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While Moonbase is being constructed, a subway of non-human construction is found beneath the lunar surface - a subway that leads to the Moon's far side. Who built it - and what was its purpose? Ed Straker and John Bosanquet set out to investigate; but only Straker returns – and he carries a terrible secret.
* * *
Moonbase was growing rapidly, like a weird extraterrestrial fungus. Already the domes were in place, and the central core. Teams were working to install life-support and power equipment. One of the domes was already habitable, and they used it as a workspace, a chance to get out of vacuum suits for a while. A short distance away, excavations had started on what would be underground 'hangars' for the interceptor fighters, which were undergoing flight-testing nearby.
Straker gave brief but silent thanks for the lack of UFO interest in their activities here; but he could not help wondering why that was. Surely, he thought, all this would draw them like moths to a candle flame.
He had said as much to John Bosanquet, one of the principal designers of the Moonbase installations.
"It's odd, certainly," Bosanquet had agreed. He gave a short, humourless laugh. "In one of the oldest movie clichés in the book… 'I don't like it. It's too quiet.'"
"You've been reading that script," Straker accused.
"What, 'The Worst Movie in the World'?" Bosanquet chuckled, as he pulled another chart from his document case. "Whose idea was it to construct an entire movie using every cliché they could think of?"
"Not mine. Thank god."
"And who would have thought it would be such a hit!"
"Not me," Straker admitted. "Henderson was furious."
"Why on earth? Sorry, 'on Moon'?"
"Said it drew too much attention. Especially from other movie companies, who complained we were making fun of them."
"Weren't we?" smiled Bosanquet.
Straker spread the chart out on a small table, and inspected it. "Now let's see what we have here… I'm a bit worried about this region, to the north," he continued, pointing. "Sonar scans are… well, mushy. As if the rocks were like sand. And they do look sedimentary, but it’s difficult to see how you could have that sort of layering without wind or water."
"Wasn't it Arthur Clarke who suggested that a fine dust could form, purely by solar action, with the temperature extremes we get?"
"I guess… but Clarke's 'moondust' was very fine indeed, almost like liquid itself. We've never found anything like that. The lunar regolith is coarser, some fine dusty powder certainly, but mostly like beach sand with gravel in it, and it's very variable. Still, I suppose it could collect in places, over time." Straker looked over the chart again. "We'd better take a look. If that area is at all unstable, it won't be a good place to excavate."
"No indeed," Bosanquet agreed. "Is there a hopper free?"
"I'll check the schedule." Straker walked across to the noticeboard, and consulted a list pinned up with magnetic discs. "Lieutenant Mangakai and Lieutenant Harrington are due to check in for a rest break in forty minutes. Their hopper can be serviced for us, should take maybe twenty minutes."
"Gives us an hour to have a coffee," Bosanquet suggested.
"First," said Straker, "we take a look at the Interceptors. Come on."
* * *
They were observing Lieutenant Waterman land his Interceptor when Straker's radio bleeped. Watching the cloud of debris settle to the ground after it had been thrown up by the craft's landing jets, he answered the call, then switched to the general band. "OK, Lew, thank you. It went well. Return to the hangar."
Waterman acknowledged. "Hangar, you call it," Bosanquet commented. "A not-so-glorified hole in the ground… Who was that on the radio?"
"That was Moonbase Control. The hopper is back."
"Good, let's go." As they walked, or bounced, back to the dome, Bosanquet enquired: "What's so fascinating about dust, anyway?"
"The way it doesn't 'hang' the way a dust cloud does on Earth. No air to hold it up. Not normally, anyway, not when we kick it about. But when it's stirred up by a blast of exhaust gas, that may be different. Guess I'll have one of the geologists take a look."
"Shouldn't that be 'selenologists'?" Bosanquet said, with a smile.
"Oh, come on! Even I'm not that pedantic!"
Perhaps fortunately, Bosanquet's reply was cut off by a beep on the intersuit band. "Straker," the Commander responded.
"This is Harrington. It's all yours, sir, Mangakai and I are back in the dome. And there are plenty of spare suit packs if you need to do EVA."
"Thank you, Joan. Have a good rest!"
* * *
The area they wanted to inspect was quite some distance from the Moonbase site, at the boundary of the 'useful' area - a largely arbitrary zone, beyond which it was considered to be too inconvenient to be accessible from the base. But the scans of the area had suggested the existence of 'voids' in the rock. This rock was largely igneous, though whether from volcanic action or from impact melting, was not clear. Either way, bubbles of gas could have formed, producing those voids; and such ready-made spaces could be useful.
They parked the 'moonmobile' about a hundred yards short of their objective. Bosanquet pulled another chart from his case, and folded it carefully so that he could handle it easily. He pointed at a spot near the bottom. "We are just about here, near one of the larger voids, if that's what they are."
"Good. Prepare for EVA."
A few minutes later they were out on the lunar surface. They were at that point in the moon's month-long diurnal cycle which could be thought of as 'daybreak'; and as they neared their objective, the sun's rim appeared over the horizon and day did indeed break, in a soundless explosion of raw sunlight. The glare lit the rock-face ahead of them, and threw sharp-edged shadows, relieved in a few places by the light reflected back from nearby rocks.
They moved towards the rock face in the peculiar bouncing stride that seemed to be the most useful mode of progression under lunar gravity, and halted about a hundred metres away. Straker turned slowly, panning across, looking for breaks in the rocks. He stopped, and pointed.
"I see it," Bosanquet confirmed. "Shall we take a look?"
They made their way carefully towards an area which seemed to have more shadows than most, and darker ones. As they approached, it became clear that the 'shadows' were vertical fissures in the rocks.
"Now that is odd," Straker said. "On Earth, for cracks that size to form, you'd need water and very cold weather freezing it to ice in the cracks. Here all you have is sun and shade, alternate heating and cooling."
"Those effects can be pretty fierce," Bosanquet reminded him. "And this rock is quite dark, so it would soak up a lot of sun, and lose it quickly in the shade. That would mean more expansion and contraction."
"Guess so." Straker approached one of the larger fissures, and shone his torch into it. "The ground here must be pretty unstable, the way the rock is leaning away, opening the cracks."
"Agreed… Would it be safe to take a look inside, d'you think?"
"Let's send in one of the remotes."
"Will do." Bosanquet let his pack down to the ground, opened it, and drew out a few items. One was a small tracked device, like a toy remote-controlled tank. It even had a 'gun turret' which bore camera pickups. Another was a reel of cable, and a third was a control box. He used the cable to connect the box to the 'truck', and tried the controls. The remote responded smoothly. "Ready to go… We have two hundred metres of line on this reel, and I can connect in a couple more."
"Enough charge for six hours in rough terrain."
"Great," Straker said. He had taken a monitor screen from his own pack, and set it up on a nearby flat-topped rock. "Have it send occasional radio pings, let's see how that goes. OK, send it off."
"Here we go."
The two men watched the small monitor as Bosanquet sent the remote towards the crack. It entered, into absolute darkness. He turned on its lights, and they could see the crack stretching away ahead and downward, and branching. Bosanquet steered the remote into the largest branch, moved on a few yards. Ahead there seemed to be a bigger space.
"What d'you suppose that is?" he wondered, aloud.
"Lava bubble, perhaps?" Straker said.
"Could be… Pressure from a lava flow that size could have formed those cracks. Gases would have leaked out, causing layering… Sedimentation in reverse."
"Shall we take a look? The area looks stable enough."
"Fine by me."
"Then I'll just let Moonbase know." Straker switched bands on his suit radio, selecting suit to hopper, using the hopper's own radio as a booster. He described the situation, gave their location, and their intention to do an underground EVA. "We'll leave the remote line on," he finished, "and if we're not back in three hours, send out a search party!"
"I'll bet they didn't like that," Bosanquet commented.
"They weren't happy, no… Well, let's get on."
Straker switched the monitor to its radio link to the remote and picked it up, turned on his helmet lamp, and led the way into the crevice. Bosanquet detached his control box from the line and followed. Unlike sand or soil in a similar situation on Earth, the regolith had not 'drifted' into the crack more than a few inches, as it could only move under gravity; there was no wind here.
Indeed, after a very short space, the ground became bare and clean, and uneven. They both had to watch very carefully where they were putting their feet, for fear of getting caught in a cleft. For a moment, Straker almost wished he had tracks, like the remote; they had handled the terrain well.
After some twenty minutes or so, they reached the cave. It was huge, with rounded walls, and a fairly smooth floor.
"Definitely a lava bubble," Bosanquet commented. "And still half full… look at the way the walls are nearly vertical near the floor. The upper space would have contained gases like hydrogen sulphide, carbon dioxide, that sort of thing. Yes, look - see that yellowish patch? Sulphur."
"Wouldn't there be a feeder tube?" Straker asked.
"I'd think so. Down-slope most likely."
There was, indeed, a very slight slope downwards. Straker made his way carefully across the floor of the bubble. Up ahead, they could see another darker patch, a little like the opening by which they had entered, but more circular.
"We should send the remote on ahead," Straker said.
"Agreed… let's see if the radio link is usable." He studied the readouts, tried the controls. The remote responded. They let it lead the way by a few metres, and followed cautiously.
Abruptly, Straker stopped. "John. Someone's been in here before. Look."
He pointed to the screen. It was showing small patches of yellowish dust, big enough and regular enough to be footprints… and going both ways.
"No-one's mentioned anything about that," Bosanquet said, his voice grim.
"They sure haven’t." Straker tried his radio; but there was nothing but a hiss of static. "Damn. Loss of signal."
"Go on or go back?"
"Go on," Straker answered, suiting action to word. "I'd like to know what whoever it was found down here that they decided to keep quiet about!"
"Let's just hope it's not an entire alien colony… but I think they would have acted by now."
"No doubt," Bosanquet agreed.
They reached the circular patch, and it did prove to be an opening into a tunnel; but the tunnel was no lava tube.
"This wall surface was machined," Straker said, softly. "And the floor is level and even. I wonder how old this is?"
"Could be thousands of years… Ed, you know what it reminds me of?"
"A subway station."
"Exactly… What now?"
"I think we go back," Straker answered. "Or we call in backup. I'll hook up my suit to the remote comms port…"
His voice faded out. He was beginning to find it difficult to breathe. His vision was darkening at the edges.
"Ed? What is it? What's wrong?"
"Suit… fault… no air…"
"Come on. This way. I'll help."
Straker was vaguely aware that Bosanquet was half leading, half carrying him. "Where…"
"Somewhere you can sit down. Come on. It's not far."
His vision darkened completely. He must have passed out…
* * *
When Straker came to, his head was pounding, but at least he could breathe. "John…?"
"Good. You're awake."
Light came on around him. He managed to get his eyes open. He looked around, trying to take in his surroundings. This space was cylindrical, with gleaming metallic walls. there seemed to be markings on them in places, like writing, or diagrams.
"What is this place?" he demanded, weakly.
"A tunnel car. It moves in the subway I found, under gravity – free-fall travel."
"The subway you found?" Straker stared at Bosanquet. "What the hell are you playing at, John?"
"There's something I want to show you. Something I found, when I was up here before. Don't bother trying to move, by the way - you can't, and anyway it would be unwise, we're about to start."
Straker looked down at himself. He was still wearing his vacuum suit, but he was trussed up like a turkey ready for Thanksgiving. Luggage straps had been used round his torso and upper arms, wrists, and ankles. In addition, a harness held him in place in the seat.
"You sabotaged my suit," he said, thickly.
"I just adapted it, that's all. I included a small cylinder of sleep gas - Ah, here we go!"
The 'tunnel car' was tipping, nose downwards. Abruptly, they were in free fall.
"Clever system," Bosanquet commented. "Call it a 'gravity train'. Falls through vacuum – there’s an airlock at each end of the tunnel, naturally. Needs very little power, and that's just to get it started, and stopped. That's controlled by magnets, by the way. Falls in a straight line, right through, reaches its maximum speed at the mid-point, then slows again, and stops at the far end. The longer the fall path, the greater its top speed. It balances out, so that - theoretically - it would take exactly the same time, 53 minutes, to connect any two points on the Moon. Practical considerations alter that a bit, because the Moon isn't exactly the same all the way through. If you could do the same thing on Earth it would only take 42 minutes, because of the higher gravity."
"Why are you hiding this, John?"
"Can't you guess? I'm going to share it with the aliens. This, and the other little place I found. They're going to allow me to join them, in payment for giving them something."
"I suppose there's no need to ask what you're going to give them."
"Access to Moonbase - and then, to Earth," Bosanquet agreed. "We'll wait for Moonbase to be built… and then take it over, use it as our own base. In the meantime, we'll bring in craft to the Moon's far side, to Daedalus Crater. We'll come to some of the caverns below Moonbase, like the lava bubble I showed you. When we're ready, we'll emerge, take over Moonbase, and launch our invasion from there."
No wonder the aliens were quiet, Straker thought. They're waiting for us to do their job for them… "Another cliché from that awful movie," he said.
"The villain's gloating monologue? Describing his evil plans to his defeated enemy?" Bosanquet laughed.
"That's the one… Well, go on. Tell me about the aliens, why don't you? What are we dealing with? Humanoids, or more like something out of Wells?"
"No, I don't think I will," Bosanquet smiled. "I'll let your imagination work on that one. If you have one, that is… But do you want to know what else I found? And why I haven't killed you yet?"
"Oh, that second one's obvious," Straker said, tiredly. "You're going to hand me to the aliens."
"That's right… Want to know why?"
"Well, I'll tell you anyway, we've got best part of three-quarters of an hour to kill… It's nothing personal, I don't hate you, don't worry. It's just that you seem to be something of a collector's item to the Prithvians. They haven't said why, and I didn't bother asking… Shall I tell you what the other thing was that I found?"
"A power source."
"Really." Straker kept his voice flat.
"Yes, really… Well, I think I'll have a little nap now. Got a busy day ahead."
Bosanquet fell silent. Straker glanced across at him. Through the dark plastic of the visor, he could just see that the man had his eyes closed; but he was unlikely to be sleeping.
