adapted and written by Deborah A. Rorabaugh
Based on characters and situations created by:
Gerry and Sylvia Anderson & Reg Hill
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.
Colonel Ed Straker, United States Air Force, was an unhappy man as he paused in front of the door to his commanding officer's office. To either side of him stood the two plainclothesmen from MI5 that had picked him up from Heathrow Airport only an hour earlier.
He knocked twice on the door. "Come in," a gravelly voice ordered.
Straker opened the door and stepped into the office beyond, leaving the two intelligence agents to wait in the hallway.
"Ah, Colonel," General James Henderson greeted his aide. "Good to see you."
"Good afternoon, General," Straker replied. "How are they treating you, sir?"
"Fine, fine," Henderson said, maneuvering his wheelchair around the small room.
It was three months since the aerial attack on the motorcade that killed British Defense Minister Talbot and shattered Henderson's right hip. The attack had sent the Rolls Royce they were riding in through a stone wall and into a ravine, setting it afire as it went. Straker had walked away with only scrapes and bruises. The press called it a miracle.
Henderson waved in the direction of the small sofa set against one wall. "Sit down."
Straker took a seat as Henderson wheeled over to face him.
"Look, I'm sorry to have fouled you up like this," Henderson said.
"It's all right, sir," the young man lied. He had been picked up only minutes away from boarding a commercial flight to Athens with his wife of twenty-four hours. They were going on their honeymoon.
"How'd your wife take it?" the general asked.
"Oh, she's fine," Straker said, without enthusiasm.
"Yes, that's what you need in this job, an understanding wife." There was a touch of bitterness in Henderson's tone.
Straker understood some of Henderson's bitterness. He had personally made the arrangements for the general's wife to come to London only the week before. Mrs. Henderson had been more than a little upset about her husband's decision to remain in England after the 'accident'.
"Well, let's get on with it, shall we?" Henderson said, forcing some cheerfulness into his voice. "Apparently, I'm stuck in this chair for another couple of months. Now, things are happening, Ed. A lot of it's gonna' fall on your shoulders."
Straker nodded. He wasn't especially surprised at Henderson's announcement. Straker had been handling most of the general's work since the wreck.
"The special committee of the United Nations meets day after tomorrow," Henderson told him. "We get the go no-go decision then."
"And you want me to be there?" Straker asked.
Henderson grinned. "Who else?"
A touch of worry clouded Straker's finely chiseled features. "What about Colonel Sprenger?"
"What about him?"
"I think he's been expecting he'd go with you to the special committee, sir," Straker said. "He is in Washington already."
Henderson gave the younger man a long look. "Do you honestly think he could handle it?" Henderson asked.
Straker took a moment to consider his reply. "No, sir. But, he won't like being left out of it."
"Ed, I want that approval. I've worked too hard and too long on this project to worry about Lieutenant Colonel Sprenger's delicate sensibilities."
Henderson grinned. "Let me worry about Sprenger, okay?"
Henderson sat back in his wheelchair and gave Straker another long look. The younger man shifted uncomfortably under his commanding officer's gaze.
"What is it between you two, anyway, Ed?"
Straker was surprised by the question. He hadn't been aware that his feelings toward Sprenger, Henderson's other aide, were so noticeable. "I don't know. Just sort of chemical, I guess."
* * *
Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Sprenger picked Straker up at LaGuardia.
"Your meeting with the special committee is at ten tomorrow," Sprenger told him as the driver placed Straker's over-night case in the trunk of the car.
After the car entered roadway towards downtown, Sprenger opened his briefcase and handed over a manila envelope. "Here's the additional documentation the general requested for you."
Straker pulled out the contents and glanced at the papers briefly. They were what had been requested. He put them back in their folder and placed them in his own document case.
"I've booked a room for you at the Hilton, if that meets your approval, sir," Sprenger said.
"I'm sure that will be more than satisfactory, Colonel, thank you," Straker replied.
Sprenger leaned forward and instructed the driver to take them to the Hilton. He then settled back in his seat to face Straker.
"Is there something on your mind, Colonel?" Straker asked after a moment. He didn't like being the subject of Sprenger's stare.
"Permission to speak frankly, sir?" Sprenger asked.
Straker bit back the sarcastic reply he wanted to make and said simply: "Permission granted."
"I'm wondering why I'm not going to that meeting with you. After all, I've put as much work into this project as anyone else."
"Your presence at the meeting isn't necessary, Colonel Sprenger. The documentation we have speaks for itself."
Sprenger relaxed a little, settling his thin frame deeper into the car seat.
"Besides," Straker continued. "I am aware of how much you disapprove of the notion that the project should be genuinely international in organization and scope."
"The United States is the one country best capable of dealing with this problem. I see no reason to violate our national security by handing advanced technology over to whoever agrees to join up," Sprenger spat out angrily. "Let the damn Russians handle their own problems."
"We've been through this all before, Colonel," Straker replied very calmly. "And I don't agree."
"I assume, then, that as soon as the project gets its approval, I'll be fired?" His tone was venomous.
Straker paused, considering the options open. To fire Sprenger from his position would mean the end of the man's career, an indelible black mark on his record. As much as he disliked Sprenger, he didn't want that on his conscience.
"You won't be fired," Straker promised. "Assuming things go as planned, General Henderson can arrange a transfer for you to another assignment."
"How charitable of you." was Sprenger's cold comment. "But, I won't be invited to serve with the project?"
"I think that will depend on who gets appointed to head the project," Straker replied. "Don't you?"
* * *
The United Nations building looked as it always had, stark, yet beautiful. The spring morning air was brisk. The cherry trees that lined the plaza were in bloom. Straker regretted the fact that he hadn't been able to bring his bride with him on this trip. She would have enjoyed it.
The special committee was already waiting when Straker arrived, exactly at 10:00. Straker recognized the six men from dossiers Sprenger provided him the night before.
Sir Jameson, the British representative, and chairman of the committee, stood and greeted him. "Ah, Colonel Straker."
"Gentlemen." Straker removed his uniform cap and nodded a greeting to the group.
"Please, sit down." Sir Jameson indicated the one empty seat at the end of the table.
"Thank you." Straker took the indicated seat. "First of all, I should like to apologize on behalf of General Henderson for his absence. As you probably know, he's still recovering from injuries he received in the 'car crash'."
"Thank you, Colonel," Sir Jameson said. "No doubt, you will make an excellent substitute." He turned to the other members of his committee. "Now, gentlemen, I suggest the best way for us to proceed is be a process of question and answer."
The French delegate, Duvall, spoke first. "Colonel, as representatives of our respective governments, we are being asked to approve the largest financial appropriation ever envisaged for an international project. Two questions. Is the project, the whole project, absolutely necessary, and if it is, are we getting value for our money?"
Duvall's dossier had indicated he was a hard-headed pragmatist, an excellent businessman and international negotiator. His questions weren't a surprise.
"I believe the setting up of SHADO is not only necessary, but vital," Straker replied. He addressed the entire committee, paying special attention to Duvall. "Every day we just sit about and talk about it, the potential danger increases. As to your second question, I believe this break-down of expenditure might be helpful."
Straker opened the large envelope he'd brought with him and handed the sheets out to the committee. The members looked over the figures on the papers.
"A fleet of submarines? Base on the Moon? Satellites?" Duvall sputtered.
"If I might point out, sir," Straker interrupted, "we're confronted with alien space craft, possibly from another solar system."
"Maybe the general and Colonel Straker have been reading too much science fiction." Duvall's remark brought smiles to the faces of several committee members.
"The Earth is faced with a power threat from an extra-terrestrial force," Straker stated. "We've moved into an age where science fiction has become fact. We need to defend ourselves."
"And how long will it take to set up this 'defense organization'?" Duvall demanded.
"We estimate, seven to ten years," Straker answered.
"Ten years!" Duvall repeated in surprise. "But you say, Colonel, the danger is immanent."
"Yes, sir, that's true," Straker replied. "But the type of organization we need can't be set up overnight. All I say is, any delay only increases the danger."
"The estimate for security is astronomical," Sir Jameson interjected, cutting off another of Duvall's protests.
"It's a vital aspect," explained Straker.
"Everything seems vital," Duvall complained.
The Russian delegate, Alexandrov, spoke for the first time. "How is SHADO to be organized regarding personnel?"
"On strictly military lines. We hope to recruit the best people available," replied Straker.
"Internationally?" the Russian queried.
"And who will command this international band of heroes?" Duvall demanded.
Kingston, the American representative, broke in: "My government has stipulated that the commander and chief must be an American."
"Yes, yes, we know," Duvall retorted, waving his hands in dismissal.
Kingston responded in anger, half rising from his chair. "As the nation being asked to dig a little deeper into its pockets..."
"Naturally, naturally," the Frenchman interrupted.
"Gentlemen, gentlemen," Sir Jameson broke in, gesturing for Kingston to retake his seat. "We asked Colonel Straker here to answer our questions. I suggest we let him do so."
Straker nodded a thanks to Sir Jameson, then addressed Duvall's original question. "Well, there's no question in my mind, gentlemen. There's only one man for the job. General Henderson. He's the obvious choice."
There was a long pause as the committee members considered Straker's reply. Finally, Sir Jameson asked, "Any further questions?"
Kingston and Alexandrov both shook their heads. Straker stood and began to collect the papers he'd handed out.
"Thank you, Colonel Straker," Sir Jameson said in dismissal.
Straker picked up his cap and turned to leave. Then, he stopped and looked back at Duvall. "Monsieur Duvall, I understand you have three daughters."
"Yes," Duvall said slowly. A worried look came into his eyes.
"I pray that you never find yourself looking down at one of their mutilated bodies. I hope that the next Ufo incident is not in your home town." Straker paused and looked around at the shocked expressions of the other committee members. "Thank you for your time."
* * *
A week later, Straker was back in Henderson's office in the American Embassy.
"It has been approved unanimously," Henderson chortled as he wheeled his chair around the office. "You've done a great job, Ed."
"Well, I thought I'd screwed it up, sir," Straker admitted. "I was only in there about ten minutes."
Henderson stopped and looked back at the young man. "Well, all we've got to do now is work sixteen hours a day for the next ten years."
"Sure." There was no enthusiasm in Straker's voice. The fact that the project they'd been working together on for the past two years was now approved was almost a letdown.
Henderson cleared his throat. "There is another thing I have to tell you."
Straker looked up expectantly.
"They appointed the commander and chief."
"You." Henderson grinned.
"Again, it was unanimous," Henderson told him. "It seems that the French delegate, Duvall, was particularly insistent."
"But, sir, why... ?" For once, Straker was at a loss for words.
"Why not choose me?" Henderson asked for him. "Oh, come on, let's not kid ourselves, Colonel. What sort of shape am I in? What sort of shape would I be in in ten years time?"
"Nonsense, General," Straker protested. "Why, in a couple months, you'll be out of that thing, up and about, fit as ever."
Henderson leaned forward in his chair, his expression sadly serious. "You can always refuse. But, if you do, it's got to be now. There'll be no turning back later."
Five white spheres were arranged in a hexagon around a central hub. The sixth side of the hexagon contained an airlock that faced a landing pad carved out of virgin lunar rock. A bright construction of metal and plastic that was the only significant evidence of humanity's continued presence on the lunar surface.
There were no other signs of life on the dusty gray surface. Inside the base, however, life continued on in its orderly fashion. Three silver uniformed operatives did the required equipment checks for their shifts in the Control sphere. They kept their eyes and ears open for any evidence that the enemy, the so called 'little green men from outer space', were on their way to wreck further havoc on a virtually unsuspecting Earth.
This was the most remote outpost of SHADO - Moonbase.
It was the third Tuesday in February, 1982. Colonel Alec Freeman was the command officer on duty in the top-secret underground headquarters of the Supreme Headquarters, Alien Defense Organization, near London.
SHADO's problems started innocuously enough, this time. Space Intruder Detector, SHADO's main tracking satellite in orbit of Earth, had notified Moonbase of an incoming Unidentified Flying Object.
In turn, Moonbase notified SHADO Headquarters.
According to Gay Ellis, Moonbase commander, the U.F.O. had started banking and weaving about two minutes before. It was a flight pattern they'd never seen before.
"But it is maintaining an overall flight path," SHADO's C-in-C, Edward Straker, observed, watching one of the many radar monitors in SHADO H.Q.
Moonbase announced the destruction of the U.F.O. Straker congratulated the Moonbase crew and headed for his office, just across the corridor from the control room. Freeman followed him in.
"Well, that one certainly made a new approach," Straker began conversationally as he settled behind his slate topped desk. He took a cigar from the silver pail set on one corner. "I wonder what it was trying to do?"
"We'll never know, I'm glad to say," Freeman replied. Straker held out the container and Freeman took a cigar from it. He settled back in the leather chair opposite the desk and watched as Straker straightened the small stack of reports on the desktop, then lit his own cigar.
Overall, Straker looked like a successful businessman, well dressed, confident, needle-sharp. Physically, he was medium height, but, his slimness and military posture gave the impression he was taller. His complexion was boyishly smooth and unmarked. An excellent bone structure made his age indeterminate, somewhere closer to forty than fifty. His hair was a pale blond. His accent said he was American and a trained ear could detect the faintest traces of Back Bay, Boston.
However, a certain cold cynicism showed around his blue-gray eyes, as though he'd seen more trouble than a mere businessman, or military officer, had any right to expect.
The intercom on the desk buzzed and Straker hit the button.
"Moonbase to SHADO Control," Ellis's voice said from the speaker.
"What is it, Lieutenant?"
"We have another contact, sir." She sounded worried.
"A second Ufo?"
There was a long pause and Freeman could almost see Ellis double-checking the findings with her crew.
"No, sir. The same one."
"The same one? But you reported a positive detonation." Straker was tired. It showed in the sharpness of his tone. Quietly, Freeman returned the cigar to its container.
"I know, sir. The scanners showed negative, but it's back."
"Well, what's its position now, Lieutenant?" Straker demanded.
"I'm sorry, sir," Ellis apologized, even though she obviously wasn't to blame. "It's through Moonbase defenses, heading for Earth."
Straker thumbed off the intercom, then rubbed his temples. "Damn," he muttered.
Freeman followed as Straker got up and left his office to go back to the control room.
"I can't understand how those interceptors missed. Seemed to me that that Ufo was a sitting target," Straker said finally. He seemed to be speaking to himself as much as to Freeman.
"Maybe that's what we were supposed to think," Freeman pointed out.
"That's a good point, Alec," Straker said. "Force the interceptors to release their missiles, avoid them and it gets a clear run past Moonbase defenses."
He turned to Lieutenant Keith Ford, seated at the main communications station.
"Where is it now?"
"Range: seven million." Ford responded.
Ford shook his head. "It's difficult to say. It's changing course more violently than before. The nearest we can get is Western Europe."
"Well, it could be damaged," Straker commented. "Lieutenant Ellis reported a strike."
Ford was concentrating on the read-outs on the monitor screen in front of him: "Speed increasing, one decimal four, one decimal eight... two decimal four..."
"That does it. We'll never get near it at that speed," Freeman stated glumly. "Let's get a closer E.T.T. Is the rate of descent constant?"
"More or less, there's still a slight variation," Ford reported.
"It should be possible to work out a broad target area," reasoned Freeman.
"We've tried, but our readings aren't good enough for the computer to use," Ford explained.
"Do your best, Lieutenant." Freeman instructed.
He turned back to Straker, who was still intently watching the U.F.O.'s path on the radar screen. "Looks like its going to hit. Question is, what's it up to?"
Straker looked up from the screen a moment. "Tell you what I think, Alec. I think that Ufo's under manual control. First the flight variation was used to disrupt our computer programs, but now, I think the alien is fighting to regain control."
"That makes sense," Freeman agreed. "If it's damaged."
"Yes, the next few minutes are going to be very interesting."
"Vector termination: areas seventeen to twenty-three," Ford announced as the data finally came through. "Central England."
"Too close for comfort," Straker announced. "Sound a red-alert."
Around them, the red-alert siren sounded, letting everyone else in SHADO Headquarters know that an alien was on its way to Earth.
* * *
SHADO Colonel Paul Foster was in charge of the Mobile unit team. He was temporarily replacing Captain Green, who was on her mandatory two week stint at SHADO's health research center, also known as the "health farm."
Foster stood by as the mobile drivers unloaded their small, highly maneuverable mobile-armored vehicles from the transport trucks that had brought them so quickly to this particular section of central England, near Birmingham. He climbed into his own vehicle and called into headquarters for instructions.
"This is a red-alert," Ford informed him. "Proceed to map reference four-zero-five green."
"Roger, Control," Foster acknowledged. He relayed the instructions to the three other mobiles in his group
* * *
Straker and Freeman watched the alien's radar track on the screen. The mobiles' progress reports came through the speaker overhead.
"It's weaving off line again," Freeman observed. Straker reached over and took the microphone from Ford's station.
"SHADO Control to Mobile Two. Get that area sealed off, Foster," Straker ordered. "I want a detailed survey of the area. If there is a specific target in there, I want to know about it."
The mobiles quickly proceeded to their assigned areas. Men in military uniforms with official looking cars set up blocks on all the roads into the area.
In Mobile Two, Paul Foster and his driver checked the aerial map against the land-use survey spread on the console in front of them.
Foster frowned. Then he took the microphone from the console: "Mobile Two to SHADO Control. According to our survey maps, there's just a derelict farm and a couple houses within a five mile radius of the E.T.T."
* * *
"It's wooded, common land. What could be of interest there?" Straker asked no one in particular. He was looking over a copy of the same map Foster had in his mobile.
"It's out of control," Freeman suggested. "The alien's being forced to crash-land."
"No, somehow I don't think so," responded Straker. There was worried crease between his eyebrows. "What's it after? What could it possibly want in a wilderness of trees and bracken?"
A new set of figures appeared on Lieutenant Johnson's computer monitor near-by and she reported them: "U.F.O.'s speed decreasing, twelve thousand knots; range, one thousand miles."
"Course maintained, no deviation," Ford reported.
"So, it's back under control and slowing enough for a landing," Straker said.
"When's the estimated termination?" asked Freeman.
Ford did a quick calculation in his head. "About five minutes. Colonel Foster won't have time to complete evacuation."
After a few quiet moments: "Speed, seven thousand five hundred knots, decreasing. Range: six hundred miles."
"The roadblock should be in place by now. The whole area's sealed off," Freeman said.
"Three minutes to termination," Ford announced. "Maintaining course, reducing speed."
"Come on, friend," Freeman urged. "We're waiting for you."
"It's going to be a perfect landing, Alec," Straker said. "And we're going to be right there."
Freeman glanced over at Straker. There was a decidedly feral look to his commanding officer. He was like a pale cat waiting for its prey. If he'd had a tail, it would have been twitching.
* * *
At one of the roadblocks, a late model sedan drove up and stopped. A khaki clad NCO stepped over to the driver's side. He peered into the car to see a plump middle aged man in a thread bare brown suit. The man was sweating and looked pale, almost ill, under the flash-light's beam.
"I'm sorry, sir, this area's been sealed off. Military maneuvers..."
"Military maneuvers?" the man repeated. His voice trembled. "I live a couple miles over there."
"Well, I'm afraid you'll have to..." the military man began.
"Yes, I know. It won't be long now," the little man said.
* * *
"One minute, course maintained," Ford announced, translating the readings on the screen in front of him.
"Speed?" Freeman asked.
"Speed increasing." There was a hint of surprise in Ford's voice.
"Check it," ordered Straker.
Ford shook his head, "No error, sir. It's coming down faster."
"Get me Colonel Foster," Straker demanded. Ford made the connection and handed him the headset.
"Mobile 2, go ahead Control," Foster's voice announced over the speaker.
"The U.F.O.'s increased speed to crash velocity. It'll be too late to correct," Straker stated grimly. "Do you understand?"
"Yes, sir," Foster acknowledged.
"Oh, and Colonel Foster, if there's a survivor, I want him."
"Right." Foster understood completely. SHADO didn't get many opportunities to capture live aliens. They certainly didn't want to miss this one if they could help it.
Foster looked out of windscreen of the mobile. He was hoping to catch sight of their target. The sky was leaden with dark clouds and it looked as if it might start raining at any time.
He could hear the craft as it approached. Its whirring whine sounded as though it were directly overhead.
"Decreasing," Ford's voice announced over the radio. "Switching... Yes, course altered two degrees."
"Colonel Foster," Straker's voice crackled over the speaker. "Have you got visual contact?"
"Still tracking on audio," Foster replied. He was still trying to catch sight of the alien when it broke through the cloud cover.
* * *
At the roadblock, the little man waited with the NCO, listening to reports coming over the radio concerning the 'military maneuvers'. A voice announced that the pilot of an experimental aircraft said there was a fire in the cabin.
There was a sudden gasp behind the military man and he turned to see the little man hit the ground in a dead faint.
* * *
There was resignation in Paul Foster's voice when he notified SHADO Control: "It's crashed right through a house."
"All right, Colonel. Do what you can." Straker responded. He turned to Freeman, perplexed.
"I don't understand it, Alec. Under control, and out of control. Crash landing velocity, safe landing velocity. Now, it hits a house."
Freeman had the distinct feeling they were dealing with a puzzle with some important pieces missing. He also had the feeling they weren't going to like those pieces when they were found.
* * *
The digital speedometer display in Freeman's black Saab 900 Turbo indicated he was driving at better than seventy miles an hour. He and Straker were heading out to map reference 4-0-5 green, where the U.F.O. had crashed, then exploded.
Freeman listened to the periodic updates from SHADO Control as the special radio receiver in the dash decoded them.
At forty nine, Freeman was one of SHADO's oldest operatives, a high school and college athlete who'd managed not to go to fat in his middle age by working hard and playing harder. His accent betrayed him as an Australian.
Freeman's hair was a medium brown and one curl kept falling onto his broad forehead, to the delight of his many female friends. His blue eyes were in a permanent squint from too many years of staring into the bright sky from the cockpit of an airplane. Overall, Freeman exuded the public's image of a pilot: bold, adventurous, romantic and very, very competent.
Freeman glanced over to check on his passenger. Straker was unusually quiet. Freeman wondered if he was even awake. Freeman knew Straker had been putting in long hours recently at SHADO's security cover, Harlington-Straker Studios.
There were rumors of personnel problems on one of studio's longer running shows, a science fiction piece that had proved surprisingly popular in the United States. There were also rumors of a possible writers' strike later on in the summer if union negotiations with MGM, UA and BBC weren't successful.
Harlington-Straker Film Studios was ten miles north of central London in an industrial area that specialized in electronic companies and precision industries. The studio complex itself was virtually indistinguishable from the antiseptic-looking factories nearby.
Ten enormous sound stages were concealed in industrial-looking buildings, surrounded by clusters of carpenter shops, paint shops, storage buildings and office units. Behind the buildings was a huge lot covered with bits and pieces of various productions. There was a facade of Downing Street, the hulk of a B-17 bomber and other debris that was used repeatedly in various guises in various productions. Surrounding the entire complex was a ten-foot high brick and concrete wall, pierced at intervals by electronically monitored iron gates.
The film studio and production company was SHADO's cover, both literally and figuratively. SHADO Headquarters was carved out of solid bedrock eighty feet beneath the sound stages, offices and parking areas of Harlington-Straker Studios. The public, indeed, most of the four hundred studio employees, had no idea of SHADO's existence. They would never know, if SHADO its way.
Freeman slowed the Saab as they approached the roadblock and were passed through. If Straker had been asleep, he gave no sign of it now. He was studying the area as they approached the crash site.
"Quite a mess," was Freeman's only comment as they stopped in front of what, only a few hours before had been a two story house, surrounded by a well-tended country garden.
Now, the garden was littered with debris. A crater still smoldered in what used to be the backyard. Only about half the building was still standing. The part that was standing didn't look particularly safe.
"I still don't understand it, Alec," Straker said finally, studying the house. "Right from the start, that Ufo was on an unusual flight pattern."
"We can only guess it was a method to out-maneuver the interceptors," Freeman responded. He fell in with Straker's need to go over what they knew one more time.
"Yes, but let's say it came in damaged," suggested Straker.
"And, unable to control his ship, the alien tried to land, failed, and hit that house," Freeman continued for him.
"No, I don't buy that, Alec." Straker frowned. "For a while it was out of control, yes. But, just before impact, it seemed to be fine. It looped that line of trees, smashed straight into an isolated house."
"Sheer coincidence," Freeman insisted. "The house just happened to be in the way."
"Well, you could be right," Straker said, but Freeman could tell he wasn't convinced.
Lieutenant Aarons, from the Mobile unit team, introduced himself as they got out of the car to look at the demolished house more closely.
"What happened to the pilot?" Straker asked.
"There was just enough evidence left to establish that it was an alien." Aarons reported. "What we have is being shipped down to SHADO H.Q. for analysis."
"And the Ufo was completely destroyed?" Freeman asked.
Aarons nodded. "The largest piece measured six inches across. We found it imbedded in Colonel Foster's mobile."
The mention of Foster brought Straker's attention away from the house. "What's the news on his condition?"
"It's too early to say," the young man replied. "He's lost a lot of blood, but at least he was luckier than his driver."
Aarons looked a little green at recalling what was left of the driver's body inside what remained of Foster's mobile. Apparently, the driver had taken the brunt of the blast. His body had shielded Foster and thus saved the colonel's life. But, the inside of the mobile had looked like an abattoir.
Aarons later told Freeman that there was so much blood and gore they'd had a hard time telling how badly hurt Foster was.
"What about the woman?" Straker asked. He seemed oblivious to Aarons' discomfort as they entered a relatively undamaged area of the house.
