8. The First Priority

(A UFO Story)

written by Denise Felt

copyright 2001

ACT I

"...So the Greek captain pulls her up out of his net furious and dripping wet, and when she tries to slap him, he carries her down to his ship's cabin and changes her viewpoint about a few things."

Straker smiled over his coffee. "And so she stayed."

Jasper nodded. "Actually, several of that team stayed behind on Earth. But Sirena never wrecked any more of their ships against the rocks, I can tell you that."

"You know," Straker said with a shake of his head, "I had no idea that the Greek Gods actually existed. But I should have realized it, I suppose. I've known for years that a great deal of what we consider folklore is based on fact."

"Uncle Jasper knows a million stories, don't you?" Emily said from where she was sitting Indian-fashion on the couch.

"Give or take a few," her uncle admitted.

She grinned like an ornery fairy as she said, "Wait till Aunt Edith gets going on her specialty."

Her aunt was knitting quietly in a rocker near the couch and merely smiled at this sally.

Straker turned to her. "Well, Edith? What field is your area of expertise?"

Edith Williams put down her knitting and looked at him over her glasses. "Time travel."

"Really?" Straker was unsure which of the thousand and one questions he had on that topic to ask first. "Um, can it be done?" he asked finally.

She nodded, her dark eyes twinkling. "Of course, Edward."

"In spite of Einstein's theories?"

"Precisely because of his theories," she replied unexpectedly. Then she frowned slightly. "It's actually a misnomer to call it time travel here. Another Rigelian would understand the nuance, but Earthers have a different concept of what they call time than we do."

"What would you call it when speaking to an Earther?"

"Dimension travel."

Straker's eyes widened. "I see," he said slowly, obviously turning the thought around in his mind.

Emily laughed at his expression. "You've done it now, Aunt Edith! He'll be asking you questions until dawn. Maybe you should make up a room for him, just in case."

"Emily!" her aunt said, shocked at her niece's manners.

But Straker only chuckled at her audacity, giving her a wink over his coffee cup.

She grinned back at him.

Her uncle came back into the room at that point. He'd gone to answer the phone. "Emily, it's that boy again."

His niece rolled her eyes and got up from the couch. "Okay, Uncle Jasper. I'll talk to him."

"Emily," her aunt said, a worried frown on her face, "You tell us if he becomes bothersome."

"It's not like that, Aunt Edith," Emily explained. "He's a pest, but he's harmless."

"Is he troubling you, Emily?" Straker asked quietly.

She shook her head. "Only on Thursday nights." She shrugged. "Test day is Friday."

He gave her an understanding smile. It was hard to be the smartest kid in class. He still remembered the friendships that had lasted only until the day of the final. "I hope you're not planning on giving him any answers?"

She lifted a regal brow in a way that reminded him very much of Sheila. "He should be so lucky," she said and left the room.

* * *

"What do you think?" Gay asked Virginia Straker over their champagne. They were both watching Commander Straker dance with the bride.

Virginia knew intuitively what her friend was referring to. "He seems fine. Relaxed. He's been worried about Henderson's condition; but other than that, he acts happier. Even the thought of completely rebuilding Moonbase doesn't seem to daunt him."

"Thank God!" Gay said fervently. It was going to be such an enormous undertaking that she'd been half afraid that it would get scratched. But she should have known that Straker would never leave Earth without a strong second line of defense. "Does he remember anything?"

Ginny grimaced. "If he did, we'd know it immediately. Straker in a rage is not something you can ignore."

Gay had only heard the real reason behind the commander's illness weeks after the fact. Virginia had come to her, determined to find out more about Sheila Austin. Gay had been equally determined to know why she wanted to know. In the end, they'd both found out a lot. As far as Gay was concerned, it certainly put a new spin on the events of that long ago period in SHADO's history. "I'd like to see him in a rage sometime," she mused. Actually, she'd have liked to see him in any extreme mood. Anything other than cordially polite or half irritated. Anything.

Virginia snorted. "No, you wouldn't." She believed that Gay's infatuation with Commander Straker wouldn't last two minutes if she'd ever had to endure a tongue-lashing from the man. He wasn't one to pull his punches.

Chris came up to them. "Love of my life," he said in a soulful voice, "I require your assistance immediately."

Ginny grinned at him. "What for?"

He winked at Gay as he drew his wife into his arms. "I must dance!" he said urgently. "I must dance or die!" She gave a gurgle of laughter as he swept her onto the dance floor.

Gay's smile as she watched them go was wistful. Her eyes turned to where Dee was laughing at something Ed was saying to her as they whirled around the floor. His soft answering smile tore Gay's heart in two. She wished... oh, how she wished that things were different!

"You've got to promise me that you'll go easy on Alec tonight," Straker had said to Delores in a serious tone. She'd looked at him with a small frown, unsure what he was talking about. "No beating him up, okay?" She had burst into laughter.

After another turn about the room, Alec came up and cut in. "Hey!" he told his best man, "Go find your own!"

Delores smacked her new husband on the arm with her bouquet for being so rude, then looked at her commander in shock as she realized what she'd just done. He winked at her, and she laughed again.

Later, Alec came up to him at the buffet tables. "Well, Ed," he said, grinning from ear to ear as he slapped him on the back. "It's time for us to go. Honeymoons are a tough business, but somebody's got to be courageous enough to tackle it."

Straker said seriously, "You'll be awarded a medal for bravery for this, Alec." He shook hands solemnly, a twinkle at the back of his blue eyes. "Good luck."

Alec's grin faded, and he glanced quickly over to where his bride stood surrounded by her relations. She smiled at him from across the room. "Ed, I don't deserve her," he whispered in sudden panic.

"Perhaps not," his friend replied calmly, understanding Alec's concern, "but she deserves you."

Alec met his eyes for a moment, then sighed in relief. "Okay." He patted his friend's arm. "Okay." He went to his new wife and they left the hall, besieged by well-wishes and hugs.

Straker was preparing to depart when Gay approached him with a frown. "You're not leaving already? The band will be playing for hours yet."

He said, "Parties are always flat once the guests of honor leave, Gay. And I thought I'd drop by the hospital for a while before heading home."

She gathered her courage in both hands and said, "But I was hoping we'd get to waltz."

Straker smiled slightly. "Well, I think I might have one more dance in me. Shall we?"

He spoke kindly to her during the waltz, and she tried desperately not to hang on his every word. But her heart was pounding very loudly in her ears, and she couldn't seem to calm it at all. She had no idea what she was saying to him, or he to her, but his unfailingly gentle tone made her want to grind her teeth in frustration. Could he ever see her as more than just a good friend?

When the dance ended, Straker thanked her and headed for the champagne table. During the waltz, he'd noticed Paul Foster standing by himself and downing glass after glass of the stuff, glowering at anyone foolish enough to approach him. Actually, Foster had been acting distant from everyone for over a month now, ever since the attack on Moonbase. Straker had wondered at first if he'd been dating any of the personnel who had died and had left him alone to deal with it. But when he didn't get over it, Straker knew he'd have to speak to him. Morale was bad enough right now because of that attack. They didn't need the command team to emphasize how horrible it all really was.

He was halfway to the champagne table when his sister-in-law waylaid him. "So, what do you think?" Virginia asked with a grin. "Are you going to have Alec star in the next James Bond movie?"

Straker chuckled. Alec's white tuxedo had made him look quite dashing, and the flower girl had said in a worshipful voice before the ceremony that he could be James Bond, 007. Alec had overheard her, of course, as had most of the wedding party. Straker had teased him mercilessly about it, knowing how silly his friend felt wearing the thing. Alec had sworn eternal vengeance, but Ed was aware that he wore the tux with squarer shoulders after that. "Are you kidding? Roger Moore would never forgive me. Excuse me, Virginia, but I wanted to have a word with someone before I left."

She knew exactly where he'd been headed. It was why she had cut him off. "Oh, no, you don't," she told him, laying a playful arm on his tuxedo sleeve. "You promised me a dance, and I intend to collect." She went to lead him out onto the dance floor, but he dug in his heels as he heard the music.

"Perhaps the next dance," he said, looking slightly nervous.

"No way! You'll sneak out the back!"

"Virginia, I don't cha cha!"

She bit back a giggle. "You do now!" she said ruthlessly as they entered the crowded dance floor.

* * *

Miss Scott looked up on Tuesday afternoon to see Commander Straker entering the outer office of the President of the International Astrophysical Commission. He looked to be in a towering rage, a mood she was very used to seeing him in. After all, she had for many years been General Henderson's secretary. "Good afternoon, Commander Straker."

He compressed his lips, trying to rein in his anger. "Miss Scott," he said with a curt nod. "I need to speak to the general, if I may."

"I'll see if he's busy." She picked up the desk phone. "General Shaw, Commander Straker is here to see you."

"Send him in, Miss Scott."

"Yes, sir." As she cradled the phone, she said, "You may go right in, Commander."

"Thank you." Straker strode into the President's office and blinked in surprise. The room looked completely different. Gone were the deep blue walls and ultramodern furniture. In their place were cream walls with oak wainscoting and an enormous mahogany desk. A potted tree stood in the far corner, and the carpeting was a shade of camel. Well, Straker thought, it hadn't taken the new general long to make changes. He looked over at the man standing near the room's one window and received another shock.

General Shaw was shocked, as well. His mild brown eyes widened to their fullest at the sight of the commander. "Well, now," he said softly in a cultured voice. "You're a bit of a surprise, aren't you?"

Straker recovered quickly, and his lips thinned. "General Shaw, I'd like to know what right you had to authorize pulling the plug on General Henderson," he said in clipped tones.

The general sighed and returned his gaze to the view outside the window. "The right of a compassionate fellow being," he answered.

Straker blinked. That wasn't the response he'd been expecting. "What do you mean?"

Shaw looked at him. "Weren't you aware of the dictates of his will?"

"No."

"His desires were written out very specifically. He wanted no artificial life extension. No machines to keep him alive long after his body had given out. In his own words, he wanted to die as he lived: a man. Not a lump of flesh."

Straker gasped. "He's been on life support since he collapsed!"

"Yes," the general said, looking grave. "But not by his order."

"Then, whose?" Straker asked, then immediately held up a hand to halt the general's response. "Jackson's?"

Shaw shrugged. "The military hates to accept the loss of a good man, Commander. And they don't mind riding roughshod over people to have things their way."

Straker ran a hand through his hair. "I see." And he did, all too clearly. He met the general's gaze. "Thank you for honoring his wishes, General."

