‘Nothing Colonel. We’re relocating back-up satellites, but it takes time.’
‘I know. And I’m distracting you. Look Nina, I’ll be arriving in a couple of hours, but contact me the moment you hear anything.’ Freeman said.
‘Of course.’ Nina Barry cut the transmission and swivelled her chair round. ‘Joan. Any luck with that algorithm?’
Harrington tapped at her controls. ‘There isn’t enough data Lieutenant. I can’t get an answer.’
‘Try it again.’
‘It won’t work. I’ve tried every possible permutation and it just comes up with the same answer. Insufficient data.’ She shrugged. ‘It might be easier if we were looking for a bigger object, but the module is just so small.’
Nina stared out of the viewpoint. So small. Such an insignificant speck in the solar system. That was the problem. If the module had the mass of a UFO, or its speed, or if it had not veered off course then they might have been able to detect it. The craft could have been destroyed, but somehow she refused to believe it. It was out there. Somewhere.
It could be close to lunar orbit, or even on the far side of the Moon by now. Even heading back to Earth. It was impossible to predict. She knew that sooner or later, maybe in a week, or a month, or even a year, the module would wander close enough to one of the outlying reconnaissance satellites to be detected. The alarm would go out and they would retrieve it; but it would be too late. If the module was not rescued within the next forty-eight hours, then it would be pointless. The crew would be dead; asphyxiated by the lack of oxygen, or even frozen when life support failed and the temperature dropped. She had been there once before, gasping for breath, struggling to stay awake and stay conscious, wanting to hold onto each precious moment of life, and Straker had been there to comfort her.
She hoped that someone was there to do the same for him. That he was not alone. That Leonov and Grant were with him. That’s what life’s all about I guess, he had said to her afterwards. The things we never say. She had never spoken to him about it and now she might never get the chance. She shook her head. Too late for regrets.
‘Joan? Forget about tracking UFOs. Get the remaining satellites looking for anything in those sectors outside the normal range?. It’s a chance in a million, but it’s better than nothing.’ Nina Barry said. She went back to her calculations, but her mind strayed once more to the feel of his hand on her shoulder. Straker. She closed her eyes for a moment.
The icy temperature in the passenger cabin bit deeper as Dimitri slid open the door at the rear of the compartment. The small space behind was crammed with emergency equipment and spacesuits. The aft head took up one corner and a sealed hatch in the bulkhead in front of them led to the cargo bay. Straker’s breath condensed on the icy wall as he checked the equipment. ‘You’ve done suit training haven’t you?’
‘I’m going to need your help. Bring through what we need.’ Straker said. He smiled, a genuine smile despite the pale face and the lines of pain that darkened his eyes. The simple act of walking to the cargo hold had exacerbated the throbbing in his arm. He tried to ignore it. ‘I’ll let you get started.’ He stumbled back to the flight deck, his limbs and mind numb with cold and the pain that wrenched through him at every step.
He made several efforts to get his boots off, but it was impossible to reach down far enough to unzip them and he sat there, pale and sweating. He was making another unsuccessful attempt when Dimitri entered the flight deck, his arms full of equipment and took one look at him. ‘Sit still and wait.’
It was a direct order and Straker gave up the struggle and leaned back. He closed his eyes as the pain began to build to a heavy throbbing ache that was impossible to ignore. Dizziness swept through him. It was too hard to keep fighting the cold, the pain. So much easier to submit.
‘Right. Leave this to me.’ Dimitri’s voice was soothing, confident.
He was aware of the Russian’s hands sliding down his ankles to feel for the fastenings and then easing off his boots and socks. His feet were cold.
‘Sit up. But take your time.’
He obeyed although his head drooped with more than weariness. It was going to hurt. He knew that. Bad enough having to contort oneself into a spacesuit when fully fit, but the thought of having to slide his arm into a flight suit and then wriggle into the much thicker spacesuit made him feel sick. Dimitri’s hands were around his shoulders now, unfastening the sling and easing his arm away from the protection of his body. He stifled a cry as it moved, burning and grating in his arm. It was instinct that made him try to twist away from the source but Dimitri was prepared. Strong hands gripped him. He could feel fingers on his shoulders, holding him still.
