Paul Foster stepped gingerly onto the damp tarmac, one hand still gripped convulsively around the ladder handrail.
Foster shivered. It was a warm autumn night, drizzling faintly in his face, but it felt like a winter storm after the controlled environment of Moonbase One. Odours overpowered him; earth, rotting leaves, flower scents and rocket fuel. Lights glimmered on a too-distant horizon. He had to brace his knees against gravity, though exercise and the artificial version should have prevented any such side effect.
"You are all right, sir?" the voice of the module pilot asked from the air above him.
"I'm fine, Vassily," Foster lied. "Just trying to remember the way to Immigration. I'm not sure my visa's in order."
Dropping the last few feet into the pool of light, the pilot peered at his superior officer in puzzlement. "But you are English, Controller – you do not need visa."
"Just my feeble attempt at a joke."
"Ah, your famous British humour. Monty Python. I like." Vassily let loose a laugh that shook the module. "Let us go. I am sure there is a ... welcoming committee? ... waiting for you, Controller."
"Colonel," Foster corrected. He'd got his Earthlegs back now – if he was careful how he walked – and he followed Vasilly, if somewhat cautiously, across the tarmac.
There would be a welcoming committee, of course. The question was: who would be in it? Alec Freeman, probably. Possibly even Ed Straker – no, push that thought away, his knees were rubbery enough already. Besides, the man silhouetted against the car's headlights was too big and powerful to be Ed...
"Welcome home, Colonel," his reception committee said, in a US accent unsoftened by fifteen years in England.
Foster clamped down on his shock. "General," he responded, taking the offered hand and attempting to pulverise it before it got him first. "You're the last person I expected."
"Glad I surprised you. It's the only fun I get," General James T. Henderson drawled. "Get in the limo. Oh, and you can stop looking around for a phone – Straker knows I'm here."
"But does he know what your angle is?" Foster asked, as he slid into the back seat of the limousine.
"Maybe. We've had twenty years to learn to second guess each other."
"So what is your angle?" Foster asked as Henderson climbed in beside him and rapped on the glass that kept them isolated from the driver. Tyres swished on wet tarmac, louder than the purr of the engine.
"My angle?" Henderson settled down in the corner. "Could be I'm interested in seeing SHADO run as efficiently as possible. Nearly two years you've been Space Controller; then Straker calls you back here without replacing you."
"That's not exactly true—"
"Oh, come on, Foster. Grey to take overall command of the Moonbases, Lake to take charge of the construction of the third, and control of the satellites to be returned Earthside. Like you. So what's Straker's angle?"
Foster shrugged. "I just follow orders, General."
"You did a good job up there. Came through on time and under budget."
Foster felt a flicker of alarm. "If I hadn't we wouldn't have got any more moonbases out of your tight-fisted bunch."
"Two built, one under construction, and that's your lot," Henderson said firmly, but his heart didn't seem to be in the old argument.
Foster smiled. "Not my department, General."
"You're sure of that?" Henderson peered at Foster from under upturned brows. "Willing to bet money on it?"
"With you? Uhuh."
Henderson nodded. "You know," he said, "even if you're not admitting it. As a field officer you've experienced every aspect of SHADO operations. You've had two years independent command. All you lack is political experience – and Straker's about to make sure you get it."
"Don't pretend to be stupid, Foster. However many Moonbases we build or Skydivers we launch, SHADO is only as effective as its leadership. The aliens know that too. How many attempts have they made on Straker's life during the last three years?"
The question was probably rhetorical, but Foster answered it anyway. "Eighteen, to my knowledge."
Henderson's eyes widened a little. "Around that. The number isn't surprising in itself, but that you've been counting is... interesting. And they'll get him one of these days, of course."
"Over my dead body." Foster wondered if Henderson realised how literally he meant it.
"Uhuh. That's not in Straker's plan, Colonel. If he can't survive to lead SHADO himself, he intends to leave the next best thing: you."
"I'm not Ed Straker," Foster protested.
"You're the next thing to an alter-ego he's got. Freeman lacks that essential streak of ruthlessness, Grey doesn't have the charisma, and Lake's basically a technician, not a field officer. No-one else in SHADO even comes close, and the last thing Straker wants is an outsider taking his place."
"But you want it, don't you? That's why you're here. You'd prefer me to be back in space so that if anything did happen to the Commander you could put your own man in."
Henderson did not rise to the bait. "You'll be more help here trying to take some of the weight off Straker's shoulders – perhaps he'll even let you do it. He's under a lot of stress."
"I don't buy it, General. Whatever your reason for coming here, I'm quite sure it's not for Commander Straker's good, or mine."
"You're not going to have an easy time of it, Colonel. You want to antagonise me – fine. Just be sure that you need an enemy rather than an ally."
"Enemy? But we're on the same side, aren't we, General?"
"That's for you to decide. Now, how's the work on Moonbase 3 going?"
The rest of the drive passed in a fog of technicalities, but Foster's mind kept returning to the mystery of the General's purpose.
He knows there's no way I'd ever side with him against Ed – so what the hell is he up to?
Foster still hadn't found an answer when the car drew to a halt at the Harlington-Straker reception area.
Henderson accompanied him inside.
The security terminal in Straker's upper office identified his voice print without delay, and they were rapidly lowered into the familiar bright buzz of SHADO HQ. Operatives nodded casual greeting, as if he had only been gone for the weekend. Perhaps they would have been more effusive if he had arrived in other company but, all the same, it added to Foster's growing feeling of unreality.
Straker was standing under one of the loudspeakers in a characteristic pose, cigar cocked between two fingers, silver-blond hair gleaming in the bright lighting as he tilted his head slightly to listen to Lew Waterman's incoming report. Then he saw them, and smiled, and came forward to greet Foster.
"Welcome back, Colonel," he said, holding out his hand.
Foster took it. The grip was firm and warm, however cool its owner's voice might be. Foster made sure his reply matched it, however much of an effort it took. "Good to see you, sir."
"You did a fine job," Straker said, and it was all the praise Foster was ever likely to get from that quarter for four years' work crushed into two. And more. It made its recipient feel lightheaded.
"Thank you, sir." It was like a ceremony, Foster thought, with Straker stage managing it – but who was getting the benefit of the performance?
"Report to Room 106 for de-briefing. I'll talk to you when Jackson's finished. Now, General, shall we go through to the office?" The Commander hustled Henderson out, leaving Foster staring after them in hurt bewilderment.
Then the room exploded into hubbub. Foster found himself crushed between three female operatives, while Keith Ford pounded his back and half a dozen other people attempted to shake his hand.
Despite the disappointment, he really was home.
It was some time before he faced Dr Doug Jackson across the de-briefing table, with its hidden cameras and recorders. There was a time when he had – no it was not too strong a word – hated Jackson. He would never be able – quite – to forgive the other man for his vicious style of prosecution at his court martial.
But the anaesthetic guns were his idea.
At least he could now appreciate how useful the mixture of security officer, psychiatrist and eccentric genius was to SHADO. And, while he had not forgiven Jackson, he had learned to trust him.
As de-briefings went, it was fairly standard. Jackson was, as usual, far more concerned about his state of mind than with his activities of the past two years, which was probably just as well in the circumstances.
"How do you regard your new posting?"
"I don't know what it is yet." I presume it's a field posting, but if Henderson's even half-right...
"Perhaps not. But you have been recalled from the second most powerful position within SHADO. You resent that, don't you?" Jackson's voice had sharpened.
"Why not?" There was only interest, no disbelief, in Jackson's voice.
Fell right into that one, didn't you, Paul?
Leaning back in his chair, Foster smiled sunnily at Jackson. "It was an administration job. I didn't join SHADO to fly a desk."
"And ... er ... suppose the Commander asks you to 'fly a desk' here?"
Good God. Was Henderson right?
"At least he won't be able to switch off the radio link when I tell him I don't like it, will he? Besides," he added quickly, "Straker knows where my talents lie."
And don't I just wish he did, Foster's thought continued inexorably. Damn. Thank Christ Jackson wouldn't recognise innuendo if it grabbed him by the balls.
I've got to stop this or I'll be in rehab before I can blink.
"I would not be too sure that I knew what the Commander was thinking if I were you," Jackson said repressively.
"I wouldn't even dream of trying to guess."
"Perhaps it would be better if you considered doing so. At least you would be working from a position of trust."
"And you're not?"
Jackson smiled. Foster did wish he wouldn't keep trying to do that. "I no longer know. The Commander's actions recently do not indicate any degree of trust in anyone. Perhaps, with you, it will be different."
Foster was still pondering that as he made his way into Straker's office. The Commander greeted him genially, waving him in the direction of the bar.
"You left everything in order at Moonbase, then, Paul?"
"Sure." Foster pressed a button at random, cursing the way his heart had started to pound. He only hoped that nothing showed on his face.
"Good. Now, let's have the rest of your report."
Foster talked for nearly half an hour, though he was convinced that Straker was not paying attention. All the answers he wanted had been given in that one word. Though it was all pretence, a way of hiding what was really important behind a cloud of verbiage, Foster was content to be able to sit and watch Straker.
Finally, though, he reached the end of his monologue with a question: "What now?"
"For you? A month's furlough."
Foster jerked upright in his chair. "No. I don't want it."
"You'll take it, none the less."
Damn it, what was Ed playing at now? He'd only just got back and here he was being banished at a crucial moment. A month's leave and he'd miss— No. He didn't even dare think that argument, let alone use it.
"When did you last take any leave?" he countered, instead.
"When I last needed it."
"Yeah? You want me to call Jackson in here and ask him his professional opinion as to which of us most needs a rest?"
They glared at each other for nearly half a minute, then Straker said, "Two weeks, Paul, at least. Humour your commanding officer, this once."
It was more of a concession than Foster had expected. "Okay, Ed, two weeks. And after that?"
Straker grinned, and reached for a cigar. "I thought you'd never ask."
Waiting in the bar of the Maybury Country Club for Freeman to arrive, Foster tried to drown the taste of disappointment in whisky.
What had he expected Straker to say, anyway?
"I missed you," might have been nice.
