It was with some trepidation that Straker followed his erstwhile barber into the building. His credentials had passed the scrutiny of the guards at the entrance without question, but to be outside the car and surrounded by so many humans was an uncomfortable feeling, even though most of them ignored him. Jackson walked on, giving short explanations, nodding to several people and eventually taking him into one of the base refectories. He gestured to a table. ‘Sit down. Thornton will meet us here so you might as well have breakfast while we wait. What do you usually eat?’
There was no answer to that. Straker thought for a moment. ‘I often don’t, until mid-day. Fruit? I don’t know.’ He felt awkward, as if he was inconveniencing the other man, like a child, unable to make his mind up. Breakfast. Thoughts and images entered his mind as if the word had unlocked previously hidden memories. Eggs and bacon and toast. Sausages, pancakes. Porridge. A confusion of ideas, of unknown tastes and textures.
‘Leave it with me then. I’ll bring a tray. Something easy to start with.’ Jackson headed off, leaving Straker sitting there, conscious of a sudden lowering of voices in the room and people turning to stare. He folded his hands together and remained calm, looking at the table to avoiding watching eyes. Jackson would not have left if there was any danger of someone approaching to ask awkward questions. The noise in the room resumed its previous level, and he sensed Jackson’s return.
‘There.’ A tray put in front of him. He looked at the plate. ‘Waffles.’ Jackson explained. ‘Vegetarian. I wasn’t sure, and I thought you might…?’
‘Yes. Thank you. I prefer not to eat meat unless there is no alternative. Waffles.’ Straker picked up the knife and cut into the crimped circle on the plate, butter melting into the dimples and thick syrup pooling on one side. It smelled edible, similar to the pastry he had eaten the previous night. He took a bite. It was food. It would be enough. The mug on the tray held a brown liquid, steam rising from it and he took a cautious sip. Bitter and strong and he put it down again.
‘Do you want sugar in that?’ Jackson stirred in two spoonfuls of white crystals from the bowl on the table. ‘Try it now.’
A marginal improvement, the bitterness now masked and he drank more and then finished the waffles, eating in silence while Jackson worked his way through his own breakfast. Thornton arrived, dressed in uniform, walking through the room straight for their table and pulling out a chair to join them. The voices in the room hushed again, everyone attentive once more.
‘Colonel. Good to have you back with us. How are you? Settled in alright?’ The voice was loud, deliberately loud, and carried across the room.
Straker had no idea how to answer. But it was clear that Thornton did not expect any response. He continued talking, dropping references to ‘repatriation’ and getting Straker back up to speed, then with an abrupt movement pushed back his chair and held out his hand. ‘Take your time Colonel. We’re all here to help you and Jackson will get you anything you need. Just ask.’ One firm clasp of his hand and he was walking away, Straker acutely conscious that everyone had been listening. He busied himself with finishing his drink and then followed Jackson out of the room, head down, avoiding the interested glances and mutters.
The day passed in a blur of activity. The comprehensive and impersonal medical examination performed by Jackson was only to be expected, but he had not anticipated standing in the middle of the room as the doctor, with almost purring with delight, made yet another note about blood pressure or pulse rate or reflexes. Vulcan discipline enabled him to ignore the more intimate probing and he answered the questions with as few words as possible, shivering though the room was not cold, as Jackson prowled around and took photographs. The more invasive tests were unpleasant to say the least, but he prepared himself, and made no indication of distress though it was a relief to don his clothes again and compose himself in the quiet of the room once the doctor finished.
Afterwards he was kept busy, collecting equipment, getting his security upgraded from Visitor status to Staff, finding his way around the maze of corridors to an office on the fourth floor and then finding his way back again after he had been down to the stores mid-afternoon. His office was yet another small room. Bleak and sparse. One desk, a phone, cupboards, a wall safe. But at least the window overlooked the grounds of the base. He disliked the lift, a narrow windowless box, but it was a necessity until he discovered the little-used stairwell on the second day. He wondered how long he would be here, confined in yet another place and unable to walk free.
Thornton left him with Jackson for the rest of the time; days spent learning the protocols and accessing files in hidden deep inside Project Blue Book, nights spent in his hotel room reading and memorising reports about alien attacks on Earth, or making rough notes on the design of vehicles and even a base on the Moon with which to defend Earth. Idle speculation in some respects, but he believed the concepts were both practical and achievable, even with Earth’s current state of technology. Besides, that was why he was here wasn’t it? To make ‘suggestions’ to Henderson, and help get the ideas turned into reality. If he could persuade Henderson to take him on board.
He had little time to explore Earth, or even his local surroundings. He had no real idea where he was; just that he was on Earth and in this Air Force base somewhere in the USA. He kept himself to himself, nodded a greeting to Thornton whenever they met, but that was all. After seven days he was restless, aching for wide spaces in which he could walk, for the heat of a harsh sun on his face, for fields and plants and cool stone, but mostly, for a real purpose to his days instead of hiding himself behind Jackson’s protective facade.
