The Security Risk

(A UFO Story)

written by Denise Felt

copyright 2001

ACT I

"Mayday! Mayday!" Col. Simmons shouted uselessly over the static-filled headset. "We've been hit and have complete systems failure. Repeat: complete systems failure!" The air screamed against the B1 hull, drowning out her words and feeding the fire in the cockpit and the torn hull behind her. She tried as desperately to keep the nose up as she did to block out thoughts of the crew in that area of the plane. And she resolutely kept her eyes forward, watching the ground approach through the shattered windshield. One glance to the right had been enough to inform her that her co-pilot would never even feel the impending crash. His worries were over.

As the Andes mountainside rushed sickeningly closer, she marvelled that it looked so beautiful in the hot South American sun. The deep shadows somehow emphasized the fierce character of the rock face. It was her last thought before the B1 bomber made impact.

* * *

Col. Lake entered Commander Straker's office off the control room of SHADO calmly, not betraying for a moment her trepidation. She knew the preliminary report she had for him only asked more questions than it answered, but he wanted it now. He had been so furious at losing the UFO on the radar that she knew better than to delay her report. The downing of the B1 bomber had only fueled his fury. One thing certain to piss the great man off was any sensation of helplessness. And they'd been helpless in preventing the attack. Sky 1-4 had circled through the Andes Mountains for hours before finding anything, and by then it had been far too late. Without radar contact with the UFO, they may as well have spared themselves the fuel. A needle in a haystack would have been easier to find.

Straker being Straker, he had turned all that roiling anger inward, focusing it into cold logic. He wanted to know why. And she didn't have that answer for him. She only hoped the answers she had come up with would begin the calming down process.

Straker was poring over a map of the upper Andes Mountains and did not immediately look up when she entered. She noted bitterly that Alec Freeman was nowhere to be seen. Hiding out somewhere until the storm cleared, no doubt. At least Paul Foster had an excuse. He was on Moonbase. Why was she the only one with enough guts to approach the snarling lion? And did that make her braver than the others, or more stupid?

"The report on the crew, sir," she said as he finally looked up, pinning her with his icy blue gaze. He compressed his lips and took the proffered folder, but instead of opening it, he sat holding it for a moment as he leaned back in his chair, still fixing her with his fierce gaze.

"Give me the rundown, Colonel. Was the target anyone on the crew, or was the bomber different in some way that posed a threat to the aliens?"

She handed him the photograph she still carried. "This is the main wreckage, sir. We have mobiles combing the mountain for pieces of debris. So far, they've found nothing out of the ordinary. But it's early days yet."

Straker grunted, staring intently at the photograph for a few moments, his expression coldly clinical, allowing none of the horror and pity he felt to show in his face. Then he sighed and rubbed a weary hand across his eyes. "Survivors?"

"No, sir. The preliminary report from the Air Force base is in front of you. Pilot, co-pilot, two crewmen--- all dead."

Finally he opened the report and picked up a large photograph attached to a short dossier. Col. Lake glanced at the young handsome face in Air Force dress and said, "Lt. Michael Greenway, sir. 32. Wife, two children. He had been stationed at Ft. Whitney Air Force Base for six years." When she stopped, Straker merely placed the photo and dossier facedown and picked up the next one. Col. Lake bit back a sigh and continued. "Sgt. Daniel Barry. 23. Wife, one child--- a baby, I think. He'd been at Ft. Whitney since finishing basic training at the age of 19."

Commander Straker looked broodingly at the cocky young blonde in the photo, then seemed to finally register what she'd said. "Barry?" he asked sharply.

Col. Lake quickly answered. "We haven't found any connection between him and the man from the Skyland Mountain incident, but we're still digging." Straker nodded moodily and turned to the next photo. "The co-pilot, Col. Arthur Bishop. 38. Unmarried. He'd been stationed at the Arizona base for ten years." Col. Lake tried not to show how exhausted she was. 27 hours was way too long a time to be on your feet. But still she waited patiently, not wanting to miss the commander's reaction to the next photo.

The woman was beautiful, he thought, with the classic beauty still so highly prized after all these centuries. A fine oval face was framed by a deep auburn pageboy, topped by the Air Force dress hat. There was a proud tilt to her head and lovely hazel eyes, so open and yet so sad.... Straker was mesmerized. As the silence stretched out, he became aware of his surroundings once more and curtly nodded for Col. Lake to continue.

Not by the merest hesitation did she indicate that she had noticed his reaction. She stated, "The pilot, Col. Laura Simmons. 35. Unmarried. Decorated several times. She joined on her 18th birthday and had been stationed at Ft. Whitney for her entire tour of duty."

Straker nodded, still looking at the photo. Unlike the other photographs, where the men wore the sober expression common in military pictures, the photo of Col. Simmons wore a slight, a very slight smile. It intrigued him, that smile. It seemed so... familiar. Where had he seen just that smile...?

Col. Virginia Lake waited, unsure how to evaluate the commander's reaction. She had expected him to be surprised that a woman was piloting B1 bombers. Hell, she was. But his silence unnerved her, because she couldn't read it. It was almost as if--- no. It was always a mistake to expect a normal male response from Commander Straker. Ten years working for him had cured her of that. Then what...?

"Mona Lisa," Straker murmured and sat back in his chair.

"What?" Col. Lake blurted without thinking.

"DaVinci's Mona Lisa, Colonel," Straker explained calmly, relaxed for the first time in over 24 hours. He smiled slightly at her obvious bewilderment. "Surely you've seen it?"

"Yes, sir," she answered, still trying to make the connection.

He took pity on her, holding up the photograph so that she could view it clearly. "Col. Simmons had a smile like the Mona Lisa."

She glanced quickly at him to see if he was serious, then glanced at the photo more closely. Finally, she shook her head, giving up. "I don't see it, sir." She gave a small shrug. "The Mona Lisa always seems to be smirking to me."

"Smirking? Surely not. Just that slight glimpse of humor, as though she had a secret and was inviting us all to share it." At Col. Lake's unconvinced look, he relented, placing the photo and dossier facedown on the pile. Then he became brisk. "How soon will I have their complete backgrounds?"

Col. Lake bit back an agonized sigh and stated, "Two hours, sir. Lt. Ford is working on it now."

"Good," Straker said coolly, nodding dismissal. As she started out the door, he disarmed her completely by saying in a much warmer tone, "After you hand in the update, Colonel, go home and get some sleep. Alec can do without you today."

"Thank you, sir," she answered and left the room, smiling to herself only when she was sure the doors were closed behind her. She lived for those rare sweet moments.

* * *

Straker rubbed a weary hand across his eyes and leaned against the flight security counter as the attendant checked his papers. His eyelids felt weighted with sand, and no wonder. He wondered how many pounds of it was still clinging to the clothes in his carryall. How he wished he'd never allowed them to talk him into doing any acting in the first place. He wished he hadn't enjoyed it so much that he kept doing it. He wished his face wasn't so damn well known because of it.

He wished he could go home and sleep for three days.

"Everything looks fine, sir."

He looked up to see the young man smiling at him and handing back his paperwork. "Thanks," he said as he put them back into his jacket's inner breast pocket.

"And how was the Sahara, sir?" the attendant inquired chattily.

Straker thought of the last 72 hours and suppressed a shudder. Whose stupid idea had it been to go on location, anyway? He looked at the young man whose smile hadn't dimmed one watt and thought: he's a fan. Summoning up a slight smile, Straker said simply, "Sandy."

The attendant roared in response to his joke. Straker kept his smile in place and turned toward the exit. He could see his comfortable limousine awaiting him. Then he stopped, arrested by the sight of a figure coming toward the private jet security entrance he'd just arrived through. Rich auburn hair glinted in the sun and whipped about a pale oval face as the woman approached. Although dressed casually in slacks and a bomber jacket, she carried herself like a woman used to command. Her hazel eyes squinted against the sun and her blown hair. Straker felt his heart stop altogether and leaned weakly against the counter, grateful for its sturdy support. His mind was racing wildly with conjecture, but he found that he could not form one coherent thought.

She entered the building and passed through the metal detector. She had thrown her bag onto the x-ray scanner, and she spoke to the security guard as she retrieved it. He chuckled and wished her a nice visit. As she walked toward the counter, Straker collected his scattered wits. He turned from the counter and started toward the exit once more, making certain that his arm bumped the backpack slung on her shoulder.

"Excuse me," they said in unison. She shifted the bag's weight and looked up at him, her fine eyes widening slightly with recognition. "I'm so sorry," she reiterated as she handed the waiting attendant her papers.

"That's quite all right," Straker answered. "I'm afraid I didn't see you there." She nodded, but turned her attention back to the attendant as he returned her papers to her. Straker tried again. "You're American," he said.

She looked at him then and smiled. "Yes. Is the accent that obvious?"

Straker smiled deprecatingly. "It's just that I don't hear it very often anymore."

"You're from New England yourself, aren't you?" she asked. "Massachusetts?"

"Yes. How did you know?"

She grinned. "I read the tabloids." As she started for the exit, he fell in step beside her.

"I can't place your accent," he said. "What state are you from?"

"Wisconsin," she answered, pushing her hair out of her face as they exited the building and the wind caught it.

They stood for a moment near the open door of his limo, while Lt. Carlson patiently waited for him to get inside. Straker made a show of looking around the platform. "Do you have a car coming for you?" he asked.

"No. Well, I have a rental to pick up," she said, pointing to the rental place nearby.

"Allow me to give you a lift into town," he said, standing to one side to give her a clear view of the limousine's large interior. As she hesitated, he added, "It's the least I can do for having nearly knocked you down."

She flashed a smile at him. "Well, alright. Thanks." She hopped into the limo and stretched out on the forward seat. "Nice," she commented as he joined her and Carlson shut the car door. She was rubbing the soft seat leather and smiling at him on the opposite couch. Straker leaned back against the upholstery and smiled at her in return, settling into his studio executive role with a sense of relief. At least this was a part he was comfortable playing. And he knew the lines for it. The bizarre quality of the past few minutes faded somewhat into the background.

* * *

As the limousine slid from the curb and headed away from the airport, Straker asked, "Where can we drop you?"

"Oh," she said, pulling her gaze from the scenery beginning to flash past the car. "I'm staying at the Bonnington."

Straker spoke into the phone next to the couch and told the driver. As he returned the phone to its cradle, he said," I'm somewhat at a disadvantage."

She turned those fine eyes inquiringly at him.

"You obviously know who I am, but I don't know your name. Miss...?" he prompted.

"Simmons," she smiled, extending her hand to shake his. "Laura Simmons."

