3. Top Secrets

(A UFO Story)

written by Denise Felt

copyright 2001

ACT I

The ringing of the phone woke Alec Freeman from a sound sleep. He opened one bloodshot eye

and muttered, "Damn the man."

"What's that, sweetie?" asked a feminine voice, and he watched a soft arm reach out and pick up

the phone.

He opened the other eye and saw pink sheets. He frowned a moment, then realized that he must

have fallen asleep at Trixie's flat. He sat up, rubbed his eyes, and looked at the buxom blonde

chatting animatedly on the phone at--- what was it?--- three-thirty-five am. He was a bit

disoriented. He had thought he was at home, and the caller was Straker. No one else called him

in the middle of the night. He sighed, and reached for his pants. Time to go home, he decided,

realizing that Trixie had settled back against the pillows for a cozy talk with a friend.

He gave her a peck on her cheek on his way out the door. She winked at him and continued her

conversation, something concerning a Virgil and Lindsay that didn't sound very flattering to either

of them. He wondered vaguely what she said to her friends about him, then decided that he didn't really care. As long as she didn't mind fitting him into her schedule.

He started his car and headed out, but couldn't shake the thought he'd had when he woke up; that

Straker was trying to call him. He sighed and picked up his car phone, pressing the button for

his boss' office in SHADO Control. He knew he'd never be able to get back to sleep once he got home if he didn't check it out.

"Alec!" Straker sounded amazingly wide awake for a man who'd been keeping 20 hour workdays for the past few weeks. Freeman didn't know where Straker was finding the energy to keep going, but hoped he wouldn't continue this schedule for much longer. Alec had seen the signs of exhaustion in his friend's face. Straker said now, "I've been trying to get hold of you. I'm glad you called."

Alec grunted. "I must be psychic," he answered. "What's up?"

"Something big, Alec," Straker said, barely containing his excitement. "Really big. Come in and I'll show you."

"Be there in a few minutes," Alec told him and hung up the car phone. He was surprised to hear Ed sounding so thrilled. He hadn't heard that tone in years. There had been a time, Alec knew, when his friend had seldom sounded otherwise; but those days were long gone, buried under the pain of a failed marriage and too many years spent alone.

He wished again, as he had a thousand times since it happened, that the Mobiles had gotten to the UFO a few seconds earlier three months ago. If Laura Simmons had lived, Alec had no doubts that she would now be Mrs. Straker. And she'd have been perfect for the job. An ex-pilot with 17 years experience in the military, she had shown a great love for filmmaking as well. And if that were not enough, she had been as kind as she was beautiful. Ed had fallen hard, he knew. It wasn't fair that they hadn't had a longer time together. If anyone deserved to be happy, Alec felt, it was Ed Straker.

He'd watched his friend carefully after her death, afraid that grief might have overwhelmed him. But Ed had weathered it much better than Alec could have hoped, and had even come out of his shell for the first time in years. Alec hadn't understood, but he'd been grateful.

But the change had apparently been short-lived. Ed began keeping long hours again after only a couple of months, and then a few weeks ago had come the blow-up between him and Paul Foster. Alec still didn't know what it had been about, but he knew that the scene he had witnessed had been as explosive as hell. He had expected blows to fly at any moment. But it had passed as if it had never happened. Things had settled down to a relatively normal state again. But the new Ed was gone, withdrawn back into his shell. Alec had hated to see it. What miracle would it take to bring him back out again? It wasn't as if another Laura Simmons would be coming along to catch his interest.

But tonight, his friend had sounded so much like the man Alec had first known so many years ago that Freeman was very curious. Was this the miracle Alec had been hoping for or just another insane risk Straker was bent on taking? God knew, keeping the man safe was a neverending headache. They were all lucky, he often thought, that Straker had more lives than a cat.

* * *

Freeman entered the control room of SHADO HQ and greeted the night shift. When he asked Virginia to give him the scoop, the Colonel merely shook her head and said, "You'd better get in there." Which didn't bode well if she wasn't talking. What was Ed up to?

"Hello, Alec!" When he entered his commander's office, Freeman was greeted enthusiastically. Straker jumped up from his chair behind his desk and came over to the conference table along the side wall. There were several maps laid out on its surface. Alec could tell just by glancing at them that they were maps of underwater terrain. Ed had been messing around with them for over a week now, but wouldn't say anything about them when questioned. His secretive smile was so annoying that Alec had refused to ask again after the first few times.

Straker leaned against the table and surveyed his friend happily. "We've done it, Alec," he said with a grin. "And sooner than I'd expected."

Freeman asked, "What have we done, Ed?" Straker's mood was so infectious, it was all Alec could do to keep from smiling. But he refused to be taken in so easily. It was the middle of the night, for God's sake.

"You remember that C.A.A.R. meeting we went to three months ago?"

How could Alec forget? It was the night that Laura Simmons had died. He nodded.

"There was a boy there who asked about the possibility of the aliens having underwater cities. At the time, his idea struck me as something we should be considering as a possibility. I was remembering their underwater dome, you know." Ed looked at him to see if he was following him. Alec nodded again. "I've had Skydiver checking out the ocean floor ever since."

"But it seems like an awful long shot, Ed, to have them wasting their time on."

"Maybe, Alec," Straker agreed. "But it paid off. I just got the report from Skydiver 3. They found something."

"You're kidding!" Alec was astonished.

Ed turned and motioned his friend to one of the maps. "Right here, Alec." He pointed to an area on the uppermost map.

Alec looked and saw that Straker was pointing to the enormous Abyssal Plain that ran along the eastern seaboard of the United States. Ed's finger rested right next to the island of Bermuda. Alec was shocked. "In the Bermuda Triangle?"

"Yes."

"How did you find it?" Freeman was slightly dazed.

"I told Buck Rogers that I was interested in the idea of underwater cities..."

Alec interrupted. "Buck? Hell, Ed! You know that you're not supposed to be seen with any fringe elements. Regulations..."

"What regulations?" Straker replied with a grin. "I'm retired from the military, Alec. I'm just a humble film producer these days."

His friend snorted. "Humble is the one thing you aren't."

Ed chuckled. "Anyway, Buck introduced me to Delores Schwarz, a member of the group who'd been researching the concept."

"So that's where that new recruit came from," Alec interjected. "I've been wondering where you found her, especially since the last batch of military hopefuls were sent back with their tails between their legs."

Straker shook his head. "I tell you, Alec, I don't know what they're doing in the military these days. They're so soft, they might as well be civilians."

Alec grinned. "You always say that. You've got to admit, our tests are really tough. So, how is this civilian of yours handling those tests?"

Straker smiled. "So far, so good. I'll know more by the end of the week."

"And she helped you find this city you've been looking for?"

"Yes. Well," he amended, "she was able to point me in the right direction. You know what a reputation the Bermuda Triangle has. There have been reports of magnetic interference causing shipwrecks as long ago as the late 1600's."

"Not to mention disappearances."

Straker nodded. "Those too. Now what could cause that kind of magnetic anomaly, Alec? And over such a huge area? Surely nothing manmade."

"Well, not made by us, at any rate," his friend agreed, beginning to see where this was heading.

"Exactly. But if a power source was down there," Ed pointed to the map, "and it was strong enough, it could cause just that kind of trouble."

"Yes, but," Alec looked at him with a worried frown, "it would have to be a pretty big power source, Ed. That abyssal plain is one of the deepest on the planet."

Straker was nodding. "Yes. They would need it to be large enough to power a city of, say, 20 to 25 miles in diameter, don't you think?"

Freeman gasped. "My God! It's that big?"

Straker pulled a smaller map out from the pile. "This is the deepest radar sweep we were able to get of that area."

Freeman stared in awe at the enormous white circle on the map. He sat down in the nearest chair, unable to think for a moment. "What you're saying...," he began, trying to get past the shock. "If it's true... they've already set up their base here on Earth. What's to stop them from taking over? North America won't stand a chance."

But Straker was shaking his head. "Think a minute, Alec. This can't be our aliens. We know that the city has been there for over three hundred years, judging from the shipwrecks in the area. If the aliens we're fighting had come that long ago, none of us would ever have been born. Our planet would already be in their hands. Earth couldn't have fought them off back then. Hell, even now we can barely keep them at bay."

"Then, who?" Alec asked, trying to keep up.

"Someone else," Ed said with satisfaction. "And we're going to find out who they are."

Freeman frowned at the look on his friend's face. "How?" he asked, afraid of the answer.

"The direct approach, Alec," Ed explained. "We're going down there."

Alec's frown only deepened. "Who is going down there?"

Ed grinned into his friend's grim face. "I am."

* * *

It's a big galaxy.

Straker sat in his HQ office long after Alec had run out of arguments and gone home to bed. His lean fingers toyed absently with the petals of a daffodil in the small vase on his desk as he remembered Laura's words the night she had died. He'd known it; had always known inside that he was not like everyone else. It had caused his mother a lot of grief that he'd been such a loner throughout school. He had never been able to explain to her, or to himself, why he felt more at ease when no one was around. But he knew the reason now. He had felt the difference even then. He wasn't human.

There were very few people he had ever associated with who did not make him feel like the outsider he was. With the understanding he'd gained from Laura, he could see now that the majority of the ones he did feel comfortable with were different as well, although they might not have been aware of it. His family, Sheila, her cousin Gay Ellis, Virginia Lake, a few others throughout the years had not made him feel like an alien simply because they too were like him.

Only Alec, who was as normal as a man could be, had made him feel as human as everyone else. Straker had thought a lot about it recently, and had come to the conclusion that it was simply because Alec accepted people as he found them. He'd included a lonely young Corporal into his ranks of friends all those years ago with no more effort than a casual wave of his hand and a shared joke. And Straker had felt like he belonged. Alec's unswerving loyalty over their long friendship had only increased Ed's sense of feeling accepted. He owed Alec a lot. More perhaps than his friend would ever know.

Then there was Laura.

How did he describe the impact she had made on his life? Even discounting everything she had told him or shown him about the universe and himself, she had affected him deeply just by being there. He had never experienced such a meeting of minds before, never known that it was possible to be so much in tune with someone that words were not even necessary. He had understood her at an instinctive level from the very beginning, weeks before they had ever met.

And she had understood him, as well. Those fine hazel eyes had laid bare his soul. It still surprised and soothed him that she had loved him in spite of all she saw there. And she had healed something in him that he had never realized was wounded. She had made him feel a member of the human race.

He had gone home to Boston after leaving the hospital, hoping to find his father in a talkative mood. He'd wanted to know about his family; who his people were, and why his family had come here, leaving their world behind. He'd needed a connection. But his father had been as silent as ever.

