Peter Claybourne’s mutilated body lay on the path, his blood pooling underneath him in obscene imitations of Rorschach patterns, his sightless eyes staring in horror up at clouds and light and shadows above and his handgun still in its holster.
A man wearing a close-fitting charcoal-grey suit and with white cuffs framing his long-fingered hands, approached the scene. Sunlight reflected in his cropped ash-blonde hair and sunglasses hid his eyes as he walked towards the small group clustered around the victim.
There was a hissed intake of breath as Straker saw the corpse for the first time and he bent down, heedless of the congealing blood to place one hand on the unseeing eyes, and close them for the last time.
‘Dear God, what a mess,’ he said. ‘If you had waited for back up Pete, none of this would have happened.’
He straightened up, and wiped his blood stained fingers on a handkerchief to remove the stain of death.
‘I want his body taken to the Medical Unit as soon as you’ve finished clearing up here,’ he instructed the waiting team. ‘I’ll be waiting.’
He did not wait for their acknowledgement, secure in the knowledge that they would do as ordered.
But his face tightened with anguish as he turned away, sickened by the coppery stench of blood and the sight of the ruined corpse of one of the longest serving members of SHADO. Then he crossed over to the two remaining security team members in the care of the SHADO paramedics.
‘I want your reports on my desk in three hours. I also want clarification of why Colonel Claybourne went against my express orders by authorising this operation. If he had survived this incident he would be facing a Court Martial for his actions. You might want to bear that in mind.’ Straker’s voice was hard and he walked away without another look.
The Saab pulled into the portico of Harlington-Straker Studio and Straker turned off the engine. He waited, reluctant to leave the sanctuary of the vehicle. He did not want to have to get out and face the reality of this day, to have to deal with the post-mortem for Peter Claybourne, his acquaintance and associate for years. To have to deal with informing the staff that Pete was dead. To have to tell his family. To face the silent accusations from the Security Department that he, Straker, was somehow responsible for the debacle that led to Peter lying on a cold steel slab in the mortuary, being autopsied and inspected by Shroeder. He did not want any of this.
The tap on the window startled him out of his contemplation.
‘Mr Straker? Is everything all right?’
Straker looked up. ‘Yes, just wondering where I left my work mobile. Miss Ealand probably has it tucked away in her office.’ He smiled, but his eyes were distant as he left the warmth of the car to walk into the studios.
His secretary looked up at him. ‘Commander Straker, I am so sorry to hear about Colonel Claybourne. What do you need me to do?’
‘I need the contact details for his relatives, Miss Ealand. I know he divorced some years ago, but he had family in Canada and I think there were a couple of recent girlfriends. I’d like to inform each of them, as soon as possible.’ Straker was subdued as he went into his inner office to pick up the cigarette case from the desk and flick up the lid in one practiced movement.
‘Voice Print identification positive. Commander Straker,’ the computer voice confirmed and the entire room descended. There was no sound, just the room itself, moving downwards with a hum of machinery as he waited, tight lipped.
The door by which he had entered now opened onto an austere white corridor. The only colour was the sign ‘SHADO’.
He was no longer aware of the sign. Alec and he had worked here since SHADO’s inception, and he knew every inch of its reinforced concrete walls, knew every conduit, every circuit and every installation. He had helped designed the base, and had overseen its creation from the first blueprints to the day when SHADO opened for business. And he had been in charge of the complex and its vast and ever-growing network of bases, support units and staff members since the day the first computer was switched on and the first UFO was destroyed in Earth’s atmosphere. And now, just a few years after that start, Peter Claybourne was dead.
Keith Ford looked up as Straker entered the control room.
‘Commander, is it true about Colonel Claybourne?’ he asked.
‘Yes. He walked right into the trap. They are bringing him in soon. Let me know when the ambulance arrives.’ He strode the few paces to his office and closed the door where he dropped into the chair behind the bulwark of his desk to rest his head in his hands for a brief moment. There was too much to do to be able to spend time mourning Peter Claybourne, but memories of those first days of SHADO flashed into his mind.
Pete, dressed in torn and oil-stained overalls, crawling along the narrow conduit tubes to access yet another faulty connection in the electronic systems. Pete laughing as Alec Freeman struggled to get suited up in a mock decompression exercise. Alec, Pete and Craig pouring him a glass of champagne to toast the successful launch of the first lunar shuttle.
Pete, refusing to wait for back up despite Straker’s specific orders.
Pete. Dead and dissected by aliens.
At least there was irrefutable proof of his death. Unlike Craig Collins, Peter’s body could be laid to rest.
One more statistic for the IAC. One more death to be hushed up. One more casualty on his conscience. He should have insisted that Claybourne remain in the base instead of dashing off to play the hero. Pete had become more than a little unpredictable, rushing into situations without careful planning, but Straker had intended to give him a change of scene in the next month by promoting him to the new Hawaiian complex. He should have removed Pete from active service straight away.
Now it was too late. Was it his fault? Should he have foreseen this tragedy? And how reliable was Colonel Claybourne’s old team? There were now serious doubts in his mind over the reliability of SHADO’s Security Section.
Damn you Pete, Straker thought, you always thought you knew best. You were so convinced of your own immortality that you put everyone else at risk. Your whole team could have died alongside you. I don’t know if I can forgive you for that. How many more deaths will I have to deal with?
His intercom flashed and Miss Ealand, efficient as always, relayed a list of names and telephone numbers.
He reached for his phone and began the first of the calls.
It was appropriate weather for the funeral of Peter James Claybourne, “Harlington Straker’s” Security Chief. Dark and overcast, with dampness in the air that foreshadowed heavy rain, the sky on that Wednesday afternoon was sullen and depressing. Straker stood at the back of the small country church listening to the priest’s eulogy. The majority of the mourners were SHADO staff, paying their last respects to a man they had known and respected. The Security department stood together as if to support each other with Jenson surrounded by his colleagues. As if aware that he was being watched, he looked around with eyes devoid of emotion or recognition and stared back at Straker.
He studied the scene; Alec Freeman in the middle of the congregation with Colonel Lake, and Keith Ford, the bright flowers and wreaths on the oak coffin and the priest, solemn and deferential.
Straker remained alone. His presence here was an intrusion into the grief of a close-knit community. He was an outsider and as soon as the service had concluded, he returned to his car and drove away. He would mourn Pete Claybourne in his own way. Peter would be cremated according to his last wishes and Straker intended to carry out the final request of his colleague.
‘Ed, when I die I want to go into space. Make sure that whatever happens, my ashes end up on an orbit that takes me way past Saturn out to edges of the Solar System.’ Claybourne had been celebrating Moonbase’s first successful defence of Earth and the conversation, as so often happened, had come round to their own mortality with both Claybourne and Freeman expressing a desire to be ‘buried in space’ as they put it.
Straker remembered his own request. ‘I don’t care what they do with me, as long as I can get some sleep,’ he had said with a cynical laugh, exhaustion creeping into his voice despite the elation at having been victorious in their first lunar defence.
But that was a long time ago. Pete was dead and he had to pick a new Security Chief, preferably one who would follow orders. Tomorrow he would have to start the serious business of finding a replacement. He would have to go through the personnel files with care. There would be no mistakes this time.
Harlington Straker security was busier than normal for a Thursday morning. Director, actor, production team; it didn’t matter if you had a pass signed by God and authorised by the Pope himself. Today you were not driving through the Harlington Straker entrance until your security clearance had been double-checked. And then re-checked. Every little detail was picked over while tempers flared and the queue got longer and, by inverse proportion, more short-tempered.
Straker’s Saab overtook the waiting queue of traffic and came to a halt outside the Administration area. He looked over at the chaos and frowned, then turned and strode into Reception.
Miss Ealand, watching from her office overlooking the main entrance, gave a rueful smile as Colonel Freeman walked over to try to intercept his boss.
‘What the blazes is going on out there?’ Straker thumped his briefcase down on the desk.
