Disclaimer: As always, UFO and its denizens belong to Century 21, Gerry Anderson, et al. I'm just borrowing them for a bit to make life difficult.
Place: England and New Mexico
Spoilers: For the series, nyah.
Synopsis: Straker isn't quite himself. Neither is Alec. And
death isn't always the final chapter.
The man on the bed in the ascetic bedroom grimaced as his dreams took the turns they always took. Explosions. Blurry faces. Hands on his arms lifting him out of a depression in the ground. The terror and determination within as he realized these were not friends but enemies. Sweat poured off his body in rivulets, soaking his sheets. He twisted the smooth linen in his hands as the dream evolved.
His eyes snapped open as they always did, the dream fading even as his gaze became clear and blue, alert. He blinked, staring at the ceiling. The ceiling was white. The walls were white, the only touches of color two small, expensive oil paintings by Old Masters. He took a shuddering breath and relaxed. He ran a hand over his face, removing the drying sweat. He frowned. Damn. He was going to go talk to his doctor again. This low level fever every night was extremely trying.
He got up, padded bare foot to the bathroom and ran through his morning routine, including a hot shower to remove the residue of the night. He stared into the reflections of his own direct blue gaze as he brushed his teeth, flossed and then shaved his sparse beard. He frowned. He had an idea that once his beard had been far thicker. Then he grinned at his reflection. He parted his hair precisely on the left and swept it back from his face with two deft swipes of the comb. Not bad. Not bad at all. The silver white was distinctive and distinguished. It also attracted the ladies, although he was uncertain about all that fuss. It just never felt right.
Except for Maddy. But then, Maddy was a whole different kettle of beans. He grinned again. Sweet, slightly loony Maddy. Elmira Chancery Madigan. Maddy to everyone. He'd take her – hmm – roses last time, lilac before that, and bird of paradise before that. Maybe it was time to try something old fashioned. He picked up his cell phone and called in an order for daisies to be delivered to EC Madigan at Harlington-Straker Studios. He ate breakfast, slipped on his black silk Armani suit, checked his hair one last time in the mirror going out of the house, picked up his keys and locked the door behind him.
He stopped in the driveway and frowned at his car. Long, low, sleek and looking like something out of a 1970's car of the future advertisement, he wondered about the vehicle some times. He'd researched it after the accident, but couldn't find any references to the model at all. Well, Alec assured him it was one of a very, very small production and well worth keeping. And Maddy liked it. He smiled again at the thought of the warm armful Maddy could be snuggling against him as he drove.
He pulled into traffic and drove serenely to work.
Alec Freeman, a rough looking customer in his impeccably tailored suit, finished reading the short report on the clipboard held by a charmingly cat suited young lady, nodded and initialed the report. He handed the pen back to the young lady and walked away across the high tech control room with hardly a glance at her admittedly nubile charms. He walked into the office ten feet away to find Paul Foster waiting for him.
The tall, well muscled younger man looked like he needed sleep. He did. He gave Alec a tired smile and a nod as he leaned back in the desk chair and stretched. "Damn. I don't know how he did it – "
"He had us to back him up," Alec answered softly, crossing the room to the bar where he poured himself a generous measure of iced tea. He glanced at the full bottles of hard liquor sitting there and shook his head. There wasn't enough to dull the pain that was always with him so there wasn't any point, none at all. He sucked down half the glass of tea and looked around at Foster. The last five years had aged the younger man. He still had the actor quality good looks, but they were more mature than boyish these days.
"Yeah. I know. Latest from Jackson." Paul tossed a file across the desk.
Alec fielded it and took a quick look. A part of his mind noted that the Dr.'s name no longer dripped like acid off Paul's tongue. Somewhere in the last year Paul had stopped hating the man for past offenses and come to regard him as a tool, a means to an end, and nothing more. He met Paul's gaze. "The dreams are getting worse."
"Yeah. But he still doesn't remember them when he's awake. – Jackson said the longer it takes for him to regain his memory, the more likely it is –"
"that he won't," Alec ended flatly. He slammed the file on the desk top and leaned against the desk. His eyes searched Paul's for some indication that Paul was happy with this conclusion. Once again, he didn't find it. He found resignation, determination and the slightly unhappy look he always found. "We've lost him." He didn't want to say it, but it was the truth. Commander Ed Straker had died under the hands of the enemy. The man who had come back was a superb studio head, but he wasn't SHADO Commander.
"Alec –" Paul objected. Sure, he'd wanted the "Responsibility Seat", but not this way. He'd wanted time to grow into it, to be ready for the responsibility. He'd never wanted it thrust upon him as it had been. He'd been exhilarated when Straker disappeared. A few hours of command time while they looked for the man and then he'd turn the power back over to him with his usual petulant act.
But it hadn't happened that way.
Ed Straker had vanished for six months. He'd driven off the studio lot and vanished. Six months later, he'd turned up in a small town hospital in New Mexico. He was emaciated, dehydrated and ill. He was lucid, knew who he was and had no memories of the missing six months. He had no memories of SHADO or aliens. He remembered a car accident ending his military career. He remembered losing Mary over her inability to believe he was not cavorting with nubile young actresses while she was pregnant. He remembered losing his son because the flight scheduled to deliver the experimental medication was diverted. He remembered absolutely everything to do with the studio. SHADO was gone.
Jackson and his team had put him through every test they could think of to find out what had happened to him and where the rest of his memories were. They drew a blank. It was as though someone had gone in and carefully erased every last mention of aliens and the organization he had helped build. Very, very carefully.
Foster had kept the command seat with Alec and Virginia Lake backing him up. Jackson had held forth the hope that the memories might just come back on their own if they let Straker do his studio job. Now, even Jackson was beginning to doubt. The Commander wasn't coming back.
Alec and Paul summoned Maddy to the office. She came in looking as much like a plump pixie as she had the first day they met her. She looked from one to the other. "New report?" She followed their gazes downward and picked up the file. She frowned. "Maybe it's time to push it."
"And lose him completely?" the Australian's harsh tones demanded.
She looked up at him, her gaze understanding. "No. I don't think so. I think the dreams are getting worse because he's very, very close to breaking through."
"We can't risk it."
"So, if he breaks, we glue him back together. Gentlemen, he's not porcelain. He's a man. Whatever broke him this way can be repaired. If it means submerging the Commander again, fine. At least we'll have answers."
