Deborah A. Rorabaugh
Copyright April 15, 1997
All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
It was looking to be quiet day at SHADO headquarters. Alec Freeman hoped whatever powers there were would see fit to keep it that way. He was tired and achy and just slightly jet-lagged from his trip to Moscow, then Vladivostok. He had returned only the day before to find Foster on Moonbase, a foot high pile of reports on his desk and Commander Straker in a foul mood thanks to General Henderson.
Today had to go better, Freeman said to himself, simply because he couldn't see how it could get much worse. Even a full scale alien attack would be better than dealing with Straker's black attitude after talking to a recalcitrant Henderson and Astrophysical commission. He wasn't sure he wanted to know what Straker had done this time to get Henderson mad at him.
Straker walked in, briefcase in hand. He seemed to be in a much more pleasant frame of mind this morning than he had been last night. It was amazing what a night's sleep could do.
"How's everything going?" Straker asked, looking around the control room.
"Fine," Freeman responded. "The doctors say Laurel can go back to Moonbase in about a week. And, assuming General Henderson agrees, we can have our new chief of internal security in place by then, too. His file is on your desk."
"Good," Straker said, coming down the short flight of stairs to the main level and heading for his office. "Oh, Alec, can I see you for a minute?"
Freeman handed the duty roster he'd been looking at to Ford, who put it back on its hook. Straker paused just long enough for Freeman to catch up. The office doors opened and both men went inside. Straker hit the switch on the desk and the door slid shut.
"The Astrophysical Commission meets in one week," Straker said as he settled behind his desk. "We'll need that debris report finished."
"It's almost ready. I just have to go up to Moonbase for the final documentation," Freeman said.
"Fine." Straker waved his hand at the chair opposite the desk. "Sit down, Alec."
"I want to talk to you about the leave roster for Moonbase," Straker said, opening one of the files on the desktop.
"I thought you might," Freeman said, looking at the open file. He was good at reading upside down and the leave roster was the file that was open.
"It'll have to be changed," Straker said.
"And who tells them?"
Straker simply looked at him.
"I might have guessed," Freeman said. As chief of staff, it really was his job. He just hated doing it, especially since he'd just gotten back to headquarters after nearly a week in Russia. Foster had put together the leave roster and it had been posted right before Laurel Andrews' appendicitis attack and hospitalization. Freeman knew the Moonbase personnel expected a few changes due to Andrews' illness. Straker wanted more than a few changes.
Straker closed the file and folded his hands on top of the desk. "Henderson's been on my case to officially appoint you as my second. We need to firm up the chain of command down here."
"We have a chain of command. Your name is at the top and the rest of us are somewhere lower," Freeman said. "Besides, you know I don't want the responsibility of being second in command down here. Appoint Paul or Craig. They like giving orders."
Straker glared at him.
The intercom buzzed and Straker hit the switch. "Straker."
"Jo Frazer is in reception, sir," Miss Ealand's voice announced.
"The reporter from the press agency," Ealand explained.
"Did they make an appointment?" Straker asked.
"Yes, sir," Ealand told him with only the slightest touch of impatience. "You agreed to the interview last week."
"All right," Straker conceded. "Thank you, Miss Ealand." He switched off the intercom and looked over at Freeman. Freeman was struggling to keep from grinning at Straker's sudden discomfiture.
"Look, Alec, can't you handle it?" Straker asked. Freeman knew Straker loathed talking to the press, for any reason. It was a hangover from his days of investigating U.F.O. incidents for General Henderson and avoiding the press.
"Well, you're head of the studio," Freeman reminded his superior officer, no longer able to suppress his grin. It was the perfect way for Freeman to get even for the changes he was being forced to make in the Moonbase roster, changes that weren't even necessary except that Straker wasn't in an understanding mood. Sometimes it was fun just to sit back and watch Straker as he tried to cope with annoyances outside of SHADO, nonmilitary problems he couldn't just give orders to have solved.
"It's you he wants to interview," Freeman reminded him.
"An article for a heap of glossy film magazines," Straker complained. "I'm no P.R. man."
Freeman couldn't be sure, but he thought he heard the slightest touch of a rather childish whine in Straker's last protest.
Glowering at his chief of staff, Straker stood and headed for the door. Freeman fell into step beside him as they entered the control room.
"It won't be that bad," Freeman promised. "G.P.A. will syndicate the story and keep the rest of the press off your back."
Straker glared at him from beneath pale eyebrows. It was all Freeman could do to keep from laughing aloud.
Lieutenant Johnson stepped up to them carrying a note-board with papers clipped to it. "Commander Straker," she said, holding it out to Straker. "The refueling schedule, sir."
Straker waved it away. "Give it to Colonel Freeman," he said, giving Freeman another glare of annoyance. "I'm about to be thrown to the press."
Johnson gave him a confused look as Straker walked away.
* * *
The office/elevator settled into place as Straker finished setting up his props on the desk top - files and notes and photographs. Things he would be working on, if he really spent any time running the studio. He was going to have to start making time to run the film company. Some of the studio people were beginning to complain about his inaccessibility. SHADO wasn't an excuse he could use. Most of the people who worked at the studio had no idea SHADO existed, safely hidden as it was, deep below the sound stages.
He clicked on the desk intercom to connect the inner office to Miss Ealand, seated at her own desk in the outside.
"I'm ready. Miss Ealand," he announced when she answered.
"Yes, sir." She sounded amused. That didn't help his temper any. First Freeman and now Miss Ealand seemed to be enjoying a joke he was missing the point of.
The doors slid open as he busied himself sorting through the papers.
"Now, before we start, I must tell you I'm a very busy man, Mister Frazer," Straker began, not lifting his head. A shadow fell across the desk top and he finally looked up at the reporter.
This was, he realized with a sinking feeling, going to be one of 'those' days. Standing before the desk was a young woman with very long legs, wearing a very short dress that left little to the imagination. A large brown leather handbag was slung over one shoulder. It matched her low heeled shoes. Her hair was light brown, as were her eyes. Her expression was one of bland amusement.
"I must apologize," the woman said, breaking into a smile. "My name is Josephine Frazer. I sometimes find that in a man's world, 'Jo' is more convenient."
"Hmm," Straker murmured, taking a moment to recover his composure. He had been caught making an assumption he didn't normally make. "Well, is it a man's world?" he asked as he sat back in his chair.
"I think so," Josephine Frazer said with a little laugh. "I hope you'll forgive me." She was still standing.
"Oh, I'm sorry," Straker said, abruptly realizing his error. He was used to a more military etiquette. Few people in SHADO expected to be allowed to sit in his presence and it was sometimes hard for him to shift gears into the civilian rules. He was getting out of practice dealing with civilians. It was something he was going to have to work on. Maybe that's what Freeman and Miss Ealand were finding so amusing.
"Please sit down." He indicated a chair not far from the desk. She pulled it closer and arranged herself in the chair. "Well, fire away, Miss Frazer," Straker invited.
She opened her purse and pulled out a note pad and pen. As she did so, the front flap fell forward so that the inside lining was exposed. Straker noted a thin wire going from the interior of the bag to what looked like a decorative insignia on the flap. Frazer folded the flap over and set her purse on the floor.
"And now, how long have you been head of the studio, Mister Straker?" she asked.
"You, ah, tape-record the interview and take notes?" he asked, putting on his most disarming smile.
She looked surprised at his comment.
"I noticed the microphone in the front of your purse," he explained. She laughed, a little nervously, he thought.
"Oh, that's to insure I don't misquote you. And the note pad's for my impressions."
"I think first impressions are so important."
"I think so, too," Straker agreed with a tiny chuckle There was something intriguing about this woman. It wasn't the body, which was, he admitted to himself, rather nice, but beautiful faces and bodies were commonplace around the studio. There was something else he couldn't quite put a finger on.
She was a challenge, something new, different. Maybe this interview wasn't going to be the trial he had thought it would be.
* * *
The morning was still quiet. Ford sat at his station, reviewing equipment checks with the captain of Sky-Diver one.
"The fuel checks are complete," Waterman said over the video-link.
"Thank you, Sky-Diver," Ford responded. "I'll tell Commander Straker."
Joy M'Bhutu crossed the control room to Ford's station, carrying a cup of coffee. Freeman gave the cup a curious look as she handed it to Ford.
"Black, no sugar, sir," M'Bhutu told Freeman with a grin.
"Just my luck." Freeman grinned back. M'Bhutu was relatively new to SHADO. She was Nigerian and her skin was only a shade lighter than the coffee. She was beautiful and had, so far, withstood the advances of every unattached male in SHADO Headquarters. The only two exceptions were Commander Straker, who would never consider dating a subordinate, and Freeman, who was simply biding his time.
"Would you like some coffee, sir?" M'Bhutu asked.
"Black, with sugar, please," Freeman said.
* * *
Miss Ealand looked up from her work as the doors to the inner office opened and Straker and Miss Frazer stepped out.
"Well, I'll walk you to your car," Straker said. He was relaxed and smiling. The interview had gone better than expected, Ealand thought to herself. Straker had a well-deserved reputation of being a difficult interview subject. In point of fact, there were only two or three reporters in the entire British press corps to whom Straker would deign to give the time of day. Miss Frazer appeared to have increased that number.
"Thank you," Frazer said. "I thought the age of chivalry was dead."
Straker chuckled. "Oh, no. I have to go up on the studio lot. It's on my way."
"Good bye," Frazer said brightly to Miss Ealand as Straker opened the outside door and ushered her though.
* * *
A small expensive sports car was parked near the front of the office building, not far from Straker's own car.
"It's right over here," Frazer said, pointing it out. She walked up to it, keys in hand.
"Very smart," Straker commented.
"I've earned it," Frazer said with pride in her voice. She opened the car door and slid behind the steering wheel. "Well, thank you. You've been very kind."
"Good bye," she said, turning the key in the ignition.
"Miss Frazer." He gave her a nod and headed off to complete his other errands. He hadn't spent much time the last couple months handling studio matters. Things were quiet in SHADO for the moment, he could spend a little time pretending to run Harlington-Straker Productions.
His first order of business this morning was a contract matter. Roy Parker was a regular in one of the shows being produced by another company using the studio facilities. He was also working on a film being done by Harlington-Straker. The problem was, he had begun working on the film before his contract was fully negotiated and his other employer objected. It took two weeks to get the matter straightened out and get Roy back in the film.
The film crew was working on one of Roy's final scenes. The director, Matthew Donahue, was giving the crew their instructions. "Stand by," he called. "When I give the word..."
Straker stopped behind the cameraman to watch. Roy strode across the parking area to a set wall.
Small explosions pocked the wall and Roy's chest. The stuntman grabbed his face, blood showing between his fingers as he fell to the asphalt and lay still.
Roy got to his feet. His hands, face and clothes were covered with fake blood.
"Is it all right?" Roy asked.
"Fine," Donahue said. "How'd it feel?"
Donahue turned to the cameraman. "Doc, we'll get some close-ups on these next shots."
A make up man started touching up Roy's make up as Straker stepped closer.
"Morning, boys." Straker called. The crew nodded acknowledgment as they continued their work.
"Good morning, Mister Straker," Roy said.
"Well, you died beautifully," Straker told him with a smile.
"Thank you," Roy said. He made a face. "I don't think much of the blood, though."
Straker chuckled. He knew the complaint. The dark red, sticky fake blood was at least as messy as real blood and almost as hard to get out of clothes. Roy would need a shower before even thinking about heading home.
"By the way," Straker said, returning to his errand. "We finally got that contract matter all straightened out. If you want to call Miss Ealand, she'll put you in the picture."
"Thanks," Roy said with a grin of relief.
Straker nodded and walked away, heading back to his office. His pager buzzed and he pulled it out to check it. The number was one of the codes for downstairs - SHADO. It indicated the message was important but not urgent. He pressed the confirmation button on the pager and headed back to SHADO.
* * *
Freeman read through the requisition forms on the note board Johnson had handed him. They were for a replacement secondary generator for the North Sea Sky-Diver base, and a replacement moonmobile for Moonbase, both high ticket items.
"Commander Straker will have to authorize these," Freeman told her, handing her back the board. He turned to Ford. "Lieutenant, do you know where Commander Straker is?"
"Yes, I paged him a couple of minutes ago," Ford said. "He's on his way back from the lot."
* * *
Straker walked into the outer office. Miss Ealand was busy inputting data into her network station.
"Messages, callers?" Straker asked, stopping in front of her desk.
"No, sir," Ealand answered. "Only Miss Frazer."
"Miss Frazer?" Straker repeated, puzzled.
"Yes, sir. She came back for her handbag," Ealand said. "She left it in your office."
"You didn't let her go in there?" Straker asked, suddenly suspicious.
"Well, only for a moment." Ealand said defensively.
"I see," Straker commented mostly to himself as he went into the inner office. The doors closed behind him.
He looked around the spartan office. Everything was in its place, the awards on the glass shelves, the modern art on the walls. Still, it worried him that a microphone had been left in the office. He wondered if it had been deliberate. She hadn't seemed to be after anything related to SHADO. Her questions had all been related to the studio, his views on the media, the changing styles in film, upcoming projects. Nothing that rang any alarm bells. She hadn't even been that interested in his reasons for supposedly leaving the USAF to run a film studio in England. That was a bit of a surprise in itself.
Most reporters wanted to understand his reasons for leaving the military after Minister Talbot's death. The year delay between the Rolls Royce crash and his supposed retirement puzzled them, as did his decision to stay in England to run a failing film studio. Miss Frazer accepted his reasons without questioning them.
Straker crossed to room to the desk, opening the silver cigarette box with its own hidden microphone.
"Voice print positive. Identification, Commander Straker," the voice print check confirmed, unlocking the controls to the elevator. He flipped the switch and the room began to descend. He berated himself for not being more observant, for letting that woman reporter leave the office without her purse, for not noticing the bag beneath her chair.
The office doors opened into SHADO Headquarters. He ignored the security operative standing at the entrance, hurrying past her without a word. Ford was at his station, speaking with Freeman.
"Alec, Ford," Straker said, beckoning them to join him in his office. The two men exchanged curious glances before following him.
"Something wrong?" Freeman asked as Straker went to his desk and sat down.
Straker turned to Ford instead. "Did anyone call me during the last fifteen minutes?"
"I beeped you on the studio lot," Ford said.
"No," Straker amended. "I mean the office, up-top, over the intercom."
"Well, yes," Ford replied. There was confusion in his voice. "I tried there first."
"What did you say?"
"Nothing," Ford said. "There was no answer."
"Well, you must have said something," Straker grated. "It's important."
Ford gazed into space as he tried to remember. "Well, just 'Commander Straker'," he said after a moment. "There was no reply, so I clicked off."
Straker nodded, his lips thinning with worry. "'Commander Straker'," he repeated to himself before looking back at the operative. "Well, thank you, Ford."
He nodded a dismissal. Ford hurried out of the office, the doors closing behind him.
"How could I be so stupid, Alec?" Straker snarled in sudden anger. Freeman's eyes widened at Straker's outburst. "That reporter had a tape-recorder. It was left in the office. The chances are, it picked up Ford's voice over the intercom."
"That's not so important. He only said 'Commander Straker'," Freeman said. "Assuming it was picked up, what could it mean to anyone?"
"Not a lot, I agree," Straker said, a little calmer. Freeman's levelheaded appraisal of the situation helped. "But maybe just enough for that woman reporter and her press friends to start snooping around."
"It was a girl?" Freeman said, eyebrows raised in surprise.
"Yes." Straker picked up the phone that connected his SHADO office to Miss Ealand's desk upstairs.
"Miss Ealand, get onto the Global Press Agency," Straker said when Miss Ealand picked up the other end of the line. "I want to contact that Miss Josephine Frazer. It's urgent."
Straker set the phone back in its cradle and sat back in his chair.
"What was she like?" Freeman asked.
Straker looked up at his chief of staff. He had almost forgotten Freeman was still there. "Oh, intelligent."
Freeman looked amused at Straker's description. "Attractive?"
Straker glared at him. Freeman grinned. The Australian reached over to the desk and placed two papers in front of Straker.
"While we're waiting, you can sign these," Freeman said.
"What are they?" Straker asked, looking over the papers.
"How many moon-mobiles does this make this year?" Straker asked.
"Just the one, but it's only April," Freeman said.
"What's this about a secondary generator?"
"The primary went out two weeks ago and so they switched over to the secondary," Freeman explained.
"What's wrong with the primary generator?"
Freeman's well-practiced obtuseness could be irritating sometimes.
