A sequel to 'The Brotherhood'
Country of first publication,
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Doug Jackson, MD, FRCPsych, wrote in his notebook:
'Subject: Alien psychological influence on Earth-humans.
'Instances: Possible mechanisms, observed; conjectured.
'Information gathering by the aliens:
‘Historical and contemporary.
'Means and chronology.'
Jackson read through the words, and frowned. The sparseness of these headings reflected the paucity of their knowledge of the subject. And it was his job to review that knowledge, suggest ways of extending it, and find countermeasures.
He leaned back in his chair, gazing out of his window, over the town of Harlington, into the evening sky. A quarter-moon was visible in the deepening blue. He looked at it unseeingly, his thoughts elsewhere.
Although he would never admit to his colleagues here at SHADO, the aliens terrified him. It was not just the thought that they systematically raided Earth for human organs, though that was bad enough. Indeed, that knowledge had driven even some strong members of SHADO mad; in fact, that was the very reason that had led General Henderson to appoint him to SHADO’s medical staff. What troubled him, and deeply, was the concept which had come to him, the notion from nightmare, the thought that 'force' behind these aliens might be non-material. That force might be an entity, or collection of entities, who had no physical manifestation as Earth-humans would understand the term. It might be able to enter an unsuspecting victim and possess it utterly, make that victim carry out its commands, and serve it, until its purpose was accomplished.
There was a name for that kind of entity. A 'demon'.
Jackson pulled himself together against the chill that was creeping through him, and looked down once more at his notebook, forcing his thoughts back on track. It was Commander Straker who had given him this task, and who had suggested calling this project 'Gamma'; it was a natural progression from 'Alpha', which had dealt with the acquisition and development into a decoy of the defunct Dalotek installation, and 'Beta', the plan to assemble an adequate defensive force to protect the ILFC lunar base.
Unoriginal perhaps, Jackson thought, but workable. And Straker had had a parallel objective for both of these: to counter, and if possible defeat, the aliens' apparent link to Colonel Paul Foster. They had succeeded, although Foster had nearly died in the process. He had been injured by an alien device, badly enough for him to be placed on sick leave from his duties at SHADO for four weeks while the cut to his carotid artery had healed sufficiently. Currently he was still doing light work at the studio; at least that was keeping him busy, while he got used to the idea that he was, in a complicated way, brother to Commander Straker.
Jackson had known that the commander had had a step-brother, Robert Fletcher, who had been adopted by Straker's father's second wife during her previous marriage, whose maiden name had been Marion Knight. What none of them - bar Marion herself, and that only recently - had known until a few days previously was that Robert and Paul Foster were full brothers, Paul having been born shortly after their mother had left their father and moved to England. Paul himself had later been adopted by an English couple named Foster.
This tangled family tree had been dubbed a 'briar patch' by General Henderson. Jackson had to agree, the description was all too appropriate.
The same description could be applied to the recent incident - more a chain of interconnected incidents, Jackson thought. 'Plan Beta' had left SHADO with a number of loose ends to tidy up: the exact cause of the death of Marion Knight, on the Island of Jersey in the English Channel; the involvement of Diane Matthews, who - it transpired - had been 'stalking' Paul Foster; the reappearance of Robert Fletcher, whose apparent death had in fact had been abduction by the aliens; an alien on Jersey, apparently living in concealment at or near Marion's cottage, and who had spoken aloud for the first time in SHADO's experience. What he had said, however, had only added more mysteries: he had mentioned a 'Kei', who had 'companions'.
More demons? Jackson wondered.
Dragging his thoughts back to his notes by the scruffs of their conceptual necks, the psychiatrist looked at the heading 'Instances', and began another list. Top of this was Colonel Paul Foster himself, who had twice been subjected to alien control. The first time, he had been induced to try to kill Commander Straker, and had nearly succeeded. The second time, he had been seduced by one of the entities Jackson had dubbed 'psychobombs', who had forced Foster to lead the entity into SHADO Control. Only a desperate ploy by Commander Straker had averted disaster.
That initial attempt to assassinate Straker had involved two men, who had both been in a lunar module when it was intercepted by a UFO. The second man had been Captain Craig, who had been killed during his attempt to destroy Moonbase and the commander with it.
Others who had fallen under alien influence had included Croxley, whose ESP talent had been used by the aliens; 'Tim', who had died, but whose body had been re-animated by using the life-energy of his girlfriend Catherine; Craig Collins, whose brain had apparently been modified so that his body could be controlled directly; and the 'psychobombs' themselves - Simmons, Clark, and Mason. The autopsy on the only retrievable body from those three, Simmons, had shown that her brain had also been modified.
There were a few more examples of people who had received the aliens' attention: Regan, who had been controlled through a cat's brain; and Sarah Bosanquet, who may have been influenced initially through her father. One of the designers of Moonbase, Bosanquet had been lost on the lunar surface while Moonbase was being built. Commander Straker had told Jackson, in strict confidence, what had really happened there. The commander had been able to confirm that Bosanquet had himself been an agent for the aliens, and that the man had died when his suit had been breached during a fight between him and Straker. The commander had explained that Bosanquet's body was lost to SHADO, having been buried under tons of lunar rock in a collapsed lava bubble. All Straker had been able to retrieve was a small module with a component that had turned out to be biochemical, one of its constituents being Bosanquet's own blood, possibly to make a genetic link that the aliens could use.
Not just demons, Jackson thought, but vampires as well.
And there was Colonel Foster himself, who, it had turned out, had also been controlled indirectly through a link with another living being, the Colonel's genetic brother Robert. It was far from clear, though, why the aliens had chosen to use these indirect methods. Perhaps, Jackson thought, the differences between Paul and Robert were as significant as the similarities.
It was the fact that the aliens could exert this insidious control over their victims that gave Jackson the creeping horrors. He could empathise only too well with Colonel Foster, who had reacted with revulsion when he had fully understood his situation; a revulsion that had helped him defeat the influence finally.
Jackson shook off that horror, and reminded himself that the aliens also used other methods - as, for example, on Conroy, Beaver James, and indeed Straker himself, all three of whom had experienced hallucinations induced by an alien crystal. Jackson considered that those hallucinations could not properly be called 'control', as they did not affect the victims' actions directly. Instead, the crystal had created a mental context in which those victims would react to an apparent though imaginary threat.
In order to defeat this attack, SHADO personnel had had to shoot down Conroy and James before they had done further damage, It was interesting, Jackson thought, that although Colonel Foster had nearly had to shoot Straker as well, he had not done so. Perhaps on that occasion the aliens were relying on the 'mindbender' crystal's influence on the commander; and perhaps also that crystal was restricted to affecting only one person at a time. In Straker's case - thankfully - it had not worked; he had detected the unreality and destroyed the crystal.
Less direct instances of influence had included Roper, who had been blackmailed into co-operating; and Turner, who had willingly complied. Both had been killed. Postmortems had not revealed any changes to their brains.
It was, Jackson thought, a motley collection. There was very little in the way of common factors… but even that, in its way, was interesting. It was certainly possible, as Straker had suggested, that the random approach of the aliens was deliberate, intended to keep human investigators guessing. On the other hand, it was possible that there were good reasons for those choices.
For instance, if the aliens could influence men in cislunar transit, as they had done with Foster and Craig, why not influence Straker himself, on one of his many trips to their lunar base? And if they could access Regan, and make him fly into Moonbase, why not do that, also, with the commander? That would be a double blow from which SHADO might never recover, certainly not in time to hold off an attack such as the one the aliens had mounted in the underwater dome incident.
That thought led him to the second branch of his investigation - how the aliens might have gathered their information. There were some cases, such as what SHADO looked like, the work being done for SHADO at Westbrook Electronics, and the trip to collect their Utronic equipment, which raised questions that could be answered fairly easily - as Commander Straker had pointed out, all the aliens had to do was listen in to the radio traffic and other electronic communications. These were always encrypted, but ways could be found around that. Other questions were more difficult; for example, how had the aliens located suitable specimens for their 'psychobombs'; and how did they know about the murder plot that Straker had dubbed a 'square triangle'.
Alien surveillance was up against a basic physical obstacle, namely the slow speed of radio transmission. It would take a radio wave more than four years to reach even the nearest star to the Sun. That wave could reach a local alien outpost within the solar system, which SHADO was now convinced did exist, in a much more reasonable time; but that outpost's communications with the alien homeworld would have to use something like the Utronics system. No deep-space probe had ever detected any such transmission.
And if the aliens were indeed watching Earth in so much detail, why had they let Moonbase be built at all? Why had the aliens not thrown everything they had into preventing the establishment of a facility which would seriously impede their access to Earth's resources? Perhaps, as Foster had once suggested, they intended to take over Moonbase, once it had been completed, to use for their own purposes, but had failed to do so. However, they had not waited for the completion of the new ILFC base, Moonbase Alpha. Instead, they had attacked in force - only to be comprehensively defeated.
Jackson put that thought aside, for the moment, and turned his attention back to communications. That was a major part of the problem. As every security man on Earth knew, it was the weak point of any organisation. You had to have it, or those organisations simply could not function; but if it was not sufficiently secure, it was fatal to them.
It was interesting, Jackson thought, that the aliens' own communications links - at least, the ones they had been able to find - had been as tightly secure as it was ever possible to be. The ESP that had been used to interact with Croxley, for example. How did you eavesdrop on another's thoughts, if you were not yourself adept? Few people had that kind of sensitivity, although - Jackson, and his colleagues, suspected - the basic ability was a fundamental component of the human mind.
And, quite likely, of the alien mind.
On a more material level, there was the communications link used by Sarah Bosanquet. It had been built into her telescope, and used a tightly collimated, high-power beam of light - possibly accompanied by another, unknown, form of radiation - to send messages in a code very like Morse. The unlucky Interceptor pilot who had been on station to intercept a possible signal had been gently fried by that beam, although he had survived and had returned to Moonbase. The doctors had found no permanent damage, physical or mental, but had continued to monitor him. Straker had taken the communications module and had it investigated; but it had destroyed itself, leaving them with no information on its mode of operation.
Jackson sighed. 'No information'. The story of SHADO's life.
Well, he mused, the aliens had plenty of information on SHADO. It was clear that, in the run-up to the formation of the Group, they had been following events fairly closely, as had been demonstrated by the attack on the car carrying significant personnel to a meeting about the problem. That particular incident, however, had been fairly straightforward to analyse. Peter Carlin, already an accomplished pilot and trained observer, had been 'saucer-spotting' with his sister and a friend. He had encountered a UFO, and had obtained photos - but his sister had been abducted, and he had been injured. The same clues that had led him to that place at that time had also caught the attention of Blue Book, who mounted their own investigation. For the first time, they had obtained unequivocal proof of alien attack - an undeveloped photograph still in the camera that had taken it, one that the wear pattern on the sprocket holes had shown had only passed through the camera once, and was therefore not a 'double-exposure' fake.
And, it seemed, Blue Book had caught the attention of the aliens. Straker and Henderson had both considered it highly likely that the aliens had been watching not only Blue Book, but its predecessors, Sign and Grudge. Project Sign had been started soon after the Roswell incident; it ran for about a year, to be succeeded by Project Grudge, which in turn gave way to Blue Book. None of the three investigations had been able to dismiss all of the apparent sightings as natural phenomena or misidentifications of purely terrestrial craft. When Blue Book shut down in 1970 - a little later than the 1969 date that was given out officially - the subject was deemed closed by most of the government of both the US and UK.
Except, of course, Jackson reminded himself, it hadn't been closed, at all.
Following the Carlin incident, the task of dealing with UFOs - and of defending from them - had been handed over to General James L. Henderson, who, with his aide Colonel Ed Straker, ex-Blue Book, had worked to set up SHADO. It was primarily concerned with defence, and it maintained a network of agents who were members of bodies both amateur and professional who were investigating the multitude of 'UFO' sightings. The agents sifted through the data, and passed on anything they thought worthy of further consideration, though they were blissfully unaware of the nature of the group with whom they were dealing. Occasionally, they came up with real sightings.
It all helped; but it did not provide answers to enough of SHADO's questions.
Jackson read through his notes once more, and his brows knitted in concentration as his attention focussed on something about the examples. Two of the targets had lost blood relatives, and control had apparently been exercised through the genetic link; but there were many cases where this had not happened. The case of Captain Peter Carlin and his sister was a prime example where the link had not been put to use. Following a hunch, Jackson had been monitoring the SkyDiver commander very closely indeed since Carlin had been recruited; but he had found nothing. And it was difficult to see exactly what kind of genetic link there might be between Astronaut Regan and a Siamese cat!
That, and the use of a sample of Bosanquet's own blood, seemed to suggest that there was some specific feature of the genetic relationship that determined how the link might operate. Jackson made a note to speak to some of his colleagues who were working in the growing field of DNA sequencing, to see whether any such feature could be found.
Thinking of the cat turned Jackson's thoughts back to his 'wild theory', about the aliens - some of them perhaps, at least – being ‘demons’, or at least, non-material entities. He wondered, again, what use such beings would have for physical bodies. That subject came up occasionally in science fiction stories - a genre in which Jackson was not widely read, though he occasionally wondered whether he should do something about that. The 'zombie' concept seemed to be quite popular; but one or two of the more original stories he had come across had suggested that the 'entities' were indeed material, but in a parallel universe, and merely 'bridged the gap' by non-material means.
But all that was speculation. They needed, Jackson thought wryly to himself, more information.
* * *
The water in the English Channel was murky at the best of times, Captain Carlin mused. And today was no exception. It made his own search for information more difficult than he would have liked.
He was using the UV floodlights, but they did not help much. There had been a storm in the Bay of Biscay some days earlier, and it had stirred up a lot of silt, which had then been borne by ocean currents into this comparatively shallow water. From time to time SkyDiver was inspected by inquisitive fish, including a huge basking shark; but most of them quickly lost interest on discovering that the vessel was not edible. Carlin allowed himself a fleeting smile at the thought that it was also several orders of magnitude too large.
Not so the unmanned survey craft. Carlin had deployed four of these to take a closer look at the many caves and bays around the coast of the Island of Jersey. He had not expected to find much; the tourist population was at least as inquisitive as the fish, and would have quickly noticed anything odd happening; but there had been nothing mentioned in the Island's public media. The SkyDiver captain had taken measures to protect SHADO's own security: his unmanned survey craft could dodge humans, and kept their ultrasonic beacons switched on to discourage fishy tourists.
Carlin and his crew had been ordered to investigate this area because recent alien activity had involved Jersey. More specifically, an alien had turned up at a cottage on the Island belonging to a woman named Marion Knight, who - Carlin gathered - was connected to Commander Straker in some way. The captain had been told that Ms Knight had died, and that her death was being thoroughly investigated by Dr Jackson and his colleagues. The cottage itself was also being checked for signs of use by the aliens, and SkyDiver had been deployed to check possible underwater access routes and places to hide a UFO.
The crew of Skydiver performed three passes along the area of interest, without result; but there were other possibilities. Jersey was the centre of a small archipelago, comprising - as well as the Island itself - rocky islets of many sizes, only some of which were visible at high tide. One or two of those had even been inhabited from time to time. The nearest group, called Ecrehous, which was attached administratively to St Martin Parish, formed quite an undersea labyrinth. Searching it would require all of SkyDiver's USCs for several days, and it would be a very fiddly job indeed; but it had to be done. Though, again, Carlin did not really expect to find an intact UFO hidden in the seaweed.
Nor did he; but he did find some items that had no business being in this part of the world.
It happened on the fourth day of their search. SkyDiver was sitting at the surface, wearing her camouflage, which made her look so much like a seaweed-strewn rock as to attract the interest of several sea-birds looking for nesting places. Carlin ordered his crew to scare them off, not without regret; but he didn't want any of those birds laying eggs in his conning tower.
He was up there now, gazing at the distant rocks, many of which were at present only visible from the ripples and splashes they made in the sea, when the intercom buzzed. It was Georgie Hamill, a microbiologist, who was currently in control of two of the USCs.
"Captain? We have something interesting on the scanner. You may wish to see it."
"I'll be right down."
Carlin made a rapid descent, pulling the hatch shut and securing it in case they needed to submerge. Below in the cabin, Hamill was seated in front of a row of monitors. Mike Nichols, their metallurgist and Sky pilot (a term which afforded him some amusement), was seated at a second row, handling the remaining two USCs. Dr John Vogel was peering over Nichols' shoulder at the screens. His own interest in physics was quite different to that of Commander Straker; he was a fluid mechanics specialist, and had contributed in no small measure to the design of the SkyDivers. Don Turner was at the helm, steering the submarine through treacherous channels with a featherlight touch. He was also a geologist, and the craft's occasional medic.
"What have you got, Georgie?" Carlin asked, joining her at the monitors.
"Strong echoes, sir," Hamill answered. "There seems to be a lot of metallic debris. Small stuff only, no pieces larger than a few centimetres across. Seem to be concentrated in this area, here."
"Do we have any data - Dr Vogel, will you please stop breathing down my neck!" Carlin glared at the physicist, who backed off a little with an apologetic nod. "Data on scans of UFO remains?"
"Yes, sir," she told him. "I'll pull them out and cross-refer."
The task took her only a few minutes. As the images came up on screen, Carlin beckoned to the physicist. "All right, John, now it's your turn… What do you make of it?"
"Not natural," Vogel replied, immediately. "And not quite the same as the other. I notice that the image on the right was acquired on land, with the craft in atmosphere. The pieces have sharp, often jagged edges. The left-hand image shows pieces with rounded edges and surfaces, like pebbles. And there seems to be a haze around them. I think they're dissolving, which would be most unusual. If you want some samples, you'd better be quick - and careful, they should be treated as contaminated."
"Noted." Carlin turned, and gave swift orders. A sample container was quickly prepared, and would be sent out on a USC to gather what it could. The captain turned back to the scanner. "Georgie, how are the fish doing in that region?"
"They don't seem to like it much," she reported. "They swim in a little way, then turn tail in a hurry and get clear of the area. As though something in there tastes bad. But they don't seem to be in any actual distress, and there aren't any dead fish around, even at the surface. Perhaps we should trap a couple and have a closer look."
"Go right ahead," Carlin told her.
A second container was set up, with fishy life-support systems, and the USC was launched from its bay, with Hamill operating the remote controls. She dropped its two containers in strategic places. The first she towed carefully through the drift of 'debris', collecting chunks of various sizes. The second was a little more problematical. She placed it in the path of fish hurrying to leave the area, but it was mostly ignored; so she moved it away a few feet, and was rewarded with two bright silvery specimens.
"Bringing them in, sir," she reported.
"Nicely done, Georgie," Carlin said, approvingly. "John, I'll turn you and Mike loose on the fragments, see if you can find out why they're dissolving when most of our previous experience suggests the UFOs do better in water than air… Georgie, grab Don, and the pair of you give our finny friends a thorough medical. I'll take the con while you do that, and we'll stay put here for a bit while we review."
It took perhaps an hour or so to get the first results through, and they provided a possible answer to the mystery of the dissolving fragments.
"They're made to self-destruct," Mike Nichols said. "Take a look at this, it's the microscopic view."
"Looks like a currant cake," Carlin commented. "With white currants."
"Does, doesn't it… Something causes those 'currants' to burst, and apparently they release something that reacts with sea-water and causes the 'alloy' or whatever it is to crumble to powder. Or mud, rather. The reaction is non-explosive, so it doesn't cause any disturbance more than a few feet away. I've taken a couple of pieces out of the original container, and I've put one in distilled water and one in dry air. The disintegration stopped in both."
Carlin leaned forward, and peered at the image. Nichols obligingly adjusted the magnification for him. "Georgie, how are those fish?" he asked.
"Doing OK," she said, "if perhaps a trifle annoyed."
"Good. Take a look at this, would you? Tell me if it is what I think it is?"
The biologist walked over to the bench where Nichols and Vogel were working. "Looks like algae of some kind," she said. "Mike, can you get a scraping, and I'll put it under a high magnification."
The microscopic inspection confirmed that the faint dark patches they had seen on the alien alloy were indeed small colonies of single-celled algae. They were small and unremarkable. Neither Don Turner nor Georgie Hamill could see anything unusual about them; they looked like standard terrestrial organisms.
As it turned out later, however, this impression was not altogether accurate.
* * *
The recent events on Jersey were also causing tremors on the mainland.
Katerina Arrowsmith rushed into the studio, looking for Pete Bentley. She found him on the 'Musketeers' set, slumped in a chair. Around him the techs were pulling down the set in preparation for the next scenes to be shot, which would be on the deck of a sailing ship.
Both she and Bentley were actors in the movie, although her own part was little more than a 'walk-on'. Bentley had landed the part of d'Artagnan, though there was more than the usual friction between him and the director, Harry Flynn - enough to draw the attention of the casting director, Angela Dixon. But now, there were far more serious matters bothering Katerina.
"Pete!" she shouted. "What's happened? Where's Diane?"
For a moment, Bentley did not answer; then he looked up at her, slowly. His eyes were haunted. "She's dead."
She halted, shocked. "What - ? I mean, how - ?"
"Sorry, I - I know you two were friends - "
"No. No, I'm sorry. Oh Pete, what happened?"
"I don't know," he muttered. "I've just been speaking to Mr Freeman about it. Seems she went over to Jersey for some reason - might have been that project she was going on about to Harry - and there was some kind of accident. A rockfall, or something, I dunno. They managed to - to retrieve her - her body, but - "
"Ah, Ms Arrowsmith," Freeman said, behind them. "I'm glad I found you. Pete may have said, I have bad news about your friend Diane, I'm afraid."
"She - she's dead."
"Yes. I am so sorry, Ms Arrowsmith. Look why don't the two of you come with me, to the coffee bar?"
"Thank you, sir, yes please."
The two actors followed Freeman to a quiet corner of the bar, where he got them seated. A waiter hovered, and took their order; it arrived quickly.
"As you will both be aware," Freeman began, "Ms Matthews was a US citizen. She is being sent back to Boston - Mr Straker is footing the bill - and if you wish to attend, that can be arranged."
"Thank you, sir," Bentley muttered. "Can we let you know?"
"Of course. It'll be a few days yet, there's plenty of time. Is there anything more I can do at this point?"
"You can tell me what happened," Bentley said, savagely. "And what the hell that fight with Foster was all about. She talked me into setting it up - "
"Pete," Freeman cut in, "it's only fair that I should warn you that the police may be asking questions, as they always do in the case of an accidental death. They'll want to know about Ms Matthews' movements, about her relationship with you. Don't do or say anything that the police might interpret unfavourably. That goes for you, too, Katerina," he added, and she nodded. "You may want to talk to your own solicitors about the situation, or if you don't have anyone suitable, the studio can supply someone."
"Are you saying there was something - suspicious - about what happened?" Bentley demanded.
"I can't say at this point." Or at any point, Freeman thought to himself. Not that alien involvement is exactly 'suspicious'.
"We understand," Katerina said. "But - sir, if I may ask, is Mr Straker all right? That fight was for real! Mr Foster was furious! He didn't get himself sacked, did he?"
"No, no," Freeman assured her. "It's quite true, they had been having an argument. It doesn't help that Ed isn't exactly the world's greatest diplomat, though you didn't hear me say that." He gave a rueful grin, and was rewarded with slight smiles from the two actors. "But he is a great believer in practical psychology. He let Mr Foster discharge his anger in a controlled way."
"I've noticed before, Mr Straker isn't scared of taking risks," Bentley muttered. "Even fairly physical ones. Must be something from his days in the USAF."
Freeman gave a nod, and a slight smile. The studio had never made any attempt at all to hide either Ed's military background, or his own - or, indeed, the background of about half the studio's personnel. When the subject came up in conversation, as it did occasionally, they acknowledged it but did not comment further. They did, however, encourage the assumption made by interested outsiders that the studio had been set up specifically to use the skills and knowledge of ex-servicemen who had been discharged from the Forces for various though fairly minor health reasons.
"One thing," he said. "If you have any of Ms Matthews' belongings you want to return, so it can go back to her family in the US, let me know. It's unlikely that she would have made a will, though we are checking."
"Thank you, sir," Bentley answered. "She has left a few bits and pieces with me, clothes and so on. A little money. A few books. That sort of thing. I - I'll put them in a box to be collected."
"Want any help?" Katerina asked.
"I'd appreciate that, thanks," Bentley acknowledged.
"I'll drop in after work, shall I?" Getting a nod from Bentley, she turned back to Freeman. "Sir, about Diane's funeral… It's a kind offer, Mr Freeman, but we weren't all that close. In fact - and I know this will sound strange, and maybe a bit heartless - I didn't like her all that much, really."
Mr Freeman acknowledged this with a nod. "I've known people like that," he admitted. "And I do have to say that she did seem to - well, have an agenda of her own, so to speak."
"I wouldn't disagree." Katerina hesitated, a little, and decided. "She seemed to have some sort of history with Mr Foster, am I right?"
"You are. And not a very pleasant one, I'm afraid, though I won't go into the gory details." Freeman smiled, a little ruefully. "I'll leave that for the police."
He finished his coffee, got up, and left them to their thoughts.
They noted the hint, and were glad of it when the police duly arrived later that same day. Mr Freeman insisted on being present at the questioning of his employees, and Katerina was glad he had done so. The DI spoke to them separately, and grilled her for what must have been more than an hour. Although Mr Freeman had said little, his presence had been steadying. Bentley's interrogation had taken rather longer. Katerina had waited outside Mr Freeman's office until the DI had departed; then Mr Freeman called her in.
She looked at Pete Bentley, and her eyes widened. The actor was distressed, angry, on the verge of tears. Mr Freeman made them both sit, and handed them each shot-glasses of Scotch.
"OK if I leave you to it for a few minutes?" Freeman asked. "I have to talk to Mr Straker, I'll call him from Miss Ealand's desk."
"Of course, sir," Katerina said.
He left, and the door closed behind him. Bentley burst out: "He thinks I killed her!"
"Ridiculous, of course you didn't," Katerina assured him. "But you know the police. They can't afford to go easy, not when someone's died."
"No, you're right," Bentley muttered. "But he did seem to think it wasn't an accident. But I wouldn't have caused it, I couldn't, I wasn't even IN Jersey at the time!"
"And if - if you had wanted her dead, you'd have - done it yourself, not - "
"Of course I didn't want her dead," Bentley almost shouted. "I loved her - "
He broke off, stared down into the small glass he was holding. He took a long, slow breath. "No. No, that's not right, it wasn't love. It was fascination. She - she had a way about her, it drew me in. I knew she was really after Mr Foster and I didn't care as long as it meant I could be with her, do what she needed. But that fight - I thought I was going to see murder done. I didn't want anything more to do with her. She came to my place afterwards and I told her to get her things and go. She laughed, said I didn't matter any more, she'd got what she wanted. She took a few things and left. That was the last I saw of her. I was glad to see the back of her!"
"She seems to make enemies easily," Katerina observed.
"And one of them got to her? In Jersey? Hey, does Harry know about this - "
"He does," Freeman said, from the doorway. "DI Brogan spoke to him first. He's in the clear, and so are you two. Though you will all have to attend the inquest, of course."
"Thank god," Bentley muttered. He looked down at his glass, and swallowed the contents in one gulp. He coughed a little, leaned his head back, and took a long, shuddering breath. "Can we go home now, Mr Freeman?"
"Of course. Take a couple of days' sick leave. There's no rush about Ms Matthews' belongings, any time in the next few days will do."
"Yes, sir. Thank you. And - thanks for helping out."
"No problem at all," Freeman assured them.
The pair left, heading for the foyer, and Freeman opened the voiceprint box. He didn't feel much like joking with it at present. "Freeman."
"Voiceprint identification positive. Freeman, Alec E."
The transit office began to descend into the depths. It came to a gentle halt, and the connecting door slid open. Freeman made a quick exit, heading for the command office.
Straker looked up as he entered. "Well? What did you make of it?"
"I'd say it was pretty straightforward," Freeman said. He took a seat by the conference table. "Unless, of course, you saw something I didn't… It all seems to be as it appears. Our friend Matthews was gold-digging. She wanted Marion's cottage, she knew about it from Robert. She had found out about Paul's connection with Marion, and latched onto Paul as a means of getting into Marion's favour. She set up that fight hoping to make you sack Paul and annoy Marion enough that you'd be cut out of her will. That didn't work, though - forgive me - it might have if Marion had lived longer, given Matthews more time to work on her. Then Matthews found out later that Robert hadn't died in that car crash. Instead he'd been 'zommed', but she wasn't aware of that. For some reason she switched her attention to Robert."
"Possibly," Straker said, thoughtfully, "it was Robert who approached her. Prompted by the aliens."
Freeman gave a nod. "I'll go for that. And we've got a pretty good idea what those reasons were."
"On the surface, yes."
"You think this is all too neat? Too simple?"
"I do." Straker looked up, and met Freeman's eyes; his own face was quite without expression. He handed across a small folder containing perhaps half a dozen sheets. "These are the preliminary results of the second autopsy on Marion, from Jackson. They make very interesting reading indeed… There's a summary at the top."
Freeman read the short paragraph, and his brows came together in a heavy line. He glanced up at Straker. "A poison. With an antidote."
"Yes. Jackson is of the opinion that it was a form of medical blackmail. You know how it goes - 'If you want to live, do what I want and I'll give you some more pills, or I can just stand back and watch matters take their course.'" Straker's voice had a bitter edge.
"The poison would have to be long-lasting, wouldn't it? How long?"
"Jackson's not sure," Straker admitted. "A matter of a few months, he believes. But the victim would die eventually anyway, antidote or no."
"And you're saying Matthews was using this stuff to get information or co-operation out of Marion?" Freeman said, incredulously. "A sledgehammer to crack a nut, surely?"
"Depends on the nut. And the hammer's unusual." Straker reached across and turned over a few sheets in the file. "How's your organic chemistry?"
Freeman glanced at the diagram, which resembled nothing so much as a piece of lace. "Dreadful," he said, with a grimace. "But even I can see that's a pretty complex molecule."
"It's more than that. It's one of the base compounds that were used to make that 'nerve gas' that the Brit Navy went to dump in that ocean trench."
"Shit!!" Freeman gasped. "Are you sure?"
"I just hope this stuff is a bit less lethal!!"
"Just a bit," Straker confirmed. "And we have some information on the other half of the blackmail pair. Marion left an empty pill wrapper in that sheaf of documents in her stuff from the hospital. The wrapper was coated with another compound, a much simpler one, which Jackson was able to test. He considers that this simpler compound was intended to be an antidote."
"Where the hell did Matthews get something like that - oh. Silly question."
"The aliens," Straker agreed. "And that tends to confirm a suspicion of mine about the exact origin of that 'nerve gas'."