Not that Jackson was a difficult person. He picked Straker up from the hotel every morning and took him back each evening. Pleasant conversation in the car about the weather, or what Straker had been doing that day. No unreasonable orders, no snide comments, or even probing questions about his own world. Jackson was polite at all times, composed and calm, explaining simple matters with a genuine charm; but there was something about the small man that made Straker a little uncomfortable, as if Jackson stripped him naked again with every look, every meeting, every innocent question about his family or his preferences for food or even his opinion about the aliens. After a while Straker came to understand that Jackson was like the members of the Science Council, far more capable and cunning than anyone realised, until it was too late.
It was towards the end of his third week before he met anyone else other than Jackson and the odd assistant silently bringing files or documents from the archives. He was making himself a cup of coffee in the open staff area further down the corridor, adding his usual two sugars in an attempt to make the drink more palatable. Few people talked to him here, for which he was grateful. His was an uncomfortable position, not part of the group, yet not a civilian either. And all the talk of his recent status made it harder; no one wanting to be the first to broach the subject. Yet sometimes he watched the other men, lower ranked and older, chatting in small groups, laughing about women or sports and he wondered if he would ever fit into this strange world. He was unaware of footsteps behind him until someone spoke.
The accent was strange, not the slow American drawl that he was now accustomed to hearing. He analysed it. English. Southern counties. He turned. ‘Yes.’ The man in front of him was craggy, older. A Lt. Col as well.
‘Alec Freeman. General Thornton asked me to look you up. Said you needed some flight time? You’ve been out of it for a while?’
Of course. Thornton had him listed as an experienced fighter pilot and at some stage he would need to prove his ability. It should not be a problem; the accelerated learning course had been thorough, to say the least and he had flown powerful single-seater jets on Vulcan, but he could not risk taking a plane up alone, not without some preparation first. He put his cup down and held out a hand. ‘Sure. Hope you don’t mind?’ Freeman’s grasp was firm, the fingers calloused and strong.
‘Nope. Any chance to get away from the office. I can take you up whenever you want. Thornton told me not to ask questions, so I won’t, but I can give you some practice time, give you a chance to get up to speed. If that’s what you want?’
A perfect solution. He would be able to try out his skills without fear. ‘Thanks. Appreciate it. Have you known Thornton long?’ His conversational speech was improving, he noted with some approval.
Freeman gave a cynical laugh. ‘I wouldn’t say I know him. I’ve been working for him for a year now, mostly intell stuff, but he’s a difficult man to get to know. Keeps himself to himself if you know what I mean.’ He looked around before continuing in a softer voice. ‘Thornton says you’re an ex-POW. Recently home. Out of the loop for a few years.’
It wasn’t a question, but Straker could sense the interest. Easier to confirm it now and put the rumours to rest at last. ‘Yes. You could say a few years.’ He turned away to pick up his mug, then hesitated. Freeman seemed genuine enough and if he worked for Thornton he was not a threat, might even be more help in the future. The thought of learning to drive a car was even more of a worry. And it would be pleasant to talk to someone other than Jackson for once. ‘Coffee?’
‘Okay. Final turn and bring her in to land. I’ve cleared it with ATC to have an F-16 waiting for you tomorrow. Eleven hundred hours. ’ Freeman said from the rear seat of the T-38. Their sixth flight together, Straker letting the other man pilot at first then taking over the controls until he was sure of his ability.
‘Sure. You can do it. Just needed get back in the seat. Like riding a bicycle. You never forget.’ Alec paused. ‘Though I can’t remember when I last rode a bicycle. All yours now.’
Straker felt the jet twitch as Freeman took his hands off the controls. He let his fingers rest on the stick, sensing each vibration and movement of the jet and enjoying being in control again as the jet screamed through the air. It was several minutes before he finished a gentle series of curves and began guiding the jet back down for a smooth and gentle touch-down. Freeman was silent, a welcome sign of approval and Straker relaxed, easing muscles tensed by stress as he taxied the jet to the end of the runway where the team were ready for him.
And he had solved a personal problem as well. There was a wide swathe of land outside the base, beyond the runway, quiet and undisturbed with a small woodland and no sign of buildings. He would walk round there in a day or so to see if there was somewhere appropriate. The plait was still at the bottom of his holdall, an undignified place for something so important, and waiting for him to dispose of it in the proper way, as was seemly and fitting. Before anyone found it and asked questions.
Later that night he left the hotel and went out into the dark to look up at the stars. Different constellations, a different moon. He could see brighter stars and his memory rewarded him with the information that these were planets. Mars and Venus and Saturn, though they were mere specks in the sky. He traced the lines of Ursa Major and the Pleiades and turned to look in the direction of Vulcan and Ochio, so far away. A lifetime away. Then he went inside to his room and lay there, trying as usual, to sleep.
The Falcon was prepped and waiting for him in the morning. The only flight that hour. He walked out with Freeman, running through the procedures in his mind and ignoring the small groups of pilots who had gathered to watch. Another test. Not just of his capabilities, but his courage. If he failed at this, then his prospects would diminish. It needed more than a simple flight. He looked at his mentor and allowed himself one tight grin.
Freeman stood at the bottom of the steps, one hand on Straker’s arm. ‘Relax. Forget the onlookers, you’ve nothing to prove. Just … enjoy it.’
Straker nodded and began to climb and Freeman moved away to watch, half-anxious as the jet taxied to the runway.