-hour?’ Alec was clutching at straws, and he knew it. But with an alien on the loose in the immediate area, he was starting to have real concerns.
‘Studio Security reported a missing child. The tour guide said she spoke to someone about the child and from the description, it seems as if the person she spoke to was Ed. The child is still missing as well.’
Damn. That was serious news. A missing child and a missing film executive. Could it be a simple case of kidnapping? Someone taking Ed and the child in an attempt to get money? He hoped it was. That would be so easy to deal with. SHADO could cope with kidnappers. But if the alien had got them both. Well………
The silence was deafening. That was the only way to describe it. Absolutely deafening. It was a silence he had never experienced before, and he’d heard silence.
Real silence. The silence out in space when one’s radio was malfunctioning.
But here, now, this was a thick, solid silence, as if he was surrounded by impenetrable walls that cut off every single noise.
There was nothing. No footsteps, no traffic, nothing. He could hardly hear his own breathing, and for one moment he had the terrible thought that perhaps he was not actually breathing.
He was almost too afraid to open his eyes or to move even an inch, for fear that he would find himself in some tiny, coffin-like space, confined and trapped and captured by the alien. Then, he heard it. A small cry, more of distress than terror. Marie.
And as he heard her, his strained senses became aware of her touch, of her small hand in his, her little body leaning against him, as if she was clinging to him for protection.
‘Marie?’ He risked his sanity, opened his eyes and looked at her. His voice sounded loud in the unnatural quiet. ‘Marie?’ he said again, more softly.
He couldn’t really understand what she said to him. Her words were distorted by her muffled sobs but he held her tightly and tried to comfort her. Something had happened. Something terrible.
He didn’t know yet what it was, but he knew that they were both in a dangerous situation. He stood up, and scooped her into his arms. She was too distraught to walk and he had to get her to safety.
And then he realised what else was wrong.
They were alone. Totally, utterly alone.
Not one person to be seen. No-one. Even though there had been several groups of people in the distance, and crew members and actors walking between the sound stages just moments before.
All gone. No traces left. No discarded items, or dropped valuables. No indication that everyone had fled the scene and gone elsewhere. And if they had, he would have heard them, surely?
And then he noticed the stillness. The complete absence of movement. No tree branches moving, no discarded papers or bits of rubbish scampering across the pavements. When he left the sound stage he had noticed the breeze, a gentle movement of air, just enough to feel on your face and to stir the leaves and papers.
But now, nothing. He couldn’t feel any sensation of air at all. It was highly unlikely that it had dropped so quickly, so completely. So, why could he not feel the coolness of the wind, or see any motion?
He hurried as quickly as possible to his studio office, carrying the child almost absentmindedly, hoping against hope that he would meet someone, anyone who would be able to give some rational explanation as to why everywhere was silent, abandoned.
But it was a forlorn hope and he knew it.
Knew that they were on their own, and that there was an alien out there, somewhere, nearby.
And probably following them.
Miss Ealand was not at her desk. His office door was open and he went in. Despite all his attempts, the door would not close. He opened the cigarette box.
Nothing. No response. He flicked the switch anyway. Still nothing.
He wasn’t really surprised that the elevator didn’t work. It would have been more of a surprise if it had, he reasoned. Nothing could startle him now.
And yet, it was still a shock to finally enter the Control Room having gone through one of the hidden access stairways, and to find the very heart of SHADO empty and deserted just like the studio.
Every system was out. Every link, every line, every console; all powered up, lights green, but silent, screens flickering with soundless lines of static. And every operator’s chair empty.
He put her on his chair at the conference table, and tried to contact Moonbase, Skydivers, mobile units, anyone. Nothing.
The absence of any noise was overwhelming, overpowering, and he sat, resting his head in his hands as he tried to think, to understand what had happened. A sudden movement startled him and he looked up.
The child, Marie, he reminded himself, had come over to stand in front of his desk and was peering at him through the crystal obelisk.
Her small face was distorted by the refraction of the glass and despite his concerns he smiled, gently amused. She looked up at him and smiled back, a shy, but still nearly tearful smile.
He sighed. ‘Come on Marie, let’s see if we can find anything to help explain what’s going on.’ Standing up, he held out his hand to her and took her out into the corridor that led to the Staff Lounge.
He had hoped to find someone, well, not really hoped; he knew the prospect of finding anyone was extremely slight, but he was trying to put a brave face on what was an increasingly serious situation.
The Staff Lounge, accessed from corridor 14, was close to the accommodation area and opened onto the corridor through an archway. It made for a more informal setting; staff tended to wander in and out unnoticed, and Straker was pretty sure that he and Marie would be able to get inside the lounge without any difficulty.
It was about the only thing that he was fairly sure of at this moment in time.
But there was no-one in the lounge area. Just the TV screen flickering soundlessly with that annoying blue haze as if the signal was being subverted, subjugated, somehow. He couldn’t even get the damned thing switched off. It was as if nothing electrical would respond.
Marie held his hand tightly, her tears stilled for now as she looked around the empty space. He was glad that she seemed to be more amazed at the situation than afraid. He himself was beginning to feel the cold dread of fear. What had happened to them? And would they ever get back to reality.
He was increasingly concerned about the inability to use any normal equipment. Anything electrical seemed to being operating outside his control, and sliding doors that were closed simply refused to open. He wondered what else would be denied them. Would they be able to get anything to eat or drink for example?
‘Thirsty?’ he asked her and she nodded, mutely. He realised that so far she had not spoken a word to him since they had entered SHADO HQ. Perhaps she was too scared to speak. ‘Let’s see what we can find to drink. Hopefully there might be some chocolate as well.’
She smiled at him, and he grinned back at her, pleased to see that she was beginning to respond.
The dining area, just off the lounge, provided food at all hours for the SHADO staff. He took her inside and looked around. It too was deserted. He tried the chiller cabinet but the electrically operated magnetic door refused to open.
He began to feel the first real pangs of worry, but then, in an open store room he found some bottles of water. He picked up a couple of bottles and found some chocolate bars on a nearby shelf.
