2. The Worst-Case Scenario

(A UFO Story)

written by Denise Felt

copyright 2001

ACT I

"Sheila," breathed Paul Foster into her ear as they slow danced, "say you'll stay."

She leaned back to look him in the face. "Paul," she said seriously, "I've enjoyed myself tonight. Don't make me sorry that I came."

Oblivious to the crowd around them, he drew her even closer for a moment. "I can convince you," he said huskily.

The song ended, and she stepped back from him. As she headed for the door to his apartment, he followed, groaning inside. She couldn't be leaving. She couldn't. "When will I see you?"

She stopped with her hand on the doorknob and turned to look at him. She considered his dejected face for a moment, then said, "You wanted to show me where you work."

"Sure," he answered with relief. "Tomorrow?"

She looked at her wristwatch and grimaced. "It is tomorrow."

Paul grinned, regaining his balance. At least he hadn't made her mad at him by pressing her. He would see her again. "Today, then." He mentally shifted his schedule around. "Two o'clock?"

She thought for a moment, then nodded. "Alright. Shall I meet you there?"

"Yes. Oh, wait. You'll need a pass." He darted away between dancing couples in the dimly lit room and returned after just a few moments with a small card. "Come to my office. It's in the main studio building. Stop at the main desk, and they'll send you on."

"Thanks." She started to open the door, but he leaned against it suddenly, holding it shut.

"I really wish you'd stay," he coaxed.

She opened the door in spite of him and walked into the brightly lit hall. She looked at him for a moment as he stood in the doorway. He really was a doll. "Good night, Paul," she said and headed for the elevator.

* * *

Commander Straker and Col. Virginia Lake were in the SHADO cafeteria early in the morning when Col. Paul Foster came in whistling. They exchanged wry glances at the sight of him, which he did not fail to notice.

"What?" he asked, approaching their table and seeing the remains of breakfast in front of them.

"Paul," Straker asked dryly, steepling his hands together on the tabletop, "did you have a good party last night?"

"Sure," Foster answered with a smile, going to the coffee pot in the corner for a cup. When he came back, he saw Straker shaking his head at him and grinning. "What?" he reiterated.

Virginia laughed. "Paul," she replied, "you are so predictable."

Foster sat next to them at the table, trying to figure out what they were referring to. "In what way?"

Straker explained. "We always know when it's Saturday around here, because you unfailingly arrive at work running late, but whistling."

Paul flushed, but could not keep a rueful grin from spreading across his handsome face.

Straker looked at his wristwatch and frowned. "Wait a minute, Paul," he said. "You're not late."

Col. Foster shook his head at them. "You two," he said without malice.

"But, Paul," Virginia asked in a shocked voice, "don't tell me there wasn't a girl involved last night?"

Straker watched as the younger man's eyes unfocused and took on a vacuous expression. "Not likely," Straker assured Col. Lake wryly.

Paul just grinned at them. "Sheila," he said dreamily as he sipped his coffee.

Virginia rolled her eyes. "Did I say predictable?" she asked no one in particular. "I meant pathetic!"

"Pretty?" Straker asked him.

Paul ignored Virginia's comment and answered his commanding officer gustily. "Wait till you meet her. She's gorgeous!"

"You always say that!" Col. Lake retorted, wishing he could see how silly he looked mooning about.

"No," Paul assured her seriously. "I have never met anyone this wonderful in all my life."

His tone rather than his words made Straker frown at him for a moment before glancing at Col. Lake. She too seemed to notice it, but she shrugged it off. "You'll have a new girl by next weekend and say the same about her, as well," she said.

"No one could replace Sheila," Paul assured them fervently.

Virginia frowned. "You mean, you're serious about her?" She seemed shocked by the thought.

Paul nodded.

She frowned at the commander, who asked him, "Have you done the necessary background check, Paul?"

"Oh, yeah," Paul answered. "Days ago. She's clean."

"Well, then," Straker said, "I suppose I should congratulate you."

Foster looked up from his coffee. "It's not a done deal yet, sir. She likes to move slow."

Virginia snorted. "That must be a change of pace for you."

Paul grinned at her. "Yeah, but she's worth it." He sighed and got up from the table. "I'd better get to work." He had almost reached the door to the cafeteria when he turned back. "Oh, Commander Straker."

"Yes?"

Paul looked a little sheepish. "Will you be busy this afternoon, sir?"

"When?"

"About four." Paul spread his hands. "I'd really like to have you meet her."

"You hardly need my approval, Paul," Straker answered.

"I know that, sir," Foster said. "But she's a fan of yours, and I thought...you know..."

Straker did know, so he swallowed a sigh and said, "Sure, Paul."

"Thanks!" Foster grinned at him, relieved.

"Paul," Straker warned him before he had taken a step, "I don't do autographs."

"No problem, sir," Paul answered with a salute and left the room.

Col. Lake lifted a brow at the commander as he drank his coffee. He replied to her unspoken question quietly. "He's not getting any younger, you know. He was bound to consider the merits of settling down sooner or later."

She didn't mention that Straker was even older than Paul and hadn't yet settled down. She knew far too well that he had been very seriously involved with a woman two months ago, but that affair had ended disastrously. She also knew that the commander was far from being over it. She said aloud, "But, Paul?" Somehow she had imagined Col. Foster to be the last of them to ever consider a permanent relationship. He was enjoying sowing his wild oats too much. His Friday night parties were legendary for supplying him with a new crop of lovely girls to pick from each week.

Straker shrugged and rose from his seat at the table, taking his tray to the trash bin. As he passed her on his way out of the room, he said, "I'll be happy to tell you my opinion after I meet her, if it will reassure you any."

She grimaced. "I sound like a mother hen worrying over her chicks, don't I?"

He smiled. "Change can often be frightening, even when it's a good change." He looked pensive for a moment, then added, "We'll adjust."

After he left, she looked into her coffee cup and said softly, "I hope so."

* * *

Paul caught Miss Eeland just as she was leaving for her lunch break and asked where he could find Straker. She told him that Commander Straker could be found on Lot 7, one of the areas of wilderness that had recently been leveled for construction. Paul thanked her and headed out. He considered taking one of the little shuttle cars that allowed the staff to travel swiftly from one destination to another around the large lots, but decided to stretch his legs instead. His recent stint aboard Skydiver 2 had been an arduous one, and he was still enjoying the freedom of movement being on the surface gave him.

He still wondered what his commander had been up to having them sound the ocean floor like that. Mapping the underwater terrain was an integral part of Skydiver's work, but this had been a deliberate search. Paul knew from talking with the other captains that all the Skydivers had received similar orders. What had Straker been looking for?

Paul hoped he'd get the chance to ask him. But there were never any guarantees with Straker. A fellow had to pick his moments wisely, or he'd get nothing from the man. Straker tended to be very guarded about any pet projects he had in the works.

Like this current project, Foster suddenly thought. Lot 7 had been cleared for an upcoming series Straker had personally overseen. Paul knew how much it meant to Straker more by his silence on the subject than by anything he had actually said. Eight years working under him had taught Paul a little about how that devious mind worked. When Straker was silent, he was busy spinning his webs.

Out of curiosity, Foster had asked Alec Freeman about the series. As Straker's oldest friend, Alec could be depended on to share those things that their boss kept to himself. But Alec had been oddly quiet the last few times they'd talked. Ever since Straker had been hospitalized following a UFO incident two months ago, Alec had been tiptoeing around the commander. Paul would have called him on it, but Virginia had been acting pretty much the same way. He hadn't been able to get either of them to tell him what it was all about yet, but he was determined to get to the bottom of it. When he'd asked Alec about Straker's new show, he'd only gotten a grimace and a headshake for a reply. Well, he'd just have to check it out for himself, then.

He turned the corner onto Lot 7 and suffered a severe shock. Sitting in a patch of sunlight about one hundred yards away was a UFO. Its silver dome glinted challengingly as it rested on the dirt. Foster almost ducked under cover before he realized that a construction crew was working beyond where the UFO sat, ignoring it as though it wasn't even there. As his bewildered eyes looked around, he saw Straker stop speaking to the construction manager and walk toward him. He was smiling.

Paul's mouth couldn't even form the questions that crowded his mind.

Straker leaned against a wooden fence near the edge of the roadway and quirked an eyebrow at Paul's dazed expression. He could tell exactly what Foster was thinking. Paul had never had a poker face. "Well, Paul," Straker invited. "What do you think?"

Foster looked at his commander in silence. Then he spoke quietly, but forcefully, "Are you nuts?"

Straker grinned. "Not at all, Paul. This new series should be a real hit. Lots of action, adventure, and heroics. You'll love it."

Paul shook his head. He noticed that the lot contained a few scattered mock-ups where the crew was working. They looked like houses. "What is it called?" he finally asked.

"Encounters. It's a series about a group of college students who stumble upon a global danger and set out to fight it."

Foster knew that he was dreaming. There was no way this could actually be happening. Had Straker totally lost it? No wonder Alec had seemed concerned. "Sir," he said, "doesn't this constitute a breach in security?" Paul couldn't believe that Straker was in charge of this. He'd seen first hand how Straker felt about security leaks.

