5. The Rescue Mission

(A UFO Story)

written by Denise Felt

copyright 2001

ACT I

Straker pulled up to the mansion and parked in the circular drive. He watched for the dogs as he got out of the car and was relieved not to see them anywhere around. The yard was not quite empty, however. He saw Sheila on her knees at the side of the house, digging in the dirt. She sat back as he approached and put down her trowel. He could see that she was planting a bush of what looked like tea roses next to the house.

"What's up?" she asked as he came forward, her head tilted in a considering way. Then she noticed the newspaper he had tucked under his arm and got to her feet with a frown. "Is something wrong?"

He looked grimly at her and tried for calm. "You're seeing Paul again."

She shrugged. "It wasn't the big deal the paper made it out to be," she explained. "We met at the party, talked a bit, and danced a few times."

The photographer had caught them dancing, and Straker wondered how long it would be before that image no longer burned a hole in him. His voice was hard when he asked, "Did you leave with him?"

She gasped. "That's none of your business!"

"It's a simple enough question."

She was shocked. "You're jealous!"

He lifted a brow. "And you're surprised?"

She stared at him a long moment, then said quietly, "There's no reason to be, Ed. You know that. I told you how I feel about him." She shook her head. "And you know how I feel about you."

"Will you be seeing him again?"

She lifted a brow at his tone. "Does it matter?" she countered.

He drew a harsh breath. "I'd appreciate it if you didn't see him again, Sheila."

She dusted off her hands and compressed her lips. "I'll remember that if I ever find myself wanting to please you." She went to go past him and into the house, but he caught her arm and stopped her. She glared at him, ignoring the electric shock that ran up her arm at his touch.

"I'm not asking," he said grimly.

She shook him off angrily. "I've done everything you've asked of me," she said huskily. "Even when I didn't like it, because I knew that you had a good reason for your requests. But neither you nor anyone else has the right to tell me who my friends may be." She tilted her chin and added, "I can't even think of a time you would have that right."

Even through his anger, he couldn't help but admire the fire in her eyes.

"Tell me this," she said when he merely glared back at her, "do you even have a reason?"

Straker sighed. "Not one you'd accept," he admitted.

"I'm listening," she said in a more moderate tone, her anger dying at the look in his eyes.

"It isn't you I don't trust, Sheila. It's him. I've known Foster for several years. He can be very persuasive when it comes to getting what he wants from a woman."

"And you think he wants me?"

"I know it," he said grimly.

She laid a hand on his arm. "He respects you more than that, you know. If you want to know what we were talking about the other night, I can tell you this. He told me to make a push for you." She smiled slightly at his look of surprise. "Does that sound like a man who intends to encroach on his friend's territory?"

He closed his eyes for a moment, ashamed. Why was it that his judgment was always so impaired where she was concerned? "I'm sorry, Sheila. I was out of line. I shouldn't have come." He gave a small shrug. "It just hurts to think of you with him. And not even because I'm worried about you making love with him. I don't know how to explain it." He ran a distracted hand through his white blonde hair.

"Try," she urged quietly.

His look was haunted. "I'm jealous of the smiles he gets to see that I don't, the things you say to him, the way you laugh." He spread his hands in a helpless gesture. "I can't bear it."

"You made your choice, Ed."

"Don't kid yourself," he said harshly. "I had no choice." He started to leave, then turned back. "Will you see him again?" he asked once more.

"Yes," she answered. "I need his friendship. Think about it, Ed. He's the only one I can talk to about you. Surely you don't expect me to pass up such opportunities?"

Straker thought of this vivacious, desirable woman as Paul Foster's friend and voiced his private fear. "He's very handsome. He'll turn your head sooner or later."

She put her hands on her hips. "At least you don't have to watch me kiss him or hold him in my arms!"

"What are you talking about?" he asked, completely bewildered.

She swallowed. "I can't turn on the TV or pop in a movie without seeing you plastered up against some buxom beauty. How easy do you think that is for me?"

He was honestly shocked. He'd had no idea she might have a problem with his work. "It's just acting, Sheila."

She blinked back tears, looking away. "I know that. It doesn't make it any easier."

He frowned at her for a moment, then said, "Do you want me to stop acting?"

Now she was shocked. "No! Of course not! I just want you to realize that you're not the only one who is finding this situation difficult. I miss you, too." She took a tentative step toward him. "What would be the harm in going out sometime, or even going somewhere for a cup of coffee? We could keep it someplace public. We could even make it a rule that the past is not to be discussed. Surely that would be okay?"

Straker realized with a pounding heart that she was having as hard a time staying away as he was. He didn't know if it was his emotions short- circuiting his brain or not, but her arguments sounded so reasonable. "I'll think about it," he told her to give him the time to figure it out. He took a deep breath and stepped closer to her, knowing this was a mistake and not giving a damn. He drew her into his arms and kissed her.

When he was able to draw back, ending the kiss, he found that he was not yet capable of releasing her. He breathed in the smell of sunlight on her dark hair and never wanted to move. "Next time you watch one of those movies," he said huskily, "remember that this is reality." He reluctantly released her and laid a hand against her cheek. "And this is where I'd rather be."

He left without another word.

* * *

"Moonbase to Lunar Module," Lt. Gay Ellis said into the microphone, "switch to computer control for landing."

"Roger." Paul Foster sat back in his pilot's seat, allowing the automatic controls to bring the big ship down. He grinned back at his passenger, the cute new lieutenant who had accompanied him and Jones up from Earth. He was looking forward to getting to know her better this next week.

Dee returned his smile with a slight one of her own. She was still a bit queasy from the flight, but didn't want to show it. All she needed was an apprentice wolf sniffing about her heels while she was still trying to adjust to being off-planet for the first time. She refrained from rolling her eyes, afraid that it might give her vertigo. What was it about military men? Too much testosterone?

"It was a good flight," Jones said to the colonel as he relaxed in his co- pilot's seat.

Paul nodded. "Those are my favorite kind," he said with feeling. He watched the view of the stars as they settled into port. Suddenly he leaned forward. "What the devil...?" He turned to the co-pilot. "Did you see that?"

"Where, sir?" Jones asked, looking up from the instrument panel.

Foster toggled the switch for the radio. "Moonbase, this is Col. Foster in the Lunar Module. Are you showing anything on radar?"

Gay frowned at the console in the command sphere, glancing over at Joan only to see her shaking her head. "No, Colonel. The radar is clear. What is it?"

"I just saw something hovering above the base. It was huge. I don't see it now, but it was definitely there. Are you certain the radar didn't show anything?"

"Yes, Colonel."

He frowned. "Go to red alert and check other frequencies. I'll be there in just a few minutes."

* * *

"What did it look like, Paul?" Straker asked.

Paul leaned against Moonbase's console, looking at his commander on the viewscreen. "I know this is going to sound weird, sir, but it looked like a large bird."

Gay glanced swiftly at him, then went back to her work. But Straker at SHADO HQ seemed unperturbed, which made it easier for Paul to answer his questions. "How large a bird are we talking here?"

"I'd say almost a hundred meters in length. It was definitely metallic, sir. A ship of some kind. I don't know why it didn't show up on radar, or why I only saw it for a moment, but I'll swear it was there."

"Step down to yellow alert, Colonel, if contact isn't reestablished within the hour. And I'd feel a lot easier if you kept someone posted on the observation deck for the next 24 hours. Visual contact may be our only way to track it."

"Yes, sir."

* * *

Commodore N'var sat at his desk aboard his ship. The Raven was a small vessel, it was true. But he would match her against any other ship in the fleet for sheer speed and maneuverability. He had the reports from his engineer, L'tok, and his science officer, P'car, in front of him. They had checked out the base on the moon, but it had not been a spaceport as they had at first assumed. It seemed to be for defensive purposes only, and he would rather not engage in battle with this race. At least not until they knew more. They had established a high orbit over the island country that P'car had isolated during their research. Now he just had to talk N'dora into using the probe.

N'var noticed the fine trembling of his fingers and clenched them into a fist. What was it about a woman that made her harder to face than ten irate Nausicaans? He sighed and unclenched his fingers to run a calloused hand over his eyes. She had been so traumatized by her last use of the probe. He had not fully realized the extent of her psychic bruise until he had approached her for the purpose of mating. She had not responded well. And he wished he could be completely certain that her rejection of him had only been because of probe trauma. He was relatively new as her commodore. Perhaps she preferred another.

He sat up straight as she came into his small office. Her copper hair had tendrils that were woven into an intricate design about her head. The rest of it fell in luxurious beauty down her back. He remembered the feel of it in his hands and stifled a groan. There was no time for such things now. The next few minutes would require all the diplomacy at his command. "N'dora, be seated," he said.

She gave him a formal head bow, saying, "My lord," as she sat down in the chair near the desk.

He flicked on the visual display and directed her attention to it. "This is the continent where our survey team settled 40 clinks ago. The natives call it the United States. P'car was able to find only four of the original team in their historical records. They are all dead. The fifth member of the team is listed as missing. We presume she is dead as well."

"What happened to them, my lord?" she asked.

His lips disappeared between his red mustache and beard as his expression became grim. "They were exterminated. Brutally."

N'dora said, "And the offspring?"

"There were only two, a son in one family and a daughter in the other. The son died at the time his father was killed. His mother is the missing team member. The daughter of the second family survived the deaths of her parents and her mother's sister. We had hopes of being able to contact her for a report on the fate of the survey team. However, she too is dead. She died recently, about half a clink ago."

"Then we have no leads?" N'dora was certain that N'var would leave no stone unturned on this primitive planet to find out the truth, but she had hoped for an easy assignment this time. She hadn't been sleeping well, and exhaustion was making it difficult to look forward to her duties each day.

