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Surprises in the command office - and SHADO itself is changed forever.
Notes and references at the end of Part IV, below
Across the road from them the studios were dark and silent. Even the car park lights were off. The gatehouse was dark. The only movement was of leaves in the light breeze.
"There's something very badly wrong," Straker said, softly. "Mary… How's your shooting these days?"
"I've been practising every day for the past year - "
" - but I didn't bring my rifle."
"No problem," Straker answered. "If we can reach my office, we'll have all the firepower we could need… Mary?"
"Yes," she said firmly. In answer to his quizzical look, she added: "Yes, I could make a hole in someone, if I had to… I shot Steven Rutland in the arm a year ago. Just before - before the police arrived."
"I'd like to hear about that - but it'll have to wait. This way." Straker took her arm, and urged her along the side of the road towards one of the many small ornamental lawns that were dotted here and there seemingly at random. This one had in its centre an evergreen bush, a little like laurel. Straker felt around in the grass, looked at Mary to make sure of her position, and tapped the half-buried metal plate. The laurel bush slid silently to one side, to reveal a dark hole easily large enough to admit someone.
Straker whispered: "From here on in, make as little noise as possible, OK?"
She nodded. He signed to her to follow, and moved to the hole, feeling with his feet for the slim metal ladder into the depths below the studio.
Above them, the laurel bush slid silently back into position.
They descended silently, about thirty meters as far as Mary could tell, into a small alcove that gave onto a dimly-lit corridor. They padded silently along it towards a rather less dim patch of light, which leaked around a corner.
Straker stopped short of the turning, and cupped a theatrical hand to his ear, signing for Mary to do likewise. She listened hard, and began to make out low voices.
"That's Ginny Lake," Straker whispered, "and John Ngana of Security. There may be others. Great… I think. Let's listen for a moment."
Obediently Mary strained her hearing, and the voices became a little clearer.
"…as far as we can see. Colonel, this isn't good. He's got them herded into Mission Control. It's so crowded we will certainly kill people if we try attacking."
"Then we'll have to split them into groups somehow. Was Alec all right?"
"He was when I came away, ma'am. But he continues to refuse their demands."
Mary sensed that Ed had relaxed with a sigh of infinite relief at the mention of Alec Freeman. "Mary," he whispered, "there may be guards already watching us. I hope. There had better be. We will be challenged. Do as they say - exactly as they say, they'll be pretty trigger-happy. I will need to prove my identity to them. So will you."
Ahead of them Lake was speaking. "So I should hope," she growled. "Well, we had better - "
"Good morning," Straker said pleasantly, behind them. He stepped forward into the pool of dim light shed by Ngana's torch, and Mary followed. They each had their hands clasped firmly behind their heads.
Straker heard Lake take a sharp breath. There was a purposeful click as Ngana brought his rifle to bear. "Stop right there. My people have you in their sights. Kneel. Don't move or speak until I give you leave."
Straker obeyed, and Mary copied his movements.
"I will now check your identities, by voice and retina print. When I tell each of you, you will look into the light and give your name in a clear voice. You will then resume your silence. You first, miss."
A soldier dressed in dark combat fatigues held a small box before her face, and said: "Speak."
"Mary Nightingale Straker Rutland," she said, her voice only a little shaky.
A synthesised voice said: "Retina print not available on system. Voiceprint ID positive. Rutland, Mary."
"Good… You next. Speak."
"Straker, Edward George."
There was a short pause; then the synthetic voice said, unemotionally as only a computer could: "Voice and retina print ID positive. Straker, Edward, former Commander-in-Chief, SHADO Operations. Listed on system as Missing in Action, presumed deceased, unconfirmed. Requesting update."
The pause this time seemed endless. Then their captor barked: "Lights!"
Straker blinked in the sudden glare of three powerful torches. The soldier was staring at him, eyes wide behind the dark hood. He took a deep breath.
"You're released, sir, Ms Rutland… may I help you up, ma'am?" He helped Mary to her feet, and then Straker. "Commander, I apologise - "
"No need, Lieutenant… Colonel Lake, what the hell's going on? Where's Alec?"
Lake fought for control against the sheer exultant amazement that threatened to overwhelm her. "He's in Mission Control, sir," she said swiftly. "You won't believe this… It's Henderson, and that aide of his, Lackland. Henderson's ill, he should be in hospital, I believe Lackland is 'pulling his strings'. He tried to shoot me, but he missed, and I played possum - "
"Yes, sir… They're staging some kind of coup. Henderson wants Alec to hand over Ambassador Pavlor. Alec is refusing, but they've taken hostages, including Commander Foster."
"And… where is Pavlor? Is he OK?"
"Right here, sir." It was Carlin's voice. Mary gave a tiny gasp as she realised there were two green-tinted men with him; Straker recognised one of them instantly.
"I am here, Ed Straker. And this is my colleague Breen. We are safe, at present - "
"And I intend to make damn sure you stay that way!"
"Have you had some aspirin?" Pavlor asked him, urgently. "You may have been given a very dangerous stimulant."
"I sure have… Right, explanations later, we can't hang around. Lieutenant Ngana, how many men do you have?"
"Five, sir, and myself."
"Great. Deploy your men around Control and watch the door of my office, you'll know when to move. That should take you no more than seven minutes, by which time we should be in position. Peter, great to see you again. You others - " Straker looked at Mary, the two Europans, and the two SHADO officers - "are with me. We are going to my office. Let's move, everyone."
* * *
They made their way through the back corridors. This network was not secret by any means, but it was seldom used. They met no-one, for which Straker was grateful; but he made a mental note to have one of the Q groups, the 'commandoes' of SHADO security, patrol it more frequently.
Pavlor and Breen followed him and Mary, with Carlin and Lake bringing up the rear. He could tell that Pavlor wanted to talk to him; but the Europan (when had he stopped thinking of the man as merely an alien?) was sensibly remaining quiet.
But Straker had questions of his own; and one of those would not wait. "Pavlor? I woke up with this on my arm. What is it? Did it come from you?"
He held out his arm. The band of crystal sparkled round his wrist. Pavlor glanced down at it, and gasped. "The… the Kei…"
Breen's eyes widened, but he did not speak. Pavlor managed to pull himself together. "It did come from me, in a way… I, and my ancestors, have been guarding it for a host of cycles, against the time when it might find its true home… which it seems to have done, Sire."
His gaze moved to Straker's face. His eyes were shining with joy, and returning hope. "All right," Straker said, but he was thinking: Sire??. "You can tell me all about it later. Right now, what do I do with it?"
"Anything you wish, Sire. Know only that it will not harm you, nor anyone, save only those you wish."
Straker nodded, and resumed his stride. The others fell in with him; they were all throwing him strange looks, but they kept silent, for which he was grateful.
After a few minutes they arrived at a spot where there was a small video screen set into the wall. "We're here," Straker murmured. "Let's have a look."
The image on the screen showed the interior of the command office. Straker used the controls at the base of the tiny screen to pan the image around.
"OK. It's clear out there, and the door is closed. Let's go."
"Ngana should be in position in three minutes," Carlin whispered.
"It'll have to be enough," Straker said, equally quietly.
He touched a sensitive plate below the screen, and a narrow door slid open silently, revealing that they were in one of the alcoves at each end of the long conference table. With a sign to the others, he moved inside the office. They followed him in, and the door closed.
The wall screen opposite the desk was live, showing a view of SHADO Control. It was full of armed personnel wearing grey IAC coveralls. Freeman was kneeling, his hands behind his neck, with one of the IAC group holding a rifle to his head. Henderson was glaring at him, with Lackland to one side. Foster also had his hands behind his head, and was being held at gunpoint by two more IAC guards. His face was bruised, and there was blood on his collar. He was watching the general and his aide, eyes narrowed.
Breen inspected the image closely. "Keimon Ed Straker, that man your General James Henderson is?"
"Dying is he, Sire. Given that stimulant believe I he has also, recognise I the signs. Quickly needs he treatment. Already too late for aspirin is it."
"Then we'd better hurry." Straker went across to the mini-bar, and turned a small knob at the end of the dispenser shelf. The entire shelf rotated horizontally out of view, revealing the contents of what seemed to be a small armaments store. Mary noted rifles, sub-machine guns, gas bombs, and others. She wondered if there was a tactical nuclear device in there somewhere. Quite likely, she thought.
"Here," Straker said, taking out several weapons and passing them around. "Azan, what device would you prefer?"
"Do you have one that uses sonics, Sire?"
Straker felt around in the depths of the weapons cabinet, drew out a long- barrelled pistol. "This is an acoustic gun. We use them above stairs for special effects… but I've had this one enhanced."
"Thank you, Sire." Pavlor took the weapon, inspected it closely, and gave a nod of satisfaction. Breen shook his head briefly, but flexed his arms expressively.
Straker tucked two firearms into his waistband, looked around the group. "Mary, you're the best shot here I think. I'd like you to disarm the man holding Alec. Is that OK? You only need to aim at his hand, it's quite a long way away from Alec."
She nodded. "No problem at all."
"Good… Peter and Azan, you take out the lights. Backups will come on in five seconds, that gives us time to get out there. Ginny, with me. The rest of you stay here, Peter will look after you. But be ready to cover us, watch Lackland especially. Ginny, give your second gun to Paul, I'll give one to Alec. At that point I'll call in John Ngana if he hasn't already moved - but if I shout 'down', drop flat and fire at anything that moves. In a moment I will open the door enough for us to see our targets. I will give a count from five; on 'zero', begin fire - but don't wait if things start happening earlier. Got that everyone?"
"Great. Then let's get this party started…"
* * *
"Freeman," Henderson said tiredly, "don't be a fool. I mean to have this Pavlor person. He's a terrible danger to us. To peace. Can't you see that?"
"I can't say I agree," Freeman snapped. His half-healed arm was aching fiercely. The hard rifle barrel jabbing into his neck didn't help matters.
"No, but you're biassed!" Henderson lifted a hand to wipe sweat from his face. "And look what's happened. Yes he brought the Commander back here, or at least his empty shell - and now we don't even have that! And you still think we can have a treaty? You know what I think?"
"I'm quite sure you're going to tell me."
"I think you're a traitor! I think you sold out to your friends! Sold us out!"
"You weren't there." Freeman wanted to meet Henderson's eyes, but his range of vision was too restricted. "You didn't see what I saw. For god's sake, man, I've volunteered to let Jackson take my head apart! Why don't you have him do that?"
"Oh, I will, believe me - but you'll give me Pavlor first! And I'll give you ten seconds to tell me where he is, or you won't have a head left to examine! Do you understand?"
Of them all, only Paul Foster was in position to see the door to Straker's office open - just a crack, but wide enough for him to see enough of the commander's face to recognise it. Their eyes met. He wanted to yell and punch the air in triumph. Instead, he said: "You know, Alec, I think Henderson here may be right?"
All eyes locked onto him… as he had intended. "Foster!" Freeman barked. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"
"Trying to save your life," returned Foster. Through the gap in the office door he could see Straker's fingers giving a countdown. Five fingers… four… three… "Is that a problem?"
It flashed through Freeman's mind that something had changed, that Paul knew what it was. OK then, play along… "Foster, if you don't keep quiet I swear I'll come back and haunt you - "
At that point all hell seemed to erupt in the room. At least three gunshots sounded, and a sharp acoustic hiss. There was a scream of pain from behind Freeman, and the cold pressure on his neck fell away. The lights crackled and went out. Freeman threw himself to the ground, rolled clear. Swift footsteps ran to him, and a gun was pressed into his fingers, and a very familiar voice said: "You might need this."
The backup lights came on. Amazed, Freeman looked up at the man kneeling beside him, and it took every ounce of self-control he had to keep his mind on the immediate task. He gave a quick glance around. Looking determined, Ginny Lake was standing with Paul Foster and John Ngana. All three were armed, Ngana covering a group of men in grey IAC coveralls, while Foster was focussed on Henderson. Lake had not taken her eyes off Lackland. Still other men, in SHADO fatigues, were moving among the IAC group and systematically disarming them. Henderson was staring in disbelief; but his aide, Lackland, was snarling. He took a swift step to his side, grabbed the General, pulled him round in front to block fire, and shouted: "Nobody move or I kill him!"
Straker was already rising to his feet. Lackland screamed as a bullet from Lake's rifle threw his gun out of his hand, just as he fired. The bullet from his own gun whistled by Straker's ear, nicking the lobe, and buried itself in the panelling. Straker finished the move smoothly, and his hand flicked, once. A streak of light leapt from it and disappeared into Henderson's chest. Behind the General, Lackland gave a choking gasp. His grip slackened. Henderson pulled away, looked down at his own unmarked jacket, then at the sliver of sparkling crystal that pierced Lackland's heart.
In complete silence, Lackland folded up, and slid to the floor.
"Someone get Jackson," Straker said. "Henderson, you've been poisoned, you need the antidote, quickly."
"Breen there thinks that you were given a stimulant to get you out of the hospital. Same one they used on me… It's dangerous. It's killing you."
Indeed, Henderson's face had taken on a greyish tinge. He staggered a little. Between them, Straker and Freeman lowered him into a seat. By this time, Jackson had arrived, a hypodermic in his hand. Straker took Henderson's arm, intending to hold it for the doctor, but Henderson pulled it out of his grasp. "Straker… You've had this stimulant… as well?"
"Yes, but Carlin gave me aspirin, which helped - "
"Jackson. Give it to Straker. That's an order."
"You heard the man," Jackson murmured, as Straker tried to protest. He took the commander's arm in a firm grip, pushed up the sleeve, and took a sample. He strode to Breen and spoke to him briefly, got a quick nod, and together they ran for his office.
"Henderson - " Straker began.
"You've got a treaty to organise, Straker," Henderson whispered. "Get on with it."
"As you wish… Look after him." Straker turned, and beckoned. Mary and Pavlor left the doorway and walked to join the small group.
Two meditechs had arrived. They knelt beside the General, whose eyes were half-closed, and one took a blood sample from him. Swiftly, Straker said: "Alec, are you all right? And what the hell is going on?"
"I'd like to ask you exactly the same things… I'm fine, really. But you're not - "
"It'll wait," Straker answered. He seemed oblivious of the quick but delighted glances that were heading his way from all directions, as his people took back control around him. He looked over at Henderson. "Now, General. What's the chain of command at this moment?"
Henderson nodded to Foster, grimacing with the effort.
"I'm in charge," Foster explained, with a slight smile. "So I'm officially rescinding Commander Freeman's arrest and cancelling your MIA status, reinstating you as C-in-C of SHADO Operations."
"Thank you, Colonel, that clears that up…" Straker paused for a moment as Jackson arrived, rammed a hypodermic into his arm, and pressed the plunger home. Jackson withdrew, and Straker took a step forward, reached down, and plucked the sparkling blade from Lackland's chest. It seemed unmarked, and there was no cut in the fabric. "Alec, put this man in the brig, I haven't killed him."
Freeman said, tautly, to Ngana: "Right. Get the medics to check him out, then take him away."
"Thank you… Alec - I'm sorry to dump this lot on you, but you're the man on the spot, and in any case I've got some serious catching up to do - "
"Too true and no problem… but here's a quick summary. Pavlor's group want a treaty, urgently. They're one group among many, all of whom seem to have different agendas. It sounded like the UN on a bad day… You may remember we almost began to get a dialogue going - "
"I remember that you were trying to talk to us, Azan, and someone else didn't want you to - "
"Exactly," Freeman continued. "There was a fight, you got caught in the crossfire. Pavlor decided to bring the two of us home to sort you out and to get talks started. We managed that, though Gay's trigger finger was seriously itchy. Then you vanished from Shroeder's ken, courtesy of Lackland - and turned up here."
"It seems I went to see Mary… Is your neck OK, by the way? She was the one who did the honours."
"You're still a damn good shot, Mary," Freeman smiled.
Straker nodded. "I'd like to hear more about you being arrested… but right now, what we need to do is get this treaty organised - "
"That will not be a problem," Pavlor said, softly. "Sire, the treaty exists if you wish it so."
'Sire'? Freeman was mouthing, his eyebrows disappearing into his hairline.
"I wish it so," Straker told Pavlor. "We will, however, have to formalise this with Earth authorities and yours, and define details. For now, I'd like to get something written and signed, we Earth types set a lot of store by written documents."
Pavlor said, a distinct dryness in his tone: "I think we have sufficient authority between us to begin this process… If you agree, Keimon?"
A ring of quiet was spreading out across SHADO Control as awareness of what was happening began to penetrate. Quite unnecessarily, Straker said: "Attention please, everyone, you may wish to witness this… Keith, recorders on. Is everyone online? Moonbase, the SkyDivers…? Good. Azan, what is your status among your people?"
"I am Azan Pavlor, Prince of Spicor, a group comprising five stellar colony systems, and self-appointed Ambassador to Earth."
"That should do nicely," Straker agreed after a shaken moment. "And I am Edward Straker, Commander of Earth Defences… but you called me 'Keimon'. What does that mean - "
"It means that you are the Avatar of Humanity."
"I… see." Straker considered; then he looked across at the opposite wall. "Well, then, I think this is an appropriate spot…"
The crystal blade was twinkling in the Keimon's hand like a star. He raised it, pointed it at the wall. A thin shaft of dazzling light leapt from it, and burned a few words into the tough panelling. Straker offered the hilt to a shocked Pavlor. "Sign," he suggested.
The Prince of Spicor put out a shaking hand and took the glittering length of crystal with extreme care and infinite reluctance. Handling the blade as though it were a scorpion, he nevertheless managed a creditably legible hieroglyph.
With a slight but understanding smile, Straker took back the blade. He looked round, met Mary's gaze. She nodded, and grasped his hand as he added his own signature.
It was perhaps as well that Straker was not watching the faces of the people around him. Ginny Lake was staring in amazement. Paul Foster's expression said, as clearly as if he had spoken, 'you sly old dark horse'. And Alec Freeman was fighting back tears of relief and delight. Impatiently he wiped his eyes with the heel of his hand.
Henderson smiled. Jackson reached him with a second hypodermic, and gave the injection. The General's eyes closed. Jackson looked up, to meet Straker's gaze. "He is still with us. Just… I will have him taken to Mayland."
