Country of first publication,
All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
My thanks to 'Harlington-Straker Studios' for the loan of their fight co-ordinator and technical adviser, DebbieJ; and of one of their prop weapons, from their supplier Moo
My thanks also to W. Shakespeare, Esq.,of Stratford-upon-Avon, England; and to Monsieur A. Dumas, of Paris, France.
Lieutenant Chrysanthea Jones leaned her chin on her hand and gazed down at Colonel Paul Foster, a slight smile on her full lips. She stroked his cheek with her finger. "Soon be time to go," she said, with soft regret.
"Oh, surely not. It's way too comfortable here."
"It is," she agreed. "But the plane won't wait for me."
"Well it should. Shall I tell the pilot to go have another coffee? Or three?"
"No you will not," she said, mock-scolding. "Now go and make breakfast while I have my shower."
"We could have another half hour - "
"No. We could not."
She pushed back the bedclothes, the grey silky fabric soft under her fingers, and came to her feet. Grabbing a towelling robe from the chair, she wrapped it around her tall figure. He pouted in disappointment.
"Go on, Paul! Coffee and croissants for two!"
"Oh, all right… Hey, did I say how much I like what you've done to your hair?"
"Only about five times." Chrys's laughing voice was cut off as she closed the bathroom door behind her.
"Oh, well. S'pose I'd better get up," Paul murmured. He climbed off the bed, picked up his own bathrobe, wrapped it around himself, and slid his feet into a pair of plush slippers. He padded down the hallway to the apartment's living area, and filled the percolator.
* * *
After a quick but satisfying breakfast, Paul collected his overnight case while Chrys made a final check of the contents of her travelbag. It looked to be a cool day; they would need their coats. And her head still felt a little chilly, after the severe haircutting, so she pulled on a close-fitting cap. She had requested the hairdresser to sculpt her hair close to the scalp, following the shape of her skull.
The hairdresser had been more than a little puzzled. "I know you've given the straighteners the push," he had said, "but this is a bit extreme, isn't it? Nice, though. You've got the head for it."
"Thanks… Thought I'd try something really different for a change."
She had not told him her real reason. A 'skull-cap' was going to be much easier to maintain, and, more importantly, to insert into a space-helmet. And it had impressed Paul no end.
She closed and locked the door. Her housekeeper would come along later, to do whatever tidying-up was necessary, though she had made sure the bedroom was fairly neat and the kitchen clean, with the dishwasher running to do the last 24-hours' worth of washing-up. Anneka would lock up when she had finished, and Chrys would drop her own keys off at the studio, into Miss Ealand's care.
Paul led the way down to the underground garage where his car was parked. Chrys followed, travelbag slung over her shoulder. At least, she reflected, he had stopped trying to 'be a gentleman' and carry things for her - though it had taken three falls and a submission to persuade him.
They spoke little on the trip to Harlington Airport. This was a small airfield for the use of private jets, mainly to fetch and carry some of the town's more 'important' visitors. Today, one of those private jets would ferry her to Farnborough in Hampshire, to begin her astronaut training. That would take six months, and would include several trips to Cape Canaveral for hops into space to the Manned Orbiting Laboratory. When - if - she graduated from there, she would be assigned to Moonbase, as an Interceptor pilot.
If she failed to graduate, it would be a desk job, either in SHADO or - if she was fortunate - at Moonbase. But she did not intend to fail.
When they arrived at the airfield, Foster was a little surprised to find Commander Straker waiting. He helped Chrys out of the car, made sure she had her travelbag, and the two went over to where Straker was waiting by their aircraft.
"What kept you, Foster?" he asked, as they approached.
"Making sure everything is set up, sir," Foster returned. He had long since got over the slight intimidation he felt in his boss's presence. Or so he told himself. "Are you coming with us?"
"No, alas. And I'm sorry, Miss Jones," he added, using 'informal mode' as they were in a public space. "Paul and I have to get back to the studios. Something's come up. So I'll just wish you a good trip, and a successful time, and you two can say your goodbyes."
"Thank you, sir." Jones shook the proffered hand. Straker turned and walked across the strip to where she could see the bronze car parked by the fence. She and Paul embraced, briefly but warmly, and he kissed her cheek.
"Take care," he whispered. "See you on the Moon."
"See you in the stars. Don't get off with too many ladies while I'm away."
Foster laughed, and she disentangled herself and climbed the short steps into the passenger cabin. He watched until the door closed, and the small jet's engines started up, then he turned and walked to his car. Straker's own engine was already running, and Foster did not keep him waiting. Within a minute or so, the lilac car followed the bronze out of the airfield gates, onto the road to Harlington-Straker Studios.
* * *
Inside the jet, Jones greeted the cabin steward with a smile. She slid her travelbag into a locker under one of the seats, lowered herself into the seat, and fastened her lap belt. Looking around, she noted that she was not the only passenger, though she did not recognise any of the others.
The jet's engines started up, and a few minutes later the aircraft began to taxi forward to the runway. The take-off was smooth and uneventful. She gazed out of the porthole at the ground dropping away beneath, remembering her first solo flight, in a jet much like this one.
She thought about Paul Foster.
Jones was under no illusions about the kind of man he was. She had gone into the relationship with her eyes open to the fact that he liked variety in his women, and had a rapid turnover of female friends. Accordingly, she had not expected things between them to last for more than a few weeks, though she fully intended to enjoy those weeks.
To her concealed astonishment, it had lasted seven months, so far.
In the early stages, Paul's eyes had indeed wandered a little; but that had lessened as time went on. He continued to notice other women, even to admire them; but he no longer gave them any real attention.
Would he wait for her? she wondered. Would he even visit? Would their relationship develop? She was beginning to hope so.
She took a deep breath and put the thoughts aside. Reaching down into her hand bag, she took out her book, and opened it to the marker, at the start of the chapter titled 'Orbital transfer'. She began to read.
* * *
The lilac car and the bronze found parking spaces near the studio entrance. Their engines wound down into silence. Foster emerged, and collected his overnight case from the rear seat. He closed and locked the vehicle, and turned to Straker. "Ready, sir."
"Good. Let's not keep Jackson waiting."
Jackson, Paul thought, a little alarmed. He was not due to see the psychiatrist again for another week. He wondered what had happened.
Straker led the way at a brisk pace. The pair entered the outer office, and greeted Miss Ealand. She pressed the 'admit' button, and the door to the inner office opened. "You may go in, gentlemen," she said.
"Thank you, Miss Ealand. Come on, Paul."
They entered the transit room, the office that served as the main lift down to this subterranean network. Straker opened the lid on the 'cigarette box' that connected to the voiceprint recognition net, and gave his name. Foster spoke to the device also. The voiceprint confirmed both their identities, and the room began to descend.
"Doctor Jackson tells me the two of you are making satisfactory progress, Paul."
Foster grimaced. The sessions with the psychiatrist had been instigated at Straker's insistence to find ways of preventing the aliens from imposing their compulsions on the colonel. Foster had given the scheme his whole-hearted support, and not just because he preferred it to the alternative. He found the knowledge that insubstantial alien fingers were reaching into his mind, his soul, truly horrifying.
In the course of those sessions, he had germinated an idea on what to do about it. His idea was sufficiently outlandish that it was unlikely to have been suggested by the aliens; but it was quite likely that Jackson would turn it down flat.
"Apparently so, sir. I can't say I'm enjoying it, though. The - well, 'exercises' - he gives me, are a bit strange, sometimes."
"Not surprising," Straker agreed. He recalled some of the sessions he himself had had with the doctor, to help with his claustrophobia. He had been directed to close his eyes and relax - fairly standard stuff - and imagine himself in a specific environment. Some of those were, again, fairly standard - walking along a beach, climbing a mountain, walking through a snowfield. In each case he was heading for an enclosure of some kind, a cave perhaps, or an igloo, which he was directed to enter. It had taken several sessions for him to be able to comply. He was then told to imagine he was not alone in the enclosure, but was given no suggestions as to who or what was in that place with him. In the first few sessions, they had been monsters. He had to work out how to avoid, defeat, or render them harmless. Mostly he had succeeded, eventually. His imagination had worked hard; so hard, in fact, that on 'waking up' after the ‘snowfield trip’, he had shivered violently for a few moments.
He wondered what Foster's own imagination had been coming up with; and recalled the 'hallucination' that the colonel had experienced in the sauna after a party. Jackson had requested that Foster write down as much as he could remember of it; and had added that to his research notes.
The transit room grounded. The door opened, and Straker motioned for Foster to lead the way.
Jackson was waiting for them. "Please sit, gentlemen," he said. "Now, I have brought this session forward, in view of the new lunar project. Commander, you have said that both the Moonbase expansion project, and ILFC presence on the moon and its own construction activity, is certain to attract alien attention."
"You think they'll have a go at me," Foster said, grimly.
"It's to be expected, I'm afraid," Straker admitted. "Well, we have to consider what we do about it. I'm sure Jackson here can help you a lot, but Henderson would insist that we take you off the project, of course."
"Too right… But there's another approach we could take. I warn you, you won't like it."
"Try us," Straker invited.
"Well, sir… You remember the alien 'mind virus' incident?”
“Only too well,” Straker agreed, more than a little grimly. This referred to something that had happened a few months ago. SHADO personnel had fallen under alien influence – a form of subliminal manipulation - which had persuaded them to try to execute him for collaboration, and to shut down SHADO itself, to leave the way clear for an alien invasion. Only Jackson’s quick thinking had rescued him and averted disaster. “What of it?”
“One of the better things that came out of that mess was that you suggested the aliens had given us their own encryption codes. I propose that we follow a similar course of action."
Jackson's brows creased in puzzlement; but Straker's eyes narrowed in understanding, and some horror. "Do you truly understand what you are suggesting, Paul?" he said, slowly.
"Yes, sir, I do. In particular, I know that you yourself would never make that suggestion - but if in a moment of insanity you did, I would break your neck. With respect, sir."
Jackson had caught up. "You would have to join the queue, Colonel… Commander, do you authorise this plan of action?"
"Not yet," Straker answered. "First I want something from you, doctor. A detailed description of how you would do this, with safeguards for all concerned. Before we go up to Moonbase, which may be in two days' time."
"Then I had better get on with it," Jackson said. "Please come back here this afternoon, I will have something for you… and if it is satisfactory, we will resume the session. If you will excuse me, gentlemen?"
* * *
Foster’s schedule for the day took him ‘upstairs’ for studio business, while Straker returned to his SHADO office. He found General Henderson waiting there, with his aide, Colonel Lackland. They were seated by the long conference table, Lackland's briefcase open on its surface. Someone had supplied them with coffee. As the door opened, the IAC boss looked up from the document he was studying, but he remained seated.
"Straker," he growled. "About time."
"Good to see you, too, Henderson," the commander replied. He sat down behind the desk. "And Colonel Lackland… I see they're looking after you. To what do I owe this unexpected pleasure?"
"This." Henderson nodded to his aide, and the colonel took a sheet of paper from his case and handed it across.
Straker glanced at it, and gave a nod. "The purchase of the Dalotek base," he said. "That was quick. For them."
"It's ours as of noon today," Henderson confirmed. "There are conditions attached, of course. The ILFC insisted."
"Naturally. Let me guess… we don't bother them and they won't bother us?"
"Not exactly," Henderson said. He steepled his fingers, looked over their tips at Straker. "They want us to defend them."
"Are you saying they know what we do?" Straker demanded, grimly.
"There are three of their people who do know the whole story. The rest know there's a hostile force around but think it originates here on Earth. Exactly how long we can keep that fiction going is anyone's guess."
"Not long, once they start pointing telescopes around," Straker said. "Tell me they don't have Utronic capability, please."
"They don't even know it exists."
"Well, that's something, I guess… Who are these three people?"
"Well, one is someone you know. I believe you and he were in school together - a Professor Victor Bergman."
"I sure do," Straker said, with a smile. "That's good… Who else?"
"Colonel John Koenig, who you may also know… and the current ILFC Commissioner, a woman named Doctor Sue Grant."
"Koenig sounds familiar," Straker agreed. He did not add that he had already spoken to his old friend Victor… "I think I will have to meet these people, talk to them about the problem. But first, I want to take a look at the Dalotek base for myself, see what we've got there."
"Of course." Henderson looked up from his papers, met Straker's sapphire gaze. "To other matters… Last time we spoke, I told you I wanted Foster out of SHADO. The man's a liability. I don't know why you insist on keeping him - "
"He's an excellent operative. He's proved that time and again."
"You've saved his butt time and again," Henderson growled. "Dammit, Straker, he's endangered this base, he's nearly killed you! He's a loose cannon! He disobeys your clear orders when it suits him! And that string of women who follow him around, they don't help his security rating one bit - "
That was all Straker said; but the warning note in his voice was clear. Henderson was reminded of the incident in his own office, when Foster had lost his temper over the Maddox affair, and Straker had silenced him with a look. Although Henderson would never admit it, when the commander was in this mode, even he himself felt the force of the man's personality. "I'm sorry," he said, more calmly. "I went a bit too far there."
"You did… but let's move on, shall we? Henderson, I agree with much of what you say - but Colonel Paul Foster is well worth keeping. That's what I believed when we first ran across him, and that's why I went to such lengths to bring him into SHADO. First off, he's a test pilot, happy to take risks, but in control the whole time. He's no stranger to fear but doesn't let it dominate him. He handles the knowledge of what we do here better than most, knowledge that would scare the wits out of most people, knowledge that has driven even one or two of our own people insane. That in itself is a rare and immensely valuable quality."
"I acknowledge all that," Henderson said, tiredly. "But it can all be negated by the aliens' ability to manipulate him. You told me you were trying to deal with that. 'Trying' just isn't good enough, Commander, or so you've told me enough times - "
"Quite right. It isn't… But Foster himself has made a suggestion about that. I think it's a good one. We are implementing it immediately, before the Dalotek project starts up. Forgive me, but I won't go into detail at this time."
"Hmmph." Henderson held Straker's gaze for a few seconds longer; then he looked down at his folder. "Very well. I'll leave that for the moment - but I will be returning to it. Now, back to the Dalotek project… You have put in a list of requisitions for some pretty 'specialised' equipment. And expensive," he added, with a quick glance up at the commander. "You appear to be thinking - "
"That we'll need them. Yes, we will. I'm only surprised it hasn't happened yet."
"Can't the ILFC handle this?"
"No. Officially, they don't have the material to justify an RTP, a 'request to purchase'. Any attempt to get that material, or to use the unofficial stuff they do have, would lead to some very awkward questions being asked in some very public places. We can't afford that. But at least those are hurdles we don't have to jump."
"I guess," Henderson agreed, reluctantly. "Well, that'll be all, for now. Would you excuse me? I have a meeting with the Committee."
He nodded to Lackland, who gathered his papers together and slid them into his case. The two men bade Straker farewell, and left. Straker watched them go, his blue eyes clouded with worry.
He pressed the intercom button, and Miss Ealand responded. "Miss Ealand, please call Victor Bergman for me. Ask him to join me here this afternoon sometime. Tell him I'd like a report from Mr Hutchinson."
"Straight away, sir."
* * *
Outside the studio, Henderson and Lackland climbed into the back of the IAC Rolls. Once they had secured their seatbelts - something Henderson was still not comfortable with - the chauffeur drove off.
"Well, Rick?" Henderson said.
"I think we should give this a chance to work."
"I wonder whether that's wise," Henderson murmured. "I said to Straker once that I considered 'the Group' to be an expensive and unworkable luxury. Despite all that's been happening, I'm still not entirely convinced otherwise. I prefer your suggestion, that ILFC can take things over, and spend their money not ours - "
"Moonbase Alpha isn't quite ready for that yet. It could be at least another year. But we could begin the 'transfer of power', and let things happen gradually."
"Starting with letting Foster fall on his butt?" Henderson suggested.
"Exactly. That should convince the Special Committee to give a bit less attention to the man's wild schemes." Lackland looked at his boss. "Speaking of which, will you authorise their 'special equipment'?"
"That one's down to the Committee," Henderson pointed out. "But I'll do my best to persuade them."
* * *
The psychiatrist greeted them and closed the door behind them. "Please be seated… Have I your permission to record this discussion?"
"You have my permission, certainly, doctor," Straker confirmed.
"Mine as well," Foster added.
"Good." Jackson pressed a button on his desk. "Recording now… I would like you both to read this document, which sets out my proposed course of action. Let me know if you have any comments."
He handed them each a typewritten sheet. Straker looked through the list of action points, and frowned a little. "Doctor, you've left quite a lot of this open-ended, or at least without details filled in."
"I do not think I need to know those details. And," Jackson added, "it is probably better that I do not."
With a nod, Straker laid down his paper. "Paul, I must satisfy myself that you understand completely what you are about to take on. You will not be in complete control of yourself. Certain actions will be carried out by those around you - of whom I will not be the only one - which will affect you without your knowledge and will often endanger your life."
"No doubt," Foster agreed. "Look, sir, I know you haven't mentioned this, but… Well, I know how much of a security risk I must be if nothing is done, and I can guess that General Henderson would have booted me out of SHADO by now. Permanently. Am I right, he wouldn't even have trusted the amnesia treatment?"
"He'd need some persuasion," Straker admitted. "From both Jackson and me."
"I believe you… But in any case, I've got a personal score to settle with the aliens - "
"You can drop that attitude right now, Colonel!" Straker snapped. "Revenge may sometimes be sweet, but it's always bloody dangerous!"
"Yes, sir. I phrased it badly, I'm afraid… I don't have anything against them personally. Hell, I don't even see them as 'persons', not even that one who tried to 'rescue' me on the moon that time. In fact I don't think it was a rescue. I think he was trying to 'smuggle' himself in."
"Quite likely," Straker agreed, a little more calmly. "Go on, Foster. How do you see the situation?"
"They use me as a puppet. I hate that. It creeps me out. I need to retake control of myself. I think I can best do that by some mental judo. Use their own weapons against them."
"In that case," Straker answered, slowly, "I don't think I have the right to forbid you in this matter."
"Thank you, sir."
Foster relaxed a little, easing back in his chair. He picked up the sheet of paper Jackson had passed across to him, and read it through carefully. Straker regarded him for a moment, then picked up his own copy of the document.
"Well, Paul, it looks OK to me… but you must have the final word."
"I must be completely nuts," Foster admitted, "but let's do it."
"As you wish," Jackson said. Foster had to hide a smile at the psychiatrist's resigned tone. "Then we shall resume the session, and afterwards I will make the necessary arrangements. I will call you back in tomorrow to implement the treatment."
He invited the commander to take a seat in the waiting area, then led his patient into the evaluation cubicle. He had developed this device as an 'isolator', to shield subjects totally from outside influence.
Foster sat down in the chair. Jackson applied EEG leads, nodded to Foster. "Please sit quietly as before, Colonel," he instructed. "I will leave the room shortly, and take my first set of readings with the door open. I will then close it, and you will be in total darkness and silence, but only for about fifteen seconds. Try to keep quite still during that period, when I will take my second readings. Any questions?"
"Then let us begin."
Jackson left the small room, and Foster tried to relax. He was glad he was not claustrophobic; this place was uncomfortable enough without that…
"First readings acquired. The door will now close; please remain seated."
The door closed. The darkness was heavy on Foster's eyes; the silence pressed on his ears like cotton wool. Silently, he counted elephants to himself, as he always did in these sessions; but there always seemed to be one more elephant than there should be.
This time, there were four extras. In psychedelic colours. They galloped around him, making him feel quite dizzy.
After half an eternity, the lights came on, brightening slowly rather than in a dazzling flash. The door opened. Jackson said: "The session is completed, Colonel. You may remove the sensors and come out."
Foster came out of the cubicle, and sat by the desk, next to the commander. Jackson was inspecting the printout of his brainwaves, and frowning slightly. That did not in itself bother Foster; but the check seemed to be taking rather longer than usual.
At last, Jackson glanced at Straker, then his eyes met Foster's. "As a matter of form, Colonel, I must ask you: do you give your consent to discussing these findings in the presence of Commander Straker?"
That was a standard question… but there was something in Jackson's manner. What the hell, he'd already made his decision… "I do give my consent," he answered.
"Then I can tell you both that there has been no change. I confess I am surprised by this. I would have expected that the aliens would now begin to focus their attention on you once more."
"Does that mean you won't be taking the action I proposed?"
"Not on this occasion," Jackson told him. “But I will want to check you daily in the run-up to the ‘Dalotek project.”
"Does this mean the aliens have lost interest in me?"
"We can but hope… Now, here is a list for you, of the exercises I wish you to carry out, daily. You will see that I have reduced the number of different ones, but increased their length. Please continue with them until our next scheduled treatment session, in four weeks' time."
"I'll do that," Foster said.
"Thank you. I will see you for the next check tomorrow, Colonel."
Foster thanked Jackson, and followed Straker out of the office. "Paul," Straker said, "go and have lunch. I'll see you at the mission briefing tomorrow."
"Very well, sir."
Foster headed for the mess-hall, and Straker returned to his own office. He had a full schedule that afternoon; but they would have to wait.
No sooner had he sat down behind his desk than his door opened, and Jackson walked in. "Commander," he greeted.
"Take a seat, Doug." Straker closed the door. "Well? Was there any change?"
"No, there wasn't," Jackson said. "But I do not expect that to continue. Accordingly, I have begun the process… And here is your copy of the recording of the agreement, and of Colonel Foster's consent. You will need it, once Colonel Freeman finds out about this."
"I sure will. I have a recording of my chat with Henderson for him, as well… Thank you, Doctor."
"Does Colonel Foster know this is his last chance?"
"I haven't told him." Straker's expression was grave. "But he's sharp enough to figure it's on the cards."
"Indeed… now, tomorrow I will check that the pattern is stable. You will then impose the recall trigger. I will ensure that I do not know what you use - it will be known only to you, and to Colonel Foster." Jackson hesitated a little. "Commander, I have to say that I do not like this, not at all."
"Neither do I, Doctor. But what choice do we have? And I will be beside him once - let's call it Plan Beta - once that starts, at all times."
"That's good," Jackson replied, "because I must warn you about a few things. When you use the trigger to restore Colonel Foster's memory of his proposal, do not expect him to recover immediately. The first stage will of course happen at once; but the process of reintegrating his psyche will take longer, maybe even days. It will be helped by a few cycles of natural sleep, of course. However, while it is continuing, he will probably have feelings of hostility and distrust towards those around him. Especially to you, Commander."
"Are you telling me I'll collect a punch on the nose?" Straker said, dryly.
"That is quite likely. Try not to court-martial him, please."
"I'll try to avoid that… But I think perhaps I should warn Lieutenant Jones."
"Perhaps you could leave that to me," Jackson suggested. "I will be attending her physical review next week."
"Very well, Doctor. Thank you."
* * *
The meeting with the funding committee had gone remarkably smoothly, Lackland thought, although both he and Henderson had had to use their diplomatic skills to the utmost. They did seem to have at least one ally, Duval, the French delegate, who met many of his colleagues' objections with some well-constructed refutation. It was almost, thought Lackland, as though the man had a decidedly personal stake in the matter. Recalling that the man had three adult children, the aide made a mental note to check the personnel list for Alpha.
And so, Moonbase Alpha would get its 'special equipment'; and the process of decommissioning SHADO, and transferring the financial load to the ILFC, could begin.
The chauffeur halted the Rolls at the door to the apartment block, and Lackland climbed out, a little wearily. He would much rather fall into bed; but he had another task to do tonight. He thanked the driver, walked to the entry canopy, and waited, until the Rolls had driven off.
Lackland did not have to wait long. A voice said: "Hello, Mr Rick'; and a slim figure materialised out of the darkness, moving silently towards him.
Recognising this as the woman's chosen 'password', he turned, and smiled. "Good evening. Won't you come in?"
Lackland punched the entry code into the keypad. The green light came on, there was a buzz from the lock mechanism, and the door slid open smoothly. The woman did not wait for invitation, but entered ahead of him. She also led the way to the lift, and again entered first.
"Eager, aren't you?" Lackland said, as he hit the button for his floor.
"I'm in a hurry."
"I got that impression. Do you at least have time for coffee?"
That was Diane all over, Lackland thought. No patience with socialising. "As you wish."
They did not talk further until they were safely inside his apartment and the doors were closed; then she came straight to the point. "I've told her to visit tomorrow, and to use a credible reason. She is to stay in town for a few days, even if Straker himself has to be elsewhere, as I believe you mentioned. She is to sound him out, about this man of theirs, Foster, but carefully, to find whether there has ever been any connection between him and Fletcher."
"You don't think that's likely?" Lackland observed.
She shrugged. "They are so very different. Surprisingly so… But, as you say, that could itself be good camouflage."
"True… And when will she report back to you?"
"I will choose the moment… Well, that's all, for now. I will be in touch again in a few days."
"Yes," Lackland answered. "You will."
She exited the apartment, and walked back down the corridor to the lift. Well, that was a whole load of nothing, she reflected; not that she had really tried to draw the man out.
Their first meeting had not been auspicious. It had been at Heathrow Airport on the outskirts of London, when she was coming home from the US. She had gone through the 'green channel', but had been picked up on a 'random' check and taken to one side for a brief interview with Security. Lackland had been present. After the interview had been concluded and she was released, he had taken her to one side and offered her a job!
Well, perhaps that was overstating it… What he wanted her to do was to investigate Paul Foster. She would not receive payment, not exactly, but he would ensure that she would be adequately funded and supported.
If it had not been for three things she would have told him, in no uncertain terms, where to stick his job… But she was, it had to be admitted, a little short of cash. Also, he seemed to be legitimate, witness his involvement with airport security. And finally, the assistance he could give her would help enormously with her own investigations. He had even told her where she could find her quarry.
She wondered if Paul would recognise her, after all these years.
* * *
Lackland heard the woman's footsteps die away as she walked to the lift. He shook his head, a little ruefully, not at all sure the General would approve of his methods.
Henderson had not explained exactly why he thought he should get Foster out of SHADO, and covertly, so that Straker would not suspect. Little chance of that, Lackland thought; the commander was one of the best intelligence officers either of them had ever met. Well, if the man did come to suspect what was going on, that was just too damn bad.
He went to the kitchen annexe, to prepare himself some coffee. He loaded the percolator with Kenya grade 3, filled it with cold water, and turned it on.
He did not hear the soundless approach, nor feel the needle in his neck. He collapsed to the floor, totally unconscious.
A figure knelt over him, turned him on his back, rolled up his sleeve. A second needle entered the vein in his elbow, and the plunger was pushed home. Fingertips touched the pulse in his neck, waited as it slowed to half normal pace. A small ball of flesh-coloured paste was placed on his forehead. It flattened out, spreading itself over the unconscious man's face, taking on its contours, darkening a little. Fingertips felt the edge as it congealed into a flexible rubbery texture; then they peeled off the mask that had formed. The figure placed the mask on his own face, and it adhered to his green-tinged features.
There were now two Lacklands in the room.
The figure dragged his captive to the apartment door. He went into the bedchamber, and returned with a large cabin trunk. With the economical movements of practice, he folded Lackland into a fairly compact bundle in the trunk, closed it, and locked it. The specimen would remain unconscious until revived or until it died of dehydration; and it would still be able to respire, through disguised ventilation grills in the lid of its casket.
He dragged the trunk out of the apartment, loaded it onto the waiting trolley, and took it down to the basement in the lift. It would be collected presently.
Satisfied, he returned to the apartment. Locking the door behind him, he sat on a stool, and mentally reviewed recent events, to consider his next move in more detail.
He, Gimen, had been sent here from the small world terrans called 'Europa' to salvage what he could from their ‘adjustment’ operation a few months ago. To say that the Devas had not been pleased with Kotte, Gimen's superior, when he had discovered what the man had been doing, was understating the case. Kotte's 'cover story', that the compound his agents had been induced to make was an indestructible bioagent capable of wiping out all life on this world, had been believed - and rejected. In vain, Kotte had protested that it was, essentially, a bluff designed to hold the terrans to ransom, to force them to hand over control of their world to the Spicor Federation, on the promise of an antidote. The Devas had dismissed that as too dangerous and had ordered Kotte to dump his reserves of the compound into Europa's primary, the gas giant called Jupiter. In addition, the Devas had ensured that all research records were also destroyed.
Kotte had managed to keep his true intentions secret. The Devas did not suspect that the compound was not a killer after all, or at least, not by intent. Although, there would be a sizeable fraction of the human population who would not be able to tolerate its effects; just as Spicor's people could not tolerate the effects of the terran environment.
Until this compound and its binary complement had been developed, that is.
The function of the compound had been to alter the terran environment, slowly but steadily, into a habitat more suitable for Gimen's people – or at least, that segment of it which was directly descended from the Arkadian Race. Since the process would take time, the Arkads, in turn, would need to be temporarily buffered by the complement so that their tolerance for terran conditions would be enhanced to last several years. Only when compound and complement met in an individual would the effect become permanent.
And then the Arkads could take over this colony world, as was their ancient right; while the rest of Spicor would dwindle to nothing.
Unfortunately, the project had already been interrupted by the terrans' decision to get rid of the compound, by dumping it into one of the deepest parts of their ocean. The trench they had chosen was so deep that it could not be reached by either terran or Spicor technology. It would remain submerged there, twelve-cubes of mets down, and slowly deteriorate into uselessness. Skimmers had been sent under cloak to prevent this, and to release the compound into the planet's atmosphere; but they had been intercepted by agents from that triple-damned gang of criminals that called itself SHADO.
And the terran group who had made the compound, under Gimen's direction, had been disbanded. Here, as on Europa, all the research notes had been destroyed; and it would take decades to redo the process. Gimen had managed to salvage something from the mess nevertheless. He had ensured that the terran in charge of the project had been retrieved and returned to Europa; while its associates had thought it had died accidentally.
And there was one other faint possibility. The female whom Lackland had selected to help with his investigations had a direct connection with the terran research leader - and it had even met the terran's parents and sibling. It had needed little encouragement to pursue that aspect.
It was clear from Kotte's own interaction with that sibling that it had no direct knowledge of the research, or was likely to understand it if it had. Nevertheless, it was possible that the research leader had left some items hidden, including perhaps some notes, though these would be both encrypted and disguised. Gimen knew how much any scientist hated to destroy his own work; and even these primitive beings appeared to feel much the same way.
And now a new threat had presented itself. The terrans were constructing a new base on their natural satellite, which they called 'the Moon' as though it were the only such satellite in existence. How arrogant… but the threat was real. From what the 'Europans' had deduced from various information sources, including this one in SHADO, one in the new base, and several in various associated bodies, the SHADO commander's intention was to use it as a place to build a craft to send to investigate Europa itself.
How, Gimen wondered, did the terran ‘commander’ imagine it was going to get anywhere near the monitor station, without being spotted and destroyed? Did it have its own cloak? Or did it intend to steal one from a skimmer?
Nevertheless, Kotte had given orders - endorsed by the Devas - that this new base be neutralised. He and Gimen had laid their plans accordingly.
* * *
The next day, Foster duly reported to Dr Jackson for his new treatment phase. Straker was already there, talking to the psychiatrist. He greeted Foster with what seemed to the colonel to be almost fatherly concern, and there was a tinge of worry in his eyes as he watched Jackson prepare Foster for the session.
This time in the isolator chamber, Foster was not aware of time passing. It seemed that only a second had passed since the door had closed and absolute darkness had fallen. Light hit his eyes, dazzling him. He stood up, feeling slightly giddy, and Jackson guided him outside carefully. Straker was waiting in one of the seats, thumbing through a report file. He looked up at the colonel, his expression guarded.
"How do you feel, Paul?" Jackson asked.
"A bit, shaky, doctor. It's passing off, though. Why was that so different?"
"I was trying the active scan. It can have rather unpredictable results sometimes… Your EEG is good; but I would like to do a quick memory check."
"Of course, go ahead."
Jackson took Foster through a list of basic questions, one or two of which were nonsense, which Foster quickly picked up on. Jackson nodded his satisfaction, and dismissed the two men.
They headed for Straker's office. Keith Ford called Straker over to the comms desk. "Message from Miss Ealand, sir. Angela Dixon wants a word, urgently and in person."
"I can imagine," Straker muttered, as Foster gave a light groan. Angela was the studio's casting director, a thoroughly professional individual who was about as soft and yielding as titanium alloy. Foster found her more than a little intimidating; but he had to admit that, when it came to handling the acting temperament, she was without equal. "Better go deal with it, I guess… You can come too, Paul. Give me some moral support."
"Of course, 'Mr Straker'," Foster smiled.
* * *
For a wonder, the meeting with Ms Dixon went quite smoothly, and quickly. It turned out that she had been checking out a new batch of applicants for a role in the studio's forthcoming movie, a sequel to the popular stories, provisionally entitled 'Musketeers Abroad'. She had been more than a little dissatisfied with their general attitudes, complaining that they seemed to take the roles too seriously, while, she insisted, the scriptwriters had clearly intended it as a comedy. Straker let Foster do most of the talking, while he sat back a little, deftly steering the discussion into more productive channels, with the lightest of touches.
At length, Angela seemed appeased, and departed. Foster pulled out his handkerchief and theatrically mopped his brow, while Straker looked on in some amusement. "Thanks for your assistance, sir," he said, with mild sarcasm.
"Oh, it was entirely my pleasure, Paul… Well, come on, no sitting around today! We have that meeting in 45 minutes. Let's go."
Foster followed Straker down the corridor and into the outer office. Miss Ealand was there, but she was not seated at her desk. She was chatting to a woman that Foster did not know, in a friendly manner.
She turned as she heard the two men enter. "Ah, Mr Straker. There is a Ms Knight here to see you - "
"There sure is," Straker smiled. He walked over and shook Ms Knight by the hand. "Marion! It's good to see you. To what do we owe this pleasure? I don't think I've seen you for quite a while!"
"Must be a good three years," she agreed. "But I appreciate you've been busy… Won't you introduce me to your friend?"
"Of course. Marion, this is Paul Foster, a studio colleague. Paul, meet Marion Knight, an old friend of the family."
"You haven't changed, Ed," Marion said, dryly. She shook hands with Foster. "Nice to meet you, Mr Foster."
Paul looked her over, taking care not to be too obvious. He saw a smartly-dressed woman about ten years or so older than the commander, greying dark hair, green-blue eyes, unobtrusive but effective make-up. She had a slight but definite accent, the same as the commander's, but a little stronger. The smile she had given Straker was as warm as his own expression. Surely not, Paul thought. Must be a relative of some kind.
"Can I offer you coffee?" Straker asked. He gestured to the door to the inner office.
"Well - "
"If it's private," Foster said quickly, "I can make myself scarce for a bit."
"Thanks, Paul… Can you give us, say, twenty minutes or so?" Straker added, with a querying glance at Marion, who nodded.
Miss Ealand pressed the button to open the door to the inner office. Straker gestured to Marion to go ahead, and followed her in. The door closed again.
At once, Foster turned to the secretary. "Who in the world - "
"I'm sure," she said forbiddingly, "that if Mr Straker wants you to know, he will tell you himself."
"I'm sure he will," Foster agreed, ruefully. "Oh, well, I'll just go down to the coffee bar for a bit, shall I?"
"Good idea." Miss Ealand returned her attention to her typing. Foster shrugged, and left.
* * *
There was already a tray of coffee and biscuits on Straker's desk. He had to smile. Miss Ealand deserved a raise, he thought.
"Please, Marion, sit down," Straker said, guiding her to a seat. "And tell me how I can help you."
Carefully, she eased herself into the chair. She glanced up, noted Straker's look of concern, and shook her head slightly. "It doesn't get any better, I'm afraid… The doctors aren't talkative, they won't say anything definite, but my own researches say about five years. Maximum."
"There must be something I can - "
"There isn't. You're very sweet, but I've looked into it thoroughly." She gave him a rather wan smile. "Don't upset yourself about it, Ed. I shall concentrate on quality rather than quantity, and try to go out with a bang… But I would like to start by sorting out a few formalities."
"I guess," Straker said, slowly. "Look, this could develop into a long session, and we'd need some privacy. How about we meet up at my place this evening? I'll show you my cooking. Can you eat fillet steak?"
"Sure can! But I think Miss Ealand said something about you being out of the country for a few days - "
"No problem, my flight doesn't leave until tomorrow morning." He pressed the intercom button. "Miss Ealand… Could you arrange a car for Marion please, in about 15 minutes, to take her to - "
"The inn called 'The Green Man', south of town," she supplied, as he looked a query at her.
Straker kept his face straight. "And also to collect her from there later, say about 6pm, and bring her to my place?"
"Of course, Mr Straker."
"Great, that's done… Shall I pour coffee?"
"Please do." Marion smiled again. "The doctors tell me I shouldn't, but I figured, I'd rather enjoy myself for four years than be miserable for six. And life without coffee? No way!"
"You'll get no argument from me on that… What about Daniel? What does he think about this?"
Marion shrugged. "I really have no idea. Dan and I have been drifting apart for some time, and about six months ago, we separated. Fairly amicably. I haven't told him about my problem."
"But you will be needing someone to look after you. I can help there - "
"Don't you dare," she cut in. "You're far too busy here. And in any case, John made adequate provision for me. When the time comes that I need a nursemaid and a care home, a place has been arranged."
That, thought Straker, was entirely typical of the man. Fore-sighted, and respectful of the future, not fearful of it. "So how can I help?" he said, again.
