‘Exactly how slowly Lieutenant?’ Straker’s hand rubbed the bristles on his jaw. The sixth incursion in twenty-four hours. He wondered if it would end the same way as the other five. In failure. Different approach patterns, different speeds, different directions. There was no consistency to any of the attacks.
‘Speed S.O.L. zero decimal five.’ There was a pause, ‘It’s increased speed ..,’ Another pause, longer this time. ‘It’s changed course Commander. Now following the Earthbound lunar module.’
Silence. He clenched his fingers.
‘Moonbase to control. UFO has retreated. Out of range now. Interceptors returning to base.’
‘Thank you Moonbase. I want a full report by the end of the shift.’ Straker withdrew to his office. His long-abandoned coffee had scum on the surface and he flung it away before pouring a fresh one. Then he waited.
‘Another red herring?’ Alec Freeman finished reading the file and put it down. ‘What the hell were they up to this time?’
‘I don’t know Alec, I really don’t. There’s been nothing for the last ten hours.’ Straker studied the chart on his desk, his fingers tracing over lines that designated lunar flights. ‘We know they didn’t get close enough to drop a bomb, or plant anything in a crater. The trajectories were random. The last one trailed a lunar module for a short time before it retreated. The crew didn’t report anything untoward, but they’ve both been checked by the medics.’ He picked up the folder and leafed through it again, before tossing it on the table with a grimace of disgust. ‘Nothing.’ He let his eyes flicker over his watch. ‘And Leonov is due soon.’
‘Look, go home. You’ve been here long enough and it’s quiet. I’ll look after Dimitri when he comes in. He’s only got a few more days to go and if I need you I’ll call.’
‘Morning Paul. Is he in yet?’ Alec Freeman walked over to stand at the console where Foster was watching a radar trace.
‘Been and gone a couple of hours ago. In fact I can tell you exactly where he is,’ Paul said and placed the tip of one finger on the screen. ‘There.’ He stepped back and grinned at Freeman’s surprised expression.
‘You’re telling me that Ed Straker is on his way to Moonbase? He didn’t mention that in yesterday’s briefing. What’s the emergency?’ Freeman said as he studied the monitor.
‘No emergency. Leonov was scheduled on the flight and Straker decided to go with him. Said he wanted to make a quick inspection.’ Foster shrugged his shoulders. ‘I think he was looking forward to getting away actually.’
‘He hasn’t been to Moonbase for a while. Still, it’s not like him to ….’ Alec paused.
‘Stop worrying, Alec. He’s only human. This is just what he needs, a few days furlough. I think he wants to help Leonov settle in. And…’ Paul waved a hand at the control room. ‘We’re monitoring the flight. So relax.’ He grinned again and turned back to observe the radar screen once more.
Straker squeezed into the tiny passenger compartment of the Lunar module and dropped his bag on one of the spare seats before he turned to look into the flight deck. Dimitri was close behind the commander, a flush of anticipation on the Russian’s face as he entered the craft and proceeded to stash his luggage with care. Straker remembered his own enthusiasm on his first visit to Moonbase. It was a feeling that had not diminished over the years.
‘Welcome aboard Colonel. I’ll let you get started. Grant won’t let you pilot during release or landing but he’ll show you the controls while we’re in transit.’ Straker lowered himself into the passenger seat nearest the door. ‘First flight. I think you’ll enjoy it.’ He waited as Leonov slid the door shut. It was a long time since he had last piloted a module. Not too difficult a task for someone with astronaut training and flight experience but there were precious few opportunities now for him to take the controls. He was too senior, too valuable in some respects and the propriety of his position had to be respected, but deep down he envied Leonov; a maiden voyage and a new world waiting out there.
He fastened his seatbelt and recalled his first flight in a command capsule. A long time ago, yet the memories of his time in NASA had not waned. He could still recall the pressure of the crewman’s foot as it slammed onto his shoulder to crush him down in his seat, and the way his breath expelled in one gasping ‘whoosh’ as the straps were tightened with almost vicious force.
But this trip was civilised and unadventurous; just another commercial flight with his case in the locker, a restraint harness that was loose on his shoulders and a reclining chair. All the luxuries of a business class cabin.
Just … smaller.
