The letter wasn’t thick. It was addressed by printer, the type neat and spare. The words were frustrating.
Alec Freeman looked up from the report he’d been checking to see Ed Straker’s face set in grim lines. He wondered what it was this time as he took the letter and skimmed it. “I’ll take care of it,” he offered, his tone polite and non-judgmental.
The letter wasn’t threatening, even in the surface perusal, but the information inside it set his teeth on edge. Someone who wasn’t cleared knew about them. About SHADO. He was beginning to hate the acronym. Fifteen years ago, it seemed flashy and current, today it was just daft, but no one seemed inclined to change their designation.
Supreme Headquarters Alien Defense Organization. Someone had once said it sounded like they were lawyers for illegal immigrants, or even legal ones in trouble. The entire idea made him choke on his drink when she said that.
“No.” Ed took the letter back. “I’ll deal with this.” After all, he was the head of the organization. It was his duty.
The flight into El Paso from New York was calm, allowing Ed to browse several scripts and make decisions about funding the productions. He actually smiled over a proposal from Pegasus Productions to rent several sound stages for a production that would make money for both companies. Fitz had an eye for good scripts and a head for secrecy. He was glad Foster had made the connection, although sometimes he wondered about the Amazon statuesque manager and his third in command.
El Paso was hot. Midsummer. Dry, sweltering heat sucked the moisture out of him as he picked up the rental car and headed for New Mexico. Somewhere outside of Las Cruces, he had a date with a troublemaker.
Research had produced an identity for the name on the letter. Had Dr. Jackson not been on vacation, he would have been able to provide more information on the author. As it was, Ed was justifiably angry that a survivor of an alien encounter, unsuitable for recruitment, had retrieved her memories.
Edith Grace Montague Mendoza. The interview was short. The woman was a graduate student in Philosophy, her husband, Xerxes Holland Mendoza, owned a small contractor’s business specializing in reconstruction of historical buildings. He remembered small details of their time in SHADO’s care. They held hands through most of the interview, neither particularly upset by the incident, just curious and … disappointed. That was it. They were disappointed in the aliens. It was an odd attitude. One he did not understand. Until she explained that she found it unutterably frustrating that they would come from however far away with all the technological advances that indicated, compared to Earth, and then be the kind of alien that encouraged xenophobia.
Apparently she was hoping for intelligent, reasonable, possibly advanced beyond petty concerns extraterrestrials and these aliens were so human they were … How did she put it? “Fucking assholes.”
He was certain their memory drug worked on both of them. She seemed to be recently widowed. Unfortunately, a second dose of the drug, even with the modifications they’d made over the years, was inadvisable with her medical records. He would have to make up his mind on how to deal with her when he arrived.
Ed stopped for lunch in Las Cruces, or rather, in Mesilla. He had eaten at the Double Eagle once before and remembered it as excellent food. It was a little crowded, but there was a small table available and he was pleased with both the service and the food. Then he checked his directions and drove out to his target’s place on the outskirts of town.
He wasn’t certain what he was expecting. Five acres of chain link enclosed land exploded into excited barks as he pulled into the driveway. There were two houses. One small, tidy place that looked like it probably held a bedroom, living room, kitchen and bath, possibly including a workroom.
The other was a double wide trailer that had seen better days, surrounded by a forest of bamboo as well as several tall pine trees. The dogs were an assortment of variously ancestried mongrels from what he could see. As he got out, he noticed the land was sectioned by fencing, a central portion apparently set up with a bridge from a window of the trailer to provide outside time for a number of cats who stared at him from an assortment of green and yellow eyes until he noticed a long haired Siamese looking cat with startling blue eyes who blinked and slunk away into the shadows provided by several narrow leaf bearing bushes.
The dog commotion summoned an older woman dressed casually in jeans and a t-shirt boldly declaring “Mongrels Rule”. Her hair was dark with red highlights glinting in the sun. She wore moccasin boots and carried a walking stick. Her eyes were hidden behind wrap around sunglasses designed to fit over regular glasses. He wasn’t surprised when she stopped a few paces short of the gate to look him over.