"Well, there's the problem of Robert."
"Exactly… After his - his death, when I was trying to sort out his affairs, something turned up. Oh, don't worry, Ed. He hasn't been carried off by little green men from Roswell or anything!"
"I'm relieved to hear it," Straker murmured, with a mock shiver.
"The difficulty is that he had a liaison with a woman, who is now claiming they were married, and therefore she has rights to his property."
"I begin to get the picture… Is there anyone else in the frame? Children, for example? Wouldn't I have heard if - "
"I'm not sure. There may be. I'd like to talk more about that later." Marion sipped at her coffee. "But enough of me, for now at least… D'you know, I don't think I've ever visited here before! What on earth are you doing in a place like this, Edward George? And with such an interesting collection of friends, too!"
"Sure. There's your old friend from the RAF, Alexander Freeman. There's that guy who was interested in radio, Keith Ford. There's a young lady named Nina Barry, who wanted to be an astronaut but failed the entrance because of health problems. And half a dozen others besides. All of them, and you yourself, were invalided out of the forces - and have ended up here, making motion pictures! Are you running a home for retired pilots or something?"
"Close," Straker smiled. Between them, he and Henderson had devised a workable 'cover story' for the studio and its personnel, and their own interaction. This had been gently refined over the years. "As you say, all those people you mention are highly qualified, but in areas so specialised that their skills don't translate well to what business wants. But those skills should not go to waste. We tend not to talk about it much, but the studio works very closely indeed with the IAC, which you may have heard of - "
"James Henderson's outfit? The International Astrophysical Commission? You do some work for him?" There was a slight edge of distaste in Marion's voice. She had never got on with the General.
"That's right. If he's got some special project going, he sends it our way."
"Anything to do with FOIA?" Marion queried, mischievously.
"I neither confirm nor deny," Straker said, evenly, "that our work here has any involvement in keeping secure government data out of reach of the Freedom of Information Act. Or even that such things ever happen."
"Sure," Marion said, with a grin. "And in the meantime, you make dreadful motion pictures. OK, Ed, I won't push - "
The intercom buzzed. Straker pressed the response button. "Yes, Miss Ealand?"
"Ms Knight's car is here, sir. I can put him on hold if you wish?"
He noted Marion's slight head-shake. "No, that's fine. We'll be right out. Thank you, Miss Ealand."
Marion came to her feet, declining his helping arm with a smile, and he gestured for her to lead the way to the outer office. Foster was there, waiting.
"I'll be with you shortly, Paul," Straker said to him. "I will just show Marion to the car - "
"No need, thank you. I'll be fine. You won't want to keep Mr Foster waiting longer."
"It would do him good… OK, then. I'll see you tonight."
"I'll look forward to it." Marion lifted her face to him, and he gave her a quick kiss on the proffered cheek. Her skin felt taut and dry. With a final smile, she exited, heading for the main foyer.
Straker looked at Foster, whose face was carefully expressionless. "Come on through, then," he said.
Once inside the inner office, and the door safely closed, Straker turned to the younger man, one eyebrow arched. "Problem?"
"No, sir. Of course not.”
"Of course not," Straker echoed. He lifted the lid of the cigarette box. "Straker."
"Voiceprint identification positive," said the disembodied voice. "Straker, E."
The room began to descend, unseen by outside observers, courtesy of the mirror-glass panes in the outer frame. "Well?" Straker said. "What's biting you, Foster?"
"I, I was, just wondering - "
"I see," the commander sighed. "Well, so I don't have to put up with the unedifying sight of you slowly dying of curiosity, I guess I'd better tell you that Marion Knight is my stepmother."
"Yes… She's been a friend of the family for many years. After Mother died, a good few years ago now, she helped us tremendously. I hoped Father would marry her, and he did, but only after I spent years bullying him about it… NOW what's the matter?"
Foster was obviously trying hard not to laugh, and failing. "Well, sir… I really am sorry… truly I am… It's just that… I've always found it hard to visualise you actually having a mother. Sir. Commander."
The room grounded with a slight jolt. Straker walked around behind Foster, staring at him, while the colonel stood rigidly to attention. "I see. Well, Foster, I've often been called a b#stard - "
"Yes, sir. I really do apologise - "
" - but never so politely."
"Sir?" Foster said, astonished.
"So we'll drop the subject, OK? Now pull yourself together, Colonel, and get a move on, please. We have a lunar mission briefing to attend."
"…Yes, sir. Thank you."
* * *
There was a tray of coffee and biscuits ready on the conference table in Straker's office. Colonel Freeman was already present, and was seated by the table, talking with Lieutenant Ellis. Foster took another seat beside them. The commander remained standing.
"We're just waiting for Mangakai… Ah, Tony. Please, come in."
The young Japanese bowed to the others, then took his own seat. Foster had often wondered about his given name, whether it was some kind of Nipponese in-joke. Certainly it was not the name he had been born with. Someone had told Foster that it roughly translated as 'cartoonist'; and Tony was indeed a draughtsman.
Freeman poured the coffee, and handed round full mugs, while Straker leafed through his notes. He looked around the group. "OK, let's start… Recorders are on. Now as you know, this meeting begins Plan Alpha, whose objective is to construct a new and larger Moonbase. We have acquired the old Dalotek installation, and I am proposing to use it as a starting point. It's reasonably close to us, in the north-east part of the Mare Imbrium, about 30 kilometres from Moonbase. Here's a map, with its location and ours marked."
"Quite close to Plato," Mangakai remarked. "Wonder why they didn't choose that as their location?"
"Two reasons. First, as you know, they liked having us close by, without even a crater wall in the way, in case they got into trouble - "
"Quite… Of course, it meant they could see our Interceptor launches. We couldn't prevent that, but we could ignore it. We just didn't offer any comment or explanation at all, nor answer any questions."
"I was always amazed they accepted that," Freeman said.
"So was I… And secondly, of course, they wanted to be inside the Mare, so they could scan this mascon." Straker pointed to a shaded area on the map.
"Excuse my ignorance," Mangakai said, "but what's a 'mascon'?"
"Short for 'mass concentration'," Gay explained. "They were detected by the Lunar Orbiters, which were sent up before the Apollo craft to look for suitable landing spots. They put large, localised kinks in the lunar gravity field, which make it very difficult to get satellites into anything like a stable orbit for more than a short time. They always occur in large circular basins like the Mare, which suggests that they are the remnants of huge asteroids colliding with the Moon. It's been suggested - by Clarke, I believe - that they may be rich in heavy elements like uranium and its relatives."
"Hence Dalotek's interest, no doubt," Foster commented. "The lunar surface layers have been worked out, so they were looking deeper."
"Exactly," Straker agreed. "In fact, it would be nice to have the opportunity to take a closer look at that ourselves… But let's concentrate on the job in hand, for now. Initial comments are invited… Yes, Alec?"
"Aren't the ILFC going to object to us building so close to their own set-up?"
"The new research station?" Straker frowned. "They already have. Henderson is having to smooth quite a few ruffled feathers. But that's his problem… All we have to do is stay out of Plato itself and not be a nuisance to them."
"Us annoy them?" Freeman muttered. "Hang on… Let me guess. It was Henderson who suggested they build there - without telling them they would be under our guns!"
"Exactly. Why else d'you think he would have spent money buying the Dalotek base?"
"Does he get his cut?" demanded Foster.
"In a way," Straker admitted. "Though it's more scientific than financial. He gets first bite at the research cherry. Some of that may come our way… but don't hold your breath. Now, let's move on. Other thoughts… Yes, Paul?"
Foster was wondering about the expression on Freeman's face. The colonel's eyes were hooded as he regarded the commander, but not with anger. Foster looked down at his notes, dragging his thoughts back on track. "The Dalotek base is very small, sir," he said. "It was only ever meant as a short-term, temporary structure to house up to four people for a few weeks. And it's very cramped even for four. There isn't even a separate sleeping area, as we have at Moonbase itself."
"That's quite true," Straker agreed. "However, it was built with provision for longer-term use, or at least for repeated visits. So the life-support system is quite robust, and there is an underground facility. At the very least, we can use it as a support base for construction crews nearby. With Moonbase, we had to wait until one of the domes was up and running before we could come out of the 'tents'."
Straker was referring to small pressurised capsules that were inflated and anchored to the lunar surface, that could be used as temporary living quarters, each for up to six personnel. Freeman remembered them only too well; he had spent a fortnight in one while the techs struggled to make a Moonbase dome habitable.
"What about the geoscanner itself?" Mangakai asked. "I suppose Dalotek took that with them when they left?"
"No, they didn't," Freeman put in. "It was assembled on the moon from components brought up from Earth, and it would have been a lot of work and cost to dismantle it and ship it downstairs. Instead, they took just the components that were commercially sensitive, and left things like the frame and power supply."
"That's right," Straker confirmed. "Tony, one of your tasks will be to look over that gear and determine how much of it is useful to us. We've bought it, so we can do what we like with it."
"Commander, this base will need its own - spaceport, I suppose we should call it," Gay Ellis said. "I'm suggesting that should be one of the primary tasks, to take some of the transport load off us, and free up our own transit gear for normal use."
"Agreed, and noted," Straker said. "You have another worry, Lieutenant?"
"Yes, sir. The aliens. When they notice our activity, they'll come running."
"They didn't intervene at all to prevent us building Moonbase," Mangakai commented. "I've often wondered about that."
"Perhaps they were waiting for us to finish building it - so they could come in and take it over," Foster said, a little grimly.
Straker thought: thank you, Paul, well done, saves me from having to say that myself… Aloud, he went on: "That's the other advantage of this place - its underground area, which should give us a protected and concealed workspace. That's quite large, it was made to house the subsurface components of the geoscanner. Tony, how big would that be?"
"Well, sir," Mangakai replied, "the geoscanner capabilities include sensing with sonics and microwaves through the rock, and short-range electrical measurements. They were working on ways to extend that range, but they didn't meet with much success. The subsurface scan was synced with the above-surface radar. That was a lot of kit, and the space they excavated for it was easily the size of an Interceptor hangar."
"How much of that kit is still there?" Straker wanted to know.
"Most of it, sir. All Dalotek took away was their proprietary scanning heads. The framework is still in place, but it would take up a lot less room when dismantled."
"Good." Straker made a few notes on his pad. "OK. We will begin by doing a detailed investigation of the existing structure and facilities, both above and below ground. Paul, you will be in overall charge. Check life support with a view to extending its capacity. Tony, organise the engineering group. Examine the feasibility of extending the subsurface zone without bring the roof down. Gay and Mark, organise defences to cover - well, let's call it 'M2' as a 'working title'. Don't move ground defences over there as that would draw attention, but program them to concentrate on M2."
"Yes, sir," Gay acknowledged. "I've already directed that we fit 'cannons' to two of the Moonmobiles, and I will supply the work team with side-arms. But it would help if we could put in another ground station, nearby."
"What's your service schedule? How close are we to doing a major overhaul on the existing units?"
"About two weeks," Gay Ellis told him. "We could bring that forward a few days without it looking unusual. We could 'find' a fault serious enough to warrant shipping a lot of replacement components up - enough with our existing stuff to build another ground station quite quickly. I can give you a time-and-costs breakdown by the end of today, sir." At least, she reflected, he's stopped trying to tell me that I work myself too hard…
"Great, do that… OK, I want to send up an initial working party to look the place over. That will be myself, Paul, and Tony. Gay, you will also be returning to Moonbase, so we will be making two LM trips. Paul, you're with me; Tony, go with Gay. Alec, how soon can you schedule those trips? You mentioned an open slot tomorrow morning?"
Freeman consulted his own papers. "We can do one launch tomorrow - suggest that should be Ed and Paul - and the second, two days later. I'll mark it up on the calendar, with launch times."
"Agreed. Thanks." Straker drank from his coffee, set down the empty mug. "OK, people, let's get to it."
Foster and Mangakai left the office, followed by Ellis. Freeman gathered his papers, and looked up at his friend. "Well?"
"You're going to ask me how big a bite of the cherry I got us."
"You bet I am."
"Well," Straker said, "one thing Moonbase Alpha is going to need, is transport. Probably with interplanetary capability. And speeds of SOL much greater than 1. Our Interceptors can manage just over SOL 1, but I want a bit more. And I want surveillance and stealth capability as well."
"Exactly. They will supply our need - or part of it, anyway - but they won't know what we're up to."
"I see." Freeman's eyes narrowed. "So you're serious about this manned trip to Jupiter, then?"
"That's what I'm aiming at," Straker admitted. "But not a manned trip, not immediately. The aliens would gobble it down for breakfast and spit out the bones… What I want to do first is send out a stealthed, unmanned probe, a development of Voyager Three perhaps."
Freeman gave a quiet whistle. After a few moments he said: "Look, Ed, don't get me wrong… but are you happy with putting Paul on this project?"
"With his known susceptibility to alien attention?" Straker replied. He lowered one hip onto the edge of the long table, and regarded Freeman steadily. "As it happens, Foster, Jackson, and I have been discussing a possible strategy, designed to give the aliens a taste of their own medicine. Paul gave his consent to the strategy, after we'd explained the full implications to him… which included taking amnesia hypnosis to forget what we'd discussed."
With an oath, Freeman shot to his feet. "You cold-blooded b#stard! Are you seriously suggesting you use Paul as a channel for disinformation - "
"No. I wasn't the one who suggested it. Paul came up with the idea himself. I did my level best to talk him out of it, but he wouldn't budge."
"I don't know whether to believe you or not," Freeman muttered. "For now, I'll give you the benefit of the doubt. I could ask Jackson, I suppose he must be in on this plot, but - "
"He is. And no, I've not ordered him not to discuss it with you." Straker put a hand in his pocket, and took out a small cassette, which he handed to Freeman. "This is a recording of the conversation we had. When you've listened to it and checked it, destroy it securely."
"I'll play it through now," Freeman said. "And then I'll check it for any editing."
Freeman made sure the door was secure, then inserted the cassette into the player. He pressed buttons, and voices sounded from the speaker. He could hear Straker, Foster, and Jackson.
The tape ended, and Straker handed him a second cassette. "This was recorded at the IAC."
The recording included the voices of Straker and Henderson, and a third but less familiar voice. Freeman paused the playback. "Who's that?"
"Colonel Rick Lackland."
Freeman resumed the playback, without comment. As he listened, his expression grew grimmer. At length he shut the tape off, and looked across at Straker. "I owe you an apology," he said, quietly.
"I can't believe that even James L. Henderson would do something like that!"
"Oh no?" Straker retorted. "Remember his pal Brad Forrest? And what they did to my marriage?"
"I thought you'd persuaded him of the error of his ways!"
"This is different," Straker pointed out. "At least he and I agree on that much… though we're poles apart on what to do about it."
"Lackland's idea wasn't much help, was it?" Freeman said. "Sounded like he hadn't thought it through."
"He hasn't. But Henderson knows as well as I do that the amnesia drug isn't a viable option here. Fine, yes, you can use it to wipe someone's memories over a short time span, a few days say, weeks possibly - but you can't simply erase the memories of years. That would do untold damage. You would have to 'program in' a set of replacement memories, carefully constructed, which takes time. And even then, there would be a certain amount of damage, both to the brain tissue and to the mind itself."
" 'Carefully constructed'," Freeman said, a touch grimly. "How much d'you want to bet Jackson already has a 'carefully constructed' set of replacement memories for each of us?"
"Actually, he hasn't," Straker answered. As Freeman started to speak, he added: "He only thinks he has… Oh, don't worry, I got rid of them, erased them from his computer, and replaced them with some constructions of my own. I haven't been playing 'mind games' with him."
"Not that sort, anyway," Freeman murmured, dryly. "OK, I get you. Doesn't leave us with many options, I admit. But for Paul to suggest - "
"You forget. He's a test pilot, through and through. He has the ability to put both his equipment and himself on the line, completely, no matter what the possible cost. I just hope that mindset won't kill him some day."
"Me too." Freeman hesitated a little, then said: "Ed, I've often wondered, about the way the aliens focussed on Paul, sent him to kill you. If they needed a close associate, why not choose me, in all the time that we've worked together? For that matter, why not go for you, direct?"
"They did, remember? The 'mindbender' crystal."
"But that was indirect," Freeman pointed out. "Some sort of radiation from that crystal affected your brain. They didn't seem to need anything like that with Paul. And they've never tried anything at all with me - as far as I know," he added, suddenly looking worried.
"No, they haven't. Jackson would have said," Straker reassured him, to Freeman's relief. "As to why they haven't, I guess it's because you and I don't have the right kind of minds for them."
"What about Jackson's own mind?"
Straker hid a smile. He was well aware of Freeman's dislike of the man; but he recognised that Freeman kept that dislike under control and did not let it put him off working with the psychiatrist. Well, not much, anyway. "The old, old question," he answered. "Who watches the watchers… He watches you and me, I watch you and him, and you watch both of us."
"Hmm." A sudden thought struck Freeman. "Ed, you don't suppose that the aliens 'got at' Paul long before he met us, do you? And they set him up for that 'takeover'?"
"If so," Straker said, consideringly, "it was a very long-winded way of doing things. I've often thought that the aliens must be very patient beings, when it suits them. But they had several opportunities to 'activate' Paul, at times and in places where he could have done a lot of damage, and they didn't. Also, according to Doug Jackson, Paul's EEG was quite normal before the 'takeover' - though he admits he could have missed something, given that we know so little about the aliens, and about the human mind, for that matter."
"Mmm," Freeman murmured, not entirely convinced. "Let's hope that's just him being professionally cautious."
"So far, it seems to be."
Freeman checked his coffee cup, which was empty, picked up his document folder, and slid the cassettes into it. "Well, I've got things to do, as they say… Don't worry, Ed. We'll get him through this."
"Thanks, Alec," Straker said.
Freeman left, to organise things for their LM flight. Straker leaned back in his seat, unwrapping a cigar, thinking about his earlier chat with his stepmother.
Robert Fletcher. Now there was a name from the past.
Unable to have children herself, Marion had adopted Robert as a young child, when her first husband - a man called Grant Tyler - and both of Straker's parents, John Charles and Kara, were still alive. Straker was really too young to understand fully what was happening, though he was aware that Robert's own parents had parted, and his mother had gone away. It was only much later, after Straker's own mother had died - quite suddenly, of pernicious anaemia - that he had put it all together. The Fletchers had divorced; Caroline Fletcher had left Robert in the custody of his father Glenn, remarried, and disappeared into the crowd. Then, within a matter of months it seemed, Fletcher senior had also become ill, and had died. The Tylers had been close friends to the Fletchers, and they had agreed to adopt Robert, since his father had cut off all contact with his ex-wife and did not wish that contact re-established. Robert himself had been quite happy with the arrangement. He had known 'Aunty Marion' from babyhood, and often seemed actively to prefer her company to his younger and more frivolous mother. He quickly settled into his new life, and seemed happy.
Until, that is, everything was turned upside down once more. Grant Tyler had himself died, following a short illness; and Straker started to work on his own father, persuading him to marry the woman Straker also thought of as 'Aunty Marion'. The process only took him about five years.
And now Marion, who had reverted to her maiden name of Knight, was the only person of that small group who was still around - if you discounted Mrs Caroline Fletcher, or whatever her married name was now.
Straker's thoughts went back to Robert himself. He was some eight years Straker's junior, which put him nearly in the same age bracket as Paul Foster, though a few years older. But the two could not have been much less alike as personalities. Foster had energy and drive, and arrogance - or, more accurately Straker supposed, indifference to danger, which he mostly kept harnessed enough to make him a good test pilot. He had not lost those traits when he joined SHADO, as the 'space junk' affair showed. He had evaded and blatantly disregarded orders, taking an LM to find out why Steve Maddox's craft had been lost. This attempt had been successful, despite Henderson's scepticism. Foster had earned a severe tongue-lashing from Straker, but the commander had stopped short of placing an official reprimand on the colonel's SHADO record. Partly, this was because Straker was more angry at the General's intransigence than he was with Foster's insubordination, though he understood both points of view; and partly because there had been a few occasions in his career when Straker had acted in a very similar way to the younger man.
At the other extreme, Straker's 'step-adopted-brother' (now there was a complicated relationship!) was a quiet, thoughtful man whose responses to situations were measured but not slow. He was not a risk-taker like Foster, but he was certainly no coward. There had been one or two occasions when Robert had appeared to have acted unwisely, but he had stood his ground, and beaten off a number of 'assaults'.
One of these had been a charge of drug smuggling, serious enough that it would have put him behind bars for a very long time, and incidentally would have lost him his high-security job as a Government biochemist. But Robert Fletcher had not allowed himself to be fazed. He had engaged a lawyer to examine the case very closely indeed; and the case against him fell apart.
Straker had found that whole episode very curious, even back then. He talked with Robert about it after the dust had settled. Or rather, he had tried to; outside the court, Robert had been singularly uncommunicative about the whole thing. Straker thought he could understand why, given the nature of Robert's job; so he had let the matter lie. But now, perhaps, it would bear re-examining. He added the thought to his growing mental 'action list'.
His thoughts moved on, to his own father. When John Charles had eventually succumbed to his son's persuasion and married Marion Tyler, Robert had technically become a member of the family. He and Ed had got on tolerably well, though perhaps that was because their careers had meant that they did not spend a lot of time in each other's company. When their paths did cross, however, Ed found the younger man's quiet enthusiasm for life rather stimulating. They had shared interests, in a way, in general if not in the specifics. Where Ed had been fascinated by space, its science and technology, Robert's interests were oriented more towards biology. Their interests crossed in the nascent field of astrobiology, which considered the questions of the origins and development of life in the universe including Earth. It gave rise to more than a few late-night and enthusiastic - even heated - discussions about 'bug-eyed' monsters and the like. When Ed had left the US to act as aide to Lt. Gen. Henderson, the boys lost that contact. Occasionally, Ed still missed those discussions.
Nevertheless, he had kept an interest in the younger man's progress, and had followed his career at a distance - until he had been killed in a car crash, in 1975. Ed had gone home at once to comfort Marion; but he found her to be more angry than grieving, and she had declined to explain why. It did seem that Robert had been acting very oddly in some fashion - probably, Ed had thought, something to do with one of his long parade of female friends. In some ways, Paul Foster did indeed remind him of Robert. In particular, like Foster, Robert had a way of choosing his lady friends unwisely.
It was clearly not the time to enquire further. He had accompanied Marion to Robert's funeral, made sure she had the company of friends, and then allowed her to send him back to his work.
Now Marion herself had confirmed his suspicions. There was indeed a girl, and there was trouble associated with her. No doubt he would hear more about that tonight.
Marion had moved to Britain after the death of Straker senior, and had become a British citizen like Ed himself. She had been a welcome guest at his wedding, but her health was already showing signs of deterioration. She had moved to Jersey, in the Channel Islands, for its more friendly climate, and had certainly felt the benefit. And her declining health had not robbed her of her taste for adventure. She spent a large part of her retirement travelling the world, hopping from place to place, or spending a few weeks at locations that she found especially pleasant. Accordingly, although she kept in touch, Straker had not received actual visits from her more than a handful of times since he had been ‘invalided out of the USAF’.
But it was not entirely true, Straker thought grimly, that he and Marion had not seen each other for three years, though he appreciated her not drawing attention to the fact. There had been a more recent occasion. He had decided to go and visit Marion in person, in St Helier, to bring her the news of Johnny's death. She was horrified, but compassionate. She noted that Straker had himself assumed the blame for his son's death, but instead of trying to persuade him otherwise, she did her best to help him come to terms with the situation. She even offered to talk to Mary, but Straker declined. It was not the time.
Perhaps it would never be the time.
Straker took a deep breath. One thing Marion had scolded him about, though gently, was to avoid the temptation to self-pity. She was quite right; and he turned his thoughts back into more constructive channels.
Such as what to offer Marion for dinner. He had some fillet steak in the freezer, and there were fresh potatoes, carrots, and Savoy cabbage in the cool cabinet. He even had a small, unopened bottle of red wine to make a sauce. All he needed was some mushrooms; and he could collect those on the way home.
The door buzzer sounded. He pressed the button to open it, and one of the staff came in and handed him a letter. It carried the logo of the IAC.
He thanked her, and used the silver-handled paper knife to slit the letter open. It contained a number of typewritten sheets stapled together. He recognised them as being his own requisition list, with comments. He leafed through them. For a wonder, the IAC had agreed to most of them, with only one or two minor exceptions. Well, he could live with those… The final paragraph said, essentially: 'This had better be good, Commander, or you're out on your ear'.
The intercom beeped, and he lifted the handset. "Straker."
"Your visitor has arrived, sir," Miss Ealand's voice said. "Prof. Bergman."
"Thanks. I'll be right up."
Straker pushed the letter into his document case, hurried to the transit room and waited while it carried him to the upper levels. There was the faintest of jolts as it came to a halt against its docking clamps. He pressed a button on the desk, and the red light over the door changed to green.
A few moments later, the door opened, and Victor Bergman walked in. Straker rose and walked around the desk to meet him, smiling as they shook hands.
"Hello, Ed," Bergman said. "How are you these days?"
"Busy like you wouldn't believe… And how's the world treating you?"
"Well enough," Bergman smiled.
Straker looked his friend over. Bergman was almost exactly Straker's own age, but he looked older. His thinning hair didn't help, and he'd grown a set of 'mutton- chop' sideburns that gave him an almost monkey-like appearance. He looked like the archetypical 'absent-minded professor', but in fact had a sharp and devious mind. "Take a seat," Straker said, and Bergman sank gratefully into one of the easy-chairs. "Can I get you coffee?"
Miss Ealand had anticipated that request, and even as Straker moved to make the call, the door opened once more, and she came in bearing a tray, which she set down on the desk. "Thank you," Straker said to her. "Oh - and no calls for twenty minutes, please."
"Of course, sir."
She went out. The door slid closed behind her, and Straker switched the Security sign back to red. He poured the coffee, handing Bergman a cup. "We're secure, Victor… What have you got for me?"
"Construction of the Plato Base is slightly behind schedule," Bergman told Straker. "But Mr Hutchinson sends his regards, and asks me to advise you that his facilities are nearly ready for you. He's waiting for your go-ahead for the final stage. Here is his report," he added, pulling a slim folder out of his case and passing it across.
"That's good," Straker said. He was trying to hide a smile. Even at college where they had met, Bergman had always enjoyed cryptic crossword clues, but this one incorporated a truly dreadful pun. 'Hutchinson'… Really. It didn't help that Victor insisted on referring to himself as 'Starsky', with the excuse that it was what he described as an 'extra layer of camouflage'.
That TV 'cop show' had a lot to answer for, Straker mused.
He took a few minutes to read it through. Bergman did not interrupt, but gazed thoughtfully out of the window, taking occasional sips from his coffee.
At last, Straker closed the folder and passed it to Bradley. "Victor," he said, "you mentioned that 'Hutchinson' needs a final clearance. What's the problem?" As if I didn't know, he added silently to himself.
"Your 'special shipments'. Our mutual friend, James, has raised a few objections." Bergman met Straker's blue gaze. "Ed, I can understand his position, partly at least. It's not just the money. With stuff like that, he doesn't like letting it out of his control. Not even to you. Doesn't he trust you with it?"
"Not as far as he could throw me. With one hand. Into a gale," Straker said, ruefully, and Bergman chuckled. "But, amazingly, he seems to have seen sense; though of course he'll probably want the stuff back afterwards. Take a look."
Straker handed Bergman the letter. The scientist read it through, sipping at his coffee. He laid it down, and looked up at Straker. "Call me paranoid, but this reads like he's setting you up for a fall."
"Wouldn't surprise me… but we'll cross that bridge when we come to it. For now, you'd better talk to our pal Hutchinson, make sure he can handle it."
"I'll do that." Bergman took a last mouthful of coffee, and put down his empty mug.
"Henderson has officially advised me," Straker continued, "that your ILFC boss, Dr Sue Grant, and another of our mutual acquaintances, Colonel Koenig, are the only others - besides yourself - who know what's really going on. I've told James that I want to meet with the three of you."
"I thought you might," Bergman agreed, dryly. "Shall I set up a meeting? When are you free?"
"My schedule's a bit tight," Straker said. "I hope to be on the Moon in a couple of days."
"Actually, that's useful. Dr Grant and the colonel are already up there. I could join them, in about three days."
"Great. That's what we'll do, then," Straker said. "If it goes well, we should be able to tell your pal Hutchinson he can proceed."
* * *
The weather report for their flight was good, Foster noted, with some relief. While they could launch in anything up to what Straker called 'light snow' but Foster regarded as a gale-force blizzard, it was always better to avoid rough conditions. He drove down to the spaceport to check with the chief that all was ready for the trip, and passed flight confirmation back to the commander.
That left him with some hours to kill. By rights, he should at least take a nap sometime this evening, and take a last look at his notes on the Dalotek base. Straker would no doubt quiz him on it during the flight.
He drove back to his apartment, thinking he would much rather be spending the evening doing dinner and a show with Chrys. He was missing her already, more even than he had felt about a woman since Tina. Perhaps it was because he could relax in Chrys' presence much more, since he did not have to worry about breaking SHADO security.
But Chrys would not be within reach for six months, barring occasional weekends off; and already he was feeling lonely. It didn't help that thoughts of Dalotek brought back to mind the lovely geologist, Jane Carson, with whom he had had not one, but - courtesy of the amnesia drug - two short but enjoyable flings.
They were too short. The first was cut off by the aliens; and the second, he had to admit, was his own fault. He had felt slightly amused at the fact that it was 'the second time around', but she had mistaken his amusement, thought he was laughing at her, and stormed out.
His cheek still throbbed occasionally from the memory of the slap she had given him.
Somehow, all his recent liaisons had ended badly; and the aliens always seemed to be involved, directly or indirectly. Either - as with Jane, and Tina - the girl was normal and innocent, but his having to deal with the alien presence got in the way of the relationship; or - as in the case of Sarah Bosanquet, and more recently Linda Simmons - the aliens had taken direct control, and used the girl against SHADO, and against him.
Jackson had coined a word to describe these victims of alien takeover; he had called them 'zoms', short for 'zombies'. The abbreviation was only a slight improvement.
Foster still occasionally woke in the night, sweating from the memory of those terrible few moments in SHADO Control, when the 'zom' who had once been Linda Simmons had demanded that SHADO be surrendered, or she would destroy it. Straker had thrown everything he had into one of the most audacious purchases of time that Foster had ever witnessed. It was at that point that everything had backed up on him, all the problems of recent years, the 'near-death' occasions. He should have been used to it - after all, being even a conventional test pilot was an inherently dangerous profession, with a high attrition rate - but the 'added extras' at SHADO had given the job a much darker dimension.
Thoroughly fed up, he had gone to see Straker, and demanded to resign. The commander had been less than sympathetic, and had treated him like a child in a tantrum, refusing to consider his resignation until he had given the matter some cool thought. Feeling anything but cool, he had marched out, and defiantly introduced himself to Lieutenant Chrysanthea Jones… who had helped him take that 'cool thought'. And so, he had stayed at SHADO… and he had stayed with Chrys.
He parked the lilac car in its underground space, and nodded to the janitor, who was attending to one of the overhead lights nearby. The place was half empty, he noted, although it was around 'going-home' time for many of the tenants. True, about half of those tenants worked for the studios, as indeed did a lot of its staff; and a few of those had functions as 'doubled' as Foster himself. The janitor was a prime example of this. Not only was he in charge of cleaning and general maintenance, he was also with SHADO Security.
Foster made his way to the centre of the parking floor and took the lift to his apartment. On the way, he encountered a group of girls from his floor, and gave them a smile and a few words. They were dressed for an evening's entertainment; he hoped they would have a good time.
Closing the door of his apartment behind him, locking out the world, he leaned against it, eyes closed. After a few moments, he pushed himself upright once more, and walked into the living area.
A box of groceries sat on the kitchen worktop, apparently delivered by the housekeeper who serviced the apartments on this floor. Opening the fridge door, he saw a second, similar box containing items that had to be kept cold. Foster spent a few moments putting things into cupboard places, and wondering what to prepare himself for supper. Something light, he thought. And he should go easy on the garlic. Commander Straker would not take kindly to him polluting the air in the LM.
* * *
As Foster finished his meal, the door chime sounded. He put down his fork, turned down the sound on the TV, and went to investigate. The entry monitor showed two girls, who he thought he recognised from the group he had encountered earlier.
He smiled, and opened the door. "Hi! What can I do for you?"
"Don't worry, it's not a dripping tap," the redhead said, with a smile. "It's just - Would you be around for the next few days? I've been called out of town at the last minute, but I'm expecting a postal delivery, and I don't want to miss it."
"No, I'm very sorry," Foster said, with genuine regret. He was enjoying looking at their outfits. Not as abbreviated as the one Linda had worn, or Anne Stone, but nicely figure-hugging. "I have to leave myself, tomorrow, and I'll be away for a few days. Try Ken, over the way."
"Oh. Oh well, thanks anyway. Sorry to bother you."
"Have a good trip," the brunette called back over her shoulder, as they walked off.
Foster closed the door, wondering at himself. Usually he would have invited them in for a drink, on the basis that - he suspected - that had been what they were angling for. But tonight, although he had definitely found them attractive, he was, somehow, just not tempted.
Perhaps the commander had got it right. He was getting older.
* * *
Straker went back to his house a couple of hours after Bergman's departure, his briefcase full of the papers and notes he would need for the 'M2' project. He drove up to the garage, but stopped on the gravel outside, for his usual security check. He activated the link. The digital lock reported that both the house and garage were currently empty, and that there had only been three actions since midnight. One was his own, when he had left for work this morning; and the other two carried the ID of his housekeeper, June Baines.
Satisfied, he used the car's remote to open the garage door, and parked inside. The door closed behind him. The whine of the car engine wound down into silence as he shut it off. He collected his case from the passenger seat, raised the gullwing door, and climbed out.
The garage was connected to the house by a short passageway that was covered and enclosed in transparent bullet-proof plastic. It led to an alcove by the back door, which had its own digital lock. He checked; this one was also reporting green. He punched in the entry code, and the door slid noiselessly aside. He walked in.
Checking his watch, he saw that he had perhaps thirty minutes before his stepmother arrived. Time to shower and change. He could pack his travelbag later.
As he emerged from the bathroom, wearing 'smart casuals', the door buzzed. Straker checked the entry monitor; it was indeed Marion, and her driver, who Straker recognised as Harry Goddard, one of the studio regular chauffeurs. He hurried to open the door.
"Good to see you, Marion," he smiled. "Thanks, Harry. Have a beer or two on me."
"Thank you, sir." The chauffeur accepted the note, tipped his cap, and departed.
"Come on in, Marion," Straker invited, moving aside for her to enter. He closed the door and led her to the seating area. "Can I take your coat? thanks. Take a seat. What can I get you to drink?"
"Would you by any chance have some dry white wine?" Marion said, as she settled onto the cushions with a smile of pleasure.
"White burgundy? Well chilled?"
She clasped her hands in mock surprise. "Ooh! You knew I was coming!"
"You guessed! May I join you?"
"Certainly, but does that mean you've taken it up again?"
Straker reached down into a silver-coloured, covered bucket that was beaded with dew, and drew out a full bottle. "Only on special occasions… Now, where's my corkscrew? Ah yes."
It was one of the 'bartender's friend' type with the lever action. Straker inserted the screw into the stopper, wound it down, and levered out the small cylinder of cork with a subdued 'pop'. He poured wine into two tall, black-stemmed glasses, and handed one to Marion. They clinked them together, and each took a sip.
"Lovely!" Marion said, with genuine appreciation. "My mouth has been waiting for that all day. Where did you get it?"
"Alec," Straker explained. "He keeps my cellar stocked for me. Doesn't trust me to know good wine from drain cleaner, I guess."
"He certainly knows his wine… So, how are things with you these days?"
"Busy. And often unpredictable. Heaven knows the movie industry is like that anyway, but add in James L. to the mix - "
"I'd rather not," Marion said, with a small grimace. "But I suppose you're stuck with him."
"Could put it that way," Straker admitted. "But he has his uses… Anyway, to more pleasant topics. Come through to the kitchen and I'll get cooking."
"Can I do anything to help?" Marion asked, following him through.
"How d'you fancy preparing the mushrooms? They're buttons, so they only need a good scrub."
"Can do," she agreed.
Straker placed a small dish beside the sink, took the tray of mushrooms from the cabinet, and found a small knife and a brush. He drew up a stool so that Marion could sit at her task. "There you go."
"Great." Marion turned on the tap and washed her hands under the flowing water. "So tell me about that young man. Did you say his name is Paul Foster?"
"I did," Straker confirmed, a little surprised. He opened the fridge and took out a number of covered dishes. "Here's the veg I prepared earlier, as they say… Isn't Paul a bit young for you?" he added, a little mischievously.
"Too young and definitely a 'wanderer'," Marion agreed, with a grin. "But he seems familiar, somehow. Is he one of your birds?"
"Birds?" Straker said, puzzled, as he washed his own hands. He was recalling his own thoughts about Paul and Robert. Was she also comparing the two?
"Does he have a ‘broken wing’?"
"A broken - Oh. I see. Yes, in a way he does… He used to be a test pilot, and a good one. He had a crash, and that did some damage, enough to ground him. But he didn't help himself by insisting that his crash had been caused by a UFO."
