‘Skydiver. Come in, Skydiver.’ Keith Ford gave a despairing glance at the monitor before he spoke once more. ‘Captain Waterman; please respond.’ A hiss of static answered him. He didn’t look up, didn’t want to see the faces watching and listening as he struggled to get some answer. Anything but that mocking whisper of white noise.
‘Keep trying.’ The quiet order came from the man standing at his right shoulder. Straker’s arms were folded, the pose of a man waiting with patience, but Ford knew that it was a ruse. The tension in that slender figure was obvious to anyone who knew him well. Those small signs that Ford had learned to discern were there; the rigid stance, the eyes focussed on the screen, the hands seemingly still yet the knuckles white with strain. And there was something else this time. Some indefinable emotion that Keith Ford could not recognise. Or perhaps did not want to.
‘But..’ Ford stopped and nodded in compliance. ‘Sir.’ If Straker wanted him to keep trying he would. There was little point in telling the Commander that it was hopeless. Ford had been attempting to make contact for over five minutes now, far longer than regulations or common sense dictated.
Skydiver was gone. Waterman and his entire crew. Destroyed by the rogue UFO that had evaded the Interceptors and headed straight for the submarine. He opened the radio link again. His voice seemed loud in the silence of the Control room with only the chatter of machines in the background. Everyone silent, listening. ‘Come in Skydiver.’
Hissing. Random clicks. Then. A voice.
‘Sky One here. Tell Straker…’ The voice broke off in a fit of coughing. A hand reached over Ford’s shoulder to take control of the microphone.
‘Lew. Straker. Skydiver? Any survivors?’ There was a tremble in the voice, only slight but Ford was a practised communications officer able to distinguish the slightest nuance of expression. He kept his eyes averted. Straker was entitled to his privacy.
‘Ed.’ An unexpected familiarity, and not one that Ford had ever heard Waterman use. ‘Diver is gone. They’re dead. All of them.’
Ford would keep to his grave the memory of the sound that Straker managed to suppress. Nearly managed. The faint anguished gasp that escaped before Straker regained his iron-like control and took a deep breath. ‘Lew. Where are you now?’
‘I was in the chute when they hit us. The blast blew me free. I’ve managed to get some power back, but it’s not good. We got a shot off and damaged the UFO but it’s still in the area. I’m going to try for the surface now.’ Waterman paused and the listeners in the control room could hear his radio crackling. ‘Ed. Whatever happens...’
The radio went dead.
Afterwards, Ford was glad that he had been kept busy organising the retrieval team. It saved him the task of reporting to Straker that Waterman had been picked up, alive and relatively unharmed after the UFO had been tracked and destroyed. Lt Johnson had done that, and Ford had seen her come out of Straker’s office with a puzzled look.
He left his console for a moment and went over. ‘Everything alright?’ he asked in a low tone. ‘What did the commander say?’
‘Nothing.’ She shrugged in confusion. ‘I expected him to be pleased, but he just said thankyou and turned away.’
Ford waited for the opportune moment and then took in a coffee. Straker was sitting at his desk, papers strewn across the surface and a pen in his hand, but it was clear that he had not been working. He started as the door opened, and blinked as if his thoughts had been far away. ‘Sir. All stations report no contacts and Captain Waterman will be arriving at Mayland shortly. Shall I arrange a de-brief meeting for you?’
Straker fiddled with the pen, rolling it between his fingers before putting it down. ‘No. There will have to be a formal inquiry, and I’ll set that up as soon as Waterman is discharged. Tell Shroeder to keep me informed.’ He rifled though the papers on his desk as if he was avoiding looking up. ‘Anything else I need to know?’
Ford stepped back. ‘No sir. I’ll contact Mayland right now.’ As he left he knew that Straker’s eyes were watching him and then the doors slid shut to enclose the Shado Commander in welcome solitude.
Waterman tore off the loathsome hospital gown and wadded it into a tight ball before he threw it into the bin. It wasn’t enough. He wanted to smash something, to hear the sound of shattering glass or feel it splinter beneath his knuckles. Anything to help relieve the pain. He had survived, and his crew were dead. If he had only acted sooner he might have saved them. But even as the thought entered his mind he knew it was pointless. Nothing would bring them back. Nothing. He had to live with that, with the knowledge that his actions had killed them all.