No chance. Might as well wish for what he really wanted –
"Boo!" said a voice in his ear.
Foster was on his feet and reaching for his gun before he recognised the voice. "Don't do that, Alec," he growled, letting his jacket settle back into place.
"You're nervous," Freeman observed, dropping into the armchair opposite.
"Tired," Foster corrected, with a faint feeling of relief; his thoughts had been escaping down paths he'd rather they didn't travel.
Freeman nodded. "Hear you're taking a fortnight off. You should've held out for a month. Straker pushes—"
"I held out for two weeks. He wanted me to take a month."
"You set a lousy example to the troops, then," Freeman retorted, unfazed. "Which reminds me – has he finally come clean about what you're doing next?"
"Yes." Foster took another sip of his drink.
"Well? Or has he sworn you to secrecy? He's been too damned close-mouthed of late. What's he got in mind?"
With deliberate provocation, Foster settled himself more comfortably before answering, and that answer was equally purposefully cryptic: "The eyes and ears of the king."
"I beg your pardon."
"Granted. In one of the ancient kingdoms – I think it may have been Persia –" he went on hurriedly as Freeman showed signs of getting ready to strangle him, "there were court officials known as the 'eyes and ears of the King'. They went everywhere in the kingdom, observing and acting on the King's behalf and answerable to no-one else." He grinned. "To be far less grandiose, I have a roving commission on Straker's behalf. Call it the job of aide de camp."
"I liked your first description better. Straker's eyes and ears – with his authority and answerable only to him?"
"Do you have any idea how hated you're going to be?"
Foster shrugged. "Depends on how I do the job."
"He's making you a scapegoat—"
"Forget it, Alec."
"I said, 'Forget it.'"
"Okay, okay." Freeman held up his hands in mock surrender. He rose to his feet, collecting the empty glasses as he did so. "Another—? Oh." He stopped in mid-movement, staring at the pretty blonde woman with whom he had nearly collided. "Mary!"
The woman looked just as startled, and a great deal more apprehensive. "Alec..." she said, in tentative greeting.
"It's good to see you again," Freeman continued, rugged charm oozing from every pore now that he had recovered his composure. "It's been far too long. Won't you join us? A drink, maybe? Or are you with someone?"
"I'm waiting for my husband... and yes, I will have a drink, Alec. Gin and tonic."
"I'll get them," Foster said, rising to his feet and recovering the forgotten empties from Freeman's hands. "Same again, Alec?"
"Uh? Oh, er, yes. Why not."
When Foster returned from the bar, he found Freeman listening attentively to 'Mary', who seemed to be in the middle of an apology. "... you, Alec. You brought back some bad memories, but that's hardly your fault."
"I never took sides, Mary."
"But you're Ed's friend."
"Which doesn't mean I always agree with him."
"If it's Ed Straker you're talking about, I'd say you very rarely agree with him," Foster said, to let them know he was present and that he had overheard.
Mary shot a startled look at Freeman, who replied to it with a belated introduction. "This is Paul Foster. He works at Harlington-Straker."
"Know about you and Ed? I'm not sure." His quick glance at Foster made it a question.
"No," Foster said, knowing he sounded curt but hoping his hostility was not too noticeable. He forced himself to smile. "I didn't think Straker had time for women, even beautiful blondes." Especially ones who looked as if they couldn't mend a blown fuse without a man's help.
Mary said nothing.
Freeman stepped into the breach. "This is Mary Rutland. She was married to Straker for—"
"The worst three years of my life."
Foster's heart lifted at the bitterness in her tone, only to drop like a brick when Freeman said, "He loved you, Mary. He still does."
Mary's harsh laughter had tears behind it. "He never loved me. He never even loved Johnny."
"Now, that's not true, Mary. He—"
"He killed him!"
Even Freeman seemed stunned by this accusation. "What in the world are you talking about? John was run down by a car."
"Ed could have saved him. He said he could. John needed a special drug. Ed said he could get it from the States, said he could get it to him faster than anyone... only it didn't come. Something 'more important' had come up. His own son, Alec. Something more important than his own son."
Freeman was frowning. "'Faster than anyone', you say? From the U.S... Oh, my God!"
"'A question of priorities,' he said. I wondered why... why he was so preoccupied, so angry when I—? When I heard about John being in hospital, I thought that was it, but..."
"You're not making sense."
"Or making too much," Foster muttered, but only to himself.
Freeman took a deep breath. "I never put two and two together before, Mary but... Ed wasn't to blame. He'd used his contacts to get the drug on board an ... experimental aircraft, a very fast one, but it was diverted – by someone else. Not him. I swear it, Mary. Ed did his best. It wasn't his fault John died."
Mary said nothing, but she did not look as if she believed him.
"Mary, please, talk to Ed. He's carried your anger long enough."
It was as if he hadn't spoken. Saying, "There's my husband now," Mary Rutland rose to her feet, collecting her handbag as she did so.
Freeman rose with her. "Think it over," he advised.
She did not answer him, but crossed the room to slip her arm through that of the powerful, bearded man who was standing just inside the main door, plainly looking for her.
Foster lifted an eyebrow at Freeman. "That was a turn up for the book. How long have you known about her?"
"I introduced her to Straker," Freeman replied shortly. "Now, come on, Paul. If we don't move fast we'll never get a table."
Though Foster took the heavy-handed hint and asked no more questions, he could not get the conversation out of his mind, particularly Freeman's assertion that Straker was still in love with his ex-wife. It would explain too much that Foster had foolishly hoped had another explanation entirely.
Damn the man, anyway. He's got no right to take over my mind like this.
Yet how could he blame Straker when the other man had done nothing to encourage this insane obsession, an obsession he knew nothing about, Foster devoutly hoped. Not that he had ever faltered in his admiration and respect for his commanding officer, what some others might have – had, no doubt – dismissed as hero worship. But one day everything had changed. He could even pinpoint the moment in time: facing a seemingly homicidal Straker with a gun in his own hand, and knowing that he could not shoot.
He still found it hard to credit the extent of the other man's trust in him.
"Not to convince me, Paul. To convince Jackson and Freeman."
Oh Ed, if only I could tell you how good that made me feel.
Yes, he had half a hundred instances of proof, not just of a commanding officer's care for a valued member of his General Staff, but of personal affection.
No more for me than for others, Foster told himself firmly. Virginia, Nina, John, Craig – God how I hated Craig – Alec... Grow up, Paul. Think of the blackmail possibilities, think of the weapon it would give Henderson, think of the fact that he's still in love with a blonde bitch who blames him for something he obviously couldn't help.
In an attempt to expel all such ideas from his head, he tried to find relief in action. As Straker had barred him from SHADO HQ, he looked up some old friends and spent three hectic days at the wheel of, and occasionally under, an experimental rally car.
It wasn't helping much, he decided glumly, as he drove home on the evening of the third day. Still, at least it kept him busy and he hadn't killed himself yet, though Bert had taken to making pointed remarks about the recklessness of his driving.
Hedges loomed over the unlit road, menacing in the half-light, as he followed the glimmering trail of cats-eyes, like precious gems dropped by an explorer to mark his way in an underground maze. Trees rose like stalagmites towards the darkening roof of sky. Despite the proximity of the huge sprawl of London, it was a lonely place, entirely suited to Foster's mood.
He did not, therefore, expect to see another car parked in a farm gate, still less to recognise it. He braked hard.
Freeman was already clattering up the road towards him. "Paul! Thank heavens! I was just about to call HQ. Could you drive me over to Straker's place? I'm supposed to be meeting him and Henderson there in about twenty minutes."
"Sure." With relief at being able to do something useful, Foster opened the door. Freeman slid into the car, fastening his seat belt as Foster executed a neat three point turn and set off back the way he had come.
For a little while there was silence. Then, "Thought you'd be in the South of France by now," Freeman observed. "Sun, sea, birds – and not seagulls either, you old twitcher."
Foster shrugged, and kept his eyes on the road.
"Or is there someone special here? Someone I haven't been told about?"
"Hardly. I've been on the Moon for the last two years, and I know the security rules just as well as you do," Foster replied evasively. "But what's with this meeting at Straker's place? You, Straker and Henderson in one unguarded room doesn't sound like good security to me."
It was Freeman's turn to shrug, a movement which Foster felt against his shoulder rather than saw. "Or to me, but you don't argue with the Commander's orders – at least, not nowadays. He may have a reason but, if so, he hasn't confided in the rest of us."
"The only way to stay alive in that job is to act as if everyone's out to get you."
"Except members of SHADO." Freeman hesitated, then seemed to come to a decision. "Look, Paul, if you're really going to work closely with Ed ... well, I'd keep an eye on him if I were you."
This time Foster did glance at Freeman, one eyebrow raised, mainly because he was too shocked to formulate a reply.
"Seriously," Freeman went on, "I'm worried about him, about the strain he's under."
"He seemed all right to me," Foster finally managed to say, but he was shaken. Henderson was one thing, Freeman another ... and then there had been Jackson's hints.
What I tell you three times is true.
And Straker was, indeed, under stress, far greater stress than Freeman could have imagined. Unless he'd been told.
No. Impossible. He didn't need to know.
And if Freeman had known he would have understood Foster's reluctance to stray far from SHADO Control.
Perhaps he could get Ed to have dinner with him, talk a little.
Now that the motorway lights were no longer flashing hypnotically past, Foster slowed the car's pace. The road was good and he knew it well but, out here in farmland, it was unlit. He followed the steady wink of the cats-eyes with remote efficiency, his thoughts elsewhere.
Perhaps Alec was right. All he was doing here was worrying. Perhaps he should try a diversion or two – but he could think of nothing that wasn't boring compared with working for SHADO.
Come on, Paul, it's not the job you're missing.
Freeman was looking at his watch for the third time in as many minutes. "Can't you get a move on, Paul? I'm going to be late."
More because it suited his mood than because he was worried about Freeman being late for his appointment, Foster pressed down on the gas and shifted into top.
