‘What’s this one?’ Alec Freeman said. He pressed his finger against the monitor.
‘Observation Platform 23, Colonel.’ Nina said. She pointed to the screen. ‘We’ve been trying to move it into a better position, but it takes time. They don’t have the power to do much more than change angles. But we’re getting there ’
Freeman was silent. ‘Anything else we can try?’ He slammed his fist on the console. ‘Dammit. We can spot a bloody UFO even before it enters the Solar System. Yet we can’t find one small spaceship. Can somebody tell me why?’ But he knew the answer. He straightened his shoulders. ‘I’m sorry. I know you’re doing everything possible. I just feel….’
‘Yes.’ Alec shrugged.
‘Then you can sit here and help me Colonel. If you don’t mind.’ She gestured to a keyboard and handed him a printout. ‘Type these while I calculate the next part.’ Anyone could have done it but it would keep him occupied. He smiled, grateful for the distraction and settled to the task.
Condensation worked itself loose from the from the ceiling and drifted down to hit Straker on his cheek. He wiped the moisture away and stared at his hand. He clenched it into a fist and then straightened the fingers. ‘Dimitri.’ There was a long pause. He turned his head to look at the other man. Leonov was watching him. ‘We both know.’
‘Commander. What would you have me say?’ Dimitri lifted the bottle and regarded it. ‘Still plenty left. It would be a shame to let it go to waste.’ He took a gulp. ‘Should we have that toast?’
Dimitri tipped the bottle up to let a small amoeba-like bubble of liquid escape. ‘A toast then. To…’ He considered for a moment as it wobbled in front of his face. ‘Walking in space.’ He caught the bubble in his lips and sucked it into his mouth. ‘What about you?’ He passed the bottle across.
Straker lay there, watching beads of water accumulating on the cold metal inside the cabin. The power would run down soon and they would be left in darkness apart from those tiny pinpoints of light outside. The air pumps would fail and they would suffocate, even though there was oxygen to spare. ‘Life.’ He swallowed a mouthful of vodka. Thought of Alec and Paul. ‘And friends.’
‘Friends.’ A smack of lips. ‘I approve.’
The condensation trembled in the zero gravity. Friends. Family. Two drops moved across the surface and combined. ‘Your friends?’
‘What about my friends?’ The voice was curt now, almost cutting off the words, as if Dimitri Leonov did not like the topic.
Straker sighed. It was a sound filled with sorrow and regret. Perhaps he should never have had that first drink. Perhaps it would have been easier in some ways to simply ignore things. To let it lie. To go into the darkness without saying anything. The single drop of water wobbled for a moment before it detached itself from the panel and floated away. He put out a hand to catch it on the tip of a finger. ‘It can’t have been easy for you.’ He flicked the drop away and let it spin towards Dimitri. ‘Not in Russia.’
A gloved hand reached out and trapped the sparkling mote in a fist. If it had been steel it would have been crushed. ‘What would you know about it Commander?’ The bitterness in the voice was like acid. ‘You were married. How would you have felt if it was your child?’ The fist tightened even more if possible, then the fingers opened to wrench the screw cap off the bottle. Not an appreciative swallow this time. Dimitri took a mouthful, heedless of vodka spewing out of the bottle to spiral in ribbons of silver globules in the air. He struggled to get the cap back on, his exertions slopping more liquid into the cabin.
‘Give it here.’ Straker reached out again, his fingers making contact with Dimitri’s wrist. He could feel the other man shaking. Not from cold or fear. Dimitri Leonov was no coward. The bottle slapped into his palm, the cap skewed on at an angle.
Straker let the liquid form a single mass in the bottle and then unscrewed the cap. He lifted the bottle to his lips for a careful sip this time. He savoured it. Rolling it round his mouth to let the taste develop, feeling the tingle on the edge of his tongue his lips, becoming aware of the complexity of the taste. No sharp sting or bitterness or burn. He sipped again and allowed it to warm his mouth and throat. Soothing him. Easing the pain.
When enough time had passed he spoke into the tight silence. ‘I would have been proud of him, whatever. I… I was very proud of him.’ He passed the bottle back without looking at Leonov.
‘You had a son?’ Dimitri did not unscrew the lid. He stared at Straker. ‘What happened?’
‘It doesn’t matter. Not now. Nothing really matters when you get down to it.’ Straker gave a bitter laugh. ‘It happens to us all in the end.’
‘Not your fault. He died, not long ago. He was seven.’ Straker wiped more water droplets from his face. ‘What I meant to say was that it wouldn’t have bothered me. His sexual orientation, I mean. As long as he was happy.’ Straker rolled his neck to ease the stiffness. ‘That’s what really counts. Being happy and being loved. And don’t hang onto the bottle Dimitri. I haven’t finished with it yet.’