They went back to the lounge to sit on one of the deep leather sofas that were spread through the room.
‘Okay Marie. Have a drink and something to eat and we’ll see about finding where everyone has got to.’ He handed her his handkerchief and she wiped her eyes.
Then she looked askance at him, her green eyes staring at his face. ‘What’s your name?’ her voice was light and clear.
‘My name? I’m Ed Straker. This is my film studio. Pleased to meet you, Marie.’ And he held out his hand to shake hers, formally. She giggled but took his hand and shook it carefully, before tearing the wrapper off the bar of chocolate and taking a healthy bite.
‘That’s horrible.’ The chocolate was spat out as she gave a look of disgust that only a seven year old could make.
‘What’s wrong with it?’ Straker picked up the bar and took a bite. It tasted of nothing. No that was wrong. It tasted as you might imagine dust to taste. Dry and powdery, neither sweet, nor salt nor sour.
The taste of emptiness. Of ashes
The water was the same. As if it had been distilled, even, and it sounded ridiculous but it fitted the taste perfectly, dehydrated. Completely and utterly devoid of any flavour or the ability to rehydrate or refresh.
He persuaded her to drink some water anyway. She scowled at him but did so, reluctantly, just a few sips before she put the bottle down and refused to have any more.
This was going to be a problem he could tell. If he couldn’t get her to eat or drink and they were stuck here for any length of time she would soon become dehydrated and weak.
He finished the chocolate bar and sipped from the bottle of water he had opened. And worried. He felt her lean against him, and he put his arm around her and hugged her comfortingly.
And worried some more.
She had fallen asleep sometime ago, worn out with the stress probably. He knew that he was tired as well, but didn’t dare sleep. There was an alien somewhere, an alien who was probably responsible for this situation, and Straker had no intention of sleeping until one of them, Ed Straker or the alien, was dead.
And he was damned if it was going to be him. He had a child to take care of. He had gently lifted her away from him, laid her down on the sofa and covered her with a throw. Sitting on the nearby piano stool Straker, watching the single open door that faced him, guarded the little girl.
The lighting in the room changed, suddenly with no warning flicker; like some invisible being had switched on the main lights, but faster, as if it had happened almost between one nanosecond and another.
There had been an incredibly brief moment when he thought he saw the outlines of other people in the room, almost like pencil drawings but in 3D. Then they were gone and he was alone, with only Marie still there, asleep.
He concentrated on what he had seen, his mind racing through the events of the past hours.
Time. That’s what had happened. They had tried it before, and failed. But this was different. This was not the same.
They hadn’t frozen time. They had done something much, much more insidious. Something that had affected only the two of them. And the alien of course.
They had put them into a time frame that was out of synchronisation with the rest of the universe. That was how the alien had managed to avoid being captured. He had simply desynchronised his own time line so he would be undetectable. And then he had remerged later to fire his weapon at Straker and the girl to send them both into this alternate time frame.
As he realised what had happened Straker felt the pain again in his palm. He looked at it, the redness spreading outwards from the central point where the icosahedron had jabbed him.
There was something under the skin, something hard like the point of a needle. It had to be a homing device. That way the alien would be able to pinpoint his exact location in the new time framework. Not where he was, when he was.
It had to be that.
And he realised that there would be virtually no way back.
Unless he somehow managed to capture the alien and get hold of whatever it was that he used to switch from one time line to another. He scratched at his palm until the small splinter surfaced and he picked it out with a grimace of disgust, dropping it onto the floor before crushing it beneath his heel.
He leaned back, only to be startled by a sound as he accidentally pressed the piano keys. Spinning around on the seat he tried the keys, gently, very very gently. If the alien was in the vicinity Ed certainly did not want to advertise where he and Marie were hiding.
The notes were as pure and tuneful as he remembered.
He sighed with relief. At least he would be able to have music here, well, as long as he still had the strength to play. But he had no idea what would happen to both of them. No idea at all.
He turned back to watch her, nightmarish thoughts filling his mind, his eyes gritty with tiredness.
She woke up needing the toilet. She didn’t like to wake him, he was leaning back against the piano and his arms were folded, his head down and his eyes were closed so she thought he would be asleep. Carefully she stood up and went searching for a bathroom.
The emptiness of the corridors, and those rooms that she could see into, didn’t worry her too much, but everywhere was very quiet. So she moved quietly as well, unwilling to disturb the silence with heavy footsteps or singing. And she liked singing.
There. Was that a bathroom? She pushed open the door. Oh good.
She emerged, feeling much happier and headed back to where he was, still asleep. But as she entered the room there was a quick flash of red as something moved out of sight, in the corridor ahead. She cried out a short cry and Straker jerked awake, appalled at his carelessness and lack of self-control in allowing himself to fall asleep.
‘Marie? What is it? Are you all right?’ he asked her urgently and she clung to him, pointing at the corridor.
‘There’s something there. I saw something.’
Swiftly he picked her up, placed her behind a corner sofa, out of sight. ‘Stay there.’ He peered round the corner. Red suited, holding its weapon, the alien was standing with its back to him at him looking up the corridor towards the Control Room.
For one moment Ed Straker was paralysed by shock. Here, here in HQ. An alien. And in that single moment he saw the alien touch a heavy torc on its forearm.
He headed back to the lounge, knowing what he had to do. Kill the alien. Easy to say. Especially if you had access to guns, or even a decent knife, but the armoury was sealed to him. He had already explored the dining area, and the sensor-operated sliding door to the staff kitchen was closed.
No knife then. It would have to be hands. Unless he could find something heavy and hard. Probably not.
And he would have to use Marie to lure the alien out into the open.
He had to spend quite some time carefully explaining to her what he needed her to do. Marie was very unsure. He showed her several times exactly what to do, and why, quietly practising with her until he was confident that she would be alright. Then he hugged her and told her how brave she was.
The he hid in the corridor, behind the buttress, well out of sight. He felt dreadful hiding away like that. Leaving the child alone to face the horror of the alien who was probably, right now, stalking the barren corridors searching for his prey.