"We have one," he stated quietly. "S'mon's daughter died in a vehicular accident on another continent. She was not driving the ground transport, but was a passenger." He looked up at her from under his bushy brows. "The driver lives."

N'dora frowned. "Then her death was not planned."

He shrugged. "We cannot be certain until we have more facts. These Earthlings are not as physically strong as our people. I find it suspicious that this one lived while S'mon's daughter died. However, we have located this Earthling." He brought up the second image on the screen. This image was a publicity photograph. "He is called Edward Straker, and he dwells on the island we are situated above at the present time. He works as some sort of entertainment person. I believe P'car called him a film producer. It matters not. We must discover what he knows about S'mon's daughter's death and the fate of our survey team."

N'dora looked closely at the viewscreen. This Straker did not appear strong enough to withstand physical combat. How did he survive a vehicular accident? She began to understand N'var's disbelief. But there was something at the back of those eyes that gave her pause. She was intrigued. "Will you make direct contact?"

N'var shook his head. "That is unadvisable at present. Our records show this planet to be too primitive to accept our existence with equanimity." He drew a breath. "We will need to use the probe."

She flinched so slightly that only by watching closely were his sharp eyes able to detect it. "Yes, my lord," she said woodenly.

"L'tok should have the coordinates where this Earthling may be located," he told her. He nodded a curt dismissal to her, but only drew breath after she had left the room. He knew how hard this would be on her. Those who experienced psychic trauma sometimes never fully recovered. But he had great need of her, both as his first officer and as a potential mate. Sooner or later, she would be forced to operate the probe again, if only to prove to herself that she was well. He had ordered P'car to keep a strict eye on her whenever she was using the probe during this mission. Far better that she try to operate the system once more while he was there to keep careful watch. N'var would not allow the same harm to come to her that her previous commodore had permitted. At the first sign of trouble, he would pull her off the equipment. She was far too valuable to put into danger a second time.





ACT II

Why do you haunt me in the night while I'm asleep?

Why do you haunt me? What is it that you need?

I'm haunted... by the shadow of the things you do.

Haunted... do you feel this way too?

Straker listened to the words as Sheila's liquid voice poured out of his speakers. He realized that the song had probably been written about him, but to him it seemed as though the song was about her, and how haunted his life had been since first meeting her. She had made the shallowness of his marriage stand out in stark relief, not by anything she had ever said, but simply by being the real thing up against the facade. In all the years since her disappearance, he had never once been tempted to remarry. He'd been like Heathcliff mourning his lost Cathy. No one had come close to touching him as she had.

Until Laura. And he had wondered occasionally if his love for Laura would have survived Sheila's return. It was a thorn in his side that caused him pain at unexpected moments. There was no way he would ever know now, and somehow that made it harder to bear instead of easier.

He slipped into bed, turning the music down, but not off. He hadn't been home since he'd returned from Boston yesterday morning. It had been so good to be back at his desk again that he'd been in no hurry to leave. He'd promoted a new officer, sent Paul to Moonbase for a week, and finished the paperwork for the American distribution of the new science fiction series. And that had just been Friday. This morning when he'd visited the early shoot to talk to Buck about the deal, he'd been surprised to find Nina there, chatting with the writing team. Especially since he knew she hated the show. But within five minutes, he could see that she wasn't there because of Encounters. She was there because of Buck. In fact, it had looked as though both of them were still up after a long night. He had kept his inevitable reflections to himself.

It hadn't been until he'd been reading the paper that he'd had any trouble. Seeing Sheila smiling up into Paul's face as they waltzed had swiftly ruined a fine morning. He'd stormed off to confront her, which was stupid, and ended up kissing her, which bordered on insanity. Straker fluffed his pillows and settled back against them. Would it really be possible for them to see each other, not on a serious basis, but as friends? He didn't know, and would never know for certain if he couldn't keep his heart from bounding at the mere thought of it.

Paul's phantom bird had livened up a tedious evening. Somehow HQ had seemed flat after the morning he'd had. He closed his eyes, wishing he could be more grateful for those periods of relative inactivity. He should be grateful. But he hated never knowing what the aliens would try next. How did you second guess a race you didn't really even understand? But tonight he'd finally admitted how tired he was and gone home. He had the CD playing and was actually looking forward to a good night's sleep. And he hoped that hearing Sheila's husky voice throughout the night would give him pleasant dreams.

* * *

N'dora refused to show any hesitation as she approached her station. She sat down at the probe controls and put on the headset. Her hands trembled slightly, but her movements were relaxed as she adjusted the controls to Level 1. "Coordinates?" she asked of L'tok at the engineering station. He fed them to her console, and she entered them into the data stream. She was aware that P'car at the science station was watching her closely, but she did not acknowledge him. She would do this, and she would conquer the fear.

She drew a deep breath as she flicked on the switch, reminding herself that this target was no Nausicaan. He was just a measly Earthling. She could handle him. She fine tuned the apparatus and announced quietly, "Contact."

* * *

N'dora found herself in an office, seated before a desk. The target for interrogation sat at the desk, a large multicolor light mural behind him. He looked at her with the most beautiful blue eyes she had ever seen and said quietly, "I won't send you back there, Sheila. Thompson can do the work needed."

"Thompson!" When the scornful word came out of her mouth, N'dora realized that this man, Straker, was in the earliest stages of dream sleep, where memories were reenacted. Garn! She would be forced to be a part of this scene without the ability to change anything. For the prober, this was the most potentially dangerous time. As she had found out to her horror with that disgusting Nausicaan a few clirks ago. It seemed the bastards never slept deeper than the first stage. Which might account for their beastly tempers, she thought. N'dora almost broke the contact, but knew with a sinking heart that if she backed out now, she might find herself incapable of trying again. She gritted her teeth, deciding to risk it.

As the woman whose image she was sharing jumped up from her seat and leaned over the desk, she saw that her hair was a dark brown, nearly black, and fell well past her shoulders. "You know he won't be able to get that system back up and running as quickly as I can. How can you allow Moonbase to be put in danger for that long?"

Straker leaned forward in his chair, his eyes kindling with anger. N'dora was mesmerized at this glimpse of his power. She had been right to suspect there might be more to him. "Shall we talk about danger to Moonbase, Colonel? Have you forgotten already how dangerous your presence makes it for everyone on Moonbase?"

She shrugged, folding her arms. "I'd be there one day, two tops. The danger will be minimal, I promise you."

He frowned at her. "Why are you insisting on this, Sheila? It's suicide, and you know it."

She sat back down with a sigh and ran a hand through her hair. "I can't take this any more." N'dora could feel her pain as she lifted her eyes to him. "I'm forced to see you every day. I have to work with you, speak to you, but I'm not allowed to touch you, to be with you. Maybe you can handle that just fine. After all, aren't you the man with the iron will?"

Her bitter words brought an answering bitter smile to his face. "I know it's not easy, Sheila," he said. "What would you have me do?"

"Oh, no," she said, shaking her head. "You're not passing this off to me! Do you think I could live with myself if I caused the kind of trouble that could happen here? Whether your marriage lasts, Ed, is between you and your wife. I won't be a part of it. Damn it, surely you realize that!"

"I was referring to your request to return to Moonbase," he said with a semblance of calm.

She covered her face with her hands. After a few minutes, she got up from the chair and walked over to the side wall, where an enormous abstract painting hung. A long conference table sat in pieces up against the wall, waiting to be assembled. She stared at the painting, feeling as churned up inside as the painting portrayed.

She felt him come up beside her and suppressed a shudder of desire. Her thoughts where he was concerned were no longer even decent, let alone coherent. She had no idea where he was getting the strength to resist the pull of the attraction. Her own resistance had died a pitiful death months ago.

Straker's deep voice said quietly, "I'm not made of iron, Sheila. I wish with all my heart that I was free to say the things to you that I long to say, to do what I long to do. But I'm not free. I may never be free. A man doesn't turn his back on his family. You're not the only one who wouldn't be able to live with that solution." He spread his hands in a gesture of despair. "There isn't any real solution, except just to carry on. One day at a time, if necessary. What other option do we have?"

Tears were welling up in her eyes and falling down her cheeks. She didn't seem to notice them, but N'dora was appalled. She was letting a man see her cry? "Send me to Moonbase, Ed. Please."

He was shaken by the sight of her tears and lifted a hand to wipe away a tear. "I can't, Sheila. Don't ask me to put you in danger. It would tear me into pieces." His hand rested on her cheek, his thumb wiping away each tear as it fell from her eye. They looked at each other in silence for a long moment, and N'dora felt every muscle in her body go lax at the expression in those blue eyes. He stepped closer and said huskily, "I've been wondering about hell lately. How hot do you think perdition's flames really are?"

He kissed her, and N'dora jerked at the controls, almost losing contact. The bolt of power that surged through her body was incredible. And arousing. She clung to him, unable to even think. Alarm bells were going off in her head, but she was powerless to break the kiss. Nor did she want to. She'd had no idea that passion could be so exhilarating.

Suddenly, she became aware that the alarm bells were not in her head after all, but were issuing from an apparatus on his desk. He groaned and released her, reaching for the phone.

And woke up.

* * *

In the Solarian ship, N'dora jerked forward in her seat and opened her eyes. She threw down the headset with a hand that shook and muttered fiercely, "Garn and his three sons!"

P'car was watching her with a frown on his face. "What is it, N'dora?"

She turned to him, trying to calm the racing of her heart and the tremors of passion that were still coursing through her body. "He woke up."

P'car's frown deepened, and he got up to come over to her station. "How was he able to do that? These Earthlings are not reputed to have much mental control."

