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Commander Freeman gives an account of his actions - and is placed under arrest. The Kei encounters Commander Straker.
Notes and references at the end of Part IV
The leisure sphere had been cleared of everything except a row of benches, a desk with a monitor relaying the scene in SHADO Control, and a single chair facing it.
Ambassador Pavlor had been taken to a side annexe, where he could not witness the proceedings. He was accompanied by Lieutenant Nina Barry and Lieutenant Mark Bradley. Dr Breen stayed in Straker's quarters, discussing his patient's case with Dr Reed. Tyl Merrel and the three other Europans had been given temporary quarters under guard in the gym, where couches and tables had been provided. Two of Reed's medical colleagues were discussing dietary arrangements with Merrel, and Karel Wojnycz was conducting language lessons.
The benches in the leisure sphere were occupied by all off-duty Moonbase personnel. Captain Gay Ellis sat at the desk. Commander Freeman was in the 'hot seat'.
"Attention, please," Ellis said. "This is a preliminary hearing to give Commander Freeman an opportunity to describe his actions and conduct for the period covering his lunar activity on - " she gave the date - "to his return to the Moon today in an alien vessel. Acting-Commander Foster will be conducting the hearing, with advice from Colonel Webb, from Earth. Lieutenant Joan Harrington is appointed legal representative for Commander Freeman.
"I asked Dr Jackson, who is observing these proceedings by request of Commander Foster, whether this hearing should be relayed to Commander Straker's quarters, in the hope that they may prompt him to respond. He advises that I should not do this, in case I compromise any future evidence he may give.
"I must remind everyone present that there is a transmission lag between the Moon and Earth and back amounting to some 2.5 seconds minimum, so please be patient.
"Acting-Commander Foster, you may proceed."
…"Thank you, Captain Ellis." Foster's face appeared on the monitor. "You are Commander Alexander Freeman?"
…"On the date of the lunar activity to which Captain Ellis referred, what was your rank?"
"Commander-in-Chief, SHADO operations."
Foster took Freeman through the events leading up to his abduction, to the point where he arrived at the aliens' colony. Freeman described how he had been taken to the holding cell. "It was an unfurnished but clean room, with one other occupant."
…"Who was this occupant?"
"Commander Edward Straker." Freeman was aware of the audience's focussing attention.
…"What was Commander Straker's condition at that time?"
"He was furious."
…"I beg your pardon?"
"He was angry. He delivered a reprimand, calling me to account for being such a damn fool as to get myself captured as well. I acknowledged the reprimand, and apologised. He accepted my apology."
…"I see… What was his physical condition?"
"There was no obvious physical injury, but he was clearly unwell. He looked thin, and weakened. Like me, he was wearing a coverall and his hands were secured. The coverall appeared clean and in good condition."
…"Were you surprised to see him?"
"Not entirely," Freeman admitted.
…"Why was that? You were present at his memorial, and indeed you took part in the ceremonies. Did you have any reason to suppose at that time that Commander Straker had not died in the execution of Plan Omega?"
"Not then I didn't, no. It was some weeks later that Captain Waterman and Captain Ellis brought to me some results of their continuing investigations into the Incident. You were present."
Yes, Foster thought, I remember… "Explain for the benefit of the hearing. What investigations were these, and what results were obtained?"
Freeman described the anomalies in the data, and how their analysis had suggested that Straker had not only survived, but had been abducted.
…"Did you decide to take any action as a result of this?"
"We considered possibilities, but could not come up with a realistic plan, given our limitations of technology."
…"Indeed… I may return to this subject." Foster made a few notes, then resumed. "You were saying, Freeman, that you were in an alien cell with Commander Straker. What happened next?"
"Some guards came to collect us, and took us to another room, which I would describe as an interrogation chamber. It contained a cage, which seemed to incorporate technology designed to reveal a person's surface thoughts. Ed was placed in the cage. I was made to watch. He spoke, inviting the aliens to talk to him, to tell him what they needed, and suggested that perhaps we could help them. They ignored this."
Freeman looked down at his hands. He really didn't want to remember this next bit.
…"Are you telling me that this device revealed the Commander's thoughts?"
…"I shall not ask for details at this time," Foster said, carefully. "How did the interrogation proceed?"
"It continued, until it was stopped at the intervention of Ambassador Pavlor."
"He gave orders to the operators of the apparatus. The process stopped. When I checked with Ed later, he confirmed that this session had indeed been aborted, in comparison to earlier, similar sessions."
…"There had been previous such sessions?"
"So he said, yes. His actual words were 'I've had worse, twice'."
…"What happened after Pavlor had intervened?"
"We were taken back to the holding cell, where after a short interval we were given beds to sleep on. We were permitted to rest. When we awoke, we were fed."
…"What happened in that interval?"
"Not much. Ed was exhausted by the effects of the interrogation. I wondered if I should - " Freeman broke off.
…"If you should what, Commander?" Foster prompted.
"I…" Freeman looked down at this hands. He braced himself. He whispered: "I wondered if I should - should deny ourselves to them."
…"Deny yourselves how?" Foster said, gently.
Freeman's voice, when he answered, was barely audible. "By killing us… They had freed my hands, but not Ed's. He was very weak from that interrogation. It would have been a simple matter for me to - to kill him, by compressing his carotid arteries. I would then have to attack the aliens and force them to kill me."
There was a silence in the room, and in SHADO Control.
…"Alec, I have to ask this… why didn't you do this?"
"Because Commander Straker ordered me not to. He said 'don't you bloody dare'," Freeman whispered. He buried his face in his hands.
…"We will take a five minute recess," Foster said. His own voice was slightly hoarse.
Gay Ellis took a glass from her desk, walked over to Freeman, and gave it to him. He took a gulp, and spluttered. It was neat Scotch.
"That's not exactly court protocol, Gay," he murmured.
"Shut up and drink it, Commander!"
He did; then gave a weak smile. "Commander Foster, I believe I am ready to resume."
…"Very well, Commander. You were saying that you were fed. What form did this take?"
Freeman went on to describe the 'room service'. He recounted how their discussion of their situation, and possible ways of improving communications with the aliens, were interrupted by what seemed to be an explosion, and told of their escape through the delivery tube into another area, which had turned out to be a mobile, steerable habitat.
"The sphere we had arrived in appeared to be a submarine," he said, "if a not very streamlined one."
…"Did you try to use it to escape?"
"We discussed the possibility of escape, and concluded that even if we found the place where the UFO's were housed, we had little hope of escaping in one. We had no idea how to fly it. Even stowing away would not have worked; for one thing we would not have been able to use the liquid-breathing system. Ed's opinion was that our only chance was to parley… but first, we decided to have a look around. We saw that the explosion we had felt had caused serious damage, so we went in to rescue the survivors."
…"I see… How did the survivors respond?"
"They were happy to come aboard… but it was at that point that the existence of more than one faction among the aliens became apparent," Freeman said, grimly. "Pavlor and some of his people reached us first, and took us into what I will describe as protective custody; if they had not, it is unlikely we should have survived. We were then attacked by a group led by an individual called Kotte. Before Pavlor's reinforcements could reach us, Kotte managed to shoot me in the arm. He then tried to shoot Pavlor. Ed pushed the Ambassador out of the way, and sustained a near miss from what appeared to be an energy bolt, which was the apparent cause of his present condition. It seemed to paralyse his nervous system, including his heart and brain functions. I had to give CPR. Pavlor injected him with what I think must have been adrenaline, certainly it did restart his heart. More of Pavlor's people arrived, and took Kotte and his group prisoner. Ed and I were taken to their medical centre and given treatment. There was another attack on us while we were in medical. Pavlor decided we would be safer back on Earth, so he arranged to bring us home. He also seeks a treaty with Earth. And that's about it."
…"Not quite… Why does Pavlor want a treaty?"
"I'll repeat this for the record," Freeman said. "You will be aware that a few years ago, when we first encountered a live alien and found that he had certain organs transplanted from humans, Commander Straker formed the opinion that we were thought of by the aliens as no more than clever animals, fit only to be a source of spare parts. It seemed that this was in fact the case, that they didn't think of us as properly human. They believed we knew nothing of mental states more refined than those dealing with basic survival. Commander Straker was able to demonstrate to them that this was a misperception, that we were at least as 'human' as they. Pavlor investigated Ed in more detail, with the assistance of an 'empath', a being capable of perceiving emotion directly. Between them they realised the truth."
…"How did they react to this knowledge?"
"They were horrified. Pavlor ordered all attacks on Earth to cease immediately. He wants to bring Earth into an alliance with his group, which he calls Spicor."
…"Tell me about this 'empath'."
"According to the Ambassador," Freeman said, "they are specially trained in perception of emotions, which is a rare skill and a delicate one. People whose skill in this area goes undetected and untrained can be destroyed by their interaction with others - in effect they can be 'burned out' by over-exposure. But you would do better to ask the Ambassador directly."
…"I shall. Thank you… Did you discover how it came about that the aliens need, er, 'spare parts'?"
"There came what appeared to be a plague outbreak in their planetary systems. The plague organism itself was believed to be wiped out, but its effects persist. To combat those effects, they had developed ways of extending individual lifespans, but at the cost of reducing fertility. A colony had been set up here, with a monitor station on Europa, one of Jupiter's moons. As the plague situation worsened and the attitude to the colonists here deteriorated, the station became a base from which to raid Earth for what they needed, with a view to possible invasion. To do that successfully they need to overcome certain physiological barriers. In the meantime they need to sustain the colony… and that's where we come in. But - "
…"One moment, Commander, please," Commander Foster cut in. He turned to look at Jackson. "Any comments about this plague, doctor?"
"You are no doubt concerned that Earth may be infected," Jackson said. "It is too late to worry, I fear. If the plague organism is still active, and the aliens carriers, it was brought to Earth on many occasions, not least in 1947. But I have asked for full details from Ambassador Pavlor to be certain. Incidentally, I carried out an immunological survey on the Ambassador, with his consent, to determine whether he was vulnerable to Earth-borne infections. I found nothing serious, which is not surprising in view of their ability to use Earth organs."
At Moonbase, Captain Ellis enquired: "Do you wish to resume, Commander Foster?"
…"Yes. What caused the 'attitude to the colonists' to deteriorate?"
"That's something else you should ask the Ambassador about," Freeman said. "But he did say that he owed the entire human race 'an apology beyond words'."
…"Yes. Commander Freeman, was there something you wished to add?"
"Yes, sir," Freeman answered. "With regard to Earth - Spicor relations, there is a second, and perhaps more significant factor."
"Pavlor mentioned someone called the Keimon. Mythological, but royal, and possibly real. I got the strong impression that he would be a figure of authority to them."
Paul and Jackson exchanged glances. Like Freeman, they remembered what the 'Jersey alien' had said… "What about this artefact that Pavlor brought with him? This 'kei'?"
"It is strongly linked to the Keimon. Beyond that I'm not sure of anything about it."
…"One last thing… You said they set up a colony here?"
"Yes. I think the Ambassador should explain about that one."
…"Very well. You may stand down, Commander Freeman."
Freeman rose from the chair, and walked over to the benches. He sat down again, beside Lieutenant Carter.
…"Please summon Ambassador Pavlor," Foster requested.
Captain Ellis passed on the request. A few moments later, Mark Bradley led in the Ambassador, and guided him to the witness chair.
"I am Captain Gay Ellis, head of Moonbase Defences," she said. "Please give your own designation."
"I am Azan Pavlor, Prince of Spicor, Devas of System Prithvi, former Co-ordinator of Harvests, and Keeper of the Kei. I have also assumed the function of Ambassador to Earth."
"Have the function and purpose of this Court been explained to you?"
"It has," Pavlor confirmed. "I understand that it is designed to hear accounts of recent activities, so that a plan of action may be formulated. I know that you will ask me questions about my own contribution to those activities, and I will respond in detail and honestly. I have been advised to avoid speculating."
"That about covers it," Ellis agreed. "Commander Foster, do you wish to begin?"
…"Thank you, Captain, I do… Ambassador Pavlor, I am Acting-Commander Paul Foster, in command here while the designated personnel are unavailable for the command function. Is that clear to you?"
"It is," Pavlor answered.
…"You described yourself to us as 'Prince of Spicor'. Where and what is Spicor?"
"'Spicor' is the name we give to a group of five star systems with associated colony planets, each with its own Devas. I will supply you with the locations of these worlds."
…"What is System Prithvi? And what is a 'Devas'?"
"Prithvi is this solar system. It is an ancient term for Earth, and has entered the tongue you call Sanskrit. A Devas is a 'supreme commander' of all affairs falling within his demesne."
…"What are these 'harvests' of which you are 'former' co-ordinator?"
Pavlor braced himself, visibly. "It is the word we use to designate the abduction of people from your world and the - retrieval - of their organs."
Pavlor wasn't mincing his words, Freeman noted, with some approval for the Prince's honesty. Paul Foster apparently agreed.
…"We would call those 'thefts'," he commented, but his tone was even.
"I understand," Pavlor said, quietly. For a moment he looked down at his hands, then he raised his gaze once more.
…"Why do your people carry out these thefts?"
"We needed the organs to keep our own people alive." Pavlor explained about the plague. "Also, we use - used - them to carry out research into improving our ability to survive on Earth itself."
…"As a preparation for invasion?" Foster demanded.
Pavlor braced himself. "Yes, Commander."
Well, that shouldn't surprise me, Foster thought. He continued: "Are you certain this plague is extinct?"
"We are. However, I have taken the precaution of advising your medical staff about it, so they may carry out whatever tests they consider necessary."
