Adapted and written by Deborah A. Rorabaugh
Based on characters and situations created by:
Gerry and Sylvia Anderson & Reg Hill
Copyright Feb 24, 1997
Country of first publication, United States of America.
All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
Alec Freeman scanned the instrument panel in front of him. Everything was in order: altitude, air speed, fuel. The customized Citation III executive plane in the silver, red and white livery of Harlington-Straker Studios was a dream to fly.
He was glad he'd managed to talk Straker into getting it for jaunts like this one. Under almost any other circumstances, Freeman would have been at peace with the world and all that dwelt therein.
However a mere hour before, he'd been having dinner with Peter Carlin, captain of Sky-Diver Two, at one of the finer restaurants in Anchorage, Alaska. Then came a call from the construction office they were using while building the new Sky-diver docks, some two hundred miles up the coast. There was a message from London, from a Mister Ford, saying that Mister Straker had taken ill and Freeman was needed back at the 'home office' immediately.
Now, Freeman was sitting in the pilot's seat of an eight passenger private plane, nursing a splitting headache. They were cruising over the polar cap at 35,000 feet, heading toward London and SHADO Headquarters.
Freeman glanced over at his co-pilot. Carlin looked as tired as Freeman felt.
They'd both been working long hours trying to get the construction finished on the Sky-Diver base. It needed to be ready to move into before winter and the Arctic weather really moved in. Even though it was the middle of August, hard frost was predicted in less than two weeks.
"What's our ETA look like, Peter?" Freeman asked after a while.
Carlin checked the chronometer on the instrument panel: "About nineteen hundred hours, London time. We'll get there in time for dinner."
Freeman grinned crookedly and leaned back, letting the auto-pilot take over. The muffled roar of the twin Garret turbofan engines simply underlined the quiet in the cabin. Freeman was suddenly reminded of a similar trip more than a year before. It seemed longer ago than that, so many other things had happened since, but none quite so heart-stopping.
It had started with a radio call into SHADO Control from Lew Waterman in Sky-One. Sky-Diver One had been attacked and sunk by the U.F.O. they'd been searching for. Commander Straker and Colonel Foster had both been on board. Freeman recalled the five hour flight to Sky-Diver's last reported position with the rescue team, hoping against all odds that they'd be in time, that the commander and the Sky-Diver crew would be all right.
They had been very lucky that time. Everyone had been rescued safely, except for the radio operator, Chin. He died as a result of injuries sustained in the initial attack. The rest of the crew returned to duty within the week with no lasting ill-effects, except, perhaps, an occasional nightmare.
Straker claimed to have actually benefited from the experience. He said his claustophobic tendencies no longer bothered him when duty required his presence onboard the undersea fighter-sub. Freeman had an eerie feeling that they weren't going to be so lucky this time.
"Sir?" Carlin said after while, interrupting the loud silence. "You've known the commander a long time, haven't you?"
"Yeah, I've known him a long time," Freeman replied. "About sixteen years." He paused, thinking. "I just wish I knew what was wrong, what happened. Ford didn't give much information."
* * *
"Colonel Foster?" Lieutenant Ford's voice came over the intercom in the commander's office. Foster set aside the report he'd been studying ever since General Henderson left for his own office.
He flipped the switch on the intercom controls. "Yes?"
"Doctor Jackson has an ambulance waiting up top to take the commander to Mayland Hospital, sir. They'll be bringing him through in a couple of minutes."
* * *
Doctor Jackson, his aide and two blue uniformed security men were hurriedly wheeling a stretcher down the corridor toward the main express elevator to the surface. They slowed as Foster approached them.
He motioned Jackson aside. "I thought you said he would be okay," Foster began. He didn't take his eyes off the stretcher or the body strapped to it.
Straker's eyes were closed. His head was tilted back and a thick hose-like tube had been pushed down his throat. Wilson, Jackson's assistant, was rhythmically squeezing the attached air-bag. There were bags of ice nestled in the sheet covering Straker's body.
The psychiatrist waved the small group on. They disappeared behind the doors of the main elevator. The light above the door blinked red.
"Colonel Foster," Jackson began after they were gone. "Commander Straker took a very dangerous drug. It puts the entire body under tremendous stress."
"I thought you treated him for that."
Jackson shook his head: "I treated him for the symptoms he presented, severe neurogenic shock. The drug I gave him was to keep him from retreating further from reality. We didn't know at that time he'd taken an overdose of the drug X-50. It's now the physical stress and shock from that drug that we're dealing with, and despite what we can do here, his condition is not good."
"What do you mean?"
Jackson took a moment before answering. "His body temperature, his metabolism is far above normal. He is so weak now that he is no longer breathing on his own. His heart has stopped once already."
Foster latched onto that one phrase: "You mean, he's had a heart attack?"
"No, not exactly, Colonel," the psychiatrist replied.
"Then what, exactly?"
"He is utterly exhausted."
"Then, why send him over to Mayland?" Foster demanded. "We have a medical center here, don't we?"
Jackson took a deep breath. "Colonel Foster, SHADO Medical Center is a research facility. We don't have the facilities, or the manpower, for the type of intensive critical care the commander needs right now."
"But, he will be all right, won't he?" Foster asked.
"I told you, Colonel, Commander Straker took a very dangerous drug."
"What about Virginia Lake, then. She took it too," Foster reminded him.
"But, she took only one dose," Jackson replied. "Right now, Colonel Lake simply has a mild temperature elevation and a headache. There is every reason to believe that by tomorrow, she'll be fully recovered from her experience."
Jackson turned to head back down the corridor to the medical center and his own office.
Foster didn't like Jackson. Despite his credentials as a psychiatrist and researcher, Doug Jackson, M.D., Ph.D., seemed devious and ever so slightly untrustworthy. He'd come to SHADO as a military liaison and in that capacity he'd nearly succeeded in having Paul Foster executed for a crime the officer hadn't committed.
Now, the little psychiatrist was one of SHADO's primary researchers into alien psychology and physiology. It was a change Foster couldn't quite fathom, except he recognized Straker's hand in it.
'If I must live with a rattlesnake,' Straker had stated once, long ago. 'I want to make sure it's where I can keep an eye on it.'
Foster considered it a good adage in regard to Doctor Jackson.
"Sir?" Lieutenant Ford's voice interrupted Foster's unsavory line of thought. He turned to find the operative standing beside him. There was a worried look on Ford's face.
"It's bad, isn't it, Colonel?"
"Well, it doesn't look too good," Foster admitted. His mind was already clicking over to detail out what needed to be taken care of in Straker's unexpected absence.
Colonel Gray needed to be called into Headquarters from his assignment at the northern tracking stations. General Henderson and the Astrophysical Commission needed to be notified. No doubt Alec Freeman, as senior SHADO officer after Straker, would take command on his arrival. However, the Commission might have other ideas.
Foster was ambitious enough to consider himself a good candidate for the position. He was also realist enough to recognize it wasn't very likely.
* * *
Mayland Hospital was the type of medical center that film directors thought of when they needed a modern, scientific setting for their hero-doctors. It was an attractive structure, towering above the surrounding trees and the parking lots. One of those parking lots was being torn up for the new trauma center they were getting ready to build.
SHADO would pay for part of that construction, just as it had paid for part of Mayland's construction, ten years before. SHADO had wanted a fully equipped medical center close by. Mayland was only five minutes east of the studios. The administrators asked few embarrassing questions about the occasional odd patient SHADO had admitted for treatment. They knew better.
The main entrance doors were closed for the night, but the emergency room attendant was helpful. She located Straker's room number from the hospital computer system and gave directions to the main elevators.
Freeman half wondered if she was interested in a screen test. The studio was always interested in new talent.
Freeman located Straker's hospital room without much difficulty. It was right near the nurses' station, naturally. Straker would hardly elect to be treated as an ordinary, passive, ignorable patient. It wasn't in his nature to be either passive or ignorable, Freeman mused.
Freeman knocked lightly on the door, then swung it aside. He entered the hospital room and was suddenly filled with horror. He wasn't sure what he'd been expecting, but it certainly wasn't this.
The room was cramped with equipment. A large sign on the wall above the bed read: NO SMOKING.
The head of the hospital bed was raised slightly. Next to the bed, a respirator hissed and clicked. A tube went from it, and an oxygen tank, to a fitting on Straker's throat. His chest rose and fell in time with the machine.
On the other side of the bed, an artificial kidney machine whirred quietly. Tubes snaked from it to disappear beneath a thermal blanket. The bed's side-rails were up. They were covered with heavy padding.
The room was cold, the air conditioning turned high. The pale green thermal blanket didn't quite disguise the refrigeration blanket under it.
A group of electronic monitors occupied a rack by the respirator. Freeman recognized at least some of the equipment. SHADO had them in its own medical research center. There was a cardiac monitor, a heart pacer, an internal pulmonary artery pressure monitor. Various lines and wires attached the different monitors to Straker's body.
Freeman recalled reading somewhere what anything over 106 Fahrenheit was incompatible with life. The internal temperature monitor read 104 .
Several plastic bags hung on a pole by the rack. One was feeding a white fluid into a tube that was threaded through one nostril. Other bags fed other tubes that dripped colorless liquids into veins in both of Straker's arms.
A drug pump was pumping measured doses of something into yet another vein. Both of his wrists were wrapped in gauze and secured to the bed frame with short gauze leashes. Freeman surmised that was to keep him from moving about, to keep him from dislodging the various I.V.s and monitor lines that were his continuing life-line.
But Straker didn't move. His eyes were closed, taped shut, yet he wasn't asleep. No sleeper lay so still.
Freeman stepped closer to the bed and peered down at the middle-aged man lying there.
Straker wasn't a large man. He was a little shorter than Freeman's six-feet and quite a bit lighter than the Australian's hundred ninety pounds. But, now he seemed much smaller, almost child-like, lying there, overwhelmed by the machines keeping him alive.
There was no indication he ever intended to wake up. There was no sign of the coldly brilliant mind that should have been looking out from behind that exquisitely boned visage.
Freeman had a sudden, irrational urge to reach out and simply shake him awake, to force him to respond. Instead, he carefully took one of Straker's limp hands in both of his own.
"Ed, it's me, Alec." Freeman announced his presence to unheeding ears. "Everything's going to be okay," he promised. He prayed that maybe, somewhere, Ed Straker heard him and understood.
Behind him, the door opened and he heard footsteps. Freeman looked up to see General Henderson standing beside him. Freeman was surprised at how old and tired the man looked. For the first time in ages, Freeman realized how old Henderson really was, seventy-one, old enough to be his, or Straker's, father.
"Hello, Freeman," Henderson greeted. "I'm glad you managed to get here. As you've probably guessed, this has been one hell of a day."
"General, what happened?"
Henderson moved to the other side of the bed to look down at Straker's unconscious face.
"Ed and Virginia Lake were supposed to be at my office at ten-thirty this morning. About eight-thirty, Foster called me. Ed had appeared at work, literally out of nowhere. He was berserk, out of his head. They found Lake unconscious on the roof of one of the buildings. A technician named Turner was dead from gunshot wounds. The gun had Ed's prints on it."
"How's Virginia?" Freeman asked.
"Buden says she'll be fine. But, she suffered a concussion and she doesn't remember what happened."
"Do we know what happened to Ed? What did this to him?"
"When he was brought into the medical center, he was catatonic. He'd simply mentally walked away from whatever it was that had happened to him," Henderson said. "Thinking about it, we probably acted prematurely by not letting him recover physically a little more, but we felt we needed to find out what had happened as quickly as we could."
"And what did happen?" Freeman demanded.
"You can read the full report at work tomorrow," the general said. "But, it appears that technician Turner helped the other side set a trap for him. Ed took an overdose of the drug X-50 and then pushed himself to the point of total collapse in trying to deal with the situation."
"I see," commented Freeman. He remembered the early drug tests and the subjects' reactions. They hadn't been pleasant, but he didn't recall anything as severe as this.
"Right now," Henderson continued, "he's in critical condition. Even with the refrigeration blanket, his temperature isn't coming down. He's had three cardiac arrests in an eight hour period. The last one was less than an hour ago. He's had convulsions, his kidneys have shut down and he's deeply comatose."
Freeman gazed at Straker for a long moment. "Any idea how long he'll be like this?"
Henderson shook his head. "I'm told he could wake up tomorrow, or, he could be like this until he dies, when someone turns off the respirator or he gets a massive infection they can't control."
"Or anything in between?"
Henderson nodded. "Frazer told me the longer Ed's unconscious, the poorer his chances of complete recovery are."
"Paul Foster was in a coma for six days before he woke up, and he's perfectly fine now," Freeman reminded him.
The SHADO officer recalled how Foster had first come to SHADO's attention. He had been flying an experimental aircraft that was destroyed when it came too close to a U.F.O. and Sky-One's interception of it.
"Yes, I remember the report on his case," Henderson replied. "But, as I recall, Foster was simply suffering from a nasty case of hypothermia and some burns. The medics induced a coma to treat the hypothermia. This is a whole different ball game."
There was a momentary silence, broken only by the sounds of the machines that were keeping SHADO's commander-in-chief, and Freeman's closest friend, alive.
"Frazer asked me to come down when Ed started going into convulsions and his heart stopped the second time," Henderson continued after a time. If possible, the old man looked more glum than before. "They needed authorization to override his written request that heroic measures not be taken to keep him alive. I called a priest to come in after his last arrest. They don't call it 'last rights' anymore, you know."
"I know," Freeman told him. He could just feel the smudge of holy oil on the back of Straker's hand. "I remember Ed telling me once he was raised Roman Catholic. I don't think he's been to Mass since Johnny died. I don't know if he even believes any more."
"I don't know either, " Henderson admitted. "I remember we used to argue theology over lunch at Peterson, drove everybody else at the table crazy, especially my other aide, Sprenger. He was an atheist. You remember him, don't you, Freeman?"
Freeman nodded. He hadn't thought of Sprenger in years, but he did recall not liking the man much.
"It's funny, but I miss those arguments." As he spoke, Henderson reached over to straighten the bed covers around Straker's shoulders. Then, he brushed a strand of hair away from Straker's face, as one might do with a small, sleeping child. There was no response.
"The floor nurse has Frazer's number in case his condition changes and someone's supposed to come in about every fifteen minutes or so and check on him," Henderson announced. "There's a pot of coffee at the nurses' station. If he does come round, it'll be better if there's a familiar face nearby."
Henderson turned to leave, then stopped. "Jackson thinks it's possible Ed can hear us, even if he can't respond, so it certainly wouldn't hurt if you talked to him, told him what's going on, read to him. It might even help. Who knows?"
"Right," Freeman responded.
"This isn't how it's supposed to be, you know," Henderson said. "Ed's just a little younger than my youngest boy. It's not natural." With a shake of his head, the general closed the door behind him.
Freeman gently laid Straker's hand on the bed. "Ed, I'm going to be right here. You're going to get through this." He settled into the armchair in the far corner, moving it closer to the bed.
There was a small radio on the window sill. He turned it on and tuned in a local jazz station. It was the one music style he knew that he and Straker both agreed on. Freeman preferred Big Band music. Straker had a fondness for Wagner and Tchaikovsky and Sibellius, but they both liked hot jazz.
Freeman studied Straker's face a few moments longer, wondering what his friend would say to all this effort to keep him alive, when, and if, he recovered enough to say anything at all.
A little after lunch the next day, Paul Foster walked into the lobby of studio office building. A woman was seated in one of the chairs in the modern seating group opposite the elevator bank.
All the women in SHADO were confident. Most were shapely and attractive. This woman would not have been out of place in a SHADO uniform, or in front of one of the studio's cameras.
Her hair was a rich coppery auburn, pulled into a French braid; eyes, emerald green. Her ivory complexion was flawless, as was the figure under the oyster white linen suit and peach colored silk blouse she was wearing.
Foster was no expert in fashion, but he suspected the suit was a designer original, possibly a Valentino. There was a coffee brown briefcase on the floor beside her chair. She was looking through a collection of papers clipped to a gray file folder.
"Waiting for someone?" Foster asked.
"As a matter of fact, I am," she said, with a hint of a smile. There was something challenging about her. She could have been anything; an actress, a highly paid call girl, a corporate executive. Her accent was American. "I'm waiting for Mister Freeman."
"I wasn't aware he was coming in this afternoon," Foster responded, taking a seat beside her. "Maybe I can help though. My name's Paul Foster."
"Elizabeth Kathryn Komack," the woman said, holding out her hand to be shook. He took it and was a little surprised at how firm her grip was.
"What were you waiting to see Mister Freeman about?" Foster asked.
"We're old friends," she replied with a smile. "Actually, I was supposed to be seeing Mister Straker concerning a management position here at the studio. But, since he's ill, I'll just have to settle for talking to Mister Freeman."
"I'm afraid I don't know anything concerning a management opening here," Foster admitted. "Do you know Mister Straker well?"
"Oh, yes. I've known him for years."
"It's funny, but I've never heard him mention you," Foster told her.
"That doesn't surprise me. Mister Straker is a very private person," Komack said. "He has mentioned you, though."
"Oh?" Foster studied her face, but her expression was simply pleasantly neutral. "What did he say?"
"You're young and ambitious and an asset to the company."
"I suppose I should be flattered," Foster said, smiling.
"You should be," she remarked.
Foster let that one go. "Where are you from?"
"I live in San Francisco."
"What do you do in San Francisco?" Foster asked.
"I run a think-tank," she replied. "What do you do, Mister Foster?"
"I work here," Foster replied. She laughed and Foster found himself wondering what she found so amusing.
* * *
Alec Freeman entered the studio office building. To his surprise, Paul Foster was sitting in the lobby with Kathryn Komack. They both stood as he came towards them.
"Alec," Foster greeted. "Miss Komack said you were coming in today."
"Yes, we have an appointment," Freeman explained. He checked his watch. "I'm sorry I'm late," he told her.
"I understand," she assured him with a smile. She gave him a quick hug. "Doctor Frazer told me you spent the night at the hospital with Ed."
"Oh?" Freeman replied. "I was certainly surprised to get your call this morning. Ed figured you wouldn't come back to London unless it was for his funeral."
"He told you that?" she asked, eyebrows raised in surprise.
"Isn't it true?" Freeman asked in reply.
"Mostly," she admitted. "You know what he's like to work for."
"Yes, I do know," Freeman replied. He looked over at Foster, at the look of confusion on the younger man's face. "Paul, you go on ahead to work. I'll be there in a little bit. Katie and I have a few things to discuss."
"Certainly," Foster agreed. He nodded to Komack. "It was nice meeting you, Miss Komack. I hope to see you again some time."
"I'm sure you will, Mister Foster," she replied. Foster smiled and turned to head for Straker's ground floor office and the entrance to SHADO Headquarters.
Freeman turned back to Komack. "I know what Ed's like. I got fed up and walked out on him two months ago. I'm still not happy about how he handled that whole situation."
"With Foster?" she asked.
Freeman nodded. "I know why I was called back here, but what brings you Merry Old England after all this time?"
"Orders," she replied.
"Not from Ed," he stated with certainty.
She shook her head. "General Henderson. He thought it would be a good idea if I were at a meeting he had scheduled yesterday with Ed and Virginia Lake."
"I see," Freeman said. "Did Ed know that's why you were here?"
"Probably. He didn't ask and I didn't volunteer."
"How long are you going to stay?"
"That was going to depend on how the meeting went," Komack replied. "Now, I don't know. His getting sick like this bollixes up a lot of things. If I stay past Friday, I'll have to have Esther fly over. I suppose I'll end up asking Amanda Henderson to watch her for me. She's made the offer. I may have to take her up on it."
"I keep forgetting that Henderson's your uncle." Freeman said.
"You don't forget," Komack responded. "Even though I wish you would. It's hard enough working for the 'company' without having to constantly prove I can do the job without the help of relatives in high places."
Freeman raised his hands slightly in surrender. "I apologize. I shouldn't have brought it up."
"It's been a bad couple of days, Alec," she said. "We're all on edge. Let's both forget it. I called Barbara this morning, let her know what's happened."
The name didn't mean anything for a moment, then he remembered. "Ed's sister?"
"She offered to fly out from California. I managed to talk her out of it."
"Good," Freeman said, heading across the marble floor to the office Foster had disappeared into. Komack kept pace with him.They entered the outer office where Miss Ealand sat at her desk, as usual.
"Colonel Freeman," Miss Ealand greeted. There was a worried look to her fine features. "I heard you were coming in."
"I flew in last night with Peter," he told her.
He glanced around the small outer office. It was no different from how he last remembered it. Sleek and ultra-modern, with pieces of film art hanging on the linen covered walls. The perfect film company office. "How's it going up here?" he asked.
The secretary shrugged. "It's hard to say. Mister Foster posted an announcement yesterday afternoon that Mister Straker had fallen extremely ill from a reaction to a prescription he was on and had to be hospitalized. We also had to evacuate Soundstage D. A gas leak. Very dangerous. I'm told that mess should be cleaned up by tomorrow and the film crew can get back to work, none the wiser."
"What about Turner's body?" Freeman wondered.
Miss Ealand gave him a crooked grin. "What body? A special effects dummy was found in the carpark. New design, very convincing." She pressed a button on her desk and the door to the inner office slid open. Miss Ealand nodded to the door. "General Henderson is already downstairs. Welcome back."
"Thanks," Freeman commented as he and Kathryn Komack walked into the inner office. The door closed behind them.
As usual, the inner office was unoccupied. Freeman went to the desk and opened the grilled lid to the cigarette box that sat on its wide surface.
"Freeman," the SHADO officer spoke aloud to the air.
From the box, a computer generated voice: "Voice Print Identification Positive, nine-seven, Freeman, Alec E."
Freeman handed Komack the box and she repeated the ritual: "Komack."
"Voice Print Identification Positive, one-zero-five, Komack, E. Kathryn"
The office began to descend.
"How's Esther?" Freeman asked. "She's what now, four?"
Komack chuckled. "She'll be five in November. She's fine. She came home from day care the other day and announced she really should have visiting rights with her father like everybody else at the center."
"What did you tell her?"
"I would take it under advisement." Komack's smile turned sad.
"You know, Ed and I've talked about different possibilities. But it always comes down to the same thing. I'm a SHADO officer and SHADO can't afford the appearance of the commander-in-chief playing favorites."
Freeman nodded as the office-elevator doors opened. "I remember Ed saying the same thing a while back. I guess San Francisco is about as far away from SHADO as you can get and still be in SHADO."
"We were discussing the situation before he left for the airport Tuesday night," Komack replied as she followed Freeman out of the elevator and down the wide corridor to SHADO Control. "He asked me to consider taking over the studio for him."
"What did you say?" Freeman asked. It was a surprising development. He wasn't aware Straker had been thinking in that direction. Of course, Freeman had also been out of touch for two months.
"I said I'd think about it."
"Will you do it?"
"That depends on what the general and the commission decide to do about Ed being in the hospital, don't you think?" she replied.
They walked into the control room.
Freeman noted how subdued everyone seemed. There were no jokes or snide remarks like when he usually came in after an absence. The worry was almost a stink in the air.
They went into the commander's office.
Freeman knew everyone waiting there. General Henderson was leaning against Straker's desk. John Gray, Virginia Lake and Paul Foster were seated around the conference table that filled the alcove at far end of the room. Major Vladimir Natiroff was standing, stiff backed, next to the small corner bar.
"Good afternoon, Colonel Freeman, Colonel Komack," Henderson greeted wryly. "I'm glad you could make it." Henderson bobbed his head in Komack's direction. "I don't believe you've met Colonel Foster."
He gestured vaguely in Foster's general direction. Foster's expression was one of surprised shock.
"How do you do, Colonel?" Komack said, shaking Foster's hand with a smile. She turned to Lake: "How have the boys been treating you, Ginny?"
Lake smiled. "I can hold my own. It's different than the Institute, I'll tell you that."
"I can always kick Dennis out of your old office if you want to come back," Komack said. "He misses you terribly."
"I'm afraid I'd be out of practice handling his boy friends," Lake replied. "I think I'll stay here. It's a little safer."
"Colonel Komack runs a research facility in San Francisco," Henderson explained, seeing Foster's continued confusion. He turned back to Komack as she took a seat at the end of the conference table. "How is Ed today?"
The woman took a moment before replying. Her expression became solemn. "When I left this morning, his temperature was still over a hundred and three. His blood enzymes suggest the possibility of severe heart and liver damage. The one hopeful sign is that he's started reacting to pain. That means his coma isn't as deep as it was and at least part of his brain is still functioning. But, his condition is still critical. He's still on total life support."
There was a long pause as everyone considered this new information. Finally, Henderson spoke: "Colonel Foster's got some information on the U.F.O. Straker said he'd destroyed."
"Apparently, there was a U.F.O. and it did get through our defensive screens," Foster stated. He had several files by his elbow and handed them out to the others. They quickly glanced through them.
"We've had a crew out for the past twenty-four hours searching everything for a mile around the studio. From what they've found so far, it looks like a Ufo did explode about a hundred yards north of the west carpark," Foster reported. "We also found a device of unknown purpose hidden in one of the radar monitors."
"From the damage my people have found, it looks like the studio was a free fire zone," Natiroff said. As security chief, he had taken charge of the search parties. "We have been using metal detectors to find all the shells and bullets. It is very fortunate no one was killed."
"Radar operator Turner was killed, by a gun with Straker's prints on it," Henderson reminded him. "What do we have on Turner, anyway?"
Natiroff shrugged. "Not as much as we would like. Robert Andrew Turner, British citizen," the Soviet officer read aloud from one of the sheets in his heavily accented voice. "He came to SHADO about three years ago from the RAF. He had good record there, good record with SHADO. He transferred to SHADO Control from Zeta tracking station about ten months ago. Everyone says he was quiet, not many friends. We are not aware that he had permanent girl friend. He was seeing Ayshea Johnson for a time, but she broke it off a week ago. Aside from Johnson, I have not heard that anyone had any problems with him down here."
"Did Turner have an alcohol or drug problem?" Virginia Lake asked.
Natiroff shook his head. "According to our records, nothing has ever shown up on his regulation medical tests."
Lake took a moment to look through her copy of the file for one particular report. "According to this, Turner had a blood alcohol level of point one percent, and some other substances they are still analyzing. There are indications of brain damage indicative of repeated use of certain proscribed drugs. Why didn't the medical checks ever pick this up?"
"I do not know," Natiroff admitted. "However, we have Doctor Shroeder looking into it. Turner also had an alien implant in his temple similar to one that was found on Dawson last year. Medical checks should have found that as well, but did not."
The incident with Dawson was a sore spot for some in SHADO, especially Freeman. A highly experienced SHADO technician and his young wife were dead because of Dawson's treachery. The incident had also caused a major shake-up in SHADO security, forcing the former chief into early retirement and bringing Natiroff on board from the GRU.
"What was Turner's last duty shift?" Freeman asked.
Foster didn't have to look at the file. "Four to midnight. He was just leaving when I came on to relieve Major Westover at midnight."
"So Turner would have known when Commander Straker left here, and that he was planning to go pick up Colonel Lake at the air strip later in the evening," Freeman observed.
"But it doesn't explain why Turner would want to betray SHADO and Commander Straker to the aliens," Gray observed.
"If Jackson's report on Ed's interrogation is accurate, then I think Ed gave us part of Turner's reason," Freeman stated, rummaging through the report file. "Jealousy, envy," Freeman supplied when no one else spoke up. He quoted from the report: "Big Man, the guy all the girls admire."
"I still don't get it," Foster complained.
Kathryn Komack's expression was one of utter incredulity as she regarded the other officer. "Colonel Foster, you do realize that power can be very erotic, very compelling? Especially when that power is held by someone who is almost, but not quite, unattainable?"
"Like Commander Straker?"
"Oh, yes," she said. "I doubt there's a woman down here, maybe even some men, who haven't, for at least a few moments, contemplated the notion of helping ease the loneliness of command, of breaking through that iron reserve."
Lake was nodding thoughtfully. "I'm sure Turner must have overheard some of the girls talking about it at some time. Commander Straker happens to be a very attractive man. The report says Lieutenant Johnson was going out with Turner for a while." Lake told them. "Maybe she knows something."
"The lieutenant was with Straker at our club just last Friday. He was in black-tie. Something about an awards dinner," Henderson recalled. "I wonder if Turner may have misinterpreted Straker's intentions towards the young lady."
"Do you think something happened that night?" Foster wondered.
"Paul, you know Ed better than that," Freeman remonstrated. "He wouldn't take that kind of risk, whatever Turner may have thought."
There was a buzz at the door. Henderson reached over and pressed the button on the desk top to open it. Lieutenant Ford was standing in the hall just outside. He looked uncomfortable.
"Yes, what is it, Lieutenant?" Henderson asked.
Ford seemed to come to a decision and stepped into the office. The door closed behind him. "Sir, Commander Straker left this." He indicated the video cassette tape in his hand.
"Well, what is it?" Henderson demanded with forced patience.
"My instructions were to give it to the senior officers in the event of Commander Straker's death or incapacity," Ford explained.
"Go ahead, Lieutenant," Freeman ordered quietly. Ford nodded and went to the wall monitor and the video cassette recorder on the shelf just beneath it. He turned on the equipment and loaded the tape into the machine. After a few moments, a picture came on the screen: a picture of Commander Straker as he had been only a few weeks before - calm, self-assured, seemingly in total control of both himself and his environment.
The image on the screen looked out at them and began to speak: "Ladies and gentlemen, I assume that since you're playing this tape, I am either dead, missing, or so incapacitated that there is serious doubt as to my being able to continue as commander-in-chief of SHADO operations. I can only hope that the situation at Headquarters is not critical."
Lieutenant Ford made a move to leave the office and Henderson motioned for him to stay as the recording continued.
"Please consider this to be my last will and testament as commander in chief of SHADO operations. My written will is in the wall safe, along with the necessary papers concerning the studio."
Freeman went to the wall safe and opened it. He pulled out the papers Straker had referred to, including a 'power of attorney' statement authorized a long time ago. It gave Freeman the legal authority to take whatever actions were necessary on Straker's behalf. Freeman had a similar document locked in his own desk.
"Alec, as most senior SHADO officer," the recording continued, "the Commission will no doubt give you first consideration for appointment as commander. We've been friends for a lot of years, and I think I know you pretty well, so please don't take this wrong. You're a very capable, very loyal officer and I've been proud to have you under my command, to have you as a friend. But, you'd hate being SHADO's commanding officer. Do yourself a favor and tell the commission 'no'. You'll live longer."
The image on the screen grinned and Freeman found himself grinning back. As much as he was loath to admit it to anyone else, he knew Straker was right. Freeman was far happier doing what he already did -- acting as Straker's chief-of-staff and SHADO's lead trouble-shooter.
"If you give SHADO's new commander even half the assistance, the consideration, you've given me through the years, I know he or she will have no trouble dealing with SHADO's problems," the recording continued.
"I don't know if Colonel Komack is present. I can only hope that arranging my funeral is sufficient reason for her to come back to SHADO Headquarters. Lord knows, nothing else has worked. Assuming you are present, Kathryn, the Institute has an impressive record, one of the best of SHADO's operational groups. You should be proud, you deserve it. But now, I think your services will be needed more here, at headquarters.
