Moonlight in Moscow. So typical. The band, slightly out of tune, more than slightly drunk, and not caring in the slightest one way or another, thrashed out the ubiquitous melody, more for the sake of attracting any stray foreign tourist than any real love of the melody. The hotel he was staying in was too busy, too prominent for a meeting such as this. Any suspicious activity, even in this enthusiastically embraced capitalist era, would be noticed, commented upon. So here he was, waiting reluctantly in this shabby run down bar off the main thoroughfare.
He had, after numerous texts through SHADO’s secure network, managed at last to arrange this conference with his anonymous Russian contact. A man he had never seen. Straker sat, glass of vodka untouched on the table in front of him, hands clasped together, his forearms resting with minimal contact on the very edge of the begrimed and sticky table.
Moonlight in Moscow. He remembered the last time he had been here, nearly ten years ago. Was it really that long? Silver moonlight, silver scars. And he held his breath, almost in fear, and his fingers tightened until the knuckles were white with tension as the music evoked the memories that he had thought, had hoped, were long hidden, long forgotten.
Look for me by moonlight
Watch for me by moonlight
I’ll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way.
Moonlight. That was what he could see. Silvered ripples across the tangled and dishevelled covers of the bed. Just a faint light, a mere sliver of lines but enough. He could make out the outlines of the room, the darker rectangle of the doors, the window, heavy drapes blocking further light, but for that single trespassing line that had edged it way past the drapes to cast itself across his bed.
No. Not his bed. Their bed.
And as he awoke, the memories surged back into his mind.
Mary. He, they, were here at last, in Los Angeles. On a much delayed, postponed, and nearly abandoned honeymoon. If one could actually call it honeymoon nearly nine months after one’s wedding. He sighed, not from tiredness, but pleasure, from relief. It was, he hoped, going to be all right. Mary had been …. easier, since he had arranged this trip. More relaxed, less demanding, less … critical of the hours he worked. Although… and he flinched inside when he thought about the future. Thought about how he was going to have to lie to her again. Sometimes, with a fleeting, treacherous thought, he regretted the marriage. It would have made things simpler. Much simpler.
He lay there, watching the stray moonbeam play idly on the bedcovers, sparkling on tiny motes of dust that wafted in the light movement of air. Lifting his left hand into the light he smiled as the gentle glow flickered across his still unscratched, unmarked wedding ring.
Nine months. So much had happened. He had managed to keep it a secret so far, but he wondered what the future would bring. SHADO was still nothing more than a hole in the ground. Well, not really a hole, more a cavern, deep beneath the burgeoning newly built film studios, but his days and often much of his nights, were spent dealing with that hole, with its attendant problems. The blueprints, the systems, the plans, the contractors. The secrecy.
Above all the secrecy. And he had to keep Mary safe. Had to keep her in the dark. He stretched, smiling as the moonlight seemed to stretch with him, and then he froze. A hand touched him. Exploring fingers danced across his shoulder, enticing him before coming to come to rest against the side of his face. He turned to her, breathed in her fragrance of warmth and wanting.
With gentle movements he eased his arm around her, under her, to pull her close to him, her head on his shoulder now, hair strewn across his chest, his pillow. His fingers smoothed the blonde silken strands and he lifted his head to kiss her forehead, her half-open eyes.
The moonbeam, ignored and forgotten, sulked and retreated, unwilling to disturb the two lovers. Besides, it was time to move on now, and there were other rooms, other sleeping, dreaming couples to wake, to entice, to taunt with the promise of love.
Later, still awake and still thinking, although Mary was now deep in sleep, he slipped out of their bed and padded to the window, pulling the heavy drapes aside slightly to peer down at the wide road. The full moon seemed huge in the cloudless sky as he stared up at the greyer darkness of Mare Ibrium. And his breath caught in his throat as he thrilled with the thought of what was, quite soon, going to be built there, in that bleak emptiness on the moon. A centre from which to launch attack craft, a complex big enough, advanced enough to monitor the solar system.
He had no illusions that it would be easy, had no expectations that the task would be completed on time, under budget, without casualties. He had no illusions at all now. The past few months had taught him one thing, that what ever he anticipated, whatever he tried to achieve, it would be different.