"She couldn't have known anything about it, sir. It must have been instantaneous."
In fact, there'd only been enough of that body to establish that it had been a woman in the house at the time of collision.
"What do we know about her?" Straker asked, going to a window. Surprisingly, the window and the curtains around it were still intact. A plump, little, nervous-looking man with thinning brown hair was waiting outside the house with another uniformed member of the mobile team.
"Stella Croxley. Ordinary woman, married," Freeman answered. That had been one of the items headquarters had come up with and relayed over the radio.
"Nothing to connect her with U.F.O.'s?"
"Nothing that we know of," Freeman amended. Apparently, Straker had been asleep on the drive over.
"That's her husband out there now. John Croxley." Aarons pointed out the man outside.
Straker sighed. "I suppose I'd better talk to him."
Freeman nodded and motioned Aarons to accompany him outside, leaving Straker alone in the ruined house.
Croxley entered the house at Aarons' direction. Freeman could see both Straker and Croxley through the window. The two men spoke for a few moments, Straker's expression becoming more puzzled as the conversation continued. Then, Croxley left, wandering away in a seemingly aimless manner.
Freeman noted Croxley's departure and went back to join Straker.
"How's he taking it?"
"Hard to tell," Straker replied. "He seemed to know exactly what I was going to say."
"Yeah, I guess it's pretty difficult to find a new way of telling a guy you're sorry."
The temperature outside was unseasonably warm, but suddenly Straker shivered.
"What's wrong?" Freeman asked.
"I don't know," Straker admitted. There was an odd, haunted look in his eyes. "It was like someone walked on my grave."
It took two weeks for the various departments involved to complete and send in their reports on the Croxley matter. Straker was still going over them when Freeman walked into his office late one night.
"Is that the time?" Straker asked, indicating the clock on his desk. It read 2:00 A.M.
"Yeah, it's time you went home," Freeman stated in his best mother hen form. "You've been here a full eighteen hours."
"Well, I have to go through these reports," Straker explained very reasonably. "Not that they tell us a great deal."
"We've combed the ruin and everything for a mile around. We looked at security yesterday." Freeman told him.
"Yes." Straker looked through the pile on his desk for the report. "I understand Croxley was having psychiatric treatment."
"He also left his job. It's hardly surprising after what he's been through. I think we can close the book on the incident."
"Well, not quite, Alec," Straker protested mildly. "Paul Foster's still in the hospital."
"Yes, I spoke to him yesterday. Doctors are very pleased with his progress."
"The wonders of modern medicine." Straker's tone became bitter.
Freeman didn't have to ask why. Modern medicine hadn't been able to save the commander's eight-year-old son nearly eighteen months before.
"He wants to see you," Freeman said, deliberately breaking into Straker's morbid train of thought. "He's worried about something."
Freeman shrugged: "He wouldn't tell me."
* * *
"You mean to tell me you called me all the way out here just to tell me that?" Straker demanded.
Paul Foster had just told him he thought someone had been spying on him. Luckily, Straker was in a good mood following the long afternoon drive out to the small military hospital Foster had been admitted to.
"Well, I thought you should know about it," Foster defended. "Surely, it's a security matter."
Straker gazed thoughtfully at the younger man. Foster was thirty two, young for the responsibilities he'd been given in SHADO since his recruitment two years before. His hair was dark and he was good-looking in a matinee-idol sort of way. Straker knew some of the women at headquarters referred to Foster as SHADO's 'James Bond'. Like the fictional Bond, Foster wasn't normally prone to idle imaginings.
"What does he look like?" Straker finally asked.
"It's difficult to say. It's just an impression," admitted Foster.
"Come on, Paul. Next you'll be telling me you hear strange noises at night," Straker chided.
"Now, look," Foster demanded. "Every time I look up, he's there, looking at me, and a sort of nauseous feeling comes over me."
Straker gave him a long appraising look, then: "I'll get you out of here. You're okayed to be moved to our medical center. It'll be closer to home."
"You don't believe me, do you?"
There was just a hint of a smile on Straker's face: "I'll tell you what I think, Paul. I think you've been lying in that bed too long. I also think if you're well enough to worry, you're well enough to go back to work."
A basket of fruit was sitting on the bedside table and Straker made a show of selecting an apple from it.
"I'll arrange for your discharge," he promised. He took a bite from the fruit and left the room, closing the door behind him.
Foster sighed and laid back in his hospital bed for a few minutes. Then, the nauseous feeling he'd described suddenly came back.
He looked up to see the door to his room closing.
* * *
"How long's it been as quiet as this?" Foster asked Freeman two weeks later as they both waited for Straker to arrive at the underground control center. Foster sat on the steps to the back upper level, where the banks of tactical computers stood. Freeman leaned against the railing, smoking a cigarette.
Foster looked around at the beige uniformed operatives seated at their stations around the room. No one was doing anything that could be remotely construed as work. Lieutenant Johnson was polishing her nails. Ford was whistling some unidentifiable tune while reading a popular film magazine.
"Since you went into the hospital," Freeman replied. The control room consoles practically shone with polish. There probably wasn't a speck of dust in the entire complex.
"But, that was a month ago," Foster protested. "You mean there's been no sightings since then?"
Freeman shrugged, a sly grin on his face: "Oh, just two. The interceptors took care of them. We managed to scratch along without you, Paul."
Straker walked in, carrying a brown paper-wrapped package under one arm.
The control room operatives abruptly straightened up in their chairs and put aside their newspapers and magazines. Straker pretended not to notice their sudden efforts to look busy.
"Hello, Paul, feeling better?" he asked Foster.
Foster got to his feet to follow Straker into his office. Straker beckoned Freeman to accompany them.
"Well, are you fit for duty, Paul?" Straker inquired as he dropped the package on the desktop, and settled himself at his desk.
"Yes, sir. Shroeder checked me out an hour ago," Foster informed him.
"Good." Straker gave Foster a wry grin. "No more little men watching you?"
Foster returned the grin. "Well, in the medical center, security's tighter than at Drumley, anyway." The incidents at the hospital had already faded into something rather like a bad dream.
"Oh, I see, and your little friend, he couldn't get in?" Straker gave a dry chuckle, peering at Foster over steepled fingers. "Don't worry about it, Paul. You go home and get a good rest and report to Moonbase briefing first thing in the morning."
"Yes sir," Foster acknowledged and headed for the door.
"Oh, Alec," Straker called before Freeman had a chance to leave. "I want you to go over to the Zeta tracking station. The lieutenant in command there's come up with a new grid link-up. There might be something in it. There's no panic."
"I can go over there right away," Freeman said. Straker picked up the package he'd brought down with him and inspected it.
"By the way, what's that?" Freeman asked. Except for the address label, with Straker's name printed in large letters, the front of the package was completely covered with stamps.
"I assume this is a film script."
Freeman gave Straker a mischievous grin: "Well, why don't you open it and find out?"
He walked out before Straker could come up with a suitable retort.
* * *
Freeman was just informing Janice Ealand, Straker's executive secretary and guardian of SHADO's main entrance, of his afternoon itinerary when Straker's call came through for him to come back down immediately.
Straker was white with fury when Freeman walked into his office. He was holding a thick bound sheaf of paper.
"Something wrong?" Freeman asked.
"I'll say there is. Just about as wrong as you can get!"
Straker shoved the document at him.
"What is it?"
"Read it, Alec, just read it!" Straker's voice cracked in anger. "The SHADO organization, Colonel Alec Freeman, Moonbase, Sky-diver, everything. It's all there, Alec, every last detail!"
"That's impossible. How could anyone...?"
"How should I know?" Straker demanded, cutting him off. "Security leak? Coincidence, lucky guess? What does it matter? That document is a complete dossier on SHADO, its operatives, installations, equipment."
"I don't get it," protested Freeman. "Who wrote it?"
"The name's on the front," Straker pointed out. He was finally calming down somewhat. "John Croxley."
"The man whose house was hit by the U.F.O.?"
"Yes. Now, you tell me, Alec. How did he get that information?"
"The whole thing's ridiculous," Freeman stated flatly. "We checked out him and his wife. Mr. and Mrs. Average."
Straker frowned, suddenly thoughtful. "When I told him about his wife, there was something about him. He was different." Straker shook his head. "Wait a minute, Foster's little man in the hospital. That could be Croxley, too."
"We'd better pick him up," Freeman decided, reaching for the intercom on Straker's desk.
"No, not yet, Alec," Straker countermanded. He was still worried, but now coldly controlled. "If it was him, I want to know more about him."
"He was visiting a psychiatrist," Freeman reminded him. "Maybe he knows something."
"Right, we'll start there." Straker agreed.
* * *
A quick check with security gave them the psychiatrist's name and address.
Doctor Corbin's office was in an old, and rather shabby, medical office building in Birmingham. It wasn't a fashionable address, but Croxley, formerly an accountant for a small manufacturing firm, couldn't have afforded a fashionable doctor.
Despite the building's unprepossessing exterior, the man's office was neat and comfortable. Professional texts filled the bookcases next to the door.
The psychiatrist was suitably impressed with Freeman's proffered identification. It indicated he was with M.I.5, military intelligence.
"You realize, I hope, that I do not normally divulge such details about my patients," the doctor explained. "But, with your authorization; it was a somewhat unusual condition, E.S.P."
"Extra sensory perception?" Freeman asked. The psychiatrist nodded.
"It's a subject about which we still know very little. But most of us have experienced it at one time or another," Doctor Corbin looked from Freeman to Straker. "You, yourself, have probably been in a situation of sensing what is going to happen."
"Yes, and it usually means trouble," Straker replied. He stood by the door, arms folded over his chest.
The psychiatrist smiled. "Well, it affects different people in different ways. Some adjust quickly and make good use of their powers. I believe there have been quite a number of successful theatrical acts based on the condition."
"And Croxley?" Freeman wanted to know.
"He is not one of the lucky ones. It was driving him to mental illness. His powers of perception are so pronounced he can hold a complete conversation with someone without that person uttering a single word."
"A mind-reader," Freeman suggested.
"Not quite," Corbin corrected. "Telepathy, perhaps. He can 'anticipate'. He can, how shall I say, 'feel' the future."
"And it bothers him," commented Straker.
"To the point of mental illness," Croxley's doctor concurred. "When simple, everyday phrases take on new and terrible meanings."
"Yes, well, most of it is clear now, Doctor. Thank you very much," Straker responded. His expression was thoughtful.
"Croxley phoned here for you earlier today," the psychiatrist announced as Straker opened the office door to leave.
"And?" Straker demanded.
"For some unexplained reason, he wants you and Mister Freeman to meet him at the ruin of his house at twelve o'clock tonight."
"And how'd he know we'd be here?" Straker asked.
The psychiatrist smiled: "E.S.P.?"
* * *
"We're early. It's only eleven," Freeman informed his commanding officer, checking his watch. The Saab was parked in front of the wreckage that only a month before had been a nice country house. It looked now like it had been deserted for years.
"Yes, I always like to look over a convention hall before a convention," Straker commented.
"Or a battle field before a battle?" Freeman suggested. He turned to look at Straker. "You know it's madness, don't you? Coming out here without security?"
"We have no choice," Straker reminded him quietly. "Listen, Alec, we have to assume that Croxley can anticipate our moves. That film script, he wrote it by reading Paul Foster's thought patterns."
"Or someone told him."
Straker shook his head, "No, listen, I think that doctor's right. Croxley has a super-sensory power and if we try to trap him, or go against his wishes, he'll know about it."
"Well, I hope you're wrong about this," Freeman commented.
"So do I."
* * *
"Look, I know it's late, but this is not easy to live with," Paul Foster protested to Doctor Shroeder in the psychiatrist's office in SHADO's medical center.
"Listen, Paul, you went through a pretty rough experience. It takes time," explained Shroeder.
"But, that was physical!"
"Paul, you nearly lost your life in that house. Your mind is simply trying to adjust to the recent shock you received when you were injured there," the SHADO psychiatrist explained calmly and logically.
Foster had come into his office suffering from a full blown anxiety attack. He was convinced it had something to do with the Croxley house and the U.F.O. that had crashed through it. He couldn't explain why he felt that way, but it had driven him to near panic.
"Well, maybe you're right," Foster finally conceded.
"I'm sure of it," Shroeder assured him. Then, seeing the unconvinced look on Foster's face: "Look, if it bothers you that much, there's only one answer. Go back to the house, overcome your anxiety. Face the problem."
Foster relaxed a little: "Okay, Doc, I'll go home and get some rest."
"Good night, Paul," Shroeder responded. "See you at final medical checks tomorrow."
* * *
At a half past eleven, Freeman pulled out two high powered flash-lights and handed one to Straker. They got out of the car and entered the ruined house, taking care in stepping through the uncleared rubble.
"Croxley, where are you?" Straker called, looking around.
Freeman entered what had obviously been the living room. He motioned Straker to join him. The beam from his flash light highlighted a cheap metal typing table with a portable typewriter sitting on it. There was a pile of crumpled paper balls on the floor.
"You know, Ed, I think I'm developing E.S.P." Freeman stated quietly, after a few minutes. They had looked over the rest of the main floor and had returned to the living room. "I've got the feeling Croxley's here already, watching us, waiting."
"You're right, Colonel," a voice said from behind them.
"Croxley!" Straker identified the voice. He turned to face the man then stopped short. Croxley was holding a revolver and it was pointed directly at Straker's heart.
"The answer to your question is 'no'. Why should I give you my gun?" Croxley said. He stepped closer.
Straker made an unobtrusive move to reach inside his unbuttoned jacket. He froze as Croxley cocked the hammer of his revolver.
"You would both be dead before your hands were on the butts," Croxley informed them. "You see, I do know what you're thinking. You use a shoulder holster, Commander. Please?" Croxley made a motion towards the far corner of the room.
Straker removed his automatic pistol from its holster and tossed it into the designated corner.
Croxley held out his hand: "The lamp."
Silently, Straker handed over the flashlight he was holding.
Croxley then turned to Freeman: "You prefer the right hip, I believe, Colonel? Slowly," he added. Freeman took his gun from where it was tucked in his belt under his suit jacket and tossed it next to Straker's.
"You have a more devious thought pattern," Croxley informed Freeman.
"I want to see you clearly before I kill you," the little man announced. He turned the flashlight on them. The two SHADO officers winced at the sudden glare in their faces.
"It's fitting you should die here, Straker."
"We made it easy for you," Freeman noted.
"Yes," Croxley agreed. He stared at Straker a moment longer. Straker levelly returned his gaze.
"I must say, you have particularly logical thought processes."
Straker ignored the comment. "How long have you had this E.S.P., Croxley?"
"All my life," the man admitted. "Oh, it got stronger about a year ago, but I remember I used to play tricks at school, predicting the future."
"And U.F.O.'s? What do you know about them?" Freeman demanded.
"Shut up!" Croxley screamed. "You did it, Straker. You've been messing with things you don't understand and you caused my wife's death!"
"No, Croxley," Straker stated. His voice, though quiet, was intense. "Don't you see? Use your power, use your E.S.P. A U.F.O. destroyed your house, not me. It was part of a carefully laid plan. The aliens, Croxley, they've taken over your mind. They killed your wife. They're using you. Can't you see why? They're using you to kill us."
Croxley didn't seem to hear Straker, but his aim didn't waver as he circled the two SHADO agents. It was as though he were listening to something else entirely. He murmured his wife's name and tears began streaming down his face.
However, when Straker began to turn to watch him, Croxley was immediately behind him, pressing the gun barrel behind his right ear.
Straker froze, barely breathing.
"Croxley, for God's sake!" Freeman protested. Croxley didn't seem to hear.
"Mother," he was murmuring, mostly to Straker. "You're thinking about your mother."
Croxley backed away, as if in pain. "Stop it! Stop it!" he screamed. Then, just as suddenly, he seemed back in control. "It's four minutes to twelve. You die at midnight."
"Croxley..." Straker protested. But again, it was as if Croxley didn't hear him.
The little man wandered away from his two prisoners, into the adjoining room. He was muttering to himself, asking the doctor to help him. However, when Straker and Freeman moved towards the door, Croxley spun around, gun in hand.
"Come through that door and I'll blow your head off," he promised.
"Croxley, listen," Straker began again. "You say you want someone to help you."
Croxley's mind seemed to have faded away again. Another voice, softer and questioning, answered instead: "Our planet is dying, our natural resources are exhausted. We must come to Earth. We must come to Earth to survive!"
Freeman began to move towards the corner where his gun was. Croxley suddenly stepped back into the room.
"Don't try anything!" he ordered. "Hold it right there."
Freeman straightened up, empty handed.
"Two minutes," Croxley announced. Then, he seemed to fade out again and another, different voice emerged: a child's treble, unhappy at being left alone by classmates made uneasy by his ability to read their thoughts. Alone and tormented because he was different.
Straker reached out his hand: "Give me the gun."
Croxley's gun went off and Straker jerked back. His right hand began to bleed where the bullet had grazed it.
"You fool, do you think I'm going to let you get away with it?" Croxley demanded angrily. Then, once again, the other voice sounded: "We mean no harm to peoples of Earth. Why do you attack us? We're fighting for our existence. You must understand."
Just as abruptly as before, Croxley appeared to be in control of himself once again. "No, there's no need for words. It is time."
Paul Foster already had his Colt.45 automatic drawn when he walked into the house. It took only a fraction of a second to comprehend the scene in front of him as he came up behind Croxley.
Two shots rang out.
It seemed to Foster that, for just a second, the expression on Straker's face was one of startled incomprehension as he watched Croxley collapse with two bullets in the back of his brain.
In the distance, a church bell began to strike twelve.
"He knew," Straker stated after a moment. Freeman gave him a curious look and Straker went on: "Well, what did you think, Alec, when you saw Foster appear behind him?"
"Well, shoot, for God's sake, before he..." Then it occurred to him: "He could read our thoughts."
"Yes, I'll always believe that in the last few seconds, Croxley regained control of his own mind."
Paul Foster simply wondered what the hell was going on.
* * *
Foster left for Moonbase the next day, as scheduled, following his regulation debriefing.
A week later, he noted a news article stating that a John Croxley, recently widowed due to a military airplane accident, had been found dead in the ruins of his house. It was being ruled a suicide. Foster wondered how they could possibly have come to that conclusion, or if the investigators had even seen Croxley's body.
Foster also found himself wondering what brought him to that house that night. Straker had repeatedly stated it was fate, kismet, like Croxley's gift, or curse. Or, maybe it has just blind luck. But, somehow, Foster doubted that. He didn't believe in luck.
Colonel Virginia Lake, temporary Moonbase commander while Gay Ellis was on training assignment to Sky-diver, was reading off a checklist as Nina Barry double-checked the equipment tell-tales. Behind them, another young woman wearing the same form-fitting silver uniform and anti-static mauve wig, monitored a radar screen.
A single blip was moving across the screen, indicating a craft heading towards the Earth.
"Ship 534 to Moonbase Commander."
A male voice came over the overhead speakers. Lake smiled and stepped over to the center console, picking up the microphone.
"Go ahead, 534."
"Approaching Earthly re-entry and feeling blue," the voice announced. "Is it all right for Saturday night, darlin'?"
Lake glanced at the other two women. Both were trying to stifle broad grins.
It was hard to keep secrets in an outpost as small and remote as the Moon. Everyone knew about the growing romance between Lake and Colonel Craig Collins, the pilot of the lunar shuttle that was now approaching Earth.
"Your communication is against standard procedure," Lake informed him. Then she smiled: "And yes, it's still all right for Saturday."
* * *
In the subterranean chambers of SHADO headquarters, Commander Straker was completing his morning rounds of the complex. It was his habit to check on how the different work groups were doing each morning after reading the previous day's incident reports. He prided himself on knowing the status of each unit under his command.
Satisfied for the moment with what he saw in his domain, he stopped in front of one of the radar monitors and watched a slow blip as it approached the wide circle that represented Earth.
"Lunar module 534 from Moonbase," explained the beige uniformed woman seated in front of the monitor. "Approaching reentry, normal pattern."
"Five three four," Straker repeated thoughtfully. "That's Craig Collins, isn't it?"
"Have him call me when he gets down, will you?" he asked. His request seemed to surprise her and that amused him a little. A touch of unpredictability helped keep his people on their toes. He was in good spirits this May morning as he turned to head back to his office.
"Sir," Lieutenant Prentice called out. "Pilot reports fire in the cabin."
Straker's pleasant mood evaporated as he hurried back to the woman's station. He gestured her aside and slipped in to take her place in front of the monitor.
"Craig, this is Ed." Straker announced into the microphone. "How bad is it?"
"I can't tell," the voice on the speaker said through a fit of coughing. "There's a lot of smoke and it seems to be getting worse."
Straker was able to keep his voice calm, but his chest was tight with worry, as he rapped out orders to the shuttle pilot. Behind him, Prentice watched the monitor as she listened to distant whispers on the headphone she held to one ear.
"SID reporting three alien craft," she stated quietly. Straker nodded acknowledgment.
"It's no good, the heat's still building up," Collins' voice crackled over the radio.
"Sighting confirmed," the operative murmured.
As if to underscore her statement, the overhead speaker came on with the deep synthesized voice of Space Intruder Detector.
"Three alien craft at five million miles and closing at Sol zero decimal eight."
Straker was already out of the chair. "Hold on, Craig," he told the shuttle pilot as the communications operative resumed her seat.
"Stay with him," Straker ordered as he moved on to watch the monitors over the other stations that lined the walls of the control room.
SHADO Control was now a beehive of sudden, seemingly frantic, activity. Information came in bits and pieces from stations all over the globe. It was like a giant jigsaw puzzle that had to be fitted together in only a few moments.
They only had a few moments. The aliens were coming in hard and fast at nearly the speed of light.
Somewhere out to sea, a small fleet of Sky-diver submarine/fighter planes waited. Their pilots were prepared for the probable orders that would send them screaming out to destroy the alien invaders.
* * *
In lunar space, the three Moonbase interceptors were already on their way to intercept the alien craft.
"One U.F.O. has changed trajectory," Space Intruder Detector announced over the speakers in SHADO Control and on Moonbase. "Predicted target, this satellite."
In the Moonbase Control sphere, the Moonbase commander relayed new orders to one of the space-borne fighters.
Tension permeated the atmosphere within the underground spaces of SHADO Control. Everyone listened and waited for the outcome of the battle in near-Earth space.
Craig Collins' voice still sputtered on the speaker above Lieutenant Prentice's station. He announced the warning lights were still on in the burning cabin, the fire and smoke getting worse. Then, even that faded away as the shuttle entered the top of the Earth's atmosphere and ionization blackout.
No one cheered as Interceptor One announced the destruction of one incoming U.F.O.
But, a shudder of anguish went around the room as Space Intruder Detector, familiarly known as SID, proclaimed the end of its own operation. It was spinning out of control, its electronic eyes and brain suddenly burned out by a single blast from the alien craft just before Interceptor Two reached and destroyed it.
SHADO was now half blind.
* * *
It was the middle of June and this particular June morning was not going at all well, Straker reflected as he entered the studios' executive offices.
The past several weeks since the destruction of Space Intruder Detector hadn't been pleasant. Although Virginia Lake and Colonel John Gray, SHADO's surveillance satellite expert, were doing their best to reconfigure the tracking systems, SID's absence was sorely felt.
This morning's meeting with the U.N. Commission on Space and Astrophysics had been even more exasperating than usual. At least SHADO now had the money to launch a team to repair SID. Unfortunately, it also meant there wouldn't be enough money for certain other projects SHADO wanted and needed.
Straker glanced around the outer office as he greeted Miss Holland, the temporary replacement for his regular secretary, Janice Ealand. Miss Ealand was on a long, and long overdue, holiday with her mother in the south of France.
He noted a familiar looking file in a color coded document folder on the desk. He picked up the file and opened it.
"Miss Holland." Straker's voice was harsh with irritation. "I ordered this file transferred to the morgue weeks ago. Why is it still here?"
The woman flushed guiltily. "Well, sir, it isn't certain...".
He cut her off with a shake of his head: "You know as well as I do that space personnel are presumed dead forty-eight hours after failure to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere."
"But, it's just that..."
"Miss Holland," he interrupted, on the verge of losing his temper. He caught himself and continued more gently: "Craig Collins was one of my closest friends. We were astronauts together. But, we have enough to worry about without trying to keep the dead alive. Now, please, just get it out of here."
With that, Straker dropped the file on the desk and walked into the inner office that doubled as the main entrance elevator to SHADO Headquarters. His head was lowered as though the weight of the world had just come down on his shoulders.
Miss Holland watched after him for a moment and suddenly felt rather sorry for the man. The schedule SHADO demanded of him, and his own personality, didn't permit SHADO's most senior officer many friends.
* * *
Commander Straker was not permitted any more time to be concerned with his grief over Collins' death. Even as he entered SHADO's underground headquarters, Moonbase was on alert status. A U.F.O. had been spotted by radar crews stretching their equipment to the limit to compensate for SID's absence.
The alien craft was coming in hard and fast, as if to take advantage of any weakness in SHADO's over-burdened systems.
Moonbase ground defenses were in place. The interceptors had already been launched.
"The Ufo's retreating," one of the astronauts observed. Straker recognized the voice: James Regan. A top fighter jet pilot, he was now piloting a death dealing rocketship through lunar space.
"Giving chase," Regan announced.
"It smells," Straker commented more to himself than anyone else . He took the microphone from the communications supervisor's console. "Moonbase, tell your ground defenses to get nervous."
"SHADO Control, three more Ufos approaching. Orbital reference 318." the Moonbase commander announced, confirming Straker's hunch.