‘Changing the subject, Commander? Your son was lucky to have such a father though.’
Straker fumbled the bottle and sighed as it floated out of his reach. ‘He was my son. If he’d lived who knows what might have happened. But I think I would have welcomed anyone he loved, man or woman.’ He strained to catch the bottle with his fingers, but only succeeded in spinning it further away. ‘Damn.’
‘Even someone like ………’ Dimitri was unfastening his harness.
‘You? That doesn’t matter in the slightest. Not to me.’ Straker grinned with amused interest as Dimitri launched himself at the bottle only to bounce off the canopy. ‘Catch it Dimitri. I have another toast to make.’
Straker’s gentle laughter followed the Russian’s clumsy attempts, until Dimitri trapped the half-empty bottle only to flail helpless in mid-air. A hand grabbed his belt and he found himself pulled down until he was close to Straker. Too close. Dimitri stared into those eyes.
‘I thought you’d done basic suit training Colonel?’ the dry voice asked although the accent was slurred by more than alcohol. Straker’s expression changed and the smile faded, leaving sadness in its wake. The blue eyes narrowed even further. No longer a look of amusement, or even pain. A look of compassion. He lowered his gaze. ‘I’m sorry……..’ His voice was softer than Dimitri had ever known it.
Dimitri turned away, silent. He had hidden it for years. Kept it to himself. And after all who could he have told? But Straker knew. He should have guessed as much. He lowered his head, embarrassed. ‘How long have you known? That I felt like this? That I wanted…..’ he muttered and twisted himself away from the hand that held him safe. He caught hold of his seat.
‘SHADO does its research thoroughly. I’ve know for a while. I just didn’t know who, until recently. I only realised when you came to my house.’ Straker took the bottle from Leonov’s hand. ‘Would you have ever told me? Time for the truth. We are going to die. Together. Let’s do it without secrets or pretences.’ He unscrewed the cap one last time and flicked it away. ‘A toast. To those who we love and those who love us.’ He nodded at Dimitri Leonov. ‘And to friends. Good friends.’ He smiled and drank, then handed the bottle back over the gap.
Dimitri pushed himself down. ‘Ten years, Colonel Edward Straker. Ten long years since I first met you.’ He drank. ‘To those we love. And,’ he shrugged his shoulders with regret and understanding, ‘To those who can only be our friends. Enough.’ He let the bottle slide from his fingers. ‘It’s been a privilege.’
Straker let his gloved fingertips connect for a moment with the hand that reached out to him. ‘You didn’t get to walk in space. Or on the Moon.’
‘I got this far. That will have to do.’ Dimitri peered forward, straining to see past
the edges of the canopy.
‘What are you doing?’
‘Just looking. I used to stare at the night sky when I was a child. My father taught me the constellations.’
‘Favourite?’ There was a slur in Straker’s voice that had not been there before.
‘Orion. Are you drunk Commander?’
‘Orion. Yes. I remember. The hunter.’ He made an attempt to grab the bottle that was slowly somersaulting in front of him and inexplicably mistimed the action. ‘Shit. They’ll still be hunting, you know.’
‘Who?’ Dimitri missed the neck of the bottle by a hair’s breadth as it sailed past. ‘Fuck.’
‘Moonbase. Alec. Nina.’ The thought hurt him nearly as much as his arm. The bottle was well out of reach. He lay back, gasping, wanting to grip the swollen limb, to crush the sensations from it. Even the alcohol hadn’t helped deaden the pain. It was hard to keep his voice steady. ‘They won’t give up. Not yet. But…’ He closed his eyes. It hurt. More than he thought was possible.
‘What.’ He wondered why Dimitri was whispering.
‘I think life support….’ The voice trailed away. Straker opened his eyes and tried to focus. The lights were dimming and he could hear the pumps begin to slow. The gauges were turning red.
‘Get the support units.’ It was an effort to speak, to force the words out past lips that were thick and numb from the effects of carbon dioxide. Not drunkenness. He was somehow glad of that. ‘Gives us another thirty minutes.’
‘No. I won’t.’
Straker twisted to stare at the other man. ‘You will. That’s an order.’ He struggled to unfasten his harness.
‘Sorry Commander, but I am going to disobey you.’ Dimitri took one of his gloves. ‘If we must die here then at least let it be together. Not alone. You know what I mean. Please.’