But Straker was still smiling. "Where's the problem, Paul?" he asked. "This is just a science fiction show. Where's the harm?"

Paul just looked at him in disbelief.

Straker returned his look with his blandest gaze.

Paul almost groaned. He knew that look. Straker was definitely up to something. But, what? He decided to go on the attack. "Does Henderson know about this?"

Straker spread his hands. "Why should he?" he asked reasonably. "Harlington-Straker Film Studios is not under his jurisdiction, Paul. You know that."

Foster gasped. "But...you can't just do this without any approval!"

Straker frowned at him. "What approval is necessary other than my own?" he said. "I don't need the general's or anyone else's approval to run this studio the way I see fit."

"But this is a breach in security, sir. Surely you can see that," Paul pointed out.

"Where?" Straker asked him, spreading his hands and indicating the entire lot around him. "It's fiction, Paul. Science fiction. We're not doing a documentary here. No one is saying that any of this is real. It's just a weekly show."

"But it is real."

"Who's to say?"

Paul didn't know how to answer. Finally he asked in bewilderment, "Why?"

Straker leaned on the fence once more, crossing his arms and gazing at the UFO. "I've been looking at some statistics, Paul. Not ours. But reliable, nonetheless. Too many people have had contact with the aliens. Too many have died at their hands. And too many have survived to live shattered lives because of them. We can't keep ignoring that segment of the population."

Paul realized how serious he was and asked quietly, "But is this the answer? Making a show about it?"

His commander looked at him for a long moment. "What is the hardest thing we deal with in our line of work, Paul?"

Foster frowned. "The aliens."

But Straker only shook his head. "Harder than that."

Paul was silent for a bit, thinking about his job and all that it entailed. "I suppose," he said at length, "the enforced secrecy."

"Exactly."

"But you can't just tell everyone the truth like this!" Paul sputtered. "How will that solve anything?"

"Paul," Straker said, "keep in mind that we're not labeling anything as truth. It's just a story. Only those who are in the know will be aware that it is anything more than just a story."

"Then, why do it?"

"Because we've been short-sighted, Paul. SHADO cannot continue to function at peak levels when its operatives are condemned to living double lives all the time. There's just too much tension caused by all that secrecy. Although the public isn't ready to learn about us and all we do; nonetheless, they can be taught to accept us. Maybe not in the next year or even the next ten years, but eventually. It should have been a goal all along."

Paul frowned, trying to take in everything he was saying. He looked at his commander searchingly. He'd noticed a few odd differences in Straker since he'd seen him at the hospital. His recent interest in science fiction, for one, and the fact that both his offices now sported a small vase of flowers each day. Not even exotic flowers either, but common daffodils. It was weird. And he'd gotten more talkative, too. Paul wondered what had happened to change him. Had the aliens gotten to him somehow? Was all this an alien trick to destroy them? He finally said, "Henderson won't like it."

Straker shrugged. "He won't have any say in the matter. The scripts, the props, everything is supplied by the team of writers for the series. I'm just the producer, Paul. My input in the project is negligible. Any studio could be in charge of this series. We're lucky to have them here."

"I doubt the general will agree with you."

Straker only grinned.

* * *

"This is so weird," Sheila murmured.

Paul laughed. "Now don't get New Age on me," he begged. "Unless you mean this lot." He pointed to the surrounding building fronts. "Some of these mock-ups are quite horrible, aren't they?"

Sheila grinned at him. "Paul, you can't mean it. Just look at all the filigree work. This is really rather lovely."

Paul shook his head at her. "We'll check your temperature when we get back to my office," he said. "You must be running a fever."

"Be serious a moment," she said.

He immediately assumed the appearance of someone who'd been stuffed.

She dissolved into laughter. After a moment he gave up trying to maintain the pose and grinned at her.

"Paul," she said after a few minutes. "Why does this look so familiar?"

"Maybe you've been here in a past life," he joked.

"Nonsense."

He frowned, noticing how seriously she was taking this. "Well, is it all familiar to you, or just a few things?"

She shook her head. "I don't know. Just a few things, I guess." Finally she shrugged. "Maybe I'm just remembering them from the movies I saw them in."

"Hmmmm," he said, scratching his chin in the manner of a television doctor. "What we have here is a classic case of too much TV."

Sheila stuck her tongue out at him.

They were wandering toward the back lot. Paul glanced at his watch and saw that it was almost four o'clock. "Let's head back, shall we?" he asked her.

She frowned, looking down past the buildings for a moment. Then she turned to him, noticing that he was checking the time. "What are you up to, Paul Foster?"

He grinned and spread his hands. "Nothing. Really."

She put her hands on her hips and looked skeptical.

"Okay, okay," he admitted. "I have a surprise for you."

She cocked her head, considering him. "Is it a nice surprise or a nasty one?"

"Sheila!" he objected in mock horror. "Would I be nasty to you?"

"In a heartbeat," she answered cynically, but she smiled and took his hand, heading back the way they'd come.

When they reached the main building, he opened the glass doors for her and escorted her inside. They were halfway across the huge lobby when Paul saw Straker coming toward them. He was leafing through a report and hadn't noticed them yet. He steered Sheila in that direction. "Hello, sir," he called out.

Straker looked up and froze. His face went completely white with shock.

Paul frowned. "Are you all right?" he asked quickly, taking Straker's arm as they reached him.

Straker looked at him in a dazed way for a second or two, then became carefully bland. "Yes, Paul," he answered. "I'm fine. Is this your friend?" He turned to Sheila.

She was staring at him. As he held his hand out to her, she looked at it in confusion for a moment. Then she shook it.

The bolt of electricity that went up his arm at the contact was unwelcome, but at least not unexpected. Sheila, however, seemed shocked and quickly broke contact.

"Yes, sir." Paul wasn't sure any more that it had been such a good idea to introduce Sheila to her favorite actor. Her reaction wasn't what he'd been expecting. Who'd have thought she'd be nervous? He tried to gloss it over. "Sheila, this is Ed Straker, the owner of the studios. Sir, this is Sheila Conover, a very good friend of mine."

"How do you do?" she asked in a subdued tone.

"Conover?" Straker asked quickly.

"You've heard of my father, no doubt, Mr. Straker," she said. "J.D. Conover."

"Yes."

The secretary from the main desk walked up to them. "Mr. Straker," she said quietly. "Mr. Henderson just called and is wanting you to call him back before you leave."

Straker turned to her. "Thank you, Miss Evans. I'll take care of it right away." He lifted a brow at Paul, who shook his head in return. He hadn't and wouldn't tell Henderson what Straker had been up to on Lot 7. This must be about something else. "You'll have to excuse me," Straker said to them and headed back toward his office.

Paul took Sheila's arm and felt her trembling. "Hey, are you okay?" he asked quietly.

She turned a pale face to him and nodded, but he noticed that she held very tightly to his arm all the way down the hall.



ACT II

Straker walked through the control room without seeing any of the operatives. Alec called out a greeting, but got no response. He frowned at the commander's back and thought, Now what?

Straker headed down the corridor to SHADO HQ's Medical Centre. He walked into the office and stood there a moment. Dr. Jackson was at his desk, checking some data on his computer terminal. He looked up and saw the commander standing there. He got up suddenly and went to the coffee pot on a side table. After a moment, he brought Straker a foam cup filled with hot coffee.

"Thanks," Straker said slowly and sat down in one of the chairs in front of the desk.

Jackson returned to his seat behind the desk and waited him out.

After a few sips of the strong coffee, Straker's eyes lost their glassy look and he seemed to return to normal. He held the coffee in his hands as though he needed the warmth and looked at the doctor. He wasn't quite sure where to begin. Instinct had brought him here in the first place. However much he disliked Jackson, he knew that he alone would be able to be objective enough to help him in this crisis. He took a deep breath and asked, "Do you remember Sheila Austin?"

Jackson's brows shot up. So that's what this was about. It made sense. The last time he'd seen Straker look this bad had been just after Col. Austin had been abducted over eleven years ago. "Yes, Commander," he said now. "She was not someone who would be easy to forget."

Straker nodded. The eyes he lifted to Jackson were haunted. "I just saw her."

"What?" Jackson leaned forward in his chair, certain that he had not heard correctly.

Straker sighed, rubbing a hand over his face. He was getting tired of meeting people who were supposed to be dead. It was hell on the nerves. "In the studio," he explained. "She was visiting Paul Foster."

Jackson almost asked if he was certain it was her, but he knew that Commander Straker would not be so easily fooled. "What did she say?" he asked.

Straker grimaced. "She didn't seem to know me at all. She said her name was Conover and spoke of her father, J.D. Conover, the industrialist."

Jackson frowned. "Sheila was an orphan."

"Well, she apparently acquired some parents along the way." Straker's tone was waspish.

"Have you checked into it?"

"Not yet," Straker admitted. "I'm afraid I just sort of shut down."

"Yes," Dr. Jackson murmured, looking closely at him. And he had come here, he thought. Not to his friend, Alec Freeman, who Jackson knew was at SHADO HQ for this shift. Like he had once before when he'd been unable to cope, Straker had sought out a man he made no bones about disliking. Jackson felt that it said a lot about the commander. "You said she was with Col. Foster?" he asked.