The full length mirror mocked him as he stood in front of it. Bruises and a few minor burns. That was all. Not even deep bruises. Unscathed while his friends had died. He ran his fingers over his skin and twisted round to look over his shoulder at the narrow burn that ran across his back. As the electronics had started to blow, one of the cables had lashed out to catch him a glancing blow that had sliced like a whip through his shirt. He hadn’t even had chance to put on his jacket or helmet.
One of the orderlies had brought him a spare uniform and he dressed, the fabric rubbing on patches of tender skin. He looked in the mirror once more and tugged the jacket straight. A borrowed gesture for borrowed clothes. They would do for now. It wasn’t as if he had anywhere to go, not on this night. Not now.
It had become something of a tradition in a way. The first night back they all went for a meal. No official status, no standing on ceremonies, just a bunch of workmates on a night out. No alcohol though. That was the one thing that differentiated them from other groups. It was an unspoken rule. But it didn’t stop them enjoying themselves. But not this night. He wondered if he would ever do that again. Ever sit in a bar and chat with his friends and enjoy steak and fresh mushrooms and tomatoes after weeks of frozen or dried rations. To sit and mull over the long months of duty that had ended, to share jokes and experiences and make plans for the furlough ahead. Six weeks. They usually passed quickly, but he knew that this time it would be different. He had lost his crew and his friends; he had lost his family.
The unfamiliar jacket hung loose on his shoulders as he shrugged it into position once more. He borrowed a pen to scrawl his name on the discharge papers and he was free to walk out. A brief word with the taxi driver waiting for him and then a short drive to the hotel frequented by overseas staff. It was too late to go home tonight, although he wanted the comfort of his cottage that overlooked the harbour. Wanted to be able to look out over the water and watch the sea otters playing.
But not on this night. The inquiry would start tomorrow and he would be needed. The main witness. The only one. They would all be there, listening. Those people he knew from his years in SHADO. No conversation, just the formality of a hearing. Oaths and honesty. Questions and answers. Had he done everything possible? How was it that he had survived? Tomorrow was going to be..... hard. Not just because of the questions.
He’d stayed in the hotel before and the room was as bland and anonymous as he remembered. He might have been able to relax if he had been at home but it was too long a journey from Holy Loch.
Everyone thought it was an isolated a place to live and had no prospects of a decent social life even though Glasgow was pretty close, but he didn’t want a social life. It was one of the reasons that he had moved there; to be somewhere quiet. A beer, a chance to watch wildlife, but mostly to enjoy the landscape. He wondered if the Americans ever suspected why they had been ousted from their base in 1992. Whatever the reasons given SHADO had acquired a purpose built submarine base with all the necessary facilities, and once Waterman had been made Captain it was only sensible to find somewhere nearby to live. It made life easier. He was close to his work and far enough away from Headquarters not to allow things, and people, to distract him.
He locked the door; a matter of habit, although he had not locked his bedroom door for the last six months. There had never been the need. He had been among his friends, good friends, people he had trusted with his life. And they had trusted him.
He put put away the few spare clothes that he had been given; the clean shirt and underwear and socks all ready for tomorrow. A few necessary toiletries as well. That was everything he had here. All his personal possessions were gone, torn apart by the blast that had ripped through the submarine as he slid away from the devastation to the safety of Sky One. Anything that might have survived the explosion would have been crushed under the weight of millions of tons of seawater as the broken hulk sank to the seabed. There would be no retrieval of bodies either. The remains would be left undisturbed, deep below the reach of even the strongest submersible rescue vessel. Everything. All gone.
And it suddenly hit home. He went into the bathroom to run cold water, scooping it up in shaking hands to dash it into his face in a vain attempt to stem his distress.
Ed Straker leafed through the final set of statistics before he put his signature on the last page and dropped the file into his briefcase with the rest of the reports. He snapped the case shut. Everything was ready for tomorrow’s formal inquiry; the logs from the control room staff, the accounts from Moonbase, the details from the search and rescue team. Everything there in neat print and photographic evidence and screenshots. Dispassionate details and cold facts. Nothing about the people involved, what they had felt or seen or done. Was it enough?
He locked the case and looked at his watch. There was time, but even so he hesitated and looked around the room almost as if searching for some distraction, something that would keep him here this night. With a tired shrug of shoulders he lifted his jacket from the back of his chair and slipped it on then picked up his case and left.