Straker tested his bonds, cautiously. They were very tight. He checked the fastenings, hoping he could lever them open. Perhaps he could, if he could brace against something; but it would take time, enough that Bosanquet would see and stop him. Forcibly.
So he would just have to choose his moment carefully.
He looked around the cabin of this 'tunnel car', as Bosanquet had called it. There were several 'lockers' where he could use their handle-like projections to unclip the strap clasps, if he could get into position. There was a chart on the wall, showing several straight lines against what was clearly a 3D map of the Moon. Presumably those lines were the tunnels. Some of them went deep, almost to the moon's core. He wondered what held them open against the tremendous pressure of the rocks above them.
He wondered how deep they were now…
Above the chart, there was what might have been a 'progress bar', a line of green light which lengthened visibly as he watched. There were glowing shapes below it, which changed at short, regular intervals. A digital clock, perhaps?
He wished he could reach his camera to turn it on. Bosanquet had used the word 'Prithvians', which sounded as though it was derived from an ancient Sanskrit word for Earth. Perhaps the shapes on the chart and the 'clock' were Sanskrit script; if so, that would make this place anything up to 4000 years old. He used his MI training to commit the images to memory… and hoped he would have an opportunity to use the knowledge.
He wondered about the 'power source' that Bosanquet had mentioned, and about Daedalus Crater. The presence of even a nuclear reactor, fission or fusion, on the Moon would need investigating; but surely, the orbital probes SHADO had sent out to scan the lunar surface for possible Moonbase locations would have detected something. He wondered briefly about a 'cold-fusion' generator, a notion that had been tossed around since 1927, but dismissed it as unlikely. Other possibilities included vacuum energy; but there his knowledge of the subject ended.
No doubt, he thought, the aliens knew a lot more than he did, anyway… but if Bosanquet was proposing to give this power source to them, it was more advanced even than they.
Now there was a frightening thought.
Of course, it was not impossible that there were more than one alien worlds in Earth's vicinity. He just hoped that two alien races weren't using his planet as a battleground.
Bosanquet's voice broke into his thoughts. "We must be nearly there."
There was a slight jolt, and weight returned. The harness holding Straker to his seat unclipped itself, and retracted. A hatch in the wall opened.
"Get up," Bosanquet ordered. "Your feet are on a short hobble, so you can walk a bit. Move."
"I think I'll stay right here, thanks," Straker replied.
"Then I'll carry you."
Bosanquet took hold of the strap around his middle and pulled. As Straker was lifted out of the seat, he ducked his head and pushed hard with his feet. His helmet collided with Bosanquet's chest with enough force to send the man rolling over onto his back. Swearing, Bosanquet let go of Straker and groped for a hold to break his fall. Straker managed to get his bound hands to his opponent's suit controls. He turned off Bosanquet's suit lights, and his air feed. He pushed the man away, turned off his own lights so that he did not give away his position, and rolled away, trying to get as far from Bosanquet as he could while the man was preoccupied. It would take Bosanquet perhaps three minutes to use up the oxygen remaining in the suit; then he would swiftly lose consciousness, and die if help did not arrive.
Over the suit comms band, Straker could hear alarm buzzers warning of a loss of air link. Bosanquet swore as he tried to find his controls. The man was not a trained astronaut; although he had had the basic instruction needed to be allowed to do EVAs in vacuum, he was not as familiar with the equipment as was Straker.
The tunnel car’s own lighting was still active, though subdued. Straker found one of the locker handles that he had noted earlier, and managed to release his wrists, freeing his hands. He tore loose the strap round his middle, then pulled the hobble from his feet.
Bosanquet was still gasping for air, but his breathing was easing; evidently he had found the right switch. Straker jumped on him, knocking him to the floor. He fell with dreamlike slowness under the low gravity. Again Straker turned off Bosanquet's air feed, but this time he kept his hand over the switch, so that Bosanquet could not reach it.
Already short of oxygen, Bosanquet gasped for breath. Straker watched his face carefully. As the man's eyes closed, Straker rolled him face down, used one of the straps to secure his hands, and hobbled his feet. He checked the suit for anything that might be a weapon, but what he found was a small box that seemed to be an electronic module. He transferred it to his own suit pouch; then he turned the lights and air back on.
Bosanquet was still breathing, just. His eyes flickered open. "On your feet," Straker ordered. "You're going to show me how you make contact with the aliens."
"Fool… Let… me go…"
"Shut up and move!"
"You won't… kill me…"
"I will if I have to. And if you don't want to be shot when we get back, you'd better think up a convincing reason for all this."
Bosanquet was silent. Straker dragged him to his feet, found the door control, and opened a hatch into another 'subway station'. He pulled the man out onto the platform. The tunnel car, he noted, was held hard up against the end wall of the 'station', probably by magnets. Behind them, the entrance tunnel curved away down into darkness.
Straker hoped his prisoner would be thinking that he could persuade the commander to defend him, at the inevitable court-martial. Or perhaps the man had realised that his only hope was to try to escape. In that case, Straker would have no choice but to kill him before he could alert the aliens.
"All right," Bosanquet said, abruptly. "This way."
He led the way down the 'platform', moving in hobbled steps. They reached a circular hatch in the wall, which slid open as they approached, into a long tunnel. Luminous panels sprang into life along the tunnel, throwing back gleams from its smoothly cut surfaces. Straker recalled that Bosanquet had mentioned finding a 'power source'; if it was feeding the lights and machinery here, it must be pretty good to be still working after four thousand years.
As they walked, they passed more hatches, which stayed closed. Straker counted four of these before Bosanquet stopped.
"See those two studs?" Bosanquet replied. "Push the top one."
Straker reached down, grabbed the hobble on Bosanquet's legs, and pulled, pushing on the man's shoulders with his other hand. With a muffled oath, Bosanquet toppled slowly forward to lie face down in the tunnel. Before he could scramble to his feet, Straker had pressed the lower of the two studs.
The hatch opened.
Straker pulled Bosanquet to his feet once more. "Inside," he ordered.
Silently, Bosanquet complied. Again, this tunnel was illuminated by those panels; but it was roughly cut rather than smoothly machined. And it was sloping downwards. Straker's instincts screamed at him; but this seemed an unlikely trap.
They came out into a wide space that looked like the 'lava bubble' they had entered near Moonbase. One edge of this was obscured with jagged shadows - or perhaps they were cracks.
"We go back," Straker ordered.
"What's wrong? Don't you want to see their comms centre?"
"Down here? This place is obviously still under construction."
"If you say so." With apparent reluctance, Bosanquet walked around him, back to the tunnel through which they had entered. As he did so, Straker felt something brush past his feet. He glanced down, and froze; he was standing on the lip of a crack leading down into the dark.
Carefully, he stepped backwards; but it was too late. The flake of rock he was standing on broke away, tipping him into the dark. He twisted round, grabbing for the edge of the hole, but Bosanquet kicked his hands away.
The fall lasted a long time.
* * *
Bosanquet got up from where he had fallen on his side, carefully away from the hole. He backed up against the wall of the cave, seeking a projection he could use to unclip the strap around his wrists; but without success. In any case, Straker had not only secured his hands behind him, but had carefully placed the clasp under his wrists, where a handy rock edge could not reach it.
Bosanquet wanted to swear; but the suit radio was still active, and perhaps Straker could hear him.
He listened carefully. Nothing; but perhaps the man was just keeping quiet. He could leave Straker down there, for the Prithvians to collect. Even if the man managed to climb back up the shaft, there was nowhere for him to go.
Carefully, Bosanquet edged his way around the hole he had opened up in the floor, and made his way back to the tunnel and out onto the 'platform'. He closed the hatch and locked it, having to turn his back to the wall to reach the controls.
The tunnel car was still there, in the transit channel, its hatch open. Inside, he used one of the locker handles to release his hands, and then freed his feet. He stowed the straps away in the locker, and left the tunnel car again.
He walked down the platform, heading towards the upper end where it terminated in a smooth wall. He felt for the controls, found a pair of buttons, and pushed the upper one. Below him, another hatch opened, and luminous panels revealed metal rungs projecting from the walls.
He climbed down into the depths.
* * *
Straker had managed to land on his feet, in a shower of small particles of loose rock; but he had collided with the shaft walls several times in the descent. His helmet lamp had been little use in giving him an accurate idea of the size or shape of the place, as it was swinging too wildly.
He was worried about his left arm. One of the impacts had resulted in a slashing pain, and there was a sound of hissing. Evidently the suit had been cut or torn. He fumbled in his suit pouch, pulling out the patch kit, and inspected his arm in the light from the helmet lamp. He seemed to have been lucky. There was a mark along the sleeve where it had rubbed along rock, but the actual breach seemed to be only a few millimetres long. The patch kit should handle that easily.
He had written the training notes for patching himself… Well, now he was about to test them in practice.
In consultation with the suit designers, he had decided that the suit fabric should be self-sealing as far as possible, with the sublayers able to join and 'weld' themselves together; then a patch would be applied, which should be self-adhesive and bond to the suit fabric. Larger holes - up to about a centimetre in length, or two square millimetres in area - would need extra sealant, and a tube of this was provided, but he should be able to manage this cut with just the patch. Still larger holes, of course, would result in explosive decompression, which would kill the user in less than a second.
He wiped the surface of the suit clean, and pressed the patch over it. Contact with the suit fabric activated the adhesive. Ignoring the pain in his arm, he pressed down on the patch as hard as he could.
He waited, checking his breathing. He was in no distress; the patch seemed to be holding.
Overhead, unnoticed by Straker, a faint red haze was gathering. It coalesced into a small red sphere with a dark centre. The sphere had its own light, but did not illuminate its surroundings. It hovered near the cave roof, watching the intruder into its domain.
Straker gave the patch another minute to be sure; then he carefully lifted his hand. In the light from his helmet lamp, he could see that no bubbles were forming in the adhesive at the edges, which was good. Carefully, he flexed his arm, wincing as the torn flesh protested. He had to hope he was not losing too much blood; it was a little difficult to tell inside a vacuum suit.
He did not know how far he had fallen; he was not yet sufficiently accustomed to lunar gravity to be able to judge. But that same lunar gravity had saved him from a killing impact with the rocky floor.
He turned off the helmet lamp. He turned off the tell-tales in his helmet also, for fear their faint glow would give away his position. This far under the lunar surface, it should have been completely dark, with not a glimmer of light. There would not even be any bioluminescence. If there had been, that would be a major discovery in itself.
But the darkness was not absolute. As his 'night-vision' returned, he became aware of a faint flickering patch of lighter-black in the distance. He switched on his infra-red imager with silent thanks to the techs for installing it at his request. The reason he had given was perfectly valid; it was to augment his normal vision in situations like these.
Well, not quite like these, perhaps…
He played with the imager controls, adjusting it to give a reasonable amount of detail at the ambient temperatures here. Not to his surprise, it was not actually that cold, despite the fact that it must be after 'nightfall' here on the back of the moon. The temperature at the surface would be heading towards 150 below freezing (he still occasionally had to remind himself to think in Celsius), but the rock had been absorbing and storing solar heat for billions of years.
The view in IR was unearthly, appropriately enough. But he had managed to get some practice in using the sensor, and was able to interpret the images without too much difficulty. He pulled himself to his feet, and made his way carefully towards that lighter patch - slightly brighter in IR - step by tiny step. He could not afford to fall a second time. The imager helped him hold back his claustrophobia; but he did have to remind himself, every inch of the way, that he could turn that lamp back on again at any time.
At least he did not have to worry about making a noise.
Above him, the red sphere followed, watching.
As he approached, the faint flickering light grew a little brighter, took on a shape. It looked like an archway, or the mouth of a tunnel. It was roughly cut, not machined like the tunnels they had found earlier; more like the shaft he had been pushed into, when John had attacked him.
He edged through the opening, taking extreme care. It did seem to be a tunnel, and away in the distance he could see the faint light brightening further into a weird aurora of green and blue and violet. He put out a hand to feel the tunnel wall. Here it was indeed smoothly machined; it was only the hole that was irregular, as though there had been some subsidence here.
Wondering what could have caused such movement in the rocks on a world with no weather or recent tectonics, Straker felt his way along, using the side of the tunnel as a guide and as a prop. He was beginning to feel a little woozy, though whether from loss of blood or of air he couldn't tell. Of course, that 'sleep gas' that Bosanquet had plumbed in to his suit's air-system might not be quite empty.
The light brightened steadily, and his fear diminished a little, as he made progress, until he arrived at another opening in the tunnel wall. This one seemed to be a hatchway; and the hatch was partly open.
Carefully, Straker peered around the edge of the hatch, at a truly incredible sight.
This chamber was huge, and clearly artificial. It was more or less torus-shaped, like a car tyre. The outer walls were covered with arrays of what was clearly instrumentation, with clusters of symbols similar to those Straker remembered seeing in the 'tunnel car'. There were numerous faintly-glowing panels, but nothing that might have been a knob or a lever; so presumably (Straker thought) operators input their actions by touching those screens, or perhaps by voice command.
In the centre of the chamber, a cylindrical core reached from floor to ceiling, flaring out near its top into an inverted cone. There was a narrow metal band in the floor around it, and a matching band in the roof. The core was encircled by a second torus, which seemed translucent, not quite solid; and it was this which had been emitting the light. Fleeting gleams and trails of light, blue and green, flittered around its surface like metallic bees. From time to time, the trails would coalesce; and as they did so, a brief shaft of violet light flashed up the core towards the lunar surface.
Above Straker, the unseen observer drifted in, and moved up to the chamber roof. It sank into the rock, leaving only a dull red patch on the surface.
Across the chamber from where Straker stood, there was a man in a vacuum suit like his own.
John Bosanquet was examining one of the instrumentation panels, and touching them here and there with a short stylus. As he did so, the patterns on the inner torus moved and coruscated in response.
Straker walked towards him, hoping that the display was not so reflective as to alert Bosanquet to his approach. He was only a step or two away, when his erstwhile colleague looked round, and saw him.