Shaw gave a small nod, but then smiled slightly. "Is that what you came here to tell me, Commander Straker?"

Straker smiled wryly in return. "No, sir. But I mean it just the same."

Shaw went to his desk and pressed the intercom button. "Miss Scott, please bring me in a cup of tea and some coffee for the commander, if you would."

"Yes, sir," the secretary answered.

The general motioned to one of the comfortable chairs in front of his desk. "Won't you sit down, Commander Straker? I realize that we're in breach of military protocol that would prefer us to meet for the first time over a boardroom table, but I hope you'll forgive that and spend a few moments talking with me before you go."

"Of course," Straker said, and sat down. "If you've read my record, and I'm sure you must have by now, you'll no doubt be aware that I'm not big on military protocol."

General Shaw chuckled at his dry tone and sat in the matching chair in front of the desk, rather than sitting in the leather chair behind it. Miss Scott entered with a wooden tray that she placed between them. On top rested two cups of steaming liquid. "Thank you, my dear," said the general. Her facial expression tried to be blank as she left them, but around the eyes it failed altogether. She was obviously very curious about this development. Her former employer had not handled his affairs in this fashion at all.

"What did you wish to discuss?" Straker asked quietly when the door closed behind her.

Shaw stirred a large quantity of sugar into his tea and took a sip before replying. "Well, for starters, perhaps you would be so kind as to tell me how you escaped the destruction of Malora?"

"Surely you're aware of the existence of New Malora?"

"Of course, but your report said nothing about anyone having ever left the colony before Callista Carlin. So, either you were being deliberately obstructive or you didn't come from the underwater city. Which is it?"

Straker found himself smiling at that gentle tone. "My father came here over 43 years ago."

The general frowned. "43? That would have meant that you were a baby." Suddenly his eyes widened, and he set down his cup. "Good God! Andrell! You're Andrell's son!"

"My father's name is Andrew," Commander Straker replied quietly.

Shaw stared at him in awe. "Andrell," he murmured slowly. After a moment, he said, "You can have no notion what it is to meet you. And to know that Andrell lives." He shook his head. "He is held in the highest esteem on my homeworld."

"Why would Rigel concern itself with the Malorans?"

Shaw blinked at Straker's casual reference to his ancestral planet, but answered readily enough. "The only race who ever established trade relations with Malora was Rigel, Commander. We even had their ambassadors quartered in the royal city. At least, occasionally," he qualified.

Straker grimaced. He could imagine how difficult it must have been for the Rigelians to deal with such a xenophobic people. "Were you aware of the problems on Malora?"

"No," the general said sadly, "not until it was much too late to help. It has been a sore spot with my people ever since. We weren't even aware of Andrell's attempts until long after he'd gone. There is an idiom that has entered our culture over what happened there. Whenever someone is the bearer of bad tidings which are ill-received, they say, Neither was Andrell heeded! It usually suffices to make the hearers more inclined to listen."

"I don't doubt it," the commander said dryly.

Shaw asked softly, "Would it be possible sometime to meet your father?"

Straker frowned. "I'm not sure it would be a good idea. What he went through before coming to Earth broke him. He does not speak of it."

General Shaw shook his head and sighed. "It is too bad. A man of his greatness. If only they had heeded him...!" He sipped his tea in silence. After a few minutes, he said, "I should still like to meet him. It would not be necessary to discuss the past at all. But I would consider it an honor to be able to shake his hand."

"I'll ask him."

* * *

"Do you ever find yourself hating her?" Virginia asked as they looked through the rugs on display.

"No, of course not!" Gay replied, shocked at the very idea.

Ginny lifted a brow at her. "Well, I would have," she answered bluntly.

Gay put down the rug she'd been examining and moved to the next stall. "You met her. I mean, maybe you didn't get the chance to talk for more than a few minutes, but surely you could tell what kind of person she is. How could anyone hate her?"

Her friend sighed. "I know what you mean. She's very... likable. But if my cousin stole the man I loved, I might just have a problem with that."

Gay chuckled at her tone. "Okay. So, I guess I have been irritated on and off about it."

"Good!"

"Why, good?"

"Because it means that you're a normal human being and not some idiot New Ager who urges us all to push out the hate and bring in the love!"

Gay giggled. "You do that very well, you know," she said facetiously.

Virginia sent her a mock glower.

"But she really didn't steal him, Ginny. I probably could hate her if she had. But she never once made a play for him. She rarely even saw him until she was brought down to the studio. He was married, for God's sake! Sheila would never have dreamed of going after a married man."

Virginia frowned in thought, picking up a statuette from the stall and looking at it more closely. "They're very much alike, aren't they? Both of them up to their ears in morality."

Gay grimaced. "You make it sound like the plague."

Her friend laughed and gave a small shrug. "It would have driven me crazy. I imagine it must have made things pure hell for them."

"What do you mean?"

Ginny looked at her. "I've met my mate. Or my match. Whatever you want to call it. It's not an easy thing to resist the need to be with him. If I couldn't, if some stupid code of conduct kept me from making love to him, I wouldn't be able to take it. I'd end up ripping his clothes off and having my way with him."

Gay said, "But Ginny! A married man?"

Virginia's gaze dropped to the objects on the table. "I don't know. Maybe even then."

A few stalls later, Gay said, "If they're mates, neither one of them could help it. I can't hate her for being a victim of fate."

Ginny looked at her in surprise. "I hadn't thought of it like that. I guess you really couldn't, could you? She deserves your pity, actually."

Gay gasped. "How can you say that?"

"Don't get offended, Gay. I didn't mean it how you obviously took it. I merely meant that the odds of them ever being together are slim to none. Have you thought of that? Even if security was foolish enough to okay their relationship, the boss must be aware that no one would trust a man whose lover had spent seven years in the enemy camp."

Gay stared at her in shock. Another shopper jostled her from behind, and she moved on to the next stall without answering.

Virginia caught up with her after a moment. "Gay," she said, "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said it."

But Gay shook her head. "No, Ginny. You're right. That is what people would think. We have no idea what she went through those seven years. What horrors she endured. Endured, Ginny, until she could escape and come back home. But we'd sit at our comfortable desks and pass judgment on her. And you know what is the worst thing of all? She wouldn't blame us for it. She wouldn't. Because she'd understand our fears and our concerns. That's just the kind of person she is."

They were silent for several minutes, looking at the merchandise laid out in the stalls of the street market. Gay bought a crimson scarf and a pretty antique ring, but Virginia had lost the feeling of fun that had begun their morning. The commander's dilemma depressed her. How did Straker find the strength to go on from day to day? It made her slightly queasy to think about it. She followed after Gay, barely glancing at the wares in each of the stalls.

Then she saw it. It stood less than a foot high, carved in a dark wood. Her eyes widened, and she felt her blood stir with a strange excitement. She reached for the small statuette with hands that shook. As she held it in her hands and stared into its hooded eyes, she knew she had to buy it. No matter what the price.

Gay watched her friend pay the vendor's asking price without a blink. She frowned. Ginny was a renowned bargain hunter and thought nothing of spending half an hour whittling the price of something down to a ridiculously low amount. But she hadn't even tried to argue with this vendor. Gay came over to the stall where her friend was standing and noticed the ugly figurine she was holding so carefully. "You like that?" she asked in amazement.

Virginia turned to her, her eyes lit with an odd light. "Isn't it wonderful?" She caressed the wood as if it were something precious, rather than a crude depiction of an ugly head.

"Sure," Gay replied, because Virginia was her friend and because she obviously loved it. But it gave her the creeps.





ACT II

General Henderson died two days later, and his funeral was done in full military style. Straker stood at graveside in full dress uniform. It had been quite a while since he had worn it, but he felt that the general deserved this token of his respect. He glanced over to where General Shaw stood with Henderson's widow. The former general's children were all present as well, along with their spouses and young children. Henderson's family had gathered around him, all right, but not in the way that he'd planned. This wasn't as it should have been.

But then, none of it should have ever happened at all. This kind of fiasco was exactly what he'd been trying so hard to prevent when he'd put off going to the doctor. Unfortunately, his body hadn't listened to him long enough to keep him going. He remembered little of his illness, but knew by how weak he'd been when he'd finally wakened that it had been a pretty close thing. And Dr. Jackson had been a fairly good barometer, as well. He seemed to have aged several years over the course of those few days. Straker had taken one look at that stoic Slavic face and felt the cold chill of a narrow escape brush over him.

Four days. For four days he'd been oblivious to the world around him and all of its unceasing demands. It didn't seem as though it could have been a long enough period for all hell to have broken loose. It was just a few days, after all. But it had been long enough. The loss of Moonbase personnel alone was nearly unbearable. But add to that the crippling of a vital defense structure, and the total destruction was staggering. As soon as he'd been on his feet, he'd gone to Moonbase to survey the damage personally. He'd stayed to assist in the clean-up and assessment. Jackson had railed at him when he returned two weeks later, more upset than Straker could ever remember seeing him before, his blistering words a clear indication that he had not considered the commander up to such a mission. Straker had heard him out in silence, realizing just how hard a time he'd given the doctor during those four days by the length and ferocity of his tirade. When he had finished, Commander Straker had spoken only one word in his own defense. But it had been enough to calm Jackson down.

The word had been morale.

* * *

"Let's wrap it up!" the director called, and Straker thankfully returned to his dressing room to peel off his makeup. He felt fortunate to have the role at all. He'd been willing to hand off his part in the film to someone else, well aware that his schedule was going to be excruciating enough until things were back to normal. But Mason had decided to delay production until he could fit it in. The director's argument had been that another actor might have gotten things underway quicker, but in the end it wouldn't have been worth it. Straker on a set guaranteed that production would run smoothly. And Mason preferred things to run smoothly.

Straker wiped the last of the makeup from his face and put on moisturizer. He was playing the captain of a small band of renegade aliens in the science fiction movie, and he had insisted that his makeup be capable of being easily removed. No prosthetics for him. He could just see himself being called to handle a crisis at HQ after a scene and ending up striding around the control room in some mask and wig. Not a chance.

His dressing room door opened, and he glanced up and saw Deirdre Snow in the mirror. She slipped into the room and closed the door. The fact that she was wearing only a short satin robe and a slumbrous expression was more than enough to make Straker want to hide. Quickly. Instead, he tried for polite. "That was quite a scene between you and the Ferengi marauders," he said.

"Thank you, Ed," she murmured in the husky tone she had perfected years ago. She gave him a killer glance from her enormous blue eyes and said, "I'm more interested in having a scene with you. A private scene."

