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As Lady Bracknell might have said: To lose one commanding officer to alien action may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose two, looks like carelessness!
Notes and references at the end of Part IV
Azan Pavlor, Prince of Spicor, Devas of System Prithvi, Co-ordinator of Harvests, and Keeper of the Kei (though he kept as quiet about that one as he could), stood by the curving transparent wall of his chamber and gazed out. Yellow light began to diffuse from the edge of the ice-shell above, casting its dim glow into the waters below, showing the fantastic, improbable profusion of life on this small world. The view was truly spectacular and awe-inspiring, and it did not help his mood at all.
The sheer futility of this whole exercise depressed him as much as the desperate need which had given rise to it. All they were doing, he was convinced, was delaying the inevitable. What they needed was something more, a new insight, a new direction. A new something. There was no sign at all they might find one.
As he had done countless times, he lifted the lid on the inlaid box on its small pedestal, and gazed on its contents. The beautiful crystal was dark, silent, quiescent, as it had reportedly been for many thousands of cycles.
No help there.
He did not touch it. He did not dare. He had done so once, and had barely survived. At least the experience had kept hope alive in him.
He closed the lid, and took a deep breath. A Level Two incursion was scheduled, and he fully intended to be present to watch it, no matter what that fool Kotte had to say. The Devas had found it best simply to ignore the 'terran resources' manager. Decisively, Pavlor strode from the chamber, heading for the operations room. The door hissed shut behind him.
In a darkened bedroom in England, the bedside alarm went off, not with its usual friendly chirp, but with a strident shriek that could only ever mean one thing. Freeman was fully awake in two seconds. He sat upright, and reached out for the button to still the klaxon, noting that the clock display read 03:17.
"Freeman. What's up?"
The face that looked out at him from the small monitor was haggard. "Foster here. Alec, we are executing Plan Omega, cislunar."
"I'm on my way… Status?" Freeman was out of bed and reaching for his clothing as he spoke.
"Phase 1 in progress… Phase 2 on standby."
"OK. Details when I'm in the car…" Freeman broke off. "Paul! That's Ed's Lunar Module - isn't it?"
Freeman swore, comprehensively, and hurtled out of the door, still fastening his jacket over his pyjamas. He was in the driving seat in one minute, and nearly took the auto-door off its mountings in his haste to leave.
* * *
It had begun a few hours earlier, with a scheduled Lunar Module launch, carrying Commander Ed Straker to Moonbase for his regular six-monthly inspection, fondly referred to by staff as a 'sleepover'. Normally, the craft would have had a crew of two, but today Straker was alone. This trip would include a visit to Factory 1, the orbital manufacturing facility. Here Straker would collect a number of items that SHADO had requisitioned. That cargo was unusually massive for lunar trips, so Straker had opted to fly the vessel solo, so as not to spend too much time in transit. That was perhaps the most vulnerable phase of any journey between Earth and its satellite, as several UFO incidents had testified.
As the gyrobus came to a halt beside the craft waiting on the runway, Straker rose from his seat and pulled his carryall and helmet off the overhead rack. Moving awkwardly in the spacesuit, he disembarked. The suit was cumbersome under a full gravity, rather more so than the previous model, but - thankfully - not as bad as the prototype of this new design. He had worn that suit also, and as a result, he had produced a list of some thirty 'recommended' improvements.
Oh well, he thought, the burdens of command, Ed. You wanted the thing, you got to give it its first test.
He had had a few grumbles from pilots about having to wear the suits instead of just the uniform one-piece, but the complaints were reasonably good-natured. After all, those pilots fully appreciated that the change was made to help their chances of survival in case Plan Omega should be implemented; but it was, Straker knew, an uncomfortable reminder of the reason they hadn't bothered to wear suits previously. A successful UFO attack was not generally survivable, suits or no.
"Have a good trip, sir," said the driver.
"Thanks. See you in a few weeks… just don't keep the meter running, huh?"
The entrance gantry was already in position beneath the LM. He waved goodbye, and entered the lift to the inwardly-dished access hatch in the belly of the craft. The panel beside the hatch was open. He touched the controls, and the boarding ladder descended from the opening. He climbed up into the LM, closed the hatch, and he was alone in the craft.
He ducked through the right-hand bulkhead hatch into the cabin, settled himself into the control seat of the LM, and strapped himself in. He glanced around, rapidly. This cabin had undergone a number of further changes to decrease the time it took pilots to get into the escape pod. One of those modifications was to the bulkhead behind the seats; it now featured twin hatches, one per crew-member. Each seat would lay its occupant flat and carry them straight into the pod, which would close, latch, and launch automatically.
Straker transferred his attention to the instrument panel before him. The monitor was live, showing the lifter pilot's face. He was also wearing one of the new suits. "Welcome aboard, Commander," the pilot said, saluting. "Will you advise when ready? We are scheduled to leave in ten minutes."
"Sure." Straker could hear the rumble from outside the vessel as the gantry was moved clear. "How d'you find the new gear, Lieutenant?"
"The new suits, sir? Much better design, I think. Someone's really put some thought into them."
Yes, Straker thought, haven't they… "Thanks, I'll pass that on to Gay and her team." He glanced around at the bulkhead behind the cabin, noting that the telltales on the control panel showed green; then he checked his seat once again, assuring himself that the recliner mechanism was functional. "Ready," he reported.
"Thank you, Commander." The pilot turned his gaze back to his control board, and reported readiness to the tower. They acknowledged quickly, and he began takeoff procedure. The launch checklist was short but comprehensive, and revealed no problems.
Straker felt the slight tension in his ears as the cabin pressure started to drop to transit levels. Behind him, engines started to growl as they prepared for flight.
"Helmets on, please, sir."
Straker obeyed, noting as he did so the pilot's name stencilled in green letters above the visor, something on which he had insisted for the predicted increase in lunar surface traffic. He wondered briefly how they had found room for all those z's and c's and j's with barely a vowel to be seen. Crosswords in Slavic, he mused, must be a nightmare.
"Takeoff in one minute… Stand by."
The growl became a roar. The craft started to move forward. It lifted clear of the runway, and abruptly Straker was pushed back into his seat as the craft headed for space.
The first phase of the flight lasted less than fifteen minutes. Outside, the sky turned purple, with stars beginning to appear, then black.
"We have reached cruising altitude, sir. You are clear for separation."
"Thank you, Lieutenant." Straker ran through his own checklist. "Lunar Module 5 to lifter. Board is green. Ready to begin separation."
"Roger, LM 5."
A watcher outside would have seen the lifter accelerate slightly, and seen the Lunar Module fall back, away from its carrier. Then the lifter began to curve away downwards on its landing trajectory. The nose of the Lunar Module tilted upward, and its own engine fired, hurling it forward on a path for the Moon.
* * *
The monitor chamber on Dyaus, moon of the gas giant Isvar, was quietly busy. All the duty operators were present, seated around the display sphere, watching the track of the small terran vessel as it made progress across the gap between the colony planet and its natural satellite. Kotte checked the time indicator, comparing local and 'terran' solar time, as he now thought of the place, as a silent and personal protest against using its ancient colonialist designation. Isvar and Planet Terra were still a long way from conjunction, a situation which would change only slowly.
The monitors circling the display sphere were live. Some showed images from the long-range viewers on the surface of Dyaus; other images were extracted from the terrans' own transmission systems. Many of these systems were not yet accessible, due to the difficulty of breaking terran encryption. The terrans had somehow realised that the original encryption techniques had been devised by Kotte's team and leaked to them intentionally. They had continued using those techniques, but it had slowly become apparent that alongside Kotte's systems they were using methods of their own devising to carry the really important traffic. Inevitably, this included the 'shado' group's communications between their headquarters and their satellite base.
Not, Kotte reminded himself, that it would matter, if what he suspected had indeed happened - the appearance of a Companion of the Kei. Though perhaps, Kotte thought, the word 'appearance' was too strong. The influence of that hypothetical entity had made itself felt when it had apparently moved to protect the terran 'Foster'; and there were further indications that the Keimon itself was, at last, on the verge of coming into existence. Only such a being could have driven off the Aethon; this proto-Keimon had responded to the needs of the three terrans at the Dyaus-established terran south polar base. But so far, it had defended against the Aethon, rather than the Dyaus garrison there, who had been killed by the shock of the Aethon's withdrawal; so if Kotte moved swiftly, he could focus its attention on the race of High Arkadia.
Accordingly, he had not objected - much - when the Devas had taken control of this particular project. Pavlor obviously hoped that the elimination of this terran would cause the final failure of the resistant 'shado' group. But Kotte had other intentions. He would intervene at the critical point, moving to save this creature so favoured of the Kei, and so bring the Keimon into existence to protect it, and the people of Arkadia, with Kotte in control. It would mean sacrificing the 'Third Sector', his group of malcontents whose intentions to overthrow the Spicor ruling clique were similar to Kotte's own, but whose incompetence and lack of overall organisation made them more of a danger to themselves than to anybody else. Still, they were occasionally useful, and could be steered into a desired course of action without realising that someone was - to use a terran expression - 'pulling their strings'.
He checked the tracker display. It showed that the skimmer was on station, ready to move in, and was - so far - undetected by the terrans.
* * *
The burn finished, and Straker felt his weight drop from five g's to one as the engines switched over to constant-boost mode. He secretly missed the sensation of weightlessness, the feeling of freedom, and he had got over the last of his space-sickness troubles many years ago. He relaxed in his flight seat, as much as he could in the suit, improved though it was. At least its confines didn't bother him any more. Much.
He checked the cabin atmosphere, then unclipped his helmet and took it off, stowing it away in the open slot beside his seat. There it was close enough for him to reach it quickly if he needed to, but the slot would prevent it from rolling around the cabin and becoming a nuisance.
Time to report to HQ. He touched the radio control, gave his status. For once it was not the new comms operator, Charles Anderson, who responded, but the recently-promoted Major Keith Ford. Well, Anderson had to sleep sometime, he supposed.
He now had several hours to kill before reaching Factory One. He had instructed that the cargo be ready for immediate transfer on his arrival. After that, it was a further hour to lunar orbit insertion, when he would put the craft into a circum-lunar path preparatory to beginning the final transfer down to Moonbase. Overall it was a long time, but he couldn't really complain; after all, it had taken Apollo 11 nearly five days… but then, the Apollo programme hadn't had access to Area 51.
On the plus side it gave him privacy, and time to think. And he really needed to do some thinking.
Like most of his SHADO colleagues, Straker found it supremely frustrating to be unable to take the fight to the enemy. Yet that was what they would have to do, one way or another, to end this war. The barriers against it were frightening. The biggest and most obvious was the distance involved; but it was apparent that the aliens themselves had found a way of penetrating, or perhaps sidestepping, that particular barrier. The maximum speed the alien craft had been observed making, using the Utronic detectors - another Area 51 spin-off - was some ten times light; but even this was still far too slow to make regular runs with short turnovers out to even the nearest star. Yet still they made frequent visits… Which suggested the existence of a 'local' alien base within the solar system; a possibility strongly supported by the discovery in the vicinity of Jupiter of 'interference' on the electronics of some unmanned interplanetary probes. The next obvious step was to go out there and take a look for himself. That would be a truly major undrtaking.
Of course, there was always one possible approach to getting a few answers to his pressing questions… but he could imagine the reaction from both Alec Freeman and Paul Foster if he suggested it. And Henderson would probably have him committed.
Certainly, getting himself abducted would need very careful preparations. There was a better alternative, and he had made a start on that, with the Eagle project. The aim was to build a craft capable of interplanetary travel. He had persuaded ILFC, who were setting up their own station 'next door' to Moonbase in Plato Crater, to support Eagle as part of their 'deal' with SHADO for its protection from a force that most of them still thought was Earth-based, representing Eagle as a venture to reach Mars. He had told Henderson its purpose was to establish an early-response system, and had said nothing about his true objective, which was somewhat further out…
The Eagle project was going well, even though Henderson had raised all kinds of stink about it, and about being almost bullied by the UN into the compulsory purchase of the former Dalotek facility. The company itself was less than happy about the takeover also; but had dropped its objections when it saw the price it was being offered.
And Henderson had been less than happy when the aliens had blown SHADO's new acquisition, designated M2, to bits.
Straker smiled a little. When he had admitted to Henderson that he had deliberately used the place as bait, to draw the aliens in so that the ILFC base, 'Moonbase Alpha', could shoot them out of the sky, the general had been nearly speechless with shock - until his fury had erupted.
But the strategy appeared to have worked. After a considerable delay, UFO incursions had started up again, but they had pointedly ignored Moonbase Alpha. And the crater they had left where 'M2' had once stood, with the access tunnel from SHADO Moonbase largely intact, made an excellent site for the Eagle construction facility.
Henderson now seemed to think - reluctantly - that the aliens were losing heart for their battle; but Straker was not convinced. He suspected that the aliens were gathering their resources for a major onslaught. And somehow, SHADO had to be ready.
Ah well, he thought. Time for coffee. And reading. And perhaps some music. And maybe use one facility which Armstrong would have probably traded his own grandmother for: a proper toilet.
* * *
Through the transparent panel into the operations room, Kotte watched Devas Pavlor enter. Apart from brief nods of acknowledgement, no-one took notice.
This did not surprise Kotte, since the Devas had made it abundantly clear that operators should not permit mere formalities to distract them from essential tasks; but it did amuse him, slightly. Evidently, he thought, the man had no real understanding of the mechanics of authority. That would change under his own rule, Kotte silently promised himself. If he had been in control, the new terran base - what had they called it? Alpha? - would have been obliterated, despite the efforts of the 'shado' group to protect it. As things stood, the failure of that attack was another setback in a depressingly long chain.
The first of those setbacks had occurred when Pavlor had arrived, to take over this system following the 'accidental' death of his predecessor. The new Devas had found out about the attempt to interfere with the terrans' disposal of what they believed was lethal 'nerve-gas' in one of their deep-sea trenches. This was a substance which Kotte's terran agents had designed themselves, and which the terran 'armed forces' had been manipulated to make. Pavlor had been furious, and had castigated Kotte for taking such a dreadful risk. They did not, he pointed out, have enough terran resource stock, and it was folly to destroy their source of supply. Kotte had made himself keep calm, and had told the Devas that his objective had been to hold the terran race to ransom against the promise of an antidote to his 'nerve gas', which Kotte had also designed. Pavlor was not impressed; he considered the risk of a mishap to be far too high, and ordered Kotte to get rid of his own reserves of the stuff.
Kotte had had no choice but to obey, since he could not afford to reveal what the substance really was: one part of a binary compound designed to alter the terran environment so that it would support his own race. Or rather, support that segment of the people of Spicor which was still loyal to ancient Arkadia, who had initially set up the terran colony. He had loaded the compound onto a drone capsule and launched it into the gas giant Isvar around which their colony moon orbited. With Devas Pavlor observing closely, there was no way for Kotte to arrange to salvage the compound. There was nothing for it but to rerun the research, as best he could, and out of Pavlor's sight.
But even that project had to be aborted, when the terrans had found and disabled Kotte's research facility at the terran south pole. This latest and most devastating setback had prompted a drastic rethink of Spicor strategy. And so the Devas had given orders that the leader of the 'shado' group should be targeted, no matter the cost. Kotte was only too happy to oblige, and instructed Gimen accordingly.
The manager smiled to himself as Pavlor halted a few steps away from the display, and watched the track of the small lunar craft, waiting.
* * *
Straker checked his calendar, and his chronometer, and nodded in satisfaction. He sent a brief message to HQ, advising them that he was about to change the Lunar Module's attitude.
Ahead of him, and slightly to one side because of his curved orbital path, hung the silvery orb of the moon. He used the attitude thrusters to turn the ship, so that the view now visible was that of the Earth, in waxing gibbous. Ah well, he thought, it was only a few hours early, and he would not have to repeat the manoeuvre.
He sat in the flight seat, contemplating the view, awed by its magnificence. A sensation like prayer filled his mind. Never in all his life, he thought, would he be able to separate the sense of wonder at Creation from the infinitely greater wonder of its Creator. For him science only increased a sense of the divine; it was one reason why he had studied astrophysics.
Occasionally, he had wondered whether he had ignored a vocation to the priesthood. The idea had had its attractions. He had talked it over with Father Quinn one Christmas, at the well-appointed bar in the air base in Cyprus. He remembered the chaplain's reply well.
"Ed," Father Quinn had said seriously, "a vocation to the priesthood is like being in love - itself a different type of vocation, of course. If you have to ask yourself whether you are truly in love, you aren't. Likewise if you wonder whether the Lord is calling you to a particular task, I'd say He isn't. I believe your calling is out in the world."
With that, he had had to be content.
He reached into one of his suit pouches, and drew out a small silver box marked with the chi-rho. This pyx had been given to him by Colonel Webb - otherwise Father Jack Webb, S.J. Many times Straker had done this, self-administered the Sacrament, in circumstances where no priest or lay server was available to do it for him. He had always found the experience to be unbelievably powerful; but here, partway between Earth and Moon, with his world floating before him in all its fragile, heart-stopping beauty, it was transcendent.
Today, it gave him an odd feeling. Almost, it was the opposite of déjà-vu, as though it was the first time he had ever seen this world… which was silly, he chided himself. He must have performed this manoeuvre a score or more of times.
He recalled the chaplain's comments on the subject of vocations, and knew, as he sat here, looking at his world, that here indeed was his calling.
* * *
Half a billion miles away, in the darkness and silence of the chamber, inside the inlaid box, a tiny spark ignited in the crystal depths, and began to grow.
* * *
"Isn't that turn a bit early?" said Captain Lew Waterman. "Not that it makes any difference, of course."
"Perhaps he wants to check no-one's sneaking up behind him," Mark Bradley commented. "He doesn't do it every trip, though."
Karel Wojnycz came out of the living quarters just in time to catch this exchange. He was accompanied by Nina Barry and Michel LeFevrer, a geologist on attachment from IAC. "Is that the commander you're talking about?" Wojnycz asked.
"Yes… He's made his attitude adjustment a little early. Might he be having problems?"
"Possibly…" Nina checked the telemetry. "No, he's fine. He's just… admiring the view. Don't disturb him for a bit. Anyway, he's still got an hour before circum-lunar transfer."
"If you say so," Waterman said, with a slight shrug. "Hi, Chrys. Ready for some fun?"
Lieutenant Chrys Jones was just finishing her breakfast, sharing a table with Alan Carter. She had completed her Earth-side astronaut training some weeks before, and had been sent up to Moonbase to familiarise herself with the Interceptors. If she passed that phase, she would be attached to the SHADO pilot's group.
She swallowed her last mouthful. "Ready when you are, sir," she confirmed.
"Glad to hear it. Well, we'll just let the commander come in, and then we'll go up. OK?"
Carter rose to his feet. "Hi, Karel. Good morning. Have a good shift!"
"Hope we will," Wojnycz said, with a smile. "You getting your head down?"
Carter snorted. "I wish… Got some stuff to finish in the lab first. But at least I can change into something more comfortable, cheer Lieutenant Chan up a bit."
He strode into the living quarters. Nina and Chrys exchanged glances, and shrugs.
"What?" Waterman said.
"Wait," Nina said softly.
After a few moments Alan Carter came back into the room. Again Chrys and Nina looked at each other. They were trying to stifle giggles. Waterman's look of puzzlement deepened; but Alan Carter struck a pose. He was wearing royal-blue trousers and a lime-green shirt that was almost fluorescent in its intensity. "Well, what d'you think? Will she like it?"
"She'll need sunglasses," Nina said, in a strangled voice. "C'mon, Alan, those don't really go together!"
"Ah, nuts, she'll love it. Perhaps I'll even get it adopted as Alpha uniform. Have a good shift, guys." With a wave of his hand, Carter departed through the dome airlock. Nina and Chrys could no longer contain their laughter.
"I don't get it," Waterman complained. "It's great to have a bit of colour about the place."
"Too right," Nina agreed. "Just not those two in such close proximity. As the saying goes, 'blue and green should not be seen'."
"I don't see why… Ah well, never mind," Waterman muttered. "Well, Lieutenant Barry, when is Commander Straker due to land?"
"About forty minutes, sir," Nina Barry said, with a mock salute. Behind her hand, she whispered to Chrys: "At least he's got a decent dress sense…"
Waterman grunted, and ignored the pair.
* * *
"Lunar Module 5 to Moonbase."
"Yes, Commander," Captain Gay Ellis responded. Her promotion was recent enough that she was still getting used to it.
"Readying transfer manoeuvre. Estimate landing in half an hour."
Straker glanced over his control board. Everything was showing green. His trajectory was good. Satisfied, he thumbed the burn control.
"Beginning transfer… Wait."
"Sir?" There was sudden concern in Gay's voice.
"Malfunction," Straker said. His voice was quite calm. "Engines are not firing but the board is green… Trying rotate. Negative… I have no control, at all. Gay, I think this craft has been sabotaged. Implement Plan Omega. Target is this Lunar Module."
* * *
In the pilot's lounge, the launch klaxons went off, jarringly. Waterman came to his feet, grabbing his helmet, and headed for the transit chute. His two companion pilots followed suit.
Captain Ellis's voice sounded over the intercom. Was there just a tremor in it, Waterman wondered.
"Interceptors, immediate launch. Repeat, immediate launch."
She waited until the readouts showed all three interceptors were space-borne. She said, unable to keep the tremor entirely from her voice: "Attention all interceptors. We are implementing Plan Omega. Initiate Phase 1. Target Lunar Module Five. Trajectory co-ordinates following."
Waterman swore to himself, silently. He thumbed the radio control. "Moonbase, this is Interceptor One, co-ordinates received…" He considered the figures, called up a graphic on his HUD. His lips tightened. "Moonbase, you suggest Three takes the lead, it's in a better position. Confirm?"
Oh great, Chrys thought.
"Moonbase to Interceptor Three. Confirm you are in better position. Take the lead. Initiate Omega Phase One. Target LM Five."
"Acknowledged," Chrys said, in a clipped voice. She opened ship-to-ship. "Lunar Module Five, this is Interceptor Three. Respond, please."
There was no response but the hiss of static.
"LM Five, this is Interceptor Three. We are in Omega Phase 1 with you as the target. Please eject immediately. I will fire in ten seconds. I say again, firing in nine seconds."
Still no response. Jones's HUD was showing the blip that indicated the Lunar Module, and her own green targeting circle centred on it. Her thumb hovered over the firing button.
"Lunar Module Five, this is Interceptor Three! Eject, please! I am about to fire on you!"
The targeting circle changed from green to red.
"Commander! Ed! For god's sake get out of there!!"
On the last word, almost a sob, Jones jabbed at the firing button. The missile leapt from its cradle, and sped to its target.
The Lunar Module exploded in a shower of fire. The blip faded from her HUD.
Her throat was dry, and her voice seemed to have seized completely. She swallowed, tried several times to speak. Finally, she got some words out.
"Moonbase… This is Interceptor Three… Omega Phase 1 complete… Target destroyed. I - I say again… Lunar Module Five is destroyed… No contact with escape pod."
