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Neesierie
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Straker, somehow it's
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Location: Fulton, MO
Another Place and Time
Mar 13th, 2011 at 11:00am
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Another Place and Time
(A UFO Story)

by Denise Felt 2010

Chapter 1

“Damn it, Alec!  You go!”

“Sure, Ed,” his second-in-command said sarcastically from his hospital bed.  “I’ll be the life of the party in a wheelchair!”

Straker glared at him, furious that the man he depended on to handle all obligatory studio excursions was incapacitated just before an important affair.

Alec stared back at him, well aware that his commander wasn’t upset with him.  He was upset over the situation.  “Listen, Ed.  Roger McCormick is counting on the studio being there tonight.  It’s a big deal for him to get this award, and if we don’t show up, it’ll look bad for us.  Like we didn’t want him to receive it or worse, that we didn’t think he deserved it.  We have to be there!”

“I know,” the commander said with a sigh.  “But you’ve always done these gigs for me, Alec.  You know I can’t stand all the schmoozing that’s required at these affairs!  By the end of the night, I’ll be wishing for an alien attack just to put me out of my misery!”

“I know.  I know.  But I already saved your life once today.  I just can’t do it again.”

Straker’s expression softened into a wry grin.  “You shouldn’t have gotten in the way.  I was going to rush Michaels before you knocked me down.”

“There’s gratitude for you!” his friend said, throwing up his hands.  “You’d have gotten yourself killed and you know it!  Cheeky bastard, pulling a gun on you right in HQ.   You should have let me at him, Ed!  Five minutes would have been all I needed.”

“You were shot, remember?” Straker said quietly.  “And badly injured.  Three hours of surgery, Alec.  That’s how long it took to get that bullet out of your back.  I wasn’t risking you, no matter how much I’d have liked to watch you finish him off.  But I wish you’d have let me get to him in the first place.  If I had, you wouldn’t be here now.  You’d be getting ready for that studio party like you should be!” 

After a moment spent meeting his glare, Alec’s grin surfaced.  “No I wouldn’t.  I’d be preparing for your funeral!  Ed, face it.  You’re just going to have to buck up and go yourself this time.”

“Damn it,” the commander said again.

***
He went, but his heart definitely wasn’t in it.  He hated the thought that his best friend was spending the night in the hospital and would require weeks of recovery time before he’d be striding the corridors of HQ again.  He also wasn’t pleased that Michaels had managed to kill himself on the way to interrogation by jumping his guard, grabbing their sidearm, and shooting himself in the head.  He meant it when he’d told Alec that he’d have liked to see him have a go at him.  Alec in full bulldog mode was a treat to see.  And it might almost have made tonight endurable if he’d had memories of something like that to think about while he talked with empty-headed starlets and earnest scriptwriters.

But instead, all he had were thoughts of his friend lying wounded in the hospital.  Damn it.

When the limousine pulled up to the door of the estate, he fixed a remote smile on his face and got out when the chauffeur opened the door.  Flashbulbs went off, blinding him momentarily.  Then he walked through the ranks of the paparazzi as the front door of the mansion was held open for him.  He could see beyond the butler into the foyer and inwardly groaned at the huge crowd of people already inside.  It would have been so satisfying to simply turn around and order the limo to take him back to HQ.  He could sit in his office undisturbed and read reports all night.  He could call the hospital hourly to see how Alec was doing.  He could hound Jackson for the autopsy report on Michaels, not that they’d learn anything new.  But still.  It would have been a productive night.

“Good evening, Mr. Straker,” the butler said as he entered the house.  “It’s a pleasure to see you, sir.”

“Thank you,” he said, giving the man a warm smile for his sincere words.  They’d probably be the last honest words he’d hear all night.  He sighed.

Damn it.

***
Midway through the interminable evening, he saw a woman standing just outside the french doors of the overcrowded room, leaning on the rail of the balcony.  He had to check his glass to be certain it was still full, because for a moment he was certain he was drunk and seeing things.  Without a word of excuse, he walked away from Porter Mallot, who had been discussing the merits of overexposing film for greater effect.  It was a completely unconscious move on Straker’s part that would have repercussions tomorrow on the set of Mallot’s latest picture at the studio.  Unaware of how seriously he had offended the director, he headed for the french doors, threading his way through the crowd with the ease of long practice, nodding absently here and there whenever necessary to keep others from engaging him in conversation.  And always keeping an eye on the woman on the balcony.

When he reached the relative quiet of the balcony, he paused for a moment to inhale the fresh evening air.  It was incredibly refreshing to fill his lungs with its coolness after the stifling heat and smoke inside.  He waited a moment more, watching her out of the corner of his eye as he looked out over the lawn of the estate.  Yes, what he’d seen before was still there.  It couldn’t be – at least, not in any circumstance he could imagine – and yet it was.  And he was just curious enough about it that he had to see if he could find the cause.

He knew there was a trick involved somewhere, and he was determined to find out what it was and how it had been achieved.  It didn’t even matter that he couldn’t figure out for himself how she’d done it, even though he should have been able to.  After all, he was a film producer.  He was aware of every special effect feature his studio could produce.  But he didn’t have a clue how this had been done, and that was enough to pique his curiosity.  He approached her.

“Hello,” he said as he leaned on the rail next to her.  “I don’t believe we’ve met.”

She turned from her contemplation of the grounds and met his eyes.  She wore her short black hair in a tangled style that should have looked foolish, but somehow managed instead to look intriguing.  Her eyes were clearly her most striking feature, dominating her heart-shaped face with its high cheekbones and pointed chin.   They were a deep gold that certainly wasn’t their natural shade, and were ringed with thick black lashes that accentuated their unusual color.  But oddly enough, what struck him most was the expression of keen intelligence that shone in them.  Then she smiled and her entire expression lightened.

“Mila Stronghurst, Mr. Straker,” she said in a velvety voice at odds with her waif-like appearance.

He shook the hand she extended, but raised a brow.  “Then I stand corrected.  We have met – after a fashion.  I attended one of your galleries nearly two years ago.”

“If you remember my name from a gallery two years ago, my work must have made an impression.  I’m almost afraid to ask whether it was a favorable one.”

He acknowledged that with a quirk of his lips.  “I enjoyed your photography very much.  Your work surprised me with the depth of emotion you achieved.”

She nodded, accepting his words.  “I’m pleased that you noticed it.  Most don’t.  They can’t even begin to tell me why they like or dislike my photographs.”

“Seriously?  I wonder why not?”

She shrugged.  “Perhaps because their minds are too full of extraneous noise for that kind of introspection.”

He smiled wryly.  “So it’s necessary to be simple-minded to understand your work?”

She laughed, a rich sound that tickled its way down his spine.  “Not at all.  But it helps to have a mind that knows how to simplify.”

He acknowledged the compliment with a slight broadening of his smile.  “I have to admit, I’ve never seen photographs like yours before.  I still remember most of them, and how they made me feel.”

“That’s high praise indeed.  It’s the goal I work for every time I pick up the camera.  I’ve found that life, at its most basic, is pure emotion.”