So much for politeness. Apparently her newest boyfriend had not worked out. Deirdre might be a nymphomaniac, but she had standards. She never cheated on one lover with another. It made Straker tolerate her much better than most of the other female leads he worked with. He stood up and reached for his shirt. He felt quite naked with those predatory eyes on him. As he swiftly buttoned his shirt, he asked, "Did you have a question about tomorrow's scenes? Are you worried about the one in the mess hall? Don't be. I'm certain that you'll still look great after the food fight."

She frowned for a moment, distracted by the thought of being less than perfectly gorgeous onscreen. Straker almost thought he'd diverted her rather limited thought processes into the only other channel that they ran in besides sex: her appearance. But she soon smiled again and came forward to play with his shirt buttons. "Come on, Ed," she coaxed. "You don't really want to discuss the film, do you? Not when we have so much to say to each other?"

He recognized the line from one of her recent movies and bit back a spurt of hysteria. He was starting to feel a bit ill and found himself actually dizzy with relief when someone knocked on the door. "Excuse me, Deirdre," he said in what he hoped was a steady voice and moved to go open the door.

But she stayed him, her hand against his shirt becoming a claw, and she said fiercely, "Don't answer it! They'll go away again."

There was another knock. "Hey, Mr. Straker! Do you have a minute?"

Straker tore open the door, dragging the young man into the room and shaking his hand vigorously. "Max! How are you? I believe you've never met Deirdre Snow, have you?" He pushed the young man closer to her as he said, "Deirdre, Max is one of your most devoted fans. I believe he's seen every one of your movies, haven't you, Max?"

Max was goggling at the sight of his main obsession. Deirdre struck a slumbrous pose for his benefit. Devoted fans were necessary to a girl's self-image, after all. "Hello, Max," she said huskily, giving him one languid hand to shake or kiss or do with as he would. Max stuttered some incoherent reply as Straker quickly exited the room.

* * *

"How are you feeling?"

"Fine." Callista patted the porch swing, and he sat down next to her. He'd been a regular visitor since Peter had been gone to Moonbase. Keeping a watchful eye on her, she knew. But Peter would be back tonight. She was excited about seeing her husband again, but she was going to miss these visits. "Only two more months to go."

"Will you return home for the birth?" Straker asked.

She smiled. "My father insists on it. It seems that my mother misses me terribly."

"Hmmm. And does she?"

Callista laughed. "Not nearly as much as he does! But I am not going. I know Peter would take me there, but all my friends are here. And Irene has been so kind. She has promised to help me when the baby comes." She shook her head. "Our baby will be born on the surface."

"Wouldn't your family's physicians be better equipped to handle things for you?"

"Are you trying to get rid of me, Straker?" she asked playfully.

He smiled softly. "No, of course not. But things can go wrong, and we want you to have the best care available."

Callista saw his concern and realized from things Peter's mother Irene had told her that Straker must be remembering his own wife's difficult delivery. She laid a reassuring hand on his arm. "Everything has been carefully monitored throughout my pregnancy, Straker. If there were going to be a problem, we would know."

He sat back and asked, "You're not worried?"

"No."

"Good."

They sat for a while, rocking slowly in the porch swing. Presently, Callista asked, "And how are you feeling?"

Straker looked at her. Jackson had told him that both she and her father had been consulted about his illness. "Fine."

She smiled at him. "Do they all believe you when you tell them that?"

He looked swiftly at her, then smiled ruefully. "I'm not sure, but they usually don't ask a second time."

"Peter says that I am a tough cookie," she said. "I am not certain what that means, but I know that he only says it when I will not let him hide the truth from me." She gave him a direct look, fingering the sleeve of his black suit. "You have worn dark colors for three weeks now. You are still grieving over the general's death, are you not, Straker?"

He was surprised that anyone had noticed. "Yes."

She nodded wisely. "The others do not understand, do they?"

"No. But they didn't know him as well as I did. Why is it that you understand, Callista?" he asked quietly.

"Because Peter feels the same way about you," she said unexpectedly. At his obvious surprise, she shrugged. "I have heard some say that you are a cold man and difficult to work with, perhaps just as the general is said to have been. But I know you as a very different man, as does my husband. When you were ill, Peter and I were so worried about you. If you had died, we would have mourned for a very long time."

Straker squeezed her hand, unable to speak for a few minutes. Finally, he said, "Thank you."

She smiled at him, then gave a small gasp as the baby in her womb moved.

"Are you alright?" he asked immediately.

She nodded. "Yes. It is just my little one. He is kicking. Here." She placed his hand on her belly. When the baby's foot moved against his palm, Straker's features softened in wonder. In his eyes, Callista glimpsed a deep yearning. "You will make a great father someday, Straker," she told him.

He lifted his hand from her belly and sat back in the swing, a sad smile on his face. "Did you ever have an impossible dream, Callista?"

"Yes," she answered. "I never told anyone of it, but locked it away in my heart."

He nodded. "It would be bad luck to tell everyone," he agreed.

"But is yours so impossible?" she asked him, remembering the kind eyes of the woman who had visited him in the hospital.

"Not as much as it used to be," he said. "But it still seems a long way away."

She placed her hand over his on the swing. "My impossible dream took a long time, too. But it finally came to pass."

He looked at her. "What was your dream, Callista?"

Her smile was very sweet. "I wanted to travel to the surface and meet all the people there."

* * *

"Is there a problem, Colonel?"

Virginia looked at her commander's stern face and realized that she was in for it. He only got sarcastic when he was pissed off. The problem was, she couldn't seem to remember what she was supposed to have done for him. God! What was wrong with her? "No, sir," she answered firmly, at least outwardly maintaining her efficient pose.

Straker frowned, looking past her brisk demeanor to the confusion in her eyes. "Have a seat, Virginia," he invited cordially, changing his tactics.

"Thank you, sir." She dropped thankfully into a chair. She was so tired. It seemed to take an inordinate amount of energy to get out of bed these days. And then she'd spend the rest of the day wanting nothing more than to go back there. Whatever was sapping her strength had to be something serious, and after the problem with the commander recently, she knew better than to put off talking to a doctor about it. She'd make an appointment today.

"Colonel, I was expecting to go over the financial report for the Phoenix Project with you this morning. We have very little time to make any needed changes before the meeting with the commission board next week. But the report was not on my desk when I arrived this morning. Is there a specific reason for its delay?"

Phoenix Project? Oh, yeah. The reconstruction of Moonbase out of the ashes of the old one. Straker wasn't just an officer and a gentleman, she thought. He was a poet, too. But a report? He was wanting a report from her? She rubbed a hand over her forehead, trying to force the nerve endings in her brain to connect faster. Of course! The report! It was in her office. She looked up to see him patiently awaiting an answer to his question. "Um, no. I mean, it's done, Commander. I've got it in my office. Shall I go get it?"

He lifted an ironic brow, but all he said was, "Please."

After she left to retrieve it, he called her husband's office at the new AquaTech London headquarters. But Chris was away from his desk, busy helping one of his teams set up their equipment. Could he leave a message? It seemed that he could.

* * *

Straker drove his sleek car into the parking lot of the International Astrophysical Commission, unsure of his moves for the first time in years. He'd never requested appropriations from this general before and had no idea what approach to use. Shaw had seemed congenial. And magnanimous, as well. He hadn't been alarmed by Straker's unusual family history; but then, who was he to throw stones? He was a third generation Earther himself, his grandfather having made the trip from Rigel to Earth as a young man. They'd gotten a little acquainted during their chat, but nothing had been said that would help the commander know what to expect in the meeting today. He would just have to play it bold. Use the direct approach. It had always worked for him in the past.

Straker walked calmly into the board room when he was announced and took his seat. General Shaw acknowledged his presence and turned the time over to him with a few quiet words.

"Thank you, General Shaw," Commander Straker began. "As you all are aware, the destruction of most of Moonbase's defenses has left Earth especially vulnerable to an alien attack. We lost many key systems, as well as nearly all of the upgraded equipment that had just been sent up there. I have a full listing of those losses for you." Straker handed around several copies of the ten page list.

The members of the commission seemed somewhat appalled by the length of the list, and the murmuring increased as they began to check the total dollar amount of what had been lost. Commander Straker let them mutter among themselves for a few moments, then said firmly, "It is imperative that we do three things about the present situation. Priority One; we need to get new interceptors and the bays to keep them in. That is of critical importance. So far, Skydiver pilots have been able to handle the UFOs that we've tracked, but all it will take is one of their ships getting away from us and letting their planet know of our vulnerability for them to descend upon us in droves." He didn't bother to mention that he already had the interceptors built, ready to transport as soon as work began on the bays. He remembered how Henderson had hated him using his own personal funds for SHADO and didn't want to make waves with this general so soon.

"Priority Two; we need to get the two damaged spheres back in working order and restaffed. Moonbase is an isolated base, and as such, requires the normal amenities of life. Right now, we have staff bunking in hallways and eating at their work stations. It will work for another month or two. Perhaps. But any longer time period will seriously tax the operatives' performance of their duties.

"Priority Three; we need to start now to construct another Moonbase station. Not as a replacement for the existing one. But to augment it. Gentlemen, we cannot let ourselves come this close to being wiped out again. Two working bases on the moon will not only increase our ability to track and destroy incoming UFOs, but will allow the bases to protect each other's backs in the event of another attack.

"Now, we've outlined the proposal for you, along with the financial requirements." He handed around copies of a thick report. "You'll notice that the report is broken up into the three stages that I mentioned, along with the appropriate time frames." He sat back and watched as they leafed through the report. If they had been appalled at the loss figures, they were stunned by the amount the reconstruction was going to cost. After assessing their various reactions to the report, he glanced at General Shaw. The general was calmly going through the cost analysis as if the staggering amounts listed were no more than a few pence.

By the time General Shaw looked up a few minutes later, several of the delegates were more than ready to make their comments on the proposal. And it didn't look as though they would be in favor of it. Straker prepared himself for the fight ahead.

The general closed his copy of the report and slowly looked around the room at the other members of the commission. His quiet gaze touched on each face and met every eye at the table. Lastly, he met Straker's eye. The commander couldn't read his expression, but he was very intrigued. As intimidation tactics went, it was superb. The room had gotten completely silent during Shaw's perusal. It was almost as though they were holding their breath for whatever he might say. And it wasn't long in coming.