"Great," Straker said. Now he did look around the room. "You'll be wondering how this changes things… It doesn't end the war, not by any means, but it does mean that now instead of being on our own, we are one of an alliance of six. Be assured that we will be exploring the implications thoroughly in the coming weeks. We may still get UFO incursions; but Azan will arrange for friendly craft to carry an IFF - " He glanced at Pavlor, got a nod, and went on: " - and any craft which does not, we will treat as before."
He turned back to Pavlor. "Next we need to put you in contact with - "
"And that's where I come in," Freeman said, firmly. "As you say, I'm the man on the spot. And what you need to be catching up with right now is your sleep!"
"That can wait a bit - "
"No. It can't. Do you want me to set Mary and Doug Jackson on you? Sire?"
Straker realised that the two had moved to stand on either side of him - and that Mary was still carrying her rifle. She raised it, moving the arming slide meaningfully.
"I get the message," he said, hastily. Raising his hands to the level of his shoulders, he turned, and walked into his office. Mary followed him, her rifle at alert. The door closed behind them.
"I think perhaps I will give them - oh, say ten minutes, Freeman?" Jackson said.
"That should do it, I reckon."
"One moment, if I may, Companion Alec Freeman?" Pavlor said, beside him, looking down at the fallen Lackland, who was being checked over by two more medics. He was beginning to stir a little, his eyelids fluttering.
The Europan reached out, took Lackland's chin in his fingers, and turned the man's head from side to side, inspecting it closely, much as he had done with Straker and Freeman before. He gave a grunt, then probed at the edge of Lackland's face. He peeled away a thin flesh-coloured layer. The features underneath had a slight greenish tint. Freeman did not recognise the face.
"Who is that, Azan?" he demanded.
"His name is Gimen," Pavlor replied. "He is Kotte's second-in-command."
"Is he now…" Freeman looked across at Jackson. "One for you, I think, Doug."
"Yes indeed," Jackson agreed, grimly. "And I have no doubt that Commander Straker will be wanting to speak to him at length, about his habit of driving fast cars down narrow country lanes."
Freeman's lips parted, then shut in a tight line. "Rick Cargill."
"Lock him up as securely as you know how," Freeman said to the guards. "Pavlor, please come this way?"
The pair left the room. There was silence in SHADO control for a moment. And then a cheer fit to split the roof went up; a cheer that was echoed, one and one quarter seconds later, on the Moon.
Henderson had been removed to hospital, and Foster had been taken into Jackson's office by the medics for a checkup. Freeman took Pavlor to the conference chamber, followed by Virginia Lake, who was grinning from ear to ear. He invited the pair to take seats. "Ambassador, I'm assuming you wish to contact your people?"
"Indeed I do, Companion Alec Freeman."
"Please, call me Alec… And of course, I will need to put you in touch with our top brass - I mean, senior leaders. With Henderson out of action, temporarily - I suppose I hope - it will have to be the Foreign Secretary."
"They don't come much more 'foreign' than this," Lake murmured.
Freeman gave her a pained look. "So. Keith has set up a dedicated channel - a 'hot line' - to your craft on the Moon. They can relay to your deputy Nepetane on Europa." He indicated a labelled button on the desk comms panel. "And this line goes out to the Foreign Office."
"Thank you… Alec. And I am Azan. And… I'm sure that - Colonel Virginia Lake?"
"No need to be so formal, Azan," Lake smiled. "Ginny will do."
"Yes… Ginny, I am sure you can guide me in the use of this equipment… Alec, you are anxious about the Keimon? Your friend?"
"Then… while I do this, please go to him and set your mind at rest. I will await your return here, with Ginny. I do not doubt you have many questions; I shall do my best to answer them."
"Thank you, Azan," Freeman answered, and headed for the door.
* * *
Inside the privacy of Straker's office, Mary carefully laid her rifle down on the desk. The crystal blade morphed into a shimmering ring about Straker's wrist, then faded into his skin. He re-opened the weapons locker, and stowed the rifle away.
The two looked at each other; then Straker's gaze dropped. Mary said, quietly: "Let me mop up your ear, it's leaking… So this - this is why Johnny died."
"…Yes." He turned his head, to allow Mary to take a moist tissue to the wound, which was small but bleeding profusely.
"Can you… tell me about it? I've already heard some of it from Alec, but…"
Straker braced himself. "I arranged for the antibiotic to be sent over on one of the SHADO airplanes. I went back here… but I hadn't told anyone what I'd done, as it was outside regs… private use of our facilities, I mean. And while the plane was in transit over the Atlantic, two UFOs came in. One appeared to be chased by the other. It managed to evade its pursuer, dropped its pilot in Ireland somewhere. He tried to make contact. Alec had to investigate, he had to, it was a possible breakthrough… and the nearest airplane was my courier."
His voice broke for a moment, and he had to fight for control. "Alec… he called me in, told me what had happened. He… he said he'd diverted the plane, was that wrong… Mary, I should have said then, yes, get that damned plane back in the air… but I didn't… I used that old line about priorities… The courier landed, but the pursuer got to the target before we did… I had the courier take off again… but by then… it was too late…"
He put his face in his hands. "Oh, Ed…" Mary breathed.
"I've gone over that… time and again… in my head… was there anything I could have done… If I'd told Alec… I should have ordered him not to divert the plane under any circumstances…"
"But would he have obeyed…?"
"Yes. No… I don't know. He'd have needed a reason. But that would have been shoving the choice, the responsibility, on to him… "
"So you made the choice - our son's life… or a chance to end this. You wouldn't let anyone else make that decision… Ed, thank you."
He lifted his head and gazed at her through red-rimmed eyes. She went on: "And then, when you came out of your coma or whatever it was, your first thought wasn't for SHADO, or aliens, or even Alec… it was for me. You had to know - was I safe. The world would have to take its chances, for once."
Mary was smiling through her own tears. Straker stared at her for a second; then his arms went round her, and they were hugging, and he was crying as he had not done since he was a child.
At the door, Freeman withdrew, and noiselessly closed it behind him.
* * *
Outside, Freeman leaned against the door, squeezed his eyes shut, and quietly swore to himself. Jackson regarded him in some concern. "What's happening in there?"
"He's doing fine. Better than fine. But I think we should give him a few more minutes."
"I understand," Jackson agreed.
Freeman turned a haunted look on him. "How in the name of all that's holy did he keep his sanity, all these years?"
"Some people," Jackson said thoughtfully, "are unbreakable."
"You got some answers then?"
"Some of them," Freeman confirmed. "So did Mary."
Again, Jackson gave a thoughtful nod. They waited in silence; then he checked his watch. "OK, that should be about right… shall we go?"
* * *
The storm had blown itself out, leaving him drained, and at peace. He sighed a little, and settled himself against her, relaxing into her comforting arms. "So sorry…" he whispered.
"And you should be… Hello, we have company." Her own voice was shaky and still tear-filled, but she managed a smile.
"Hello," answered Freeman, moving to the mini-bar. "Ed, Paul is being patched up, but no great damage done. Ginny is looking after the Ambassador in Conference 2. Then Azan will be talking to me, answering questions. Everything will be recorded, and we'll keep you fully informed. Oh - and Jackson and I will personally deal with Lackland - who, by the way, is really a Europan rebel called Gimen."
Straker nodded. Freeman handed him a small glass with about an inch of amber liquid in it. "Alec - "
"Go on," Freeman said, gently. "You need it. And don't make it last all night." He gave another glass to Mary. Straker took a gulp, and coughed a little.
While this was going on, Jackson was carrying out a swift but thorough check of his patient. He finished with a smile of satisfaction. "You will be pleased to hear, Commander, that the tests show you have taken no harm from the compound Lackland used on you."
"That's a relief. Thank you. What about Henderson?"
"It is touch and go, but Shroeder is hopeful. And by the way, one of my colleagues has been asking about you, Commander - one Dr McKenzie. He was called to you at Mary's home. He was trying to find out which hospital you'd escaped from. I assured him that you were safely with me, and thanked him."
"Thanks," Straker murmured.
Jackson and Mary eased Straker's arms out of the jogging top and laid it across the back of the chair. "The sleep chamber is ready for you, Commander," Jackson said. "Mary, what do you wish to do at this point?"
"Got any more silly questions?" she said with a shaky smile.
"I see… Well, then, there is a second bed available…? Good. Then come through, Commander."
"One thing, Alec… could you send Peter Carlin out to collect Mary's car? He knows where we left it."
"Will do, don't worry."
Freeman took the empty glass, set it down on the desk, and helped his friend to his feet. Carefully, he took Straker through a concealed door at the back of the office behind the conference table, into a small room which was set out as a bedroom. There was a bed in the centre; Jackson bent down, opened a locker, and pulled out a second couch, setting it up alongside the first.
Straker let himself be guided to the bed. He sank down onto the edge, with a sigh. He was suddenly exhausted; it was all catching up with him. If he wasn't plain nuts, too many of his Christmases had come at once. Beyond hope, he and Alec had made it back home; beyond hope, they had the beginning of an agreement with the Europans; beyond belief, Mary didn't hate him any more…
…and if Johnny walked in right now, he'd know he'd gone nuts.
He closed his eyes, just for a moment… and then he toppled over, silently, into a limp heap on top of the bedding.
Jackson felt for the pulse in the side of Straker's neck, and gave a nod of satisfaction. "He is asleep. Good."
They put the exhausted man to bed. Jackson brought in an IV pole, and inserted a line into the cannula in Straker's arm. He also installed a catheter. "There," he said, to Mary's anxious gaze. "I have given him a nutrient feed, and his sleep will not be interrupted by a need to visit the restroom. He will be able to sleep as long as he needs, which I confidently expect to be some twenty to thirty hours. And Mary, now. There are sleep-suits in the cupboard… What else can we get you?"
"A bloody enormous cup of tea!!"
"No sooner said than done," Freeman said with a grin. He and Jackson disappeared back into the office. Mary quickly changed into a sleep-suit, which was slightly too large for her, and sat beside Straker, pulling the cover up over her legs. A few minutes later, Freeman reappeared with a steaming mug. "Settle down… Are you comfortable?"
"Very, thanks. Oh… here are my car keys."
"Good… Now this is the comms panel. This button here will summon me, this is the one for Doug here. There are controls for lighting and bed position, and ambient sound." Freeman demonstrated. A soft, almost subliminal, sound of waves on the beach stole through the room. "If you want anything, anything at all, don't hesitate… now, we'll leave you to it, shall we?"
Freeman patted her shoulder, and made his exit. Mary finished her tea, and put down the empty mug. She wriggled into a position where she could ease her arm around the sleeping man's shoulders, leaned back, and closed her eyes.
In the conference chamber, Colonel Lake switched on the special communicator provided by Major Ford, which would allow near-instantaneous Utronics-type contact with both the Moon and Europa. She opened a channel to Prince Merrel's 'skimmer', using the calling code specified by the Ambassador. "Channel is open, Mr Ambassador. Please speak in English, as far as possible."
"Certainly." Azan Pavlor turned his attention to the microphone. "Prince Merrel, Deputy Nepetane: I, Devas Pavlor, speak from Earth. I have news to convey to you and to the people of Dyaus, which the terrans name Europa. This news must be made available to all of Spicor."
A voice replied over the speaker. "I, Deputy Nepetane, speak from Dyaus. I am broadcasting your signal throughout Dyaus, and I am storing it for relay to Spicor Central."
"I, Prince Merrel, speak from the natural satellite the terrans name 'the Moon'. I listen also."
"Thank you," Pavlor said. "I now begin this message.
"Item one: We have established that the Terran colonists are not animals, they are not degenerate. They are fully human. They are our brothers.
"Therefore the harvests will not be resumed under any circumstances. Instead we will work with the Terrans to find solutions to our common and separate problems. This will no doubt be an extended process.
"Item two." Pavlor took a deep breath. "The Keimon, who was 'exiled' to the Terran colony, is manifest. I will repeat: The Keimon lives and is now present on Earth. He wishes a treaty between Earth and Spicor, and has begun the treaty process.
"Therefore I am beginning discussions with the Terran authorities, while the Keimon recovers his strength from the injury we caused him.
"I will contact you frequently with updates. That is all."
After a pause, Nepetane spoke. "My… my lord Devas… Can this be true?"
"It is indeed true… but it is only the beginning of our battle with ourselves. There are no certainties here… but there is something we have not had for aeons. We have hope."
"The Deity be praised," Merrel said softly.
"Indeed - " Nepetane broke off. She turned away for a moment, to speak rapidly to someone out of visual range, then turned back. "My lord Devas, I have news of Kotte. He did not die, and he has left Dyaus."
"Find him," Pavlor ordered, "and bring him to me."
"I comply," Nepetane said, grimly.
* * *
The link to the terran colony closed. Nepetane called in her specialist security guard, and gave swift instructions. They departed, and Nepetane was alone with her thoughts.
She was not sure that she wanted to believe this news. Her first thoughts were for her people: they were now deprived of their one hope for survival. Or they would have been, were it not for the Devas' other news, truly shattering as it was.
The Keimon lived.
This was at once the best and the worst news possible. What would the Keimon do when he learned of the events that had been taking place? Would he be angered? Would he visit retribution on Spicor? Or would he be merciful, and seek to heal his people?
Nepetane needed data. Knowledge of the Keimon, of his capabilities, of his needs, of his wants, was fragmented, scattered. Since his disappearance so many dozens of great-dozens of Isvar-cycles past, the perception was growing among some that he no longer existed. But as Nepetane understood these matters, that would have meant that humanity itself had changed beyond recognition.
Perhaps, she thought, we have indeed changed.
There were a few people she could call on for their scholarship in these matters. She decided to bring them together for a discussion. And perhaps the Empath, Elanor, would consent to attend.
She touched the sense plate, and sent out the call, to some half-dozen of her staff; and she also arranged for food to be supplied. This would be a long session.
* * *
Silence fell like a thunderclap on Mission Control as Freeman came out of the office. Eyes bored into him from all directions.
"He's doing well. He's currently asleep, and likely to stay that way for a bit."
The rustle of relief that went round the room was almost tangible.
"Keith, can you open a channel to Moonbase?"
"Channel open, sir. Captain Ellis is on line."
"Thanks… Gay, are you up-to-date?"
"We hear you've been having some fun," Gay Ellis returned, "and that Earth is now one of six."
"Indeed… how is Plan Delta progressing?"
"The pilot of the second craft - Tyl Merrel - is talking with the Ambassador, in a three-way conference with someone called Nepetane on Europa. And I have teams crawling all over those craft like ants at a picnic - I mean, we are well into Phase 2, sir."
"I'll bet you are… Now, everyone, I haven't told Ed about that yet. I want to hold off as long as possible, because he desperately needs to rest, and when he hears about Delta he will go ballistic, all the way to lunar orbit - "
Freeman had to wait for the roar of laughter to die down before he could continue.
"So, in order to avoid having to chain our commanding officer to his bed, keep stum about that, all right? I will be setting up a lunar module trip for four days' time, which is about as long as I think I can get away with. And the UN will be wanting a word or two… We're going to be busy!"
Mary quickly found that she could not sleep; her mind was far too active.
In spite of the fact that she was actually in the underground base of this 'alien defence organisation', and of the events she had witnessed - and, indeed, been a part of - she found it hard to believe it was all real.
Or, rather, she did not want to believe that.
When Ed had started talking about being at actual war with an unidentified enemy, her first reaction had been to dismiss that as ramblings from an admittedly sick man. But Ed hadn't been rambling. He had talked rationally about the matter, had warned her she would find it both incredible and terrifying.
He was certainly not wrong about that.
So she had decided to wait, to see what developed, and to talk to Alec as soon as possible. And then that man, Captain Peter Carlin, had turned up, talking about 'a treaty with Earth'. And Ed had claimed that they really were dealing with 'little green men'. She would have dismissed that as the purest nonsense… but Captain Carlin had addressed Ed as 'Commander'. And Ed had talked of 'General' Henderson, and 'Colonel' Freeman!
She was just beginning to be scared.
She had reminded herself that she was with people who understood what was happening, and had ways of dealing with it. That helped her keep her fear at bay.
And then she had met 'Ambassador Pavlor', and his friend with the odd turn of speech, and they were really quite human, quite nice; though their skins had the same greenish tint that she had noted in Ed's face, but more pronounced. And they treated Ed like royalty.
The need to rescue Alec had helped her to focus. She realised that she was beginning to accept that this whole thing was real, was true. Pavlor really was a 'little green man'.
But what was that curious crystal knife?
Something glinted against her closed eyes. She opened them. The crystal band was shimmering on Ed's wrist; its light was gentle, reassuring. Knowing it was all right to do so, she reached out, and stroked it lightly with a finger. It morphed smoothly into a birdlike outline, perched like a falcon. Turning its head slightly, it opened gently glowing eyes, and gazed at her. She relaxed into sleep.
The 'bird' settled down, but remained watchful.
* * *
When Mary awoke next morning, Ed was still sleeping; but he had changed position a little. His breathing was slow and regular. The 'bird' had changed back into the armlet-form. She felt for Ed's pulse in his other wrist; it was strong, and steady.
There was a quiet chime from the bedside panel. "Yes?" she whispered.
"It's Dr Jackson. May I come in?"
"Of course. Ed's still asleep."
A few moments later, the door to this bedchamber slid aside, and Jackson entered, carrying his medical bag. He smiled at her, and carried out a quick but methodical examination of his patient, with occasional murmurs of satisfaction.
"How's Ed doing?" Mary asked. "I think he was dreaming a couple of times."
"He is doing very well," Jackson assured her, as he renewed the nutrient bag on the IV pole. "He will probably continue to sleep until late this evening. In the meantime, Alec has asked if you would like to join him for breakfast; it can be served in the main office."
"That would be lovely, thanks!"
"Very good, I will let him know… There is a shower cubicle over there. For clothing, we can supply you with a uniform jumpsuit, until you wish to make other arrangements?"
"One of those beige outfits would be fine… Please tell Alec I'll be out in fifteen minutes!"
* * *
Freeman was waiting in a seat at the long conference table when she came out. He rose, smiling, and guided her to another seat.
"Alec! How are you? Is your neck OK?"
"I'm fine, really. Good to see you," he said. "Sleep well?"
"Eventually, thanks. I had trouble dozing off. There's just been too much happening!"
"You can say that again," agreed Freeman. "Anyway, what d'you fancy for breakfast?"
