by Denise Felt 2009
Dedicated to my favorite fellow UFO fanfic writer, Pam McCaughey. Also dedicated to dragon, who (once more) had the idea first.
Captain Jamison looked up from skimming through reports when the navigator spoke to him.
"Captain, we're approaching Star 75832 and its system."
"Very well, Jons. Are we receiving any scans from the planets or satellites?"
The navigator shook his head. "Nothing, sir."
The communications officer turned from his station. "We are not picking up any communications on any known channels, sir."
The captain frowned. "But isn't this star one with a habitable planet?"
Jons checked the stats. "Yes, sir. Should we venture closer and check it out?"
Jamison considered for a moment, then said, "Do it."
As the UCP Salvation powered down for interplanetary travel, Beene at the science console addressed the captain.
"Sir," she said, her musical voice sounding concerned. "The third planet of Star 75832's system is known to support a pre-warp civilization. We should be reading energy signatures, massive planetary communications, and bio readings."
"I don't care what we should be reading, Beene," the captain said firmly. "What are we reading?"
Beene shook her head."Nothing, sir."
Jamison jumped up from his command chair and came to her console. "Nothing at all? Check again."
"Yes, sir." After a few minutes working the controls, she said, "I'm sorry, sir. There's nothing there."
The captain turned to the navigator. "Take us into orbit around the third planet, Jons."
"And Kahli?" the captain continued as he returned to his chair.
"Yes, sir?" the communications officer asked.
"Get me Dr. Todd," he said, referring to the Chief Redemption Officer onboard.
Everything changed when he saw the girl in the road. In the time it took to draw in a breath to gasp, to yank the wheel fiercely to the right, a thousand thoughts flitted through his mind. And all of them began with "Oh, God . . . !"
Straker didn't even feel the impact of slamming into the tree. He yanked off the harness and was out of the car and onto the road before he'd taken one full breath. He was bleeding from a cut on his lip where it had hit the steering wheel, but he wasn't aware of it. He wasn't even shaking. That, he knew from past experience, would come later. After he made sure she was all right.
His heart sank when he saw that she was no longer standing, but had fallen onto the pavement. He hadn't hit her. He was sure he hadn't hit her. Wouldn't he have felt her hit the car? He reached out to touch her and saw that his hand was shaking after all. Tired, he thought, dismissing it. Just a little tired. Shouldn't work for 83 hours straight without a break. Didn't he know better?
She was laying on her side, and when he turned her onto her back, his heart lodged like a pit into his stomach. She was blonde and very young, probably in her early twenties. And she was dead. Anyone could see that she was dead. Her skin was so cold; her eyes stared up at the stars and saw nothing. Nothing at all.
He wasn't aware that he said anything out loud. He was frantically searching for a pulse, knowing it was useless, feeling how cold she was. But he didn't see where she'd been hit. Okay, maybe the moon's light wasn't that great. But he should have been able to find a wound. Shouldn't he? His mind came out of its fog suddenly as he asked himself why she was so cold? She shouldn't have been cold if she just died. She'd still be warm.
In a flash, he saw it all. The deserted strip of road; the distraction to get him out of his car.
Even as he leapt to his feet, he felt the impact in his shoulder. And heard the accompanying report of a powerful rifle. As he fell, the world tilted all around him in shades of grey. It even smelled grey, he thought sadly as he lay looking into the charcoal trees nearby. Like asphalt.
It was his last thought before the world went black.
*** *** ***
Dr. Jackson was tapping his fingers against the report on his desk. He said nothing, just looked at the commander in silence.
Straker hated it when he did that. Besides, he didn't want to hear it. He shrugged into his jacket and went to leave the Medical Centre.
He turned at the door and lifted a brow. "Yes?"
Jackson compressed his thin lips into an even thinner line than normal. "I think it would be in the best interests of SHADO if you took a short vacation."
"I don't care what you think, Doctor," Straker said calmly, ignoring the sick feeling in his gut. He knew he'd passed his physical by a hair. But he'd passed it, and that was the important thing. Jackson's threats held no weight without the necessary results. "Prove it, and we'll talk."
As he left the room, Jackson said softly, "You know I'm right."
He let the door slide closed behind him as he headed toward his HQ office.
He was halfway down the hall when pain ripped through him, dropping him to his knees. He gasped and clutched his shoulder, his hands coming away bloody. As he fell to the floor in agony, he saw Jackson's reptilian eyes above him.
"I told you, Commander," the doctor smirked. "Your stress levels are too high. You need a vacation."
Straker didn't have enough breath to curse him, to tell him that there was nowhere to go on a vacation. Nowhere was far enough to get away from his own inadequacies.
With a groan, he opened his eyes.
And saw the trees overhead, alternately blocking then showing the starlight. Where was he? And why were the trees moving?
Suddenly, as his head bounced over a small hillock, he realized that it was him that was moving. He was being dragged. He tried to clear his vision enough to see who was pulling him along the ground. All he could make out was a dark figure with a really round head. He blinked at that for a moment, trying to make sense of it. What was going on? And why couldn't he think?
Then the moonlight glinted off something metallic at the man's neck. A helmet's neck ring. And everything came back to him with a bone deep chill. Aliens. Ambush.
He'd been captured.
For a second -- for one lifelong second -- he considered doing nothing. He ached everywhere, all the way to his soul. He was tired. Yes, he was tired. No matter what SHADO did, the aliens kept sneaking through their defenses and killing people. No matter how hard they tried to protect the planet, Earth remained in danger. Surely there was a point when it was no longer even intelligent to go on fighting the odds? Surely one man could just let it all go, just quietly check out of the pain, the war, the futility? What difference would it make?
Just as he thought that, he saw something among the trees ahead. Something that glowed in the dark like a beacon. Something conical, like an alien spaceship.
And he realized that it didn't matter how tired he was. How lost or hurt or defeated or burnt out. He wasn't letting them put him on that ship. He began to fight.
The alien quickly became irritated by his struggles, which greatly hindered their progress forward. He swung his rifle around and slammed the butt against the commander's skull. Straker reeled from the blow; nearly unconscious, but still struggling weakly. The alien hit him again, and his struggles ceased.
He was still fighting in his mind, but his body would no longer obey him. He could no longer get his feet to kick at the hold the alien had on them, nor could he make his hands grab onto passing shrubbery to impede their progress toward the ship. He was dazed and in shock, but he thought, No. I didn't mean it. I don't want to die.
Suddenly, almost as if he'd heard him, the alien stopped. Through the buzzing in his brain, Straker realized that the alien had dropped his legs and was looking toward the ship. The commander turned his head painfully and saw that the ship was pulsing strangely. It took a moment for him to figure out that the buzzing wasn't in his head after all. The ship was making that noise. By the time his mind had processed that information, it was too late to react.
The spaceship exploded in a deafening flash of light. Reflexively he closed his eyes and felt the concussive force roll over him where he lay. When he opened them again, he saw that the alien had been knocked off his feet onto the ground nearby. Straker demanded his limbs to work and managed to roll onto his stomach. He began crawling away from the alien, away from the debris of the destroyed spaceship, as fast as he could, sobbing with relief at the unexpected reprieve.