‘No. Don’t move.’ The words filtered through the scarlet haze of agony and he obeyed, holding himself rigid, his muscles tensing as he fought to prevent any slight jarring of his arm. Dimitri’s hands loosened. ‘Hang on.’
Material was pulled away from his throat and the thick edge of a blade pressed against Straker’s skin before Dimitri sliced his sweater open. He shuddered as the warm cloth was pulled away and cold fingers of frost stabbed his bare skin. A hand smoothed over his ribs and he flinched.
‘Fuck.’ The muttered expletive hissed in his ear. ‘What else have you been hiding Commander?’
Straker opened his eyes. Dimitri was hunkered there in front of him, concerned. ‘Nothing.’ He was surprised at how faint and remote his voice sounded. He was hot and shivery even though he was cold. He took a breath and tried to push the dizziness away. ‘Nothing.’ The word was more definite this time.
‘Ready?’ Dimitri stood up.
Straker turned away, scared that his eyes might betray him. He wanted nothing more than to sit there and do nothing, even as cold as he was. Anything to avoid the next minutes. He took a breath. ‘Yes. ’ There was no other answer. Leonov moved to his side and eased one hand under Straker’s uninjured arm in a firm hold.
He forced himself to rise. The arm that supported him was stronger than he had realised and yet the hands were gentle. He let himself lean against a shoulder, aware of a hand undoing the buckle on his belt and loosening it, of fingers catching at the top button and pushing it and the zip of his trousers sliding down. He did not move. To do that would be to invite the pain. This was the best way, to allow Dimitri to do this for him. The Russian tugged the trousers over Straker’s hips, letting them slide down to crumple on the floor. They covered his feet in soft folds.
Dimitri’s voice was close to his ear. ‘Okay.’ Straker stepped out. A hand slid over his ribs again and he was unable to stop a gasp. The voice again. That pellucid voice. ‘Broken I think.’
Straker bit down, breath hard and audible through flared nostrils. He forced himself to answer. ‘Yes.’
He sank down on the cold leather of the seat to let Dimitri pull the thick felted socks over his bare feet. Straker shivered. He put his hand on the marbled skin of his thigh and wondered if he would ever be warm again. He could hear material ripping.
‘Here.’ Dimitri helped him to slide his legs into the suit and then stood in silence, not hurrying him. Blood pounded in his arm and Straker stifled a groan of fear. He bit his lip against the expected tightness of the material but there was no resistance. Dimitri had torn the sleeve off at the shoulder. He slid his other arm into the suit and waited to let Dimitri fasten it before he lowered himself onto the seat. Warmth crept into his limbs and lethargy swept through him as he let Dimitri check the space suits, testing the air supply and radio connections. He forced himself awake and the other man turned. ‘You should rest for a while.’
Straker lifted his eyes to meet Dimitri’s. ‘No. Let’s finish this. Before…’ He grimaced.
‘Very well. We will take it slowly. You know what has to be done?’
There would be no easy way out this time. He would not be able to sit there while Dimitri pulled on the lower half of the loose flight suit. He would not have the ease of a ripped sleeve. He had struggled into suits enough times in the past to be aware of those uncomfortable moments.
This would be excruciating. There was no possibility of getting his arm with its crude splint down the unyielding sleeve of the outer suit. He cringed at the thought of what he would have to do. But if by any miracle they were traced, then the only chance of rescue was to evacuate the ship. He had to carry on. He held his breath. Exhaled.
Dimitri was silent. He cut through strips of cloth and put them aside, slid the makeshift splint out to lay it on the console. Economical movements. Nothing hasty. Nothing that disturbed the alignment of bones.
Once exposed to view, the flesh appeared even more swollen. It was blackened and distorted and the throbbing pain that pounded remorselessly down the useless limb was close to unbearable. And that was when it was not being moved. He swallowed. ‘Carry on.’ His voice was calm.
‘They will find us you know.’