…"Good… You said 'former' co-ordinator of harvests. Why 'former'?"
"I have ordered the practice to cease. I do have that authority."
…"Why did you give this order?"
"Because our investigation of Commander Straker has confirmed that you are not mere animals as we have long been led to believe, but are true human beings, and therefore we have no right to take tissue and lives from you."
…"You said that you needed our organs in order to survive… What will you do without them?"
"I ask your people for help with that problem. I will understand and accept it if you choose to withhold that help."
…"We will defer discussion of that to a later date," Foster said. "Now I need to ask you about your 'empaths', whom Commander Freeman has mentioned. I understand that they can read emotions directly? Are they human?"
"That is so, and yes they are. It is a skill which arises in our people on rare occasions. At present there is only one trained Empath on the moon you call Europa. They have to be detected, and trained, before their sensitivity destroys them. Their welfare is guarded by a group of specialists in medicine and cultural psychology, who we call the Guild of Empathy."
…"You arranged for an empath to be present at your investigation of our friends. Did this help?"
"It did. She was able to detect that terrans are true humans, not regressives."
A rustling whisper went round the room, quickly stilled as Captain Ellis raised her hand. Foster, however, again noted that Pavlor was not trying to sugar-coat the aliens' attitude. Indeed, he seemed as revolted as his listeners.
…"How did this perception of humans as regressives arise?"
"I regret that is far from clear," Pavlor said. "Again, I have ordered an investigation."
…"Why was an empath not consulted before? Centuries ago?" Foster wanted to know. "We know you have been observing us that long."
"Longer, as I shall explain in due course… I do not have a satisfactory answer to that either, as yet. I have included the matter in the parameters of my investigation. At present it would seem that none of my people even considered the possibility. I have to admit that your people were of little interest to Empaths, and the reputed violence of those emotional states that were all you were believed to have, was potentially dangerous to them."
…"Why, and how, did you decide to employ one of these specialists?"
"Their skills are available only on formal request to the Guild. They do not conduct their daily affairs with their empathic sense open; it would destroy them. Unusually, the Empath who worked with me, Elanor, volunteered her services, before I had even put the request. Her empathic sense had responded to the Kei."
…"I see. You said you were 'keeper of the Kei'. Explain."
"Many of your years ago, I was assigned the task of guarding an artefact which we call the Kei. It is millennia old, and features in our legends. It is linked to individuals of a specific bloodline in our race. Although we have not encountered any such person in living memory, our legends say that occasionally an individual of this royal bloodline emerges, who we call the Keimon, and he interacts with the Kei."
…"What can you tell us about the Kei?"
"Very little, I regret. It is believed to be - not living, exactly, but certainly not inanimate. Perhaps a good term would be a 'bio-analogue'. In a similar way, it may have a kind of sentience. It appears to display an awareness of its surroundings and of people. It is believed to embody a kind of power, which only the Keimon may control."
…"What happened to the Kei that caused the Empath to respond?"
"Perhaps half of a terran year ago," Pavlor explained, "certain events suggested that a Companion of the Kei had appeared, and that, therefore, the Kei was emerging from its dormant state. I decided to test this. I did that which I am forbidden to do - I touched the Kei. It reacted. But I survived. It seemed that Elanor, the Empath, sensed this, even as far distant as our home planet, which orbits the star you know as Proxima Centauri."
There was a short silence as Pavlor's listeners absorbed this. Foster continued: "You say 'he'. Is this Keimon always male?"
"He is in our race. But there are other races which have such guardians, and some of these are female."
…"You say 'guardian', and you describe this person as 'royal'. What is his function, exactly?"
"He is the avatar of the racial identity, the focus of its power, the protector of his people. When humanity faces a major decision point, the Keimon steers them down the necessary path."
…"I am told that you recommended we place this Kei in close proximity to Commander Straker. Why was this?" Foster said, carefully.
"There are indications that it is responding to him."
…"Why would this happen?"
"To explain that, I must tell you that Earth was originally a colony world, sharing a common genetic inheritance with us, at least with those in Spicor - and more specifically, with those originating from a world within Spicor called Arkadia. This colony was set up and then effectively isolated with the intention of first imprisoning and then destroying this entity we name the Keimon. It seems that for many millennia, the colony systems had been told that this entity no longer existed. My investigations suggested that this was not the case, and that Kotte's group knew that."
The silence that fell was almost tangible.
At length, Foster said, in a near whisper: "You are telling us that - that Earth is a Spicor colony?"
"That is correct. You are not animals; you are our brothers."
…"And the Kei is responding to Commander Straker, because - "
"Because he is either the present manifestation of the Keimon, or one of that individual's close associates, who we call Companions."
…"When - when might we discover which he is?"
"When he emerges from his coma. Only the Keimon, or one whom he authorises, can touch the Kei with impunity."
…"I see. What caused his coma?"
"He was injured in fighting. There exists on our station a faction based mainly on Arkadia itself, led by an individual named Kotte, who have turned rebel. Their reasons are not yet wholly clear, but there are indications that they are targeting the Keimon, and have been doing so for millennia. I have already advised Captain Ellis of this, and recommended that she maintain a high level of security around Commander Straker and Commander Freeman. A battle occurred between these rebels and my own soldiers, in which both these persons were injured, Freeman less seriously."
…"One moment… Captain Ellis, what measures have you taken in this matter?"
"I have ordered a yellow alert, on the assumption that we may be attacked by craft from the rebel faction. I have also posted personal guards on both these men, and on Ambassador Pavlor and Dr Breen."
…"Thank you, Captain." On the screen Foster could be seen talking to Jackson and Colonel Webb for a few moments. "Very well. I am adjourning this hearing to consider its findings, until a week's time, which may well be back on Earth. Thank you, everyone."
* * *
Foster sat down heavily in a nearby chair. "Whew! Bit of a shock there… Though I suppose I really shouldn't be all that surprised. The tissue compatibility between us is a bit of a giveaway."
"Quite so," Webb agreed. "But it's one thing to wonder about that, and quite another to have one's suspicions confirmed."
"Their attempts to counter the effects of the plague affected their fertility," Foster said, slowly. "I've read in our own records that our doctors detected what they called 'hereditary sterility'. Surely that's nonsense - "
"Not at all, it's just an over-simplification," Jackson said. "Have you heard of 'recessive genes'?"
"You mean hidden ones, that only come out if you get them from both parents? Like the genes for blue eyes?"
"That's right. Though it isn't quite as straightforward as that, even for earth-humans." Jackson was frowning. "Evidently their measures have affected their genes… If the affected genes become dominant, that will be the end of them."
"Ouch." Foster considered. "This business of us being one of their colonies… Do you suppose… No, no, silly question. Of course Ed has thought of this."
"Without doubt," Webb agreed. "I'm just wondering what General Henderson will say when he hears…"
* * *
As things turned out, however, Henderson did not hear about it immediately.
After his somewhat stormy encounter with Lackland, he sent his aide to meet with the UN special committee. The man could pass on the good news, and handle the situation. Henderson himself needed to consult with his medical adviser. He was not feeling very well at all. He instructed Miss Gunn to summon Schroeder, and sat down in the big leather seat to await the doctor. He wondered whether he should call June, but decided against it, for the moment. No point in worrying her, he thought.
The dull ache in his side was worsening into sharp pain. A feeling of pressure was gathering around his chest, and there did not seem to be enough air in the room…
When Shroeder arrived, he took one look at Henderson's grey, clammy face, and hit the intercom button. "Miss Gunn? Call an ambulance, straight away. Mr Henderson's angina is troubling him."
Weakly, Henderson waved a hand. "No need…"
"Don't speak, save your breath. Just point… Where is the pain? I see. The ambulance will be here in a couple of minutes. Open your mouth, I want to put this pill under your tongue… That's it. That should help." Shroeder had his fingers on the pulse point in the wrist; it was fast and fluttery. Henderson's eyelids were drooping, he was slumping in the chair. Schoeder was silently begging for the EMTs to hurry…
* * *
Foster passed the news on to Freeman the next day.
…"It seems there's been a development," he said. "General Henderson is not available, and will not be for a few days."
"Why?" Freeman asked. "What's happened?"
…"He's been admitted to hospital with chest pains," Foster explained. "The doctors have diagnosed angina, due to a partially blocked coronary artery. They're operating this afternoon, to try to clear the blockage."
"How bad is it?" Freeman was genuinely concerned. He could not claim to like the General, but he did respect him.
…"Not as bad as it might be… They caught it in time, before any real damage was done, and he has a good chance of full recovery."
"Does this mean he's sending Lackland up here?"
…"Worse. Lackland has demanded that you leave Moonbase for Earth immediately."
"Surely that isn't really necessary?" Freeman said. The two-and-a-half second transmission lag was beginning to get on his nerves.
…"Not just unnecessary, it's a very bad idea… Jackson is unwilling for the Commander to be moved again so soon. He'd prefer to wait at least three days, for Ed to settle down again, before being subjected to flight stresses. Not to mention full Earth gravity… Lackland won't listen. He's threatened to arrest all three of us - that's you, me, and Ed… And he wants Pavlor, as a 'prisoner of war'."
"Then let him arrest us," Freeman suggested. "I'd like to see him make that one work!"
…"Actually, he could. He's getting a cargo ship ready, with a commando squad on board. Armed, and ready to shoot."
"But how the hell does he hope to get them into Moonbase - "
…"That's the good bit. It seems he persuaded Henderson to let him fit a missile launcher to one of the cargo modules. He'll use it if we don't co-operate."
"The man's bloody mad!" Freeman burst out. "Is there no way we can stop him? What about the UN - "
…"It would take too long… but I'm trying everything I can," Foster said. "I even tried to talk to Henderson, but the doctors vetoed that."
"Paul, this stinks! To high heaven!"
…"I couldn't agree more… Alec, we'll have to co-operate, a little anyway. We need to buy some time. I've managed to convince Lackland that we can't get a flight slot for the LM until tomorrow afternoon at the earliest."
"That's something," Freeman agreed. "Look, will he accept just me and Pavlor? Can Ed stay here?"
…"I suggested that. Lackland says no."
Freeman sat for a moment. He knew, as no doubt Paul did also, that they dare not make any plans over this link. Lackland would certainly be listening in.
He sighed. "All right. It seems we'll have to go along with it for a bit, as you say. Let me know if you come up with any way to talk friend Lackland out of this hare-brained idea, and I'll also have a think. And check with Jackson. See if he can persuade the man."
…"I'll do that." Foster signed off.
Freeman thought. It was not feasible to send UN representatives up to Moonbase; they simply did not have astronaut levels of fitness and training. That made the first priority getting Pavlor safely to Earth to talk to the UN, and putting either Straker or himself - ideally, both - there with him, to add their accounts of events. With Ed being 'hors de combat' until they could effect his recovery, that meant the load had fallen on his own shoulders.
Which all meant that, if Lackland were deliberately trying to sabotage the peace process - for whatever reason, and he could think of several - the three of them were his prime targets. So when they did go down to Earth, if Henderson were still unavailable, they would have to protect themselves.
Going into hiding would probably not help. In fact, it could easily make matters worse, make it look as though they indeed had something to hide.
For the same reason, they would need a cast-iron reason for going over Lackland's head. He would have thought Ed's medical condition would have been enough…
…Actually, that was odd. Very odd indeed. Why hadn't it been enough? Why had Lackland not accepted Jackson's opinion?
The question was a legitimate one. It would be very interesting to hear what Foster came up with.
* * *
"I am afraid, Commander Foster," Jackson said heavily, "that I am unable to refuse to comply with Colonel Lackland's orders."
"Why the hell not?"
"Because he has raised what I have to admit is a legitimate concern. He is worried that the Commander may be under alien influence."
"But your tests all show he isn't, and neither is Alec - "
"I agree with you," Jackson interrupted. "It is my professional opinion that the results of those tests are valid, and that Lackland's worries are groundless. However, he wants a second opinion. Ordinarily I would have no objection - indeed, I would welcome one. But Lackland is rushing things, too much, and needlessly so. And there is nothing I can do about it."
Foster sighed, and thanked him.
"However," Jackson went on, "there is one thing you can do."
"Certainly… After all, Acting-Commander Foster, you have already detained Freeman for questioning."
Foster stared at him for a few moments. And then, as he understood, a feral grin began to creep across his face.
"Dr Jackson," he said, "I must ask you to accompany me."
"Of course, Commander."
They left the command office. Foster walked to the comms station, followed by Jackson. "Lieutenant Anderson? Please open a channel to Moonbase. I wish to speak with Captain Ellis."
A few moments later, Gay's face appeared on the monitor. She did not look happy. "Yes, Commander?"
"I want to talk to Commander Freeman."
…"Very well, sir. I will bring him in."
It only took a moment for Freeman to arrive. "Yes, Paul?"
"That's 'yes, sir', Freeman," Foster said, sharply.
…"My apologies, Commander… How can I assist you?"
"By co-operating… Commander Freeman, I have considered the information you have provided in the course of my earlier questioning. I am not satisfied. Therefore, I am placing you under arrest, on suspicion of collaboration with the aliens. There will be a further hearing, at which charges, if any, will be made known to you - "
…"Paul, have you gone mad??"
"Once again I remind you, Freeman, that's Commander Foster, to you! No, Captain Ellis, you may not speak at this time… I am also taking Commander Straker and Ambassador Pavlor into my protective custody." As Freeman seemed about to explode, Foster added: "Of course, this means that Colonel Lackland will have to defer any action he may intend, until after the hearing, when no doubt he - "
Freeman's face changed. He burst out laughing. "Oh god, Paul, that's truly inspired!" he gasped.