"Yes," Straker said, compressing his lips into a tight line. "He of course has no idea who she is. He wasn't here when she worked at SHADO."

"That's true," the doctor replied. "And it's doubtful that anyone would have talked about her to him. She seems to be one of a very few subjects that are taboo around SHADO."

"With good reason," Straker said bitterly. "Her capture was one of the blackest moments in our history."

Jackson nodded, steepling his fingers in a contemplative gesture. "And yet, she has returned."

Straker looked grim. "She's dating Foster."

The doctor's quick eyes noticed that the commander's haunted look had deepened slightly. "That could be a problem," he said quietly. "You'll tell him, of course."

Straker took a deep gulp of the coffee. "It's not that simple. He's serious about her. It's my understanding that he hoped to marry her."

Dr. Jackson wondered briefly how the commander had dealt with that news. "Would you prefer for me to speak with him?" he offered.

Straker looked swiftly at him. He was aware that Jackson knew he'd been in love with Sheila, although Straker had never admitted it to him. Hell, everyone had been in love with her. She was the kind of woman who would always be desired. Straker was aware that even the good doctor had not been immune to her smiles. He realized that Jackson was trying to spare him the coming scene with Paul and although he appreciated the gesture, he knew it wouldn't work. "No," he finally answered. "He won't listen to you." He sighed. "I'll tell him."

"What will you say?"

Straker shrugged tiredly. "It all depends on what I'm able to find out. But the end result will probably be the same. It's highly doubtful he'll be able to continue seeing her on a serious basis." He put the empty coffee cup on the desk and stood. He looked at the doctor for a moment in silence, then nodded once and left the room.

Jackson smiled to himself as the door closed behind him. As thank you's went, that nod left a great deal to be desired; but for Commander Straker, it was quite demonstrative. Dr. Jackson was encouraged. He had been pleased to see the serenity that had set in after the death of Laura Simmons two months ago. Straker had been heading for a major breakdown until that fateful weekend. Too much pressure in a job that took all and gave nothing in return had been taking its toll. That iron will could only stand so much, after all. Straker had broken down after her death, but not at all the way that Jackson had feared he someday would. His grief had been natural and deep, but the release of it had alleviated a lot of the strain he had been operating under for so long.

Jackson frowned as he considered this latest development. He hoped that the commander would be able to weather this current storm. He had a great respect for Straker. He had often wondered if they might have been friends if circumstances had been different.

* * *

Straker waited until Alec had left for the day and Col. Lake had come on her shift. Then he called her into his office. "Colonel," he asked as soon as she walked in, "Do you have the report done on Sheila Conover that Paul authorized earlier this week?"

Virginia frowned. "No, but I can get it for you."

"Thank you."

She was still frowning as she walked out. Evidently Paul's newest playmate was a potential problem. Great. She remembered that Straker had told her he would tell her what he thought of this one. Somehow Virginia didn't think he'd been too impressed. Not if he was double-checking the report.

Virginia wondered what the commander would say about the girl. He'd been so much more open about his thoughts these past few months. It was fascinating for her to be able to get a deeper glimpse into that great mind. But five minutes later when she handed him the report, he didn't tell her anything at all, just simply nodded and said curtly, "Thank you. That will be all."

She glanced at the small vase of daffodils on his desk before leaving the room. He had sounded so much like his former self that she'd wondered if she'd somehow time-warped into the past for a minute. She knew better than most how tricky time could be. She never took those things for granted anymore. But the flowers were there, assuring her that everything was normal. She had never asked him why he started keeping them there. Not only did she think he wouldn't tell her, but she had a pretty good idea already what they meant to him.

* * *

Straker stood on the bridge in the park, leaning against the railing and gazing off into the trees when he sensed someone's approach. Before he could turn and see who it was, he heard a soft voice say, "I thought I might find you here."

He stiffened and turned to see Sheila Conover standing nearby on the bridge. Twilight gave her skin an ethereal appearance. For a moment Straker was almost certain he had conjured her up from his own thoughts. "Miss Conover," he said quietly.

She leaned back against the railing, crossing her arms and favoring him with a direct stare. "You know that's not my name."

Straker lifted a brow. "Then what is?"

She shrugged. "I don't know. But you do."

He merely gazed at her in silence.

"Look, Mr. Straker," she said, "I saw how you reacted to meeting me this afternoon. You were as shocked as I was." Her gaze took in his white blonde hair and lean face. "I know you. I don't know how or where, but we've met before."

He sighed. "What do you want from me?"

"I had a motorcycle crash nearly four years ago," she said.

"Was it serious?"

She nodded, but gave a rueful smile. "My father told me I was too ornery to die. When I woke up, I remembered nothing except my first name. I didn't even remember the crash." She frowned for a moment, thinking back. "Anyway, I was told who I was, and although I didn't really believe it, I had nothing else to go on." She grimaced. "Lacking any options, I accepted what I was told. Today is the first time I've met anyone who knew me before I became Sheila Conover. You know me, Mr. Straker. I'd just like you to tell me who I am."

"Your name is Sheila Austin."

She absorbed that. "Austin," she said, as though trying it on for size. "I worked for you, didn't I?"

"What makes you think that?" he asked cautiously.

"Because some areas around here look very familiar to me. I thought at first it was because I'd seen them in the movies, but this place..." she gestured to the surrounding park. "I knew this was here, even before I found it. I've seen this place often... in my dreams." She turned haunted eyes to him, wanting confirmation.

"Yes." He sighed. "You helped me design it. You convinced me that I'd need a place to relax that was near enough to my office that I could get to it easily."

She was nodding. "A bolt-hole," she said. "Yes, I can imagine saying that. Everyone needs one." And she smiled.

He wondered where her bolt-hole was, but didn't ask.

"So, when did I work for you?" she said after a moment. "Paul told me he's worked here for eight years, and I don't remember him. So I guess it was before that?"

"Yes," he answered. "You worked here for nearly a year. The last time I saw you was eleven years ago."

"Eleven?" she asked in surprise. She frowned. "How old am I?"

Straker said, "You don't know?"

Sheila shook her head. "According to my family, I am 28. But if that's true, I couldn't have worked here that long ago, could I?"

He looked at her for a moment. "Well, you could pass for 28. But you'll be 37 this year."

"Ouch," she murmured with a wry smile. "Truth hurts."

"Be careful what questions you ask," he warned, smiling slightly at her rueful expression.

She grinned, but shook her head.

"Did you ever ask your parents to tell you what really happened?" he said.

"No," she said quietly. "Mr. Straker, have you ever met my father?"

Straker shook his head. "I've heard of him, though."

"Well," she explained, "he's not a man you question." At his look of inquiry, she added, "He's a force to be reckoned with. It was just easier to go along with him. There really was nothing else I could do. I remembered nothing. I still don't. It's just vague impressions, really. Nothing I can get my hands on long enough to understand." She frowned in thought. "I do remember one thing, though, although I've never been able to be sure if it was real or a dream."

She paused, and he asked, "What?"

Her eyes implored him to believe her. "I remember falling. There were flames all around me, and I was falling very fast. I could hear the scream of metal and feel the G forces." When he just looked at her in silence, she continued. "I've wondered if maybe I was flying a private plane or something, and crashed it."

"It's possible," he said.

She seemed disappointed when he didn't say more, then shrugged. "Anyway, that's probably closer to what really happened than a motorcycle crash." After a moment, she asked him quietly, "Will you tell me what happened to me?"

"Sheila, I don't know what happened to you," he answered. "Eleven years ago, you ... disappeared. When no one had contact with you for so long, it was assumed that you were dead."

"Do I have a grave somewhere?"

Straker gave a deep sigh. "No, because we were never completely sure." She looked at him, and he added, "It's not as though you had any family to inform. You were an orphan. Your parents had been dead for years."

She nodded. "That makes sense. I had no trouble accepting Dad and Mom as my parents, and I guess I supposed it was because I either had hated my own or else they simply hadn't been around. I was never sure which scenario would be worse."

"What's your mother like?"

She smiled. "She was a wonderful woman. She died of cancer last year. I was able to help nurse her up till the last, though. It meant a lot to both of us. There were times I wished that she really had been my mother. I still miss her."

Straker almost laid a hand over hers on the railing, but thought better of it. He and Sheila had always been a very combustible mix. And from his reaction this afternoon to the handshake, that particular problem hadn't diminished at all over time. "You seem to have made a fine life for yourself," he said finally.

"I like it," she answered. She started to say something more, but just then his radio beeped.

"Straker," he said into the radio.

"Sir." It was Col. Lake. "Henderson just called. He said to make sure you contact him this evening."

Straker sighed. "Thank you. I'll deal with it. Straker out."

As he replaced the radio on his belt, Sheila asked, "Isn't he the guy you were supposed to get back to earlier?"

Straker nodded ruefully and headed off the bridge. "Unfortunately, I was a bit distracted at the time."