"I want to thank Commander Straker for coming today and sharing this proposal with the commission. Your report is very concise and systematic, Commander." Straker gave him a small nod, waiting for the other shoe to drop. "I realize that it is now the board members' turn to ask you questions about the proposal and to try to find some way to cut half of the appropriations out along the way. However, I feel that such an endeavor would be completely unproductive. Earth is at stake, gentlemen. Our home. The lives of billions. How do we put a price tag on their lives or consider for even a moment cutting back on the requirements for their safety?

"We cannot. Therefore, I am calling a one hour recess while the delegates read through the report in its entirety, at which time we will convene again to discuss where we can cut corners elsewhere in order to get this Phoenix Project going. Your presence will not be required for that meeting, Commander, especially since you are needed elsewhere. My request, and I believe the commission is in full agreement with me on this, is that you begin immediately to implement the first stage of this project." He glanced around the room at the stunned delegates, and a quiet smile crossed his face. Then he looked back at Straker. "Thank you for coming, Commander."

Straker stood and shook his hand, but afterward could not remember the walk to his car.



ACT III

"Hello?"

"Hi."

"Hi, yourself."

Straker sat back in his studio office chair, at peace just hearing her voice on the telephone. "Busy?"

"Incredibly. I'm polishing my toenails."

"I see."

"It takes a lot more concentration than you might think," she explained.

"I'll take your word for it. What color?"

"Temptation red."

"Hmmm. Are you in a red mood?"

Sheila laughed. "I'm always in a red mood. What do you think that says about me?"

Straker grinned. "I refuse to say."

"Why?"

"You might slap me."

She gave a gurgle of surprised laughter. "Over the phone?"

"I'm not chancing it."

She dissolved into giggles. After she caught her breath, she said, "Silly! I'm trying the color out for tomorrow night."

"Oh, yes," Straker said. "Your band's concert."

"Yes. I think it'll go well with my new outfit."

"Is it red?" he asked, remembering all too well the dress she'd worn to the premiere. He'd nearly swallowed his tongue when he'd seen her in it.

"No. It's black," she said. "Black leather."

He closed his eyes with a groan. "Say no more! I can visualize it all too clearly. I'll have to loosen my tie in a minute."

"You don't wear a tie," she corrected him.

"It's a figure of speech."

Another giggle escaped. "Ed! Seriously," she said.

"Must I be?" he asked grudgingly.

"Just for a minute," she told him.

"Alright. What did you want to know?"

"How are you?" She would have liked to ask if he was feeling better, but remembered in time that she wasn't supposed to know that he'd been ill. God, she hated secrets!

"Fine," he answered, then recalled Callista's comment about his standard noncommittal answer. "Actually," he said, "I was ill for a while, but I'm feeling fine now."

"Was it bad?" she asked, wondering if he would tell her.

Straker sighed. "Yes, I think so. My doctor is still trying to get me to lighten my workload, which is absurd. I'm looking at 24/7 for the next few months, at least."

"Delegate."

He chuckled. "Sheila, I need those months so that I can delegate. I'm in the middle of training a few key people to be able to handle things if I ever get laid up again. Oh, well. Enough of my worries. What did you do today?"

"Oh, Ed. You don't want to hear that. My day was pretty boring, I'm sure, compared to yours."

"Nonsense," he insisted. "I want to hear all about it."

She sighed. "Don't say I didn't warn you! Well, I had the fitting for my outfit first thing."

"I'm sure that was exciting."

She laughed. "I'm not telling you any of the details, so forget it!"

He grinned. "Ah, come on!"

Straker heard that wonderful gurgle of laughter again. "You're a naughty boy, Ed Straker!"

He gave a mock sigh. "You've found me out."

"I love you, Ed," she said quietly.

His breath caught. "Sheila! I love you, too." The phone line was silent for a short while, but they were aware of each other's thoughts even without words. Finally he said, "Did the fitting take up your whole morning?"

"No," she answered. "I had to rush to a board meeting at ten. It was excruciatingly boring."

"I had a board meeting this morning, too," he admitted, "but you couldn't call it boring."

"See what I mean?" she said. "Your life is so much more interesting than mine."

"I don't think so, Sheila," Straker said. "I don't get to dress up in tight leather outfits."

She chuckled. "You may have a point."

""I thought you were training Percy Something-or-other to take over as Chairman for you," he said after a moment.

"I am. But like you, I'm finding that it takes a little time to prepare people properly. He's almost ready. I've spent the last several months showing him what Dad had in mind for the company, and I think he's got the hang of it. I'll know in the next three weeks. I intend to hand the company over to him at the next meeting."

"Good luck."

"Thanks," she said.

"So, how was your afternoon?" he asked.

"You mean, you're not bored yet?" At his chuckle, she said, "Okay, here goes. This afternoon I visited three shelters in the north. I met some of the new women and spoke with the counselors for a while."

"That would make for a full afternoon," he said.

"It did," she agreed.

"How are things going with the shelters, Sheila?"

"Really good," she answered. "The Conover Foundation for Battered Women has grown to include nine new shelters in the past few months. I'm going to have to appoint a new Chairman to that board soon. I refuse to tie myself down to endless board meetings again. I'd rather be on site where I can stay in touch with the women."

"You're doing a wonderful job there, you know," he said gently.

"Oh, Ed! Don't!" she pleaded. "You'll make me cry. It's just something that I have to do. You know that."

Yes, he did know. And better than she realized or knew herself. "It doesn't make it any less honorable," he told her.

She closed the nail polish bottle with shaking fingers. When her throat loosened up again, she said, "You know, if you'd stop giving your donations anonymously, you could become the Chairman yourself."

Straker laughed. "I don't know what you're talking about, but you sure sound cute when you say it."

"Damn it, Ed!" she said, then sighed. What was the use? She'd never get him to admit it. "Listen, why don't you tell me about your non-boring board meeting. That sounds more exciting than anything I've said so far. Of course," she qualified quickly, "that's only if you can."

"Let me see," Straker said. "Well, we've just gotten a new Chairman of the Board, so I wasn't really sure what to expect. I mean, I'd met him beforehand and he seemed decent, but there are no friendships in a boardroom."

"No," she agreed, "only dollar signs."

"And lots of them. So, I gave my proposal..."

"Wait!" she interrupted. "I can see it now. Gentlemen of the Board, for my fifteenth point, I would like to state..."

"Actually," he corrected mildly, "there were only three points."

"Really? Your board meetings must be much shorter than mine. So, after you wowed them with your stunning proposal, then what?"

Straker chuckled. "Well, usually that's when the real fun begins."

"You mean, once you show them the bottom line?" she asked.

"Exactly. Those dollar signs. I had all my arguments ready..."

"Arranged logically and irrefutably, no doubt," she said.

"Of course," he answered. "But the Chairman dismissed me, shook my hand, and said to get started on the project right away."

"Wow! That's amazing!" Sheila said. "You must have really impressed him."

"I don't see how."

"Well, perhaps he was won over by your many unique qualities."

His chuckle was wry. "What unique...?" Suddenly he remembered the things the general had said about his father. That he was a great man and that they should have heeded him. Shaw was aware of how vital the Phoenix Project was. Surely the entire commission was, as well. But that wouldn't have stopped them from bickering about it. Did General Shaw see analogies between this situation and what Straker's father had experienced with the Maloran council?

"Ed?" Sheila was bewildered by his lengthy silence.

"You may be right," he answered slowly. Then he sat forward as his second line flashed. "Just a moment, Sheila. Can you hold?"

"Of course."

He switched lines. Miss Eeland had been gone for hours, so he knew he'd be getting the main desk. "What is it, Miss Evans?"

"Sir," she said. "Christopher Straker is here to see you."

"Send him on in, please." Straker switched back to Sheila. "I'll have to let you go now. May I call you again soon?"

"Anytime, Ed."

"Thanks," he said. "Enjoy your concert." As he hung up the phone, his brother walked into the office. "Well, Chris!" he said. "I'm glad you've decided not to be a stranger." Then Ed got a good look at him and lost his smile. He came forward swiftly. "What is it?"

Chris Straker slumped into a chair and gave his little brother a tortured look. "It's Ginny," he said. "She's gone!"

* * *

When they entered the HQ office, they found Peter Carlin and Paul Foster going over reports. Peter started to get up from behind the desk to give the commander his chair, but Straker waved him back into the seat.

Paul noticed their expressions and asked, "What's wrong?"

Chris sat down in one of the chairs as if he were too weary to stand. "Ginny's gone."

"What do you mean, gone?" asked Peter. "Has she been abducted?"

Chris shook his head. "No. I don't think it's like that. She's just gone. As in not home."

"Could she be with a friend?" Paul asked.

Her husband ran a hand through his hair. "I've called everybody."

Straker said quietly, "Why don't you start from the beginning, Chris. When did you first notice her missing?"

His brother took a steadying breath. "At noon. We were supposed to meet for lunch. I called when she didn't show up, but no one answered. I even tried her radio. But she didn't pick up. So I took the afternoon off and came home. Her car was gone, and I found her overnight bag missing, along with some toiletries and a few clothes."

Foster was frowning. "Could she have gone to visit someone? Was there a note?"

Chris shook his head wearily. "No. No note. And her gun and her radio were on the table."

"What?" Paul looked at the commander, who seemed just as shocked.

"Chris," Straker asked slowly, "she left her gun?"

"Yes."

Peter said, "That doesn't make sense."

"It doesn't sound like Ginny at all," Paul agreed. "She'd never leave her weapon behind, no matter where she was headed."

"Unless she doesn't expect to need it where she's going," Straker suggested.

"Maybe," Chris said. "But she wouldn't go off without saying anything, Ed."

"Did you have an argument?" his brother asked quietly.

"No! Of course not." But Chris didn't look at him when he said it.

Paul said, "Besides, Ginny wouldn't run off. She'd sooner get in your face."

Chris gave a shaky grin. "Yes, she would." He sighed. "I even called her dad, thinking that she might have gone there. He hadn't heard from her, but he told me he was coming here on the next available flight."

"Sir, should we go to red alert?" Paul asked.

"Not until we know more," Straker said, then turned to Chris. "Virginia was off today. Why was that?"

"She had a doctor's appointment this morning." Chris looked at his brother. "Do you think...?"

"Yes. Let's check it out." Straker turned to Foster. "Paul, find out where her car is. That may give us a place to start. And Peter, check the airlines, train stations, and the like. Wherever she's gone, she has to have left a trail."

"Right." Peter picked up the phone as Straker and his brother left the office.

Paul looked at his friend silently for a moment. "Do you think it's a domestic squabble, Peter?"

