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The Priority of Questions - Alec Freeman

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Two Characters - Two Writers  - Two Different POVs - Two Stories

One Dialogue by Guina and Lightcudder

This Point of View by Lightcudder

© December 2010

As with all our UFO stories it is transposed to the current day, with general technology updated, but none of the other facts altered in any way.

This story takes place after A Question of Priority.

Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the authors of this story. The authors are in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any previously copyrighted material. No copyright infringement is intended.

 


He needed the shower this morning. A long hot deluge of water to try to  bring some life back into his body. Hell, it had been a hard few days, what with the aftermath of that fiasco in Northern Ireland and Ed’s  peculiar behaviour.  Alec still had no idea what the problem was, but Straker had  isolated himself from  everyone.  Had ignored Alec and the rest of the staff, had come into work each morning  looking  haggard with tiredness,  only to spend long hours alone in his office, dealing with  paperwork, but doing very little else. Had refused all offers of help, or suggestions that he go home and get some rest, had been curt and abrasive and above all unconcerned about  the ongoing state of affairs in his  headquarters. And that worried Alec Freeman more than the obvious signs of exhaustion, or the  dulled eyes, or the  silence. 

Apathy was not a word you would ever associate with Ed Straker.  A clear indication that something was very wrong.

But Alec was now determined. This morning he would confront his boss and find out exactly what was going on.

Last night’s local newspaper,  folded and  unread, was  on the breakfast bar and with careless eyes he  glanced over the front page,  his  first mug of coffee  in his hands,   toast on the plate next to his elbow.  The usual unsuccessful attempts to instil some drama into mundane and  unimportant happenings.  Bold  headlines glorying in the  collapse of a local holiday firm with stranded travellers  in Majorca.  A mirthless grin twisted his lips.  Bad news always made good copy. The reporters would be happy. Keep them occupied for a couple of days no doubt.  Pictures of unsmiling families waiting in a crowded terminal for a flight home. No doubt followed in a couple of days by extravagant details of the traumas suffered.

Tough. At least they had had a holiday. It  was too long since Alec Freeman had managed a decent break away. Perhaps that was what Ed Straker needed. A few days away from SHADO and all its problems.  He would suggest it to Ed this morning. If that was, he could get to talk to the SHADO Commander without getting his head snapped off.

He folded the broadsheet to read the smaller news items on the front page, then stopped, appalled,  the morning’s sparse breakfast ignored as he read, lifting the paper up  as if  by that simple act of reading the words more closely he might make them  untrue, might make them disappear. His hands began to shake.

But no. The words remained.  There.  On the page.  And suddenly everything fell into place. 

Dear God. Ed.

Alec fumbled for his keys, desperation making his fingers clumsy, thick and unresponsive. Then he was out, hurrying down the stairs, out to his car, starting the engine and fastening his  seatbelt only when the interior alarm  warned him of an imminent shutdown if he didn’t comply.

He focused on driving. His  responses as automatic as ever, slipping the car into the stream of traffic with precise efficiency, glad to have something to concentrate on other than John’s face on the paper that lay beside him.

A face that he was familiar with, that he saw every day at work. Blue-eyes, blond hair, the fine bone structure. A youthful Ed  Straker, a boyish version of his father, with  the same  smile that was so rare,  so seldom seen on the older man.

It  was a  bright morning with cloudless pure skies, crisp shadows,  holding the  promise of more good times, hot sunlit days, warm nights. Alec Freeman carried the  newspaper in a  clenched fist, He ignored the world  as he strode from his parked  car, ignored the receptionist with her false  smile  and fake  eyelashes, and he ignored Miss Ealand. The office door slid shut and he dropped the newspaper on the desk to  pick up the box for the necessary Voice Print Identification scan.  Unwilling eyes glimpsed the small article that leered out, its sentences  accusing him with every word, every letter. He could not help but read it again, although it was burned into his mind.

Newspaper Article about John Straker

And Alec Freeman closed his eyes in despair as the office descended.

Shado was quiet. No one commented  on his  drawn expression as he approached Straker's office. The door was closed. He hadn't expected anything else, and he stood there, unsure,  almost  too distressed to go in and face Ed Straker, to have to  confront him with what had really happened just a few days ago. The truth. There in the newspaper.