Her soft laugh made him turn and smile. They just looked at each other a moment in the deepening shadows of nightfall, then she cocked her head slightly to the side and asked softly, "Why do I have the oddest impulse to salute to you?"

Straker managed to keep his face bland, but it took an effort. "I really couldn't say," he answered.

* * *

"What are you saying?" Paul leaned over the desk, glaring at his commanding officer.

Straker held his temper, knowing how hard this was on the younger man. "Paul, isn't it obvious? We have no idea where she's been all these years. And we can't even bring her in for debriefing. She doesn't remember anything." He shook his head. "Even then, it would be a risk just bringing her here. The aliens had her, Paul. Who knows what they put her through or altered her mind to do once she returned? She could be like one of those psychobombs we dealt with a few years ago."

"You don't know that!" Paul hated any reminder of that ordeal. He'd been very attached to one of those "programmed" people. Her death still haunted him occasionally.

"That's just it, Paul," Straker answered grimly. "We don't know. All we have are guesses. But remember this. The track record for those who have returned after being in the aliens' hands is not good."

Paul's gaze dropped. He knew only too well how easily the aliens could reprogram a person to do anything they wanted. The thought that they might have done such a thing to Sheila made him go cold inside. He looked up at his commander finally and said in a subdued voice, "She seems to be okay."

Straker nodded. "Yes. It's possible that any programming they may have done was erased along with the rest of her memories after the crash. She's much safer not remembering the past. And so are we. There's no way you'll be able to have a permanent relationship with her, however. Security would have a field day."

Foster sat down. "Sir," he said quietly, "I love her. I can't just stop seeing her."

Straker drew a breath. "I'm not asking you to, Paul." As Col. Foster looked quickly at him, he continued. "As of now, security knows nothing about any connection between Sheila Austin and Sheila Conover. And I'm not going to say anything to them about it. See her all you want. All I ask is that you accept that the affair can never be anything more than that. For her sake, as well as for ours."

Paul looked down at his hands for a long moment. Then he nodded.



ACT III

"You've got a lot of nerve, coming here and accusing me!" J.D. Conover was certainly a force, Straker had to admit. He wasn't quite sure what the elderly man was angrier about: the fact that all his money hadn't been able to completely cover up the truth about his daughter's death, or the fact that someone was asking him to account for it. "Get out of my house!"

Straker was not frightened by him, but it was easy to see that the older man could not be reasoned with. He was also a bit concerned to see him get so worked up. His health didn't look that good, and Straker didn't want him to suffer a spasm. He decided that retreat was perhaps the better part of valor. He had all the information he had come here to learn. He left the study without a word and headed for the front door.

As he crossed the front lawn on his way to where he'd parked his car, he suddenly heard the wild barking of dogs. He looked around in time to see three large hounds racing toward him from the side of the house. So the old man wanted to play rough, did he? He checked the distance to his car, but grimaced when he realized he'd never make it in time. He stood his ground, knowing that the next several minutes were going to be very unpleasant.

"Moe! Larry! Curly! Down, boys!"

Straker turned swiftly toward the front door and saw Sheila run out onto the lawn. She snapped her fingers, and the dogs came to her, licking her hands playfully. She rubbed their heads and crooned at them, then sent them back to their pens with a soft order. As they took off back the way they'd come, she crossed to where he stood.

"I'm so sorry, Mr. Straker," she said. She tilted her head to the side in the considering way she had. "You must have upset my father very much."

He cocked a brow at her. "Does he usually treat his guests this way?"

She laughed and shook her head. "No, just the ones that piss him off."

"I'll keep that in mind," he said dryly.

"You shouldn't have come here," she told him as he opened his car door.

"Sheila!" J.D. Conover stood in the front doorway and beckoned to her with an imperious hand.

"Do you know the Blue Parrot in Soho?" she asked Straker. At his nod, she said, "Tonight. Midnight." Then she turned toward the house, calling out, "Coming, Dad!"

Straker started the car and drove away from the mansion with relief.



* * *

Straker walked into the Blue Parrot right at midnight. The club was smoke- filled and quite noisy. A rock band was playing on the stage at one end of the crowded room. As Straker found a seat at the bar, he realized that the lead singer for the band was Sheila Conover. In her stage make-up and crooning her throaty way through the rock ballad, she packed an enormous sexual punch, and she took his breath away. He glanced around the room. She definitely had everyone's attention.

It surprised him to see her like this. As far as he knew, she had never been very interested in music before she was captured. And certainly not anything with this wild raw beat. If he remembered correctly, her music of choice had been blues, heavy on the saxophone. The change intrigued him, and he wondered what had brought it about, even as he acknowledged that he would probably never know.

She finished the number and bowed to the applause. The stage went dark, and people started getting up and moving toward the door. Straker realized that this wasn't the regular drinking crowd, but that most of these people had come to see the show. He had noticed the name of the band on the drumhead during the last song. Chopped Liver. He wondered whose idea it had been to name the band and thought it sounded like the sort of tongue-in- cheek thing Sheila would suggest. Her sense of humor had always been slightly twisted. It had been one of the many endearing things about her.

She came out from the back of the nightclub after ten minutes and motioned him to a booth in the corner. He followed her there and sat down, noticing that she had not only changed into street clothes, but had gotten rid of the make-up as well. He was glad. That much sexual assault at close range would have tried him sorely. The barman brought over a glass of wine for her, and she thanked him with a smile. She downed half of her glass in one gulp and sat back in the booth. She gave Straker a crooked smile as his brow lifted, and said, "Sorry. My throat was really dry."

He toyed with his coffee cup, not sure what he was doing here. "What did you want to speak to me about?" he asked.

She shook her head at him. "You really upset my father. Since he wouldn't tell me what you said to get him so riled up, I have to assume it was about me. What were you trying to do?"

He gave her a direct look. "I was interested in how he managed to cover up the death of his daughter and stick you in her place without anyone being the wiser."

Sheila whistled softly. "You are either very bold or very crazy."

He grinned. "I've been called both."

"I believe it." She leaned forward. "I suppose the idea occurred to him when he found out my name was Sheila, too. The coincidence would have been too much to resist."

"Are you condoning what he did?"

She shrugged. "What's to condone? His daughter was dead. She didn't need her life anymore. From all that I've been able to gather over the past four years, she was hell-bent on self-destruction long before her motorcycle hit that tree. Mr. Straker, I know he's a hard man. But he gave me a life when I was in desperate need of one. He and his wife took me into their home and cared for me. They let me be a part of their family. I suppose inside I must have always known I was an orphan, because that fact alone meant more to me than I could ever say. It still does."

Straker sighed before admitting, "I was worried about you. It didn't seem to me that you could be happy under his thumb like that."

She grimaced. "I hate it," she agreed. "But I put up with it. He's just worried about losing me. He finally got the daughter he had hoped for, and he's afraid I might take off, like his real daughter did. I won't. He's such an ornery old coot. I can't help but love him. Did you know, he's quite a fan of yours?"

Straker raised his brows. "He has an interesting way of showing it."

Sheila gave a throaty laugh that teased its way up his spine. "It's true," she said. "We love watching movies together. He said you remind him of Bogie when he was younger."

"Good grief."

"No, really. Watch Casablanca or The Maltese Falcon sometime. You've got the moves down pat. In fact, I wondered if you'd studied Bogart when you were learning to act."

He shook his head. "Everything I've learned about acting, I've learned by trial and error." His smile was almost a grimace when he added, "Mostly error."

She shook her head at him. "Well, you're a natural. You remind me of Jimmy Stewart or Val Kilmer. You seem to share their ability to merge yourself into your character until no one can tell where you stop and the part takes over. It's amazing."

Straker flushed slightly. "Thank you. I don't know that I'd classify myself with them, however."

"You're too modest."

He just shook his head.

"Mr. Straker," she said, her tone abruptly serious, "please don't ever come back to the house."

He frowned at her.

"My father, as you've noticed, can be very protective of me. You've established yourself as a threat in his eyes, and he won't take it without a fight."

"Are you afraid of him?"

"No, but I am afraid for him. He's not well, and I really don't want his final days to be lived with that kind of fretting and worry."

"Alright."

She smiled. "Thank you. It's better for you, too, you know." At his inquiring look, she said, "He can be pretty ferocious. You really don't need him as an enemy."

He frowned. "Are you saying that he'll come after me?"

"No. But it would be better if he doesn't ever meet you again."

He nodded. The club had emptied out except for just a few tables. The noise level was subdued, and to Straker it seemed as though the two of them were alone. He knew he should leave before he reached a point where he couldn't, but it was just so good to talk to her, be with her. He'd mourned her for so long; it was heaven just to hear her laugh and see her smile. He asked, "Does he know about this?" He gestured toward the stage.

She took a sip of her wine before answering. "No. I suppose you could say that this is my bolt-hole, Mr. Straker. I come here to relax with the guys and sing a bit. My father is a very deep sleeper. It's not hard to leave the house undetected, as long as I wait until he's in bed. And since I'm always tucked up in my little bed when he gets up in the morning, there's no harm done."

"He wouldn't approve?"

She grimaced. "Definitely not. But it's a tremendous release valve for me. It also makes it possible for me to tolerate being a good little girl the rest of the time."

