Midnight in Moscow. So typical. The band, slightly out of tune, more than slightly drunk, and not caring in the slightest one way or another, thrashed out the ubiquitous melody, more for the sake of attracting any stray foreign tourist than any real love of the music. The hotel he was staying in was too busy, too prominent for a meeting such as this. Any suspicious activity, even in this enthusiastically embraced capitalist era would be noticed and commented upon. So here he was, waiting with reluctance in a shabby run down bar away from the main thoroughfare.
He had, after numerous texts through SHADO’s secure network, managed at last to arrange this conference with his anonymous Russian contact. A man he had never seen. Straker sat, glass of vodka untouched on the table in front of him, hands clasped together, his forearms resting with minimal contact on the very edge of the begrimed and sticky table.
Midnight in Moscow. He remembered the last time he had been here, almost ten years ago. Was it really that long? Silver moonlight, silver scars, and he held his breath in fear, and his fingers tightened until the knuckles were white with tension as the music evoked the memories that he had thought and had hoped, were long hidden, long forgotten.
Look for me by moonlight
Watch for me by moonlight
I’ll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way.
Moonlight. That was what he could see. Silvered ripples across the tangled and dishevelled covers of the bed. Just a faint light, a mere sliver of lines but enough. He could make out the outlines of the room, the darker rectangle of the doors, the window, heavy drapes blocking further light, but for that single trespassing line that had edged it way past the drapes to cast itself across his bed. No. Not his bed. Their bed, and as he awoke the memories surged back into his mind.
Mary. He, they, were here at last, in Los Angeles. On a much delayed, postponed and nearly abandoned honeymoon. If one could call it a honeymoon nine months after one’s wedding. He sighed, not from tiredness, but pleasure and from relief. It was, he hoped, going to be all right. Mary had been …. easier, since he had arranged this trip. More relaxed, less demanding, less … critical of the hours he worked. Although… and he flinched inside when he thought about the future. Thought about how he was going to have to lie to her again. Sometimes, with a fleeting, treacherous thought, he regretted the marriage. It would have made things simpler. Much simpler.
He lay there, watching the stray moonbeam play on the bedcovers, sparkling on tiny motes of dust that wafted in the light movement of air. Lifting his left hand into the light he smiled as the gentle glow flickered across his still unscratched, unmarked wedding ring.
Nine months. So much had happened. He had managed to keep it a secret so far, but he wondered what the future would bring. SHADO was still nothing more than a hole in the ground. Well, not really a hole, more a cavern, deep beneath the burgeoning film studios, but his days, and often much of his nights, were spent dealing with that hole, with its attendant problems. The blueprints, the systems, the plans, the contractors. The secrecy.
Above all the secrecy. He had to keep Mary safe. Had to keep her in the dark. He stretched, smiling as the moonlight seemed to stretch with him, and then he froze. A hand touched him and exploring fingers danced across his shoulder, enticing him before coming to rest against the side of his face. He turned to her, breathed in her fragrance of warmth and wanting.
With gentle movements he eased his arm around her, under her, pulling her close to him, her head on his shoulder now, her hair strewn across his chest, his pillow. His fingers smoothed the blonde silken strands and he lifted his head to kiss her forehead and her half-open eyes.
The moonbeam, ignored and forgotten, sulked and retreated unwilling to disturb the two lovers. Besides, it was time to move on now, and there were other rooms, other sleeping, dreaming couples to wake, to entice, to taunt with the promise of love.
Later, still awake and still thinking, although Mary was now deep in sleep, he slipped out of their bed and padded to the window, pulling the heavy drapes aside slightly to peer down at the wide road. The full moon seemed huge in the cloudless sky as he stared up at the greyer darkness of Mare Ibrium. And his breath caught in his throat as he thrilled with the thought of what was, quite soon, going to be built there, in that bleak emptiness on the moon. A centre from which to launch attack craft, a complex big enough, advanced enough to monitor the solar system.
He had no illusions that it would be easy, had no expectations that the task would be completed on time, under budget, without casualties. He had no illusions at all now. The past few months had taught him one thing, that what ever he anticipated, whatever he tried to achieve, it would be different.
His marriage was the first victim of his changed circumstances. Like a fool he had imagined and planned and, in all seriousness, intended to remain in the Air Force, working for Military Intelligence and dealing with matters that were of national and international importance. SHADO had changed all that. Had overturned his calm, ordered life and he was now desperately struggling to re-establish some semblance of control and discipline to his fragmented world.
And this week in L.A., under the guise of meeting with heads from Fox Studios, was also the first chance he had had to take Mary away for that belated honeymoon. But, at the back of his mind, always at the back of his mind, was SHADO. Even now, when he should have been asleep, Mary embraced in his arms, and smiling to himself he remembered holding her earlier, even now he was thinking of all the important details that needed arranging, that needed checking, that needed to be finalised.
In the darkness, listening to her soft breathing, the slight slurring of her delicate skin on the cotton sheets, he sighed, and reached for his mobile before going into the bathroom to make the first call of the night. The first of many.
He woke in the early hours of the morning, as usual, unable to sleep with so many concerns, so many problems. Alec had not phoned him back, which was a relief. Straker did not relish the thought of having to explain to Mary why he was receiving urgent late night calls fromEngland.
So, it seemed that the construction was going as planned, and, after his conversation with Alec in the early hours, he was hopeful that his friend would be able to deal with those minor problems that would no doubt arise. Ed Straker needed a break, a chance to relax, but mostly to spend time with Mary. She was the most important thing this week. His first priority. He could catch up on sleep later.
He was tired still, always tired these days. There were never enough hours to do everything, but he lay there, unable to doze, his over-worked mind still tormenting him, unable to concentrate, unable to think with so many conflicting thoughts chasing each other. The need for more recruits. The problems with the basic designs of the new submarine. The distribution of the limited number ofMobilearmoured vehicles that they had acquired.
And Moonbase. Above all, Moonbase. It was going to take so long to get operational, and until then they would have to rely on piggy-backing information through the recon satellites and the huge unmanned station that looked like a bug. S.I.D. But he knew that it was not enough, not enough to keep the Earth safe. People were going to die, and there was nothing more he could do to protect them.
His mind flickered to another random thought as quickly as if he was changing television channels. Commander. His new title. Mary didn’t know, would never know and in fact not many people knew. Not even many heads of state or Presidents. But he was in charge and the ultimate responsibility was his so he needed to do everything he could to ensure that the organisation was ready as soon as possible. The film studio cover was another worry, yet another load on his shoulders. Surely someone would have asked why he, Ed Straker, was retired from the Air Force, and now running a film studio? But fortunately, no one had, yet.
His hands twitched in restless, worried movements on the heavy sheets and the sunlight now filtering through the narrow space between the window glinted on his wedding ring as its night time compatriot had done just hours earlier. Mary was still asleep and he leaned over to give her one light kiss, before with reluctance, so as not to disturb her, he got out of the embrace of the comfortable bed to head for a quick shower. There was a chance he might be able to get some more calls made before she woke up.
If he was lucky.
Breakfast by the smaller pool on a warm pleasant morning, considering the month. A lazy breakfast, quiet, undisturbed with just the two of them, and before Mary had woken he had managed to get in that important call to the government funded shipyard who were developing the combined submarine-jet fighter. Jetsub. That was the latest suggestion for the name. Alec’s somewhat tentative suggestion. But it didn’t seem quite right somehow. A clunky title for a stealth submarine, especially one capable of such phenomenal speeds. He would have to think further about the name.
He had no specific plans for today, no business meetings to attend. No studios to visit. It was a day for doing…. anything at all. Walking, sightseeing, shopping. Lazing. Just enjoying the chance to be together with nothing in particular to do.
And then, with a sinking heart he saw the Air Force major walk out onto the patio area and look around.
Damn. Straker swore with silent fluency as the major, with diffident hesitation, approached the table.
‘Colonel Straker? May I have a word with you please. In private.’ A quiet request, polite, reserved but firm.
Mary looked up, concerned at the interruption.
He gave her a wry smile, ‘You know the the Air Force, Mary, they tend not to accept that anyone might actually want to retire. I’ll just be a moment. It’s probably something to do with a mix up with the paperwork.’ Straker pushed his chair back casually and with an air of feigned nonchalance, although his mind was in turmoil, followed the young officer to a more private corner.