Ed’s son.       

Dead.

The office door opened and he took that first soft and hesitant step, across the threshold, into Straker’s office. What could he say? Comfortable platitudes. That was all. Meaningless empty words. But he had to know what had happened.

‘Alec?’  Straker gave his second in command a brief and questioning glance before dropping his head down to stare once more at the folder open in front of him.

'Ed?’ His voice sounded too loud, too abrasive in the sullen  silence. He  stepped forward and tossed the newspaper in front of his friend. The face  of  a young boy  smiled up from the surface of Straker’s neat desk. John’s face.  His eyes accusing Alec. ‘Is it true? John?'

Straker didn’t look up again, didn’t even glance at the picture.  ‘Yes.’

Alec watched bewildered as Straker folded the paper and pushed it away from him with almost casual unconcern.

The temptation to grab the paper, to shake it in front of that expressionless face, to grab Straker by the shoulders and shake him as well was overwhelming. Anything to get a reaction. To break open that steel cage of dishonest indifference that surrounded Straker.

‘For God's sake. What happened?'  It was too late to back down. He had to know. Had to get an answer. Even though Alec feared that answer more than anything else he had ever feared in his life. His body shuddered with the chill of memory. The events of that day. That look of sheer horror and despair that had flashed across Straker’s expression after Alec had diverted the transporter. What had he done. Dear God,  what had he done?

‘Car accident. He died. That's ... all.’ Curt words. A sharp nod. Another folder opened and  studied with unseeing eyes. Without further comment Straker’s hand reached out for the intercom in an attempt to  dismiss  his unwelcome interloper.

Alec Freeman moved. Grabbed, held, gripped as if his life depended on the contact between his own hand and that slender wrist that was now immobile in his fingers. He could feel the trembling in the  arm beneath his own clenched hand, the loss of resistance, Straker’s  resolve failing with every pulse that throbbed through his body.  A  frozen moment,  with two men trapped in time. Alec stared. Hard. Into those blue eyes that were trying to avoid his gaze, those eyes that were full of  suspicious brightness, eyes  that looked past him into the distance.  A face that seemed, to Alec Freeman, full of cold hatred. Hatred of him?  He tightened his grip and felt Straker wince under the pressure of his fingers.

‘Don't you dare. Don't you dare cut me out like that. I have the right to know. Damn it Ed, I need to know. What the hell did I do? It was my fault wasn't it?' he growled, the words rough like sandpaper, raw in his throat.

Letting go of Straker’s wrist with a sudden jolt he turned away to pace the room, unable to sit, unable to watch Straker’s face with its dead expression. A lifeless expression without joy, without hope. Nothing.

"You're exceeding your privileges, Colonel. Yes, my son is dead. My son is dead. How I deal with that is up to me. Right now I want to deal with it in privacy ... Alec ... go! Please." Straker  whispered, although Freeman was too angry to notice the subtle hint of pleading in the desperate voice.

"No. I won't. We need to talk. Why couldn't you trust me enough to tell me?" Alec shouted, rage flooding  through him as he turned to slam  his fist on the desk before resuming his restless pacing.

"I'm not going. You can sit there behind that desk. You can pretend that you don't care, cold and unemotional, but I know better," Alec faced his friend again, determined to get the answers he needed.  "Dammit Ed. Talk to me. Please.'

"What do you want to hear? That I abused my power? Yes! I did! I used SHADO personnel and a SHADO transporter to get something here.’ Straker retorted,  sharp and abrasive, his words cutting through the air. "It didn't work out as I thought. Now John is dead. And I have to live with that fact."

Alec  felt the chill run through him, felt his heart miss a beat, and a heart-stopping ache at the realisation  of what had happened. He leaned on the desk, his body trembling with the loss of energy.

'Oh  God Ed. It was my fault then. John is dead and it’s all my fault.’  It was an effort to even remain standing.

‘No. ... No you didn't. ... Remember? It's a question of priorities. You did what you had to do, what your job is. I misused that transporter, you are not responsible for employing it as it should have been. No Alec. You are not at fault.’