‘Good. I have plans.’ Leonov ran his fingers over the bruising. They both knew what was going to happen. The sooner it was over and done with the better. But that was still no reason to hurry. He stood there, thinking and letting his fingers trace the outline of Straker’s arm. The very lightest touch, but it was enough to make Straker cry out. A stifled cry, bitten back, hidden.
Dimitri pulled his hand back. ‘Sorry.’
Straker turned his head. Shallow gasps punctuated the silence as Dimitri explored the extent of the fracture.
‘Yes.’ Dimitri continued as if in response to an unspoken question. ‘I would like to show you Moscow some time Commander. The real Moscow. Not the seedy side.’
There was no answer. Straker concentrated on his breathing.
‘That was a very disreputable bar you know.’
The gasps ceased. ‘It seemed the best place at the time.’ The voice was faint now as if Straker was trying to distance himself from Dimitri. From what the Russian was about to do.
The suit was there in front of him, waiting. All he had to do was slide into the lower half and then bend forward with his arms outstretched. Just like diving. Then he had to twist himself into place. It sounded so simple. The problem was that he could not imagine how he could possibly achieve it. He would have to push his arm down the sleeve and then force his hand through the tight cuff.
He looked up, startled. Dimitri had the suit ready. He held his breath. Feet first. Not much of a problem. His arm was still flat on the rest. There was nothing else to he could do now. Not if he was to try to save them both. He raised his uninjured arm and stared at it. So easy. The hand trembled. He bit his lip.
‘Colonel?’ he asked.
Leonov stepped to his side and wrapped his fingers around Straker’s elbow, careful not to move the joint. ‘I will not let go.’
‘On my mark then.’ Straker lifted his free arm and leaned forward, preparing himself. Dimitri could see the shoulders tense as a deep breath was inhaled and held. ‘Ready.’ The voice was sharp. ‘And now.’
Dimitri Leonov had tortured in the past. He had beaten men, and women, had placed them in stress positions until they cried out in agony, had even experienced the vilest form of torture himself. And he had done the same to Straker. He was used to seeing pain. So he was prepared for the whisper of crepitation as broken ends grated against each other and the following scream as the bones shifted. He had expected to be detached and composed and efficient as he stretched the arm out. He was not prepared for the tears that blinded him. He gritted his teeth and shuddered. He had to do this. There was no turning back now. They had gone too far. The hoarse screams had faded to moans by the time Dimitri had guided the swollen hand down into the sleeve.
And then Straker’s outstretched fingers caught on the cuff, jarring the bones in a final cruel burst of unbearable torment. In blind and unreasoning panic he tried to twist free, no longer aware of what was happening. All he knew was that he had to stop the torture, to stop the pain. Anything.
‘No.’ Dimitri tightened his grip. ‘Ed. No.’ He held firm as Straker wrenched once more, mindlessly trying to escape. There was one last sound. A long drawn-out cry of agony, from a throat that was raw from screaming. Then, silence. Dimitri was aware of weight slumped against him. He did not stop. No need to be gentle now. He wanted this done before Straker recovered. He tugged the hand through the tight cuff. The fingers were limp. Then the other arm. He dashed a hand across his own face and then lifted the man up.
A dead weight, the head lolling against him as he fastened seams, lowered him and straightened limbs and then with quick efficiency slid unresponsive hands into gloves and locked them in place. He replaced the splint and then placed a hand on one cheek. Still cold, but that would change as the suit warmed him. Blood trickled from Straker’s mouth. He could hear soft moans, could see the bitten lips tighten. There was only one thing he could do now that might help.
There was something hard pressing against his mouth, bruising his lips. He could taste blood. He ached and his arm hurt. It was cold in the room, and he shivered. His arm hurt and with horror he knew where he was. Back in that small whitewashed room with the single chair and a table. He remembered the gentle voice that had mocked him, remembered the beating. Fluid stung his lips before it dripped into his mouth and he spat as the taste made itself known again.
