Disclaimer: SHADO, Straker, Mary, Alec, and the rest are not the property of dragon. Just borrowing them. Honest.
Time: Er … yes? Maybe?
Place: England and California
Rating: PG 13/T?
Synopsis: Mary's growth continues, and she gets a rude awakening about aliens.
Author's Note: This is not exactly in the normal time frame for either UFO or War of the Worlds, both of which were set in the 1980's and the Internet and email were not particularly common unless you had military or scientific access to the then very limited net. The World Wide Web was not a commonality until the early 1990's … but you knew that, right? So, I'm setting this not quite so mid 1980's and boosting the Internet access to a bit earlier in time for this universe. Hey, with at least two sets of aliens out to do us in, we need the boost, right? LOL.
Mary Rutland closed the door behind her and leaned back against it, emotionally drained. Silly for an interview to have exhausted her like that, but it had. So many questions so obviously aimed at people half her age. She took a deep breath and let it go. She felt like crying. Resolutely, she shook her head to get rid of that feeling and walked into her flat.
Putting her coat and purse away, she realized she was hungry. What time was it anyway? Half past noon. Well, no wonder. She'd skipped breakfast in this morning. Too nervy by half. Tea. That was the ticket, she thought as she set the kettle to boil. And a sandwich - or salad? Something light.
At least she didn't burst into tears in the personnel manager's office, she'd managed to spare herself that humiliation. She sipped her tea and browsed her mail until she ran across a very official envelope. The Blackwood Foundation. Her eyebrows rose in curiosity. What in the world?
A little more than half a world away, a man with skin like rich milk chocolate sat in his mechanized wheelchair and glared at the rigidly military man on the other side of the table. "So now my personal mail is suspect?"
"Norton -" The hawk faced man was trying to be reasonable. Unfortunately, military black ops security reasonable and civilian working for organization needing military black ops security measures reasonable did not always play on level ground, read the same page or reside in the same book.
"Look, I wrote to an ex-student who has an eye for things. She looks at things - differently."
"Harrison looks at things differently," the other exploded. He caught himself and took a breath. He would control his temper; he would manage to get through to Norton without the two of them losing their tempers. He really would.
Norton sighed. Sadly, he did understand their keeper's problem. "Look, Harrison, Suzanne and I are too damn close to the problem. I know there's a solution here somewhere, but I can't see it because I'm too involved. So's Harrison. So's Suzanne. And so are you, Col. We need an outside look."
"Did you consider asking?"
"I just did."
"Before you sent the letter?"
Norton grinned; an infectious splash of white in his dark face. "Yes. But I thought I'd better find out if that nasty husband of hers would let her come for a visit before I started counting my chickens."
Norton feigned ducking the Colonel's wrath. "Husband," he agreed with a laugh. "Not the sort to come with, I suspect."
"Great. Just great." Colonel Paul Ironhorse, full Cherokee Indian, West Point graduate and security head for the Blackwood Foundation stomped off into the house fuming. He passed a bemused looking Dr. Harrison Blackwood, the eccentric astronomer/astrophysicist for whom the project was named. Scowling at the man, he onward muttering about protocols and chains of command. Harrison looked in on Norton, his mild blue eyes filled with curiosity and laughter. "And just what did you do this time? Spend our entire budget on coffee again?"
Norton emitted a crack of laughter. "No. Preliminary inquiries to an ex-student about a visit. If she can -"
"She? Is it? Tall, striking Nubian maiden?"
Norton gave him a look. "Try glacial English. Ice blonde, blue eyes, in need of constant comforting and support."
That netted him a look of his own. "Sounds - "
"Not exactly, I know. Mary has a way of looking at things that is - unlike those of us who've been immersed in them."
"Scads of talent, no training. At least, not until she took my "how not to be terrified of the computer" course a couple of years ago."
"That would be just before I hired you."
"Yes, it would."
"So, you're going to steal this sheltered English rose child -"
"Harrison, she's not a child. Probably in her 40's, although she doesn't look it."
Harrison considered this. Not a child, not a tech, but Norton thought she could help. "You really think she can help?"
"Yeah. I do." Norton sounded regretfully certain about his decision.
"Think she'll approve of the danger?"
"Maybe we'll lie to her?"
"Right. Big help you are. I'll see what I can do with Ironhorse." Although he and their security head seldom saw eye to eye on much but the need to deal with the alien threat, Harrison Blackwood was used to getting his way and knew how to work around some of the restrictions imposed on their research.
Mary Rutland read the letter for the third time. It still seemed to be saying the same thing. Norton Drake, the incredibly intelligent, patient man who had taught a computer class she'd taken two years ago, was asking her if she'd like to visit California and maybe take a look at a problem he had. Norton Drake, with a knee wobbling smile and the kindest dark eyes she'd ever met, was asking her, Mary, the complete computer illiterate, to come -
She was dreaming. That was it. The stress of the interview and the move and losing George and - And - well. There was a phone number. She'd call and make certain this wasn't one of his more impractical jokes. That could be a really expensive joke. She looked at the ticket voucher on the table. First Class reservation on a flight leaving in a week. Such a temptation.
