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By the time they arrived at the hotel, Colonel Ed Straker, USAF, had at last managed to relax.
He hoped Mary hadn't noticed his tension; or if she had, that she had put it down to honeymoon nerves. And he was certainly nervous. Not, he thought, because of any doubts about his ability; he had had a little experience, after all. But when you were with the one you truly loved, it was so very different..
His real problem was that the memory of that UFO attack, that had killed the Minister, nearly killed General Henderson, and injured him, would never leave him, he knew. Neither would the fear - the certainty - of a repeat attack. He would just have to do his best to put it to one side.
Getting out of uniform had certainly helped. New suit, new wife, as he had said to her.
They went in to the hotel reception, and behind them one of the parking valets attended to their car. Straker looked around, casually; but his observational skills, trained in piloting fighters, flying as an astronaut, and increasingly in the MI, took notes. He saw the man in the armchair, who presumably was waiting for someone. The man glanced up, casually, and returned his gaze to his newspaper; but Straker automatically memorised his face.
And was that glance just a little too casual?
'You really are nervous, Ed,' Straker chided himself. 'Downright paranoid, in fact. You'll be seeing little green men next…' though of course, they did not yet know if the UFO crews were little, green, or indeed men.
Or if the craft even had crews.
* * *
The nurse closed the door behind her, softly.
"I'm not asleep," Henderson murmured.
"That's good, because the doctor wants to have a look at you." She helped him into a sitting position. He could not repress a slight grimace of pain, and shook his head at her enquiring look.
The doctor came, made his examination, and smiled his satisfaction. "You are doing well, James. But you would be doing even better if you got a bit more sleep."
"I've got a lot to think about. Can't waste time sleeping."
"Rubbish," said the doctor, sharply. "Time spent in sleep while recovering from injuries like those you sustained is never wasted. Now behave yourself or I'll make sure you sleep."
He meant it, Henderson realised. "I'll behave," he grunted.
The doctor left. A few moments later the nurse put her head round the door again. "You have a phone call, James. A Mr Forrest."
"Good. I'll take it here, please."
She wheeled in the trolley, its light flashing. Henderson lifted the handset. "Ah, Brad. What news?… They have?… Good Now listen. I want you to follow them to the airport. Then wait for instructions… Yes, exactly, Brad… Well that's just too bad, I'm afraid… I'll explain to the Colonel, as much as he needs to know… Thanks. Goodbye."
* * *
The next day Straker's nerves had dissipated almost completely. He and Mary had breakfast in their room, again delivered courtesy of the management. They had packed their overnight things, with much giggling. The case was only a small one; most of the luggage they would need for the holiday had already been sent to the airport (good old Alec! he thought). They checked out, paid the bill, and were conducted to their car, which had been brought out of the underground park ready for them.
They drove to the airport in a very cheerful mood. Straker was slightly startled to recall that this was his first holiday, proper holiday spent away from base, since he had met Henderson. The man certainly knew how to keep you busy.
He was gently teasing Mary about their honeymoon destination, when it happened.
"Colonel Straker?" said a quiet voice behind him. A small wallet was thrust under his nose, and his heart sank. He looked around; yes, it was the man from the hotel reception. According to his ID, his name was Brad Forrest. And he was MI5.
So Straker had to explain to Mary that he had to go, that General Henderson had summoned him, to come at once. There would be no holiday, no honeymoon. Mary took it well, better than could be expected… but he felt as though his heart was being torn from his chest as he walked away from her.
* * *
In his hospital room, Henderson looked through the file once more. Mary Nightingale had had the basic security checks required of all staff when she obtained that job at the MoD. When Straker met and took up with her, Security swung into action once more, and she had been vetted to a high level; after all, she was involved with an MI officer. The vetting was repeated in even more detail when Straker announced his intention to marry her.
"She's clean, sir," the CIA agent, Scott Rimmer, had reported. "No apparent irregularities. She's not all that interested in politics and has no links to anyone known or suspected to be a Communist sympathiser. She's an occasional churchgoer, in a mainstream Christian church. Concerning possibilities for blackmail, financially she has an excellent record. Her family has money, but it's all clean, with no debts. She is straight and not promiscuous. She had separate liaisons with two men before she met Colonel Straker, but had broken them off some time ago. Neither of those was married. So she's not a credible target for subversion on any of those counts."