No attempt had ever been made to conceal this part of Paul's situation; he had spread it around too much before he had found his way to the studios. Straker had decided to run with it, since any attempt to hide it would simply have drawn attention.
"And as a 'Blue Book' man, you would have sympathised," Marion observed.
"Guess so. I always did find it frustrating that we never established anything, one way or the other." How very true that was - and still is, he reflected. "You said Foster seemed familiar?"
"Yes, vaguely," Marion said, thoughtfully. "Can't pin it down, I'm afraid… Ah, never mind. It'll come to me. So… what would you do if a flying saucer landed in your backyard?" she enquired, with a grin.
"Run for my life, probably." Or call in Sky 1… "Or perhaps offer them coffee, and sit down for a chat."
"Wouldn't you just love that! Hey, mushrooms are ready."
"Thanks… Now I've got the potatoes steaming, and in about ten minutes I'll do the cabbage and carrots, then fry the mushrooms. I always worry about timing in these things."
"You should get yourself a microwave cooker," Marion suggested. "They're quite the coming thing back Stateside."
"I'm very tempted… How d'you like your steak done, by the way?"
"Almost still mooing."
"Then three minutes a side should do it."
Straker put some plates in the warmer drawer, and tested the potatoes with a knife for softness. Almost time to start steaming the carrot strips and cabbage shreds, he noted. He dropped these into separate segments of a steaming basket, and turned up the heat under the steamer a little. It began to bubble. He put a spoonful of olive oil and a knob of butter into a pan, and when the butter melted, Marion poured in the cleaned mushrooms. A second pan stood ready with some oil for the steaks. Another test of the potatoes showed them almost soft enough for mashing; the vegetable mix was also coming up. Time to sizzle the steaks… He heated the pan, sprinkled each steak with a tiny amount of garlic - not too much, he didn't want to offend Paul's nose tomorrow - added a drop of that red wine, and dropped them in. The steamed potatoes went into the blender, with a knob of butter and a spoonful of horseradish, to be mashed. He checked the steaks, with a quizzical glance at Marion, which she met with an enthusiastic nod. He flipped the steaks, then set the mushrooms to drain.
"Gravy?" he asked. She shook her head.
It was time to bring out the plates and put them on a tray. He used tongs to transfer the steaks, then spooned on the creamed potatoes, the cabbage and carrots, trying to arrange these as decoratively as possible. The mushrooms went on last.
"OK," Straker said, "let's eat. Through there… and bring the wine!"
* * *
Marion leaned back in her seat. She drank a little wine, but she was slightly amused that, although Ed had poured himself some, he had taken precisely three sips from it the whole meal. She had counted. "That was absolutely superb, Ed. Your cooking has improved no end."
"Makes up for the time I set fire to the burgers, does it?" Straker smiled. "Would you like anything to follow? I have some peaches, and bananas."
"Any ice cream?"
"Sure. And I also have some lemon sorbet, if you fancy being adventurous. I could whip some cream, take the edge off a bit, make it a sort of Melba."
"Let's try it, and to Hades with convention!"
They did indeed try it, and it was indeed different. Straker finally said: "OK, let's move to the soft chairs. I'll load the dishwasher… Would you like coffee?"
"Please. And do feel free to smoke if you wish - I don't, not any more, but never mind that."
Straker tidied the kitchen quickly, and went to the living area with a coffee tray, taking a seat where he and Marion could talk comfortably. She reached into her bag and drew out a sheaf of papers, which she laid down on the small table.
"Let's do the easy stuff first," she said. "Well, the comparatively easy stuff… The main items are my will, and the deeds to the estate in Jersey, C.I. John Charles moved in before the residency laws there took effect, but his 'issue' - that would be you, and Robert if he was still around - retain residency rights. It's all a bit complicated, you may wish to get your lawyer to review the situation."
"I guess I will. Thanks."
"The will is quite straightforward… but here's where it gets painful, I'm afraid." She looked up, and met his gaze. "Both Robert and Johnny, God rest their souls, are now out of the picture; and I gather that Mary can't have any more. But what about you? Are you likely to remarry? No, you don't have to answer that. Apart from the house in Jersey which goes to you to keep those residency rights 'in the family', most of my estate will be split between you and any spouse and offspring at the time the will is activated. I include Mary in that… unless you object."
"No," Straker said, quietly. "I don't object in the least. But it should stop there, and not include her current spouse, Rutland."
"I thought not."
Carefully, Straker said: "You mentioned Robert has a lady 'friend'. Are you worried she will contest your will?"
"She has stated her intention to do exactly that," Marion confirmed, grimly.
"Nice girl," Straker said, his own voice dryly ironic. "You said she 'claimed' they were married?"
"Yes. So far, I have not been able to track down a marriage certificate - not even one saying they were married by Elvis in Las Vegas. But she may be hiding it somehow, though I'm not sure if that's legal, or even possible."
"Well, the obvious point is that the burden of proof rests with her. If she says they were married, she has to prove it. The problem, of course, is that litigation could tie the thing up for years, and eat up all the money."
"That's the first half of the problem," Marion agreed. "The second half is a lot less palatable, I'm afraid. I think there may be blackmail involved, somehow. She had some sort of hold over Robert. She may try to use that."
"I think you'd better tell me who this woman is," Straker suggested.
"Better than that, I have a picture."
Marion reached a hand into the depths of her bag and drew out a small, unsealed white envelope. She passed it across. Straker drew out the small photo it contained. The woman it showed was about Gay's age. Her hair was a light brown, her eyes green, her face tanned. She looked pleasant enough, but there was a hardness about her expression that Straker found unappealing.
He turned the photo over. It gave the subject's name as Diane Matthews.
"That's her maiden name. As far as I've been able to discover," Marion explained.
"Can you leave this with me? I'll get one of my 'interesting friends' to have a dig around." Actually, Straker reflected, I’ll do that myself.
"Of course. I'll also leave these papers with you, they're certified copies of the will and the deeds. The originals are lodged with my lawyer in Jersey C.I., here's his card."
Marion drank from her coffee as Straker leafed through the sheets. At last he gave a nod of satisfaction. "I'll put these in my own safe," he said. "Do you have anything else on this Diane Matthews?"
"Not very much, I'm afraid," Marion admitted. "Here's a few 'bullet points'."
Straker took the small blue notebook she handed him. It had a short list of short points. The last on the list was Matthews' last known address. It seemed she had been living in London, up until about three months ago, and had then paid up her rent and moved on, without leaving a forwarding address.
He looked up. "As you say, there's not much - but even so, it gives us a few lines of enquiry… Now, what are your own immediate plans?”
"I fly back to Jersey, from Southampton, Thursday afternoon. That gives me time for a couple of days' shopping." And for that meeting with my ex-daughter in law, she added silently to herself.
"Hmm. I won't be back from my own trip until after the weekend… Can I contact you when I get back?"
"Can I arrange a taxi to the airport for you?"
"A limo, you mean?" Marion's smile was pure mischief. "No, don't worry, I've got one already booked… but thanks anyway."
They had more coffee, and talked on, though the talk turned to lighter matters. At last Straker, noticing that Marion was trying to cover a yawn, called a halt.
"If it wasn't for the fact that I have to check in at the airport myself at four tomorrow morning, I'd offer you the spare bed," he said. "As it is - "
"Four a.m.? You poor boy… No, no, don't worry, I'm happy to go back to the inn."
"Then let me call Harry for you."
"Now that would be welcome."
The chauffeur had been passing the time with friends in a pub a few miles away, though Straker doubted he had been drinking much more than a half-pint of shandy - and playing a few rounds of demon darts.
Ed gave his stepmother a farewell kiss and helped her into the back of the limo. He watched the car disappear into the night; then he turned, and went back inside. He was smiling a little at Marion's choice of guest house. The 'Green Man'… Honestly. OK, it was a popular name for an inn, generally referring to a leafy sculpture representative of woodland spirits; but given Marion's background and connections, it was also a terrible pun, if it was intentional.
Straker checked his watch; it was nearly 11pm. He had time for a few hours' sleep, and he did not need to change into his pyjamas. He glanced around the room; it was tidy enough to satisfy even June Baines.
Marion had left her notebook for him to read and consider, with the photo of Diane Matthews tucked into it. He scribbled a short note to Alec Freeman, requesting his help, and slid it and the photo into an envelope, adding a small picture of Robert. He picked up the notebook, and went to the portrait that hid his secure locker. Swinging the portrait away from the wall, he used the voiceprint check, and the panel slid open. He lifted the book into the locker… and froze, staring at it.
The small notebook was utterly unremarkable, of the type available in a well-known stationery shop chain. But it was blue. A blue book. First the 'Green Man'… and now this.
The implication was obvious: Marion was sending him a message. But why? If she had any suspicion at all of what he was really doing, why not say so, either here, or at the studio, which she must have known would be secure?
But perhaps the message was something else entirely; something that harked back to his early involvement with Blue Book, when Robert had been alive…
And if so, she wasn't telling him, because she couldn't. Because there was trouble, even danger.
Straker closed the panel and replaced the portrait. He strode to his bedroom, where he had left his briefcase, opened it, and put the notebook, and the envelope for Freeman, into one of the internal pouches. He closed the case once more and returned it to the floor locker. Then he called SHADO Security, on the encrypted channel, and gave his instructions.
While he was away on the Moon, Marion would not be unguarded.
* * *
The next day, Freeman was up early. It was a short drive from his apartment to the studio; but there was time enough for the gathering clouds to begin unloading their cargo. By the time he arrived, and found a parking spot, it had developed into a full-blown thunderstorm.
Well, the weather boys had really got it wrong, Freeman mused, as he retrieved his umbrella from its pocket. Today was supposed to be fine… Ah well, that's British weather for you. Still, it's wet but not windy.
He climbed out of the car under the shelter of the small canopy, and made his way to the front studio entrance, then down the corridor into Miss Ealand's domain. She looked up from her typing as he entered. "Good morning, sir," she greeted him.
"And a very good morning to you… Ed and Paul got off OK, did they? No problems with the rain?"
"None, sir." Miss Ealand picked up an envelope from beside the typewriter. "He left before it really got started. The umbrella rack is over there," she added, as Freeman looked around for somewhere to leave his wet things. "He did drop in on his way, and he left this with Lois for you."
"Thanks," Freeman said, inserting his umbrella into the rack, with a grin. He took the envelope. "I suppose he wants me to redecorate the entire place while he's away enjoying himself?"
"Something like that, I believe, sir." Miss Ealand pressed a button on her desk, and the door to the inner office slid open. "You may go through, Mr Freeman."
"Thanks. Say, you're not free for the evening, are you - oh," he finished, as she gave him a stern look. "Ah well, another time, perhaps?"
He sauntered in to the inner office and closed the door. Perching one hip on the edge of the desk, he picked up a paper-knife and slit the envelope open. He looked through the contents, and the smile on his face slowly faded.
There were two small photos. One was of a youngish woman, with a name and date written on the back. According to the date it had been taken a few years ago. The second was of a young man, who seemed vaguely familiar, though Freeman was reasonably sure they had never met. He turned this picture over. It was rather older than the photo of Diane Matthews, by at least a decade, and the name was 'Robert Fletcher.' Two more dates were given; they looked disturbingly like dates of birth and death.
That tweaked his memory. He recalled, now, how Ed had once spoken to him of Marion's adopted son, and how the man had died in an RTA.
There was a note in Ed's close-spaced, precise handwriting. He read it through, and his expression deepened into a frown. The note was a brief account of the discussion Ed and Marion had had, and it ended with a couple of requests to Freeman.
He tapped the desk, thinking. It wasn't like Ed to use SHADO facilities for private purposes; Henderson would not have approved, for starters. If he was appearing to do so now, it must mean that his purposes were not private at all.
"Of course they're not private," he muttered, as he opened the voiceprint box. "Not with Marion's background."
He was startled by a disembodied voice issuing from the box. "Voiceprint identification positive. Freeman, Alec E."
He grinned; and the transit room began to descend into the depths.
* * *
That same morning, Marion had also woken early.
After breakfast, she went into town. She had arranged the meeting for lunchtime, at a small pub on the outskirts of the place, so she had some time to kill. She intended to do that with some serious retail therapy. Prices here on the mainland were significantly lower than on the Island itself, even taking into account carriage costs; and she was not sure when she would make it over here again.
When Ed had first come to this part of the world, the town of Harlington was little more than a small village with ideas above its station. That had changed quickly, in no small part due to the presence of the studio itself, and other businesses and offices sharing that estate. Developers had moved in to provide housing for prospective employees and their families, and other companies had established footholds in the area to supply their needs. Harlington had enjoyed a growth spurt into a centre for a wide variety of goods and activities.
Somehow, though, it had managed to keep much of its character. Ed's own bungalow was some way out of the town, surrounded by untouched countryside. A lovely place… and on the opposite side of town from the house he had bought shortly after the wedding, intending for the pair of them to spend their lives there together.
What on earth had gone wrong there, Marion thought, for the hundredth time; and, again, she resolutely put the thought aside. You're here to buy undies, she told herself firmly. Time enough for that problem later on.
After about three hours of browsing, pausing a couple of times for coffee, Marion had completed most of her shopping list, and arranged for them to be delivered to the Jersey house. She consulted her watch, and set out for the rendezvous.
The pub was a small place, about as far from the studios as it could get. It was not at all the kind of establishment that was likely to be frequented by Ed's people. He himself would be out of town by now, in any case, unless something unexpected cropped up.
Ah well, she thought. Deal with that if and when it happens.
She walked down the lane, rounded the bend, and there it was. There were a few tables set out in the lawn area at the front of the building; and she could see Mary there, obviously taking advantage of the early summer sun. (And, she thought, in a position to make a quick getaway…) With her sat a tall man in naval uniform, evidently her husband, Steven Rutland.
Rutland looked up as she approached, touched Mary's arm, sent her a questioning look. she turned, tensed, and relaxed. "Steven, this is Marion," she said. "Won't you sit down?"
"Thank you, Mary." She pulled out a chair, and sat so that she was facing the two at an oblique angle rather than head-on.
"What would you like to drink?" Rutland asked?
"Oh, thank you… A fresh lemonade would be great, please. I find if I drink anything stronger during the day it puts me to sleep for most of the afternoon."
"OK. Mary, anything more for you?" Rutland asked her.
"A lemonade for me, too, please," Mary said.
"I'll get them." Rutland smiled, rose from his chair, and walked into the bar.
As soon as he was out of sight, Mary turned to face her ex stepmother-in-law. "I don't wish to be rude, Marion," she said, evenly, "but what do you want? If it's about Ed, I'm not interested. I know he's your son, of sorts, but he's a - "
Marion gave a small sigh. "I'm not under any illusions that I can persuade the two of you to 'kiss and make up'," she admitted. "What I'm really after is understanding. For me… I've known Ed, and his parents, for a very great deal of his life, and what I saw wasn't the Ed I knew, not at all."
"It wasn't the Ed I knew, either," Mary snapped. "He changed. As soon as the wedding was over. He became a different man. Always at Henderson's heels. And then he gave up his military career, threw it away. Is that the Ed you knew?"
"No. It wasn't."
"All right, he was injured in that car crash," Mary said. "But not that seriously! And it wasn't, what do they call it now, PTSD… Though he did have nightmares, occasionally."
"Did he talk about them?"
"No. And if I asked, he wouldn't answer. He shut me out. He did that a few times, before - before we were married, but never as - as completely as this…"
Marion looked at her. Mary's eyes were shadowed, her lips tight, but - thought Marion - with pain as well as anger. She thought: don't force it. You've found out what you wanted to know.
"I'm sorry, my dear," she said, gently. "I shouldn't have done this, opened old wounds… What does Captain Rutland think about the situation?"
Mary shrugged, but did not answer.
At that point, Rutland himself came back to the table, with a tray-load of drinks. "Here we are," he said, handing them round. "Lemonade for you two… Half a pint of bitter for me. Cheers. Marion, can we invite you to join us for lunch?"
Marion saw Mary's tiny movement of protest, quickly stilled. "Thank you, it's a kind thought… But I've already had a small snack. I'll just finish my drink, then I'll bid you good day."
She emptied her glass, put it on the tray, and gave the couple a friendly nod. As she walked away, she did not notice that she was being watched from the pub window.
* * *
Chrys almost fell out of the centrifuge chamber at the end of the session. It had been brutal, far worse than anything she had previously experienced in flight training. She shook her fist at the operator, but he just grinned. "C'mon, Miss Jones, you barely pulled 5g there!" he said.
"In at least three directions, one after the other," she pointed out. "I don't think even a plane could stand much of that, never mind a human body!"
"Mmm.. true," admitted her instructor. "Well, at least you can console yourself with the knowledge that you've got a couple of days off next week. We're scheduled for some maintenance."
"So you can make it pull 10 g's?" she said.
"Of course," he replied. Chrys groaned. "OK, report to medical for evaluation. They may let you out early. So you can grab a meal before the evening lecture."
"With my stomach feeling this bruised?" she retorted. He just laughed. She flounced off to the changing cubicle, or at least tried to; muscles and joints were complaining in places she didn't know she had.
"See you tomorrow," he called, after her. She ignored him.
* * *
Marion thanked her taxi driver, gave him a generous tip, and entered the hotel. She went to the reception desk to pick up her key. As she did so, a brown-haired woman with green eyes rose from a nearby seat and came over to the desk. "Marion," she said, in a cool voice.
Marion swung round, eyes narrowing. "And what are you doing here?" she demanded.
"Waiting for you, of course. Did you have a good evening?"
"Don't play games with me, Ms Matthews. If you want to talk to me, do so. Otherwise please go. I've had a long day and I want to get to my bed - "
"Shall we talk over coffee?"
Marion regarded the younger woman for a few moments longer. "Very well." She turned and headed for the lounge, and Diane Matthews followed her, smirking.
The two women chose armchairs in the far corner of the lounge, near a window. A waiter came over and took their order, then headed for the kitchen.
Diane came straight to the point. "What did you discover?"
"Nothing I didn't already know. And that I haven't already talked about."
"You mean to tell me you and that stepson of yours just had a nice cosy chat over the paperwork?"
"That's about the size of it."
At that point the waiter delivered the coffee. Marion advised him to add it to her bill, and declined further service. The waiter withdrew, wishing them a good night.
Diane sipped at her coffee, and sighed. "What a wasted opportunity."
"Yes, wasn't it," Marion said, her voice flat. "But the steak was delicious."
"Oh, I'm so glad," Diane said, sweetly. "So what was your nice cosy chat about? In detail, please."
Reluctantly, Marion gave a brief account of her evening, in as little detail as she could. At last, Diane shook her head in slow disappointment. "And that's all you could get out of him? That Paul Foster is a failed test pilot? Nothing about a brother?"
"Ed doesn't know anything about that."
"And Straker didn't recognise me?"
"Good… You'll be meeting him again, of course. Tomorrow."
"No. He's had to go abroad, starting tomorrow morning. He'll be away for several days."
"He'll contact you when he gets back."
Diane nodded. "Well, that's something… One other thing. That was Steven Rutland, wasn't it?"
Marion did not answer; but she was not able to conceal the jolt she felt, not entirely. Diane smiled, as though the older woman had indeed spoken aloud. She went on: "Oh, by the way, I have a letter for you." She reached into her handbag, drew out an envelope, and passed it across to Marion, who took it without comment. "Goodbye for now, my dear. I'll be in touch."
With that, Diane rose to her feet and walked from the lounge, without looking back. Marion watched her go. When the lounge door had closed behind her, Marion slid the envelope into her own bag, and headed for her room.
She locked her door, and dropped onto the bed. Taking that envelope, she slit it open, and shook it out into her hand. A small transparent package fell into her palm; it contained a little white pill.
Only one, she thought.
She gazed at it. A tear crept slowly down her cheek.
She rose, and walked steadily to the en-suite, where she opened the package, dropped its contents into the pan, and flushed it away. She watched the swirling water, but her thoughts were elsewhere.
Returning to the bed, she opened her bag and took out her purse. She flattened out the small scrap of transparent plastic, and slid it in among the banknotes. A search would find it easily, and it would be analysed, and the drug it had contained would be identified.
Without that medication, she would live perhaps a few weeks; so she had just signed her own death warrant… But she had done far too much damage already. And she had put the whole matter into Ed's hands. He was more than capable of dealing with it, and of dealing with Miss Diane Matthews.
And of protecting his stepbrother.
* * *
Diane knocked on the apartment door, paused, and knocked twice. A few seconds later, the door opened, and she slipped inside.
"Hello, Mr Rick," she said.
"Ms Matthews," the being calling himself Lackland acknowledged. "You are late."
"Well, sorry, but - "
"I am not interested. What information do you have?"
"It seems that Straker is unaware of Foster's background. It seems the studio took him on to add him to their 'special skills' base."
"The Knight woman did not explain?"
"It seems not."
"Very well… And you have confirmed Rutland's identity?"
"Yes." Diane smiled, unkindly. "Knight did not need much persuasion to meet her ex-daughter in law, and only a little prompting to ask the woman to bring along her current husband."
"And did he enjoy his beer?" he enquired.
"Enough… The effects will last for up to six months. If he does not receive the complement during that time, the binary will activate, and he will die."
"And what of Knight?”
"She needs a little more prompting," Diane admitted. "I gave her a half dose of the complement, which will keep her going for perhaps two months. If she wants to live longer than that, she will have to deliver on her promise."
"She had better," Lackland said, dryly. "Else I will have to explain to James exactly how I am carrying out his instructions. He will not be happy."
"Well, here we are," Foster said, bringing the 'moonmobile' to a halt about fifty yards from the former Dalotek base.
The flight had been uneventful, a little to Straker's surprise. Perhaps the aliens were simply waiting for the humans to progress far enough with this project, commit enough resources, that their attack, when it came, would set the project too far back to be recovered easily.
Both he and Foster had brought reading material to fill the time. Straker would have liked to study that notebook of Marion's, but he could not risk it with Foster watching, not before he had some more definite idea of its possible import.
But if the aliens could be patient, so could Straker.
He put the thought aside, for the moment, and looked out of the front viewport at the station. It was only the second time he had seen it; the first was when he had accompanied Blake to check out the construction work, at the engineering manager's request. It was certainly small, but it had potential. A pity, really, that he would not be using that potential.
Moonbase had sent over a small working party to check the habitat integrity and the life-support systems, repressurise to full from the 10% maintenance level, and restock with air and water as necessary. They had also turned the heating up. While uninhabited, the base had been left with background heating on only, which kept it at about minus 10 Celsius, to protect the structure against the fierce heating/cooling cycle of the lunar 'day'. That was a bit chilly for humans, though.
"Let's go see if anyone's home," Straker suggested, with a slight smile.
"I do hope not!"
Foster closed and latched his helmet, and Straker followed suit. After a check of each other's equipment, they made their way through the airlock and out onto the lunar surface. Paul bounced up to the base entrance, raised a gauntleted hand, and knocked on the hatch. There was, of course, no audible sound in this near-vacuum that was the lunar excuse for an atmosphere.
"What are you doing, Foster?" Straker sighed.
"Just checking, sir," Foster answered, straight-faced. He examined the hatch control panel. "Airlock shows empty, all systems green. Shall we go in?"
Foster pressed buttons, and after a few moments the hatch slid open. The two men entered, closed the outer hatch and cycled the airlock. The inner hatch opened in its turn, and they stepped through into the central area, where the overhead light panels had lit up in response to their presence in the lock.
Foster looked around. The chamber was empty of the geoscanner tower, which had passed through the roof to hold up the upper scanner array, but the 'workbench' was still in place. Large open panels showed where Dalotek had removed its circuitry. He checked the environment monitors; they showed the chamber as fully pressurised.
"I'll let Moonbase know we've arrived," Foster said.
"Do that, Colonel," Straker replied.
Foster removed his helmet, and moved to the radio desk. The land-line telephone SHADO had installed was still there, and it turned out to be still operational. Straker unclasped his faceplate and raised it, sniffing at the air, and wrinkling his nose slightly at the faint smell of gunpowder that SHADO personnel had dubbed 'Eau de Regolith'. He walked around the chamber, and came to the personnel hoist that led down to the below-ground section of the installation. After a quick check of the hoist, Straker stepped onto the small platform. He pressed the 'down' button, and was carried smoothly into the depths.
The lights were on down here also. Straker stepped off the platform and sent it up to collect Foster. He looked around at the half-empty equipment racks that were all that was left of the Dalotek subsurface scanner. He inspected one of those racks very closely, and gave a slight nod of satisfaction. 'Mr Hutchinson' had done his work well; you could not see the join, as the saying went.
Foster finished his call, and joined him. "According to Jane," he said, "the gear they had down here was very new, very secret, and not very tested. She wouldn't tell me much about the details, of course."
"I would hope not… So this place was a bit of a 'test bed', was it?"
"I wonder why that was… Moon rock isn't all that different to Earth. Except, of course, you don't get fossil-bearing sedimentary types."
"Maybe that's what they were hoping to find," Foster suggested, jokingly.
"Now that would have made the front page." Straker finished his examination, and looked across at Foster. "Well, Paul, it's all yours. Go right ahead."
"I've prepared a rough schedule," Foster replied. "Shall we go up and have a look over it? And perhaps check whether the coffee dispenser is working!"
* * *
The pair took off their vacuum suits, hanging them up in the transit locker beside the airlock. They left on their thermal undergarments, though the cabin temperature was now up at a comfortable 17C. Paul placed his document wallet on a nearby workstation, while Straker busied himself at the coffee machine. "How d'you like yours, Paul?" he called.
"Black with, please, sir."
"Here we go," Straker said, handing him the small cup, and taking a seat by the workstation. "And at this time and in this place, call me Ed… What do you have?"
"A few items," Paul told him, with a grin. "Not necessarily in this order… First off, life support here. Second, survey of the area to choose a permanent location. Third, personnel needs. Fourth, detailed design of M2, using Moonbase as a template. Fifth, get some materials and heavy construction equipment in. Sixth, start digging."
"A good summary," Straker commented. "No doubt it'll get fleshed out as the work progresses… Any thoughts on the design?"
"I'd like most of it underground," Paul said. "I think that should include a hangar for M2 spacecraft. As Gay says, that should be top of the construction list, after defence."
"Now to personnel." Paul looked up at the commander. "I'm aware of your overall intentions for M2, sir - Ed - and your primary objective is research?"
"That's so," Straker confirmed. "M2 doesn't need to be pure defence yet, it's very effectively covered by Moonbase, though I want it capable of acting as a backup from the word go. I would like to develop it into a larger facility, to expand and eventually to take over Moonbase functions altogether. We've had a couple of incursions where we could have used more muscle. And since that ILFC facility has no defence capability at all - " well, he thought, that was true enough in a literal sense! " - as far as I can tell, we will be looking after them in that area. That will stretch our resources… But to begin with, I want to concentrate on some specific research of our own."
"You want a closer look at Jupiter," Paul said.
"I sure do… But I don't have any solid enough plans to discuss, as yet." This was, in fact, a long way from the truth… but Straker was not going to say as much with the aliens almost certainly 'listening in' through Foster. "Broadly, though, I want to start with a repeat of the 'Discovery' probe. I had another, closer look at Gay's paths analysis on the incoming hostiles, and most of them do indeed go back through the Jovian system. Only a few follow the alternative path that we saw before."
Straker did not add that he had, in fact, purposely - and as gently as he could - dismissed Gay's original analysis, to conceal the results from alien agents. It had already become apparent that SHADO was being closely watched.
'Apparent', he thought. First they shoot up the minister's car, then they destroy Westbrook, then they try to take out Alec's airplane. That wasn't 'apparent', that was bloody obvious.
Foster's voice broke into his thoughts, hauled him back on track."So you want Henderson to build you another spy probe?" the colonel said, incredulously. "Best of luck with that!"
"That's right. Call it part of SHADO's fee for looking after the ILFC's base."
"I just hope you don't get fired… Anyway, back to personnel. I'd appreciate a list of rough numbers and discipline areas from you. Also, a broad outline of the facilities you require here… I will have some input on both those areas, myself, sir, focussing on transport and defence."
"Very good." Straker made a few notes. "What can we do to plan construction at this early stage?"
"We know the kinds of materials we will need," Foster said. "Carbon fibre, titanium alloy, laminated glass, things like that, that take some time to manufacture to aerospace standards. We can estimate preliminary quantities from the Moonbase build. And for systems like life support, and power, we can start by expanding the existing facilities here."
"Great. What's the next bit?"
Foster sipped at his coffee, marshalling his thoughts.
"Weaponry," he said, slowly. He took a few sheets of paper from his document wallet. "This is Gay's construction schedule for the M2 ground station, and this is the proposal for arming a couple of moonmobiles."
He handed the sheets across. Straker looked through them. "Good, go ahead with these. I'll let you have the data you need this evening."
"Thank you, Ed." Foster finished his coffee and glanced around. "I don't think there's much more we can do here right now, not until Tony arrives. Let's get back to Moonbase… When's your meeting with the ILFC?"
"Tomorrow morning," Straker replied. "OK, let's go home."
They suited up. Paul was thinking to himself: Ed really does think of Moonbase as 'home'… Wonder why that is? Certainly he's much more 'at ease' up here than he ever was down on Earth.
* * *
Straker and Foster had lunch back at Moonbase, and then they each retired to their own quarters to do the paperwork. This took up a good part of the afternoon. At length Straker put down his pen, tidied away his notes, and stretched a little. He picked up the summaries he had prepared for Foster, and went over to the colonel's cubicle. He knocked.
"Come in - Oh, hello, sir. I'm just finishing. Please, take a seat."
"Great, Take your time."
As Foster scribbled a final few notes, Straker glanced around. Foster had left a few of his belongings out. There was a book - Straker couldn't quite read the title; a pen case; and a small photoframe, showing a picture of Chrysanthea Jones. Interesting, Straker thought. He doesn't usually bother to carry pictures of his many lady friends. Perhaps there's something brewing here.
He wondered whether he should computerise that relationship, as he had done with Gay and Mark; but he postponed the idea. Better to let the present problem settle down, he decided.
At last Foster closed his pen, and looked over at the commander. "What do you have for me, Ed?" he enquired, still feeling a little nervous at the informality.
"Here's my list of required facilities," Straker told him, handing him a sheet. "We won't even try to do those all at once, so I've proposed a schedule to follow. And here's a personnel listing, linked across to those facilities."
"Thanks," Foster said. He glanced through the sheets. "Good, we can get these moving. Tony's going to have his hands full!"
"Too true." Straker looked at his watch. "Time for an hour's exercise before dinner?" he suggested.
"Lead the way!"
* * *
They went to the gym via Moonbase Control, where Foster called SHADO to pass on his instructions. After exchanging a few pleasantries with the duty comms officer, Anderson, Foster closed the link.
"Thanks, Nina. Where's Joan?"
"In the gym," Sandy called across, from her seat at the monitor station. "It's her exercise hour."
"We'll go and join her. Thanks, Sandy."
Joan was indeed in the gym, and she was wearing full fencing gear and sparring with Karel Wojnycz, one of the Interceptor pilots. The Astronaut was a fairly recent recruit from the British RAF, whose Polish contingent was a result of the Second World War. Karel's father, Mikolaj, had flown in the Battle of Britain. He had survived, an achievement in itself; and Karel seemed to have inherited his love of flight.
A scoreboard on one wall kept track of their progress. Joan's foil touched a spot on the pilot's jacket which was overlaid with a lamé, which in turned caused the scoring machine to display a coloured light on Joan's side which indicated her hit. The two fighters stood to attention saluting each other with their weapons, then they walked over to the bench.
"Hello, Commander, Paul," Joan said, taking off her mask.
"I didn't know you fenced, Joan," Straker smiled. "And up against Karel, too!"
The pilot had made quite a reputation as a sportsman for himself at school, Straker knew. Wojnycz smiled. "That medal was a very long time ago, sir," he told the commander.
"I used to fence a bit, a few years ago, sir," Joan said. "Let it lapse, I'm afraid. But Chrys was asking about fencing partners, so I thought it would be fun to have another go. Bit rusty, I'm afraid! Do either of you two fence?"
"Tried it once, at school. I was pretty useless," Straker said, with regret.
"What about you, Paul?"
"Chrys has been teaching me - or trying to," Foster said, with a grin.
"Well, why don't you get warmed up, and we'll have a go… You too, sir?" Joan suggested.
"Why not? Could be fun. Give us ten minutes, OK?"
The two men disappeared into the changing cubicles, and emerged each wearing gym kit. They went through a few minutes of stretches and jogging-on-the-spot, and then Joan called them over to the bench. She had laid out a couple of sets of protective clothing. Straker and Foster quickly donned the gear, which consisted of form-fitting fencing jackets, plastrons which protected their underarms, fencing gloves and masks. The latter also had an attached bib to protect their necks. Joan then handed them each a fencing foil.
"Now please watch," she directed, "while Karel and I go through a few of the basic moves. Notice the contact points in particular."
Joining Karel in the centre of the room, Joan gave him a bright smile of appreciation. "Thanks for helping me give them a demonstration." Gripping her rapier tightly, she was ready to begin.
"No problem." Karel returned her smile with one of his own. "I need to keep this body limbered up as much as possible. My muscles start to feel stiff after a long period of sitting around just waiting to get a call to go chase aliens." Holding his own rapier at the ready, he sent her a quick wink. "So any excuse to exercise is fine by me."
Ready to begin her assault, Joan saluted him with her blade. Once Karel was in position, and in the correct stance, she attacked first. "En garde!" Performing a balestra, jumping forward and lunging toward him, Joan took Karel completely off guard.
"Whoa! Where's all that extra energy coming from?" Karel wasn't expecting Joan to go after him so forcefully, especially when they just finished fencing a short time ago. Unless she was trying to show off for the commander and Paul.
"Too much caffeine." Laughing, she began to engage their blades once more.
"So much for showing them the 'basics'," Karel huffed. If his tone was just slightly annoyed it sailed right over Joan's head.
"Oh if you mean my balestra," Joan chuckled, "I wanted to throw you off." She lightly danced away from his next attack. "Did it work?"
"What do you think?" Rolling his eyes, Karel grinned at her.
Attempting to counter attack, Karel attacked Joan while moving back out of the way as she thrust her blade against him. It was a difficult manoeuvre to accomplish unless he could quickly perform the counter attack so that Karel could retreat ahead of Joan without her scoring on him.
Seeing what Karel was trying to do, Joan knew he wasn't yet as fast on his feet as her. So she easily scored a hit on his chest.
Pressing forward, in an attempt to push her blade aside, Karel realized he had failed when Joan's rapier touched his chest. Oh well there was always next time, he thought. But then an idea struck him. Spinning away from her, Karel executed a fleche. Leaping forward, attacking with his blade extended, he ran toward her on landing. It allowed him to close the large gap between them, more so than a lunge would have produced. He didn't move too far away from Joan, otherwise it would have given her ample time to parry or dodge his attack.
Not expecting Karel to execute such a move, Joan didn't have time to parry or sidestep out of the way of his blade. When he landed his hit on her, she acknowledged him with a salute of her sword. "Touché, Karel. You got your own back on that one."
Feeling pretty satisfied with the outcome, Karel flashed her one of his charming smiles. "I'll say."
Saluting one another again with their blades, both of them walked off the floor.
It was like watching ballet, Foster thought as he had observed the two combatants demonstrate techniques. Seeing that Joan had called a halt, he waited for her to join them again.
She took off her mask. "OK, Paul, let's see how you get on. Face Karel, and I'll watch and give instructions."
She took Foster through several action patterns. At last, she called the combatants to a halt. "That was good, Paul, you've been practising! Now, Commander, your turn?"
Trying his best to forget even what little he remembered of that far-off school lesson, Straker concentrated, watching his opponent. He made several mistakes, as was only to be expected; but at the end of the session, he hoped he had not entirely disgraced himself.
"Feel free to tell me what I did wrong, Joan," he said to her, with a smile.
"Not too much, as it happens, sir," Joan assured him. "The main thing is that you are trying to use it like a sabre, trying to cut."
"Guess I've been watching our latest movie effort too much," Straker said, ruefully.
Joan grimaced. "I'd honestly suggest you sack the choreographer on that! Chrys would be a better bet… I'd also advise you both, if you want to develop, to watch a few training videos. Especially in slow motion. Try a few of the moves."
"Should we wear the gear?" Paul enquired.
"If you're really serious, yes," Joan told him. "It is a little constricting, and wearing it would help you get used to that."
"Great. Well, thanks Joan," Straker said. "We won't take up any more of your time. Instead, guess I'll let Paul throw my weight about for a while."
While Foster and Straker changed into judo suits, Joan stowed away the fencing kit in its locker. She and Karel went over to the alcove and began some weight-training exercises. Their companions moved to the judo mat, bowed to each other, and began.
Straker was on the floor in seconds. He twisted out of Foster's attempt to pin him down, rolled, and hooked the younger man's leg with his own. He had timed it to match the other's movements, so Foster's own momentum carried him across the mat to land flat on his back.
Foster grinned, and came to his feet. Again the pair bowed to each other; then they moved into a series of choreographed, almost stylised throws. After some twenty minutes, honours were about even.
"That's it for today, I think, Paul," Straker said. "I'm working up an appetite!"
"Me too. Thank you, sir, that was a good bout; but was that first move quite legal?"
"Only just," Straker admitted, with a smile. "Come on, let's get washed up."