"Decoys," he muttered to Lake, who'd been waiting for him in the Control center. He keyed the microphone again: "Moonbase, instruct the interceptors to return immediately!"
There was a long silence in SHADO control as Moonbase control relayed the orders. Then, they waited.
"Ground defenses knocked out," Moonbase announced in subdued tones after a few moments.
"That's it, they're wide open," Lake announced, echoing the thoughts of every person in SHADO's control center. "Where are they?"
The waiting resumed.
Within minutes, Moonbase announced the destruction of the U.F.O.'s that had been menacing the lunar base.
* * *
"That's eight Ufos we've destroyed in the past week." Lake told Straker a few minutes later, in his office. She'd been called back to Earth only the day before to help reconfigure the European radar net. "Do you think they'll take the risk?"
Straker shrugged. "First two under cover of sunspot activity, then three at ground level, now six in a decoy maneuver. That's ten, plus the one that got through." he observed.
"All for nothing. A last fling," the young blonde woman speculated. "You think they'll give up?"
Straker's expression hardened. "Colonel Lake, they didn't lose all those craft just to give up. What worries me, what will they try next?"
He gestured to the newspaper on his desk. A small article on the front page reported on a joint U.S.-Soviet unmanned probe to Venus. It was scheduled to return to Earth in two day's time carrying sealed samples of the Venusian atmosphere.
"You think they'll try something with the Venus probe?" Lake asked.
"I would," Straker replied.
* * *
On Moonbase, James Regan, and the other interceptor pilots had other things to worry about than with what the aliens might elect to throw at them next. Regan, specifically, was giving little thought to the U.F.O.s or their occupants.
Paul Foster had called Regan in for a refresher course on hand-to-hand combat. Regan was a fine combat pilot, as were all Moonbase interceptor pilots. But, in spite of intensive training both in the RAF and in SHADO, he lacked what Foster termed 'the killer instinct'.
"Well, I'm a nice fella'" Regan protested when Foster chided him for not making the final, crippling blow to his opponent when he had the chance.
Foster shook his head and dismissed Regan with a wave of his hand: "Give my regards to the wife. See you in a couple of days."
* * *
By late afternoon, Regan had already been checked through the security gate at the air field in central England where the Lunar Modules and their pick-up planes were serviced and launched, and was home with his wife.
For the most part, SHADO personnel, most particularly Moonbase operatives, tended to be single. The stresses of long absences, the inability to talk about one's work, even to warn a spouse of the dangers, made marriage a difficult proposition.
So far, Regan had been luckier than most. His wife, Jeanne, was from a military family and had accepted the necessary absences and mysterious secrets. Silent proof of their success was that she was six months pregnant.
* * *
Five hours later, Straker and Lake were listening in near silence as Astronaut Regan made a U.F.O. report. Regan had come running into SHADO Headquarters less than half an hour before, in near shock, demanding to see Commander Straker. Straker had obliged him, leading the distraught astronaut to a chair in his office.
Regan related that he and his wife had been attacked by aliens and taken to the aliens' ship. He couldn't say exactly where the ship was, except it was some distance from the road, in a wooded area near Bedford.
"And then, they gave us what could only be a medical," Regan finished.
"Spare parts, transplant organs," Lake speculated aloud. "That's all it could have been."
Regan was horrified. "No, it couldn't. It couldn't, or they would have taken me as well."
"You could have been an unsuitable donor, wrong body tissue group," Straker responded quietly. He regarded Regan carefully. "But, why leave you alive?" "What puzzles me," Lake interjected, "Is why pick on a member of SHADO?"
Straker shrugged. "Well, that could be a coincidence. Four other people were taken a short time ago on that road. A woman was left behind, apparently dead. Before she died, she had a chance to tell us what had happened. She had a weak heart."
"Who shall I assign to replace him?" Lake asked after a few moments.
Straker shook his head "No one." He turned back to Regan: "You will report for normal duty tomorrow."
Regan seemed dazed and not quite sure what Straker's order meant.
"That's all, Regan." Straker's tone was firm. Regan nodded, still in a daze, and left the office.
"Can't you see? The man's in shock." Lake sputtered over Straker's apparent callousness. "He needs to..."
"We need!" Straker interrupted. "With all these attacks, and the Venus Probe coming in soon, and SID still down, and that Ufo still around, we need every astronaut available."
Lake opened her mouth to protest and Straker cut her off once more: "That's all, Colonel."
* * *
Later that evening, Straker stopped by Doctor Jackson's office in SHADO's medical section.
"You've heard what happened, about Regan?" Straker asked the Hungarian-born psychiatrist.
"Yes, poor man. A tragedy." Jackson replied, looking up from an open file drawer.
"I've ordered him back to duty."
Jackson nodded. "Quite right, the only thing you could do."
"Well, it's nice that somebody understands." Straker gave him a crooked grin. "I'd like you to keep an eye on him though, Doctor. Just in case."
"I most certainly will." Jackson peered at Straker, noting the strained look on the other man's face. "You look a bit under the weather yourself."
Straker shrugged. "Just a headache. But, if it will make you feel any better, I'll take a couple aspirin."
Paul Foster walked into the small office.
"They asked me to drop this in for you, Doctor." Foster referred to the thick folder in his hand. He handed it to the psychiatrist. Jackson opened it and started leafing through the reports.
"I was just coming to see you," Foster turned to Straker. "He's got a couple weeks of leave due, if you want to relieve Regan for a while."
"That's nice of you, Paul. But, I think he'll be better off occupied," Straker responded. "Come back to the office, will you? I want to go through the Venus Probe escort procedure with you." Straker turned back to Jackson, still immersed in the reports. "Thank you, Doctor."
"Don't go!" Jackson nearly shouted as the two men were almost out the door. They stopped.
"This is the result of the autopsy we carried out on the alien's body."
"The one we found after the Moonbase attack?" Foster asked.
Jackson nodded excitedly. "This could shatter all our past theories."
"Go on," Straker encouraged quietly.
"It is mostly conjecture, the head was badly damaged. I may be completely wrong." Jackson warned. "We need more proof..."
"Cut the caution, Doctor. We're not likely to quote you." Straker told him.
"All right, all right," the psychiatrist agreed. "As you are well aware, up until now we've all believed they were humanoid. A dying race keeping themselves alive by transplanting our organs into their bodies."
Straker and Foster nodded. They were both aware of the hypotheses the doctor was referring to.
"The alien I examined this morning, I think.." he paused for dramatic effect. "His whole body was human."
"His brain?" Straker asked.
"Even his brain." Jackson's excitement accentuated his Central European accent.
"You mean, he was one of us?" asked Foster.
"Ultimately, yes," Jackson agreed.
"But,if his brain...?" Foster sounded confused.
"His brain may have been human, but it doesn't mean his mind was," Jackson stated.
"But, mind, brain, they're the same," Foster protested.
Jackson shook his head. "No, no, no. Let me try to explain. Oh, there was so much damage it was almost impossible to tell," Jackson moaned. "But, certain sections of the brain seemed to be missing. The parts that control emotions, creativity. Only the analytical, the logical remained. It may be that these creatures are not humanoid at all. They just use our bodies, drain from the brain all knowledge, wipe it clean and reprogram it with, ah, transmit to it, their own thought patterns, their own tastes."
"But, why?" Foster demanded.
Jackson shrugged again. "I don't know. It could be they are incapable of traveling in space. The form of life they are, I can't begin to imagine. They may have no physical being at all, and therefore need a vehicle to contain them. Our bodies."
"And so, with spare part surgery, they're able to keep these human computers alive and free from senility during their years in space," Straker concluded.
"It's unbelievable!" Foster protested.
Jackson grinned at his disbelief. "So were U.F.O.s. Yes, as fantastic as it sounds, they could be living computers."
* * *
In SHADO Control, Lieutenant Johnson caught a movement out of the corner of her eye. She looked around to investigate and spotted a seal-point Siamese cat crouched under a near-by console, as if it were trying to hide. The animal didn't struggle when she scooped it into her arms and began scratching it under the chin.
"What are you doing in here?" she murmured to the animal as it purred in her embrace. "I should report you, you know. This is a restricted area."
China-blue eyes gazed at her, almost as if the animal understood what she was saying. Then it squirmed out of the her arms to sit on the floor and begin carefully washing itself. "Looks like we've got us a mascot," Johnson laughingly told one of the other operatives who had stopped to stare at the sight.
"I wonder how it got down here?" the other woman said.
"Who knows? Cats are supposed to be mysterious," Johnson replied.
* * *
By the following day, the Siamese cat was all but forgotten.
An alien craft was detected leaving the Earth. Moonbase interceptors were launched to stop it. The operatives and officers in SHADO Control waited and listened as orders were given to the interceptor pilots, results sent back for analysis.
"Near miss, some damage," Interceptor One's pilot announced.
Nina Barry radioed back further instructions.
On Earth, Virginia Lake murmured: "He must. Regan must get it now."
"Regan?" Straker repeated in dismay. "His wife's aboard that craft."
All of SHADO listened in horror as Moonbase announced the U.F.O.'s escape.
* * *
That evening, Astronaut Regan was called back the Earth, to Straker's office.
"One moment it was right in my sights, next it was gone," Regan was trying to explain to Straker.
"It was unfortunate that you had to encounter that particular Ufo," Straker stated. It wasn't a condolence, or even an excuse, merely an attempt at an explanation.
"The fact that my wife was on board made me more determined. I wanted that Ufo. I'd rather she were dead, than..." Regan's voice cracked.
"It wasn't entirely your fault," Straker shrugged away Regan's protest. "I made a bad decision sending you back to duty so soon. But, now I'm resting you. For a month."
"But, I don't want to be rested," Regan nearly shouted. "I'm flying Venus Probe escort tomorrow, there may be another chance."
Straker wasn't moved. "Regan, I can't afford vendettas. Colonel Foster will take your place."
"But, I have to go!"
"You are suspended for one month! That's an order." Straker barely raised his voice, but it had the effect of a shout.
Regan's chin quivered as though he were ready to cry. "But..." He tried again weakly after a moment.
"That's all," Straker informed him curtly. He watched as Regan turned on his heel and stalked out of the office.
"Colonel Foster will be replacing James Regan until further notice," Straker informed the chief communications officer over the intercom. "Inform all departments." He keyed a different combination on the intercom keypad and Doctor Jackson responded over the speaker.
"I've just relieved Regan from duty, Doctor," Straker told him. "Tomorrow morning I want a full physical and psychiatric report."
* * *
Straker's reservations concerning Regan would not have been allayed had he seen Regan a few moments later in the crew lounge. Johnson was taking a break. The cat was having a saucer of milk on the floor beside her.
"So that's where you've got to," Regan exclaimed when he caught sight of the animal.
"Oh, is it yours?" Johnson asked.
The cat looked up, eyes wide, as Regan scooped it into his arms.
"My wife's," he started to explain. "No, it would have been. We found it on the road, just before..." He grimaced as if in pain, "Just before the Ufo."
"Are you all right, Jim?" the young woman asked. She was a little alarmed at the pain in his face.
He shook his head: "Just a headache."
"Yeah." He gave her a crooked grin. "It's gone already, see."
"If you're sure..." She watched him worriedly, then glanced at the clock on the wall. "I've got to get back to work. You know how the Commander gets."
"Yeah, I know," Regan replied in a mournful tone.
* * *
Miss Holland was already hard at work when Straker entered the studio office early the next morning.
"Well, how's show business?" Straker greeted her. Collins's file was no longer on her desk. He seemed to have completely forgotten the incident.
"There's no business," she replied. Straker looked surprised.
"Well, hardly," she amended, handing him a stack of bound papers. "Business reports. They've just finished The Rebels of Santo Domingo, and there's a dog food commercial on stage D."
"Oh?" was Straker's only comment.
"And a script for your approval." Holland handed him a thick manila folder. "It's a period piece about World War Two."
"World War Two?" Straker placed the folder back on the desk. "Well, I think I'll leave this until Miss Ealand gets back. Let her handle it."
"Right," Miss Holland agreed as Straker turned to go.
He stopped suddenly and turned back to her: "Oh, Miss Holland, I haven't had a chance to thank you yet for filling in here."
She smiled. "No need. It makes a break from Section Nine."
"Hmm, and how is Colonel Blake?"
Section Nine was weapons research and development. All new weapons or battle equipment modifications used in SHADO came through Section Nine. Colonel Blake was a heavy tactical weapons expert SHADO had borrowed from the RAF some years ago. He had a reputation of being very difficult to work with.
"Oh, he's the same," Miss Holland replied. "I'll give him your regards."
"Good, do that." Straker checked his watch. "Well, I suppose as head of the studio, I'd better show my face. Stage D, you say?"
Straker turned to leave.
"Sir? How's Jim Regan taking it?"
Straker looked back at her: "He's taking it."
* * *
On soundstage D, there were a dozen dogs of all shapes, sizes and decibel levels. A handful of animal trainers were trying the instill some order into the mass of barking, excited canines.
Straker wondered, as he walked in, what chances the director had of creating a polished finished product out of the pandemonium before him.
* * *
Paul Foster was not concerning himself with dog food commercials, although he was aware of the animals. He was heading out to his car, preparing to leave for the airfield that would send him off to Moonbase once again.
He found James Regan sitting in his car, apparently waiting for him.
"Jim, what are you doing here?" Foster asked. Regan didn't answer.
"It was terrible about Jeanne. I don't know what to say," Foster said, worried. "If there's anything I can do...?"
Regan still didn't react to Foster's voice. The young astronaut seemed distracted, vacant even.
"You okay?" Foster asked. "I'll take you back..."
Foster's concerned offer was cut short when Regan heaved himself from the car straight at Foster.
"What is this?" Foster protested. "Now, wait!"
Further protests were cut off as Foster found himself fighting for his life against Regan's furious, almost animal-like, attack. In fact, the noises Regan made as Foster lost consciousness, were more cat-like than human.
* * *
Later that afternoon, Straker called Doctor Jackson: "The medical report I asked for on Regan, it hasn't come through yet."
"I haven't been able to contact him," Jackson said, explaining the delay. "Nobody seems to know where he is."
Straker cut contact with Jackson and pressed the combination of keys that connected him to SHADO's security officer, Major Natiroff. "Locate Regan. He is to report to Doctor Jackson at once."
A short time later, the security chief at the airstrip called in to Straker's office.
"Regan went to Moonbase this morning," Captain Morgan informed him.
"Didn't you get the order about Colonel Foster replacing him?" Straker inquired sharply.
"Yes, sir, but he'd said you'd cancelled them."
"I want to see you first thing tomorrow, Morgan," Straker informed the other man. "I don't make orders to have them ignored."
"Yes, sir," Morgan responded meekly. He wasn't looking forward to facing Straker's wrath in the morning, or, for that matter, Natiroff's.
Straker's next call was to Moonbase. Lieutenant Barry was manning the command console.
"I want to talk to Captain Regan," Straker told her over the video-link.
"He's escorting the Venus Probe in, Commander," Barry informed him.
"Where's Colonel Foster?"
Barry shook her head. "The colonel's not on Moonbase."
"Contact Regan," Straker ordered angrily. "Find out what the hell he's playing at!"
"Yes, sir," Barry acknowledged. She'd known Straker a long time and was familiar with his moods. She certainly didn't want to be in Regan's shoes when Straker caught up with him.
"Regan, come in, Regan...," she called out on the communications channel to the interceptors. "Regan, come in..."
There was no response.
* * *
"Regan's flying!" Straker fumed as he entered the Control room.
"I thought you grounded him," Lake responded.
"I did," Straker confirmed. "He's broken radio contact."
"He's never disobeyed orders before," Lake reminded him.
"Yes," Straker nodded and the anger left his voice. "That's what worries me. Find Foster!"
"Why?" the woman asked in surprise. "Isn't he on Moonbase?"
"No, he isn't," Straker said. "He's here, somewhere."
Lake called security and set them to help her locate Foster. Then she hurried off to join them.
Straker placed another call to Moonbase.
"Yes, Commander?" Barry responded promptly, coming on the screen.
"The minute Captain Regan lands, I want him placed under close arrest and brought back here," Straker ordered. His expression was utterly grim.
"Yes, sir," Barry replied. She decided she didn't want to be within a hundred miles of Regan when Straker got hold of him.
* * *
A very short time later, Lake returned to SHADO Control, accompanied by Foster. A barely stifled gasp from Lieutenant Johnson brought Straker's attention to their arrival, but it was insufficient warning.
"God Almighty," Straker gasped as he caught sight of Foster. "Paul, what happened?"
Foster sat down in the chair Lake offered him. His face was scratched, bruised and bleeding. His clothes were torn.
"Regan," Foster responded through swollen lips. "He was like a madman. He knocked me out and threw me in the old quarry." The abandoned quarry was just east of the back lot, outside the walls. It, and the old apple orchard beyond it, were sometimes used by the studio for various purposes.
"Why? Why did he do it?" Lake asked.
Foster shrugged stiffly. "I don't know. I tried to reason with him, but he was out of his mind, like a wild animal."
"Did he say anything?" Straker asked.
Foster shook his head: "No, nothing."
"Nothing at all?" Straker insisted.
"No," Foster stated. "He just kept making noises, like a cat."
"A cat?" Straker repeated aloud.
Johnson looked up from her station: "Commander, there is a cat. It belonged to Regan's wife. He said he found it close to the Ufo." She looked troubled and added: "Something else, Commander. When he picked it up, he suddenly developed head-pains."
Straker considered her information for a long moment then keyed the intercom next to her station to contact Doctor Jackson's office.
"That human computer theory of yours, Doctor," Straker began as soon as Jackson responded. "Could it apply to an animal?"
"Well, without researching ..."
"Is it possible?" Straker insisted.
"The brain pattern is entirely different," Jackson protested. "But, I suppose..."
"Never mind that!" Straker cut him off. "Yes or no!"
"Yes!" Jackson sputtered. "But, you must understand..."
Straker switched off the intercom.
"I'll get the building searched," Lake volunteered. She turned to go but Straker help up one hand.
"Hold it. Let's make sure it's still down here." He picked up the phone at Ford's station. "Put me through to Miss Holland."
Miss Holland informed him she had let a cat out of the main entrance elevator only half an hour before.
Moments later, Moonbase called. "Commander, Regan's broken formation," Barry announced.
"He's on a collision course with Moonbase," she replied, glancing at the monitor set next to the video-link screen.
"They're using Regan to destroy Moonbase," Straker stated, mostly to himself. He turned to the video-link: "Instruct interceptors One and Two, pursue and destroy Interceptor Three."
"Say again, sir?" responded Barry in disbelief.
"You heard me correctly, Lieutenant!" Straker informed her. "Tell them!"
Barry did so, only to discover both Interceptors One and Two reporting total power failure. They were dead in space and totally defenseless.
"Find that animal!" Straker ordered.
"We'll never find it in time," Lake protested.
"Try!" Straker hissed.
"Wait a minute," Foster interrupted. "The dogs, they're still on stage D."
"That's it," Straker agreed. There was a cold look of triumph in his eyes. "Get onto it."
* * *
The animal trainers protested, the director wailed in anguish for his shooting schedule, but the dogs were released onto the studio grounds. They ran, barked and bayed as though they'd suddenly been released from canine purgatory.
A studio guard reported a few minutes later that several of the dogs had treed a Siamese cat in one of the giant elms near the main entrance gate. One of the animal trainers was being called to rescue the cat from the overly excited hounds.
* * *
Moonbase waited for the impact, for Interceptor Three to tear through the fiberglass and steel construction of the lunar base.
As they watched the radar screens and computer analyses, it seemed that Regan couldn't possibly miss in his suicidal dive. But, at the very last possible moment, Interceptor Three appeared to try to pull up from its dive.
Regan's momentum was too great. Interceptor Three struck the rocky surface and exploded a mere five hundred yards from SHADO's installation.
* * *
Regan's cat was found hanging from the mouth of a large Alsatian. Its neck was broken and its skull smashed. There was no reason to believe the dog had killed the smaller animal and the dog's trainer denied that it ever would do such a thing. It was suggested the cat had jumped from the tree to escape and had miscalculated, jumping to its death instead.
The only regrets expressed were by Doctor Jackson. The cat's skull was too badly damaged to help determine whether his theory about the aliens was correct.
* * *
One evening, several days later, the doors to Straker's office in SHADO Headquarters slid open and Alec Freeman walked in.
"We now have clear title to that land we want in Alaska," Freeman told Straker, taking a seat in the chair opposite the desk.
Straker nodded without speaking and Freeman peered at him more closely. "You look tired," he observed.
"It's been a long week. Regan came too close to destroying Moonbase and the doctors haven't come up with anyway of testing who might be under alien influence," Straker said.
"What about SID?" Freeman asked.
"I have John Gray and Virginia Lake working on re-configuring the tracking systems to compensate."
"How's it working?" Freeman asked.
Straker sighed. "Well enough, but we still need to send someone out to physically make repairs on SID."
"Who were you planning to send?"
"I'm not sure," Straker admitted. "SHADO doesn't have many people qualified to fly a Saturn Five booster to the L-5 orbital point."
"Pity we can't just use one of the lunar modules to get up there," Freeman said.
"Getting up there isn't the problem," Straker reminded him. "It's getting back. The experts tell me it'd take four months to add the extra internal fuel tanks to a standard lunar module so it could handle the mission."
"I don't think the aliens are going to give us four months," Freeman replied. He went over to the liquor cabinet set into the corner of the office and poured himself a whiskey.
"Sure you won't have one?" Freeman asked.
"Why do you keep asking when you already know the answer?" Straker asked in reply.
Freeman grinned at Straker over his drink. "Because some day you might surprise me and say 'yes'."
"And you'll call the medics because I'll have obviously gone off the deep end, finally."
Freeman chuckled and sat back down. It was a long standing joke between them. Straker rarely imbibed. People who didn't know him well assumed his teetotalling was due to some estheticism, a moralistic superiority. The truth was far simpler. Straker loathed the taste of hard liquor and beer gave him migraines. It was easier to simply say no.
"Who do you plan to assign to the Alaska Sky-Diver base project now that Collins is dead?" Freeman asked.
"We can't be sure Craig is dead, Alec," Straker protested mildly.
"Ed, we both know that space personnel are declared dead forty-eight hours after failure to make reentry," Freeman responded.
"Yes, I know that," Straker admitted. "I also know that the chances he could have survived are almost non-existent."
"But you're still hoping he shows up?"
"I guess I am. He was a good friend." Straker's expression was sad and distant.
"He was a good man," Freeman said, finishing his drink. "Oh, by the way, how's next year's appropriation request coming? It's due in less than three weeks, remember?"
"How could I forget?" Straker replied. "It'll be ready. I was thinking we might assign Paul Foster to handle the Alaska project. It'll give him some good experience."
"Good idea," Freeman agreed. "He should be back from Moonbase in a week or so. I can fill him in on the details then." Freeman stood and turned to head for the office door. Then he stopped. "Oh, Katie called yesterday. She must have just missed you."
"Oh? What did she have to say?"
"She wanted to make sure you had the Institute's financials for the appropriation. They should be in that pile somewhere."
Straker didn't bother to check the pile of reports on his desk. "Anything else?"
"She sends her love, wanted you to know she's sorry she won't be able to make it to Craig's memorial service."
"I'm not exactly surprised," Straker remarked. "I figure she might decide to come to London for my funeral, but I don't know anything else that'd do the trick. Lord knows, I've tried everything I can think of."
"She is a SHADO officer. You could just transfer her back here to headquarters," Freeman reminded his commanding officer.
"I've thought about it," Straker admitted. "But, I promised her that it would be her decision. Besides, it wouldn't look right."
"Oh, yes, her uncle, the general."
"There's that, too," Straker agreed. He checked his watch. "It's six in the morning in San Francisco. I'll give her a call when she gets into the office there, see how things are going."
"Pity the two of you can't come to some sort of accord," Freeman said, heading for the door again. "You make a cute couple."
"You're a hopeless romantic, you know that, Alec?" Straker told him.
"It's funny, but Katie said the same thing to me yesterday," Freeman said as the door closed behind him.
A week later, a U.F.O. was spotted too close to Moonbase defenses. Moonbase reported the sighting to SHADO Headquarters. A few minutes later, they were forced to admit the alien had vanished into a radar blind spot.
There weren't many blind spots in SHADO's radar coverage of near Earth space, even with Space Intruder Detector out of action. Unfortunately, the aliens seemed to know exactly where those few were.
Within SHADO's command center, Commander Straker took his usual position during an alert. He stood beside Freeman, behind and to one side of the communications supervisor's station. From there, he and Freeman could watch the various monitor screens and hear the radio messages coming in.
One of the monitors showed a slow blip crossing the screen.
"Is this the Lunar Module?" Straker asked. He pointed out the signal to Lieutenant Ford.
"Flight 209." The younger man confirmed.
"I'll feel a lot happier when it's landed," Straker muttered.
The Lunar shuttle was twenty-one minutes from entering the relative safety of Earth's atmosphere. It would be picked up by its launch plane four minutes after that, assuming all went well.
Paul Foster was a good pilot. He was one of the best SHADO had, and SHADO had some of the finest pilots in the world. But, on this trip, Foster was acting as copilot for Frank Craig, letting the other man gain some valuable experience piloting a lunar module through reentry.
"Red alert, U.F.O. four-two-eight, one-four-six, green. Trajectory four-two-seven, over five decimal four." Moonbase reported.
Lieutenants Ford and Johnson checked the information against the readings on the monitors at their stations. Johnson glanced at Ford and shook her head.
"Your sightings are masked from us by the Moon," Ford informed the Moonbase crew. "We'll pick it up in Tee zero-six."
Freeman knew that the Moonbase interceptors had already been launched and were heading out to catch and destroy the intruder before it could reach Earth's atmosphere.