"What the hell?" said Gay, baffled.
"By arresting me," Freeman explained, "Commander Foster has established priority. Lackland can't interfere. I'm in Paul's jurisdiction until he says otherwise. And so are Ed and Azan. Also, it removes any possible excuse Lackland might cook up for arresting Paul himself. Isn't that so, Commander?"
…"Indeed it is, Freeman." Foster tried to ignore Gay's sudden suppressed snort of laughter.
Freeman thought to himself: you really are enjoying this, you sneaky b#stard! Ed would be proud. I hope he gets to hear about it soon… Aloud, he said: "When do you wish to bring the three of us Earth-side, Commander?"
…"I will follow Dr Jackson's advice on that… Doctor?"
"Hmm." Jackson appeared to think, stroking his chin. "I will want to monitor Commander Straker's progress over the next few days in order to determine when he will be fit for travel to Earth. I believe I should be able to give you a definite answer in three days' time."
"And what of Ambassador Pavlor?"
"I am given to understand," answered Jackson, "that the Ambassador has spent many years in an environment with rather less gravity than the Moon. His physical structure will, therefore, be somewhat fragile in Earth terms. I shall require several days to complete my evaluation of his own condition."
"Again, how soon can you give me a decision?"
"Oh, I should say, again about three days."
"That is satisfactory. Thank you, Doctor… Captain Ellis?"
"Please place Commander Freeman under, er, house arrest."
…"Very well, sir." Giggling, she said: "Please come this way, Commander?"
Foster got his three days' respite, and after checking with Jackson, authorised the journey to Earth for the embassy party.
A little to the Moonbase medic's surprise, Ambassador Pavlor's own physical condition was not as poor as Dr Jackson had feared. When asked about this, the Ambassador had explained that he needed to remain fit to make the occasional journey in their skimmers between Europa and certain other of Jupiter's moons, notably Ganymede. On such short trips it was not necessary to go to light-speed, which would mean having to use the complex and frankly uncomfortable liquid-breathing régime, so the skimmer crews had to be able to tolerate fairly high accelerations.
Certainly he had tolerated the journey to Earth, in one of the cargo LMs, with no difficulty. So had Commander Straker, who had travelled in a rescue pod once more, in preference to trying to manoeuvre him into a vacuum suit. Freeman and Breen had accompanied them both, with Lieutenant Carter piloting. Jackson was rather glad that Straker was probably unaware that he was being carried like an item of luggage.
The party was met by an ambulance, with Dr Shroeder supervising, and taken to the SHADO underground medical facility. A discreet escort had been provided.
Foster was waiting for them at the entrance to the facility, with three security guards. Lake had had to order everyone else to stay at their posts. Foster shook Freeman's good hand, grinning fiercely. "Alec, it's good to see you, you have no idea! How are you? How's the arm?"
"Slightly fried," Freeman answered, "but it's received treatment. Otherwise, I'm fine. Oh - may I introduce you? This is Ambassador Azan Pavlor, and this is Doctor Breen, Ed's medical attendant."
"I am Acting-Commander Paul Foster, Ambassador, Dr Breen… You are very welcome. In view of what you told us of your 'rebel faction', I am assigning security guards to each of you. We have much to discuss and organise, but first I would like to have our medical staff check your health… Also, do you require refreshment?"
"Later, perhaps, but thank you," Pavlor replied.
The rescue pod was being wheeled in, and began its journey through the corridors. Foster's group fell in behind it. "Alec," he said, "I'm so full of questions I hardly know where to start… Let's try 'how is he'?"
"Improving physically. But you may get something of a shock when they open up that pod," Freeman said. "I did, when I first saw him, up there. 'Skeletal' was too nice a word."
Foster glanced across at Pavlor, and was surprised to note that the alien - though perhaps he should be called a Europan - was watching the pod with an expression of bitter regret, almost grief, on his face. He looked, Foster thought, like a man who knew he had made a dreadful mistake, and Foster's opinion of him began to soften, a little. Perhaps this 'two factions' situation was true after all. Certainly he was aware that both Straker and Freeman had long given the idea serious consideration.
It would be very hard for them to learn to trust each other, Foster knew; but such trust was essential, if they were to end this war.
The party had arrived. The double doors to the medical facility slid open, and they entered. The rescue pod was moved into the treatment room, and Shroeder asked the group to remain in the waiting area. "I will bring you in to see the commander when we have carried out our initial evaluations," he promised. "I should warn you, that may take some time."
"Take all the time you need, Doctor," Foster said. Shroeder thanked him, and went into the treatment room.
"While we wait," Freeman said to him, "tell me: what's the current command structure here, Paul?"
"Having not heard otherwise from General Henderson," Foster answered, "I remain in overall charge, as Acting-Commander-in-Chief. I'm afraid you're still under arrest, Commander Freeman… but I intend to put you on parole. Commander Straker is still officially listed as MIA, so has no command status, but he is under my protection. Mr Ambassador, Mr Breen, you are also under my protection, and in theory are free to come and go as you please, you are not prisoners - but I would strongly advise that you stay within this complex for the moment. Later I hope to provide you with guides. We have arranged living quarters for you here. Also, please take every opportunity to be seated, since you aren't exactly used to Earth gravity. We can supply couches on which you may lie down if you feel the need. Colonel Lake is talking to the United Nations, our closest approach to a world government, about having a section of Moonbase designated as the Europan Embassy, with an annexe here."
"That is most acceptable, thank you. I shall follow your advice," Pavlor answered.
Breen added: "Wish I to stay with patient my, if allow your doctors. Must I advise them on condition details his."
"Certainly. I've asked our Dr Shroeder to be contact."
"And how is our James?" Freeman asked, with a slightly crooked smile.
"Doc Shroeder has been keeping tabs on him. He's recovering quite well, but he probably won't be out of hospital for a while… and he hasn't yet been told about all this. Ginny will have to go and see him fairly soon, before he gets to hear about the Embassy, from the UN."
"We'll hear the bang from here," Freeman agreed. "Sorry, Azan - have we explained about Henderson?"
"A little… I deduce that he is your command superior, but is presently incapacitated."
"That's about right - " Freeman broke off. Shroeder had appeared at the door to the treatment room. "Doctor? How is he?"
"Rather better than I expected," Shroeder admitted. "There are slight indications of returning awareness… but do not get your hopes up. Perhaps you would like to come in and see for yourselves; I will allow two minutes."
The four followed Shroeder into the treatment room. Foster was last in; he halted, shocked.
"My god," he whispered. "You couldn't tell over the video link… He looks dreadful! How the hell did he survive??"
"Willpower," returned Freeman.
Foster glanced across to the Ambassador. "You say you - rescued him?"
Foster went on gazing steadily at the Europan. After a few moments he held out his hand. "Thank you," he said, quietly.
Pavlor nodded, and reached out to clasp Foster's hand with his own. "It was my honour."
During this byplay, Freeman had not taken his eyes from his friend's face. Had he detected a momentary change in Ed's breathing? He looked a question at Shroeder, who gave a nod.
"The EEG shows short bursts of activity from time to time," the doctor said. "It is evident that the coma is beginning to lift… Mr Ambassador, I estimate that it was perhaps five terran days ago that he was injured, is that correct?"
"Thank you… Alec, try touching his hand."
Freeman rested his fingertips lightly on the back of Straker's right hand. He was sure he felt a momentary tremor. "Hello, Ed," he said; but there was no response. He looked up at the doctor. "I did feel something."
"Yes… This is a most unusual state, in fact I would almost hesitate to call it a 'coma', though it does share certain features." The doctor shifted his attention to Straker, and addressed him directly. "Ed? You are home, and you are safe. You may awake when you are ready."
There was no physical change, but the EEG showed a brief burst of activity.
"That's good. Rest now." To the others, Shroeder said: "Dr Breen will stay, we need to discuss Ed's case - but perhaps the rest of you should leave at this point. I will let you know immediately if anything happens. I plan to let Ed rest here while I make arrangements for more comfortable accommodation. In the meantime, Mr Ambassador, may I please perform some checks on you? I will need to monitor you for the effects of both our gravity and our atmosphere."
"Of course, Dr Shroeder," Pavlor replied. "I have received buffering treatment for both those factors; it will be useful to check its effectiveness."
"Thank you," Foster said. He motioned to the others to leave, then glanced back at the still figure on the bed. "See you soon, Ed."
* * *
………………………I am among friends……………………
"For goodness' sake, Mary," Penny exclaimed, as her cousin made yet another trip across the living room, "what's eating you? You've been leaping around like a nervous flea all morning!"
"Oh… I don't know, Penny. I'm just restless, I suppose."
"Shall we go for a walk? Would that help?"
"It might," Mary admitted.
Her reluctance was obvious. Penny said: "I think if - if they'd found anything - you would have heard. They know where you are."
"I suppose so." Mary stopped by the window and gazed unseeingly out at the gardens. Reaching a decision, she turned. "Penny, I'm sorry, I must go home."
"No problem at all… would you like some company?"
"No, don't worry, you're busy enough here… Look, my ticket's an open return, so I can get on any flight that has a spare seat. May I use your phone?"
"Go right ahead."
Some five minutes later Mary looked up at her cousin. "There are two possibilities in the next few days. The first one leaves in four hours; the second, the day after tomorrow."
"And you'd like to be on the first one," Penny smiled.
"Sorry to be a nuisance - "
"Don't be… I know what you're like, what you've been like since you were tiny… you'd get these wild ideas, and go dashing off, and we'd be thinking you were imagining things… but you weren't."
Mary gave a small, shamefaced smile. "Was I really that bad?"
"Worse." Her cousin gave her a brief hug. "Come on. We've got some packing to do."
* * *
When Gimen received Henderson's summons to Lackland, he was ready. The doctors attending Henderson had objected to Lackland's visits, but Henderson himself had insisted. He was weakening steadily, and it was this very fact that had persuaded the medics to grant him more latitude than was normal in these circumstances. As it was, Henderson only had energy enough for brief visits of a few minutes at a time; but Lackland made the most of these.
* * *
"Well, I got to see Henderson, though the doctor wasn't keen," Ginny Lake said. "Lackland had been in earlier, for a few minutes, and they didn't want their patient to get too tired. I managed to persuade them, though. Just as well - our James wasn't at all happy."
"Why on earth not?" Foster demanded.
The two were in the command office, with Freeman and Pavlor. All four were seated by the long conference table. Freeman's arm had healed enough that it was out of its sling, and he had regained most of its use. It still ached, though; but he tried to ignore that.
"He seems to think we're going too far, too fast." Lake took another mouthful of her coffee. "If he had his way, Azan, you would be in the brig… and wouldn't that just help the peace process! I mean - "
"Do not worry, Ginny. I understand that you are being ironic." Pavlor sipped his own drink, which was a fruit smoothie designed by Shroeder; he did not enjoy coffee or tea.
"Why hasn't he used his override?" Freeman wanted to know. "He could just order you to step aside, Paul - "
"Not quite. He'd need authorisation from the Commission, just as in the Maddox affair when he threatened to sack Ed. And the signs are that he's not getting it, I'm happy to say. The committee is right behind us, not him. Particularly M. Duval, the French delegate."
"Well, that's something, at least. When's this meeting with them?"
"Day after tomorrow… I've warned Azan." Foster nodded to the Europan, who was smiling a little. "I get the impression you're only too well used to committees."
"Unfortunately this is so," Pavlor admitted.
Freeman topped up his coffee from the pot, and drank a few mouthfuls. "You seem to be settling in well," he observed.
"I am, I believe. I stay within the suite, which is very comfortable, and I do not object in the least to the guards. Indeed, I welcome them… I have told you about Kotte's agent Gimen, and his 'sleepers'."
"You said you thought Gimen went into hiding when we neutralised his Antarctica base?" Lake asked.
"I believe he would have done that," Pavlor agreed. "However, he would still have agents active 'on the outside' as I believe you would put it."
"Damn right he would! In fact," Lake went on, "we believe we know about one, who was on Moonbase.‑ Alec, remember Gay was talking about Lieutenant Craddock, who resigned and took amnesia?"
"He disappeared. Hasn't been seen since. I'd be prepared to bet the drug didn't work on him. Is that likely, Azan?"
"It is certainly possible, Ginny, I have to say," Pavlor confirmed.
Freeman sighed. "I'd say it was inevitable that the rebels should develop counter-measures… Well, at least we know to watch for him. What's next on your list, Paul?"
"I assigned Keith to be liaison," Foster said, "and he suggested, Azan, that he and Ginny should take you out to show you some of the sights. Places like Kew, or the Science Museum, for example. I agreed, but it would need careful organising. There is one thing that does worry me, though."
"May I ask, what is that?"
"Well," Foster explained, "as I understand it, you've been living for a long time in comparatively small enclosed habitats, and though you can look outside, and there's a sort of sky, it must feel close. What's your own impression?"
That's a thought I hadn't considered, Freeman mused. Come to think of it… if anything was calculated to bring back Ed's claustrophobia, that darkened Europan 'holding cell' had been a prime candidate…
"I do not think it should be too bad," Pavlor said, thoughtfully. "I mentioned to your doctors that I have done much travel between Europa and other Jovian moons, particularly Ganymede, where we have a mining facility; it is too cold for a long-term living colony, power requirements are prohibitive. I would be happy outdoors, though I may prefer cloudy days."
"I'll bear that in mind. But on the whole, it's a good idea… How's Ed doing, Alec?"