"Coffee and croissant if you have them, please. I got rather used to that while I was staying with Penny - " She broke off. "Alec, she'll be wondering where I am, what's going on! The last thing I said to her was that Ed had turned up at home and I'd called my doctor to him - "
"It's all right," Freeman said. "I rang her about an hour ago, gave her a quick update. I didn't go into too much detail… but like you, she understands about M.I., and didn't ask too many questions."
He lifted one of the handsets on the desk, and gave the breakfast order. Turning back to Mary, he said: "I've no doubt you are bursting with questions, yourself."
"I've had a few of mine answered," she said, looking down at the floor. "Ed gave me a quick summary on the way here. I didn't know whether to believe him or not. Then we ran into that Captain Carlin… and suddenly everyone was talking military. We came in here through an underground passage, and ran into a group that was positively bristling with rifles, of a type I've never seen before. And I met two green men. Then we made our way here, and Ed was bringing out more firearms, and you were being held at gunpoint… suddenly it wasn't a B-movie plot any more."
"Scary?" Freeman said, quietly.
She shivered. "Very… but you all seemed to know exactly what you were doing. I can't tell you how reassuring that was."
There was a buzz from the door. Freeman glanced at the small monitor, and pressed the button to open it. Peter Carlin came in, pushing a small trolley.
"Breakfast is served," he said, with a grin. "Good morning, Mary… How did you sleep?"
"Fine, thanks," she said. "What do you do around here, when you're not serving meals or driving armoured cars?"
"I fly submarines."
Mary blinked. Freeman said: "Actually, that's not too bad a description, I'll explain in due course… How's Paul doing?"
"Champing at the bit. Shall I send him in?"
"Please do before he breaks the door down," Freeman sighed. "Peter, did you manage to sort out Mary's car?"
"I did," Peter assured them, indicating the keys on the trolley. "I've parked it in the hangar - that's our underground garage."
"Thanks for that," Mary smiled.
"It's a pleasure… How's the Sleeping Beauty in there?"
"Commander Straker is resting comfortably, thank you, Captain," Freeman growled; but there was a twinkle in his eye. Carlin laughed, and left.
"I bet he'd never say that to Ed's face," Mary observed.
"Too right." Freeman set out mugs and plates, and lifted the coffeepot. "Oh, hi, Paul," he added, as Foster entered.. "Come in, do… Mary, I should introduce you. This is Colonel Paul Foster, who, it turns out, is a sort of step-brother to Ed. Paul, this is-"
"Mary Nightingale," she said, in response to Alec's quizzical glance. "We spoke on the phone, I think… It's all a bit complicated, but I was married to Ed for a while. Call me Mary."
"And I'm Paul," Foster smiled. "Is Ed still asleep?"
"He is," Freeman confirmed. "You can peek in if you want, but don't wake him."
"I won't, don't worry."
Foster strode to the connecting door, and slid it open. Freeman gave a small smile, and returned his attention to the breakfast tray.
* * *
Walking softly but not stealthily, Paul entered the sleep-room, closed the door behind him, and looked over at the bed.
The room was lit dimly by the colour panel, which was showing soft pastel shapes drifting slowly across like clouds against a dawn sky. Beneath it, his brother lay on his side, one hand beneath his cheek, eyes closed. His breathing was slow and regular. Paul studied his face. The dreadful gauntness he had seen when Ed had first been brought in was beginning to fill out, just a little, so that he no longer looked like a skeleton on hunger-strike; but his cheekbones were still more prominent even than usual, and there were creases in the skin around his mouth and his eyes.
There was a stool nearby. Moving like a father not wishing to wake a sleeping child, Paul walked over to it, and brought it closer to the bed, seating himself. He gazed down at the brother he thought he had lost forever, so soon after finding him.
"Hi, Ed," he said, softly. "It's OK, don't get up, everything's going very well indeed out there. Sleep as much as you need."
The sleeper made a soft sound, not quite a grunt, and he seemed to settle into a slightly more relaxed position. Crystal glinted on his wrist. Paul gazed at it, fascinated. Pavlor had called this thing the Kei, and had described it as an artefact, fashioned perhaps millennia ago. Paul wondered about the technology that must have been used, and what it told about the people who had colonised his world… But Pavlor had admitted that Spicor had lost much of its knowledge of that 'technology' and of its product, this 'Kei'.
It was a strange object indeed. It glittered like crystal, yet its surface appeared smooth rather than faceted. It was transparent, and glowed from within. He had seen it change its shape, from a flash of light that passed harmlessly through one man's body as though it were smoke, to lodge like a thrown knife in the body of an attacker. It had not killed, merely rendered the attacker helpless. He had seen Ed use it as a 'laser pen' to write the Treaty. And now it was an armlet, form-fitting itself to the flesh, on the wrist of the man Pavlor had named Keimon.
Pavlor had called Ed the 'Avatar of Humanity'. Paul groped in the depths of his memory for the meaning of the term, and recalled that it was used in Eastern mythology to denote a representation of a deity in human form. Well, Humanity was no deity - but perhaps this was a similar situation.
Throughout the centuries, monarchs had identified themselves with their people, referring to themselves in the plural form, the 'royal we'. He had read somewhere that Henry VIII, for example, had referred to himself as 'England', representing himself as the nation rather than as an individual.
What was that word that Jackson had used, as Alec had told him? 'Hypokeimenon'? The essence of something, its fundamental nature? Did that make Ed the super-Ambassador of the human race, in its dealings with other peoples out there? As Henry was 'England', was Ed 'Earth'? Or, indeed, 'Spicor'?
As for the 'Kei', he could think of a couple of cases - one from history, the other from legend - in which a thing, a solid, tangible object, had in a figurative sense embodied the power of the people. There was the Stone of Scone, from Scotland, on which the British monarchs were crowned. The Stone symbolised the continuity of reign, independent of the actual person reigning. And from legend, there was of course Excalibur, the sword of King Arthur, who may have been based on a real person. Arthur had taken Excalibur from a stone to establish his own royalty; and when his life ended, the sword had been returned to the earth by casting it into a lake. Later cultures had used flags as their centres. The 'Stars and Stripes' was a prime example, evoking genuine reverence among its adherents.
Was this Kei the 'Sword of Spicor'? A cross between Excalibur and the 'sonic screwdriver' from that TV fiction series?
He thought about Spicor itself. As Ed had once pointed out, Paul had had - and had survived - the most and closest dealings with the former aliens, which made him an ideal choice to be Earth's own first ambassador. He, Alec, and Ginny, with Gay and Prince Merrel on the Moonbase link, had had a long and detailed talk with the Ambassador about the Spicor system, and about the status of Earth itself as a Spicor colony. The mental vistas that conversation had begun to open up were vast and dazzling, terrifying and exciting. Paul remembered how, as a child many years before, he had been out with his parents, as darkness was falling. The sky above his head was clear. Many stars were out already, and more were appearing. His father had told him that each of those tiny lights was a sun like their own, though a terribly long way away; and many of those suns probably had places like this one near them. Paul had been impressed rather than scared. He had wondered if those other places - his father had called them 'planets' - had people living in them. People like himself. He had wished he would be able to meet them, someday.
Well, now he had indeed met them. And the thought filled him with an exultation that he could not adequately describe or explain.
On the bed before him lay the man who had brought this about, and who would guide Humanity along the path it must now follow, though the process would take centuries. Certainly it would be decades before the peoples of Earth would be ready for even the confirmation that they were truly not alone. To prepare them for that would now be the main task of SHADO.
"Well," he said lightly, in a soft voice, "seems I've got quite a job to do. Time I got started. See you again, soon, Ed."
He rose, and made for the door. Behind him, the Keimon smiled.
* * *
"Shall I pour?" Freeman asked.
"Please do… What about Paul?"
"He'll come out when he's hungry… Here we go." Freeman handed her a full, steaming mug, and she accepted it gratefully. He pushed over the plate full of fresh croissants, and the butter dish, and she helped herself.
When she was supplied with breakfast, Freeman said: "OK, Mary. What d'you want to know?"
"Everything. Of course… I won't ask why it's all been such a deadly secret, that much is obvious. And I would never have guessed any of it… but what did happen to Ed, Alec? You said he'd been in a 'copter crash… but he and Peter Carlin mentioned a lunar module - "
"That's right. We have an outpost on the moon."
"I suppose I should have expected that," she said. "There was a company called Dalotek, doing mining up there, wasn't there?"
"There certainly was, we had - dealings - with them. They were OK, just not very competent. They left, after a UFO incident. We had to dose them up with a drug designed to induce short-term amnesia… Don't worry, we won't be using that on you!"
"So, let me tell you what happened to Ed… He was on what should have been a routine trip to our Moonbase, when things went wrong. Very wrong indeed…"
* * *
"…So when you came to see me," Mary said, "you really did think he was dead?"
Freeman nodded. "We thought he'd been spread thinly over the lunar surface. We went on thinking that for some weeks. And then Gay Ellis and Lew Waterman - I'll introduce you to them both - found 'anomalies' in the evidence. What with that, and that UFO that had been hanging around, we realised what had happened."
"They had taken him," Mary said, in a low voice. "He said something about a colony on one of Jupiter's moons - "
"That's right. We had already realised some time ago that although their true homeworld was light-years away, they had to have a local base. They did… It turned out to be on Europa. Or rather, in it, in their ocean."
"So then you disappeared as well… Does that mean you went out there to find him?"
Freeman shook his head. "We don't have the technology yet to make that kind of trip," he said. "We are working on it, but we've been overtaken by events… I had to let myself be captured as well. Talk about a policy of desperation; but I couldn't leave him there, alone. I briefed Paul, so that he could 'hold the fort', with Gay and Lew… and then the aliens took the bait, and me…"
* * *
Mary was gripping her mug in both hands, her knuckles white. Freeman waited while she did her best to digest what he had told her.
At last she said: "Alec, what about that crystal armlet, you called it a Kei?"
"According to Azan," Freeman said, "it's an ancient artefact, possibly alive in some fashion, which is linked to the Keimon. Think King Arthur, and Excalibur."
"Ed does seem to be - well, very comfortable with it."
"Yes, he does, doesn't he? Azan noticed that as well… He says that it indicates the - well, the degree to which the Keimon's qualities are expressed in his human identity."
"You're not saying that Ed is half-alien, are you?"
Freeman had to smile, as he recalled the many half-humorous speculations on that subject. "No more than we all are, with Earth being a Spicor colony."
She gave a nod, and was silent again. Freeman topped up their coffees. At length, she took a deep breath, and asked: "You won't be going public with this for a while yet, I suppose."
"No… Mary, how good are you at keeping secrets?"
"This one, quite good I think," she said, a little dryly. "I don't even want to think about it, far less talk about it. It's way too scary."
"It frightened the pants off me when I first truly understood what as going on," Freeman said, frankly. "Now, I've already said that we won't be using our amnesia drug on you - but I'm wondering about some sort of hypnotic training. Doug Jackson can implant certain 'triggers', call them mantras, which may help if you feel the need… And I also wonder whether we shouldn't bring Penny into the circle a bit more. She'll be able to tell you're keeping things back - but, as I say, she won't probe too deeply. I'll talk to Ed about it."
At that point the sleep-room door opened, and Foster came out. He sniffed theatrically. "Do I smell coffee?" he enquired, casually.
"I think there's a drop or two left," Freeman smiled. "And when you've finished, you and I had better go talk to the Ambassador, I think. And perhaps Norma will show Mary around."
How they had managed to keep the events off the news Freeman did not know. Already eyebrows were going up. The UN had held an emergency session behind closed doors; the British Minister had been summoned back from his holiday; the US envoy had left his seat at the golf championships somewhat precipitately; and the heir to the British throne had cut short a tour of the Middle East and was heading for Britain on a hastily-requisitioned private jet.
In the eye of this political hurricane, the Keimon slept. Freeman and Foster sat drinking coffee in the penthouse suite of the Europan Embassy with Ambassador Pavlor, and Colonel Webb, and chatting.
All right, Freeman thought, not 'chatting' exactly…
"Azan," he said, "I need to talk to you about this man you name Gimen."
"Of course. Please ask your questions."
"Did you know that Commander Straker had a son?"
"Our investigations of him had indicated that… You said 'had' a son?"
"That's right," Freeman confirmed. "The child was killed in a road accident - an impact with a road vehicle. This vehicle was driven by someone whose name was given as Rick Cargill, but who Dr Jackson has confirmed to be this rebel Gimen. We were already wondering if - "
" - if this act were deliberate," Pavlor supplied, a little hesitantly. "Almost certainly, it was. The child was deliberately targeted."
"Azan, you seem a little ill-at-ease," Webb commented.
"I'd say you were shit-scared," Freeman murmured. "I mean - "
"Your meaning is all too clear, Alec," Pavlor said. "And accurate… you see, I will shortly have to face the Keimon in his wrath. I do not contemplate the prospect with joy."
"Come on, Azan," Foster put in. "You know he doesn't bite!"
"He may do so on this occasion. He has the right to execute me summarily."
"What on Earth for? You aren't the one who - "
"Because," Pavlor said grimly, "the full extent of the the plot against the Keimon is now apparent."
Freeman sat forward. "The plot against him?" he said, his voice flat.
"Yes. It has been in existence for aeons. Recall that Elanor explained that the entity we name Keimon is not a single individual as you would understand the term, and certainly not personally immortal… There is among the group of peoples forming Spicor a subset, Kotte's rebels, for whom the Keimon is a serious threat to their ambitions. They began a process of eradication, many of your millennia ago. Part of this process was to isolate the Keimon, physically. This they did by exiling him to a world on the outskirts of our space - "
"This world," Webb said. "I remember you mentioned that, at the hearing on Moonbase."
"Yes… They were able to kill him, and all of his living relatives that they could find. That, of course, did not work, though there does seem to be something in the genetics that is connected with the Keimon. So, they isolated this world. They spread around a description of earth-humans that said you were mere animals, not worthy of consideration as 'real people'. That description has now been shown to be completely false."
"Why 'of course' it didn't work?" Webb wanted to know.
"It is complex, and I shall explain… Firstly, the Keimon is servant, not master. The race of which he is avatar has a certain collective awareness, or 'soul'. In time of danger to that race, this soul manifests itself as a single entity, whose task it is to steer the race through the danger."
"And is the Keimon, the race avatar, always male?"
"No, and yes. The avatar remains a single sex; but there exist races with female avatars. I met one such, long ago, and I still bear the scars from her defence of her young."
"Ouch!" Webb said. "So - the individual is mortal, but the avatar is not?"
"Not quite. It is indeed possible to destroy this single entity, but that would not in itself destroy the soul. To do that, it would be necessary to destroy the Keimon's self-belief."
"How?" demanded Freeman.
"The technique being used by the rebels is first, finding him, by threatening his people, so forcing him to manifest. Then drawing him out to engage in combat… and then manipulating him into an impossible personal situation."
There was a silence. Freeman could see it in his mind's eye. Yes, Commander Ed Straker would have done what was necessary to protect his world… and then blown his brains out.
In fact, that had nearly happened.
"That explains a few things," he said, at last. "Right from the time SHADO was set up, it became apparent that the aliens - forgive me, your rebels - were gradually focussing their attention on Ed Straker. That focus tightened… until they grabbed him."
"Exactly," Pavlor agreed.
"And on the one occasion they took their eyes off him, they did so because there was an opportunity to destroy all life on this world, with 'nerve gas'? Wasn't that a bit - well - short-sighted?"
"Not quite, Alec. Their motive was to hold Earth to ransom. You see, they designed that biochem weapon, passed it to their agents here - and they had an antidote for it."
Freeman nodded. "They'd have forced us to surrender, to allow them to take over, to give Ed to them. If we didn't…"
But Freeman was thinking, as privately as possible: Wait until you hear what your mate Gimen really had in mind… But I think I'll leave that one to Ed!
That led to another thought. "Ed will certainly want to talk to you about that one in some detail," Freeman said. "But for now, what can you tell me about Lieutenant Andy Hague? He was clearly a Europan agent of some kind. He was instrumental in the plot to murder Johnny. He tried to kill Lieutenant Chrys Jones, to stop her telling what she discovered about the sabotage to Ed's LM. Then he tried to abduct Henderson - and Gimen killed him. Ginny said he was a sacrificial pawn, if you know chess?"
"I do… He was indeed a 'pawn'. Gimen and Kotte had assembled a team of such persons, which they called the 'Third Sector' to distinguish them from Spicor proper and Kotte's own allies. But Kotte had not advised them of their true status." Pavlor's eyes were shadowed. "They were inserted into many Terran 'chains of command' both military and otherwise. They were given certain instructions from time to time, which purported to come from Spicor Command - but in fact their origin was Malvar Kotte. In this way, Kotte hoped to represent Spicor as Terra's implacable enemy, and himself as its saviour… so that, if he failed to destroy the Keimon, he could at least subvert him."
There was a short silence as they digested this. At last, Jack Webb said: "There is another problem, of course."
"Only one?" Foster muttered.
"At least… It is possible to interpret this situation so as to make Ed the villain of the piece."
"What the hell d'you mean by that?" exploded Freeman, rocketing to his feet.
"Well, he isn't, of course… but look at it. The human race is in mortal danger because Ed Straker is what he is. If he were not this Keimon, the rebels would not be attacking us, wouldn't have any interest in us… I am, of course, playing 'devil's advocate' here."
"So I should bloody hope!!"
"My point is simply this," Webb explained carefully. "Will Ed himself see it that way?"
Freeman fell silent. Pavlor gazed at him, almost pleadingly.
"No," Freeman said, at last, but with certainty. He resumed his seat. "No, he wouldn't. Ed doesn't make excuses for himself, but he has never been the type to wallow in guilt, to let it rule him. He'd put the blame squarely where it belongs - with these rebels."
"Then may the Deity help them," Pavlor said reverently, "because nothing else will."
At the end of their day's tour of the studio, Norma took Mary to the staff canteen, and encouraged her to join in a meal. She nibbled at it while they chatted. They were joined by Peter Carlin, and two others who Norma introduced as Tsi Chan and Keith Ford.
"Tsi Chan is one of our security people," Norma explained. "And Keith is head of communications."
"Hello," Mary smiled.
She listened as they talked, and it was all fascinating if more than a little cryptic. She supposed that was inevitable. When you worked on things as deadly secret as they did, you must develop a sort of 'personal code' to use outside of work. Ed had done something similar during his MI days, she recalled.
She suppressed a yawn. Peter noticed, and smiled. "We're keeping you from your bed," he said, kindly, waving aside her protests. "Time we got back to work, anyway."