She tipped the sunglasses up on her head and frowned at him. “You.”
She did remember.
“What the fuck are you doing here? No, never mind. You didn’t actually read the letter, did you?” Her tone was accusatory. “Stupid.” She studied him for a moment and shook her head. “Y’know, somehow I thought you’d be smarter. Or at least have someone on staff who could understand what I was saying. You are not making me feel particularly confident in your ability to do what you said you were doing.”
With that, she removed the latch from the gate, turned and headed back into the trailer leaving him to decide whether to follow her or not.
His reception confused him. He settled the letter in his inside jacket pocket and stepped into the yard. His pale linen suit was going to be fuzzy. He stood for a few minutes letting the dogs sniff at him. The larger ones seemed content to let him pass. A smaller terrier breed was of two minds about the arrangement, dashing in to sniff and bark at him and then scuttling toward where the woman had disappeared. It repeated the actions several times as he walked around the front of the house to the door about halfway down the side.
He took the steps cautiously and pushed the door open. More excited barking from a quartet of small dogs who seemed to be encouraging a large pile of fur to protect them. A huge pink tongue fell out of the mouth as the Sheep Dog started panting. It was sitting directly in front of a box fan that stood on the floor.
Mrs. Mendoza appeared from the other side of the house with a glass of ice water in one hand and a soda in the other. She offered him the water as she looked him over. “I’d offer you a seat, but I think your tailor would hunt me down and skin me,” she said with a half laugh. “So. What exactly are you planning on doing?”
She didn’t bluster, she wasn’t afraid, she was just curious, or so it seemed.
He regarded her over the rim of the glass. The water was refreshing. Even the air conditioning in the vehicle had a hard time overcoming the better than 100F heat. “You weren’t supposed to remember.”
“I know. Technically, when we were left in the hotel room, I didn’t. But I did remember before we got on the plane home.”
He frowned at her. “And you waited until now to …”
“To point out that your people are not handling things well.” She held up a hand to silence any objections he might have offered. “Look, I’m not saying anything about your actual handling of the incursions. Given the places I look at news, you’re not missing a lot of them. But you are … not handling the survivors well. I don’t know what your guidelines on collateral damage are, but they seem to be like the FBI rules of engagement for terrorist attacks. Not healthy for children and other living things.” She let that sink in for a moment. “You really didn’t read the entire letter, did you?”
Her attitude was more saddened than angry.
“What do you want?”
“Blunt. If you’d taken the time to get past my proving I knew what you are and do, you’d already have that answer. But, to save time, you need to find a better way to deal with survivors than retconning them, to borrow a term from a TV show.”
“We cannot afford …”
“Oh, shut it. That is such an egregious statement of military stupidity. That’s government-ese for we’d rather mutilate human memories and cause people tremendous psychological damage than we would fix the problem.” Now she sounded and looked angry.
But why now? She and her husband were fine. She had her memories … “Mr. Mendoza?” He asked.
That got a sad smile and shake of her head. “No. He remembered after a week or so. It helped that I remembered. So, no, we didn’t have to live with a hole in our memories for very long. It did worry him, but since I knew, I could help. You don’t track the people who survive incidents? No, or you wouldn’t have asked me.”
Now she looked at him with the horror in her lined face that he had expected all those years ago. He had a job to do, one that could not be leaked to the general population. Why couldn’t she understand that? As for tracking survivors, once the memories were expunged, what was the point? He asked her that very question.
“Do you know what it’s like to have a hole in your memory? To have hours disappear? I mean, it’s bad enough in the general run of things when you find yourself in the kitchen and can’t immediately remember why you went in there. Usually it’s because something caught your attention as you moved and when your mind finished with whatever it was, there’s a lag in recalling why you stopped one thing and started another. Happens to a lot of people. Not that you particularly look like you’ve ever done that,” she added with a smile.