The hotel was a short distance away, the drive hardly enough time to get into the right frame of mind. Unemotional and detached. That was what he needed to be. Formal inquiries were always stressful for everyone concerned and Straker knew how difficult it would be for Lew Waterman. An entire crew lost. The Captain’s crew; and in some way his family. They had shared more than work; they had shared that small submerged world. And they were gone.
It was not part of the normal procedure to come here and although he had some reservations he had decided that maybe it was time to break the rules.
He knocked on Waterman’s door and waited, all the while wondering if this was a mistake. It was a relief in a way that the door remained shut and he shook his head as if to clear it of thoughts that perhaps should not have been allowed to intrude. The long corridor was empty, the doors closed. No sign or sound of activity. He looked at his watch. He should be at home, preparing for tomorrow.
He stepped away, head slightly bowed. And the door opened behind him.
‘Commander Straker?’ Lew stood there, droplets of water still clinging to him. His hand tightened on the towel that he had grabbed and wrapped around himself. ‘Is there a problem?’
‘No. I ...’ Straker tugged the collar of his jacket straight. ‘I was going to go through some of the details for tomorrow. That’s all. It doesn’t matter. I’m sorry I disturbed you.’ He opened his case to pull out a folder. ‘I brought my final report for the hearing. Thought you might want to read it.’
‘Is there something I should know?’ Waterman stepped back into his room, holding the door open. ‘Please, Commander, come in.’ He waited, eyes worried, one hand brushing in a nervous sweep through the damp black hair that fell in thick waves to the nape of his neck.
The corridor was still empty. There was no reason, Straker thought to himself, why he shouldn’t stay, shouldn’t talk through the procedures and politics of the inquiry. After all, Waterman had never been the subject of a formal procedure investigation before. And, as SHADO Commander, Straker had a duty to help staff deal with such problems. He took a step forward, and another. The door closed behind him and he was inside.
Waterman waved a hand. ‘Please, sit down.’ He sounded uncomfortable. ‘I’ll get....’
‘There’s no need.’ Straker’s voice was curt. ‘This will only take a minute. I was just passing.’ There was silence. Waterman moved back and sat on the bed, hands on his knees, watching with a slightly perplexed expression as Straker put his case down on the desk. He held out the file again. ‘Give this a quick read. Just so you know what the records say.’ He waited until Waterman had taken the file and opened it to read. Straker walked away to stare out of the window at the street below.
The room was warm and he unfastened his jacket as he watched the traffic. Waterman leafed through pages. Neither man spoke. Straker folded his arms.
‘Yes. That seems accurate. That’s what happened.’ Waterman put the folder down beside him on the bed and sighed. ‘At least I think that’s what happened. It all happened so fast you see. I’m still working it out. Still not sure in a way.’
‘Do you want to talk about it? Unless you’re too tired.’ Straker put the file back in his case, locked it and put it down again. ‘Have you eaten?’ He stared at Lew and waited.
Waterman was perched uneasily. ‘No. I usually....’ he broke off.
‘Yes. A meal with the crew. I know.’ Straker glanced around the room to avoid the look of pain that twisted Lew Waterman’s face. ‘It’s late and you must be hungry. We could have something to eat here in the restaurant and discuss tomorrow. At least you won’t have to eat alone.’ He placed a hand on the briefcase as if to reassure himself that it was still there. He could hear the traffic in the street below. ‘It might help to talk it through. Get things clear in your mind. Before...’
‘Before the inquisition?’ Waterman sighed. ‘Look Commander, I can only tell the truth. What I know happened out there. And if they blame me then I’ll have to live with it.’ He twisted to face away from Straker, his back to the other man as if ashamed of his reaction.
‘Lew.’ Straker’s voice was soft with dismay. ‘What happened?’
‘What do you mean?’ Waterman turned to stare at him, puzzled.
‘You’ve been hurt.’ Straker seemed to wince as he said the words. ‘I didn’t realise. Shroeder’s report just said you had minor injuries. He shouldn’t have discharged you.’ He moved closer as if to reassure himself that the other man was not hiding other injuries, other wounds. ‘I’ll cancel tomorrow.’
‘There’s no need, and it was my decision to leave Mayland. I needed to get away.’ Waterman lowered his head into his hands. ‘I survived, Commander. And they didn’t. None of them.’ It was enough to break his self-control. He carried on speaking in a low monotone, words that Straker could not hear at first, then they became clear. ‘Michael Houseman, Georgina Brand, Norman James Smith.’ Waterman glanced up at Straker with a wry grin despite his sorrow at the litany of names. ‘He insisted on James you know. Hated being called Norman. Kyle French, Nathan - .’