So he'd looked for other ways to find out the truth.

Alec had been loud in his reasons for demanding that Ed not go on the proposed underwater expedition. His concern for Straker's safety and his worry that Ed could be walking into enemy hands had been deeply appreciated. None of Straker's logical reasons for being in charge of the mission had changed Alec's mind, although they had eventually silenced him. But Straker knew that the biggest reason of all would never be shared with his best friend.

These aliens might just be his own people.

* * *

"You know, Ed, all this quasi-military stuff just cracks me up," his brother told him when he picked Straker up at Boston Logan International Airport two weeks later.

Ed grinned. "That's because you're such a model citizen yourself, Chris," he answered dryly.

"Hey," Christopher Straker replied, "I'll have you know that I have a sterling reputation in this area as a reliable businessman. No wisecracks allowed."

"Yes, I know about that reputation," his younger brother said unrepentantly. "I'm still trying to figure out how you managed it. I know how much you love authority."

Chris chuckled. The brothers looked quite similar, although Chris was noticeably taller and more filled out than his younger sibling. But it was in the eyes where the true difference became obvious. A less intensive shade of blue than Ed's, Chris' eyes always held a mischievous twinkle in their depths, as if their owner looked on life as a supreme joke to be enjoyed. Ed, a year younger, but possessing the more serious nature, had often envied him his carefree outlook.

"Well, it makes me laugh," Chris said, getting back to the original topic, "to imagine my little brother in charge of keeping the world safe for the rest of us little people." He grinned as he took the exit toward their family home on the bay. "Especially when I see you in a movie wooing some silicon starlet."

Ed couldn't prevent a chuckle from escaping, but tried to prim up his mouth. "I don't know why everyone gets so bent out of shape over my acting. I honestly didn't think it was that bad."

"Oh, it's not bad," Chris explained. "I would have thought your collection of Oscars would have proven that to you. It's just that people expect actors to be free spirits; you know, flamboyant types. And I'm sorry, little brother, but you just don't fit that image!"

"I should hope not!" Ed said in disgust.

Chris howled with laughter at his brother's expression.

Straker grinned, glad that Chris had taken the news of SHADO so well. He had hoped that AquaTech, Chris' marine research company, would be able to help SHADO develop the technology necessary to traverse depths far deeper than any current submersible could go. When he'd been home three months ago, Chris had shown him around the complex. He'd seen how much progress one of the teams had made into that type of deep sea equipment and immediately told his brother how interested he was in the project. He had known then that such technology was going to be necessary if they ever did find an underwater city. Chris had welcomed his enthusiasm, keeping him abreast of their developments. The team had even gotten a huge grant to assist their research, garnered mostly from Ed's own personal fortune.

Straker's hopes had come to fruition two days ago, when Chris had called to tell him that they'd had a breakthrough. The commander had immediately gone to visit General Henderson.

He had laid the underwater map on the old despot's desk and terrified him with its news before calmly informing him that there was a way to deal with the situation. Henderson had eventually okayed letting Chris in on the truth about SHADO, based mostly on the fact that his company already held a high security clearance due to several military contracts. The older man's main gripe had been that Straker hadn't gone through proper channels to get the funds for the research. It had unnerved him to not have the commander under his financial thumb. Straker had tried to look as meek as possible.

Straker couldn't wait to see the prototype for himself, but he knew that his father would be expecting him at the house. As much as he was impatient to get things going on the expedition, he knew that it was necessary not to rush things. And he was aware that even once the prototype had all the bugs out of its system, there could still be delays before they were ready to go. So he decided to relax and enjoy himself. And what better way to do that than to tease his brother? "Chris," he remarked casually, "I had no idea this was a 75 mph road."

It was an old challenge, but still had teeth, since Chris continued to garner speeding tickets on a regular basis even after nearly thirty years of driving. "Look, little brother," Chris replied, rising to the bait, "you may outrank me, but this is my car. And in my car, I am God."

Ed caught a glimpse of flashing lights in the side mirror and said calmly, "I suggest you tell that to the police."



ACT II

Straker stood on the back deck of the house and leaned on the railing. The lush green lawn stretched out toward the bay where whitecaps livened the surface of the North Atlantic. He was glad of this time alone. Chris was at work, and their father had gone to visit an old friend in the hospital. The house behind him was so full of memories that it made it difficult for him to think. Looking out at the bay gave him the calm necessary to deal with the emotional turmoil of being home.

He hated coming here. Hated how the past came back to blindside him when he wasn't looking. Hated his father's stony silence on any topic that went deeper than the discussion of the weather. But he hated most of all the feeling of being lost that often threatened to swallow him up when he was here. England may not have been the land of his birth. Hell, Earth may not have been, for that matter. But at least he didn't feel so lost there. He had a home, such as it was. Work, friends. He had connections there.

But here there was just his father's silence and a house that had always unnerved him.

"Eddie, here's a snack for you." Sandy came out onto the deck with a plate of cookies and a cup of coffee for him.

He thanked her and sat on one of the loungers to nibble on macaroons. Their flavor reminded him so much of childhood raids of the cookie jar that he smiled at her, relaxing into the seat.

She nodded as if that was what she had been waiting for and said, "I knew you'd be getting hungry. You didn't eat a big lunch."

He grimaced at her tone. Sandy had forever tried to fatten him up. Somehow the food she had badgered, cajoled, and coaxed him into eating never had stuck to his bones the way it did for his brother. "It was a delicious lunch, Sandy," he told her placatingly. "I've missed your cooking."

The housekeeper snorted. "Then you should eat more when you're here," she said.

He nodded absently and sipped his coffee.

She gazed at him worriedly. Young Eddie had always been her favorite in the family. Master Christopher was always laughing and ripe for any adventure. His kind always got by in the world. But Eddie had forever been a serious boy, looking at her with that direct gaze of his that made him seem older than his years and asking questions about things that made her heart break inside her bosom.

She was afraid that he hadn't changed any over the years. When he'd come home after being in the hospital a few months ago, she'd hoped that his father would open up to him. After all, he'd nearly died in that car crash. But they'd both been in an icy rage by the time he left again, and she'd wondered how long it would be before things were mended.

She'd watched from the window as Eddie and Christopher had driven up yesterday. They'd been laughing like two fools over something or other, and she'd said a prayer that perhaps this visit would be better than the last. But by the time she'd brought in the coffee to the study where their father had been waiting for them, Eddie was no longer smiling. And Mister Andrew, who'd been pacing the floor of the study since Christopher left for the airport, had looked as taciturn as ever, as though the sight of his second son afforded him none of the joy she knew he felt. It was enough to make a woman scream.

Sandy thought of something that might help Eddie get some peace of mind. "Have you been up to the hill yet?" she asked him.

"Yes," he said. "I went there after dinner last night." He smiled at the housekeeper. "Are you the one who planted the daisies?"

She nodded, her eyes a bit misty. "They were always her favorites, you know."

Straker shook his head sadly. "No, I didn't know," he answered. "I'm afraid I never asked."

Sandy sat down on the other lounger and patted his hand. "You know why they were her favorites, Eddie?" she asked, but continued without waiting for a reply. "It's because you boys used to bring her some from the meadow every spring. She said they each carried a piece of your hearts in their centers. I used to have to get rid of them for her when they died. She couldn't do it. It would have broken her heart."

He looked at her in surprise. "I never realized." He shook his head. "There are so many things I didn't know about her. Things that it didn't occur to me to ask her until it was too late. Things I never told her that I should have."

"Now, Eddie," Sandy said, "she knew she was loved. Mommas know those things without anybody telling them. It's a shame she didn't live long enough to see you both full grown, so that you could tell her yourself. But she knew just the same."

"Dad changed so much after she died," he said after a while. "I used to wonder why he didn't blow his brains out some night after we were all in bed."

Sandy looked at him hard. "Master Edward, are you the one who took that gun from your daddy's drawer all those years ago?"

Straker grinned sheepishly at her tone. "I threw it into the bay."

"My word, child! You are a caution." Then she patted his hand. "And a good boy." With that, she picked up the empty plate and went back into the house.

* * *

Alec Freeman was ready to pull out hair. He took a deep breath and tried to calm down. He knew that Ed would have handled this situation in a firm and commanding manner. But Ed wasn't here, and wasn't expected back until tomorrow at least. So that left him to deal with it. Now if he could just keep from killing the girl.

"Miss Schwarz," he said, trying to keep from gritting his teeth, "you have to file a report at the end of each shift. That is standard procedure. I know you were briefed about it when you started here. All I'm asking is that you follow the normal process in the performance of your job."

Dee crossed her arms and glared back at him. "Look, Col. Freeman," she said in anything but a subservient tone, "those reports are a crock, if you ask me. There's no reason to spend all that time writing a report each day when everything is okay. Reports should be written when things go wrong. Then there would be a good reason to read them. Who would want to go through thousands of reports every day that just say, 'Everything's ducky'?"

"The duty officer reads those reports. And Commander Straker reads those reports," Alec said between his teeth. "And he'll be expecting you to have a full set of them ready for him when he returns. Make sure that he does." He tried for a patented Straker glare, but knew he hadn't managed it when her own glare didn't diminish. "You're dismissed," he said finally, wanting more than anything to wipe that insolent look right off her face.

She merely lifted a supercilious brow at him and left the office.

* * *

"You have got to do something about her!" Alec said as he drove Straker to the studio from Heathrow Airport. He had insisted on picking up the commander, and now Straker knew why. He had done nothing but complain about their newest recruit since they'd gotten in the car.

"Listen, Alec," Straker said, "she's a civilian and has no military background. Some of the things we do will seem strange to her at first. I'm surprised you didn't give her a little slack on that account. You're always the first one to tell me how refreshing it is to work with someone not indoctrinated into the military mindset."

Alec audibly ground his teeth. "Not this one," he said emphatically. "She's the most insolent, uncooperative, irritating operative we've ever had!"

"I don't understand your problem," Straker said. "I worked with Delores extensively on the underwater city project. She showed herself to be both intelligent and innovative, two things that will work well for her at SHADO. And above all, she was very polite. I cannot figure out why you're having so much difficulty with her."

Freeman looked at his commanding officer ironically. "You may not be able to understand why she acts differently around you, but I do." At Straker's lifted eyebrow, he explained. "She's got a crush on you."

"Nonsense!"

Alec grinned at his friend's look of discomfort and pulled into the studio.

* * *

The briefing of the command team lasted several hours. Straker was tired by the end of it, suffering from a combination of emotional exhaustion and jet lag, but he needed to be certain they all understood the importance of this venture.

