The main control room, and yet it was not. So different, so very different. Oh it was SHADO, there was no questioning that, but these people were not his, this was not his Control room. His SHADO was not a jumble of burnt out and wrecked consoles, of exhausted and filthy staff clustered around the few remaining machines that still seemed to be active. Wires and cables looping from broken conduits and from spaces between blackened ceiling tiles. No one in uniform, only one or two faces that he recognised. The alarms were sounding and yet no one was reacting, as if they were past caring or were too numb to react.
Red Alert. The colour bathed the room in blood. They were all watching one sensor as if they had nothing better to do. He could see the screen, the incoming UFOs, more than he could count. And yet the men and women were silent, the dark-haired man in the centre of the room standing, arms folded, watching without any sign of reaction, head lowered.
Why weren’t they doing something?
‘Moonbase. For god’s sake, what’s happened to Moonbase?’ The words burst from him but no one turned round at the sound of his hoarse shout. He stepped through the arch, heedless now of all thoughts of security. The enemy were coming and his world was in danger. And they were doing nothing.
Where was Alec? And who was the man standing there in his place? His place; Straker’s place? A SHADO Commander would never submit, would never surrender. It was his duty to fight, to guard humanity, whatever the cost. Straker moved closer, reaching out to the man, but she was there again, taking his wrist in her cold fingers and pulling him away.
He tried to free himself, to speak, but he could not utter any words, could not extricate himself from her grasp, her hold on him. She was his commander now and he obeyed her without question, following her out into the corridor like a child.
‘Shh.’ She cupped his face between her hands. ‘Be strong Edward. Stay with me. You need to listen, and learn.’
He was about to speak but she pulled him closer, giving him a quick hug and then releasing him. Small comfort. His hand hurt where the concrete had skinned his knuckles, and he lifted it to his mouth, the taste of his blood salty, like tears. ‘Help me.’ It was an admission of his weakness, and he half-expected her to reject him, but she nodded and led him back to the archway, her hand holding his in a grip that was so tight he could not have pulled away, whatever happened.
‘I can’t help you. You have to do this yourself. It won’t be long now. I promise.’ He could hear the sadness in her voice, and he wondered at that for a moment, then he heard the man speak and if her fingers had not been so tight on his he would have deserted her, would have gone back into the control room.
His control room.
‘This is Thomson to all units. This will be the final message from Headquarters. All mobiles and defence units-.’ The man paused and took a deep breath. ‘As from this moment, you are on your own. Do whatever you can. This base will be under attack in the next few minutes. I commend your bravery and thank you all for your support through the last months. I will remain here until the end but those of you who wish to leave have my permission and my blessing. Thank you and may God go with you all.’ The man wiped his eyes, before continuing. ‘This is Commander Peter Thompson, SHADO Headquarters. Signing out.’ He gave a sharp slice of his hand and the link was cut. No one moved.
Straker could hear the crackles of failing communications systems, smell the pungent stench of burning electronics. SHADO, his life’s work dying. His world left unprotected.
And who was Peter Thompson? Frantic by now to learn more, to find out what had happened here Straker tried to free his hand from her grip only to find himself forced back towards the emergency stairs. He was unable to resist the girl pulling on his arm as if she was desperate to get away from the subterranean complex.
Her determination was too much to resist and as the basement door slammed shut behind them she hurried up the steps, dragging him up the first few until the shock had waned somewhat and he was able to make his own stumbling way out to the darkness towards the car. He was utterly bemused by now, unable to speak, his thoughts a jumble of words and visions and emotions. The events of the evening had confused him beyond the ability to rationalise the situation.
Or perhaps that was his mind shunning the reality, rejecting the words he had heard in that strange place, that alternate SHADO. Not his SHADO. He was sure of that.
He stumbled towards his car, the one consistent thing in this world, the one thing he trusted. It was just a car, nothing special but it was the same car that he had driven to work a few days ago. It was everything else that was different. This world and the people in it. He was the alien here, the intruder in a strange land, drawn here by the girl and imprisoned. Nothing in this world was real: his parents, Henderson, the perpetual darkness that overlay the land like a suffocating blanket. Even this SHADO was false. His SHADO would prevail against the enemy. Whatever they did, however many there were. The aliens would never win. He would not let them. Ever.
The cold night air, its touch like ice on his skin, was a shock after the staleness of the underground space, but it cleared his thoughts and filled him with purpose. He would get into the car and drive away, drive through the night until he left the thick and foul night far behind him and dawn broke the spell. He was close to the car now, her fingers still clamped on his arm like a vice.
Then he heard the sounds in the distance, saw lights brightening the darkness above him, and he knew what was about to happen. The enemy. And there were too many of them to count. He would never leave this place. There was but one thing he could do now, in a final act of duty and sacrifice.
He spun round, his momentum dragging her closer so that he was able to kick her feet from under her and fling her to the ground. She cried out in fear and pain, but he ignored her cries, dropping on top and covering her with his own body, her head beneath his chest and her arms trapped under his.