‘What is it?’ Straker was curt, to the point. It was obvious that there was something amiss. He would never have been contacted here, with such open directness unless it was an emergency. And besides, only two people knew his precise whereabouts this week. Alec Freeman, and ….. ‘General Henderson. Has something happened to him?’ he asked, concerned that the General might have succumbed to the injuries that had prevented him from taking over as SHADO Commander.
‘No sir. It was General Henderson who asked to speak to you as a matter of some urgency. There has been an……incident. The general needs you to return to theUKimmediately where he will meet you for a briefing at RAF Lossiemouth. That’s in……’
‘Yes, I know where that base is. What I need to know is why? Why am I needed?’ he looked back to where Mary was watching him, perplexed. This was going to be difficult to explain.
‘I’m sorry Colonel. I have not been given that information. My instructions were simply to inform you that Blue Book has been activated and you are required to return forthwith.’
Blue Book. The code that superseded any other command. He had to return. It was imperative. IfHendersonhad instigated Blue Book then it was a matter of extreme urgency, and with a sudden shiver of cold fear he wondered what the hell had happened.
He took a deep breath. ‘Very well. Has transport been arranged?’
‘Sir. There is a military jet fuelled and ready. I have a car waiting outside.’
‘And my wife?’ Straker stared with cold eyes, ‘what happens to her?’
There was an embarrassed silence. ‘I’m sorry Colonel, we were not informed about Mrs Straker. I was not given any instructions regarding your wife. I …’ he paused, reddening as he faced the angry glare of the older man.
‘You have ten minutes to make suitable arrangements to get my wife back toEngland.’ Straker glared, ‘I will explain to her that I have to return urgently and that someone will be escorting her back later today.’ He rubbed his face worriedly as he thought of what he would say to Mary, how would he be able to explain this. She would not be happy, and understandably so. But Blue Book; that took precedence over everything else. And again, he wondered what had gone wrong.
The military jet was noisy, fast and familiar. Straker was merely a passenger, even though he was listed as co-pilot in the flight log. Sitting behind the uncommunicative pilot there was little he could do or say. His presence was …unusual to say the least. Definitely unauthorised. So in the best traditions of the Royal Air Force, they simply acted as if he didn’t exist. The only conversation had been the monotone and perfunctory pre-flight instructions, but he had interrupted the pilot in a quiet and yet calm voice with the information that he was a fully qualified F16 pilot. That unwelcome news was met with stony silence. He could almost hear the unspoken thoughts….the scorn, the image of Tom Cruise in Top Gun. If only, he grinned mirthlessly, thinking about the reality of flying in combat.
So he kept quiet. Followed the terse unfriendly instructions. Expected the flight to be deliberately turbulent so as to cause him the most discomfort. Tough. He had never suffered from flight nausea, despite all attempts by his instructors to make him sick.
Straker spent the flight worrying. Unable to relax, unable to do anything except worry. Worry about Blue Book, about SHADO, about Mary. Mostly about Mary. The look in her eyes when he told her he had to return to the UK without her. That she would be flying back, alone. Her look of utter abandonment, of loss, of bewilderment.
He was leaving her again.
Lossiemouth Air Force Base. He had been here a couple of times before, and as the plane landed, in a gentle and smooth touchdown, the pilot unwilling to embarrass himself in front of onlookers by subjecting his unwelcome passenger to a rough landing, Straker pulled off his mask, and stretched stiff limbs. He clambered out of the tight seat, the borrowed flight suit loose on his slender frame. It was good to get down onto the ground. The flight had been, as he had anticipated, … bumpy. But he had managed to irritate his anonymous chauffeur by not showing the slightest signs of discomfort.
‘Thanks for the lift, a very smooth ride,’ he smiled with a sardonic and knowing look at the somewhat discomforted pilot, before heading towards the nearby stationary car with its door open and waiting for him. He could see Hendersonin the back seat. So he would get some answers now, would find out exactly what the hell was going on.
Hendersonwas silent until the car door closed, his face grim with foreboding. Handing Straker a thin file he apologised. ‘Sorry to drag you back Ed, but, well this is serious. I’ll let you read the preliminary report.’ The general looked grey with fatigue and strain as he waited for Straker to finish skimming through the document. ‘Well, what do you think?’
Straker was silent, thinking, running through the report in his mind. The document, neat, precise, concise, was not what he had feared, really not enough to drag him all the way back here under such rapid circumstances.. He turned toHenderson, annoyance and hostility evident in his voice.
‘Look, General, this document just says that a nearly obsolete American reconnaissance satellite has somehow been knocked out of orbit and has crashed in an isolated area ofNorthern Russia. Why call me back for this? Why not simply ask the Russians to retrieve it?’
Henderson grimaced with apology at his protégé. ‘I wish it were as simple as that, Ed. What that report doesn’t say is that the satellite, before its orbit was compromised, sent back several photographs of what are, unmistakeably, three UFOs in heading into Earth insertion orbit. It is likely that the satellite was struck by one of the UFO’s weapons, knocking it out of orbit only to come down somewhere south ofDiksonIsland. Fortunately a pretty remote and uninhabited area. We managed to keep the images classified, but the data on that satellite, if accessed, will certainly contain those pictures of UFOs and possibly even more photographs. We have to get that data chip. Before anyone outside SHADO finds it.’
Inside the stationary car Straker looked out through the tinted windows at a nearby transporter plane, its engines idling in preparation for imminent take-off. No wonder he had been called back. If any outside group, any faction within the fragmented Russian states managed to get hold of the data chip with its potentially devastating information, the consequences could be catastrophic. The psychologists had already predicted what would happen if news of the alien threat was made public. World panic, chaos, riots.
That was why SHADO had been formed in such a covert manner, had been organised in the utmost secrecy just to avoid such a scenario. And if information, photographs, irrefutable proof of the existence of UFOs was obtained by a group not under the control of the Russian government, well, the repercussions could be horrendous.
‘And what do you need to me to do?’
Hendersonlooked at him, a steadfast, serious stare. ‘You have to go out there, Commander. You have to find that satellite, find the data chip, transmit any remaining information back to me if at all possible, and then destroy it. There is no one else available with the background knowledge necessary for this task. We cannot, under any circumstances, allow anyone else, even one of our own military, close to that satellite, to those photographs. We are trying to make contact with our counterparts in the government but it will not be possible for them to get to the crash site in time without attracting considerable attention. You will be on your own, I’m afraid. Get in, get the job done, and then we’ll retrieve you and the team later.’
‘What happens if the Russians get to the crash site before us?’ Straker queried, frowning as he thought of the implications, ‘They must be aware of what has happened.’
‘They know the rough area of the crash site, but they are going to be looking for a very small section of the satellite. The data is stored in what is to all intents and purposes an indestructible unit that is transmitting a random signal on a specific wavelength. Unless you know the wavelength, it should be pretty nearly impossible to locate it in the area.’ Henderson handed a further document over to Straker. ‘We know where it is, Commander. To within a couple of meters. Any Russian forces out there will be searching in the dark, in deep snow, and in subzero temperatures for a small reflective container about the size of a briefcase. Not an easy search. You have to get there first.’
The plan was straightforward, as most plans are. A Halo drop from the waiting transport plane over the site at high altitude, a fast descent through the night sky to land as close to the last position recorded as the satellite hit ground. Then, find it, download it, and then, the hardest part, wait.
The need for a silent and stealthy assault on the site was vital. Henderson, with the aid of the US Government, was putting together a retrieval plan. A clumsy plan, and one that might not stand up to serious scrutiny. But it was the best he could come up with at such short notice. Once the team was down on the ground thenHendersonwould announce that a group of International environmentalists, studying the impact of global warming on the wildlife in the area had lost contact with their base, and a helicopter would be sent in to search. It sounded simple, too simple.
The C130J taxied to the runway. Huge and bulky it looked too cumbersome to take flight. But it lifted with smoothness into the grey sullen sky, banked with ease and headed east. The transport plane had a select group of passengers within its cavernous cargo hold. Straker, now clothed in camouflage Arctic weather gear, his pale hair nearly as white as the jump suit he wore, breathed the pure oxygen that was necessary to flush the nitrogen from his body before the HALO jump in fifty minutes time. He had never actually done a High Altitude Low Open jump although he knew the theory.
Theory was one thing. Actual experience was something completely different. Hands clasped tightly in front of him he tried not to show his unease, his vague trepidation at the coming fall, however controlled, however well-planned. It was new territory and he knew that, he was not skilled or experienced in this type of incursion.
