‘One UFO, Commander. Travelling slowly.’
‘Exactly how slowly Lieutenant?’ Straker’s hand rubbed the bristles on his jaw. The sixth incursion in twenty-four hours. He wondered if it would end the same way as the other five. In failure.
‘Speed S.O.L. zero decimal five.’ There was a pause, ‘It’s increased speed ..,’ Another pause, longer this time. ‘It’s changed course Commander. Now following the Earthbound lunar module.’
Silence. He clenched his fingers.
‘Moonbase to control. UFO has retreated. Out of range now. Interceptors returning to base.’
‘Thank you Moonbase. I want a full report by the end of the shift.’ Straker withdrew to his office. His long-abandoned coffee had scum on the surface and he flung it away before pouring a fresh one. Then he waited.
‘Another red herring?’ Alec Freeman finished reading the file and put it down. ‘What the hell were they up to this time?’
‘I don’t know Alec, I really don’t. There’s been nothing for the last ten hours.’ Straker studied the chart on his desk, his fingers tracing over lines that designated lunar flights. ‘We know they didn’t get close enough to drop a bomb, or plant anything in a crater. The trajectories were random. The last one trailed a lunar module for a short time before it retreated. The crew didn’t report anything untoward, but they’ve both been checked by the medics.’ He picked up the folder and leafed through it again, before tossing it on the table with a grimace of disgust. ‘Nothing.’ He let his eyes flicker over his watch. ‘And Leonov is due soon.’
‘Look, go home. You’ve been here long enough and it’s quiet. I’ll look after Dimitri when he comes in. He’s only got a few more days to go and if I need you I’ll call.’
‘Morning Paul. Is he in yet?’ Alec Freeman walked over to stand at the console where Foster was watching a radar trace.
‘Been and gone a couple of hours ago. In fact I can tell you exactly where he is,’ Paul said and placed the tip of one finger on the screen. ‘There.’ He stepped back and grinned at Freeman’s surprised expression.
‘You’re telling me that Ed Straker is on his way to Moonbase? He didn’t mention that in yesterday’s briefing. What’s the emergency?’ Freeman said as he studied the monitor.
‘No emergency. Leonov was scheduled on the flight and Straker decided to go with him. Said he wanted to make a quick inspection.’ Foster shrugged his shoulders. ‘I think he was looking forward to getting away actually.’
‘He hasn’t been to Moonbase for a while. Still, it’s not like him to ….’ Alec paused.
‘Stop worrying, Alec. He’s only human. This is just what he needs, a few days furlough. I think he wants to help Leonov settle in. And…’ Paul waved a hand at the control room. ‘We’re monitoring the flight. So relax.’ He grinned again and turned back to observe the radar screen once more.
Straker squeezed into the tiny passenger compartment of the Lunar module and dropped his bag on one of the spare seats before he turned to look into the flight deck. Dimitri was close behind the commander, a flush of anticipation on the Russian’s face as he entered the craft and proceeded to stash his luggage with care. Straker remembered his own enthusiasm on his first visit to Moonbase. It was a feeling that had not diminished over the years.
‘Welcome aboard Colonel. I’ll let you get started. Grant won’t let you pilot during release or landing but he’ll show you the controls while we’re in transit.’ Straker lowered himself into the passenger seat nearest the door. ‘First flight. I think you’ll enjoy it.’ He waited as Leonov slid the door shut. It was a long time since he had last piloted a module. Not too difficult a task for someone with astronaut training and flight experience but there were precious few opportunities now for him to take the controls. He was too senior, too valuable in some respects and the propriety of his position had to be respected, but deep down he envied Leonov; a maiden voyage and a new world waiting out there.
He fastened his seatbelt and recalled his first flight in a command capsule. A long time ago, yet the memories of his time in NASA had not waned. He could still recall the pressure of the crewman’s foot as it slammed onto his shoulder to crush him down in his seat, and the way his breath expelled in one gasping ‘whoosh’ as the straps were tightened with almost vicious force.
But this trip was civilised and unadventurous; just another commercial flight with his case in the locker, a restraint harness that was loose on his shoulders and a reclining chair. All the luxuries of a business class cabin.
Just … smaller.
He managed a quick check of the cabin before he hunched lower in the narrow seat. The unbroken walls of the small passenger section curved over as if seeking to crush him and the small cabin seemed airless and stifling. He unfastened his jacket to pull the rollneck of his sweater away from his throat for a moment, his fingers trembling, then he forced his hand to lie flat on the armrest, pushed the panic away and concentrated on his breathing.
The vibrations alerted him and he settled back to wait for that initial upwards thrust of lift-off. Over the years he had become adept at distinguishing the slightest change in the resonance of the engines. There. The wheels lifted.
Not long now. He would be back in space soon enough and there would be chance for him to work once they had reached the stratosphere and disengaged. Straker closed his eyes. He could no longer see the walls.
Leonov let his fingers rest with the lightest of touches on the controls and sighed with what might have been disappointment. This was not how he, as a wide-eyed child and later as an adult, had envisaged a flight to the Moon. There should have been Mission Control and a launch sequence, the thrill of a count-down and the tremendous vibrations of massive engines thrusting him up through the atmosphere. But instead he had experienced a gentle vertical take-off and now they were gaining forward speed with only a vague sensation of movement.
He glanced at Grant and saw the man focussed on watching the instruments.
He settled back and relaxed as the module disengaged from the Carrier. It did not matter that this journey had started with something of an anti-climax; he was on his way to the Moon and he wondered if he would ever become blasé about his destination. Outside the window the sky was darkening from blue to navy and black. The curve of the Earth appeared and despite all his experience and his training in Arctic Warfare and espionage Dimitri Leonov could not suppress a smile of delight.
Space. It was like being a small child again.
Straker shut down his netbook. His work had distracted him enough to forget the confines of the cabin for the first half of the journey, but now he stretched to ease the tension in his shoulders and winced as the stiff joints cracked. He had managed to contain the strands of fear that had intruded into his thoughts, and he had reminded himself that the compartment was nothing more than a room that he could leave at any time. No matter that he did not have a viewport; the door was just there within reach and Leonov and Grant were on the other side. And outside the ship? Well, that was different. Who could get claustrophobic with space out there?
He unstrapped and eased himself out of the narrow seat, taking care not lose his centre of balance. It had to be the light gravity that caused the pounding in his ears. Not fear. He kept his head down and his eyes half-shut to avoid the oppressive grey vault that loomed so close and with a sigh of relief, he headed for the flight deck to watch Leonov at the controls of the Module.
Straker would have remained there for the entire voyage regardless of the cramped space but it was time to prepare for landing. The Moon was growing large in the viewports, its craters sharp and defined as the craft neared its destination and he gave one last look through the viewport then lowered his head again and retreated to the solitary confines of the aft cell. He had forgotten his netbook. It lay there, on the seat next to his, waiting to be tidied away and he directed himself to the task, not looking around, his eyes staring at his hands, his mind refusing to acknowledge the curving bulkhead.
The module would land soon. He would be fine. He began to fasten the buttons of his jacket but paused and undid them before he shrugged out of it with a sigh and rolled his shoulders to loosen them one last time. He did not stretch out. That would have brought his hands into contact with the walls on either side of him. He bent to lift his seatbelt clear.
Owen Grant twisted his spine in an effort to ease the stiffness that made his body one huge ache. ‘Okay Colonel, I have control. Good work. You learn fast.’
Leonov lifted his hands from the controls and leaned back, flexing fingers that throbbed with the unaccustomed strain. ‘What happens now?’
‘Once we’re in range, Moonbase takes over. I can do it under manual control but it’s safer using their computer. Hang on.’ Grant flicked a switch. ‘Commander; we’ll be landing in five minutes.’ He sighed and stretched his fingers. ‘This has been a quiet trip. Last one was a bit hairy. We had that UFO trailing us for a while and at one stage I thought we weren’t going to make it, but…’ He shrugged and leaned forward to ease the controls with a deft touch but a sudden tremble jolted his fingers. Not for the first time either today. Tremors had affected his hands at odd moments throughout the flight although neither Straker nor Leonov had noticed.
He should have confessed to the distorted vision, the headaches, the trembling in his fingers but for some reason he hadn’t, as if something had persuaded him that it wasn’t essential. And he had passed the stringent medical after that last flight. He shook his head to try to dispel an unpleasant recollection of a flash of light and a noise in the cabin, He clenched his fingers even harder in an attempt to make them obey him and to get them under some control. It was futile. If anything, the numbness increased. He glanced at the internal monitors and saw Straker busy putting his paperwork away. Then a sideways look at the man in the seat next to him. Good. Leonov was concentrating on the panel.
Not much longer now and, once the computers had taken over, Owen could relax and pretend that nothing was the matter. Moonbase would land the module and he would have a couple of days to get over whatever bug was affecting him.
He stretched his stiff fingers once more and wondered why they were white and bloodless and why his heart was fluttering and erratic. His head throbbed with a tightness that threatened to overwhelm his senses but with determined concentration like a drunken man reaching for his last bottle, he leaned forward to flick the switches. His fingers felt taut and deadened. He had a sharp moment of apprehension when he thought that he had miscalculated, but the console light went green and with relief he heard the hissing emptiness of the open radio link.
He heaved a sigh and leaned back. Enough of this foolishness; he would report to sickbay once they were down and safe. ‘Lunar Module to Moonbase Control, preparing to enter lunar orbit in one minute.’ He kept his voice nonchalant, aware that Straker might still be listening.
‘Lunar Module, we have you on radar. Prepare to switch to automatic sequence on my mark.’ An everyday occurrence. Just one more landing in Moonbase’s busy schedule.
Owen Grant checked to make sure that Leonov was not touching the controls prior to the handover. It was his last ever look, his last ever conscious action.
The module eased into lunar orbit, still under his control and well out of range of the Moonbase computer. Then a final tremor surged through Owen Grant in one convulsive shudder. Straker, reaching for his seatbelt and unsecured, had no chance as the pilot’s juddering grip on the controls twisted the spaceship onto a new heading.
Without guidance or restraints the module careered from its course. It might have been coincidence that sent it veering into one particular satellite in the communications network, the primary link between Moonbase and all tracking stations. They would never know.
With a jolt that reverberated through the entire craft, the module crunched into the satellite .There was not even time for the module to be picked up by sensors before the resulting explosion flung it into yet another random course.