"Check the estimated reentry time on the Module," Straker ordered quietly. Ford made a quick adjustment to his communications board.
"This is SHADO Control. Relay your reentry time and angle."
Lieutenant Craig answered promptly: "Reentry begins in seven minutes. Angle twenty-seven decimal five, on a three-second burn."
"Thank you, Captain," Ford replied. Ayshea Johnson rechecked a piece of information that had just come onto her computer monitor. She transferred the data to Ford's station.
"It checks," she informed him.
Ford nodded and turned to Straker. "The U.F.O.'s altered course five degrees. The interceptors won't make contact. It could reach the Lunar Module before reentry."
Straker nodded, lips drawn thin with worry.
"Relay to the captain," he rapped out after a moment. "Emergency reentry at angle three-one, increase burn one second."
* * *
The two man crew of the Lunar Module acknowledged the instructions.
"That's a tough order, isn't it?" Craig asked Foster.
Foster's expression was grim. "Theoretically, the U.F.O. could be on us in four minutes. The new angle takes just less than three."
"An angle over thirty degrees, that's pretty close to the upper limit, isn't it?" Craig insisted.
"Yeah, like taking a head on dive into a bowl of molten lead. It's possible, but you wouldn't do it for kicks."
* * *
The SHADO Control operatives listened to the information coming through from Moonbase. They checked and rechecked the data from the tracking stations on Earth and on the Moon.
"Sighting in area blue, sir," Ford finally announced.
"We don't have confirmation yet, sir," Ford said. "But, it's definitely closing on the module." Another string of numbers appeared on the screen before him. "The U.F.O.'s increased speed to Sol zero-decimal-six. Even with the new angle, it's going to reach the module before reentry's completed."
"Warn them," Straker ordered.
Ford tried to make contact with the module, with no result. "It's too late. I have reentry cessation on radio contact."
Another man might have sworn, but Straker said nothing. He simply walked out of the control room toward his office. His head was bowed, whether in grief or simply in thought, Freeman didn't know. Freeman did know that losing two lunar modules, and two senior SHADO officers, in less than two weeks, was a hard blow. It didn't help that both officers were friends, of sorts, and Straker's job and personality didn't afford him many friends.
* * *
Sixteen hours after the Lunar Module disappeared from the tracking system, Moonbase's radar picked up a slow-moving object approaching the Moon. Interceptors were launched to investigate.
It was the lunar module, a little charred around the nose cone, but intact, coming in for a landing.
* * *
Straker and Freeman were on the next shuttle to Moonbase. Officially, they were going to pick up additional material for the appropriations meeting in just ten days time. Unofficially, Straker was anxious to find out what had happened to the lunar module. The U.F.O that had been chasing it had not yet been found.
The two officers located Foster eating lunch in the crew lounge.
"Paul!" Straker called. "How are you?" Foster ignored him.
"How are you, Paul?" Freeman asked, puzzled by Foster's reaction.
"Fine." Foster's answer was short. He refused to look up at the two men as they settled into seats across the table from him.
"Well, you gave us all quite a scare," Straker began again.
Foster finally looked at him. There was a grimly amused smile on his handsome face. "I gave you quite a scare?"
"Well, sixteen hours with no radio contact," Straker explained.
"The transmission antenna was destroyed in the reentry attempt," Foster stated.
"Yes, I read the technical report," Straker informed him.
"Why don't you tell us your version?" Freeman suggested.
"Version?" Foster caught the word.
"Yes, we'd like to know what happened," Straker explained. He also seemed puzzled by Foster's sudden hostility. "From you," Straker added.
"You'll get my report," Foster stated flatly.
"Now look, Paul, there's nothing official about this." Straker assured him.
Foster didn't seem to hear as he walked over to one of the food vendors set into the wall.
"What'll it be?" Foster asked. "Coffee?"
"No thanks, you go ahead," Straker replied.
"How about something a little stronger?" There was a touch of something extremely unpleasant in Foster's smile.
"You know I don't use it, Paul."
"Never?" Foster taunted. "Oh, I was forgetting, the ice-cold computer mind of Commander Straker can rationalize his troubles away."
Freeman rose to Straker's defense: "Now look, Paul. We know you've had a pretty rough time, but Commander Straker doesn't have to take that kind of stuff from anyone."
"Maybe that's because nobody's dared to dish it out to him before now," Foster retorted angrily.
Straker motioned for Freeman to sit back down. His expression was one of stony calm as he regarded Foster: "All right, let's have it."
"If you're talking about details of the 'accident', you're asking the wrong man," Foster told him bitterly.
"Who should I be asking?"
"The man who ordered the reentry angle of thirty-one degrees," Foster stated.
"That, as you very well know, was me," Straker informed him. "It was a dangerous, but not impossible, angle."
"That depends on your stage of reentry," Foster replied. "For us, it meant a certain burn-up unless we leveled out."
"So, you overcompensated and bounced off the atmosphere," Freeman finished for him.
"Yes, and just had enough fuel to make it back here," Foster told him.
"It was a risk I had to take."
Foster turned on him, face white with fury: "A risk you had to take? The next time you have a risk to take, Commander, let me know and I'll pick up some of that back leave!"
Foster stormed out of the lounge. Straker and Freeman were left staring after him in worried bewilderment.
* * *
The lunar base's central recreation area had long ago been dubbed 'Central Park' by Moonbase personnel. It was filled with flowering plants and ferns. The growing things lent some Earthly normalcy to the otherwise antiseptic spaces of Moonbase.
Straker and Freeman had appropriated one of the tables. Sheets of computer paper were spread out in front of them as they went over the data Gay Ellis had printed out for them.
"Well, over the past year, our rate of success against U.F.O.'s has been impressive, but by no means, one hundred percent," Straker observed after a time.
Freeman smiled. "Like they used to say in the old days, that'd be like asking for the Moon."
"Well, that's pretty much what I plan to ask for this time, Alec," Straker admitted. "Enough money to set up four new, fully automated, moonbases over the next ten years."
Both men looked up as Foster entered the room. He walked over to their table.
"Private?" Foster asked, glancing at the papers spread out in front of them.
Straker's expression was carefully bland. "Just work. Why don't you join us?"
As Foster grabbed a chair from another table, Straker turned back to Freeman: "I think it's the only way to achieve adequate backup capability, even against a massive U.F.O. attack."
"Who says they have the capacity to mount a mass attack?" Foster asked. Once again, hostility underlined his tone.
"Nobody," Straker admitted calmly. "Because nobody really knows. But, they might have, next year, ten years from now, and we have to be ready for it."
He glanced at Freeman. "All right, let's hear your reactions. Alec?"
"You're asking a lot and I think the Commission will fight you all the way, but I'm all for trying," Freeman replied.
"I don't know," Foster stated flatly, folding his arms across his chest.
"Just exactly what is that supposed to mean?" Straker demanded.
"Well, let's just leave it like that," Foster suggested, getting out of his chair.
"No, spit it out," ordered Straker. "Well?"
"You want it straight?" Foster challenged.
"Yes, I want it straight," Straker insisted. He stopped short as a Moonbase operative walked in. "But not here."
* * *
The crew lounge was smaller and more private. Straker shut and locked the door from the inside.
Then, Freeman turned on Foster. "I'd like to know just what you think you're playing at!"
"Hold it, Alec," Straker ordered softly. "All right, Paul, let's forget rank for the moment."
"Alec says you're asking a lot," Foster began. "I think that's just one way of avoiding the fact that you're asking to double last year's appropriation."
"You're saying you're against?" Straker asked.
"I'm saying we should rename the whole thing 'Straker's Alien Defense Organization'."
Straker's lips drew into a tight smile as he nodded. "Oh, I get the picture. You think I run this organization for kicks. You think I ask for more money so that I get bigger as SHADO gets bigger."
"It's got a name," Foster told him. "It's called 'Empire building'."
Freeman lost his temper. "Now look, Foster, you've just about gone far enough."
"It's all right, Alec," Straker told him, voice very quiet. He motioned for the older man to sit. Freeman did so.
"Maybe you should have spoken up earlier, Paul," Straker said.
"Maybe. You said you wanted it straight."
"That's right," Straker admitted. "I've no time for 'yes men'."
Emboldened by Straker's apparent compliance, Foster continued: "I think you should put yourself on the furlough roster, three to four months complete rest."
"You think I'm falling down on the job," Straker clarified.
"I think it's got to you," Foster corrected. "I think you're obsessed with SHADO and Ed Straker. I think you're making decisions without any real thought to the consequences."
"Like that reentry angle."
"Yes, like that reentry angle." Foster was nearly shouting in anger and frustration. "And like spending millions on moonbases when they're needed on Earth. Like a hundred other instances I can name."
"All right, all right, Paul," Straker said very quietly. He glanced worriedly at Freeman. Foster seemed to be on the verge of hysteria, fighting to keep control of himself.
"Suppose Commander Straker took some leave," Freeman suggested. "You got a replacement in mind?"
A sly look came onto Foster's face as he considered the question.
"It's possible," he admitted.
* * *
"Why the soft pedal?" Alec Freeman wondered aloud as he waited for the call for the next shuttle back to Earth. The Australian was seated on the end of the bed in the sleep cubicle Straker had been assigned during his stay on Moonbase.
"Why don't you just slap him back into line?" Freeman asked.
"It isn't that easy, Alec," Straker said.
"Well, if you take my advice, you'll think about it."
Lieutenant Ellis' voice came over a small overhead speaker: "The Lunar Module leaves for Earth in seventeen minutes."
Freeman got to his feet, picking up his briefcase. "Well, I have to go," he reminded Straker as he headed for the door.
"I'll sleep on what you said, Alec," Straker promised.
"Fine, you do that." Freeman commented dryly.
"Safe journey," Straker called after him.
Freeman smiled and closed the door behind him.
Straker sat on the bed for a few moments, contemplating Foster's anger. It was true that Foster was head strong and a little hot-tempered. It was also true that he'd proven himself an excellent senior executive during the past two years since his recruitment into SHADO. Straker would not have characterized Foster as a close friend, but Foster's sudden hostility was extremely troubling.
Straker pulled a prescription vial out of his briefcase and swallowed a sleeping tablet. He didn't like taking them, but he'd been finding it necessary more often since Collins' disappearance. He reflected that Foster might be right. The job was getting to him. But, his personal problems with the job didn't explain the sudden change in the other officer.
Sleep was slow in coming, even with the tablet, and then his slumber was shallow and fitful. Every sound in the base seemed magnified. Every vibration, a premonition of disaster. It seemed like hours before he finally dozed off.
His sleep was abruptly broken by a hand roughly grabbing his arm and the jab of a needle trying to find a vein. Straker slid out of the bed, away from the needle and the hand holding it, and hit the light switch by the bed.
The sudden flood of light temporarily blinded his attacker. He ran out of the room, dropping the hypodermic syringe.
Straker had recognized his attacker: Frank Craig. He picked the syringe off the floor and inspected it in the light. The syringe was empty.
* * *
Lieutenant Ellis declared general quarters, an internal security alert. This followed Straker's angry report of the attack on him in his quarters.
Ellis looked up from her central control console as Straker strode into the Control sphere. He was tying the belt of his dressing gown around him, and he was utterly furious.
"Seal all exits," he ordered. "I want Lieutenant Craig found and brought here. Use stun guns if necessary, but I want him alive."
"Yes, sir," the Moonbase commander murmured, taken aback by the vehemence in Straker's voice.
Orders were relayed to the security teams.
"What happened?" Foster asked. He was in uniform and had been waiting in the Control sphere even though it was several hours before his shift would begin.
Straker eyed him suspiciously: "You tell me."
Foster didn't rise to the bait, but he kept himself on the opposite side of the control console from where Straker stood.
Slowly, search reports came into the Control center.
"What's taking so long?" Straker demanded. His impatient irritation was one indication of how angry he was.
"We'll find him, sir," Ellis assured him. Behind her, Joan Harrington confirmed the search parties' reports.
"Reception and embarkation area searched, each sphere checked. Move on to recreation area," she instructed. She used a light pen to check the cleared areas off on her monitor.
One of the searchers reported in: "The explosives store's been broken into. Looks like a high detonation packet's missing."
Almost immediately, another search party reported: "He's just entered emergency exit ten."
"Order a condition red," Straker commanded.
Ellis complied, hitting the switch that controlled her console microphone: "This is Control. Internal security, condition red, repeat, condition red."
"If he gets near the air and water installations with that explosive pack... " Straker said, but he didn't need to finish.
Everyone else in the room knew exactly what he meant. If Craig managed to damage the air recycling station, they would all be condemned to a slow death. SHADO wouldn't have time for a full evacuation with the lunar shuttles.
"Why wasn't exit ten sealed?" Straker asked after a moment.
"It's an emergency exit," Ellis reminded him. "It remains operational even during an alert."
Straker was obviously more tired, and the incident with Lieutenant Craig was bothering him more, than he would admit. Ellis knew he should have remembered those facts.
"All right," Straker conceded. "Get some men out there after him."
"Yes, sir," Ellis responded. She was already signaling the search parties from her console.
"And I want a check on all emergency air supplies."
"Yes, sir," replied Nina Barry, already working on the problem. He glanced over at her.
"Oh, and find out where he got that space suit," he added.
"Right away, sir," was Barry's bemused response.
A signal sounded on Ellis' control board. "Go ahead, Mark," she acknowledged.
"There's a space suit missing from the register," Mark Bradley's soft voice announced over the speaker. "But he won't get far. It was due for recharging. There's practically no air left."
"Scan the surface," Straker ordered. A monitor next to Barry's station flickered on, controlled from Ellis's console. The screen showed the lunar surface. In the distance, the air and water recycling installation could be seen.
"There he is." Barry pointed out a silvery object moving near the center of the screen.
"We have no choice," Straker said, turning to Ellis. "Use number four."
At the base of each of the five spheres that made up the upper levels of Moonbase was a small video camera and next to it, a powerful, remote-controlled gun.
A few shots established that Craig was already out of range.
"We'll have to use a missile," Ellis announced, watching the screen. Craig was crawling toward the air and water station on his belly.
Straker shook his head. "No, it's too close to our installation." He reached for the microphone on Ellis's console and flipped the group of switches that would connect him with Craig's suit radio. Behind him, Foster simply watched, waiting.
"Listen to me, Craig," Straker insisted to the microphone. "We know what you're trying to do. But, it's two hundred yards to the air and water installation. You'll never make it."
"It'll be close enough." Craig replied, gasping for breath.
"Lieutenant Craig, we realize you want to destroy Moonbase, but you're destroying yourself. Your air supply won't last."
Lieutenant Frank Craig of SHADO didn't seem to hear his commanding officer as he continued to struggle toward the vital air and water recycling station. Then, apparently realizing he couldn't get any closer, he set the charge on the demolition packet.
It exploded, killing him instantly. A new crater was left in the lunar surface.
Quickly, the Moonbase operatives checked and rechecked the integrity of the pressurized spheres. They reported their findings to Ellis and Barry, still on duty in the Control sphere.
"All systems checked and A-okay, sir," Ellis announced as soon as all the inspections had been completed.
"Right. Oh, and stand down to yellow," Straker ordered. It had finally occurred to him they were still on red alert status.
"The damage report, sir," Barry handed him a clip board with several sheets of hard-copy clipped to it. He glanced at the pages briefly before handing it back to her.
"Well, there's nothing here we can't handle," he told her. The only damage listed was very minor: a pierced conduit that was being repaired even now, and the lock to the explosive storage locker, which Craig had forced.
Paul Foster finally spoke up: "What now?"
"I'm going back to bed," Straker informed him.
"Aren't you interested in finding out what happened?" Foster demanded.
"It'll keep." Straker gave him a puzzled look. "No one's going anywhere, are they, Colonel?"
Foster didn't bother to reply as Straker left the command center to return to his bed.
"Colonel Freeman," Lieutenant Ford called out the next morning as Freeman entered SHADO Control. "I have a communication for you, Colonel."
"Well?" Freeman asked as the communications officer stepped closer to him.
"It's a somewhat unusual channel," Ford told him quietly. There was a concerned look on the younger man's face.
"All right, Lieutenant, what is it?"
"General Henderson wants to see you, right away."
"He contacted you?"
"One of his assistants did," Ford explained.
"Well, why not Miss Ealand? She usually deals with personal calls," Freeman wondered aloud.
Publicly, Janice Ealand was Straker's executive secretary at the studios. In reality, Miss Ealand served as a buffer between SHADO and much of the outside world -- guarding SHADO's main entrance, fielding uncomfortable questions concerning personnel whose names appeared on studio payrolls but who had no job on any production, answering phone calls for those same people and relaying the messages down to their real positions downstairs, in SHADO H.Q. A 'somewhat unusual channel' was an understatement.
"I was a little surprised myself," Ford admitted. "Anyway, I was asked to give the message only to you. You're asked not to communicate it to anyone."
"Anyone?" Freeman repeated suspiciously. "Does that include Commander Straker?"
"Commander Straker was specifically mentioned," the younger man admitted.
"I see." Freeman dismissed the operative with a nod of his head. Then, he hurried into the commander's empty office and placed a call to Moonbase.
"I appreciate it, Alec," Straker said after Freeman had appraised him of Ford's message. "I'm not going to say you shouldn't have told me."
"Good," was Freeman's response. "But, what's it all about?"
"Why don't you go along and see Henderson and find out?" Straker suggested. Then, he cut the communications link, leaving Freeman wondering what all was going on that Straker wasn't telling him.
* * *
General Henderson's office was in a large concrete and glass office building near Whitehall. A sign beside the main doors indicated the building was home to the International Astrophysical Commission.
"Well, you're wondering why I asked you here," Henderson observed without preamble as soon as Freeman was alone with him.
Henderson's age was somewhere on the high side of sixty, but his posture was still as ram-rod straight as any marine's and the blue-gray eyes beneath the gray, bushy eyebrows were as keen any younger man's. He was heavy-set and there was a faint white line of an old scar under his left jaw. He walked with an almost imperceptible limp, legacies of a U.F.O. attack before SHADO was even formed.
Henderson gestured for the SHADO officer to take a seat across from the desk.
"More than that," Freeman admitted as he sat. "I'm wondering about the way you asked me here."
"You mean, my request that you tell no one about your visit?"
"I mean, the fact that I was asked not to tell Commander Straker," Freeman corrected.
"And did you?" Henderson asked, knowing what Freeman's answer would be.
"First chance I got," Freeman confirmed.
"Read that." ordered Henderson.
There was a thin file folder on the desk top and Henderson pushed it toward Freeman. The SHADO officer reached out and picked up the file. He opened it and took a glance at the papers inside.
"You didn't finish it," Henderson observed as Freeman snapped the file shut and tossed it back on the desk.
"I didn't have to. I've seen enough," Freeman informed him coldly. "Is that all you wanted to see me about?" Freeman was already out of his chair.
"Sit down, Colonel, and listen," Henderson ordered.
It had been a number of years since the United States Air Force had forcibly retired James Henderson for being past their upper age limit. However, he was still a man who expected to be obeyed. He was rarely disappointed.
Freeman sat back down.
"Now, if this had come to me from a SHADO operative, or even from a senior SHADO officer," Henderson explained, "I'd've pitched it into the garbage. But, it didn't. It came from Moonbase, from Paul Foster, the man who's backed Straker in every fight he's got into since he came on board."
"If you say so," Freeman said.
"I do," Henderson insisted. "Which makes Foster one hundred percent loyal."
"Not anymore. Not in my book," Freeman replied angrily.
"I have to take this seriously, Freeman. That's why you're here," The general explained patiently. "Now, the basic allegation is that Straker's become mentally obsessed with his command and has to be removed. I want your opinion."
"It'd make even you blush," Freeman replied, returning the older man's level gaze.
"So, there's nothing to Foster's allegations?"
"Nothing," Freeman stated flatly.
"They're completely false?"
"Yes," the SHADO officer insisted.
"Even this one?" Henderson asked, taking the file and turning to the last page in it. "The claim that Commander Straker plans to request double his last year's appropriation? If it's true, it might go a long ways toward establishing a case for believing that Straker's suffering from serious delusions of grandeur."
He paused, watching Freeman carefully.
"Well, is it true, Colonel?"
* * *
"I told Henderson to ask you himself, but he knew," Freeman told Straker over the video-link to Moonbase. "If someone had told me, just a month ago, that Foster would do a thing like this, I'd... "
"Forget it, Alec," Straker told him. He looked worried, but not especially surprised, by Freeman's news.
"What do you mean, forget it?" Freeman demanded.
"Listen," Straker said. "Foster didn't transmit that information to General Henderson out of pure malice. There's got to be another reason for it." Straker hadn't told Freeman about Craig's attempt on his life the night before, or of Craig's death.
"Has there?" Freeman demanded. "He's bucking for promotion and he doesn't care who he has to step on to get it."
Straker paused as if considering Freeman's suggestion. "Well, there's only one way to find out the answer," Straker told him. "Tackle him about it. Thanks, Alec."
Again, Freeman was left wondering what Straker planned to do. He had a bad feeling about Foster, about Henderson, about the whole thing. It was a mystery and Freeman much preferred his mysteries between the covers of a book.
* * *
Paul Foster was still on duty in the Control sphere when Straker walked in, carrying a cup of coffee.
Liquids were not allowed in the control area for good reason. The control sphere was filled with extremely delicate equipment. However, Commander Straker was known to bend the rules occasionally.
"Why don't you girls go and grab a cup of coffee?" he suggested to the two female control operatives. His voice was friendly enough, but there was an angry glint in his eyes. The two women left without a word as he set his cup on top of one of the monitor screens.
"All right, Paul," Straker began as soon as the women had gone. "You sent details of the new appropriation request to General Henderson."
"That's right," Foster admitted coolly.
"At best, that was a serious breach of trust," Straker stated. "What are you trying to pull, Foster?"
Foster glared back. "Stop you from spending millions on moonbases for a start."
"You should know better than anybody that a mass attack is in the cards," Straker pointed out. He was angry and tired. He knew it showed and he didn't much care.
"Speculation," Foster sneered.
"Half this job is speculation. It must be," Straker protested.
"Yes, and it's proving to be pretty expensive."
Straker paused a moment, fighting to regain his self-control. "In the past four months, there has been a marked fall off in U.F.O. sightings." Straker said, finally.
"Which proves that our present equipment is more than adequate," Foster stated.
"Maybe," Straker admitted. "Or, maybe it indicates a grouping. A grouping for a much larger operation. It's going to come. I want to be ready."
"I think you're wrong."
"I don't care what you think," Straker stated, his tone icy cold. "I didn't come in here to discuss the appropriation. I want to talk about your future with this organization."
"Are you firing me?" Foster asked. There was a touch of amusement in his voice.
"No," Straker told him. "Nobody gets 'fired' from SHADO. Your report to General Henderson was," he searched a moment for the right word, "an 'inconvenience'. I can ride that out. No, you've the right to express your criticism of this command. But, you are not free to divulge information given to you in confidence."
"And if I do?"
Straker gave him a long, hard, look.
"All right," Foster conceded. "Let's get one thing clear, I stick to my opinion. I'm gonna' push for a change of command."
"How hard are you going to push, Paul?" Straker asked quietly. "As hard as Craig?"
Foster smiled. "You still say he tried to kill you?"
"With an empty hypodermic?"
Straker's eyes narrowed suspiciously. Foster paused, and the startled expression on his face told Straker enough. Foster had no idea how he knew that.
"What did you say?" Straker's tone was as cold and hard as steel in a liquid nitrogen bath. "I told no one how he tried to kill me. An air bubble in the blood. Lethal, if it's in an artery, if it's large enough. And very difficult to prove the cause of death, since up here, there would be considerable delay before an autopsy could be performed."
Foster flipped the switch on the console in front of him that controlled the single door to the compartment. Obediently, the door slid shut and the electronically controlled bolts slipped into place.
"Open it," Straker ordered.
Foster grabbed Straker's coffee cup from atop the monitor and splashed the hot liquid onto the control board. There was a hiss and the lights flickered, then went out. Smoke wisped out of the panel and the smell of burning insulation filled the air.
"It's no use, Commander," Foster announced as Straker reached over the check the damage in the darkness.
There was something ugly in Foster's voice. Straker stopped and looked up at the younger man.
Foster had a gun in his hand, a 9mm Beretta. He was pointing it right at Straker's chest.
"Colonel, why don't you just think about this?" Straker forced himself to stay calm, to keep his voice soft.
"Think about it?" Foster shouted. "That's exactly what I've done ever since that last re-entry."
"You're crazy, Foster. You know that, don't you?" Straker informed the younger man. He kept his tone quiet and matter of fact as he was slowly made his way around the central console, keeping it between himself and Foster.
"You must be, to think you'll get away with this." He was now in front of the control board.
"You've run this organization too long. It's as simple as that," Foster explained. Foster was watching Straker's face and so didn't find out until much later that he had pressed a button on the console - the button that activated the microphone and outside speakers.
"All right, Foster. What do you plan to do?"
"You came into the Control sphere," Foster explained. "You asked the girls to leave and locked the doorway. You tried to talk me back into line. I refused. You started throwing insults, there was a fight. You lost control and pulled a gun."
Foster indicated the gun in his hand, the one he still had trained on Straker. "Your gun, Commander. I got it from your locker. I managed to jump you, there was a struggle."
"And the gun went off, accidentally," Straker completed for him.
"One question, Colonel. What happened in that module during those sixteen hours of radio black out?"
A flicker of confusion crossed Foster's face.
"All right, Foster, give me that gun." It was a direct command, given in a tone that brooked no argument. Reflexively, Foster lowered the automatic and Straker moved, grabbing his gun arm.