This time both brows raised.  “That’s an interesting philosophy.”

“You don’t agree?”

He couldn’t believe he was having this discussion.  He didn’t know what he’d been expecting when he came out here, but it certainly wasn’t an intelligent conversation with a renowned photographic artist.  “You are what you feel?  Isn’t that simplifying things a bit too much?”

Her unusual eyes probed his face.  “Perhaps,” she conceded.  “Yet every thought, every memory you possess – bad or good – has emotion attached to it.  And usually more than one.”

He found her philosophy disturbing on a level he wasn’t willing to delve into at a studio gathering.  Nonetheless he found himself saying, “That may be true, but isn’t it important for man to be more than raw emotion?  Where’s logic and reasoning in your life equation?”

She smiled calmly.  Obviously this was an argument she had come up against before.  “They have their place, and cannot be discounted.  However, when you have found yourself in a situation where two equally logical alternatives offer themselves, how do you make your choice?”

“I go with my gut,” he said without hesitation.

“Ah!” she said with a knowing smile and brought her glass to her lips to sip her champagne.

“That’s not the same thing as emotion,” he said in his defense.

She gave him a direct look.  “Then what is it?”

“Instinct.”

She nodded.  “And what does instinct consist of?”

He frowned.  “I’m not sure I understand what you mean.”

She spread her hands.  “Emotion.  Every instinct you can name is merely an expression of an emotion.  When it comes right down to it, man is basically an emotional being.  It’s how we’re wired.  And all the logic in the world won’t change that fact.”

He continued frowning at her for a moment, trying to fault her reasoning.  But before he could marshal his thoughts into some sort of response, he felt a hand clap him on the shoulder and the deep and slightly slurred voice of his host say, “Well, Straker!  So glad you came yourself tonight rather than sending one of your staff.  I’ve got someone you just gotta meet.  Trust me, you’ll want to hear his proposal.”

He met her eyes for a moment, not ready to consider their conversation over.  But she merely gave him a polite smile and turned back to contemplate the estate grounds beyond the balcony.  He sighed and accompanied his host back inside, saying resignedly, “Alright, Roger.  Who is it that you want me to meet?” 

But just before he entered the smoke-filled room, he looked back.  She was still standing where she’d been, gazing out into the darkness.  A normal beautiful woman at a normal studio party.  Nothing all that unusual about her –   

except that she had a visible aura of light surrounding her.
  

The sky is not the limit; nor are the stars.
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Neesierie
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Re: Another Place and Time
Reply #1 - Mar 13th, 2011 at 11:07am
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Chapter 2

Later, after some searching, he found her again.  She was wandering the formal gardens of the estate back beyond the house.  It was dark, but her aura glowed softly around her, and he was able to make her out among the ornamental trees and bushes that lined the walkways.

She turned at the sound of his footsteps on the path and waited for him to reach her before speaking.  “Mr. Straker.”

“Miss Stronghurst,” he said blandly, as if he hadn’t sought her out.  “We did not get to finish our conversation.”

Mila smiled wryly.  “I see.  And you wished to deny that instinct has anything to do with emotion perhaps?”

“No.  I concede the point.  However, it’s not a viewpoint I’ve ever considered before, so I have some questions.”

“Naturally.”

His lips quirked slightly at her dry tone.  “I suppose I’m just wondering if you’ve followed that theory through to its logical conclusion?”

She cocked her head, gazing seriously at him for a moment.  “What conclusion is that?”

“If instinct has its basis in emotion and is in fact an emotional response to stimuli, what does that say about those creatures that operate on instinct alone?  Higher mammals I can see, especially since studies have proven that they do possess emotions.  But what about birds?  Fish?  Insects?”

She smiled.  “Mr. Straker, do you think the mantis who dines on her lover’s body immediately after mating with him feels nothing at all about it?”

He stiffened at her question and could only stare back at her in stunned silence.

Her unusual eyes began to twinkle.  “I can see that I’ve shocked you.  Is that because I’ve mentioned something you haven’t suspected before, or because of the subject matter involved?”

He relaxed a bit on meeting her laughing eyes.  “Both, I suppose.  It’s not a situation I’ve ever thought about.  But you certainly know how to make your point – in shock value, if nothing else.”

She grinned.  “Are you a prude, Mr. Straker?”

His answering grin was wry.  “Definitely, Miss Stronghurst.  Don’t tell me you’re surprised?”

“Not really.  But I must admit, the look on your face was priceless!”

“In fact, you’re a rogue,” he said in mock-sternness.

She laughed.  “I am.  I freely admit it.  What’s to be done?”

He found himself chuckling, which surprised him so much that he stopped.  He wasn’t at all used to hearing that sound come out of his mouth.  His life didn’t have much in it to encourage laughter.  He gazed at her in silence for a moment, trying to decide whether she was truly unique or merely a new twist on an old personality type.  Finally he asked, “Where are you from?”

She cocked her head again.  “Uphoria.  Surely you knew?”

He frowned.  “What do you mean?  How would I know where you’re from?  We just met this evening.”

“Yes, but when you talked with me earlier, I thought you sought me out because you knew we had much in common.”

“No.  I sought you out because . . .”

“Yes?” she asked when he trailed off.

He took a deep breath.  “Because you glow.  And I was curious how you accomplished it.”

She looked quizzically at him.  “I didn’t do anything.  It’s just part of who I am.  You glow too.”

“I do not!”

Mila frowned at him, hearing more than the simple denial in his tone.  “Yes, you do.  It’s nothing to be afraid of.”

His lips thinned, and it was all he could do not to deny that he felt any fear.  “Believe me,” he said blandly.  “I would have noticed if I glowed.”

“No one sees their own aura.  You can only see the auras of others.”

“Hmmm. That’s very convenient, since I only have your word that I possess one,” he said, trying to remain calm when everything she was saying shook him to the core.

“Well, it is also a fact that only Uphorians can see one another’s auras.  When was the last time you were home?  Have you forgotten your own world?”

He took a step back from her.  “I don’t know what you mean.”

Mila took a step closer to him, peering into his eyes carefully.  “Your parents – don’t they glow?”

“No.”

She looked taken aback for a moment.  “Oh.  How odd.  I wonder what happened?”

Straker swallowed, but his mind was reeling.  Was she out of her mind, speaking so confidently of auras and other worlds?  What was going on here?  “You’re saying that this glow isn’t an effect of some sort – that it’s really there and I can see it because I have one too?”

“Yes.  That is what I’m saying.”

“And this place – Uphoria – you’re saying that’s where you’re from?”

“Yes.  And where you’re from too.  I don’t know why you’re not remembering it, but I shall check into it when I get back, and maybe we can find out what occurred.  Perhaps you would like to come with me and help me search?”

“To Uphoria?” he asked in what he hoped was a normal tone.  But his heart was beating fiercely in his chest.  Good God!  How had the conversation devolved into this?  He’d been so intrigued by her, but now . . . !  He wasn’t sure what he should do.  He could write her off and go back to the party, but the sad thing was that she was the most interesting thing that had happened to him tonight, and he was loath to just walk away. 