He stopped when the alien shot him in the shoulder again, this time hitting him through the back. Through the shocking pain, he turned his head and looked back. The alien stood mere feet away, his rifle aimed right between Straker's eyes.
The commander knew there was no way to outrun him. Not in his condition. He couldn't even get to his feet. He lifted his head and stared into the opaque eyes glaring out of that helmet. He held that gaze, daring the alien to finish him off. He knew the alien had nothing left to lose. Go ahead and look me in the eye, you bastard. At least have the guts to look at me when you kill me.
The rifle report was overloud amidst the surrounding trees.
And the alien fell dead across his feet.
He was so surprised that he simply stared stupidly at the body for a moment. Then he whirled his head around to look back in front of where he lay. The action made him dizzy, and his arms turned to jelly. But before his head hit the dirt, he saw an outline. Someone was there. Someone with a rifle of their own.
A rifle that looked very much like the one the alien had carried.
*** *** ***
It was the pressure on his shoulder that brought him back to consciousness. He saw hands deftly folding a cloth pad against his wound, cloth that resembled the fabric from his suit jacket. He looked up. And blinked in surprise. It was a woman who was leaning over him. The moonlight made her beautiful, bathing her face in light and shadow. Her eyes were dark pools of mystery. He found himself saying, "That was a perfectly good jacket."
Her dark hair lightly touched her cheeks as she nodded, and she answered him just as seriously. "You would never have gotten the stains out of it."
She had a deep voice that seemed to suit the night. He wondered if he was dreaming. "Are you real?"
"Yes," she said, turning his head slightly to examine his head wound. "You have been badly hurt. I must get you medical attention as soon as possible." She looked at the woods surrounding them for a long moment, obviously considering what to do. "It may take a while to get it to you, and I hesitate to leave you for such a long time."
He had no idea why she was willing to help him, or even why she had saved his life, but he wasn't going to ask questions at the moment. "There's a phone in my car. It might still work."
He grimaced slightly. "I'm not sure. Back that way, I think. I wasn't conscious the whole time."
She nodded again and stood. "I should be able to follow your trail back to the road." She pushed the alien off his feet and handed him the rifle she carried. He saw that it was indeed exactly like the one that the alien had carried, and suddenly he had a million questions.
Before he could voice any of them, she closed his fingers over the trigger and said, "Try to stay alert. I will be as quick as I can."
She looked back once, the concern obvious in her eyes. Then she was gone.
*** *** ***
The night was so quiet around him that it was difficult to tell the passage of time. When he heard rustling in the shrubbery, he came suddenly alert to realize that he had been dozing. He clutched the rifle tighter.
"Ed? God, Ed!"
Suddenly, Alec was there at his side. "Jesus, Ed! What have you done to yourself?"
Straker let him take the rifle, but grimaced when Alec looked under the bloody pad on his shoulder.
"Get the gurney, you fools!" Alec barked at the men who had followed him through the trees.
He looked back at his friend and shook his head, seeing the dazed expression in the commander's eyes. "We'll take care of you now, Ed. You'll be okay."
Straker closed his eyes wearily in gratitude. "Thanks, Alec."
When he woke in the hospital, it was morning, and he had to blink back sudden tears. He was surprised at how emotional it made him to see the sunlight filtering through the window's blinds. But it felt good to know that the ordeal of the night had passed.
And he was still alive.
He turned his head on the pillow and watched Alec approach the bed. "Did I thank you for getting me out of there?"
The colonel laid a hand on his arm, needing the reassurance that his friend and commander was indeed alive and on the mend. He had been horrified to find him in those woods, so broken and alone.
"Yeah," he said now as he swallowed the lump in his throat. "Leave it to you to do your own rescuing before I could get there."
Straker's brow furrowed. "What do you mean?"
Col. Freeman shrugged. "What else? You already took care of the aliens and their ship before we even arrived on the scene. And in your condition, it couldn't have been easy."
The commander shook his head. "But I didn't, Alec. I didn't do any of it."
The colonel frowned. "But you had to have done so, Ed! We certainly didn't get there in time to do any more than clean up. But you'll be glad to know that the automatic alarm system in your car worked perfectly. We knew exactly where to go to find where you'd crashed."
Straker stared at him, trying hard to piece the events of the night together coherently enough to get a clear picture. "But, I don't understand. What about the girl?"
Alec's brows shot up. "The one in the road? Dead. Jackson says that she'd been reprogrammed after death, which I suppose was a blessing for her. What did they have her do? Stand in the way of your car?"
"Yes." Straker fought back a shudder at how easily he'd been tricked.
But Alec knew him too well. He patted his friend's shoulder and said bracingly, "Well, you took care of them, didn't you? They won't try that hoax again soon."
Straker shook his head, still trying to clear it. "No, Alec. You don't understand. I don't mean the girl in the road. I mean the one who saved my life. Didn't she call you? Isn't that why you came?"
Freeman frowned. "No, we didn't get a call. Your car alarm went off at Ford's station in HQ, and we got to the spot as soon as we could. What girl, Ed? We didn't see anyone but you."
Straker tried to raise his head, agitated when he was too weak to do so. Alec handed him the automatic crank for the bed, and he pressed the button, raising the head of the bed until he was sitting up. His eyes never left his friend's, though, as he tried to put everything that had happened the night before into some sort of order in his mind. "There was a girl -- a woman, actually. She went to get help. You didn't see her?"
"Ed, are you sure?" Alec asked in concern. "We've been all over that forest. We didn't find anyone else. Just you, the dead girl in the road, and two dead aliens."
"Yeah," Alec said slowly, seeing the shock in the commander's eyes and wondering if he should go get Dr. Jackson. Maybe Ed's concussion was worse than they thought. "The one you shot that we found next to you and the one that you shot aboard the ship. He was in the wreckage. Don't you remember?"
The commander slowly shook his head. "No. I wasn't ever onboard the ship. I only saw the one alien. I don't understand. Do you think the woman could have done it? She didn't seem to have any trouble killing the other one."
Alec eyed him closely. "Ed, we didn't find any traces of anyone in those woods but you. I think we would have noticed if anyone else had been around."
Straker pressed a hand to his eyes. His head hurt trying to remember, but he knew he hadn't dreamed her. She'd saved his life, for God's sake!
"Alec! You've got to find her," he said urgently. "She's a security risk. I don't know what she was doing there. Or why she killed the aliens. Or even why she rescued me. And we need those answers."
"Sure, Ed," the colonel said, unable to resist his friend's request. "I'll have them sweep the area again. We'll find her, I promise you."
But after he left to handle things, Straker lay in his bed and stared at the ceiling. Why hadn't the woman called for help? She'd been so concerned for him. He was sure of it. He hadn't dreamt that, or anything else from the incident. She'd tended to him, bound his wound, and tried to get him help. She'd promised to call for help and come back.
So where was she?
