(A UFO Story)
written by Denise Felt
"I wanted to ask you a question, but I'm not really sure I want to hear your answer."
Deep blue eyes met blue-grey eyes as Straker considered the Maloran's anxiety. These monthly one-on-one chats in the HQ office benefitted not only those SHADO members adjusting from a different culture, but they kept the commander informed of any concerns before they became problems. However, Tam's monthly visits had an additional benefit: his work as a medical assistant in SHADO's Medical Centre made it possible for Straker to be kept alerted to Dr. Jackson's current experiments.
It had been an ideal arrangement. Tam had found Dr. Jackson's methods and procedure occasionally disturbing and had been relieved to have his commanding officer ask him for updates on the doctor's activities at their monthly meetings. But he wasn't so sure he wanted to know more about this particular experiment. Especially if it wasn't news to Commander Straker.
However, Straker answered him calmly. "That sounds ominous."
Tam grimaced, breaking eye contact. There was silence in the office as he thought of how to ask his question without offending the commander. Finally he said, "Were you aware that Jackson has a separate DNA file he keeps on all SHADO personnel?"
Straker slowly sat back in his chair. "No, I wasn't." His lips tightened as he thought of several possible reasons for such a file. When he spoke, his voice was carefully bland. "How high does it go?"
"You're in there, if that's what you mean."
The commander nodded. He'd been certain for some time that Jackson had a special file on him. He just hadn't realized that the good doctor had others in the file as well. "What about Shaw?"
Tam shook his head. "I didn't see anything on him."
Straker gave a soft sigh. "Good."
"There was quite a bit about Sheila."
The commander said drily, "Somehow that doesn't surprise me at all. Jackson has never quite forgiven me for marrying someone he considered a security risk. And Sheila isn't exactly normal, even for a Rigelian."
"Well, no. But, sir ..."
"I know, Tam. The fact that he's keeping tabs on the staff's DNA is a bit unnerving. However, as long as he's not organising a move to toss out all the aliens from SHADO, I think we're safe."
"Could he be doing that?" Tam asked, aghast.
Straker shook his head. "It's doubtful. He has never shown any aversion to having aliens on staff. He actually seems to prefer working with you rather than his other assistants."
"That's because I tested higher than his other assistants." Tam took a restless turn about the office. "Sir, why would he want to keep a file on the differences in our DNA?"
"There could be any number of reasons. Many of them completely harmless."
"But, sir ...!"
Straker held up a hand to stem Tam's outburst. "I know. We're talking about Jackson, whose reasons are rarely harmless. However, I know that he has been highly curious about that sort of thing ever since we first became aware of it. He may simply be trying to keep the players straight."
Tam still looked skeptical. "Do you really think so, sir?"
The commander sighed. "No. No, I don't. Keep a careful watch on that file, Tam. I want to know of any changes in it immediately. Can you check it often without being seen?"
"Yes, sir. I think so."
"Red alert! This is a red alert!" One of the several SID satellites in orbit informed SHADO of an impending alien attack in its calm mechanical voice.
On Moonbase 2, Col. Paul Foster broke off his video conference with Lt. Harrington on Moonbase 1 concerning interceptor maintenance schedules and turned to handle the situation. "What have you got?" he asked the radar tracker.
"Three UFOs heading this way, sir," she answered nervously. Priscilla had just transferred up from the New York tracking station. She was finding that working on Moonbase carried a lot more stress than her old job.
"N-nothing yet, sir."
Paul sighed. Maybe he was getting old, but it seemed to him that the staff got younger and greener every year. "No problem. Let me know as soon as you have it."
"If you could get me a terpelorer for my garden, I would be so grateful," Cordelia Williams told Sheila.
"I'll see what I can do." She wondered what Ed was going to say about this. But really! How was she to know that Emily's mother could tell Maloran plants from Earth strains? It was just her luck that Cordelia collected predatory plants and had noticed the Maloran insect eater in the greenhouse. When John came up to them, she gave him a smile of pure gratitude.
He raised a brow at her, but engaged his mother-in-law in conversation without hesitation, leaving Sheila to excuse herself and wind her way through the crowd to her husband. She found him bouncing Kathy on one knee and listening to Jasper amaze the children with his fantastic stories of other worlds. One day, she thought a little grimly, the children would be old enough to realize just how true those tales were. Then they'd be in for it.
Straker let his wife drag him away from the party and onto the veranda, because she looked so worried. But when she told him about Cordelia's request, he only laughed. "Sheila, for God's sake! I thought it was something serious!"
She was irritated by his unconcern. "It is serious, Ed. Where am I supposed to tell her I got the damned thing? And now she'll be expecting me to get one for her."
"Sheila. Darling." He drew her into his arms and held her until she relaxed against him. "It's alright. We'll think of something to explain it. Don't worry so much." He knew how much she'd fretted about the party, fussing over every detail until it was to her satisfaction. "You can relax now. The party is a great success. We couldn't have celebrated John getting an Oscar any better. You're a wonderful hostess, and everyone will remember tonight as the social event of the year."
Sheila leaned back to give him an ironic look. "You're so full of ..."
He kissed her.
"Trajectory has altered, sir."
Foster looked at Priscilla from under his brows. "Where are they headed?"
Lt. Brewster at the other tracking console answered. "They're separating, heading in different directions." Abby told him the three diverging coordinates.
Paul checked the screen. "Our interceptors are closer than Moonbase 1's." He opened the channel to the Leisure Sphere. "Interceptors, immediate launch!"
"All right, cut it out!"
Straker raised his head and gave his son a rather blank look. Sheila looked bemused.
John came out on the veranda, shaking his head. "You two are the hosts. You're supposed to be in there entertaining the crowd, not out here necking."
His father grinned. "Why can't we do both?"
Sheila stepped away from her husband reluctantly. "He's right, darling. We have company to consider."
Straker watched her go back inside with a sigh. "Was there something you wanted, John? Or do you just enjoy ruining my love life?"
His son snickered. "Actually, Dad, I wanted to thank you for all of this."
"The party was Sheila's idea."
John sighed. "Not just the party, although I'm grateful for that too. But everything else. Giving me the chance to work in special effects. Trusting me to oversee the project myself. Letting me get the award for the team. All of that."
"Louie trusts you, so why shouldn't I?"
"I don't know. It's just ... I never thought I'd ever be here, you know? Working in a field that is so exciting and inventive. Winning Oscars. It all seems so unreal."
Straker put an arm around his shoulder. "And overwhelming?"
John sighed more deeply. "Yeah."
They were silent for a while. Then Straker said softly, "I was so proud of you when you got that Oscar, John. And more thrilled than I've ever been for any that I've received."
John cleared his throat. "Thanks, Dad."
As Straker went to return inside, John added, "Dad? Can I ask you a favor?"
"What's that, John?"
His son ran a hand through his white blonde hair, a sure sign to his father that he was nervous. "Em told me that Sheila had talked to her about trying to find a way to include my mother in our lives. Do you know anything about that?"
"Yes. I believe she mentioned something about it to me."
"Could you---? I mean, would you ask her not to?"
There was silence as the two men looked at each other. Understanding the reasons didn't make it any easier to answer. "John..." Straker began.
His son interrupted to clarify. "It's not that I don't appreciate what she's trying to do, Dad. It's just that... how do I explain that I really don't want my mother in my daughter's life? It sounds so awful when it's said out loud. But you know. You know what she's like, and Sheila doesn't. For some reason, my mother's always been civil to her."
"I'll talk to her," his father promised.
"Thanks, Dad," John said fervently. "I didn't know how to tell her without sounding like an ass."
Straker grimaced as he led the way back indoors to the party, hoping that when the time came, he would manage not to sound like one himself.
"Interceptor 1 to Moonbase. Detonation positive. UFO destroyed."
"Interceptor 2 to Moonbase. Detonation positive. UFO destroyed."
"Interceptor 3 to Moonbase. Detonation positive. UFO unharmed and continuing on course. Do I follow? Please advise."
Col. Foster radioed back swiftly. "Interceptor 3, return to base. The UFO is passing into ground tracking range. There's no more you can do, Lieutenant. Head back."
Lt. Levine muttered a few fierce curses at the Thoelian craft as it continued Earthward, but nonetheless, he eased up on the throttle and turned his interceptor around to head back to Moonbase 2.
Paul contacted SHADO HQ. "One got away from us, Alec. He's all yours now."
Col. Freeman grinned at the younger colonel's disgruntled expression. He didn't think Paul would ever have a poker face. "No problem, Paul. We'll get him." He turned to Ayshea and said, "Launch Sky 5."
"Yes. sir. Sky 5, launching now."
Straker lay staring blankly at the bedroom ceiling and wondering vaguely how they had ended up on the floor. A small hand crept up his chest and had him turning his head warily to meet her eyes. She didn't look upset with him. She looked, he realized with a shock, completely satisfied. "Sheila?"
Her hand toyed with his chest hair in an absent caress as she purred, "Yes, Ed?"
"Are you okay?"
She tilted her head to the side as she considered the question. "No."