"Despite what the Commission chooses to believe, I know the aliens are planning something. I just don't know why they haven't done it yet. But, SHADO's going to have to be ready when they do make their move and there's no doubt in my mind that you're one of the people who can make sure SHADO is ready. Don't let the Commission get on your case because you're a woman. As even they should know by now, sex is irrelevant in terms of command ability. Some of our best combat commanders are female, and I know, for a fact, that you are capable of doing anything you firmly set your mind to, including, if necessary, commanding SHADO.
"General Henderson, I asked Lieutenant Ford to make sure you were present at this viewing since you will be the one to make the recommendation to the Commission concerning my replacement.
"At present, SHADO has two senior command officers of whom I can give my highest recommendation for consideration for promotion to commander-in-chief, SHADO operations. I am aware that the Commission may have other candidates in mind from other services, but please remember, it will take time for one of these to become familiar enough with our operation to actually take command. And time is one of the things SHADO doesn't have an abundance of.
"As I'm sure you've surmised, General, one of the officers I have in mind is Colonel Elizabeth Kathryn Komack. Her record speaks for itself. The other officer is, equally obviously, Colonel Paul Jerome Foster. Although he hasn't been with us as long as some others, his record also speaks for itself. He has repeatedly proven himself capable as a commander, despite his age. And before the Commission can raise any objections to that, please recall that he's about the same age I was when they decided I should head SHADO."
On the screen, Straker was smiling, as if he could see Paul Foster's reaction to his remarks. A cut-crystal wine goblet filled with a pale amber liquid sat on the desk on the screen.
Straker took the goblet and raised it in a toast: "To the new commander-in-chief, SHADO Operations, whoever you are. I wish you every success and good fortune."
He took a drink before continuing, cupping the goblet in his hands. There was a pensive look on his face. "Alec, Kathryn, if you're there, Paul, General Henderson -- I hope you never have the opportunity to see this tape. But, if you are seeing it, I wish you all the best in the world and all the help God can give you."
The tape ended. Ford stopped the machine and turned off the monitor.
"When did Commander Straker make that?" Colonel Gray asked the operative.
"He gave me the tape and his instructions just before he left for Cape Canaveral with Colonel Collins," the uniformed man told him.
"You're joking!" Foster exclaimed. He turned to the others. "But, if Ed believed what John was saying, if he believed that Collins was dangerous, why did he go ahead anyway?"
Gray answered. "Because he'd already said he was going to go. Because SID absolutely had to be repaired, one way or another. Because I didn't have any proof at the time, but if I were right, then Collins had to be isolated, away from any SHADO installation."
"I suspect he also gave contingency orders to Sky-Diver," Henderson added.
"Yes, sir," Ford confirmed, "When he gave me the tape, the commander also had coded orders sent to Captain Waterman. He told me to transmit the confirmation code if anything 'untoward' happened to him."
"How did he define 'untoward'?" Henderson asked.
"He told me to use my judgment," Ford said with a faint smile.
"That order would have been for Sky-One to destroy the capsule on re-entry, wouldn't it?" Lake asked.
"Yes, ma'am. I'm glad I didn't have to send that confirmation order."
"Would you have?" Freeman asked quietly.
Ford's expression turned thoughtful. "Commander Straker trusted me to make the proper decision. I think I would have done it, if necessary, simply to validate his trust. I did ask him, at the time, why he didn't want Colonel Foster or Colonel Gray to give the order. He told me he didn't want to have to put Colonel Foster in a position to have to make that particular decision."
"Thank you, Lieutenant," Henderson said after a moment. "That will be all."
Ford nodded and left, leaving the video tape on the desk.
"After everything, he didn't think I'd be able to pull the trigger on him," Foster mused to himself. "You know though," he continued, "as much as I hate to admit it, I think Ed's right. Except for a spate of sightings while SID was down, there's been a marked drop off in U.F.O. sightings in the last six months. I don't know what they're waiting for either, but the problems of a change of command down here would make it a perfect time for them to stage a mass attack."
"Do you think they're capable of a mass attack?" Henderson asked.
"I know Straker thought so two months ago," Foster told him. "I don't know anything that would've changed his mind."
"You're probably right, then," Henderson agreed, then he exploded: "Damn him, anyway!"
The SHADO officers gaped at him in surprise.
"Straker," Henderson grated. "Ed Straker is undoubtedly one of the most brilliant officers I've ever known, and one of the most politically naive. No matter who I'd like to recommend to take over here, the political reality is that the Commission won't accept either of you. They're going to want someone with a documentable military background, and that leaves out SHADO. And with the present administration, there's no reason to believe the U.S. government won't still insist that SHADO's commander be an American."
"Yeah, I can see where that leaves us out," Foster agreed.
"Who do you think they will assign then?" Gray asked.
"Off hand, I'd suggest Braedon over at Langley, or Tanner at Edwards," Henderson replied.
"In either case, we are looking at a minimum of a month before my people can grant either of them proper clearance so they could be considered for appointment, assuming the Commission accepts my recommendations," Natiroff pointed out quietly. "I'm told that some members were unhappy that Commander Straker selected a Soviet Army officer to be his chief of internal security."
"Well, no matter how the recommendations are made, we still need an acting commanding officer," Lake said.
"Which means," Henderson completed, "One of you will have to be temporarily promoted to the position."
"And be demoted when the new guy comes on board," Foster concluded. He obviously didn't like the notion.
"There is one person I know who's qualified on all the counts named," Komack stated thoughtfully. The others looked over at her in surprise. "And, SHADO security certainly won't have any problems clearing him, since he already has full clearance for all SHADO documents." She gave Freeman a sly grin and he grinned back as he caught the direction her thoughts were taking.
"Yeah, and he has the added advantage that if Ed does recover, we won't have to demote him, or shuffle one of them off into a corner somewhere," Freeman added. The others looked at him, confused frowns on their faces.
Komack turned back to Henderson: "General, SHADO doesn't have a mandatory retirement age."
Henderson stared at her a long moment. "Elizabeth Kathryn Komack, are you offering me the job?" He looked at Freeman and the other man nodded.
"You've been fighting Straker for it since day one," Freeman pointed out. "Now you've got your chance."
Komack looked around that the others: "Well?"
Foster and Lake were grinning and shaking their heads.
Gray looked thoughtful: "I call it an elegant solution to our immediate problem. The Commission can hardly object to you as our temporary commander-in-chief, at least until they've located a replacement." He looked around at the others: "Are we agreed?"
Foster laughed. "Straker is going to freak when he finds out."
"If he finds out," Henderson reminded him gently.
Henderson thumbed the intercom switch on the desk: "Lieutenant Ford, inform the Commission that I've assumed temporary command of SHADO operations, then pass the word along to Moonbase and the other operational groups. Tell them simply that Commander Straker's taken critically ill and has been hospitalized."
"Yes, sir," Ford acknowledged. Henderson turned back to the officers in the room.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I think it's time we got to work."
As they turned to leave the office, Henderson remembered something.
"Colonel Foster," he called. "A U.F.O. got through the defenses yesterday morning. Straker got one, but I wouldn't bet that was the only one that got through."
"Yes, sir, I'll get right on it," Foster assured him. Then, he left as General James L. Henderson settled in behind the wide slate and chrome desk that dominated the office of SHADO's commander-in-chief.
Freeman decided he needed a cup of coffee before heading to his small office. He wasn't looking forward to filling out all those report forms he needed to finish in regards to the building project in Alaska.
The door to the crew lounge was open and the voices inside sounded familiar. He stepped inside to find Kathryn Komack sitting with a couple of operatives on break: Ayshea Johnson, Charlie Anderson, and Major Natiroff.
Johnson looked uncomfortable. "Everybody's making so much more of it than there was," she was complaining.
"Making so much of what?" Freeman wondered aloud.
"My dinner with Commander Straker last week," Johnson replied. "Nothing happened."
"You like Commander Straker, don't you?" Komack asked. Her voice was gentle.
Johnson nodded again, and gave her a shy little smile. "I've never had any trouble with him," the girl responded. Anderson made a face. "I mean, he does have his bad days," she amended.
"And weeks, and months," Anderson put in.
Johnson glared at Anderson, then went on: "He's kind of like the weather. You know when a storm's brewing, but, it always blows over. He never apologizes for it, but he never asks any of us to do anything he wouldn't do himself. If there's an alert, or some other problem where we have to stay down here all night, he's always here, too.
"He's kind of like an elemental force. You can't take him too personally," she concluded.
"Yeah, for a guy with a stressful job, the commander doesn't always handle stress all that well," Anderson observed wryly.
"That's true enough," Freeman commented. They all recalled tongue lashings in Straker's office. Not that those reprimands weren't deserved, but the coldness of the tone was strictly dependent on how well the rest of world was treating him that day.
"But, you know," Anderson said thoughtfully. "It's not true that he won't apologize for things. He just won't apologize for getting mad when you've made a stupid mistake, but he'll do it, if it turns out it the error was his, or it was something he thought he should have caught first."
"And when did that happen?" Natiroff wondered.
Anderson grinned. "About a year ago." His grin faded as he recalled the incident. "The aliens had put an underwater dome or something off the coast. The commander and Colonel Foster went to investigate it and saw someone who looked just like me in the dome. They thought it was me and hauled me off to detention. Turns out, the aliens had made doubles of everybody down here, including me. When it was all over, Commander Straker explained the mix-up.
"You know, I was all ready to hate his guts over how I was arrested and interrogated, and then he apologized. He admitted he'd handled it badly. He actually said he was sorry."
"You don't hate him over it?" Freeman asked.
"No," Anderson shrugged. "Like Ayshea says, he's like an elemental force. You shouldn't get mad if you're fool enough put up a tall mast in a storm and it gets hit by lightning."
"That's a good line, Anderson," Freeman chuckled. "I'll remember that one. Was Turner 'putting up a tall mast'?"
Johnson shook her head: "No, I don't think so. Rob was good at his job. I don't think Commander Straker ever said more than two words to him. You know, I still can't believe he did it."
"Which?" Komack asked. "Turner betraying SHADO or Commander Straker shooting him?"
"Either, both," Johnson replied. "I know Rob had some problems. He had a lot of anger, a lot of jealousy, inside. But, going to the aliens is so extreme. And, Commander Straker simply isn't a physically violent person. It's not his style."
"Was Turner jealous of the commander?" Freeman asked.
"Yes, I suppose so," Johnson admitted. "Commander Straker needed an escort to this dinner with Sir Esmond and he asked me to go with him. I know he was uncomfortable with the idea of asking me to do it. As far as I know, he's never gone out with any of the girls down here.
"Any way, he and Sir Esmond picked me up at my flat at about seven-thirty and we went to the dinner. I didn't know anybody there and it wasn't as fun as I thought it would be. When it was over, the commander offered to buy me coffee before taking me home and we walked over to this club. Turned out that General Henderson and his wife were there and so we had coffee and dessert with them and listened to the band. About midnight, he took me home."
"Is that all that happened?" Natiroff insisted.
"That was all. The commander and General Henderson talked a little about business. The commander got upset with him. The general asked me some questions, privately, about how Commander Straker was handling what had happened to Colonel Collins. But, the commander was every bit the gentleman with me. I even invited him up to my flat. He said no. He didn't even try to give me a good night kiss."
"What about Turner?" Freeman asked.
"Rob was waiting for me when I got home that night. He was furious. He accused me of sleeping with Commander Straker and he wouldn't believe me when I said we hadn't done anything like that. He called me some awful names."
"Did you tell security you were having problems with him?" Freeman asked.
"Yes," she said softly. "I told Lieutenant Evans about it the next day. But the next time I saw Rob, it was like it hadn't happened, so I didn't bother to file a written report. I didn't want to get him into trouble."
* * *
Outside the lounge, Freeman turned to Komack. "I still don't get it. It doesn't make sense for Turner to go to the aliens over a girl."
"Since when does insane jealousy need a reason, Alec?" Komack asked him.
"If that's all it was," Freeman said. "Katie, why did Henderson really call you back here?"
Komack suddenly became very solemn. "He said he was worried about Ed. Jackson had contacted him saying that the commander didn't seem to be handling Craig's death at all well. His stress levels were extremely high and he was showing of signs of clinical depression - loss of appetite, extreme moodiness, sleep problems, that sort of thing."
"Isn't that understandable?" Freeman asked. "Ed and Craig were together on a mission when Craig died. Of course, Ed's likely to get depressed over something like that. So would I. We're not robots, you know."
"I know that, Alec," Komack said. "But something was eating him up inside, something he wouldn't talk to Shroeder or Jackson about. He was flat out refusing to come in for a check-up, even after they'd made it a medical order."
Freeman considered what she was saying. "Maybe he was feeling guilty because he's the one who came back. Craig was a good friend. The aliens destroyed his mind and Ed had to destroy his body."
"You don't accept his report that Craig died of an accident, then?" Komack asked.
"Of course not, do you?"
"No," the woman admitted thoughtfully. "But there's more to it than just Craig's death. He told me he wanted out, that SHADO had stolen everything he'd ever valued, and was after his soul. He said he wanted to quit before he ended up putting a bullet in his brain."
Freeman shook his head in disbelief. "He said that? What did Jackson say?"
"He said it wasn't a good sign, especially since Ed keeps a loaded gun in his desk."
"You know, Katie," Freeman said. "I've talked to Ed maybe twice since I left to handle the Alaska job. I haven't talked to him at all since he came back from that mission. I thought maybe he was still upset about me walking out, but now I think it was more than that."
"Probably. He wasn't taking my calls either, until I showed up on his doorstep. He's too much a gentleman to send me packing to a hotel. I also think he was relieved to talk to somebody who wasn't required to write a report on it."
"But, you reported to Jackson anyway," Freeman pointed out.
"Alec, suicide isn't a joking matter, even if he is much too dedicated to the job to do more than talk about it," Komack replied. "And we can't assume his dedication to SHADO would be enough to stop him if something happened to push him past the brink."
"Do you think the aliens have been trying to push him past that point?" Freeman asked.
"Don't you?" Komack asked in reply.
* * *
He couldn't move, couldn't see. He was encased in a block of ice, frozen in a place of eye searing light and mind-halting noise and pain. So much pain.
He couldn't recall where he was, or why he was there. Even who he was escaped him.
He was trapped in a bitter cold hell, and he was afraid.
Gradually, after several hours, or was it several days?, he became aware of the sursurration of human voices in the noise around him. The voices called his name, asking him to respond. But, he couldn't speak and it was nearly impossible to move.
He was so very cold, so very tired, so very confused. He was enshrouded in an impenetrable, mind-numbing fog. Still, the voices persisted, demanding his attention. They were demanding a response, demanding and demanding.
He didn't know why. They didn't say why, but it did occur to him there must be a reason for this torture, for this fear, but he couldn't remember what it might be. He was so cold, and there was so much pain.
He had a vague foggy recollection of something awful, something terrifying. Of frozen bodies, blood, gunshots, of a U.F.O. overhead somewhere, but he couldn't remember. Other memories filtered in, his friend Craig, always laughing, forever silenced. Craig's face bloody and bloated from decompression, eyes staring blindly at his killer. He didn't want to remember. He wanted to scream, but he couldn't.
Even oblivion was preferable to remembering.
But, in the times the fog seemed to lift a little, he thought he saw people he knew, people he cared about, Alec and Kate, even General Henderson. They seemed so worried. Or, were they all illusions?
He couldn't tell, anymore. He was so cold and so very tired.
He wanted the voices to go away.
He wanted to die and the voices wouldn't let him.
* * *
It was a Sunday morning. The sky was overcast and the weather bureau was predicting rain as Freeman drove over to Mayland Hospital.
Again, the SHADO officer brought with him a briefcase full of paperwork to look over. He'd forgotten how difficult a change in command could be. It had been years since he'd been involved in something like that. Not since he'd joined SHADO, in fact.
General Henderson had ordered a full personnel and budget evaluation on all SHADO operations. Luckily for Freeman, Straker had always been a stickler for accurate and timely reports. They were all filed and computerized for ready access.
Freeman was glad, however, he hadn't taken the job Komack had opted for. She had assumed the management of Harlington-Straker Studios. Henderson had refused to even consider taking on that particular headache.
Officially, she was now vice-president in charge of operations and they were now in the midst of a full scale audit. The studio records had turned out to be as chaotic as SHADO's records were orderly. Freeman didn't envy her that chore at all.
SHADO's funding came from taxpayers' money from every civilized nation on Earth. Harlington-Straker Film Studios were, in theory, self-supporting. They had the deserved reputation of being moderately successful at making forgettable low-budget films and award winning television commercials. They had three television series in residence, from two different production companies, using four sound stages. Five other stages were presently rented out to two other film companies, with all the headaches demanding tenants create.
No, Freeman did not envy Kathryn Komack in her new position. But he did wonder if Komack would let Straker have the business back, if and when he recovered. She had discovered she liked running a real company.
Freeman entered the hospital room, as he had done each morning for these past four days. Nurse Dunnigarth, the short, pretty one, was waiting and greeted him with long needed good news.
"Ah, Mister Freeman, it's good to see you again," she said. "Mister Straker's started fighting back a little, especially when we have to suction the mucus out of his trachea and bronchi."
"I don't blame him," Freeman admitted. "It can't feel very good being hooked up to all these machines. What about his temperature?"
The nurse shook her head. "Still over 103 even with the refrigeration blanket. We just don't know why his temperature's so high."
Freeman walked over to the bed and as he had every morning, he greeted his friend: "Hi Ed, it's me, Alec. How're you doing?"
For the first time since Straker was admitted to the hospital, five long days before, he opened his eyes at Freeman's greeting.There was no recognition in his face, only pain and perhaps a touch of puzzlement.
"Mister Straker, Ed," Nurse Dunnigarth said, "Eddie, I want you to blink your eyes. Can you do that? Can you do that for me?"
The sense of puzzlement seemed to deepen but after a long moment, Straker blinked. Not a reflex blink, but a slow, deliberate closing and opening of his eyes. Freeman gave a silent sigh of relief as Nurse Dunnigarth gave more instructions for simple actions. Straker was able to comply with the simplest of them before tiring and closing his eyes, turning his face away from the nurse.
"This means he's going to be okay, right?" Freeman asked.
"I think so," Dunnigarth admitted. "Mister Straker's no longer in a coma. That's a good sign."
* * *
In film and on T.V., a comatose patient simply wakes up and is perfectly normal, able to go home in a few days. Reality isn't as simple or straightforward.
It was Tuesday before Straker's temperature stopped going to life-threatening heights every time the refrigeration blanket was turned off. By that time, he was also breathing on his own so the respirator could be discontinued, and the hole in his throat closed. His kidneys finally regained some of their function, so the dialysis machine was moved out.
Despite his improving condition, there was still no sign that he knew, or cared, where he was. It was hard to tell if he even recognized his friends and associates when they came in, but he was improving.
Frazer upgraded his condition to 'serious'.
Major General George H. McGruder of the United States Air Force was one of the few outsiders who even knew that SHADO existed beyond a name. Originally with SAC, he was now in the process of taking over the leadership of the U.S. Air Force in Europe.
McGruder was a short, grizzled haired man who, even out of uniform, looked as though he should be in uniform. He had a reputation of utter military correctness, of liking everything 'by the book'.
Freeman was waiting with the studio's Rolls Royce Silver Shadow limousine when McGruder's jet landed at Mildenhall Air Force base. The general gave a sniff of disapproval at Freeman's dark brown worsted business suit as the SHADO officer introduced himself.
Freeman ushered the older man into the rear seat of the car and got in himself. They were followed by McGruder's aide, Colonel Anthony Sprenger.
The gray uniformed chauffeur shut the car door behind them and got into the driver's seat. The Rolls purred as they left the Air Force base and headed for London and SHADO H.Q.
"I was looking forward to meeting your Commander Straker," McGruder was saying. "But, I understand he had to be hospitalized last week. I hope it isn't anything serious."
"He's getting better, General," Freeman responded. "In the meantime, General Henderson has assumed command at SHADO headquarters."
McGruder turned to Sprenger: "I believe you know General Henderson, don't you, Colonel?"
"Yes, sir," Sprenger admitted. "I worked with the general's staff at the time SHADO was being planned. I like to think I was instrumental in its approval."
Sprenger smiled, but it was a smile that did not extend to his eyes. His teeth were large and yellow, his skin sallow and scarred. His hair was black, with gray at his temples. Sprenger's eyes were so dark the pupils were invisible, and the whites showed all around. Snake eyes, some people called them, said to be the sign of a fanatic or a madman.
Freeman wondered which it was.
* * *
The drive to Harlington-Straker Studios was uneventful. Within two hours, the limousine had passed the main gates to the studio complex. McGruder and his assistant were ushered past Miss Ealand and into the executive office.
Sprenger stopped in front of the glass shelves on the far side of the office. On the shelves stood a collection of film and television industry awards. The gold and crystal display included two awards from the British Academy of Motion Pictures and one from the American Academy.
"Are these real?" Sprenger wondered.
"Yes," Freeman said.
"Straker won these?"
"The studio's won them," Freeman explained. "We've never won 'Best Picture', but we've picked up a couple on the technical side and a few for television."
"I hadn't realized how successful the studios had become," Sprenger said. "I remember the original proposal for using a film company as security cover was simply based on the idea that no one would bother to notice strange goings on or equipment being shipped in if it could be explained away as a film prop."
"That's still true," Freeman said. "But we also make pretty decent movies."
"How much is all this worth?" McGruder asked. He looked around at the modern art work on the walls.
"Theoretically, the studios are worth millions," Freeman answered. The officer stepped over to the desk and opened the cigarette box. "Freeman," he announced into the box.
"Voice Print Identification positive, nine-seven, Freeman, Alec E." the computer voice announced. Freeman flipped the switch under the edge of the desk.
Both Sprenger and McGruder started as the entire room began to move downwards.
"Interesting," McGruder commented.
The two American military officers seemed even more impressed upon entering the brightly lit concrete cavern of SHADO Control. A few SHADO operatives glanced up from their duties to give the small group a momentary curious glance, then went back to their work.
"Amazing," McGruder commented. "All this, and no one even knows it's here. I'm impressed."
"I'm glad you like it, George," James Henderson said, walking up to them.
"Jim!" McGruder exclaimed, pumping Henderson's hand. "How long has it been?"
"About six years, isn't it?" Henderson responded. "My retirement party?"
"I thought you'd stayed on this side of the Atlantic because you liked the climate," McGruder said. "Now your boy here tells me you've taken over this toy shop."
"No, I'm just watching the store until Commander Straker gets back on his feet," Henderson replied.
"Some store," McGruder commented appreciatively as one of the female operatives stepped over to Henderson and handed him a clip board.
"Sky-diver authorization, sir," she murmured.
Henderson glanced at the papers and initialed them, handing the board back to her. McGruder stared after the young woman as she walked away. Her lightweight uniform merely accented her figure.
"I am amazed." McGruder stated. "All this to chase down little green men and their flying saucers. We all thought you were a little nuts when you first suggested this whole setup."
"U.F.O.'s are real, George. And, those not-so-little green men are very dangerous," Henderson informed him. "That's why SHADO exists."
"Have you managed to capture any aliens, General?" Sprenger asked.
Henderson glanced at Freeman, who answered: "We've captured two. They both died."
"The aliens don't adjust well to Earth's atmosphere. Neither do their ships," explained Freeman.
"So, why do they risk coming here?" McGruder asked.
Freeman shrugged. "Resources, bodies, organ transplant material, who knows what else?"
"What's SHADO's success rate against them, so far?" asked Sprenger.
"Ninety to ninety-five percent destruction rate before reaching Earth's atmosphere. The rest are taken care of by Sky-divers and ground units," Freeman answered.
"How many have reached Earth?" Sprenger wanted to know.
"Six have reached the atmosphere in the past twelve months," Freeman stated. "Four of those caused damage on Earth."
"Out of how many?"
"Seventy-seven," Freeman replied. "There has been a marked drop off in attacks recently."
"How do you explain that?" McGruder asked.
"I can't," replied Freeman. He checked his watch. "I'm sorry, but I have to get going. I have a lunch appointment with Colonel Komack. Studio business."
Sprenger looked surprised. "Colonel Komack?"
Henderson nodded. "You remember Kathryn Komack, don't you Colonel?"
"As I recall, there were some heated discussions over whether or not she was suitable for such a high security position," Sprenger said. "No disrespect intended, General. I know she's a relative, but I never did consider a degree in business as being adequate for involvement in such a highly classified military operation."
"Kathryn's done a lot of good work for SHADO. She's been running our cover operation for us since Straker went into the hospital," Henderson told him.
"I'd heard that you people were hot on sexual equality and all that," McGruder commented. "I'd like to meet this Colonel Komack. Maybe she can join us for dinner."
"I'll ask her," Freeman promised without much enthusiasm. He turned and began to walk away.
"Colonel Freeman," Henderson called. Freeman halted as Henderson stepped over to him. "I know you don't like Sprenger," Henderson said quietly. "But, SHADO needs McGruder's cooperation."
"What time should I tell her to be ready?" Freeman asked.
"How about if you both meet us at my club at eight o'clock?"
* * *
Freeman drove his Saab into the parking garage beneath the Zodiac club, pulling into the parking space designated by the garage attendant seated in a kiosk at the entrance. The garage was nearly full. One of the niceties the Zodiac offered was 'free' parking privileges for its full members.
There was a classic, powder-blue, 1966 Ford Mustang convertable parked nearby.
Freeman liked well-designed aircraft and well-designed cars, the faster, the better. His own car was a black Saab 900 Turbo. He was aware he got a lot of envious looks whenever he drove it onto the studio lot, but only SHADO's armorer and very few others knew exactly how complex and sophisticated this particular car was. He did, however, have a particular fondness for the '66 Mustang, especially that one. He had made several offers to buy it from Straker. So far, Straker had refused to sell.
Komack and Freeman took the small elevator up to the main floor of the club, bypassing the leaded glass double entry doors. They walked over to the porter's lodge.
"Good evening, Donall. Has the general arrived?" Komack asked the porter.
Despite the years since their last visit, the porter still recognized both of them.
"Yes, Miss Komack, General Henderson and his guests are already in the main dining room," he replied. "Miss Komack, I was distressed to hear that Colonel Straker had fallen ill. If there's anything we here at the club can do, you know you need but ask."
"Thank you, Donall. I'll keep that in mind," Komack promised.
Donall beckoned to a liveried page. "Show Miss Komack and Colonel Freeman to General Henderson's table."
Komack and Freeman followed the page across the entry hall, down the marble staircase and through the tall double doors to the main dining room.
Despite the full garage, there weren't many diners. The pre-theater crowd had already left. The after theater groups that frequented the Zodiac would not show until well after ten.
Henderson, McGruder and Sprenger were already seated at a white damask covered table. They had a clear view of the atrium garden beyond and the low stage where a jazz quartet would be playing later.
The head steward was waiting behind Komack's chair. He had already placed the menu cards beside the plates.
The Zodiac's kitchen was an excellent one, though it would be hard to say if it were because or in spite of the menu. There were a large number of poultry and fish items and a sophisticated selection of international vegetarian dishes, but no red meat was served.
The steward took their dinner requests and beckoned the wine steward over to take their drink orders. General McGruder seemed dismayed that he couldn't order a steak, but the promise of Wolfschmidt prewar vodka mollified him a little. He ordered a double. Freeman chose a whiskey and soda, as did Sprenger. Henderson ordered a half bottle of claret while Komack ordered a Perrier with lime to go with her fruit salad.
"I take it," McGruder said to Komack and Freeman, after their drinks had arrived, "that you're members here, too?"
Freeman shook his head: "Not me. I'm not the club type, and besides, I don't believe in all the mumbo-jumbo they go into around here."
Freeman gestured to the walls around them. Set into large frames on the ivory linen walls were oil enlargements of the Major Arcana of the Rider Tarot deck. "Not my cup of tea."
"And you, Miss Komack?" Sprenger asked.
"My grandfather was one of the co-founders," she informed him, bringing his attention to the large silver seal ring she was wearing on her left hand. The seal depicted a woman bearing a bundle of wheat, the sign of Virgo. Henderson wore one too, only his ring had a goat with a fish's tail as its seal - Capricorn.
"My father is the present chairman of the board of trustees," she continued.
"What else does he do?" McGruder asked.
"Whatever he wants, mostly," she informed him with a smile. "He has an art gallery in New York, one in London, and one in Paris. He's involved in a number of business ventures in Europe and in the United States."
"And you work for SHADO," Sprenger observed.
"I have a brother who's a captain in the United States Navy, another brother runs an inn in France. I have an MBA from MIT and I'm running a film studio these days. We're a well-diversified family, Colonel."
"And what do they know of SHADO?"
"What should they know?" Komack asked. She was no longer smiling.
"Colonel Sprenger," Henderson interrupted. "We came here to have dinner and to discuss the liaison situation, not the Komack family businesses."
"My apologies, sir," Sprenger responded. "I merely wanted to find out what type of persons SHADO has as its senior officers. As I said this morning, I was never sanguine about the lady joining Colonel Straker's little elite group."
"Our dossiers are on file, if you're interested," Freeman told him, voice cold.
"Yes, I have checked them," said Sprenger. "You joined Straker's little group after four years with MI5. Before that, you were with the RAF, a combat pilot with single and multiple engine ratings. An exemplary record that you threw away to join Straker's private little army."
Any further discussion was interrupted by the arrival of the waitress with their meal. Another round of drinks was ordered. The food was excellent, as always. McGruder even complimented the poached salmon.
"Miss Komack, do you believe this mumbo-jumbo?" Sprenger probed sharply after the dessert tray had come and gone.
"Colonel, one of the foremost rules of the Zodiac concerns the right of each member to hold to their own beliefs without fear of ridicule or persecution," Komack told him. Her expression was mild as she watched for Sprenger's reaction.
McGruder interrupted before Sprenger had a chance to reply. "Jim, I was thinking it might be a good idea if we had Sprenger here manage that liaison slot you mentioned earlier."
Henderson simply raised one bushy eyebrow and waited for McGruder to continue.
"He knows something about your operation and he certainly knows how I like to run things," McGruder explained.
"I'll pass the recommendation on to the committee," Henderson promised.
Any additional comment was interrupted by the arrival of the steward with a telephone. He plugged the instrument into a phone jack set into the floor, then placed it on the table. "An urgent call for you, General," he told Henderson.
Henderson picked up the receiver: "Henderson." He listened for a few moments, then: "We'll be right over."
There was a worried frown on his face as he hung up the receiver. He beckoned the steward to remove the instrument.
"What's wrong, Jim?" McGruder asked.
Henderson shook his head. When he replied, it was to Freeman and Komack: "That was Foster. He's over at Mayland. Straker's in surgery right now. They're not sure what happened."
Komack and Freeman were out of their seats almost before Henderson had finished speaking.
"We'll meet you over there." Freeman told him, then he followed Komack out of the room at a near run.
* * *
The drive from the club to Mayland hospital proceeded in near silence. Both Freeman and Komack were touched with the guilty feeling that whatever the problem at the hospital was, it might have been avoided had one of them been there.