Clean, indeed, Henderson mused. What a pity.
But, of course, the aliens did not seem to be interested in politics, religion, or money; nor even - barring some of the more lurid tales in some newspapers - in sex. The problem was the simple fact of their existence, and the panic that fact would cause if it became known that human beings really were being abducted, being mutilated, being slaughtered, by an unknown extraterrestrial intelligence.
And it was his job to fight that intelligence.
Correction, he thought. It had been his job. According to what the doctors had told him, that was no longer on the cards. The injuries he had sustained in that UFO attack had been so extensive that, even now, weeks later, he was still in a wheelchair. His eyesight would never recover properly. Bones had been broken, internal organs torn, skin extensively burned. When Straker - injured himself, though not nearly as severely - had pulled Henderson's near-corpse from the vehicle before it burst into flames, he had thought the General was dead; and for a while Henderson had wished he was. It would have been less painful.
But he survived, and he was recovering, though slowly; and he knew he would never recover enough to be able to do all that would be needed. So now it was time to hand over the task which would have been his.
His feelings about that were distinctly mixed. On the one hand, he was intrigued by the mystery of these alien entities, seething with curiosity, longing to know more from a purely intellectual standpoint. Also, he admitted to himself - slightly shame-faced - the kudos of being the one to establish friendly contact with an extraterrestrial race was certainly tempting.
On the other hand, the difficulties he would have faced in that task were astronomical. Quite literally.
Henderson sighed. He knew that now he wasn't going to be the one who would have to face them. Someone else would have that exciting but terrifying prospect.
He hoped it would be Straker who would be selected to take over. He had been grooming the man for this task for years. In his opinion, no-one else came even close to the requirements for that top job.
He just wished the man had not fallen in love.
He had talked over the problem with Rimmer - carefully, without revealing the true reasons for his concern.
"You're asking me," Rimmer had said, heavily, "whether a man can be expected not to spill secrets in bed. Ever heard of Yevgeny Ivanov?"
"And the Profumo affair? Sure I have. But Mary Nightingale is no Christine Keeler."
This referred to a scandal that had rocked, and perhaps eventually toppled, the British Conservative government of the early sixties. Christine Keeler was a young model who had turned out to be having an affair with the then Secretary of State for War, John Profumo - and also, it was rumoured, a Soviet naval attaché called Captain Yevgeny Ivanov. The security risks of this situation were obvious; though an inquiry by senior British judges had concluded that there had been no actual breach.
"Damn right she isn't! James, it all rather depends on the demands of a particular job, and the degree of secrecy required. Even the most patient and understanding of wives gets a little miffed when her husband puts his job first, before even her. Even knowing he's in MI she will want, demand, explanations. And I'm afraid I couldn't really blame her."
Nor I, Henderson admitted to himself. And when the demands of a job are astronomical, and the secrecy required is absolute… the outcome is inevitable.
He shook his head. "It can't be allowed, Scott. This marriage. It's too dangerous."
"Well, if that's the way it is…" Rimmer took a mouthful of his whisky. "There's the obvious solution. And Straker is essentially a loner. Remove the wife he loves, soon, while he's still star-struck, and he won't take up again in a hurry."
"By 'remove' you mean 'assassinate'," Henderson said flatly.
After a few moments, Henderson shook his head. "No. That would be going too far. I like Mary; and besides, if we did take her out her and Straker found out about it - "
"He'd go after you."
"No doubt." Henderson drank from his own glass. Pity it wasn't whisky, he mused; but the doctors had been adamant. Just as well he liked oranges… "There is another possibility, of course. Wreck the marriage. Turn her against him."
Rimmer considered this. "Yes," he agreed, thoughtfully. "That would work. What do you have in mind?"
"Ruin their honeymoon, for a start! Listen, Scott, this is what I want you to do. To begin with, get Brad Forrest in the loop…"
* * *
When Straker arrived at the hospital, he seemed quiet - understandably, Henderson thought - but attentive. When Henderson asked how Mary had taken it, and had commented that a man needed an 'understanding wife' in this job, he gave his voice a slight but definite edge. Straker noted this, without seeming to. The man was good, Henderson thought approvingly.
Straker had left, to get ready for the trip to the UN. Henderson called the nurse.