He allowed himself a faint smile and nodded. “I’ve … occasionally experienced what you’re talking about,” he admitted. Not often, of course, but he did know the phenomenon. “We’re careful.”
“If you aren’t tracking them, how do you know?”
“We test for the efficiency of the drugs we use, make certain there are no allergic reactions, that only the specific portion of memories are removed. The process has been improved over the years since you and your husband were involved. So the question is still, what do you want?”
“You act like I’m blackmailing you. I should be insulted. But, living in paranoia central,” she gestured vaguely in a circular manner. “Oh, White Sands Test Facility, White Sands Missile Range, Holloman AFB and the NASA/Jornada Test Facility to the east, Fort Bliss to the south and Los Alamos to the north, along with Kirkland AFB outside Albuquerque. Oh, and Helstaff to the east as well. You name it, we have governmental stuff going on all around. Not to mention Roswell, Area 51 which does not officially exist just over the Arizona border … I think … and the lights around the mountains around Tucumcari. Completely, strangely, paranoid around here,” she explained with a laugh. “However, I don’t want anything. I’m OK. My books are selling, gently, but with my social security and the donations for the rescue, I’m doing fine.”
He looked skeptical. “Then why the letter?”
“Collateral damage. Your organization has been around for at least fifteen years. All you’ve done is continued to create psychological problems for the survivors. Leaving memory holes is bad for people.”
“Do you have any data to support your accusations?” he shot back. Only he wasn’t angry. He should have been angry, but she was calling him on the carpet for something that Jackson had mentioned a couple of times over the years. Jackson had not been following their survivors either, but he had noticed that some of the survivors were not as compatible with our methodology as we wished them to be.
“Kind of circumstantial, but I have some stuff I’ve pulled in from some strange places. Suicide rates linked to postulated alien encounters. Yeah, fringe lunatics for a lot of the publications, but if you triangulate it … there’s a pattern and the rates of mental issues is about 40% higher than the average for the general population.”
“Show me.” After all, Ford tracked things in News of the World and The National Enquirer and others of their ilk, always correlating the information with what they knew for certain. If Mrs. Mendoza had further correlations, then it was worth looking into.
“Might not be a good idea to get rid of me anyway,” she said back over her shoulder as she stepped out to get her laptop. “Then you’d have to figure out what to do with all the dogs and cats, letting them starve to death while my body decomposes is not cool.”
For a few moments, gentle panting was the only sound in the room other than the fan. How many animals were there in here? A huge cat strolled out of the back, rubbed against the panting mop, smacked one of the small dogs that dared to yap at it and sat down to nonchalantly wash a broad paw.
The woman returned with an older lap top, placed it on the cluttered table in the corner of the room, plugged it in and turned it on. “Sorry, the router for the wifi is next door. Luckily, I have a signal booster. It will take a moment.”
They waited in companionable silence while the device booted and connected. He almost smiled in the silence, the soft whirring of the computer fan as it booted up the new sound in the room. He remembered the days when modems connecting to the Internet made a lot of intriguing noise.
Once booted up, Mrs. Mendoza started pulling up files and bookmarks. “It’s not … particularly professional,” she admitted, looking a little embarrassed. “As in, most of the info is anecdotal. Oh, my word, my academic background is showing,” she said with a laugh, a smile brightening her face, eyes twinkling as she shared the joke with him.
Oh, of course. Mrs. Mendoza was more properly addressed as Doctor in academic circles. Her PhD largely unused because only recently acquired. The first file she directed his attention to was a line chart showing rates of suicide in the United States compared to a secondary section of population. His face hardened at the comparison. The numbers correlated to indicated extraterrestrial encounters was much higher.
“I don’t know which ones are directly influenced by your organization,” she admitted. “We … we just stumbled across the remains and your mop up operation. The kind of damage that would do to someone surviving such an encounter …” She shook her head in sympathy. “I don’t know. Although since there isn’t a lot of write up in the usual places reflecting the kind of damage we saw.” She minimized the file and pulled up a second on. “These, I think, actually correlate to people who have interactions with the aliens and with your organization.”