His marriage was the first victim of his changed circumstances. Like a fool he had imagined, planned and, in all seriousness, intended to remain in the Air Force, working for Military Intelligence and dealing with matters that were of national and international importance. SHADO had changed all that. Had overturned his calm, ordered life and he was now desperately struggling to re-establish some semblance of control, of discipline to his fragmented world.
And this week in L.A., under the guise of meeting with heads from Fox Studios, was also the first chance he had had to take Mary away for that belated honeymoon. But, at the back of his mind, always at the back of his mind, was SHADO. Even now, when he should have been asleep, Mary embraced in his arms, and smiling to himself he remembered holding her earlier, even now he was thinking of all the important details that needed arranging, that needed checking, that needed to be finalised.
In the darkness, listening to her soft breathing, the slight slurring of her delicate skin on the cotton sheets, he sighed, and reached for his mobile before going into the bathroom to make the first call of the night. The first of many.
He woke in the early hours of the morning, as usual, unable to sleep with so many concerns, so many problems. Alec had not phoned him back, which was a relief. Straker did not relish the thought of having to explain to Mary why he was receiving urgent late night calls from England.
So, it seemed that the construction was going as planned, and, after his conversation with Alec in the early hours, he was hopeful that his friend would be able to deal with those minor problems that would no doubt arise. Ed Straker needed a break, a chance to relax, but mostly to spend time with Mary. She was the most important thing this week. His first priority. He could catch up on sleep later.
He was tired still, always tired these days. There were never enough hours to do everything, but he lay there, unable to doze, his over-worked mind still tormenting him, unable to concentrate, unable to think with so many conflicting thoughts chasing each other. The need for more recruits. The problems with the basic designs of the new submarine. The distribution of the limited number of Mobile armoured vehicles that they had acquired.
And Moonbase. Above all, Moonbase. It was going to take so long to get operational, and until then they would have to rely on piggy-backing information through the recon satellites and the huge unmanned station that looked like a bug. S.I.D. But he knew that it was not enough, not enough to keep the Earth safe. People were going to die. And there was nothing more he could do to protect them.
His mind flickered to another random thought as quickly as if he was changing television channels. Commander. His new title. Mary didn’t know, would never, hopefully, know. In fact not many people knew. Not even many heads of state or Presidents. But he was in charge and the ultimate responsibility was his. And so he needed to do everything possible to ensure that the organisation was ready as soon as possible. The film studio cover was another worry. Another load on his shoulders. Surely someone would have asked the question why? Why was he, Ed Straker suddenly running a film studio? Suddenly retired from the Air Force? But fortunately, no one had. Yet.
His hands twitched in restless, worried movements on the heavy sheets and the sunlight now filtering through the narrow space between the window glinted on his wedding ring as its night time compatriot had done just hours earlier. Mary was still asleep and he leaned over to give her one light kiss, before with reluctance, so as not to disturb her, he got out of the embrace of the comfortable bed to head for a quick shower. There was a chance he might be able to get some more calls made before she woke up.
Breakfast by the smaller pool on a warm pleasant morning, considering the month. A lazy breakfast, quiet, undisturbed. Just the two of them. And before Mary had woken he had managed to get in that important call to the government funded shipyard who were developing the combined submarine-jet fighter. Jetsub. That was the latest suggestion for the name. Alec’s somewhat tentative suggestion. But it didn’t seem quite right somehow. A clunky title for a stealth submarine, especially one capable of such phenomenal speeds. He would have to think further about the name.
He had no specific plans for today, no business meetings to attend. No studios to visit. It was a day for doing…. anything at all. Walking, sightseeing, shopping. Lazing. Just enjoying the chance to be together with nothing in particular to do.
And then, with a sinking heart he saw the Air Force major walk out onto the patio area and look around.
Damn. Straker swore with silent fluency as the major, with diffident hesitation, approached the table.
‘Colonel Straker? May I have a word with you please. In private.’ A quiet request, polite, reserved but firm.
Mary looked up, concerned at the interruption.
He gave her a wry smile, ‘You know the the Air Force, Mary, they tend not to accept that anyone might actually want to retire. I’ll just be a moment. It’s probably something to do with a mix up with the paperwork.’ Straker pushed his chair back casually and with an air of feigned nonchalance, although his mind was in turmoil, followed the young officer to a more private corner.