"The bearings went out," Freeman said. "Now the manufacturer claims we never told them the equipment was being used so close to salt water."
"Where did they think Kinnairds Head, Scotland was? Kansas?"
Freeman shrugged. "Anyway, Louie says it would be faster and simpler to go ahead and replace the entire unit and let him retrofit the old one as a backup when the next one goes out."
The phone from the upper office buzzed and Straker picked it up. "Yes, Miss Ealand?"
"I just called the press agency, sir," Ealand said. "They've never heard of Miss Frazer."
"Then, check all the other agencies. I want her found!" Straker nearly yelled. Freeman stared at him and he realized how badly he was overreacting. "Thank you, Miss Ealand," he said more calmly, hanging up the receiver. He turned to Freeman. "Intelligent, attractive and a possible security problem."
"It was my mistake," Straker told Freeman. "I'll take care of it."
"I still think I should go," Freeman said. Handling this type of problem was normally Freeman's responsibility. He wondered at Straker's insistence on handling it himself. Maybe Straker realized he needed a break. Freeman dismissed that idea. Straker was too singlemindedly stubborn to admit he needed time away from work.
"Well, it's simple enough, Alec," Straker said. "Find Miss Frazer and get the tape. A logical sequence." He got out of his chair. "Well, you can look after things here."
Straker came around the desk and looked back at the chair he had just vacated. "Well, there it is, Alec. The 'responsibility seat'."
Freeman gave him a curious look and Straker smiled. "The, ah, other side of the fence. I'll check in every few hours," Straker said, going to the door.
Freeman nodded, still wondering why Straker was choosing to handle the problem himself and what he meant by the other side of the fence'. He had a suspicion Straker was going to appoint him second in command over his overwhelming objections. He didn't want to sit in the responsibility seat', to give orders that could cost lives, to deal with the headaches of command. Freeman had done that before, in the RAF as a flight leader. He knew he was much happier doing what he did, acting as Straker's chief of staff and lead troubleshooter.
Maybe Straker realized he needed a break and maybe Josephine Frazer, fake reporter, was just the break he needed. Freeman just hoped Straker wouldn't get himself into trouble. For all his brilliance in juggling the responsibilities of both SHADO and the film studios, Straker was sometimes just a little naive when it came to people.
* * *
Space Intruder Detector announced: "Have trace on positive track. Course four-two-eight-one-four-six-green. Speed, zero Sol eight. Range, twenty million miles, closing."
Freeman walked into the control room from the commander's office and went to Ford's station.
"Termination?" Freeman asked.
"It should be though any second," Ford said. They waited as a series of numbers appeared on Ford's monitor. The numbers showed that the U.F.O. was heading for Earth, Northern Europe.
"Tell Moonbase to launch the interceptors," Freeman ordered.
"Red alert... ," SID announced. An alarm siren sounded in the control center. "Red alert."
After a moment, Nina Barry's face appeared on the Moonbase video-link. "Moonbase to SHADO Control, confirm Ufo sighting. Launching interceptors."
* * *
The King's Arms was a posh restaurant-bar, just off the main road. At three in the afternoon, Straker was the only customer in the lounge as he marked off three dead-ends on the list in his Day-runner. He took a sip of the drink in front of him - a Virgin Mary, tomato juice spiced with pepper sauce. The ice had already melted and it wasn't very cold. He beckoned to the bartender.
"May I have some ice, please?"
The bartender took the tumbler and added a few ice cubes before handing it back.
"How far is the Grenville Motel?" Straker asked.
"About eight kilometers down the road," the bartender answered. He started wiping down the bar top.
"May I use your phone?"
"Of course, sir," the man said. He pulled a phone from beneath the counter and placed it on the bar in front of Straker.
Straker picked up the receiver and dialed the last number on his list.
* * *
The operatives in SHADO's control center listened as the interceptors went after the alien.
"Range, five million miles," SID announced.
"Missile One, positive hit. Missile three, not confirmed," the lead interceptor pilot reported. "Ufo changing course, moving out of range."
New numbers appeared on Ford's monitor. "We've lost it."
Freeman nodded in understanding and walked away, toward the commander's office. The U.F.O. had disappeared in one of SHADO's few blind spots. Now, it was a matter of waiting until it moved and they could see it.
Fifteen minutes later, SID announced: "I have a sighting bearing Green-zero-four-two. Maintaining stationary position at fifty-thousand feet, Earth atmosphere."
Ford checked the reading on his monitor, then headed to the office to inform Freeman.
The intercom buzzed and Freeman hit the key. "Yes?" Freeman said to the intercom as Ford stepped in front of the desk.
"I have Commander Straker on the line, sir," Miss Ealand said. "He wants to know how things are."
"No trouble," Freeman said, letting his finger off the key. He looked up at Ford. "Well, do we have trouble?"
"I don't think so," the operative said.
"But we have an unidentified radar trace," Freeman said.
"Yes," Ford agreed.
"Then something's there," Freeman insisted.
"I guess so," Ford admitted reluctantly. His experience told him it wasn't an alien ship. "But..."
"And it could be that Ufo," Freeman said, interrupting the operative.
"It's practically stationary!" Ford insisted.
"The point is, do we have a Ufo on our hands, or don't we?" Freeman asked.
"Well, in my opinion, it's a million to one against," Ford said. "But, of course, we'll maintain a full radar alert."
"No, launch Sky-one," Freeman ordered. "Tell Waterman to investigate."
"Yes, sir," Ford agreed, unable to keep the reluctance out of his voice. All of Ford's instincts told him they were going after a weather balloon or something equally innocuous. Freeman was overreacting, and that wasn't like him.
Ford went back to his station and made the radio connection to Sky-Diver in the North Atlantic. After a few moments, Freeman walked in to stand in his usual place, behind and to one side of Ford, watching the operative's monitor.
"This is SHADO Control to SkyDiver," Ford announced into his microphone. "Sky-one to investigate possible Ufo, position zero-one-two-three-zero-two, red, three."
"Roger Control, out," Waterman acknowledged.
"We still have positive track," Johnson said a few moments after Sky-one's trace appeared on their radar.
"Green on three, confirm radar fix," Prentice reported from her station.
"Control to Sky-one," Ford announced. "New position, zero-one-eight-two-nine-four. Range, twenty-five miles."
"I have it on internal radar," Waterman told them over the radio. "Should have visual contact in about a minute... I think I see it."
A minute later: "Have visual contact. Panic over, it's a weather balloon."
Freeman stalked out of the control room, back to the commander's office. Ford managed to suppress a rueful grin as he shook his head. He wondered why Freeman had overreacted so badly, but it wasn't his place to ask. Maybe Freeman wasn't feeling well, or maybe there was something else going on.
* * *
Straker waited in his car in the parking lot of the Grenville Motel. A familiar sports car drove up and parked in front of one of the guest rooms. The driver got out, went to the door and the unlocked it. Straker got out of his car and followed.
She had left the door ajar and he pushed it open. She was sitting on the bed, hand on the telephone as though she was going to make a call.
She looked up at the sound of his voice. "How did you find me?" She sounded surprised and a little worried.
"The studio gate logs all license plate numbers," Straker explained. "From that I got your address. I called and they gave me a couple of places where I might find you. From there, it was a simple process of elimination." He paused, looking over the cheap room. It didn't fit the car, or his initial impression of the woman. She hadn't struck him as someone who would accept second best.
"Who do you work for?"
"Myself," she said, her voice challenging him to call her a liar.
"And sell whatever you get to the highest bidder, hmm?"
"Look, I'm sorry I lied," she said, actually managing to look contrite. "But if I hadn't said I was from GPA, you wouldn't have seen me at all, would you?"
"Just give me the tape, Miss Frazer, and we'll call it a day," Straker said. He didn't want to do it, to ruin a day's work for a struggling reporter. But, he had no choice. SHADO's security came first.
"The tape, Miss Frazer!" He let his voice go harsh and cold.
She shivered at his tone, pulled the tape from her purse and handed it to him. He glanced at it. The tape was wound all the way to the end.
"You've played it back," he said, unable to keep the upset out of his voice. This was going to get messy. He had hoped it wouldn't come to that.
"There wasn't time," Frazer spat.
"All right," Straker said. He wanted to believe her. He turned to leave, the tape still in his hand. Something hit him across the back of the head, knocking him off balance. He fell to his knees while Frazer grabbed the tape out of his hand and ran out of the room.
Straker climbed to his feet, shaking his head to clear away the muzziness. He wondered what Frazer kept in her purse that could pack such a wallop as he headed after her. It felt like she'd hit him with a padded brick.
She was already in her car, speeding out of the parking lot.
He ran to his own car to follow.
Frazer wasn't that far ahead of him. Her little sports car was fast, but Straker's Omen was faster, thanks to modifications European Ford Motor Company didn't know about. Despite her lead, the Omen soon pulled abreast of her. The road was narrow, too narrow for two cars racing into oncoming traffic.
A truck horn blared and Straker pulled the Omen's wheel over hard. Frazer slammed on her brakes, skidding her little car into the ditch as the Omen came to a screeching halt a short distance ahead of her.
The truck that had been coming toward them honked furiously at them as it passed.
* * *
Freeman was mulling over reports, nursing a vile headache when Ford walked into the office, clip board in hand. The operative stopped in front the desk and simply stood, waiting.
"Well, why don't you say it?" Freeman groused.
"If you'll just sign these, please, sir," Ford said, holding the clipboard out to Freeman.
"Oh, get out of here." Freeman waved the board away.
"I'll leave them on your desk, then." Ford placed the clipboard on the desk top. "Even a practice launch for Sky-diver needs an authorization," the operative reminded Freeman. He turned to leave.
"Hold it, Keith."
Ford turned back.
"I'm sorry," Freeman said apologetically. "Can you imagine what Straker would have said?" He gave Ford a rueful smile.
"Yes, sir," Ford said, making a wry face. "I can imagine."
Freeman picked up a pen from the desk-set and signed the authorization. SHADO would have to wait for the U.F.O. to move. Freeman hated waiting almost as much as Straker did, but there was no helping it. He could only hope the aliens didn't wreak too much havoc before they decided to head home.
* * *
"What now? The police?" Frazer asked. Straker was driving her back to the motel, the tape safely tucked in his jacket pocket. The tow-truck he had called had already pulled her car from the ditch. A tie-rod had come loose, but the driver was sure the nearest garage wouldn't have it repaired until late morning, at the earliest.
"Who are you?" Straker asked, ignoring her question.
"Jo Frazer, freelance reporter, failed," she said with a grimace. "I've only had one article published in the last month."
* * *
On Moonbase, Lieutenant Gay Ellis turned to Nina Barry, seated at the primary radar station. "Is it still there?" Ellis asked.
"Yes, Lieutenant," Barry said, watching a slow trace that had appeared on the edge of her screen.
"Ask Colonel Foster to come in, and get Control," Ellis said. "I want to speak to Commander Straker."
"Right," Barry agreed.
* * *
The office intercom buzzed and Freeman keyed it on.
"I have Colonel Foster on the video-link, sir." Ford announced.
"Oh, thank you," Freeman said, letting up on the key and switching on the video-link to Moonbase. Paul Foster's face appeared on the screen.
"Hello, Alec. It's a surprise to see your face. Where's Straker?"
"I'll explain later," Freeman promised. "What's your problem?"
"Well, we've picked up radio signals about fifty miles east of the base. It's some sort of vehicle. It's moving on an erratic course, but it's heading our way," Foster reported.
"Have you any idea what it could be?" Freeman asked.
"Not really. We've tried to make radio contact, but no go," Foster said.
"Could it be unmanned?" Freeman wondered.
"It's possible," Foster admitted. "But, if it maintains its present course and speed, it'll run straight into us. It'll be a couple of hours before there's any real danger."
"Well, get onto it right away," Freeman instructed unnecessarily. He knew Foster would be working to solve the problem before it became a serious issue. He turned off the video-link and keyed the intercom to Ford's station.
"Lieutenant, I want an immediate run down on all installations on the Moon operating surface vehicles," Freeman ordered.
* * *
Instead of the motel, Straker pulled into the parking lot of the King's Arms. It was getting near dinner time and the lot was almost full, but he managed to find an open space not too far from the entrance.
There were no tables open in the dining room and it was a forty-five minute wait to be seated. However, there were still a few open tables in the lounge. Straker found one near a quiet corner.
"Why did you do it?" Straker asked after the waiter had taken their drink order and left.
"It's a dirty world," Frazer said. "Sometimes you have to cut a few corners."
"To get what you want?" Straker asked. "Like that car of yours?"
Frazer gave him a bitter laugh. "The car? It's on hire. All part of the front."
Straker knew that wasn't strictly true. The car was on lease, rather than being a rental. He wondered why she felt she had to lie about it. Of course, British usage occasionally still confused him. He still wasn't used to pavement being a sidewalk, and houses 'in' the street rather than 'on' it. Sometimes he'd catch himself unable to remember exactly which word he was supposed to be using, the American or British, or which was which. His sister in California occasionally joked that he sounded British now, but no Briton would ever mistake him for anything but an American.
The waiter returned with their drinks. She had ordered a gin and tonic. His choice was coffee.
"Does it matter?" Frazer asked when the waiter had gone.
"Well, let's say, I'm interested."
"You've heard it all before," she observed.
"I'm a very good listener," he said.
"With an ice cold, clinical outlook," she stated.
Straker simply watched her. He was no longer upset about the tape, but his curiosity was piqued and, he had to admit, it had been a long time since he had been around an intelligent and attractive woman outside of work. The women in SHADO, and at the studio for that matter, were nearly all attractive and intelligent, but they were off-limits. He held their lives, their careers, in his hands and he could never be sure if their interest was due to him personally, or his position. He didn't really want to know.
"Hmm, you don't believe me, do you?" Frazer said.
"You know, there's one thing I hate," he said, letting his voice go cold.
She pulled away ever so slightly.
"It's eating dinner alone," he finished with a little smile.
"Well, what do you think?" Freeman asked Ford. The signal Moonbase had picked up was coming closer.
"It's a tough decision," Ford said.
"Thanks," Freeman muttered, not bothering to keep the annoyance out of his voice. "All right, tell Moonbase to launch the interceptors."
"Right, sir," Ford acknowledged, leaving the office to go to his station and pass along the instructions.
* * *
Straker pulled the Omen into the gravel driveway beside his house. Half a house, really - it was a duplex, only a few miles from the studio complex. He had lived there nearly five years, since his divorce, and didn't often bring people in. Alec Freeman was probably the last guest he had over.
Straker hefted the sack of groceries onto one hip, unlocked the front door and let Frazer inside.
"Hmm, nice," she commented, looking around the living room.
"Well, it suits me," Straker said. For some reason, her approval felt good. "Well, I'll get things moving in the kitchen."
"Can I help you?"
"No, I can handle it," he said, setting the sack down and unloading it on the kitchen counter. He snapped his fingers in mock annoyance. "I left the wine in the car."
"I'll get it," she volunteered.
"Oh, thanks," Straker said, handing her the keys to the Omen. She left, closing the front door behind her.
Straker let his friendly mask slip a little as he went to the phone, picked it up and dialed Miss Ealand's office.
* * *
The intercom buzzed in the commander's office. Freeman hit the key. "Yes, Miss Ealand?"
"I have Commander Straker on the line, sir," Miss Ealand said over the intercom.
"You'd better tell him... ," Freeman stopped, reconsidering. He didn't really want Straker to know what sort of day he was having. "Tell him everything's under control."
"He says he's glad to hear it and he'll be back tomorrow morning," Ealand said.
Freeman let his finger off the switch and sat back, wondering what was happening on the Moon.
* * *
"Oh, Miss Ealand, I want you to do a voice check for me," Straker said before Ealand had a chance to ring off. "It's Miss Frazer, just routine."
"A full G-six, sir?"
"That's fine, Miss Ealand. A full G-six," Straker agreed. A full G-6 was a full security file search, a little more than routine, but Straker trusted Miss Ealand's judgement.
"I understand, sir," Ealand assured him. "Record immediately."
The living room door opened and Frazer walked in, bottle of wine in her hand.
"Yes, yes," Straker said to the phone. He held the receiver out to Frazer. "Come and say hello to Miss Ealand."
Frazer took the phone, handing Straker the bottle of wine. "Hello, Miss Ealand," she said into the receiver. "You're working very late tonight. Hope to see you again soon. Goodbye now."
"Good bye," Miss Ealand said as Frazer handed the phone back to Straker. He put the phone back to his ear.