He thought of double lives and wondered how much strain she was under. She seemed very relaxed to him. Perhaps it was like she had said. Being a part of the band enabled her to release the pressure that her duplicity caused. He wondered if acting had done that for him. He certainly had found the stress of his double life easier to bear since he began taking a more active part in the filmmaking process. Finally he said, "It doesn't bother you, the lack of sleep?"

She grinned. "I think I'm naturally a night person. The night sky has always fascinated me. And the moon..." Her voice took on a dreamy quality.

She spoke of it as though of a lover, Straker noted. He almost grimaced. Some things apparently did not change, even with amnesia. "Are you a romantic?" he asked, deliberately misunderstanding.

Sheila laughed and shrugged. "I must be," she said. "It just affects me so much. I get all sorts of strange urges when I look up at it. Like I ..." her voice trailed off , and she looked at him in embarrassment for a moment. She took a sip of her wine.

"Will you tell me if I promise not to laugh?" he asked quietly.

"It's just so silly," she explained softly. "You know that old song, Fly Me to the Moon?" He nodded, and she continued, "Well, sometimes it's almost as if I could. Fly there, I mean. As if I've been there and know every rock, every crater by heart. And the view of Earth... it almost makes me cry, it's so vivid in my mind." She shrugged finally, smiling at him to show that she understood if he thought her a complete idiot.

He didn't know what to say. He could remember too well watching her enjoying the view of Earth from Central Park on Moonbase. Her rapture had been one of the most beautiful things he had ever seen. He had known then, just watching her reaction, that he was in serious trouble.

Just as he was now. His coffee was cold, but he couldn't bring himself to leave. He took a sip and hid a grimace. He hated cold coffee. He looked up and caught her watching him. The expression in those dark eyes made his breath back up in his throat.

As they stared at each other in deepening silence, she reached out a hand and touched his where it lay on the tabletop. Electric current shot up his arm and straight through his body. His hand involuntarily grasped hers. "Sheila," he murmured.

"Well, it's a small world, isn't it?"

Straker looked quickly up into Paul Foster's furious face and cursed silently, but eloquently.

Paul gave his boss a glare and looked pointedly at their joined hands on the table before favoring Sheila with the same hard look. Abruptly, he turned around and headed out of the club.

The shock on Sheila's face was telling. "Excuse me," she murmured and took off after him.

Straker stood up and watched her go out. He decided that it would probably be best if he found the back entrance to the club.

* * *

"Paul!" Sheila caught up with him as he reached his car.

He swung around, stopping her in her tracks with a cold glare. "Don't bother," he said bitterly. He didn't know who he was angrier with: Straker or her. Maybe it didn't even matter. But the double betrayal was almost more than he could bear. "I don't want to hear it."

She gasped. "You don't understand," she said. "I can explain."

He looked her up and down as if she were some species he had never encountered before and hoped to never see again. "Save it," he growled and got into the car. He gunned the engine as he left the parking lot of the club.

* * *

Paul had finished his second drink and was considering a third when his doorbell rang. He answered it to see his commanding officer standing in the hall. "Go to hell," he said viciously and returned to the bar set into the living room's far wall.

He did not, however, slam the door in Straker's face, something the commander was grateful for. He came into the apartment and closed the door. "We need to talk," he said.

"Sure, sure," Paul nodded as he downed his third drink. "The weather?" he quipped sarcastically. "Or how about the possibility of life on other planets? No, no. I know," he said as he came toward where Straker stood, "Why don't we talk about what you were doing with my girl?"

Straker looked at him coldly for a moment, then sat on one of the nearby chairs. He motioned to the couch. "Have a seat," he said.

"No thanks," Paul glared, turning to go refill his glass once more.

"I said sit, Foster."

Paul was brought up short by that tone, and stared at Straker for a long moment before going to the couch and sitting down. His sullen glare informed his boss that he was not going to be very cooperative.

Straker bit back a sigh and said calmly, "I went to see J.D. Conover today."

When he said nothing more, Foster looked at him. He knew the tactic that was being used on him, had seen it in action several times, and had even admired Straker for it. He wasn't in the mood to appreciate it at the moment, though. He let the silence stretch out, trying not to succumb to the pressure; but eventually gave in, knowing that in a contest of wills, Straker had him beat hands down. "What for?" he asked sullenly.

"To confront him about what I'd been able to dig up about his daughter's death and his subsequent replacement of her with Sheila Austin."

Foster gaped at him. "You told him that you knew...?"

"The truth. Yes."

Paul shook his head in amazement. "That guy scares the hell out of me," he said. "I can't believe you'd have the nerve to do that. What did he say?"

"You mean, did he admit to finding a woman in the debris of a crashed UFO and bringing her into his house to replace his daughter?" Straker shook his head. "Sheila said that she thought he might have gotten the idea from the fact that her name was the same as his daughter's. Whatever his reasons, he went to a lot of trouble to keep it all quiet. I don't think he appreciated me finding out about it." Straker's smile was grim.

"What did he do? Pull a gun on you?"

Straker grimaced. "No. He sicced his dogs on me."

Foster looked him over in horror. Straker didn't look like he'd been attacked by dogs, but there really was no telling with him, Paul knew. He'd seen him charging around SHADO Control once with a bullet in his shoulder that he'd only allowed them to remove after the crisis was over. Paul was completely furious with him, but couldn't stop the question, "Are you all right?"

Straker nodded. "Yes. Fortunately, Sheila came out just then and called them off." He looked at the younger man a moment. "That's why I was at the club tonight. She asked me to meet her there to tell me not to go near her father again."

Paul was quiet for a moment, then said, "It didn't look like you were discussing her father when I came in."

Straker met his look with his blandest stare. "She was remembering... being on the moon."

"You're kidding!"

Straker shook his head.

"What did you say?"

"What could I say?" His boss sounded exasperated. "I let her talk."

Paul shook his head. "You know, I've never heard anyone speak about her. She was stationed on Moonbase?"

"Yes, for several months. She also spent some time at SHADO HQ."

"You'd think someone would have mentioned her," Paul said, looking slightly bewildered.

Straker sighed. "Paul, she gave her life saving Moonbase from an alien attack. I don't think anyone really wants to remember that day."

"What happened?"

Straker looked at him in silence. "It's a long story," he said finally.

Paul spread his hands. "I've got plenty of time."

"We first learned about her when her flight from NASA crashed onto the moon's surface after being hit by a UFO."

"She was an astronaut?" Paul asked incredulously.

"Yes. The youngest ever for NASA."

"Those ships aren't made strong enough to handle a UFO attack," Paul said, frowning. "How did she survive?"

Straker said nothing for a moment, then, "She managed to not only kill the two aliens who'd landed nearby to abduct her, but had started the long walk to Moonbase when we finally picked her up."

"How?"

The commander shook his head. "I must admit, when I saw her spacesuit, I wondered the same thing." At Paul's look, he explained, "It was practically in rags."

"You were on Moonbase at the time?"

"No. I had come up to debrief her. And to find out why the aliens wanted her so badly."

"Why did they?" But Paul was afraid he already knew.

"She's what I refer to as a healer, Paul. Someone who self-heals at an incredible rate. She had tremendous control over it; could in fact, induce a light trance to increase the rate that she healed while still carrying on basic functions, such as walking. It's how she managed to make it across the moon's surface in that spacesuit."

"What made her that way?"

Straker shrugged, but his look became guarded. "We don't know. It seems to be carried in the genes. Most people heal at a normal rate. Then there are those who tend to heal rapidly."

"Like you do," Paul interjected.

Straker nodded. "Yes. But there are a few who seem to go even beyond that, and can heal at unbelievable rates. The aliens had been trying to get her for years. I don't need to tell you why."

Paul rubbed a hand over his face. "So you recruited her for SHADO."

"Yes."

"And she worked on Moonbase."

"For a time, yes. It was amazing what she could do with the computer systems. Do you realize, Paul, most of the equipment you use on Moonbase today was upgraded by her during her stay there?"

"Then why did you bring her down to HQ?"

Straker looked at his linked hands for a moment in silence. When he looked back up, Paul could see the haunted expression of his eyes. "Moonbase wasn't fully operational at that time, Paul. We didn't even have all three interceptors. After the third attack on the base in two months, even Sheila recognized the wisdom of being in a safer environment."

"You mean, they came after her?"

Straker's nod was very grim.

"But you said that they captured her eventually from Moonbase, didn't you?" Paul asked.

"Yes." The commander's grim look had only deepened. He anticipated Paul's next question and said, "I had no say in the matter of her return to Moonbase. She went over my head."

Paul gasped. "To who?"

Straker gave him a wry look. "Who do you think? Henderson."

"And you let her get away with it?" Paul couldn't believe it.

His boss nodded sadly. "You see, Paul. She was right to do it. The situation with the computer systems on Moonbase was desperate enough that we needed the best technician we had on hand. That was her." He spread his hands. "I just couldn't give the order to put her back in danger."

Foster took a breath. "You were in love with her."

Straker waved the comment away. "Everyone was in love with her. She's that kind of woman, Paul. You know that. Even Alec was besotted."