At least without finding out more.

“Yes.”  She held out a hand to him, and after gazing at her for a long moment, he took it and followed her down the path out of the garden.

But when she headed for the trees that bordered the wooded area of the estate, he stopped.  She turned to look at him, and he said, “The cars are back that way.”

“We won’t need them,” she assured him with such an open look that for a moment he almost believed her.

But when she went to continue toward the treeline, he refused to follow her.  “You’re saying that this place is in the woods.”  The fine hairs on the back of his neck were standing on end.  He knew what often lurked in wooded areas, and it wasn’t the thought of meeting any wild animals that made his stomach clench in dread.

“It’s easier to get there when you are close to nature,” she explained as if that clarified everything. 

Except that he was now even more lost than before.  What did that mean?  “I’m not going in there,” he said firmly.

She sighed.  “As you wish.”  She let go of his hand, but hesitated before leaving him.  “I’ll see what I can find out about you, then let you know.  Alright?”

“Alright,” he agreed, unsure what to make of this bizarre situation.  Either she was completely off her rocker . . . or he was.  “What’s in the woods?  A cottage?  A camping site?”  He almost added, A ship?, but caught himself in time.

Mila shook her head.  “You’re looking for a logical explanation, Mr. Straker.  What does your instinct tell you right now?”

That was the problem.  If he listened to his instinct, he’d shut up and follow her into the woods.  There was just something about her that made him feel as if he could trust her, no matter what insanity she spouted.  But he wanted to survive the night, and to do that, instinct had to give way to reason.  “It doesn’t matter,” he told her.  “I’m not a mantis.  I don’t base my decisions on instinct alone.”

“Of course,” she said with a small nod.  “Logic is your guide.”

“Yes.”

Her smile was very ornery when she answered.  “Well, let’s give your logic something to think about then, shall we?”  And she walked up to the first tree, laid her hand on its rough surface . . .

and disappeared as she walked past the trunk.
  

The sky is not the limit; nor are the stars.
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Neesierie
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Re: Another Place and Time
Reply #2 - Mar 13th, 2011 at 11:09am
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Chapter 3

“How was it?”

“Hmmm?”

Alec frowned as his friend stood staring out the window of the hospital room.  “Ed!”

Straker turned and met his eyes.  “What?”

“How was the party last night?”

“Oh.  Fine.”  If he wanted to discount the fact that he either needed his eyes checked or his head examined.

“Really?”  That’s not what Alec had learned when he’d checked in with the studio this morning.

The commander’s brow raised at that extremely dry tone.  He wondered what Alec had heard from his sources?  “Yes.”

“Then why was Mallot foaming at the mouth today on the set?”

Straker looked inquiring.  “Was he?  I wonder why?  He seemed fine last night.”

Freeman sighed.  Trust Ed to not even notice when he had offended someone.  “According to him, you walked off while he was talking to you about something important.”

“Did I?”  The commander tried to recall the conversation, but it was difficult when he kept seeing laughing golden eyes in a pixie face instead.  “I must have been distracted.”

Alec looked closely at him.  “You don’t even remember doing it, do you?”

Straker shrugged.  “I’ll talk to him when I get back to the studio.  See what I can do to smooth his feathers.”  He gave his friend a stern look.  “I warned you how it would be, Alec.  I have no patience for schmoozing.”

  “I know.  But if you had to offend someone, couldn’t it have been a person we’re not currently working with?”

The commander’s lips twitched.  “Sorry.”

After a while, Alec asked, “So, what distracted you?”

Straker was staring back out the window and answered absently.  “There was a woman.”

“What?”

One look at his second-in-command’s aghast face was enough to make the commander realize that he had spoken to the wrong person.  “It’s nothing, Alec,” he said reassuringly as he headed for the door. 

Before he reached it, however, his friend spoke from the bed.  “Listen, Ed.  I’m sorry I overreacted.  You say you met a woman?”

Straker hesitated a moment, then said, “Yes.”

“So, what was her name?  Is she an actress?  Model?  Hooker?”

The commander sighed.  No.  He couldn’t talk to Alec about this.  “Get better quickly.  I have no intention of going to another of those things, so you’d better be well enough to go in my place next time.  See you tomorrow.”

“Ed . . . !”  But his friend had already walked out, leaving the door quietly closing behind him.  Col. Freeman brooded as he lay in his hospital bed, angry at the restrictions caused by his wound.  He wanted to hop out of bed and go after the commander, demanding a decent answer to his question.  But he knew he wasn’t up to hopping anywhere for a while.  What kind of trouble had Ed gotten into last night if he was admitting to being distracted by a woman?  Alec well knew the breed of woman to be found at these affairs, and it made his blood run cold to think of his best friend mixed up with one of them.  God knew it was his greatest nightmare that his commander might end up entangled with another bitch like his ex-wife.  It would be the ruin of him, and by extension, the ruin of SHADO and everything they’d tried to do over the years to protect the planet.  Ed was simply too important to ever allow him to be preyed upon again.

But if the damage was done . . . if he’d been distracted enough . . . and was already involved? Then they were in for it!  Alec reached for the phone.

***
Straker spent half of the drive back to the studio cursing himself for saying anything to his friend.  Alec would be sure to worry about him now, and his friend certainly didn’t need that on top of trying to get well enough to come back to work.  But for a moment, the commander had forgotten his friend’s jaded view of women.  He’d simply wanted to talk to someone he trusted about the things that were troubling him.

He’d only ever had his concept of reality shaken once before, and that time his life had changed forever.  It had been the day Gen. Henderson had called him into his office to discuss Air Force Intelligence’s latest findings for a case they’d been working on – the case that had eventually given them the proof they needed that Earthlings were not alone in the universe.  And not about to be left alone. That day had changed his view of life for all time, taking him down a path he would never have dreamed of traveling in a million years.

It terrified him to realize this time might be no different.

But, no.  He couldn’t accept that so easily.  He needed facts.  Proof to be able to deny the crazy things she had said and done.  He needed help.  And it was a sorry truth that he’d come to rely so much on his best friend that he’d automatically turned to him rather than someone who could actually be of assistance in this matter.  Instead of worrying Alec, he had to concentrate on who might know enough about such things to help him out.

By the time he pulled onto the studio lot, he knew who to contact.

***
“No CGI?”

“No.  I need everything to be able to be done with live action.  How do we do it?”

Major Burton stroked his chin.  “I have to tell you, sir, that it would be much easier to do a disappearing act with CGI.  However, there are some special effects that have been perfected over the years that look pretty convincing.  We could set some of those up and try them out.”

Straker said, “Can they be done totally in camera?  No touching up or fading out later?”

“Totally?” the major asked in surprise.  He frowned, considering.  “I don’t know.  You’re not going to get the level of believability you want that way.  A fade-out’s the best way to handle something like that.  But that’s done in post-production, not on the set.”

“I need it to be done entirely on the set.”

“Then you don’t need a special effects man, sir, if you’ll pardon me for saying so,” Burton said firmly.  “What you need is a magician.”