"Yes, that'll be fine," he said. "Good night, Miss Ealand." He hung up the phone and turned to Frazer. "Well, why don't you help yourself to a drink, and I'll go out and break out the can-opener."
"Fine," she said with a little laugh, holding out his keys. He put out his hand and she dropped them into his palm.
"Thanks," he said, putting them in his pocket.
* * *
Moonbase waited for the interceptors to identify the unknown signal source.
"I can see it," Astronaut North reported "I'll go down and radio back a photograph."
Foster stood beside the Carol Miller's communication console as the printer whined for a moment and spat out the picture. It was some sort of ground vehicle, designed for use in lunar gravity. Foster didn't see any identification markings on the rig.
"Transmit a print of this to SHADO Control," he instructed, handing the print to Miller.
* * *
Frazer sat facing Straker over the dining table, cupping the pewter goblet in both hands. They had finished their meal, pescine with giardiniera, a green salad on the side. Straker stirred his coffee and puffed on a cigarillo.
"You know, Ed, you're a terrific cook," Frazer said, pushing aside her plate.
"I just follow the instructions on the can," Straker said with a small self-depreciating laugh. He knew he was at least an adequate cook and he liked doing it, even though he didn't have much time anymore for entertaining.
"The wine was great," she said, taking a sip. "You should have had some." She looked around the room once more. "You know, you have a nice home here."
"A place to sleep," Straker said with a slight shrug. It was, he had to admit, a nice place. He liked the brightness, the art, the apparent disorder, so different than either of his offices. The studio office was bright, but it was kept fastidiously neat, with the help of studio housekeeping. His SHADO office was muted in color, all gray and black and fern green. The only bright colors there where the glasses above the drink dispenser and the light panel behind his desk. Here he had both the brightness and the art he liked.
"You know, it's funny, Jo, I enjoyed today," he said, pouring her another glass of wine. "Ever since my divorce, I've kept myself pretty much to myself. You know how it is."
"Yes, I do know," she said. She sounded sincere.
* * *
Ford handed Freeman a copy of the photo the interceptors had sent back.
"It's Russian," Ford said. "They have a base about a hundred and twenty-five miles east of Moonbase."
"It's a mobile used in commercial mining in rich surface ore areas," Ford explained.
"Get onto their base," Freeman ordered. "Tell them unless they divert their machine..." He paused for effect.
"I'll explain the situation, sir," Ford assured him and left the office.
* * *
"We understand your concern," Colonel Pavel Orsov said over the radio link from his base on the Moon. "But we still can't establish radio contact with the crew. Something must have gone very seriously wrong. I'm sure they're out of control. All we can do is keep trying."
"Thank you, Colonel," Foster said, cutting the radio link. He turned to Miller. "Get me SHADO Control."
The video screen at the center console flickered on and Freeman's leathery face appeared. "We've contacted the Russian Base," Foster reported. "There's a crew of two on board, but no one can contact them."
"Is the radio link okay?" Freeman wondered.
"It seems to be, they just don't answer."
"What's the vehicle's position now?" Freeman asked.
"About twenty miles east of the base," Foster said. "The Russians have a surface mobile on the way, but it won't get there in time."
"Well, then, send out a Moon-mobile," Freeman instructed. "Try to establish visual contact."
"Right," Foster agreed. The Moon-mobile crew was already waiting for him.
* * *
Straker had turned the lights down. Wagner was playing on the stereo system. He watched Frazer as she looked around the room, at the artwork, the small collection of sculptures. One of the things he had learned from his ex-wife was an appreciation for modern and impressionist art. He still visited the galleries when he had time, though that was rare now.
Frazer inspected one of the sculptures, running her hand down the smooth marble shape. Straker realized for the first time, that for all that was on the walls, on the tables, there was nothing personal in the room. There were no photographs, no awards, nothing with his name on it. Nothing that was unique to the owner, to him. The room was a set, like the studio office. He wondered if she had noticed.
After a short time, she came to sit beside him on the leather sofa. She settled back, laid her hand on his chest and he felt his pulse race. It had been a long time since he'd been alone with a woman. He hoped she hadn't noticed how jumpy he was.
She smiled in an invitation and he accepted it.
* * *
The Moon-mobile made good time. Foster and his driver, O'Mara, peered out of the front window. They were both in space suits, helmets tucked by their feet.
"We should be making visual contact any minute," Foster reported to Moonbase. The Russian rig came into view, lumbering across the landscape at breakneck speed. "Yes, I make it about two miles."
* * *
The phone rang and Straker got up to answer it. "Straker," he said into the receiver. Frazer left the sofa and made her way to the bedroom.
He barely noticed as Miss Ealand began her report concerning the voice print check. Josephine Frazer was a prostitute and suspected extortionist.
"Criminal records show four arrests," Ealand continued.
"I see," Straker commented. Somehow, he wasn't surprised, only disappointed.
"Is there anything else, sir?" Ealand asked.
"No, that'll be all right," Straker answered.
"Good night, sir," Ealand said.
"Right," Straker responded, hanging up the phone. He went over to the stereo and turned it off.
He stood a moment in the doorway to the bedroom. Like the rest of the house, there was nothing personal in the room, nothing that marked it as belonging to him, including its present occupant.
Frazer had taken off her dress, laying it across the bed. Some things were best left to the imagination. She looked better clothed, a dispassionate part of his mind said. She was soft and out of shape, her breasts too heavy. Her bra didn't fit as well as it should, considering her build. The straps left red marks on her shoulders and back. She looked 'used', worn and a little shabby, like the stories she told.
She turned and saw the disappointment in his face as he picked up her dress and handed it to her.
"What's the matter, Ed?"
"Get out," he ordered.
"What's wrong?" she asked.
"I know, that's what's wrong," he said. To his surprise, his voice cracked. He hadn't realized exactly how upset, how disappointed, he was. He let the anger surface. "One article published in the last month? The car on hire? You were right about that the first time. You earned it, the hard way. Just what did you have mapped out for me? You plan to take me for all you could get? Or, maybe, something more cozy, like an idyllic weekend somewhere, and a guy with a camera just happens to burst in at the right time?"
"Maybe, at first," she admitted, pulling her dress on
"Oh, come on, don't give me that," Straker said, letting his voice go sharp and bitter, the tone he used on difficult actors and obtuse SHADO operatives. "Don't tell me there's an emotion left in that pretty little head. You're getting soft!"
"Soft?" she shot back angrily. "That's the way you get eaten alive." She pulled up the zipper on the back of her dress and grabbed her purse from the floor. "Oh, you wouldn't understand. It's a man's world, remember?"
She stalked out of the house, slamming the front door behind her.
He already regretted losing his temper. He had heard what he wanted, a story about struggling reporter, a woman trying to make a living. He had ignored the inconsistencies, the lies, and now wondered why he had let it happen. Maybe it wasn't her getting soft, but him. He needed to get out more, remember what the rest of the world was like away from SHADO's protective ivory tower, eighty feet below ground.
Straker picked up the phone and dialed the local cab company to come find her and take her to her motel. It was at least a mile to the village and she didn't have a coat with her. He didn't want her death by pneumonia on his conscience.
* * *
Freeman waited for Moonbase to report on the progress of the Moon-mobile. Finally, he gave up waiting.
"Get me a direct radio link with the Moon-mobile," he told Ford.
* * *
The Moon-mobile set down to one side of the path of the Russian rig. They flashed lights at it. No response.
"I have Colonel Freeman for you, sir," Barry's voice announced over the radio.
"Right, put him on," Foster said.
"What's your position?" Freeman demanded.
"We've just established visual contact and we're trying to get though to the crew, without much success," Foster explained.
"Right," Freeman said. "Fire a warning shot."
"Warning shot?" Foster repeated, puzzled. A warning shot from the depleted uranium shells the Moon-mobile carried was a little extreme. One of those shells could take out a tank, or a U.F.O.
"Look, you're less than five miles from Moonbase," Freeman reminded him.
"That's a civilian vehicle!" Foster protested.
"Fire that shot!" Freeman ordered.
"Right," Foster said, clicking off the radio. He looked over at O'Mara who gave him a sympathetic shrug. Foster shook his head as O'Mara checked the mobile's weapons targeting system.
"Range, four hundred ninety yards, Angle zero decimal two-eight," O'Mara read off.
"Not too close," Foster instructed.
O'Mara pressed the firing button and the mobile's gun fired the shell. It exploded in front of the Russian rig, sending up dust. The Russian rig didn't even slow.
"Try another one, as close as you dare," Foster ordered.
"Yes, sir," O'Mara said, checking the new targeting numbers. "Range, three hundred twenty yards, angle zero decimal two-four."
Again, O'Mara pressed the firing button and the mobile's gun fired. The second shell exploded almost directly underneath the rig.
"No reaction," Foster announced to the radio.
"You're certain they saw the warning shots?" Freeman asked.
"If they had been any closer, they'd have been part of it," Foster stated. He couldn't believe anyone could be so out of it as to miss seeing those two shots, but the rig was still heading for Moonbase. Maybe the crew was dead.
"Stop them," Freeman said.
"You mean... ?"
"I mean, shoot to stop them. That's my decision, I'll take the responsibility," Freeman said. "Do you read me?"
"Be with you in a couple of minutes," Foster said. "I'm going to try something."
He grabbed his helmet and beckoned O'Mara to come with him as he headed for the airlock on the Moon-mobile.
A few minutes later, O'Mara was back at the controls of the Moon-mobile, alone. Ford was on the radio. He sounded upset. "Come in, M-Three," he kept repeating.
"M-three to Control," O'Mara said into the microphone.
"Control to... ," Ford began. He was interrupted by Freeman.
"Let me speak to Colonel Foster," Freeman demanded.
"He's trying to get aboard the rig, sir," O'Mara explained, expecting an explosion.
"What?" Freeman yelled. There was a pause then: "Has he made it?"
O'Mara peered through the front windows of the Moon-mobile. "I'm not sure," O'Mara admitted. "I can't see him. If he's not inside..."
* * *
Foster had made it inside, with some small difficulty. Getting aboard a moving train was easier. They didn't bounce. He made his way to the control cabin and found both the Russian drivers sitting, singing, laughing. They saw him and greeted him with open arms. They acted drunk, reeling as they came toward him.
"Tovarisch!" the younger one shouted.
"Listen, they're both incapacitated," Foster told O'Mara over his suit radio. "The air pressure's down. They could be suffering from anoxia."
* * *
The Moonbase Control Sphere personnel could see the rig approaching the base. Given the path it was on, it would impact Moonbase at the Control Sphere.
"How far is it now?" Ellis asked.
"Fifteen hundred meters," Miller reported.
Ellis went to her center console and flipped on the base announcement system. "This is a red-emergency alert. Seal all airlocks. All personnel to carry out decompression drill," she announced.
The emergency siren started to wail.
* * *
"Get me the Russian base," Foster said into his radio, not removing his helmet despite the urging of the two Russians. "Find out how to stop this thing."
Ellis called the Russian base. Dudzinski was on the radio so quickly, Ellis wondered if he had been standing right there.
"Yes, I understand," he said in response to her question. "The quickest way to stop it is to throw the red master-power switch. It's, ah, situated left of center on the control panel."
* * *
Foster looked around the control cabin and spotted the large red switch, under a red switch guard.
"Yes, I see it," he announced into his radio. He headed toward the control panel.
* * *
SHADO Control waited.
"How far is it from Moonbase?" Freeman asked.
"Just a few hundred yards," Ford answered.
On Moonbase, the personnel carried out the decompression drill with practiced precision.
Ellis, Barry and Miller were in their space suits, wearing helmets. They could see the Russian rig coming toward them. The women pulled down their helmet visors and tightened them.
* * *
Foster almost had his gloved hand on the switch when the two Russians took objection. Luckily, they were both too incapable to be effective. He pushed them off with little difficulty and threw the switch.
The rig ground to a halt only three yards from the Moonbase Control Sphere. Foster could look out the control cabin window and see the three Control Sphere operatives behind the control sphere view port. He waved at them.
The two Russians started waving at them as well. Foster doubted the two men had any clue how close they had all come to disaster.
* * *
Half an hour later, Ellis was on the radio again to Colonel Dudzinski.
"The crew is fine," Ellis told him. "But I doubt that they'll remember much about the incident. There must have been a slight pressure leak. They were suffering from lack of oxygen, causing a sort of drunkenness."
"Drunkenness?" Dudzinski asked.
"Like drinking too much whiskey. We call it 'anoxia'," Ellis explained.
Dudzinski laughed. "Ah, we know it in the same way. Except, our description would substitute vodka for whiskey. On behalf of Sovidex, I would like to thank you for your cooperation."
Foster grinned at Ellis and shook his head. Of course, they would never tell Dudzinski the real reason his men wouldn't remember the incident. Medic Tze had already given them their amnesia shots. The two Russians had just lost twelve hours of their lives. A small price, considering what had nearly happened.
* * *
The next morning, Straker walked into the control room. Ford was already seated at his station.
"Good morning, sir," the younger man called.
"Ford," Straker said in greeting, walking over to him. "Well, it's all sorted out."
"And the girl, Miss Frazer?" Ford wondered.
"You were pretty quick with the voice print."
Ford dismissed the compliment. "'Hello, Miss Ealand' was enough," he said. "The international crime computer did the rest. She's got a record as long as your arm."
"Is she wanted by the police?"
"Not at the moment," Ford said. "But she won't stay out of trouble for long. Her kind never do."
"Maybe," Straker said. He looked around the control room. "Where's Colonel Freeman?"
"In your office, sir."
Straker nodded and headed for his office.
Freeman was seated at the desk. He looked up as the door opened and Straker walked in.
Freeman sounded tired.
"Well, I hear you had quite a day," Straker said. M'Bhutu had quickly briefed him before he walked into the control room.
"You could say that," Freeman said. He didn't elaborate.
Straker sat his briefcase on the desk and pulled two cigars from the silver cigar pail. He handed one to Freeman.
"Paul Foster might have lost his life, ordering him on board the rig like that," Straker said. He lit his cigar, then Freeman's. "Tough decision. The right one, of course."
"It wasn't quite like that," Freeman said.
Straker shrugged. "Well, whatever way it happened, Alec, you were responsible."
Freeman sat back in the chair. "I certainly have to hand it to you."
"That Miss Frazer," Freeman said. "She didn't have you fooled for a moment. If it had been me, I'd have probably gotten emotionally involved, or something."
"Yes, I can see how it could happen," Straker said. His expression became thoughtful and Freeman gave him a quizzical look. Straker smiled and pointed to his chair. "Oh, say, Alec..."
"Sorry," Freeman said with a smile, getting out of Straker's chair. He stood beside it. "Well, it's all yours."
"The, uh, other side of the fence," Straker said, setting his briefcase on the floor and settling into his chair.
"Oh, by the way," Freeman said, stopping at the door. Straker looked up expectantly. "If you have any ideas about officially appointing me second in command, forget it."
"How does acting second' sound? That still leaves my name on top and everybody else somewhere lower."
"I'll think about it," Freeman promised.
Straker's appointment with General Henderson, to pound out the details of SHADO's special project request, was set for 10 A.M.. Straker parked beneath the building in the space reserved for visitors of the IAC and made his way to Henderson's office on the 12th floor.
Straker wasn't looking forward to this meeting. Henderson had been difficult and out of sorts for the past couple months. He had grudgingly approved SHADO's appropriation last year, but had made it clear even then he wasn't happy with the amount of money SHADO was spending on upgrading its equipment, building Sky-Diver bases to get more adequate coverage of Earth's land masses.
Then, Straker forced the indefinite postponement of the manned Mars mission.
The Mars project was Henderson's personal baby.
Henderson scowled as Straker walked into the office. "What we say goes no further than this room, okay?" Henderson said, not even bothering to greet his former aide. "So let's get down to the infighting. You have been a thorn in my side for years, Straker. Consistently excessive demands for the diversion of resources to your organization. Now you're saying a total clearance program?"
"And I'm saying," Henderson enunciated carefully. "While I'm running this commission, I'll fight you on this issue every inch of the way."
* * *
The Moonbase leisure sphere was comfortable, as always. Freeman liked going to the Moon. This was his thirty-fourth trip. Sixteen more and he'd be eligible for a second silver Moon pin. He looked over the chess board in front of him. His opponent, Steve Maddox, had just made his move.
"Oh, you've been practicing," Freeman complained, moving a pawn to block Maddox's move.
Maddox studied the board. "What are you working on, anyway, Alec?"
"One of Commander Straker's projects," Freeman said. "It's a beautification campaign."
"Well, I don't deny he could use it," Maddox said with a grin.