Commander Ed Straker thought back over the years of service and duty. That first year. Moscow and Dimitri Leonov. Dimitri, who had loved him from afar. An unknown and unreturned love.
What would it cost him? Nothing in the great scheme of things. Some comfort for his friend though. And, who could say.. maybe some comfort for himself. At the end.
‘I want to look out. Would you help me Colonel?’ There. The request made. He waited as Leonov unstrapped him and helped him to drift up to the canopy.
Space. Leonov close to him, one arm around Straker’s shoulder, keeping him grounded. Keeping him close.
‘Beautiful isn’t it.’ Straker let himself sag. He twisted his head to peer upwards. ‘And look.’
Dimitri followed Straker’s gaze and laughed. ‘Packets of food. And ….. are those apples? I can see the cylinders as well. Everything from the cargo bay.’ He twisted Straker away from the window before the other man could catch sight of the distorted corpse that was also shadowing them. ‘It worked Ed. It worked.’
‘Did you doubt me Colonel?’ Straker’s voice was dry with gentle sarcasm. ‘Pity it’s too late.’ He held out his hand. ‘Take my glove off will you?’ He waited in silence as the other man twisted the wrist seal and then tugged the thick glove off. ‘Damn. That feels better. These always make my fingers hurt. Now. Grab that bottle. Is there enough for one last drink?’
‘Got it. Yes. Here.’
Straker held it up. ‘A toast. To …. ‘ His smile was unseen in the dim light. ‘Confusion to our enemies?’
‘I like that. Yes. Confusion.’ The bottle was upended, the last drops shaken out. ‘Regrets Commander?’
Straker’s eyes were blurring as carbon dioxide filled the cabin. It was getting hard to speak. His helmet was within reach and he could have put it on, but he didn’t have the energy. It was easier to stay here, next to Dimitri. There was something he had to do. Something important. He racked his brain. Yes. That was it.
He put his hand out. ‘None.’ A firm handshake and then he held on. He would not let Dimitri Leonov die alone. He would not die unloved. He did not need to look at Dimitri. It was enough that they were friends, and with each other.
He stared out of the canopy for a last look at the universe as fingers tightened on his. He knew they would not let go. Ever. He smiled into the darkness.
The light almost blinded him.
‘Moonbase. This is Freeman. It’s here.’
‘What’s the situation Colonel?’
‘Power must have failed. No lights. Flight deck is dark.’
‘I’m going across.’
‘I will…………………. Shit. There’s stuff all around it.’
‘Repeat Colonel. I didn’t catch your last.’
‘Cargo from the looks of it. Compressed gas cylinders, packets. Oh god Nina.’
‘There’s a body. Not in a suit. It’s…………. Grant. Owen Grant. What the fuck’s happened?’
‘Alec. Come back. Please.’
‘No. There might be a chance.’
His breath sounded harsh in his ears as he jetted over the endless distance. He ignored the open cargo door. If Ed was alive then he would surely have made his way there, to be rescued. But they had known each other for a long time. Alec could spare a few more minutes. Just to be sure.
There was a frantic second of scrabbling while he tethered his lifeline and orientated himself. He swung himself across to the canopy to press his visor against the tinted plexiglass. Nothing.
He pulled out his flashlight and shone it into the darkness.
The light almost blinded Straker and it was an instinctive reaction to twist away. His hand slipped from Dimitri’s and he floundered, confused and bewildered. He could not breathe. Not a cloth over his face this time, not the sensation of water. But he was drowning just the same. The alcohol had befuddled his senses and he swung against the console with an agonising thump that crushed the last breath from him. He was barely aware of a hand pulling him and holding him safe. He had chance for one gasp. ‘Helmets,’ before he closed his eyes in a dead faint.
The light flashed across the interior, bright even through the dark tint. Rescue. In the depths of his mind Dimitri knew what he should do, but it was hard to make his body react, to get his muscles to respond, to get his mind clear. It was hard to breathe. He tried to hold on but Straker drifted out of his grasp and tumbled, half-curled as if in sleep, across the cabin.
The light from outside glinted on tow-coloured hair as it followed the slowly rotating body. Dimitri made a futile attempt to follow. He looked down. One of the discarded life support units had ensnared his foot. Angered beyond reason he tugged himself free and the hose tore loose. Fresh air flooded into the small cabin. Cool air, breathable air. He filled his lungs with great gasps, puffing out the stale air in huge exhalations. His head cleared and he knew what he had to do.
The light followed him as he worked. It took longer than he had imagined to find their gloves, and to fit Straker’s. He tucked his own into his belt. Straker was still unconscious, his breathing ragged and shallow. Helmets next and he left the visors open. The light disappeared for a moment and he panicked, then it flared into the cabin again, but from the side window this time, near the starboard airlock.