Again, Freeman checked his watch as the car hurtled down a lane, ferns whipped by the wing-mirrors tapping like rain on the doors. Foster slewed right, then left, braking savagely before turning out into a B-road that felt like a motorway, then between high gateposts and into the carpark hidden in the trees besides the flats – "apartment block" as Straker doggedly referred to them – where the Commander lived.
Freeman had pressed the button that opened the doors and was out of the car before it had decently stopped beside a muddy cream Ford. "See you, Paul. Enjoy the birds," he called over his shoulder.
"Want me to wait?" There might just be chance that Straker would take pity on him and invite him in.
"No, I'll cadge a lift back with Henderson," Freeman shouted as he vanished into the porch.
Foster was just reaching to close the doors when the two shots sounded almost as one. He didn't finish the movement. Instead, he leaped out of the car and glanced about him.
Main door? Freeman had gone that way. Leave that to him. Up? The windows of Ed's apartment were bullet proof and unbreakable, but it was a very hot night –
He went up onto his own car's bonnet in a single movement, gathering momentum as he leaped from it onto the Ford's roof, feeling the thin metal give under his weight even as he jumped for the tree above it.
His fingers closed around the lowest of the really thick branches, perhaps fifteen feet above the ground. Body remembering his schooldays more easily than his mind, he swung like Tarzan, backwards and forwards, still picking up speed. Then, before he could lose his nerve, he let go at the high point of the swing. Even as he flew through the air he was drawing up his knees and curling his body to protect his head.
He wasn't going to make it, though. Fuck Lunar gravity, messing with his perceptions— His legs went straight through the open window, but his shoulder hit the frame, spinning him sideways, so he crashed into—
The bed. Talk about dumb-fool luck. He'd been thrown onto the bed.
Now, how much noise had he made?
He rolled off the bed, snatched out his gun – and slowed his movements to little more than a crawl as he cautiously eased open the door into the lounge.
Mary Rutland – ex-Straker – was sprawled on the floor, blonde hair and shiny blood pooling together on the pale pastels of the Chinese carpet. Straker knelt on one knee beside her, SHADO special in one hand, the other just touching the dead woman's left hand. There were tears on his cheeks.
Even as Foster watched, Alec Freeman came through the hall door, a gun in his hand. Perhaps he, too, had appraised the situation before moving in, for he kept behind Straker. Despite the heat he was, for some obscure reason, wearing gloves.
Didn't notice those in the car.
Freeman holstered his own gun and picked up the one that lay on the carpet, not far from the dead woman's right hand. Suddenly, Straker lifted his head and stared right at Freeman, straight down the barrel of the gun – and froze.
Foster shot Freeman through the heart.
Straker was staring blankly at Foster long after the echo of that shot had died away.
"Ed, he was going to kill you," Foster said.
Straker rose to his feet. "I know that," he said carefully. "The question is: how did you?"
"Three times," Foster said, "is enemy action. They kept hinting you were crazy. I knew you weren't. Besides—"
He was interrupted by a pounding at the outer door. "I'll deal with it," Straker snapped. "You stay out of sight."
Foster nodded acknowledgement, retreated into the bedroom, and sat down on the bed. Dispassionately, he noted that his hands were shaking.
Alec? Alec, why?
Perhaps I was wrong. If I was wrong...
Straker appeared in the doorway. "We don't have much time," he said. "I pulled rank on Security, but someone is bound to phone through to SHADO HQ to check, and we may have company sooner than that."
"Henderson. Freeman said he was due here for a meeting."
"Not for another twenty minutes, but you can bet your life he'll arrive early. He was meant to be Freeman's witness, but you certainly weren't meant to be here when it happened." As he was speaking he was opening the built-in wardrobes, then lifting a section of parquet to reveal what appeared to be a concealed floor safe. "By the way, how the hell did you get in?"
"Same way you appear to be planning to get out," Foster replied, watching Straker hook the ends of the rolled-up rope ladder over the edge of the window sill. "Junk mail gives you access to so many handy gadgets."
"Sometimes." Straker slung the small haversack that appeared to comprise the rest of the contents of the safe over one shoulder, spun the combination lock, knocked the tile down, and swung the doors shut. "After you," he said, waving a hand at the window.
Meekly, Foster obeyed.
"Anyone know you're here?" Straker asked, as he joined Foster at the bottom of the ladder, where the younger man stood staring at the tree above with growing incredulity. He must have been crazy...
"Not that I know of," he answered.
"Good. Then we can drive out of here in your car and no-one will be any the wiser."
This time, Foster concentrated on driving while Straker navigated. Once again it was a case of country lanes and major roads, avoiding suburban streets where their intrusion might be noticed. With no notion of where they might be going, Foster was careful to stay under the speed limit.
Neither man spoke a word, other than Straker's crisp instruction to, "Make a right here," or "Third exit," until they pulled to a halt in a stretch of tarmac between a double row of lock-up garages. Here the Commander disembarked, taking his backpack with him.
"Okay, Paul, off you go," he ordered. "You haven't seen me, or Freeman. Keep 'em running in circles as long as you can. And watch out for Henderson."
Foster didn't move. "Ed—" he began.
Straker didn't let him finish. "Get out of here, Foster."
Despite years of habitual obedience, Foster's response was equally firm: "No, I'm coming with you."
"You are not. That's an order, Foster."
"No," Foster said again, without heat or force, but with unshakable purpose.
Straker glared at him until he felt the hairs on the back of his neck begin to scorch, then, astonishingly, backed down. "Okay, Paul." He crossed to one of the lock-ups and opened the door. It was empty. "Park that thing in here and follow me."
With Foster's car locked safely out of sight, a short hike along a track down the back of a row of houses brought them to a second set of lock-ups. Straker opened one, disappeared inside, then backed a vehicle of extreme ordinariness into the open. Foster stood firmly in his path. Straker was capable of a great many things, but running him down in cold blood was not one of them. He hoped.
Stopping a few inches from Foster, the Commander stuck his head out of the window and called, "Lock the door for me, Paul."
Foster stayed where he was. "No, sir. You don't leave me behind that easily."
With no more than a resigned mutter, Straker got out of the car and closed and locked the garage door himself. Foster had taken his place in the driver's seat by the time he returned.
"You realise this may be a death run, Paul?" Straker asked, with the air of one making a final attempt to save a fool from his folly. "The aliens aren't planning to let us escape alive."
"We're not dead yet," Foster said, opening the passenger door for his commanding officer. "What the hell happened back there anyway?" he demanded, as Straker got in.
"They did what I'm always telling you to do – they went for a weak spot. Mine. I've suspected for some time that they had sleeper agents within SHADO, but I didn't want to believe Freeman could be one of them, despite all the evidence. But I was wary of him. I guess he spotted that. Mary, though ... I didn't expect Mary. I suppose I should've, but our marriage had been over a long time. After John's death, we never saw each other."
With no light other than that of the dashboard instruments, Foster could not see the expression that went with the words, but there was pain in Straker's voice.
Perhaps Freeman had been right after all.
"Alec knew I'd let her in," Straker went on. "She used to ... mean a lot to me. And she ... well, it made me slow. All the same, I was lucky. Mary was no expert with a gun and the aliens didn't – perhaps couldn't – make her one. Her first shot missed. Mine didn't. Make a right here," he added, as the car nosed its way out onto the main road.
"Self defence," Foster said.
"Sure. So Freeman was supposed to walk in right behind her and witness that I'd tried to kill her, and she'd killed me in self-defence – or kill me in his own self-defence if she'd failed. It hardly matters. I'd've been dead and he'd've been free and clear to take over SHADO. Only he was late."
"His car broke down."
"The best laid plans of mice and little green men. Still, he came close to salvaging the situation. Killing me with Mary's gun would've made it look as if he'd walked in on the aftermath of a bloodbath."
"He'd've had to explain the shot."
"You know he could have given half a dozen reasons ... but you were there to stop him. For which, by the way, my thanks, though this wasn't the role I had in mind for you. Your job was to make sure that, if the aliens killed me or I had to take to my heels, Freeman's succession wouldn't be automatic. It was why I called you back from Moonbase, so you'd be on the spot to seize your opportunity, even though it was possible your return would force the aliens into action."
"Which it did."
"It did," Straker agreed, his face impassive in the glow as he lit a cigar. "And now we must assume that Henderson – who I am quite certain is an alien agent – is in charge at SHADO Control."
"So we run." Foster was even less worried than he sounded. "We're free and we know about them, and they know we know, which'll divert their attention from Moonbase and beyond. Which, of course, is what you planned, isn't it? That's why you had the gear hidden, and this car."
"A contingency plan, no more. And you were not supposed to be along."
"You miscalculated," Foster said serenely. "I blew it, but you miscalculated."
"You weren't meant to have the choice," said Straker, who knew exactly what he meant. "Confound it, Paul, haven't you ever wondered if I'm worth that much personal loyalty?"
"Never," Foster replied promptly. "Where now?"
"I give up." But there was no anger in Straker's voice. Instead, he sounded almost happy. "Next left. And straight on—"
Morning, in fact, found them in Nottingham where they ate breakfast at McDonald's. Straker had changed in the car into slacks, t-shirt and a mouse-brown wig that transformed his appearance. Foster contented himself, for the moment, with leaving his jacket behind, though Straker had remarked that they had better buy him some more suitable clothes.
"More suitable for what?" he asked now, regarding his McMuffin with the air of one who had thought he had left such reconstituted cardboard back in space where it rightly belonged.
"Blending into the background," Straker said.
"And how the hell are we supposed to do that? Sir?"
"We're on vacation. The credit and bankers' cards I'm carrying – quite genuine by the way – are in the name of L. Mayhew. You'd better be... " He frowned. "Oh, my nephew. My elder brother's son. The same name to make it easier. I'll call you John. It's not a name I'm likely to forget."
Foster nodded. "I'd've loved to've been able to call you 'Uncle Ed' but L had better stand for Lawrence or Lionel or something like that."
"Lawrence, if I have a choice."
"Uncle Lawrence, then. And we're on holiday."
"Vacation. Check. We meander. We saunter. We join trips to stately homes and ask stupid questions. We throw buns to bears. We—"
"Roll up our trousers and paddle?"
Foster grinned. "Never mind. I get the idea. Can you drop the Yank accent?"