"The prototype Voyager is undergoing extensive underwater testing as we speak," he informed his staff as they viewed the photograph of the spherical craft. "I was there all day yesterday while they tested it, and it's holding up very well. AquaTech hopes to have all the bugs worked out by the end of the month."

"Will it be tested for the depths that it needs to descend to?" asked Col. Lake.

"Yes. The abyssal plain is so extensive that we can easily test the craft well away from the actual site of the city. We'll be kept informed of the results of the tests. We're looking for a launch date in the early part of next month."

"Is it wise to only send two people down there?" Paul asked, noticing that the submersible ball only accommodated two. "That city could hold tens of thousands."

Straker nodded. "It's a risk. But keep in mind that we are fairly certain that these aliens are not hostile. They came here at least three hundred years ago, when our race could not possibly have fought them off. Yet there is no historical record of them, no wars that were ever battled with invaders from another planet. They seem to have sunk beneath the ocean and kept very quietly to themselves for over three centuries."

"That may be," Alec said, "but how are they going to feel now that the natives have come looking for them?"

"We won't know until we get there," Straker said. "Which is why we will take every precaution. The two man team will be sent down for a specified amount of time, say several days, perhaps a week. If they don't return, Skydiver will have orders to release a depth charge to get the city's attention. If contact still isn't made, the city will be destroyed. However," Straker said as they looked at each other with dismay, "we have reason to believe it won't come to that. Three hundred years means that several generations have lived in the city. The original group will all be gone by now. Yet we still have not heard anything from them. We wouldn't even be trying for contact if we weren't fairly sure that it would be safe to do so."

"Who's going?"

Commander Straker knew why Paul was asking. Col. Foster clearly hoped to be one of the team to go. "The two man team will consist of myself and Capt. Carlin," he said and waited for the outcry.

It wasn't long in coming. He let them argue the issue for several minutes before judging it time to call them to order. "The decision is final and not open to debate," he told them firmly. "This is far too delicate a diplomatic mission to send anyone but myself. And Capt. Carlin knows that ocean better than any of us. I'll be relying on him heavily for his navigational skills." He straightened his jacket. "Any more questions?" As he had expected, they remained silent. "Good. You're dismissed."

Paul lingered behind as the others left the office. "Sir," the Colonel said diffidently, "I can understand why you need to go. Neither Alec nor I can make the kinds of decisions for SHADO or the Earth that may be necessary."

"Thank you, Paul."

"Yes, but...," Foster continued, "what you may need more than a navigator is some muscle. And I'm much more capable of protecting you than Peter is."

Straker looked at the younger man for a moment, touched by his loyalty. From Paul's point of view, it would be better for him to accompany his commander than the slighter-built Capt. Carlin. He sighed. But Paul wasn't aware of Straker's own reasons for wanting Peter Carlin on this mission. "I appreciate the thought, Paul," he said quietly, "but SHADO will need you here if for some reason we don't make it back. Our command team is rather fragile, as you have pointed out in the past." Here he shared a grim smile with the Colonel. "To endanger two of the three members of that team would be foolishness."

Paul was silent a moment, dwelling on his comment. Before he could think of a reply, Straker's intercom buzzed.

"Yes, Miss Eeland?" Straker asked his secretary.

"Sir, there's someone here to see you," she said, her voice sounding oddly breathless.

Straker frowned at Paul, who had obviously noticed the secretary's tone as well, since he looked up with a frown. "Who is it, Miss Eeland?"

"Sir," she said, and it was clear over the intercom that she was badly shaken, "it's Sheila Austin."

Straker and Paul stared at each other for a stunned moment. Finally Straker spoke. "Thank you, Miss Eeland. Tell her I'll be with her in just a few minutes, won't you?"

"Yes, sir."

Straker got up from behind his desk. He looked so grim that Foster was moved to ask, "What does she want, sir?"

Straker shook his head as he headed out the door. "I don't know, Paul. But you'd better alert security."

Paul gasped in shock. "Sir...?"

Straker's grim look turned to granite. "Do it!"

"Yes, sir."

* * *

Straker took a deep breath before hitting the intercom button on his studio desk phone. "You may send her in now, Miss Eeland," he said quietly. God, how was he ever going to be able to explain this to his secretary? His door slid open.

"Hello, Ed," Sheila said cordially as she took a seat near the desk.

For all the world as though she hadn't slapped his face the last time she'd seen him. Straker had to admit that she had never been timid. "Sheila," he acknowledged with a small nod. "I was sorry to read about your father in the paper."

"Thank you," she said. "It was better that he go now though, before he became bedridden." She grimaced. "He would have hated that."

"You'll miss him."

Her eyes darkened for a moment. "Yes." She took a breath before continuing. "But he got the funeral he'd always wanted. Over 3000 mourners." Her crooked grin invited him to share her mirth. "It was quite the spectacle."

Straker couldn't prevent a small smile at the thought of J.D. Conover's possible enjoyment of such pomp and ceremony. "You're doing okay?" he asked.

She shrugged. "As well as can be expected, I suppose. In lieu of flowers, Dad asked that people give donations to charities that he supported." She gave Straker a direct look. "There was a rather sizeable anonymous donation to the Conover Foundation for Battered Women."

His look was very bland. "That would have pleased you, no doubt."

She compressed her lips. "Are you going to tell me that you know nothing about it?"

He sat back in his chair and lifted a brow at her. "Why would I know anything?"

Sheila jumped up from her seat and leaned over the desk. Her dark eyes flashed. "You are a piece of work, Ed Straker," she said angrily. "I thought that in this at least, you would be honest with me. Is the truth so abhorrent to you?"

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

"A simple yes or no would be acceptable."

He shook his head. "Anonymous donations are given with the understanding that they remain so," he said reasonably.

She crossed her arms and just looked at him. When his bland expression remained intact in spite of her stare, she threw up her hands in exasperation. "I can't believe you!" She paced the room in frustration. When she came back to face him, she asked quietly, "How can I expect you to tell me the truth about who I am when you won't even be honest with me about a small thing?"

Straker wanted to groan. He'd been afraid of this eventuality ever since reading about her father's death. With no more ties to her new life, she might understandably be searching for the truth about her former one. How could he explain to her the danger inherent in such a search? And knowing her as he did, could he really expect knowledge of that danger to deter her? "I've told you all I know," he said.

"You," she replied in accents of fury, "have done nothing but lie to me and keep others from telling me anything! Why do you deny me my life? Surely it can mean nothing to you."

That she could think he would be so arbitrary stung him into retort. "You have a life," he told her harshly. "It's a fine one, from all that I can see. You have wealth, success, and a bright future ahead of you. Consider yourself fortunate."

"I have a life," she answered, her voice shaking with emotion, "that is full of unanswered questions; feelings and images so strange, so bizarre, that I can't make heads or tails of them. You knew me." She came to the desk and sat back down, gazing imploringly at him. "Was I so terrible a person that you hope to spare me the awful truth?"

"Sheila, I don't know what you think I can tell you."

"Little things. Like, what did I do here? It's hard for me to imagine working at a film studio. Did I like my job? Who were my friends? What were my hobbies? Were my cousin and I close?"

He felt for her. He couldn't imagine how frustrating it would be not to know even the basic things about yourself. But surely she had seen over the past four years just what kind of person she was. Anything he could tell her would only incite more questions. "I'm sorry, Sheila," he told her. "I can't help you."

"You mean, you won't." She resumed pacing. When she returned to face him across the desk, her eyes were hard. "I may not know who I am," she said, "but I know who you are."

His blue eyes widened momentarily, then he asked carefully, "Who do you think I am, Sheila?"

Her smile was bitter. "Well, now. That got your attention, didn't it?"

He only lifted a brow at her.

Sheila wanted to strangle him for being so difficult, but she couldn't help but admire his sangfroid. She wished with all her might that he wasn't so determined to shut her out of his life. What she'd felt that day in the park had been so amazing, so wonderful... so familiar. She knew he wasn't indifferent to her. What she didn't know was what it would take to make him admit it.

She leaned over the desk. "In my dreams," she began, her voice deliberately husky, "there has always been a man. He's not like the man--- no, the monster--- in my nightmares. He's very different. I've never seen him clearly. He hides just out of sight, and when I do catch a glimpse of him, I can't make him out very well, because he stays in the shadows."

Straker blinked.

Sheila frowned, unsure of his reaction. Slowly she continued. "Although he never speaks to me, I know why he is there. He's watching out for me. I feel his gaze on me sometimes, and I want to bring him out into the light so that we can be together. But he won't come." She cocked her head, gazing at him for a moment in silence. "He still won't speak to me. But I know who he is now. I've known since that day in the park. He's you, Ed. You're the man in the shadows."

He looked at her, afraid to speak, certain that anything he might say would be too much. He understood finally why she found it so necessary to dig up her past. And although it warmed his aching heart to know that she cared, he knew how impossible it was for them to ever be together. He was mortally afraid that he would give in to her as he had once before. Then there would be hell to pay. And he couldn't make her pay that high a price. But how to keep her from pursuing this?

He suddenly remembered something she had told him that day on the bridge. Before he could reconsider, he made himself ask, "Sheila, do you really want to know the truth behind your nightmares?"

She whitened in shock, her arms crossing in an instinctive gesture of protection. She stared at him wordlessly. She couldn't fail to understand the implications of his question. If the man in her dreams was real, then so too must be the man in her nightmares. She shuddered, knowing that she couldn't face that bogeyman. Not now, possibly not ever.

The look in Straker's eyes was telling. She suddenly knew why he had tried so hard to keep the past from her. It wasn't because of the time that she'd worked here with him. It was because of the time after. He was determined to shield her from those memories, even at the cost of all that they felt for each other. And how could she fight that?

She sighed, picked up her purse from the chair, and headed out of the office. As she waited for the door to open completely, she looked back at him. "I wish I could hate you for what you're doing," she whispered.

As the door slid closed again, Straker put his head in his hands.





ACT III

"Permission to come aboard, Captain?"

Foster blinked in shock at the tall blonde man who saluted him from the lift. He'd known they were taking the owner of AquaTech on board, but no one had mentioned his name. Certainly not their secretive commander.

Straker came out of the Captain's quarters just then and smiled. "Permission granted, Chris. And he's a Colonel, not a Captain."

The brothers shook hands warmly. Chris said, "Well, how should I know? I can never keep those ranks straight." He turned to Foster, who still looked slightly dazed. "Hi, Colonel. I'm Chris Straker." He held out a friendly hand.

Paul looked at his commanding officer from under his brows as he shook hands. Straker said, "Paul, this is my brother. Chris, Col. Foster. How soon can we be underway, Paul?"

Foster turned to Connor at the controls, who gave him a hand signal. "Three minutes, sir. The supply ship is just leaving."