He shook his head sadly. "There's no way to be sure, is there? I'll tell you this, Paul. It's damned unnerving!"

* * *

Dr. Shroeder looked up when the brothers entered his office. "Good evening, Commander Straker, Mr. Straker," he said.

"Doctor, Virginia Straker had an appointment with you this morning," Straker said.

"Yes, she did," he answered. "Did she tell you the good news?" he asked Chris.

"What good news?" Chris asked.

The doctor frowned. "Well, perhaps I should let her tell you herself."

"What was her appointment about, Dr. Shroeder?" Straker asked.

"Well, she was concerned about being fatigued, and said she was having trouble concentrating. I believe she also mentioned that she was not sleeping well."

"Yes," Chris said. "That's what she told me she was going to see you about. What did you find out, Doctor?"

"Haven't you spoken to her?" the doctor asked in surprise.

"Just tell us, Doctor," Straker demanded.

Shroeder blinked at his harsh tone. "She's pregnant. About seven weeks along, I should say."

Chris stared at his brother, who seemed as stunned as he was.

"Congratulations, Mr. Straker," the doctor said.

"Thanks."

"How did she take the news?" Straker asked.

The doctor shrugged. "She was surprised, of course. I don't think that she was expecting that to be the problem. But she seemed to accept it quite well. Why do you ask?"

Straker took his brother's arm and headed for the door. "Thank you, Doctor. You've been very helpful."

As they headed back toward Straker's office, Ed said, "Listen, Chris. The best place for you right now is at home. If Virginia tries to get hold of you or returns home, you should be there. We'll keep checking things out on this end. I promise to let you know as soon as we find anything."

"Alright, Ed," his brother said, still stunned by what they had learned from the doctor. "But what do you think it means?"

Ed shook his head. "I have no idea. But we'll find her, Chris." He gave his older brother a reassuring smile. However, he was not smiling when he entered the office after Chris left. "Peter," he said to the man at the desk, "call your wife. Have her go over to your mother's house for the rest of the evening. Tell her to pack a small bag. She's not to go home until further notice, all right?"

"What is it, sir?" Peter asked, alarmed by his grim expression.

"Virginia's pregnant," Commander Straker said. "Now, I don't know what that has to do with her disappearance, but it's best if we don't take any chances."

Peter gasped. "You think Callista might also be in danger?"

"I don't know. But frankly, until we know what is going on, I'd rather have her in a safe place."

"I'll call her right away," Peter said.

"Good. I'm going to make a few calls myself and see if we can't cover a few more bases. Let me know if you find out anything from the airports. I'll be upstairs."

"Yes, sir."

* * *

"Hello?"

"Sheila?"

"Hi! I know, you're calling to find out if I finished my toenails."

"Actually," Straker said, "I was wondering if you could do a favor for me."

Sheila frowned at his tone. "What is it, Ed?"

He ran a hand over his eyes. "A friend is missing, and we're not sure what's going on. I know it's asking a lot, but I was wondering if you could let me know if she shows up at one of your shelters?"

"I could let you know that she was safe," she answered slowly. "But I really couldn't tell you which shelter she was at, Ed. I'm sorry."

"No, that's fine," he said. "It would be enough to know that she was okay."

"I'll call around immediately," she said. "What's her name? Oh, and I'll need a description of her, as well."

Straker closed his eyes. It was hard to accept that this nightmare had developed so quickly. "Sheila, I'm not sure that she'll turn up at all. It's just that..."

"Ed, it's alright," she assured him. "It's always better to be safe than sorry. I'm happy to be able to help."

He sighed. "I appreciate it more than I can say. Her name is Virginia Straker."

Sheila gasped. The beautiful woman she'd met at the hospital? The one who was married to Ed's brother? Surely not. They had been so obviously in love with each other. What could have happened? "Ed, maybe you don't want to hear this, but is it possible that she was abducted like I was?"

He swallowed. "Yes, it's possible. But doubtful. The circumstances are somewhat different."

"If she doesn't turn up at one of the shelters, will you let me know when you find her?" she asked.

"Yes, of course," he answered. "I wouldn't want you to keep looking for her once she's found. Let me give you her description."

"Oh, yes. Of course."

* * *

"You wanted to see me?"

Straker looked up. "Yes, Emily. Thank you for coming so promptly."

She shrugged. "Well, we were just finishing up filming for the day. If you'd waited another half hour, I'd have been gone."

"Then I'm glad I caught you. Please, sit down."

Emily sat, gazing into his grim face. "What's wrong?"

"Emily," he said, "what do you know about a race that is blonde and grey eyed?"

"Blonde like you?"

"No. Ash blonde."

She frowned. "There are several in the sector. But very few of them have people here. I suppose that's what you're wanting to know, right? About someone here?"

"Yes."

She thought for a minute, then shook her head. "It would be too hard to say for certain. Would it be possible for me to meet the person? I'd know more then."

Straker sighed. "Unfortunately, that won't be possible. And you weren't at Delores' wedding. You could have met her there."

Emily said dryly, "Well, I don't really know Delores very well. If I'd known it would be important, I might have tried to get invited."

He chuckled. "I'm not blaming you, Emily. Maybe you could ask your uncle if he has any idea about what race it might be. It could be important."

"Alright, Ed. But you really haven't given us much to go on."

"I realize that. I'll let you know if I find out any more that might help."

"You got it," she said. "Was that all you wanted?"

He frowned in thought for a moment. "Actually, I was wondering. When do classes end this semester?"

"My finals are next week. Why?"

"Were you planning to take more classes during the summer?"

Emily shrugged. "What did you have in mind?"

He smiled slightly. "I was wondering if you might be interested in working for me."

She lifted a brow. "I thought I already did."

"Yes, well. This would be different from your current work."

"Instead of my work on the writing team? Is it another acting job?"

He shook his head. "No. It would be an extra position entirely. I need you to put together a database for me."

She gazed at him silently, her quick mind working overtime. "You mean, on alien races?"

"Yes."

"What would you want to know?"

Straker said, "You'd be focusing on a few things in particular. Cultural backgrounds, military strengths, ship designations and weapon capabilities."

Emily laughed. "You're not asking for much!"

His grin was wry. "I realize that it would take some time to compile. Once school started back up in the fall, you could get to it when you had free time. But you should be able to have a fairly good base going by then. What do you think?"

Emily crossed her arms. "I think that you're a deep one, Ed."

He lifted a brow at her.

"You forget that I study military history. I know scores of military leaders, Ed. I like to think that I can spot one a mile away."

He smiled, but only said, "Are you interested?"

"Are you kidding? Of course I am," she answered. "How soon do you need me to get started?"

He grimaced. "Last year?"

Emily laughed. "I see. How about in two weeks?"

"Good enough. Listen, I need you not to speak to anyone about it. Anyone, Emily."

"No problem." She stood and allowed him to walk her to the door of the office. "Do I get paid?"

Straker chuckled. "I'm sure we could come to an agreement that would be beneficial to both of us."

"Great." She grinned at him, then noticed that someone had come into the outer office. It was Mr. Foster. He was frowning at them.

Straker saw him as well, and said to Emily, "Thank you for coming. Good night."

"Good night, Ed."

Straker waited until she left the room, then met Paul's disgusted look. "I believe I've spoken to you before about jumping to conclusions from overhearing conversations, Paul."

Foster's frown only deepened. "You do realize that she's young enough to be your daughter?"

Shraker compressed his lips and went back into the office. ""What were you able to find out about Virginia's car?"

Paul followed him into the office. "What about Sheila?"

Straker's eyes turned cold. "I don't believe I know what you're referring to."

Foster came up to the desk. "Sheila. You know: gorgeous brunette. About 5'4". Does she know about this girl you're seeing?"

The commander stiffened. "If you knew me at all, you wouldn't ask me such a question. I hardly think I owe you any explanations for what I do." He leaned forward over the desk. "Stay out of my private life, Foster."

Paul said fiercely, "Then stop shoving it in my face!"

Straker's eyes narrowed dangerously. "What are you talking about?" he asked very quietly.

Paul ran a shaky hand through his hair and walked over to look at the display wall. He'd been full of frustrated anger for so long that he'd been begging for a fight. But it was hardly fair to attack Straker. He knew that the commander wasn't seeing that girl. It had made him wonder for a moment when he'd entered the office and overheard them talking, but only for a moment. A man who nearly died trying to keep his distance from a woman he loved didn't screw around with other girls on the side. Paul closed his eyes. "I'm sorry, sir," he said finally. "I was out of line. You're right. I jumped to conclusions." He took a deep breath and turned to his commanding officer. "Ginny's car is at Heathrow Airport. I checked at the counter. She took a flight to Sao Paulo."

Straker gazed at him in silence for a long moment, and Paul wondered if he'd let it go. Then he said, "Brazil? Did she get a connecting flight from there?"

Paul shrugged. "If she did, she got it when she arrived. We won't find out anything from here. We'll have to go there ourselves to learn more."

Straker looked at his watch. "When did her flight leave England?"

"About 10:30am."

"Hmmm. Then she'll already be gone by the time we get someone over there." Straker sighed and pressed the button to send the office down to HQ. ""I need to look at a map. What would she want in South America?"

Paul said, "Who knows? I can't even believe she took off like that. It doesn't make any sense."

Straker agreed. "She's pregnant, Paul."

Foster stared at him. "Now I'm really confused. Isn't that supposed to be a cause for celebration? Why would she leave now?"

His boss shook his head wearily. "She's seemed a little... absentminded for a few weeks. I just assumed it was an adjustment period. You know; new husband, new home, new obligations."

Paul looked at him. "Do you think they had a fight?"

"I don't know, Paul." Straker turned worried eyes to him. "But I tend to agree with you. She'd sooner fight back than just take off like this. And it's certain that Chris wasn't expecting her to go. I feel as though I'm in the middle of a Hitchcock movie."

Paul grinned. "Which one?"

"The Lady Vanishes."

"I must have missed that one. Sir," the colonel said as Straker went to enter the office, "I'm sorry about what I said earlier. I do know you better than that. It's just that..." He ran a hand through his hair, wondering how he could explain. Finally, he said, "I'm sorry."

Straker nodded. "It's alright, Paul. We're all under a great deal of stress right now. Just don't take off for any foreign countries without telling anyone, okay?"

Paul grinned. "No, sir."



ACT IV

"What have you found out?"