Despite Straker’s protestations, his attempt to comfort his friend,  Alec would not  be comforted or reassured. For  Alec knew. Knew that he was, in part, to blame. That his  decision to  divert the  transport had killed  a child. Straker’s  child. Ed’s son. John. John.

A knife plunged deep into his gut, the pain agonising, unbearable. He stepped away once more. Away from the   picture of John that still watched him, accused him,  followed his every move.

‘Ed. I  had no idea. I wondered at the time why it had taken off early. Dear God, John would be alive now if I had asked. How can you bear to even look at me.’' His voice cracked, betraying him even now.

‘Cut it! .... please.’ Straker’s voice sliced deeper  into his guilt. ‘You aren't responsible. I am. I didn't tell you. Not when he had the accident. Not when you redirected that plane to Ireland. You and I both know that I had no business using it. It would have been a case of court martial for both of us, else, given that renegade alien. No, Alec. These things happen.’ the voice softer now, but still Straker wouldn’t meet his eyes.

The knife dug deeper, twisted even harder, ripping  and tearing  and slicing  through his very being.

Yet somehow, as he stood once more in front of that barrier between himself and his friend, restless and trapped by his fears, he managed to admit the truth with words that  burned as he spoke them. 

‘That’s rubbish! These things don't just 'happen'. I am to blame. We both know it. You’re just trying to make things easier for me. As for a  Court Martial.? No way and you know that as well.’ He shook his head with anger.

There. Said.  There was nothing else left now.  Alec Freeman waited, heart pounding, for a look, an acknowledgement. Something.

He watched as Straker, moving as stiffly as a puppet, stood up and dragged his jacket from the back of his  chair. Alec could see the effort that was involved   in the  simple task of shrugging  into it and fastening it up.

 ‘Let's go for a walk, Alec. Somewhere more private." Straker looked up at last. Acknowledged his presence with eyes that seemed to look through him, as if he could not bear to admit  his presence.

‘More private than here? Why? What are you hiding from me? Or is it that you simply want me out of here.’ It hurt so much, that jagged knife edge of blame, of separation, of knowing that he had lost his friend. And yet, how could he ever have expected Ed to behave towards him after what had happened.

‘Do I have to pull rank on you so you go for a walk with me?’

How could he respond? And then Straker looked at him, and the blue eyes stared without blame.  Alec could see the hurt, the anguish deep inside Straker, but not hate, not condemnation. And he felt the first tiny spark of hope.

"I'm going into the park. You can either come along, or not. Have it as you will. I need some fresh air.’ It was  unspoken plea for companionship, support, help. 

Alec sighed as the knife slid out, as the pain inside eased enough to let him draw breath. ‘As long as you talk. As long as you tell  me what happened. I need to know the truth. Promise me that much.’ 

His eyes tracked Straker  as the commander walked out,  not looking to see if he was being followed. Alec shadowed him, without conscious thought, without a moment’s hesitation as if bound to the other by more than friendship and the responsibilities of work.

The park, fenced and secure, was deserted in the  almost oppressive  heat. Sweat prickled on his face, and he wiped his forehead before unfastening his jacket. He looked ahead, to where Straker was  now standing, back to him, hands still clasped behind him. Shivering, as if it was a chill winter’s day, despite the jacket that wrapped around him like a barrier.

Alec stood silent and patient, not knowing what, if anything, to say. There was nothing to do but wait until  Straker turned to face him.

The movement was hesitant and slow as if Straker  was unsure of Alec’s reaction. Eyes met. 

‘John liked the park. We were horsing around with the studio's old fire engine on that day.’ He was still shivering as if colder than ice.

"When he last visited? Was that..........." Alec stepped forward, then halted. Unsure, unwilling to  step into that  circle  of isolation that surrounded Straker.

‘Yes. It was.’  Shivers wracked through the slender figure standing there.

‘And you took him home. And then?  You told me you would be back at six. I wondered where you had got to.’

"We ... I was late. Half an hour. John wanted to show me the boat he had built.’ A distant look and a smile, before he carried on, ‘Mary and ... Rutland wanted to go out with him. So I left before he was downstairs again. He ran after me, straight into the road, straight into a car. Bad head injuries, broken ribs, piercing ... vital organs."