Paul regarded the woman with something akin to revulsion in his eyes, but said nothing.
"Look, Commander Foster, I know you don't like me. You have never liked what I volunteered to do. But it has to be done. It was watch dog him or kill him. Dead is unacceptable. Even without the Commander part of him, Straker has put this studio on the map, made it profitable and made it work for us. If we NEVER get the Commander back, Ed Straker serves SHADO now as he always has. He just doesn't have as much on his mind." She ended with a weak smile.
Alec nodded. "Then you'd best go keep an eye on him."
"Done. Gentlemen." She nodded formally and left.
Alec frowned at Paul. He still couldn't figure out just what it was about Maddy that rubbed the younger man the wrong way. He catalogued her looks: She had a luxuriant mane of tawny hair, wide gray eyes under dark brows that ran straight across her face with a nice break in the middle, a slightly turned up nose, very nice, kissable lips and a figure that was a bit full for the cat suits but very, very nice as an armful. Maybe the problem was that Maddy looked soft and yielding and was about as hard as titanium underneath that look. And Maddy was devious. Paul, for all his years at SHADO and dealing with secrecy, was still a very straight forward sort of guy on the emotional level. Maddy was – a velvet Straker? No. Maddy was as individual as Straker was. Maybe that was why he liked her. And Paul didn't.
Maddy walked into her office in the Studios and stopped to stare at what looked like a bushel of dasies sitting on her desk. Her secretary, a tall, sere creature with harlequin glasses and a long neck, giggled at the sight.
"I believe those were delivered about 10 minutes ago, Ms. Madigan."
"Ah. Card?" She looked and found one. Inside was a pale blue heart and nothing else. She smiled. If the Commander continued elusive, she might just have to marry the studio head who did such sweet things. "Schedule for today?"
The secretary reeled it off, hesitating only at the end. "You penciled in dinner, but not with whom."
"Mmmm. Give me a minute." She picked up the phone. "Put me through to Mr. Straker, please."
"Mr. Straker's office."
"Ms. Ealand, this is Madigan. Might I have a moment of Mr. Straker's time?" She was put through promptly. "Mr. Straker. I seem to have penciled in dinner this evening but left off the who. Any ideas?"
She could almost hear his smile. "Alec?"
"Paul?" he said seriously.
Chuckle. "How about Mr. Edward Straker, President and CEO of Harlington-Straker Studios?" she purred.
"I plan on digging, but not for gold," she assured him.
Maddy put the finishing touches on the dinner table, lit the candles and sat back to wait. She was covered from neck to ankles in black velvet. The sleeves, tight to the wrist, were black silk. Sheer thigh hi stockings hugged her legs, the lace tops almost brushing her crotch as she moved. Sometimes being short had it's really odd advantages. She sat down, crossed her legs, allowing the slit in the skirt to part to advantage, and waited.
It was a long evening. Edward Straker was a tired but happy man when he got home. The smell of his lovely Maddy was still clinging to his no longer immaculate suit. He held the coat and inhaled deeply of her scent before he slipped the jacket onto a hanger in the closet. He chuckled as he remembered her calling him a neat freak. She'd just have to learn to live with it.
He went in to wash his face and froze. There were streaks of green on his face. Faint, left from the foolishness with the desert Maddy had insisted on feeding him. His pupils fluctuated, dilating until the blue disappeared, then shrinking to pinpoints. He shuddered, closed his eyes and washed his face. When he looked again, he couldn't remember why the color on his face disturbed him.
He tumbled into bed, his eyes closing as his head touched the pillow. The crisp smell of fresh sheets was soothing. He stretched like a cat and then curled slightly to settle into sleep.
His eyes slammed open. Darkness. Still. Quiet. Black. Blank. There was someone else there. A frisson of fear shivered through him. Weight on the mattress, he could feel it sink slightly. Someone leaned over him.
"Shh. Quiet and you may live," an unfamiliar voice breathed in his ear.
He lay there, unmoving. His mind was in turmoil. He had to quell a tendency for his hands to twitch themselves into fists. No. Just quietly lie there. Sleep. Make them think he was asleep.
"So. How was the girlfriend?" the voice asked. There was something odd about the voice. There was no distinctive male or female to it. It just was. Icy. "Good, I'll bet. Juicy little tart. Bet she's a lot of fun. Maybe I'll give her a try, when I'm through here."
He stiffened, angry. He tried to focus through the fear, through the anger. Where exactly was his tormenter? The weight shifted. Ah. There. Without thought, almost as though someone else was borrowing his body, he lashed out – at empty air. He slammed on the lights. Nothing. No one. Furious, he prowled his house, checking windows and doors. His heart stopped in the kitchen. The back door was open. Carefully, he shut the door.
He sat down at the kitchen table and shuddered for a moment. There had been someone there. Maddy. He went for the phone in the living room and was just dialing the last number of her phone number when he realized what time it was. He dropped the receiver in the cradle and shook his head. It was probably nothing.
Sure it was, the voice in his head taunted. Sure it was.
He called Maddy. He got a sleepy voice on the other end. "Hi. Wassup?"
"I – a dream – I think. You ok?"
"I'm fine. Honest. Go to bed. I'll see you tomorrow."
He went back to bed, leaving the living room light on. He fell into a troubled sleep.
Maddy rolled over, snuggled against the silk covered pillow and then frowned as her eyes flew open. Ed had called to make certain she was all right. Why? She slipped out of bed and padded silently over to her computer console. Quickly she checked the security monitors for Straker's home. She frowned. That was odd. For roughly half an hour, Straker's security had been turned off.
It was on now. But there was a half hour breach. She dialed Alec's number from her computer.
The man sounded grumbly angry sleepy. "What?"
"There's been a breach at Straker's."
"Half an hour ago."
"He's all right. He just called me. The breach was about half an hour. Someone turned off the security systems. All of them. Then they were turned back on. He couldn't have done it. We've changed the set up since he came back."
Alec's face was ashen. He was glad he was alone. He rubbed a hand over his face, scratching at the day long growth of beard stubble covering his chin. "I'll have it checked," he said quietly. "Why did he call?"
"To see if I was all right."
"I'll have it checked. I can post a guard. But if there's something going on –"
"I know. I'll see what I can talk him into. But you know how he is about anyone staying there."