*** *** ***
He awoke slowly several hours later, aware of voices talking in low tones nearby. He strained to understand them, trying to get his bearings. There. That voice. It was Alec. What was he saying?
"What do you think it means, Jackson?" Alec asked quietly, glancing anxiously at the hospital bed where his commander lay sleeping.
"Col. Freeman, the commander has been through a great deal of trauma, both physically and emotionally. Post traumatic stress is quite normal in these circumstances. In fact, I would be surprised if he hadn't suffered in any way over what he's gone through."
"But what about this woman he thinks saved him? What am I supposed to tell him? We've looked under every rock in that blasted forest and haven't found a trace of anyone else but him. And the two aliens he killed. I don't get why he'd have trouble accepting that he saved himself from those bastards."
The doctor didn't seem to be concerned. "We have no way of knowing how his mind is coping with his shock and horror over the incident. Every person deals with such things differently."
Freeman threw his hands up in disgust. "Well, that's no help! What am I supposed to do about her? Go along with him or tell him the truth?"
"Colonel, you know the commander better than I do. How do you think he would prefer you to handle it?"
Alec rubbed his hands over his face wearily. He hadn't slept in more hours than he wanted to count. "He'll want the truth," he said with a sigh.
The doctor raised an eyebrow. "Then you know how to handle it without any help from me." And he left the room.
"Yeah," Freeman muttered to the closing door. "But you try to convince him he's wrong about something."
The colonel spun around at that voice. "Ed? You're awake?"
As he approached the bed, Straker eyed him closely. Then he sighed. "You didn't find her."
"I'm sorry, Ed. If she was ever there, she's long gone now."
The commander's lips thinned. "If, Alec? Am I delusional now?"
"Of course not!" Freeman denied hotly. "It's just that you've got a dandy concussion that could easily be playing havoc with your memories of what happened last night. Are you going to tell me that you remember everything clearly?"
Straker frowned, wanting to fiercely deny any lack of clarity, but unable to with any confidence while wearing a bandage at his temple. "My memory's not as clear as crystal yet," he admitted reluctantly. "But I haven't forgotten anything either. And she was there. I didn't dream her."
Alec sighed. "Then she's gone, Ed. She left no trace of herself at the scene, so we can't even track down which way she went. I'm sorry."
Straker hated dead ends. "Well, keep an eye out at the checkpoints along that road for a while, Alec. She may come back."
*** *** ***
After Alec left Straker's room, he ordered the operatives still at the scene of the incident to have the checkpoints be on alert for any woman who appeared too interested in what they were doing or who asked too many questions. When he closed his cell phone, he found Dr. Jackson nearby in the hall, one eyebrow raised sarcastically.
Freeman flushed and jerked a shoulder. "It was a reasonable request."
The doctor said suavely, "I thought you were going to tell him the truth."
"I did!" the colonel retorted, flustered and furious at being caught out. "But he's convinced she was there. You try and tell him differently!" And he stormed off toward the elevator.
Jackson watched until he disappeared around the corner, then gazed at the door to Straker's hospital room for a long moment, as if debating something. Then he sighed and returned to his office.
*** *** ***
He woke suddenly to a darkened room. His heart pounded in his throat for just a moment, then settled again as he realized that he was indeed in a hospital bed and not in the woods. A small lamp had been left burning at the head of his bed, and he began to be able to make out more of his surroundings in its weak glow.
Then he saw her.
She stood nearly past the lamp's glow near the foot of his bed. He noticed that she was still wearing the utilitarian jumpsuit that she'd had on in the woods, and he wondered vaguely why she hadn't changed? She said nothing on meeting his gaze, only staring back at him in silence out of those dark eyes.
Was she real? He blinked, and she was still there. Would she disappear if he spoke? He had so many questions. Finally, duty demanded that he speak.
She smiled slightly, relaxing her stiff pose. "How are you feeling?"
"Fine," he answered automatically, then realized that, under the circumstances, that was a lousy answer. He cleared his throat. "I'm better."
"That is good news," she said, replacing his chart back onto its hook at the foot of his bed. "They seem to be doing competently in caring for you."
"Where did you go?" he asked quietly, trying to keep any emotion out of his voice.
She seemed to sense it, however, for she laid a comforting hand on his leg as she answered. "Before I made it to the road, I saw your men coming to rescue you. I followed them back to your position to make sure that they handled you properly, but I could tell that you were safe in their care." She tilted her head slightly, her gaze never leaving his face. "Did you need me to stay and supervise?"
He bit back a grimace. How could he explain? He'd felt connected to her somehow. She'd killed an alien to save his life, after all. Maybe even two. Didn't she feel anything about that? Had he only imagined the concern in her eyes? He searched her eyes carefully and was relieved somewhat to see that the concern was still definitely there.
"I wanted the chance to thank you for saving my life."
She broke eye contact after a moment and came closer to the head of the bed, reaching out and laying a hand gently over his bandaged shoulder. "I did not do such a good job of it, it seems."
"You can't blame yourself for that!" he told her, amazed that she would.
The only reaction she had to his intense words was to give a small shake of her head. Her hand left his shoulder and returned to her side.
"Listen to me," he said, and waited until her eyes came back to his. "I'm alive because of you. Thank you."
"You are very welcome."
He smiled involuntarily at her serious tone. "I appreciate you coming in to check up on me. As you can see, I'm healing nicely. They'll be sending me home in a few days and . . ."
"What?" she said sharply, interrupting him midsentence.
He raised his brows at her shocked expression. "What did I say?" he asked mildly.
She visibly quieted herself. He was in complete admiration at how quickly she went from full alert to relaxed. But her tone was still a bit sharp as she answered him.
"They are sending you home so soon?"
He sighed. "I can't stay here lounging in bed for days. Besides, I'll recover faster if I can be up and about. Really."
She searched his face for a long moment, obviously unsure whether to believe him or not. Then she gave a small nod. "Very well. Will they provide you with nursing care in your home until you are well?"
Straker couldn't completely hide his grimace this time, and when she raised a brow, he was forced to say, "Not exactly."
She persevered. "Just how not exactly?"
He shifted on the pillows. "I prefer not to have a lot of people crowding me. Believe me, I'll be fine on my own."
She took a step closer to the bed. "You nearly died. What could they be thinking to leave you alone during your recovery? That is unacceptable."
He reached out and took her hand in his. "Thank you for worrying about me. It means a lot to me that you would. But it's for the best. You'll see."
"I feel responsible for your safety. I am not confident that they are doing all that needs to be done for you for your complete recovery."
He patted her hand before releasing it. "The Chinese have a proverb about that," he murmured.
"Yes. That once you save someone's life, they become your responsibility for the rest of yours."
She agreed with a small nod. "This is a true saying. Chinese is very wise."
He frowned at her. "The Chinese are a race, not a person."
She tilted her head slightly, absorbing that, then said, "Indeed. Then I should say that they are very wise." Her dark gaze moved over his face for a moment. Then she said, "You are tired. You must rest now."