They left. Mary got up, and followed Norma from the canteen as the secretary led the way back to the main office, and below stairs. They met Freeman in the control room. "I'll hand you over now," Norma said. "Sleep well."
"Thanks for everything, Norma," Mary smiled. "Hello, Alec… how's Ed doing?"
"Still asleep last time I checked. Doug Jackson has been looking in from time to time, as well. It's been quite quiet here… Come through." Freeman led Mary through the command office into the sleep-room. "According to Doug Jackson, he may wake shortly. And knowing Ed, he'll try to get up. Let him. We'll see how long it takes him to fall over."
Mary smiled, squeezed Alec's hand in gratitude. "When do you get to sleep?" she enquired.
"Oh, in a couple of hours or so," Freeman assured her. "Ginny takes over around midnight. I'll get my head down, don't worry - tomorrow's going to be busy."
They said their goodnights, and Mary went through the connecting door, sliding it closed behind her. The room was dimly lit by the colour panel; she could make out vague shapes.
"Do you know," said a sleepy voice from the bed, "every time I've woken up lately, it's been some place different? And half the time I've no idea how I got there?"
The overhead light came on and brightened, slowly. It revealed Ed Straker propped up in a reclining position against his pillows, a somewhat drowsy smile on his face. Mary returned the smile, and walked forward, seating herself on the bed. "Well, this time you fell asleep on us, so your Dr Jackson and I put you to bed."
Straker glanced up at the IV pole. The bag of clear fluid attached to it was three-quarters empty. "That would account for this, I guess. And…" He nodded down at himself.
"He wanted you to sleep undisturbed."
"Hmm." Straker stroked her hand, gently. "How long have I slept? Feels like ages."
"Most of the day," Mary confirmed. "It's just after ten. PM, that is."
Straker blinked. "What about you? Have they been looking after you?"
"They've been terrific," Mary smiled. "Alec's been quite busy with that nice Mr Pavlor - sorry, Ambassador Pavlor - so he deputised your Norma Ealand a lot of the time. She showed me round, introduced me to a few people. And I heard lots of juicy gossip, mostly about Mr Foster. He's a bit of a ladies' man, isn't he?"
"Known for it. But he knows where to draw the line, which is just as well. For him," Straker added; but his own smile was almost fatherly. "Has much been happening, do you know?"
"Alec says it's been very quiet," Mary said.
"Good… Has there been any news from Moonbase? Pavlor's ship, the one that brought us home. Is that still up there?"
"Yes, I think so. Alec's been talking to the people up there about it."
"Good. Let's get ourselves up-to-date." Straker leaned over to reach the bedside controls and lifted the handset.
* * *
The intercom from the command office buzzed. Freeman picked up the handset. "Hello, Mary, can I - Oh, hi!! Did you sleep well?… Good… Henderson? He's stable, but it's not looking too good, I'm afraid… What can I… Yes…" Freeman put his fingers to the bridge of his nose and squeezed his eyes shut. "Two… Yes, she has… She used the phrase 'ants at a picnic'… What - oh, that… Day after tomorrow. Earliest slot I could get… Honestly… I'll be in at once."
Lieutenant Anderson was looking at him with a rueful smile. "Let me guess?"
"He's a few light-years ahead of us," Freeman confirmed. He drew a deep breath, squared his shoulders, and strode off to the command office.
He made his way through into the sleep-room, and stopped. Straker was sitting up, perched on the side of the bed, with Mary watching him in some alarm.
"And where, exactly, do you think you're going?" Freeman demanded, in a tone of affectionate exasperation.
Straker stood up. "I'm going to get dressed…"
His voice tailed off in a sigh, and Freeman had to move quickly to catch him as his legs buckled. Together, Freeman and Mary lowered him gently back onto the pillows. "Two seconds. Must be a record," Freeman said, and she stifled a giggle.
"What the hell…" Straker whispered. "What's wrong with me…"
"You want a list?" Freeman enquired.
"What d'you mean…?"
Freeman turned to snag a small stool, and sat beside the bed. "Well now, let's see… According to Azan, they had to call a halt to the proceedings twice, to give them a chance to kickstart you. It would have been three times if that Empath - sorry, I don't think you met her - hadn't ordered him to cease forthwith. You hijacked one of their mobile habitats and we went for a cruise around the seas of Europa, rescuing some of the victims of a small civil war. Then we did a Butch and Sundance, and you got in the way of an energy weapon which had an effect on your brain functions roughly akin to Big Ben falling on you. You were brought back to Earth, where you were kidnapped and poisoned by Lackland and his mates. You escaped from them - god only knows how - and walked a few miles in bare feet and a thin wisp of a cotton gown, to have tea with Mary here. And finally, you organised a rescue party to get me out of a mess… I think that about covers it."
"Good god," whispered Straker, his eyes wide. "I don't remember half of that…"
"I can't say I'm surprised… Now will you see some sense, and behave yourself?"
"I'll behave," Straker said. "Alec - Mary - I am truly sorry."
"So you should be." Freeman was grinning broadly. "Look, I know there's a lot to be done, and quite a short time in which to do it, and there's a lot of it which - I suspect - only you can do; but to do it effectively you have to get back at least some of your energy. You've run your tanks practically dry."
"OK, Doctor Alec, what's your prescription?"
"Astronaut rations, for starters. Doug left you some items… you know, high-energy, high nutritional value, low-residue, easily digested. You can have some now if you like… and while you eat, you can read this transcript of my chat with the Ambassador. The Treaty is progressing well."
"Great… but I need to talk to him sometime soon. About this." Straker held up his hand; the crystal band glittered about his wrist.
"I can give you a quick summary," Freeman said. "It's a badge of Spicor royalty… and Earth is a Spicor colony."
"I admit I'd wondered about that," Straker said. "We are so similar, physically."
"As you say," Freeman agreed. "The 'royalty' aspect is a bit more complicated, though."
"No doubt." Straker turned his hand, inspecting the Kei on his wrist. "This must be alive, somehow. It has a 'presence'. It reminds me of the time I went to a bird-of-prey centre, and they let a falcon perch on my wrist."
"Do you need to feed it?" Freeman enquired, with a grin.
"Actually," Straker said, "I do feel a little hungry myself… Mary, what about you?"
"I might join you in a sandwich," Mary said. "And a cup of tea."
"Can do," Freeman said. "Now, you asked about a trip to Moonbase to see how Plan Delta is proceeding. We have a slot for about 14:00 the day after tomorrow, and you get on it if - and ONLY if - Doug Jackson gives you the go-ahead. Clear?"
"And you won't be the pilot, either. You'll be chauffeured by Colonel Foster."
"Sounds good to me."
"And there's a melatonin capsule to re-align your body clock. Doug wants you to take that capsule around midnight. That should enable you to get a few more complete sleep cycles in, and wake around 07:00. Then he'll get you up. The UN Special Committee wants a word or two… You won't be lying around much, or even sitting around, tomorrow, believe me."
"Oh, boy… Can I have a headache please?"
"Nope… Well, that's about all for the moment - I'll go and do my waiter act, shall I?"
"Before you do that," Straker said, "tell me. You've had a pretty rough time as well. Are you OK? Have you rested?"
"I - I'm fine. Don't worry about me."
"Alec," Straker said, an unmistakable note of warning in his voice.
Freeman capitulated. He said, choosing his words with great care, "No-o, I'm not OK. But I will be. I'll take care, don't worry."
Straker gave a slow nod. "See that you do, Alec, please… And what about Henderson?"
"He's not very well at all, I'm afraid," Freeman admitted. "He had that heart problem, which wasn't responding to treatment. I think I could guess why… And on top of that, Lackland gave him a shot of that stimulant because he needed Henderson up and about to ram this coup through. That did him no good at all. But they're doing everything they can for him."
"I see. And where's Lackland now?"
"Locked up awaiting your pleasure, and being thoroughly questioned," Freeman told him. "Now, let's get you ready for breakfast. Or supper. Whatever."
Freeman played with the bed controls, and Straker was lifted into a reclining position with knees slightly drawn up, while Mary watched with a slight smile. When Freeman disappeared into the command office to organise food, Mary said: "He really looks after you, doesn't he?"
"He has threatened to get me a teddybear," Straker admitted.
"That I do have to see."
"Mary, I've been snoring my head off for the best part of the day! You said they looked after you?"
"They certainly did," Mary said, a gleam of mischief in her eyes. "I have the impression they were falling over themselves to entertain me, but at the same time they were trying to keep their curiosity in check. Your Miss Ealand showed me around the studios, which I've never seen before. She's a sweetie! And I talked to Moonbase, which was something of an experience. I'll have to try one of those wigs sometime. What are they for?"
"In the early days we tried to maintain a clean-room environment in Moonbase as much as possible," Straker explained. "That meant, among other things, keeping body hair lengths down. OK for us men, but the women hate it, and who can blame them… so some bright spark suggested equipping them with wigs designed not to shed while not overheating the head. It was an immediate hit, and not just among the ladies… You should have seen Alec at a Christmas party one year when he'd raided the lockers. And Gay or someone got to me - coloured my skin-hydrating eyeshadow green."
"I hope you've got pictures." Mary gave a wicked chuckle.
"Oh, I have, don't worry - ah, here's breakfast. Or perhaps I should call it a 'midnight feast'?"
* * *
Between nibbles, they read through the typed sheets that Freeman had given them. The first few pages were a brief summary of Freeman's account of events, given at the hearing held by Paul Foster. Straker's frown deepened as he read.
"Alec was taking a dreadful risk," he commented. "Not least from Henderson… But I would have done exactly the same if our positions had been reversed, so I can't be too hard on him. And as things turned out, it was just as well he was around, to pick up the ball when I dropped it."
"When it was shot out of your hand, you mean," Mary agreed, quietly. She snuggled a little closer.
"Mmm." Straker picked up the next bundle, which was Pavlor's own account to the hearing. He read it through, then placed it back in the folder, thoughtfully. "I need to talk to Jack Webb, I think. About this Keimon business… Now let's see, what has Commissioner Springer to say for himself?"
* * *
They settled down to sleep once more. Again, Straker found himself dreaming…
Efren was standing at the monitors, unmoving, trying to suppress his tears, at that last message from his Keimon.
There was a tap on his shoulder. He turned. Two health technicians in anti-contagion suits were standing there. They led him into a small chamber, where they examined him thoroughly. Their news was not good. They told him that he carried the plague.
He demanded to speak to the colony chief, a man named Petan, who had been a good friend; but it seemed he was 'unavailable'.
He was taken to a room they described as a 'quarantine pod', where four others were waiting. His questions were ignored. He was told to sit, and the door was sealed.
There was a slight breeze against his face; but despite that, the air was stifling, and the sensation grew rapidly worse. He suddenly noticed that two of the others were gasping for breath. His own breathing was becoming more difficult…
Realisation struck at him; and with it fury, and fear. They were evacuating air from the pod, probably replacing it with an inert gas. They were killing the plague victims, not even trying to help them.
He tried to call out, to protest, to order them to stop… but words would not come. He fell to his knees, then forward onto his hands. Around him others were collapsing also. His vision was darkening around the edges. A strange sense of peace gathered in his failing mind… His surroundings receded… His vision darkened to black…
After the 'plague victims' had stopped their struggles and their vital signs had ceased, the pod was opened again. Each of them was taken to a room where they were dissected, their important organs removed and stored in stasis boxes. The five donors - good, healthy specimens, plague-free - would save as many as thirty or forty lives. It was deemed a good trade.
The remains were loaded into a cremation oven. After some hours, the ashes were vented into the oceans of Europa, and were consumed by hungry water-dwellers.
And Ed Straker woke abruptly, and sat bolt upright, while his breathing slowed and returned to normal.
* * *
Doug Jackson's passage down Mission Control was watched by everyone there. The psychiatrist was not normally self-conscious, regarding it as unnecessary; but he did feel more than a little relieved to reach the command office.
He had brought his nurse with him, a tall, lithe, and silent man called Drew, in case there was any heavy lifting to be done, though he doubted there would be. He knocked on the connecting door, and heard "Come in." Sliding the interleaved panels aside, he saw that the commander was indeed on his feet, and being helped into his jacket by his wife. No, he reminded himself, she isn't, yet. Or, perhaps she still was.
"Good morning, commander," he said, in what was for him a cheery voice. "I must say, you are looking very much better."
"I feel it," Straker agreed.
"However," Jackson went on, "I must caution you, do not be deceived. It will take some little time for you to get back to full fitness, and at the moment you have made up only a small amount of the deficit. You will find that you tire easily, but do not be discouraged by that. Just keep on taking the tablets, as they say… Talking of which, have you eaten this morning?"
"I sure have." Straker indicated the tray beside his bed, which held the remains of his morning meal, and grimaced a little. "It just doesn't compare with a couple of croissants, I'm afraid… especially not while Mary here," he gave her a smile, "was putting away muesli like there was no tomorrow."
"Muesli would rip your insides out, at the moment, Commander… Now let me examine you, please?"
Jackson dismissed Drew and finished the check quickly, and was pleasantly surprised, though he took care to keep it to himself. He inspected the commander's face closely. When Straker's eyebrows went up, he explained: "I just wish to check that you are losing your greenness, sir. It is rather difficult to tell under this lighting, though."
"Sure hope so. I don't want to give people the willies."
"Mmm. Very well, commander, I would say you are doing well. This morning I want you to take some light exercise. Go for a walk in the fresh air. Have a light mid-morning snack. I will see you again here after lunch - "
He broke off as the alarm klaxon sounded, followed by the cool, dispassionate voice of SID. "UFO bearing 295 green. Two contacts, one IFF. Trajectory termination lunar surface. Computing details."
Straker was at the intercom at once, lifting the handset. Alarmed, Jackson said: "Please remember you are on sick leave, Straker."
"Noted… Straker to control?"
Virginia Lake's voice answered. "Yes, sir?"
"Request permission to observe."
"Of course, sir."
"Thank you." To Mary, Straker said: "Care to come see what we do?"
* * *
Straker walked out of the office door, followed closely by Mary and Jackson, and headed straight for Colonel Lake. She was studying the readouts. With a quick glance at him, her eyes widened, and she motioned him to a seat. He obeyed silently. Mary took a seat next to him, while Jackson hovered.
Without waiting to be asked, Lake said: "We have two craft coming in, both headed for Area 52. There is IFF from one of the craft but we can't resolve which one. Interceptors are following, ground defences are ready. We need more information before we engage… which we will have to do in no more than four minutes."
"The IFF won't resolve?" Straker said, quietly.
"The IFF is strange. Listen."
Lake turned a control, and a warbling, high-pitched note filled the room. Some trick of acoustics made it seem to echo from one wall to the other.
Straker's eyes met Lake's, and a whole conversation seemed to take place between them. There was puzzlement, and alarm, and worry; then Straker's eyes cleared, and Lake's eyes widened.
"Split them up?" she said; and Straker nodded.
Lake touched the controls. "Moonbase from SHADO Control. Instruct one of the interceptors to detonate its missile between the two craft. That should separate them whether it's a chase or a tow."
…"Roger, SHADO Control… Interceptor Two is engaging."
A few seconds later, there was the unmistakable trace of a high-energy discharge, neatly between the two craft. The leading UFO increased its speed; the trailing one veered away. The IFF tag attached itself to the leading craft.
"Moonbase to Interceptor One. Engage following craft and destroy. Interceptor Three, bring the other one in."
A second detonation trace lit up the screens. When it cleared, only one craft was visible, with a flashing IFF tag. They watched, while the UFO settled in to land beside its two companions.
"SHADO control from Moonbase. The second vessel has landed safely. Our crews will be resuming their stations after a short period of observation. Be advised that the attacker was fired on and destroyed by one of those on the ground."
Straker was smiling in satisfaction. He gave Lake the curled-finger sign of approval and congratulation, and she grinned in reply. "We'll let you know who these newcomers are and what their errand is, sir."
"Thank you, Colonel."
"And I think that is quite enough," Jackson said. "Commander, you have an appointment with some fresh air, remember?"
At these words, every head turned. Straker did not notice. He followed Jackson towards the door, pausing briefly to acknowledge smiles here and there; and as he passed, his staff rose to their feet and stood to attention.
They reached the exit. Jackson turned, started to say something, and broke off. Instead, he said: "Commander, did you leave your office door open?"
Straker glanced around. "No, of course not…"
His voice faded out. As one, led by Colonel Lake, his staff saluted their commander. Shaken, he returned the salute, and followed Mary out of the exit.
"Well, that's a first," he said, when he could speak.
"They seem to like you," murmured Mary. "What happened with those UFOs, anyway?"
Grateful for the change of subject, Straker cleared his throat. "The IFF Pavlor set up is encrypted, and only his craft carry it, and we have the key. Other ships should be unable to break the encryption. What is interesting is that this one did not even try - instead it 'echoed' the signal, making it difficult to tell which UFO was sending it. That meant we would have had to destroy both craft… unless we forced them far enough apart to break the echo."
"I see. I think!"
"I'm just wondering why Area 52 - oooohh. Oh I see. That is truly dreadful!"
"It's the place where Alec and I were landed, where the friendlies are… and it's one better than Area 51."
Mary laughed, and Straker joined in. Jackson gave his small, secret smile.
They had reached the transit office. Jackson shook hands with them both, and went back the way they had come.
Straker indicated for Mary to enter, and followed her inside, allowing the door to slide closed behind them. Mary smiled. "This thing is always fun… Doesn't anyone notice it going up and down?"
"No, they don't… you see, it all happens behind one-way glass. We can see out, but no-one can see in." Straker gazed out through the widening window gap. "What a glorious day! Just as a matter of interest, what day is it… I've lost touch, a bit."
"It's July 1st. A Wednesday."
"Well… Let's go see if the outside world is still here, shall we?"
They emerged into the outer office. Miss Ealand looked up from her work, and smiled. "Good morning, sir, Mrs Rutland."
"Hello, Miss Ealand, it's good to see you! How are things up here?"
"Quite quiet, sir. Which is a little odd, considering what the papers have been saying."
Straker groaned. "I don't think I want to know… but I'd better have a summary, I suppose."
The secretary picked up a thin folder and passed it across to him. "I would take that somewhere quiet and secluded before you open it, sir."
"Thanks. I guess." Straker took the folder, and headed for the door. He halted. "There isn't a pack of wolves out there, is there?"