That was enough to make him slightly edgy. There was no talking in the cabin, no chance to talk even if he had wanted to ask questions. The need to breathe oxygen was paramount, and one single intake of the recycled, scrubbed air in the cabin would be enough to push nitrogen back into his bloodstream. Then the whole trip would be over, no long rapid fall through the darkness to end with a sharp jolt as he opened his chute at the lowest possible point before it was too late, before he plunged into the almost permanently frozen terrain.
His companions in the bleak, unfussy cabin were as silent as he himself. He studied them with care, knowing that the success of the operation was dependent on their skills. Six of them, all well-trained, competent. All focused on the task ahead.
He knew they were probably regarding him with something akin to contempt. An outsider, not one of their own. He didn’t object. He was after all an intruder into their cadre, an unknown, a potential risk. So he sat and read through the hastily faxed details of the satellite. He might be to all intents and purposes a civilian, but the success of the mission depended on his ability to get past the security protocols surrounding the satellites on-board computer system and download and purge any remaining and incriminating photographic data. It was just as case of getting to the site safely, before any other faction beat them to it. And those factions, more than one of them, he was sure, might already be there, searching for that small interface unit.
They were approaching the drop zone. The ‘ready’ light flickered on, filling the drab utilitarian cabin with ominous blood-coloured light. They stood, checked each other over one last time, headed in a line for the cargo bay door. Straker, standing in front of the group’s leader, tensed as the huge bay door slowly opened and became their launch platform. He had done parachute drops before, but never one as long or as dangerous as this.
Automatically he checked his oxygen tank one last time. There was a pat on his shoulder, and he turned to face the man who would buddy him down. Behind the thick protective goggles and oxygen mask his guardian was grinning with understanding, a hand held out to shake in friendship. Straker wryly smiled back and clasped the offered hand in a firm hold. Then, the soft crimson illumination changed.
A pale green glow flooded the area.
Time to go.
Straker, pausing at the very edge of the drop-off zone, had only a fraction of a second to look down, to take in the sheer emptiness of the space below him before his guardian tapped him hard on his back. He stepped off. Into ….nothingness. It took him a moment to accustom himself to the knife-edged cold that sliced like thin knives into his skin, severing nerves, sawing through to his bones despite the layers of specially designed clothing he was wearing.
Gasping with the shock of the ice-filled air touching his face, even through the balaclava and the oxygen mask, he could feel his fingers begin to stiffen even as he followed his instructions and put himself into the dive position. Head down, arms moving to his side like an arrow, to minimise the length of time to drop the next 30,000 feet, he wondered if he would be so stiff with cold, so numb and so breathless that he would be unable to pull his ripcord.
Then, his wrist was grabbed in a tight grip, held in that vice-like grip and he twisted his head to see the leader come in closer to him to assist. It would be alright. He relaxed just a fraction, just enough to let the training take over.
He counted the seconds, knowing that his altimeter would warn him when it was time to deploy his parachute, that the AAD would automatically open it if he was to stiff, to dazed by the fall to respond but also that the strong hand fastened around his wrist was there, not to reprimand him, or to restrain him but to ensure that he survived.
Cold. Dark. The wind rushing past, a loud hissing in his ears, the oxygen hissing as well. He concentrated on taking even breaths as he counted, as the long seconds passed. One hundred and sixty-eight seconds. That was what he had been told. Nearly three minutes, just falling into blackness. The ground below was a darker shade of midnight, the moon still full, still sending its beams searching across the world like a spotlight. It was not a good night to be doing this he thought ruefully. He should have been in bed, warm, not diving in a headlong uncontrolled fall at some ungodly speed towards the ground.
Sixty seconds gone. And still he fell, still the hand firm on his arm, shifted up slightly now to hold his elbow. He could feel the strength in the fingers, confident strength, an assured grip. Falling with total abandonment, almost a joyous sensation of flight, of freedom. He had not experienced anything like this before, and suddenly he realised, with frightening clarity of thought, how easy it would be to simply fly on, fly right down until the ground rose up to hit one in sudden crushing and instant death.
One hundred and twenty seconds gone. His mind drifted away from counting, and with a sudden panic he realised that he was lost. He had no idea where the ground was, how much further he had before he plunged into the thickly snow-covered ground. He began to twist out of the grip that held him, restricted him.
He needed to open his chute, needed to do it…….. he star-fished, his old training taking over, and instantly slowed down as his body flattened and lost its aerodynamic smoothness
The sudden movement directly in front startled him, until he recognised the face. His partner, aware of his confusion, his mental turmoil, had positioned himself so that he was now head to head, his hands grabbing Straker’s hands, his eyes, almost hidden behind the protective goggles, staring into Straker’s eyes. The panic passed. Straker breathed one deep calming breath, nodded at the man and squeezed his hands hard to let him know that the situation was now under control….. there was a sudden sharp, loud noise in his ears.. the altimeter.
Time to deploy. His guardian gave a clear decisive nod, and let go, watching Straker closely until he saw the man he had been assigned to protect pull his ripcord and appear to jerk upwards as a loud crack signified the successful opening of the chute. The team leader, his main job done, pulled his own ripcord and, swiftly tucked himself into the prescribed position for landing. He noticed the man, still floating above him, also prepare for touch down. And then, with soft scrunch of heavy weights dropping into thick virgin snow, they were down.
The team leader shrugged out of his harness and buried his canopy and empty oxygen bottle in the snow, before heading for Straker who was doing the same.
They looked at each other, and Straker held out a hand in silent thanks.
‘You can call yourself a true Skydiver now,’ his guardian smiled.
Perfect. And Straker smiled to himself as he saw the SHADO submarine in his mind, with the word SkyDiver emblazoned on its streamlined hull. He tucked the thought away for later.
Moonlight sparked myriad diamond glints off the pristine snow that carpeted the area. Straker unsealed a pocket, pulling out the GPS tracker that was pre-tuned to the elusive, erratic frequency. He studied it carefully before looking up at the waiting team.
‘That way, about one hundred metres’ he murmured, in a quiet and hushed voice, loathe to disturb the silence that lay as thick as the snow. He pointed towards the nearby sparse scattering of stunted trees that marked the northern edge of the taiga forest.
‘Right, you lead the way.’ The team leader pulled Straker closer and spoke in an undertone. ‘Be careful. Whatever is out there, whatever it is that you have come for, other people will be looking for it as well. You know that don’t you? We’ll keep a perimeter watch, but we are under orders to move away once you start work.’
Straker nodded. There was nothing to say. He had to get the satellite, had to get the data. And there would be others searching right now for the remains, seeking that small ‘Black Box’ that contained such devastating evidence. The GRU, theSVR, the Russian mafia and other factions too numerous, too diverse to count, would all have a vested interest in getting hold of the satellite, either for its technological information or for what it might contain. They would have, must have, tracked the object as it blazed through the sky, as it broke into pieces before crashing into the unsullied snow. It was only a matter of time before someone stumbled across the remains.
With cautious paces he made his way to the somewhat inadequate shelter of the scrubby pine trees, the team following him, watching, alert and apprehensive.
The signal, irregular and arbitrary, increased in volume as he made his way between the trees, careful not to disturb them. It was cold enough already without snow slithering onto him from the slanted snow-laden branches. Moonlight guided his steps, and the blue shadows had such a rare beauty that on any other night he would paused, have simply wondered at the sapphire darkness that spread across the pristine whitened landscape. But not tonight.
It was with a sense of regret that he clambered on, feet sinking deep into the snow, frozen fingers now numb with the invading cold that ate through the layers of his clothes to nip and sting at his skin. The sound of footsteps on snow, almost as if they were walking on heavy shingle, the silence of the forest, the brilliant glare of moonlight on ice crystals that floated mysteriously in the still cold air.
Straker knew that he would remember these sensations forever, that this time would stay with him, would be a memory that he would return to again and again. The sheer beauty, the utter magnificence, the calm, serene darkness that surrounded him with such peace and tranquillity. And so he struggled on, eyes ever alert, watching the tracker, watching the ground, listening, looking, hoping that no-one else had come this way, had reached the objective first.
The trees thickened. Grew taller, closer together. The leader, walking beside Straker, halted. ‘There,’ he whispered, the sound a mere sliver of noise in the quiet. Straker followed his pointing finger.
Debris. Blackened shards of metal, twisted and warped, broken branches. The first sign of the wreckage.
