‘You owe me a drink. Several actually.’
‘Beer. Although the beer is rubbish here. They’ve no idea of how to put a decent head on a pint. But you owe me one.’ Alec rubbed his hands together. ‘Had me worried at one stage but that was nice work.’
‘It was just flying.’
‘But impressive.’ Alec Freeman stopped walking and turned to look at him. ‘You know Thornton was watching. If you’d cocked it up he’d have looked an idiot bringing you back into active service.’
‘Was it wrong?’ Straker asked. ‘I mean…’ The thrill of taking the jet through a series of manoeuvres was something he would cherish for a long time. A sense of freedom and oneness with the elements. Fire behind him, thrusting the jet to its limits, earth beneath, far beneath, and air around them as together they screamed over the base.
Freeman laughed. ‘No. I just expected you to do the basics. You know. Take off. Couple of passes and then in for landing. That was all. Anyway. Drink? After work?’
After work. He never socialised after work with people. Just returned to the hotel, ate a meal in solitary silence in his room, the same meal every night, too hesitant to risk ordering something that might have an adverse effect on his stomach, and then spent the rest of the evening working. ‘Yes. I’d like that.’ A very formal and stilted statement, but this was not something covered in the learning courses. How did one reply? Was his answer incorrect, inappropriate even?
It seemed not, for Freeman nodded. ‘You don’t know the bars here do you?’ he asked before answering himself. ‘No of course not. I’ll pick you up from your place about seven. That okay?’
Straker noticed Jackson in the distance, watching. ‘Yes. Seven.’ A change of scenery would be pleasant for once, even if his mentor disapproved. He went back to his office and his work, with a feeling that this just might work out.
Freeman was waiting in the reception area when Straker arrived, unsure about the civilian clothes he was wearing. Like all the other pilots he had worn his uniform to work each day but there had always been some distance between him and the others, as if he was an imposter and not worthy of the rank. It was a relief to leave it off for once. His own clothes were still in the wardrobe yet he could not wear those, much as he might wish to don the supple boots and lightweight trousers and tunic. The jeans would suffice, he hoped, together with a soft fabric sweater with lettering on the front. It felt surprisingly comfortable, but the trousers needed a belt to make them fit. He used the one from the uniform, aware that the buckle needed moving in a notch, if not two, from when he first used it. He went downstairs with some hesitation.
Freeman, chatting to the woman behind the desk, looked over as Straker arrived. ‘I’m hungry. Want to eat here or get something decent?’
‘Decent? Is this not..?’
Freeman chuckled. ‘Hotel food is never any good. I can’t wait to get back to England for proper fish and chips. Not these thin ones they call fries. Come on. You owe me a pint and I know a good bar.’
Straker lifted the top of the bun and peered at the burger. ‘This is..?’
‘Where the hell have you been for the last decade? Outer Mongolia? Although even they have……….’ Freeman stopped, embarrassed. ‘Sorry. No more questions. That …,’ He pointed one finger at the bun, ‘is the best burger you can buy around here. Hand made. Rump steak.’ He took a mouthful of beer. ‘Pity they don’t have cask ale.’
Straker took a tentative bite. Meat. Freeman had brought him to the bar and ordered burgers and beer for both of them without any warning. He had not even mentioned payment, and that was another problem to face. Thornton had given him a quantity of cash, and Jackson had mentioned in passing that he would provide more when necessary, but most of the money was back in his room, untouched. He had brought some with him, but the etiquette in these matters was still an unknown and he did not wish to offend Freeman.
He took another bite. The flavour was better than he anticipated, the texture moist and tender and he could taste herbs and delicate seasonings. A simple meal, as well as going some way to satisfying his ever present hunger. The beer however was another matter altogether, tasteless and thin, with none of the dark strength that made ale worth drinking. He drank a few mouthfuls anyway, out of politeness, glad to put the glass down and concentrate on his food.