The graph was a little different. The suicides spiked about thirteen years earlier, dropped and then remained fairly constant at a number three times that of the population as a whole. Weak minded, he started to think and then stopped himself. No, not weak minded. Even among his own people there were those who could not continue to work because of the incomprehensible actions of the aliens, actions they were only beginning to be able to try to analyze, because no matter how human they looked, they were not Earth human.
“What about earlier?”
“Before we ran into you?”
She made a face and pulled up another file. “I just started this, so there isn’t a lot of data in it so far, but I do have all the information I’m pulling it from in a separate file.” She pulled out the middle drawer in a set of plastic ones set on the table, rummaged around and pulled out a flash drive, looking at it for a moment. “This will work. Oh, 8GB drive. I have tons of these things.” She plugged it into the side of the laptop and started downloading files.
“Just like that?”
Her face reflected confusion and frustration for a moment. “This is the whole point of the letter,” she pointed out. “I’m not interested in ‘revealing’ your organization. I sort of understand why you work the way you do. ET is awkward enough. Murderous, disemboweling, … organ stealing ET … Xerk and I had a lot of discussion about that and I finally agreed that most of the planet would lose it’s collective mind when presented with evidence of this.” She shook her head in a manner that indicated disbelief in the mental status quo of most of the human race.
That got another faint smile from Ed. “That’s why we developed the drugs,” he agreed with a sigh. “Too much of even civilized humanity … technologically adept humanity,” he corrected himself, “would not deal well with this information.”
She nodded. “Yeah. All those movies telling us aliens are evil creatures and now we have living proof. Not a good thing for a lot of people to know. I get that.”
Not a good thing for a LOT of people to know. “Who have you told?”
She tried for an innocent look and failed. “Not a lot of people. Only those we knew could keep a secret. Mostly we told them about the noise and that it would be a good thing to skedaddle if they heard it.”
“Without mentioning aliens?”
“There are a handful we discussed aliens with, but not your organization. When the speculation started we merely agreed that because the information was spread across at least tabloid headlines that the various government entities must be doing something to cover it up,” she added with laughter. “Most of those friends are conspiracy theorists anyway, so adding to the Area 51 and Roswell lore was just … You do realize that New Mexico is one place where if you don’t have a close encounters story you haven’t really been in the state long enough, right?”
He regarded her seriously, blue eyes drawing her attention. “I will admit, I had not considered that when we met.”
Mrs. Mendoza grinned at him. It didn’t lessen her years, but it let the bright spirit within shine out. In spite of her experience, she retained a youthful spirit. “So, here, not a big ‘bean spill’ so to speak, and as I said, never mentioned your people. I suspect you don’t operate much out of Europe either.”
“No.” He almost wanted to let her know that an American base was in process, but that would cause difficulties of it’s own. For now, he was convinced that Mrs. Mendoza was not a threat. Her information would be turned over to Ford and Jackson.
“You said you are published,” he detoured onto safer ground.
She nodded, a big grin curving her mouth. “Yep. Weird fiction. Tentacles. Drooling slime. Ancient things that should not exist in this reality and warp the universe when they show up. Oh, and really strong female leads.”
That got another nod. “Almost down loaded,” she advised consulting her computer. “You could make schlock movies out of them,”she added. “Definite B movies with cheesy special effects. Wow. What a concept.” She started giggling at that and waved a hand to indicate she wasn’t serious. “Seriously, my kids are thinking about turning them into on line web toons, so don’t worry, I won’t inundate you with scripts. Ah, done.” She released the flash drive and handed it to him. “Guard it with your life … Sorry, I’ve always wanted to say that and it’s so hard to work into every day conversation. Oh, look, you smiled!”
“Are you always like this?”