Straker walked into his brother's living room the next day and lifted a brow. He could almost believe he was in a Grecian temple. The furniture, the drapes, even the paintings all worked together to give the impression. He had never realized before that Virginia was such a fine decorator. ""We know she took a plane to Brazil, then got a flight to Santiago. From there, it's anyone's guess."

Chris muted the TV and sat back down on the couch. "What would she be doing in South America, Ed? Is SHADO doing anything there that she might be checking on?"

"No, Chris. If we were, we wouldn't be so worried. In fact, we haven't a clue what she'd be doing there. But since she just took an overnight bag, perhaps she'll be coming back soon enough that we can ask her."

Chris lifted agonized eyes to his brother. "Maybe she only took what she needed until she got where she was going. Maybe she has no intention of returning at all."

Ed had hoped that thought hadn't occurred to him. He wished he had more news to tell. But the long night had brought few answers. Glancing at the silent TV, he recognized the movie playing and realized that Chris was watching a video. "The Incredible Mr. Limpet?" he asked his brother.

Chris' smile was weak, but it was nevertheless a smile. "Ginny bought it for me when we got engaged." At Ed's raised brow, he said, "It's a private joke."

"Along the fish theme, perhaps?" his little brother asked dryly.

"Yeah." Chris' smile was broader this time. "She really got me with that one. I don't think I've ever laughed so hard in all my life. Your fountain was a real hit."

"I noticed it outside."

Chris shook his head. "The neighbors think we're trying to be pretentious."

Ed grinned. "I must say, if they saw this room, they'd be certain of it."

"It's great, isn't it? Did you ever see Ginny's old apartment?" When his brother shook his head, he said, "She has this incredibly ordered mind. Every room has its own theme. Look." He led the way into the kitchen, where watermelons were to be seen in abundance. Ed picked up a melon- shaped pepper shaker and smiled. Chris said, "You should see the bathroom. Macaws."

Straker laughed. "I'm almost afraid to ask about the bedroom."

Chris grinned. "Are you kidding? That's where all the fish stuff is. She even has a stash of Goldfish crackers in the nightstand drawer. I nearly fell out of bed the first time I saw her nibbling on one."

Ed's grin faded after a moment. "Chris, what happened?"

His brother looked at him. "I don't know, Ed. I've gone over everything a million times in my head. She just sort of changed." He headed back to the living room.

Straker joined him on the couch. "Changed? How?"

Chris ran a nervous hand through his white blonde hair. "I don't know. She seemed to go away. It's like she didn't really see me anymore."

"When did this happen?"

His brother laughed harshly. "Hell, I don't know. It was gradual. But I guess it started almost a month ago. She'd gone to a street market and seemed fine when she got back. But nothing's been the same since." He gazed at his brother for a long moment. "Ed, can a person be possessed?"

Straker kept his face bland with an effort. "What do you mean, Chris?"

"I want to show you something." Chris got up and headed down the hall. He stopped at a closed door and put his hand on the knob, but didn't open it. "She was so excited when she got home from that market. She'd found this totally ugly figurine that she was just thrilled about. Well, I wasn't about to tell her it was hideous. I didn't think any more about it until two days later, when I got home and she had bought twelve more of them. All different sizes and styles. Wood, pewter, marble, you name it. She was practically beside herself about them. I thought, Good God. What if she wants to decorate with those things?"

"What did you do?"

"What could I do? She loved them. So I told her that she could put them in the spare bedroom. I even talked to a friend of mine who's into photo art and got her a few framed pictures of the things to hang on the walls. She seemed almost her old self when I gave them to her, she was so happy. She hadn't known that they were real. Or that there was actually a place where you could see them." He opened the door.

Straker peered into the room and felt the small hairs at the back of his neck rise in atavistic fear. The room was set up almost like a shrine, with figurines of all sizes set out on every surface. Two haunting framed pictures hung on the walls, and a single chair was positioned in the center of the room for optimal effect. He walked forward and stood looking at the display. When he turned back to his brother, it was to see him still in the doorway. Chris hadn't entered the room at all. "Chris, surely you must have realized that this wasn't normal."

His brother sighed. "Of course, I did. But what was I supposed to do? Tell her she'd flipped her lid? I thought it would pass. Only it didn't."

"How often did she come here, Chris?"

"I don't know. This past week it seemed as though she was always here, just sitting in that chair staring off into space. I'd come home from work and she'd be here. She even got so that she'd come here in the middle of the night. I didn't know what to do. It's like they were taking her over or something. Like they spoke to her in a language only she could hear."

Straker suppressed a shudder and looked around the room again. His eyes strayed to one of the photographs on the wall. It was an angled shot of a coastline. A long line of statues stood staring into the ocean, their enigmatic faces hooded by heavy brows. Moai. He turned to his brother. "Chris, were you aware that Easter Island is in the South Pacific straight out from the coast of Chile?"

Chris gasped. "From Santiago? You mean, she's gone there?"

Ed looked grim. "What do you think?"

Chris started to reply when the doorbell rang. He went to answer it. Charles Lake stood on the doorstep. "Chuck," Chris said. "Please, come in."

His friend and father-in-law entered the house and smiled slightly as he saw the living room. "I see that Ginny still favors the Greeks."

Her husband smiled at his comment as Ed came into the room. "I believe you met my brother at the wedding."

"Of course. Hello, Ed." Charles came forward to shake hands.

"Charles."

"Is she back yet?" her father asked them.

"No," Chris said.

"Well." The older man patted his arm. "I'm sure she'll turn up. Listen, could I freshen up a bit? It's been a long trip."

"Of course. The bathroom's just down the hall."

"Thanks." Charles left the room.

Ed came over to his brother. "I have a few things to check up on, Chris. But I think we can safely say where she went."

"But does she intend to come back?" Chris asked in an agonized whisper.

"My God!" Both brothers turned to see Charles Lake standing in the hall staring into the spare bedroom. He turned to them with eyes dilated with shock. He slowly came back into the living room and sat on the nearest chair. The older man took a deep breath, then said, "Just like her mother."

Ed and Chris exchanged glances, then Chris said, "What do you mean, Chuck?"

Charles looked up at them. "Melissa did the same thing once. Is Ginny pregnant?"

"Yes," Straker said. "Are you saying that your wife collected Easter Island heads?"

He nodded. "Just before she took off. I was frantic. She hadn't said a word about going anywhere. She was just gone one day."

"Do you know where she went?" Chris asked.

"No, and she never spoke of it. She came back about a week later as if nothing had happened. She put away all her little wooden heads in a box and never looked at them again. Since she wouldn't talk about it, I finally let it go."

"How did you know that Virginia was pregnant?" Straker asked.

Charles turned to him. "Because that's what happened the day Melissa left. The doctor had told her she was pregnant."

* * *

"What legends do you know about Easter Island?"

Jasper Williams put down his teacup and sat back in his chair. He had thought this wasn't purely a social call. "There are many. A place like that is bound to be full of legends and stories. But I suppose this has to do with that blonde race you were wanting to know about."

"Yes."

"Well, that does narrow it down some. You probably are looking for a Henuan. Rapa Nui, which is the natives' name for the island, is purported to contain a gateway to the Henuan hiding place."

"Gateway?" Straker asked.

"My dear, perhaps you can explain it better than I," Jasper said to his wife.

Edith put down her knitting. "The Henuans were hunted by their more aggressive adversaries almost to the point of extinction, Edward. This was, oh, thousands of years ago. They were not as powerful as their Duran enemies, but they were smarter. They found a pocket dimension and escaped into it. When the Duran came to finish the last of them off, there was no one left to kill. They were all gone.

"But they could not live forever in a pocket dimension. They needed fresh air, sunlight, a place to live and grow as a people again. So they created portals or gateways out of their safe place, where their people could go and live free far from their enemies' reach. Many worlds throughout the galaxy contain at least one of these gateways. The Henuans spread themselves all over, so that annihilation would not stare them in the face again."

Straker took a sip of his coffee. "So why go back? Why would they want one of their people to return to the pocket dimension?"

"For their records," Jasper said. "The Henuans have very ordered minds, Edward. And they have worked very hard to rebuild their numbers over the centuries. When one of their people is breeding or has a newborn child, depending on whether they are female or male, they return to the pocket dimension in order to register that child for their historical records."

"I see. However, I am confused about one thing," Straker said. "I know that my friend was completely unaware that she was anything but a normal human. How is it that she knew what to do and where to go?"

"It's imprinted in their genetic code, in a similar way to lemmings or salmon, I should think," Jasper explained. "You mustn't worry about your friend, you know. She won't be gone long. They never are."

Edith spoke up. "What about that man Emily saw at the studio last week, dear?"

"Perhaps," Jasper conceded, "but Emily has never met a Duran, my dear. She may have been mistaken."

Straker set down his cup. "Are you saying that one of their enemies was at the studio?"

"Well, we do not know for certain," Jasper said, never one to panic unnecessarily. "I personally have never seen a Duran in all the time we've been here. Emily's recognition skills are good, but she could have made a mistake."

"Tell me this," Straker said after a moment. "Are the Duran still hunting the Henuans?"

"Yes, of course."

Straker stood up. "Thank you for your hospitality and for your help. I don't know what we would have done without you both."

"Now, Edward," Edith scolded. "That's enough of that. You just come see us again when you have more time to visit."

"I'll do that, Edith. Thank you."

* * *

"I'll always be in your debt, you know."

Paul looked across the table at Straker's brother. Chris was getting another cookie out of the watermelon cookie jar, and Paul almost smiled. He had bought that jar for Ginny a few years ago, back when they had been seeing each other. But he knew that wasn't what Chris was referring to. He sighed and bit into his cookie. "Like I could have let him die."

"Still," Chris said, "I know it was hard. And I'm grateful."

Paul nodded, knowing no words to say.

"Do you think they have a chance?" Chris asked after a moment.

Col. Foster sat forward. "I don't know. I think he should just bring her in. Jackson ought to be able to help her remember things, even if it's only what her job was. Personally, I don't think she was reprogrammed at all. I think we'd have seen evidence of it by now, don't you? And if he brought her back, there shouldn't be any problem with them being together. He's not married now."

Chris rested his chin on his hands. "But she was gone for how long? Seven years? How are people going to handle that little fact?"

"She was a prisoner of war, Chris! Anyone who could hold that against her doesn't belong in the human race, let alone in SHADO."

"I agree. Don't bite my head off. I liked her myself. Ed had good taste this time around. But I think my little brother is worried about precisely that issue. After all, he is the man in charge. Caesar's wife, and all that."

"If he lets that stop him, he's not the man I think he is," Paul said.