He managed a quick check of the cabin before he hunched lower in the narrow seat. The unbroken walls of the small passenger section curved over as if seeking to crush him and the small cabin seemed airless and stifling. He unfastened his jacket to pull the rollneck of his sweater away from his throat for a moment, his fingers trembling, then he forced his hand to lie flat on the armrest, pushed the panic away and concentrated on his breathing.
The vibrations alerted him and he settled back to wait for that initial upwards thrust of lift-off. Over the years he had become adept at distinguishing the slightest change in the resonance of the engines. There. The wheels lifted.
Not long now. He would be back in space soon enough and there would be chance for him to work once they had reached the stratosphere and disengaged. Straker closed his eyes. He could no longer see the walls.
Leonov let his fingers rest with the lightest of touches on the controls and sighed with what might have been disappointment. This was not how he, as a wide-eyed child and later as an adult, had envisaged a flight to the Moon. There should have been Mission Control and a launch sequence, the thrill of a count-down and the tremendous vibrations of massive engines thrusting him up through the atmosphere. But instead he had experienced a gentle vertical take-off and now they were gaining forward speed with only a vague sensation of movement.
He glanced at Grant and saw the man focussed on watching the instruments.
He settled back and relaxed as the module disengaged from the Carrier. It did not matter that this journey had started with something of an anti-climax; he was on his way to the Moon and he wondered if he would ever become blasé about his destination. Outside the window the sky was darkening from blue to navy and black. The curve of the Earth appeared and despite all his experience and his training in Arctic Warfare and espionage Dimitri Leonov could not suppress a smile of delight.
Space. It was like being a small child again.
Straker shut down his netbook. His work had distracted him enough to forget the confines of the cabin for the first half of the journey, but now he stretched to ease the tension in his shoulders and winced as the stiff joints cracked. He had managed to contain the strands of fear that had intruded into his thoughts, and he had reminded himself that the compartment was nothing more than a room that he could leave at any time. No matter that he did not have a viewport; the door was just there within reach and Leonov and Grant were on the other side. And outside the ship? Well, that was different. Who could get claustrophobic with space out there?
He unstrapped and eased himself out of the narrow seat, taking care not lose his centre of balance. It had to be the light gravity that caused the pounding in his ears. Not fear. He kept his head down and his eyes half-shut to avoid the oppressive grey vault that loomed so close and with a sigh of relief, he headed for the flight deck to watch Leonov at the controls of the Module.
Straker would have remained there for the entire voyage regardless of the cramped space but it was time to prepare for landing. The Moon was growing large in the viewports, its craters sharp and defined as the craft neared its destination and he gave one last look through the viewport then lowered his head again and retreated to the solitary confines of the aft cell. He had forgotten his netbook. It lay there, on the seat next to his, waiting to be tidied away and he directed himself to the task, not looking around, his eyes staring at his hands, his mind refusing to acknowledge the curving bulkhead.
The module would land soon. He would be fine. He began to fasten the buttons of his jacket but paused and undid them before he shrugged out of it with a sigh and rolled his shoulders to loosen them one last time. He did not stretch out. That would have brought his hands into contact with the walls on either side of him. He bent to lift his seatbelt clear.
Owen Grant twisted his spine in an effort to ease the stiffness that made his body one huge ache. ‘Okay Colonel, I have control. Good work. You learn fast.’
Leonov lifted his hands from the controls and leaned back, flexing fingers that throbbed with the unaccustomed strain. ‘What happens now?’
‘Once we’re in range, Moonbase takes over. I can do it under manual control but it’s safer using their computer. Hang on.’ Grant flicked a switch. ‘Commander; we’ll be landing in five minutes.’ He sighed and stretched his fingers. ‘This has been a quiet trip. Last one was a bit hairy. We had that UFO trailing us for a while and at one stage I thought we weren’t going to make it, but…’ He shrugged and leaned forward to ease the controls with a deft touch but a sudden tremble jolted his fingers. Not for the first time either today. Tremors had affected his hands at odd moments throughout the flight although neither Straker nor Leonov had noticed.
He should have confessed to the distorted vision, the headaches, the trembling in his fingers but for some reason he hadn’t, as if something had persuaded him that it wasn’t essential. And he had passed the stringent medical after that last flight. He shook his head to try to dispel an unpleasant recollection of a flash of light and a noise in the cabin, He clenched his fingers even harder in an attempt to make them obey him and to get them under some control. It was futile. If anything, the numbness increased. He glanced at the internal monitors and saw Straker busy putting his paperwork away. Then a sideways look at the man in the seat next to him. Good. Leonov was concentrating on the panel.