Vodka. The voice wanted him drunk, wanted him to talk, wanted him to betray SHADO. He could not move his arm to push away the bottle, but again it touched his lips, hard against his clenched teeth and he turned his head away in silent despair.
He must not speak. Whatever happened. He must not.
The glass pressed harder, the voice in his ear, darker than he remembered it. Deeper, rougher and somehow anguished. He knew what it was going to demand. He would not say the words. Yes I am Colonel Straker. His arm burned, fiercely and he tried to move it up from the harsh grittiness of the floor but his tormentor had tied it in place. He stifled a sob. The glass was at his lips again and fingers stroked his face. He clenched his teeth and tightened his lips. Those fingers would not explore his mouth this time. He waited and listened for that deceptive voice, the mocking tone that sought to entrap him.
‘Ed. It’s over.’ The words were false. They were just beginning. ‘Ed. It’s Dimitri.’ He tensed, waiting for the moment when they tipped him back. They would put the cloth over his face next. ’Come on. Drink this. It will help.’ He took a deep breath and gasped with the swift sharp pain. The glass tilted against his open lips and he spluttered as it filled his mouth. There was nothing he could do other than swallow it. Tears stung his eyes. They had won. His world tilted. He waited, trembling as a hand smoothed his brow and then wiped his mouth.
‘Ed, don’t move. You’ll hurt yourself.’
He blinked away sweat and stared up. ‘Dimitri?’
‘Who else? Keep still.’
Straker stared at the low ceiling as the nightmare faded and his mind worked out all those unpleasant details of what had happened. He stretched across with his right hand. His arm was strapped across his chest. He could not move it. And he was wearing a space suit.
He turned his head to look at Leonov. ‘Alcohol? On board a flight to Moonbase?’
‘Medicinal purposes.’ Dimitri’s mouth twitched.
The ceiling swayed a little as the pain in his arm increased. He ignored it. ‘We have regulations you know. I think I will need to speak to you later, Colonel.’
‘I look forward to it Commander.’ Dimitri screwed the lid back on the bottle and put it back in his holdall. He yawned. ‘But right now I think it would be sensible for me to rest in preparation for when we are rescued.’
Straker heard the creak of leather as Dimitri lowered himself into the other seat and reclined, then there was quiet in the small cabin apart from his own still rapid gasps and Dimitri’s slower and deeper breathing. Straker concentrated on lowering his pulse rate and working through calculus problems in his mind. An old remedy and the answers came easily. He was warmer now and although he ached, his arm throbbed, and his throat was sore, he lay still. Dimitri needed to rest, so it was important that Straker was quiet and patient and did not disturb him. The alcohol began to blur the edge of his mind and the pain was fading. He closed his eyes. There was nothing else to do right now and without realising it, his breathing slowed and he slept.
Nina was waiting as the Module landed. Manual control, no computer assistance. Not with the satellite link down. A perfect landing though. She expected no less from Alec Freeman. She waited for him, all the time listening to the constant chatter from the Control Sphere. Not idle chatter but those necessary communications between SHADO headquarters and Moonbase, the chatter of computers as they talked to each other, of sensors downloading information. She was listening for one message. And one message only.
‘Colonel.’ She nodded to acknowledge him. This was no time for pleasantries.
‘Nothing. I have the most recent updates ready for you.’
‘Lead the way.’
Freeman leafed through the data. ‘I can’t think of anything else that you can do. If we had an idea where the module was heading then we might be able to bring some trackers into line. Would give us a better chance. It’s still pretty slim, all things considered. But…. there’s still time.’ He lowered his voice so that Nina had to strain to hear his next words. ‘I wish we knew if they were still alive. Ed and Dimitri and Owen.’
A hand slipped into his. ‘It’s a chance in a million. We know that. But we won’t give up, Alec. I’ve got everything searching now. We might be lucky.’
Dimitri was tired. Dog tired in fact, but once he was sure that Straker was sleeping, he had raised his seat and stayed there, awake and watching over the hours. Now he could see the slow wakening, the closed eyes flickering under the lids, fingers twitching, all those small signs of life returning. He checked the time. Too soon really. He would have liked Ed to sleep longer; forever if necessary. It would have been better to die in one’s sleep than face the slow end when the power failed and the air became thick and stifling.