She remembered the woman Sheila's accusation that Straker had a will of iron. She frowned and said, "Perhaps this one is not normal. I shall have to try again at Level 2."

"Is there danger?"

N'dora shook her head. "There shouldn't be. His mind is certainly not weak. I cannot have him waking up on me again, P'car. How then would I get him to tell us what we need to know?"

P'car shrugged and returned to his station, glad that he was not the one called upon to go inside an alien mind. The very thought was distasteful.

* * *

Straker entered his HQ office and felt an intense rush of deja vu. He almost expected to see Sheila standing near the conference table. He rubbed a hand tiredly over his face. He couldn't remember when he had slept so deeply. Obviously, leaving the music on had been a help. But nothing had protected him from Alec's call.

Col. Freeman came into the office just then with the printouts. "Here, Ed. We've tracked the ghost twice now in the past few hours. I let it slide the first time, because there was no way to be sure that it was the ship that Paul thought he saw. It could just have been a radar echo. But when it showed up again, I knew we had to call you."

"No problem, Alec," Straker said, wondering vaguely why he could still taste that kiss. "I'm glad you called. The bird seems to have changed its position away from Moonbase."

"Yes," Alec said grimly, "but that last track puts it directly over England and SHADO HQ."

Straker shook his head. "I refuse to panic over what may turn out to be a radar ghost, Alec." The commander frowned at the printout. "Besides, that orbit is surely too high to cause us any trouble?" When Alec just shrugged, he added, "Keep track of every radar glitch until further notice. That way we'll know the minute we track either a change in course or a lowered orbit."

"Got it," his friend said. "Were you asleep when I called?" he asked, getting himself a drink from the dispenser.

"Yes. Why?"

Alec grinned. "You sounded completely out of it."

Straker lifted a brow at him. "And that pleases you?"

"Of course. It's about time I got my revenge on you for all those late night phone calls."

Straker smiled. "Well, you had a very successful revenge, Alec. I was having a really good dream when you interrupted."

Alec chuckled and sipped his bourbon. "Good."

* * *

Straker sat in his command chair after Alec went back to work, remembering his dream. It had actually been more like a memory, since everything in it had happened the same way as it had eleven years ago. But the vividness of it surprised him. His fingers could still feel the texture of her cheek and the wetness of her tears. Had seeing Sheila today made his dream more vivid, or had it been the CD he'd been playing? He frowned, deciding that perhaps classical music would be a better bedtime choice from now on. The last thing he wanted to do was make his life harder by having extremely vivid dreams of Sheila every night.

He closed his eyes on a sigh, wishing he was back home. He was so tired...

As he was pulled into unconsciousness, he slid out of his chair onto the floor.

* * *

"Got him!" N'dora announced, adjusting the probe controls for maximum gain.





ACT III

N'dora found herself in a dwelling. A large open area was broken up by half walls to give the semblance of individual rooms without losing any of its airiness. On every wall were paintings, as though the man who dwelt here could not bear an empty wall. She was attracted to a large painting over the mantle. It looked almost Maloran in design, an impressionistic mass of color and light. As she came closer, she could make out the vague silhouette of a bridge over water in the design. How intriguing. She frowned as she touched it, amazed to feel the texture of the paint against her fingers. How had the artist achieved such luminosity without the use of light?

"Laura."

She turned at the sound of that voice, finding Straker standing a few feet away. He was dressed informally in some type of lounging robe layered over night clothes. N'dora looked down at herself to see that she was wearing a bright yellow dress. Her hair was much shorter this time and seemed to be the rich auburn of a Solarian. She smiled slowly, remembering that kiss. "Hi."

He came forward to run a hand down her hair. "Laura," he said again in wonder.

She grinned. His reaction told her much. "Have you missed me?"

His hand sought out her neck and caressed it. "Every day."

As she trembled at his touch, she realized that this man was a sensualist. He communicated more by touch than any other method. He reminded her oddly of N'var. She couldn't be certain why, since they were nothing at all alike in appearance. N'var was much darker, as well as nearly twice his size. Perhaps there was something about him which her senses recognized that her thoughts had yet to grasp? She strove to keep her mind on the task at hand. "You have a beautiful home."

He gave her a sad smile. "I never got the chance to show it to you. There were so many things we never had the time for, Laura."

N'dora wanted to drown in those incredible blue eyes. She knew this man was more than he seemed, had experienced his strength of will enough to be aware how misleading his slight appearance was. So she could not be certain that he had not deliberately killed Laura Simmons, S'mon's daughter, in the accident with the ground transport. But his reactions to her in the guise of Laura were telling her that he would not have done such a thing. S'mon's daughter had mattered to him. If that care had been enough to keep him from murder, she did not yet know. But she supposed she would find out. Eventually. She smiled up at him, aware that once again, she was inhabiting an image that was shorter than he was. It was unnerving to her. She was used to looking a man in the eye. However, this time she had freedom of movement and manipulation. "Why don't you show it to me now, Ed?" she asked with the slight smile that his thoughts associated with Laura.

He grinned, a mischievous twinkle lighting his normally solemn eyes. "That's a good idea." He took her hands and began leading her back to the room he had emerged from a few minutes ago. "Why don't we start with the bedroom?"

* * *

P'car saw N'dora stiffen at the controls. Her eyes were closed, but her hands had tightened on the arms of her chair. He kept one eye on her as he worked, but when she gave a soft moan, he frowned and got up from his station. He could see as he approached that her head was pressed against the back of the chair and not just resting there as before. He began to get nervous. If harm came to N'dora, Commodore N'var would kill him. Since she had not been aboard N'var's ship when she had suffered psychic trauma while interrogating the Nausicaan, he had no firsthand knowledge of the signs of trouble that would alert him to any danger to her. But P'car had heard that her screams had been horrible.

She was not screaming this time, but he could tell that her body was undergoing some type of physical stress. He had witnessed enough probers at work to be able to tell. But whether that stress was harmful, he didn't know. How could he? He wasn't inside the alien's mind as she was!

N'dora moaned again, a soft sound that reverberated with some extreme emotion. P'car put a hand on her shoulder, feeling the tension in her as he touched her. Suddenly, she went lax in her chair, and her eyes opened. They were unfocused, staring up at him with a glazed expression. "N'dora," he said, giving her shoulder a small shake.

She shuddered, and her eyes cleared. "What is it, P'car?" she asked quietly.

"Are you well?"

Her smile was full of hidden thoughts. "I am well," she told him.

P'car returned to his seat, relieved that he would not have to report any trouble to his commodore.

* * *

"He appears to be asleep."

Alec threw up his hands at Dr. Shroeder's diagnosis. "Damn it, he was on the floor when I found him! How could he just be asleep?"

"I agree with Col. Freeman," Dr. Jackson said unexpectedly. "Commander Straker may have fallen asleep at his desk. I doubt very much if it would be the first time. However, he is such a light sleeper that a fall would certainly have wakened him."

Alec grunted, unsure how to take Jackson's agreement. He knew very well that the good doctor always had motives within motives for everything he did. He wasn't sure he wanted him on his side.

"I can find nothing wrong with the commander," Shroeder stated, obviously displeased at their reactions. "Yes, he is sleeping very deeply, and our efforts to wake him have failed. But this could merely be due to exhaustion. Commander Straker does not seem to have normal sleep patterns."

"Commander Straker," Jackson corrected with a bite in his tone, "suffers from a severe sleep disorder. He rarely enters REM sleep at all. In his case, this deep a sleep might as well be a coma. It is not normal for him."

Freeman and Jackson exchanged a speaking glance, then Alec said, "Thank you, Dr. Shroeder. We'll let you know if his condition changes."

Shroeder compressed his lips and left the room, knowing a dismissal when he heard one.

Alec turned to Jackson. "Well? Is it possible that he's just exhausted?"

Jackson shook his head. "I don't think so. Commander Straker is used to going for long periods of time without proper sleep. I doubt very much if exhaustion would affect him this strongly."

"What is it then?"

The doctor had returned to the Medical Centre bed where Straker lay. He was rechecking his eyes for movement. After a moment, he looked at Alec and said, "If these were normal circumstances, I would say, Let him sleep. It would do his body a lot of good to experience a full night's rest." He shook his head. "But these are not normal circumstances." He frowned, looking down at the commander's peaceful face.

Alec looked as well, then turned away. "God! He looks like he's dead!"

Jackson's reptilian gaze turned in his direction. "That is merely because you are used to seeing the commander in motion. I assure you, Colonel. He is breathing."

Freeman ran a hand across his eyes. Jackson's remark about Straker needing a full night's sleep made him feel guilty for having gotten him out of bed tonight. But Ed had paid him back tenfold with that stunt in his office. Alec had aged five years upon finding his friend in a heap near his chair. He had been bringing in some reports for the commander when he'd spotted him. He wondered vaguely if anyone had picked up the scattered papers off the floor. He looked back at Jackson and saw his frown. "What is it?"

The doctor said, "The aliens may have found a way to invade dreams."

Alec gasped. "You mean like dream research?"

"Yes, Colonel. Only much more advanced. Depending on what they want from him, he may sleep for hours or days. " He gave Freeman a concerned look. "I am more worried about how they are extracting the information." At Alec's blank look, he explained grimly, "What sort of dreams they're forcing him to experience."

Alec slid into a nearby chair in shock. "Jesus!"

Jackson noted his white face and brought him a paper cup of water from the dispenser. He had forgotten for a moment that Col. Freeman did not possess the quick mind of his commander. Jackson always considered it a challenge to keep ahead of that lightning swift mind. Very rarely had he ever surprised Commander Straker. If he had told him what he had just told Freeman, the commander would have only nodded and asked a question of his own. Because the idea would have already occurred to him.