"Good." Straker turned to his brother. "Voyager's aboard?" He'd been surprised and pleased when Chris had insisted on being the one to escort the submersible to Skydiver. It was good to have him here.

"Saw her safely swaddled myself," Chris grinned, giving a cheeky salute.

Straker shook his head at him, trying and failing to hide a grin. "Well then, would you like to see the rest of the ship?" At his brother's nod, he led the way aft.

Connor waited until they were out of earshot to say to Foster, "Nothing like a family resemblance, now is there, Colonel?"

Paul grinned.

* * *

Voyager dropped from the belly of Skydiver 3 two days later. They were positioned directly above the northern edge of the city at a depth of about 750 meters. The craft would be making the long deep drop to 3500 meters and the ocean floor on its own. Over the course of the last two days, the systems aboard Voyager had been checked and double-checked, then triple- checked to be sure. Straker and Capt. Carlin had been fitted for their berths in the sphere and minor adjustments had been made to allow for maximum comfort.

Paul was rather glad that his body wasn't going to have to squeeze into that small space. He'd been surprised to find that his commander and Peter shared the same build. When they'd been suited up, they'd been almost completely indistinguishable. Only the proud way Straker carried himself had told Paul which was which. Paul was confused by his own surprise. He had seen his commander in a wetsuit before and hadn't noticed anything then.

It was only after the craft had dropped and the waiting had begun that he realized that it was the comparison with Peter that had thrown him. He knew from sparring with Carlin over the years just how slightly built he was. But Straker had always seemed larger than life to him. That indefinable aura of authority that he carried like a cloak over his shoulders had fooled the younger man into believing him closer to his own, more muscular stature. He wished he hadn't realized the truth just now. He would have liked to have continued thinking that his commander was strong enough to handle any eventuality for at least another week or so.

* * *

Straker and Carlin lay on their stomachs in the submersible. The controls they were using were at their fingertips, and the ocean view from the forward viewports continually drew their attention. The depth gauge showed that they were just passing 2500 meters. Straker was pleased with their progress. They were constantly checking and rechecking systems for any sign of failure or malfunction, but everything looked good so far.

Peter Carlin looked over at his commander. There wasn't anyone he would rather be with on such an adventure, he thought. Straker had always been a hero to him. He knew there were those who called him a hard man, even a cold man. But they didn't know him like Peter did. They hadn't seen his compassion way back in the beginning, when Carlin had awakened in the hospital and been told by the young Colonel that Jane was dead and his sister Leila was missing. They hadn't been there to watch Straker help an angry young man focus all that hatred into a good and worthy cause. Nor had they been there to see the grief in his eyes the day he'd told Peter that his sister was dead. Commander Straker had even been at her funeral.

None of those fools had been there when Peter's father had died a few years ago, and he'd been given an unexpected furlough to help him get things in order. Nor had they witnessed the raise he'd received when he returned to work a few weeks later. The commander had told him it was hazard pay and made it sound like all the pilots had gotten the same raise. But Peter knew better. Commander Straker was simply making sure Peter could take care of his family now that his dad was gone.

And when he'd crashed Sky 1 recently, who had been there at the hospital almost before Peter had been sure of his whereabouts? Who had told that American doctor that no, he wasn't going to run any more tests, Peter was fine, and they were leaving? Who had taken him home, so that his mother could feed him chicken soup and fuss over him?

Let those idiots think what they would. They didn't know the man they were talking about. But Peter knew him. And his greatest wish was to someday be just like him.

There was another favor his commander had done for him recently, and Peter wanted to thank him. When Straker looked over at him with a smile, he took the opportunity to say, "Sir, I haven't had the chance to brief you on how things are going with that chapter you had me join."

The commander lifted a brow. "What do you think of them, Peter?"

"I was rather surprised by them, sir. They aren't quite what I was expecting."

Straker chuckled. "You assumed they'd be paranoid fanatics?"

Peter grinned. "Pretty much. But they are some really neat people. And some of them have been through so much, it amazes me that they even go on. I know you sent me there because I have an actual UFO encounter to tell about. It got me into their group and into their confidence just like you said it would. And I know we've been able to learn a lot from them. But they've helped me too, sir, in ways that I can't even describe."

"You mean, you don't feel so alone anymore?"

Peter looked at him in surprise. "Yes. That's a lot of it." He shrugged. "I've always felt just a step different from most of the guys I work with, maybe because the war isn't personal to them. If it wasn't UFOs they were fighting, it would be commies or jerries or some other enemy. But these people--- the war is very real to them. And they want more than anything else to go down fighting for our side. It gives me a wonderful feeling just to talk to them, to be among them at those meetings. And I wanted to thank you for sending me there. I've gotten peace about some things that I never thought I ever would feel peace about, and it feels good."

Straker smiled. "I'm glad, Peter. I've been surprised by several of them as well. And Mark Rogers has been a great resource. Were you aware that he personally oversees the writing team for the new series at the studio?"

"You mean the science fiction one, Encounters?"

"Yes. The scripts are incredible. Heart-wrenching, some of them, when you consider that they are drawn from actual incidents, but very well depicted. And in every one, you can see the triumph of the human spirit over enormous odds. It's by far the best thing the studio has ever put out."

"Are the writers all members of C.A.A.R., sir?"

Straker nodded. "That's not for the press to know, of course, but it just makes sense, Peter. They are the ones who know firsthand how the dramas should play out. And they're doing a great job."

"It's a marvelous idea, sir. I can't imagine how you came up with it."

The commander shook his head. "I didn't, Peter. The idea was someone else's. I'm just doing what I can to make it a reality."

"Would that have been Laura Simmons?" Peter asked quietly.

Straker looked up in surprise. "Yes," he said after a moment. "How did you know?"

Peter shook his head. "I didn't know, not for sure. But when people talk about her, they tend to get a certain look in their eye. I thought I saw you look that way, sir."

The commander asked softly, "What do they say about her, Peter?"

He shrugged. "They talk about her a lot. She seems to have been a very kind and generous person. I haven't heard anyone who had anything but the greatest admiration for her. A few people have hinted that Rogers was in love with her."

Straker said, "No, they were just friends." His smile was wry. "They made a good team, though. I was concerned at first that Mark wouldn't continue with the group after her death. But he seems to be more committed now than ever."

Peter frowned. "Maybe he thinks that her death wasn't an accident."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, that's one of the rumors I've heard. That the car crash that killed her was caused by the aliens."

Straker looked grim. "Listen, Peter. Don't ever encourage anyone to talk that way."

"What is it, sir? Is there some truth to the rumor?"

"Peter, Laura Simmons died doing what she had always done, caring for others more than for her own safety."

Capt. Carlin gazed into that bleak countenance for a long moment, then looked away, embarrassed by what he saw there. After a while, he said, "I wouldn't worry too much about it, sir. Only the diehards are talking that way, and no one else seems to take them seriously."

"Let me know if that ever changes."

Peter nodded.

When the depth gauge passed 2900 meters, their onboard systems suddenly quit.

* * *

"Switch to emergency lights!"

"Switching!" Capt. Carlin blinked in the red glow from the emergency lights. It had been pitch black there for a moment. He looked at the commander, who was grimly checking their instruments. When he finally met Peter's gaze, he only shook his head.

"What happened, sir?" the captain asked quietly. Without the sound of the engines, the ocean was an ominously silent presence around them.

"It was the one eventuality that we couldn't really prepare for, Peter. The magnetic interference from their power source. We tried triple- shielding the instrument panels in the hopes of keeping them safe, but we're heading right toward the power source. There was no way to be certain that the shielding would be enough. I'm just glad that our instruments lasted as long as they did."

Peter checked the dial to his right. "We have several hours of air left. We should be able to make it to the bottom with no trouble."

Straker nodded. "Yes. And the weights will carry us the rest of the way down on their own even without power." Neither man mentioned the difficulties they would face when it was time to return to the surface. Right now, it was more important that they be able to land Voyager on the bottom in one piece. The commander gave Peter an encouraging smile. "Let's just hope we don't drift too far off course. I would not enjoy a long swim to the city."

* * *

As they approached the ocean floor, the city could be seen for miles. Lit with an almost bioluminescent light, it looked like a living creature sitting there. Peter directed the commander's attention to an enormous bubble that seemed to wrap itself around the entire city.

"Is it a force field, sir?" he asked.

"I don't know," Straker answered. "But we'll find out in just a few minutes. You'd better brace for impact."

They both anchored themselves and watched as the craft descended toward the bubble. Instead of bouncing off its surface, the small craft entered through the bubble as though it were not there. Peter looked at the dials and gasped. "Sir, water pressure just returned to one atmosphere!"

Straker was startled. "Are you sure?"

"Yes, sir." Peter looked out the viewport. "That bubble must cause some kind of artificial depressurized zone." He looked puzzled. "Why would that be necessary? Surely the city would have been built to withstand the pressure at this depth."

Commander Straker pointed out his viewport. "That's why, Peter." The captain looked out and saw tiny figures in the distance hovering around a tall structure. As he gazed at them, he realized with a shock that they were people, and not fish as he had originally assumed. It looked as though they were repairing something on the tower. He grinned at his commander.

Voyager hit bottom with a quiet thud, rocking from side to side a few times before settling. Looking out the viewports, Peter could see the city about a hundred yards away. "Well, sir," he said, feeling excitement stir now that they were finally here, "the city's just a hop, skip, and a jump away from us."

Straker grinned back at him. "Then what are we waiting for? Let's go!"

* * *

They approached what looked like an enormous grey wall that ringed the city. As they swam closer, however, they could see that periodically it contained large recessed holes along its length. Nothing could be seen within the holes but water, but after they'd passed a few of them, the commander had them double back to the first one they'd seen.

"I think it's an entrance into the city," he told Peter, who nodded his agreement. They ventured inside.

They traversed a long circular corridor for awhile before coming up in a shallow pool. As they climbed out, they could see that they were just inside the wall, because its dull grey could be seen all around them. And the wall didn't seem to be a wall at all, but was in fact a large tubular ring. They could see for a great distance in either direction. And what they saw were people.

They seemed to have come out of the water near the center of a busy market area. People of all ages wandered from one spot to the next, talking and discussing items they had for display. A tall fountain stood near the center of the open space, pouring water from its elaborate spout down into a circular basin. Straker wondered at its purpose until he saw a young girl dipping a pitcher under the spout to draw water. He lifted a brow. Fresh water at the bottom of the ocean?

No one seemed to be paying them any attention, although their wetsuits definitely looked out of place. The people all wore varying layers of faded clothing. And they seemed to be from several different ethnic groups. Straker and Peter Carlin found a spot not far from the pool where they had left their oxygen tanks, and sat down. As they watched, the crowd began to thin out, and eventually the area was relatively deserted but for a few elderly people. Suddenly, Straker gave a start of surprise.