* * *
Showers on Moonbase were short but thorough, to be effective while conserving water. The cubicle was a closed cylinder with vents to the outside air shielded from the water streams projected at high speed from rows of nozzles on three sides. These jets seemed to drill into the bather like a hydraulic version of the mediaeval Iron Maiden. Ten seconds to wet the skin; apply cleanser; then press the button for another ten seconds of rinsing. Then the gasping bather was dried with warm-air jets. The whole process used less than half a litre of water, and of that, some 95% was recovered and recycled. Straker was glad the designers hadn't tried vacuum-drying the skin to get the other 5%.
The four gymnasts made their way to the leisure sphere for dinner; but Straker took a short detour into Control. From there he made two calls. One was to check with SHADO Security, who reassured him that all was so far well and that they would continue to monitor. The other was to Miss Ealand, with a message for his housekeeper, June Baines. She was a widow, in her early sixties, only a little overweight - though it was mostly muscle - and very fit. She was a judo black belt, and also, it turned out, a fencing enthusiast. She had been found by SHADO security in a local martial-arts club, and Straker had taken her on as a bodyguard; though she was not aware of SHADO, and believed that it was because of his status as a movie executive with money, and therefore a ransom target. Indeed, a few times when people had managed to break into Straker's house, she had defended the place - and, on one memorable occasion, Straker himself - and turned the assailants over to the police, bruised and battered.
Occasionally, she and Straker had had practice martial arts sessions in his home gym. He now wanted to ask if she would help him practise fencing. He doubted whether she could turn him into an expert, at this late age; but at least she could teach him how to handle himself.
* * *
The next day, Straker was scheduled to meet with the ILFC committee.
He had not slept well, unusually for him here at Moonbase. He had lain in bed, reading through that small blue notebook of Marion's, but had found nothing which might be a coded message to him. He had finally settled to sleep, hoping to let his subconscious work on the problem.
When he awoke, all his subconscious presented him with was the mere fact of the notebook's existence; and that, possibly, it was a signpost to something much larger. He tucked the thought away for future reference. He wondered how Alec was getting on with his own investigations, and felt a little guilty at having dropped the problem into his friend’s lap; but Alec would understand the need to avoid delay.
Still, even up here at Moonbase, there were a few enquiries he could make himself. He already had files on Robert’s accident, for example, and knew that a second man had been in the car, one of Robert’s research colleagues. Straker had investigated at the time, and there had indeed been a few oddities about the crash, but nothing he could pin down, hampered as he was by a lack of evidence. Perhaps he should look at the incident in more detail – after he had dealt with Plan Beta.
After sending a few messages, and having an early breakfast, he checked out one of the moonmobiles from the garage. Joan Harrington accompanied him, as Gay's liaison with Alpha. Gay herself was due to arrive back at Moonbase the following day. The journey was uneventful, though Sandy and Nina were on yellow alert, watching eagle-eyed for alien visitors.
The moonmobile headed for Alpha's docking port, which was a small pressurisable chamber designed to allow access to surface vehicles such as themselves. Robotic arms reached out to meet their craft, carrying air and power umbilicals. As Straker had insisted in the initial negotiations between the IAC and the ILFC for setting up Alpha, the connections were a standard pattern that would remain 'future-proof'. He had not had to try too hard to persuade them; the lessons of Apollo Thirteen had been learned well. There would be no more 'jury-rigging' of kit to get fundamentally incompatible parts to fit together!
The docking chamber filled with air at full Earth sea-level pressure. Straker and Harrington removed their suits with some relief, collected their briefcases, and disembarked. A door opened in the end wall of the dock, and the unmistakable figure of Victor Bergman stepped out to meet them. He looked remarkably tidy, to Straker's slight surprise; even his sideburns had been clipped down to a fuzz. Evidently the man had put his time 'downstairs' to good use; it was unlikely that Alpha had any barbers on their list of essential personnel.
Bergman shook hands. "Welcome," he said. "Please, come this way, and we'll go and meet people."
Inside the door Bergman had used, a long corridor led away to the main base. "Follow me," Bergman said, "but don't be surprised at anything that happens. Be warned, though - it has been known to make people a little seasick. If that affects you, let your eyes go out of focus, a little. Also, feel free to use the handrails."
Straker and Harrington exchanged glances, and shrugs, and followed him along the corridor.
And then Bergman's meaning became apparent. To the vision, the corridor was straight and level; but to the sense of balance, they were walking downhill at a steepening angle. Joan reached to one side and grasped the rail, but lightly, more for reassurance than anything else.
"What the hell's going on, Victor?" Straker demanded. "I swear the gravity's increasing!"
"It is." Bergman chuckled. "This is one of the 'first fruits' of my Nobel labours - artificial gravity. There are a number of towers around the perimeter generating the Bergman field, as I insisted on calling it." He winked, a little mischievously. "I intend to take the research a stage further and try to build a warp drive."
"You've been watching too much Star Trek," Straker accused, smiling. "I don't suppose you could sell us one of these towers?"
"I'll have to see what I can do. But I warn you, the very suggestion will probably give James a severe migraine from the cost."
"That bad, huh? Well, I'll just have to see about persuading him."
The corridor had levelled out to feeling as well as to sight, and airtight doors could be seen in the walls. A few yards further on, Bergman stopped at one of these. He took a device from his belt, pointed it at the door, and it opened, smoothly. Noting Straker's look of interest, he handed his friend the device. It had lots of buttons and a small video screen. "A comlink," he explained. "Combined walkie-talkie, locator, computer access, and door-key."
"Useful gadget," Straker agreed. He nodded to Harrington, and she followed Bergman inside, with Straker bring up the rear.
After following the network of corridors for a few minutes, they reached another door. This one was marked, with a piece of paper taped to the metal, bearing the legend 'Beta'.
"Sorry about the signage - or the lack of it," Bergman said. "We'll be putting up a styled set of labels in due course, but that's one of the lower of our priorities. Let's go in. Sue and John should already be there."
He touched the sensitive plate by the side of the door, and it slid open. He motioned for the others to enter. Inside, seated at the long conference table, two people were seated, talking quietly. They looked up as the visitors entered, and rose to their feet to greet them.
"May I introduce you all?" Bergman said. "Ed, this is Dr Suzanne Grant, Chair of ILFC. And I believe you know Colonel Koenig? Sue, John, meet Commander Ed Straker, and Lieutenant Joan Harrington, both from SHADO."
They shook hands, and Dr Grant invited them to sit. She had a very slight French accent that was somehow familiar, Straker thought. "I believe you may know my father, Commander?" she enquired. "Commissioner Duval?"
"I guess I do," Straker confirmed. He thought: So this is one of those three daughters…
"Victor, could you dispense coffee, please," Grant requested. "Now, to business, everyone. Commander, tell us please, why are you so certain that the aliens will respond to our presence? They haven't bothered the Russian base, or the Chinese. Why should Moonbase Alpha be a particular problem to them?"
"A few reasons," Straker said. Bergman had finished distributing mugs of coffee, and had taken a seat where he could watch both Straker and Dr Grant. "Firstly, I must emphasise that the aliens have contacts among humans, channels of communication, which they have been using for decades if not centuries. Lately, of course, they have been monitoring our radio channels, even though those are encrypted - as I understand yours are. By these and no doubt other means, they have gathered a great deal of information about us - about humanity in general, and SHADO in particular. And the kind of information they must now be acquiring must be causing them serious concern."
"If what we're doing is scaring them shitless, I'm all for it," Koenig said, grimly.
"I suspect it is. You see, we know where they hang out, and we are making preparations to pay them a visit."
Koenig whistled. "You have to be kidding! The nearest star system is over four light-years away. Your Interceptors can do one-and-a-bit SOL, they could make the trip in a bit less than four years, but the pilots would be dead or mad when they arrive, even if the aliens let them get anywhere near!"
"Quite so," Straker agreed. "But we don't have to go to the Centauri system. We have evidence that they have an outpost within the Solar System - specifically, on one of the moons of Jupiter. Their signals were picked up there by Voyager Three."
"Europa," Bergman said, in tones of deep satisfaction. "I'm sure of it."
"We think so. That's why I want to borrow your services, to upgrade your proposed lunar transport into a craft capable of reaching Jupiter."
There was a short silence. Bergman cleared his throat. "Are you proposing to go there in person?" he enquired, casually.
"Eventually, yes," Straker told him. "But I'll want an unmanned reconnaissance first. Such a craft will have to be stealthed, just as our 'Discovery' probe was. It would have to be capable of sufficient speed to make the trip to Jupiter in less than an hour, so it would need to be capable of at least half SOL with a far more massive load than the Interceptors. Although it would not have a crew, I'd want to simulate a human presence on board to use it as a test run, so it would need life-support."
"Weapons?" Koenig asked.
"Of course… though we wouldn't want to use them until we know what we're shooting at."
"Do you think the aliens know what you have in mind, through the 'contacts' you mentioned?" Dr Grant asked.
"Certainly," Straker answered. "In general if not in detail. They are expecting us to come visiting… and they will want to prevent that by every means at their disposal."
"You think they are, er, 'scared shitless'?"
"Yes. You see, their recent actions have suggested that they're running out of resources… and out of time."
Straker's thoughts went back to Croxley, the man whose powerful ESP had been used by the aliens to try to kill both him and Alec. He recalled the echoes of desperation in Croxley's voice, desperation that was only partly his own, when the man had spoken of the fight for survival. Straker also remembered the attack on Rutland's warship in the Atlantic, which was intended to release its lethal cargo into Earth's biosphere - a policy of despair if ever there was one. Unless, he thought - and not for the first time - they had something else in mind… And there was that incident that haunted his nights and his days, the attempt to rescue an apparent alien defector, which had failed at such a terrible cost. Was the being seeking help from its enemies, he wondered? Were some of them indeed that desperate?
"Forgive me for playing 'devil's advocate', Commander," Dr Grant said, with a humourless smile, "but is it not, then, your own actions which are endangering Moonbase Alpha?"
Straker remembered what he had said to her father, all those years ago… but he could not use that tactic here. Instead, he said, evenly: "I regret it could only be advancing the day. Your intention is already to develop interplanetary transport, to visit Mars, the asteroids, and the moons of the outer planets. That is a process that will take decades. The aliens won't like it at all. At what point they will choose to attack, I cannot know - but, sooner or later, they will attack."
"But," Dr Grant pressed, "if as you say they're running out of time, can't we just let time run out? Let events take their course, defend as necessary, as indeed SHADO has been doing, with notable success?"
Instead of answering her directly, Straker turned to Koenig. "Colonel, consider a situation in which your position is desperate, you're running out of supplies, out of time, out of hope for rescue. You're facing total annihilation at the hands of an implacable enemy. What would your last resort be?"
"I'd take the enemy with me, if I could. Naturally."
Dr Grant blanched. So, a little to Straker's surprise, did Bergman - but then the man had no military experience. Joan Harrington's face was quite expressionless; she knew - as Straker did - that the aliens may have already tried that one.
"Very well," Dr Grant said, abruptly, her voice just a little husky. "We will accept the assistance of SHADO, in the matter of the 'special equipment'. In return, we will build your 'Jupiter probe' for you."
"Thank you, Commissioner," Straker acknowledged. "Lieutenant Harrington here will act as the contact point between SHADO and Alpha. Joan?"
"Thank you, sir," the Lieutenant acknowledged. "One thing, Dr Grant - the 'special equipment' will need operators. They will need a reason they can understand - one that doesn't involve UFOs!"
"Indeed… I will bear that firmly in mind. Well, let us waste no time. Victor, I believe you have already drawn up a preliminary proposal, for what the commander calls Plan Beta…? Good, thank you," she added, as Bergman opened his briefcase and took out several folders, passing them around the table. "Over to you, then!"
* * *
It was a lengthy and intense session at Alpha, and by the time Straker and Harrington returned to Moonbase, they were tired but pleased. For the most part it had gone well, with only a few problems remaining to be sorted out, and none of them show-stoppers.
The parked their moonmobile in the subsurface garage. Nina was on duty in the Command sphere. Joan made for the computer to update her records, and Straker asked Nina for a channel to Earth.
"Certainly, sir," she said. "Please take a seat."
Moving to the auxiliary console, Straker opened a link to SHADO Control. It only took a few seconds for Ford to respond and to pass Straker over to Freeman in the command office.
"I got your message," Freeman said. "It's in hand."
"Great." Straker glanced down at his notes. "They've agreed to take on the Eagle project. Dr Grant wants to lend us one of their astronauts, subject to security clearance, to be liaison on that project. Any suggestions?"
"I met one of their people at Woomera. A lad named Alan Carter. Good prospect, I thought."
"Great. Check him out." Again, Straker checked his notes. "Joan is looking after Plan Beta, so she's going to be resident at Alpha for the next few weeks, starting tomorrow. I've handed Plan Alpha over to Paul now, so I'll be coming down in the next shuttle, the one that's bringing Gay and Tony. That's just landed, so it can be leaving in a couple of hours. Paul will stay up here for a few days to get Tony started, and then he'll come down himself to kick manufacturing into action. That will be end of the week sometime."
"Noted… And I've been keeping an eye on the long-range surveyors. No activity reported."
"Just as well," Straker said. "Trouble is, when they do come, it will be in force! I guess I'll have Gay run some drills. Can you do the same with the SkyDivers, just in case?"
"Can do." Freeman made another note on his own pad. "Anything else?"
"If I think of anything I'll let you know… See you this evening."
"I'll look forward to it," Freeman smiled, and cut the contact.
Straker rose from his seat, thanked the duty officer, and left the Command dome, heading for reception. He greeted Gay and Tony with warmth.
"Paul's over at M2," he told them. "He's expecting you, Tony, but don't feel you have to rush."
"That translates as 'get your - er, self - over there pronto," Gay said, straight-faced. She met Straker's mock-stern glare with a grin. "So I'd keep your suit on, for the moment."
"Exactly, Lieutenant," Straker said. "Well, I'll suit up and get moving, myself."
"Have a good trip, sir," Mangakai said. He turned back to Gay, who was removing her own suit. "Any more for the Skylark?"
"If you mean, do you have passengers, yes," Gay said. "Paul wants some 'grease monkeys'… So I told him to choose from the maintenance crews. And we can spare him an astronaut for a few hours, for specialist advice. Joan said she'll have them ready for you."
They were indeed. Several of the techs - Gay introduced them as Craddock, Patel, and Marshall - were waiting in the moonmobile hangar. With them was Astronaut Wojnycz, who Joan had selected to give the M2 team that specialist astronautical advice. The other three were specialists as well, in their own fields, as indeed was every operational member of SHADO; but none had had much experience of handling a moonmobile. Gay had no doubt that, with Karel Wojnycz instructing them, the team would be holding Lunar Grand Prix races by the time he had finished.
"Seems I'm the taxi driver," he said, with a grin. "All aboard and strap in, please… Tony, your gear is already aboard, it's been transferred from the shuttle while you were checking in."
"Thanks." Mangakai followed the other up the boarding ramp and into the cabin. In a very few minutes, the moonmobile was on its way to M2.
They covered the 30 kilometres in rather less than an hour. Karel did not bother with any fancy navigation; he simply followed the land-line that had been installed during Dalotek's tenure.
On the way, Mangakai mulled over Gay's somewhat cryptic instructions. She had warned him that there was a segment of the lower chamber wall that had to be left alone. This information apparently came from someone at the ILFC base called Hutchinson, whose initial survey had revealed a somewhat unstable area south-west of M2, possibly caused by Dalotek's experiments with its geoscanner. The affected region – which Gay called ‘the Hutchinson zone’ - was not near enough to cause them any problems provided they did not try to excavate in that direction more than a few metres. Colonel Foster had, accordingly, decided to avoid the segment completely; it would not adversely affect the project.
When the group had entered the habitat, they looked around with some concern. "Foster's right," Mangakai said. "It is small."
"No problem," Foster said, as he ascended from the lower chamber. "By the time we've finished, this will just be a hallway!"
"Just as well… OK, Paul, do you have work plans for us?"
"Indeed I do." Foster handed round plastic folders with numbers on their front covers. "Two things to begin with. Firstly, as you know, we'll be working round the clock, in shifts. Three of us will sleep upstairs, while the other three get stuck in down below. We've determined that the sound levels are kept down by the floor insulation and closing the hatch there." He pointed. "We'll start the shift pattern at 1800 today, Lunar UTC. We've got supplies enough to keep ourselves fed and watered for three days, and digging equipment and other tools are in a storage capsule outside. Second, we will make a trip to Moonbase once a day, at 0800, to fetch and deliver. Only three of us are experienced at surface travel - that's me, Tony, and Karel - so each trip will take one experienced man and one 'trainee' who will learn on the job. Also, we will rotate personnel, so don't expect to spend more than two weeks at a time here. Any questions?"
"We were told that Moonbase will cover us for alien attack," Craddock said, "and that a new ground station is already being built for that purpose. What about other emergencies? I suppose we'll have to withdraw to Moonbase if things go pear-shaped?"
"That's right, but only if we can't fix things ourselves. I confidently expect that at worst, we'll just have to suit up and shout at Tony." At this, the Oriental grinned. Foster continued: "But if he can't fix it and we do have to evacuate, Gay will send over a couple of hoppers and we'll cram into those and go home… Anything else? Good. OK, Tony, let's see your stuff. Gather round, everyone - we'll take a look, and see how well they go with what we've got!"
* * *
Straker walked in to SHADO Control a little after 8pm. He exchanged smiles and a few words with some of the staff, and made his way to the command office. Freeman was seated at the big lucite desk; he looked up from the report he was studying, as the door opened.
"Ah, there you are," he greeted his friend. "Good trip?"
"Good all round… No, it's OK, don't get up." Freeman resumed his seat, and Straker perched on one of the pillar seats opposite. "All very quiet, isn't it!"
"So far," Freeman agreed. "Now, to bring you up to date: I've arranged for Carter to 'drop in', tomorrow. Not here, but at the IAC. Do you want to do the talking or shall I?"
"We'd better not both go. Henderson will think we're ganging up on him… We could send Ginny, of course. She should be back from Woomera by now."
"Got back yesterday," Freeman confirmed. "OK, sounds good. I'll give her a bell."
"Great… Now, has the 'special equipment' been shipped?"
"First load is already on its way, as of an hour ago," Freeman told him. "It will need two more, but Factory 1 is on standby, so your friend Victor should have everything he needs within the week. And Moonbase will stay on yellow until it's all got through."
'Factory 1' was the orbital manufacturing facility, whose primary task was to collect up as much of the wandering 'space junk' as it could. Someone at NASA or somewhere had pointed out that all those defunct satellites and parts incorporated some very useful materials and components, and should be retrieved and used rather than be sent to a fiery end in Earth's atmosphere. Accordingly, Straker's 'Maddox Project' had been modified, and was showing signs of beginning to pay for itself. A few of the larger discarded boosters had been collected and brought together in a convenient orbit, to form the nucleus of a space station. From time to time, when there was spare payload capacity in Earth launches, extra life-support supplies and other equipment were sent up to the facility, in small chunks which were accumulated into larger modules. Fuel unused by shuttles on their ground-to-orbit transfers, which would normally be burned off to reduce re-entry mass, was instead now 'siphoned off' into a container and left for Factory 1 to retrieve, and use in its own ‘space-trawling’ activities. So successful had this whole salvage programme been, that one or two people had been wondering aloud about nuclear waste disposal by this means, with the Factory collecting the loads and sending them to a remote location on the moon; but the IAC had firmly vetoed this.
Straker nodded, and was silent for a few moments. "About the 'other matter'," he said, carefully.
"Ah, yes." Freeman got up, and walked over to the mini-bar. He poured himself a stiff Scotch, cocked an eyebrow at Straker, and received a head-shake. Taking a sip, he took another folder from the desk, and brought it over, seating himself at the end of the long conference table. He handed the folder to Straker.
"That was quick," his friend said, leafing through it.
"I don't tend to hang around." Freeman took another sip. "Ed, there's something odd here. It's clear that Diane and Robert never were married, not in the States and not even here, though they did meet in the UK. If she's told Marion otherwise, that would be remarkably silly. People would see through it very quickly."
"As, indeed, Marion did," Straker said, thoughtfully. "That rather suggests this 'we're married' claim is something of a smokescreen. Or she's desperate for cash. Or property."
"Marion's place in Jersey, the one your father bought? That would have gone to Robert, and then to you?"
"That's what I had in mind, yeah."
"I should watch yourself," Freeman said. He was hiding a smile.
"Well," Freeman said, "if she was after Robert because of the cottage, then with Robert now out of the picture, she'll come after you."
"Please, no," Straker muttered. “She’s definitely not my type.”
"Well, anyway, here's something that will interest you," Freeman continued. "There may be a connection between her and Harry Flynn, one of our civvy directors. And Harry has suddenly started talking about an idea for a series of historicals in the Channel Islands. Wants to 'use' some of their older houses in a drama set around the time of the Reformation - 16th century, or thereabouts. Marion's cottage is that old, you told me."
"Sure is. And it has a few interesting features, like a 'priest hole'."
Straker thought back. He had visited the house a few times, when he was much younger, but had not stayed there any length of time. He recalled a few things about it. The building was certainly old; it dated back to before the Reformation, the time in Britain and Europe when the Christian Church was riven by dissent, with each of the numerous offshoots at each other's throats, driven by politics rather than faith questions. Refugees from persecution on all sides sought shelter and hiding with friends; as a result, larger buildings like John Charles' cottage had been equipped with 'priest holes', small rooms hidden cunningly in the fabric of the structure, where a fugitive could hide while his enemies searched for him.
Straker knew this particular hidey-hole, rather too well. It was indeed small. It was well-ventilated, and supplied with water from an underground spring, and it even had a privy; but these services were so cunningly hidden that they did not betray the place to even the most assiduous of seekers.
He said as much to Freeman, who frowned. "A good place to hide, I agree," he said, "but we could speculate forever about why Ms Matthews should want to hide out, there or anywhere. She doesn't have a record - first thing I checked."
"Perhaps she wants to hide someone else there."
"Ouch," Freeman said, thoughtfully. "Could be, easily. An alien, perhaps?"
"Maybe. Of course, you've got an observer in place?"
"I have indeed," Freeman confirmed.
"And you mentioned a possible connection between Matthews and Flynn?"
"Yes. It seems they were lovers a couple of years ago. She threw him over."
"Think he could be trying to bring her back to him?"
Freeman gave a nod.
"Hmm," Straker said, with a frown. "I guess we have to be careful not to over-speculate about this. We need more data… Let's leave it that Matthews wants something from Marion, could be money, could be the cottage, could be something else entirely. But we'll watch Marion - and we'll watch Harry Flynn."
* * *
The quarters assigned to Lieutenant Harrington at Alpha were small - though larger than her own cubicle, back at Moonbase - but comfortable. Dr Sue Grant was quite friendly, and showed her round the base. The ILFC Chair was slightly apologetic about the untidiness, but it did not worry Joan, who recognised that it was simply down to the fact that Alpha was still very much under construction. In any case, Joan had herself been present when Moonbase itself was being built, and that had been even more chaotic for a while.
In fact, all of the Alpha personnel were friendly, though many were puzzled; but they did not try to 'pump' her for information, for which Joan was grateful.
Nor did she have any real problems with her primary contacts, Koenig and Bergman; though the professor did keep calling her 'my dear'. She wouldn't have stood that even from Commander Straker… but at least Bergman didn't seem to mean anything disparaging by it, and otherwise treated her very professionally.
Even so, she would love to get him on the wrong end of a fencing foil.
* * *
It had been a long day at M2. Not, Foster thought, as long as the lunar day - about a fortnight of daylight - but twenty hours was quite long enough.
He yawned. "OK, Tony, let's see if I've got everything… You want controllers for the ground station so we can operate it from here if necessary, take the load off Moonbase. You want the extra life-support supply pods - you say those can be, er, 'air-dropped'?
"We'll have to find a better description for that," Tony said, with a grin, "but yeah, we can have Factory 1 toss them over."
"Hope their aim's good," Foster said. "OK, I'll talk to our contact there about that. Anything else?"
"Some potted plants. Like the ones they have in Central Park."
"Noted… Any goldfish?" Foster said, slyly. Tony Mangakai's tropical fish hobby was legendary.
The Oriental grimaced. "Koi carp, please! No, I'll have to work on Straker a bit more before he'll authorise a 'duck pond' up here."
"Good luck with that," Foster smiled. He checked through his case to make sure he had everything he wanted it, closed it, and shook Mangakai's hand. "Well, Tony, you're in charge for the next fortnight. Have fun. I'll be in touch!"
* * *
"Kat here… I thought you might like to know," the redhead said into the phone in the 'hush' booth. She did not attempt to whisper, or even lower her voice; that would attract more suspicion than talking normally and trusting to the canopy to mute her words. "Harry tells me your friend is due back day after tomorrow. He should stick around for a couple of weeks, then he's off again… No, Harry doesn't know where… The other news is, his girlfriend has a couple of days off herself… Yes, the one who does fencing… Seems Angela wanted her for a part, but she's busy on this training course, whatever it is… OK. Will do."
Kat hung up, and walked back to the Harlington-Straker canteen kitchen, to resume the washing-up. Still, she mused, it helps pay the bills.
* * *
The pressure at the Farnborough training facility did not let up, in more than one sense of the word.
Chrys Jones had sessions in the centrifuge every three days. During the high-g period, she had been quizzed by her instructor on technical questions; and now they had added dexterity practice. She wondered if any of the tutors had ever tried threading a needle at 3g while trying to do long division in her head!
The classroom instruction was also becoming more intense. The curriculum began to include such off-beat subjects as ballet, with accompanying practice sessions. Chrys could understand why; she had had ballet lessons in her childhood, and though she was no Margot Fonteyn, they helped her physical co-ordination considerably, especially with the fencing. In the context of the astronaut training course, they would help in zero-g manoeuvering.
That reminded her that she was due for a ride in the 'Vomit Comet' next week. She hoped she would not make the aircraft live up to its name.
Still, at least she had the weekend off. She had batted her eyelashes at the instructor, and persuaded him to schedule the break so that it would coincide with Paul being home.
She was really missing him. She just hoped he was missing her, too.
* * *
When Kat returned to her apartment from the evening shift at the studio, her friend was waiting for her in the small garden, seated on one of the chairs, partly hidden by an apple tree. Diane got up as Kat reached the door, and came over. The two greeted each other, smiling, and went inside. The lift took them to the floor where Kat had rented her apartment.
"Long day?" Diane enquired.
"Very," Kat agreed. She punched in the entry code on the lock, and the door opened, the hall light coming on in response to their presence. "C'mon in, and take a seat. I'll get us some drinks."
"Thanks," Diane said, and followed Kat into the apartment. "Just fruit juice for me, please.
"Where's Pete?" Kat enquired, as she went into the kitchen annexe.
"He's at a scripting conference. Won't be back until late, told me not to wait up."
"Want something to eat?" Kat called, reaching into a cupboard for some glasses.
"I've eaten, thanks," Diane said. "I won't stay long, you'll be wanting your own supper… Thanks," she added, accepting the glass of fruit juice that Kat held out. "You said Foster was due home tomorrow?"
"That's right. And Jones will be around as well, perhaps tonight. Shall I go downstairs?"
"Do that. I'll wait here."
The redhead hurried downstairs. She nodded to the janitor at the desk, and moved to the hushphone, making a great show of searching through her handbag. finding some coins, she lifted the handset, and dialled. She began a conversation with an answerphone, hoping she would not have to wait long. Pete had said that Jones should be along shortly after 8 pm. She checked her watch; five minutes past…
The big entrance doors slid open, and Chrys Jones walked in.
Quickly, Kat hit the cut-off, and dialled her own intercom line. Diane answered.
"She's here," Kat whispered. "That Ms Jones. She's in the foyer."
"Good. Stay there, OK?" Diane's own voice cut off.
The redhead put the handset down, nibbling her lip, not at all sure she was doing the right thing. Fine, this Jones woman had stolen Paul from her friend; but this seemed to be an awfully complex way of getting him back!
And it was not only complex, it was distinctly spiteful. She had wondered whether Diane was after revenge, in some way, on Paul Foster.
She had tried to press Diane for details, but her friend would not be drawn. All Diane would say was that she had met Paul once, many years ago, and he had tried to steal her from Robert; and in doing so, had wrecked that relationship. That gave support to the revenge idea; but somehow, Kat was not satisfied.
In fact, she was becoming more than a little disturbed. Perhaps, she thought, she should talk to someone at the studio about it. Possibly the personnel manager, that nice Mr Freeman. Certainly not the boss… She shivered a little. Mr Straker was OK, usually friendly unless he was in 'disciplinary' mode, but he would have little patience with this kind of problem.
In the corridor, Diane paused, listening for the lift. At the ping of its arrival, she hurried to the door to Paul's apartment, and placed her hand on the handle.
Footsteps approached. A voice said: "Hello? Can I help?"
She swung round as though startled. "Oh… No, it's all right, thanks. I was wondering if Paul was back yet. He isn't."
With that, she ran for the lift, and dashed inside. The doors closed.
Chrys Jones frowned. "Now what was all that about," she muttered. "As if I didn't know?"
She let herself into the apartment, and closed the door behind her. She had come with the intention of leaving a note saying she would be in town for two days, and suggesting a get-together. Now she was wondering what she should do.
Wandering over to the window, she gazed out over the town, thinking. She was a little surprised at the strength of her own reaction to that girl.
You know what he's like, Chrys told herself. You've known from the start. So why would you be surprised? Why let this hurt you so much? Because you care for him, that's why. You hate it when he hurts himself like this, when he hurts you.
Her own thoughts startled her. That was it, she suddenly realised. He's not meaning to hurt himself. He's looking for something. He hasn't found it. But, like a fool, she had thought he had found what he wanted with her.
It seemed she was wrong.
Should she break it off now? Should she waste no more time on him, on a relationship that was never going to go anywhere?
She looked down at her clasped hands; and a tear splashed onto her fingers.
She drew a deep breath, looked up at the sky. She had decided. She would give Paul Foster one more chance. She scribbled a note on the message pad by the telephone, then left the apartment.
From the foyer, Diane Matthews watched her exit from the lift, and walk out into the night.
* * *
Foster arrived back at his apartment shortly before midday. As he walked down the corridor, he saw the redhead who had asked him to take in a parcel for her, which he had had to decline.
"Hi!" he called. "Did you get your stuff OK?"
"Yes, I did, thanks," she smiled. "Ken gave it to me yesterday. How did your trip go? You look a bit tired."
"A little," Foster admitted. "Travel takes it out of me sometimes." Especially when I've done half a million miles of it, he added to himself.
"Me too! Hey, would you like some coffee?"
"Sounds great, and do call me Paul! What's your name?"
"Katerina," she smiled. "Come on in, and I'll load the percolator."
Oh well, why not, Foster thought. And I could do with some light company… She showed him through into the living room, and told him to take a seat, then went into the kitchen alcove. He gazed around. The place was, naturally enough, similar to his own in general layout, but where he had made changes to personalise it, she seemed to have left it in its basic though tidy state.
"Been here long?" he called to her.
"A few months only. Up until last year I was living mostly Stateside."
"What brought you to the UK?"
Katerina came back in bearing a tray, which held two mugs, a percolator, and a plate of small biscuits. "I lost my husband," she said. "That was a few years ago, actually… I stayed at our place for a bit, then I decided that what I needed was a complete change."
She put the tray down onto a small table, then plugged the percolator into a wall socket nearby. After a few moments it began to gurgle. Paul glanced at her left hand; yes, there was a golden band on the third finger. "Sorry to hear about your husband," he said. "How are you getting on?"
"Oh, OK I suppose… I do have a few friends here, that's one reason why I came to Harlington. Nice place. I got a job - at the studios, as it happens, in their canteen."
"And the other reason?" Foster smiled.
"Yes, you're right," she sighed, with a small but mischievous grin. "I do have an ulterior motive. I'm looking for a job. An acting job. Ken told me you work at the studios?"
"I do," Foster confirmed, his smile widening. "Of course, there are a few things we would need to check first: do you have any experience, do you have an agent, and do you have a work permit?"
"Yes to all three." Katerina opened her handbag and took out a business card case. She opened it, and withdrew a card, which she handed to Foster. "I'm using my married name still, Arrowsmith - my maiden name is Lucas. My agent's name is Matt Zimmerman. The studio may know him. He can confirm all the boring-but-necessary admin stuff for you."
"Good… And then, you'd need to audition. I should warn you, we aren't actively recruiting at the moment, but we do keep a register of actors on standby."
"Even that would be good… Hey, the coffee's ready, I'll pour." She filled two mugs with aromatic brown liquid. "Cream?"
"Black, for me… What kind of roles d'you prefer?"
"Drama, mainly, but I'll try anything." She passed him the sugar bowl, and he helped himself.
"Tell me about your experience," Foster invited. He sipped at his coffee. It was just what the doctor ordered. "How did you get started?"
"Amateur dramatics. School productions, to begin with. I liked being on stage, acting out stories. I joined a club. I was noticed by a talent scout. My parents were very careful, though, they made sure there was no funny business."
"That's good," Foster approved. "That sort of thing is the bane of the profession, I'm afraid."
"I did bits and pieces, mainly for TV. Walk-on parts, extras, the occasional advert. I won a scholarship to a Shakespeare school, I loved that. Then I met Mark."
"Was he in the trade?"
"No, he was a biochemist," she smiled, a little sadly.
"However did you meet?" Foster asked with a grin.
"It was the strangest thing," she said, thoughtfully. "A sort of chain of coincidences. A chance meeting on a subway train. Then he turned up at the place I was working at the time, he was supposed to be meeting someone. That someone never appeared. So we went and had a coffee and a commiserate… and one thing led to another. We married a year later."
Something about the situation bothered Foster. She didn't seem to be grieving much over her husband, he thought. Granted, it had been a few years now, so the initial intensity would a lessened a little; but she seemed somehow too cool about it.
And yet she still wore his ring, and used her married name.
Foster knew that actors had to have good control over their emotions, at least while they were acting. They needed to project what the part demanded, not let their own feelings colour the performance. With most of them, though, they let that control lapse when they were 'off-stage'. He had seen some magnificent tantrums at times. Katerina seemed perhaps a little too controlled; but maybe that was how she handled her grief.
Well, he could check one thing, at least… "How about you give me a quick preview?" he suggested, with a smile. "Impress me."
She gave a tiny shrug. "Sure. What would you like?"
"Hmm… How about some Lady Macbeth?"
"OK," Paul said. He put down his mug, leaned back in the chair. "Go for it. In your own time."
Putting her own mug beside his, Katerina stood up. She stood quite still, motionless but not rigid, gazing into the distance, towards Foster but not at him. Her face changed. Her eyelids drooped, a little, so that she seemed sleepy. Slowly she brought her hands up to waist level, and began to rub them together, as though she were washing with invisible soap. Her sleepy gaze dropped to her hands, and she rubbed harder.
"Out, damned spot! Out, I say!" she hissed. She glanced up, her head tilted as though she listened. "One, two. Why, then, ‘tis time to do ‘t. Hell is murky!" Her gazed dropped again, moved to the side. She said, as though she was talking to someone else: "Fie, my lord, fie! A soldier, and afeard? What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account?" She stopped, suddenly. She stared down at her hands. She whispered, softly: "Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him…"
Her hands dropped. Her head came up. Her shoulders relaxed. She smiled at Foster. "What d'you think, Mr Studio Executive?"
"I think," Foster answered, "that you and your Mr Zimmerman should go along to the studios this afternoon, and talk to our casting director. Her name's Angela Dixon. Give her my card." He took a card from his wallet, scribbled a few words on the back, and handed it to her.
"Thank you, Paul, that's great!"
"No problem at all… But I have to go, now. Lots to do. Thank you for the coffee, I really needed it."
"A pleasure," she smiled, as she led the way to the door. "Hope to see you round the studio some time!"
Foster took his leave, then went back to his own apartment. He checked the security tell-tale, which showed green; the apartment's monitors had registered only normal traffic in his absence. He stepped inside, closing the door behind him.
Indeed, the place was tidier than he had left it. He took his travelbag into the bathroom and opened it, emptying the contents of his 'used' bag into the laundry basket. He took out his document folder, and carried it to the living area, setting it down on the table.
He checked the phone message pad, and smiled. He lifted the handset and dialled Chrys' number; but of course, she was out. He would have to try again later; or perhaps go round there himself.
There was a note from the housekeeper, Carol, on the dresser. It was a short list of the tasks she had done around the place, and a comment that he needed some more supplies of some items. She had added them to his shopping order for this month. Efficient lady, he thought appreciatively. I'll have to increase her 'tip'.
He checked the fridge. Carol had prepared him some sandwiches for his lunch, in a closed box. He took them out, laid them on a plate, and put the plate and a small glass of orange juice on a tray to take to the table where he had left his folder.
His original brief list of tasks was now fleshed out considerably, and it determined his schedule for the next fortnight: contacting suppliers, getting fabrication started, selecting personnel. It was going to be a busy time.
* * *
The car drew up on the gravel outside Straker's house. Before he opened the car's gullwing door, he checked his security link.