Freeman nodded, grimly. "They made the stuff. Or designed it and got us to make it… So what the hell was the nut?"
"That, alas, is a bit less obvious." Straker looked up at Freeman. "There could have been several 'nuts'. Me. Paul. Marion's cottage. And that's just for starters."
Freeman rubbed his chin, thinking. At last he said: "You know, Ed, I think you're right. Somehow, Marion's cottage - or something in it - was a fundamental part of their search."
"You may have used the right word there," Straker said, slowly. "'Search'. They were looking for something, all right. Paul and I were incidental, a bonus perhaps… And then there's Robert. He was taken by the aliens, and zommed. Then he turns up at the cottage!"
"You think he had part of what they wanted, and could lead them to the rest?"
"Exactly. And he was a biochemist, working on some top-secret projects for the US. The nerve-gas, for sure. I could bear to know exactly what their other projects were."
Freeman said, carefully: "He was in a car crash, wasn't he? Wasn't Norma looking into that for us?"
"She sure was," Straker confirmed. "And she dug out a few interesting facts. Robert had a passenger, a colleague named Mark Arrowsmith. And yes, he was married to our Katerina. So we need to keep a watch on her, in case the aliens take an interest."
"I… see. Do we know anything about the crash?"
"It will not surprise you to hear that Matthews was involved," Straker said, dryly. "Seems they went out to meet her, answering a sort of summons. They never arrived. A tree got in the way… This was at night, and the weather was bad, so the crash wasn't witnessed. The automobile hit, rolled down a bank. It caught fire. Neither of the occupants escaped, and there wasn't much left of them. Apparently."
"But Robert turns up again, years later. D'you suppose the aliens took them both?"
"Possibly. So what have we got?" Straker steepled his fingers, and swivelled slowly round in his chair, so that he was looking towards the light panel. "Two biochemists working on top-secret projects, one at least of whom had been abducted. A compound related to that nerve gas, and an antidote to its effects. And the aliens are searching for something."
Freeman thought for a few moments. "We've wondered about the aliens' intentions, trying to release that nerve gas, a few times," he said at last. "You once described it as 'bizarre', and it is. Why wipe out their stock, for heaven's sake?"
"Why indeed… But the possible existence of an antidote throws a new light on the situation."
"Shit!" Freeman whispered again, in horrified realisation. "Ransom!"
"Quite possibly." Straker turned back, and took a cigar from its jar and unwrapped it. He raised a querying eyebrow at Freeman, who shook his head. "This new compound is safer than the 'nerve gas', but only slightly. Perhaps the aliens decided they wanted something a bit safer to use for the ransom demand. Perhaps this time they haven't quite got what they want, and the missing piece is still to be found."
"And they're looking for it at Marion's cottage?" Freeman said, carefully.
"If you're trying not to suggest that Marion may actually be involved," Straker said, evenly, "don't worry. The thought has already occurred to me. I've told you she tried to send me a message?"
"That little 'blue book'. Yes, but you said it didn't contain anything unusual. No secret formulae."
"Not that I found," Straker admitted. "And in any case, Marion was no biochemist - but she was interested in encryption. Amateur interest, sure, but good."
"So she was," Freeman said. "But she wouldn't make a message to you too difficult to break."
"Perhaps it wasn't to me."
"Then who - oh. I see. For Paul?"
"Worth investigating," Straker said, and lifted the handset to Miss Ealand. "Straker. Miss Ealand, is Paul Foster around… Good. Ask him to report to me below stairs, would you…? Thanks."
"One other thing," Freeman said. "Diane Matthews' funeral. When the police give the go-ahead, I'll make the arrangements. It may take a few days, especially with the repatriation formalities. I'll get Jack Webb onto that aspect of it."
"Thanks, Alec," Straker acknowledged.
* * *
A few days later, Katerina arrived back at her apartment from the funeral of Diane Matthews. She let herself in, locking the door behind her with a sigh, leaned against it for a few moments, and ran her hands over her face; then she pushed herself upright, and made her way into the kitchen. She filled a glass from the covered jug of fresh fruit juice, and drank half of it almost at a gulp; then she refilled the glass to the brim, and walked back into the living area. Setting the glass carefully on a nearby table, she dropped down onto the couch, leaned her head back, and closed her eyes.
What a day, she thought. What a hell of a day.
She had changed her mind about not taking Mr Freeman up on his offer to attend Diane's funeral in Boston, mainly because she thought Pete needed her company. Indeed, her presence did seem to cheer him up a little.
The flight back to England, in the small but very well-appointed studio executive jet, had been surprisingly enjoyable. There were several reasons for this. While the passenger list had included - besides themselves - both Mr Straker and Mr Foster, perhaps fortunately it also included Norma Ealand, Mr Straker's secretary. Her less formal, almost motherly presence helped to ease relations between the two actors and the two executives. What was more of a surprise, to both Pete and herself, was the obvious warmth of the interaction between those men. In fact, she could have sworn that they were sharing concealed amusement at something.
On the outward trip, conversation among the party had been somewhat stilted, as was only to be expected; but the mood eased considerably on the way back. As soon as the pilots had advised them that they could unfasten their safety belts, Mr Straker had unclipped his, stood up, and pulled off his jacket, hanging it up on a nearby hook on the cabin wall.
"That's better," he said, resuming his seat. "Anyone for coffee?"
"Actually, I'd love some tea," Mr Foster said, with a slight smile. "How about you, Kat? Pete? And Norma, of course?"
Pete Bentley chose coffee, while Katerina and Miss Ealand opted for jasmine tea, explaining that they had been introduced to the aromatic brew by Chrys Jones. Mr Foster used the intercom to call the stewardess, a petite Oriental lady. She took their orders, bowed, and disappeared behind the curtain. She was back in minutes with a loaded trolley.
"Thank you, Chan," Straker said, handing round drinks. He raised his cup. "Well, here's to a safe journey."
The others raised their cups also. Again, Katerina caught an exchange of glances between the two executives; but there was less amusement this time, more tension. Though, she thought, the tension was not between the two men, but directed at something external.
"Sorry Chrys couldn't make it, Paul," Mr Straker said.
Mr Foster gave a slight shrug. "She has to keep up with the course," he said. "But she will be able to come to Jersey, for Marion's do."
"That's good." To the two actors, he explained: "Ms Marion Knight also died around the same time as Ms Matthews, but she had been quite ill for some time, so it wasn't exactly a surprise. Both Paul and I are connected to her, though it's a bit of a complex relationship."
"I see, sir," Bentley said, slowly. "Might I offer my condolences to you both?"
"Thank you, Mr Bentley, that's most kind." Mr Straker took a mouthful of his coffee. "Actually, and talking of Marion or at least her cottage on the Island, I'm glad you're both here… I take it you both know about Harry Flynn's pet project?"
"The Jersey historical? The one where he wanted to do a series about the old buildings?"
"That's the one. Paul? You remember Harry as well, I believe?" Mr Foster gave a nod, and Mr Straker continued: "Well, I like the idea, and I plan to give it the go-ahead - with the proviso that Marion's cottage won't be available for some time, possibly months, while I sort out Marion's affairs."
"Understood, Mr Straker," Bentley said.
"Thank you. So perhaps we'll hold a meeting about it next week. I'll tell Harry to put together a project plan. Paul, I'd like you to take charge of that, you'll be able to keep tabs on the probate process."
"Of course, Ed," Mr Foster said.
* * *
On his way back to his house from the airport, Straker was thinking. He had not met Katerina Arrowsmith before she came to work at the studio, but he had known of her, and he had met her husband, Mark, on one occasion, a few months before the 'accident' which had apparently killed both Mark and Straker's stepbrother Robert Fletcher. Straker and Robert had had a friendly relationship, and they had kept an interest in each other's careers, even when their work had taken them separate ways.
Then came the setting up of SHADO. Straker considered that having a biochemist 'on tap' as it were, in Robert, would be very useful. But Robert was by then working in a secret government post, and could no more talk about his work than could his brother talk about SHADO. Nevertheless, Straker could deduce certain things about that work, and they worried him. He had tried to advise Robert unobtrusively about the matter, and believed he may have met with some success; and then the accident had happened, stopping the process in its tracks. He had lost contact with the 'big project' Robert and Mark had been working on, and only caught up with it when the UN had decided to dump the whole thing. Literally. In the depths of the Atlantic.
But now, from what Jackson had told him, it had surfaced again in another form. Marion Knight had died - from a poison related to the 'nerve gas'. Though if Mark had taken his lead from Robert, and gone in the direction Straker had pointed him, that wasn't exactly an accurate description of the situation.
Robert had also resurfaced, in Jersey, as a 'zom'. There was no sign of Mark. Straker rather suspected that the man had died, probably at the hands of the aliens; but if so, that was almost certainly a mistake on the aliens' part. They would have wanted any information he could give them on how the work on the poison had progressed; and it seemed clear that they did not have that information.
And that made Katerina Arrowsmith a prime target for the aliens. Straker had alerted the security staff at her apartment block, without giving explicit reasons; she would be well guarded.
* * *
Diane Matthews' death had been one of three which had resulted directly from the recent encounter with the aliens. She had been killed in St Martin, by the aliens that SHADO was formed to fight; but as a US national, she had been repatriated to Boston, Mass., at her family's request, for burial there. SHADO Security had 'camouflaged' her death as an accident, to the satisfaction of Jersey police. That part was complex, but still conventional.
The second of those three deaths would be commemorated here today at the Church of the Annunciation, in St Martin Parish. Marion Knight was - had been - a Jersey resident, and had made her wishes known in her will. That part was quite straightforward, despite the fact that her death was the subject of a murder investigation. Now, some three weeks after the events, both the civil police and SHADO Security had all the medical information they required; and so Marion's body had been released to her closest living relative, her stepson Edward George Straker.
But the third death, that of Robert Fletcher, was totally unconventional.
Technically - and some would say, actually - Fletcher had 'died' a decade ago. Certainly Ed Straker had attended his funeral. However, his abduction by those same aliens, and his subjection to brain surgery which had turned him into an alien puppet, an entity which Dr Doug Jackson had dubbed a 'zom', had destroyed the 'true' Robert Fletcher; and left them with the problem of what to do with his autopsied body.
Straker had insisted that Robert's remains be interred in his own original grave. Since Straker and Fletcher were brothers - Robert by Marion's adoption, Straker as her stepson - it fell to Straker, as 'head of the clan', to decide how this was to be done. Straker had consulted Colonel Webb of the SHADO legal team, the man who had defended Paul Foster at his court-martial. Colonel Webb was an ordained priest, and acted as one of the SHADO chaplains - they had several, for the various denominations that were represented among SHADO personnel. Straker occasionally thought that the organisation had more clergymen for their numbers than anywhere outside the Vatican - bar perhaps Jerusalem.
Webb's opinion, delivered after much prayerful deliberation, had been that the re-interment should be carried out as secretly as possible but with due ceremony, and he himself was happy to perform that office.
"You see, Ed," he had told the commander, "we do not know whether Robert's soul was still connected to his body when that body physically died. From what you tell me about Croxley and Collins, I consider there to be a good chance that the soul was still present despite the, er, 'zomming' process. We should certainly act as though that were the case."
And so they had proceeded. A small party, comprising Webb, Straker, Paul Foster, Alec Freeman, and Chrys Jones, had gathered in the churchyard at sunset for a short but moving ceremony. Straker was relieved to see that Foster, while his mood was grim, was not feeling guilty about having killed the Fletcher-zom. Circumstances had forced his hand; and he recognised that for his brother, as for Croxley and Collins, death had been a welcome release from alien enslavement.
But, back in the here-and-now, Straker's attention was on his stepmother's farewell.
The coffin had been lowered into the grave. At a nod from Fr Guillaume Pelier, Straker stepped forwards and went down on one knee, gazing down at the coffin with its brass plate. He remained silent and motionless for a short time; then he reached to his right, and took a handful of the fine silver sand from the box. He held his hand over the coffin, and allowed the sand to trickle through his fingers, so that it pattered gently down onto the coffin lid.
He rose to his feet, stepped backwards, bowed to the coffin, and turned slowly away. One by one the other guests paid their own respects to the dead. It was a small group, but besides the SHADO contingent it included some of Marion's friends from Jersey and a cousin from Boston, her only remaining blood relative. Altogether there were some eight people present, slightly fewer than Straker had allowed for in his catering arrangements. Norma Ealand had insisted on handling those for him; but, as he was about to discover, she had had able assistance.
At last it was done. Straker thanked Fr Pelier, and asked whether he would like to come to the reception. The priest accepted with pleasure.
It took two cars to ferry the party back to Marion's cottage, where Miss Ealand had arranged a buffet. As his car drew up on the gravel parking lot, the door opened, and Straker had to smile. Standing in the doorway was none other than his housekeeper, June Baines.
"About time," she said; but the gruffness of her words was belied by her warm smile. Although she had only met Marion Knight once, there had been an immediate rapport between them. Straker had invited her to the funeral, but she had gracefully declined, saying she was going to be busy. Now he knew how she had been busying herself.
"Mrs Baines," Straker acknowledged. "Please tell me you've done us a ham sandwich or two!"
"Or two… Why don't we all go through to the back garden? It's such a lovely day, and we can admire the sea view."
"Excellent idea," Straker agreed. "OK, everyone, follow Mrs Baines through there… I think you know everyone here, don't you?" he added.
"Yes, I do, thank you. Good to see you all - why Mr Foster, whatever have you done to your neck? It looks like a sword cut! Did you miss your aim shaving?"
Grinning, Foster probed gingerly at the healing wound on his neck. "No, I let my guard drop," he explained. "Careless of me, I know."
"Shocking," Mrs Baines tutted. "And dangerous… I hope Ms Jones gave you a good talking-to about it! Well, come and sit down, everyone. Take yourselves a glass of something refreshing from that table, and Jill and I will serve food as required."
Jill Whyte was one of June Baines' daughters, in her mid-thirties and married, with two pre-teen children of her own. She ushered the guests outside, and started to offer round plates.
As Straker made to follow the last of the guests, his housekeeper stopped him, with a hand on his arm. "Mr Straker," she said, in a low voice, "I thought you might like to know that Mrs Rutland did attend Ms Knight's funeral. She left before the rest of you."
Straker gave a surprised nod. "Mrs Baines, do you have your spies everywhere?" he asked.
"Jill was helping out as an usher."
"I must thank her." He smiled, and went on into the garden.
The question of whether to invite his very estranged ex-wife to her ex-step-mother-in-law's funeral had exercised Straker for some days. On the one hand, although Mary and Marion were not very close, there was nevertheless a warmth there. Straker considered various possibilities, and concluded that there was no avoiding unpleasant consequences of one sort or another depending on whether he did or did not invite Mary. Although on balance, he reflected, he'd rather be thought of as an insensitive clod for butting back into Mary's life - even in so small a way as this - than as a coward who did not dare meet her gaze.
He had asked his housekeeper for her thoughts on the matter. Mrs Baines knew of the estrangement, but not of the loss of her employer's son.
"Mr Straker," she sighed, in very much the tone that she used when finding an errant sock kicked under his bed, "just ask yourself, what would Mrs Rutland herself want? Would she want to be there?"
"Mrs Baines," Straker said, "you are, as always, quite right… I will have Miss Ealand send her an invitation immediately."
And so it had been.
The back door from the kitchen had a rather low lintel - people had been somewhat shorter in the days when the cottage had been built - and Straker had to duck a little to pass under it, as though he were in one of the connecting corridors at Moonbase. As he straightened up and took in the scene, he blinked in some surprise. Mrs Baines and her minions had been very busy indeed. There were two marquees, each with long tables set with plates of 'finger food' under net covers to keep insects away. There were several small tables dotted around the lawn, though only one or two chairs, and this successfully encouraged guests to mingle.
Already, some were wandering around, gazing at the garden, the house, and the blue ocean barely half a mile away beyond granite cliffs. Straker saw Alec Freeman smiling as he and Jack Webb chatted to a lady who Straker recognised as Marion's cousin. A little way away, by the magnolia tree, Fr Pelier was in conversation with Chrys Jones and Norma Ealand, with one of Marion's friends from the Island listening with interest and making occasional comments. From the priest's gestures, he was giving tips on gardening. Two more of her friends, a couple who Straker had met occasionally, had buttonholed Paul Foster. From the fragments of conversation that drifted his way, they were talking about a movie project. Straker wondered if it was Harry Flynn's proposal about setting a 'historical' on the island, though the producer had temporarily dropped that one on the death of its instigator. A pity, Straker thought, fleetingly; regardless of the circumstances, it was still a good topic for a movie.
And then Straker noticed James L. Henderson.
The general was dressed with his usual smartness. He was standing by the buffet, gazing at the array of goodies on offer, in open pleasure. Mrs Baines went over to him, and Straker could hear the ensuing conversation clearly.
"It all looks delicious," Henderson was saying, "but I don't want to appear greedy by starting before everyone else."
"Well then, you can help me hand things round," Mrs Baines said, briskly. "Come along now, James. Don't be shy."
Thinking Shy? James L.? Straker took a filled glass from one of the nearby small tables, as each of his guests had done as they came into the garden. As he sipped his orange juice, he looked across at Paul Foster, whose attention had also been attracted by the general, while the couple he had been talking to were discussing something. There was a most peculiar expression on Foster's face, as though he was trying not to explode with surprised laughter.
Regretting that he lacked Foster's easy if perhaps one-dimensional skill at reading people, Straker began to drift casually towards his newly-acquired brother, trying not to make it too obvious. When he was within earshot, he casually enquired: "OK, Paul?"
"Have you seen those two?" Foster asked, keeping his voice low. He nodded at Henderson and Mrs Baines.
"I see she's keeping him busy, and why not? He carved the turkey for us last Thanksgiving."
"That's not the smile of someone just looking forward to a good meal."
And then Straker saw, and understood. There was affection and more in James Henderson's eyes, and a tenderness in June Baines' own expression, which was very different from the tolerant motherliness she showed her employer.
"They're an item??" he hissed, out of the corner of his mouth.
"Looks like that's the way it's going," Foster agreed, softly. "Well well well. Who would have thought it! D'you think it'll mellow him?"
"It's about time something did!"
Foster did laugh then, quietly; but the laughter died as he glanced around the gathering. "You know," he said, "if we had Visitors now, it could be a bit of a problem… I hope Peter's not too busy with his 'fishing'."
"He'll be keeping an ear open for the doorbell," Straker said. "So is Gay. And we can always go hide behind the couch."
The 'couch', otherwise the door to the cottage cellar, was actually in the hallway. Straker had given thought to the possibility of just such a strike, and had made sure that door was unlatched and the passage clear of obstacles. The cellar itself could hold twice as many as they had, despite the fact that much of its space was taken up by wine racks, only a few of them empty. A few centuries before, the place had been a smugglers' haunt that had defeated the best efforts of Excise men to find it. There was even a tunnel out to the coast. All the cottage approaches, above and below ground, were covered by an impressive array of firepower, of which a bazooka like the one Straker had deployed on the studio roof - and had used to fight off the 'time-stopping' UFO - was but one example.
Straker and Foster had organised those defences together, and at the same time they had searched the cottage and its grounds thoroughly, looking for anything out of the ordinary, anything which might be or might suggest something that the aliens wanted.
In any case Straker, as Marion's appointed executor, had to make this search, painful though it was. It was certainly painful. It was also fruitless.
Once the reception was over, and the guests had departed, Straker and Foster had resumed their search, going over the place a second time but in a different order. This met with no more success.
By mutual unspoken consent, they left inspecting the ‘priesthole’ until last. When Straker finally opened the hidden door, Foster peered inside, more than a little nervously. Straker could understand why – the man had nearly died in here, at the hands of an alien and a ‘zom’. But his hesitation only lasted a few seconds; then he visibly braced himself, and walked in.
Straker followed. “Let me show you something,” he said, pointing to a tiny, almost hidden crevice beside the door. “See that lever in there? That’s the latch, so you can open the door from inside. And there’s a ‘light-pipe’ from the roof as well as the overhead lamp fitting. My father put those in, after I got myself locked inside.”
“Not good,” Foster commented, with a slightly shaky smile of sympathy. “Well, let’s have a look round.”
But again, they found nothing. "We need to regroup, rethink, and come back to this with fresh minds," Straker sighed.
"Agreed," Paul said, though reluctantly.
"One thing though, Paul. I guess you'd better have copies of the documents Marion collected, about your family history and how it connects with my side. You may want to do some research into it yourself."
"It would certainly stop me getting bored," Paul smiled, as he took the envelope. "Thanks, Ed."
"If you've got any questions, come see me… but I'd appreciate it if you'd keep it all to yourself, for now. Tell no-one else, at least until we've got a more complete picture."
"I'll do that." Paul slid the envelope into his briefcase.
* * *
Deep in the Antarctic icecap, two beings waited in a cave. Its icy walls glowed softly from within, illuminating the interior of the cave with a cold white glow. At the centre of the cave in a 'bubble' of relative warmth stood a pedestal, perhaps a metre high, impossibly slender for the load it apparently bore. This was a faceted sphere, again perhaps a metre in diameter. Blue and green light danced in its depths. The light grew in strength, casting evanescent highlights on the watching beings.
One of those beings was named Gimen; but he was known to the terrans by the designation 'Rick Lackland', having taken the identity of the terran who was assistant to the being calling itself James Henderson, and who he had then sent to Dyaus for harvesting. Gimen was not himself a terran, being descended from Arkad nobility; but he had been ordered by the Devas of this solar system - which had been named by the Arkads, long ago, as Prithvi - to dwell among the terrans, and guide operations. To that end, he had received the best buffering treatments Dyaus could provide, and they were barely enough to protect him against this world's positively corrosive atmosphere. He needed to return to this oasis under the ice every few months, for boosters. And even these were slowly but definitely losing their effectiveness. Gimen had calculated that he could perhaps tolerate another twelve or so treatments; then he would have to leave this world, or perish.
The need for these regular 'recharges' made it impractical to replace this 'general' itself, or indeed any of the other primaries. They could not have taken the necessary time out; their presence among their fellows in this organisation was required continuously.
And the Aethon had declined to take direct control of Henderson, for reasons that entity would not explain.
So Gimen had been spending as much time as he could afford in this habitat, where the environment was more amenable, and using altered terrans to carry out necessary tasks. And the most needful of those tasks was to modify the terran physical environment and ecosystem so that it could support the Arkad race directly, without the need for those temporary measures. Of course, that would result in the deaths of the majority of the terran population; but they would no longer be required.
His latest such recruit was with him now. They had made their way through the 'network of influence' to its central chamber, where the recruit would encounter the Aethon, and be programmed. This terran, regressed though it was, had been in charge of an operation to dispose of a compound that the terrans thought was a lethal biochemical weapon in one of this planet's deep-sea ocean trenches. In fact it was one component of the ecomodifier devised by Gimen's superior Kotte which Gimen had arranged for the terrans to synthesise. A skimmer had been sent to prevent this disposal and liberate the compound into the terran atmosphere; but the craft had been destroyed by the 'shado' group, and the disposal had succeeded. Now the Arkad ecomodifier was lost, beyond their reach, probably forever.
Lost, too, was the information needed to make it. The Devas had seen to that. Pavlor did not know the true purpose of the compound; and nor would he while Kotte and Gimen lived. That Devas was not an Arkad, after all. As far as Pavlor was concerned, Gimen's operations were primarily concerned with enabling Spicor to survive, while they sought - with increasing desperation - a solution to the problems caused by the Plague and its aftermath.
Kotte, however, had other objectives. Principally, he had tried to find whether the terrans themselves retained any information on the ecomodifier. So far, he had failed; but perhaps this terran, with its connections and involvement, would help him make some progress at last.
Gimen faced the sphere - which was not the Aethon itself, merely its locus on this world - crossed his hands on his chest, and bowed. "Aethon, I greet you."
The glow within the sphere intensified, and the Aethon replied, though not in audible words. What Gimen experienced was a sensation of being surrounded, enveloped, while information was conveyed to him. Nevertheless, he thought of the communication in verbal terms; it helped understanding.
The Aethon sent: *gimen. i greet you.*
"I ask respectfully, have you instructions for me?"
*not instructions, but information.*
"I await this information at your convenience."
*of latest subjects provided, some are not suitable. they are too immature. like your other.* These 'words' were accompanied by an impression of the young terran, one which identified it adequately.
Gimen frowned. "Shall I destroy them?"
*do not destroy. send them to monitor station, to your entity kotte. await further instructions.*
"I shall comply," Gimen whispered. He waited a few moments. "Aethon, I have another subject for your attention. It would please me if you would consent to program it now or within a short time-span. It may be able to help us in remaking the ecomodifier, since it was involved in the disposal operation."
*understand. it shall be done now. for your protection, withdraw.*
"I comply." Hurriedly, Gimen backed away. He watched from the entry tunnel in revolted fascination as the Aethon began the programming.
Deep within the heart of the sphere, the sparks of blue and green light became brighter and more numerous. They were reflected in the icy walls, where they grew to blinding intensity. Then they leapt forward from the ice, and surrounded the being who had been Captain Steven Rutland, R.N., like a cloud of glittering needles. They prodded him forward, towards the sphere, his hands outstretched. As his fingers made contact, he screamed, and went rigid. The needles sank into his flesh. He screamed again; then, abruptly, he collapsed.
The light faded to a more normal level. The Aethon 'spoke' once again. *it is done. attend him.*
"Th-thank you." A little shakily, Gimen approached the fallen being - no longer a terran, in any sense - and knelt beside him. "Stand up," he instructed.
The Rutland-zom's eyes snapped open. Like an automaton, he raised himself to his feet, and spoke in a low but clear voice. "I am ready for my tasks, Gimen."
"Good. Turn, and bid the Aethon farewell; then I will send you on your way."
* * *
Henderson returned to the IAC after the funeral, and used his cardkey to let himself in. The guard at the security desk greeted him, and he gave a nod of acknowledgement as he entered the lift.
He rubbed his side, absently. The indigestion was getting rather worse. June was feeding him too well, he thought, fondly.
His office was empty, since it was 'after hours'; even Miss Gunn had gone home. Henderson placed his briefcase on the floor beside the desk sat down, and treated his in-tray to a scowl. The top item was a slim folder with the word 'Strategies' on its transparent cover. With a sigh, he took the folder and laid it open before him, shaking his head at Straker's lack of imagination when it came to naming these things. 'Washington Square' had been a good phrase to use, but maybe the commander had had enough of movie titles. Or maybe he didn't read enough fiction. Still, at least he'd been a bit more creative with the 'Eagle Project' - but perhaps that one was Professor Bergman's suggestion.
The first few paragraphs of the report were summaries, since they dealt with strategies that had been completed already: Plan Alpha, which had dealt with the acquisition and use of the former Dalotek base; Plan Beta, which Henderson still privately thought of as 'Project Foster', and which had been to use the colonel as a channel to the aliens for disinformation; and Plan Gamma, which was in progress. Run by the psychiatrist Doug Jackson, this study of those alien influences, and of means of locating and neutralising alien agents, was a huge job, and Henderson frankly doubted whether it would give any useful return; but it had to be done.
Later items were optimistic to the point of near-fantasy, but again, they needed to be considered, should SHADO have the luxury of obtaining a captive UFO to study in detail. Three of the remaining plans on the lists concerned actual contact with the aliens, and considered both positive and negative aspects of such contact; but the last item was anything but optimistic. Even Henderson had to admit that calling it 'Omega' was all too appropriate.
The entry buzzer sounded, and Henderson glanced at the small monitor. It showed the face of Colonel Rick Lackland, the General's aide. Henderson opened the door for him, and Lackland entered, taking a seat in front of the big desk.
"You've read these 'strategies' of the commander's, Rick?" Henderson asked, indicating the folder. "Your opinion?"
The being calling himself Lackland nodded. "Dr Jackson has perhaps the biggest task," he commented. He thought to himself: and he's getting uncomfortably close to us… "After that, the plan Straker's called 'Zeta'. I don't think, though, we can fill in much detail, not until they do start talking to us. Depending on what they say, we would probably need to change everything."
"No plan survives contact with the enemy," Henderson agreed. "I'm concerned about Omega, personally."
Carefully, Lackland said: "It's a bit drastic, I agree. But recent events do indicate that we need to consider interdiction of our own."
"We sure do," Henderson snapped. "But think it through, Colonel. It would mean asking our men to shoot down their colleagues. Their friends. Hell, I know that's happened a couple of times - look what happened to Colonel James, and Lieutenant Conroy, with that 'mindbender' crystal, for instance. Foster even gave orders to shoot Straker if necessary."
"So what's the problem?"
"He didn't go through with it. And he should have. It was an insane risk to take, and it was only by the slimmest possible chance that it came off. What if he isn't so lucky next time? And there will be a next time, you mark my words!"
You are correct, Lackland thought. There will indeed be a 'next time'… "What do you propose, sir? I can't see an alternative."
"Nor can I." Henderson closed the file, and looked up at his aide. "So we'd better check it out, hadn't we?"
* * *
To the surprise of both Straker and Freeman, there had been no attempt at all to attack the group attending the funeral of Marion Knight, despite the fact that it must have been a very juicy target.
"I know I've said in the past that I'm an eternal optimist," Straker admitted, "but could the bloody nose we've given them have made them give up?"
Freeman snorted "Fat chance… But I agree, it was a bit strange. There was no sign of alien activity anywhere, nothing even from the deep space probes. But I think the best we can hope for is that we've given them pause for thought."
"So when will we have a prototype ready?"
"A year, perhaps. If we throw everything we have at it."
A year… both Freeman and Straker knew, none better, how much could happen in a year. "Throw everything at it… Paul's not fit to fly, yet, is he?"
"Schroeder wants to give him another week," Straker confirmed.
"Want me to go up? I could draw up a report on their progress, to hand over to Paul. It would only take a few days."
"Perhaps you'd better. I guess Joan could do with your backup," Straker said, frowning a little. "I had the distinct impression that there was a little friction between her and Victor - nothing serious, and neither were letting it get to them. They're both professionals, after all. But Joan is military, and Victor is civilian, so it doesn't surprise me there've been clashes. Victor has admitted he has slight 'disagreements' with Colonel Koenig, as well."
"And what does Dr Grant think of all that?"
"She's another one who's essentially civilian," Straker agreed. "But she's flexible enough to appreciate the military mind, especially with aliens around."
"Ah, yes. You mentioned that it was just those three who knew who was really behind the attack," Freeman said. "What about the rest of the staff? What's their reaction?"