Whoever it was out there would be watching. Would know what Dimitri was planning do. Would wait and help. He calmed. Gloved himself. Made one last check to make sure that Straker was alright, then he closed their visors. The air trapped in their suits should suffice.
He wrapped an arm around Straker’s chest and hauled him out of the cabin. The airlock was stiff and resisted his initial attempts to open it and his muscles burned as he fought the unwilling wheel. It gave way in a series of short judders and he prepared himself.
It was terrifying, and yet at the same time thrilling, as the air was dragged into space. Dimitri had thought that there was nothing else loose in the small module, but the air was filled with debris that dashed past him in a maelstrom of fragments. He kept a tight hold of Straker until the storm died and then he stepped out into the darkness, pulling the other man behind him.
The light was waiting for them and Dimitri kept himself motionless as the spaceman jetted closer to loop a line first around Straker’s wrist and then Dimitri’s. He could see a module in the distance, and as he was towed through the mass of jetsam that surrounded the hulk, he reached out to grasp Straker’s hand once more and pull him close.
It was hard to breathe as he squeezed into the airlock and his arms ached with the weight of his commander. But he held him secure, held him safe. He could no longer see Straker’s face behind the misted surface of the visor, but he refused to let go. There was a hiss of air as the inner door opened and gravity slammed into him, driving him to his knees just as hands reached out to take his burden. He struggled for the last dregs of oxygen in his suit as he saw Straker lowered to the floor.
There was a twist and painful tug on his own helmet and it was pulled off with no thought of his comfort, catching his ears and stretching his skin. His lungs filled with fresh air.
‘Take your time Colonel.’
The voice was unknown and he had a moment of panic as a hand clasped his shoulder.
He heard another voice. A pleading tone this time, not comforting, or calming. ‘Ed. Come on. Please.’
Leonov twisted round. ‘Alec?’ he croaked.
Freeman was also on his knees and reaching out to stroke blond hair that glinted in the bright light of the cabin. Straker’s eyes were closed.
‘…. ruling that with immediate effect all passengers and crew will be required to wear pressure suits, although helmets may be removed during trans-lunar flight.’ The speaker paused the recorder. He looked down at the lightweight cast that protected his arm and frowned, organising his thoughts. He released the switch and continued. ‘Official commendation. Colonel Dimitri Leonov. SHADO number 2925. The formal record of his actions to be added to his personnel file. End. Straker.’
There was nothing else he needed to add. And, besides, what was there to say?
It was time to go. Alec had ordered the module to delay its earlier scheduled departure until Straker was rested. The postponement troubled him. It was unnecessary, and he disapproved of anything that altered the strict rotas. By the time he was awake it was too late to countermand the order. He switched off the recorder and left his room. Fifteen minutes to departure. Alec would be waiting to help him suit up. There was time.
He tapped on the door. A gentle tap, not loud enough to disturb any sleeping occupant. There was no reply and he stood there for a moment.
The door slid open and he hunched over to step through the airlock. He waited, motionless, letting his eyes adapt to the dim light.
Leonov was sprawled as if he had fallen asleep while sitting on the bed. Arms flung outwards, hands relaxed, eyes rimmed with exhaustion. It had been hard on him. On both of them. Straker bent his head in understanding before he reached down with his free hand to ease Dimitri’s legs up onto the bed and then pull the cover over. At least his friend would be more comfortable. Might sleep better.
He stared at the face in the dim glow of the night light. Dark brown eyes hidden behind closed eyelids. Short eyelashes, neat eyebrows, straight nose. A short beard and moustache framing the handsome face full of strength and intelligence, full lips parted in sleep, the expression tranquil. Resting.
Straker stepped back into the shadows at the edge of the room. He had not much time and in a way, he was glad Dimitri was asleep. There would be no difficult silence, no unspoken words. He moved forward into the muted light and bent down to let his lips touch the face of the sleeping man.
The door hissed shut behind him. He did not intend to delay the module any further.
It took time to suit up, even with the ultra-thin cast on his arm, but Alec was patient and it didn’t hurt so much, this time. Everything ready at last and he walked through to the boarding area wondering when he would be able to get back here for a proper visit. By the time his arm had healed, Dimitri Leonov would have moved on, moved to take over his new command. But someone would need to go out there to see how he was settling in. And maybe he could fit in a proper visit to Moscow at the same time. The airlock opened. Alec went through and Straker turned to give one last look around.