"Well," he smiled, "what brings Laura Simmons to London?"

She flipped her hand in a nervous gesture. "Oh," she said, "I've got a job offer." Straker noted that while her lips continued to smile, her eyes had gotten sad. She turned to gaze out the window again.

He allowed her to brood in silence for a few moments, then asked, "What line of work are you in?"

She smiled softly. "Nothing as interesting as yours, Mr. Straker. I'm a pilot. I'm--- retired--- from the Air Force. Newkirk Experimental Aircraft have asked for an interview."

"Well. Good luck," he smiled. "I've heard they're a good outfit."

"Thanks." Her gaze returned to the city beyond the car window.

She looked tired, he thought, and wondered if she was normally a quiet woman or if her recent experiences had left their mark. If so, it was the only visible mark on her. She looked remarkably fit and unscathed for a woman who was supposed to have been dead for three weeks.

She seemed to become aware of the lengthening silence and glanced over at him. She smiled. "What took you away from London, Mr. Straker?"

He grimaced. "The Sahara Desert," he said cryptically.

"Oh yes," she grinned, leaning forward. "Sand In Your Eye. It's supposed to be out by the end of the year, isn't it? I can't wait!"

He laughed. "Well, I sincerely hope you like the movie when you see it. There certainly won't be a sequel."

She chuckled, her eyes twinkling in spite of her fatigue. "The desert didn't agree with you?"

"No. It did not."

She shook her head at him. "Not even the sunsets?"

He looked at her, remembering suddenly that the Air Force Base she had been stationed at was in Arizona, in the desert. "Yes," he finally murmured with a slight smile, "the sunsets did atone for a lot."

"I'm glad," she said and squeezed his hand in a friendly fashion.

His pulse jumped. Which was a stupid reaction, but at least he gave no outward sign. And since she released his hand almost as soon as she took it, he couldn't analyze what had caused his reaction. He resisted clearing his throat before asking, "Do you like the movies, Miss Simmons?"

"Oh, yes. It's fascinating to experience the whole creative process, don't you think? From idea to story to script to casting to direction to rushes to editing to the final picture. It's just so exciting to watch it happen." She eyed him thoughtfully. "You seem surprised."

Straker smiled. "That's because I am. It wasn't the answer I was expecting."

She looked at him for a moment, then laughed. "Oh, I suppose I should have said how gorgeous the actors are."

He held up his hands. "Not on my account, please. I guess it's just that most people don't realize all that goes into it as you seem to. How did a retired Air Force pilot learn so much about the film industry?"

"Well, do you know what else is in Arizona besides an Air Force Base and a lot of cactuses?"

He shook his head.

"Dewinter Studios."

"You're right," he acknowledged. "About 35 miles north of your Air Force Base, I believe. Did you visit there often, Miss Simmons?"

"Of course. Corey Templeton let me run tame about the place. It was a lot of fun, and I didn't cause him too much trouble." He glimpsed that twinkle again.

"I'm surprised he didn't get you to star in one of his movies."

"Oh, no. I'm no actress."

"It's not always necessary to be, especially if the camera loves you."

"Well, perhaps." she conceded. "But I'd rather stick with what I do best; helping to bring stories to life."

He marvelled at her. She either didn't realize or didn't care that she could be a movie star by virtue of that face alone. He saw that they were pulling up in front of the Bonnington Hotel and reached into his pocket for a card. "Here," he said, handing it to her. "Feel free to visit our studios while you're in town. The tour's supposed to be pretty good."

"Really?" She beamed at him. "Thank you so much!" She gathered her backpack and got out as Carlson opened the door for her. "It was a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Straker."

They shook hands.

"The pleasure was all mine, Miss Simmons," Straker responded with a smile.



ACT II

Straker was not smiling as he entered the control room on the way to his office. He ignored all the operatives working at their stations, but barked, "Col. Lake!" as he headed toward his office door. She grimaced at his retreating back and followed him inside the office. Alec stood at the drink dispenser with a glass in his hand. As Straker nodded curtly to him and went behind the desk to sit down, Alec cocked a brow at Virginia. She shrugged and returned her gaze to Straker to find him glaring coldly at her. She prepared herself for his wrath.

Alec smoothly intervened. "Well, Ed," he remarked casually, as if a furious commanding officer was no big deal, "did you enjoy the shoot?" Straker iced him with a blast from those arctic blue eyes and did not answer. "Well, then," Alec continued as if this were a social gathering, "happy to be back?"

Straker looked at him for a moment as if judging what words to annihilate him with, then suddenly gave a crack of laughter in spite of himself. He said fondly, "Shut up, Alec."

Happy to have diffused the great man's wrath, Alec retired to his corner, sipping his bourbon.

"Col. Lake." Straker turned to her.

"Yes, sir."

"Your report after the Andes incident three weeks ago stated that the entire crew died in that plane crash." It was not a question.

"Yes, sir."

"Then perhaps you can explain to me why I just met the pilot out at Heathrow?"

Virginia gasped and looked at Alec in disbelief. Alec came back to the desk. "How is that possible?" he asked.

"I don't know," Straker answered, feeling suddenly drained.

"Sir..." Col. Lake began, not wishing to remind him of the extent of the bomber's wreckage.

"I know, I know, Colonel," he answered wearily. "Reconfirm the report."

She realized suddenly how much it must have unnerved him to meet the dead pilot like that in a public place. "Yes, sir," she said and left the room.

Alec eyed him for a few moments before venturing a question. "This the B1 crash in the Andes, Ed?"

Straker nodded, rubbing a hand across his eyes. God, he needed sleep. Maybe reality would have returned after a good night's sleep.

"Ed, I supervised the mobile units in the clean-up of that crash site, and the destroyed UFO as well not a mile away. We never could reach any satisfactory conclusions about what really happened. But this I know. No one could have walked away from that crash. All systems had failed. The pilot couldn't have ejected if he'd tried!"

"She," Straker interjected.

"What?"

"The pilot was a woman, Alec."

Alec gaped at him for a moment, then said, "You're kidding!"

Straker shook his head as he picked up his phone. "Miss Eeland. Get me Baker. Yes, the office downstairs. Thank you." He hung up the phone and leaned back in his chair. Alec looked worriedly at him. "I saw her, Alec. Recognized her at once. Gave her a lift to her hotel."

Col. Freeman frowned. "Was that wise? She's probably under alien control."

"I saw no sign of it, and you know as well as I do, Alec. There are always signs."

Alec looked at his friend, noting the fatigue. "You're tired. You could have missed something."

Straker shook his head and closed his eyes. He kept them closed while Alec paced the office, only opening them and sitting forward when Baker entered the room.

"You asked for me, sir?" Baker was in his late fifties, an ugly man with the face of a bulldog. Straker trusted no one else to head security for the studio.

Straker opened a drawer in his desk and removed a large photograph. Turning to the scanner, he laid it on the bed, scanned it, and printed out a copy. He handed the copy to Baker and laid the original on his desk. "This woman will be coming to the studio sometime in the next few days. Her name is Laura Simmons. I want to know the minute she arrives on the lot, and I want updates on her movements every quarter hour thereafter. Alert your staff, and double the guard."

"Yes, sir." Baker paused, then asked gruffly, "Dangerous, sir?"

Straker looked up into that homely face for a moment in silence, then looked away and said, "I'm not sure."

"Very good, sir." Baker saluted and left the office with the photo. Straker didn't seem to notice. He was frowning at some middle point in space. Alec watched him for a moment, then casually crossed to the desk. He looked at the photo. His eyes widened, and he shot a look at Straker, who hadn't moved. Alec looked back at the photo and picked it up, making a show of holding it at arm's length to admire it better.

"Well, well," he drawled. He looked back at his friend, who was eying him now with displeasure. "Pretty thing, isn't she?"

Straker's look turned into a glare. He held out his hand imperiously for the photograph, put it away, and closed the drawer with a snap.

Alec grinned. Straker abhorred being caught acting human. As his best friend, Alec considered it his duty to rub it in every chance he got. God knew it didn't happen often. He headed for the door, but turned back just as he reached it. "Lucky for us you had that photo still in your desk, wasn't it?"

Straker merely glared harder, tight-lipped and furious. The office doors slid closed behind Alec's chuckle.

* * *

"I still say we should bring her in for questioning," Alec said as he paced Straker's office the next day. Smaller and more spartan than the SHADO HQ office several levels beneath the studio, this office did not look like it belonged to the executive producer of a successful film studio. Who'd have thought when they built it that it would ever be more than just a front? Alec mused. Trust Straker to make the damn thing a booming enterprise. They'd certainly underestimated him. He looked at the friend brooding at his desk and thought suddenly, Even me. And I know better. "Ed," he said aloud. "Are you listening?"

Straker focused on him for the first time in several minutes. He leaned forward in his chair. "Yes, Alec. I understand your concerns. But we can hardly justify dragging her in here on her second day in the country when her only crime is surviving a crash that should have killed her."

Alec snorted. "You heard the updated report Virginia gave us this morning. She was found wandering around near the crash site. Now, we know she couldn't have ejected, so what did she do? Crash that bomber into the side of a mountain and hop out to get a better view?"

Straker ignored the sarcasm and answered calmly, "She was in shock and badly injured."

"Yes, yes." Alec waved an impatient hand in dismissal. "But not too badly injured to be walking around! She shouldn't even be alive! We've had people come back from the dead before, you know," he reminded ominously. "I don't think you've grasped the importance of the situation."

"No, Alec. It's you who doesn't understand its importance."

Alec stopped pacing and looked over at him. "What does that mean?"

Straker's lips compressed together in a thin line. "Fact, Alec. Four people were aboard that bomber, three of whom are dead. Fact: a UFO was found completely disintegrated not a mile from the wreckage of the bomber, the bodies of two aliens still aboard. Fact: the one surviving human was found alive not half a mile from the wreck, bleeding badly and in shock. Fact: two days later that same survivor walked out of the military hospital with a clean bill of health." Straker stared at Alec, willing him to catch the implications. "Alec, she was the target of the UFO. They wanted her." Alec's eyes widened as he began to catch on. Straker continued. "Imagine what the aliens could do with someone who was capable of healing that quickly."

Alec gasped. "You mean like---?" He stopped suddenly, biting off the rest of his sentence. He recovered swiftly and said, "Then we need to bring her in, get her under SHADO's protection!"

"Yes," Straker agreed slowly. "If I'm right. But it's all just supposition, Alec. We have plenty of facts, but we don't have enough answers. What if I'm wrong, and you're right? Bringing her here could be walking right into a trap."