When Peter asked him what he'd seen, he simply murmured, "I think I know her," and walked off toward the fountain. Peter noticed the old woman getting a cupful of water from the fountain, and wondered how the commander could possibly know her.

"Excuse me," Straker said as he approached the white-haired woman. "Miss Earhart?"

She looked up, startled. "Well, now," she said in a soft voice after looking him over, "that's a name I haven't heard for a long time. A long time." She nodded as if to stress her point.

"That is who you are? Amelia Earhart?"

"Why, yes, young man," she said. "At least, that's who I was. I'm Mrs. Charles McCoy now and have been for years. Charlie's around here someplace." She looked around vaguely, searching for him. "We've been married, oh, nearly fifty years now."

Straker did the math. "You met him here?" he asked.

"Yes. He was the best-looking man in the village," she cackled. "What's your name, young man?"

"Ed Straker, ma'am," he answered.

"Well, Ed Straker, you're new here, aren't you?" At his nod, she continued. "You just find yourself a pretty young thing to hook up with and enjoy yourself. The village has many girls to choose from." She cackled again. "That is, if they don't choose you first!"

Straker smiled. "Mrs. McCoy, do you remember how you got here?"

"Certainly," she said. "I was snatched right out of my cockpit, you know. One minute I was over the ocean, and the next, I was at the bottom of it." She chuckled.

"Do you know what caused it?" he asked her.

"The same thing that caused everyone else to end up here," she answered, "even you. It was the dynamo." At that, she gave a nod and wandered into a nearby hut.

* * *

"What is the dynamo, sir?" asked Peter when Straker described his conversation to him.

"I think it must be the power source for the city, Peter. Apparently, it is powerful enough to cause a disturbance in the fabric of space/time. The Bermuda Triangle is known for disappearances as well as magnetic anomalies. It just stands to reason that the problems stem from the same cause."

Peter frowned. "But can a disturbance in a magnetic field make someone disappear from one place and reappear in another?"

Straker nodded. "It seems to be what has been happening here, Peter. These people got here somehow."

"Could it have been deliberate?"

The commander sighed. "I don't know. So far, I haven't seen anyone that is anything but human. We need to talk to the people that live in the city itself." He looked around them with a frown. "And I don't think this place qualifies as the city." Peter remembered the luminous circular city they'd seen from their viewports and had to agree.

They spoke with several people over the course of the next few hours. Once they were noticed, it seemed as though everyone wanted to get a look at them. Some of the looks they received were openly inviting, and Straker was reminded of a few of Amelia Earhart's comments. It seemed that the village found the appearance of two new people cause for some excitement. The villagers seemed to assume that they had come there the same way that everyone else had, and Straker let them. He wanted Voyager in one piece when they did leave, and he certainly didn't want to have to fight over it.

No one could help them concerning how to get into the city. They were told that the city was off-limits, they were told that the city was only for the Malorans, and they were told that the village was a lovely place, far lovelier than the city could ever be. But they were not told how to reach the city. Straker was completely frustrated.

They were talking to a helmsman from an American frigate that had been lost in the Bermuda Triangle fourteen years ago when a small group of people came toward them. They had seemed to appear out of the inner wall itself. They looked human except for their hair, which was so white as to be almost translucent. Their skin was pale, and their eyes were a light grey in color. They were clothed in a type of wetsuit with a chiffon overlay, although as they approached, Straker could see that it wasn't chiffon or any material he had ever seen before. They were handing out a kind of fruit from their baskets to everyone who came up to them.

Straker asked the helmsman, "Who are they?"

"They're Malorans," answered the man. "They're bringing us dinner." At that, he left them and went to get a piece of fruit.

Peter was staring at one of the Malorans, a young woman whose hair was intricately braided around her head, yet still retained moisture from wherever they had appeared from. Her clothing, however, was dry. She looked up just then, as though she felt eyes on her, and her eyes widened at seeing him. She stood quite still for a moment, returning his stare, then slowly approached them.

"Hello," she said and handed them each a piece of the fruit. "You must be new here."

"Yes," Peter answered. "Who are you?"

She smiled. "I am Callista." She pointed to another woman nearby who was also handing out fruit. "That is Remora. We are your servers today."

Straker asked, "Are you a Maloran?"

She dragged her gaze away from Peter and looked at him. "Yes. Please do not be alarmed. You will be well cared for here. No one will harm you in any way."

"My name is Straker, and I need to speak to the leader of your people. Can you tell me how I might do that?"

She frowned and shook her head. "That will not be possible. But you will soon adapt to being here, I promise you." She seemed determined to placate them. She looked at Peter again. "What are you called?" she asked softly.

"I'm Peter," he told her. "We really do need to speak to someone in charge. Can't you help us?"

"I am sorry," she said and left them to hand out fruit to others. Straker noted that her gaze seemed to return to them from time to time.

"She seemed taken with you," he told the captain.

Peter took a deep breath. "She's beautiful, sir," he said wonderingly.

Straker grimaced at his tone. "Why don't you see if you can get her to help us? I'll try the other woman."

Peter nodded, and the two men separated.

When Straker returned to where Peter stood, he found him deep in conversation with the girl.

"Commander," the captain said, "Callista says that there are villages all around the outer ring. Sir, there must be over a thousand people here."

Straker frowned, but before he could speak, she said to Peter, "You call him 'commander' and 'sir,' but he said his name was Straker. Why does he have so many names?"

Peter tried to explain. "The other names are titles of respect. His name is Straker."

"Oh." She looked at the commander with a frown. "I thought perhaps you were like a camolo."

"What is that?" he asked.

"It is a resident of these waters. A fish that changes color to blend into its background."

Straker lifted a brow. "I take it that it is not a flattering comparison," he said dryly.

She blushed. "I meant no offense."

"None taken," he assured her. He turned to Peter. "Well?"

The captain shrugged. "She says that Terrans may not enter the city."

Straker frowned. It was pretty much the same thing he had learned from the other woman. "Is it forbidden, or is there another reason?"

Callista implored them, "You must not try to come into the city. You would not survive it." She turned to Peter. "Please, I know that it is difficult for you now, but you will adjust to being here after a time."

"Callista!"

She turned to the woman who had called her name. "I am coming."

She started to leave, but Peter stopped her with a hand on her arm. "Will I see you again? Tomorrow, maybe?"

Callista looked at him, her clear grey eyes full of a deep sadness. "I do not know," she said and went to join the others.

Straker followed them to where they left through the wall and noticed a doorway set in the wall. A large man stood guard and allowed the Malorans to travel through it before taking up his position again in front of the door. When Straker returned to where Peter was sitting, he said, "I think we can get to the city through that doorway. It's guarded, but only by one man. Obviously, they don't have very much trouble with security here."

Peter nodded. "Do you think he'll let us through?"

Straker compressed his lips. "We can only try."

They approached the guard. He stood, relaxed with arms folded, in front of the doorway and only seemed to notice them when they stopped by him. He unfolded his beefy arms and asked, "What do you want?"

Straker said, "We'd like to enter the city. Will you let us pass?"

The large man looked down at him and shook with a rumble of laughter at his boldness. "Well, now. If I let you pass, little man, you still would not be able to enter the city."

"Why not?"

The guard shook his head. "Because Terrans cannot survive the trip to New Malora. You best make yourselves comfortable in one of the villages."

Straker looked him in the eye. "We'd like to go anyway. Please open the door."

The guard rumbled out a big laugh at that. "You have a large voice for such a little man," he said.

"But to show you I tell you truth, I will open the gateway. Then you will see how impossible it is for you to go to the city." He slid back the panel of the doorway, and they saw what lay on the other side.

Water. A long circular corridor of water stretched in front of them with no end in sight. There was a small dry chamber between the door in the wall and the inner seal to the corridor. But everything else was water. Next to him, Peter gasped. Straker turned to him. "Let's get the equipment."

When they returned a moment later with their oxygen tanks, the guard stopped them. "What is this now?" he asked, looking at their equipment suspiciously.

"These are our breathing tanks," Straker explained. "We need them to travel through the corridor."

But the guard was shaking his head. "You may not take those things with you," he said decisively. "No weapons are allowed in New Malora." He crossed his arms to emphasize his point.

Peter said, "These aren't weapons. They're just oxygen tanks. Here. See for yourself." He extended one to the Maloran, who looked it over slowly, then handed it back.

"No," he told them, unconvinced, "no weapons in the city."

Straker looked at him a moment, then sighed. "Let's go, Peter. I don't think he's going to let us through." He turned to the guard as he was leaving and said, "We'll be back."

The large man let out another rumbling laugh. "You come back anytime, little man."

* * *

"I forbid you to return to the outer ring!" Cedric the Just stomped across the throneroom and threw himself onto his throne as if that settled everything.

Callista burst into tears. "Father!" she cried. "How can you forbid me to go? It is you who insists that all your children learn to take care of the Terrans! Anyway, it is too late to undo what has already happened. Keeping me from him will not change the truth."

"No child of mine will mate with a Terran," he announced. "Gods above, Callista! You have seen how they live. Barbarians, all of them! You have mistaken things. That is all. What could you have to do with a Terran?"

She looked at him through her tears. "Would you have me ignore the voice of my heart, Father?"

He shifted uncomfortably on his throne. "Child, surely you are mistaken. In five hundred years, none of our people have mated with this race. Do you know what trouble you will cause us if you insist upon this?"

"I only know that I have found my mate, Father," she said sadly. "Whether he be acceptable to you or no, my place is with him now. He and his friend will become my family."

"I forbid it!" he shouted, goaded by her tears and her calm acceptance of exile.

"What do you forbid, my heart?" Lotsen entered the throneroom quietly and moved to her husband's side to soothe his furrowed brow.

"Ah," he said, thankful that she was there to help him deal with their daughter, "your mother will know how to handle this situation. I wash my hands of it."

Lotsen gazed thoughtfully at her youngest daughter while slowly running a soft hand through her mate's thick hair. "What troubles you, Callista?"

Callista approached the throne. "Mother, I have met my mate."

Her mother's hand stilled for a moment, then continued stroking. "That is surely good news."

"Hah!" her husband barked. "Ask her who she has chosen for a mate!"

"Father," Callista chided, "I did not choose him. My heart knew him in the instant we met."

"Who is this man, Callista?" her mother asked, forestalling Cedric's angry response.

"His name is Peter, and he and his friend are new among the Terrans in the outer ring, Mother."

Lotsen gave a small gasp. Cedric heard and grunted. "You see what our daughter brings upon us," he said.