Alec composed himself enough to ask, "How are they keeping him asleep?"

"Their technology is not that much farther advanced than our own, Colonel. I would assume that they must be using a radio controlled device of some sort. I would think the range couldn't be too far, so it would have to be small enough to be hidden in his vicinity. You may wish to have someone check the office."

"I've already got them on it," Alec said. "But Ed was asleep when I called him in. I was surprised how disoriented he sounded on the phone. Do you think they might have planted something in his house?"

"It's possible."

Alec got up from the chair, still shaky, but glad to have something constructive to do. "We'll check it out." He looked at his unconscious friend a long moment. "Let me know if... if anything changes."

"Of course, Colonel," Jackson assured him.

* * *

The bedroom had disappeared. They were lying on the grass in a park. Beyond the trees, N'dora could see a small bridge over a stream. Straker reclined against a tree trunk, his beautiful eyes half-closed as he stroked her hair. It was so sensuous a caress that she wanted to purr, and she was surprised to realize that he derived pleasure from it as well.

This place seemed to exude a deep peace. N'dora had not considered the concept of a male requiring peace before. Solarian men were born warriors. When peace had conquered their homeworld, they had merely moved their skirmishes out into space. She was grateful to have the opportunity to probe this man. Not only was his ordered mind a novelty, but he was also a welcome respite from what she had recently endured. Somehow she didn't think this man was into dismemberment.

She frowned as she studied him. His shoulders were not nearly as broad nor his chest as powerful as his passion had made them seem. He was full of surprises, this one. Always both more and less than he seemed to be. N'dora was deeply intrigued and wondered if she would ever get the chance to meet him. She wanted to judge for herself his true dimensions.

He seemed deep in thought, and N'dora needed to be privy to those thoughts. She tugged at one of his chest hairs, and he smiled down at her. "How private is this place?" she asked him.

His smile became a wicked grin. "It's fairly isolated. Why? Are you feeling shy?"

N'dora stretched against the length of him, watching his eyes darken at the contact of flesh to flesh. "Not if you aren't," she taunted.

He laughed. "God, I love you," he said. Then he seemed to realize what he had said and frowned.

She ran a fingertip across his lips. "Changed your mind?"

"No," he said seriously. "I just never got the chance to tell you before. I thought I had plenty of time." He looked bleak. "Trust me, I won't make that mistake again."

"With me?"

"Ever." Then he shook his head, sighing. "How is it possible to love two totally different women?" he asked, but not as if he really expected an answer.

She thought about it for a moment, then shrugged. "I do not see the difficulty."

His gaze was very serious. "It seems so crazy somehow. As if I don't know my own heart. But I do. It's just that you are both there." He reached down and kissed her lightly.

"Who is she?"

Straker shook his head. "It is not good form to discuss another woman with the one you've just made love to."

She laughed, surprised. "Why not?"

"I don't know," he said, smiling at her expression. "It's one of those unwritten laws." He toyed with her hair. "I should have realized that I could speak to you about her. You would have understood."

She asked curiously, wanting to know more about this odd custom, "Could you have talked to her about me?"

His laugh was rueful. "No! Sheila would not have understood about you at all."

Sheila. The woman in his first dream. Interesting.

"I almost made love to her in this park," he said after a moment.

"Why didn't you?"

He looked at her, his eyes darkening, but not with passion. "I was afraid I might terrify her. She'd been through so much... I couldn't have taken it if she had been afraid of me. I felt that a more conventional place would be better for her."

N'dora thought of N'var and wondered for the first time how he had felt when she had screamed and run from him. The next time she had seen him, he had seemed fine, but now she wasn't so sure. Had it hurt him to feel her fear directed toward him? "What happened to her?"

His closed his eyes and when he opened them, they echoed a deep pain. "I'm not sure. But it was quite horrible. Do you want to know something? I don't think that I could bear knowing what happened."

"But wouldn't it be better for her to be able to talk about it?"

"Perhaps," he admitted. "If she remembered. And she's determined to remember, in spite of all my efforts to get her to let it go."

"I don't understand why it would bother you," N'dora said, puzzled.

His lips tightened. "Because it's my fault she was captured! If she hadn't been trying so hard to keep from destroying my marriage, she wouldn't have returned to Moonbase."

She drew a breath. "You blame yourself."

He closed his eyes, forcing back the tears. "Yes." N'dora held him tightly. After a moment, he returned her hug, allowing her to comfort him. "You know what has worried me the most about meeting her again?" he asked a little while later.

"What?"

"If you had lived, I would have asked you to marry me."

She grinned at him. "And I would have said, Yes."

He gave her a soft smile. "But what would have happened when I found out that Sheila was alive? I've been afraid that my love for her would have cancelled out my love for you, just as it did before where my wife was concerned. But my love for Mary was nothing compared to my love for you, so I was never sure."

"Why should you worry?" she asked. "I didn't live."

"I know, but I felt unfaithful to you for even wanting her." He looked at her sadly. "I know it doesn't make much sense."

N'dora rested her chin on her hands, which were propped on his chest. She considered his face a moment. "Well, I'd say that you still want me."

"Yes," he said, "and that makes me realize that perhaps we would have weathered it just fine. I can't tell you what a load it is off my mind!"

He sounded so relieved that she laughed.

Suddenly he grasped her chin, looking closely at her face. "Laura, have I forgotten so quickly the color of your fine eyes?"

She blinked, adjusting her eyecolor back to the lighter hazel that Laura had, instead of the dark hazel of her own eyes. She would need to be more careful about such details with him. Those gorgeous eyes of his were very observant.

He smiled and relaxed against the tree again. "God, I never want to forget you," he said fervently.



ACT IV

Alec sat at Straker's HQ desk with his head in his hands. They had put the office back together after the search. And his bedroom at the house, as well. He wanted everything back to normal if

---when---Ed woke up. But the security teams hadn't found any alien devices. Nothing at all that would explain his friend's prolonged sleep.

Jackson had told him to go home and try to rest. But how was he supposed to sleep when Ed could be enduring who-knew-what-kinds of torture? Just because it was all happening in his mind didn't make it not real. He sighed, feeling every bone in his body crying out with weariness. He wondered for the millionth time how Ed handled this kind of schedule. Hell, he hadn't seen the inside of his apartment for two days! It was a good thing that Straker had always insisted that the command team each have quarters at HQ. Otherwise, he'd still be wearing the same suit he'd been wearing when he had found his friend on the floor of this office.

Miss Eeland was handling the broken appointments and meeting cancellations for them. But she wasn't sure what to do about the reporters. Everyone wanted an interview with Straker about the upcoming movie premiere this next weekend. Alec had no idea how to fob them off without them getting wind of some calamity. How the hell did Ed deal with all this hassle? Alec wasn't even sure he was dealing with SHADO all that well in his friend's absence. They'd had a few more radar ghosts since the first two, but the position of the glitch had been the same, and Alec was beginning to believe it was merely a technical problem with their improved radar system. Those things always took months to work all the bugs out of. He sighed and rubbed his eyes.

He'd called Dr. Shroeder an hour ago to check on Ed's condition. No change. God, what comfort was that? The colonel got up from the desk and headed toward the Medical Centre. He needed to see his friend for himself.

* * *

"How lovely," N'dora remarked as she touched a nearby flower. They were now in a meadow with a bright sun shining down on them.

Straker smiled at her. "Daisies were my mother's favorite flower," he said.

She frowned, noticing that he was wearing clothes. "Excuse me, but why don't I get to be clothed?"

He ran a hand slowly down her back, causing her to arch against him. His grin was truly wicked. "Because it's my dream."

N'dora was so surprised that she laughed out loud. When she settled back on his chest, she ran a hand up under his shirt. "You are too beautiful to be covered," she told him.

He obediently got rid of the shirt, so that she could play with his chest hairs. But he cocked a brow at her and said, "Isn't that supposed to be my line?"

N'dora grinned. "Ed, where are we?"

"The Scottish moors," he quipped with a grin, thinking of Heathcliff and Cathy, but at her blank look, he told her, "In the meadow behind my family's home. The house is just past those trees," he said, pointing to where a roof could be seen over the tops of some trees. "And the family cemetery is right over there." He pointed back over his shoulder.

A cemetery? N'dora had always been fascinated by the burial customs of other races. "Who is buried there?"

"All of my mother's people," he answered. "And my mother, as well. I'll be buried there myself when I die." He frowned for a moment. "My son isn't buried there, though."

She sensed a sudden deep pain in him, so did not pursue that interesting comment. "Will you show me your mother's monument?"

He shook his head, running a hand down her hair. "Not today. I haven't been to see her since Dad told me the truth about our family. I'm not sure what to say to her."

N'dora frowned. This race spoke to their dead? What a fascinating culture! She wanted to make him take her to the cemetery, but decided such side trips would not facilitate her present mission. So instead, she asked him, "What truth?"

"That she wasn't my real mother." He laid back among the flowers with a hand behind his head and stared at the cloudless sky. "I mean, I always knew that something about her wasn't quite right. It's why I gave her such a hard time growing up, I suppose. I wish I had known the truth back then. I would have appreciated her much more, I think." He sighed and looked over at her. "Laura, how do you tell your mother that you love her more knowing that she wasn't your real mother than if she had been?"

This man was a constant amazement to her. He was concerned about the possible feelings of a woman who could no longer even hear him, let alone react to his comments. N'dora told him quietly, "The same way you're telling me, I suppose."

He smiled and squeezed her bare shoulder. "Maybe."

"Who is your real mother?" she asked, curious.