Not much longer now and, once the computers had taken over, Owen could relax and pretend that nothing was the matter. Moonbase would land the module and he would have a couple of days to get over whatever bug was affecting him.
He stretched his stiff fingers once more and wondered why they were white and bloodless and why his heart was fluttering and erratic. His head throbbed with a tightness that threatened to overwhelm his senses but with determined concentration like a drunken man reaching for his last bottle, he leaned forward to flick the switches. His fingers felt taut and deadened. He had a sharp moment of apprehension when he thought that he had miscalculated, but the console light went green and with relief he heard the hissing emptiness of the open radio link.
He heaved a sigh and leaned back. Enough of this foolishness; he would report to sickbay once they were down and safe. ‘Lunar Module to Moonbase Control, preparing to enter lunar orbit in one minute.’ He kept his voice nonchalant, aware that Straker might still be listening.
‘Lunar Module, we have you on radar. Prepare to switch to automatic sequence on my mark.’ An everyday occurrence. Just one more landing in Moonbase’s busy schedule.
Owen Grant checked to make sure that Leonov was not touching the controls prior to the handover. It was his last ever look, his last ever conscious action.
The module eased into lunar orbit, still under his control and well out of range of the Moonbase computer. Then a final tremor surged through Owen Grant in one convulsive shudder. Straker, reaching for his seatbelt and unsecured, had no chance as the pilot’s juddering grip on the controls twisted the spaceship onto a new heading.
Without guidance or restraints the module careered from its course. It might have been coincidence that sent it veering into one particular satellite in the communications network, the primary link between Moonbase and all tracking stations. They would never know.
With a jolt that reverberated through the entire craft, the module crunched into the satellite. There was not even time for the module to be picked up by sensors before the resulting explosion flung it into yet another random course.
The lurch threw Straker against the wall then tossed him with contemptuous arrogance against the edge of his seat before he crashed to the floor. His arm caught the frame of the seat and a crack echoed through the cabin. The small craft’s compensators overloaded under the strain and the surge in gravity crushed him into the tiny passageway alongside the seats. He stretched out a hand to touch the door, his fingers sliding down the smooth metal as if hoping that it would be enough to make it open. The barrier remained closed.
With a desperate effort he tried to lift himself up but it was hopeless. He could do nothing other than lie there pinned down with one hand still extended but with his limbs crushed under the force that imprisoned him, no longer able to call out or to lift his head from the floor. Then despite his gasping attempts to pull breathable air into lungs that seemed paralysed his eyes darkened and the remnants of his conscious thoughts faded.
Over the intercom he could hear the radio give one last feeble hiss of static, one last disjointed message… ‘Moon…. Lun…… Come in……,’ but there was no answer.
Then it cried out with a hiss of shorting connections and went silent.
The module continued on its tumbling path into the darkness of the Moon’s shadow. Lost to Moonbase. Lost to Earth.
‘Find it. I don’t care how you do it. Find it.’ Alec Freeman’s voice, even over the hiss of distance, was desperate.
‘Colonel, we are doing everything we can. Everything. But when that satellite went we lost track of the module. It could be anywhere by now. There are whole sectors not covered by our sensors. FarSight is also affected. We’ve lost contact with them.’
There was a pause. ‘I know Nina, I’m sorry. It’s just that…’ Freeman’s haggard face stared at her. ‘Look. I’m coming out on the next flight so I can monitor operations from there. We need to find that module. We need to find the Commander and Dimitri.’ He gave Nina one last worried look. ‘Freeman out.’
Nina Barry ordered the launch of the Interceptors; a futile action no doubt, but at least they would be ready. Though for what, she had no idea. All she was knew was that a satellite had gone down, a module was lost to radar and that three SHADO members were missing and one of those was Ed Straker.
All essential protocols had been put into place, all procedures adhered to; radar and scanners to maximum, Interceptors on patrol, the Space Observation Platforms at full alert. Every available mobile was out on the surface, spreading out in as wide a circle as possible to try to pick up any signal from the module. Nina Barry knew though, that if it had crashed on the lunar surface there would be no survivors.
What else was there to do? Nothing. Until they managed to locate that module. And then? Well, then they would deal with the ramification of that when it was found. Nina pulled out her console and began the slow and arduous task of calculating trajectories.