There was no time to do anything else before the first blasts from the UFOs could hit the studio complex, to drill through foundations and bedrock and reinforced steel. He put his free hand over his face, a futile gesture but it was instinctive. She might survive, but there was no way that, unprotected as he was, he would last more than a few seconds and his mind flashed back to those treacherous thoughts earlier in the evening before this nightmare began. I don’t care anymore. Just let it be quick. Let it be over soon.
It would be quick but, he suddenly realised with horror, he did care. That, despite everything that he had endured, he wanted to live. It was too late. He would never get to wrap those parcels, or deliver the cards. Or have a second chance.
His last thought, as he waited for the wave of super-heated air to sear the skin from his body, and the ensuing shrapnel to tear the flesh from his bones, was that Alec would never know what happened. And that was….
There was a flash of such coruscating brilliance that it was visible even through fingers pressed against his face and through eyes scrunched shut. He would have time for one last gasping breath before the burning air scorched his lungs. And he crushed the fragile body beneath him, feeling her desperate gasp for air, her quiet cry as rough ground scored her face, as he tried to protect her. Maybe his coat would be provide some extra cover. But that was a foolish thought. She would die as well, only hers would be a slower death. There was no way he could save her from this.
His fingers tightened on hers, a single gasp of fear, of sorrow and regret. No time left for anything else. He knew what was happening now, had seen those beams of light destroy buildings and ships. Strong enough to blast through earth and concrete and reinforced bunkers deep underground. There were enough of them in the sky to obliterate any trace of SHADO.
He waited for the sound of explosions ripping apart the air, tensed himself against the pain of metal slammed into him. Nothing. A waft of air brushed over him, ruffling his hair with a gentle warmth, nothing more than a late summer afternoon’s sunshine, then the darkness returned. He lay still for long moments, aware of her shaking beneath him, and then when all was still he pushed himself off, rolling away from her and then levering himself onto his knees, one hand splayed on the car. He was unable to stop the trembling.
He felt utterly stupid. Such a ridiculous reaction, thinking that there was going to be an explosion. He groaned and used the bulk of the car as a support in his efforts to stand and then he bent down, reaching out with one hand to help her to her feet. Bare feet. She had lost her thin gold pumps when he pushed her to the ground. He turned to look for them and halted.
Just a few yards away from the car the tarmac was bubbling and melting, thick rivulets of asphalt oozing like black lava across the rutted ground. Smoke – no, not smoke – dense clouds of roiling darkness blotted out whatever remained of the complex. And yet he had not heard or felt anything other than that gentle breath of warm air on his cheek. The devastation was total. He did not need to inspect the damage, to clamber down the emergency access route once more to check for survivors. The size of the crater in front of him was enough.
The beams from the UFOs had burrowed down to the heart of the underground complex, leaving a vast crater in their wake and in the flames that flickered from the ruins, he could see, open to the skies, the central control room, its floor buckled, its charred remains slowly turning from red to black as the incredible heat of the aliens weapons dissipated. The walls were starting to collapse in on themselves even as he watched. No one could have survived.
The girl’s shoes were beside the car. Numb with shock he picked them up and handed them over to her without a word. The air was fresh, no stench of death or smoke or burning, and yet the smoke was laden with filth.
‘What’s happened?’ His voice was dull now, all the fight gone, all the strength, as if someone else was speaking.
‘Get in the car. Please.’ She was busy slipping her feet into the shoes and did not look up at him.
In the car? Why? Did she think they could simply drive away from here, over the melted remains of the driveway, the road now buried beneath rubble? He could see the mangled remains of the studio sign, warped by heat and the blast of an explosion. The letters half-burned away. Harlington Studios. As if he had never existed here. He bent forward, resting his head on the edge of the car. More tricks, then her hand touched his shoulder and he spun around.
‘Or shall I drive?’ She was about to slip under his arm and get into the driver’s seat but he straightened up.
‘Drive? Drive where?’ He stared at her in disbelief, incredulity in his voice.
‘Home.’ She seemed unperturbed by her surroundings, as if this was an everyday occurrence. She put her hands in the pockets of his coat and shivered. ‘It’s getting late.’
He waved one hand at the barely discernible road. ‘Home? You think we can just drive away from here? We’ll be lucky to make it to the main road on foot and if the UFOs are still around we won’t get very far before they find us. We need to find somewhere safe. Hide out until help arrives.’
‘There is no help for us here. No one comes to save this world. The aliens have won. We need to leave now.’ She pushed him down into the car then slammed the door shut and ran to the passenger side. He hadn’t moved. ‘I told you. Drive,’ she said.
The car moved forward, inching towards the melted and twisted carnage and he flinched in anticipation of the inevitable collision but nothing stopped their progress. He could see the rubble, the holes in the road, the smashed bricks and slabs that barricaded the route but they seemed to fade as the car approached. He had no difficulty seeing the road, a ghost-like track shimmering in the dark. The buildings behind were still burning, the crater still there and yet it was as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred here.
They drove past the abandoned pub without stopping and he drove faster, a strong sense of urgency now. Not much time left, but for what, he had no idea.