But Straker knew that the alien would not be interested in the child. Marie was an accident. They had wanted him, and she had just happened to be there at the time. They would be unlikely to capture her, or even harm her at this moment in time.
Oh yes. Later, if they caught Straker, they would probably have no compunction about taking the girl and slaughtering her like an animal, but right now? No, they wouldn’t be interested in her…yet.
He hoped his theory was right.
She ran down the corridor, as noisily as possible, shoes slapping loudly on the floor. Down to the end of the long passage, and round the corner. He listened to the fading sounds of her shoes as she ran.
Then the sounds stopped.
Please God, protect her.
And started again, getting louder and coming back towards him.
‘It’s coming,’ she sobbed fearfully as she approached him where he was hiding, ‘it saw me and it’s coming.’
‘Good girl. Now go. Go to where I told you to hide. And stay there, Marie, whatever happens, whatever you hear, stay there.’
And she nodded and ran towards the staff lounge out of sight.
This was not something that Marie should see, especially if it went horribly wrong. A sudden surge of chill panic swept over him as he realised what would happen if he failed to kill the alien. The prospect of his own death did not frighten him anymore, but it would leave Marie at the mercy of the alien.
Or worse, trapped in this non-existence. Unprotected, abandoned.
He had to succeed. For her sake.
Soft footsteps padded in an erratic rhythm along the concrete floor.
He waited, holding his breath until the red suited figure had passed him.
He would have given anything for a decent weapon. A gun, a sharp knife, anything. As it was he was going to have to rely on sheer strength and surprise against a foe whose abilities were unknown.
It was time to act.
He lunged forward, his right forearm moving swiftly under the alien’s armpit, up and around so that his right hand now firmly grasped the back of its helmet at the base, and his left hand clenched on the visor at the front.
And then he summoned all the strength in his shoulders and arms and twisted. Hard. And fast.
There was a terrible gurgling as the helmet seal parted at the neck fastening and fluid gushed out, soaking Straker’s arm. It was not the outcome he had expected, but it would suffice. Death was death, however it came about. Whether by suffocation in air, or from a broken neck.
He held onto the thrashing, choking body as the alien desperately tried to stay alive, its arms reaching out to try to grab him, its head rolling from side to side in an attempt to regain the upper hand in the fight. But Straker was not about to give in.
He held tight, his hands slippery with the thick oxygenated fluid that had poured from the helmet. The alien retched and spat and gasped. Hideous bubbling noises from its last drowning, suffocating moments punctuated the silence of the corridor.
Then it collapsed forward, head dropping down, knees giving way, arms limp by its side. Straker gave one last vicious twist of his hands and felt the neck finally snap.
The dead meat sound of the falling body echoed down the corridor as he dropped the heavy, unresisting corpse. Kneeling down in the thick green fluid he removed the alien’s embossed torc, the armlet that had circled its arm, and he slipped it safely into his pocket.
Dragging the body, he moved it out of sight behind the buttress where he had hidden.
The remains of the alien’s life-giving liquid oozed in slimy dribbles across the floor and he stepped over the trails carefully as he hurried to the child waiting, hiding, in the lounge.
Wordlessly he scooped her into his arms, heedless of the green wetness that marked his clothes and soaked into her. He hugged her wordlessly, gratefully, smiling a little as he realised that they now had a chance to return to their world.
The device was studded with what appeared to be jewels, most of them cloudy and dull like dead fish eyes, but there were three of the jewel like objects that were brilliant with colour, gleaming and shining. He was pretty sure what he had to do now.
It was simple. Put the torc on his forearm, hold onto Marie and press one of the glowing buttons. It was worth a try at any rate, because wherever they ended up it had to be better than this. Surely.
He paused, thinking. It would be wise to go to a quiet part of the complex, where there was not much chance of them materialising too close to other people. The thought of materialising in the exact same spot that someone else was occupying was horrendous. He knew just where to go.
The mortuary was at the far end of a narrow corridor that led nowhere else. It was unlikely that anyone would be on the corridor, but just in case, he stood in the corner, out of the way.
He smiled reassuringly at the small child. ‘Hold onto me tightly Marie, I’m not sure what will happen when I use this.’ He had pushed his sleeve up and he now slipped the armlet onto his bare arm.
For one hideous moment he though it had come alive as it moved with a snake-like slithering sensation and tightened to clasp his arm firmly.
‘Hold on,’ he reminded her and looked down to make sure that she was indeed holding him tightly around his waist. He took a deep breath. Pushed one of the brightly lit nodes and……………….
The world reformed around him in a cacophony of noise and awakened senses. It was so overwhelming that he staggered and almost fell against the rough concrete wall. And then, even as his hearing adjusted to the sound of the intruder alert he realised with absolute horror that he was alone. She had not made the journey with him.
Dear God. The child. Alone. He had to get back to her. Now.
For one hideously selfish moment he considered heading for the Control Room. Surely one of the SHADO scientists would be able to work out what to do, would be able to go into the time zone and retrieve the child.
The temptation to stay was unbelievable. If he waited he would be able to tell them what had happened….. but then he stopped, appalled at his thoughts and, with one last look around, hoping that someone might appear and realise that he had been here, he pressed the button he had used to transport himself in to this particular fraction of time.
Nothing happened. He could still hear the alarm.
Frantically he looked at the armlet. Only two buttons alight. Only two trips left?
And he pressed the penultimate button. And hoped.
And was back there with her.
She was curled up in the corner, screaming frantically with terror at being left alone, being abandoned. He knelt beside her trying to talk to her, to make her realise that he had returned and that she was not alone.
It was useless.
Even his sudden reappearance had not soothed her panic. The whole experience of the last hours had terrified her beyond her ability to cope with any new horror.
It became clear that he would never be able to get her calm enough so that he could return her to her own time unless he did something drastic. The amnesia drug. He would give her that. Then she would calm down and sleep and he would be able to carry her outside and send her home.