‘Good morning, Ed.’ Alec Freeman’s quick voice cut into the conversation. ‘You can blame it all on me. Miss Ealand had nothing to do with this. We received a threatening letter earlier this morning, addressed to you.’ He paused to look sideways at Straker. ‘I spoke to security and asked them to be a little heavy-handed with procedures today. It might be enough to stop this joker – as long as it is a hoax and not the real thing. Look Ed, I really need to talk to you about setting up a protection detail -.’
‘No Alec. I am quite capable of looking after myself.’ Straker interjected.
‘….at least for a couple of weeks.’ Freeman continued as if the interruption had not happened. ‘I’m not going to argue Ed, this will happen whether you like it or not, so you may as well shut up and stop complaining. Besides, until we replace Peter we do need to be a little more careful.’
With a look that would wither a lesser man Straker nodded at Freeman, picked up his briefcase and entered the undercover world of SHADO.
Straker signed the last of the documents and returned them to their folders as the door to his office opened and Alec walked in, carrying two mugs.
‘Hot and sweet with extra caffeine. Just what you need Ed.’ Freeman’s voice was jovial but Straker could detect an undercurrent of concern. ‘Look, why don’t you leave the reports and take a break. Go and look round the studios. Heaven knows it’s been long enough since they saw you there. Some of the producers are beginning to wonder if you still exist. Fresh air might do you some good as well.’
Straker leaned back in his chair. ‘I don’t think they would be pleased to see me today after the chaos this morning. Speaking of which………’ he looked at Alec and sighed. ‘Yes, I know. I overreacted this morning and sorry, but I was hoping things might get a bit easier. Anyway, I’ve been looking over the personnel files and I’ve realised that Peter Claybourne will be a hard act to follow.’
‘Anyone in mind? Or are you looking at making an external appointment?’ Freeman queried.
‘I’ll keep an open mind about that for now,’ Straker said, unwilling to express his concerns about the Security Department, and in particular Michael Jenson. Since Pete’s death the interim Security Chief had been acting in a manner that could be described as erratic. Granted he had been found unconscious after the alien attack, and had complained of headaches, but Straker had a gut feeling that there was something more sinister in his behaviour and he regretted not spending more time with the security division in the past days. He had a feeling that there was more to Jenson’s behaviour than mere resentment at Pete’s death.
‘I’m going to miss him Ed.’ Alec Freeman admitted. ‘Claybourne was one of the few people who was with us from the start.’ He paused, looked sideways at Straker sitting there. ‘I didn’t see you yesterday at his wake. Any particular reason?’
Straker was silent for a few moments, his interlaced fingers tapping against his lips. ‘His team believe I was responsible for Peter’s death. Even though I had ordered him to stay out of the target zone until back-up arrived, he went ahead and got caught as a result. It wasn’t the first time he had done that.’ He leaned forward and picked up his paperweight, rolling it in his fingers and thinking. ‘I told them that I would have court-martialled Peter if he had survived, Henderson or no Henderson,’ he stated with a note of bitterness in his voice. ‘I suppose in time they’ll get over it, but the new Chief is going to find it hard going. It’s not easy to replace someone like Pete.’
Freeman nodded and picked up a thin stack of folders from the conference table. ‘These the short listed candidates?’
Straker nodded. ‘I’ve whittled it down to four. I’ll take the files with me and make a decision tonight. With any luck I can get the security complement back to full strength by the end of the week.’
Once Alec had left, Straker flicked the switch to lock his office door and dialled a number. It was not against the rules to use his security clearance for personal matters, but it was frowned upon. He didn’t care though. Pete Claybourne’s last wishes would be granted.
Ten minutes later it was all arranged. He would collect Pete’s ashes from the Crematorium tomorrow. SHADO had been Pete’s family and it was Straker’s duty to see that Peter Claybourne’s mortal remains ended up where they should, on that long curving trajectory out into space.
He unlocked the office door, picked up his briefcase and went out into the bustle of the control room.
‘Lieutenant Ford, contact Moonbase and tell Lt. Ellis that I’ll be arriving tomorrow for a twenty-four hour visit. I’ll contact her later with the details,’ Straker said before continuing in a dry tone, ‘and then you can notify Colonel Freeman that I am going out to the studio for some fresh air, as per his instructions. Then I am going home.’
He headed out of the building towards the studio lots to spend the next half hour in his role as Ed Straker, film executive before calling it a day with a sigh of relief. All part of the job.
Late that night with the last of the paperwork locked away in his briefcase, he relaxed. It was quiet in the house; no sound of passing traffic disturbed the peace and there were no neighbours. The building was as safe as SHADO security could make it with alarms and sensors, bullet proof glass, panic room. Everything designed to protect him, yet somehow it all conspired to make him feel even more vulnerable, too isolated and cut off from the real world, and there were times when he would have relished the noise from a crowd of drunken revellers wandering home in the early hours, to confirm that he was a part of the world. Once he was inside this fortified prison he was alone.
Shaking his head at his own foolish thoughts he went over to sit at his piano and brush his fingertips across the dusty keys. He had made his decision regarding the replacement for Claybourne. It would not go down well and he expected opposition to the appointment, but his mind was made up. He flexed his fingers and began to play.
The Lunar shuttle landed at Moonbase without incident and Colonel Grey completed the post flight checks, powering down computers and tracking systems. ‘Ready Commander?’ he asked.
Straker looked tired as he replied. ‘Ready as I’ll ever be.’ He unfastened his seat harness and stood to unlocked the small cargo locker which held his bag and a small metal container.
Once inside the arrival suite they stripped and showered under the decontaminant sprays before dressing in Moonbase uniforms. Straker rubbed his hair dry and then headed for the Recreation hub where Mark Bradley was waiting.
‘Sir. Colonel Grey. If you will come this way Commander, Lt. Ellis has finalised your arrangements.’ The pilot led the way to the Control room.
‘Commander Straker,’ Gay smiled at her visitor as he entered the central complex, ‘glad you could visit us. It’s been too long since you were last here. I understand this isn’t an inspection either.’ Her tone was cheerful but she had spoken to Straker the evening before and was aware of the reasons for his trip out to the lunar station.
‘Thank you Lieutenant,’ Straker glanced down at the small box that he carried. ‘I understand you have things ready for me?’
‘Yes, everything’s in place. Just say when you want to go Commander. A shuttle has been prepared for you.’ She looked at Straker, sympathy in her eyes. ‘Are you going alone?’
‘A solo trip, Gay. These are my flight details.’ He handed her a file then went to his small room to sit and think and wait.
Several hours later Lt. Ellis stood in the Control hub as Straker left to prepare for his last act of friendship for Peter Claybourne. She continued monitoring communications from her commanding officer until he reported in at the end of his mission.
The flight had gone without a problem and Straker had computed a trajectory that would ensure that the steel container would fulfil Pete’s request. It had been a simple task to enclose Claybourne’s ashes in a missile casing then program its onboard computer before launching the missile at the correct point in space and time.
Straker had watched the cylinder accelerate out of the orbit of the Moon, then he had piloted the Orbital Shuttle back to Moonbase. The trip had taken longer than he had planned and Gay was waiting when he brought the orbital shuttle to touchdown. She helped him out of the spacesuit and after one look brought him a coffee. They sat together in silence for a while, Straker thinking about Pete.
‘Sir,’ Gay interrupted his thoughts, ’I just want to say how much l appreciate what you have done today. I’m sure that everyone in SHADO feels the same way.’
‘Thank you Gay, but not many of them know about today’s little excursion and I would rather it stayed like that. I’ll get some rest now before the flight back.’ Straker put his cup down and headed for the accommodation dome and his cubicle.
The tiny mirror above the washbasin reflected the face of a man who looked old. His eyes were strained and it was an effort to keep them open. He lay down and hoped that sleep would come. But he knew that Craig Collins still haunted him and he had a feeling that this night, Craig would be joined by Peter Claybourne.