"Dr Grant didn't specify an enemy. She just said the staff didn't 'need to know'. Victor says he's heard some really wild rumours around - and yes, some people were talking about 'little green men'!"
Freeman chuckled. "Don't worry, I'll play it as deadpan as possible… And what about this new guy? Lieutenant Carter?"
"He's already up there, at Alpha. Dr Grant will make the introductions, and pass him over to Gay."
"Fine… Well, I'd better get on with things. There's a launch tomorrow evening, isn't there?"
"There sure is." Straker gave it perhaps half a second, then snapped: "Well, what are you waiting for?"
Freeman laughed, and exited the office with a wave.
* * *
A few days after he arrived back home from the funeral in Jersey, Paul Foster received a letter from the BMD Registry. It was a copy of the death certificate of John Straker; he had decided that was as good a place as any to start his investigations into the genealogy of Ed's side of the family. Although Ed had told him a little about the 'incident', in which aliens were somehow involved, he had not gone into details. Paul could understand why Ed would not want this sort of thing discussed at SHADO!
He made himself a coffee, sat down on the couch in the 'indoor garden', and slit the envelope. The letter was a standard form; as far as he could see, he'd got the details correct when he'd applied for the certificate, which had cost him all of a fiver.
The first thing he looked at was the date, and then the cause of death, which was given as major trauma from a car accident, complicated by infection. The place of death had been given as the local hospital. It was not clear how the aliens might have been involved, and Ed had not suggested that Johnny had been abducted. The next thing to do, Paul decided, was to cross-refer to SHADO records, to see which 'incident' it was.
A thought struck him, suddenly. He recalled something that had happened, only a couple of years or so ago, when Ed had dropped off SHADO's radar. He had vanished from his car, leaving it 'parked' in a hedge, and disappeared into the undergrowth - literally, as he had apparently wandered off into nearby woods. SHADO had gone searching, but had found only his pager, and - at the bottom of a coastal cliff edge - his gun. They had called in the police, and the search had become a full manhunt, but without result. And then Ed had reappeared as suddenly as he had vanished, at his own bungalow, apparently unhurt, but unaware that he had been missing for some thirty hours.
While Paul had 'held the fort' at SHADO Control, Alec and Doug Jackson had dashed round to Ed's house. It seemed that the psychiatrist had managed to persuade Ed to tell him about the problem. As a result, though the details fell under patient confidentiality rules, Jackson gave Alec a brief explanation, and placed Ed on a week's sick leave, with instructions to Alec to look after him, granting the colonel compassionate leave. They had apparently gone hiking around Ireland, but had cut that trip short and returned to SHADO after only a few days. However, Ed was evidently somewhat recovered, if more than usually quiet.
Paul recalled that this had happened the day after a UFO encounter. It had appeared that two UFOs had come in, one apparently chasing the other. They had headed for Ireland… where one of them had tried to make contact with SHADO; only to be destroyed by the other, itself then shot down by SkyDiver.
He checked the date of the encounter. It tallied exactly with Johnny's death certificate.
No wonder Ed had a breakdown, Paul thought to himself, horrified. OK, then, let's review that, and find out what happened - and find out exactly how Johnny died.
Paul occasionally brought work to do here at home, but since his 'court-martial' he had taken even more than usual care in ensuring security. He scanned his apartment twice a week for 'bugs', and occasionally found some, which he turned over to studio security. SHADO techs had devised a 'masker', an instrument which generated an interfering signal which would swamp any normal recording device with noise, and was set to turn itself on at random intervals as well as when someone was talking within its range. And, of course, he kept sensitive material in a safe whose presence was not exactly obvious - though he also had a more conventional safe, as a high-ranking studio executive would be expected to.
He opened the crypt - as he called that secret repository - and drew out a folder, laying it open on the small table. This folder contained brief summaries of the various UFO incidents with which SHADO had dealt over the years, going right back to that assault on the Rolls following the abduction of Leila Carlin. Even in these documents, in this secure location, the wording of those reports was chosen to contain no indication of UFOs or related matters - unless, of course, the reader was familiar with their style!
The date Paul wanted was in the later part of this summary. He turned the pages until he found the section he needed… and there was nothing there; merely a brief note that an incident had indeed occurred, with no details given.
Now why, Paul asked himself, would Ed have redacted this section? Surely, as a possible 'first contact', it would have been 'headline news' at SHADO?
Perhaps it was, Paul realised suddenly. More than likely, this incident had a report all to itself - and that report would be in what Ginny Lake had once described as 'the most secure location on the base'. The command office. And if one thing was certain, it was that asking to see it would place too great a strain on their new-found relationship.
By the same token, he couldn't even ask Alec. But there was one other possibility… the man who had been at the comms desk during the incident, the man who had occasionally joined him after a particularly tricky op for a relaxing meal or drink… Keith Ford.
The comms officer had been with SHADO in one role or another almost as long as Alec Freeman. It was Keith who had eased Paul gently into the organisation, 'showing him the ropes', and seeing to introductions. Occasionally they went out together as a 'foursome', with Jean, and Paul's current lady-friend. It had been Keith who had filled him in on some of the juicier SHADO gossip, even giving some background to their commanding officer.
Paul remembered that particular conversation, very well. It had taken place in the SHADO messhall. He had nearly choked on his beer. "He really is married? The commander? I didn't believe it when Alec told me!" he hissed, when he had recovered enough to speak.
Keith had chuckled, and explained. It turned out that around the time SHADO was formed, Straker had indeed got married, to a secretary at the British MoD. The marriage hadn't lasted very long, and remembering his own relationship with Tina Duval, which had suffered terminally from the stresses imposed by SHADO and its veil of secrecy, Paul could understand why that might be, at least partly. By the time he himself had joined SHADO, the organisation's dust had mostly settled but for a few minor adjustments; but the initial period must have been hectic. Indeed, as SHADO's first recruit, Alec had reminisced to Paul occasionally about those frantic and chaotic times, whenever they were able to grab a few hours' of peace and quiet between alerts.
What Keith had not known, but Alec had, was that Ed's marriage had lasted long enough to make him a father. After he and his wife had divorced, the commander had been granted monthly access visits to his son. Paul had already noted that those visits had stopped, abruptly. He wondered whether Ed had ever brought the child to the studio to show him round. Quite likely, he thought; it would be a magical place for a child, and the boy would enjoy himself immensely. That, at least, he could check; the studio kept daily records of who was on-site, for 'Health and Safety' reasons, and those records had to be held for at least five years. In fact, Paul knew, SHADO kept them on file permanently.
Perhaps, Paul thought, the comms officer would help out with some more detailed information on the events of that night… if encouraged with a couple of beers.
He turned his attention to the blue notebooks Ed had given him. Opening the smaller of the two, he leafed through the pages, looking once again at the information written there. It summarised all that Marion Knight had been able to discover about Diane Matthews, the first 'real' girlfriend Paul had ever had, and the source of trouble that had lasted most of his adult life. Ed had gone through the notes in exhaustive detail, but had found nothing significant.
But then, Paul reflected, he hadn't been in a relationship with the woman.
His brother had mentioned that Marion was talented in encryption, though she had never taken it up professionally. Paul was not himself an expert of that calibre, though he knew of a few techniques. And as Ed had pointed out, Marion wouldn't want this message - if such it was - to be too difficult to break.
He read through it once again… and then, just as Ed's attention had been caught by a simple but blindingly obvious fact, his own gaze sharpened on a single word. It was the name of the street in London where Diane Matthews had last stayed; and it just happened to be where the Fosters - Paul's adoptive parents - had been living, before they retired and moved out into a country cottage.
The Fosters had sold up their London home to finance the move. Perhaps, he thought, the new owner had turned it into 'bedsitting' accommodation, for students and others. But how had Diane known to go there? Had it been suggested to her by Robert? It certainly had to be more than mere coincidence.
Perhaps he should pay the place a visit.
* * *
A quarter of a million miles above the studio, three vacuum-suited figures stood on the edge of a hole, looking down into its depths.
The hole was all that was left of the former Dalotek base, acquired by SHADO for use as a base of operations - though the true nature of those operations had not been revealed until after the base had been destroyed. This crater was remarkably small, especially given its genesis. It was only a few hundred metres across; but it was, surprisingly, almost as deep. Joan Harrington could not help comparing it with the Barringer Crater in Arizona, which was more than a kilometre wide but only a couple of hundred metres deep. This hole was not the same shape at all.
Furthermore, from what she could see, the walls of the crater were fused into lava, from the intense heat of the alien bombardment. They would need to carry out a detailed survey before they could consider using the crater as the basis for the Eagle project; but initial impressions were encouraging.
Gay Ellis had already sent a team in to investigate the 'Hutchinson Tunnel', which Professor Victor Bergman had had constructed as a 'bolt-hole' through which workers could evacuate to Moonbase in the event of alien attack. It had been blocked up by the effects of that attack. Joan checked her readouts, and said: "The diggers should be through about - "
A crack appeared in the south-east side of the crater wall. A huge slab of solidified lava, several metres across and at least a metre thick, detached itself and fell with dreamlike slowness into the lightless depths. The impact of its landing on the crater floor was quite silent in the lunar vacuum; but the trio felt its sharp vibration through the soles of their feet.
" - now," Joan concluded, with a grin. "And there they are."
In the dark gap that had appeared in the crater wall, the headlights of the digger were clearly visible. They withdrew a little. Joan's radio clicked in response to an incoming message.
"Waterman to Harrington, do you copy?"
"Roger, Lew. We can see you."
"Good," Waterman said. "We will now deploy the searchlights."
Waterman turned to his co-pilot. "Go for it, Alan."
"Yes, sir," Lieutenant Carter responded.
After a few moments, two gantries began to emerge from the tunnel. Each one bore a cluster of huge searchlights, which were steered to illuminate as much of the shadowed depths as possible.
"Mind your eyes," Waterman said; and the lights were switched on. The effect was amazing. The fused rock flashed and sparkled, and was shot through with gleaming veins of metal. The base of the hole was a smooth, almost mathematically-exact paraboloid, like an eggshell, just about flat enough to stand on over an area of only a few metres across.
"Wow! Hey, you're not going to wallpaper over this, are you? It's terrific!"
"We'll try not to cover too much of it," Freeman said. "How about taking a walk, Lew? Will you need to use the remotes?"
"I think that should be OK, sir," Waterman replied. "I'll deploy the 'rope ladder' and use safety lines for the first excursion. But I'll send out a couple of USVs for detailed observations."
"Fine, do that." Freeman turned to the third of the trio. "First impressions, John?"
Colonel Koenig surveyed the crater below them. "Couldn't be better if we'd built it ourselves. Big enough to house the construction equipment, and our measurements show the walls are plenty strong enough. We need to put a 'cap' on the top, but that won't be a problem, at all."
"Straker will want to know about timescales," Freeman said.
"Guess he will at that… I'll update my project plan with the new info, and let him have it within the week."
* * *
The being calling himself Rick Lackland walked into the food-preparation area of this dwelling, which had been formerly occupied by the 'real' Lackland. That terran had been conveyed to the polar base for interrogation and harvesting.
Gimen, who had taken his place, was deputy to Kotte, the terran-resources officer on Dyaus. Kotte had placed Gimen in charge of the project to alter the terran environment into a habitat more suitable for the Arkad race, and to adapt the biochemistry of members of that race so that they could tolerate that habitat. The project had been under way for over a dozen terran orbits. Two separate bio-agents were needed for these tasks, the primary and its complement, to be developed together.
When the original synthesis project had been set in motion, it was necessary for it to be run by normal terrans, who could not be placed under Dyaus control, since the control process had the unfortunate effect of reducing the subject entity's creativity, limited as that already was in these regressed beings. It was for this reason that he had opted to replace the terran 'Lackland', rather than attempt to control it.
Accordingly, agents from the administrative chain of the project had been taken and programmed to control covertly the terrans who had been selected to head the work, terrans who were self-designated 'Fletcher' and 'Arrowsmith'. The work had proceeded, and had progressed far enough to produce the primary compound in quantity. Work had begun on the complementary part of the binary, which the two terrans thought of as an 'antidote'; but the strategy called for this to be kept as secret as possible. Ideally the terran leaders should not even suspect it existed. That way, when the second phase of the strategy was activated, the terrans' fear of their destruction should remove any opposition to the Arkad takeover, and the news that an antidote was available would make them eager to comply with their conqueror's demands.
It was straightforward for the controlled-administrators to persuade the research leaders to keep information on the complement to themselves. However, this could only be for the initial stages of the work, since further development would require expanded facilities. These could be provided at the Arkad base constructed by altered-terrans under this planet's south polar icecap. Accordingly, when the initial work on the ecomodifier had been completed, Gimen had arranged for the leader pair to be extracted to the Antarctica base. He had noted that the being 'Fletcher' was involved with a female terran 'Diane Matthews'; and although this female was unsuitable for conversion, it could be manipulated. Accordingly, Gimen had used it to set up a situation in which the research leaders were apparently killed in a land vehicle crash, so that he could remove them undetected. The incident was carefully simulated, with the vehicle being allowed to burn to destruction, and the two terrans had been retrieved and taken to the Antarctica base, while sufficient biological tissue had been left in the vehicle to convince the terran investigators of their death.
But at that point disaster had struck.
Gimen and his team required accurate information on the composition of the complement. They had used direct methods to attempt to extract this information from the minds of the two agents, by monitoring their thoughts under external stimuli. However, the being 'Fletcher' did not possess that knowledge in sufficient detail; the being 'Arrowsmith' evidently did, but it had died in the extraction process. Investigations showed that it had had a malformed main artery, and a weak spot had ruptured. The being had bled to death internally before they could take remedial measures. Its last coherent mental image had been that of its mate, who it designated 'Katerina'. This creature had been located, and was found to be in an association with the female terran Matthews.
'Katerina' was not a scientist; and there was no indication that the Arrowsmith being had given it any relevant information. Certainly Matthews had found none. However, Gimen had gleaned from the terran 'Arrowsmith' before it had died a fragment of information regarding a possible source of a base compound for the complement on the small landmass the terrans called the Island of Jersey. Accordingly he had placed the terran 'Fletcher' under control, reluctantly accepting the damage that would be done to its thought processes. At least it would retain the ability to perform simpler tasks. He stationed the terran in Jersey, near its parent's dwelling. For reasons Gimen could not entirely comprehend, this structure had been provided with access to the nearby sea channel, a few square-dozen terran years previously. A small subsea habitat had been built, and 'Fletcher' could perform most of its work there, while investigating the dwelling and its surrounds for this substance.
While 'Fletcher' continued its work in Jersey, trying to recreate the complement, the terran governments had intervened. The project had been suspended, the primary component being placed in secure storage, while the terrans considered the implications of the situation. There had been some agitation for the project to be stopped completely and the compound destroyed. The arguments between those who wanted the project stopped and those who wanted it to continue went on for several years. This was because Gimen had placed one of his agents, an altered-terran, with the group. This female was the offspring of a male terran who had worked on the 'shado' group's lunar base and who had been subverted; only to be destroyed by the 'shado' leader before it could fulfil its task. The female's own task was to delay or prevent the shutdown of the project to give Gimen time to make the complement.
As was inevitable, Gimen knew, the terrans had finally made the decision to dump the primary, while his own work was incomplete. Kotte had given the order that the dump operation should be interrupted, so that the primary would be released into the terran environment. It would kill the terran population within weeks, but its full effect would take several years to complete. And if by that time they had not succeeded in synthesising the complement, Kotte had made it quite clear that Gimen would pay for the failure with his own organs.
When Gimen had protested that preventing the dump was risky and unnecessary, since they had the necessary information and raw materials to make more of the primary, Kotte had shown more than his usual impatience. He had reminded Gimen of the time it had taken the terran researchers to get this far, and he did not intend to double that waiting time.
This had left Gimen with the distinct impression that all was not well on Dyaus. In fact, he had begun to think the unthinkable: that Kotte was in a state of near panic. Had their recent problems from the 'shado' group been that serious? Or was that new Devas, but recently arrived from Spicor, proving intractable?
The former Devas of this system had been a woman called Cassi Timon. She was competent at her task - too competent, Gimen thought. She had died recently while on a routine passage to the Spicor mining station on the moon terrans called Ganymede. All the evidence was that this was accidental. Gimen privately had his doubts, and Kotte would not be drawn on the subject.
Shortly after this incident, Kotte had - with the apparent approval of the new Devas - ordered an all-out attempt to prevent the construction of the terran's new lunar base. That attempt had failed utterly. And the news that the terrans were developing craft capable of regular interplanetary travel - capable of reaching and attacking Dyaus itself - made Gimen certain that a showdown between Earth and Spicor would not be long in coming.
He tried to hide from himself the thought that his people would lose that battle. Perhaps Kotte, also, was thinking that way; and perhaps he was preparing for the only revenge Spicor could take.
Gimen stopped that thoughtchain, and reviewed his physiological status. His body was demanding nourishment. He opened the food storage locker and considered his options. He had tried to train himself to eat the food that Lackland had preferred. Most of it was compatible with his physiology; but not with his personal tastes. He persevered, even forcing himself to drink the beverage the terrans called 'kaufi', though he had to add a taste-modifier. Fortunately he was able to represent this as an artificial sweetener; many terrans used such things.
But here, alone in this dwelling, he could drink plain water. For solid nourishment, he used slices of grain-based foodstuffs spread with protein pastes of the type the terrans called 'patty'.
He prepared himself a portion, and was just washing down the last of the food with icy water from the cold cabinet, when the doorbell chimed. Evidently his agent had arrived at last. He went to the door, and opened it.
"Steven, you are late. Enter."
"It was not avoidable. Henderson gave me a task - not a significant one, but he wanted immediate results."
The creature who had been Captain Steven Rutland, R.N., entered Gimen's dwelling, closing the door behind him. Gimen directed him to the living area, but did not instruct him to sit; he would not be staying very long, after all,
Gimen regarded the creature. This being was a good physical specimen, as was to be expected of a worker in the terran marine fleet. So far, it had showed no ill-effects from the conversion process, and the indications were that it would continue to function for several terran solar circuits. If by that time Gimen had not achieved his aim of locating information on the other component of their binary conversion compound, the creature's organs could still be used.
At present, however, he had three tasks before him. The first was concerned with that missing conversion component, and the second was to to find if anything was left of the original primary that was more accessible than that which had been disposed of in that deep-sea trench. And for those searches, he needed this terran.
The third task, however - which was something of a 'pet project' for Kotte, though Gimen privately called it an obsession – was to pursue this rumour of the existence of a Companion of the Kei. His agent on the landmass the terrans called the 'Island of Jersey' had concluded that the loss of their control over the 'shado' terran calling itself Paul Foster was caused by this hypothetical Companion placing the terran under his protection. The agent had been killed in a seriously botched operation, not long after the disastrous failure of Dyaus forces to annihilate the terrans' new lunar base. Kotte had ordered most of his remaining agents to withdraw to their base under the southern icecap. Here they were to work to duplicate the missing complement, alongside the efforts of those agents still 'in the field'.. But as for this ‘Companion’, Gimen had no idea where to start looking!
"Steven," Gimen said, "have you located the female Katerina?"
"I have. She works at the studio, and she resides in an apartment block used by several of the 'shado' group employees, including Foster."
"Make contact. Through your mate if easier."
"I will comply," Rutland said. "I also have a list of interactions involving Katerina and members of the research group here in Britain. There are but few."
"Then depart, and proceed."
* * *
There was a black leather case on Mary Rutland's desk in her 'home office', a room in their house outside London that she had reserved as her own territory. Her husband Steven had suggested it, and had helped organise things. She thought that might have been because he knew she needed somewhere to keep herself active, her mind occupied.
They had moved here only a couple of years ago, after the death of her son. She wanted to get away from the area; she wanted to forget the town of Harlington even existed. Steven had been only to happy to accommodate her wishes.
Not, she reflected, that all had been going all that smoothly. Steven had told her that Admiral Sheringham had a special project in progress, and had explained apologetically that he could not give her many details. She accepted this; but she knew a faint sense of foreboding. She had been here before… But at least Steven had not closed her out so completely as that other man had done.
Taking a deep breath, she lifted the lid of the case and gazed at its contents, wondering whatever had inspired her - if that was the word - to take up this hobby again, with all its associations with the past. But that had been an enjoyable time in itself, and now at the sports centre she had met some old associates who she had worked with then, and had shot against. Again, Steven encouraged her, and sometimes, when his duty tours permitted, he would come along, watch her shoot in contests, and afterwards celebrate or commiserate as appropriate.
'Duty tours', she thought. Even with the demands of the Navy, Steven was so much more reliable than the man who had let her down so badly - and who had murdered her son. Edward George bloody Straker.
They had met at the London Games, had made it through to the final rounds, and had ended up shooting against each other. Ed was a natural, she had thought, he should have taken gold; but he was complaining (slightly) of a sore wrist. He took bronze; Mary beat him to silver.
Afterwards they had met each other regularly, to begin with at practice and contests. Then a shy Ed Straker invited her out for lunch; she took him home to meet her parents, and she met Marion; and one thing led to another, and finally to a wedding - with half the 'guests' security plain-clothes men, because of Ed's status as an officer in military intelligence. She had exchanged light-hearted comments with her cousin Penny, who had also married into the Forces, about 'military intelligence' being a contradiction in terms.
And then, things had started to go badly wrong.
Their honeymoon in Athens had to be called off, since Ed had been summoned urgently by General James Henderson, his boss, who was still in a nursing home recovering from injuries sustained in that car accident. And suddenly Ed was working 27 hours a day it seemed, breaking appointments, refusing to give even the smallest reason for his actions. Now pregnant, Mary was rapidly losing patience, and beginning to worry - a worry that was fuelled by her mother's dark comments, and suggestions that there might have been another woman…
She did not want to believe it… but then that P.I. had produced photos, of Ed and a dark beauty of a young woman.
That, and Johnny's early birth, and the physical trauma it involved, effectively ended their marriage. It staggered on for a while; but in a very short time she decided she'd had enough, and divorced him.
And he did not contest it, or even object.
She did not want to think about the subsequent years, and their ending. Not without difficulty, she forced her thoughts onto a different track. She took the rifle components out of their snug nest, laid them out on the absorbent tray, and started to check them over and clean them. The practice that afternoon would be fun; and in her thoughts, she could always aim at another target entirely…
Bother, she thought. I'm almost out of lubricating oil.
She checked her watch; it was still only about 10 am. She had plenty of time to drive into town, visit the sports shop, and make it back here to finish the job. Quickly she returned the tray and the case to the safe and spun the combination, then she hurried from the room.
* * *
Coming out of the small specialist shop with her purchases, Mary almost bumped into someone. "Sorry," she apologised.
"No problem," the woman replied. "No harm done."
The voice was familiar. Their gazes met. "Katerina!" Mary exclaimed, in pleasure. "I haven't seen you for - it must be years! How are you?"
"Oh, fine, fine," Katerina assured her, as they exchanged a brief hug. "You're looking well, Mary! Still shooting, I see?"
"Taken it up again," Mary confirmed. "Look, I'd offer you coffee, but I'm in a bit of a rush, got a practice on this afternoon… How about joining me while I get ready, if you're free? I can even ask Nadia to make two lots of sandwiches!"
"Much as I'd love to, I'm on an errand," Katerina smiled. She glanced down at the wheeled suitcase she was towing. "I've come up to town to collect some stuff from a place where a friend was staying. We both worked for the Studio in Harlington, d'you know it?"
"Slightly," Mary admitted. She hoped she was managing to keep the sharpness out of her voice. "So you finally managed to break into movies, then?"
"Only just," Katerina admitted. "But there isn't much acting work going on, so I'm thinking about a slight change of direction. Going behind the scenes - doing research into plot-lines, that sort of thing."
"Sounds fun," Mary smiled. "Hey, how are you fixed for next week-end? Steven will be busy, and I'd love some company, we could hit the shops."
"It would make a nice break. Let's swap numbers, shall we, and I'll give you a call?"
They said their goodbyes, and Mary hurried home. She was thinking how Steven's preoccupations had put a sort of distance between them, in a way that was beginning to remind her unpleasantly of the past. It would be good to have a friendly chat with Katerina, take her mind off all that.
* * *
Paul Foster's parents had lived in the outskirts of London, in the district of Wimbledon. The trip up from Harlington was quick; it used one of the recently-introduced 'InterCity' trains, which were capable of up to 125mph. He arrived at Paddington Station, and from there used the Underground to transfer to Wimbledon.
The house was a short walk at the other end. As he had expected, it was indeed now a bedsit conversion. He decided against taking photos.
For an excuse to come to this place, he took out a small notebook and opened it to make a note of the letting agent's address. Acting like a prospective tenant, he had a good look at the front garden. It held a well-kept lawn, wide flower beds with cheerful displays, and a young tree of an unusual type but which reminded him of something he had seen recently. He thought for a few moments, and then he had it. It was a magnolia, like the one in Marion's cottage in Jersey; though it had white flowers, where the Jersey ones were pale pink. His parents must have bought a seedling, or a cutting, or something, after he had left to go to college, he thought.
Perhaps this tree was what Marion wanted him to notice. He recalled that Robert had had an interest in botany.
A voice behind him said: "Hello, Mr Foster, what brings you here?"
He turned, and smiled. "Katerina! Nice to see you! I was in town for the day, and I thought I'd have a look at this place - my parents used to own it, I lived here as a kid."
"I'll bet it's changed a bit," Katerina Arrowsmith smiled. She was towing a large wheeled suitcase. "It's been rented out to students and people for some years. That's why I'm here, actually. Diane had a room here for a few months, and I came up to see if…" She hesitated.
"If she had left any stuff here," Paul suggested, gently.
"That's right. I've got a letter from Mr Freeman at the studio. He told the letting agent what happened, and to let me in to have a look round. The agent's meeting me here."
As Katerina was speaking, a small car with company names on its doors drew up and inserted itself neatly into a parking space. A woman climbed out, and walked over to them. "Hello," she greeted them. "Would you be Ms Arrowsmith?"
The woman showed them her ID card. "I'm Jenny Drake, from Nichols and Son, lessors of these properties," she introduced herself. "I've heard from Mr Freeman of Harlington-Straker Studios. I understand that one of the studio employees, a Mr Peter Bentley, had a friend living here?"
"Yes, that's right." Katerina took a letter from her handbag and passed it across. "His friend - Diane Matthews - was killed in an accident. I offered to come up and collect any stuff she may have left here."
"I'm really sorry to hear that. Of course you may." Jenny Drake smiled sympathetically. She read through the letter, and handed it back. "Well, that all seems in order. I do beg your pardon," she added, turning to Paul. "Are you a friend of Ms Matthews also?"
"I used to be, a long time ago," Paul admitted. "My name's Paul Foster, and I also work at the studio. But I'm here purely by coincidence." He explained about his connection with the house.
"So not a prospective tenant, then," Jenny Drake said lightly. "Well, shall we go in? Ms Matthews hasn't lived here for some time, but she kept the rental payments going until the six months was up, a few days ago. I haven't let her room out again yet."
"Is there much stuff there?" Katerina asked, as they followed Jenny into a small office.
"A change of clothing, and a few personal items, is all," Jenny said. "Oh, and a couple of letters. They're all in a box in the cellar, because we had to make space ready for any new tenant. But you can have a look in Diane's room if you like."
* * *
There was nothing in the room that had been vacated by Diane Matthews, though Paul and Katerina checked it over thoroughly, twice. Nor was there anything in the box Jenny Drake had put aside for them, except for the letters. Paul advised Katerina to pass those to Alec Freeman to deal with.
"There's one thing, Ms Drake," Paul said. "May I have a look through the cellars, in case my own parents left some things lying about?"
"Of course you may. I don't suppose you need a guide!"
"Thanks," Paul said. "OK, we'll be about twenty minutes."
He led the way, and a curious Katerina followed. "How's your friend Chrys, by the way? The fencing enthusiast?"
"Thoroughly enjoying herself over in the States," Paul said, with a grin. "She's had to go over there for part of her training course. Did I mention she's trying for an upgrade to her pilot's license?"
"No! Goodness me! What's she going for? The Space Shuttle?"
"Shhh!" Paul whispered, a theatrical finger to his lips. "Don't give her ideas!"
He was rewarded with a faint smile. He led the way deeper into the maze of shelves and racks that filled this underground space. It was quite well lit by fluorescent tubes hanging from a whitewashed ceiling, and there was a cool draught of fresh air from some hidden inlet. As a child he had found the place fascinating, if a little scary. Right now it reminded him of Marion's cottage in Jersey, which he and Ed had searched thoroughly, if fruitlessly.
But there was something else. Something he could not quite put his finger on. Something had changed… and then he had it.
The layout was different. A few of the lighter boxes had been moved, making a space. There were signs where something heavy had rested on the floor and marked it. He took out a small camera and photographed the area in some detail.
Katerina watched him, curiously. "Whatever are you doing?" she asked.
"I'm sure there used to be wineracks here," Paul explained. Actually, he thought to himself, there had indeed been… "Not that there was much in them, my parents weren't great wine lovers."
"Are - are your parents still around?" Katerina asked, carefully.
"My dad isn't, he died some years ago. My mother's still alive, but she's in poor health. She's in a nursing home in Devon. I drop in to see her from time to time. I'd like to show her these pictures, ask her about the place. I'll get photos of the gardens, too."
This was not exactly true, Foster thought, grimly. Both his parents were dead, having died within a few months of each other. Their Devon place had been left to him, and he had decided to rent it out, as he did not consider himself ready for retirement quite yet… But it was a good cover story.
Then he saw the book.
It lay in the corner of an otherwise empty shelf in the centre of the rearranged area. It was a fairly standard-sized hardback. And it had a blue cover.
He picked it up, giving a pleased smile. "I've been looking for this," he said to Katerina. "It's one I had as a teenager. Mother must have left it here by mistake… Let's see, is there anything else? No. Pity."
They went back up the narrow cellar stairs. Jenny Drake was outside by her car, checking through some paperwork. She looked up. "How'd it go?"
"Fine, thanks," Katerina smiled. She indicated the case she was towing. "Think we've got everything. Thank you for your help."
"No problem." Jenny Drake waved to them as they left.
She returned to her car, and prepared to depart. As she started up and drove away, she was aware that she was being watched, by a man who was sitting on a road bench, apparently reading a newspaper. She memorised his face, and resolved to notify Mr Freeman when she arrived back at her office. The man was probably innocent; but it would be as well to check. And Mr Foster would look after Ms Arrowsmith.
What Jenny did not know was that this man was far from innocent, and far from human, though he had been a Royal Navy captain called Steven Rutland. He was now a servant of the Aethon, a mysterious entity who had for its own inscrutable reasons allied itself with Gimen's Arkad race. He did not wonder about that mystery; he could not. He could only follow its promptings, as they arrived from Elsewhere into the depths of his mind.
