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Paul Foster stamped out of Commander Straker's underground office, fuming, and muttering under his breath. Behind him, there was a quiet swoosh as the door closed. He wished he could have slammed it.
He nearly ran headlong into Colonel Freeman. "Sorry, Alec," he apologised.
"It's all right, I didn't spill any." Freeman gestured - carefully - with his plastic cup. Privately, he was delighted to see that the animation had returned to the younger man's face. Paul Foster had been through the mill over the last few years. There had been the death of Bill Grant, when Paul had been unable to save him, and Paul's subsequent trek across the lunar surface, when the alien had appeared to rescue him. He had nearly been killed himself when a UFO crash-landed on Croxley's house. He had been subjected to a mental takeover by the aliens, who had tried to use him to kill the Commander. And to top it all off, there had been the court-martial. He had been found guilty and sentenced to death. Against hope, Freeman and Straker together had found the evidence that cleared him.
But the most recent incident, which had taken place while Freeman was on a tour of duty at Woomera, had shaken Foster to the core. The aliens had turned three humans into what Jackson had dubbed 'psychobombs'. Foster had been seduced by one of these alien 'drones' into nearly allowing the destruction of SHADO.
The fact that Foster had twice come under alien influence worried Straker enough to have Jackson put him under continuous observation, and look for ways of protecting him against such attacks, in preference to simply giving an otherwise valuable staff member a dose of amnesia and showing him the door. Foster accepted this, and gave his whole-hearted co-operation; but it had not helped his general mood - particularly as it reminded him of how he had nearly been disposed of rather more permanently after one of those episodes.
At least the Discovery project, where it had fallen to Foster to install the electronics package in the satellite, had gone smoothly.. as far as the personnel were concerned, anyway; even if technically it had been less than successful. That, thought Freeman, was a classic understatement. They had not even been able to retrieve the position of the alien world, let alone details of its surface.
"Problems?" he asked.
"Not really, no," Foster said. He hesitated, glancing back at the door behind them. "It's just that - well - "
"He gets under your skin at times?"
"He does," Foster agreed, fervently. "Look, Alec, don't get me wrong. I do genuinely respect him. But he doesn't seem to understand people at all. He seems to rely too much on those computers of his - sorry, what's so funny?"
"It's just that I said very much the same things to him after that business with Gay Ellis and Mark Bradley becoming an item," Freeman smiled. "I was about to resign over it, as I recall."
"What stopped you?" Foster wondered.
"Only the fact that he was right. They were emotionally involved, and they decided to admit it. But the twist was, that involvement may have been helpful rather than otherwise."
Foster considered this. He nodded, thoughtfully. "Would you excuse me, Alec?" he asked.
Freeman watched, finishing his coffee, as Paul Foster strolled along the length of SHADO Control, pausing occasionally and oh-so-casually to have a brief chat with some of the staff. He stopped at the last station, which was manned by a new recruit, a young Afro-Caribbean woman with skin like dark chocolate and hair in an elaborate topiary.
Good taste, Paul, Freeman thought; and with a smile, he threw his empty plastic cup into a bin and went on into Straker's office. As the door closed behind him, the smile disappeared. Oh shit, he thought.
Straker was seated by his desk, with his back to the door. He had one hand to his face, and his shoulders were shaking.
* * *
"Hello," Foster said, with a smile. "You're new here, aren't you, Lieutenant - Jones, is it?"
"Yes, sir." Not only was her skin like chocolate, Paul thought, so was her voice. "And you are - Colonel Foster, I think Commander Straker said?"
"That's right.. Have you been here long?"
"Not if you don't count training, sir.. This is my third day on ops."
"Then you'll have seen some of the action," Foster said, and she nodded, a touch grimly. "Look - When do you come off duty?"
"I'm overdue now," Lieutenant Jones admitted. "I just have to finish this analysis for the Commander."
She seemed more than a little nervous. Paul gave her a reassuring smile. "Don't worry," he said. "Straker doesn't bite. I should know.. Look, finish that up, and patch it through to him over the network. Then come and have a coffee or something."
"That would be good, thanks."
The task took her a little over ten minutes. Rather than hover over her, which many people found off-putting, Foster sat down on the bench and watched the other monitors. At last she logged off and closed down the station. "That network of yours is really good! That's done, hope he approves.. You mentioned coffee, sir?"