"Yeah. I do. Get some sleep."
"I will. You get some when I relieve you in the morning. Bye."
Click. Silence. Dial tone. Alec lay there for a long moment just listening to the normalcy of the dial tone. Then he set the receiver back in its cradle and lay there for a longer moment planning. The nightmares were getting worse. A hand full of people in SHADO knew about them. And someone had broken security at Straker's. Alien? Human? Protective intervention or danger? And how to tell them apart? At this point he wasn't certain there was a way.
He picked up the phone and dialed a number. Three rings and silence. He swallowed hard and spoke words he had hoped never to use. He spoke them into the silence. He could hear them falling away into the depths. He cut the connection and put the phone back on the bedside table. He lay in the darkness and stared up at the invisible ceiling above him. He felt – hollow. The way he always felt. Dead inside, yet in so much pain. He blinked. Tears trailed from the corners of his eyes down to his pillow. He took a shuddering breath and worked on centering down. He couldn't take a chance on breaking now, not now.
At the other end of the line, a tall red haired woman gently awoke her golden mocha skinned companion. "We're needed."
Liquid dark eyes met unbelievably blue in inquiry. "Who?"
A smile curved deep toned, luscious lips. "Sweet Alec."
The smile turned down. "Ah. Pity. Breach?"
"Yes. Someone turned off security and turned it back on."
"Not his fair haired boy, I take it."
Red ran long pale fingers through the other woman's thick dark hair. She could still catch the faint touch of Jamaica in the other woman's speech. "No. He's still – only a part of himself. Someone else."
Sigh. "Well, then we had best be moving, wench." The lilt came through as the dark woman grinned at her companion. Her look went suddenly serious. "It's soon isn't it?"
The other looked innocent, then thoughtful and nodded. "I think so. Much longer and I don't think Straker will ever be whole again. But from what we've seen lately, I think their wait will soon be over."
"But will he be whole? Or broken?"
"Does it matter?"
Exasperated sound. "Of course, it does. He'll not heal if Straker has to be left as he is."
For just a moment, the blue eyes looked as though they didn't understand the problem with that. Then she smiled. "Well, if he's not whole, we'll just have to fix that, won't we?" She turned and walked out of the room leaving her companion to shake her head and wonder if she would ever know all the ins and outs of the red head's mind.
Straker frowned in his sleep. He moved restlessly under the sheets. It was dark. It was always dark. He was being followed. He could sense them – them? Them. There were several of them. He could hear them moving around him, circling, herding him toward – toward what? He looked ahead, through the darkness, trying to make out what lay ahead of him. Something shining and metallic gleamed in the dark.
The moon broke through the clouds. A part of him chided that this was a fallacy. The truth was that the clouds had moved on and the moon was as ever above him. He looked again.
Nooooooooooooooo! No! Not that! Never that!
A gleaming, conical thing sat on the ground ahead of him. He veered right. No, the hunters were there. He veered left. Again, they were there. He dropped to the ground, exhaustion taking him down. He would not let them take him. He searched his clothing frantically for the weapon he knew should be there.
They were upon him. Alien looking guns pointed at him. Silver gloved hands reaching for him. He struggled, but no longer had the strength to fight them. He went limp. He would die at their hands. He knew this. Knew it as though it had already happened.
He was thrown into a bare silver room, dumped on the floor and left. Half conscious, he lay there wondering why he was still alive. He lay there for a long time, a very long time. The circle of silver that was their lift inside the ship descended. Two of the aliens brought more humans.
He was surprised when the humans came over to him, lifted him off the floor and shepherded him out of the ship. This was wrong. He tried to pull away from them, but they were stronger than he was. They led him to a small installation, all smooth walls and innocuous looking people. None of the people they passed exhibited any curiosity about the worn, dirty man the two were bringing in. Business as usual.
A cold feeling settled in his belly. These humans were working for the aliens – or with them. Why? Why would humans work with these monsters? Reasons flooded his mind. Most of them could be discarded. It was unrealistic to think the aliens held the lives of family members over all these people.
"They must pay well," he muttered.
One of his captors backhanded him. Apparently silence was wanted. He'd give it to them.
They finally stopped walking. He suspected they had walked in circles inside the building. It had not looked large enough to contain the amount of corridor through which they had passed. With the usual bad attitude, they thrust him into the room, slammed the door behind him and left.
He lay there for a moment, dazed. He looked around. An 8x8 square room devoid of furnishings, devoid of blemishes, devoid of - door. He sat up and stared at the walls. There had to be a door. He'd just come through the damn thing - hadn't he?
Laughter, dimly perceived, everywhere and nowhere. A figure formed in the room. Tall, darkly handsome, an aristocratic countenance with dark eyes that burned like hellfire. The man smiled, white even teeth a slash in his olive complexion. Straker shuddered and got to his feet.
"Who are you?"
"The name is Rand. Dr. David Rand. And you, my friend, are Commander Edward Straker of SHADO."
"I don't know what you're talking about." He tried to sound bland, a little worried, but not even close to bravado. There was something horribly off here.
The smile widened into almost a Jokeresque travesty of the idea. The man laughed, a deep, disturbing sound. "Of course, not. And my friends from the stars wouldn't know their keenest enemy, would they? You are safely tied up and stowed away. You will never leave here until I have stripped all the information from you that I desire. And I will do that however painfully or gently *you* decide to make the experience." He had moved closer as he spoke.
Straker held his ground, yet there was something so intrinsically creepy about the man that he wanted to bolt for the door and out. Only, there wasn't any door, was there? He tried to control the shudder that shook his body. He realized he could see his breath. He frowned. He shivered. He looked down. There was snow on the floor. There was frost on the gleaming walls. He shivered. The man was gone.
Gone? He sat down where he stood, all the energy he'd pulled suddenly flowing out of him. What the hell was this place?
Ed Straker shivered under his covers, curled into a tight ball and tried to get warm. He frowned in his sleep, clenching his fists on the sheet, sweat starting to sheen his skin. The dream continued. Time unrolled like a sheet of slippery oiled paper. And always, there was Rand. He knew a deep seated horror and an equally deep seated need to pound that smiling face to a pulp should he ever get the chance.