Occasionally, sometimes, he received input from another source. Something small, and weak, and insignificant, and terrified. Something he knew he should remember. But that input was losing strength, fading, and no longer bothered him.
He 'listened' to the Aethon. It was telling him to trace the female 'Katerina', and her known associates, who included Rutland's current mate.
The Rutland-zom had followed the 'Katerina' female from her apartment block to the train station, and had boarded the Harlington-London train she had used, choosing a seat a few rows behind his quarry, out of her sight. When she disembarked in London, he followed her. He made no attempt to conceal himself, since that would itself have drawn attention.
The path she took ended at a large house with a notice outside advertising rooms for rent. He made a note of the address. He recognised the man she was talking to as the 'shado' terran 'Foster'. Using the sensory enhancements that the Aethon had applied to him, he turned up his hearing to its maximum sensitivity, and listened to their conversation.
* * *
The pair took the train back to Harlington. Paul had left his car in the locked enclosure, and Katerina accepted his offer of a lift. She intended to move out of the apartment block where she was living in a unit not for from Paul's own. It had, she explained to him, too many uncomfortable associations.
"I feel a bit that way myself sometimes," Paul agreed, when she told him. "The studio should be able to help you find somewhere. Talk to Alec."
"I will, thanks. Hey, can you do something for me? Pass those letters on to Mr Freeman? Pete and I still have to sort through Diane's stuff a bit, but he can have those straight away."
They arrived at the block, and went their separate ways. Paul was wondering at himself, just a little. Time was when he would have invited Katerina to his own place, for a coffee, and some dinner, and some wine, and perhaps made a night of it… And she was nice, attractive, friendly. But somehow, he just wasn't tempted. Not even with Chrys on the other side of the Atlantic.
He really was missing her, he thought.
* * *
The Rutland-zom considered his next move, and decided it would be best to follow the 'Katerina' female. The suitcase it was towing would contain all the items of interest the terran pair had gleaned from the flat it had identified as having been used by the 'Matthews' female. There would be no need for him to repeat the search, and perhaps draw unwanted attention. For the same reason, he would not attempt to intercept the pair in their journey.
He made his way back to the station, following in their tracks, but made no attempt to conceal himself. Instead, he relied on the fact that neither of the two normal-humans would have recognised him. He did not, however, follow them to their dwelling-place. Instead, he enhanced his hearing once more, and listened as they gave their taxi-driver the destination. He went into the station coffee bar, and ordered a cup of the brew and one of the publications the terrans called 'newspapers'. Drinking the brew would introduce only a slight delay into his planning, and it was worth it for its covering value.
He finished the drink with a slight, concealed grimace of mild distaste. A faint memory reached him from the depths of his mind, of having enjoyed this drink, this 'coffee', long ago. But that did not matter, now.
Leaving the emptied mug on the table, he walked outside, avoided the taxi-rank, and headed for the address the Foster-male had given. It was indeed the 'shado' group's apartment block. It was unremarkable to the casual eye; but his Aethon-installed perceptions revealed an unusual level of electronic activity. To decipher these, he would need specialised equipment; but their existence gave verification that the 'shado' group was involved here.
Further investigation of that was not his current mission, and would have to wait; but it did give him a problem. Those systems would inevitably include security cameras of a much higher level of sophistication than standard commercial systems. He did not want, or need, to expose himself to detection by those watchers.
Gimen had prepared him for this. As Lackland, he had manipulated the 'Matthews' female into becoming companion to 'Katerina', so that his agent had access to Katerina's dwelling. At that point they had not yet confirmed that this female was mate to the 'Arrowsmith' terran, since they were concentrating their attentions on the two targets and the link between them. The attempt to take the 'Foster' terran having been frustrated, they refocused their efforts.
The Rutland-zom had been directed to consider the problem of how to gain access to the apartment used by the 'Katerina' female, and a possibility suggested itself. These creatures tended to keep their habitats clean and tidy, for the most part. In a place like this one, they did not do so themselves, preferring to assign that menial task to even more regressed terrans with little education or skill. He located the terran tasked with tidying 'Katerina's’ rooms, an older female designated 'Shirley', and had placed it under his control. It could now be used to perform his search for him.
First, he needed information on 'Katerina's' planned movements.
He selected a nearby street bench, sat, opened the newspaper he was carrying, and read it with half his mind. With the other half, he 'listened' with his new senses to the telephone wires.
The level of electronic traffic was surprisingly low. Evidently, he realised, the occupants of this dwelling were out about their daily activities. He sorted through several signal streams without success; but he was no longer able to experience impatience, though he could not afford to wait here for too long. That would certainly attract official attention in time.
In fact, it had already done so. A pedestrian had walked by the bench, his attention apparently elsewhere; but he entered the building, and nodded to the Janitor. “Dave, there’s a guy outside, been there for a while. Might be nothing, but I’d better let them know.”
“Go for it,” Dave replied.
Outside, the Rutland-zom continued to appear to read his paper, while he monitored the telephone wires. Time passed, but not so much as to perturb him.
And then a stream of impulses began to flow in the wires, in a sequence that he recognised as being the call-up code to the Rutland dwelling. He shifted his perceptions, and listened to the voices being transmitted.
"Four two five two."
"Mary? It's Katerina, hi!"
"Hello again! Great to hear from you! How's things?"
"Oh, fine, fine!"
The voices exchanged insignificant information of the type the terrans referred to as 'small talk'. This went on for 3.47 minutes; then Mary's voice said: "So, how are you fixed for the weekend? Are you free for a girls' day out?"
"Sure am! The studio's having some sort of inspection, Health and Safety, you know the kind of thing."
"Great! Shall I make up the spare bed?"
"Oh, I don't want to put you to any trouble - "
"Don't be silly, of course you wouldn't be! And it'll give Shirley a couple of days' rest from tidying!"
The conversation continued as the two terran females mad more detailed arrangements. Finally, having settled on time and place of their meeting, they exchanged farewells, and the signal flow ceased.
From his host's memory, the Rutland-zom knew that cleaning usually took place in the morning, after the tenant had vacated their dwelling to go to their place of employment. Having completed its task, which commonly covered the servicing of several apartments in the block, the cleaner would then leave and return to its own dwelling. Taking care to look casual, the Rutland-zom checked his watch for the current time, noted that it was well into the afternoon. The cleaner would be at its own dwelling by now; he would go there at once, and give the creature its instructions.
He rose from his seat and made his way back to the train station, taking a roundabout route and visiting some shops; then he walked to the park, and sat on a bench by the lake.
Night fell. But he did not sleep; he did not need to. Instead, he reached out with his enhanced mind to 'Shirley'.
* * *
On the couch in his own apartment, Paul Foster took out the small blue book. In fact, it was not his; indeed, he had never seen it before. But it had been left on that dusty shelf quite recently, as was shown that it was not very dusty itself, and the area had been altered in a way that drew the attention of anyone familiar with the original layout. And that blue cover was not the original. It had been applied recently, though quite neatly, as a thin sheet of adhesive plastic. He collected a pair of latex gloves from the kitchen cupboard, donned them, and opened the book, carefully.
Not to his surprise - though he was slightly disappointed - it was a genuine book, about travel, with no apparent secret code messages. Not at first glance, anyway. However, the regions it dealt with were the Channel Islands: Jersey, Guernsey, Sark. It had a chapter on the history of the Islands, with a brief mention of the German occupation during WW2, and of old buildings like Marion's cottage. Most of it was devoted to geography, and to tourist attractions. Another chapter described the flora and fauna, both wild and cultivated. And it was here that Paul thought he might have struck gold. Marion's cottage in St Martin was mentioned specifically; with its garden that was planted with giant cabbages, Jersey lilies… and that magnolia tree.
There were a couple of paragraphs about the tree. It was mentioned that the magnolia species was truly ancient, dating back some twenty million years; they may have been pollinated by beetles rather than bees. To Paul's surprise, the flowers were edible; but when he thought about this, he realised it wasn't so strange. Chrys was keen on jasmine tea, and she had also introduced him to the fact that chocolate-makers often used candied rose petals and violets to decorate their wares.
He smiled. I really wish you were here, Chrys, he thought.
Something about the page he was looking at caught his attention. There was the faintest impression of a word, written in pencil, beside one of those paragraphs. He took a magnifying glass, and inspected it closely. It said 'MARK'.
He didn't recognise the handwriting; possibly it was Marion's. Ed would know.
Opening his personal locker, he put the small blue book away. He closed the panel. He had arranged to meet Keith Ford later; the comms man had been delighted to go out for a drink with him, since Jean was away, and he would otherwise be sitting around at home kicking his heels. Paul collected his wallet and jacket, and left.
* * *
Ford took a gulp of his beer. He was a 'real-ale' enthusiast, and was delighted that his colleague had found this small, out-of-the-way hostelry that offered a variety of specialist brews. But he had also been an investigative journalist; and his 'antennae' were warning him that Paul wanted something from him, and was prepared to use bribery to get it!
Not that he minded, too much, if this was what Paul was using as a bribe…
The pair retired to a small table in a shady corner, and sat. Casually, Paul asked after Keith's fiancée.
"Oh, Jean's doing fine," Keith said, with a fond smile. "But no, we haven't fixed a date, not yet. Her own job is going through a busy period, and she wants it to settle down a bit. And she wants to know if she'll still have a job after the dust settles."
"Not good," Paul agreed. He set down his own glass, and gazed at his friend and colleague. "Look, Keith, I wanted to ask you a small favour, if I may?"
"D'you remember that incident, a couple of years ago, when the boss did his best to take a short way home - through a hedge?"
Keith laughed a little. "Oh yes… I remember that, all right. Alec and I thought he'd had one lemonade too many."
"Wasn't there some sort of break-in, at work, the same night?"
Keith recognised the SHADO 'informal code' for a UFO incursion. He pursed his lips. "Let's think…
Oh yes, there was. We never did get to the bottom of that one. But the interesting thing was that anonymous letter. Is that what you had in mind?"
"That's the one. Did anyone say what was in the letter?"
"Well, 'letter' is perhaps the wrong word," Keith said, thoughtfully. "It was a postcard. From somewhere in the States - but it had come via Ireland."
"What did it say, this postcard?"
"Nothing except 'love from Grandma'. But the picture was of Galway Bay."
"And someone left this at the studio?"
"Yes. And whatever it was, it was significant somehow. The boss had been in an odd mood all evening. When we'd finished the job, he dashed out of the office like someone had lit his fuse, and disappeared for the day. Then he and Alec went over to Ireland themselves to investigate, but didn't find anything."
"All very puzzling," Paul agreed. He picked up his glass and gazed into it for a moment. "Fancy another?"
But Keith was thinking: well, Paul, I suppose you'll tell me what it's about, sooner or later…
And Paul was wondering: What was it, Ed? What went so badly wrong?
The pair disposed of another couple of beers, and then tried their hands at darts. After the second match, Keith casually enquired: "Chrys is away on her course, isn't she?"
"That's right. I'm cooking for myself at the moment," Paul said, a touch ruefully.
"Funny, so am I. Jean's had to go up to visit her mother - Angela's having some routine surgery done, on her hip - and Jean'll be away for a few days. Fancy a takeaway? Lew's recommended a good Chinese!"
* * *
They went back to Foster's apartment with several trays of hot Chinese dishes in carrier bags. Paul turned on the oven, transferred the trays to top up their heat, and put bowls and chopsticks on a 'hostess trolley'. At Paul's direction, Keith took a bottle of Riesling from the fridge and poured a couple of glasses. He commented: "They say don't mix grain and grape, but I've never had problems."
"Nor me," Paul agreed. "Well, let's eat!"
They moved to the living area, took their seats and a bowl each, and waded in to the food. Half way through his bowl, Keith turned the conversation back to their previous topic. "You'll have gathered," he said, after swallowing a succulent piece of sweet'n'sour, "that I want to talk some more about that night."
"I rather got that impression," Paul agreed.
Keith took a mouthful of his wine. "Truth is, I'm as puzzled about that night as you are. There was a lot of tension in the air - more even than you'd expect from the situation. The commander had been out for most of the day, we had to call him in later that evening for the red-alert. When he arrived he was in a dreadful mood."
"No, anxious. Yes, I know this is Commander Straker we're talking about," Keith agreed with a slight smile, as Paul's eyebrows climbed into his hairline. "But he was. Alec noted it as well, and tried to get him to come out for a meal, but he wouldn't. And later, when the courier was diverted to Ireland, he was - well, not angry, but almost frightened."
"What was the courier carrying? Mobiles?"
"That's right. It was supposed to be coming here, but it was diverted. We also sent a planeload of crews over to Ireland, to handle the search for a downed alien. An alien who was apparently trying to make direct contact."
"I'd heard about that - I didn't really believe it! It's true, then?"
"Yep. That was the 'postcard from Galway'." Keith spooned some more rice into his bowl, then added extra chunks of meat. "The alien was transmitting on our wavebands, but he wasn't actually speaking. What we heard was human, female, and Irish. But although she was puzzled and alarmed, as you might expect, she wasn't frightened. Turned out she was blind, had been for years. And the alien didn't use violence, not at all. Later when it was all over, Alec had me analyse that transmission to see if it carried a data stream, but no dice."
"And when the mobiles went to rescue him, the 'chaser' got there first… How did the commander react to that? To the whole thing?" Paul also began topping up his bowl.
"Well, like I said, he was badly worried. He definitely had something on his mind, something that outweighed even the prospect of a heart-to-heart chat with one of our little green friends. And when the incident terminated, when the 'chaser' killed off the one trying to make contact and was shot down himself, the commander dashed out of Control. I swear he was actually running."
Paul digested this. "And then he vanished for a whole day."
"That's right," Keith confirmed. He pushed a small piece of meat round his bowl with the chopsticks, grasped it, and ate it. "And there was another odd happening, that night. The courier was early by several hours. The commander had ordered the pilot to collect a package and get it over here as quickly as possible. The courier would have got in just before midnight, but as I said, it was diverted to Ireland, to help in trying to make the contact."
"Any idea what was in the package?"
"No. But whatever it was, it got the commander a reprimand from Henderson."
"Not official, then," Paul murmured.
"So it seems… Well? Any ideas?"
After a moment, Paul shook his head. "It looks like he had a personal problem, perhaps a breakdown of sorts. That sort of thing can happen in a high-pressure environment. And this was Christmas coming early - a real live alien wanting to make contact. And we lost him. Think back - how did that affect you?"
"I went home and dug the garden for four hours. In the dark. Jean thought I'd gone nuts… which in a way I had, I suppose."
"And I'll bet Alec opened a new bottle," muttered Paul. "I would have done the same. But the commander bottles things up in himself. When someone draws that sort of cork, the explosion can be several megatons."
"Talking of drawing corks, I did hear about that duel of yours," Keith commented.
Paul had to smile at that. "Didn't work. I didn't get my raise."
"Shame," Keith chuckled. He put down his bowl, and consulted his watch. "Better go soon, I suppose, got an early start… Need any help loading the dishwasher?"
Keith Ford left shortly afterwards, and Paul readied himself for bed. As he showered, he was still a little puzzled. If Johnny had died as a result of the incursion, how could that have been possible? He had been in England, not Ireland, where all the action had been taking place -
"Wait a moment," Paul whispered to himself. "That courier took off early, with a package for Ed - "
He grabbed a towel to wrap round himself, ran to the living area, and pulled his document wallet from the crypt. He dragged out the copy of Johnny's death certificate, which stated that the cause of death was major trauma complicated by infection. Had that infection required specialist medication? Was that what was in that package?
Paul sank down on the edge of the couch, staring unseeingly at the document. It was all falling into place. That courier carried something the boy needed - and he died because it had been diverted and arrived too late.
The question, Paul thought grimly, was who had ordered the diversion… and killed Johnny.
There were only three possibilities, as far as Paul could see, who had the authority to give such an order. Ed himself… and Paul did not want to think about what that could do to a father. Never mind a breakdown, he would have totally lost his mind.
Alec also had the necessary authority, and he was on duty that night. But Paul simply could not believe that Alec had the necessary ruthlessness; though he did not hesitate to 'get physical' with his fists if the situation demanded it. Ed had occasionally commented that the colonel could be too 'soft' for his own good! Might Ed have ordered Alec to divert?
And that left Henderson. The general was a widower and had never had children as far as Paul knew - or if he did, he'd kept them well away from his job. And he certainly had the ruthlessness. But if he had ordered Straker to divert, the commander might well have refused, flatly - and collected a court-martial for his pains. So maybe, knowing this was a likely outcome, the general would have sent the order himself.
Too many unknowns, Paul thought. He wondered if he should speak with Keith again, and postponed that decision. Perhaps the courier pilot would be a better bet.
* * *
The practice went well. Mary had only returned to the hobby a few months previously, so she was pleased with her results. The instructor gave her a few tips, then stood back and watched in approval.
Finally, after a little more than an hour, she came out of the booth and went back to the spectators' area, where Katerina was watching. Mary doffed her ear-defenders, and started to dismantle her rifle and place the parts in the case. Katerina watched, happily.
"You looked like you were having fun out there," she observed.
"I was," Mary admitted. "How did work go?"
"Boringly. But it pays the bills."
"Fancy a coffee?" Mary enquired, as she closed the case.
"I wouldn't say no."
Mary led the way to the restaurant. She collected a tray of coffee and a few buns, then the pair found themselves a table in a quiet corner. Katerina sagged gratefully into the seat with a sigh. Mary sat opposite, and passed out mugs and plates from the tray.
"I hope they don't work you too hard at that place," she said. Katerina noted the slight tightness in her voice. "Are you still single, by the way?"
"I am. But there's a rather nice actor there I could get interested in…" Katerina took a mouthful of her coffee. "Ah, that's good, thanks… Trouble is, it would be a bit 'on the rebound', he was involved with a woman and she died in an accident."
"Not good," Mary said. "Was the woman a friend of yours?"
"Not really, though I knew her Stateside, a little. In fact," Katerina admitted, "I didn't really like her all that much. She was playing some odd game, trying to catch someone's eye, I think."
"Straker's eye?" Mary said, tightly.
"No, no. A man called Paul Foster." Katerina looked up; Mary's voice had had a distinct edge as she spoke the name of her ex. Go carefully, Kat, she warned herself. There's trouble here.
"Don't know him." Mary sipped her own coffee, then looked up, catching Katerina's expression. She made herself relax. "Look, don't worry… but I'd better tell you a little about that, I don't want to make you put your foot in it… Ed Straker and I have split up completely. My - my son was killed in a car accident, a couple of years ago, not long after I remarried… and he didn't do anything to help, at all."
"That's awful," Katerina breathed, her eyes wide.
"Yes… Well. Let's not bother ourselves with the past," Mary said, resolutely. "I'd have liked to move out of the area completely, but Steven's job is a bit unpredictable at the moment, so we decided to stay put for a bit until things settle down. As much as they can in the Royal Navy," she added, with an attempt at a smile. "Tell me about yourself. Why on earth are you just being a 'washer-upper', for goodness' sake?"
"I needed to get work of some sort - any sort - while my work permit lasted. I'm trying to decide whether to move to Britain permanently." Katerina chose a bun, bit into it, chewed for a few seconds. "I like the place, I always have. So did Mark. He would have liked it over here as well… And it's a breakaway from Boston, no old associations."
"I can imagine," Mary agreed. "So long-term, what sort of work would you be after?"
"Well, something in the movie business. As I mentioned, I rather like doing research for stories, that sort of thing. I did start out looking for acting, but it's a terribly difficult market to break into, and doesn't have much in the way of job security. I thought that doing stuff behind the scenes would be better, and perhaps I'd get to do some acting on the side. In fact I already landed a walk-on in that picture the studio's doing about the Musketeers."
"Sounds like fun!"
Katerina nodded. She hesitated a little, then made up her mind. "Look, Mary, can I talk to you about something? It's quite odd, and it's probably just my imagination."
"Of course," Mary agreed, puzzled and intrigued.
"Well - " Katerina took a big gulp of coffee, swallowed. "I - Oh, this is ridiculous! But I can't shake the impression I'm being followed."
"What??" Mary exclaimed, smiling her surprise.
"Well, there's this man. I keep seeing him about. On the train, I suppose that's not so unlikely… but then I see him again, in odd places. He doesn't do much. He was nearby at that house where I ran into Paul Foster.. He was sitting on a bench, reading a paper. Not having lunch from a bag, or waiting for someone. He seemed to be ignoring people. Then, near my place. Again not doing much. But it's happened too often for me to think it's just casual."
"Did your friend Paul Foster see him?"
"No, and anyway Paul was only with me the once. I did wonder about telling Paul… but I can't think why anyone should want to follow me, not into London and back!"
"I would talk to Paul about it, if I were you," Mary advised. "Or your personnel guy at the studio. What's his name?"
"Alec Freeman. I - What's the matter?"
"Alec's still there? I knew him years ago, he was our best man, mine and Ed's!" Mary shook her head, slowly, in amazement. "D'you get on with him OK?"
"Yes, fine," Katerina assured her. "In fact he was very helpful when Diane died, especially when the police wanted to talk to us about it. That's me and Pete Bentley, who'd known her most recently. He's the actor I was telling you about."
"Then talk to Alec about it," Mary told her, firmly. "The Alec I knew would certainly take you seriously." Though, she thought, I can't imagine why he's still hanging around Ed Straker, not after what happened. Maybe Ed hasn't had the guts to tell Alec what he did.
"Thanks, I will!"
They chatted about various topics for another half hour or so, and then Mary checked her watch. "Time I wasn't here… But I'll be here for another practice next Friday afternoon, if you're free?"
"If Pete's busy! I'd love to come."
They made their farewells, and parted.
* * *
The courier pilot turned out to be a young man of around Chrys' age who, despite his youth, had accumulated an impressive number of hours of flight experience. He was based in the US, and made several visits a year to Harlington, though they were necessarily brief. His name was Lieutenant Andy Hague, and he had only been with SHADO for four years.
Paul Foster needed an excuse to talk to the man, one which would justify the questions he wanted to ask - questions which the courier would be very reluctant to answer. But, he realised, his curiosity about the apparent alien contact event should cover that, even though it was a couple of years ago.
And there was an opportunity available: the courier craft was up for its six-monthly overhaul and servicing. Foster could use his 'grounded' status, and his very real boredom and frustration, as an excuse to get involved. It was known that Commander Straker had a work policy of making sure every one of his staff had at least a basic familiarity with every function in SHADO. This had led to some interesting sights around the place, though Foster had not yet seen General Henderson reloading the water coolers…
Accordingly, he asked Lt Craddock, the man in charge of the overhaul, for permission to observe and assist. Craddock was only too pleased to oblige him. Foster donned a set of dark-blue coveralls, and took the checklist Craddock handed him. He nodded to Hague, who like the conscientious pilot he was, was sitting in as observer, making occasional comments and noting the service crew's own input.
The whole thing took Craddock, Foster, and a technician named Sadler about four hours, and after clearing up some final points with Craddock, Hague signed off the service report. “Next time I do one of these it’ll be on an Interceptor,” he commented. "Straker wants me to do an extra check, ready for some mods he’s planning. Well, coffee, people?"
"You bet! Shall I do the honours?" Foster said. They gave enthusiastic nods, and Foster went to the dispenser, bringing back a loaded tray. He set this down on the desk, and the four collected stools from around the workshop.
Craddock sipped his coffee with appreciation, then nodded at the aircraft, giving Hague a mischievous wink. "Well, she'll fly again, dunno how, the way you treat her."
"Gentle but firm, that's how to handle these beauties. That right, Colonel?"
"True enough," Foster agreed, with a grin.
His next intended remark, however, was pre-empted. "Sir," Hague said, a little cautiously, "can you tell me something?"
"I'll try," Foster responded. "What's it about?"
"Well, it's about a trip I had to do a couple of years ago." At this, Foster pricked up his ears. "I was bringing over a group of mobile units from our place Stateside. But there were a couple of odd things. I had to collect a package, my departure time was brought forward a few hours - then I was ordered to divert to Ireland! As though they knew I'd be needed! Is it true? An alien was trying to make contact?"
"That's certainly what it looked like," Foster agreed. He sipped at his coffee.
Craddock swore, softly. "No wonder Colonel Freeman said the commander was psychic!"
"Commander Straker ordered the diversion?" Foster said, trying to keep the sharpness out of his voice.
"No, just the early departure, and to bring that package," Hague said, looking a little puzzled at Foster's reaction. "It was Freeman who told us to divert, to intercept a UFO in the Galway area – though he could just have been passing the message on, I suppose. So we landed and sent out the mobiles. Then he told us not to wait around to pick them up again, but to get back in the air pronto. Then Straker came on the radio, from his car I think. He told us to land at some remote spot and to pass over that package. Then he took off himself, as though Old Nick was on his heels. What is it, sir? What's wrong?"
Foster managed to smile, knowing it looked artificial, forced. "He tried. He tried so hard, to get through… and for nothing."
"You mean there was an alien?"
Forcing his thoughts back on track, Foster said: "There had been. According to Peter Carlin… but the other UFO got to him before we did."
"He could have told us so much," Hague muttered.
"He could have told us everything - including why they didn't want him to." Foster took a deep breath, trying to calm himself. "Well, guys, we'd better get back to it… Thanks for letting me sit in, Craddock."
"No problem, sir."
Foster left, unaware that his three colleagues were watching him go, puzzled and alarmed.
* * *
So that's it, Foster thought, horrified.
It was all there - not in so many words, just the plain facts of the case, and they all pointed to a single inescapable conclusion. Colonel Alec Freeman had killed Johnny, the son of Commander Ed Straker.
Foster checked back through his list. It started from the beginning, with Ed's marriage, his subsequent divorce, and those access visits. When the boy was older, Ed had sometimes brought him to the studio to watch movies being made. The last such visit, confirmed by the fire-safety records of who entered and left the premises, had been a couple of years ago. And at around that time, there had been a marked downward change in Ed's mood, a change which time had not lifted.
Now Foster knew why.
It seemed that, at the end of the last such visit, Ed had driven Johnny home to his mother, and there had been some sort of accident. The boy was struck in the road by another vehicle, not Ed's own car. He had been taken to hospital, severely injured. That same night, Keith had told him, a courier had set off from the US, some hours ahead of its scheduled departure, carrying a 'special package' for Commander Straker. While it was en route, two UFOs came in, one apparently chasing the other. They were last seen in the vicinity of Ireland. Then SHADO had received a strange radio communication from that region, and that courier was the only craft near enough to make an interception…
And so it had been diverted. But not by Ed - who, Foster thought, was probably at the hospital with his son - but by Freeman. And later that night, the courier pilot had confirmed, Ed had collected that package. And he must have dashed for the hospital, but arrived too late to save his son.
Foster shook his head, slowly. Had Freeman known about Johnny's accident? Had he ignored the boy's need, put SHADO first?
It didn't seem very likely. Foster thought he knew both Freeman and the commander well enough by now. Freeman simply wasn't that ruthless. He would have moved heaven and earth to save Johnny's life, even if it meant losing the first real chance they had to end this war.
No, Freeman didn't have the necessary steel in his soul. But Ed Straker did. Foster remembered the nightmare he had had in that over-hot sauna, when he dreamed that he had been abducted, and that Ed had given the order to shoot down the craft that had taken him; and that Alec had been horrified. That dream visualised how he thought of those two men… Ed the ruthless, Alec the compassionate.
But was Ed ruthless enough to allow his own son to die? Foster didn't believe that either… but, he had to admit, if Ed was faced with a heartbreaking choice - as indeed he had been - he would be ruled by his sense of duty.
Foster put his face in his hands. He was honest enough with himself to admit that he did not want his brother to be so… evil. He wanted Freeman to be the one at fault. But that wasn't a good thought either.
There had to be something else. Some other factor that he just wasn't seeing at the moment. He needed time to think, to find that extra factor. If there wasn't one - if he already had all the information there was - then either Ed Straker was more ruthless, or Alec Freeman was less moral, than anyone had ever thought.
Chrys, he thought. I really, really need to talk to you right now…
* * *
"Well, time I wasn't here," Freeman said. He pulled Joan into a brief hug, then shook hands with Waterman. "Thanks for all your efforts, guys. When Paul comes up he can move things along fine."
"He hasn't met the ILFC people, has he?" Gay asked.
"Only briefly, and not under the best possible circumstances," Freeman admitted. "But he'll be OK. Just try and keep him busy!"
"We will," Gay promised.
"Oh, one last thing, Gay." Freeman drew a sealed envelope from his case, and handed it to the lieutenant. It bore her name, and the SHADO logo. "Hang on to that for a bit. Ed wants to talk to everyone, and he'll tell you when to open it."
Gay raised her sculpted eyebrows. "Sealed orders, huh?"
"Something like that… Well, 'bye everyone."
Freeman gave them a wave, then went to the reception dome, where he donned a spacesuit. This reminded him of another of Ed's projects, to update those suits to meet changing requirements. With the likely increased surface traffic between Moonbase, Alpha, and the Eagle facility, Ed wanted improvements in durability, extensions in life-supporting times, and clearer personnel IDs on the suits. This latter could be arranged fairly easily simply by painting people's names on their helmets - except that the 'paint' had to stand up to vacuum and solar radiation. They had been able to get round this problem when building Moonbase itself by integrating signs into the fabric of the structure; but to do this with spacesuits would mean that everyone would need their own personal helmet. That was a minor irritation, but had to be allowed for.
He made his way up into the LM cabin, noting another of those innovations - the ejector pod, intended to be used as a 'lifeboat' in emergencies. Accessible from the LM airlock, it would hold the two-person crew, and was equipped with small thrusters to allow it to be manoeuvred into an orbital path around the Moon or Earth. It had an ablative shield for atmospheric re-entry, and descent chutes. Neither of these could be used on the Moon; but a retrieval craft had been developed to bring it to ground from orbit. Lew Waterman had evolved a technique that allowed the crew to move to the pod in a very few seconds. The system had been tested by Waterman and Mark Bradley, and it worked well, though for some reason Waterman had called the pod a 'hot-dog'. Freeman just hoped they wouldn't have to try it in anger.
The pilot, Mike Cameron, gave him a cheerful nod. "What's this all about, sir?" he asked, as Freeman seated himself.
"If you mean 'what's the commander playing at'," Freeman said with a grin, "I'm told he'll be holding a 'cascade briefing' to tell us what it's about, next week sometime. Aliens permitting."
"Should be fun." Cameron's voice was dry. "Lift-off in ten minutes, Colonel."