Dimitri had already decided how he would meet his end. A last look out at space. And he would drink a toast to Earth. And Straker.
But there was enough vodka for the two of them. He turned to the man next to him and reached out.
Straker grimaced. ‘I didn’t mean to sleep.’
‘Doesn’t matter. Not as if there is anything else to do right now.’ Dimitri tapped a dial with a gloved finger. ‘Power’s down to less than two hours now. Something must be draining it.’
‘What’s still on?’ Straker frowned. Two hours was not much time. Not if Moonbase was to pull a miracle out of a hat.
Leonov twisted around, flicking switches and taping at dials. ‘Air pumps, flight controls.’ He tapped another dial and grunted with annoyance. ‘At least those that still work. Lights, artificial gravity and water purification.’ He leaned forward. ‘No need for that. Not much of a saving, but every little helps.’
‘You might as well turn off flight controls as well. We won’t need those anymore.’ Straker pushed his seat to upright. ‘Gravity. What is it currently? About four fifths?’ An idea was forming in his mind. It might work. Might.
Dimitri tilted his head in amusement. ‘Exactly.’
‘Look in Grant’s case for the cargo manifest. It should be there.’
It took a few moments for Dimitri to find the small computer pad and scroll through data. ‘Three cylinders super-compressed hydrogen. Three of helium. Five containers spare parts for maintenance. Eight cartons Freeze Dried Meals American. Three French. One Russian.’ Dimitri raised an eyebrow. ‘Only one? You didn’t tell me the food was that bad, Commander.’ He sighed and carried on reading. ‘Ten cartons food supplies, mostly apples, fresh vegetables, that sort of thing. Six – .’
‘Apples.’ Straker sighed. ‘That should make things easier.’
‘I had a thought. We know the sensors can’t pick up our signature, we’re just too small. So we need to make ourselves larger.’ He gave a wry grin and nodded at the manifest that Dimitri had brought through. ‘Fresh fruit. The hold would have been pressurised. With any luck it might still be. I need to take a look.’
‘Are you up to that?’
Straker did not answer. It took a few moments before he was upright and balanced, his free hand gripping the back of the seat. ‘Bring the helmets.’ He waited until Leonov slid the door open.
The aft cabin, its power now diverted to life control, was in darkness and the panel that opened the hatch to the cargo bay was offline. Straker pulled a torch down and nodded at Leonov. ‘If the hold’s damaged it might be vacuum on the other side. If so, we’ll lose all our free air. But it’s risk we have to take.’
It took several minutes to connect air supplies, to fit helmets and lock them into place. They tested the radios, gave each other a quick inspection to ensure that all was right. Dimitri pushed both their visors into place. He could no longer see Straker’s face watching him.
‘Open it, Colonel. But slowly. Just in case,’ Straker’s voice sounded thin over the radio.
There was no escape of air from their small space into the hold as the hatch opened. Dimitri had been ready to slam the airlock shut but the atmosphere was still intact. He opened their visors to save the air supply and then helped Straker step through.
The cargo bay was breathtakingly cold. The icy temperature bit into Dimitri’s exposed face but Straker was oblivious to the discomfort as he walked down the narrow corridor between the stacked boxes, his eyes looking everywhere, the light from his torch illuminating the space and casting shadows on the arched roof. He retreated at last and punched a code into the small control unit at the side of the hatch, before stepping back into the cabin. Ice rimmed his eyelashes and made them even paler. ‘Okay.’
‘What now?’ Dimitri followed Straker back to the flight deck.
‘The outer cargo bay doors still work and I can open them from this side. Now we strip the module. Everything.’ He waved his free hand. ‘If we don’t need it and it can be moved I want it put in the cargo bay.’ His voice was grim as he continued. ‘It will be up to you. I won’t be able to help much. If at all.’