The SHADO Control room was hushed this early in the morning. With the night roster getting ready to finish their shift, and the overlapping first shift preparing to take over, no-one had the time or opportunity, for idle chat. Those who wanted to catch up with gossip went to the Staff Lounge where Lt. Colonel Philips, Security Section night controller was sitting, feet up on a sofa.
The newest member of the Security team and recent addition to the SHADOHQ, Rachel Philips was still assigned to Base accommodation and spent much of her brief off duty hours in the Staff Lounge watching multi-channel news reports or relaxing. The base accommodation rooms were minimalist so the Lounge area was popular with off duty staff and the Lieutenant Colonel was engrossed in clearing the backlog of texts from her mobile when she was interrupted.
‘Colonel Philips to Commander Straker’s office. I repeat, Colonel Philips to Commander Straker’s office immediately.’ Lt. Ford’s voice broke through the quiet music playing in the background.
‘Shit!’ Rachel Philips dropped her phone. ‘Now?’
She had met Straker face-to-face in the initial interview when she had transferred to Britain from the SHADO division in Norway. Even then he had seemed cold. Oh yes, they said that he approved every candidate for selection and that he oversaw all the training and transfers, but in the few weeks she been working here she had not spoken to him in any formal setting apart from brief encounters in the control room. She had heard about him though and knew that the Commander would not tolerate tardiness.
As she approached the office door it opened as if in anticipation to reveal Straker sitting behind the desk with his head bent over a detailed blueprint, pen in hand. He made an annotation on one of the designs, and then looked up at her for a second, before returning his gaze to the drawing.
‘Sit down, Colonel Philips,’ he ordered. ‘Please.’ The word was added almost as a casual afterthought.
She sat and waited, hands clasped in her lap, eyes roaming around the room as she took in her surroundings.
Straker’s head bent over the paper once more. He did not even glance up as his intercom buzzed, just reached out to flick the switch. ‘Straker.’
‘General McCullough would like to meet with you this afternoon to discuss the agenda for the J.C.A. meeting next month, Commander.’ Miss Ealand’s voice broke the silence.
‘I can see him tomorrow at 14.00 hours, Miss Ealand.’ Straker cut the connection without a further word and went back to studying the blueprint. One hand picked up a ruler and he measured a line on the drawing before making another annotation. Without taking his eyes from the map he spoke.
‘Colonel Philips, do you consider yourself capable of taking over as Chief of Security?’ He didn’t look up.
The question was so unexpected that she was taken aback. ‘I’m sorry sir? I don’t understand.’
He looked up at her, one eyebrow raised. ‘Yes you do. I asked you a simple question. Are you good enough to replace Peter Claybourne. I would like a response.’ His voice was curt and his eyes hard.
‘Well, sir, there must be others -.’
He sighed and leaned back. ‘Answer the question Colonel. Stop trying to prevaricate. You. I want to know. Are you up to the task?’ The dismissive voice cut through the silence in the room.
She was filled with anger that he could speak to her like this, could treat her with what seemed to be contempt. He wanted her to admit that she was not capable of doing the job, so he could justify putting one of the ‘old boys’ in the post of Security Chief.
That was not going to happen. Lt. Colonel Philips had seen enough of what went on in the Security section. Claybourne had been soft with his department and as a result the section was riddled with incompetent operatives who took short cuts and put lives at risk as well as compromising the entire security of SHADO.
She stood up. stiff and at attention. ‘I consider that I am perfectly capable of replacing Colonel Claybourne as head of the Security Section. Sir.’
The blue eyes looked into hers, and he gave her a thin smile. ‘Very good Colonel, you start forthwith. I want your initial appraisal of the Security Department in twenty-four hours, detailing your recommendations. Your promotion to full Colonel takes effect from midnight tonight.’ He paused, considering, and looked at her. ‘I will see you in the Control room in….’ he looked at his watch, ‘ten minutes.’ He pressed the switch on his control panel, the office door slid open and he returned his attention to the paperwork on his desk.
Rachel Philips stood there for a moment, ignored. The man behind the desk looked up at her with a puzzled expression. ‘Is there a problem Colonel?’
‘No sir.’ She blushed and headed for the open door.
‘Ten minutes,’ that dry voice reminded her. The door shut, preventing her from seeing the genuine smile on Straker’s face as he watched her leave. He picked up her personnel profile which had been hidden beneath the blueprint, and although he was familiar with her record he opened it to read through the details once more.
Rachel Philips, born March 1980, Degree in Psychology (First) and Masters in Global Security and Intelligence. Worked for MI5 Section 11 until recruited by SHADO two years ago. Transferred from Oslo section to HQ after completing her initial assignment. Straker himself had fast-tracked her for advancement in the organisation after seeing her psyche evaluations and the assessments of her abilities. He knew that she was the right person for the job, but the next few weeks were going to be interesting as she established herself as the new Chief. He smiled again as he watched her on the monitor outside his office as she recovered her composure.
‘What the hell?’ she thought as she headed for the security department only to be intercepted by Colonel Freeman.
’Congratulations Rachel, I think you’ll do a great job. You know where I am if you need my help.’ He shook her hand.
‘Colonel Freeman, the Commander wants to see me in the Control room in ten minutes. Any idea why?’ she asked.
‘Rachel,’’ Alec sighed with amusement and glanced down at Rachel’s jeans and sweatshirt. ‘Straker’s giving you time before he confirms you as Claybourne’s replacement. Go and get out of those clothes and into uniform.’
He smiled as she walked away, a petite figure with her black hair fastened in a loose knot on top of her head. He was fond of Rachel and had monitored her progress with increasing approval. Alec was the first to admit she had the right qualifications for the role of Security Chief and he had hopes for her future in SHADO.
Ten minutes later Colonel Rachel Philips now in uniform, stated her name rank and number for the computer that recorded her promotion to Security Chief. Straker, standing behind, confirmed the appointment and handed her a new identity card.
‘Congratulations Colonel.’ Was that a slight smile of amusement on Straker’s lips? Rachel could not tell. But she knew that for all his distant manner Straker was the strategist who had so far been able to outwit the aliens. He was the reason for SHADO’s success, for the fact that Earth was still free of the invaders.
The Control room operatives who had watched from the consoles and display boards around the room gave a round of applause as the computer authenticated her new rank before Straker cut them short. ‘Colonel Philips, you have a considerable number of duties to attend to. I suggest you make a start.’ He walked back into his office and closed the door.
Rachel leaned back in her chair and thought back over the last two weeks. It had been difficult settling in to the post; Peter Claybourne had been an easy man to work for, too easy. He had run the section for the benefit of his team and as a result she had inherited a department which was sloppy and disorganised. It was clear than some of the staff resented her and they had made it obvious that they would oppose her at every opportunity and she was forced to transfer some to other less demanding placements in smaller centres as well as bringing in new members to fill the vacancies. She had instigated some changes with regard to security procedures and had plans for improving protection for the important members of SHADO’s cadre. All in all it had been a demanding fortnight.
Jenson had argued against her actions and she was beginning to have doubts about having promoted him to the post of Second in Charge but he had been the only viable option. They managed to avoid each other as often as possible, which was not difficult, as they were rostered on opposite shifts but Rachel knew that in the near future she would have to deal with him. It was not something that she was going to enjoy. On the odd occasions that they met, his soulless eyes and dead expression spooked her. Still, he knew his job and was competent. That was enough for now.
In the meantime she had given him the task of investigating the letter that had appeared at the studio. It was an easy assignment and one that would allow her to evaluate his abilities as well as providing her with the opportunity to get to grips with the continued re-organising of her department.
However, now she had another formal meeting with her commander to report on the progress she was making. She approached his office with some trepidation to find the door open and Straker studying the lunar map on the wall.
He turned as she entered. ‘Colonel Philips, take a seat. How are things progressing?’
With some hesitation she handed him the file that detailed her proposals for restructuring. He reached across for it and his fingers brushed against hers before he sat back to read. A tiny contact, but her breath caught in her throat as she watched him and studied his face while he read. A slight scar on his lower lip. A silvered crescent–shaped one above his left eyebrow. The sheen of soft ash-blonde down on his sculptured cheekbone. The sparkle of short hair caught in the light. Faint lines of tiredness at the corner of intense blue eyes. A slight pulse in the throat where it met the high collar of his jacket.