The digital lock reported that the house was currently empty, and that there had only been three 'actions' since midnight. One was his own, when he had left for work this morning; and the other two carried the ID of his housekeeper, June Baines. She had also left him a message, asking if he required a training session. He smiled, and sent a response to her pager, confirming and suggesting a meeting at four pm. That would give them time for an hour's practice, and he could be showered and changed in good time for his evening shift at the studios.
All was in order. He climbed out of the car and let himself into his house. Closing the door behind him, he walked through into the living area, and laid his briefcase down on the desk in the work alcove. He went to the kitchen annexe and poured himself a tall glass of orange juice - squeezed that morning, by Mrs Baines - and returned to the desk.
He set a timer on the desk clock for 15:50, opened the briefcase, and set himself to work. When the device beeped at him, he was a little startled that the time had gone by so quickly. He locked his documents back into the case. Making sure the rear door was unlatched, he went to his bedroom alcove and changed quickly into gym kit.
The gym was a large room at the rear of the building. He had kept equipment to a minimum, but the place had a treadmill, an exercise bike, a climbing frame, and weights of various sizes for single or two-handed use. The floor mat in the centre of the room was large enough to give plenty of space for unarmed combat practice.
"Ah, there you are."
He turned, to see his housekeeper. "Hello, Mrs Baines. Thank you for coming," Straker smiled. "Whenever you're ready - Ouch!!"
"Not warmed up yet? Dear, dear."
She let go. Straker climbed to his feet, massaging his arm. Together they went through a series of stretches, loosening up, ready for the session.
"That should do nicely," she said, after some ten minutes. "Let's get kitted up."
"As you say."
Straker opened a locker, to reveal equipment he had bought at Baines' suggestion: jackets, plastrons, gloves, shoes, socks, breeches and masks. "I always think this looks like a mediaeval suit of armour," he commented.
"That's essentially what it is - or at least, developed from. They didn't have Kevlar in those days, though."
"And this is the contact sensor?" Straker fingered a garment that had a slight metallic sheen.
"The lamé. That's right. And here's the scoring box." Baines held it up; it was connected to the sensor overjacket by a short length of electrical cable.
"There are different swords, aren't there, I seem to remember?"
"That's right. I'll start you with the foil - it's lighter, and the target area is principally the torso, neck and groin, not the head or limbs. And you thrust, you don't cut."
"OK, let's go for it."
She handed him a sword. It was a fencing foil, a length of flexible steel with a handgrip at one end and a blunt, spring-loaded button at the point of the blade. Placing her hand gently on the tip of one of the foils, she pushed, showing how the blade bent easily under the pressure.
"Some of these have sensors in the tips to record a hit," she explained. "Otherwise the ref has to watch the blade."
"At its most basic level," Mrs. Baines continued, gazing thoughtfully at Mr. Straker, "fencing boils down to two areas… footwork and managing your weapon." Tapping the tip of her rapier against Straker's, her lips turned upward in a semblance of a smile. "Your main goal is always to keep your opponent at a distance with your blade."
Listening to her words, Straker hoped he'd prove capable enough and not end up looking like a schoolboy stumbling over his own two feet.
"I'll run you through a series of positions." Taking up a stance, Mrs. Baines continued: "When you go to attack, which is also known as a thrust - " She glanced at Straker to make sure he was paying attention. "Extend your sword arm like so." After showing him, Mrs. Baines walked off to the side to examine his form. "That is how you declare an attack and attempt to land a touch on your opponent."
"Like this?" Performing the movement, Straker observed Mrs. Baines nod her head in approval.
"Now a feint is an attack with the purpose of provoking a reaction from your opponent," she pointed out. Which Mrs. Baines demonstrated for him, forcing Straker to defend his position. As he responded with a clumsy lunge, she clucked her tongue. "When executing your lunge remember to perform the thrust by extending your front leg by using a slight kicking motion." Demonstrating again, Mrs. Baines showed him what he had done wrong. "Then you follow through by propelling your body forward with your back leg. Just like this." When she finished, Mrs. Baines waited to see if Straker understood the lesson.
Trying to duplicate her movements proved a trifle difficult for Straker, while his housekeeper watched closely with a rueful shake of her greying head. Wondering for the umpteenth time why he wanted to get involved with fencing in the first place - was he just a little paranoid? - Straker gritted his teeth. He had to admit, even though Mrs. Baines was slightly plump, she moved incredibly fast.
Circling around Straker, Mrs. Baines casually remarked, "It's going to take you some time until you feel as one with your sword." Then, tricking him, she unexpectedly whirled on Straker with a sudden thrust of her blade. It forced him to automatically parry against her. "See how instinctively you defended your position by blocking my weapon as I attacked?" Pleased with how Straker had responded, Mrs. Baines smiled in approval. "You effectively deflected my blade away!"
"Does this mean I'll eventually get an A+ from you?" Chuckling, Straker swished his blade in an arc.
Pursing her lips, Mrs. Baines tilted her head to the side. "Not without considerable effort on your part." She looked down her nose at him. "Right now you're about a C+."
"Ouch!" Feeling duly chastised, Straker went back to work on his lessons.
Seeing the disappointment on his face, Mrs. Baines smiled kindly at her employer. "Don't worry, Mr. Straker. Soon you'll learn to read your opponent and to quickly react to the attacks and defensive manoeuvres. Just like you did only a moment ago." Patting him gently on the arm she added, "Simply remember at all times to be mindful of the distance between you and your opponent and your own foot position during each movement."
"I'll try to pay more attention next time," Straker dryly added, feeling more like a little boy in a schoolroom than the commander of a top-secret organization.
"Next I wanted to show you what to do when you disengage." Getting into position, Mrs. Baines continued to explain. "I attack you in one direction," she said, lunging toward Mr. Straker's right side, "then I quickly move the point of my blade down in a semi-circle to attack you some place else." Which Mrs. Baines did by striking Mr. Straker's left side.
"How do I defend against that?" he asked.
"By answering with what's known as a circle parry," she replied. "It's a parry where you twist your sword in a circle to catch the tip of your opponent's blade and deflect it away from yours." Showing Mr. Straker the movement, Mrs. Baines tapped his rapier with her own to make sure he was listening. "It's commonly used to counter a disengage."
"Well," Straker shook his head, "I think I'll 'disengage' myself from our practice for today, Mrs. Baines." He grinned at her, his blue eyes twinkling. "Thanks for the lessons. I'll look forward to more." Saluting her with his rapier, Straker went to remove his fencing gear.
"One thing, Mr Straker, if I may make so bold."
"Yes?" Bold, she says, he was thinking. When she's come just short of slicing me into ribbons.
"Why this sudden interest in fencing? Is it anything to do with that Musketeers film you boys are making?"
"Partly," he admitted. "A number of the guys have caught the bug, I thought I'd join them."
"In case anyone uses it against you?"
"It could happen," Straker admitted. One of those guys was Paul, he thought, privately… and when Beta completes, his reactions are going to be interesting, to say the least! "But maybe I'm just paranoid. Regardless, it's an interesting discipline… Can I make you some coffee, or are you in a hurry to get away?"
"That would be most welcome," she smiled. "I'll just get changed, and see you in the kitchen."
* * *
For the past two weeks, Paul Foster's schedule had been every bit as hectic as he had feared; but he had managed to pull the suppliers into line, and construction had been started on the most urgent items. He had even been able to schedule a few payloads to the orbiting Factory, where they could be packed for 'cargo drops' to the Moon. Alpha would handle their reception, and channel the SHADO portion of the cargo to Moonbase.
Now he had some time to consider the personnel requirements. For a couple of moments, he seriously considering adding Chrys as a possible; but regretfully decided against it. Chrys had made it quite clear that she wanted to become an Interceptor pilot; and indeed, as such, she might well end up being assigned to M2, in the future. But her current training course was oriented to service at Moonbase.
And, besides, Commander Straker would not approve of what he would certainly view as favouritism.
* * *
Koenig found Bergman in the lab. The scientist was half inside an equipment locker, with only his legs showing. "Victor!" he called. "C'mon out of there, we've got a problem!"
There was a muffled grumbling, and the scientist shuffled backwards, banging his head slightly on the top edge of the hatchway. "Ouch! What's up?"
"Beta supplies, that's what," Koenig said, grimly. "I've just been checking it out. Some of the rather larger items are absent - but the manifest says they were packed OK."
Bergman knew that Koenig was referring to Straker's 'specials'. "Let me guess," he said. "It's the long-range stuff that's been left out."
"You got it," Koenig confirmed.
"Right. Show me what we've actually got… and then I think Mr Hutchinson had better have a word with his opposite number on the ground. Grab Joan, will you? I think she's talking to Sue right now."
* * *
Straker was in the command office, checking through Foster's summary of progress, when his intercom bleeped at him. It was Ford, telling him he had a call from Alpha. Straker pressed the button on the video link, and the small screen lit up to show the face of Joan Harrington, with Victor Bergman in the background. The scientist did not look happy.
"Hello," Straker said. "What's up?"
"We have a problem, sir," Joan answered. "I'll let 'Starsky' here tell you about it."
"Thank you, my dear," Bergman said, as he turned the pickup towards himself. He was not quite quick enough to miss Lieutenant Harrington's glare.
Straker hid a smile; but he had not missed the 'Starsky' reference. That mean the problem was with Plan Beta. "What's the trouble, Victor?" he enquired.
"We've had a delivery," Bergman answered. "The special, from the IAC. But I tell you. if it had been from the local Chinese takeaway I'd be registering a complaint."
"Tell me," Straker invited. He was thinking: No surprises there, I suspect.
"Well, John's been looking through it, and he's called in Mr Hutchinson. Seems the 'special fried rice' has plenty of rice and peas, but no prawns."
Straker frowned. "None at all?"
"Nary a one. A few shrimps, true, but they won't go far among this crew of gannets."
Sometimes, Straker thought, Bergman's 'security metaphors' ran away with him… "They were on the order, weren't they? At least the one I saw."
"And they're on the packing note," Joan confirmed. "But instead, other things were substituted. Perhaps you'd better have a word with the depot."
Straker thought for a few moments. "Well, tell Hutchinson not to worry too much. As our local takeaway obviously can't handle an order this complex, let me have the order numbers and I'll get some over to you myself… Any other problems?"
"Not so far," Bergman said. "Oh - we're due to receive an, er, 'air drop' from the Factory, some of which is for M2, some for us."
"Good. Better let Hutchinson check out your part of that shipment. Alas, I don't think the Factory does prawns, but he might find something of interest anyway."
Joan thanked him, and signed off. She turned to Koenig. "When's that drop due?"
"About an hour," the colonel said, puzzled. "But he doesn't even know what's missing yet!"
"One thing you'll learn about the commander," Joan said dryly as she rose to her feet, "is that he always has backups in place. In layers… C'mon, let's get over there and watch the drop."
* * *
The link cut off, and Straker immediately hit the intercom button for the upstairs office. Miss Ealand's voice responded. "Yes, Mr Straker?"
"Is Alec around?"
"He's talking to Ms Dixon, on the 'Musketeers' set. Shall I call him for you?"
"No, don't worry. I'll come over. I could do with some fresh air."
He made his way over to the sound stage. Freeman was there, talking with Harry Flynn, the director. Angela Dixon was across the set in deep discussion with one of the actors, a man called Pete Bentley.
"Hi, Ed," Freeman greeted him. "Problem?"
"James. He's messed up my order for supplies."
"OK," Freeman said. "Look, Harry, you must excuse me, we need to sort this out or there won't be a film at all… Any problems, let Angela know, I'll check back with her later."
"OK," Flynn said, a little grumpily. He turned back to his crew.
Freeman followed Straker out of the building. "I take it this is those 'beta supplies' you were talking about?"
"Somehow," Freeman said carefully, "I don't think there's much point in complaining to James, not at this late stage. We'll just have to do the best with what we have. Or get some direct from the Factory and process it ourselves."
"I quite agree. I've told Hutchinson to do exactly that."
"Do you think we'd have to move things forward? In case our Visitors arrive early?"
"I've no doubt they're on the doorstep as we speak," Straker said. "They will want to be a surprise… I need to talk to Paul. He may need help to be ready in time. There's a bus leaving tomorrow morning. Give him a call, tell him to grab his bag and meet me at the stop."
"I'll do that," Freeman said. "Drive safely."
"Don't I always?" Straker said; but he was not smiling.
* * *
The two Alpha men and the SHADO liaison made their way to the landing pad. Sandra Benes was in the control pod, bringing in the cargo vessel from the Factory. She greeted them in a somewhat preoccupied manner.
"Glad you came over, saves me having to call you," she said, over her shoulder, most of her attention on the screens. "Most of the cargo is for someone called Hutchinson, supposed to work for you. Who's he? I don't know anyone of that name on the base."
"It means it's for one of my gravity projects," Bergman explained, straight-faced.
"Ah." Benes thought she understood. It was not uncommon for scientists to keep the early stages of their work under wraps before they were ready to publish. Sometimes the more practical aspects of that work had to be kept confidential as well, especially if there was any prospect of taking out a patent. Bergman and others already had enough of those going under Alpha's 'umbrella' to produce a steady finance stream, much to the ILFC's delight.
The trio watched in silence as Benes expertly guided the huge unmanned vessel to a neat touchdown on the pad. Its engines shut off, and the lunar dust kicked up by its landing fell gracefully to the ground. Benes touched another switch, and the pad segment holding the vessel began to sink down into the hangar below Alpha.
"OK, you can go down there and collect your goodies," she told them. "Should be released in about 25 minutes."
"Thanks, Sandra." The trio made for the lift, heading for the unloading bay.
* * *
Foster was glad to get Straker's call. The past few weeks had not been going well for him and Chrys Jones.
She was becoming - well, not moody exactly, he thought. More 'unpredictable'. She seemed happy enough to see him, when he visited the apartment in Farnborough that she shared with some of the other trainees; but her manner was becoming somewhat guarded. She made occasional jokes about whether he was 'behaving himself' while they were apart; but they seemed somehow forced. When he tried in return to tease her about her male co-trainees, she became edgy and distant, not quite angry; so he dropped the attempt. And, somehow, he was quite sure it was not because she had found someone else.
Foster was not aware that his problems and Chrys's had been noticed by the commander, who had notified Alec Freeman of his concern. Since the inception of SHADO, with Freeman as its first recruit, one of his functions had been to monitor the staff's welfare, to act as a point of contact for people to discuss any problems they might have. As the staff was aware, he talked over those with the commander, even the most private of matters. It was understood among SHADO personnel that there could be no privacy, not in their high-security environment.
And, of course, in the specific case of 'Project Foster', Freeman was already paying very careful attention to all aspects of the colonel's life and of his associates.
For the moment, though, Freeman was not overly concerned. He had seen similar phases in Foster's affairs with women in the past, several times. This relationship was rather different, and he was glad of the fact; but he was more than a little puzzled. Chrys Jones was evidently angry, and getting angrier, though so far it was not affecting her performance in the training course; and her anger was more than a little tinged with disappointment, as though she was feeling let down by Foster. And Foster himself was reacting not with guilt, but with pained surprise, as though he was entirely innocent of whatever it was that she suspected.
So far, Freeman had not felt it necessary to intervene, even on a casual, informal level; but he had been beginning to wonder if he should ask Straker to program those computers of his to analyse the situation. And then Ed had brought up the subject of Paul’s relationship himself. After the two had talked the matter over, Freeman put the ‘computerising’ idea on his mental 'back burner', until ‘Project Foster’ had concluded – one way or the other.
* * *
"Now that," Bergman said in satisfaction, "is much more like it."
He and Koenig were gazing down at a few modules that Joan had opened. They did not appear to contain any weapons. "What the hell's this?" Koenig demanded. "It's just a load of spare parts!"
"Of course it is," Joan said. "Come on, help me unload this lot onto the caddy."
Puzzled and disappointed, Koenig nevertheless helped her with the transfer. "Look, Lieutenant," he grumbled, "we need weapons, if what Straker says is even halfway true. So what's he playing at?"
"Have you taken a closer look, John?" Bergman heaved another load out of its module. He checked the label, and gave a nod. "This one goes over here, I think, my dear," he said, to Joan.
"Well," Koenig said, glancing at his module, "this is part of an excavator - "
"The business end - " Koenig stopped, abruptly. He bent to examine another item, and began to smile. "This one is a comms laser. A big one. Really big."
"And here we have… let's see," Joan added. "Ah yes. A drone, a robotic surveying torp. With an empty payload space."
"Let me guess… And a souped-up propulsion unit for long-range surveying?"
"You got it!"
Straker, it appeared, had come through in spades. The cargo did indeed consist of 'spare parts'; but with a little ingenuity they could quickly be assembled into long-range cruise torps, powerful infra-red lasers, and atomic mortars. None of the components had identifiable manufacturers' labels; just a set of serial numbers, and dates. Clearly the Factory had been making these things themselves, over the last few years - but not for any of the usual commercial concerns. It had to be a special project for SHADO.
"When the Beta crew starts putting this lot together," Koenig said, "they'll know we're expecting trouble."
"True, but they won't know who from," Joan pointed out. "Right, call them in, and let's get it deployed!"
As Koenig moved to the comms panel, Bergman wondered why, exactly, Straker had resorted to this covert means of getting weaponry equipment past Henderson. He doubted whether the general had any idea these 'spare parts' existed; and when he found out, as he would when Straker's predictions played out, he would feed the commander to the lions.
A jaundiced eye - and there were few eyes more jaundiced then Henderson's - would have seen here a serious and audacious bid for supremacy, an attempt to 'take over the world'. Bergman did not believe that for a second. He trusted his friend implicitly, believed him utterly. He knew that Straker was not interested in any kind of power grab. But, of course, Ed was very interested in other matters - such as attacks from unexpected quarters; including from their own side.
* * *
The LM carrying Foster and Straker lowered itself gently into the landing cradle. Its engines shut down. The two occupants made their way to the access lift, and emerged into the Reception dome.
"So far, so good," Foster commented, as he unlatched his helmet visor. "Better leave these on, I suppose, if we're going out again?"
"We are… but I want a word with Gay first. See you in the garage, she's got a moonmobile ready for us."
Foster headed for the garage. He took a fresh 'life pack' from the recharging rack, and swapped it for his own, since regs demanded that all lunar EVAs should start with a fresh unit even if the one being changed had only been partly used.
Straker's own route took him up to Control. Lieutenant Ellis was waiting for him, a document folder ready. "Alpha reports they are ready, sir. And remote survey reports some activity," she said, indicating the items on the page.
"Not much so far," Straker observed. "Only a couple of UFOs… But I've no doubt more will be joining them. Activate Plan Beta, Phase 1."
"Noted, Commander," Gay said. "Please, sir, be careful."
"Don't worry. Hutchinson's got it in hand."
He flashed her a quick smile, and left the dome. Gay sat at her console and brought the microphone to her lips. "This is Control, to Moonbase and to Alpha. Yellow alert. We are now in Plan Beta, Phase One. Repeat, yellow alert, Beta One."
In the Interceptor hangars, three astronauts slid down the pressurised access chutes into their flight couches. The canopies closed, and the chutes withdrew. Wojnycz reported their readiness back to Control.
In the garage, two armed moonmobiles stood ready to evacuate personnel from M2, leaving only those necessary to operate the weapons installed there.
The robotic ground defence stations around Moonbase came to readiness. The unit dedicated to defending M2 rose from its own subsurface shelter into the barren lunar landscape, its weapons online.
The moonmobile carrying Straker and Foster set off from Moonbase across the Mare. When they arrived at M2, Paul Foster called his crew together. "Commander Straker has activated Beta, Phase One," he told them. "That means we can expect a UFO attack, very soon. Beta requires us to defend Alpha, since they aren't yet equipped to handle an attack themselves… and be ready to evacuate M2, per Phase Two."
At Moonbase Alpha, however, Bergman and Koenig had a quite different idea in mind. They had been up for close to thirty hours, overseeing the assembly of the 'special equipment' and carrying out such tests as were possible. Satisfied, Koenig directed that everyone involved take a 'fast sleep' capsule, which would give them perhaps twenty minutes of deep rest. When they awoke, he deployed his picked crew to man the 'gun turrets', ready for the all-out assault they knew must come.
And at SHADO Control on Earth, Alec Freeman fought an urge to chew his fingernails.
* * *
Time crept past. One hour, two, went by: then at last, the signal they had all been expecting came through.
"Deep Space Probe 17 calling SHADO. Please be advised that craft are congregating in Area 37 Red."
"Acknowledged, DSP 17," Lieutenant Ellis said. "M2, Alpha, did you copy?"
Confirmations came in. From M2, Straker ordered: "All stations, go to Beta Phase Two. I say again, go to Beta Two."
Phase Two was the signal to evacuate M2. Colonel Foster called Moonbase, ordered the two waiting moonmobiles to set off to collect his crew. The trip would take them perhaps fifteen minutes; they would be covered by the Moonbase dedicated ground station.
The UFOs were still assembling their apparent task force when the transports arrived. Foster ordered his crew to get aboard; then he turned to the commander. "You too, sir."
"I didn't hear that, Colonel," Straker said, casually.
"Commander, I insist - "
"Look, Paul," Straker interrupted, "we could spend all day arguing about this. We don't have all day. So just take it as read that I'm not going anywhere. It will take two of us to handle the guns. Now send Tony and his task-force to Moonbase. And hurry it up. Those UFOs aren't going to wait much longer."
Foster was reminded of the time Straker had ordered him to leave the stricken SkyDiver, to leave the commander, quite probably to his death. Then, as now, there was no arguing with the man. "Tony, get moving. Take them home."
The work team was already suited up. Tony Mangakai ordered them to close their helmets, and then shepherded all four out through the airlock and into the waiting moonmobiles. Within a very few minutes, both craft were on their way back to the comparative safety of Moonbase.
Foster watched their progress, while Straker kept an eye on the monitors. At her end, Gay Ellis watched them in safely, then reported their arrival. "They're home, sir," Foster told the commander.
"Just in time," Straker said, nodding to the screen. "Here they come."
Sure enough, the growing cluster of dots was beginning to move. SID confirmed they were on their way, their target the Mare Imbrium, and M2.
Straker hit the main comms switch. "All stations, this is Commander Straker. Go to Beta Phase Three. I say again, go to Beta Three. We have company!"
Foster checked over his equipment. It was little enough, he knew, to put up against this huge incursion; but he, Straker, and Moonbase were all they had to protect Alpha.
It appeared that, for once, Straker had been wrong. The aliens had no intention of waiting until Alpha was built, as they had apparently waited for SHADO to build Moonbase itself. Evidently, they considered Alpha to be too much of a threat. Even now, it was not completely unarmed; but with the forces now being assembled against it, Foster knew that Alpha stood little chance of survival without substantial help.
The radio beeped at him. The message from Gay confirmed Straker's analysis of the situation. "Moonbase to M2. Confirmed UFOs are moving in. They are initially targeted on you."
Foster looked over the jury-rigged gun-control boards. All were showing green. Straker was at his own station, making his checks. And there, at the top of the tracker screen, the first traces of the attackers were coming into view.
Down here in the former scanner chamber, they had some degree of shelter; but Foster was not fooling himself. He knew their chances of survival were close to zero. He was about to put his helmet on, when behind him there was a slight sound. He began to turn; and then something hit him on the side of the neck, and he collapsed senseless.
Straker knelt beside Foster, felt the pulse in his neck. It beat strongly. He eased Foster's helmet onto his head, and latched it in place, locking the visor closed. He checked that the suit's life-support systems were running, and quickly attached a small cylinder to the colonel's emergency air intake coupling. He turned a control, and it began to hiss. The device would deliver a carefully measured dose of sleep gas, enough to keep Foster under for some thirty minutes. Straker picked him up, easily under this low gravity, and slung him over one shoulder. He walked quickly to the back of the chamber, which was nearest the area they had been calling the ‘Hutchinson zone’, and pressed a hidden button. An equipment rack swung open, revealing a dark entrance to a tunnel leading off in the direction of Moonbase.
The laden man entered, and pressed a button on the wall. The rack swung back into place, and its heavy steel backplate closed the tunnel off to the chamber behind. Dim lights came on overhead, revealing a 'lunar buggy' parked by the wall. Quickly but carefully, Straker lowered Foster into one of the seats and fastened the harness around him; then he climbed into the driving seat, started the electric motor, and drove down the tunnel towards Moonbase as quickly as he could.
A second steel door closed off the tunnel behind him, and pumps began to evacuate air from the tunnel. Enough air had been pumped out that the explosions, when they came, sent only rock-borne tremors rather than a geyser of hot gas that would have done the two escapers - and Moonbase as well, for that matter - no good at all. Even so, M2 must have been destroyed; and now the aliens would turn their attention to Alpha itself.
* * *
The attack began in earnest. At the command station in Moonbase Control, Lieutenant Gay Ellis flinched as she watched the scene on the monitor. At least four UFOs had converged on their target. Ground defences had accounted for one; but the others had dodged the fire and homed in. unleashing tremendous bolts of energy at M2. Two struck it almost simultaneously, and blew the former Dalotek base out of existence.
Praying silently that Ed and Paul had managed to escape from M2, Ellis moved the microphone towards her lips. "Moonbase Control to all stations. Report Beta status, please."
Responses came in from all sides. Joan Harrington's face appeared on the monitor carrying the signal from Alpha. "We are in Beta Three, Lieutenant."
"Good luck," she replied.
They would need it, she thought, as she watched the big screen. It showed that first wave leaving M2 to rejoin a squadron of at least forty UFOs, all headed for Alpha. They were being harried by the Interceptors, and by Moonbase ground defences; but they would get through that screen. They were bunching up, ready for the assault, largely ignoring the defenders.
Then the Interceptors peeled off; and Alpha itself opened fire, with everything it had.
The attacking UFOs never really stood a chance. The 'special equipment' Straker had had delivered to Bergman and his colleagues saw to that. Missile projectors and beam weapons laid down an impenetrable barrier of fire. The UFO formation began to break up as its pilots scattered, trying to escape the destruction, but to no avail. Some regrouped, came in to try a second pass; but they fared no better.
In a very short time, it was all over, and the sky was quiet.
* * *
Foster groaned, and sat up, rubbing his neck. It took him a few moments to realise that he was no longer in the M2 underground chamber. "What the hell - " he muttered.
"Good morning, Paul."
He turned sharply, and then wished he hadn't. No, he hadn't been mistaken; it was indeed Ed Straker, and he was smiling.
"All right. I'll buy it. Why are we in Moonbase sickbay? And how did we get here?"
"We're here because we wouldn't have survived otherwise. I brought you out before the aliens destroyed the place."
"How the hell did they manage that? OK, I know there were a lot of them, but - "
"I ordered them to be let through."
Foster stiffened. "You wanted M2 destroyed??" he demanded, incredulously.
"In preference to Alpha being destroyed, yes," Straker answered. "The aliens didn't realise that Alpha was very heavily armed indeed. So they concentrated on M2 and came so far inside Alpha's range that their entire fleet was taken out."
"You used it as a decoy!" snapped Foster. He came to his feet. "You used me as a decoy! You didn't care whether I got killed - "
"But I did care, Paul," Straker interrupted. "I made arrangements for extracting you from ground zero - or rather, 'Mr Hutchinson' did."
"And just who the blazes is Mr Hutchinson?" Foster demanded.
"He doesn't exist." As Foster began to speak, he added: "It's a 'code phrase' that Victor Bergman devised. It designates measures taken for the defence of Moonbase Alpha, and includes the provision of a safe area for people to withdraw to from M2, in case of attack. That refuge essentially consists of a tunnel straight to here. There's now quite a warren of underground passages, with us and with Alpha, so Victor called this refuge a 'rabbit hutch'."
"And you didn't see fit to tell me about this."
"No, Paul. I couldn't, not until the aliens had taken the bait. I even had to sedate you at M2 so that you wouldn't be able to pass the word along."
"You mean - You used the aliens' access to me to pass them the disinformation you wanted?"
"Exactly. You won't remember this, not yet, but you yourself suggested that strategy."
"What the hell d'you mean? I'd never have done anything so stupid! I've had enough, I'm leaving - "
He swung round, and took one step towards the door. Straker said: "Paul."
"Ah, shut up, or I'll - "
Straker said, slowly, enunciating every word carefully: " 'At night, no cats are topaz.' "
Foster froze. His lips parted. He turned, slowly, a look on his face of complete shock.
"Remember anything, Paul?" Straker said, his voice gentle.
"I did do it," Foster whispered. "It was my suggestion. I told you to use me. As a conduit. To give the aliens a taste of their own medicine. I did it. And then I forgot it, had my memory blanked. What you just said… That must have been the trigger phrase."
"Yes, Paul. You did do that. And it worked. The few surviving aliens were sent home with their tails between their legs. But there's one final test to make."
"What test?" Foster croaked.
"We need an EEG reading."
The shaken Foster gave a silent nod, and allowed Shroeder to lead him to the test booth. The doctor attached the electrodes and switched on. Green traces started to build on the small monitor. Shroeder watched them for a few moments, then nodded. "Very good news, gentlemen."
"Tell me," Foster said.
Shroeder continued: "For some time now, as you know, my colleague Doug Jackson has been monitoring your EEG. What you don't know is that it had been showing a waveform that was not present when you joined SHADO, and indeed only appeared after your encounter with the aliens, when they 'programmed' you to try to kill the commander. It remained present, albeit in weakened form, for some time. It is now quite absent. Jackson and I believe that it was associated with the aliens' attempts to control you, and that their control has now been withdrawn or defeated."
"The results are enough to satisfy even General Henderson," Shroeder said, dryly. "I checked when you were first brought in, and the signal was weakened almost to nothing. When you became angry with the commander for what you thought he had done, your own basic identity re-established itself."
"What I thought he'd done," Foster echoed. The look he sent the commander was not friendly. "I told him to use me as a conduit. I don't recall telling him he could use me as bait!!"
"Foster - " Shroeder began.
Straker waved him to silence. "Colonel," he said calmly, "your task here is completed successfully. And so is mine. We shall return to Earth on the next shuttle. Then you may consider yourself on sick leave for three days, at Dr Jackson's recommendation. After that, and no earlier, we shall discuss new assignments. Now go and get freshened up."
"…Yes. Sir." Without a further word, or a backward glance, Foster stalked out of sickbay.
Straker turned to the doctor. "Is he fit to fly?"
Shroeder shook his head. "I wouldn't recommend it, Commander."
"Noted… And I need to talk to Jackson. Set it up, would you?"
"Of course, sir."
* * *
"This is Moonbase Control," Gay Ellis said. "Plan Beta has terminated successfully. All Interceptors return to base. Ground stations stand down. Commander Straker, Colonel Foster, please report."
"I'm here," Foster said, from the connecting door. "The commander will be along shortly, we went to sickbay for checks. I'll be in my quarters if anyone wants me." With that, he turned and went back down the corridor. The door sighed shut behind him.
Gay sighed with relief; but Nina raised her eyebrows. "Didn't look too happy, did he?"
"Furious, I'd say. I wonder if - Hello, sir," Gay added, as Straker entered. "Paul was here just now. Are you both OK?"
"For the moment," Straker replied, in a voice that said 'this subject is closed'. "Damage report, from Alpha?"
"Minor damage in a few outlying areas, sir. No casualties. The aliens have withdrawn and are off our screens entirely. M2 is a total loss, though."
"Noted. Please call Victor at Alpha."
"Of course. I'll route it to the comms desk, if you'd like to take a seat."
The small screen on the desk lit up, and showed the anxious face of Victor Bergman, with Joan standing beside him. Both were clearly still wearing vacuum suits, but their helmet visors were open. Bergman gave a sigh of relief. "Good to see you, Ed. More or less intact, I gather… What about your young colleague?"
"A bit shaken up, but otherwise good," Straker replied. "I gather you're intact as well, but any problems your end?"
"The place is fairly buzzing with rumours," Bergman said, with a smile. "Most people don't know whether to blame Russia, China, Cuba, or Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Me, I'm layin' low and sayin' nuffin'."
"Wisest course," Straker agreed.
"I suppose James will want his toys back?"
"Unless you want to buy them outright. Dr Grant now has a fairly firm case for purchase, I guess."
"Ed, are we likely to need them, d'you think?" Bergman asked.
"I wish I could say. These people never seem to repeat themselves, not sure why, unless it's just that they consider it a waste of time repeating an unsuccessful gambit… But they might just fool us one of these days by refining one instead."
"I’m glad second-guessing them is your job not mine," Bergman commented. “When d’you want Lieutenant Harrington here to return?”
Straker looked a query at her. “We have a few things to tidy up, sir,” she replied. “Perhaps tomorrow morning.”“
Fine, see you then.” The commander signed off.
As the monitor darkened, Gay handed Straker a coffee. "Thought you might need this, sir."
"Yes… Thanks, Gay. Could you put me through to Alec, please, before he dashes up here in person?"
"He's waiting on line three, sir," Gay smiled.
Once again, the monitor screen came on. Freeman gazed out at his friend, relief showing clearly in his face. "Have you spoken with Foster?" he said.
"I have indeed." Straker frowned. "I've also spoken to Jackson, said he was quite right. And I'm not sure, at present, which way the cat will jump."
"I'll pass that on… When are you coming down?"
"The next shuttle leaves in four hours," Straker told him. "We'll both be on it. I've told Foster he must take some sick leave."
"I'll arrange a reception committee," Freeman promised. "Do I gather we lost M2?"
"We now have a nice large crater instead. Henderson won't like that, of course."
"And what about Alpha? They survived, I gather?"
"They did," Straker confirmed. "And they may just want to buy some equipment from us - now that they see how useful it will be."
"You never know," Freeman said with a grin, "Henderson may make a profit on the deal."
* * *
Freeman closed the link to Moonbase, but the frowning visage of the commander had not left his mind. He keyed the intercom, and Keith Ford answered.
"Keith, could you get me a line to our Farnborough training school, please… Thanks."
It took Ford only a few moments. "Hullo, Tom, this is Freeman. Is Miss Jones on the base…? Yes, please. I'll wait."
He took a sip of his coffee.
"Hello, Miss Jones, thank you for responding quickly… Paul? He's on his way back home. He's OK… But Ed wants him to take a few days' leave, he's been busy. Thought you might like to know… Yes, please do, it would be a lovely surprise for him… That's OK, I'll clear it with your tutors… Thanks, Chrys. Bye."
Freeman clicked the button on the cradle. Lieutenant Jones had been startled, and worried, as people always were when someone rings you up and in effect says 'now don't worry, he's quite all right'. But he could tell from her voice that she had got the intended message.
He could tell something else too: she wasn't happy with Paul. That seemed to confirm his impressions of their relationship.
Hi attention refocussed on the phone as the tutor's voice responded. Freeman said: "Ah, Tom. Look, Ed thinks Chrys should come back for a few days, something's come up, and it's personal… I don't think so, no. She should be back with the group on Friday… Fine. Thanks."
* * *
Foster was already in the reception dome, and suited up, when Straker arrived.
"Good evening, Colonel," the commander said, donning his own suit. "Ready to go?"
"As soon as you are, sir." Foster took a breath. "Commander, I do not consider myself properly fit to fly, at the moment. I request that you take the controls."
"As you wish, Colonel," Straker replied. "Please proceed to the vessel."
Foster gave a nod, and stepped through the hatch. Straker followed. Privately, he was delighted. If the colonel had not made that offer, Straker would have ordered him to stand down; but he was impressed by Foster's professionalism. The man had not allowed his feelings of deep and bitter resentment to cloud his judgement. Another point in his favour to give to Henderson.
The two SHADO officers settled themselves into the flight couches of the LM. They only spoke to each other when they needed to, for normal pre-flight checks. Neither felt much like chatting. Straker did not attempt to make 'small-talk' with Foster, not wanting to give further cause for anger. In his turn, Foster's feelings were in turmoil, though he had tried not to show it - at least, not after that first outburst. His anger had not dissipated, but it was diluted a little by confusion. Normally, being insubordinate to a superior officer rated an automatic court-martial; but Straker had made no attempt to place him under arrest. He wondered distantly why not.
What was more, his first impulse to resign from SHADO, as soon as he returned to base, was weakening.
He put the matter aside for the moment - not without difficulty - and concentrated on flight tasks, acting as Straker's copilot, watching the instruments, handling the comms, ready to take over in an emergency.
Straker watched the younger man carefully, but without - he hoped - making it too obvious. Foster had rested, at Shroeder's insistence, but Straker had doubted the man had had any proper sleep; and the doctor had not sedated him. As Jackson had said, what Foster needed had to happen naturally. And in its own good time.
It would be a long and silent trip.
* * *
"Good," Diane said. "You're awake."
"Only just," Pete yawned. "What's the time… Oh for heaven's sake, it's 3am! I don't have to be in make-up until 5 - "
"Stop complaining and have some coffee," Diane said, handing him a mug. "I have some news, from my friend at the studio. Seems Foster is due back today. And apparently he's had some sort of squabble with the boss. We can use that."
"Oho," Pete said, smirking. He took a sip of coffee, grimaced at the heat. "What about that girlfriend of his? She back from her training course yet? Would she come to welcome him home?"
"She's not pleased with him. Thinks he's been 'playing away', with me… So she won't be around."
"Good. Good," Pete mused. "OK, how about this. I pick a fight with Harry, so he has to call in Foster to sort out the problem. I'll get Straker in as well, if he doesn't come himself. Then we'll just let matters take their course. That should get Foster thrown out, for sure!"
"I like it," Diane said, smiling thinly.