"Hello, Alec," Foster greeted as they got off the elevator on Mayland's third floor.
"Paul, what happened?" Freeman asked as Foster led the way to the surgical unit waiting area.
Foster shook his head. "We're not sure, but it looks like he tried to kill himself. One of the nurses came to investigate the alarms and he slashed her arm up pretty badly."
"Why, for God's sake?" Freeman demanded.
"Your guess is as good as mine," Foster informed him. "Security's looking into it, and we've got the security tape from his room. It looks like he had some visitors before it happened. Maybe he said something, or one of them noticed something.
"He's in surgery now," Foster continued. "Frazer said the wounds weren't as bad as they looked. He managed to miss all the vital organs." Foster paused as he inspected Freeman's dinner jacket. "How was dinner?"
"All right, I guess," Freeman responded.
A plain-clothes SHADO security man walked up to the three officers. He was carrying a manila envelope and two video tape cartridges.
"What have we got?" Foster asked.
"Here are the security tapes from his room," the security man, Arbuthnot, said. "We can run them back through the video machine in the visitors' area."
"Let's see it, then," Freeman instructed.
The SHADO operative led them to a nearby waiting room. He pushed the first tape into the video machine below the rack mounted television monitor.
"This is the end of the first tape," Arbuthnot explained as a picture came on the screen. "This is the visitor coming into the room." On the tape, Straker appeared to be asleep as a middle-aged woman walked in. Suddenly, the video picture tore and then went black.
"That's the end of that recording," the security man explained.
He pressed the eject button and replaced the first tape with the second. "There's about fifteen minutes between that and this."
"Why is that?" Freeman wondered.
Arbuthnot sighed. "That's one of the things we're looking into, sir. It shouldn't have happened. The machines were synchronized to have a one minute overlap during change-over. Naturally, the problem occurred at just the time this 'incident' happened." He started the machine and the second tape began to play.
This time, Straker was obviously awake. He was struggling with a woman in a light colored uniform. Dark blood stained the bed covers and splattered the floor. There was something shiny in Straker's right hand and he brought it down on her arm. More blood stained the covers. Two male orderlies ran into the room and proceeded to subdue him, forcing the object out of his hand. It fell to the floor as Straker stopped struggling and collapsed back into the bed. The expression on his face of one of blind terror.
Komack shuddered and turned off the machine.
"Is this all we have?" Freeman asked. There was slight tremor in his voice.
"We do have this blowup from the first security tape, sir," Arbuthnot said, handing Freeman the envelope. "We're checking with the hospital staff to identify the woman."
Freeman pulled a photograph from the envelope and inspected it. Foster looked over his shoulder. The picture was of an attractive woman of indeterminate age. It was hard to say from the black-and-white print, but her hair looked to be a light brown or ash blonde.
Freeman swore to himself and handed the photograph to Foster. Komack peered over his arm at the print.
"This is Mary Rutland," Komack announced.
"You know her?" Foster sounded surprised.
"Yes, she's Ed's ex-wife," Komack informed him. "Her mother's a patient here, up on nine."
"We'll get someone out to talk to her," Foster said.
Komack shook her head, "No, I'll do it." She paused, glancing at Freeman's stony expression. She turned back at Foster. "Do you want to come along?"
Mary Rutland lived with her husband and year-old daughter in a large cottage about thirty miles from the studio and the hospital. Despite being so late, there were several lights showing through the windows of the main floor when Foster and Komack drove up.
"Let me handle the questions, okay?" Komack asked as they got out of Foster's Corvette.
"Sure." Foster didn't mind. "By the way, why did you ask me to come out here with you, instead of Alec?"
Komack closed the car door. "This is a very difficult situation, Paul."
"I noticed Alec's reaction to her picture," Foster said. "He doesn't seem to like her much."
"No, he doesn't," Komack admitted. "I asked you because I felt you would be a more objective observer, considering the circumstances."
"Thank you, I think," replied Foster. He knocked on the front door to the cottage. There was the sound of movement inside and the door opened.
A heavy set, bearded man opened the door.
"Hello, Katie," the man said, recognizing Komack. "What a surprise, we didn't know you were over here." He noticed the grim expression on her face. "What's going on?"
"Hello, Steven," Komack said. "We need to talk to Mary. It's important."
"Steven? Who is it?" A woman's voice called. It was the woman from the photograph. Foster noted that the picture hadn't really done her justice. Her hair was ash blonde. Her eyes matched the pale blue of her night dress.
"It's Kate Komack," Steven said. "She says it's important."
"Kate, have you any idea what time it is?" Mary Rutland asked.
"I do know what time it is. And yes, I'm afraid there is something wrong," Komack told her.
Mary seated herself in an overstuffed chair. She gestured for Foster and Komack to sit on the sofa opposite the chair. Her husband came and stood behind her.
"Mary and Steven Rutland." Komack introduced. "This is Paul Foster, from work." She paused, considering her approach. "Mary, I need to talk to you about Ed."
Mary Rutland's expression froze. "I thought we agreed after Johnny died that we'd never discuss Ed Straker."
"You leave me no choice. You were in his room this evening at the hospital," Komack said. "We have the tapes from the nurses' monitors."
"You know, it's been nearly two years since Johnny died," Mary said. There was a catch in her voice and she clasped her hands together so tightly her knuckles turned white.
"Yes, I know," Komack said.
"I've been in therapy for the past year, trying to learn to deal with it," the woman explained. Her husband began to massage her shoulders.
"Mary, you don't have to tell her this, you know," he told her.
"Yes, she does," Komack contradicted. Rutland looked at her in surprise. "Either we talk about this now, or you both talk to the authorities later."
"Why?" he demanded. "What happened?"
"Steven, it's all right," Mary said, patting her husband's hand. She turned back to Komack. "My therapist suggested about a month ago that now would be a good time to talk to Ed about Johnny's death, about what happened. I called Ed's office at the studios several times, but he never got back to me."
"So you decided to visit him in the hospital?" Foster asked.
"Yes, I was at the hospital anyway, to see my mother. Her surgery was this morning. I thought I'd drop in and see how Ed was doing, talk to him," the woman said. She clasped her hands together nervously. "I figured that if he was confined to a hospital bed, he wouldn't be getting any calls to leave suddenly."
Mary Rutland looked upset. "Ed was never there when I needed him. He was always having to leave. Even when Johnny was born, he had to leave. He couldn't even stick around the night Johnny died."
As she spoke, her voice became more shrill, more venomous. She paused to take a deep breath and regain control of herself.
"This time, he was there, but he still wasn't," she continued, more calmly. "It was like there was a wall around him I couldn't get through. He didn't say a word, just kept staring off into space. I'm afraid I lost my temper. I finally got up the courage to face him and he still wasn't there!" She started to cry.
"What did you say to him?" Komack asked.
"I don't remember, exactly," Mary admitted. "I think I called him some names. I just don't remember." She looked over at Komack suddenly worried. "Kate, did something happen after I left?"
Komack didn't answer the question directly. "Mary, did you hand Ed anything that might have been used as a weapon, a knife or a pen, anything like that?"
"What sort of question is that?" Rutland asked.
His wife shook her head. "Of course I didn't. Why?"
"While you were on his floor, did you notice anything odd, or out of place? A person who didn't fit in?" Komack asked.
"Something did happen, didn't it?" Mary said.
"Please answer the question, Mrs. Rutland," Foster said. "Did you notice anything when you were there?"
"No," she said, shaking her head. Then she stopped, her forehead creasing in a frown. "No, wait, there was something. There was a man in a lab coat waiting by the elevators. I got the weirdest, sort of clammy, feeling when I looked at him. It was creepy." She shuddered slightly at the memory. "Like someone walked on my grave."
"Would you recognize him if you saw him again?" Foster asked.
"Yes, I think so," Mary replied. "As a matter of fact, I thought I did recognize him, but then I remembered it was impossible."
"Why?" Foster asked.
"He looked like Ed's old air force buddy, Craig, but I thought he died a couple months ago. Some sort of accident," Mary Rutland answered, speaking to Komack.
"Yes, Collins' plane disappeared over the ocean. No trace," Komack affirmed. "Did you try to talk to the man?"
"No, when I left Ed's room, he was gone," she said. "Kate, what's happened?"
"A little more than an hour ago, Ed Straker tried to kill himself. He injured one of the nurses who came to stop him," Komack answered.
"Why would he want to kill himself?" Steven Rutland demanded. "The man's a brass-plated SOB. That kind doesn't commit suicide."
"You don't know him very well," Komack replied. There were daggers in her ice green eyes. She turned back to Mary. "Did it ever occur to you, or your therapist, that maybe Ed wasn't ready to deal with Johnny's death? Not right now? Did it ever occur to you that there might have been a good reason he wasn't returning your calls?" Komack's voice became harsh and bitter. "One of Ed's closest friends just died and you want to go and open old wounds?"
Foster put a hand on her arm. "Kate, calm down," he said quietly.
She took a deep breath. "I agreed not to discuss him with you because I knew how much you hurt because of what happened between the two of you," Komack said more calmly. "But, I am sick and tired of the blame you've been heaping on him since. He wouldn't defend himself even when he could and now you attack him when he can't. You fight dirty, Mary Jeanne Rutland."
Steven Rutland moved to defend his wife. "Katie, I know you're in love with him, but what kind of man spends the night with another woman when his wife's eight months pregnant?"
"And what makes you think any of those allegations are even true?" Komack shot back.
"Ed didn't contest the evidence at the divorce proceedings," Mary pointed out.
"Of course not," Komack said. "But it wasn't because it was true. You married a brilliant, dedicated, high ranking officer in American air force intelligence. He was assigned a highly classified job that required him to work sixteen hours a day, seven days a week."
"A job that was more important to him than his wife?" Mary wondered, voice trembling.
"A job that was, and is, more important to him than his own life," Komack answered.
"I can't believe any business is that important," Steven said. "He runs a movie company, for God's sake."
"Does he? Mary never saw his discharge papers. She never saw any checks for the pension he should have been receiving even with an early retirement," Komack stated, very quietly. Ruland suddenly looked puzzled and uncertain.
"There were pictures," Mary protested. "And he accepted the blame in the divorce."
"Mary, do you know what happened to the detective your mother hired to follow Ed ten years ago?" Komack asked, suddenly very quiet.
"No, I don't," Mary admitted. "I never heard from him after he turned over the pictures and the observation notes."
Komack gave her a bitter smile. "You didn't hear from him because he was found floating, face down, in the Thames about a week later."
"How do you know that?" Rutland demanded.
Komack ignored Rutland's question and continued to address his wife. "The official report said he'd been stabbed and robbed, his body thrown into the river."
"Did Ed know about it?" Mary asked.
"Yes, he did," she told her. "The man's name was Thorndyke and he knew a lot more than he told you, such as, Ed was never alone with the woman you accused him of sleeping with. Thorndyke tried to take advantage of the other things he found out and died for it. It took a while, but Ed finally took the hint and moved out on you. It damn near killed him, but he didn't have much of a choice. It was either walk away from you or let you be killed and maybe Johnny with you. The people he works for aren't always real particular about niceties like that."
Mary Rutland went pale. "Why didn't he ever say anything? I might have understood."
"That would have been signing your death warrant," Komack replied quietly. "He loved you enough to leave you to save your life. You returned the favor by twisting the knife in his heart every chance you got. You took away his son's name. You even denied him the right to attend his own son's funeral and he let you do it. I hope you're pleased with yourself. He may not live through the night." Komack's voice had become an angry hiss.
Mary Rutland had tears running down her face. "He never said anything. He never once said a word."
"Of course not," Komack told her. "And you wouldn't have believed him if he had."
"Why should we believe you now?" wondered Rutland.
"Frankly, I no longer care if you do or not," Komack replied.
Foster's pager buzzed and he pulled it from his jacket pocket. He noted the number on the tiny gray screen. "Is there a phone I can use?" he asked Rutland.
Rutland nodded. "There's one on the table by the door."
With a nod of thanks, Foster went over to the phone and placed a call. He listened briefly, then hung up.
"Ed's out of surgery. We should get back."
Rutland followed Komack and Foster to the door. "Look, I'm sorry Straker's having so much trouble." He actually looked contrite.
"I'm sorry I got Mary so upset," Komack responded. "But after what's happened tonight, I can't let it go on. Ed never meant to hurt her, ever."
"I know you believe that, even if I don't," Rutland assured her.
"Steven, in all the years you've been married to her, in all the years Ed came on visitations to see his son, you never once actually talked to him, did you?"
"I never saw much point in it," admitted Rutland. "He was Johnny's father and he had his rights. I didn't have to like it, I just had to accept it. There's no law that says I have to like my wife's ex-husband."
"No, there isn't," Komack agreed stiffly. "But you didn't have to go out of your way to hurt him, did you?"
Once again, the troubled look came into the man's face.
Foster pulled a business card from his wallet and handed it to Rutland. "If Mrs. Rutland happens to remember anything more about what happened at the hospital, she can leave a message at that number."
"I'll make sure she gets this," Steven Rutland promised.
Moments later, Foster and Komack were in the Corvette, heading back to Mayland Hospital.
"I'm not sure I was much help," Foster commented. "You got pretty upset in there."
"You were more help than you realize," Komack told him. "Alec would have lost it worse than I did. Alec can be quite protective of Ed."
Foster considered her comment, then: "I hadn't realized Ed's divorce was so bitter."
"Oh, yes," Komack replied. "He lost nearly everything he had in the settlement and he never said a word in protest. Mary turned around and found a nice, dependable man in the construction trade who didn't work all hours of the day and night and who was willing to take care of her and her son."
"That was the 'Johnny' you were talking about?"
"Their son. John died nearly two years ago. He was eight and a half years old," she told him. "He was hit by a car in front of the house, died a few hours later at the hospital. Mary blamed Ed for his death."
"Why? What could he have done about it?" Foster wondered.
"I'm not clear on the details of the accident, but I know SHADO was on alert that night. Ed couldn't stay at the hospital with them, and the arrangements he'd made for a special drug to be flown in from New York fell through because of the alert," Komack told him. "I got a copy of the autopsy report, later. The drug wouldn't have saved the boy in any case. If he had lived, he would have ended up a vegetable. But, she still blames him for it all."
"You seem to know her pretty well." Foster observed.
"I'm the one who first introduced them. She worked for my father in his London gallery. She was an art buyer, a very good one." Komack smiled at a far off memory. "We roomed together the year I went to Oxford. When Ed's assignment with my uncle kept him in England, I talked him into bringing a buddy along on a date. As a matter of fact, it was Craig Collins."
"I've never seen anybody fall so hard so fast for anybody in my entire life as Ed did for Mary. Craig ended up driving me home and neither of us saw hide nor hair of either of them for nearly three days. They drove to Scotland on a lark. Four months later, they were married."
"That was fast work," Foster commented.
"If they'd had their way, they'd've eloped in Scotland."
"What stopped them?"
"Ed had to have permission and since he was marrying a non-citizen, it took a little time. Then Mary's mother insisted they have a proper wedding, church and all. That also takes time."
"And now she hates him?" Foster asked.
"Bitterly angry is probably more accurate," Komack said. "She's always refused to understand that Ed's not the villain of the piece. He's as much a victim in this ugly mess as she is."
"So, you haven't talked about it until tonight."
"I was trying to keep a certain amount of peace." Komack said. "I'm sure I'll regret losing my temper like that."
"You took a big risk telling them as much as you did, especially in front of me," Foster pointed out.
"I didn't tell Mary anything she didn't already know, except for the part about Thorndyke being killed," Komack explained.
"Was that true? Did SHADO have him killed?"
"Thorndyke has the dubious honor of being the only civilian SHADO has ever carried out a termination order on," Komack said.
"And Ed's the one who gave the order?"
"Oh no," Komack said with a quick shake of her head. "General Henderson signed the order. Alec Freeman counter-signed it. Ed actually tried to stop it when he found out, but it was too late."
The car phone buzzed and Foster picked it up. "Foster." He listened for a moment, then handed the receiver to Komack. "It's for you. Amanda Henderson?"
Komack took the instrument. "Yes?"
"Esther woke up screaming about two hours ago," Foster heard a woman's voice say over the phone. "When I finally got her calmed down, she demanded I find you. Jim's office finally traced you down to this number."
"Has she gone back to bed?" Komack asked.
"No," Mrs. Henderson replied. "She insists on talking to you first. Considering how upset she is, I wasn't going to argue."
"Okay, put her on," Komack replied with a smile.
"Mommy?" a child's voice said over the phone.
"Yes, Esther," Komack responded. "Were you looking for me?"
"A nightmare came and scared me," the child said. "A big man was trying to hurt you and Daddy."
"What did the man look like?"
"I don't know, but he was big and he didn't have any light around him, and that was real scary."
"But dreams can't hurt you, you know." Komack said.
"I know that, but it was still scary," the child insisted.
"Esther, I want you to do what Grandma Amanda tells you and go back to bed," Komack ordered. "I'll see you in the morning."
"Okay, Mommy," the child agreed. "But watch out for that big bad man, okay?"
Komack smiled. "I promise. Can I talk to Grandma Amanda again?"
Mrs. Henderson came back on the line.
"I'll pick her up in the morning, okay?" Komack said.
"Don't worry about it, Kathryn. Esther can stay with us as long as you need her to. Jim and I have plenty of room and she hasn't been any trouble until tonight," the woman assured her. "It's kind of fun, taking care of a little one after all this time and Jim has been spoiling her unmercifully. We've never had a grand-daughter before."
"I guess you are the closest thing she's got to grand-parents. My father isn't exactly the grand-father type," said Komack.
"Nick's never exactly been the father type. Besides, Jim may disown you if you take Esther away from him." Mrs. Henderson said.
Komack replaced the receiver on its console. She was smiling.
"The 'Jim' Mrs. Henderson was talking about, that wouldn't be 'James L.' Henderson, would it?" Foster asked.
"Yes, as a matter of fact, it is," Komack admitted. "Don't get the idea it makes my life easier. It doesn't."
Foster grinned and shrugged. "Knowing Straker and Henderson, I didn't really think it would. Elizabeth Kathryn Komack, only daughter of Nicolas and Eva Komack," Foster quoted. "Father is a retired CIA section chief, owns several art galleries. Mother is deceased. You joined SHADO immediately after graduating fourth in your class from MIT's MBA program, including a year at Oxford."
"You finally checked my personnel file," Komack commented.
Foster nodded once. "You left SHADO headquarters rather suddenly a bit more than five years ago. Five months later, your daughter, Esther Krystin, was born in San Francisco. Your file doesn't name her father, which is a little strange considering, but I gather it's Ed Straker. Is that why you left? He wouldn't marry you?"
"I wouldn't marry him," she corrected. "SHADO is a very jealous mistress. It doesn't tolerate divided loyalties. Ed tried it once and it nearly destroyed him. I chose not to put him in that position again."
"What about now?" Foster wondered. "Aren't you putting yourself in that position?"
"I've spent five years as a single parent," She said. "I promised myself before Esther was born that she would have at least a real mother, if not a father. Maybe I was being selfish, wanting everything or nothing. My mother died when I was little. My father was never around. Ed's getting sick like this has put things into perspective, I guess. I can't make him change. I can't make SHADO change, so if my daughter's to have what I didn't, and what she needs, I have to change. I have to learn to share."
The car turned into the parking lot at Mayland Hospital and Foster pulled into a space near the emergency entrance. They got out and entered the building, heading for the main elevators.
The elevator arrived and they stepped in, the doors closing behind them. Foster pressed the button for the third floor.
"Kate, do you think his ex-wife's visit could have made him feel guilty enough about that whole mess, and his son's death, that it finally pushed him over the edge?" Foster asked. "I mean, he was pretty depressed about Collins' death before the problem with Turner landed him in the hospital. It could have been the last straw."
"I don't know, Paul. It's possible," Komack admitted. "But, let me ask you this: if Mary didn't hand him the weapon, where did he get it? He was hooked to the monitors, bed rails up. He shouldn't have been able to sneeze without half-a-dozen alarms going off."
"He used a scalpel on the nurse," Foster said. "But, you're right. Even if his wounds were all self-inflicted, someone else had to have given the scalpel to him."
"Precisely," Komack agreed. "Now, who gave him the scalpel and wanted it to look like a suicide?"
"Someone who looks like Craig Collins?" Foster speculated.
"Someone who gives people the creeps. Someone without any 'light' around him," Komack added.
"You're taking a child's nightmare seriously?" Foster asked in disbelief.
"Paul, Esther's nightmares have an uncanny reality to them. Sometimes she scares even me," Komack told him. "But, as to what really happened, and why, there's only one person who can tell us."
"Ed Straker," Foster answered.
The elevator doors opened onto the surgical floor. Foster and Komack entered the hallway to find Henderson, McGruder and Sprenger standing with Freeman and Doctor Jacob Frazer of SHADO. Frazer was still in his surgical jumper and booties.
"He's conscious, now," Frazer was saying as they approached. "But, he is extremely weak, confused and combative. I hesitate to use any sedation, because he's so weak."
"Is he going to be all right?" Henderson asked.
"Physically, yes. Aside from the blood loss, his injuries weren't all that serious."
"Can we talk to him?" Sprenger asked.
"I wouldn't advise it," Frazer said. "He's still very weak."
"Jake, we need to ask him some questions about what happened," Freeman insisted.
"Very well, but you can only stay for a few minutes," the SHADO physician reluctantly agreed. He opened the double doors behind him, letting Freeman past him. Komack cut in front of Foster and Sprenger to follow Freeman through the doors.
Straker was lying on one of the six narrow beds in the recovery room. There were no other patients. A nurse was keeping an eye on the monitors at her station. She looked up to watch as the doors opened and Freeman and Frazer and the others entered.
Straker's eyes were open, but he didn't seem to see Komack or Freeman as they stepped over to the side of his bed. His right hand was clenched into a fist. His left hand and wrist were bandaged and splinted. Both wrists were in heavily padded nylon restraints, but he didn't seem to notice that, either.
"Ed?" Komack called. Her voice caught Straker's attention. He looked up at her, a pained expression on his face. He didn't speak.
"Ed, what happened?" Freeman asked.
Straker shook his head.
"Who hurt you, Ed?" Komack asked. Behind her, Foster and Sprenger moved closer to the recovery bed.
Straker caught sight of them and began to tremble violently. His face, already pale, went ashen and he began muttering: "They've ordered him to destroy us." His voice was hoarse. "He's dead. Why is he here? Why doesn't he stay dead?" He began struggling against the restraints. Freeman grabbed his shoulders to keep him down on the bed, to keep him from hurting himself further.
Henderson gestured for Sprenger to leave, then took the officer's arm when Sprenger didn't move. He motioned for McGruder to follow them.
Frazer hurried over to the locked drug cabinet set into the wall and retrieved a vial and a hypodermic. Despite his earlier qualms concerning sedation, the physician injected the drug into one of the intravenous lines.
The drug took effect with surprising speed. As Freeman watched, the blond man's eyes closed and he relaxed, although his breathing was still ragged and he was still tearfully muttering: "He's dead and he's going to destroy everything."
"Who is dead?" Komack asked quietly. Straker didn't seem to hear her.
"You'd better go," Frazer told them.
Komack ignored him: "Ed, who is dead?"
"Him," was Straker's only response.
"You'd better go," Frazer said, more forcefully this time. "I'll notify you if his condition changes."
Generals Henderson and McGruder were waiting outside in the hallway with Sprenger. Henderson turned to Komack and Freeman.
"What was that all about in there?"
"I'm not sure," Freeman replied.
"I assume this paranoia is a manifestation of Colonel Straker's illness, whatever that may be," Sprenger stated.
"Doctor Frazer didn't say," Komack responded.
"But surely even you consider attempted suicide as evidence of mental illness," Sprenger insisted. "Illness severe enough to warrant his replacement as C-in-C?"
"Colonel Sprenger, you're making some serious charges here and I'm not altogether convinced that's what happened here tonight," Henderson said.
"Jim, the evidence is pretty obvious," McGruder said. "The man's out of his mind."
"That man has been critically ill for nearly a week, and just came out of emergency surgery," Henderson stated. "I think it's a little early to be insisting he be replaced for psychiatric reasons."
"Is that your final word on the subject, General?" Sprenger insisted.
"Yes, Colonel, it is. Do you have a problem with that?"
"Of course not, General," Sprenger responded. "It is your decision, after all."
The following morning, James Henderson entered the reception area of his own office at the London headquarters of the International Astrophysical Commission.
"Good morning, General," his secretary, greeted. "Monsieur Duvall called a few minutes ago. He said he needed to speak with you, urgently."
"Did he say about what?" Henderson asked.
"No, sir, only that it was extremely urgent."
Henderson's eyebrows drew together in a frown. "Get him for me. I'll see what it's about."
"Yes, sir." Miss Scott picked up the telephone from her desk. She was interrupted as the outer door slammed open and Emil Duvall blasted in. His round face was red with exertion.
"General Henderson, I need to speak with you, now!" Duvall stated. He led the way into Henderson's office. Henderson simply followed him in, giving his secretary a tiny shrug of resignation.
Duvall flopped into a chair as Henderson took his seat behind the desk.
"What's wrong?" Henderson asked. Duvall pulled out a handkerchief and mopped his face, tucking the cloth untidily back into his pocket.
"I received a very disturbing telephone call this morning, from a man calling himself Sprenger," Duvall explained. "He claims that you and General McGruder of NATO have assigned him to be the liaison officer between SHADO and NATO."
"McGruder has requested Sprenger be named to the position," Henderson said. "I told him I would take the recommendation under advisement."
"You did not make this appointment?" Duvall insisted.
"Of course not," Henderson said. "I would hardly make an appointment of that nature without consulting the Commission, and SHADO's commanding officer, first."
Duvall nodded and straightened up in his chair. "I see... SHADO's commanding officer?" He grimaced and began to methodically clean his glasses with his handkercheif. "This Colonel Sprenger also told me that Commander Straker was much too ill to return to duty and a new commander needed to be appointed as soon as possible. He said that Straker was psychotic and suicidal."
Duvall studied Henderson for a long moment, as if trying to read something from the old man's face.
"Is it true, General? Should Commander Straker be removed?" Duvall asked when Henderson failed to respond.
"As I told Sprenger last night, I think replacing Straker may be a bit premature," Henderson said. "We're still not altogether sure what's wrong with him."
"Sprenger seemed very concerned that Commander Straker be replaced as soon as possible. For the sake of SHADO's mission."
"I assume he put forward McGruder as the best possible replacement," Henderson said.
Duvall nodded, putting his dark rimmed glasses back on his face.
Henderson sighed. "It's true that Straker is extremely ill. It is also true that he was showing signs of severe psychological strain before he became ill."
Duvall opened his mouth the speak but Henderson put up a hand to stop him. "However, there is every reason to believe that he will recover fully and he will be able to resume his duties with SHADO."
"This Colonel Sprenger seemed very certain that Straker would never be able to return to his duties. He also seemed to feel the strain of commanding SHADO would be too much for a man of your advanced years."
"My advanced years?" Henderson repeated. He was a few years older than Duvall and, except for the limp, in excellent health. He hardly considered himself to be of advanced years. "Duvall, who else has Sprenger talked to this morning?"
"General Putin, Kruger and myself, as far as I know. They both called me to ask about the man. I still have certain friends who tell me things," Duvall admitted with a smile.
"And what do your friends say about Sprenger?"
"He is McGruder's assistant. There is some speculation that he arranged McGruder's appointment to NATO operations. There is also speculation in some circles, that his methods were less than scupulously honest."
"Did your friends also tell you that Sprenger hates Ed Straker's guts?"
"They mentioned that, yes."
Henderson gave a long sigh. "Duvall, as a senior member of the commission, you have the right to call an emergency meeting to replace Straker as commander-in-chief of SHADO. As I'm sure you remember, it will take a unanimous vote of the full commission to do so."
"I'm telling you now, as chairman of the commission, I will not support such a vote prior to Straker being declared permanently unfit for duty by SHADO's medical staff."
Duvall shrugged. "Then there is little point to discussing the matter. Although, there are some on the Commission who might welcome replacing Straker. He has a habit of being quite annoying."
"People who make a habit of being right against all odds are usually annoying. That doesn't stop them from being right."
"I thought you were one the people he annoyed most often?" Duvall asked with a hint of smile.
"What can I say?" Henderson wondered, returning Duvall's smile. "He's an obstinant son of a bitch with a one track mind. He's also brilliant and the perfect man for the job. Why do you think I sent him to make the presentation to the special committee twelve years ago?"
"I had always assumed your injuries made it difficult for you to travel at the time," Duvall said.
Henderson shook his head. "I sent him for the same reason I talked him into working for me in the first place, fifteen years ago. If I could convince him the danger was real with the evidence I had back then, I could convince anybody. He was also the one man I knew who'd be able to handle the job, despite the odds." Henderson's expression became more solemn. "I don't want to lose him."
"General, what shall I tell this Colonel Sprenger when he asks about the Commission's decision?"
"Tell him we're taking his recommendation under 'advisement'," Henderson said. "We can always change our minds later."
"And his belief he has been appointed as liaison officer to SHADO?"
"My granddaddy used to say, 'If you gotta live with a rattlesnake, make sure it's where you can keep an eye on it'."
* * *
Friday, Foster and Virginia Lake drove out to Mayland from the studios. Frazer had reported that Straker might be lucid enough to answer a few simple questions.
Foster and Lake arrived on the seventh floor a little past 10:30. A broad shouldered man with sandy hair was just leaving Straker's room as they got off the elevator. He wore a white lab coat and was pushing a medication cart in front of him.
The two SHADO officers identified themselves to the security guard seated by Straker's door. He told them that Freeman had just left to head into work.
The guard watched as Foster knocked on the open door. With some trepidation Foster stepped into the room, Lake following close behind him.
"Commander?" the young man called quietly. Straker seemed to be asleep. His eyes were closed and he was very pale. There was an odd puffiness around his eyes and lips. Lake glanced at the monitors on the equipment rack beside the bed.
Both SHADO officers had ample experience reading monitors of various types and making rapid decisions based on what they saw. What they saw on the hospital monitors made Lake run to the door and scream for a nurse while Foster checked for a pulse at Straker's throat.
The electrocardiograph screen showed the jagged irregularity of ventricular fibrillation. Straker's pulse was non-existent and he wasn't breathing.
Foster called to Lake to help as he tried to begin mouth to mouth resuscitation. But Straker's throat was swollen shut. No air could get past.
A moment later, one of the floor nurses came running in. She took in the scene in front of her in a single glance. She pulled a small radio transceiver from her pocket and spoke into it. Her voice was repeated on speakers throughout the hospital: "Code One, seven-two-three, Code One, seven-two-three, Doctor Frazer, seven-two-three, stat."
She didn't wait for acknowledgment, but pushed Foster away so she could begin work. "Get out," she ordered. The two SHADO officers complied, going to stand outside the open door.
After what seemed like an eternity, but was really only half a minute, the Code One team came running in with the cardio-pulmonary-resuscitation cart. One of the team members tripped over a small trash can beside the guard's chair, sending its contents skittering across the white linoleum floor. Lake turned the trash can upright and began to pick up its contents.