The lurch threw Straker against the wall then tossed him with contemptuous arrogance against the edge of his seat before he crashed to the floor. His arm caught the frame of the seat and a crack echoed through the cabin. The small craft’s compensators overloaded under the strain and the surge in gravity crushed him into the tiny passageway alongside the seats. He stretched out a hand to touch the door, his fingers sliding down the smooth metal as if hoping that it would be enough to make it open. The barrier remained closed.
With a desperate effort he tried to lift himself up but it was hopeless. He could do nothing other than lie there pinned down with one hand still extended but with his limbs crushed under the force that imprisoned him, no longer able to call out or to lift his head from the floor. Then despite his gasping attempts to pull breathable air into lungs that seemed paralysed his eyes darkened and the remnants of his conscious thoughts faded.
Over the intercom he could hear the radio give one last feeble hiss of static, one last disjointed message… ‘Moon…. Lun…… Come in……,’ but there was no answer.
Then it cried out with a hiss of shorting connections and went silent.
The module continued on its tumbling path into the darkness of the Moon’s shadow. Lost to Moonbase. Lost to Earth.
‘Find it. I don’t care how you do it. Find it.’ Alec Freeman’s voice, even over the hiss of distance, was desperate.
‘Colonel, we are doing everything we can. Everything. But when that satellite went, we lost track of the module. It could be anywhere by now. There are whole sectors not covered by our sensors. FarSight is also affected. We’ve lost contact with them.’
There was a pause. ‘I know Nina, I’m sorry. It’s just that…’ Freeman’s haggard face stared at her. ‘Look. I’m coming out on the next flight so I can monitor operations from there. We need to find that module. We need to find the Commander and Dimitri.’ He gave Nina one last worried look. ‘Freeman out.’
Nina Barry ordered the launch of the Interceptors; a futile action no doubt, but at least they would be ready. Though for what, she had no idea. All she was knew was that a satellite had gone down, a module was lost to radar and that three SHADO members were missing and one of those was Ed Straker.
All essential protocols had been put into place, all procedures adhered to; radar and scanners to maximum, Interceptors on patrol, the Space Observation Platforms at full alert. Every available mobile was out on the surface, spreading out in as wide a circle as possible to try to pick up any signal from the module. Nina Barry knew though, that if it had crashed on the lunar surface there would be no survivors.
What else was there to do? Nothing. Until they managed to locate that module. And then? Well, then they would deal with the ramification of that when it was found. Nina pulled out her console and began the slow and arduous task of calculating trajectories.
Someone was moaning. A gasping quiet moan as if the person couldn’t breathe well enough to make a decent job of it. Straker wished whoever it was would just shut up and let him drift back to sleep. That was all he wanted to do. Sleep. He was tired. God, so tired. It was too much effort to even think about opening his eyes. He drifted back into the welcoming darkness, still cursing the thoughtless individual who had disturbed his rest. He slept. The moans faded away.
The sound that disturbed him this time was different. More a sharp intake of breath accompanied by a stifled cry, over and over. Each mouthful of air punctuated by that uncomfortable noise, as if the individual found it impossible to inhale without pain, without whimpers of fear escaping with every reluctant slow pulling of air into lungs that screamed for relief. He would have fallen asleep again, but something heavy was sitting on him, its claws digging into his side, jagged and spiked. He lay still in the hope that it would leave him alone so that he could plunge back into that drowsiness that fluttered at the edge of his thoughts. The muffled sounds dulled somewhat, the sharp claws retreated a fraction and the blissful darkness enveloped him.
The noise again. Those sounds of distress, of discomfort. Why didn’t someone do something? Anything. Bloody hell. He was too tired for all this. Why couldn’t he have some peace and quiet. Some rest. That was all. Just to lie still in that shallow water’s edge between deep sleep and wakefulness and enjoy the gentle rhythm of slumber washing him in soft waves. He lay there listening to pulsing swish and rumble of waves as they rolled over fine shingle.
There was a distant sensation of pain, as if somehow it had transferred over to him and was waiting there in the background. He had a wrench of pity for whoever it was that was suffering but his own exhaustion and his own haziness made his thoughts selfish and he was only too glad to sink down under the warmth of the water that caressed him.
Alive. The realisation bubbled into his thoughts and ruffled them into chaos. Then it kicked in. Fuck. The crash. His head. His arm. Dear God. The pain flared through him as if it had been a dammed flood of suffering that had only been held back by his continuing ignorance. He would have screamed again but he could not breathe, could not pull air into his lungs. He was suffocating, drowning. Panicked beyond endurance, his mind hazy and unresponsive, he forced one deep intake of the acrid air that surrounded him and tried to push himself up. And was jolted into consciousness with the agony that slammed through his arm. Through his body.
He lay there, unable to move, unable to do anything until those razor-sharp stabs of torture had subsided. His breath wheezed in shallow gasps that measured the pain as it eased and he remembered the increase in gravity and being crushed against the seat, the sound of bones snapping. No surprise then, that he hurt. He wondered what had happened; why no-one had come through to help. Then he wondered if Dimitri and Grant were still alive.
The force holding him down relaxed its grip and he lifted his head from where it had been crushed. The rough contact with the floor had scraped one side of his face and the skin felt raw. Training and survival instincts stepped in and he ran through the checklist in his mind: gravity; slightly below normal as far as he could tell and life support? Working. Otherwise he wouldn’t be here, trying to breathe.
It was too much. Despite every effort, his blurred eyes shut and he was powerless to stop the slide into welcome oblivion, heedless of duty, of responsibility, even of striving to stay alive.
‘Ed, wake up.’ The voice taunted him. Sharp fingers poked to wake him from his dreams. ‘Can you hear me?’
He wanted to reply, wanted to answer, but it was hard. It meant that he would have to stir from that comforting haven of silence and stillness where pain had not yet entered. And he didn’t want to do that, to face wakefulness again. It was so much easier to lie here and wait. He knew what was coming and the thought was somehow quite agreeable. He groaned again.
‘Straker. Listen to me. I need you to wake up.’ Nails dug into his face, his side, his arm; biting into flesh.
‘Go away.’ Straker mumbled, his words stifled by pain in his ribs.
Talons dug deeper and tighter, scraping on bone. ‘Wake up Ed. Open your eyes. Don’t go back to sleep. Can you hear me? Commander?’ That final word settled in Straker’s mind. Commander.
Duty, responsibility, service.
Commander Ed Straker forced unwilling awareness back into his body, into bruised ribs and aching muscles, broken and splintered bones. He opened his eyes to glare at his tormentor. There was no one with him. He was alone. ‘Dimitri?’ His voice was thick and as blurred as his mind.
‘Ed. I’m here. Are you alright?’ The voice came from somewhere above him. The intercom. Dimitri. On the flight deck.
Straker lay still and let his senses investigate his body, becoming aware of the aches and twinges and tingling. Fragmented recollections intruded. He had fallen or been thrown to the floor. His side hurt, his arm as well. He could see the frame of the seat close to his face, could feel the wall of the compartment close against his back, his legs twisted and cramped in the small access strip that led to the cargo hold. Such a small space. He needed to get up. He needed to get out of here.
‘What happened?’ He was discomfited by the tremble in his voice, the sound of his fear, but Dimitri did not appear to notice.
‘There was an explosion. Grant is dead. I cannot get into contact with anyone or get the controls to work. I need your help.’ There was a pause, the sound of banging and then Dimitri’s voice again. ‘And the door will not open from this side.’
He pondered the information with a mind that was busy analysing the hurt and the horror of his situation. He would have to get up, have to open the door, but he would have to do this on his own. The hard way.
It took him longer to move than he had thought. Each time he tensed his muscles in preparation, that snap of bone filled his mind. It was going to hurt. A lot. A hell of a lot. Over and over he geared his body up for the first alteration of position, the initial move that would flood him with pain, but despite all his efforts his limbs refused to obey.
Teeth clenched, he made a single miniscule shift. Just his right hand. One tentative inch at a time he pulled it to where he could see his fingers, see them and then, if he dared, move them. One hand, that was all, but it was enough to stir him from the deceitful desire to sleep.
Even that move exhausted him, but he persevered, moving first one finger then another until he could push himself up. The pain sharpened but he carried on, concentrating on getting himself off the floor and ignoring the sharp bite of his ribs whenever he breathed. An eternity passed before he was sitting upright and leaning against the wall. He cradled his left arm and then dared to look at it. The hand tingled. He closed his eyes for a moment in dread.
It hurt even more to pull himself to his feet and he clung to the frame of the seat, sweating with the effort it had required before he stumbled against the door. He leaned against the chill metal of the frame as dizziness and nausea swept though him. His body betrayed him. He could not move. Could not take that next step and feel the bone grate in his arm, feel the cold sweat on his face and the vomit rise in his throat. He would let himself slip down to sit on the floor. He would wait here. He could not do anything.
But he had to, and so he did. He took a deep breath, welcoming the discomfort that brought his mind awake once more, and then tugged at the small hatch of the control panel. It refused to open. He would have slammed his fist on the wall in frustration, but he knew that it was futile. He leaned against the bare metal. Cold. It chilled him and he pushed himself upright with the realisation that the cabin was getting colder, that it would soon be below freezing and then….
In desperation he scrabbled at the small panel again and this time caught the edge with one fingernail. The cover drifted to the floor and he blinked to clear his blurred eyes as he peered at the confusion of wires.
‘Ed. What’s happening?’ Dimitri interrupted his concentration. Straker ignored him, wiping one hand across his forehead to clear prickles of sweat. He fixed his mind on the wires, trying to disregard the throbbing of his arm or the sharp pain that clawed at him with every movement, trying to forget that that he was trapped in a tiny space and that if he could not get the door open he would freeze. He had to concentrate, to focus on the only thing that mattered.
The walls retreated and the pain dulled to a mere ache, but his fingers, numb with cold and feeling thick and useless, could only fumble without success at the wires. And yet he could see exactly what was needed. Such a simple task. All he had to do was to short-circuit one connection. It was no good. He was trapped. He let himself lean against the bulkhead once more, gasping with the onset of panic as claustrophobia swamped his thoughts and the walls swirled in a haze of disorientation and terror.
‘Ed. Answer me. Are you alright?’ A shout this time, panic in the voice. Dimitri’s voice. Dimitri Leonov, whose fists had slammed into him all those years ago in that damp room, whose hands had forced a glass between his lips to fill his mouth, his throat, with vodka, whose voice had threatened and cajoled Straker. Leonov who had appeared out of the gloom in that dingy Moscow bar to speak to Straker again after so many years. There was sweat on Straker’s face now, even with the chill of the cabin. Sweat on his lips, water on his lips. Drowning. He wiped across his mouth with his sleeve.