"Shroeder tells me there's a slight but steady improvement. He wants to move Ed, to somewhere a bit less formal, perhaps to his own place. What about security there?"
"I'll throw the book at it," Lake promised. "Just give me twelve hours."
"Great. Let Shroeder know, he'll want to make some arrangements himself."
"Then if you'll all excuse me, I'll get started." Lake set down her emptied mug, nodded to the Ambassador, and departed. She was thinking to herself: I still don't like Lackland. He does give me the creeps, a bit. And I don't entirely trust him, either… Perhaps I'd better take a closer look at him. A much closer look.
As the door closed behind her, Foster turned his gaze on Freeman. "And then there's you."
"Me?" Freeman asked, puzzled.
"Yes. Bear in mind, you're still under arrest - but I've altered your status to 'remanded on parole'." Foster smiled, but there was little humour in the smile. "Henderson didn't like that, either… but again, he didn't actively object. And I'm putting you on a curfew. Between midnight and 6 a.m., you have to be back here. Other than that you may come and go as you please. Sorry about all that, but it's the best I can do to hold Henderson off until we can get him to a formal hearing and clear you of any suspicion."
Freeman's returning smile was somewhat rueful. "Have you decided yet what exactly it is that you - or Henderson - suspect me of doing?"
"Well… how about negligence, recklessly endangering SHADO equipment and personnel including yourself, fraternising with the enemy, collaboration, betraying SHADO secrets… Alec, this isn't funny! Any one of those could get you shot!"
"Sorry." Freeman was laughing so hard he had to wipe his eyes. Pavlor was staring at him. "I'll bet Henderson just loved putting that lot together!"
"He did… " Foster broke off as the phone chirped. He lifted the handset and listened, his expression hardening. He thanked the speaker, replaced the handset.
"Developments. That was Miss Ealand… Wait until you hear what Henderson wants to charge Commander Straker with."
Freeman's laughter stopped. "What? What the blazes does the old - I mean, what does Henderson think he can possibly charge Ed with - "
"Infiltration of SHADO. On behalf of - excuse me, Azan - the aliens."
"WHAT??" Freeman shot to his feet. Pavlor sat up with a jerk, and spat a word in Europan that needed no translation.
"That's what Miss Ealand had to tell me," Foster explained, grimly. "Henderson apparently wants to investigate the possibility that Ed sabotaged his own LM and used his Plan Omega to arrange for the aliens to collect him and take him 'home', in preparation for an all-out invasion… and that, effectively, he's been working for them all along."
Freeman stared at him, speechlessly. At last he whispered: "He can't be serious."
"Oh, he is, I can assure you. Alec, the trouble is that some of the facts can be interpreted in exactly that way - and the only witness who can prove otherwise is you yourself. And Henderson doesn't exactly see you as a reliable witness. That's where the 'collaboration' aspect comes in, based on your long-term friendship with Ed. And as for Ed's physical condition, he thinks either there was an accident, or that Ed's faking it, to avoid questioning."
"I said this stinks," Freeman snarled, his fists clenched. "There's treason going on, all right, but it's a damn sight closer to Henderson than he thinks! Has he even considered that possibility? Or is it too obvious for him?"
"Lackland, you mean? Not so far as I am aware. Ginny has her own suspicions about him, though." Foster looked up at the angry man. "Alec, sit down again, for goodness' sake… We need to cover our behinds. I have arranged a meeting with Henderson and the relevant UN people, but that can't happen until the day after tomorrow. But at least it's been scheduled, and that's the main reason why Henderson hasn't stepped in and taken over already… but if Lackland or someone in his zone is behind all this, they won't let that stop them. They will try to act independently. Azan, we will have to hide you away, possibly with one of the Q groups to look after you. You will be a direct target yourself. And so will Ed be."
"Right. You're calling in John Ngana?" Freeman said, as Foster lifted the handset again.
"Yes… You'd better make yourself scarce. I suggest you take Azan, er, 'sightseeing'… somewhere nice and remote. At least that will be the story for public consumption."
"Right," Freeman said. "I hear the Jurassic coast is nice this time of year… Azan, it's a pity we won't actually be going there, but I hope to make amends for that in the not too distant future. Paul, I won't tell you where we'll actually be going, plausible deniability and all that… but I'll stay in touch."
* * *
Mary drove into the garage space, pulled up, and killed the 4x4's engine. The door came down behind the vehicle, and she leaned back in the seat with a sigh.
It had been a long day, and the actual travelling had been only a small part of it. Waiting had been the worst. She had sat around at Charles de Gaulle, with a patient Penny for company, for an endless time, not wanting to stir from there in case she missed her flight. Then when she was on the plane, there was the frustration of having to wait in an unexpected queue on the taxiway. She had finally arrived at Heathrow, gone to find her 4x4, and discovered it was nearly out of fuel. She must really have been in a tearing hurry when she had left England.
She was only thankful she had had her competition gear shipped home a few days earlier, to avoid some of the hassle.
According to her watch it was about 5pm. She yawned, and climbed out. Retrieving her suitcase from the boot, she extended the handle, and pulled the case along the passageway leading to the house.
Penny (bless her!) had called Betty, her housekeeper, for her, giving her ETA. She checked in the kitchen. There was a covered plate on a tray on the table, which proved to hold a selection of small but tasty-looking sandwiches. Beside it sat a mug, again covered, with a teabag already in it, waiting. She filled the kettle and set it to boil.
A few minutes later she carried the loaded tray into the living room. Betty had laid the log fire for her; all it needed was a touch with the gas lighter.
She pulled a small table into position beside one of the tall chairs, put down the tray, settled herself, and took a long swig of tea. She set down the cup with a sigh, leaned back in the seat, and let her eyes close, just for a moment.
* * *
"You do not have the authority!" Foster snapped. "Commander Straker is in my protective custody - "
"Not any more he isn't," Colonel Lackland told him. "This is for you. It's a copy of an order from General Henderson, transferring that custody to me."
"Let me see that!"
Foster took the document and read it, taking his time. He and Freeman had both been expecting some move like this; they had hoped they'd have more time…
Unfortunately the document appeared to be valid; but Foster wasn't giving up that easily. "I want to speak to Henderson - "
"That won't be possible. The doctors have him sedated, they barely gave permission for him to sign this." Lackland gave Foster a baleful stare. "Stop stalling, Acting-Commander, or I will put you under arrest."
And he could do that, too, Foster realised. "Very well. But I am coming with you to the hospital."
"As you wish… Now, where is Colonel Freeman?"
"I have allowed him out on parole, and under a curfew - "
"Yes," Lackland interrupted. "So I understand. But where is he at this moment?"
"Accompanying Ambassador Pavlor on a sightseeing trip. I believe their itinerary includes - "
"Foster, I said stop stalling! That is your final warning!"
"Very well." Foster drew a deep, exasperated breath. "They've gone to look at the Jurassic Coast."
"Thank you, Acting-Commander. At last… Recall them. Now. Instruct them to meet me at Mayland."
"I'll page them at once." Foster reached out, and touched a button beside his phone, that would send out a signal to bleep Freeman's pager… but the message that accompanied it was not one of the standard recall phrases.
Out beyond the Moon's orbit, two UFOs were coming in towards Earth at high speed. SID reported their presence, course, and speed.
"Yellow alert," Captain Ellis ordered. "Joan, advise Prince Merrel. Ask him if these are friend or foe."
"Prince Merrel on line, Captain," Harrington reported.
An image of the Prince's green-tinged features appeared on the monitor. "Captain Ellis, I regret that these two craft are not responding to my requests for identification. You must treat them as hostile."
"Acknowledged… Thank you, sir." She threw the 'all stations' switch. "Red alert. Interceptors, immediate launch. Attack these craft. Listen for additional instructions from Prince Merrel."
"Merrel speaks. I request permission to take off and assist the Interceptors."
Captain Ellis gave it a few seconds' intense thought. "Prince Merrel, you may not leave the ground, I don't want you getting shot down by mistake… but you and the other ship may add your firepower to our ground defences."
"Yes, Captain. I will comply."
"That'll give the unfriendlies a shock," Nina Barry murmured. "They'll go for our two, of course."
"Then Mark and co had better get them first!"
* * *
The voice was Peter Carlin's. Freeman dragged his eyes open, sure he'd barely been asleep for a few minutes. "Peter?" he said, muzzily.
"Sorry to wake you, sir, but there's been a couple of developments. Your pager bleeped, so I called in."
Freeman sat up. He was on the couch in Carlin's apartment. Carlin had offered him the bed, but he had declined. "What developments?"
"Lackland has stepped in. He's transferred the commander into his custody."
"I suppose that was inevitable," muttered Freeman. He pushed back the blanket and got to his feet. He was wearing only his boxers. Carlin had offered a sleep-suit, but the difference in sizes between the two men was too great. "Right, I'll get dressed… Is there any other news?"
"I'm afraid so," Carlin said. "There's a UFO coming in… there were two to start with. Seems that Prince Merrel confirmed they were from the rebel faction, so Moonbase attacked. One of them got through and it's heading for us."
"How close?" Freeman asked, pulling his clothing from the back of a nearby chair.
"A couple of miles away. Commander Foster is sending out three mobiles, he wants us to join Mobile Three. And I have a rendezvous location and a rough touchdown area for the UFO."
"Where's my car?"
"In the garage, sir."
"Great." Freeman pulled up his trousers and fastened them. "Who's commanding the other two mobiles?"
"Lieutenant Williams, sir."
"Good. Let's go."
* * *
Straker's coma was lifting, though slowly. Again, he dreamed…
Only a few years had passed, but the colony was well established, and growing. However, there were ominous signs of trouble to come. The news from the monitor station was not good. A plague had broken out in the outer reaches of Spicor, and it was growing despite the health experts' best efforts.
The plague symptoms were mostly respiratory. The upper zones of the respiratory tract - nose, throat, and upper trachea - became first inflamed, then congested, and finally swollen so much that breathing became nigh impossible. Antibiotics were uniformly ineffective, as were antivirals. Vaccines were of limited but diminishing use. Surgery to the trachea was often the only recourse, to allow air into the lungs; but that did not in itself arrest the progress of the disease.
And that disease became worse. It spread down into the lungs, so that it often became necessary to replace the diseased organs. And there were simply not enough donors.
A method was discovered to change the cell coding to fight the disease organism. Early signs were encouraging, and the people of Spicor looked to be winning their battle… but then the cost of their victory started to become apparent.
The changes in the cell coding needed to counter the disease had found their way into the reproductive tissue. And it was countering not just the disease, but the ability to produce offspring.
It happened slowly. The changed cell-codes were recessive. They were paired in the main tissues of the affected body, so a normal, dominant cell-code would be expressed in preference to the altered one; but both normal and altered codes were passed on to offspring. The changes spread slowly, like a fire in an underground mine; but soon there were enough altered cell-codes in the population for them to begin to pair up. Offspring with two copies of the altered cell-codes found they were unable to have offspring of their own; and the altered cell-codes were becoming dominant, so that even some of those with unpaired codes were becoming sterile.
The race of Spicor began to die.
In near-desperation, the health experts were experimenting with longevity treatments, to prolong the lives of individuals, especially those who still retained the capacity to reproduce. But this could only buy them time, not a solution.
And the plague was still active in some areas.
The still-disguised Keimon was visiting the monitor station on Dyaus when news of the quarantine order came through. The message had gone out to those few Spicor member worlds which had not yet been affected by the plague, and who had not therefore received the treatments. They had to wait, and watch, while the plague spread.
The Keimon boarded a skimmer for the trip back to Prithvi. He reflected, more than a little sadly, that his attempts to help his people, to guide them through this time of trial, were failing, for his people were too consumed by fear to co-operate, and were becoming increasingly fragmented. Worse, he had had to hide himself, so effectively that people had almost forgotten he existed; but revealing himself would invite certain death at the hands of his enemies, who - he knew - were still present on Prithvi and on Dyaus.
Once he had taken off, and was on his way to Planet Earth as the colonists were now calling it, he performed a self-diagnostic, to check that he was carrying no new pathogens - an ever-present risk when interacting with extra-system personnel.
To his horror, he found that he was indeed carrying a pathogen. And a totally unfamiliar one.
He called forth certain mental disciplines and specialised senses, and probed down into his own organs and tissues. He saw that the pathogen was tuned to his own cell-codes; and that it was artificial.
It would kill him, in time; but it would also kill Mich his son, and all those who carried certain cell-codes that were specific to the Keimon bloodline.
He used other, equally specialised, mental gestures to contact Efren directly, mind to mind, a channel that no electronics could intercept or even detect.
His friend acknowledged. He passed the query. Efren checked his records, and sent back the news that one of their cell-coding specialists had fallen victim to the plague, and had died that morning. The details of his research had been lost, due to an equipment failure.
Clearly this was no coincidence. Obviously, the people responsible for creating this artificial pathogen had erased all traces of their actions, so that no-one would suspect that murder had been committed. But by destroying information about their technique, they had also reduced to near-zero the chance of a repeat attempt, should the Keimon survive. Perhaps they were very confident that he would not.
He wondered, suddenly, about the plague… but that was not artificial.
He passed his conclusions to Efren, who agreed. He also informed his friend and Companion of the measures he must now take. He overrode Efren's horrified objections, and bade him farewell.
The whole exchange had taken less than five seconds.
He made the necessary changes to the skimmer's course programming, and constructed a 'decoy' program that would report false information back to the monitors on Dyaus. He would appear to be following his normal course back to Earth; but in fact, his actual course would take him to the system primary.