Bosanquet lunged for him; but Straker was ready. He kicked the man's feet out from under him. Bosanquet tried, and failed, to regain his footing; but Straker pushed him again, and as he sprawled face down, sat on his shoulders.
There was a click in Straker's helmet as his intersuit radio came alive. "Ed! What the hell are you doing?"
"You tried to kill me."
"Don't be ridiculous - " Bosanquet struggled to rise, but even under lunar gravity, Straker's weight was enough to hold him down. "Let me go!"
"You're working with the aliens. I should kill you, right now."
"I'll explain… Let me up."
"You can stay down there and explain."
"Ed, this device is an energy source! Prime it with a nuclear reaction, and it taps directly into vacuum energy, the source of everything in the universe, from quarks to black holes! The entities that built this device know how to control that! And we can learn from it!"
"Perhaps we can… But you're going to give it to the aliens. You said so."
"I said we could reach an agreement, to share it - "
At that point Bosanquet moved. He flung out an arm, pointed his stylus at the control panel. There was a blinding flash of light, and a jolt that threw Straker across the chamber, to land on his back by the central core.
" - but not with Earth," Bosanquet finished. "Get up."
Painfully, Straker managed to get to his knees. He used the action to move away from the core. He did not respond to Bosanquet's taunt.
"Don't you want to know who the aliens will share this with, Straker? Me, that's who. Just me! Just think of it… All that power! I could destroy Earth. I could detonate the Sun!"
Straker edged away, towards the controls, across the narrow metallic band in the floor. Still he did not speak.
"Stop," Bosanquet ordered. "Don't move… Kneel down. That's better… Now you will listen to me, Mister Commander. I'm going to call the aliens in to Daedalus. I'm going to show them this device. And I'm going to give you to them… and watch while they take you apart - Stop!!"
But Straker had thrown himself to one side, and rolled across the floor, as far from that core as he could. Bosanquet lifted his stylus and pointed it at the controls. There was a second, dazzling flash of light, and a scream…
* * *
"Still no contact with Commander Straker," Joan Harrington reported. "Or with Colonel Bosanquet."
"It's been over two hours," Freeman said worriedly, over the radio link from SHADO control. "They're not responding to your hails?"
"Not since they disappeared into that cave or whatever it was, sir."
"OK. Joan, you'd better start looking for them. They can't have much more than an hour's oxygen left."
Joan Harrington checked the EVA timer. "My instruments say one hour seventeen minutes, sir. I'll get things moving."
* * *
Straker's vision cleared, slowly. Bosanquet's scream, which had cut off abruptly, still echoed in his ears.
The central torus had vanished behind a vertical barrier of darkness reaching from the metallic strip on the floor to the matching strip directly above on the ceiling. Whether the barrier was material or pure energy, Straker could not tell.
Of Bosanquet, there was no sign… but there was a small object beside the barrier. Straker went to investigate; and nearly lost his lunch. It was a hand, in a vacuum-suit gauntlet, still grasping that stylus; and it had been sheared off cleanly at the wrist. There was only a little blood.
He was starting to shake again; but this time, it was not from claustrophobia.
Straker forced himself to think. He considered his next move. The best thing would be to shut down this device, so that no energy leakage would betray its presence; and - if possible - seal it off; until there was an opportunity to investigate it properly.
He wondered whether it should be investigated at all.
If Bosanquet was correct, and this device did indeed draw on vacuum energy, it would be incredibly powerful. Too powerful, perhaps, for Earth authorities to handle. It was obviously destructive, though that may not have been its primary function; but even as a side effect, that destructive power was phenomenal. And if it could be directed, beamed… if it were removed from this location, and mounted in a spacecraft…
it could be used to destroy the aliens, utterly.
And in the aliens' hands, it could annihilate Planet Earth.
He needed time to think about this. And he did not have much time. He was short of air already.
The first thing was to try a shutdown. He reached down, gingerly, and managed to pull the stylus free. Making his way over to the part of the panel that Bosanquet had been aiming at, he inspected the readouts. One of these showed an outline schematic of the inner torus, and of the force barrier surrounding it, with a graduated scale beside it. The scale appeared to be showing the barrier at half-strength. Straker touched the tip of the stylus to it, and stroked downwards to zero, watching the core as he did so.
The barrier faded, revealing the torus, still coruscating in blues and greens. Of Bosanquet - or his body - there was no sign.
He made a quick circuit of the controls, looking for the ones Bosanquet had used to activate it. One screen larger than the others seemed to be what he was looking for; it showed another vertical scale, lit in green for perhaps a tenth of the way up. He pointed the stylus at it, and stroked gently upwards, watching the torus. The glittering green and blue trails grew, intensified, multiplied, and the violet flashes came faster. He dragged the stylus down again, and they faded, until right at the lowest end, the torus was dark.
Straker became aware that a slight vibration under his feet was gone also.
Sealing this chamber off would probably take explosives, which he would have to bring in, covertly, from Moonbase. He hesitated about that for two reasons. Firstly, any such detonations would be picked up by the sensitive seismographs there, and although weak, they would be unusual, enough to excite comment. And the last thing he wanted to do was attract attention to this region, if he was unsuccessful in destroying the torus.
Secondly, Bosanquet had talked about 'priming' the device with a nuclear reaction. What would a conventional explosion do? He could not guess; but he was unwilling to take the risk.
It would be better, he decided, to block the entrance tunnels with rock, or with regolith. He remembered his fall down that shaft. He had been standing on a loose piece of rock, which had shifted under his weight as though it had been resting on sand. Perhaps it had been; he remembered the patter of gravelly regolith falling on him as he landed. If the area was that unstable, perhaps he could arrange a cave-in.
"Time to go," he muttered. He laid the stylus on the floor at the base of the panel. Taking the module he had found on Bosanquet, he pried it open, and examined it as closely as he could. It seemed to be a ‘home-brewed’ unit, probably built by Bosanquet himself. Most of its components were standard; but one was not. That was a small, dark red, geometric object, whose function was unclear; but he would take bets on its being a device supplied by the aliens, for Bosanquet to use to communicate with them.
He culdn’t leave that here, for fear the aliens would home in on it and find this place. Nor could he destroy it, in case it triggered a reaction in the ‘power source’.
He replaced it in his suit pouch, switched on his helmet lamp, and left through the hatchway.
From here, a ladder of sorts led upwards, a series of metal rungs let into the rock. He climbed, carefully, and arrived at an open hatchway. He stepped through it, recognising it as the place where they had arrived. The 'tunnel car' was still waiting, its own hatch open.
He lowered himself back into the shaft. Turning off his helmet lamp, he switched his viewer to IR once again, and inspected the wall of this shaft. It was rough-cut, not smoothly machined; and the surface had apparently been sealed with something resembling cement. He prodded at it with gauntleted hands, and a few fragments separated and tumbled into the depths at a leisurely pace.
That was encouraging.
All the indications were that whoever had built this facility, they had chosen a very bad location for it. The rock around here was very unstable, little more than compacted regolith, a little like sandstone in its form. Yet their tunnels were bored through basalt, so excavating a cave in hard igneous rock should not have presented them with any problems.
Maybe, Straker thought, they didn't have much choice on where to put this installation. Perhaps it was important for it to be here, with the entire mass of the Moon between it and Earth - to act as a shield for when it was operating. He did not like that possibility at all.
Or perhaps it was effect rather than cause? Could this device, when it was operating, shake the rocks around it to dust? He liked that one even less.
Of course, both could be true…
All right, he told himself. Whatever their reasons, they were stuck with this unstable 'sedimentary' ground - so if there were rockfalls, they would need means of clearing a way through. They would have drills, ploughs, similar devices. If he could find one, he could set it to bore its way through to the torus chamber, and set off a rockfall within it.
If he had enough air to stay alive long enough to do that.
He checked the suit readouts. They told him he had air for perhaps an hour and a half, possibly two. Well, it would have to do. He was not willing to leave this job half-finished and return the next day.
Straker hauled himself out of the shaft, and looked around at the tunnel end face. It would make sense for the builders to have a stock of digging equipment at the end of the tunnel away from its entrance, and for that equipment to be mountable on the tunnel car.
And, indeed, there was a large hatch beside the transit tunnel. It opened at the touch of a sensitive plate, to reveal a number of pieces of hardware, unfamiliar but obvious, reflecting the universal truth of the dictum that 'function dictates form'. There was a chart on the wall, showing what was clearly a map of the installation. Straker inspected this carefully. He would have to hook up the equipment he wanted to the front of the tunnel car, set it a course to angle downwards to penetrate the roof of the torus chamber, allowing the loose regolith to fall into the chamber.
He didn't fancy being inside the tunnel car while it was doing this, as there was a definite possibility that it would get stuck, and buried. He had to fight to suppress a scream at the thought…
He grabbed hold of his splintering self-control with both mental hands, and set himself firmly to the task. Grimly, he made himself think about his own escape from this area, with the tunnel car unavailable. There was one obvious, if terrifying, possibility.
The car controls were simple and intuitive. Evidently the builders did not believe in making tasks unduly complex. Straker wished he could show this to a few Earthly designers.
Before long, he had set it up to his satisfaction. If he had this right, the car would not move with the door open; so he had wedged it with a metal bar. He had tested that bar against the magnetic 'grabbers' that held the tunnel car in place, and encouragingly it had taken all his strength to pull it away again. He climbed out of the car, pulled the bar clear, and the door closed.
For long seconds, nothing happened.
A vibration built beneath his feet, and the car moved smoothly forward. Its rear end rose, tilting its nose downwards, and the 'drill-bit' coupled to its front began to bite into the rock.
Just like a mole, Straker thought, as he watched.
In the light from his helmet lamp he could see pieces off loose rock flaking away and falling slowly around the car. More and more regolith was falling into the tunnel, around the car. Soon it had disappeared from view, but he could still feel its vibration.
From the angle of the tunnel it was making, he had its course right. If he had set its timer correctly, it would stop just past the torus chamber itself.
He checked his suit air. Fifty minutes. Time to go… and to hope, that his air would last long enough.
He took the 'steel' bar firmly in both hands, and ran for the entrance end of the tunnel. He leapt into the channel, and continued to run, trying to hide what he was doing from himself. The channel began to curve downwards, in a way that must have been designed carefully to ease the 'tunnel cars' into the fall, and he hoped it would do the same for him. He dived forwards, the bar held out ahead of him, headlong into the abyss…
* * *
He tried to relax into the fall, rather than stiffen up. If he hit the sides of the tunnel at speed, the impact would kill him instantly - but at least he would never know about it.
He seemed to drift into a trance, from which he was woken by a 'clunk' as the steel bar he was holding made contact with the buffer magnets at the far end of the tunnel. He felt lunar gravity tug at him, and knew he was kneeling in the transit channel. Somehow he managed to loosen his death-grip on the bar, and crawl out of the channel.
He wished he had time to investigate this terminus, find out its purpose, and the reason for its location, but his time was too short. Alarms were sounding in his helmet. His breathing was becoming more difficult. They would be looking for him, but he could not afford to be found here. He set himself to find the way out.
He pulled himself upright, and began the long walk down the 'platform', looking for the break in the wall by which he and Bosanquet had entered. He squeezed through the hole, and nearly tripped over the remote. He took a few moments to set it to dig into the wall of compacted regolith, hoping to trigger a rockfall. Its control line snaked over the ground ahead, showing the route he had to take, and he followed the line, a little unsteadily.
He felt a vibration through the rocky floor, which - he hoped - was the rockfall he wanted.
He was definitely running out of air. He was gasping for breath. His chest ached. Twice, he fell to his knees. The third time, he could not get up again, but crawled forward in the path of the line.
There were lights in the distance, moving, floating around. Rescuers? Or aliens? He tried to call out, but his voice would not work.
Someone was talking to him. Strong hands grabbed his arms, lifted him, carried him…
* * *
Inside the torus chamber, loose regolith tumbled in from the channel cut by the 'mole', filling it. From the roof, the observer resumed its sphere form, and watched. When the chamber was packed with loose rock and gravel, the observer moved out into the tunnel network, and sped along the hollow channels. As it did so, the tunnels collapsed behind it, blocking off all access to the torus chamber.
When it had finished its task, it passed a message to its Queen; then it resumed its hibernation, awaiting the next phase.
* * *
"Commander? Ed? Can you hear me?"
He ached all over. Especially his head, and his chest. And he felt sick.
But he was breathing. There was something covering his mouth and nose, something that smelled faintly of synthetic rubber, but he was breathing fresh cool oxygen-laden air.
"Go 'way," he muttered. "Need sleep…"
"You can sleep later. Sit up… That's it."
He should know that voice… "Joan…?"
"Yes, Commander, it's me… You're in one of our hoppers. That's why we've taken your helmet off. Don't worry, there's plenty of air."
"How are you feeling? Your suit has been torn. Are you hurt?"
"My arm," he muttered. "Just a scratch…"
He jerked upright as memory returned. "John!! He's gone - disappeared - "
"It's all right. We'll find him… Let's get you out of that suit."
The ache in his head was fading to a fuzzy feeling, as though his head was stuffed with cotton wool, but he tried to help her remove the suit. "Sorry about this…" he muttered. "How long…"
"You and John Bosanquet have been gone for about six hours. You only just had enough air to make it back here, and then you collapsed. We've told SHADO we found you. We've got people out looking for John. What happened? Do you remember anything about it?"
"Bit hazy - " He hissed in pain as she eased the sleeve of the suit over his arm. He looked at the gash. It seemed long, bigger than the cut he had patched in the suit fabric, but shallow. "We were checking the end of that cavern… seemed to be a lava bubble… there were cracks, we decided to have a look… John pushed me… I heard him scream… I slipped… must have fallen… suit was damaged, I patched it… looked for John… he'd disappeared…"
He caught his breath as she probed at the wound. "Sorry," she apologised. "It's not too bad. Needs cleaning up, that's all, but I bet it stings."
"Sure does," Straker said, a little huskily.
"OK, brace yourself. You said John pushed you?"
"Yes… he shouted 'look out'… and then he shoved me back - ouch! No, it's OK, don't worry."