‘Nathan Matthews, 32 years old. Born in Leicester. Studied nuclear engineering at Aberdeen. Graduated in 2001. Started with SHADO in 2007. A fanatical Leicester City supporter,’ Straker continued. ‘They were a good crew, good men and women. The best. Like everyone I’ve lost over the years. Not just names; people.’
Waterman looked up, frowning. ‘I hadn’t realised that you... that..’
‘That I remember them? Or that I care?’ There was a touch of bitterness in his voice. ‘Get something to eat Captain. And then sleep. That’s an order. Tomorrow won’t be easy. For any of us.’ Straker put a hand on Waterman’s shoulder, the lightest of touches. ‘I’ll pick you up in the morning.’
‘You aren’t staying?’
‘No.’ Straker fastened his jacket with tired fingers.
‘Do you have to go?’ Waterman reached out with one hand. ‘I’d like to talk to someone about what happened. Would that cause problems, Commander?’
‘If that’s what you want.’ Straker thought for a moment. ‘Get dressed, Lew. We can talk over dinner, but...’ he smiled sadly, ‘tonight it’s Ed, not Commander.’
‘Would you have done anything differently?’ Straker poured more wine into their glasses. ‘Looking back, I mean.’
Waterman cut into his steak. Took a mouthful. Steak and salad and mushrooms. The tradition continued although it was not the same. ‘No. When I think about it, there wasn’t anything else I could have done.’ Despite the admission he still felt wracked with remorse. ‘It was a pure fluke that I survived.’
‘You feel guilty that they died. It’s inevitable Lew. It’s part of the burden of command.’ Straker emptied his glass and picked at the salad on his plate. ‘The inquiry are sure to back you. I can tell you now. You did everything you could, and sometimes it simply isn’t enough. Either accept it or let it destroy you.’
‘It’s not easy.’
‘I never said it would be. It’s just a fact.’ Straker put down his fork. ‘Lew. You lost your family on that submarine, not just the crew. It’s going to take a while to come to terms with that fact.’ He stared into hazel eyes. ‘Give it time. Give yourself time.’
‘What happens next? After tomorrow?’
Straker leaned back and looked at him. ‘You have to take a mandatory furlough but after that it’s up to you. I can make recommendations but on the whole I prefer to leave the choice to you. There’s the new Skydiver coming up for her trials, or you could transfer to Moonbase. Even Control.’
Waterman looked at his empty glass. ‘Not Moonbase. I know that much.’ He sat back as the waiter removed their plates. ‘I don’t need to make that decision yet?’
‘No. Not yet.’ Straker leafed through the menu and turned to the waiter. ‘Just coffee for me.’
Perhaps it was the warmth of the room, or the bustle of noise around them, maybe even the wine; whatever the reason Lew found himself talking about Georgina and Nathan, about James and his practical jokes and Kyle’s uncanny ability when it came to deciphering sonar readings. Straker kept quiet and let Waterman unburden his thoughts, ordered them both brandies after the coffee was finished and simply listened as the words poured out. It was all he could do right now.
Waterman took a deep breath. ‘Damn. Look at the time. I’ve kept you Commander. Sorry.’ He pushed his chair back and held out a hand. ‘Thanks for tonight.’
Straker stifled a yawn. ‘I’ll pick you up at eight. Try to get some sleep.’
The hotel lobby was quiet when Straker left. He paused in the car park, frowning. Something felt wrong. Not just the sharp cold of the night that had woken him from the insidiously creeping lethargy, or the sudden realisation that he was tired. Very tired in fact. Something was missing. He fumbled for his key, nearly dropping it before he blipped the button. The boot opened automatically and he swore.
Sighing with annoyance he leaned against the car as he looked at his watch and tried to focus his eyes on the blurred figures. He had not had that much to drink, surely. It was just the tiredness and the exposure to the cold air that made his reflexes slow and that made him ache with the effort needed just to open the car door. All he wanted to do was to drive home and get into bed, but before he could do that he had to get his briefcase. The cold numbed his mind as much as his fingers and it took him a couple of attempts to lock the car.
He was dog-tired and Waterman’s room was on the second floor. He pressed the button for the lift and waited, looking at the digital display as the lift descended and the door opened for him. It was smaller than he had anticipated; a steel trap and he gave an involuntary shudder and stepped back to let the door snap shut with a hiss. He took the stairs instead, plodding up the bare treads with weary steps. One foot and then the other and all the time the rollcall of names was running through his head.