He would never see Earth again. His wife, his child, his home, primitive though it was. All forever out of his reach. He was glad that, as a precaution, before leaving he had sealed the Kei in an ornate casket, and given it to Paval, the only other man on Dyaus he could trust, to keep it against his return: something he could not now expect to happen for aeons, if at all.
But he had achieved his objective. The Earth colony was safe from the plague, and its members had not been given - had not needed - the treatments to change their cell coding. They were healthy, and would remain so, and prosper.
Not so the Keimon himself.
He increased speed to the maximum of which the skimmer was capable, some 15 times light. At that rate, his trip time would be, at most, about three minutes. He would drop to below light before entering the star's photosphere; mere fractions of a second later the skimmer, and its passenger, and the deadly contamination he carried, would be nothing but a tenuous wisp of gas.
He reached out with his mind, and said farewell to Arya.
And the sun reached out to claim its holocaust in a huge flare.
Ninety million miles away on Earth, the Kei screamed, and its light was extinguished.
* * *
Foster accompanied Lackland to the hospital. He was outwardly calm, but inside he was fuming.
"I had arranged, Colonel," he said stiffly, "to have Commander Straker transferred to his own home, with Colonel Lake providing medical and security attendance. Dr Jackson hopes that the familiar surroundings will be beneficial to him, help bring him out of his coma."
"That will not be necessary, Acting-Commander Foster."
"I must insist - "
"No you may not. General Henderson has directed me to keep him here at Mayland - and to double his guard."
Damn, Foster thought… "Then I want Colonel Lake to stay with him at all times."
"I will consider your, er, request, sir… Now please come this way. We will look in on Commander Straker, and then General Henderson wants a brief word."
"Will the doctors let him?" Foster said, dryly.
"No - but he insisted."
The chauffeur parked the Rolls in a convenient space, and the two SHADO officers climbed out and walked to the hospital entrance. Silently, Foster followed Lackland down the corridor to Straker's room. Two guards were indeed stationed outside his door.
His brother was much as Paul had last seen him, though he did seem to have improved a little. He was reclining rather than lying, in a half-sitting position, with his knees up, almost as though he was on a sun-lounger - though Paul could not imagine Ed ever relaxing on a beach!
There was a vital-signs monitor beside the bed, though there was no sign of life-support equipment such as a ventilator. There was a band around his temples with wires connecting to an EEG machine. Paul could make nothing of the traces it was displaying, though the attending nurse - whose nametag read Armon - seemed happy with them.
"Satisfied?" Lackland enquired. "Good. Then let us not keep General Henderson waiting."
Reluctantly, Foster followed Lackland from the room. As the door closed behind them, Nurse Armon thumbed the call button.
Dr Segal entered. "Transfer the lines to the portable monitor," he directed. "And disconnect the fluids."
Armon reached into a cupboard and brought out a compact piece of equipment. She took the leads from the monitors and connected them to the portable unit, and its small screen lit up, showing rows of green traces. She checked them, and gave a nod of satisfaction; then she unhooked the fluid feed from the cannula in Straker's elbow.
"Hurry please, nurse," Segal said.
"Yes, sir." Armon completed the transfer, and laid the bed flat, covering its occupant with a thin but opaque sheet. "Ready to go, sir."
"Good. Proceed to the loading bay, transfer it, then leave. I will meet you at the rendezvous point in one hour."
* * *
* * *
In an underground chamber off one of the lesser-trod passageways of SHADO, a number of people were gathered, awaiting word from Acting-Commander Foster.
Before leaving to join Peter Carlin, Freeman and Lake had handed Pavlor and Breen into the care of one of SHADO's elite commando 'Q' groups. Their leader, Lieutenant John Ngana, was in charge; his small band comprised some five specialist combat troops. They were discussing possible strategies, when the small room was suddenly filled with a flash of blinding white light.
Ngana blinked, shook his head a little, and rubbed his eyes. "What the blazes was that, Azan?"
"I am not sure," Pavlor admitted. "It has happened twice before, both times when Ed Straker's life was being threatened. On both occasions, the threat was removed."
"You think he's under immediate threat again?" Ngana said, sharply.
"It is likely… but it is also likely that the threat was removed, as before."
"How?" Ngana wanted to know. "Is it that - sword?"
"The Kei? Perhaps… I have to admit that no-one of Spicor now living knows the full extent of its capabilities." Pavlor reached inside his tunic, took the box from its pouch, and opened it. The crystal was shimmering, with a rippling, urgent light. The light increased to a painful intensity, then winked out.
And the blade was gone.
"What does that mean?" Ngana demanded.
Pavlor said, his face pale under the green: "It may mean one of two things. It may be that the Keimon has been not merely killed, but destroyed. Or it may be that the Kei has answered its master's need, and gone to him."
"What kind of 'need'?"
"It would be truly extreme. It must be that the Keimon is in the hands of his mortal enemies."
"I'll check with Commander Foster," Ngana said. "Discreetly."
He pinged Foster's pager. A little to his surprise, he got an immediate reply on his comm.
"Ngana? What's going on? Are you and - your friends - all right?"
"For the moment, yes, sir… Commander, our friends tell me there is an indication that Ed may be in trouble, the Kei is responding. Have you heard anything from the hospital?"
"I'm there now," Foster said, angrily. "Colonel Lackland came over here to see Henderson and throw his weight about. I insisted on coming too, he wouldn't let me bring Ginny, and he's made me stay out here in the waiting room while he talks to Henderson's doctors - hang on."
In only a few minutes, Foster was back. "He's thrown his weight about, all right," he said, bitterly. "He's taken the commander and gone off somewhere, and the doctors here can't tell me where. Shroeder is furious, but there was nothing he could do. Ask your friend, might he be waking up?"
Pavlor looked at the Europan medic. "Possible is," Breen said. "But news not good is. Clear is it is that agent of Gimen at hospital is. Stimulant drug is there, in past which was used, to break people out of periods prolonged of awareness lowered. Banned now, since indeed dangerous very. They may have on Ed Straker this used. If so, antidote needed within 30 hours, or kill him possible."
"What would be an antidote?" Foster wanted to know.
"Salicylic acid first-aid measure effective. Suffice should, about a gram. Time your medics that gives to test more detailed and to give medication specific. Will provide I details."
"Aspirin. Four tablets. Got it. I'll pass that one on… Thank you, Dr Breen."
"Any news of that second UFO, sir?" Ngana asked.
"Sky 1 managed to damage it and force it to land, not far from its ETT. I have two mobiles out there… and a third that Lackland doesn't know about, with Alec Freeman and Peter Carlin. I've sent them in. I'd guess the UFO is trying for a pick-up. Let's hope the mobiles can prevent that."
* * *
Colonel Lake was not surprised that Lackland had refused to take her with him and Commander Foster to talk to Henderson. Her suspicions about the general's aide were hardening into a certainty; but she needed evidence.
Lackland had kept insisting that the general was too ill to have visitors; but she had ignored him and pressed on, and he gave way reluctantly. When she had managed to see Henderson herself, she noted that the man was obviously tired, but quite clear of thought and able to talk at length - even if the things he wanted to say were unhelpful to the point of hostility. Deciding not to challenge him on the matter, she left.
After seeing the two Europans safe in Ngana's care, she took a crew of SHADO security personnel to inspect Ed's bungalow, bring it out of 'mothballs', and make it as secure as they could manage. He would need nursing, so she brought in two medical staff. They were a mature married couple, both SHADO rather than studio employees, and would behave as though they were renting the place for a few weeks.
And while they were doing this, she was thinking about Lackland. Yes the man was unduly solicitous about his superior; but perhaps that was just his way. And he had arrived in time to frustrate Hague's attempted abduction, shooting the man, causing a wound that had proved fatal. Surely that was evidence enough of his goodwill…
At that point Lake's thoughts stopped dead in their tracks. Hadn't she, herself, described Hague as a 'sacrificial pawn'? Had that whole thing with Hague been specifically designed to put Lackland himself above suspicion?
She needed to know exactly how Hague had died. For that she needed access to Mayland records. And here she was, at Ed's home. How useful.
When she and Straker had dealt with Turner and the 'time-stopping' UFO, it had become evident that the commander had quite a lot of hardware hidden around the studio buildings, of which that bazooka was but one example. In her function as security chief she had investigated those arrangements more thoroughly. This bungalow, it appeared, was a small fortress. There was a bunker, accessible via a shaft concealed in that central pillar in the living area. Down in the bunker was Ed's own communications hub to all of SHADO's outposts… including Mayland.
Lake walked to the central pillar, and pressed a small switch on the hifi on the table opposite. The hinged wall section in the side of the pillar swung out on its mountings, revealing a steel door big enough to admit a person. She opened it, and entered, finding a tiny lift even smaller than the one behind the 'light-show' panel in the command office. She stepped onto the platform. A light came on, the hatch closed, and the lift began to descend.
* * *
With her captive safely aboard and securely strapped to a processing bench, Nurse Armon climbed into the cabin and started the van engine. It took her perhaps half an hour to reach the designated rendezvous to await the arrival of the skimmer. She drove the van into a clump of bushes, which would give them some cover from prying eyes; though the only nearby habitation was a house that had once belonged to this terran itself, but according to their information was currently not in use.
Dr Segal arrived a few minutes later on foot, and joined the nurse in the back of the van. Gimen had ordered them to rouse the terran by any means necessary, then begin interrogating him. When they had the information they wanted, they were to harvest the terran and board the skimmer. Segal checked the stasis box. It was ready for him to load this harvest, piece by piece.
"I want him conscious, nurse," he ordered.
"I have been trying, but without success," Nurse Armon objected. "I can use the stimulant, but he may be too damaged to respond."
"Try, nevertheless. But use a minimum quantity. I don't want him to die just yet."
"Very well." The nurse prepared a syringe, filling it with a pale yellow liquid. She pushed back the sleeve of the terran's hospital gown, and injected the fluid into the cannula in his elbow. After only a few seconds, his eyes moved a little, but remained closed.
The nurse checked the cerebral readouts. "He has regained some awareness."
"Use another dose."
"As you wish." The nurse gave a further injection. After a few seconds, the terran stirred, his eyelids flickering.
Segal spoke to him in a firm voice. "Can you hear me?"
Again, the terran moved a little, tried to speak; but went limp again. Segal muttered something. He unfastened the front of the gown and pushed it aside, revealing the torso. He picked up a slender steel tool, which was a cutter capable of slicing bloodlessly through flesh and bone. He thumbed the control on its shaft, and its tip glowed white. He touched the tool to Straker's skin, just below the breastbone. "Then let's see if this will get your attention - "
A blinding flash of pure white light filled the van. Segal screamed, dropped the cutter, and staggered away from the bench. The nurse was moaning, clutching at her eyes, trying blindly to find the door. At last she fumbled it open and fell out. Segal lurched out after her, clawing at his face. The nurse fell to the ground, and Segal tripped over her fallen form. Both of them lay there, motionless except for rapid, shallow breathing.
The straps holding Straker to the bench crumbled to dust. The light contracted into a cloud about his right hand, then solidified into a glittering band around his wrist.
* * *
Freeman and Carlin had taken control of Mobile Three, which had been left for them in a clump of bushes, unoccupied. Peter fired up the engine, and set course for the UFO location they had been given.
The radio bleeped, and Carlin answered it. "Yes, Commander Foster… yes, we're both here… I'll pass you over."
Freeman took the headset Carlin handed him. "Paul? Yes, what's happened?… Just great… What's the description?… OK, got it… What about the UFO?… Right. Aspirin… Anything else?…"
The voice continued in the headphones, and Freeman's voice hardened. "OK, got it."
"Developments?" Carlin asked.
"I'll say… Ginny's become very suspicious of Lackland. She's been digging, and she found that Hague's death wasn't an accident, as Schroeder suspected. She also says a doctor named Segal gave a false death certificate - and he was the medic in charge of Henderson's treatment. He's been having long talks with Lackland but no details are recorded. Lackland himself has taken the commander off, no-one knows where, but a van was seen leaving the hospital at about the same time." Freeman gave the description. "Ginny's heading for the studio to join Paul. And the UFO that got through was destroyed by the other two mobiles."
"So we're looking for that van."
"We are… Paul's called the other two back, to avoid spooking Lackland, so it's up to us."
"So we start looking near the ETT point?"
"Yes, but not too close, I think… Call Sky 1, have him do an IR sweep. Let's see what that turns up."
"What was that about aspirin?"
"Seems Pavlor thinks Ed may have been poisoned. If we find him, we have to get four aspirin into him somehow, as an antidote. Intravenously, if necessary."
"We can do that… but first," Carlin said, "we have to find him."
* * *
Lackland had dropped off Segal, then parked his own car in a small lay-by. He took out a newspaper and sat as though reading it. In fact part of his attention was on the small van in the clearing; he was also watching for the surviving skimmer.
Abruptly, his agents fled the van, and he spat out a word in a language no terran would have recognised. Before he could make his way down to the van to investigate, the signal from the skimmer abruptly ceased. Clearly it had been destroyed. Then his proximity alarm sounded, and the monitor came on, showing one of SHADO's mobile units.
He thought, furiously: They should be miles from here.
They would reach the van before he could, he realised. With his skimmer destroyed, there was no way he could retrieve his prize now. There was nothing for it but to abort, and take out that mobile in the process. He took up a small box, and turned its dial. A row of red lights came on, showing that the auto-destruct on the stasis box was set. In no more than two minutes, their enemy, the terran commander, would be dead.