"Her name was Lenore. I don't remember her. She didn't come with us when we came here. She remained on Malora."

Her head came up. "You're Maloran," she said as if that explained much.

He grinned. "You told me to pick a star." He gave a small shrug. "I ended up with that one." Straker eyed her thoughtfully for a long moment. "I wish I knew where you were from, though."

She almost told him. Instead she said, "Would it matter?"

"No, but it would be fun to find out, don't you think?"

They shared a smile at the thought.

"Laura," he said sadly, "I wish you hadn't died."

She looked into those extraordinary eyes and heard herself say, "I will always be with you, Ed. I don't ever have to leave your thoughts if you don't want me to."

"I don't want you to."

She smiled sweetly at him. "Then I'll stay."

Straker chuckled. "Does that mean I can take you all the places I wanted to show you?"

"Of course." She sat up and fluffed her hair. "Where shall we go first?"

He grinned, enjoying her beauty for a moment before saying, "Well, I never did get to show you SHADO HQ." He shook his head. "And I was so looking forward to seeing what you thought of it."

"Then let's go there." She got up and extended a hand to him. As he stood up, he was again wearing his shirt. He looked at her for a moment with a glint in his eye, then she found herself in the yellow dress once more.

Suddenly, he turned away, looking out over the meadow. "Did you hear that?" he asked.

N'dora said, "No. What was it?"

He turned back to her with a puzzled frown. "I thought I heard Alec calling me." He turned away a second time. "There. I heard it again." He looked at her sadly. "Laura, I have to go to him. He needs me."

"No, Ed!"

But he was no longer there, nor was the meadow. All around her was only grey.

* * *

"Damn it, Ed, wake up!" Alec whispered fiercely, tired of looking at that peaceful face. He'd been sitting there talking to him for a long time. He had been complaining about trying to do two jobs at once, and hadn't received any insight yet on how to deal with the hassle of trying to juggle two completely different responsibilities. However, he'd gotten a lot off his chest.

Suddenly, Straker's head moved on the pillow. Alec jerked back, saying, "Ed?"

"Alec?"

At the sound of that quiet voice, Alec had to blink back tears. He leaned closer. "Ed? Ed! Wake up!"

Straker's brow furrowed. "Alec?" His eyes were still closed, but Freeman could see that he was struggling to gain full consciousness.

"That's it, Ed. All the way awake now!" he encouraged.

* * *

"Garn and his entire army!"

P'car looked up, shocked. "N'dora?" he asked at the sight of her angry frown. "What is it?"

She was fiercely adjusting the controls to the probe. "He's trying to wake up!"

The science officer came over to her station. "How is that possible?"

"I don't know," she said grimly, "but I was just about to acquire his deepest secrets." She looked up at him for a moment. "In your research, is there any mention of a SHADO?"

"Not in my research," P'car answered. "But I have been monitoring the transmissions from that moon for a while. SHADO seems to be the Earthlings' military installation. They seem to have even picked us up on their radar." At her lifted brow, he explained. "The curtain is still giving us trouble from the encounter with the Breen. It is not yet hiding us 100% of the time. L'tok is working on it."

She nodded, frowning at the data stream. "I am going to Level 3."

P'car gasped. "N'dora! You must not! It is too much for their fragile minds!"

Her glance was fierce. "Not too much for his mind, I assure you. Trust me, P'car," she continued in a more moderate tone. "I will not let him come to harm. But I will not give up this close to the goal." She threw the switch.

* * *

Alec Freeman sat in a chair in the hallway outside the Medical Centre. He was staring at a square of tile on the floor when Dr. Jackson came out and did not look up as he approached.

"Col. Freeman," Jackson said to get his attention. The man who looked up at him wore such a beaten expression in his eyes that the doctor nearly winced. "Colonel, I need to know what happened in there. How did Commander Straker go into a coma?"

Alec shook his head. "He was waking up. He said my name and tried to wake up." His face hardened for a moment. "But they wouldn't let him." He ran a hand across his eyes. "I guess you can rule out any natural cause for his excessive sleeping, doctor. That move was quite deliberate."

Jackson frowned. "Interesting. You say he knew you?"

Freeman nodded wearily. "I'd been telling him to wake up, and then he moved. And I realized that he was trying to, but something was keeping him from making it all the way." He looked at the doctor intently. "I know how they're getting him to talk, though."

Dr. Jackson lifted his brows. "Indeed?"

Alec said grimly, "They're not using torture. They've got something much more effective that they're using on him. Pleasure."

"Why do you say that, Colonel?" the doctor asked.

"Because the last thing he said before they pulled him back was, Laura."

Jackson stared at him in horror, unable to think of a single thing to say.

Alec shook his head. "I kept wondering why he wasn't fighting them. Damn it, Ed's a fighter! He wouldn't let them keep him asleep against his will. But who would fight the woman of his dreams?" His gaze returned to the floor tile as he asked, "How bad is he?"

Dr. Jackson sighed. "He's not good. His blood pressure and heart rate have both bottomed out. We haven't had to hook him up to life support, but I don't know how long it will be before we will have to. I must ask you not to try to wake him again."

"Don't worry, I won't!" retorted Freeman, stung.

* * *

N'dora gazed at the sign on the wall for a long moment. Supreme Headquarters Alien Defense Organisation, she read from his thoughts. Her fingers touched the words Alien Defense, and she looked at him. "This designation is a bit ambiguous, isn't it, Ed?"

Straker lifted a brow. "Is it?"

She nodded. "Are you defending aliens or defending against aliens?"

He smiled. "At this point, a little of both." At her inquiring look, he said, "Although our original purpose is as a defense against aliens."

* * *

"Sir, we have another glitch on radar," Lt. Ford told Alec as he entered the control room.

"Let me see it." The colonel watched the radar sweep locate it once, twice, then not at all. He ran a disgusted hand through his hair. "What the hell is that thing?"

"We haven't been able to identify it, sir," the lieutenant said.

"Where is it? Still overhead?"

"Yes, sir."

Alec turned from the console in anger, then stopped suddenly. "Jesus! I've done it again!"

"Sir?" Lt. Ford didn't know what to make of the colonel's comment.

"I'll be in the Medical Centre, Lieutenant. Have the interceptors put on standby."

Yes, sir."

* * *

Straker led her through the corridor and into the control room. She could tell from his expression that he was very proud of this place, but to her it seemed sadly antiquated. Large banks of computers lined the walls while operatives sat at ancient consoles. N'dora marvelled that they were even in operation. What aliens could they possibly fight with this equipment? She gave him an encouraging smile and squeezed the hand she was holding. But she did not try to make any comment. She was certain he would detect any note of falseness in it.

He led her into an office, and she blinked. She knew this place well enough, although the conference table was now standing instead of in pieces against the wall. Several other items had been added as well, but she tried not to take too much time noticing. She wasn't supposed to have been here before. "How beautiful," she said, going to the wall mural behind his desk.

Straker's smile was a little twisted. "I picked it up at an out-of-the-way art gallery many years ago, because I thought it would go great in here." He shrugged. "I guess the artist must have been Maloran."

She shook her head, amazed to realize that members of the Maloran race had survived the destruction of their planet. Who would have thought that they could be found here on this primitive planet? "It soothes you," she said.

"Yes, it does." Straker looked at her, his heart full at the sight of Laura in his office. He kept remembering that fateful night, and how excited he had been to finally have her trust. To know that at last he could bring her to SHADO with no fear of danger to the organisation. He wanted to cry suddenly, wishing that he had just turned the damned car around and returned to London then. Maybe things would have turned out differently.

Maybe she would still be alive, instead of merely a resident of his dreams.

"Laura, I'm so sorry that I didn't protect you better."

N'dora frowned. He looked so sad, but she knew that whoever had caused Laura's death, it had not been this man. "You protected me well, Ed," she said, certain of it.

He shook his head. "I couldn't prevent your death. You shouldn't have tried to help me when they attacked us, you know. I'm not worth the price you paid. Nothing could be worth your death. Even the knowledge we gained from the aliens' ship was not enough to compensate for losing you."

Looking at him, she realized suddenly that N'var had nothing to fear from this man or his SHADO. In many ways, the two men were very similar. Both considered people the most important commodity. Far more important than advancement or strategic gain. She sighed, knowing that this man had helped her in ways that she could never begin to tell him. Not only by healing the pain that she had recently endured at the Nausicaan's hands, but in showing her a heart not unlike the man's she hoped to have as a mate. How could she repay such kindness?

How did women throughout time and space repay such generosity of heart?

She came to him, putting her arms around him and playing with the hairs at the base of his neck. "Is this place private?" she asked him provocatively.

He smiled slightly, pressing her closer into the circle of his arms. "Laura, allow me to show you the wonders of this little button," he said, pointing to the door lock on his desk console.

"This button?" she asked as she pressed it.

"That one," he agreed and kissed her.

* * *

"Jackson!" Col. Freeman burst into the Medical Centre without preamble.

The doctor turned from the hospital bed where Commander Straker lay and led the colonel to a chair by the door. "What is it?" he asked quietly.

Alec took a breath. He'd run all the way from the control room. "About the alien device. What if the technology was not close to ours? What if it was far advanced?"

The doctor frowned. "I don't understand."

Alec tried to calm his racing heart. "I made the same mistake before, you see. When Ed found that underwater city, my first thought was that it was the aliens. But it wasn't. It was another race entirely." He pressed an agitated hand to his eyes for a moment, then looked up at the doctor. "What if this race isn't our aliens either? What kind of limits would there be on the device then?"

Jackson was surprised. Obviously there was more to Col. Freeman's thought processes than he had given him credit for. "I suppose there would potentially be no limits, Colonel."