‘What is it?’ Straker was curt, to the point. It was obvious that there was something amiss. He would never have been contacted here, with such open directness unless it was an emergency. And besides, only two people knew his precise whereabouts this week. Alec Freeman, and ….. ‘General Henderson. Has something happened to him?’ he asked, concerned that the General might have succumbed to the injuries that had prevented him from taking over as SHADO Commander.
‘No sir. It was General Henderson who asked to speak to you as a matter of some urgency. There has been an……incident. The general needs you to return to the UK immediately where he will meet you for a briefing at RAF Lossiemouth. That’s in……’
‘Yes, I know where that base is. What I need to know is why? Why am I needed?’ he looked back to where Mary was watching him, perplexed. This was going to be difficult to explain.
‘I’m sorry Colonel. I have not been given that information. My instructions were simply to inform you that Blue Book has been activated and you are required to return forthwith.’
Blue Book. The code that superseded any other command. He had to return. It was imperative. If Henderson had instigated Blue Book then it was a matter of extreme urgency, and with a sudden shiver of cold fear he wondered what the hell had happened.
He took a deep breath. ‘Very well. Has transport been arranged?’
‘Sir. There is a military jet fuelled and ready. I have a car waiting outside.’
‘And my wife?’ Straker stared with cold eyes, ‘what happens to her?’
There was an embarrassed silence. ‘I’m sorry Colonel, we were not informed about Mrs Straker. I was not given any instructions regarding your wife. I …’ he paused, reddening as he faced the angry glare of the older man.
‘You have ten minutes to make suitable arrangements to get my wife back to England.’ Straker glared, ‘I will explain to her that I have to return urgently and that someone will be escorting her back later today.’ He rubbed his face worriedly as he thought of what he would say to Mary, how would he be able to explain this. She would not be happy, and understandably so. But Blue Book; that took precedence over everything else. And again, he wondered what had gone wrong.
The military jet was noisy, fast and familiar. Straker was merely a passenger, even though he was listed as co-pilot in the flight log. Sitting behind the uncommunicative pilot there was little he could do or say. His presence was …unusual to say the least. Definitely unauthorised. So in the best traditions of the Royal Air Force, they simply acted as if he didn’t exist. The only conversation had been the monotone and perfunctory pre-flight instructions, but he had interrupted the pilot in a quiet and yet calm voice with the information that he was a fully qualified F16 pilot. That unwelcome news was met with stony silence. He could almost hear the unspoken thoughts….the scorn, the image of Tom Cruise in Top Gun. If only, he grinned mirthlessly, thinking about the reality of flying in combat.
So he kept quiet. Followed the terse unfriendly instructions. Expected the flight to be deliberately turbulent so as to cause him the most discomfort. Tough. He had never suffered from flight nausea, despite all attempts by his instructors to make him sick.
Straker spent the flight worrying. Unable to relax, unable to do anything except worry. Worry about Blue Book, about SHADO, about Mary. Mostly about Mary. The look in her eyes when he told her he had to return to the UK without her. That she would be flying back, alone. Her look of utter abandonment, of loss, of bewilderment.
He was leaving her again.
Lossiemouth Air Force Base. He had been here a couple of times before, and as the plane landed, in a gentle and smooth touchdown, the pilot unwilling to embarrass himself in front of onlookers by subjecting his unwelcome passenger to a rough landing, Straker pulled off his mask, and stretched stiff limbs. He clambered out of the tight seat, the borrowed flight suit loose on his slender frame.
It was good to get down onto the ground. The flight had been, as he had anticipated, … bumpy. But he had managed to irritate his anonymous chauffeur by not showing the slightest signs of discomfort.
‘Thanks for the lift, a very smooth ride,’ he smiled with a sardonic and knowing look at the somewhat discomforted pilot, before heading towards the nearby stationary car with its door open and waiting for him. He could see Henderson in the back seat. So he would get some answers now, would find out exactly what the hell was going on.
Henderson was silent until the car door closed, his face grim with foreboding. Handing Straker a thin file he apologised. ‘Sorry to drag you back Ed, but, well this is serious. I’ll let you read the preliminary report.’ The general looked grey with fatigue and strain as he waited for Straker to finish skimming through the document. ‘Well, what do you think?’