There was a lengthy pause. At last, Gay's voice, husky with unshed tears, came back over the link.
…"Acknowledged, Interceptor Three… Phase 1 complete… All Interceptors, all tracking stations… Go to Omega Phase 2."
* * *
A sleek, bronze-coloured car hurtled towards Harlington-Straker Studio, driven by a man in slippered feet and wearing a jacket over his pyjamas. Freeman jabbed at the comms button on the dash. "Foster. Freeman."
Foster did not bother with preliminaries. "Status is now Phase 2, Phase 1 was - successful… Ed had a major systems malfunction. He was trying to get into transfer orbit for landing at Moonbase when he lost all control - engines, steering thrusters, the lot. He called Gay, said he suspected sabotage, and ordered Plan Omega. Then he went off air completely. Gay launched the Interceptors. Chrys was in best position. A few moments later Moonbase Tracking picked up that Ed's engines had fired at full emergency power, which would have pulled 10g in fifteen seconds, and got him out of our gravity field in twenty. If he wasn't able to push 'Eject' himself, under Omega the autos should have done in four seconds."
"And they didn't, I suppose… Any contact?"
"None," said Foster. His voice was quite without expression.
"None?" Freeman felt his guts constrict. "At all?"
"No voice. No lights, the pod should have lit up like a Christmas tree. No telemetry, no beacons, not from the pod or even his suit. Chrys is following the predicted track. She says there's nothing but a cloud of debris from the Lunar Module. She says she may have missed seeing the pod."
"And the other two interceptors?"
"Lew Waterman joined Chrys in searching for the pod. Karel Wojnycz is checking the Moon along Ed's last likely orbit when he missed transfer."
"Paul, how long has he got?" Freeman demanded.
"Those new suits have an eight-hour oxygen reserve, and the pod can give him another eight, sixteen total. If he adjusts it, he can stretch that to eighteen, or twenty at a push. After that he's a dead man."
"Take Phase 2 to twenty-four hours. And then another twenty-four, if necessary."
"I've already passed that instruction," Foster said quietly.
"Good… but you'll call it when I give the word, understand?"
Foster was silent.
"Colonel Foster!!" Freeman snapped. "That is an order!"
"…Yes, sir. Sorry, Alec."
"Me, too… And maintain vigilance - we can do without visitors right now."
Freeman gunned the car, trying for more speed, though he knew it was pointless. But he had to be there… Ahead of him he saw the lighted studio sign. He shot past the gatehouse with a blip of the horn, and rammed the car into the nearest parking space. "I've arrived. On my way down."
"See you in a minute," Foster replied.
* * *
"Your operative Gimen is to be commended," Pavlor said dryly.
Kotte kept his voice level. "Indeed, my prince?"
Pavlor nodded to the display sphere. "A highly original tactic, manipulating the terrans into targeting their own leader."
"It was… very satisfying, Highness."
"Indeed." Pavlor's voice was light, almost casual. He fingered his hairless chin thoughtfully. Sometimes, he regretted having to inhibit beard growth, though it was necessary for extended periods of flight-suit work.
"I could direct the skimmer to withdraw and return to Dyaus, since the terrans are alerted," Kotte ventured.
"Do not be so hasty," Pavlor chided him. "I see that the excellent technical report that Gimen has compiled suggests some interesting possibilities. Please direct the skimmer pilot to investigate."
The Devas had fulfilled Kotte's expectations. It was all he could do to keep his satisfaction out of his voice as he replied: "Yes, Highness. At once."
* * *
A voice, inhumanly calm, echoed over Moonbase Control. "This is Space Intruder Detector. UFO bearing 165 green. Speed SOL four decimal zero."
"ETT?" Gay demanded, looking over her shoulder at Joan.
"ETT negative. Flight path is parabolic. UFO perigee predicted 50 million miles."
"Confirmed," Nina put in.
"Keep an eye on it," Gay ordered. "Moonbase Control to all Interceptors. Be advised there is a UFO in the vicinity but it appears to have changed its mind about attacking. Will notify if the situation changes."
That's all we needed, Jones thought. "Interceptor Three. Acknowledged… Continuing search."
Not, she thought, that she expected to find anything. But she would stop looking when she was ordered to, and not before.
A few minutes later, the radio sounded again. "Moonbase Control to all Interceptors. Seems you've frightened it off… It's heading back for home. Or wherever. We will maintain tracking until it is out of range. Continue with Omega Phase 2."
* * *
Freeman hurtled into the transit office, opened the box on the desk, and shouted out his own name. The voiceprint seemed to hesitate; or was that just his overheated imagination… The descent seemed to take an age; he used the time to tuck in his pyjama top and straighten his jacket. His slippers would just have to wait.
When the room grounded, Freeman leapt through the opening gateway and headed for Mission Control at a dead run. He came to a halt by the main desk, skidding slightly.
"Paul, what the hell happened?" he demanded, panting a little.
"Captain Ellis has a recording for you to view. And the report from Tracking."
Freeman waited impatiently for the message to reach Moonbase and for the answer to return, a round-trip time of some two and a half seconds.
On the Moonbase monitor, Gay Ellis gave a nod. "On main viewer, Colonel."
The image appeared on the screen, brightened, steadied. Straker's voice said: "Malfunction. Engines are not firing but the board is green… Trying rotate. Negative… I have no control, at all. Gay, I think this craft has been sabotaged… Implement Plan Omega. Target is this Lunar Module."
In the background, Freeman could hear the 'Interceptor launch' klaxon. The image began to blur into noise. Straker could be seen snapping his helmet visor down, the green letters of his identity decal just visible for a moment above the dark plastic. He started to say something, but the voice channel was filling with static, and Freeman could not make out a word.
As multi-chrome snow buried the image, it was overlaid by a graphic showing possible paths the pod could have followed in the seconds it took before it would either impact the moon, or escape from the local gravity well and head out into the interplanetary void. After a few seconds the audio and video feed from the LM cut off entirely, leaving only the graphic.
Gay Ellis said: "Please note the yellow arc near the start of the divergence; this shows the four-second mark at which the autos should have ejected the pod. There is no sign that they did… The asterisk just the other side of the arc is the point at which Lieutenant Jones destroyed the Lunar Module, completing Phase 1. If the pod had fired, it would have been just out of range."
"Nice timing," growled a voice behind Freeman. He glanced over his shoulder; yes, it was Henderson. Oh boy, he thought.
Gay Ellis continued: "The red arc shows the zone where the Lunar Module would have reached escape velocity had it been intact and still under emergency power."
"But the pod was not itself powered, was it?" Freeman commented. "Apart from navigating thrusters, I mean."
…"No, sir. Once it had ejected it would have gone ballistic." So would its passenger, Freeman thought irreverently… Another trace replaced the first. "These are the possible paths it would have taken. Some intersect with the lunar surface, most would have gone into orbit. Lieutenant Wojnycz is checking the intersection points; Jones and Waterman are following the orbits."
"Thank you, Captain Ellis." Freeman turned to Henderson, and blinked. Was the man smiling slightly…? With one corner of his attention he was aware that Gay and Joan were having an urgent, whispered conversation. "You wish to comment, General?"
"Only that, much to my surprise it has to be said, Omega seems to work."
"What's that supposed to mean - "
…"Colonel Freeman," Gay Ellis interrupted, "the Lunar Module was unquestionably, and thoroughly, sabotaged. Only a handful of us had the knowledge and the security access to mount such a devastating attack. The commander himself; you, me, Colonel Foster… and General Henderson."
"You did this?" Freeman asked Henderson, incredulous.
"It was necessary. I am now satisfied that you will indeed fire on one of your own, if you have to."
"You mean this was a test?" Freeman snapped. "We may have lost Commander Straker - not that you'd care - "
"Oh, I care," Henderson told him. "Much as I hate to admit it, Straker is competent and useful, and we need all of those we can get. Don't over-react please, Freeman. You should find the good Commander intact, if a little annoyed, somewhere over the sea - of Rains, that is."
Gay Ellis said, her voice shaky: …"I don't think we will, sir."
Henderson turned to the screen, the smile dropping off his face. "Your meaning, Captain?"
…"There was a blip on the seismographs a few minutes ago, in the right area." Gay was obviously fighting to keep her composure. "Lieutenant Wojnycz went to the spot to investigate. There were some metallic items scattered over two or three small craters. He deployed drones to take a closer look."
Two images appeared and grew, each taking half the screen. One showed a bent and blackened metal strip that Freeman recognised as an anchor plate for a pilot seat belt. The other was a fragment of a space helmet, with the letters 'AKER' just visible in blue on white under the charred black streaks.
Freeman took one step, cold murder in his eyes. Foster grabbed his arm. "Don't. He wants you as well."
With a deep breath, almost a sob, Freeman allowed himself to be pulled back. He said, his voice as thin and taut as wire: "General. Sir. Off my post. Now. Or by heaven I swear I'll throw you in the brig for murder."
All around them, SHADO staff were coming to their feet, and the expressions on their faces were not friendly. The general glanced around, swiftly. "I'll go," he said. "But consider this, Freeman. If your procedures had been just a little better, the Commander would probably have survived."
He left, and they all watched him go.
"You know what's the worst bit?" Freeman said quietly.
"What?" Foster demanded.
"He's right. And… continue Phase 2. Until I say otherwise."
Freeman rubbed his eyes. They were red from abrupt awakening, tiredness, and grief. He had been up now for some forty hours, continuing the search, hoping against unreasonable hope that there had been some mistake. No-one, either here at HQ or on Moonbase, had wanted - or been able - to sleep, despite the fact that they desperately needed it. Several times, Freeman had tried to get the operational staff to at least get their heads down for an hour or so, but he suspected the orders had had little effect. He thought: if we get an attack now, we'll be mincemeat.
And then he thought: why haven't we had an attack now? Yes, there was that one apparently coming in for a look, but making a fast exit when it seemed to realise that the interceptors were already space-borne.
He put the thought to one side, and returned his attention to his screen. Once again, he went over what little they had.
Gay had sent out two moonmobiles for ground-level reconnaissance, around the apparent impact area. They had found a few more pieces of charred, almost unrecognisable debris. She had ordered the search are to be widened, to allow for the effects of the explosion from the interceptor missile, which would have scattered the fragments more widely, and had been rewarded with a few more pieces. All they found had been brought in for examination, with some of the more interesting bits sent to Earth.
In particular, they were looking for the euphemistically-named 'organic traces'. Having seen some of the fragments, Gay was not hopeful of finding any, but she kept trying. Freeman felt as though the co-ordinates of the impact point had burned themselves physically into his brain.
He dragged his hands over his eyes, looked up, and nodded to Major Ford, who had not left the comms desk since the incident. "All-stations call, please, Keith."
The comms officer nodded silently, and threw the 'general broadcast' switch. Freeman's next words would go to everyone in SHADO; whether on land, sea, air - or space.
"Your attention please. This is Colonel Freeman." He paused, gathering himself. "Omega Phase 2 is negative. I say again, negative. Omega is now in Phase 3. I say again: go to Phase 3. Report in twelve hours."
He clicked it off. Beside him Major Ford slumped in his seat, one hand to his face. Freeman said, gently: "Keith, get me Lieutenant Jones the moment she touches down, on the office comm, would you please? And then go and get some sleep. That's an order."
Silently, Ford punched buttons on his console. He gave Freeman a nod, then got up and left Control without a word. Anderson moved in and took over smoothly.
* * *
Slowly, Lieutenant Chrysanthea Jones removed her HUD helmet. With an almost ceremonious movement, she placed it in the storage locker.
She said: "I killed him. I killed the Commander. I killed Ed Straker."
"You had no choice," Gay Ellis said, quietly. "No choice at all. We were in Omega."
"But there was no need!" she burst out. "There wasn't a UFO anywhere near us! Was there?"
"No," Gay confirmed. "Yes, SID did pick up something, but it was a long way out, and it decided to leave when it saw all the activity."
"Look, Chrys," Alan Carter said, "we talked about the implications when Plan Omega was set up. Straker made damn sure we knew what it could mean. You don't have any reason to blame yourself - "
"That's all very well, but - but you don't think it's going to happen to - well, to someone you - "
"Chrys." Gay Ellis laid a gentle hand on her shoulder. "Of its nature, Plan Omega will happen to someone we care about." She pointed to the intercom, which was winking amber. "Alec wants a word. He's feeling pretty bad right now. So is Paul."
Chrys Jones looked at the winking light, then at Gay, and her gaze dropped. It suddenly came to her that, bad as it had been for her, it had to be so much worse for those around her - like Gay, and Alec, and Paul - who had to stand back and watch her shoot, and not be able to do a single damn thing about it.
* * *
Freeman heaved himself to his feet, and made his way into the room he refused to think of as his office. Foster followed him and stood waiting, a pair of trousers draped across his arm, and Freeman's electric shaver in his hand. Silently, Freeman donned the trousers over his pyjamas, then used the shaver to remove nearly two days' worth of stubble. Handing the shaver back to Foster, he sat on the pillar seat across the desk from the minibar and rotated the small screen on the desk to face himself. Foster turned to leave, but Freeman shook his head and waved Paul to a seat by the conference table.
The activity light was flashing amber. He pressed the button, and Chrys Jones's face appeared on the screen. Foster thought, that woman's been to hell and halfway back…
…"Colonel Freeman." Still in her blues, Jones stood rigidly to attention. "Sir, I resign with immediate effect, and I request amnesia treatment."
"Don't be ridiculous, Chrys," Freeman said, his voice gentle. "Resignation request refused."
…"Sir. Sir, I killed Commander Straker. I shot him out of the sky - "
"Yes, Chrys, you certainly did. That is exactly what you were supposed to do, remember?"
…"But - "
Freeman leaned forward. "Chrys, that is the whole point of Plan Omega. You know quite well that it is an interdiction plan, intended to deny the aliens further opportunities to use our own weapons against us. You must have heard about the Regan incident… I remind you that Omega contains provisions to protect our personnel as far as possible. And I further remind you that isn't always possible - and Ed knew that."
Jones swallowed. "But it wasn't the aliens - "
"It easily might have been! But I take it you heard about how it happened?"
"You didn't…? Well, it turns out," Freeman said, his voice flat, "that it was a test, thrown at us by General James L. Henderson. A test to see - and I quote - whether we would fire on one of our own."
Jones swore under her breath. Waterman was not so restrained; nor was Wojnycz or Carter. Gay chopped her hand down, sharply, for silence, and the three subsided.
…"Henderson did this?"
…"Then, Colonel," Jones said savagely, "I respectfully request permission to kick him out the airlock in his underwear."
Freeman gave a tiny, wintry smile. "You'll have to get in the queue… I won't insult you by giving you a commendation or anything silly like that. Shooting your commanding officer out of the sky is not exactly a fast track to promotion, though in this case it damn well should be… but a note of a positive nature will indeed be placed on your record. And I have a small job for you. It may have occurred to you that there is one thing out of pattern here."
Jones frowned; then her face cleared, and her eyes widened. "The pod! Why didn't it eject?"
"Exactly… Now either Henderson's goons were uncommonly incompetent, or that was deliberate with malicious intent. I have several people looking into that here. But you and Captain Waterman have closer and more detailed familiarity with Moonbase equipment. There is also the small matter of the last radio transmission we had from the Lunar Module, which was half drowned by noise on both audio and video. Noise that should not have been present. Human processing of these things is far better than electronic, and you have a tuned ear. But - " Freeman paused for an instant. "If either of you do find anything, keep it to yourselves until you can talk to me about it."
…"Noted, sir. I'll get right on it."
"Good… Better, Chrys?"
…"Yes. Yes, thank you, sir."
"Fine. I'll want a full report from you on - on the actual incident, in one hour. I'll need to discuss it with you in detail. I believe Captain Waterman is due Earth-side in about three weeks. We'll bring that forward, you can come down with him, and we can go through it. But for now, I have things to do, so I'll leave you and Paul to it for five minutes."
"Thank you, Alec," Foster said quietly.
Freeman gave a nod, and left the office. He thought: well, that's her sorted. Now all I have to do is arrange the memorial…
…and tell Mrs Baines - and Mary Rutland.
* * *
General Henderson leaned back in his chair, and put his hand to his eyes.
Well, that was it. The man was gone. The man who had been a thorn in his side for years, ever since SHADO had been set up. Before that.
But that was the thing about thorns. They prodded you into line, before you cut yourself wide open.
He had never counted Straker a friend; their relationship was too acrimonious for that. Nevertheless, he had a certain grudging affection for the Commander.
That affection had not stopped him from terminating the man's marriage. He had been convinced that Straker simply could not afford the demands of a wife and family; the security risk was too great. So after the wedding, Henderson had set one of his agents to wait at the couple's hotel, and then follow them to the airport, to wait for the correct moment to deliver the summons, so that the new wife would experience the maximum disappointment at the loss of her eagerly-awaited Greek honeymoon.
After that, it was a simple matter to ensure that Straker was kept busy and exhausted, and to work on the mother-in-law - a long-time friend of Henderson - to feed her dislike of her daughter's man. Nina Barry's recruitment had been a bonus for the mother's P.I. It was all over bar the shouting, within the year.
But Straker had found out about Henderson's machinations. Of course he had. He was one of the best intelligence officers in Henderson's experience, and only the tremendous workload involved in setting up SHADO had excluded other matters from his attention. When that had eased off a little, he had started thinking… but it had been too late to save his marriage.
Somehow, he had restrained himself from killing the General. And now he himself was dead.
The letter promoting Freeman into the vacated command slot was already on file; all he had to do was sign it and send it. Freeman would protest, of course, but he would just have to put up with it.
But there was one thing to do first.
He rubbed his face, then reached over and keyed the comm once more. "Get me Lackland. I don't care if he's in the sack with his lover. Get him. Now."
* * *
Miss Ealand still kept track of the Commander's ex-wife for security reasons, though Freeman had occasionally wondered why it should be necessary. He hadn't seen her for a couple of years, or even received Christmas cards, from her or from Johnny. In fact, the visits from the commander's young son had also stopped, quite abruptly. He remembered the most recent visit: Ed had brought the boy to the studio and allowed him on set to watch the filming of one of their latest spectaculars. Johnny had thoroughly enjoyed himself, and Ed had been sad to have to take him back to his mother.
In fact, he remembered, Straker had been more than sad. Freeman had tried to invite him out for a meal; but even the idea of a good rare steak, with all the trimmings - which would normally have had Straker out of the door before Freeman had had time to collect his wallet - had failed to tempt him. Freeman put that down to their inability to rescue an apparent alien defector that same night, which would have been a pearl beyond price. The disappointment had been killingly intense, and Straker's reaction had caused Freeman serious concern, especially afterwards, when he went missing for more than a day, sparking a major search. But the Commander had re-exerted his self-control, and life had continued; though Straker was, if anything, even more quiet and withdrawn than usual afterwards.
Freeman made his way up to Miss Ealand's office. It was early yet, but she was there and making herself busy. She did not seem at all surprised to see him. Of course not, he realised; she was on the Plan Omega secondary loop.
"Mr Freeman? I got your message. I gather there was a problem here?"
"I'm afraid so," Freeman confirmed, and her face darkened at his tone. "I will be putting out a press release some time today, after… after I have tied up a few loose ends."
"I… I see. Can I get you a coffee?"
"No. No, thank you… but could you get me Mary's current address?"
Miss Ealand gazed at him, her eyes filling with tears. He nodded. She tried to speak, but could not. Silently she pulled a card from a thin file and handed it to him. He accepted the card, squeezed her shoulder gently, and said to her: "Go home, Norma. I'll call in Miss Holland for the day."
"No… no, thank you, sir. I'll stay on."
"If you're sure." She nodded, silently, and he left, quickly.
The secretary sagged into her chair, put her face in her hands, and wept for a full ten minutes.
* * *
The last time Freeman had seen Mary Rutland was at the funeral of her second husband, Captain Steven Rutland, R.N. The officer had died while Straker, Freeman, and Foster had been at the alien installation in the Antarctic. They had encountered an entity calling itself 'Aethon' who had been working with the aliens as an ally. The three Earth-humans had somehow driven the entity off, back to its own unknowable realm. This had coincided with a cluster of deaths around the world, of people who may have been under the influence of this 'Aethon'.
Rutland had gone home - unexpectedly, as he was thought to have been on duty out of the country - and had tried to kidnap Mary's visitor and studio employee, Katerina Arrowsmith. Mary had been cleaning and servicing her competition rifle. Badly frightened at her husband's behaviour, she had shot him in the arm. A few moments later, he collapsed, dead, but not from the wound. According to Jackson's very detailed autopsy, Rutland had indeed been 'zommed'; his brain had been altered by the aliens, making him their puppet.
Jack Webb had straightened out the resulting legal tangle, and had managed to persuade Mary to let him tell Alec Freeman about the incident - or, at least, those aspects of it apparent to Mary herself. Webb had not asked to inform Ed Straker of the incident. Mary had accepted Freeman's support, but had kept him at arm's length, which neither surprised nor offended him.
A little to Freeman's surprise, the card showed Mary's current address as the house she and Ed had bought when they had married. He knew she had moved away after the divorce; but as far as he knew, the house was still Ed's, though he seldom stayed there, preferring a small but comfortable place nearer the studio. Freeman suspected that he occasionally rented the house out.
When the visits stopped happening, Freeman had gained the impression that Mary had broken off contact entirely, for whatever reason. She must have been seriously annoyed with her ex-husband.
So why was she living in his house once more, rather than in the Rutland home? Freeman wondered. Even that arrangement had been quite recent, according to the contact details: only a few months, apparently. Well, perhaps he would hear all about it now.
He went to his car for the privacy it offered, and punched Mary's contact number into the car's radiophone. After a few moments, her voice answered, sleepily.
"One four oh seven."
"Mary? It's Alec… How are you, love?"
"Alec!" Her voice was friendly if puzzled. "Good to hear from you, but why… yawn… why so early?"
"Sorry, did I wake you up?"
"Not really, no." Mary's voice showed that she was coming awake. "Alec, I know you jet-setting movie types keep peculiar hours, but you can't even have had breakfast yet… Care to drop in later? Do I detect a problem? I do demon coffee."
"Indeed you do. That would be most welcome… Can you stand an early-morning visit?"
"It's that urgent?" Mary's voice had taken on overtones of puzzlement and the beginnings of worry. "Come on, then. I'll start the percolator."
* * *
"You wanted me, General?" Lackland enquired, closing the door behind him. "Why so early? Sir?"
Henderson did not invite the man to sit. "I have just lost one of my top operatives. I want to know how that happened."
"Which operative is that, sir?"
"Commander Ed Straker. As you know, I wished to test out this 'Plan Omega' of his. I did, and it worked. Too well."
Lackland's face tightened. "I… I see. Sir."
"As I recall," Henderson went on, "I directed you to find a suitable target, and have it modified. Who chose Lunar Module Five as that target? No, you may not sit down!"
Lackland straightened up again. "I did, sir. From a short-list."
"Did you know who the pilot would be when you chose it?"