"No, no. Everyone's run to Cornwall - they think you're coming ashore at Land's End or somewhere. The studio staff have been warned, though."
"Great… Well, many thanks, Miss Ealand. Is Jack Webb on site?"
"He's in the production office."
"Great. I need to talk to him…"
* * *
"Take a seat," Webb invited. "Can I offer you coffee, or tea?"
When they had been served, Webb leaned back in his armchair and surveyed the pair. "How can I help? Ed, you said this was highly confidential. I have secured this office, so you may speak freely."
"Thank you." Straker looked across at Mary. "There's something very odd about this situation… Mary, you may find this very scary indeed - I will quite understand and accept it if you want nothing more to do with us - no," he added, as Mary seemed about to protest. "It really is that bad. Or I think it may be."
He turned his attention back to the priest. "Jack, I don't know what's happened to me. I woke up with the Kei in residence, and I recognised it. What's more, I've read Alec's account of the events on Europa, how he had to give me CPR. I gather I've been in some sort of coma for several days - but I came out of it quickly and completely, though I'm still very short of energy… So I have to wonder: what's going on?"
"Tell me about it," Webb invited.
* * *
Webb gazed thoughtfully at Straker for long moments. He had listened, without interruption, while the commander had talked. And he had watched the man before him, carefully.
"Ed," he said, "I'm not sure. There are indications… Changes such as you describe are often a feature of the after-effects of coma, so your recovery may not be so complete after all. I would be surprised if it had been… And even while still in coma, people are receptive to what is happening around them, often to an unexpected degree.
"It is the dreams you describe, that I find most curious. It's possible, of course, that people around you were discussing these things, and you constructed a coherent and sensible narrative from what you heard.
"We can be certain of one thing, however." Webb pointed to the crystal band on Straker's wrist. "That shows that you are, beyond doubt, the Keimon. And it may be actively helping you recover. It is clearly benign, and obedient to your wishes - Lackland is still alive, after all, and so is Henderson. And it has an awareness, and probably a memory. You could be tapping into that. For the rest…
"What I need to do is to watch, and observe. I will not speak of this to anyone else, of course, not even Alec."
"Good." Straker looked across at Mary, whose expression was unreadable. "Mary, shall we go grab some of that fresh air?"
She nodded, silently, and rose to her feet.
The two headed for the gardens, a landscaped area where staff could relax, or entertain customers. Rather unusually, it was deserted, and Straker wondered briefly why this was.
They linked arms, and strolled across the manicured grass. For a long time, they did not speak. There was far too much to say.
"Ed," Mary said at last, quietly.
"It's OK. Tell me."
She shrugged, helplessly. "I don't know what to do. There's just too much of it… I knew about Blue Book, at least in general terms, but I thought they'd dismissed the whole notion of little green men. I can see why they did that, now… And here the LGMs are, on Earth, and it turns out we've been fighting them for years! And now they want peace! And - and you're at the centre of it all!"
"So it seems," Straker agreed. He sounded a little nervous, she thought. As well he might… "If it's not a stupid question, what would you like to do at this point?"
She laughed, but there was no humour in the sound. "Go back about twenty years and try again, of course! But that's not possible… Ed, you - you're going to be busy with this thing, very busy. I need some time to get to grips with it. I know that sounds a bit like 'I need some space', but I really do - "
"Don't worry, I understand," he said. "I had a chat with Paul not that long ago about his own very similar situation. He'd been through the mill, emotionally and physically. He and his love decided to let things ride for a while. But I saw from Alec's report that they had some very bad luck, and she had to leave us, and forget about us… But the door is still open, and Paul will find his own way, either through that door or another."
"Yes. I've met him, I'm glad he's doing well." Mary hesitated. "Alec said - something about an amnesia drug?"
"It was developed for us. Took a long time to get it right. We've had to use it on a few occasions. It's good for short-term, a few days' memories. Longer periods need much more careful handling. I guess you're not keen?"
"I'm not," Mary admitted. "But it's probably safest… Ed, I don't want to forget this. I don't want to lose you, not again!"
"You may not need to. There is an alternative. We tried it on Paul at his own suggestion, as a strategy to feed Kotte's group false data. Dr Jackson hypnotised Paul into forgetting his own idea - but included a 'wake-up call' to bring those memories back when we were ready. It worked well."
"I think Alec said something about hypnotising too," Mary said, slowly. "Yes. Yes, let's do that."
"Great. I'll talk to Doug about it as soon as I can… What else?"
Mary halted, took a deep breath, and turned decisively to face him. "There's somewhere we should go, and go soon."
After a few moments, Straker said: "Yes. Of course… now?"
"If they'll let you out."
"I'll take a pager," Straker said. "But I won't turn it on until we're done."
It was perhaps a twenty-minute drive to the primary school their son had attended. Straker filled in the time by glancing through the folder Miss Ealand had given him; he groaned mentally, several times.
The church, and the graveyard, were next door to the school. Mary parked the 4x4 on the gravelled area at the entrance. She could see one or two visitors walking slowly along the paths between the stones.
Not to her surprise, Ed knew the way. She had often wondered whether he had visited - and she mentally edited out the phrase 'bothered to' from that thought.
They walked the path slowly, almost hesitantly. Ed had asked her to pause at a small 'garden centre' on the way, and they had each bought flowers, and a single vase.
The stone was in the children's section. It was white marble, and curved up to a graceful point. There was a simple inscription giving the name as John Rutland, and the dates. Mary glanced quickly up at Ed, but his face showed only sadness.
"I can get that changed," she said softly.
"No problem… Anyone watching?"
She glanced around quickly. "No."
"Well, let's see… I can't make things out of thin air, but I can move stuff around. If the Kei doesn't mind, what say we change it to 'Johnny, son of'?"
Once again, the Keimon raised the slender crystal blade, pointed it at the white stone. A shaft of light shone from it, and the engraved area glowed with a clear light. The glow faded, leaving a new inscription.
"That's lovely," Mary whispered.
But Straker was surprised. He had fully expected to get his wrist slapped by the Kei, if gently. Instead, there was a distinct impression that the Entity was puzzled. This is what it is to be human, he told it silently.
Mary placed the vase on the plinth before the stone, added some water from a bottle, and together they arranged the flowers. They stood back, gazing down at the small grave. Ed expected to feel again the overwhelming sadness that he knew every time he visited this place; but there was only emptiness. Well, I'm still tired, he thought to himself.
They stood together in silent contemplation for what seemed a long time. At length, they turned away. They walked back through the graveyard to Mary's car, Ed's arm around Mary's shoulders, still silent in a shared grief. Straker knew a kind of peace, in spite of the pain and the emptiness. He could sense that Mary felt that also.
She helped him into the passenger seat. He strapped in, and took a moment to turn on his pager. Mary took the driving seat herself. "Back to the studio?" she asked.
"Sure - " Straker broke off. His pager was bleeping at him urgently. He fished it out, and his lips tightened; the message was one word.
Silently, he showed her. "Henderson?" she asked, quietly.
"Looks like it, I'm afraid."
"Right." Mary fired up the engine, and drove out of the car park quickly, but carefully. "We should be there in about forty minutes."
* * *
It took them thirty. The roads were clear, for a wonder. They pulled into the private parking area, and Mary found a place beside a car she thought she recognised.
"Alec's here," Straker confirmed. "He'll have someone waiting for us at Reception."
Indeed, Joan Harrington was waiting for them at the desk. June Baines was with her, but she seemed unsurprised to see her ex-employer. "Mr Straker," Joan said, her tone relieved. "And Mrs Rutland… Thank you for coming so promptly."
"It's about Mr Henderson, I take it?" Straker said, quietly.
"I'm afraid so, sir. Would you come this way?"
"He is not expected to last the day," Joan confirmed. She led them down the corridor to a small private room, pressed the button by the door. A soft musical chime sounded from within. A nurse opened the door, and signed to them to enter. Joan stayed outside.
Henderson was in the bed, propped up on pillows, his eyes half closed. A life-signs monitor beside the bed showed heart and breathing traces. The heart rate was over 120, the breathing rapid and shallow, the temperature low.
Freeman was there. He looked up, sighed with relief, then turned to the sick man. "Ed Straker is here, James. So is Mary. And June… Please, Mrs Baines, sit here."
She nodded, silently, and took the seat by the bed. She clasped the sick man's hand in her own.
"June… Good… to see you…" It was barely a breath. Henderson tried to turn his head, failed. Straker stepped into his line of sight.
"You… took your time…"
"Sorry about that," Straker said, sincerely. "We were at St Lawrence."
"Ah, yes…" Henderson took a deep breath. "I am sorry… about everything…"
"We know Johnny's death wasn't your fault," Freeman put in. He winced at the look he got from Straker, but thought: he's going to have to be told, and the sooner the better.
"And the rest of it is past," Straker said. "I have explained to Mary… We'll be making some arrangements, before I go - off travelling."
"Good… What about your friend… Pavlor…"
"He has joined us. Has Alec told you about that?"
"Yes," whispered Henderson. "Thank you, both of you…"
"James - " Straker started to say; but lights were flashing urgently on the monitor, and there were two doctors in the room, and an injection was being given.
Henderson smiled. "Over to you… Keimon… I always did hate committees…"
His voice trailed off in a sigh, and his head rolled to one side. His eyes closed, then came open again slowly, as the ECG went flat.
Gently, Straker moved his former housekeeper away. A doctor pulled the cover down, opened Henderson's hospital gown, applied the paddles of a defibrillator. Henderson's body jerked at the shock, then again. They tried once more; then the doctor shook his head slowly. "He's gone."
June Baines sobbed, once. Straker reached out, and slowly, ceremoniously, he closed Henderson's eyes, then drew the sheet up over the dead face. He stepped back again. Wordlessly, Freeman ushered the three out of the door into a waiting area. Joan was there; she took Mrs Baines in charge. "Let's go and have a cup of tea, shall we?" she said gently.
"That would be lovely, my dear, thank you…" She turned to Straker. "I am so glad to see you, sir. I heard on the news that - that you might have survived, and I came along as quickly as I could. And I found that - that James was so ill, but it wasn't his heart that was the main problem… But you made it. Are you all right? You look as though you haven't eaten for a month!"
"I'm fine, Mrs Baines, really. May I talk with you later? There are things to be done here."
"Of course," Mrs Baines said. She turned a tear-streaked face to Joan, and tried to smile. "I believe you mentioned tea?"
"Indeed. This way?"
The two women made their departure. Straker turned to Freeman. "Thanks for getting us here in time," he said. "Was it his heart? Or that poison?"
"Both, I think. His heart was bad anyway, it would have probably been enough to take him - but the poison gave him no chance at all."
Straker frowned. "That was Lackland's doing?"
"So it seems… And further to that, I have something to show you, back at the office. When you're ready."
Ed and Mary exchanged glances. "We're ready now," Straker confirmed.
As soon as they were within SHADO, Straker said: "All right, Alec, give. What's this about Johnny?"
Freeman took a deep breath. "Lackland was the driver of the car. He was calling himself Rick Cargill then. His 'Lackland' face is a disguise - a Europan synthetic mask. He's really a Europan named Gimen, and he's Kotte's second-in-command."
They were both staring at him in shock. Straker whispered: "The rebels murdered Johnny?"
"So it seems. My apologies for not telling you earlier, but Doug Jackson advised against it. But there's more."
"How much do you remember of the period before you arrived at Mary's?"
"Not much," Straker admitted. "I vaguely recall waking up in some kind of van, getting out of it, and then there was an explosion."
"Remember seeing anyone?"
"There were two people in the van I think. They didn't follow me."
"One of those people," Freeman said, "was a doctor from Mayland, named Segal… Yes, I thought you might know the name," he added, as Mary gasped.
"Another rebel - Alec, he tried to talk us out of getting that drug, said there wouldn't be time!" Straker's lips tightened. "Where is he now?"
"In a police morgue. That explosion killed him, and his accomplice, a nurse named Armon."
Straker remembered the burn on his chest. No doubt Segal had been trying to 'harvest' him… but he did not comment aloud. Instead, he said: "They were making damn sure Johnny died… Should I ask why?"
"Azan thinks it was a plan to induce you to commit suicide."
Straker's face was white. Mary hugged him. "It damn near succeeded," he muttered. "I need to talk to Azan - "
There was a flash, a shimmer in the air, and a crystalline bird hung before them, wings ready for flight.
"Where is Ambassador Pavlor?" Straker said.
The bird sang to him; and they understood. Straker said to it: "His meeting is more important; but ask him to come to the command office as soon as he has finished."
The bird chirped once, extended its wings, and vanished with a flash of crystal.
Paul Foster did not think he had ever seen so much top brass in one place at one time.
Seated in armchairs in this lounge at the Europan Embassy annex, were three members of the UN Special Committee, the British Minister, and envoys from the Palace, the White House, and the Kremlin. SHADO was represented by himself, Colonel Lake, and Colonel Webb; and Spicor by Prince Azan Pavlor and Prince Tyl Merrel, newly arrived that morning from Moonbase. Freeman had left an hour or so ago, responding to the urgent call from the hospital; and Commander Straker was due to join them after lunch.
All we need now is the Pope, Foster mused. But perhaps that's why Jack Webb is here…
There would no doubt be many meetings of this type over the next few weeks, to formalise and detail the Treaty between Earth and Spicor, and then present it to their respective heads of government. For now, this meeting - for all its high-level participants - was essentially informal, almost social.
Currently, Pavlor and Merrel had the floor. They had explained about the Keimon, who and what he was - to the ill-concealed astonishment of the 'brass' - and were now telling the group about Spicor, with the aid of a slide show being operated by Major Ford.
There were many questions from the group about the plague that had had such a devastating effect on the people of Spicor, and whether it was still a threat to them, and to Earth. But Jackson's investigations had been thorough, and he had brought in astrobiology experts from NASA and Russia to assist. They had confirmed that there was no danger to Earth; and were now investigating ways of assisting Spicor with its own medical problems.
The presentation was interrupted by an urgent buzz from the intercom. Foster excused himself, and lifted the handset. He listened for a few moments, his face grave.
"That was Mayland Hospital," he said, quietly. "I regret to inform you that General Henderson died a few minutes ago."
"Our condolences, Companion Brother," Pavlor said. "Has the Keimon been advised?"
"He was present. He's on his way over now - "
With a flash, a glittering birdlike form materialised in the centre of the room. It turned its glowing eyes towards Ambassador Pavlor. The two Europans came slowly to their feet.
"What's that?" Foster asked softly. "Is it the Kei - "
"It is," Pavlor whispered. His face was bloodless. "I am summoned to the Keimon's presence… as soon as this meeting is finished."
Foster looked around the group, saw agreement. "It's finished, for now."
"Then I shall go to him. Merrel, please remain here and await developments." He added a few quick words in Europan, and Merrel nodded, his face grave.
"I'll come with you," Webb said, rising to his own feet.
The door closed behind them. The bird vanished once more. Foster turned to Merrel. "Sit down again, Tyl," he said. "Can you say what that was about? And why Azan is so terrified?"
"I am directed to do so," Merrel said, resuming his seat. "I may be facing promotion to primary ambassador… if the Keimon is sufficiently annoyed."
"What the hell might annoy him to that extent?" the US envoy wanted to know.
"Much that has happened here on this world since it was colonised - indeed, before that - has been made clear to him," Merrel said. "In particular, very recent events, concerning him personally. We cannot predict how he will react - but he would be within his rights to execute those responsible."
"Can he - would he - cancel the treaty?" the Minister asked.
"He can," Merrel confirmed. "We do not know if he would."
Foster and Lake exchanged glances. "If it helps, Commander Straker does not operate on a personal level, not even if his own life is at stake," Lake said. "At the very least, he'll take time to think and consider. Note that he was prepared to wait for Azan until we'd finished here."
"That's true," Foster agreed; but he suddenly remembered a conversation with Freeman and Jackson, about a car accident, and something Jackson had said about driving fast cars down narrow country lanes… "Tyl, is this about Lackland?"
Foster turned away, and gazed out of the wide window that overlooked the countryside. They watched him, puzzled, and alarmed. Merrel's expression was frankly terrified.
"Foster? What is it?" the Minister asked, gently.
Foster swallowed. "It's not for me to say," he muttered. "It's a private matter. Or it should have been… It's bad enough that I have no idea how Ed will act."
* * *
The command office was large, as such rooms go, but it felt crowded, even with only three persons present.
Straker and Mary were standing in front of the desk. His arm was around her shoulders, the crystal band glittering on his wrist, as he gazed into the colour mobile. She leant her head on his shoulder, huddled into the crook of his arm. Her eyes were closed, but she did not weep.
Freeman was standing by the long conference table, watching Straker, his eyes hooded. He was wondering what his friend would do, and what he might do himself, in that situation.
There was a buzz from the door. Straker pressed the admission button, and turned to face the door.
Pavlor entered. His face was colourless, but he held his head erect. Webb was beside him. The door closed once more.
"You summoned me, Sire?"
"I did," Straker confirmed. "Thank you for responding promptly… and don't look so worried, it's not your neck I would like to break!"
Straker was certain he had heard a quiet sigh of relief from Freeman. Pavlor swallowed. "I - I am indeed relieved to hear it, Sire, but - "
"Sit down, Azan, please," Straker suggested. "How did the meeting go?"
"I believe it - it went well, Sire," Pavlor said, sinking gratefully into the lucite seat. "We are telling each other about our respective worlds. There is, quite literally, a lot of ground to cover, so we will not make significant progress in a single session, but I believe we have managed to convey an overall concept to both sides."
"That's good." Straker's smile was light, but sincere. "We had a third visitor this morning, I recall. What was their errand?"
"That skimmer brought one of our survey officers. It seems they have been investigating our mining complex on the Jovian moon you name Ganymede. They found something you will wish to investigate yourself, Sire, possibly in person… a 'cold-storage' unit containing live Earth-humans in stasis."
"Another one? How many people?" Straker demanded.
"Can they be revived safely and brought home?"
"I have given orders for that to be done, though it will take time. The skimmer has brought two of these individuals and delivered them to your Moonbase, to be revived there. The two humans are both female, and are young adolescents."
Mary said quietly: "Is either of them pregnant?"
"No, Companion Consort."
"That's a relief," muttered Straker. "Alec, do we have any clue as to their identity?"
"Tissue-typing is negative so far. Of course, when they wake up we should be able to ask them."