"Would you know where this happened?" Joan finished cleaning him off, applied an absorbent pad, then wound a bandage around the arm.
"Guess so… roughly, anyway…"
"Good. Come and sit up front… That's it. Two of the construction techs are out there searching - there, that's their video feed," Joan added, as she helped Straker into one of the pilots' seats. "Can you direct them from there?"
"I'll have a go…" He moved the microphone towards himself. He asked her: "Who's out there?"
"Lieutenant Bradley and Lieutenant Ellis."
"Great… Mark? Gay? Can you hear me?"
"Commander! Yes, we can! Are you all right?" Ellis wanted to know.
"A bit bruised is all." Behind him, he could hear Joan Harrington talking softly into another microphone, and the urgent but relieved voice of Alec Freeman. "Any sign of him? You're about in the right area."
"Some disturbed rocks, but you may have done that yourself. Listen, sir, Mark is going to try something… According to Joe Kelly, these little cameras have some IR sensitivity. If we turn off all the lights, it's so dark down here that they may pick something up."
Straker pursed his lips in appreciation. "Go for it, Mark."
He turned up the brightness on the screen, and stared at it closely. Sure enough, there was the faintest of glowing trails along the rocky floor, leading back into the darkness behind the cavern.
"Is that where I came out?"
"Yes, it's where we found you, sir."
"Follow it back… but be very careful. I seem to remember there was a rock fall… When John and I went down there, the cracks seemed to split off several ways, and we kept to the right."
"Noted, sir," Bradley replied. "Gay, keep back a few paces… Ah. I see what you mean, Commander. There's a huge pile of stuff… and your own trail comes through it."
Joan had finished her radio conversation, and was looking at the small screen over his shoulder. "Were there any side passages that way, sir?"
"Not that we could see. But I think there must have been cracks in the floor."
"OK." Bradley turned on his helmet lamp again, and inspected the pile of rubble. "I'll send our remote through… see what it can find."
Bradley's remote scuttled up the rock pile and disappeared into a dark hole near the top. The picture from its own camera appeared on the screen; but Straker's thermal trail was rapidly fading.
"What I'd like to know," Gay Ellis said, "is how do these rocks manage to fall anyway? The moon doesn't have quakes, or rainfall."
"No," Straker agreed, "but it did have volcanoes, and lava intrusions. And it does suffer from meteorites. Cumulative falls over thousands of years may cause a bit of instability. "
"Then we'll have to be careful not to - " Gay broke off. The image from the remote trembled, then vanished as more rocks tumbled down across the device.
" - trigger anything," Gay finished, with dry humour. "Loss of signal, I'm afraid, sir."
"Any sign at all of John…?"
"I'm sorry, sir. None."
Straker looked up at Joan, his face grim. "How long?"
"Close to seven hours, now, sir. His air will have run out by now anyway, even if his own suit had remained intact."
Straker nodded. "Mark, Joan, come back out of there. Don't try to get through, we'll only lose you as well… Go back to the last branch point, see if you can find another way through… but be very careful indeed, you hear?"
* * *
They tried, for another three hours, but without success. Each passageway seemed to peter out, or become too narrow for even a remote to negotiate.
At last, Straker leaned back from the monitor, and wiped his face. "OK. I'm calling it off. He can't still be alive, and we can't risk people on a wild goose chase… Let's get back to base. I want to look at some charts. If this area is so unstable, we can't use it ourselves."
"Does John have a family?" Gay asked, quietly.
"His wife died some years ago. I believe there's a daughter."
"There is," Joan confirmed. "Colonel Freeman is already looking for her. She will want to speak to you, of course."
"I guess," Straker agreed, with a sigh. "But I won't mention the Moon."
* * *
The hopper returned to Moonbase. They connected up the flexible access tunnel, and the crew re-entered the dome. Thankfully, Straker changed out of the thermal undergarment into an aluminised one-piece. He inspected the damage to the suit. Fortunately, only the sleeve was holed, and that could be replaced and the suit re-used. He asked Gay to put it in his quarters for more thorough examination before he sent it for repair.
That would give him a chance to remove Bosanquet’s gadget, which was still in the suit pouch, and look at it in private. He could also remove and hide Bosanquet’s ‘sleep gas’ cylinder.
He went to the control desk, patched a call through to SHADO Control. Freeman responded immediately.
"Good to see you intact, Ed. I'm so sorry about John… What d'you want to do next?"
"Those caves are too dangerous," Straker said. "I think they should be sealed off."
"I wouldn't disagree," Freeman said, "but how d'you propose to do it?"
"It occurs to me that the Interceptors could use some target practice."
"Are you serious?"
"Entirely. Since it's a bit close to this base, we can use reduced charges, of conventional explosive."
On the small monitor, Freeman pursed his lips, and nodded slowly. "Lew would love to try it, I've no doubt."
"He sure would. I'll set it up."
Waterman managed to conceal his delight - just - at his instructions. He took off in one of the Interceptors from its temporary underground hangar, which was little more than a roughly-cut hole, and flew the short distance to the rock-face that Straker and Bosanquet had been checking out. He took a low-level run at it, and fired his missile. It detached itself from its cradle, shot forward, and scored a direct hit.
Rock fragments flew in all directions.
Straker was watching, in a nearby hopper, in the shelter of a small crater wall. He said: "Back off, Lew, and let's have a look-see."
"Yes, sir." The Interceptor came in to land a short distance away from the hopper. Straker deployed another of his remotes, sent it in to examine the rock.
What was left of it… Waterman's aim had been good. The rock-face had been reduced to a pile of rubble. The remote went in for as close a look as Straker felt he could get, and scanned the rock-pile. There were no traces left of the crack he and Bosanquet had used.
"OK, Lieutenant. Good job. Return to the hangar."
The Interceptor took off once more, and headed back to the base complex. Straker followed, rather more slowly.
* * *
The engineers had a second dome up and running. Straker inspected their efforts, gave his approval, then went to the zone he had designated as his own quarters. Rank hath its privileges, he thought, as he slid the door shut behind him.
He had prevailed upon the builders to put in a 'light show' panel above each bed in the sleeping quarters. Their soothing effect helped people to relax and 'wind down'. No-one knew that his own panel hid a secure locker. Here he had put a vacuum suit, similar to those placed in the living area; but the locker also had a hatch in the floor, allowing entry to the 'catacombs', a network of lava tunnels below the base.
Not many knew about those, either.
His damaged suit had been placed in a plastic crate near the bed. He opened the pouch, and retrieved the small module. But when he prised it open once more, the red ‘crystal’ was gone, leaving only a slight reddish smear over the other components and the interior of the casing.
Damn, he thought. It’s self-destructed.
Still, at least he could have the residue analysed, though he doubted it would tell him very much. It was worth at least a try. He placed the device in his secure locker. Turning his attention back to the suit, he searched it for that ‘sleep gas’ cylinder, but all he found was a faint smear of a gel-like substance on the inside of the helmet faceplate. He scraped off as much as he could into a small container and put that in his locker also.
He closed the ‘light show’ panel. It came on, and fuzzy, cloud-like shapes began to drift across its surface. He spread a light sheet over the inflatable bed, and lay down on it. The bed was surprisingly comfortable. He turned down the overhead lighting, so that the room was illuminated only by the shifting colours of that panel, and gazed up into the shadows.
Once again, he invoked his extensive MI training, and called forth those images he had memorised of the display in the tunnel car, comparing it with what he knew of Sanskrit characters. He knew the numbers; but most of the script defeated him. The most he could decipher was the word 'Arkadia'. That recalled a term from Greek mythology, meaning 'utopia'; but that was all. The fact that some of the inscriptions in that 'tunnel car' could be deciphered, however, meant that the connection with ancient Earth was real.
That, he thought, should not surprise him; but he wished he had been able to get more out of Bosanquet about the aliens who were attacking them. Certainly the creatures who had built the subway had to be more or less humanoid; the tunnel-car seats had fitted his own butt well, and the lighting suited human eyes. But those were the 'Arkadians'; Bosanquet's 'Prithvians' may have been formed quite differently. He had implied, though, that they could come through the subway. That put an upper limit on their size; Straker wished he knew enough biology to consider a realistic lower limit that would still permit at least human-level intelligence.
A sudden chilling thought occurred to him. What if they were dealing with a 'hive-mind', a colony of creatures like ants or bees, whose individuals were mindless but who had a powerful collective mentality?
Putting that thought on his mental 'back burner' for lack of evidence one way or the other, he pulled himself out of the light trance; but before he emerged completely, he groped for the pad on the shelf, and made notes of what he had dredged up. He placed the pad in his secure locker; he was not yet ready to discuss the notes even with Alec.
He sat up, climbed off the bed to his feet, and went through some gentle stretching exercises to bring himself to full wakefulness. Turning off the light panel, he left the room, went into the control dome and sat before the radio link.
"Moonbase to SHADO Control," he said.
"Freeman here. How'd the test go?"
"It went well, Alec, thanks. Not even a mouse could get in there now."
"A mouse in a spacesuit?" Freeman smiled a little; then his face became grave. "Ed, we haven't been able to locate John's daughter. There's no sign of her."
"Nothing at all?"
"Last heard of booked on a transatlantic flight a couple of years ago. TW174."
Straker's attention sharpened. "Wasn't that the one that vanished over Iceland?"
"The very same. There was a search, but nothing was ever found - not even the flight recorders."
"Anything about it in our own files?"
"A little. It was flagged up as being a possible UFO incident. Some of our people investigated, gave it a provisional 'maybe', but didn't find anything conclusive."
Straker drew a breath. "Move it to our file of 'likely' disappearances - but if she was taken, we're too late by some years to help her."
"So it seems," Freeman agreed, reluctantly. He changed the subject. "How's the build going?"
"I've instructed that I want Moonbase operational in three months. Waterman screamed, said it would take six. But he'll do it in three."
"No doubt." Freeman's voice was dry enough to desiccate Lake Huron, Straker thought. "When are you coming down?"
"I'm booked on tomorrow's LM. How are things your end?"
"Busy," said Freeman. "Westbrook is on schedule, even though they've had a few problems. Nothing we can't handle. Completion date is still autumn this year."
"Moonbase should be ready for them easily," Straker replied.
He cut the contact, and leaned back with a sigh. Moonbase will be ready, he thought. But - will we?
It's Christmas 1980, the end of SHADO's first operational year. Freeman decides he and Straker need a break, and invites Ed to spend a few days in Suffolk with him, while he meets with old friends from DS8. But they are not the only visitors to Rendlesham that Christmas… and these other visitors have one objective – Straker’s discovery on the far side of the Moon.
December 24th 1980, afternoon
"'Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house…" Freeman sang.
Straker gave him a pained look. "Don't give up the day job, Alec."
"Perhaps you're right," Freeman admitted. "Well, we're nearly there. Only a few miles to go."
"You said your friend was already there?"
"Walter? Yes, he should be, that's what he said on the phone last night."
Straker smiled. "I have to admit, I'm rather looking forward to this, after the past year."
"It has been a bit frenetic, hasn't it?"
"Frantic, I'd call it," Straker said, with a grimace. "But now we've got SHADO and Moonbase fully operational, we can perhaps take a little time to relax - and to digest some of the year's revelations."
"Like the fact that the aliens are apparently humanoid? Not the cut-down versions with huge heads and slanty eyes, like grey versions of the fictional baddies from the comics, but Earthman-sized humans? That's really weird."
"Isn't it." Weirder than you think, Alec, Straker thought to himself.
But Freeman was also thinking private thoughts. He hoped this little break, short though it was of necessity, might take his friend's mind off his more personal problems. Rather pointedly, Mary had not invited Ed to visit Johnny over the holiday, though she had reluctantly agreed that he could come over in the New Year.
He broke off that line of thinking. "Still," he said, "at least they've got green skin."
"Yes, but that's just an artefact of their life-support system."
"Don't spoil it. I like that we're dealing with not-so-little green men," Freeman laughed.
Straker kept his next thoughts very much to himself. The truly amazing thing about these creatures was that they had turned out to be tissue-compatible enough to use human organs in transplants. The thought made him shudder. Not just in its ghoulishness, though heaven knew, that was horrifying enough. It was the implication - that these beings had to be related to humanity.
There were differences, of course. The aliens did not seem to use, or to need, the anti-rejection drugs required by Earthly humans. Somehow they had altered the cell coding of the transplanted organs and the tissues of the alien recipient so that the two would be compatible. But the alien cell-coding had other problems. It carried recessive traits that could, when they paired up and so became active in a person, render that individual sterile.
Hereditary sterility, the medics had called that, apparently not noticing the contradiction.
And none of the doctors could give him a reason, or even a mechanism, by which this biological 'self-destruct' had come to pass.
Straker considered that this knowledge, of the links between the two races, was dangerous and potentially destabilising; so he had used his command prerogative to remove all relevant records. Only five of his people knew about the transplants - Alec himself, Shroeder, Harris, Keith Ford, and Peter Carlin. And of those, only Peter and Keith knew how specific those transplants were. He had ordered them all not to discuss the matter further, even among themselves.
He had not even told Henderson. He hoped he would never have to.
This was not a secret that could be maintained for long under the onslaught of so many intelligent and enquiring minds; but, at least, it could be made to emerge slowly, to let people get used to the idea.
A few people had to be advised immediately about the human connection: Alec Freeman, for example, and Gay Ellis, both of whom had the robust sanity needed to withstand the initial jolt. He just hoped their nightmares wouldn't be as bad as the ones he himself had had… This short break would provide an ideal opportunity to tell Alec. But perhaps he'd leave it until after Christmas, so as not to spoil his friend's appetite.
But he did not intend to pass on to anyone the other piece of information he had, known to no-one else since the death of John Bosanquet. This was about the existence of that lunar subway, and the power source device under Daedalus Crater on the Moon's far side. If indeed that was what it was.
Now there was a piece of information he himself would rather not have had. It was just too dangerous. What if he were taken by the aliens, made to reveal what he knew - not just about SHADO, but about the existence of this device, which could be turned to use as a weapon? If Bosanquet was to be believed, it was powerful enough to annihilate Earth, to detonate the sun… The thought of such a thing in hostile hands was truly horrifying.