He glanced up and it was as though she had been caught red-handed. Her heart pounded and it was as if she was held in a tight grip that prevented her from taking another breath. Then her mind once more cleared as he looked down at the paper.
She looked away confused and embarrassed. So it has happened she thought. I never intended this, not for him. She turned back to watch, conscious of his every move. Those strong fingers as they turned pages. Those slow even breaths as he studied her work. The aura of confidence that surrounded him, that seemed to fill the room.
He put the papers down, interlaced his fingers. ‘Very impressive Colonel. I see that you have justified my decision to appoint you. I am also aware that it has been, and will probably continue to be, an unpopular decision amongst some of the security team, though you seem to be coping with that.’ The brilliant eyes gazed at her and she flinched. ‘I notice that you want to update the security at the senior officers’ residences. You have my authorization for that. However I would be grateful if you could do it with the minimum of intrusion. Your other proposals are also approved and authorised. Just keep me updated on the progress.’
Rachel stood. ‘Yes sir. I’ll do the upgrades when staff are on duty,’ she replied, relieved that the meeting had gone so well. She went back to her own office and thought over what had happened to her in there. Yes, she admired the man, but as her commanding officer, not as a potential conquest. And now…….
She took a deep breath to steady herself then opened her appointments. Hard work would settle her thoughts and she began timetabling her visits to various properties, as well as Straker’s. Colonel Freeman would be the first.
She was somewhat amused at Alec’s bachelor pad, with its uncluttered kitchen and the large living area. A man’s apartment, with no evidence of a feminine touch, but tidy and elegant. In a development of apartments in a large Victorian mansion, it suited his relaxed and casual lifestyle. She didn’t intrude into his bedroom, there was no need to go there and she respected him too much to pry into the personal side of his life.
Straker’s house however, was a revelation. At the end of a private lane it was isolated and hidden away with a discrete but efficient security system and a concealed guard house. That was something else she was going to change as well. Straker would have a protection detail whether he liked it or not. SHADO needed him alive and all too often he had been the target of alien attacks.
It was not just aliens that she had to contend with. It was becoming clear that some humans, tempted by promises of power or wealth or protection, had sided with the enemy and were involved in the attempt to bring SHADO’s operations to an end. If Straker was eliminated SHADO would suffer its worst loss and might never recover.
Colonel Philips opened the front door to Straker’s house and secured the alarm system. It was an old farmhouse, not particularly large but more than adequate for his needs. The wide hallway had doors that lead to an unused internal guard post, a downstairs cloakroom, another to a small storage room with steel gun cabinet, complete with concealed door to the panic room. She did not feel it necessary to inspect it. According to her records, it had never been used. She knew that Straker suffered from claustrophobia and being locked in this undersized room, which was little more than a walk-in safe, would not have been his preferred option in the event of attack.
The single door on the right opened to a generous open-plan living room with a large kitchen area at the end. A spacious room with high ceiling and well- proportioned windows, the living area took up most of the ground floor. She wandered around with a guilty feeling of pleasure.
She had expected to find the interior of his home similar to Colonel Freeman’s. After all, Straker was a bachelor, and, as the Executive Producer of a successful international film company, had a certain image to project, but his house was furnished with attention to detail. An eclectic range of books and CD‘s filled bookcases, modern works of art decorated the walls, and several small and beautiful sculptures were displayed. She was not surprised to find the kitchen was better equipped than most she had seen.
The one revelation was the grand piano in the lounge… she would never have thought that the stern and unemotional Commander was a pianist. She wondered how proficient he was. Pretty talented, if the well-annotated manuscripts on top were anything to go by. She was tempted to sit down and rest her fingers on the keys and try a few notes, just to listen to the sound, but she stopped herself. This was his home, his sanctuary. His.
She went back into the hall and up the wide staircase to the first floor into each of the two bedrooms looking at his life here. The larger master bedroom with its dressing room, through which a concealed auxiliary office linked to SHADO’s main complex was accessed. She could at least justify her invasion here.
The original entrance had been replaced with an expanse of glass panels in oak frames, into which the main door had been set. The bullet-proof glass was bisected at the first floor level by a wide mezzanine which overlooked the hallway below. It was a thoughtful design, utilising the best of the original structure but still providing a secure and yet pleasing residence. The bathrooms and bedrooms were similar; stylish, well-designed and functional. She finished updating her security details into his system and left, aware that she was intruding into the personal and hidden life of a man who valued his privacy.
And now she was confident that she had completed all the urgent changes that needed to be made; she had put into place the necessary modifications to the security systems to improve efficiency and she had managed to stay on the right side of Commander Straker. She was more pleased about the final fact than everything else she had achieved.
It made the evening news headlines. A photograph of Harlington Straker’s executive producer meeting with General Peter Bradley, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The snapshot showed other high ranked members of the armed services from across the world in the background. A film producer meeting an USAF General? It had editors searching their files to get further information on this reclusive American film executive. And the following morning it was headlines in the trashier tabloids, and even reported in the broadsheets.
Straker was livid.
He had run the gauntlet of pressmen as he had driven into work in the morning but they had not been able to find out where he lived. Yet. He spoke to Lt. Col. Jenson and with reluctance, arranged to have the security at his house upgraded.
‘No comment,’ was his only answer to the insistent media hounds. Studio security had removed the press from the grounds of the complex, but they were powerless to stop the media from delving into Straker’s past. The SHADO PR team had already swung into action and produced a smokescreen report to explain the meeting, but it was still disruptive.
On arrival at HQ he was about to interrupt Colonel Philip’s rest day when Moonbase interrupted with an Alert. He put the newspapers aside, to deal with later, and went to co-ordinate the response to the latest attack.
Rachel woke late and revelled in the knowledge that today was her rest day. No work, just a chance to relax. She switched on the television to catch up on events before she had to get up.
‘Shit.’ The last item on the morning news showed the photograph of Straker and the General. She was out of bed and getting dressed before the newsreader had finished the brief report.
Entering the control room it was clear that the base was in the midst of an attack. Straker was monitoring communications and giving instructions to the Moonbases and Skydivers and she watched as he ordered Sky 5 to the precise interception point where the UFO entered Earth’s atmosphere some ten minutes later. How the hell did he do that, she wondered and she was still engrossed in watching the final moments of the mission when he turned round and noticed her presence.
‘How did the media get that photograph, Colonel?’ Straker demanded. ‘You are in charge of security. Find the answer. I want it dealt with.’ He turned back to the monitors and ordered Skydiver to search the ocean for wreckage.
Colonel Philips scrutinised the offending photograph. She had set up security at the meeting; Class A protocols, all principals covered by SHADO operatives, no unauthorised personnel within 200 yards, air surveillance, everything. She took another look. It was detailed and sharp. The lines were crisp, the features of both men clearly delineated. This was an inside job. Someone within the security perimeter had taken this photograph. The question was, who and why? She called up the footage from the air surveillance team as she nibbled on a Danish she had grabbed from the cafeteria while waiting for the data to arrive. Crumbs sprinkled onto her desk and she reached out …………
……..an ear-piercing klaxon shattered the quietness. It stopped as suddenly as it had started, but then the intercom activated.
‘This is SHADO Control. All Sectors. This is a Maximum Security alert. Evacuate all Areas. Evacuate all Areas. This is not a drill. Repeat. This is not a drill. Evacuate all areas w2ith immediate effect.’ Straker’s voice echoed through the underground complex and Rachel’s chair clattered on the floor as she pushed it away to run from her office to the central hub. She hurried past the operatives who were heading for the emergency exits and entered the nearly deserted control room. Straker was there monitoring the evacuation on the computer readouts.
She hurried up to him. ‘Commander?’
‘Bomb alert. Picked up by the sensors. In this immediate area. Disposal are on the way. You need to leave.’
‘So do you sir.’