Cloth over his face. He retched with the sensation, the memory. His knees gave way and he sank down, his forehead pressed against the door, the taste of acid in his mouth. He spat it out.
The floor was hard under his knees, rough and gritted with shards that cut into his skin and as his world shifted, he put one hand out in a futile effort to stop himself falling.
‘Nina. Any news?’
‘Still searching Colonel. It’s only been two hours and we haven’t covered all the sectors yet. There’s a lot of space out there.’ Nina leaned closer to look into the monitor. ‘Give us time Alec. Right now everything I have available is out there looking. But with that satellite out of operation we’re left with a blind spot that can’t be scanned by sensors. If the module’s in that region it might be days before we find it.’
‘We don’t have days Nina. Modules only have life support for a maximum of 48 hours. We’re doing everything we can down here, but our scanners can only reach so far. If that Module comes back into Earth orbit, we’ll pick it up, but you’re in the best position to – . ‘
‘Colonel Freeman I know that. And to be honest, right now I need to be trying to work out any flightpath that the module might have taken. I need to calculate trajectories and I can’t do that with these constant interruptions. I’ll contact you as soon as we find anything.’
‘Sorry Nina, I’ll let you get on. Go and search. I’m flying out in the next window but you may have found them by then. And Nina,’ he paused, and stared at her.
Straker came round to the sensation of heat burning his face. He jerked away from the fire only to fall back against the seat frame. Memory returned with his awareness. Not heat. Cold. Sharp biting cold of metal. He had been slumped against the door, semi-conscious, his mind filled with confused images while he had been crouched there. Vague memories of that nightmare surfaced; his netbook with its keys transformed into hideous rows of sharp white teeth. He had flung it away in horror and it had scrabbled towards the unopened door. The teeth had devoured the door like some starving animal. Grunts and slobbering noises had filled the tiny compartment as the metal was crunched and chewed and spat out.
He managed a cynical laugh. Of course. He pushed away the thought of how much it would hurt and, gasping, forced himself to stand once more. His arm jolted and he bit back a cry. He reached the netbook and switched it on, then swung it at the tangle of wires. Power surged across the control panel and the circuits exploded. Fat sparks erupted into the small cabin and stung on his cheeks. He let the netbook fall and turned to force the door open. It slid across a couple of inches before it stopped but he got one hand into the space and jerked it back until he could squeeze through the gap.
There were no apparent signs of life in the cabin but it was hard to tell in the haze of fumes and burned circuits. As he stumbled into the small cabin, the dry air hit his lungs and he started to cough. He clung to the frame until the worst was over. Dimitri Leonov twisted round and lifted his head at the sound.
‘Commander.’ Dimitri’s face was as pale as Straker’s. Blood had trickled from a cut above one eyebrow. ‘When you didn’t answer I thought……’
‘You’ve cut your head.’ Straker said. He held onto the back of the seat with his good hand.
Leonov reached up to investigate the crusted blood. He frowned. ‘I hadn’t realised. It seems to have stopped.’
‘What happened here?’
Dimitri pushed himself upright. ‘There was an explosion.‘ The co-pilot waved his hand. Grant.
Straker dragged himself over to the other seat. There was little point in feeling for a pulse to check if Grant was still alive. The grey face and glazed stare were confirmation enough, but even so, Straker let his fingers rest on Owen’s neck. There was no thread of life, and the body was turning cold. The SHADO Commander shivered. Cold. It was going to get a lot colder in here. He wiped his hand against his trousers as if to remove any lingering taint of death. His arm hurt.
Dimitri gestured to the controls. ‘He was talking to Moonbase and then it looked to me as if he had some sort of convulsion. We veered off course and hit something. That’s all I remember, until I woke up. What do we do now Commander?’ He waited as if he hoped that the SHADO Commander could wave one hand and restore order to the chaos.
Straker could tell that it was hopeless without even moving from where he was leaning against the bulkhead. The ship was dying, its control screens blank, its slow gyrations tumbling it out of control in some unknown quadrant.
‘Do?’ He coughed. The view through the window was enough evidence. He could not find one stationary point on which to get his bearings. The CO2 scrubber was struggling to clear the residue of stale, smoke-filled air. He could not decide whether to hold his arm or wrap his free hand around his chest. He coughed again. A shallow cough this time. Not sensible with broken ribs, but it wasn’t going to matter in the end. He paused, trying to take deep breaths before he answered. There was only one thing he could do now and he did it. He lied. ‘First thing is to get Grant out of here. Then we can make a start.’ He started to move and a hand clasped his shoulder.
Straker stood back as Dimitri heaved the limp body of the pilot through the narrow doorway into the passenger compartment. With a sense of dread he saw that the swelling from the break had further distorted his arm and that his hand was numb and cold. He tried to move his fingers but he could not feel any sensation in them now. Not even a tingle. Dimitri came back and slid the door shut. His eyes met Straker’s.
‘Now what do you need me to do?’
Straker took a breath. ‘You’ll have to straighten my arm.’ He tried to move his fingers again. They were white.
‘You don’t – ’
‘Dimitri.’ Straker’s voice was quiet with desperation. ‘Look at it. You know what that means. I can’t do anything to help unless you do this for me.’ He sat in Dimitri’s seat, eased the swollen limb away from his body and laid it on the armrest. ‘You know what to do don’t you?’
Leonov busied himself gathering the things he was going to need while Straker talked about what they should attempt to do afterwards. Afterwards. He kept his voice composed as if he was going to have an inconvenient splinter removed instead of bones twisted and re-arranged. Dimitri laid out the plastic backing from the pilot’s manual and strips of material torn from his undershirt then stood there, hesitant.
‘Do it. Before…’ Straker leaned back, closed his eyes, and gripped the other armrest until he thought his fingers would leave their imprint on the metal frame. He held his breath. He could feel the sleeve of his roll neck sweater being cut away, of the sensation of cool air on feverishly swollen skin, of the seat restraint being fastened to hold him in place.
There was a pause, as if Dimitri was wondering whether to continue. Straker opened his eyes and regretted it. The sight of the distorted ruin of his arm, hot and purple and misshapen with the bloodless hand at the end was enough to make him flinch but Dimitri took his hand in his own, sliding his fingers up until they were grasping the dulled wrist in a firm grip. Then, with his other hand tight on Straker’s elbow, he pulled the limb and twisted it. One swift decisive movement. No warning. No time to prepare. No chance for any reaction other than to scream as the bones grated. Straker flung his head against the headrest and arched his back. Only the harness prevented him from falling.
‘I’ve not finished. Hold on.’ Dimitri’s voice came from far away. The hands were tight on his wrist and elbow again. He tried to stop him, tried to pull his arm away but the pain flared brighter. Excruciating pain. A world of pain. Filling him and burning him, drenching him in terror, stopping his breath in a throat raw from that last scream. He could do nothing but let oblivion ease the agony.
Sweat-soaked and gasping he was barely conscious of his arm being encased in the crude splint. There was one hazy flash of memory; of Leonov’s voice soft in his ear reassuring him that it was all over. And it was. His fingers began to tingle as blood returned to his hand, he could see the dead-white fingers begin to change colour, could see the joints respond to his command to move. He slumped back in the seat and let himself recover. He was frozen. Shaken to his core by the feel and sound of bones being wrenched into alignment. He shivered, not just from the pain.
‘Ed?’ Dimitri’s voice roused him. It was getting colder in the cabin and Straker could see the slender Russian starting to shake as well.
He summoned up the courage to touch his fingers, not hard, but enough to feel the return of normality in the digits. ‘I’m okay.’ His voice grated like broken bones. He leaned back as dizziness made him sway.
Dimitri held out a strip of cloth. ‘Here. Lift your arm.’ He folded a makeshift sling and wrapped the splinted arm against Straker’s chest. ‘How does it feel?’ He sat in the pilot’s seat, his face lined with concern.
‘Sore.’ Straker managed a smile. ‘Give me a few minutes,’ he said and closed his eyes. He heard Dimitri moving round the small cabin, felt a brush against his shoulder, the sound of the CO2 scrubber rattling in its death throes and he knew that he should be doing something. Anything that might give them a chance of rescue. But he could not bring himself to move from the seat. He shivered again, his teeth almost chattering.
Fingers touched his face. ‘There should be a medical kit in the aft cabin. Hang on. I’ll see if there’s something there.’
Dimitri put both hands flat on the door and forced it sideways. Icy air swirled into the cabin and he gave an anxious look back at Straker hunched deeper in the seat, head drooping. His breathe froze in the sub-zero temperature as he edged down the narrow aisle to where the Medical Kit was stored. The Commander did not move when he came back in and Dimitri hurried back into the cabin to pick up Straker’s discarded jacket and then force the door closed. He rubbed his hands to try to restore some warmth. Straker looked even colder if that was possible.
Dimitri opened the kit. ‘One dose of Demerol. Fifty milligrams. That’s all there is. It will help.’ He pushed back Straker’s sleeve. ‘Should take effect in a few minutes. I’m going to try to get the radio working. Lean forward.’
Straker obeyed in silence, aware of a jacket around his shoulders and a gradual increase in warmth.
‘You should feel easier soon.’
Straker hunched back down in the seat and shivered. ‘I hope so.’
‘Give yourself time. It’s not as if we have anything else to do right now, do we?’
Straker gave Dimitri a lop-sided grin and relaxed a little as the Russian slipped headphones on and started work. Minutes passed and the pain in his arm loosened its grip a little and his mind become more alert even though the drug dulled the edges of his reflexes. ‘Anything?’
Leonov shook his head ‘Nothing so far. How are you feeling?’
‘Better.’ Straker stared at the swirling stars. ‘We need to get the ship stabilised.’ He shivered again and pulled the jacket closer with his free hand. ‘If the micro-jets work I might be able to stop us tumbling.’
‘And then?’ Dimitri turned dials with delicate care, listening for any response.
‘Let’s see if I can do it first.’ Straker straightened his fingers. They were still cold and he tucked his good hand under his armpit in an attempt to bring some warmth and feeling to the fingers. This was going to need a deft touch. ‘You’d better strap up. I have no idea what will happen when I try this.’ He took a breath, forcing it deep into his lungs despite the discomfort. He gripped the control and nodded at Leonov. One tiny twitch of his thumb on the button, so quick that the resulting burst from a single jet was over in a microsecond. Straker sighed and leaned back.
‘I didn’t feel anything. Did it work?’
‘Yes.’ Straker flexed his fingers again. ‘Now I just have to see if I can do it.’