Straker knew he probably looked as bad as he felt, but he didn't want her to leave. He found her conversation stimulating and her quiet presence comforting. "You don't have to go."
She leaned forward to adjust his blanket higher on his chest. "You need your rest."
He took her hand again. "Won't you stay for a while longer? I know I'd rest easier if you were here."
She settled lightly onto the edge of the bed, clasping his hand gently in return. "I will stay until you sleep."
He squeezed her hand. "Thank you."
He continued looking at her until she said softly, "Close your eyes."
The warmth of her presence followed him into dreams.
When Alec entered the hospital room in the morning, he found Straker sitting up and eating a light breakfast. "Well," he said as he approached the bed. "You look better."
Straker grinned at him. "I feel better, Alec. The doctors are saying there's no more inflammation in my shoulder, and it doesn't even hurt much anymore." As long as he didn't make any sudden moves. But he didn't add that. "Jackson says I can go home tomorrow."
"Great! What about the concussion?"
"Well, that's the problem actually," the commander admitted. "He doesn't want me to go back to work for a full 72 hours after I'm released. He said I should be fine by then, if there are no complications."
Freeman grunted. "I suppose we can make it by without you for a few more days. But I don't like it."
Straker's grin widened. "Aren't you enjoying command?"
"Yeah, sure," Alec said sarcastically. "Where the hell do you find time to work at the studio and still put in a full day in HQ?"
"Ah, well. It takes a little time to work out a system that flows well. You'll get the hang of it."
Alec's only response was another grunt. "I hope you're back before I have the chance."
Straker put down his empty coffee cup on the tray and asked blandly, "So, Alec. What do you think of her?"
The colonel had been pacing the room, but he stopped and turned at this. "Who, Ed?"
He frowned. "Come on, you know who I mean. The girl who saved my life. Who else?"
Alec gaped at him for a moment, then said, "What?"
The commander began to be irritated by his reaction. "Come on, Alec. Admit it. You just didn't want her to be real. By the way, where did you find her?"
"Ed . . ."
Straker took in his friend's odd expression and became suddenly serious. "What is it?"
Freeman drew a breath. "Ed, we never did find her. They're still keeping a watch at the checkpoints, but so far we've got nothing."
"But, I don't understand." The commander set the tray aside and adjusted his position against the upraised head of the bed. "She was here."
He pinched the bridge of his nose, feeling a headache forming behind his eyes. "She came to my room last night. I spoke with her. I guess I assumed that you had her here in one of the rooms under observation."
Alec shook his head. "Jesus, Ed! She was here? Are you sure?"
Straker's lips thinned. "Of course, I'm sure. Didn't I say I spoke with her? She was here, Alec. I wasn't hallucinating."
"No, of course not!" Alec replied too quickly. "It's just that – I'll check it out. If she was in your room, then somebody saw her coming and going. We'll find her, Ed." He got to the door before turning back. "Did she say why she was here?"
"She said that she wanted to be sure that I was being properly cared for," the commander said drily.
Alec knew that tone and just rolled his eyes before leaving the room.
But Straker stared at the closed door for a long time, frowning.
*** *** ***
"Why do you find it so hard to believe me?" Straker asked in exasperation.
Freeman paced the room in agitation. What he really wanted to do was bang his head against the wall. "It's not a matter of believing you, Ed," he explained. "It's a matter of the facts. Surely you can see that?"
The commander's lips compressed even more for a moment, then he nodded. "Fine. Then let's look at the facts. One: I was not in any condition to save myself from those aliens. The one I dealt with made sure of that. Two: I was never aboard that spaceship. And three: I spoke with that girl here in this room last night."
Alec's voice raised in response to those clipped tones. "Sure, Ed! How about these facts then? One: we've found no trace of any other person at the site but you, even after going over everything practically with a magnifying glass! Two: you have a severe concussion and post traumatic stress, according to the doctors, along with a cartload of other injuries. Your account of events from that night doesn't work with the data we've accumulated. Damn it, you had the rifle that killed those aliens in your own hand! And three: the guard outside your door here never left his post all night!"
He came to a halt near the bed and threw up his hands. "So, you tell me what to believe, Ed. The facts as you see them, or the facts as they are?"
But the commander only asked mildly, "You've confirmed ballistics, then? Both aliens were shot with the same rifle?"
"Yes." Alec sat on the visitor's chair at last, worn out from trying to get through to his friend. Straker could be like a dog with a bone about things, and it was a thankless task to have to be the one to try and take that bone from him.
Straker frowned at the wall for a time, then said softly, "So. She did kill them both. Why? And she must also have blown up their ship. Is she some sort of vigilante or something? Was it just a coincidence that I was even there? Or is the setup more elaborate than that? Did they sacrifice themselves so that she would look like my rescuer? What do you think, Alec?"
Freeman had dropped his head into his hands and only muttered, "You don't want to know what I think."
Straker's eyes lost their earnest expression and began to twinkle. "Alec!" When his friend lifted his head and met his eyes, he turned serious once more. "Listen to me. I know that you and Jackson both think I've dreamed up this girl for some reason. But consider for a moment if I'm right. If I did see her and she did save my life. Don't you see? This is important."
"Ed, I get where you're coming from. I really do," the colonel said wearily. "But whatever happened during that incident, this hospital isn't the woods. We have tight security here; we have dedicated personnel. And no girl could just waltz into a guarded room on a guarded floor in a guarded wing of this hospital without any surveillance cameras catching her or anyone seeing her at all! That's what I know. That's what I can prove. The rest?" He shrugged. "It'll sort itself out once you're recovered. You'll see."
The commander seemed to age suddenly as he laid back against the head of the bed. "Of course, Alec," he said quietly. "You're right, of course. I have no proof of anything I've told you."
"Ed, you don't even know this girl's name!"
Straker looked at him in surprise. "I never thought to ask her. Do you want me to?"
Freeman ran a hand over his face. "You planning on seeing her again, Ed?"
The commander plucked idly at his bedcovers. The thought that she might only be a figment of his imagination made something ache deep inside him, but he had to consider the possibility. "I don't know, Alec," he said finally. "If she's part of my concussion, I suppose she'll be around until I'm healed. Maybe. I might see her again."
The colonel got up to leave, but came closer first to lay a reassuring hand over his friend's fidgeting one on the bed. "Then definitely get her name," he said with a grin.
*** *** ***
He tried to stay awake, but his body was too worn out from the stresses of the day and the need to heal to allow him to do so. He woke sometime in the deepest part of the night to find her once more at the foot of his bed.
He stretched out a hand to her, and she came forward to clasp it.
"You look better," she said in her deep voice.
"I feel better," he acknowledged with a small smile.
"Are you indeed going home tomorrow?"
"Yes. I'll have a few days off to finish my recovery, then I'll get back to work."
She stared into his eyes for a long time, and he wondered what she saw there. More than he wanted her to see? Finally she said, "I am not comfortable with the idea of you recovering without assistance. Will they send a nurse home with you if you ask them?"