"Would you tell the Nightingales I'm ready for them, and pass my apologies for the delay?"
A few minutes later, Mary's parents arrived. The father shook hands, enquired after his progress. The mother was frowning.
"Please, both of you, sit down… Can I get you some coffee?"
"That would be good, thank you, Jim," the father answered.
Coffee was delivered. The mother said: "Jim, tell me I'm mistaken, but didn't we see Ed just now?"
"No, he was here," Henderson replied.
"But he's on his honeymoon!" she protested, horrified.
"Something came up, and he had to return. He came here to check in with me."
"That's terrible," said the father. He himself, Henderson knew, had some experience of the military. "They will be so disappointed."
"Mary certainly will be," her mother sniffed. "If he's started as he means to go on - "
"As I understand it, there wasn't anything he could do," Henderson commented. How true, he thought… "These things happen, I'm afraid."
"They happen too often! He should have tried harder."
"Dear," her husband said, placatingly, "it's not that easy, as you know - "
"I don't like him. I've never liked him. He's too - too pretty. Mary will have to watch him, he'll be off womanising, you mark my words!"
Hmm, Henderson thought. This defence organisation of ours will begin recruiting before very long, from experts of all nations and both sexes. I can use that…
* * *
The news that the UN Special Committee had unanimously chosen him to lead SHADO startled Straker; but when he thought about it, he recognised that he was possibly the only suitable candidate in a very small group of possibilities. When Henderson reminded him that he could refuse, but he would have to do it immediately, he needed only a moment's thought to make his decision.
For him, the matter had a personal dimension. He thought about his fear of further alien attacks - how had they known about the car, and who its occupants were, and what they intended? - but he knew, without false modesty, that he had the necessary skills to lead the defence against them. If he backed down now, the task would go to the second-best; and if the result of that was disaster, he would be the one to blame. Not the stand-in.
Henderson watched his wheels turn, wondering if he had fully realised the implications. He was not exactly naïve, after all; and he had had extensive experience of the workings of Security. Just not to this level.
Well, he would soon find out.
Straker confirmed his willingness to take on the task; and Henderson turned his thoughts to more practical matters. "Ed, we will need to give some thought to how and where we will build the HQ. It will have to be mostly underground, of course. Forgive me, but I've already spoken to the medical advisers about your little problem - "
"So have I, sir," Straker answered, with a small grimace. "They are satisfied I'll be OK."
"And what about the submarines?"
"I wouldn't have to go aboard any of those very often. In any case, airplanes don't bother me, nor space capsules, so subs shouldn't either."
"The medics seem to agree. OK, that's fine. Now, where do we hide a thing like this?"
"I gave it some thought on the trip, sir," Straker told him. "There are already a large number of secure underground installations here in Britain. One good example is Wood Norton Hall in Worcestershire, near Evesham. The BBC uses the place as a training centre; but that's built on top of a nuclear bunker, which in turn used to be the BBC emergency studio set up for use during the last war."
"I hope you're not suggesting we take over the place," Henderson said, dryly. "The BBC would object. Strongly. And loudly."
"They sure would… but there are several similar places around, not so high-profile. If we could acquire one, and adapt it to our needs, expand it if necessary, that would slice a chunk off the expenditure. And it would mean that we could become operational at a basic level within a few months. It would mean working on a building site - but that shouldn't be a problem. In fact, here's a place that looks promising. It's outside a town in Wessex, called Harlington. It's quite near the coast, which is useful for our submarines." He handed the General a few sheets of paper, stapled together.
"Hmm." Henderson leafed through the papers, nodding in satisfaction. "Yes… So, how do we hide a building site?"
"In plain sight."
"By building something," Straker explained. "Some kind of industrial complex. Light industry, that is. The Harlington town council is looking to expand its industrial area, grow some business, create jobs, that sort of thing."
"Hmm," Henderson said, again. He gazed out of the window for a few moments; then he turned back to Straker. "Colonel, how d'you fancy becoming a movie producer?"
"I don't - Ah." Straker's puzzled expression gave way to thoughtfulness; and then he smiled. "I like it. I know damn-all about movies, but I'm not convinced the 'real' guys do either. But wouldn't we look kinda suspicious? The guys I need will have to be qualified and experienced in more than just movie-making."