Foster was taller, younger and stronger than his commanding officer, but Straker was surprisingly quick. It was Foster who was startled when the gun went off.
There was the whistle of air rushing out into the lunar vacuum.
Straker had the Beretta and now had it leveled at Foster.
"Why don't you use it?" Foster suggested. "Makes no difference, that shot punctured the sphere. We're losing air. This is the end, Straker."
"Is it?" Straker moved to the back of the central console. Again, he kept it between himself and Foster.
"If we don't pass out, I'll kill you with your own gun," Foster stated.
"You just try and get it." Straker rested his arms across the top of the console. He kept the automatic aimed carefully at Foster's chest.
The air was already getting thin in the dome. Sounds weren't as loud and it was getting harder to breathe, harder to concentrate. Soon, the loss of pressure would cause their blood to boil. Straker struggled to remain conscious.
"That's it, fight it," Foster taunted. "I can wait. You see, it's a question of physique. I'm younger, fitter, stronger."
"You're forgetting one thing, Foster," Straker retorted. "Will power."
But, Straker knew Foster was right. It was just a matter of time. He noted a thin trickle of blood coming from Foster's nose. He barely noticed that his own nose had started to bleed from the low pressure.
The gun fell from nerveless hands as Straker slumped to the floor. Foster grabbed the weapon and managed to pump off two shots before he, too, collapsed into oblivion.
* * *
"Why, why?" Freeman asked Straker for the umpteenth time following Straker's return to Earth with Foster under guard.
Straker was seated at his desk in his office, shuffling through the pile of reports that had accumulated for him in his absence. He'd been looking at the same set of files for the past hour. Freeman doubted Straker actually read the papers at all.
Armies traveled on their stomachs, a wag once observed. Sometimes it seemed that SHADO didn't move at all unless it was in quadruplicate. Freeman couldn't quite remember how it happened, but that's how it was.
Straker finally pushed aside the papers and rubbed the back of his neck. "I don't know, Alec," he admitted. "I just don't know. Two men bounce off the atmosphere during re-entry. We know that a Ufo was closing with their ship. The Ufo disappears. Then, after an extended space flight, they manage to limp back to the Moon." He looked over at Freeman and sighed. "Now, what happened during those sixteen hours?"
Freeman shrugged. "Something pretty frightening. Something traumatic enough to make them both want to kill you."
Straker shook his head. The Moonbase operatives had managed to pull him and Foster out of the Control sphere in time to prevent any permanent damage from the decompression. However, Freeman could tell that Straker was still feeling the after-effects. He was favoring his left arm as if it hurt and his eyes were blood-shot.
"Well, we may know more when the psychiatric unit has finished its tests," Straker said after a few moments.
Freeman nodded in understanding. Twice before they'd nearly lost Paul Foster. Once, due to a horrible series of coincidences soon after he had become an officer, later, when a U.F.O. had plowed into the Moonmobile he was believed to have been in. He'd been assumed dead until a surface search party at the U.F.O. crash sight found him near death with an alien nearby.
The alien died and Foster lived.
Foster was a good officer, despite his occasional eccentricities. He sometimes stated his belief that SHADO should at least make the attempt to negotiate with the aliens, that they really weren't much different from humans. It was a belief that was difficult for more experienced operatives to deal with.
The aliens had fired the first shots.
It would be hard, waiting for those test results.
* * *
Four days later, Freeman and Doctor Jackson came into Straker's office. Jackson had been assigned to Foster's case due to his familiarity with the officer.
Jackson's swarthy face was glum. Freeman wondered if he looked that disheartened. He certainly felt it.
"All right, let's have it," Straker ordered after seeing their expressions.
"Paul Foster is finished," Freeman stated without embellishment.
"Finished?" Straker repeated as if he didn't understand. He turned to Jackson. "But, you said yesterday that he was going to be all right."
"Yes," Jackson nodded, "but, in our psycho-neurologic tests we found . . ."
"Never mind the text book blur," Straker interrupted. "What happened?"
Jackson looked even more downcast, if possible. "Well, sometime during that space flight in the lunar module, Colonel Foster was subjected to a deep subliminal impulse."
"Brainwashed, by who, or whatever, was in that U.F.O.," Freeman explained in more melodramatic terms.
"Brainwashed?" Straker repeated. He still didn't seem to understand what they were saying.
"Yes, the impulse was extremely powerful and confined to one specific action," the psychiatrist explained in his softly accented voice. "To kill you."
"But, you said that Foster could be completely normalized," Straker protested.
"That's right. But, our latest tests have shown there is still a trace of the impulse deeply rooted in his subconscious."
"Just exactly what does that mean?" Straker demanded.
"It means you can never be sure."
"That next week, next month, or in five years time, the impulse might surface and Foster's subconscious will force him to kill you. It could happen today," Jackson explained.
"Jackson, you said we couldn't be sure," Straker pointed out. "So, there is a doubt."
"That's right. I could be wrong, Foster may have it under complete control."
"Well, surely, there's something," Freeman protested. "Drugs, hypnosis?"
Jackson shook his head. Despite his early doubts about Foster's suitability in SHADO, Freeman knew that Jackson had come to respect, even admire the young man.
"No, I'm sorry," Jackson said finally.
Straker was standing with his head bowed. He looked up as Freeman spoke. "You know what this means?"
Straker nodded, but there was pain in his eyes.
SHADO security guards did not ask questions, especially not of senior SHADO officers, most especially not of Commander Straker. Two such blue uniformed guards accompanied Straker and Paul Foster to SHADO's armory and its adjoining shooting range.
"Lock the door," Straker ordered when they arrived. "Under no circumstances whatsoever open it for fifteen minutes. Is that understood?"
"Very good, sir," the lead guard confirmed.
Straker led Foster into the armory and the guards dutifully locked the door behind them.
Foster was familiar with the armory. He'd spent many hours there when he'd first joined SHADO, becoming familiar with the various weapons stored there. He was, by no means, an expert, but he was capable of effectively using any of the hand guns and assault rifles there.
Wordlessly, Straker went to one of the shelves and selected an automatic pistol. He picked out a cartridge clip and loaded it into the pistol.
"Go ahead, do it," Foster spoke into the silence as Straker walked into the adjoining, sound-proofed, firing range.
"The thing is, I feel perfectly normal," Foster told him. He followed Straker onto the range. "I don't blame you. I know it has to be done. I'd do the same in your place. What did the reports say? I'm liable to crack up again?"
Straker didn't answer, didn't even look back at the younger man as he took a position in front of the targets, aimed his gun with one hand and slowly squeezed the trigger. There was no emotion in Straker's face as he watched the shot miss the target and hit the back wall.
"Look, I know you can't just kick me out of SHADO, I know too much. Internal security," Foster found himself saying. He watched as a second shot missed.
"Well, for God's sakes, get it over with!" Foster shouted. He was angry that Straker was prolonging this agony, that Straker was simply ignoring him.
"I think there're a few things you should know first, Foster," Straker stated abruptly. He was still watching the far targets rather than Foster. "The aliens planted one objective in your mind, to kill me. The rest of your mind was unaffected."
Another shot missed.
"I don't understand."
"I know you don't understand," Straker informed him very quietly. "The psychiatrists, they gave you a clean bill of health."
"If I'm okay, then why this?" Foster asked, puzzled. Finally, Straker looked at him and Foster promptly wished he hadn't. There was a glint of madness in those blue-gray eyes, a smoldering anger that frightened Paul Foster to his core.
"I think you said it pretty well yourself," Straker replied, voice very cool, very controlled. "You told me you were going to push for a change of command."
Straker's tone became venomous. "'Change of command'? Eleven years, I've given eleven years of sweat and sacrifice to get SHADO running the way I want it. I won't let some young punk like you mess things up. You're a threat, Foster, a troublemaker. I can't fire you, and I can't shelve you, so..."
"I don't believe you," Foster interrupted.
"It doesn't really matter, does it?" Straker asked icily. Slowly, almost casually, he aimed the pistol at Foster.
Foster began to back away, toward the targets.
"Well, there's Henderson," Foster reminded him. "Now, he won't let you get away with this."
"And then there's Alec Freeman. What about Alec Freeman?" Foster was back by the targets and found he was trembling. He could handle himself in perilous missions. He had proven himself many times over, but Straker's madness was scaring him to death.
"I can handle Alec Freeman."
There was an electric track that moved life-sized targets for a greater challenge. Foster threw the switch, hoping the movement might somehow confuse his tormentor long enough for him to escape.
Straker fired repeatedly at the targets, at Foster. Some shots came uncomfortably close, but not a single one hit their intended target.
Straker stepped closer: "Hold it, Foster."
He had the pistol aimed right between Foster's eyes, and at that close range, there was no way he could miss. Slowly, Straker pulled the trigger.
Nothing happened. There was a fleeting look of something Foster couldn't identify on Straker's face. Then, he threw the gun at Foster. Foster ducked and ran past Straker back into the armory area, to the door to the corridor outside.
"Guards!" Foster shouted.
Straker walked up to him.
"Now, who do you think they're gonna' believe?" he asked. "Foster, you've had it!"
Suddenly, Straker backhanded him across the mouth, splitting his lip and sending him reeling.
"A change of command," Straker was practically ranting. "I know how to take care of punks like you. Gonna' tell General Henderson, huh?"
Foster tried to dodge the furious blows, but Straker was surprisingly quick, despite using only one hand. He held his left arm stiffly. The younger man didn't have time to wonder why.
"Guards, guards!" Foster tried again.
Straker's expression was one of grim satisfaction. "They take orders from me, Foster." Straker slapped him again.
There was an assault rifle loose on the rack nearest him. In desperation, Foster grabbed it and the ammunition cartridge on the shelf above it. He shoved the clip into place and brought the rifle to his hip.
"Get back, Straker!" Foster warned, aiming the rifle in the older man's general direction.
"You're gonna' have to kill me, Foster," Straker informed him. He took a step toward him. Foster fired a single shot past Straker, into the wall. Straker didn't even flinch. He stepped even closer, fists clenched.
"No! I said kill me," Straker grated. "It's you or me, Shoot!" he ordered. "Kill! Kill!"
Foster simply looked at him. Suddenly, he was too frightened, too confused at Straker's seemingly suicidal rage to do anything.
Slowly, as though strength, even life, were draining out of him, he slumped to the floor. Foster found he was crying like a terrified child. He didn't even look up as Straker took the rifle from his hands.
It was a soft, gentle voice he heard saying: "It's all right, Paul. It's all right."
"You tried to kill me," Foster protested. He couldn't keep the tremor out of his voice.
There was no anger, no madness in Straker's expression. There was only a touch of bemusement as Straker picked up the assault rifle that had so recently been pointing in his direction. With an almost careless indifference, he aimed the gun at one of the far targets. He pulled the trigger several times in succession.
A pattern of holes appeared in the center of the bulls-eye marked on the target silhouette. They were so close together, there might have only been a single scatter shot.
"I could have killed you anytime I wanted," Straker explained quietly. He unloaded the rifle and put it back in its place on the rack.
"I'm sorry, Paul. I had to do it." His expression was worried. "I had to be sure. If you were ever going to kill me, it would have been just now."
Straker reached out his hand to help the younger man to his feet, but Foster flinched away.
"It's all right," Straker promised.
Slowly, Foster relaxed, finally accepting that the nightmare was over, that everything really was all right now.
* * *
Freeman was furious. "I thought we'd agreed on how to handle Foster." He was leaning over Straker's desk, glaring down at his commanding officer.
"You and Jackson agreed on how to handle Foster," Straker pointed out. "You decided to send him off to Outer Mongolia for a few years, until Jackson could figure out a way to defuse the problem."
"So, instead, you take matters into your own hands, risking your life and his in the process?" Freeman found himself shouting.
"I can't afford to lose any more officers," Straker responded quietly. "Besides, I considered the risk acceptable."
"You considered the risk acceptable?" Freeman stared at Straker a long moment, the silver blond hair, winter blue eyes, unyielding posture. "I don't understand you, Ed. And frankly, right now, I wonder if Foster wasn't right about you not considering consequences and putting people at unnecessary risk."
Straker's expression turned hard and Freeman realized he'd gone too far.
"That's quite enough, Colonel."
Freeman straightened up and took a deep breath. "Who do you want to send to handle the project in Alaska, sir?" he asked with forced respect.
"I was thinking it might be better for Foster if we assigned him to Moonbase for a month or so," Straker responded.
Alec Freeman nodded. "I'll see you in three months or so then, Commander."
"You don't have to do that, Alec. We have other people who can handle it."
"Would you rather I resigned?" Freeman asked.
Straker looked surprised. "Of course not."
Freeman headed for the office door. As the door slid open, the Australian turned to look back at his commander-in-chief. "Ed, you might want to think about taking some time away from here, before this job really does get to you. Oh, and good luck at the appropriations meeting Monday."
* * *
Foster accompanied Straker to General Henderson's office near Whitehall the following Monday morning. The actual meeting with the Astrophysical Commission's officers would not take place for another hour but protocol and overall security demanded a meeting with Henderson first.
For security reasons, SHADO's operating funds appropriation request was presented to the commissioners in a heavily edited form. Henderson, as commission chairman, would be the only member to review the details of the request. He would make the recommendation for approval of SHADO's annual funding.
Miss Scott, Henderson's secretary, ushered the two SHADO officers into the general's office.
"Where's Colonel Freeman?" Henderson asked as the door closed behind them. He gestured for the officers to take seats in the leather chairs opposite his desk. Foster took a seat. Straker remained standing, placing his briefcase on the indicated chair.
"Colonel Freeman left for Alaska two days ago," Straker answered. "He's handling the construction of the new Sky-diver base up there."
"And how's that going?" Henderson asked.
"We have the title and all the permits in order, finally. With any luck, we'll come in at only twice the original estimate," Straker replied as he opened his briefcase and pulled out the appropriation request.
"I think I already know what's in this," Henderson commented.
"I don't doubt that," Straker replied. He handed the file to the general.
Henderson opened the cover and glanced over the computer generated financial lists. After a long moment he looked up at Straker. "I don't see a request here for money to fix Space Intruder Detector."
"We didn't put it in," Straker explained. "We postponed a few other, less urgent, projects to free up the funds."
"The new Sky-diver base in Australia, updating the mobile transport system," Straker answered.
Henderson paged through the report again. "Yes, I see those listed as needing additional funding," he said. He turned to the last page of the request. "I also see a request for an exorbitant amount for a multi-year project to build additional moonbases."
Henderson gazed at his former aide from beneath brindled eyebrows. "I'd like to hear a good explanation for such a large construction request."
"Granted, the expense will be high, but we believe the need for adequate backup capacity in the event of a massive attack more than outweighs the cost," Straker explained. His voice was quiet, but he was drumming his fingers against the back of the chair.
"Who says they have the capacity to launch a massive attack?" Henderson demanded.
"We don't know that they don't have the capacity, General," Straker replied. "However, that is their next logical tactical step. That's certainly what I'd be planning in their place."
Henderson turned to Foster. "Colonel, why don't you go get us some coffee." He glanced at Straker, "You still take it light and sweet?"
Straker gave a slight nod.
"I like mine black," Henderson added. Foster glanced at Straker who nodded almost imperceptibly, confirming Henderson's instructions. With a shrug, Foster got out of his chair and left the office to get the coffee.
* * *
Miss Scott looked surprised at seeing Foster leaving the office alone.
"They sent me out for coffee," Foster explained.
"There's a kitchen just down the hall, second door to the right," Henderson's secretary told him.
* * *
"There's no way I can present this request to the finance committee in its present form, Commander," Henderson began. His tone was mild. "Have you got any evidence whatsoever that the aliens are capable of launching an attack that would justify this type of defense budget?"
"General, you know as well as I do, by the time we get evidence like that, they'll be on their way. It'll be too late," Straker replied.
"Very well," Henderson said. "I won't argue tactics with you, or your unwarranted assumption that the other side'll even give SHADO enough time to finish those new bases." He opened the top drawer of his desk and pulled out a pile of folders, dropping them onto the polished desktop.
"I'm not interested in assumptions. I'm interested in facts," Henderson said. "These are the allocation requests the Astrophysical Commission is considering for next year. There are about a dozen of them, including one of yours, the Maddox Fund, to clear space debris. Fact: SHADO's present operating budget takes more than half the funds the commission has at its disposal and now you want even more. Now, who won't get funded because you want it all?"
"I don't need a lecture in fiscal responsibility, General," Straker stated. He was still gripping the back of the chair.
"No?" Henderson asked. "I'll put it bluntly, Straker. SHADO has a serious problem living within its allocation."
"Since when can you run a war on a budget?" Straker demanded. "SHADO is defending the planet on an allocation that'd barely arm a tin-plated dictator!"
"Are you sure you're not one of them?" Henderson asked, watching the younger man carefully.
"And what is that supposed to mean?" Straker asked. His knuckles had gone white.
"Your request to double last year's allocation might lend credence to the notion that you have an inflated concept of your authority and value," Henderson stated. "If nothing else, your request shows a rather callous disregard for the needs of anyone outside of SHADO."
"I don't see it that way," Straker replied.
"I know," Henderson said. "And that's exactly what I mean. The money pie is only so big. You have to share and you don't want to."
"We're fighting a war!" Straker protested. "You can't budget the cost of a battle."
"Wars have always been fought on budgets," Henderson responded. "All other things being equal, the more guns and bullets you have, the greater your chances of winning. But, bullets aren't the only determining factor and you know it."
"Then what is?" Straker asked.
"Properly trained people," Henderson replied. Straker straightened up to begin a protest and the older man put up a hand to stop him. "I admit, SHADO has one of the best training programs in the world," the general continued. "However, many of your people seem more interested in their pet research projects than actually fighting this war."
"Research is a necessary component of SHADO's mission," Straker said. "'Know thy enemy.' We don't even know where they come from or why they risk so much coming here. We're not much better off, intelligence-wise, than we were when we were first putting the project together. And, the more we do find out, the less we seem to actually know."
Henderson gazed thoughtfully at the younger man. "Reality looks a lot different than what we put on paper twelve years ago, doesn't it?"
Straker sighed, some of the tension leaving his shoulders. "How much of the request will you approve, General?"
Henderson opened the file and skimmed through it once again. "I'll clear everything except for the Moonbase request. By my figures, that still puts you about ten percent above last year, but I think the Commission can manage that."
"Thank you, sir."
Henderson glanced at the closed office door. "I'm curious as to what prompted Foster to make that report to me, and how you've handled it." He looked over at Straker. "To forgive and forget has never been one of your policies."
That prompted a brief smile from the younger man. "It's never been one of your policies either, as I recall." Straker paused, then continued. "Colonel Foster was extremely upset at the time about an order I gave that he considered was made without due consideration of the risks."
"Is that all?" Henderson demanded.
"No, but that's all I'm going to say about it," Straker replied. "You can ask Foster about it, if you'd like."
"Will he tell me what it was about?" Henderson asked.
"I doubt it very much."
As he spoke, the door opened and Foster entered the office carrying a tray with three coffees.
"One black, one light and sweet," the officer announced, handing over the cups. He took the last one for himself. "Well?" he asked, looking from one to the other.
Henderson took a sip of his coffee before replying: "Your appropriation request is now in a form I am willing to recommend to the commission for approval."
"And?" Foster looked to Straker.
"And," Straker checked his watch, "the commission convenes in about five minutes."
"Before we go, Commander, I do have one recommendation to make to you," Henderson said.
A flicker of worry crossed Straker's face. "About the budget?"
"No, personal," Henderson replied. "When's the last time you took some time away from that hole in the ground you work in?"
"I spent last Thanksgiving in San Francisco," Straker replied.
"You know what I mean," Henderson stated.
"I've been too busy," Straker said. "There's too much to do, especially with SID out of action."
"And when do you think the satellite will be back on line?" Henderson asked.
"We're hoping to launch a repair mission in about six weeks. We've already made the launch arrangements with NASA," Straker answered. "Our biggest problem is that Craig Collins was our expert in that type of mission. We're having problems finding someone else with the same type of expertise."
Henderson nodded. "Collins certainly was a hard act to follow."
"Yes, he was," Straker agreed.
* * *
On the way back to the studios, Foster turned to his commanding officer. "Now what?"
"What do you mean?" Straker asked, weaving the car through the London afternoon traffic.
"You didn't get the money for the new bases, so what do you plan to do now?"
"Go to plan B."
"And what's that?"
Straker shrugged. "I'll let you know as soon as I've figured it out. I think I'll assign a couple people to it. Let them hassle it out instead."
"Who were you thinking of?"
"Barry and Bradley mentioned some ideas they had a while back. They sounded pretty good. Maybe I'll give it to them, give them Ford and Major Graham for the details. In the meantime, I still have to figure out a way to get SID back on line."
"Do you really think we'll find somebody to send up in six weeks time?" Foster asked.
"I'm sure we will, but then, I've always been an incurable optimist," Straker said with a grin.
Foster snorted in disbelief. He would never have characterized Straker as an optimist.
"On the other hand," Straker continued, "We can always pray for a miracle."
* * *
Four weeks later, while Sky-1 was on a routine aerial reconnaissance of the coastline and islands near its cruising area around South America, the pilot sent a not so routine message back to SHADO H.Q.:
Craig Collins Found Alive.
Commander Straker was not a happy man as he spoke with Colonel John Gray.
"Well, let's get this straight before he gets here," Straker found himself stating in no uncertain terms. "When it comes to SID's brain, Craig knows more than anybody, so, as of now, he's on the project."
"All I'm saying is that Craig and I... ," Gray faltered.
"Look, your personal feelings for him are your own problem," Straker reiterated. He was tired of dealing with personnel problems and artistic differences of opinion up at the studio. He was in no mood to deal with them in SHADO, especially not from a senior operative.
Gray had been called into SHADO headquarters eight weeks earlier after Space Intruder Detector was damaged. His assignment at the time was to optimize SHADO's remaining radar systems to compensate for SID's loss. He and Colonel Viginia Lake worked well together and their efforts had been quite successful. However, having Space Intruder Detector back on line was of the highest priority and Craig Collins was the best person for that job. Straker knew it and he knew Gray knew it.
"Just tell me who's in charge," Gray asked, finally.
"Well, overall, you are," Straker admitted, happy to be given at least that small concession from Gray. "But, when it comes to SID's engineering, Craig is God, okay?"
Gray nodded as the intercom on the desk buzzed. A disembodied voice announced Colonel Craig Collins' presence outside.
Straker thumbed a switch next to the intercom and the door to the office slid open. Craig Collins walked in, a wide grin on his broad face.
"It's good to see you," Straker said, delighted.
"It's good to see you, too." Collins laughed. "It's good to see anybody after eight weeks of jungle cats." His grin lessened ever so slightly as he noticed John Gray. "John."
"Craig." Gray's smile came out a little crooked.
"Well, come on. What happened?" Straker insisted abruptly.
"Well, I don't know," Collins with a sheepish grin. "I just sort of lost consciousness on reentry and then I came to and I was floating down over the sea and I went smash into the sea and I got out and swam ashore before she sank."
He leaned toward Straker with a conspiratorial wink. "Tell your boyfriends that their survival course really works."
Behind them, Gray rose to leave. The movement brought Straker's attention back to his presence, and to the business at hand.
"Oh, Colonel Gray, thank you."
Gray nodded, accepting the dismissal, and headed out the door.
As soon as the door slipped shut, Straker turned back to Collins. "You heard what happened?"
"I had no choice," Straker explained. SHADO had declared Collins lost and presumed dead, closing the file on him. Reopening that file had meant a week of intense, occasionally painful, testing for the other man.
Collins grinned and shrugged. "I know. I would have done the same in your place."
"Sure." Straker wasn't sure he believed him. He studied his old friend a moment. The experience in the jungle didn't seem to have changed him much. He'd lost some weight and his deep tan hadn't yet faded, but, it was still the same sandy hair, broad, friendly grin as Straker had remembered. It was good to have him back.
* * *
Gray was still musing about his own problems with Collins when the subject of his ruminations walked up to him in the corridor just outside the control room.
"Hello, Master," Collins greeted. "I'm just off to Moonbase to get things started."
"What?" Gray was startled by the sudden decision. "I thought we'd go together tomorrow. There's a great deal to be done here."
"Yes, well, I thought I'd be more use up there. Besides, I have, shall we say, a little unfinished business to attend to. So, if you'll excuse me, I'll see you later." Collins sauntered off.
Gray was left standing in the hallway with the infuriating feeling he was missing something terribly vital.
* * *
Virginia Lake was sitting on one of the sofas in the recreation lounge on Moonbase, having a quiet conversation with Paul Foster. She was beginning a four week stint commanding Moonbase. Foster was filling in for Alec Freeman, doing the monthly inspection.
They made an attractive couple. Lake was fair and blue eyed with a figure that was accentuated by the silver Moonbase uniform. Foster's dark good looks simply accented Lake's prettiness.
They both started a bit guiltily when Collins stepped over to them. He had entered the room so quietly, neither of them had heard him.
"Craig, I was so glad when I heard." Lake rose to meet him.
"Well, it takes more than a little barbecue to fry me, you know." Collins grinned and grabbed her in a bear hug. She gasped in pain and surprise and he abruptly dropped his arms.
"Gee, I'm sorry. I do hope I haven't cracked a rib. I don't know what came over me," the big man apologized.
Lake checked the condition of her strained rib cage. Nothing was broken, but she watched him with sudden wariness. Collins turned to Foster.
"Well, Foster, nice to see you again." The incident of only seconds ago seemed to have already slipped his mind. "I'm glad you've been keeping an eye on things for me while I've been away."