He awoke with the coming of daylight. He felt tired, wrung out. He wanted to go - no, not back to sleep. He wanted to take the day off. He picked up the phone next to his bed and dialed Maddy's number, then cut off before she picked up. No. There were things to be done.
He pulled himself out of bed, scowling at the sheets. He stripped the sodden sheets off and dumped them in the hamper, pulling fresh ones from the closet. He set the neatly folded stack on the end of the bed and went into the bathroom. He stared at himself in the mirror and frowned. There were very, very faint crows feet at the corner of his eyes. When had they arrived?
For just a moment, he had a flash of himself someplace else. He looked around wildly. The bathroom was the same. Yet for just a moment, it had alien and silver, one wall slightly curving, and very utilitarian. He snorted. As though this wasn't utilitarian.
He showered, letting the hot water sluice down his body, relaxing tensions he hadn't even noticed. He washed slowly, letting his mind wander. He frowned. Odd, he hadn't been aware of a scar there before. He continued to wash. Or there? He frowned and looked down at the place on his thigh where his fingertips were telling him he had been hurt at some time in the past.
It wasn't a very long scar, but it was a hard ridge where he could not recall having been hurt. Suddenly, he became very aware of every scar he carried. He could place most of them. Viet Nam. The car accident that ended his career. But there were others that he couldn't place. And they weren't the sort of scars you didn't remember getting.
He toweled off and stood in front of the one full length mirror in the house. Very deliberately, he noted the scars he could not explain. There was a part of him that wanted to ignore them, wanted to retreat from this exploration of himself. His scowl deepened. He methodically ticked off the ones he could remember, from the very faint scar on his shin caused by leaving his bicycle abruptly when he was ten to the couple across his shoulders from the car accident two years before starting Harlington-Straker Studios.
There were half a dozen he could not explain. At least two of them were life threatening - well, the scars weren't, but the wounds that caused them would have been. Why couldn't he remember? What was he missing? And if he was missing something as important as that, what else was he missing.
Pain slammed through his brain and his body, hammering him to the floor, curling him up. No. No more. No more. A pale face hovered in his pain distorted vision. He knew that face. No. No. No. No. He couldn't face that. Anything else, but not that. He surrendered to the pain and passed out.
Maddy entered her office, ran through the usual first of the morning rituals including getting her schedule for the day and received a phone call from Straker's apparently immortal secretary.
"Mr. Straker is not in his office and he has not arrived."
Blink. Maddy looked at her watch and frowned. "Would you reschedule my appointment with him, please?"
"I'd be delighted."
Click. Maddy frowned at her watch some more. She called Straker's home number as she switched on her computer terminal. Four rings and the ubiquitous answering service. "No, that's quite all right. I'll catch him at the office."
Security showed nothing. Well, that wasn't quite correct. Security showed that Ed Straker was still home. "Shit."
"Ms. Madigan?" her ever correct secretary inquired.
Maddy scowled. "Nothing. I'll be back."
On her way out, she collected a small, select security crew. Something was wrong. She hoped it was wrong the correct way. She frowned at herself over that. She'd stop and untangle the thought processes later. The immediate problem was Straker.
Maddy and security checked out the grounds, the car and then Maddy let herself into Straker's house. She stopped inside the front door. His living room was so jarringly Spartan it always gave her pause. There was a time – she shook her head to order her thoughts. Quietly, she looked around and headed for the master bedroom.
A second groan.
"Ed?" she called softly.
She proceeded cautiously to the door of the bedroom and pushed it open. He was lying on the floor. The spasm of pain had passed and he was pulling out of the tight curl into a ball he'd managed. He wasn't all there quite yet. His eyelids fluttered up and down.
Maddy backed away from the door. He was coming around on his own. Technically, she didn't have a key to his place. She waited patiently for more signs of returning consciousness.
There was a sharp intake of breath and the soft sound of a body coming up off the floor. She bee-lined for the door and pulled it softly closed before he could catch her inside his home. She told the rest of the team to hoof it and knocked on the door.
Thok. Thok. Thok.
What the hell? He looked around his bedroom, disoriented for a moment.
Thok. Thok. Thok.
The noise was insistent. He grabbed his robe and pulled it on, the thick terry cloth providing warmth and an aura of security. He looked out. There was a shadow on the front door window. Warily, he moved silently across the livingroom floor and took a look. Maddy.
He opened the door and looked at her curiously.
"You look like hell," she greeted him conversationally, her smile taking the sting, if any, out of the words.
"I feel like it. What are you doing here?"
"You're late. Someone needed to come find out if you were all right and I got elected."
"Tried that. You refused to answer. Highly unlike you, y'know." Her eyes searched the pale face. "You really aren't feeling well, are you?" Her voice softened with concern.
For a moment, he stood there staring into her face, searching for something, some reason why this sweet faced young woman was standing on his doorstep being concerned about him. The world pulled back into focus and he gave her a wan smile. "Sorry. Rough morning. – Come in." He backed away from the door, pulling it open as he did so, letting her back into his life.
She walked in, closing the door behind her. She didn't let him get across the living room alone. She ran her arms around him, pulling him close, nuzzling the back of his neck and enjoying the clean smell of him. "Go back to bed?" she suggested huskily and sitting on her immediate instinct to slip him out of that infernal robe.
He gave her a raised eyebrow look. Her gamin grin assured him that yes, she was responding to touching him as usual, and that no, she wasn't really suggesting seducing him – not right now, anyway. He shook his head. "I have things to do –"
She released him, pulling him around to face her. "Edward Straker – has anyone told you lately that the world will continue to revolve without your personal supervision? And that Harlington Straker Studios, as much as it relies on your day to day input, will muddle along nicely for 24 hours without you if it needs to do so?" / And that SHADO, much as it longs for your hand on the tiller, will wait a little longer before writing you off permanently? /
He relaxed a little and regarded her with a warm smile. "All right. Help me remake the bed."
He didn't explain why he had the bed stripped when he was already feeling lousy. He did appreciate that she made meticulous hospital corners just the way he did. He slid back between the fresh, clean, welcoming sheets with a small sigh of contentment. His eyes began to close as soon as his head touched the pillow. Maddy watched him, worry creasing her brow. This was unusual in the extreme.
She made certain he was fully asleep before slipping out of the room to call Alec. She regretted waking him, but this was serious. She needed have bothered, Alec was awake.