Callista looked miserable. Her mother left her mate's side and went to her, enclosing her in her arms. "Is he a fair man, Callista?" she asked.

"Yes, Mother. He has the kindest eyes I have ever seen."

Lotsen heard not only her daughter's words, but her tone. She sighed. "Then we will have to meet this man."

Callista hugged her tightly.

Lotsen looked over her daughter's head to her husband. They shared a silent message that required no words.



ACT IV

Straker and Captain Carlin sat near the pool where they had entered the ring. They had been offered hospitality by several of the people in the village, but since they could not be certain what repercussions would result from accepting any of these invitations, they stayed where they were. Neither man wanted to have to fend off any eager villagers' daughters in the night.

Peter looked at the commander. He seemed to have taken the guard's refusal in stride, but the captain had been aware that he'd been thinking hard ever since. Peter wondered what plan Straker would come up with to get them into the city. He never doubted for a moment that he would get them there somehow. That guard may laugh, but he had no idea just who he was dealing with.

Straker seemed to feel his gaze and looked over at him. "Peter," he said, "tomorrow morning we are going into the city."

Peter nodded. "Will we overpower the guard, sir?"

The commander grimaced. "I'm not sure we could. No, we'll have to go in the same way the Malorans do."

"Sir, they either have a much larger lung capacity than we do or else they can breathe water."

Straker nodded. "I think they breathe water, Peter." His gaze rested on the captain for a long moment. "Did you ever wonder why I brought you with me on this mission?"

Peter frowned. "I assumed it was because of my knowledge of the ocean."

His boss shook his head. "I had another, stronger reason. If things got difficult down here, I knew I'd need someone with--- shall we say--- special talents."

"Sir?"

Straker said, "What I'm going to tell you, Captain, is incredible; unbelievable, in fact. But it is true nonetheless."

"Alright, sir."

Straker took a deep breath and told him about Laura Simmons and the life- changing event he had experienced in the English Channel.

* * *

"Are you back so soon, little man?" the guard asked them in the morning.

"Yes," Straker said. "And we'd like to enter the city. May we pass?"

The guard shook his head with a grin, but obligingly opened the door for them. When they passed through into the small antechamber, he realized that they were serious and said, "Here now! You can surely see that New Malora is beyond what a Terran may reach. You will do injury to yourselves if you persist in this."

Straker gave him a hard look. "Nonetheless, we are going to the city. Please close the door."

The large man frowned down at them and said, "You will bring my king's wrath upon me if I allow you to come to harm. This is foolishness, little man. Surely you know it!"

"If we encounter any trouble, we will turn back," Straker reassured him calmly.

The guard looked into those blue eyes and seemed to reach a decision. He stepped back and slid the panel closed.

Straker looked at Peter as the chamber started to fill with water. "Ready?" he asked.

Captain Carlin wanted to say, No way, but he merely nodded his head. The things his commander had told him the night before were still ringing in his ears, and morning had not made them seem any less fantastic. But Peter trusted this man with his life and knew that if Commander Straker felt that they could do this, then it could be done.

Straker said, "Take a deep breath when the water level gets too high. The hardest part will be when you run out of air. All I can say is, don't panic. As crazy as it seems, you can breathe the water. If you start to panic, watch me. I'll be breathing it, and that should reassure you."

"Yes, sir."

When the water level covered his face, Peter took a deep breath and held it. When the water reached the ceiling, the clear doorway to the circular corridor opened automatically. They swam through.

The corridor did not seem to be solid as they passed, but one moment seemed the dull grey of the outer ring, and the next, clear enough to see the ocean floor around them. Peter tried to keep his mind on figuring it out, instead of worrying about what he would do when his air ran out. The corridor stretched out very far ahead of them, and still no end was in sight.

He glanced at the commander and received a shock. Straker was breathing water, just as he had said. He grinned at Peter's surprise as he swam past. Peter let him get a little ways ahead, then let out his breath. He didn't want to accidentally hit the commander if he panicked and flailed out when swallowing the water.

He choked as he breathed it in and kept himself from panicking with an effort. He swam harder, unable to stop trying to outrun the water, but realized a few moments later that he was breathing it. His lungs hurt, probably from the change from air to liquid, but he was actually doing it. He caught up with the commander and gave him the thumbs up sign, but his mind was still in shock. In spite of everything the commander had told him, he had been certain that he would drown.

They finally reached the other end of the corridor and passed through into the antechamber. As their feet touched the floor, the water level in the room began to drop. They choked slightly as they made the transfer from water to air, but otherwise, it seemed to be fairly easy. Peter's throat felt dry, but he had to ask, "Sir, how did you know I could do that when I didn't even know?"

Straker shook the dampness out of his hair and answered cryptically, "We all have our little secrets, Captain."

Peter grinned, determined to ask again at a better time. They were at the door to the underwater city. When the water disappeared from under their feet, the doorway opened, and they entered New Malora.

* * *

The room they entered was large and contained many people involved with individual tasks at consoles. All noise in the room ceased upon their arrival, and all eyes became focused on them. Obviously, visitors were not a common sight here.

Straker noticed a woman who had recovered from her surprise quickly and was speaking into an elaborate necklace about her neck. He assumed that someone would be coming shortly to deal with them. He sincerely hoped it was not a security team.

"Sir," Peter whispered, "do you feel that?"

Straker nodded. As soon as they had entered, he had felt the vibration from the walls and floor echo throughout his body. It felt strangely comforting to him, but he did not take the time to analyze why. "It must be the dynamo," he whispered back. "It's an almost audible hum, isn't it?"

A tall man with translucent hair had entered the room and was approaching them with a smile. He bowed deeply to them and said, "Boon aypsi lohrcheen."

Straker looked at Captain Carlin. They hadn't considered the possibility of a language barrier. "I'm sorry," he told the man, "we don't understand you."

The man adjusted one of the jewels in his necklace, then said, "Welcome, fellow travelers."

Straker said, "Thank you." Not a security team, then.

"I am Pilar, ambassador of New Malora. We do not often have visitors to our fair city. Allow me to accompany you to suitable accommodations." He led the way out of the room and along a long tubular hallway with rooms opening onto it at intervals. "By what names are you known?"

"I am Straker," the commander said, remembering to keep his answer to a single name.

"And I am Peter," Captain Carlin said, not allowing his commander to finish introducing them. He did not want to be called Carlin for the duration of their stay.

Straker lifted a brow at him, but said nothing. "Ambassador, we have come a long way to speak to your leader. Would it be possible to see him?"

Pilar's face fell. "I am so sorry, Straker." He spread his hands. "The king has refused audience until further notice."

"Does this happen often?"

The tall man shook his head. "No. Cedric is a great ruler and is very open to the requests of his people. I am certain that he will not refuse audience for long." He ushered them into a round, comfortable room. "I hope that you will forgive any necessary delays until then."

Straker nodded. "Of course."

"You are most kind," Pilar acknowledged. "If there is ought that you require, please do not hesitate to ask for it." And he bowed himself out of the room.

Straker laid back on one of the room's beds. It felt very soft, and his weight seemed to sink into it like a dream. He realized with a sigh that he was very tired. They had slept in shifts throughout the night, and he had slept fitfully in the hours he had been supposed to rest. This mission was so important, but so much of it was going to be new territory for all of them at SHADO. Defense was easy; just shoot 'em up and keep 'em away. Diplomacy; that was an entirely different ballgame. He hoped that they would be able to establish relations with these people. And he hoped even more that his people would be able to accept the concept of aliens on their side. It would be difficult for many of them to believe that one alien wasn't just as bad as another.

He closed his eyes, thinking about the changes that would be coming to their organization because of this mission. The only true constant in the universe, he had heard a professor say once, was change. He gave a deep sigh. So why did everyone hate the idea of it so much?

He fell asleep on the thought.

* * *

When Straker woke, he sat up, feeling disoriented. He hadn't meant to fall asleep; in fact, he was surprised that he had. He looked over at the other bed, where Captain Carlin lay with his hands behind his head. He was staring at the ceiling with a thoughtful frown. Straker said, "I'm sorry, Peter. These beds are too comfortable."

The captain smiled. "That's okay, sir. There's really nothing to do until they take us to the king anyway. Although their console is rather interesting." He pointed to a unit along the wall. "I couldn't make much headway with it, because of the language difference. But what I was able to decipher was fascinating. Their computer technology leaves us far behind."

Straker looked around the room. "Along with everything else," he said dryly.

Peter had to agree. Everywhere they had been inside the city so far, whether in the rooms or the hallways, the walls had drawn their attention. They were not the solid color and texture that the men were used to, but rather full of light in varying hues that seemed to play across the surface in random patterns. The walls looked much too fragile to be withstanding the water pressure at the bottom of the ocean. They looked too fragile to even be considered walls at all. Yet they were solid to the touch. It was only their appearance that was deceptive. Peter ran a hand down the wall nearest him and said, "Looks a little familiar, doesn't it, sir?"

Straker gave a wry grin. "Yes. Maybe we share the same decorator." He didn't want to think about the mural on his office wall. He wasn't ready to admit, even to himself, just how familiar this entire place was to him. Or how safe he felt here.

Peter asked, "Sir, how did you know that I could breathe underwater?"

Straker grimaced. "Laura called it a knowing, and now I understand why. It's not something that is easy to explain, Peter. I just knew. Do you remember when I came to the States after your crash?" The captain nodded, and he continued, "I was certain of it when you healed so quickly. Remember how the doctor wanted to run more tests? You really surprised him, I think."

"I didn't realize that it was out of the ordinary, sir. I mean, I've always been told I heal quickly, but then so does the rest of my family. It's something I've always taken for granted."

"What do you know about your family, Peter? Anything about your ancestors that might explain why you're different?"

"No, sir. My parents never talked much about our ancestors. I certainly never heard anything that would explain something like this."

They were silent for a time.

"Commander," Peter finally said quietly, "I was wondering if maybe I should go back to the village. We have nothing else to do while we wait, and I could talk to more of the people there. Maybe get a better feel for the Malorans."

Straker gazed at him thoughtfully. "What is it, Captain?"

Peter sat up and faced him. "It's just that... she might come back today, sir. And I thought... maybe she could tell us something about her people, something that would give us an edge with them."

Straker shook his head. "We can't chance it. The summons to see the king could come at any time." He looked at the younger man in silence. Then he said, "What is it really, Peter?"

Peter lifted eyes that were haunted. "I don't know," he answered softly. "I felt something, from the moment I saw her. It makes no sense. But I can't get her out of my mind. I'm sorry, sir. I don't know what's wrong with me. The last thing I want to do is jeopardize the mission."