He knew that if she was awake she would cling to him and then the armlet would not work. It would send him back alone, again. Giving her the drug meant that she would not be able to tell Rachel and the others what had happened, but that was a small price to pay for her survival.
He picked her up, heedless of her hysterical screams, ignoring the kicks and thumps from her flailing fists and feet, and carried her down to sickbay, using one of the few hidden passageways that he knew came out in the medical area, and didn’t have sliding doors; at least not electrically operated ones.
He had wondered all those years ago, when designing SHADO’s maze of hidden passageways whether it was wise to put old-fashioned, manually operated hinged doors into each one. It had seemed an unnecessary, almost archaic idea, but now he was inordinately glad of that decision made so long ago.
He pushed open the door and dumped her unceremoniously on one of the examination tables. ‘Don’t move,’ he ordered and his stern voice silenced her tears, briefly. ‘Marie, it’s all right. You’re safe. I’m going to take you back to your mum and dad now,’ he said as he searched through the cupboards.
There. The drug. She would only need a small amount. Two millilitres should suffice.
Carefully he measured out the dose and then, hating himself for what he was going to do to her, held her head firmly and forced the syringe into her mouth. She screamed and spat and fought, but he was determined and strong and the drug was soon administered.
He held her firmly until her panic had subsided and her breathing had become slow and even. And as she fell asleep he lifted her one last time, cradling her gently in his arms as if to ask forgiveness for the way he had treated her.
He carried her carefully, so as not to wake her, away from this nightmare world into the bright sunlit studio, her small body held close to him as if he would never let her go. He savoured every moment, fixing in his mind the memory of the feel of her knowing it could well be the last physical contact that he would ever experience; the last sensation of smell as he breathed in her delicious little-girl fragrance of grass and clean hair.
He reached the park bench and stopped a few paces away as if he could not bear to take those final steps. Tears filled his eyes despite his resolve. How he wanted to hold on to her, to keep her with him, a voice, a smile, a touch, even a hug. All these would be denied him, and the horror of his future welled up in his mind.
Total isolation. Nothing. Nothing and nobody.
Senseless in the truest sense of the word. Unable to see or hear those around him, unable to taste or smell the food he would eat, unable to feel the touch of another’s skin against his. Ever again.
The world would move on and he would move on as well. But out of their time, out of their sight. He would wander this empty world alone as no man had ever been alone, at least until his mind gave way and he surrendered to madness or voluntarily sought to end his miserable existence. If he could find a weapon.
Death from dehydration or starvation was more probable.
But he refused to do that to this innocent child, this fragile sleeping beauty. She needed to be in her own world, be among her own family. He knew that it was highly unlikely that Rachel and Alec would be able to work out where he was.
The armlet might provide enough clues to tell them what had happened, but he was, by now, convinced that there was only one more chance to use the device. There was one last octagonal shape left glowing. All the others were dull and cloudy. There had been three lit when he used the bracelet to try to return to SHADO HQ and he had used it twice.
So. Only one more trip.
Only one person could leave this nightmare place.
And that was Marie.
Even if the SHADO scientists could reactivate the armlet it would only transport one person. He could not bear the thought of them finding him and coming here and then, then having to go back to their own reality and leave him once more bereft. No it was better this way.
It meant that Rachel and Alec and SHADO would probably never see him again, but Marie would survive to grow up and would live her life among the noise and bustle of the crowded world.
Quickly, before the temptation became too great, and his resolve failed him, he laid her on the bench. It was always quiet here. He had no worries about her re-emerging into the real time line too close to other people.
He kissed her on her forehead and smoothed the delicate curls of titian hair into place. A tear fell onto her cheek and he wiped it away with a finger, gently. He took off his watch and slipped it over her hand. The strap was far too loose, but it would be a sign to Rachel and Alec that he had been in the same place as Marie.
He slid the armlet on her forearm. It writhed sinuously snake-like for a moment then moulded snugly to her arm as if it had been designed to fit her. Despite his sadness he marvelled at the ingenuity of a technology that could make metal respond in such a way.
Then his face hardened, and he took a deep breath. Reaching out, he paused for an infinitesimal second, his expression grim and resigned, then swiftly he activated the control on the armlet.
And she was gone.
And with dismay he realised that his watch had not gone with her. It was there, on the bench. It must have slipped off. Rachel would never know what had happened to him.
He fell to his knees, quietly sobbing with the sudden overwhelming emotions that flooded through him. The appalling emptiness echoed around him. But there was no-one there to comfort him or care.
Eventually the shadows deepened and he brought himself under control, standing up and heading back to HQ. There was nowhere else to go.
Nowhere he needed to be.
Marie, awake and scared, although she could not recall what had scared her, ran across the grass towards the Security team who were calling her name.
‘Colonel Freeman?’ Keith Ford called out to the acting SHADO Commander in the HQ Control room, ‘that missing child has turned up. They’ve taken her to the medical unit for a check-up.’
Freeman was there within seconds, ‘And Commander Straker?’ his voice had a hint of desperation.
‘Nothing sir. No sign of him,’ Keith’s reply was subdued. He knew how much Colonel Freeman had been relying on the Commander being with the missing child. And Colonel Philips had been utterly convinced that the two would turn up safe, and together. Alec frowned as he realised that someone would have to inform Rachel that Ed was still missing.
‘Tell Colonel Philips what’s happened and get her to meet me at Mayland,’ and he was gone, hurrying through the bleak corridors.
Keith Ford watched him. Then turned to his communications console. There were times he hated his job. This was one of them.
Shroeder was there in Mayland with the girl, and her parents, when Alec arrived. The child seemed unharmed, upset yes, but unharmed. So where the hell was Ed?
And then Rachel arrived, practically running down the corridor, almost squeezing through the doors before they were fully open. ‘Ed? Where’s Ed?’
Shroeder paused in his examination of the child. ‘Marie was found alone, Colonel. If you give me a few moments I may be able to give you more information.’ He glanced at the child’s mother and father, wanting Colonel Philips to realise that she needed to be cautious.