"Most of the public won't know that, or won't notice," Henderson pointed out. "Friends and relatives of your recruits will think it's what the Brits call an 'old-boy' network - employing friends because they're friends. And the commanders of the organisations we - you - recruit from, will think we've been set up as a place to evade FOIA."
"The Freedom of Information Act? Farming out secret investigations, to places the public can't get a look at them? Just as well the Brits don't have that sort of law yet."
"That's the idea. It would be a great cover for my contacts with you from the IAC."
"I guess… And being a movie studio, we could bring in the most outrageous stuff, and no-one would turn a hair, they'd just shake their heads at those 'crazy movie guys'. We could even bring in a real UFO on a flatbed and they'd all think it was a prop!"
"We should be so lucky," grunted Henderson. "OK, Colonel, get to it."
"Yes, sir. Oh - one last thing - "
"When do I get fired?"
"When do you - Oh, I see. Well, I'll arrange for you to be honourably discharged on medical grounds, in a few months. You haven't fully recovered from that crash yourself, and I'll give as a reason that the injuries were worse than was originally thought. At least, that's the public version… In fact you will have your new commission, as Commander-in-Chief, SHADO Operations. Only the UN and the very top level of the British Government will know about it. Just don't put it on your business cards!"
* * *
When Straker told Mary he was resigning from the Air Force, she was horrified.
"But I thought you'd recovered," she protested.
"I have - mostly," he said. "But my fitness level just isn't up to spec."
"But are you all right? What will you do?"
"Well, don't worry, I'm fine, and we'll be OK financially. I'll be given a pension. Henderson says I'll still be on the strength, but not actively. And in any case, nothing will happen for at least a year, I still have this thing to finish for him. After that - I'll have to look around, decide what to do next."
"If it means I get to see a bit more of you, I'm all for it!"
"There's that," Straker agreed, with a slight smile. He kissed her, thinking: if only we could be together more… but perhaps when this start phase is done, we will be.
* * *
His hopes were not borne out by events.
The increasing, unrelenting workload set by Henderson - effectively, Straker was doing the work of both men - sent his relationship with Mary rapidly downhill, until, in desperation, he made up his mind to tell her about SHADO. When he said as much to Alec Freeman, his friend was horrified, and pointed out that Security would come down on her like a ton of bricks.
He did not have to say that Ed would also have their attention; and that it was likely the couple would not survive the experience.
Hopelessly, desperately, Straker threw himself into his work, trying to get it done, trying to get this phase finished. He hoped Mary would find some patience from somewhere.
Her pregnancy was not helping. He had been warned by Henderson's medical staff that it was not uncommon for a woman's personality to change under those circumstances; indeed, sometimes, a few unfortunate mothers-to-be became genuinely psychotic. At least that didn't seem to be happening to Mary. If only her own mother were a little more sympathetic…
* * *
"More tea, Mary? No, sit there, I'll pour… Darling, would you like any more?"
Her husband shook his head. He was watching his daughter, his eyes concerned. "Thank you, Mother, yes," Mary said.
The mother looked around the room, with a rather grudging smile. "At least he's provided you with a nice house. Pity he isn't in it a bit more often."
"He's very busy, Mother," Mary protested.
"Dear, he should be with you!" She handed Mary a full Royal Doulton teacup, with a silver spoon in its saucer. "What on earth can be keeping him so busy? And you've only been married for a year or so. What if his 'being busy' goes on for five years? Ten? Are you going to put up with that? It's practically desertion."
Mary thought back, remembering the strain - almost the desperation - in her husband's face when she had tried to get him to talk about his work. She kept telling herself, with the MI, you had to expect this sort of thing… But in the time she had been going out with him, it had never been this bad. Yes, there had been the occasional missed meetings, but he had been properly contrite, and made them up to her afterwards.
Now, though, he had clammed up completely.
What if it did go on? Could she stand it?
She knew she could not.
And she had wanted a large family. It was beginning to look as though that would not happen.
Her mother sipped from her own teacup. "Dear, do you think he may be regretting getting married?"
"How is your arthritis, mother?" Mary said, pointedly ignoring the question. But she was thinking: yes, he might be…
"Oh, it has its good days and its bad days," her mother said; but Mary could have sworn she was smiling, as though she knew exactly what her daughter was thinking. "Your father has suggested I consider employing a nurse; but it's not that bad yet. And, anyway, I'm not keen on having strangers sharing my home."