Someone was moaning. A gasping quiet moan as if the person couldn’t breathe well enough to make a decent job of it. Straker wished whoever it was would just shut up and let him drift back to sleep. That was all he wanted to do. Sleep. He was tired. God, so tired. It was too much effort to even think about opening his eyes. He drifted back into the welcoming darkness, still cursing the thoughtless individual who had disturbed his rest. He slept. The moans faded away.
The sound that disturbed him this time was different. More a sharp intake of breath accompanied by a stifled cry, over and over. Each mouthful of air punctuated by that uncomfortable noise, as if the individual found it impossible to inhale without pain, without whimpers of fear escaping with every reluctant slow pulling of air into lungs that screamed for relief. He would have fallen asleep again, but something heavy was sitting on him, its claws digging into his side, jagged and spiked. He lay still in the hope that it would leave him alone so that he could plunge back into that drowsiness that fluttered at the edge of his thoughts. The muffled sounds dulled somewhat, the sharp claws retreated a fraction and the blissful darkness enveloped him.
The noise again. Those sounds of distress, of discomfort. Why didn’t someone do something? Anything. Bloody hell. He was too tired for all this. Why couldn’t he have some peace and quiet. Some rest. That was all. Just to lie still in that shallow water’s edge between deep sleep and wakefulness and enjoy the gentle rhythm of slumber washing him in soft waves. He lay there listening to pulsing swish and rumble of waves as they rolled over fine shingle.
There was a distant sensation of pain, as if somehow it had transferred over to him and was waiting there in the background. He had a wrench of pity for whoever it was that was suffering but his own exhaustion and his own haziness made his thoughts selfish and he was only too glad to sink down under the warmth of the water that caressed him.
Alive. The realisation bubbled into his thoughts and ruffled them into chaos. Then it kicked in. Fuck. The crash. His head. His arm. Dear God. The pain flared through him as if it had been a dammed flood of suffering that had only been held back by his continuing ignorance. He would have screamed again but he could not breathe, could not pull air into his lungs. He was suffocating, drowning. Panicked beyond endurance, his mind hazy and unresponsive, he forced one deep intake of the acrid air that surrounded him and tried to push himself up. And was jolted into consciousness with the agony that slammed through his arm. Through his body.
He lay there, unable to move, unable to do anything until those razor-sharp stabs of torture had subsided. His breath wheezed in shallow gasps that measured the pain as it eased and he remembered the increase in gravity and being crushed against the seat, the sound of bones snapping. No surprise then, that he hurt. He wondered what had happened; why no-one had come through to help. Then he wondered if Dimitri and Grant were still alive.
The force holding him down relaxed its grip and he lifted his head from where it had been crushed. The rough contact with the floor had scraped one side of his face and the skin felt raw. Training and survival instincts stepped in and he ran through the checklist in his mind: gravity; slightly below normal as far as he could tell and life support? Working. Otherwise he wouldn’t be here, trying to breathe.
It was too much. Despite every effort, his blurred eyes shut and he was powerless to stop the slide into welcome oblivion, heedless of duty, of responsibility, even of striving to stay alive.
‘Ed, wake up.’ The voice taunted him. Sharp fingers poked to wake him from his dreams. ‘Can you hear me?’
He wanted to reply, wanted to answer, but it was hard. It meant that he would have to stir from that comforting haven of silence and stillness where pain had not yet entered. And he didn’t want to do that, to face wakefulness again. It was so much easier to lie here and wait. He knew what was coming and the thought was somehow quite agreeable. He groaned again.
‘Straker. Listen to me. I need you to wake up.’ Nails dug into his face, his side, his arm; biting into flesh.
‘Go away.’ Straker mumbled, his words stifled by pain in his ribs.
Talons dug deeper and tighter, scraping on bone. ‘Wake up Ed. Open your eyes. Don’t go back to sleep. Can you hear me? Commander?’ That final word settled in Straker’s mind. Commander.
Duty, responsibility, service.
Commander Ed Straker forced unwilling awareness back into his body, into bruised ribs and aching muscles, broken and splintered bones. He opened his eyes to glare at his tormentor. There was no one with him. He was alone. ‘Dimitri?’ His voice was thick and as blurred as his mind.
‘Ed. I’m here. Are you alright?’ The voice came from somewhere above him. The intercom. Dimitri. On the flight deck.