Shortly, Foster and Lake heard the distinctive crack of a defribrillator. Moments after that, they heard team leader announce: "We have sinus rhythm, blood pressure one hundred over sixty."
By the time Doctor Frazer arrived, the team was packing up its equipment. The floor nurse had already checked the intravenous lines and dressings and had started double-checking the various monitors.
"What happened?" Frazer asked Foster as the emergency team left. The physician beckoned Foster and Lake to accompany him inside.
"When we came in, he wasn't breathing," Foster explained. "Virginia called the nurse and I tried to start C.P.R." He glanced at Straker's inert form on the bed. There was a gauze bandage tied to Straker's throat with string. The bandage covered a plastic fitting that hadn't been there before.
"Is he going to be okay?" Foster asked worriedly.
Frazer's answer was interrupted by the nurse, who beckoned him aside. "Doctor, the cardiac alarms were turned off."
"Could it have been an accident?"
She shook her head. "No, Doctor, not both alarms at once."
Frazer sighed, pursing his thin lips together as he considered what he knew. He dismissed the nurse with a brief 'thank you, that was good work', and she left to resume her other duties.
"Doctor," Lake called. She moved over to him, carefully holding a small drug vial in a handkerchief. "I found this on the floor."
Frazer took the vial, carefully cradling it in the cloth, and read the label. Ampicillin.
"Damn," Frazer muttered. He looked up at Lake and Foster. "Did you see anyone when you came in here?"
Lake thought for a moment. "Yes, there was a man in a white lab coat leaving the room with a cart when we came out of the elevator."
"Did you see his face?"
"No," Foster replied. "But, the guard must have checked him through. Do you think he did this?"
"It's possible," the SHADO physician admitted. He wrapped the vial in the handkerchief and handed it to Lake. "Get this to security for prints and analysis, please, Colonel."
"What is that?" Foster asked.
"The label says it's Ampicillin," Frazer responded. He turned to check on his patient. Straker was beginning to stir a little.
"But, that's an antibiotic, isn't it?" Foster asked.
"One man's meat is another man's poison, Colonel," Frazer said. "Anaphylactic shock can kill just as thoroughly as a bullet." The physician completed his brief examination, noting his observations on the noteboard he was carrying.
"I suppose we can't ask him any questions now," Foster said, disappointed.
In response, Frazer leaned closer to Straker's face. "Commander Straker, can you hear me?"
Straker opened his eyes at the sound of his name and looked around for the source as though half asleep. Recognition was slow in coming as he studied Frazer's face for a long moment.
"Paul Foster is here," Frazer explained. "He has some questions to ask you."
Straker tried to speak and was startled to discover he couldn't. The tracheotomy made it impossible. There was a frightened look in his eyes.
"It's all right, Ed," Frazer reassured him. "We had to put a tube in your throat to help you breath. You can't talk right now. Nod your head if you understand."
Straker nodded and some of the fear left his eyes.
Foster stepped closer to where Straker lay. "Ed? It's me, Paul. Can you answer a few questions? It's important."
Frazer handed Straker a tablet and pen. He struggled to sit up in the bed, holding the pen awkwardly in swollen hands.
"Ed, do you remember the night you needed surgery?" Foster began.
Straker nodded once, but there was a puzzled expression on his face.
"You had some visitors that night. We need to know who they were," Foster said, as gently as he could. "Can you write it down for us?"
Straker held the paper and pen a moment, then scrawled something illegible on the tablet. He stared at what he'd tried to write, then he threw the tablet away from him with a noiseless sob.
He curled up into a ball and buried his face in the mattress. A shudder convulsed his body when Foster touched his shoulder. Then, abruptly, Straker swung at him, pen clenched in his fist like a knife.
Foster jumped back in shocked surprise as the pen just grazed his arm. Straker raised his hand to strike again, but Foster grabbed his wrist, forcing his hand down while Frazer pryed the pen from his hand.
"Ed, why? What's wrong?" Foster demanded. There was no answer as Straker fell back. He curled up into a tight ball once more and buried his face in the mattress, sobbing silently.
"Paul, it might be better if you came back later, when he's recovered a bit more," the physician said.
"What's wrong with him?" Foster demanded. "Why did he attack me?"
Frazer gave a long worried sigh. "I'm not sure. Jackson thinks he may be suffering from ICU psychosis. Earlier in the week, he was convinced you and Virginia, and nearly everybody else at work, were dead."
"That's crazy!" Lake sputtered.
"Yes," Frazer agreed.
"How long will it take for him to snap out of this?" Lake asked.
"It's hard to say," Frazer admitted. "An hour ago, I would have said he was going to be fine. He seemed lucid enough when Freeman was here. He knew you were coming over this morning and he seemed to be looking forward to it."
"Then, what happened?" Lake demanded.
"Colonel Lake, that ampicillin wasn't an accident," Frazer said. His expression had turned grim. "Find out who gave it to him and you might have your answer." With that, Frazer turned his attention back to his frightened patient, murmuring comforting phrases as one might do with a small child.
Disheartened and worried, Foster left, Lake following close behind him.
They were surprised to find Colonel Sprenger waiting in the corridor. "Well, were you able to get anything out of him?" the American asked.
"No, I'm afraid not," Foster told him. "He's had a bad morning and he's pretty upset."
"Maybe I'll have better luck," Sprenger said, heading for the door.
"I don't think that's a good idea, Colonel," Foster said, moving to step in front of the door. He kept his voice low. "Commander Straker's very upset and unable to speak. Doctor Frazer's in there right now with him."
"You say he's unable to speak?"
"He was having trouble breathing. The emergency team had to do a tracheotomy," Foster explained, tone cool. "He literally can't talk now."
"Yes, I imagine that would be very upsetting for someone who likes to talk as much Straker does," Sprenger commented. He looked at the closed door. "I suppose I'll just have to come back later."
"Yes, I suppose you will," Foster agreed. He didn't move from his place in front of the hospital room door. "Of course, if we knew what you needed to talk to him about, we might be able to help, save you the trouble of coming back here."
"No, I don't think so," Sprenger said. He gave the door one last look before turning to head down the corridor to the elevators.
"What questions would our military liaison have for Commander Straker that he can't ask us?" Lake wondered aloud.
"I don't know," Foster replied.
"And why didn't you tell him that someone just tried to kill the commander?" Lake asked.
"I'm not sure," Foster admitted. "I guess I didn't think it was any of his business." He paused, frowning thoughtfully. "Hold on a minute, will you?"
Lake nodded. Foster stepped back into the room. Straker was still curled into a tight ball, but he was no longer shaking.
Frazer looked up. "Yes, Paul?"
"Doctor, I was going to suggest we keep quiet about that little incident before. He's not responsible for his actions right now, so why make anything of it?"
"I need to say something about it when I consult with Jackson," Frazer said. "Also when I make my report to Henderson."
"Why not just say he got very upset and leave it at that?" Foster asked.
Frazer took a long breath before saying: "All right Paul, I'll leave the attack out of my report to the general and out of the paperwork here. I still have to let Jackson know, though."
"Okay, Doc. Thanks. I owe you one," Foster said, leaving the room and closing the door behind him.
"General," Ford called as Henderson entered the SHADO control room later that afternoon. "We've been picking up some activity, right at the edge of SID's detection range. We finally have confirmation from Moonbase."
"Well, what is it?" Henderson demanded.
"It's hard to say, sir," Ford began cautiously. "But, it appears to be a massing of U.F.O.'s within the asteroid belt, a hundred fifty to two hundred million miles out. Ten, maybe fifteen units."
Foster came over and studied the tracking screen next to Ford's station.
Henderson glanced at him. "Well, Colonel, do you think this is the mass attack Straker was worried about?"
"Ten's a larger number than they usually use, but I wouldn't call it massive," Foster replied.
Henderson turned to Nina Barry, seated at a computer terminal nearby. The Moonbase operative was on rotation to Headquarters for the next eight weeks.
"How long would it take to get an observation platform out there?"
Barry typed the request into the keyboard in front of her. "At maximum velocity, we can have observation platform 'Watchdog' there in ten hours."
"Do it," Henderson ordered. "And notify Colonel Freeman."
The dark-skinned operative murmured acknowledgment of the orders and began to feed the instructions for the platform into the computer.
Henderson beckoned Foster and Lake to follow him into the commander's office.
"You don't think this is the big one?" he asked as soon as the door closed.
Foster shook his head. "Their last mass attack was over a year ago. Then, it was fifty of them and only three got through. Ten to fifteen, even twenty, we can handle without too much trouble with what we have."
"So, assuming they are planning something, this will be a feint, a test," Henderson said.
"Probably," Foster agreed. "At fifty, we were at the edge of our limits."
"What's the projection if they come up with a hundred fifty units or so?" Henderson asked.
Foster considered the question for a few moments before answering: "With a massing that large, we can expect Lunar defenses to knock out only about 10 percent before they reach the Earth's atmosphere."
"That would leave a hundred or more to be handled by twelve Sky-divers and ground defenses which were designed to protect specific installations," Henderson stated.
"Yes, sir," Foster agreed quietly. They looked up as the office door slid open and Freeman entered. He was accompanied by Kathryn Komack.
Henderson nodded acknowledgment of their arrival. "How are things going upstairs?"
"Not bad," Komack told him. "We should be able to get contract approval from the writers' union in a few days."
"So soon?" Henderson asked. "The papers are predicting a long strike."
Komack grinned. "In eleven years, Harlington-Straker Productions has never been struck. The company's always the first one to give in and agree to the union demands. I know it seems a little weird, but Ed has a reputation in the industry of being a strong union supporter. We're considered a good and honest shop to work for, even if upper management isn't always easily accessable."
"Virtually inaccessable is more accurate," Freeman quipped.
"Well, I'm glad that's being handled. We can't afford for our cover operation to be compromised," Henderson said. He quickly briefed them on the aliens' presence. Then he turned back to Foster and Lake: "What are these ten or so waiting for?"
Lake glanced at the computer printout in her hand and gave the others a sardonic grin. "A: reinforcements, B: bad weather to negate radar, or C: the non-functioning of Earth defenses, namely, SHADO Control."
Foster returned the grin. He remembered quite vividly the last time the computer came up with those same conclusions. Straker had been substantially less than pleased and had recommended adding castor oil to the program.
"The weather forecast for the next month has nothing to suggest anything severe enough to negate radar," Lake continued. "And their most recent attempt to cause the 'non-functioning' of SHADO control has failed."
"Has it?" Freeman wondered.
"We're still here," Lake observed. "Commander Straker destroyed the Ufo Turner was going to let through, and the disruption in our operation they must have been hoping for with his illness hasn't happened."
"Maybe that wasn't what they were after," Freeman suggested. "What if just getting Ed out of the way was what they were going for?"
"I don't buy it, Alec," Foster complained. "Straker's just one man. Important to SHADO, yes, but not indispensable. SHADO's getting along just fine without him."
"Yes, that's true," agreed Freeman. "But, Paul, since you came on board, how many times have the aliens attacked headquarters, down here?"
Foster thought a moment before answering: "Four, no, five times."
"Four times, and two successful attacks on Sky-diver units," Foster added before Freeman could ask.
"How many times in the past ten months or so?"
Foster had to think about that. "Except for an attack on Moonbase a month ago and the two lunar modules, none." It was a surprising realization.
"But, in the past seven months, there have been seven attempts on Ed's life." Freeman stated. "Three of them have been in the last ten days."
"So, there is a definite pattern," Lake said. "But, why?"
Komack shrugged and replied: "Obviously something happened seven months or so ago to make the aliens believe that Ed Straker specifically is a threat to them."
She looked speculatively at the others. "I've read the reports on the Croxley incident last March. I have a feeling there was a lot missing."
"You want to hear about Croxley?" Foster asked, suddenly uncomfortable. He didn't like talking about the incident.
"There may be something there none of you were aware of at the time," Komack explained. "Some clue that could help us now. The aliens appear to want Ed dead. There has to be a reason."
Foster took a deep breath. "Like the reports said, John Croxley's wife was killed when a Ufo deliberately crashed into their house. Croxley had E.S.P., which the aliens somehow augmented. Anyway, he managed to get details about SHADO from my mind, while I was in the hospital recovering from the injuries I got when the Ufo exploded. I guess Croxley blamed SHADO and Commander Straker for his wife's death. He wrote a whole dossier on SHADO and sent it to Ed as bait to lure him and Alec out so he could kill them."
"But he didn't succeed," Henderson pointed out.
"He didn't succeed because Paul showed up at the last possible second to stop him," explained Freeman.
"How did you know to go help them?" Henderson asked.
"I didn't," Foster admitted. "I'd had a horrible premonition regarding Croxley's house. Shroeder suggested I go out there and face down my problem with it. When I got there, I found Croxley ready to kill them both. I shot first and killed Croxley where he stood."
"Coincidence?" Henderson wondered.
"Straker tried pretty hard to convince me it was," Foster said. "Personally, I'm not sure."
"Croxley was a telepath," Komack observed thoughtfully. "That fits the overall pattern my people in San Francisco detected."
"The aliens are telepathic?" Lake said.
"Why not? We've never picked up any indication the aliens use radio or any other communications channel we can detect," Freeman said. "The way they controlled Astronaut Regan and med-tech Dawson last year suggested some sort of telepathic control."
"Sarah Bosenquet, too," Lake reminded him. She had been the secretary of a high ranking British naval officer and Foster had been very attracted to her. Then, it was discovered she was under the control of the aliens, feeding them classified information from her employer's office. SHADO had gotten involved to stop her. It had not been a pleasant situation.
"Dawson and Turner both had implanted devices in their heads, didn't they?" Henderson recalled.
"My people think it's an enhancement device of some sort, probably artificial telepathy or something like it," Komack said.
Foster looked thoughtful. "You know, the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that Straker didn't see me at that house until after I shot Croxley. He was surprised when Croxley died and he didn't want Alec or me to know it."
"Paul, you where in clear sight of both of us," Freeman reminded him.
"I know," Foster admitted. "But, I think he was concentrating on Croxley so hard, he may have blocked everything else out."
"Concentrating on what?" Lake wondered.
"Maybe he was blocking Croxley's E.S.P.," Foster suggested half seriously.
"It makes as much sense as anything else," Foster defended. "Maybe Straker has E.S.P., like Croxley did. Maybe they've figured it out. Maybe they're afraid he might be able to use it against them, somehow."
"That's an awful lot of 'maybes', Colonel," Henderson observed.
"You know, though, I used to kid Ed about things like that," Freeman mused. "He was always doing little weird things, like answering the phone before it would ring."
"And he knew that Sky-4 got that U.F.O., even though we were completely blacked out down here," Lake related, wondering. "You remember, Paul. When that Simmons woman got loose down here after Sky-Diver 3 was destroyed."
"Linda Simmons," Foster supplied the rest of the name. "Yes, I remember." That was not a happy memory, either. He had been assigned to investigate her involvement with a UFO incident and had fallen for her, hard. He still couldn't explain why he brought the woman to the studios that day even though he had known at the time that she was implicated in the murder of a policeman.
"But, E.S.P. doesn't explain Straker's reaction in the recovery room," Henderson said. "He seemed pretty upset at seeing you there, and Doctor Frazer said he was nearly hysterical this morning."
"Frazer described it as 'ICU psychosis'. Earlier this week, Ed apparently thought Virginia and I were both dead. He may have figured we were hallucinations or something. But, you're right, there may be more to it than that," Foster admitted.
"Like what?" Henderson demanded.
Foster and Freeman exchanged worried looks.
"Paul, Ed ordered the file on the incident closed and security sealed: Eyes only, by written and verified permission of the commander," Freeman informed him quietly.
"What file?" Henderson demanded.
Foster sighed, steeling himself for the worst. "Two months ago, right after I sent that report to your office from Moonbase?"
"Yes, I remember that report," Henderson told him. Freeman went to the corner bar and poured a tall whiskey.
"I attempted to murder Commander Straker," Foster said. "The aliens planted an impulse in my subconscious to see him dead. We got the problem straightened out finally, but he scared me half to death doing it. I still don't understand why he felt he had to go through with it."
Freeman handed him the drink and he accepted it.
"I mean, the commander could have just sent me on permanent assignment to Alaska, or Australia, or Outer Mongolia for that matter. I know I would have if I'd given much thought to it," continued Foster.
"That's what psychiatric team and I both recommended," Freeman stated. "Ed didn't want to lose you that way. Why do you think I took over the Alaska project? I was so ticked off at him for that stunt I wanted to shoot him. I still get mad at him just thinking about it."
"Paul, it might help if you read this," Komack said. She was referring to a page in a leather bound book she'd picked up from a shelf in the corner of the office.
"What is it?" Foster asked, taking the open book.
"It's Commander Straker's journal," she explained.
There was no title on the binding. The date on the page was June 4, 1982, the day Straker had taken him to the armory. Foster recognized the neat, angular hand writing as Straker's.
"I didn't know he kept a journal," Foster commented. There was something unnerving at the thought of reading something that was so obviously private.
* * *
Doctor Jackson gave me his evaluation of Foster's condition this morning. It wasn't good. Alec suggests we either shoot him or find him a permanent assignment in Australia or Outer Mongolia or someplace like that. But, I find I am disinclined to accept their assessment of the situation.
I do find it interesting that Foster's first impulse was to discredit me rather than kill me. He got my gun only after General Henderson didn't act to immediately remove me from command. I wonder if Foster would have even tried it if the general had ordered us both back to Earth for an evaluation of my mental state.
Given the information Foster sent him, I've no doubt the general could have made an excellent case against me. I don't know why he hasn't bothered. Maybe he's just giving me enough rope to hang myself when we get to the appropriations meeting next week.
Maybe Foster's innate resistance to authority has made him resistant to the aliens' conditioning, or maybe, since I suspect he's been toying with the idea of eventually forcing a change of command here, all the aliens really did to him was to strengthen that wish, take it out of his control. Hopefully, Jackson's deconditioning has brought it back under conscious control.
I'll know more later this afternoon. I've checked out the weapons I'll be using and I've written instructions for Major Natiroff. If I'm wrong, if Foster does kill me, my death is to be listed as a suicide. No measures are to be taken against Paul Foster, no matter what, since I am fully aware I will be playing with a loaded gun this afternoon.
I just hope Alec will understand.
* * *
Foster turned the page to the following date.
Alec didn't understand. I wonder how long it'll take for him to get over his mad this time.
Foster finished reading and closed the book with a snap. He handed it to Komack, who placed it back on the shelf.
"I still don't get it," Foster stated. He turned to Henderson: "According to that, the commander was more worried about why you didn't demand he be relieved of command than he was about the fact I could have killed him."
"Colonel, let's assume for the moment that your hypothesis is correct, that Ed has this gift, whether he recognizes it or not," Henderson stated. His tone was reminiscent of one of SHADO's instructors. "What follows?"
"That he was fairly well convinced I wouldn't kill him," Foster replied. "But, he had to prove it to Jackson, to Alec Freeman, and to me. Also, assuming he really has E.S.P., the aliens know it, having used Croxley, right?"
The others nodded, listening.
"Let's say that Croxley died because Ed did keep him from knowing I was there," Foster continued, warming to the idea. "The aliens know that too."
"Then, it's possible the aliens have been after Commander Straker because they see him as the one person on Earth who stands in their way, that he knows something about them that's dangerous to them," Lake suggested.
"But, they also may feel that just having him out of SHADO isn't enough," Foster warned. "Someone wants him dead. They tried again just this morning. If Virginia and I hadn't shown up when we did, he'd be dead."
"What does security say about it?" Henderson wondered.
Foster snorted. "The guard checked an orderly through, but forgot to check his I.D. or the drug orders. The drug came from the hospital phamacy, but the druggist doesn't recall any one matching the orderly's description filling the prescription. The drug order itself appears to be a forgery, since it had Frazer's signature on it and Frazer would never have ordered Ampicillin for Straker."
"I thought you and Virginia saw the man leaving the room," Freeman said.
"We did, but neither of us saw his face well enough to recognize him again," Lake admitted. "However, there was something weird about him, something I can't put my finger on."
"Which puts us back to square one," Foster complained. "Someone's out to kill him, but we haven't got a clue as to who it is, except it's probably the aliens."
"What I don't understand is why, if they want him dead so badly, they haven't just gone ahead and blasted him when they've had the chance?" Freeman said. "Why this elaborate use of second parties?"
"A better question, Colonel, is why haven't they gone ahead and exposed SHADO?" responded Henderson. "Our security can't matter to them, so why do they maintain it? All they would have to do is land in Times Square and start shooting."
"Maybe we're not alone," Komack suggested. "We know that humans aren't the only intelligent beings in this part of the Galaxy. There must be others we don't know about. Just suppose, for the moment, that there are others out there, and our aliens don't want them to know what's going on here."
"You mean, the aliens are breaking some sort of intergalactic law and they don't want anyone else to find out?" Lake asked.
Komack nodded. "We still get reports of sightings above and beyond our sightings, and reports on ship capabilities that do not correspond to what we know about the aliens' technologies."
"Plus, we have had instances where the aliens were shooting at one another," Freeman reminded them.
Foster shook his head. "You know, this discussion is getting even weirder than our usual talks with Jackson and Shroeder."
"Paul, if you think this is weird, you should sit in on some of the sessions we have at the Institute," Komack laughed. "The idea that Ed may be a telepath is tame compared to some of the stuff they've come up with. I have a couple of medical researchers who claim that not only are there different groups of aliens living on Earth, but that Ed and I are among them. They say it has to do with some oddity with our mitochondrial DNA. Apparently, it doesn't match any known ethnic group on Earth."
"Does it match our aliens?" Lake asked in disbelief.
"No, they're entirely different."
"Did Straker know about this?" Foster asked.
"Yes," she replied. "He was there when they presented their paper last November. He thought it was funny, once he got over the shock. Especially when he found out they'd included Mark Bradley, Nina Barry and Keith Ford in their list of resident aliens."
"Who else knows about this research, Kathryn?" Henderson asked.
"No one, outside of SHADO," Komack answered. "I think he may have given a copy of their paper to Doctor Jackson."
"Are you an alien from outer space?" Foster wondered with a grin.
"Both of my grandfathers were czarists. One was a banker, the other was a school teacher. Since when do aliens from outer space have valid emigration papers?" Komack asked with a laugh, but there was a brittleness in her voice.
Henderson looked around at the others: "Ladies and gentlemen, I suggest we all remember, this is a theoretical discussion."
"General, you don't think there's any truth to any of this, do you?" Foster asked.
"Colonel, I'm saying that SHADO and Commander Straker have some powerful enemies out there, and I'm not just referring to the aliens we know about." Henderson sat down behind the desk, dismissing the SHADO officers with a wave of his hand.
However, Foster had one final question before he left. "General Henderson, why didn't you act on my report when I sent it?"
Henderson considered the question. "Colonel, I did act on it. I investigated the allegations that were made against Straker and decided that, aside from the money matter, there was no basis for concern."
"Just on Alec Freeman's say-so?"
"No, I also talked to Jackson and Shroeder. As far as they could detect, Straker was not under any undue stress at the time, aside from being worried about you. He certainly wasn't behaving erratically, at least no more than usual. Plus, no one else had been making any complaints or comments about him. Believe me, Colonel, if there had been any real evidence to support your allegations, Straker would never have known what hit him."
"I see," Foster replied. "Thank you, sir."
Outside the office door, Foster turned to Freeman: "Alec, what did Henderson mean, exactly, when he said SHADO and Straker had powerful enemies?"
"Paul, when SHADO was first approved and organized, there were a number of people who didn't agree it was needed, at least, not as an independent military unit of the United Nations. There were also more than a few people who objected to Ed being appointed commander-in-chief," Freeman explained.
"Colonel Anthony Sprenger, for one."
Foster gave him a curious look and Freeman continued: "Sprenger never liked the idea of SHADO being international in scope and outlook. I guess he figured that since the U.S. was footing most of the bill, SHADO should be controlled from the Pentagon. He was infuriated when the politicians decided SHADO should be based in Britain and Ed got assigned to be SHADO C-in-C."
"And now Sprenger's our new liaison to NATO," Foster said. "Do you think he's working for the aliens?"
Freeman shrugged. "I doubt it. CIA's more likely, but I wouldn't put anything past him." Freeman walked away, toward the control room.
"And Sprenger was at the hospital this morning," Lake reminded Foster.
"Sprenger was also at the hospital when Straker decided I was dead and out to destroy everything," Foster told her.
"Paul, what if the commander wasn't talking about you, but someone else in the room with you?" Lake asked.
"The only other people there were Alec and Kathryn," he paused, reconstructing the scene in his mind. "Henderson, McGruder and Sprenger, Frazer and the nurse. Sprenger was standing right beside me."
"Maybe we should be looking at Sprenger?" Lake suggested.
"I've seen the preliminary report on him. He comes up clean, so far, but Natiroff's still looking," Foster said.
"Colonel Foster," Major Graham's voice called out from the far entrance as Foster and Lake entered the control room. Freeman was already standing with him. "You asked me to do a run-through on the radar systems with Colonel Gray for the day Turner was killed."
"Did you find anything?" Foster asked.
"That's what I wanted you to look at," Graham told him, beckoning them on to his office further down the corridor.
John Gray was waiting for them inside Graham's tiny office. One wall of the room was covered with heavy-duty shelving laden with equipment manuals, test equipment and repair gear. On the desk was a powerful computer setup.
Graham sat down in front of the computer keyboard and began typing in instructions.
"We've run a complete check of the tracking systems, including the Utronic systems on SID and on Moonbase," Gray informed them.
"And?" Lake prompted.
"The system did pick up something that morning, but the contact was so tenuous and so odd, the computers listed it as an error and ignored it," Gray explained.
"What was it?" Freeman asked.
"We believe it was the U.F.O. that Commander Straker reported he destroyed over the studio," Graham said. "There was just one track, but it showed up virtually simultaneously on every system we have at 7:59:59 that morning."
On the computer screen, a grid flashed on. One axis was labeled 'time', the other, 'location'. A single straight line cut across the grid.
"Just one track?" Foster asked.
"But, if we have one track at 7:59:59, where did the Ufo that attacked them on the road come from? That would have been about eleven the night before." Foster reminded them.
"We thought of that," Gray said. "So we went back and checked all the raw data from Moonbase and the other stations for the previous month."
"Is that why it's taken you so long to get your report in?" Foster asked.
Graham sighed. "There's an awful lot of raw data there. But, we did find something."
There was a pause as Graham and Gray observed their audience's reaction. "A major storm system developed in the mid-Atlantic a few hours after Commander Straker landed following the mission to repair SID," Gray told them. "The storm was sufficient to disrupt SHADO's radar coverage of that area for a short time."
"So?" Foster asked.
"So, neither Moonbase nor SID reported any contacts during that time," Gray stated. "However, the raw data shows a single contact, very similar to the track we've found for the one Commander Straker destroyed. The computers listed it as an error, since it appeared momentarily on all systems simultaneously."
"If it stayed underwater, it wouldn't deteriorate," Lake said. "But, we haven't had any reports in the past couple weeks that would suggest alien activity."
"Not in any place we can monitor," Freeman corrected. "But, if it had a special target, they might forgo their usual mayhem to stay hidden."
"And you think Straker's that target?" Foster asked.
"I think we need to find that U.F.O." Freeman replied.
* * *
"Doctor Jackson," Henderson said, entering Jackson's office in the medical center. Jackson looked up from the file he was reading.
"Last November, did Commander Straker give you a copy of a report into some DNA research being done at the Institute.?"
"Yes, general. In fact, I have it right here," Jackson replied.
He handed the file to Henderson. The general glanced through it quickly, stopping to completely read the final page.
"They have some interesting hypotheses, don't you think, General?"
"Interesting isn't the word I'd use, Doctor," Henderson replied. "Jackson, if you were going to defend Commander Straker against the charges implied in this report, how would you go about it?"
Jackson shrugged. "Their conclusions are highly speculative and their assumptions concerning the data they were using from other sources are extremely questionable..."
"Could you disprove their findings?"
Jackson looked thoughtful. "No, I cannot prove the people they mention are not related to one another, although I think it highly unlikely. Lieutenants Barry and Bradley are both black. Bradley is Jamaican. Ford and Barry are British. Commander Straker and Colonel Komack are both American."
"Straker's mother was English. So was Komack's," Henderson informed him. "Straker personally recruited these people as I recall."
"Yes, but Commander Straker has always taken an active part in recruiting personnel," Jackson said. "That is hardly suspicious."
"What about this alienness' issue?" Henderson asked after a long moment.
Jackson shook his head. "The commander and the others are well within Earth human norms. As a group, they are brighter and healthier than the general population, but that is true of all SHADO personnel."
"So there's nothing to it?"
"General, what are the chances of another planet independently developing a species that so closely parallels our own that our best medical science cannot tell the difference?" Jackson asked.
"Doctor, I could ask you the same thing about our U.F.O.s and the aliens," Henderson replied. "I noticed Mary Rutland's name here, with a question mark beside it."
Jackson nodded. "Yes, the commander's ex-wife. They did have a child together. I thought, when I have some time, I might look into the matter, expand the data base, as it were. Mitochondrial DNA is passed from mother to child. Everyone listed has at least one living relative on the female side. Colonel Komack has a half brother. Commander Straker has a sister; the others all have parents and siblings still living. If this group is genetically related, then all these other people should carry these markers as well."
"I see," Henderson replied thoughtfully, then: "Jackson, I'm told Straker's developed something called 'ICU psychosis'?"
Jackson nodded. "A more proper term for it is 'sensory-perceptive restriction syndrome'. The human mind is a remarkably powerful, extremely delicate, piece of equipment. To function properly, the mind, the brain, needs a certain minimum amount of understandable input. If this input is unavailable, or distorted, the mind fills in the gaps in whatever way it can. It creates its own reality, so to speak. It's a not uncommon phenomenon in hospitals, especially among seriously ill patients who are restricted in their movements, in their contacts with the outside, as in an intensive care unit."
"Will he recover?"
"Yes, the mental confusion usually clears up as the patient physically recovers and becomes less isolated," Jackson said. "However, the commander was severely traumatized psychologically during the expanded moment the aliens created. That trauma may affect his perceptions of reality and affect his recovery."
"The fact that someone seems to be out to kill him, won't help any either, I should think," Henderson said.
"Quite so," Jackson replied. "Plus, Colonel Komack did report that the commander's ex-wife identified a man who looked like Craig Collins alive and at the hospital," Jackson said. "A man the commander knows is dead, but whose body has not been found."
"No wonder Ed's out of his mind," Henderson mused. "The 'undead' are only supposed to haunt late night movies, not real hospitals."
"Well, even Dracula has some basis in fact, General," Jackson reminded him.
"Somehow, I don't think silver crucifixes and hawthorn stakes are going to do it for us," Henderson said.
Jackson smiled. "It that case, we shall have to find something that will."
Space observation platform Watchdog relayed its information back to SHADO Control from its new position near the asteroid belt. Its readings indicated 12 U.F.O.'s near the belt. Two days later, all communications with the platform ceased and it was presumed destroyed.