Chris shook his head. "I don't think he'll let it stop him. But... well. Have you noticed how often he is away from the command chair these days? And I'm talking just since I've been in England."

Paul frowned. "What are you suggesting? That he'll give SHADO up? Not a chance! He's way too committed."

"Would you?"

Paul met his eyes. "You mean, for Sheila? In a minute!" Then he realized what he had said and frowned again. "Damn it, he can't!"

"It's what I would do," Chris said with a shrug. "That is, if I was worried about how she'd be accepted."

"But once people knew her, they'd know better," Foster assured him. "I mean, my God! She saved his life!"

"There is that," Chris conceded, then looked past Paul to the kitchen doorway. "Hey, Ed. What did you find out?'

Paul jumped and turned to see the commander frowning behind him. Straker said, "Who saved whose life, Paul?"

Foster blanched, and Chris said, "Come on, Ed. What did you find out from your friends?"

His brother turned to him, his frown deepening. "I know why she went to Easter Island. And I've been told that she'll probably return in a few days. However, I think we may have a problem."

Chris groaned. "Don't tell me! Those damn heads are going to try to keep her there."

"No," Ed said, taking a cookie out of the jar and nibbling on it for a moment. "She may have a killer on her trail."





ACT V

"God! This is worse than that room! At least Ginny is tidy."

Straker grinned at his brother. Chris was staring in fascinated horror at the statues strewn all over the hillside. The brothers had covered most of the southern part of the island already, since that was where the majority of the Moai were. But this quarry had seemed a likely place, and they had eventually ended up here. Straker looked around him at the fallen and tilted megaliths. It was as if some giant child had tired of his chess game and thrown down the pieces helter-skelter on the grass. It would have been amusing if it hadn't been so disturbing.

"How are we going to find some gateway among all these things?" Chris asked.

Ed checked the guidebook they'd picked up at the airport. "There are about four hundred Moai on this hillside, Chris," he said.

His brother gave him a sour look. "That helps, Ed. Thanks."

Ed grinned. "Anytime."

"Listen," Chris said, his hands on his hips as he surveyed the tumbled statues. "Will we even be able to tell this portal or whatever when we see it?"

"That's not our main objective," his brother pointed out as he began walking among the fallen giants.

"Well, then," Chris said. "What is?"

Straker turned back to look at him. "We don't need to find the portal, Chris. We need to find Virginia. She knows where the portal is. And failing that, we need to find the man that Emily described to me. He may not know where the portal is, but he'll be looking for Virginia. And we have to find her first."

"But if she's in this other dimension, how will we find her?"

"We need to look this island over carefully, Chris. Find the most likely place for the portal. Then we wait."

His brother looked at him in shock. "That's the plan?"

Straker lifted a brow at his tone. "Do you have a better one?"

Chris sighed. "No. But I'm not relishing the idea of being out here after nightfall. Are you?"

* * *

They found the track after about an hour and a half. According to Ed's guidebook, it was one of the transport roads for the ancient inhabitants to move the massive Moai across the island to the northern coast. Straker wanted to follow it to the coast, but Chris thought they should stay at Rano Raraku. "I hate these things," he told his brother, "but we have a better chance of finding the portal here than anywhere else."

Straker surveyed the hillside impassively. "Chris, these Moai are not distinctive enough to have been used as a gateway. We need to find one that stands out. If the Henuans put their portal here, it had to have been a long time ago. We need to find a megalith with some unusual characteristic that hasn't been moved from its resting place over the years. And the more I see of this quarry, the more certain I am that it won't be one of these."

"Would we see any statues along the track?" Chris asked.

"I don't know." Straker read for a while. "Chris! I think I've found it! There is a megalith near the coast that is supposed to be the largest transported Moai on the island. It's called Paro."

"Where is it?"

His little brother read a bit more, then gave him a carefully bland look. "We can get to it the quickest by following this track."

Chris rolled his eyes. "Do you ever get tired," he asked as they started along the dirt track, "of always being right?"

* * *

By the time they found Paro, the sun was sinking over the ocean. Chris was disappointed. "Hey, it's not even standing up!" he said in disgust.

"It wouldn't need to be," his brother answered calmly, running a hand over the side of the enormous base of the statue. "It stood at one time." He looked about them at the surrounding area. "And it's off by itself with no other Moai nearby. What do you think?"

Chris gave the fallen megalith a sardonic glance. "It fell on its face. That's what I think." He grinned at his younger brother's exasperation and relented. "You could be right. But how do we find the damned gateway?"

But his brother was not paying attention. He was frowning at something in the distance. When he drew his gun out, Chris turned to see what he was looking at. But all he saw were rocks, hills, and the Moai that guarded the northern coastline. "What is it, Ed?"

Straker glanced at him. "Someone's just beyond those rocks. I saw the glint of sunlight off either a pair of binoculars or a rifle sight. Either way, I think we've found our man."

Chris met his grim eyes and drew his own gun. It was a standard SHADO issue and not as intriguing a weapon as Ed's, but Chris knew how to use it, and that was the important thing. "Can we get around behind him?"

His brother nodded. "Yes. I think that will be best. I'll circle behind and come up from the rear. You stay here and watch for Virginia."

"Ed."

Straker glanced at his older brother as he started back the way they'd come.

"Be careful."

Straker nodded and headed off.

Chris leaned against the fallen megalith and kept watch, trying not to notice the setting of the sun.

* * *

A few minutes later, Chris felt a strange tremor run through the megalith at his back. He jerked away from it and saw his wife emerge from a slit along the massive length of the statue. She hadn't noticed him, but was frowning at something in the distance. He followed her gaze and saw the man standing up next to the rocks where he'd hidden. His rifle was pointed straight at Virginia.

Chris didn't even take time to think. He aimed and fired. Even before the echo of the shot came back, he saw the man fall into a heap. He looked over at his wife. She was staring at him.

"Chris!" Ginny ran to him and was enveloped tightly in his arms. She covered his face with kisses at the same time she asked a million questions. What was he doing here? Was he angry with her? Who was that man? And many more along the same lines. Chris answered none of them, but stood silently under her assault, grinning like an idiot.

When Straker returned to the megalith, he merely lifted an eyebrow at them and said, "I take it that we can go home now."

* * *

"Well, it sounds as though you had a grand adventure, Edward," Edith said from her rocker.

Straker grinned. "Yes, well. I could wish that Chris wasn't such a good shot. I would have liked to have asked that man a few questions."

Jasper laughed. "I have no doubt." He drank the last of his tea and exchanged a glance with his wife. She got up from her rocker, folding her knitting neatly into her basket and wishing Edward good night. He stood as well and thanked her for the fine dinner.

She smiled. "Well, Emily will be sorry to have missed your story. Perhaps you can tell it to her another time."

"I will," he promised. Emily had gone upstairs immediately after dinner to study for her finals. Straker had missed her pixie presence. Once Edith was gone up the stairs, he looked at Jasper Williams. He hadn't missed the eye signals between the couple. Emily's uncle was gazing very seriously at him, so he sat back down and asked, "Was there something you wanted to discuss with me?"

Jasper heaved a deep sigh. "In the absence of her father, I suppose it falls to me to ask you what your intentions are toward Emily?"

Straker lifted a brow. "We're merely friends. Surely you don't think I would pursue a girl nearly half my age?"

"I've seen stranger things," her uncle said. "I am aware that she thinks very highly of you. With reason, I must admit in all honesty. I happen to like you myself." He frowned. "But not as a suitor for my niece. Please don't misunderstand me. I am not averse to an alliance with your family. Not at all. However, I do not think that my niece would be a suitable wife for you, nor you a comfortable husband for her."

"Then we're in agreement," Straker said quietly.

"Good. But I must admit that there is a certain look in your eyes when they rest on my niece that makes me wonder. Forgive my boldness if I say that it is not the look of mere friends."

Straker sat back in the chair with a sigh. "Emily's friendship means a great deal to me," he said. "I would seek her company anyway, simply because she is such a pleasure to be around. However, you are correct in assuming that she means more to me than that." He spread his hands and gave Emily's uncle a direct look. "She reminds me of someone who matters a great deal to me and who I cannot spend as much time with as I would like. Your niece's friendship makes me feel that lack less sharply."

Jasper frowned. "Is this woman your match?"

Straker nodded, a rueful smile on his lips. "You know, I don't understand why half the galaxy seems to have a grasp on the concept of a perfect mate while Earth doesn't seem to be aware of it at all."

"It is simple," Jasper explained. "They are aware of it. They have just abandoned the idea in favor of their own societal dictates."

"What do you mean?"

"Look at all the folklore of the planet! Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast; not to mention all their countless variations in each subculture. The perfect match is an integral part of every one of the storylines. But you live in a society that ridicules such things. Not comprehending the great mystery of it, they scoff at it. And suffer for their own lack of understanding."

"Suffer is right," Straker said, remembering his marriage.

"Does Emily know about this woman in your life?"

Straker looked searchingly at him. "Should she?"

Her uncle said, "The choice is yours, of course. But I am concerned that she might get the wrong idea about your attentions if she is unaware of their cause."

"I see." Straker thought a moment, then shook his head. "I honestly don't think she sees me in that light. I have a little experience with this sort of thing, and Emily displays none of the symptoms of infatuation. She treats me very much as though I were a favorite teacher or even, if you'll permit the analogy, a favorite uncle. However, if I perceive any alteration in her treatment of me, I will most certainly explain things to her."

"That is quite acceptable," Jasper said. Then he smiled. "Now that we have that settled, how do you feel about a game of chess?"

* * *

"What are you doing?"

Ginny looked up to see her husband in the doorway. She got up off the floor and came to him, hugging him tightly. He ran a hand over her soft hair, and she gave a deep sigh. "I'm putting them all away."

The statues were indeed nearly all gone from around the room. They were wrapped in newspaper and piled neatly in and near the large box where Ginny had been working. Only the two pictures remained on the walls to attest to their presence. "You don't have to, you know," he said.

She looked at him. "You hate them."

"Yes," he answered, "but they're a part of you. You don't have to get rid of them."

She kissed him. "You're wonderful. But they're not important anymore. They've served their purpose." She laid a hand against his cheek. "And it's not as if I'll ever need them again."

Chris sighed. She had told him the sad news when they'd returned from the island that night. She would only bear one child. There would be no future siblings for their baby. It was the price her people paid for dimension travel. "We could keep one in the baby's room, you know, so that he can get used to seeing it. That way, it won't be such a shock when it's his turn."