"Mother," Mary said firmly, "we've had this discussion before. It's best if someone you know but is not too close does that sort of job. They can be more objective, give you what you know you need, not what you think you want. And besides, I'm a married woman myself."
Her mother gave a small, catlike smile. "Are you, dear?" she enquired.
* * *
It was a few days later that her mother telephoned her at home, and planted a small but very nasty seed: Was Ed having an affair?
What her mother carefully did not say was that she had talked the problem over with Jim Henderson, when he had visited her at the family home. The General had been out of hospital for some months, and was recovering well; but he would never again enjoy military-level fitness. He was making plans for his forced retirement. A new body was being set up to interact with NASA, the International Astrophysical Commission, and he had applied for a post there.
"It sounds most interesting," Mary's father commented.
"Any chance you could take Straker along with you?" her mother said. "He might get to see his wife more often! And his child! Our grandchild!"
"Oh? Problems?" Henderson enquired.
"I'll say there are problems," she growled. "He's never home. Refuses to give even a basic explanation of his actions. Jim - "
"You know him better than any of us. Do you - do you think he might be having an affair?"
"Oh no, I don't think so," Henderson said, a little too quickly; and saw the mother take note. Good… "He has had a few liaisons in the past to my knowledge, but I don't think he's promiscuous."
"Well, I'm not so sure," the mother said darkly. "I think Mary should investigate him a bit."
"Oh, there's no need for that, surely?" Henderson protested; but inside, he was thinking: I believe Straker is due to meet with Miss Barry soon…
* * *
Straker threw himself on the bed, in the spare room. He did not want to disturb Mary, face another row.
The accusation of infidelity had wounded him; but he knew he only had himself to blame. Or, at least, he had SHADO to blame…
He did not like the way this was going. If only he could tell Mary SOMETHING. But Alec had been right.
There was nothing he could do but continue as he had been doing.
* * *
Then came the moment when their problems came to a head. He had reached a 'waypoint' of sorts in the setting-up of SHADO; and he had held a meeting of their first group of recruits, at Nina Barry's flat. Happy for the first time in far too long, he hurried home, intending to take Mary out and give her a night to remember.
What they got was a night he longed to forget.
He met her half way up the stairs. He took the suitcase from her. She said things that terrified him. Then came the relief, of realising that she only (only!!) suspected him of infidelity. He smiled; but she must have thought he was mocking her… She lost her temper, started shouting at him… and, thinking she was hysterical, he slapped her.
Years afterwards, that moment still haunted his nightmares.
The horror of what he had done held him paralysed on the stairs as she pushed past him. He broke out of it as she fainted, and fell. He called the ambulance. Then there was the dreadful ride to the hospital. Mary's father followed in his own car.
They were shown to the waiting area. Mary's father did not speak to him, did not even look at him. All the two of them could do was sit, wait for news.
Straker wondered where her mother was. Mary had told him, before their wedding, that her mother had rheumatoid arthritis, and was not very mobile; and her father would not be wanting to leave now to go and fetch her, in case something happened in his absence.
But this was her daughter. And there were always taxis.
But who was he to criticise…
Finally, the doctor came out to see them, still dressed in his greens. Straker felt weak at the knees with relief; the man was smiling. And Mary's father even managed to summon up a smile himself, and a congratulatory squeeze of the shoulder for the new father.
Straker looked in on Mary, who was still sleeping off the anaesthetic, then went to see his son. Mary had agreed that if the child was a boy, he would be named John; and Straker was relieved not to have to argue. He gazed through the glass partition at the rows of small cots, each cradling a tiny scrap of life. A little self-consciously, he waved; but of course, John was asleep.
And then Alec Freeman arrived.
"Look Ed, I truly am very sorry," he said, "but something's come up. James called, about the Jensens."
'Jensen' was their codeword for the fighters dubbed Interceptors, being designed to be based at their lunar facility. "It's OK, Alec. Let's go."
"How is Mary?"