"Of course, dear boy." Suddenly, Straker's accent was as plummy as any from Oxbridge. "I can't be an American tourist; I don't have purple Bermudas and a camera."
"Nor a passport. For pity's sake don't overdo it, Ed."
"Uncle Lawrence to you."
Foster groaned. "And I was the one who said you needed the vacation. The shops are open. Going to buy me some pressies, nunky?
"If I don't shoot you first."
"I thought you were already trying to poison me."
Straker laid down his Mcmuffin with an air of distaste. "You could be right. They never used to taste like this back home. Let's go get you kitted out."
The two men caught the train to Sheffield the next day, having left the car in the park at East Midlands Airport, just to confuse matters, and were easily absorbed in the throng of businessmen and tourists. They had not tried for disguise; the wig had been abandoned after Straker had found time to tint his silver-blond hair and eyebrows to a less noticeable light brown and re-style it with a side parting that had to be gelled into place. Both men now wore anoraks over t-shirts and jeans, but Foster's offer to grow a beard had met with the contempt it merited. If they were lucky, SHADO was not even aware that they were together. If the police were looking for anyone it was for a blond American on his own, and were unlikely to notice two very un-blond Englishmen.
And so it proved, though they were both aware of increased police activity. Bomb-threats, they were told, again and again, as bags were searched and their intentions questioned. A renewed IRA threat, was it? Or Marxist or Islamic terrorists? No-one seemed to know.
Foster had sent postcards from the Dales to both Straker's and Freeman's addresses, as well as the standard one to the Harlington-Straker offices. He made the one supposedly addressed to Straker a plaintive plea to be allowed back early. Then he phoned his number from a public phone box in the Lake District – and got SHADO Control.
"Ford said that you weren't at Control, but couldn't tell me where you were over an insecure line," he told Straker, seating himself beside the Commander on the sun-browned grass slope overlooking Windermere. "They made it sound very casual. Was I enjoying myself? When would I be back? That sort of thing. I could almost hear Ford pausing to wait for Henderson to phrase the questions."
"Did they ask why you hadn't checked in before?"
"Yeah. They didn't seem very interested, though – told me to get the car radio fixed when I got back and didn't I want to extend my vacation for a while? Told me you'd okayed it. They don't want me to know what's happened. And the General certainly does not want me back at SHADO Control."
"Or they've found your car, figured that we're together and didn't want to give you any hint that the bloodhounds were closing in. Don't get complacent, Foster."
"I had thought of that all by myself, nunky, but I knew you'd enjoy reminding me, so..."
Straker threw a handful of dry grass at him. "Show a little respect, boy." He settled back against the hillock and stared up at the high hazy cloud that did not suggest that the Northern drought was going to end today, at least.
Foster didn't need to be a telepath to guess his thoughts. "Worrying about it won't help, Ed."
"Lawrence." It was said automatically, but without any force at all.
"There isn't an audience here. Relax, Ed." He laughed suddenly. "That's what a vacation's for, isn't it?"
Straker's gaze snapped back to his face. "Running for our lives leaving dead bodies behind us is not my idea of a vacation."
There was a stricken silence. In the darkened atmosphere, Foster sheltered his flickering courage with both hands as he said, "Ed, I'm sorry about Mary... and Alec."
"That goes with the territory. I think I told you before; I made my choices a long time ago, Paul."
"Which doesn't stop the pain."
Straker's eyes widened in surprise. Then, in a rare gesture of affection, he reached out and squeezed Foster's arm. "Funny, that was one of the things that Alec never understood."
"Alec was all surface. He thought you were too. Which doesn't change the fact that he was your right hand for over fifteen years, and now it's been amputated."
Straker's eyes closed, perhaps against the glare of the bright haze or perhaps against something else. "Leave it, Paul," he growled.
"I'd rather share the grief with you."
There was silence for a while. In it, Foster wondered if he had finally gone too far, whether the loss of military discipline and growing sense of friendship over the last few days had led him to assume too much.
Then Straker said, "I know. I've missed that. Missed you, Paul."
Dear God, maybe he hadn't gone too far. Maybe he hadn't gone far enough.
"You know," he said, picking his words with the utmost care because this mattered as nothing else ever had, "at my court martial, Jackson asked you if I was your friend and you said, 'Not in the sense you mean.' I've often wondered that in what sense you would mean it."
Straker took a sharp breath, then pushed himself up on his elbows and looked hard at Foster. "My God, is that still worrying you? Jackson was trying to destroy my credibility as a character witness. Otherwise... you're as much my friend as I can let you be and still be ready to send you to your death."
Foster's own gaze was steady. "Or to die for me? Even by my hand?" Straker must remember as well as he did that day when he had pushed Foster's loyalty... friendship... and the love he hadn't known about himself... to the limits – and won. But he could just as easily have lost.
He'd bet his own life knowing that whether he won or lost, Foster would live.
"Not at any risk to SHADO, to Earth or to innocents," Straker told him.
"You think I don't understand? I've made that choice in reverse, Ed, remember? But I'd die for you and not just because you're my irreplaceable commanding officer. Because you're my friend and, Christ help me, I—"
"Foster, what the Hell is it you want from me?" Straker demanded, cutting off the damning words before they were uttered, whether or not he guessed what they might be.
The question could not be answered truthfully. "Your pain," Foster said.
Straker's mouth twitched with a sort of amusement. "My pain? My son, my marriage, my wife, my dearest friends... Alec, Craig, God knows how many innocents... all sacrificed on the altar of SHADO. And now you want to take the pain as well."
"To share it," Foster corrected.
Abruptly, Straker rose to his feet. "There's one more thing you can't be, Paul, and that's to be so close a friend that your death would cripple me, or mine you. Come on. I think it's time we were going home."
They had meandered southwards without haste towards Harlington-Straker. Both knew that, if they survived this night – of all nights – they would have to make the attempt to retake SHADO Control.
"Even if Carlin and Ivanova succeed, for a short time Earth will be in greater danger than ever before," Straker had said. "Distracting Henderson and whoever else the aliens have subverted will no longer be good enough."
"It only needs one word," Foster had pointed out.
"From you or me. You set up Horatius, Paul. You know better than anyone that no-one except the two of us knows more than their own part in it. Even Lake and Grey don't have a full picture."
"Perhaps that was a mistake."
"How many Alec Freemans are there?" Straker had countered, unanswerably.
Foster hadn't tried.
The third holiday park they tried had boasted luxurious A-frame chalets set on a wooded hillside overlooking Salisbury plain. This late in the season, most were unoccupied, and the site manager accepted a week's booking on Mayhew's credit card without a second thought.
The expense didn't matter. Perhaps nothing more would.
The manager also informed them that the local supermarket was due to close in half an hour, but that gave Straker time enough to drive out to buy some essentials, while the manager found clean linen, gave Foster the grand tour of the chalet's facilities, and lit a fire in the log-burning stove because, as he pointed out, there had been a frost the night before.
The groceries Straker brought back included a bottle of excellent brandy. In response to Foster's raised eyebrows, the Commander said, "I need some for cooking. They didn't have any miniatures, but I'm sure you'll find a use for it."
"You're spoiling me," Foster told him, with a wide-eyed look. He contemplated fluttering his eyelashes, but chickened out.
"Get out from under my feet, Foster."
After pouring himself a generous shot of brandy, Foster got. Outside, the air was cooling rapidly as the sun ducked behind the hills, while the plain below was flooded with a strange cold light, rivers of shadow flowing across the ancient landscape and a real river like a trickle of blood below.
Foster found himself shivering despite the heat of the brandy in his stomach. If Earth could be so alien, how could their imaginations encompass another planet, another intelligent species? Or their defeat?
"Dinner in ten minutes," Straker's voice called. "How d'you like your steak?"
Foster shook himself. As Straker had said, they had made their choice. And human beings had been hunters before they had been farmers. "Rare," he called back and grinned nastily at the innocent plain.
Some of us haven't forgotten. Let's hope we never will.
To Foster's concealed astonishment, Straker – who he would have bet was no kind of cook at all – produced a superb Steak Diane, which they ate with a side salad and followed with fruit and ice-cream brought back from the supermarket.
Conscious that this might be the last time they shared either food or each other's company, they did not rush their meal.
Straker was at his most fascinating, all the force of his personality turned on Foster. Without any special effort to charm he held the other man enthralled.
The dye had faded and his hair was beginning to flash silver when the light caught it. He talked about the early days of SHADO, ridiculous anecdotes of clashes with bureaucracy, of equipment failure ("The darn thing kept identifying me as a female technician – Monica something, I think she was called – and it once told Nina Barry that she was General Henderson...") and of dreadful jokes.
"Tully was scared of nothing that lived, except spiders. So he found them everywhere; mostly plastic. I think Lieutenant Wa had a concession from one of his cousins in Hong Kong. I wasn't supposed to know about any of this, of course, but the crunch came when our techs devised an incredibly realistic electronically controlled model of a tarantula. They smuggled it onto my desk, but I didn't notice it; all I noticed was one sweating captain. At least, not until I picked it up in mistake for a pen, felt it move and threw it away from me – and straight at Tully. He knocked me flying in his charge for the door. Yes, well, the worst part was that I couldn't laugh. The practice I got that year in keeping a straight face..." He sobered suddenly. "It seems incredibly long ago. Somewhere along the line we lost the fun. Or perhaps it was just me."
Foster shook his head. "Serious game we're playing. You stop having fun when you realise it's not a game."
"Yes." Straker stared down at his laced fingers, his face now grave. "Killing your sense of fun is another death laid at my door, isn't it?"
Greatly daring, Foster leaned across the space between them and covered the tense hands with his own. "No. I grew up all by myself, Commander. In your own words, it came with the territory."
Straker looked up at him, eyes wide and gilded with reflections of the lamplight. "And if I'm wrong, Paul? It's such a slim chance. Who gave me the right to play God with the fate of two intelligent species?"
"Your humanity," Foster responded, more promptly than he would have done if not for his earlier thoughts. "We're hunters, Ed, and we fight for our own. You can't take it all on yourself. It was a joint decision—"
"It was my idea. My responsibility."