Both men frowned in silence. Then Alec asked quietly, "What are you going to do?"

Straker looked at him coolly. "Get more answers, of course. And the best way to do that is to keep an eye on her. When she comes to the studio--- and she will come--- she'll be watched every second. We'll figure out the truth, Alec."

"How can you be sure she'll come?"

Straker smiled slyly. "She'll come." He leaned back in his chair, toying with his pen. "Even if we're both wrong, and she's completely innocent, she'll come."

Alec put his hands on his hips in exasperation. Sometimes Straker couldn't resist trying to sound omniscient. "You can't know that!"

"Oh, Alec. I can," Straker grinned. "You see, she's a fan."

Alec threw up his hands just as the intercom buzzed. Straker pressed the button. "Yes, Miss Eeland?"

His secretary's cultured voice came over the speaker. "Mr. Baker for you, sir. Line 1."

"Thank you, Miss Eeland." Straker broke the connection and picked up the phone. "Yes?" he asked, still holding Alec's gaze. "Yes, I see. No, that's not necessary. Fifteen minute intervals, Baker. Yes. Right." He hung up the phone and smiled sweetly, leaning back in his chair with an expression of contentment.

Alec hated that superior look. "Well?" he demanded.

Straker's smile widened. "She's here, Alec. Just arrived."

"Jesus," Freeman muttered. He took an agitated turn about the room while Straker watched him, still smiling. "What will you do now?"

"Do?" Straker pulled a stack of papers in front of him and began signing them. He looked back up at his friend and smiled, "I'm going to get some work done."

* * *

Straker walked toward Soundstage C on the studio lot, oblivious to the stares and pointing fingers from fans in the crowd he passed. His mind was on the encounter ahead of him. He was both excited and perturbed at the possibility of seeing her again. And he was concerned that his customary detachment had deserted him. She had touched something in him, first with just a photograph, then when he had actually met her. It unnerved him that he could neither tell what nerve she had affected or why.

Alec had smirked about him keeping the photo, but he'd simply been unable to shred it with the rest of the report. Those lovely tragic eyes and Mona Lisa smile had stayed his hand. He had dropped the photo back into the drawer and put it out of his mind. How many times he'd found himself looking at it after that, even he wouldn't have admitted. But he'd memorized that face, and wondered about her.

When she'd showed up at the airport, he'd been badly shaken. Looking tired and impossibly more lovely than her photo, she'd had a shattering impact on his senses. At least that reaction he had recognized, and ruthlessly squelched. But she'd disarmed him again in the limo with her sweetness in spite of her fatigue. He couldn't imagine the courage it must have taken for her , not only to fly again so soon after the crash, but to deal with meeting new people in a new country. Perhaps that was it. Perhaps it was her courage that had touched him so deeply. He smiled softly at the thought, causing a young woman nearby on the sidewalk to goggle at him and stop dead in her tracks. The man behind her skirted around her with a frown, but she wasn't paying attention. Her eyes were still focused on Straker's retreating back. She sighed deeply and picked up her purse where it had dropped.

Baker had informed him that Laura was still in Soundstage C. He knew every move she'd made since driving onto the lot. She'd taken the tour, visited a few of the gift shops, and wandered about with the help of a studio map she'd purchased. She'd entered Soundstage C about an hour ago and remained there ever since. His curiosity was piqued. What was she doing?

The soundstage was noisy as he entered. Rehearsals for three different shows were going on across the partitioned space. Straker sighed. They really needed to get another soundstage built. They'd grossed enough off their last few films to begin building again. His lips quirked. Of course, he could always ask the general for the funds. He grinned as he imagined that old despot's reaction to such a request.

He was hailed several times as he crossed the crowded floor. He answered with a brief nod or a smile. He'd caught a glimpse of that auburn pageboy up ahead. As he approached, he could see her with one of the studio directors. Mason was gesturing toward the high ceiling and the large camera nearby at the same time. Laura was calmly listening, leaning over to look through the viewfinder as she nodded. She looked up as he reached them and smiled. He felt that punch to the gut again and stomped it.

"Hi," she said.

"Hello," he answered, but Mason interrupted him before he could do more than return her smile.

"Straker! Just the man we need. Look here!" Mason gestured widely as he expounded his problem with the lighting. Straker listened as he ranted, glancing over to find Laura leaning against the camera, watching him with a twinkle in those fine hazel eyes.

* * *

As they left Soundstage C together, he said, "Thank you for bailing me out in there. I had no idea how to solve his problem."

"Well, he's fortunate that I knew a director who'd run into a similar problem. I know he'll be willing to loan the equipment. He's pretty proud of it. I'll call him tonight and make the arrangements."

"It was kind of you to help Mason out. Have you known him long?"

She glanced at him as they walked. "Mr. Mason? No. I just met him. I know his work, of course. He did wonders with Destiny's Choice and A Good Day to Die." She stopped walking when he did and looked up at him. His astonishment was plain. "What?" she asked.

"You didn't know him at all?" he asked. "And you offered to help him out?"

She shrugged. "Well, I know him now. And the favor's not such a big one." When he merely stared at her, she smiled. "What?"

Straker shook his head and resumed walking. He watched her from the corner of his eye. She was wearing a bright yellow dress that kept drawing his attention. Her auburn hair looked nearly copper in contrast. She looked like sunlight, he mused. He knew he was smiling and couldn't seem to help it.

They were passing a mock-up of St. James Square circa 1750 when she asked him, "Were you looking for me?"

He glanced at her, but kept walking. "Why do you ask?"

"Well," she said slowly, "you seemed to know just where to find me. You know, I'd heard that you have a much tighter security here than Corey has, but even I didn't expect this much." She looked at him from under her lashes as he said nothing. "I got the feeling once or twice that I was being watched."

"Come, come, Miss Simmons," he responded. "You're a beautiful woman. Of course, you're going to be watched."

A light blush mounted her cheeks, but her gaze remained direct. "Mr. Straker, I know that kind of look. It's very different. I know I was being watched."

Straker gave her high marks for observation. He offered a slightly sheepish smile. "Yes, I had you watched," he admitted. "I had a lot of paperwork to finish and didn't want to miss the chance to see you."

"What a nice thing to say."

They smiled at each other and resumed walking.

"What kind of movie is your favorite?" he asked her, noticing how she admired the mock-ups they passed.

"Oh, I like them all," she answered. "What about you?"

"I don't really have a preference either."

"Oh, really?" she asked skeptically, cocking a knowing brow at him.

"Not that I'm aware of," he said, trying to remember if he'd ever stated a preference during an interview for one of those tabloids she said she read.

"You like them all equally, is that it?" she challenged.

"I suppose," he frowned.

"Then why doesn't your studio ever do a science fiction movie?"

He stared at her for a moment and thought, If you only knew. However, it surprised him nonetheless to realize that they never had. Not once in all these years. Probably because it was too real for comfort most of the time, but he could hardly tell her that. "I suppose," he said finally, "because they aren't really very realistic. Starships and evil emperors and monsters of the id."

"Hey!" she pointed a finger at him. "Don't put down Forbidden Planet. It's a classic."

"Yes, ma'am," he answered meekly. They walked on in silence. When they turned down toward the back lot, Straker asked, "Where are we going?"

She answered, "There's a park up here on the map. I'd like to see it." Just then, they passed a large ugly mansion set back behind an iron fence. She gazed at it awhile, then asked him, "Do you ever get disoriented?"

Straker looked at the house. It had been the focal point of a wildly successful horror film the year before. One that he had starred in. He thought he almost understood her cryptic question. "I don't get out on the lot much. And when I am out and about, I'm usually too busy to notice my surroundings."

"But when you do see it," she pointed to the house, "or other prominent scenes from your films, doesn't it ever fling you back into that world? For a moment, don't you lose track of which reality you're in?"

"I suppose so," he replied. "But it's momentary, and it passes." He smiled slightly. "I have a pretty good handle on reality."

She looked solemnly at him, then said softly, "What is reality?" Then she seemed to shrug it off, and they continued toward the park.

It appeared, not by glimpses, but in all its full-blown beauty as they rounded the last building. She turned and flashed him a brilliant smile before wandering across the grass toward a small wooden bridge over a stream. Straker followed, wondering if those quick eyes of hers would notice anything out of the ordinary.

She didn't disappoint him. As she reached the center of the bridge, she suddenly stopped and turned slowly around in a circle. "Wow," she breathed, her eyes filled with wonder.

She turned that wondering gaze on him and had him struggling to keep his smile from turning predatory. Damn, those eyes packed a punch!

"You did this," she said. "This was deliberate." She looked at him for confirmation, and he nodded. "I can't even see the main building!" It was the truth. Strategically placed trees and bushes made it so that anyone standing on the bridge would see none of the surrounding studio. Only parkland was visible from every angle. "It's like a separate world of its own."

"Yes," Straker agreed, leaning against the bridge railing and grinning like a conjurer whose trick had worked.

She joined him at the railing. "But..." she said, still taking in the trees and grass and the stream gurgling beneath their feet. "Why? Why go to all the trouble? Is it for a movie?"

"No," he replied. He looked at her for a moment as if considering. Then he shrugged. "I did it for me. I'm sure you realize that a studio head's job requires long hours and tons of stress?" She nodded, and he continued. "It isn't always possible for me to leave the studio and go somewhere quiet to think."

"So you made your own hideaway here on the studio lot," she said.

"Yes."

"I'm surprised it isn't overrun with people. I would think that it would be hard to find an empty spot on the bridge."

Straker gestured around them. "Nobody comes here. Most people aren't even aware it exists." When she looked doubtful, he said, "Who visits a film studio to look at a park?"

She shook her head and leaned on the railing, gazing at the trees. "It's wonderful," she murmured. "And so... peaceful."

They leaned against the railing in complete accord for a long time. She finally broke the silence.

"Mr. Straker," she began quietly, "you know about the crash, don't you?" He looked quickly at her, but she went on before he could come up with a suitable reply. "It's okay, you know," she said. "Your security measures here are the talk of the industry. There are some actors who even refuse to work anywhere else, because they feel so safe here. It's a scary world out there. I understand that you have to check these things out."

"I'm sorry, Laura," he said.

"No, it's okay. Really. It's just that I... I wonder if I could ask you a question?"

"I suppose that would depend on the question," he answered.

"It's not idle curiosity," she explained quickly. "I have a reason for asking."

"Alright."

She didn't look at him, but down at the water flowing over the rocks below. "When you lost your co-pilot Chambers back when you were an Air Force pilot, how long did it take... How long was it before you could put it behind you and go on?"