He looked searchingly at her. "What's wrong?"
"But you're not all right?"
She shook her head solemnly. "No. I don't think all right covers what I feel right now."
He gave her a worried look. "What do you feel?"
Her smile bloomed. "Wonderful!"
He blinked. "Oh." He ran a tentative hand down her arm, and she shivered in response, her eyelids drooping in renewed passion. He relaxed a little. Sheila never seemed to mind when he lost control while making love. In fact, she had told him more than once that she liked it. But he minded. It mattered to him that he couldn't always be gentle with her, that his desire for her sometimes overwhelmed his self-control. She deserved his tenderness. God knew she'd experienced more rough handling than anyone should have to bear.
He stroked her arm, wanting to soothe, needing to show her that he wasn't an uncontrolled monster like Ming. That he never wanted to hurt her. She shivered again and pressed close to him, kissing his shoulder as her hands drifted down his chest. He was surprised to feel his body respond to her touch. How could he be capable of feeling anything after the whirlwind of insanity they'd just experienced? He grabbed her hand and stilled it. "Sheila?"
She leaned close to rub his lips with hers. "Yes?"
He struggled to find the words to ask her if he'd hurt her when they fell off the bed. Then he saw her neck. He avoided her eyes as he ran a shaky finger across the mark his teeth had left on her soft skin. "Did I do that?"
He swallowed painfully. "I'm sorry."
"Me, too," she murmured as her hands resumed their exploration. "It'll be gone by morning, and I won't even be able to show it off."
He stared at her, not sure he was hearing her right. In her eyes, he saw no fear or pain. Nothing but the fire that burned so fiercely in her small frame, banked now but slowly coming back to life as she caressed him. And he realized that — in spite of all his concerns — he wanted her again. "Sheila," he said on a moan, thinking that they should at least get off the floor.
She ran her hands through his hair, bringing his lips to hers for a passionately sweet kiss. "Hmm?"
But he'd forgotten what he had wanted to say.
"What do you mean, you've lost it?"
Ayshea flinched slightly at Alec's tone, wishing with a sinking heart that this had happened on Keith's shift instead of hers. Nonetheless, her voice was cool as she replied. "I'm sorry, sir. Radar just went dead. Triangulation is scrambled. We're getting nothing but gibberish."
"How can that happen, Lieutenant?" Alec asked more mildly, his voice responding to hers even though his expression remained upset.
She was checking the instrumentation, then double-checking, before meeting his eyes again. "Sir, we've lost SID 3, and I'm getting odd readings from 4."
Alec's heart stopped. "Trajectory, Lieutenant!" he yelled. "Did the trajectory of that UFO come anywhere near those SIDs?"
She pulled it up on the screen, and her hands were not quite steady on the controls. But neither of them noticed. They were staring at the screen.
Col. Freeman spoke first, but he said what was on the tip of her tongue. "Damn!" Then he growled, "Get me Sky 5!"
"No one's blaming you, Alec." Straker sat back in his HQ chair and toyed with the report. "It was bound to happen sooner or later. It's always just a matter of time before they find a way past our defenses, and you know it. Beating yourself up about it won't help the situation. It'll only incapacitate you."
Col. Freeman looked up from his drink. "We had to shut down SID 4. It was still working, but barely, and most of what it was spewing out was garbled information."
Straker nodded. "We've still got five SIDs in working order. They are being reprogrammed to cover the extra area for the few weeks it takes until we get SID 3 replaced and 4 working properly again. It's not a critical issue, Alec. And since Capt. Waterman destroyed the UFO, we're sitting just fine."
"Sure." Alec's agreement was still sarcastic. He knew when Ed was making light of things, and he refused to allow it. "But it still leaves a hole in our defenses."
The commander shrugged. "A pretty small hole. I defy them to try to squeeze through it without us knowing about it. I'm not concerned about the radar, Alec."
Freeman met his friend's eyes for a moment. And had no trouble reading their expression. He realized that he should have figured out the real problem for himself. He sighed, knowing that Ed was right. Wallowing in self-recriminations only impaired his own ability to function. "You're wondering who told them how to get past it."
The colonel nodded, glad to have something to do to rectify what he saw as his failure. He stood up, saying, "I'll start checking on those who knew enough about the new system to pass on that kind of information."
"Quietly, Alec," Straker said. "We don't want to spook whoever is doing this. I want to know what else he's passing on to them, and we won't get that if he realizes we're on his trail."
Alec's grin was fierce. "Right."
She pulled into the circular drive, skirting some rather large motorcycles near the front door and parking just past them. She eyed them as she got out of the car, almost as if she expected them to bite her if she didn't keep her eye on them. But they stayed where they were. It baffled her. What would Ed have to do with the kind of ruffians that rode motorcycles? Had his new wife changed him so much? Was he into kinky stuff now: leather, whips and chains? She knew what kinds of things went on when you let yourself mix with the wrong crowd. Orgies, that's what. And drugs. She almost turned around and went back to the car.
But the front door opened just then, and a small girl raced out. "Come on, Rusty! Come on!"
Behind her, a thin man with long red hair hesitantly followed. "I don't know, Cupcake. You need to ask your mom."
Kathy tossed her dark hair in unconscious imitation of her mother. "Mama won't care, Rusty. You know she won't."
He was glad to look back and see Sheila coming down the main stairs with the rest of the guys. "Sheila!" he called over his shoulder. "Can I give the cupcake a ride?"
"Of course," she answered calmly, knowing he wouldn't take the bike past the drive.
"See?" Kathy said, sure of her mother's response more from Rusty's expression of relief than from actually hearing anything from inside the house. She ran toward his motorcycle, but stopped suddenly at the sight of the woman standing in the drive. "Hello."
Mary had to swallow hard at meeting those big blue eyes. So like John's. But she wouldn't think about that. "Hello," she ventured cautiously.
Before she could say any more, the man turned back and hollered into the house, "You've got company!"
Fred shoved him aside and walked onto the front porch. Perched precariously on his shoulders, Andy squealed at the sight of the motorcycles. "Ride! Ride!" he shouted, kicking his small legs vigorously against Fred's chest.
With the unconcern of someone used to such abuse, Fred only patted his legs and said, "In a minute, big guy."
Mary was unnerved to see two more long-haired men come outside, one who seemed frighteningly enormous. She calmed a little when she realized that he held a small toddler in one beefy arm. Surely he wouldn't offer her violence while holding a child? Then she saw Sheila. Her spine stiffened in indignation. No one— no one— could call that outfit decent! Did Ed know that his wife entertained strange men while he was away? And in such a state of undress?
Sheila took in Mary's disapproval at a glance. She sighed. What timing! She came over to where Ed's exwife stood. "Hello, Mary. How nice of you to visit."
"I wanted to talk to you," Mary said, giving a stern look at the men around them. "In private."
"Of course," Sheila said and led her past the guys into the house. She was glad that they didn't start up their bikes until she got Mary inside. Even through the thick walls of the mansion, the sound was loud and obnoxious. She saw Madeline approaching from the kitchen and smiled. "Madeline, the guys will be leaving in a minute. Would you take the children to Elodie after their rides for me? Mrs. Rutland and I will be in the parlor."
"Yes, ma'am," the housekeeper said. "Shall I bring you tea?"
"That would be lovely." She ushered Mary into the parlor and thankfully sank onto the couch as the older woman seated herself carefully on the edge of an overstuffed chair. Her knees were just a little unsteady, and she wondered a bit ruefully if she would always react this way to her husband's first wife or if they'd ever be able to become friends. She said, "What can I do for you, Mary?"
The older woman was gazing with disapproval around the room. Did this girl know nothing of what a parlor should look like? Where were the heavy drapes to cover those windows? Honestly, those lacy things could hardly be capable of keeping out the harsh sunlight, now could they? And the walls, covered with nothing but framed photographs. Not a painting in sight. And from the looks of them, they were rather foolish photos at that: children playing in a garden, a man putting a gaudy high heeled shoe on her foot with Ed smiling on as if it were nothing out of the ordinary, and one that obviously was from their wedding where she was shoving cake into Ed's mouth and laughing uproariously. Dreadful. And the furnishings! Really, how could anyone be expected to sit back in this chair without being swallowed up? And the couch where Sheila sat had afghans strewn across the back of it as if it were a pasha's bed. So pagan. How did Ed stand it?
The servant came in and brought the tea. When she had gone, Mary tried it and found it to be delicious. She almost asked what blend it was before she caught herself. Instead she said, "What on earth are you wearing?"
Sheila raised a brow over her cup, surprised at Mary's tone. She was hardly dressed immodestly; in fact, she was covered from neck to foot. "It's a leotard. I'm afraid that you caught me just after rehearsal." Thank God she hadn't shown up half an hour earlier and heard them going at it full blast!
"For the band. I'm in a rock band."
Good God. Whatever had Ed gotten himself into this time? Well, they always said that there wasnofool like an old fool. Mary hoped she made his life hell. "That must be . . . interesting."
"It is." She didn't know what Mary wanted from her, but she sincerely hoped that it wouldn't take long to deal with it. Her patience was wearing thin already.