Foster looked puzzled. "I can't say I know what you mean."
"Oh now, of course you do."
"Craig," Lake said, warning him away.
Collins shrugged. "Well now, how about getting this old jungle cat a cup of coffee, now that he has returned?"
"All right," Lake agreed. She went over to the coffee machine set into the wall of the recreation room.
"If it's all right with you, Foster," Collins baited.
Foster simply shrugged. He got up from the sofa and walked away, telling Lake he was heading for the Control module.
"Still making this moon dust, I see," Collins observed after taking a sip of the coffee Lake handed to him. "I wanted to say that there's no reason to feel guilty about anything."
"I don't feel guilty, Craig," Lake stated calmly, returning to her seat on the sofa. "I cried a little, when I thought you were dead. After a while, I stopped crying. People do, you know."
"Yes, they do."
"And we weren't exactly Romeo and Juliet," she reminded him.
"Virginia," he began, taking a seat next to her. "Ginny, you make it - , You make it very hard for a man who only wants to say there's no hard feelings." He gave her a little smile.
"I'm sorry, it that's really what you're trying to say." She wasn't entirely convinced.
"What else would I do?" Collins protested.
"How was the jungle, Craig?" she asked.
"Well, I'll tell you one thing." He settled back in his seat. "There was no one there who looked like you. You know, I used to lie there, and I used to look up at the old moon and I'd say to myself, you know somethin', ol' Ginny's up there."
She smiled faintly. "I did think about you."
"Did you?" He sat up, a hopeful look on his face. "You mean, there's still a chance for this singed, old astronaut?"
"I never said there wasn't," she reminded him. "It's just that I resent you looking upon me as your property."
"Now, you know I'd never do that." He looked hurt and bent over to kiss her.
She let him, then almost immediately found herself struggling to escape his embrace as his hand grabbed her hair. His lips pressed so hard against hers she could scarcely breathe. Finally pushing him away, she slid off the sofa and took a shaky step backwards in horror.
"You didn't leave the jungle, you brought it back with you!"
* * *
Gray was still unpacking his small personal case when Collins came into his sleep cubical.
"You wanted to see me, Master?" Collins asked, grinning as he watched Gray unpack.
Gray wasn't amused by Collins' good humor: "What's this request for a two-man mission?"
Collins shrugged. "Well, fixing SID is a two-man job, I need a partner. I want Foster."
"He's the only man available with the necessary know-how," Collins explained. "Also, he went through basic astro-training. I know he may be a bit rusty, but I figure I can lick him into shape in time."
"Is that the only reason you want him?" Gray insisted. A nasty suspicion was growing in the back of his mind.
Collins looked mystified and a little hurt at Gray's mistrust. "Well, why else would I want him?"
"All right, you've got him," Gray agreed, unable to find a single concrete reason to deny the request.
Collins bowed repeatedly as he backed out of the tiny cubicle: "Thank you sir, yes sir, please sir."
Gray found the joke irritating, but he wasn't about to let Collins know how irritating.
* * *
Gray's next order of business was with Virginia Lake. He located her in her sleep cubicle. She was sitting on the end of her bed, waiting for him.
"You ran a computer check on my relationship with Craig a long time ago," She reminded Gray when he broached the subject with her.
"I know," he admitted.
"And the readout said that it would not affect my efficiency."
Gray nodded. "And two weeks ago, we ran one on you and Foster and it said the same thing."
"So why the inquisition?" she asked.
It was an unpleasant fact that SHADO insisted on having the final say on who could and could not fall in love. It was all based on whether or not it was likely to influence their efficiency on the job. Couples adversely effected by their relationships could find themselves filling posts on the opposite ends of the world. Lake recognized the need, but she had no desire to be questioned about her feelings.
"Yesterday, we ran one on you and Craig and Foster." Gray explained. "The computer seemed to think a triangle is the nastiest emotional shape there is."
"Well, you can tell the computer to relax. There is no triangle."
"Oh, who got dropped?" Gray asked, a bit surprised.
"May I ask why?"
"That is my business," she informed him sternly. She refused to discuss the matter any further.
* * *
Gray's next stop added yet another item to his growing list of things to worry about.
The exercise room, like the rest of Moonbase, was compact but fully equipped. Collins and Foster were wrestling on the thick floor mat as Gray stopped to watch them through the open door.
Foster was an excellent physical specimen. He was in superb condition and kept himself that way with the dedication of a devoted hobbyist. But, he was obviously no match for Collins. The older man outweighed Foster by nearly forty pounds, and had the reflexes of the proverbial cat.
Collins was calling out numbers. Foster was being required to recite the functions assigned to those numbers as they grappled. Collins was leaving no margin for error.
"Oh, now, sorry's not good enough, old man," Collins berated when Foster murmured an apology for his one miss. "Sorry can kill. Now, when we're up there together, I don't want you to be sorry, I want you to be right. Now, let's try that again, all right?"
Foster agreed, but Gray found himself wondering exactly how long it was going to be before he had a mutiny on his hands.
* * *
Gray was still wondering about Foster's limits that evening in the central recreation lounge. He was studying the chess board on the table in front of him as well as observing Foster and Lake seated in the far corner. He from their expressions he could guess what they were talking about. However, even he was surprised by the look of hatred on Lake's face when Craig Collins entered the room.
Collins sauntered over to the chess table. "Good evening, my Lord. How's about a game of chess?"
He appeared to be ignoring the couple in the corner.
"You're a glutton for punishment, aren't you?" Gray observed, surprised by the request. "You haven't won a game with me yet."
"How about a little bet?"
"You really want to throw your money away?" Gray asked, increasingly amazed.
Collins shrugged. "Shall we say, fifty?"
"If that's what you want," Gray accepted the challenge. "You take the white."
Gray finished setting up the pieces and turned the board so the white faced Collins.
Gray soon wondered about the wisdom of agreeing to the bet. Gray was a good chess player. Many considered him SHADO's chess master, although he denied he was that good. Even so, tonight Collins had him outclassed in a way he hadn't been out-matched in years. That worried him.
Collins had always been a careless player. He usually moved his pieces without any real plan of action. But tonight, he played like a master.
"You really want to play that move?" Collins asked after Gray's last move.
"Just get on with it, Collins," Gray ordered. Collins moved his queen.
Gray studied the board for a long moment. Then he nodded, conceding defeat. "That's fifty I owe you."
"I'll let you have your revenge tomorrow?" Collins inquired as he stood up to leave.
Gray shook his head. "We're due on Earth tomorrow," he reminded him. "I'll take my 'revenge'," - the word was hard for him for some reason - "when we get back here."
"Anything you like." Collins gave him a half bow and sauntered out of the room. He seemed totally unaware of the stares that followed him.
* * *
"I thought we'd been through all this before," Lake protested when Gray caught up with her later in one of the corridors.
"You told me you dropped Collins. You didn't tell me you hated him."
"Who says I hate him?"
"Virginia, I was watching your face when he came in."
"People do move away from each other sometimes, you know." She no longer denied it.
"Collins is on a vital mission," Gray stated firmly. "If there's anything you know about him, his attitude, state of mind, anything, it's your duty to tell me."
She looked at him uneasily, not quite sure what to say.
* * *
Straker was not amused when Gray brought forward his case against Collins upon his return to Earth and SHADO Headquarters.
"You're trying to tell me that just because he beat you at a game of chess, he's a psychotic. Oh, come on now, John, what are you, a sore loser?"
"No, it's not just that," Gray protested. "It's the way he's been riding Foster."
"He's training Foster for a tough mission, not for a game of Ping-Pong. Foster has to shape up," Straker replied.
"And Virginia Lake?"
"Virginia Lake is a girl who fell out of love," Straker stated flatly, dismissing it.
"Look, I know he's a friend of yours... ," Straker gave him a warning look, but allowed Gray to continue. "But, all I'm saying is that what he went through in the jungle . . ."
Straker pressed a series of buttons on the computer keyboard on his desk. The monitor set into the wall flickered on, showing Collins' signed test clearances.
"Doctor Adams, full clearance," Straker read off. "Doctor Jackson, full clearance; Doctor Buden, full clearance. Now, all those reports have been computerized and checked. Full clearance."
"Computers aren't God," Gray pointed out.
"Are you, John?" Straker asked, suddenly very quiet.
"I just have an instinct about him," Gray tried one last time.
Straker sighed. "Look, just now you implied that my friendship with Craig could warp my judgment. Just make sure your personal feelings don't bend yours."
* * *
Gray caught up with Collins outside, near one of the sound stages.
"Blast-off for SID's in five days. You going to be ready?" he asked Collins.
"Well, I'm just about finished down here. Of course, I've got one or two things still to do at Moonbase," Collins informed him.
"We go back tomorrow."
A silver Rolls-Royce stopped in the drive-way they were walking past. A gray uniformed chauffeur got out and opened the door for his one passenger. Gray recognized the elderly blind man who climbed out of the car.
It was Sir Esmond Willoway of Willoway Productions. Gray recalled he had a television series currently in production at the studios.
Gray and Collins both paused as Sir Esmond approached them. His servant guided him in a routine made easy by long practice.
"Excuse me, can you direct me to D-stage?" the old man asked Gray.
"Yes, of course. It's over there." Gray pointed out the direction to chauffeur. "Take the second turning on the right."
"Oh, thanks." The old man patted him on the arm. "Mr. Gray, isn't it?"
"That's right, Sir Esmond." Gray was pleased he'd been remembered. He hadn't seen the old man in over a year.
"Yes, I never forget a voice," Sir Esmond smiled at him, then turned, sensing another presence. "And who... ?" His voice trailed off in sudden confusion and he turned away, troubled.
"Come along, Charles."
Sir Esmond took his chauffeur's arm and permitted himself to be led away. "Can't have you standing about all day," he was muttering.
Gray watched them walk off toward D-Stage, then turned to Collins. "There's something I've forgotten to do. I'll catch up with you later."
"Very well, Master." Collins turned to leave as Gray headed off toward the corner Sir Esmond and his man had just disappeared around.
"Sir Esmond!" Gray called out as he turned the corner. The pair stopped and waited as he ran up to them.
"Excuse me, Sir Esmond, but I couldn't help noticing something seemed to upset you back there."
"It was nothing." The old man brushed it off, although he was obviously still distressed. "It was just one of those inexplicable moments, like walking over a grave." He shuddered slightly at the memory.
"Well, if you're quite sure there's nothing I can do."
The white-haired gentleman shook his head. "No, that's very kind." Then he turned, heading toward D-Stage again with his servant as Gray turned to head back to his car.
For an instant, he thought he saw Craig Collins standing at the corner of the building, watching him. But, when he turned to get a clearer look, there was no one in sight.
"How about that game of chess?" Collins asked as soon as he and Gray finished the standard decontamination procedures on their arrival at Moonbase.
"No thanks," Gray demurred. "I'm tired. I'm going to turn in."
"All right. See you tomorrow, Master."
* * *
Gray woke suddenly, gasping for breath. A shrill whistle filled his ears. He recognized the bright yellow flasher above the door as he clawed out of the bed-covers and fought his way to the door - decompression.
Air rushed past him as he hit the emergency override switch beside the door and it slid open. For a long moment, Gray simply hung on the door frame, catching his breath. Two Moonbase technicians came running, alerted to the emergency by the warning lights and buzzers at the environmental station in the control sphere.
For a moment, Gray considered putting a call through to Straker, then disregarded the thought. He had no proof besides his own gut feeling that Craig Collins had caused this 'accident'. He worried about how many more 'accidents' there might be before Collins' launch Friday.
* * *
The next morning brought at least part of an answer, to Gray's horror. While lifting weights in the Moonbase exercise room, Collins managed to drop a two hundred twenty-five-pound barbell onto Paul Foster.
"How bad is it?" Gray asked as he watched as the Moonbase medical technician wrapped a wide bandage around Foster's ribs.
The medic shook his head. "There's a rib gone, the right tibia's cracked. He'll be strapped up for a fortnight."
"No!" Foster protested. He turned to look back at the medic, then he groaned and sat back to let the man finish his work.
Gray turned on Collins: "What the hell did you think you were doing?"
Collins shrugged. "It was a mistake."
The statement did nothing to mollify Gray: "The mission goes in two days time and you knock out the only man qualified to fly it with you? Some mistake."
Collins did not appear at all perturbed by Gray's anger. "You know, there is another man equipped to fly this mission with me."
"Oh? And who would that be?"
"Ed Straker. I mean, he and I put SID out there in the first place."
Gray and Foster both simply stared at Collins in shocked disbelief.
* * *
On Earth, in Straker's office, Gray tried one more time.
"You can't go up there with a man who's unstable," Gray argued.
Straker was unconvinced: "He's only unstable in your mind. Look, what do you want me to do? Cancel the mission, leave Earth undefended?"
"Train somebody else to go with you."
"There isn't time," Straker explained. "Collins is right, I'll go." He caught the combative look on Gray's face and cut him off sharply: "I said, I'll go."
"Two nights ago, he tried to kill me," Gray stated quietly.
Straker was caught off guard. "He what?"
"He blew the pressure in my sleep cubicle."
"That incident was reported in the daily report as a mechanical failure," Straker pointed out. "And why didn't you tell me immediately after it happened?"
"Because I can't be completely sure," Gray said.
"Do you have one piece of tangible evidence?" Straker finally asked him. He still couldn't accept the possibility that Collins could be guilty of anything beyond being hard to handle, but he had to hear Gray out.
"No, not yet," Gray admitted.
Straker shook his head. "All right. My top priority is to get SID back into commission. I've no alternative and that's what I'm going to do. You'll be in charge here. I've doubled the alert status on Moonbase and I'd advise you to do the same here."
The discussion was ended.
* * *
"Well, the weather at the Cape is good, the outlook is clear." Straker told Collins a short time later.
"I hope they've got those transducers I asked for," Collins commented. He acted just as he'd always acted.
"Yes, Colonel Gray's taking care of it. Say Craig, what is it between you and him?"
"Oh, I don't know," Collins shrugged it away. "It's sort of, you know, chemical. Just one of those things."
Oddly, although it was the answer Straker had half expected, it bothered him. Collins had never been introspective, and so might not be able to describe the problem between himself and Gray, but Straker suspected there was more than just 'chemistry' behind the situation.
Collins had come from a poor family in a poor town in the north of Britain. He'd had to struggle for everything. Gray, on the other hand, was the epitome of the British upper-class. He was well connected and privileged by birth.
However, Straker knew how talented Gray was, and how hard the officer worked for SHADO. It was galling to him, personally, to have two officers in his command in an idiotic feud. It also worried him that the problem seemed to have worsened considerably since Collins' return.
Straker let the matter pass, for the moment. There was too much work to do and he sincerely hoped Gray was mistaken about the whole affair.
* * *
Gray, too, was finishing off some last minute chores, rechecking all of Collins' most recent clearance tests. Only Jackson had found anything out of the ordinary with Collins, and that was in one of his own semi-authorized experiments.
Jackson was gaining a reputation for running peculiar experiments.
"I call this an 'isolator'," Jackson said, opening a panel in one wall of his office to reveal a small cubbyhole with a built-in seat. "It cuts you off from all outside influences, sound, heat, light, microwaves, even cosmic rays. I wanted to study the effect on the brain of a total absence of radiation. Rather like a sensory deprivation tank, only cutting out radiation specifically."
"What has this got to do with Collins?"
"One of the tests I do is record the brain's electrical patterns both inside and outside this cabinet."
"Well?" Gray prodded.
"Usually, there's very little difference."
"Doctor, will you please get to the point?" Gray was losing patience with the psychiatrist's carefully slow presentation. Jackson turned on the monitor beside his desk. A squiggly line appeared on the screen.
"Look, that's the kind of pattern I usually get. That's one of my colleagues. That's the pattern outside the isolator."
The pattern changed slightly as he pressed a series of keys on the computer keyboard. "That's the pattern inside. Now, I'm going to show you Collins'."
He hit another series of keys and another pattern appeared on the monitor screen. It was not much different from the first two. "That's Collins outside the isolator."
Another series of keystrokes and suddenly a flat line appeared across the screen. "That's Collins inside."
Gray was stunned. "What's your conclusion?"
Jackson shook his head, professionally cautious. "It's too early to have one. I've got central computers on it now."
"Have you told anybody else about this?"
"There's nothing to tell," the psychiatrist assured him. "It's a purely unofficial experiment."
"When do you expect your computer analysis?" Gray asked.
"Probably late tonight."
Jackson seemed undisturbed at the prospect of waiting up all night for the report.
"Call me as soon as you get it," Gray told him. "If I'm not at home, I'll be at Collins' apartment."
* * *
Collins had an apartment in London, in one of the older buildings just off the King's Road. A neighbor lady came in twice a week to clean, or so SHADO security indicated when Gray asked.
Collins answered the door on the first ring.
"I'm afraid I can't spare you much time," Collins explained, returning to his packing. "Ed and I are flying off to the Cape in an hour."
Gray nodded and looked around the apartment a moment. It was small, but immaculately neat. There were several sports trophies on a shelf by the window as well as a group of models of modern fighter planes.
Gray recalled that Collins had been a highly regarded athelete before joining the RAF. He'd been a top test pilot and one of the few international pilots accepted into NASA's astronaut program in the late sixties. He'd helped design SHADO's basic astronaut program.
Gray stood and watched as the other man continued packing his suitcase.
"Did you know we still haven't located your ship?" Gray began casually. "The one you crashed in."
"Really?" Collins didn't seem very worried.
"Are you sure the map references you gave us were right?"
Collins shrugged. "Well, I was pretty groggy at the time. It could have been one mile, two miles either way."
Gray nodded, thoughtful. "Do you remember anything more about what happened?"
"No, my mind is very much a blank, still."
"Don't you find that a bit worrying?"
"No, I'm still the same fellow, you know." Collins laughed.
"Are you, Craig?" Gray was deadly serious.
Collins looked at him, suddenly suspicious: "Now, what's that supposed to mean?"
"Virginia Lake thinks you've changed."
"Oh, Virginia's just... "
"And you give blind men the creeps," Gray added.
"Are you out of your mind?"
"And you tried to kill me."
"Now what the devil are you talking about?" Collins demanded. He had finally stopping his packing to stare at Gray.
"Jackson did a test on you," Gray stated, trying to remain calm under Collins' stare.
"Well, he does lots of tests."
"One in particular, where he put you in a cabinet."
"Yes, what about it?"
"When you were in that cabinet, you were isolated from all communication of any kind, even radio waves," Gray explained.
"Inside that cabinet, your brain pattern stopped. You were inert, a nothing. A body without a will."
Collins simply stared at him a moment. "Now look here, I know that you have never liked me... ."
Gray cut him off: "I think the aliens snatched you out there. I think they burned out the personality centers of your brain and then programmed you so that they could control you with radio waves. I think they sent you back here as a kind of guided missile, to kill Ed Straker."
Collins' face was suddenly calm, eyes cold and glittering. "Now, I mean, if that's really the case, Master, you're wasting your time aren't you? I mean, you can't reason with a robot."
Without warning, Gray felt something hard smash against his temple and saw the carpeted floor coming up to meet him. Then, there was nothing.
* * *
Kennedy Space Center hadn't changed much in four years even though it wasn't quite as busy as it once had been. That was thanks to the growing high orbit and lunar shuttle programs that launched from other facilities.
However, despite the drop in business, the Space Center technicians were just as efficient, and just as friendly, as Straker remembered them from his last visit, when SID was first launched.
"Well, here we go again, old man" Collins joked as they were riding up the gantry elevator to the capsule.
"Not so much of the 'old', if you don't mind." Straker objected mildly. "After you."
Collins murmured a 'thank you' and climbed into the cramped, two man capsule. Straker followed close behind him. A NASA technician sealed the hatch as the two men settled themselves into their seats.
Straker reviewed the instrument panel in front of him for a moment, listening to the reports from the control center. All was proceeding normally, no problems.
"I hope I can still drive one of these things." Straker commented, only half joking. Collins glanced at him, seemingly worried.
"Yeah, so do I."
"We have ignition," a voice announced over one of the capsule speakers. "We have lift-off."
Acceleration is indistinguishable from gravity in its effects. The effect in the capsule of the initial 500,000 pounds of thrust, then the 150,000 pounds of thrust from the second stage boosters, pressed the two SHADO astronauts into their seats at the equivalent of seven times the force of Earth's gravity.
"A-okay from here. How about you boys?" A southern drawl asked over the radio.
"Thank you, Houston, this is SID Two reporting all systems go." Straker replied, checking the gauges in front of him. The engines had automatically shut-down, exactly at the time required by the computers, their fuel exhausted. Then, several minutes later, also at exactly the time required, the explosives to separate the capsule from the second stage boosters detonated.
They were now in free-fall, in high orbit, in excess of seven hundred miles a minute.
"How long now?" Collins asked after a moment.
"Seven hours, eighteen minutes, twenty-seven seconds," Straker stated, settling back for the ride.
* * *
Seven hours and fifteen minutes later, Collins caught sight of their target: "Well, there she is. There's old SID."
"Right on the old button." Straker commented.
Three minutes later, a touch of the control retro rockets brought the capsule along-side the larger satellite.
"Well, time to go for our walkies, old man," Collins announced as soon as Straker checked their orbit on the navigational computer. As if to echo, NASA confirmed their position on radar. They had located SID. Their orbit was correct, parallel to the satellite.
* * *
In SHADO Control, the operatives listened to the radio exchanges between NASA and the space capsule. Paul Foster paced the control room, unconsciously rubbing a hand over his cracked and bandaged ribs. Everyone there knew he wasn't happy at just listening in.
He wanted to be out there instead of Straker. One of the reasons he'd joined SHADO was that he liked being out on the edge, pushing back the envelope. Simply waiting didn't suit him.
A phone rang on the communications supervisor's console. It was the emergency outside line, a special security line that bypassed the usual communications channels into SHADO Control. Only a handful of senior officers even knew the number.
Foster answered the call and listened to the voices on the other end. The control center was fully climactically controlled to seventy degrees and 50 percent relative humidity, but he suddenly felt a shiver run up his spine.
John Gray was in a central London hospital with a skull fracture and a severe concussion, or so the voice on the telephone was saying. A neighbor had heard something like a fight in Craig Collins' apartment and had notified the police. According to the doctor treating him, Gray was still extremely confused, but had insisted this number be called before he would cooperate in his treatment.
Unfortunately, what Gray did say made only too much sense to Foster.
As he hung up the phone, Foster flipped a switch on the communications console. The switch interfaced SHADO's communications with NASA's radio contact with the capsule and the two men working on SID. He breathed a silent sigh of thanks that they were nearly finished with their work. Then he promptly felt guilty at putting the work on SID first.
"Commander," Foster announced into the microphone on the console, "Collins is going to kill you!"
* * *
"So, Gray was right," Straker murmured mostly to himself. He watched Collins approaching him. His companion's face was blank, without emotion. Straker was reminded of the few aliens SHADO had managed to capture. Their faces had shown much the same lack of feeling.
"Listen, Craig, you can beat this thing," Straker found himself saying, using the short range channel on the suit radio. They could not be overheard on Earth. "Listen to me! We can help you. They may have your mind, Craig, but they can never get your soul."
* * *
SHADO Control was silent, except for Foster's worried attempts to raise some response from the radio link with the capsule. Finally, after what felt like an eternity, Straker responded: "Receiving."
"Are you all right?"
"Yes," came Commander Straker's reply. The operatives in the control center breathed a collective sigh of relief.
"What about Collins?"
"He's - ," There was a catch in Straker's voice and he began again: "He's out of it."
"He could have killed you," Foster reminded him.
"Yes, he could have killed me," Straker agreed, very quietly.
* * *
Officially, Colonel Craig Collins died of a simple accident in space. Death was quick and virtually painless. The hose connecting the environment control pack to his space suit had failed, spinning him off into deep space. If the body had been recovered, Collins would have been buried with full military honors. As it was, his file was closed with a posthumous commendation - at Straker's insistence.
Unofficially - Well, Straker's regulation post-mission debriefing was short. How the hose could have failed at just the necessary moment, he refused to even speculate on.
"Sir?" Miss Ealand called out to Straker as he entered the offices at the film studio early one morning the next week.
"I have a message here for you from Sir Esmond," Miss Ealand said when Straker stopped at her desk. He still looked exhausted. There were dark rings under his eyes.
"What's he want?" Straker asked. He even sounded tired and depressed.
"He wanted to remind you that he's picking you up at seven tonight and you're to bring a friend, preferably female."
"For what?" Straker asked.
Miss Ealand gazed at him in bemused surprise for a moment before replying: "Both Harlington-Straker and Willoway Productions are up for some awards this evening."
Straker still looked blank.
"The note on my schedule is in your handwriting," she added. "It's been down here for several weeks."
"Oh," Straker commented. "What were you planning on doing this evening?"
"I'm taking my mother to that new stage production of Othello."
"That sounds a lot more interesting than an awards dinner with Sir Esmond," Straker said.
"I'm sure you'll survive, sir," Miss Ealand said. "I'm also sure one of the girls downstairs will be more than happy to go with you."
"Well, if that's what it takes to keep Sir Esmond happy. He is one of our best tenants," Straker replied as he turned to enter the inner office/entrance elevator to SHADO headquarters.
"Sir," Ealand called again. Straker stopped and looked back at her. "I was wondering how you were."
"I'm fine, Miss Ealand. Why do you ask?"
"You look tired, sir. And, you haven't said anything about Colonel Collins since you came back from the States."
"Craig Collins is dead. What more is there to say?" he asked very quietly.