Freeman chuckled. "Nah, space junk. Straker want's it all cleared."
"Well, the Astrophysical Commission takes care of any space junk," Maddox said. "Anything with hazard potential."
"Straker has an idea it could be used by the aliens to crack our defense system," Freeman explained. "I'm beginning to think he may be onto something."
"Well, if your report shows it's a possibility, the junk gets cleared," Maddox said. "So, what's the problem?"
"James L. Henderson is the problem."
* * *
"Cost, time, personnel, resources," Henderson ticked the list off his fingers. He sat back in his chair, looking over at Straker who hadn't bothered to sit. "You want reasons, why not? I can give you a hundred."
"Listen, Henderson, every item of space junk can be cleared in a matter of weeks, if the commission gave its full support," Straker said. "As for the cost, I admit, it would be high, but safety factors alone would justify it."
"Safety factors?" Henderson's brindled eyebrows drew together in a warning scowl.
"Yes," Straker said. "My organization uses space more than any other. My pilots take more risks with that junk in one month than..."
"My men do in a year?" Henderson asked, interrupting. "No, we need facts, Straker, details, statistics. You just don't have them."
"Of course you don't."
"I have my report," Straker said.
"Your report," Henderson said derisively.
"You promised that the commission would not take a final decision on a clearance program until my report had been fully considered," Straker reminded him.
"And so it won't," Henderson said. "However, I must confess I don't think it will have that much influence."
"Well, if that's so, Henderson," Straker said. "It must be because you've already swung the commission against it."
"Look, Straker. We've just completed the annual clearance of all items of space junk we considered a menace to navigation. The cost was more than doubled that of last year's operation."
"And worth every penny," Straker said.
"Do you realize what a full clearance program would cost?"
"Look, I'm not going to swap dollars signs with you, Henderson," Straker said angrily. "Mens lives are at stake. Now, I want that junk cleared. Every last piece."
* * *
Foster knew just by the fuming look on Straker's face on the video-link, that the meeting with Henderson had gone worse than usual.
"Well, where is he?" Straker demanded. He had asked to speak with Freeman only a few seconds before. Foster was suddenly glad he was on the Moon, instead of in firing range of Straker's wrath. Then again, maybe the Moon wasn't far enough away.
"He's on his way, sir," Foster said as Freeman walked into the Control sphere. "Commander Straker, for you," Foster told Freeman, moving aside so Freeman could sit in front of the video-link monitor.
"Freeman," the Australian announced.
"Alec. I want that space clearance report."
"But I only just got here," Freeman protested. "And there's data still missing."
"I don't care what's missing," Straker grated. "Looks like Henderson's commission has already decided against a major space clearance project. We have to convince them otherwise."
"Well, give me twenty-four hours," Freeman asked. "It can't make any difference to you, but it could make a heck of a difference to the report."
"I want that report, Alec," Straker said. "I don't care what shape it's in, just get it back here."
The screen went black as Straker cut his end of the link. Freeman just shrugged his shoulders as he walked out of the control sphere to collect his things.
* * *
The lunar module was ready to launch. Lieutenant Ellis went through the final launch checklist in the Control Sphere.
"SHADO Lunar module 32, cleared for takeoff at 14-21-34, Stand by," she announced into the center console microphone.
"Roger, Moonbase. Affirm T.E.T." Steve Maddox said over the radio link.
"Affirmative," Ellis confirmed. "Trans-Earth trajectory green. Lift off 32."
There was the slightest shudder in Moonbase's structure as the Lunar Module's engines pushed it away from the launch structure over the embarkation sphere.
The module appeared as a green dot on Moonbase's tracking systems. The flight was going normally, no problems.
"Contact SID," Foster ordered. "Tracking procedure green." He turned to Joan, seated at her station. "Has SHADO H.Q. been alerted?"
The door to the Control sphere slid open and Freeman walked in.
"So, everything's fine?" he asked.
"Straker's not going to think so," Foster told him. "He's expecting you."
* * *
Two hours into the lunar module's flight, the tracking screens were still clear, SID was silent.
Harrington listened to the communications from the module. "32 reports unidentified sighting, sir." There was still nothing on the screen.
"Signal red-alert," Foster ordered. The alert siren shrilled throughout the base.
The three astronauts on duty waited for orders to send them out after the U.F.O. that was probably on its way.
The radar tracking screen was still empty except for space debris and the lunar module.
"His angle of reentry is too steep," Foster announced, checking the radar trace. "Tell him to correct angle of reentry," he told Harrington.
Harrington shook her head. "Loss of signal, sir." After a few moments: "Earth-orbit insertion, now."
The lunar module's blip vanished from the monitor.
* * *
Straker's knuckles went white as he clenched his fists, listening to the reports from the control room operatives.
"We've lost it, sir," Ford announced quietly.
"Moonbase to SHADO Control." Freeman's face came on the Moonbase video-link to Earth. Straker uncurled his fingers and let himself relax just the tiniest bit.
"SHADO Control here," Ford said. "Go ahead, Moonbase."
"Have you picked up any signs of the Lunar Module?" Freeman asked.
"Negative," Ford answered.
Straker came into range of the video-link camera. "When can I have the report, Alec?" he said, very quietly.
"Twenty-four hours," Freeman said. "Forty-eight if you want to include anything from the module's loss."
"Forty-eight it is," Straker said. He turned and walked away, back to his office. He was both furious and relieved. Relieved the Freeman was alive, furious that the Australian had ignored his orders, and equally, that he had been left, even temporarily, fearing he had lost his closest friend. At the moment, he wanted nothing better than to give Freeman a sound thrashing. He decided to settle for getting Freeman on the next available shuttle back to Earth, with the report.
It was a twenty minute drive to Henderson's office.
"Look, Henderson," Straker said. "All I need is another 48 hours."
"Another 48 hours?" Henderson raised one bushy eyebrow.
"Yes, I can have a summary of the completed report on your desk by then."
"You know I can't hold up the commission any longer," Henderson said. The meeting was scheduled in two days. "Why don't you let me tell them that you've decided to withdraw your proposal?" he suggested, not unkindly. "It might get you off the hook."
"I intend to hold you to your word," Straker said. "To consider my report before making a decision on the clearance."
Henderson nodded. "All right, Straker, I think I'm reading you. You want an alibi for that pilot of yours who killed himself and his crewman. You want to blame it on the presence of uncleared junk."
"I want your word, Henderson," Straker insisted.
"On one condition," Henderson said. He gave Straker a thoughtful look. "Now, you consider your spacecraft was involved in a reentry collision with an item of space junk."
"It's a possibility," Straker admitted.
"Hmm, a possibility, yes," Henderson agreed. "So you suspend all lunar flights until we've fully investigated the, ah, incident."
Straker was horrified. "Do you realize what you're doing?"
"Yes, Commander, I do," Henderson assured him. "I'm proving to the commission that your organization, in its present form, is an expensive, and unworkable luxury."
* * *
The drive back to the film studio and SHADO Headquarters took longer than twenty minutes. He didn't really want to have to go to work and do what he had to do.
He pulled into the studio parking lot sooner than he wanted. The studio security guard at the entrance doors to the building was as cheerful as ever. The security man didn't know the bottom was about to drop out from under SHADO.
Straker walked into the outer office, where Miss Ealand guarded the entrance into SHADO. She was seated at her desk, as usual.
"Ah, Miss Ealand," he said. "Hard at it?"
"I'm always hard at it. Sometimes you notice," she replied. "How did it go, sir?"
"Go?" he repeated. "Do you know the code word Washington Square', Miss Ealand?"
"Well, not without looking it up," she admitted. "It's not one we use regularly."
"It's one I thought we'd never use," Straker said. He couldn't keep the disappointment out of his voice.
"Well, what does it mean, sir?"
"It means shutdown," he answered. "Cancel lunar flights, virtual isolation of Moonbase."
She simply stared at him as he turned and entered the inner office.
* * *
Ford didn't ask the meaning of the code Straker gave him to pass on. The look on Straker's face was enough.
"SHADO Control to all unit commanders," Ford announced on SHADO's command channels. "'Washington Square'. I say again, 'Washington Square'. Immediate compliance, 'Washington Square'."
* * *
Foster and Freeman were having lunch together in Central Park, when Foster's personal transceiver buzzed. He opened the connection.
"Colonel Foster, sorry to disturb you, sir," Barry's voice announced over the tiny speaker. "Code message from SHADO. 'Washington Square'. I'll check it right away."
"There's no need," Foster said into the transceiver's microphone. "It means shutdown."
"What?" Freeman nearly shouted in his stunned disbelief.
"More specifically, it involves a complete ban on all orbital flights," Foster said.
Freeman nearly ran out of the room.
* * *
Straker was alone in his office, staring off into space. He was still numb from realizing how far Henderson would go to get even for the loss of his favorite project. Henderson knew how vital Moonbase was to Earth's defense.
The video-link buzzed and Straker keyed it on. Nina Barry was on the screen.
"Colonel Freeman for you, sir," she announced.
It took a moment for Straker to orient himself to the here and now. "Put him on."
Freeman's leathery face appeared on the screen.
"Why the ban on Moon flights?" Freeman demanded.
"But why, what about the report?"
"Forget it," Straker said. "The commissioners are going to believe that it's an attempt to blame space junk on the Maddox crash."
"When in fact, you think it was... ?"
"Maddox, pilot error," Straker admitted. "Take a rest, enjoy the scenery, Alec."
Straker cut the connection.
* * *
"What's Straker trying to do?" Foster asked.
"I don't know," Freeman admitted.
"He doesn't usually take a thing like this lying down," Foster reminded him.
"You couldn't call it 'typical'."
"And then there's Maddox," Foster said. "What do we do about him? Forget all about it?"
"Well, what else can we do?" Freeman asked. "Any pilot can make a mistake. And you're only allowed one."
"Not Steve Maddox."
"Anyone can make a mistake," Freeman repeated.
"Not Steve Maddox," Foster insisted. "He was too experienced."
"All right, all right," Freeman conceded. "What caused the reentry error?"
"He reported an unidentified sighting just before loss of signal."
"But the trackers couldn't pick up anything," Freeman reminded him.
"Well, it must have been something," Foster said. "Space debris."
"Maybe," Foster admitted. "And we just sit back and do nothing about it?"
"No, we make sure it doesn't happen again," Freeman said, heading for the Control Sphere exit. The door closed behind him.
Foster turned to Harrington. "Get me 32's electronic log."
"Captain Maddox's flight?"
* * *
Freeman finished the report. He wasn't happy with it, much of the data he wanted was still missing and he knew that the report was an exercise in futility. Still, it gave him something to do. Until now, he hadn't really appreciated how boring Moonbase could be. He encoded the report and headed for the Control Sphere to radio it to headquarters.
Foster wasn't in the Control Sphere, even though it should have been his shift. The console telltales showed a module was ready to launch.
"What's going on here?" Freeman demanded. The two Control sphere operatives refused to look at him.
"What the devil's going on?" he demanded. "Who's in that module?"
"Colonel Foster," Barry said after a long moment.
"Why didn't you tell me?" he asked, furious. "Any of you?"
"Colonel Foster's orders," Harrington told him. "On no account were we to tell you until takeoff was immanent."
"And irreversible," Freeman completed for himself.
Barry and Harrington both managed guilty looks. Freeman stepped over to the central console and picked up the microphone, flipping the switches to connect him to the module's communication system.
"Paul, cut your motors," Freeman ordered.
There was no response from the module.
"I said, cut you motors," Freeman repeated. "Paul, this won't help."
"What won't?" Foster asked, finally.
"Taking out a module," Freeman said. "If you're doing it for the reasons I think you are."
"I'm gonna fly the same course Maddox flew," Foster told him.
"Under precisely the same conditions."
"You're crazy," Freeman announced. "What would it prove?"
"For one thing, Maddox wasn't responsible for the loss of his ship."
"Well, if you do make it, it won't mean much," Freeman reminded him.
"It depends on how I get through."
"And if you don't?"
"Then I don't."
Once again, Moonbase shuddered slightly as the lunar Module lifted off.
Again, Moonbase's tracking screens were clear, except for the module and the debris in orbit.
"Two-Nine calling Moonbase," Foster's voice came over the radio.
"Everything under control?" Freeman asked. He had taken the center console.
"So far," Foster said. "E.O.I. 2 hours, 38 minutes, 22 seconds."
"Roger," Freeman acknowledged. "Have you contacted Straker yet?"
"No. But I have a feeling he'll be contacting me soon."
* * *
SHADO's tracking stations on Earth spotted the incoming craft.
"Sighting at Galactic latitude 43 decimal 17. Altitude 4 decimal 53," Ford read off his monitor. It didn't make sense. SID hadn't notified them of an incoming U.F.O. and nothing else should be flying out there.
"But, that's Moonbase operations area," Johnson pointed out.
"Right," Ford agreed. "Call Commander Straker."
Straker was at Ford's station almost before Johnson had finished calling him. He grabbed the microphone from Ford's station.
"You'll turn back right now," Straker ordered.
"E.O.I. in one hour precisely," Foster announced. "I've gone too far for that."
"You're right, Foster," Straker stated, utterly furious. "Much too far."
* * *
There was still no trace on the screens other than the module and the debris.
"Module 2-9 to Moonbase," Foster called in.
"Go ahead, 2-9," Harrington replied.
"Reentry in 6 minutes 9 seconds."
Freeman and Barry watched the radar screens. Nothing out of the ordinary.
"Moonbase," Foster called.
"Receiving, 2-9," Freeman answered.
"E.O.I. in 4 minutes, 3 seconds."
"Reentry angle 5 decimal 73 degrees, " Freeman read off. "Confirm?... 2-9 Confirm reentry angle."
Foster didn't respond, although the radio link still registered as good. The trackers showed that Module 2-9's reentry angle had shallowed out dangerously.
"Paul, adjust reentry angle. Cut back to five," Freeman ordered. "Cut back to five, Paul, you're too shallow."
There was still no response
Freeman glanced at Harrington. "If he doesn't adjust, he'll bounce off the Earth's atmosphere, out into space."
On the tracking screen, they watched as Foster's reentry angle adjusted to a safer level.
A few minutes later, the module had safely passed through the ionization black out.
"Colonel Foster?" Straker's voice came over the radio.
"Foster here, I'm happy to say," Foster announced.
"Congratulations," Straker said, his voice cold. "But, don't let my delight at your survival blind you to the fact that we have a few matters to discuss."
"Yes, sir," Foster murmured to himself.
* * *
Henderson laughed when Straker and Foster walked into his office. "Oh, you've gone too far this time, Straker."
"I don't see it that way," Straker told him, very calmly. Foster took a seat while Straker remained standing, hands clasped in front of him.
"You authorized a lunar flight," Henderson said.
"I authorized nothing."
Henderson shook his head. "Look, Straker. I don't want to argue with you. You are responsible, whatever the circumstances."
"I agree," Straker said. "But, Colonel Foster has proved that there is alien interference with our inter-orbital flights."
"Yes, and I almost got killed doing it," Foster said.
"So you say," Henderson responded. His voice dripped with disdain.
Foster was on his feet. "Yes, I say!"
Henderson glanced at Foster, then gave Straker a long look. Straker stood very still, watching Foster, then he motioned for Foster to sit back down. Foster gave him a sullen look as he obeyed.
"My apologies," Straker said.
"Thank you," Henderson acknowledged.
"I think it's time we laid our cards on the table, Henderson," Straker announced.
"All right," Henderson agreed. "I'll tell you what I think of Colonel Foster's so-called 'proof'. You knew the Commission was going to turn down your space junk clearance program. So, you instructed Foster to make this flight."
"Now, why should I do that?" Straker asked.
"Because you were desperate for evidence."
"Go on," Straker urged quietly.
"You authorized a flight to rig this information. But you won't get away with it," Henderson grated. "The Commission convenes the day after tomorrow. By the time I get through, you'll be out of a job."
"Is that all?" Straker asked. "I'll see you at the Commission meeting."
Straker picked up his briefcase and beckoned Foster to accompany him out of the office.
Henderson watched the door close behind them. "Indeed you will, Commander," Henderson murmured to himself.
* * *
"Can he really do it?" Foster asked as Straker pulled his car onto the main road.
"Ease you out."
"He can try," Straker admitted.
"What about our evidence?" Foster asked. "They've got to take notice of that."
"Evidence?" Straker gave a bitter sounding laugh. "What's it gonna look like when Henderson claims that we faked it just to get a space clearance program?"
"But we're right," Foster insisted.
"Well, sometimes, Colonel, that's not quite enough."