"The mess room is this way.. and as we're both off duty, call me Paul."
"I'm Chrysanthea," she smiled.
He didn't say 'pretty', she noted. She liked that. "Our parents like flowers.. I have a sister called Delphinea, and a brother called Lupe."
"Very original," Paul said, appreciatively. "Here we are.. what would you like?"
"Coffee, please.. Tell you what, you get mine, I'll get yours."
"That sounds fair," Paul smiled. "I'll have one of those as well.. Shall we sit over here?"
He chose a seat beside a light well that had a small garden beyond the glass. She gazed out at it with interest, and took the mug he handed her with a nod of thanks.
"Well," Paul said, "what do you think of us? Glad you joined? Or would you just like to run for it? I know I wanted to."
"I can imagine," Chrysanthea agreed, with a small shiver. "I was invited to apply, and it all sounded very interesting. And then I found out what it was really all about.. I'm excited, but at the same time, I'm terrified. It gives the phrase 'human resources' a whole new meaning."
"I know exactly what you mean," Paul said. "Who interviewed you?"
"Colonel Freeman, first. Then Doctor Jackson, the psychiatrist. He's nice, I like him."
Paul blinked. "That's the first time I've heard anyone call him 'nice'."
"Oh, he does have a ruthless streak, you can tell.. but he's OK when he's not in that mode. But the one I really find scary is Commander Straker."
"You and everyone else," Paul agreed. "About the only person I know who isn't totally intimidated by the Commander is Alec Freeman. And even then I'm not sure.. But then, of course, they've known each other for decades."
"He does have friends then?" Chrysanthea said, dryly.
"There's a rumour to that effect, yes." Paul grinned. "Though not close friends, and not even lady friends."
"I'm surprised. I'd have used the words 'butterflies' and 'honeypot' myself."
"The Commander?" Paul smiled to himself. "Alas, no... Alec - Colonel Freeman - told me he was married, once, but they broke up around the time SHADO was being set up. It was the secrecy, and the punishing work schedule. His wife couldn't take it." And who could blame her, Paul thought, remembering Tina and her reaction to his apparent death and subsequent reappearance. "Since then he seems to have become a permanent bachelor. He hasn't been helped by the occasional sting attempt. Remind me sometime to tell you about a blackmailing little wh - miss called Jo Fraser."
"Not good," she agreed. Strong language there, she thought. So the Commander is still in love with his ex.
A few more people had drifted in, looking for refreshment. She recognised Dr Jackson, and saw him take a seat in a far corner, out of the way... but so positioned that he could observe most of the area. He's never off duty, she thought.
"He said something curious to me a while ago," Paul said, thoughtfully. "We were on our way to board the Lunar Module to Moonbase. It was a bit of a rough time. My good friend and colleague Bill Grant had been killed by an alien, and we were going up to investigate, the Commander and I. In the car he said to me something about being home in time for supper... and by 'home' he meant Moonbase."
"It gets odder," Paul said. "Have you been in his office yet?"
She remembered, with a suppressed shiver...
She had been shown into the Commander's office on her first day at work - was that only two days ago? - and stood in front of the desk while he finished reading a document.
He looked up, saw her. "Sorry," he apologised. "Please, sit down... you are Lieutenant Chrysanthea Jones?"
She sat, carefully, on the lucite chair in front of the desk. "Yes, sir.. And you are Commander Edward Straker?"
"I am. Welcome to SHADO, Lieutenant." The Commander took a sheet of paper from a slim file, scanned it. "An impressive record, with intelligence work, and some combat experience. I hope you will live up to it."
"I fully intend to, sir."
Did she detect a glimmer of approval in those ice-blue eyes? "Good... Have you met everyone yet?"
"Not yet, sir."
"In that case, I'll - "
Straker broke off as one of the telephone handsets on his desk gave an urgent beep. He lifted it. "Straker... On my way."
He returned the handset to its cradle and stood up. "Come on. It seems we have a visitor."
She followed him out of the office into Mission Control, which was a sudden hive of urgent but controlled activity. Straker handed her over to one of the operators, and joined a young man at the comms console, whose name - she gathered - was Ford. She assisted the operator, doing her best to watch everything that was going on around her, but most of all watching their Commander.