"No, sir. As you will recall, this was done some weeks ago, and the Lunar Module schedules are often not decided until the last moment."
"And when did you know it would be Straker?"
"I didn't, sir. I don't follow operations that closely. But, if I may comment, it shouldn't have mattered who was on board - if SHADO had been doing its job."
Henderson shot to his feet, and stalked round in front of his desk, so that he was face to face with Lackland. "SHADO always does its job. And that's what worries me here. You will supply me with full details of your modifications, now. Including the personnel tasked with making them."
"Now? But - I mean, yes sir… Would you come with me?"
As the two men left the room, Henderson nodded to his secretary. "I'll be busy for the next couple of hours, Miss Gunn."
Lackland led the way to his own office, being careful to keep his face showing an expression of alarmed concern. Internally, however, he was jubilant. The first stage of his plan had gone flawlessly well.
For the man Henderson had addressed as 'Lackland' was not the man he had engaged as an aide. Indeed, he was not even human. His true name was Gimen, and he was a member of the ancient Arkad race, one of the groups making up the beings SHADO referred to as 'aliens', whose objective was to take Planet Earth for their own. The real Lackland was now a collection of body parts in cryostorage on the worldlet the terrans named 'Europa'.
* * *
Mary met Freeman at the door, fully dressed, and invited him inside. He followed her down a hall into a warm and comfortable living room, which featured a log-fire as a centrepiece in addition (he suspected) to more modern background central heating. An aroma of coffee filled him with a sudden longing.
"Alec, sit down and I'll pour you a cup. You look wrung out! What's wrong? Have you been up all night or something?"
"Actually, I have," Freeman admitted. He took the cup and took a grateful gulp of the hot, strong liquid. "You make superb coffee, Mary. You don't know how welcome that is."
"Thanks… Alec. What is it? What's wrong?"
He took another mouthful of coffee, put down the cup, and met her gaze steadily. "I know you two have broken off contact, and possibly you don't - "
"Is this about Ed?" Mary's voice was suddenly hard, and it had an edge to it that Freeman could not identify. "Because I don't think I want to know! The only thing I want to hear about him is that he's dead!"
She put her own cup down so hard that it slopped its contents onto the table. Jerkily, she came to her feet, and stamped over to the window.
"Look, Alec, I'm sorry, I know you two are old friends, but he's…" Her voice trailed off as she realised that Freeman had not spoken. She turned. Shocked, she realised that Freeman was sitting with his head drooping, his hands to his eyes.
"He… he really is dead?"
Freeman nodded. "Air crash," he whispered. "About 40 hours ago. They haven't found his - his body, not yet, probably not at all. It'll hit the papers this morning, I should think… so I had to tell you before that happened…"
"Alec," Mary breathed. "Oh Alec, I am so sorry."
He lifted his head, and gazed at her through wet eyes. He was thinking: there's something seriously wrong here… "Mary… if you don't mind me asking… what went wrong between you two?"
"You mean," Mary said, her voice hardening again, "besides his putting his damned job before me? Putting his fancy girlfriends before me? Always refusing to tell me what he was playing at, so we had to get a P.I. to check him out?"
Somehow, Freeman did not know how, he managed to hide the shock this gave him. He hoped. "That… that's not good, Mary. I'm so sorry - "
"You didn't know? That he was playing around with another woman? More than one?"
"I didn't hear anything about any of that."
"No, I don't suppose you did. Ed is uncommonly good at keeping secrets."
Freeman thought: Mary, you don't know the half of it… Aloud, he went on: "What else happened, love? If you want to talk about it?"
She took a long, deep breath. In a voice dripping with venom she said: "He killed my son. He killed Johnny."
The silence seemed to last forever. At last Freeman whispered: "That's not possible. He loved Johnny. He wouldn't - "
"Look, Alec," Mary broke in. "I'm sorry. I know he's your friend, he's been your friend for a very long time. But this is true. He killed my son. Or rather, let's be accurate - " She gave a short, humourless laugh. "He let him die."
"Tell me, Mary. Please."
She came back from the window. She could not meet his eyes. Twisting a handkerchief between her fingers, she went on: "It was on his last access visit. My new husband Steven was there; they hadn't met before. I told Ed he should leave, and he went. Johnny saw him go. He'd gone into the house to fetch his toy yacht to show his father. He saw the car go, and chased after it, and another car came down the lane at high speed and hit him."
A sudden awful suspicion began to creep up Freeman's spine.
"Ed saw it in his mirror. He stopped, ran back. He organised an ambulance - I was in pieces. They sent a fast response car, it was the quickest option. Johnny was taken to hospital. During the night he began showing signs of an infection. You may know that Johnny was allergic to most normal antibiotics. There was one which could have helped him, but it had to come from the States - Alec, what is it?"
"Nothing," Freeman breathed. "Go on, Mary. Please."
"Yes… Steven suggested chartering a plane to fetch some, but Dr Segal said there wouldn't be enough time. Then Ed took over, insisted on getting hold of this drug - but the shipment was delayed, he can't have given it a high enough priority. Then he was called back to his precious studio, for god's sake! He phoned me from there to tell me about the delay… By the time his pilot got his ar$e in gear and brought the drug in, it was too late… Johnny was dead… " Her voice broke for a second, and she fought for control. She resumed, her voice shaking. "And Ed had the cheek to show up at the hospital…"
Freeman stared at her, paralysed. He struggled for speech. "Mary… it wasn't…"
"Don't tell me it wasn't his fault, Alec, because - "
"But it wasn't his fault, Mary! No, listen to me please! It wasn't! He didn't delay that plane. I did!"
Freeman's thoughts had flown back to that night, when a shipment of equipment had left the US hours ahead of normal schedule. Apparently Straker had ordered that early departure. When those two alien craft had come hurtling in, Freeman and Ford had joked about the Commander being psychic. Freeman was remembering the look on his friend's face when he learned that the plane had been diverted… the shock and fear in his eyes… For a moment, Freeman had thought he might be attacked, but Straker had quickly had himself in hand.
Fleetingly he wondered what had been going on in Ed's mind, when he had had to choose… And he remembered Ed's 'lost day'. His car had been found abandoned in a hedge… on the road that led back past the hospital, Freeman suddenly recalled. And Straker himself had dropped off their radar, only to reappear, seemingly unharmed, though unaware of the elapsed time, more than thirty hours later.
"What the hell d'you mean, you delayed it?"
For a moment, Freeman considered lying to her, making up some tale about urgent supplies… but he discarded the notion without a second thought. Mary deserved more than that.
He rose to his feet, and gently placed a hand on her arm. "Mary, listen to me carefully, please. I shouldn't be telling you this at all. But the plane had to be diverted to try to pick up a security VIP, and do it as secretly as possible. I didn't know what cargo was aboard. Ed didn't know about the diversion until it was too late to prevent it… and we lost the VIP as well."
"What interest does a film studio possibly have in security VIPs, for heaven's sake?"
"We - Ed and I - do the occasional job for James Henderson… and that really is all I should be saying. Mary, I must repeat, not a word to anyone, please?"
She shook her head slightly, but in puzzlement rather than refusal. "I'll keep quiet, Alec. I… I am truly sorry."
"So am I," Freeman said. "Johnny was a great lad, and Ed did love him, you must believe that."
Mary nodded. She put her hands to her face, and wept. Freeman pulled her to him in a desperate hug.
At length Mary's sobs eased, and she eased herself away. Gently Freeman let her go, and guided her back to the couch. They sat together in silence, dabbing tissues at their faces.
After a few moments, Freeman said: "Mary, there are certain implications here, financial ones I mean. Can I ask, who owns this house? Is it in Ed's name?"
"This coffee's cold," Mary said, touching the cup. "I'll do some more… no, the house is in my name, has been since we divorced. I was renting it out occasionally. He made the entire thing over to me. I thought at the time, that's a guilt gift if ever I saw one, but…"
"Was that more than seven years ago?"
"Yes… so the 'gift' is now permanent."
"Well, that's one complication out of the way, at least." Freeman mopped up the spillage, collected the tray, and followed her into the kitchen. "And… you mentioned your 'new husband'? This was Steven Rutland?"
"Steven. Yes. The one who died a few months ago, you came to his funeral. I - I put a bullet in him… but that wasn't what killed him. He had a brain haemorrhage, or so they told me."
"Jack mentioned it. He said you became frightened?"
"Yes," Mary admitted. "I - I couldn't talk about it, at the funeral… Something went wrong. With Steven. I don't know what, but he was behaving very strangely. He wanted to take us away somewhere - me and my friend Katerina, I mean. He scared us - me and Kat. I'd been cleaning my rifle, I was checking the mechanism, and you can only do that properly with real bullets. He came towards Kat, and - and I brought the gun up, and fired at his arm. It didn't stop him, I swear he didn't even notice. Then he collapsed… The police accepted it was self-defence, and that Steven's death was an, er, 'unfortunate coincidence'."
"Oh, Mary," Freeman said softly. "You really haven't had much luck, have you?"
"I do seem to pick 'em, don't I…" Mary rinsed out the percolator, refilled it, and turned it on. It began to emit soft swooshes as the water came to the boil. "No, no, I take that back… but that's why I came to stay here… I needed somewhere to go after Steven died, I didn't want to stay at his place. I plan to put both houses up for sale, and move out of the district entirely."
"I see." Freeman kept the thought that had suddenly come to him firmly to himself, but resolved to speak to Paul Foster and Doug Jackson as soon as possible… "Has that given you any legal problems? Shall I ask Jack Webb to look into it?" The lawyer had handled Mary and Ed's divorce… and Paul's court martial, Freeman reminded himself. He took a gulp from the mug of fresh coffee Mary had handed him.
"It would ease my mind," Mary agreed. "He helped me a lot with the police about Steven's death."
"And… and do you have company? Parents? Isn't there a sister?"
"A cousin… My mother's been dead for a couple of years, Dad died not long after Johnny was born. My cousin Penny lives in France… By a coincidence, my sports job will be taking me over to Paris next week, I was planning to visit Penny while I was there. I may be staying for a few weeks."
"Sounds good. One other thing… There'll be a memorial service, for studio personnel. Shall I… let you know when?"
Mary took a breath. Then, she nodded. "Do that, please, would you, Alec? I… I don't know yet whether…" Her voice trailed off.
"Of course," Freeman said gently. He tried unsuccessfully to cover a yawn.
"Finish your coffee and go and find your bed," Mary advised him. "You're going to need all your alertness to fend off the reporters when they hear what's happened to their favourite movie villain."
The hard edge was back in her voice. Freeman thanked her, told her to call him for any problem at all, set down his empty mug, and departed.
But his bed would have to wait a bit longer. He had to collect Chrys's report… but first visit June Baines, Ed's housekeeper.
* * *
Mary watched him drive off. She stood at the window for a long time, gazing out unseeingly, thinking back. After the aborted honeymoon trip to Athens, she had begun to wonder about the wisdom of choosing the life she had. She had believed that she had some idea of what being married to an M.I. officer would involve, knew that there were many things that security would not allow him to tell her. Her cousin Penny had had experience with such a marriage herself, until Pete had so mysteriously disappeared in Suffolk, England; so she was not completely unprepared.
Or so she had thought.
It had all changed so suddenly. Yes, Ed had sometimes missed dates with her before the wedding; but never without some sort of reason, nor without trying to make amends. And though he was silent on the details, as she recognised he had to be, he had made the importance clear.
But after the wedding, it was all different.
Ed's categorical refusal to offer any sort of explanation at all for the long hours he claimed were spent working, the missed social occasions, the forgotten phone calls, his increasing coolness towards her, had slowly driven them apart. Occasionally he had seemed to make the effort to pull their failing marriage back together, and one result of that was Johnny… but nothing seemed to help.
Her mother certainly didn't. She had never liked Ed, and had made no secret of the fact. She had once said outright that he was 'too pretty', and had wondered darkly whether he was having affairs.
And when the P.I. had turned up evidence of Ed's apparent dalliance with another woman, she had said: "I told you so".
Ed had not denied it. In fact, he had made no comment at all. He seemed shocked at being 'found out'. Was he really that naive? And then he had laughed at her.
What really hurt was that he had not even tried to contest the divorce. Did she mean so little to him? Was he glad, even relieved, to be rid of her encumbrance?
None of it was in character for the man she thought she knew. And when he left the US Air Force with the excuse that he had not recovered from injuries from the same crash that had nearly killed Henderson, and had discarded his military career as though it was no longer relevant to him, and gone into movie-making, that wasn't in character either. He seemed to have turned into someone else, someone almost alien.
Now, along came Alec Freeman. Good friends with Ed for years, going back to their Near-East encounter at that court-martial. Married briefly, widowed in a brutally short time. Best man to Ed at their wedding. Recruited by Ed into that studio of his. Such close friends that she was amazed it hadn't been called Freeman-Straker. And both of them, apparently, still in close association with James L. Henderson - again ex-military, though after his near-fatal accident that, at least, wasn't surprising.
And Alec had claimed to be the one who had delayed the transport plane that was bringing in the drug that could have saved Johnny's life.
Her thoughts flew back, unwillingly, to that moment. As she had said to Alec, the doctor had told them about the new drug, available only in the US. Straker had announced that he would take care of it.
Even then - even with his own son's life at stake - he had seemed to hesitate. But Steven's scepticism had seemed to harden his resolve. Why? Was what he was proposing to do illegal in some way? Surely it wasn't about M.I. again, after all these years?
She recalled the look of consternation on Alec's face, when she mentioned the P.I. and his investigations; and the relaxation, almost of relief, when she told him Ed had been unfaithful. She realised, suddenly, that Ed himself had reacted in exactly the same way. He had smiled; but not with mockery. With relief.
Alec was clearly shocked at the news of Johnny's death. But somehow, he was not making excuses for Ed, as she would expect a close friend to do. It was as if he knew exactly why it had happened, that the so-called 'security VIP' - and perhaps the woman seen with Ed - were a cover for something much darker, something both Ed and Alec were relieved had not been revealed…
Was it true, as her cousin had once said? That when M.I. got its hooks into you, it never actually let go?
Was Henderson still pulling Ed's strings? And Alec's, too?
She wondered, suddenly, what had really happened to Ed's aircraft out there over the Atlantic…
* * *
The red-blackness was receding, and Straker knew he was no longer under acceleration, but he still could not move.
The moment he had closed his helmet, the hatch in the rear wall of the cabin had opened up, his pilot's seat had laid itself flat and run back into the escape pod, which had closed over him. The pod had fired, pushing him clear of the small vessel. He had not even had to press the 'eject' button. The whole process had taken only a few seconds. He had tried to shout to Moonbase against the roar of noise that had filled his ears, but he knew he had not been heard.
Then something had thumped him in the back.
It had been a dreadfully long and hard push, and it was a push of which the unpowered pod should not have been capable. He had left the LM behind him, and the pod's warning systems had reported an explosion as - he supposed - the Interceptor found its target. Recognising that this boost, too, was part of the sabotage carried out on the LM, he had managed to hit the 'suicide' button before he blacked out, so he should never have wakened; but here he was.
Around him the stars turned, as the pod slowly tumbled through the void. That tumbling shouldn't be happening either, he knew; it meant that the propulsion units - whatever they might have been - had been unbalanced. Unusually, the sight made him slightly nauseous, and he squashed the urge firmly. Again he tried to reach the pod controls under his fingers, but his muscles would not obey him.
Shit, he thought. Either that jolt broke my neck, or I've been drugged.
The pod jerked slightly under him. He thought: Well, I could feel that… so drugged it is, then. Which is nuts, because the euthanasia drug delivery should have killed me. Instead, it's paralysed me. And I'm beginning to feel woozy. I shouldn't be feeling anything at all.
Not to his surprise, the pod opened. The suit's navigating thrusters fired briefly. They were small and ultra-low powered, but they were sufficient to push him out and away from the pod, which began a long, curving arc down to lunar orbit; while he was left tumbling along on his path out into interplanetary space, a tiny craft in an infinite sea, utterly impossible for SHADO equipment to detect, let alone track.
Wonderful, Straker thought, bitterly. The Skydiver smash had been bad enough. This will be a thousand times worse - claustrophobia or no.
Just for once, I may be very glad indeed to see a UFO come get me…
At the IAC, Henderson had all but taken Lackland and his team apart in his investigations. His efforts had revealed little. He had ordered Lackland to provide details of his specified 'modifications' to the Lunar Module. When these were matched with the data from Moonbase Tracking, they showed that the pod should have entered orbit around the Moon and shouted its electronic head off for rescue. Instead, telemetry had apparently shown that one of its navigation thrusters had been faulty, and had put it into a path that would have intersected the lunar surface in a non-survivable impact. And then its signal had been lost, which suggested that it had exploded before that impact.
The thrusters had been fabricated at Factory 1, the orbiting facility that 'mined' space junk for usable parts. Lackland had followed the thruster's manufacturing history back to its initial specification, but had reported nothing suspect; though he entered a recommendation that the Factory be thoroughly inspected.
There was very little debris from the pod on the lunar surface, which supported the explosion hypothesis. All the search teams had found of Straker himself were that helmet fragment and a few pieces of suit fabric stained with blood and organic debris. These items were gathered and, after detailed analysis, sealed in a small casket, to be buried at the impact site. Gay Ellis had insisted on organising that part of the memorial. It would be separate from the studio-based service, which was open to outsiders.
Knowing he would be less than welcome at SHADO for the moment, Henderson appointed Lackland to be temporary liaison. He had told Freeman about Lackland's involvement in the affair, but advised the man to keep that particular item of information to himself. Freeman did not demur, and this did not surprise the General; he knew he was the one to blame for this mess, not his underlings.
In fact, as he knew, he could count himself lucky that he had not been court-martialled - and that was only because he had cleared his proposal ahead of time with the committee. They conceded the need for Plan Omega, after such incidents as the one in which Astronaut Regan had come under alien control and been forced to attack Moonbase; but they had expressed doubt over whether SHADO would attack its own people in such a pre-planned, necessary, but cold-blooded way. Henderson had stated his intention to test that. After some persuasion, the committee had reluctantly agreed to let him evaluate Straker's planned strategy.
Privately, he admitted to himself, he had hoped that Omega would fail the test, and in so doing, would cause Straker some embarrassment. Perhaps that would restrain the commander's excessive demands for money.
Well, Omega had succeeded. And Straker had been worse than embarrassed; he had lost his life.
Henderson had been frankly astonished by the strength and depth of the reaction to that loss among SHADO personnel. He had had no idea the man was held in such high regard, even affection. Oddly, none of the staff had resigned in protest; instead, they had held to their posts, to keep their commander's memory and mission alive. So, for the moment and to give a desperately deep wound a chance to heal a little, he kept his distance. But there was one thing he did have to do in person; and that was to give Freeman the official notice of his promotion.
The colonel would resist that, of course. There was a risk that his anger against Henderson would override his own wish to support Straker, and prompt him to resign on the spot. SHADO could not afford to lose him; but perhaps Henderson could try Straker's favourite - and effective - trick of lancing a psychological boil with an equally psychological needle.
His chauffeur delivered Henderson to the studio entrance. He got out of the Rolls, and walked in to the upper office, more than a little reluctantly.
"Good morning, sir," Miss Ealand said. Icicles hung from every syllable. "You may go in, Mr Freeman is expecting you, below stairs."
"Please ask him to meet me in the main office."
"If you insist, sir. Please take a seat."
Henderson grimaced, and complied. He couldn't blame the woman for feeling hostile. He couldn't really blame any of Straker's colleagues; but right now, he would rather jump naked into a tank of piranhas than venture into SHADO Control.
Miss Ealand pushed the button, to call Freeman. After a few moments, he responded. She looked up. "He will be ready for you in two minutes, sir."
He rubbed his side, where there was some discomfort. That indigestion had been getting worse lately. Perhaps he should cut down on the fries.. He gazed out of the window, and waited.
There was a buzz from the intercom. Miss Ealand responded to it; then she glanced over at Henderson. "You may go in, sir."
The door opened. Henderson entered, and hesitated briefly. Freeman was not alone; Foster and Lake were with him. Of course, he should not find that surprising, he thought. For one thing, Freeman must know why he had come.
He was not invited to sit. The other three weren't seated either; but at least Foster and Lake had backed off. Freeman stood before the desk, his eyes hooded.
Henderson did not bother with pleasantries, but dived straight in. "You know why I have come, I guess."
Freeman looked at him, but did not speak.
"Unpleasant though this is," Henderson continued, "I must attend to the transfer of command. Freeman, you are quite aware that command now devolves on you. I hope you will improve on your predecessor's record - "
"What the hell's that supposed to mean?" Freeman growled.
"Simply that Straker's demands for funding were excessive, and all too often gave little in return. No doubt you remember the Discovery probe - "
"If your technicians had done their job you'd have got your return," snapped Freeman. "Don't blame Ed for your staff's incompetence. I remind you that incompetence cost Ed his life!"
"That is not proven," Henderson retorted. He took an envelope from his leather folder, and held it out. "Let's keep this short. This is your official notification. Congratulations."
Freeman did not take the letter. "And what, exactly, makes you think I want the job?" he said, his voice flat. Foster shot him a worried look.
"It's your duty - "
"Duty, is it?" Freeman snarled. "Let me tell you what I think of your attitude to 'duty' - "
And he did, at length and in detail, for several minutes, without repeating himself once. In another time and place, Virginia Lake would have admired the colonel's performance; but right now, it didn't help.
Foster remembered the incident in Henderson's office, after the death of Steve Maddox. He had lost his temper with the General; Straker had silenced him with a glance. Foster knew he did not have that force of character, but he had to try. "Alec," he said at last, quietly.
"Shut up, Foster - "
"Sir," Foster said carefully, "I don't know about 'duty', but I do know that you're the only one who can hold us together right now."
And if I don't, Freeman admitted to himself silently, Earth gets it in the neck.. He took a deep breath. "Very well. Sir."
He took the envelope, opened it, read it, and gave a nod. "I accept this task. I suppose. I will confirm that in writing. Thank you, Henderson."
Recognising the dismissal, Henderson left. He had not interrupted Freeman's tirade, not even to deliver a reprimand. In fact he was somewhat relieved; it had gone better than he had expected - not least because he still had all his teeth.
The three SHADO officers stood waiting, until his car had driven off; then Foster sent the lift down once more. Silently, he and Lake accompanied Freeman to the command office, and withdrew.
Freeman poured himself a Scotch from the mini-bar. He stood looking down at it; then, with an explosive oath, he hurled it at the wall. The glass shattered, and splashed good single malt whisky over the abstract mural.
He stared at the dripping liquid. A single tear coursed down his cheek; then he turned, slowly, to look at that lucite desk. Hesitantly, like a man walking to his execution, he made his way round to the chair. He stood there, looking down at it.
The responsibility seat, Ed had called it.
"Sorry, Ed," he whispered. "I'll do my best, for you. I promise."
He lowered himself into the chair, then pressed the button on the intercom. "Lieutenant Anderson?"
"I want to address all staff, including Moonbase and the SkyDivers, in five minutes. Set it up, would you?"