"Good morning, Alec. How are you? I'm fine," Maddy responded. "He isn't feeling well. I think his doctor may be needed. He's asleep again."
"Again?" Alec ignored the banter at the beginning of her call.
"He was coming 'round on the floor in the bedroom when I got here. He'd been up, the bed was stripped and ready to be re-made. He looks – stressed. We may be hitting the end."
Alec ran a hand over his face. "I hope so," he said fervently. "I don't think I can last much longer."
Maddy's face saddened. "I know," she said softly. "You know you can call it quits any time."
"No, I can't," he shot back harshly. "Not until we know. One way or the other." He took a shaky breath. "I'll make it until then."
Maddy blinked back tears. "I know you will," she whispered. "Send his doctor."
She replaced the receiver and stood staring at nothing for a few moments. "Greater love hath no man," she murmured, wiped her eyes and took a calming breath. "Oh, Alec. I hope this is all worth it." She blinked, looked around at the bedroom door and smiled. "Of course, it is. After all, there isn't anyone else, is there?" There was a bitter touch to the words, but there was no one there to hear them.
She sat down to wait. Her thoughts drifted. She remembered the first time she met Alec. It was dark. It was chilly. A half moon hung heavy in the sky. She was aware of being naked, but not bothered by the lack of clothing. She was aware of a dark woman and her pale skinned companion, both looking pleased and tired. Alec looked – drained, exhausted, terrified and still satisfied. At her feet lay a cairn of stones. She stepped carefully down and regarded Alec curiously.
"The joining is done," the dark woman intoned, the warmth of Jamaica in her voice.
"Mary?" Alec's voice was strained.
She shook her head. No. Not Mary, although Mary was a part of her. It was the red head who named her with a wild laugh that carried on the rising wind. Madigan. Edward Straker's watch dog, his guardian, eventually his lover. Everything Alec could give his Commander to keep him safe until he recovered. Neither of them had expected it to take this long.
Dr. Schroeder was swift. He'd consulted with Jackson on the situation and agreed that he would take no course of action unless it was immediately necessary, or he had time to discuss it with Jackson before hand.
Straker was restless, half awake and not very cooperative.
"I'm fine. I just need to sleep," he snapped more than once to Schroeder's questions.
"And have you been?"
Ed looked angry at that. He sat on it. "Yes – but not well. I've still got a touch of that fever we discussed."
"And the dreams?"
"I still don't remember any of them."
"Well, let me give you something to help you get the rest you need and we'll talk when you're feeling better."
He accepted the small pill, swallowed it obediently and lay back. His eyes closed. His breathing evened. Maddy, just outside the door, looked in and raised an enquiring eyebrow. Schroeder moved across the room and out the door, pulling it closed but not latched behind him.
He shook his head. "I don't know. I suspect you are right. He is very close to a break through, but whether it will kill or cure – " he shook his head again.
"Understood. I'll keep you posted."
A nod and he was gone, leaving Maddy to keep watch.
Shimmer and shift, the walls wouldn't stay one shape or color. Like the wall screen in his office, everything was hazy, outlines soft and rippling. He pounded on the deceptive walls. He didn't know what day it was, how long he'd been here or where here was. He was tired. He was – he stared at his hand – losing weight, he thought. He turned and rested his back against the wall. He'd laugh, but his throat was too raw to do so.
This was madness. Somewhere, he was tidily wrapped up in a straight jacket, rolling around padded walls and floor. He had to be. The thought was a comfort in a strange way. Well, he had to give it to them, they'd won. They hadn't gotten anything out of him, had they? But they'd pushed him over the edge into madness and that was a victory. He prayed Paul and Alec had not been captured. The only comfort he had was the thought of them continuing the work, finding these bastards and paying them back.
He jerked awake. For a moment, he just lay there on the cool metal floor. He rolled over onto his back. Thunk. Ow. He looked around with a frown. Hallucinations shouldn't feel that solid, should they? A table leg. A round, metal, tubular, table leg. Next to a round, tubular, metal chair leg. He sniffed. His mouth watered. He sat up slowly. He stood up. Food. Hot food. Breakfast. Eggs. Toast. Bacon. Coffee. He homed in on the cup before anything else could happen. Hot, sweet, creamy, coffee. He nearly scalded his mouth as he gulped the first mouthfuls down.
A door opened behind him and the familiar sound of someone being shoved into a room came to his ears. The door closed. Slowly, dreading what he would see, or, more precisely, who he would see, Straker turned. Slender fingers shoved masses of disheveled pale blonde hair back out of the newcomer's face.
A woman. She looked up. Shock registered on her dirt streaked face. The cup in his hands fell to the floor, unregarded. No. He shook his head. No. They couldn't do this to him. Please God, no.
"Ed?" she said uncertainly.
"Mary –" The world went dark.
The man on the bed in the ascetic bedroom grimaced as his dreams took the turns they always took. Explosions. Blurry faces. Hands on his arms lifting him out of a depression in the ground. The terror and determination within as he realized these were not friends but enemies. His eyes snapped open as they always did, the dream fading even as his gaze became clear and blue, alert. He blinked, staring at the ceiling. The ceiling was white. The walls were white, the only touches of color two small, expensive oil paintings by Old Masters. He took a shuddering breath and relaxed. He ran a hand over his face, removing the drying sweat. He frowned. Damn. He was going to have to talk to Jackson about this, much as he hated doing so. His sleep, never as much as most people claimed to need, was being seriously impaired by these dreams he couldn't remember.
He got up, padded bare foot to the bathroom and ran through his morning routine, including a hot shower to remove the residue of the night. He stared into the reflections of his own direct blue gaze as he brushed his teeth, flossed and then shaved his sparse beard. He frowned.
He seriously looked at his face. Where had those lines come from, overnight as it were? He combed his hair, instinctive action parting and combing it away from his face. He stopped and stared at the result. That was wrong. Swiftly he disposed of the part and combed it into a neat face framing fringe. It seemed a bit longer than he usually wore it. He'd have to make time for a haircut in the next few days.
He moved back into the bedroom, straightening the bed, and pulling his suit out of the closet. He frowned at the double closet. The suit was in plastic as though he'd just picked it up from the cleaners, yet he remembered he worn the cream Nehru cut suit just a day or so before. Odd.