"Her turn," Ginny corrected with a grin. "I love you, Chris."

He took her hand, leading her out of the spare room and down the hall to the bedroom. "Show me," he said.



EPILOGUE

"Don't ever scare us like that again," Paul said.

Virginia gave him a smile. "I'm sorry, Paul. I really wasn't aware of what I was doing."

"Did you tell Chris what Dr. Shroeder said?" Straker asked.

She nodded. "You mean, about when I'm due?" She'd been over a month in the pocket dimension, even though only a few days had passed on Earth. Dr. Shroeder had been shocked when he examined her on her return to find that she was nearly twelve weeks along. "Yes, I told him."

"Well, I don't like it," Alec said from the corner where he was nursing a bourbon. He and his new wife had stopped in on their way home from their honeymoon, and Alec had come in the middle of the briefing. "I can't leave for a minute without you guys getting into trouble."

They all grinned. Alec had been very upset to find that he'd missed all the excitement. "We'll try to schedule things better next time, Alec," Straker said.

"See that you do," Freeman replied.

"How did it feel to learn about your people, Virginia?" asked Peter.

She smiled softly. "Once I got over the shock, it was rather exciting. And sad. I couldn't believe that so many of them had been wiped out by the Duran. It made the Holocaust in World War II look like a game for amateurs."

"Well, there would have been another casualty if Chris hadn't been there when you came out," Straker said grimly. He was still a bit irritated that the action had been over with by the time he'd reached the rocks.

Ginny grinned. "I guess that'll teach me to go off without my gun." She looked at the commander. "Are there more of them out there, sir?"

"I don't know, Colonel," he said. "I was told that the Duran aren't often seen on Earth, but I can't guarantee that there are no more of them around. You'll just have to watch your back."

Virginia heard his concern even though his face was stern, and she hid a smile. She had a feeling that between the commander and her husband, she wouldn't be without a bodyguard until her baby was born. "Yes, sir."

The intercom buzzed, and Straker pushed the button. "Yes, Miss Eeland?"

"Sir," his secretary said, "Sheila Austin is here to see you."

Straker glanced swiftly over at Alec to see if he had heard, but his friend was staring into his drink, oblivious to everything else. The commander said, "Thank you, Miss Eeland. I'll be with her in a minute."

"Yes, sir."

He got up from the desk and headed out of the room, frowning as he realized that none of the command team seemed surprised that he was leaving the briefing. In fact, they all seemed to be as oblivious as Alec. He almost said something, then decided against it. Maybe it would be better to tackle them one at a time. Sooner or later, he'd find out what they were hiding from him.

"I'll go up with you, if you don't mind, sir," Paul said, catching up with him in the corridor. "I've got work waiting for me in my office anyway."

"Sure," Straker said, wanting to ask Paul if he knew something about Sheila's visit. Because frankly, he was wondering why Sheila was here. Granted, she had asked to be informed about Virginia's safe return. But he had left a message with her housekeeper when he got back from Easter Island. He could only think that it must be very important. He knew that she didn't like upsetting his secretary.

Foster was very casual as the room ascended to the studio. He joked about Virginia's adventure, asking if anyone sold Easter Island head rattles and crib toys.

Straker grinned, telling him he should check into it.

"Hi, Sheila," Paul said to her as he preceded Straker out of the office. "You're looking radiant today."

"Thank you, Paul," she said with a small smile. Her gaze was on Straker, however, who was standing silently in the doorway to his office.

"So, I hear your band will be going on tour next month," Foster continued blithely. "How long will you be out of the country?"

She looked at him. "Actually, the tour's been cancelled."

He frowned. "Why? Is everything okay?"

She again looked at Straker before replying. But he remained silent. "Yes, Paul," she said finally. "Everything's fine." She stepped around him and approached the commander. "Do you have a few minutes, Ed?"

"Yes," he replied, ushering her into his office. He resisted the urge to glance at Foster as he did so. He pushed the button to close the door and motioned her to a seat, but he did not go behind his desk. Instead, he leaned against the front of it, gazing at her solemnly. Her uneasiness disturbed him. He had never seen her like this. "What is it, Sheila? Why have you cancelled your tour?"

She swallowed and ran a nervous hand along the armrest of the chair she was sitting in before replying. "I went to the doctor's this morning. I've just come from there, in fact."

She didn't look directly at him when she spoke, and Straker's heart lurched. What was wrong? "The doctor?" he asked, feeling his heart pound heavily with dread. He couldn't, he couldn't lose her now! "How are you doing?"

"Fine," she said, still not looking at him.

He began to hate the word. "Tell me the truth, Sheila," he said harshly, needing to hear the worst. "How long do you have?"

She looked at him, meeting his eyes for a moment before glancing away again. "Six months," she said softly.

He closed his eyes. God, no! He looked at her, tightening his lips to keep from falling apart. "What are your plans?"

She swallowed. "I suppose that depends on you," she said finally.

He came to her then, kneeling by her chair and taking a restless hand in his. "Where would you like to go, Sheila?" he asked, uncaring that he would be turning his back on everything that was important. Damn it, she was more important! And if they were only to have a few months together, he intended to make the most of them. They'd been robbed of too much time already. "I'm afraid I can't offer you the moon right now, because it's under repairs, but I know somewhere you might enjoy almost as much. We could go there, just the two of us. What do you think?"

She looked searchingly at him. "What are you saying, Ed?"

He said, "I don't have a preference. Really. Anywhere you want to go is fine with me." He ran his hand down her cheek. "Where would you like to go?"

Sheila blinked back tears at his gentle tone. "I don't know. I haven't thought about it. Ed, are you asking me to marry you?"

"Yes," he said. "Whatever you want. We could..."

"What I want?" she asked sharply, pulling her hand out of his. "You don't... you don't want to marry me?"

"Of course I do, Sheila." He was appalled to see tears in her eyes. "I guess I'm being selfish. You know how long a wedding would take; all the planning and everything. We can do it, though. I don't mind. It's just that we have so little time, and I don't want to have to share you with anyone else."

She asked in confusion, "What about the baby?"

"What?"

"The baby," she said.

He slowly drew away from her and got to his feet. "You're pregnant," he said flatly, as if the concept was difficult to accept.

"Yes," she said, looking bewildered. "You asked me how long I had. What did you mean if you weren't asking about the baby?"

"I thought... I thought..." He couldn't say it. She wasn't going to die. She wasn't going to die at all. She was pregnant. He needed a moment to adjust. He needed to breathe. It felt as if all the air in the room had been sucked out. He covered his eyes with a shaky hand, trying to absorb the blow. "What... what are your plans?" he asked hoarsely, unsure why she had come to him.

They were back to his first question. Her lips tightened to keep them from trembling as she stood up. "I don't have any, Ed. I'm sorry to have taken up your time." She walked to the door and waited for him to open it.

He stared at her back for a long moment, trying to force his numb mind into functioning. "Sheila," he said at last as he came up behind her, "of course I'll marry you. Is that what you're wanting? It's just that I ... I was wondering..."

She turned to him impatiently, wishing he would just let her go before she made a fool of herself. "What? What, Ed?"

He looked at her. "Do I know the father?"

She gasped and turned white as a sheet. He caught her as her knees buckled and carried her back to the chair. She grabbed his hands as he went to call for his secretary. "Ed!" she said urgently. "You didn't know?"

He said, "Sheila, let me get you some help."

"No, I'm fine," she said, and he saw that her color was returning. She squeezed his hands painfully. "You didn't know, did you?" She closed her eyes. "Oh, God! Oh, Ed. I'm so sorry. I thought... and you said..." She broke off with a choked laugh and said, "Can I go out and come back in again?"

Straker gripped her hands strongly in return. "Sheila, what did you think?"

She shook her head. "I didn't believe him. He said you wouldn't remember, but I thought for sure you would. And when I didn't see you for so long, I thought... I thought that perhaps you were angry with me."

"Sheila, I wasn't angry with you. I was busy. A lot of things have been happening around here recently." He walked over to the window, trying to regroup.

"I see," she said. "Did you mean what you said? Is the moon really under repairs?"

He turned to her. "Did I say that?"

"Yes."

Straker ran a hand over his eyes. "I've gone insane."

"Ed," she said, "is that why I haven't seen you? Just because you were busy?"

"Well, it was a bit more than that actually," he admitted. "I'm sorry, Sheila. I know it wasn't enough just to talk to you on the phone, but I didn't know what else to do. I've been concerned about losing control around you. Lately, it seems as though my dreams about you have become very..."

"Vivid?" she asked with a small smile.

Straker shook his head. "Detailed." He gave her a look. "They've always been vivid."

"Oh, Ed!" She chuckled, shaking her head at him. "You have been having a time of it, haven't you?"

"Why would I be angry with you?" he asked, remembering her earlier comment.

She stood up and came over to him, laying a hand against his cheek and looking him in the eye. "My love, you're the father of my baby."

He stared at her. "I don't under..." he began with a frown. "How?"

"Remember when you were so ill?" she asked him.

"Yes."

"Well, apparently your body decided to pay you back for not having your way with me," she said.

His frown deepened. "Explain."

She shrugged. "I don't know all the particulars. You'll have to ask Dr. Jackson about it. I only know that he asked me to come in to help you. And I did."

"Jackson," he said, as though the name were a curse. ""And he told you I wouldn't remember?"

"Yes," she said with a shrug. "I didn't really believe him. I mean, you were delirious, not out of your mind. But he was right."

His lips thinned ominously. "Isn't that convenient for him?"

Sheila cocked her head to the side at his tone. "Are you going to kill him, Ed?"

He smiled fiercely. "We'll see." Suddenly he grabbed her arms, his blue eyes widening in shock. "Sheila! The baby!"

"Yes, Ed?" she asked softly.

He stared at her. "It's mine. You're having my baby."

"Yes, Ed," she said.

"Oh, God! I need to sit down." He sank into the chair she had just vacated and took several deep breaths. He kissed her hand when he realized that he was still holding it. She ran her other hand through his hair, and he pulled her onto his lap. "Sheila," he said huskily after a long kiss, "please say you'll marry me."

She grinned and arched a brow at him. "Only if you think we have time."

He chuckled. "I love you."

"Oh, Ed!" She blinked to keep from crying, touching his jaw with soft fingers. "I love you, too."

He held her close for a while, savoring her nearness. Then he pulled back, looking into her face as he thought of something. "I ripped your blouse."

Sheila laughed, delighted that he'd remembered that special moment. "You most certainly did."