"Not any more. We're no longer important, Ed. We've become minor players. Everything is in the hands of Peter and Katya and Virginia and John."
"If Lake and Grey have made just one stupid move—"
"They haven't and they won't. You know they won't. They know that the most important thing now is to play for time, and that they're expendable. Just like us."
"Just like us," Straker agreed, with a bitter twist to his mouth. "Like all the others I've... expended."
Foster looked at him for a long time, trying to see a way to help, something he could do or say to ease the other man's uncharacteristic doubts. Yet there was nothing, nothing he was allowed, and Straker was now growing visibly uncomfortable under his scrutiny.
He said the first thing that came into his head. "You need a drink."
"Paul, you know I—" Straker began angrily. Then he stopped, sighed, and ran a hand through his hair. "That hardly matters now, does it? Maybe you're right. Maybe I do need a drink."
"Coming right up." Before Straker could change his mind, Foster poured him a large brandy, added some water, and followed him to where he had decamped into an armchair in front of the stove, its logs glowing behind glass. After pouring himself a similar amount, though not diluting it, he took his own tumbler and folded into a cross-legged position on the rug at Straker's feet. "For what it's worth I'm glad you pulled that fast one on me with Peter and Katya. I'd rather be here."
"You're too valuable for a suicide mission," Straker said repressively, sipping brandy and making a face. "Besides, your motive in volunteering was to stop someone else making the sacrifice. I preferred to send those who really wanted to go."
"Katya I can understand, but why Peter?"
Straker shrugged. "They killed his sister."
"But that was over fifteen years ago. Hell, Ed, what sort of relationship did he have with her anyway?"
Straker's mouth twisted and he took a rather larger gulp of brandy. "According to Jackson, probably a repressed incestuous urge, compounded by a massive guilt complex about it, and about the fact that she died and he lived."
It was Foster's turn to grimace. "I wouldn't want to be in Jackson's head."
"Oh, that's nothing to what he believes I feel about you—" Straker stopped abruptly and placed the half-empty glass carefully on the coffee table. "I was right the first time. I shouldn't have had this drink."
"Ed." Foster knelt up to face him. The blue eyes wouldn't meet his but he didn't really need that confirmation.
I had the evidence all along but I didn't... daren't... believe it.
"Ed?" he repeated gently.
"Forget it, Paul. Like you said, no-one would want to live in Jackson's head."
"He have anything to say as to how I feel about you?"
"Paul..." It was a whisper of protest, a plea.
Foster was sure now. "Just in case he didn't, Ed, I'll make it clear; I'm in love with you."
And suddenly Straker was looking straight at him and he was drowning in his eyes. Something gentle brushed his cheek. "Don't. Please."
"I love you," Foster repeated. "So fire me." And he moved the short distance necessary to find Straker's mouth with his own.
For a few moments, for what seemed like forever, it was as cool and unyielding as the front its owner always presented to the world. Then, between one heartbeat and the next, it had softened, opened before his assault and Straker was kissing him back as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
Unable to believe that this was really happening, Foster pushed fingers into Straker's hair, holding their mouths together, refusing to let the kiss end.
Until Straker twisted violently away from him, freeing himself from Foster's mouth if not his grip. "Paul – no!"
It was the panic in Straker's voice that made Foster pause. He drew back a little so he could look into the other man's face, one hand gripping his shoulder, holding him pressed against the chair. He was flushed, breathless – aroused, as Foster already knew – but his eyes were wild and, for the first time in the half a dozen years since Foster had first looked into them, afraid.
Gently, Foster ran a fingertip along Straker's mouth, feeling heat and sweat and something that might turn to trembling if it had not been for its owner's iron control. They both knew that Foster was physically stronger, that he could take Straker now in any way he wanted, perhaps even make him enjoy it, but...
Foster released his grip on Straker's shoulder, letting both his hands drop away so they rested in his own lap, on straining fabric and the throbbing heat beneath it. Somehow, he stilled his reaction to his own touch and said, "There's just you and me and a few hours, maybe until the end of the world. God, Ed, I'm scared too, but I'm more scared of facing those hours without you. Help me. Please."
Straker's eyes closed. "Please God, Paul, don't look at me like that."
It was encouragement enough. Foster kissed him gently on both eyelids, then moved to his mouth again. Straker did not resist him. Indeed, after a few moments, Foster felt hands slide up his back under his t-shirt, caressing bare skin.
Failing in his own attempt to find a way through Straker's clothing, he sat back abruptly, reached for the other man's shirt and pulled it over his head, thankful that neither of them was wearing a formal suit. In less than thirty seconds he had stripped Straker naked, and was stepping out of his own jeans.
Straker hadn't moved. He lay on his back on the sheepskin rug, one arm crooked behind his head, staring up at Foster. He looked dazed. Firelight glimmered on sweat-sheened skin, in eyes that were turquoise set in silver, sparkled on the edges of pale body hair dusting flat, hard muscle and gathering thickly at his groin. And, oh yes, he was indeed aroused, his sex already knowing what it wanted even if his mind was not yet totally sure, rising in a hard curve over that flat belly, its shadow dancing on skin flushed by more than the firelight.
Foster's blood turned to flame. With an inarticulate cry he flung himself down on top of the body spread so invitingly in front of him. Finally allowed to touch after so long, he could not find enough sensation. As Straker lay still, gasping, helpless, almost, it seemed, beyond any thought save release, Foster buried his face in his groin.
What he had thought would be difficult was simply one more taste, one more sensation. Instinct taking over, Foster clung to him, riding the bucking hips, sucking harder and harder until warm liquid spurted into his mouth, and Straker shuddered and stilled.
Foster lifted his head reluctantly. Straker lay sprawled in front of him, as flaccid as his sex, only the rise and fall of his chest an indication that he wasn't some incredibly life-like statue. Needing to touch, Foster ran a hand along his thigh. It moved weakly, exposing the side of one neat buttock.
Unable to resist that temptation, Foster turned him onto his front and began to caress the warm muscle that fitted so conveniently into the curve of his hands. It was intensely exciting and, already painfully erect, he had to bite his lips to keep control. Straker was still unmoving, probably half asleep.
God, the temptation to...
No. He simply could not. It wasn't, well, right.
With a little murmur of content, Straker spread his legs wider in open invitation.
Foster rose to his feet and made his way – gingerly – into the tiny bathroom. The medicine cabinet contained a first aid pack, and a small jar of Vaseline.
When he returned, Straker still hadn't moved. Kneeling beside him, Foster kissed the back of his neck, then each bump of his spine. "My God, but I've dreamed of you like this..." he whispered.
"'S'what Jackson said," Straker chuckled, surprising Foster, who had almost come to believe he was asleep. "Didn't believe him... Nice dream."
"Yeah." Well, why not? There might only be tonight.
Straker lay passive under him, silent now, just giving a little gasp and shudder as Foster's greasy pathfinding fingers pushed into him.
God, but he was relaxed. Drink... aftermath... trust... all or none, Foster didn't know. What he did know was that he encountered only minor resistance as he eased through the guardian ring of muscle and into the tight warmth that clasped as if it would never let go.
For stretching heartbeats they held unmoving, joined, one. In the silence Foster could hear Straker's breath draw in sharply, then again, and realised that each gasp coincided with his own pulse.
He almost came there and then but somehow he hung on, biting the inside of his cheeks, the muscle of Straker's shoulder, fighting to hold on to control because if he lost it he would hurt him and after such a display of trust he must never, ever...
"Paul, for Christ's sake..."
The thread of desperation in Straker's voice gave him the strength to lift himself, to give a little, tentative thrust, just easing his hips back and forward. The sensation was wonderful. He could have continued for hours, just rocking back and forth, but more powerful instincts gripped him. He could not hold back any longer.
"You're mine," he told Straker fiercely, lifting the other man's hips with his hands so he could drive himself even deeper, rub his balls against muscle and hair and heat. "Mine."
With a moan that was pleasure and pain and sheer need, Straker pushed back against him, muscles starkly defined as he braced himself between the floor and Foster's sex.
All control lost, they fought their way through awkwardness, to joined rhythm and, finally, to a shattering climax.
Foster recovered his senses slowly. As soon as he had regained enough reality to realise he must be crushing Straker, he rolled to one side and lay staring up at the ceiling, watching it swim in and out of focus and taking deep breaths in a futile attempt to slow the heartbeat thundering in his ears. One arm still lay over Straker's back and, as he regained a little strength, he stroked the sweat-slick skin gently, unwilling to lose contact. He was still so dazed that it took him over a minute to realise that the other man was trembling.
Concerned, indeed, more than a little alarmed, Foster rolled to his knees, looking vaguely for blood and, to his relief, finding none. But Straker was still shaking and his face was hidden in his folded arms.
"Did I hurt you?" he demanded urgently.
A headshake was the only response.
"Sure? You're shivering. Come on, let's get you to bed where you'll be warmer."
Even as he grasped Straker's shoulders to lift him, he was shrugged away with a, "Don't touch me, damn you."
Foster stilled, his hands dropping to his sides.
Perhaps not physical pain, then, but something worse.
"I'm sorry," he said helplessly.
He could hear the control in Straker's reply. "Not your fault. I shouldn't have... let it happen."
Sitting on the rug beside him, Foster carefully clasped his arms around his knees so he wouldn't be tempted to reach out. "I didn't give you a lot of choice," he admitted.
Straker's voice was now completely steady, almost normal, though he still didn't lift his head. "Foster, I always have the choice. It comes with the territory too."
Foster watched his own hands shake as he replied, matching Straker's tone of calm rationality as best he could. "You can't make me regret what just happened. You're everything to me. If I gave you just a few moments of pleasure, of release, made you forget your responsibilities even for a little while, it was worth it."
Straker's head lifted, his eyes startlingly bright. "Fuck you. Are you trying to make me— Oh, shit!" He turned away, too late to disguise his expression.
In a blaze of understanding, Foster reached out to him, hauled him into his arms and held him too fiercely for him to escape, telling again and again that he understood, that it was all right to let go, to need. That Straker should admit vulnerability was something that had been impossible to contemplate before this moment and that it should be to him was a gift beyond price.