Her head bobbed up and down in an enthusiastic nod. “Pretty much. What?” She turned her attention to a skinny gray tabby and cream cat who was standing on the edge of the table and reaching out with one paw to get her attention. He shoved up into her hand as she petted him and then launched onto her shoulder where he spent the next few minutes rubbing his head against the side of her face, tangling her hair and generally purring loud enough Ed could hear it from where he stood.
“OK, enough. Down. Ick. Cat snot!” The last was in answer to his sneezing in her face. “Euw, to borrow from my kids’ extensive vocabulary for gross thing reactions.” She disentangled the cat from her shirt and shoulders, rubbing her forehead against the cat’s. Paws waved in the air, kneading as she set the animal down. She backed away quickly to keep him from climbing back up. “Stupid cat,” she admonished with a laugh.
“He seems friendly, except for the sneezing.”
His comment got a snort. “He is. Anything else? I should probably get you out of here before the rest of the cats discover you. That suit is already attracting fur, but most of it’s not black.”
As if on cue, three small dark faces looked around the arch leading into the room from the other side of the house. One of them opened it’s mouth in the classic silent meow and they bounced into the room, distracted each other and began a mad round of hide and seek and pounce which ended up on the sheep dog who just continued to pant gently.
Outside seemed like a good idea. Not that he was allergic to cats or even cared about adding a layer of fur to his suit. Still, his visit with Mrs. Mendoza seemed to be concluded. He allowed her to escort him out, across the sandy ground to the gate and out to his car. Once there he turned and looked at her again. Protocol indicated that she was a problem.
With a sigh, he shook his head. “Your admitted knowledge could be a danger to you, not just to us.”
“It’s been almost fifteen years, Mr. Straker. I think if the nasty ET s were interested in doing something about me, they would have by now. Xerk didn’t die from an alien attack, he had cancer.” Her eyes darkened slightly at the thought of her loss.
“You were married for a long time.”
“Yeah. Anyway, the entire point of the letter, since you still exist, someone needs to track the survivors. I know, in the grand scheme of things we’re not that important, but making people forget only works for some of them. Some of them will go mad trying to figure out what happened to the lost time. Literally. They need more help than you’ve been providing. Maybe you don’t have the people, maybe you don’t care … although I think your actions since you’ve been here deny that. Maybe you can figure it out, find a way to help.”
He was struck by her earnestness. In his judgment she was only concerned about others who did not come out of the experience as well as she and her husband had. He needed to think about this, analyze the data and talk to Jackson before he made any more decisions. He’d already made the one that concerned her. As long as there was no indication she spread her information farther afield than she had admitted, he had no reason to eliminate her. Did he feel relieved that he didn’t have a reason? He’d deal with that later.
He stepped into his rental, waved goodbye and pulled out of the drive way to head back to El Paso. Looking into the bright sky, he reconsidered. He could use a few hours of rest before he headed back and Las Cruces was quieter than the hotel across from the airport.
He arrived at Heathrow as refreshed as he could be from the long transoceanic flight. He’d spent the time productively, going over the data, reading the stories she’d based her extrapolations on. A lot of the data from Asia and the Americas could be discounted. They still couldn’t cover the entire world, and most of the depredation still took place in the UK and Europe, the genetics were apparently more compatible in the EU than elsewhere on the planet.
But the data from the EU supported Mrs. Mendoza’s extrapolation. A very high percentage of those she could identify as having survived and been released by SHADO were having issues both immediately afterward and in the long run. He also read her letter, in full, not just skimming it and almost regretted having acted without doing so at first. Still, if he had not gone to the US in response, the information he had now would not be in his possession.
He claimed his car from the long term parking area and used his specially encrypted car phone to call in to let Freeman know he was back and headed in. “Have Jackson clear an hour for me.”
Alec looked at the phone for a moment. “All right,” he agreed. “I thought …”
“I didn’t,” Ed agreed. “But I did gather information I think we need to analyze. I’ll tell you when I get back.” While the encryption program was updated every three or four days to keep the opposition from breaking into their calls, he still felt the need to keep this quiet until he could talk to Jackson.