Was there a little relief in the comms officer's voice, Freeman wondered. He used the desk screen to open the personnel files. Ed's was at the top of the list; and it was already marked 'MIA'.
'Missing in Action'.
Henderson had done that, he knew, in order to enable the transfer of command; but that didn't stop Freeman from resenting it. The phrase was reasonable enough; after all, they had not found Ed's body.. nor were they likely to. He wondered if he should change it to 'unlawfully killed'.
Reluctantly, he rejected the thought. Don't be petty, he chided himself. Ed would not have approved.
The amber light on the monitor changed to green. He took a deep breath.
"Hello, everyone," he began. "This is Freeman. I have to advise you that General Henderson has formally appointed me to take over the role of Commander-in-Chief, SHADO Operations, after the loss of Commander Edward George Straker. Ed is posted as 'Missing in Action'. I have accepted this task, to be confirmed in writing to General Henderson, and I will carry it out to the best of my ability. I will appoint Colonel Paul Foster as my second-in-command, as he is ahead of Colonel Lake in seniority, since Lake transferred to SHADO from Westbrook after Foster joined us. I will also appoint Colonel Lake head of Internal Security. All else remains as it was.
"Colonel Foster, please report to the command office as soon as expedient. That is all."
He knew he should say something encouraging, but right now, he couldn't find the words. He shut off the pickup, and put his head in his hands.
After a while, he took a deep breath, and sat up straight. He looked over at the mural; then he heaved himself out of the chair, and went looking for a cleaning cloth.
* * *
Henderson directed his chauffeur to drive him to Straker's bungalow, where June Baines would be waiting, according to Miss Ealand. The secretary had visited June at her home with Freeman to give her the news, and had done what she could to give comfort. June was tearful, which was only to be expected. But she had volunteered to tidy up, ready for the studio legal team to move in; and Henderson wanted to be on hand, for more than one reason.
The general was not one to shirk an unpleasant job; but the details of exactly what he should say to June about the death of her employer, and the part he had played in that death, had required considerable thought.
He directed his chauffeur to drop him off at the end of the drive, and walked down to the house. As he rounded the bend, he saw June's green Mini Cooper, parked in its usual spot. Although the small car was at least 15 years old, it looked in pristine condition; Henderson had no doubt that Straker had been keeping it overhauled for her. There was no sign of the studio team, for which he was grateful.
He pressed the doorbell. after a few moments, the door opened. June Baines took one look at him, burst into tears, and threw herself into his arms. He hugged her, a little awkwardly, and urged her into the living area.
"June, my dear. I am so sorry. I didn't realise you were so fond of Mr Straker."
"That man wouldn't look after himself properly," June sobbed. "He needed a woman. Someone to take him in hand."
"Was he a good man to work for?" Henderson said gently, helping her to a seat. He had to suppress a twinge almost of jealousy. Was June really that fond of the man?
"Yes. Yes he was… He was always very courteous to me, very much the gentleman. And he paid well. All right, he worked odd hours, unpredictable hours, never seemed to relax, never invited friends round… well, not often. There was Ms Knight, and his friends from the studio… but no girlfriends. Apart from that unpleasant little flirt who was no better than she ought to be. But he saw through her. He saw her off."
"Oh, you heard?"
"There were rumours," Henderson admitted. He drew a breath. "June, there's something I need to tell you. I am not blameless in the matter of Ed Straker's death."
"James! What on earth can you possibly mean?"
"Well… Keep this to yourself, June, please?"
"Of course! Whatever happened?"
"As I guess you may know, Ed does - did - a few jobs for the IAC. There was something I needed done, urgently, but it was a tricky one. Ed wasn't happy with it and tried to persuade me to try a different approach, but I ignored him. And it did go wrong. Very wrong."
"But - but it was an accident, wasn't it?"
"As far as we know. It seems that Ed's 'copter had a problem, exactly what it was we don't know, we lost contact. It went down off the coast of Cornwall. We called in Air-Sea Rescue, but all they found was debris."
"Oh dear," June whispered. "How awful… And what about his friends at the studio? That nice Mr Freeman? They must be terribly upset!"
"They are," Henderson admitted. "And, of course, they're not at all pleased with me. Not that I can blame them… Now the legal eagles from the studio will be along to collect any papers he might have here, though I don't suppose there will be many. Ed had appointed Alec as his executor, so he'll be dropping in as well."
June Baines blew her nose, took a deep breath, and stood up. "Well, then," she said resolutely, "we'd better get on with things, hadn't we?"
* * *
A light was blinking ahead in the darkness.
Straker gazed at it, dreamily. Whatever it was, it wasn't a star. There were plenty of stars, all around him. Stars didn't flash. They twinkled, those little stars.
He realised, fuzzily, that it was a spaceship. Cone-shaped. Spinning. He should recognise it.
He watched it approach. His mental processes felt sluggish, as though he were very drunk. And that was silly. He'd never been drunk in his life. Apart from that one incident in the OTS. After that he's sworn off the stuff. Mostly. Especially as it didn't do his claustrophobia any good.
What was it doing, that spaceship?
He felt something tug at him. Aha, he thought. A tractor beam. But this thing wasn't the Starship 'Enterprise'. Too small, and no warp pods.
Apprehension began to creep through him. It was dispelling the drunken feeling. Abruptly, he realised where he was, recalled how he had come to be here…
…that was a UFO.
Uselessly, he tried to struggle free of the beam. It drew him remorselessly onward. A dark opening appeared, and he was pulled into it.
A figure in a red vacuum suit grasped his weightless form, and pulled it into an inner chamber. The alien began to remove his helmet. A second figure appeared, and stripped him of the rest of his spacesuit. Again he tried to pull out of their grasp, but he could barely move. The two aliens pushed him into a long, hollow cylinder. One of them inserted tubes into his nostrils, pushed them right into his chest, and closed the lid on him, leaving him in darkness.
He suppressed a scream.
A feeling of coldness began to creep along his body from his feet. It reached his chest, his chin, his lips. He tried not to breathe; but the cool liquid filled his nostrils, moved down the tubes into his lungs. He gasped, expecting to drown; but there was no feeling of suffocation.
Great, he thought. I'm a little green man now.
There was a vibration around him, rising in strength, in pitch. He was pushed down into what felt like padding by a tremendous force, far higher than any he had ever experienced in any Earthly craft; but he was still able to breathe, and move a little.
They were on their way, to the outer reaches of the solar system, and possibly beyond. The prospect both excited him, and terrified him, in equal measure.
* * *
Mary Rutland woke in something of a panic.
This was the second time since her chat with Alec Freeman that she had had a fierce nightmare. Like the first one, which had been that same night, she could remember no coherent details. All she retained was a memory of a mixture of emotions. Fear dominated, but it was laced with an odd anticipation, and underscored with a feeling of being confined, being unable to escape.
That was silly. She'd never been claustrophobic in her life.
She checked the time; it was still only very early. She decided to try a cup of hot cocoa, to see if it would help her back to sleep. She threw a dressing gown on, and went downstairs to the kitchen.
Captain Lew Waterman made his way towards the spaceport exit gate, his carryall slung over his shoulder. Chrys walked with him, but neither had felt much like chatting.
The captain was on 'gravity leave' from Moonbase, a period of re-acclimatisation to the six-times-greater pull of Earth that all Moonbase personnel were required to take regularly. Waterman was tired and depressed. Of course, he knew, you could say that about all the staff at the moment, with the tragedy not yet a week old. But the savage pull of terrestrial gravity, six times what he had been used to over the last half year, wasn't helping.
Chrys Jones was not due for her own leave by some months; but Freeman had opted to bring her down early, although it interrupted her Interceptor training. Partly this was to interview her closely about the shuttle incident, and how Omega had functioned; but it also allowed her to meet with Paul. Both of them needed that comfort.
Waterman had been very pleased, however, by the response of her colleagues to her part in the whole mess. Rather than shunning her like a leper as the clumsy trainee who had murdered their commander, they treated her with understanding and sympathy, and she had even been hugged by what seemed every member of Moonbase's staff. It was notable that no-one had joked about her jumping the queue to take a pot-shot at Straker, not even those who had no liking for the man.
Come to that, Waterman himself hadn't really liked the commander, either - too cold, too distant, even more than his position required. But the captain had changed his mind a little after the 'sub-smash' incident. Despite his obvious fear, Straker had calmly taken command, without making Waterman feel in any way incapable, and had brought them out of the emergency with only one casualty.
Now, this time, it was Straker who was the casualty.
In fact, Waterman himself was not due for 'gravity leave' for another three weeks; but Freeman had moved him up the list, so that they could discuss the Omega incident. Captain Ellis had originally been due to take her own leave this time, but as she was staying on for the ceremonies, she had been scheduled for the next transfer in three weeks, effectively swapping places with Waterman. Moonbase personnel would be represented at the studio memorial by Joan Harrington.
They clambered aboard the gyrobus that would take them to HQ. Chrys took her seat beside Waterman. Leaning back, she watched the Lunar Module launch in the distance. Even here, and even though it was merely the lifting body's engines firing, she could feel the vibration, with its higher-pitched overtones characteristic of solid-fuel boosters.
Funny how you could tell an engine type by its subtler aspects, she mused. Even at Moonbase, she had noticed how the other astronauts - the more experienced ones, certainly - could pick up and distinguish the approach of the various different types of Lunar Module. There was the standard two-pilot version that Commander Straker had used; the three-man version for crew transfers, such as the one Waterman had used on this latest flight; and the heavy, almost chunky, cargo vessels. Of course, you didn't hear the Lunar Modules until they were almost on top of you, with the downdraught from the rocket motors striking the lunar surface nearby, carrying the roar into the regolith, bypassing the barrier of the vacuum. And even then, you felt them rather than heard them, through the soles of your feet or the seat of your pants. Though she understood why that happened, there was something odd, something counter-intuitive about it.
And there was something else, something her subconscious had noticed, but it hadn't come through to her awareness. Perhaps she was more tired than she thought.
The gyrobus pulled in at the gatehouse. The passengers and the driver showed their passes, and the bus was waved through.
Chrys said her farewells, gave Waterman a brief but friendly hug, and went to find a studio taxi that would take her to the house she shared with other Moonbase personnel. Tomorrow, when she was fresher and more rested, she would be interviewed by Commander Freeman, in rather more detail than she had supplied in her preliminary report to him. She was not looking forward to that session.
Waterman called in on Miss Ealand, who told him that Alec Freeman was to be found on the sound stage for their latest production, and handed him a small parcel packaged in a padded bag. It had been marked with a sticker showing that it had been okayed by Studio security. He thanked her, and turned to leave, when he noticed the small pile of trade newspapers and national dailies on the table. He leafed through them. Every one was carrying the same news item, on the front page, if not the headline story; and all the titles said pretty much the same thing.
'Playboy movie executive dies in chopper smash'.
Freeman's press release had been designed to give the impression that the chief executive of Harlington-Straker had been out in his private helicopter, over the sea off Land's End, when the craft had suffered a catastrophic failure and had broken up in mid-air. Extensive searches had failed to find his body. The reports in the papers took this basic material and decorated it according to taste, sometimes luridly.
"Good, aren't they?" Miss Ealand said behind him, bitterly.
"Just how I like my news," Waterman agreed. "Short, unsensational, and accurate. Playboy! My god, if only they knew!"
"Just don't read the obituaries, whatever you do," Miss Ealand advised him. "Not if you value your blood pressure."
"Don't worry. I won't!"
Seething, Waterman left, heading for the sound stage. Again the memories of that dreadful day rose up in his mind, and again he carefully put them to one side. He concentrated on the news - or rather, the absence of news - that he had for Freeman. With Chrys, he had gone over the recording of those last few seconds of Straker's life again and again, looking for something, knowing it was there, and not finding it.
Of course, he might just be fooling himself about that, he knew.
* * *
The windows of the shared house were dark. Even though she knew this was only to be expected, as her housemates' schedules meant all of them were working this weekend, Chrys Jones nevertheless felt just a little uneasy. But Paul was due to visit this evening, and he would be bringing a takeaway. His company would be very welcome.
She hoped he would hurry.
She paid the taxi, and let herself in, taking care to lock the door securely behind her, and took her carryall up to her room. Checking the time, she saw she could manage a quick shower and change. That would be a true luxury in proper Earth gravity - even though her legs were aching in that same gravity!
Emerging from the shower room wearing a towelling robe, she went to her wardrobe and chose a pair of slacks and a top in a toning colour. As she finished dressing, she heard the house door open, and close.
"Paul?" she called out. "I'll be down in a minute."
If Paul answered, she did not hear it. Puzzled, and a little alarmed, she went to the top of the stairs, and called again.
"Paul? Did you bring the food okay?"
Still no reply. Now thoroughly worried, she turned to go back into her room and collect her gun; but she never completed the movement. A foot hooked her leg, a hand grabbed her arm, and another hand in the small of her back shoved her forward. She cried out and fell, grabbing uselessly at the banister, toppling from the top step in a turning tumble that dropped her in a crumpled senseless heap on the hall floor.
* * *
As Foster walked up to the door, a movement on the edge of his vision caught his attention. A dark figure was moving away from the house, quietly. Instead of turning to watch, or even freezing, he continued to act normally. Any intruder would have been noted by the house sensors; and if that intruder had attacked Chrys, she was the first priority.
He tapped out the entry code on the keypad, and pushed the door open. The hall light was off. He hit the switch - and saw the fallen figure.
"Chrys!" he shouted. He shoved the door closed, hit the secure alarm, and ran to her. He felt for the neck pulse, and sighed with relief. "It's OK, love. It's Paul. I'm here with you. I've sent for help. Don't try to move," he added, as she was stirring, trying to turn.
"I was pushed…" she whispered.
"I did see someone, outside. What bit hurts most?"
"OK. No, you don't have to move. I won't try to move you either, you know what impact injuries are like. We'll leave that for the experts. They won't be long… Here, let me put my jacket over you, you're shivering."
Foster wriggled out of his jacket and spread it over Chrys, who was trembling. She whispered: "Paul… There must have been two… I heard the door open… But… I was pushed from the top…"
"Right. I'll tell security. I don't suppose you saw a face?"
"No… I didn't see anyone… I'm sorry… about this…"
"Don't be silly," Foster said, gently. He took her hand, very carefully, and stroked her fingers.
"What takeaway… did you get…"
"Actually," Foster said lightly, "I brought the makings for one of my specials. Lamb chunks for kebabs. With a sauce I invented. So you'd better not die on me, y'hear? I'll want to know what you think of my new sauce."
"Not too… spicy… I hope…"
"You'll have to be the judge - " Foster broke off, as the door buzzer sounded. "Who is it?" he shouted, at the intercom.
"Mitchell, sir. SEMAS."
"Excuse me a moment," Foster said, to Chrys, as he threw himself at the door. He checked the screen; it was indeed Lieutenant Mitchell. The specially adapted SHADO Emergency and Medical Air Squad mobile, bearing the blue EMS logo, was parked outside. Foster dragged the door open. "Get in here, quick. It's Chrys. She was pushed down the stairs."
"We'll see to her, sir," Mitchell answered.
Chrys lay as quietly as she could as the medics examined her. She tried to push away from her mind the fear that she was too badly injured to resume flying… Hell, she thought. I may not even be able to walk!!
At the very least she would surely be grounded for months. Perhaps years. What use would she be to SHADO? To Paul?
She heard an airliner go low overhead, and a tear leaked from her eye at the sound. To think she would never know the thrill of flight again…
And then she stiffened. Her eyes opened wide, at the sudden realisation that had come to her. The sounds of Commander Straker's LM engines had been strange. Too strange…
"Relax, please, Chrys. I'll give you an injection for the pain."
"No… Listen… Paul…"
"I'm here, love. I'm with you."
"Sound…" she whispered, as the needle penetrated the vein in her arm.
Then everything went blank.
* * *
Colonel Virginia Lake was wondering about the motivation for the raid. The intruders had chosen a time when the house was believed to be unoccupied; so it seemed to her that they were looking for something, not someone.
She sent in a security team to investigate the house. There was evidence of a detailed but tidy search having been made: objects had been moved and replaced, more or less in position; drawers had been opened and their contents examined, though none had any more than personal significance. The team had checked with the house's occupants, but nothing had apparently been taken; nor had anything been put in.
So no theft had been committed, no damage caused, no 'bugs' had been planted, as they had in Foster's apartment on one occasion.
There was one place where the search had not been quite so tidy, and that was in the bedroom currently assigned to Lieutenant Chan. She was still on Moonbase. The disturbance was not major; a drawer had been opened and not quite closed. A small thing perhaps, but no-one working at Moonbase for any length of time would have been so sloppy. On the Moon, tidiness was life. This seemed to suggest that the intruders had been interrupted in their raid by Jones' unscheduled arrival, had not stopped to close the drawer properly, and had responded violently.
No secret had been made of the fact that the house was maintained by the Studio and used by many of its female employees. Less well-known was the fact that it was under discreet security surveillance. CCTV cameras had been fitted throughout, and their output routed through a relay back to the studio.
The team examined the security camera tapes, and found them oddly distorted, in a way that seemed unlikely to be natural. Lake passed them to Major Ford, who checked them over in some detail. Eventually he formed the opinion that the distortions were indeed not natural, and had been imposed from outside.
However, they did carry a few images of a person. It would take a lot of work, Ford knew, to get usable information from the foggy shapes. He went to his small workshop, closed the door, and began the task.
For her part, this only worried Lake even more. The intruders were expecting high-tech security; they had come prepared. Was this, she wondered, more of Henderson's machinations?
* * *
The operation took five hours. Afterwards, the surgeon admitted to Foster and Freeman that it had been touch and go.
"We were able to save her legs," he said, "but her chances of regaining full use of them are low. She'll be able to move around, perhaps even walk a little. But as for flying…"
"She's grounded," Freeman said.
"I'm afraid so. But at that, she's lucky. No really," the surgeon added, as Foster snorted in disbelief. "After spending some weeks under lunar gravity her bones were weaker than normal, so that fall should have broken her neck, killed her, as it was clearly intended to do. Only her astronaut training saved her."
Foster gave a nod. "Can I sit with her?" he asked.
"When she's recovered from the anaesthetic, which will be a few hours yet, I'm afraid. Would you excuse me, Commander?"
The surgeon got up, and walked back into the ward. Freeman turned to Foster, lifting his shoulders in a helpless shrug. "Paul - "
"Yes, I know," Foster cut in, savagely. "She's grounded. Tied to a desk. She'll hate that. And she - SHADO can't use her in any active capacity."
"Yes, Paul," Freeman said, gently. "I know. And I'm so dreadfully sorry… It means, of course, she'll have to take amnesia."
Foster thought about that, angrily. Freeman was right, he knew. And what would that do to their relationship? It would be Jane Carson all over again. She'd forget him, but he wouldn't forget her. He could try wooing her; would it work? Should he even try? Would there be unforeseen psychological friction, even damage?
Of course, this all assumed that Chrys actually did survive this attempt on her life… "Have they found that intruder yet?" he demanded.
"He was picked up on the internal security cameras, but his face can't be seen clearly… Paul, Dr Jackson wants a word."
Foster looked up. Jackson had entered the corridor, and the expression on his face was as grave as Foster had ever seen it. "Please come with me, gentlemen?"
They rose to their feet. The psychiatrist led them into a small office, sat them by a table and closed the door. "Colonel Foster," he said, formally. "I expect that you realise the implications of Lieutenant Jones' injuries."
"Damn right I do! She'll have to leave SHADO!"
"I fear so. Accordingly I have given instructions that the amnesia treatment be administered before she rouses fully from the anaesthetic." As Foster leapt to his feet to protest, Jackson added: "This will actually be to her benefit. It will soften the effect of the amnesia treatment, both physically and psychologically, and give her subconscious a reason for the inevitable memory problems, attributing them to an 'accident'."
Foster stared down at him. Freeman watched the younger man carefully, concern and compassion in his gaze. At last the colonel drew a shaky breath, and gave a tiny nod.
"I… I suppose you're right," he muttered. "But it means I can't say goodbye…"
"The best I can do," Jackson answered, "is to let you sit with her until it is time. Then you must leave. She will be transferred to another hospital. I know you will not try to visit her there."
"Accepted," Foster said, tightly. He added: "Two things. I want to give the injection myself. And I want to be the one who tells her folks what happened."
"Yes to the first, no to the second, I'm afraid," Jackson said, but gently. "Unless you can come up with a plausible reason for not visiting her during her convalescence, that is."
Freeman bit his lip. "I believe I can think of one, Paul, though you may want to kick me out the airlock for suggesting it."
"You mean me two-timing her. Why not? After all, I have a reputation to maintain, don't I?" Foster said, bitterly.
Freeman did not reply, though his eyes were shadowed. Foster was thinking about Ed Straker, how he must have had to bite his lip against those accusations of infidelity to his pregnant wife, how he must have had to put up with the 'playboy' label. Well, Foster thought, if Ed could do it, so can I… in his memory.
He said harshly: "How does this sound. I'll visit her folks, tell them we had a furious row, because I went with other women while she was away, she shouted at me, said she never wanted to see me again. She tripped and fell. Will that work?"
"I do not think so," Jackson said, slowly. "Her injuries are severe, enough to make her family very angry indeed. If they hold you responsible, they'll want your head on a platter, or worse - "
"Paul," Freeman said, "Jackson is right, much as I hate to admit it. You can blame an argument all right, but we'll have to say that you were not present when she fell. Perhaps we can arrange for you to 'find out' much later, and the docs advised against you visiting."
Foster glared at him, but only for a moment. His gaze dropped. "I suppose you're right," he muttered.
"Very well," Jackson said. "You may visit them, say you called her this morning intending to apologise to her. Say her doctors advise no contact because she is having problems with her memory. Feel free to express regret and guilt. Say she's probably better off without you. That should do it."
Foster nodded, but said nothing.
"One thing, Colonel. Did she say anything, when you reached her?"
"Just that she heard the sound of the main door opening, then she was pushed, that's all."
"I see… Then please come." Jackson rose to his feet, and after a moment, Foster followed the doctor out of the small office, with Freeman falling in behind them.
* * *
What we need, Major Ford mused as he gazed at the foggy, indistinct picture, is a computerised image library. And the image equivalent of a word-search.
This picture was the result of his analysis of the camera records. In fact it was three pictures, each of which had been processed differently. There was a definite similarity between them.
And he had a nagging feeling he had seen the face before.
He cast back through his memories, wondering if he should ask Dr Jackson to hypnotise the answer out of him. Once or twice, he had consented to this being done; but it gave him the creeps.
Come on, he told himself sternly. This is to find the monster who tried to kill Chrys. He braced himself, and called Jackson's office phone. The doctor was not there, so he left a message to be called back.
He returned to the processed picture, staring at it, letting it drift even more out of focus while he allowed his memories free reign.