Straker was silent, thinking, running through the report in his mind. The document, neat, precise, concise, was not what he had feared, really not enough to drag him all the way back here under such rapid circumstances.. He turned to Henderson, annoyance and hostility evident in his voice.
‘Look, General, this document just says that a nearly obsolete American reconnaissance satellite has somehow been knocked out of orbit and has crashed in an isolated area of Northern Russia. Why call me back for this? Why not simply ask the Russians to retrieve it?’
Henderson grimaced with apology at his protégé. ‘I wish it were as simple as that, Ed. What that report doesn’t say is that the satellite, before its orbit was compromised, sent back several photographs of what are, unmistakeably, three UFOs in heading into Earth insertion orbit. It is likely that the satellite was struck by one of the UFO’s weapons, knocking it out of orbit only to come down somewhere south of Dikson Island. Fortunately a pretty remote and uninhabited area. We managed to keep the images classified, but the data on that satellite, if accessed, will certainly contain those pictures of UFOs and possibly even more photographs. We have to get that data chip. Before anyone outside SHADO finds it.’
Inside the stationary car Straker looked out through the tinted windows at a nearby transporter plane, its engines idling in preparation for imminent take-off. No wonder he had been called back. If any outside group, any faction within the fragmented Russian states managed to get hold of the data chip with its potentially devastating information, the consequences could be catastrophic. The psychologists had already predicted what would happen if news of the alien threat was made public. World panic, chaos, riots.
That was why SHADO had been formed in such a covert manner, had been organised in the utmost secrecy just to avoid such a scenario. And if information, photographs, irrefutable proof of the existence of UFOs was obtained by a group not under the control of the Russian government, well, the repercussions could be horrendous.
‘And what do you need to me to do?’
Henderson looked at him, a steadfast, serious stare. ‘You have to go out there, Commander. You have to find that satellite, find the data chip, transmit any remaining information back to me if at all possible, and then destroy it. There is no one else available with the background knowledge necessary for this task. We cannot, under any circumstances, allow anyone else, even one of our own military, close to that satellite, to those photographs. We are trying to make contact with our counterparts in the government but it will not be possible for them to get to the crash site in time without attracting considerable attention. You will be on your own, I’m afraid. Get in, get the job done, and then we’ll retrieve you and the team later.’
‘What happens if the Russians get to the crash site before us?’ Straker queried, frowning as he thought of the implications, ‘They must be aware of what has happened.’
‘They know the rough area of the crash site, but they are going to be looking for a very small section of the satellite. The data is stored in what is to all intents and purposes an indestructible unit that is transmitting a random signal on a specific wavelength. Unless you know the wavelength, it should be pretty nearly impossible to locate it in the area.’ Henderson handed a further document over to Straker. ‘We know where it is, Commander. To within a couple of meters. Any Russian forces out there will be searching in the dark, in deep snow, and in subzero temperatures for a small reflective container about the size of a briefcase. Not an easy search. You have to get there first.’
The plan was straightforward, as most plans are. A Halo drop from the waiting transport plane over the site at high altitude, a fast descent through the night sky to land as close to the last position recorded as the satellite hit ground. Then, find it, download it, and then, the hardest part, wait.
The need for a silent and stealthy assault on the site was vital. Henderson, with the aid of the US Government, was putting together a retrieval plan. A clumsy plan, and one that might not stand up to serious scrutiny. But it was the best he could come up with at such short notice. Once the team was down on the ground then Henderson would announce that a group of International environmentalists, studying the impact of global warming on the wildlife in the area had lost contact with their base, and a helicopter would be sent in to search. It sounded simple, too simple.
The C130J taxied to the runway. Huge and bulky it looked too cumbersome to take flight. But it lifted with smoothness into the grey sullen sky, banked with ease and headed east. The transport plane had a select group of passengers within its cavernous cargo hold. Straker, now clothed in camouflage Arctic weather gear, his pale hair nearly as white as the jump suit he wore, breathed the pure oxygen that was necessary to flush the nitrogen from his body before the HALO jump in fifty minutes time. He had never actually done a High Altitude Low Open jump although he knew the theory.