The tracker signal became more insistent, sharper, and Straker followed the directions deeper into the forest, the sound of heavy footsteps close to him.
There. The unmistakeable continuous sound that indicated ground zero. The unit had to be close now. He looked around, more debris, broken branches, deeply scored and blackened earth where falling fragments had plumeted before burrowing into the permafrost.
The team backed away, waiting, watching. Straker turned, trying to find the small case, his eyes almost dazzled by the shimmering whiteness of the moonlit snow.
A flash of bright fluorescent orange like a single flame, visible even in the subdued moonlight caught his eye. Hurrying, he moved to it, brushed away the snow that had fallen from the disturbed branches above. He had found it. Undamaged, apart from several deeply scored and burned indentations. But the outer case was intact.
He looked back at the team now moving in stealth away from him to set up a perimeter watch. Once he was alone he would input the code that would open the unit, then he would start the task he had been ordered to complete.
It should have taken just a matter of a few minutes to download the data, and then transmit to back toHenderson. A simple task really, but the coded keypad was designed for use in the warm environs of a laboratory, not the sub-zero temperatures that he was now experiencing. It was impossible to punch the code in while wearing the thick insulated gloves that were so necessary. Reluctantly he tugged the glove off his right hand.
It took longer than he had thought to input the right sequence on the small touchpad. He struggled to press the buttons with fingers that were now thick and numb and unresponsive. Three times, four times, then, eventually he succeeded. The unit opened, the access panel slid aside and he could see the small chip inside, green lights flashing to say it was still active. He still had to send the data back toHenderson, and that took time as well, too much time. It was a slow process, and he was getting colder by the second. He watched impatiently as the secure line downloaded the damming evidence. Breath vapour crackled in and sparkled as he hunched there, focussed, absorbed, his whole being engaged in watching the small viewscreen on the case.
Done. All downloaded.. And then, in a flurry of disturbed snow flakes and a whirlwind of white crystals a helicopter loomed above them, its markings hidden by the darkness and the blizzard of its rotors. Straker looked up, just as the team leader called to him. ‘Straker, hurry up. We need to get back to the landing site to put down flares. Meet us there. Be quick.’ He stared at Straker, a piercing look of stern command. Straker nodded and turned back to the all-important task.
He started to purge the data, his whole attention focussed on the task, ignoring the cold, the eerie silence. The footsteps faded into the distance and overhead he could hear the helicopter circling, looking for a place to land.
The images stored in the chip had to be erased in isolation. He had to confirm the deletion request for every photograph and there was no way to speed up the process. If anyone had been watching, had realised exactly what was showing on the screen as the images were sent, then all hell would have broken loose. Straker sighed with relief as the final image, of a UFO, poised, hanging motionless in space against a backdrop of a huge Earth, was erased.
Then he heard footsteps behind him. Damn. The team would have been waiting for him, possibly worrying about the length of time it was taking. Well it was all done now. There was no evidence left. Nothing incriminating. With slow and stiff movements, he stood up and turned to face the person coming closer behind him.
With a rush of alarm, he realised his mistake. The helicopter was overhead. Directly overhead. He had been so absorbed in his task that he had failed to notice that fact. And the man who was now approaching him, who had rappelled down from that same helicopter, who was in thick white camouflaged arctic combat uniform also had a rifle pointing directly at Straker.
There was nothing he could do. Apart from raise his hands and hope the rest of the team were safe. He heard the copter move closer, saw the sling drop down, and knew that they were about to take him. But before he could even think about trying to run, a futile thought anyway in the current circumstances, he was grabbed, was held, and a sharp, stinging pain in his neck, just below his jaw brought swift blackness rushing through him like the shadow of an eclipse.
The moon fled behind the thick clouds that had made a silent and stealthy approach.
Darkness flooded across the landscape, hiding what was about to happen.
Nineteenth century word from Russian,
diminutive of voda … water
His hip was sore. It was a jagged pain that gnawed him, made him grit his teeth against the ache, the unaccustomed bite of razor-sharpness. He lay still, very very still, trying to focus, to recall. And as his head cleared, as the memories sorted themselves into a neat package of tidy recollections, all organized and labelled and arranged in sequence, he realised that he was not, as he had thought, in bed with Mary curled next to him, but he was somewhere cold. Cold and hard and echoing. And, he was naked. Naked and tied, hand and foot. Blindfolded. Tight, thin restraints that cut like wire into his wrists, his ankles.
Shit. Memories of the forest, the snow, the helicopter all filled his mind. They must have been waiting for the team to find the satellite. He hoped the other members were safe. He didn’t remember much of what had happened, merely the sharp jab of the anaesthetic in his neck. He felt sick, nauseous, his mouth dry. And he wondered where the hell he was and who it was who had captured him. It had to be some faction that was not under government control, some group that had power, and influence, that could operate in secrecy. Whoever it was, he had no doubts that they would be asking him questions later.
There was nothing he could do. Except for wait for it to start. The questioning. He wondered what information his kidnappers wanted. SHADO? Possibly, but there were very very few people who know anything about the organisation. There had to be another reason. He just had to wait and he was no fool. He knew of them, those implicit, unstated and vile activities that went on behind closed and barred doors of interrogation rooms across the world. Although he personally had never condoned, had never participated in any way in any questioning of suspects, especially those accused of being terrorists, he was not ignorant of the methods used to get people to talk. A tremor of dismay ran through him as his mind filled with random images and thoughts of what they might do in an attempt to get answers from him.
He lay there in silence, breathing shallow, even breaths, hoping that whoever, whatever, might not realise that he was conscious. There was nothing he could do to stop what was going to happen. But the longer it was put off the more chance he had of being rescued. Before they started.
He concentrated, not on the pain of his hip and shoulder, pressed under and behind him, but on what he could ascertain about his surroundings. The floor, rough, solid, cold, with a jagged edge of broken tile or displaced sliver of stone digging into the soft flesh of his upper thigh. His knee, scuffed and scraped and stinging in the chill dampness. The slightest fractional movement of his fingers, fixed behind him in tight bindings, revealed a powdery flakiness on the floor.
There was the unmistakable sense of dampness, in the taint of the air on his shivering skin but also in his nostrils, on his lips, his tongue. A rank smell of slow decay, rotting wood and crumbling shaling brickwork.
Just the tiniest sliver of light penetrated the rough material wrapped around his face. The blindfold was coarse, and thick and when he opened his eyes against the scratching roughness there was a gleam of illumination. At least he was not in the dark. But that was all he knew. Where he was he had no idea. None at all.
Thirst. That was the next sensation. His mouth, lips dry, his thick and swollen tongue stiff. The temptation to lick his lips to ease the painful dryness was almost overwhelming, but he knew that he had to remain still, had to give the illusion that he was not alert, aware of his surroundings.
‘Colonel Straker.’ The voice was cool, amused, pellucid. Male. A tenor voice, well-spoken, slight Russian accent, with that indefinable lightness of sound that betrays one as a young person. Certainly not the deeper growl and resonance of a middle-aged man. Straker, lying on the cold floor, sightless, motionless, analysed the sound, the timbre in the anonymous voice. Probably someone in their mid-twenties, he concluded, his mind flinching away from what he knew was probably going to come next. He remained silent, not even sure if he would be able to speak.
‘Colonel Straker.’ Again dry, amused and calm. Not a question. It was a clear statement of fact. ‘I know you are awake, Colonel. Do not try to fool me.’
It was necessary to answer, simply to deny the military title and then he would say nothing more. He tried to speak, but his parched throat failed him and all he could force past his lips was a feeble croak, faint and unintelligible. A hand, strong and heavy, powerfully fingered, grabbed his hair, another one pulled on his arms and hauled him painfully upright until he was sitting arms still pinioned behind him, knees bent, feet flat on the cold floor. There was an almost instant relief from the ache in his shoulders and hip. And then, once he was more balanced, more upright, the hand in his hair pulled backwards, downwards until his head was tilted back as far as it would go.
He tightened his lips in fear, but someone with firm pressure forced what felt like a plastic bottle top against his lips. It cut into the soft skin and then grated against his clenched teeth.
‘Water, Colonel Straker. Merely water.’ There was laughter in the voice now.