There was the temptation to work quickly, to hold that single thruster open for longer, or even bring more of them into operation. But despite the increasing cold that warned him that time was getting scarce, he refused to hurry. One rash move could ruin everything and so he tracked the stars as they spun around and with feather-light touches flared that solitary little flame. He knew the effect it would have. Each tiny burst would slow the momentum, just an inch at a time, but those inches would stabilise it enough so that they might have a chance.
The stars slowed their spinning. Not quickly; Straker was too concerned that he might over-compensate, but over the following two hours Dimitri could see the change in the swirling spiral of pinprick lights. He had long since abandoned the radio and had occupied himself with trying to get the air purifier to cease its rattle and actually do its work, but as with the radio, the damage was too severe. He resorted to a muttered Russian curse and a swift thump, but that made no difference. He sat in silence as Straker worked. There was nothing he could do to help.
Straker ignored him. His eyes followed the stars as they spiralled and his thumb flickered over the control. Those fleeting bursts of power persuaded the craft to obey him and grudgingly she yielded to the single micro-jet that brought her back under his command. He let go of the control and sighed. ‘There. We’re as stable as I can get her. God knows where we are in relation to Earth or the Moon though.’ He tucked his hand under his armpit and grimaced. ‘Damn. I hadn’t realised it was so cold.’
‘Life support appears to be on minimal. The reactor has shut down and power supplies are down to under seven hours. The oxygen might last a little longer.’ Dimitri scowled with annoyance. ‘I can’t get the recycling unit to work.’
‘I tried all frequencies, even the unused ones; nothing but static.’
Straker waved a hand at the blackness of space on the other side of the window. ‘Somewhere out there Moonbase are searching for us. There has to be a problem with the main satellite system or they would have found us by now. The trouble is that we are probably way off the ecliptic plane by now as well as being too small to be picked up by the other tracking stations. Too small and moving too slowly.’ He peered through the flight deck canopy in a fruitless attempt to catch a glimpse of Earth or the Moon or even Sol. He sat down again and rubbed his face with a weary hand. ‘Nothing. And if the reactor is off, then the main thrusters will be as well. We can’t move far on micro-jets, even if the fuel supply lasts.’
‘It’s hopeless then?’ Dimitri frowned as if he refused to acknowledge the concept.
‘No. There are still things we can try.’ Straker said. ‘This bloody hurts. And it feels like it’s freezing in here.’
Dimitri huffed into the air and stared at the ice crystals. ‘Yes, just about. Is there anything we can do about it?’
‘No. The heaters use too much power. They would drain life support.’ He leaned back and stared at the low ceiling, shivering. ‘We’re going to have to suit up. It’s the only way to keep warm.’ He eased himself out of the seat and gestured at the door. ‘After you, Colonel.’
‘Nothing Colonel. We’re relocating back-up satellites, but it takes time.’
‘I know. And I’m distracting you. Look Nina, I’ll be arriving in a couple of hours, but contact me the moment you hear anything.’ Freeman said.
‘Of course.’ Nina Barry cut the transmission and swivelled her chair round. ‘Joan. Any luck with that algorithm?
Harrington tapped at her controls. ‘There isn’t enough data Lieutenant. I can’t get an answer.’
‘Try it again.’
‘It won’t work. I’ve tried every possible permutation and it just comes up with the same answer. Insufficient data.’ She shrugged. ‘It might be easier if we were looking for a bigger object, but the module is just so small.’
Nina stared out of the viewpoint. So small. Such an insignificant speck in the solar system. That was the problem. If the module had the mass of a UFO, or its speed, or if it had not veered off course then they might have been able to detect it. The craft could have been destroyed, but somehow she refused to believe it. It was out there. Somewhere.
It could be close to lunar orbit, or even on the far side of the Moon by now. Even heading back to Earth. It was impossible to predict. She knew that sooner or later, maybe in a week, or a month, or even a year, the module would wander close enough to one of the outlying reconnaissance satellites to be detected. The alarm would go out and they would retrieve it; but it would be too late. If the module was not rescued within the next forty-eight hours, then it would be pointless. The crew would be dead; asphyxiated by the lack of oxygen, or even frozen when life support failed and the temperature dropped. She had been there once before, gasping for breath, struggling to stay awake and stay conscious, wanting to hold onto each precious moment of life, and Straker had been there to comfort her.
She hoped that someone was there to do the same for him. That he was not alone. That Leonov and Grant were with him. That’s what life’s all about I guess, he had said to her afterwards. The things we never say. She had never spoken to him abou it and now she might never get the chance. She shook her head. Too late for regrets.
‘Joan? Forget about tracking UFOs. Get the remaining satellites looking for anything in those sectors outside the normal range?. It’s a chance in a million, but it’s better than nothing.’ Nina Barry said. She went back to her calculations, but her mind strayed once more to the feel of his hand on her shoulder. Straker. She closed her eyes for a moment.
The icy temperature in the passenger cabin bit deeper as Dimitri slid open the door at the rear of the compartment. The small space behind was crammed with emergency equipment and spacesuits. The aft head took up one corner and a sealed hatch in the bulkhead in front of them led to the cargo bay. Straker’s breath condensed on the icy wall as he checked the equipment. ‘You’ve done suit training haven’t you?’
‘I’m going to need your help. Bring through what we need.’ Straker said. He smiled, a genuine smile despite the pale face and the lines of pain that darkened his eyes. The simple act of walking to the cargo hold had exacerbated the throbbing in his arm. He tried to ignore it. ‘I’ll let you get started.’ He stumbled back to the flight deck, his limbs and mind numb with cold and the pain that wrenched through him at every step.
He made several efforts to get his boots off, but it was impossible to reach down far enough to unzip them and he sat there, pale and sweating. He was making another unsuccessful attempt when Dimitri entered the flight deck, his arms full of equipment and took one look at him. ‘Sit still and wait.’
It was a direct order and Straker gave up the struggle and leaned back. He closed his eyes as the pain began to build to a heavy throbbing ache that was impossible to ignore. Dizziness swept through him. It was too hard to keep fighting the cold, the pain. So much easier to submit.
‘Right. Leave this to me.’ Dimitri’s voice was soothing, confident.
He was aware of the Russian’s hands sliding down his ankles to feel for the fastenings and then easing off his boots and socks. His feet were cold.
‘Sit up. But take your time.’
He obeyed although his head drooped with more than weariness. It was going to hurt. He knew that. Bad enough having to contort oneself into a spacesuit when fully fit, but the thought of having to slide his arm into a flight suit and then wriggle into the much thicker spacesuit made him feel sick. Dimitri’s hands were around his shoulders now, unfastening the sling and easing his arm away from the protection of his body. He stifled a cry as it moved, burning and grating in his arm. It was instinct that made him try to twist away from the source but Dimitri was prepared. Strong hands gripped him. He could feel fingers on his shoulders, holding him still.
‘No. Don’t move.’ The words filtered through the scarlet haze of agony and he obeyed, holding himself rigid, his muscles tensing as he fought to prevent any slight jarring of his arm. Dimitri’s hands loosened. ‘Hang on.’
Material was pulled away from his throat and the thick edge of a blade pressed against Straker’s skin before Dimitri sliced his sweater open. He shuddered as the warm cloth was pulled away and cold fingers of frost stabbed his bare skin. A hand smoothed over his ribs and he flinched.
‘Fuck.’ The muttered expletive hissed in his ear. ‘What else have you been hiding Commander?’
Straker opened his eyes. Dimitri was hunkered there in front of him, concerned. ‘Nothing.’ He was surprised at how faint and remote his voice sounded. He was hot and shivery even though he was cold. He took a breath and tried to push the dizziness away. ‘Nothing.’ The word was more definite this time.
‘Ready?’ Dimitri stood up.
Straker turned away, scared that his eyes might betray him. He wanted nothing more than to sit there and do nothing, even as cold as he was. Anything to avoid the next minutes. He took a breath. ‘Yes. ’ There was no other answer. Leonov moved to his side and eased one hand under Straker’s uninjured arm in a firm hold.
He forced himself to rise. The arm that supported him was stronger than he had realised and yet the hands were gentle. He let himself lean against a shoulder, aware of a hand undoing the buckle on his belt and loosening it, of fingers catching at the top button and pushing it and the zip of his trousers sliding down. He did not move. To do that would be to invite the pain. This was the best way, to allow Dimitri to do this for him. The Russian tugged the trousers over Straker’s hips, letting them slide down to crumple on the floor. They covered his feet in soft folds.
Dimitri’s voice was close to his ear. ‘Okay.’ Straker stepped out. A hand slid over his ribs again and he was unable to stop a gasp. The voice again. That pellucid voice. ‘Broken I think.’
Straker bit down, breath hard and audible through flared nostrils. He forced himself to answer. ‘Yes.’
He sank down on the cold leather of the seat to let Dimitri pull the thick felted socks over his bare feet. Straker shivered. He put his hand on the marbled skin of his thigh and wondered if he would ever be warm again. He could hear material ripping.
‘Here.’ Dimitri helped him to slide his legs into the suit and then stood in silence, not hurrying him. Blood pounded in his arm and Straker stifled a groan of fear. He bit his lip against the expected tightness of the material but there was no resistance. Dimitri had torn the sleeve off at the shoulder. He slid his other arm into the suit and waited to let Dimitri fasten it before he lowered himself onto the seat. Warmth crept into his limbs and lethargy swept through him as he let Dimitri check the space suits, testing the air supply and radio connections. He forced himself awake and the other man turned. ‘You should rest for a while.’
Straker lifted his eyes to meet Dimitri’s. ‘No. Let’s finish this. Before…’ He grimaced.
‘Very well. We will take it slowly. You know what has to be done?’
There would be no easy way out this time. He would not be able to sit there while Dimitri pulled on the lower half of the loose flight suit. He would not have the ease of a ripped sleeve. He had struggled into suits enough times in the past to be aware of those uncomfortable moments.
This would be excruciating. There was no possibility of getting his arm with its crude splint down the unyielding sleeve of the outer suit. He cringed at the thought of what he would have to do. But if by any miracle they were traced, then the only chance of rescue was to evacuate the ship. He had to carry on. He held his breath. Exhaled.
Dimitri was silent. He cut through strips of cloth and put them aside, slid the makeshift splint out to lay it on the console. Economical movements. Nothing hasty. Nothing that disturbed the alignment of bones.
Once exposed to view, the flesh appeared even more swollen. It was blackened and distorted and the throbbing pain that pounded remorselessly down the useless limb was close to unbearable. And that was when it was not being moved. He swallowed. ‘Carry on.’ His voice was calm.
‘They will find us you know.’