He grimaced. "Yes, of course. But I won't ask them." He squeezed her hand. "I'll be fine. I recover better without people hovering around me."
She frowned. "Am I hovering?"
He met her eyes in surprise. "No. I didn't mean you. I meant – others."
She nodded in understanding. "You do not wish for the constant reminder of your infirmities."
He caught himself before he hotly denied any infirmities. "Yes," he agreed.
"How will you pass the time?"
"I don't know. I have some scripts to look over; reports to write. Things like that." He smiled slightly. "I promise you I won't be sitting around, feeling sorry for myself."
Again her dark eyes probed his. Then she said, "Very well."
He was almost disappointed that she didn't pursue the topic further. He said, "My doctor thinks that I dreamed you up out of my concussion."
She raised her brows. "I am real. Do I seem a dream to you?"
He bit back a smile and an unwise comment. "You seem very real to me," he said instead.
She gave a nod. "You do not appear to be suffering from concussion. Yes, you have a severe wound on your head. But it seems to be healing nicely, and your eyes are clear."
"Thank you," he said meekly, amused at her serious tone. He kept his tongue firmly in his cheek as he said, "My best friend thinks you can't be real because you have no name."
She raised her brows again. "I have a name," she said firmly.
"Do you?" he asked mildly.
Suddenly she smiled at him. "Yes," she said. "I am PAM."
He thought her smile beautiful. "Hello, Pam."
"Hello, Commander Straker."
He frowned. "So, you know who I am."
Her complete openness reassured him somewhat. She simply didn't seem capable of duplicity. He said softly, "I have a first name too."
Her eyes dropped to where their hands lay on the bed, still clasped. "I am aware," she said.
"You may use it," he said.
She looked quickly at him, then sighed in relief at the sweetness of his expression. "Very well."
He wouldn't allow himself to smile at her reticence, merely lifting a brow at her until she added softly, "Ed."
*** *** ***
"You going to be okay?" Alec asked him as he got out of the car at his house.
Straker grimaced. "I'm not exactly an invalid," he reassured his friend.
Alec sighed. The man simply had no idea how important his well-being was to everyone at SHADO. He wouldn't have realized that the entire HQ staff had dealt with mind-numbing fear on hearing that damn car alarm go off that night. Or that Alec's heart had been in his throat the entire way out there to the site of the incident. If he did ever find out, Straker would only be sorry to have worried everyone. He certainly wouldn't see what all the fuss was about.
The colonel hated that this concussion had put them at odds. It was hard enough to see his commander injured. What did you do with hallucinations, by God? Well, he hoped fervently that this particular hallucination had run its course. Alec took it as a good sign that his friend had said nothing further about the girl when he picked him up this morning.
"Well, you know," he finally called out the car window with an attempt at a grin. "No heavy lifting with that shoulder or anything like that."
"Yes, Mother," replied the commander blandly, making Alec laugh. "I promise to lift nothing heavier than a pen over the next few days. Except maybe a coffee cup."
"See that you don't," Alec replied in mock severity.
"Oh, by the way, Alec," Straker said blandly as he opened his front door. "Her name is Pam."
Freeman was left impotently glaring at the closed door, the image of Straker's parting grin seared into his brain.
He stood on his back patio that evening, feeling a twitch between his shoulder blades as he looked out over his lawn toward the treeline. He sipped his coffee and ignored the feeling, knowing that he was bound to be a bit nervous around trees for a while yet.
It felt better to look up at the stars. It was a clear night, and he could make out each constellation with ease. He realized that it had been a long time since he had taken the time to just gaze at the night sky. Admire the beauty of it. The awe of all that space.
Most of the time he was too concerned about what might come at them from that sky to appreciate its aesthetic qualities. But tonight he sipped his coffee and thought about how small he was amongst that vast panorama of beauty. Could one man take on the entire universe and hope to win? And should he even try? And when he was fool enough to try again and again, did he honestly think he could really even make a dent in all that vastness?
Great. Now he was starting to feel sorry for himself. Pam would not approve.
At the thought of her, he felt that twitch again and swung around. The trees were closer to the opposite side of the patio. On that side, they were only about thirty yards away. It was nearly black beneath their thick branches, but he could just make out a pale patch that was a face. And in that face, two dark eyes that watched him quietly.
He bit back a gasp. It was almost as if he'd conjured her merely by thinking of her. "Pam?"
She walked forward out of the cover of the trees, but paused by the edge of the patio. "Hello, Ed."
He was unnerved at the sudden sight of her, and unnerved more by his reaction to seeing her here at his home. If she was a real person, which she stated and he wanted to believe, then he had no business thinking about her that way. But a small voice tripped up his heart by asking, And if she isn't real? What can I think then?
He was so infuriated at the direction his thoughts wanted to go that his voice was sharper than normal when he asked, "What are you doing here?"
"I wanted to be certain that you were handling your recovery well," she said, her deep voice like a caress in the night.
"As you can see I'm fine," he said brusquely. "How did you find out where I live?"
She looked at him seriously for a moment, then said, "You do not wish for visitors."
He waved that away and set his cup down on a small table. "It's not easy to find out where I live, Pam. Will you explain to me how you managed it?"
Again she simply looked at him for a moment. Then she said, "Perhaps I am hovering. Forgive me, Commander. I shall go."
He watched her until she entered the treeline, certain that she would look back or try some other way to make him feel guilty for being hard on her. But she never did. And he realized that she meant to simply go and leave him there. Alone.
"Wait! Pam!" He ran to the treeline, even as icy sweat broke out on his face at the mere idea of going into those trees. He made himself step into the darkness when he couldn't see her from where he stood on the grass, but she was no longer in sight even among the trees.
How could she be gone so quickly? The trees weren't that thick here. He should have been able to see where she went, but everywhere he turned, there was nothing but the empty darkness of his own timber.
"I'm sorry," he said to the quiet. "Please don't go."
He stood quite still for a long time, hoping to hear her velvety voice answer through the trees. Finally he sighed and walked back to the patio. He picked up his coffee cup and sipped, but it was cold and bitter to the taste. He tried stargazing again, but the stars were just like a roomful of accusing eyes, demanding to know what he'd been thinking to send her away. What if she didn't come back?
He carried his cup into the house and closed the patio doors.
*** *** ***
When he felt that small twitch between his shoulder blades the next night, he nearly wept with gratitude. He turned from watching the clouds scud across the sky and met her eyes.
She instantly moved back into the shadows of the trees, and he panicked.
"Wait! Don't go! Please!"
She came forward out of the trees, watching him closely. He wondered what she thought of his actions the night before. Could he make it right again between them? He only realized that he had blindly crossed the yard halfway to the treeline when she stopped in front of him on the grass.
"You wish for visitors tonight?" she asked.
He nearly grinned in relief. It was that simple to her. "Yes," he replied. "I would love to have your company tonight." He held out a hand to her and was absurdly touched when she did not hesitate to take it. He led her back to the patio and offered her one of the lounge chairs.
"Would you like some coffee?" he offered, waving a hand at the pot he had sitting on the small table.