He dressed quickly, grabbed a cup of coffee and sat down to read the newspaper. He passed quickly over the front page and on to the inside. Something stirred at the back of his mind, but he ignored it. He walked out the door, locking it behind him and climbed into his car.
He passed Keith Ford in the hallway with a curt nod. He seemed oblivious to the reaction he received as Keith returned the nod, then turned to watch the spare man continue toward his office. Keith disentangled himself from the the actress he had been talking to and hit his office at a run. He rang through to Straker's secretary.
"Yes, sir. He's just coming in."
"No. *He's back*," Keith emphasized just as the woman at the other end met the blue gaze of her boss and realized exactly what Paul Foster was trying to tell her.
"I'll let him know you'd like to see him, sir," she agreed without missing a beat. For the first time in five years, she flipped the switch that would activate the mechanisms that turned Ed Straker's office into a private elevator.
"Tell Foster and Freeman I want them in my office in ten minutes."
Oh, hell. It was good to have him back, but there was going to be hell to pay.
Straker entered SHADO headquarters, striding through the hallways and across the control center to his office. He was peripherally aware of the flurry of reactions around him. He walked into his office, around the desk and stopped in the act of sitting down. He frowned.
Paul Foster, too tired to go home at the end of his shift, had collapsed on the leather couch he'd had moved into the command office. His face, even in repose, was older, more care worn than it had been. He frowned in his sleep.
Straker quietly walked over to the couch and stood looking down at the younger man. The face was more angular than he remembered it being. There were gray hairs here and there in the dark thatch of his hair. What was going on?
The voice at the doorway was Alec's, yet there was a hesitation. He looked around at his friend and second in command. His world rocked. Alec looked far older than his years, worn, hurt and desperate, yet the intensity of the joy in his eyes was unmistakable. Something approximating his familiar easy smile curved the thin lips.
Missing time flooded into Straker's memory. He took a couple of steps and sat on the edge of his desk. "Fuck." He said succinctly.
Paul jerked awake and nearly fell off the couch. Alec looked shocked and laughed. Ed Straker never used that word in any context.
Straker looked at Alec and then at Paul and back again. He took a long breath and released it. "Looks like I owe you two a great deal," he said softly.
Paul's face lit with a smile. "Don't you ever do that again!" came his heartfelt demand.
"What he said," Alec seconded.
Silence. Awkward silence. Five years. He had everything except the six months he was missing. He frowned. "Why –"
"We couldn't get through."
Flat statement. He rummaged through his memories. Up to one point he was himself. Then he was just the head of the studio. Everything had disappeared. Everything. He shook his head. "Jackson."
Alec and Paul both started to deny his need to talk to their spooky head of medical and security. The words died in their throats. Jackson's interview would be critical for reinstating Straker as Commander of SHADO.
It suddenly occurred to both of them that the Astrophysical Commission might not want to reinstate the Commander. Paul nearly moaned at the thought. Luckily, Straker was already on his way to Jackson's office, so he was unaware of the sudden turmoil in his former subordinates' minds.
Doug Jackson, tall, thin, dark haired and inclined to regard other human beings as though he regarded them as laboratory animals instead of thinking, feeling equals, looked up from the report on his desk and greeted Straker as though he had seen him only yesterday. He noted the way Straker's eyes narrowed for just an instant as he entered the room, just as he noted everything else about the Commander.
Straker sat down in the chair opposite the Doctor and they talked.
For the next week, Edward Straker was subjected to all the tests and interrogations any SHADO operative was subjected to upon returning from an unanticipated absence. While the time he had spent only as head of Harlington-Straker was freely accessible, there was still a six month gap that was seamlessly tucked into his memories and inaccessible. Even Jackson's favorite experimental drug did nothing more than agitate the Commander.
Alec and Paul both poured over the reports. The Commander was physically exhausted by this time, but in excellent condition otherwise. He was, as far as Jackson and his staff could tell, in excellent mental condition as well. There was no sign that the aliens had implanted anything, programmed him for anything, that they had done anything to him that SHADO needed to fear, nothing at all.
Both men watched him as he went over the reports. He finished reading, closed the cover and leaned back in the chair he was sitting in. He looked at the two men before him. "I'm still missing six months. And what do I do about Ms. Madigan?"
Thok. Thok. The door to the office opened. "You wanted to see me, sir?" a very familiar female voice asked. She was looking at Alec, but her warm eyes flickered over Straker, a smile accompanying the look.
"Lt. Madigan, I believe you know the Commander."
She turned her full attention to Straker and nodded. "Yes, sir. I do. It's been an honor and a privilege to keep an eye on you, sir." The laughter in her eyes told him that it had not been just an honor and a privilege.
"Thank you." Something between amusement and annoyance flickered across his face. He could feel the stirrings within him at the sight of her. He traced memories of their time together. A part of him was entranced by her, loved her, wanted her deeply. The other part, the part that had been submerged, recognized his wants as the danger to SHADO that they could be. This was not going to be easy. "You may still have a job in that area, Lt."
Oh, frosty. "Sir?"
He shoved the report across the desk to her. Without looking at Paul who was frowning or Alec who looked like he needed some sleep, she picked it up and quickly scanned the contents. She looked up, meeting Straker's cold gaze. "You want to unlock those six months." It was a statement of understanding. "New Mexico."
Paul and Alec protested. A look from Straker silenced both of them. "Yes. You'll come to run security. We don't want to draw a lot of attention." His voice dripped acid on that.
"No, sir. A short vacation, checking out location sites – I believe there is a script for a Western under consideration. Location sites are always best checked out first hand." She paused, then met his gaze directly. "May I suggest that we take Col. Freeman with us? I believe the production is under his control."
If he was surprised by her suggestion, he didn't betray it by so much as a flicker of an eyelid. He nodded. "Paul, you have command until I return."
That got a theatrical groan. "Just make sure you *do* return. And not in another 5 years. I'll be ready to retire if you wait that long." He grinned. Well, well. His sense of humor seemed to be coming back.
New Mexico. Well, El Paso, Texas, actually. They flew in on a commercial airline. El Paso was sprawling, dry, hot, dusty and full of accents that landed on ears used to clipped or drawled British ones. They collected their bags and their rental car and drove north on I-10 towards Las Cruces. Alec stretched out in the back seat while Maddy drove and Straker took the passenger seat.