"Thank you, Lieutenant."
* * *
Before she had left for the States, Chrys had arranged a schedule with Paul for making occasional contact. This had to take into account flight and training session timings, with the added complication of the time-zone shift between England and the Cape - a matter of some five hours, though this varied during a few weeks at the opposite ends of summer. In general, her night-rest period was between 10pm and 6am, Cape time - though there were a few occasions when this changed to accommodate a launch from the Kennedy Center. That could happen at any hour of the day or night, and even then might be delayed by technical problems for a few hours.
Today Paul was lucky: Chrys had an early evening, 'early' meaning about 9pm her time. He checked his watch, and noted that she should be finishing a meal in about half an hour.
He returned to his apartment, and carried out a full security sweep. Reassuringly, it was negative. He called down to the front office and requested that he not be disturbed for an hour.
And then he fired up the secure link to Chrys' SHADO comms set.
She came on the line. "Paul! I was hoping you'd call, but why are you - "
"Chrys," he cut in, "I really need to talk to you, urgently. I'm using the secure link because I'm thinking about resigning."
"Paul, you shouldn't, the commander will be furious! Never mind resigning, he'll give you the boot - "
"I know, and I'm sorry, I'll tell him it was my fault, but I really do have to talk to you about this."
"Then you'd better go ahead and talk," Chrys said. "What is it, Paul? What's gone wrong?"
"Well''… Paul paused, marshalling his thoughts. "I don't want to go into exact detail, not even over this link, because it's highly personal to me and Ed."
"Is it a family problem?"
"Yes. It is. And it's also about Alec."
"Tell me what he's done," Chrys said. The puzzlement in her voice had an anxious tone.
"Well, I'm not one hundred percent certain… but something happened that had terrible consequences, and I can't decide who was responsible. It could have been either Ed or Alec. Either way, I - I don't think I want to be associated with them any more, if what - what I think really did happen."
"You're talking in riddles, Paul - but I suppose that's for security reasons?"
"I'm afraid so."
"Okay." Chrys drew a breath, and settled herself more comfortably on the couch. "Let's look at the basics. How certain are you that it's a real problem? That this 'thing', whatever it was, really did happen?"
"Absolutely certain. I have documentary proof, of - of the central incident."
"And it involved the - Ed and Alec, I mean? Anyone else know anything about this?"
"Some of it," Paul confirmed. "If I were a policeman you could say I've been taking statements from a couple of people. Informally, of course."
"Could it have been someone else, that isn't in your picture?"
"Only Henderson," Paul said, a little reluctantly. "And even that's a bit of a stretch."
"Might the - Outsiders - have been involved?"
"Oh, they were involved all right," Paul said, grimly. "But I don't see how they could have caused the - the central incident."
Chrys thought, for a few moments. "Personally I'd put them at the top of your list of suspects," she said. "Give that one some thought, ask yourself how it might be possible."
Mentally, Paul kicked himself, hard. "Yes. Yes. You're right. They must have had a hand in - in what happened. Otherwise it was just too much of a coincidence… Thanks, Chrys."
"Glad to help," she smiled. "Now get off this line, and go do all the right things."
"I will." He blew her a kiss. "Love you. Fly safely!"
* * *
Somewhat to Freeman's surprise, the trip home was uneventful. Cameron brought them into atmosphere cleanly, and docked with the lifter so smoothly that Freeman nearly applauded. At the spaceport, he assisted with the post-landing checklist. The access gantry was brought into position and the two men disembarked, allowing the service crew to move in and tend the craft.
When the bus disgorged him at the studio, he hurried in and headed for the command office; but Straker was not there. Instead, Paul Foster was seated at the conference table, reading documents and occasionally making notes.
"Hi, Paul," Freeman greeted. "Quiet, isn't it?"
Foster gave a grunt, but did not look up. "Very. How was the trip?"
"Also quiet," Freeman said. He was a little puzzled; Paul did seem to have something on his mind, and Freeman thought he could guess what. "Ed asked me to do a summary for you of the status of the work on the Eagle project, so you're up to speed when you take over."
Freeman took a folder from his briefcase and passed it over. "Anything wrong?"
"No. At least, I don't think so," Foster said. He looked up, and gave a slight smile. "Sorry to be rude, I'm a bit pre-occupied is all… and no, Chrys and I are fine. Though I am missing her. She's over at the Cape for a month."
"If you need a bit of company, so do I," Freeman offered, with a grin.
"I might take you up on that." Foster was thinking to himself: I might be wrong. I probably am. Ed's been getting on with Alec just fine, there's no resentment there at all. There must be something I'm missing here… He managed another smile. "Sorry, Alec. Yes, that would be good, thanks. Though Keith did take pity on me, his fiancee's visiting her mother in hospital for a few days. We had a takeaway and a chat."
"Always worth doing," Freeman agreed. "Well, I'd better get on with things… Is Ed around?"
"He's in the lecture theatre. He's scheduled a talk for 2pm. It's that 'cascade briefing', he's brought it forward."
Freeman consulted his watch; it read 1:40. "Doesn't hang around, does he? OK, who's at the top of the cascade?"
"Let's see… you. Me. Ginny. Peter Carlin and Lew Waterman. Keith Ford and Ayshea. Gay Ellis and Joan Harrington. Major Kelly, as head of research. Doug Jackson. And Colonel Webb."
"Then let's not keep him waiting," Freeman said.
* * *
The lecture theatre had been set up by Lieutenant Ford at Straker's invitation, so that a series of 'lunchtime seminars' could be run. These talks were intended to spread around some of the specialised knowledge held by individual SHADO officers, with the intention of expanding their horizons and inspiring creativity. It had succeeded in this remarkably well - though some of the topics covered were decidedly non-technical. Colonel Freeman's presentation on the history and folklore of the Scotch whisky industry had been one of these. It was a pity, Paul had mused, that Alec had not provided samples…
He followed Freeman into the room. which was already nearly full. Straker greeted them both, shook hands with Freeman to welcome him back from Moonbase, and directed them to their seats. TV monitors at the sides of the room carried links from Moonbase and the SkyDiver fleet.
"Are we all here… ah, Dr Jackson," Straker said, as the psychiatrist hurried in. "You made it. Take a seat, please."
Jackson sat, on a chair at the side of the room. The commander closed the door, and lowered the lights. A projector came on, throwing the image of a slide with a list of 'bullet points' up on the wall. "Ladies and gentlemen, we've had a very busy few weeks, and you may well be wondering what the aliens plan to do next. So am I… There are a number of courses of action they could take, and we have to be ready for those. We should also be trying to take the initiative."
There was a slight rustle as attention sharpened.
"Most of you will be aware that from the outset, since SHADO was formed, Lieutenant Ford has been trying to find ways of persuading the aliens to talk to us. He has not as yet had much success, but his work continues.
"I have decided it's time to consider further developments, so I have outlined some strategies to address various aspects of human-alien interaction. For convenience, I have assigned names to these strategies. We have already seen two of those in action; Plan Alpha, named for the acquisition and development of M2 in co-operation with the new ILFC base; and Plan Beta, which followed directly from that. Beta armed Moonbase Alpha against alien attack, and aimed to trick the aliens into coming within range of some unexpectedly strong opposition. It did this by using Colonel Foster as a channel for disinformation, at his own suggestion. You will recall that the aliens were comprehensively defeated.
"So we have to ask ourselves: what will the aliens do now?
"We need to know more - a lot more - about how it is that the aliens are able to control certain people and not, apparently, others. Dr Jackson here has begun a project to explore how it is that the aliens are able to influence the actions of some humans, and how to counteract that influence. We had a significant success in this area, recently, with Colonel Foster; and Dr Jackson is studying the results of that. Continuing with my original and imaginative naming scheme," Straker went on, ignoring the quiet chuckles of amusement, "I have designated this study as Plan Gamma. You and your staff may encounter Jackson professionally from time to time, and not just at your medical reviews. Please co-operate with him.
"Now let's get really imaginative. Suppose an intact UFO with live crew came within our grasp; what precise actions should we take? If this happens, it will most likely be on the Moon or at sea, environments which they seem to find more amenable than our land surface. Accordingly, Plans Delta and Epsilon will deal with these scenarios. I have produced some outlines, which Moonbase and the SkyDiver crews will be developing into full strategies.
"Not quite finally, there's the most optimistic of the lot. While I think we have to allow for the very strong possibility of a kamikaze attack, we must also prepare for a delegation carrying a white flag. Plan Zeta will explore these situations. It will be headed by myself, with input mainly from Alec and Paul, and from Colonel Webb wearing his legal hat.
"And while we're talking about kamikaze, there's one final possibility for which we must be prepared. Indeed, we have already encountered examples. I remind you that Astronaut Regan was induced to aim his Interceptor at Moonbase. If we had not managed to break the link, Moonbase would have been destroyed… Also, there was that 'mindbender' crystal. We had to shoot down Lieutenant Conroy and Colonel James when they hallucinated threats and reacted violently. I too found myself staring down a couple of gun barrels. We have to consider the very real risk that this or something similar might happen again.
"Accordingly, I have drawn up Plan Omega against this very possibility.
"The need for a formal plan is to avoid the risk of hesitation. It throws away lives. At the same time, haste is also dangerous. We need to be quite sure there's a real problem, and we need to be quite ready to deal with it. I've tried to make Omega as comprehensive as possible," Straker went on, "but at the same time leaving as much room as possible for the victims to be rescued. That's why I've arranged for the LMs to be modified. They will be able to eject their crews if they malfunction or are subverted. Of course, no system can be completely foolproof, and the ejection system could itself be targeted… but we'll make things as difficult as we can for prospective saboteurs."
Straker studied the faces before him. He was encouraged to note that their expressions showed understanding of the problem and its implications. One or two seemed disturbed, more than the subject should warrant, he thought.
And he could not decide about Paul's feelings. The colonel was not shocked exactly, though he had been the one behind those gun barrels. Certainly he was not viewing with equanimity the prospect of perhaps having to kill his friends and colleagues. But whatever was biting him, Straker thought, it had already been doing so when he came in.
Straker continued: "This is a cascade briefing, so you will all be passing it on to your staff. I have some printouts for you here to assist with that, so it doesn't turn into Chinese whispers… Also, I shall make myself available to discuss any of those plans, particularly Omega, with any individual who wishes to explore their implications in more detail.
"Are there any questions at this stage? Yes, Peter?"
Carlin's image had lit up on the SkyDiver 1 monitor. "We've occasionally encountered UFOs in inland bodies of water, as in the Russell Stone abduction. The mobiles can handle that if all we want to do is shoot at them, but for anything more constructive we'll need specialised equipment."
"We will indeed." Straker made brief notes on his pad. "Peter, I'll want you and Major Kelly to work on that together, come up with some specs."
"Yes, sir," Carlin acknowledged.
"Good… Anything else? Keith?"
"I may need to expand my linguistics team, sir. Well, I say 'team'… at the moment it's just me and Ayshea."
"I'll want the two of you to report on progress with your current work on alien linguistics, and how you think that might be developed. Just bear in mind that this is a race that doesn't seem to talk that much."
"Any more…? Yes, Dr Jackson?"
"We need to be prepared to give first aid," Jackson said. "We know how closely similar alien physiology is to ours, but it clearly isn't quite similar enough - witness their reaction to our atmosphere. This is true even of those specimens who are brain-altered humans, the zoms. In those cases, the deterioration is still present, even if slow."
"Have you formed any opinion of why this should be, Doctor?"
The psychiatrist fingered his chin. "My progress with Gamma, such as it is, suggests certain possibilities. The first and most obvious is that the 'zomming' process renders the individual vulnerable somehow. A possible second is that it is at least partly psychogenic - the victim has a certain, er, revulsion to their situation, and this is strong enough to have physical effects. Yes, I know this sounds unlikely," Jackson continued at Straker's look of doubt, "but there are indications."
"Very well, Doctor." Straker glanced at his watch. "Any more questions…? No? Very well, then. I'll be around at various times which I will post on the noticeboard. Don't all rush at once… And one final thing: there are a couple of announcements I wish to make. Firstly, Gay, I believe Alec gave you a letter? Would you open it?"
Gay Ellis lifted the envelope with the SHADO logo and slit it open carefully. She drew out a folded sheet of paper and pulled it flat. She gave a slight gasp, and smiled.
Straker smiled in return. "Congratulations, Captain Ellis."
There were cheers from the Moonbase personnel, and applause from the theatre. Straker went on: "This letter will also be posted on noticeboards… Captain, your promotion is long overdue, and thoroughly deserved. I have made you a Captain, because both legally and technically, Moonbase with its self-contained and independent environment is a ship at sea in international waters. Granted the 'sea' in question is a bit short of water and you aren't likely to be going anywhere, but here on Earth there are plenty of vessels at stationary anchorage and even buildings on dry land which enjoy similar status. In fact they've been called 'stone frigates'… Yes, Joan?"
Joan Harrington's eyes held a distinctly mischievous twinkle. "Commander, does that mean Captain Ellis is empowered to perform marriages?"
"Jack?" Straker enquired, when the laughter had died down a little.
"I'd have to check," Webb smiled. "Did you have anyone in mind in particular, Joan?"
"I'll let you know, sir," she said, with a wink.
"And I have another letter here." Straker handed it to the comms officer. "This is also long overdue… Major Ford."
Keith Ford blinked, and opened the envelope. He smiled. "Thank you, sir."
There was another burst of cheers and applause. "My pleasure… Very well, that seems to be all," Straker concluded, when the noise had died down. "Dismissed."
His audience filed out, chatting among themselves in low but cheerful tones. Only Paul Foster was silent. Straker thought to himself: will you tell me what it's about, Paul? Or will I have to drag it out of you? I really hope it won't come to that…
But Paul was waiting for him by the door. "Ed," he began, without preamble, "I did find something in that notebook of Marion's. The place where Diane Matthews was staying. It's my parents' old house, they sold it and moved to the West Country. And I found this, in the cellar." He held out the blue-covered guidebook.
Straker took it. "Anything in it?"
"I'm not sure… I won't say what I'm thinking, not just yet, you'll want to make your own mind up on that."
"Thanks, Paul. I'll have a look, later. How's it all going, by the way?"
"Fine, fine. It's just that there's a lot to digest." Paul smiled, a little wanly, and departed.
Straker watched him go, thoughtfully. He shook his head, as though to change mental tracks. He and Alec had a meeting with the research team from the Jersey investigations; and he headed for the command office with a slight sense of relief.
* * *
The relief did not last long. The news the Skydiver team had for them was puzzling to say the least; and alarming.
"Are you sure?" Straker asked.
"As much as we can be, sir," Mike Nichols replied. "This alloy was designed for undersea work. It could never have survived in our atmosphere for more than a few minutes. It's nothing at all like the material the aliens use to make their space-going craft, in fact I doubt whether it could have survived in space either."
"And you are seriously suggesting," Straker said, sceptically, "that it was made here on Earth? That the aliens have a real 'manufacturing facility' here? Bigger and more complex than that dome of theirs?"
"Yes, sir. Probably 'manned' - if you'll excuse the expression - by zoms."
Straker gave this some consideration. It could be, he mused. "If you are correct, the obvious question is 'where'. I don't suppose they attached a VIN plate, did they?"
"Not exactly, sir. But there was something."
At this, Freeman sat forward, alertly. Straker threw him a glance. "Tell me."
Nichols signed to Georgie Hamill. She handed the commander a single sheet bearing images of what appeared to be micro-organisms. "These are algae samples, sir," she said. "The one on the left was scraped from one of the pieces of debris that we found. It's terrestrial. And it's almost identical with the sample shown on the right - which is also terrestrial. In fact it's found in a specific part of the world, a part which is rather isolated from everywhere else, and which has as a consequence developed some individual strains of its own microflora."
"Australia?" Freeman queried.
"Not quite, sir. Antarctica."
After a short silence Freeman whispered: "Oh shit."
"A bloody good place to hide a base," Straker grated. "OK. Antarctica's a big continent. Can we narrow it down at all?"
"The algae in question occur mainly in a few regions in a particular area. I've marked them on this map." Hamill handed him a second sheet. "And SkyDiver 5 is in the area at the moment, sir. But they report they haven't detected any activity at all. Not in the past few years."
"Have our polar spysats picked up anything even the least bit odd?" Straker said, glancing across at Freeman.
"Not that I've heard - but I'll pull the files and go through them again, in fine detail," Freeman answered. He made a note on his pad. "I'll also see what I can find out from Halley Base and their friends."
"You can probably do that better if you're on the spot," Straker commented. "I want you to take charge of that investigation. Get the research group together, and go down there and join Captain Sokolov on Five. And don't forget your longjohns!"
* * *
So Chrys thinks the aliens must have been involved in Johnny's death, Paul thought. And she's right. Question is, how?
The 'why' was obvious, of course - to damage Ed Straker. Possibly to drive him to suicide, if not murder; possibly both. SHADO would have come apart at the seams.
Paul wondered if the commander had considered that possibility, and tried a desperate bluff, as he had done later when Linda Simmons had come to SHADO demanding surrender. If so, it hadn't come off.
As to the 'how', the aliens had a solid track record of influencing selected humans. Who was to say they hadn't taken over the driver of the car, and aimed him at Johnny? Then they would have sent in a decoy, offering a possible contact. That would have been a very tempting bait indeed, that SHADO could not possibly ignore; a pearl of great price - even if the price was the life of a child.
That was still a horrible thought. But Paul felt a little cheered, just a little, at the realisation that Ed had been placed deliberately in an impossible, dreadful position.
Thank you, Chrys my love, he thought, and blew her a mental kiss. But the sooner I get a heart-to-heart with my brother, the better.
And what the hell do I do about Alec Freeman? He's never been under their influence, so what the blazes was he doing about Johnny?
* * *
"You do realise it's winter down there, don't you?" Straker said, perching on a seat in Freeman's office.
"Don't worry, I don't plan to go walkabout on the ice. Well, not if I can avoid it." As he was speaking, Freeman was going through his checklist, comparing it with his travel bag, and ticking items off. "Well, that's about it. Has all the special kit been loaded into Five?"
"I had confirmation this morning from Colonel Lake. She arrived in Woomera two days ago, and she's going through infrared scans of the icecap, looking for hotspots." Straker handed Freeman a folder. "Here's your list, everything's there. Including thick socks."
"Hand-knitted, I imagine?"
"With Argyll patterns."
"Of course," Freeman murmured. "OK, that's everything. Where's Paul?"
"He left his place for the airport half an hour ago. Said he'd meet you there. Don Turner and Georgie Hamill are also on their way."
"Good." Freeman slid the folder into his travel bag, zipped it shut, and lifted it. "Time to go."
"I'll walk you to the car," Straker said.
The pair made their way out of Control, along the maze of corridors to the transit office. The indicators showed it as up and occupied. Straker checked the small monitor screen; the only occupant was Miss Ealand. He pressed the call button, and she looked across, and waved, then made a swift but unhurried exit. The room began to descend, and in a few seconds the access door slid open.
They emerged a few moments later, and Miss Ealand looked up from her typing as they came out. "No last minute visitors," she said. "Have a good trip, Mr Freeman."
"Thanks, Norma my love."
The secretary sniffed, and pointedly returned to her typing. Freeman shrugged, and followed Straker out of the office.
The sky outside was grey with cloud, and there was the prickly feeling in the air that often presages rain. The pair shook hands, and Straker wished his friend a good trip. Freeman was glad to get into the shelter of his car, and advised Straker to get back under cover as well.
"Actually, I guess I'll go home for a bit," Straker said. "Have some lunch in peace, perhaps spend half an hour or so in the gym."
"Enjoy yourself," Freeman smiled, and drove off.
Straker found his own car, and drove home. He wondered whether his housekeeper had finished for the day; he rather hoped not. He could just do with one of her sandwiches about now.
Indeed, her car was parked on the driveway. As Straker climbed out, he could see her through the kitchen window. She waved, disappeared for a moment; and then the front door opened.
"You're home early, sir," she greeted him. "Everything OK?"
"Yes, thanks," Straker assured her. "But I'm expecting something of a hectic afternoon, so I thought I'd take the opportunity for a breather."
"Good idea. You do not take enough care of yourself, sir," she scolded. "May I prepare you some lunch?"
"One of those amazing sandwiches and a coffee would hit the spot nicely," Straker said, with a smile. "But there's no rush - I'll have a half-hour in the gym first. Are you in a hurry to go? If so just leave it on the table."
"Not at all, sir. Now off you go and unwind."
When Straker returned to the kitchen, Mrs Baines was checking through her shopping list. "We need some coffee, and some muesli for your breakfast," she said. "I'll put those on your account."
"Great." Straker took a mouthful of the coffee, and examined the sandwiches with pleasure. "How's Mr Henderson?" he enquired, casually. "I saw him helping at the reception."
"Hmm," the housekeeper replied, with a frown. "I'm glad you asked me, sir. I'm a little worried about him, to tell you the truth. I think he is working too hard."
"Wouldn't surprise me," Straker agreed. "He's been like that as long as I've known him."
"I know what you mean. He hasn't changed."
"You've met him before?" Straker said, surprised.
June Baines gave a fond smile. "I met James Henderson a long time ago, after his wife died. My Frank was still alive then… But I'd heard a lot about you, how you'd become his whatchmacallit, his 'aide', how you'd moved to Britain… Our jobs took us on different paths, Frank and I moved to York. But then he died, Frank did. About a year later, there was that awful accident you were in, and James. I came down south to see him… A bit later he told me you needed a housekeeper and advised me to apply, and I did."
Straker thought: That sly old b#stard… "I'm glad he did," he said, managing a smile. "You're a find! But what's worrying you about him?"
"I don't think James is very well, Mr Straker." Mrs Baines began to fiddle nervously with a sheet of 'kitchen paper'. "He keeps complaining of indigestion, and he's tired, and sometimes a bit breathless."
"That accident did a lot of damage," Straker agreed. "I know it was some years ago, but it left its mark… Tell you what, next time I see him, I'll have a good look - and maybe a word or two. How's that?"
"That would be great, Mr Straker," Mrs Baines agreed, gratefully. Then she pulled herself together. "Goodness me, I must get on! Enough of this dilly-dallying. What do you fancy for supper?"
"One of your excellent cottage pies," Straker suggested. "Take one out of the freezer and leave it in the fridge, and I'll heat it up when I get in. And don't worry about Mr Henderson. I'll get him sorted out."
"Thank you, sir," Mrs Baines said.
* * *
It was a short trip to the airport. When Freeman arrived, the SST was waiting on the tarmac, the technicians preparing it for flight. He pulled in to his parking space, and clambered out, then retrieved his travel bag. He hurried across to the flight office, and Robinson came out to meet him.
"Ah, Colonel. We're ready for you… the rest of your party is aboard. Colonel Foster, Lieutenant Turner, and Lieutenant Hamill."
"Thanks, Craig. Who's our pilot?"
"Good man," Freeman approved. He grinned. "Though he may find the SST a bit slow."
He climbed the steps to the SST passenger cabin. Turner and Hamill were seated beside each other. Freeman saw an empty seat beside Foster. "This seat taken?" he enquired, keeping his tone light.
"No." After a slight hesitation Foster added: "Sir."
Hmm, Freeman thought. I'll let it pass. For now. This isn't insubordination, yet. "Thanks," he said, seating himself, and fastening the belt.
Foster did not respond. This, Freeman thought, is going to be a fun trip… I hope that whatever-it-is doesn't make him do anything silly. At least he's clean by Jackson's tests.
The SST started to move, taxiing out onto the runway. The engines started to roar, and the two were pressed back into their seats. Mentally, Freeman was in the pilot's seat, going through the takeoff in spirit. There was the slightest jar as they left the ground, and a curious sensation of falling. Freeman had never quite got over the impression that they would strike the runway with one of their wings at this point; but, of course, they never did, as they were several lengths off the ground already.
"So far, so good," he said, making conversation. "Woomera by lunchtime."
For a moment, Foster did not answer; but then he seemed to relax almost visibly. "Great, I missed breakfast."
"Still worrying about Chrys?" Freeman enquired, casually.
Foster thought: I have to say something. I have to know. I should challenge him, but not here, not now… "Just a bit of a headache, sir. I've spoken to Dr Jackson, he says it's probably just recent events." And it was true, he reflected, he had spoken to Jackson… but that was about a week ago.
"OK, no problem. Let's talk about this jaunt." Freeman took a notecase from his bag. "We haven't much idea what we'll find down there, but I want to try to plan for contingencies. Worst-case stuff."
"Worst case is, we stir up a hornet's nest of aliens," Foster said, grimly.
"Agreed." Is that what's bothering you, Paul? Freeman wondered silently. I'd never have believed it… Aloud, he went on: "We could stuff a couple of missiles down their gullets - but I'd like to be a bit more constructive than that. I don't flatter myself we could run Ed's Plan Epsilon - contact at sea - but you never know. Stepping back from that ideal, it would be good to bring back some souvenirs… But mainly we want to find out what they're doing down there, and get them to stop doing it."
"That's why you've asked Ginny to alert one of the Q Groups?"
This referred to the specialist bands of commandoes that Straker had set up. Or at least, Freeman recalled, he'd said what he wanted, and then handed the job of organising it to Colonel Virginia Lake. Freeman sometimes thought that Straker was possibly the world's worst exponent of delegating, preferring to keep his cards not just close to his chest, but stuffed into his shirt. But just occasionally, he surprised everyone.
"Exactly. And that's why he wants the 'Aristarchus' on standby."
This ship was a floating research station, and occasional emergency docking station for SkyDiver 5. "I see," Foster said. "He's planning an invasion, by the looks of it."
"Call it a 'counter-invasion'," Freeman suggested.
"Good point," Foster agreed, after a moment.
Freeman glanced across at him. "Fancy a coffee?"
Freeman gave a smile, and climbed out of his seat, heading for the coffee dispenser. Foster was feeling very confused. Despite his chat with Chrys, the way he felt about Colonel Freeman right now was similar in many ways to the indignation he had felt towards Ed Straker about that order to change LM course, after the occasion when the aliens had first targeted him and Craig. Granted, much of that indignation had been induced by the aliens; but not all. They had simply taken his real, though muted, resentment, and amplified it to a killing fury.
But he didn't feel that fury now.
He did not even feel the blaze of anger which had filled him in that fencing duel on the Musketeers set, which had ended with his swordpoint at Ed's throat. Then, Foster had taken himself in hand, and controlled his anger.
But now, he felt numb. He had always trusted Alec, relied upon him. He simply could not believe the man capable of such a dreadful thing as the facts were suggesting.
Obviously, he thought, I don't have all the facts. My subconscious knows it, even if the rest of me doesn't. I hope to god Chrys was right, that the aliens were the prime-movers in this dreadful business…
But right now, we've got a job to do. A small matter of stopping an alien invasion.
* * *
When he returned to SHADO Control, Commander Straker took a short detour to Jackson's office. The doctor was seated at his desk, and had obviously been hard at work; several books lay open before him, and there was a stack of handwritten notes in a tray.
"If you're busy, I'll come back later," Straker said.
"No, no. Please, sit down… What is the problem?"
"I'm a bit worried about Henderson."
"Hmm," Jackson murmured. "Tell me about it."
Straker recounted the conversation he had had with his housekeeper. Jackson listened carefully, nodding from time to time. At the end, he asked: "Have you noted anything directly, yourself?"
"Haven't really seen him since Marion's funeral," Straker admitted.
"I see… Well, commander, I will make an opportunity in the next few days to drop in on him, perhaps to report on Gamma. If I see anything of concern to you as C-in-C, I will let you know."
"Thank you, Doctor."
Straker made his way to the command office. He sat down behind the desk, looked at his in-tray, and sighed. It wasn't overflowing, at least not quite. Time to catch up with paperwork; though he'd much rather have gone to Antarctica. But he had to be here, to field the first volleys of queries deriving from that 'cascade briefing'. Although there had indeed been plenty of questions from all quarters, surprisingly few had been about Omega. Straker found that a little worrying.
He took the first folder off the stack. It turned out to be a copy of Freeman's report from Moonbase. He hoped that one at least should be interesting; but it wasn't. It was just facts and figures, acquired by Alec, in his usual competent and thorough way. Straker read it through, making notes here and there, and laid it in the out-tray. It should give Paul a good baseline from which to work.
The next folder was a comms audit. Normally this would have been produced by Ford; but the new major had wasted no time in delegating these tasks. He had, Straker thought, learnt that art quickly; even though he had had to be persuaded to move into his new office. Straker had had to point out that he would need the privacy to give more time to the 'alien communication' problem.
This audit had been drawn up by Lieutenant Anderson, who had moved permanently into the slot vacated by the new major; and he had marked on it items of immediate interest. The first of these, oddly, was a record of an unofficial secure link from SHADO to Cape Canaveral; and the participants were Colonel Foster and Lieutenant Jones!
Oh, Paul, Straker thought heavily. What have you done…
He did not doubt that Paul would have wanted to talk over with Chrys whatever it was that was bothering him. But was it so urgent that he had to make private use of SHADO facilities? Was he, perhaps, depending on his new-found relationship with his 'long-lost brother' to get the OK?
If so, Straker thought grimly, he was going to be disappointed. There was only one way this could possibly be handled. As Henderson had done with the commander himself, Straker would officially reprimand Colonel Foster, and place a note on his record. He would make quite sure that Foster recognised that the commander would neither tolerate laxity nor offer favouritism.
But he hoped that Paul would make the initial approach, and offer his apologies. That would count in his favour in more than one way.
* * *
By the time Freeman and Foster landed at Woomera, Colonel Lake's search of IR scans taken by polar spysats was complete. It had suggested a couple of areas to start looking for unwelcome visitors. There were more of these than Freeman had expected, even after the known 'hotspots' were eliminated. Of the remainder, though, only two or three were at the edge of the ice, allowing access from the sea. One of these was in a small channel between icesheets, not easy to observe from outside. Freeman gave his instructions accordingly.
* * *
The crew watched the monitors carefully as SkyDiver 5's captain set out in the small one-man submersible and headed for the ice-shelf. He switched on the cameras so that Hamill could make her observations. Through her headset, she sent Captain Sokolov directions, and he steered the sub accordingly, though with occasional Russian mutterings.
Abruptly, he said: "One moment. I can see something odd. I'll try for closer look."
"We see it," Freeman confirmed. "Is it a crack? Or a tunnel?"
"Camera moving to position… UV floods on… It's crack, sir, but there's something beyond it, making light. I'll try and get camera in closer - "
"Wait a moment, please, Captain," Hamill cut in. "That dark patch, at the base of the crack. Can you take a look please?"
"Very well… Looks organic. Perhaps is algae. I shall get sample."