Paul frowned. "You had an affair with her," he said, nearly certain of it.

"I did not."

Paul let it go. "So once she was back on Moonbase, the aliens tried again?"

"Yes. Not right away, thank God. We were able to get the computer systems untangled and online again before they struck." His tone was bitter.

"And she... ?"

"Took a rocket launcher to a nearby outcropping, trying to draw them away from Moonbase. The interceptors had missed. We had only two Mobile Rocket Launchers assembled, and their targeting systems were not yet at peak performance."

"My God," Paul whispered.

Straker nodded. "She knew the risk. She also knew that her little stunt was the only way to keep the aliens from destroying Moonbase. She had to give them another target."

"Herself."

"Yes."

Paul looked at his commander's bleak face and said, "You were in love with her."

Straker's gaze was haunted. "I was married."

Paul blinked in shock, belatedly recalling something Alec had once said about ex-wives that had included a comment about Straker. He had wondered about it at the time, but had gotten distracted and forgotten it. He tried to recall what had been said about the ex-wives, but all he could remember was that it had been very unflattering.

He got up from the couch and refilled his glass. Instead of returning to the couch, he stood at the window, looking out at the lights of London. He realized everything Straker was leaving unsaid, especially about this evening. He gave a deep sigh and asked, "Do you ever think about worst- case scenarios?"

Straker looked up. "Occasionally," he admitted.

Paul nodded. "I think about them a lot. Try to work out ahead of time what I'd do in each situation. By coming up with a plan of attack, they no longer seem so difficult to handle." At Straker's obvious surprise, he grimaced. "It was part of my therapy after the ordeal at the health farm." He shrugged. "It helps.

"Anyway, I've often thought about ways that the aliens could destroy us. Completely, so that there would be no more SHADO. They could take out you or me or even Alec, and we'd still go on. We might be limping about for awhile, but we'd recover. The work's just too important not to." He glanced over at his commanding officer, who nodded.

He continued, "No, the best way to destroy us is all together in one blow. But how? We're rarely all in one place for them to get at, and you can be sure if they tried to pick us off one by one, the remaining two would be kept under heavy guard. No, what they need is to be able to turn us against each other. Get us at each other's throats, and all they'll need to do is sit back and watch us destroy ourselves." He looked at Straker for a long moment. "And what better way to do it than to send in a woman?"

Straker's shock was visible. Paul continued relentlessly. "They wouldn't even need to program her, if she was gorgeous enough. Just send her into the midst of three overworked, lonely guys and watch the fireworks." He gestured with his glass. "You were right about the enforced secrecy, you know. It makes it nearly impossible for any of us to have a normal life. We're sitting ducks for that kind of ploy." He drained his glass and put it down on the bar.

"I even had it figured out how I would deal with that kind of a situation," he said with a twisted smile. "I figured I'd be all noble and bow out, for the good of SHADO, of course." Paul shook his head at his own lack of foresight. "But I didn't figure on Sheila." His voice hardened as he looked at his commanding officer, a man he would have given his life for. "And I won't give her up. Not for you, not for SHADO, not for anyone."

Straker stood and looked at him for a long moment. "Paul," he said finally in a quiet voice, "the most important thing in this current situation is to keep Sheila Austin from remembering enough to cause trouble for herself or SHADO. That means, absolutely no contact with anyone or anything from her past." His smile was very bitter. "You win by default." He turned and headed for the door of the apartment. "Do me one favor, however," he said with his hand on the door, "don't bring her back to the studio."



ACT IV

"You were looking for me, Commander?" Dr. Jackson entered Straker's office in SHADO HQ early the next morning. He had learned from the doctor on night duty that Straker had been in the Medical Centre asking for him during the night.

"Yes." Straker leaned back in his chair and gestured for the doctor to sit down. "How's your history, Jackson?"

The doctor frowned. "What time period?"

"Helen of Troy."

Jackson looked up in surprise. "You mean, the face that launched a thousand ships?"

"...and burnt the topless towers of Ilium," Straker finished for him. "Yes, that's the one."

"What did you want to know about her?"

Straker frowned, looking off into space for a moment. "I think you need to reevaluate your psych evaluations, doctor," he finally said in a dry tone.

Jackson raised his eyebrows at this apparent change of subject, but asked, "In what way are they lacking?" The commander had been through a difficult one not two months ago. Was he referring to that?

Straker leaned forward. "You need to ask the operatives about worst-case scenarios. I think you would find their answers very interesting."

"Perhaps." Jackson watched him carefully, wondering where he was going with this subject.

"I had a long talk with Paul Foster last night," Straker said. "I found his concept of the worst-case scenario quite enlightening."

"Indeed. And what did Col. Foster believe was the worst-case scenario?"

"He felt that the best way for the aliens to take out SHADO in one fell swoop would be to send in a woman to seduce the command team and get them at each other's throats."

"Divide and conquer," Jackson said quietly.

Straker's grin was fierce. "Exactly, doctor. He didn't name Helen of Troy, but then Paul's no history buff. But I couldn't help but think of her and that explosive situation in history. Helen of Troy," he mused, "a woman who men would always fight over." He looked grimly at the doctor.

"Frankly, Paul's scenario terrified me."

Jackson finally caught on. "You think that may be why Sheila Austin has returned?"

Straker rubbed a hand across his face. He was exhausted and wanted nothing more than to go home and get some sleep. But he knew that even if he did go home, sleep would not come. "Paul considers it a possibility. And I can't rule it out. The one thing we've had going for us all these years is that the aliens don't seem to understand us any more than we understand them. If they ever do figure out how we tick and learn how easy it is to set us off, we'll be in big trouble."

"I agree. And you are quite right. It would be an ingenious plan." Jackson looked at the commander's bleak features for a moment. "Do you think they instituted Col. Austin's return with that scenario in mind?"

"It's a moot point, doctor. The crash ruined any plans they may have had for her."

"But the scenario still has the capability of being enacted, nonetheless," the doctor warned.

Straker was shaking his head. "Not without the assistance of all the characters in the melodrama. Alec knows nothing about Sheila being alive, and if we're lucky, he never will. I am out of the picture simply because she seems to remember more when I'm around. And Paul..." He closed his eyes. "Paul has said he'll fight for her."

Jackson was surprised. "Even knowing it could be playing into the aliens' hands?"

Commander Straker nodded. "But it doesn't matter. There's no one left for him to fight. And even he accepts that he can't marry her. If we're careful, this might just blow over in a month or two."

"Do you really think so?" Jackson wasn't so sure, and it showed in his tone.

"No." Straker's look was hard. "But we'll just have to make it so."

* * *

"Straker, are you out of your ever-loving mind?"

Straker grimaced inwardly at the sight of General Henderson storming into his HQ office. He'd had one hell of a night and just wasn't up to dealing with the old tyrant today. He had hoped to put him off for a few more days, but realized that he wasn't going to be granted any more time to prepare. Oh, well, the show must go on, he thought grimly, and smiled up into that outraged face. "And a good morning to you, too, General," he said. Henderson just blinked at him.

The commander got up and poured a cup of coffee and handed it to the general, encouraging him to have a seat. Straker then sat back down behind the desk, enjoying Henderson's confusion. The best defense, he thought, was a strong offense. "What can I do for you today, sir?" he asked mildly.

Henderson glared at him. "You've got a damn UFO sitting on your studio lot! And don't bother to ask who told me about it, because it doesn't matter." Those beetle brows lowered even further. "You've got a hell of a lot of explaining to do, mister."

Straker chuckled at him. "No, no, sir. You've got it all wrong," he said, smilingly urbane. "It's not a real UFO. It's just a mock-up. If it had been a real one, it would have disintegrated a week ago."

Henderson choked on his coffee.

* * *

"What are those men up to?" groused the construction manager to Straker that afternoon. Straker looked up from the blueprints they were examining to see that several of the crewmen were in a huddle near the roadway.

Just then, one of the men walked by carrying some plywood. "It's okay," he told the manager with a grin. "She's a real stunner, though."

That got Straker's attention, and he looked over at the group again. As the men shifted a bit, he caught sight of Sheila laughing in their midst. He nearly groaned. He watched as the men slowly dispersed, leaving her leaning against the wooden fence. She did look stunning, he couldn't help thinking. Not a beautiful woman, she had a perfectly ordinary face in repose; dark hair, dark eyes, nothing at all to commend her to anyone's scrutiny. It was just that her face was seldom in repose. Her eyes flashed with humor, her smile was infectious, and she carried herself with such lively grace that she not only caught people's attention; she kept it.

She looked over and caught his glance and smiled. He returned the smile, but resisted its impact with an effort. Where the hell was Foster?

The site manager called his attention to an archway on the blueprints, and Straker strove to keep focused on the project at hand. When he looked up involuntarily a few minutes later, it was to see her staring at the UFO on the lot. Her head was cocked in that way she had when she was confronting a puzzle. Straker wanted to swear. He threw down the ruler he'd been using and strode toward the fence, damning Paul Foster with every step. He stopped halfway there when he caught sight of Paul racing around the corner of the Notre Dame building onto Lot 7. He gave the younger man a tight- lipped nod and returned to the blueprints.