“A magician?”  Straker was struck by the thought.  Is that what she’d done?  Used a magic trick on him?  Smoke and mirrors?  Sleight of hand?  And with his reliance on the studio’s special effects department for all things outside the normal purview on the set, he could be expected to be stymied by her display of legerdemain.  His lips thinned.  Well, she had miscalculated.  He wasn’t so easily fooled.

“Thank you, Burton,” he told the special effects genius.  “I appreciate your help.”

“I wasn’t much help in the end, sir,” denied the major.

Straker smiled.  “Actually, you were.  I’ll get back to you if we eventually decide to do the scene using special effects.”

“Yes, sir.”  He watched the commander walk away, sorry that he hadn’t been able to give him what he needed for his script.  But hopefully the director could be reasoned with and made to accept the assistance of the special effects department.  It’s what they were here for, after all.

***
“Miss Ealand,” Straker said as he came back into his office.  “What’s the name of that magician we did the documentary for last year?”

She frowned in thought for a moment, going through her mental files.  “I believe you mean Chance Morrison.  We filmed his Covent Garden event ten months ago.”

“Yes.  That’s the one.  Can you contact him or his agent for me?  I need to speak with him at his earliest convenience.”

“Certainly, sir,” she said, flipping open her extensive address file.  “Can you tell me what this is in reference to?  Are we planning on filming another event for him?”

Straker smiled.  “That’s a great idea.  Yes, let him know we might be interested in doing another of his events.  I’m heading downstairs.  Let me know as soon as you get a time we can meet, won’t you?”

“Yes, sir,” she said as he entered the inner office and closed the door.  She didn’t know why he suddenly wanted to speak to a man he’d found so pompous and annoying the last time they’d met that he’d seriously considered cancelling the filming of the documentary, contract or no contract.  But she wasn’t the perfect secretary for nothing, and she had no intention of asking him.  Instead, she found the number she wanted and made the call.

***
“Look, I’m not asking you to reveal any of your trade secrets.  I just want to know if it can be done.  Yes or no?”

“Mr. Straker, I’m a professional.  I never reveal my secrets.  Never!”

The commander bit his tongue to keep from screaming at the fool.  Why had he thought he would get any help from such a pompous idiot?  He took a deep breath and said, “Yes.  I know.  But can it be done?”

“Of course!” Morrison waved a perfumed hand.  “Everything can be done given enough time to set it up.”

“How much prep time would it need?  And how much room would it require?”

Chance shrugged, biting a manicured fingernail.  “For a person to disappear?  At least two hours.  And quite a bit of room actually.  The mirrors take up a lot of space.  Are you wanting me to do something like that at my next performance?  It’s almost too simple a trick to use, you know.  Audiences go for flash these days.”

“What about obstructions?”

The magician frowned.  “Sure, you can supply them.  But it’s trickier to keep them out of the way of the mirrors.  That would add to the prep time, I should think, to work out the logistics.  Hmmm.  That might be an interesting idea to explore – having things around to make it look like there couldn’t be any mirrors at all.  We might be able to pull that off for our next show.  I’ll talk to my stage manager and get back to you.”

Straker thought of the dense woods behind McCormick’s estate and sighed.  “Thank you.  Have your agent get the details to Miss Ealand, and we’ll see what we can set up for you.”

The magician simpered.  “Oh, I’m so happy to have had the opportunity to speak to you personally, Ed.  You’ll call me, won’t you, if you need anything else?  Anything at all!”

The commander’s voice was very bland.  “You’re too kind.”

He was on his way back to the studio when he noticed that he was being tailed.

***
When Col. Lake entered Straker’s HQ office, she found him on the phone.

“Listen, Major.  It’s not that difficult a procedure.  Just lower it from Security Level 3 to Security Level 2.  I’ve given you my authorization.  You shouldn’t need anything else.  No, that’s not necessary.  I’ll speak to Col. Freeman myself about it.  Fine.  Good-bye.”  He hung up and gave her a stern look out of his blue eyes.

She raised her hands in defense.  “I didn’t have anything to do with it.  Alec did it on his own.”

He sighed and sat back in the chair.  “But he ran it by you.”

She shrugged, unwilling to commit herself that far.  “Was he out of line?”

He shifted slightly.  “Not entirely.  He merely misunderstood the gravity of the situation.  I don’t need an escort, Colonel.  I’m not in any danger.  He’s overreacting.”

Col. Lake knew how much the commander disliked having Security following him around.  “I suppose you’re the best judge of that, sir.  But he sounded quite alarmed to me.”

“I know.”  He gave her a rueful smile.  “He’s flat on his back in a hospital, Colonel.  He was bound to overreact.  I should never have mentioned it to him in the first place.  I’ll be visiting him this evening, and we’ll sort it out then.”

“If you’re sure.”

He met her frowning gaze, but before he could answer her, SID announced an incoming UFO.  Straker got up from his chair and headed for the Control room, Col. Lake right behind him.

“What is it, Ford?” he asked the Communications operative.

“A UFO, sir,” he was told briskly.  “Speed SOL 0.75 and slowing.”

“Trajectory?”

“Coming in now, sir.”  Lt. Ford turned to his console for a moment, then looked up at the commander.  “Northern Atlantic, sir.  That’s as close as we can get this far out.  We’ll be able to pinpoint it more accurately as it approaches.”

“Right.  Contact Moonbase and launch interceptors.”

“Yes, sir.”  After a few minutes, the lieutenant turned back to him where he stood at the radar.  “Interceptors launched.”

After a short while, he told the commander, “Detonation positive, sir.  The UFO is damaged, but is continuing on toward Earth.  It’s through our outer defenses.”

Straker nodded, his eyes tracking the blip on the screen as it headed Earthward.  “Launch Sky 2.”

“Yes, sir,” answered the lieutenant.  “Sky 2, launching now.”

It wasn’t long before Capt. Waterman radioed in.  “Sky 2 to SHADO HQ.  Come in, HQ.”

The commander took the mike.  “We read you, Captain.  What’s your status?”

“Two minutes until visual contact, Commander.”

“Right.  HQ, out.”  He turned to Lt. Ford.  “Do we have a more precise trajectory yet?”

Ford checked the instruments.  “Commander, it looks like it’s heading for Blackpool.”

“I want mobiles at those coordinates within the next ten minutes, Lieutenant.”

“Yes, sir.”

Col. Lake spoke for the first time since the alert began.  “Can they make it there that quickly?”

The commander’s lips tightened.  “They’d better.  If that ship gets away from Sky 2, it’ll be landing in a highly populated area.  We need to get to them before they can get to any of the citizens of the town.”

Ford turned to the commander. “Mobiles underway, sir.  ETA, twelve minutes.”

Straker nodded.  “Tell the team leader to ignore speed zones, Lieutenant.  I want them there ASAP.”

“Yes, sir.”

***
Col. Lake was rather surprised as she entered his office later to find him closing up his briefcase.  “You’re leaving?”