"Thank you," Hamill acknowledged. She looked up at Freeman. "If it's algae concentrating in the crack, that suggests a source of comparatively warm water. I'll get a USV ready to go in there, take some measurements."
"Do that, Lieutenant. Boris, what else can you see, beyond the crack?"
"Light," Sokolov replied, tersely. "I'll move the camera in as far as I can, and turn off its lights."
As he did so, Hamill dimmed the cabin lights also, and turned up the brightness on the monitor. Sokolov had been right. Beyond the crack, there was indeed a source of light: slowly changing pale blues and greens, that reminded Foster of the 'light panels' in the commander's office and in the sleep quarters at Moonbase.
"Must be artificial," Freeman said, softly. "Not a 'light-well' to the surface - it's night up there, for the next few months."
"Could be Aurora Australis," Sokolov suggested.
"We'll check." Freeman glanced up at Don Turner, who was watching SkyDiver's instruments over Egorov's shoulders on the bridge deck. Turner nodded, and busied himself with the radio. The colonel went on: "Captain, don't go any further in, not yet. We'll send in the USV now."
"Yes, sir. I'll withdraw some way. Stand by… OK, ready."
"Launching USV now," Hamill replied.
The crew felt the vibration through SkyDiver's deck as the USV made its exit from one of the torpedo tubes, trailing a small stream of bubbles. The tiny craft appeared at the lower edge of the forward monitor. Hamill steered it left towards Sokolov's minisub, and brought up the view from its on-board camera.
"Captain Sokolov," she said, "do you wish to take over control of the USV?"
"I do, Lieutenant. Hand off at to me at ten metres' distance."
"Moonbase reports slight auroral activity, not very strong," Turner called down. Foster acknowledged, and exchanged glances with Freeman.
Hamill brought the small craft to a halt at the requested distance from Sokolov a few minutes later. "Ready to hand off, sir," she said.
"Thank you, Lieutenant… I have control."
"Noted and confirmed." Hamill sat back a little, and watched the USV monitor as it showed an expanding view of the icepack. "Don, get down here and have a look as well, would you?"
"I was wondering when you'd ask," smiled the geologist. He made his way carefully down to join the others. "OK, what have we got… Ice. And more ice."
"Tell us about that crack, Mr Turner," Freeman invited.
"Yes, sir… It's typical of a natural crack which forms in icesheets and glacier terminations, caused by movements in the ice. Such cracks don't tend to last that long, years perhaps, months more likely. I'd say this one must have formed long enough ago for those algae to take hold, and it's slowly growing rather than closing. It's quite small, too, which is a bit of a surprise. I should be able to comment further when the USV starts taking measurements."
Sokolov's voice sounded over the speaker. "Entering crack now."
All eyes went to the USV monitor. At the bottom of the picture, rows of figures showed measurements of speed, location, and temperature. There was also a reading of the speed of the current through which the small craft was travelling; and this was increasing, as was the temperature. The image itself brightened a little as Sokolov adjusted the enhancement settings, and a crackle from a small speaker grill at the base of the monitor told them that the audio channels were coming live.
Hamill turned up the volume. she frowned a little, and played with the controls for a few moments. "Hear that, sir?"
"Machinery," Freeman agreed. "But we're nowhere near any of the terrestrial bases."
"I'll see how far in I can go," Sokolov said. "Tracker on."
"Receiving," Hamill reported. She pointed to the display. One of the screens was showing a blue line with an arrowhead at its tip, annotated with the letters 'USV4'. Around it, the crack in the ice showed up as a light patch on a dark background as the small vessel used its sonar to scan its surroundings.
After some twenty minutes or so, the crack widened. A second note appeared, indicating that the craft was only a few feet below a water surface. Hamill turned up the gain on the cameras; the surface was rippling in faint, icy blues and greens. Neither cameras nor sonar showed any trace of an 'unwelcoming committee'.
"Surface," Freeman ordered.
The camera viewpoint ascended, and broke surface. Hamill slowly rotated the viewing head, looking around. The light seemed to be coming from a narrow passage in the far wall.
"Can the USV get through that?" Freeman asked.
"Afraid not, sir. It's slightly above water level, and the wall there is too steep for this unit."
"Can the minisub manage that entrance channel?"
"Just about, sir."
"Then it looks like here's where we go in," Freeman said. "Come on back, Boris, and keep an eye on things while we go hunt aliens."
* * *
Freeman and Foster donned wetsuits and scuba gear. They checked over each other's equipment, and made sure their trackers were running, and had been loaded with the information from USV4. Lieutenant Ivanov was waiting for them in the launch bay. He performed a final check, and helped them enter the minisub. He closed its canopy, then took the controls. The sub rolled forwards on its launching track, the airlock door closed behind them, and the chamber filled with water. When it was full, the external hatch opened, and Ivanov took them out into the cold ocean.
They found the crack in the ice and entered. Carefully, Ivanov felt his way along the fissure, until at last they were in the cavern. He surfaced, and examined the image closely.
"Regret to say, gentlemen, that USV4 was correct. Is no landing stage. But is a smaller fissure leading onwards. Light we see comes from there."
"Let's have a look." Freeman inspected the display. "Right, Petr, you stay here. We'll go and have a look around. Paul, final check. Tracker on?"
"Tracker on and recording," Foster confirmed.
"What's the weather like out there?" Freeman enquired, his tone light.
"Fine day for swim," Ivanov told him, deadpan. "Like Mediterranean in summer… It's not too bad at all. Water temperature surprisingly high, about 12 degrees Celsius."
"I'll bet there's a nuclear reactor down that passage," Freeman said. "Well, Paul, let's go for a paddle!"
* * *
"I need to see you, Commander," Jackson said. "It is urgent, I am afraid."
"Sure. Your office?"
Jackson gave a brief nod, and led the way from Control. Straker followed Jackson into his office and took a seat by the desk, so that he could see the monitor. Jackson closed the door, set it to DND, and sat down. He drew a folder from a drawer.
"As you may have surmised, Commander, this is about Marion Knight."
"You've discovered something about the poison that killed her? Didn't you tell me it was related to that 'nerve gas'?"
"I did, and it is related," Jackson confirmed. "But I have been looking more deeply into what the 'nerve gas' would have done, and how it acts on the body. And it was not intended to kill."
"But surely," Straker objected, "that was its purpose? A blackmail weapon?"
"The situation is more complex than that, Commander," Jackson explained. "On its own, the 'nerve gas' would kill. But it was never intended to be used in isolation, and neither was the simpler version they used on your stepmother."
"Then what - Oh my god. They were trying to turn Marion into a zom?"
"There was no sign of attempted brain surgery," Jackson assured Straker. "No, what I am interested in is the second compound, the one you found traces of in Ms Knight's effects. It does appear to have prevented or at least slowed the deterioration of her tissues. It does this, though not very efficiently, by effecting a change in those tissues. In fact I think that what we are seeing is not a poison/antidote pair, but a true binary - an agent plus complement which combine into a new compound. One which is intended to have a specific effect on humans."
"Or on aliens," Straker said, abruptly.
"Exactly. And this 'binary' is not developed enough for that purpose. But it is evidently quite efficient in its early form to be used as a blackmail weapon, as you noted yourself."
"Any idea what its intended purpose actually is? Or is that a stupid question?"
"As you have no doubt realised, Commander," Jackson said, with a mirthless smile, "I believe it is intended to adapt the aliens to this world."
Straker thought for a few moments. "You said it wasn't very efficient."
"It is not," Jackson confirmed. "It is clear where the reaction is intended to go, but not how it gets there."
"Then that's what they're looking for," Straker said, his voice hard. "A complement compound. One that Robert's colleague designed. But he must have managed to hide it from them."
"So it would appear," Jackson agreed.
Straker went on: "This, of course, leaves us with two questions. We are already searching for the agent compound. We need to know what complement the aliens are looking for. Does the composition of the substance Matthews used give any clues?"
Jackson frowned. "Its structure is similar to many compounds, some of which are botanical. I need to narrow that down somewhat."
"I suggest you look at Robert Fletcher's academic records," Straker suggested. "He was a biochemist, with an interest in exotic plants."
"I will bear that in mind." Jackson made a note on his pad. "Thank you, Commander… That's all I have for you for the moment."
"It's quite a lot," Straker assured him, and departed. He headed for the command office, thinking: It sure is a lot. So Mark did manage to hide what he was doing from them.
He had barely entered the room when there was a buzz from the desk intercom. "Straker," he responded, leaning across.
"Sir? Dr Vogel here. I'm in the lab with Lieutenant Nichols. We're looking at that stuff we found near Jersey. We've found something interesting."
"I'll be right there," the commander said.
* * *
The bench in the laboratory at SHADO Control was loaded with equipment and analysis trays. Mike Nichols and Dr John Vogel were preparing samples of the debris they had retrieved from the Ecrehous seabed for the analyser, to try to get a more detailed and precise identification. So far, they were not having a great deal of success.
"This makes less sense now than it did when we started," Nichols muttered, and Vogel nodded ruefully. "If this is a structural alloy, it's a damn strange one. It could have degraded from something more complex, a composite like fibreglass, but the fillers - if that's what they are - just aren't right for that. They should be long and thin, so they can mesh with each other. But these are pellets."
"And there isn't enough of it to make anything sensible, either," Vogel agreed. "Captain Carlin searched that area, and everything around it for a kilometre, but that's all he found."
At that point Straker entered the room. "What have you got?"
"Something very odd, sir," Nichols told him. "Whatever this stuff is - was - it can only be part of a much larger structure, and we just haven't found one. In fact, we suspect it was never actually a structure at all. It's beginning to look a lot like waste material."
"Hmm." Straker considered this. "Might a craft have taken damage down there, and left some wreckage?"
"If so, it didn't collide with a rock," Vogel said. "Don looked for signs of damage to the seabed, but he saw none."
"Those channels in the area are big enough for a UFO to get through, aren't they?"
"Mostly. And the debris we found wasn't in one of the shallower ones."
"And the debris we did find was designed to disintegrate under certain conditions," Nichols added.
Straker looked up, his expression hardening slightly. "What conditions? Exactly?"
Nichols described the odd behaviour of the nodules they had found in the alloy, whose appearance under the microscope had reminded them irresistibly of a currant-cake. "Something triggers those nodules to burst, but we haven't found what that something is, except that it involves salty water. Which is frankly ridiculous. Who needs a soluble submarine?"
"How d'you know it's salty water?" Straker said, sharply.
"Because it's OK in distilled water, and also in dry air - What's the matter, sir?"
"There wasn't much of this so-called 'debris', was there?"
"No, there wasn't," Nichols confirmed. "I'd say there can't have been much more than a few tens of kilograms."
"And it all wound up in a crevice in the rocks."
"Yes, sir," Vogel confirmed. "Commander, I can understand the aliens putting something down and equipping it with self-destruct in case it's found, but this seems to have been designed from the word go to destroy itself. And it isn't toxic, at least not to sea life. Look, we caught some specimens."
He indicated the fish-tank in which two small but visibly healthy fish were taking exercise. Straker inspected them briefly. "They sure seem fit to me," he agreed. "OK, let's try it backwards. The aliens put something in the sea near Jersey, and equipped it with a 'dead-man' switch of some kind."
Nichols' eyes narrowed. "Something that has to be reset regularly. If it isn't, if the operator has been caught or killed, a reaction begins, and the stuff starts to disintegrate."
"Exactly… Any indication of what that switch might be?"
Dr Vogel considered. "Given the Antarctic connection, I'm wondering if it's temperature. Perhaps this device, or whatever it is, has to be kept cool. If it's allowed to warm up to local ambient, it starts to break down. I'll investigate."
"Thanks. I'll be in my office. Call me when you've got anything." Straker left the lab, walking quickly.
* * *
Back in his office, Straker opened the book Foster had passed to him. He skimmed through it, looking for anything obvious; the he turned to the back, and thumbed his way forwards.
And, as Paul had done, he came to the chapter on Jersey plantlife. He spotted the pencilled note, 'MARK', and inspected it with a powerful magnifier. Only four characters didn't provide much information, but it was not Marion's handwriting, or even Robert's.
He read the marked paragraph through, frowning slightly. It was about the biology of magnolias, and the significance of that had not escaped him. But who would have been -
He froze. He read that paragraph again. And he hit the comms button to summon Dr Jackson, and Major Ford.
Ford arrived first. "Sir?"
"Your first task, Major," Straker said. "I want you to contact a Ms Katerina Arrowsmith. She works here, at the studio. Make whatever excuses you have to but find out whatever you can about her husband, who died a while ago. In particular I want a sample of his handwriting."
"I'll get onto it straight away," Ford promised, and left.
Jackson entered. "Sit down, Doctor," Straker told him. "I think I may have found something, some information about the complement."
"Yes?" Jackson sat forward, alertly.
Straker showed him the marked paragraph. "I think this word here is a message. It's not just a mark, it's a name. Mark Arrowsmith, a biochemist who was involved in making that 'nerve gas'. It's telling us that magnolias are significant… and there is one in the garden at Marion Knight's cottage in Jersey. It must be all of a century old, and it's huge."
"I understand that parts of the tree are edible," Jackson commented. "I believe you can make a tea from the flowers."
"Do you know anyone who drinks it?"
"Not exactly, though I believe Lieutenant Chrysanthea Jones enjoys jasmine tea. So do a number of her acquaintances at the fencing club in town."
"Can you lay your hands on some? And quickly?"
"I'll try the local health food shop," Jackson said, rising to his feet. He departed, swiftly, and Straker went back to studying the book.
It took the two officers about half an hour to report back. Ford, again, was first. "Sir," he began, "I checked with Miss Ealand, had her go through her archives. As you know she keeps copies of all correspondence to SHADO personnel and their associates, both here and at their homes. There isn't all that much, since standing orders are to minimise letter-writing… But I have here a letter to Marion Knight, from one Mark Arrowsmith. Hand-written."
"I won't ask you how you got it," Straker said, dryly. He pulled a sheet of paper out of its slightly tatty envelope, looked at it, and compared it with the book. He looked up sharply. "But I think I should have made you a colonel, not just a major… This is exactly what I wanted. Thank you."
"Sir." Ford hesitated. "Commander, may I comment on Colonel Foster?"
"Sure," Straker said. "What's the trouble?"
"Well, sir, we've been chatting - in secure surroundings, namely his apartment - about an incident that took place a couple of years ago. You'll remember. The alien who seemed to want to contact us."
"I remember," Straker said, his tone level. "What was it he wanted to know?"
"He just seemed to want confirmation that an alien was involved. Commander, I know that incident was the subject of a special report, which I didn't mention to him."
"Well, Major," Straker said, "thanks for letting me know. I realise he's not on the clearance list for that report, but perhaps he should be. I'll deal with it. Thank you."
Ford gave a nod, and departed. He nearly ran Jackson down on his way out; the psychiatrist gave him a quick apologetic nod, and hurried into the command office. The door closed behind him.
"It was Mark Arrowsmith, Doctor," Straker informed him. "What have you got for me?"
"I obtained some magnolia petals from a friend who likes gardening," Jackson said. "I made an infusion, and tried it on samples of the agent that we isolated from Ms Knight. On its own, it has no effect. I tried mixing it with one or two likely enhancers, and it showed some signs of activity - but the mixture is very temperature-sensitive. It became very active when I cooled it to below about 10 degrees Celsius, but when warmed to body heat before mixing, as would happen when administered to a human or alien, it does something quite different."
"What does it do when it becomes active?" Straker demanded.
"It does indeed combine with the agent, and becomes a new compound. But at body temperature, it renders the agent completely and permanently inactive - what is the matter, commander?"
Straker did not answer directly. He hit the intercom button. "Dr Vogel, report to the command office immediately."
His summons was acknowledged, and he turned his attention back to Jackson. "Doctor, have you heard about the Antarctica trip?"
"Of course - " Jackson broke off. "You think that - "
"I think Mark Arrowsmith sabotaged the aliens. But I don't think they realised that, else they would know what to look for."
"You do not think the aliens killed him, then?"
"I think if they did, it was an accident - " Straker broke off as the door buzzed. "Ah, Dr Vogel. Please, come in."
"How can I help you, Commander?"
"You were trying the effects of temperature on those samples. Got anywhere?"
"Yes, sir," Vogel told him. "It seemed we were right. When the alloy reaches about 10 degrees Celsius in salty water those nodules burst, and the alloy begins to destroy itself."
"I see… Comment, Jackson?"
"One of the enhancers I used did contain saline, Commander."
"Thank you." Straker rose to his feet. "Dr Jackson, I want some magnolia tea, and some of your enhancing mixture. Enough for the crew of SkyDiver Five, times two. Keep them separate and cold. And I want a two-chamber water pistol. I'm going to be making a delivery. That's all, gentlemen."
They hurried out, and Straker put a call through to Woomera. "Colonel Lake, please…"
* * *
"Still having problems with contacting Five, Lieutenant?" Lake said.
"It's intermittent, ma'am. Moonbase is picking up telemetry, so the sub is still intact. We're getting blackouts every few minutes, and those are becoming more frequent. And Moonbase confirms the aurora is intensifying."
"Keep trying to get past that interference," Lake ordered. Surely, she told herself, Sokolov would deploy a distress buoy, if SkyDiver 5 had had a problem. Surely, if they were attacked, Moonbase would notice…
"Message from SHADO Control, ma'am. It's Commander Straker."
"I'll take it at console two… Thanks. Hello sir, what's up?"
"Ah, Ginny. I want to drop in on Boris Sokolov."
"Do I gather you mean that literally, sir?" Lake said, with a grin.
"I do… Thing is, I need to deliver some items to him, as quickly as possible. Even our SST would take too long. So I plan a suborbital hop."
"Like Alan Shepard?"
"That's right. Only I'll be going a bit further than a few hundred kilometres." Straker paused. "And while I'm at it, I'll test out our new LM ejection system."
"Should be fun," Lake said dryly. "I'll pick up the bits, shall I?"
"Have a lifter on standby," Straker said. "The pilot won't want to have to swim home."
"I'll do that," Lake promised. "And I'll let Boris know you're coming. One thing, though - we have a lot of auroral activity, here, began recently and it's getting stronger. It's already affecting our local communications, though we are still in touch with Five. Just."
"Noted, Colonel, thanks," Straker said. "I'd better get moving. Bye."
He left the office, handing over to Major Ford. He was thinking about an alien base in Antarctica, and whether to bring up the big guns to mount an attack in force. But first they needed to reconnoitre, to find out what it was they were up against… though Straker thought he could make a good guess.
* * *
Shirley the cleaner walked in through the entrance to the apartment block, and exchanged a friendly nod with Dave the janitor . She entered the lift, and pressed the button for Katerina Arrowsmith's floor.
Using her cleaner's key, she entered the apartment, closed the door and stood for a few moments, silent and motionless. Her User, the former 'Steven Rutland', was giving her detailed instructions. She absorbed them; then she walked to the shelves, which displayed a number of books and papers. Following her instructions, she gazed at them, memorising their positions, and then started to search the methodically.
There was nothing there that had not been present the previous day, before the occupant of this place had visited Matthews' former rented flat in London.
Shirley carefully replaced the items she had moved in their memorised positions, then moved to a nearby cupboard and repeated her search. Again, she found nothing.
She tried several more places, but without result. It was only when she checked the kitchen that she found something unusual. In the cupboard was a box of herbal tea sachets, of a type she had not seen before when tidying this apartment. She gazed at it without touching, while she opened her mind to her User in the way she had been given.
Rutland acknowledged this, and told her to continue with her normal business. He did not immediately see the relevance of this find; but it was unexpected, and therefore noteworthy. He would consider it later.
* * *
The lifter was waiting for Straker on the tarmac, the modified LM in position. He leapt from the car and ran to the base of the access gantry. The lift boosted him up to the entry hatch and he climbed inside the vessel. The hatch slid smoothly shut behind him.
The LM pilot was Lew Waterman, doing a period of Earthside duty to re-acclimatise himself to terrestrial gravity. He checked that Straker was safely belted in, and called to the lifter pilot that they were ready to go.
"How long will this take?" Straker demanded.
"About ten minutes to get above the atmosphere. The suborbital will bring us in over the Antarctic in about an hour. I'll advise you when to get into the ejector pod, and then I'll drop you neatly on Sokolov's head."
"Thank you, Captain."
They felt and heard the lifter engines start up, and within a minute they were off the ground. Waterman slid the LM neatly out of its slot, adjusted its attitude, and fired its own engines. Several g of acceleration pressed Straker back into his seat as the LM entered its long elliptical path to the other side of the world.
After some minutes the pressure eased, and they were in free-fall as the craft went ballistic. The sky outside darkened to black. Straker gazed through the canopy, but his thoughts were straying elsewhere, to Paul Foster's interest in that 'alien-contact' incident. Straker didn't object to Paul knowing the details of that terrible night - at least, the operational details; and the strictly personal details were not on record. But clearly, something about that incident was visibly worrying him. Straker had noted Paul's mood at the briefing, and now Ford had indicated as tactfully as possible that he was also concerned about the colonel.
Paul's problem must have been bad, Straker thought, for Ford to pass on those concerns. The specialist had never confined his interest in communications to just the nuts and bolts - or rather, wires and transistors. He was almost as good a psychologist as Jackson, though with few formal qualifications in that aspect.
Straker needed to speak to Paul himself; but that would have to wait until after they had sorted out this little problem of an alien base on Earth soil. He dragged his thoughts back on track.
Half an hour crawled past, but at last they reached the top of their trajectory, and began to fall back to Earth.
"Arrive in ten minutes, sir," Waterman said.
"Noted. How's that radio interference?"
"Getting worse, sir, though I can still hear Woomera and SkyDiver. Just."
"Thank you. Transferring now."
Straker pressed the timer button on his chronometer held in his left gauntlet, unclipped his harness, and pushed himself out of his seat, turning carefully in mid-air. He took the 'rucksack' that Jackson had packed for him, clipped it onto his back, and used the hand-holds to pull himself to the rear of the craft. The ejector pod was a titanium-alloy shell with a padded interior, capable of holding the two members of the LM crew. It dropped from its overhead compartment to fit very snugly into the airlock. Straker floated in and pushed himself down into the lower padding to lie horizontally in the left-hand position, face down, his hands under his shoulders, over small control panels. A viewing display was positioned in front of his faceplate, with optics that made its image appear to hover at infinity. It showed an external view, with various data readouts at the sides.
He pushed the button to close the pod, and felt the padded back push against him to hold him securely from head to toe. Now I know why Lew Waterman called this thing a 'hot dog', he thought. Just hold the ketchup…
There was a quiet click as the oxygen/power umbilical connected to the port in his shoulder. He clicked the timer stop button and checked the display. Twelve seconds to reach this 'lifeboat'. Acceptable; but eight would have been better, and he made a mental note to run more drills with full crews of two.
"Ready to go, Captain."
"I have visual contact with SkyDiver 5," Waterman replied. "Radio contact still poor, I'm afraid. Aurora very strong. Ejecting… now."
There was a jolt, and the pod was pushed out into the Antarctic night. It fell silently, then there was another jolt as the braking 'chutes were deployed.
Straker's radio transceiver, that he had set to transmit his ID continuously, crackled. He could just make out the Slavic tones of Captain Sokolov.
"…aker… receiv… have sighting… retriev…"
"Thank you, Captain. See you shortly." Straker switched bands and called the LM. "Have made contact. You may proceed to rendezvous with Lifter 7."
"Yes, sir. Good luck."
Waterman set his course. As he gazed out through the canopy, seeking the lifter aircraft, he was thinking: A sub-orbital hop into the Antarctic night, and a parachute drop into the sea, to board a submarine… I just hope he remembered the chocolates!
* * *
Waterman had put Straker down with pinpoint precision, no more than a hundred metres from the submarine, which was already deploying a small jet-powered boat. The pod splashed vertically down into the sea, bobbed to the surface, where the jetboat was waiting. It deployed its net, scooping up the pod like a large fish, and towed the pod to the submarine's docking hatch.
Egorov helped him out of the pod, and guided him through the access tunnel. Once inside Diver's cabin, Straker took off his helmet, acknowledged Sokolov's salute, and unslung his rucksack.
"Give this bag to your medic, Captain. There's a note from Jackson explaining it. I'll tell you when to use it… I need to contact Colonel Freeman and Colonel Foster, urgently. But this RFI problem - "
"Of course, sir." Sokolov's face was grim. "Is not natural… I regret to say that we lost voice contact with those men few minutes ago."
"Show me where you put them ashore," Straker ordered.
Sokolov showed him the chart of the area. "Fissure is where we found traces of algae like those from Jersey. Is current of warmer water from it. Freeman and Foster went in to investigate, with Lieutenant Ivanov, two hours ago. We retained contact for some ninety minutes, though quality of link was getting progressively worse."
"What did they find?"
"Noises, seemed to be of machinery. But that was all. They did not encounter anyone, alien or human."
"Is your search party ready to go?"
"Immediately, Commander. Egorov will be leading it, but we were awaiting your arrival."
"Hold them in reserve," Straker directed. "It'll just be Egorov and me for now… Do we know how big an area we have to deal with? And how close it is to places like Halley Base?"
"Readings taken by search team indicate area slightly larger than Moonbase. Is at considerable depth. Is no research station within one thousand miles - at least," Sokolov added, "no earthly station."
"How many torps will it need to take it out?"
"If sent through crevice," Sokolov said, "five, in Pattern C deployment. Halley's seismometers will notice, but should do no damage."
"Set it up, Captain. And have your medic make up enough of that mixture for five. We'll have a dose before we go, and take the rest with us… Drop us off and mark the time. If you do not hear from us in two hours from then, use those torps."
"Yes, sir," Sokolov acknowledged grimly.
* * *
The present situation reminded Foster irresistibly of the underwater dome that the aliens had set up in the Atlantic on a previous occasion. He and Freeman emerged from the crevice into a sprawling but familiar network of passageways through the ice. There were even 'light panels' along the walls, though this time the panels were lit in cold blues and greens. He wondered about this. They had managed to retrieve a few fragments of that dome and its contents, though these had not lasted very long. SHADO scientists had, however, been able to analyse them partially, and had found them to be basically organic, though terrestrial. Perhaps these were similar, and the colouring meant they were cold-water organics. Most likely, though, it was a chance effect.
The two men moved quickly through a long passage into a large, low chamber. One of its walls appeared to be covered with an array of hexagonal panels, for all the world like a huge honeycomb. The panels seemed to be translucent, softly lit from within; but their glow was pure white, unlike the wall panels they had passed.
"I wonder what they store here," Freeman said, softly.
"People?" Foster suggested.
"Wouldn't surprise me. I wonder why there are no guards, not even a supervising console."
"Some readouts at least."
Freeman thought: Well, at least he's talking to me, even if it's only a few words… "Perhaps they've got several 'larders' like this, and control them from somewhere central - " He fell silent, abruptly. "Over here, quick. Someone's coming."
Foster had heard it also, a low rumble, getting louder. They moved silently but quickly into a crack in the rough ice wall. A few moments later, two humanoid figures came into view from a side tunnel lined by more of the 'light panels'. They were guiding a trolley. It reminded Foster uncomfortably of the one he had woken up on in the Jersey 'priest-hole'.
The two figures pushed the trolley into position onto a small platform in an open framework. The platform rose in its framework to an upper level in the honeycomb and began to track across to a column near the middle. The hexagon there opened like a camera iris. The figures pushed the trolley inside, followed it. When they emerged, the trolley was carrying another figure. The trolley was lowered to the ground, and its attendants inspected its passenger. It was an adult male, clearly unconscious.
"Anyone you know?" Foster muttered, his voice barely audible.
Freeman shook his head. He spoke softly into his communicator, passing a report to Ivanov in the minisub, then turned back to Foster. "Let's follow," he whispered. "See if we can find out what they intend to do with him."
"As if we couldn't guess… guinea-pig or spare parts."
"Or both," Freeman agreed. "Check your detector."
Foster glanced at the monitor on his arm. It was showing only low-level activity, indicating that although there were electronic emitters nearby, there were none close. He gave a nod. The trolley was wheeled into the tunnel, and the two SHADO men followed, at a distance.
Not for the first time, Foster was thinking that the aliens were supremely confident, or arrogant, or both. Any human security man would have posted armed guards and detector equipment everywhere, much as he and Ed had done at the Jersey cottage. He thought: Surely, they must be watching us; and he glanced at Freeman. The older man was clearly thinking along similar lines.
And they were indeed being watched; but in a manner that perhaps only Jackson would have understood.
* * *
Avadd stood before the glowing sphere, and bowed. "I greet you, Aethon."
*avadd. i greet you.*
"The two terrans approach. We have not impeded their progress. We will steer them to you."
*that is good.*
"We could take them, and bring them to you under restraint," Avadd suggested.
*no. they must come to me by their own choice.*
"As you wish," Avadd said, a tinge of doubt in his tone.
There was an intense blue flash, and Avadd was writhing on the icy floor. The light faded. *do not question me.*
"My - my apologies, Aethon," Avadd gasped.
*you may go. watch the two terrans carefully. ensure they find the path.*
"It shall be… as you wish." Shaking, Avadd pushed himself to his feet. He bowed to the sphere, turned, and walked to the access tunnel. Once around a corner that shielded him from the entity, he broke into a run.
Two of the adjusted-terrans awaited him in the watch zone. One indicated the display pad, which projected a 3D image of the two approaching terrans. "Visual contact," it said.
Avadd acknowledged this with a nod. "Path plot."
"They follow the sampling team." Above another pad, a ghostly image appeared, showing the surrounding ice and the network of caves and passages. The chamber of the Aethon was at the centre of the image, and the two terrans were outlined in faint blue. A pulsating white line showed the path they were taking.
The adjusted-terran said: "They are on track. Arrival predicted in thirteen minutes."
"Remain concealed," Avadd ordered. "Set the valves to maximum flow, and flood the tunnel with the ecomodifier. Then let the Aethon take them."
* * *
At first, Foster was aware only of a mild headache, and he paid little attention. He did notice, however, that Freeman was rubbing his forehead. "Problem?" he enquired.
Freeman did not answer. Foster started to repeat his question, but broke off. He felt a sensation almost of pressure, and he seemed to hear a voice, from far off. He halted, trying to listen; then he realised that Freeman had started to stride on ahead, making no attempt to walk carefully or quietly. He tried to call the older man back; but his voice would not work… He hurried after Freeman, feeling as though someone was trying to push him forwards. He resisted the urge, as best he could.