He started the car's engine, and left, heading back to Mayland, where General Henderson was convalescing from his surgery. Time the man started making himself useful.
When Mary awoke, it was getting dark. She stretched, luxuriously, and used the phone to let her cousin know she had arrived.
"Glad you called, Mary," Penny said. "Look, I take it you've not seen the news yet?"
"No, I've only just woken from a nap… What's up?"
"Well, that's just it, no-one seems to know - except that Harlington-Straker is being besieged by reporters. All sorts of rumours are flying around, and the studio refuses to comment on any of them… Seems your antennae are in full working order, my love."
Mary sat bolt upright. "Anything about Ed?"
"Everything from him being washed up on a desert island - "
"Exactly… At the other extreme, the real lunatic fringe, there are claims he was carried off by little green men, but he escaped."
"Someone's been watching too many of their films," Mary muttered. "I don't suppose Alec's had a mention, has he?"
"Several… Everyone wants to talk to him, but he's still not around, so the studio's fending them off."
"I might have a go myself, again." Mary bit her lip. "Look, Penny, I know this is nuts, but you know what this sounds like to me?"
"Let me guess. Alec got a clue to Ed's whereabouts, and went out looking for him, keeping it as quiet as he could."
"And found him," Mary whispered.
"Careful, my love," cautioned her cousin. "Don't jump too far with this. Don't get yourself hurt."
"…Yes. Yes, you're quite right… Look, I'd better go, and catch up on the news. Talk to you soon."
Mary hung up. She tried to organise her thoughts. The first thing was to unpack… no, she told herself. The first thing was to turn on the television. She did so, and selected a rolling news channel.
It was talking about the football world cup.
Muttering, she turned up the volume, and stalked into the kitchen, collecting her suitcase on the way. She pushed the handle in and laid the case flat. Opening it, she took out a couple of bags of laundry, which she had not had time to do at Penny's. She peered inside one, wrinkled her nose, and emptied it into her own machine.
With the washing started, she retrieved a small bag of Paris goodies. She was about to open it when her attention was caught by the TV.
"…And now, over to Harlington-Straker Film Studios, for an exclusive interview with one of their directors, Jack Webb."
Mentally kicking herself for not having thought to ask Jack about Ed, Mary dashed into the living room and perched on the edge of the couch.
"Mr Webb," one of the reporters was saying, "can you comment on the whereabouts of one of your fellow directors, Mr Alec Freeman?"
"Yes I can. He is currently away from here, engaged on private business. I do not know when he will be back."
"Does his absence have anything to do with the mystery surrounding Mr Ed Straker?"
"What mystery is that?" Webb enquired.
"Mr Straker disappeared, according to your people in a helicopter crash off Cornwall. Is it true that although extensive searches were made, his body was never found?"
"It is true." Webb offered no opinion on why this was, Mary noted.
"Is it possible he may have survived?"
"I wouldn't rule out the possibility entirely. However, I consider it most unlikely that a man could have survived a catastrophic structural failure such as evidence shows befell his aircraft. Nor is it very likely that, if he had survived the break-up, and the consequent fall, he would have lasted long in the water, since he must surely have been injured."
"But you think there's a chance?" another reporter insisted.
Webb shrugged. "I have always been an optimist. Until we do find proof positive of Mr Straker's status, alive or dead, I will not write him off."
"Are the searches continuing?"
"Is Mr Freeman taking part? Does he have new information? Was the 'copter sabotaged?"
"No comment," Webb said.
There were several more questions, which Webb fielded as blandly, and unsatisfyingly, as before. The news item ended, and Mary went back to the kitchen to attend to her luggage, picking up one of Betty's sandwiches on the way. It certainly was tasty.
She picked up the bag she had been about to open when the news item started, and took it back to the living room with her. She wondered about a meal, but she was not really hungry, and there were still most of the sandwiches left. A glass of wine would have helped them go down, but she had never liked drinking on her own. She settled for orange juice.
The phone rang. She grabbed it. "Yes?"
"Mrs Rutland? This is Jack Webb. I spoke to your cousin, she told me where you were. Hope I'm not disturbing you?"
"No, not at all… Thanks for calling, I've just seen that news item."
"I thought you might," Webb said. She could hear the smile in his voice. He went on: "I would have called earlier but I was ambushed… But what I said in that interview was essentially true. We are not convinced of Ed's status. More than that I can't say right now."
"No problem," Mary said."Thanks for calling, Jack."
She hung up.
She was now more restless and nervous than ever. Perhaps some music would be a good idea… She turned off the TV, went over to the audio cabinet, and selected 'Come the Day' by the Seekers, one of her favourite musical groups. Gazing out of the window into the deepening dusk with its single bright star - Venus, perhaps? - she let the music lull her.
The fourth track started. 'All over the world'. It matched her mood perfectly. Too perfectly…
"Some may meet again under that same white star,
If maybe some night you come back from afar,
Who cares if tonight I don't know where you are?"
Quite suddenly, she was weeping as though her heart would break.
* * *
Straker's eyes snapped open. He gazed into the surrounding darkness, unseeingly.
Someone was calling him from a great distance. Someone needed him.
He sat up, turned to one side. His legs were dangling over the edge of something. His feet touched a flat surface. He tried to stand, but his legs would not take his weight, and he fell.
He lay on the flat for a few moments, gathering himself. His thoughts were fragmented, almost discontinuous, but he knew there was somewhere he had to go.
He pushed himself up, to his knees, to his feet. He was cold. He pulled the thing wrapped around him closer, and something held it in place.There seemed to be something around his wrist, something that glittered. He wondered muzzily what it was.
The darkness around him seemed to lessen a little, as a soft glow filled this space. He could make out dim shapes: a tall rectangle, a smaller square. A door? A window? He felt his way carefully forward, and bumped painfully into a metal barrier. He moved cautiously towards the tall rectangle, feeling with his fingers.
A small red light came on somewhere below him.
He pushed against the barrier, and fell out of the enclosure, onto what seemed to be gravel.
The glow faded, but there was light out here. He looked around, seeing bushes and trees, lit in silver. Once again, he managed to haul himself upright. Some instinct prompted him to push that door closed. He moved into the bushes in a crouching run, almost silent on bare feet, and disappeared into the dark.
A few moments later there was an explosion behind him. The blast threw him to the ground once more. Mercifully, he landed in vegetation.
Behind him there was the crackling of fire. He came upright, and ran as best he could, not troubling to crouch down, and came out of the bushes onto a narrow road. Behind him, he could hear sirens. Ahead of him, there was a single clear steady light. A small 'voice' in the depths of his mind told him to head for it.
* * *
Sky 1 had picked up an IR trace at the edge of a small wooded area, where no vehicle should be. Mobile Three headed for the spot. The ground was rough, and furrowed, making for a very bumpy ride.
They crested a low hill. Peter Carlin had the mobile in low gear, and was doing a near-suicidal speed down the slope. Freeman held on to his seat straps, peering though the windshield.
"There." He pointed.
"I see it," muttered Carlin. "Hang on sir, this is going to be rough."
"Go for it." Freeman glanced at the monitor, used the zoom controls. "That's it all right. And there are two people down outside it, they seem to be - "
The vehicle exploded. Involuntarily Freeman ducked, aware though he was of the mobile's armour capability.
They closed to within a few feet of the now fiercely burning vehicle. Carlin activated the sprayer, and foam doused the flames.
Freeman leapt from the mobile. He spared a single glance for the two on the ground; they were clearly dead. He reached the vehicle, tugged at the door handle, and gasped as Carlin's foam jet hit him in the back. Carlin had turned down the pressure, so that the force of the jet did not knock him off his feet. Soaking and swearing, he scrambled up into the rear cabin.
It was deserted. The onset of the fire had been too recent for an entire body to be consumed, and there was no sign of any half-cooked remains. But there were other things: the shredded remnant of a large box, and something that reminded Freeman irresistibly of an operating table, made of a kind of plastic. On the floor there was something that looked like a metallic pen. He'd seen something very like it before… He picked it up with extreme care, staggered out again, and ran back to the mobile.
"He's not in it," he called. "I can't tell from looking whether he ever was, but… Oh sh*t. Police. I suppose the hospital called them in, looking for their missing patient!"
"Should we go, sir?"
"No," muttered Freeman. "Better stay and deal with this, I suppose. But put this somewhere first." He tossed Carlin the 'pen'.
Two police cars drew up beside the mobile, and a uniformed officer climbed out of the leading car. "Good evening, sir," he said. "My name's Craven. May I have your name, please?"
"I'm Alec Freeman, one of the directors of Harlington-Straker Film Studios."
"And your companion?" the officer asked, as Carlin swung himself down from the mobile's cabin.
"I'm Peter Carlin," the pilot replied. "I also work at the studios. I do location stuff."
"Look," Freeman interrupted, "we have two dead here! Shouldn't you call an ambulance or something? And there may be a third man involved, shouldn't you be looking - "
"My colleagues are doing that, sir, but thanks for your concern." The officer was at least a DI, Freeman noted, sure he'd seen the man around somewhere. "What is your business here?"
"We are doing some testing of this vehicle for location work. We call it a 'mobile support unit'. We want to see how it goes in the field… If we're happy we'll come back in daylight and shoot some footage."
"Why are you testing in the dark, sir?"
"To get some privacy, officer. From other film companies, that is."
"I see… Why are you soaking wet, sir? And with what appears to be foam?"
"This mobile has an artificial-snow maker. You can get some realistic effects with a mixture of detergent foam and shredded paper. Peter simply turned off the paper feed, and soaked me for protection against the fire. I entered the van to check whether anyone was trapped in it."
"Did you see how the fire started?"
"It seemed to be an explosion. Though what caused that, I have no idea."
"Do you know the people who died, sir? And what made you think there might be a third man?"
"One of them I've seen before," Freeman said. He was beginning to shiver. "He's a doctor from the local hospital, I think his name is Segal. The nurse I don't know at all. The third man we've seen in their company."
"I see." The inspector looked at Freeman, considering. "There are a number of things about this that I do not yet understand. I'd like to go into them in a little more depth. Would you step into our van, please?"
"Very well, officer." Freeman gave Peter a nod, and the pair followed Craven up into the back of a large white van whose interior was laid out a little like a civilian version of the SHADO mobile. Two constables followed them inside, and found them stools for seating.
"Find this man a towel or something," Craven ordered. One of the constables drew out a large absorbent sheet from a cupboard and draped it around Freeman's grateful shoulders. "Gentlemen, I have the recorders on. Please give your full names for the record, and then please tell me why you were in the vicinity of the van that exploded."
The SHADO pair did as asked. Freeman said: "As I said, we're worried about industrial espionage. We saw the van on our monitors and went to investigate why it was hanging around."
"You said you knew one of the people who had been killed. Did you kill them?"
"No, we bloody didn't!"
"You do seem to have a motive, sir," pointed out the inspector.
"Look. Industrial spies play dirty, I grant you, but not that dirty." Oh no? a small inner voice whispered at him. Remember Foster's court-martial?
The DI turned to Peter Carlin. "Mr Carlin, did you kill them?"
"No," Carlin snapped. Craven merely raised his eyebrows; but Captain Peter Carlin ignored the possible provocation.
* * *
Straker was functioning at a level which tapped years-old survival techniques from his astronaut training.
He was cold, and getting colder. The small voice had become a full internal sergeant-major. It ordered him to leave the road and work his way through the bushes, for what little shelter they gave against a freshening wind. It also prompted him to relieve himself, and habitual modesty made him seek a suitable tree.
The light was still there. He headed for it doggedly, on feet that were becoming sore, despite his attempts to tread on softer ground.
Abruptly, he came out of the bushes onto a harder surface, and there in front of him, not too many yards away, was the light. It was attached to a building, which he found familiar even in his state of confusion. He hurried towards the light. There was a door, with a combination lock. He tapped out the number without needing to think about it, and the door opened.
An internal light went on, and someone gasped: "Ed!!"
He looked into her eyes. Suddenly, unaccountably, relief flooded through him, washing away the remains of his strength, and tipping him into darkness.
The sparkling band on his wrist faded into the skin.
* * *
The questioning went on for what Freeman estimated was a little over an hour. He was finding it increasingly difficult to contain his impatience, when Craven finally said: "Very well, recorders off… Well, that seems in order. I won't keep you any longer, gentlemen. But I would appreciate a witness statement from each of you, some time in the next two days, please. Come down to the station and ask for DCI Craven."
"We'll do that."
"Do you have any dry clothing available?"
"There's some stuff in the mobile. Coveralls, that sort of thing, for our studio crews."
"Then I should get changed if I were you, sir, before you catch your death. You may take the towel; please return it when you come to give your statements."
"I will. Thank you."
One of the constables helped Freeman and Carlin out of the police van. By this time, several men in anti-contamination suits were busy in and around the still smouldering wreck. More were searching in the surrounding bushes.
"Come on, sir," Carlin said. "I'll find you one of those, er, coveralls."
"Thanks." Freeman swung himself up into the mobile's cabin. "I did find a couple of interesting things in that van, tell you about it in a moment. First off though, I'd better give HQ the news that the police are now involved, and we will have to get someone attached to their forensic squad - "
He broke off. The radio was flashing a silent alarm. Freeman grabbed the handset. "Freeman."
The small monitor lit up, to show Lake's face. "Alec?" she hissed, evidently trying to speak as quietly as possible. "Listen, we've got problems. Henderson's on the warpath. He's virtually arrested Paul, I only just avoided that myself. He wants you to hand over Pavlor, says he has evidence that the Ambassador is playing us for - "
The monitor blanked as the link cut.