They drove across the Texas-New Mexico border in silence, much the way they had traveled since they boarded the airplane at Heathrow. It had been a long flight. The Concorde had brought them into New York where they had anticipated a two hour layover. It hadn't materialized. The connecting flight to Dallas-Ft. Worth had been early, of all things.
Maddy had looked at the two men with raised eyebrows. "Early? Flights are *never* early!," she'd whispered. "It's a trap," she added darkly and spoiled it with a giggle. "I'm sorry. But I have never in my life had a flight be early before. Honest!"
They'd spent some time at a hotel in Dallas-Ft. Worth, getting some sleep. The flight from there to El Paso was a short one.
Now, they were in the high Sonoran Desert on the western side of the Guadalupe/Franklin/Organ mountain chain that eventually joined up with the Rockies further north. Alec thought it looked dry and dead, a lot like portions of the Out Back of his own homeland, Australia. He settled back to rest his eyes. He was tired, bone tired, and getting more and more that way.
Straker watched the scenery roll past. Dry reddish tan dirt sprinkled with spots of color. As they neared Las Cruces, Yuccas with their tall dried spikes became more numerous. He had a flash of those spikes fresh and pale green, the heavy ivory bells of their flowers dangling from the short, fragile cross branches. They passed a Century plant. This one had bloomed in the spring. A single shaft of dirty green shot skyward, the last two feet of the eight to ten foot shoot throwing out the branches which held six to eight inch across platforms of red and yellow blossoms. It stood stark against the pale blue skyline, the blossoms long since withered and dried as was the spike that bore them. The fleshy leaves with their serrated edges lined with sharp spikes were brown, drying. Soon the entire plant would fall over. Century plants bloomed once and died.
That was a jarring thought.
He focused his attention on the mountains, dusty, sere, dry rocks thrusting skyward. The distance made them deceptive. There were trees there and bushes and wildlife. Snakes, tarantulas, horned toads, rabbits – rabbits. He had a sudden memory of skinning a rabbit, his hands bloody as he cleaned the carcass, a small smoky fire to cook the meat and someone with him. He was handing her a leg. He could see the slender fingered hand, the knuckles showing more than they should. He looked up – the memory was gone.
The country around Las Cruces was not where he had been. They drove on. Socorro. That was where they needed to go. Socorro, the little town in New Mexico where a Sheriff's deputy had once chased a spectral light into the desert, certain he was trailing a UFO. New Mexico, home of Roswell where a crashed weather balloon had once been identified as a fallen space craft. The desert state had its share of UFOlogists. And more than it's share of stories.
He settled back to endure the ride.
A rich chuckle met this pronouncement.
"It's not funny. This town is boring."
"Col, almost all small towns are boring."
"Los Alamos wouldn't be boring," she wheedled.
"He didn't wander into Los Alamos."
Disgusted sound. "No, he didn't. He wandered into Socorro, the boredom capitol of New Mexico, Arizona and surrounding territories. *When* do they get here?"
"Soon," the red head mimicked. "Soon. That's all you've said for days. Soon. I'm going swimming."
"Don't forget your sunscreen."
The screen door slammed behind the red head. Her copper skinned companion gave a lazy shake of her head. Poor Colleen, so many rampant hormones and so much energy and not a lab or a lap in sight. Time enough for that when the debt was paid.
The heat seemed to penetrate the car in spite of the best efforts of the air conditioner. Straker found himself nodding off. He could feel the sun on his face. He opened his eyes and stared up into a washed out sky through the branches of a cholla cactus. He could see the halo of spines around it's limbs, back lit by the white circle of the sun.
"Ed. Ed. Please. Don't die on me. Please. I'm sorry, I am so sorry," a whispery, sandpaper dry voice whispered to him. "I know it's selfish, but don't leave me alone. Please." Silence. A muffled, choked sob. "I can't even cry. That's a cactus. But it's not the right kind." It would have been a wail, but the speaker didn't have enough moisture or strength to wail.
"It –" Strangled non-sound. He tried again. "It's all right. I'm still here."
"I'm glad. Maybe I shouldn't be. You – Maybe you'd rather not be here."
He wanted to laugh at that. "Doesn't matter. We'll make it. Look for fat, round cactus." He tried to swallow and failed. "Their flesh holds the water we need."
"Fat, round. Fat, round. Fat – Short?"
"Ow!" Muffled cussing and sniffles. "There. Take that, you nasty little water hog."
He couldn't help the laugh that time. Pain spiked through his side. Oh, right. Broken ribs. No. Not that painful. Cracked probably.
Dry fingers with torn nails poked a piece of cactus flesh between his lips. He could taste tang of blood along with the cool fluid stored inside the cactus. Moisture. It was a struggle, but he sat up. His lips were cracked and peeling. He suspected the rest of his too fair skinned face was equally bad. She handed him another piece of cactus and poked one in her own mouth. She leaned close to him, her parched lips almost touching his ear.
"It's not real, is it?" There was a hopeless sound in her voice.
He looked around. He delved deep inside himself. No. This wasn't real either. He shook his head, agreeing with her.
He looked into her watery pale eyes. He saw the trust he'd earned in the past few – hours? Days? Weeks? She was resigned. Whatever happened, she would face it with him.
He jerked awake as the car slowed and came to a stop. The dream had been so real. He realized it was different this time. He could remember it. He slewed around in the seat to stare at Alec. He was aware of Maddy's clear gaze on him. Alec was asleep. Deeply asleep.
Straker looked around at the woman with him. "What's wrong with Alec?"
"Wrong?" Steel and ice met her gaze. "Overwork."
He frowned. He looked back at his friend and shook his head. "No. That's not all."
"Nothing they can do. It's an ailment of the soul, not of the body."
Straker's gaze fastened on his companion as though he didn't believe what he'd heard. An ailment of the soul? What did she mean by that? "Then why come with us?" he asked, his voice barely above a whisper.
"Maybe St. Straker can heal him." The tone was unutterably sarcastic. "Or maybe he just needs to know that you won't be leaving any time soon." Not so sarcastic. "Watching someone you care about not be who and what they're supposed to be can wear anyone down, even faithful Aussies."
"Mrmph—fpafjh – What?" Alec entered the conversation as he awoke.
"I was commenting on the Aussie ability to sleep through their snoring."
Well, that was a look.
"Thank you. Where are we?"