"You're so wonderful," he crooned, sure that it would come right for them now that his lover was clinging so tightly to him. "I admire you so much. I want to help, Ed, to hurt and laugh and love and die with you."
Straker gave a little choked laugh. "Die... with me. Or by my hand. It's what happens to people... I... care about."
"I'll take the risk. I don't have a choice. I know you've been trying to save me from that, but it's too late. Far, far too late."
Both men were silent for what seemed like a very long time to Foster, time enough for them both to stop shaking and his heart rate to return to normal.
Then, quite suddenly, Straker kissed the shoulder against which he had been lying, before looking up into Foster's face. He was smiling. "Far too late," he said, as if that long silence had not taken place. "I think I may have been waiting for you all my life."
"Well, five or six years, anyway," Foster said, and kissed him joyfully.
"Umm. All of that. I wanted you from the first moment I saw you. Lovely backside... and those eyes. I never thought you might want me, though."
"My God, I never thought I'd hear modesty from you! Shit, Ed, you must know that all the women and half the men in SHADO are in love with you."
"Don't be ridiculous—" He peered into Foster's face, plainly trying to work out if he was serious. "Really?"
Straker thought about it, then gave his opinion. "Well, assuming you aren't kidding, that's just the lure of the unobtainable, I guess. If I'd made myself available it might have been different."
"You're telling me that I'm the only SHADO operative who's had you?" Foster was trying to keep the lightness of tone, but the answer was too important to him.
"Yes," Straker answered, "though I know damn well that I'm not the only one who's had you."
The note of jealousy cheered Foster immensely. "The only man," he said," and the only one who matters."
Straker sat up, pulling himself out of Foster's arms to glare at him more satisfactorily. "Don't feed me that crap. You and Virginia—"
"Virginia was the nearest I could get to you. She's like you in a lot of ways. Sometimes I could imagine she was you. Besides, she's one of those with the hots for you too. Misery loves company."
Straker reached out a hand and pushed a straying strand of Foster's dark hair back into place. "I've had some bad experiences with blondes," he said.
"Did you love Mary, Ed?"
"I thought so at the time," Straker said, after some consideration. "I wanted her, more than I'd ever wanted any other woman. That made me feel... normal, made me forget the men I'd wanted. I needed to be normal, Paul, wanted children, a family, someone to come home to, to lean on, to be ordinary with."
"And Mary didn't give you that?"
"She didn't trust me. I'd never have betrayed her, Paul, not with another woman, not even with you, if I'd known you – though I suspect I'd've been tempted," he added with a smile.
"So when she left you decided to rely on your good right hand?"
"Paul." It was a warning.
"There are things your hand can't do, y'know."
"Yeahhhhhh." And there was laughter. "That a hint? You want to start again, my Paul?"
Foster's gut knotted. "If that's what you want," he said carefully. "Ready, willing and able."
"Then why the hell are we wasting time talking? Let's go to bed. We may not have all night."
This time, it was easier. Foster moved with the assurance that came from knowing what he wanted and what Straker wanted, and that they were the same. Afterwards, unable to sleep for more than a few minutes at a time, they held and caressed each other, sometimes dozing, sometimes talking about anything but their joint hopes and fears as the night dragged on in a shared personal eternity.
Dawn found Foster lying with his head on Straker's shoulder in the wide bed, watching the sky redden through the sloping roof windows above their bed, just as he'd watched the stars redden within the lightless circle, then disappear as that ring collapsed inwards, then to burn bright again as it vanished completely. Only the low crater-rims silvered with Earthlight had remained to limit the heavens.
What was it like to walk under alien skies?
If mankind survived the next few days, it might soon know.
Names to go down in history; Virginia Lake, who had invented the utronic device and from it had developed the tachyonic bridge; John Grey, whose mathematics had pointed to frightening possibilities and who had helped make the bridge a reality; Peter Carlin and Katya Ivanova, who had crossed it.
Even now, if now had any reality in a quantum universe, they were trying to rebuild that bridge into the heart of a star. The resulting nova would destroy them, even as it destroyed the aliens' home planet.
If the aliens had a home planet.
If it was where the calculations had placed it.
If the bridge had ended within its solar system.
If the aliens hadn't found the starship first.
And even if they hadn't, even if their star was already exploding outwards in a firestorm that would annihilate everything in its path, mankind's survival was not assured. Were there other alien worlds set to retaliate? How many UFOs existed as free agents between the worlds? How many alien agents sat in key positions in Earth's defences?
Foster lay listening to Straker's steady heartbeat, wondering at their temerity: Ed Straker and Paul Foster, the men who had taken it upon themselves to roll the dice with humanity's future as the stake... but even if they won this roll, their own future was just as uncertain.
They might as well face it now.
"Looks like neither of us is going to get any more sleep," he said, rolling out of bed. Startled, Straker looked up at him with a sleepy smile that turned slowly to open admiration, which in turn brought a blush to Foster's skin and a delightful stirring in his groin. "My turn to cook," he said, ignoring both. "Give me five minutes, then you can have the shower all to yourself," and fled before temptation overcame him.
"Breakfast's up!" Foster yelled, dumping both plates filled with eggs, bacon, sausage, mushrooms and fried bread on the table and sitting down to tuck him himself. Straker appeared almost at once, wearing only a towel wrapped around his waist, his hair wet and ruffled. He eyed the table with appreciation. "There can't be many left," he announced.
"Huh? Many what?" Foster asked, with his mouth full.
"Sins to introduce me too."
"Eating isn't a sin," Foster protested, as Straker planted a kiss on his head before dropping into a chair and reaching for his knife and fork.
"Cholesterol in this quantity must be," Straker retorted, spearing a sausage.
"You bought it; I merely cooked it."
"Burnt it," Straker corrected, grinning at him. "If you cooked as well as you fucked I'd lose my sense of superiority."
"Just eat it. There isn't any more."
"General opinion in SHADO is that you never had one."
"General Opinion being a close cousin of General Henderson and about as trustworthy."
Foster chose not to reply to that and they finished their breakfast in companionable silence.
Which Straker broke abruptly. "I've had an idea about getting into SHADO Control and the opportunity to talk to spaceside."
Placing both elbows on the table, Foster put his chin on his hands and stared hard at Straker as he asked, "Why do I get the feeling I'm not going to like it?"
"Because you're not," Straker said flatly. Then, with a quick flash of a smile, he added, "At least, it's possible you might enjoy the first part..." Then the smile was gone as he went on, seriously, "And you don't have to do it. Any of it. Because it's going to be all on you, Paul. Everything. And you may not live through it."
"Tell me," Foster said.
Straker looked into his eyes for a moment, then closed his own. "God forgive me," he whispered. "God forgive me that I love you and still can do this to you."
Instantly, Foster was on his feet with his arms round Straker, telling him that, "Anything you do to me, you do because I want you to."
Straker leaned back against his chest. "You're crazy," he said tiredly.
"About you, yes." Foster nuzzled into damp hair, wondering yet again how he dared. "Come on, Ed, tell me."
Twisting out of Foster's grip, Straker took his lover's face between his hands and kissed him gently. "Just remember that it's not an order, Paul."
"Tell me," Foster repeated, keeping his gaze steady.
"Well, first of all the good part is that we get to go back to bed."
"I like it already."
"You won't. You see, I figure it this way..."
The guard at the Harlington-Straker Studio's main gate looked like a sandbagged codfish when he saw who was driving the hired car. Plainly, he had been told something.
It was Foster who resolved whatever conflict of loyalties he might have had. "Phone through to the office, will you, and tell them to be ready for me and Mr Straker."
"Yes, Mr Foster, but—"
"Go," Foster said to Straker, and the car accelerated through the rapidly rising barrier and along the drive into the studio executives' car park.
Foster was the first out of the car, holding the gun they had retrieved from where he had cached it what seemed like an age ago and Straker followed, keeping his hands plainly within sight. No doubt they were being watched, so this had to look plausible at the very least.
As one, they looked towards the low, white office building that hid SHADO and the watchers, then at each other.
Deliberately, Foster turned his back on the building for a moment. "Ed," he said, knowing his voice was shaking and not caring. One thing, at least, had to be said, in case there was never another chance. "If this doesn't work out I don't regret any of it."
"I do," came the grim reply. "I regret bringing you back to Earth in the first place. I should've left you safe on the Moon."
At least Foster had come to recognise Straker's brand of concealed affection, even if he was also plainly playing to any lip-readers in the audience. Both knew that no-one had had the time to set up a directional microphone, so Foster could still say, "If you had, you'd be dead now and Freeman in command at SHADO Control – and last night, or this morning, would never have had a chance to happen."
"That's not the way you're supposed to be thinking, Colonel."
Foster straightened his spine. "No, Commander." He gestured with the gun. "Would you care to lead the way."
Both of them had been sure that there would be a dozen armed operatives waiting for them. The only question was: had they been instructed to shoot on sight and, if so, was even one of them likely to obey?
They had not underestimated the numbers but Foster breathed more easily when he recognised most of them. Henderson was standing by the desk with a sardonic expression on his face. As the door shut at their backs he activated the lift. Recognising the inevitable, Foster handed his gun to Mark Bradley without a murmur.
Straker, however, whirled on the operatives and ordered them to arrest Foster and Henderson. For a moment, it even looked as if they might obey, then Henderson growled, "Take Straker away and lock him up," and their doubts were resolved, though none of them seemed happy with the situation. Once Straker had been hustled out, three of the armed operatives remained, which was no doubt an accurate proportion of the threat the two of them posed, in Henderson's view, at least.
He looked Foster up and down without favour. "You'd better bring him along to my office," he said.
It had been Straker's office the last time Foster had been in it, what seemed like a lifetime ago. And then Mark Bradley hadn't been pointing a gun at him. "There's no need for that," he said tiredly. He sat down, rather gingerly, in a chair and stared ingenuously at his interrogators; Henderson, Jackson, Bradley, Li...
Mark, at least, might be inclined to believe him, but Mark and Li were probably there simply to point their guns at his head.