‘Good. I have plans.’ Leonov ran his fingers over the bruising. They both knew what was going to happen. The sooner it was over and done with the better. But that was still no reason to hurry. He stood there, thinking and letting his fingers trace the outline of Straker’s arm. The very lightest touch, but it was enough to make Straker cry out. A stifled cry, bitten back, hidden.
Dimitri pulled his hand back. ‘Sorry.’
Straker turned his head. Shallow gasps punctuated the silence as Dimitri explored the extent of the fracture.
‘Yes.’ Dimitri continued as if in response to an unspoken question. ‘I would like to show you Moscow some time Commander. The real Moscow. Not the seedy side.’
There was no answer. Straker concentrated on his breathing.
‘That was a very disreputable bar you know.’
The gasps ceased. ‘It seemed the best place at the time.’ The voice was faint now as if Straker was trying to distance himself from Dimitri. From what the Russian was about to do.
The suit was there in front of him, waiting. All he had to do was slide into the lower half and then bend forward with his arms outstretched. Just like diving. Then he had to twist himself into place. It sounded so simple. The problem was that he could not imagine how he could possibly achieve it. He would have to push his arm down the sleeve and then force his hand through the tight cuff.
He looked up, startled. Dimitri had the suit ready. He held his breath. Feet first. Not much of a problem. His arm was still flat on the rest. There was nothing else to he could do now. Not if he was to try to save them both. He raised his uninjured arm and stared at it. So easy. The hand trembled. He bit his lip.
‘Colonel?’ he asked.
Leonov stepped to his side and wrapped his fingers around Straker’s elbow, careful not to move the joint. ‘I will not let go.’
‘On my mark then.’ Straker lifted his free arm and leaned forward, preparing himself. Dimitri could see the shoulders tense as a deep breath was inhaled and held. ‘Ready.’ The voice was sharp. ‘And now.’
Dimitri Leonov had tortured in the past. He had beaten men, and women, had placed them in stress positions until they cried out in agony, had even experienced the vilest form of torture himself. And he had done the same to Straker. He was used to seeing pain. So he was prepared for the whisper of crepitation as broken ends grated against each other and the following scream as the bones shifted. He had expected to be detached and composed and efficient as he stretched the arm out. He was not prepared for the tears that blinded him. He gritted his teeth and shuddered. He had to do this. There was no turning back now. They had gone too far. The hoarse screams had faded to moans by the time Dimitri had guided the swollen hand down into the sleeve.
And then Straker’s outstretched fingers caught on the cuff, jarring the bones in a final cruel burst of unbearable torment. In blind and unreasoning panic he tried to twist free, no longer aware of what was happening. All he knew was that he had to stop the torture, to stop the pain. Anything.
‘No.’ Dimitri tightened his grip. ‘Ed. No.’ He held firm as Straker wrenched once more, mindlessly trying to escape. There was one last sound. A long drawn-out cry of agony, from a throat that was raw from screaming. Then, silence. Dimitri was aware of weight slumped against him. He did not stop. No need to be gentle now. He wanted this done before Straker recovered. He tugged the hand through the tight cuff. The fingers were limp. Then the other arm. He dashed a hand across his own face and then lifted the man up.
A dead weight, the head lolling against him as he fastened seams, lowered him and straightened limbs and then with quick efficiency slid unresponsive hands into gloves and locked them in place. He replaced the splint and then placed a hand on one cheek. Still cold, but that would change as the suit warmed him. Blood trickled from Straker’s mouth. He could hear soft moans, could see the bitten lips tighten. There was only one thing he could do now that might help.
There was something hard pressing against his mouth, bruising his lips. He could taste blood. He ached and his arm hurt. It was cold in the room, and he shivered. His arm hurt and with horror he knew where he was. Back in that small whitewashed room with the single chair and a table. He remembered the gentle voice that had mocked him, remembered the beating. Fluid stung his lips before it dripped into his mouth and he spat as the taste made itself known again.
Vodka. The voice wanted him drunk, wanted him to talk, wanted him to betray SHADO. He could not move his arm to push away the bottle, but again it touched his lips, hard against his clenched teeth and he turned his head away in silent despair.
He must not speak. Whatever happened. He must not.
The glass pressed harder, the voice in his ear, darker than he remembered it. Deeper, rougher and somehow anguished. He knew what it was going to demand. He would not say the words. Yes I am Colonel Straker. His arm burned, fiercely and he tried to move it up from the harsh grittiness of the floor but his tormentor had tied it in place. He stifled a sob. The glass was at his lips again and fingers stroked his face. He clenched his teeth and tightened his lips. Those fingers would not explore his mouth this time. He waited and listened for that deceptive voice, the mocking tone that sought to entrap him.
‘Ed. It’s over.’ The words were false. They were just beginning. ‘Ed. It’s Dimitri.’ He tensed, waiting for the moment when they tipped him back. They would put the cloth over his face next. ’Come on. Drink this. It will help.’ He took a deep breath and gasped with the swift sharp pain. The glass tilted against his open lips and he spluttered as it filled his mouth. There was nothing he could do other than swallow it. Tears stung his eyes. They had won. His world tilted. He waited, trembling as a hand smoothed his brow and then wiped his mouth.
‘Ed, don’t move. You’ll hurt yourself.’
He blinked away sweat and stared up. ‘Dimitri?’
‘Who else? Keep still.’
Straker stared at the low ceiling as the nightmare faded and his mind worked out all those unpleasant details of what had happened. He stretched across with his right hand. His arm was strapped across his chest. He could not move it. And he was wearing a space suit.
He turned his head to look at Leonov. ‘Alcohol? On board a flight to Moonbase?’
‘Medicinal purposes.’ Dimitri’s mouth twitched.
The ceiling swayed a little as the pain in his arm increased. He ignored it. ‘We have regulations you know. I think I will need to speak to you later, Colonel.’
‘I look forward to it Commander.’ Dimitri screwed the lid back on the bottle and put it back in his holdall. He yawned. ‘But right now I think it would be sensible for me to rest in preparation for when we are rescued.’
Straker heard the creak of leather as Dimitri lowered himself into the other seat and reclined, then there was quiet in the small cabin apart from his own still rapid gasps and Dimitri’s slower and deeper breathing. Straker concentrated on lowering his pulse rate and working through calculus problems in his mind. An old remedy and the answers came easily. He was warmer now and although he ached, his arm throbbed, and his throat was sore, he lay still. Dimitri needed to rest, so it was important that Straker was quiet and patient and did not disturb him. The alcohol began to blur the edge of his mind and the pain was fading. He closed his eyes. There was nothing else to do right now and without realising it, his breathing slowed and he slept.
Nina was waiting as the Module landed. Manual control, no computer assistance. Not with the satellite link down. A perfect landing though. She expected no less from Alec Freeman. She waited for him, all the time listening to the constant chatter from the Control Sphere. Not idle chatter but those necessary communications between SHADO headquarters and Moonbase, the chatter of computers as they talked to each other, of sensors downloading information. She was listening for one message. And one message only.
‘Colonel.’ She nodded to acknowledge him. This was no time for pleasantries.
‘Nothing. I have the most recent updates ready for you.’
‘Lead the way.’
Freeman leafed through the data. ‘I can’t think of anything else that you can do. If we had an idea where the module was heading then we might be able to bring some trackers into line. Would give us a better chance. It’s still pretty slim, all things considered. But…. there’s still time.’ He lowered his voice so that Nina had to strain to hear his next words. ‘I wish we knew if they were still alive. Ed and Dimitri and Owen.’
A hand slipped into his. ‘It’s a chance in a million. We know that. But we won’t give up, Alec. I’ve got everything searching now. We might be lucky.’
Dimitri was tired. Dog tired in fact, but once he was sure that Straker was sleeping, he had raised his seat and stayed there, awake and watching over the hours. Now he could see the slow wakening, the closed eyes flickering under the lids, fingers twitching, all those small signs of life returning. He checked the time. Too soon really. He would have liked Ed to sleep longer; forever if necessary. It would have been better to die in one’s sleep than face the slow end when the power failed and the air became thick and stifling.
Dimitri had already decided how he would meet his end. A last look out at space. And he would drink a toast to Earth. And Straker.
But there was enough vodka for the two of them. He turned to the man next to him and reached out.
Straker grimaced. ‘I didn’t mean to sleep.’
‘Doesn’t matter. Not as if there is anything else to do right now.’ Dimitri tapped a dial with a gloved finger. ‘Power’s down to less than two hours now. Something must be draining it.’
‘What’s still on?’ Straker frowned. Two hours was not much time. Not if Moonbase was to pull a miracle out of a hat.
Leonov twisted around, flicking switches and taping at dials. ‘Air pumps, flight controls.’ He tapped another dial and grunted with annoyance. ‘At least those that still work. Lights, artificial gravity and water purification.’ He leaned forward. ‘No need for that. Not much of a saving, but every little helps.’
‘You might as well turn off flight controls as well. We won’t need those anymore.’ Straker pushed his seat to upright. ‘Gravity. What is it currently? About four fifths?’ An idea was forming in his mind. It might work. Might.
Dimitri tilted his head in amusement. ‘Exactly.’
‘Look in Grant’s case for the cargo manifest. It should be there.’
It took a few moments for Dimitri to find the small computer pad and scroll through data. ‘Three cylinders super-compressed hydrogen. Three of helium. Five containers spare parts for maintenance. Eight cartons Freeze Dried Meals American. Three French. One Russian.’ Dimitri raised an eyebrow. ‘Only one? You didn’t tell me the food was that bad, Commander.’ He sighed and carried on reading. ‘Ten cartons food supplies, mostly apples, fresh vegetables, that sort of thing. Six – .’
‘Apples.’ Straker sighed. ‘That should make things easier.’
‘I had a thought. We know the sensors can’t pick up our signature, we’re just too small. So we need to make ourselves larger.’ He gave a wry grin and nodded at the manifest that Dimitri had brought through. ‘Fresh fruit. The hold would have been pressurised. With any luck it might still be. I need to take a look.’
‘Are you up to that?’
Straker did not answer. It took a few moments before he was upright and balanced, his free hand gripping the back of the seat. ‘Bring the helmets.’ He waited until Leonov slid the door open.
The aft cabin, its power now diverted to life control, was in darkness and the panel that opened the hatch to the cargo bay was offline. Straker pulled a torch down and nodded at Leonov. ‘If the hold’s damaged it might be vacuum on the other side. If so, we’ll lose all our free air. But it’s risk we have to take.’