* * *
Entering SHADO control, Straker looked around. It looked like a quiet day, so far. Ayshea Johnson was seated at her communications station talking to Julie Omura, a young radar operator. Johnson was also young and very pretty. She had long black hair she let hang down her back. Her eyes were a warm brown and she had a sweet smile.
"Lieutenant Johnson?" Straker said, beckoning her aside.
"I was wondering if you had plans for this evening," he said, very quietly.
"No, sir. Why do you ask?" Johnson said.
"I just found out I have a black-tie dinner to attend this evening," Straker explained. He was uncomfortable with the idea of asking. He knew other senior officers, including Freeman, seemed to have no qualms with dating junior officers, even enlisted personnel, despite the fact that such fraternization was officially frowned upon. It wasn't something he had ever done himself. It smacked too much of an abuse of priviledge. "I wouldn't even ask, except Sir Esmond insists I have a female escort."
Johnson stifled a giggle. "You're asking me to go with you?"
"You don't have to. There's nothing official about it," Straker told the young woman. "I wouldn't be going myself if I didn't have to."
"What time should I be ready, sir?" she asked.
"Pick you up at your place about seven-thirty?"
"I'll be ready," she promised. Straker nodded and headed off to his office. Johnson returned to her station.
Julie Omura leaned close to Johnson. "You have a date with the commander?" Johnson nodded. "Lucky you. I always end up with a radar tech."
Robert Turner was nearby, working on a computer-radar interface. His expression grew more and more sullen.
"And what's wrong with radar techs?" he demanded, stepping over to the two women. He had a long screwdriver in his hand, holding it like a weapon.
"Nothing," Julie said. "But you have to admit, the commander's one hell of a good catch and he's not bad looking, either. A girl could do a lot worse."
Turner looked hard at Johnson. "We had a date tonight, Ayshea."
"We did?" she asked, surprised. "I'm sorry, I forgot."
"Sure, forget all about the little guy when Mister Big comes calling," Turner sneered. "But mark my words, pretty soon, he won't be so big."
"Rob, what are you talking about?" Omura asked.
Turner glared at her a moment, then shrugged. "Never mind."
* * *
The awards dinner was nearly as boring as Straker had warned Johnson it would be. Sir Esmond droned on about the changing face of advertising production and the inflexibility of the American film rating system. The others at the table were people Johnson recognized from the studio, but she didn't really know them. One was an art director. His wife was an actress. One of the studio's directors, Carl Mason, was there with his pregnant girl friend.
Straker introduced Johnson as a 'computer programmer' from the accounting department. The actress seemed slightly scandalized. Mason appeared vastly amused by the idea and his girl friend seemed awed at meeting anyone capable of programming a computer.
"I must apologize for dragging you to this," Straker told Johnson as he helped her with her shawl when the presentations were finally over. "It's still early. Why don't I buy you a cup of coffee before I take you home?"
"Okay, sir," she agreed, surprised by the offer. He'd been very quiet during the dinner, sticking to monosyllables even when directly addressed by Sir Esmond. When Harlington-Straker Productions picked up an award in cutting edge advertising production, his acceptance speech has fewer than a dozen words.
"I know a place that's close," Straker told her as they left the building. He hefted the small golden statuette in one hand, as if wondering what to do with it.
They walked a few blocks before stopping at the elegant Georgian frontage of a private club. A broad stairway led to the leaded glass double entrance doors. A simple brass plaque beside the doors declared it was the Zodiac Club, founded 1916.
London was noted for its exclusive political and social clubs. The Zodiac Club was not as old as some of the other clubs in the area, but it was just as exclusive, in its own way. It claimed no political affiliations. Straker explained that political discussions were frowned upon, in fact. Metaphysics was the order of the day at the Zodiac, coupled with hot jazz and a gambling floor that rivaled Blades.
Straker escorted Johnson through the leaded glass double doors. They walked over to the porter's lodge that guarded the main entrance to the club.
"Good evening, Donall. How're are things going?" Straker asked the liveried porter.
"Excellent, as usual, Colonel," Donall answered. "I was surprised to hear that Colonel Collins had died. Please accept my condolences."
"Thank you, Donall," Straker said, but there was little conviction in his voice. He took Johnson's arm and led her across the huge zodiac circle inlaid in the wide white marble floor of the entry hall and down the marble staircase to the main dining room. A jazz quartet could be heard playing in the room beyond as they went through the tall double doors.
The quartet was on a low stage in front of floor to ceiling windows that looked out on a lush atrium garden. Disappointingly, every table in the dining room was occupied.
Johnson was surprised, however, to see General Henderson seated at one of the tables near the stage. His companion, a silver haired woman of about sixty, waved to them, beckoning them over.
"Good evening, General, Mrs. Henderson. This is Miss Johnson, from work," Straker introduced quietly. "Would you mind much if we joined you?"
Henderson raised one bushy eyebrow at his wife and said: "I don't think it would matter if I did." He glanced at Johnson. "It's Ayshea, isn't it?"
"Yes, sir," she said as she took a seat in the armed chair opposite Mrs. Henderson, to the general's right. Straker took the remaining chair at the table, opposite Henderson. He placed the statuette on the table.
"So, Edward, what have you been up to tonight?" Mrs. Henderson asked. The jazz quartet started another piece.
"Sir Esmond insisted I be at an awards dinner with him and some people from the studio tonight," Straker answered. "The two companies won a couple awards this evening."
"That's wonderful," Mrs. Henderson said, looking over the statuette. "You must be very pleased."
"I guess so," Straker said, without enthusiasm. "Sir Esmond's happy about it, anyway." He pulled a cigarette from a silver case and lit it, ignoring Mrs. Henderson's grimace.
A steward arrived and placed menu cards on the table beside Straker and Johnson. A Zodiac traced in gold was imprinted at the top of the menu, below which was row upon row of fine italic print. Johnson looked down the menu while Straker ordered coffee for himself.
"You don't seem very excited about it," Henderson commented to Straker as soon as the steward had taken Johnson's order. "In fact, you look like hell."
"I'm tired, that's all," Straker replied. "I haven't been getting enough sleep, I guess."
"I thought you said you were going to take some time off after you got that equipment fixed." Henderson said.
"Did I?" Straker responded. Henderson simply looked at him.
The steward brought his coffee and Straker took a moment to add sugar and cream to the bone china cup. "It'll have to wait till Alec gets back from Alaska, I'm just too busy right now. The fall T.V. season begins in less than a month and the writers are talking about a strike again. We're finishing up production on two films that look promising for Christmas. I don't have time to take time off."
Henderson sat back and simply watched the younger man for a long moment. SHADO's commander looked haggard and worn out. Straker lit another cigarette.
"How are you doing?" Henderson asked finally.
Straker seemed surprised and a little irritated by the question. "You're the second person to ask me that today. How should I be doing? I haven't fallen apart, if that's what you're asking. Craig is dead, and I'm not, that's all. End of story."
"Is that all?" the general asked.
"What more is there?" Straker demanded. He sat back in his chair in a huff of annoyance. "We agreed a long time ago never to discuss the business here, General."
"I'm not discussing the business," Henderson responded. "I'm talking about you taking better care of yourself."
"I'm touched by your concern," Straker commented. "But, I don't need it."
Henderson raised one eyebrow at Straker's statement. "When's the last time you had a decent meal and a decent night's sleep?" he asked quietly.
Straker didn't answer.
"You're going to end up sick or worse," Henderson warned.
"Would anybody really care if I did?" Straker wondered bitterly. "Maybe I should go on that vacation. Maybe I'll just go and not come back."
"You'll come back," Henderson contradicted. "You're too damn stubborn to let anyone else take your job."
"Don't bet on it, General."
Henderson simply watched Straker for a long moment, then: "Kathryn phoned me this morning. You haven't been returning her calls. She said it's been more than a week."
"Maybe I haven't been getting her messages at work," Straker said.
"Sir," Johnson interrupted shyly. "I put your messages on your desk myself this morning. Mister Freeman's been complaining you haven't been returning his calls either, sir," she added. She ducked her head to avoid his glare.
Straker snuffed out his cigarette. "Maybe I don't want to talk to them right now," he stated, addressing Henderson. "Maybe I don't need their sympathy and platitudes right now."
"What do you need, Ed?" Mrs. Henderson asked.
"I need to be left alone," Straker stated. He lit another cigarette, but Henderson noted his hands were shaking ever so slightly.
"When's Alec getting back?" Henderson asked after a moment.
"In about a month," Straker answered. "Why?"
"Just curious," Henderson replied. He turned to his wife. "Amanda, why don't you show Ed that art display you were telling me about in the card room?" He smiled at Straker's sudden puzzled look. "The club has picked up a new collection in that post-modern style I know you like." He nodded to Johnson. "Miss Johnson can keep me company while you're gone. I can't stand the stuff myself, think it's a bunch of garbage."
Mrs. Henderson was already out of her chair. Straker stood, expression stony with hurt anger at his obvious dismissal. Mrs. Henderson took Straker's arm and some of the tension seemed to drain away from him.
"We'll be back in a few minutes," Mrs. Henderson promised.
"Take your time," Henderson instructed. He watched after his wife and Straker for a moment before turning back to the young woman seated beside him.
"It's Lieutenant Johnson, isn't it?"
"Yes, sir," the young woman answered. "I work at H.Q."
"Yes, I know," Henderson murmured, deep in thought. "How has he been since he came back?"
"I'm not sure I understand the question, sir," Johnson said.
"Oh, come now, Lieutenant," Henderson said. "Straker went through a lot on that last mission with Collins. I need to know how he's handling it." He noted her hesitation. "I can make that an order."
"No, sir," Johnson said. "I guess he's handling it okay. He's been very tired since he came back. A little moody, maybe, but nothing too bad. He's been really busy with getting things back to normal. John Gray just got out of the hospital, you know."
"Yes, I know. Has Ed said anything about what happened up there with Collins?" the old man asked.
"No, sir. He hasn't said anything except that it was an accident."
"How long has he been chain smoking?"
"Chain smoking, sir?"
"He's gone through five cigarettes in the past half hour, Miss Johnson," Henderson pointed out. "How long has he been doing that?"
"Since he came back from the States, I suppose," Johnson replied. "But, I don't understand what you're getting at, sir."
Henderson rubbed his chin in thought. "Lieutenant, besides Freeman, is there a senior command officer who hasn't been around Straker for the past couple of weeks?"
"Colonel Lake's been on Moonbase," Johnson answered. "Why, sir?"
Henderson simply shook his head. He turned to watch his wife and Straker returning from the card room and the art display.
"Well, what do you think?" he asked as they got to the table.
"They've got some nice pieces there," Straker told him as he took his seat.
"Well, you know more about it than I do," Henderson commented. Again, uncharacteristically, Straker failed to rise to the bait.
Henderson watched him a long moment before saying: "I've been reconsidering that request you made for that special building project."
"I thought you made your refusal very clear last month," Straker replied. "May I ask what's made you change your mind?"
"It's possible I was too quick to turn you down," Henderson said. "I would like to get some opinions on the subject besides yours, though. I understand Virginia Lake has been running things on location, I think your people call it, for the past couple weeks."
"Good, I'd like to see the two of you in my office Wednesday morning. Say, about 10:30?"
"Yes, sir," Straker said softly. His expression was clouded with worry as he lit yet another cigarette.
* * *
"Sir, you weren't serious when you told the general that if you left on furlough, you wouldn't come back, were you?" Johnson asked Straker as their cab approached Johnson's flat near Knightsbridge.
Straker considered her question before replying: "No, Henderson's right. I'm too pig headed to hand the job over to anyone else. Realistically, the only way I'll be leaving that job is feet first, which, considering everything, may be sooner that anybody expects."
"Sir?" Johnson was surprised at the pessimism in his voice. She found herself at a loss as to how to respond.
"Never mind," he told her. "I'm just tired and out of sorts."
The cab pulled up to the curb in front of her apartment building. "Would you like to come in for coffee, sir?" she asked as she opened the door to get out.
Straker paused, as if considering her offer, before replying: "No, thank you. I need to get back to the office for a little bit."
She climbed out of the cab. "Thank you for an interesting evening, sir."
"I hope you weren't too bored by it all, but it's the price I pay for the illusion of being a businessman."
Johnson laughed. "It's all right, sir. It really was kind of fun, especially the club. The general can be quite charming when he wants to be." She became solemn. "He really is worried about you, you know, sir."
"I know," Straker replied. "Keeping an eye on me is part of his job."
Johnson shut the door to the car and turned to climb the front steps of the building. "Good night, Ayshea," he called.
It was dark, and the street lighting wasn't very good. She did note that the cab waited until she had the security door open before pulling away.
She slipped inside and was surprised to find Turner waiting in the hall.
"Rob, what are you doing here?" she wondered aloud.
"Waiting for you," Turner replied. "I thought you'd be home by now. That dinner was over two hours ago."
"The commander took me to his club afterwards," she replied. She headed up the stairs to her flat. Turner followed close behind her.
"How was it?" Turner asked. He was still wearing his beige control room uniform. A brown leather jacket covered the SHADO insignia on his left breast. Johnson stopped at her door and put her key in the lock.
"It was kind of fun," Johnson answered, turning the key.
"Did you have sex?" Turner demanded. There was something unpleasant in his tone. Johnson turned to looked at him. Her dark eyes widened in worried surprise.
"What sort of question is that?" she asked. "Of course not."
"Wasn't that why he asked you out?"
She glanced down the hallway to make sure no one else was around to hear. "The commander needed a dinner escort. You know that," she stated, keeping her voice low. "Besides, its none of your business even if I did go to bed with him. Just because we dated a few times doesn't mean you own me. Commander Straker happens to be a very attractive man and a lot nicer than you are. And, if he had asked me to bed, I would have gone!"
Johnson suddenly opened the door and ran inside, slamming the door in Turner's face. She threw the bolt on the door as he grabbed for the door handle.
He started pounding on the door. "You're a whore, you know that?" he shouted. "You're all f***ing whores for the Big Man. He doesn't care about you or anybody else. He doesn't have to care, he already runs the world!"
As Turner ranted on, Johnson found herself leaning against the door, shivering at the venom in his voice. Tears ran down her face. She waited for him to leave and wondered what she should do. Turner has a good control room operative. She didn't want to get him into trouble, but she couldn't understand why he was so angry.
It was promising to be one of those quiet, boring mornings so rare at SHADO Headquarters. It was a promise that Foster, as senior command officer on duty, was more than a little grateful for. The past few weeks had been hectic. They all could use a little rest.
SID was fully repaired and had been functional for nearly two weeks. All the linkages had been checked and recalibrated. Things were running remarkably well.
Even his broken ribs had pretty much stopped bothering him.
Foster glanced at the digital clock set into the wall above the computer and communication consoles: 7:59.
Commander Straker was late this morning. He was usually in his office with his morning's coffee by 7:30. By 8:00 he'd normally be done going through the previous night's report logs. Foster recalled that Straker and Virginia Lake were both supposed to be at Henderson's office near Whitehall at 10:30.
Foster shrugged mentally. There were times when the commander was just plain unpredictable. This was probably one of those days, too. Straker had been short-tempered and more moody than usual these past two weeks. The staff psychiatrists said it was probably stess related, but since he refused come in for a check-up, they couldn't be sure it wasn't something else.
A nearby printer clattered a moment, spitting out a message. An operative glanced at the sheet, tore it off the machine and handed it to Foster.
"Priority readout, Washington, Commander Straker, SHADO," Foster read aloud, welcoming the distraction. "General McGruder sends his compliments, looks forward to meeting you."
There was a crash of metal striking metal behind him. Foster whirled.
Straker had appeared on the upper level, literally out of nowhere. He toppled another piece of computer equipment, pulling the plug out of the wall. He then attacked the next equipment rack with the heavy pry bar he was using as a club.
"Commander, what's wrong?"
If Straker heard Foster's shout, he gave no indication of it. He was single-mindedly attacking the equipment in the rack until two of the security guards tried to grab him.
Foster and the other SHADO operatives simply watched in utter astonishment as Straker tossed the two men away from him as if they were large rag dolls. Foster ran over to grab him and was tossed away as well. He watched in amazement and horror as Straker defended himself against the attempts of four burly security men to subdue him. They were trying to subdue a dervish.
Suddenly, Straker broke off and disappeared down the hall to the express elevator to the surface.
Foster picked himself off the floor and grabbed the telephone receiver on the console nearest him. "Get me studio security!"
* * *
Straker was running flat out through the studio grounds. He paused in his headlong flight only just long enough to check on how close his pursuers were.
Foster joined the four studio guards who were trying to catch Straker before he could do any more damage. But, Foster's heart went cold at what they came across next.
One of the studio's mini-utility cars was tracing a wide circle in the middle of the parking lot. The man slumped over the steering wheel was wearing a SHADO H.Q. uniform. There was an assault rifle on the seat next to him and the car seat was covered with blood from the holes in his chest.
Foster spotted Straker climbing a fire escape ladder to the roof of one of the sound stages. "Commander!" Foster called out. "Ed!"
For just an instant, Foster's voice seemed to penetrate and Straker paused to look back at him. Confusion and exhaustion played across the older man's face. Then, he was gone, onto the roof, Foster and the security guards close behind him.
They caught Straker on the roof, bent over the still form of Virginia Lake. For a horrifying moment, Foster thought she was dead. Then, she took a deep breath.
Straker didn't seem to notice when two of the guards pulled him away from Lake's body. He seemed totally oblivious to them. His pupils were dilated as he slumped against the guards who had hold of him. He showed no reaction at all when Foster searched through his pockets for some clue to what was happening.
To Foster's amazement, he found an empty drug vial and a hypodermic syringe in the pocket of Straker's black pullover sweater.
Paul Foster had a sudden hunch that Straker was beyond noticing much of anything right now.
The question was: Why?
* * *
Foster was still asking himself that question when General Henderson arrived at SHADO headquarters.
A security officer escorted him to the medical center room where Straker was being held under armed guard.
"He's been like this ever since we brought him in," Foster explained at Henderson's questioning look.
Straker was lying on one of the hospital style beds. His eyes were half open but he wasn't seeing anything. The only sign of continued life was the slow, almost labored, rise and fall of his chest under the bed-covers and the green bouncing dot on the electrocardiograph screen. An intravenous tube fed clear fluid into one arm.
"He's in deep physical and psychological shock," Doctor Jackson explained.
"And what made him that way? What pushed him over the edge?" Henderson demanded.
Jackson shrugged. "It's hard to say, but, whatever it was, his mind has had to just walk away from it."
"Isn't there anything you can do for him?" Henderson asked more gently.
Jackson hesitated a moment, then nodded: "Yes, there is something. But I don't like to use it except in an emergency."
"Doctor, when SHADO's most vital piece of manpower suddenly becomes homicidal, it is an emergency." Henderson grated.
Jackson nodded with an unhappy grimace. He retrieved a vial and a syringe from a nearby cabinet. He locked the cabinet behind him and proceeded to give Straker an injection.
"This will take a little while. I'll call you when he breaks through."
Foster took advantage of the time to investigate another question that had come to mind, namely: How?
How had Straker gotten into SHADO Headquarters without his presence being noticed by anyone? It appeared that no one saw him even enter the studio lot.
His car, a bronze 1978 EuroFord Omen with SHADO security package, had been found in the middle of one of the parking lot entrances. However, the studio gate guard swore the car had not returned to the studio after Straker drove away in it at 6:00 the night before. The electronic gate sensors had not registered the car passing back through any of the other gates.
Miss Ealand was seated at her desk, guarding the main entrance to SHADO. When asked, she swore the same thing. Straker had left the previous night to pick up Colonel Lake at the airstrip and he hadn't returned.
No one saw him enter the building. No one saw him enter SHADO Headquarters. It was impossible, but it was true.
Lake couldn't shed any light on the mystery either.
She rubbed the back of her neck as she sat up in a bed in another room in the medical center. "I'm sorry, but I can't remember a thing."
"You can't remember coming back here with Commander Straker?" Henderson insisted.
She shook her head and grimaced at a sudden pain. "I can recall leaving the airport in Commander Straker's car, but after that, there's nothing I'm afraid," she told them. She laid back on the pillows.
"It was a severe blow to the base of the skull." Doctor Buden explained.
"Don't I know it," Lake complained as she took the two aspirin the doctor was holding out to her.
"It's caused amnesia covering a period of several hours. It's not uncommon in cases like this," Buden told them.
"How long will it take her memory to come back?" questioned Foster.
"It might never come back, Colonel," the physician admitted.
The wall phone buzzed and Henderson picked up the receiver. He listened a moment before hanging it up.
"Straker's beginning to break through."
"Paul," Lake called as Foster turned to follow Henderson through the door. "He couldn't have done it. Ed's just not a killer."
Foster tried to give her a reassuring smile and found he couldn't. The evidence they had was pretty damning. Besides, Foster wasn't convinced that Collins' death was the accident Straker claimed it was.
* * *
The change in Straker was alarming. He was thrashing about, muttering irrationally. His eyes were glazed as he tried to watch something that was only occurring inside his own head. Straker was still utterly unaware of his surroundings, even of Jackson's assistant securing restraining straps to the bed.
Henderson's forehead creased in a frown. "How dangerous is this drug?"
"I told you it was dangerous. It could open his mind, or it could destroy it," Jackson stated. He took a second vial from the wall cabinet and gave Straker another injection. Straker whimpered as the needle bit his arm. It was the only notice he'd given anything real since he'd been brought in.
"They've murdered time," he was muttering, almost weeping.
"I want you to go back eight hours," Jackson instructed quietly. "You were in your car with Colonel Lake."
Straker seemed to focus on the psychiatrist's face for just a moment. His voice was nearly a whisper as he began to speak. His forehead glistened with sweat.
"I was in my car with Colonel Lake. I'd been to the airport to pick her up... "
The road from the airfield to the studio was dark. There was little traffic. Lights from farmhouses and small villages gleamed in the distance like landlocked stars. To the south, the sky glowed with London's lights.
Straker was only half paying attention to the road.
"That's why I picked you up myself," he was explaining to Virginia Lake, seated on the passenger side. "I wanted to brief you before you had a word with General Henderson."
"Well, I knew it wasn't for my big blue eyes," Lake responded, turning her big blue eyes on him. One hand brushed blonde hair from her face. She was dressed in a blue gabardine pantsuit. Her blue silk blouse, and the long silk scarf tied around her neck, matched her eyes. The colors suited her.
Straker was dressed all in black - slacks, cotton knit pull-over sweater.
"Coming back from the moon can be disorientating," Straker told her, very seriously. "Even lunar speeds have a relativistic effect on time."
"Yes, sir. I see, sir. I never knew that, sir."
She grinned. Straker glanced at her sharply, then smiled back, relaxing a little. He was tired. It had been a long day and he was worried about tomorrow morning's meeting with Henderson. The general rarely changed his mind on funding matters and Straker wondered what Henderson would demand as a price for his cooperation.
Additionally, Doctors Shroeder and Jackson had been pestering him to come in for a check-up. They insisted his continued tiredness and depressed mood were symptoms of some underlying condition. He wasn't sure he believed them.
A speck of light moved in the night sky, catching Straker's attention.
"What's that?" he wondered aloud, trying to catch sight of the object again.
"What?" Lake asked.
Straker shook his head. "I thought I saw something up there."
"Cars on dark country roads can be disorientating, too," she reminded him. He glared at her a moment, then peered out the side window again.
"There is something up there, fifteen degrees west." He pointed out the moving light to their right. "There, see?"
Lake tried to catch sight of the glowing object through the wind-shield. "It's Venus," she announced.
Straker shook his head worriedly. "No. Venus precedes the sun for the next month or so."
"A space shot?"
"No, we have none scheduled."
"It could be a Russian launch," she reminded him.
"No, we have their schedule, too." He watched the object carefully. "Space debris?"
Lake shook her head. "It's the wrong pattern," she said. "But, all that would leave is a weather balloon, but that would mean it's drifting against the wind."
"It's a Ufo," Straker concluded grimly. He picked up the receiver to the car radio-phone, punching the automatic interface button to SHADO H.Q. "Straker to SHADO Control, do you read me?"
The receiver buzzed and crackled in his ear.
"Check the radio link," he instructed Lake, handing her the receiver. He brought the Omen to a stop at the side of the road.
"But, how could it have gotten past Moonbase without being seen," she wondered aloud. She checked over the dials hidden in the console between the two front seats.
"I don't know," Straker replied. His tiredness seemed to have evaporated.
Lake finished her inspection of the car radiotelephone. "Well, the radio checks out. We're receiving and transmitting at full strength."
"It's absurd," Straker stated. "Why doesn't headquarters answer?"
"Well, it's not at this end," Lake said. "Unless they've figured out some way of jamming our signals without us having any indication of it."
Straker nodded and started the car again. They pulled out onto the road.
"But, if they've managed to cut communications, why haven't they landed and destroyed the base?" she continued.
"They may have done just that."
"It's coming this way." Lake warned. There was something bright flying just above and behind them.
"It's going overhead," Straker observed tightly.
The U.F.O. fired a burst at the car. It hit the road instead. Straker fought to retain control of the vehicle as it was buffeted by the concussion. Then, he ran the car off the road and into some brush for cover.
Overhead, the alien craft swung around for another strike.
"Freeze," Straker hissed as some intuition told him the aliens weren't interested in killing them just yet. However, what they were after, he couldn't even begin to guess.
The U.F.O. hovered over the car for just a moment and the cab was bathed in an eerie green light.
Then, the light, and the U.F.O., was gone as suddenly as they'd come.
* * *
They both gasped in surprise as, passing through the entrance gates to the Harlington-Straker film complex half an hour later, they were abruptly blinded by bright light - bright sun light.