There was no point in fighting him. He let the hand tip the bottle up, felt the water trickle easily past his lips to be absorbed almost instantly by his parched mouth. The trickle increased and he struggled to swallow the stream of tepid water that seemed to pour into him. He managed to twist his head away, just enough to avoid the torrent, despite the clenching fingers gripping his hair, tugging and restraining him. Water gushed from his mouth, from the bottle, and poured down his chin, his neck, his chest. Spluttering for air he gasped and coughed in an attempt to breathe. The hand let go and he fell backwards, jarring his shoulders and his neck as his bound hands were trapped beneath him.
‘Now, Colonel Straker. Talk to me.’
Straker swallowed thickly, cautiously before he rolled onto his side, feeling water dribble across his chest, cold on his skin. He lifted his head to turn his blindfolded face in the direction of the speaker.
‘Not colonel anymore. Retired.’ His voice was hoarse, muffled and strange even to his own ears.
‘Not anymore? Surely you lie, Colonel?’
He had said enough. Now he had to be silent. Whatever happened. Whatever.
A dreaded anticipation began to build inside him, muscles starting to tense in preparation for what he was sure would come next.
It hurt. Even though he was ready for it, well, as ready as anyone could be, and he was expecting it, it hurt. As he was dragged upright the jagged edges of broken floor tiles scored into his heels, his buttocks, and he was forced again into an upright sitting position. A knee was pressed with rough strength into his spine, his head pulled back once more. His scalp burned from the sharp pain. He did not expect water this time. The fingers loosened their grip, and with a touch that was almost obscene, another hand stroked down the side of his face, a delicate probing and testing of the bone structure. He could feel the thumb caress the bloodied edge of his mouth, where the water bottle had cut into the soft skin. He tightened his lips. And waited.
The sudden unexpected, but also predictable blow, heavy and back-handed across his face, jarred his senses. His mouth filled with fluid, not tepid water this time, but warm salty blood, coppery and cloying from where his teeth had cut into the tender flesh of his cheek. The stinging pain of the contact made his eyes burn and he clenched his fists, clenched his teeth, to prevent himself giving them the satisfaction of hearing him cry out. Swallowing blood thick with saliva, he explored his sore mouth with a swelling tongue. No missing teeth, slightly loose in a couple of places, but still intact.
The second blow, harder, unforeseen, stunned him with its ferocity. It was going to be like this then, he realised as he fell sideways, his head hitting the floor hard, face now pressed against the broken tiles, before his assailant reached down to drag him back up. Old-fashioned brutality. He wondered what they wanted. How much they already knew.
And with a last remnant of dry humour, despite the pain, the encroaching and much welcome blackness he wondered whether Alec Freeman would remember to complete the projected budget plans before the next IAC meeting.
But there was one thing he was sure of, slumped there helpless and struggling to breathe through smashed lips, constricted airways with his assailant’s strong hand now tight on his throat, fingers around his jaw, forcing his bloodied face upwards in anticipation of the next blow, the next strike. There was not much chance that he, Ed Straker would get out of this alive.
He came round lying on his side, with swollen lips, blood still thick and coppery and clotted in his mouth, his head aching, throbbing. Pain in his gut, pain in his back. Ears stinging sharply where he had been clouted. But at least his nose hadn’t been broken. Irrationally he was pleased about that, thankful that his assailant hadn’t made it even harder for him to breathe. He concentrated, trying to focus on his situation, his condition. Anything to distract his thoughts from the horror of what was going to happen next. He was under no illusions now. The man would do anything, everything to make him talk. If only he knew what he wanted. SHADO, or Blue Book or any one of the classified military secrets that he had worked on over the past couple of years. But it didn’t really make much difference did it. He didn’t dare say anything.
One word, just one word. That would be enough to open the floodgates. One word and he would have submitted to him, given him, the Voice, what he wanted; his capitulation, his compliance. Acknowledgement of this right to the information. And then everything would come pouring out.
So. Silence. Whatever the Voice did.
Shivering in the cold air, he started to curl up, in an attempt retain some slight warmth, but his movements were stopped by a heavy foot, firmly kicking his legs back. Sharp pain lanced through the bruised bones of his ankles and his shins where the thick boot made contact. He tried again, but this time the kick was followed by the foot crushing down on his wrists before hooking his arms back away from his body. The pain was excruciating. His shoulders felt as though they would dislocate as his arms were forced further and further back.
‘Lie still Colonel Straker.’ The imperturbable, indifferent voice again. ‘Or I will be forced to hurt you. Even more.’
There was nothing else for it. He lay still. Hoping the foot would release his arms, would move before his shoulders separated under the strain. Hissing breaths that seemed so loud in the silence, he straightened his legs slowly, thighs scraping, catching on the chill uneven floor.
The foot gave one last vindictive kick back, and it felt as though his arms would rip from their sockets, before he was released, the tension suddenly gone, the pain still burning viciously through torn muscles, stretched and tormented tendons. It hurt to breath. It hurt to move. It hurt to lie still. But he was silent. Shivering, trembling in the chill, but silent. Somehow.
Fifty eight. Fifty nine. He concentrated on counting each individual breath. Slowing his breathing as much as he could. Deep breaths at first, to push away the surface pain. Then focusing his mind on welcoming and accepting the deeper pain, taking it into himself and allowing it to pour through him, forcing himself to relax tight muscles that screamed from disuse, misuse. From the constrictions that had forced them to remain pinioned and pain wracked. From the thin acid tightness and the stinging cuts that encircled wrists and ankles. The bones rubbing together.
There was nothing else. No rough, jagged floor harsh on the side of his face. No bloody saliva dribbling unchecked from broken lips. No chill draught shivering and twitching his naked skin. No fear of another blow, nothing else. He focused entirely on pain, on acknowledging it, allowing it free run of his body, his bones, his very being. And his breathing eased, his mind calmed, though hateful tears of regret for his lost future tickled, trickled unbidden
from his bound eyes to soak unseen into the coarse blindfold that separated him from the brightness of his cell.
He could hear nothing. No sound of other people, no breathing, no eldritch scrapes of chair legs on the solid floor, no rustle of papers, clink of mugs or glasses. Just….. silence. As if the man who was there, was still no doubt waiting there, somewhere very close to him, was content to sit watching, motionless, hardly breathing himself.
The silence spread outwards, until it filled his ears, filled his mind. He concentrated on other sensations. The pain, now subdued and compliant to his control, the floor, cold and hard, the taste of blood, his breaths, rasping and shallow, slow light breaths, just enough to keep him aware, on the edge of consciousness.
If it had not been for those feelings, those sharpened, heightened senses filling him, he would have almost imagined that he was back in the sensory deprivation tank during astronaut training. The silence filled his world. Silence and stillness.
And he lay there, waiting. It was the only thing he could do now.
The voice again, so soft, so gentle it was almost a verbal caress.
‘Colonel Straker. Why do you not answer me? Why be so foolish? So determined to remain silent. You know that you will speak to me, eventually. I am patient. I will sit here and read and wait for you to answer me.’
Straker heard a chair scrape close to him, heard the rustle of pages being turned. He carried on, counting his breaths, six hundred………
‘Dostoevsky. My favourite author. Especially The Brothers Karamazov. An elegantly written work, so evocative. Let me read you this part. Such a……. descriptive passage.’
A page turned, he could hear it being smoothed down, could visualise the hand sliding down the paper, those long elegant fingers that had caressed his face now carefully stroking the pages with sensitive fingertips. The voice continued, calm, assured, with its soft accent. Reading the words in a measured, even tone as if reading aloud while standing at a lectern before a silent, enthralled audience.
‘Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature, and to found that edifice in its unavenged tears….’
The book closed with soft thud. He heard it being placed on a table. ‘So Colonel Straker, you see you are just that one tiny creature and I will do everything necessary, everything, to get from you what I require. All you have to tell me is, what caused that satellite to crash, and what information did it contain that you were trying to conceal from my country. And now,’ there was a pause. Straker stiffened, tensed, expectant. The voice continued as if it had not halted, had not hesitated with such deliberation, ‘I will leave you alone for a while to contemplate your future. Such as it is.’
The chair scraped again, footsteps, measured, paced across the room away from him. A door, opening to let in a rush of even colder air that flowed down over his chilled body. Closing. The sound of metal turning in a well-oiled lock. Then…. nothing. He was alone with the cold, the pain, the apprehension.
It was a relief though, to be alone, to be able to stretch out his legs, to roll over and ease the pain in his arms. To rotate stiff shoulder joints and twist his hands in the restraints despite the deepening scoring around his wrists. To shrug those shoulders and feel the movement loosen tight muscles, to be able to groan quietly with the distress of sharp aches and soreness.