"Doing very well. She's sleeping at the moment." He thought, but did not say: what she will think when she wakes up and I'm not there, I dread to think. That will be the end of our marriage…
* * *
Not a very long time later, Alec Freeman came into the command office, to find his friend sitting with his head in his hands. An envelope lay on the lucite desk. It had been roughly torn open, not neatly slit with the silver-handled paper knife.
"Ed…?" Freeman said, carefully.
Straker straightened up, and gazed at his friend through red-rimmed eyes. "She's divorcing me, Alec," he said, huskily. "It's my own fault… Don't worry," he added, as Freeman made a movement of protest. "I won't be contesting it. I can't. I daren't!"
"No, you can't… Hang on. Be back in a moment."
He returned with two beakers, and poured two generous measures, thinking: I'll have to talk to Supply, have them hurry up with those glasses they promised us… "Here," he said, handing one to Straker. "Drink it and don't argue… Ed, I am so sorry."
Straker swivelled his chair around, and gazed at the door. "Don't be… I've often wondered, over the past few months, whether I should have refused to take this on… I thought I knew what Security meant. Guess this situation is a bit different."
"Just a bit," Freeman agreed.
"You never remarried."
"No." Freeman looked down into his glass. "I never met anyone who felt so right for me. Now I'm rather glad I didn't."
Straker nodded, and fell silent. Freeman did not interrupt his thoughts.
At length, Straker took a long, deep breath. "I've decided. I considered resigning, and to hell with Henderson, he can shoot me if he wants… But I'm going to carry on. I'll do it the best I possibly can. And I'll do it for her."
Freeman lifted his glass in a toast. "Mary."
"Mary," Straker echoed; and they drank, silently.
* * *
The years passed.
On this day, Freeman was furious with Commander Ed Straker. This was becoming a not unusual frame of mind for him; his friend - if he could still call him that - had withdrawn inside a hard, icy shell, from where he stepped on people's toes without caring, without even knowing he was doing it. At least, that was Freeman's impression.
He had tried to make allowances. The job Straker had been handed was difficult, frustrating, terrifying even. And it needed someone with a hard protective layer. Straker certainly had that; but lately, Freeman had begun to think he had hardened all the way through.
This latest incident felt like the last straw.
During the recent alert, they had lost an Interceptor, and its pilot, to what seemed to be an emotional decision on strategy by Lieutenant Ellis. There had been signs of a developing attachment between her and another pilot, Mark Bradley. Freeman approved; but Straker did not.
The Commander had used his computers to analyse the incident. It certainly seemed to confirm that Gay's decision had led to the death of the pilot, while protecting Bradley. Accordingly, Straker wanted the pair to be separated.
Freeman thought he understood Straker's attitude. The man was still bruised by the loss of his wife and son, still unhappy that he only had access to Johnny once a month, had no input to decisions about his upbringing, his schooling. While Freeman sympathised, he felt that Straker might have been taking out his frustrations on his staff; and that was not healthy.
And then the Commander had rushed the interrogation of the alien UFO pilot; and killed him in the process.
Freeman could not let this pass; but perhaps he could salvage the situation - and his friend - with a little shock therapy.
He prepared a letter of resignation. When he presented it to Straker, the man was clearly taken aback; but he recovered swiftly. Freeman explained to Straker what he thought about the situation, listened to Straker's reaction, and finished by promising to 'sleep on it'. At that point, one of the phones on Straker's desk rang. The Commander picked it up, listened for a moment, then handed it to him.
It was Mark Bradley. And what he had to say confirmed Straker's analysis; the pair were indeed emotionally involved. Reluctantly, but with some relief, Freeman tore up the letter. Why was that man always right…
He looked at Straker, puzzled. Why was that man smiling? He turned to leave; and Straker spoke, oh-so-casually, telling him to send Astronaut Bradley and Lieutenant Ellis to resume their posts at Moonbase.
"That's not what the report said," Freeman protested, thinking: now what?
"Not the first report, no." And Straker handed Freeman the second report, which showed clearly that Gay's decision, far from killing one pilot, had saved two.
"You mean her decision was not influenced by emotion?" Freeman said, now totally confused.
Straker gave a small, enigmatic smile over his interwoven fingers. "You tell me."
Well, Freeman thought, that was a departure… Maybe there's hope for him after all.
He headed for the door. Straker was unwrapping a cigar, still smiling.
The door slid open… and an exclamation from behind Freeman stopped him in his tracks.