"Outside it was night, but here... ," Lake's voice faltered. "What's happened?"
"I don't know," Straker responded, looking around. There was no noise, no sound in the air. "Look at that."
He pointed out a small hover craft crossing the lawn in front of the studio office building. Only, it wasn't moving. It was simply suspended above the ground. The driver was staring off into space, frozen in place.
"Why doesn't it fall?" Lake wondered. Confusion sounded in her voice.
Straker just shook his head.
"I don't believe it," the young woman insisted. "We must be dreaming. It's unreal." She looked to Straker. "What's happening?"
"Night into day, everything's stopped, arrested," he observed, trying to make some sense of it. "It's like a clock that suddenly..."
Straker had an idea. He started the car, and drove to another section of the studio property. There was no sign of life anywhere, no movement at all.
"It's like a nightmare, a grotesque nightmare," he stated finally. He stopped the car and got out. Outside one of the carpentry shops, a man was tossing a wooden chair to a second man standing on the back of a truck. Both men were frozen. The chair was suspended between them in midair.
"Get me that piece of wood," Straker instructed, pointing out a short piece of 1x4 lying on the ground. He continued inspecting both the men and the chair without touching them as Lake handed him the board.
Warily, Straker swung the board under the chair. It met no resistance. Still cautious, he poked at it. The chair was solid and immovably fixed seven feet above the ground. Even when the board broke against it, there was no sign of motion from the chair. There was no change at all.
Straker stood back, pondering the matter a moment. Then he dropped the broken 1x4 and motioned Lake to follow him into the workshop. The workmen cutting a sheet of plywood were frozen. The sawdust from the table saw was suspended in midair, resembling a swarm of tiny light brown insects.
Straker gave the scene a glance, then walked over to the far wall where the worksheets were posted. He peered at the papers.
"If these worksheets are right, and, if they're up to schedule, then, this thing's only just happened here."
"But, why the daylight?" Lake asked him. "It's been dark outside for two hours."
"I don't know," he admitted. "But, there must be some kind of logic to it somewhere. According to that, it's already tomorrow morning." He looked around the workshop once again. "Come on, let's get down to Control."
* * *
Everything and everyone was frozen in SHADO Control as well, as Lake and Straker discovered when they entered the control center. They looked over the various monitors and consoles. All the readings seemed normal enough, except, nothing moved.
"Why hasn't Moonbase reacted?" Straker wondered aloud. "They must know something's wrong. They could've had Sky-diver over Headquarters by now."
"What are we going to do?" Lake asked. It seemed she was finally comprehending the enormity of what was happening around them.
"Call General Henderson. We need help," Straker said. "That thing's still up there. If it comes down before we can get assistance..."
He picked up the telephone receiver from the console nearest him and listened for a dial tone. There was nothing, not even static.
"It's no use," he protested, putting down the receiver. "If we could just understand the principle they used."
He looked over the still, frozen bodies that were so familiar. But now, they were almost frightening in their present state.
"There's no pulse," he observed, finally touching one of them.
Lake felt a face with her hand. "The body temperature's normal."
"But they're fixed, like statues," as Straker tried to move one.
"It's as if they were frozen in time," Lake said.
"Yes, that's it. That way, whatever they were doing, they'd be 'fossilized' when the force struck."
"But, the lift in the office was working," Lake pointed out. That was the way they'd gotten down to SHADO Control, past Miss Ealand frozen in an attitude of exasperation, pencil pointing at a scantily dressed starlet.
"Yes, I know. It doesn't fit the pattern."
Straker sighed, trying to will away the all too familiar exhaustion that was creeping up on him. Absently, he picked up the note board from Lieutenant Ford's station and looked at it.
Then it occurred to him: "This isn't frozen."
He picked up a pen from the top of the computer monitor, then put it back. "They have one thing in common," Straker observed.
"They weren't in motion when it happened," Lake agreed.
"Yes, they weren't moving through time," Straker was thinking out loud. "That's why the elevator works."
Lake looked hopeful. "Then, if we could find a monitor that wasn't switched on... " She looked around at the monitors above the communications consoles.
"No, they're all switched on," Straker said. He was finding it hard to ignore the exhaustion he felt. It was far worse than the tiredness he'd been feeling since Collins' death. "There's got to be an answer. We've just got to think it through," he said.
Lake shook her head and sat on the steps to the upper level. "I just don't seem to be able to think anymore. God, I feel so tired." She sighed. "I feel like I could sleep for a week."
"Yes, I know." He leaned against the railing. "It must be shock catching up with us." He rubbed the bridge of his nose, then glanced at his watch, a gold Rolex Thinline. It had stopped at 10:32.
"Wait a minute, let me see your watch."
She looked at her watch, then held it out for him. "It stopped the moment we got to the studio."
"Just like the clock."
He pointed out the digital clock on the control room wall. That timepiece had stopped at 8:00:00.
"The medical center," Straker announced suddenly. He grabbed Lake's arm and pulled her to her feet, dragging her after him as he headed for the infirmary.
"The only way they could get past Moonbase is to travel so fast, they cheat time," Straker explained. He took a drug vial and two syringes from one of the glass cabinets that lined the walls of the medical storage room adjacent to the infirmary.
"Sound barrier, heat barrier, light barrier," Lake listed. "Time barrier."
Straker filled the syringe. She winced as he found a vein and injected her with the fluid.
"They can control it," Straker stated, giving himself an injection. "But, only for so long, until the field force they built up on the way here begins to wear off."
He rolled down his sleeve. He was breathing more easily as the drug began to take effect, dispelling some of the exhaustion.
"Like the waves of pressure in front of a supersonic jet," he continued.
"That's why they haven't landed yet," Lake said. "They're still in a different continuum."
"Yes, yes," Straker agreed. The rush of energy, the adrenaline-like surge the drug created was not at all unpleasant.
"But, why? How are they reaching us?" Lake asked. Their theory didn't explain everything.
"I don't know," Straker admitted. He pocketed the syringe and drug vial. "Maybe we'll find out some answers when we get back to the control room." He glanced at her. "Are you okay?"
She seemed surprised by his question. "Fine."
"Well, let's go." He led the way back to the control room.
"What is that stuff?" She asked him after a moment.
"X-50, speeds you up to about ten times normal. Heart, muscles, brain. They used it a lot in the early high-Gee test flights. Finally banned it as being too dangerous."
Straker shrugged. "Well, it burned people out. If we weren't under the 'evil-eye' right now, we'd be moving so fast we'd be just a blur."
He didn't add the drug's other major drawback. At higher dosages, the stimulant was known to cause paranoid-schizophrenic reactions.
Returning to the control room, they looked around. Nothing had changed. Everyone and everything was as frozen, as stationary, as before. It was eerie.
Then, something moved in the hall outside, just at the edge of Lake's vision.
"Commander," she called quietly, getting Straker's attention. "I'm sure I saw something move."
They both ran to investigate and entered the hall outside the control center just as the doors to the entrance elevator closed. The status light above the door switched to red, indicating the elevator was in use.
Straker gestured for Lake to follow him, then led the way to SHADO's armory.
* * *
The armory was well-stocked with weapons of every kind.
Straker and Lake picked out two light rapid fire assault rifles from the selection at hand, loaded them and pocketed extra ammunition clips. Straker picked up a small motion detector from one of the shelves.
A security-keyed elevator at the end of the hall opened into the back of one of the sound stages.
"All right, Straker, come and get me, big man." An amplified male voice called as Straker and Lake emerged from the building.
"A transistor microphone," Straker speculated aloud. "Somewhere over there, to the right." He gestured to a low wall bordering one of the parking areas.
"You've got to get me, Straker. I'm the only one who can help you," the voice taunted. "I'm the only one who can put it right."
The motion detector in Straker's hand buzzed. "He's behind that wall," Straker announced, interpreting the detector reading. A bullet whistled overhead. They both ducked.
"Cover me," Straker instructed, unlocking the safety catch on his rifle. He bolted into the open, firing at where the detector indicated their tormentor was hiding before ducking behind the half wall.
The voice laughed. "No, not that easy, Big Man. Things always come easy for you, don't they, Straker? But not this time, not me."
Lake ran across to join Straker.
"He's around the corner, by the covered way to J and K block," Straker said, checking the detector. "Now, stay behind this wall."
He ran around the end of the wall in a crouch, firing the rifle as he went. There was no one in the passageway.
Straker gestured Lake to join him.
The mysterious voice began to laugh again, horribly. It echoed between the buildings.
"Where'd he go?" Lake asked, peering around.
"To J and E stages," Straker reasoned, recalling the layout of this area of the film complex. "He's over on one of the sound stages."
They were filming a costume piece on J and E stages. The frozen actors and actresses were decked out as French nobles and courtiers. The director had been caught in mid-gesture, arms thrown wide, a disgusted look on his face.
"You've heard of silent films, haven't you, Mister Big?" the voice asked. "Well, this is the new bag, non-moving movies. Kind of restful, isn't it?"
The voice seemed to move. "Yes, this is the place, Mister Big. Yes, sir, Ah is heah, if you can but faind me," it heckled in a distorted parody of an American Southern accent.
Warily, Straker and Lake looked around the set, peering around the walls, the equipment. Suddenly, a man wearing a beige SHADO Control uniform jumped out from behind one of the sets. He was holding an automatic assault rifle and fired a round at them. One of the giant flood lights exploded behind them and the man vanished behind the set again.
"Take the other exit," Straker ordered. "We'll cut him off." He gestured her to his left. She ran off as directed, heading for the other door. Straker wheeled around and ran for the door they'd entered through.
Lake met Straker on the covered walk just outside the sound stage.
"Where'd he go?" she asked.
There was no sign of the man. Straker pulled out the motion detector. A shot rang out close by and they ducked.
"You don't look so big now, Commander," the voice taunted. "Just come and get me. I'm Turner, radar operator, class one. I know you, Commander, the Big Man, in charge of the world."
Straker looked around. The voice seemed to come from nearby, around the next corner. He fired at where it seemed to be. The voice laughed once more.
"Big Deal Straker, the guy the girls admire," Turner sneered.
Straker glanced at Lake, suddenly perplexed. Turner wasn't making much sense, at least, not to him.
"Yeah, well, I'm the big deal now, Straker," the voice continued. "They promised me and you're a nothing!"
The detector indicated movement inside a closed cart parked by the building. Straker and Lake both fired at it. The doors popped open, revealing puppets and props ready to be moved to another area. The prop master was going to be less than pleased when he discovered the damage.
"Wrong again," Turner berated. There was the sound of a small engine behind them. Straker and Lake turned to see Turner racing toward them. He was driving one of the small, custom motor cars left over from a recent film production. They jumped out of the way as Turner threatened to run them down.
There were several more of the small cars parked further down the alley. Lake and Straker ran to claim one.
"He's got a good start," Straker commented as he started the car. Lake climbed in beside him.
Turner turned and fired back at them.
"Go for the tires," Straker ordered. Lake complied, firing back at Turner's mini-car. Turner rounded a corner, Straker and Lake following close behind him.
Abruptly, Turner vanished from his car, leaving it parked in the middle of the alley. Straker jerked the steering wheel over hard to avoid hitting the other car.
"Finders keepers, losers weepers." Turner's voice sing-songed. "Where're you going to find me? Where're you going to find me? You're through, Straker," Turner announced. "You've been had. They're coming soon, Straker, as soon as they've brought their power down. They'll be here soon and you're not going to spoil it. Oh, they're marvelous, Straker. They're wonderful. They can do things we can't even conceive!" The voice laughed. There was a bitter, brittle tone to the laughter. "Have you any idea what they've done here, Straker?"
Straker and Lake had left their vehicle and were searching for Turner. They peered down the alleys, around corners, for the man.
"They've taken a millionth of a second of our time and frozen it. This whole thing is taking place in a millionth of a second, Straker," the voice explained, gloating. "That's why Moonbase doesn't know anything's wrong. Compared to them, we're midgets, Straker. All of us."
Turner appeared at the end of the alley and they ran toward him. He disappeared around the corner as they approached.
"It's not that easy, Straker. You're no match for me, Big man. You're not on my level."
The detector indicated motion around the corner. Straker rounded the corner at a run, firing his rifle as he went.
"Don't you understand, Straker?" Turner asked. "Hasn't it soaked into that blond skull of yours yet? I'm outside of time, Straker. I am outside of time!"
"What does he mean, 'outside of time'?" Lake asked, running up to join Straker.
He considered for a moment before answering: "Well, time has stopped in here, we know that. But, somehow, the aliens have given him immunity in return for his help."
"So, he's independent of time. He can move backwards or forwards, however he pleases."
Straker nodded in agreement.
"So, that's why we can't pin him down," Lake continued. "How are we going to find him?"
"Well, we've got to try. Trying's all we've got," Straker responded, leading the way back to the car.
He was beginning to feel just a bit overwhelmed, and grimly pushed it out of his mind. He climbed back into the car. Lake followed him.
"They may be years ahead of the human race," he started to explain as they drove up to the prop barn behind the sound stages. "But, we've got one thing they haven't got - bloody-mindedness. It built this planet."
"Oh, well done, Big Man," Turner's voice called as they climbed out of the car. "You've found where I am. Come on then, I'm waiting for you, and your lovely lady."
The prop barn was a large storage building filled with old furniture and strange objects created for different films, then stored away and forgotten. At the moment, it had the aura of a terrible nightmare. Bullets whistled overhead and Lake and Straker took cover among the shoddy pseudo-antiques.
"It's all right, Straker," Turner's amplified voice stated. "I don't intend to kill you. You see, in the new order, I am going to be boss. I think you might be rather useful for making the tea," the voice taunted. "I'm going to be boss, Straker, they promised me that, in return for my help."
The motion detector in Straker's hand buzzed. Turner was in the loft overhead. "You can't handle it," Straker called, moving toward the ladder to the upper level. Lake followed on his heels.
"I can handle it," the voice assured him.
"No, you're small time," Straker stated with a certainty he didn't really feel. "You haven't got the horsepower."
"I've got more than I need to fix you!" Turner protested. Straker and Lake quietly climbed the ladder to the loft.
"No, come on. It takes brains and guts to be the boss." Straker goaded.
Turner was not amused: "Listen, you primitive idiot, how do you think they're transmitting their power in here? Because I, I fixed a piece of equipment in the control room so it would act as an aerial. A piece of SHADO equipment, Straker."
"I don't believe you. What piece of equipment?"
"Oh, you must think I'm as stupid as you are," Turner's voice announced. Then he started laughing again.
Straker didn't give himself time to be disappointed. He motioned for Lake to search the far end of the loft while he looked over the nearer end.
She was only out of his sight for a moment. Then, there was the sound of a gun being fired in the far end of the upper level. Straker ran to investigate.
He found Turner trying to strangle Lake with her own scarf.
Straker threw himself at the man, knocking him away from her. Lake collapsed to her knees. She gasped for breath as behind her, the two men fought.
There was a loud crack as Straker managed to throw Turner against the wooden guard rail. It parted under the operative's weight and he fell hard onto an old, musty mattress. He lay there for a long moment, apparently unconscious. Then, he vanished into thin air.
"It's not that easy, Straker," the voice announced. Straker sagged a little in sudden exhaustion, but helped Lake to her feet. They hurried out of the building to search for Turner once more.
"Look!" Lake pointed at a glowing object above the studio complex. It was a nearly spherical alien craft, identical to the one that had tormented them earlier on the road. It hovered above the studio office building.
Straker sighed from hopelessness as much as exhaustion. Lake looked at him with a worried expression.
"Slowing down," he explained. He reached into his pocket for the drug vial and the syringe. "Used too much energy."
"What will another shot do to you?" Lake asked.
Straker shook his head as he handed her the vial and syringe. "It doesn't matter. Hurry."
He watched as she filled the syringe, then winced as the needle penetrated his skin and the vein beneath. He waited a moment to feel the drug take effect and then rolled down his sleeve.
"The Molley," he announced, putting the vial and syringe back in his pocket. "It's our last chance."
He began to walk away, toward the main office building.
"Shouldn't I have another shot?" Lake asked.
Straker stopped and simply looked back at her.
"It was dangerous, wasn't it?" Lake answered her own question.
"I made my choice a long time ago," he told her. It wasn't a choice he especially liked, but it was one he was resigned to. Alec Freeman had once told him he wouldn't live to collect his pension. Freeman had an uncanny knack for being right about that sort of thing.
* * *
The underground SHADO complex was filled with strange little rooms and cubbyholes. Most of them passed for offices, but some had more interesting and sometimes sinister uses.
Straker led Lake to one of the more interesting cubby holes and opened the door with a key from his key ring. He placed his palm against the hand-print verifier set into one wall of the small room. The lighted plate obligingly clicked green and the panel next to it slid open, revealing a key hanging in a small recess.
"Take that key," Straker instructed. Lake did so and the panel slid shut again. "And put it in there." He indicated a key slot on the control housing of a small rocket launcher that was on a stand in the middle of the room.
"Hold onto this." He handed her a single rocket charge as he unlatched the launcher from its stand and cradled it in his arms. Then, he led the way to an even tinier adjoining room and pressed a button on the wall by the door. The door snapped shut and the entire room rose. It was a disguised elevator, like Straker's studio office, only much smaller and more sparsely appointed.
"I didn't know about this," Lake remarked.
"It's that old bloody-mindedness," Straker explained. The elevator stopped and the doors opened onto the roof of the one of the sound stages. A heavy metal stand was bolted to the roof near the edge. Straker motioned Lake toward it and followed her, setting the rocket launcher onto the stand.
Lake was beginning to show signs of exhaustion.
"Can you hold on?" Straker asked her. She smiled and nodded.
"Shall I get another one of these?" she asked, referring to the single rocket charge in her hand.
"No, there's no point," he replied. "We're not gonna' get a second chance. If we miss with this one, they'll fry us." He took the charge from her and loaded it into the Molley.
"What's their range?" she wondered.
"Well, we have to wait until they get in close."
Suddenly, Turner attacked, having climbed onto the roof from the exterior fire stairs. He struck Lake hard across the back of the neck with the heel of his hand. Then, he hit Straker across the face and grabbed the key to the rocket launcher.
He ran off, leaving Lake in an unconscious heap on the roof. Straker shook himself from his stunned daze.
"Turner, don't be a fool," Straker shouted after him. "Give me that key, they don't need you now!"
Turner's reply was simply another of his mad laughs as he fired his rifle into the air. He drove off in the mini car.
Straker spared one glance at Lake. She was now as frozen as everything and everyone else in the complex. He wasn't even sure Turner's blow hadn't killed her. Then, he climbed down from the roof to chase after Turner.
Suddenly, Commander Straker of SHADO felt very frightened and trapped. Mostly, he just felt horribly alone and he didn't like it. He was chasing after a madman who quite literally planned to hand the enemy the key to the planet they were trying to destroy.
* * *
The treasonous SHADO operative was simply cruising between the sound stages in his car, waiting for Straker to come after him.
"Big Man!" he taunted as the Straker came closer in his own mini-car.
"Turner, listen to me!" Straker demanded. He was desperate and he didn't really care if Turner knew it.
Turner grinned and drove off, Straker right behind him.
At the far end of one of the alleys, the radar technician turned a corner. He ran his car into a tall pile of cardboard boxes, which toppled on top of him and his car. Turner seemed momentarily stunned.
Straker stopped his own car and climbed out to face him. The other man turned and grinned back at him.
"I think I'll just play that back," he announced. Then, he and his car vanished. The pile of boxes was suddenly back as a loose stack against the brick wall.
Straker turned sharply at the sound of a mini-car approaching and was startled to see Turner and his car coming down the alley again. Just as before, he struck the pile of boxes.
Straker was forced to jump aside as another mini-car turned the corner and stopped. A grim looking blond man, dressed in black, climbed out of that mini-car to face Turner.
He realized with a start that he was watching himself.
"I think I'll just play that back," Turner announced, just as before.
Abruptly, both men and both cars vanished. A broken pile of boxes and a very confused and shaken Commander Straker was left standing alone in the alley.
There was the sound of a small engine revving up behind him. He turned to see Turner driving away, laughing wildly.
"It's a shame, isn't it?" Turner asked. "I can do it all again, but I can't change anything."
Straker shook his head to clear away his growing confusion. It was insane, unreal, nonsensical. Suddenly, the only thing Straker was really certain of was the existence of his self-appointed tormentor and that U.F.O. overhead, waiting to destroy them all. Everything else was simply a nightmarish backdrop.
He climbed back into his car, setting off after Turner once more.
"You're too late, Straker," Turner announced as Straker caught up with him in one of the parking areas. Turner stopped his car and sat, waiting. He had a leering grin on his face.
"You're too late."
"Give me the key, Turner," Straker ordered, climbing out of his own mini-car. He picked up his rifle and cradled it against his hip.
"Come and get it, Commander." Turner challenged.
Very deliberately, Straker pulled the trigger on the assault rifle. It clattered out a spray of bullets that should have cut Turner in two. The man simply sat in his car and laughed.
"You're out of your league, Straker. The nearer they come, the more power they transmit to me. I can play time like a trumpet now," Turner boasted.
He and his car began to pop in and out of sight, now behind, now in front of his victim.
With increasing futility, Straker tried to keep track of the man's unpredictable appearances. He fired at him when he could. Turner seemed to be enjoying the spectacle enormously.
"You primitive idiot," the radar man taunted. "You can only see me where I've just been or where I'm going to be, not where I am, unless I want you to. You're IT, Straker!"
A notion, less than an idea, more like an intuition, dawned in Straker's increasingly befuddled mind. He swung around suddenly, strafing the entire area around him with a spray of bullets. Abruptly, Turner and his car appeared on the far side of the circle. The man was slumped over the steering wheel, blood spilling from half-a dozen wounds in his chest. There was a hurt and surprised look on Turner's face as he died.
Straker took a shaky breath and retrieved the key to the rocket launcher out of the dead man's pocket. There was blood on the key. He wanted to be sick, but the U.F.O. overhead was coming closer. He could almost hear its whirring buzz as he drove back to the sound stage with the precious key.
He prayed there was still time as he climbed to the roof and put the key into its slot in the missile launcher. The alien craft came even closer, hovering directly over the studio complex. It didn't seem to notice, or didn't care about, the lone figure on the roof below it.
Straker pressed the firing trigger and the explosive charged missile flew, just as it was designed to do. Seconds later, the missile exploded, right on target.
An instant later than that, the alien craft blew up in midair. The blast scorched the rooftops, knocking Straker off his feet.
It was gone. He'd done it. But, still nothing moved. The only sound Straker could hear was his own breathing, loud in his ears, his heart beating too fast in his chest.
The U.F.O. was gone, destroyed. But, nothing had changed. Time was still halted.
'I fixed a piece of equipment in the control room so it would act as an aerial,' Turner had said.
But which piece of equipment? It was hard to think and a tiny voice taunted him about the toxic-side effects of the stimulant he'd taken. He suspected it was affecting his mind, but he pushed it aside as he had pushed aside so much in the recent past.
He didn't dare succumb. He wasn't finished.
He picked up his gun and went back down to SHADO Control, to the frozen living statues there. His mind was fixed on finding, and destroying, that piece of equipment Turner had modified.
"Commander, what's wrong?" Foster's voice abruptly rang in his ears as he smashed another equipment rack.
But, that was impossible. Foster was frozen in a nightmare of time being stopped unless he could find that one piece of equipment.
The nightmare didn't stop. Straker could feel his sanity slipping away from him, into the abyss, or where-ever sanity slips away to.
* * *
"It's all right, Commander, it's all right." Jackson was saying. His tone was professionally soothing. His softly accented voice seemed to momentarily penetrate Straker's fogged, struggling mind.
Straker looked up at Henderson and for just a moment, seemed to recognize him. Then, he fell back with a sob, utterly spent.
"Yes, try to relax," Jackson insisted gently. He motioned Foster and the medical assistant to step back.
"It's incredible," General Henderson commented in disbelief to no one in particular.
Jackson looked back at him. "Yes, General, but there are more things."
"But, how did it happen?" Henderson demanded.
Jackson shrugged. "I'm not sure, but in some way, they were able to expand a moment in time. Commander Straker experienced such an expanded moment."
Henderson looked at Straker once more and shook his head. Straker was no long struggling against his unseen assailant. He just lay there, utterly, totally exhausted. His breath came ragged gasps and tears streamed down his face.
"Will he be all right?" Foster asked after a moment. Doctor Jackson turned back to his patient.
"He needs to rest," Jackson explained, not really answering Foster's query.
Foster nodded and gestured for General Henderson to join him as he left, heading back to the Control room.
* * *
On the upper level, operatives were at work repairing the equipment Straker had damaged in his rampage. They were nearly done. The damage hadn't been nearly as extensive as it had first appeared.
Lieutenant Ford was waiting at the door to the commander's office as Foster and Henderson came in. He was holding a circuit board in his hand. Wires dangled loosely from it.
"We found this in one of the radar analysis computers, sir." Ford explained, handing the device to Foster as they entered the office. "Major Graham says it's not part of the computer, and it doesn't appear to be an alien device, but we don't know what it is."
"It could be that 'aerial' the commander said Turner put down here," Foster commented, mostly to Henderson. The older man nodded in agreement.
He inspected the device in Foster's hand. It didn't look impressive or dangerous. The parts were commonplace and the connections crude. There was a crack across it that broke several of the circuits.
"Have Louie check it out after everything else is fixed," Foster instructed, handing it back to Ford.
Ford took the device and turned to leave. He paused in the doorway: "Oh, sir, I took the liberty of notifying Colonel Freeman that the commander's taken ill. He should be arriving here this evening."
Foster simply nodded.
The Works of Deborah Rorabaugh
The Library Entrance