"So they could operate it from their ship even?"

"In theory."

"Even from high orbit?" Alec said, wanting to be sure.

"Yes."

"That's all I needed to know," the colonel said and dashed back out into the corridor. When he got to the control room, he told Ford briskly, "Launch those interceptors!"



ACT V

N'var strode into the command center and asked his engineer, "L'tok? Position!"

"Yes, my lord," responded the engineer quickly. "The jets are approaching from the moon. They are heading right toward us."

The commodore frowned. "Can they see us?"

"I do not believe so, my lord. However, our ship seems to have left intermittent traces on their radar. Perhaps that is how they are tracking us."

"So, if we take evasive action," N'var mused from his command chair, "how quickly will they know that we have moved?"

L'tok shook his head sadly. "That is uncertain, my lord."

N'var glanced over at the first officer's station where N'dora seemed deeply involved with her probing. He nodded to his engineer. "We will chance it. Evasive action." He stood up and went to N'dora, laying a hand on her shoulder. When she opened her eyes, he frowned at the expression he saw there. Was that passion? Surely not.

She focused on him finally and asked huskily, "What is it, my lord?"

"Are you close to knowing what happened to the survey team, N'dora?" An explosion's shock wave rocked the Raven for a moment, then he continued calmly, "It seems our friends on the surface dislike our use of the probe."

She frowned and flicked the switch to disengage the probe. As she removed the headset, she heard L'tok announce, "My lord, they are coming around again."

N'var went swiftly to the small viewscreen at the engineer's station. The three interceptors were indeed executing a tight turn and returning for another attempt. "Garn!" the commodore said under his breath.

L'tok swallowed at his fierce expression and asked, "Shall we open fire?"

N'var turned back to N'dora with a lifted brow. "Well? Do we fire upon them and precipitate war?"

"No, my lord," she answered, getting up from her station and approaching him. "They mean us no harm. It is as you say. They only desire the release of their commander."

His red brows disappeared into his hairline. "Are you saying that Straker is their commander?"

"Yes, my lord."

He turned back to his engineer. "Under no circumstances are you to fire. Is that understood?"

L'tok's eyes widened. "Yes, my lord."

N'var motioned to N'dora. "What have you found?"

She looked at him, admiring afresh his fierce countenance and strong features. "We must make direct contact, my lord. He does not have knowledge of the survey team, but he does have resources that may help us learn what happened to them."

"What about S'mon's daughter?"

N'dora said, "She was killed when they were both attacked by their enemies. Evidently she died trying to keep him from being killed."

* * *

Straker sat up in the hospital bed, completely disoriented. "What is going on here?" he demanded. Dr. Shroeder only gazed at him in stupefaction. The commander did not wait for him to answer, but ripped out the IV and grabbed a robe on his way out of the room. He headed for the control room, concerned about the red alert. "Alec!"

Freeman gaped at him. "Ed!" He grabbed Straker by the shoulders and asked, "Are you okay?"

"Yes, I'm fine, Alec," he answered brusquely, still tying his sash. "Why are we at red alert?"

"We figured out that they must be keeping you asleep from orbit. The interceptors are bombarding the area of our last radar glitch."

"No, Alec. We mustn't fire on them. They're not our enemy. Recall the interceptors."

When Col. Freeman only stared at him, he lifted an imperious brow.

Alec blinked. "Recall the interceptors," he told Lt. Ford.

"Sir," Ford informed them after relaying the order, "the interceptors have already fired."

* * *

An explosion rocked the ship, causing L'tok's hands to race over the controls in an attempt to steady them. N'var braced himself against his command seat and held N'dora close. P'car fell out of his chair.

"Damage?" the commodore barked.

L'tok sighed. "Minimal, my lord. But we've lost the curtain. We're visible, my lord. Also, our right wing was hit. I am adjusting to compensate now."

"And the jets?" N'var asked, not releasing N'dora from his arms, but looking at her in a way that thrilled her very much.

"They are breaking off the attack, my lord."

N'var looked at him with a frown. "They are retreating?"

"Yes, my lord."

P'car turned to them from his station. "My lord, I am receiving a transmission that I believe is meant for you."

The commodore sank into his seat and rested a thoughtful hand on his bearded chin. He gazed at N'dora and said, "Let me hear this transmission."

P'car flicked a switch, and N'dora gasped slightly at the sound of Straker's voice over the intercom. "Attention, commander of the alien vessel. We welcome you to Earth. Please forgive our attack on your ship. It was caused by a misunderstanding. We would like to escort you to a safe landing area, so that we may meet and answer your questions."

N'var looked at P'car. "Does he expect a reply?"

The science officer shook his head. "It would not seem so, my lord. He has broken the connection."

The commodore's gaze returned to N'dora. "Do we believe him?"

"Yes, my lord. He is a man of honor."

N'var grunted, turning to his engineer when he said, "My lord!"

"What is it, L'tok?"

"There are three small jets coming up from the planet's surface, heading directly for us."

"Ah!" N'var said with a smile, "our escort."

* * *

"Are you out of your mind?"

Straker leaned back against the couch in the limousine and gave his second in command a slight smile. "They're dignitaries from a distant planet, Alec. It's our duty to make them feel welcome."

Freeman snorted. "Dignitaries! What about them putting you in a coma? I suppose that was just their way of saying, Hello!"

"Now, Alec. We must use diplomacy. I'm sorry if you were worried about me," Straker soothed, realizing that his old friend was still upset over the events of the past few days. "I don't think they meant to put me into a coma. It was probably as much a misunderstanding as our bombing their ship was."

"Misunderstanding?" Alec exploded. "They nearly killed you!"

Straker merely smiled.

Alec didn't know what he was more angry about; that Straker wanted to treat these people as though nothing had happened or that he seemed to have enjoyed his prolonged sleep much more than his friend had. "What happened to you?" he asked softly.

I was haunted by a ghost, Straker almost replied. He looked at his friend for a long moment. "Are you concerned that they somehow reprogrammed me, Alec?"

"No, of course not! But did they get the answers they wanted from you?"

His friend sighed. "I'm not sure. I certainly held nothing back from them. Will you put it on my record?"

"That's not funny!" Alec responded angrily, incensed that Ed could treat it so lightly. "It's just... do you think there's any danger having them aware of SHADO's secrets?"

"I highly doubt it. They didn't seem very interested in HQ as an installation. They seemed more concerned about whether we would consider them an enemy."

"We're here, sir," Lt. Carlson said from the front seat.

Straker thanked him as they got out of the limo. The road had been blocked off for several miles, and the extensive tree cover made this clearing an ideal landing spot for a ship that no civilian should get a good look at. The two men headed up the ridge. Near the top, they met Lt. Jenkins.

"Commander," the lieutenant said with a salute. "The ship has landed, and we have her covered, sir. Mobiles 1,2, and 3 are stationed around the perimeter, and we have thirty men on foot in the trees."

"Good," Commander Straker replied as they topped the ridge. There in full sunlight stood a beautifully crafted ship shaped like a large falcon, hawk, or other bird of prey. Its dark metallic hide glinted in several areas, making it almost seem alive. One of its wings showed scarring from an interceptor's blast. The metal gaped open to reveal a dark cavity. Straker sighed and said, "You may wish to remain here, Lieutenant."

He walked off toward the ship.

"Ed! Are you crazy?" Alec hissed in his ear, trying to keep up with his long stride.

"Of course, Alec," Straker replied with a smile.

"I hope you know what we're doing," the colonel said resignedly as they approached the vessel.

Straker stopped near what appeared to be the main hatch. He stood as if awaiting something, but when nothing happened for several minutes, Alec asked, "What are you waiting for?"

Ed frowned and took out his radio. "Lt. Jenkins. Tell the men to retreat."

"Excuse me, sir?" asked the lieutenant.

"I said, Retreat, Lieutenant!" barked the commander.

There was a short silence, then, "Yes, sir," said Jenkins dispiritedly.

The commander replaced his radio, refusing to meet Alec's eye.

After a moment or so, the hatch of the ship began to descend. Straker looked at his friend with a lifted brow. Alec folded his arms, ignoring him. The hatch became a long ramp that came to rest on the ground several yards away from where they stood. A large man appeared in the open doorway. He was nearly seven feet tall, and his chest was covered with a type of body armor. Straker found it interesting that neither his massive arms nor his thick legs were similarly covered. This was a man aware of his own strength. As he came forward into the sunlight, they could see that his hair was quite red and fell well past his collar. His beard and mustache were equally red and gave him a very fierce appearance. In case that were not enough, he wore sashes across his chest that contained several assorted weapons, including a few wicked looking knives. Straker heard Alec's hiss of breath from behind him.

But Straker was more interested in the woman that followed the man out of the ship. Tall and nearly as fiercely dressed as the man, she had lovely copper hair done in an intricate fashion framing her face while the rest of it poured down her back. Her classic features would be considered beautiful on any planet. Her hazel eyes were almost brown, and Straker recognized them in spite of the fact that she had not yet looked his way. At Alec's gasp of appreciation, Straker frowned.

The man stopped at the bottom of the ramp and addressed them in a resonant voice. "I am N'var, Commodore of the Solarian ship, the Raven. This is N'dora, my first officer."

Straker answered, "Welcome, N'var." He gave the commodore a level look. "And N'dora." He gave her a direct look that she did not meet for more than a moment. "I am Commander Straker of SHADO. This is my second in command, Col. Freeman."

"Why have you attacked my ship?" N'var demanded.

Alec started to step forward at the commodore's brusque tone, but Straker gave him a look that stopped him. The commander said calmly, "I assure you that it was a misunderstanding. My people thought that you were trying to kill me."