‘I’ll be outside then, Dr.’ Rachel held back the questions that were flooding into her mind and nodded at the SHADO medical officer. Calmly she opened the door and walked out to wait in Schroeder’s office, where her self-control finally broke and she wept against Alec Freeman’s shoulder.
It was nearly thirty minutes later when Shroeder finished and came through to the two Colonels waiting anxiously. He was grim and subdued.
‘Well? Anything?’ Alec got his question in first.
‘The only thing I can tell you is that’s she’s been through a pretty unpleasant time. She has only vague nightmarish memories of silence and being alone. There are minute traces of the amnesia drug in her system and I can only assume that Commander Straker must have been with her and administered the drug. Where he is now is anyone’s guess. Oh. And one more thing. She was slightly dehydrated. I really don’t know why. She was very thirsty when she was found.’
Rachel stared at him almost in hatred. ‘And you have no idea where Ed is? She hasn’t been able to tell you anything? Can’t you reverse the effects of the drug?’
‘Colonel,’ his voice was sympathetic, ‘you know full well the drug is permanent. Wherever Commander Straker is, Marie is unable to tell us. Perhaps that’s a good thing. She has obviously had a traumatic time and even if she could remember, she might make little or no sense at all. I, too, want the Commander found, but this child will not be able to help us.’
‘Damn.’ Alec’s voice was quiet with grief.
‘There’s something else.’ Shroeder looked at them. ‘Marie was wearing a bracelet, armlet, some might call it a torc, on her arm above her elbow. It was most peculiar and seemed to be alien in origin. I removed it when she arrived here hoping it would be useful to our research team but as soon as I did, it disintegrated into a pile of metallic fragments. The scientists are examining the remains, but there’s not much chance they’ll get any useful information from it now.’
He nodded at them sadly and left them alone with their thoughts.
Late that evening Ed Straker made a sparse meal of tasteless food and sipped a tasteless drink and went into the staff lounge to lie on one of the sofas. It was impossible to sleep.
When, later that night, the horrendous silence became too unendurable, when the emptiness and isolation threatened his already fragile sanity, he struggled to his feet and sat at the piano, and played, taking some small consolation from the sounds that reverberated in the emptiness.
Discordant chords fractured the silence, echoing through the corridors, resounding and rebounding off the rough concrete walls. But his fingers gradually slowed, and relaxed and he found himself playing the sonatas that Rachel loved best, soft gentle notes that soothed him.
And so, exhausted, he rested his arms on the keys, put his head down, and slept.
The Staff Lounge was quiet and dark at 2 a.m.. Max rooted through the pile of discarded DVDs, searching for the missing disc. He swore under his breath as his search proved futile but his mutterings were halted abruptly by the eerie sound that pervaded the deserted room. Someone was playing the piano.
But there was no-one there, no-one else in the room.
It was like hearing the aftermath of music. Faint, in the distance, but as if he was listening to the notes fractionally after they had been played. It was quite bizarre and frankly creepy.
He shook his head and gave up his search for the elusive disc.
Graham looked at the dwindling array of water bottles on the shelf in the open store. Why would anyone help themselves to these, he wondered, when water was freely available in the chiller cabinet? He shook his head at the foolishness of some people and locked the door behind him.
Alec Freeman sighed with frustration and put down the report. Nothing. Ed had been missing for four days now and they had nothing to go on. No alien activity, no UFOs nothing. It was as if he had vanished off the face of the earth.
He rubbed his face with a tired hand, noting the stubble that had developed. He needed a shave. Dammit; he needed a hell of a lot more than a shave, a good night’s sleep, a decent hot meal, and a change of clothes; he needed Ed back.
He had endured the dreaded meeting with Henderson, had agreed under duress to take over as Commander of SHADO, but he hated every minute of his enforced promotion.
Commander Alec Freeman made it quite clear to everyone in the HQ that he was expecting Ed Straker to return forthwith and to resume control of the organisation. But, deep within his mind he was having serious doubts as to whether he would ever see his friend again.
If there had been any sighting of a UFO leaving Earth’s atmosphere he would have been able to assume that they had Ed in the space craft. At least Alec would have been able to shoot the UFO down. It would have killed Ed, but that would have been infinitely preferable to what he was probably going through right now.
And Rachel, although she would have never said it, would have understood, would have accepted his decision. But there had been no UFO sighting in the last days, no way that Ed could have been transported away from the studio complex.
So; they had discounted an alien force taking Ed back to their home world. That meant that he must still be here, somewhere nearby. And probably the alien on board the UFO that exploded was still in the vicinity. But where the hell was he? They had searched everywhere.
He ordered another intensive search of the complex and the surrounding areas. Perhaps they had missed something on the first investigation.
Rachel Philips read through the report again, but it seemed to make little or no sense to her. Besides, she had more important things on her mind than strange happenings in the Staff Lounge.
If it hadn’t been for Ed’s insistence that all operatives report anything unusual, anything out of the ordinary, to the Chief of Security, she could be out there, helping in the latest search for him instead of sitting here reading a rambling report written by Max Whittaker. He had probably been drunk at the time anyway she thought to herself.
The man was a liability, hearing music late at night in the Staff Lounge; piano music at that. Max had the imagination of a warthog. He probably wouldn’t have been able to recognise the Moonlight Sonata if it leapt up and bit him.
‘Oh Lord.’ The thought leapt into her mind. Ed. Ed played the Moonlight for her, reluctantly, yes, because he said it was such an overplayed, overrated piece. She loved it though and often tormented him until he acquiesced and sat down at the Steinway and played it for her, with a look of resignation and a smile. Just the first movement.
There was no-one else in SHADO who ever played it. It was too complex for the majority of the other players, most of whom were of the ‘five-chord’ brigade. Ed was the only person she have ever met who considered the Moonlight as ‘frivolous and lightweight’. And yet he had played it for her in the Staff Lounge on several occasions.
That’s what Max Whittaker had heard.
He had been playing the piano. For her. She was sure.