It took several minutes to connect air supplies, to fit helmets and lock them into place. They tested the radios, gave each other a quick inspection to ensure that all was right. Dimitri pushed both their visors into place. He could no longer see Straker’s face watching him.
‘Open it, Colonel. But slowly. Just in case,’ Straker’s voice sounded thin over the radio.
There was no escape of air from their small space into the hold as the hatch opened. Dimitri had been ready to slam the airlock shut but the atmosphere was still intact. He opened their visors to save the air supply and then helped Straker step through.
The cargo bay was breathtakingly cold. The icy temperature bit into Dimitri’s exposed face but Straker was oblivious to the discomfort as he walked down the narrow corridor between the stacked boxes, his eyes looking everywhere, the light from his torch illuminating the space and casting shadows on the arched roof. He retreated at last and punched a code into the small control unit at the side of the hatch, before stepping back into the cabin. Ice rimmed his eyelashes and made them even paler. ‘Okay.’
‘What now?’ Dimitri followed Straker back to the flight deck.
‘The outer cargo bay doors still work and I can open them from this side. Now we strip the module. Everything.’ He waved his free hand. ‘If we don’t need it and it can be moved I want it put in the cargo bay.’ His voice was grim as he continued. ‘It will be up to you. I won’t be able to help much. If at all.’
Dimitri piled Straker’s netbook and briefcase in the small aft cabin ready to be tossed into the cargo hold He slashed the seat covers and harnesses free and then started on the flight deck. The pilot’s manuals, console covers and loose panels. He emptied his holdall and glanced over at Straker. ‘What about this?’ He held up the bottle of vodka with obvious reluctance.
Straker leaned against the console and frowned. His grimace of pain was only half-concealed by the helmet, and he knew that Dimitri was well aware of his struggle to keep himself balanced in the small spaceship as it rolled like driftwood at the very edge of the sea.
‘It’s against all regulations.’ His arm throbbed in its strapping.
‘I was going to drink a toast…..’
There was a pause. ‘Keep it.’ Straker said. ‘We’ll have one later. When they rescue us.’ But it was a false hope. It was more than likely that they were far out in the darker regions. They were travelling well below normal speed, that much was clear from the movement of the stars in the windows, but despite all his attempts Straker had not been able to catch a single glimpse of a familiar star. That didn’t mean much though.. The frustrating thing was that the Moon could be there……. could be so close. And yet they could not see it.
Dimitri stashed the bottle away and then went into the cabin. He hoped Grant would understand. Straker switched off the gravity controls. The sensation of weightlessness startled Dimitri, even though he was prepared for the change.
‘Take your time.’ Straker’s voice reassured him.
It was harder than Dimitri had thought to lift the frozen body, even without gravity holding it down. The limbs were crabbed and twisted and Dimitri kept floating away and had to drag himself back using whatever handholds he could grasp. But he persevered. He manhandled the body through to the cargo hold and stuffed it with gross discourtesy through the hatch. Then the rest of the items.
Straker joined him in the hold and they began work. Dimitri opened cartons and left Straker to tip the contents out with one hand. Tedious slow work. In the end Straker hung onto one of the hand loops and left Dimitri to get on with the task. It was simply too difficult.
Dimitri tore open packaging until the entire space was filled with floating items. He watched them bounce off each other like snooker balls in slow motion. Cylinders, fruit, individual freeze-dried meals. One of the Russian meals floated past his visor and he shuddered. Electronics and components. A body. He pushed himself over to Straker and led the way back to the aft cabin. They sealed the hatch.
Straker held onto a loop. ‘It’s going to take a while. I don’t want it all to fly off into space when the doors open.’ He punched in a code. There was an ear-piercing shriek in their radios as an alarm sounded, but he switched it off. He could not hear the hiss of air escaping as the cargo door opened enough to let the air out, but the gauge was changing colour. The temperature was dropping further. There was no sunlight on the ship. No hope of natural warmth. Thank god for the suits.
He trembled with the effort needed to keep himself in place. He wanted to let himself drift weightless and free but he had to remain there and be patient. The gauge turned to red. Now he could open the door and release everything. The momentum transferred to the cargo by the gentle roll of the module would ensure that it moved out of the bay inch by inch. It would take a long time. And if he had done this right then all the jettisoned debris would travel alongside the module. It would ‘blur’ their reflection in sensors, would make them appear much larger and if they were lucky they would be noticed. If any satellite was looking in their direction.
So many ‘ifs’.
He punched the last code and sensed the vibrations of the door sliding back. The pressure in the small cabin remained intact and Straker opened his visor to lean his head against the icy metal of the bulkhead. There was nothing more he could do now, but he found himself unable to move from the spot.
Dimitri put his hand on Straker’s shoulder. ‘Hold on.’
Heedless of the low ceiling and the close confines of his surroundings, Straker grabbed Dimitri’s belt and let himself be towed through the narrow passageway back to the flight deck.
There was no need for helmets or the bulky life support units. They sat in companionable silence waiting for lights in the distance. Time passed. The odd word spoken. Bland enquiries about oxygen levels or air pumps. Leonov tapped dials but more from the need to be doing something than in any hope of changing the unspoken and unalterable fact.
‘Power levels?’ Straker broke the stillness after yet another interminable silence.
‘Two hours. At most.’
There was nothing he could say. He shifted in his seat, and hissed as his arm complained. It had begun to throb again but in a couple of hours it wouldn’t matter.
He was aware of Dimitri unstrapping and pushing out of his seat to float across the cabin. Soft muttered curses filled the silence as the Russian struggled to orientate himself, then he was pulling himself back in to his seat and fastening the harness. Straker looked across at him. Leonov had retrieved the bottle of vodka and was holding it up.
‘A toast Colonel? It’s a little presumptive for that.’
‘As I said before; medicinal use, Commander.
Straker gave a rueful smile. ‘Russian vodka. Only the best.’
‘Of course.’ Dimitri gazed at the label with an approving look. ‘Locally distilled. You can’t get vodka like this outside Russia. Here.’ He passed the bottle over.
Straker held it gingerly and read the label. ‘Fifty per cent?’
Dimitri nodded. ‘Can you manage?’
‘I think so.’ Straker put the bottle between his knees and unscrewed the top. He lifted the bottle with care. ‘Can I……?
The mouth of the bottle was cold against his lips. He sipped. Let the taste settle on his lips and tongue instead of spitting it out. And another sip. He let the liquid stay in his mouth for longer this time, before he swallowed. Warmth in his throat. There was little obvious taste, certainly no smell of pungent flavourings. But he had to admit, it slid down easily, leaving a different aftertaste to that of brandy. A different taste from that other vodka, so many years ago.
He screwed the lid back on, one-handed and clumsy, then passed it back. ‘Thanks.’
There was the sound of a cap being unscrewed and a glug. An loud exhalation of pleasure. A soft smack of lips. ‘How long?’
‘Before they find us? Maybe an hour. Might take longer.’
Dimitri screwed the cap back on. ‘There’s no rush now, is there? I mean…’
Straker put his hand out, palm up, waiting. ‘No. Power should last long enough. As long as we’re careful. Switching off the gravity gave us a bit longer. And we have plenty of air.’ He closed his fingers around the bottle. Easier to undo the cap this time. And not a careful sip. He took a decent mouthful before passing it back with a touch of regret.
‘How does it compare?’
Straker swallowed slowly. ‘With?’
‘The one in your cellaret.’
‘Ah. That one.’ Straker twisted his head to look at the man next to him for a moment then stared straight ahead. ‘No comparison. Much smoother.’ The difference between a drink forced into your mouth and one shared with a friend. Between poison and pleasure.
‘Excellent. I will make a connoisseur of you yet Commander.’
Straker’s laugh was cut short with a sharp explosive. ‘Fuck.’
‘Yes. Just a twinge.’ Straker took a deep breath. He was dizzy. He could not focus his thoughts. Another slow breath. He let it out. ‘You did a good job.’
‘On your arm?’
‘That as well.’
‘I have learned a great deal these last weeks.’ Dimitri leaned forward to peer out of the canopy. ‘Still nothing.’
‘Give it time.’ Straker’s hand reached across. He undid the cap and let it go free to float in front of him before he caught it again in his fist and grinned. The vodka warmed his mouth and throat. He took another mouthful. ‘I haven’t drunk vodka in …..’ he paused, ‘over ten years. Haven’t drunk much alcohol in fact.’
‘Then I apologise for corrupting you Commander.’ Dimitri sounded serious.
Straker laughed. ‘Alec Freeman would be highly amused. He said he was going to buy me some Stolichnaya.’
‘When we visit Moscow I will buy you a bottle of real vodka.’ There was a note of hesitation in the soft voice now.
Straker let his head rest. The dim lights of the flight deck made it hard to focus and his mind was unable to concentrate. The Moscow.Midnightin Moscow. He hummed the first bars of the tune under his breath. ‘Moscow?’
‘Yes.’ Again the hesitation.
‘Why not.’ The bottle slipped from Straker’s fingers as he passed it over and he grabbed at it instinctively. There was a stifled cry.
‘Ed?’ Dimitri sat up. ‘You okay?’ He caught the bottle as it floated past him.
Straker’s hoarse breaths faded. ‘Yep. Moved.’ He lay still as the pain lessened. ‘My own fault. It’s easing.’
‘Lie still. They should find us soon.
‘What’s this one?’ Alec Freeman said. He pressed his finger against the monitor.
‘Observation Platform 23, Colonel.’ Nina said. She pointed to the screen. ‘We’ve been trying to move it into a better position, but it takes time. They don’t have the power to do much more than change angles. But we’re getting there ’
Freeman was silent. ‘Anything else we can try?’ He slammed his fist on the console. ‘Dammit. We can spot a bloody UFO even before it enters the Solar System. Yet we can’t find one small spaceship. Can somebody tell me why?’ But he knew the answer. He straightened his shoulders. ‘I’m sorry. I know you’re doing everything possible. I just feel….’
‘Yes.’ Alec shrugged.
‘Then you can sit here and help me Colonel. If you don’t mind.’ She gestured to a keyboard and handed him a printout. ‘Type these while I calculate the next part.’ Anyone could have done it but it would keep him occupied. He smiled, grateful for the distraction and settled to the task.
Condensation worked itself loose from the from the ceiling and drifted down to hit Straker on his cheek. He wiped the moisture away and stared at his hand. He clenched it into a fist and then straightened the fingers. ‘Dimitri.’ There was a long pause. He turned his head to look at the other man. Leonov was watching him. ‘We both know.’
‘Commander. What would you have me say?’ Dimitri lifted the bottle and regarded it. ‘Still plenty left. It would be a shame to let it go to waste.’ He took a gulp. ‘Should we have that toast?’