Dr. Doug Jackson, his very American name at odds with his Slavic good looks and Middle European accent, waited in his office for his superior to arrive. It was not very often that Col. Straker requested to speak to him. Although Straker knew there were excellent reasons for the psychiatrist and security specialist to be on premises, the pale man had never warmed up to the doctor. While he waited, Jackson reviewed the Colonel’s latest trip so that he would be ready when the Commander arrived.
“Jackson,” Straker acknowledged the dark haired, slender man with a curt nod and handed over the flash drive.
Jackson regarded it with a raised eyebrow. “This is?”
“Here.” Straker handed over the letter that had started things rolling. “Dr. Mendoza thinks we are not handling our survivors well.”
“Indeed.” The quick dark eyes took in the letter, a thoughtful look replacing the one of inquiry as he moved to the second page and on to the third. “Interesting. Dr. Mendoza is not a trained psychologist or psychiatrist,” he mused. “Yet the indicators are there. She is indeed right that this needs to be examined.” He looked up. “And the drive?”
“All of her data and analysis. I want you and Ford to go through her information. I’d prefer that you refute what she thinks she’s found.” He left it unsaid that if the analysis already done proved to be correct, that Jackson and Ford would need to make recommendations to counter the possible problems. “Dr. Mendoza suggests we need to find a way to … fill the void.”
Jackson let a slow smile curve his thin lips. “She suggests that we need to provide support to keep the mental health of survivors from deteriorating,” he gently corrected as he leaned back in his chair. “Given the rising number of survivors we have had over the last five years or so and that the majority of them are not suitable for recruitment, I have been considering making recommendations for some changes in our treatment. I will go over the data and have Captain Ford check Dr. Mendoza’s articles against his own tracking. Anything else, Commander?”
“You might reconsider Dr. Mendoza,” Ed said cryptically as he turned to leave.
Edith Mendoza walked out to her mailbox where it sat with six others on a dusty road. The sun beat down as always, although there were clouds gathering over the not so distant mountain ridge separating the Tularosa Basin from the Rio Grande Valley. She pulled the front flap down and gathered up the mail. Half a dozen fan letters rested in the box, three utility bills, another flyer for a Medicare supplement package, the usual number of advertisements in a thick wad, a notice that the water supplier would have an annual meeting soon and one oddly blank envelope of thick paper.
She puzzled over the last one as she walked back to the house. Dumping the advertising in the trash, she opened the hand full of fan mail. It amazed her in this day of electronic communication that people still wrote physical letters like this. One of them was crudely suggestive and ended up in the waste basket immediately. The others she would write back. Sometimes having something physical to touch was important. Since her books were all electronic in delivery, maybe it made sense that her fans sometimes wanted something concrete from her.
She sat at the table and stared at the final item in her hands. Finally, she slit the paper with her fantasy blade letter opener and extracted the single sheet of paper. Again, heavy paper, very official feeling in her hands. She unfolded it. Not many people knew all of her degrees. She glanced at the signature. Dr. Doug Jackson. Not Douglas, Doug.
It was a job offer. For just a moment, she felt like she’d stepped into one of her stories and felt her lower jaw drop.
There was an email address to reply to.
She pulled her laptop over and opened her email client. A job. Employment. From the description of what they wanted, she wouldn’t have to leave home, just help them long distance. This had to be a joke. Still, if she could support herself without Social Security, while putting more into the funding, and not have to leave New Mexico … It was worth a shot.
She emailed the gentleman and crossed her fingers that he was serious and not going to direct her to some website to pay for access to a scam.
Four hours later she was looking at an email she couldn’t read until she downloaded an encryption program to decode it. Terrified of what the program would do, she gingerly pressed the enter button and let it install. Then she opened the email and walked wide eyed into her future. Ed Straker, now her boss, now Colonel Ed Straker, Commander of SHADO, had listened. There would still be those who were lost, but there might not be as many.