He did not see the man watching him from the other side of the partition, hidden in the shadows, his hair tousled and eyes still half-asleep. Dimitri nodded an unseen farewell.
Straker climbed into the module. It was time to go home.
This was started a long time ago. (November 2010) It originally was going to be called Artemis, but I really wanted to give it the title ‘Vodka’. (Yes, I am anal about titles as well as about numbers.) It sat on unloved and ignored on several of my flash drives until January this year when I resurrected it and rethought the outline. I still intended Straker and Dimitri to get trapped in a damaged Module, and to explore their past and what was going to happen to them, but the ending, (which originally involved the ARTEMIS mission) will change to be more prosaic.
I worried for a long time about whether a module could get lost in space, but then of course Foster’s craft in Kill Straker and Collin’s module in The Man Who Came Back both went missing for hours and Moonbase couldn’t find either. Having remembered that fact I wasn’t quite as worried about the practicalities of searching for a lost space craft. What I really wanted to explore was the relationship between Straker and Dimitri, and it was suggested to me that Dimitri might actually have some feelings towards Straker. More than would be considered ‘proper’. Especially as Dimitri is a Russian.
The real problem that I encountered was the practical aspect of exactly where the passenger sits in the module. Not on the Flight deck, but not in that ‘ribbed grey tube’ that must surely be where the cargo is stored. And .. just look at the design of the Module. Reminiscent of a Space Shuttle. So very different from the space exploration vehicles of the time (Apollo etc) What a brilliant imagination the original designer must have had.
I decided that MY module would have a small passenger compartment just behind the bulkhead at the back of the Flight Deck. You don’t ever see the door into the compartment, and the compartment would be very small indeed, much smaller than the flight deck. Why waste space for passengers, when you need it for important things such as cargo. Even a small space could feasibly fit four passengers in, which gives a module only one less person than a shuttle. With the number of flights to and from Moonbase, they would not need a ‘people-carrier’ module (Although who is to say that they didn’t actually have one of those.)
And.. how sad is this. I have just rearranged the furniture in my classroom to experiment with the minimum size required for seating for four passengers. (I worked it out at roughly 5 foot by 8 foot, but I am going to do more research on that.) I have looked closely at the ‘shell’ of the Module and I am pretty sure that there is room for a Passenger cabin AND an ‘aft cabin’ with a ‘head’ and emergency equipment.
Anyway, I restarted writing this story in January 2012, a good 15 months after I originally put pen to paper. In that time my writing has changed dramatically I think, and I found it hard to get into the flow of this story again. Then one day, on the way to work I had a passenger in the car with me. Straker. He turns up at times, to chivvy me to get on with things. And so we talked and he helped me sort out the problems with the way I was writing Vodka. He has a habit of doing that, of appearing when you need him most. Not when I plan it, no way.
The ‘Conversations’ are spontaneous and unplanned and to some extent are the outpourings of a rather confused , though some people would say ‘deranged’ mind! They are NOT a planned story or an excuse to write him in a personal situation. They are Ed Straker, the man that I write about, giving me guidance and showing me the way forward. He appears. Sorts me out and then… goes.
So I carried on with the story, now knowing where I was going to go with it. The whole thing was really an excuse to experiment with writing a scene with two men who are quietly drunk. I don’t really like dialogue and I struggled with a lot of that part. But I thought it was a rather nice visual scene as well.
Other problems? Well. Initially I couldn’t make up my mind what the two of them were wearing at first. Flightsuits? Spacesuits? Street clothes? There are conflicting scenes in UFO where pilots wear different outfits, so I made my own decision. I also kept forgetting when they were wearing helmets! I had to read through and make mental notes to myself. Helmets on…. Helmets off! The loss of gravity was another confusing factor. I did have an ending where the lower half of the cabin was filled with CO2, but of course that wouldn’t happen in weightlessness. The air would simply not circulate though, and they would be surrounded by a ‘bubble’ of stale exhaled air. I didn’t want to get too technical though so I left that out. It’s enough that they are going to suffocate.
The other real problem I have with this story is that technically it isn’t canon. Straker marries and ten year later John has died. That doesn’t fit in with the series really. But, it fits in with Breathless and Moonlight which were written in 2010 before the realistic canon-based bio of Straker was produced by the Herald. One day I might rewrite the trilogy to ‘smooth things out’. Maybe.
So. There you are. Vodka. The third part of the Moonlight and Vodka Trilogy, which can be found on my website, Lightcudder’s World, under UFO Stories. And Colonel Dimitri Leonov will reappear in a further story. Which I am starting to write today: 16.02.2012. I just hope it doesn’t take as long to write as The Shepherd, or Vodka!