"Indeed." Straker took a deep breath. "Now, Azan, I must tell you why I called you away… I have just learned that you discovered that the man called Lackland, who we thought was Earth-human, was in fact Gimen, one of the rebel group on Europa. Alec has already begun a thorough investigation into his activities, and we would appreciate any assistance you can give."
"It is yours, Sire. Anything in my power."
"Thank you." Straker tightened his arm around Mary. "There is a more personal aspect to this, as I believe you are aware… I am told that the rebels, currently led by Kotte, who among other things is Gimen's master, seek to destroy the Keimon, by attacking him - me - on a personal level."
"That… that is so, Sire."
"As part of this attack, Gimen killed our son."
"… Yes, Sire." Pavlor rose from the chair, and knelt before his Keimon. He crossed his hands on his breast, closed his eyes, and tilted his head back, exposing his throat. "I offer my life in reparation, Sire."
Freeman drew in his breath sharply. Mary was quite silent, her expression unreadable. Webb waited.
The crystal blade was suddenly glittering with a hard light in the Keimon's hand. He lifted it, pointed it at Pavlor. "Look at me," he commanded.
In unwilling terror, Pavlor obeyed, and gazed up into twin chips of glinting sapphire ice. Straker threw a quick glance at Mary. She gave a tiny, horrified head-shake. He lowered his hand in a slow, ceremonious movement, and opened his fingers. The blade fell point downward, to stick in the flooring, quivering with a high, sweet whine.
"No," Straker said, with a shake of his head. "That is not the way. We have far too much work to do, you and I. And I will not execute you for another's wrongdoing. Stand."
He put out his hand, grasped Pavlor's, and helped the shaking Ambassador to his feet. "Alec, see to Azan, would you? Introduce him to the joys of Scotch, perhaps… Is Gimen down here?"
"Yes, he is," Freeman said. "Hang on a moment."
He handed a loaded glass to Mary, who was helping the Ambassador to a seat once more, and lifted the intercom handset. "Bring Gimen in, please… the Keimon wants a word."
"Don't worry," Straker added. The crystal band was once again on his wrist. "I'm not going to execute him, either… But you might want to, Azan."
"M-me, Sire? But why?"
There was a silence. Freeman said softly, in appalled understanding: "The plague."
Pavlor swallowed an entire mouthful of best Highland single malt, and nearly choked. Mary thumped him on the back, and he coughed. When he could speak, he got out: "I mean no - no disrespect, Sire, the Deity knows - but are you serious?"
"It follows logically, Azan," Straker pointed out. "Alec told me that the rebels sought to draw me out by threatening my people… and the reason Spicor attacked Earth was because of their desperate need… caused by that plague."
Pavlor said something that needed no translation. He was cut short by a buzz from the door. Straker pressed the button to open it, and Jackson entered.
"You sent for Lackland, Commander?"
"I did… And you can cancel my sick leave, Jackson. There's too much happening."
"I suppose so," Jackson sighed. "Very well."
He turned, and beckoned. Two security guards came in, the man they had been calling Lackland firmly held between them. There was a definite smirk on his face…
…and then Straker turned, and met his gaze.
Lackland's eyes widened. He tried to step back, but he was tightly held.
"Cargill," Straker said. "No, Gimen… That is your name, is it not?"
The Europan could not speak.
"I am handing you over to Ambassador Azan Pavlor," Straker continued, "on suspicion of being accessory to attempted genocide against the peoples of Spicor, by means of the distribution of a plague organism. The peoples of Earth may also want to prefer charges, not least for the murders of John Straker and James Henderson… We will also wish to investigate your unusual ability to withstand Earth conditions for extended lengths of time. Ambassador Pavlor, what arrangements do you wish made? We are at your disposal in this matter."
Pavlor rose to his feet. Mary took his glass. "You are most generous, Sire," he said, grimly. "We will wish to interrogate him in secure facilities, and we may need to use pharmaceutical means, if you are agreeable."
Freeman and Straker looked at each other. Mary could have sworn that Ed was embarrassed… "We use those ourselves, not always successfully," Straker said. "I think that we need, here, a version of the Geneva Convention, which gives a prisoner some protection against evils such as torture and allows them opportunity to defend themselves."
"Perhaps, Sire, until such an agreement is established, I may seek your endorsement of any methods we consider using?"
Freeman stared at the ceiling in studied unconcern. His gaze jerked down again in frank astonishment as Straker said: "I think that, because I am too personally concerned with this matter, I should prefer Alec to take charge of that particular aspect."
Pavlor turned to Freeman. "Are you agreeable to this, Companion?"
"I'm… agreeable," Freeman said.
"Good, that's settled," Straker said. "As for 'where', we can offer cells within this complex - or we can send him up to Moonbase. I would suggest SkyDiver, but I've no doubt you can swim, Mr Gimen?"
The rebel whispered something in Europan. Pavlor said: "Yes. You have… Sire, I request that you lock up this man again. I will assign to Prince Merrel the task of investigating this matter. He may need to bring in specialist personnel, from Europa."
"No doubt… Ask Tyl to confer with Alec about his requirements, would you?"
"I shall. Thank you, Sire."
Straker returned his attention to the prisoner. "And if there's anything left of you after Europa has had its say, I will turn you over to British authorities, on charges of murder. Take him away."
The guards half-led, half-carried the Europan out of the office. Freeman said: "What was that he said, Azan?"
"Preceded by several expletives, which I am sure I need not repeat," Pavlor returned, "he said: 'We have awakened the Keimon in truth'."
"We need to get on," Straker said, abruptly. "Do I gather that I am keeping the brass waiting?"
"It'll do them good," Freeman smiled.
"Mmm… Alec, would you take everyone up there? Jack, can you hang on here for a few minutes… You too, Doug. Mary, I'd like you to sit in on the discussion so you can remember it later… Would you join Alec and the others? We'll be along shortly."
Webb gave a nod. Mary managed a smile, and Freeman took her arm and led the small group out. The office door closed behind them.
Straker said: "Jack, I wanted to kill him. Gimen, that is."
"So I noticed… Would you have been justified, do you think?"
"No… and yes," Straker muttered. "On a personal level… the deliberate killing of two people, both valued by me… those can be regarded as 'war crimes', so the law of the land applies, and should take its course. But it wasn't just that… if you can say that about any killing. If - if I understand these things correctly, he was attempting to destroy humanity as a race. So I would indeed have been justified in executing both of them. Gimen as the agent, and Pavlor, because although Gimen and Kotte are indeed rebels, Pavlor is still responsible for them. As I am responsible for what goes on here."
"But you did not execute either man."
"No… because that's not the way. I think I'm with Portia on this one."
" '…And earthly power doth then show likest God's,' " Straker quoted softly, " 'when mercy seasons justice'… That's why I went through that pantomime with Azan - I wanted to demonstrate to him that mercy was possible, even under extreme provocation, so that he wouldn't tear Gimen to pieces… What are you grinning at, Jack?"
Web's smile widened. "I'm thinking that Gimen was right… they have indeed awakened the Keimon; and that Humanity is in safe hands."
"Safe hands?" Straker shouted. "Jack, I hold the fate of the entire human race in my hands! I'm terrified!!"
"Good. So you should be."
"Jack - !"
"You do indeed hold our fate in your hands," Webb agreed. "And you have done so for the last couple of decades or so."
Straker blinked, and subsided into a chair. "Yes," he whispered. "I… I suppose that's true."
"Might I ask, when did you receive this vocation?"
"On that last lunar module trip. I rotated the ship, so that I could contemplate the Earth while I received the Sacrament… and I knew. Even though I didn't fully understand."
"Other astronauts recount similar experiences," Jack confirmed. "Particularly the crew of Apollo 8, who were the first to be totally cut off from humanity, when they orbited the Moon."
"I think I know how they felt," muttered Straker. "This… this Keimon status… it's a kind of isolation. Paradoxical though that sounds."
"I can understand that. But you are not alone… I would say that is the function of the Companions."
"Yes…" Straker looked up at him. "I… I think you've just elevated yourself to that status."
"Anything I can do to help… Sire. Oh, and by the way - that question you asked me, earlier?"
"I think you've just had your answer, Ed… Firstly, you gave your consent to your new status long before the incident on Europa. Secondly, your reaction to this situation establishes it beyond question. You're still as human as I am."
Straker managed a smile. "I'm glad. Thank you, Companion." He turned to the psychiatrist, who was standing by the shelf, studying the spines of the book there, intently. "Doug, I need to talk to you soon about helping Mary to forget us."
"I take it you are considering a suppression, not a full erasure?"
"Like the one we used with Paul. Yes. I've mentioned it to Mary, and she's agreeable."
"I will arrange it before the end of this day," Jackson promised. "If you will excuse me, Sire?"
"Sure." Will I ever get used to that, Straker mused silently… Jackson left, and Straker turned to Webb. "One last thing, before we go and join the others… Is Alec all right?"
"He is - now," Webb admitted. "He's like you… he bottles it up. But last night he uncorked, with a vengeance… Only Joan was with him, and she stayed with him while he got it out of his system, then she put him to bed."
"I'm glad to hear it." Straker took a deep breath. "Time we weren't here, I think."
"Yes indeed… but perhaps we'd better go via corridor B?"
"Why - oh. Oh no. Let me guess. The wolfpack?"
"I'm afraid so."
"Then corridor B it is."
The door to the penthouse lounge opened, and Freeman entered, Mary holding his arm. Pavlor was behind them, to Merrel's visible relief.
"My lord Devas… Thank the Deity…"
"Indeed… The Keimon was merciful," Pavlor said. But his voice, and face, were grim. "He is on his way, with Colonel Jack Webb."
"What of Gimen?" Merrel asked.
"I believe the Keimon wishes to address us about that… but I will not presume to pre-empt him."
"Neither will I," Freeman said, in answer to Foster's enquiring look. "I will say that the Treaty holds… and will be extended."
"That's a relief," the Minister murmured.
"I couldn't agree more… Oh, just a moment, my manners. Mary, let me introduce you? What as, incidentally?"
"Just 'Mary', for the moment, perhaps? Things are… a little fluid at present."
"No doubt… Well, you know Azan Pavlor, and this is Prince Tyl Merrel, Azan's right-hand-man, and chauffeur to the Keimon."
Merrel gasped. "You… you do me too much honour, Companion."
"It was your ship the rebels were shooting at," Freeman reminded him, with a smile. He went on, to introduce her to the other members of the gathering. As he finished, the door opened once more, and Straker entered, followed by Colonel Webb. The assembled company rose to greet them.
Straker gave a nod of acknowledgement. "Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. My apologies for the delay."
"It's good to see you, Commander," answered the Minister, thinking: you look utterly exhausted, man!
"We have a lot to discuss," Straker said. "Keith, are you recording?"
"I am, sir."
"Good… Let's all sit down, shall we?"
He lowered himself onto the couch. Mary sat on one side; Freeman took the right. Ginny Lake and Nina Barry sat opposite. The Earth delegates found themselves seats once more. After a few seconds, the two Europans seated themselves as well, and Foster joined them.
"Do I understand," said the UN chief, Commissioner Springer, with a slight smile, "that I am addressing the Emperor of Humanity?"
"No, you sure aren't," Straker replied. "The Keimon is - well, the 'soul' of the race, its focus. I'm not here to solve all of humanity's problems - that, I suggest, is the task of national and planetary leaders like yourselves. One of my functions is to give direction to those tasks. At present, that direction is to seek to integrate the races of Earth into Spicor, which is currently scattered across many worlds that Prince Azan knows and - I suspect - a few that he doesn't."
"No doubt, Sire," Pavlor agreed, a touch grimly.
"Do you say," Springer asked, "that we are being invited to join a federation of extraterrestrial worlds, and we have to prove ourselves worthy?"
"Not at all, no," Straker said. "Quite simply, it's in our own interests to be as unified as possible. We can't waste time and resources squabbling here, perhaps destructively, while events move on around us."
"No indeed," murmured Springer.
"This process of integration will take considerable time - possibly centuries," Straker continued. "As far as Earth is concerned, its inhabitants are not yet ready to absorb the truth about their origin. They will need to be introduced to the idea, gradually. Later I will invite Azan to comment on the situation in the Spicor group; but Spicor has its own problems, which take priority.
"Concerning this, I have had some disturbing news from Prince Azan. It has led me to conclude that the plague which has afflicted his people, and indeed whose after-effects still cause many problems, was seeded deliberately, by the rebel group led by Kotte and Gimen. I believe that the intention was to set Earth and Spicor at each other's throats, which it certainly succeeded in doing. The objective was to reveal, and ultimately subvert, the being they call Keimon."
Freeman tensed. He thought he knew what was coming.
"They were successful in revealing the Keimon… in revealing me. They have not been successful in subverting me, or destroying me… yet. In effect, they are holding Earth and Spicor ransom. If I thought it would serve, I would give myself up to them - "
"Sire, NO!!" Pavlor burst out.
"Fear not… for it would not serve. They have already made their intentions clear - to wipe out the peoples of Earth and of Spicor, then move in and take this world for their own, with the Keimon as their puppet. I shall not permit that to happen. However, there may be those who would believe that handing me to the rebels would remove their threat, and so take me, for that reason - "
There was a flash, and the crystal falcon hovered over Straker, its claws bared, its beak wide.
"Somehow," Freeman said softly, "I don't think they would succeed."
"No," the Minister agreed. "I don't think they would."
"Sire," Pavlor said, "what is it you are telling us?"
"I shall explain," Straker continued. The falcon resumed its armlet-form, sparkling on Straker's wrist. "First, we must concentrate on dealing with the after-effects of the plague. To that end, we need to examine Gimen closely, also the pair from the hospital, and any more of the rebels we can take, for it is clear that they have prepared themselves for life here. You said, Azan, that Kotte and his associates produced a compound - or rather, got us to produce it - that they represented as a ransom weapon?"
Pavlor sat forward, alertly. " 'Represented', Sire? Do you say that it was not such a weapon?"
"That was a secondary function. We have been able to determine that this compound was one half of a binary - an ecomodifer. The second part was intended to adjust one of the Spicor races to accept this ecomodifer, which would have allowed them to live on Earth indefinitely."
" 'One' of our races?" Pavlor's face hardened. "What of the remainder?"
"Everyone else," Straker said quietly, "including we colonists, and all of Spicor except those of Kotte's own racial group, would die."
"Sire…" Pavlor whispered. "Why? Can you tell us why?"
"The purity of the race," Freeman said, his voice flat.
"At least partly," Straker agreed. "It's a continuing theme in Earth's own politics, after all… but I have a suspicion there's more to it than just that. Recall what Gimen said about awakening me. Are there indeed circumstances in which the Keimon can be controlled?"
"There are suggestions in our legends," Pavlor said, "that the Keimon is most vulnerable to external influence when he is newly manifest, when he is evaluating the situation in which he finds himself. The indications are, Sire, that you have passed that point by some margin."
"So if Gimen had been able to influence me at that point," Straker said, "he would have aligned me to his group, and excluded the rest of Spicor?"
Freeman thought to himself: And now, unless I miss my guess, you're aligned to Earth-humans… "Azan, earlier you were talking about the different racial groups within Spicor. Which one of those includes Gimen, and this guy Kotte?"
"The oldest, and one might say the 'founder' group. They name their planet Arkadia. They were the ones who set up the Terran colony, exiled the Keimon to it, and sealed it off from the rest of Spicor."
"I see," Straker said. "I will need to consider that in more detail before I comment… For the moment, we concentrate on the Plague and its after-effects, and begin the process of re-integration."
"Agreed," said Springer. "One thing - You said yourself, that this integration may take centuries? I don't disagree, heaven knows, but - have you suddenly become immortal?"
"I sure haven't." Straker gave a slightly rueful smile. Freeman's face was carefully blank. "My successors are going to have a busy time of it, I'm afraid."
"Your successors? Is reincarnation involved?"
"It is not. Each time the Keimon manifests, he does so as a distinct individual. One of the functions of the Kei is to maintain continuity between those individuals."
"I think I understand," Springer acknowledged. "And I also think that the process of familiarising people with the idea that they are not alone in the Galaxy will be enormous, and will need to be explored in detail, which will take considerable time… Do you agree - Keimon - that we should maintain the same level of secrecy we have currently, to begin with?"
"I think that would be wise, yes."
Springer said: "Forgive me, but with the loss of General Henderson we need to clarify the command structure. Commander Straker, in the normal course of events we would have moved you into his slot; but if you are going star-hopping that won't be possible."
"Ordinarily I'd suggest you give that job to Alec," Straker said. He hid his smile at the horrified look on Freeman's face. "But I think Colonel Freeman is far too good an exec for SHADO to lose, especially in whatever its new format may become. Who you choose in his stead is, of course, entirely up to you - but I would recommend Colonel Lake. And it would be good to have one of Azan's people on the staff - possibly Prince Merrel?" he added, with a glance at the man, who bowed his acceptance.
"We will certainly evaluate these suggestions," the UN chief agreed. "But we will also start the process of investigating Prince Pavlor's immediate problem. I will get an initial outline to you before the end of today, Commander."
"Thank you," Straker answered. "Two other things - My apologies, Azan, I should have said this before. What is your own name for the moon we call Europa?"
"We call it Dyaus, Sire - which, I believe, has been incorporated into your Sanskrit tongue as 'sky'."
Straker pursed his lips in appreciation. "It is so noted. Have the people of Dyaus been advised of the situation here?"
"Sire," Pavlor said, "I have spoken with my deputy Nepetane, and advised her of your return and of the Treaty. The people of Dyaus await your pleasure. The bad news is that Kotte escaped his guards, and has left Dyaus, his destination unknown."
"I see." Straker held up his hand. There was a flash, and the crystal falcon once more hovered before them. "Kei, go to Dyaus and greet them. That should take no longer than a Utronic impulse… Tell them that their Keimon will visit them as soon as possible. Tell them that I declare Dyaus a member of Spicor in its own right… and that I declare the Arkadian rebels, all those who give their allegiance to Kotte and his group, detached from Spicor and renegade. They are to be expelled from Dyaus and from Earth, non-violently if possible. Send them back to Arkadia; they should attend to their own world before interfering with others. Any member of that group can transfer their allegiance back to us if they show valid cause."
The falcon vanished in a crystalline shimmer. "You are most generous, Sire," Prince Azan Pavlor said, "and most merciful."