Freeman noticed his grimace. ‘Exactly. They don’t have cask Guinness here.’ He gave a snort of disapproval, but finished his drink anyway. ‘Another? Or something else.’
‘I’m used to drinking just water. Or do they not serve that here?’ He lowered his head, embarrassed by his failure to conform.
Freeman shook his head. ‘Water’s fine. I’ll get you one.’ He stood up, resting one hand on Straker’s shoulder for a brief second. ‘It will get easier you know. No one expects you to act as if nothing’s happened. Give yourself time.’
The unforeseen touch on his shoulder was enough to open Straker’s already sensitive mind to raw emotion rushing through him, unstoppable and painful after so long in isolation A quick flash of shared anguish and concern for a fellow man who had been through hell and returned. It had been a long time since he had felt such emotions from anyone, let alone a human. His mind had been devoid of contact since his rescue, apart from a very few mind-melds to help overcome his mental state. But those melds were long gone, as were the soothing words of the physicians. He had never thought to have another mind in his, not here on Earth and although Freeman’s was little more than a passing thought, a brief contact and gone like the touch of a brother or uncle, it was enough for now. Nothing remained, no lingering afterthought, just that one moment but it was a comforting reassurance in a bleak and empty world and he allowed himself to relax a little, picking up his burger to finish eating while Freeman flirted with the barmaid and ordered a glass of water.
Later that evening Freeman dropped him off at the hotel and he went into the bar for a few moments, fumbling with the strangeness of money, before going up to his room, thoughtful and with a sense of relief. Another hurdle over, his acceptance as a pilot as well as a colleague. He undressed, glad to be out of the clothes, then lay down on the wide bed, and tried to shut out the sounds from outside.
Perhaps tonight he might sleep. It had been nearly two weeks since he last managed more than a few minutes slumber before waking from hideous nightmares sweating and confused. There had been no opportunities to meditate, no space or calm within the small room and even when he tried, the unfamiliar noises outside were sufficient to jolt him out of any trance. It was becoming a matter of concern. He could do without real sleep for this long if the proper mental techniques were in place, but without those, or the necessary meditation to ensure that his mind would cope, he would soon falter. One night’s rest. That was all. Proper sleep without disturbances from people walking past his room, or cars outside. Maybe even without the horror of waking to think he was back on Ochio, trapped under the stones.
He closed his eyes, working through relaxation exercises practiced for years until dreamless sleep overtook him. Not for long though. His own whimpers were enough to wake him and send him tumbling from the bed to fall in a huddle, legs tangled in the covers, pillows strewn across the room. A thin crack of light under the door told him it was still night, and he wrapped the covers around himself, hunching up in a corner of the room, his eyes wide open to stop himself falling asleep again, stop himself being trapped again in the nightmare. Eventually, exhaustion made his eyelids close and he slept, fitfully, limbs twitching, murmuring to himself as the ghosts of the past haunted his dreams.
Jackson was waiting when Straker made his way down in the morning, more than a few minutes late. The smaller man tilted his head. ‘Colonel? I wondered where you were. I was about to come and look for you.’ He frowned. ‘You look tired. I understand you were out with Colonel Freeman last night?’
‘I cleared it with the General. He had no objections.’ Straker kept his voice passive, but the uncertainty was there.
‘I see. I will discuss it with him later. Now, shall we get to work?’
Straker rested one hand on his briefcase. ‘Would it be possible to explore the base later? Get some fresh air and exercise. I would like to ….’ He tightened his lips, and then continued. It didn’t matter what Jackson thought, or what anyone thought really. ‘I would like to see some of the plants that grow here on Earth. Wild flowers and trees. Will that be a problem? If I go out this afternoon and walk?’
‘I don’t see why not. Please inform either myself or the general beforehand.’ The short journey continued in silence, Straker looking out of the window and wondering if Freeman would stop by this morning as promised.