He found his thoughts drifting back to Paul Foster, to that time when Paul had 'pumped' him for details of the incident when an alien had apparently tried to make contact. A courier plane, en route from the US, had been diverted to deliver its cargo of mobiles to Ireland in an attempt to meet up with the alien. But a second UFO, which had apparently been chasing the first, got to the alien before the mobiles could reach him.
Now why would that be significant? Was one of the people involved Chrys's raider? he wondered.
He needed to check the records for the names of those personnel; but he already knew that would be difficult, as Commander Straker had given the report of that night's events SHADO's highest security rating. But, he suddenly recalled, when he had talked to the commander about Paul's apparent problem, Straker had said that he would add the colonel to the clearance list for that report.
Next stop Paul, Ford thought to himself.
* * *
The man calling himself Lackland - actually Gimen of Arkadia - sent his field agent on to his next task, and returned to the Lackland dwelling. Entering, he closed and locked the door behind him, and headed for the ablutions chamber. A proper ultrasonic cleanser would have been very welcome at this point; but there was no simple way of concealing such a unit, so he would have to shower in water as the terrans did.
He gazed at his image in the mirror, checking for early signs that he might need another treatment to buffer himself against the terran atmosphere; but all seemed well. Opening a small locked box, he took out a small ball of flesh-coloured memory-gel, and placed it on his forehead. It spread out over his face, and took on the aspect of Charles Lackland.
He donned some items of clothing. It was a pity, he thought as he fastened his shirt, that 'Jones' had not died as his agent had intended; but the 'amnesia' treatment SHADO would give her would bury any information she had discovered, probably forever.
* * *
The door buzzed. Commander Freeman looked up from the report he was studying, and pressed the response button. "Dr Jackson," he said. "Come in."
The psychiatrist entered, the door sliding closed behind him. Without preamble, he said: "It is done. Colonel Foster administered the amnesia drug an hour ago. Tests show that it is having the desired effect, and that Lieutenant - Miss Jones is tolerating it well."
"Thank you, Doctor. And Paul?"
"He left and went to visit her family. They live some distance away in Buckinghamshire, so it will take some time. I offered him a light sedative to help his mood, which he accepted. I also had our Security watch him, unobtrusively."
"Good." Freeman tapped the report. "I have posted Lieutenant Chrysanthea Jones as being honourably discharged from SHADO on health grounds, with a high commendation." Pity she'll never get to see it, he thought fleetingly… "She's also placed on sick leave from the Studio, for an initial period of six months. Then we'll call her in for a talk, see what she wants to do next. Though I rather suspect she'll want to get as far away from us as possible."
"Quite likely," Jackson agreed. "As you know, part of the amnesia treatment involves implanting some 'replacement' memories. We cannot credibly remove all her knowledge of the Studio. She will remember it, and remember having worked here, but recent details will have gone. Including all memories of Paul Foster."
"And when her folks 'find out' about him, that he's been 'wandering' - "
Freeman gazed over at the mural for a few moments. "I've got to talk to Captain Waterman shortly, see if there's anything he can tell us, I doubt whether there'll be much… Then, when Paul returns, I want to talk to him, and not about Chrys. I'd also like you to be present. Say in about an hour?"
"Of course, Commander." Freeman could not suppress a slight wince; but Jackson did not comment. Instead, he said: "I believe Major Ford was looking for me?"
"Yes." Freeman glanced down at a paper in front of him. "He says he thinks you may have to hypnotise a memory out of him… He managed to get an image of someone from the tapes, and it struck him as vaguely familiar."
Jackson pursed his lips. "I would prefer to leave that as a 'last resort'," he said. "The problem with such attempts to access memories is that they might change those memories. I have had exactly that problem with trying to probe Foster's own memories of his alien encounters… I will wait and see what the major comes up with by his own efforts."
"He'll probably be relieved about that," Freeman murmured; and Jackson gave one of his enigmatic smiles.
A little more than an hour later, Dr Jackson made his way to the command office, collecting Paul Foster and a tray of coffee on the way. The door opened ready for them to enter. Freeman noted the bruise on Foster's cheek, but the colonel offered no comment, and Freeman did not enquire.
When they had seated themselves, Freeman took a thin sheaf of notes from the lucite desk. He said: "This concerns a car accident involving a young boy, some three years ago, not all that far from the studio. It may have been a hit-and-run, I'm not sure. The boy was badly injured and died in hospital… I only found out about this recently. But there are several odd things about it."
"Alec," Foster interjected, "who was the boy?"
"Ed's young son, John." When Foster whistled in sudden understanding, Freeman went on: "I don't have to say that that one goes no further than this room. Mary - you may know, Paul, that she's Ed's ex-wife, they divorced during the time SHADO was being set up - did remarry, some years later, a man called Steven Rutland. Johnny was living with them rather than with Ed. Rutland was in the Navy, by the way."
"The Navy captain in the nerve-gas dump affair?" Foster asked.
"That's him," Freeman confirmed. He had the distinct impression that this was not news to Paul Foster… "Jackson, I take it you already knew this?"
"I knew John Straker had died, but not how. What were the 'odd things'?"
"This is a map of the area around the family home. It's a wooded area, accessed by narrow country lanes, and gives them quite a lot of privacy. Yet a car comes hacking down the road at recklessly high speed and hits Johnny… Where was that car going? Why such a tearing hurry? Was it just coincidence that it was at that moment when the entire family plus new hubby was by the road, something that didn't often happen given the infrequency of the allowed visits?"
"You are saying," Jackson said slowly, "that you think this was a deliberate act. That someone targeted the boy."
"That's what I'd like to find out… Now when I spoke with Mary, she mentioned her second husband, Steven Rutland, the one who made his appearance here. What she told me made me look deeper. It turns out he was one of the cluster of people who died while we were chasing aliens in Antarctica. According to Mary, he had arrived back at their home unexpectedly, and tried to 'kidnap' her and Katerina Arrowsmith."
"I remember hearing about that," Jackson agreed. "Mrs Rutland was scared by her husband's actions, enough to call the police. Before they arrived, the situation had deteriorated to the point where she had to defend herself, which I understand she did by shooting Rutland in the arm."
"What?" spluttered Foster.
"Mary holds a silver medal from the London Games," Freeman explained. "By coincidence, Ed took bronze at the same event. He was eligible to enter because he had British citizenship."
"Bloody hell, it runs in the family!"
"Indeed… That was where they met, at the training sessions. And then they compounded the felony by teaming up for the mixed doubles and wiping the floor with the opposition."
"I think I may have heard something about that," Foster said. "Didn't realise it was those two, though… So you want us to look into this? To try to locate the driver of the car that killed Johnny Straker?"
"Exactly that," Freeman confirmed. "It may even turn out to be relevant, if there is indeed a connection to the aliens."
"I will investigate this immediately," Jackson said.
Freeman and Foster thanked Jackson, and the doctor departed. The door closed behind him, and Freeman said: "Do I take it you already know something about what happened to Johnny?"
"I do," Foster agreed. "It was when I was finding out about Ed's side of the family. He'd already told me that Johnny had died, so I started with the boy's death certificate. It showed he had died the same night we had that possible alien contact. You'll remember."
"Only too well," Freeman muttered. "I - Wait a minute. Paul, you apologised to me after we came back from that alien Antarctic base. You'd been annoyed with me about something… Mary told me that Ed had tried to get medication for Johnny, Ed had arranged it but it didn't get here in time. Because I diverted the bloody flight! Was that it? Did you work it out?"
"Yes, I did," Foster admitted, hesitantly. "I asked Ed about it, asked him why he didn't hate you. He said you didn't know. He didn't tell you because it wasn't your responsibility."
Freeman turned away, his face in his hands. He said, in a muffled voice: "I've said it before and I'll say it again… That man is bloody impossible."
With an effort, Freeman pulled himself together. "And I'll tell you something else," he said, abruptly. "Mary said that when Rutland had offered to charter a plane to collect some of the drug that Johnny needed, the doctor had stated that there was no point, it would not arrive in time. An odd thing to say, surely? Even if it was true, why dissuade the desperately worried parents from at least making the attempt?"
"I'll check out that hospital," Foster said. "Jackson can help… But first I'll check with Keith."
"You do that," Freeman said.
* * *
Foster left the command office, intending to go to his own office and call Major Ford, but he was intercepted in the corridor. "Paul?"
Foster turned. "Hi, Lew."
"Paul, I'm so sorry… How is she?"
"Not good," Foster admitted, slowly. "She should live, but it'll be a long, hard struggle to get back even some of the use of her legs. She's forgotten all about us, of course… but she's going to miss being able to fly, terribly."
"Hmmm," Waterman said, pensively. "You should get Alec to tell you about Douglas Bader… RAF fighter ace. Lost his legs in a flying accident before WW2. He got himself a pair of artificial legs and went back to flying. And fighting." As Foster blinked at this, Waterman continued: "Paul, you know that Chrys and I were investigating the - the Incident, for anything out of whack. We didn't find anything, though we both had our suspicions, though we knew we might have been kidding ourselves. But then this happens, to Chrys. Makes you wonder, what could she have told us? Did she say anything to you?"
"Only that she'd heard a sound, was all."
"Probably her attacker. And, of course, she didn't see him."
"No," Foster said, slowly. "And the cameras were messed up… Perhaps someone did target her, on the off-chance she'd found something important, confirming that it was indeed deliberate sabotage… Have you noticed your own guards, by the way?"
"I had. They're good… Who is it? One of the Q-groups?"
"Q-Tango indeed. Well, duty calls… See you around!"
Foster made his way to the office that had been Alec Freeman's, and was now his. To his surprise, Keith Ford was there, evidently waiting for him. He showed the major in, and closed the door. "Found something?" he asked, alertly.
"Possibly. I'm not sure… Paul, you remember that chat we had about that alien who tried to make contact?"
"Only too well," Foster confirmed. "Are you saying there's a connection?"
"Possibly, but indirectly. Do you know the names of the people involved? The mobile crews? The courier pilot?"
"The crews, not off the top of my head," Foster admitted. "But the courier pilot was Andy Hague. I asked him about that night, after I'd talked to you."
"D'you have a picture of him?"
"Hang on a minute." Foster touched a button on his desk, and a small screen lit up.
Ford moved around the desk to a position where he could see the parade of faces as they scrolled across. After a moment he touched Foster's shoulder. "Stop there."
"That's Lieutenant Hague," Foster confirmed. "What have you found?"
"I think he's our intruder. No," Ford added, as Foster made to speak, "I'm not 100% sure… But I think we'd better check him out."
"Turn it over to Joe Kelly," Foster suggested. Major Kelly was the imaging expert who had worked on the abortive Discovery project, and who had uncovered evidence from Voyager 3 of an alien presence in the Jovian moons. "And we'd better bring Ginny up to date."
* * *
Waterman left the studio, and headed for his apartment. Closing the door behind him with a thankful sigh, he lowered himself onto the couch, and opened the package Miss Ealand had given him. It was a book. According to the cover write-up, it was an SF work by David Brin, called 'Startide Rising', about space-faring intelligent dolphins. Oddly, astronauts themselves tended not to go much for SF; too much like work, he supposed. But some of them found authors they liked and could relax with, and stories that had real depth, and some excitement.
He'd heard of this author, and liked the sound of the book. He had ordered it when he was last Earth-side. It was right up his street, he thought, being about a human/dolphin-crewed spaceship which was fleeing from a hostile fleet composed of various disparate races, trying to protect a treasure it had found. It had landed on a planet - he supposed you could call it 'landing', as the place was mostly ocean with a few small islands - to hide while the dolphins made essential repairs, and get away before the baddies closed in.
He opened it, and glanced at the first page. It did indeed look intriguing - even if it was thick enough to take him weeks to read it through. At least it would take his mind off things a little.
A few days after the memorial, which she had decided almost at the last minute to attend, Mary Rutland arrived in Paris, where she was due to meet her cousin. With a few hours free, she decided to try once again to go up the Eiffel Tower.
This time, the queues were quite short, and after only an hour and a half she found herself on the first level balcony, gazing out over Paris. It was around lunchtime, but there was a chill in the air. She sipped at a waxcard beaker of warming coffee. Around her, eager tourists walked around admiring the view and chatting, many - if not all - armed with cameras.
She thought back, recalling the service. Father Jack Webb, S.J., had officiated, and had kept things brief. There had been one or two weeps, particularly from a petite young woman with dark hair, who seemed to be having a little difficulty walking; certainly Alec had stayed by her side, unobtrusively ready with a helping hand. Was she, Mary wondered, one of Ed's girlfriends? Certainly she was not the dark-skinned beauty who had featured in those damning photographs.
But that woman was not present. Odd, she thought.
However, James Henderson was. He wore dark glasses, and like Mary herself, he stayed at the back, close beside a slightly plump, motherly-looking woman who he treated with clear fondness. Alec acknowledged him with a nod, and a few words, but that was all. Perhaps that wasn't too surprising, given what Alec had said to her about his apparent involvement on that night. Possibly Alec was angry with the older man, but did not want to raise the matter at that time.
Alec himself was accompanied by three rather younger men. One of the men was taller than average and quite handsome; the second was shorter, stocky, darker-skinned, who moved like a dancer; and the third was younger than Alec by at least a decade. All of the group were grim-faced and said little. When Alec walked up to give the eulogy, he was at first barely able to speak, but managed to pull himself together.
She herself had arrived as late as possible, and left first. Alec had suggested that they meet at the tea-room, but she had declined, and gone straight home.
Gazing around the crowd of tourists here at the Tower, she saw a young woman moving uncertainly through the throng. The woman was elegantly dressed, in a mostly black outfit, with a black and white dogtooth check shawl and speckled fur hat. It seemed she was looking for someone, as she stopped beside a man in a fawn overcoat and a not-quite-Burberry hat who was carrying an enormous camera. The woman spoke, and he turned with a big smile to greet her.
Mary nearly choked on her coffee. The man's voice was oh-so-familiar… but it was not Ed, although it could almost have been his father. The face was a similar shape behind large horn-rimmed glasses, but the hair was dark though greying, and he could have given Ed at least twenty years.
You'll be seeing his face in the clouds next, Mary chided herself.
In any case, it seemed that a mistake had been made. Another man had hurried up to speak to the tourist, just after the woman disappeared into the crowds once again. This second man was wearing a coat very similar to that of the tourist; but his hair was long, fair, and curly, and his accent was pure north London. There was a brief exchange; the younger man hurried off in the direction the tourist - grinning all over his face - had indicated. Perhaps they're just good friends, she thought.
Someone tapped her own shoulder, and she jumped, nearly spilling the rest of her coffee. She turned. "Penny, don't do that!!" she said, laughing. "How are you, anyway? It's been too long!"
Penny Nightingale was some four years the senior of her cousin, but - much to Mary's annoyance - looked younger. She had married, but her RAF husband had gone missing in a rather curious incident in East Anglia some years before, and was now listed by his squadron as 'missing, believed killed'. Penny had come to terms with his loss, but had not remarried, and had reverted to her maiden name.
They swapped embraces and greetings. Penny asked whether her cousin had had lunch.
"No," Mary said, "I wasn't really hungry… but I think the fresh air is giving me an appetite."
"Then if you've seen all you want to see, why don't we go down? I know a nice, quiet cafe which does simply amazing croissants."
"Lead the way!"
They felt their way carefully down the stairs, and walked away from the Tower. Penny said: "Tell me if this is a painful subject, but… I've seen the papers."
"It's a painful subject," Mary admitted. "But it's a damn puzzling one… Alec told me, before the news hit the presses."
"That was good of him."
"Yes… We talked about - about past times, and I got the distinct impression he knew a lot more about things than he would admit. But what really got me was, he had realised something must have happened to - to Johnny, but not what or how, and it was only when I sounded off that he seemed to put two and two together. And then he took the blame for it."
"Well, Mary, they're old friends, so of course he would try to excuse Straker - "
"I think he really did mean it. And he did ask me not to talk too much about it."
"The well-known oxymoron rearing its ugly head, I suppose?"
It was a running joke between the cousins, that 'military intelligence' was a contradiction in terms. Mary had to smile. "Even after all this time? Probably… Is this the place?"
They found a table for two on the pavement, and gave their orders to the young server. When the coffee and croissants had arrived, Penny thought it best to move the conversation onto safer ground. "Looking forward to Thursday?"
"I'm a bit rusty," Mary admitted. "Perhaps I could get some practice in?"
"Of course, I'll come and cheer you on! Did your gear get through customs OK?"
"Eventually. I have to go and collect it at three, and I'll be given a discreet escort."
"Touchy, aren't they? You know, I reckon they realise you'll wipe the floor with their favourite."
"We'll have to see about that," Mary said. "Anyway, how's things? Andrew's studies going OK?"
"Surprisingly well," Penny said, a little sadly. "He wants to follow his father, go into the RAF. He's already an air cadet."
"He'll be fine, Penny," Mary assured her. "And how's your nephew doing?"
"Hugh? A typical five-year-old, I'm afraid." Penny smiled a little. "D'you know, he must be the third or fourth Hugh in that line in recent memory. Some families have no imagination."
"Well, you know what the aristocracy is like," Mary commented. "He's their first-born, so he gets the Family Name."
Penny decided to steer the conversation away from that topic. "I'm not surprised Pete gave them the push… So, cousin mine, tell me all about yourself. How's the job going?"
* * *
The practice session went well, however. Penny had set up a row of targets in her huge back garden, and several firing booths. Mary brought out her rifle case and opened it, revealing lengths of evil-looking blued steel tubing. She chose the repeater, which required a quite different technique from the competition single-shot, and kept her flexible. She assembled the weapon with great care; then both she and Penny donned ear defenders, and moved to one of the booths.
Mary fired six times, finding the bull each time. As she was reloading, Penny said: "Er… who were you aiming at?"
Mary lowered the reloaded weapon, thoughtfully. "Not who you'd think."
"Not Steven…? Who, then?"
"James bloody Henderson." Mary raised the rifle to her shoulder once more, and fired.
"Henderson?" repeated Penny, eyebrows raised.
"Yes… I was thinking about it all on the way over here." She took aim, and fired once more. "He's involved in this - "
"This what? Not that I wouldn't agree, but - "
"I wish I knew 'what'. But think about it, Penny. He hauls Ed away just as we're about to board the Athens flight. Then he has Ed working all hours. And Alec claimed that the reason that mercy flight was delayed - that he delayed it - was because they had to collect a 'security VIP'. For Henderson!"
Penny nodded, thoughtfully. "And he was quite good friends with your parents."
"And Mother had never liked Ed."
"Look, Mary," Penny said seriously, "I can believe Henderson would be a bit doubtful about his underlings marrying. We both know about security worries, after all… He never remarried after his own wife died. But why on Earth would he actively wreck someone's marriage like that? What possible reason could he have?"
"Penny," Mary replied, "I really wish I knew."
* * *
"It's Hague all right," Kelly said. "Look at this."
The major spread out a number of printouts from the security tapes along the conference table in the command office. The fuzzy blurs could indeed be pictures of human faces, if you screwed up your eyes. Kelly had taken that technique rather further, and produced a definite image. When he brought it out of his folder, and laid a photo of Lieutenant Andy Hague alongside it, Foster whistled.
"It's him all right! Where is he at the moment?"
"On leave in London," Ginny Lake said, grimly. "And there's something else… You remember all those people who were affected when you two and Ed went to that alien base at the South Pole and dealt with that 'aethon'? He was en route to Moonbase, with Alan Carter. Alan said he'd had some sort of problem, blamed it on bad chili."
"Damn," Freeman whispered, softly. "And he was the courier pilot, the night that alien tried to make contact."
"The plot thickens… Alec, I don't think we should grab him, not immediately," Lake suggested. "We need to find the second intruder, the one Chrys heard at the door, perhaps Hague can lead us to him. And we need to know what he was looking for. But the first thing is to get Jackson to check him out, find out if he's been 'zommed'. Won't be easy to do that covertly."
"We'll do that. But since he survived, he may be an independent agent, like Turner in that time-stopping incident."
"Don't remind me," Lake muttered. "But you're right, he couldn't have been a full 'zom'… I need to talk to Captain Ellis about this, and quickly. When's she due to come down?"
Freeman checked the roster. "Next week. She'll be staying at the House."
"I don't want to have to wait that long," Lake said. "But I also don't want to attract Hague's attention…"
She broke off as the desk-phone buzzed. Freeman lifted the handset. "Freeman here… Yes, Colonel Lackland… When did this happen?… We'll be right there."
"What the hell does he want?" Foster muttered.
"He's calling from Mayland," Freeman said, rising to his feet. "Apparently Henderson was attacked at his home. He's all right, but Lackland shot the intruder down, though he didn't kill him. And the intruder was Hague."
"Was Henderson injured?"
"Only slightly." Freeman turned to Kelly. "Joe, give Ginny a copy of that image, would you? Thanks… OK, Ginny and I will go over and see what's happening. Paul, take over here. Talk to Gay."
"Of course," Foster said.
* * *
But by the time Freeman and Lake arrived at the hospital, Hague had died.
Henderson and Lackland were waiting for them in the doctor's office. A nurse showed them in, then withdrew. Henderson was seated in a chair, looking a little pale, a bandage around his upper arm and his wrist in a support band. Lackland stood by the chair.
"What happened?" Freeman demanded.
"Good to see you, too," Henderson grunted. "I'd gone home, and I was waiting for the colonel here to arrive with some papers, when Hague knocked on the door. I thought he might have some urgent info for us so I let him in. He drew his gun and pushed me into the living room. Then Lackland arrived, and distracted him. I tried to disarm him, he got off one shot." The general glanced down at his arm. "Lackland put a bullet in him. We called Security and had him brought here."
"Did he say anything?"
"Just 'You're coming with me'. Do you know anything about this, Lake?"
"I may do, sir," Lake replied, a little dryly. "We think he may have been the intruder at the House who attacked Lieutenant Jones. Major Ford and Major Kelly have been analysing the CCTV images."
She held out Kelly's processed image. Henderson took it from her with his free hand, looked at it, and nodded. "Of course," he said, "this makes him the prime suspect for our saboteur."
"Indeed," Lackland agreed. "And now he's dead, and can't be questioned. My apologies for that, sir."
Henderson dismissed this with a wave. "You aimed to disable, not to kill. It will be very interesting to see what the autopsy turns up in the way of self-destruct mechanisms… So where do we go from here?"
"Track his movements," Lake said. "Find out if he had the detailed knowledge needed. See if he could have done it at Moonbase, triggered it later when Ed was on his way up… Colonel Lackland, I understand you were in charge of the, er, 'modifications'?"
Lackland nodded. Henderson added: "At my orders."
"Was Hague involved at that stage?"
"No, he wasn't," Lackland told her. "But you're right, he could have triggered it. I had included a computer program to set off the sequence of events, and that was to be triggered by a radio code message. A knowledgeable person could have altered that program and sent the trigger code." Which, Lackland thought to himself, is indeed what happened… But it doesn't matter now if they discover that.
"And Hague was a competent programmer," Freeman said. "Paul is talking to Gay about the service schedules, see if he was involved."