For Freeman, the icy tunnel had morphed into a corridor at Moonbase. It was a very long corridor, and at the far end he could see a figure. A woman. She was not one of the Moonbase people, but she was familiar. She turned. She spoke to him, and his heart leapt into his mouth. It was Samantha. His wife.
His dead wife.
Sam can't be here, he told himself, amazed. She's dead. She can't be here… This is an alien trick, it can't be Sam…
The woman's face altered. It wasn't Sam any more. It was Joan. And she was scared. Terrified. She was being attacked. By aliens…
Freeman dashed forward, along that endless corridor; but somehow, he was not closing the gap. Joan was receding from him into the distance, into a sparkle of blue-green light…
He ran faster.
Foster watched him break into a run along the corridor they were following. He was thinking: This is silly. This is SHADO Harlington. We both know our way around here blindfold. How come we're lost?
There was someone at the far end of the corridor. A man, with pale hair, wearing a cream suit. Freeman was running towards him, gun in hand. Foster dashed forward. He was thinking: No you don't, you bastard, you murdered his son, you're going to murder my brother, you hate him…
Straker seemed frozen with fear. He stared at the oncoming Freeman, seemingly too terrified to move. A voice in the depths of Foster's mind seemed to whisper: This is ridiculous. Ed's never been that scared, not ever…
He tried to run faster; but the man he was trying to reach was drifting away into an icy blue-green haze…
* * *
Straker and Egorov guided their 'scooters' into the crevice where Sokolov had put the three men ashore. The mini-sub they had used was there, moored to the ice wall. Straker steered alongside, and inserted a jack into the contact port. "Lieutenant Ivanov? This is Commander Straker. Respond, please."
"Ivanov here," a voice said. "Saw you coming."
"Is all well with you? Have you heard from Colonel Freeman and Colonel Foster?"
"No problems here, sir, apart from interference on comms. They went ashore some time ago. They gave me deadline, time's nearly up. Before I lost contact with them completely, their last report was that they had found some sort of storage unit. Human storage, that is, sir."
Straker could hear the slight tremor in Ivanov's voice. "Very well. Move your deadline to now plus one hour fifty. If none of us is back here by then, leave. Captain Sokolov has orders to saturate the place."
Straker withdrew the jack, and signed to Egorov, indicating that they should surface. The two men scrambled into the crack at the end of the cavern. Their trackers showed the path the two men had taken ahead of them. They arrived at the 'larder', and Straker set Egorov to wait and watch, to gather what information he could on its function.
Straker hurried on, following his tracker path deeper into the icecap. He could see on the display where that path ended in an icon showing the number two.
The icon vanished.
* * *
The man was there again, Katerina thought.
She had eventually decided to talk to Mr Freeman, after much wavering between thinking it would be good to talk about her problem and telling herself not to be so silly, there was no problem. And now she had hesitated so long that Mr Freeman had gone out of England on business, and would not be back for several weeks. The secretary, Miss Ealand, had suggested she talk to Mr Freeman's assistant, but she had declined.
And now here she was heading for Mary's place, and once again, he had been on the same train. It was not even a regular commute, not on Friday lunchtime.
For his part, the Rutland-zom was beginning to consider taking direct action. The communications he was receiving from the Aethon were becoming almost impatient, urging him to speed up the contact process. It did not help that his agent 'Shirley' had found nothing of real significance in the target's apartment; though it remained to investigate that herbal tea more thoroughly. Certainly it would be one of the pieces of data he would extract from his quarry.
It was useful that 'Katerina' had become associated with his mate 'Mary'. She did not expect him home for another week; but he could attribute his unscheduled arrival to the changing requirements of his superiors in the Navy. Accordingly, he bought a small bunch of flowers, and followed Katerina to the Rutland dwelling.
* * *
"Hope I'm not too early," Katerina said, a little nervously, as she followed Mary into the house.
"No, no," Mary assured her. "The guest room is this way, we'll put your case in there and then I'll make us some coffee, that OK?"
In the kitchen, Katerina perched herself on a stool and watched while Mary busied herself with the percolator. "How's your week been?" she enquired.
"Busy," Mary admitted. She piled mugs onto a tray, added a jug of cream, and the filled coffeepot. "Let's be comfortable in the lounge, shall we? After you?"
"Sounds good," Katerina agreed. She led the way, and sank down with a grateful sigh into a large armchair. Mary set down her tray on a small table and plugged in the percolator. After a few moments, brown liquid began to fountain into the glass lid.
"How's things with you?" Mary said, handing her a plate of nibbles.
Katerina took one gratefully. She sighed. "Been a long week, I'm afraid. And I haven't gotten around to talking to Mr Freeman yet," she admitted. "You know what it's like, I keep wondering whether I'm being silly, and I probably am."
"I do know what you mean," Mary agreed. She poured coffee into two mugs, added cream. "Look, Kat, I always think better when my hands are busy… Is it OK if I check out my equipment ready for tomorrow?"
"Sure, go ahead. I'll watch. Might learn something."
"Thinking you might try for the part of d'Artagnan?" Mary chuckled, as she led the way into her office.
"Can't quite see him with a modern competition rifle," Katerina smiled. "Have you ever fired a musket?"
"Can't say I have, no," Mary said. Putting down her mug and plate, she opened the safe, drew out the small black case and the absorbent tray. "Might be fun!"
Katerina laughed, and Mary raised a quizzical eyebrow. "Oh," Katerina explained, "I was just remembering something that happened at the studio. Mr Foster and Mr Straker held a demonstration 'fight' with fencing swords. They were trying to show Pete how things should be done. Only thing was, it was a bit too - well - 'real' to be comfortable. Mr Foster was really angry about something. I was just imagining them having a shoot-out."
Mary thought, but did not say: Ed would win, hands down… "Who, er, 'won'?" she enquired, trying to make her tone light.
"Oh, Mr Foster of course, he's been practising with Chrys. I told you about her - "
Mary looked up as Katerina's voice broke off. She was staring at a photograph on the desk. "What is it, Kat?"
"That's him," Katerina whispered. "That's the man I keep seeing, the one who's been following me around! Is it - "
"That's Steven. My husband. Are you sure it was him?"
"I'm certain," Katerina whispered. "I've seen him several times. It's him. Mary, what on earth is going on?"
Mary bit her lip. "I don't know, but I don't like it! I can only think it's some sort of official business, maybe connected with Mark… Look, I'll ask him about it. He's not due back here for a few days, but I can contact him at the office, ask him to call me."
"Thanks," Katerina said. She took a sip of coffee. Mary noticed that her hand was trembling. "Look, Mary, I'm sorry, I shouldn't have - "
"Oh don't be silly," Mary said, with a smile. She opened the rifle, inspected the mechanism closely. "You know what jobs like Steven's are like. And Mark's, too. Sometimes they get too secretive for their own good."
And sometimes, she thought privately, it goes much further… Her experiences with Ed Straker had left her more than a little cautious in forming new relationships. Steven had been all right though, and she had let her guard drop slowly with him. Except that, just lately…
She shook off the feeling, almost literally. "Don't worry, Kat, we'll sort this out, don't worry… Now, I have to check the mechanism, which means I have to load with a real bullet. I'm legally required to have you standing behind me while I do so, and to point the gun at the buffer." She indicated a large cube of steel-cased translucent orange gel. "I won't actually fire it, so we won't need to wear defenders."
"'Elf and Safety," Katerina agreed. She moved to stand behind Mary, and watched as her friend loaded the weapon.
There was a click as Mary closed the firing chamber; but it had not come from the gun. Mary glanced around. "Steven?"
He was at the door to this office. His face was without expression. His eyes held an icy glitter as he glanced from one woman to the other, then held Katerina's gaze. Her hands went to her lips as her eyes widened in terror.
Mary stared at her husband. Something is dreadfully wrong, she thought. That's Steven… but it isn't. It's almost like he's been… possessed, or something.
He said: "Your presence is required. Now."
"Steven, what is it? What on Earth's the matter…? Steven!!"
Her husband did not answer. Her instincts taking over, Mary reached under the desk, and hit the panic button. The Rutland-zom merely smiled. "Your presence is also required. You will put down that weapon and you will both accompany me."
* * *
Joan had gone. She had faded into thin air, as Freeman emerged from the tunnel into a huge cavern, a faceted sphere at its centre, on a narrow pillar. Foster followed him inside, his face blank. He looked around. Of his brother there was no sign.
All around them the ice twinkled. Flashes of blue and green shot through the surface, growing, merging, spreading, until the two were surrounded by light.
Freeman's skin tingled. Darts of light shot out from the ice and converged on each man, like a personal aurora. It was not quite painful, but it filled Freeman with a sense of foreboding, like the prickly sensation before a storm.
Foster realised that Freeman had halted, staring at the globe. A sudden feeling of apprehension flooded through him. He tried to shout to Freeman, but he could not hear his own voice. He reached out and grabbed Freeman's arm, trying to urge the man away.
Freeman resisted for an instant, and then lashed out. Foster ducked the blow, and tried again, to call to Freeman; but the man's eyes were wild, though whether from fear or pain Foster could not tell.
In the centre of this cavern the faceted sphere began to glow. A pure white light appeared in its depths, grew in intensity, dazzling them. Like automata, they turned slowly to face it, gazing into the glare. They reached out, hands extended, fingers spread ready for contact.
* * *
Straker ran down the corridor, following the trace on the tracker screen. But the corridor changed. It was no longer a roughly-cut narrow passage through ice; it was a wider, warmer, passageway, a place where he had been before. A hospital.
In the distance he could hear a voice, the voice of a young boy, calling to him…
"Johnny!" Straker gasped. He tried to run faster…
…But then he slowed his pace. Johnny couldn't be here. His son was dead. He had died because of the aliens.
And the aliens had tried this trick on him once before. It hadn't worked then, either, he told himself firmly. Try something original, why don't you…
*yes. i shall.*
"Who the hell are you?" Straker shouted.
At least, he thought he was shouting, but he could not hear his own voice. Nevertheless, he got an answer, of sorts.
*i am aethon. i await you…*
He thought the 'voice' hesitated. "Get out of my head," he spat. "Get out of this place. Get out of this world!!"
The 'voice' did not answer, not in words. Straker had a sense of this being, this 'aethon', gathering itself, its strength. He tried to ignore it, to force his thoughts back to reality. He was in an icy passage, chasing Alec and Paul, running to their aid. He concentrated on them; and the passageway walls morphed back into rough ice panelled in drifting blue and green. Ahead of him, brighter gleams and flashes of blue-green light reflected off angular surfaces. He sped up again, rounded a curve; and saw his friends. He shouted to them; but they gave no sign of having heard.
* * *
A sound echoed through the cavern. It was a voice, but it had a ringing, bell-like quality. It spoke, and they could not make out the words, but it conveyed a dreadful meaning.
And the voice was answered, this time by a voice that was entirely human.
Commander Ed Straker entered the cavern at a a dead run, coming to an abrupt halt. More darts of icelight shot out of the cavern walls, made contact with his skin. They were repulsed. He halted, his heart sinking. Both of his friends were in dreadful danger, but he could only hope to reach one before they made contact with that globe, and opened the channel…
His long-time friend, faithful through thick and thin? Or his new-found, longed-for, brother?
Really, there was only one choice.
Straker took careful aim, fired, and Alec Freeman screamed and fell, clutching at his leg. Straker did not wait to watch Alec fall, though his heart was turning to stone within him. He took a step towards Paul Foster, and grabbed his brother's wrist. Behind him, Freeman reached out, straining to touch the pillar, but Straker trod firmly on his hand. As he did so, Paul's own fingertips made contact. There was an instant of stillness; and then the light from the faceted globe grew to a blinding intensity, filling the cavern.
There was a terrible scream. It came from no human throat.
* * *
When, much later, Jackson put together the reports of the curious happenings that night, he noticed certain aspects.
All the deaths happened within an hour of one another, as far as could be determined. A few of the collapses were witnessed; all of these turned out to have occurred simultaneously, to the second. Other deaths were discovered some time after their occurrence, when a worker had gone to seek their colleague. One or two did not die, though their hearts had stopped. Emergency resuscitation brought them back, though it turned out that their minds had collapsed as though from a devastating shock.
At a hospital not far from the studio, the paediatrician Dr Segal, and his assistant Nurse Armon, felt the shock, but at second-hand, which saved their lives. The technician Atkinson was not so lucky; Segal tried to revive him, but was not successful.
At a small cottage belonging to a cleaner at an apartment block in the town of Harlington, the woman, whose name was Shirley, sighed and dropped to the floor, dead in an instant.
At Moonbase, a lunar module was about to break its orbit and descend for landing. It carried a flight crew of two, Alan Carter and Andy Hague, who was coming up to carry out his checks on the Interceptors for the commander. Carter was readying the craft for the manoeuvre when he heard Hague gasp. He looked round to see him slump in his seat, his face pale and twisted with pain. But Hague managed to pull himself together, explaining to a doubtful Carter that his chili the night before must have had too much paprika. They landed without further incident, though Carter advised him to visit the Moonbase medic as soon as possible.
And at a house south of London, Mary Rutland was backing up against a wall, staring at her husband. The gun she had been cleaning, ready for the contest the following day, was in her hand. It was loaded, because she had been checking the mechanism, but it was pointed at the floor. The police were on their way, answering her urgent summons, but they would not be in time, she knew.
Rutland said: "Obey me."
"Please," Katerina moaned. "No…"
Rutland took a step towards her, and Mary jerked up her gun and fired. The weapon was unsilenced, and the report echoed deafeningly in the room. Steven Rutland jerked as the bullet struck his upper arm; but although blood was welling out in a copious stream, he continued to approach the two women, in menacing silence.
And then he did stop. His body stiffened to rigidity. He tried to speak. Blue-green light seemed for a moment to glint in his eyes; then he collapsed silently to the floor.
At that moment the doorbell chimed. At a nod from Mary, who was still staring at her husband, Katerina opened it to a pair of police officers and a man in plain-clothes. The DI took in the scene at a glance. He held out his hand, and without a word, Mary passed her weapon to him. The constable knelt beside the fallen man, checked his vital signs, and shook his head.
"He's dead, sir," he reported. Mary gave a small gasp. "But it doesn't seem to have been from this wound. That appears to be merely a graze."
"Call in CSI," the DI ordered. "And you two ladies come with us."
The plain-clothed officer took Mary’s arm and Katerina’s, though gently, and guided them to the patrol car.
* * *
Straker cautiously opened his eyes. The light around him had diminished considerably in intensity; it was no longer the shimmering blue-green aurora with a white-hot heart. It had faded to a more normal yellow-white glow, and its source was a number of luminous panels set into the rough ice ceiling. He managed to push himself to his knees, and gazed around, taking in the scene.
The central pedestal was still there, though it had a clouded appearance now. And the sphere it held was no longer a sparkling crystal. It appeared to have melted into a formless milky blob, and its substance had dribbled down the pedestal like wax from a candle.
There were two human shapes on the floor by the pedestal, slumped motionless. His heart in his mouth, Straker pushed himself to his feet and took the two strides necessary to reach them. He knelt and turned the nearest onto its side. Paul's face was deathly pale, but his eyes were flickering, and he was trying to speak.
Straker took the 'water pistol' from his belt. He thumbed the mixer control, inserted the nozzle between Paul's lips, and delivered a measured dose of salty floral tea straight into his mouth. Paul gasped, spluttered, and swallowed.
"Paul. Can you hear me? Are you all right?"
"Ed…?" Foster put a trembling hand to his face, and his eyes came fully open. "I'm OK… I think… Alec?"
"He's here," Straker said, moving to the second man. Gently he rolled Alec onto his back, and felt for the neck pulse, which beat strongly under his fingers. He sighed with relief, and checked the leg wound. It was bleeding freely, but not spurting, so the arteries were intact. He managed to get another dose into Alec's mouth; the man stirred, protestingly, but swallowed. "So far so good… Paul, can you stand? We need to get him back to the sub."
Foster dragged himself upright. Between them the pair managed to get the limp body of the colonel over Straker's shoulder in a 'fireman's lift', with Straker’s hand grasping the leg wound firmly. They left the cavern, using their trackers to head back down the narrow passage to the fissure where they had left the sub. Their track took them via the 'larder', and Straker told Egorov to come with them. From time to time they passed side passages, and in one or two of those, bodies both alien and Earth-human were slumped motionless on the ground, apparently dead. By the time they reached their objective Freeman was beginning to rouse a little; and as they hurried to the craft, he growled: "I'm not a sack of potatoes, dammit, put me down!"
Straker smiled a little. "If you say so, Spud." Carefully, with Foster offering support, he set Freeman on his feet on the icy floor. "Take it easy. Let's get you aboard."
He used the external jack once more to contact Ivanov, who opened the hatch. Between them they manoeuvred Freeman inside, and sat him in the observer's seat. The commander put out a hand, and Ivanov passed him a pressure dressing and a pair of shears to cut away the fabric of Freeman's drysuit. Freeman winced as the bandage was applied, sighed with relief, and looked up at his friends. For a moment, he thought he saw a crystalline glitter in Straker's eyes; but it was gone, and he chided himself for letting his imagination run away with him.
He said: "OK, what happened there, for god's sake? How did I get this hole in my leg? And why have I got this truly foul taste in my mouth?"
"Let's discuss that later." Straker glanced up at Ivanov. "You'd better have some of that as well… Any contact with Boris?"
"As it happens, sir, yes," the lieutenant replied. "Interference on comms cleared completely about ten minutes ago. I will call him for you, sir."
In a few moments, Sokolov's relieved voice came over the speaker. "Commander! Good to hear you… What is your party's status?"
"We're all fine," Straker assured him, ignoring Freeman's snort of disagreement. "Apart from a few scratches, that is… Boris, I want you to send your men in. Have them armed for bear - but expect mice. And have them bring some more tea, as much as they can carry. I want a complete survey of this place, including environmental content. I'll send Alec back with Ivan, he's wounded slightly, and I'll wait here with Paul and Igor until your men arrive… When's the 'Aristarchus' due?"
"Two and one-half hours, sir."
"Good… Call Colonel Lake at Woomera, have her organise a tankerful of tea to Jackson's recipe."
"We're going to have a tea-party." Straker signed off.
"Commander?" Foster said.
Straker thought he sounded nervous. "Yes, Colonel?"
Foster made himself stand to attention. Gazing straight ahead, he said: "Commander, I wish to report myself for a - misdemeanour. May I discuss the details with you at a more suitable time? Say when we get back to base?"
"It is so noted, Colonel." Straker's voice was neutral, but he wanted to cheer. "Right now you can help me with the Meccano."
* * *
While they waited for the minisub to return with Sokolov's Q group, Straker, Foster, and Egorov constructed a 'landing stage' out of rods and tie-pieces carried by the craft for exactly this kind of purpose. They drilled holes in the ice to anchor the structure, which looked more than a little like a builder's scaffold.
As they worked, Straker fired quick questions at Egorov. "What did you find at that place, Lieutenant?" he queried.
"Word 'larder' is appropriate," Egorov said, grimly. "Are definitely storage pods for live humans, both sexes. Seem to be in what you might call 'suspended animation'."
"How many?" Straker pursued, as he tightened a joint. It was difficult to get purchase on the ice, even with crampons; he made a mental note that SkyDiver should be given zero-g 'reactionless' tools like the ones astronauts used.
"I estimate one thousand, sir," Egorov told him. "Please pass me tie-piece… my thanks. Not all are occupied. Indications are that some may have had occupants, but these have been removed."
Straker recalled the 'Galway encounter', when Mrs O'Connor had told him how her grandson David had been abducted many years before, and had returned as an adult under alien control… He said, carefully: "Were they all adults?"
"No, sir," Egorov told him, and now there was a definite tremor in his voice. "Perhaps one hundred were in early to mid teens. None were younger than about ten years."
"I see," Straker said. "Thank you, Lieutenant. When the troops arrive we'll take a closer look."
As the trio continued their work, they watched the crevice carefully, but no-one emerged from it. Straker wondered about that, and about the dead bodies they had encountered. Surely they hadn't all died here? Had they self-destructed?
Lights appeared below the surface, and a voice sounded in their headphones. "Ivanov here. Commander Straker, do you read me?"
"Loud and clear," Straker replied. "Who's with you?"
"Q-Group Foxtrot, sir. Your instructions?"
"Put them ashore here, please. We're going exploring."
After a few moments, the minisub surfaced, and its hatch opened. A man in a close-fitting coverall and boots climbed out, tested his handhold on the 'scaffold', and pulled himself up alongside Straker. Even in that somewhat precarious position he managed a salute. "Captain Ngana, sir. I have a party of three, one of whom is medically qualified. We have all received doses of your tea… Your instructions?"
"We're going in there." Straker pointed to the crevice. "Initial indications are that the unfriendlies are inactive - but don't count on it. Right, Ivan stay here, the rest follow me. Paul, bring up the rear, and drop relays as we go."
* * *
Straker led the way through the maze of corridors, their panelled walls now lit only with a feeble, milky glow. At each branch he halted the party, sent two of Captain Ngana's men down with Egorov to check. Most of these side passages were short and ended in chambers filled with equipment. Some of those were occupied; but none of the occupants were alive.
"No sign of violence, sir," Egorov reported after the first of these branches. "If I had to guess, I'd say they died of shock."
"Are they alien or human?"
"Both - but most are human."
Straker nodded. "Let's press on."
It was the same story everywhere. The deaths had been sudden; it seemed that none of the victims had had time even to struggle.
At length they arrived at the chamber Egorov had described as a larder. It was, Straker thought as he gazed at the array of hexagonal panels, an only too apt description.
Foster placed another relay at the entrance to the chamber, tested the connection, and gave a nod of satisfaction. "We're in contact with Captain Sokolov, Commander," he said. "And the 'Aristarchus' has arrived."
"Good. We'll need them… Well, Paul, you've seen this before. Any comments?"
"Sir, the passages we came in by, their panels or whatever they were had been fully powered, they aren't any more. But this lot still seems to be running."
"And you said they held human beings?"
"Hmm." Straker considered for a few moments; then he turned to Ngana. "Captain, can you open one of these 'pods' without killing the occupant?"
"I'll investigate, sir." Ngana beckoned to one of his men, and together they hurried to the base of the array.
Straker turned to Foster once more. "I don't see anything like a control station."
"Nor did we," Foster agreed. "Freeman and I wondered if there were more than one of these set-ups, controlled from a central point."
"Maybe," Straker agreed. He thought: Freeman, is it? Not Alec, not even 'Colonel'? He paused, looking over the array. "Igor, you estimated there must be a thousand here… If there are more like this, how many people are we talking about, for god's sake?"
Egorov could only shrug, but at that point Ngana called them over. "Think we've got it, sir," he said. "It's not cold-storage, they aren't frozen or even chilled. They seem to be asleep. They have modules on their abdomens that look like they could be feeding them and extracting waste."
"They'd need something like that on the long trip to Alpha Centauri," Straker agreed. "OK, let's have one out of there - and give him some magnolia tea. John, I don't know what kind of mood he'll be in if and when he wakes - but try to subdue him without killing him, OK?"
* * *
They chose an adult male, whose apparent age was somewhere in the mid-twenties. The young man was wearing a coverall of an unfamiliar fabric. Ngana's medic examined him with care, while Straker and Foster watched.
"Good vital signs, nothing unusual," the medic reported. "I'll try a stimulant."
He gave an injection. After a few moments the man stirred, his eyelids flickered, and came open. His lips moved. He whispered a word, in a language Straker did not recognise.
"Do you speak English?" the medic said, speaking slowly and clearly.
The man's eyes moved to the medic's face. They widened. He screamed, and tried to struggle. The medic tried to talk to him, as soothingly as he could, but the man continued to try to fight.
At length the medic shook his head, and gave another injection. The man relaxed against the pallet, eyes still open slightly, still trying to speak, to repeat the same word.
"What now, sir?"
"He can stay here until the 'Aristarchus' arrives," Straker said. "Have one of your men stay with him… Any idea what he was trying to say?"
"Well, sir," the medic said, slowly, "I can't be 100% sure as I don't speak much mediaeval English, but I think he said 'demon'."
"That's right, sir."
Straker gazed around the chamber. "My god," he whispered. "Exactly how long has this place been here?"
* * *
At the SkyDiver medic's insistence, Freeman was stretched out on Sokolov's bunk, his bandaged leg supported on a pillow. His bruised left hand wore a dressing-glove, and in his other hand he was holding a steaming glass of Skydiver 5's own Russian tea. Straker and Foster were on the bench seat opposite, each with their own full mugs, and Sokolov himself was perched on a small collapsible stool.
Freeman sipped at his glass, and gave an appreciative smile. "This stuff is way better than that potion of yours, Ed," he smiled. "What was that all about?"
"Think of it as an antidote," Straker said. "Jackson's investigations into that so-called ‘nerve gas’ have borne some fruit. He thinks it wasn’t intended to be a poison at all – it was a binary, an agent plus complement, supposed to match the aliens with Earth’s environment somehow, so they could move in and live here.”
“And we wouldn’t have survived?”
“Exactly. That 'potion', as you call it, counteracted the 'nerve-gas', or at least the attenuated version they used on Marion. He'll give you all the details you want when we get back home. Boris's medic has confirmed that our 'landing party' was exposed to the gas - and Jackson's potion dealt with it."
"I'm glad to hear it," Freeman said, dryly. "What put him onto it? And was there a connection with Jersey?"
"There sure was," Straker said, grimly. "It was that magnolia tree in Marion's garden. Mark realised it was what he wanted - that's why he put that note in that guidebook you showed me, Paul, the one you found at your parents' old place in London. You were right, that was what the aliens were looking for - or at least, how to use it. But you were also wrong, and so were they - it wouldn't have worked. Jackson discovered that Mark managed to extract a substance from the flowers of Marion's tree, and told the aliens it was the complement. In fact, rather than activating the binary, it rendered it inactive, useless."
"Why would Dr Arrowsmith have done that?" Freeman wanted to know. "Was he becoming suspicious?"
"So it seems," Straker said. "He had developed a true antidote to this so-called 'nerve gas'. He hadn't told anyone he had done that. Robert Fletcher thought that the compound was a precursor to the complement, and so did the aliens. They were trying to duplicate the method they believed Dr Arrowsmith used to produce their complement."
"And one of their attempts yielded the stuff they used on Marion," Freeman said, with a nod.
"So it seems."
Foster whistled, softly. "And they were after Katerina, because she liked jasmine tea! They thought she'd know what her husband had been doing with it!"
"Exactly," Straker said. "SHADO has her under guard, unobtrusively… I think this confirms that Dr Arrowsmith was taken by the aliens, and probably died under questioning. He might even have suicided… It is a great shame that we can't tell his wife about him, about what he did for us all. He was a very smart and very brave man."
"And that 'larder' we found?" Boris said. "Was that purpose of installation under icecap?"
"We believe so - one of its purposes, at least," Straker answered. "It's processing those earth-humans for some purpose, probably zomming, possibly something else. It's a manufacturing facility as well, and a listening-post. It may have been there for centuries. And there was another thing, some kind of equipment, electronic perhaps. I could best describe it as a contact point."
"Please? Contact with what, Commander?"
"Better ask Doug Jackson about that," Foster put in. He had not come out of the encounter any too well himself; he felt as though he had been sunburned all over. The medic has given him something to soothe his skin, or he would have been scratching everywhere. He had been assured, however, that none of them had been exposed to any kind of ionising radiation.
Sokolov's frown only deepened. "What Paul means," Straker explained, "is that we made brief contact with an entity - or entities - who might have been Jackson's 'non-material beings'. The ones who took over that cat, and through it, Astronaut Regan."
"I see." Sokolov sipped at his own tea. "Well, Commander, I have started investigations of base, but we must await arrival of SRV 'Aristarchus' before we can commence examinations of captives. They are bringing specialist medical teams, and will be advised by Dr Jackson. We await your instructions on how best to approach situation."
"Reviving four thousand people from suspended animation will be tricky," Freeman said, dryly. "Especially when you don't know exactly what's going to wake up!"
Straker gave a nod. He did not have to give voice to the thought that was in the forefront of all their minds: that each of those four thousand people might have to be killed. "For the moment, Boris, we'll try to wake only a few at a time. Say groups of five. Those we succeed in reviving will be placed under close guard, and evaluated according to the protocols Jackson has developed. Then we'll have to send them home. With hefty doses of amnesia. And we'll have to work out what to do for the long-term stay ones, how to ease them gently into the present."
"What about those empty pods?" Foster asked. "Not the unused ones, the ones which had been used and then had their occupants removed?"
"We'll need to do full forensic checks, see if we can work out exactly what happened there. I'd say that, broadly speaking, they could represent either success or failure."
"That covers a lot of ground," Freeman said, dryly. "But I know what you mean. If this process, whatever it was, failed, I doubt whether the subjects would have survived. And if it succeeded, they would have been put to use somehow."
Sokolov placed his empty mug on his desk and rose to his feet. "Well, gentlemen, if you will excuse me, I will return to my post. Commander, I will advise you when 'Aristarchus' reports, and arrange to transfer you three to Woomera for return to SHADO."
The captain departed. For a few moments, there was silence in the room; then Straker cleared his throat. Foster realised, with a jolt, that his brother was nervous, even embarrassed.
Straker looked at the other two in turn. "Gentlemen, I owe you an explanation," he said.
"If you mean about this hole in my leg," Freeman said, "don't worry. I understand."
"I wonder if you do," Straker muttered. "You see - when I arrived, you were both about to touch that globe. I can't know what would have happened then, but I guess it wouldn't have been good. I had to prevent contact. But I could only reach one of you in time. The other would have to take his chances."
"So you saved Paul," Freeman said, with a slight smile. "Don't worry, Ed, I - "
"But I didn't," Straker cut in. "I chose to save you."
"I don't get it - "
"I think I do," Foster said, slowly. "You could disable one of us and try to grab the other. You shot Alec to prevent him from touching that thing, and then you grabbed me."
"Exactly. As you've pointed out in the past, Paul," Straker admitted, with a rueful smile, "you're younger, fitter, and stronger than either of us. And you've had experience of meeting and defeating aliens in what could be called 'hand-to-hand combat'. You had the best chance of the three of us of dealing with that situation."
Foster digested this for a few minutes, then gave a slow nod. "But I did touch it," he said, slowly. "What happened then?"
"I'm not sure. I was in physical contact with you - I'd grabbed your wrist to pull your hand away. And I stepped on Alec's hand. So the three of us effectively made contact together. I confess I can't see why that should have blown its fuse, but I'm grateful that it did."
"I don't remember very much of what happened," Freeman said, slowly. "I was hallucinating, I suppose. I - I thought Sam was there, but I knew she couldn't be. Then I saw Joan. Then - I think I tried to touch that thing in there… and I saw what you two were seeing. Directly, through your eyes."