Theory was one thing. Actual experience was something completely different. Hands clasped tightly in front of him he tried not to show his unease, his vague trepidation at the coming fall, however controlled, however well-planned. It was new territory and he knew that, he was not skilled or experienced in this type of incursion.
That was enough to make him slightly edgy. There was no talking in the cabin, no chance to talk even if he had wanted to ask questions. The need to breathe oxygen was paramount, and one single intake of the recycled, scrubbed air in the cabin would be enough to push nitrogen back into his bloodstream. Then the whole trip would be over, no long rapid fall through the darkness to end with a sharp jolt as he opened his chute at the lowest possible point before it was too late, before he plunged into the almost permanently frozen terrain.
His companions in the bleak, unfussy cabin were as silent as he himself. He studied them with care, knowing that the success of the operation was dependent on their skills. Six of them, all well-trained, competent. All focused on the task ahead.
He knew they were probably regarding him with something akin to contempt. An outsider, not one of their own. He didn’t object. He was after all an intruder into their cadre, an unknown, a potential risk. So he sat and read through the hastily faxed details of the satellite. He might be to all intents and purposes a civilian, but the success of the mission depended on his ability to get past the security protocols surrounding the satellites on-board computer system and download and purge any remaining and incriminating photographic data. It was just as case of getting to the site safely, before any other faction beat them to it. And those factions, more than one of them, he was sure, might already be there, searching for that small interface unit.
They were approaching the drop zone. The ‘ready’ light flickered on, filling the drab utilitarian cabin with ominous blood-coloured light. They stood, checked each other over one last time, headed in a line for the cargo bay door. Straker, standing in front of the group’s leader, tensed as the huge bay door slowly opened and became their launch platform. He had done parachute drops before, but never one as long or as dangerous as this.
Automatically he checked his oxygen tank one last time. There was a pat on his shoulder, and he turned to face the man who would buddy him down. Behind the thick protective goggles and oxygen mask his guardian was grinning with understanding, a hand held out to shake in friendship. Straker wryly smiled back and clasped the offered hand in a firm hold. Then, the soft crimson illumination changed.
A pale green glow flooded the area.
Time to go.
Straker, pausing at the very edge of the drop-off zone, had only a fraction of a second to look down, to take in the sheer emptiness of the space below him before his guardian tapped him hard on his back. He stepped off. Into ….nothingness. It took him a moment to accustom himself to the knife-edged cold that sliced like thin knives into his skin, severing nerves, sawing through to his bones despite the layers of specially designed clothing he was wearing.
Gasping with the shock of the ice-filled air touching his face, even through the balaclava and the oxygen mask, he could feel his fingers begin to stiffen even as he followed his instructions and put himself into the dive position. Head down, arms moving to his side like an arrow, to minimise the length of time to drop the next 30,000 feet, he wondered if he would be so stiff with cold, so numb and so breathless that he would be unable to pull his ripcord.
Then, his wrist was grabbed in a tight grip, held in that vice-like grip and he twisted his head to see the leader come in closer to him to assist. It would be alright. He relaxed just a fraction, just enough to let the training take over.
He counted the seconds, knowing that his altimeter would warn him when it was time to deploy his parachute, that the AAD would automatically open it if he was to stiff, to dazed by the fall to respond but also that the strong hand fastened around his wrist was there, not to reprimand him, or to restrain him but to ensure that he survived.
Cold. Dark. The wind rushing past, a loud hissing in his ears, the oxygen hissing as well. He concentrated on taking even breaths as he counted, as the long seconds passed. One hundred and sixty-eight seconds. That was what he had been told. Nearly three minutes, just falling into blackness. The ground below was a darker shade of midnight, the moon still full, still sending its beams searching across the world like a spotlight. It was not a good night to be doing this he thought ruefully. He should have been in bed, warm, not diving in a headlong uncontrolled fall at some ungodly speed towards the ground.
Sixty seconds gone. And still he fell, still the hand firm on his arm, shifted up slightly now to hold his elbow. He could feel the strength in the fingers, confident strength, an assured grip. Falling with total abandonment, almost a joyous sensation of flight, of freedom. He had not experienced anything like this before, and suddenly he realised, with frightening clarity of thought, how easy it would be to simply fly on, fly right down until the ground rose up to hit one in sudden crushing and instant death.