Dimitri piled Straker’s netbook and briefcase in the small aft cabin ready to be tossed into the cargo hold He slashed the seat covers and harnesses free and then started on the flight deck. The pilot’s manuals, console covers and loose panels. He emptied his holdall and glanced over at Straker. ‘What about this?’ He held up the bottle of vodka with obvious reluctance.
Straker leaned against the console and frowned. His grimace of pain was only half-concealed by the helmet, and he knew that Dimitri was well aware of his struggle to keep himself balanced in the small spaceship as it rolled like driftwood at the very edge of the sea.
‘It’s against all regulations.’ His arm throbbed in its strapping.
‘I was going to drink a toast…..’
There was a pause. ‘Keep it.’ Straker said. ‘We’ll have one later. When they rescue us.’ But it was a false hope. It was more than likely that they were far out in the darker regions. They were travelling well below normal speed, that much was clear from the movement of the stars in the windows, but despite all his attempts Straker had not been able to catch a single glimpse of a familiar star. That didn’t mean much though.. The frustrating thing was that the Moon could be there……. could be so close. And yet they could not see it.
Dimitri stashed the bottle away and then went into the cabin. He hoped Grant would understand. Straker switched off the gravity controls. The sensation of weightlessness startled Dimitri, even though he was prepared for the change.
‘Take your time.’ Straker’s voice reassured him.
It was harder than Dimitri had thought to lift the frozen body, even without gravity holding it down. The limbs were crabbed and twisted and Dimitri kept floating away and had to drag himself back using whatever handholds he could grasp. But he persevered. He manhandled the body through to the cargo hold and stuffed it with gross discourtesy through the hatch. Then the rest of the items.
Straker joined him in the hold and they began work. Dimitri opened cartons and left Straker to tip the contents out with one hand. Tedious slow work. In the end Straker hung onto one of the hand loops and left Dimitri to get on with the task. It was simply too difficult.
Dimitri tore open packaging until the entire space was filled with floating items. He watched them bounce off each other like snooker balls in slow motion. Cylinders, fruit, individual freeze-dried meals. One of the Russian meals floated past his visor and he shuddered. Electronics and components. A body. He pushed himself over to Straker and led the way back to the aft cabin. They sealed the hatch.
Straker held onto a loop. ‘It’s going to take a while. I don’t want it all to fly off into space when the doors open.’ He punched in a code. There was an ear-piercing shriek in their radios as an alarm sounded, but he switched it off. He could not hear the hiss of air escaping as the cargo door opened enough to let the air out, but the gauge was changing colour. The temperature was dropping further. There was no sunlight on the ship. No hope of natural warmth. Thank god for the suits.
He trembled with the effort needed to keep himself in place. He wanted to let himself drift weightless and free but he had to remain there and be patient. The gauge turned to red. Now he could open the door and release everything. The momentum transferred to the cargo by the gentle roll of the module would ensure that it moved out of the bay inch by inch. It would take a long time. And if he had done this right then all the jettisoned debris would travel alongside the module. It would ‘blur’ their reflection in sensors, would make them appear much larger and if they were lucky they would be noticed. If any satellite was looking in their direction.
So many ‘ifs’.
He punched the last code and sensed the vibrations of the door sliding back. The pressure in the small cabin remained intact and Straker opened his visor to lean his head against the icy metal of the bulkhead. There was nothing more he could do now, but he found himself unable to move from the spot.
Dimitri put his hand on Straker’s shoulder. ‘Hold on.’
Heedless of the low ceiling and the close confines of his surroundings, Straker grabbed Dimitri’s belt and let himself be towed through the narrow passageway back to the flight deck.
There was no need for helmets or the bulky life support units. They sat in companionable silence waiting for lights in the distance. Time passed. The odd word spoken. Bland enquiries about oxygen levels or air pumps. Leonov tapped dials but more from the need to be doing something than in any hope of changing the unspoken and unalterable fact.
‘Power levels?’ Straker broke the stillness after yet another interminable silence.
‘Two hours. At most.’
There was nothing he could say. He shifted in his seat, and hissed as his arm complained. It had begun to throb again but in a couple of hours it wouldn’t matter.