He could, just about, push to the back of his mind the cold and the hurting, but with growing dismay and concern realised that he had a more immediate problem. One that he had not foreseen. His bladder was full, an uncomfortable and painful sensation. It was a pressing urgency that had to be dealt with, one way or another. If the voice, as Straker had come to think of his captor, was in the room Straker would have felt compelled to speak, to make the request, and that would have been seen as giving in, giving control over to his captor. So, he had to deal with this problem himself, in whatever way he could.
There was only one thing he could do.
Humiliation was an acceptable, standard procedure in these situations he recalled. He would deal with it, could deal with it however unpleasant the sensations, the accompanying emotions, the results afterwards.
At least he was alone. He was spared the shame of listening to the voice berating him for his lack of control, for his inadequacies, his inability to maintain his dignity.
It was far harder than he had thought, to simply loosen his tight sphincter and let go. His body refused to do as his mind ordered, and he was beginning to panic, to dread the door opening, to hear the footsteps. But, eventually, although he shuddered at the loss of dignity, the feeling of sheer helplessness, he relaxed enough to allow the first slow stream of urine to trickle across his groin, down, warm almost hot on his cold thighs. He could feel it pool beneath him, quickly cooling in the chill air. The sensation of relief was immediate. A blissful emptiness, an easing of the pressure, the unwelcome discomfort.
Although he was by now desperately tired, more from stress than weariness, he was too cold to doze and uncontrollable shudders wracked his body in the low temperature. Arms ached from being pinioned in the unaccustomed position, hands throbbed from the tight bindings. Hunger, and he was very hungry, he realised, was a minor problem, and one that he might not have to deal with for long. He could see no way out of the situation, unless he ceded to the quiet, softly spoken demand of the voice, and answered him.
And he would not. Whatever happened, he would not, must not, speak. So, it would come down to one simple fact. How long could he last before……..
He must not speak.
Colder air slithered across the floor as the door opened quietly. With his senses heightened by blindness and by fear, he could hear the soft footsteps tread measured steps across the hard floor. Flinching, tensing, he waited.
The voice was …. patient, almost saddened.
‘Colonel Straker. All you had to do was to ask. I am not a barbarian. I would have let you relieve yourself in a more… decorous manner. If you had asked.’
Silence. It was all he could do now. A chair scraped, soft sluffing sounds as someone sat, paper rustling, fingers tapping on a hard surface. He lay still, barely breathing, trying to be as slight, as insignificant as possible.
‘So, Colonel Straker, shall we bring this to an end? I ask only one thing from you. One thing. Just your name. That is all. All you need to do is say, “Yes I am Colonel Straker.” and then I will untie you, bring you some clothes, some food and then we can have a pleasant conversation. It is as easy as that. So, Colonel Straker?’
Silence. His breath caught in his throat. He could feel his heart pounding, as if it would burst out of his chest. Icy sweat covered him, despite the cold.
‘How foolish, Colonel Straker. You will speak. Eventually. You know that. I just wanted to spare you the ….. discomfort to which I will have to subject you. And after all, I do know your name. My organisation has been watching you very closely for the past few months ever since your hypothetical retirement. We both know that you are not retired, that you are still working for your government…. and now we find you here, in my country, in secret, and apparently engaged in espionage. So, Colonel Straker, make it easy on yourself. Tell me your name. Please.’
Silence. He tried to control the treacherous shivering of his legs as he contemplated what would happen next.
‘Very well. You are a stubborn individual Colonel Straker.’ There was a sigh of regret. ‘Perhaps you are thirsty. Perhaps a drink would help to loosen your tongue. It certainly works with my fellow countrymen. One moment….’ there was the sound of the chair scraping again, the sharp chink of glass against glass. He became aware of the close presence of someone, nearby, the sound of breathing closer to him.
Fingers in his hair, hand tightening, tugging to yank him upwards again. He would have cried out with the stinging razor-sharp pain in his scalp, but he bit his lips, stifled the cry, swallowed the groan as his body was twisted, wrenched until he was, once more, sitting numb and shivering in the bitter chill. The hand let go and he dropped his head down towards his bent knees, in a futile attempt to avoid whatever was going to happen next.
He must not speak.
Then. A glass hard against his lips, pressing, prising them apart, a hand also pressing, fingers and fingernails digging deep into his cheeks, into his jaw until his mouth was forced opened under the pressure. The glass, banging roughly against teeth, crushing his tongue and liquid flooding into his mouth. For one moment he thought it was tepid water, then the stinging sensation in those broken and split lips warned him, alerted him. Vodka. There was no strong alcohol taste, as with whisky, no pungent juniper flavour as with gin. Pure distilled vodka. They, he, the Voice, wanted Straker drunk, wanted him to lose his inhibitions, to lose his self-control. He had to be silent. Had to.
He spat as much of the vile liquid out, spluttering and gasping as it burned down his throat, tingled on his lips, his tongue. Unable to turn his head away, unable to close his lips for the hard glass that was crushed against his tongue, he choked on the oily and slightly scented fluid that filled his mouth, his throat and poured down into him.
Again, just as before, he was released and fell, gasping, desperately trying to breathe, to retch out the foul poison that threatened to betray him.
‘Colonel Straker. Please. Don’t fight this. Make it easy for everyone. Just speak to me. Then all this will be over.’
The bound man was silent, panting for breath, his head turned away from the speaker.
‘Colonel.’ An admonition, the voice, still calm still controlled but with a hint of a frown.
Straker would have screamed with anger, with rage at the silkily smooth voice with its promise of release, but even the act of screaming would have been a response. And he refused to respond. In any way.
A sigh. Long drawn out and…. regretful.
‘Very well Colonel. Your stubbornness has forced my hand. I sincerely regret what will happen now but I have no other recourse. I had hoped that you would see sense, that perhaps you would have accepted the fact that you will not leave here until you have spoken. Foolish man.’
A chair scraping on the floor, footsteps, the door opening, colder air rolling across the floor. Sounds. Banging, splashing, rattles of metal, clunks of wood. He could not make out what was happening, what was being done. But there were other people in the room. Other voices, harsher, quieter and in the background a woman’s voice.
Then he was lifted with swift and efficient and silent movements and then dropped down onto a … table? He could not tell. It was hard, he knew that. Wooden, longer than he was tall. His hands, still pinioned behind him snagged on protruding slivers. He felt someone lean over him, warm breath on his bare chest. The restraints holding his hands were untied, and he was dropped down again to lie still as his wrists were held in a vicelike grip. There was no use struggling, other hands were by now holding his feet, and he could feel unyielding and wide straps fastened over his ankles and wrists before being tightened.
His body betrayed him by trembling, not just from the cold but from sudden fear and he felt more vulnerable, more exposed, more fragile than at any other time in his life. Helpless and powerless to do anything other than lie there, blind, paralysed, mute.
A snap. Close by his face. He flinched, expecting to feel a hand hard on his already bruised and broken cheeks. But no. Instead, fingers forced themselves into his mouth, past torn lips, prising open his jaw. Latex-covered fingers probed deeply around his gums, tugging at teeth, fingering his tongue, searching everywhere, the glove squeaking against enamel. The fingers retreated and he swallowed saliva, swallowed the disgust that he had felt as his mouth was raided.
Then he felt the hand touch him again. And his skin crawled with horror. Lips tight together, he stifled a moan of revulsion.
Gloved fingers. He could feel them now, creeping with insidious stealth across his face, outlining the curve of his lips, stroking away the blood that still seeped from split skin. Then, carefully, edged round his jaw, down his neck, stopping for some time to feel the rapid pulse there, throbbing from a heart that was pounding with fear.
The hand moved on, tracing a line down from his throat, before lying flat on his left breast, the contact almost hot on shivering flesh. Flinching beneath the touch, he waited, counting seconds to himself to focus his mind on other thoughts. Blood thudding in his ears, breathing in short gasps he struggled in vain to pull away from the touch.
Warm hands… a memory of Mary, her hands on his shoulders, the scent of her perfume. But these hands were not Mary, these hands were not touching him with love or desire. The hand moved, testing, feeling the muscles beneath the clammy skin. Pushing against his ribcage, downwards, inwards.
Then it lifted and moved down his chest, onto his abdomen, pressing again, fingers probing deep into him, two hands now, palms heavy on his flesh. He gasped as questioning fingers came in contact with bruised and inflamed tissue.