“Yes.”  Straker snapped the briefcase closed.  “There’s nothing more to be done here.  The lunar module lands within the hour.  I’ll leave it to you to brief Foster.  Send him to Blackpool immediately.  I want him in charge of this operation.  This is too volatile a situation to be left in the hands of Lt. Bradley for very long, no matter how much field experience he’s had.  They don’t normally land in crowded areas, so we’ll need to be extra cautious this time. I’m counting on Paul to keep this from becoming a media nightmare.”

“Yes, sir.  And where will you be?”

“I’ll be at the hospital for a while.  I can be reached at home later, but only in an emergency.  Understood?”

She withstood his icy gaze and nodded. She understood exactly what he was saying.  He was leaving it up to them to handle this crisis.  Obviously he felt they could handle it.  She was determined to prove him right.  “Yes, sir.  At least it’s night.  That should make things easier as far as keeping the populace from seeing anything.”

“Yes, but it’s a trade-off, Colonel.  That same darkness will make it more difficult for our teams to find one small UFO.”

There was no denying that.  “Tell Alec we miss him,” she said as he left the office.

He gave her a brief nod in acknowledgment as he passed out into the Control room on his way upstairs.  And Virginia sighed, knowing that it was going to be a long night.
  

The sky is not the limit; nor are the stars.
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Re: Another Place and Time
Reply #3 - Mar 13th, 2011 at 11:11am
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Chapter 4

“Why aren’t you at HQ?” Alec asked in surprise when the commander entered his hospital room.

“Why aren’t you resting?” Straker demanded in return, picking up the remote and clicking off the TV set.

The colonel wanted to complain about his friend’s highhandedness in turning off his program, but wisely bit his tongue.  Instead he said, “Seriously, Ed.  Did we get that UFO?”

“Not yet,” the commander told him as he sat in the visitor’s chair.  “But I’m sending Paul out there as soon as he gets in.  He’ll deal with it.”

Alec grunted.  Foster had proven himself over the years to be an excellent field commander.  “What do you think it means that they went to an urban area this time?”

“I don’t know, Alec.  Maybe they’re getting more desperate.  Maybe they need more organs than before.  Or maybe they’ve realized how hard it makes it for us to search for them in full view of a city full of witnesses.”

The colonel brooded.  “Damn it, Ed!  Not one of those scenarios would be good news.”

His friend raised a brow.  “Since when have they ever been good news?”

“We were making headway,” Col. Freeman grumbled.  “Staying on top of them for once.”

“I know.  I know.”  The commander ran a hand through his hair in a weary gesture.  “But it was always just a matter of time before they tried something else, Alec.  Besides, if it was an easy job, we’d both be doing something else.  Face it.  We weren’t meant for the cushy work.”

Freeman grinned.  “You’re right.  We’d go stir crazy.”

“Exactly.”

The colonel leaned back against his pillows.  “I take it you noticed the security patrol I had following you.”

Straker sighed and met his friend’s eyes.  “I appreciate the thought, Alec.  Really I do.  But it’s unnecessary.  I don’t think I’m in any physical danger from her.”

“What does she want then?”

The commander shrugged.  “I don’t know.  It’s a con; that much is certain.  She went to a lot of trouble to attract my attention.  Or someone’s.  I could have just been the first producer who approached her, even though I didn’t see her until the evening was half over.”

Alec was relieved that Straker was at least looking at the situation realistically.  His friend had a streak of idealism at his core that even all his years with SHADO hadn’t destroyed.  And Alec knew, in the dog-eat-dog world of film industry, idealism could get you dead.  “So it’s at least possible that you were the intended target.”

“I suppose.  She’s probably just after money.  Isn’t that what they always want?”

“But what if she’s willing to go to the extreme to get it, Ed?”

Straker frowned at him.  “Like what?”

Alec sighed.  Sometimes his friend didn’t know his own worth.  “Kidnapping.”  At Straker’s immediate headshake, he continued.  “Come on, Ed!  It wouldn’t be the first time, and you know it!  Film producers are the money men, and that makes them a target for things like that.  Remember Carmichael last year?  And Jeffries before that?  They never did find his body.  You can’t take the chance that she might be in it for the big bucks.  And even though the studio would be willing to pay whatever it took to get you back, there’s just too many things that could go wrong in the meantime.  We can’t risk you.”

The commander was silent for a while.  Then he said, “I understand your concerns, Alec.  But I don’t think it’s anything like that.  Her record is clean.  She’s a professional photographer, not a known criminal element.  I’m sure you’ve seen her dossier by now.  Surely you don’t think she’d be behind something as hardcore as kidnapping?”

“Yeah, she looks clean – on the surface.  But she’s obviously up to something.  And it all seems really fishy to me,” the colonel replied.  “I don’t like any of it!  And it’s not as if I’m around to personally check things out for you either.  The timing stinks!  You’d be much safer with a detail following you.  Even if it’s just until I’m back on my feet.”

“No.  Level 2 is enough.  I prefer any security to be handled remotely.  You’d know if anything happened, Alec.  And you’d be able to find me.  Look.  You’re just irritable from being stuck here, and that’s what’s making you assume the worst.  I’d know it if she meant me any harm.  I’m hardly a novice after all these years.  When are you going to trust me to know what I’m doing?”

“It’s not you I don’t trust, Ed!  It’s this whole situation!  Look at the timing for a minute, will you?  First, there’s an attempt on your life at HQ.  One you barely survived, I might add.”

Straker’s wry smile appeared.  “Did I thank you for that?  I forget.”

Alec reluctantly grinned.  “Shut up.  Then just a short time later, you’re approached by this woman.”

“Actually, in the interests of keeping to the facts, I approached her.”

Freeman threw up his hands.  “Fine!  So you approached her.  Why, Ed?  What did she do to attract your attention?  Because she had to have done something.  You don’t ever initiate a conversation at these things.  You always do your best to blend into the woodwork.”

“Idle chatter bores me,” Straker said in his defense.  He thought for a moment about the scenario Alec was outlining.  Had she deliberately baited him?  Had the aura around her been to attract any powerful man, or had it been aimed specifically at him?  She’d known who he was.  But surely anyone at the party would have known that?  He met his friend’s eyes and knew he couldn’t tell him how she’d gotten his attention.  Alec would be bound to be suspicious of such a trick and would be even more worried than he already was.  And Straker had no intention of having him reinstate the Level 3 again.  “But if the two incidents are connected, wouldn’t she have tried something that night?”

The colonel shrugged.  “It’s possible.  Did she offer to refresh your drink?  Or try to get you alone at all?”

Straker kept his face bland with an effort.  He could still remember his instinctive reaction when she’d wanted him to follow her into the woods.  “Alec, look.  I’ll admit that she made me curious.  First, because she didn’t act like the rest of the people at the party.  And second, because she actually had something intelligent to say for herself.  But just because we spoke, it doesn’t automatically follow that she’s up to anything more sinister than wanting a backer for her newest photography project.  Besides, this may all turn out to be unimportant anyway.  She may have found someone else to get money from after I left the party, and I won’t ever hear from her again.”

“And if she does contact you again?”

“I’ll deal with it then.”