‘I don’t leave Colonel. Someone has to supervise the evacuation and ensure -.’
She interrupted him. ‘With respect sir, that is my job. I am Chief of Security. You are Commander in Chief and you need to be in a position to command. You cannot do that if you are not alive.’ With some hesitation she placed her hand on his elbow. ‘Please leave. I’ll start the search and help the bomb team. You should go to Auxiliary Control and begin transferring operations there. I’ll keep you updated. Now go. Please.’ Her voice brooked no argument and he looked at her, considering, his head tilted to one side for a moment, before he turned on his heel and headed for the nearest emergency exit.
She pulled the data from the micro-chemical sensors that had sounded the alarm. The sensors that she had insisted on having incorporated into the building’s internal defence mechanisms just last week. They had been expensive, and she had expected Straker to object, but he had signed the approval form without comment or hesitation.
A quick analysis of the data revealed that the explosive device was Pentolite, a explosive used by the military. There was no point in worrying where it had originated. She had to find out where it was now, before it detonated. From the chemical data, there could be enough explosive to obliterate the central hub of the complex.
Where was it? The monitors confirmed that the evacuation of the base was complete and she could hear the bomb disposal team arriving through the empty staff access corridor. She started to search.
Nothing out of place in the control room. She moved on as the disposal team arrived and joined her. Straker’s office was next. And there. On the conference table she saw a laptop, except she had never seen this particular model before and she should have recognised it. All SHADO IT equipment was checked and certified by the Chief of Security to ensure compliance with cyber security, and this one was unfamiliar. Besides, Straker would never have allowed anyone to leave it in his office.
‘In here,’ she called, stepping out of the way as the team entered. They settled to work, with quiet efficiency and concentration, ignoring her and she left them to their task and went to call Straker. Her hands were shaking as she made contact with the Auxiliary Command Centre.
‘Colonel. Good to hear from you. Have you found it?’ He sounded relieved to see her.
‘Yes sir, the squad are working on it right now.’ She looked behind her as one of the team members came out of the office, removing his helmet and gauntlets. Handicapped by his cumbersome garb, he moved towards her and leaned across to speak.
‘We’ve made it safe, sir. Quite a simple device. No boobytraps. We’re taking it to Forensics for analysis. HQ will be operational in ten minutes.’
‘Good work Morgan. Thank your team for me. I’ll meet you in the unit.’ Straker cut the connection.
Rachel had arrived at the Forensic Department and was engrossed in recording the details of the bomb when Straker appeared, moving with quiet haste. He studied the now dismantled laptop and its contents. ‘Where did you find it, Colonel?’ he asked, his face grim.
‘In your office. I don’t know how long it had been there, almost certainly for no longer than a few minutes. It depends on how close the nearest sensor was. I can’t be more specific than that I’m afraid,’ she said.
‘I had been out of my office for at least thirty minutes when the alarm sounded, he mused. ‘Get the security tapes. I will leave you to deal with that, Colonel. I need to get things in order in Control. ‘By the way, Colonel,’ he said, ‘I was dubious about updating the sensor systems, but their usefulness has been proven.’ He smiled down at her and she noticed for the first time how tall he was. It had never seemed important before.
There was no point in senseless yearnings. She was well aware that it was a waste of time and emotional energy that should be spent doing the job. She could dream but that was as far as it would go.
Straker leaned against the wall in the control room and tried to focus on the consoles and systems. After more hours than he cared to think about all stations were now reporting clear. He hid a yawn as he went to his office, reached for his briefcase and began to put the day’s unfinished paperwork inside.
It had been a difficult few days with no senior command staff to support the running of the HQ. Alec was still in Barrow, assessing the base prior to commissioning a new Skydiver. With luck he would be back in London sometime soon, but until then Straker had total responsibility for the running of HQ and he was beginning to feel the strain. He had been in the base for well over twenty-four hours and had not had a break, but now that Moonbase had confirmed that there were no further UFOs in their sensors he had a chance to get some sleep.
‘I’m going off duty for a few hours, Ford.’ Straker’s eyes were dulled with tiredness. ‘Contact me if there are any problems.’
‘Yes sir. Would you like me to arrange a driver for you?’
‘No, I’ll be fine.’ Grey with fatigue Straker headed for the entrance to SHADO Headquarters. Miss Ealand had left and her office was dark, but she had left some files out for him to approve and sign. Nothing important, film stuff. But it had to be done and he scrawled a tired signature on each, not bothering to read them. He knew his secretary well enough to trust her judgment in these matters. He put them on her desk and walked out into the night where the full moon was casting cobalt shadows across the darkened studio complex. He had not realised that it was the middle of the night; one of the problems in working erratic hours in the underground complex was that he lost track of time in the real world.
He drove with care knowing full well that his reflexes were not at their best, and it was with a sense of relief that he arrived back at his house. He never thought of it as his home. Home was where your family lived, and Straker had no family, now that his son was dead.
It was a memory that he tried to keep suppressed, bringing with it each time that unbearable anguish at the loss of his child. An emotion that he needed to suppress if he was to be an effective commander. The only tangible reminder that he had of John was a photograph by his bed but despite all his efforts the thought of his son was never far away.
There was no obvious movement from the adjacent guard house, which was a relief. He hated being watched over as if he was a delinquent child, unable to go anywhere or do anything without someone there, behind him, or in front, watching, anticipating his every move. He enjoyed the freedom of driving himself to work, having privacy in his house, to be able to do what he wanted without having to account for every move.
The house was dark and quiet and he put his briefcase down to strip off his jacket and shoulder holster and sigh. He slipped his Glock into his waistband at his back and walked through to the kitchen area, dropping the jacket and holster onto the sofa as he passed. Too weary to eat anything he gulped down a glass of milk and then headed upstairs to the peace of his bedroom.
He didn’t switch on the lights as he walked around the room, but he sat on the edge of the bed to slide the Glock under his pillow and ease off shoes and socks. As he padded barefoot to the bathroom he noticed that the guard house was still unlit and yet he recalled asking Jenson about a protection detail. Something was not right. He paused, wondering whether to contact headquarters. There should have been at least two guards on duty outside the house and one inside. And with a sense of fear he realised that he had been a fool to enter the house without checking.
He reached for his mobile and dialled. There was no tone and he put it aside and tried the landline. It too, was dead.
Gun in hand he headed to the top of the staircase, listening for any sound. With the mobile network and landlines disabled he was cut off and isolated and for one moment he considered going into the panic room, but once in there he would be trapped and there was still no guarantee that he would be able to make contact. Headquarters would have sent a squad if the house alarm had been activated or they knew something was amiss.
He was on his own.
He needed to get out.
With bare feet making little noise he crept downstairs and reached out to pick up the car key and slip it into his pocket. He shifted his grip on the pistol and prepared to move from the shadow of the stairs into the moonlit space in front of the door. In the distance he could hear a vehicle coming up the long gravel driveway from the main road and he paused and took a deep breath with just three more paces to the front door. His hand stretched out to grasp the release mechanism then……….
Colonel Philips studied the print out from the aerial surveillance team. She could do little investigation into the bomb until the scientists had finished their work and so had decided to concentrate on the snapshot. She advanced the film until it showed the overhead view of the two men. There. The figure in the corner, hidden by the shadow of the building. The photo could only have been taken from that position. So, she wondered, who was it?
It was hard to get a clear look at the face, but it was a man, and he was inside the security cordon, therefore someone known to SHADO. She reached for the Operation Planning document. And yes, there was no doubt. And yet that had to be a mistake. Jenson?
‘Lt. Jenson please report to Security,’ she requested, only to have a reply from Ford.
‘Colonel Philips, Lt. Jenson left ninety minutes ago. He was going to Commander Straker’s house to check on the security you requested. He hasn’t returned as far as I am aware.’
She felt a chill rush through her. She had not asked anyone to go to the Commander’s house, in fact she knew nothing about upgrading any security. Even if Jenson had been out to the house, he should have been back by now, and there was no record of his movements.