The hands retreated. Straker lay still and silent, hoping, praying that someone would speak, someone would tell him what they were going to do to him.
‘Is he ready?’ a rough guttural voice, masculine, harsh.
‘I haven’t finished. Be patient.’
A soft voice. Light, accented, feminine. And the fingers repositioned themselves on his body, on his hips, the heel of each hand on either side of him, holding him down, pushing him hard against the rough surface for brief seconds before releasing him. Then, one hand slid beneath him, caressing his buttock, before moving further, deeper, beneath. Oh god. Cold wetness against him, then a sharp, intense pain as fingers pushed quickly in, twisting around, feeling deep inside, searching. He could hear small sounds of laughter from someone nearby and felt his face flush, his body shake with the violation.
The hand withdrew, a further snap as latex was pulled off and there was the soft slither of a discarded glove landing on the floor. He thought it was over, that the person had finished their rough, probing examination, but her hand, bare skin this time, warm to the touch, touched him again on his thigh, stroking gently as if enjoying the sensation of firm smooth skin beneath its palm.
He nearly cried out, nearly betrayed himself as the hand continued its light circling with fingertips against the smoother skin of his inner thigh before moving to his groin. To hold, to almost caress his genitals with interest, as if inspecting his virility. As if he was a mere senseless, unfeeling animal.
He felt her hold his testicles, roll them against each other and then quickly painfully squeeze them together. Just one quick, deliberate compression, before the hand let go.
Nothing was said, no laughter, as if it had been done unseen, merely to satisfy her own need to cause pain. The exploration continued. Skin against his skin, feeling, touching, not caressing, never that. But he felt violated, besmirched, used. And he wanted to hide away, to curl up, to withdraw from her contact.
Hands clasped his face. Not the ones that were even now sliding once more from his groin up the soft hair to his navel and then to feel his ribcage once more. No these hands were male, strong, powerful, gripping his head in a vice-like hold forcing his mouth open once more. He could feel the effects of the vodka befuddled his senses, blur his mind.
‘I told you to be patient. It won’t do you much good if he dies on the table. I am nearly finished.’
The soft voice was close to his head and startled he tried to turn towards it, towards her, but the hands held him, firmly, pressing into his cheeks, thumbs under his eye sockets. Then, he was released. He heard her step back. He could no longer feel her breath, or smell her closeness.
‘Very well. He has nothing concealed on him. There are no broken ribs, no internal injuries. And no loose teeth.’ The soft voice was business-like, efficient. ‘You can begin. I will remain here to ensure that nothing goes wrong.’
Movement. His head lowered suddenly, or perhaps his feet lifted. The alcohol in his blood confused him. Made the world shift around his senses. Blood filled his head, pounding even more ferociously through his brain.
‘Fifteen seconds to begin with. That is long enough.’ Her voice was clinical, robotic.
Lying there, confused, dazed, his senses disorientated, Straker had a terrible moment of clarity, of understanding. There was not even time to take one deep inhalation before a cold wet cloth smothered his face, completely covering his mouth and nose.
He could hardly breathe through the dense, damp material. Unable to turn his head, unable to drag sufficient air into his lungs, he writhed with desperate and frantic struggles in the restraints trying to get free, to breathe, to escape.
The cloth pressed down, harder, crushing against already bruised lips, closing off the slightest small space under his nose. He could feel his dizziness increase as his body fought for oxygen.
And it began.
Water poured onto the cloth, poured onto it, saturated it, drenched it, dribbled through, then suddenly it was flooding through, filling his mouth, his nose. A torrent that invaded his throat, filling every passageway. He choked, tried to swallow then retched, gagged, blood pounding in his ears, the absolute terror of drowning, of choking, filling him, consuming him.
And, despite all his resolve, despite all his tenacity he tried to scream.
But he could not call out, could not answer as the water continued to pour into his mouth, gushing, gurgling, engulfing him. He felt his stomach react, felt vomit filling his throat, acid and burning.
He knew that he would die here, on this table, a slow death as fluid or vomit filled his lungs, as he coughed and retched and gagged and choked and they watched. Impassive and uncaring.
Then as the blackness filled his terrified, irrational mind, as his straining body dragged the last scraps of oxygen from his heaving lungs, the cloth was removed.
Water gushed from his open mouth as he fought to free himself, to lift his head, to drag air into his lungs. Wrists and ankles burning he jerked at the restraints, his violent thrashes arching his back as his lungs heaved and he spewed bile and stale vodka.
‘So, Colonel, now will you co-operate?’
Mary. He would never see her again, would never speak to her, she would never know what had happened to him. And then, with a wry flash of chagrin, even as he almost convulse in his anguish, he visualised the SHADO submarine. He would never get to call it SkyDiver.
He was too breathless to speak, to intent on trying to clear his lungs and then, with horror, he felt the cloth again over his face. And he screamed out to them. The sound muffled by the thickness, drowned out by the water that poured once more over his face, seeping under the blindfold to fill his eyes, blinding him even more thoroughly. His brain reacted almost immediately, sending vicious spasms through his entire body, twisting and distorting his slender frame as he lay there, unable to stop the torture.
With the last fragments of conscious rational thought, before utter terror finally broke him, he steeled himself. Squeezing his eyes tightly he forced himself to take a deep breath. To breathe the water, the acid bile and the alcohol that was even now threatening to choke him once more.
Death would be .. slow. Slow and hideous and unpleasant but inevitable. That was all he wanted. So he breathed swiftly, pulling the vile liquids into screaming, burning lungs.
And the world faded away into sheer agony and despair.
Sharp pain. His throat, his chest, wrists, ankles. Everywhere. He shuddered awake, desperately striving to sit up, to cough foul dregs from lungs that ached and gasped. He was alive. He could breath. Just. Panting, wheezing, breathless and unable to lift himself up to stop the pain, to clear the residue that crackled deep in his chest.
A hand smoothed itself across his forehead, and before he could smother it, a faint whimper escaped his lips. He had failed. They would get everything from him now. And with a stifled sob of utter hopelessness, utter shame he waited for the feel of damp, cloying material across his face once more, knowing that he would not be able to withstand any longer.
Ashamed, humiliated, he turned his head to one side as if to turn away from his own weakness, but the cool hand on his forehead forced him to lie still.
There was movement again, a swirling dizzying movement as if the world had twisted around him. Disorientated and confused, a second soft cry escaped his lips and he realised that he was no longer tilted, that he was lying flat and still, no heavy damp cloth over his face, no hands forcing his jaw apart.
The voice spoke, softly, with just a hint of annoyance behind the clear calm words.
‘Be still, Colonel Straker. It is over. There is no need to distress yourself further. It appears that my …..’ a long, long pause. Straker waited, coughing, gasping, hoping without much real hope. ‘… comrades in the government are under the impression that you are not a threat to our country. So. Your friends will be here to collect you within the next few minutes. But, let me assure you Colonel Straker. Next time we meet you will speak to me and acknowledge your title. Then we will talk. And in anticipation of that meeting I have left you a small memento of our time together.’
There was the sensation of someone near to him; he could smell the man’s fragrance, a heavy musky scent close to his face. He could hear and feel the breath warm on his cold skin. A sharp tightness around his ankles, a sudden constriction as straps were tautened and then released. The same with his wrists.
He could have sobbed with the pure bliss. His movements slow and hesitant, feeling the stiffened and wrenched muscles burning as the blood flowed unrestricted once more, he lifted his arms from his side, wrapped them around his body, wanting nothing more than to curl up and lie quietly, to sleep, to forget. To retreat into a small space and hide. Forever.
‘Goodbye, Colonel Straker. And when we meet again you will say to me. Yes, Dimitri Leonov, I am Colonel Straker.’ The dry voice tinged with a sardonic edge of amused exasperation, a definite emphasis on the military title.
The door closed, a final quiet click of the latch. But nothing else. Footsteps faded into the distance. Straker reached up, shaking, his movements jerky, and pulled the heavy blindfold off with numb fingers burning and throbbing with the returning rush of blood.
Lying there, blinking, in the piercing light and staring, still disorientated, up at a low arched ceiling, he breathed deep, great gasping breaths as he recalled the terror of drowning, of approaching death.
Carefully, stiff and wrenched muscles screaming in protest, he sat up, dropping his legs over the side of the wide bench to which he had been strapped. He looked around, too exhausted to do more than just twist his head to inspect his surroundings.