That word in itself was unusual enough from Straker to send Alec's train of thought crashing into the buffers. He turned. Straker's smile had vanished, to be replaced by a look of sheer horrified fury.
"What is it? What's the matter?"
Straker shot to his feet, the unlit cigar falling from his fingers. He thumped the door button, and it closed. "Henderson, that's what's the matter!"
"What - "
"I knew there was something screwy about it!" Straker was breathing heavily. "Did I ever tell you… When Mary and I were waiting for our flight to Athens. The security guy, Forrest, who came to pull me back to Henderson's side like a dog on a lead. He was at the hotel, in Reception, when we checked in. Why didn't he tell us then? Why wait until we were about to leave, full of expectation? Did he deliberately choose a time which would cause maximum disappointment?"
Freeman thought: please god no, tell me he didn't - "You mean - "
"And then Henderson kept me so busy! I was doing the work for the both of us! He could have handled a lot of it himself, he wasn't that badly smashed up! And he was friends with Mary's parents… and her mother didn't like me from the start, and her father was one of those henpecked types!" He took a breath, trying unsuccessfully to calm himself. "And then… just now I was thinking, if we were still together, Mary and I… and it all seemed to fall into place!"
"Ed," Freeman said, "are you telling me that General James L. Henderson deliberately sabotaged your marriage?"
"Yes. I think he did. For 'security reasons'." Straker spat out the last two words like bullets.
"You were lucky," Freeman said, quietly.
"What the hell's 'lucky' about - " Straker stopped, abruptly. His face paled. "Oh my god."
Straker swung round, gazing into the colour-splashed depths of the 'light show' panel. Freeman remained silent. He glanced over at the mini-bar, but thought: no, this isn't a Scotch moment. I don't know what it is… a molotov cocktail moment, maybe.
"Did you know? Or suspect?"
"Neither," Freeman told him, truthfully. "I could guess what Security would do if they found out you'd told her, or even thought you had - but I honestly didn't think about the possibility they would go that far. Not then… But now, I've had some experience of them in practice."
"You mean - We've lost several of our prospective recruits. You don't think - "
"Ed, two of them died. 'Accidentally'."
"Accidentally," Straker repeated, slowly. "Where are their files?"
"I'll get them. Don't go away."
He was back in a few minutes. "Here… but the sooner we get that network up and running, the better."
Straker opened the folder, leafed through a few pages. "Let's see… Ah." He looked up at Freeman, his expression grim. "Roberts was one… He'd been married a year. He'd changed his mind about joining when he realised how much it would take of this time. The couple died in a car crash - "
"No." Straker turned his attention back to the folder. "The second fatality was a woman named Ricci. Unmarried, but she'd turned out to have a very 'social' personality. Wide circle of friends, very chatty, that sort of thing. She found she couldn't get on with the privacy needed here. She died of cancer."
"I don't think it's possible to induce cancer deliberately."
"Neither do I… but treatment can be withheld. And according to this, it was. They said she was 'unsuitable for chemotherapy'."
"Ed," Freeman said seriously, "do you think we should pursue this?"
After a few moments, Straker nodded. "Yes, I do. If this isn't clarified it will fester. We can't afford that. I will investigate it until I'm sure - and if our suspicions are confirmed, I'll talk to Henderson."
"You may end up for the chop yourself."
"Yes. I may. Which is why you are not going to get involved, Alec. One of us has to be still available… and this problem is mine."
* * *
Henderson pressed the switch on the intercom. "Yes, Miss Gunn?"
"Mr Straker to see you, sir."
"Indeed?" Henderson raised a puzzled eyebrow. "Show him in."
Straker marched in, and sat without invitation. He leaned back in the seat, and crossed his legs, propping his left foot on his right knee, and clasped his hands casually behind his head.
"Good morning, Straker. Do sit down," Henderson said, pointedly.
"What can I do for you?"
"Have you read my report, about the loss of our Interceptor pilot?"
"Yes, of course. And I see you've reinstated both Lieutenant Ellis and Astronaut Bradley."
"Do you think that was wise?"
"No." As Henderson started to speak, Straker cut in: "I think it was essential."
"And why is that - Oh, yes. Your second analysis."