Straker shook his head. "I'm not worried about that, Peter. If it's any consolation, she seemed to feel something for you, as well."

Peter looked at him. "Do you think so?"

The commander hid a smile at his hopeful expression. "Perhaps we can ask the king where we could find her."

"I couldn't do that, sir. Our mission is much too important for such trivial matters." He shrugged. "I'll be alright."

Straker frowned. "Our mission, Captain, is to establish relations with these people." He lifted a brow. "How friendly those relations are is up to us, don't you think?"

Peter flushed. "It just seems like the wrong time to be dealing with this kind of thing, sir."

"There is never a good time, Peter." Straker sighed, feeling his age all nf a sudden. "But you can't ignore what has happened."

The captain looked at him in surprise.

"Some men live their entire lives without experiencing what you are feeling, Peter. Don't kid yourself that it means nothing or that you'll get over it." His look was grim. "You won't."

Peter said, "But I always thought that kind of thing only happened in movies, not to real people."

"Fiction is often based on fact, Captain." Straker's wry look reminded Peter about the new science fiction series at the studio. "What did you experience, bells and whistles?"

"Yes!" Peter said, surprised that he'd described it so well. "And a voice..."

"Saying, she's the one?"

Peter nodded, realizing suddenly that the commander knew what he was talking about. Firsthand? Peter remembered the look he'd seen in Straker's eyes when he'd spoken about Laura Simmons. He couldn't bring himself to ask about it, so he said instead, "Sir, whose voice was it, do you think?"

Straker shrugged. "I'm not a religious man, Peter. To tell you the truth, I've never wanted to inquire too closely."

* * *

Lotsen ran the brush through her luxurious translucent hair as she watched her husband in the mirror. He was pacing their room and muttering under his breath. She knew they would need to settle things if he was to get any rest. He had not slept during the night and very little throughout the morning. "What frightens you more," she asked him softly, "the thought of her mating with a Terran or the thought of her living with them?"

Cedric stopped and turned to her, considering her question. "Both!" he finally decided. "Although the thought of her being in effect an exile from all that she has ever known weighs heavily on my mind."

She sighed. "Of all our children, she has always worried me most. And when she never found a mate among the many young men she knows, I began to wonder if she would live her life alone. It is not unheard of, you know. I am glad for her that she has found her mate. But I too am sorry that she must live in the outer ring, instead of in the city."

He came to her and took over brushing her hair. "We cannot be certain how well they will match. For all we know, our two races may not even be genetically compatible."

"Well, then it is about time we found out, do you not think?" she asked sharply. "Our people have been here for nearly five hundred years, Cedric. We should have concerned ourselves with them before this."

He nodded. It was an old argument. "I know, I know. But I dread the upheaval this will cause for our people. Change can be so difficult, my dear."

"Perhaps this will turn out to be a good thing," she told him. "Callista may be able to help us to understand the Terrans better by dwelling among them. We really should try to know them better. They will always be with us, my love."

Cedric frowned. "If only they were not so hard to deal with! As soon as we adjust the dynamo so that we no longer interfere with their devices and have them showing up here, they change them again, and we are back where we started. I can only be grateful that they cannot enter the city. They would have overrun it by now."

"You will not be grateful when you are forced to visit your grandchildren in the outer ring," she said.

"True." He gave a deep sigh. "Well, we will just have to meet this man today. It has been a while since I have been to the outer ring. It will be a good opportunity to ..."

A soft tone interrupted them. Cedric opened the door and found his head of security awaiting permission to enter. "What is it, Donat?"

"We have a problem, sir," the man answered as he entered, "that I felt needed your immediate attention." He compressed his thin lips in a way that boded trouble for some security personnel.

"I am listening."

"Sector Five reports that two Terrans entered the city this morning."

Cedric stared. "What?"

The Maloran pinched the bridge of his nose as if to ward off a headache. "They are with the ambassador now, my king. I do not know how they were able to traverse the corridor. But they are here."

The king looked at his wife, aghast at this news. But she wore a thoughtful frown. "What are their names, Donat?" she asked.

"I do not know, my queen," the security man answered. "I will inquire of Pilar for you, if you wish."

"Thank you, Donat."

The man bowed himself out of the room. Cedric ran a hand down his wife's beautiful hair and said, "What are you thinking, my heart?"

She smiled at him in the mirror. "I am thinking, my love, that perhaps Callista's Terran is not a Terran after all."



ACT V

Straker entered the banquet room feeling hopeful. When Pilar had returned to their room in the afternoon, his narrow face had been wreathed in smiles. The king, it seemed, wished to give a banquet in honor of New Malora's two distinguished guests. Several exalted persons would be present, the ambassador had confided to them, as well as members of the royal family. Straker was encouraged by the king's change of attitude, although he wondered at it.

They had been given multi-colored robes to wear over their wetsuits for the feast. It seemed to be the fashion among the male and female citizens alike. Capt. Carlin had some trouble adjusting to the robe's voluminous folds, but his commander was used to costumes and wore his robe with an air.

Lotsen gave a small gasp at the sight of them, and even Cedric seemed a bit startled. They knew from their daughter that her mate was the darker man, but both the king and queen were surprised that Callista had apparently missed the attractions of the fairer one. Lotsen found Straker's blue eyes infinitely beautiful, while the king admired his authoritative bearing. Wondering at the quirks of fate, Cedric looked at Peter. He could see little in that quiet face to recommend him, but his wife easily saw what had caught Callista's affections. He did indeed have kind eyes, even though they were so dark. Kind... and haunted. Here was a man who had seen things to tear the soul. Lotsen could only admire a man who could remain so obviously gentle under such circumstances. She exchanged a warm smile with her daughter.

As Straker and Peter were seated, the king introduced himself and those around the table. The two men had been seated at the queen's right hand, which left Peter sitting directly across from Callista. The looks they exchanged during the introductions excluded everyone else in the room. Straker sighed. Callista was the king's daughter? He wondered if Peter stood a chance.

It wasn't until the wonderful dishes had been eaten and cleared from the table that the king touched on any topic of importance. Dancing had begun at the other end of the room, and the soft music that had been playing throughout the meal quickened its beat. Cedric sat back and watched his youngest daughter dance with Peter. He asked Straker, "You came here purposely to speak to me? Your arrival was not another unfortunate effect of our dynamo?"

Straker shook his head. "No. We've known of the effects of your dynamo for some time, but it is only recently that we realized what had to be causing the problem. We deemed it necessary to contact you and see if we could negotiate some sort of peace between our peoples."

"Of course, of course," the king said. "We must draw up a treaty in the morning. Perhaps you could help us to keep from acquiring more of your people from the surface."

Straker smiled briefly. "I'm not sure how your dynamo caused them to appear in the first place, but we'll certainly aid you in any way we can to keep it from continuing to happen."

"Will you take the people from the outer ring back to the surface with you?" asked Lotsen.

Commander Straker frowned. "That may not be possible. You see, although our technology has reached a point where it might be feasible to do such a thing, our society has not yet reached a point where they can accept your presence here calmly. If we removed the people back to the surface, there is no way we could keep them from talking about where they'd been. However, we are working toward a time when our society will be able to accept the truth without fear or panic. I cannot tell you how soon that will take place, unfortunately."

Cedric nodded. "We do not resent their presence here, Straker; therefore, we will continue to do all that we can for them until such time that you can take them home. And the problem with their arrival seems to stem from changes in your technology. We adjust our dynamo not to interfere with your instruments and such, only to have you improve them to a degree that causes the same problem to occur again." The king shrugged. "It is exasperating."

Straker said, "I can believe that it is, Cedric. Perhaps if we kept you updated with the latest advances in our technology, you could adjust your dynamo before any disappearances happened. It wouldn't get rid of the people already in the outer ring, but it would keep their numbers from growing too rapidly."

"You intend to stay in touch with us, then?" the queen asked him.

"Of course. I realize that you've been here a long time and haven't needed our assistance in all that time, but I'm hoping that you'll accept our help now and allow us to protect you as well."

"Do we require protection, Straker?" the king asked quietly.

Straker looked grim. "Earth faces an extraterrestrial enemy that is capable of destroying your city and everyone in it, as well as all life on the surface. If they knew of your existence, I have little doubt that they would destroy your population just as they have tried to do with ours."

Cedric and Lotsen exchanged glances. The queen said, "You would protect our city as you do your own people? Why would you take on such an extra burden?"

Commander Straker gave her a direct look. "You are residents of this planet. That makes you no different from any of the rest of us. Where you came from is not as important as where you live now."

Cedric looked solemn. "We are indebted to you, Straker. Our race has always been isolationists. We do not easily accept other peoples or other methods of doing things. It will destroy our homeworld someday, I am certain. And it is partly why we left our planet to travel such a distance to yours." He grimaced. "However, in the five hundred years that we have been on this planet, our people have never once tried to accept your people with the graciousness that you now show us. We are not so different from our forebearers after all, it seems."

"Don't be so hard on yourselves," Straker told them. "You have taken great care of the unfortunate people you have encountered when it might have been easier for you just to dispose of them. I'd say that you've been quite gracious."

"Thank you."

"Do you care to dance, Straker?" asked the queen.

He looked at the dancers for a moment. Their movements were somewhat similar to what he thought of as dance, and he felt confident of being able to follow the steps. After all, Peter seemed to be having no trouble. "I'd love to," he told her.

As he swept her around the floor, she asked him, "You are not a Terran, are you?"

He shook his head. "I don't think so. I don't know if I was born here, but I was certainly brought up here. All my memories are of Earth."

She frowned. "You do not know who your people are?"

"No. I admit, I had wondered if your people might be the same as mine. But Pilar told me that none of you have ever left the city to live on the surface."

"That is true. However, you do seem somewhat similar to us. Your coloring is not so very different, and your bone structure is very close to ours."

He said, "Then, how could my family have lived on the surface without you being aware of it?"

"I do not know." She sighed and changed the subject. "Do you know what planet Peter is from?"

"No. And he has little knowledge of his family to go on in order to find out anything."

Lotsen said, "That is too bad. Family is so important." They swung around the room in silence for awhile. Then she asked, "You are in the midst of a war, are you not, Straker?"

"Yes."

"Then tell me, how do you reconcile that war with the fact that you are a man of peace?"

He looked at her in surprise. Finally he said, "Sometimes peace comes at a very high cost."

Her gaze softened and she said quietly, "I have been privileged to never have to pay so high a price. Our people have been at peace for centuries."

"I hope I can help make it a few more centuries, Lotsen," he said. "Your city reminds me very much of another city, Shangri-La."

"Where is this city?" she asked.