It was a small room, whitewashed, damp, containing a single wooden chair with a shabby, but warm looking blanket draped over the back, a table with a cardboard box in the centre. And the bench on which he had been strapped. Pools of water, of vomit, of urine on the floor. One latex glove, tangled, discarded.
Grimacing, he stood up, easing himself off the bench, the rough floor cold against his bare feet. Staggering a couple of steps to the chair he lowered himself onto the seat and, reaching out, dragged the battered box closer to him in order to ease the lid up. He was too worn out to do more than tip it over the edge. Wearied beyond belief he peered inside.
He would have laughed, but it hurt too much.
A half-empty litre bottle of decent Russian vodka. And a thick paperback book, well read, the spine damaged from use, the pages creased and worn. One page with the corner turned down. He did not need to open it to know which page it was. He knew that the passage would be underlined. Dostoevsky. The Brothers Karamazov.
With a sigh he wrapped the blanket tightly around his shivering, aching body, feeling some faint warmth creep like slow tendrils back into his hands and feet despite the deep cuts that encircled, and would permanently scar his wrists and ankles. A small insignificant spider, disturbed from its lair in the box, scurried across the table, looking for sanctuary. On any other occasion Straker would have, almost without thinking, crushed the little arachnid under his thumb, but he paused, his head tilted to one side as if listening to a distant voice.
‘One tiny creature,’ he muttered, with a wry twist of bloodied, split lips and thoughtfully watched the spider scuttle to safety.
He put his head down on his arms and rested, unbidden tears filling his eyes as he realised that, even though they had broken him, had crushed him, had revived him against all his efforts, he had survived, and he would be going home. To Mary. To SHADO.
He was sleeping when the retrieval team reached him.
Moonlight and vodka… the glass remained on the table, untouched, a miniature cylinder of crystal, reflecting, distorting the scene as he peered into it. He wondered what he would say to the man he was due to meet, to whom he had spoken to only once before. Pulling down the sleeves of his fine black cashmere turtleneck sweater to cover his wrists, he checked to ensure that the silver lines of fading scar tissue were hidden. His jacket, tailored in Savile Row, was black as were his denim jeans, and his heavy overcoat was draped over the back of the chair. Appropriate attire for a liaison such as this. A discrete and quiet meeting with the man who had been recommended to him as a suitable command officer for SHADO’s hugely important Siberian base. It had taken the best part of a week to finally arrange this meeting, to get all the checks, the details done. And it looked as if the man he would be seeing here in this scruffy run-down bar was perfect for the role.
Dedicated, tough, not afraid to do whatever it took to get the job done. It was just a matter of sitting face to face, looking into his eyes, assessing him personally.
Straker waited with the impassive patience he had acquired over the years as Commander, lifting his unwanted drink to gaze at it, through it, at the heavy beading of the liquid as he tilted the glass to let the spirit swirl slowly around. From the corner of his eye he noticed a couple of girls, tawdry, blousy, acting exactly as one would expect a couple of cheap call girls to behave. Eyeing him up, grinning at him, winking. Call girls.
He knew better.SVR no doubt. He had obviously attracted some unwanted attention. Damn. There was nothing he could do, apart from sit there, nursing the glass of vodka. Not even decent vodka either. Not that he had touched any vodka, decent or not since ………… He put the glass down on the table and leaned back, waiting. He would be glad to get out of here, back to somewhere warm, somewhere with decent food, somewhere he could relax, could forget….
In the darkness, the smoke-filled gloom, he could not see the figure with any degree of clarity, just the whiteness of fingers as the chair opposite him was pulled back. The man sat down, looked at him, nodded in respect, deference, acknowledgement of his superior status.
‘Commander Straker.’ The voice was cool, pellucid. Male. A tenor voice, well-spoken, slight Russian accent, with a slightly deeper growl than he remembered, betraying the speaker as a man past the first flush of youthful enthusiasm. A voice that contained hesitance, uncertainty, contrition, as if the speaker was unsure of the reception he would receive, as if offering an apology for past wrongs, past misdoings.
And, for only the second time in his life, as the sound of the voice after so many years made his heart pound, his pulse race, his body suddenly sweat with remembered pain, the sensation of drowning and the acrid taste of bile-laden vodka, Ed Straker answered the man who spoke.
He took a deep breath and spoke, his fingers clenched together in a tight grip . ‘Yes. Dimitri Leonov, I am Commander Straker.’
LtCdr. October 2010
To be continued in Moonlight. Part 2 of the Moonlight and Vodka Series
When Guina first posted her challenge, I was, to be honest, dismayed. An NFanfic story with an ending in Moscow.. oh heck. I had never been to Moscow ..knew nothing about it.. not even much about travelling outside the UK. So, I thought.. well, let’s have Alec and Ed in Moscow and the KGB take Ed for questioning. My little mind was busy with plots and phrases,,, then then….. Bugger! Dragon emailed me her story….,Ed and Alec in Moscow and the KGB take Ed for questioning. ]so that put the kibosh on my ideas.
And I panicked.
No ideas at all. Was I going to have to use Pittencreel, my ‘back-up’ story?? Was I going to have to do an easy fanfic story? Could I really write an Nfanfic? I came up with a rather unpleasant story idea.. rape, murder, abduction, involving Straker, Foster et al. A complicated subplot of burglaries, anti-biotics and Russian agents. But however I tried, I simply couldn’t sum up the enthusiasm for the story. And if I don’t like writing it, you probably won’t like reading it.
Then Guina suggested that I do a torture story.. after all I had come pretty close to it in Surrendered and some other stories. I always enjoy writing ‘angsty’ psychological stories so I gave it some thought. Then… the idea hit me.. a returning space probe.. bringing some sort of microbe or virus from the alien world. That was soon rejected, too close to Pittencreel’s plot ! But I thought about a satellite crashing back to earth and Straker having to secure it. The idea then morphed into Straker on honeymoon, ten years earlier.
I actually wrote the epilogue shortly after writing the first part of the torture… I suddenly realised that it might be very effective to have the Russian unnamed throughout and to have him reappear at the end of the story as a possible recruit for SHADO. And Straker answers him .. for only the second time ever.
I found it hard to work out two specific aspects of the story. Firstly, how the team would be retrieved once they had completed the mission. As I write these notes, I am aware that my ‘plan’ for retrieval is pretty ‘clunky’ and needs to be refined, but I don’t want to have too much detail about that part. It is an ‘additional’ fact, something that doesn’t actually matter that much. There is a plan to get them out. That is really all that matters. And it involves a helicopter. That is the other important factor.
The second awkward part was how to separate Ed from the rest of the team. I could have killed them all off, but I actually liked the team leader ( nameless so far!) and really didn’t see any reason to have a bloodbath out in the forest, although it would have given me an excuse for some really descriptive writing!
So, eventually I came up with the current solution…. a Russian helicopter, soldiers rappelling down to take Ed only.
The hardest part of the whole story was the actual serious torture scene. I approached it with real trepidation, concerned that I could make a real hash of it and it would end up being funny as opposed to being really frightening. I ‘prevaricated’ by writing a long chapter before where the Russian Doctor examines him, then .. I did the part after, when Ed had been revived and is about to be set free…
Eventually everything had been written apart from that one crucial part… So I settled down and did it and I sweated throughout the entire scene.
So.. the torture is stopped.. and the retrieval team come to the rescue. No details.. you have to imagine those yourself. But, while I was writing this story, I suddenly realised that I had set it up for a follow on.
Called. Moonlight. SO glad I didn’t use the title Moonlight and Vodka for the ‘Challenge’ title.
The actual title ‘Breathless’ has, as I like to have them, multi-layers of meaning.
Initially it was linked just to the fact that Vodka is nicknamed Breathless because it leaves no smell of alcohol on your breath, then I realised that I also fitted the torture scene perfectly as well as being appropriate for the earlier part.. in the forest, in the sharp cold.
So, I am rather proud of that title!
But it was nice to have ‘sub titles’ in Breathless, to split the story up into two distinct parts, each with a different style.. Moonlight, hopefully action, a bit of romance, other people involved, etc. Nothing ‘adult’. And then Vodka.. definitely for the NFanfic side of the forum.
So I now have to do the second part. where Dimitri meets Ed again. … and no Moscow bars involved in this one.
Might be adult.. might not. Haven’t made up my mind.!
Serious thanks to Guina. (Who pestered me to make changes that I didn’t want to make, but then, having made them, I realised that it was a much better story.)