He seemed to be a catalyst. Without giving more than the occasional instruction, he took control, almost unobtrusively. Without asking unnecessary questions, they took their lead from him. Within a very short time, the incoming invader had been chased to its destruction.
Straker's reaction had surprised her. Rather than being triumphant at the defeat of their enemy, or disappointed at not taking a prisoner, he seemed saddened.
A complex man, and friendly enough.. but so deep that she doubted whether anyone had ever plumbed those depths. Yes, he was scary.
"His office? A couple of times," she said.
"What did you make of it?"
"Stylish. Light. Airy. No plants. More decorative than I'd expect any office to be. There are some odd touches, like that mini-bar, when I'm told he doesn't drink... Also, there are those little alcoves behind the pillars at each end of the conference table. They're wasted space. They have angled walls, so you can't put up shelves there. I'm wondering what's behind them... And that light show. Behind his fancy desk, where he doesn't see it. But you see him against it. Your attention is drawn away from him, enough that it's a jolt when he speaks."
It was more than just a light show, Paul remembered, but did not say. She was very observant. Not for the first time, he wondered what else was concealed behind apparently innocent fronts.. such as that mini-bar, for instance. Did it contain more than just shots of whiskey? And what about that desk... what secrets did that hide in its deceptively translucent layers of lucite?
Was the whole office a stronghold, a last-ditch refuge against alien attack, like a keep within a mediaeval castle?
And what about Moonbase? "There are panels just like it in the living quarters at Moonbase," he told her. "He's got one above his bed."
Once again, Paul wondered about that. If it was another escape chute, there would have to be a spacesuit in there. Or did it lead underground, perhaps to the Interceptor hangars, or the LM servicing bay?
"His own bed? How often is he up at Moonbase?"
"About twice a year," Paul said. "For a few weeks every six months or so. He quite looks forward to it, I gather."
Chrysanthea smiled. "A home from home... I suppose," she added mischievously, "he's not an alien in disguise, is he?"
"You wouldn't be the first to wonder," said Paul, with a grin.
"What about you?" she asked. "How did you come to join?"
"Oh, I barged in," Paul said, lightly. "I made a nuisance of myself until they had to let me join, to shut me up."
"Of course you did," she smiled.
"Well... OK, it wasn't quite like that," Paul admitted. "The start of it was, I got mixed up in a UFO incident, in an experimental jet we were test-flying. I saw the UFO. But afterwards, I couldn't get anyone to admit that was what it was, and that angered me, especially as my co-pilot and friend had been killed in the crash.. So I pounded a few desks. I got to meet Straker, out in the studios. I confronted him with a few odd facts about himself... and he shot me."
"With an acoustic gun. Courtesy of studio special-effects department... though of course, I didn't know that at the time. He wanted to get my attention." Paul smiled. "And at that, he was letting me down lightly... I was a Grade One security risk, and at the time SHADO only had one sure way of dealing with those."
"A bullet," Chrysanthea said, grimly.
"Exactly. But it seemed Straker thought I was worth saving. It wasn't the last time he went in to bat for me, even when things seemed hopeless. He's a good man, especially to have on your side in the pinch."
Chrysanthea looked at him. She said: "I got the impression you didn't like him."
"I suppose I don't," Paul admitted. "Oh, don't get me wrong, I don't dislike him either. It's just that I'm not close enough to him for 'like' or 'dislike'. But - like everyone else here - I'd die for him. Hell, I'd even kill for him."
And he had done exactly that, Paul recalled, when Croxley had lured Straker and Freeman to his ruined house, and held them at gunpoint, countering their every attempt to escape by reading their minds. Paul had gone to the cottage, at the suggestion of Dr Shroeder, and after some merciless needling by the Commander, and had arrived in time to shoot Croxley before he could kill his victims..
"What is it, Paul?" Chrysanthea asked, as he tensed.
Paul slammed down his mug, which - fortunately - was empty. "He's done it again!" he burst out. "He's bloody done it again!"
"Who's done what again?" Jones said blankly.
"Commander bloody Straker, that's who! I tell you, that man is so fond of needling people he should have taken up tattooing!!"
"What are you talking about - "
Paul took a deep breath to calm himself. "I went in to see him this morning, to tell him I wanted to resign, that I'd had enough, I wanted to get back to some kind of normal life. It can be done these days - "
"The amnesia drug?"