"Yes, thank you."
"Let me get you a cup," he said, and dashed into the house quickly, worried that if he let her out of his sight too long, she'd leave again. But when he returned with a second cup, she was sitting in the chair waiting for him.
He ordered himself to relax and sat in the chair nearby to drink his coffee. He felt curiously content now that she was here, and was in no hurry to break the evening's stillness with speech.
They watched the clouds in silence for some time before she spoke.
"What were you thinking about when you looked at the sky last night?"
He met her eyes and asked quietly, "Why do you ask?"
She gave a small shake of her head. "You seemed . . . sad."
He stopped himself from automatically denying it and said, "Yes. I suppose I was. And after I had promised not to feel sorry for myself too. Will you forgive me?"
She seemed to understand that he was offering an apology for more than that, because her smile was warm when she said, "Yes, of course."
After a while she said, "Why would the sky make you sad?"
He tried to remember what he'd been thinking about at the time. "Oh, the stars were all out, and they made me feel very small and insignificant."
"You are neither small nor insignificant."
He grinned at her serious expression. "Thank you for your support. Have I told you how nice you are to have around?"
But she remained serious. "Why should you think that you are insignificant? You are a powerful man in a position of great importance to your world. This is no small thing."
He nodded in agreement, but said, "Sometimes the weight seems far too heavy for one man to bear alone."
"Yes. I have thought that this must be so," she said as she set her coffee cup down. She reached out a hand and took his. "And I have wondered if it might be better for you if you were not alone."
"I've been giving that a lot of thought myself recently," he found himself saying as he got to his feet. He gave her hand a tug and brought her to her feet in front of him. He kept his eyes on hers as he brought her hand to his lips. "Would you like me to tell you what conclusions I've reached?"
"Yes." Her eyes were like the darkest velvet against her pale and lovely face.
"Let me show you," he said and led her into the house.
*** *** ***
When he woke, it was dawn and he was alone in the bed. He grabbed his robe and left the bedroom to search the rest of the house, but she wasn't there either. He even opened the patio doors and went onto the patio in the hopes of finding her standing by the trees.
He eventually came back into the house and sat on the couch. His security system had been on, and he'd disabled it before opening the patio doors. He knew he'd turned it on last night when they came into the house. Since he could see from where he was sitting that the front door alarm was still blinking on, he knew no one had used the front door either.
He ran a hand through his hair. Facts, he thought disgustedly. The way he saw things or the way things really were? Well, he supposed that the one positive thing he could take from this mess was that at least he'd had a really good dream. Surely that accounted for something?
He got up from the couch and headed to the bedroom to dress and go deal with reality.
*** *** ***
He found Dr. Jackson in the Medical Centre at HQ.
The doctor looked up from his computer monitor when Straker came into the office. He lifted a brow. "A day early, Commander," he said suavely. "I believe I stressed that you needed to take a full 72 hours."
"Yes. You did." Straker didn't wait for an invitation, but sat in the chair in front of the desk and made himself comfortable. "But I'm not here to resume my duties, Doctor."
The commander met his eyes boldly. "No. I'm here because I need medical help. I'm delusional."
Jackson sat back in his chair in surprise. He knew from long experience that the commander found it nearly impossible to admit when he needed help. "Indeed?"
Straker compressed his lips. "Are you going to say I'm not?"
"Tell me, Commander. What made you decide that you were delusional?"
"I shouldn't need to spell it out to you, Doctor. The woman – Pam. She's not real, is she? I dreamed her up."
"Why would you do that?" Jackson asked.
Straker shrugged. "I don't know. I'm not a psychiatrist. Isn't that your job?"
The doctor's lips twitched. "Yes, it is. But speaking of jobs, yours is one of the most thankless on the planet. It demands all your time, all your energy, and requires you to be willing to sacrifice everything you hold dear for the good of the planet."
"I know the job requirements of the commander, Jackson. What's your point?"
"The point is that a man under that kind of stress will crack before very long unless he has an outlet for all that stress. When you were married, you had a natural outlet. However, the marriage itself added to your stress levels, so that you did not end up very much to the good."
"Is it necessary to bring up my marriage?"
"Commander, most men would find another outlet if their marriage failed, as yours did."
Jackson leaned forward. "Listen. How do Col. Foster and Col. Freeman handle the horrendous stress levels of their positions? They have affairs. They handle them differently according to their separate personalities, but the outlet itself is the same."
Straker eyed him narrowly. "You think I should have an affair?"
"No, Commander. I am well aware that you have a strict moral code that denies you that outlet for stress. That same code denies you the use of more temporary services, as well."
"Temporary services? Is that what it's called these days?" Straker asked drily.
Jackson's lips twitched again. "What I'm saying is that, in the absence of any means of relieving the heavy load of stress that you carried, you were heading for a breakdown. It would most likely have been massive and irreversible when it occurred. I tried to get you to take more time to yourself, to give yourself some relaxation opportunities in an effort to try to give you more time before the breakdown occurred. But you refused. You insisted on working 20 hour days or staying at HQ without a break for days at a time."
Straker tried not to squirm in his chair. "I didn't think anyone had noticed."
"It's my job to notice."
"Well, you got your wish," Straker said. "I'm taking a few days off."
"Yes," the doctor agreed. "Even though you were forced into it by circumstance. It was most timely that the incident with the UFO occurred when it did."
"Were they working for you then?" the commander asked drily.
"Hardly. I am merely stating that the timing of the incident worked out to your benefit. You did indeed take time off, and I can tell from just looking at you that you are much less stressed than I have seen you in a great while."
"That's all well and good, Doctor," Straker said fiercely. "But it doesn't address the fact that the incident left me delusional. I can hardly resume my duties in that condition, can I?"
Straker merely gaped at him, too stunned to be able to think of what to say.
"Commander, what does your delusion consist of? You believe that a woman appeared out of nowhere to rescue you from an alien attack. She saved your life and subsequently visited you to offer comfort while you were in the hospital. Tell me the harm in that."
"She also came to my house."
"Yes. The past two evenings."
"Interesting. Did she offer you comfort?"
Straker's lips thinned. "You could say that."
Dr. Jackson's brow lifted. "Well, then? Where is the harm?"
"Come on, Jackson!" the commander exploded. "You know damned well what the problem is! How can you be so calm about it? I'm having sexual fantasies about a woman who doesn't even exist!"
"Yes, you are," the doctor agreed calmly. "Perfectly harmless sexual fantasies. Something that your rigid moral code has never allowed you to experience because of a mistaken belief that they are wrong. But the incident that occurred so recently has snapped that rigidity for you, and your mind has finally allowed you to have a dream helper, someone who would care for you and comfort you in all the ways that you need so desperately, yet have never allowed yourself to enjoy until now. The trauma of being captured, even for such a short amount of time, opened up your mind to the possibilities of life. For the first time in a very long time."
Straker stared at him for a long moment. Finally he said, "Then – I'm not delusional?"
"Oh." He stood up and walked slowly toward the door. But when it slid open, he turned before going out and said, "There's just one thing, Doctor."