"Exactly," Straker said. "You see, I don't consider being in love to be a disciplinary offence. Unlike you - and Brad Forrest."
"I see," Henderson said, nodding. He moved his foot slightly, so that it made momentary contact with a sensitive plate in the floor beneath his desk.
"Do you? Do you really?" Straker brought his hands down, not quickly, and leaned forward. His voice was low, and dangerous. "What about Mike and Beth Roberts, whose only crime was that they wanted to be with each other a bit more? What about Gina Ricci, who needed friendship and didn't get it? And what about Mary and me? In each of those cases, your pal Forrest was in there, stirring up trouble, under your direction! I can count myself lucky we're still alive, at least!"
"Yes," Henderson admitted. "You can. Do you think that will last?"
In a single fluid movement, Straker came to his feet, his hands clenched by his sides. Behind him, there was a swoosh, and footsteps, and the unmistakeable sounds of firearms being readied for use. He did not have to look round to know that he was targeted by at least three IAC marksmen.
"Raise your hands," Henderson ordered; and Straker complied. "No-one's indispensable - "
He broke off. Something was glinting metallically in Straker's left hand.
"Whatever you have in that hand, drop it now!"
"This device is armed," Straker told him, uncurling his fingers just enough to reveal a small brass cylinder, his thumb holding firmly on one end. "If I let go for any reason, the blast radius will be about thirty feet. It will get us both. And won't the aliens just love that!!"
Henderson went pale. "You would do it. Wouldn't you?"
"Damn right I would. If we have to discard our humanity to win this war, we might as well give up, now, and let the aliens walk in and take over. They might make a better job of it than us!" And thank you, Alec Freeman, for reminding me of that…
Henderson met Straker's gaze, saw the fury burning there… and then his own gaze dropped. He glanced at a photoframe on the side of the desk. It was, Straker knew, a photograph of his wife, who had died of cancer two decades ago.
"Yes, Henderson," he said, quietly. "The job needs an 'understanding wife', you said. Would your wife have understood?"
The General went on staring at the picture. He shook his head, slowly, then gestured to the squad leader. They withdrew. Carefully, Straker lowered his hands.
"It's true, then. You wrecked our marriage."
"Because you thought we were a major security risk."
"We sure are now," Straker said, quietly. "But if you'd let us alone… Mary did understand what security meant, in general if not in detail. We would have made it work. We loved each other. I still love Mary, I always will, and there's not a day goes by, an hour, that I don't regret bitterly what I did to her… But it would take a miracle to put it right now."
Henderson did not reply.
"And now," Straker went on, "you, and I, have to make it work. We have a job to do. We have to guard this lovely world of ours from those who would destroy it, destroy us. We have to put aside our differences. Tell me we can do that."
At last, Henderson nodded. "You're right."
"It won't be easy," Straker warned.
"No. It won't." Henderson looked up; his eyes were red. He nodded at the device in Straker's hand. "Need help with that?"
"There's a clamp in my pocket."
"I'll get it." Henderson slid his hand into Straker's jacket, drew out the clamp, and screwed it onto the small cylinder. "There's a blastproof chamber under the garage."
"I know the one. Thanks." Straker looked at the cylinder, then at Henderson. "Tomorrow I have to investigate a possible new recruit. I'll be in touch."
"Do that," Henderson answered; and Straker left.
He did not bother with the blast chamber, but walked straight to his car and climbed into the driving seat, pulling the door closed. He contemplated the small brass cylinder for a moment. Normally these things were operated by pushing down a small plunger; but he had jigged this one to be triggered on releasing the plunger.
If Henderson's hit men had shot him, he would have let go, and the device would have triggered - by which time, of course, he would probably have died. It would have been his last-ditch - and posthumous - attempt to shock Henderson into a realisation of the full meaning of his actions.
Glad that he had not had to use it, he unscrewed the clamp. There was a click as the trigger was released, a hiss, and the car was filled with the scent of chrysanthemums.
Mary's favourite, he thought, as he turned the car towards home.
* * *
The Profumo Affair: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Profumo_affair
The BBC's 'nuclear bunker': http://www.subbrit.org.uk/rsg/sites/w/woodnorton/
Th U.S. Freedom of Information Act: https://foia.state.gov/Learn/FOIA.aspx
The Works of Snowleopard
The Library Entrance