* * *
Freeman still sat at the center console. A printer clattered for a moment. Harrington tore off the sheet, glanced at it and handed it to Freeman.
"The tracking data's been processed, sir," she said.
"Anything?" he asked, looking over the printout.
"Not that we can see."
"They should have been able to pick up something," Freeman protested.
Harrington shrugged. "There's nothing on Colonel Foster's log except a record of maneuvers."
"All right," Freeman conceded. "Send it down to SHADO Headquarters."
* * *
"So, what do we do now?" Foster asked as they entered SHADO headquarters.
"Any suggestions?" Straker asked.
"No. But we can't just sit around," Foster told him.
"I've solved quite a few problems by just sitting around, as you call it, Colonel," Straker said with the faintest touch of amusement. "I suggest you try it yourself, sometime."
Ford spotted them crossing the control room. "Commander," he called. "The tracking report on Colonel Foster's flight has just come in from Moonbase."
Ford gave Foster an apologetic look. "Well, nothing unusual, sir."
"All right," Straker with a sigh.
"Well, that leaves the M.B-3 detector," Foster said.
"Yes, they're processing the data now," Straker said. "Well, we haven't had much luck so far, maybe we're due for a break."
One of the printers chattered, spitting out a long stream of paper. Lieutenant Johnson tore off the sheet, looked it over and took it to Straker.
"The MB-3 data, sir," she said.
"Ah, thank you," Straker said, beckoning Foster to accompany him into his office.
Straker spread the printout on the conference table.
"Looks like a S-P-S rocket of some sort," Straker commented.
"Like the limpet rockets used in debris destruction," Foster said.
"Yeah," Straker agreed. "But it doesn't make sense. I mean, why would the aliens put a device like this into Earth orbit?"
"Could be programmed to attack Moon ship flights?" Foster suggested.
"Blockade on Moonbase? Maybe," Straker conceded. "But why hasn't our radar picked it up?"
Foster looked over at the whiteboard on the wall opposite the desk. A map of orbital debris had been overlaid on it. "Space debris," Foster announced. "It's based in one of those burned out rockets over there."
"Well, assuming you're right, which one could it be?" Straker asked.
Foster walked up to the map. "Considering Maddox and I flew practically identical flight paths, it would have to be one of these two here, or Apollo eight, here, or 3-47." He pointed them out on the map.
"Hmm, four possibilities," Straker commented to himself. "I think we're onto something."
He looked at the map for a long moment, then went to the desk. He keyed on the video-link to Moonbase. Freeman's face came on the screen.
"Alec, I have an assignment for you," Straker announced. "I want you to launch the interceptors. Their mission: to destroy four pieces of space junk. I'll have Control relay the coordinates direct to the astronauts."
"You mean, space junk in Earth orbit?" Freeman asked.
"Right. And I mean use all three interceptors."
"All three?" Freeman repeated in shocked disbelief.
"Yes, I know it will leave Moonbase undefended, but, nevertheless, do it, Alec, at once." Straker cut the link to Moonbase.
"Now, wait a minute," Foster protested. "Do you know what's gonna happen when Henderson finds out about this?"
"Ah, yes, Henderson," Straker said. A hint of a smile played about the corners of Straker's mouth and there was a self-satisfied chirpiness in his voice. "Why don't you go over and tell him, Colonel?"
"He'll go berserk," Foster said.
"Yes, Take a nice, slow drive, give me about, half an hour."
"I hope you know what you're doing," Foster muttered. Straker gave him a hard look and he left to tell Henderson, as instructed. Straker was up to something, but for the life of him, Foster couldn't figure out what it might be.
* * *
Freeman ordered the interceptors launched, as instructed.
"Control to interceptor leader," Freeman radioed. "Steer programmed course to Earth orbit. You will receive destruct details from Earth Control. Out."
* * *
Miss Ealand was still seated at her desk when Straker came out of the inner office.
"Miss Ealand, when James Henderson calls, tell him I'm unavailable," Straker told her.
"And when he arrives, sir?" she asked knowingly.
"Oh, show him right in, the red carpet treatment," Straker said. "He's a very important man. You can expect him at three o'clock."
Henderson barreled into the outer office at five minutes after three. Foster followed him in, giving Ealand an apologetic smile.
"I want to see Straker immediately," Henderson demanded. "And before you try to fob me off with some damn fool excuse, I'm telling you, I won't take no' for an answer."
"But, of course you may see him, Mr. Henderson," Miss Ealand said with a smile. "He's expecting you. Go straight in." The inner office door slid open.
"Oh, thank you," Henderson said, the bluster gone for the moment. He walked into the office. "Straker," he started, but the younger man wasn't alone in the inner office. A dark haired man was seated in the white leather chair opposite the desk.
"Ah, Henderson," Straker greeted him with a smile. "You're late. Won't keep you a moment. Studio business." Straker turned his attention back to the man in the chair. "Well, I think it's a great script, Mr. Steiner. There we are..." He made a show of signing a document and handing it to the man. "Cleared for shooting."
"Thanks," Steiner said. "You know, I like the way you operate."
"Oh, thank you."
"Your policy of non-interference," Steiner explained. "Some executives crawl all over you."
"Well, I can assure you, Mr. Steiner, you'll see very little of me," Straker said.
"And I'll give you a film the studio'll be proud of. Thanks again," Steiner said, heading toward the door. "Nice guy," he told Henderson. "Good bye."
"Good bye," Straker called as the door closed behind the director.
"All right, Straker," Henderson warned.
Straker opened the silver cigarette box and held it out to the older man.
"You know I never touch them," Henderson grated.
"Voice identification," Straker explained, all bright innocence.
"James Henderson," Henderson said into the microphone.
"Identification positive, Henderson, James L.," the voice print computer announced.
"Thank you," Straker said, closing the box and hitting the switch to lower the elevator.
Henderson glowered at him as a concrete wall moved past the office window. The movement stopped and the office doors slid open. The security operative on duty in the entrance hallway nearly jumped in startlement as Henderson barreled his way through the door.
Henderson led the way through the control room, heading directly for Straker's office. He didn't bother checking if Straker and Foster were following him. The office doors were open, as they usually were when Straker wasn't present. Inside the office, Henderson turned to find that only Straker had followed him in. The older man hit the door control on the desk and the doors closed.
"I tried to call you, Commander," Henderson said. "I was told you were not available. Were they your instructions?"
"I see. A very high-handed attitude," Henderson observed. "However, one more question. Is it true you ordered all three Moonbase interceptors into Earth orbit to destroy certain items of space junk?"
"Do you realize what you've done?"
"You tell me," Straker said. His voice had gone flat.
"You've blatantly and openly defied the commission, and left Moonbase and the Earth defenseless."
"It was my decision," Straker said. "I realize the implications."
"You had better start packing, Straker," Henderson announced. "When the Commission hears about this, you're through."
"Aren't you interested in hearing my reasons?"
"Oh, let's be kind," Henderson said. "Let's put it down to a mental aberration, the strain of command. Get those interceptors back on Moonbase, Commander, while you can still give orders."
"Don't push your luck, Straker," Henderson warned. "If Moonbase reports... "
"A Ufo sighting?" Straker asked, completing Henderson's sentence. "Stick around, I'm expecting it."
* * *
Moonbase tracking systems picked up a signal: "Possible contact 248-016 red," Barry announced. "Contact confirmed, Ufo 248-136 red."
"Red alert," Freeman ordered. "Get me SHADO Headquarters."
* * *
"Ufo maintaining course 248-204 green," Harrington was saying as Straker and Henderson entered the control room.
"Get the termination," Straker ordered, coming to stand beside Ford.
"Request trajectory termination," Ford passed on the request.
"Predicted termination, 1F-026, Southern England," Harrington read-off her own monitor on Moonbase.
Straker nodded, expression grim. "Close enough. Its target is this studio," Straker told Henderson. He turned back to Ford. "Maintain visual contact on countdown."
"And order a complete shut down," Straker said.
"Shutdown?" Foster repeated in surprise.
"Everything," Straker said firmly. "VHF, radar, the computers, complete radio silence."
"Straker," Henderson warned.
"As you said, Henderson, I can still give orders," Straker reminded him. He turned back to the control room operatives, who had stopped to listen. "Complete shut down. Do it!"
The operatives hurried to comply. The normal background sounds of the computers, the constant radio links, quieted into silence. For the first time anyone could remember, the only sound in the control room was a whirr of the ventilation fans.
"Termination: 8 minutes, 4 seconds," Ford announced. His voice sounded too loud in the silence.
"Commander Straker, I'd like to talk with you in your office," Henderson said quietly. "You too, Colonel," he told Foster.
Henderson turned and led the way to Straker's office. Once inside, Henderson hit the door switch on the desk, locking the electronically controlled door.
"Straker, I'm relieving you of your command," Henderson said. "Colonel Foster will take over, as of now."
"You can't do it, Henderson," Straker told him. "You require the unanimous backing of the Commission."
"You think I won't get it?"
"Yes, I think you could get it," Straker admitted. "But it would take time."
"And this base is due to be attacked in a few minutes?" Henderson said. He turned to Foster. "Colonel Foster, assume command."
Foster hesitated. Henderson glowered at him. Straker simply waited.
"Colonel..." Henderson's voice held a threat.
"I take my orders from Commander Straker," Foster announced quietly, but firmly.
Straker took a deep breath before turning to Henderson.
"Now, for the first time in your life, Henderson, you're going to listen!" Straker stated with an edge of anger. "The aliens put a satellite into Earth orbit, using a piece of space junk to cover. Why? A blockade on Moonbase? A logical reason, but obvious. Too obvious. In time, we would have located and destroyed it. So the satellite was a decoy, a red herring for something bigger. An attack on this headquarters. They hoped the satellite would draw the interceptors from Moonbase."
"And you fell right into the trap," Henderson interrupted.
Straker couldn't be sure if Henderson really didn't understand the situation or was just being stubborn.
"I acted as if the plan had worked, yes," Straker said. "It would take a Ufo of great destructive power to destroy this underground base. I didn't want that hanging over our heads."
"All this guess work does not explain the shutdown," Henderson pointed out.
"Well, why make it easy for them?" Straker asked. "The Ufo is probably programmed onto our radio signals."
"I don't buy it, Straker," Henderson said. "I just hope you've guessed wrong. Because, If you're right, we're about to be killed."
Straker flipped the door lock switch and the door slid open. "Still time for you to leave."
Henderson glowered at him from beneath brindled eyebrows.
"All right," Straker said, leaning against the desk. "We all just sit here and wait."
"For what?" Henderson wondered aloud.
* * *
The Moonbase Control sphere crew was as close to panic as their training would allow.
"Moonbase to SHADO Control. Come in, Control," Harrington kept repeating over the now dead radio link. She turned to Freeman. "No use sir, it's complete radio shutdown."
"What the hell is Straker playing at?" Freeman growled.
* * *
"Four minutes to termination," Ford announced as Straker, Henderson and Foster reentered the control room.
"Straker, if we contact the interceptors, there may still be time," Henderson said.
Straker shook his head. "It's no good. They can't operate in the Earth's atmosphere. And the Ufo s already in the stratosphere."
"Termination, one minute twenty seconds."
"We're sitting ducks," Henderson commented to no one in particular.
"Maybe," Straker said.
The phone to the upstairs office rang and Straker grabbed it. "Yes?"
"Sky-One has just overflown the studio at zero feet," Miss Ealand announced.
"Thank you, Miss Ealand," Straker said, setting the phone back in its cradle. "Switch everything on."
"Yes, sir," Ford said as a sense of relief filled the room.
"And get me Captain Carlin," Straker added.
Ford made the connection to Sky-One.
"Nice timing, Captain," Straker said into the microphone. "Don't miss it."
"Roger, Control," Carlin acknowledged. "Sky-One to Moonbase. Request Ufo fix and attack coordinates."
* * *
Moonbase breathed its own sigh of relief.
"Will relay direct to outboard computer," Harrington told the pilot.
Behind her, Freeman shook his head. "Why, Straker, the sly old..."
Harrington turned. "Fox?" she said, completing the phrase for him.
He grinned. That wasn't exactly the word he had in mind, but it would do.
* * *
"Forty-five seconds," Ford counted down. "Forty-seconds... thirty-five seconds... thirty seconds... "
* * *
Peter Carlin scanned the blue skies above the film studio. After several seconds, he spotted the bright, spinning dot that was the enemy ship.
"Have visual contact," Carlin announced. "Going in for attack."
Sky-One was not as fast or maneuverable as the alien ship. But, her pilot was vastly more experienced. Sky-One climbed nearly vertically, firing at the alien. The enemy got off a single shot before bursting into flame and exploding.
"Sky-One to SHADO Control. Ufo destroyed," Carlin notified SHADO Headquarters.
* * *
The relief in Headquarters was almost palpable.
"Colonel Foster," Straker said. "Would you get this operation computerized and we'll prepare it for the commission in my office."
Foster nodded and headed over to the computer center to get the data.
Henderson watched him leave before turning back to Straker. "Well, Straker, I guess I owe you an apology. You were right," he said. "The Commission will recommend the complete clearance of all space junk."
"Of course, it will take time," Henderson said. "The money has to be raised."
"Call it the 'Maddox' fund," Straker suggested.
"The pilot that was killed," Straker reminded him.
"Ah, yes, Maddox."
"If only you hadn't been so positive that you were right," Straker grated in a sudden surge of self-righteous anger.
"Like you?" Henderson responded with only a hint of a smile. He turned and started up the short flight of steps to the upper level and the closest exit.
"Henderson," Straker called, anger gone as suddenly as it had come. Henderson stopped and looked back at the younger man. "I'll walk you to your car," Straker offered.
He hurried up the steps and they walked out of the complex together.
Another early day at SHADO. Straker had finished reviewing the logs of the previous day and was now looking over the first report turned in by his new security chief, Vladimir Natiroff. Henderson had pushed approval of the appointment through over the objections of several commission members, notably the German and British delegates. It was Henderson's way of making amends for trying to force Straker's removal from command the week before.
"Natiroff seems to be settling in okay," Straker commented to Freeman seated across the desk from him.
"His wife and kids should be arriving next week," Freeman said. "I'm afraid to ask Henderson how he arranged that."
Straker managed a rueful grin. "When you've been around as long as our favorite general, not only do you know where the bodies are buried, you know who dug the graves."
"Knowing Henderson, he knows what brand shovel they used," Freeman said.
"Probably handed it to them," Straker said. He turned the pages of the open file on his desk. 'Atlantica 4' was the title typed across the cover page.
"No survivors?" Straker asked Freeman, expression solemn once more. Freeman shook his head. He'd been over the report with Natiroff. A freighter went down in the south Atlantic with the loss of all hands. The only trace of the ship was an oil slick and a charred life preserver.
"Conclusions?" Straker asked.
"Well, for my money it hinges on the last radio message," Freeman said. "'Under attack'... that could mean practically anything."
"Let's assume it means under attack from the aliens," Straker said.
"Possible," Freeman conceded.
"An underwater craft?"
"They're obviously capable of building it," Freeman reminded his superior.
"Undetected?" Straker asked, letting his skepticism show.
"The ocean's a big place. Quite a few radar blind spots," Freeman said. "Some UFOs still get through. We still haven't found the one that got through last week. There may be others we don't even know about."
"Not many, but maybe one or two big enough to carry component sections," Straker said, warming to the idea.
"It could have been assembled underwater," Freeman suggested. "They've perfected life maintenance in a liquid environment."
Straker was silent for a long moment, thinking. "I buy it, Alec," he said finally.
"Right," Freeman agreed. "What do we do about it?"
"A systematic search of the area," Straker said. "I'll go myself." He reached forward to hit the intercom button.
"In Skydiver?" Freeman asked softly.
Straker sat back and looked over at his chief of staff. "What else?"
"Are you sure you wouldn't like me to take over?"
Worry flickered across Straker's face for just an instant. "Oh that," Straker said with a tiny shrug. "Well, the dictionary says it's a morbid dread of confined spaces. Skydiver isn't that small."
"And you're not always morbid," Freeman added.
"Exactly," Straker agreed with a smile. But Freeman noted his smile seemed a little tense. "Where's Skydiver right now?"
"Southern Atlantic," Freeman said. Straker keyed a sequence into the keyboard on his desk and the wall monitor flickered on to show a map of the south Atlantic. Freeman pointed out an area in the middle of the screen. "Around four hundred miles from St. Helena."
Straker hit another set of keys and the map enlarged, showing a small group of islands.
"Is there a rendezvous point where we can exchange crews?" Straker asked.