He debated for a moment the possible embarrassment of bringing the subject up, but decided any amount of embarrassment was worth it if he got an answer he could use. "This morning. When I woke. She was gone."
"Did you wish her to stay, Commander?"
The doctor smiled. "Then why don't you ask her?"
Straker met his eyes in surprise. "Ask her?" He thought about it for a moment. Then he said, "Oh. Yes. I see. Hmmm." And he left the office, the door sliding closed behind him.
Two months later, Straker signed the final report with a flourish, then put the entire stack away in the cabinet in his HQ office.
"Well, Alec, I didn't think we did too bad in that encounter," he said, referring to the UFO incident that had occurred earlier that day.
His friend looked up from his drink. "Are you kidding? We kicked their ass! That new radar R & D came up with is quite impressive."
"I think so," the commander agreed.
Alec grunted. "Kelly said that your suggestions made all the difference in the design."
"Come on, Ed! Don't be shy!" the colonel teased.
Straker shrugged. "I suppose I've been thinking about radar for a while. The more we can keep the aliens from having the chance to land, the better off for everyone on Earth."
"I know," Alec agreed quickly. He could easily understand why his friend was focused on that area of research. He was sure that the commander's own capture was still an open wound with his friend. It certainly still kept him up nights. "I just didn't realize how good you were with R & D."
Unexpectedly, the commander flushed. "It helps to have a good sounding board for ideas."
Alec had wondered. His friend had been much too relaxed since his incident with the aliens for Freeman to doubt that he'd met someone – special. And the colonel couldn't help being curious. "A better sounding board than me, Ed? I'm crushed."
Straker grinned, but his flush deepened. "You'll survive." He got up from his desk and put on his jacket. "I'll be in around 6 am to relieve you. But I'll be upside in the studio before then for a few hours if you need me."
Alec merely grunted about him needing the commander's assistance, but added, "You've got an early shoot?"
The commander nodded absently as he left the office.
Alec got up and refreshed his drink before taking over Straker's chair behind the desk. It bugged him that Ed hadn't mentioned who he was seeing or even if he was seeing anyone at all. It didn't seem like the Ed he knew to be so closemouthed about it. Years ago, when Straker had first met his wife, he had bored Alec practically to tears going on about her. Something was going on. That much was certain.
First, their workaholic commander was leaving on time at the end of his shift each day. Which was unheard of in the history of the organization. Second, he was acting a lot more relaxed than a man should after having been captured by aliens. In fact, Alec couldn't remember having seen Straker that relaxed in years. He'd even seen Ed joking with Lt. Ford the other day!
And third, the commander was walking around with a very satisfied smile on his face these days. Alec knew that look – any man would – and knew what it meant. Usually. But it bothered him, because if that look meant what Alec was fairly sure it did, then Straker was acting way out of character. The man was extremely stiff-necked about casual affairs, as Alec well knew. Why would he embark on one then? It made no sense.
Unless . . .
Freeman grabbed the phone and called down to the Medical Centre. When Dr. Jackson answered the phone, the colonel said, "I'm glad you're in today, Doctor. I need to talk to you. I'll be right there."
He hung up the phone and left the office.
Jackson sat back in the chair behind his desk when Freeman swept into his office. He thought the colonel looked frazzled. "How may I help you, Col. Freeman?"
Alec said, "When was the last time you spoke with Commander Straker?"
The doctor raised a brow. "A few days ago. Why do you ask?"
"How did he seem to you?"
Both brows went up. "He seemed fine, Colonel. Is there a problem?"
"Yeah. I think so." Alec paced the office for a moment, trying to figure out how to word his theory so that it came out right. "Ed's concussion," he said finally.
"The concussion was never as severe as it seemed, Colonel," the doctor said. "Surely he has not developed new symptoms?"
"What if – I know this may sound crazy, doctor – but what if his head injury caused brain damage that wasn't real noticeable at first?"
Jackson merely looked at him.
Alec ran a hand over his face. "I said it sounded farfetched."
The doctor sighed. "What kind of symptoms have you witnessed, Colonel?"
The colonel dropped into the chair in front of the desk. "He's acting out of character. Way out of character."
Alec squirmed under that ironic gaze. "He's relaxed, for God's sake! When have you ever seen Straker relaxed?"
"Commander Straker is taking better care of himself these days. If you ask me, Colonel, it is long overdue."
"Yeah, okay. But why? Why would he start doing it now? And he's happy!"
Jackson blinked. "You prefer him miserable, Col. Freeman?"
"No, of course not! But there's no reason for it. Unless he's seeing someone. Do you know anything about him seeing anyone, Jackson?"
The doctor sat back in his chair. "If I did, I couldn't discuss it with you."
Alec slammed a hand down on the desk. "That's just it, Doctor! If Ed's seeing someone, he's so far out of character that he's another person altogether! You know as well as I do what he's like! What's really going on?"
Dr. Jackson sighed. "Colonel, I realize that you are concerned about your commander and these changes in his behavior that you've noticed. However, I can assure you that Commander Straker is fine and recovering better from his ordeal than anyone could have expected. If that recovery required a few changes in habits of a lifetime, I am sure we can only be grateful that he was willing to adapt. SHADO needs him working at full capacity. He wasn't doing anyone any favors letting himself get burnt out on the job."
"So he is having an affair?"
"I have nothing further to say to you on this subject, Colonel, except this: what the commander does during his off-hours is not your concern unless he wishes it to be."
"Fine!" Alec threw the doctor a glare of dislike and stormed out of the Medical Centre. But halfway down the hall, he slowed to a walk. Jackson had been full of shit as usual and no help at all, but one thing was apparent. The doctor knew what Ed was up to. Which was so backward to the way things were supposed to be that Alec couldn't figure it out. Since when was Jackson Ed's buddy and Alec not?
Well, there were other ways to find out what he needed to know.
*** *** ***
Straker was whistling as he parked his car and got out. Reaching into the back, he grabbed a large box and pulled it out, setting it under his arm to carry inside. But as he turned to go into his house, he saw that Pam was waiting for him in the doorway.
Wearing his robe.
He grinned. He really couldn't help it. She looked . . . much better in it than he did.
She stood aside for him to enter, then closed the door at his back. As he laid the box down on the couch, she said, "Another gift?"
He patted the box absently, his eyes on her. "Yes, it is. A dress from one of the studio's designers. You'll like it. And it's about time too. You seem to have run out of clothes." He came forward and fingered the lapel of the robe.
She grinned at his bantering tone, but said seriously, "I have not run out of clothing."
"Oh?" he replied in an equally serious tone that was belied somewhat by the twinkle in his eyes. "Laundry day?"
She laughed. "No, Ed. When you left this morning, you seemed a little . . . high-spirited. I thought it might be nice to surprise you when you came home."
"A surprise? For me?"
"Yes," she said, her smile widening as she put her arms around his neck. "I thought you might enjoy engaging in some relaxation techniques while dinner finishes cooking."