One hundred and twenty seconds gone. His mind drifted away from counting, and with a sudden panic he realised that he was lost.
He had no idea where the ground was, how much further he had before he plunged into the thickly snow-covered ground. He began
to twist out of the grip that held him, restricted him.
He needed to open his chute, needed to do it…….. he star-fished, his old training taking over, and instantly slowed down as his body flattened and lost its aerodynamic smoothness
The sudden movement directly in front startled him, until he recognised the face. His partner, aware of his confusion, his mental turmoil, had positioned himself so that he was now head to head, his hands grabbing Straker’s hands, his eyes, almost hidden behind the protective goggles, staring into Straker’s eyes. The panic passed. Straker breathed one deep calming breath, nodded at the man and squeezed his hands hard to let him know that the situation was now under control….. there was a sudden sharp, loud noise in his ears.. the altimeter.
Time to deploy. His guardian gave a clear decisive nod, and let go, watching Straker closely until he saw the man he had been assigned to protect pull his ripcord and appear to jerk upwards as a loud crack signified the successful opening of the chute. The team leader, his main job done, pulled his own ripcord and, swiftly tucked himself into the prescribed position for landing. He noticed the man, still floating above him, also prepare for touch down. And then, with soft scrunch of heavy weights dropping into thick virgin snow, they were down.
The team leader shrugged out of his harness and buried his canopy and empty oxygen bottle in the snow, before heading for Straker who was doing the same.
They looked at each other, and Straker held out a hand in silent thanks.
‘You can call yourself a true Skydiver now,’ his guardian smiled.
Perfect. And Straker smiled to himself as he saw the SHADO submarine in his mind, with the word SkyDiver emblazoned on its streamlined hull. He tucked the thought away for later.
Moonlight sparked myriad diamond glints off the pristine snow that carpeted the area. Straker unsealed a pocket, pulling out the GPS tracker that was pre-tuned to the elusive, erratic frequency. He studied it carefully before looking up at the waiting team.
‘That way, about one hundred metres’ he murmured, in a quiet and hushed voice, loathe to disturb the silence that lay as thick as the snow. He pointed towards the nearby sparse scattering of stunted trees that marked the northern edge of the taiga forest.
‘Right, you lead the way.’ The team leader pulled Straker closer and spoke in an undertone. ‘Be careful. Whatever is out there, whatever it is that you have come for, other people will be looking for it as well. You know that don’t you? We’ll keep a perimeter watch, but we are under orders to move away once you start work.’
Straker nodded. There was nothing to say. He had to get the satellite, had to get the data. And there would be others searching right now for the remains, seeking that small ‘Black Box’ that contained such devastating evidence. The GRU, the SVR, the Russian mafia and other factions too numerous, too diverse to count, would all have a vested interest in getting hold of the satellite, either for its technological information or for what it might contain. They would have, must have, tracked the object as it blazed through the sky, as it broke into pieces before crashing into the unsullied snow. It was only a matter of time before someone stumbled across the remains.
With cautious paces he made his way to the somewhat inadequate shelter of the scrubby pine trees, the team following him, watching, alert and apprehensive.
The signal, irregular and arbitrary, increased in volume as he made his way between the trees, careful not to disturb them. It was cold enough already without snow slithering onto him from the slanted snow-laden branches. Moonlight guided his steps, and the blue shadows had such a rare beauty that on any other night he would paused, have simply wondered at the sapphire darkness that spread across the pristine whitened landscape. But not tonight.
It was with a sense of regret that he clambered on, feet sinking deep into the snow, frozen fingers now numb with the invading cold that ate through the layers of his clothes to nip and sting at his skin. The sound of footsteps on snow, almost as if they were walking on heavy shingle, the silence of the forest, the brilliant glare of moonlight on ice crystals that floated mysteriously in the still cold air.
Straker knew that he would remember these sensations forever, that this time would stay with him, would be a memory that he would return to again and again. The sheer beauty, the utter magnificence, the calm, serene darkness that surrounded him with such peace and tranquillity. And so he struggled on, eyes ever alert, watching the tracker, watching the ground, listening, looking, hoping that no-one else had come this way, had reached the objective first.