Jenson had been out to Straker’s house and he had been the one taking the picture. What else had he been doing? Dear God. Her mind raced ahead, imagining scenarios and possible outcomes. Had Jenson had anything to do with the bomb in Straker’s office? As a security member, he certainly had access to Pentolite. She called the Forensics department.
‘Any details on the bomb yet? Have we got a signature’ she asked, her fingers tapping the desk.
‘Yes Colonel, there was definite signature and it was a simple task to trace the source,’ he began but she interrupted.
‘Just tell me where it came from.’
The speaker sounded annoyed at her abruptness. ‘The explosive was from a batch stored here in the main armoury. It was requisitioned by Lt. Jenson for use in the Research Department.’’
Rachel flicked the intercom. ‘Ford, I need to speak to Commander Straker right now.’
‘I’m sorry Colonel, but he left ten minutes ago. He was tired and was going to get some sleep. Is it urgent?’ Ford queried.
‘Dammit, Ford, get him on the phone.’ The sharpness of her voice did nothing to hide the panic that she was feeling. A long silence, and she prayed that she was over-reacting even as her thoughts grew more anxious.
The communication officer’s worried voice broke the stillness. ‘Colonel, I’m unable to get through to any of the Commander’s mobiles or landlines. All transmissions are jammed. The monitors seem to have been compromised, and the alarms and security systems are not functioning, although the board displays positive on all systems. Colonel, we have a serious problem.’
Rachel took a breath, and allowed her training to take over. ‘I’m leaving for his house now, Ford. Get a security team there. Find Jenson and apprehend him with extreme force if necessary. Send a medivac team to Straker’s and contact Alec Freeman to tell him what’s happened. Get him back here.’ She cut the connection and ran to her car.
She had always enjoyed driving fast, but there was no time for pleasure now. The Golf was pushed to its limits, driven at speeds she would never have dared attempt even in daylight on fast roads. From her calculations Straker would have been alone in his house for several minutes, and if all electronic connections were dead, anything could have happened.
She slowed down as she saw the lane ahead, turned in and pulled to a halt some yards away from the building before contacting Ford with a curt message. ‘I’m at Straker’s. It’s in darkness but the car is outside. I’ll go the rest of the way on foot.’
As she stepped out a brilliant flash of light illuminated the night sky followed by the sound of explosives detonating. Her reaction was instinctive. She flung herself as close as possible to her car and cowered there in terror until the noise and the spattering of falling debris had diminished. Then she looked up.
Straker knew as soon as he saw the radio transmitter concealed behind the frame of the door that it was too late and that due to his tiredness and complacency he had initiated the countdown when he had entered the house. He could see in the darkness of the empty hallway the traitorous digits of the display counting down to zero. There was no time to do anything other than fling himself into the space under the stairs in a desperate attempt to avoid the worst of whatever was coming.
An explosion of noise and pressure surrounded him and hurled him sideways. His head impacted with a heavy thump against the wall and he fell in a crumpled and twisted heap as he struggled to stay conscious. He could do little more than wait as the house began to collapse.
Outside on the main road Michael Jenson, with his eyes dead of emotion and feeling, watched from his car. The explosion had been more powerful than he had intended. However, Straker had set off the timing device when he entered and now he was dead.
Jenson closed his eyes and remembered the look on Peter Claybourne’s face when he realised that the aliens had tricked him, before they sliced him open and gutted him alive like a fish. Jenson had watched, terrified beyond belief as he was restrained by the aliens, and knowing that the same fate lay in store for him. He had lost consciousness then, and it was the arrival of the rest of the security team that had saved him.
But now Straker was dead and Jenson felt a profound and inexplicable sense of relief. Maybe he could rest now. The overwhelming compulsion to eliminate the SHADO Commander was finally gone. Some hidden part of Jenson’s consciousness which still retained the memories and awareness of his previous existence had tried to assuage the irrational impulse by non violent means; a threatening letter, an incriminating photograph, an easily defused explosive, but the craving had intensified until he was no longer able to control his actions.
The dominating voices in his head had overridden his feeble attempts and he had not been able to ignore the growing malignancy. The Michael Jenson that had existed before had striven in vain to regain control of his own mind, but eventually the new Jenson who was governed by the aliens had succeeded. It was over. He had a sense of fulfilment, of a task achieved, of an assignment well done.
Straker was dead.
He rubbed his forehead and grimaced in pain. He‘d had this damn headache since Pete died and now it had returned with a vengeance.. The doc had put it down to stress and had prescribed the usual – painkillers and rest. They hadn’t worked and he could feel it now, drilling right inside his skull. He groaned with the increasing discomfort and squeezed his head in a effort to relieve the pain. It was then that the controlling implant, inserted behind his eye by the aliens while he was unconscious, self-destructed with a final excruciating blast as his brain haemorrhaged and blood burst through his ruptured eardrums.
Colonel Philips watched in horror as the old farm building continued to topple outwards into a chaotic and devastating heap. There was nothing she could do but watch in horror. Debris continued to blow around her and grit-filled tears blurred her eyes. Frozen with shock, she began to shake and in the distance, she heard sirens. The noise brought her to her senses and she ran towards the house, picking her way over the rubble as the medivac team arrived.
He was in pain. Sharp, stabbing pain that burned through his back and shoulders and tingled in his arms. Something heavy and hard had pinned him to the floor and he was trapped face down with one arm twisted under his chest and his hand and wrist cramped and throbbing. He wasn’t able to move apart from a slight scrape of his bare feet against the surface on which he was lying. Why was it so dark? His head was pounding and it was difficult to breathe. The air was full of dust and grit that clogged his lips and mouth and throat. He couldn’t see. Where was the light? He could taste blood. He was cold, so very cold. There was no sound apart from a resonant hissing in his ears. And he could not move his arms.
He could feel the panic beginning.
As Colonel Philips neared the damaged building she tried to calculate the damage. Parts of the main structure were intact, but most of the roof had collapsed. It was fortunate that the walls had not imploded but instead had dropped outwards away from the central core. The chimney stack had gone, splintered shards of glass littered the surrounding area, and the air was filled with debris. It was impossible to decide where to start hunting, or even if it was safe to search. With helpless desperation she contacted HQ and called for a rescue team to be sent to her location. Then all she could do was to be patient. The medivac team could do nothing to help.
She knew how dangerous it was when bystanders tried to get involved in such a situation. Rachel knew her strengths, and organising a rescue in a collapsed building was not one of them so she made herself useful by reporting to HQ and giving the teams information.. They arrived faster than she had anticipated and set to work with tracker devices, remote cameras and sensors quartering the ground and, after what seemed an interminable length of time, called her over.
‘We’ve pinpointed some promising sounds here,’ the team leader explained, showing her a rough sketch of the area. ‘It’s going to be difficult to get in as the remaining walls are still in danger of collapsing and so far we haven’t found a large enough space for any of us to crawl through. We’re pretty sure someone’s alive in there, but we can’t get to them yet. There’s a very narrow gap and we’re trying to enlarge it but it takes time. We got an endoscopic camera through the tightest part of the passage and it leads to a space where we think he might be, but as yet none of our team can fit down there. It’s not very far, a matter of five yards or so at the most, but whatever was affecting transmissions before seems to have done the same to the camera so we can’t say for certain how much room there is.’
Rachel looked at the team leader. He was, like his crew, muscular and used to lifting debris and carrying dead weights. She however, was slender. Their eyes met and it was clear that he was thinking along the same lines.
‘It could be dangerous Colonel,’ he advised her.
‘I know,’ she murmured, ‘but if he is in there we need to get to him as soon as possible. Is there a chance I could get through?’
His eyes scrutinised her. ‘It would be difficult and we don’t know what obstructions you might hit once you are past the first part. Are you sure you want to try?’
‘Yes.’ There was no hesitation in her voice. ‘Tell me what to do, and get me in there.’
Shortly after she was equipped with overalls and basic rescue equipment and made her way over the wreckage to the space leading into the rubble. All she had to do was to follow the fibre optic cable. Easier said than done. The route was constricted and she struggled to get past rubble and debris.