Houseman, Smith, James, Craig, Brand, French, Matthews, Collins... it was a long list and he was still murmuring names when he pushed open the heavy fire door onto the second floor corridor. He took a moment to catch his breath then walked down the hallway to tap on the door.
Waterman cursed under his breath and looked through the spyhole before he frowned and slipped the chain off the door.
‘I left my briefcase.’
‘Of course. Come in.’ Waterman followed him inside, eyes searching for the case. ‘There.’
‘Thanks.’ The car key was still in his hand and it slipped from cold fingers to clatter onto the floor. He leaned on the desk and wondered if he had the energy to pick it up.
‘Sit down.’ Waterman put a hand out to guide him to the bed. ‘You can’t drive home. Not like that.’ Beneath his fingers he could feel muscles tremble with fatigue.
Straker hunched over as the heat of the room made it hard to stay awake. ‘Tired. That’s all.’ His eyes closed and he forced them open. ‘I thought I was the one who gave the orders, Captain.’ He gave slight smile and shrugged, but made no attempt to move.
Waterman could see deep lines of tiredness and strain and a pallor that was due to more than Straker’s usual pale complexion. Exhaustion and possibly more. Straker hadn’t had much to drink by stretch of the imagination but neither had he eaten much and had merely toyed with his food. Lew hadn’t noticed before, he’d been too consumed in his own misery to really consider Straker’s feelings. He had been selfish to think that he was the only one suffering. But it was too late now. Waterman bent down and unbuttoned the dark jacket. ‘Come on.’ It took less than a minute to manhandle the jacket off the surprisingly compliant man and then make him lie down. He tugged the duvet over his unexpected guest then set about making up the sofa bed.
Lew watched the patterns of lights as they tracked across the ceiling. His visitor was asleep, soundless and still. But every time Waterman closed his eyes it was as if he was sliding down the chute into the darkness of Sky One feeling the shudder of the submarine exploding behind him, feeling the gush of heat from the blast, the sharp sting of burns on his skin. He gave his pillow another thump then, like Straker before him, began to recall names and his thoughts turned back to the memories of those good times they had shared. Without realising it, he slipped into sleep.
Straker opened his eyes, puzzled and aware of the strange sensation of sleeping in his clothes. His sweater was twisted and he felt uncomfortable and hot. He stretched one hand out to check the time and then wriggled his feet; someone had removed his shoes and socks. Waterman. He was in Waterman’s room. He didn’t even remember taking off his jacket.
With caution he pushed himself upright as if afraid that his very bones would crack if he hastened. It was just after midnight. He should collect his briefcase and leave now, but he was in no fit state to drive and it would be the sensible thing to stay and sleep. He undressed with quiet movements. There would be time in the morning for him to say his thanks and make a discreet exit and he listened to the silence as he allowed himself to unwind. The names came back to him as they always did at times like this, uncoiling in his thoughts, following each other in soft syllables like lines of poetry once learned as a child and never forgotten.
The noise was so faint as to be almost unheard, the merest whisper in the dark. Less than a murmur but it was enough to startle Waterman into wakefulness. He was accustomed to waking at the slightest change in the tone of Skydiver’s engines. Even a tiny alteration in course was sufficient to rouse him from sleep. This was a strange sound, not the engine throttling down or increasing, not the hissing of ballast, not even the muted voices of his crew. He recognised it after a moment. A whimper. Broken fragments of words, soft and hesitant. Someone in pain. Suffering. He sat up, wondering why his cabin seemed so spacious and then it hit home again like a knife, the blade twisting in his gut as memories returned of leaving Skydiver behind him to be crushed and torn, of his family and friends trapped and dying inside her.
But if he was not in the submarine, who was making that noise. And then he remembered. A glint of light through the curtains was sufficient for him to make his way across the room to sit on the bed and listen, intrigued and more than a little concerned.
Names. He recognised some of them, not many he had to admit, but the odd one was familiar. Chinn. He remembered the Lieutenant. Killed in Skydiver. The list seemed endless, and it was not just names. Their ages and where and when they died. All committed to memory. The dead. Those who had given the ultimate sacrifice to protect humanity. Unrecognised by their world and for the most part unremembered after a few years. But one person cared enough to be able to narrate this register of the deceased.