Tension. He looked around. "Didn't look like much the last time I was here. Still doesn't."
"Good. Where did you pick up the Commander?"
He gave directions to the hospital. She followed them until they were sitting in the parking lot looking at the small, modern looking hospital building. She looked to Straker who was looking around.
"This isn't where you wandered in out of the desert, is it?"
She referred to the file and then to a local area map. "Ok, may I suggest eating, stretching our legs and then heading back from the hospital to the pick up site?"
Straker was inclined to deny a need to eat, but Alec was looking a bit more worn than he had so he nodded his agreement. They stopped at the local Denny's, got out, stretched their legs and went in to eat. It had been a long time since any of them had eaten at a strictly American fare restaurant.
Straker ordered a chef's salad and picked at it while Alec worked his way through a fried chicken dinner and Maddy had green enchiladas. Alec was aware that his friend was watching him, although his gaze was always elsewhere when Alec looked up from his plate. He had expected to find that eagle gaze on Maddy. But it wasn't. What the hell had she told him? He caught her gaze for a moment and knew. Dammit. Couldn't she keep her blasted mouth shut? He immediately regretted the thought. No. If Ed asked, she would tell him, knowing that it would spur him to complete his search sooner, to head home, even if he didn't find his answers.
"Ed, either eat that salad or put it out of it's misery," Maddy teased suddenly.
He scowled at her, then looked down at the mangled but mostly uneaten salad. He nodded and started tucking it away. He looked up to find her watching him again. "What?"
"I like looking at you. Makes my job very easy."
"Maddy –" Alec started. He stopped at a gesture from Straker.
"You know it's over."
"Yes, I do. And it's all right. No scenes. No reviling. No repercussions. But that doesn't mean I can't look, even if I can't touch any more. Anyone ever mention that you are a very graceful human being, as well as being striking looking?"
He felt the heat rise in his face at her praise. What the hell was she thinking? And, yet – he was aware that he moved with economy and grace because he had to do so. A trained fighter always moves with grace. A man under constant observation, both inside his real world and in the world of his cover, had to move carefully, both physically and mentally. He guessed one must of necessity come to overlap the other.
"Thank you." Her pleased smile warmed him.
He'd been found by a rancher. He'd taken shelter by a water trough. The water was clean enough and it was what he needed the most. Dehydration kills faster than starvation, much faster.
He stared at the tank and the trough, running them through his memory, trying to pick up the scent of where he'd been before this. There was a low rise of hills to the north. There was something familiar about them. He started walking. Maddy grabbed the canteens and the back pack and followed, Alec bringing up the rear.
It took several hours to retrace his path to the base of those mountains. They were mountains, not hills. He stopped and stood unmoving in the light of the setting moon. It was here, somewhere. What *it* was, he wasn't quite certain. He looked around. Rocks. Large rocks. He could feel rocks under his hands. Rocks and sobbing. Tears cut paths in the dust on his face. There should be a pile of rocks.
He moved toward the cairn at a run and then just stopped next to it. The dreams were real. This was real. He sank to his knees and reached out to gently run a hand over the topmost rock. "Mary." His breath shuddered out of him. The memories flooded in, agonizing, terrifying memories. When Rand hadn't managed to get what he wanted, he'd kidnapped Mary and brought her in. She'd seen aliens. She'd been subjected to Rand's reality manipulation. She'd forgiven him. She'd died for him. Shuddering sobs wracked him as he remembered.
Warm arms enfolded him, offering comfort. "It's all right," he heard her voice say. "You're safe now. It's all right." He closed his eyes and sheltered in the warmth and the darkness.
Two tall forms ghosted out of the night. They nodded to Maddy and Alec as they laid out the items they would need for tonight.
Colleen helped Alec to his feet and moved him closer to where Maddy held Straker's limp form. "It's time." He nodded his understanding as he took his Commander into his arms, releasing Maddy to stand closer to the cairn.
Alex completed her circle of protection. Quietly, she called on the powers to which she owed allegiance to come to her aid. A wind kicked up, swirling around the outer edge of the circle, but not touching the sand within. Soon, a wall of whirling sand hid them from prying eyes, protected them from outside influence.
"Let that which was put together, come asunder," Alex intoned quietly.
Lt. Madigan's form wavered, shifted, separated. A misty part flowed across the sand to Alec and entered him, revitalizing the man who had given so much to keep his friend and Commander safe. That left a pale woman with long blonde hair and pale blue eyes looking down at the two men. She knelt for a moment, touching the pale man's face with a nearly transparent fingertip.
"I understand," she said softly, her voice carrying over the wind. "I love you." She looked up into Alec's dark eyes and smiled. "Take care of him."
Mutely, he nodded. He watched as the form faded until nothing was left. Ed stirred in his arms and sat up as the wind died down. They were alone with the cairn Ed had built over the body of his ex-wife.
"You came seeking memories," Alex told him as she stepped out of the darkness. "You found them."
"I know you – you – "
"I am a friend of Alec's. We have indeed met before, Mr. Straker."
He turned to Alec. The man's dark eyes looked more alive than they had in some time. "Maddy – won't be coming back, will she?"
He sighed. "I was fond of her."
"I know. She knew."
"I'm glad." He looked at the cairn, then at the mountains beyond. "We need to make certain it's cleaned out."
"Then let's do so."
The red head perked up. "You mean there might be trouble? And you didn't tell me. Alex –"
"Col – Shut up."
The red head laughed and followed where Straker and his friend led.
"And the installation?" Paul prompted.
"Empty. Hollowed out cavern area in the rock of the mountain. But everything else was gone. Some of the rocks were blackened, some looked like they'd been heat fused. Ed took care of it."
"Good. That's one less thing we have to worry about."
"So, what did you do with the two women?"
Alec shrugged, "Nothing. After all, no one mentioned aliens. No one saw aliens. They just helped us explore an old cave."
Paul shook his head in disbelief. "Well, I'm glad that's over and he's back."
"So am I. So am I." Alec walked across the office and poured himself a stiff drink. He raised it in mute testimony to a woman he'd spent a long time hating. Mary Straker Rutland. RIP.
"What happened to Rutland?"
Alec met his gaze and shrugged. Mary's husband was missing. Alec presumed he'd been taken by the aliens. Or he was an alien. Either way, there would be no solving the mystery of his disappearance.