The pack was pushed in front of her and snagged on broken bricks and splintered wood. At first she made little progress but she refused to drag it behind her in case it caught and she could not free it. Besides which, she had a dread of getting stuck fast in the passage way and being unable to wriggle to safety. It was difficult to move more than a few inches without having to squirm round an obstruction and her hands and knees were scraped raw as she struggled on. The sound of stressed wood creaking under the pressure and the constant loud cracks made her flinch, but she struggled on.
It seemed to take forever to get past the worst of the blockade but at last she was through the narrowest section and could breathe without the edges of stone digging into her. Here she could move her arms instead of dragging herself forward by her fingertips. She shifted the rucksack so that it was not obstructing her vision and pushed on, leaving smears of blood on broken bricks.
‘I’m through the worst part now and it seems clear ahead,’ she tried reporting to the team on the surface. Her voice was thick and hoarse, her ears clogged with dust and filth, but there was no response. The radio waves must have been affected as well. She was on her own.
He became aware that the silence was interspersed by strange noises in the distance; the residue of a shattered tile as it fell in a clatter of orchestral notes; the trickling waterfall of small debris, rolling in gentle avalanches down from the upper levels; the resonant clunk of a brick that was dislodged by vibrations to tumble onto broken wood. There seemed to be no familiar sounds. No voices, no one near to help. Breathe, he told himself. Count each breath, keep calm, and keep counting. He tried to control his panic and to keep the fear under control but it was getting difficult. Even breathing was an effort as he tried not to choke.
If only he could see. He couldn’t even remember what had happened, just that he was trapped here in the dark and he was alone. He tried to ease the deep ache in his shoulders but the weight that pressed down on him prevented even that small movement. He could move his free hand an inch or two, and he was aware of stones and grit under his fingers, but that was all. Terror started to build inside him, washing away all attempts to stay calm.
Then in the distance he heard the sound of a voice although he could not tell what was being said and there, just there, was that a flash of light? He was too confused and dazed to be sure. He tried to call out, but the dust caught in his throat and he struggled for breath, coughing and choking, trying to get air into heaving lungs. In that single moment of terror his mind betrayed him and he lost that final vestige of tight control that had held the panic at bay and he was back in the submarine and alone, trying to drag the foul lifeless air into his lungs and knowing that there was no escape this time.
Rachel became aware of choking gasping breaths in the darkness.
‘Commander?’ she pleaded, desperate for his voice. ‘Commander Straker? Are you there?’ Her voice echoed through the rubble-strewn space. She stopped to listen.
A faint voice in the distance, soft words in a familiar accent. ‘Pumps failing. No oxygen left………….. ’ She could have wept with relief although his response puzzled her.
‘Keep still Commander, I’m nearly with you.’ It took time to crawl the last feet across the accumulated shards of wreckage as the beam from her head-torch lit up fragments of the scene.
The lower stairs had remained intact for the most part, although they were hidden under a mass of fallen joists and rubble. He must have sought refuge there and it had saved him from the worst of the damage but she could see he was spattered with blood and dust. His eyes were closed and he was murmuring something to himself. Broken lengths of splintered timber had fallen across his shoulders and back, pinning his body to the ground. His legs were buried under rubble and shards of plaster. The fingers of his free hand were moving and stretching out as if seeking some contact, some comforting touch.
It seemed an eternity before she reached him and her hands and knees were skinned raw. It took time to move the pieces of wreckage and she heard him groan as the weight was released.
‘Don’t move. I know it hurts but stay still. You may have broken something,’ she ordered, hoping that he was able to understand . She dreaded what would happen if he suddenly tried to get up or to roll over and she manoeuvred herself next to him, dragging the pack close to fumble at the straps with her scuffed and painful fingers. She touched his face. Deep and unpleasant bruises were beginning to distort his features and small cuts from flying glass and debris marked the bare skin, oozing blood onto his sweater and the scuffed surface of polished wooden floor on which he was lying.
His eyes were shut, the pale lashes heavy with grit and tears and she wiped them free of dirt. They remained closed. She put a hand on his cheek, the skin cold and clammy and he shivered. It took time to pull out the emergency blanket and wrap it around him, tucking it in to help retain some body heat and all the while he seemed unaware of her presence and continued to murmur in a low monotone.
‘Emergency power failing… Commend Captain and …’ He sounded feverish and confused.
‘Commander, can you hear me? Ed?’ It was no use. She didn’t know what she could do to help him wake up from the nightmare he was reliving but she ran her hands over his body to feel for damage. He didn’t appear to have any broken bones but she was not experienced enough to be able to tell if there had been a spinal injury. That would have to wait until the rescue team reached them. Straker was still incoherent, and she huddled closer, wrapping an arm over him in an attempt to reach through to his awareness and to prevent him from moving. It seemed wrong somehow, that she could be here, in this situation, helping him. As if their roles had been reversed.
‘Hang on Commander,’ she murmured, ‘you’re safe.’ She lay there hoping that the rescue team would reach them soon and as her hand reached out to grasp his she was aware of his bloodied fingers tightening on hers. ‘It’s okay, I’m here,’ she whispered as he tried to lift his head to turn towards her. ‘Keep still.’
He cried out once in distress, but remained still, his hand still clasping hers. ‘What happened?’ His voice, though unsteady, was once more lucid.
She shifted to ease the discomfort of lying there curled up on the rubble-strewn floor, and recounted the events since he had left HQ. ‘The rescue team are working to clear a path,’ she explained, ‘and then we can get you out. It’s going to take time I’m afraid. There’s morphine here if you need it.’
‘No, I’m okay,’ he gasped. ‘The worst part is being trapped.’ He hated admitting his weakness, the overriding terror of being confined, and the inability to remain in control of his emotions when locked in a small space. ‘Claustrophobia. Doesn’t make it easy.’
He gave a brief and ironic laugh, before he started to choke again. It was almost impossible to lift his head away from the floor and in the end he gave up trying and lay there, his ashen hair mingled with blood and debris and dirt. Dust motes sparkled in the torchlight as they spun in the disturbed air and the silver frame of his watch refracted light into the surrounding dimness. She felt helpless, unable to do more than help him try to survive this. There was nothing to do but wait.
She started to talk about small matters: the weather, her previous post in Oslo, James Rizzi’s art, her search for a flat in the area, her liking for Italian food. All inconsequential topics but he seemed to be listening and once or twice broke in with a brief remark or query. As the air grew fouler she could hear him struggle to breathe, but there was nothing she could do apart from talk to him in the hope that he remained conscious. The sounds of the SAR team excavating a path echoed through the ruin, and it was while she was talking about the Northern Lights that she felt, rather than saw, the change in the mustiness around them. Fresh air flowed into the space and then the darkness was lessened as lights moved closer.
Search and Rescue had reached them.
Colonel Philips sighed as the first of the team clambered through followed by paramedics. They cleared a path through to where she was lying, still nestled against Straker, her hand clasped in his.
‘Ok Colonel, good job. Time for you to get out. There isn’t much room,’ the leader ordered.
With reluctance she moved close to whisper, her words unheard by the team. ‘I have to go now. Don’t worry, you will be out soon.’ But as she released his hand he reached out to stop her and his bloodied fingers clasped her arm.
‘Rachel, thank you.’ The words were soft and for her alone. Then he let go of her and she bent forward and with gentle tenderness placed a very deliberate kiss on his cheek. He looked at her with quiet acceptance, before closing eyes as the team gathered round him to begin the lengthy and difficult process of extraction.
She was in the way. She blinked back tears and started to make her way along the shored-up crawl-way to the outside.
Straker watched her go with a desperate sense of loss and abandonment. He could still feel the touch of her lips on his skin. It had been a long time since someone had kissed him with genuine warmth, too long. He would speak to her after all this was over and when he could think. It would be good to talk to her again, but for now the main concern was getting out of here.