"There are dozens of small atolls in the area," Freeman said. "Mostly uninhabited."
"Good," Straker said, getting up from his desk. "I want to be aboard with the best available sub crew as soon as possible."
* * *
The crew transfer went without a hitch. The regular Sky-diver crew was scheduled for leave rotation in a week in any case. Now they could get started that much sooner. The sea was smooth, the sky clear as Straker, Foster, Captain Lew Waterman and his crew boarded Sky-diver. The transfer took less than half an hour, including the change of command checklists on the status of the sophisticated combination of fighter-launch platform and submarine.
As always, Peter Carlin left his ship as clean and neat as he had found it, seven weeks before. "Take care of my boat," Carlin joked as he boarded the seaplane.
"I'll take care of my boat, don't you worry," Waterman said, taking possession of Sky-diver.
The seaplane lifted off from the water and Sky-diver was alone, new crew in place at their stations below, passengers on the conning tower skimming the horizon with binoculars.
"Switch to seaskim. Full ahead," Waterman ordered as soon as the plane was a dark speck in the bright sky.
"Switching to seaskim," Lieutenant Lewis's voice came over the small speaker. "Full power."
The engines began to whine a little as Sky-diver began to move away from the island. Within minutes, the craft was running along fast enough to climb up on its hydrofoils. Its speed increased even more.
Satisfied, Waterman turned to Straker. "I'm needed below, sir."
"Right," Straker said. "Carry on, Captain."
Paul Foster watched Waterman press the lift mechanism switch. The left lowered and Waterman disappeared into the boat below. Foster had been surprised to get Freeman's call the day before telling him to pack for a short tour on Sky-diver. He had been more surprised to find Straker waiting for him at the airfield.
Foster still wasn't sure why he hadn't been ordered to count penguins in Antarctica for a while, a punishment tour for bringing the lunar module to Earth in direct violation of orders. Maybe Straker had forgiven him because things had worked out and Henderson had agreed that Straker was right, or maybe Straker just hadn't come up a suitable punishment. Forgiveness was not one of Straker's stronger characteristics.
"Do you think we will find anything?" Foster asked. He had read the report on the Atlantica 4 that Straker had given him, but hadn't had a chance to discuss it. Straker had immersed himself in paperwork for the entire eight-hour flight to the rendezvous point.
"Hard to say, but the more I think about it, the more the theory stands up," Straker said. "We know they've taken people from houses in broad daylight."
"You mean it'd be a lot easier mid-ocean?"
"Right," Straker agreed.
Foster looked around at the empty horizon. "It's a big place to play cat and mouse."
"Well, we'd better make sure our claws are sharpened," Straker said.
"What do you mean?" Foster asked.
"We're trying to find them," Straker reminded him. "Let's hope the aliens don't think we're the mouse."
Waterman's voice drifted up through the open hatch: "Maintain sea skim until we reach search area."
"Yes, sir," Lewis, the navigator said.
"Approaching B17," Tony Chin announced from his helm station.
"Plot a search pattern," Waterman ordered.
"Lieutenant." Waterman's voice again. "I want a constant radar sweep and sonar sounding."
"Right," Nina Barry's quiet alto agreed.
Waterman's head appeared in the hatchway. "We'll make the first sweep on the surface, sir," Waterman said.
"Right, we'll keep our eyes open," Straker told him.
"Then we'll go under for a submerged circuit," Waterman said. He smiled. "Make the most of the fresh air, gentlemen."
Foster grinned at the Sky-diver captain. Foster had spent a six-week tour as a crewman under Waterman during his initial training. Service aboard a submarine, even this one, was a far cry from his prior career as a pilot, but Foster enjoyed being aboard Sky-diver. He noted, however, that Straker's smile seemed a little tense and he wondered if Straker was a little more worried about this search than he had let on.
Waterman disappeared inside the sub once again.
Straker handed Foster the binoculars he'd been using and headed for the hatch. "Maintain the watch, Colonel. I'm going below."
"Yes, sir," Foster agreed, taking the binoculars to watch the horizon once more.
* * *
Straker had come to the conclusion before he'd even left the seaplane that coming aboard Sky-diver hadn't been a good idea. He should have allowed Freeman to handle the search, even if it did mean he would have had to admit how much he disliked going onboard SHADO's submarine. Claustrophobia was a weakness Straker hated admitting to. It was a failure of will, a psychic wound that had never healed despite his efforts to overcome it. He hated the feelings of panic it brought and hated himself for not being able to stop it by force of will.
It was too late now, he had to go through with it. He had to face the fear, handle the panic he knew was waiting for him below. Straker took a deep breath and pressed the switch to lower the lift platform to the upper level of Sky-diver's main cabin.
Lieutenant Tony Chin was seated at the helm station on the upper level, watching the monitor in front of him, the gauges. Straker walked over to the pilot, looking over the instrument panels lining the walls, the helm console. He recognized most of the instruments and the rest he could figure out. They weren't all that unlike what was found in the cockpit of a jetliner. Unlike a jet however, Sky-diver had no windows.
Straker stopped a moment to take in his surroundings. Sky-diver wasn't really all that small. The ceilings were normal height and there was room to move around. He shouldn't be feeling the nibbles of panic at the edges of his awareness. He found he was hunching over and straightened up.
Straker approached Lieutenant Chin's station. The helmsman glanced back at him momentarily before turning his attention back to steering the boat, settling his earphones back on his head.
Beyond the helmsman, along the far bulkhead, there were two airlock hatches. There were two more on the opposite side, escape hatches.
"Ever used this?" Straker asked.
Chin didn't hear him and he moved closer to catch the young man's attention. Chin raised one earphone.
"I asked if you'd ever used the escape hatch, Lieutenant," Straker said.
"Yes, sir," Chin answered with a smile. "In training. Our navigator, he's the one you should talk to about escape hatches."
"Forget it," Straker said with a tiny shrug. "Just familiarizing myself with the ship."
Straker looked over the system telltales once more before heading back to the open lift platform. He hit the control and the lift took him to the lower deck. Sky-diver really wasn't all that much different from an airplane or a space vehicle. However, airplanes and space capsules didn't bother him and Sky-diver did. Maybe it was the knowledge that water was surrounding the boat rather than air or vacuum.
Nina Barry had been called in from Moonbase to handle the radar and sonar section. It was odd seeing her without the Moonbase anti-static wig, in a Sky-diver uniform rather than Moonbase silver, but he had told Freeman he wanted the best. There was little doubt Barry was the best radar operator SHADO had. He stepped closer to her as she listened on her headphones, frowning at the monitor screen in front of her.
"What is it?" Straker asked.
"Large shoal of fish," Barry answered. "Tuna, probably."
"You're the expert," Straker said. Barry smiled, not taking her eyes off her monitor.
Chin had mentioned the navigator. Lewis was standing at the map table, marking the boat's course, speaking quietly with Waterman.
Straker recalled what he had read in the man's file. Lewis was Straker's age, a career Navy petty officer before joining SHADO. Lewis looked up and saw Straker watching him. Straker gave him a nod and headed toward Waterman standing by the periscope.
"It's a trim ship, Captain," Straker said.
"Thank you, sir," Waterman said. "My cabin is at your disposal."
Straker gave Waterman a grateful nod then looked around the main cabin once more. He made the mistake of looking up to the ceiling. He knew it was a good fifteen feet between the lower deck and upper hull, the same as the highest ceiling height in SHADO Headquarters. It just didn't feel like it. The nibbles of panic were becoming more noticeable.
Straker headed for the captain's cabin and closed the bulkhead door behind him. The cabin was about the size of a large closet. A bunk was built into one side, with lockers over and under it. On the opposite side was a fold down writing table.
One of the lockers was labeled maps, another was labeled operations. Straker opened the door on the second locker and pulled out a heavy notebook with 'Sky-Diver' printed on the binding. He opened the notebook on the table, pulling a set of plans from a protective pocket. He unfolded the plans on the desk and began to look them over.
Waterman's shaving mirror was on a small shelf above the desk. A reflection caught Straker's eye. He was surprised to see the image of someone he barely recognized - a frightened man with cold sweat beading his forehead. He looked around the cabin once more and panic began to raise its ugly head. Straker closed his eyes and reminded himself that the walls weren't really moving, it was just his imagination. Nothing was going to happen, Sky-diver was perfectly safe. When he opened his eyes, the walls were back where they belonged and he went back to looking over the plans. He liked knowing the lay of the land he was in.
* * *
Waterman had noticed Commander Straker's nervousness, but had attributed it to the fact that it was Straker's first visit to Sky-diver while on the high seas. Waterman had similar misgivings when onboard planes when he wasn't the pilot.
The Sky-diver captain looked over his domain once again. Lieutenant Barry was frowning as she listened to a signal in her headphones.
"Sonar echo increasing," she announced after a moment.
Waterman moved to look at the monitor in front of her. "What do you make of it, Lieutenant?"
Barry listened for a long moment, just touching the control knob on the sonar unit. "Metallic object," she said. "And moving quite fast. 60 knots."
"2,000 yards," Barry said. "Increasing."
Waterman took a step over to the microphone beside the lift mechanism and picked it off its holder. "Get below, Colonel. I'm taking her down."
Foster didn't bother waiting for the lift. He clambered down the ladder rungs, dogging the upper hatch behind him. Waterman didn't wait for him to finish: "Dive - Dive - Dive!"
The dive alarm sounded as Waterman hit the warning klaxon. The boat shuddered slightly as it sank beneath the waves, heading for its normal cruising depth.
The door to the captain's cabin opened and Straker came out. "What is it?"
"An underwater craft, sir," Waterman said. "Moving ahead of us."
"Altering course," Barry announced. "Veering to starboard, 8 degrees."
"Stay with it, Captain," Straker instructed.
"8 degrees starboard," Waterman ordered, looking up at Chin.
"Try the cameras," Straker ordered.
Waterman touched a control panel beside one of the monitor screens. A dark, murky image appeared.
"Visibility poor, sir," Waterman said, pointing out what his superior already knew.
Barry's frown became deeper. "Sonar now registering rock formations..." After a long moment she shook her head. "We've lost it."
The monitor screen showed rocks and cloudy water. It was impossible to make out anything else.
"Anything?" Straker asked.
Barry shook her head once again, not taking here eyes from the sonar screen. "These rocks don't help."
On the monitor, a dark space appeared in the rocks. Straker watched as it came closer.
Suddenly, the monitor blazed white and the boat rocked violently, the hull reverberating with the sound on an explosion. Unprepared, Straker crashed to the deck, skidding across the floor before coming to rest beside the bulkhead door. Foster managed to grab a handhold to keep from being pitched to the deck by the violent rocking.
The rocking stopped almost as suddenly as it started. The electrical motor on the lift platform whirred then stopped, leaving the platform halfway between the two decks. The interior lights began to flash, as though undecided whether or not to cut out completely. After a moment, the lights returned to normal. The silence was deafening.
The control room was a shambles. Several panels had torn loose from their attachments, exposing the wiring. Anything loose had been sent flying, crashing into other instruments.
Straker managed to get his feet under him as Waterman and Lewis began to check the controls and ship systems.
"Main systems still operating," Lewis announced.
"Right - surface!" Waterman ordered. Lewis hit the appropriate switches.
Foster was on his feet, looking around at the damage. He looked up at the upper level to see Lieutenant Chin laying on the deck. There was blood streaming from the helmsman's head.
"Hey!... Chin!" Foster called, launching himself toward the upper deck, using the jammed elevator platform as a step.
"Blow two," Waterman ordered.
"Blowing one and two," Barry acknowledged, hitting the controls.
Straker made his way to the upper deck as the ballast tanks roared, air pushing the salt water out of the steel tanks on each side of the boat.
Chin was still laying on the metal mesh floor of the upper deck. His eyes were closed and he was very pale beneath his dark complexion. A bruise was starting to color and swell on his check, extending under the hairline at his temple.
"He looks pretty bad," Foster said.
"Let's get him down below," Straker instructed.
"Malfunction on one," Barry announced.
"Depth increasing," Lewis read off the gauge in front of him. "300..."
"Keep trying those tanks," Waterman ordered.
Barry flipped another series of switches. "Full pressure."
The tanks roared once again. After a moment, the boat began to roll.
Waterman put out a hand to steady himself. "Hold it," he yelled. "Shut down ballast. We'll keel over."
Barry hastily flipped the switches off and the boat settled to an even keel once more.
Straker and Foster had maneuvered Chin onto the lift platform and had him nearly on the lower deck when the boat shuddered violently. Muffled explosions shook the hull. Foster lost his grip on Chin and Straker went down under Chin's unconscious weight.
Lewis held onto the nearest bulkhead for support as the violent rocking subsided once again. "That was the starboard turbine," he announced.
Barry stared at the sonar screen. "Commander - I'm getting a new signal," she said. "It must be the UFO."
"Coming back to finish the job," Straker muttered to himself as he managed to get back on his feet, using the wall for support.
Barry listened intently to her headphone. "It's heading away, toward the surface."
A blip appeared on a different screen. "Airborne!" she announced.
"Can we Launch Sky 1?" Straker asked, looking at Waterman.
"We can try," Waterman announced, grabbing his flight helmet and pulling himself up into the opening on the Sky-1 chute. He disappeared into the chute.
The boat's nose had started to drop down. They could feel it sink. Foster climbed up to the helm and sat in the helmsman's seat.
"Pull her up, Paul," Straker ordered. He watched as Foster wrenched at the control yoke.
"It's no good," Foster announced.
"What's the attitude?"
Foster checked the attitude gauge beside the yoke. He tapped it, but the needle didn't move. "Ten degrees."
"It's enough!" Straker said after a long moment. "Launch Sky 1!"
"Lift off!" Foster announced into the helm microphone as he pulled the launch release lever.
* * *
Sky-diver's launch attitude left a lot to be desired. A negative ten degrees off level was barely within launch tolerances.
Sky-1 parted from the submarine with scant feet to spare before nosing up toward the surface. The fighter burst from the water, climbing toward the sky and the enemy waiting there.
Waterman studied the instruments on the console in front of him. He wasn't receiving telemetry from the sub. A blip showed itself on his radar screen and he activated the missile controls. The alien craft came out of the clouds, firing at him. He noted, even as his missiles launched, that this U.F.O. was substantially different in shape that the usual. This one was shaped like a torpedo. Then, it had no shape at all as it disintegrated.
Waterman keyed his helmet microphone on. "Sky 1 to control. Target destroyed."
He waited a moment for a reply. There was none. "Sky 1 to control. Come in Skydiver."
He banked Sky-1 back into the clouds as he began to head to Skydiver's last position. It was possible that communications were out. He hoped it wasn't anything more serious.
* * *
Straker studied the bank of control gauges, trying to make sense of what he was seeing. Barry was checking the communications system.
"Contact lost, sir," Barry said as the boat began to creak.
"We're going down," Foster announced from the helm station. "Turbines non functional."
Lewis moved from the navigation table to the reactor control panel with its large red danger' stenciled across it.
"Shut down the reactor," Straker ordered. "Prepare to switch to emergency power."
"Yes, sir," Lewis acknowledged, pulling down on the large handle on one side of the control panel. The lights dimmed and went out, then came on again, much dimmer than before as Lewis closed an emergency power switch. He turned to look back at Straker. "Emergency power operating."
"Still going down," Foster announced.
"Crash positions!" Straker ordered, grabbing the nearest hand hold. There was a loud scraping as the boat hit bottom, then kept moving down and forward. It finally ground to rest with its nose down, rolled nearly on its side.
* * *
Waterman peered out of his cockpit at the smooth sea below. Oil coated the water's surface and metallic debris bobbed up and down in the oil.
"Sky 1 to SHADO control," Waterman said into his helmet microphone. "Overflying LNP. There's an oil slick... must assume we have an Emergency Operation Subsmash."
"Roger, Sky l," Ford acknowledged via satellite link from SHADO Headquarters in London. "Return to nearest SHADO airbase."
* * *
Straker leaned against a wall to support himself. The boat was a mess and he could smell burnt insulation. Foster, Lewis and Barry were attending to Chin, bandaging his head, which still hadn't stopped bleeding. They were propping themselves against the tilted walls, trying to get comfortable. The boat was silent.
The fear that had been creeping around the edges of Straker's consciousness since he came onboard erupted into panic. He closed his eyes to blank it out. He couldn't afford this now, there was too much at stake.
He opened his eyes and turned to the others, hoping they hadn't noticed his lapse.