He had seriously considered using the new amnesia drug on himself; but it was not selective enough, and it was still under development. He had wondered about hypnosis; but he would have to tell the person doing the hypnosis what memories he wanted wiped, and then wipe the session from their mind. There were too many ways that could go wrong.
At least there was one thing he could do. He could seal the device off more permanently; but he would have to be very careful about that. He did not want to risk setting the thing off.
Freeman's voice broke into his thoughts. "We've arrived."
"Lovely-looking place," Straker murmured, gazing out at the building. "Must be old."
"It is. Dates back to the 17th century… There should be parking round the back."
There was. A gravelled area provided space for about a couple of dozen cars, and all but one were filled; the empty space had a small marker, a 'traffic cone' with a number on it. "I think that one's ours," Freeman said, pulling in to the slot.
"Guess they're having a busy Christmas. How long ago did you say you booked?"
"About six months. Yes, that was optimistic, I know."
"Worth trying, though… You said this place had been set up by the Manor?" This referred to a local establishment engaged in top-secret research. Freeman himself had worked there for a time.
"Yes," Freeman confirmed. "It has… certain advantages. The security vetting on resident customers like ourselves is discreet but considerable. There's a private lounge for residents, and the bar staff are Manor employees. It's a good system - it gave us a chance to chat among ourselves safely about internal matters."
"That why you insisted on our mess-room? And the leisure area 'upstairs'?"
"But they don't know about us?"
"Not in detail, no," Freeman said. "They know our backgrounds, that we're 'in the business', but nothing about what we actually do."
Straker gave a thoughtful nod. Freeman climbed out, opened the boot, and extracted the suitcases. Straker followed, collected his case. "Didn't you say they just had the one room free?" he asked.
"Yes, but they said they could do single beds in it."
"Great… do you snore?"
"I certainly do not," Freeman said with a grin. "Do you?"
"Well, I'll chuck a shoe at you, if necessary… Let's go and check in."
They locked the car and went to the bar, explained they had booked for a few nights' stay. The barman nodded, called an assistant, who showed them into a side room. "It's a bit quieter in here," she smiled. "You're Mr Freeman?"
"That's right. I've booked from tonight to the 28th."
The assistant turned a few pages. "Ah yes, here we are. You requested twin beds, that's done… Would you sign here please? And your friend?"
They both signed.
"Thank you. I'll get someone to show you up. There's a dining room opening times sheet up there, but briefly, dinner is from 6 to 10, breakfast 6 to 9, lunch is not booked except for tomorrow which is 12 to 3, though we can do packed lunches if you want to go for walks. Other days it's pot luck. Usually with turkey sandwiches," she said, with another smile.
"I can imagine," Freeman said, with a mock grimace. "No, no, it all sounds lovely. Thank you very much. Has our friend Walter Mackay arrived, yet? He's joining us for dinner tonight."
"Let's see… No, he hasn't, I'm afraid. But I'll call when he arrives, or if you're in the bar I'll send someone."
A young woman appeared, greeted them, and showed them up the stairs. There were three flights, one of which confusingly went down a few steps. She opened the door and led them inside, showed them the facilities which included a compact en-suite, handed them the keys, and departed, wishing them a comfortable stay. Freeman watched her go with appreciation; Straker watched him with amusement.
Freeman turned, saw his friend's expression. "Well, she is nice to look at."
"Sure is, but aren't you afraid Miss Ealand will be jealous?"
"Oh, she will be… but she hides it well." At Straker's snort, Freeman cleared his throat, picked up his suitcase and placed it on the stand to open it. He began to unpack. "Toss you for a bed?"
Straker took out a coin, flipped it. "Call."
"Heads for window," Freeman said.
The coin came up tails. Freeman gave a rueful grin.
"Wonder what's keeping Walt?" he said. "OK, I know what the Manor can be like - we both do - but I'd have thought he'd have sent a message."
"If he can," Straker pointed out, laying his pyjamas out on the bed facing the window. They were pale chocolate with white collar and cuffs, Freeman noted.
"You'll look like a café crème," he commented.
"I just hope yours won't keep me awake! Do they have a volume control?"
Indeed, Freeman's own sleepwear was a paisleyesque swirl of multicolour, harking back to the 'psychedelic' 60s era. He managed to hide a smile. He had deliberately chosen to bring the most outrageous set he possessed, to josh his friend. "Well, wear your sunglasses if they bother you," he suggested.
Straker did not deign to answer. He fished a book out of his suitcase, placed it on the small bedside table. "Don't worry," he said, noting Freeman's glance. "I won't get the light in your eyes."
"How early do you usually wake?"
"It varies. Sometimes it's as late as 5am." He smiled at Freeman's groan.
At that point the bedside phone rang. Freeman picked it up. "Room Two… yes… Many thanks. We'll be right down." He replaced the handset, nodded to Straker. "Walt's just arrived. He'll meet us in the bar."
They gave a last look round, and left, Freeman turning off the light as he followed Straker out of the door.
* * *
Mackay had found a window seat; though at this time of year it was largely wasted, since night was already falling. He stood to greet them, beckoned a waiter. "What will you have?"
"Pint of bitter, please," Freeman said. "Ed?"
"As it's Christmas, I might indulge… a dry sherry, please."
Mackay gave the order, and the waiter departed. "It's good to see you again, Alec. And great to meet you, Ed."
"Thanks," Straker said. "Alec mentioned you were in research?"
"Yes, up at the Manor," Mackay replied. "They're keeping us pretty busy, that's why I was late - sorry about that."
"No problem. I'm rather glad I've left all that stuff behind," Straker said. "Though the movie world can get just as frantic on occasion."
"Got anything good in the pipeline? That you can talk about, that is?"
"One or two ideas," answered Freeman. He took a mouthful of his beer, smiled in enjoyment. "That's good… A couple of people have approached us to try to persuade us to do a sequel to 'Alien'. So far, we've declined."
"I'm not surprised. Did they see your most recent effort? The one subtitled 'The worst movie in the world'?"
"A lot of people seemed to like it. Can't think why," Straker said, with a slight smile. "About the only cliché the writers didn't use was 'take me to your leader'."
"I saw it," Mackay confirmed. "I laughed myself nearly sick. It would be just the right approach to horror."
"A bit too slapstick," Freeman said.
The conversation went on, moved to other matters, but by common unspoken consent avoided more serious work topics. Straker was not surprised. He had gathered from Freeman that Mackay had been with Alec in DS8 - and probably was still there, whatever its name was these days.
At length they were invited to the dining room, to a table in the corner. The pulled crackers, and Straker let himself be persuaded to wear the paper hat from his. It was red, with a generous sparkle of gold glitter. As he put it on, there was a flash. Freeman had brought his camera.
"Don't you dare," Straker threatened, with a mock glare.
"Why not? Norma will love it, I'll get it framed for her!"
"Who's Norma? The lady love?" Mackay winked.
"My secretary," Straker answered. He adjusted the hat to a slightly more jaunty angle. "OK, what's on the menu?"
"Would you believe turkey…? Though they also offer beef… and, my word, goose!"
"Sounds good here," Straker agreed.
The meal went on. Straker was a little surprised to find himself relaxing and enjoying himself, something he had little opportunity to do these days. But it was true; every so often you needed to recharge your batteries.
They returned to the bar, and Straker chose a fruit juice as a nightcap. Mackay and Freeman had Scotch. "I've arranged a taxi," he explained, to Freeman's querying glance.
"What are your plans for tomorrow? Believe it or not, I'm working."
"We thought we'd take a walk around, have a look at the area," Straker said. "Probably take a walk in the woods. And I want to try Sutton Hoo sometime - though that won't be fully open, of course, but at least we can look at those mounds."
"Getting ideas for movies?" Mackay smiled.
Mackay finished his drink, checked his watch. "I'd better go… see you tomorrow night?"
They said their good-nights. Mackay departed, and the two SHADO men made their way up to their room, to change into outdoor wear for their midnight excursion.
December 25th 1980, midnight to mid-morning
The two men went to midnight Mass at the local church. Though not himself a Catholic, Freeman had accompanied his friend to a few services, and always found them interesting. This one was particularly good, with a fine selection of carols, with which he joined in heartily.
They returned to their room at the pub at well past one in the morning, and after a warming cup of coffee, fell into bed and slept soundly.
They managed to make it to the dining room in time for breakfast. Straker acknowledged the waitress's cheery smile, and took his seat at their table. A Christmas edition of a local newspaper lay on the table, and after giving their order to the waitress, Straker picked it up and scanned the front page.
"Anything happening in the world?" Freeman enquired, pouring himself tea from the pot the waitress had brought.
"Nothing of much note," Straker replied. "Weather should be OK, though, dry if a bit chilly. Fancy a woodland walk?"
"Foraging for mushrooms?" Freeman smiled.
"I wouldn't dare. Been a long time since I had to do that sort of thing, I'm a bit out of practice."
Straker was thinking back to his astronaut training, part of which had been concerned with survival in the wilds, in case he came down in an uninhabited area and was unable to make radio contact with base. He had been on two such exercises, one tropical on a parachute, one at sea in a sinking capsule. The trainers had sedated him, then placed him unconscious in the capsule and set it adrift. As he came round, they set off small charges to start it sinking. He had managed to climb out into the water, then he had to detach the capsule's uninflated flotation collar before it had been dragged down out of reach. He had managed to inflate it partially through the manual valve. While he was doing this he attracted the attention of an inquisitive shark. As his trainers had advised, he lay quietly floating at the water surface, and did not move until the animal had lost interest and swum away. After some hours of being alone in the ocean, swimming, trying to navigate by the stars, the currents had brought him and his float near enough to shore for him to drag himself out of the water. He started walking, trying to find civilisation, and had come across a road. He had managed to hitch a lift from a trucker, who - wonder of wonders - had let him drink from a flask of blessedly hot coffee. The trucker had delivered him safely to the training camp, then departed with a cheery wave.
The tropical drop, by contrast, had almost too much life, and very little of it apparently edible. No handy coconut palms, no small, furry, tasty creatures. There were several streams, but their water was distinctly brackish. Eventually, after some hours' hard searching, he had found a tree with some unripe bananas. They were tart enough to set his teeth on edge, but they were edible. He used the leaves to build a small still, to provide himself with some desalinated water. He eventually found his way to the shore, over several days, and started a beacon fire. They had picked him up a few hours later.
"What are you grinning at?" Freeman asked, eyebrows raised.
"I was just remembering why I hate bananas."
"What - oh. Oh I see," Freeman smiled. "Well, never mind. We'll try and find you a coconut, instead, shall we?"
"In Rendlesham Forest?"
"In that case, how about pine cones?"
"I think I'll pass," Straker said, taking a mouthful of his coffee. "I'm not a squirrel - ah, here comes ours. Now that's what I call food!"
Indeed, instead of his usual hot buttered toast, Straker had opted for a full English. Freeman gaped as his friend piled first bacon, then fried bread, tomatoes, a sausage, a slice of black pudding, some baked beans, and a few mushrooms onto his plate.
"What, no waffles?" he asked, collecting his own sausage.
"No way. That would be greedy… Where's the ketchup?"
* * *
They did not hurry over breakfast. After his third cup of tea, Freeman leaned back in his chair, with a sigh of satisfaction.
"You'll need a long walk, to work that off," Straker said.
"Speak for yourself… I've been checking the opening times at Sutton Hoo," Freeman replied. "There's a small exhibition… That won't be open today, of course, but we can walk round the mounds. We could have a look at the exhibition on Saturday. And the tide mill is also closed, but even from the outside it's an impressive sight. What day d'you want to do the forest?"
"Hmm." Straker considered. "Well, it's about a three-hour walk to the coast from here, through the forest towards the Orford lighthouse. Should be very quiet, especially today. We could take one of those packed lunches this place does, and wander back in time for dinner and crackers. We can do the Hoo later, as you say."
"Sounds good here."
"Oh yes. Before I forget…" Straker reached down, and picked up a small bag that he had placed there beside his chair. He opened it, and took out a brightly coloured envelope and a small package. He handed them to Freeman. "Happy Christmas, Alec."
"Why, thank you, Ed. And merry Christmas to you, as well," Freeman smiled, handing his own package across. Straker accepted it with a smile, and together they opened their gifts.
"Slippers?" Straker said, appreciatively. "Mock croc, lovely… I'll be climbing the wall like a lizard!"
Freeman chuckled, then blinked as he saw his own gift. "These socks would put even my pyjamas to shame! Have you been peeking into my cupboards?"
Straker winked. "I have my spies everywhere!"
* * *
The roads were practically deserted as they drove out in the direction of the coast. Straker found a parking area on the edge of the forest, and pulled in. "Here we are," he said. "Looks a bit gloomy, doesn't it? Not sure if the pines help or not."
"Oh, it's OK," Freeman said. "Just don't let your imagination run away with you - a lot of Suffolk is reputed to be haunted."
"Great," Straker groaned. "Oh well, shall we go? Now where's my compass?"
"In the glove box." Freeman reached in, and took out the small device, handing it to his friend.
They set off, walking steadily but not quickly. Freeman had a look round the vegetation, trying to identify what he could of the wildlife. They saw the occasional grey squirrel, and once or twice, a rabbit would head for cover, but not in any great hurry. There were occasional bird calls, and one robin perched on a low branch and watched them pass, apparently unafraid at this invasion of its territory by the huge strangers.
"Look," Freeman said, pointing to it.
"Very seasonal," Straker agreed. "Peaceful, isn't it?"
"Hmm." Freeman had stopped walking, and was frowning. "Is it me, or is it getting darker all of a sudden?"
"Shouldn't be. There isn't a cloud in the sky… but you're right, it is darker."
"Feels like an eclipse," Freeman said. "But there isn't one due."
They both turned, and looked west. It was past noon, and the sun was beginning to drop towards the western horizon. There was nothing obscuring its disc; but a bank of haze seemed to hang in the air.