Dear God. Ed.
But he had gone.
Max’s report fell to the floor, forgotten, as she put her head in her hands and wept.
The days had merged into a blur. Time, at least the time on the clocks, moved in random patterns, jumping forward by hours in only seconds. His own watch seemed to be working still, but he could no longer trust it, or trust himself.
On one morning; he thought of it as morning, for he had woken earlier, he sat and watched the clock in the Staff Lounge. The seconds digits moved erratically, changing numbers without any regard for sequence or normal progression.
And the minute digits.
Those too, had an unfathomable pattern of their own. Impossible to predict. A five minute jump in a matter of seconds, then one minute then maybe a long, long wait until a leap of just a second or two. He didn’t even bother studying the hour display.
He tried not to look at any of the clocks after that. Their randomness and disconnectivity disturbed his already brittle senses.
It was getting harder to find food or drinks. There were no longer any bottles of water out on the shelves in the kitchen area and he could not open the chiller cabinet where they were stored temptingly just out of his reach.
He was reduced to trying to collect water from one slowly dripping tap that he had found in one of the cloakrooms. It took a long time to fill even half a bottle and he was getting thirstier.
He had gone outside on a couple of occasions.
Once to bury the alien’s body.
It had lain there in the corridor and he could not bear to see it. Even when he tried not to look it was there, in the corner of his eye, red and green and slowly beginning to decompose, to sag inwardly even as it began to change colour, to go grey and deathly.
The only redeeming feature was that there was no smell of decay. Nothing here had any smell. No taste, no sound, no smell.
It had been very hard, dragging it up the stairway and out across the grounds. Scraping a shallow grave had not been easy either, but he had slept slightly better the ‘night’ after that.
And he had not noticed the silence quite so much when he had been busy scratching the grave with his bare hands.
The other time he had gone out hoping for a sign of life. Anything. Tree branches moving in the wind maybe, or contrails high in the sky but there was nothing and he had secretly known that there would be nothing. But he had hoped.
It was hateful being out without being able to feel a breeze blowing in his face, to hear the sound of vehicles, people, music.
He crept away, back to the solitude of the lounge where he comforted himself with the only thing he could hear apart from his own footsteps and his own voice, on those occasions when he could bear to speak aloud in the echoing emptiness.
He had worked his way through the easy stuff, trying to keep the music calm and pellucid. Nothing too dramatic or powerful. Bach, Chopin, all the etudes. But his traitorous fingers kept returning to her favourite piece. The Moonlight.
He found himself playing it without thinking, in the dimness of the lounge and he could almost imagine that she was there, sitting on a sofa behind him, drinking hot chocolate and spreading biscuit crumbs everywhere. God, she was a messy person at times and he grinned as he recalled that first day. Her chocolate-stained clothes. And later, the taste of her kisses.
Then cold reality clenched its fist tightly around his heart and he re-entered his bleak and desolate existence.
Colonel Lake arrived very early for her shift. She had been doing that a lot in the last week. She headed for her computer, inputting some of the data she had painstakingly collected over the last days. Loading the program she had written, she set it to work.
The Colonel did not expect any results to be available for at least another hour, when she had the remains of the data she was waiting for, so she went into the Staff Lounge for a coffee and some breakfast. The piano in the corner was not in use and she recalled it last being played by the Commander.
Ginny hoped she would hear it being played again, soon. She could almost imagine that she heard music being played. Wishful thinking Ginny, she told herself.
Later, when the final piece of datum was in, Virginia Lake read through the results. And read them again. ‘Commander? Can I speak to you please?’
‘Colonel? Is there a problem?’ Freeman was still getting used to being called Commander, although he hated it.
‘In private if possible, Commander.’ she said diffidently, her eyes warning Alec that this was a very sensitive matter.
‘Surely, Virginia. Come into the office.’
The door slid shut behind the two. ‘Sit down Ginny. What’s the problem?’ Freeman was surprised by her request. It was not like Ginny to be so secretive.
‘Alec. I may have some information about Ed’s whereabouts.’
Commander Freeman sat down quickly as his legs seemed to give way with shock. ‘How, what,…’ he stammered. ‘Tell me Ginny.’
‘Let me explain from the beginning, Commander….Alec.’ she began to pace up and down as she tried to clarify her thoughts. ‘Keith Ford and I have been collating all data from the immediate area where the commander was last seen. Everything; weather, seismic activity, air density, pollen count, noise levels; you name it we have got the data for it, however insignificant it might appear to be. As far as we know the alien who was on that UFO has not left the area, but we have been unable to find it despite intensive searches. So where is it?’
The Colonel paused in her pacing and turned to face Freeman. ‘I think it is still there, Alec, but we cannot find it because it is not in our time field. If you recall, the aliens managed to stop time once before. However, on this occasion, I think they have done something a little easier and less obvious. I think that they have managed to put their time sequence out of synch with ours. It would only have to be less than a micro-second, but that would be enough to render one of them invisible to us and to our sensors.’
‘Exactly how does that make them invisible to us?’
‘Imagine a piece of paper. Draw a shape on it… a rectangle for example. When the paper is facing you, you can easily see the two dimensional shape, the four sides, the right angles at each corner, the opposing parallel lines and so on, but turn the paper edge on, and the shape disappears, loses its dimensions, as does the paper. It’s an incredibly simple analogy, but time can be compared to that paper. The slightest differential can create an effect similar to turning that piece of paper edge-on. We need to find out exactly where the edge of the paper is, and turn it back to face us. In other words, we need to find out exactly where Ed Straker is and use that information to reverse the time discrepancy.’
‘How the hell will we be able to do that?’ Alec growled.
Colonel Lake smiled. ‘I think that may be the easiest part. When the aliens tried this last time they installed a transponder device in one of the SHADO computers. Although it was damaged when Commander Straker tried to destroy it, I have been working on it and I’ve got it functioning again. I think I will be able to use it to halt time, in a specific tiny area, for just long enough so that the commander’s time frame is no longer out of synch with us. It may only require a fraction of a fraction of a second. A picosecond, maybe. It’s just finding the right picosecond among all the many picoseconds.’ She smiled tiredly at Freeman. ‘I think we may be able to get the commander back, Colonel, that is, if he is still alive.’