Paul had run all the way from Soundstage A, where he'd been supervising a shoot. Security had caught up with him there and let him know that Sheila Conover was on the lot. He was glad, of course, that he'd have the chance to see her, but he wondered what she was doing here. And he had a feeling that Straker would have his hide for not staying one step ahead of her. That feeling was confirmed when he rounded the corner and met his boss' eye.

He stopped, caught his breath, and smoothed his windblown hair. Then he walked up to the fence and said, "Hello, there."

Sheila transferred her gaze to his face for a moment, then looked back at the UFO without speaking.

Undaunted, Paul tried again. "Hey, did you get my message?" he asked. "And the flowers?"

She sighed, still gazing across the lot. "Yes, Paul. I got your message and your flowers. Was I supposed to be impressed or something?"

He frowned at her tone. "I said I'm sorry, Sheila. And I am." He spread his hands. "What more do you want?"

She turned then, and he saw that she was furious. "You treated me like I was a... like a...!" She was so angry she couldn't complete the thought. She drew a steadying breath and said in a calmer tone, "I don't think I'm sorry will quite fix it this time, Paul."

"But, Sheila," he explained, "I was jealous. You've got to admit that it looked pretty bad from where I was standing."

"I thought we were friends, Paul." Her lips tightened to keep them from trembling. "Friends trust each other."

He put a hand out to brush her hair back from her cheek, but she swatted it away. "Sheila," he said softly, "I love you. Please let me make it up to you."

She looked at him then and was not proof against the pleading in his eyes. "Paul..." she said wearily.

He quickly pressed his advantage. "Why don't we go for a drive, and you can explain everything to me?"

She stiffened. "You didn't want to hear it, remember?"

He frowned, thinking back to what he had said that night. "I'm willing now," he coaxed.

She knew she was weakening and wanted to kick him for being so disarming. She didn't want to be charmed. But she let him take her arm and lead her away from the lot. "Damn you, Paul," she muttered.

He merely smiled and put his arm around her, glad that the crisis was over.

Straker watched them go and told himself that it was for the best. He could only hope that someday he might actually believe it.

* * *

"Red alert. This is a red alert." S.I.D.'s mechanical voice broke the relative quiet of the control room several evenings later. Straker came out of his office and stood near Lt. Ford's station to track the UFO on radar.

Alec looked at him, and said quietly, "Ed, why don't you go home and rest? We'll handle this one. You've been here two days straight."

Straker appreciated his friend's concern, but didn't mention that home these days was no place to rest. To him, exhaustion was preferable to tossing and turning all night. "I'm fine, Alec," he said dismissively. He turned to speak to Nina Barry from Moonbase. They had launched the interceptors to deal with the UFO. He requested that she keep him informed of the outcome.

When Moonbase radioed back later that the UFO had breached their defense grid and was headed for Earth, Commander Straker spoke personally with Peter Carlin on board Skydiver 1. "They're headed right near your coordinates," Straker told the man who had been with SHADO from its inception. "I know I can trust you to take care of it for us, Captain."

"Yes, sir." Peter Carlin was proud of his record of kills for SHADO. Every time he got the order to fly, he looked forward to the chance to stop another of those bastards from pillaging his world. He would have done anything his commander asked of him, and had on numerous occasions. But shooting UFOs out of the sky was his very favorite pastime.

He shuted into the cockpit of Sky 1 and prepared for the launch from the submarine. He loved the moment when the feisty little jet broke the surface of the water and became airborne. Racing to the kill. He never kept a log of how many UFOs he downed like several of the other pilots did. Not because he wasn't proud of his record, but because he didn't need to keep track. He remembered each one very well. Leila, he'd say to his young sister who had died at their hands, this one's for you. And he'd blow them out of the sky.





ACT V

Straker headed for the park, ignoring everyone and everything he passed. For once, he wasn't approached. Anyone looking at him could tell that he was in no mood to talk. His eyes were colder than arctic ice, and his lips were drawn into a razor thin line. His entire demeanor shouted, Stay out of my way!

He was fretting at the delays that would keep him from flying stateside before evening. He wanted to be at the hospital now. He had sent Carlin on that mission. He had the right to be there when the pilot woke up. He needed to see for himself that the captain would be all right. He wanted to personally congratulate him on the kill, even if the UFO had gotten off a shot at Sky 1 before it exploded. Straker knew that only Carlin's swift reflexes had kept him from going down with the jet. But they wouldn't speak of that. Instead they would discuss how soon they could move him back to England, so that the girls at HQ could pamper him.

He was so preoccupied with his thoughts that he was on the bridge before he realized that he wasn't alone in the park. He looked up and met Sheila's inquiring gaze. She was leaning against the railing as though she'd been there a while. Straker's heart leapt even as it sank. He definitely wasn't up to this right now. Without a word, he turned and headed back out of the park.

"Mr. Straker!" she gasped in surprise.

He stopped, but did not turn around. Sheila came to face him at the edge of the bridge and said softly, "I'm sorry. I'm intruding. I'll go."

As she started across the grass, he closed his eyes in despair. He simply was not capable of hurting her like this. "Sheila," he said.

She darted a look at him, then away.

"You weren't intruding. I was," he said. "Please. I'm willing to share the view if you are."

"Are you sure?" she asked, subdued.

"Yes." He met her concerned gaze with a direct look. "It's been a long morning, and I can't guarantee that I'll be good company, but I would welcome any distraction at this point."

"Alright." She came back onto the bridge and stood at the railing, gazing off into the trees and giving him the freedom to speak or not speak as he wished.

After several moments, he said quietly, "One of my friends, a man who's worked for me for a very long time, was injured this morning. He's in a hospital in the States, and I can't get a flight out before evening. I'm having trouble just sitting around doing nothing until it's time to leave."

She nodded. "Waiting is the hardest thing we ever do. Is he going to be all right?"

"Yes, I think so," he said. "It's unreasonable, I suppose, to want to be there when he wakes up."

"Not at all. It just means that you care about him." She gave him a reassuring smile. "I'm sure he'll be glad to see you when you do get there."

"I hope so." He stirred himself after a moment and asked, "What brings you here this morning?"

"Oh, I didn't sleep well last night," she said. "I thought maybe if I came here I'd get my peace of mind back."

"Problems?"

She grimaced. "Not really. It was a nightmare. I don't get them often, but when I do, it's impossible to get back to sleep."

"I'm sorry."

"Don't be," she said. "This park is so wonderful. I feel better just being here." She smiled at him and tried to explain. "I can't put into words what it does for me to know that it's real. How often do we ever get to see something straight out of our dreams?"

They shared a smile.

"Mr. Straker," she said after a while, "I've been wanting to apologize for the other night."

He looked swiftly at her and said, "I don't believe there is anything you need to apologize for, Sheila."

"Yes, there is," she insisted. "I... well, I guess I was out of line. And then, Paul coming in and making a scene like that..." She met his eyes briefly and gave a small shrug. "I'm just sorry, that's all."

He thought he understood what she was trying to say. "You weren't out of line," he told her quietly. Then he took a deep breath. "Paul Foster's a good man," he added.

She frowned at him for a moment as if trying to figure out what he meant. "Yes," she agreed slowly. "Paul is a good man. He's very sweet... usually." Her crooked grin invited him to share her embarrassment, but when he only gazed back at her in silence, she looked confused. Then her eyes got big. "You think... you think that Paul and I... that we're... oh!" She put a hand to her flushed cheek and turned away to look out over the park.

She took a few minutes to compose herself, then she looked back at him. "Paul and I are just friends. We won't ever be more than that." She shrugged. "I know he's cute as a button and a lot of fun, but I don't think of him that way. I can't."

"What do you mean?"

She frowned. "I never realized that it wasn't normal, you know? To not want a man, I mean. Then a friend of mine was in one of those shelters for battered women, and when I visited her there, I got to talking with some of the women and found out that it's a common reaction to abuse. I've spoken to one of my counselors about it, and she agreed."

"One of your counselors?"

Sheila gave a short laugh. "Oh, God! That sounds like I'm some sort of nutcase, doesn't it?" She shook her head. "What I meant is, one of the counselors at the shelters." At his inquiring look, she explained. "My parents believe very strongly that everyone needs a cause. So a couple of years ago, they gave me a trust fund to use any way I saw fit. Well, about that time, the friend that I mentioned went into one of those shelters. When I visited her, I could see that the staff were overworked and very underpaid."

"So you did something about it."

"Yes. I'm in charge of nearly 30 shelters throughout Great Britain now. It keeps me hopping." She noticed his surprise and said with a grin, "And you thought I was just a party girl."

Straker shook his head. "No, I never thought that. I've always known there was more to you than that."

She looked at him in silence for a moment. "That's right. You know me better than I know myself, don't you?"

"I don't know that I'd say that," he replied. "What did your counselor tell you?"

"Naturally, I don't remember any abuse. All I can think is that something really horrible must have happened that I don't know about. My counselor told me amnesia could sometimes be a good thing." She grimaced. "Especially after I described one of my nightmares to her." She brooded, gazing out at the trees. Eventually she shrugged it off.