The following day, NASA reported a total loss of communications with their Voyager 5 probe as it was passing through the asteroid belt heading for Jupiter. NASA announced it assumed the probe had been struck by a piece of debris. SHADO's analysis indicated it would have passed very close to the U.F.O.s.
There was no indication of when the alien attack might occur. Henderson ordered an increased alert status for all SHADO stations.
SHADO settled down to wait for the aliens' next move, where ever or whenever it might come.
* * *
The move came three days later.
"General Henderson," Nina Barry called from her station in SHADO Control. Henderson stepped over to her station.
"General, the twelve Ufos in the asteroid belt have altered their positions. They appear to be heading for Earth."
As if to echo her observation, SID's voice announced from the speakers: "Red Alert, Red Alert, Twelve U.F.O.s on course, one-three-five, two-seven-nine, blue. Range: two hundred million miles. Speed, Sol one decimal eight."
"That's a lot faster than usual, isn't it?" Henderson asked.
Barry nodded. "At least they'll have to slow down when they reach the Earth's atmosphere."
"Not if they use that new technique they've got," Foster reminded them. "We'll be lucky to track them."
"We have a steady track on all twelve," Barry reported, watching the figures on the screen in front of her. "Speed slowing to Sol one decimal one."
Above the Moon, the interceptors screamed after the dozen alien invaders.
Moments later, Gay Ellis reported the destruction of four of the U.F.O.s. SHADO lost interceptor three, piloted by a young man named Chandra. His ship had inadvertently rammed the fourth U.F.O.
Within half an hour, all twelve alien craft were reported destroyed, no survivors.
"It was too easy, sir," Lieutenant Bradley complained to Henderson. Like Barry, Mark Bradley was on rotation from Moonbase, manning a radar station in Control.
"What do you mean, Lieutenant?" Henderson asked.
"It was too easy," Bradley repeated. His voice was soft, Jamaican accent barely perceptible. "It was like they wanted us to win this time."
"Mark, we just lost an interceptor," Foster reminded the pilot. "I don't call that easy."
"Mark's right, Colonel," Barry said from her station. "They were coming in fast, but they made no attempt at evading the interceptors or Sky-one or two. They were sitting ducks."
Barry and Bradley were both highly experienced Moonbase operatives. They were more experienced, in fact, than Foster was.
"This was a feint, a decoy, then?" Foster asked, accepting their evaluation. Both operatives nodded.
"Twelve ships is a big loss," Henderson observed.
"Not if they're planning something even bigger, sir," Bradley said.
"Any guesses as to what and when?" Henderson asked.
Barry shook her head. "That was always Commander Straker's strong point, being able to figure out their next step."
"I wish he were in a condition to help us out here," Henderson commented.
"Sir, I was wondering how the commander was doing?" Barry asked.
"That depends on who you ask," Henderson said dryly. "According to the night nurse, he's still mentally out of it. He sees things that aren't there. According to Freeman and Komack, he's doing fine, considering. It's the nurse who needs looking at."
"And who do you believe, sir?" Bradley asked.
* * *
Barry, Bradley and Ford arrived on the seventh floor of Mayland Hospital at about seven that evening.
The chair beside the open door to Straker's hospital room was empty. The security guard who should have been there was nowhere to be seen. A newspaper was folded on the seat of the chair.
Barry knocked on the door.
"Yes?" a very quiet voice called from inside the room. Barry entered, followed by Ford and Bradley.
Straker was alone. He was seated on the bed, dressed in blue silk pajamas with a heavy velvet robe. A small radio was on the bedside table, tuned into a classical station. The meal tray next to the radio looked like it hadn't been touched. He looked up from the game of solitaire on the table in front of him as they stepped closer.
"Hello, Ed," Barry said. She tried to hide her shock at seeing how gaunt he looked. Straker had always been slim. Now he was positively skeletal. His bones stuck out in sharp relief beneath his skin. There were dark rings under his eyes. He looked like he'd aged more than ten years in the past three weeks.
"Hi, Nina," Straker responded with an uncertain smile. He nodded to Bradley and Ford, "Hi, guys."
"How are they treating you, sir?" Bradley asked.
"Fine, just fine," Straker responded. His voice was very soft and there was an uncharacteristic tentativeness in his tone.
Bradley inspected the meal tray. "Not very hungry, sir?"
Straker shook his head. "I don't much like the food here."
Ford leaned over to look at the solitaire game. "Shouldn't the black ten go on the red jack, sir?"
Straker looked at cards on the table, forehead creasing in a puzzled frown. Ford pointed out the cards in question and Straker's expression cleared as he moved them to their proper places. Then he grimaced and pushed the table away, folding his hands in his lap. His left wrist was bandaged.
"How're you feeling, sir?" Bradley asked.
"All right, I guess. Better than I have been," Straker said with forced cheerfulness. "I'm told I'm doing quite well today, actually. I remember who I am. I know I'm in Mayland hospital and I actually remember Alec telling me today was Thursday."
"That's right, sir," Ford confirmed with a smile.
"Just don't ask me anything hard, like the date, or why I'm here," Straker added with a crooked smile.
Ford and Bradley looked puzzled.
"It's like I'm in a dense fog, only it's inside my head," he explained. The cheerfulness slipped. "I keep getting turned around in the fog."
"It'll get better, sir," Barry assured him. She sat down on the edge of the bed.
"That's what Doctor Jackson and everybody else keeps telling me, only nobody can tell me when the fog's supposed to lift, or when I can get out of here and go home."
"Being in the hospital gets old pretty fast, doesn't it?" Barry commented, gently patting his knee. He grabbed her hand and held it tightly.
"Sometimes it's hard to tell what's real," he said. "It gets a little scary. I wake up and I don't know what's going on, what was a dream and what wasn't." He let go of her hand with a shuddery breath. "I have horrible dreams."
"Would you like to go for a walk, sir?" Bradley asked. "I thought we might buy you a cup of coffee."
"I think I'd like that," Straker responded. His expression brightened then clouded again. "What about Nurse Goodwin?"
"Sir, since she's not here, she can get her own coffee," said Bradley with a grin.
* * *
The cafeteria was on the second floor. It wasn't crowded and they chose a table away from the entrance. Straker sat so his back was to the wall and he could watch the entrance doors.
Bradley went to collect some coffee and sandwiches.
"How have things been at work?" Straker asked after Bradley returned. He cupped the coffee mug the black operative gave him in both hands as if warming himself. Barry touched his wrist. Straker's hands were like ice.
"Things have been fine, sir," Ford said. "We've all been worried about you."
"About me?" Straker wondered. There was a touch of disbelief in his voice.
"Yes, sir," Ford said. "When you were first admitted to the hospital, we were told you might not make it. They said your heart kept stopping."
"I think I remember Alec telling me something like that," Straker told them. "I can't remember what happened, how I ended up here. All Alec will tell me is that I got sick so he came back to London. Kate and Doctor Jackson both tell me not to worry about it. But it bothers me, the blank spaces. At first, I kind of figured I must have totalled my car when I was coming back from the airport with Virginia, but they keep telling me that's not what happened."
"Sir, you did go to pick up Miss Lake from the air strip..." Ford began tentatively. Barry frowned. Both Henderson and Jackson had asked them not to volunteer details that might upset him. Most particularly, they weren't to mention Turner's death.
"Is she really all right?" Straker interrupted.
"Yes, sir, she's fine. She and Paul Foster came to visit you a little over a week ago." Ford said. "Don't you remember, sir?"
Straker shook his head. The worry had come back into his eyes.
"Well, she's fine, sir," Ford assured him. "But, we're not really sure exactly what did happen to you. When security found you, you were delirious, out of your head. Miss Lake had a concussion and lost her memory, so she can't tell us what happened."
"Has security come up with anything?" Straker asked.
"If they have, they haven't told us about it," Ford said.
"I see." Straker paused, then: "Everything else is okay at work?"
"Yes, sir," Ford said. "But we do all want you to get well enough to come back, especially General Henderson. I guess your job turned out harder than he expected."
Straker managed a chuckle. "My job turned out harder than I expected." His smile faded. "I'm not sure I want it back."
"Sir, you can't be serious," Barry protested.
"Virginia and I were supposed to have a meeting with General Henderson about some special funding. My resignation letter was in my briefcase. I hadn't decided whether I was going to give it to him or not. I woke up here instead."
There was a moment of shocked silence at his admission.
Ford found his voice first. "Sir, I'm sure things will look a lot brighter once you're get well enough to get out of here," he insisted.
"Maybe," Straker said. "Frazer and Jackson have me on antidepressants. They tell me I have a depressive mood disorder. I guess the medication's helping. I'm not as down as I have been, although the stuff does make me a little spaced out most of the time." He gave them another crooked grin. "Not that anybody can tell, I always was a space cadet. Look at what I do for a living. They still don't trust me with anything sharp, you know." He massaged the bandage on his wrist. "I'm still considered suicidal. I might hurt myself." He said it lightly, but a distant, weary expression come into his face.
"Is it really that bad, sir?" asked Ford quietly.
"Sometimes," Straker admitted. "Sometimes it feels like the whole world is out to get me, that everything I touch is doomed, there's no way out, no reason to even try. That's called paranoia, you know."
"Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you, sir," Bradley quipped.
Straker actually chuckled at that, and took a sip of coffee. Suddenly, he looked up and the color drained from his face. Barry turned to follow his gaze. Colonel Sprenger was standing in the doorway. He was speaking to a broad shouldered man wearing a white lab coat. There was something eerily familiar about the man, but Barry couldn't quite identify why. Beside her, Straker shuddered.
Sprenger nodded a dismissal to the other man and approached the table. "Good evening, Ed." He looked around at the people at the table as though memorizing their faces.
"Good evening, Colonel Sprenger. I wasn't aware you were still in England," Straker said.
"My duties with General McGruder, and with SHADO, require me to stay near London. I'm sure we'll be seeing a lot of each other. It'll be like the old days, Eddie."
Straker's face became a stoic mask as he continued to watch the doorway, but Barry noticed his knuckles went white as he clutched the mug.
Sprenger turned to Barry. "I was under the impression that the Russian, Natiroff, had ordered that no one from 'downstairs', I believe your people call it, be allowed to visit. Something about security?"
Barry managed to look guilty as she studied her coffee mug. Neither Bradley nor Ford rose to her defense as they inspected their own cups.
"I'm sure Major Natiroff knows what's going on, Colonel. Besides, it's General Henderson's responsibility right now, not yours," Straker said after a moment. He didn't bother to look up at Sprenger standing over him. "Who was that?"
"I beg your pardon?" Sprenger said, apparently surprised by the question. He turned to look at the doorway. "I don't see anyone there."
"You were talking to someone before you came in here. Who was it?" Straker insisted.
"I wasn't talking to anyone, Eddie. You must be seeing things again. I'm told you've been having delusions, hallucinations, signs of paranoid schizophrenia. But don't worry, I'm sure SHADO will still have a place for you. Making the tea, maybe."
Straker's mask cracked ever so slightly, letting a hint of despair show through. "Mark, I'm very tired. I'd like to go back to my room, please." His voice was so soft he could barely be heard.
Bradley's dark forehead creased with worry. He came around the table to help Straker to his feet. The commander leaned heavily on him for a moment, then forced himself to stand straight. Bradley kept a grip on his arm, just in case. Ford came around to Straker's other side to help.
They headed for the cafeteria doors. Sprenger moved as if to follow and Barry stopped him with a hard look. "We don't need your help, Colonel."
* * *
Nothing was said until they returned to Straker's room on the seventh floor. The guard was seated was seated by the door, reading the newspaper. He looked surprised to see them coming down the corridor.
"Why don't you get some rest, sir?" Ford suggested after they entered the empty room. Straker shook his head. His expression was bleak as he sat down on the edge of the hospital bed.
"I have horrible nightmares," he said. The tremor was back in his voice. "Blood and gunfire, everyone at work dead and it's my fault. Sometimes there's a voice saying they don't intend to kill me. I'd be good for making the tea. Sometimes I wake up and I think it wasn't a nightmare, that maybe it was a real memory of something, but I don't know when or where. Alec and Kate keep telling me not to worry about it, but they won't tell me if it really happened or not."
He pulled his knees to his chest, looking for all the world like an abandoned waif. "Why did he say that? Why did he say there was nobody there? I saw somebody there. I know I did." There was a oddly plaintive note in his voice and his eyes were bright with unshed tears. "I'm not crazy, am I?"
"You're not crazy," Barry said. She sat down beside him on the bed and placed an arm around his shoulders. He was trembling. "Sprenger was talking to somebody in a lab coat before he came over to the table," she told him. "There was something strange about him I can't put a finger on."
"You saw him?" Straker insisted.
Barry nodded affirmative. "Do you know who it was?"
"I wake up at night and the nurse isn't here. But he'll be standing there, against the wall and I start to feel sick," Straker told them. He didn't seem to notice the tears beginning to run down his face. "A little bit later he'll be gone and Nurse Goodwin will be back, smelling of tobacco and beer, insisting she hadn't left, that I'm still confused and seeing things that aren't there. Then I get sedated until morning, till Alec gets here and she leaves. I'm not sure even Alec believes me. He says he does."
"Sir," Ford said softly. "We believe you."
Relief washed over Straker's gaunt features and he relaxed his grip on his knees. "Do me a favor, will you? Don't..." He paused as if trying to clear his thoughts. He wiped a hand over his face, discovering the wetness. "I can't seem to stop crying," he commented absently. "Jackson and Frazer both tell me that loss of emotional control is a normal result of what I've been through and the medications they have me on. Its supposed to get better, but in the meantime, I'm a wreck. I can't think, I can't concentrate, I can't even play solitaire right."
"I'm sure it will get better," Barry said. "It just takes time, that's all. You've been through a lot."
"That's another thing they keep telling me," he said. A stab of anger came into his voice."But, nobody will tell me what it was I've been through." He sat back with a sigh. "When you give your report to General Henderson, be sure to tell him everything. Don't gloss over anything to protect me. He needs to know. I need for him to know."
"Yes, sir," Bradley agreed for all of them. "Will you be all right?"
"Yes," Straker said. "I'm sorry I haven't been better company."
"We understand, sir," Bradley assured him. Then the astronaut frowned at a sudden realization. "Sir, how did you know we were going to report back to the General?"
Straker managed a crooked smile. "Elementary, my dear Mark. I know, from Alec and now from Sprenger, that Natiroff has requested I not have visitors from work. 'Security'. Sprenger may assume you three are simply violating orders, but I know you all better than that. The only person who has both the authority and a reason to send you here would be General Henderson, to check out my mental state. Therefore, you will be reporting back to him your observations."
Bradley grinned. "Sir, anybody who tells you you're out of your mind is out of theirs."
"You really do believe me?"
Their reply was interrupted by the arrival of a heavy set woman with bleached hair and cold blue eyes. Nurse Goodwin glared at the three visitors over the top of her gold rimmed glasses. "How the devil did you get in here?"
"They were just leaving," Straker told her. He indicated the door with a tiny jerk of his head.
"Take care of yourself, okay, sir?" Bradley said as he turned to head for the corridor outside.
"Mark," Straker called. Bradley turned back to look at him. The worry had settled back on his features. "Watch your six."
Outside the hospital room, Ford turned to Bradley. "What did he mean, 'watch your six'?"
"It's pilot talk for watch your back," the black SHADO astronaut explained.
"Who's he warning us against?" Barry wondered.
"I'm not sure," Bradley admitted. The astronaut looked up to see Sprenger standing by the elevators. Standing with him was a young man in the uniform of an American air force lieutenant. Both men were watching the three SHADO operatives. Sprenger's expression was one of smug satisfaction. The younger man's face was unreadable.
"Off hand, I'd say Colonel Sprenger was a good bet," Ford said quietly.
* * *
The following morning, General Henderson was sitting at the desk in the SHADO commander's office, looking over the reports from the night before. It was a short pile. It had been a quiet night.
He noted a report on the ongoing search for the U.F.O. that was presumed to have followed Straker's capsule to Earth. They weren't having any luck locating it. There were no reports indicating alien activity anywhere SHADO could monitor. The observation satellites had not picked up anything on the alien's possible location either. There was a request at the bottom of the last page for his signature to authorize continuing the search. He signed the appropriate form and dropped it into the 'out' box on the desk.
The white phone buzzed and he picked it up.
"General Henderson, Monsieur Duvall is here to see you," Miss Ealand said over the receiver.
"I'll be right up," Henderson said. He placed the phone back in its cradle.
Duvall was waiting with Miss Ealand as the doors to the inner office slid open.
"General Henderson, we must speak," Duvall began as Henderson stepped out to greet him.
"Come on," Henderson took the Frenchman's elbow and led him out of the office, into the corridor. "Let's talk outside, shall we?"
Henderson suggested, leading the way through a side door onto a walkway that ran along the back wall of two of the sound stages. It was starting to drizzle.
"You're not concerned someone might overhear us?" Duvall worried.
"Around here, they'll simply assume we're deep in discussion on screenplay plot points," Henderson said. "I doubt we'll be overheard by anyone who cares."
Duvall took a moment to inspect his surroundings, the warehouse-like sound stages, the lighting equipment parked beside the buildings. There was a crew working on the back of an exterior set. They seemed to be ignoring the rain.
"I have been associated with SHADO and the commission since the beginning," Duvall said. "This is the first time I've actually visited the facility my country, and yours, have spent so much money to pay for."
"You only had to ask and I'm sure Commander Straker would have arranged for a visit," Henderson said.
"I never felt it necessary," Duvall admitted. "Besides, as a businessman, I know how destructive it can be to a company, having a board member interfere in the chain of command. The chairman of the board is a more than adequate liaison to the company president."
"And now?" Henderson wondered.
Duvall shrugged. "And now, the chairman of the board is managing the company in place of the president. There is no one to adequately liaise between the board and the company."
"And you've been elected?" Henderson and Duvall continued to walk through the property.
"So it would seem," Duvall admitted. "Sprenger called Kruger, Putin, and myself again last night. He was quite insistent that Commander Straker was far too ill to return to duty. He said that Straker was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. He was seeing things that weren't there."
"Did Sprenger happen to mention that there were witnesses to his denial of what Straker saw last night, witnesses who can confirm that Straker wasn't seeing things?"
"No, Sprenger did not mention that. He did mention that three operatives visited the commander last night against security orders," Duvall said.
"I see," Henderson mused.
"What do you intend to do about it?" Duvall asked.
"Nothing," Henderson said. Duvall looked surprised. "The three people in question came to me this morning with their report on what happened at the hospital. It was very interesting. I may let you read it sometime."
"You do not intend on disciplining them?" Duvall insisted.
"Why should I discipline them doing what I asked?"
Duvall stopped and turned to stare at the old air force man. "I don't understand."
"Duvall, somebody's gone to a lot of trouble to get Straker out of the way. There've been a number of attempts on his life. Now they're trying to make it look like he's lost his mind."
"Who are 'they'? The aliens?" Duvall asked.
"They're our most likely suspects," Henderson said.
"Are there others?"
"I'd rather not say right now."
They went around the corner of the building and stopped. Kathryn Komack was deep in discussion with a man Henderson recognized as the director, Carl Mason. Paul Foster was standing to one side, watching the two of them. Mason looked angry. He was waving his arms emphasis for whatever he was saying. In contrast, Komack was a pillar of cold calm.
"Is Colonel Foster one of those trying to keep Straker out of the way?" Duvall asked quietly.
Henderson looked over at the Frenchman in surprise. "What gives you that idea?"
"Sprenger," Duvall replied. "He said Foster tried to assassinate Straker a few months ago. He also said Straker viciously attacked Foster only last week. He was under the impression that Straker and Colonel Foster hated one another."
"Really?" Henderson commented. He caught Foster's eye and beckoned the young man over. Foster murmured something to Komack and then hurried over to Henderson and Duvall.
"What's going on with Mason?" Henderson asked.
Foster shrugged. "They're half-way through shooting and all the money's gone. Mason's demanding more money to complete the project or he'll walk off."
"And what's Miss Komack's reaction?" Henderson asked.
Foster grinned. "Mason had better hope all those funds are legitimately accounted for or she'll be hanging his head by the front gate. She's having an outside auditing team in here Monday."
"Tell me, Mister Foster, how would Commander Straker have handled it?" Duvall asked.
Foster took a moment before replying: "I'm not sure he's ever had this problem, at least not this serious. Mason's run through twenty million dollars in three months. That's a lot of money, even for us."
Henderson beckoned Foster to accompany them as he headed back towards the main office building. "Colonel Foster, when you visited Commander Straker at the hospital last week, did he attack you?"
Foster stopped. "Who told you that?"
"Never mind that, for the moment. Is it true?" Henderson asked.
"Commander Straker was very upset. He didn't know what he was doing," Foster answered.
"So, he did attack you," Duvall observed.
Foster didn't bother to respond.
"Who knew about the incident?" Henderson asked.
"Virginia Lake was there, so was Doctor Frazer. I asked them both to keep it quiet. Who told you?"
"Colonel Foster, I want you and Major Natiroff to check on who has access to the security cameras in Straker's room," Henderson said without answering Foster's question. "Also, who might have been watching the nurses' monitors at the time of the incident. You might also want to check with Colonel Lake and Doctor Frazer, in case they did mention it to anyone."
"General, Commander Straker was in bad shape that morning. Someone had just tried to kill him. He wasn't responsible for his actions," Foster insisted.
"I understand that, Colonel," Henderson replied. "However, I'm more concerned about what appears to be a serious security problem at Mayland."
"I'll get on it right now, " Foster promised. He nodded a good-bye to the two men and hurried away towards the office building and the main entrance to SHADO.
"Is this all you intend to do about this?" Duvall demanded. "Investigate security? Straker has been accused of attacking a SHADO officer."
"Duvall, I accept Colonel Foster's evaluation of the incident. Straker wasn't responsible for his actions at the time," Henderson said.
"Can we trust command of SHADO to a man who is insane, even temporarily?" Duvall demanded.
Henderson frowned. "This isn't the first time the other side has tried to drive him out of his mind, you know."
"I don't understand."
"Do you remember getting a report on the deaths of Astronaut Conroy and Captain James about a year or so ago?" Henderson asked.
"Yes, I remember something about the two men being killed by SHADO security after they went berserk and started murdering people."
Henderson nodded. "Yes. It was determined they had both been affected by an alien artifact that created something like a drug-induced psychosis in its victims. What wasn't in the report I gave you was the fact that the last person affected by the psychosis was Ed Straker."
"SHADO let him live?"
"He didn't hurt anyone," Henderson explained. "He was completely cut off from reality, but the only people he even raised a hand to were Paul Foster and myself. And, something I never even told SHADO's psychiatric unit about was, even when he did pull out a gun, it was to load a single cartridge into the chamber so he could blow his own brains out if he couldn't break free of the hallucination."
"How did he break free?"
"We're not sure. We think he threw the artifact against the wall and broke it. It shattered into a million pieces and when it did, he came to his senses."
"Why didn't you give the full story to the commission?" Duvall demanded.
"I didn't want the commission to go off half-cocked over the incident. When it was over, SHADO's psychiatric team gave Straker a clean bill of health. There was no reason to complicate the issue," Henderson said. "I do have a question for you, though. How did Sprenger know what happened in that hospital room and why does he keep insisting Straker is out of his mind?"
Duvall had no reply.
At 11:00, Monday, September 6, Alec Freeman drove his black Saab up to the main entrance of Mayland Hospital. Straker was waiting by the entrance doors with Doctor Frazer.
Frazer nodded a greeting as Freeman got out and stepped over to them. Straker said nothing. There was an odd vacantness in his expression and Freeman wondered if it was due to the medication he was still on. At least, Straker was no longer convinced that Foster and Lake were dead and he seemed to have regained some control himself.
Straker was wearing a dark blue sweat shirt with a USAF emblem, a pair of faded jeans and black trainers. Freeman couldn't remember the last time he'd seen the other man dressed so casually. For Straker, the height of informality had always been a cashmere sweater.
A small over-night case sat on the ground by his feet. Freeman took the case and placed in the trunk of the Saab, next to the matching suitcase already there.
"Ed?" Freeman called. Straker looked up, almost as though he'd been asleep and was just now waking up. He followed Freeman's gestured instruction and got into the Saab's passenger seat.
Freeman closed the door for him, then climbed behind the steering wheel.
"Doctor Jackson's waiting for you," Frazer told Freeman as he started the car. Freeman glanced over at his passenger to judge his reaction to the news. The blond man seemed totally oblivious to his surroundings.
Freeman pulled the car out of the hospital lot and headed for the M25 westbound. After a short time, the car wove its way through the knot of off and on ramps to the M11, heading towards Cambridge.
* * *
SHADO's Health Research center was thirty miles northeast of Cambridge, near the small town of Mundford.
"Alec, why are we going to the research center?" Straker asked, finally breaking his silence.
"Sprenger's 'advice'," Freeman told him.
"And why does Sprenger want me at the research center?"
The sharpness in Straker's tone was so familiar and his expression so intent, Freeman had to suppress a smile of relief. This was the Straker he remembered.
"Ed, the aliens want you dead," he said.
"Tell me something I don't already know."
"I mean it," Freeman insisted. "There've been three attempts on your life at the hospital alone. Why do you think we had somebody with you 24 hours a day?"
"Well, I figured it wasn't for my sparkling personality," Straker commented wryly. "So, why the research center?"
"It has a full security complement," Freeman explained reasonably. "Jackson's waiting there for you. It'll be quiet, you can rest, get well."
"Alec, I feel more like I've been condemned to Coventry." Straker's tone indicated he didn't enjoy the thought.
Freeman laughed. "Coventry's more that direction." He pointed towards the north-west.
"You know what I mean."
"I know," Freeman assured him. "Look, Ed, the aliens want you dead, or worse."
"So, I'm being set out as a lure," Straker responded. "Hopefully, our people will deal with the 'assassins' before they deal with me."
"That's the general idea." Freeman admitted. He wasn't surprised that Straker had figured it out. Straker was many things, but stupid wasn't one of them.
"What did Kate say to this plan?" Straker asked after a few moments.
Freeman sighed, not quite sure what to say. He decided the truth was the best course.
"She swore at us and walked out."
"She threw her hands up in disgust, called us all a bunch of effing bastards and walked out of this morning's staff meeting," Freeman elaborated.
"What did Henderson do?"
"Nothing, yet. She hasn't left the studio. Mason's been causing problems, and they're still finishing up some of the details on the new union contract. You know how Katie likes having things neat and tidy."
"I know," Straker said. "She's better at that sort of thing than I am." He sat back and watched the scenery pass by. "Alec, what do you think?" he asked finally.
"I think Katie's not about to give up her new job as operational head of the studio unless she has to."
Freeman's well-practiced obtuseness made Straker smile. "I mean, about setting me up as a tethered goat."
"It stinks," Freeman admitted. "There're at least half a dozen places I'd chose over the research center. You'd be better off in uniform in the middle of Mildenhall or at an SIS safe house. Hell, you'd be safer in the middle of Red Square."
"You weren't supposed to tell me this, were you?"
All traces of the earlier vacantness had vanished. Freeman suddenly wondered if it had all been an act. If it had been, then Straker was working on the wrong side of the camera at the studio. It was an award winning performance.
Straker's expression betrayed nothing as he watched Freeman's reaction.
"Henderson didn't tell me not to," Freeman admitted with a smile.
Freeman's smile slipped. "I don't take orders from Sprenger."
"Well, I can't fault you for your loyalty, Alec," Straker assured him with a little laugh. "You don't think I'm crazy, do you?" Straker's statement was more an observation than a question.
Freeman considered his reply for a long moment. "I think you've been through hell and I don't think it's over yet."
* * *
They stopped for lunch at a small pub Freeman knew in Cambridge. The smoked salmon sandwiches, a speciality of the house, were excellent, as usual. Freeman would have liked a beer, or something stronger, but settled for black coffee.
As they ate, Freeman described the security arrangements at the research center. He tried to get a sense of what Straker was thinking, but the other man had settled back into his shell and said fewer than five words during the entire meal. Freeman wasn't even sure he was paying attention.
* * *
An hour later, the Saab drove through a pair heavy iron gates onto a gravel road. The road led up to a gray Georgian-style country house that had seen a few too many poorly planned additions. The building sprawled across the landscape. A thin wisp of smoke rose from one of the many chimneys.
Jackson was standing on the front steps of the building, waiting for them. "Welcome to the research center, Commander," he said when Straker climbed out of the car.
Freeman went around to the rear of the Saab and opened the trunk. He pulled out a small box wrapped in brown paper and handed it to Jackson. "The package you asked for, Doctor."
"Thank you, Colonel," Jackson said, tucking the box under his arm.
Freeman pulled Straker's luggage from the trunk and set the cases on the ground. "Ed, be careful," Freeman cautioned. "And don't do anything stupid, okay."
Straker simply nodded.
Freeman reached into his pocket, suddenly remembering. "Oh, Katie wanted me to make sure you got this." He pulled out a heavy silver ring and handed it to Straker.
Straker took the ring and inspected it. It was his own membership ring from the Zodiac club. The seal was the Capricorn goat. He smiled and slipped the ring into his pocket. "Thanks, Alec."
Freeman climbed back into his car and roared away, back the way he had come. Straker picked up both suitcases and walked up the steps, following Jackson through the heavy front door.
"Who else is here?" Straker asked as Jackson led the way through a series of somberly furnished public rooms and up a back staircase to the second floor.
"Besides us, there's a security contingent and about a dozen recruits just finishing their training," Jackson informed him.
"Who's in charge of the security unit?" Straker inquired. Jackson paused as he used his key to open the door to one of the upstairs bedrooms.
"Lieutenant Wain," Jackson replied.
Straker frowned. That wasn't the name Freeman had mentioned over lunch.
"I believe he's one of Colonel Sprenger's people," Jackson explained.
"Oh," was Straker's only comment. He looked around the room. It was, as one author described such things, a room-shaped room with furniture-shaped furniture. The draperies were heavy and covered a pair of French doors that opened out onto an iron railed balcony. The balcony looked over a well-kept kitchen garden. Beyond it was a running track and several tennis courts.
Straker couldn't see the heavily monitored perimeter fence that surrounded the estate, but he knew it was there. There were cameras strategically placed throughout the grounds and inside the buildings. The main monitoring station was in the basement. The estate was as well guarded as any safe-house, but, as Straker knew, any security system had its weaknesses.
Jackson took care to point out the bathroom that connected Straker's bedroom with the one beyond. Jackson had assigned himself that room, over the objections of Lieutenant Wain.
"What does my itinerary look like, Doctor?" Straker wondered aloud. He started to unpack the large suitcase, placing his things in the bureau by the French doors. One item he didn't put away was a small black box with several small lights on one face. Straker scanned the room with the 'bug' detector. He silently noted the locations of the various listening devices planted in the room.
"Doctor Frazer has indicated that some physical therapy is in order, some carefully monitored exercise and, of course, rest." Jackson said, watching Straker scan the room.
"How long are we supposed to be here?" Straker asked. He placed the scanner back in the suitcase and placed the locked case in the corner by the bureau.
"Until you're fit to return to duty," Jackson replied calmly.
"And if I decide not to return to duty?" Straker wondered.
"I have six weeks to get you ready to return to duty."