"I'll decide if you're harmless, Foster," Henderson told him. "And you'd better have a hell of a good explanation for what you've done."
"All I can give you is the truth," Foster said. Of course, it really did have to be close to the truth because, if Straker's suspicions were correct, Henderson knew perfectly well that the Commander had killed in self-defence. "Eleven days ago, Commander Straker came to me and asked for my help. He seemed pretty desperate. He said the aliens had taken over Alec Freeman's mind and that Freeman'd tried to kill him. He said he didn't know who else had been taken over, but that he could trust me because I'd only just got back from the Moon, and he said— Well, I believed him."
"Nothing about Mary Rutland – his ex-wife?" Jackson asked.
"No. Not then. It sounded pretty wild, but I did believe him. You do, you know?" He looked appealingly at Jackson and Bradley. Both men were nodding. "I wanted to believe it was true, to believe in him. So I went with him, helped him. It was only later that I started asking myself questions. He wasn't... well, behaving normally. Finally, I asked him outright what evidence he had that Alec was an alien agent. His answers didn't really add up. This business with his ex-wife... he told me about that, then. What he didn't know was that I'd met her recently, with Alec. I just couldn't bring myself to believe that they'd been subverted. Alec had been perfectly normal, even intervening with Mary Rutland on Straker's behalf. Then I remembered what you and Alec had said about Straker himself not acting normally. So I tried to persuade him to give himself up. He wouldn't. So I brought him in."
There was silence for a time. Foster wasn't sure what it meant. He'd dangled the bait; surely one of them would take it?
"Colonel Foster made a mistake, an understandable one," Jackson said at last. "It is the price we have paid for building SHADO around Straker, General. Which makes it as much your fault and mine as anyone's. Colonel Foster acted in SHADO's true interests once he realised what they were."
Dear God, maybe they didn't need to take the bait after all. Maybe they were even going to accept the first layer of his cover without digging for the second...
But Henderson was frowning. "Maybe, but I'd like to know what really changed his mind. This story of his just doesn't ring true. Straker will stand trial for murder," he barked. "D'you understand that, Foster?"
"He put me on trial for espionage," Foster retorted sullenly.
"You've been disillusioned very quickly, Colonel." Henderson still sounded sceptical, as he had a right to do, alien agent or not. He knew all about Foster's loyalty. Maybe Jackson had even told him the rest. If so, perhaps he'd better jerk the bait a bit.
He stared hard at the wall behind Henderson's head, face deliberately impassive, hands clenched tightly on his lap. "I'm not going— It's none of your fucking business!" His voice broke on the last word.
Bradley reached out a hand to his shoulder. "Paul..."
"Don't touch me!"
No-one spoke for a moment, then, "What did he do to you, Paul?" Jackson asked, in that soft, crooning voice that asked you to bury your fears in it.
Okay, Ed, here goes your reputation – and mine with it.
Remembering long ago drama classes, Foster discovered that he could put a tremor into his voice: "H-he said... he said... he c-cared about me. I trusted him m-more than a-anyone. I never knew... that he... he... Oh, God, I can't!" he wailed, burying his face in his hands.
"Did he... hurt you?" Jackson asked, with a delicacy Foster had not believed possible from him.
"Of course he hurt me! He sodding raped me!" Though unable to see anything from behind his hands, Foster still heard the collective gasp.
Only Jackson seemed unperturbed. Indeed, his voice hardened. "Foster, you've been infatuated with the Commander for years. It's in your psychiatric file. Was it really rape? Or did you consent to it?"
Thanks, Jackson. I'll repay that one of these days.
"Yes... no... Not, not like that..." Foster whispered. "He used me."
"Yes," Jackson agreed, "he probably did. You're not unique, Colonel," he went on bracingly. "Nearly all the women and many of the men within SHADO have sexual fantasies about Commander Straker. It's perfectly natural social primate behaviour for the ranking male to mate with all the females and sodomise lower ranking males. It's a way of maintaining group rankings. Commander Straker knows all this, of course. It appears he also has no compunctions about making use of it."
Foster's fingernails bit deep into his palms as he suppressed the urge to punch Jackson. Damn the man for trashing his most treasured memories. Damn him...
Wait, wait, wait. Something's wrong here. Jackson... Jackson knew Ed wanted me, even tried to make him admit it to himself, to come to terms with it. And if he knew that, he knew that that theory is just rubbish. Ed would never make use of me, or anyone else, like that.
Heaven help us! He's guessed what I'm doing, and he's on our side.
"Fantasy turned sour, eh, Colonel?" Henderson was saying, with distaste. "You'd better have Doctor Jackson look you over and make sure there's no permanent damage."
And check that I'm telling the truth, just as Ed said he would. But Ed didn't know that Jackson would be on our side. In fact, we needn't have... or at least, needn't have hurt each other so much...
"I'd rather be back on duty, sir," Foster said, in token protest.
"The General is right," Jackson stated. "Come with me, Colonel. You must be sore, at the very least."
All of that, and worth every ache.
"All right," Foster said. "If you must." He followed Jackson out, triumphantly aware of Bradley's expression of disgust, Li's incomprehension, and Henderson's victorious smirk.
Jackson's examination was gentle, impersonal, and eased his aches. All he said was, "I hope you know what you're doing, Paul."
To which the only reply that Foster could make was, "So do I."
When Jackson led him back into the Control Centre, Foster looked around for possible allies. Mark Bradley, yes, and Keith Ford at the comms boards and, oh yes, Gay Ellis. All were looking at him with unease, curiosity and, on Gay's part, even a hint of hostility. Better and better.
Jackson, however, ignored them but at Henderson's extraordinary eyebrows signalled a question, he nodded curtly.
"Okay," Henderson said, sounding as if it wasn't. "So why bring him here? Maybe he'd better take a rest while we sort out this mess."
Foster opened his mouth to protest, but Jackson forestalled him. "Without Straker or Freeman you need him here, General. There are things about this organisation that only he and Straker know. Besides, in my medical opinion, the last thing he needs is a chance to sit around and brood. He'll be better off on duty."
Come on, Henderson. Jackson hasn't left you much of an option, bless his little serpentine mind.
"Okay, Foster, but you're on probation, and under my orders. The IAC has taken over here."
"Yes, sir. You had to. I see that. Thank you."
Henderson grunted. "As for Straker, if you want to press charges, you have to stand in line."
Foster winced and bit his lip, then shook his head. "So long as I never have to see him again. I just want to forget it."
"Then we'll consider it forgotten. Meanwhile, you'd better talk to the Moonbases. Perhaps they'll believe you when you tell them what Straker's done."
Feeling cheered at this evidence of continuing SHADO loyalty, Foster crossed to Ford's seat – making meal of walking very carefully – and asked to be connected to Virginia Lake.
Moments later, Virginia's beautiful features appeared, winged by the standard purple anti-static wig that said she was in a Moonbase control room. John Grey's narrow, intelligent face peered over her silver-clad shoulder. Both of them looked worried. He wondered what they had been thinking for the last ten days, out there on the Moon.
Virginia didn't even wait for him to greet them. "Are you all right, Controller?" she demanded, the formal title telling him that others must be listening. How many? Please let it be all Lunar personnel.
"Yeah," he said.
"You don't look it," Grey observed.
"Lack of sleep," Foster told him, truthfully. "And, well, it's not been easy down here. The Commander... God, it's hard to say it even now. He murdered his ex-wife... and Alec."
"That's hard to believe, Controller."
"Even harder for me, but he told me himself, Virginia, along with excuses and self-justification that I just couldn't believe. I don't think he's sane any more. Fact is, I doubt he'll be fit to stand trial."
There was silence while Lake and Grey digested what he'd said. If they were going to believe anyone, they'd believed him, as Jackson had so subtly reminded Henderson just now. Well, let the General stand there listening to his every word, ready to pull the plug if he stepped out of line. With any luck he wouldn't notice where Foster was heading until it was far too late.
"So what happens now?" Grey asked.
"General Henderson acts as C-in-C SHADO until the IAC appoints someone permanently."
"You, Controller?" That was John Grey again.
Foster threw a rueful glance towards Henderson. "Uhuh. I've blown any chance of that. It's a long story... but never mind. You get those missiles out of that crashed transporter?"
Grey straightened. "Yes, sir."
"Good. Virginia, what about that hunk of meteoric iron you struck below three?"
"Blasted clear. We're back on schedule."
"Good. Oh, and what about that strange burst of static we heard just before I left? Any more on frequency 096?"
You wouldn't have known from Virginia Lake's face that it was the first she'd heard of any burst of static, but what was important was that utronic frequency on which, please God, there might be a message. The wording of his question should also have warned her that all was not as it seemed at SHADO Control. "Oh, we've decided it must have been interference from a radio transmission," she replied calmly. "The only word we heard clearly was 'Tuscany' of all things."
Foster's heart leaped. It was done. The aliens no longer had a world, and as for those in space...
Before anyone could stop him, Foster's hand shot out to open transmission to every SHADO frequency on the board. "Operation Horatius. All SHADO stations, this is the Space Controller. Operation Horatius, no counterm—"
The screen in front of him was already dead before Bradley's shot struck the side of his head, bowling him to the ground. Through the nausea, he heard Henderson shouting and someone else shouting back.
Above it all was Virginia's voice, reporting the launch of all interceptors, SID's machine tones acknowledging the order—
Hands took hold of his head, pulled open an eyelid, so he found himself looking directly into Jackson's face. Finger's squeezed his shoulder in reassurance. "He is out cold," Jackson said, untruthfully.
"Get Straker in here," Henderson ordered. "Foster must have been in collusion with him all along. 'Infatuated' was the word you used, Jackson; let's see if it cuts both ways."
It was probably only a couple of minutes before Straker arrived, but Foster spent both of them fighting the black pain that skewered his head with each heartbeat. He had to hang on. Jackson had handed him a trump card, but he had to stay in the game to play it.
Then there was Straker's voice, held to a cold monotone that might conceal anything: "I see that Colonel Foster has been rewarded with your usual generosity, Henderson."