He was aware of Dimitri unstrapping and pushing out of his seat to float across the cabin. Soft muttered curses filled the silence as the Russian struggled to orientate himself, then he was pulling himself back in to his seat and fastening the harness. Straker looked across at him. Leonov had retrieved the bottle of vodka and was holding it up.
‘A toast Colonel? It’s a little presumptive for that.’
‘As I said before; medicinal use, Commander.
Straker gave a rueful smile. ‘Russian vodka. Only the best.’
‘Of course.’ Dimitri gazed at the label with an approving look. ‘Locally distilled. You can’t get vodka like this outside Russia. Here.’ He passed the bottle over.
Straker held it gingerly and read the label. ‘Fifty per cent?’
Dimitri nodded. ‘Can you manage?’
‘I think so.’ Straker put the bottle between his knees and unscrewed the top. He lifted the bottle with care. ‘Can I……?
The mouth of the bottle was cold against his lips. He sipped. Let the taste settle on his lips and tongue instead of spitting it out. And another sip. He let the liquid stay in his mouth for longer this time, before he swallowed. Warmth in his throat. There was little obvious taste, certainly no smell of pungent flavourings. But he had to admit, it slid down easily, leaving a different aftertaste to that of brandy. A different taste from that other vodka, so many years ago.
He screwed the lid back on, one-handed and clumsy, then passed it back. ‘Thanks.’
There was the sound of a cap being unscrewed and a glug. An loud exhalation of pleasure. A soft smack of lips. ‘How long?’
‘Before they find us? Maybe an hour. Might take longer.’
Dimitri screwed the cap back on. ‘There’s no rush now, is there? I mean…’
Straker put his hand out, palm up, waiting. ‘No. Power should last long enough. As long as we’re careful. Switching off the gravity gave us a bit longer. And we have plenty of air.’ He closed his fingers around the bottle. Easier to undo the cap this time. And not a careful sip. He took a decent mouthful before passing it back with a touch of regret.
‘How does it compare?’
Straker swallowed slowly. ‘With?’
‘The one in your cellaret.’
‘Ah. That one.’ Straker twisted his head to look at the man next to him for a moment then stared straight ahead. ‘No comparison. Much smoother.’ The difference between a drink forced into your mouth and one shared with a friend. Between poison and pleasure.
‘Excellent. I will make a connoisseur of you yet Commander.’
Straker’s laugh was cut short with a sharp explosive. ‘Fuck.’
‘Yes. Just a twinge.’ Straker took a deep breath. He was dizzy. He could not focus his thoughts. Another slow breath. He let it out. ‘You did a good job.’
‘On your arm?’
‘That as well.’
‘I have learned a great deal these last weeks.’ Dimitri leaned forward to peer out of the canopy. ‘Still nothing.’
‘Give it time.’ Straker’s hand reached across. He undid the cap and let it go free to float in front of him before he caught it again in his fist and grinned. The vodka warmed his mouth and throat. He took another mouthful. ‘I haven’t drunk vodka in …..’ he paused, ‘over ten years. Haven’t drunk much alcohol in fact.’
‘Then I apologise for corrupting you Commander.’ Dimitri sounded serious.
Straker laughed. ‘Alec Freeman would be highly amused. He said he was going to buy me some Stolichnaya.’
‘When we visit Moscow I will buy you a bottle of real vodka.’ There was a note of hesitation in the soft voice now.
Straker let his head rest. The dim lights of the flight deck made it hard to focus and his mind was unable to concentrate. The Moscow. Midnight in Moscow. He hummed the first bars of the tune under his breath. ‘Moscow?’
‘Yes.’ Again the hesitation.
‘Why not.’ The bottle slipped from Straker’s fingers as he passed it over and he grabbed at it instinctively. There was a stifled cry.
‘Ed?’ Dimitri sat up. ‘You okay?’ He caught the bottle as it floated past him.
Straker’s hoarse breaths faded. ‘Yep. Moved.’ He lay still as the pain lessened. ‘My own fault. It’s easing.’
‘Lie still. They should find us soon.’