When he didn't answer, she looked over at him to find him gazing solemnly back at her. He finally sighed and said, "I don't think I'm the right person to ask, Laura."

She swallowed and looked back at the stream. "I see." Her hands twisted together on the railing in a convulsive movement, then were still. "That long, huh?"

Straker tried to explain. "When you watch someone die, especially if they're a loved one or a colleague you've worked with for years, you don't ever really get over it. You go on, yes, because you have to. But you don't ever forget."

She nodded, her eyes full of unshed tears. He put his hand on hers as it gripped the railing. "I'm sorry it's not what you wanted to hear. But I won't lie to you."

She looked at him then and shook her head. "No. Thank you for being honest with me. I just..." Her voice trailed off, and she gazed off into the treeline. "I'm just so tired," she whispered. Straker watched a single tear escape and track its way down her pale cheek. She straightened suddenly, trying to pull the huge weight of grief he saw in her eyes back behind whatever shield she used to hide it, but he put his hand back over hers on the railing, stopping her. She looked up at him mutely. He reached forward with his other hand and smoothed an errant lock of hair back from her cheek.

"Why don't you stay here for awhile and enjoy the view," he coaxed softly. "No one will bother you." She said nothing, merely looking at him with those tragic eyes. He realized that she probably wasn't used to anyone seeing her with her defenses down. He started to speak, to reassure her, but his radio suddenly beeped. He pulled it out and answered. "Straker."

"Ed." It was Alec. "We've got a crisis in the props department. It's the armor for that new film."

Armor was a SHADO codeword that meant that a UFO had breached Moonbase's defense grid. Straker sighed. "I'll be right there, Alec." He replaced the radio on his belt and stroked a hand down her pale cheek, erasing the tear track with his thumb. "Have dinner with me?" He suggested softly.

She nodded, her gaze still locked on his face.

"I'll pick you up at eight." He turned from her and had almost reached the end of the bridge when she spoke. He turned back to look at her.

"I'll meet you in the lobby of the hotel," she said.

He frowned. "I don't mind coming to your room to pick you up."

"It's just..." There was that nervous hand gesture again. She looked at him a little shyly. "I'll be too nervous to wait in the room."

His heart leapt, but he kept his countenance calm. He nodded. "I'll see you then."





ACT III

"Forget it, Alec!" Straker demanded, striding to his desk and dropping into his chair.

Alec strode up to the HQ desk, too angry himself to care that he was being insubordinate. "Look, we know she's somehow connected to the aliens. And we've got a UFO that's slipped through our defenses and could be anywhere! And you let her come here and look the place over as if it was nothing!" He drew a breath. "Well, okay. Security was keeping a close watch on her. But-- dinner?! You're insane!"

Straker waved a hand in dismissal. "That's ridiculous, Alec. It's just dinner. You're making too much of it."

"And you're not making enough!" Alec strode about the room for a moment. "Look," he finally said in a calmer tone, "at least take the limo, so Carlson will be on hand if you need him."

"Absolutely not!" Straker insisted. "What are you expecting her to do, Alec? Stab me with her salad fork?"

"You're not being reasonable," Alec persisted. "You're too important to go gallivanting off like this, and you know it."

"Too important!" Straker exploded out of his chair and leaned forward over the desk. "Too important!" Suddenly all the fight went out of him, and he collapsed back into his chair. He rubbed a hand across his eyes, then looked at his friend imploringly. "I'm just a man, Alec. A man who wants to have dinner with a beautiful, intelligent woman. Why is that unreasonable?"

Alec dropped his eyes at the look on his friend's face. How could he answer that? She's already affecting your judgment. Would you even see the trap until it was sprung around you? You've never been so emotionally involved before. I'm scared she'll hurt you. I'm scared she'll kill you. He closed his eyes and sighed. "At least let us tail you."

"No!" Straker stood up and walked to the door. He stopped in the doorway and looked back at his friend. "I'll be fine, Alec," he reassured him. "Really."

Alec nodded.

Straker strode out through the control room. Alec waited ten beats, then put a call through to security.

* * *

"Carl Mason will be kissing your hand on Monday," Straker said.

Laura smiled and had another bite of the chateaubriand. "Well, I didn't think it would be hard to arrange. Stan was happy to loan the equipment. I'm glad I could help."

He finished his bite, then asked, "Did you enjoy the park this afternoon?" He knew from Baker that she'd remained there most of the day.

She smiled warmly at him. "Yes, thank you."

"You're welcome."

She looked up at him through her lashes as she sipped her wine. "It was very kind of you."

"Not at all," he responded with a shrug. "It's there to be appreciated."

She shook her head at him. "You know what I mean."

He smiled, but didn't comment as he finished his chateaubriand. Their waiter came and removed the plates, replacing them with the souffle potatoes. Once they were alone again, he leaned forward. "May I ask you a question?"

She chewed her souffle thoughtfully, keeping her gaze on him. After taking a sip of her wine, she smiled that slight smile he'd first seen in her photograph. "I suppose that would depend on the question," she quoted.

He grinned at her choice of words. He ate in silence for a moment, not quite sure how to phrase what he wanted to ask. Finally he looked across at her. "Laura, why did you help out Mason today?"

"That's really bothering you, isn't it?"

He spread his hands. "I guess I just don't understand your motivation. He meant nothing to you. You'd never even met before. What possible reason could you have for concerning yourself with his problem?"

"Mr. Straker..."

"Laura, please."

"What?" she asked.

"We're having dinner together. Don't you think you could call me Ed?"

"No one ever calls you Ed," she answered seriously, but he caught a stray twinkle at the back of her eyes and grinned.

"A few people do," he said.

"And you want me to be one of them?" she asked.

"Please."

"Well, I'll try," she said cautiously.

"Thank you," he replied. "You were saying...?"

"Ed," she began, then seemed to change her mind. "Why don't people call you by your first name?"

"Laura," he warned, exasperated by her prevarication.

"No, no. I am answering your question. Really. Why don't they?"

"Perhaps because I prefer to keep a proper distance," he shrugged.

"Why?"

He was thoroughly exasperated now. "Because I don't want to be that close to everyone I meet," he answered sharply. He was sorry now that he'd even started this conversation.

She looked at him with those fine sad eyes as if she saw into his naked soul. "Why?" she asked softly. He swallowed uncomfortably. Her solemn gaze held his, and he could almost feel himself trying to hide from her. But surely those tragic eyes understood his fear?

He heard himself answer softly, "Because if you care too much, you can be hurt more."

She nodded and patted his clenched hand on the tabletop. "You see," she explained quietly, "I believe that caring is part of what makes us human. We can't get away from it." He looked at her silently, feeling the soothing pressure of her hand over his. After a moment, she continued. "We're going to hurt, because we're going to care."

"But you can minimize the pain by controlling how much you let yourself care," he replied.

"Yes, perhaps. But in the end, you only hurt more, because you've divorced yourself from your own humanity."

He stared at her, unsure how to reply. Finally he asked, "Then what's the answer?"

"To care more," she said with a small smile. "Make connections with people. Know them. Let them know you."

He was shaking his head. "I couldn't."

"Because it could hurt?"

He thought of Mary. And of John. "Yes."

She nodded. "Yes, initially it would hurt a lot more. Sometimes, excruciatingly so." She fell silent for a moment, and he remembered suddenly all that she'd been through recently. Of its own volition, his hand unclenched and clasped hers in return.

Her smile was very tender as she continued. "But once the initial pain was over, the memories of your times together would resurface and make the rest of the pain bearable. The fact that you cared would actually ease your pain."

"It sounds too risky," he decided.

She squeezed his hand before releasing it.

He looked at her. "So that's why you helped him, because you care."

"Yes."

He sipped his wine in silence, trying--- and failing--- to imagine himself doing something similar. He finally just shook his head.

She reached forward and touched the rose in the vase at the center of the table. "What's your favorite flower, Ed?"

He looked at her in surprise. "I don't have one."

"Guess what mine is."

He looked at the rose, but decided that it couldn't be that easy. Suddenly he remembered how she'd looked earlier today, wearing that sunny yellow dress around the studio lot. She was in a black cocktail dress tonight, one that did crazy things to his blood pressure. But he thought that the yellow dress had been more her style.

What was a yellow flower? "A daffodil?"

She laughed in surprise. "God, you're good!"

He grinned in relief.

"How did you know?"

He shrugged. "You told me to guess. I guessed."

She grinned, leaning forward. "You're amazing." As he flushed, she leaned back, toying with her wineglass. "Do you know why it's my favorite flower?"

He shook his head. "I'm not even going to attempt that one," he said.

"Well, then. I'll tell you. It's because the daffodil is the first flower out in the spring. In spite of all the risks, her smile is the first one to be seen after the winter snows, announcing that spring has returned. She's so early, in fact, that sometimes she gets buried under new snowfall. But you can count on her to stick her head up out of the snow and smile anyway. I've always admired that."

He looked at the woman sitting across from him, seeing her courage and her kindness shining from that beautiful face, and admitted to himself for the first time that he'd never stood a chance at keeping himself aloof from her. He'd been gone from the moment he'd seen those fine hazel eyes looking at him from that photograph. There was no way to protect himself from any future pain with her. He already cared too much.

Her smile faded as he stared wordlessly back at her. When he rose and took her hand, her heart began to pound heavily against her ribcage.

They left the restaurant without a word.



* * *

For the first time in his life, Straker felt like King of the World. He lay in the oversize bed and lazily stroked Laura's hair as he considered the novel situation. It wasn't even the sex that had made him feel that way, although that had been incredible. His grin broadened as he remembered, and the hand stroking her hair trembled slightly. Then he sighed deeply. No, it wasn't the sex. He stared at the ceiling and decided that this was the greatest moment in his life. Yes, indeed. No global crisis averted in the nick of time surpassed this moment. He looked at the beautiful woman laying so close by and felt his foolish grin broaden even further.

Laura was asleep.

She was asleep, and he had accomplished it. He decided fondly that no price was too high to pay to see her at peace like this. Hell, he'd personally volunteer to put her to bed every night. He knew his jaw would ache tomorrow from being stretched so much, but he simply couldn't stop grinning.

King of the World. Yeah.

He didn't realize he'd fallen asleep until he jerked awake a few hours later. He wasn't sure at first what woke him, and he lay quietly in the big bed trying to get his bearings. Next to him, Laura muttered in her sleep. He calmed her by drawing her closer. He still wasn't sure moments later what had wakened him until he started drifting back to sleep, and suddenly Laura gave a sharp moan. "No!"