"So did I," Foster agreed.
Straker said: "And I through yours… And then I think we met someone else. A living mind. It saw the three of us - and it seemed to have some sort of fit. As though whatever it saw in our heads frightened it. And it broke contact, completely."
"I wonder if we killed it?" Freeman asked.
"I don't think so," Straker said, slowly. "But I don't think it'll be back in a hurry."
* * *
The small room was furnished only with a table, some chairs, and recording apparatus. A WPC sat across the table from Mary. The DI was outside, speaking with his officers.
The door opened. DI Brogan entered, and with him was a man Mary knew she should recognise. "Mrs Rutland?" he said. "My name's Jack Webb. I'm with the Studio, on their legal team. I helped your friend Ms Arrowsmith in a recent incident there. Would you like me to advise you, or would you prefer to send for your own solicitor?"
"Did - didn't I see you at Marion Knight's funeral?"
"I was there, yes," Webb smiled.
"And Katerina's spoken to me about you… Yes please, I'd appreciate your advice."
"It will be a pleasure." Webb looked at Brogan enquiringly, got a nod, and sat beside Mary. The DI took a seat next to the WPC, who switched on the recorder.
Brogan questioned Mary closely about the incident while Webb and the WPC took notes, Webb making occasional comments. Finally, Brogan said: "It seems clear that you acted in self-defence. We will draw up a statement for you to read and sign. Initial indications are that your husband died of some kind of heart attack unrelated to the injury your shot caused him, but we must wait for the results of the post-mortem, of course. In the meantime you are not under arrest and may leave, but remain in touch. Do you have relatives, or anyone you wish to contact about this?"
"There's my cousin, Penny," Mary said. "And Katerina is a house-guest. Is she all right?"
"She's fine. She is a witness, of course, and both of you will be required to attend the inquest."
"Don't worry, Mrs Rutland," Webb put in. "I'll contact your cousin, and make sure you two are settled."
"Thank you, Mr Webb," Mary said.
* * *
It's great to be back, Straker thought, gazing around his office. The door closed behind him, and he made his way over to the desk and lowered himself into the chair with a sigh. Time for a large coffee -
And then the door buzzed. No peace for the wicked… He checked the monitor, and gave a rueful smile. It was Paul. He touched the button, and the door opened. "Come in, Paul."
Foster walked in, stiffly, and stood to attention in front of the desk, gazing straight ahead. The door closed once more. He said: "Commander, may I speak with you?"
"Of course, Colonel." Straker sat upright, steepled his fingers, and looked at Foster over their tips. "Well?"
"Sir. As I mentioned at that Antarctic base, I wish to report myself, for the misdemeanour of using SHADO facilities for private purposes."
"Go on," Straker said.
"I needed to talk to Lieutenant Chrysanthea Jones, about a problem which was both personal and private, and which I felt could not wait. As you know she is currently at Cape Canaveral, on her training course. The - the things I wished to discuss could not be said over an open link; but I considered them urgent, enough that they had a bearing on whether I stayed with SHADO or not."
Straker blinked at this. "You considered resigning?"
"And have you reached a decision on that?"
"Not yet, sir. Chrys - Lieutenant Jones did offer suggestions, though she did point out that I was acting outside regs, sir. She is not to blame for the incident in any way."
"I see, Colonel. Thank you. I will, of course, ask her about it at her review next month, but I don't think it's urgent." Straker considered for a few moments. "I should tell you that this came up in the comms audit, which Lieutenant Anderson carried out, rather earlier than scheduled because of Major Ford's promotion… You are reprimanded. A note to that effect will be placed on your record - with a comment that you chose to admit your error without having to be asked, which is a point in your favour."
"Yes, sir. Thank you."
"Also, you have my permission to contact Lieutenant Jones on a secure link, for five minutes, to bring her up to date… Now sit down, Paul. I'll get us some coffee, and then you can tell me, informally, why it is you might want to resign."
Foster moved to the conference table, and sat in one of the chairs there. He relaxed a little, as Straker went to the mini-bar. He took a breath. "Well… Ed - " Straker's eyebrows went up; Foster was addressing him as a brother. "You know I've been trying to catch up on a few decades' worth of family history."
Straker put two filled mugs on the long conference table. "So what skeletons have come leaping out of the family closets?" he enquired.
"You've been having a busy time." Paul gulped coffee, and smiled; but then his smile faded, and his expression became grave. "Ed, I did indeed find a skeleton. And it's called Alec Freeman."
"Why on Earth?" Straker asked, surprised.
"How is it you don't hate him?"
"No reason to - " Straker froze, and his voice stopped abruptly. "Go on."
"I'm sorry," Foster said, quietly. "I shouldn't have brought the subject up… but these things have a way of festering."
"They sure do. But go on, Paul."
Foster took a long breath. "After the Jersey affair, you explained about Johnny, how he'd died in an incident. I looked up his death certificate, and compared it with SHADO records. I found out about the courier, how you were reprimanded yourself for using it for private purposes. And then you lost a day, you went wandering around the countryside, out of contact, so we had to alert the police, we thought you'd been kidnapped. I put all those bits together. And I found that you'd got the courier to pick up a medical package, for Johnny. I found that Alec had diverted it, to intercept that alien. And I found that it hadn't arrived in time - "
He broke off. Straker had turned away, staring into the light panel, his shoulders rigid. In a muffled voice, he said: "You're thinking that Alec murdered Johnny."
"He didn't." Straker took a long, shuddering breath, and looked around. Shocked, Paul realised that a tear was trickling down Ed's face. "Alec didn't know what was on board that airplane. He did what he had to. An alien had arrived who seemed to want to make contact, we HAD to go out to him. Alec did exactly the right thing… and I'm grateful to him. If I'd been the one who - who had to make that choice… I don't know what I would have done. As it was… I had the lesser choice of deciding to get the courier back in the air immediately or let it do its job. I… I thought about priorities… and I chose the alien over my son… and we lost the alien. And - Johnny died - "
Straker fell back into his chair, put his face in his hands. His shoulders shook a little.
Fighting back his own tears, Paul took two glasses from the shelf and poured Scotch into them. He wrapped his brother's unresisting fingers around one of the glasses. Ed took a huge gulp, coughed a little, and spoke once more, his voice barely more than a tear-soaked whisper. "You - you may wonder why I didn't tell Alec what it was all about."
"I do wonder," Paul got out.
"Because then it would have been Alec who made that decision about Johnny. And it wasn't his decision to make. I'm Johnny's father, that decision was mine and only mine, and I wasn't about to drop it in anyone else's lap." He took a tissue, dabbed it at his face, and looked up at Paul through red-rimmed eyes. "You're not a father yourself, Paul, but you may become one in God's good time. When you do, certain things will become all too clear to you."
"I don't doubt it," Paul croaked. "My god, Ed, I'm sorry, I should never have said anything - "
"No. No, you did the right thing. As you say, these things fester if they're not resolved. And it was festering. It was bound to. Don't think I haven't noticed the tension that's been between you two lately."
"Right enough," Paul admitted. He drank the contents of his own glass, stood up, and walked to the minibar. Taking a clean handkerchief from his pocket he soaked it in iced water from the dispenser, then wrung it part-dry. "I rather think I owe him a huge apology - no, don't worry, I won't tell him what it was about," he added, as Ed made to speak. "I'll just tell him I'm missing Chrys."
"Are you?" Ed said, with a slight watery smile. "Thanks," he added, as he took the cloth from Paul and used it to wipe his eyes. He held it against his face for a few moments, and relaxed a little.
"Just a bit."
"Should I ask if there are wedding bells on the horizon?"
"There aren't, not yet," Paul told him. "We've agreed to let things ride for a bit, while we settle down. It's all rather new and raw at present."
"I'd say that was very wise. If, that is, I were qualified to judge… Well, if you’re going to stay with us, perhaps I should send you back to Moonbase for a bit. Jackson says you're fit, and it would keep you out of mischief."
"The Eagle project?"
"Exactly." Ed finished wiping his face and lowered the cloth. "Thanks… I'll launder this and let you have it back in a couple of days."
"That would be great," Paul smiled. "Well, if you'll excuse me, Commander, I'll go apologise to Alec. And then I'd better book myself a seat on the bus."
"You do that, Colonel." Straker's answering smile was shaky, but genuine.
* * *
Foster departed. Straker took a long breath, composing himself. He glanced at his in-tray, and stifled a sigh; the pile in it had definitely grown.
Right now he wanted nothing more than a long and deep sleep. He looked over at the abstract mural above the conference table, and his gaze travelled towards the angled alcove that held a disguised door through to the sleeproom behind this office. That room had been installed at his 'suggestion' when SHADO was being built; but he had used it only twice, in all these years. It beckoned to him now; but first he had some loose ends to tidy up.
With a deep breath, he took the first folder off the stack, laid it on the lucite surface, and looked at the cover page. This had been compiled by Dr Jackson, but it did not seem to be about Plan Gamma. Its title gave little indication of its contents, being only about the events of a specific day.
He opened it, and looked at the first page. It was a list of deaths.
All thoughts of sleep evaporated. He recognised a few of the names: many were from SHADO, many from the forces, and many from the government. Others included such apparently minor people as a medical technician from the local hospital, and a cleaner from the apartment block where Paul lived, as did Katerina Arrowsmith. All had happened on the same date, and apparently at the same time, to the second.
Then one name leapt out at him. Captain Steven Rutland. Mary's husband.
He hit the intercom button. "Doctor Jackson, report to the command office immediately!" And if you're in bed, Jackson, he thought savagely, that's just too damn bad…
There was a buzz from the door. He hit the button to open it, thinking: OK, that was quick… But it was not Jackson who entered; it was Colonel Webb. He was accompanied by a man hose name Straker had to fight to remember.
“Good morning, commander,” Webb said. “This is Marsden, one of my security people. How can we help?”
"Jack. Just the man… Do you know about this? People dropping dead all over the place?" Straker tapped the folder.
"More than just Captain Rutland, you mean?" Webb said, frowning. "No, I didn't. I've been looking after Mary, and her friend Katerina. They're both fine, if considerably shaken up. I left them in the charge of Mary's cousin, Penny."
"What happened there?"
"First I should tell you that Dr Jackson will be somewhat delayed. He is supervising the autopsy on Captain Rutland, as he suspects the man had been 'zommed'. But don't worry," Webb repeated. "He did try to abduct Mary and Katerina - but Mary shot him. In the arm, the wound was slight and not life-threatening. The police are satisfied that Mary acted in self-defence. Marsden here accompanied the police in their response to her call, and I was present as their legal adviser at the interviews."
More than a little relieved, Straker made himself relax. "Thank you, both of you," he said, quietly.
"A pleasure." Webb gave a smile, and pointed to the folder. "These deaths, and collapses, took place while you were in that Antarctica alien base. Do I understand that something happened there with you three?"
"It sure did," Straker said grimly. He checked through his in-tray. "One moment… Ah, here we are. It's the downloads from the trackers we were using, to trace our movements in there, and it gives time-codes, referred to GMT. We met something, or someone, a kind of 'presence'. We came into conflict with it, and it withdrew in a hurry. There were a lot of deaths there, as well. Let me check the times."
He placed the two pages alongside each other, and his eyebrows rose. "Jack," he said, quietly. "Look at this."
Webb read the two sheets, compared them, and whistled softly. "All at the same moment… the moment when the three of you encountered that… being."
"What can you tell me about that?" Webb asked.
"Paul touched the sphere before I could drag him back," Straker said. "But I was in physical contact with him, even if only through his clothing. I was also in physical contact with Alec - I was treading on his hand. So it seemed to be a triple contact. Though as I said at the time, I can't see why that should have repelled this being."
"What were you thinking about at the time?"
"I'd shouted at this 'aethon' to get out of this world. But that was earlier… When the three of us made that contact, I was angry. Furious. And scared. I wanted to defend my friends from this monster… But it wasn't really a monster, I felt, it seemed more a child, playing with a new toy. It didn't really understand what it was doing, what the implications were."
"Fascinating," Webb murmured. "So you paddled its aetherial behind and gave it a telling-off."
"Yes," Straker said, thoughtfully. "That's how it was… I had the feeling that it was ashamed of itself. It apologised… and then it went home."
"We can but hope! But I think I'd better get Alec and Paul back in, and talk to them."
"I'll leave you to it," Webb said, getting up. "And don't worry about Mary, Ed. I'll make sure she's OK."
"Thank you, Jack," Straker said.
* * *
When Freeman arrived in Control back from his visit to Dr Shroeder, leaning a little less heavily on his stick, the first face he saw was that of Paul Foster. A little to Freeman's surprise the colonel was looking slightly embarrassed.
"Would you have a moment, sir?" Foster asked.
Freeman looked him over. "I might," he admitted. "The messhall? Or my office, as long as Jackson doesn't think I'm breaking sick leave?"
"Your office would be quieter," Foster said.
"Then lead the way."
When they were seated, and the door closed, Freeman looked at the younger man intently. "Well, Paul? What's the problem?"
"Me, I'm afraid." At Freeman's quizzically raised eyebrow, Foster went on: "I have to apologise, sir. I know I've been less than civil to you lately, and it was entirely uncalled-for. I really am sorry, sir."
Freeman's expression softened a little. "That's good of you, Paul. I won't ask what the problem is - was - as you've obviously sorted it out to your satisfaction. I suppose you've been talking to Ed about it?"
"It may have come up in the conversation," Foster admitted.
"I'll bet… Well, Paul, don't worry about it. These things happen in the best-regulated families. Talking of which, how’s Chrys doing?”
“Fine. Really well. I miss her like crazy!”
“I’ll bet,” Freeman smirked. “Met her folks yet?”
Foster laughed a little. “Yes, I have – well, her parents, and her brother Lupe, who’s married. Her sister Delphinea is abroad at the moment.”
“Get on with them OK? And they with you?”
“Actually, that was a bit awkward at first,” Foster admitted. “Chrys introduced me, they asked me what I did, I said ‘movie executive’. They weren’t happy – they obviously don’t see movie-making as ‘real work’. But Chrys chipped in and said that I used to be a test pilot but was grounded after a crash, and Straker had ‘rescued’ me. Their eyes lit up. Her mother practically wrote out the wedding invitations on the spot!”
“Seems the whole family’s into flying. Including the sister-in law. And probably the dog!”
“Civilian or military?” Freeman enquired.
“Sounds like you’re in for an exciting time,” Freeman smiled. “Ah well, on to other things… how's the neck? Are you back to work?"
"Yes. Ed wants me to go up to Moonbase, get up to speed with the Eagle Project. And what about you? How's the leg?"
"Lucky b#ggar," Freeman growled, and Foster had to smile. "No, the leg's OK - Ed didn't hit anything that matters, and the docs are just being cautious. There's only one problem. Above stairs."
"Well," Freeman explained, a touch of mischief creeping into his voice, "what with you cutting yourself with your shaving razor, and me shooting myself in the foot, the crew seems to be thinking we've lost the plot! Now they're wondering what Ed's going to do - seduce Miss Ealand?"
"Not jealous, are you, Alec?" Foster said, wickedly.
"Me?" Freeman said, putting on an air of wide-eyed innocence.
At that moment the intercom on Freeman's desk buzzed. He lifted the handset, listened for a few moments. "Yes, he is… We'll be right there."
"Ed wants us," Foster said.
"Indeed he does. Let's go."
* * *
"Come in, both of you, and sit down. I've sent for coffee… How's that leg, Alec?"
"It's as good as can be expected," Freeman said, with a heavy sigh, as he lowered himself theatrically into a chair by the conference table. Foster chuckled and took a seat beside him, and Straker hid his relief. "No, seriously, it's fine. I should be able to drive in a couple of days."
"Great. Now I'd like you to read this." Straker passed across Jackson's report, and Freeman took it. "He should be here shortly - ah."
The command office door opened, and Jackson entered, bearing a loaded tray. He set it down on the table, frowning a little. "Colonel Freeman, I believe I ordered you to take a few days' sick leave?"
"Oh, I'm just here as an observer," Freeman told him, airily. "I - Good god!"
"What's up?" Foster said, sharply.
"Look at this." Freeman stabbed at the page with his forefinger.
Foster took the file, ran his eyes down the page, and whistled. He looked up at Jackson, who was busying himself pouring coffee. "Wow… It looks like this 'aethon'' didn't just blow its fuse, it threw a major tantrum!"
"Sure looks that way to me," Straker agreed. He took a full mug from Jackson. "Thanks… Does this mean what I think it means, Doctor?"
"That one at least of my 'wild theories' was correct?" Jackson smiled. "That certain people were under direct control from this non-material entity, and that control has now been cut off?"
"How could we check that?" Straker asked.
Jackson considered, sipping his own coffee. He said: "It's possible that the degree of control used varies from one person to another, depending perhaps on the degree of susceptibility of the individuals concerned. We need to be on the lookout for reports of sudden psychological illness among specific groups of personnel."
"Agreed," Straker said. "Alec, I'll need you to monitor SHADO itself; Paul, keep an eye on Moonbase. Is Joan still liaising with Alpha?"
"She is," Foster confirmed. "I'll post her as watchdog, and perhaps get the Professor in the loop as well."
"What about the IAC?" Freeman said.
"Perhaps I'll get Mrs Baines to keep her eye on things there," Straker suggested. At their looks of surprise, he added: "Paul was right. There is an attachment there, and it's been going on for years."
Freeman choked on his coffee. Recovering, he croaked: "You HAVE to be kidding me!!"
"He isn't," Foster said, with a broad smile. "Chrys noticed it as well."
"The sly old - weasel!!"
Jackson smiled also. He finished his coffee. "Well, gentlemen, if you will excuse me, I have to update my report on Project Gamma. Colonel Freeman, if you are not home and resting in one hour, I will place you under medical restraint."
"Yes, Doctor," Freeman said, meekly.
Jackson left, and the door closed behind him. Foster said, only half joking: "Is that it? Are we all out of a job?"
Straker gave a grunt, recalling his earlier conversation with Freeman after the funeral, on this very subject. "You serious?"
"Partly," Foster said. "Just lately, the aliens have taken a bit of a beating, haven't they? Moonbase Alpha blew them to bits, a lot of them anyway. They lost their link to their main agent here." He grimaced, and Freeman gave a sympathetic smile. "And now we've taken out their Antarctica base, and their link to the being who likes cats, and in doing so, killed off a lot of their zoms. And we've derailed their 'terraforming' project. So what's next? Do they give up and go home?"
"All quite true," Freeman agreed. He, too, had taken some time to think about the situation. "Also, there's the point that we know where they are, in this system at any rate. They must know we know that - and they must know about the Eagle project. Also, they must know that NASA has more expeditions planned, and not just to Mars and Venus, and several assorted comets. They must be expecting us to go out and have a look, at the very least - followed by an actual counterstrike."
"I said as much to Sue Grant, the ILFC Chair," Straker confirmed. "But how the aliens might react to the current situation is uncertain. What do you two think they might do?"
"The way I see it," Freeman said, thoughtfully, "is yes, they might give up - except for one thing. They need us, they need this planet. As you said once before, they are driven by the need for survival. They're desperate. Desperate humans don't act reasonably or predictably, and I'd say desperate aliens wouldn't be much different."
"They sure wouldn't," Straker agreed, grimly. "As I said to Dr Grant, it's quite possible they may decide to take us with them when they go down."
His friends stared at him in horror. At last Freeman whispered: "You're right. They would. Hell, I would in their place."
"So what do we do? A pre-emptive strike?" Foster demanded.
"If we have to," Straker said. "But I'd prefer to talk to them first. Trouble is, we have been trying to talk to them, but we've been ignored."
"Keith's project," Freeman said.
"Exactly. And that's not surprising, if they really do think of us as just animals… Paul, you did mention that the alien you encountered at the cottage referred to you as 'it', not 'he'. Now," Straker continued, steepling his fingers under his chin and looking at them each in turn, "it's a technique not exactly uncommon in interrogating an enemy prisoner to, er, dehumanise them, make them feel insignificant. It damages their will to resist. But - forgive me for the reminder, Paul - there was no intent to interrogate you, just to 'harvest' you, and they sure didn't need your co-operation in that. I think their 'it' was an accurate indication of how they feel about us. They really do think we're just animals. Clever animals with bows and arrows, sure, but still animals."
"So how do we - " Freeman stopped abruptly, with a sharp breath. "Ed, don't you dare!!"
For a moment, the commander considered indulging in a little wide-eyed innocence, but the situation was far too grave. "Oh, don't worry. I'm not planning an excursion to Jupiter." At least, not just yet, Straker added silently to himself. "No. We're nowhere near ready for that. We haven't even really begun with the Eagle project. But we do need to concentrate on getting a message through."
"What do we say to them?" Freeman muttered. "Keith's been trying for years to find something that will interest them, and he hasn't had any joy. And he's the best comms man we have."
"In Earth terms, sure," Straker agreed. "But what we need is an alien POV. And that's you, Paul."
"Sure. You're the one person in SHADO who's had, and survived, prolonged contact with the aliens. You've also had some, er, interaction with a couple of zoms. I'll bet there's a whole heap of stuff about the aliens buried in your subconscious, just waiting for Jackson to dig it out - if you agree."
"Is that an order, Commander?" Foster said, stiffly.
"No, Colonel. It isn't and it won't be, not ever." As Straker said this, he was aware of Freeman's tiny sigh of relief. "It's a request for you to consider."
"Then I agree," Foster said, at once.
"You should take a little time to think about it."
"No need… when do we start?"
"Not for a couple of days," Straker said. "We will want to discuss this with Jackson, and he will need to plan his approach… In the meantime, Alec, we need to think about the other thing."
Freeman nodded. "The counterstrike."
"Exactly so - but as a last resort only… We need to know exactly where on Europa the aliens keep their base. We need to work out how to penetrate its shell of ice, which must be ten kilometres thick. And we need to work out how to get past their active defences. And half a hundred other small problems." Again, Straker surveyed his two friends gravely. "And just pray we don't have to do it."
Foster and Freeman exchanged glances, and rueful smiles. "So we aren't out of a job then?" Freeman said, lightly.
"No, we sure aren't," Straker agreed. "In fact I'm reminded of something Winston Churchill once said, halfway through the Second World War as it turned out, after a battle in which the Allies won a decisive victory… He said: 'This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.'"
Lifting his mug, Freeman said: "I'll drink to that."
* * *
"The gateway is closed. And it shall not reopen." The expression on the face of Devas Azan Pavlor was grave.
"But how is that possible?" Kotte demanded.
"I know not." The Devas rose from his seat, his black tunic shimmering in the glow of the lighting panels, the four gold chevrons on his shoulders and the insignia on his chest gleaming in metallic contrast. His kinsman, Prince Merrel, also dressed in black and bearing three gold chevrons to denote his own rank in Spicor royalty, remained silent, being unable to form words to express his feelings. Not so Kotte, the senior terran-resources officer in Dyaus. The man wore a pale blue outfit, similar in basic style but rather more ornate. His shoulders bore darker blue epaulets intricately worked in red and silver, and a similar design emphasised the hem of his own tunic and the outer sleeves of arms and legs. It was reminiscent of high Arkad fashion, but the Devas found it tasteless.
"Then how did it happen?" Kotte insisted.
The Devas tapped the datapad before him. "According to Pylak, three terrans found their way to the contact chamber. The Aethon drew them in, clearly intending to integrate them into its network. But something went wrong. All three terrans made initial contact - but before the process could complete, something went badly wrong. The Aethon had to detach before it was destroyed. Pylak reports that its final message conveyed the information that the Aethon was either unwilling or unable to re-establish the gateway."
"We have been abandoned," Prince Merrel whispered. His face was pale below the green tint.
"How can you say that?" Kotte burst out. Unlike the Prince, there was anger rather than fear in his voice. "The Aethon is our ally, our servant! It has deserted us!"
"And it has left us to our own resources once more." The Devas looked up at his officer. "So be it… We will proceed with what we have at our disposal. Kotte, I want from you a detailed status report on each of your current projects. By the end of this period. Dismiss!"
Kotte started to speak, seemed to change his mind, though he hissed softly in ill-concealed impatience. He turned and stalked from the chamber. The door closed behind him. Once outside, away from their gaze, he could allow his self-control to relax. A smile of pure exultation bloomed on his face. After millennia of his and his predecessors' waiting, planning, preparation, the Arkad strategy had worked.
There was only one thing that could have happened to cause the Aethon to withdraw, so precipitately. The entity Arkadia sought had been drawn into existence by the threat to humanity that they had engineered. As yet, as was only to be expected, It was primordial, inchoate, not aware of Itself, not yet manifest. Yet even in this unformed state It had become aware of the conflict, and moved to protect humanity.
At present It was focused on those three terrans, the ones who the Aethon had tried - and failed - to take. Kotte would have to move swiftly to widen Its perceptions, to escalate the perceived threat, and to focus It on the Arkad race proper, away from their regressed descendants. There was an obvious way of doing this; but he could not allow that protective impulse to be directed at the Arkad race itself. Instead, he would have to present his people as rescuers, fighting against the Spicor 'villains' from within, so that he could bend It to his will, exercise control over It, and through It over the whole of humanity.
The information from Gimen about the terrans' new strategic programme suggested a way to do this. Kotte hurried to his worksphere, sat before his console, and began to set down his thoughts on a scribe.
Gimen was going to be busy over the next few arcs.
* * *
The door closed, and the Devas turned his attention to Merrel. "Be seated, Tyl," he said, in a gentler voice. "We have much to discuss."
"We do indeed, my lord." Merrel pulled a small stool over to the desk and perched himself gratefully on its pad. "What can the Aethon have encountered that - well, that - "
"Scared it off?" Pavlor supplied, helpfully.
"Exactly," Merrel agreed. "No terran has that capacity. They are too degenerate. Indeed, I can call to mind only one being who could ever have hoped to resist the Aethon, far less defeat it."
"Yes. And he no longer exists."
There was the barest hint of a question in the Prince's voice. The Devas rose to his feet, waving to Merrel to remain seated, and walked a few steps to a low pedestal that bore a small black box, ornately inlaid with iridescent characters from an ancient script. He did not look at it, but remained still for a few moments, gazing out through the curving transparent wall at the ocean beyond. It was nearly the midpoint of Dyaus' cycle - the Devas had not yet come to think of this small world by the terran name 'Europa' - and light from its primary Isvar was filtering through the ice above, casting a dim diffuse yellow glow over the seascape. A streamlined marine creature no bigger than his hand swam past, heading for the cliff face, probably to feed.
After a few moments' silence the Devas reached his decision. He was the Keeper of this ancient artefact, after all. He looked down at the box, reached out a hand to lift the lid, and gazed upon the Kei.
It was similar in form to a weapon, a short stabbing blade, though Pavlor knew that some of the literature mentioned that it could take various forms. Other tales said that these forms reflected the current state of the human race. Its present aspect was indeed appropriate to the embattled Spicor Federation. When active, it sparkled with an inner, living light; but Pavlor had never seen that. At present it was dark, inert.
Pavlor waited; then, with a sigh, he closed the box once more. He turned back to his kinsman, and smiled inwardly - though not without sympathy - at the horrified look on the younger man's face. "It would indeed appear that the Keimon is not manifest… And yet, there was that report your agent, Malech, made before contact with the operator Pyrro was lost. He was certain that the terran was being protected, and not simply by an adept. The barrier was almost without form, incoherent, even infantile. And yet it was potent. Impossibly so, if your agent is to be believed… Has he yet recovered?"
"The therapists are confident, and with good cause. Already Malech is showing awareness of his surroundings and trying to speak."
"Will they give an estimate of how long it will take?"
"You jest, Azan, surely… No, they say that the effects of the double shock of the deaths of the altered-terran 'robert-fletcher' and of our operator are not predictable with any accuracy."
"I do not doubt that," Pavlor murmured, dryly. "But Tyl, something may have occurred to you."
"The similarity between the withdrawal reaction of Malech and that of the Aethon."
"Do you suggest," Prince Merrel said, slowly, "that a Companion has indeed appeared?"
"I know not." Pavlor took a deep breath. "Even if so, I know not from where a Companion could have come, or why he should take an interest in the regressed terran beings… But there is one check we can make. I have long wondered if the Kei is dormant, or whether it is dead. If the latter, the Keimon is no more, and we are without hope. If the former…"
His voice trailed off. Again, he opened the lid of the inlaid box. He reached out, slowly, extending his fingers to touch its occupant.
"NO!!!" Merrel shouted, horrified, leaping from his stool; but he was too late.
Pavlor's fingertips made contact with the slim crystal blade. There was a flash as though lightning had struck; and he staggered back, falling to the floor, where he lay still, gazing vacantly upwards beyond the habitat shell into the ocean of Dyaus.
"Azan!!" Merrel went down on his knees beside the stricken man. But his kinsman's eyes flickered, awareness came back into them, and he looked up at Merrel with a slight smile.
"It would appear," he murmured, shakily, "that the Kei is merely dormant."
"Are you hurt? Shall I summon Medic Breen?"
"No, no." Stiffly, Pavlor levered himself upright with Merrel's help. "That was but a warning… but it does establish one thing."
"That - that Malech was probably right?"
"Yes. The terran does indeed have protection… and from a Companion of the Kei. We must consider how that could be… And we yet have hope. Now we must translate that hope into action."
* * *
Half a billion miles away, three men slept.
At Moonbase, Paul Foster roused from an uneasy dream, thinking he had heard a shout, coming from far away, in a voice and a language he did not know. He reached out and pushed a button on the bedside monitor. Its telltales were green, and the security camera image showed only an empty corridor outside. He closed his eyes and returned to a more restful slumber.
In his apartment on Earth Alec Freeman sat up, abruptly, rubbing his eyes. Glancing at his own bedside monitor he saw that it showed clear; but he was still concerned. He rolled out of bed, limped across to the secure locker, and withdrew a torch and his gun. It took perhaps twenty minutes for him to carry out a check indoors and out, but he was satisfied there had been no intruder. Still a little puzzled, for his subconscious did not usually act like this without very good reason, he managed to resume his own sleep.
And in the sleeproom behind the command office, Ed Straker smiled without waking, turned over, and settled down once more.
* * *
Notes and timeline checks
Blue Book, Sign, Grudge
UFO investigations, pre-SHADO
Jersey and Ecrehous
DNA sequencing: history
Antarctica research stations
Alan Shepard 1961
Elon Musk 2017
Milk Tray Man (Other chocolate boxes are available ;-D )
Captain Waterman moonlighting!
Churchill and the Second Battle of El Alamein
The Works of Snowleopard
The Library Entrance