"Does Paul know?" he asked finally, trying not to think too much about what she was revealing.

"About my being frigid? No. What am I supposed to say? 'Hey, Paul, I think I might have got beat up really bad once or twice, and now I don't want to be touched. Bummer, huh?'" She shook her head. "He'd think I was an idiot."

"That's not what I meant," he said quietly. "Does he know that you're not interested in being more than a friend?"

Sheila grinned at him. "You're a man. How well does your half of the species deal with being told 'no'?"

Straker couldn't help chuckling. "Not that well."

"Exactly. He keeps thinking he will bring me around eventually. It's not his fault really. He's as adorable as a new puppy, and quite used to having girls throw themselves at him. I've wondered more than once if he's not attracted to me simply because I don't fawn all over him."

Straker hid a grin.

"Anyway, that's not what I meant to say," she said, frowning as she realized how much she'd told him.

"What did you want to say?" he asked gently.

She looked at him imploringly. "The other night... at the club... I felt..." She turned away with a nervous gesture, but quickly turned back. He could visibly see her gathering her courage. "For the first time, I wanted a man. And I felt like a woman. Why do you suppose that was?"

He couldn't breathe. He stared at her, his heart pounding loudly in his ears, and watched his hands reach out and bring her closer. "Sheila," he groaned, and kissed her.

The explosion that rocked his body was as violent as it had been the first time, nearly eleven years ago. Through the roaring in his head, he tried to hold on to enough control to keep from frightening her. But she was wild in his arms, pressing even closer. He came up for air and fought to rein in the power that surged through him. She only speared her fingers through his hair, pulling him down and taking him back under.

When the kiss finally ended, they were both gasping and trembling. He held her tightly, unable to loosen his hold. She didn't seem to mind, since she was clinging to him just as fiercely. He looked wildly around the park for shelter, but found none. "Sheila," he breathed as he kissed her jawline, "I don't live very far from here." It was almost impossible to think coherently, but he knew that it was vital that the decision be hers.

"Yes, yes!" she moaned, completely beyond any concerns at all.

Straker eased away from her for a moment to clear his thinking. She looked up at him with eyes glazed with passion and promise. He had to look away to keep from taking her right where they stood. He focused on the entrance to the park and tried to judge the distance to his car. "This may not be very easy," he admitted.

She didn't understand for a minute or two, then a slow and decidedly wicked smile crossed her face. She took his hand and said, "I'm game."

* * *

They had dodged three directors, two script assistants, and an autograph hound by the time they reached Straker's car and were laughing so hard they could hardly stand. He had trouble getting the key into the car door, but finally managed it. He grinned at her in triumph.

"Sheila!"

Straker froze as he recognized the voice. He looked up in dismay to see Gay Ellis running towards them from the entrance to the studio's main building. A very grim Paul Foster trailed after her.

Gay grabbed the bewildered Sheila and hugged her, babbling incoherently and crying. When she finally loosed her hold, she drew a breath and said, "What are you doing here? Where have you been? We thought you were dead!"

Sheila stared at her, then asked in a small voice, "Who are you?"

Gay gasped in shock. "I'm your cousin," she answered.

"Cousin?" Sheila turned to Straker, who stood silently next to the car. She looked at him closely, realizing that the passionate man she had just been with had somehow been replaced by a cold stranger. "You told me I didn't have any family!" she accused, starting to get angry.

He remained silent, which only incensed her more.

Gay said, "Wait a minute. You don't know who I am?" She turned to Straker as if to ask for an explanation, but he shook his head at her, silently telling her to leave it alone.

Sheila intercepted the look and lost the rest of her temper. She shook off Gay and walked up to Straker, slapping him hard across the face. He saw it coming, but did nothing to stop the blow.

"How dare you!" Her fury was an almost visible aura around her. "I'm all right for a romp in the hay, but not good enough to be told the simple truth, is that it? Fine." She reined in her anger with an effort and sliced him with her eyes. "You go to hell."

No one spoke as she stormed off across the parking lot.

"Sir?" Gay looked shell-shocked.

Straker said tersely to Paul, "Explain to her," and walked into the building.

* * *

Straker sought solitude in his office off the control room, but he was not destined to be allowed time alone. Alec followed him into the office, wanting to discuss flight schedules and the duty shifts during Straker's absence. Straker closed his eyes, letting him ramble on. His cheek still stung, and he was pretty sure that the inside of his cheek was bleeding, but none of that mattered. He was too heartsick to care about anything at the moment. He shut out Alec's voice, wondering how much effort it would take to silence him.

"You bastard!" Paul Foster strode into the office in a towering rage and leaned across the desk toward his commanding officer.

Straker stood up and got in his face. "Shut up, Foster!" he said in a tone Paul had never heard him use before. Paul blinked in surprise, then belatedly realized that they weren't alone in the room.

Alec's mouth was open in shock. He closed it with a snap, put down the glass he held, and came toward Straker's desk. "What's going on here?" he demanded.

Straker slumped back into his chair, giving his friend a hard look. "Nothing," he said and turned away from both of them.

Paul took one look at his averted, bleak countenance and remembered suddenly that Straker had been here all night dealing with the UFO. And he was planning on heading to the States tonight to see Peter in the hospital. He acknowledged to himself that perhaps Straker hadn't fobbed Gay off onto him to keep him busy while he made his escape, but merely because he just couldn't cope with anything else. He looked at the red mark on the commander's cheek, and his fury dissolved.

"Paul," Alec insisted, "what's going on?"

Paul shrugged and said, "Nothing," and left the room.

* * *

Alec caught up with him in the corridor. "Paul, for God's sake! What was that all about?"

Foster looked at him and thought, You're right, Straker. The only way to keep this scenario from being a complete success is to keep Alec out of the loop. So he shrugged and said, "I was out of line. I'll apologize." He headed off down the corridor, realizing that he'd better emphasize to Gay the importance of keeping quiet about today.

As he rode up in the elevator, he could see again in his mind how Straker and Sheila had looked as they reached the car. He had never seen two people look so happy or so absorbed in each other. They wouldn't have noticed if a UFO had landed next to them. And he found he couldn't hate Straker for being the man she chose, after all. Especially since neither one of them had ended up with the girl.



EPILOGUE

Straker was finishing breakfast when he heard the sound of Paul Foster whistling. He looked at his wristwatch. 7:10. He grinned, glad to see some things returning to normal. The past few weeks had been a little strained.

Paul was feeling pretty good. Carol, one of the leads in Straker's upcoming sci-fi series, had been quite entertaining at his party last night. And after the party. He found out from Keith Ford where Commander Straker was and headed for his office. He had a peace offering for him.

He entered the office to find his commander drinking coffee at the conference table. His breakfast tray was pushed a little to one side. Paul thought it was rather sad that Straker had taken to eating alone again, even though he understood why he'd withdrawn. Paul just missed the comraderie of those days. "Good morning, sir," he said as he took a seat at the table.

"Good morning, Paul," Straker said. "We had a quiet night. I'll be heading upstairs in a while. I've been asked to oversee the final writers' meeting before production begins."

"I was told that things are actually going ahead of schedule," Paul said.

"Yes. We've been very fortunate. All of the first choices for the main characters signed on immediately, with hardly any fuss at all. Now if we can just get the sets ready in time."

Foster grinned. "That's great. How do the scripts look?"

"Wonderful." Straker smiled into his coffee cup. "Do you know, we've even got some big name stars asking for a guest shot in the series."

"No kidding!"

"Hmmm." Straker frowned in thought for a moment. "Although I'm not sure about a few of them." At Paul's inquiring look, he grimaced and said, "William Shatner. He's such a ham."

Paul grinned, but didn't comment. He asked instead, "How's Henderson accepting things?"

"He's accepting," his commander said dryly.

Paul laughed. "You know, you never did say how you got around him."

Straker said enigmatically, "The best defense, Paul." By which the younger man was able to assume that Straker had bluffed the old man into submission.

Col. Foster noticed that the farther half of the conference table was covered with maps of underwater terrain. He watched Straker sip his coffee and wondered if now was a good time to ask about it. "Sir," he said, tapping the edge of one of the maps, "what are we looking for down there?"

Straker smiled sweetly and said, "Something that's not supposed to be there."

"Like what?"

"I suppose we'll know when we find it."

Still spinning his web, Paul decided. Maybe he'd be able to get more out of him at a later time. He handed the CD he carried to his commanding officer. "This just came out yesterday, sir. I thought you might appreciate it."

Straker looked at the CD. It was the debut album of the band Chopped Liver. He supposed that Sheila must have told her father about the band, because the cover boasted a picture of her on the lunar surface. She was leaning against a flag of the United Kingdom that had been stuck into a fake rock. Her grin was infectious, and he found himself responding to it even as he noted that her little silver mini skirt and top closely resembled attire that was all too familiar to him. Straker could only be thankful she wasn't wearing a purple wig. The album's title was To the Moon and Back.

Straker handed the CD back to Paul, but Foster refused it, standing up and saying with a grin, "You keep it. I've got my own copy." He left the office whistling.