As she moved restlessly, he sat up and turned on one of the bedside lamps. Its soft light didn't wake her. Her brow was furrowed, and she seemed to be in the grips of a nightmare. He held her close, stroking her hair soothingly. She quieted for a time.

"Sonsa-bitches," she muttered viciously, causing Straker to raise his brows. He wouldn't have imagined that such a gentle woman could sound so fierce. Her head tossed back and forth, and her hand bunched into a fist on his chest as she continued muttering incoherent phrases. "...systems failure... Bishop... no... shadows..."

Straker jerked in response to the final utterance, then relaxed when he realized that she wasn't referring to the organization. "Laura," he murmured softly, hoping to rouse her out of the nightmare.

"...killed...," she whispered, "killed them all... my men... all dead..." She moaned and began to sob. "You sonsa-bitches killed my men!"

Straker shook her. "Laura!"

"Die, die, die!" she shouted, pummeling his chest with her fists and sobbing wildly.

"Laura!"

She collapsed against his chest, and he held her tightly as she sobbed. Eventually, she quieted as he continued to stroke her hair. "Ed," she whispered.

"Hmmm?"

"What happened?" she asked, looking up at him in confusion.

"You had a nightmare," he said, brushing her hair out of her face.

Her expression grew wary. "Did I? What...? Did I say anything?"

He nodded. "Most of it wasn't clear."

"Oh."

"Was the nightmare about the crash?" he asked.

"Yes," she said wearily. "They all are anymore. I can't even close my eyes without being back there in that cockpit, desperately trying to get control of the plane." She swallowed. "I haven't slept for more than ten minutes since it happened." She turned to the bedside clock and gave a gasp, looking swiftly at him. "Is that right?"

He grinned. He couldn't help it. Nor could he keep the smug note out of his voice when he said, "Yes. It's 5:30."

"Ed," she breathed, resting her hand against his cheek. "You're a miracle."

He flushed, but recovered quickly and asked, "Do you want to talk about it, Laura? It might help."

She considered for a moment, gazing deep into his eyes. He withstood the perusal, held that gaze, and wondered how many of his secrets were visible to her searching eyes. Finally she dropped her gaze and shook her head. "No, " she murmured. "It wouldn't help anything."

"Laura," he began, not sure what he could say, but feeling as though he had failed her somehow.

She hugged him fiercely, then hopped off the bed. "I'm famished!" She flashed him a warm smile. "Hungry?"

He stared at her face, seeing her grief tucked back into its hiding place at the back of her eyes once more, and he knew he couldn't push the issue. Instead, he let his gaze wander down her lovely, truly lovely body, and smiled. "Starved," he admitted, taking her hand and pulling her back onto the bed. She laughed delightedly as he growled and nibbled her neck.

* * *

"Good morning, Miss Eeland."

"Good morning, sir."

Straker breezed into his studio office and settled into his chair as Miss Eeland brought in coffee and some contracts for him to sign. As she commented briefly on those that included special clauses, she gave no hint that there was anything unusual about the fact that he was two hours late. As he dictated a letter to Michael Miller, head of Washburn Studios, he wondered which of them was the better actor: her or him? Looking into her calm face as she took dictation, he fervently hoped it would never be put to the test. He had a pretty good idea who would lose.

Later, as his office descended the several levels downward into SHADO Control, he allowed himself a private smile as he reflected on his late morning, and Laura's idea of breakfast in bed. It had been amazingly decadent to feed each other fruit while reclining against the pillows. The ancient Greeks had the right idea, he thought with a grin.

He stopped at Lt. Ford's station in the control room and asked, "How is everything, Ford?"

"Well, sir, Col. Foster reports that the adjustments they've made to the lunar mobiles' tracking units have increased their efficiency. His report is on your desk."

"Good." Straker nodded. "He's due back at HQ on Wednesday, isn't he?"

"Yes, sir."

"And the UFO?"

"No sign of it, sir. It's still in hiding." At Straker's nod, the lieutenant ventured a comment. "I wish we knew what it was up to."

Straker smiled in agreement. "Well, we do know this, Lieutenant. Whatever it is up to, we know it won't be good news."

Ford grinned. As Straker turned to go to his office, Ford said, "Col. Lake was looking for you about an hour ago, sir."

"Where is she now?"

"On break, I think. Shall I get her for you, sir?"

"No," Straker answered. "Just let her know I'm here when she gets back, will you?"

"Yes, sir."

Straker nodded his thanks and went into his office.

Fifteen minutes later, Col. Lake joined him. "Good morning, sir," she said.

"Good morning, Colonel," he replied. "Have a seat."

"Thanks." He was looking relaxed this morning, she noted. And she knew why. Alec had already been in, ranting for twenty minutes about where Straker had spent the night. She understood Alec's concern; in fact, she shared it. But it was good to see him without his usual harassed frown.

"Your report," he said now, glancing through it as he spoke. "The update on the crash site tells us a lot." He paused and looked at her.

"I know, sir. The medical records for Col. Simmons."

"Where are they?"

She sighed. "I couldn't get them. The base has been very cooperative about everything, sir. They haven't minded sharing their data at all."

"Well, we are doing their clean-up for them."

She smiled. "Even so, they've been very helpful. Except about this."

"Hmmm." Straker closed the report and leaned back in his chair. "What does that say to you, Colonel?"

"That they're hiding something, sir. Your theory about Col. Simmons may be correct."

"Yes," he agreed.

"But, sir..." she began, then hesitated.

"Go on, Colonel."

"Sir, if she does heal that quickly, on her own and not because the aliens have somehow revived her... What must that be like?" He saw the worry in her face and remained silent. After a few moments, she continued. "I mean, she must have been born that way. How did she find out about it?"

"We have her background information, but reports only tell us so much. We may never know, Colonel."

"I realize that, but...," she raised her eyes to his, "how terrified she must have been."

"A lot of people heal rapidly, Colonel."

"Not that quickly, sir."

"True." He was silent a moment. "You think it has affected her psychologically."

"I think it's affected everything."

He frowned.

"Sir," she leaned forward, "it's possible that she found out about it at a young age, probably in the gas explosion that killed her parents."

"She wasn't in the house when it happened."

"That's what the police report says."

"There's no reason to doubt it."

"I think there is, sir. At least some."

"Alright. Explain."

"We know that she moved to Arizona and lived the next two years with an aunt until she turned eighteen. She graduated with very high marks and was being offered scholarships at several universities for everything from drama to nuclear physics. Yet she joined the Air Force on her eighteenth birthday. Sir, there's no record of anyone in her family serving in the military. There was nothing whatsoever to make her even consider it as a career."

Straker shook his head. "We can't be certain of that. She may have been influenced by a favorite teacher or even a boyfriend."

"Perhaps," she acknowledged. "But she didn't leave after her stint was over. She stayed."

"Maybe because she liked it."

"Sir, six planes were crashed in her seventeen year career before this final one. She was the pilot and sole occupant each time. I've checked the records. Not once was pilot error listed as the reason for the crash. And no one ever refused to fly a mission with her in spite of her record."

He looked up in surprise. "You think they were aware of who was really at fault?"

"Yes, sir. I think this is not the first UFO incident that base has covered up where she's concerned." She waited a moment for him to digest that, then continued. "If you'll look in my report, we have the transcript from the black box aboard the bomber. The final report states that the cause of the crash was a malfunction of the guidance system, and does not rule out the possibility of deliberate sabotage. But the black box records, although it's pretty fuzzy, that they were hit. Not a malfunction, not sabotage. They were hit."

Straker frowned, reading over the words. They reminded him eerily of Laura's nightmare. Finally he sat back and looked at Col. Lake. "Your conclusions?"

She took a breath. "I think she joined the Air Force already knowing how different she was. And I think she knew then, or shortly thereafter, that she had become a target because of that difference."

"The crashes?"

"Yes, sir."

Straker brooded in silence for several minutes. Finally, she asked him quietly, "Will you bring her in?"

Straker frowned at the corner of his desk. "I should," he said reluctantly. Then he looked over at her and sighed. "It's not that simple."

At the look in his eyes, her heart lurched. Oh, Alec, she thought. It's too late to worry. He's already in love with her. Aloud she said, "You're hoping she'll tell you on her own."

"Yes," he answered slowly. "I want her to trust me enough to talk to me about it."

She didn't remind him that it was against procedure, nor did she tell him about the added security risk caused by any delay. She knew he knew all this. What he was wanting was the opportunity to deal with the situation, not as the commander of a covert global organization, but as a man. And he was asking for her consent to do so, to be just a man.

She stood. "I don't see that as a problem, sir," she said briskly. "She's being watched, and if there's trouble, we'll know it immediately. And SHADO Control remains at yellow alert until we catch that UFO." She gave a shrug. "Everything that can be done is being done." She turned to leave the office.

"Thank you," he said quietly.

She nodded and left the room.



ACT IV

"Alright, Alec. What's the emergency?" Straker strode up to his friend in the lobby of the Bonnington Hotel that evening, having been summoned from the studio by his tersely radioed: "We're in trouble."

Alec pointed grimly to the conference hall doors just off the lobby. "Do you know what's going on in there?"

Straker looked at the sign on the easel near the door. It announced in bold letters that this was the Fourth Annual London Conference of C.A.A.R. Straker shrugged, "A support group?"

Alec snorted, opening the doors and sliding into a back row seat. "You could call it that," he said sourly.

Straker sat down, looking around the hall with interest. The conference room was crowded with people, a few of whom were dressed in unusual costumes. He frowned, noticing a man sporting blue skin and antennae. Was this one of those science fiction conventions? He looked toward the stage as a thin young man concluded his comments. As the crowd applauded, a gentleman came out on stage and approached the podium. Straker looked sharply at Alec, who merely shook his head and mouthed, "Wait."

"Thank you, Kyle," the older man said as they shook hands. "That was an excellent report on space/time differentials." The crowd obediently clapped some more. After the young man left the stage, the older gentleman addressed the audience. "Well, the moment you've been waiting for is here. Fellow citizens, I'd like to introduce to you tonight's guest of honor, Col. Laura Simmons, formerly of the USAF."

The crowd went wild as Laura walked out to the podium and hugged the announcer. As he left the stage, she spoke into the microphone. "Thank you." She paused to let the applause die down. "It's good to be with you tonight. Have you enjoyed the convention so far?" The audience clapped. "And the workshops?" They clapped louder. "Good," she smiled. "As you know, our goal is not only to give you needed support, but to inform you as well on ways to handle future difficulties. Now, many of you here tonight have heard me speak before on any number of topics of concern. For tonight," she paused to let the clapping die back down, "for tonight, I'd like to answer specific questions and concerns that you may have. Scott has set up a mike at the front of this aisle." She pointed out the technician who'd been busy working while she spoke. He gave a cheeky salute, and several people laughed. "If you have a question you'd like to ask me, please form a line at the mike." As several people rose from their seats to line up, she added, "And no, I am not free for dinner." The audience roared.