‘What do you mean Ginny, if he is still alive? It’s only been a week.’
‘Alec, perhaps I didn’t make myself clear. When that paper rotates out of our line of vision everything that is familiar and normal stops. The world that the Commander will be inhabiting will have no similarity to our world. He will be in a silent, empty place. A place with no people, no movement, where nothing will work. Scientists have theorised that such a world may be devoid of some of the usual physical laws that operate here. He may not be able to hear anything. Or even see anything. It’s quite possible that he will not be able to find anything to eat or drink. There is a speculation that the temperature could be at absolute zero, although I personally think that is most improbable. Especially as the child, Marie, was probably with the Commander, in that time differential, for several hours, and survived without any serious harm.’
Freeman leaned back in his, no, Ed’s chair. ‘I hope you are right Ginny, I really do. Okay, tell me more; what do you need us to do?’
She elaborated, ‘I theorised that if I correlated all the data from every source, I would be able to pinpoint the location where there is an anomaly in the time frame, through finding the overlapping inconsistencies in the data. Keith and I have had a computer working on that for a couple of days now.’
She smiled, a wide, excited, almost joyous, smile. ‘We’ve found a discrepancy. Commander. If the commander is alive. I think we should start looking for him in the Staff Lounge.’
Pausing, she looked more anxiously at Freeman before continuing. ‘When I have verified the divergence, we need to use the adapted transponder to alter the adjusted time segment so that it is no longer invisible to our sensors. Then we should be able to pinpoint the exact location of the Commander and fix the time differential so that he is once more in our time frame. In other words we rotate the page back ninety degrees. That’s the hypothesis anyway.’ she looked sheepishly, yet triumphantly, at Alec Freeman.
‘Ginny, SHADO doesn’t pay you anything like enough. Remind me to give you a rise when all this is over. Okay, let’s get Keith Ford in here to discuss this. And get Colonel Philips right away.’ Alec Freeman smiled for the first time in days. At last. A breakthough.
And it was a simple as that.
They knew where he was most likely to be in terms of general location. Somewhere inside the HQ. Hopefully within the Staff Lounge at some point. The resonance of piano music was their only clue, but it was enough to go on for now.
What was needed next was to pinpoint his precise physical position and then Colonel Lake would be able to make the minute adjustments to the transponder to alter the time inconsistency by a matter of picoseconds. And then, he would re-enter their time frame.
They fitted the equipment in the Staff Lounge, carefully aligning the arrays so the floor area was completely covered by overlapping circles of detectors. Colonel Lake checked and rechecked everything, and then nervously checked again. Finally she agreed that there was nothing else to do, apart from switch the system on. And wait.
So that was what they did.
It was an anticlimax really. Alec had not known what to expect; possibly flashing lights, or beams that flared across the room, illuminating the corners, and outlining the figure of Ed Straker. Or even Ed appearing suddenly in the room. But there was nothing.
‘Well?’ he asked Ginny, fiercely. ‘What’s happening?’
‘It’s working Alec, just be patient. There’s no point in doing anything until we know the Commander is in this room. It could take a long, long time. Ed might not come here. He may have gone elsewhere. He may, by now, be…’ she did not continue, but Alec could hear the unspoken words…. ‘dead.’
‘No. He won’t be. He’ll be here. We just have to wait. Just wait until he plays the piano. Then we’ll know where he is and you can focus on him.’ he almost growled the words and Rachel Philips put her hand on his arm. He looked down at her and a gentle smile creased his face. She suddenly realised, for the first time how truly beautiful and expressive Alec Freeman’s eyes wereThey waited, sitting on the sofas, quiet, not talking much. The long minutes ticked by, slowly. An hour passed, and another and they still waited. And listened.
He was by now, desperately thirsty, and tired, and hungry, but the thirst was the greatest problem. He wondered how much longer he would be able to survive. Probably for another day or so at the most.
And his feverish mind played out the scene as if he was standing at the back of a sound stage watching a production; not of a chick-flick but something more sinister. A Gothic horror probably.
He watched himself as he took his last breath, gasping, parched, sitting there on the sofa. Alone, in the silence, surrounded by everyone but with no-one seeing him. Then he visualised his body gradually decomposing, here in the lounge, unnoticed, as life went on around him.
Eventually there would be nothing left apart from a skeleton, with scraps of hair still clinging to the skull, and rotting clothes covering his bare bones as they sagged back against the soft leather.
The last image; a rictus skeletal grin as his remains lay there ignored, invisible to the world that was so very very close to him, and yet so very far away.
But Rachel and Alec would never know that Ed Straker was still here, still in this underground complex.
He decided there and then that he would go outside to die. He would play the piano one more time, her favourite sonata, and then he would make the slow, weary journey up to the surface and find a quiet place where he would be able to see the Moon and stars later, when they suddenly appeared in the disjointed, time-fractured sky.
He would wait there to die, alone, but watched by the ever-constant universe. He would not rot away underground. His body would decompose much quicker outside. He would return back to ashes and dust in this tasteless, senseless world of ash and dust. A better death. A better end.
He went to sit at the piano, wiping his eyes tiredly, as if to clear them of unshed tears.
And then, a soft, delicate echo filled the room. Piano music. The piano seat was empty, the zebra stripe of keys still. But it was there all the same. Rachel turned to Ginny, a hard look of expectation lighting her face.
‘Yes.’ Colonel Lake breathed out the affirmative. She turned to Alec. ‘Well, you know the drill. Get out of the focus and I’ll locate him.’ She looked at him. ‘Go.’ she shouted.
Alec and Rachel moved as quickly as they could, hugging the walls to avoid getting caught up in the beams from the adapted transponder as Ginny activated the position fixing sensors that would fix his precise location before she could initiate the transponder .