"What else, Ed?" Freeman asked. "You said 'two' other things."
"Indeed. I have been talking with the Kei… Well, I say 'talking', that's not an accurate description, but It has passed information to me. Azan, you mentioned that It has been in existence for millennia?"
"That is so, Sire."
"It seems to have been observing Its surroundings, and events taking place around It, but not all the time. Is that your experience?"
"Legend tells us," Pavlor answered, "that the Kei is active when the Keimon manifests his existence, or a Companion appears. At other times, the Kei is dormant, in a state akin to hibernation."
"Understood," Straker said. "The Kei was last fully active around the time when this colony was established, for a total period of perhaps two centuries. It shut down, partially, when my predecessor killed himself to prevent the spread of a contagion with which he had been deliberately infected. Not the Plague, incidentally, but a contagion which was tuned to the Keimon's own bloodline… The Kei went to what I shall describe as 'standby mode', a state of low awareness, in which It had some contact still with the outside world. It recorded events affecting the remaining living Companion, who was himself also killed by the rebel faction. At that point the Kei became dormant completely. The only awareness It had was tuned to the life-strand of the Keimon.
"But It told me what It observed during this active period. I shall not reveal all that I perceived; but I will say, Azan, that the concept of Earth you were given, as a 'prison' to which the Keimon was banished, was an inversion of the truth. The Keimon arranged matters so that a colony was set up in a quarantine state, to protect it from the plague that was ravaging Spicor, and allow humanity a refuge where it might survive."
There was a short silence, while his listeners absorbed this. Freeman was thinking: There's something you're not saying, Ed… but now is not the time for me to ask!
"Sire," Pavlor said, carefully, "may I comment?"
"It was truly that bad?"
"Regrettably. Had my predecessor not taken this measure, it was unlikely that humanity would have survived."
"We are advised," said the US envoy, "that the Plague has burned itself out, and so Earth is no longer at risk from it. In any case it's too late to worry, since we would have been exposed to the plague as long ago as 1947. Do you have any information from the Kei on that?"
"It was rather earlier than 1947," Straker told him. "It reached Earth not long after the new colony was established, though in attenuated form. It was brought in unwittingly by a man called Petan who had escaped those at Dyaus who would have killed him. He was one of the rare few who had a natural immunity, and that immunity spread throughout the population. And the plague virus is present on Earth today. It no longer kills, though it can have unpleasant, debilitating effects. I don't think there's a single Earth-human who has not experienced those effects… I know I have. We've been unable to find a cure, though we've tried for decades - "
"Ed," Freeman interrupted, "you're not by any chance talking about the common cold, are you?"
"I am… but don't laugh. The cold virus group has acted like a vaccine, immunising us against the 'real' plague. Unfortunately, it's only effective before exposure to the plague, so in itself it's not the answer to Spicor's problems - but it would be a profitable line of enquiry."
Pavlor and Merrel both tried to speak at once. Straker held up his hand. "No, I will not accept either of you as volunteers. Even though you have almost certainly already been exposed to the cold virus."
Pavlor swallowed, and Merrel gave a nod.
"Volunteers to catch a cold?" the Russian envoy asked.
"Exactly. Alec and I, or any other Earthborn, wouldn't be suitable; but you may call for someone from Dyaus for that rather doubtful 'honour', Azan."
"I am sorely tempted to use Gimen as a test subject," Merrel said, grimly. "But since using a captive enemy for such a purpose is exactly what he would do in my place, I shall not. That would make me no better than he."
The Keimon's eyes glinted silver for an instant as he smiled his approval. "Then please make your call for volunteers, Tyl."
"At once, Sire."
The discussion went on for several hours, and generated a list of points to be discussed in more detail. The delegates were sent back to their quarters to consider. Lake and Freeman conducted the Dyausans to their own annexe; and Straker and Mary went in search of Jackson.
The doctor sat Mary in a chair, and Straker stood behind her, a hand on her shoulder, as Jackson explained the process. She listened carefully, then asked: "How much will I remember?"
"Everything up to the point I turned up on your doorstep, and Dr McKenzie's visit," Straker said. "Then I suggest we change things. Dr McKenzie takes me back to the hospital, you stay at the house. You will know you've lost track of time a bit, but you'll put that down to being tired after the flight. Then you go on as normal. You'll keep the knowledge of my return, but you won't care overmuch… I will set up a trigger to bring those hidden memories back at the right time. And when we're done, I'll see you safe home."
"Good," Mary said, quietly. "What about Penny? I told her you were back."
"No problem. Call her over for a visit, and chat to her. Alec's already been in touch, and she knows only a little of events." Straker paused briefly, then said: "Do you still have that ring of your mother's? The antique gold one with the opal?"
"Yes, it's in my jewel box," Mary said, puzzled.
"Is it OK if I change it a little? Connect it to the Kei?"
"I'd like that, if it - he - doesn't mind."
"Great. Well - 'if it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well it were done quickly'… If you're ready, shall we start now?"
Silently, Mary nodded. She rose to her feet, more than a little nervously. Straker took her arm, and guided her to the reclining chair, settling her in it comfortably. At his suggestion she put her head back and closed her eyes. He kissed her on the forehead, and whispered: "I love you, now and always."
* * *
Straker delivered a dreamy Mary to her house, assisted by Paul Foster as 'taxi driver', who had insisted on performing that service. Straker did not object too hard.
They pulled up on the gravel drive. Paul opened the rear door for Mary, and Ed walked round from his side. He took her arm, nodded his thanks to Paul, and walked her to the front door. Paul drove away, heading for a pub a few miles away, for a beer and maybe a game of darts or two, while he waited for Ed's call for a pick-up.
Inside the house, Ed asked Mary for the location of her ring, and sent her up to collect it from her bedroom. It was 18-carat gold, with an opal cabochon about the size of her little fingernail, surrounded by tiny diamonds. Her mother had given it to her as a 21st birthday present; it had once belonged to Mary's grandmother.
He held the ring up to the light between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand, and communed with the Kei. After a moment, the opal twinkled, echoing the flash of his armlet. Gently he pushed it onto the third finger of her own right hand. She gazed at it, turning her hand this way and that, watching the play of light on the stone. She transferred her gaze to him, and he gathered her close, and they kissed.
After a few moments she moved back a little. "Ed?"
"Make love to me. Please," she whispered, in a tiny voice.
"If you knew how much I wanted to," he said, more than a little huskily. "But it wouldn't be right. You're not totally in control right now. It would be taking advantage."
"I s'pose it would," she agreed, after a few moments.
Very reluctantly, they disengaged. He sat her in a chair, went to the kitchen, and came back with a steaming mug of tea, which he set down on a nearby side table.
"Finish your tea and take a nap," he murmured. "You will wake and resume your life when your cousin telephones. We will meet again, have no doubt of it."
He left the house, shutting the door, and paged Paul. He only had to wait a few minutes before the Jensen appeared. He was silent as they drove away, and Paul did not interrupt his thoughts.
On the edge of the woodlands bordering Harlington, Straker said, quietly: "Paul, would you pull in somewhere, please?"
"OK," Paul said, puzzled. He drove onto the grassy verge, stopped the engine, and turned to look at his brother. "How can I help?"
"Paul, I saw the report, about what happened to Chrys… I truly am desperately sorry. For you both."
"I - Thanks."
"Stupid question I know, but how's she doing?"
"My spies tell me she's recovering well," Paul said, tonelessly. "Physically, at any rate. She gets around on crutches, but even then she's surprised the doctors. She's vowed to return to flying, and sooner rather than later."
"That's one determined lady." Ed hesitated a moment, then said: "Another stupid question… What are her plans? And yours?"
Paul looked down at his hands. He said, with deliberation: "I think she should be left alone, to get on with her life, to heal. I can't see myself being part of that. I don't hold out any hope of it changing in the foreseeable future… In any case, to be honest, it's not as if we had - well, more than a casual relationship. Good, but casual."
Ed looked at Paul, saw the lines in his face, heard the strain in his voice, and thought, fondly: You bare-faced liar.
"Like it says in the song," Paul went on, "'que sera, sera'. And can I ask about you now? And Mary?"
"Sure." Ed took a long breath. "Like you, Mary's been through the mill, especially these last couple of years. And now she's had this load of frankly unbelievable stuff dumped on her. She said she needed time, and that's right, she does. So Jackson edited her memories like he did with you… But she doesn't want to forget, not really. So we set it up so that it would trickle back at a level just below awareness, and when the time comes to trigger it, she'll get the lot back. But she'll be ready for it."
Paul digested this. "That wouldn't have worked with Chrys, I suppose, because of her physical injuries."
"You'll be keeping an eye on her, no doubt?"
"I will," Straker confirmed. "I've posted the Kei as a sort of remote watchdog."
"Good…" Foster gave a wan smile. "Well, I'll have plenty to take my mind off my problems, like keeping an eye on you while you go on an interstellar pub-crawl. Talking of which, hadn't we better get moving?"
"Guess so. Hit it!"
* * *
Mary was woken by the chime of the telephone.
With a start, she sat up, and glanced at her watch. To her surprise, the time was gone 8. And by the darkening view through the windows, it was 8pm. She grabbed the handset. "One four oh seven?"
"Mary!" It was Penny's voice. "At last! I've been trying to call, but this number's been playing up - first it was engaged, then it was 'unobtainable', then it said the line was down! What's going on? And are you OK?"
"I'm fine," Mary yawned. "Must have been more tired than I thought… Ed was here, did I say?"
"Yes! You'd called the doc to him, and last I heard he was sleeping on your couch, and the doc was going to call round in the morning, to see how he was getting on."
Her memories were a little fuzzy round the edges. She groped back through the mists. "That's right, I think… Ed seemed to have a good sleep, and when Dr McKenzie came back, he's brought a colleague called Jackson with him. Honestly, Penny, he looked and sounded like a Bond villain! They talked to Ed, asked him to come back to the hospital, and he agreed, though he was quite confused. They asked me if I wanted to come, I said no. Jackson said he'd be in touch. Ed said 'thank you', and off they all went."
"Did you ever find out what it was all about?"
"No, I didn't," Mary said, a touch worriedly. "Ed himself didn't seem to know, didn't remember much, though neither McKenzie nor Jackson seemed to be too bothered, said he's sort himself out in time. Jackson did explain that Ed had managed to get out of the 'copter as it went down, he was only about a hundred feet up. He hit the water quite cleanly, didn't break anything. Found his way to dry land, didn't know where it was. Everything between then and now seemed to have been forgotten."
"Sounds like he'd taken a knock on the head," Penny suggested. "Look, Mary, would you like me to come over? There's some stuff I have to do over there, I can bring it forward a few days."
"That would be great, thanks," Mary agreed, gratefully. "When shall I expect you?"
"Tomorrow evening too soon?" Penny smiled.
"That would be lovely! I'll get Betty to make sure a room's ready. And bring lots of those chocolate croissants!"
Within a day, Merrel had his volunteers, brought in by Dyausan 'skimmers' in quarantine, so that their exposure to Earthly conditions - and the virus - could be controlled. Jackson took them in charge, and began his tests. Merrel had also requested that Dyaus send a team of specialists to interrogate Gimen; but the man was only too willing to speak of Kotte and his plans.
This made Freeman more than a little suspicious; but he kept his role to that of observer.
One thing that they did have to drag out of the renegade was the identity of Kotte's remaining agents on Planet Earth, after the reduction of their south-polar base. As Merrel said, it was likely that the man simply did not know; and Freeman agreed. Gimen did admit, reluctantly, to the existence of the Antarctica base. Not that he could really have pretended not to know, Freeman thought.
While Gimen was resting between sessions, at Medic Breen's recommendation, Merrel talked with Freeman and Virginia Lake about other possible places the renegades might have used.
"Underwater is more likely than underground. Easier access," Freeman said, thoughtfully, as he poured coffee and fruit juices for himself, Merrel, and a woman named Emyth, head of the specialist group. The trio were using a room in the medical suite as an office. "Trouble is, there's a lot of 'underwater'… Didn't you say that their Antarctica base has existed for quite some time?"
"Gimen believes it was set up not many centuries after this colony was established," Merrel agreed.
"If the Keimon had been around then, would he have known about it?"
"It is unlikely he was present. The renegades would have waited until after his death to carry out their plan."
"Mmm." Freeman pursed his lips, considering. "I think I'll send one of the SkyDivers to have a look round… and I'll get them to take a gander at one or two of the Deeps."
"Companion," Merrel said, his green brow furrowed, "your pardon, but I thought a gander was a male bird of the 'goose' type?"
"I'm sorry. It has an informal meaning, to 'take a look'. As far as I know the two words aren't related, they've just converged."
"Interesting. I must tell you of some curious Dyausan word patterns sometime… but I digress. There is one other possibility we must consider, and that is your own moon."
"Oh yes," Lake said. "Azan said that the Arkadians had set up a monitor station of their own up there, but he didn't know where."
"We never found any sign, but there's a lot of moon to search," Freeman said ruefully. "But I remember, there was an incident while Moonbase was being built, we lost one of our people. John Bosanquet. He and Ed had gone out on a survey, there was a landslide, Ed got out but John didn't. We always wondered what had triggered the fall. Perhaps we should have a more detailed look around there."
* * *
Straker and Pavlor spent many hours in conference together, drawing up plans for the visit of the Keimon to Dyaus, and then on to the other worlds of the Spicor group. Freeman and Foster attended, as did Commissioner Springer, who would report back to the Special Committee. At last they had a workable itinerary. Springer departed, and Freeman took Pavlor back to the Embassy annexe. Jackson collared Straker and conducted him to SHADO sickbay for a checkup, where he fell asleep on a couch.
In the morning Foster came to take him for breakfast. They made their way to a nearby restaurant, a favourite of SHADO personnel, where Foster brought him up to date on progress with their visitors. Their conversation was suitably cryptic, but its meaning was only too clear to both men.
"What did Victor say to our suggestion for house-guests?" Straker asked.
"He couldn't stop laughing," Foster said, with a grin. "Neither could John or Sue. I've no idea why they found the idea so funny."
They were both referring to the proposal to 'borrow' part of Moonbase Alpha as an annexe to the Dyaus Embassy at the studio, to give visitors from Dyaus a chance to work under lighter gravity than Earth. Straker could understand why Victor might find that ironic, given his efforts to provide Alpha with its Earth-like environment. But no doubt Professor Bergman would take that in his stride, perhaps providing quarters outside his field's range.
"Perhaps they thought it was a bit bizarre, given the rather - er - strained relations recently," Straker suggested. "Or maybe they were just thinking of the looks on faces."
"Probably… Anyway, Joan and Alan will be doing the social bits, so that should help. And they did understand that our own place hasn't got the room, especially as there may be more tourists coming soon."
Afterwards, Foster drove them back to the studio in his lilac car. For once, it was not drawing any attention. Usually, it turned heads as he passed, with some looks of admiration, some of disapproval; but today they might as well have been in a van.
Foster parked in his usual place, and the two men made their way to the main office. "Ah! Mr Straker," Miss Ealand said. "How on earth hasn't anyone seen you yet?"
"Haven't they?" Straker said, puzzled. "We just walked through the car park, there were plenty of reporters around… oh."
Foster smiled. "Your little mascot seems to have given you an invisibility cloak."
"Could be useful, if so." Straker frowned. "I think we'll have to hold some kind of press conference. I'll have to give it some thought."
"Good idea, if I may say so, sir," Miss Ealand agreed. "Especially as this has just arrived."
She handed him an envelope. It was quite plain; but he recognised the typeface. "The UN."
"Ah," Foster said.
"OK. Let's see what they've decided."
Straker picked up a paper knife from the desk and slit open the envelope. He withdrew a couple of sheets of paper, unfolded them, and read them in silence. He frowned a little. "Norma, is Alec in? And Ginny Lake?"
"Yes, sir, they're below stairs."
"Good. We'll go down. Norma, you'd better come too."
"Me? - I mean, yes, sir."
The three of them entered the inner office. Straker opened the voiceprint box, and gave his name. The synthesised voice acknowledged. Foster and Miss Ealand were also confirmed, and the lift began to descend.
Straker checked the roster on the readout screen. He blinked a little. "The place is crowded," he commented. "Only person who's not here is Keith Ford… he's with Azan and company. No matter, I'll bring him up to date."
They went through into SHADO Control. Colonel Lake was at the comms desk, talking to Lieutenant Anderson. She saw the group enter, and came to attention. "Sir."
Straker acknowledged her with a nod. "Anderson," he said, "open a channel to Moonbase, would you? And to SkyDiver?"
"Channel open, sir," the comms officer said. "Captain Ellis on-line… And Captain Waterman."
"Thank you… Ah, Alec, you're here. Attention, please, everyone." He glanced around. "I've just had a letter from the Special Committee. You will all receive your individual notification of these changes in due course… and don't panic, you're not out of a job," he added, with a slight smile. "I have some promotions to announce. Firstly, I am advised that the person who will be taking over as head of the IAC will be Colonel - sorry, Major-General - Virginia Lake. Be nice to her, she'll be holding the purse-strings - "
He had to break off at the outburst of cheers and applause. Freeman bellowed: "QUIET!". The noise subsided.
"You may be wondering why Alec didn't get that job… That's because he has been appointed Commander-in-Chief of SHADO operations, with Paul as his second and Spicor liaison."
There was more, and noisier, applause. Freeman blinked.
"You may also be wondering where that leaves me." The noise died away. In the silence, Straker went on: "I haven't resigned, exactly. I am confirmed as Earth's Ambassador to Spicor, with the directive to re-integrate our planet into the Spicor group… or, at least, to begin the process, which may take some time. I will, therefore, be spending extended periods away from Earth - but I'll be dropping back in from time to time to check up on you."
Straker reached into his pocket and brought out a small, soft leather pouch. He opened it, and withdrew something that glittered. He placed it on the palm of his left hand.
"Azan has been telling me about the Companions of the Kei," Straker said. "I think it would be well for my Companions to wear some sort of insignia - so I'd like you to have this, Alec."
He held out his hand. After a moment's hesitation, Freeman took the crystal ring, and slid it onto the third finger of his right hand. It took on an opaque silvery lustre that reminded Freeman of platinum. "Thank you, Sire," he said, quietly.
"One for you, Paul."
After a moment, Foster accepted the ring, and put it on. Straker noticed that he seemed to relax, a little.