N'dora gasped, but N'var only nodded. "Have you sustained injury?"

Again Alec seemed about to speak, but Straker raised a silencing hand and he settled back, audibly grinding his teeth. "None, Commodore."

N'var grunted. "Then you are better off than my ship."

"My men are willing to assist you in any way to help complete your repairs." Straker raised a beckoning hand, and Lt. Jenkins came to his side from the brow of the hill. "This is Lt. Jenkins. Please let him know if there is any material or assistance that you require."

The commodore raised his brows. "We should not need your assistance, Commander. The damage was minor. However, we are grateful for the offer." He bowed slightly.

"That will be all, Jenkins," Straker said quietly.

"Yes, sir." The lieutenant retreated thankfully to the safety of the ridge.

"While your ship is being repaired, we would like to offer you our hospitality," Straker said urbanely. "Would you like to see our headquarters, Commodore?"

N'var grunted, unsure of this gambit. On the one hand, he very much wanted to see their installation and judge for himself if they knew what had happened to the survey team. On the other hand, it would be walking right into the lion's mouth. He was not foolish enough to underestimate this slender man. But he was intrigued by him as well. "We would be pleased to see your headquarters, Commander Straker."

"Right this way."

* * *

Lt. Carlson opened the door of the limousine as they approached, keeping his countenance wooden with an effort. N'var went to enter, then noticed Alec's appreciative glance at N'dora and gestured for her to precede him. As she got into the vehicle, he showed his teeth to the colonel with a low growl. Alec backed up and spread his hands. After giving a satisfied grunt, N'var entered the limo. Straker glared at his friend, who grinned unrepentantly.

As Lt. Carlson headed back to the studio, the commodore looked out the window at passing cars. After a while, he leaned toward his first officer and murmured, "Ground transport." They shared a quiet glance, remembering S'mon's daughter's death.

"Commodore N'var," Straker said after a moment. "You said that your vessel was Solarian. Is Solaria your home planet?"

"Yes. It is many parsecs from here. Some of our wooded areas are as green as these we are passing now, however." He said cryptically to his first officer, "Tanagra," at which she gave a small nod.

N'dora looked at Commander Straker surreptitiously, trying to decide what it was about him that surprised her. Finally she realized that he was much more dynamic a personality than he had seemed in his dreams. In reality, he exuded an authority and command that was not present in his own image of himself.

"What brings you to Earth, Commodore?" Straker asked.

"We are on a rescue mission. One of our survey teams has not returned to Solaria to report their findings. We are here to find out what has become of them, and why they have not returned."

"You have people on this planet already?" Alec asked incredulously.

N'var sighed. "We did. Apparently, they are all dead. We desire to know what happened to them, if at all possible."

Straker nodded. "I'm sorry for the loss of your people. We'll help you in any way we can to find out the truth, N'var."

"Thank you, Commander."

Alec asked, "Couldn't you have just asked us about them? Was it necessary to put the commander in a coma to try to get your answers?"

Straker turned to Alec with a frown. "Colonel," he said sternly.

"I understand the Colonel's concern, Commander," N'var interrupted. "We honestly did not know at first that Straker was anything but a film producer. Our search led us to him, so we sought our answers from him. N'dora is skilled at the use of the probe. She would not have allowed him to come to harm." He laid a large hand on her knee. "In fact, more often the prober suffers than the target."

"What do you mean?" Straker asked quietly.

N'dora drew a deep breath. "Not all minds are pleasant to enter, Commander."

"Yes, but you control them, don't you?" Alec asked. "Can't you make them do whatever you want?"

"Within reason, Colonel," she answered. "We find that we learn more if we allow the target to direct his own dreams."

Freeman shrugged. "Then where's the problem?"

She leaned forward. "Imagine your worst nightmare." He could imagine it easily enough and nodded that he was following her. "Now imagine that when the monster grabs you, you cannot wake up."

"That is sufficient, N'dora," the commodore said, looking a little grim about the lips.

Straker was feeling decidedly grim himself. He had been worried that his dreams had appalled her, being alien from whatever she was used to. But now he realized that perhaps she hadn't minded them after all. They must have seemed tame indeed after what she had seen.

"We're here, sir," said Carlson from the front as they drove through the gate of the studio.

N'var was looking at the sign. "N'dora?" he asked, unable to read the words.

"Harlington-Straker Film Studios," she told him quietly.

He gave a soft grunt, looking about him with interest. As the limousine stopped at the main entrance, he asked the commander, "Will our presence frighten these people?"

Straker smiled. "Not at all, Commodore. Believe me, they see stranger things than you on a daily basis."

As they got out of the limo, N'var spotted two men carrying an enormous hand across the lot. He turned to Straker and grinned. "An ingenious disguise," he said. "Absolutely ingenious."

They passed reception where Miss Evans and another secretary were desperately trying not to stare at the Solarians. No one else seemed to take any notice of them, except for an agent who tried to catch N'dora's eye and encountered N'var's glare instead. He quickly busied himself elsewhere. "I notice," N'var stated as they walked down the hall, "that your people are easy to spot. They are the only ones who seem to be aware of us."

"Let's hope it stays that way," the commander said, ushering them into his outer office. "Miss Eeland," he said to his secretary, "I'd like you to meet Commodore N'var and his first officer, N'dora."

"Good afternoon," she replied in cultured accents, completely unperturbed at the sight of them.

N'var chuckled. "She is a cool one," he decided.

Straker winked at her, causing her to smile slightly. Then he turned to the Commodore as he drew his gun from the holster under his jacket and set it on her desk. "I'm afraid all weapons will have to remain here with Miss Eeland, N'var." He nodded to Alec, who sighed and drew out his gun to set it on the desk.

N'var raised his brows. Concealment seemed to be an art with these people. He had been unaware that they were even armed. N'dora was already removing her weapon sashes when N'var turned to her. He sighed and took his own off as well, laying them carefully on top of the pile on Miss Eeland's desk. He was reluctant to go any further without them, so the secretary told him, "I'll take good care of them for you, sir."

He seemed to realize how foolish he was being and grinned at her. She only blinked at his fierce expression.

Straker's office was as small as N'var's aboard ship, which surprised the commodore. In a building this large, the leader's office was little more than a closet? It was one thing to conserve space on a ship. Quite another to do so with so much space available. He would ask N'dora about it later. Perhaps she could explain it to him.

"Please, sit down," Straker invited, taking his seat behind his desk. N'var sat on one of the comfortable chairs near the desk. However, N'dora took her cue from Alec, who had remained standing near the window behind his commander. She stood at attention behind the commodore and did not sit down. Straker sighed, wishing his friend wasn't so ferocious a protector. "Alec," he said quietly.

Freeman ignored him, remaining where he stood. But N'dora's head turned at the name. "Alec," she said with disgust. When N'var turned to her with a lifted brow, she explained, "He is the one who nearly woke him from the probe!"

"That's right," Alec defended. "But you didn't need to force him into a coma!" The two first officers glared at each other until N'var laid a hand on N'dora's arm.

"That is the second time I have heard about a coma," he said. "What level did you have the probe set at, N'dora?"

She hung her head and whispered, "Level 3, my lord."

N'var gasped and ran a hand over his face. "Was that not a bit excessive?"

She shook her head, still not looking up. "He kept trying to wake up, my lord."

Straker felt sorry for her and intervened with a quiet voice, "That is true, Commodore. I rarely sleep for any extended length of time. It is quite normal for me to wake up after only a few hours."

N'var frowned. "Could you have killed him, N'dora?" He was honestly shocked that she would have taken such a risk.

Again she shook her head. "He was well, my lord."

Alec interrupted. "He was not well!" he corrected angrily.

She lifted her head, giving him a fierce glare from those dark hazel eyes. "He was well," she reiterated firmly. "He is Maloran. His mind is strong."

Alec gasped, waiting for Straker to refute her statement. But the commander remained silent as the room descended into SHADO HQ.

* * *

N'var stood before the large sign at the entrance to SHADO. "N'dora?" he asked quietly.

She stepped forward, saying, "Supreme Headquarters Alien Defense Organisation, my lord. SHADO is an acronym."

He grunted, then turned to the commander. "You are an organisation with an army at your command?"

"Yes, Commodore."

N'var frowned. "Then why does your symbol depict only one man?"

Straker had no idea how to respond. He'd never realized that SHADO's logo might be misinterpreted. Alec laid a hand on his friend's shoulder and answered the commodore. "Because with the right man, you don't need the army."

Straker directed a frown at him, but N'var put back his head and laughed.

As they walked through the control room, N'var watched how the operatives reacted to their commander. He saw no evidence of fear on their faces, only a desire to please. This was a man who had gained great respect from his people, he decided. As he passed the radar console, he turned to his first officer and murmured something to her in another language. However, she answered him in English. "Perhaps, my lord," she said. "But they were still able to track us." A grunt was his only reply.

Straker led them into his office, watching closely to see N'dora's reaction to the room. She definitely checked slightly in the doorway, but gave no other obvious sign of recognition beyond a faint blush. When Alec again stood behind him, he said firmly, "Alec, sit down."

The colonel grinned at him and took a seat near the drink dispenser. Once he was seated, N'dora sat down next to her commodore in front of the desk. She tried very hard not to stare at the small button on the desk's console. Very hard.

N'var noted the wall mural with lifted brows and said, "Commander Straker, do your people find it difficult having an alien in charge of their alien defense organisation?"

Alec gasped.

"Not really, " Straker answered, unperturbed. "It is not common knowledge, although a few of them are aware of it."

"It seems strange," the commodore remarked.

"Does it?" Straker enquired very quietly.