Straker lay still and let his senses investigate his body, becoming aware of the aches and twinges and tingling. Fragmented recollections intruded. He had fallen or been thrown to the floor. His side hurt, his arm as well. He could see the frame of the seat close to his face, could feel the wall of the compartment close against his back, his legs twisted and cramped in the small access strip that led to the cargo hold. Such a small space. He needed to get up. He needed to get out of here.
‘What happened?’ He was discomfited by the tremble in his voice, the sound of his fear, but Dimitri did not appear to notice.
‘There was an explosion. Grant is dead. I cannot get into contact with anyone or get the controls to work. I need your help.’ There was a pause, the sound of banging and then Dimitri’s voice again. ‘And the door will not open from this side.’
He pondered the information with a mind that was busy analysing the hurt and the horror of his situation. He would have to get up, have to open the door, but he would have to do this on his own. The hard way.
It took him longer to move than he had thought. Each time he tensed his muscles in preparation, that snap of bone filled his mind. It was going to hurt. A lot. A hell of a lot. Over and over he geared his body up for the first alteration of position, the initial move that would flood him with pain, but despite all his efforts his limbs refused to obey.
Teeth clenched, he made a single miniscule shift. Just his right hand. One tentative inch at a time he pulled it to where he could see his fingers, see them and then, if he dared, move them. One hand, that was all, but it was enough to stir him from the deceitful desire to sleep.
Even that move exhausted him, but he persevered, moving first one finger then another until he could push himself up. The pain sharpened but he carried on, concentrating on getting himself off the floor and ignoring the sharp bite of his ribs whenever he breathed. An eternity passed before he was sitting upright and leaning against the wall. He cradled his left arm and then dared to look at it. The hand tingled. He closed his eyes for a moment in dread.
It hurt even more to pull himself to his feet and he clung to the frame of the seat, sweating with the effort it had required before he stumbled against the door. He leaned against the chill metal of the frame as dizziness and nausea swept though him. His body betrayed him. He could not move. Could not take that next step and feel the bone grate in his arm, feel the cold sweat on his face and the vomit rise in his throat. He would let himself slip down to sit on the floor. He would wait here. He could not do anything.
But he had to, and so he did. He took a deep breath, welcoming the discomfort that brought his mind awake once more, and then tugged at the small hatch of the control panel. It refused to open. He would have slammed his fist on the wall in frustration, but he knew that it was futile. He leaned against the bare metal. Cold. It chilled him and he pushed himself upright with the realisation that the cabin was getting colder, that it would soon be below freezing and then….
In desperation he scrabbled at the small panel again and this time caught the edge with one fingernail. The cover drifted to the floor and he blinked to clear his blurred eyes as he peered at the confusion of wires.
‘Ed. What’s happening?’ Dimitri interrupted his concentration. Straker ignored him, wiping one hand across his forehead to clear prickles of sweat. He fixed his mind on the wires, trying to disregard the throbbing of his arm or the sharp pain that clawed at him with every movement, trying to forget that that he was trapped in a tiny space and that if he could not get the door open he would freeze. He had to concentrate, to focus on the only thing that mattered.
The walls retreated and the pain dulled to a mere ache, but his fingers, numb with cold and feeling thick and useless, could only fumble without success at the wires. And yet he could see exactly what was needed. Such a simple task. All he had to do was to short-circuit one connection. It was no good. He was trapped. He let himself lean against the bulkhead once more, gasping with the onset of panic as claustrophobia swamped his thoughts and the walls swirled in a haze of disorientation and terror.
‘Ed. Answer me. Are you alright?’ A shout this time, panic in the voice. Dimitri’s voice. Dimitri Leonov, whose fists had slammed into him all those years ago in that damp room, whose hands had forced a glass between his lips to fill his mouth, his throat, with vodka, whose voice had threatened and cajoled Straker. Leonov who had appeared out of the gloom in that dingy Moscow bar to speak to Straker again after so many years. There was sweat on Straker’s face now, even with the chill of the cabin. Sweat on his lips, water on his lips. Drowning. He wiped across his mouth with his sleeve.
Cloth over his face. He retched with the sensation, the memory. His knees gave way and he sank down, his forehead pressed against the door, the taste of acid in his mouth. He spat it out.
The floor was hard under his knees, rough and gritted with shards that cut into his skin and as his world shifted, he put one hand out in a futile effort to stop himself falling.