The sunshine was too much to bear. Alec ripped open his jacket and tugged it off  with  harsh jerks. The heat. The words. Burning.

 ‘But he's young, he's ,... he was healthy. Young kids  can survive some pretty bad accidents. What happened? What did that transporter have to do with it?’ his mouth dry, his lips stiff and reluctant. He had to listen hard to hear the whispered reply.

‘They were serious injuries Alec. And John is... John was allergic to nearly all antibiotics. He was building a raging infection. The only drug potentially... the only antibiotic he might have been tolerant of was a new American one.’

Alec could feel the blood leave his face, could feel the same chill that Straker was  experiencing shudder through him. He could hardly speak. His throat dry, thick.

‘Oh god, that was what it was carrying.  And I delayed it. Ed,... .........’ he turned away in  distress.

‘Loads of "ifs" Alec, loads of "maybes". Maybe that drug would have helped.  If he had tolerated it. Maybe it would have been time enough, maybe not. No one, Alec, no one knows. Once we had a UFO alarm, that was that. You did not know because  I chose to not tell you. I am responsible.’

Freeman spun round,  his face now flushed with anger and more than anger. With returning guilt.

‘Fucking hell, Ed. You did everything you could possibly do to save your son. Your son and I stopped him getting that drug in time. I'm responsible. Not you. An alien. Shit. We didn't even get him alive.  John died, because I was so keen to get  that alien. How can you ever forgive me?  How can I  ever forgive myself?’

‘Stop it, Alec! That's why I didn't want to open this can of worms! I knew that you would have reverted your order. Alec, do you hear me? I knew that! That's why I kept my mouth shut. It was my decision. Mine alone. I condemned my son to death, and godammit, I knew that as well...... Will you now... would you please stop it now? I can't ... I just want to get over this. Just leave me be. In a couple of months... just leave it alone. Please?’

Alec watched as Straker shrank, the broad shoulders dropping down  in a  posture of exhaustion or resignation that would be unnoticed by anyone else. And Straker looked up  at him, looked deep into  Freeman’s eyes.  An unspoken plea to be left alone.  

But Alec would no more leave Straker  than he could have diverted that transporter had he known what was depending on it.

'Ed.. Please...... I can't leave it like this.. I can't let you shut everyone out. Not now.'

Straker shivered again, wrapping his arms around himself as if to prevent Alec getting closer.

‘Is that your answer? Silence?  Try to ignore it in the hope it will  go away’ The words poured from him in a torrent of despair. ‘You can't hide away from this Ed. It’s there. It will always be there, and though you say you were responsible, we know that isn't the whole truth. John is dead, and I  have to bear some responsibility for his death. You have to deal with that fact as well. Can you? Can you work with the man who helped to kill your son? I need to know.’

He was unprepared for the contact. The embrace. A close, tight hug. Ed’s  arms holding him, strong and still, not shivering now, arms that enfolded him in love, in warmth and understanding. Heads together, all thoughts of guilt, of blame crushed out of existence.

‘Ed. I am so so very sorry. I wish................................’ he  tried, he wanted so much,  to say more. But  what could be said?

‘Let it be Alec. Please. Listen to me for once, please.’

Alec nodded in reluctant surrender as Straker looked around at the empty park as if seeing a small boy playing there in the far distance.

‘Let's go back. ... He was so happy here ...’ 

 

He had been awake for some time now,  Lying there staring up at the ceiling. Wondering. Imagining  Ed  lying awake as well, if he had actually managed to sleep at all, that was.  Sunshine  crept through the gaps in between the curtains, it brightness  accusing him. He didn’t want to get up, didn’t want to do this, and in fact  he hadn’t been asked to do it. But Ed was his friend. And if Ed Straker wasn’t allowed to attend his own son’s funeral then Alec Freeman was damned well going to be there in his place.

On a day like this it should be dull, it should be raining, heavy sloughing rain that chilled one, that hid the tears. But it was sunny and fresh  and bright. It was all wrong.

His uniform hung behind the door. Pressed and ready. It was too early to get up though, yet he could not bear to stay in bed any longer, could not lie there looking at the bland ceiling.  He flung the covers back.