N'var looked up at his tone. "Do not misunderstand, Commander. What I find strange is that a Maloran should protect a planet which is not his home."

"Earth is my home," Straker replied.

"Are you aware that Malora is destroyed?" N'dora asked him gently.

He met her gaze and felt a slight shock. With that expression in her hazel eyes, she reminded him so much of Laura. "I had assumed so, N'dora."

N'var sighed gustily. "It was a great waste to the galaxy. They were a fine people, even if they were hidebound about keeping to themselves."

"Is that where that tendency comes from?" Alec asked waspishly to no one in particular.

Straker grinned at him. Then he gave the Commodore a serious look. "What can you tell us about your survey team that might help us find out what happened to them?"

N'var shrugged. "We know what happened, Commander. What we do not know is why."

"I'd like to know why they were sent here in the first place," Alec said.

N'var spread his hands. "Our people like to explore. We send many survey teams to other planets, hoping to establish trade relations with them."

"Even obviously primitive planets?" Straker asked skeptically.

"Well, in those cases, we try to help the population in other ways," the commodore replied smoothly.

Alec snorted. "You mean, you take over."

"Come, come, Colonel," N'var said. "There are no planets that have not profited from an alliance with Solaria. I assure you."

"What decision was reached about Earth?" Straker asked.

"It was decided that you were too advanced to appreciate our leadership and too volatile to accept as trade partners. If we had tried to encourage your participation, too many lives would have been lost on both sides. It was not workable. So we sent a survey team here to infiltrate and learn more about you. Our hope was that in another 100 clinks or so, you might be calm enough to consider a trade agreement with us."

"How large was the survey team?"

N'var looked at the commander. "Five people. Two families. They were to dwell here, raise their offspring, and gather information to share on their scheduled return to Solaria. If conditions were favorable, they would return here to live out their days."

"But they didn't return to Solaria," Straker said.

"No," the Solarian agreed, "and we were sent to locate them. Or avenge them." He shrugged. "Whichever was needed."

Straker frowned. "You said you know what happened to them?"

"Yes. They were brutally murdered."

"At the same time?"

"No. They had settled in different parts of the place that is called the United States. S'gan's family lived in South Carolina. He was murdered along with his son. We have found no mention of his wife beyond the fact that she is missing.

"S'mon's family lived in Wisconsin. He and his wife were murdered. A few years later, her sister who lived in Arizona was murdered as well. Only his daughter survived."

Straker looked at them for a moment in silence. Then he said softly, "Laura."

N'dora looked swiftly at him. "Yes. We found record that she came here to this continent several clirks---I'm sorry--- months ago. Your historical records showed that she died in a vehicular accident. You were listed as the driver."

"Jesus," Alec said quietly.

"You wanted to find out how she had died," Straker said to her, realizing why he had dreamed of Laura.

"Yes. And you told me that she died trying to protect you." Her gaze was gentle when she said, "What alien race attacked you, Commander?"

"We don't know who they are. However, I do know that they are the ones who killed Laura's parents, because she told me about it."

"Did she witness their deaths?" N'var asked in horror.

"Yes. She attacked the aliens singlehandedly to keep them from taking their bodies. She finally blew up the house to cremate them, so that the aliens couldn't take them."

N'var ran a hand across his eyes and sighed. "She was a fierce daughter of Solaria," he said finally.

Straker's smile was bittersweet. "The fiercest," he agreed.

N'var looked grimly up at him. "Why did they attack my people, Commander Straker?"

The commander sighed. "They come to Earth to get replacement body parts to keep themselves alive. Your people had better healing qualities than Earthlings. So they centered their efforts on them. The aliens' goal seems to be to eventually take over this planet, since their own no longer suits them."

N'var grunted, a fierce look in his eyes. "Can you show us these aliens?"

Straker stared at him for a long moment, then said softly, "Alec?" Without a word, the colonel left the room, returning after a few minutes with a stack of photographs. At Straker's nod, he handed them to the commodore.

After glancing through several of the photos, N'var turned to N'dora. "Thoelians," he said in disgust.

She gasped. "My lord?"

He handed her a photograph. She stared at it in disbelief for a moment, then shared a private glance with her commodore that boded ill toward the entire Thoelian race.

The commodore laid the photos on Straker's desk and stood. "You have been most kind, Commander, in assisting us. We have the information that we required. We will return to the Raven now."

"As you wish, Commodore," Straker replied. "Allow us to escort you to your ship."

* * *

As N'var stood on the ramp leading to his ship, he glanced at Straker standing on the grass nearby. He felt an odd liking for this quiet man with the fierce heart of a warrior. "Would you care to see my ship, Commander?"

Straker looked swiftly at him. "I would be honored, N'var."

The commodore bowed slightly. "Come, then."

As Straker started up the ramp, he glanced back at Alec and raised a brow. Freeman shook his head and said, "You go right ahead. I'll just stay here, thanks."

"Chicken," his friend taunted softly and went on up the ramp.

* * *

At the last, Commodore N'var stood on the ramp with N'dora in her customary place behind his shoulder, while Commander Straker and Col. Freeman stood on the grass of the clearing. The commodore was grinning. "Solaria thanks you for your kindnesses, Commander Straker. The next survey team that is sent to Earth shall be told to report directly to you."

Straker thought of trying to handle a team of these fierce warriors and hid a grimace. "Thank you, N'var. We would be honored."

N'dora whispered something in her commodore's ear, and he said, "Oh, yes! We would like to show our appreciation with a boon. You have seen our ship and know all that we possess. What may we leave with you as a token of our esteem?"

Straker said without hesitation, "Our greatest problem in keeping the Thoelians at bay is our radar technology, Commodore, as you noticed yourself. If you could spare us a piece of your equipment, our technicians could adapt it for use in protecting Earth."

N'var beamed. "Spoken like a true warrior." He looked over his shoulder. "N'dora?" She disappeared into the ship for a few moments and returned with a small device. She handed it to the commander, who thanked her.

N'var placed his hands on his hips. "So, you ask nothing for yourself, Straker?"

"Actually, I would like to speak to your first officer for a moment before you leave, if I may," the commander said unexpectedly. N'var was surprised and not pleased. He was just about to refuse when he realized that the request had seriously displeased the commander's second in command. Alec's frown was noticed by N'var, but studiously ignored by his own commander.

N'var chuckled, bowed, and acquiesced, but as he passed N'dora on his way into the Raven, he said, "We leave in three clicks."

She nodded that she understood.

Straker said quietly, "Alec?" The colonel snorted rudely and headed for the limo.

N'dora faced him calmly, certain of his reprimand. He must know by now that she had not followed procedure in her probe of him. If the colonel was to be believed, she had even endangered him. She braced herself for his anger.

But he said, "I want to thank you." She was startled enough to show it, and he smiled. "You helped me settle some things that have been troubling me for a long time. And you allowed me to say some things I'd needed to say, but never got the chance."

She stared into those beautiful eyes and was honest in return. "You helped me as well, Ed. You have a wonderful mind. It has been a joy to experience it. And you have helped me in other ways, as well." She gestured to the man who stood at the top of the ramp, waiting for her. "Great men are not easy to understand or to love," she said. "I fear him no longer. And I thank you for that."

Straker was surprised that she thought him like N'var in any way. Or that making love to him had somehow brought her closer to her commodore. But then, he had never claimed to understand the intricacies of the female mind. He watched silently as she ascended the ramp, and the hatch closed. When he got back to the limo, Alec said with a leer, "There's a lot to be said for a female first officer, Ed."

Straker shook his head and settled back against the seat. "Not in this lifetime, Alec," he said fervently.





EPILOGUE

By the time he had his cufflinks fastened, he felt he had enough courage to make the call. He heard someone pick up the phone on the other end as he slipped on his shoes.

"Hello?"

Her husky voice in his ear had a shiver of pleasure running down his spine, and he closed his eyes. "Hello," he said.

There was a short pause, then she said, "Hello, Ed."

Straker took a breath. "I was wondering if you're busy tonight."

"Actually, I am," she said immediately. "I have a hot date with a bowl of popcorn and a few old movies."

"I see," he said, checking the angle of his bowtie in the mirror. "What movies?" He wondered idly if one of them was Wuthering Heights.

"What's up?"

"I thought maybe you might like to go to a movie premiere with me instead."

"Oh, that's right! Sand In Your Eye premieres tonight." Sheila sounded surprised. "Aren't you supposed to take the female lead with you to those?"

"Yes," he admitted, "but Deirdre has a new boyfriend."

"Ah. Well, this is a real dilemma, you know."

"The movies are that good, huh?"

She laughed. "No. I have to figure out what to wear."

He looked at his watch. "We may have time to go shopping."

"No, that's not necessary. I think I might just have the perfect dress for the occasion. It's a real knock-out."

"Sure?"

"Oh, yeah," she answered, pulling the dress out of her closet. "I try to be prepared for any eventuality, you know."

Straker put on his tuxedo jacket. "Even movie premieres?"

"Of course," she said airily. "A girl never knows when some film producer- slash-famous actor will be asking her out. It'd be a crime if she didn't have a killer dress in her closet to wear."

He chuckled. "When can you be ready?"

"When will you be here?" she countered.

"An hour?"

"Great. That's plenty of time," she answered, sitting on the bed and running a hand down the silk of the dress. "Did I mention that the dress is red?"

Straker groaned. "Did I mention that Carlson is driving the limo, and we will not be favoring him with a scene in the back?"

Her husky laugh echoed through the phone.

He adjusted his cummerbund and caught his expression in the mirror. He was startled. He almost didn't recognize himself. He looked.... happy. "I'll see you in an hour."