* * *
Despite his mood, Foster was flying copilot quite competently and easily. Straker noted that he was in full 'test pilot' mode, where the pilot puts his own emotions on hold and listens only to his spacecraft. The best pilots could do this so well that they almost wore the machine as a second skin.
I'd really hate SHADO to lose you, Paul, Straker thought.
At last, they entered the docking phase, and moved up behind the lifter. Half an hour later, they were on the ground. The two reported to the 'debriefing room' and changed out of their flight suits into 'civvies', still without exchanging more than a few words. The transit bus was waiting for them, and they were its only two passengers.
On their arrival back at the studios, they had barely disembarked from the bus when they were accosted by an angry casting director.
"Paul Foster, I want a word with you," Angela Dixon said, grimly. "I - oh, hello, Mr Straker. Would you excuse me a moment?"
Straker took a step back, while Angela turned her attention back to Foster. "Paul, where have you been? I've been trying to reach you for days! All Mr Freeman would say was that you were out of the country! On business!"
"Well, I'm here now," Foster said. He tried to make his tone placatory, but without too much success. "What's the problem?"
"What - Oh. I see. Wasn't Pete up to it?"
"Pete Bentley's agent assured me the man could use a foil. He can. He uses it like a scimitar. That's ridiculous in that part. You've done some fencing, haven't you? Come on, I'll show you what I mean!"
"May I come watch?" Straker requested.
"You certainly may," Angela snapped. "This way. Sir."
The trio hurried down to the set for 'Musketeers Abroad', pausing briefly at Reception for Straker to advise Alec Freeman of his whereabouts.
* * *
In the inner office, Miss Ealand placed the folder on the desk. "The report you wanted, Mr Freeman. From Mr Shroeder."
"Thank you, Norma."
At that point the intercom bleeped. Freeman lifted the red handset, which was flashing. "Yes… Hi, Ed, welcome back… Paul's with you? Fine… OK, we'll see you down there…” Then he tensed, and his face tightened. “You mean, bring my - Right. Three minutes."
"What's up?" Miss Ealand asked, alarmed by the look on Freeman's face.
"Ed and Paul are back from the spaceport," Freeman said. He strode to the wall, pressed gently on one of the pictures, and it slid aside. "Freeman."
"Voiceprint identification positive. Freeman, Alec E. Secure locker open."
A panel slid open behind the picture, revealing a dark recess. Freeman went on: "Angela Dixon wants them on the 'Musketeers' set, to sort out a dispute… and Ed said we may have to be ‘ready to fire someone'."
With that, before the secretary's horrified gaze, Freeman inserted his hand into the recess. He drew out a stubby, evil-looking handgun, and fastened its holster onto his waistband, beneath his jacket.
"I have to go," he said. "When Chrys arrives, send her along, would you?"
"Of course, sir!"
Miss Ealand had to stand aside as Freeman hurried out of the inner office. She watched him go, her eyes disturbed.
* * *
Straker and Foster arrived on set to hear the end of what had clearly been a blazing row between actor and director. The actor, Pete Bentley, was dressed as d'Artagnan; a few feet away a second actor, wearing the robes of the Cardinal's guard, stood grinning. Katerina, Paul's neighbour who he had recommended to Angela, was in a chair beside the set. She was costumed as a lady of the French court, and she was watching Bentley in some alarm.
"Oh good," the director, Bob Flynn, said, when he saw Foster. "Perhaps you can talk some sense into him?"
"What's the trouble?" Foster asked, his voice a forced calm. He was thinking: oh for goodness' sake, all I really want to do is go home and sleep for a week…
"This fool thinks he's a pirate!" Flynn sneered. "Even I know a foil is a delicate, precise weapon, not an axe!"
"You?" retorted Bentley, scornfully. "You can't even - "
"One moment," Foster said, quietly; but there was something in his voice that drew Straker's attention, sharply. "Perhaps you need to watch an expert."
"I suggested that," put in Flynn. "I'd have liked Chrys - your lady friend - to give us a demo, but she's not available right now."
"So she isn't," Foster agreed. "But she has been teaching me. And though I'm no expert, I can handle a blade properly. So can Mr Straker here - we've been practising together a bit."
That, Straker thought, was overstating things. They'd had one session. Still, at least he'd been practising himself, enough to draw the grudging approval of June Baines.
Bentley regarded them both, smirking slightly. "OK! Why not give it a go? Show us how it's done!"
"Very well," Foster said. "Mr Straker?"
"As you wish."
Flynn said: "We've no protective gear handy."
"Neither have I," Bentley pointed out. "Apart from a Kevlar vest… But I'm sure you two experts can manage without?"
"But Health and Safety will - "
"Oh come on! Who's Straker going to sue? Himself?"
By this time, Alec Freeman had arrived. "What the hell's going on?" he demanded, in a low voice.
"Harry thinks Pete Bentley needs showing how to use a fencing foil properly," Straker told him. equally quietly. "So Paul and I will have a go, as Chrys isn't about."
"Are you sure that's wise?" said Freeman, carefully. "And without protective gear?"
"Sure. Paul has the skill, and I'll just be careful." With that, Straker walked to the bench where the actors had placed their weapons, and picked up one for himself. Foster collected the second foil; then he removed the protective cap from its tip.
Shocked, Freeman started forward, intending to take the sword from Foster; but Straker waved him back. "Don't worry, Alec. I know what I'm doing."
"I really hope you do," Freeman muttered. Reluctantly, he withdrew.
Lieutenant Jones had arrived. She hurried up to the small group, glanced at the two men readying themselves to do serious battle. "Mr Freeman," she said quietly, "is there a problem?"
"You're aware of the 'core' of Plan Beta, I believe?" Freeman was also keeping his voice down, watching the cast and crew carefully.
"Yes," she murmured. "Paul suggested a strategy, and Dr Jackson hypnotised him into forgetting it while Beta was active, so the Others wouldn't be alerted."
"That's right. Ed has told me that he used the recall trigger to free up those hidden memories. But - as Jackson warned us might happen - Paul hasn't yet made all the connections, and as a result he's absolutely furious with Ed."
"I can imagine," Jones said, dryly. "So what's happening here?"
"Jackson says that Paul has to discharge his anger. And as it's Ed he's angry with, that makes Ed a target. But don't worry, I'll stop this from going too far." Probably by shooting the sword out of his hand, Freeman added to himself, silently… though if it does go that far, it's over for him.
"I take it this won't get him 'fired'?"
"No, it won't. Jackson has already put a statement in writing that will cover him, even against Henderson."
"I'm glad," Jones said. And she was; though she was thinking to herself, I must be nuts to go with that - that serial woman-chaser… Paul, if you survive this, we will have a serious talk.
"Positions," the director called, and the two combatants stepped up to the chalk marks, holding their foils at the ready. Only Bentley saw the covert signal the director gave to camera operators. "Quiet, please. Lights… Action!"
Straker and Foster did not salute each other, as they would have done in a sports session. Instead, Foster went straight in to attack. He had Straker at a clear disadvantage from the start.
Carefully, Freeman eased his gun in the holster on his waistband, ready for swift access. He watched Foster, very carefully.
* * *
Realising that he had caught Straker off-guard with his initial attack, doing away with the niceties of shouting the proper 'Engarde!', Paul took advantage, following through with another powerful thrust toward his older opponent. Straker countered with a desperate thrust of his own. But Paul easily sidestepped the blade, wearing a broad grin.
Chrys watched the pair, her anxiety offset a little by her 'tutor-mode'. She found herself observing - and evaluating - each move that Paul made, and comparing him with the less developed actions of the older man.
Disengaging, Straker made it appear as if he was aiming for Paul’s left side, making the other man immediately want to defend that area. But swiftly Straker moved the point of his blade down in a semi-circle, dancing around to Paul's right effectively making a hit. He did it so quickly that Paul didn't have time to register the change, making him block in the wrong direction.
Embarrassed at being caught out so easily Paul remarked testily, “Come on, old man, you can do better than that, surely!" With each taunt he flung at his opponent, their swords crossed clashing steel against steel, the sound echoing in the room.
Beginning to break out in a sweat, Straker couldn’t help but notice that Paul was light on his feet and very agile into the bargain. When the younger man’s blade clashed against his own again, the force of the blow reverberated up the entire length of his arm. Shaking it off, he managed to dodge and parry against Paul’s furious attack. Twisting away, he managed to back-pedal away from Paul, who by now was grinning like the Cheshire cat.
But Straker had a few surprises in his own bag of tricks. When Paul attacked him again, Straker executed a perfect volta. Suddenly turning to avoid the thrust of Paul’s blade he simultaneously delivered a return thrust of his own, making the other man stagger back a few paces.
For his part Paul was becoming irritated. When Straker performed a feint, trying to provoke him, he obliged by wrenching his opponent’s blade to the side and dancing around his guard. When Straker lunged at him again Paul executed a circle parry, twisting his foil in a circle he caught the older man's tip and deflected Straker's blade easily. Grinning at him, Paul bowed mockingly before him with a dramatic swish of his blade through the air.
Frustrated that he wasn't make much headway, Straker observed Paul lightly dance off to the side wearing another shit-eating grin. Getting his head back into the game Straker sidestepped another thrust that nearly landed on him.
Paul was mad at himself that his last thrust missed touching Straker in the upper right shoulder. Finding himself dodging the other's blade, Paul's grip tightened on the hilt of his foil as his palm started to sweat. Seeing a brief opportunity to launch a counterstrike right after his last parry, he withdrew without disengaging and executed his reposte, attacking directly off of Straker's blade before his opponent had a chance to recover and defend himself.
He was relaxing a little into the action, and the first killing rage began to dissipate. Resolutely, he put his anger to one side, concentrating on the task at hand.
Now Paul was beginning to enjoy himself again. As steel met steel once more he felt the strong vibration from the force of his last strike run up his arm to wind its way down his back.
"Had enough yet, Paul?" Straker smiled at him, lunging forward as if he was going to attack. Then he quickly retreated three steps to evade Paul's counter-attack, deflecting the other's sword away from his body.
"I intend to win, if that answers your question?"
Realising this wasn't going to be an easy win as Straker pressed his attack forward, Paul still had a few aces of his own up his sleeve. Whirling around he parried and slipped under Straker's blade, nearly landing a strike on his opponent's chest.
Then, sidestepping away from Straker, Paul ran and jumped up on a desk and from there leaped to the top of a high metal stand that was being used as a prop. Having taken Straker off guard with his action, and leaving the man gaping at him in momentary disbelief, Paul flipped over Straker's body to land neatly like a cat behind him. If the older man hadn't quickly twisted around to protect himself, Paul's blade would have run Straker through.
Freeman’s hand tightened for a moment on his gun. Beside him, Chrys tensed.
Watching Paul make those moves, Straker cringed inwardly, knowing he wasn't nearly agile enough to pull something like that off. Plus he wasn't suicidal... at least not today.
And he hadn't been paranoid, either. Paul's attack had been deadly serious.
Engaged once more they locked blades for several long moments before retreating. Both men were breathing hard from their exertions.
Fiercely, Paul began to slash at Straker repeatedly while his opponent desperately tried to parry with several quick strikes against the side of Paul's blade. Twisting his body away from Straker's last strike, Paul crouched on the ground with his right leg extended for balance. Making vicious slashes at Straker's legs, he observed the man jump back swearing a blue streak. Well, well, Paul thought, the old man's got quite a vocabulary after all!
What the hell was that? Straker thought, as Paul pressed his advantage over him, while he countered with sharp slashing movements of his own. But it seemed that it only made the younger man angrier than ever; and Straker wondered fleetingly whether he had miscalculated…
"You do know this was only supposed to be a demonstration?" Straker managed to get out, though the clanging of their blades nearly drowned out his voice.
"Keep on thinking that way," Paul snorted, playfully circling around Straker like a tiger ready to pounce on their prey.
Wanting and needing this fight to come to its conclusion, Paul decided to perform a difficult passata sotto. Chrys drew in a sharp breath as she watched him drop below Straker's blade to attack from beneath. Throwing his rear leg back behind him, Paul extended his free hand down to catch himself so that he was supported by his two feet and one hand as he thrust his blade upward toward a thoroughly shocked Ed Straker's body.
This was the last thing Straker had expected to happen and it threw him off-balance. He managed to recover enough to evade Paul's blade at the very last second. However the distraction proved his downfall, as Straker then found himself at Paul's mercy when he realised his sword had been literally kicked out of his hand to slide clear across the floor.
Disarmed, backed up against one of the fake walls with Paul's sword at his throat, Straker did not dare move his alarmed blue eyes from his assailant's face; but out of the corner of his vision he could see Alec off to one side, who he knew was armed and waiting in the wings in case things got a little out of hand. Well, Straker thought, I guess this qualifies…
* * *
Once more Freeman’s hand tightened on his gun, as the two men's gazes locked on each other. They stared for long seconds. Foster's face was a snarl; Straker's was a mask.
"Now you know," Foster hissed.
"Yes," Straker agreed. He was recalling their session in the shooting gallery, where to test Foster for alien influence, he had made the man think he was about to be murdered… "I know."
Foster held his pose for a moment longer; and then his shoulders drooped, and he lowered the sword, slowly. The director shouted "Cut!"
"What - ?" Freeman snapped.
"Great sequence, guys," Flynn said, happily. "We can use that!"
Foster looked at him, then at Bentley, whose face was quite without expression. "That's how you do it," he said, quietly. He turned away, moving like a man in a dream, and laid the sword down on the bench.
Gently, Straker said: "Ah, Miss Jones. Please take Mr Foster home, he needs to catch up on his sleep. I'll talk to him tomorrow."
The lieutenant stepped forward and took Foster's arm. "He certainly does, sir. Come on, Paul."
Freeman took his hand from his gun, and strode to Straker's side. The commander dabbed at his neck, where the sharp tip had left a tiny cut, and massaged his hand, where Foster had kicked it. "Are you all right?" Freeman demanded.
"I'm fine," Straker assured him. "Let's get back to the office. Thanks, Harry. Oh, and let me have a copy, would you?"
"Of course, Mr Straker!"
They left the building, Freeman still fuming. "'Great sequence'," he muttered. "'They can use it'. Yeah - in a snuff movie!! Ed, he was fighting to kill!!"
"To start with, sure," Straker admitted. "And he's skilful enough to have made it look like a genuine accident… But there came a moment when he grabbed himself by the scruff of his own neck, dragged himself back under control. That was the moment I knew he was going to be OK. It's just as well they filmed it - I can get Doug to have a look."
"He'll need to," Freeman agreed. "So he can dissuade Henderson from kicking Paul out."
"Not just Henderson."
"What d'you mean?"
"Alec, that was a set-up," Straker said grimly. "Paul and I were manoeuvred into that battle, intentionally. I think we should look at Mr Bentley rather carefully. And any other recent acquisitions."
Freeman nodded, thoughtfully. "It was a bit artless, wasn't it? D'you think they were after you, or Paul? Or both?"
"From what Marino’s been saying," Straker answered, slowly, "I think they're after Paul."
"Why on earth?"
"No idea - yet. I need to think some more. But for now we need to hold off Henderson. As soon as that scene is processed, I'll grab Jackson and - "
"You will go home and sleep," Freeman told him firmly. "Which is what I hope Paul's doing. You're just off the flight and you've been fighting for your life! Now be sensible, Ed, please, and let me deal with Paul - or I'll have Jackson deal with you!"
Straker glared at him, but only for a moment. "I guess you're right," he admitted. He dragged his sleeve across his face, and it came away dark with sweat, not all of that from exertion. "But - "
"Don't worry about Paul," Freeman interrupted, guessing what Straker had been about to say. "I'm your personnel manager, remember? Leave him to me and go home. I'll get Harry to drive you."
"No need," Straker said. He yawned. "I'll get my head down in the sleep room."
"You certainly will not!"
Freeman pulled out his small comms unit, intending to call the chauffeur; but then he saw that Miss Ealand was standing near the main entrance, looking in their direction. Freeman beckoned her over.
"How did it go?" she asked, carefully.
"It went OK," Freeman said. Norma relaxed, thankfully. "Chrys has taken Paul home, I'll keep an eye on him, he'll be fine. Ed here needs his bed as well. I'll call Harry - "
"No need," Miss Ealand interrupted. "I was just leaving, myself. Come on, Mr Straker. I'll take you home and tuck you in."
She ignored her boss's pitiful attempt to stare her down, took his arm, and led him to her car. Freeman shook his head, smiled, and went on into the building, heading for his own office. Miss Holland was in the outer room, evidently having taken over for the afternoon. She greeted him with a smile; but the smile died at the look on Freeman's face.
"Miss Holland," he said, "get me Harry Flynn, tell him it's urgent, but he won't get sacked."
"Of course, sir." The secretary's voice was tinged with puzzlement. "I'll route it through to your desk."
Freeman hurried in to the transit office. As he sat down at the desk, the phone flashed. Blessing Lois Holland's efficiency, he lifted the handset. "Freeman."
Glynn’s voice came on the line. "Look, Freeman, it was none of my doing - "
"No, it wasn't," Freeman cut in. "Look, Harry, Mr Straker has gone home. He asked me to watch that sequence through. I want a copy in half an hour. OK?"
"It's already in processing, Freeman. Can do. Now if you'll excuse me - "
"Fine." Freeman hung up. That was quick, he thought. Probably wants to sell it on outside. Well, we're not having that… He made a second phone call.
About ten minutes later, Flynn showed up, flanked by two security guards. Miss Holland called Freeman out to see him. "Freeman, what the blazes is going on?" Flynn protested. "You said I wouldn't get sacked - "
"Not if you hand over all three copies of that sequence. Now."
Flynn deflated. How the hell, he asked himself savagely, did Freeman know he'd made three copies?? "Very well. Sir."
A little sulkily, he handed over a small cardboard box. "Sit down," Freeman told him, and he sat, while Freeman opened the box. There was still a slight chemical whiff inside. Freeman opened one of the film canisters in the box, inspected the first few inches of the contents, and gave a nod of satisfaction. "Very well. OK, Harry, you can go… but I don't have to tell you what will happen if I find ANY of this outside. Understood?"
"Yes. Sir." Flynn threw himself out of the chair, and stalked off, fuming.
Miss Holland looked at Freeman. "Three copies, sir?"
"I'd have made copies, if it had been me," Freeman admitted. "And he only had time to do three. We aren't a duplicating service."
"No, sir… Will he resign, d'you think?"
"Hope not. For all that, he's a good director," Freeman said. "Now, can you get hold of Jackson, for me? Ask him to meet me below stairs. And get me Pete Bentley's files."
"Of course, sir."
* * *
When Doug Jackson arrived in the command office some twenty minutes later, he was not alone. Oh boy, Freeman thought. My two favourite people in all the world.
"Why, good morning, Jackson," Freeman said, his voice more than a little sardonic. "And the good General, too… How are you, James?"
Without waiting for an invitation, Henderson grabbed one of the conference chairs, dragged it round to face the desk, and sat. Jackson calmly lowered himself onto the nearby pillar seat. "What's going on, Colonel?" Henderson demanded. "Where the hell is Straker?"
"At home, resting." As Henderson started to form a sarcastic retort, Freeman added: "As per your directive, that adequate 'gravity rest' periods be taken after return transfers from Moonbase. Isn't that so, Jackson?"
"It is indeed, Colonel," Jackson confirmed. Henderson glared at him.
"I see." Henderson looked down at the document folder he was gripping. "Tell Straker I will talk to him later. When he's awake enough… What's happening about Foster? Jackson here has given me his report on this 'strategy' you cooked up between you. I gather it hasn't yet completed?"
"Not yet," Jackson said, in response to Freeman's nod. "But it is so far encouraging. When Straker used the trigger, Foster's memories of his strategy returned, fully; but as I expected, he has not yet considered all the implications. As a result he became very angry, and his anger was directed at Commander Straker."
"Please tell me he punched the man on the nose," Henderson said, dryly. "That in itself would make him worth keeping."
"Better. He challenged Ed to a duel. With swords."
"I beg your pardon?" Henderson gasped.
Freeman explained, about the staged swordfight. "Harry Flynn had the cameras rolling," he said. "I wanted to show Jackson here the footage. Shall I play it for you?"
"Please do," Henderson said.
Freeman opened a slot beside the viewing screen facing the desk, and inserted a film cassette from the box Flynn had reluctantly handed over. He resumed his seat, dimmed the overhead lights slightly, and started the playback. "Do either of you two fence?"
Both men shook their heads. "But," Jackson added, "I have some experience in observing body language."
They watched the sequence through. Flynn had also recorded the sounds of the engagement, including Straker's somewhat fruity vocabulary. At the end, Freeman could have sworn that Henderson was hiding a smile. So much the better, he thought.
The general turned to the psychiatrist. "Your opinion, Doctor?"
"Freeman, where is Foster now?" Jackson asked.
"Ed told Lieutenant Jones to take him home and get him to sleep."
"Excellent… Well, Colonel, if you will let me have a copy of that sequence, I will furnish a full report. I will say now that it confirms that Colonel Foster has discharged his anger at the situation in a controlled manner, and I fully expect that he will complete his re-integration in one or two sleep cycles."
"I see," Henderson muttered. "But what does this tell us about the alien influence?"
"Together with the EEG tests, which I showed you earlier," Jackson said, "it confirms that the influence is no longer active. If it had been, the commander would now be dead. Despite your presence, Freeman," Jackson added, glancing across. "No doubt you had a gun on Foster the whole time?"
Freeman nodded, silently.
"Surely Foster would have realised you'd be armed?" Henderson objected.
"Normally, certainly," Jackson agreed. "But his frame of mind at the time was such that he did not care. He was bent on revenge at any price. At least to begin with… Until he re-exerted his self-control; something which, as a test pilot, he is well accustomed to doing."
"I see." Henderson closed the folder, and rose to his feet. "Well, Freeman, thank you. I will await Jackson's full report - by tomorrow, please, doctor - and I will let you have my decision in a couple of days. I'll see myself out."
"Of course," Freeman said.
As he reached the door, Henderson paused, and turned. "If Foster ever wants a different job," he said, "he could do worse than becoming a stunt-man. He'd be a natural."
With that, he left. Freeman shook his head, but both he and Jackson were grinning.
* * *
This woman's a bully, Straker thought, not for the first time. She's worse than June Baines. I just hope she doesn't decide to take up fencing, that's all.
He allowed Norma Ealand to march him inside his bungalow and steer him to the bedroom. Obediently, he lay down, and she spread the furry throw over him. "Sleep well, sir," she said, gently. "I'll see myself out."
"OK…" He yawned, hugely, and she smiled. She made her way to the front door, pausing by the small side table to take an envelope from her bag and leave it for the commander’s attention when he woke up.
He lay there, listening, and heard the click of the door latch as Miss Ealand left. What a day, he thought. What a hell of a day… I shouldn't be lounging around here, I've got to sort out Henderson. And Paul is still 'unfinished business'. Hope Jackson's right, hope he will put it all together, and soon…
He was roused by the urgent bleeping of the comm. Startled, he sat up, glancing at his watch. Good heavens, he thought. I've been asleep for an hour!
He got up, and hurried out to respond to the summons. It was Miss Holland, and she sounded alarmed and concerned. "Ah, Mr Straker. Sorry to disturb you… I have a personal message for you, sir."
"Yes, Lois?" Straker stifled another yawn. But his sleepiness was blown away like morning mist in a gale at Lois Holland's next words.
"It's from Jersey General Hospital, sir. The one in St Helier. You are asked to get in touch as a matter of urgency. It's about Ms Marion Knight. I have a contact name and number."
Straker wrote them down on the message pad. "Thanks, Lois… Who's about, at the moment?"
"Mr Freeman is 'below stairs', sir, talking with Mr Jackson and Mr Henderson. Mr Foster is at home on sick leave. Ms Lake came in about two hours ago to assist Mr Freeman."
"Thank you, Lois… When Alec's free, tell him I've gone to Jersey. Tell him what's happened, and that I'll be in touch."
"Of course, sir. Do you require transport?"
Quickly, Straker glanced at the security readout. Yes, his car was in the garage. If it had not been, he would have had a word or two to say to Security… "No, it's OK, Lois. I'll use my own car, leave it at the airport."
"Very well, sir."
Straker thanked her, and hung up. He redialled, using the number she had given him.
"Good morning," he said, when they answered. "My name is Ed Straker, and I've had a message to call a Dr Weiss, urgently… Yes, I'll hold."
After endless seconds, another voice came on the line. "Mr Straker? This is Weiss. Thank you for getting in touch. Your stepmother asked me to contact you."
"Thanks for calling… What's the problem?"
"I regret to say," Weiss answered, gently, "that her health is deteriorating. She became ill yesterday, at home in St Martin, and her GP arranged for her to be admitted here. Her condition became much worse overnight, and is causing us concern. She asked that you be advised of the situation - "
"Tell her I'm on my way," Straker cut in. "Tell her I'll be there in an hour, and she - she's not to go anywhere."
"Of course, Mr Straker. We'll expect you."
Straker hung up. He ran into the bedroom, and grabbed his overnight case from the cupboard. It was kept with a full change of clothing and toilet sundries, by Mrs Baines. She changed the contents once a week even if they had not been used; and she had occasionally joked that she really ought to stock it with something a bit more casual. He just hoped she hadn't done that on this occasion. A Hawaiian shirt would be less than appropriate right now… although, he knew, Marion would probably be amused.
His travel papers were in the locker. He collected those as well, and added them to the case. On his way out he picked up the envelope that Norma Ealand had left for him, and slid that into the case as well. A few minutes later, he was on his way to Harlington Airport.
* * *
The small private jet touched down at Jersey Airport some 40 minutes after take-off from Harlington. A car was waiting beside the runway. As the aircraft taxied in to a standstill beside the arrivals building, the car drove up to park beside it.
The jet's hatch opened, and a man in Customs uniform entered. Straker always found this formality a little odd, since the Channel Islands were part of Britain; but they were also semi-autonomous, Jersey being technically a Crown dependency, with its own separate administration. He still wasn't sure if he needed his passport, but he had brought it just in case.
The process was completed quickly, and Straker disembarked. The taxi driver took his small case, and guided him to a seat.
'Taxi', he thought. It's a bloody limo.
He had visited Jersey a few times before, and knew the roads - mostly narrow, winding, and in some places subject to a 'green lane' speed restriction of 20 mph. Though with the island barely nine miles long by five miles across, you really didn't need to go much faster than that. But he had never tried them in a stretch-limo before. This should be interesting.
Or at least, it would be, but for the sad purpose of his journey.
He leaned back in the seat, and thought about that note from Miss Ealand. It had contained details of the crash that had killed Robert Fletcher, and one of his biochemist colleagues, a man named Mark Arrowsmith. It seemed the two had been going to meet with a woman… and that woman had been none other than Diane Matthews. But the meeting had not taken place. Instead, the car had unaccountably left the road, and hit a tree.
And Matthews had vanished into the crowds.
* * *
A nurse showed Straker into Marion's room, then withdrew. To his surprise, his stepmother was not lying in a bed, but was sitting nearly upright in a high-backed upholstered armchair. Her feet rested on a small stool, and she was covered up to her shoulders by a warm-looking fleecy blanket, though her arms were clear. A bag half-full of clear liquid hung from an IV pole beside her, and an oxygen tube ran to her nostrils from a coupling on the wall panel behind her. A monitor screen displayed electronic readouts from sensors just visible on her shoulders. Heart rate 140, BP 80 over 50, temperature 39, breathing rate 30. None of that looked good.
She managed a tiny smile. "Hello, my dear," she whispered.
He bent to kiss her cheek, then drew up a chair and sat down, holding her hand. "Marion," he scolded her, gently. "You didn't tell me it was this bad."
"It wasn't… But I caught some sort of bug… And it was more than my system could take."
"Shouldn't you be resting?"
"Edward George, if you think I'm going to meet my Maker lazing around in bed… you can think again… Now… Have you made any progress… with our young friend…?"
"Indeed I have," Straker told her. "Matthews was definitely not married to Robert, as far as I can determine they only met once, years ago, in England. But she was the driving force behind that drug-smuggling charge. You remember, the one that was thrown out of court, but which cost him a lot of money."
"Was it blackmail?" Marion murmured.
"It sure was. She presented her demands through an intermediary, and when he wouldn't give in, she threw that accusation at him."
"No," Marion whispered. "He wouldn't give in… Ed, did she kill him…?"
"She seems to have had a hand in his death, certainly," Straker admitted, reluctantly. "I've turned what evidence we have over to the authorities, they'll sort it out." He did not specify exactly which authorities… "You don't have to worry about her, not any more."
"Thank you for telling me, my dear." Marion sighed. "Watch yourself… with that one… she's bad news…"
She was suddenly very tired. Should she tell Ed about the other thing… He had a right to know… She knew he would find the clues in her bag… Should she explain, now… She wrestled with the question, as the room darkened around her…
"Goodbye, my dear… You've been a great son… John would have been proud… Give my love… to Mary… Follow… the clues…"
Something was beeping at her, but it was a long way away. She held tightly to her son's hand, as the darkness grew, and then faded into soft light…
The nurse arrived, responding to the alarm. She called the doctor. Weiss made a quick but thorough examination, shook his head. "I'm sorry, Mr Straker. She's gone."
Straker nodded, without speaking. The nurse made to draw the blanket up over Marion's face, but he shook his head quickly, and she withdrew. He reached out, and gently closed the half-open eyes that now gazed upon infinity. There was a half-smile on her lips.
Weiss and the nurse quietly left the room. Straker sat there for a long time. He wanted to weep, but he could not. At last, he drew a long deep breath, tucked Marion's hand in under the blanket, kissed her cheek, and stood up. The hospital would want to make their arrangements; he should not keep them too long from their duties. He went to the door; the nurse was seated on a chair just outside.
"Thank you," he said. "For everything. Marion was very peaceful, at the end there. I'll arrange her funeral and get in touch." He handed her his card.
"Thank you, sir. Please come this way."
Straker followed her down the corridor to reception, and spoke briefly to the woman at the desk about the formalities that now had to take place.
A second nurse came up to the desk, holding a large green carrier bag. "Mr Straker? You may like to take this. It's Ms Knight's personal effects. Do please check them."
"Thanks. I'll have a quick look," Straker said. He opened the bag an glanced inside. "Fine, thanks. I'll look through it later."
"Of course, sir."
"And I'd like to talk to Dr Weiss, when he's free."
"Certainly, sir. Would you come this way?"
The nurse led him to Weiss' office, knocked, and opened it. "Mr Straker for you, sir."
"Good. Please come in, Mr Straker, and take a seat… My sincere condolences on the death of your stepmother."
Stock words, used perhaps almost daily, Straker knew, but showing genuine concern. "Thank you," he answered.
"You wished to see me." Weiss leaned forward, and looked at Straker over his steepled fingers. "I would like to talk to you, also… but please, go ahead."
"I knew Marion was ill," Straker said. "She's had health problems for some years. When I saw her last, some weeks ago, she indicated that she knew her condition was deteriorating, but slowly. She seemed to be confident of perhaps another four or five years of life, and her husband - my father, until his own death - had made provisions. She said today she'd picked up some kind of bug which she couldn't cope with… but even so, this is almost too sudden."
"I quite agree," Weiss told him. "Her illness did indeed have many characteristics of a virus infection, and there are more of those than we are able to classify in any strict sense. But the suddenness, and the fact that she has not consulted her doctor recently, mean, I am afraid, that - "
" - you have to do an autopsy."
"Exactly. As the law stands, I do not have to request your consent, but I thought it only decent to tell you what the position is."
"I appreciate that, Dr Weiss." And, Straker thought privately, it saves me from demanding that you do one… "I guess the police may get involved. If so, please tell them that I am at their disposal." He handed over another business card.
"I shall, Mr Straker. Oh - there is one more thing." Weiss opened a drawer in his desk, and drew out a padded bag and an envelope. "Here are both sets of keys to Ms Knight's cottage, and a note directing that they be given to you immediately, in case you need access to the cottage. Is there anything else I can help you with?"
"Not at this time, but thanks." Straker took the bag and note.
"Very well." Weiss rose to his feet, and held open the door for Straker. "But if you do have any queries, you know where to find me."
"Thanks," Straker said.
Chrys drove the two of them back to Paul's apartment. They did not speak much, for which he was grateful.
She led him to the lift, urged him inside, and joined him there. "I'm coming with you," she told him, as he gave her a puzzled look. "We seriously need to talk."
"Yes," Paul admitted, in a low voice. "We do."
Chrys glanced sharply at him, but the look on Paul's face. stopped what she had been intending to say. She relented, a little. "But not right now, perhaps," she said. "After you've slept, and eaten."
The lift halted at their floor, and the doors opened. A young woman with brown hair and green eyes waited for them to exit before taking the lift herself. Chrys recognised her as Diane, the female who had had Paul's attention. Something about the expression on Diane's face intrigued her. Perhaps, she thought, the woman was waiting for Paul to come home.
But Paul had simply ignored Diane. No, Chrys realised, it was more than that. He hadn't even noticed her!
Chrys took Paul's arm and half led, half dragged, the unresisting man to his door. "Open up," she directed, and he tapped out the code on the keypad, almost automatically. He opened the door, and stepped inside. Chrys followed him, made sure the door was closed behind them, and led him through to the living area. She urged Paul to sit on the couch.
He looked at her. "You're right. We do need to talk."
"Now?" she asked.
"I don't think it can wait… Chrys, I'm sorry. Truly. I know, I've said that before. I've said a lot of stupid things to girls I've been with, like 'oh it didn't mean anything', 'just a fling', all the usual clichés… but they hurt people. And I don't want to hurt you." He took a deep, shuddering breath. "I've only felt like this once before… It was a long time ago. I was very young, my late teens… I wasn't like I am now, not then… I thought I loved her. But she went off with someone else. She threw him in my face, laughed at me…"
Shocked, Chrys realised that Paul was weeping. Tears were running down his face.
"After that… I just didn't trust women any more. I didn't commit, I couldn't. I didn't stay with any woman very long… Told myself I was bored with them… but it wasn't that. I hated them… But I don't hate you. I could never hate you…"
Chrys pulled him to her in a fierce embrace, and he sobbed into her shoulder. "S-sorry…"
"Don't be," she whispered into his ear. "No, shush… Don't speak any more. You've said enough… Just relax, my love. Let it all out. Let it all go…"
He clung to her, and after a while his sobs eased. He pulled away, a little, and she relaxed her grip. He looked at the damp patch on her jacket. "You're all wet," he murmured. "Now how on earth did that happen…"
"Can't imagine," she smiled. She grabbed a tissue from a box on a nearby shelf, and mopped his face. "Now sit up… That's right. I'll go and make coffee, we could both do with some."
When she came back with a tray of filled mugs, Paul was spread out untidily on the couch, fast asleep. Smiling, Chrys eased him into a more comfortable position with a cushion beneath his head, and covered him to the shoulders with a fleecy throw. Paul snuggled down, and his breathing deepened, while the tension knots in his muscles loosened. Chrys moved to an armchair opposite him, and took out of her bag the book she had been reading, 'The Vicomte of Bragelonne'.
After a few pages, when she realised she was simply not taking it in, she closed the book, and sat back with a sigh.
What was she to make of this latest revelation, she wondered. Perhaps it was even true… After all, right now Paul was - emotionally - a mess. Not only had the aliens been messing with his head for some years, now Dr Jackson and Commander Straker were having a go. Admittedly, this was with his express permission, but even so… He had reacted as Dr Jackson had warned her he might. To her astonishment, Commander Straker had let Paul nearly kill him! Granted, Colonel Freeman had been on hand to step in, but it was still a terrible risk to take.
She decided to wait a little longer, see what developed. From what the psychiatrist had said, there was more to come, though he did not say exactly what. It was clear that Paul was not out of the woods yet.
She opened her book once more, and tried determinedly to get back into the story.
* * *
Some time later, the door chime sounded. Paul stirred, but Chrys whispered "I'll get it" and he settled down again.
The entry monitor was showing Mr Freeman. She let him in, warning him in a low voice that Paul was sleeping.
"Good," he said, in a voice that was soft enough not to disturb, but not so soft that it would worry a sleeping mind. "Just what he needs."
"Can I make you coffee, sir?" she asked.
"That would be good, thanks."
She made coffee, and they sat in the kitchen area to talk, in low voices. Chrys already knew some of the story, including the precise nature of Paul's involvement in the operation; but she had not asked him for details yet. Freeman told her of Shroeder's test on Moonbase, that confirmed the success of the action.
"What's 'Mr Henderson's’ reaction?" she asked.
"He's accepted - reluctantly - that Paul is clear," Freeman assured her. "He doesn't like it, but he doesn't have any valid counter-arguments, or even real evidence. So there are no problems with Paul resuming his duties. At least, not as far as that goes. Whether Paul wants to is another matter, of course."
"Whether I want to what?" came a sleepy voice from the couch.
Setting down her mug, Chrys hurried to the living area. Freeman followed. "Hi, sleepyhead," she smiled. "Have a good snooze?"
"Wonderful, thanks… Do I smell coffee?"
"You do indeed," Freeman confirmed. "Shall I pour?"
"Yes please…" The phrase was interrupted by a yawn. Paul sat up, stretched. "Good… er, afternoon, sir," he added, as Freeman handed him a steaming mug. "What is it you think I might not want to do?"