"What's that? It's not smoke…" Straker broke off. He was looking down at his compass.
"What's wrong?" Freeman said sharply.
"Look." Straker held out the compass, and Freeman stared. The needle was spinning.
"Head back to the car," Freeman said. But Straker caught his arm. "Now what - "
"Something doesn't want us to go on," Straker said. "Get your radio. Call base."
Freeman took the small comm from his pocket. It was linked to a rather more powerful transceiver in the car, and it could make contact with that at anything up to ten miles. "No joy. It's dead."
"No surprise," muttered Straker grimly. "OK, let's see what we've got. If we keep going down this path, where should we come out?"
"Near the Abbey. Mediaeval, and it's mostly ruins, apart from the gatehouse."
"Then let's keep going." Straker shoved the compass back in his pocket and headed down the path.
With am oath, Freeman followed him. "Ed, for heaven's sake - "
"Someone may be doing this to us," Straker replied, "but it's not 'our' nasties. If it were, we wouldn't be here to talk about it."
"Perhaps not, but - "
"If someone is doing this, they're trying some gentle persuasion. And that interests me."
"How so?" Freeman demanded, as he caught up.
"If they really didn't want us to get there they would have stopped us and had done with it. So I think this is just a warning… What d'you know about the Abbey, Alec? And the whole area, come to that?"
"In relation to the bases, you mean? Well, there were always tales about tunnels, leading down to the coast… And yes, those could pass under the Abbey."
"Setting off rumours about hauntings, I suppose?" Straker said, slowly.
They walked on, carefully, looking all around them, but saw nothing. Freeman was beginning to feel more than a little uncomfortable. He rubbed his stomach.
"Feeling bad?" Straker asked.
"Let's just say I'm glad I went before I came, so to speak. Perhaps I shouldn't have had the black pudding."
"You too?" Again Straker stopped, and looked around at the trees. "Didn't you say these trees were planted comparatively recently, by the Forestry Commission?"
"Yes, perhaps a few decades ago. They're Corsican pines, they grow quite quickly. The Commission wants to bring back the woodlands, and this is a good site. Plus the trees help to shelter against gales off the North Sea."
"Hmm… Was the Manor playing with sound mirrors at all? For aircraft detection and location?"
"Like the ones at Dungeness? Yes, but I think they've knocked all theirs down. What are you thinking?"
"I think," Straker answered, "that what we've got here is an unintended consequence… Trees make a good sound barrier. They were possibly planted to shield the sound mirrors from mainland noise, which would have been focussed in their mirror because from the back it acts like a lens. The mirror's not there any more, but the trees are still soaking up sound, bouncing it around, focussing it like a lot of mini-lenses. Especially the lower frequencies. Subsonics are well known to make people feel uneasy, and unwell. They might even interfere with vision. That haze may be inside our heads."
"Could subsonics affect your compass?"
"Don't know, but I wouldn't rule it out. That needle is quite lightweight, it might respond."
"So not ghosts or UFOs, then?"
"Or lang-leggetty beasties… unless, of course, they can use the effect as camouflage." Straker turned, and headed south. "This way. We need to get out of the trees, back to the road."
"Can't say I'm not relieved," Freeman muttered. "You don't fancy investigating further, then?"
"Not personally, no." Straker was glancing around as he walked. "We'd need a mobile-ful of equipment. And armed, in case they do indeed find something, which wouldn't altogether surprise me. I guess I'll send a couple out here, they can treat it as an exercise. Henderson can organise the liaison with the bases. Give him something to do… Feeling any better?"
"I am, actually," Freeman admitted. Indeed he was. As they emerged from the tree cover, his mood was lightening, almost literally. The sky seemed to be brightening. And his stomach had stopped growling at him.
"There's the road… Fancy going on, or would you rather go back to the pub?"
Freeman snorted. "I'm not going to let myself be scared off by a load of aggressive Christmas trees! Lead the way!"
The robin watched them go. As they moved clear of the trees, the outline of the small bird grew indistinct. It morphed into a small reddish ball with a dark centre. It hovered above the ground for a few seconds; then it vanished upwards into the sky.
December 25th 1980, early evening
Arriving back at the pub, Straker and Freeman walked into the lounge, which was slowly filling with people. Freeman pulled off his coat and hung it up on one of the hooks. He fell into a nearby armchair with a sigh.
"Good walk?" enquired the bartender.
"Interesting," Straker replied, putting his own coat up on a hook. "We went down to the coast, near Orford. Had a look at the castle. Strange how the shoreline has moved east since it was built."
"That's quite a trek! Do you want dinner yet, or can I get you something to drink?"
"Has Mr Mackay turned up yet?" Freeman asked.
"No, sir, but he's sent a message, and his apologies. He can't make it, something's come up at the Manor."
"That's a pity," Freeman said. "Well, thanks. Perhaps we could have a couple of coffees, for now? And go in to dinner in about an hour?"
"Of course, sir."
Dinner was enjoyable, and dispelled the last remnants of their unease from their forest walk. Straker wore his new slippers, and drank some wine with his goose. Freeman showed off his jazzy socks with pride, to pained winces from several of their dinner companions.
At last the maître d' brought in the flaming pudding, with brandy butter, and they helped themselves to large portions. Replete after this feast, the SHADO pair eventually found their way to their beds.
December 26th, 1980, after midnight
Something had roused Freeman from his sleep.
More than a little bleary-eyed, he poked his head out from its comfortable nest, and looked across at Ed's bed. It was empty; but there was a figure standing by the window, peering out through the curtains.
"What's up?" he murmured.
"Something's going on out there. In those woods."
"At three in the morning? What sort of something?"
"Lights. Movement. Some of it's aerial."
Now fully awake, Freeman sat up with a jerk. "Are you saying it's a - "
"I wouldn't rule out the possibility," Straker returned. Freeman saw that he was using his binoculars. "Call base, would you?"
Freeman slithered out of his bed and opened his suitcase. He took out the small radio that he had used in the forest the previous day, and relayed the call to base via his car.
Apparently, Keith Ford had drawn the Christmas short straw. "Keith, this is Alec," Freeman said, when the man responded. He was intentionally using 'informal mode', avoiding any mention of military rank in case of eavesdroppers, even here in this high security 'blue zone'. "Any activity?…. Right, I see… Good. Thanks. I'll be in touch."
He hung up. "Something is going on. Nothing much from SID, but an object was picked up on local radar. The locals are investigating."
"Then we'd better not get involved yet," Straker said.
"Should I call Walt?"
Straker gave it a few moments' thought. "Any sign anyone else here has noticed?"
"I'll listen." Freeman went to the door, put his ear to it. "All quiet."
"And nothing's going on in the garden, or the parking lot," Straker confirmed. "OK, leave it for now. We'll call him at breakfast as arranged. If anything is happening, would he get in touch, d'you think?"
"If he can. Covertly."
"Fine. OK, I'll keep watching for a bit - What on Earth's that?"
Freeman had seen it as well. A streak of light shot out from the distant trees. For a moment, Freeman thought he saw a triangular group of lights at the bottom of a dark shape; but they vanished into the sky.
"Not one of ours," Freeman said.
"Not in any sense… Let's see if that woke anybody else up."
He scanned around the outside area. Freeman rechecked at the door. "All clear," he reported.
"Same here… Better call Keith again."
But the radio beeped quietly before Freeman reached it. He snatched up the handset. "Keith? Yeah, we saw it! Ed, were you - of course… Yes, Ed had the binocs on 'record'… Great. Thanks… Hang on, I'll pass you over to Ed."
He handed Straker the radio.
"Keith? Straker here… No, we won't go out at the moment. We'll talk to Walt first… Call if you get anything… Thanks." Straker put the receiver back in its cradle.
"What do you think we should do now?" Freeman asked.
Straker gave it some thought. "I don't think we should get involved - yet," he said. "If the locals are doing their job at all, they'll be crawling all over the area. If we waltz in we could get ourselves arrested. While we could talk ourselves out of that, it would take time, and be rather embarrassing. I think we wait until morning. Have breakfast, listen to the radio. There might be a news item which would give us an excuse to call Walt - if he doesn't call us first."
"Right… What did you see? Could you make anything out?"
"Have a look."
Freeman took the binoculars, switched them to playback mode and gazed at the recorded images intently. "Definitely not one of ours," he said. "Doesn't seem to be doing much, either… What woke you up? Any sound?"
"None that I remember hearing," Straker said, thoughtfully. "I know I was dreaming, I don't recall much of that. But I thought someone called me by name."
"That's odd," Freeman said, eyebrows raised.
"Maybe… Though I have heard that if your senses detect something while you're asleep and your subconscious thinks you ought to wake, it will send a recognisable signal."
"That's fine as long as it's just your subconscious calling," Freeman muttered, with a slight shiver. "So you think you felt something?"
"Possibly. No idea what." Straker yawned. "Well, I guess I'll go back to sleep. We can't do anything more at the moment."
"No indeed… Well, good night."
December 26th, 1980, morning
Neither of the two men could settle down easily to sleep. At one point, Freeman was dozing but was aware that there was a dim light on at the other side of the room. He opened his eyes a crack. Sure enough, Straker was reclining against his pillows, reading, and making occasional notes on a pad.
For heaven's sake, Ed, Freeman thought, you're not working…
He dozed off again. The next time he roused, it was to grey dawn light, and a snoring Straker, his book open across his legs.
The alarm sounded. Straker was awake in an instant. He glanced across at the other bed, and smiled a little. "Sleep well?"
"Me neither… I didn't see any more activity. Did you?"
"Nothing," confirmed Freeman. "Shall we get breakfast? While everyone else is sleeping off their hangovers?"
"Sounds good to me - " Straker broke off as the room phone rang. Freeman lifted the handset, spoke into it. "Hi, Walt! No, it's OK, we'd just woken up… Yes that's fine, you can join us for breakfast… See you in half an hour."
"He saw something?" Straker asked, as Freeman put the handset down.
"What he actually said was 'Something I need to do, before I head off for work'."
"He saw something," Straker said, nodding. "Right. Who's first for the shower?"
* * *
In fact it took Mackay twenty-five minutes.
The reception desk called up to let them know he had arrived. Straker took the call - having won the toss for the shower - and hurried downstairs to collect him, while Freeman hurriedly dried himself off and got dressed.
They two entered, Straker carefully closing the door behind them. "Take a seat, Walt," he suggested. "You look like you could use some coffee."
Mackay sank gratefully into a chair, while Straker called Reception. The man was clutching a briefcase, and looked as though he had not slept at all last night.
"Hi," Freeman said, emerging from behind the ornamental screen. "You look a shade tired."
"Haven't been to bed yet," Mackay admitted. "I've something here that might interest you. Harks back to old times." He glanced across in Straker's direction. "The Manor tells me that Ed here might also be interested."
Recognising that 'old times' meant DS8, Freeman gave a nod.
"I called room service. Coffee's on its way. And some toast and croissants," Straker said, putting the phone down. "What have you got, Walt?"
"Something definitely landed in the woods last night. Well, this morning… Around 3am. Security at the east gate saw lights coming down into the forest, described some of them as reddish spheres with dark centres, but didn't hear anything. Some of their guys went out to investigate - and here's the good bit - one of them said he'd seen an object, sitting on the ground. It carried markings, which he sketched. He touched it. Then after a while it apparently lifted off and flew away. He says there were three depressions in the ground where it had been."
"How big was this 'object'? What shape?" Freeman asked.
"Triangular, about ten feet on a side, and about six feet high. He said it felt like 'black glass', except where the markings were, where it was rough. They'd been cut or etched into the surface."
"What were the markings, did he say?"
"Better than that, he drew them in his notebook - "
Mackay was interrupted by a knock at the door. Straker opened it. A waiter came in with a tray holding a cafétière, mugs and a plate. She set them down, thanked Straker for his tip, and departed.
Straker poured coffee. "You were saying, about drawings?" he asked.
"Yes." Mackay reached into his bag, drew out a sheet of paper. He spread it on the table. Straker looked at it, and nearly dropped his mug.
He recognised some of the symbols. He had last seen them in the 'torus' at Daedalus Crater.
He struggled to regain his mental balance, thankful that Freeman and Mackay both had their attention on the drawing. He took a large mouthful of coffee, and sat down beside them. "Are those they?" he said.
"These are what the man said he saw on the craft," Mackay confirmed. "It's a copy of a copy, unfortunately, so there may be some errors."
Straker picked up the sheet of paper and studied it. He pointed to one of the shapes. "You know what this one makes me think of?"
"A stylised man. Well, humanoid."
"Exactly. The head is rather long - which is interesting, if it represents the shape of members of this race. If these are the hands, they're fingers up, but I'm not sure whether the palms point inward or outward. Outward I think, if those are the thumbs."
"In a human," Freeman said, "that could mean 'I am unarmed'."
"Maybe." Straker fingered his chin. "Make anything of the rest of it?"
"Beats me," Mackay answered. He finished his coffee. "Look, I have to get back now. But I'll leave this with you. I hope I'll be able to drop in again, some time today, but don't wait for me if you're going out - I may be some time."
"I can imagine," Freeman agreed. "I'll see you down."
Mackay retrieved his bag, and made his farewell to Straker. Freeman followed him out of the door. Straker poured himself another coffee, and sat back in his chair, wondering about this extraordinary turn of events.
He had seen all but two of those symbols in that torus chamber. The exceptions were the humanoid figure, and the large circle-and-triangle glyph. As for the others, the shape of the final one recalled the door to the torus chamber -
He paused as a thought struck him. Perhaps he should read the glyphs from right to left? A door; a humanoid figure, emerging from the door; three symbols that he had seen apparently marking controls around the torus; something that resembled a gasoline filling pump; and the final shape… that could have been a cross section through the core itself, without its torus. Straker wondered if the torus he had seen, with its twinkling blue and green lights, had been non-material, some kind of 'force-field' perhaps.
A chill crawled up Straker's spine. Someone had been watching - while Bosanquet had entered the chamber, found the torus… and tried to activate it.