"Ginny!" Freeman shouted. "Damn and blast… Peter, I'll have to go. I'll use my car."
"OK. I'll keep searching here."
Peter turned the mobile around, and sent it hurtling back towards the road where they had parked. The car was there. Ignoring the discomfort of his still-damp clothes, Freeman ran to the vehicle, climbed in, and shot off down the road towards the studio.
After a few moments, Mary's sobs ceased. She drew a long, shaky breath. She went to the cloakroom, which opened off the front hallway, and mopped her face. The action removed most of her makeup, light as it was; so she took some cotton wool and the cleanser and tidied herself, to be ready for bed later.
Restless, she walked back to the living room, where the music was still playing. She let it run, and collected her crockery on a tray. In the kitchen, the washing machine blinked at her, indicating that its cycle was complete. She did those household chores, putting Betty's remaining sandwiches in the fridge, where they would keep until tomorrow. When she had finished, she closed the blind at the window, turned off the light, and wandered back to the living room.
The music had ended, so she turned it off. She looked at her knitting on the small table, shook her head slightly, picked up her book and sat down, trying to relax enough to read it. After a few pages, she laid it down with a sigh, and glanced at her watch. The hands had not moved on very far from the last time she had looked…
She realised that she had been checking her watch every few minutes, as though she were waiting for something. Or someone.
Dropping the book on the table, she came to her feet, went to the window, and gazed out through the curtains. The moon was up, lighting the gravel drive with a cool silver glow. Something stirred the bushes, a bright pair of eyes looked up at the window; then the cat - or fox - turned and vanished into the undergrowth.
She stayed at the window, gazing out into the night, while the moon rose a little further into a cloud-dappled sky. After a while, she stirred, shook her head slightly, and let the curtain fall back into place. Again, she glanced at her watch. Still far too early for bed, and in any case she did not feel at all like sleep -
A chime sounded from the front door entry monitor.
She dashed into the hall. The small screen had come on, in response to the presence of a visitor. The lock light showed green, indicating that a valid entry code had been used. And then her visitor moved into view.
Mary stared at the apparition on her doorstep. She could barely believe what she was seeing. It was Ed Straker.
She flung the door open. Dressed in what seemed to be little more than a short cotton tunic, barefoot, dust-coated to the knees, he was leaning against the brickwork of the porch, gazing at her blankly. His eyes closed, and he sagged forward. She managed to break his fall. Wrapping her arms around his limp form, she half led, half carried him into the living room, and lowered him onto the couch before the fire. His skin was cold, and he was shivering violently. She settled him on the couch, grabbed a fur throw, and covered him to the chin. Taking two quick strides to the small side table, she lifted the telephone handset, and dialled her doctor's private line.
* * *
The headache was threatening to split his skull. He tried to fall back into black oblivion, but it prodded him awake again. He tried to move, to escape from it, but movement only worsened the pain.
He was cold, shivering. His breathing was too fast, too shallow. That wouldn't help. Cautiously, he tried to make each breath a little slower, a little deeper. Blessedly, the pain began to recede.
He tried to take stock of his surroundings. The thing on which he was lying was firm but yielding. Something fluffy covered him to the shoulders. There was a flicker of orange light, and with it warmth, against his closed eyes.
He made himself listen. Footsteps, approaching, light and quick, urgent. Something rustled metallically, and another cover seemed to spread over him, and his shivering lessened. He moved, a little, and gasped as the headache stabbed at him once more.
"Ed?" The voice was female, and familiar. "Ed… It's all right. Don't sit up yet. Take your time."
"…what…" He grimaced as another twinge shot through his skull.
"Where does it hurt?"
"Let me see." Gentle fingers probed at his head. "There's no bump or bruising. You're cold and exhausted, but I think that's all. I've called my doctor but he's had to go to a child, I don't know how long he'll be."
Carefully, he opened his eyes. Through the fog a face swam, a face he knew he ought to know. "What's happened…?"
"I was rather hoping you would tell me… but later. Can you drink something warm? You're shivering."
Bracing himself against the pain in his head, he let her help him to sit up enough to sip at a cup. It held something warm and sweet. Suddenly thirsty, he took a gulp, and coughed a little.
"Gently. Don't rush."
Obediently, he finished the drink in small mouthfuls. It was possibly the most delicious thing he had ever tasted. Mercifully, his headache began to recede. She settled him back against the cushions, smoothed the covers over him once more, and as she did so, the doorbell chimed.
"That'll be Dr McKenzie. I'll go and let him in."
"Be careful…" he croaked, not knowing why he needed to warn her.
She returned accompanied by a man he did not know. Tall, slim, greying, glasses, about sixty, carrying a leather bag which he set down on the floor. She drew up a stool so that the doctor could sit down beside the patient.
"Well, Ed, how are you feeling?"
"Bloody dreadful… Sorry… should I know you?"
"We haven't met." The doctor nodded to her. "Mary here tells me you turned up on her doorstep, dressed rather fetchingly in what appeared to be a hospital gown and not very much else, and barefoot. You said hello and promptly collapsed."
McKenzie waved a hand. "No matter… well, let's have a look at you?"
The examination was quick but thorough, and he asked only a few questions, not pressing for answers. "Well, that's not too bad. No real injury apart from a small burn and a couple of possibly cracked ribs that I can detect, and they've mostly healed, though Mary says you've been complaining of a headache. How is that now?"
"It's eased off, a lot."
"Good… You're chilled, tired to the point of exhaustion, you haven't been eating much lately, your memory's in shreds - but you're awake, reasonably alert and responsive, you're making sense. So I don't think there's too much wrong… though, psychologically, you seem to have been hit by a truck! What interests me is the fact that you left your nice warm comfy hospital bed, wherever that was, and came here. Do you have any memory of doing that, or of why you did it?"
"You must have had a truly compelling reason. No doubt we'll find out what that was in due course. How are you doing for warmth?"
"Not so cold, now…"
"Good. And don't worry too much about your memories, they will return in their own time." McKenzie smiled up at Mary. "What you need mainly at the moment is sleep - real, natural sleep, which I suspect you haven't been getting much of recently. So - if Mary's in agreement, I propose to leave you exactly where you are for a few hours."
Mary nodded, placing a hand on his shoulder to counter his instinctive objections. The doctor continued: "I'll make a few discreet enquiries, try to find out which hospital you absconded from. That cannula in your elbow can stay in for the moment. And I'll drop back in and see you in the morning. In the meantime, sleep as much as you can, and if you start feeling worse, Mary can call me."
"Any time." McKenzie gathered up his equipment, bundled things into his bag, closed it and rose to his feet. "I'll see myself out, Mary, don't worry."
"No problem," she said, shaking her head. As she led the doctor from the room, he struggled to recall. What was his 'compelling reason' for coming here, by walking miles he supposed, in thoroughly unsuitable clothing?
She was beside him once more. "Are you warm enough?"
"It's mostly gone… What time is it…?"
"Around nine pm. I'll turn the lights down a little so you can sleep."
Sleep sounded wonderful, suddenly. "What about you…"
"I'll curl up in the armchair. Settle down, now… That's it."
As the room lights faded to a rosy glow, he closed his eyes, and let the warm darkness flow over him…
* * *
Mary waited until Ed was obviously asleep, then grabbed the phone, and called her cousin. A drowsy voice answered.
"Penny? Sorry, did I wake you?"
"Don't worry about it. Mary, has something happened?" Penny's voice had sharpened.
"I'll say! Penny, he's here! He turned up on my doorstep about half an hour ago!"
Penny gave a whoop. "How is he? Has he told you what happened?"
"No, not yet… He's not very well, but the doctor isn't too worried. At the moment he's asleep on my couch."
"Who, the doctor?" Penny chuckled.
"No, you clown!" Mary laughed in her turn. "Look, Penny, I don't have to ask you to keep quiet about this. I'm not even going to ask Alec, not yet. I'll wait until Ed wakes, then ask him how he wants to play this. I'll keep the TV on, with subtitles, see if anything gets a mention."
"Mary," Penny said, quietly, "what is it? What's wrong?"
She took a deep breath. "He's wearing a hospital gown, and nothing else, so he's quite chilled. Just as well it's a warm night… His feet are bare and his legs are muddy - I haven't tried to clean him up yet - he's clearly been walking over open ground. He's cracked a couple of ribs, but the doctor thinks that was done some while ago. There's a strange scar, like a burn, on his chest. And there are odd marks around his wrists and ankles."
"You think he was kidnapped? That's a vote for the little-green-men camp," Penny said. Her tone was light, but Mary could hear the concern.
"It could be… Listen, Penny, I'd better go, I don't want to disturb him. I'll tell you more when I have it."
"No problem, sweetie. Night-night."
Mary put down the handset. She pulled a leather cushion into place beside the couch, and sat on it, gazing down at the face of the man she now knew she still loved, even after all that had happened over the past few years.
She wondered what it was that he had been doing, all that time.
His face was tense, even in sleep. The tiny muscles at the corners of his mouth were tight, as though he were in some pain. His skin seemed to have an odd green tint, but perhaps that was just the lighting.
A wisp of the fine blond hair had strayed out of place, across his eyes. She put out a hand, and with the lightest fingertip touch, stroked the errant strands out of the way. He stirred a little, and she froze, not wanting to disturb him; but he turned his head into the touch, snuggling his face into her hand. He gave a small sigh, and the tight muscles relaxed.
* * *
Moving more circumspectly now, Peter steered the mobile into the bushes, seeking a place where he could overlook the police activity around the van. He found a suitable spot, and killed the engine. He turned on all his external cameras - normal, night vision, and infra-red - and set them to scanning the area.
Where was the Commander? How could a man as sick as he was, his brain barely functioning, have got away from the van? Had he ever been in it in the first place? And if he had been, and managed to get out of it by himself, where would he go?
Peter called up a map of the area on one of the monitors, and studied it thoughtfully. There were few buildings hereabouts. The closest was perhaps two miles away. He set up a data tag, and raised his eyebrows. The place was listed as being in the name of Mary Nightingale Straker Rutland.
He investigated, delving deep into sometimes secure records, and his eyebrows threatened to go into orbit. He had had no idea the commander had once been married, or that he had bought this place shortly afterwards. The marriage had broken up around the time SHADO was formed. That, Carlin thought, was probably no coincidence.
He wondered if the commander had somehow roused enough from his coma to realise where he was, and head for his old house. It was as good a place as any to start looking. Especially as Carlin could see a light through the trees, in the right general direction.
He put the mobile into gear, and edged forward at a slow walking pace, watching the monitors carefully, and stopping every few yards or veering off the direct path, to do a full scan. It would not do to run over the man he was trying to help.
One of the scans he was using, occasionally so as not to blind the other sensors too much, was a UV floodlight, to persuade body fluids such as blood or urine to fluoresce. He did not have much hope of this being successful, since there were too many ordinary sources around. There was, for example, a spot where something like a mouse or a vole had become a fox's supper; and there were territory markers everywhere. Still, he would be missing a trick if he did not try it.
Through the trees he could still see that solitary light, evidently a security lamp of some sort. He hoped it would have acted like a beacon to draw the commander this way.
Again he halted, and tried the UV flood. He sat up sharply at the sight of what it revealed.
"If that's a territory marker," he muttered, "it must have been a bloody elephant."
There was a tree on the roadside, a few yards back from the metalled surface, which was fluorescing brightly from a height of some two feet above the ground. Carlin halted the mobile, grabbed the handheld UV torch, and jumped out of the cabin. He checked around the base of the tree, and saw unmistakable signs of what had been a sizeable puddle, which had mostly soaked away now.
"You must have been desperate, sir," he muttered to himself.
Come to think of it, he realised, the commander probably had been. He had been missing for some hours, and while in the hospital he would have been installed with a drip to keep him hydrated, and a catheter to deal with the products. These had no doubt both been removed when he had been taken.
The interesting point was that whoever this had been - and he hoped fervently that it was indeed Commander Straker - he had sought the small security of a tree, and relieved himself tidily, rather than it just happening at random. Evidently he had regained a small measure of his mental functions.
Carlin reminded himself not to be too talkative about this. There were limits to the amount of ragging a superior officer could be expected to take.
He shone the torch at the ground, looking for further clues; and saw footprints, leading in the direction of that light. The maker had been barefoot. He could see traces of sweat, but - thankfully - very little blood.
Carlin climbed back into the mobile, and drove onwards, rather more quickly than he had been doing.
* * *
When Ed Straker woke again, it was full night, from what he could see past the curtains. Mary was stretched out in a nearby armchair, her feet up on a leather pouffe, fast asleep.
The clouds that fogged his mind and obscured his memories seemed to be clearing; but somehow he did not want to push matters. He had the feeling there were monsters out there, lurking in the fog, and he was not sure he could deal with them just yet.
He was thirsty. Mary had left a beaker on a small table beside the couch. He managed to push himself half upright, waited while the room stopped its drunken pirouetting, and reached out for the beaker. It was more of the sweet cordial. He downed half of it, and set the beaker back on the table.
"Hello," Mary said, sleepily. "How are you doing?"
"Better, thanks… Sorry, did I wake you?"
"No, no, I was only dozing anyway…" She studied him carefully, sitting more upright. "You look a whole lot better, I must say. How's the energy level?"
"Improving… and the headache's gone. Mary - I shouldn't be here. I'm being a terrible nuisance - "
"True," she smiled. "But we'll worry about that later… Is there anyone you'd like me to contact? Alec, perhaps?"