As she emerged from the void dawn was making its presence felt and the area was filled with SHADO personnel from the emergency teams, standing in the glare of arc lights around the perimeter of the incident. The helicopter was waiting ready to transport casualties to Mayland’s SHADO unit and as soon as she stood upright, trembling with the sudden release of tension and stress, she felt strong arms supporting her.
‘I arrived just in time it seems.’ A familiar voice greeted her, and she turned round to look up at Colonel Freeman. For some inexplicable reason she started to cry, deep sobs that shook her entire body and with horror Alec had a vision of Ed, broken and lifeless under the rubble.
‘Rachel is Ed alright? We haven’t been able to get the radios working. The SAR said he was alive…’ With desperation in his voice he questioned her, almost shouting in his sudden fear that something had gone wrong.
She took a deep breath and tried to control herself ‘He’s okay, honestly,’ she was quick to reassure him. ‘The Commander was conscious when I left him, and there didn’t seem to be any major injuries. I don’t know why I’m crying.’
She was shuddering with cold and he pulled off his coat and wrapped it around her. It was still warm from his body and she began to relax until her tears ceased and she calmed.
‘Sorry,’ she muttered. ‘I’m okay, it’s just that …….’ She broke off unsure of how to explain her feelings.
‘Don’t be silly Rachel. Go and let the medics check you over. Then you need to go back to base and get some rest.’
She looked over to the gaping hole, lit by the arc lights. ‘I’d rather stay if that’s okay with you, Colonel?’
Freeman put a hand on her shoulder. ‘It’s like that is it?’ He smiled down at her.
She was too honest to try to lie to him. She hugged him to hide her blushes against his chest, then let go and walked away.
Freeman gazed with affection at the dishevelled and diminutive figure as she stumbling over the rough ground towards the waiting ambulance, then he turned back to the rescue scene, anxious for a sign of movement from underground.
Straker lay still and silent as the rescue team worked on him to wrap a neck brace in place before with utmost caution they turned him over. He had known what was coming but even prepared as he was the pain as his trapped arm was released was unbearable and he gave one short and hoarse cry before he fainted. He woke soon afterwards to find himself strapped in the inside the stretcher, ready to be carried. The morphine they had given him had started to work and the pain was dull but he hated the drugged loss of control and was too exhausted to speak. He lay there, silent and patient, trusting the team to get him to safety.
On the surface the bystanders waited, their numbers swelled by off duty operatives who had made their way to the scene. There had been no contact with the team below ground for some time, and rumours were beginning to spread. Even Alec Freeman was edgy, sniping at anyone who came near, and pacing the perimeter. It couldn’t take much longer, he thought. What was happening? Had something gone wrong? He knew that the SAR team were unable to keep radio contact, but it was getting unbearable. He didn’t dare look over at Rachel, sitting inside the warmth and comfort of an ambulance. Perhaps Ed …….
Then a figure scrambled out to signal to a waiting ambulance before turning back to bend down and help lift the stretcher out into the lights. Silence swept across the scene like an arctic wind. Everyone standing motionless and waiting for a sign as if caught in a photograph. Freeman knew that he would recall this moment for the rest of his life. Ed’s family, or as near to family as he might get, all captured in that one instant of dreadful anticipation. He couldn’t move.
And then relief washed over the gathering as the group lowered the stretcher and the leader straightened up, to circle his index finger and thumb. A sigh broke the silence and, as if some invisible force had been removed, the groups started to move once more hugging and shaking hands as they shared in the sense of relief.
Alec hurried over to stand close to the stretcher and put his hand on the frame. ‘Ed, everything’s fine. They’re taking you to hospital.’ A tousled helmet of pale hair, smutched with blood and dirt, could be seen within the swathes of protective coverings, but Colonel Freeman could see little of Ed’s face behind the oxygen mask. The head moved in response but there was no other indication that Straker was aware of his surroundings and his eyes stayed closed against the cold air and unexpected lights.
Alec looked at the doctor. ‘He’s going to be okay isn’t he, Doc?’ And his hand stayed on the stretcher as if unwilling to let go.
The answer was clinical yet reassuring. ‘He has hypothermia and some shock as well as minor injuries and exhaustion. There is the likelihood of fractures to one hand but I can see no reason why he should not recover within a few days.’ The doctor looked down at his patient and continued, ‘I think however it would be better if you met the Commander at the hospital. Space in the helicopter is restricted and we may need to give him more treatment but it seems that he has escaped without serious injuries.’
Freeman laid his hand against Straker’s bruised face and the commander opened his eyes to squint against the dazzle of the lights as Freeman leaned over him ‘Ed. I’m going to get back to HQ and check on things there, and then I’ll come straight to the hospital.’
Blue eyes, glazed and unfocussed with fatigue stared up at him. ‘Rachel? Did she get out?’ Straker questioned, his voice just audible through the mask.
‘Good.’ Straker muttered to himself and would have smiled but it was too much effort. Warm and cocooned he allowed himself the luxury of drifting into a dreamless sleep as the stretcher was lifted into the waiting helicopter.
Colonel Philips walked along the SHADO corridors to her office, running over the last three days in her mind. It had been good to get back to work and to be able to bring an end to the whole episode. Michael Jenson’s body had been discovered by a retrieval team some time after the commander had been airlifted out and a post-mortem had discovered the remains of the implant in his brain. She had ordered CT scans for any staff who had come into contact with aliens in the last three months, and she intended to scan all SHADO operatives on a regular basis. If the aliens could embed a device into someone’s head with such ease they might well do it again. Only time would tell.
The one good aspect to the whole event was that her security team had accepted the fact that she was now in charge and they had had gone out of their way to make things easier for her since she returned from debrief. Things were beginning to look up.
Rachel had not had the opportunity to speak to Straker since the incident although she had been kept informed of his condition. She had been to see him once but he had been sleeping and she did not intend disturbing him. He looked drawn and pale as he lay there under the white sheets, stitched and sedated, but at least he was alive. She remembered the kiss, her lips on his cheek, and wondered if it would ever be mentioned.
Her door opened and Alec walked in. ‘Morning, Colonel. The boss is awake and wants to see you.’
‘Good.’ She stood up. ‘I have to talk to him about finding a suitable place for him to stay until his house is rebuilt, if that’s what he wants.’
Colonel Freeman escorted her through the maze of underground corridors to the SHADO unit at Mayland. She expected him to come in with her, but he knocked on the door of Straker’s room, pushed it open and said, ‘Go on then.’
Suddenly she was overcome with shyness. It was one thing to kiss in a situation where lives were at risk, but to have to go in, alone and talk to him, when he surely remembered what had happened….
Straker was lying propped up on pillows reading a report and he looked up at her and smiled. A security member was on guard in the room and the Commander nodded to him, ‘You can leave us Cooper. Go and get a drink.’
The door closed and Rachel moved across to stand next to the bed. She was silent, not knowing what to say. The room was silent, tranquil and she stared down at her hands with their swollen and scuffed fingers, at his hands with purpled bruises mottling the skin. She glanced up, and as she did so, his eyes met hers. There was a moment of absolute stillness, as if the world itself had come to rest, had stopped spinning. And in that one instant she knew that he was aware of her feelings. Embarrassed she turned away from his bedside, but he reached out and took her hand.
‘Let’s see how it works out, shall we?’ he asked. ‘That is, if you want to?’ He looked at her.
‘I’d like that. I’d like to finish our talk without people interrupting us,’ she smiled, then bent over and kissed him for the second time, but on his lips. He contemplated her for a long moment in silence before he spoke.
‘I should be out of here on Friday. I know a local Italian restaurant that makes the best lasagne I have ever had. Perhaps you would like to join me after work on Friday to finish our conversation?’ His hand tightened on her for a moment.
There was no need for her to answer. Her smile was enough.
Re written in September 2011. It is still raw and rough and reading through the original version I am appalled at the basic errors that I made. Spellings, punctuation, sentence construction… some dreadful errors and not picked up until now! I have taken at least 2,500 words out of the original version. There may still be errors in it…. for which I apologise!