And now they were telling him that they had seen… but there was no indication of what they expected him to do.
Freeman returned. He closed the door. "What's on your mind?" he said quietly, without preamble.
"I just hope we haven't got two lots of aliens squabbling over us," Straker returned, dryly.
"At least this lot don't seem aggressive… What interests me is, it has these symbols engraved somehow in its surface, and it comes and sits beside an establishment full of armed and trained personnel."
"Do I recall there have been previous sightings here? A few decades ago?" Straker asked.
"Something did happen in 1956," Freeman confirmed. "Lakenheath radar had unexplained contacts. And there's been talk that something happened hereabouts only a few months ago, but I haven't been able to pin those down. You're not suggesting - "
"It looks to me like this is a contact attempt, as you suggest. They chose to do it here because they knew about the twin bases - just as 'our' aliens knew about Westbrook. They came and sat in a position that was wide open to attack, but made no threatening moves themselves."
"I just wish they weren't so damn' cryptic about it," grumbled Freeman. "What's wrong with just saying 'take me to your leader', for heaven's sake?"
"Too much of a cliché, perhaps," Straker said with a slight smile. "For certain they'd have learned English by now, from our radio and TV broadcasts. But perhaps it's supposed to be cryptic, as an intelligence test, maybe… What do you make of these symbols, Alec?"
"The circle and triangle glyph could suggest a position. If the larger circle is Earth, and the smaller is the moon, the third point could be where they're parked."
"Nice." Straker pointed to the triangle. "If we assume this is equilateral, that says we're dealing with angles of sixty degrees… and that suggests Lagrange points."
"I'll buy it," Freeman said. "What are they?"
"Can you stand a lecture on the many-body problem?"
Freeman held his hands up. "Not right now, thanks - What's the matter?"
Straker stared; then he managed to get himself under control. Freeman's stance reminded him of that humanoid glyph. Was it meant to be Straker himself, in a pose that said as clearly as words, 'back off'?
"For a moment you looked just like that glyph. The possibly humanoid one."
"Interesting," Freeman said. "Anyway, what's this about Lagrange points? The simple version?"
Straker took a mouthful of coffee. "When you have objects moving under each other's gravity - like Earth and Moon - it's quite difficult to calculate where they're going to be if there are more than two. Even using a computer you have to fudge it, but at least you can do that to high precision… Sometimes you can make useful approximations. With three objects, if two are comparable in mass but the third is a lot smaller - Earth, Moon, and an artificial satellite, for example - it turns out that there are a few fairly stable arrangements. Those patterns are called Lagrange points, and there are always five in any such grouping. Here, I'll show you."
Straker reached into his pocket, and brought out a small notebook and a pen. He sketched a quick diagram: a circle with a large blob marked E at its centre, and a smaller blob on the edge, which he labelled M. He marked off five points. One was opposite M on the far side of the circle; two more were on the near side, one inside the circle and one outside. Then he marked two more points on the circle, so that they formed a triangle with the far-side point.
Freeman whistled. "I see what you mean. Hey - wasn't there a film, a few years ago, about a planet sharing Earth's orbit, opposite us?"
"Doppelgänger. Yes." Straker was thinking: yes, I do remember… and it was a mirror image of us, even to the direction of writing, from right to left Arab- style… "As I recall, someone worked out that if a planet did sit there, it wouldn't stay put for long. Venus would knock it out of place."
"There's more. The last two points I marked form two more triangles with the centre and the orbiter. Those triangles are quite stable; you could park a satellite in either and it would stay put. And, indeed, we have."
"SID," Freeman said. "And the relay, on the other side."
"Ed," Freeman said, "has SID got company?"
"Well, we haven't put anything there, neither has NASA or the Russians… and nothing's shown up on SID's detectors. Which it should have, unless it's got some sort of active shielding that it can turn on and off at will."
"True," Freeman agreed. "But it was picked up on terrestrial radar."
"Maybe our atmosphere interferes with its shield." Straker drank some more coffee, his expression thoughtful. "But perhaps we should take a look at SID… He's due a servicing flight in a few weeks, we can bring that forward."
"Well, what do we do at this point?" Freeman asked. "We can't just sit around here waiting for Walt."
"No… I know. I'll call Keith."
He made the call on the room phone, and Ford responded. "Yes, Mr Straker?"
"Look, Keith, we're about to go out. Our friend Mr Mackay was supposed to be joining us, but he was called away. If he does call us, could you let me know?"
"Yes, sir, I'll do that. I'll monitor for him."
"Thanks." Straker hung up. "Keith will monitor this line. If Walt calls, he'll shunt it direct to us. In the meantime, let's go take a look at Woodbridge!"
December 27th, 1980, morning
They did not hear from Mackay for the rest of that day, not, indeed, until they were down at breakfast the following morning. To Freeman's ill-concealed amusement, his friend had reverted to his preferred morning ration of black coffee and toast. Freeman himself started with cereal, went on to demolish a plate of sausages and bacon, and then finished up Straker's toast, thickly spread with marmalade.
"What do you weigh these days?" Straker asked him.
Freeman leaned back and patted his stomach. "Don't worry. It's all muscle."
"Yeah, right," Straker smiled. "Well, shall we try going to the - "
He broke off. A waiter had come to the table. "Mr Freeman?"
"Your friend Mr Mackay is in Reception, sir, and asks if you two would join him."
The two SHADO men exchanged glances. They thanked the waiter, got up from the remains of their meal, took their coats off the hooks by the lounge door, and went into Reception. Mackay was waiting by the desk, with a man they did not recognise.
"Sorry to interrupt your breakfast, guys."
"No problem, we'd about finished." Freeman nodded to Mackay's companion. "Hello, Mr - "
"This is Nat. I've brought the car. Good, you've got your coats."
The pair put them on, and followed Mackay out into the chill air. He showed them into the back of the car - a large Range Rover with a capacious rear cabin, and its own driver.
"Take a seat, and strap in," he suggested. "You'll be delighted to hear I've brought coffee."
Indeed, he brought out a large flask, a bottle of water, and some small mugs. He waited until the driver had set off, then handed the flask to Straker. "Perhaps you could do the honours? I've got some stuff to show you."
"About the other night?" Freeman said.
"That's right," Mackay said, and indicated his companion. "Nat here is a psychologist. He's been interviewing the man who had the encounter. He's brought along a transcript. I've assured him it's OK for you two to read it. I can't leave it with you, of course."
"Thanks," Freeman said, as Nat opened his document wallet and gave him a few sheets of paper.
Straker poured the coffee. “Nat? Some for you?”“
No. I drink not coffee. I drink water. Thank for offer.”
His accent was difficult to pin down. It reminded Straker a little of Doug Jackson, a Polish psychiatrist with the IAC, but it was heavier than Jackson’s. Straker handed Nat the water bottle, and got a nod of acknowledgement.
Freeman's frown deepened as he read. At last he handed Straker the papers. "Take a look, Ed. Very interesting."
The SHADO Commander leafed through them. It was clear that the man being interviewed had had an encounter with a real object or device. Equally clearly, that device was not terrestrial in origin; but neither did it seem to be one of SHADO's opponents.
"So it was real," he said, slowly. "It left marks in the ground. Not animal marks. They were slightly radioactive. It was real, and solid."
"So it seems," Mackay agreed.
"Why d'you want us along, Walt?" Freeman asked.
"Well, you were both in the business. And we both know what the MoD is like, they're almost worse than the FBI - they don't let go. It was suggested to me that I ask the two of you for your opinions - no reasons given, and I don't ask."
"Of course," Straker said.
"So I'm going to take you out to the site of the encounter and show you the marks. Any comments you make are strictly for my ears and Nat's, and off the written record."
* * *
They parked in the same area Freeman and Straker had stopped at the previous day. After they left the Range Rover, Mackay exchanged a few words with the driver. The man nodded, and drove away.
"He's just going to a place a little way down the road, so he doesn't draw any attention to us," Mackay explained. "I'll call him when we're ready to leave."
"Right, this way."
He led the way into the woods. For the first fifty yards or so, they followed the path that the SHADO pair had chosen; then he branched off, and they had to push their way through the undergrowth. The shade beneath the pines helped to keep the bushes to a manageable size.
Freeman looked up at the western sky. There was no sign of the strange haze. His stomach was a little uncomfortable, but, he admitted to himself rather ruefully, that could have been down to an excess of Christmas pudding - followed, of course, by his huge breakfast.
Straker glanced at him. Was Ed grinning? The look went as quickly as it had come.
After perhaps twenty minutes, they arrived at a small clearing. It was not empty. A man in US uniform told them to stop, and to produce ID. He looked over the papers Mackay provided, and gave a nod. "Welcome, sir. The Manor advised you would be coming."
"What have we got, sergeant?"
The officer pointed at the ground. One of his staff was pointing a scanner at a small depression. It was one of a group of three, arranged in a triangle. The depressions were not large, but in this frozen ground, they were surprisingly deep.
"Above background, sir," the operator reported to the officer. "Like the other two. Not much, but it's there."
"Radioactivity?" Mackay asked.
"Yes, sir. Not a dangerous level, though."
"Got samples for analysis?"
"Yes, sir." The officer handed Mackay a sealed bag. It was transparent, and held several smaller bags, each labelled, and each containing small brown and green lumps. "Some of those are from the trees, which show damage. Not logging markings."
Straker had noted the scrapes on the trees. "I see what you mean," he said, as he examined them. "These scrapes are vertical, not horizontal. And they were made by something going upwards, not down."
"Are there any water areas nearby?" Freeman asked. "Streams, small ponds, that sort of thing?"
"One or two, sir, but nothing very large. Otherwise there's only the North Sea, sir."
"Ah yes." Freeman looked out to the east, peering between the pines. "The report says the witness mentioned lights… Can you see the lighthouse from here? The one on the Ness?"
"From some parts of the forest, sir, yes. But not this bit. In fact the lighthouse is supposed to be shielded from the land. It does have coloured sectors, but those are channel markers and they shine out to sea. Anyway, our personnel know the lighthouse, it's been here for centuries, in one form or another."
"Centuries?" Straker queried.
"A pair of leading lights was set up on the Ness in 1637, to mark a safe channel for ships to use," Mackay told him. "Since then it's been developed, in stages."
"Thanks." And lighthouses don't fly, Straker thought, remembering what he had seen during the night. Recalling his conversation with Alec about the possibility of tunnels going out to the coast, he switched mental tracks. "What's the geology of the area?" he asked.
"Chalk and sandstone, mostly, overlaid by sand and clay, especially between here and the coast."
"Thank you." Caves could form in chalk, Straker knew, and the rock itself was soft enough to cut through with ease; but it was not very strong. There was a risk of collapse, unless the tunnels were shored up carefully.
He thought about possible purposes for those tunnels. If they had been present at the time of the war, they might have been used as shelters for submarine patrols, to counter Nazi attacks or for research if the Manor was involved.
What worried him was that they would be a gift for the aliens. A ready-made front door into the UK, and a place to establish a base. He made a mental note to have SkyDiver investigate.
* * *
They returned to the car. Mackay had brought a lunch basket, with sandwiches, and coffee. They ate and drank, discussing what they had found.
While Mackay and Freeman swapped ideas, and Nat looked on, Straker's thoughts strayed, back to those curious glyphs, and to the 'power source' that Bosanquet had found under Crater Daedalus. If it was a power source…
Of course it was, he thought.
But power for what? What kind of generator needed an atomic explosion just to 'prime' it? What sort of thing would need that much power?
He could think of two possibilities. A weapon; or a motivator, an 'engine'. Though, of course, an engine could be used as a weapon.
As an engine, that torus could power a starship… But, according to Bosanquet, it was not known to 'their' aliens, whom he had called 'Prithvians'. It seemed to have been built by another race entirely, who seemed to be 'Arkadians'.
He realised suddenly that there might not be a difference, other than one of time. The 'Prithvians' might be descendants of the 'Arkadians', many millennia later. But was either of these connected with the artefact that had landed a few miles from where he sat?
Not necessarily, he knew. Even though those same symbols appeared on the artefact's surface.
He knew, suddenly, that they were intended to catch his attention. But why?
He recalled his own thoughts about the device, about how dangerous it could be if 'their' aliens came to know about it, about how he wished he could forget it existed.
Would he accept help in forgetting?
He would, he knew, if he could find a source of that help.
No matter where it came from?
It occurred to him that his thoughts had taken on the form of a conversation. Talking to yourself, Ed, he reproved himself. Not good.
Would he accept help from a trusted source? his thoughts resumed.
Yes, he knew. But who did he trust with helping him forget?
Only himself. And he did not know how…
Of course he did, he realised. All he had to do… was want to forget.
And he did want to forget…
He felt momentarily dizzy, his sight blurring for an instant. Too much sleep disturbance, he thought. He shook himself, mentally.
Mackay was frowning down at his notes. "We'll have a job containing this one."
"Confuse them," Straker suggested. "People seem to fall into two camps with this sort of event - there are those who'll believe anything no matter how unreasonable it sounds, and complain of cover-ups; and those who go to the opposite extreme, and wouldn't believe UFOs were real if one landed in their backyard. Play them off against each other."
"Try picking someone from the first camp and encourage them to tell a really outrageous story - and put them up against the most scholarly sceptic you can find," Freeman agreed. "That should draw most of the fire."
Mackay nodded. "I like it… And we've got a ready-made item to give the sceptics. The lighthouse. We'll play that one up for all we're worth - despite the fact that it simply does not match the description of what was seen. And, as the contactee has already said, lighthouses don't fly. And I'd hate to meet a radioactive rabbit!"
They finished their coffees, and Mackay gathered up the papers, locking them in his briefcase. "Well, we'll leave you to your holiday, guys," he said. "You're going back tomorrow, I gather?"
"Alas yes," Freeman sighed. "Let us know if there are any developments, won't you?"
"I'll do my best! What are your plans for today? Can we drop you off anywhere?"
"If you're going anywhere near Sutton Hoo, we could use a lift," Straker said. "We can walk back to the pub from there."