Straker grinned and sat back to enjoy the show.

The first person in line was a heavyset woman around forty years old. She twisted the strap of her handbag nervously between her fingers as she spoke. "Col. Simmons, I was in one of your workshops last year."

"I remember you, Mrs. Whitaker," Laura said gently.

The woman nodded. "You said then that I shouldn't expect to see my Billy again."

"Yes, I did."

"I saw a show on the telly a few months ago where they had people who'd come back and were just fine. And I was wondering," she turned a hopeful gaze toward Laura, "have you changed your mind any since then?"

The crowd was silent as they waited for Laura's response. Laura looked sadly at the woman before explaining to the audience, "Mrs. Whitaker's seven year old son was abducted from the woods near their home twelve years ago." There was a collective sigh from the crowd. "Mrs. Whitaker, I'm sorry," she told the woman. "I too have heard such stories, and frankly, they worry me. But no, I have not changed my mind. All the information we've gathered over the years shows that those people who are taken are harvested to keep the aliens alive. They're dead, Mrs. Whitaker. They can't return."

Straker exchanged glances with Alec, who nodded grimly. As the woman slowly returned to her seat, the crowd remained subdued. The next person in line was a young man in his late teens. He leaned into the microphone and asked, "If not dinner, then how about breakfast?"

Laura grinned at him as several people in the crowd chuckled.

"Seriously, Colonel," he continued. "I was wondering if you've given any thought to the possibility of them having underwater cities?"

She nodded. "Yes, I have. Three-fourths of this planet is covered with water, nearly all of it for the most part unexplored below the surface. There have been incidents on record that suggest such a scenario, but so far we have no concrete proof."

Straker cocked a brow at Alec, who shrugged in return. "I told you," he whispered. "Trouble!" Straker frowned around the room as the questions continued in front, and picked up a program from a nearby seat. C.A.A.R., it seemed, stood for Citizens for Alien Awareness and Reevaluation. How had this been missed in her background check?

"Alec," he began.

"I know," his friend interrupted grimly. "We've got to shut it down."

"No!" Straker whispered fiercely. "That would only make them go underground. Look, Alec. We know about them now. We can keep our eye on them. Look at this flyer!" He waved the program. "They have chapters in several countries. We can't shut them down."

"But the security risk!"

"Is minimal," Straker insisted. "They don't know about us. But now we know about them. We may be able to learn something from them, Alec."

"Oh, aren't you the optimist," Alec remarked sourly. He looked past Ed just as a hand descended on Straker's shoulder. Straker turned around. It was the older gentleman who had introduced Laura. "Buck Rogers, as I live and breathe," Alec smiled, shooting out a hand. It was clasped in a large paw of a hand and wrung.

Rogers grinned. He was a bear of a man. "Choirboy," he responded, then looked at Straker. "And the Iceman."

Straker held out his hand. "I couldn't believe it when I saw you up there, Mark. How long has it been?"

Rogers grunted. "Too damn long!" He looked around the room fondly. "What brings you boys here?"

"Curiosity," Straker answered with a smile. He too glanced around the room. "You've got quite a setup here."

Rogers frowned at the slight derision he detected in Straker's tone. "I suppose it might seem that way," he agreed, "to a skeptic."

"Now, Ed," Alec chided. "You said you'd keep an open mind."

Rogers laughed and slapped Straker on the back. "There. You see?" Then he straightened abruptly as a man in military fatigues walked up to the microphone. The hand on Straker's back stiffened. "Uh-oh," Rogers murmured. "Looks like trouble." Straker had to agree. The man in the fatigues didn't look or sound pleasant as he asked his question.

"What I wanna know is, how can any of you believe all this aliens from outer space shit? You especially, ma'am. You're an Air Force officer. You make the military look bad for even being a part of this." The crowd began murmuring, and Rogers gave a hand signal to Laura, which she answered with a slight headshake.

She addressed the man calmly. "What is your name, soldier?"

"Sgt. Matthew Taggert, ma'am."

"Well, Sergeant. It's okay not to believe in little green men." She looked out at the audience. "Nearly everyone in this room was a skeptic at one time." The crowd quietened. "I don't understand why you think that our belief makes the military look bad, however. As you've mentioned, I've served in the military too. I have nothing but the highest respect for all that they accomplish."

"But you make them seem incompetent when you say that these aliens are hostile. If they're hostile, the military would know. Are you saying they're just sitting around, twiddling their thumbs while these creatures try to kill us?"

"Sergeant, you know as well as I do that much of what we do in the military is classified and not for the general public. If you're serious about your question, perhaps we can arrange to discuss it later in a more private setting."

He refused to be appeased. "Look. If they're for real and they have the military too scared to do anything, what hope do we have as individuals to fight them off? You're dreaming!" He turned to the crowd. "You're all doomed!"

The muttering began again. Laura said, "Sgt. Taggert." He looked angrily back at her. "There are many ways in which people react to an encounter with aliens," she explained. "Complete denial is very common."

He stared at her in shock, then turned and stormed out of the room. Straker saw Rogers signal a man near the door, who unobtrusively followed the soldier out. The crowd had quieted, but remained restless. Laura said, "I would like to address one of Sgt. Taggert's comments, if I may. He seemed to feel that an individual could make no real difference against such a large adversary. However, all of you here today are proof that he is wrong. You've survived an encounter with aliens. Not only that, but you've shared your insights and experiences with a network of people just like yourself. One person can and does make a difference. We see it every day.

"There are many ways that you can beat this adversary. First of all, stay informed. If you or any of your loved ones live in a UFO hotspot, there is a chapter of C.A.A.R. there to assist you and answer your questions. If you don't live in a hotspot, congratulations." The crowd laughed. "Feel free to start a chapter in your hometown. You'll be surprised at how quickly it will grow.

"The second thing you can do is support legislation that will allow you to own a gun. Let's face it, when an alien enters your home and kills your family, you're going to wish you had a weapon available. Being a pacifist won't save you or those you love."

She closed her eyes for a moment, then continued. "Third, talk to people, especially those in positions in the media. Our worst complaint is that the people we deal with are brainwashed by TV and movies to accept aliens as benign, friendly beings who only want to communicate and play with mashed potatoes." Several people chuckled. Laura smiled and went on. "It only makes things harder when they're forced into an encounter with the aliens. Many die simply because they're unaware of the danger. We need more realistic programming. It doesn't matter if they label it science fiction, as long as the truth gets out there. The public can be reeducated in nonthreatening ways, but it takes your voice to correct the mistakes of the past. The media is our most powerful tool, if used correctly. Keep thinking of ways to help make it work for us, rather than against us.

"My hour is up, and you've all been wonderful. Thank you." The crowd stood and applauded until long after she'd left the stage.

* * *

"What'll you have, gentlemen?" Mark Rogers' suite at the hotel was right down the hall from Laura's, Straker noted. And Buck was enjoying playing the gracious host. Straker and Freeman sat on one of the luxurious couches near the windows. After receiving their requests, Rogers poured out and brought Alec a scotch and Straker a cup of coffee. He returned in a moment with a drink for himself. "Here's mud in your eye!" he toasted and tossed back the scotch. A tall man and thickly built, he took up most of the opposite couch as he lounged comfortably and grinned at them.

"How'd you get into this line of work?" Alec asked him.

"Well, you know, old man, after the Air Force gave me the can over that UFO incident, I puttered about for a bit, trying to fit into the civilian world." He grimaced. "I wasn't as lucky as you guys. You know, Iceman, I feel a chuckle coming on every time I see you on the TV. It purely does my heart good to see your ugly mug on screen, kissing the ladies."

"Thanks, Buck," Straker said.

"Anytime, anytime." He waved a huge hand. "I wrote a book or two about what had happened to me, but that just landed me in more hot water. Then I got lucky. I met Laura. Seems she'd read one of my books and thought we could help each other. Well, she was right." He broke off as the suite door opened, and Laura walked in. "Hey, kiddo! We were just talking about you."

She smiled wearily as she came toward the couches and sat down. "What lies are you telling now, Mark?"

"No, no. Just the truth. Isn't that bad enough?" He stood up and went to the drinks cabinet, returning after a moment with a tall glass of apple juice. Laura smiled gratefully as she took it from him.

"You did a good job with that crowd downstairs," Alec remarked.

"Thank you," she smiled. "They were a rough bunch tonight. We don't often get a scene."

"You handled it like a pro, kiddo," Buck told her bracingly.

"Mark," she said demurely, looking at Straker beneath her lashes, "aren't you going to introduce me to your friends?"

The big man flushed. "Oh, yeah. Laura Simmons, gentlemen. Best damn reflexes I've ever seen in a pilot. And that includes you, Iceman. Laura, these are a few of my old Air Force buddies. Choirboy here is Alec Freeman, and the Iceman is Ed Straker. You've seen him on TV, no doubt."

"No doubt," she murmured. "Gentlemen." She shook their hands in turn.

"Straker stood up for me when the Air Force booted me out, Laura. I've never forgotten it." The older man waved his glass at Straker in salute.

Straker smiled at the big man. "They were wrong, Buck. It wasn't fair to make you the scapegoat." He turned to Laura and lost his smile. "That was some pretty interesting talk about the film industry earlier. Just what are you hoping to do?"

She shook her head at him. "You're a very suspicious man, Mr. Straker. It should be obvious what we're trying to do. Educate a global population about a threat to life as we know it without causing mass hysteria in the process."

"And you need a film studio willing to work with you to accomplish that, don't you?" he accused.

She spread her hands. "If you weren't interested in the subject, why did you come?"

She had him there. He could hardly admit to having her followed, especially when he hadn't even sanctioned it. Damn Alec and his interference! Straker fumed in silence.

Freeman leaned forward. "Do you think our studio could do what you want?"

She answered seriously. "Actually, it might be harder for your studio than elsewhere." At Alec's lifted brow, she explained. "Harlington-Straker Film Studios has a reputation for staying well away from anything remotely like science fiction. It would be harder for you to establish credibility in that genre, because you'd have to start from scratch."

"You seem to know a lot about the film industry, Laura," Alec commented.

"It's a passion of mine." She smiled. "Tell me why they called you Choirboy."

Buck gave a shout of laughter while Alec smiled sheepishly. "It's because I used to sing in the cockpit," he explained.