Straker shook his head. "It is not a real city. Shangri-La is from a story I read when I was younger. But New Malora is similar to it in many ways. Your husband has done a great job here."

She looked at him and smiled, hearing the tone behind his words. "You must not give up on your people, Straker. If peace is your goal, then surely there is a way for you to achieve it."

He smiled at her. "I hope so."

When they returned to their seats, Straker found Peter waiting for him. "Why aren't you dancing?" he asked the younger man.

Peter shrugged. "I thought you might need me, sir."

Straker shook his head. "Enjoy yourself, Peter. I can't believe that you've tired of the lovely lady already."

"No, sir," the captain said, flushing. "But she wants me to leave with her. I told her that I had to stay here, in case you needed my help for anything."

His commander lifted a brow at him. He could see Callista across the room talking to someone. Her sad eyes kept a watch on Peter. "Captain," he said firmly, "I'm fine. But we really can't have you being rude to our hosts, you know. Therefore, I order you to keep Callista entertained."

Peter looked at him in surprise. "Are you sure?"

Straker grinned. "Get out of here, Captain."

Carlin flashed him a smile and left his side to find Callista. Commander Straker watched them leave the room and sighed. Why did young love make him feel so old?

* * *

Callista came into Peter's arms as soon as the door of her room closed behind them. He kissed her, surprised at the passion that surged at her touch. He had felt it while they'd been dancing, but not to this extreme degree. It was as though she lit a fire inside him that wanted to flame out of control. It was all he could do to be gentle with her.

"Peter," she whispered, her grey eyes soft and passionate. "You acquired my heart with no more than a look." She led him to the bed. "Come claim the rest of me, for I am your mate and you are mine."

He tried to think of all the reasons why this was not a good idea. Their worlds were so different; how could they ever find a path between them? But her lips beckoned his kiss, and her arms begged for his embrace, and he was powerless to refuse what he so desperately wanted. He ran a trembling hand down her cheek and said, "I love you, Callista." They sank onto the soft bed together.

* * *

When Peter returned to their quarters the next morning, he found Straker preparing to meet the king for a tour of the city. Despite his sheepish grin, the captain's worry was visible to his commander. Straker sat down on the edge of the bed and asked, "What is it, Peter?"

Peter just looked at him in silence for a moment. Then he heaved a deep sigh and answered, "Sir, I must have been out of my head. Do you realize, by Maloran standards Callista and I are married?"

Straker nodded. "I wondered if that might have been their plan in inviting us to the banquet."

"You knew?"

His commander shook his head. "I wasn't certain. But they seem to feel very strongly about their mating rituals, Peter. The king and queen were obviously pleased when the two of you left last night. I think it's safe to say you have their approval."

Peter frowned. "How, sir? It's not as though I can give her anything. I can't stay here, and I certainly can't take her back with me to the surface. What kind of a life would she have, so far away from everything that she's familiar with?"

"Peter, women have left their homes before to be with their husbands. I don't think you're asking so much. And if you felt you couldn't ask her to leave, I'm sure they could find something for you to do here. You shouldn't have any trouble fitting in with them. And it's a beautiful place. One way or another, I'm certain things will work out for the both of you. Is she worth a little sacrifice?"

"Of course," Peter avowed. He ran a distracted hand through his hair. "But she's used to the best in everything. She's a king's daughter, sir. I could never give her the kind of life she deserves."

"I think you should let her decide what she deserves, Peter. Maybe she feels that she's got the best of everything in you."

"Do you think so, sir?" Peter's look was so full of hope that Straker almost wished he hadn't spoken. He sincerely hoped Callista felt as much for Peter as he obviously did for her. But he was more concerned about what her parents would be expecting Peter to do.

* * *

The king and queen seemed to expect Callista to accompany them to the surface. When they prepared to leave two days later, Callista was present in the throneroom and had a small bag packed. Straker and Peter had been able to update the Malorans' knowledge of Earth technology in the hopes of keeping the magnetic interference to a minimum. They'd also established a radio link, so that they could communicate between SHADO HQ and the underwater city. In turn, the Malorans had overwhelmed them with their hospitality. Straker was sorry to be going. He began to understand just how Hugh Conway had felt at the prospect of leaving Shangri-La. But unlike that fictional hero, Straker had too much work ahead of him to consider for more than a fleeting moment the idea of remaining here. He was surprised that Callista wanted to accompany them, however. He had assumed that he would be leaving his captain behind.

"My life is with my mate," she told them both as they said their farewells to Cedric and Lotsen. The king and queen seemed to be in complete agreement, so Peter did not argue with her decision. He could only hope that she would not hate living on the surface. For now, she seemed to be considering it all a great adventure. He held her close and marvelled at his good fortune.

The only thing they hadn't been able to accomplish was the restoration of power to their craft. Voyager's systems were not compatible enough with Maloran technology to allow them to outfit the sphere effectively against the dynamo's interference. At least, not in the time frame they had. They'd already used most of their allotted time, and the last thing Straker wanted was to panic his command team by taking up extra time. The Malorans kindly gave them some equipment to take back with them. The commander knew Chris would have a fabulous time deciphering how it worked with his research team at AquaTech. But they didn't have the advantage of it for this trip. They would just have to try something else.

* * *

Chris Straker threw down his card hand with relief when the alarm went off. He'd been losing steadily. It pissed him off, because he had a much better poker face than Paul. But Paul seemed to have all the luck.

They went to the radar station that Matthews was manning and saw the blip that signaled Voyager's craft coming slowly closer to Skydiver. After watching for several minutes, Chris frowned and looked at Paul. Col. Foster drew him aside and asked quietly, "What is it?"

Chris looked perplexed. "It's ascending too slowly. Once the weights were off, it should have ascended at a fairly regular rate. But not this slow."

Paul frowned, looking back at the radar for a moment. When he turned back to Chris, he said, "What could be causing it? Could there be damage to their systems?"

"I don't know. They don't really need the systems to be operating for them to return. Just the turbine for the oxygen recycling. Removing the weights should be enough to get Voyager coming back toward the surface."

Col. Foster thought a moment. "What if they had someone else on board? Would extra weight be enough to account for the craft's slowness?"

Chris shook his head. "Not unless the entire sphere was stacked full of people. I just don't get it." Suddenly his eyes widened, and he returned to the radar, watching closely. Finally, he turned back to Paul, looking pale. "I think..." he whispered, "I think that Voyager is full of water!"

"What?"

Chris looked grim. "If they experienced a complete systems failure, they might not have had enough oxygen to return to Skydiver." He took a deep breath. "I think Ed might make it okay, but I'm not so sure about Captain Carlin."

Paul wanted to ask why Chris felt that Straker could survive being submersed for such a long period, but the alarms clanged again, signalling Voyager's imminent docking. The two men rushed aft. The next minutes were tense as they assisted the rest of the crew in bringing the small craft on board and tethering it. There had been no communication from the sphere itself, which made Paul nervous. When they finally released the hatch of the craft, he was expecting the worst.

Water poured out, draining through a hatch in the floor of Skydiver that Chris had hurried to open. Once the craft was emptied of water, Commander Straker, Captain Carlin, and a young woman emerged from the sphere. Paul just gaped at them.

Chris went up and clapped his brother on the back. "Damn it, Ed. You could warn somebody before doing a stunt like that."

Straker grinned. "Sorry, Chris. It was the only way for us to get back to Skydiver in one piece. We didn't have enough oxygen left. I'm afraid the water ruined some of the equipment, though."

Chris rolled his eyes. "Jesus, Ed."

The commander held up an odd piece of equipment for his brother to see. "I brought you a present that might make up for it," he said with a smile.





EPILOGUE

Straker left the big homecoming party at HQ and drove to the cemetery, needing the peace and quiet he knew he'd find there. He had some things to talk over with his son.

He parked the car along the road and ventured up the side of the hill. As he approached John's grave, he could see that someone else was there. He stopped for a moment, unsure what to do. If it was Mary...

She turned her head just then, and he could see that it wasn't his exwife. He frowned. It looked like...

Sheila.

He quickened his steps. As he got closer, he could hear her speaking. Eventually, he could make out the words.

"...it's just not right." She was running her fingers over the R in Rutland as she spoke. "I'll bet you hate her for burying you like this, without even letting you have your real name. It's okay, you know. I'd hate her too." She suddenly seemed to become aware that she wasn't alone. She glanced up and saw him standing there. She jumped up, flustered and nervous. Straker could see that she'd been crying; that in fact, tears were still streaming down her face.

"Sheila," he said, too stunned to say more.

She dashed a hand across her face. "I'm sorry," she stammered, backing up and trying to compose herself. "I'll just... go." She turned and ran for her car, which was parked along the opposite road.

Straker came out of his daze. "Wait!" He hurried after her, catching up with her by the time she reached her car. He grabbed her arm before she could open the car door. "Sheila," he said, "what is it? Why are you here?"

She grimaced. "Because I'm too curious for my own good, of course." She took a deep breath and leaned back against the car. "I wanted to know why you've always remained in the shadows. Even when I knew you before, you must have stood back from me, or else why would my mind remember you that way? So I looked you up, checked out what you were doing twelve years ago."

He looked at her silently, knowing that she was hurting. "I'm sorry, Sheila."

"You were married, weren't you?" she asked, her eyes filled with a deep pain. "And your wife was pregnant."

He sighed. "Yes."

"Did we have an affair?" she asked, staring at the trees.

"No."

Her gaze took in his bleak expression. "If nothing had happened to me...if I hadn't disappeared, would we have?"

He ran a hand over his face. "Probably."

"And I would have destroyed you."

"No!" he denied.

She closed her eyes, trying to stop the flow of her tears. "Has there ever been a time when I didn't cause you pain, Ed?"

He was shocked. "Sheila. It wasn't like that."

She shook her head, not believing him. "I can't blame you for wanting nothing to do with me," she said and opened the car door. Then she looked at him. "I won't bother you anymore. I'll stay out of your way, I promise. But someday, I'll remember my past." Her chin tilted. "And then you'd better watch out, Ed Straker. Because I'll be coming for you."

Straker stepped closer. "Sheila," he said quietly, "I'm not worth your tears."

She looked at him silently from the driver's seat. Then she lifted a trembling hand to his face. "You are the greatest man I have ever known," she whispered. "It would take me a lifetime to show you how much you mean to me. No, several lifetimes. I wish..." She broke off, took a shaky breath, and said, "I need to go now."

He let her close the car door, but couldn't let her leave without saying what he'd needed to say for twelve years. He could no longer bear the thought of not telling her. "Sheila, I love you."

She looked at him through the open window, tears falling freely down her cheeks. "I know," she said and blindly put the car in gear.

His own vision blurred as he watched her drive away.