He wondered how many times Straker had repeated this same scene. How many nights he had lain in bed, his mind still running over the names until he could recount them like this in his sleep. It was not a peaceful sleep. Those hands were moving in restless twitches, reaching out as if to take hold of someone or perhaps seeking solace in a touch.
Waterman eased himself on the bed to sit close, wanting to take hold of one of those searching hands, wanting to console but he withdrew his fingers. In all the years that he had know the SHADO Commander he had never seen him close to anyone, indeed had rarely seen any sign of physical intimacy apart from the odd touch on a shoulder or perhaps a nod of appreciation. But never anything more, certainly no embrace.
And not because Straker was insensitive and heartless, as some said. That was now obvious. He recalled Straker’s words earlier: ‘Like everyone I’ve lost over the years. Not just names; people.’ Not ‘we’ or ‘SHADO’. Straker himself had lost them. A personal loss. And he was still grieving.
Lew reached out a hesitant hand to make the lightest of contacts. It was enough. Although Straker was still asleep and murmuring, he grasped the fingers with a grip that belied the seeming fragility of his sparse figure. There was little Waterman could do now other than sit there and hope that his presence would enable the man to rest.
The hand tightened on his. A painful grasp, his knuckles grinding together under the surprising strength of those fingers. It was all he could do not to pull away and he had no idea what to do, how to stop this, how to free both himself and Straker.
He waited with eyes full of concern. He had nothing more important to do tonight. He would sit here with his commander, with the man who might need him tonight. With the man he had needed for so long. And who knew what might happen. He wanted to wrap his arms around the slight figure lying there, wanted to hold him and soothe away that weariness, that distress. He ached to tell him the truth.
In a surge of compassion, knowing that he was stepping over undrawn boundaries, he reached out to place his free hand on the other’s forehead, cool on the feverish brow, then sliding down the side of the face to caress the slight roughness of stubble on the cheek then the curve of the jaw with that angular bone so close beneath. He was aware of Straker’s head turning to lean into his hand as if seeking more than a touch. The hand within his own tightened in an almost excruciating grip and to Waterman’s horror, the face beneath his hand contorted into a grimace of anguish and utter despair. The same words now. Over and over.
Waterman could bear it no longer. He reached out to the sleeping man, sliding his free hand behind Straker’s shoulders and raising him off the pillow and up until the blond head leaned against him, the slender hand still gripping his in that tightly locked hold.
How foolish he had been. He had lost friends, yes. He had wept for them, had mourned them, would miss them. But this man had lost more than a crew of five. And every time that another name was added to the roll call of honour, Straker would add it to his long list. And those words spoken so softly at the end were the hardest. John Straker, age seven.
He wrapped his arm around his burden to hold with unspoken love, feeling the hard ridges of Straker’s backbone and the worrying gauntness of his frame with its pale skin now shivering. He wanted to stay like this forever holding him in the silence of the night. Waterman let his hand stroke down the bony spine hoping to soothe away the dream, but Straker’s head turned and the hand released his from its vice-like grip.
There was no need to say anything. He knew that Straker was awake but Waterman was not ready to let go. Not now, not ever.
Straker gave a long sigh and felt himself shrink as if he had cast off the shell of command that had enveloped him for so long, but he did not pull away. If anything he shuffled closer to rest his head in the hollow of Waterman’s shoulder. He was aware of the strength in those arms that encircled him and knew there was no point in fighting to free himself, not that he wanted to. He was too tired for that, too worn out to struggle against hands that made him feel cherished. With a sigh he leaned back against the broad chest and reached up with one hand to place it over Waterman’s where that lay on his own chest. Acceptance and surrender, and he let himself lie in those arms like a rag doll. His head drooped, his hands were still, his voice silent. He breathed in the faint scent of sweat and slumber from the man who held him and, comforted at last, fell asleep.
Straker woke to the strange sensation of a body spooned to his, knees crooked in the bend of his own, another’s breath tickling his shoulder and back. It was time for him to go, but as he shifted himself he felt a weight on his shoulder. Lew’s hand. Holding him, confining him. Skin shivered but not from cold as the hand trailed down his arm leaving behind calm acceptance of what was to be. The kiss on his shoulder was sufficient to make him sigh and snuggle back into the arms that waited for him.
Lew Waterman watched as the Board of Inquiry walked past in single file. He swallowed and ran a nervous hand through his hair but a touch on his shoulder alerted him to the presence of someone standing close. He turned. Smiled. And, comforted, followed his Commander into the board room.