"He even took requests," Buck added with a grin. "My personal favorite was the Yellow Rose of Texas."

"Aren't you curious why Ed was the Iceman?" Alec asked slyly. Damn Straker for getting uptight about the girl's ulterior motive. As far as Alec could see, it was a good one. If it was legitimate.

She met Straker's unsmiling gaze for a moment, then said, "I suppose because it's obvious. He stays cool under pressure."

Alec decided he liked her for that comment alone. God knew she could have said something much less flattering in the circumstances. "Well," he drawled, since Straker wasn't easing up any, "That's one of the reasons."

That got Straker's attention. "Shut up, Alec," he said without heat.

Alec grinned. "He says that to me all the time," he complained, making them all laugh. "So what's your handle, Laura?"

"Ha!" Rogers barked. Laura just looked demure.

"Well?" Alec prompted.

She finally spoke. "I was called Angel."

"I don't doubt that in the least," Alec said fervently.

Straker looked at him in disgust and pointedly changed the subject. "Do you really believe everything that you said to that crowd? Aliens with rayguns and the whole bit?" She looked at him with those tragic eyes, and he found that he hated himself more at that moment than he had in a long time. He almost hoped she'd refuse to answer.

"Reality is a fragile thing, Mr. Straker. The least thing can alter our perceptions forever. Yes, I believe what I said at the convention. However, I'm not asking anyone else to believe it."

"If you want the help, you're going to have to convince somebody. Why not me? I'm not a complete skeptic. No pilot could be for very long. I'm willing to be convinced." Straker spread his hands deprecatingly.

"Hey, really?" Buck leaned forward eagerly. "Say, kiddo," he said to Laura. "This could be just the break we need."

She remained silent, looking at Straker. He lifted a brow at her continued silence. He couldn't figure out what was stopping her from accepting his offer.

"No," she said quietly and got up from the couch to put her glass on the bar.

Rogers was shocked and jumped up to follow her. "Why not?"

"Mark," she said wearily, "he doesn't really believe. He just wants to see us try to prove it to him."

"But we can, kiddo. You know we can! Why not prove it to him? He's a big boy. He can take it."

"We don't have the right to change his concept of reality to suit our needs." She returned to the couch.

Rogers started to say something, but Straker forestalled him by getting down on the floor in front of her and taking her hands. "Laura," he begged. "Don't shut me out."

She shook her head at him sadly. "You don't understand," she whispered. "It will change everything."

"It won't change what I feel for you," he said quietly, realizing just how much he needed her to confide in him.

"It may."

"It can't," he assured her.

She closed her eyes to hold the tears at bay. "I don't want you to be involved. The truth will hurt you. It could even get you killed."

"Laura," he said softly, "it's too late. I'm already involved." As she stared at him, he added, "Someone told me I needed to let myself care more."

"Oh, Ed," she whispered brokenly and went into his arms.

* * *

"Where are we headed?" Straker asked.

She smiled slightly and said, "Keep driving. I'll tell you when to turn off."

He glanced at her. Since leaving Rogers' hotel room, she'd been subdued. She'd put up no more arguments, and he'd been grateful. Her initial refusal had unnerved him. It had also made him wonder just how terrifying she thought the truth would be to get so protective of him like that. He'd had to forcibly remind himself that he'd already seen--- many times over--- whatever she had to show him. And he wanted to tell her so. He wanted to wipe that worry from her eyes. But he'd compromised security so much where she was concerned. He needed to let her finish this out. Then he could tell her everything. He hadn't realized how much he wanted--- no, needed--- to tell her his secrets. It almost made him giddy to think about it.

Buck had been puzzled when they left, and not just by realizing they already knew each other. He'd expected her to show Straker the display room for the conference, where the alien artifacts and drawings were laid out. She'd shaken her head. "He won't be convinced by such things," she'd told the big man. "He's a film producer. His staff can make those things."

Alec had gone off on his own. He'd given his commanding officer just one glance, but Straker had no doubt that they were being followed right now at a discreet distance. Straker suddenly remembered Laura's excellent internal radar, and decided he'd better keep her distracted.

"Laura," he said. "I know about Buck's encounter, the one that the Air Force blamed him for. But what about you? What made you believe in UFOs?"

She looked at him in silence for a moment, and he wondered if she already knew they were being tailed. So much more went on behind those fine eyes than even he gave her credit for. He'd underestimated her badly with his earlier accusation that she'd strung him along to get his studio's help. It had been a kneejerk reaction to a predictable setup, but he should have kept in mind that nothing about this woman had ever been predictable. That in spite of her obvious beauty and great intelligence, she had never once tried to manipulate him. What a novel experience for a man who worked in the most manipulative business of all: filmmaking!

"I love you, you know," she said now, her gaze still on his profile.

His breath caught on a gasp, and he glanced sharply at her. Grimly he thought, no, not predictable at all.

She laid a calming hand over his tense one on the steering wheel. "It's okay," she soothed. "I just needed you to know that before... before we get there." She released his hand and sat back, but he continued to feel her warmth there for several minutes.

"I was sixteen the first time I saw what they were doing," she said. "They blew up our house, then came in looking for bodies. I... had survived the blast, but was too stunned to react. At least until they dragged my parents' bodies away. I surprised them, I guess. I tore into one of them, jumping on his back and pounding him, screaming the whole time. He knocked me off, but I came right back. I wouldn't quit. Eventually, I managed to damage his spacesuit. He shot me." She paused and looked over at him. "Sounds crazy, doesn't it?"

He shook his head. "You must have been terrified."

"Yes. But they didn't get my parents. It didn't matter how many times they tried to take them to their ship, I was there to fight them. They had to leave the bodies finally and return to their ship to repair the damage I'd caused to their suits. In the interim, I dragged my parents back into the house and rigged the gas main to blow. It would cremate my parents, but at least they couldn't take them."

He realized that she was leaving a lot of important details out, but he could wait for those. She was finally telling him what he needed to hear. She trusted him. She loved him. It no longer mattered where they were going. He almost suggested that they turn around and head back. He had all he needed to know now.

"Turn here," she instructed quietly, and he saw that they were at the Channel. He stopped the car and looked out at the expanse of water shining innocently in the moonlight. He suppressed a shudder. Was the missing UFO sitting underwater right now, waiting for him? He glanced at Laura, but she was getting out of the car. He took a deep breath and opened his door.

* * *

As Straker followed her down the beach, his eyes sought out the treeline off to the side. It provided the only nearby cover and was probably where Alec would be watching. Watching and cursing his commander for taking such a dangerous risk. Straker almost found himself agreeing. Whatever he had been expecting, it wasn't a deserted beach near Southampton.

Laura stepped out of her shoes and padded barefoot to the shoreline. She looked back at him, impossibly lovely in the moonlight, the tide lapping about her ankles.

"Laura." He stopped a few feet from shore. "Where are you taking me?"

"You wanted to see an alien," she said, holding out a hand.

His heart stopped, then began thudding loudly in his chest. He searched the Channel. Then he looked into her eyes. They didn't hold the blank stare of someone under alien control, nor the strange gleam that marked someone who'd slipped over the edge into madness. They stared back at him with the same tragic sadness he'd seen back at the hotel... when she'd said she didn't want him hurt. "Yes," he answered, taking her hand and kicking off his shoes.

When the water was waisthigh, he asked, "Where, Laura?"

She pointed out a ways. "We'll need to go far enough out for the beach to drop off. Perhaps a mile. We'll go underwater there for a bit."

He thought suddenly of the boy's comment at the convention, asking about alien underwater cities. Was that where she was taking him? Were aliens hiding out in the English Channel? "What's out there, Laura?"

Her smile was infinitely sad, but contained a small quirk of humor nonetheless. "Your alien," she said.

He searched her eyes again, then glanced back to shore where his car stood near that line of trees. She waited him out calmly, and he knew with sudden insight that she wouldn't push him in any way. If he announced that he was leaving, she'd simply return with him to the car, never mentioning it again. But he'd already failed to trust her once, when he'd accused her of using him for access to his studio. He'd never be able to live with himself if he failed her again. He calmed his racing heart and nodded for them to continue.

When the water was chesthigh, she released his hand, and they began swimming.





ACT V

"About here, I think," she said as she treaded water. Straker stopped swimming and looked back. Shore seemed a very long way away. "We'll go down now." He lifted a brow at her. They had no diving equipment, not even goggles. What were they going to be able to see in the English Channel at midnight underwater? "Ed," she said. He looked at her. "Do you trust me?"

"Yes."

She smiled then, a smile of infinite sweetness. "Thank you."

They dove.

Alec was cursing as he peered through the binoculars. Lt. Bradley had to bite his cheek to keep from grinning. Col. Freeman's invectives were always so original. "What the blazes is he doing now?" he asked in disgust, tossing down the useless binoculars. "They've gone underwater."

Bradley frowned. "They won't be able to see anything down there, sir."

"Is Skydiver 3 in position?"

Lt. Bradley checked his instruments. "Yes, sir. They're about five miles out from this location."

Alec stirred restlessly. "And they haven't seen anything?"

"They just got there, sir. Nothing so far."

"What are they doing?" Alec agonized.

Straker was fighting for his life.

He'd followed Laura deep underwater, ignoring the frigid temperatures around him. After all, she was wearing a lot less than he was and wasn't complaining. But they'd gone so deep that he was afraid they wouldn't make it back to the surface. He'd touched her shoulder and motioned that he had to go up. She'd nodded, and he'd turned to ascend when suddenly, she'd yanked him from behind, grabbing hold of his jacket and forcing it down his arms to the elbows, effectively pinning him.

He fought her fiercely, but she had a firm grip and wouldn't release it. His lungs ached, and his throat burned. He needed air! But she would weaken too, he reasoned, as she ran out of breath. Was it already too late for them to make it to the surface?

He suddenly went limp in her arms, and her grip on his jacket loosened. He kicked back fiercely, connecting with her hip, and squirmed out of his jacket, shooting for the surface overhead.

She recovered quickly, grabbing his ankle and forcing him back downward. He fought her ferociously, marvelling that she didn't seem to be weakening from lack of oxygen as he was. He got away from her again and started for the surface, knowing there was no way he'd make it. His lungs were on fire, and his limbs felt like lead.

Suddenly, she head butted him in the gut, causing his tiny bit of reserve air to whoosh out. He felt the water flood into his mouth and screamed silently, "Laura, no!"

Alec scanned the surface of the Channel broodingly through the binoculars. "They've been down there too long!"