Alec sighed.  “Fine.  But I still don’t like it.”

***
“Anything on sonar, Lew?”

Capt. Waterman gripped the sub phone tighter.  “Not yet, Col. Foster.  But if they’re down here, we’ll find them.”  He was still furious that the UFO had evaded him in the Sky jet and been able to land.  “Visibility’s poor because of the ocean currents, but we’re thorough.  They won’t get by us, sir.”

Paul grinned, hearing the determination in his tone.  Lew was like a bulldog; it was one of his best traits as an operative.  The colonel leaned against the map table in the command post and said into the phone, “I don’t doubt it.  We’ve found nothing on shore so far, and most of our grid has been searched.  I’ve called in Peter’s sub to assist your search offshore.  We should be hearing from him as soon as he nears the coast.”

“Right.  We’ll keep an eye peeled for him and inform you when we make contact.”

“Great.  Foster, out.”  Paul hung up the phone and walked over to the wall display.  He stood at Major Greenway’s side at the console and studied the grid, listening idly to her updates over her headset with the mobile teams as they searched.  Eighty percent of the area had been accounted for, and thankfully no ship had been found in the more populated spots.  It had been a long night, but dawn was fast approaching, and hopefully they’d have good news to report back to HQ by the time the commander came on shift. 

He wanted some down time.  It had been a difficult stretch at Moonbase, and he’d been looking forward to a few days leave before reassignment.  But those damned aliens never seemed to give them much of a break before trying some new maneuver.  He’d just have to stay alert and stop them before they managed to cause whatever havoc they had planned.  Only once he was back home at his flat would he allow himself to consider his soft bed and the willing woman who was warming it for him.  Until then, he’d just have to settle for admiring Major Greenway’s form as she stood at the wall display.  There was something to be said for a woman in uniform –   especially SHADO uniforms!

***
Alec took one look at his friend’s face when he visited him in the morning and said, “Damn it!  What happened?  Did that UFO get by us?”

Straker looked at him in surprise, his pensive air lightening slightly as he focused on the colonel’s face.  “Hmmm?  Oh.  No, it’s still out there somewhere.  Foster’s completed the ground search, and they found nothing.  Which is good news in a way, because it means that we can keep a tighter lid on security if it’s going to be a sea hunt.  He’s got Skydivers 2 and 3 checking out the coast.  It’s a lot of area to search, but they’ve covered a great deal of the underwater terrain already and should be able to locate the ship before the day’s out.  It’s damaged, so it’s probably not going to be able to evade them for long once they spot it.”

Alec sat back against his pillows.  “Well, that does sounds like good news.”

“It is.”

Freeman frowned at him.  “Then what’s wrong?”

Straker sat before reluctantly meeting his friend’s eyes.  “I spoke with my parents this morning.”

“Are they okay?”

“Yes.  They’re fine.  Well, as fine as they can be at their age.  Dad has cataract surgery scheduled for next Thursday, but they don’t anticipate any problems with it.  And Mom’s arthritis has been acting up with all the rain that Boston has been getting.”

“Are you worried about them?”

“No.  Not really.  They’ve always taken care of their health.  I’m pretty sure they’ll outlive me.”

“Not funny.”

But the commander only shrugged.  Alec let him brood for a while, watching his expressive face for any sign of what had disturbed him.  Finally he asked softly, “What is it, Ed?”

Straker sighed.  “I asked them if I was adopted.”

“What?”  Whatever his friend had expected, it hadn’t been that.  “What did they say?”

“They said I was.”

Alec couldn’t believe it.  “Are you serious?”

Straker said irritably, “Of course, I’m serious!  It’s not something you joke about, is it?”

The colonel was bewildered.  “I don’t get it.  Why would they wait so long to tell you?”

The commander ran a hand through his hair in a weary gesture.  “It was the way I was adopted.  You see, they didn’t go through an orphanage.  They found me in the woods on the estate.  I was wrapped in a blanket and sleeping in a hole in a tree.”

“No way!”

“It’s true.  The police did what they could to locate my family, but there was just so little to go on.  Eventually, my parents adopted me and had a birth certificate made with their names on it.  My mom didn’t want me to grow up thinking that I’d been abandoned.  She said that nothing could be worse than that.  So they didn’t tell me.”

“Good God!”  Alec was stunned for a minute.  Then he said, “But if they didn’t tell you, how did you find out?”

Straker met his eyes for a moment, then looked away.  “It was that woman – Mila Stronghurst.  She knew the truth and mentioned it to me.”

“Bitch!”

But the commander shook his head.  “No, it wasn’t like that, Alec.  She thought I already knew.”

“How the hell did she find out?”  The colonel’s mind was recovering from the shock and realizing the implications.  “Damn it, Ed!  Who has better security than our organization?  We didn’t even know about this.  How could she have known it?”

Straker shrugged.  “It wouldn’t have taken much.  All that would have been required was a closer look into my background, talking to the people I knew growing up.  The police, the local doctors.  People knew, Alec.  Especially those directly involved in the investigation.  All it would take is asking the right questions.”

“Jesus!” his friend whispered.  “I can’t believe it!”  He shook his head in amazement.  Then he looked closer at the commander.  He seemed to have accepted this shock calmly, at least on the surface.  “You know what this means, Ed.  If she has access to information even we didn’t know about you, then this scenario is much more serious than you’re saying.  You need a security detail.  Now!”                                                       

Straker held up a hand.  “Don’t panic.  I don’t know what her game is, but I’d be very surprised if it involved kidnapping.  Take my word for it; she doesn’t have what it takes.  And any speculation regarding her motives is rather useless at the moment.  If she contacts me again, we’ll go from there.”

“If?  Listen, Ed.  No one goes to that much trouble without a pretty big agenda!  You can count on her running into you again, and probably in circumstances that put you in danger.  You need . . .”

“Forget it, Alec!” the commander said, getting up from the chair.  “If I’m surrounded by security, she’ll be scared off.”

“Good.”

Straker’s lips tightened as his voice took on an edge.  “Not good.  She’s involved my family in her games, and you’re delusional if you think I’m going to ignore that.  I hope I see her again.  When I’m through with her, she’s going to wish she’d never heard of me!”

* * *
“Well, Colonel?” Straker demanded.

But he didn’t need Foster’s answer over the video phone to tell him.  It was written all over his face.  “We got them, sir,” the colonel said with a relieved grin.  “They were hiding on a shelf not far beneath the surface of the ocean.  I don’t think they could handle the pressure of going any deeper; they were pretty badly damaged.  Lew didn’t have any trouble finishing them off.”

“Good.  Any debris worth mentioning?”

Foster shook his head.  “We’re sweeping the area carefully, sir, to keep from missing anything important.  But the ship exploded into bits.  The largest piece of metal we’ve found so far is no bigger than my thumb.”

“Right.  Debrief your team and get back to HQ.  I want your report on my desk first thing in the morning.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Oh, and Paul?”

“Yes, Commander?”

“Good work.”

Foster’s grin lit up the video screen.  “Thank you, sir!"
  