He glanced at the dashboard, checking the time. 20:45. Impossible. He reached forward to tap the display just as it clicked over. 20:46. He took his eyes off the road for a moment to look at his passenger.
She was half-asleep, curled up in his coat, her feet tucked under the excess length and her arms wrapped around herself. She looked ashen even in the soft glow from the dashboard lights. He had no idea what to do, apart from drive on and hope that somehow he would wake up from this or someone would appear to help him escape. One thing was certain; he could not leave her now. Not here, in this strange place where the dead came to life and the living died and aliens invaded the earth. He wiped his eyes on his sleeve, and headed north, keeping Polaris in front of him in the night sky. As good a direction as any. Wherever the journey took him, it had to be better than this horror.
Northwards, the clock on the dashboard changing. 20:52, 20:54, 20:55. He found a motorway, he had no idea which one and it was deserted, but he pushed the car faster, tearing down the outside lane in fear of coming up behind some slow driver on the inside.
Faster. She was asleep now, her head drooping on the upturned collar of his coat. Then, a wide expanse ahead and lights. The first he had seen since leaving the devastation behind. Houses, roads, cars. People. He gave a sob of relief and slowed the car down, pulling over to leave the motorway at the next junction, still heading north. So far it hadn’t failed him.
He would wake her in a while and find out where she lived. Drop her at home. It couldn’t be that far from Harlington, or his own house. And then he could put this evening behind him, and get some sleep. Try to forget. If that was possible. The memories would haunt him for a long time.
‘You can stop just over there.’ Her voice startled him and he found himself following her directions once more, pulling over to the side of the road and turning off the engine.
A familiar spot. The street light where she had been standing still flickering. The clock flickered as well. 20:59. She sighed and stretched, unfurling herself from the seat and yawning.
‘Where should I drop you?’ His voice was a whisper.
She laughed and put her hand on his, cool fingers interlacing with his for a moment before she released him. ‘We’ve not finished yet, Edward. I’m sure there are questions you want answering. So …?’
Questions. What did he want to ask here? Everything and yet nothing. Did he really want to know what he had seen? The truth? That his world was going to end in that way, torn apart by the enemy? Sometimes it was better not to know. To face each day with a brave heart, not fearing that the night might bring the end. But his curiosity, as always, made him ask.
‘Was that…’ He grimaced, swallowed, coughed. Tried again, his voice stronger this time. ‘Was that my world, my parents, Henderson’s grave? I mean. It all seemed so real and yet now I don’t know.’
‘It was real, Edward, That couple should have become your mother and father. Not in this world, but in that other one. Everything you witnessed tonight was from that other world, its past and its present and …’ she stared at him. ‘Its future. A world about to be conquered by the aliens. It loses the battle to defend itself, even with worldwide night-time curfews and fuel rationing. That world suffered massive incursions by the aliens. You saw some of the houses they attacked, you saw SHADO headquarters destroyed. Moonbase and the Skydivers were lost months before. SHADO was never going to win especially after Commander Freeman died.’
‘Alec? The Commander? I mean, he would have done a good job, don’t misunderstand me. But what happened to …’ Straker turned to face her and she squeezed his fingers.
‘You? You made a wish, remember? You wished that you had never been born. And on that world your wish was granted. Commander Straker was not there to convince the United Nations of the need for SHADO and as a result it never had real power or sufficient financial and technological support. Most governments mocked it until it was too late. And after Alec was killed by Collins, things got worse. It took months to find anyone willing to take on the job. It was an impossible and thankless task.’
‘What about Paul?’
She turned away. ‘You were not there to fight Colonel Foster’s cause. He was executed for treason. Colonel Freeman blamed himself.’
Alec, Paul, Henderson. His parents. His world. All because of one selfish desire. ‘How do I stop it? What can I do?’ He clasped his head in his hands.
‘Stop it? Do you want to stop it?’
He gave her a look of loathing. ‘What do you think I am? A murderer? I would give my life to save this world. You know that.’
‘Yes, I do. But do you? Do you know what you are saying? I am not asking that you sacrifice your life, Edward. That would be easy. Too easy. Instead I am asking you to live. That is the only way to save this world, your world. Can you do that?’
His words came back to haunt him. A solitary Christmas, and the thought in his mind that he ‘wished he had never been born’. A just punishment for such inconsiderate thoughts. He had been selfish and she had shown him the consequences.
And yet, the thought of the next day was painful. He rubbed his eyes in an attempt to ease the stinging. ‘Yes,’ he said, his voice a mere whisper again. ‘I never thought, I never-.’
His words were cut short. She held his face in her hands, warm hands now, and kissed him for the second time. A tender kiss, her lips gentle and soft against his own, fingers stroking his tears away and soothing the fear. He let his own hands rest on her face, tracing her eyebrows, her eyelids with the lightest of touches, aware of her relief and her happiness, that sense of a world being put right and set on its true course once more. The kiss ended and she snuggled up against him, her head on his chest and he let himself lean back, closing his eyes and falling asleep in an instant.
To be concluded: Dec 24th