Henderson nodded. He was feeling suddenly tired. "Well, I think we've taken this as far as we can for now. We'll have the autopsy results in a couple of days, and we'll see what Captain Ellis comes up with. I'll be in touch."
* * *
Freeman and Lake made their way to the car, and set off for the studio. Freeman glanced over at her. "You don't like him much, do you?"
"Henderson?" Lake gave a bitter laugh.
"You noticed?" Lake rubbed her arms. "I never have, really, I suppose. A bit remote, a bit sniffy. But at least he doesn't give me the creeps, like Collins did… Or I should say the Collins-zom, I suppose."
"I heard about that," Freeman commented. He laughed a little, but with sympathy. "Remind me not to get on the wrong side of you. I hear you gave him the brush-off in no uncertain terms."
Lake tried a smile in return. "About Lackland… Am I getting paranoid, d'you suppose?"
"How d'you mean?" Freeman said, his surprise showing.
"When did Doug Jackson last 'zom-check' him?"
"A few months ago. Before 'Project Foster', as I recall. He was clean."
"OK… So, what about Andy Hague? He attacks Chrys, tries to kill her, although he and his accomplice try to make it look like a straightforward burglary. And then he has a go at Henderson. And Lackland's there, and kills him, though I grant you he didn't intend to."
"You think Hague was a 'fall guy'?"
"Sacrificial pawn, more like," Lake said, grimly. "I think he was put in place to sabotage Ed's shuttle, hiding it behind Henderson's Omega trial. Chrys draws the short straw - perhaps that was planned, as well - and shoots Ed down. Then she herself is targeted. Either she did notice something, or Hague thought she might have, and wanted her out of the picture. Then he is also eliminated - either by another alien agent, or by his own hand under compulsion - and we are left with no leads at all! We don't even know who his accomplice was!"
"But it does leave us with a question," Freeman said, slowly.
"Why go to so much trouble to hide it," Lake agreed. "Well, the answer's obvious, isn't it? There's more to come."
She reached for the radio. Freeman said: "Let me guess. You're stepping up security around a few people."
"You bet I am, Commander."
Weeks passed, and despite Lake's fears, nothing much had happened. There had been two UFO attempts, one of them nearly breaking through; but Peter Carlin had stopped it in mid-air before it could seek the shelter of the sea.
Captain Ellis had subjected Hague's spacesuit and other belongings held at Moonbase to a thorough inspection, but had found nothing - not even a piece of rogue software. She was not in the least surprised. A similar check had been carried out at his Earth-side lodgings, and at the House that had been used by Chrys and her colleagues, but again without result.
And life went on; though no-one would have claimed to have become accustomed to the absence of Commander Edward Straker.
Freeman had formally confirmed his acceptance of the promotion into that slot. He knew he would never be another Straker, and he did not even try to be, preferring to bring his own command style to the job. It seemed to be working out, but Freeman once confided privately to Foster that he suspected that they put up with him out of loyalty to their 'real' commander. Foster did not comment; Freeman had to make of that what he would.
Captain Mark Bradley was inserted into the duty schedule for the Woomera base in Lake's place. He would spend eight months there, and the other four months at Moonbase. This cycle would start after Gay had finished her own 'gravity leave'. Again to Freeman's relief, neither of the pair objected, despite the fact that they were nearly engaged.
Plan Omega stayed on the books as SOP in certain defined situations, but it was refined and tweaked. Henderson offered no comment.
The investigation Freeman had asked for, into the accident in which Johnny Straker had been fatally injured, was inconclusive. Jackson had managed to obtain the police files; these had shown that it had not been a hit-and-run, and that the driver, one Rick Cargill, had not - technically - been breaking any speed limits. He had stopped and run to investigate, and given his details when the police arrived. He had not been charged with any offence, even when the boy had died.
Freeman thought that was distinctly odd. Surely it had been 'causing death by careless driving'? Or worse, 'reckless', even 'dangerous'? Had someone been pulling strings?
Jackson had investigated; but found nothing, no suggestion of any interference. And after the accident investigation, Cargill had simply vanished into the metaphorical crowds, and Foster had been unable to trace him much further. There was certainly no apparent connection between him and Rutland.
* * *
One evening some six weeks after the Incident - which would be forever capitalised in SHADO unofficial history - Waterman let himself into his apartment, carrying a bag of Chinese takeaway trays. This was his one guilty pleasure; but this particular gourmet treat was beyond dietary reproach, having been cooked for him by his tiny Chinese landlady, who took a motherly interest in the wellbeing of her huge protégé. He rather suspected she had an eye on him for one of her admittedly very pretty daughters.
"Sorry, Lin," he murmured to himself as he served up his meal. "Right now I'm just not in the mood. Perhaps later…"
He finished the meal, and sighed. What wouldn't he give for a large glass of Chablis right now… but not if he had to inspect Skydiver tomorrow. Oh well, it would have to be a book.
He reached along the shelf for his latest read, the one Norma Ealand had collected for him from the post. At the point he had reached, the fugitive ship had split its party. One small group of humans, and a few 'fen' - dolphin crew - were arranging a diversion, so that the 'Streaker' could get away; hopefully unnoticed, but at least with a bit of an advantage. There was a little conflict between the groups. Two of the humans were married, and the husband was part of the diversionary party, while the wife was in temporary and emergency command of the 'Streaker' herself. And now they were having to make the decision to leave, to part company.
The author, David Brin, had invented three languages for his dolphins. One of them allowed the composition of haikus and similar poetry in the whistling rhyme the author had called Trinary. Waterman quite enjoyed them; they had introduced him to 'real' haikus, which appealed to him.
He read the 'Trinary' verse in which the wife was explaining to her husband and his cetacean companions that she shortly had to leave… and stopped dead in his mental tracks.
"What a piercing sound I hear… The peal of bugles, engines rising… The tears of love abandoned… Soon, so very soon…"
The sound of engines rising…
"Oh… my… god," Waterman whispered, in a heartfelt, sincere prayer. "That's what Chrys meant - "
He grabbed his jacket and threw it on, rammed the book into his pocket, and ran for his car.
* * *
Captain Gay Ellis was also on gravity leave. In her Earth-side apartment, she had powered up her recently-acquired portable computer, to look yet again at the video clip of the final transmission from Straker's Lunar Module, like Waterman knowing she was missing something, not knowing what.
She sighed, and reached for her mug of hot jasmine tea. She took a mouthful, gazing at the computer screen. It was showing the last image they had received from the LM, the image of the commander's head as he reached up to lower his visor, the image dissolving into noise, then going blank. She ran the clip back a few seconds, then - as she had done countless times before - she set it to step forward, frame by frame.
She slowed the playback right down, letting each image hold the screen for many seconds. Something was bothering her about that image, about that final clear frame. Had the commander been saying something that had been swamped by the noise? She had tried bringing in an expert in lip-reading, several times, but without reward.
Perhaps she was fooling herself. Perhaps there was nothing to find.
She left the final image up on the screen, and gazed at it while she sipped from her mug, her thoughts elsewhere. She had managed to persuade herself that the general's action in testing Omega had been reasonable; but that didn't make it much easier…
Her thoughts drifted, recalling the events of that day, of Chrys's scheduled training session, with Lew Waterman; of Alan Carter's attempts to date Lieutenant Chan, in that dazzlingly tasteless outfit…
And then she froze, staring at that helmet. She reached forward to the keyboard, trying to sharpen up the image as much as she could, enhancing the colour separation to try to drown out the rainbow speckles of noise. With the image as clear as she could make it, she put the mug down, taking care not to place it on top of the photos of the pod debris they had found scattered over the impact site. Most of the debris had now been brought back to Earth; but the piece of space helmet had been left on the Moon, buried with a few other relics at the spot where its owner had died. Analysis had shown faint traces of Ed Straker's blood on its inner surface.
She scrabbled through those photos until she found the one she wanted, the image of the helmet fragment, with its owner's name so clearly visible. The fine hairs on the back of her neck rose in a primitive reflex. Moving only her eyes, she transferred her gaze to the video clip, paused at the last second before the signal had been drowned in noise.
And there it was. And she had missed it. She had missed it, all this time.
Like Waterman, she grabbed the photo and the computer and raced from the room, letting the door slam behind her, and headed for Freeman's house at all the speed she dared risk without attracting law enforcement attention.
Sweat poured off Foster, and his muscles and joints ached, but he pushed on. He had always enjoyed running, and these sessions now helped with that other pain as nothing else could: the double pain of loss, of both Ed and Chrys.
At last, though, he had to call it quits.
He let his pace slacken off, and relaxed into the cooling-down lap. As he did so, Foster realised he had another running companion, keeping easy pace with him.
"Hi," said Freeman. "Good run?"
"Yeah… thanks…" Foster puffed. "Just… cooling off…"
"Good… When you're done," Freeman said, "join me for a quick lemonade?"
"Sounds good," Foster said. "Over at the tables…?"
"See you there." Freeman loped off, in long, easy strides.
A few minutes later, Foster came trotting up to the table where Freeman was seated. None of the others was occupied. Foster was now breathing comfortably, and sweat was drying on him. Freeman held out a towel. "Here you are. Don't get chilled."
"Thanks." Foster mopped himself off, and sat. Freeman pushed a tall beaker of lemonade over to him, and he took a grateful gulp. "You wanted to talk to me, do I gather, sir?" he asked.
"I do… And it's strictly informal and off the record, so please call me Alec."
"As you wish, Alec," Foster returned.
"First, I apologise for bringing up the subject of Ed's death."
Foster looked at him. His face was quite expressionless.
"Some of what I have to say will probably sound patronising. That's not my intention. Paul, with my personnel manager hat on, you're doing well, I'm pleased to say. But it's only been a matter of a few months since the connection between you two was discovered. You can hardly have had time to get your head round the idea. On top of that, there's Chrys. But you're coping well. Perhaps too well."
Foster gazed into his glass. "Is my work being affected, sir - Alec?"
"No, it isn't. Not yet… It might, in the not so distant future." Freeman took a breath. "Jackson and his medical mates will go on at length if you let them about the various stages of grief, and will even say things like 'you're on stage three-and-a-half'… Speaking personally, I find that patronising! But it seems to be true that reactions to loss do change, though the loss doesn't lose its pain. Ever. Perhaps that pain changes, but it doesn't go."
"I know," Paul muttered, in a low voice. He was remembering his friends who had died… his co-pilot in that first fateful UFO encounter; Grant; Maddox. The victims of those 'psychobombs'; Linda herself. That pain was still there. He'd learned to live with it, even learn from it.
And he felt more than a little ashamed. He'd lost a brother; but it would not be stretching the truth to snapping point to recognise that Alec had, in an odd sort of way, lost a son.
Or maybe it wasn't so odd. Maybe, on the emotional level, it was nothing less than the truth. Certainly, Foster had often noticed Freeman dealing with Straker like a stern father - but a father whose discipline was always tempered with compassion.
"Alec," he said, gently, "you need to grieve, as well."
Freeman stared at him; and then, he leaned back in his seat, and laughed, helplessly, for several moments. The laughter did have a touch of hysteria in it, Foster noticed; but he did not interrupt.
The laughter faded. Freeman mopped at his face with a handkerchief. "Damn right, Paul, I do… If Ed's looking down at us now, he's shaking his head in disgust."
"He'd be saying 'it's about time'," Foster murmured.
"Yeah, he would," Freeman agreed. "Care for some supper? I do a mean takeaway."
"So I've heard," Foster smiled. "Lead the way!"
* * *
But they were overtaken by events.
Foster's car followed Freeman's to his apartment. They found spaces in the underground lot, and took the lift to Freeman's floor. As they entered, the comm system detected their presence and the alert signal sounded.
Freeman pressed the button. "Freeman. What's up?"
"Ellis here, sir. Look, can I come over? There's something I need to talk with you about."
"Of course," Freeman said, puzzled. Evidently, whatever it was, Gay didn't want to go into details, even over a secure line. "You can join me and Paul for a takeaway, if you like."
"Paul's there? Good… I should be with you in about ten minutes."
"See you." Freeman closed the line, and turned to Foster, eyebrows raised. "Well, I was going to put the percolator on, but perhaps I'd better wait - "
He broke off as the alert sounded again. "Gay's forgotten something… Freeman," he said, as he picked up the handset again. "What - "
"This is Lew Waterman. Sir, I have to talk to you. It's about that special job you asked Chrys to do - the one about acoustics."
"You've found something?" Freeman said, his attention sharpening.
"I may have, sir."
"Then come right on over." Freeman put down the handset once more, and looked at Foster. "Seems like it's going to be a busy evening."
* * *
Gay arrived at Freeman's house first, to find him at the door waiting for her.
"You were quick," he said. "And here's Lew. Good to see you both, but please don't hurtle about like that! Come on in."
He led them into the living room. "Please, both of you, take a seat… coffee? Anything?"
"Not just yet, sir, thank you. Perhaps later."
"No thanks," Waterman said, in response to Freeman's enquiring glance.
"OK, you each had something urgent to tell me. Gay?"
"Here," Gay said, laying out her video on the coffee table, and placing the helmet image beside it. "I'd like you to compare these pictures. I've checked the processing; those images are accurate."
Freeman looked, then shook his head, puzzled. "I don't see anything different. Paul?" Foster shook his head also.
"Men!" Gay snorted in exasperation. "Don't you have any colour discrimination at all, for heaven's sake?"
Freeman started to say something, then stopped, with a small gasp. "The name decals. They're different. One's green, one's blue. It's not the same helmet!"
Gay nodded her agreement. "I think it's the helmet from the prototype suit, the one Ed himself tested."
"And there's something else," Waterman added. "I suddenly realised what Chrys meant when she said 'sound' to Paul. She meant that channel noise on the video. We need to analyse it, but I don't think it's all white noise. I think some of it's a rocket motor on the pod."
Freeman's face was stricken. "It could be," he muttered. "A solid-fuel booster. One of our small cargo units. It could have pushed him out of the well. Then the pod could have ejected the suit, and exploded, and the suit was left to go off into space. The stuff we found must have been planted! They could have got hold of some samples of Ed's blood from his medicals!"
"So the aliens could pick him up while we were looking the other way," Gay whispered. "There was a UFO hanging around, remember!"
Foster came to his feet, his eyes blazing. "What the hell do we do now?!?"
"Pray that he's dead," Waterman said, his voice hard.
With a huge effort, Freeman pulled himself together. "The first thing we do is analyse that 'white noise'", he said. "And while you two are doing that we'll go and put the kettle on. Come on, Paul."
* * *
They returned a few minutes later, Freeman bearing a full tray, which he set down on the table, being careful not to disturb their conversation. It was dotted with terms like 'frequency distribution', 'tracking filter', and 'signal to noise ratio'. Some of it he understood, the rest he could make a fair guess at; but he preferred to leave this to the two experts.
At length Gay looked up. "Lew is right, Alec. Look at this."
She turned the screen so he could see. "This is the mush, as it comes off the recording. This - " she tapped a key - "is the mush with most of the higher frequencies removed. And this is what that looks like when you amplify it."
"And this trace," Waterman said, "is a test firing of one of our boosters."
"In fact," Gay added, "that mush could be made up from three of our cargo boosters, the maths shows that neatly… here's a super-imposition of three 'pushes', compared to what we actually saw."
Freeman looked, and his heart turned to ice within him. "They're the same. They're bloody identical!"
"There's worse," Gay said. "That UFO was following a parabolic track - which intercepted the projected path of the pod."
"Shit," Foster whispered. "They've got him. The aliens have bloody taken him!"
Freeman came to his feet once more, and jerkily strode to the window, gazing out over the darkening grounds. His head sagged down between his hunched shoulders. "Listen, people," he said huskily. "We keep this to ourselves - strictly to ourselves. Can you imagine the effect this would have if we announced it?"
"What can we do, anyway?" Waterman muttered, hopelessly. "I know what I'd like to do. But it's hardly possible, is it?"
Gay nodded. "Go and get him… Well, let's kick that one around a bit, shall we? Brainstorm it. Something may occur to us."
"Are you kidding?" Waterman almost shouted. "He's god knows how many light years away, we don't have that kind of technology! And that's assuming he survived long enough to be picked up in the first place!"
"And kept his sanity," Freeman said quietly. "Ed is claustrophobic. Or rather, 'was', but it may well flare up again."
"Now you are kidding me - "
"It's quite true… and that doesn't go beyond us four, understand? He's well on top of it now, but there have been… occasions… when things became a little hairy."
"But Moonbase has never bothered him - " Gay began, but she was interrupted.
"Oh my god." Foster's face had lost what was left of its colour. "SkyDiver! The 'sub-smash'! I knew he was - uneasy, more even than you'd expect then - I didn't realise why! And he's out there with nothing but a suit between him and the universe - "
"Exactly. Claustrophobia and agoraphobia wrapped up in a neat package, with acrophobia thrown in." Unsteadily, Freeman came back to the couch, picked up his mug and drained it. "You're wondering how he was allowed to do the job he does - "
Waterman shot to his feet. "I'm wondering how a claustrophobe was allowed on board my submarine, Commander Freeman! I don't care if it was Commander Straker or the Queen of England! How could you let that kind of clear liability - "
"As to that, Jackson was satisfied - "
"Well, bully for Doctor bloody Jackson, he's not the one who - "
" - and I'm going to tell you a little tale." Freeman looked at them each in turn. "You won't have heard about it, I should think - it's personal and confidential. I only know because I was there."
"It had better be good," Waterman snarled. "Sir."
"Oh it's good," Freeman answered. He looked up, gazing into the distance. Gay stayed silent; Foster stared down at the floor. Waterman controlled himself with an effort and forced himself to resume his seat and listen.
"It was the first time I'd met him. I was with DS8; he was with Blue Book; but I hadn't even seen him before. It was a court-martial, and he was defending… well, a man accused of collaborating with the enemy, for which he would have been shot even in the cold-war situation. I found out later that Ed had never done anything like it before; but he'd insisted. Pulled strings, called in favours, threatened to hold his breath until he turned blue… He got his way; because he'd been in a very similar position to the defendant, something which few of his colleagues could have said, then."
"What position?" Gay asked.
"They had both been held prisoner by terrorists, and survived."
Waterman's angry expression changed, and he whistled, softly.
Freeman drew a deep breath. "When I first saw him, before the trial, I disliked him immediately, and most unfairly… I looked at him and thought: Here was this ego-on-legs of a first lieutenant pretending to be a defence counsel, this tall, slim, blue-eyed, blond-haired, red-blooded alpha male with just enough yin to his yang to take the edge off, with the dangerous grace of a panther and the kind of charm that can knock you over at thirty paces with half a smile… and if you EVER tell him or anyone else I said so I'll have your guts for garters. Both of you."
Despite the seriousness of the situation, Gay had to suppress a snort of laughter. Freeman glared at her; but as he resumed, his thoughts flew back to that day in Turkey, at the RAF court. It had never left his memories; they were clear and sharp despite the years that had passed…
* * *
Alec Freeman turned as the door opened.
It was the MP, Mersky. With him was a young American officer, in the uniform of a first lieutenant, though he looked almost too young even to be a cadet, despite the rows of medal ribbons on his chest. Freeman wondered, sourly, who he'd borrowed that 'fruit salad' from.
"Hello, Alec," the MP said. "May I introduce Lieutenant Ed Straker, USAF. He's volunteered to be counsel for the defence."
"Actually, I insisted," Straker said. His accent was noticeable, but it was clear that he had lived among Britons for many years. Freeman looked at the American, and thought: oh boy. He has to be a ladies' man, a right charmer… well, he's not going to charm me.
"Lieutenant Straker," he said, coldly. "I'm Flight Lieutenant Alexander Freeman, RAF."
The American did smile, just a little, but - Freeman thought - with genuine sympathy. They shook hands, and Straker accepted Mersky's invitation to seat himself at the small table. Freeman sat as well.
"I understand you're with DS8?" Straker asked.
"Then we have a couple of things in common. I'm with Blue Book."
Freeman blinked a little. "Are you a sceptic or a believer?" he asked, bluntly.
"Oh, I'm a sceptic, I guess." At Freeman's frown, Straker continued: "It's amazing how often that word gets misused. It simply means someone who doubts whether a particular idea or belief is true… but doubt is only meaningful if it's followed up by investigation, which should falsify either the belief or the doubt itself. As in this current case, of course, I doubt the guilt of the accused; and I intend to investigate that alleged guilt. So, I need to talk to you about it."
"I meant about UFOs," Freeman grated.
"Well, I'm deeply sceptical of the general belief about them - that they cannot possibly exist."
It took Freeman a few seconds to disentangle this calm statement. "You do think they exist?" he said, at last.
"I sure don't think the possibility can be so flatly dismissed. I have studied some astrophysics, and the deeper I get into the subject, the less inclined I am to reject their existence out of hand." Straker opened his briefcase, took out a pad and pen. "Well, more on that later. Now, let's get down to business, shall we?"
* * *
"The day of the trial, he walked into the court and took his place. He let the prosecution have its say… and then he stood up and mounted the most effective, the most devastating, defence I have ever witnessed. I remember his exact words. I don't think I will ever forget them…"
* * *
Freeman sat in his allotted place, and watched as Lieutenant Straker rose to his feet. Freeman thought he looked rather pale, and again wondered how the man had managed to survive in the USAF for longer than a week.
But, Freeman realised suddenly, the American's face was not just pale, it was slightly tinged with grey.
Indeed, Straker's voice was shaking, just a little, as he addressed the court. "Your honours, I have only one witness to call, and that is myself."
The officers on the bench exchanged glances, and nods. The Judge Advocate looked at Straker. "You may proceed, Lieutenant."
"Thank you, sir." Straker walked to the witness box, and looked around the court. He said: "The defendant has been accused of assisting the enemy, by his co-operation with them. In fact, he escaped from one of the most brutal regimes there are. Brutal but unknown. Few people know what these groups are capable of… so I'm going to tell you."
And how the hell, Freeman thought savagely, would you possibly know anything about it, you fool… But Straker's next words stopped his thoughts dead.
"They took me, as well, some months before. By the way, I didn't escape, I was rescued… My debriefing was carried out under medical supervision, and the report is 'confidential' for that reason. However, I will now summarise it for this court.
"I was held for some weeks. They wanted to 'turn' me to their twisted ideology. They tried everything. Starvation; solitary confinement in darkness; waterboarding; the lot. And a - a mock beheading."
My god, Freeman thought. My dear god.
He heard a rustling whisper around the court. The Judge called: "Silence!" The room stilled once more.
The American stopped for a moment, seemed to brace himself, then he went on: "They tied my hands behind me. They led me out into the desert, into a small dell lined with rocks, with a deep hole dug at its centre. Lonely, isolated… They made me kneel… They made me watch while they took another poor bastard's head off, and I couldn't go to him to help him, I didn't even know his name…"
His voice faltered. He's in tears, Freeman realised suddenly.
Visibly, Straker took control of himself. He resumed, forcing the words out.
"They blindfolded me… One of them grabbed me by the hair, pulled my head back, exposing my throat… I heard a swish. I felt a cold metal edge on my skin… There was a thud… And then I realised that, if I could hear, my head was probably still attached."