"I'm assuming... ," he began. To his horror, his voice cracked. He cleared his throat and began again. "I'm assuming command of this vessel. Any order I give will be carried out instantly. Is that understood?"
They nodded. Lewis was sweating and Straker found himself wondering if Lewis felt as bad as he did. Lewis had been through this before, on a bigger boat.
"Discipline and control are the only tickets to the surface," Straker continued. "So let's play it that way." He looked to Barry. "Have the marker buoys and dye been released?"
"Yes, sir," Barry said.
Straker paused and looked around, trying to convince himself of the reality of what was happening. His worst nightmares didn't include this.
"You know the standing orders concerning a subsmash," Straker said, pushing himself closer to the others. "Let's get to it. Colonel Foster - the air systems and electric. Lewis, check the ballast tanks and the condition of the hull."
"What about the power?" Foster asked.
"Well, we've had no warning alarm from the reactor," Straker reminded him. "The radiation shields must be okay."
"At least that's something," Foster said with a smile. "We know we're not going to die from radiation exposure."
"That only leaves drowning and suffocation," Straker said. He gave the younger man a quick grin before moving over to sit beside Barry and Chin.
"What are our chances, sir?" Barry wondered aloud.
"We'll have to wait until all the systems have been checked," Straker said.
Barry nodded and climbed to her feet. "I'll see what shape the communications are in." She headed for the communications console, steadying herself against the walls.
Straker watched her a moment, then turned to Chin. The helmsman seemed to have recovered reasonably well, even if he was still a little unsteady.
"And how's the first casualty?" Straker asked, trying to keep his voice light.
"I'll be all right, sir," Chin assured him.
"You'd better be," Straker said. "We're going to need you."
"Let's see about those turbines," Chin said.
Something in Chin's voice, his expression, worried Straker. "Are you sure you're O.K.?"
"Yes, sir," Chin said, climbing to his feet.
Straker got to his own feet and clapped Chin on the shoulder. "Fine. Maybe we can get this tub off the deck before the rescue team arrives."
* * *
Alec Freeman sat in the co-pilot's seat of sea-rescue plane. The pilot, Turnwell, checked the instruments on his control panel. A green light had just flashed on, showing they were picking up the signal from Skydiver's emergency homing beacon.
Freeman picked up the radio microphone and keyed on the radio. "Albatross two-five to SHADO Control. We have positive area location on Skydiver beacon. Homing on signal now."
"Roger, Albatross," Ford acknowledged from London.
Freeman turned off the radio. After a moment, he turned to the pilot. "Another fifty minutes," Freeman estimated. "What do you think?"
The pilot shrugged. "No way of telling, sir. Sub smashes are always difficult."
Freeman stared at Turnwell for a moment, but the pilot wasn't inclined to add anything more. After a moment, Freeman got out of his seat. "I'll check things out in the cabin."
The cabin was utilitarian, resembling a bizarre cross between an air ambulance and a scuba-diving shop. There was a single bench across the back. Ross and Holden, the divers, were seated on it, checking their regulators and air tanks. Several other tanks were strapped to the walls of the plane, as well as full helmets, cold water suits, other paraphernalia Freeman didn't recognize.
"Less than fifty minutes," Freeman announced. Holden and Ross looked up at him. "How does it look to you?"
"Hard to say, sir," Holden said. "Could be the ship's righted itself. By the time we get there we'll maybe find it sitting on the surface waiting for us."
"That's not likely, is it?" Freeman asked. "The wreckage, the oil?"
"Until we get there, it's anyone's guess," Ross said. "One thing in our favor though. The area's relatively shallow. We shouldn't have to use any exotic air mixtures and decompression shouldn't be an issue."
Freeman looked out of the cabin window at the gray, cold looking sea below. "Ed, you'd better be okay when I get there," he muttered to himself.
* * *
Straker and Chin made their way back to the main cabin from the engine room. They were both disheveled. Grease and dirt stained their clothes. Foster finished checking the depth and air gauges, marking his findings on the clipboard in his hand. Lewis was still on the upper level, checking the escape hatches. His expression suggested he wasn't pleased with what he was finding.
Barry was working on getting their communications working. From the expression on her face, she wasn't having any more luck than Lewis.
"Nearly through here, sir," Foster said as Straker came closer. "How'd you make out astern?"
"Not good. One turbine is completely blown and there's some damage to the reactor cooling system."
"Well, that means we can forget the main power supply," Foster said.
Straker was sweating and wiped his face with his sleeve. More dirt smeared on his face but he didn't seem to notice. "How long will the emergency storage batteries last?" he asked, turning to Chin.
"The meters register eight hours," Chin said. "But, we can't recharge without the reactor. Pity we don't have a diesel, like the big boats."
"As far as I know, this is the first time anyone's ever scrammed a reactor on a Skydiver," Foster said. "Who'd have ever thought we'd need an auxiliary power source besides the batteries?"
"That's a design flaw we'll worry about correcting later," Straker said. "What about the air systems?" Straker shifted, trying to make himself comfortable against the wall.
"It's impossible to be accurate," Foster said, looking at his clip board. "But, I estimate there's enough air for eight hours - about the same as the batteries."
Straker nodded, doing a quick calculation in his head. It was going to take heavy equipment to get this beast off the floor and at top speed, it would take a good deal more than eight hours to get a salvage ship here.
"Number one hatch is flooded," Foster added. "So that's one escape route we can't take."
Straker nodded once more, then moved toward Barry's station. "And the communications, lieutenant?" he asked.
She picked up the hydrophone receiver and held it out to him. He could hear the static.
"Main radio knocked out," she said. "Sonar and radar working, but they won't help us. The hydrophone on the marker buoy is active, but the power is weak."
Straker looked up at Lewis on the upper level. "Well I guess that puts you right on the spot, Lieutenant. How are the escape systems?"
Lewis took a deep breath before answering. "Only one is operational," he said. "Number four hatch - and it's got trouble. It's working, but there is heavy damage to the outside door. In addition there's something wrong with the pumps. I reckon it'll take upwards of 90 minutes to empty."
"What about two and three?" Straker asked.
Lewis shook his head. "The controls are completely shorted out. We're stuck with Number four."
Straker looked up to the missile tubes behind Lewis. "What about the missile tubes?"
"No go, commander," Lewis said. "The ship's angle rules them out. The rock ledge is blocking the exits."
Straker stopped, thinking for a moment. "The escape hatches work on an equal pressure basis, right?"
"That's right," Foster said. "We have to take water into the hatch to balance the pressure of water outside the ship."
"And after the hatch has been used, the water has to be pumped out to allow the next man in," Straker continued. "And they're designed so that it's impossible to open the hatch while still flooded."
Lewis shifted his position to get more comfortable. "And that's the problem. One escape hatch still in commission and we can only use it every 90 minutes."
Straker considered the problem. The situation was uglier that he'd first imagined. "See what you can do to repair those pumps," he said after a moment. "And check that outer hatch door on 4. I'll be in the captain's cabin."
Straker closed the cabin door behind him, ignoring what he was sure were curious looks from Foster and the others. The panic was a growing pain in his chest, in his throat. His heart was beating too fast and he'd broken out in a cold sweat. He knew, intellectually, that he was in no immediate danger and that his reactions had no relation to reality, but that didn't help much. It infuriated him that he couldn't simply stop the panic and he was terrified of losing his nerve in front of everyone out in the main cabin.
It occurred to him that maybe that was a real problem. He was afraid of losing his nerve, afraid that someone might see that he was merely a frightened human being. Afraid someone might think he was a coward.
* * *
Freeman went back to his seat in the cockpit. The signal light flashed, indicating they were getting closer to their goal.
"Can you get any more speed out of this thing?" Freeman asked.
"Not without blowing our engines to pieces," Turnwell said. The pilot glanced at Freeman. "You've known the commander a long time haven't you?"
"Yeah," Freeman said.
* * *
The lights flickered and dimmed. Straker looked up at them, waiting. He still had the boat's plans spread on the table. They weren't much help, just reminding him how dire their predicament was.
There was a knock at the door. "Come in."
The door opened and Foster came in, closing the door behind him. "All checks complete, sir," Foster reported. "It looks pretty bad."
"Then I guess we'll have to start getting to the surface," Straker said.
"Abandon ship?" Foster asked.
"Yes," Straker said. "I'm afraid so." Straker looked down at the plans, avoiding Foster's curious look. "We've got to phase this pretty carefully. We're playing with very little air and no time at all."
"I'm worried about the outer door on 4," Foster said. "All the warning lights indicate severe damage."
"And the pumps?"
"No improvement. With the reactor off the power is very low," Foster said. "What do we tell the crew, sir?"
"Don't worry," Straker said. "They've worked it out for themselves already."
* * *
Barry had figured it out. She had seen Straker's face as he went into the captain's cabin. Foster's expression wasn't any more cheerful. Time was running out. She left the useless communications station to move over to where Lewis stood, staring at the air gauges.
He noticed her. "Hi." He pointed at the air gauge. Oxygen levels were down. CO2 levels were rising. Without power, the air scrubbers couldn't pull the waste gas out of the air. Soon, it would be at toxic levels. "It's not good. Worse than last time."
"Want to talk about it?" she asked.
"You mean last time?" Lewis asked. He tried to smile. "It was a big fish. Full crew, sixty-nine men. But we all got out and we'll get out this time."
The door to the captain's cabin opened and Straker came out, bracing himself against the door frame. "All right. Let's go over the situation," Straker said. "Only one regular escape hatch is operational. The pumps are damaged and so is the outer door."
He paused as if to gauge their reactions. Foster stood behind him, grim faced. "There is another emergency escape route," Straker continued. "The crashdive flood tube. But, once the outer cover is blown, the tube cannot be drained until Skydiver surfaces. So it's a one chance route."
"That tube is over 40 feet long," Chin said. "And only just big enough to get your shoulders in. That's some crawl."
"The way I see it, two of us can get out now," Lewis said. "One through the escape hatch. The other along the crashdive trunking."
"Right," Straker agreed.
"That will leave three still trapped down here," Lewis reminded him. "If it takes 90 minutes to pump the hatch clear each time, it'll be four and a half hours before the last man can get out."
"Right again, Lieutenant," Straker said.
"But at best the air will only last... ," Lewis began.
"You're forgetting one thing," Straker said, interrupting. "The less people there are, the longer the air will last."
There was a long pause as they considered what Straker said.
"Have you decided on an order of escape, sir?" Chin asked after a time.
Straker paused before speaking, as he was scripting his words. "I have. Lieutenant Barry, you will use the crashdive tube. Lewis, you'll take first crack at hatch four."
Lewis opened his mouth to protest.
"That's an order," Straker said before Lewis could voice his concern.
"Yes sir," Lewis agreed."But, you can't send Nina out that way!"
"You think I'm giving it to you easy?" Straker asked, voice sharp with impatience. "That outer door is registering so many red alarm lights the control panel looks like a Christmas tree! There's a good chance that hatch is jammed. If it is, you'll drown in a flooded metal box no bigger than a coffin!"
Straker turned to look at the others. "Now does anyone else think Nina's getting the raw part of the deal?"
There was no answer.
"Okay, Chin will be second into the escape hatch. Then you, Colonel," he nodded in Foster's direction. "All right, let's get started."
Barry noticed a tiny smile of admiration on Foster's face. She knew enough about the air situation to know that Straker was being less than truthful about it. By her mental figures, the air would be toxic about the time Foster was scheduled to leave.
Lewis went to the diving locker on the upper level and pulled out two tanks and regulators, two of the bright orange survival suits. He brought one set down to the lower deck for Barry.
Straker came over to her. "Nina," he said quietly. "That tube offers the surest way out. But it won't be easy."
"I know, sir," Barry assured him. "I used it once during training."
"Then you'll know what happens when I pull that control." He pointed to a lever on the control panel. The notation read crashdive tube, emergency flood'. "The external cover will be blown clear."
"I remember," she said. "The water hits you like a sledgehammer." She remembered hating it during training.
"Right," Straker said. "But it only lasts a second. Just hang on. You'll be okay."
"I'll manage." She gave him what she hoped was a reassuring smile. He was trying so hard to be upbeat about the situation.
Straker glanced at his watch, then looked around at everyone else. "All right, get into your escape gear," he said. "The sooner you get out of here the better."
Holden and Ross were already in their wet suits, double checking their regulators. Their air tanks were on the deck beside them, already fitted into their diving harnesses.
Freeman stood, watching. "The second we reach the marker I want you boys down there."
"There's no chance of our surface vessel getting to the area ahead of time?" Holden asked.
"Forget it," Freeman said with a shake of his head. "She's five hours away, assuming the weather holds. We're on our own."
"Then we'd better pray they can still use the escape hatches," Ross said.
Freeman hoped he didn't look as worried as he felt. He hoped Straker was holding together down there.
* * *
Barry had her survival suit on. The air tank was strapped to her back, the regulator hanging from its straps, along with the dive mask. The suit was a little too big for her. Foster checked the tank valves, giving her a squeeze on the shoulder. The space in front of the crashdive tube was just big enough for her to stand.
"All set?" Foster asked.
"Synchronize watches," Straker ordered. His watch was in his hand as he looked at it. "15:50"
"Check," Foster said. Barry echoed his word as she adjusted her own watch.
"I'll blow the hatch in five minutes, Lieutenant," Straker announced. "Good luck."
"Thank you, sir. See you top side," she said as Foster helped her climb into the narrow tube that led to the outside of the boat.
As soon as she was completely inside the tube, Foster dogged the inner hatch down. Barry was on her own.
Foster and Straker went back to the main cabin. Lewis was already suited up, waiting by the one working escape hatch. Chin was still seated on the deck. He was staring off into space as though in a trance. His color wasn't good, though it was a little hard to tell under the dim lights.
"Right, Lewis," Straker said. "Disembark."
"Yes, sir," Lewis said, opening the inner hatch door. "I hope you make it."
"We will, Lieutenant," Straker promised. Lewis nodded and climbed into the narrow escape tube. Foster could hear the hatch being dogged. Lewis was sealed in.
"Keep a check on that escape hatch," Straker said. Foster moved closer to watch the telltales on the hatch.
"You told Lewis the air would last," he told Straker, keeping his voice low so Chin wouldn't hear.
"It won't if you start getting excited," Straker replied.
"Listen, sir," Foster said. "I know the air isn't going to hold out. I might just make it, but unless they get this tub off the bottom..."
"Get one thing clear," Straker interrupted him. "I go last."
Foster took a moment to study Straker's face. His blond hair was mussed and he was covered with dirt and grease, but there was an aura of calm assurance about him, as though knowing his death was immanent was less important than knowing that those he was responsible for were safe.
Foster wondered he would be so calm if their positions were reversed, if he was the one in charge.
"All this talk uses up air," Straker said quietly. "Now let's all stay calm, and move around as little as possible."
Chin seemed to wake up, putting his hand to his head as though it hurt. "We're all going to get out okay, aren't we, sir?" he asked.
Straker moved to Chin's side. Foster was close behind him.
"Sure we are, Chin. Take it easy," Straker said. "How's the head?"
"I'll be fine when I get up to the surface," Chin said.
"Sure," Straker said, but his forehead creased with worry. He turned to Foster. "What do you think?" he asked quietly. Chin didn't seem to hear.
"He won't last ten minutes in the water without help."
Straker turned back to the helmsman, putting a hand on his shoulder. "Stay with it, Chin," he said. "The rescue team will be here soon."
Straker glanced at his watch. "Two minutes. Is the escape hatch flooded?"
Foster made his way back to the control panel on the wall. "Another thirty seconds," Foster said. "Let's hope that outer door decides to open."
* * *
The escape hatch was just about as Straker had described it, not much larger than a coffin, barely enough room for a man in a survival suit and breathing gear. The water was to Lewis's neck and rising fast, though not as fast as it should have been. The valve must not be fully open, Lewis reasoned.
He put the breathing regulator in his mouth and fitted his mask in place as the water rose above his nose. He gripped the hatch wheel above his head, waiting for the tube to be fully flooded. The water reached the top and he tried to turn the wheel. It wouldn't budge.
* * *
Inside the main cabin, Straker and Foster watched the gauges. "Negative," Foster said, translating the readings. "He should have been out by now. It's jammed."
* * *
Lewis fought with the handle, bracing himself against the wall as well as he could to get more leverage. The bubbles from his regulator were loud in his ears as he struggled to turn the wheel.
Panic rose with the bubbles. Not only was he going to die in his water filled coffin, he was condemning everyone else as well. The wheel creaked and loosened in his hand, finally turning, unlocking the hatch.