* * *
Jackson led Straker on a brief tour of the building. Normally, it was more of a health spa than anything else. Besides the running track and tennis courts outside, there were exercise rooms, a handball court, an indoor swimming pool, examination rooms, class rooms.
The estate had provisions to care for two dozen operatives on their mandated two week stay. The staff, medical and support, normally numbered nearly two dozen as well. However, at the moment, the only residents were the dozen trainees, their instructors and a dozen or so security staff.
"Colonel Sprenger has requested we not fraternize with the trainees," Jackson commented after they'd taken a quick look in on a self-defense class being held in the gymnasium.
"I'm not sure," Jackson admitted. "Most of the regular staff members are on two week leave."
"Isn't that a little unusual?" Straker asked.
Jackson nodded. "Apparently, that was Colonel Sprenger's idea as well, to give you more privacy."
"Since when has my welfare been of any concern to Anthony Sprenger?" Straker asked.
"Perhaps you've misjudged him," Jackson suggested.
"Maybe," Straker said, but his tone indicated he didn't think it likely. "I'd like to check out the security systems, anyway."
"The central command post is in the basement," Jackson reminded him.
The door to the stairway leading to the basement and the security area had an electronic combination lock on it. The lock looked new.
"Curiouser and curiouser," Straker commented.
"Colonel Straker, sir, how can I help you?" a young man asked, coming down the corridor towards them. The man's hair and eyes were medium brown and he was wearing an olive drab utility uniform with USAF markings. His name tag indicated he was Lieutenant Tyson Wain, United States Air Force.
"I wanted to take a look at the security systems," Straker said.
"I'm afraid that's out of the question, sir. Only authorized personnel are permitted past that door. Security regulations, as I'm sure you are aware, Colonel," Wain said stiffly. He stood 'at ease', feet apart, hands clasped behind his back. The safety snap on his gun holster was undone.
"I see," Straker commented.
"Now, Colonel, it might be best if you returned to your quarters. I'm sure you could do with some rest after your long trip here, don't you agree, Doctor?" Wain suggested.
Jackson shrugged. "I was thinking a walk through the grounds might do just as well, Lieutenant."
Wain's expression turned hard. "As you wish, Doctor." Wain remained standing in the corridor until Straker and Jackson left the hallway to head outside the building.
"This whole set up stinks," Straker said when they were well away from the main building. "Or am I being paranoid about all this?"
"Even paranoia can have it's uses," Jackson replied. There was the slightest slump in Straker's posture. "However, I am also concerned about the security arrangements here. Lieutenant Wain's attitude towards you seems rather suspect. And considering what was happening at the hospital, a few feelings of persecution seem more than justified."
"You knew about that?"
Jackson pursed his lips together and nodded.
"Why didn't you have security do something?"
"We tried, but nothing seemed help," Jackson admitted. "We finally decided to simply handle each incident as it came along, deal with the psychological aspects as they came up."
"You and Alec really did believe me?"
Jackson nodded. "Natiroff is still looking into Nurse Goodwin's clearances. She had access to drugs the standard tests can't identify."
"Possibly, but the CIA and KGB both have extensive non-standard pharmacopoeias, as does SHADO," Jackson reminded him. "Your last blood tests came up clear except for the antidepressants Frazer and I prescribed. We're fairly certain there are no lasting side effects from what she was giving you."
"As certain as we can be at this point," the doctor said. "From present observation, I'd say your state of consciousness was normal."
"So, what now?" Straker asked.
"I suggest we proceed, for the time being, as originally planned," Jackson said. "Including the psychological therapy and stress reduction components Doctor Frazer has suggested."
"What about the listeners?" Straker asked.
Jackson grinned and pulled a small black box from his pocket. There were several blinking lights and a toggle switch on its face. "I am assured by Major Graham that no one will be listening."
* * *
Inside the security monitoring room, Wain stood by as the watch officer frantically tried to get a signal from the several microphones in the vicinity of Straker and Jackson.
"It's no use, sir," the man said finally. "One of them has a jamming device of some sort. We have a picture but no sound."
"Fix it," Wain ordered.
"I can't, not without knowing exactly what they're using to jam us with and how."
"Then find out, sergeant," Wain hissed.
"Sir, this is one of the most sophisticated computerized security set-ups I've ever come across. I've only read about systems like this one in the tech publications," the technical sergeant explained. "Hell, sir, I can't even identify the programming language they used. It's not Jovial or any other military language I've ever seen."
"Well, you'd better figure it out pretty quick, sergeant," Wain warned. "The colonel has no tolerance for incompetence."
"Yes, sir, I'll do what I can," the sergeant said, turning back to the computer screen in front of him.
* * *
Dinner was served at 6:00 in a dining room that more resembled a school dormitory dining hall than anything else. There were six large tables arranged in meticulous geometrical order around the room, a dozen chairs to each table.
A buffet was set up along one wall of the room, near the pass-through to the kitchen. A white uniformed server stood at one end of the buffet table, carving the meat and watching the diners.
Two of the tables were already occupied by a group of about a dozen young men and women with a sprinkling of older SHADO operatives. Several of the trainees seemed to be discussing the day's lessons, making figures in the air with their hands as they talked.
Straker and Jackson collected their trays. They were making their way to an empty table when one of the instructors left his seat to approach them.
"Gentlemen, we would be honored if you would join us," the operative said. He indicated two empty seats at his table.
With murmured 'thank you's, Straker and Jackson joined the trainees at their table.
"My name's Daphne, what's yours?" the brown haired girl seated next to Straker said, holding out her hand to be shook.
"Ed," Straker answered, shaking her hand. Her grip was very firm.
"Major Bonnano," she indicated the instructor who had invited them over, "says a high ranking SHADO officer was going to be joining us here. I assume that's you."
"Yes," Straker replied with a smile at the girl's brashness. She couldn't be more than twenty. Straker wondered a little at who recruited her and why.
"Daphne," Bonnano began. "Let the..." He paused, giving Straker a questioning look.
"Colonel, will do, Major," Straker told him. "And it's all right, I don't mind the conversation."
"Very well, sir," Bonnano said, giving Daphne a glare.
Lieutenant Wain entered the room and all conversation stopped. He stiffened at the sight of Straker and Jackson seated at the trainees' table.
"Doctor, if I may have a word with you?" Wain said. His expression was cold and grim. Jackson got up from his chair and went over to Wain who stepped out into the hallway beyond.
Although Wain seemed to be trying to keep his voice down, certain words floated back to the table, among them, psychotic and homicidal. Jackson's reply could not be heard, but his expression became more and more angry as he listened to what Wain was saying. Finally, Jackson turned on his heel and walked away, back to his seat at the table.
"May I ask what that was all about?" Straker asked. He tried to keep the worry out of his voice. He hadn't liked what little he'd heard of Wain's statements.
"I find I resent the lieutenant's attempts to interfere in my treatment of my patients," Jackson said. His Hungarian accent had thickened, reflecting his anger. "I also resent uneducated laymen bandying about terminology they have no concept of the meaning of. Psychosis, schizophrenia, major depressions are all biochemical disorders whose symptomology includes alterations of brain function and thought processes. They are also treatable, and in some cases, completely curable."
"Who am I supposed to have killed?" Straker asked quietly. Jackson gave him a curious look. "He said 'homicidal', and since I'm reasonably sure he was talking about me, who did I kill to earn that label?"
"I would prefer that we discussed this at a later time." Jackson told him.
"I would prefer to discuss this right now," Straker responded. "Who does he think I killed?"
"I believe the Lieutenant may have been referring to Colonel Collins."
"That was an accident," Straker insisted. "He was my friend. Do you really think I wanted him dead?"
"I don't know," Jackson admitted. "However, I've been told that Collins was also a friend of Colonel Sprenger's."
Straker's expression softened as he sat back in his chair. "I wouldn't have said they were friends, exactly, but sometimes I think Craig felt it was his mission in life to keep Sprenger and me from tearing out each other's throats. Funny, but Craig never had the problems with Sprenger I did."
Half a dozen drab uniformed men walked in, collected their meals and sat down at the table furthest away from the trainees. The expressions on the men's faces seemed to be uniformly wary and watchful.
"You know, sir," Daphne said, voice quiet. Straker looked over at her. "I'm not sure I like the security people here. They certainly don't seem to like us much." Several other trainees at the table nodded agreement.
"Go on," Straker instructed.
"I mean, at the other installations, the security people were very firm, but polite, just doing their jobs, nothing personal," Daphne explained. "And once we passed all the checks, they were nice people. They considered us all part of the same team, all part of SHADO, even though we're just trainees."
"But, here, sir," one of the other trainees said. "We're not part of their team. We're an intrusion."
"They're right, sir," Bonnano confirmed. "Lieutenant Wain seems to have his own agenda here and it doesn't include us. I'll be glad when we're out of here next Monday."
"I was under the impression your group would be here for several weeks," Jackson said.
"That was the original plan. Three weeks here, then the trainees go on to their individual assignments," Bonnano confirmed. "However, I received orders this afternoon telling us to move out next Monday. Actually, they wanted us out today but I put my foot down. These kids just aren't ready."
"Who signed those first orders?" Straker asked.
"But, Anthony Sprenger isn't even a member of SHADO," Straker protested. "How is he giving orders?"
"I don't know, sir, but the orders arrived complete with the proper security codes. I double checked," Bonnano said. "The altered instructions came with Colonel Freeman's signature."
"Thank you, Lieutenant," Straker said. He sat back in his chair again, a troubled look on his face.
* * *
"Doctor, I have no intention of staying here after the trainees have gone," Straker told Jackson the following Sunday as they went on their daily walk through the grounds. The fact that Wain had an armed watcher keeping an eye on them was almost reassuring. Wain wouldn't be bothering with a live watcher if he trusted the electronic surveillance of the grounds.
"I had a suspicion that would be your decision," Jackson said. He had brought a paper sack with him. He handed it to Straker.
The sack was surprisingly heavy. Straker opened it and pulled out a Beretta. He hefted the weapon in his hand and then checked the magazine. "I take it you feel I can be trusted with a loaded gun?"
"I think you've been progressing very nicely, Commander," Jackson told him. "Besides, we may need the weapon and you're a much better shot that I am. However, I want your solemn word as an officer and a gentleman, that you will not use it on yourself."
"I thought you said I was progressing nicely, Doctor," Straker said.
"Do you know which medical speciality has the highest patient death rate?" Jackson asked.
"There's a catch here, isn't there?" Straker asked.
"Before you asked, I would have guessed either cardiologists or cancer doctors," Straker answered.
Jackson shook his head. "Psychiatrists. I would rather you didn't add to my patient death statistics."
"Will my word be good enough?" Straker wondered, as he tucked the Beretta into his belt at the small of his back, under his sweat shirt.
"I will accept your word that you will not harm yourself," Jackson replied.
"I promise. You realize, of course, you won't be safe here after I leave," Straker told him. "Wain doesn't strike me as being very forgiving of people who've embarrassed him and you have embarrassed him, in front of his own people and in front of our trainees. It would be very convenient for him if I were missing and you were dead."
"Do you have a plan for getting us both out of here safely?" Jackson asked.
Straker grinned. "Funny you should ask that..."
From the trees, the watcher pulled out a small radio and reported his observations.
The operatives at SHADO Headquarters placed bets on how long Straker would stay at the Research Center.
Ford won the pool. He had predicted that Straker would stay put a week and center security would discover his absence the morning of Monday, September 13. He had further predicted that Doctor Jackson would also be missing.
At 9:00 that Monday, Lieutenant Wain notified Colonel Sprenger, who informed Major Natiroff, that Straker and Jackson had vanished sometime between midnight and eight o'clock that morning. The security monitors in both bedrooms and on the grounds immediately outside the building had been overridden, somehow. Jackson's brown Euroford Omen was also missing.
In addition, Wain reported that one of his men saw Straker pull a gun on Jackson the previous afternoon. The group of SHADO trainees and instructors at the center were being detained for questioning.
Sprenger requested a full security alert and notified MI5 that two important members of SHADO had vanished. One of them was considered 'unstable', probably armed and likely dangerous. The other was probably dead.
Jackson's car was located several hours later in a self-serve parking garage a short distance from New London Bridge. Straker's suitcase was in the trunk, as was Jackson's luggage.
A check with the airports, the trains and the ferries out of the country revealed that no one closely matching Straker's description was seen leaving Great Britain.
One Portsmouth ferry worker did recall two men, one bearing a vague resemblance to the description given out, on the ferry to Cherbourg. They were driving a baby blue Ford Mustang convertable with British registration. His report was dismissed because he also described the pair as being blatantly enamoured of one another, something so out of character for an American military officer, as to be inconceivable.
Sprenger was confident that Straker hadn't left the country. It was only a matter of time before MI5 or SHADO security located him, as well as Jackson, or at least his body.
Major Vladimir Illych Natiroff wasn't convinced. General Henderson certainly didn't seem worried that Straker had taken off, nor was Colonel Freeman. Neither man seemed at all concerned at the possibility of Jackson's death. Henderson simply signed Straker out on extended medical leave.
Three days later, SHADO security intercepted a curious phone call to General Henderson which had been routed through to the office in SHADO headquarters. The call was from his wife and normally would not have attracted Natiroff's attention. However, this particular call was from the continent and had been flagged for review by the monitoring computer.
Mrs. Henderson told her husband that she and their granddaughter had taken the train from London to Tours and had hired a car to get to Chinon. One fact that Natiroff recalled from his review of SHADO's records was: The Hendersons had six teen-aged grandsons, all living in the United States. They had no granddaughter.
Another fact Natiroff recalled was: SHADO colonel Elizabeth Kathryn Komack had a half-brother near Chinon. He ran an inn. He also worked for the CIA.
Natiroff placed an anonymous bet in the new pool that was started in the Control room. Straker and Jackson would be officially located in one month's time. In the meantime, Natiroff made arrangements through personal connections to send three operatives to Chinon, France.
One week later, Colonel Komack signed herself out on furlough, leaving the studio once more in the capable hands of Miss Ealand. Her explanation for taking time away from work was that she needed to arrange shipping her belongings from San Francisco to London. She turned down the offer of the studio's executive jet. Instead, she booked a flight on the Concorde to New York, then on to the west coast of the United States.
SHADO security reported back that Komack got to Heathrow and checked her luggage in at the British Airways counter. Then she paid cash to board a commuter jet to Paris. They also reported that she had been followed to the airport by men from U.S. air force intelligence. She managed to lose them in the crowds, with a little help from SHADO security.
Anthony Sprenger was utterly furious. "How dare you interfere in our surveylance of that woman!"
Natiroff watched the air force officer with rapt attention, as though he'd just come across a large, rare, possibly poisonous, insect. "As chief of SHADO's internal security, my job includes protecting SHADO personnel from unwarranted and unwanted surveylance, aside from that which SHADO requires."
"That woman is a threat to NATO security and you have willfully interfered with our investigation," Sprenger spat. "You let her get away! She might have led us to Straker."
"Possibly," Natiroff said. "However, since I am aware of the location of both Commander Straker and Colonel Komack, I hardly consider them as having 'gotten away'."
"Where are they?" Sprenger demanded, leaning over Natiroff's desk.
"I'm afraid that, in the interests of security, I cannot tell you where they are, except to say that they are both in good health and well guarded."
"Major, I order you to tell me where they are!" Sprenger hissed.
"Colonel Sprenger, I am a Soviet army intelligence officer attached to SHADO," Natiroff reminded the American. "You do not have the authority to give me orders. Please leave my office before I have you escorted out of the complex under guard."
Sprenger's face was a mask of barely controlled fury as he left Natiroff's small office.
* * *
"Thank you, Major," Henderson said, hanging up the phone in the commander's office. He looked over at Foster, seated opposite the desk. "That was Natiroff. Apparently Sprenger's on the warpath. You seem to get along with him. Maybe you can find out what's going on," Henderson suggested.
"I'll see what I can do," Foster promised, getting out of the chair. "You know, sir, the only reason he even tolerates me is he thinks I hate Straker as much as he does. I just haven't figured out why he thinks that. I swear I haven't said anything like that to him."
"I believe you, Colonel," Henderson responded. "But for now, just play along with him. You're the one SHADO officer in the best position to find out what he's up to."
"You think he's up to something, sir?"
"I know he's up to something, Colonel," Henderson said.
With a nod of understanding, Foster left the office, heading across the hallway, to the control center.
"Colonel," Ford called out. He was standing at the map table with Mark Bradley and Nina Barry. Diagrams and computer print-outs were spread over the table. Foster went over to them.
"Colonel, with Commander Straker gone, we weren't sure who we should be reporting to on this," Ford said.
"On what?" Foster asked.
"About three months ago, Commander Straker assigned us to work out contingency plans for handling a mass attack," Ford answered.
"Plan B?" Foster wondered aloud.
"The name he assigned was 'Angel'," Barry replied. "After SHADO's original cryptonym. We're pretty well finished, the computer simulations look good and we're ready to implement it."
"So, what's the problem?" Foster asked.
"Between Nina and Louie Graham, we can hack into any computer system in the world, except for our own," Bradley said with a grin. "We don't have the authorization codes to access the security protocol overrides on SID."
Foster caught sight of Sprenger crossing the control room, towards the office. "I can see where that might be a problem," Foster told the three. "I'll be right back." He hurried over to intercept Sprenger.
"Colonel, is there something I can help you with?" Foster asked the older man.
"You can tell me where Colonel Straker and your Colonel Komack have gone off to," Sprenger grated.
"I'm afraid I don't know," Foster admitted.
"You mean, Henderson and Freeman, and their pet Russian, don't trust you enough to let you know where your own commanding officer is?" Sprenger said.
"Now that you mention it, I maybe they don't," Foster said. "Commander Straker and I have had some differences of opinion in the past."
That seemed to calm Sprenger down a little. He looked around the control room. "What are those three up to?" he asked, indicating the three operatives standing by the table, watching them.
"Nothing," Foster replied. "They're waiting for authorization to implement contingency plan B."
"And what's that?" Sprenger demanded.
Foster saw no reason not to tell the liaison officer. "It's something Straker was putting together before he got sick. Plans for handling a massive Ufo attack."
"What sort of plans?"
"I'm not sure," Foster admitted. "I assume they've been working on some means to upgrade our offensive coverage in near-Earth space."
"And how do they intend to do that?" Sprenger asked.
Foster shrugged. "Originally Straker proposed building four new moonbases, but the commission turned down the funding request."
"And what do they propose?"
"I'm really not sure. I assume it's something similar. I can't think of any other way for SHADO to complete it's mission without compromising security." Foster told him. "They're just finishing up the details now."
"Are they the only ones who know the details?" Sprenger asked.
"As far as I know," Foster answered. "Why?"
"Just curious," Spenger replied. "If you find out where Straker and his lady friend have gone off to, you will let me know, won't you?"
"I assume General Henderson will let you know when he's ready," Foster responded.
Sprenger gave him a mirthless smile. "Just in case he forgets, I expect you to keep me informed." Sprenger said. He turned and left the complex.
* * *
One month later, as predicted, Straker and Komack were officially located. General Henderson ordered Paul Foster to fly the studio executive jet to Tours. Once there, Foster rented a Peugeot. It wasn't his Corvette, but it would do.
His destination was an inn several miles south of the mediaeval town of Chinon on the river Vienne. It was a pleasant drive from Tours to Chinon along D751. The sky was clear and there was a nip in the air, a reminder of autumn.
The Maison Cheval Blanc was a moderately sized inn in an area dedicated to wine-making. The red brick and half-timbered main building sat on a low hill, surrounded by walnut trees in their orange autumn dress. There was a winery a short distance away, surrounded by row upon row of well tended grape vines.
Foster stopped the car in front of the main building and got out. A piano was being played somewhere near-by. A light blue classic Mustang convertable with British registration plates was parked by the side of the building.
Standing in the doorway was a very tall, wiry man with snow white hair and dark eyebrows.
"You must be Paul Foster," the man said, walking over to the SHADO officer. The man's deeply tanned face split into a brilliantly white smile as he shook Foster's hand.
"You must be Derek Flandry," Foster replied. "I'm looking for Ed Straker."
"I know. We've been expecting you," Flandry said. He turned and called out: "Esther, where are you?"
"Right here, Oncle Derek." A small face topped with pale blonde hair peered out from around the corner of the building.
"Where's your Momma, Esther?" Flandry asked. The girl looked up at him with a solemn expression.
"With Daddy. They promised to talk about getting me a baby brother."
Flandry chuckled. "Would you take Mister Foster here to them, please, Esther?" he asked.
She gave Foster an appraising look, "You're a friend of Momma and Daddy, aren't you?"
"Yes, I guess I am, and you can call me Paul," Foster told her. The little girl nodded and then took his hand. There was something eeily familiar about the child, the blue-gray eyes, the fine boned, elven face.
The interior of the building was slightly more modern than the very traditional exterior. The furnishings were simple but very comfortable. The renovations in lighting and plumbing had obviously been made with an eye towards maintaining the traditional country feel of the place.
Esther led him upstairs, to the guest rooms. She stopped at a door at the end of the hallway and knocked.
A woman's voice replied. "Yes?"
"Momma, are you awake?"
The door opened.
"Yes, Esther," a tousled Kathryn Komack said with a touch of exasperation in her voice. Then she looked up to see Foster standing behind the girl.
"Oh, hello, Paul," she said, pulling her satin robe more closely around her. She didn't seem surprised to see him standing there.
She opened the door wider, gesturing them both in. "Ed, Paul's here," she called out.
A door at the far end of the room opened and Straker walked in, toweling off his hair. He was barefoot and bare chested, wearing a pair of faded jeans. The scars on his belly from the incident at Mayland were beginning to fade.
"Hello, Paul," he greeted.
Foster returned the greeting. The rest had obviously done the other man a lot of good. Straker looked more relaxed, more comfortable, than Foster had ever seen him.
"How soon do we need to be back?" Straker asked. He ignored Foster's scrutiny as he pulled on a sweater and looked around the floor for a pair of shoes.
"Today," Foster replied. Straker nodded. He found a pair of soft leather moccasins and slipped them on.
Esther ran up to Straker as Komack disappeared into the adjoining bathroom.
"When do I get my baby brother?" the girl demanded.
"Well, there are certain formalities that need to be tended to first, you know," Straker told her. "Sure you wouldn't rather have a puppy?"
Esther's face screwed up in thought. "Maybe," she said after a moment. "But why can't I have a brother, too?"
"Ask your mother."
Esther rolled her eyes, placing her hands on her hips in the mock-adult manner that only very small children can affect.
"Momma told me to ask you."
"Well, baby brothers take time, Rome wasn't built in a day, you know," Straker informed her with a smile.
"I've heard that before," she complained. Straker took her hand and stepped into the hall. Foster followed them out.
"I assume we have enough time for lunch. I'm starving," Straker said. He led the way down the front staircase to the main hall.
"I assume we do," Foster replied. The smells from the kitchen were making him hungry. It occurred to him that it had been a long time since breakfast.
* * *
The Maison Cheval Blanc may have been a country inn, but the kitchen was as modern as any new Parisian, or London, restaurant. It was all stainless steel and gray tile. One entire counter top was marble.
Several white aproned women were busily chopping vegetables and meat. A young man tended several steaming kettles on one of the two large commercial stoves.
A sliding patio door led out to a large glass-enclosed sun-room filled with pots of herbs. A large oak table sat in the center of the red tile floor and there were several unmatched chairs around it. A teenage girl was just finishing setting the table under Flandry's watchful eye. He noted an error in one of the placements and quietly corrected her.
"Vacation's over, right?" he commented as Straker, Foster and Esther entered the sun-room. Outside, the sky was beginning to cloud over.
"We'll leave right after lunch, if that's all right. Be back in London by tea time," Straker said. He seemed to be looking forward to it.
Flandry grinned. "Well, if you ever get tired of the old grind, you know where you can hide out. I can always use a good piano player," he said as he walked back into the kitchen.
"Is that how you've been earning your keep?" Foster asked.
"I'm a very good piano player, I'll have you know," Straker retorted.
After a few minutes, they were joined by Kathryn Komack, Doctor Jackson, and a sprightly elderly woman with a halo of white hair and bright blue eyes. Esther called her 'Gramma'.
"How do you do, Mrs. Henderson," Foster said. "The general wanted me to ask when you were planning to come home. I think he's tired of eating his own cooking."
* * *
The meal was one of the best Foster could remember ever having, and Foster liked good food.
Coq au vin du pays, asperges de Vineuil, champignons farcis, fresh melons de Tours and tartes des demoiselles Tatin, all expertly prepared. If this was how Straker, Jackson and Komack had been eating the past month, it was a wonder that they all hadn't gained weight.
Over the meal, Flandry explained that the restaurant portion of the inn was open in the evening for dinner. It was a favorite spot for the more knowledgeable tourists, since the prices were quite reasonable. The bed and breakfast also did very well, attracting primarily British and American tourists.
As he ate, Foster took the opportunity to observe Straker. He noted that Jackson, in turn, was watching him.
Straker had managed to regain much of the weight he'd lost in the hospital, and was looking quite fit, physically.
"Actually. I'm glad we're leaving before the dinner-show. If Mrs. Pettigrew asked for 'The Moonlight Sonata' one more time, I was going to strangle her with her own necklaces," Straker was saying to the others.
"Well, she wouldn't be picking on you if you hadn't asked her how long it took for the green to wear off," Komack admonished with a grin.
"Well, is it my fault she announced to all and sundry that she was an alien from Alpha Centauri?" Straker asked, all innocence.
"Ed, she's a customer," Flandry said, getting into the conversation.
"Derek, she's crazy," Straker retorted. "Rich, but crazy."
"She's eccentric, only poor people are crazy," Komack stated.
"Actually, I do believe Mrs. Pettigrew is seriously disturbed and is in need of professional assistance," Jackson put in.
"Does that mean you won't let me put her out of my misery?" Straker asked the psychiatrist. Jackson glared at him over a forkful of asparagus.
Something about the name clicked and Foster asked, "Mrs. Pettigrew? That wouldn't be Caroline Pettigrew with the 'Paraphysical Research Group', out of Kensington, would it?"
Straker nodded and gave him a rueful grin. "That's the one. She recognized me. Apparently, she comes down here every year for a couple weeks on holiday. Just my bad luck to be here at the same time."
"I ran across her a few years ago. Is she still preaching on the peaceful nature of flying saucer inhabitants?" Foster asked.
"Oh, yes," Straker replied in a bemused tone. "Of course, we all know there's no such thing as flying saucers."
* * *
Jackson waited with Foster while Straker and Komack went upstairs to pack their things.
"Well, Colonel, what do you think?" Jackson said.
"Commander Straker's looking good, if that's what you mean," Foster responded. "The rest has done him good."
"Yes," Jackson bobbed his head. "Doctor Shroeder had suggested some stress management techniques. I believe they've helped."
"Is he ready to go back to work?" Foster asked, as they stepped outside.
"Physically, he's fit enough," Jackson said.
"What about psychologically?" Foster prodded.
"That is much more difficult to say, Colonel," Jackson admitted. "I've been working with him. However, he has no recollection of the events leading to his hospitalization and he refuses to discuss certain events that occurred at Mayland. Also, he is still having some difficulty dealing with Colonel Collins' death on their mission to SID."
"Enough to affect his ability to command?" Foster insisted. "General Henderson has expressed concern as to the commander's stability under fire."
Jackson nodded. "Possibly, I can't be sure. It's difficult to tell in cases like this. He could be fine, or, he could break under the first pressure. We have no way of predicting."
Straker and Komack had come out of the house, carrying a couple of satchels and a small over-night case. Komack had changed her clothes from a shirt-dress to a teal blue, almost military, jumpsuit with a matching bomber-style jacket. Straker had put on a soft gray leather jacket against the October chill.
Straker overheard Foster and Jackson. Without a word, he placed the satchel he was carrying into the trunk of the car and then stalked away, towards the trees.
Komack simply shook her head.
"Damn," Foster muttered. Then, he hurried off after Straker.
Straker was just on the far side of the crest of the hill, sitting with his back to one of the large walnut trees. He didn't look up as Foster approached.
"You once told me to never judge a situation by the end of a conversation," Foster began. "You might try taking your own advice."
"The end of your conversation with Jackson was pretty obvious," Straker pointed out.
"Was it?" Foster asked quietly. "General Henderson asked me to check on how soon you might be able to return to work. Jackson still has doubts about your mental state, about your adjustment to Collins's death and to what was happening at the hospital. Personally, I think you haven't yet come to terms a lot of other things, either."
"And since when have you become an expert on my mental state?"
"I'm not. But, I have been there, remember?"
"What does that mean?" Straker asked. His voice was tight.
"I mean, sometimes it takes a long time to get over killing someone, even accidently," Foster said. "I'm told police officers who've been forced to kill sometimes end up taking early retirement because they can't handle it."
"I'm not a police officer," Straker observed. "I am a United States Air Force officer, assigned to the United Nations project known as SHADO."
"Ed, you're a human being. A responsible, conscientious, civilized man, who was forced to use his training to against one of his own people instead of the enemy," Foster said. "I still have nightmares about shooting Croxley and I didn't even know the man."
"I hadn't realized that," Straker admitted softly.
"I'm not a robot, and neither are you."
"You're sure of that, are you?" Straker asked.
"Robots don't care if they kill, or who they hurt. You've been called an ice cold computerized robot. Hell, I've called you that. But, I also know how you've gone out of your way to avoid hurting innocent people, how often you've gone out on a limb to keep our people from getting hurt unnecessarily. I know how often you've had to protect me against my own stupidity," Foster said.
"I've always considered it part of the job," Straker said softly. "A good officer takes care of his people. I've always tried to be a good officer."
"Shouldn't a good officer take care of himself as well, if only so he can take care of his people?" Foster wondered. "Ed, you tried to kill yourself at the hospital. Who gave you the scalpel so you could do it? Those scars will be with you the rest of your life."
"Plastic surgery can take care of them." Straker was rubbing the scars on his wrist.
"Plastic surgery can't take care of the ones inside your head," Foster insisted. "Who gave you the scalpel and convinced you to use it on yourself?"
"I don't remember," Straker said, but there was an odd touch of uncertainty that told Foster he was lying.
Foster let his voice go cold. "Commander, someone handled you that weapon. Mary Rutland saw someone who looked like Craig Collins near your room a short time before it happened."
"Craig Collins is dead."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, I'm sure," Straker insisted. His voice dropped to a mere whisper, as if by not saying it aloud, he could avoid facing the reality of his statement. "I left him drifting in space with his airhose disconnected."
"I warned you that Collins was going to kill you. Collins came at you..."
"We struggled, and somehow I managed to sever his airhose. I killed him. I killed him, Paul," Straker said. "I never actually killed a man before. Not like that. Not a friend."
Straker's voice was still very quiet as he stared at the ground at his feet. He shook his head sadly, as if sensing Foster's disbelief. "Oh, I've given orders for other people to do it. I've given orders knowing that people wouldn't come back alive. I've even been in fire fights where men under my command have died," Straker admitted. "But, I never had to do it to a friend."
"It was self defense," Foster reminded him.