The sky is not the limit; nor are the stars.
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Re: Another Place and Time
Reply #4 - Mar 13th, 2011 at 4:13pm
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Chapter 5

Two mornings later, when Straker entered his outer office, Miss Ealand gave him a smile and handed him his mail.  As he glanced through it, he said, “Anything on the agenda for today?”

“Yes, sir.  You have the writers meeting at ten.”

He frowned at her.  “Isn’t there anyone else who can take that?”

She’d known he would balk.  “Mr. Freeman specifically asked if you would handle it for him.”

The commander sighed.  “Damn.  The sooner he gets back here and things go back to normal, the better!”

“Yes, sir,” she said smoothly, fighting a smile.  “How is the colonel?”

“Griping about his physical therapy and hitting on the nurses.”

Now she did smile.  “I’m glad to hear he’s doing well.”

He sighed again.  “Anything else he’s saddled me with?”

“No, sir.  But a Mila Stronghurst called and wishes to see you at two.”

He met her eyes in surprise.  “Oh?”

“Yes.  Isn’t she that photographer who’s been making waves in the art community?  Are we planning to do a documentary on her?”

“No.”  He thought a minute, then said, “Very well, Miss Ealand.  I’ll see her at two.”  He headed for his office, but turned back in the doorway.  “And have security here when she arrives.”

“Sir?”

“Just do it, Miss Ealand.” 

“Yes, sir.”

* * *
The writers meeting was every bit the nightmare he’d expected it to be.  He didn’t know how Alec put up with such childishness from the staff week after week.  Finally, after ten minutes of listening to their petty bickering and arguing, he told them if it didn’t stop immediately, they were all fired.  The room got very quiet, but amazingly the rest of the meeting managed to be quite productive.  Afterward he wondered if Alec would tell him he’d been too harsh, but he didn’t care.  He’d gotten results, hadn’t he?

He returned to his studio office after lunch to find the security detail waiting.  He gave them a nod of acknowledgment on his way into his inner office.  Five minutes later, Miss Ealand contacted him.  Miss Stronghurst had arrived for her appointment.

“Send her in, Miss Ealand,” he said, feeling confident enough after his morning to handle whatever the photographer had in store for him.  He stood as she entered, inwardly bracing himself for the ordeal ahead.  But as he met her open smile, he sighed in defeat.  He’d tried – he really had – to deny everything she’d told him the night of the party.  To find some reason why it was a hoax or a con or anything but what it had been.  Which was something that would once more irrevocably change his view of reality.  He didn’t need the questions accepting such a major shift in thinking would bring, nor did he want to deal with the answers when they came.  His life was hard enough to handle just as it was.  Surely there was a limit to how much weirdness a man could be asked to accept in one lifetime?

But there was no getting around the fact that her exotic eyes were friendly and intelligent and without guile.  Or that she still had an undeniable aura that glowed softly around her!

“Miss Stronghurst.”

She shook his hand and took the chair in front of his desk.  “Mr. Straker.  Thank you for seeing me.  I know you’re busy, so I’ll try not to take up too much of your time.”

“I appreciate that,” he said, sitting back down and resigning himself to hear whatever she had to say.

“It took me a while, but I was eventually able to find Grandmother Conaawa.  She relocated to hill country since I’d last spoken to her, so I had to track her down.  However, when I told her your story, she was very interested in helping us find your family.  She said such things happen rarely, but they do occur.  Earthling or Uphorian, in the end we are all only human and therefore fallible.”

“I see.  Did she have any idea where to begin?”

Mila frowned slightly.  “Not really.  I had hoped from my description of you that she might remember someone who resembled you – anyone who might possibly be a relative and could help us narrow our search.  But she could think of no one.  Indeed, she eventually told me that it would probably be fruitless to look for your family without you there to study firsthand.”

His brows raised in surprise.  “Study?  What does she require?  A blood sample?”

Mila shook her head with a wry smile.  “No, Mr. Straker.  Uphoria is not run like Earth.  What she needs is to touch your hands, to gaze into your eyes, to gauge your soul.  These are the essential elements needed for her to try to locate your heritage.  My words alone were not enough to give her the necessary insight.”

“So, you’re saying I would have to go there to find out more.”

She shrugged.  “I realize that you do not wish to travel to Uphoria.  I don’t understand why you prefer not to visit your homeworld, but I do respect your decision not to go.  There may be a few avenues open to us here.  Did you have the chance to speak to your parents?” 

At that, he stood up and went to the window, gazing out at the lots without really seeing them.  “Yes, I spoke to them.  They told me I was found as a baby in the hole of a tree in the woods on their property.”

“What?” 

He turned as she stood and met her startled eyes.  “Is there a problem with that?” he asked somewhat stiffly.  He found it extremely embarrassing to have to discuss such things with her.

“Mr. Straker . . . !”  She faltered to a stop, letting fall the hand that instinctively reached out to him.  She shook her head sadly.  “I am so sorry.  I considered your lack of knowledge of your origins a mystery to be solved, and I wanted to help you find the answers.  But no Uphorian would abandon their child.  It’s . . . it’s unthinkable!  Therefore, I can only assume that some calamity struck your family, one so severe that their only recourse was to leave you there in the woods in the hopes that a fellow Uphorian might stumble across you.  And if that is so, perhaps you will be much better off not knowing what happened to them.  As much as it grieves me to say, in your case, perhaps ignorance is bliss.”

“It was,” he said quietly.  “However, Pandora’s box has been opened now, and I know too much to let it be.  Can’t you see that?”

Mila sighed.  “Yes.”  Her hands gestured restlessly.  “I can only say once more that I am sorry.  It was never my intention to wound you.”

Straker’s throat wanted to close at her acknowledgment of his pain.  He cleared it before he spoke.  “I love my parents.  They have never been anything but good to me.  All my life I marveled at their kindness, afraid that someday they would realize how odd I was and no longer want me around.”  His eyes met hers briefly, then he looked back out the window.  “You see, I always knew I didn’t belong to them.  No one said anything to me; it was just something that was always at the back of my mind, a knowledge so irrefutable that I didn’t even try to deny it.  To learn now that it wasn’t paranoia or some masochistic fantasy, but that it was the truth – in a way it sets me free to finally accept their love in the manner in which they gave it.  Instead of feeling as though I’d somehow stolen it or taken it under false pretenses.”

He turned back to face her, surprised to see that his were not the only eyes with tears in them.  “I’ve never spoken to anyone about this.  I’m not even sure why I’m telling you now, except that I want you to understand that what you’ve told me has helped me.  It hasn’t all been bad news.”

“I’m glad,” she said softly, laying her hand over her heart.  “Please know that I will hold your confidence sacred, telling no one.”

“Thank you.”  He felt oddly moved by her words and had to swallow before he could continue.  “If you think that Grandmother Conaawa can help me learn what happened to me and my family, then I will go with you to Uphoria and speak to her.  Let her study me.  Whatever it takes to find out the truth.”

“Then I will take you to her.”

He nodded his gratitude.  “My schedule is free for the afternoon.  Will we need to go far?  My car is at your disposal.”