"No sooner said than done, " Mackay smiled.
* * *
"So tell me all about this place, then, Alec?" Straker invited, as they walked down the path to the 'burial field'.
"Well," Freeman began, "there are a number of mounds out in that field which are clearly artificial. Investigations into them have been going on for - ooh, a few centuries, at least. In fact I think that goes back to mediaeval times. There was some attempted looting a bit later - "
"How much later?"
"Oh, sometime in the 16th century… but they didn't get much. Moving on a bit, it was in the 19th century that they began some serious investigations, but there wasn't really any continuous effort put in."
"What about this Mrs Pretty you mentioned? When did she come in?"
"Her husband, Colonel Pretty, bought a 15-year old mansion here in 1926, and he lived here with his wife and young son until he died about 10 years later. The widow became interested in spiritualism, and since the mounds nearby had something of a reputation for being haunted, she decided to do some excavating."
"Seems there's a lot of haunting going on around here."
"Too right. The twin bases have their own fair share of ghosts," Freeman said. "Remind me to tell you about 'East-End Charlie' some time."
"I'll look forward to it," Straker said, dryly. "Please, go on."
"OK, let's see… Mrs Pretty's excavations. She began in 1937, bringing in a local archaeologist, and getting the Ipswich Museum involved. They did some digging in three or four of the mounds, and found some bits and pieces that you and I probably wouldn't give a second thought, but which had the Ipswich eggheads salivating."
"Was this the buried ship?"
"Not at first - but those bits and pieces turned out to be ship's parts. Rivets and so on. They didn't find an actual ship, that had rotted away over the centuries, but it left behind some kind of imprint in the soil, and they could deduce from that imprint exactly what had been buried. In some detail… What is it?"
"Oh, I was just thinking… what if we found an analogue of this on the moon!"
"Find a likely scriptwriter and suggest they have a go," smiled Freeman.
"What happened to all this during the war?" Straker enquired.
"Well, they told the British Museum what they had found, and the museum more or less took over. There was an inquest, and they decided that the stuff belonged to the landowner, Mrs Pretty; and she decided to bequeath it to the nation. When war broke out in 1939, all the finds were put in safe storage - and the place was offered to the army for vehicle training. Some years after the war, in about 1965, they started digging again. In fact, only a couple of years ago, they decided to try yet another big excavation, and those discussions are going on as we speak."
While Freeman had been talking, the pair had been finding there way through the trees. They came out into a wide field; and Straker stopped, and stared.
Freeman looked at him. He had never found it easy to read his friend's expression; and the look on Straker's face at that moment was particularly inscrutable.
"Don't worry if you're disappointed - "
"Oh, I'm not," Straker returned, softly. "Those mounds… They look like heaps of earth, sure, and that's what they are… but men put them there for a reason. They tell a story. Even before you open them up and look at what's inside."
Freeman smiled. "There's a viewing platform across the other side."
"Let's go." Straker set off, walking slowly, looking about him. A rabbit emerged from a burrow under a small tussock, and stared after them until they had passed.
"You thinking about the moon again?"
"If we found anything like this up there, I'd be seriously worried," Straker returned; but he was thinking: I did find something like this up there… What was that tunnel? Where did it lead? What was it for? I'll never know, I suppose.
His recollection of those events was hazy and fragmented from the anoxia as his suit’s air reserves had been depleted. He remembered Bosanquet boasting that he was going to give the completed Moonbase to the aliens as a place from which to launch their invaaion of Earth; the alien weapon his erstwhile colleague had aimed at him; the struggle; Bosanquet falling into the dark, with a final scream, his suit air alarms shrilling urgently; the sudden silence; his dash to get help to retrieve Bosanquet, if only to extract from him what he knew about their enemies.. to wake up in the ‘moonmobile’ with Joan feeding him oxygen. And Bosanquet was gone, forever.
Straker remembered the small home-made device that Bosanquet had carried. It contained a component that had destroyed itself before it could be analysed. All he could tell was that it had included some of Bosanquet’s blood.
Now, after their encounter with an actual alien, he thought he knew why. It ‘tuned’ the device to a particular individual, through his cell-coding.
Freeman led them to the viewing platform. It was a small wooden structure, raised a few feet above ground level, but it gave them a good view over the complex.
"Now this," Straker said quietly, "is impressive."
The two men stood there, looking out over this ancient monument to people's lives. Freeman had visited here before, during his time at the Manor, and it had not changed much; certainly not in its ability to send shivers up his spine. "What this needs," he said, after a while, "is a small exhibition building, to show people what it was like in those days."
"Suggest it," Straker said. He looked at his watch. "Time's wearing on… Perhaps we'd better get back to the pub, before they eat all the turkey sandwiches!"
The two descended from the platform. The rabbit watched them go; then, like the robin, it faded into a fuzzy red ball with a dark centre, and shot up and away through the trees.
December 28th, 1980, morning
Freeman heaved his suitcase into the back of the car, and Straker pushed his own case in beside it. "Time to go," Freeman said, a little sadly.
"It was a good break, Alec. Even if it was a bit of a busman's holiday… What do I owe you?"
"Tell you what," Freeman said with a grin, "you can get lunch. And dinner."
In fact, Freeman was quite pleased. This break had indeed been good, and had succeeded in lifting his friend's mood - even if it was in an unexpected direction.
They had only been on their way for a few minutes when Straker said: "There's a parking area marked on the map in about a mile, Alec. Pull in there."
"OK," Freeman said, puzzled.
The parking area was a piece of gravelled land, high enough to afford a clear if distant view of the sea. The stopped, and Freeman shut off the engine. Straker climbed out of the car, and headed for one of the bench seats that sat there, overlooking the surrounding countryside.
"I'm told that amateur astronomers like to come here, on clear nights," Straker said. "Good viewing conditions. Not so much street lighting to bother them."
"Any of them had any sightings?"
"Not that they've wanted to discuss, it seems… Alec, there's something I have to tell you. About our own 'visitors'."
"Go on," Freeman said. "Is this about the pilot Carlin retrieved?"
"That's right… The post-mortem revealed a few things. You recall that they're humanoid? And that the pilot had several organs that weren't his own?"
"Well… It turns out that they're very humanoid indeed. One of those organs was transplanted from a human - specifically, Peter Carlin's sister."
Freeman stared at him in horror. He tried to speak; but his face had gone quite grey. He began to shake. His eyes were closing, and he was slumping down in the seat. Hastily, Straker put a hand between his shoulder blades, and pushed his head down to his knees.
"Sorry…" he whispered.
"Don’t speak, not yet. Take a few slow deep breaths."
Freeman did so. At length the shakes eased, and he took a deep, shuddering breath. Straker took a small silver flask from his pocket, opened it, and tipped some of its contents into its lid. He waited, the cup in his hand.
"Ugh,"; he muttered. "I’m OK… I think…"
"Sit up slowly. That’s it." Straker handed him the small cup. He took it in trembling hands, and swallowed the contents in one gulp.
Straker topped up the cup, and Freeman took another mouthful. "Thanks," he whispered, huskily. "Sorry about that…"
"Don't be. I'm the one who should be sorry, for springing it on you. I had nightmares you wouldn’t believe, myself. I should have softened it a bit - "
"It isn't possible to soften that! You did mention mutilations, but I thought you meant cattle! Does anyone else know? Besides Shroeder, and Harris? Or is that a stupid question?"
"Not stupid at all," Straker assured him. "Shroeder and Harris don't know, as it happens. We can't keep it under wraps forever, but we'll have to pass it around carefully. Peter himself already knows, of course, he had a right to. So does Keith Ford - I asked him to be liaison with the medics, collect the data for analysis, but to keep everything firmly to himself. And you know now, next will be Gay… but I hope I never have to tell Henderson."
Straker remembered that Captain Peter Carlin had received the news with apparent calm – until after the funeral. Then Keith Ford had taken the SkyDiver pilot back to the privacy of his own apartment and got him quietly drunk. He had not been ‘well’ enough to work for two days – and neither had Ford himself.
"Ed… does this mean that we're related…"
"Yes," Straker said, "but how closely, is the $64000 question. Even here on Earth, the docs have been experimenting with transplanting from pigs to humans, since the mid-sixties, with quite a lot of success. They've been able to deal with the rejection problem, and signs are that the transplants are lasting up to about fifteen years. That suggests that humans need only be related to the aliens about as closely as pigs are to us… but even that is a coincidence of cosmic proportions."
"Too right," Freeman muttered.
"As it happens," Straker went on, steadily, "the relationship is indeed a lot closer. I had Shroeder do as thorough an analysis as his equipment allows. Alec, the aliens are as human as we are, at least in physiological terms. Close enough to interbreed, in theory, except that their reproductive ability is damaged, as you know. Apparently that's down to a gene mutation which must have begun as a recessive, spread through their population, and started to pair up, with devastating consequences… But they don't seem to think of us as being people. They seem to regard us much as we regard pigs."
"Ouch indeed… Actually, that could go two ways, of course."
"Yeah," Freeman agreed, grimly. "If they think we're animals, they won't bother to listen to us if we try to open communications to them… But if we do manage to make contact, perhaps we can get a dialogue going."
"And we could start by asking them what went wrong for them… and what caused the split."
"The split… I'm still trying to get my head round this," Freeman admitted, slowly. "A relationship that close means we have a common origin - which may not even have been on this planet! So what is Earth? A colony?"
"Quite possibly. It won't be the other way round… unless Earth found and then lost the necessary technology, the ability to travel faster than light, and so on."
"No 'ancient astronauts', then?"
"No credible evidence yet found," Straker confirmed. "But that's why I gave that movie script the go-ahead. You know, the one set in Egypt, about the 'Orion' connection to the pyramids. Gives the script-writers an excuse to do some research."
"What 'Orion' connection?"
"Just that the three pyramids at Giza are supposed to mirror the three stars of Orion's Belt. There are any number of things wrong with that idea… but as I say, it's a good excuse."
"I suppose I should read more SF," Freeman mused. "But to get back to what you were saying, about making contact. Would it be a silly question to ask - "
"Not at all. In fact I've had Keith looking into it since he joined us. I want him to widen his approach."
Freeman said carefully: "You were saying, about passing this stuff around… Any plans?"
"Gay's due down from Moonbase on leave next week. I'll call her in when she arrives. And perhaps I'll get Lew Waterman in as well. He's on SkyDiver duty at the moment - I'll bring him in for the same briefing… After that, I'll make a list."
"Want me to handle any of it?"
"You might make a better job of it," Straker conceded. "I'll see to Gay and Lew though, I think… Great. That's settled, then. Let's get moving… Should I drive?"
Freeman looked down at his hands. They were still trembling. "Please do," he said, with feeling.
They walked back to the car. Freeman got in on the passenger side, and Straker settled himself behind the wheel. "OK, Alec?"
"Yes, thanks. Oh… and Ed?"
Freeman tried a smile. "You do snore."
* * *
Mackay drove Nat back to his lodgings, dropped him off, and returned to the Manor. Nat watched the car drive away; but then, instead of entering the house, he walked silently back into the woods.
As he walked, his outline seemed to shimmer, and fade. His human shape morphed smoothly into a dim red sphere with a dark centre. The sphere wafted through the trees, found a suitable spot, and waited. Before long, two other red spheres floated in from the surrounding woods, and melted into the first.
Time passed. The morning grew into day, moved into afternoon, darkened into night. At last, sometime after midnight, a large dark shape moved softly above the trees. The small sphere launched itself towards it, joined with it, and the shadow disappeared up into the night sky.
The sphere communed with the Queen of the Hive. In human terms, there was a conversation:
"I made successful contact."
"Did you remain concealed?"
"Negative. It was necessary to assume human form."
"Understood. Who did you contact?"
"Initially, the human Walter Mackay. I used the form of an associate he has not interacted with for some cycles. I observed as he questioned the witnesses."
"Containment is possible, and straightforward. Recommendations follow."
"What of your prime contact?"
"Successful also. I meshed with his thought patterns, observed his intentions. He is benign, even positive. We need not and should not remove him, either temporarily or permanently. In accordance with my instructions not to impose compulsion of any kind, I showed him how to modify his memory patterns, and he complied, willingly and gratefully. I followed up with a standard check, and his modified memory pattern is stable."
"Was he aware of your presence?"
A second sphere joined the group, and communed with the Queen. "Information. We have blocked the access tunnels to the drive chamber. We suppressed the seismic effects, so that the resident humans were not aware of the action."
The Queen 'said': "Then the operation was successful. Rejoin."
The spheres merged with their Queen; and the carrier transferred to travel mode, and left the Solar System far behind it.
Readers will no doubt have noticed the pointers to 'Space: 1999', in particular, to the episode 'Testament of Arkadia', which deals with the origins of Earth-humanity.
More generally, I have supposed that the Moon was hurled out of its orbit that September day not by just the chain reaction in the waste dump, but by an ancient stardrive, which may - or may not - have been installed by the Arkadians. Certainly SHADO's aliens don't know about it. When Ed discovers the device, he has to decide what to do. From a 'Space:1999' perspective, it has to remain there, undamaged and fully operational. If Ed is still around when Moonbase Alpha itself starts operating, he may consider it his duty to deactivate the stardrive; in which case there would be no lunar walkabout.
But Ed would much rather he could forget the thing exists... and so would the Hive. So a clandestine meeting is arranged, at Rendlesham. All is well; but even the Hive cannot foresee all outcomes!
* * *
Rendlesham Forest Incident: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rendlesham_Forest_Incident
Sketches of UAP: http://www.therendleshamforestincident.com/Penniston_Notebook.html
Sound mirrors for tracking aircraft: http://www.andrewgrantham.co.uk/soundmirrors/
The ‘East-End Charlie’ ghost: http://www.oocities.org/rafbentwaters/east_end_charlie.htm
Bawdsey Manor, research establishment: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bawdsey_Manor
Hereditary sterility – in mosquitoes!: www.iflscience.com/health-and-medicine/gm-mosquitoes-set-be-released-brazil-combat-dengue-0/
The Works of Snowleopard
The Library Entrance