Fine lines of light strobed the room, illuminating everything in flashes of brilliant white. Rachel could hardly dare to breathe as she waited, desperately hoping, fists clenched. The lines coalesced at one specific point.
He was sitting at the piano, fingers still slowly moving across the keys, head bent with exhaustion. He looked up as the lights focussed on him, looked directly at them and stopped, smiled hesitantly, questioningly, and stood up as if to move towards the small group.
‘Don’t move.’ Colonel Lake had never shouted so loudly. ‘Ed, don’t move.’ Her voice was forceful and he paused, tilting his head to the side as if to listen to some distant sound.
He sat down again, hands in his lap, waiting, absolutely motionless, looking expectantly at the corner from where he had heard the sound of Ginny Lake’s voice calling to him and where he had seen the shadowy nimbus outlines of his friends.
There was no epiphanic moment, no great fanfare as the timelines coalesced. He simply sat there, hands trembling and face drained and grey, until Ginny said, in a quiet voice that was in its own way as triumphant as a glorious shout, ‘That’s it. Welcome back Commander.’
Rachel reached him first. Clung to him and kissed him as she held him, and he ran his fingers wonderingly through her hair, as if he had never touched it before, had never felt her kisses before.
‘I’ve missed you,’ he said hoarsely, ‘missed you so much. I didn’t think I’d ever see you again, anyone again.’
She just held him, unable to speak, thinking about the horrors he must have endured over the last days.
Straker turned his head to look at Alec Freeman, ‘Marie. Did you find her? Is she safe?’ the urgency in his voice was unmistakable.
‘She’s fine Ed. She’s safe and home with her family. The bracelet she was wearing disintegrated shortly after she appeared back in the studio and we had no idea what it had been used for. It was Ginny and Keith Ford who realised that the aliens had adjusted the time line so that you were just fractionally out of synch with us. Ginny,’ and Alec turned and smiled, lovingly, at her, ‘Ginny worked out how to adapt the transponder so that it could be used to resynchronise the times, and Rachel discovered that, from various reports of unusual occurrences, you were probably spending time in this area and you had been heard playing the piano. That gave us a location to concentrate on and then it was just a matter of getting all the equipment ready and working.’
Straker stood up, Rachel holding his arm as he staggered slightly, and walked over, not to the nearest sofa, the one where he had visualised his death and eventual decay, but to one further away, dropping into it with a sigh of relief. He looked at her, pleadingly. ‘Rachel, could you get me some water please. I haven’t been able to find anything to drink for a long time.’
His hands were trembling with weariness as he took the glass she brought. The intense taste of the water shocked him. He had never known pure cold water to taste this vivid, as if it was a captured, liquid rainbow. He finished it quickly, almost gulping it down, and she refilled it and brought it back to him.
He sat there quietly, drinking the water more slowly now, gradually composing himself , and then, his voice quiet with strain, started to speak.
‘I realised that the spheres were a decoy, a means to inject me with a marker that the alien could use to locate me in the particular timezone when he had sent me into the other divergent time using his weapon. Unfortunately, his armlet would only transport one person. The first time I used it I ended up back in HQ alone, and I had to return immediately to Marie. It was then that I discovered that it had a limited number of trips. There was only one button still lit so I had to send Marie back alone. I was pretty sure that the device would not work again after she left me. I was desperately worried that something might have gone wrong. Thank God she is okay.’ He smiled at the memory of the small child asleep in his arms.
‘How did you get hold of the device Ed?’ Rachel, sitting next to him asked quietly.
‘Marie lured the alien into the corridor and I jumped him.’ His eyes had a hard expression. He would not give them the details. ‘After I sent Marie back I managed to drag his body outside and I buried it in the waste land near the south entrance. It’s in that other time frame so we will never be able to retrieve it.’
‘I wonder why the alien simply didn’t kill you when he saw you out on the studio stages?’ Ginny Lake mused.
Straker looked at her. ‘I think he was probably trying to get the command codes from me. Or perhaps just to remove me permanently from SHADO. He wouldn’t have been able to take me back to the normal time frame.’ He sipped his water. ‘We’ll never know.’
‘It doesn’t really matter does it?’ Rachel murmured, ‘you’re back here, with us, with me,’ and she smiled at him.
‘So, what now?’ he looked up at Alec, his eyes reddened with tiredness. ‘Is there anything I need to do?’
‘Yes.’ Alec grinned with pleasure. ‘Relieve me of command if you don’t mind. I hate being in charge. I’ll take care of things here, as long as it’s understood I’m not the Commander. That’s your job. As soon as you’ve done that you can go home and get some rest.’
‘Good idea,’ Rachel nodded
Straker stood up, shakily. ‘Very well, Colonel, I relieve you,’ he smiled tiredly, ‘and Alec; thanks. And that goes for you too Ginny. I’ll speak to Keith on my way out.’
He put the glass down on the table and walked over to the piano, gently brushing his fingers across the keys in a silent salutation of gratitude before closing the lid. He turned to his fiancée. ‘Rachel, do you mind taking me home?’
She led the way through the corridors to the Control Room. Straker was finding it difficult coping with the clamour and movement of people after so many days as a virtual hermit, sealed in his prison of silence, but she held his arm and gently guided him in to the bustling centre of operations.
There was a gradual cessation of noise as they saw him, and he stood for a moment, looking around at everyone just glad to be back in this room, in this ‘now’, after so many hours of haunting the empty spaces of HQ.
Keith Ford came over to him. ‘Glad to see you, Commander,’ he smiled and Straker shook his hand.
‘Ginny told me you helped find me, Keith. Thank you.’ He didn’t say more, he didn’t need to.
Smiling gratefully, he walked out to his waiting car, and sat in the back seat trying to stay awake. He wondered if he would ever see Marie again. Probably not, but it was enough to know that she was safe. That she was well.
And late that night, when noisy revellers woke him from his dreams, he didn’t complain, but listened gratefully to the laughter and songs that echoed through the night, letting the noises gently lull him before he fell asleep, held closely, safely, in her arms.