"That's right.. Anyway, he wouldn't listen. Said I needed to stop worrying so much about my love life, that the 'psychobomb' female was no longer human anyway, and various other barbed comments about my choice of lady friends. He told me to go away and think about it. So I have... And he's quite right. He always is, damn the man!"
Chrysanthea leaned her chin on her hand, and smiled at him. "So what do you do next?" she enquired.
"Well..." Paul returned the smile. "Tell me... do you prefer Indian or Chinese?"
"Chinese, for me, please."
"Fine.. Shall I pick you up at eight?"
"Sounds good here."
They got up, and he escorted her out of the door. Behind them, Jackson gave a fleeting, approving smile, and returned his attention to the report in his hand.
Jones was thinking: You're right, you don't like him. 'Like' isn't a strong enough word. From what I've seen in SHADO records, he's saved your life on at least three occasions. You worship the ground he walks on.
And Foster was thinking: One of these days, Commander Edward Straker, I'll catch you with your guard down...
* * *
Freeman strode to the minibar, took two glasses, and dumped a generous quantity of Scotch into each of them. He had heard about the psychobomb incident, only a few weeks ago, when Straker had put aside logic and common sense and tried a desperate bluff. It had worked. It had delayed the 'drone' long enough for its controller to be shot down, removing the immediate threat, so that the 'psychobomb' had destroyed only itself. And then Straker had walked out of SHADO Control, heading for the outdoors. That had seriously worried him; and it seemed he had cause for worry.
He held out one of the glasses. "Ed," he said, gently, "I think you should - "
Straker swivelled his chair to face him. He took his hand from his face, and Freeman's jaw dropped. Straker was laughing!
"What - "
"Oh, hi, Alec." Straker rose, and came round to the front of the desk. The two shook hands, warmly, and Straker accepted the glass, chinking it against Freeman's, still grinning. "Welcome back... How was Moonbase?"
"Dull. Fortunately." Freeman carefully set his own glass down on the desk. He reached into his pocket, took out a small black diary, and opened it. He picked up a pen. "Let me see... date... time... Yes. 'Commander Straker laughed.'"
Straker looked at him, one eyebrow arched.
"Well, it's a rare enough occurrence, I thought it should be duly noted. After all, I think the last time was about five years ago, at that Christmas party. You know - "
"That purple wig suited you. Disturbingly well." Straker began to chuckle again, softly.
"Not nearly as much as that eye shadow suited you," Freeman said, with a grin.
Straker gave him a look. The humidity of the Moonbase atmosphere was kept low to discourage condensation, but this had the effect of drying out people's skin, especially around the eyes and lips. They were encouraged to wear barrier cream. For the women, this was tinted light purple; the men's was clear. That Christmas, someone had 'enhanced' Straker's own cream. In the jar, it was clear; but the warmth of the skin brought out the colour, a bright iridescent green. It had taken him all of half an hour to realise why he was getting strange looks, usually accompanied by stifled giggles.
And then, he had simply left the stuff on - even touching it up occasionally - and ignored the reactions.
"Well, come on, share the joke," Freeman suggested. He put the diary away, retrieved his glass, swallowed half of its contents, and sat down by the conference table. "I could do with a good laugh myself."
"Oh, it's just something Paul Foster said... What's he doing out there, by the way?"
"Last seen taking Lieutenant Jones for coffee. I was going to talk to you about him, but somehow I don't think I need to, now."
Straker nodded. "That's a relief... When he came in to see me, he was intent on resigning. I tried to dissuade him, and he got annoyed. He stamped out of here, saying something less than complimentary about me, which I don't think I was supposed to hear."
"And what was that?"
"I'd been needling him a bit, I admit, about his choice of lady friends. He was furious. He went out muttering something about me being all right, with my lunar harem. But for god's sake don't repeat that to Gay, she'll - "
He had to break off. Freeman roared with laughter himself. Straker waited tolerantly for him to regain control.
At last Freeman wiped his eyes. "Well?" he enquired.
"How is your harem?" Freeman ducked, as Straker wadded up a sheet of paper and threw it at him. "All right, all right, I'll go!"
Still grinning, Freeman finished his drink and left the office. He gave a cheerful nod to Jackson, who was standing by the comms console. Jackson watched him head for the exit, and gave a small but relieved smile himself.
The Works of Snowleopard
The Library Entrance