She set the letter and the ticket aside and looked through her list of things to do. Phone calls first. She made several calls, mostly making appointments to come in to fill out paperwork and more paperwork. Why couldn't they just e-mail the forms? She could fill them out and return them the same way. It would save so much time and running about. She almost laughed.
The next call, she asked if they could e-mail her the forms. Shocked silence. Well, no. They had to be filled out. In triplicate. By hand. And, well, they didn't actually have that kind of computer system yet. She had email?
Ah. Well. Then she'd stop by and pick them up, thank you. She hung up and frowned at the phone. That was odd. What difference did it make as long as the forms were legible? She took a sip of tea and discovered it was cold. Very cold. Bleh.
After dinner, she sat down to tackle the job of sorting out what keepsakes she wanted for herself and which ones to send to Ed. It was hard to choose. There were so many memories she wanted all to herself, but she knew now just how selfish that was. She resolutely separated photos into two piles. Anything with her late husband and her son stayed. Then there were the photos with strangers in them, people Ed wouldn't know. Unless Johnny was doing something particularly engaging, she kept those.
Two hours passed in heart searching to make certain she'd done the best she could on the split. Then came the models. There were only five out of the dozen or more he'd put together. This was so difficult. She didn't want to part with any of them, remembering how hard he'd worked on them. Tears trickled down her face as she looked at them. It was too much to ask. She sniffed and wiped her face. No. It was only right. She'd keep three. That was - No, it wasn't enough. Only having him here, watching him grow up, only that would be enough. But Ed didn't even have this.
She let herself cry again. It still hurt so much. Her baby. Her son. Their son. So much pain to have lost him, and now to realize that the loss was preventable. If she'd let Ed wait. If she'd stood up for his rights to see his son. All the ifs of a lifetime of hurt for both of them welled up and overflowed. She sobbed into the pillow she was holding.
Eventually, the sobs dwindled down to hiccoughing sniffles. Mary sat up and looked at the models again. This time it didn't hurt quite so much. She washed her face and made another cup of tea before returning to decide which to keep and which to send. She liked the ships better than the spacecraft and the airplane. All right, Ed would get those and she would keep the ships. That was done. Now, all she had to do was pack things up and send them off with a letter of explanation.
She frowned. All right. Pack things up and the letter would wait - for a while.
She made dinner, poured a small glass of white wine to go with it, and found herself idly reading Norton's letter again. What was the time difference between California and England? Let's see. Five hours to New York. That meant six to - to - the next time zone. That should put California at seven - eight?. She frowned at that.
If it was 8pm now, then it was 3 in New York, and 2 in - wherever - and 1pm in California? That worked. She picked up the phone and dialed the number on the letterhead. Wait. That wasn't going to work. She disconnected as she got the reminder that a country code was necessary. Oh, right. Country code. She chuckled to herself.
This time she dialed the number with all of the prefixes and the phone rang. And rang. And rang. And rang. She frowned at the phone. She set the receiver in its cradle and continued frowning. She glanced at the letter again. Email address! Of course.
She logged onto the Internet, fired off an e-mail telling Norton that she was curious and yes, she could probably manage to visit California and what in the world did he need her for? She read her incoming email. Not a lot of that. It began to occur toher that having access to the Internet and email was not an every day occurance for most of the world. And then she went web surfing for a bit to take her mind off the day, the package for Ed and her curiosity.
Midnight. Oh, dear. That late? She logged off the Internet and started to shut down her computer when she decided she'd best get the letter to Ed written. She stared at the blank document page for ten minutes trying to organize her thoughts. This was not working. What was it her professor had said? Just start somewhere and go back and organize.
So, she did.
Two days later, Mary Rutland handed her ticket to the passenger steward at the boarding gate to the Concorde heading for New York. She was still a bit dazed, but Norton was offering to pay her to come to California and take a look at some data with which he was having a problem. She packed enough clothes to get to California and back, with a change for one day there. If she needed anything else, Norton said he would provide. Or, and she could hear his impish grin in this, the Foundation would anyway.
She found a window seat and settled in for the trip. She looked out at the pale skies. For just a moment, she wondered when she would see her home again. She set that foolish thought aside and settled in to do some reading. She almost smirked at the cover of the book she'd bought on her way to the loading gate. The man on the cover was entirely too unrealistically good looking in a very muscular way. The woman was an ethereal blonde who couldn't seem to make up her mind whether to faint or sink her claws into the man. A good old-fashioned bodice ripper romance, she thought with a chuckle. Not the sort of thing that took a lot of concentration to enjoy. Just one of life's little guilty pleasures.
She took one last look out the window, catching her own reflection in the glass. Ed should be getting his package today, she thought. Well, regardless of his reaction, she would be on her way to California and she could deal with repercussions when she got back. That smacked of the coward's way out, but it was that or wait until she got back to send it. The latter didn't seem quite fair. She opened the book and started reading as the airplane took off down the runway.