After a moment, Mary put down her cup and removed a newspaper article from her purse. This she handed to Sheila, saying, "I was wondering if you could explain to me what this is about."
Sheila's heart sank when she read it. It was an article talking about how Oscar night had affected British film studios, and the photo above it showed a picture of everyone from England who had received an Oscar this year. Including John. Sheila tried not to panic. This was not a contingency they had prepared for, but surely their original story would hold? "What don't you understand?" she asked, returning the article to Mary.
Mrs. Rutland's lips tightened. "This John Straker. Who is he? It says here that he works for Ed's studio." She wanted to add that his face in the photo, although very grainy, looked hauntingly familiar. But she didn't want to sound hysterical.
"Yes. He works for Ed." Sheila wished that it hadn't been left to her to deal with this situation. She wasn't one who enjoyed lying to people. And this lie wouldn't even have the advantage of making Ed look good. She wanted nothing more than to tell Mary the truth. The article had obviously given her a bad turn when she'd read it. Surely she deserved to know that her son lived?
"Why does he look like Ed? What game is he playing now?"
"He's not playing any game, Mary."
Mary put down the cup with a snap. "How would you know? You haven't been married to him very long. You have no idea what he's capable of doing."
Sheila bit back an unwise comment and said instead, "I know that he had no intention of hurting you, Mary. Surely you realize that?"
"I realize nothing of the sort! Who is this boy? Why is he named for my son? And why does he look so much like him that I . . .?" Mary caught herself and took a deep breath. She gave Sheila a hard look. "If you don't tell me, I'll go to the studio myself. He's not going to get away with this."
Although her heart leapt into her throat at the thought of Mary going to the studio and possibly meeting John, Sheila tried to remain at least outwardly calm. There was no way that she wouldn't recognize her own child, no matter how many years he had aged. She had to be told, and convincingly enough to keep her from carrying out her threat. "He is Ed's son. His mother was a fellow college student at MIT. She left at the end of the semester, and Ed never heard from her again. He didn't know that she was pregnant. He didn't know anything about John until he showed up one day more than two years ago asking for work. His mother had died, telling him the truth about his father in a letter kept with the lawyer."
Mary's eyes burned with anger. "You lie!"
Sheila felt horrible. "I'm sorry, Mary."
But Straker's exwife was shaking her head. "No! Ed didn't have a lover before me. I know he didn't! He said I was the first, the only. He told me so!"
It was hideous to take away this woman's sweetest memories of her marriage. And wrong to make Ed seem worse than a playboy --- a liar and a deceiver. But what could Sheila say? The truth would never be believed as anything more than a twisted game of his doing. A ploy to get at Mary and hurt her. Sheila said, "I'm so sorry."
Mary pulled herself together with an effort. She could see the pity in Sheila's eyes and wanted to tear at her in fury. How dare she feel superior to the woman Ed had been married to for ten years! He still loved her in spite of his faithlessness, she was sure. Sheila was nothing but a girl, too young to understand him and incapable of keeping him by her side for longer than a few years. He'd tire of her soon, if he hadn't already. He could never waste himself on someone so obviously beneath him, in spite of her family's money. Sheila would see. One day she'd be dealing with his latest mistress. Then she wouldn't be acting so high and mighty, would she? Mary's smile was full of malice as she said, "How hard it is to find an honest man! Well, it's not as if I didn't know already that he couldn't be trusted. I'm only sorry for you, my dear. I hope you won't let him make a fool of you."
Sheila figured that Mary was entitled to a little waspishness in light of the situation. So she only said mildly, "No, I won't." Before she could say anything more, she heard the sound of the front door closing and voices in the hall. She got up and headed for the door, but didn't reach it before it opened, admitting her husband into the room.
"Darling!" he said, his eyes twinkling wickedly as he swept her into his arms and kissed her breathless. He'd been remembering the night before all day and had been aching to get his hands on her again. "How long do we have before it's zoo time?" he asked between kisses, urging her closer.
"Ed!" Sheila murmured in despair, feeling her legs go weak at his caress. "We have company."
He lifted his head, his humor dying as he caught the anguish in her eyes. He turned. And froze, every vestige of color leaving his face. "Mary."
Mary looked disdainfully at him. "Hello, Ed."
The look on his face made Sheila want to cry. "Ed," she began, touching his arm in a comforting gesture. "Mary came for a visit."
She didn't get any further. The parlor door swung open and two catapults flung themselves at him from behind. "Daddy! Daddy! Mommy, look! Daddy's home! Can we go to the zoo now? Can we?"
He wasn't the best actor in England for nothing, Sheila thought, as he turned to the children with every expression of delight. He lifted Andy high in the air and tickled him, then ran a fond hand down his daughter's curls before saying, "Zoo? What zoo?"
"Daddy!" Kathy tugged on his arm. "You know. We're going to the zoo today."
He shook his head at her. "I have no idea what you're talking about. Why would we go to the zoo?"
"To see the animals, of course. And Madeline made macaroons to take along."
Andy piped up, refusing to let his sister tell it all. "And they're fresh from the oven, too!"
His father ruffled his hair. "And how many have you had?"
"Seventy-eleven," his son answered truthfully.
"I see. Did you save any for me?"
"On course!" Andy grabbed his hand and tugged. "Come to the kitchen, Daddy. Come quick!"
Straker said, "You two go on ahead. I'll catch up with you." As they raced from the room, he turned back to his exwife, whose expression of disdain had not lessened in the least. He looked critically at her for a moment, trying to remember what she had looked like when they had been in love. But that image had been gone a long time. "What can I do for you, Mary?"
She picked up her purse. "Your wife answered my questions for me. I won't keep you."
Sheila laid a hand on his shoulder. "Go on to the kitchen, Ed. I'll see Mary out."
He looked at her, unsure if he should leave her alone with his exwife. Then he realized that she'd already been alone with her before he got home. She seemed okay. Besides, if it ever came to a catfight, he'd back Sheila to win every time. He smiled, the twinkle returning to his eyes for a moment as he touched her cheek. He nodded to Mary, then left the room without another word.
As Mary walked toward the front door, she could hear the sound of the children's chattering voices echoing from the kitchen all the way down the hall. She looked up the main staircase and saw the beautiful woodwork that stretched to the high ceiling. This might be a grand house, she thought, but it could hardly be considered a peaceful one. She gave Sheila a triumphant smile as the younger woman opened the front door for her. "You know," she said quietly, her blue eyes glinting with dislike. "I always resented Ed having other children, as if he could simply throw off the memory of his son, as if he didn't matter anymore. But I see now that I was wrong. I'm glad Ed has other children." Her smile widened. "He's got exactly the kind of ...children he deserves."
Straker came out into the hall and found his wife standing at the open front door. He heard Mary's car drive away, but his wife still did not shut the door. He came up to her and laid a comforting hand on her back. "Sheila?"
She turned and looked at him then, in her eyes a look of such bewildered hurt that he wanted to curse. "What did she say to you?" he demanded.
She shook her head and slowly closed the door. "I always thought he was exaggerating," she said after a moment.
Her eyes met his. "John. I always thought that he was just like every other kid, expecting his parents to be perfect, and bitter because they weren't. But that wasn't it at all, was it?"
He rubbed her arms, wanting to soothe her. "No," he agreed. "Sheila, what did she say to you?"
Again she shook her head, unwilling to tell him such a hateful comment. Besides, it had been aimed at her. "It doesn't matter. It's just . . . Ed?"
"Yes?" he asked as she relaxed against him.
"I don't think it's a good idea for her to be around Ally, do you?"
He sighed, more relieved than he cared to admit that he didn't have to explain it to her. "No. I think we're all better off without her in our lives."
He heard two small pairs of feet running down the hall toward them and tightened his hold around her. He murmured into her ear, "Ready for the zoo?"
Michael's long hair swung behind him as he strode purposefully down the corridor of SHADO HQ. He nodded tersely to those he passed, but did not stop to exchange greetings or even to smile. He entered the lab and strode up to the men working at the desk. "You heard?" he growled.
Lt. Jenkins jumped, and Fred Gibbon blinked at him for a moment. They'd been going over calculations when he'd erupted into the room. It took a moment to focus in on him and what he was asking.
"Oh. You mean, about the attack on the radar system?"
"Yes." Col. Sarek's reply was clipped. He couldn't seem to stand in one place, but strode about the lab, his fists clenching and unclenching. "You know why the Thoelians are doing this, don't you? Why now?"
"Um..." Fred looked to Jenkins for inspiration, but the lieutenant only shrugged, as lost as he was.
Michael's arm swept out impatiently. "Because of the project! They want to stop us from anchoring the lithosphere!"
Fred gasped. "Well, they won't! It's already in place. We won. They lost. They'll just have to accept that."
Michael snorted. "Sure they will! Come on, Fred! They haven't given up their plan. They want Earth. They aren't going to just stop trying for it because we put a sprock in their gears. Their plan was brilliant. They'll keep trying to make it work."