"Really, Paul? You know how big he was. He should have had me. He was stronger, with a longer reach and more experience in free fall. He should have killed me. He should have killed you and John Gray, but he didn't."
"We were all lucky."
"Were we really, Paul?" Straker asked.
"Who was it, Ed?"
"Or someone who looked and sounded just like him?" Foster asked.
Straker shook his head. "It was Craig Collins. Don't ask me how I know it was, but it was."
"What did he say?" Foster asked, suddenly very gentle.
"I don't remember exactly. I think, he simply told me to do it, and I did. I suppose he must have convinced me it was the only way I could be sure I wouldn't be tortured again."
"Tortured?" Foster repeated, frowning. "Ed, nobody tortured you."
"No?" Straker finally looked up at him. "Paul, I know, intellectually, that I was in a coma for nearly a week and I was doped up and out of it for another week. But, what I do remember, what registered, was being exhausted, paralyzed with cold and being tortured in ways that'd make the Grand Inquisitor proud. I would have done anything, said anything to have made it stop."
Straker's expression was utterly bleak. "I don't know what I did do or say," he admitted softly. "No one will tell me."
"Of course not, because you couldn't say anything," Foster told him. "You were on a respirator most of that time, running a high fever. Ed, you developed what they call 'ICU psychosis'. It happens. Some people think they've been kidnapped by the Russians, or terrorists. You figure you're being tortured, and that Virginia and I are dead and it was your fault."
"I may be psychotic, but I'm not really crazy, is that it?" Straker smiled, but it was one of the saddest smiles Foster had ever seen.
"You're not psychotic," Foster assured him. "It's a temporary condition, as I'm sure Jackson's told you, repeatedly. It probably wouldn't even have happened if you hadn't been so very sick. Your reactions at the time didn't happen to be grounded in any reality the rest of us could relate to."
"And now it is?" There was a bitterness in Straker's laugh. "Paul, has it occurred to you that maybe I don't want to go back to a job that's going to cost me my life. It's already cost me everything else."
"Commander, my orders from General Henderson are to bring you back to headquarters," Foster told him. "I'd rather have your cooperation, but I'll have Jackson sedate you if that's what it takes."
Straker gave him an appraising look. "I think you'd do it, too, wouldn't you?"
"I have my orders, and so do you, sir," Foster said. He glanced up at the sky. It was now dark and cloudy and the wind was from the west. The weather wasn't bad enough to effect flying, yet, but that could change at any moment.
There was a rustle in the brush. It could have been wind, or something else entirely.
"I'll come quietly," Straker promised, getting to his feet. "Paul, did you see anyone when you came up here? A couple of very earnest young men with guns?"
"No, I didn't," Foster replied. "But, I probably should have. Natiroff sent down a couple minders, didn't he?"
"Yes," Straker told him, looking around. "Hunter, Kimball, Kaminsky!" he yelled. Then he listened for a moment.
"Commander, we don't have any security men named Kimball or Kaminsky," Foster said with a worried frown.
"Yes, I know," Straker replied. "Neither does the KGB, as far as I know, but I find Leytenant Vladzimirsky a little hard to pronounce after a long day." He looked around one more time, before heading back towards the house. "I wonder where they've got to?"
* * *
Komack was waiting for them by the Peugeot.
"Esther isn't coming?" Foster asked, noting her absence. Komack shook her head. There was a worried look in her eyes.
An armored gray security truck had driven in while Foster and Straker were on the hill. It was parked across the driveway, blocking the Peugeot's exit. Irritated, Foster stepped towards the grilled window of the driver's cab. As he approached, the heavy rear doors opened and three young, well built, armed men in camouflage battle dress jumped out. One of them Foster recognized, Sprenger's assistant, Lieutenant Tyson Wain.
"Colonel Straker, I have orders to accompany you and Miss Komack back to London, immediately," Wain informed them curtly.
"Lieutenant Wain, I was under the impression that Colonel Foster was to be our escort," Straker said.
"You and Miss Komack are to come with us, sir. I've been instructed to thank Colonel Foster for his assistance and to tell him that he's to escort Doctor Jackson back to Headquarters," Wain replied. Then he turned to address Jackson: "Doctor, I am relieved to see you in such good health. There were concerns that you'd come to harm."
Jackson shook his head. "As you can see, I am in excellent health, thank you."
Wain nodded his head once, then turned back to Straker. "If you will, sir?" He gestured towards the back of the truck. To punctuate Wain's movement, one of his men slipped the bolt of his automatic assault rifle.
"Very well. I take it, you've relieved Hunter, Kimball and Kaminsky, then?"
"Yes, sir," Wain replied. "They're already headed back to H.Q."
Straker turned back to Foster and said: "I guess we'll see you back in London, then, Paul."
"Commander, wait," Jackson called suddenly, then tossed Straker a small plastic vial. "Your prescription, remember?"
Straker glanced at the label briefly, then stuck the bottle in his pocket. "Thanks, Doctor."
Wain gestured impatiently for Straker and Komack to climb into the back of the truck, then followed them in, shutting and locking the doors behind them.
Foster and Jackson watched as the truck sped off.
"Doctor, Commander Straker indicated he thought his three watchers were KGB, one of them was named 'Vladzimirsky'?"
"Vladzimirsky, Kravchenko, and Redens," Jackson filled in. "The commander thought it was amusing to call them after the three scientists in 2001. We had to run the film for them to understand the joke. It lost something in translation."
Foster turned and ran into the house. "Mister Flandry," he shouted. Flandry appeared in the doorway to the dining room. "I need to get a call through to London, immediately."
"The phone lines are out," Flandry reported, his expression grim. "What's wrong?"
"Mister Straker and Miss Komack have just been taken by an unidentified armed party, and the three men that were sent to keep an eye on them don't appear to be around," Foster related with a calmness he didn't feel.
"Who does this information need to get to?"
Foster gave him General Henderson's number.
"I'll see it gets to him," Flandry promised.
The gray truck rumbled down the road.
Inside the windowless back compartment, Wain gestured for Straker and Komack to stand apart from each other. Then, he quickly searched Straker, relieving him of the Beretta that had been tucked under his sweater, at the small of his back.
Wain tossed the automatic to one of his men. Finding the medicine vial in Straker's pocket, he read the label, then showed to Straker.
"What is this?" Wain said.
"It's nitroglycerin. I have a heart problem," Straker replied evenly.
"When are you supposed to take them?"
"When I need it," Straker said, taking the vial from Wain's hand and putting it back in his pocket.
Wain gestured for Straker to be seated on one of the wooden benches that ran down both sides of the interior of the truck. Straker complied without comment, watching as Wain proceeded to pat down Komack. Wain indicated she should sit, then he took her purse and dumped its contents on the floor.
Wain whistled when he saw a small Heckler and Koch automatic pistol in the pile. He picked it up. "A dangerous toy," he said.
"I have a permit, Lieutenant," Komack informed him.
"I don't recall asking you that, lady," Wain replied, coldly. He pushed the rest of the debris back into her purse, then tucked the gun into his belt. He snapped his fingers at one of his men and gestured toward Straker. The man took a pair of hand-cuffs from the back of his belt. He cuffed Straker's wrists together around a steel post at the center of the bench.
"If I'm under arrest, may I ask on what charges?" Straker asked.
"No talking," Wain ordered.
"I asked you, what are the charges?" Straker replied, letting his voice go harsh.
Without warning, Wain hit him across the face. "And I said, no talking."
Straker touched the back of one hand to his mouth and discovered a smear of blood. With a wary glance at Wain and the two men with him, Komack pulled a tissue from a pocket and dabbed away the blood on his face. Then, they settled back on the bench for what promised to be a long and uncomfortable ride.
* * *
Foster knew he had no chance of catching the van. He drove straight to the airport where the Citation executive jet, and his co-pilot, were waiting. Mrs. Henderson insisted she and Esther come with him and Jackson. Foster was in no mood to argue with a general's wife. They came along.
They took off the moment the control tower gave them clearance. As soon as they were at cruising altitude, Foster used the aircraft radio to contact Control and fill them in on what had happened.
Within an hour, Foster and his companions arrived at SHADO H.Q.
"What happened?" Henderson demanded, as soon as Foster arrived in the control room.
Jackson pulled aside one of the control room operatives and quietly gave her instructions to take Esther and Mrs. Henderson to the crew lounge.
"Should I have Doctor Buden prepare the amnesia treatment?" the operative asked.
SHADO had, a few years before, developed a drug that was capable of wiping out the previous twelve hours of a person's memory. It was tasteless and quick acting and had proved itself to be remarkably useful for their purposes. It was administered to civilians who witnessed SHADO's operations and could not be misdirected by false information as to what they saw. A witness who couldn't remember couldn't tell.
Jackson shook his head: "No, simply take them to the lounge. We'll handle the security matters later."
Puzzled, the woman nodded and led Esther and Mrs. Henderson away.
As soon as they were out of hearing range, Foster answered Henderson's question. "Sprenger's people arrived and took Commander Straker and Colonel Komack away at gun-point."
"Is security covered?" Henderson asked.
"Derek won't talk, if that's what you mean. He's CIA," Freeman answered for Foster.
"The three minders Natiroff sent down disappeared before Sprenger's people showed up," Foster added.
"We got word from MI5 about half an hour ago. The three men were found dead in some brush near the inn. Their throats had been cut. They'd been dead less than two hours," Henderson informed him. "French intelligence isn't very happy with us right now. The Soviets are screaming murder and I agree with them."
"What do we do about Amanda and Esther?" Henderson asked Jackson.
"When this is over, we can have Mrs. Henderson sign a copy of the Official Secrets Act, and I expect Esther's parents can deal with her adequately when we find them. We don't dare give either of them the amnesia treatment. Esther is much too young and there are medical contra-indications with your wife," Jackson replied.
Henderson nodded as Jackson turned to Lieutenant Johnson. "Lieutenant, have you got a trace on that locator frequency I reported?"
"Yes, sir," the woman responded. "We pin-pointed it at Alconbury, about ten minutes ago. It appears to moving towards London."
"You put a homing device on Ed, didn't you?" Foster said. Jackson nodded.
"Colonel Foster, you have a call," Johnson said quietly, interrupting.
Foster nodded and picked up the telephone receiver from the communications station. He listened for a moment, then: "Thank you for letting me know. I'll check it out."
He hung up the phone, his expression grim. "That was Steven Rutland," he reported. "His wife was supposed to have picked up their little girl up at her mother's over an hour ago and hasn't shown up yet. However, her car is parked across the street from her mother's house and her purse was locked inside. A neighbor reported seeing her get in a van with a couple men in military uniform."
"Have Natiroff check if any of our people are unaccounted for," Henderson instructed Foster. "Especially check on anyone who's on forty-eight hour leave. We might not miss them for a while."
* * *
From the length of time they were on the road, Straker guessed Wain had taken them to the French airbase near Tours. A Westland Sea King helicopter took them across the channel to Great Britain. There, they were hustled into another waiting panel truck.
There was another uncomfortable ride that ended in a city, judging from the traffic sounds. Those sounds where suddenly muffled when the truck took a sudden turn and headed downwards, into what could only have been an underground parking garage.
The truck stopped and Wain gave a wordless order to one of his men, who pulled two long scraps of a dense, dark fabric from a satchel. He then proceeded to blindfold both Straker and Komack before hand-cuffing Straker's hands behind his back and leading them both by the arm out of the truck and into an unidentified building.
There was an elevator ride downward, then a walk down several corridors before they stopped. There was the sound of a door being unlocked, then both Straker and Komack were unceremoniously shoved into the room beyond. The door clicked shut behind them and the lock turned.
Fuming, Komack pulled her blindfold off, then did the same for her companion.
"Ed? What's going on?" a woman asked as their eyes adjusted to the light. Straker looked around to identify the familiar voice.
He was startled to see Mary Rutland sitting on a worn sofa at the far end of a small non-descript room. Seated on chairs opposite the sofa were Nina Barry, Mark Bradley and Keith Ford, from SHADO.
"Ed, what's going on here?" Mary demanded.
Straker looked at her a moment before replying: "I haven't the foggiest notion." He glanced at the others. "Do you?"
The others shook their heads.
Bradley spoke: "Nina and I are on forty-eight hour leave. I was going jogging," he indicated the navy blue sweat suit and running shoes he was wearing. "Then some military types picked me up and brought me here."
"I was going shopping when they grabbed me," Barry explained.
"I got a call to come in to work. They picked me up at my car," Ford explained. He was in his beige control room uniform, with a brown cardigan covering the insignia badges on his shirt.
"Mary?" Komack asked.
Mary took a shuddery breath. "I was going to pick Alicia up at my mother's when these men in battle dress drove up and insisted I go with them at gun point. I don't understand. What's going on?"
"Off hand, I'd say we've been kidnapped," Straker told her as he took a seat.
"Who, on Earth, would want to kidnap us?" Bradley asked in his softly accented voice.
Straker didn't answer, directly. "You're all on forty-eight hour leave. That means that none of you are going to be missed until you don't show up to work Wednesday morning."
"My mother will certainly miss me, and I'm sure she'll call Steven," Mary said.
"But, you won't be listed as a missing person for seventy-two hours. There's nothing the police can do until then."
"What about you, sir? Won't security be looking for you?" Bradley asked.
"They'll be looking," Straker agreed.
Komack had been quietly watching the others. There was a thoughtful expression on her face.
"Ed," she said at last, "Everyone here was mentioned in that DNA report last year. Also, they were all at the hospital at some time and saw the man you said was stalking you. The one no one can identify."
Straker nodded. "And except for you and Mary, they're also most of the team I assigned a special defense project to. By the way, I hope you got it finished."
"It's done," Bradley said. Straker's lip started bleeding again. "Who hit you, sir?"
"Lieutenant Wain. He's one of Sprenger's people."
"Sir, aren't there rules against that sort of thing?" Ford asked.
"I wouldn't call it a real smart career move," Straker replied.
Behind him, the door lock clicked. Then, the door opened and Wain walked in, carrying an air-force blue uniform and a small carry-all. He was accompanied by a young man carrying an automatic assault rifle. Another armed young man stood outside the door.
"You're to wear this," Wain told Straker, holding the uniform out. Wordlessly, Straker indicated his hands, still cuffed together. Wain reached into his pocket and pulled out a key. He tossed the key to Bradley. The black SHADO operative unlocked the cuffs. Freed, Straker took the uniform and the carry-all from Wain, who turned and walked out, followed by the guard. The door lock clicked.
Straker inspected the uniform. It was his own service uniform. Missing from the jacket, however, were the service ribbons and awards that should have been there.
"There's a washroom just through that door, sir," Barry told him. Straker nodded, distracted, and went into the adjoining room to change. A few minutes later, he came out in uniform.
"I'm surprised it still fits," he said, inspecting the sleeve length.
"You always did look good in uniform," Mary Rutland commented. Straker looked away, embarrassed by the complement.
"Your hair's too long," Barry told him. Straker ran his hand along the back of his neck to check and found she was right. His hair was over his collar by at least an inch.
"There's no helping it now," he said. "I doubt Sprenger's gonna' let me see a barber before he springs whatever he has planned."
"Ed, where are your ribbons?" Mary asked.
"An officer who has been suspended of rank and/or command is prohibited from wearing service awards," he quoted. There was a troubled look on his face.
"Sprenger doesn't have the authority to suspend you," Komack reminded him.
"No, he doesn't," Straker agreed.
"Sir, the Commission hasn't had a full meeting since before you went into the hospital," Ford said. Straker stared at him.
"Absolutely, sir," Ford replied.
"That's very interesting."
"What do you think he has planned, sir?" Bradley wondered.
"I don't know," Straker admitted after a time. "He wants me in uniform, that much is obvious. Probably to remind me of my real rank and position. Legally, I'm still an active duty United States air force colonel."
The lights in the small room went out, leaving them in utter blackness.
"Considering he has had access to our files at work, this isn't exactly unexpected," Komack commented.
"I don't understand," Mary complained in the darkness.
"He's after me," Straker answered. "I have an aversion to small, dark cages. He's using that against me, part of his psychological warfare tactics."
"Wouldn't that work better if we were separated?" Ford asked.
"That depends on what outcome he's looking for. Knowing Sprenger, my guess is you're all hostages against my good behavior," Straker said. "I have to assume, from his choice, that he's giving credence to that genetic report Kate mentioned, and to the fact you three were my choice for a special project team. I also assume he's hoping a shared adverse experience like this will increase group cohesion and make me feel even more responsible for all of you. That's something he can turn into a weapon against me."
"But, why?" Barry asked. "What did you ever do to him?"
Straker paused to collect his thoughts. "He resents me, I think. Sprenger was never thrilled with the idea of SHADO answering to an international commission instead of Langley. And he was very vocal in his disapproval of me being named to head up our little band of heroes. Funny thing is, he was right, I wasn't the best choice. But, the job got done."
"Ed, there's more to it than that and you know it," Komack admonished softly. "I remember your reaction when you found out Sprenger was joining Henderson's staff thirteen or so years ago. I got the distinct impression at the time you'd've been happier working with Jack the Ripper."
"It was that obvious?" Straker asked.
"Sprenger just plain hates you, or fears you. I'm not sure which is worse."
Straker was silent for a long moment, dealing with memories he'd rather have left undisturbed. Finally: "Sprenger was my direct superior on my very first duty assignment. A few months into it, we had a real bad situation develop. Sprenger gave me instructions to pass on to my unit concerning the problem. Instructions, that I, in all conscience, could not obey. So, I didn't, and I let him know why. He didn't like that much, but I survived and so did he."
"That's a long time to be after somebody for not obeying orders," Ford commented. "What kind of orders couldn't you obey, sir?"
"There'd been a murder on the base," Straker replied. "An NCO from my unit. Sprenger wanted me to destroy evidence that would have implicated the dead man in illegal drug and homosexual activity. As it turned out, the base police had been investigating the man even before he was killed. If I had followed Sprenger's orders, I'd've been implicated in it and probably court-martialed. Even direct orders are not necessarily an excuse for breaking the law. I don't think they ever did find out who killed him, or why."
"Why didn't you turn Sprenger in, sir?" Bradley asked.
"I was very young and figured I was better off keeping quiet," Straker explained quietly. "If I had said anything, it would have been his word against mine, and nobody was likely to listen to me. I was only twenty-one. On the other hand, he couldn't press charges against me because then he'd've had to explain what orders I hadn't obeyed. As it happened, he ended up transferred to the Philippines about two weeks after it happened, so I never had a reason to make an official report."
"What do you think he's going to try?" Barry asked.
"What couldn't he try? Off hand, I can think of about half a dozen incidents he could make into a proper criminal case, given the right slant," Straker said. "Starting with violating security regulations by talking about the problem at hand in front of a civilian."
"Well, we have about ten hours before that turns into a serious problem," Komack commented.
"Let's just hope he isn't planning on keeping us here past that dead-line, or else there will be hell to pay," Straker said.
"I wonder why Sprenger wants Mary here, though?" Komack asked, thoughtfully. "I can't figure that part."
"He could be trying to trip us up over security," Straker replied. "But, more likely... Well, Sprenger's always been a misogynist with a capital 'M'. My guess is that he expects you three to fulfill his sordid fantasies concerning the female of the species. I mean, look at it, my ex-wife, who hates my guts for various good reasons, the alleged other woman', and my present mistress."
"Ed, I don't hate you," Mary protested. "I know I got angry at you in the hospital, but Katie explained a few things I should have realized a long time ago. I understand a lot more than I did."
"When were you there?" Straker asked.
"It was just before you... ," she paused. "Before you were hurt. Don't you remember?"
"Mary, I don't remember most of my stay at the hospital," Straker replied. "My doctors tell me I had a very interesting two weeks that I should be glad I missed. What I do remember is none too pleasant."
"You still don't remember what happened to you, sir?" Ford asked.
"No, not really," Straker replied. "It's just bits and pieces, like a nightmare. Jackson keeps telling me not to worry about it, there are good reasons why I don't remember." He turned to Komack in the darkness. "I told Paul it was Craig that night at the hospital."
"That's why Mary's here," Komack responded. "She's the only other person who can positively state Collins was at Mayland that night."
"But, Colonel Collins is dead," Barry protested in confusion.
"'Undead' is more like it," Straker told her. "Kate's right. You saw him at the hospital talking to Sprenger and didn't recognize him for some reason. He's around here, somewhere. I can feel it. He's not gonna' miss this time."
* * *
"Sir, we have an address to go with the fix on the Commander's locator," Natiroff announced quietly to Henderson, Foster and Freeman.
"Also, we have located all but three of our people. Lieutenants Barry, Bradley and Ford are not answering their pagers. Ford's wife indicated he was called into work, but no such message came from here."
"I'd say it was a good bet they've been taken, too," Freeman commented. Natiroff nodded.
"That's most of Straker's special project group," Henderson told them. "Foster, you and Natiroff take a security team and get Straker back here."
Natiroff handed Foster an ASP 9mm pistol. "The magazine is loaded with Glaser Safety Slugs," the Russian said. "Don't shoot at anyone you don't want dead."
Foster nodded. The Glaser Safety Slug was an especially nasty round, a pre-fragmented bullet containing several hundred Number 12 shot suspended in liquid Teflon. Shot from the ASP, the Glaser could penetrate body armor before blowing, and a hit in any vital body area was usually fatal.
"Colonel Foster," Doctor Jackson called, as the security team was about to enter the express elevator to the surface. "I gather that Commander Straker finally admitted that it was Craig Collins at the hospital."
"There is the possibility that he may still be around. If so, I want his brain intact," Jackson said.
"Major, do you think Glasers will be effective against the 'undead'?" Henderson asked Natiroff, half seriously.
Natiroff took the question very seriously. "I hope so, General. I just received a report from my contacts in the KGB. It is possible that Sprenger is also undead. Three years ago, just after Sprenger took up his assignment with McGruder, his automobile was found in a lake near his former assignment base. He claimed, after the fact, the car had been stolen, but we can find no trace of how he managed to get from Edwards Air Force Base to Washington D.C. in less than three days without a vehicle."
SID's synthesized voice came over the speakers: "Yellow alert, One hundred twenty U.F.O.s sighted in area green 2-5-3. Maintaining position."
"General, I think a hundred twenty Ufos qualifies as a mass attack," Foster commented.
"Get Straker back here now, Colonel," Henderson ordered.
* * *
The lights came back on, suddenly blinding them. There was a sound of the lock being turned, then the door opened. Wain stood in the doorway, two stony faced young men with automatic rifles standing behind him.
"If you will come with me, Colonel," Wain said. Silently, Straker stood, gesturing the others to accompany him. They stood, taking their lead from him.
"Just you, Colonel," Wain said.
Straker shook his head. "My people come with me, Lieutenant."
"Those were not my orders," Wain replied.
"'Those were not my orders' what, Lieutenant?" Straker's voice had gone icy.
"Those were not my orders... sir."
"In case it hadn't occurred to you, Wain, this uniform isn't a costume. I am a full colonel in the United States Air Force. I have been a full colonel since you were in grade school. I hope I have made myself clear."
"Sir, you have been relieved of command."
"Oh? On who's authority?" Straker asked, voice still icily controlled.
"General Henderson's, sir."
"Oh? I see," Straker commented. "Be that as it may, I am not about to leave this room without my people."
"Sir, as an officer under arrest, you do not have the authority to make those demands."
Straker sat back down, staring up at the lieutenant.
"Sir, you're to come with me, alone," Wain ordered.
"And if I choose not to, Lieutenant?" Straker replied, very calmly. As he spoke, Bradley and Ford moved to stand behind him, expressions grim.
"What will you do then, shoot me?" Straker continued. "I don't think Colonel Sprenger will like that, do you?"
Wain was sullenly silent for a long moment. Finally: "I could threaten to shoot one of your friends."
"In that case, you'd better be prepared to murder all of us, because I will not cooperate without guarantees of safety for my people," Straker informed him. "All my people," he added.
In response, Wain brought the muzzle of his assault rifle up under Straker's jaw, forcing the SHADO officer's head back. "I'd like to kill you right here," Wain muttered.
"Then do it, Lieutenant," Straker said, very quietly, very calmly. "I'm getting tired of your games."
Behind Wain, the two armed men standing in the doorway were beginning to look worried. Finally, Wain stepped back, lowering the rifle from Straker's throat.
"Very well, Colonel. They can come along. It doesn't really matter," Wain gestured to his men to fall in behind them as Straker stood and led the small group out the door.
They were taken to another room along the same corridor. This room was darkened and it was hard to tell exactly how large it was. The far end walls were hidden in shadows. Along the wall opposite the door was a slightly raised, well-lit platform with a door behind it. On the platform was a long table and several chairs set along the far side, facing into the room. Near the center of the room, a single spotlight shown down on the dark linoleum floor.
Wain led Straker and the others to a row of chairs near the area marked by the spotlight. Two armed men were posted to stand behind them. Straker noted the men appeared well trained, standing well behind the chairs, out of reach of their captives.
"That was a big chance you took back there, sir," Bradley spoke softly from his seat beside Straker. Straker shook his head.
"Sprenger needs me alive and more or less cooperative until this show is over," Straker told him. "You're a lot more at risk right now than I am. Wain may well choose take his humiliation out on the bunch of you."
"Do you think we're going to get out of this, sir?" Bradley asked.
Straker gave him a faint smile. "There's always the cavalry, you know." Straker pulled the medicine vial from inside his jacket and handed it to Bradley. "Mark, I want you all to stay together. And, whatever happens, don't lose this."
Any further conversation was interrupted by the opening of the door behind the platform, and the arrival of Colonel Sprenger and four other men.
Straker recognized three of them. Kruger was the German representative; Duvall, French; and Putin, a Soviet general with ties to the GRU. They were all members of the nine man Astrophysical Commission, chaired by General Henderson. None of them had any great love for him.
The three men took seats behind the table, while the unidentified fourth sat down by a stenographic machine at the far end of the table.
"Will Commander Straker of SHADO step forward, please?" Kruger asked, peering out into the darkened room.
Straker stood and walked the spotlighted area Kruger indicated.
"Commander, we are here to inquire into allegations made against you by Colonel Sprenger, concerning certain 'improprieties' he claims to have found within SHADO and certain acts that you are alleged to have committed."
Kruger turned to Sprenger. "Colonel Sprenger, if you will?"
Sprenger stepped down from the platform and strode over to where Straker stood.
"For the record, Colonel, your full name and rank."
Straker eyed Sprenger a moment before answering, "Straker, Johannen Edward, Colonel, United States Air Force."
"Johannen? That's an unusual name for an All-American boy, isn't it?" Sprenger said. There was something like a sneer in his voice.
"It was my great-grandfather's name." Straker's demeanor was utterly calm and composed, his hands folded in front of him. "I've never used it."
"How long have you been at the rank of colonel?"
"Eleven years, nine months."
"Isn't that a long time to be in one rank?" Sprenger asked, his sneer more pronounced.
"As you know, officers assigned to SHADO are not included on the promotion lists of their originating services," Straker replied.
"I see. What is your present assignment, Colonel?"
"Commander-in-Chief, SHADO Operations."
"And how long have you served in that capacity?"
"Eleven years, six months."
"What about the past few months?"
"I have been on sick leave for the past two months."
"What's wrong with you?"
"Two months ago, I became critically ill with a very high fever. I was in a coma for five days."
"You're looking very fit for someone who was critically ill only two months ago."
A faint smile flashed briefly over Straker's face. "I'm told my recovery has been quite satisfactory."
Sprenger nodded and smiled mirthlessly. "Do you know what caused you to become ill, Colonel?"
"No, I do not. I have no recollection of the events immediately preceding my illness, nor do I recall much of what happened while I was hospitalized. I have been told there were attempts against my life, but I have little recollection of those events, either."
"Do you recall the death of Radar Operator First Class Turner?"
"No, I do not." Straker was still composed, but was now touched with puzzlement.
"You don't remember shooting him?"
Straker's puzzlement became concern. "No I don't, Colonel."
Kruger interrupted: "Colonel Sprenger, Commander Straker has already stated he has no memory of those incidents. This panel has no reason to doubt the commander's veracity in this matter, and the investigation into the incident conclusively clears the commander of any wrong-doing. You will continue with another line of questioning."
"Very well," Sprenger acquiesced. "Colonel, do you recall being present at a presentation of a research paper on using mitochondrial DNA patterns for ethnic identification?"
Straker glanced quickly at Komack, seated in the shadows. "Yes, I recall that report."
"You did not permit that paper to be published. Why?"
"Portions of the report referred to highly classified data. Also, there were questions as to the accuracy of the research itself and the researcher's conclusions based on the data they presented."
"I see." Sprenger paused then turned to address the panel.
"Gentlemen, I submit that Colonel Straker refused to permit this report published, even within SHADO, not because the research was faulty, but that it revealed his nepotism in recruitment. Worse, it revealed that Colonel Straker and his kinsmen within the organization are not of this Earth. I can only dread what plans they have for this world with the resources of SHADO at their disposal."
Kruger turned and spoke briefly to the other members of the panel. Duvall gave a Gallic shrug while Putin simply shook his head. Then, Kruger turned back to address Straker: "Commander Straker, can you explain this matter?"
"Sir, I am not a geneticist. I cannot explain their findings," Straker began. "However, if I had been aware of an alleged kinship between us, and the possibility of alienness', would I, or any of my colleagues, have permitted this research to take place, knowing what it might reveal?
"As to what plans I might have for SHADO, when I became an officer of the United States Air Force, I took an oath to defend my country against her enemies. When I was appointed C-in-C of SHADO operations, I took an oath to defend this planet against outside aggression. That is an honor and responsibility I have taken very seriously."
"Thank you, Commander Straker," Kruger said, glancing at the other members of his panel. They nodded solemnly back at him.
"Colonel Sprenger, it is the opinion of this panel that now is neither the time nor the place to analyze SHADO's recruitment practices in regards to the possibility of nepotism in its ranks. As to Commander Straker's plans for SHADO, there is a principle of law in this country, and in yours, that states a man is innocent until proven guilty. Since SHADO has shown itself remarkably capable in regards to its stated mission under Commander Straker's exemplary leadership, we have no grounds, other than your suspicions, to suspect him, or it, of ulterior motives," Kruger stated.
"Very well, gentlemen," Sprenger agreed. His voice was mild, but the look he gave Straker was utterly venomous. Then, he turned on his heel and strode back to the platform.
"Colonel Straker, on the twenty-third of July this year, you flew an orbital mission with United States Air Force Colonel Craig Collins, is that correct?"
"Yes, it is."
"Did Colonel Collins return with you from that mission?"
"No, he did not," Straker replied. His head was bowed and his voice was very quiet.
"Commander, you will have to speak up," Kruger said.
Straker raised his head and spoke more loudly: "No, Colonel Collins did not return with me from that mission."
"Why?" Sprenger demanded.
"He died," Straker answered simply.
"He died," Sprenger repeated. "Are you sure? His body was never located."
"Space is a very big place," Straker commented.
"I submit, gentlemen, that Colonel Collins was left behind as a direct result of Colonel Straker's attempt on Collins' life. I submit that Colonel Johannen Edward Straker is guilty of the attempted pre-meditated murder of Colonel Craig Collins."