He groped for the name, and the wave of recollection came crashing over him, and behind that, the monsters crouched, ready to spring. He jerked upright. "Alec!!"
She ran to him. "Ed, whatever's the matter - "
"I shouldn't be here. I CAN'T be here. It's impossible - " He dragged a shaking hand across his eyes, struggling for control. "Mary - I'm sorry. I know I sound mad. But I - I have to get to the studio - "
"You sound terrified," Mary told him. "I'll take you to the studio, don't worry. Exactly how urgent is it? Can I get you into some clothes? Should we call ahead?"
"No - " He shook his head, once, and winced as the pain stabbed at him again. "Don't call ahead… better if we just go. But yes, I should get dressed - "
"Come this way." She helped him to his feet, and led him from the lounge into the cloakroom. Rummaging through its cupboards, she drew out a jogging suit, with 'walking' socks. "These are mine, but they should fit you, though you'll have to 'go commando'… Let me help."
Somehow, he got dressed. He was trying to marshal his mental resources, to get his sluggish thought processes moving. He tried silently reciting the multiplication tables to impose some sort of order on the mental chaos, with some success. He tried to push his memory back, tried to remember how he had got here… and he came up against something he simply could not believe.
Of course, he admitted unwillingly to himself, he might have been having some sort of drug-induced dream… He remembered the hallucinations reported by Paul Foster in an over-hot sauna following a party. But no; his memories were too clear and sharp and consistent.
And there was something else. A presence. Not hostile, not by any means. Friendly but independent, like a cat. Or a hawk, perched on his wrist. He looked down, and thought he saw a faint crystalline glimmer. He postponed thinking about that…
He was zipping up the jacket as she reached into another cupboard, and drew out a box containing a new pair of trainers. They were slightly too large, but it didn't matter. She found a thick outdoor coat for him, and guided him through the house to her garage, where her 4x4 was parked.
"In you get."
He settled himself in the passenger seat, and let her strap him in.
"It will take perhaps 45 minutes from here at this time of night," she told him, firing up the engine.
"That's great… No need to rush. If I got as far as hospital, it's not life or death urgent. But I have to find out what's going on."
* * *
Carlin decided to park the mobile among the trees, and proceed on foot. He killed all the lights, and set the windows to black, to conceal the machine from inquisitive eyes.
He approached the house carefully, taking care to move on grass rather than gravel. The place looked deserted, apart from that single light. He wondered what the house had in the way of intruder alarms; knowing Commander Straker, probably everything in the catalogue. Not to mention a few he'd invented himself…
Reaching the driveway, he decided to walk up to the door quite openly, like an innocent visitor. (At gone midnight? he asked himself. Well, engine trouble or something, perhaps…)
Some yards to his left, there was a rumble, and what looked like a garage door slid open. This impression was confirmed when a large grey 4x4 shot out of the opening in a racing getaway.
Carlin grabbed his 'night-eyes' from his belt, and peered through them at the hurrying vehicle. He thought there were two people aboard, and that the driver was female…
He made for his mobile at a dead run. Clambering in, he started the engine, swearing quietly at the delay. The computer was live. He tapped in the index of the 4x4, and gave a cheer on seeing the readout; it was indeed Mary Rutland's car.
"Now let me guess where they're going," he said to himself.
* * *
In the 4x4, Ed Straker turned to look at her. "Mary… There are things I'm going to tell you, things I should have told you years ago. I didn't because I was trying to protect you, fat lot of good that was… But I think the time for all that is past… I should warn you that you won't believe most of it… and some of it may scare you out of your wits."
"Like the fact that the man Alec told me had died in an air crash turned up alive and - well, alive anyway - on my doorstep?"
"That's the core of it." Straker thought: If I tell all now, she'll panic, better go carefully… "Mary, I was kidnapped. By people not from this - country - with whom we are at undeclared war. And we've been at war with them for fifteen years. At least. The studio is just a front. The real work goes on underneath, literally. HQ was built underground. We call our organisation SHADO."
He watched her carefully, ready to grab the wheel, but she was watching the road, frowning in concentration. "You're right," she said, at last. "It is unbelievable… except that it makes sense of everything that's happened these last few years… Why are we at war, Ed? What do these people want with us? Is it still M.I.?"
"What they appear to want, and what they actually do want, are two different things," Straker said, thoughtfully. Privately, he wondered if she was humouring him… "There have been several kidnappings, several murders, several attacks on our manufacturing facilities. We've never been able to get them to explain exactly what they want with us. When we do manage to get hold of one, he lets himself die."
"Do you know where they come from?"
"We don't know their actual origin," Straker said. "But we do know that they have a moon colony, and that's where their ships come from. Those ships look a bit like B-movie flying saucers."
"Is that where you - " Mary broke off, as she glanced in her rear-view mirror. "Ed, I'm not sure, but we could have company."
Straker twisted in his seat, so that he could look back through the rear screen. "Do you have your binoculars on board, Mary?"
"In the glove compartment… Ed, it's a bloody armoured car! With tracks!"
He grabbed the binoculars, and a torch. Fumbling the binoculars out of their case, he looked at the following vehicle, and gave a sigh of relief. "It's OK. It's one of ours!"
"By 'ours'," Mary said dryly, "I suppose you don't mean the studio?"
"I sure don't… It would be very useful to make contact. Trouble is, if we simply stop they may go straight past, although they probably know everything about this automobile down to how much gas there is in the tank… Let's see if their Morse is as flaky as mine!"
* * *
Carlin thought. He could force the car ahead to stop by cutting across in front of it, of course, but that would have been unnecessarily dangerous. Perhaps he could draw alongside, and see who that passenger was… Or perhaps he should maintain station, and follow the car to its destination.
And then he saw a small light through the rear window. It was flashing, in what looked very much like Morse code.
The sequence repeated. It was Morse, a CQ. And it had Commander Ed Straker's ID.
Carlin whooped, and bounced up and down in his seat. He called up the autocom, set it to Morse, and gave a response on his headlights, with his own ID.
* * *
Straker gave a relieved sigh. "Great. It's Peter Carlin. Mary, see if you can find somewhere to pull off the road, with bushes we can hide in."
"Up ahead?" Mary pointed.
"That'll be great." Straker was working the torch again. "I'm telling him we're stopping, and he's to join us."
"Here we go," Mary replied. "Hold on to something…"
She threw the car into a sideways slide which took it off the road, and into the edge of a stand of bushes, stopping neatly a few feet from the road edge. The mobile pulled in alongside them, and its engine died. The driver leapt out and ran to the 4x4. Straker pushed open his door, and climbed out.
"Captain," he said. "Am I glad to see you!"
Beaming from ear to ear, Carlin grabbed his commanding officer's hand and shook it. "Thank god, Commander… Are you all right?"
"No. But it can wait. This is Mary Rutland, by the way… What's going on? Where's Colonel Freeman?"
By this time Mary had joined them, and was listening wide-eyed. Carlin said: "He was with me, sir. We were looking for you. We had a call from HQ, from Colonel Lake, which was cut off abruptly. Lake said that General Henderson had intervened, and wanted Commander Foster to 'hand over' Ambassador Pavlor. Colonel Freeman went back to HQ to deal with the matter, and I continued the search - what is it, sir?"
"Did you - did you say 'Ambassador' Pavlor?" Straker's voice was barely audible.
"I certainly did, Commander. He brought you and Colonel Freeman home. He wants a treaty with Earth."
After a few seconds, Straker got his voice back. "I see… And what the hell is Henderson's problem?"
"Insufficient information on that, sir."
"Then I guess we'd better go get some," Straker said, his voice hardening. He turned to Mary. "We'll leave your car here, and Captain Carlin can take us in. That OK?"
"It's fine. I'll just grab my bag."
She reached inside the 4x4 and withdrew the bag. Pointing her key at the vehicle, she stopped the engine and set the lock. "Ready."
Straker clambered up into the mobile's cabin, then put out a hand to help Mary in. Carlin followed them, closing the door. "Perhaps I should drive, sir?" he asked.
"Yes, Captain, you'd better handle it. I'd probably have us in a ditch in the first few yards. I'm a bit short of energy."
Carlin looked at him more closely, and his eyes widened. "So I see, sir. Sit down, please. Before we start, I have to get you to take some aspirin."
"The Ambassador's recommendation, sir. You may have been drugged. The aspirin is an antidote. And you need a blood test as soon as possible."
Obediently, Straker sat. Mary found the seatbelt and strapped him in, then took her own seat beside him. Carlin dug out the medical box, fished out a tube of pills, and dealt out four to Straker. He drew a paper cup of water from the mobile's dispenser and passed that over as well, and Straker swallowed the pills. "Thank you, Captain."
As Carlin fired up the mobile's engine, Mary hissed: "A treaty with Earth? What the hell's that all about??"
"That's the scary bit." Straker braced himself. "If you want to get off now, I'll have Peter take you home - "
"You bloody won't, 'Commander'," Mary snapped. "Are we talking little green men here? Blue-Book stuff?"
"Not so little. They're human-sized, their life-support tints their skin green, and we may be related… But yes, they're extraterrestrials. The moon they have a base on is Europa. It orbits Jupiter."
Mary drew a long shaky breath. She gazed ahead, out of the screen, but did not speak again for long moments. Straker watched her carefully.
At last she said, in a low voice: "I'm rather glad you didn't tell me, straight away… Yes I'm scared, of course I am. But if it means I'll finally get some answers, I'll stay and listen… Did - did Captain Carlin say 'Ambassador'?"
"Well, Peter?" Straker asked.
"Yes, sir," Carlin confirmed, over his shoulder. He started the engine. "Seems you and Colonel Freeman managed to get talks going. But there's more than one faction involved, and a fight started. You were injured, so they sent you and Colonel Freeman home."
"And what's happening now?" Straker wanted to know.
"Acting-Commander Foster and Colonel Freeman are trying to sort out General Henderson, who isn't at all happy with the situation."
"When was he ever," Straker muttered. "ETA, Peter?"
Carlin sent the mobile hurtling down the road at its top speed. "About ten minutes. Where would you like to arrive, sir? The hangar?"
"Sounds good to me… Peter, I'm wondering if we should try to contact Alec. Can you listen in to SHADO traffic?"
"Can do, sir."
Carlin punched a few buttons on the radio, without result. He frowned, and tried a different combination. "There seems to be a radio blackout, sir."
"Not good… All right, Peter, we'll keep quiet as well. Try the studio lines, but listen only."
"Will do." Carlin tried for a few moments, then shook his head. "Nothing, sir."
"Not a thing, sir."
Straker bit his lip. He still felt as though he was slogging through mental treacle, but it was becoming easier… "If Henderson has shut us down… Any reason why he might, Peter? You may speak freely in front of Mary."
"Yes, sir. You."
"Explain," Straker ordered, curtly.
"How much do you remember? About Plan Omega?"
Straker groped back through the mists; then abruptly, they cleared, and he drew in his breath sharply. "My lunar module. It was sabotaged."
"Damn right it was," Carlin told him, grimly. "Henderson did that - to see if we really would 'fire on one of our own'."
"I can just imagine," Straker muttered. "Who drew the short straw? Lew Waterman?"
"No, sir. It was Chrys Jones, Moonbase decided she was in a better position to engage LM5. Then she tried to resign, but Colonel Freeman wouldn't let her… We all thought you'd gone down with the LM."
"I thought I had… Sorry about this, Mary, I'll fill in the gaps later… So James L. effectively handed me to the aliens on a plate. Then what happened? How did Alec get himself taken?"
"He went out on the lunar surface with Captain Waterman and Lieutenant Carter, for the Eagle Project trials. A UFO came in and attacked. We lost contact with Commander Freeman… but the UFO got away."
"Damn fool. No, Peter, not you… I'll get the rest from Alec later." Straker took a deep breath. "So what does Henderson think? That I'm a traitor, or that Alec is?"
"Something like that, I think, sir. But I should tell you that the General is ill, he's been in hospital, heart problems. He shouldn't be up and about. His aide, Lackland, seems to be taking control."
"Right." Straker thought for a few moments, pleased to find that he was able to think strategy. "Peter, call HQ, ask to speak to Alec. I think you'd be expected to do that. Say you've found no sign of me, and that you're heading back to HQ."
"Right. Please stay out of reach of the pickup, sir." Carlin touched the call button. "Mobile Three to Control. Answer, please."
After a few moments, a voice that Straker recognised as that of Major Keith Ford answered. "SHADO Control to Mobile Three. Is that you, Peter?"
"Yes… Is Colonel Freeman available?"
"He's… in conference with General Henderson. I don't think I should interrupt them. Can I take a message?"
"Just tell him I can't report any good news, I'm afraid. I'm heading back to HQ."
"Yes, sir. Have you spoken to the forensics team?"
"No, I thought I'd better not appear too interested. Carlin out."
"Let's hope they buy that," Straker commented. "It does prove one thing - they're playing dumb but not deaf. OK, Captain. Go where you'd normally go, to the hangar. Drop Mary and me off, I'll tell you where. Assume that you're being watched every inch of the way. Expect to be taken captive when you arrive, and evade them if you can. Try to make contact with one of the Q groups, and head for Mission Control. Watch my office door… Do you know the - the Ambassador by sight?"
"Yes, sir. He's with John Ngana, last I heard."
"Great. Guard him with your life."
"You bet, sir… What will you be doing?"
"Mary and I will head for my office… and we'll try our best to put a spoke in Henderson's wheel. In the meantime, you'd better bring me up to date."
Destiny Part IV
The Works of Snowleopard
The Library Entrance