"For his stupidity," the General said, "but he's alive, for the present. He's also activated something called 'Horatius'. If you don't tell me what that is, neither of you will stay alive very long."
Foster wished he dared open his eyes to look, though he could imagine it well enough; Straker's infuriatingly relaxed stance, his face showing nothing of what he might feel at the sight of his lover lying unconscious, perhaps dying, at his enemy's mercy.
"There is no need for threats, Henderson," the cool, urbane voice said now. "I'm happy to explain. Colonel Foster has placed all SHADO's spaceside defences on a special alert footing. The interceptors are all spaceborne at pre-defined stations known only to each pilot and Colonel Foster himself."
"What sort of treason is this, Straker?"
"Not treason, Henderson, at least to Earth. Merely a sensible precaution."
"Are you expecting an attack, Commander?" Gay Ellis asked.
"We've been under attack for a long time, Lieutenant. Any military strategist will tell you that a defensive war is ultimately unwinnable – and that's just what we've been fighting. The alien's preferred methods of attack have always been subversive, psychological. It was only a matter of time before they perfected the techniques they used on Colonel Foster and Colonel Craig, among others, and planted agents within SHADO and other places."
Henderson's snort was one of his more impressive efforts, conveying more scorn than words alone could have done, though he used them too. "Foster said that was your story; that Freeman was an alien agent. It won't wash, Straker. You're the traitor to SHADO, not Freeman."
"Strange," Straker said. "I thought I'd been accused of murdering my ex-wife, then of killing Freeman because he caught me in the act. How that equates to a betrayal of SHADO, I really cannot imagine. You'll have to enlighten me."
"Your ex-wife knew something was wrong, that you'd changed. She told Freeman, so you killed them both. What you didn't know was that Freeman had told me everything before he went to see you."
Straker burst out laughing. "Then I should have waited to kill you, shouldn't I? After all, I knew you were coming. Besides, if I'd wanted to betray SHADO I could have destroyed this base and all of you at any time, through simple mismanagement. You can't have it both ways, Henderson. There is evidence on file, if you care to look for it, that Freeman sabotaged certain projects and that our Earthside UFO kill rate was almost non-existent over the last couple of years whenever he was on duty. Besides, Colonel Foster saw him try to kill me, after Mary failed to do it, despite the advantage of surprise.
"If you had a witness, why did you run?"
Foster could imagine the grin he was sure accompanied the next words. "So that you'd chase me, General. Why else?"
"You expect me to believe that?"
"It doesn't matter what you believe, Henderson. Not now. Not with Horatius activated. You know Lord Macaulay's poem, of course? A rather grandiose Victorian epic, based on an ancient Roman traditional tale. It tells the story of three men holding an army at bay on a narrow bridge over the Tiber until it could be destroyed beneath them and the city saved.
"In a way, that's what SHADO's been doing for years: holding the aliens at bay as we looked for a way to win the war. In particular, for the last ten days or so Foster and I have been soldiers protecting a different kind of bridge, by attracting your attention away from it."
Which was what he was still doing, of course. This taunting of Henderson was distracting him and whoever else was an alien agent here in SHADO Control, teasing them with the possibility of learning something of value. But they had no idea of how short time was.
Foster risked opening his eyes, finding, as he had expected, that no-one was looking at him, though he lay almost at Henderson's feet and Mark Bradley's gun was still pointing vaguely in his direction.
Was this the right moment? He could probably take out Henderson but were Mark and the others ready to believe Straker rather than the General? Dare he risk it?
Before he had decided, Keith Ford's voice broke the spell. "Comm—General Henderson. Emergency signal from Colonel Lake."
Overriding those last words Virginia's voice came clear and excited. "Moonbase 2 reporting loss of contact with Lartius and Herminius. They've done it! Peter and Katya have done it. Paul, do you hear me? Paul!"
Unhindered, Straker strolled to the communication console and into range of the camera. "Thank you, Colonel."
Even from his position on the floor, Foster could see well enough to register Virginia's shock. "Commander? Ed, are you all right?"
"Fine, Virginia. Never better, after hearing your news. The situation here is somewhat complex," he added wryly. "Continue with Horatius as instructed."
"Of course, sir." Virginia's face shrank to a pinpoint and vanished.
Straker turned to face Henderson in a room so silent Foster was certain they could hear him tense his muscles.
"I told you that we'd been looking for a way to win the war," Straker said. "What I didn't tell you was that we'd found it. Over the last two years, Colonel Foster has not only been supervising the building of Moonbases 2 and 3, but the construction of a starship. Virginia Lake designed its interstellar drive, the starbridge, but John Grey's math indicated it was only safe to use in hard vacuum. If the far end of the starbridge materialised in anything denser it would cause a massive chain reaction. Our starship, the Macaulay, was crewed by Captain Peter Carlin and Captain Katya Ivanova. Twenty-five days ago they built a starbridge to the edge of the alien planetary system.
"It's not the first time we've been there, of course. We'd used the 'jetstream' effect of the UFO's FTL drive to pull a small probe behind it to the alien world. Lartius and Herminius were two probes put in orbit around the alien star earlier this year by the same method. They did no more than transmit utronic beeps back to the Moonbases – until a few moments ago."
"What have you done?" Henderson whispered.
"The Macaulay's mission was to build a starbridge into the heart of the aliens' sun. The silence from the probes can mean only one thing. Grey's mathematics were correct. The aliens' sun just went nova. Their homeworld is destroyed."
"This is Space Intruder Detector," a familiar synthesised voice announced. "An alien attack fleet is massing at Space Reference 078 347 Yellow. I say again, an alien attack fleet is massing at Space Reference 078 347 Yellow."
"And that," Straker said, "is the final proof. But we're prepared for them. With Horatius in place any UFO that tries to avenge their world will be destroyed too."
"So will you," Henderson snarled, lifting his gun.
Foster, forgotten until this moment, shot to his feet and snatched at it. The reflex shot ricocheted off the floor even as Straker dived and rolled. Henderson charged after him, dragging Foster, who was still hanging onto the gun, with him.
He did not take more than three steps before he went down under a mass of bodies as SHADO operatives made their choice and acted on it. With more than human strength, Henderson surged to his feet, throwing them aside like a newly-woken bear, shaking itself free of the earth and leaves of hibernation. He'd lost the gun, though. Foster still clung to that, raising it clasped between shaking hands, vision narrowing to the moving blur that was all he could see for the pain.
He certainly did not see Mark Bradley, aiming straight at his own head, or Gay Ellis, her face contorted with grief, shoot Bradley three times in the chest, or his own bullets blow Henderson's head to splinters. By then, the pain having become unbearable, he had fled into the comfort of unconsciousness.
"Concussion," Jackson told Foster succinctly, when he finally woke up in sickbay. "How you stayed conscious as long as you did is a medical curiosity."
"What about the aliens?" Foster asked.
"You missed a few hectic hours while we were under mass attack. It failed, of course. Others may come, but that is a problem for the future, Colonel."
Foster sighed and relaxed back into the pillows; it seemed they didn't need him and he wasn't sure he could have climbed out of bed anyway.
"Are you feeling well enough for a visitor?" Jackson went on. "Commander Straker asked to be called the minute you regained consciousness."
"Yes, of course." Foster hoped he didn't sound too eager, but doubted it. Jackson's expression was all too knowing.
Ten minutes later, Straker came in. He looked calm and immaculate, with the inevitable celebratory cigar tilted at an angle. Jackson looked at it pointedly. Straker sighed and extinguished it.
"You have five minutes," Jackson told him. Then added, "You won't be disturbed," before leaving the two men alone.
Straker and Foster stared at each other for perhaps half a minute, and then the Commander said, "You did very well, Paul, but then I knew you would. We came out of it okay, though Gay's in a state of shock. Pity we couldn't have saved Mark – not to mention Alec and Henderson. The desperation with which the aliens attacked suggests they didn't have any forces in reserve. I think we can safely say that SHADO has completed its mission."
"So what now?" Foster asked. "We disband?"
"Uhuh. There's too much equipment, money and manpower tied up in SHADO to simply dismantle it. Besides, Lake and Grey have given us a way to reach the stars. SHADO is going public as a defence force for Earth while the IAC organises the exploration of interstellar space. The spaceside part of SHADO will remain much as it is now, with SID and the Moonbases providing protection for Earth in case we're attacked, from whatever source. Christ alone knows what we're going to do with the Skydivers, but I'm sure someone will think of something. Our personnel have a choice of staying with SHADO or moving to the new exploration force."
"I see," Foster said, with a certain grimness. "And what about you?"
Straker grinned. "I've been offered anything I want, up to and including the chairmanship of the IAC. They're pretty anxious to keep me."
The heartbreak was building, hollowing Foster's chest. Straker was still standing at the other side of the room, with no hint of anxiety or affection in his expression. He could hardly have made it plainer even if he had spoken the words aloud: "It's over. We forget it."
"Nice for you," Foster said bitterly.
"They're pretty anxious to keep you too. They see you leading the first interstellar exploration team."
"Oh." Once it would have been his heart's desire. Now... well, if he couldn't have Straker, he might be able to lose himself in space. He's managed it before.
"I told them they'd have to scratch that idea."
"Uh? Sir!" Foster squawked in outrage.
Straker was suddenly very close, looking down at him sternly. "This is the end of the line, Colonel, for both of us. I haven't the strength of will to risk you again." He bent down and kissed Foster softly on the lips. "Welcome to civilian life, Paul. I'll be waiting for you at home – your place. Mine holds memories I'd rather forget." He grinned. "I love it when you get that poleaxed look," he added, as he abstracted an apple from the bowl of fruit on the bedside table and headed for the door.
"Ed!" Foster shouted, recovering his wits.
Straker turned, one blond eyebrow lifted. "Yes?"
"You've just got time to kiss me properly before Jackson comes back."
"Paul, it's going to take the next twenty years to kiss you properly."
But he stayed, all the same. As predicted, he didn't really have time, but Jackson was unshockable. He closed the door on them, placed his back against it, and smiled to himself.
It was SHADO's last and best kept secret that Dr Doug Jackson was a sucker for a happy ending.