Mark Bradley was also looking worried. "Skydiver has no sonar contacts, sir. There's nothing down there."

"It's a trap!" Alec realized.

Straker coughed, and his vision cleared. His lungs hurt, but he was breathing. He looked at Laura in astonishment as she loosely held him. They were both breathing water! She was smiling slightly, as if it were the most normal thing for them to be doing. She leaned forward suddenly and kissed him, then took his hand and lazily ascended to the surface.

* * *

They broke the surface after the drop-off and were soon walking toward shore. As the shock and bemusement began to wear off, Straker looked at Laura beside him. He stopped. "Laura, what was that all about?"

She smiled her Mona Lisa smile and kept walking. Straker tugged on her hand, and she stopped, looking back at him. "You wanted to see an alien," she said.

He frowned. "Yes."

She looked at him solemnly. "I showed you two."

"There he is, sir!" Lt. Bradley pointed eagerly toward the beach. Straker and Laura Simmons were walking out of the water as though swimming in the Channel fully dressed was a regular pastime. Alec's relieved curses blued the air inside the Mobile unit.

Straker caught up with her as she was stepping into her shoes. He'd had to search for one of his shoes, since the tide had carried it a ways down the beach. "Laura," he said to her now, "aliens?"

She smiled and brushed a damp lock of hair back from his forehead. "I warned you that your perception of reality would change forever."

"But...," he wondered aloud, "are we...?"

"Like those scavengers who've been violating our planet?" she finished. "No." She looked out across the Channel. "It was a long time before I was sure of that."

"Then who are we?" he asked.

She laughed softly and pointed to the star-studded sky overhead. "Take your pick." At his gasp, she added with a shrug, "It's a big galaxy."

Straker looked up and felt very weak all of a sudden.



* * *

Straker drove automatically toward London, oblivious to everything but his racing thoughts. Beside him, Laura too was silent, but glanced at him from time to time under her lashes. Finally he spoke. "You picked an ingenious way to prove to me I was an alien."

She smiled. "Would you have believed me if I'd just told you?"

He grinned at her. "No, I guess not. But what if you'd been wrong? What if I hadn't been able to breathe underwater?"

She shook her head. "It's difficult to explain. It's a little like a psychic bond, I guess, but not much. It's more a knowing." When he looked puzzled, she added, "You'll know it when you feel it."

"Didn't I feel it with you?"

"Yes. I meant next time."

"I don't remember feeling anything out of the ordinary."

"Really?"

He thought back to their first encounter at the airport. She had affected him strongly, but he had assumed it was because he'd been thinking of her so much in the past weeks. Hadn't it been? "Okay, so maybe not so ordinary," he conceded.

She laughed. "Thanks!"

"You know, you might have picked a less violent way to show me," he murmured after a few minutes.

"I couldn't think of one," she answered, ruefully touching her jawline where he'd clipped her during their struggle.

Straker frowned. "Is there a bruise?"

She shook her head, dropping her hand back into her lap. "I never bruise."

At least outwardly, he thought, and wondered how many invisible scars she carried. He thought of the look he'd glimpsed in her tragic eyes more than once and was not sure he ever wanted to know.

They were passing a wooded area when she suddenly spoke sharply. "Off the road!"

Immediately, a detonation occurred right in front of them, showering the hood and windshield with rock from the road. Straker swerved and dived into the trees. He slammed on the brakes. They stared at each other a moment, listening. The odd whistling his mind had barely had time to register was gone. All was quiet. He looked out the window. Nothing. Turning back to Laura, he saw her shake her head. Nothing there either. He watched as she removed a fierce little gun from her evening purse.

"Ed, do you by any chance have a...?" her question trailed off as she saw him remove his gun from the dash of the car. She grinned. "We need to get out of the car," she explained. "We're sitting ducks here. Now, they'll try to take me alive if they can. Don't worry about me. We'll take cover in those trees, and you stay hidden no matter what, okay?"

"Laura," he laid a restraining hand on her arm as she went to get out. "Wait." She looked at him as he lifted the carphone. He returned her inquiring gaze with a grin and asked, "Do you trust me?"

She blinked, but answered readily. "Yes."

He hit a button on the phone. "Alec," he said. "What have you got?"

Alec's voice came urgently through the phone. "They've landed ... about half a mile from your present position. Mobiles 1 and 2 are heading there now. We should reach you in about five minutes. Sit tight."

"We can't, Alec," Straker replied. "That's too long. We're getting out and taking cover in the trees. We won't go far away from the car."

"At least take your radio!" Alec demanded.

Straker picked it up off the dash. "Got it. Straker out." He grinned at her bemused expression, glad to be the one with the surprises for once, and said, "I'll explain it to you later." She nodded, and they left the car.

* * *

They separated and found cover among the trees where they could keep an eye on both the car and each other. Seeing her in action like this, crouched low and battle ready, made his heart turn over painfully. She was so magnificent. There was no trace of the gentle woman he knew she was in that stark face and stance. She had such courage, had witnessed far more than anyone should have to bear, but there she was. Ready to go another round. God, he loved her!

A small movement caught his eye, and he called out softly to her, pointing to the trees off to the right. As she turned to check, he heard gunfire and simultaneously felt his side sear with the impact. He went down with a sharp cry.

"Noooo!" She burst from cover, shooting the alien who was beginning to drag his helpless body into the trees. She was completely in the open. "Laura!" he croaked, "don't!" She was almost to him when she was hit. A stream of bullets tore at her from the trees, and she dropped to the ground, unmoving, her eyes fixed in a surprised stare. From where he lay in the trees, Straker could see the hole where a stray bullet had pierced her forehead. He began crawling agonizingly toward her, moaning in a frantic chant, Nononononononono!

He heard more gunfire and didn't care. He reached her finally and gathered her painfully into his arms. He could hardly see her and realized that it was because he was weeping. How odd, he thought. I don't cry.

Suddenly Alec was there beside him. "Ed," he said urgently. Straker looked at him uncomprehendingly. "You've got to let them treat you. You're badly wounded."

Straker looked down at Laura and gently closed those fine eyes. "Sleep well, my love," he whispered brokenly and allowed them to load him onto the stretcher.





EPILOGUE

When Straker woke the first time, he was in the softly lit, quietly beeping room he recognized as ICU. Dr. Jackson was there and assured him that the surgery had gone well. They'd been able to remove all of the bullets, and his spleen looked okay. He was in the unit just as a precaution.

When he woke up the second time, they had put him in a regular private room. He felt very calm as he looked around the sunlit room, almost hollowed out really, as though Jackson had removed all his insides along with the bullets.

Alec visited, and they discussed funeral arrangements. Straker calmly agreed to the cremation, as specified in her will. Dr. Jackson demurred, wanting to run more tests, but fell silent as Straker simply ignored him.

"Oh, and Alec," Straker said as the Colonel left a while later, "supervise the equipment loan from Dewinter Studios to Carl Mason for me, will you?"

Col. Lake's visit was harder. She brought flowers, fluffed pillows, and generally behaved in a manner very unlike her usual brisk self. He inquired if they'd been able to salvage the UFO, and she seemed upset that he would even ask. Yes, she told him finally after meeting his quiet look, they were working on ways to keep it from deteriorating long enough to study it.

She didn't stay long.

On the third day, he woke to see a young nurse bringing in yet another vase of roses from some studio head or movie star. The room was full of their cloying scent, and he rebelled. "Take them away," he demanded testily. "They're giving me a headache."

"All of them?" she goggled, looking around the flower-filled room.

"All of them," he said. "Give them to the staff. Just get them out of here."

She did as he requested, but later when she brought his lunch, she asked him if he had a favorite flower.

He woke on the fourth day to find a large vase of daffodils on the bedside table.

Later, Dr. Jackson complimented him on his usual swift recovery and pronounced him well enough for the psych evaluation. The doctor had been uncharacteristically kind during the past few days, almost cordial. Not so today. By the end of the evaluation, Straker was cursing him and plotting ways to kill him. The doctor had pushed and pushed, with no regard for Straker's private feelings, until he'd broken down completely.

He saw Mark Rogers. Alec brought him in late in the afternoon. The big man was as loud in his grief over the loss of his friend and partner as he was firm in his conviction that Straker had done all that he could to avoid the car crash that had left Laura dead and himself critically injured. Straker remained dry-eyed throughout the visit only because all the tears had already been wrung out of him. He supposed he should be grateful to Jackson for that.

Maybe.

On Thursday Paul came to visit, expecting the worst. Instead he found Straker sitting up in a chair watching TV.

"Well, Paul," Straker said when he saw him come in. "Have a good trip?"

"Sure," Paul answered, not wanting to mention that Virginia Lake had met him at the airport last night and promptly burst into tears when he'd asked how Straker was doing. He hadn't slept all night, wondering if his commander was dying. Silly girl. Straker looked fine. What had gotten into her?

Straker reached over and turned off the TV when Paul sat down, and Paul saw that he'd been watching a video. That was odd. Straker watching movies? He picked up the case and read Forbidden Planet. "Science fiction?" he asked incredulously.

"It's a classic," Straker answered.

Paul looked skeptical, but made no comment. "When do they release you?"

"Tomorrow afternoon," Straker replied. "I'm being ordered not to show my face at the studio until Monday morning, however."

Paul grinned. "What will you do with yourself all weekend?" He was certain that Straker would have disregarded those orders long before Monday, maybe even by Saturday morning.

"I thought I'd go home," Straker answered quietly. "To Boston."

Paul gaped at him, and Dr. Jackson walked in.

"Commander, Col. Foster." He nodded to them both in his slavic way. "Commander, here is the autopsy report on the two aliens we retrieved from the woods outside London." He handed Straker one of the reports he carried. "The data is the usual: human organ transplants, sterility, etc. It's all there." Straker nodded, leafing through the report in a disinterested sort of way. "And here is the final autopsy report on the two aliens we recovered from the downed UFO in the Andes Mountains several weeks ago." He gave him the second report. "As you can see, we didn't have a lot to work with, which is why it has taken so long to finish the report. The vessel's explosion did a lot a damage to the bodies."

Straker nodded, thumbing through this report with more interest. "Your conclusions?"

"They had both been shot. They were dead before the UFO was destroyed."

Straker nodded as if this confirmed some theory of his own, but Paul was shocked. "What? Who killed them?"

Straker murmured softly, "Sonsa-bitches." Which only confused Col. Foster more.

"Sir, " he asked firmly, "do we know who might have killed the aliens? Is there a possible breach in our security?"

Straker laid the report on top of the other one on the table and turned the movie back on. "No, Paul," he answered bitterly. "There's no security risk at all."