The Hot Seat
By Kevin Goodman
He ran his hands over the emerging stubble on his face. He’d been sitting at this damn desk, for how long now? Ed made it seem so easy, so natural. Alec Freeman glanced down at the ever-expanding pile of reports, requests and other minute details that the running of SHADO required.
He looked over at the drinks dispenser, wondering if it was time, as they said in the Royal Navy “To splice the main brace”. As an after thought, he looked at his watch: the watch Ed and Mary had given him when they married.
The memories came flooding back: Laughter and, possibly more importantly, love. Ed and Mary, two people so well matched.
Then it all went wrong. So badly wrong.
“Dedication is a harsh mistress Alec,” Ed once muttered to him, on the very rare occasions that duty allowed him and Straker to socialise. He remembered it well, the memories all too clear. A busy Indian restaurant, the couple on the next table, so in love- so unaware of those around them. And when the man took out the small box, and opened it to reveal the engagement ring? With an alarming speed, the shutters came down: Ed became the cold unfeeling man that life had decreed he must be. He’d called the waiter over, asked for the bill, and requested a taxi. So much for trying to bond with the man Alec once knew…Ed still hurt, the scars on the surface had healed, but there was still an underlying itch- one Ed was always aware of. Mary, Alec knew, would never leave Ed’s life… and as for young John?
Freeman sighed, and walked to the drinks machine, mulling which concoction would dull HIS pain. Scotch? Southern Comfort? He smiled. The word “comfort” seemed so apt. He placed a tumbler under the nozzle, his finger poised over the button. Then, Striker’s voice was in his mind: “You know me Alec, I never touch the stuff”.
Iron will. Iron mind. One over reaching purpose: to defend the Earth: no matter the cost.
His thoughts were interrupted by the intercom. Feeling almost cheated, he sighed, and sat behind the desk, thumbing the switch. “Yes”?
Ford’s voice filled the office. “I have General Henderson on the line Colonel.” Alec’s heart sank. Why now?
As if Ford was reading his mind the Communications Officer continued. “He’s wanting to know why Sky 1 was launched…’
Alec groaned. Whatever scant information SHADO had managed to glean from the aliens was already in use now. Retro engineered fibre optics, and what the technical team were now referring to as “advanced micro chips” allowing almost instant exchange of information. Some joker in the technical department had referred to this new breakthrough as “The information highway”. Because of this new technology Henderson and his cronies at the IAC knew almost at once any operation SHADO was undertaking. Henderson had, in Alec’s mind, a pathological hatred of Straker’s almost single-minded obsession with the defence of Earth. With a heavy heart, Alec knew he had to take the call. Henderson would be keen to use any ammunition against Straker he could gain from any source to further arm him in his quest to remove Ed from command of SHADO.
“Freeman?” Henderson’s gruff voice came over the speaker. “Where’s Straker?”
Alec was torn, between his duty with SHADO and his loyalty to Ed. “He’s chasing up a possible security breach General.”
For a few moments, the line was silent.
“So you authorized the launch of one of the Skydiver fleet?”
Freeman realised that he had Henderson on the defensive, and with that thought in his mind: he then went on the attack, as Ed would have done. “Yes, we had a possible UFO incursion with the Earth’s atmosphere. With the amount of alien activity recently, it was the logical thing to authorize. We simply can’t take any chances.”
Again, there was silence. “Very well Freeman.” The line went dead.
“Jesus Ed… how do you deal with that overbearing pompous idiot on a daily basis?” he asked himself.
Looking at the auto bar, he sighed and said to himself: “Ed’s right, that’s not the answer. I need some fresh air.”
He pressed the switch that opened the door to what the control operatives slyly referred to as “The inner sanctum” or “Straker’s slaughterhouse.” Walking out into the main control area, he stopped at Ford’s station, placing a friendly hand on the underrated communications officer.
“When did you have a break Keith?”
Ford looked up. “Not since I started my duty shift sir.”
Freeman gave the friendly smile that all SHADO operatives knew well. “I need some fresh air. Care to join me?”
Ford looked around the control centre. “Seems quiet to me. I reckon unless anything major breaks, control can run itself for a few minutes.”
“Well, I suggest you grab your jacket, and we can take a stroll around the back-lot and get some well earned rest time?”
Ford grinned. The atmosphere was always a little more relaxed when Straker wasn’t around. “If you are sure sir?”
Freeman felt like his old self: more a man of the people according to what he’d heard through the grapevine. Alec never felt happy being Straker’s hatchet man, dealing with personnel matters. So much for being a hard man: being despised by those under him. He’d never wanted a command post and in the last few hours never so much had felt true. All in all, everything seemed good; he was coping in Ed’s absence.
“Come on man, before I change my mind…”
They’d taken a service lift up to the surface, which deposited them near the studio backlot. Stepping out, they looked around at the surreal vista. Sets from various productions loomed all around them: A Wild West street to their right: a London landmark, complete with dummy cars to the left. And the huge water-tank being used for a film about the “Titanic” ahead of them.
Freeman took his cigarette case out, removed one and lit it, taking in a deep lungful. Ford smiled. “It’s bad for your health Alec.”
Alec Freeman grinned. “So is working for SHADO Keith. I need some form of guilty pleasure in my life.”
They began to walk around the deserted backlot, but had only walked a few yards when there was a sudden, urgent bleep from inside Freeman’s jacket pocket. Both men stopped and looked at each other. Alec took out the small radio, and thumbed the transmit button. “Freeman…”
Lieutenant Anderson’s voice responded. “Sorry to bother you sir, but there’s been a incident involving Sky 1 docking with Diver 1…”
Freeman’s face fell. “ Any idea what’s happened?”
“Captain Waterman reports that the automatic docking system on Sky 1 went haywire while they were preparing to latch up. According to the onboard diagnostic system, it can’t be repaired at sea…”
“Oh great… Inform Skydiver control to get the replacement Sky 1 in the air and to Skydiver’s position immediately, and get the recovery vessel out there.” He closed the channel and with a look of disgust on his face, thrusting the offending radio into his pocket as if it was red hot. “ Right, let’s make our way in… never rains but pours, huh Keith?” He slapped the younger control officer on the shoulder.
Paperwork, that’s what Ed seems to spend his time doing. Never mind having a mind like a computer, he has the attributes of an accountant… Alec closed the file on Skydiver’s repair report, sighed and leant back in the chair. The internal phone buzzed. Picking it up, Ford reported that Paul Foster was on the video link from Moonbase. He opened the video channel, happy to see a friendly face on the other end of the link. “Hello Paul!” he greeted the younger man.
Foster seemed puzzled to see Freeman in the hot seat, not Straker. “Hello Alec, it’s a surprise to see your face. Where’s Straker?”
Freeman grinned. “I’ll explain later. What’s your problem?”
“Well, we’ve picked up radio signals about 50 miles east of the base… its some kind of vehicle moving on an erratic course but heading our way…”
Alec Freeman knew that his brief moment of respite was over.
Just another day defending Earth, Freeman thought, then he mentally corrected himself: Just another day in the life of Ed Straker…