Later, dressing with thick fingers that fumbled with buttons and tie, he thought about the day ahead. Would they recognise him? Would they make a scene?  He hoped not. For John’s sake.

His stomach rebelled at the thought of food; a cup of coffee, half-drunk, was all he could face in the end.

The morning news on television, restless pacing, flicking through channels, looking at his watch over and over while the minutes dragged by. Even reading yesterday’s newspaper. Stale news, stale coffee. His eyes roamed without reading, without taking in details

It was time.

With a sigh of relief and yet reluctance he eased his seldom worn jacket over his shoulders, fastened it, tugged it straight. Picked up his hat.   Closed the door behind him.

His Rover was the first in the carpark. He sat there, the engine idling, air conditioning keeping it cool inside. Despite the early hour, the heat was already threatening to  get worse.  He was glad he had parked in the shade. He waited, listening to the radio,  thinking about Ed. About John.

The cortege arrived without him noticing. It was just there all of a sudden,  the long black hearse driving past him, tyres crunching on the fine gravel, before pulling to a halt outside the open double doors of the small chapel.

Alec stared through the windscreen as the small, pale coffin was lifted out, placed on a trolley, wheeled inside. An obscene travesty. That tiny  casket should have been carried on shoulders into the cool dimness of the chapel. His shoulders, Ed’s shoulders. Even Stephen Rutland should have had his own  part to play in John’s  final journey.

Angered  and  more than a little distressed by the thoughtlessness shown, he watched from the obscurity of his vehicle as the small crowd followed  behind the little procession. It should never have been like this.

The mourners had gone inside. No one else around.  And with heavy, reluctant  steps he followed, slipping unseen and  unnoticed into an empty pew near the back

It had been years since he had last been inside a church, but the familiar routines came flooding back, and there was some small comfort to be had in  the gentle words from the priest. The phrases he had learned as a child returned to him, and eased the jagged pain  of that  empty place next to him, the prayer book lying unopened, unused. Ed should have been here. Even if it was only to stand here, at the back of the church. It was his right, his last gift to John. The only thing that he could have given. His presence here, today.

The service ended, the congregation stood. The coffin was wheeled out again, so small, so insignificant. A single wreath on top. Ed had not been allowed to send a tribute. Had been ordered not to. Alec kept his head lowered as John passed by, as one wheel on the trolley squeaked a gentle note of rebuke,  as John’s mother sobbed  and leaned against her husband. They did not see him.

They did not see anyone, other than thesmall casket that preceded them.

The grave was waiting. Open and dark with earth piled up next to the hole and covered with a   piece of cheap grass material as if to hide its purpose. The soil waiting to be dropped heavily onto that seemingly fragile coffin that was, even now, being lowered down out of sight, out of this life.

No headstone, not yet.  Alec stood out of the way, half-hidden behind the comforting bulk of the funeral directors wearing their thick black overcoats, even in this heat. Apart from the other mourners, but still  part of them.

No one looked at him, no one  frowned at his presence, as he stood bare-headed, muttering to himself the familiar words that filled the silence. And, at last it was over. The final thump of soil on wood as mourners dropped their  handful of earth, one last rose falling  from Mary’s numb fingers down onto her son.

And as if awaking from  sleep, the people around the small grave  began  to look up and around, to move  away, and to talk in quiet voices to each other. Alec remained alone. Silent  in the hot sunshine.

The last car  drove away, but he lingered there, under the shade of the trees, leaning against the stone wall. There was no rush. Ed would be here soon enough. Well before the grave was due to be filled in, he had made sure of that.

So, patient, still, he stood there, thinking back over the years and wondering what the future would bring.

A car. In the distance. Alec stepped out into sunshine and brightness to greet his friend with a sad smile of welcome.

Straker looked up at him. ‘I hope you didn’t have to wait too long.’  His voice was tired and thin. 'How long have you been here?'

Alec paused, wondering whether he should lie, but Ed had the right to  know. It might be of some comfort to him to know that Alec had been there, even if he himself had not.

‘Since nine,’ he answered, his voice as casual as possible.

Straker was silent as they walked on. Then, ‘Thank you,’ he said.

As  they reached the grave the first leaf of autumn fell to the ground behind them, golden in the sunshine.