Straker stopped speaking. Freeman watched, horrified, as the officer touched his throat, then looked at his fingertips. His body seemed to slacken; then his eyes rolled up in his head, his knees gave way, and he dropped limply to the floor.
There was an uproar. Freeman was on his feet. The guard did not notice. The Judge called 'Medic!". Mersky ran to the fallen man, felt for his pulse, and began to loosen his collar. Straker stirred, mumbled something. His eyes came open, and he blinked up at the light. He took a deep breath, then started to push himself up into a sitting position, with Mersky helping.
"You should sit still for a few moments, sir," Mersky said.
"No… no. I… I'm all right." More than a little shakily, he got up, then faced the Board.
He said: "That concludes the case for the defence."
"I see," said the Judge. He cleared his throat, then turned to the prosecutor. "Do you wish to cross-examine, Major?"
"No, sir, thank you."
"Very well. Lieutenant Straker, you may resume your seat, while we consider our verdict."
The three officers on the Board turned to each other. Freeman clearly heard one of them ask "What is waterboarding, anyway?"; another, with the medical caduceus on his uniform, replied. His colleagues turned nearly as grey as Straker. The three stood, and left the courtroom.
Freeman turned to Mersky. "I want to go and talk to defence counsel."
Mersky accompanied him to the defence desk, where Straker was tidying his papers. The American was still pale, and his fingers showed a slight tremor.
"You bloody idiot," Freeman hissed. "You didn't have to do that! Are you all right?"
"Not really," the American admitted, in a low voice. He gave Freeman a wan smile. "But yes, I did have to do it… It's true as I said. Not many people know what these terrorists are willing and able to do. Sometimes you have to educate your superiors."
"I owe you a large drink, when we get out of this!"
"I may take you up on that, as it's a special occasion - ah. Here they come…"
* * *
The three listened to Freeman's account of that day. Foster's face was quite expressionless. Once or twice Waterman tried to say something. Gay could not speak at all.
Freeman concluded: "The bench threw the case out, unanimously. It turned out later, after the case had been re-examined at Ed's insistence, that the defendant had been 'set up', by someone trying to penetrate DS8."
There was a short silence. Waterman said: "I take it back. That comment about a liability. I take it all back. And I apologise most sincerely for my insubordination, sir."
"What insubordination was that, Lew?" Freeman enquired, with a gentle smile. "I don't recall any. I do recall seeing a sub captain who was rightly concerned about the safety of his command."
Waterman nodded, silently.
Then Foster said, huskily: "Who was the defendant?"
Freeman met his gaze levelly. "Me."
They all stared at him. At last Foster cleared his throat. "Starvation… solitary confinement in darkness… slow suffocation… And he's out there, between worlds, in only his spacesuit… Sir, you don't suppose - "
"That Henderson gave Ed to the aliens, intentionally?" Freeman answered. "No I don't - and please, Paul, in this place and at this time, just call me Alec… No, James L. is a b#stard but he's not a traitor. He was nearly killed by the UFO that attacked the diplomatic party which was looking to set up SHADO. Ed was injured himself, but he pulled Henderson away from the burning car… Our James just doesn't like being indebted to another man for his life, particularly when that man has taken what he considers his professional place, even though he himself gave up that place. It may have been enjoyable to see Ed discomfited by having what Henderson thought of as his precious Plan Omega being discredited; but he genuinely didn't intend any physical harm."
"You sure about that?" Waterman said, cynically.
"Testing it was a valid thing to do. It got out of hand, that's all."
"It was taken out of his hands," Gay said.
"Precisely. We now have proof that our saboteur was indeed active on the Moon. Perhaps it was Hague, perhaps it was someone else. And there may be a link to our medical staff - that 'organic debris' must have come from someone there. Also, we need to check the trace logs on that prototype suit."
"Finding them might be easier than our first job," Gay commented. "Getting the Commander back, I mean. Normal procedures should handle the goon."
"And we had better go very, very carefully. We don't want to spook them," Freeman said. "Now, brainstorming, you said. OK, let's give it a go - but we don't write anything down, and use the computer as little as possible. Mine has never been on JANET, but I still recommend caution."
"Fine." Waterman thought a moment. "Well, we need to reach the planet. We have the following options - hijack a UFO; stow away aboard one; or be taken aboard one. Should be a piece of cake, really."
"Maybe it's not so hard as you think," Gay said. "They may be a lot closer to home. Ed certainly thought so."
"What?" Waterman said.
Freeman said, thoughtfully: "Remember, there have already been unmanned reconnaissance trips not only to Mars and Venus, but to the outer solar system as well… The Voyager probes took a good look at Jupiter and Saturn and their moons, and one of them went on to the ice giants, Uranus and Neptune. Someone even suggested landing on a comet. There are a couple of promising candidates for that one… But what's really interesting is the fact that the secret Voyager 3 probe to Jupiter picked up that very curious 'interference' apparently coming from the Jovian moons. Now, bear in mind that we know how much the aliens like water. Their craft survive in it better than they do in our atmosphere."
"Right," Foster put in. "And there was that undersea dome they built, with a complete mockup of SHADO Control."
"Indeed… It so happens that one of those Jovian moons that Ed was particularly interested in is Europa. He pointed out that it's covered with ice… and there may be liquid water below the ice."
Waterman and Gay exchanged glances. "Europa fits with our evidence," Gay said.
"Remember the Discovery probe? I tried to show the Commander my analysis of the paths followed by the UFOs, and he wouldn't look at it. Instead he told me I 'worked myself too hard'. But later, afterwards, he took me aside and asked me for a copy of that work, said he wanted to think about it - but I wasn't to tell anyone he was interested."
"Why on Earth not?" Waterman wanted to know.
"Possible 'moles'," Foster said grimly.
"No doubt," Freeman agreed. "What did your analysis show, Gay?"
Gay tapped keys on her computer. "Here's a plot of the set of paths the incoming UFOs have followed over the years. The cone of trajectories covers a particular area of the sky - which, right at the moment, contains none other than our old friend Jupiter. A mere half a billion miles away, give or take an AU. And here's a refinement of that plot, using data from the deep space probes. Look where it puts the centre of the cone."
"Europa for certain," Freeman said, quietly. "An alien colony, anyway. That won't be their home planet, but it's an ideal base-world for in-system operations. And he wouldn't simply be left to float there. It would take years, even if they'd supplied life support."
Foster drew a breath. "You think he really has been taken there - "
"Yes I do. Those boosters would have pushed him to lunar escape velocity… And there was that UFO coming in for a look, and exiting as though pursued by the Three Bears."
"With Ed on board," whispered Foster. "Alec, for god's sake, what are we going to do? Go out and get him?"
"That's exactly what I'm going to do."
"But how? And what can you do if you manage to get there intact?"
"As to the 'how', there's only one realistic way… get myself captured as well. As to the 'what', at the moment I have no idea… but at the very least I'll be able to support him, and perhaps together we can work something out, some sort of deal. Ed is the finest strategist I know, after all."
"You'll try for a treaty?" Foster's eyes widened.
"Damn right. I'll bet Ed is doing exactly that."
"Mmm." Gay lifted her mug and contemplated the contents thoughtfully. "I suppose the fact that it's now been what, six weeks, and we haven't been wiped off the face of the Earth - or the face of the Moon either - means he's giving them a hard time."
"Alec…" Foster shook his head, bemused. "You'll be taking a hell of a risk. Two of SHADO's top men in the aliens' clutches - "
"Thanks for the compliment," Freeman murmured.
"Don't count on it… Personally I think you're certifiably insane. And that's nothing to what Henderson will think if he finds out."
"Then we'll just have to make sure he doesn't find out, won't we?"
Foster nodded. "OK. What d'you want us to do?"
Freeman leaned forward and gazed at his colleagues seriously. "I will probably have to wait for an opportunity. If one comes my way, I'll try to signal it with a codeword, perhaps 'fishing'. I may get a chance in the next few days, as it happens."
"Yes. We'll be doing the initial tests on the Eagle chassis. That should get the aliens' attention."
"Yes, I should think it would!!"
"So… When I get taken, overall command will devolve on you, Paul, or possibly on Ginny. Depends what Henderson decides. One problem will be morale. I don't kid myself that people hold me in the same level of affection that they do Ed, but even so it's going to be a bit of a blow… But between the four of you, you should be able to hold things together."
"We'll do our best," Foster said. "One thing, though, Alec. You don't suppose that - that they've already - well - "
"Killed him?" Freeman supplied, grimly. "No, not yet. They will want his knowledge. They may even put him under that remote brain control of theirs and send him back here. He's more valuable to them in one piece."
"Yes. I suppose so… Alec, I don't know what I hope for, at this point. On the one hand, he's better off dead, and so are we if he is. But on the other…"
"I know, Paul," Freeman answered, softly. "But if the only thing I can do for him when and if I find him is to kill us both, I shall do exactly that."
"Alec, do we have any hope at all?" Gay burst out.
"Perhaps." Freeman emptied his mug. "For one thing, there is strong evidence that there are at least two 'factions' among the aliens, possibly more. Remember that one who tried to make direct contact, but who was chased by another UFO, and killed before we could reach him. Then there's one lot who want us for supplies… and another who tried to destroy all of us, which would cut off those supplies rather finally. Unless Ed and Jackson were right, and it was a sort of 'terraforming'."
"And you would try to make contact with any 'friendlies'?"
"That's right," Freeman confirmed. "Also, I've been talking to Doug Jackson, who has some pretty wild theories sometimes, but who does tend to make sense. I wondered why it is that the aliens haven't even tried to control Ed or me. He suggested it's because we don't have the right kind of mind. I've also asked him to give me as thorough an analysis as he can, since as head of SHADO I can't afford to be under alien control." Freeman looked at his companions steadily. "And I also asked him if he could set up some kind of self-destruct. A post-hypnotic command to myself, if you like. He refused, said its mere presence would drive me insane."
"I can see that," Gay agreed, with a slight shiver.
"Anyway… The point is that if they can't control me, I'll be a comparatively free agent, for a while anyway. I might even be able to talk to them. We will just have to see."
"And if you can't?"
"Then I shall just have to cause as much mayhem as I can… I've been wondering about infecting myself with a virus. Perhaps even a mental one, like a computer virus."
"Are there such things?" Foster said, startled.
"Jackson has some interesting ideas along those lines. It would need telepathic contact, but we know the aliens have that capability."
Foster shivered a little. "Just don't give them ideas, that's all. That 'mindbender' crystal was bad enough!"
The group looked at each other. Freeman took a deep breath.
"Right," he said, firmly. "We have some serious planning to do. For a start, I need to let Ginny know. We need to check Factory 1 - Ed had a stopover there on his way to Moonbase, that's where the extra boosters could have been fitted. Then we need to trace back on that prototype suit. And it would be helpful if we can find out where those other fragments really came from. Gay, when you get back to Moonbase, try to track down a couple of spacesuits."
"What - Oh." Gay smiled in realisation. "Oh yes, of course! Why bring stuff from Earth when it's already there? And didn't Ed have a couple of incidents out on the surface, while Moonbase was being set up?"
"Yes," Freeman confirmed. "One was when John Bosanquet went missing. Ed's suit was damaged, he had to patch it. He sustained a cut, which would have provided the blood, and perhaps some tissue fragments."
"Only trouble is, that was some years ago," Gay said thoughtfully. "How long can you keep organics 'fresh'? Even in liquid nitrogen?"
"Decades, at least," Freeman said. "Or more, perhaps much more. Some sources suggest indefinitely, others put a limit of a thousand years."
Gay blinked a little. "So a few years wouldn't be a problem… and we've plenty of cryogenics around at Moonbase. Alec, we've talked about moles… that would have been some serious forward planning, wouldn't it?"
"Too right… Gay, I don't have to warn you to be careful, not to arouse suspicion."
"I'll give it some careful thought," Gay promised.
A mole, indeed, she thought. She had read reports which showed that they had been under observation from the aliens even before SHADO was set up. The attack on the car bringing Ed Straker and Henderson to the initial high-level talks had made that obvious. Who the moles were, and how they had operated, had proved impossible to determine ahead of time, though SHADO efforts to do so had continued. Even Ed himself had fallen under suspicion at one point.
Their obvious suspect, Lieutenant Andy Hague, was perhaps a little too obvious. Ginny Lake had called him a 'sacrificial pawn', and had suggested that at least one of his functions had been to distract attention from the real saboteur. Unless, of course, it was a double-bluff.
Realising that if she followed that chain of complication too far she would wind up staring at her own psychological navel, Gay resolved to compromise - and to eliminate no-one from her considerations, nor concentrate on anyone, without supporting evidence.
The meeting broke up. Freeman had offered to supply food, but their minds were too full to eat. Freeman sympathised. He saw them off, then headed for the studio.
He arrived in the outer office to be met by a startled look from Norma Ealand. "Mr Freeman? Is there a problem?"
"Possibly," Freeman admitted. After giving the matter much thought on the drive over, he had decided not to mention Ed's possible survival to her. For one thing, it would be less than kind. "Is Ginny around?"
"I believe she is below stairs, sir. Said she had some work to do on a piece of electronics."
"That hobby of hers is going to come in useful someday," Freeman smiled; though he winced, inwardly, at Ginny's likely reaction to hearing her work described as a 'hobby'. "OK, thanks."
He made his way down to SHADO Control, where Anderson told him that Colonel Lake was indeed in the electronics lab with two of her technicians. He entered the room carefully, not wanting to disturb any possibly delicate adjustments. Indeed, Lake was sitting and watching while the two techs were assembling a piece of equipment. She tossed him a quick nod of acknowledgement, and he waited, quietly.
"OK, boys, that's good. Run the preliminary checks, and if it's good we'll start the next stage tomorrow."
This process took perhaps ten minutes. The two techs left, closing the door behind them. "Looks worried, doesn't he?" one said.
"Maybe he wants to invite her out."
"Is he her type?"
"Wouldn't have thought so, but you - "
The tech was interrupted. Lake's shout of "What?? NO!!" could be heard clearly through the door. The two techs grinned at each other, and left. "Better luck next time, Commander," one of them commented, with a grin.
Gay's 'gravity leave' ended the following day. As Moonbase commander returning from leave, she had an excellent excuse to do some investigating under cover of an inspection. This was further helped by the fact that Commander Freeman would be coming up to Moonbase himself for the next phase of the Eagle project. Unfortunately, her staff also knew this; but she knew they would not be so stupid as to try to cover up problems to avoid being disciplined. The inspections were to their benefit, after all. Their lives depended on them.
Even the life of an alien agent.
She wondered whether there was anything to be found. The incident during Moonbase construction in which John Bosanquet had been lost was years ago. The supposed 'agent' would have disposed of most of the evidence, but would have kept back a few items, in anticipation of an opportunity like this one.
They had already checked Hague's movements, when he had shown his hand; but there was nothing to indicate that he might have been involved in setting up the putative 'crash site'. At least, not directly.
She considered a possible sequence of events following the Bosanquet incident. The techs would have retrieved Ed's damaged vacuum suit, detached the sleeve, sent the suit for refurbishing. The sleeve would have been examined to determine the extent and nature of the damage, and that information sent to the manufacturers. Samples would have been taken of the damaged area… What had happened to those samples? And then what about that prototype helmet? It should be quite easy to track those down… unless, of course, they had been hidden, by Hague or one of his associates.
And there must have been an associate, because Hague himself had not been with SHADO at the time of Bosanquet's death. He had joined a few years later.
There was the problem that two agents would have been more than twice as hard to conceal as one, because they would need to communicate with each other, even if briefly. Of course, the associate might have been present long enough to hand over the purloined items, and had then left. She would have to check the relevant personnel logs.
Perhaps there was only one such agent present at a time, with a small 'handover' period. A single agent could have arranged for the seismographs to be triggered, for the Interceptor's instruments to report metallic echoes, and for the drones to be loaded with the 'evidence'.
She thought about the fragments that lay buried at the site of the Incident. They were quite large, so a Dewar flask would be needed. Moonbase had a number of these insulated containers, kept in the lab stores.
One of her principal targets of investigation would be that liquid nitrogen store. Withdrawal of any stock had to be logged, and the usage monitored. Nitrogen had to be handled carefully; a leak could fill the enclosed spaces in Moonbase, driving out breathable air, and killing by asphyxiation. Nevertheless, an experienced person could decant off some of the liquid into a Dewar flask, put the suit samples in it, and hide it somewhere. This activity would not in itself arouse suspicion. Nitrogen gas was needed for many applications at Moonbase, not least atmosphere control, but also for various research projects. Several Moonbase staff were involved in these, even the Interceptor pilots in their off-duty phases.
And an Interceptor pilot would have been in a good position to scatter some suggestive pieces of debris. Or was that just a little too obvious a connection…
Come on, Gay, she told herself sternly. You don't want one of your staff to be an alien spy… but that's exactly what you may be dealing with.
She went back in her thoughts to the events of that day. The seismographs had reported an event, and Lieutenant Wojnycz had gone to investigate, deploying drones for visual inspection. He could have dropped the items himself. But that would have been too late to set off the seismographs; it would have needed a technician on hand to simulate that kind of reading. Might that tech have been Andy Hague?
She should take a good look at the servicing sheets for the last quarter. That should not arouse suspicion, in view of the Eagle project.
Taking a notepad and a stylus from her suit pouch, she began to list actions for her inspection. First would be life-support, as always, which would allow her a look at the liquid nitrogen store. Second would be duty rosters; third would be those servicing sheets. Fourth would be Tracking, and local instrumentation, including the seismographs. She added a few more items, then returned the pad to her pouch. She would not call ahead and announce her intention to inspect. Her staff would not find the inspection a surprise, especially given the circumstances.
She still had a few hours to go until arriving at Moonbase. Joan was already back from her own leave, and Nina was not due to go on hers for another month. If she knew those two, they would be preparing for her arrival, and for the Eagle test, making doubly sure everything was ready.
* * *
Indeed, Joan was waiting for her in the Reception dome. They greeted each other with a brief hug.
"Should I ask if you had a good leave?" Joan enquired.
"A bit better than I expected," Gay admitted. She followed Joan into the control dome. "Alec is keeping us all busy, which is just as well… Is Mark about?"
"He's in the garage with Alan, fussing over their new toy," Joan said, with a tiny smile.
"I'll go and see him shortly. How is everyone? Silly question, I know."
She was a little concerned about the looks she was getting from Joan. The lieutenant was very perceptive, and was surely aware that Gay was no longer grieving, exactly; but she had more sense than to broach the subject before Gay did.
"Not really," Joan said. "I would say, though, that some of us have reached the angry stage."
"So has Alec," Gay agreed, grimly. She knew that Joan felt more than a little affection for the new Commander… and that it did not seem to be returned. A very great pity, that; but Ed had once confided to her the reasons for Alec's 'confirmed bachelor' status - he was a widower, from a marriage that had lasted a mere three months - and had advised her to keep it to herself. She had agreed - but she had not promised.
But this was definitely not the time to discuss the matter. Especially with the new developments… and Alec's proposed 'plan of action'. If you could dignify it with that description, she thought to herself.
She wrenched her thoughts onto a new track. "Joan," she said, "I'm holding a level one inspection, starting now. Put out an announcement to that effect. I'll start with life support… You don't seem surprised."
"This may sound odd," Joan said, "but I'm delighted… Yes, Captain. I'll make the announcement."
* * *
Only Joan accompanied Gay on her rounds, so that she did not have too many people looking over her shoulder. And if - by some remote chance - Joan was herself a 'mole', the fact should become apparent.
Gay hated having to think like that. It destroyed trust, sowed the seeds of conflict; but it was unavoidable.
It had even occurred to her to wonder whether she herself was an unwitting spy, a 'sleeper'. She had had herself checked out by two independent experts, one at SHADO and one from the IAC. Both had cleared her. But it did not entirely solve the problem of who could watch the watchers.
She put the problem aside, and concentrated on the immediate task.
The atmosphere store was 'clean'. Stocks of oxygen, nitrogen, and helium were as specified. There was even a small cylinder of carbon dioxide for use in 'Central Park' to ensure that the plants there got enough to feed on.
She next checked the air mixture records, which monitored the composition of the atmosphere here. The traces showed occasional tiny spikes, as one or other of the components was increased briefly to maintain balance. Occasionally there were drops in overall pressure as excess air was pumped out.
Trying not to make it too obvious, she paid special attention to the time of the Incident, which was now some six weeks past. Sure enough, a few days previously there had been a slight change. The nitrogen level had dropped for a few minutes, then risen again. The 'blip' did not appear in the other component feeds, or in the over-pressure monitor. It was as though the flow had been briefly interrupted, then resumed.
"That's odd," Gay commented aloud, knowing she would be expected to see this. "Joan, there seems to have been a problem with the nitrogen flow. I'll need to see the tanks, check a valve hasn't stuck or something."
"Let's see." Joan leafed through her record sheets. "I seem to remember something… Ah yes, here we are. Tank Two, valve sticking with slight leak, tank swapped out for checking. New valve fitted, tank rechecked, placed in reserve stores to avoid need for re-swap."
"Show me," Gay requested. Joan handed her the record. "Was the tank itself monitored?"
"Yes, Captain. No further leak noted."
"Who carried out the swap and check?"
"Let's see… It was Mark, Gay. Sorry, Captain Bradley. He transferred the tank to reserve stores; the storekeeper was Lieutenant Craddock. He resigned, the day following the Incident, and went downstairs. He's had the amnesia treatment."
How convenient, Gay thought, swallowing her relief at the fact that Mark was not a prime suspect… But still a suspect, she steeled herself to think. "Right. I'll be checking the reserve stores themselves shortly… Now let's look at the duty rosters."
* * *
Last item on Gay's schedule was the Eagle Project hangar itself.
She came out of the connecting airlock into the huge underground space, which was currently sealed and under pressure. The space was a huge crater, but not a natural one. It had been blasted out of the lunar surface by the aliens, when they had destroyed the former Dalotek base, which had been set up as bait to draw the aliens into an attack by SHADO's neighbours, Moonbase Alpha.
After his initial anger had subsided, Henderson had been grudgingly pleased with this; it helped his balance sheets no end.
It was a pity, she thought, that the man's health was not up to a visit to Moonbase in person. It would have been an education for him…
Bradley saw her, and waved. She hurried over, and the two hugged, briefly but warmly. Lieutenant Carter turned away to give them space, concentrating on his work with a small smile. Joan walked over to the instrument readouts, and studied them with deep interest.
At length, reluctantly, Gay pulled away, and straightened her purple wig a little. She carried out the inspection of the hangar, and of the prototype itself. All was well; in fact, the project crew had made rather more progress than she had expected.
"When is Commander Freeman coming up?" Bradley asked.
"Next LM trip. That's the day after tomorrow."
"Good, we'll be ready for him… Gay, how are things, downstairs? How are you? And Alec?"