"Colonel Sprenger, the inquiry into Collins' death determined it was due to an accident. The airhose on his environmental pack failed," Straker said.
"Of course it did," Sprenger replied. "Of course, they only had your word for it, your description of what happened after your friend, your comrade, Paul Foster, informed you that Collins was supposedly preparing to kill you."
"You'll have to speak up, Colonel," Sprenger admonished.
Straker remained silent.
"Perhaps it's time we had a different point of view on the incident," Sprenger said. He opened the door behind the platform and a big blond man in a U.S.A.F. colonel's uniform stepped through.
It was Craig Collins.
At the sight of Collins, Straker went ashen. It was if he was an animal mesmerized by the headlights of an oncoming car. He stood frozen in place as Collins reached under the back of his uniform jacket and pulled out a pistol.
Bradley moved. With the finely tuned reflexes and instincts of the athlete and fighter pilot he was, Bradley hurled himself from his seat. He grabbed Straker, pulling him away from the spotlight's glare and knocking him to the floor.
A bullet whistled above them. Straker moved as if to get up. Bradley forced him down as two shots rang out from near the corridor door.
Collins was thrown back to the wall as the shots hit him square in the chest. He crumpled to the floor.
"Commander, are you all right?" Paul Foster called from the corridor doorway as he gestured Natiroff and the SHADO security team past him. Natiroff's men made quick work of disarming Wain and his men, rounding them into a small knot.
Bradley stood and helped Straker to his feet. "Are you all right, sir?"
Straker nodded, but his face was still pale and there was the slightest tremble in the nod.
"What is the meaning if this?" Sprenger screamed.
Natiroff replied: "Colonel Anthony Andrew Sprenger, you are under arrest under Section 8 of SHADO Security Regulations, for conspiring with the enemy and for willfully interfering with the operation of SHADO."
He turned to Wain. "Lieutenant Tyson Bradford Wain, you are under arrest on the same charges."
"You don't have the authority," Wain protested.
"To the contrary, Lieutenant, Major Natiroff does have the authority," Kruger told him. "SHADO is a military adjunct to the United Nations, and SHADO is at war."
Foster brought Straker, Komack, the other three SHADO operatives and Mary Rutland in through one of the auxiliary personnel entrances in the parking garage across the street from the studio. Natiroff followed with Collins' body, the two arrested air force officers and their henchmen, and the rest of the SHADO security team.
"When Henderson sent me out to get you, we'd just picked up one hundred twenty bogeys out by the asteroid belt," Foster informed them.
"One hundred twenty?" Straker repeated. Foster nodded.
"It looks like this is the big one you were worried about," Foster commented as they entered the vaulted cavern of SHADO Control.
Straker dropped his uniform jacket on a chair as he and Foster headed over to where Henderson stood in the control room. Ford, Barry and Bradley headed for their stations.
Mary gasped in amazement as she looked around. "What is this place?"
"Welcome to SHADO, Mary," Komack said softly. She beckoned an operative over.
"Colonel, shall I have Doctor Buden prepare the amnesia treatment for her?" the young woman asked.
Komack nodded. "I'll bring her over in a bit."
"Yes, sir," the operative responded, returning to her post at one of the computer stations. She picked up the telephone receiver to relay instructions to the medical center.
Mary looked around at the beige uniformed operatives, the banks of computers, the radar and communications consoles set against the walls. "This was Ed's important job, wasn't it? The one he could never tell me about."
"We never had a chance, did we?" Mary asked. "This is more important than anything or anyone, isn't it?"
"We're at war," Komack replied simply.
"I assume I'll be required to sign some papers, promising I won't talk about this," Mary said.
"No, that won't be necessary," Komack said. She took Mary's arm and led the woman out of the command center, down the corridor towards the medical center. "In about an hour you won't remember any of this."
* * *
"General Henderson, what's our situation?" Straker asked, standing beside the older man. He scanned the wall monitors, trying to make sense out of the information on the screens.
"Not good," Henderson admitted. "We detected a hundred twenty bogeys out by the asteroid belt less than an hour ago. They started moving in about ten minutes ago."
"This is Space Intruder Detector," SID's synthesized voice broke in. "One hundred twenty U.F.O.s bearing one-five-eight green, speed: Sol eight, one hundred fifty million miles. Projected termination, Northern Europe."
Straker rubbed the bridge of his nose for a moment, thinking. "Ford, what's our position on project Angel?"
"We had to make some major changes to the original concept, but the program's in place and ready to go, sir," Ford replied.
"Will it do the job?"
"I believe it will, sir," Ford said. He turned to Bates seated at the next console. "Go to an Angel alert, level seven."
Ford flipped a series of switches on his own console. "Attention all stations, this is SHADO Control, we have an Angel Alert, level seven, Repeat, this is an Angel Alert, level seven, one hundred twenty bandits, E.T.A. twelve minutes. Repeat, one-two-zero enemy, Estimated Time of Arrival, twelve minutes. This is not a drill," Ford announced calmly and clearly. "Repeat, this is not a drill."
"At least, they have to slow down when they reach the atmosphere," Straker commented quietly to Henderson. "The Ufos'll be hitting better than Mach 3 when they reach strike range."
Henderson said nothing. Around them, the Control room buzzed with the controlled chaos of coordinating the Earth's defense against a mass U.F.O. attack over two continents.
"General, I'm having trouble with the access codes for the Soviet system," operative Bates announced.
"What is the problem?" General Putin asked. Straker looked over to see the Soviet officer, as well as Kruger and Duvall, standing a short distance away from him. He hadn't noticed their arrival in the control center.
"It looks like we don't have the updated security codes to interface with the Soviet Air Command system," Straker told him.
"Will my personal access code be adequate?" Putin asked.
"It should be, please, General," Straker responded, indicating the station in front of Bates. Bates moved aside so Putin could key in his access code.
"We're in, sir," the woman announced after a moment. "The Soviet Air Command is now at Angel alert, level seven."
SID's voice came over the speakers once again: "Ten U.F.O.s have broken from main group. Speed, Sol twenty, predicted target area, southern England."
"Sol twenty?" Straker repeated in disbelief.
Foster came over to stand beside him. "That's their newest trick, come in so fast we can't really track them, even using the Utronics system. They sort of fold a time bubble around themselves. Luckily for us, they still have to get down to below Mach 5 when they hit the deep atmosphere."
Straker turned to Ford. "What've we got close enough to intercept?"
Ford checked a listing on his computer screen. "Sky-1 and 2 are both within range."
Straker nodded once and Ford transmitted the new orders to the two fighters.
"I've never heard of an Angel alert," Henderson commented.
"It's a worse case contingency plan we had put together after you turned down the additional moonbases," Straker replied. "I'm not sure of the details myself, actually. I missed that staff meeting."
"Ford?" Henderson asked.
"The World Wide Military Command and Control system and the Soviet Air Command system are all tied into SHADO's computer command network right now," Ford explained. "We can order them all to an increased defense condition and give coded attack instructions."
"We'll deal with the political problems later. Assuming there is a later," Straker completed.
"What sort of cover story did you have planned for this eventuality?" Henderson wondered.
"I imagine the story will be that a nuclear capable terrorist group got hold of some highly experimental war planes and threatened to attack an unspecified northern capital," Straker answered. "The military control systems were co-opted by a U.N. anti-terrorist group to deal with the emergency."
"Will they buy it?"
"I'll worry about that later, too."
"Sir, I have reports that NATO, and the Soviets have all gone to defense condition three and have launched fighter strike forces," Ford reported. "Estimate NATO has launched two hundred planes, Soviets have one hundred fifty in the air now. The United States has deployed five hundred."
"Inform all the fighter groups the enemy craft will not have IFF and anything flying without wings can be considered a legitimate target," instructed Straker.
Ford relayed the information in English to the American, British and NATO forces. At another station, Natiroff relayed the same information in Russian.
"We're going to lose a lot of weather balloons with instructions like that," Henderson commented.
"Would you rather we told them to shoot at flying saucers?" wondered Straker.
"No," Henderson said. "Weather balloons can be replaced."
"Sir, the aliens have changed course. The new heading brings them into the atmosphere in a circular array over the Northern Hemisphere," Barry announced from her radar station. "They haven't slowed much. They're coming in at better than Mach 30."
"Louie?" Straker called, quickly looking around the control room.
Major Graham answered from the computer station where he was working. "Yes, sir?"
"Can we keep everybody from going to defcon one?" Straker asked.
"We're working on it, sir," came the reply as Graham bent over a computer keyboard.
"I don't understand," Foster murmured.
Straker glanced at the younger man in surprise. "They're all at defcon three right now. Defcon two is war warning, no missile authorization. Defense condition one allows for ICBM launch. The aliens are coming in on ICBM trajectories."
As he spoke, the bright mass of U.F.O.s on the radar screen broke into two main groups, one over North America, the other over Western Europe, spreading east into Russia.
Above the radar monitor, the image on the Moonbase communications monitor screen skewed and went to static. Bates spoke up: "Sir, we've lost contact with the orbital communications net."
"We're being jammed," Barry announced from her station further along the wall. "Switching to laser relay to Moonbase and SID."
The screen image cleared to show Virginia Lake's face once again. She had returned to Moonbase only a week before.
"Moonbase to SHADO Control," Lake called over the screen. "On laser relay. Confirm ten Ufos destroyed. Interceptors returning to base."
"Thank you, Colonel. SHADO Control out," Henderson acknowledged. The monitor went black.
* * *
On Moonbase, Joan Harrington turned to her commander. "That's still a hundred and ten through our defenses. Do you think they can handle that many?"
"I don't know," Lake admitted. "I thought I saw Commander Straker standing beside General Henderson in the control room."
"Maybe he's well enough to come back to work, figure something out," Harrington suggested hopefully.
"Maybe," Lake said. "In the meantime, I want the launch crews to get the interceptors ready to launch as soon as possible. I want those ships space borne before those Ufos head back in our direction."
"Yes, Colonel," Harrington acknowledged, relaying the orders to the crews already hard at work preparing the interceptors for their next sortie.
* * *
"That's still a hundred and ten through the lunar defense system," Duvall commented. "Will SHADO be able to handle that many?"
"We'll find out in about five minutes," Straker told him. "I'm hoping a seven to one margin will be enough to pull it off, even with inexperienced pilots."
"I hardly consider Mother Russia's finest as 'inexperienced', Commander," Putin protested mildly.
"How many of them have been in a dog fight with a Ufo and lived to tell about it?" Freeman wondered aloud. He moved to stand next to Straker.
"What in hell is going on here, Henderson?" a man's voice shouted from the entrance archway. A man wearing the uniform of an American air force general stalked into the control room. Straker didn't recognize the man but he noted that Henderson and the other SHADO officers seemed to.
Freeman leaned close to Straker's ear and said: "That's McGruder from NATO."
"Sprenger's boss?" Straker asked quietly. Freeman nodded once.
"I just got a call from my office saying your people have initiated something called an Angel seven alert and ordered two hundred of my fighters into the air!" the gray haired man informed Henderson. His face was red with fury.
"That's right, George," answered Henderson with deceptive mildness. He glanced at the radar monitor beside him. "We estimate contact with the enemy in about thirty seconds."
"The enemy? What enemy? Your so-called flying saucers?" McGruder sneered. He looked around the control room. "Where's Sprenger? Why isn't he coordinating this operation with my people?"
"Colonel Sprenger has been relieved of his duties here," answered Henderson.
McGruder looked around at the stern faces of the SHADO operatives, then he stopped to stare at Straker's uniform. "You." He stepped closer to Straker. "You're American air force. You tell me what the hell you people are playing at!"
McGruder took a step closer. Freeman stepped out as if to intercept him. Henderson simply put a hand on Straker's shoulder.
"General McGruder," said retired Major General Henderson. "As I am acting senior officer of SHADO operations, you will address any questions or complaints you have to me. You will not harass my people while they are doing their jobs." With a jerk of his head, he indicated the younger man should return to his work. Straker turned to Ford, leaning close to speak to the communications man.
Henderson took McGruder's arm and led him away from the communications console to stand with the three members of the commission.
"Sky-1 reports two Ufos destroyed," Ford reported quietly to Straker.
"What about Sky-2?"
Ford shook his head. "Sky-2 reported a sighting but we've had no contact since."
Foster had moved to stand a short distance away, at the map table. "The mobiles are already on their way into the projected termination area," he announced, listening to the information coming over the communications head-set he was wearing.
"Sir, we're getting reports from the NATO and Soviet fighter groups," Ford announced as he typed information into the keyboard in front of him. "NATO estimates thirty bandits destroyed. Soviet Air Command estimates thirty."
"Friendly casualties?" Straker asked.
"NATO reports eight planes lost. The Soviets report losing ten planes and pilots."
"What about the U.S.?" Freeman asked.
Ford smiled. "The United States reports fifty kills, with a loss of ten planes, seven pilots."
SID spoke: "Ten U.F.O.s sighted leaving Earth on bearing red-three-three-seven. Speed, Sol 3, increasing. Moonbase interceptors on intercept course."
"What does that mean?" Duvall demanded.
Straker straightened up, but it was Henderson who answered the question. "That means, Duvall, the enemy has bugged out. They are in retreat."
"Earth has won?" asked Kruger.
"I think we can assume that, sir," Straker said. "I'm sure a couple made it through to land, but SHADO should be able to handle those without too many problems." He looked to Henderson. "Wouldn't you agree, sir?"
"I'm sure SHADO will be able to handle it," Henderson agreed with a bemused grin. He turned to Ford: "Lieutenant, stand down to a yellow alert."
Ford passed the information on to the various SHADO units.
"General," Graham called from his station. "With your permission, we're stepping everybody else down to defense condition five and backing out of their command systems."
With that announcement, an almost perceptible wave of relief crossed the Control room, with one exception.
"Henderson, I want to talk to you, privately!" McGruder fumed, still furious.
"We can talk in the commander's office," Henderson replied, indicating the open door on the other side of the corridor. He beckoned Straker to accompany him into the office. Straker grabbed his jacket and slipped it on as he followed the two older men.
Inside the office, Henderson went to the desk and sat down in the leather chair behind it. Straker went to stand by the corner of the desk, arms folded across his chest as he watched McGruder.
"Who do you think you are? Willfully interfering with American military operations?" McGruder shouted at Henderson.
"We are Earth's sole functioning defense against an intolerable extra-terrestrial military threat," Henderson replied.
"How dare you interfere with America's defense systems!" McGruder responded in fury.
"George, I don't know if Sprenger bothered to brief you on our operations here," Henderson said. His expression turned grim. "However, for your information, SHADO has been granted permission by the President of the United States, the Premier of the Soviet Union and the Prime Minister of Great Britain, as well as most of the other governments of this planet, to co-opt their military forces as necessary. SHADO is automatically included in all security system updates for nearly every military command system on the planet."
McGruder's ruddy face lost some of its color. "No one group can have that much power."
Henderson bobbed his head in agreement. "Granted, there are safeguards in place to prevent gross misuse of our access into those systems." He glanced at Straker, standing quietly beside the desk. "Our foremost safeguard has always been in the selection of SHADO's personnel, especially the chief of operations."
McGruder snorted. "Having a psychotic in charge of all this is a safeguard?"
"General McGruder, I don't believe you've been introduced to Commander Straker of SHADO." Henderson said.
"General McGruder," Straker greeted the man with the briefest of nods.
McGruder ignored him. "Where's Colonel Sprenger?" he demanded of Henderson.
Henderson simply glanced at Straker who answered: "The colonel is either in the detention area, or in the medical center. He wasn't looking very well when SHADO security took him into custody." Straker's lip started to bleed again.
Henderson handed him a tissue from inside the top drawer of the desk. "What happened to you?"
"Sprenger's buddy, Wain, hit me," Straker replied, daubing his lip with the tissue. "He's also in detention along with several of his men."
"I demand they be released immediately!" McGruder growled. "You don't have the authority to hold them."
"On the contrary, George," Henderson replied. "SHADO does have the authority to not only hold them, but to try and, if necessary, execute them."
"On what charges?" McGruder demanded.
"Violation of sections 8 and 9 of SHADO's security code. Espionage and willful interference with SHADO defense operations, specifically, illegally detaining five SHADO operatives, two of them senior officers," Henderson replied.
"You can't be serious," McGruder sputtered.
"I'm deadly serious, General," Henderson responded. "And if our investigation into this matter discloses any conscious involvement on your part in Sprenger's actions against SHADO, I promise you, I will have your stars."
"You can't do that," McGruder protested. "Besides, no one's going to take the word of a known psychotic against that of the head of the American Air Force in Europe."
"They won't have to, General," Henderson replied. "We have more than enough witnesses to Sprenger's actions. I very much doubt Commander Straker's testimony will be necessary. As for the accusations of Commander Straker being psychotic, I think we can make a very strong case concerning members of your personal staff being actively engaged in the attempt to undermine the mental stability of SHADO's commanding officer at a time when that officer was already critically ill due to enemy action."
"You haven't heard the last of this, Henderson," McGruder promised. In reply, Henderson picked up the red telephone handset from the bank of three on the corner of the desk.
"This is General James Henderson calling on behalf of Commander Straker of SHADO. Put me through to General Sachs, please," Henderson said into the phone. He glanced up at McGruder, covering the mouthpiece with his hand. "This is a priority line to the JCS. If I were you, McGruder, I'd start packing."
McGruder turned on his heel and stalked out of the office. Straker took a deep breath and sank into one of the chairs at the conference table.
"Dave, this is Jim Henderson. I wanted to apologize for that fright we put TAC through a little while ago. From the reports I've got back so far, it looks like they did one hell of a job, only ten planes lost against fifty bandits," Henderson said into the phone.
Straker only half listened to the part of the conversation he could hear. He looked around the office. Henderson had rearranged the desk top. The crystal ball and the crystal cigarette lighter had both been moved to the shelf above the corner bar. The silver cigar pail has missing. Henderson didn't smoke.
Straker suddenly realized he hadn't had a smoke since he went into the hospital and thought of tobacco was actually mildly repugnant now.
"I agree with you, Dave," Henderson was saying. "It isn't a good idea to let anybody know these people have access to technology like that. Next thing you know, we'll be talking about flying saucers from outer space." He laughed.
"By the way, we've had a few problems with George McGruder's aide, Sprenger. He's been harassing Straker and a few other of our senior people and it now looks like he maybe was working for the other side and I'm not talking about the Russians," He listened to the voice on the other end for a few moments, then: "That's very interesting, Dave. Thanks, I owe you one." Henderson hung up the phone.
"Well?" Straker asked.
In reply, Henderson flipped the switch to the intercom: "Lieutenant Ford, I'd like to see Foster, Freeman and Komack in here right away, please." He flipped the switch off. "According to Sachs, McGruder's already under something of a cloud. Apparently they didn't know it when he was assigned to Ramstein, but he left his last assignment station in financial chaos. It may take months to complete the investigation, but I think SHADO won't have to worry about him."
Foster, Freeman and Komack entered the office.
"McGruder was still pretty upset when he left here," Freeman commented, looking from Henderson at the desk to Straker, seated at the conference table. "Is he going to cause us trouble?"
"He can try, but I doubt it he'll get anywhere," Henderson said. "How's the mop up going?"
"The mobiles will be in the termination area in Britain in about an hour. All our satellite systems are on full alert for any Ufos that may have gotten past the U.S. and NATO forces," Foster answered. "Sky-2 finally checked in. It's long range radio was knocked out when it was attacked by a Ufo that was taking off from an area off of Cornwall."
"Cornwall?" Straker wondered. "That's not anywhere near the termination area."
"We're pretty sure it was the one that followed you down after the mission to SID," Foster explained. "The one that had Collins onboard."
Straker glanced at Freeman, who nodded. "We figured it out while you were still in the hospital, been looking for it ever since. It evaded our radar using that time bubble technique. But, we have the radar signature of that particular trick now and I don't think they'll be able to do it to us again."
Straker nodded understanding. "What about casualties?"
Foster replied, "Not too bad, considering. We lost Sky-3, NATO and the U.S. lost eighteen planes and the Soviets lost ten."
"Do we know how many were actually shot down by the aliens?"
"About half, the rest were mid-air collisions, with total loss of hands. It was pretty hairy up there. Most of those kids had never seen real combat," Freeman told him.
"A better than three to one kill ratio isn't too bad, especially with pilots who don't have the training for this kind of combat," Henderson observed.
Straker frowned. "I wonder why they chose now to make their attack. They didn't have the advantage of bad weather, sun spot activity, nothing. It's not like them to be so... ill-prepared."
"We've got some ideas," Freeman said. "Ed, when did that inquiry of Sprenger's start?"
"Sixteen hundred hours, give or take a few minutes," Straker answered. "Why?"
"We picked up their activity at sixteen-fifteen. They began to move out at sixteen forty-two," Freeman replied.
"That makes it about the same time I shot Collins," Foster said. "The aliens must have been coordinating their attack on Earth with Sprenger's attack on you. They were probably thinking SHADO would be forced to divide its forces to locate you and fight them. They may have been thinking your death or disgrace would destroy SHADO's ability to act against them."
"They certainly weren't expecting SHADO to break it's own secrecy and bring in reinforcements. It's not something we've ever done before," Straker said thoughtfully. "It certainly wasn't what I'd planned when I assigned Ford and the others to the project."
"Good thing we did, though," Freeman said. "With the polar trajectories they were using, the aliens could have started World War three."
"They were also expecting Collins to finish me off. The aliens have gone to a lot of trouble to try to kill me. Why?" Straker wondered aloud.
"We may never know," Freeman replied.
Henderson gave Straker a long, appraising look, noting the uniform with its missing ribbons and the shaggy hair. "Colonel, your uniform is incomplete, and you're in serious need of a haircut."
Straker looked down at his uniform, then back at Henderson. "Sprenger claimed you'd suspended me. I guess he hadn't realized you didn't have the authority fire me." Straker gave him a wry grin. "Slaves have to be sold. By the way, the next time you guys decide to set me up as a tethered goat, let me know and I'll pick up some of my back leave."
"It worked, didn't it?" Freeman asked. "We caught up with Sprenger and with the creature they sent after you."
"You took an awful risk, though. Sprenger might have decided he had enough evidence to simply shoot me out of hand."
Henderson shook his head. "No, Sprenger needed to discredit you first, and through you, discredit SHADO."
"It looked like Kruger, Duvall and General Putin were all in on it," Straker reported.
"They weren't," Henderson replied. "At least, not the way it looked. Sprenger approached some of the members about some 'concerns' he had. I asked them to go along with him to find out if he had anything of substance. He didn't."
"What are we going to do with him?" Straker asked.
Foster answered. "We won't have to do anything. He's dead."
"Sprenger collapsed the moment Sky-2 destroyed that Ufo off Cornwall. His body simply disintegrated," Foster explained. "Jackson and Natiroff think he actually died about three years ago and the aliens resuscitated him to use against you, somehow."
"What made them start looking that direction?"
"You," Freeman answered.
"At first, we all thought you were trying to tell us you thought Paul was dead, then it occurred to us that you might have been frightened by someone else, like Sprenger. Natiroff started digging and found evidence that you might have been right, even though you were out of your head with delirium at the time," Freeman explained.
Henderson watched Straker for a long moment, noting that Freeman was also taking mental notes. Straker's expression was one of tired worry, as if too much information were being thrown at him that he didn't have time to process.
"Ed, are you all right?" Freeman asked.
"I don't know," Straker admitted. "When I saw Craig standing there, I froze. Lieutenant Bradley had to pull me out of the line of fire."
"You were startled," Freeman explained.
"No, I don't think so. I knew Craig had to be around, somewhere, but when he showed himself, I went blank, I couldn't move."
"Commander," Foster said. "How did I kill Croxley?"
"Croxley? You shot him," Straker answered, puzzled by the sudden change in subject.
"I mean, how was I able to shoot him? For that matter, why was I there at all that night? Why didn't he know I was coming?" Foster asked. "I asked Jackson and Shroeder about it, before Jackson left to keep an eye on you. Jackson thinks Croxley was a telepath with precognitive ability, and that when he was reading my thought patterns, I became sensitized to him. Some part of my sub-conscious was aware he was up to no good that night and set it up so I would go out to stop him. But, the only way Croxley couldn't have known I was coming out there was if something, or someone, kept him from knowing."
"What has this got to do with Craig?" Straker asked. There was a note of worry in his voice and a touch of what Foster recognized as fear.
"Ed, the only one who could have kept Croxley from knowing, was you," Komack said. "And, if you could do it to Croxley, it's just possible they could program someone like Craig to do it to you."
"That doesn't sound too promising, does it," Straker commented. "I can be programmed telepathically?"
Komack shook her head. "No, I was there, remember? You were startled at seeing Craig standing there and dropped your guard momentarily," Komack said. "It's likely that he even gave you instructions to that effect when you were still in the hospital. I mean, they had the perfect opportunity and the perfect weapon and still, they failed."
"I see," Straker said. He took big breath, in and out, as if to clear his mind as well as his lungs. "They're not going to stop, you know. They've got me pegged as a primary target."
"Well, with any luck, we've made them think twice about it," Freeman replied.
"I certainly hope so," Straker responded sharply. "By the way, what happened with Nurse Goodwin? Jackson said she was being investigated."
"Turns out, Lieutenant Evans was the one who did most of the security checks on her and Dawson was responsible for the medical side," Freeman reported.
"Dawson was working for the aliens," Straker reminded him.
"Apparently, so was Evans. Also, Evans, Goodwin, Dawson and Turner served together in the RAF and it was Evans' security checks that cleared them all for SHADO. When Natiroff checked with the RAF, he found that Turner had a history of violent outbursts that never showed up in the records we got from them."
"Sprenger claimed I killed operative Turner," Straker said. "Is that true?"
"Yes, but you were more than justified in doing so," Henderson said. "He had already sabotaged equipment down here and was planning to hand SHADO H.Q. over to the aliens."
"How do you know that?" Straker wondered.
Foster answered. "You weren't in any condition to lie about it and the physical evidence supported your story."
"Oh," Straker commented. "What's happened with Evans and Goodwin?"
"Goodwin's in custody. Evans died when Shroeder tried to removed the alien implant from his head." Freeman reported.
"Do we know who else was in their network?" Straker asked.
"Natiroff's working on it, but we're pretty sure we've got them all," Freeman said.
"Good," Straker responded, but his expression indicated he was still worried.
"Oh, by the way," Henderson said, picking a file off the top of the desk and handing to Straker. "This is a list of some things that need to be attended to as soon as the doctors have cleared you to come back to work."
Straker opened the file and glanced through the several typed pages. "This was all you found in two months?" he asked, worry replaced by surprise.
"You mean, there's more?" Henderson growled.
"The piano in the lounge needs tuning."
Straker looked at the list again. It was all things they'd discussed before, but never quite found time to change. "Alec, there are a few things I want to add to this list."
Straker nodded and glanced at Komack. "Kate has agreed to manage the studios for us on a permanent basis, so long as we never ask her to do anything down here. She suggested that John Gray take over the Institute. Miss Ealand will become Kate's personal assistant and I'll need a new secretary."
Freeman grinned at Komack. "Does that mean you're staying?"
Komack grinned back at him. "Just don't tell that relationship analysis program or the computer'll want one of us posted to Mars."
"Good thing we don't have a base on Mars then," Freeman said. "When's the momentous occasion to take place, may I ask?"
Straker and Komack looked at one another, then back at Freeman.
"We're still in negotiation," Komack answered.
* * *
Craig Collins was buried that Friday. He had no close relatives and so was buried in a small cemetery not too far from the studios.
The funeral itself was small and simple. Most of the senior SHADO officers attended, including General Henderson. Henderson and Straker were both in uniform. This time, Straker's uniform jacket displayed all the ribbons and medals he was privileged to wear. Komack stood with them.
"Unto Almighty God we commend the soul of our brother departed and we commit his body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection unto eternal life... " the black robed vicar intoned as earth was thrown onto the coffin.
Shortly, the service was over and Straker turned to go to his car.
"Ed," Henderson called quietly, falling into step with the younger man. "Wain's trial is set for next Monday."
"I've assigned Jackson to prosecute."
At that, Straker smiled. "Good."
"You know, we had a hell of a time trying to find three unbiased Commission members to make up the trial board. We finally had to draft a couple people from SIS," Henderson informed him. "It seems Sprenger wasn't just after you, but was collecting information on the board members, too. Enough to blow us sky high, enough to force control of SHADO into Langley's hands."
"I wonder why?" Straker asked. "I mean, they might well have pulled it off if they'd just waited, done a little more homework. I still don't understand why they were in such a hurry."
"I asked some friends of mine at the Joint Chiefs. Besides McGruder being in trouble for financial impropriety, Sprenger was also under investigation. For what, they wouldn't say. But, it looks like he was going to be forced to take early retirement. I imagine the other side figured they were running out of time and that Kruger and the others disliked you enough that they'd be willing to go along with it."
"But you got to them first?" Straker smiled.
"Well, you're not going to win any popularity contests with them, but you've done a damned good job, so far, and they're all smart enough not to mess with success," Henderson said. "Plus, none of us wants SHADO operations turned over to the tender mercies of the U.S. government. We're international for good reasons."
"There are still a lot of people who don't agree with those reasons, General," Straker said.
"Ed, can you imagine the CIA getting NATO and the Warsaw Pact to agree to joint maneuvers against a common enemy? Your people pulled it off. That's one hell of a team you've put together," Henderson said.
"They are good," Straker agreed.
Henderson reached into his jacket and pulled out a long, flat, jewel box. "That reminds me, General Putin was surprised to find out you weren't eligible for promotion because of SHADO."
"I try not to worry about it," Straker said. "After all, it comes with the territory and I'm not likely to get assigned to the Pentagon after all this."
Henderson grinned. "Putin wanted me to give you these. He said the Soviets recognized general staff material, even if U.S. Air Force didn't."
He handed the jewel box to Straker, who opened it. Inside was a pair of silver shoulder boards edged in blue, with a single silver star beneath the Soviet coat of arms, the rank insignia of a Soviet air force brigadier general.
"Who knows, maybe the Commission can manage to get the U.S. to trade those stars for ones that'll go better with your uniform," Henderson said.
Straker was silent for a long moment then: "Thank you, sir."
"I'm told you've been cleared to go back to work."
Straker nodded. "I start back Monday. It'll be interesting. Alec's been briefing me on the changes you both made."
There was something in Straker's expression that worried Henderson. He put a hand on the younger man's shoulder.
"Ed, there was nothing you could do for Craig Collins once the aliens got hold of him," Henderson said quietly. "He was dead when he first came back."
"I know that, General," Straker replied. "But that doesn't make it any easier. We've had so many good people die, and it doesn't get any easier."
"No, it doesn't," Henderson. "But, you can't let it stop you from doing your job."
"I never have, General," Straker responded. "We're a little like the Mossad. We do what we must and we do it very well, because the alternative is too horrible to contemplate."
"Welcome back, Commander," Henderson said. "By the way, I expect you, Colonel Lake and Colonel Komack in my office Tuesday morning. As I recall, you missed the meeting we had scheduled."
"We'll be there. Just don't tell me I need a vacation. I don't think I'd survive another one," Straker said as he climbed into his car.
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