"Return to work with The Group, of course." By 'The Group', they knew, Freeman meant SHADO. That term was used when people had to mention it in public.
"Oh, that." Paul sipped at his coffee. "Look, sir, I know I suggested this gambit in the first place, and I'm glad it worked… But I'm still a little annoyed that Straker took things as far as he did."
"How far was that?"
"Using me as bait. Though I suppose I really should have expected that," Paul admitted.
"What d'you mean, Paul?" Chrys asked, frowning a little.
"We - Straker and I - were holed up in M2, waiting for the Others. They knew we were there, and they came to get us. And then, afterwards, Straker admitted he expected M2 to be destroyed. OK, he'd arranged an escape route, but - "
"Just the two of you?"
"Yes. He'd evacuated the rest of the work crew."
"Just as well I wasn't there," Freeman said, dryly. "The Others could have collected the full set."
"Oh, they'd have been happy with just Straker - "
Paul's voice faded out. He gazed at Chrys in horror, then at Freeman. "My god," he whispered, softly. "I got it wrong. It wasn't me he used as bait. It was himself! He stayed there, at M2, knowing the Others knew he was there, through me. He was counting on his presence to - to draw their fire, to bring them in, so that Alpha could get them. And then he cut the contact, by laying me out, so the Others didn't know what he did next!"
"Caught up, have you, Paul?" Freeman smiled. "Yes, that's exactly what he did."
"Did it work? Is Alpha OK? Is Ed OK?"
"Alpha is quite intact," Freeman assured him. "Though the IAC will no doubt want its pop-guns back sometime… Ed is fine. And the aliens are keeping very quiet indeed."
"I've got to talk to him," Paul said, coming to his feet.
"Of course, but not yet. There are still a few things to be sorted out." Freeman looked at the pair each in turn, and said, lightly: "You may consider that I've got my personnel manager hat on… Paul, you've been wandering around for at least the past month with a face like a wet weekend. And Chrys, you've been looking like you want to kill someone. I wouldn't normally interfere, but in the interests of the smooth running of The Group, I have to ask you, is there a problem between you two?"
"Yes, sir," Paul admitted, in a low voice, sitting down once more. "You see… Chrys, you'd better tell him. Be as rude about me as you like," he added, with a watery smile.
"I thought Paul was two-timing me," Chrys said, flatly. "There was this girl hanging around, here. I saw her a few times, near Paul's apartment, she looked like she'd just come out of it, or was about to enter. She was even at the lift when we came in today! Paul insisted he didn't know her, of course, and I didn't believe him, of course. But today, she was there, and you didn't even notice - "
"I had other things on my mind," Paul said. "Such as trying to murder my boss -"
He stiffened. Freeman said, sharply: "What is it, Paul?"
"I remember," Paul whispered. "I did see her. If I'd been paying attention I'd have noticed. It was Diane!"
"Who the hell is Diane?" Chrys wanted to know.
"The girl I told you about. The one who left me for Robert and laughed at me. It was her. I swear it."
The retort died on Chrys's lips as she saw the look on Freeman's face. "What's wrong, sir?"
"She's been here? And you keep running into her? When Paul's not about?"
"Yes - "
"And she was here today? How did she react to the two of you?"
"She was shocked," Chrys said, puzzled, and alarmed. "And she tried to hide her face, as though she didn't want Paul to see her."
"What's wrong, Alec?" demanded Paul. "What's going on?"
"What it sounds like to me," Freeman said grimly, "is that she's stalking you. Or worse."
"Shit," Paul whispered. Chrys's eyes were wide with shock.
"OK, Paul. Tell me about Diane. And about this Robert."
Groping for control, Paul rubbed his eyes. "She's a girl I knew years ago. I was in my late teens… She was visiting from the States, looking for work here. She was my very first date. I was smitten… Our relationship didn't last very long, a few weeks maybe, but it was pretty intense, for me at any rate. After a while she gave up on me. Said I was just a child, she wanted a man. We met Robert at a party. She went off with him. I never saw her again - until today."
"And Robert?" Freeman said, carefully.
"He was a few years older, and American as well. Mid-twenties perhaps. Quiet, studious, the academic type. He had unusual eyes - blue, but in some lights they looked more grey, and a very direct stare, which was a bit off-putting. But I think I'd have liked him if we'd met under different circumstances."
Freeman thought: oh boy. Ed asked me in that note he left me to investigate Robert Fletcher, Marion's adopted son. Please tell me this isn't the Robert we're talking about… "Any idea what happened to him?"
" 'Fraid not," Paul admitted. "I wasn't really that interested in him, after all that. I just wanted to forget both of them."
"What's wrong, Mr Freeman?" Chrys asked.
"Not sure yet," Freeman said. "I need more information. To begin with, I could bear to know what these two look like… Let's go talk to the janitor. I want to see the tapes from the security cameras. And the access log to your apartment."
"Will he let you - ah," Paul said. He felt a little stupid, as Freeman smiled. Of course. The janitor's employed by SHADO, he remembered.
"Come on." Freeman led the way to the janitor's office. The man was at his desk, reading; but his feet were up on the desk top, and his reading matter seemed to be about fast cars.
"Hi, Mr Freeman," he greeted them, putting down the magazine, and swinging his feet to the floor. "How can I help?"
"Hi, Dave. I'd like to see the tapes for - " He glanced at Chrys, eyebrows raised in query.
"The last couple of months,” she said. “I can give you specific dates, of my breaks from training."
"Of course. OK, Chrys, do the honours."
She took them through the tapes at high speed, slowing for each appearance of a person on the screen, and stopping altogether when that person was Matthews. A pattern quickly emerged.
"She's never around when I am," Paul said, grimly. "But she seems to turn up every time you visit, Chrys."
"And gets herself noticed by me." Chrys' voice was equally grim.
And that, Freeman thought to himself, was interesting. Very interesting indeed…"Dave," he said to the janitor, "let's see the access logs to Paul's place. Cross-check with the tapes."
The janitor did so. "Mr Freeman, the only time that door has been opened is when Mr Foster or Miss Jones has used it. This other woman hasn't been in at all."
"I think you're right, Mr Freeman," Chrys said. "She's a stalker… Paul, I am so sorry!"
"Don't worry about it," Paul said, giving her shoulder a quick squeeze. "Look, we need to go upstairs and talk about what we do next."
"Right," Freeman agreed. "Thanks a lot, Dave. Enjoy your 'rest'."
* * *
The trio hurried upstairs to Paul's apartment. Paul himself was too agitated to have to stop for the lift; and his companions seemed to feel the same way. He led the way to his door, and punched in the code with what seemed to Freeman was quite unnecessary force. The door opened, and he urged them inside.
"All right," he said. "Sit down, people… Alec, how much do you know about Diane?"
"Ed showed me her picture."
"What??" Paul said, startled. "You don't mean she's another Jo Fraser?"
"I don't think so, no." Freeman turned to Chrys. "Fraser was a freelance with a criminal record as long as your arm. She tried to seduce Ed - come on, Paul, it's not that funny - but he got on to her very quickly. Threw her out of his bedroom, half-naked."
Chrys managed to suppress a snort of laughter. Freeman glared at her, and resumed. "No, the connection is Marion Knight."
"Ed's stepmother," Paul said, and got another amazed glance from Chrys. "But perhaps keep that one to yourself."
"I wondered if you knew," Freeman said. "Anyway, it seems she'd tried something similar with Marion's adopted son - whose name is Robert Fletcher. It's possible that was the 'Robert' you mentioned. But he's out of the frame. Robert died about ten years ago."
"You quite sure of that?" Paul asked, a touch dryly.
"Ed attended the funeral. With Marion."
"Of course," Chrys said, understanding. "Robert would have been Ed's step-brother by adoption."
"That's right," Freeman said. Paul gave a soft whistle. "And now she's latched on to you, Paul. Or so it seems. What's not exactly clear is why."
"Possibly, to get at Ed?" Paul suggested. "Through me?" He did not add 'again', but the word was in his thoughts.
Freeman gave a grim nod. "Could be. Paul, can I use your phone… thanks. I think this is the point where we bring Ed into the loop. And then the sh - sorry, Chrys. The excrement will impact with the air movement apparatus."
"Don't mind me," Chrys murmured, as Freeman lifted the phone. "Swear all you bloody want."
Freeman tossed her a grin as he hit the 'speed-dial'. "Norma Ealand, please… Ah, it's you, Lois. Good. Is Ed still at home… What?"
He switched to the loudspeaker, and they all heard Miss Holland's next words. "He's gone to Jersey, sir. He left instructions to tell you when you were free."
"Where in Jersey?" Freeman demanded.
"St Helier, sir. Jersey General Hospital. It's about Ms Marion Knight. I gather she's not too well. I have contact details for you, Mr Freeman."
"Good. Let's have them." He nodded to Foster, who had picked up the message pad, and a pen. As Lois Holland read out the name and number, Foster took them down. "One other thing. Put out an S2 security alert on Diane Matthews, details are on file. In the words of a certain Han Solo, 'I've got a very bad feeling about this'."
"Of course, sir."
"Thanks, Lois," Freeman said. "Is Ginny OK for a bit?"
"Yes, sir. All quiet here."
"Thanks. Tell her what's happened, would you? And I'll be in touch."
As Freeman put down the handset, Foster said, a touch defiantly: "I'm going over there."
"And I'm going with you," Chrys put in.
"I wouldn't dream of stopping you," Freeman said. "But for god's sake be careful. You can't take your guns - not through Jersey Customs - but you can make contact with our local agent and pick something up. I'll warn him you're coming. I'll hang around here, call Ed, and organise backup if we need it. Now grab your travel packs and I'll drop you off at the airport."
* * *
"Mr Straker? Phone call for you, sir," the hospital receptionist said.
She handed him the phone. He turned away slightly, facing a wall with the reception clock on it. "Straker."
"Thank god, I've been trying to get hold of you for hours," Freeman's voice said. "I gather you're with Marion?"
"Not any more."
The meaning was plain. "Ed, I am so sorry," Freeman said, more softly. "Look, I'm sorry to butt in like this, but - "
"Forget it. What's wrong?"
"It's Paul… No, not that problem," Freeman explained, as Straker began to interrupt. "As far as that goes, he's doing fine. He's got it all back - "
"Thank god," Straker whispered.
"Amen to that… First thing he wanted was to apologise to you. But something else came up. You know you thought things might be going wrong between him and Chrys - "
"Well, they were, but it wasn't his fault, or hers for that matter. This girl, she's been hanging around his flat, getting herself seen by Chrys. She's friends with Kat, that girl Paul sent to Angela Dixon for a try-out, the one who was watching that fight scene of yours. She's living with Pete Bentley. And - get this - she's the female in that photo you showed me. I checked the security cameras at Paul's place - "
"Where is she?" Straker demanded.
"Gone to ground, we're looking - "
"And where's Paul?"
"Isn't he with you yet? That's where he was headed - "
"Well, he hasn't turned up here." Straker thought swiftly for a few moments. "Hang on, I'll just check… No, he hasn't been here. Alec, does he know Marion's place over here?"
"Don't think so."
"I'll bet that's where he is, even so. Alec, this stinks. Have your friends meet me over there. Check at Jersey Airport, find out if he arrived, who he talked to… Is Chrys with him?"
"Yes. Don't worry, I'll do my best Bergerac impression. You're going over there yourself, I suppose. For god's sake be careful. You aren't even 'equipped'."
"I'll watch myself. Talk to you later."
Straker hung up, and turned back to the receptionist. "Look. I have to go, something's come up. If you need anything, talk to my secretary at the studio, ask for Miss Ealand or her colleague… Where do I get a taxi?"
"I'll call one for you, sir."
The receptionist spoke quietly into her intercom, and a few moments later, a man in chauffeur's uniform entered. Straker recognised him as the man who had driven him from the airport, and followed him out to the limo. He gave the man directions to Marion's house, and tried to relax.
Difficult to do, he thought, when you're inserting your head into the lion's mouth right up to your waist.
* * *
The SHADO Jersey agent had been expecting Foster, and had passed him a small bag. He checked; it did indeed contain a gun. He had run to the taxi rank and taken the second available car. He had climbed in, given the driver directions to take him to Jersey General. The driver had given a nod, and driven off.
Foster was not familiar with the Island of Jersey, but he knew that its capital, St Helier, was in the south-east corner, almost the opposite end from the airport. He tried to navigate by the sun, as best he could; all he could tell was that they were definitely heading eastwards. But when the driver pulled up and turned off the engine, the building they were parked outside was not by any stretch of the imagination a hospital.
"Here we are, sir," the driver said. He came round to open the door. "I was told you would be met here. And your fare has already been paid."
"Thanks," Foster said. He was alarmed, and worried. What would Commander Straker be doing out here, not at Jersey General? He gazed around, but there was no sign of anyone.
And then he had noticed that the door was slightly open.
All his instincts were screaming at him. He should look for a rear entrance, he decided; but perhaps that was exactly what he was supposed to do.
To hell with it, he thought, and marched up to the front door, hand at hip, on the butt of the gun. He knocked. "Ed? Are you about? It's Paul."
A woman's voice answered him. "Come right in, Paul. I've been waiting for you. For years!"
It's Diane, he thought. I really should have known… "Why don't you come out here, instead?" Foster was glancing around as he spoke, fully expecting this to be an ambush. He saw nothing, heard no crunch of feet on gravel. No, he thought. I'll stay out here. Let her come to me.
He waited, silently. At last, his patience was rewarded. The door opened, smoothly, and the woman he had not met for over a decade appeared in the doorway.
"Hello, Diane," he said. He moved aside, so that his back was against the wall. He hoped he wasn't squashing the clematis.
"Won't you come in?" Diane turned to face him, and smiled, but it was not a nice smile.
"I don't think so, no. What are you doing here, anyway? You don't own this place, and I'm quite certain you weren't invited."
"I intend to own it. I will marry Robert, and when Marion's dead, the property will pass to him."
"Robert," Foster answered, "is dead."
"But I am not," a man's voice answered, from behind Diane. She moved aside, and her companion emerged. Foster recognised him at once; he'd know those intense blue-grey eyes anywhere.
But there was something else. It was the same voice, he remembered, but it was oddly different. And the eyes were the same, but they were - not vacant, but almost its opposite. Shit, he thought in sudden horror. It's not 'Robert'. Not any more. He's been taken over. Like Linda was, and Sarah! He's a 'zom'!
Play along, Foster told himself. Freeman's on his way… "Apparently not," he agreed. He cocked an eyebrow at Diane. "OK, what are you going to do now? Make us fight each other for you? A duel?"
"Be fun, wouldn't it," Diane said. "But aren't you pleased to see me?"
"Frankly, no. Now call Marion, I want to see her, now - "
"Oh, Paul," Diane sighed. She moved forward, took his face in her hands, and tried to kiss him. Foster was ready for her, and pushed her away. Still expecting an attack from another quarter, he reached for his gun…
He heard Diane scream in sudden terror; and then darkness fell on him.
* * *
In the limo, Straker took one of the sets of keys to the old stone cottage on the north-east coast of this small island, and slipped it into his pocket. Like many such buildings here, the cottage was a few centuries old, with foot-thick walls of granite chunks. The granite wasn't all the same colour; some of it was white, some grey, and one rather newer wall was pink, of stone from St Brelade. John Charles must have cut and collected the latter himself, and privately. There were no quarries in that part of the island; it was a major tourist venue, jealously guarded by the Jersey authorities.
And the cottage's garden was as eclectic as the building itself. The plants growing there included exotica such as a Japanese maple with red-orange leaves, and a specimen of one of the oldest of species, a magnolia from America. There were a number of others which Straker, no botanist, could not have identified; but which had sent Robert into raptures of admiration, exclaiming excitedly about giant cabbages. Apparently this was a species native to the Islands, growing to a height of ten to twenty feet, and was often used to make items such as walking sticks.
Straker recalled the cottage's 'priest-hole'. A good place to hide, he thought. A very good place … He wondered grimly who, exactly, might be hiding there now. He could make a good guess.
He slid the small bag back into the carrier of Marion's effects that they had given him at the hospital; and his attention focussed on one of the items there. It was a small blue book, like the one Marion had given him before, but about twice the size. 'Follow the clues', Marion had told him… He opened it, and found that instead of paper pages, it had a number of plastic pockets. Each pocket held two photographs, back-to-back, so that their images faced outwards.
They seemed to be family pictures. He recognised most of them - John Charles, his wife and Ed's birth mother Kara, several of their friends including Marion herself. And then, a picture of Robert Fletcher; but no photo of his parents.
He turned the page, to see if they were on the other side; and got a shock. The picture behind Robert's was of Paul Foster.
"Now why the hell - " he muttered; then he realised that this particular pocket was rather thicker than the others.
Carefully, he eased the pictures out of their holder, and separated them. A few small pieces of folded paper fell out onto his lap. He unfolded one of them, and saw that it was a British birth certificate. The name on it was Paul Michael Fletcher.
Unbelieving, he read the parents' names. They were Caroline and Glenn Fletcher. Robert's parents.
With trembling fingers he unfolded the second paper. It was a marriage certificate, in the names of Caroline Fletcher, divorced, and David Wilks. And it was dated some three months before Paul had been born.
The third item was a newspaper cutting. It gave details of an air-crash about three years after the date on the marriage certificate. Names of the passengers who had died were given; and two of these were ringed in red.
And, of course, the final paper was an adoption certificate. Two people named Jean and Richard Foster had adopted Paul, changed his name from Fletcher to their own.
"Oh my god," Straker whispered, in soft amazement. He leaned back in the seat, gazed at the roof lining unseeingly. "He can't be!"
* * *
Paul Foster came round. He tried to move, but could not; his limbs were constrained. Where was this place? It was cold, and dark. He could hear the drip of water from somewhere close by.
Where was Diane? He recalled hearing her scream. Robert had not been surprised. If 'Robert' was a 'zom', perhaps there was an alien around as well.
A moment later, that conjecture was proved correct. A light came on overhead, a bare bulb, and a face stared down at him. Its skin had a distinct green tint.
Great, Foster thought. He glanced down at himself. Not to his surprise, he was strapped to what seemed to be a surgical trolley. He strained at the straps that held him down, and glared up at the green-tinted face.
"Do not struggle," the alien said. "You will impair the harvest."
'Harvest', he thought. Nice word for it. Not. The alien was going to 'harvest' him, rob him of his vital organs, leave behind a lifeless husk, as they had done to so many of their helpless victims. His spine crawled at the thought. Burning up on re-entry, as he had on one occasion expected would be his fate, was clean and painless by comparison.
He hoped and prayed that they hadn't got Chrys, as well.
But they did have Diane Matthews. She had been talking to him, trying to kiss him; and then her eyes had filled with horror, and she had screamed. He could guess now why that was…
And what about Robert? He was clearly already under alien control. What had this pair done, between them, to Ed's stepmother Marion? Was that why Ed had been called away, to Jersey?
Where was he? Where was she? What had happened?
There had to be a way out of this mess, he thought, desperately. He knew that Freeman would call Straker, and - if the commander was still free - together they would wonder why Foster hadn't reached the hospital, and they would come looking, send help. But that should have happened. It had been hours. Where were they?
He wondered why the alien hadn't already started to 'harvest' him… and a thought struck him, and he groaned aloud. They were waiting for Ed Straker, that was why. The aliens were using him as bait! The irony of it made him want to weep.
The door behind him opened, and Robert Fletcher entered, and walked round into his line of sight. "Well, well, the gang's all here," Foster said, tiredly. "All right, where's Diane?"
"She is outside. She awaits Edward George Straker."
"You were correct," the alien said, to 'Robert'. "This sibling is no longer compliant to your control. That control cannot now be re-established. There are indications that this being is under the protection of a Companion of the Kei."
"That is surely not possible," 'Robert' objected. "The Keimon is no more. There are no Companions."
"Nevertheless, the indications are clear."
"What sibling? What 'companion'?" Foster demanded. He had stopped struggling, for the moment. "Doesn't the condemned man at least get an explanation?"
"It does not."
"You - "
"Be silent," 'Robert' ordered him. "The target is here. It enters."
Foster did not know whether to be relieved or concerned. Ed had come - but would he rescue, or be taken?
* * *
Chrys fumed. She was perched on the edge of a seat in the passenger lounge at Jersey airport, with nothing to do but wait, while Paul hared off on his own.
It did not help her frame of mind in the least that he had been quite right to advise her to stay here, to await developments. If little Miss Matthews was after the commander, and was already here, backup would be needed. She would have to co-ordinate that backup, when it arrived.
What was taking Colonel Freeman so long?
And then Chrys heard her name called, from the reception desk. She shot to her feet, hurried over. "I'm Chrys Jones."
"Ah. Do you know a Mr Freeman, from Harlington-Straker Studios?"
"Yes, I do indeed… Thanks," she added, as the receptionist passed her the handset. "Mr Freeman?"
"Chrys. Is Paul with you?"
"No, he's gone to the hospital - "
"When would that be?"
"About two hours ago - "
"Well, he hasn't arrived… I've spoken to Ed, he's headed for Marion's cottage, we think that's where Paul is. And probably Diane as well. And I'll bet they aren't the only ones, either!"
Aliens, thought Chrys. Has to be… "Where's the cottage, sir?"
"It's in St Martin Parish. North-east corner of the island." He gave the address. "I'm grabbing a helicopter, and alerting SEMAS. We should arrive at about the same time - but don't go in until we get there, OK?"
"I understand, Mr Freeman."
With that, she hung up, and raced for the taxi rank, thinking: why aren't I armed, dammit?
* * *
With slightly clumsy fingers, Straker slid the photos and the documents they had been hiding back into the pocket. As he did so, he noted that the pocket which held the picture of Marion was also a little thicker than it should be. He took out the picture, and between it and a photo of someone he did not recognise, was a small piece of transparent cellophane. He picked it up carefully and inspected it. It was a small envelope which had originally been sealed, but had been torn open. And it had once held something the size and shape of a pill - which had left behind a faint white powder.
Oh no, he thought. This seems to mean that either Marion's an addict - or she's been murdered.
Either way, it had to be investigated. But that would have to wait. Right now his priority was Paul Foster, to stop him walking into a trap - or to pull him out of one.
* * *
Straker asked his driver to drop him off at the end of the tree-lined avenue leading up to the cottage, saying that he wanted to walk and think. The man accepted payment and a tip, advised him to call when he wanted to be picked up, and drove away.
But instead of walking along the path, Straker headed for the plinth beside it. At one point, this had carried a large and rather ugly gargoyle. John Charles had removed this when he bought the place, and donated it to a museum; but the plinth remained.
Beside the plinth was a small stone. Straker pressed it gently, and the plinth opened silently, revealing a dark passage down into the ground. He knew that this passage led to the cottage kitchen, coming out in the side of the fireplace; it had seen a lot of traffic in those days of persecution.
It was this passage, and indeed the priest-hole itself, that had given him the idea for the 'extra facilities' for access that he had organised at the studios during the construction of SHADO, and at Moonbase, and indeed Alpha's 'Mr Hutchinson'.
And it was the priest-hole that had been responsible for his claustrophobia. When his father had first bought the cottage, the young Straker had gone exploring, found the hidden chamber, wandered in - and triggered the secret door. He had been locked in, without light, unable to hear or be heard. How long it had been before his father came looking he never knew; but he had stumbled out of there into the welcome daylight, sobbing. John Charles had shown him how the door mechanism worked, and had built a concealed light-well, to bring a little outside light in so that the chamber would not be totally dark any more; but Ed Straker never went in there again.
Now that was due to change. He wasn't exactly looking forward to seeing the chamber again; but after the sub-smash incident, his claustrophobia was no longer a problem.
Or so he insisted to himself.
The plinth swung silently closed above him. He felt in Marion's bag, but there was no torch. He could manage without light if he had to, he told himself sternly, but it would be handy…
A thought struck him, and he reached up the wall. Yes, the cubbyhole was still there… and wonder of wonders, his questing fingers found, not a candle, but a big torch!
Oh, Marion, you angel, he thought. He switched on the torch. While his night-vision readjusted itself, he glanced around. He knew a fleeting, whimsical disappointment that it was not strewn with cobwebs; but they had been cleaned out, sometime in the last week if he was any judge.
Marion's housekeeper must have been very puzzled indeed by those tasks.
He walked down the tunnel, trying to remain as silent as possible. At the end the tunnel branched off; he knew this other path led to the priest-hole. Unlike the main tunnel, this branch had not been cleared; but there were unmistakeable signs that it had seen recent use. He stopped, and placed Marion's bag in the entrance to the branch. He continued along the main path to the exit hatch, extinguished the torch, and laid it down on the stone slabs that formed the tunnel floor.
Darkness closed in once more; but he knew his way around well enough to find the latch. He pressed it, and an upright stone slab, similar to the one at the tunnel entrance, slid silently open. It gave onto the side of the big fireplace in the kitchen. Cautiously, he peered out into the room. It was empty. He listened for a few moments, but heard nothing. There was an odd, thoroughly unpleasant smell in the air. He sniffed; it was not unfamiliar. He hoped it wasn't what he thought.
Carefully, moving with catlike stealth, he stepped out into the kitchen, and padded through the doorway into the living space. Again, he stopped, and listened. Nothing.
He glanced around the room, and his gaze sharpened on the couch. A hand was draped over the top of the rear cushion; a hand that was unnaturally still. He moved round so that he could see who was there, and stopped in horror and revulsion.
It was Diane Matthews. Or what was left of her. She was very dead.
The body was stretched flat on the blood-soaked couch. Clearly, the aliens had taken her for their euphemistically-termed 'biological resources'. And, Straker thought savagely, the aliens were probably still around, still here. He just hoped SHADO was on its watchful toes!
And what were the aliens doing to Paul??
Straker forced himself to a semblance of calmness and control. He turned away from the sight of Diane's body, almost apologetically, to remove some of the distraction, and tried to think. His first guess, that Diane had been hiding in the priest-hole, had to be modified; but it was obvious who was in there now.
Perhaps a little too obvious.
First things first. He needed a weapon of some kind; as Alec had reminded him, he was 'naked', as a mediaeval knight would have put it. He doubted whether Marion would have kept a gun in the drawer; but there were other things in kitchen drawers…
He ran lightly back into the kitchen, and opened a drawer beside the cooking range, a modern, gas-powered update on the coal-fired, cast-iron monster of past times. The drawer contained an assortment of cutlery, but none really big enough for his purpose. He glanced around, then mentally kicked himself. On the other side of the range there were a number of large implements dangling from a row of hooks. One of them had an eight-inch blade that was honed to a wicked point. Straker unhooked it, hefted it in his hand to test for balance. Not exactly a Fairbairn-Sykes; but it would do very well.
And, of course, there were other things in a kitchen that could be turned to less savoury uses. A rack on the wall beside the knives held a few jars of coloured powders. He selected one, unscrewed the lid, and sniffed - very gently - at the red-brown contents. The pungent aroma made his eyes water, even so. Discarding the lid, he carefully slid the opened jar into a side pocket.
He unlocked the kitchen door for Freeman and the rescue team, strode to the fireplace, and re-entered the tunnel.
* * *
"The target comes," 'Robert' said. "Sensors show that it uses the second path."
The alien nodded. "Place yourself by the hatch opposite. Allow it to enter."
Desperately Paul strained at his straps. "Ed!" he shouted. "It's a trap! Ed, don't come in here for - "
His voice was cut off as the alien grasped his throat. Paul struggled for breath. "Do not shout," the alien said, slackening his hold once more. He stepped away from the trolley.
At that moment, a section in the rear wall pivoted, and Ed Straker entered, knife in hand. He halted. He saw Robert; and he understood. He fought down the shock and the grief. That would have to wait.
"Robert," he said, sadly. "But it isn't, really, is it?"
"Enough to count," 'Robert' said. "Tell Paul Foster who I am - and who he is, please."
"Paul," Straker said, "This is - was - Robert Fletcher. He was Marion's adopted son. He had a brother, a few years younger, born here in Britain. That brother is you."
"You're kidding," Paul whispered.
The zom said: "He is not. The connection between us allowed my masters to control your mind."
The zom smiled. "And now, Commander, you have a decision to make." He held up a slender metallic rod the size of a fountain pen, and pressed on its side. Its tip began to glow, blinding white. He lowered the tip to Paul's chest, and drew it along the front of his turtle-neck sweater. A slit appeared in the fabric, and a thin line of blood showed in the skin below. "I will harvest this terran, and the responsibility will be yours… or you may try to kill me to stop me. Which of your brothers will you choose to kill today?"
"Neither," Straker said. And he threw the knife - towards Paul Foster.
Paralysed with disbelief, Paul watched the knife. It described a curving arc down towards the trolley, ending with a 'thunk' as it found its target.
It had cut neatly through the strap holding Paul's right arm.
Straker did not wait for the knife to land. While the enemy was distracted, he made his move, taking two steps forward, towards the alien. Before the being could react, Straker had thrown the opened jar in his face. The alien screamed as the powder hit him. He clawed at his eyes, continuing to scream, curling up in a ball. Straker hit him once on the neck, and he collapsed, the screaming cutting off. Paul managed to reach the knife, pulled it out, and freed his left arm with it. He saw that 'Robert' had begun to move toward Straker, whose back was slightly turned away as he triggered the latch on the chamber door that his father had shown him all those years ago. The zom lifted his 'scalpel', aiming for Straker's neck.
Paul looked at the creature that had called itself his brother. He did not hesitate. He threw the knife, and it buried itself in 'Robert's' back.
The zom turned back towards Paul, eyes wide with shock. It groped for the knife handle with one hand, lifted the other. Straker reached for the zom; but he was just too late to stop it from hurling that scalpel at Paul's face, before the zom, in its turn, collapsed onto the stone flags of the chamber floor in a motionless heap.
Paul twisted aside and reached out, desperately trying to deflect the instrument away from his eyes, and yelped as its tip sliced into his own neck before it dropped to the floor. Bright arterial blood spurted from the inch-long cut. The device had sliced across Paul's carotid artery.
Straker's heart leapt into his mouth. He knew Paul had about four minutes to live.
"Don't move. Don't speak. Help is coming. Alec knows we're here," he said urgently, moving quickly to Paul's side, and clamping down on the cut with his fingers. "I'll hold the wound shut until they arrive. You'll be alright."
Paul was gazing at him, wide-eyed, almost pleading, but he was keeping silent and still for fear of disturbing Straker's hold on the wound. It was hurting him horribly, but he tried to ignore that. It was in perhaps one of the most awkward of places for a cut, below the 'pressure point' which could be used to kill, impossible to apply pressure, difficult to squeeze shut. Straker was doing his best, but a pulsing red stream was forcing its way out, trickling down to form a spreading pool on the stone floor.
Straker tried to give Paul a look of reassurance, but his thoughts flashed back to the sub-smash incident, when Paul had admitted his fear. Straker had not dared sympathise. He had been holding his own claustrophobic terror at bay only with great difficulty. He had taken refuge in a little gentle sarcasm.
Or maybe it hadn't been so gentle.
He wondered if he should tell Paul what he had discovered. It might take the man's mind off his problems a little. "You may be wondering," he said, with a forced lightness of tone, "what that was about my two brothers."
Paul parted his lips, very carefully so as not to disturb Straker's grip. He managed to form the word 'yes'.
"It's true as the zom said… Robert is Marion's adopted son, and therefore my step-brother. Or was, I should say. You probably didn't know that." Paul moved his eyes, trying to signal confirmation. Straker continued: "Marion didn't know this at the time, but Robert had a brother himself… you. A full brother, conceived before their mother left Robert's father, and therefore also my step-brother. She came over to Britain, married again, and the child was born here. His mother and step-father were killed in an air-crash when the boy was only two years old, and he was adopted - by a couple called Foster."
"My brother… I killed…" Paul mouthed.
"No of course you didn't! The real Robert died years ago, when the aliens got to him! But Paul, he was my brother as well!"
Only for a moment, Paul was puzzled… and then it hit him. It took all the self-control he had not to laugh aloud, or even grin.
Well, there's a thing, he thought. Fancy that. I'm Ed Straker's brother… That does it. I am damned if I'm going to die, now…
…But his vision was going dark around the edges. He felt weak, sick… and so very tired…
He heard his brother say: "You will hold on, Colonel Foster, that is an order!"
It was exactly the same voice Ed had used to order him to leave SkyDiver. To leave Ed, himself, to his probable death. Paul struggled to obey, to hold on, but the world was drifting away into the distance, and all he could see was the face of his brother, with tears running down his cheeks…
No. He had to be imagining that, surely…
"Ed…" he whispered. "I'm… scared…"
"Don't be scared, Paul. I'm here. I'm with you. Help is coming. Don't go to sleep on me now. Please, Paul, hold on!!"
He had never heard that voice from Ed before. He could feel Ed's other hand gripping his, but it seemed far away, fading into the dark…
"Ed…" he whispered. "I'm so sorry…"
His voice faded out as the darkness closed in. His sight had gone; he could still hear, but that was fading also. His last clear thought was: ‘Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him’…
Straker saw Paul's eyes close. He wanted to swear. He wanted to scream. He dared do neither. He had to hold the wound shut, to give Paul his only, vanishing, chance of life.
His chest was shaking; but his hands were rock-steady. Nearby, someone began talking, to Paul, sobbing. He didn't recognise the voice.
"Paul don't do this! Please, Paul! I've lost Johnny, I've lost Mary! I've lost Marion! I don't want to lose you! Please, Paul, for god's sake, don't you leave me as well - "
He knew that voice… "In here, Miss Jones!" he shouted, his voice cracking. "But for god's sake be careful!"
She hurried in, saw him, took in the scene. The only reason she did not blanch was because she couldn't, not behind that dark complexion; but the blood left her face anyway.
"Alec's on his way," she told Straker, quickly. "And I saw our SEMAS landing, they'll be here in a few minutes."
"Get out there and show them the way in!" The pulsing stream of blood was weakening as Paul's heart failed, lost its rhythm…
"Yes, sir," she shouted over her shoulder, as she ran.
It took the SHADO Emergency and Medical Air Squad team perhaps less than a minute to reach the wounded man, but to Straker it felt like a lifetime. The first thing they did was to insert a double-access cannula in a vein in Paul's elbow, and hook up a bag of clear fluid, hanging it on an IV pole which they clipped to the trolley. "This will help," one of the paramedics said, as he attached a face mask connected to an oxygen cylinder, "but he needs blood. By the looks of it about half a dozen pints. We need to crossmatch, even with the 'universal donor', O-neg. Do you know his group, sir?"
"It's B, Rhesus neg."
"Good, I'll call ahead. They will have it at the hospital. We have four units of O-neg on board, which will be enough for the trip." As he was speaking, the paramedic detached Straker's hold. He had to use considerable force. The blood began to spurt again, but he applied a pressure dressing, of a form expressly designed for this kind of job. "That'll hold him until we can stitch him up. How's the match, Mike?"
"Crossmatch good. I'll hook him up." He pulled out a another bag, this time of dark red liquid, and connected it to the second cannula lead.
"Good." The paramedic produced a syringe, injected it into Paul's other arm. "This will help, a little. Later on, when he's stabilised and got a bit more fluid on board, I'll give a vasodilator to reduce vascular resistance. Can't do it yet, it'll only encourage bleeding… I'll put him on the monitor, see how he's doing. I suggest you sit down, sir."
"I'm all right," Straker told him. He dragged a hand across his face, replacing sweat and tear-stains with redness.
"If you say so, sir. By the way, my name's Cal Clarke, and this is Mike Penfold." The paramedic glanced at the bodies, which his colleague was checking over. Mike looked up, shook his head briefly. The paramedic continued: "Mr Straker, I think this is one for our Security."
"It certainly is." It was the oh-so-welcome voice of Alec Freeman. He was at the chamber entrance, Chrys Jones beside him. "I brought them along… How's he doing?"
"Heart rate's all over the place, but that should settle down as we get some blood into him," Clarke said. "BP 80 over 40. Breathing 40, shallow."
"When can he be moved?" Straker asked, hoarsely.
"Not yet. I want to stitch him up first. Moving him over this uneven surface won't be good for the dressing."
"I'll go outside - "
"No need, there's room."
The paramedic used a sterilising spray on Paul's neck. He unwrapped a scalpel, and cut very carefully into the flesh on the heart side of the wound below the dressing. He peeled away thin layers of tissue until the artery was exposed. His colleague handed him an artery clamp. He used it to squeeze the blood vessel shut below the wound. The blood flow slowed, and stopped. He removed the pressure dressing, then reached out, and a suture needle loaded with thread was placed in his hand. He carefully closed the cut in the artery, added a small bead of sealant, waited a few moments for it to set, then carefully released the clamp. The bleeding did not resume. The paramedic sutured the wound itself, then replaced the pressure dressing.
"BP 90 over 45, rate fast but settling," his colleague said.
"Good. The neck muscle also needs repair, but that can wait a bit. I'll give him a neck brace, and then we can move him… Sir, there's room for one more in the 'copter."
"Go with him, Lieutenant," Straker ordered. Chrys nodded, and followed the team out.
Freeman watched them leave; then he came into the chamber. He gazed around at the scene, inspected Straker. "What a bloody mess. Literally," he said.
"Get a couple of body bags, would you? No, make that three - Diane Matthews' body is in the lounge. Hope the crew hasn't had breakfast yet, the aliens got to her… And we need a strongbox. And I want cell-coding checks on all three including Matthews."