Gibbon frowned in thought. "I don't see what else they could do."
"They'll think of something. If they haven't already." He paced for a few moments, then said, "They have someone at HQ working for them, telling them things."
Fred was shocked. "What? Why would anyone do that?"
"Who knows? It's possible that they aren't even doing it of their own free will. Damned Thoelians and their mind games!"
"But, Mike. No one has said anything about a ... a spy!"
"No, and they probably won't, either."
Fred looked bewildered.
Michael sighed and came up to the desk. "Listen, Fred. The commander isn't foolish enough to broadcast that we've got a mole in SHADO. We need to catch the guy, flush him out before he realizes that we're onto him."
After a moment, Fred shook his head. "I still don't get it. How would anyone even know we have a spy in the first place?"
"That's right," Jenkins agreed. "Aren't you being just a little paranoid, Colonel?"
"How did they find out about the new radar system?" Michael asked them with hands on hips.
As they considered that, he added, "And who told them how to get through it?"
Fred's eyes got huge as the implications sank in.
"I really appreciate this, Sheila."
Col. Straker led Joan into her SHADO office. "No problem. Troubleshooting is my middle name."
Lt. Harrington sat down with a laugh. "Actually, I think the commander words it slightly differently."
Sheila chuckled. "Substitutes 'trouble' instead, does he? Well, he would know."
Joan looked inquiringly at her and handed her the computer spec sheets. "Were you really at the zoo when I paged you?"
The colonel looked over the readouts. "Yes. Why?"
The lieutenant giggled. "No reason."
Sheila met her eyes blandly for a moment, then gave a laugh. "I can imagine!"
"Well, that's just it, Sheila. I can't imagine it! The commander at the zoo?!"
"He wasn't one of the exhibits, Joan."
Joan giggled even harder. "I know!" she gasped, trying to get her breath back. "It's just ... he just ... doesn't seem like he would fit in."
"Oh, I don't know," Sheila replied, thinking about it. "Perhaps taming the lions. I could see him with a whip. Oh, right. That's the circus. Well, never mind. He seemed to enjoy it."
Joan became abruptly serious. "You've changed him."
Sheila lifted a brow. "I hope for the better."
"No, I mean that he's mellowed a lot since you've been married. He's still ... well ..."
Joan nodded. "Yes. Difficult at times, but he's so much more approachable than he was before. It's weird."
"And it makes you nervous?" Sheila asked quietly.
Joan gave a start. "No! What do you mean?"
Her friend sighed. "Aren't you afraid of that change, Joan? The way people do as they share their lives together?"
The lieutenant paled. "How...? How did you know?"
Sheila sighed. "You told me yourself."
"I didn't! I didn't even know until just now that it was a problem!"
"You told me once about your childhood, Joan. About your mother's several marriages. Gay thinks that you're afraid to get married because you think it won't last. I've always thought that the answer went deeper than that. Did your mother change with each marriage? Did she treat you differently depending on who was her husband at the time?"
Joan nodded, her lips thinning as she remembered. "I couldn't count on her anymore. And I needed to! She was my only constant during those insane years of growing up, and I couldn't even count on her being the same! I never knew what to expect. I hated it."
"And swore you wouldn't let your children down by changing to suit a man."
They were silent for a while as they looked through the data sheets. When they eventually looked up from them, Sheila told her softly, "I liked who I was before I met Ed. I didn't have a past, so I made sure that my present was enjoyable and my future was going somewhere. But after I met him, I found out that there was more to me than even I suspected. Oh, not just the memories. I mean that he drew things out of me that I hadn't known were there until him. A side of me that I hadn't tapped into, or at least not for a very long time. And I loved it. I loved him. And part of that love was bound up in the way I was when I was with him. Does that make sense?"
"I think so."
"If I've changed him, then it's only fair, because he's changed me. And I'm very pleased with those changes. I like who I am even more now than at any time in my life. And I have Ed to thank for it.
"I realize that you've seen through your mother how that can work against you, turning you into what you never wanted to be, taking you directions you would never have gone on your own. Which is why you need to be careful in choosing a mate, so that you find someone who brings out the best in you."
Joan leaned forward. "But how can I know who will be right? How can I ever be sure?"
Sheila smiled. "Do you want guarantees? It doesn't work that way. But I suppose the best bet you have against disharmony is to make sure that you marry your mate. Don't settle for anyone less."
"Nina mentioned that once, that she and Mark were mates. How can you tell? Does it mean that you always get along?"
Her friend laughed. "Not at all! Sometimes Ed makes me livid! It's more like not being able to imagine life without them. As if your life would be empty if for some reason they weren't there anymore. As if you would never become your full potential without them there to support you on that path, to help you become the best you possible."
After a moment, Joan shook her head, her fingers toying with the edge of the computer specs. "I don't know how you could possibly know all that just by meeting a person."
Sheila's eyes twinkled as she answered. "With some of us, it takes a little longer to believe it."
"Well, General. To what do we owe the pleasure of having you visit us?"
Shaw's lips quirked slightly as he took a seat in Straker's HQ office. "Security tells me that you've got two SIDs nonfunctional."
Straker leaned back in his chair and folded his hands. "Actually, General, only one of them is out of commission. The other is still operational, but spouting gibberish. We've shut them both down until repairs can be done."
"Are you splitting hairs with me, Commander?"
"Not at all, sir," Straker replied blandly. "I just wanted to make sure that the information you received was accurate."
Shaw disguised his chuckle as a cough and met Straker's calm look with as much grimness as he could muster. "Someone gave information to the Thoelians concerning those satellites."
Straker's voice was very soft. "Careful, General. Next you'll be saying that we have a spy in our midst."
The general blinked at him, then settled back in the chair with a sigh. "I suppose I shouldn't have been worried about it. You've been on top of everything they've tried for a lot longer than I have. You're dealing with the matter?"
"I'll leave it in your hands then. You'll let me know how things turn out?"
"You'll get the full report."
"Good." The general shifted in his chair slightly. "Speaking of reports, I wanted to thank you for the detailed one you sent me concerning Project Anchor."
Straker lifted a brow. "If praise is in order, sir, perhaps you should speak to Col. Sarek or Dr. Gibbon. They wrote that report. I merely signed it."
"Yes, well ... all the same, I appreciated your office keeping me informed. I noticed that none of the anchor coordinates were mentioned in the report. Very clever. And security-conscious too."
"Yes, well." The general shifted again. "In light of current events, Commander, I'd feel a lot better knowing that those coordinates aren't available to anyone at SHADO."
Straker smiled softly. "Only myself and one other know those coordinates, General. I think you can sleep easy."
"Someone you trust implicitly?"
"In this instance I do."
"Good." Shaw stood and shook Straker's hand. "Well, I suppose you'll be scheduling a meeting with the council soon to address those SID repair costs. I'll see you whenever that is, I'm sure."
"Yes, sir. Next Tuesday."
Shaw was startled. "That soon?"
But the commander only smiled.
He looked up from reading reports. "Hi, yourself."
Sheila grimaced at the pile of reports on his HQ desk. "Busy?"
The commander grinned. "Always. What can I help you with? I thought you were off this morning."
"I was," she said as she took a seat in front of his desk. "I had a doctor's appointment."
"Oh." He didn't remember her mentioning one. "Is it anything serious?"
He looked at her in concern, but she was still smiling. "I'm not sure I understand."
Sheila cocked her head slightly and said teasingly, "Don't you?"
Suddenly his eyes widened, and he sat forward. "Is it ...? Are you ...? Did we ...?"
She laughed. "Yes, Ed. It is. And I am. And we did. Are you pleased?"
He grinned wickedly as he held out a hand to her. "Immensely. Come here and let me show you how much."
"But what is the actual purpose of hiking?" she complained as they trudged over the rocky terrain. "I mean, all this walking about just to see a bunch of rocks and trees and be eaten alive by bugs. What possible reason could anyone have to do this?"
Fred grinned back at her as he crested the top of the rise. He spread out his arms and said grandly, "This!"
As she reached where he stood, she looked. And gasped. They stood on a bluff overlooking the sea. Far below them, the waves beat ceaselessly against the rocks, creating a sonorous boom that seemed to echo through their feet. "Wow! This is awesome!"
"Glad you approve," he said as he removed his backpack. "And for my next trick, we have some fine wine, bread, cheese, and even a picnic blanket." He flourished it as he spoke and spread it on the ground.
Joan grinned as she sat down. "You think of everything. Oh, but Fred! This isn't a blanket!"
"It isn't?" he asked in surprise.
"No. It's a quilt, and a beautiful one. You shouldn't be laying it on hard rock and grass. It'll get ruined!"
"Nonsense," he said with a dismissing wave. "I'll have you know that this quilt and I have been through much worse than this. It always comes clean."
She looked at him in shock. "Fred, you don't ...? You don't machine wash this, do you?"
"Of course. Why not?"
Joan sputtered. "Because it's obviously an heirloom! Fred! You have to treat antiques delicately."