Dimitri tipped the bottle up to let a small amoeba-like bubble of liquid escape. ‘A toast then. To…’ He considered for a moment as it wobbled in front of his face. ‘Walking in space.’ He caught the bubble in his lips and sucked it into his mouth. ‘What about you?’
Straker lay there, watching the beads of water that were accumulating on the cold metal inside the cabin. The power would run down soon and they would be left in darkness apart from those tiny pinpoints of light outside. The air pumps would fail and they would suffocate, even though there was oxygen to spare. ‘Life.’ He swallowed a mouthful of vodka. Thought of Alec and Paul. ‘And friends.’
‘Friends.’ A smack of lips. ‘I approve.’
The condensation trembled in the zero gravity. Friends. Family. Two drops moved across the surface and combined. ‘Your friends?’
‘What about my friends?’ The voice was curt now, almost cutting off the words, as if Dimitri Leonov did not like the topic.
Straker sighed. It was a sound filled with sorrow and regret. Perhaps he should never have had that first drink. Perhaps it would have been easier in some ways to simply ignore things. To let it lie. To go into the darkness without saying anything. The single drop of water wobbled for a moment before it detached itself from the panel and floated away. He put out a hand to catch it on the tip of a finger. ‘It can’t have been easy for you.’ He flicked the drop away and let it spin towards Dimitri. ‘Not in Russia.’
A gloved hand reached out and trapped the sparkling mote in a fist. If it had been steel it would have been crushed. ‘What would you know about it Commander?’ The bitterness in the voice was like acid. ‘You were married. How would you have felt if it was your child?’ The fist tightened even more if possible, then the fingers opened to wrench the screw cap off the bottle. Not an appreciative swallow this time. Dimitri took a mouthful, heedless of vodka spewing out of the bottle to spiral in ribbons of silver globules in the air. He struggled to get the cap back on, his exertions slopping more liquid into the cabin.
‘Give it here.’ Straker reached out again, his fingers making contact with Dimitri’s wrist. He could feel the other man shaking. Not from cold or fear. Dimitri Leonov was no coward. The bottle slapped into his palm, the cap skewed on at an angle.
Straker let the liquid form a single mass in the bottle and then unscrewed the cap. He lifted the bottle to his lips for a careful sip this time. He savoured it. Rolling it round his mouth to let the taste develop, feeling the tingle on the edge of his tongue his lips, becoming aware of the complexity of the taste. No sharp sting or bitterness or burn. He sipped again and allowed it to warm his mouth and throat. Soothing him. Easing the pain.
When enough time had passed he spoke into the tight silence. ‘I would have been proud of him, whatever. I… I was very proud of him.’ He passed the bottle back without looking at Leonov.
‘You had a son?’ Dimitri did not unscrew the lid. He stared at Straker. ‘What happened?’
‘It doesn’t matter. Not now. Nothing really matters when you get down to it.’ Straker gave a bitter laugh. ‘It happens to us all in the end.’
‘Not your fault. He died, not long ago. He was seven.’ Straker wiped more water droplets from his face. ‘What I meant to say was that it wouldn’t have bothered me. His sexual orientation, I mean. As long as he was happy.’ Straker rolled his neck to ease the stiffness. ‘That’s what really counts. Being happy and being loved. And don’t hang onto the bottle Dimitri. I haven’t finished with it yet.’
‘Changing the subject, Commander? Your son was lucky to have such a father though.’
Straker fumbled the bottle and sighed as it floated out of his reach. ‘He was my son. If he’d lived who knows what might have happened. But I think I would have welcomed anyone he loved, man or woman.’ He strained to catch the bottle with his fingers, but only succeeded in spinning it further away. ‘Damn.’
‘Even someone like ………’ Dimitri was unfastening his harness.
‘You? That doesn’t matter in the slightest. Not to me.’ Straker grinned with amused interest as Dimitri launched himself at the bottle only to bounce off the canopy. ‘Catch it Dimitri. I have another toast to make.’
Straker’s gentle laughter followed the Russian’s clumsy attempts, until Dimitri trapped the half-empty bottle only to flail helpless in mid-air. A hand grabbed his belt and he found himself pulled down until he was close to Straker. Too close. Dimitri stared into those eyes.
‘I thought you’d done basic suit training Colonel?’ the dry voice asked although the accent was slurred by more than alcohol. Straker’s expression changed and the smile faded, leaving sadness in its wake. The blue eyes narrowed even further. No longer a look of amusement, or even pain. A look of compassion. He lowered his gaze. ‘I’m sorry……..’ His voice was softer than Dimitri had ever known it.
Dimitri turned away, silent. He had hidden it for years. Kept it to himself. And after all who could he have told? But Straker knew. He should have guessed as much. He lowered his head, embarrassed. ‘How long have you known? That I felt like this? That I wanted…..’ he muttered and twisted himself away from the hand that held him safe. He caught hold of his seat.
‘SHADO does its research thoroughly. I’ve know for a while. I just didn’t know who, until recently. I only realised when you came to my house.’ Straker took the bottle from Leonov’s hand. ‘Would you have ever told me? Time for the truth. We are going to die. Together. Let’s do it without secrets or pretences.’ He unscrewed the cap one last time and flicked it away. ‘A toast. To those who we love and those who love us.’ He nodded at Dimitri Leonov. ‘And to friends. Good friends.’ He smiled and drank, then handed the bottle back over the gap.
Dimitri pushed himself down. ‘Ten years, Colonel Edward Straker. Ten long years since I first met you.’ He drank. ‘To those we love. And,’ he shrugged his shoulders with regret and understanding, ‘To those who can only be our friends. Enough.’ He let the bottle slide from his fingers. ‘It’s been a privilege.’
Straker let his gloved fingertips connect for a moment with the hand that reached out to him. ‘You didn’t get to walk in space. Or on the Moon.’
‘I got this far. That will have to do.’ Dimitri peered forward, straining to see past the edges of the canopy.
‘What are you doing?’
‘Just looking. I used to stare at the night sky when I was a child. My father taught me the constellations.’
‘Favourite?’ There was a slur in Straker’s voice that had not been there before.
‘Orion. Are you drunk Commander?’
‘Orion. Yes. I remember. The hunter.’ He made an attempt to grab the bottle that was slowly somersaulting in front of him and inexplicably mistimed the action. ‘Shit. They’ll still be hunting, you know.’
‘Who?’ Dimitri missed the neck of the bottle by a hair’s breadth as it sailed past. ‘Fuck.’
‘Moonbase. Alec. Nina.’ The thought hurt him nearly as much as his arm. The bottle was well out of reach. He lay back, gasping, wanting to grip the swollen limb, to crush the sensations from it. Even the alcohol hadn’t helped deaden the pain. It was hard to keep his voice steady. ‘They won’t give up. Not yet. But…’ He closed his eyes. It hurt. More than he thought was possible.
‘What.’ He wondered why Dimitri was whispering.
‘I think life support….’ The voice trailed away. Straker opened his eyes and tried to focus. The lights were dimming and he could hear the pumps begin to slow. The gauges were turning red.
‘Get the support units.’ It was an effort to speak, to force the words out past lips that were thick and numb from the effects of carbon dioxide. Not drunkenness. He was somehow glad of that. ‘Gives us another thirty minutes.’
‘No. I won’t.’
Straker twisted to stare at the other man. ‘You will. That’s an order.’ He struggled to unfasten his harness.
‘Sorry Commander, but I am going to disobey you.’ Dimitri took one of his gloves. ‘If we must die here then at least let it be together. Not alone. You know what I mean. Please.’
Commander Ed Straker thought back over the years of service and duty. That first year. Moscow and Dimitri Leonov. Dimitri, who had loved him from afar. An unknown and unreturned love.
What would it cost him? Nothing in the great scheme of things. Some comfort for his friend though. And, who could say.. maybe some comfort for himself. At the end.
‘I want to look out. Would you help me Colonel?’ There. The request made. He waited as Leonov unstrapped him and helped him to drift up to the canopy.
Space. Leonov close to him, one arm around Straker’s shoulder, keeping him grounded. Keeping him close.
‘Beautiful isn’t it.’ Straker let himself sag. He twisted his head to peer upwards. ‘And look.’
Dimitri followed Straker’s gaze and laughed. ‘Packets of food. And ….. are those apples? I can see the cylinders as well. Everything from the cargo bay.’ He twisted Straker away from the window before the other man could catch sight of the distorted corpse that was also shadowing them. ‘It worked Ed. It worked.’
‘Did you doubt me Colonel?’ Straker’s voice was dry with gentle sarcasm. ‘Pity it’s too late.’ He held out his hand. ‘Take my glove off will you?’ He waited in silence as the other man twisted the wrist seal and then tugged the thick glove off. ‘Damn. That feels better. These always make my fingers hurt. Now. Grab that bottle. Is there enough for one last drink?’
‘Got it. Yes. Here.’
Straker held it up. ‘A toast. To …. ‘ His smile was unseen in the dim light. ‘Confusion to our enemies?’
‘I like that. Yes. Confusion.’ The bottle was upended, the last drops shaken out. ‘Regrets Commander?’
Straker’s eyes were blurring as carbon dioxide filled the cabin. It was getting hard to speak. His helmet was within reach and he could have put it on, but he didn’t have the energy. It was easier to stay here, next to Dimitri. There was something he had to do. Something important. He racked his brain. Yes. That was it.
He put his hand out. ‘None.’ A firm handshake and then he held on. He would not let Dimitri Leonov die alone. He would not die unloved. He did not need to look at Dimitri. It was enough that they were friends, and with each other.
He stared out of the canopy for a last look at the universe as fingers tightened on his. He knew they would not let go. Ever. He smiled into the darkness.
The light almost blinded him.
‘Moonbase. This is Freeman. It’s here.’
‘What’s the situation Colonel?’
‘Power must have failed. No lights. Flight deck is dark.’
‘I’m going across.’
‘I will…………………. Shit. There’s stuff all around it.’
‘Repeat Colonel. I didn’t catch your last.’
‘Cargo from the looks of it. Compressed gas cylinders, packets. Oh god Nina.’
‘There’s a body. Not in a suit. It’s…………. Grant. Owen Grant. What the fuck’s happened?’
‘Alec. Come back. Please.’
‘No. There might be a chance.’
His breath sounded harsh in his ears as he jetted over the endless distance. He ignored the open cargo door. If Ed was alive then he would surely have made his way there, to be rescued. But they had known each other for a long time. Alec could spare a few more minutes. Just to be sure.