"As Joan put it, some of us have reached the angry stage," Gay said, with more than a touch of grimness in her tone. And it was true; they were angry… "I'm afraid General Henderson is not exactly flavour of the month… But I have to admit that's a trifle unfair. He's been investigating IAC mercilessly, but I won't comment on that yet. About the rest… I'm OK, I think. But I'm more than a little worried about Alec."
As she said this, her attention was on Joan. The woman paused for a moment, but continued making notes.
"Those two were friends for a long time, weren't they?" Bradley commented.
"Yes indeed… I'm told that when Henderson gave Alec his letter of promotion, they had a tremendous row about it. Alec told him exactly what he could do with the job, and nearly walked out. It took Paul and Ginny to calm him down."
"But surely, he must have been expecting it - "
"Of course. But it seems Henderson was less than diplomatic about the whole thing. He said something about hoping Alec would make a better job of things than Ed had - "
Bradley whistled, with a pained grimace. "What on earth was he thinking?"
"About his budget."
"Exactly," Gay said. "It was a constant source of conflict between him and Ed. I think Henderson wanted to get Alec in line from the word go. But Alec was in no mood to co-operate."
"I'm only surprised he didn't give Henderson a black eye," Bradley said, dryly.
"So am I," Gay agreed, grimly.
"And what's this about Chrys? Is it true someone tried to kill her?"
"Chrys was attacked by an intruder at the House. She was badly injured, almost killed. She will recover, but she's been detached from SHADO and given amnesia. Paul is dreadfully upset about it."
"Damn shame," Bradley muttered. "Perhaps we can chat about it later… but right now I suppose we'd better get on with your inspection!"
* * *
At the end of that very long day, Gay fell into bed with a sigh of relief. Under lunar gravity, it was more of a float than a fall, she mused.
She turned down the lights, and gazed up into the dimness, thinking. Her investigations had turned up nothing definite, though there were one or two lines of enquiry worth following up - Lieutenant Craddock, for one. It was natural to check on the amnesia treatment he had received, and to ask for a follow-up, a discreet check on his post-SHADO life. He had taken his personal belongings with him from Moonbase when he left. The vacuum suit and similar equipment had been left here, of course, and Gay had inspected all such items thoroughly. They were clean.
She had also inspected the lab stores, taking particular note of the Dewar flasks. Her checks had shown that all but two were full of liquid gases. The two empty ones were scheduled for return to Earth, having passed their 'best-before' date, and needing their seals replaced or the flasks themselves discarded. Gay had used her command authority to take these flasks into her keeping for what she described as a 'personal check'. She had already opened them, and they were indeed empty, at least to the naked eye. She would carry out her 'personal checks' tomorrow, as she would be expected to do… except that they would be rather more detailed than usual.
There was one other thing that she should do, despite her extreme reluctance… exhume the casket, and inspect its contents. Without arousing suspicion; which might well prove impossible.
But perhaps it wasn't necessary, she realised. Those fragments had already been thoroughly tested, and photographed. There would be similar records available downstairs, from the suit manufacturers. She'd ask Alec to check; and to find out who had carried out those tests.
She made a small bet with herself that it wouldn't be Andy Hague.
* * *
The following morning, after a restless night, Gay was up early. She showered and dressed, then made her way to the leisure sphere via Control. Joan yawned by the console, and gave her a thumbs-up. Mark and Alan Carter were already in the sphere; they were having breakfast. Carter was busy at the drinks dispenser, trying to persuade it to produce what he described as 'a decent cup of tea'.
"Why is this stuff always lukewarm?" he complained, flopping down in a seat.
"And you an astronaut," chided Gay, with a slight smile. "Tell him, Mark."
"I could let him find out for himself," Bradley chuckled.
"You will not," Gay scolded.
"What are you two talking about?" Carter demanded, irritably.
"Atmospheric pressure, of course," Bradley said. Carter gave a grimace of understanding. "You know that we only maintain a pressure of about 80% normal sea-level, to cut down stress on the skin of Moonbase. OK, I know the Russians next door run full pressure, but they like their tea good and hot. If we tried running our boiler that high, it would blow the lid off and we'd have a dome full of steam - Gay?"
She had taken a mouthful of her own drink and coughed forcibly. "Sorry," she said. "Went down the wrong way. I'm fine." She dabbed a tissue at her tunic to mop up the drops.
"Thanks for the demo, Captain," Carter said, straight-faced.
In fact, once she recovered from her shock, Gay was quite pleased. The gentle banter showed that Moonbase life was coming back towards normal; people were beginning to come to terms with the tragedy of Ed Straker's loss… What they would say when they heard the truth of that 'loss', she dared not think.
For now, she had slightly more immediate concerns. She finished her breakfast, and excused herself, saying she had to write her report for Commander Freeman. She was pleased to note only a slight wince when she mentioned him.
Entering her quarters, she made sure the door was shut, and took out her notepad; but she was not going to write down what she had suddenly realised.
A Dewar flask containing liquid nitrogen would make quite a respectable bomb, under the right conditions, and careful timing. The recipe: take one flask; place some 'shrapnel' in it, such as, oh, bloodstained suit fragments from a secret stash; pour in some fresh liquid nitrogen from the 'faulty' tank; close the lid but don't clip it; bury the flask in the regolith, but not too deep; and when the fierce rays of the morning sun hit it and warm the lid enough… boom! The lid opens slightly; the nitrogen flashes to gas; the lid blows off; fragments get scattered over the surface; and the seismographs record a tremor…
And you wouldn't even have to go out and dig yourself, Gay realised. Moonbase had a small fleet of 'drones', remotely-operated units that were quite capable of doing the job. And of going out and collecting the flask and its lid afterwards. The 'blast' would not have harmed either item.
She wanted another look at those units; but for now, she brought out the two flasks from her own stash. When she had checked them, she had noted slight marks on one of the lids. She checked again, and the marks were certainly there, but it would need close examination with a microscope.
The question remained: where would she hide something like a Dewar flask containing suit fragments? The obvious answer would have been with all the others; but there would have been too much risk of its being found. Still, the number of flasks agreed with the Moonbase inventory. If an extra one had been brought in, it would have to find its way past Security. Not impossible, but awkward and risky.
There was one other possibility.
Not all the flasks were in storage all the time; most of them were out in the labs, in use, sometimes long-term. It would have been fairly simple to 'shuffle' the loaded flask around within a project. Say your task needed two flasks, or you said it did. You need one flask continuously, but the when the service phase falls due, instead of alternating the flasks for service, you always send in the same one.
And that wouldn't do the seal any good. You could swap seals around, but they would be changed half as often as they should.
She needed to know who was using those flasks long-term. Over a few years, say. She consulted the rosters, and was less than surprised to see that there were three names involved: Suzuki; Craddock… and Hague.
OK, she thought, I lost my bet… It all seemed to hang together; but now she needed to check her fabrication for holes.
And she needed to talk to Alec. She would use the standard link to Earth for that, and talk in cryptic. She went to the comms panel.
"Joan, open a link to Control, will you? I need to report to Commander Freeman."
"At once, Lieutenant."
In less than a minute, Freeman's features swam into focus on the small screen. "Hello, Gay. How's it going up there?"
"Smoothly, sir, thank you," Gay answered. "There are a couple of items I wish to recheck downstairs, however. There has been a problem with the nitrogen supplies. A minor one perhaps, a matter of a stuck valve, but I'd like to be sure."
"Records show that the affected cylinder was replaced, but the faulty one should have been taken back to the manufacturer. It wasn't, perhaps because of the Incident."
…"That's no excuse," Freeman said, his voice hardening. "Who would have been in charge of that?"
"That's the problem, sir. It should have been Craddock. Captain Bradley passed the faulty unit to him in Reserve Stores. But he returned to Earth without it, then he resigned, and took amnesia."
…"I see. Thank you, Lieutenant, I'll look into it. Where is the faulty unit now?"
"Right here, sir," Gay told him. "I'll make sure it's sent down on the next shuttle."
…"Good. Is there anything you need in the way of spares that I can send to you?"
"No, sir," Gay said, her voice level. "I did wonder about our stock of Dewar flasks, but their wear patterns are within acceptable parameters. They don't need replacing yet."
…"Very well. Freeman out."
* * *
The signal to Moonbase shut off, leaving the screen showing the SHADO insignia. Freeman leant back in his chair, thinking. Evidently Gay had discovered something significant, something that involved Craddock, liquid nitrogen, and a Dewar flask. Clearly, he thought, this was how that 'organic debris' that had been used on the suit fragments out on the lunar surface, had been stored and hidden; and equally clearly, Gay had 'fingered' Craddock as a suspect.
He needed to investigate that; but he did not wish to do so on the office network, secure and stable though it was. Instead, he left the office, and walked down the back corridor to the document stores, thinking as he did so that his reputation as being 'old-fashioned' about technology was sometimes useful.
Inside the small cubicle, he first checked the personnel files, in the 'discontinued' section. Craddock's was at the front. He withdrew it and looked through it, making notes on his pad. It confirmed that Craddock had indeed taken amnesia, and had then left SHADO to go abroad. Reports noted that he had gone to Australia.
Freeman remembered that Gay had mentioned Craddock's return to Earth. On the chance that may have been significant, Freeman consulted the shuttle logs for the last two months. He smiled; but his smile was not of amusement.
Craddock's crew-mate on the last shuttle flight had been none other than Andy Hague.
Freeman returned the papers to the cabinet. He needed to investigate Craddock, but covertly. Hague was dead; perhaps Craddock was, also. He wrote a short memo to Colonel Lake, and placed that in the cabinet with the notes from Gay.
Another session had ended - or, more accurately, had been aborted when the subject's life processes had deteriorated below safe limits.
The Devas was becoming increasingly impatient, Kotte thought; but he himself was pleased. He had been the one to call for the session to be stopped, against Pavlor's wishes. The Devas' apparent reluctance, contrasting with his own demonstration of mercy, should gain the attention of the proto-Keimon, helping to direct Its emergent attention away from Spicor as a whole, focussing It on Arkadia alone.
The action of Gimen in coming to the rescue of the terran 'Henderson' should also help, though it had made it necessary to discard Kotte's Third Sector agent 'Hague'. It was a pity that Hague's attempt to damage 'Foster' had only partly succeeded. But perhaps, Kotte thought, it had caused the proto-Keimon to increase Its protective influence on that terran, and so bring It closer to becoming manifest.
But things were moving too slowly. The subject was proving to be unusually resistant to their examinations. Perhaps it was time to give some attention to the third member of the trio that had been present when the Aethon made Its withdrawal.
* * *
The first test of the 'flying bedstead', as Alan Carter called it - though its official designation was Eagle One - was set up for the following morning. The machine was the prototype of the moon-hopper upgrade. Carter preferred the term 'hopper' to the official 'moonmobile' designation; it rolled off the tongue more easily.
The prototype was having its final setup tests in the assembly bay, which had been constructed in the huge crater that was all that the aliens' attempt to destroy Alpha had left of the one-time Dalotek installation. The craft consisted of an elongated hopper chassis with a set of boosters attached, and a pressurisable crew pod at the front. A number of dummy loads had been attached along the chassis to give the craft balance.
The word 'upgrade' was an understatement. The design aimed to give the craft space-faring ability, even if only in vacuum, so it would be somewhere between a standard hopper and a lunar module.
Freeman would not be flying the craft himself. That slightly doubtful honour was Captain Waterman's, with Lieutenant Alan Carter, the craft's principal designer, as flight engineer. Freeman wasted no time; on his arrival at Moonbase, he had gone straight from the reception dome to the assembly bay by way of the 'Hutchinson tunnel', as Gay insisted on calling it.
It was gone midnight, Earth time, when Freeman pronounced himself satisfied with the pre-flight checks on the chassis. He made sure that both Waterman and Carter went to bed before turning in himself; then he made his way to the Commander's quarters.
He entered, feeling like an intruder into a private area where he had no right to be. Indeed, he had not wanted to sleep here; but Gay had insisted. She was quite right, he knew. He also knew that she was not comfortable with it either. Still, in view of tomorrow's schedule, it was necessary, especially if all should turn out as he hoped. And dreaded.
He undressed, washed himself, and put on a sleep-suit. He climbed onto the bed, and turned off the light. The colour mobile panel above the bed was dark, motionless. He settled down, willing himself to sleep.
It took some time to come. His thoughts wandered. He remembered discussions he had had with Ed about the Eagle project, and its true purpose.
Following consultations with some of Earth's top physicists - disguised as looking for material for a possible movie - Ed had satisfied himself that there was within the solar system a 'way station' of some kind. That was all it was, all it could be. The aliens were humanoid enough to be tissue-compatible (and didn't THAT raise a whole raft of questions?) and that implied - among other things - that they had evolved in the 'goldilocks zone' around their world's parent star, where - to paraphrase Clarke - the air didn't freeze nor the rocks melt, but conditions were just right for human life. Which, here in the home solar system, meant Earth, and perhaps Mars at a pinch, and not much else. And Earth was already occupied.
So sometime in the recent to remote past, the aliens had come visiting. They had detected a white and blue and lovely world, which would have made a nice new home for their race - but for the fact that it was already inhabited, by a race which was quite capable of defending itself against incursion.
Evidently, Ed had concluded, they found somewhere to establish a base, as indeed humanity had done on the Moon. Probably - as suggested by the area affected by that interference on those probes - near Jupiter, well outside the current reach of humanity, but close enough for Earth to be accessible to what seemed to be relatively low-tech (for the aliens) transport, perhaps with some kind of hyper-dimensional link to their true homeworld. From this base they sent raiding parties; and that, again, was odd.
For one thing, as Freeman had noted, neither the craft nor their occupants seemed able to survive in Earth's atmosphere for very long; though that could probably be overcome with sufficient research. And there was also the point that the craft only seemed capable of taking a few humans at a time; which, if what they wanted them for really was to replace their losses - either as vivo or vitro breeding stock, or as spare parts - seemed to be far too small to be effective.
Which had left the pair wondering about the aliens' true intentions, their true agenda.
In his meetings with the physicists Ed had explored the subject, with great care. His own astrophysics degree was barely up to the task; but he had covered the discussions, and the security aspects, by going in under full 'movie exec' mode, purportedly looking for plot credibility. He had often wondered what the scientists had thought about being asked stupid questions by a mere movie producer; but he had found them to be always polite, always courteous, never giving the impression that they felt their time was being wasted. Straker had come away with a handful of ideas, none of which was particularly satisfying. The only one that made any sort of sense to him or to Freeman was that the aliens wanted human bodies and tissues primarily for research into ways of adapting themselves for Earth-life, ready for a full-blown invasion, and that the organ-replacement was essentially a spin-off.
Indeed, SHADO had recently discovered an alien installation under the Antarctic icecap, which had been revealed to be carrying out just such research. Seemingly, the aliens had been looking for means of altering Earth's ecology so that it could sustain their kind - and making complementary changes to their own biology. That idea had spawned many research projects examining it in exhaustive detail, at SHADO, Moonbase Alpha, and other ultra-secret, multi-nation establishments.
Following the comprehensive defeat of their attempt to destroy Moonbase Alpha, and the loss of their Antarctic base, the aliens had gone very quiet indeed. So Ed had decided to seize the opportunity to pay a visit to the Jovian system, to take a closer look at the gas giant's moons, Europa in particular. That was the purpose of the Eagle project, though it would take at least a year to develop the craft for the journey. If Henderson didn't interfere, Freeman reminded himself. He laughed a little at the thought of the general's probable reaction…
But his laughter died, as a few implications occurred to him.
If the aliens had managed to break Ed down, they would have come in force and plastered Moonbase, killing off the fledgling Eagle project. That, thank god, hadn't happened.
But they hadn't attacked Moonbase either, way back when it was being set up, at perhaps the most vulnerable phase in its existence. Straker had wondered whether they were waiting for its completion, for the Earthlings to provide them with a handy base of operations. Letting us do their work, he thought.
Were they doing the same with the Eagles, he wondered, holding back until we had a fleet of the things? The 'saucers' tended to break up after a couple of days in Earth's atmosphere; were they simply past their 'use-by' date? Like their occupants?
Perhaps, tomorrow, he would learn a little more about them. At first hand.
* * *
The tests went well. Freeman stationed himself out in one of the conventional hoppers, watching while Waterman put the machine through its paces. For such an apparently unwieldy craft, it was surprisingly agile, he thought.
They had one remaining test sequence to perform when the voice of SID interrupted the proceedings.
"This is Space Intruder Detector. UFO bearing 237 green. Speed SOL six decimal three."
Damn, Freeman thought. Just when we'd nearly finished.
He ordered Waterman and Carter to return to Moonbase immediately, and requested ground defence cover for both craft. Captain Ellis objected. "Best stay out there," she told them. "Moonbase itself is their prime target."
"Acknowledged," Freeman said, grimly. "Lew, let's find shelter."
"Yes, sir. Heading for the crater wall."
Being the faster craft, 'Eagle One' would get there before him, Freeman knew. He set course to follow.
"Moonbase to Hopper Three," Ellis called. "The UFO has altered course. Alec, it's coming for you three!"
Freeman's first thought was: just great. Hard on the heels of that, his second thought was: Perhaps it is great… "So they're fishing for us… I'm going to split their attention. I'll head for the hills. Lew, Alan, you just concentrate on getting home. Gay, cover them."
"Commander - " Ellis protested.
"That's an order, Captain!"
Freeman hoped she had picked up on the arranged codeword 'fishing'… and then all his concentration was taken up in avoiding the shots from the UFO. Apparently it had decided to come after him, avoiding the heavy fire from Moonbase which was covering Lew and Alan's escape.
He put the hopper on a heading into the nearby mountains and locked the controls. Sealing his helmet, he hurried to the airlock. He did not wait for it to cycle, but hit the emergency evacuation button. The blast of escaping air blew him out onto the lunar surface, and he curled up into a ball, rolling across the regolith like a tumbleweed.
He managed to get into the meagre shelter of the wall of a small crater before a shot from the UFO found its target, and the hopper blew apart.
Freeman turned off his suit radio and beacon. Right now he did not want Moonbase coming out to look for him…
He felt a jar through his boots, as though something heavy had hit the ground nearby. He turned, and looked. The 'something' was the UFO. It had touched down only a few yards away. A hatch opened in its side. A red-suited figure appeared in the dark opening, and shone what seemed to be a torch at him; but it did not just emit light. All the strength left his muscles, and he dropped like a puppet whose strings had been cut.
He felt himself being lifted by his arms and legs, and then consciousness left him.
* * *
"We've lost the UFO," Joan Harrington reported.
"Last known position?" Ellis asked.
"Near Commander Freeman's hopper… and we've lost contact with that as well."
"Keep trying," Ellis ordered. "And watch for that UFO leaving."
She had indeed noted that codeword, and had realised that Alec Freeman had intentionally placed himself in the UFO's way, in the hopes that they might take him. She only hoped he had been able to make what preparations he could, if indeed any were possible.
The voice from SID cut into her thoughts. "UFO detected leaving the lunar surface. Speed increasing… Speed SOL five."
The interceptors will never catch it now, she knew. She was both glad, and scared. Godspeed, Alec, she thought. I hope you talk some sense into them… And since obviously the commander has not been able to do that on his own, perhaps the two of you together can do something, work some miracle.
"Any contact with Commander Freeman?" she asked, keeping her voice steady with an effort.
"No, Captain." Joan Harrington's own voice was none too steady. "Shall I send out a hopper now? Lieutenant Carter wants to go, but - "
"Tell him to stay where he is," Ellis ordered, sharply. "We need to run tests on the Eagle chassis before it goes out again."
"Yes, Captain… Hopper Two is on its way, with Lieutenant Bradley in charge."
"Good… Nina, open a channel to SHADO Control."
…"Foster here," came a voice. "I have sent for Colonel Lake, her ETA is ten minutes… Any news of Commander Freeman?"
"Not so far… Paul, I need to speak to you both, as soon as Colonel Lake arrives, please."
* * *
Paul Foster straightened up, and looked around Control. No-one seemed to want to meet his gaze.
"Attention, everyone, please," he said, quietly. "Anderson, open a channel to SkyDiver."
"Yes, sir… Channel open."
"Good…" Foster took a deep breath. "I am now assuming command of SHADO Operations in acting-commander capacity for the duration of this emergency. I will inform General Henderson of the situation at the earliest opportunity. SHADO will remain on Condition Red until I say otherwise… Are there any questions?"
There were a few head-shakes, but no-one spoke.
"Very well. We must proceed with the Eagle Project according to our schedule, but we must speed things up, we may need those craft soon. SkyDivers will bring forward their crew turnover, but keep to the overlap pattern. I don't want you all swapping crew at once… Captain Ellis, the same goes for Interceptor pilots. And all of you, keep to your rest watches. I want you fresh for when the attack happens, as it surely will… That's all."
Anderson looked up from his console. "Colonel Lake has just arrived, sir. She's on her way down."
"Thank you, Lieutenant. Please give me a link to Moonbase from - from the command office."
"And get me General Henderson on Line 1."
"Of course, sir."
Foster braced himself and strode into the command office. The door hissed shut behind him.
He made himself walk to the desk seat, and lowered himself into it gingerly. The small monitor screen glowed softly, and its amber light was winking. He pressed the button. "Foster," he said. "General Henderson, please."
The screen lit up to show Henderson's face. Foster thought, fleetingly: He doesn't look at all well… But the general's voice was as strong as ever. And as gruff.
"Foster?" he said. "Where is Commander Freeman?"
"He's not available, sir. I have to report that while supervising flight tests on the Eagle chassis at Moonbase, he was - taken by the aliens."
Foster was aware that Colonel Lake had entered the office, and had moved round so that she could see the screen; but his attention was focussed on Henderson. The man had slumped back in his chair, his face tight and his eyes half-closed as though he were in pain. But as Foster began to feel alarmed, Henderson jerked forward. "How the HELL did that happen?" he barked.
"This morning, in accordance with the Eagle test schedule, Captain Waterman and Lieutenant Carter went out to the Hutchinson facility to begin the tests. Commander Freeman was observing, in a moonmobile. They had almost completed their tests when SID reported two UFOs. The Interceptors took out one, but the other evaded them and Moonbase ground defences. Commander Freeman ordered the Eagle to head back to Moonbase under their covering fire. He knew he himself didn't have the speed to make it back, so he took local shelter. The UFO came in and we lost contact with the commander - then it departed. Two Interceptors went after it. They were unsuccessful. Captain Ellis has begun a search of the area, but she doesn't expect to find anything."
"I see." Henderson was silent for a few moments. "That puts you in charge, Foster, for the moment at least… Though I may wish to appoint someone more experienced."
Pompous git, Foster thought. Unfortunately that's probably necessary… but how much do I tell him? "Your privilege, General. I await your further instructions."
"Good. I'm coming over, we must discuss tactics. Get your command staff together - I should be there in twenty minutes."
The screen went blank as Henderson cut the link. Foster leaned back in the command seat, thinking that Alec was between a rock and a hard place. He could expect little mercy at the hands of the aliens; but if by some miracle he survived and made it back home, with or without Ed, the general would have his head on a platter.
Destiny Part II
The Works of Snowleopard
The Library Entrance