He chuckled. "It's no antique, Joan. And believe me, if it got ruined somehow, I can get another anytime. My sister made it. She makes them for everyone in the family and puts her favorites in shows. She's won a few prizes too," he added proudly.
She fingered the tiny stitching. "She must be very gifted."
He shrugged as he finished off his sandwich, but said as he made another, "Do you sew, Joan?"
"No. I don't have any hobbies really."
Fred's brows rose. "None at all? I find that surprising."
He shrugged again. "I don't know. You have an artist's eye. It shows in the way you decorate your flat, and even in the things that draw your attention when we go anywhere. Like this blanket. Or the sea out there. You don't have any hobbies?"
Joan fiddled with her sandwich and didn't look up. "I used to paint."
She shook her head. "Watercolors. But that was years ago. I haven't picked up a brush in ... I don't know ... decades."
He gazed at the top of her head intently and asked softly, "Why not?"
She finally lifted her eyes to meet his. He looked so earnest, as if her answer really mattered. How could she tell him that one of her stepfathers had liked to put his fist through her paintings whenever he was drunk? And that her mother had always found excuses for him afterward. It hadn't seemed worth going to the trouble to create something beautiful only to have it destroyed. "I just haven't given it any thought, that's all."
"You should, you know," he said quietly. "Talents dry up if they're not used. It's a waste."
He seemed to think it was important, so instead of shrugging it off, she merely took a sip of her wine and said, "Maybe I will."
"Say it again."
He ran a hand down her hair, smoothing it against the pillow. "Please?" he implored.
She was not proof against his expression. In fact, she smiled as she gave in. "I'm pregnant."
He sighed and laid his head against her bare belly. "Are you happy about it?"
"Oh, yes. And you?"
"Very." He looked at her intently, then asked softly, "Are you?"
Sheila sighed, knowing that this was an area where he had yet to learn to trust her. "Ed, I would rather be here with you and pregnant with our child than anywhere else in the universe. And that includes Moonbase 2."
He lightly kissed her navel. "You're sure?"
She gave him an adoring look as she grinned. "Oh, yes."
He rubbed his cheek against her stomach. "I'll take you there someday. I promise."
She ran a fond hand through his white blonde hair. "I know."
They lay in silence for some time, while her fingers played through his hair.
Finally she asked softly, "Is it a boy or a girl this time?"
He frowned at her. "I don't know."
"Oh, Ed. Of course, you know."
"Listen to me. You've known with every baby we've had, long before the doctors could tell. Come on, Ed. Tell me."
He shook his head slightly. "Carl told me once that I could tell. But I can't, Sheila. I don't know how."
She soothed him with calming strokes through his hair. "Ed. It's instinctive. It's not something you have to try to do. It's just something you know. Shut your mind down for a minute and listen. Listen to what you already know."
Fred came fully awake and lay tautly in his bed, trying not to breathe. Something had woken him. Something that wasn't right. He could feel it in the way his body wanted to tremble, in the fear that wanted to clog his throat. He didn't think he was alone in his flat anymore. Straining to see in the darkness, he edged toward the side of the bed and reached for the gun under his pillow. He felt better when his feet slid to the floor and his hand closed over the gun. But he still couldn't see anything.
There. By the door. Was that shadow darker than the ones around it? He stayed down behind the side of the bed, watching that spot intently as he moved softly toward the foot of the bed. As he quietly released the safety off the gun, he realized that it wasn't loaded. Damn! James Bond, he definitely wasn't. But what idiot left a loaded gun under his pillow anyway? A guy could kill himself that way.
As the shadow by the door moved toward the bed, he lunged for it.
Joan came awake with a start, her heart pounding loudly. There'd been a noise. Hadn't there? Then she heard it again. It was coming from upstairs, in Fred's flat. What was the man doing up there? It sounded like he was tearing his flat apart. Wasn't that his floor lamp hitting the floor? She heard other sounds, as well. Sounds like ... fighting.
She jumped up, grabbed her gun, and ran to the door of her flat, but hesitated before going on up. What if he was up there wrestling with the guys in the band or something? What if she was worrying for nothing? What if she looked like an idiot for bursting in on him?
Too damn bad.
"She's a girl," he whispered, his cheek still pressed against her womb.
"Yeah?" she whispered back, a grin spreading across her face. "Do you know what she looks like?"
Straker sighed out a chuckle. "No. But maybe I'll get my wish this time and she'll have your eyes."
Sheila said, "Both the boys have my eyes."
"Yes, I know. But it's not the same."
He knew he was losing. He'd fought off the intruder fiercely, tearing up the bedroom and then the living room in his efforts to get away or subdue his attacker. But the intruder on top of him was stronger, much stronger than he was. Inhumanly strong. His own fear had given him strength this far, but he knew he was losing. Damn it! Why hadn't he loaded that damn gun?
His head hit the floor with a loud crack, and he felt himself being drawn into a dark pit. But even as he lost consciousness, he thought he saw the door to his flat burst open.
"Will she be all right, do you think?"
Sheila snuggled up to him as he lay next to her on the bed. "The baby?"
She searched his face. "Of course. Why wouldn't she be?"
"It's just ..." He looked at her solemnly as he answered. "I was rough with you the other night."
"Oh, Ed!" She hugged him. "I'm sure she's fine. Babies can take a great deal of handling and still come out okay."
"What about you?"
"What about me?"
He took a breath. "Are you okay?"
"Of course!" She tried to read his expression. "I've told you that I don't mind when you're less than gentle with me."
"Yes. I know."
"Then what's the problem?"
He gave a moody shrug.
Apparently he didn't have it figured out himself. "Ed ... does it bother you when you lose control when we make love?"
His eyes were sad when they met hers. "I don't want to hurt you."
"Ed, you've never hurt me."
"That's not true! I've left marks on you several times. I've seen them before they faded, Sheila. And we fell on the floor, for God's sake!"
"Actually," she said with a grin. "You were on the bottom. Perhaps I should be asking you if you were hurt?"
"Oh, Ed." She sought for a way to make him understand. "You're a very gentle lover. I suppose you had to be with Mary. Am I right?"
He shrugged uncomfortably. "She was delicate." He saw her ornery grin and added, "And so are you! You know you are. You're even smaller than Mary, Sheila."
She shook her head at him. "Size has nothing to do with it. Mary's like — I don't know — porcelain or something. I'm more like cheap Corelle ware. You know, the everyday plates that last forever. I don't break easily. You know that. You know that."
He swallowed hard, wishing she hadn't brought that up. "But that's just it, Sheila! You've been through horrible abuse. Torture. Repeated rape. If anyone deserves to be treated gently, it's you."
She laid a hand against his cheek, her eyes misty. "You are so good to me," she whispered.
But he shook his head. "I wish I was. But I can't always be. Sometimes I just want you so much that I ... that I forget to be gentle."
She stroked his cheek soothingly. "But that's okay, Ed. I like those times too."
"How could you?" he blurted out. "When they must remind you ...!"
Sheila laid her fingers against his mouth, silencing him. "No, Ed! Never. Not once." She looked at him earnestly. "You are a very passionate man, Ed Straker. I love it when I can get you to show me everything you feel for me, no holding back. But passion could never be violence. They're worlds apart. I don't care how many bruises you put on me when we're tangled up on the stairs or in the garden. Or even on the floor! I welcome them, because for as long as they last, they're a reminder to me of how much you love me and just how deep your passion runs. They don't make me fear you or hate you or wish you dead. You're not a violent man, Ed. You've never touched me violently. Not now. Not ever."
He stared into her eyes as if trying to see into her soul. "Then I don't sometimes ... remind you of ... Ming?"
"Oh, God! No!" She hugged him fiercely. "Never! Never, Ed! How could you ever think that?"
He held her tightly, his own eyes misty as he felt the weight around his heart lighten. "I don't know," he murmured. "I've never been very good at understanding women."
She chuckled through her tears. "Well, understand this then. I love you. I've always loved you. And I will always love you. No matter what."
Instead of answering, he kissed her. Which, she supposed, was an answer in itself.
Instinctively he refused to obey the command as he surfaced from the dark pit, and he struggled against the hand on his arm.
"Damn it, Fred! Stop! I mean it!"
He knew that voice. He quieted in response to the desperation he heard in hers and tried to pry his eyelids open. The room's harsh light blinded him momentarily, but he was finally able to focus on her face. Yes, it was her. But what was she doing over him like that? "Joan?"
"Just a second ..."
He couldn't see what she was doing, but after a moment he felt a twinge in his arm, and she held up a syringe. "Got it!"
"What is that?" he asked, not sure he wanted to know.
She was examining it closely. "It's empty."
His blood ran cold. "Does that mean ...? Did he pump me full of something?"
Joan shook her head. "No, Fred." Her face looked grim. "This syringe never had anything in it."
He felt compelled to sit up, even though it made him dizzy for a moment. He rubbed a hand over his face and tried to make sense of everything. "I don't get it. What was he trying to do with an empty syringe?"
"Air," she answered tersely. "He would have pumped air into your bloodstream."
He stared at her in horror. "But ... but, why?"
"Why do you think? To kill you."