"Of course." Freeman poked his head outside, gave swift orders. "Look, you'll have to come out as well, they'll be sending in the clean-up team."
Straker reached down, and picked up the alien 'scalpel', very carefully. He followed Freeman out and into the kitchen. "Look at this. It's what they used to - to take what they wanted."
He pressed the side of the tool, as he had seen 'Robert' do. Its tip glowed white. He used it to slice a log in the fireplace basket to matchwood. He released the pressure, and after a moment the brightly lit tip began to darken. In a few seconds it extinguished. Straker touched it to a small cardboard box; there was no effect.
"Handy gadget," Freeman murmured.
One of the 'clean-up team' came up to them and handed Straker a box. It was armoured, and had a digital lock. Straker placed the cutting tool inside and closed the box. "Anything else you find that you don't recognise, put it in there as well," he directed.
"Yes, sir… And you may need this," the officer added, giving Straker a bundle of fabric. The commander unrolled it, and it proved to be a dark blue coverall.
"What the hell - "
"You'd better get changed," Freeman advised him. "If you go out there looking like that, you'll be arrested before you get ten yards."
Straker looked down at himself. "I see what you mean," he muttered. His beige suit was saturated with Paul's blood, soaking the front and sleeves, and splashing over the trousers. Only his shoes had escaped. "But first, I'll get Marion's bag. I left it in the access tunnel."
Freeman blinked. He watched, bemused, as Straker entered the huge kitchen fireplace and disappeared into a shadowy recess. He re-emerged a couple of minutes later, holding a green plastic carrier bag.
"This is Marion's, it's her effects, that she had at the hospital. There's something in there I have to show you later, about Paul. It establishes that there's a family connection."
"Marion and Paul?" Freeman queried, eyebrows raised.
"That's right. Oh, by the way - that guy in the dark jacket with the 'sharp' accessory, in there - that's Robert."
"The aliens got him as well?"
"Years ago, must have been," Straker said. "I wonder what we buried at his funeral… They turned him into one of Jackson's 'zoms'."
Freeman glanced toward the priest-hole. "I sent some of the team out to have a look round, see if they have any mates about… Don't know how likely that is but it's worth trying." He looked back at his friend, who was removing his bloodstained jacket. "The one here seems to be dead from shock… What did you do? Scare him to death?"
"Threw chili powder in his face." All three of his listeners winced, simultaneously. Straker continued: "But speaking of his friends… We're near the north coast of the island here, and the rock hereabouts is full of cracks and crevices. Lots of good hiding places for UFOs. Better call in SkyDiver."
"I'll do that," Freeman said. He took out his comm, made the call. "When you're decent, I'll drive you to the hospital, see how Paul's doing. These guys can deal with things here."
"Thanks," Straker said. He walked to the sink, turned the cold tap full on. Water streamed out. "That'll have to be turned off and the place mothballed for the moment… but I need a wash."
He leaned over the sink, used his hands to splash cold water into his face. Freeman said, cautiously: "Ed, Chrys told me she heard you shouting, to Paul. That was why she ran in. Don't worry, she'll be discreet."
"Good," Straker muttered. He straightened up, his pale hair clinging damply to the sides of his face. "Is she OK?"
"I think so."
Straker slipped off his shoes, removed his bloodstained trousers, and thrust his bare legs into the coverall. He pulled it up, zipped it closed, and put his shoes back on. "Am I presentable?"
"Just about," Freeman said.
In the priest-hole, the team leader looked round. "Sir?"
Straker tossed him a set of keys. "When you've finished here, turn off the services, lock up, and get those keys back to Miss Ealand."
"Will do, sir."
* * *
Freeman urged Straker out of the cottage and led him to the car. "Get in," he directed, opening the passenger door. "D'you want that bag on the back seat?"
"Please. You can't read the stuff while you're driving, so I'll give you a verbal summary," he said, strapping himself in.
"Do that." Freeman climbed in himself. "So tell me about this 'family connection'," he invited.
"It's complicated." Straker briefly described what he had found.
Freeman whistled. "So what you're telling me is… you and Paul are brothers."
"That's right. OK, it's by adoption and marriage, but it's as real as any blood connection."
"Too right," Freeman agreed, with a gentle smile. "Don't worry, Ed. He's a strong man, and he's in good hands - "
At that moment, the car's radio beeped. Freeman pressed the response button. "Freeman."
"Clarke here, sir. Is the commander with you?"
"Of course I am," Straker snapped. "I - sorry, Clarke, I'm a bit on edge at the moment… How's he doing?"
"I'm fine," said the very drowsy voice of Paul Foster. "Just a few seconds they said… but I wanted to say thanks."
"Good to hear you, Paul. You've no idea," Straker whispered. "Now go back to sleep. We'll see you at the hospital."
The radio clicked, and Clarke's voice resumed. "ETA about five minutes, sir. His blood pressure is coming up nicely, heart rate still a bit fast, but nothing to worry us. He's gone through a unit already, which is about what we expected."
"Thank you," Freeman said, when Straker did not reply. "Our own ETA is twenty minutes. I don't want to attract attention by speeding."
"Very good, sir. Clarke out."
Abruptly, Straker said: "What was I shouting, exactly, that Chrys Jones heard?"
"You were talking about Johnny, and Mary. And Marion. Saying you'd lost them. All I told her that they were relatives of yours, and not to talk about it to anyone, not even you unless you said anything yourself."
"Thanks, Alec." Straker drew a breath. "But I think I'd better tell her about Paul, and the connection between us… I don't think anyone else need know, except perhaps Jackson."
"And not Henderson?"
"I'd rather not - but I think I may have to," Straker said. "Has he caught up with Plan Alpha yet?"
"He's seen Flynn's footage of you and Paul having at each other. He was impressed… As I mentioned, Paul put the final bits in the jigsaw, while he was with Chrys, but we haven't had time to tell Henderson about that one."
"And there's more. Alec, the zom-Robert said something about Paul being influenced through the link between them, by his 'masters'. Now the zom's dead, so that link has been broken."
"You'll have fun convincing Henderson of that."
"Between us, Jackson and I should be able to handle it - " Straker broke off. "We're here."
"I'll drop you off at the entrance and park," Freeman said. "They'll be in A&E."
"Great. Bring that bag, would you?"
He pulled up, and Straker leapt out. As he ran towards the door, he heard the SEMAS copter lift off from the helipad, and set its course to the north, back to the mainland.
He pushed open the door to A&E and hurried inside, nearly skidding to a halt at the desk. "I'm looking for Mr Paul Foster - "
"Of course, sir. We were expecting you. I'll just call the nurse."
The nurse arrived, and told Straker to follow her. She took him to a small private cubicle off the main A&E ward. "In here, sir. He's sleeping at the moment, but he's doing well."
"Thank you," Straker whispered, huskily.
He padded in, silent as a cat. There was a life-signs monitor by the bed, and as far as he could see the readings were good. An IV pole held another bag of dark red liquid. Paul himself was lying back against the pillows, rather pale still, with his eyes closed, and an oxygen tube in his nostrils. A neck brace held his head in position, taking strain of movement off the healing wound. He had his right hand behind his head and the left, with the drip-feed in the elbow, holding Chrys' hands lightly. She looked round as Straker came in. Her face was tear-stained. "Sir," she whispered.
"Miss Jones - "
She came to her feet, and reached out. Straker grabbed her in a bear hug. "He's all right," she whispered. "Sir, he's all right!"
"Yes, Chrys, he sure is. Don't worry. He's won this round. We all have."
She buried her face in Commander Straker's neck and wept, silently. He hugged her more gently, and stroked her shoulders, while she got it out of her system.
After a few moments, she realised what she was doing. She tensed, pulled away sharply. If her face had not been so dark it would have been flaming. "Mr Straker, I'm so sorry - "
"So you should be." The croaky but amused voice was that of Paul Foster. "Put her down, Ed, I'm getting jealous!"
Straker smiled. Gently, he disengaged himself. "Hello, Paul," he said. "You're looking a lot better than when I saw you last. How are you feeling?"
"Not too bad. Tired, mostly, but I suppose that's to be expected. My neck aches a bit but that's all, they've used some kind of local anaesthetic. And my head aches as well but that's going… Have I run them out of B-neg yet?"
"Not quite," Straker said, lightly. "Though for a moment there, they thought they might have to top you up with coconut milk."
Paul smiled at this. "How's things back at the cottage? And the studio?"
Straker knew what he meant. "They're tidying up as we speak," he confirmed. "The police haven't decided yet whether they want to talk to you… but it doesn't look too bad. Except for one thing. The girl who was hurt in the incident - Diane - she didn't make it. There'll be an inquest. And you may have other visitors. Alec's just finding a parking space, he'll be along shortly. And we haven't told James yet, but when we do he'll want to check up on you as well."
"Oh joy," Paul muttered. "When can I get out of here?"
"I'll speak to the doctors. They may want to keep an eye on you for a few hours, though."
Chrys was listening to them, wiping her face with a tissue. "Mr Straker, I think I'll go and show Mr Freeman the way," she said.
"That would be great, Chrys, thank you. And by the way - my grateful thanks for keeping your head, back there at the cottage."
"Thank you, Mr Straker."
She hurried out, closing the door behind her. Straker pulled up the small plastic chair and took a seat beside the bed. Paul glanced up at him, and for long moments the two did not speak. At last, he said: "I… I'm not sure. I may have dreamed it. I thought - well, that you were shouting to me."
"So Miss Jones said," Straker admitted. "It's all right… Tell me what you heard."
"Well, sir - "
"And enough with the 'sir'," Straker said, a little roughly. He took Paul's free hand in his own. "We're not at the studio now. I'm your brother, Ed, remember."
My god, he thought. That 'tastes' so good…
Paul smiled, a little. "OK - Ed… You were yelling at me, shouting to hold on, you didn't - well, you didn't want to lose me… You mentioned a few names - " He hesitated, but Ed nodded at him to continue. He went on: "You said you'd lost Johnny, and Mary, and Marion. Does that mean she - your stepmother - "
"She died. Yes."
"My god, Ed, I'm so sorry."
Ed braced himself. "As my brother you have a right to know this, as well. Mary is my ex-wife… and Johnny is - was - my son."
Paul stared at Ed, wide-eyed. He whispered: "Did he - "
"Yes. In an 'incident'. A few years ago."
Ed's voice faded to a whisper. He leaned forward, put his hand to his face. "And now - now I find you're my brother - it was in Marion's things, the proof - I saw it, in the taxi going to the cottage - and I walked in - and there you were, they were killing you - I had to try my best - to stop you from bleeding out - Paul, I didn't want to lose you, not my brother - " his voice cracked in a sob.
Reaching out with the arm that was tethered to the drip-feed, Paul clasped his brother's shoulder. He thought: All these years, and I never knew…
"It's all right, Ed," he whispered to the older man. He was weeping himself. "It's all right. We're both here. We're together."
The two brothers sat there, together, for many minutes, finding their peace in each other.
* * *
Freeman arrived in A&E Reception just as Chrys arrived. He took one look at her face, and his heart sank. "Is Paul - "
"No, no, sir. He's fine. He and Mr Straker are talking. I - I thought I'd best leave them to it for a bit."
"What you said, about Ed," Freeman said. "He told me something in the car."
"So I gathered." Chrys hesitated. She burst out, horrified: "Mr Freeman, I cuddled him!"
"Well, I'm sure Paul would have enjoyed - "
"Not Paul. Mr Straker!!"
Freeman goggled. "You did what?"
"Well - I was upset - and so was he - and I needed a hug - and so did he - Mr Freeman, will he sack me for SA or something - "
"Shouldn't think so for a moment," Freeman assured her. He began to grin. "Wish I'd been there with a camera!"
* * *
At length Ed drew a long, deep breath, and slowly straightened up. He blinked a little at Paul, tried a smile. "Sorry, Paul," he murmured.
"Don't be ridiculous, Ed," Paul returned, with a watery grin of his own. "I - I suppose we'd better not shout this one from the rooftops… Does Alec know?"
"Yes. I told him on the way over." Ed took a couple of tissues from the box on the bedside cabinet. He handed one to Paul, and mopped his own face with the other. "Feel free to tell Chrys, but advise her to keep it to herself for now."
"Does, er, does James know?"
"Not yet," Ed told him. "I may have to tell him, though. Have to see." He gently let go of Paul's hand, and rose to his feet. "Guess I'd better let them in before they break the door down!"
He walked to the door, opened it, and peered out. Sure enough, Alec and Chrys were waiting outside. "Come on in," he invited them.
The two entered. Freeman closed the door. Chrys stammered: "Mr Straker, I really am dreadfully sorry - "
"I'm not. Please, Miss Jones, don't worry about it," Straker assured her. His gentle voice reminded Paul of the way he had spoken to the injured Tony Chin in the 'sub-smash' incident. "Now, Paul - "
"Yes, Ed?" Paul was grinning from ear to ear.
"Before the nurses throw us out, I must remind you all that we have some loose ends to tidy up. James Henderson, for a start." Paul groaned, and Straker gave a sympathetic nod. "There's you, and there's M2, and his toys that we lent to Victor. Also, there are some interesting leads that we got at the cottage, if you don't object to talking about them."
"Not in the least, sir," Foster said, a touch grimly. "And there's something you may like to think about… The Other and the zom said something about a 'keimon' who had 'companions of the kei', and about me being under their protection, so the Others couldn't re-establish control."
"Fascinating," Straker said. "I'll pass that one on to Doug, he can add it to his list… How's the neck?"
"Aches a little, but not too badly."
"Good." Straker looked at his watch, then at Freeman, who gave a nod. "We have to go, I'm afraid. As I said, I'll talk to the doctors, but expect to stay here overnight. And expect to be grounded while that heals. And, Chrys, don't worry about your course. I'll tell them you're on a week's compassionate leave."
"Thank you, sir."
Straker got to his feet, and squeezed his brother's shoulder. "See you back at the studio, tomorrow. Look after him, Chrys… Come on, Alec."
A little bemused, Chrys watched the two of them leave. "When he moves, he moves, doesn't he?"
"Too right," Paul agreed. "Well… got one of those hugs for me?"
* * *
It was late by the time Captain Rutland arrived home, and he was tired. Unusually so; he wondered if he was coming down with something. He had advised Mary not to wait up for him. Her mood seemed to have improved a little since meeting with her ex-stepmother-in-law; that was good, but a little odd, he thought. He would have expected it to open old wounds. Women were strange creatures, he thought… But of course, the loss of her son was a wound that never would be healed. At least she was showing signs of coming to terms with it.
He parked the car in the driveway, and shut off the engine. With a yawn, he put out a hand to close the window; and something stung his neck. With an oath, he started to reach for the site to investigate; but his hand fell limply to his lap as all strength left him.
"What… the…" he mouthed.
His eyes unfocussed, though he could still see. He heard the soft crunch of footsteps on gravel. The car door opened. Someone grasped his arm, pushed his sleeve back. A needle entered a vein. Desperately, he tried to regain control of his limbs, to struggle, to call out; but he was helpless.
His vision began to darken from the edges; and his awareness faded, forever.
The being calling himself Rick Lackland observed the creature closely. Its vital signs stabilised. Gimen took a small device from his pocket and placed it carefully on the creature's skull. Its clear substance began to pulse gently with soft light. After a short time, the pulsations faded, and Gimen retrieved the device. He continued to monitor the creature for a short period. When he was satisfied, he withdrew into the shadows, watching.
It was not long before the creature's mate emerged from the building. She hurried to the vehicle. "Steven…" she called. "Steven, are you all right? You've been sitting there ages! Have you fallen asleep or something?"
The creature stirred. It blinked, looked up at the anxious face of its mate. "Sorry, it's been a long day." It yawned, and climbed out of the vehicle.
"Come on. I'll make you some cocoa." The female closed the vehicle door, and took the creature by the arm, led him towards the house.
"Sounds good," agreed the Rutland-zom.
Satisfied, Gimen left that place, journeyed to his own dwelling. Inside, he sat in the darkness, opened himself to link with his master.
"Report," Kotte communicated.
"The situation is bad, but there is yet hope."
"Failure of mission to inactivate new terran lunar base.
"Losses: the terran agent in charge of the assimilation project. All information on the adaptation technique, all access to supplies of the compound. Link to the sibling. Note that this occurred before the sibling killed the agent. Loss of the prime subject's maternal, by tactical denial.
"Gains: Acquisition of a new agent for the assimilation project, linked to the prime subject indirectly.
"Other: Indications that at least one Companion exists and is shielding the subject. No information on identity of this Companion. Implies survival of the Keimon, even if dormant. No further information.
"Recommendation: Acquire prime subject and analyse."
Kotte's reply to his agent Gimen was short and to the point: "Acquire or be harvested."
* * *
Straker and Freeman arrived back at the studio to receive an immediate summons from Henderson. In fact, they did not even make it out of Freeman's car; Miss Ealand had been waiting for them in the studio main reception. She hurried over as they pulled up.
"Sorry about this, sir," she said, as Freeman lowered his window, "but James called, a couple of minutes ago. He wants a word, over at IAC. He wants Jackson as well."
"I'll just bet he does… OK, thanks, Norma. We'll buzz over straight away. Can you - "
"The doctor left a few minutes ago."
"Right. We'll be in touch." Freeman gunned his engine and headed for the gate.
"Wonder what lit his jets?" Straker muttered.
"Choose from the list," Freeman agreed. "No doubt Paul is tops."
Straker sighed. "Haven't we convinced him yet?"
"This is James L., remember!"
"Yeah… OK, let's review. He knows how Beta terminated, right?"
"And he saw Flynn's footage."
"He did indeed," Freeman said. He grinned. "He was impressed, actually. Said Paul should take up a new career, as a 'stunt-man' for fight sequences. He was only a bit sarcastic."
"So that leaves this business of this apparent link between Paul and Robert."
"Exactly. Of course, you know that means - "
" - that I'll have to tell him Paul and Robert were brothers," Straker confirmed. "Not sure if he needs to know about Robert and me. After all, it's not a genetic link."
"But it's a good model for comparison," Freeman pointed out. "Their link worked between genetic brothers but not ones that were psychologically connected."
"Which Paul and Robert weren't. Quite the opposite, in fact," Straker said, thoughtfully. "Well, we can add those interesting snippets to Jackson's research project on alien influence. He'll be delighted."
"Either that, or you'll learn some interesting Polish expletives… Well, we're here. Brace yourself!"
* * *
Jackson had beaten them to it, but apparently by less than a minute. Henderson did not wait for the two men to sit, but started as soon as the office door had closed. "All right, Straker. I've already heard from Freeman, now I want your version. Explain yourself!"
Straker sat, and Freeman also found a seat, leaning back in it casually, several places away from the seated Jackson. "Well, General," Straker said, easily, "what would you like explained?"
"M2, that's what! A total waste of our money! You let the aliens destroy it! You'd planned that all along!"
"Sure had," Straker agreed. He glanced at Freeman, who was visibly brewing up a storm, and shook his head, just a little. Freeman subsided. "So, what's the problem?"
"The problem," Henderson grated, "is that you didn't tell me what you intended! Or the Committee! If you had, they - "
" - wouldn't have released the cash," Straker agreed.
"And the aliens would have destroyed Alpha."
"Alpha was quite capable of defending itself," Henderson insisted. "Or perhaps you didn't see my equipment requisitions?"
"Yes, I saw those reqs," Straker confirmed. "I also heard, from Bergman, what was actually in the shipments. And it was, shall we say, rather deficient in certain areas."
"What d'you mean, 'deficient'?" Henderson demanded. "Lackland set this up weeks ago, way back at the start of Project Alpha, and I confirmed it! I also carried out several 'spot checks' on the supplier, in person!"
Carefully, Straker said: "I don't doubt it. But, Henderson, the weapons Dr Grant actually received were strictly short-range, like our own ground defences. They had nothing long-range, no heavy lasers, no cruise torps, nothing… Moonbase could hold off a few, as we did with the underwater dome ploy, and let the others through for the Skydiver fleet to go after. But we couldn't do that this time. The entire attack was targeted on Alpha. So I tempted them to come in, let them bunch up, which made them a sitting target for Alpha."
Henderson's complexion was getting more purple by the second. "I specifically asked for at least half the weaponry to be cruise torps - "
"You sure did," Straker agreed. "But when Colonel Koenig unpacked his goodies and found he hadn't got the presents he'd asked for, Bergman called me. With the aliens likely to attack at any moment, it was too late to get new stuff. So we made do with what we had."
"And where, exactly, did you get that stuff?" Henderson held up a hand to forestall Straker's answer. "As it happens, I had Lackland analyse the battle. You used some pretty potent fire-power, Straker, and if that wasn't supplied by us, there's only one place you could have gotten it. The Factory."
"Exactly," Straker agreed, unperturbed.
"And when did I authorise any such thing - What?"
"Back when the Maddox Project started," Straker pointed out, "its terms of reference included the manufacture and construction of equipments needed for use in international territory. I remind you, that includes the Moon and indeed all of space beyond Low Earth Orbit, according to the so-called 'Outer Space Treaty'. Furthermore, the Project places no restrictions at all on the types of equipment that can be built, except - "
"Except for weapons," Henderson snapped. "Those are specifically prohibited."
"But I didn't ask it to build any weapons."
"Preposterous! What did you wipe out the UFOs with? Balls of toilet tissue?"
"What I asked them to make," Straker explained, "were sub-assemblies, which had thoroughly peaceful uses. Excavating machines, for example, to construct sub-surface facilities. Explosives to clear away surface obstacles. Lasers for long-range - "
"OK, OK. I get the picture… Freeman, what are you laughing at?"
"Me, sir?" Freeman's voice was distinctly muffled. Jackson looked inscrutable.
Henderson glared at them. "Anyway, the fact remains that you have no authority whatsoever to request the Factory to build anything - "
"But I do. Tell him, Alec."
"Delighted… Project Maddox also has the provision that the command staff of any organisation which operates in that 'international territory' - that includes SHADO, by the way - can, in case of emergency, bypass the 'normal channels' and put in its RTMs - requests to manufacture - directly. Any costs would be borne by the body making the request, and charged to the originator, in this case the ILFC. Since SHADO operates in a continuous state of emergency - "
"Enough!!" Henderson barked. Freeman stopped talking, but he was still grinning widely. Henderson continued: "Straker, you must have set things up with the Factory some considerable time ago. Why, exactly?"
"I like to have backups in place wherever possible," Straker told him. "For contingencies."
Henderson smiled, but the smile was twisted, almost with pain. "Oh come on, Commander. Don't tell me you were expecting to get the wrong stuff!"
"I considered it a distinct possibility."
"You sit there and tell me you think we've got spies here at IAC? Spies who have got through our very careful vetting? Devised by Doug Jackson here?"
"Of course you have," Freeman put in, as the psychiatrist allowed himself a half-smile. "So have we. It's elementary game theory. Get your people in with the enemy, years in advance if necessary. You even once suspected Ed of being a mole, remember. It's just a pity we can't return the compliment, get our people to infiltrate the aliens."
"And that brings me to my second point," Henderson said, seizing the new subject with ill-disguised relief. "Colonel Foster. You said, Straker, that you are confident the aliens' hold on Foster has been broken. What the hell makes you so sure? We don't even know how they established that control in the first place!"
"But we do." At this, Jackson sat forward, alertly.
"Oh really? Then perhaps you'd like to tell me about it?"
"Sure." Straker braced himself. "You may remember Marion Tyler? Née Knight?"
"Of course. She married your father, John Charles."
"Before that, she had adopted the son of a friend who had separated from his wife, and he had later died. The son's name was Robert Fletcher. The wife had vanished, to the UK as it turned out - but unknown to everyone she was already pregnant by Robert's father. She remarried. The child was born to her and her new husband, and was named Paul. He was later adopted himself, by a couple named Foster."
"I've always found your family tree to be more like a briar patch," Henderson said, dryly. "So Paul Foster and Robert Fletcher are full brothers. What of it?"
"That is actually very interesting indeed," Jackson put in, his voice soft and thoughtful. The general sent him a quelling look, but he ignored it.
"Were you aware that Robert died a few years ago?" Straker asked.
"Well, we were wrong, he didn't. He was taken by the aliens. They turned him into one of your 'zoms', doctor. And it seems they used the genetic link between the brothers to control Paul, remotely."
"Ahhh," Jackson breathed.
Henderson was silent for long moments, while he digested this. "I suppose, from what you tell me, Jackson, that would be possible," he admitted, slowly. "But how was the link broken?"
"Paul himself broke it," Straker told him. "First, Plan Beta was his own suggestion. When it terminated, he integrated himself, and 'repelled invaders'. And then when Robert turned up in Jersey and attacked, Paul carved him up like a Sunday roast."
"Even though Robert was his brother? Did he know that?"
"Not any more he wasn't," Freeman pointed out, grimly. "Paul knew of the connection - but also that the entity calling itself Robert was a 'zom'. Like the 'psychobombs', it wasn't human, not any more. And it is now very definitely deceased. The autopsy saw to that."
"And I should point out something else," Straker said, quietly. "Something I'm proud to be able to say, as it happens. Paul, like Robert, is my step-brother."
"You're kidding… no, you're not!" Henderson drew a breath; then he frowned. "But surely, he isn't - "
"Oh, it wouldn't be recognised in law, of course," Straker agreed. "But it's real enough to me."
"I see." Henderson's expression was unreadable.
"Do you have a problem with that?" Freeman asked. "Sir?"
"A problem? No, not at all."
"Do you know, I guess you mean that," Straker said, slowly.
"I do. It’ll do you both good - " He broke off as the intercom bleeped. "Yes, Miss Gunn?"
"I have a call for Mr Straker, sir. It's private - it concerns Ms Marion Knight."
Henderson lifted an eyebrow at Straker, who gave a nod. "He'll take it in the booth, Miss Gunn. Thank you."
Straker stood, and walked over to the hush canopy. Henderson looked across at Freeman. "While we wait for the commander, Freeman, what can you tell me about this Jersey business?"
"Ed was called away from the studio," Freeman told him. "He was contacted by Jersey General Hospital, with urgent news about his stepmother. She didn't survive. I rather suspect that's what that call is about… In the meantime, Paul Foster had successfully integrated himself and had caught up with events. He wanted to apologise to Ed for trying to turn him into a kebab, so he and Chrys hared off to Jersey to catch up. Only Diane and Robert caught up with Paul. When he didn't arrive at the hospital, I sent the heavies in, assuming Paul had gone to the cottage - he had - and when Ed became available I sent him there as well. Ed arrived in time to rescue Paul. Both Diane and Robert were there, and an alien. As we said, Paul killed Robert. Ed killed the alien with a jar of chili powder - stop laughing, Jackson - but the alien had already 'harvested' Diane. He had also done his best to cut Paul's throat."
"I see." Henderson's face was expressionless. "Any comments, doctor?"
"One or two," Jackson said. "This use of the genetic link to control one brother through the other. How do you know that was the method?"
"The zom said so, in Ed's presence."
At that point, Straker came back from the phone. "Where had we got to?"
"I was bringing Henderson up to date," Freeman told him. "Jackson wants to know more about this 'genetic link' technique."
Straker frowned. "All we really have is what I heard from the zom at the time - and something Paul told me. The alien said - "
"He talked?" Henderson cut in."Well, that's a first!"
"Yes, isn't it… He talked about Paul being protected by a 'companion of the kei', and mentioned an entity called 'the keimon'. No indication of what that all meant - though there is something a bit Arthurian about it. "
"If it helps," Jackson put in, thoughtfully, "there is a Greek word, 'hypokeimenon', which refers to an Aristotelian metaphysical concept - "
"I can't see the aliens being into ancient Greek metaphysics, doctor," Henderson snapped. "Is there a significance?"
"My apologies… The word means the 'basic essence' of a thing, something independent of its properties, which may include size, weight, colour, and so on."
"As in a chair's a chair, whether it's an overstuffed armchair or an apparatus for execution?"
"Precisely," Jackson agreed, though he had winced a little at Henderson's choice of example. "But I fear I cannot see how it applies in this case."
"Nor me," Straker admitted. "Of course, it may just be a coincidence… But we won't discard it yet. Add it to the stack of unknowns."
"I will do that," Jackson agreed. "Might we ask, was that phone call relevant to this discussion?"
"It was," Straker muttered. "They did a post-mortem, on Marion. She had been murdered, poisoned. They don't know what with. I'm not entirely surprised."
"Ed, I am so sorry," Freeman said, softly. "But why? Was it Diane, luring you over to Jersey?"
"Quite possibly." Straker looked up, and met Jackson's eyes. "We have to consider the possibility that Marion, too, had been turned into a zom. Personally I don't think she was, but - "
"Indeed," Jackson said. "How thorough was the post-mortem?"
"It was mainly toxicology, and checking for infection. Not - not much surgery, particularly of the brain. I asked them to put their investigation on hold while I sent my own doctor over. That's you, Jackson. And perhaps you’d better have this. I found it in Marion’s effects." Straker handed over the scrap of cellophane.
"Thank you,” Jackson said. “If you will all excuse me, I will leave for Jersey at once."
"Of course, doctor," Henderson said. "We will accompany you."
"To Jersey?" Straker queried.
"Yes… There are a good many loose ends to be tidied up, and many of them seem to be centred on the cottage," the general pointed out. "First, I want to talk to Foster, ASAP. I've no doubt he will remain in hospital overnight?"
"I guess," Straker confirmed. "And since it's indeed likely that the alien and the zom-Robert were using Marion's cottage as a base, we need to do a thorough search. I've already sent in SkyDiver to inspect that section of coastline. We will also need Jackson's report on Marion."
"Indeed." Henderson thumbed the intercom. "Miss Gunn? Have my 'copter waiting at the airport and ready to go in half an hour? Thank you… Letters? I’ll pick them up on the way out. Let's go, gentlemen."
"I'll call Ginny from the car," Freeman said, as he rose to his feet. He grinned. "Of course, we'll have to bring her back a Jersey lily, and some Royals!"
The general collected two letters from his secretary. One was addressed to ‘Mr E. Straker’, and one to ‘Mr P. Foster’, which Henderson passed to Freeman. Both carried the logo of the ILFC.
They followed Henderson down to the IAC car park. "Royals?" Jackson asked Freeman. "Surely not - "
"No, no. They're potatoes. The best in the world - though Idaho may contest that!"
* * *
Henderson's pilot landed them at Jersey Airport a couple of hours later. Two cars waited to meet them, and after the Customs formalities, they set off. Jackson and Freeman were going straight to the hospital, but Henderson and Straker headed for the cottage at St Martin.
When Straker queried this, Henderson pointed out that the questions he wanted to ask were too private for the low-security hospital. "So I'm asking Jackson to have the hospital discharge Foster into his care, and send him to the cottage with you, Freeman," he explained. "Unless you have any objections, Commander?"
"Henderson," Straker answered, "if you hadn't suggested that, I would."
* * *
Foster had rather lost track of time. Chrys had looked after his watch when the paramedics removed it in the SEMAS helicopter, and there was no clock in his room; neither was the monitor readout in his line of vision. So he was not sure if the meal he had been given was lunch or supper. Whichever it was, the food was welcome; he was quite hungry. The hospital had also supplied Chrys with tea and sandwiches, and together they ate eagerly.
"Never has an egg-and-tomato been so welcome," Chrys said, at last, wiping her fingers with a tissue and dabbing at her mouth.
"Mmm," Paul agreed. He swallowed his last mouthful, just in time; the door opened, and Jackson entered, followed by Alec Freeman.
"Good afternoon, Foster," the psychiatrist greeted him. Freeman gave him a cheerful smile of greeting, as Jackson inspected Paul's face closely. "You are doing well, they tell me. How are you feeling?"
"Not bad, thanks. Neck isn't sore, and I don't feel wobbly at all… When can I get out of here?"
"Well, you do not need any more blood, at the moment at least," Jackson said, "so the doctors here have agreed to discharge you into my personal care." He allowed himself a half-smile at Paul's grimace. He continued: "You will be even more pleased to hear that we will be meeting James and Ed at the cottage, to 'wrap this affair up', as they say."
"Go for it."
Paul made to push back the bedclothes, but Jackson raised a cautionary hand. "I advise you to move slowly, Foster. You may dress - I have brought along a coverall, undergarments, and trainers for you - and a nurse will be here shortly to remove your cannula and give you your discharge notes. We will wait outside for you."
"Need any help?" Chrys enquired.
"I thought you'd never ask."
Freeman and Jackson left, and a nurse entered. She removed the cannula in Paul's elbow - he was certain she took off a sizeable patch of skin with the plaster - handed him an unsealed envelope, wished him the best, and withdrew. He managed to dress, with a little help from Chrys, and not too much restriction from the neck brace.
Feeling considerably more human, though he did wince a little at the thought, he stood, and hugged Chrys. "There's something I wonder if I should be asking you at this point," he whispered.
"If it's what I'm wondering about asking you," she whispered in return, "don't. This isn't the time."
"No, it isn't the time, you're right… We need to settle down a bit, first. Talk about a 'roller-coaster', horrible cliché though it is!" Paul kissed her lightly on the nose. "But don't think I've forgotten about this, Miss Jones. It's on the back-burner, that's all."
"As long as it's not on after-burners, Mr Foster."
He chuckled at the pun, and followed her out of the room. Freeman and Jackson were waiting for them; and so was a wheelchair. "Now look here, I can walk - " Foster protested.
"Sit down and save your energy," Freeman advised him. "You'll need it!"
Muttering indignantly, Paul reluctantly sat in the chair. Freeman handed him the ILFC envelope. This is for you… There was one for Ed as well.”
Intrigued, Foster opened the letter, noting that the paper was thick and luxurious like vellum. He read it through, and his jaw dropped.
“Well, don’t leave us in suspense,” Freeman suggested.
“It’s an official letter of thanks, from Commissioner Duval. He says Ed and I have his ‘undying gratitude for our efforts’.”
“That’s very decent of him,” Freeman smiled. “I’ll bet this was his daughter’s doing!”
“It’s one in the eye for Henderson,” Foster agreed, grinning widely. “Can’t wait to see his face… Well, shall we go?”
Freeman took hold of the handles and began to push the chair towards the car park. "Jackson, what are you grinning at?" he demanded.
"Well," mused Jackson, "Straker has acquired a brother, and you have acquired another son."
"Hmph. No wonder I'm going grey!"
At this, Jackson gave one of his rare laughs. "Come on. We had better not keep Great-Uncle James waiting!"
* * *
The clean-up team had done its work well. The bodies had been removed to Mayland for detailed examination. When the team had completed its own investigations, the blood-soaked couch and carpet, both quite valuable antiques, had been taken for cleaning, and the priest-hole had been scrubbed out. A faint smell of bleach could be detected in the kitchen, but that was an improvement on the stink that had assaulted Straker's nostrils as he had emerged from the hidden tunnel.
Steinitz had turned off the electrical power at the main switch before locking up and departing. Straker turned it back on, so that they could use the lights; like all cottages of its age, its windows were quite small, and did not illuminate the interior well. He also turned on the mains water, and ran the taps for a few minutes to clear the pipes.
"It's probably best if we use the kitchen for this discussion," he said. He checked the larder. "There's coffee, and fruit juices, but they took the perishables from the fridge when they turned the power off, so there's no milk, I'm afraid. Unless Alec stopped off at the farm on his way up."
"Straker," Henderson said. "Sit down, will you?"
Blinking a little at Henderson's positively gentle tone, Straker sat. "Yes?"
“Aren’t you going to open that letter?”
“Later, perhaps.” Straker thought he could guess what was in it, perhaps a ‘thank-you’ from Dr Sue Grant. He hoped she had remembered to thank Foster, as well.
“Very well.” The general took a breath, and gazed down at his hands for a few moments; then he looked up, and met the commander's sapphire stare. "Commander, I owe you an apology, and not for the first time, alas. You will appreciate how careful we have to be in these matters, considering how little we truly know about our enemies' capabilities. I tend to err on the side of caution. If I go too far in that direction, at least it balances your own rather adventurous approach, which sometimes seems to me to verge on the downright reckless."
Straker gave a tiny smile. "It's sometimes necessary to be reckless, sir. And I acknowledge that it's sometimes necessary to be super-cautious… Where are we on that spectrum, right now, as regards Colonel Foster?"
"On the cusp. For the moment. However, I am satisfied that the colonel is no longer the risk that he was. In fact, I think he's well on the way to becoming the asset that you hoped. Time and Jackson will tell."
"You're talking about this investigation into the aliens and their agents," Straker said.
"I am indeed. Oh… One more thing, before Freeman arrives. I know you well enough by now, Straker, to be sure that you will not give Foster any 'special treatment' because he's your brother."
"Neither positive nor negative, sir. I saw quite enough of that sort of thing at school."
"As did I," Henderson agreed, with a rueful smile. "Well, I think I hear them now… shall we let them in?"
"Let's do that." Straker rose, and led the way out into the sunshine, to greet his brother.
Recycling space 'junk'
I really, really, REALLY wish I'd thought of this…
'International waters': https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Outer_Space_Treaty
Mascons: Arthur C. Clarke's novel'Earthlight', published in 1955, mentions mascons (though he doesn't use that word). They were detected by the Lunar Orbiters in 1966/7: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earthlight#Notes
The Works of Snowleopard
The Library Entrance