The trees thickened. Grew taller, closer together. The leader, walking beside Straker, halted. ‘There,’ he whispered, the sound a mere sliver of noise in the quiet. Straker followed his pointing finger.
Debris. Blackened shards of metal, twisted and warped, broken branches. The first sign of the wreckage.
The tracker signal became more insistent, sharper, and Straker followed the directions deeper into the forest, the sound of heavy footsteps close to him.
There. The unmistakeable continuous sound that indicated ground zero. The unit had to be close now. He looked around, more debris, broken branches, deeply scored and blackened earth where falling fragments had plumeted before burrowing into the permafrost.
The team backed away, waiting, watching. Straker turned, trying to find the small case, his eyes almost dazzled by the shimmering whiteness of the moonlit snow.
A flash of bright fluorescent orange like a single flame, visible even in the subdued moonlight caught his eye. Hurrying, he moved to it, brushed away the snow that had fallen from the disturbed branches above. He had found it. Undamaged, apart from several deeply scored and burned indentations. But the outer case was intact.
He looked back at the team now moving in stealth away from him to set up a perimeter watch. Once he was alone he would input the code that would open the unit, then he would start the task he had been ordered to complete.
It should have taken just a matter of a few minutes to download the data, and then transmit to back to Henderson. A simple task really, but the coded keypad was designed for use in the warm environs of a laboratory, not the sub-zero temperatures that he was now experiencing. It was impossible to punch the code in while wearing the thick insulated gloves that were so necessary.
Reluctantly he tugged the glove off his right hand.
It took longer than he had thought to input the right sequence on the small touchpad. He struggled to press the buttons with fingers that were now thick and numb and unresponsive. Three times, four times, then, eventually he succeeded. The unit opened, the access panel slid aside and he could see the small chip inside, green lights flashing to say it was still active. He still had to send the data back to Henderson, and that took time as well, too much time. It was a slow process, and he was getting colder by the second. He watched impatiently as the secure line downloaded the damming evidence. Breath vapour crackled in and sparkled as he hunched there, focussed, absorbed, his whole being engaged in watching the small viewscreen on the case.
Done. All downloaded.. And then, in a flurry of disturbed snow flakes and a whirlwind of white crystals a helicopter loomed above them, its markings hidden by the darkness and the blizzard of its rotors. Straker looked up, just as the team leader called to him. ‘Straker, hurry up. We need to get back to the landing site to put down flares. Meet us there. Be quick.’ He stared at Straker, a piercing look of stern command. Straker nodded and turned back to the all-important task.
He started to purge the data, his whole attention focussed on the task, ignoring the cold, the eerie silence. The footsteps faded into the distance and overhead he could hear the helicopter circling, looking for a place to land.
The images stored in the chip had to be erased in isolation. He had to confirm the deletion request for every photograph and there was no way to speed up the process. If anyone had been watching, had realised exactly what was showing on the screen as the images were sent, then all hell would have broken loose. Straker sighed with relief as the final image, of a UFO, poised, hanging motionless in space against a backdrop of a huge Earth, was erased.
Then he heard footsteps behind him. Damn. The team would have been waiting for him, possibly worrying about the length of time it was taking. Well it was all done now. There was no evidence left. Nothing incriminating. With slow and stiff movements, he stood up and turned to face the person coming closer behind him.
With a rush of alarm, he realised his mistake. The helicopter was overhead. Directly overhead. He had been so absorbed in his task that he had failed to notice that fact. And the man who was now approaching him, who had rappelled down from that same helicopter, who was in thick white camouflaged arctic combat uniform also had a rifle pointing directly at Straker.
There was nothing he could do. Apart from raise his hands and hope the rest of the team were safe. He heard the copter move closer, saw the sling drop down, and knew that they were about to take him. But before he could even think about trying to run, a futile thought anyway in the current circumstances, he was grabbed, was held, and a sharp, stinging pain in his neck, just below his jaw brought swift blackness rushing through him like the shadow of an eclipse.
The moon fled behind the thick clouds that had made a silent and stealthy approach.
Darkness flooded across the landscape, hiding what was about to happen.