He shook his head. "That doesn't make any sense. If somebody was after the anchor coordinates, I wouldn't be any good to them dead. He'd need me alive."
She looked at him for a long moment, then said quietly, "You would have been alive. In a way."
He began to tremble uncontrollably.
Joan went into his bedroom and grabbed his sister's quilt off the bed, returning to lay it over his shoulders. "It's shock," she told him.
"You th-think?" he muttered bitterly.
She glanced over at the body of the intruder she had shot. It was Lt. Jenkins. She felt sick all of a sudden, but said, "We have to call this in."
As he hung up the phone, his wife came away from the study doorway and into the room.
"Is he okay?"
"Yes. A bit bruised, but he's fine."
She watched him brood for a moment, then said, "There's nothing you could have done to prevent this, Ed. No one expected an all-out assault like that. And Fred's pretty good at hand-to-hand. I'm sure he gave him a good fight."
"Jenkins," he said bitterly.
She came around his desk and snuggled onto his lap to comfort him. And found her own heart soothed as well by the contact. "It's not your fault. None of us saw it. They're getting better at hiding their mind control. You couldn't have known that."
He held her close. Jenkins had been in SHADO HQ. He could have done untold damage to them with no warning if he hadn't been pursuing another agenda. He might still have set some traps for them. He had Alec checking their systems out now. But he didn't tell his wife. She had enough on her mind. Fred was her friend, and she'd considered Jenkins a friend. Hell, she'd probably spoken to the lieutenant recently. The thought made him cold inside. "I should have realized they were up to something. They've been too quiet."
"Quiet? Ed, what do you call them sending ships to disable our radar?"
"If they were controlling Jenkins," he mused aloud, completely disregarding her comment. "That means that they had a ship here already. I wonder how long it's been here? We'd have caught them if they tried to get through once the radar was operational. Probably kept it underwater to keep it from disintegrating. Hmmm ..."
She ran a hand through his hair, her eyes twinkling as she watched his mind work out all the angles. He was such an amazing man.
Suddenly he stiffened in his chair, his eyes meeting hers. "Sheila! I need to get to HQ. We've got to locate that ship! With Jenkins out of commission, Gibbon safe, and SHADO alerted to their agenda, they may go after the only other person who can give them the information they need."
She got up, searching his grim countenance. "And who's that?"
Her heart stopped with fear for his safety, but she swiftly brushed that aside. He needed her help, not her panic. "What's the plan?"
He shook his head. "A lot depends on whether Jenkins found out where we live. Just to be on the safe side, I think it would be best if we gather the children together and get them to the studio. I'll have Alec alert the Skyjets."
He turned from the phone after only a moment. "No signal." They stared at each other, realizing the implications, then he said softly, "Sheila, where are the children?"
"I just left them in the garden with Elodie," she said. "They were going to feed the ducks at the ... lake. Oh, Ed!"
He grabbed the hand she held out to him, as if by sheer willpower they could keep their children safe. But before he could say anything, he heard the sound of footsteps running in from the back of the house. They got to the hall just as Andy reached them, out of breath.
"Daddy! Daddy! An alien! There's an alien here!"
"It's all right, son," Straker assured him, holding his frightened son close as Kathy, Elodie, and the housekeeper ran up.
"Mr. Straker. Sir!" Madeline was angry to see the children so distraught. "Surely you don't have that horrible program filming on the grounds?"
For once, Straker ignored her as he asked the governess tersely, "How many?"
Lt. Elodie Warren answered briskly. "Two, sir. Coming across the lawn as bold as they please."
"Right. The priest hole then. Sheila ..." He turned to his wife to find her dashing up the stairs. "Where are you ...?" he began, only to realize that Alexander was asleep in the nursery. He turned back to the housekeeper. "Madeline, get the children into the priest hole."
"Yes, sir," she said and went over to the molding on the side of the fireplace to open the cavity in the wall.
Meanwhile, Straker pulled the governess aside and asked, "Are you armed?"
"Yes, sir. I didn't think I should engage them with the children present, sir."
"No, you did right. I want you in the priest hole with them."
She demurred. "But, sir! You'll need my help!"
"Listen," he said tersely. "If they get by us, I need for you to stop them. Do you understand, Lieutenant?"
She nodded numbly.
Just then Sheila returned with the baby in her arms. She let Elodie take him into the priest hole, but once the panel was closed behind them, she began to shake. "Ed, our home! They dare to invade our home!"
He held her close for a moment. "I know. I know." He looked grimly at her. "We'll stop them."
"Yes," she said, gaining strength from his nearness. "We will."
He went behind his desk for his gun, then asked her, "Are you armed?"
"Yes," she said with a fierce grin, holding up her weapon. "When I got Alexander."
"Good." He followed her to the doorway of the study. He frowned as he looked around the hallway. There were just too many ways to get into the house. "Sheila, I want you to stay here and guard the study. I need to see where they're at."
But she was shaking her head. "Ed, listen! Let me do the scouting. It's what I'm good at. We need you protecting our treasures."
He was terrified of letting her out of his sight. But he couldn't fault her logic. "Damn it, Sheila!"
She grinned and kissed him quickly. "I love you, too," she sassed and sprinted for the parlor across the hall.
He figured that the Thoelians would split up, so when he didn't see anything out the study windows, he headed back to the hallway. Just as he looked around the study doorway, he caught a glimpse of red coming from the back of the house. He held his breath until he heard the alien approaching, then emerged from the doorway and fired twice, head and chest. The alien fell, but just then he heard the unmistakable sounds of gunfire from the parlor across the hall. Thoelian gunfire.
Sheila! His heart leapt into his throat, and he turned to go to her, when suddenly pain erupted in his chest. Massive, overwhelming pain, as if he'd been rammed with an oak beam. As he slid slowly down the study door, he saw another Thoelian emerge from the kitchen doorway at the back of the hall. Three, he thought dimly. There were three of them.
She dived behind the sofa as the Thoelian fired through the glass at her, then came up with her gun blasting, taking him out as he came through the shattered patio doors. Even as he fell back, she heard the shots in the hall. Ed!
She sprinted out of the room , her heart stopping when she saw the Thoelian bend down to where Ed lay crumpled by the study. "You bastard!" she screamed and let rip with her gun.
Before the shots had finished echoing around the hall, she had run to where he lay, pushing the body of the alien aside like so much rubble. She could see that it was bad. Her hands wanted to shake, but she willed them to be steady as she ripped her blouse in two to form a thick pad. She laid it over the wound in his chest — too massive, too much blood loss — added pressure and yelled into his face, "Ed! Damn you, Ed, don't you die on me!" Tears were coursing down her face, but she angrily brushed them away, watching his face for any response. "Ed! Ed, we need you! Don't do this! Damn you, listen to me!"
His eyelids fluttered, and she almost gagged with relief. "Ed?"
"Sheila ..." His voice was a mere thread. "Safe?"
"Yes, Ed," she assured him. "We're all safe. You kept us safe."
He was struggling to tell her something, and she tried to quiet him, but he refused to relax. His agitation only made his blood pump that much faster. "Ed," she pleaded. "Stop. Please!"
Finally he got his eyes open. "Three," he muttered before his eyes rolled up into his head.
"Damn you," she whispered as she kept the pressure on, knowing she was losing him with every second. "Stop being the commander for a minute and save your own life!"
She never knew how long she sat there trying to keep his blood inside his body before the front door burst open and Alec ran in.
He recoiled from the sight of so much blood and death. "Jesus, Sheila! Is he ...? Is he ...?"
She shook her head wearily, her arms starting to shake now that help had arrived. "Not yet.
He turned back to the door and yelled for a stretcher. He had to help the medics pry her hands away from Straker's body, so that they could work on him. He held onto her, ready to catch her if she fainted, but she merely swayed where she stood and shuddered uncontrollably.
When the medics started to cart the stretcher away, she stirred and went to follow.
Alec stopped her.
"No! Let me go to him!" she yelled hoarsely, batting at him with her hands.
"Sheila!" he said briskly, shaking her to get her attention. "He'll be all right. He's in good hands. There's no more you can do for him."
"No!" she moaned. "No!"
"Listen to me!" he ordered. "We need your help! Once Fred told us that yesterday Jenkins asked where you live, we figured they'd come after Ed. We knew it for certain when your phones went dead. Where is everybody?"
"Alec!" she begged. "They're safe. Ed isn't! Let me go to him! Let me be with him!"
"Sheila!" he said, hardening his heart against her pain, knowing that someone had to make the decisions for all of them now. "Where are the children?"
His question pierced her grief, and she blinked at him for a moment before answering. Of course. He didn't know. "The priest hole."
He was afraid she was delirious. "The what?"
Instead of repeating it, she merely led him into the study and twisted the molding of the fireplace.
When John entered the observation room, Sheila was sitting quietly in one of the chairs. She didn't turn as he entered, her entire being focused on the surgery taking place in the next room. Someone had given her a shirt, but she hadn't cleaned up. Her hands and arms were still stained with his father's blood. She seemed completely unaware of it, or the fact that she'd put the shirt on inside out. Since he'd never seen her before with a hair out of place, it came as a shock.