There was a frantic second of scrabbling while he tethered his lifeline and orientated himself. He swung himself across to the canopy to press his visor against the tinted plexiglass. Nothing.
He pulled out his flashlight and shone it into the darkness.
The light almost blinded Straker and it was an instinctive reaction to twist away. His hand slipped from Dimitri’s and he floundered, confused and bewildered. He could not breathe. Not a cloth over his face this time, not the sensation of water. But he was drowning just the same. The alcohol had befuddled his senses and he swung against the console with an agonising thump that crushed the last breath from him. He was barely aware of a hand pulling him and holding him safe. He had chance for one gasp. ‘Helmets,’ before he closed his eyes in a dead faint.
The light flashed across the interior, bright even through the dark tint. Rescue. In the depths of his mind Dimitri knew what he should do, but it was hard to make his body react, to get his muscles to respond, to get his mind clear. It was hard to breathe. He tried to hold on but Straker drifted out of his grasp and tumbled, half-curled as if in sleep, across the cabin.
The light from outside glinted on tow-coloured hair as it followed the slowly rotating body. Dimitri made a futile attempt to follow. He looked down. One of the discarded life support units had ensnared his foot. Angered beyond reason he tugged himself free and the hose tore loose. Fresh air flooded into the small cabin. Cool air, breathable air. He filled his lungs with great gasps, puffing out the stale air in huge exhalations. His head cleared and he knew what he had to do.
The light followed him as he worked. It took longer than he had imagined to find their gloves, and to fit Straker’s. He tucked his own into his belt. Straker was still unconscious, his breathing ragged and shallow. Helmets next and he left the visors open. The light disappeared for a moment and he panicked, then it flared into the cabin again, but from the side window this time, near the starboard airlock.
Whoever it was out there would be watching. Would know what Dimitri was planning do. Would wait and help. He calmed. Gloved himself. Made one last check to make sure that Straker was alright, then he closed their visors. The air trapped in their suits should suffice.
He wrapped an arm around Straker’s chest and hauled him out of the cabin. The airlock was stiff and resisted his initial attempts to open it and his muscles burned as he fought the unwilling wheel. It gave way in a series of short judders and he prepared himself.
It was terrifying, and yet at the same time thrilling, as the air was dragged into space. Dimitri had thought that there was nothing else loose in the small module, but the air was filled with debris that dashed past him in a maelstrom of fragments. He kept a tight hold of Straker until the storm died and then he stepped out into the darkness, pulling the other man behind him.
The light was waiting for them and Dimitri kept himself motionless as the spaceman jetted closer to loop a line first around Straker’s wrist and then Dimitri’s. He could see a module in the distance, and as he was towed through the mass of jetsam that surrounded the hulk, he reached out to grasp Straker’s hand once more and pull him close.
It was hard to breathe as he squeezed into the airlock and his arms ached with the weight of his commander. But he held him secure, held him safe. He could no longer see Straker’s face behind the misted surface of the visor, but he refused to let go. There was a hiss of air as the inner door opened and gravity slammed into him, driving him to his knees just as hands reached out to take his burden. He struggled for the last dregs of oxygen in his suit as he saw Straker lowered to the floor.
There was a twist and painful tug on his own helmet and it was pulled off with no thought of his comfort, catching his ears and stretching his skin. His lungs filled with fresh air.
‘Take your time Colonel.’
The voice was unknown and he had a moment of panic as a hand clasped his shoulder.
He heard another voice. A pleading tone this time, not comforting, or calming. ‘Ed. Come on. Please.’
Leonov twisted round. ‘Alec?’ he croaked.
Freeman was also on his knees and reaching out to stroke blond hair that glinted in the bright light of the cabin. Straker’s eyes were closed.
‘…. ruling that with immediate effect all passengers and crew will be required to wear pressure suits, although helmets may be removed during trans-lunar flight.’ The speaker paused the recorder. He looked down at the lightweight cast that protected his arm and frowned, organising his thoughts. He released the switch and continued. ‘Official commendation. Colonel Dimitri Leonov. SHADO number 2925. The formal record of his actions to be added to his personnel file. End. Straker.’
There was nothing else he needed to add. And, besides, what was there to say?
It was time to go. Alec had ordered the module to delay its earlier scheduled departure until Straker was rested. The postponement troubled him. It was unnecessary, and he disapproved of anything that altered the strict rotas. By the time he was awake it was too late to countermand the order. He switched off the recorder and left his room. Fifteen minutes to departure. Alec would be waiting to help him suit up. There was time.
He tapped on the door. A gentle tap, not loud enough to disturb any sleeping occupant. There was no reply and he stood there for a moment.
The door slid open and he hunched over to step through the airlock. He waited, motionless, letting his eyes adapt to the dim light.
Leonov was sprawled as if he had fallen asleep while sitting on the bed. Arms flung outwards, hands relaxed, eyes rimmed with exhaustion. It had been hard on him. On both of them. Straker bent his head in understanding before he reached down with his free hand to ease Dimitri’s legs up onto the bed and then pull the cover over. At least his friend would be more comfortable. Might sleep better.
He stared at the face in the dim glow of the night light. Dark brown eyes hidden behind closed eyelids. Short eyelashes, neat eyebrows, straight nose. A short beard and moustache framing the handsome face full of strength and intelligence, full lips parted in sleep, the expression tranquil. Resting.
Straker stepped back into the shadows at the edge of the room. He had not much time and in a way, he was glad Dimitri was asleep. There would be no difficult silence, no unspoken words. He moved forward into the muted light and bent down to let his lips touch the face of the sleeping man.
The door hissed shut behind him. He did not intend to delay the module any further.
It took time to suit up, even with the ultra-thin cast on his arm, but Alec was patient and it didn’t hurt so much, this time. Everything ready at last and he walked through to the boarding area wondering when he would be able to get back here for a proper visit. By the time his arm had healed, Dimitri Leonov would have moved on, moved to take over his new command. But someone would need to go out there to see how he was settling in. And maybe he could fit in a proper visit to Moscow at the same time. The airlock opened. Alec went through and Straker turned to give one last look around.
He did not see the man watching him from the other side of the partition, hidden in the shadows, his hair tousled and eyes still half-asleep. Dimitri nodded an unseen farewell.
Straker climbed into the module. It was time to go home.
This was started a long time ago. (November 2010) It originally was going to be called Artemis, but I really wanted to give it the title ‘Vodka’. (Yes, I am anal about titles as well as about numbers.) It sat on unloved and ignored on several of my flash drives until January this year when I resurrected it and rethought the outline. I still intended Straker and Dimitri to get trapped in a damaged Module, and to explore their past and what was going to happen to them, but the ending, (which originally involved the ARTEMIS mission) will change to be more prosaic.
I worried for a long time about whether a module could get lost in space, but then of course Foster’s craft in Kill Straker and Collin’s module in The Man Who Came Back both went missing for hours and Moonbase couldn’t find either. Having remembered that fact I wasn’t quite as worried about the practicalities of searching for a lost space craft. What I really wanted to explore was the relationship between Straker and Dimitri, and it was suggested to me that Dimitri might actually have some feelings towards Straker. More than would be considered ‘proper’. Especially as Dimitri is a Russian.
The real problem that I encountered was the practical aspect of exactly where the passenger sits in the module. Not on the Flight deck, but not in that ‘ribbed grey tube’ that must surely be where the cargo is stored. And .. just look at the design of the Module. Reminiscent of a Space Shuttle. So very different from the space exploration vehicles of the time (Apollo etc) What a brilliant imagination the original designer must have had.
Anyway, I decided that MY module would have a small passenger compartment just behind the bulkhead at the back of the Flight Deck. You don’t ever see the door into the compartment, and the compartment would be very small indeed, much smaller than the flight deck. Why waste space for passengers, when you need it for important things such as cargo. Even a small space could feasibly fit four passengers in, which gives a module only one less person that a shuttle. With the number of flights to and from Moonbase, they would not need a ‘people-carrier’ module (Although who is to say that they didn’t actually have one of those.
And.. how sad is this. I have just rearranged the furniture in my classroom to experiment with the minimum size required for seating for four passengers. (I worked it out at roughly 5 foot by 8 foot, but I am going to do more research on that.) I have looked closely at the ‘shell’ of the Module and I am pretty sure that there is room for a Passenger cabin AND an ‘aft cabin’ with a ‘head’ and emergency equipment.
Anyway, I restarted writing this story in January 2012, a good 15 months after I originally put pen to paper. In that time my writing has changed dramatically I think, and I found it hard to get into the flow of this story again. Then one day, on the way to work I had a passenger in the car with me. Straker. He turns up at times, to chivvy me to get on with things. And so we talked and he helped me sort out the problems with the way I was writing Vodka. He has a habit of doing that, of appearing when you need him most. Not when I plan it, no way.
The ‘Conversations’ are spontaneous and unplanned and to some extent are the outpourings of a rather confused , though some people would say ‘deranged’, mind! They are NOT a planned story or an excuse to write him in a personal situation. They are Ed Straker, the man that I write about, giving me guidance and showing me the way forward. He appears. Sorts me out and then.,. goes.
So I carried on with the story, now knowing where I was going to go with it. The whole thing was really an excuse to experiment with writing a scene with two men who are quietly drunk. I don’t really like dialogue and I struggled with a lot of that part. But I thought it was a rather nice visual scene as well.
Other problems? Well. Initially I couldn’t make up my mind what the two of them were wearing at first Flightsuits? Spacesuits? Street clothes?
There are conflicting scenes in UFO where module pilots wear different outfits, so I made my own decision. I also kept forgetting when they were wearing helmets! I had to read through and make mental notes to myself. Helmets on…. Helmets off!
The loss of gravity was another confusing factor. I did have the end where the lower half of the cabin was filled with CO2, but of course that wouldn’t happen in weightlessness. The air would simply not circulate though, and they would be surrounded by a ‘bubble’ of stale exhaled air. I didn’t want to get too technical though so I left that out. It’s enough that they are going to suffocate.
The other real problem I have with this story is that technically it isn’t canon. Straker marries and ten year later John has died. That doesn’t fit in with the series really. But, it fits in with Breathless and Moonlight which were written in 2010 before the realistic canon-based bio of Straker was produced by the Herald. One day I might rewrite the trilogy to ‘smooth things out’. Maybe.
So. There you are. Vodka. The third part of the Moonlight and Vodka Trilogy. And Colonel Dimitri Leonov will reappear in a further story. (Which I am starting to write today: 16.02.2012. I just hope it doesn’t take as long to write as The Shepherd, or Vodka!)