Breakfast in the refectory. He was beginning to tire of waffles by now, but the sight of Jackson’s fried eggs and sausages and black pudding was enough to have his stomach roiling in disgust, and he had learned enough to know that it was better to stick to familiar food rather than risk offending anyone. But the burger last night had been delicious, as if his whole being had craved the sustenance. He would try one in the hotel tonight.
He spent the morning roughing out designs for a space-borne weapons system to intercept alien craft, frustrated that he could not use the latest Vulcan technology. But he could suggest advancements: nuclear cluster missiles, with a wide ranging detonation, improvements to current propulsion systems. Simple things that might be a deciding factor in protecting Earth. It might never come to fruition, but he needed something to do to pass the time instead of sitting here in isolation. Thornton assured him that there would be a chance to meet Henderson soon, but with each passing day it seemed as if he was trapped here in this office, kept under guard and doing nothing worthwhile. He might as well have stayed on Vulcan where he could have done his own research into the invaders. He kept himself busy correlating data, completing reports and preparing files with the few scant details garnered over the last few years.
At lunchtime, when everyone else was eating and he would not be disturbed, he phoned Jackson’s office and left a message with the secretary. As few words as possible: he was going out as mentioned this morning and should be back in a couple of hours. He put the phone down, heedless of any comeback and, as an afterthought, left a brief note on his desk, in case Freeman should come by. He opened the briefcase, pulling out the small bottle he purchased the night before and slipping it into one pocket. The briefcase contained only one other item, bound in a narrow strip of cloth and wrapped in tissue. He lifted it with care and reverence. It was too bulky to fit in a pocket and he would have to carry it. He hoped no one would question him. It was unlikely though; he was almost invisible here, an air force officer returned from overseas, from years spent in some enemy prison. Covert Operations. No one talked to those officers, not from dislike, but for the simple reason black ops were just that. Black. Non-existent. Like aliens.
He answered the security guards at the exit with patience. Yes, he wanted to go off the base for a couple of hours. No, he didn’t have a car and yes he was going to walk. Just up the road, that was all. He would be fine, he insisted. They watched him set off, then made a phone call.
The road bordering the base was busy, cars speeding by or occasionally slowing to watch jets take off from the runways. He set off, crossing the road to walk closer to the open land on the other side. A long walk, his feet beginning to hurt in the still-stiff shoes but he ignored the discomfort. If his feet blistered, he would walk barefoot, he had done so before. The sun was behind him and he concentrated on his journey, unaware of a car following him at a distance. Each step took him nearer to his target, the plait getting heavier in his fist, the bottle bouncing against his hip with every step.
It took longer than he had thought to reach the small wood and he was glad to stand beneath heavy-leaved branches for a few minutes, taking off his jacket, catching his breath and cooling down before walking further into the shade of the interior. He found a small clearing where one tree had fallen years ago, its trunk rotted away and sunlight pouring onto the ground. There were no signs of anyone else having been here, no footprints or rubbish sullying the ground. A fitting place. The soil was baked dry, the grass withered and brown but he managed to scoop out a hollow in the earth, lining it with stones before loosening the spiral of plaited hair in its tissue wrapping and laying it in the hole. He sat there, crossed legged, murmuring words to himself before unscrewing the bottle. The brandy poured over the coil, soaking into hair and stone-red paper and dry soil and stones, darkening the earth like blood. There were no leaves or twigs nearby, nothing that could burn apart from the paper and the plait. He traced a finger along its length. Five strands.
He closed his eyes and let the memories fill him one last time: his crops, the cave, the physical pain of the changes he had undergone, the harder anguish of severing his hair, severing his old life. He did not hear the car pulling up at the roadside, or the two men clambering over the low fence nearby while he sat there, contemplating the remnant of his former life and hopes. The wood was silent and peaceful, the air full of the scent of hot earth and sun and plants, and he was unable to prevent his head drooping, eyes closing as he drifted into sleep.