Mila smiled.  “I don’t believe it will be necessary to leave the studio.  You have a meadow here that you use for filming, don’t you?”

“Yes, but it’s rather full of actors and film crews at the moment, since we’re doing a film there right now.”

“Oh.”  She thought a moment.  “Do you perhaps have somewhere on your studio lots where there are trees?”

He met her eyes.  “Yes.  I know just the place.  And it’s secluded there, so we shouldn’t be bothered.”  He headed for the door, but turned back to ask, “Will this take very long?  I’m not quite sure how to explain to my secretary where to reach me if something comes up.”

She grinned at him, relaxing now that he seemed determined to go with her.  “That’s not a problem.  We’ll be a while, I’m sure, but it’s a simple matter for us to return to Earth just after we left.  So no one will even be aware that you were gone.”

“Really?” he asked, greatly intrigued.  “How is that accomplished?”

She merely shook her head with a lingering smile, since by this time the door had opened and they had left the office.  The security detail stood at attention when they came out, awaiting orders.  Straker paused a moment, then said to them, “Please follow Miss Stronghurst and myself to the park on the back lot and make sure that once there, we are not disturbed.”

Lt. Gerard blinked to hear such a command from his rigidly moral commander, but kept his expression blank as he answered, “Yes, sir.”  He did, however, share a brief shocked look with his companion as they followed Commander Straker and his guest out of the office.

Miss Ealand was grateful that no one had noticed her jaw drop open.  She quickly closed it and went back to work, but had to remind herself quite forcibly over the next half hour that she was an exemplary secretary and never asked uninvited questions.

* * *
The two security operatives kept a discreet distance on the walk through the lots to the park, making it possible for Straker to ask Mila once more how they could return to Earth just after leaving?  Was it some kind of time travel?

She told him, “No.  It’s much simpler than that.  It’s mind over matter.”

“Excuse me?”

She grinned at his bafflement.  “I suppose I should warn you, since you weren’t raised on Uphoria, that our world is a little different from what you are used to here.  Have you ever wished for something so deeply that you could almost reach out and touch it?  Even though you could not?”

“Yes, of course.  I’m sure everyone has at one time or another.  Why do you ask?”

“Because on Uphoria it is important to keep such thoughts under strict control.”

When she said nothing more, he glanced at her.  “Why?”

She met his eyes seriously.  “Because on Uphoria there are no barriers between thought . . .”  She put her hand to her head for a moment, then held it out to him cupped as if it contained something.  “. . . and substance.”

He was quite startled.  “Good God!”

She nodded at his understanding.  “Yes.  It is not a situation that Earthlings have the self-control to handle.  But I have faith in your ability to keep your thoughts in line, Mr. Straker.  You exude a stoic restraint that is quite admirable in one not raised in a society that adheres to that philosophy.  I have to believe that it is your heritage coming to the surface in spite of your lack of knowledge concerning your origins.”

He was still a bit shaken by the concept of his every thought becoming a reality and wasn’t as confident of his self-control as she seemed to be.  He took a deep breath, then said, “I’ll do my best.”

Mila gave him a reassuring smile.  “I am certain that will be enough.”

“Anything else I need to know about Uphoria before I go there?” he asked, wondering what other surprises were in store for him on this new world.

She grinned at his dry tone.  “Well, no.  But you may have a few rumors to dispel once you return to Earth.”

“What do you mean?” he asked, puzzled.

She gestured to the two security men following them.  “I believe your men think we’re going to the woods for an assignation.”

He met her eyes in shock, then as he thought back over how he had worded his orders to the security detail, he sighed ruefully.  “I see.  Hmmm.  I’m afraid that interpretation never occurred to me.  Shall I apologize in advance for any discomfort such a rumor may cause you?”

Mila laughed.  “Not at all.  I shall quite enjoy it, I assure you.  Everyone will flock to my gallery, wanting to know how I managed to turn your head.  I’ll be the talk of the town for a week at least!”

He eyed her closely.  “Are you certain that it won’t bother you?”

“Quite certain, Mr. Straker,” she said placidly.  “I couldn’t pay for the kind of publicity I shall get out of this misunderstanding.  I only hope it doesn’t distress you.”

“Not in the least,” he said, his voice as dry as dust.  “Something like that’s bound to help my image around here more than you know.”

She turned to him, her golden eyes sparkling.  “That’s the spirit!”

He surprised himself by chuckling.

They left the security guards at the entrance to the park and followed a path through a small stand of trees until it came out into parkland.

“Oh, how beautiful!” Mila exclaimed, looking all around her.

Straker smiled.  “That’s what I think too, every time I come here.”

She turned to him, touching his arm for a moment in silent understanding.  “This place,” she said softly, “looks very much like certain locations on Uphoria.  I think perhaps you remember more of your homeworld than you know.”

He frowned.  “How is that possible?  If I was ever there, I would have been a tiny baby.”

She rested her hand against his jacket – against his heart – for a moment.  “There are some memories that do not need eyes to see.”

In her cryptic words and unusual eyes he suddenly glimpsed a world he’d never considered before.  A world where the heart knew more than the mind.  He drew in a breath, full of wonder at the idea.  Then she lowered her hand to her side and glanced purposefully around them.  And the moment was gone.

When she turned back to him, she was smiling.  “What do you think of that tree, Mr. Straker?” she asked, pointing to a thick oak that grew next to the stream.

“Considering that I have absolutely no idea how we’re going to do this, I suppose it will do.”

Mila chuckled.  “Come then.  I’ll show you.”

He let her lead the way over to the tree and copied her movements as she placed her palms against the wide trunk.  “Now what?”

“What do you feel?” she asked him softly.

“Bark,” he said, then wondered if he was missing something important by only stating the obvious.

“Good,” she said with a smile.  “And beneath the bark?”

He looked at her in surprise.  How could he feel what was under the bark?  He almost asked the question aloud, but didn’t want to seem completely ignorant.  So instead he focused on his hands and the bark they touched.

“That’s it,” she encouraged.  “Close your eyes and feel.”

He nearly gasped when he felt something besides the coarse bark against his palms.  “I feel . . . the trunk.  The grain of it.”

“And beyond that?” she asked in a whisper.

He kept his eyes closed, letting his hands tell him what was there.  “The sap!” he said in awe.  “I can feel it flowing through the trunk.”

“Concentrate on it,” she urged quietly.  “Slow your heartbeat to match the rhythm of the sap as it glides through the tree.  Feel the oak’s strength.  Know its wisdom.”

Her words made no sense, but somehow he understood them anyway.  He lost himself in the feel of the tree around him, aware of its life almost as clearly as his own.  Then she spoke.

“Open your eyes, Mr. Straker.  We are here.”

He opened his eyes and realized that he was no longer in his park.  And the tree he was touching was not an oak, but a young sapling.  He met her eyes in surprise before turning to look everywhere at once.  “Uphoria?” he asked her, unaware that he was grinning.

Mila laughed.  “Yes.  We’re on Uphoria.  Welcome home, Mr. Straker.”
  

The sky is not the limit; nor are the stars.
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