"Captain Ellis, this one's for you."
Again Straker withdrew a crystal band from the pouch. He held it up to the monitor. There was a brilliant flash, and it appeared on Gay's desk. She picked it up, and put it on her right hand. "Thank you, Sire."
"The three of you join Azan Pavlor, Tyl Merrel, and Jack Webb," Straker told them. "Ginny, at the moment I haven't included you, as your own role at IAC will be changing, quite a lot I have no doubt - as might yours, Lew. When the dust settles, I'll be in touch. "
Lake gave a nod. She was too choked up to speak.
"Will we need to practise our jousting?" Freeman murmured. A quiet laugh rippled through Control, lifting the tension. "By the way, Ed - when do these changes take effect?"
"Noon today," Straker said. He checked his watch, which had been thoroughly overhauled after its interplanetary excursion. "That gives me an hour or so to clear my desk. General Lake, you may wish to make your way over to IAC, Commissioner Springer will be expecting you."
"Then I'd better dash," Lake agreed. She held out her hand, and Straker shook it. "I wish you success, Sire. Please, look after yourself."
Freeman had taken a smiling Miss Ealand to one side, and was whispering to her. She nodded, gave a conspiratorial wink, and hurried away, followed by Foster and Lake.
"All right, people, let's get back to it," Straker said. "The renegades haven't gone away, remember… I shall formally hand over command to Commander Freeman at noon."
He walked into the command office, followed by Freeman. The door slid closed behind them. After a moment, and a nod from Straker, Freeman sat at the desk in front of the light panel, and Straker took one of the corner seats.
"OK, Alec. What were you and Norma cooking up there?"
"I don't know what you mean," Freeman said, innocently.
"Sure you don't… Well, let's get on." He reached across, lifted the handset to the upper office. "Norma? could you organise a - Oh. You have. Well, thank you."
He hung up. "She's sending a case down already. Alec, where is my stuff, by the way? Secure stores?"
"That's right," Alec confirmed. "Oh… except for this."
He picked up the small glass sphere that Straker used occasionally as a 'worry ball'. "I left it out, as a… well, a reminder."
"Then you keep it," Straker told him.
After a moment, Freeman nodded, and replaced the sphere. "Oh - A couple of things, before we go on."
Freeman leaned forward, and fixed the man before him with a steady gaze. He said: "Who are you, and what have you done with Edward George Straker?"
There was a brief silence. "How long have you known?"
"Since you rescued me from Gimen, I think. You - well, you seemed to understand the Kei far better than a 'mere' human would. So I wondered, and watched, and became sure. It's something about your manner, and it shows in your movement, your speech, your eyes. Especially your eyes."
"I see." The Keimon smiled, a little sadly, his eyes glinting silver. "Jack Webb thinks I'm still human, still me, but in one sense the entity you knew as Ed Straker died on Europa, as a result of that near-miss. What came back to life was a hybrid of Straker and myself… We can act separately still, and also as a unit. Does this situation bother you?"
"A bit," Freeman admitted. "No, a lot… But I know you're not hostile, far from it, and that's good enough for me. Well, almost. I miss the Ed Straker I knew… but I've gained something in his place, something that I would not want to lose."
"Thank you, Alec," Straker said, a little touched. "Er - You said 'a couple of things'?"
"Yes." Freeman looked a little embarrassed. "The way you used the Kei… do you have superpowers, or something?"
"I sure don't. In fact I have no power, of my own. I am the focus of humanity's power, and that power grows or wanes according to the image humanity has of me. Or better, of itself."
"That makes a sort of sense," Freeman agreed, slowly. "Should I keep this to myself, except for perhaps Paul? And Jack?"
"I guess it would be as well, for the moment… When Paul comes down with the case, I'll tell him myself. But I think he's already got his suspicions… Please note that there are several things I am not. To begin with I am certainly not divine, or even an angel, just human. Also I am not Superman, nor am I an animated encyclopaedia. I don't know everything. I'm not sure about my degree of mortality; that one is complex, and I am vulnerable in unexpected ways, both as Straker and as the Keimon. I'm also stronger, in some ways. I'm still exploring that aspect of it myself."
"Then I'd advise you to steer clear of the green kryptonite," Freeman suggested, deadpan.
"Alec," Straker said, "don't ever change… No, I take that back, do change. Get yourself married, before Joan gives up on you and picks someone else."
It was Freeman's turn to search for words. "I thought you said you didn't know everything?" he managed to say, at last.
"I don't," Straker said with a smile, "but some things are blindingly obvious."
Freeman cleared his throat, looked down at the desk that was now his, awkwardly shuffled a few papers around. "Mary settled OK?"
"Yes. I left her dozing over a cup of tea. We restored the lines, and Penny phoned her a little later."
"I did speak to Jill about her mother," Freeman said. Straker acknowledged this with a smile. "By the way, how much does Penny know about the situation?"
"Very little," Straker said, "and I intend to keep it that way, for her own protection… She does understand about security; her husband was with the RAF."
"Not Peter Ward? I knew him slightly, he was in DS8!"
"I remember that he disappeared," Freeman said, grimly. "Was he - "
"I'm afraid so… You may also know that they have a teenage son, currently at university. He's doing well… could be a good recruit."
"I'll note your recommendation," Freeman agreed. "Well, let's go and raid the stores, shall we?"
"Lead the way!"
They walked down a small side corridor. "What's your schedule now?" Freeman enquired.
"I leave for the Moon this evening," Straker told him. "I fly up with Azan, with Paul piloting as per your instructions… Tyl stays here and takes up his post with SHADO, he'll need a deputy from Europa - sorry, Dyaus. I think he would benefit from spending time at Moonbase Alpha when Victor sorts out a few things, because of the lower gravity and also because it would give him periods out of our Earth environment. Until we can improve those 'buffering treatments' Azan used. Up at Moonbase we board one of his ships - skimmers - and fly to Dyaus."
"That bit could be hairy," Freeman said, with a frown. "You could be flying straight into a civil war. Especially as that Kotte character is AWOL."
"Azan said Nepetane had reported some trouble," Straker agreed. "But she'll send out an escort to meet us."
"Good… Here we are." Freeman touched a sensitive plate by the wall, and a door slid silently open beside it. The two men entered. "Your stuff should be in this locker, here."
Straker used his command code to open the locker. As he did so, Foster walked in, carrying a moderately-sized wheeled box of translucent plastic. He set it down and unclipped the lid. Freeman excused himself, and returned to the command office.
"I can leave a lot of this here, I guess," Straker said, as he sorted through the contents of the locker. "Let's see… Those files should certainly stay. But I'll take this, and my pen and other items."
Apart from the pen, a cigar box, and one or two other oddments, there was surprisingly little, Foster thought. But there was a small leather folder, which looked like a photoframe. Straker put it in his jacket pocket, not in the box. He closed the lid, and stood up.
"Well, that's done," he said. He looked at Foster. "Paul, there's something you need to know about me… I am the Keimon. I am also Edward George Straker. They are two different entities."
He watched Paul's face carefully, but his brother did not seem unduly alarmed. "I take it you don't mean you've been possessed, like that Aethon tried to do to the three of us?"
"I sure don't. In fact, it's more like the other way around," Straker said, with a rueful grin. He recounted the conversation with Jack Webb, and told how Alec had guessed the truth.
Paul was silent for a few moments, thinking. "That explains quite a lot," he said, at last. "And it - well, it 'fits', somehow, if you understand me, Ed."
"I guess I do," Ed agreed, softly.
"Just Alec and Jack know about this?"
"That's right, though Azan does, of course. And we'll keep it that way, for the moment."
"One thing." Paul frowned a little. "Azan called me 'Companion Brother'. I've been wondering how he knew."
"Ask him," Ed suggested. He smiled. "Well, let's get on, shall we?"
Paul Foster insisted on taking the box himself. He led the way to Control; and as the two men entered, there was an outbreak of cheers and popping champagne corks.
Later that day when the celebrations had died down, Commander Alec Freeman was sitting at his desk finishing off some dull but necessary paperwork, and waiting for Straker to drive him to the spaceport.
He looked up from his papers as the door buzzer sounded. "Come in."
The door slid open. He blinked, and then groaned. "Ed! Must you waft around the place looking like a Greek god on steroids?"
"What's wrong? Don't you like it? This is high fashion for Keimons, Azan tells me."
Freeman looked him over. His friend was wearing a short-sleeved, square-necked, thigh-length silvery-white tunic, with no trousers, but with what looked like matching socks that came up to his knees. He wore no shoes. The tunic was belted with silver, and the belt had a small pouch attached. On his right wrist, there was a glint of crystal.
"Are you sure he's not pulling your leg? Have a seat.. Do you still drink coffee?" Freeman got up, and made his way over to the mini-bar, collecting two waxcard cups on the way.
"Any chance I get. Not sure they'll have any out Alpha Centauri way."
"You'll have to export some," Freeman told him. "Are you really coming to the spaceport like that?"
"It might attract attention," Straker agreed. "Let's see, now.."
He rose to his feet, and concentrated. His clothing shimmered for a moment, then coalesced into a plain, dark-blue suit. "That better?"
"Handy little gadget," Freeman murmured. "I take it that was the Kei, showing off?"
"That's roughly right. Actually, nothing changed physically, only your perception of it."
"What are you really wearing, then? Your pyjamas?"
"Not quite that casual." Straker smiled. He resumed his seat, sipped appreciatively at his coffee. "Any news from Dyaus?"
"Tyl tells me that there has indeed been some fighting, between Dyaus and the rebels, but it was handled quickly. A transport is due from Proxima to pick up the deportees and ferry them to Arkadia. You should have a clear run, but we'll be watching from our end and Nepetane from hers. Just in case."
"Any news of Kotte?"
"Not a thing," Freeman said. His eyes were shadowed. "That man's going to cause trouble."
"No doubt," Straker agreed. He swallowed the rest of his coffee. "Hadn't we better go? Don't want to keep Azan waiting."
"Lead the way," Freeman smiled. "Sire."
* * *
Betty Sinclair, Mary's housekeeper, arrived for work an hour early. She brought with her a woman that Mary thought she recognised.
"Hello, Mrs Rutland, I apologise for disturbing you, but I have a problem," she said, when she entered. "This is Jill Whyte, by the way. You may remember her, she says, she was at Marion Knight's funeral reception, helping out with the catering."
"Why, yes, hello," Mary smiled. "Please, sit down… Betty, you do look a bit worried. Would you two like some tea?"
"Thank you, no, Mrs Rutland," Betty said. Jill shook her head. "It's like this - I'm afraid I have to go home for a while, we are having family problems. I'll will be away for some weeks, possibly longer. You'll want someone to take over at least temporarily… So Jill and I have been chatting, and we have a suggestion you may like to consider."
"Oh dear, that's a shame. Can I help at all?"
"No, no. It's just a bit… complicated. Family politics, that kind of thing."
"You do have my sympathy," Mary said, with a rueful smile. "OK, tell me about this suggestion of yours."
"It's my mother, June Baines," Jill explained. "I believe she used to keep house for your ex… She was good friends with James Henderson, better than friends, I was hoping they might marry. But then he had that heart attack. She's moping a bit. Getting back to work would help her a lot, but I gather that Mr Straker has gone abroad to recuperate from his own injuries."
"So Alec told me," Mary agreed. She was doubtful, but tempted. June Baines was very competent, she knew, and so she had no worries on that score. She also had no doubt that the housekeeper could be trusted not to gossip about previous employers, not after associating with people like Ed and James Henderson.
Pity, a mischievous little thought said.
She came to a decision. "Look, how about this. Ask her to drop in for an interview over tea and biscuits. Would this afternoon suit, or tomorrow? She could meet Penny as well."
They settled on that afternoon at 4pm, with June Baines demonstrating her skill with a kettle and a biscuit-tin, Mary thought with some amusement.
Betty and Jill left. Jill set off for her mother's apartment, and Betty went home and put a call through to Alec Freeman. "It's looking good, Mr Freeman," she said. "Mrs Baines is coming at 4pm today. I think they'll like each other."
"That's great," Freeman said, warmly. "Thank you, Betty. Sorry to shuttle you around like this… Have a good holiday, it's on us!"
* * *
The landscape was as Kotte remembered it from his first visit, many cycles before. At least, it was from the surface; below ground it was another matter. One of the transit tubes which had provided access to four principal sites on this natural satellite of the terran world was blocked at the far-side junction, where the rock had apparently been pulverised and had collapsed. The destruction was clearly not a natural occurrence, but was caused by an intelligent entity; though equally clearly, that entity was none known to either Dyaus or the regressed terrans. Still, it was not present now, though Kotte had had survey teams sent out periodically to check.
This particular site, at the satellite's south rotation pole, was in full working order, and that included its own transit tube to a large mascon on its far side, which was in a region that the terrans had fancifully named the 'lake of luxuries'. The mascon itself was a valuable source of specialised minerals for both Dyaus and the terran colony; a permanent mining base had been established there, many centuries ago.
That base was still effectively hidden from the terrans. The mascons dotted about the surface of this small body made it very difficult to establish stable low orbits for artificial satellites, though the terrans had put in a lot of effort. So far they had only found a few orbital patterns where a satellite would stay up for more than a few weeks. They knew that their moon's gravity field was uneven to an unusual degree, but they did not, as yet, understand why this was. Kotte knew it was likely that they would soon come to understand the mascon effect; but that would not help them to make orbital observations.
And that had helped Kotte to send in teams to this base even after the terrans had attained spaceflight capability; though these days, of course, he had to send skimmers in under cloak.
He had made use of that in his flight from Dyaus to escape Devas Pavlor and retribution. The Devas did not know about the south polar installation; Kotte had carefully erased all references from Dyaus records. He had also kept this knowledge from Gimen, just in case the man should be uncovered by the terrans. Indeed, this had happened…
The transit car emerged from the tube at the polar terminus, and clunked into the magnetic holding bar. Kotte climbed from his seat and out onto the platform. A member of the Pole's small garrison was there to meet him.
"Prince Kotte," the man said. Kotte searched his memory for a moment, recalling the man had originally been called Craddock, but had been given a shorter designation. "I greet you. Please come with me."
"Report on status of this station," Kotte ordered as he followed the man through one of the exit hatches in the tunnel wall.
"We are 97% operational," Crad informed him.
"Why so low?" Kotte demanded, his voice hardening.
"We experienced a quake yesterday," Crad said. "Not severe, but it caused an outer chamber to collapse partially. Two of the crew were killed, but no equipment was damaged beyond repair. Maintenance staff inspected, discovered the collapse was caused by a small subsurface lava bubble giving way. They recommended that the area should be sealed off as unstable. I gave orders accordingly."
"That is satisfactory," Kotte agreed, after a moment's thought. "Are further collapses likely? This region was chosen because the stability of its substrate."
"My staff is satisfied that the disturbance was small and localised, and the remainder of this Station remains stable."
"And the stasis unit?"
"It was unaffected, and is likely to remain so." Crad paused at a tunnel junction. "You wish to check now?"
"I do. Lead."
Crad gave a nod, and turned down the left fork of the funnel. They walked on, Kotte asking more questions about the Station. The tunnel sloped downwards, and they continued for several mets, until they reached its end. Crad halted before a circular hatch that was twice the size of any of the previous ones. He tapped a control plate in a complex sequence, and the hatch opened, separating into its spiral segments. Crad gestured, and Kotte stepped through the portal.
The temperature in this chamber was perceptibly lower than outside. In one wall there was a hexagonal array that Kotte recognised as a storage rack similar to the one his agents had used under the terran south polar icecap in their now defunct large-world base. This one was much smaller, consisting of a mere dozen or so pods; and only one of those pods was in use, its cover plate glowing softly white.
Kotte gave a nod of satisfaction, and glanced over to the attendance panel. A tall, red-blonde altered-terran female was seated at the panel, checking the readouts. Kotte walked over to her.
"I greet you, Bosan," he said.
The female rose from her stool. "I greet you also, Prince Kotte."
"Report on the status of your charge."
"The child remains in stasis and is in good physical condition. Do you wish to inspect it?"
"Yes. First, let me see the sensor readouts."
"Of course." Bosan tapped out a control sequence on the panel, and a screen lit up, showing glowing blue traces. "As you can see, the child - "
A sound from Kotte stooped her. She turned, and stared. His eyes were starting in a face that was deathly pale under the green, his jaw was clenched, his limbs rigid and shaking. Was the man having a seizure?
A voice echoed in Kotte's mind. The voice of the Keimon. "I declare the Arkadian rebels, all those who give their allegiance to Kotte and his group, detached from Spicor and renegade."
Hands to his head, he moaned softly. He had truly awakened the Keimon. And now came the reckoning…
He fell forward into darkness, and did not feel the impact with the floor.
The woman called Bosan, who had once been Sarah Bosanquet, fell to her knees, writhing in pain. Slowly the red waves ebbed, and her vision cleared. She staggered over to Kotte, checked his life-signs. He was dead.
Unexpectedly, she was overwhelmed with emotion. With a tremendous effort she pulled herself together. She told herself she had no capability to experience 'love'… but Malvar Kotte lay dead before her, and she grieved for him.
She forced her gaze away, and turned to Crad. He was alive. She dragged him to his feet and they exited the stasis chamber. She punched the 'close' button on the hatch, and they ran back the way they had come.
The Station was littered with bodies. Many were obviously dead, but most still moved and groaned. A part of her mind noted that a number of the survivors were the same as herself, altered-terrans.
One of the surviving Dyausans was struggling to come to his feet. Bosan helped him up, a task easy for her terran muscles against the light gravity. "Did you hear?" he croaked. "Did you hear… him? We are lost!"
"No, Ilen. There is yet hope," Bosan told him. "We can yet prevail. We have the weapon, the key."
Almost, Bosan smiled. This 'catastrophe' had freed her from Dyaus, freed her to assume Kotte's mantle. "Help me now. Help me to attend to those who were merely incapacitated, bring them to full functionality. Then dispose of the deceased, they can be recycled. After that we may start to plan ahead."
Hesitantly at first, Ilen, Crad, and Bosan moved among the fallen. Bosan's mind was not on her associates, however; already she was considering her options. She did indeed have a weapon; she had already formulated a plan in anticipation of a day like this. She needed now to refine it, decide how best to use it.
She had the key. The key to the Keimon. His son.
* * *
To be continued…
The Works of Snowleopard
The Library Entrance