The hatch swung up and open and he was free. He dogged the hatch back down from the outside and began his ascent to the surface.
* * *
The indicator telltale on the hatch console began to flash and Foster smiled. "It opened," Foster said. "He's made it."
Straker breathed a sigh of relief then checked his watch once more. "Nina should be in position," he said. "Detonate in twenty seconds."
Foster made his way to the other control console and grabbed the handle that would blow the outer cover from the crashdive tube.
"Ten seconds," Straker began the countdown. At zero, he dropped his hand and Foster pulled the control down into the 'open' position. There was no noise, no sound of an explosion, but neither man had expected to hear anything.
"They should be on the surface," Foster said after a long moment.
* * *
The hatch hadn't blown.
Barry stared at it a long moment before realizing what had happened. She had heard the explosive bolts go off, but nothing had happened. The hatch hadn't blown. She tried pushing at it, but it didn't budge.
Sweat was running down her face, down her body, making the inside of the survival suit damp. She tried to move backwards, down the tube and discovered she was caught on something.
She shoved herself back with her hands and heard the suit rip. She hadn't moved more than an inch. Barry laid still for a long moment, then she began to murmur to herself. Her voice sounded hollow in the confines of the tube.
"It didn't work," she began. "I can't move! Help me! Someone." She started to scream. "Commander Straker! Get me out of here. Help me!"
* * *
The main cabin was silent. Chin was holding his head, face drawn in pain. Straker moved closer and slid down to sit beside the helmsman.
"Try and rest," Straker said.
Chin gave him a slow nod, as though even that movement hurt.
"In an hour or so you'll be out of here," Foster said, moving to sit on Chin's other side.
"My head," Chin said slowly, looking over at Straker. "It feels like it's splitting open.
I'm not sure I'll be able to... "
"You will," Straker said, letting his voice go hard. Chin nodded and laid his head back against the wall, closing his eyes.
* * *
Barry found she couldn't move and she couldn't stop screaming, even though she knew no one could hear. After a long while, she began to cry, the hysteria running itself out into exhaustion.
* * *
Chins' eyes were closed. Straker and Foster were silent, listening to the faint creaks of the boat, their own thoughts. Suddenly, a sharp, high-pitched skreel sounded. Straker and Foster both jumped at the unexpected noise, giving each other puzzled looks. After a moment, Straker identified the sound and made his way to the center console, snatching up the hydrophone receiver. The whistle stopped.
"Straker," he announced to the receiver. Sweat was running down his face and he was panting from the exertion, the nervousness.
"Ed! It's me," Freeman's voice came over the connection. The line was filled with static and it was hard to hear.
"Alec," Straker said. Foster came over to listen. "Thank God," Straker murmured.
"We've picked up Lewis," Freeman said. The static wasn't getting better.
"What did you say?" Straker asked, nearly shouting into the receiver.
"I said we've got Lewis," Freeman repeated. "He's safe... Listen, Ed, he's told us the situation. Just hang on."
"Alec," Straker said. "Have you got Nina?"
"She came up right after Lewis," Straker said. The static was making it impossible. "She should have reached the surface by now."
"Don't worry," Freeman assured him. "We'll find her. Ed, listen to me. You've got to conserve your air supply. Just rest and stay as quiet as you can."
On the surface, the seaplane bobbed on the swells. Holden and Ross made their way past Freeman to the open side door, checking their equipment one last time before giving Freeman a thumbs up and dropping feet first into the water.
"The divers are on their way down now," Freeman said into the nearly useless hydrophone. "We'll get you up."
Freeman's last message dissolved into static. Straker put the hydrophone handpiece on the desk, not bothering to hang it on its hook. He looked over at Foster, worry thickening his voice. "The power's failing."
As he spoke, the lights dimmed.
"I'll check the escape pumps," Foster offered, making his way to the panel. He stared at the gauge. "They're slowing down."
Straker gave him a slight nod of understanding before sliding down to sit on the floor once more. "It's getting hot," he murmured.
"I know," Foster said, trying to make himself comfortable as they settled down to wait once more.
Straker looked over at Chin. The helmsman was staring off into space, his face dripping with sweat. Straker slowly made his way back to the man's side. Moving was getting harder, he was getting tired. Straker put a hand against Chin's forehead.
Straker looked back at Foster in alarm. "He's burning up."
Chins' eyes were glazed. Slowly, he opened his mouth, grimacing in pain as he mouthed soundless obscenities. Suddenly he stiffened, as though seeing something terrifying.
"Relax, Lieutenant," Foster said, coming closer.
Chin's back arched as he began to struggle against something unseen. Straker and Foster made an attempt to hold the man, to quiet him. They were both thrown to the deck as Chin made it to his feet, charging toward the elevator platform.
"Chin!" Straker shouted. The man didn't hear him.
Foster leapt after the helmsman, just missing him as he stormed down the catwalk to the helm controls. Chin threw himself into his helmsman's seat, trying to get the controls to work. Their lack of response seemed to infuriate him. Foster climbed up to the upper level, Straker right behind him. Foster reached the helmsman first, grabbing him and hauling him out of the seat, trying to get Chin to the mesh floor. Straker managed to get to Chin's other side, but Chin swung around, flinging Foster away from him with fear maddened strength.
Chin charged ahead, brushing Straker aside as though the man was little more than a child. Straker managed to catch himself before he fell over the edge of the catwalk.
Chin wasn't so lucky. He screamed as he hit the handrail, his headlong dash throwing him over the rail, sending him crashing to the deck below.
Straker stared down at Chin's crumpled body, stunned. Chin's eyes were open, and blood seeped slowly from another head wound. His neck was canted at an odd angle.
"Poor guy," Foster murmured, following Straker down to the main level once more. Straker looked around for his jacket. When he found it, he laid it over Chin's face.
Foster stared down at Chin's now covered face. "You know death never worried me before," Foster began, smiling to himself. "But right now I'm scared."
Straker didn't look up, resting his head on his arm which laid against one of the instrument panels. "You're older."
"How's that?" Foster asked, giving his companion a curious look.
"The older you get the more precious life becomes," Straker said. His voice was soft. "You become aware of what life is. It's all you haven't achieved, the words you haven't said, the people you haven't met, the places you haven't seen."
He looked up at the younger man. "That's what life is, Paul. All the things you haven't done."
Foster had nothing to add as he considered Straker's words.
The air was thick and stale by the time the hatch emptied. The cabin was hot and humid.
Foster had his own survival suit on, air tank strapped to his back as he stood by the open hatch. "It 's time, sir."
Straker struggled to his feet and looked into Foster's face. "Well, Paul," he said.
Foster reached out and grabbed his arm. "Commander..."
Straker pushed him forward, toward the open hatch. "Get moving," he ordered, voice still soft as he tried to breathe the foul air. "In you go."
"Listen," Foster began.
"Foster," Straker interrupted, his voice quiet, but controlled. "Get off this ship - you're breathing my oxygen!"
Foster suddenly realized how true Straker's words were. He climbed into the tube, dogging the door down behind him. Straker hit the flood switch and water began to pour into the confined space. Foster bowed his head in a silent prayer as he realized he would probably never see Straker alive again. Even the extra air tank Foster had pulled out for him wouldn't help beyond an hour.
* * *
Foster sat on the bench in the seaplane, a towel wrapped around his shoulders. His survival suit was hanging to dry next to Lewis's.
Holden had just come up from the bottom and was sitting on one of the pontoons.
"How does it look?" Freeman asked.
Holden shook his head. "She's jammed fast, sir. The only certain way of moving her is by heavy lifting gear, but we need the salvage ship for that."
"Is there any way of getting an air supply through?" Foster asked.
"Negative. I was hoping we could use the escape hatch, but it's still flooded."
"The pumps must have packed up completely," Foster said to no one in particular.
Freeman stared at Holden for a long moment before coming to a decision. "Get down there again, and get me a suit. I'm coming with you."
"What are you going to do?" Foster asked.
"I don't know," Freeman admitted. "Anything. Break him out with a toothpick if I have to!" Freeman began stripping off his suit. Foster stared at the older man. He'd never seen Freeman so upset, so desperate. It was a side of the man he hadn't suspected, although he had known that Straker and Freeman had been friends, even before SHADO. He found himself wondering what would happen to SHADO if they couldn't get Straker out there alive.
* * *
It was bizarre, breathing yet not finding any oxygen in the air. That wasn't quite true, there was oxygen in the cabin, but the carbon dioxide levels were so high, his lungs couldn't get rid of what they already had, they couldn't exchange the CO2 for O2.
He laid back against the bulkhead, keeping as still as he could. He found his thoughts drifting, remembering. Henderson telling him of the special committee's decision to appoint him to C-in-C of SHADO, recruiting Alec Freeman, the birth of his son.
A quiet tapping caught his attention and he opened his eyes. The lights had dimmed even more. Soon he would be in darkness. He closed his eyes once more, too tired to investigate.
He smiled faintly at memories of a happier time. Maybe this what they meant by one's life flashing before you before death. He let his thoughts drift back to his son. Maybe John would be waiting. They said loved ones waited to guide souls home. He wasn't sure he believed it, but it was a comforting thought. He heard the brakes squeal in his mind, Mary's scream as John was knocked down, her hysterical screams at him when John died.
The tapping began again. He opened his eyes and looked over at Chin's body. Chin hadn't moved, he was dead, wasn't he? Straker grabbed the jacket away from the dead man's face. Chin's eyes stared blankly at him.
The tapping was still there. He scanned the cabin, trying to identify the sound. It seemed to be coming from the captain's cabin. That was absurd, there was no one else here, no one could reach him. He was trapped and he was dying.
The tapping continued. He slowing got to his feet, fighting to breathe, to remain conscious as he made his way to the crashdive tube hatch. One part of his mind warned him that he would be flooding the sub if he opened the hatch, there was no one there.
He put his hands on the handle to the crashdive tube entrance hatch and turned.
"Mary," he murmured. The hatch swung open to reveal a woman. His eyes wouldn't focus. When they did, he found himself staring into Nina Barry's face. She fell forward, into his arms, nearly unconscious.
Straker slowly helped her toward the main cabin, where they both collapsed against the wall, sliding down to the floor.
"The cover," she murmured. "It didn't blow." Her voice was hoarse. After a moment she closed her eyes, her body relaxing into a boneless heap beside him.
After a time she opened her eyes again, looking up at him.
"How do you feel?" Straker asked.
"Fine," she said. He knew she was lying. Her hands were torn and bleeding, nails broken off to the quick. Nina had always been proud of her hands.
"How long have we known each other Nina?" he asked.
"Twelve years," she answered.
"Twelve years," he repeated. It was a long and eventful twelve years. He discovered he had few regrets.
"It was good to have people around," Barry said.
"You know, I always thought of you as a loner," Straker said.
"Maybe it takes one to know one," Barry said after a long moment. She gave him a weak smile.
"Well, loneliness is a state of mind," Straker said, slowly. "Sometimes it can even be a virtue." It was an effort to speak and the words came slowly and he wasn't sure his words were even coming out as he meant them.
"You mean you learn about yourself," she said.
He nodded. It took all his strength to do even that. He wasn't sure she understood, but the anoxia was blurring his vision, making the entire situation more than a little unreal. He looked over at her. Her eyes were closed once more.
Straker had the captain's log book open on his lap. One last chore before the end. His writing was shaky, nearly illegible.
Captain's log - 18.30 hours. Oxygen count down to 15.1. Emergency Power failing. Commend actions of Captain, crew and rescue team. No one could have done more. Note for Doctor Shroeder... subject myself... Pulse rate. reading 105. Apart from general feeling of nausea, condition satisfactory. Claustrophobia now negative... Straker 18.36.
Straker stared at what he'd written for a long moment before closing the log book and shoving it inside its plastic waterproof pouch. He sealed the pouch with difficulty. His hands didn't seem to want to move.
"Closing the book," Barry murmured. She smiled at him, taking his hand. "If... if it had to be anyone... I'm glad you're here. I mean... I'm glad... it's you... " she said slowly, haltingly.
Her eyes closed once more. He felt the pouch slip from his fingers and slide to the floor.
Straker closed his eyes and waited to die.
"And therefore, we commit ourselves to the deep and in turn corruption, waiting for the day of resurrection when the sea shall give up her dead." The prayer came unbidden to his mind. He couldn't remember where it came from, but it was fitting. He hoped John was waiting.
There was a sound so loud it hurt. He found himself covering his ears with his hands to shut the crashing noises out. It hurt so bad, pounding into his oxygen starved brain. He screamed and lapsed into oblivion.
"I don't believe it," Barry protested. She was sitting in her hospital bed in SHADO Headquarters medical center. Her hands were bandaged.
"But that's the way it happened," Foster assured her with a grin. Freeman stood beside the younger man, a self-satisfied grin on his face.
"You mean, you just blew us out of the water?" she asked in disbelief.
"What else could we do?" Foster asked. "Holden came up with it, and with Skydiver off the ledge, the divers got in through the missile tubes."
"And that's how it happened," Straker added with a grin. He was sitting in an armchair beside the bed, clad in pyjamas and a dark robe, a lit cigar in his hand. He didn't remember much after hearing the explosion, and wasn't really sure he remembered that. He had vague recollections of the plane trip back to London. Freeman told him he had slept the nearly the entire way home. SHADO's physicians had assured him where was no brain damage from the anoxia, his enforced stay at the medical center was a formality.
A nurse peeked into the room. "I'm afraid the visitors will have to leave now." She noticed the cigar in Straker's hand. "Oh, and sorry, sir, no smoking."
Straker didn't move, giving the nurse a bemused smile as she left.
Freeman shrugged. "Well, back to the salt mines," he quipped, heading for the door with Foster at his heels.
"Good bye," Barry called as the door closed.
Straker stood to leave as well. He stopped and looked back at her. "Well, Nina," he began.
"Sir," she said. Her tone was gentle.
"We were pretty close down there."
"Yes," she agreed. "If there was anything that I said that I shouldn't..." Her voice faltered and she dropped her eyes, suddenly embarrassed.
"Or didn't say?" Straker asked. "That's what life's all about, I guess. The things we never say." He looked around the small room and smiled. "Well, they're kicking me out of here this afternoon. I'd better go and pack my toothbrush."
Barry nodded. She already knew. It would be a few days before she was ready to leave.
"You'll be back on Moonbase in a week or so," he continued. "Take it easy, Nina."
"Yes, sir," she said with a smile as he opened the door and left the room.
* * *
For himself, Foster was glad to be on dry land once more. He had faced death before, while flying, while working for SHADO, but this was the first time he'd honestly been worried about his survival. It was a feeling he didn't like and if he never served aboard Sky-diver again, it would be too soon.
Straker ordered him to take a weeks' leave. But, after two days, Foster found he was bored. Bored of London, bored of his flat, bored of all the familiar sights.
He was also a little irritated with Straker not just for ordering him to take time off. The London Times had published the results on the inquiry into the shooting death of John (Jack) Newton, a prominent London businessman. The inquiry board had determined his death was an accident. Newton's wife, Elizabeth, while under the influence of prescription sedatives had mistaken her husband for a burglar and shot him at their country cottage.
Foster knew there was nothing SHADO, or Straker or anyone else, could have done to prevent it, but it irked just the same.
On a lark, he drove north, stopping only when he found a familiar sight that wasn't boring. He drove though the open gates to the horse farm.
Russell Stone was in the practice yard working with a gray horse on a long tether. Anne Stone was seated on the fence watching her brother as Foster climbed out of his car. The horse shied away from the jump and Anne started laughing.
"Oh, dear," Anne giggled. Russell gave her a dark look before turning his attention back to his horse.
"Come on boy," he soothed. "Good boy."
"Hello," Foster said, walking up to the fence.
"Oh, hello," Anne said. There was no recognition in her face, but Foster knew there wouldn't be.
"This is Stone Dean Farm?" he asked, knowing the answer.
"That's right," Anne said. There was pride in her voice.
"Nice place," Foster said, looking around the courtyard.
"We like it."
"I was interested in taking a few riding lessons," Foster said. He hadn't intended to take lessons, but it seemed the right thing to do.
"Well, that's what we're here for," Anne said, hopping off the fence.
Foster paused to watch Stone and the gray horse a moment longer. "Oh, that is Russell Stone, isn't it? The famous show jumper?"
"Yes. I'm his sister, Anne," she said. "And you are?"
"Foster, Paul Foster."
"Come up to the house, Mr. Foster," she invited. Foster fell into step beside her. Maybe his leave wasn't going to be boring after all.
The Works of Deborah Rorabaugh
The Library Entrance