She still didn't turn to look at him, but after a moment she said, "His heart is strong. He has a good chance."
It was verbatim what the doctors had told him, and he realized that she believed it as little as he did, but was clinging to it nonetheless.
He sat beside her and put his arm around her. "Yeah," he said. "He has a good chance."
After a time, she seemed to focus on his presence. She finally looked at him and asked, "You okay?"
He shrugged. "I guess. A little pissed."
He realized suddenly that she had no idea of anything transpiring outside these walls. Her whole life had been reduced to these two rooms. "Jackson won't let me give blood. My own father, and my blood can't help him. It pissed me off."
"I'm sorry, John."
"Hell, even Tobiah was allowed to give blood!"
She blinked, realizing for the first time how difficult it must have been for the medical staff to keep replacing those pouches of blood in the next room. "Tobiah gave?"
John grinned ruefully. "Every Maloran on staff has donated some. Even the royal family is giving blood. Cedric arrived with an entire entourage about half an hour ago, and Jackson lined them up. He even brought his own doctor." Here he nodded to the surgeon Sheila had seen enter the surgical room awhile ago. He hadn't looked familiar, and she had wondered who he was.
After hours of feeling hollowed out, suddenly she wanted to cry. "He is so greatly loved," she murmured.
"Yeah, he is," John replied, putting his arm back around her. "He can't help but make it with all of us pushing for him."
She sighed and laid her head wearily against his shoulder. "Thank you, John."
He rubbed his cheek against her hair. "Anytime, Mom."
Twenty minutes later, Commander Straker's heart stopped.
He watched the doctors work on him from his vantage point near the ceiling. As they hovered over his chest, sliced open for the surgery, he was vaguely relieved that he could no longer feel it. It was odd that he was up here watching himself down there, but it didn't seem terribly important, so he didn't worry about it.
"You've made her cry, Eddie."
He turned in surprise at finding himself addressed, and saw Sandy nearby, close to the ceiling as he was. He didn't think she was supposed to be here, but since she looked upset with him, he merely asked, "Who's crying?"
"Can't you hear her?" she replied.
And suddenly he could hear it. Someone was sobbing. Heart-wrenching sobs that tugged at him in a way that reminded him of the pain he had so recently left behind. "Who is it?" he asked his father's housekeeper.
"See for yourself," she answered. "And Eddie, you've got to make her stop. It's not good for the baby."
"All right." He followed the sobbing through the wall of the surgery and into the observation room. There he was shocked to see Sheila weeping in his arms. No. Not his arms. John's arms. John was crying, as well. He came closer, wishing he could tell them that he was fine now. It didn't hurt anymore.
But it did hurt to hear her crying. Deep in his heart — where the pain had been fiercest — he could feel her sobs reverberate. "Sheila," he said. "Please don't cry. You know I hate to hear you cry."
Suddenly she stopped weeping and looked around. "Ed?" she whispered.
He could tell that she didn't see him, so he came close to her and wiped a tear from her cheek. At his touch, two things happened at once. First, she stiffened as if she had felt it. But he had no time to explore that interesting development, because the other thing that happened was that he was suddenly filled with pain, racked with it, and unable to stop himself from being pulled back into the other room.
"Ed!" she cried, realizing what his presence with her meant. "Ed, don't leave me!"
The monitor in the operating room suddenly blipped with a heartbeat; erratic at first, then steadying out.
When the pain stopped again, he saw a great light ahead of him. Amazing, he thought, that all those stories were true. The light was beautiful, brilliantly white, but it didn't hurt to look at it. In fact, he didn't want to look away from it. As he approached, it seemed to grow even brighter. Soon it was all he could see. It seemed almost alive, pulsing with a rhythm all its own. And there was music, not words exactly, but singing that seemed to pulse with the light.
Eventually, he could make out different shades of brightness. Shapes within the light. As he beheld, one of the shapes became clearer. It was a person, coming toward him through the light. He could tell that they wore a robe of some kind, and that their hair was long about their shoulders. His heart stopped, and his knees grew weak. He hoped — he really hoped — it wasn't who he thought it was. He hadn't been on the best of terms with any deity since his mother's death all those years ago, and he didn't want to be kicked out by the boss almost before he was in the door. He was still vaguely surprised he had made it this far. This wasn't where he had expected to end up, which was perhaps part of the reason why he had seldom let himself think about it.
As the person approached, he relaxed, and his knees regained their strength. It was a woman. Soon he could see her face, and he forgot all about whether he belonged there or not as he ran to her.
"Eddie!" she cried and enfolded him in her arms.
"Mom! Mom!" He wept freely, so happy to see her that he thought he might burst.
"My darling baby," she murmured to him, stroking his hair in a way that he suddenly realized was very similar to the way Sheila did.
He looked at her, trying to memorize her face. "I've missed you so much! I ... I never thought I'd see you again."
"Oh, Eddie. Of course, you will."
"Did you like the daisies I left for you?"
"Yes, my darling," she answered. "Every one."
"I want to pick some more for you," he said suddenly. "Can we pick flowers here?"
"Eddie," she said, shaking her head. "You mustn't stay."
"No!" he cried. "Don't make me leave you! I have so much to say to you! Please, Mom!"
"Eddie," she said with tears in her beautiful eyes. "You're not finished. There is so much more for you to do. You must not stay here now."
"But I don't want to leave you. It hurts too much to go back there. Why can't I stay with you?"
"Do you hear that?" she asked.
Suddenly, beyond the singing of the light, he could hear far off the sound of weeping. Once more, it tugged at him, and he turned to his mother sadly. "It's Sheila."
"Yes, Eddie. You must go to her. She needs you. She'll need you more than ever soon, so you must go back now to be with her."
"I don't want to leave you."
"I'm always with you, Eddie. And someday you'll return here, and we'll visit our own special meadow together."
"I can come back?" he asked eagerly.
"Yes, my darling. But not too soon. Not too soon."
He could feel Sheila's tears tugging at him, slowly pulling him back. "Mom! There's so much I wanted to say to you! In person and not just at your grave!"
"Oh, my baby!" she said with a watery smile. "I've heard everything you've said to me."
"But it's not the same!" As he felt the darkness creeping back in around the edges of his sight, he cried, "I love you, Mom!"
Then he was swallowed up into the darkness where there was only pain.
The third time the pain stopped, he found himself in a swirl of color. Light — not white like before, but broken into myriad colors — danced around him, moving him along. He didn't know where he was going and didn't care. It felt so peaceful to be inside that rainbow of light. He thought perhaps Sheila would have liked this place. As he meandered through the swirls, he could hear singing like before, not words or anything he could grasp, but just a sort of elemental voice, almost as if the beams of colored light themselves were singing.
Slowly he began to see shapes outlined in the swirls. Figures that wandered here and there in the rainbow. Then he saw a figure approach where he was. She was small, like Sheila, and as delicate as a flower. Her skin was pale, and her eyes were a soft grey. Even her hair was pale, nearly translucent, so that the rainbow seemed to shimmer through it.
He didn't remember her, but he suddenly knew who she was. She laid a soft hand in his own and said, "Edrian."
He knew that voice. Somehow he knew that voice! "Mother!" he murmured in wonder.
Her eyes shone with tears as she smiled. "My own little one," she said softly. "See how you've grown!"
"I'm so sorry," he said, unbearably saddened that he had forgotten her. "I didn't remember you."
"Oh, my sweet one," she replied. "All is well. I have never forgotten you."
"You sang to me," he said, suddenly sure of it. "A lullaby. A lullaby about oceans and the creatures that dwell therein."
She embraced him, barely coming up to his chin, and laid her head against his heart right where Sheila always did. "Shall I sing it for you, my dear one?"
While she sang, he wept. For he finally remembered her. He held her close, so at peace within the swirl of colored light.
When the lullaby was ended, she stood back from him, but continued to hold his hand. "Edrian," she said again.
"I'm glad I found you again, Mother."
"So am I, my dearest little one. But you must not stay."
"No!" he said, his hand tightening in hers. "I won't leave you! I've only just found you!"
"Do you love her?" she asked him.
"Who?" he asked angrily, although he knew who she meant.
"The one who weeps for you now," she answered sadly.
And now he could hear it, the sound of Sheila's tears. They seemed different somehow. Quieter, as if she were becoming reconciled to losing him. It frightened him suddenly that she might let him go. He had enjoyed so much this time of peace outside the pain. But he wasn't ready yet to say good-bye to Sheila. It would be a very long time before he was ready for such a day.
He looked into the eyes of the woman who had given him birth. "I don't want to forget you again."
"Then take this with you, my precious one," she said and touched his forehead with one small finger. He gasped as he felt the shimmer of something enter his mind.
"Thank you, Mother."
"I love you, my little one!" she cried suddenly.
"I love you too," he whispered as the light dimmed and the pain returned.
"How is he?"
John turned from the door to see Alec approaching down the hospital hall. "Sleeping like a baby," he said with a crooked grin.
Alec came up and looked through the door's window into the room. Straker lay in the ICU unit, hooked up to a multitude of machines. Next to his bed, Sheila sat holding his hand, her eyes never leaving his face. "And when was the last time she slept?"
John scowled. None of his entreaties had worked to get her to go and get some rest. "She won't leave him until he's awake."
Alec sighed. "I tried making her feel guilty about leaving the kids alone so long, but that didn't work either."
"He died, Uncle Alec," John explained quietly. "We watched him die three times on that table while they were working on him. We didn't know any of those times if he was ever coming back. I don't blame her for refusing to leave him."
"Well, it's not as though the kids were ever alone, anyway," Alec said. "Between Elodie and your wife, they've been kept too busy to miss their parents much."
John smiled softly. "Em wanted so much to help. She just hated it that there was so little for her to do."
"It mattered, John. Tell her what she did mattered."
They stood in silence for a time, watching the room where only the machines seemed alive. Finally the colonel stirred and said, "If you want to talk about someone who's pissed about not being able to help, you don't want to see your grandfather right now."
John's mouth quirked slightly. "Is Grampa here?"
"At Chris'. We decided it would be better for everyone if he stayed with them until Ed was well enough to see him."
"I'll bet he hated missing out on giving blood."
Alec threw up his hands. "Ask him about it! Just ask him and watch him throw a royal fit!"
John shrugged. "Well, I know a little how he feels. What took him so long to get here? Did he say?"
"Yeah. His housekeeper died." Alec sighed as he wondered how soon they'd be able to tell Ed all that had been happening while he was out of it. Just yesterday General Shaw had stormed in, taken one look at Straker hooked up to machines, and damned the Council! He'd ordered the immediate repair of the two satellites. Alec thought it was a fine gesture, even if it was rather like closing the barn door after the horses were out.
"Sandy?" John asked in shock.
"Yeah. Ed's bound to take it hard when he finds out. She was like a second mother to him."
"I can't believe it," John said, his mind reeling. "She was like ... I don't know ... like a fixture or something. People like that don't die."
"I'm sorry, John. I forgot that you knew her too. She never got the chance to meet the first John."
"It's okay, Uncle Alec," he said, laying a hand on his uncle's shoulder. "Does Mom know yet?"
Alec shook his head. "I don't think so."
It was weird, John thought, watching the two in the ICU unit. The whole world around them kept going on, but it was as though — for a little while at least — time had stopped inside that room. He could barely see the steady rise and fall of his father's chest as he breathed, and Sheila rarely moved at all, except to occasionally run her thumb over the back of her husband's hand. It was almost like the entire scene was frozen in time.
He wondered how well they'd all adjust once time returned to that room.
"You don't have to keep doing this, you know."
Joan held up the bowl of lasagna enticingly. "Tired of my cooking already, Fred?"
He grinned, then said, "Ouch!" as his lip split open again.
"Here, you poor baby," she said and gave him the steaming bowl.
His thanks was drowned in the bowl as he attacked the lasagna. She'd been so good to him since the attack, bringing him food and keeping him entertained while he was on leave. They'd watched some of her old movies together, even his favorite: Arsenic and Old Lace. He'd never be able to thank her enough for all she'd done. But he wanted to try.
She knew he really wasn't an invalid, even though he still sported a black eye and a few other colorful bruises. He'd already been released to go back to work, so there was really no reason for her to keep babying him.
Except that she couldn't erase from her mind how close he had come to dying. And worse than dying, being made to turn against everything he believed in. It hurt her, even now as she watched him eat her food, to think that such a thing could have happened to him. Had almost happened to him. And she wondered how well he was taking it — or if it kept him awake nights.
When he finished the bowl, she took it back from him, saying slyly, "Want dessert? I brought you something special."
"You're spoiling me," he groaned, closing his eyes for a moment. Then they popped back open. "But I'm not complaining!"
She laughed, relieved to see him relaxed enough to be playful. "Let me get it for you," she said and went into the kitchen to take it from the freezer. When she returned to the couch where he sat, she noticed a package next to him on the cushion that hadn't been there when she had left the room. "What's that, Fred?"
"Hmmm?" he asked as he took the bowl of Rocky Road ice cream from her hands and began devouring it. Trust Joan to know what dessert to feed a geologist! "That?" he said, waving a spoon at it. "I don't know. Open it for me, won't you? I'm a little busy at the moment."
She shrugged, but came over and sat down to open the package for him. Inside the plain brown wrapping paper was a box of professional watercolors, along with an assortment of brushes. "Oh, Fred! Look at this! It's wonderful! Think of all the beautiful work you'll be able to do with this set! Who gave it to you?"
"Let me think," he said as he finished the bowl. "I know. Nobody. That's right. It wasn't for me. It was supposed to be for you."
She was startled. "Me? What do you mean?"
When he only sat there grinning at her, she flushed and shook her head. "Oh, no!" she said, setting the box down carefully and getting up from the couch. "Fred, I don't want any gifts. Don't do this," she said in a strangled voice. "Just ... don't!"
Thoughtfully he put down the bowl and spoon and picked up the watercolor set, watching carefully as her eyes tracked his hands as he touched the different colors in the box. "You've been helping me for the past few days," he said quietly as he played with the brushes. He was careful not to mention that he owed her for his very life. He knew it would be a long time before she would let him thank her for that. "I just wanted to help you in return."
She met his eyes in bewilderment. That wasn't what she'd been expecting to hear. "Help me? How?"
He held up the brushes that instantly drew her gaze. "To get your hobby back."
Her eyes grew misty as she looked at him, brushes in his hand and the box of watercolors on his lap. Her lost dreams. He was giving her back her long lost dreams. How had he known? And did that even matter?
She ran to him, almost knocking the breath out of him as she hugged him, crying into his t-shirt and saying, "Oh, Fred! Oh, Fred!"
His lip split again, but he hardly noticed as he drew her face up for a kiss.
"Mother," he said on a sigh and turned his head, opening his eyes.
Sheila's eyes filled up as she looked at him, and she had to clear her throat before saying, "Hi, there!"
"Sheila?" He seemed disoriented, and after staring at her for a long moment to bring her into focus, his gaze left hers to track around the dimly lit room. He knew this room. This was ICU. What was he doing here? He'd been somewhere else a moment before. Somewhere lovely. Somewhere colorful and bright. Where he'd been held and had a lullaby sung to him. A lullaby that he could still hear running through his mind.
He looked back at his wife. "I had the strangest dream," he said.
"Did you, Ed?"
"Yes. You were angry with me about something, and you were yelling at me. But I could hardly hear you. Then I was talking to Sandy, and she said that I'd made you cry."
"Did she, Ed? I wonder why?"
"I don't know," he replied. "It was very odd. I don't know why she was there. And I wonder what I did to upset you? Anyway, I told you not to cry and dried your tears. Then I ..."
He stopped speaking as he heard her gasp. "What is it?"
Her lips trembled, but she patted his hand and said, "Nothing, Ed. Tell me more about your dream."
"Well, I ... oh! Yes, I followed the light. It was white and it sang." He seemed to realize that what he'd said made little sense, so he tried to explain. "Not words or anything. Just singing."
"Of course, darling. You followed the light."
"Yes, and I saw Mom. She looked wonderful! All dressed in white and her face was glowing. She said she got the daisies, and that she heard every word I said to her." He frowned after a moment and fidgeted with the sheet that covered him. "It was a weird dream, wasn't it?"
"No, Ed," she answered, her eyes misty as she covered his restless hand with her own. "It sounds like a wonderful dream. Won't you tell me more?"
He relaxed after a moment and tried to remember. Already, parts of it were fading. "I think I ... oh, yes! Then I was in a rainbow. It sang too," he said doubtfully and looked beseechingly at her.
"I've always thought that rainbows must sing," she said quietly.
"Yes! That's right!" he said, grabbing her hand. "I thought how much you'd enjoy being there with me! It was beautiful, Sheila. So peaceful. And I saw someone ... someone ..." His brow furrowed as he tried to remember.
Sheila leaned forward and smoothed the frown away with her fingers. "Did they speak to you, Ed?"
"Yes!" he said, suddenly remembering. "She sang me a lullaby. One about the ocean and whales and dolphins and starfish. It wasn't in English, but I still understood it. You know how dreams are." He relaxed into a smile as he remembered the song. "She held me and called me her little one. Oh! And she called me a name — not my name, but like it. What was it? What was it? Edrian. She called me Edrian. Isn't that strange?"
Tears were streaming down her cheeks, but she was unaware of them. "No. I don't think that's strange at all. Do you have any idea who she was?"
He shook his head, thinking back to the rainbow and the lullaby. And something else. A gift. He touched his forehead where her finger had touched in the dream and suddenly gasped, seeing her face clearly in his mind. "My mother!" he breathed softly. "She was my mother."
"Yes, Ed. I think she was."
He looked searchingly at her. "What do you think it all means? Why would I have such a dream?"
"I don't know, darling," she said after a moment. "I'm glad that it was a good dream. But I'm also very glad you decided to wake up."