He laughed and grabbed her close for a fierce kiss. "I love your relaxation techniques."
*** *** ***
She wore the new dress for dinner. Billy T. had designed it for him after Straker had seen how the other dress he'd designed had looked on her. The man had a way of making a woman look like a woman.
After dinner, they played chess. Straker tried to pay close attention to the board. Pam had a way of slipping past his guard time after time to trap his king. Straker didn't consider himself a sore loser; but then, he was used to winning at chess. And Pam played so well and so cunningly that it challenged him to always be on his toes.
But it was difficult to concentrate while she sat so near in that dress. Billy had made the bodice in the style of halter dresses from the 1940's, and the multi-colored jersey that gathered just below the breasts draped lovingly all the way up to the neckline. The rest of the dress was a fluted column that dropped snugly from the bodice and caressed the waist and hips as it flared into a wide trumpet hemline below the knees. Pam looked fabulous in it, and Straker blamed the success of Billy T.'s design on the fact that she had him checkmated in six moves.
She met his frown with a soft smile. "Shall we play again?"
He grinned at her. "Definitely."
They set up the board again. He noticed as they played that she kept fingering the jersey of the dress's skirt. So he asked, "Do you like the dress?"
"Yes. Very much," she said, and ran a hand down the skirt in appreciation. "The fabric feels so soft and comfortable. And the colors are wonderful."
He nodded as he moved his bishop. "I had it designed with the colors of the globe you're always admiring."
She looked at the large globe standing near the hearth. Straker had moved it from his study when she had remarked on its beauty. He thought she'd be able to see it more often in the main room and be able to admire it all she wanted.
She ran a hand once more over the dark browns, deep russets, and warm maroons that marbled the dress fabric. "It is beautiful. Thank you."
He found her lack of vanity as refreshing as it was delightful. "It's beautiful on you," he corrected.
She smiled at his look of admiration. Then she said, "Did you design the globe, as well?"
"No. But it is a pleasing design, isn't it?" he said. "Proyas gave it to me after production ended on that Asimov film we did a few years ago." He looked around and started to grin. "Actually, I think most of my house is decorated with props from different movies we've done over the years."
"I wonder who made the globe? I love how it is designed with all the patchwork of colors on the land masses," she said. "They are so unpredictable. Not like a grid as you might expect."
He blinked at her. "I suppose they could be considered unpredictable, in a geometric sense. But the different colors represent the different countries, Pam."
She frowned at him. "Countries?"
"Yes, you know. England, France, Spain, Turkey, the United States. We spoke about the Chinese before."
She looked at the globe, her dark eyes wide. "Each of those colors is a country? A separate race?"
"Well, mostly. There isn't a complete separation of races by any means, but yes. Each country has its own color on the globe."
She stared at it for a long moment, then shook her head in amazement. "All those governments? No central government? I thought that SHADO operated globally."
"It does," he said. "But only with the help of several of the major powers behind us. They form our Council and keep SHADO funded and running."
She turned those wondering eyes on him. "You handle the protection of an entire planet with the assistance of only a few of its governments? How do you manage?"
He grinned suddenly. "We're good."
She said seriously, "I believe you are. Very good. Much better than I had assumed."
He frowned at her in sudden suspicion. "What do you mean, Pam?"
She started to answer him, but just then the doorbell rang. "You have company."
He got up from the couch, his frown turning to irritation at being interrupted. "Hold that thought. It should only take a minute to get rid of them."
But when he opened the door, it was Alec.
"Hey, Ed," he said, taking in his friend's casual turtleneck and pants. "Kelly sent over today's field test results from R & D for the new radar. Thought you might like to see them." He leaned against the doorframe as if he had all the time in the world and handed his boss the report.
Straker took it and opened it, leafing quickly through the pages at first, then slowing to read as he saw the results. "Hmmm."
Alec looked past him toward the living area, but couldn't see anyone from where he was standing because of the wall. "You gonna ask me in? Or leave me out here in the rain?"
The commander seemed to realize for the first time that it was indeed raining. "I'm sorry, Alec," he said quickly, backing up and allowing the colonel to enter the house. "I suppose I could at least offer you a drink after bringing me such good news."
"Thanks." Alec had been counting on it. He followed Straker into the living area, but stopped when he saw Pam sitting on the couch.
"Well, hello!" he said appreciatively, his face breaking into a grin.
The commander had just picked up a decanter from the small bar against the wall, but turned swiftly at this and stared, first at Alec, then at Pam. "You see her?" he asked incredulously.
"Of course I do," Alec answered, giving her a wink. "I'm not blind."
Straker set down the decanter with a snap as his lips thinned. "No. I know you're not, Alec." He came forward and took his friend's arm, ushering him back to the front door. "We're just a little busy right now. I'll owe you a drink next time."
"Sure, Ed," Freeman said, still grinning. With a woman who looked like that, he'd be busy too.
His friend smiled back, but after closing the door, his face became grim once more. But he continued to stare at the door for a long moment before turning and going back into the main room.
He drew a deep breath as he met Pam's eyes and said, "Sorry about that. He had the results from the new radar for me."
"I trust it worked well," she said.
"Yes. We were able to track the aliens without a hitch." He came over to the couch, but did not sit back down. "Listen, Pam. I've been wondering if you might like to see HQ?"
She looked swiftly at him. "Oh? Of course, I would, Ed. You know how interested I am in all that you do there."
"Of course," he said with a small nod. But as she stood, he added, "Perhaps you should change first. You're a little overdressed for a tour."
She grinned and went to change.
*** *** ***
He drove through the rain toward the studio, doing his best not to show her how angry he was. But Pam knew him too well.
"Ed," she said, laying a calming hand on his shoulder. "Did I upset you by taking too long to change clothing?"
"No, of course not," he said. "I'm not upset with you, Pam. In fact, I'm looking forward to seeing what you think of SHADO."
She smiled. "I am certain that I shall be very pleased to see it."
After a while, when she saw that his knuckles were still white on the steering wheel, she asked, "Did your friend upset you then? Was that Alec? You have spoken of him so often that it felt as if I already knew him."
He swallowed a sigh. "I'm sorry. I didn't even think to introduce you to him." He hadn't thought it would be necessary, but he could hardly tell her that.
"You do not need to apologize, Ed," she said.
He drew a breath. "No, that's just it. I do need to apologize. I've been incredibly selfish where you're concerned, Pam. I haven't thought of your needs at all. And since you never complain, I hadn't even realized it until now." Of course, he hadn't thought she was a real person with feelings to be considered either.
"But, Ed. What do you mean? I have never known you to be selfish. You have given me so much. You are always giving me things. Just today, you brought me another dress."
"I didn't mean selfish that way, Pam," he said quietly. "I meant in other ways." When she only looked at him in bewilderment, he squirmed a little. "I haven't taken the time to find out what you want. I've always just assumed that you would like what I like."
She grinned suddenly as she understood what he was referring to. "Ed, I do like what you like. Why would I complain when you always please me so much?"
He flushed. "Do I?"
She laid a reassuring hand on his arm. "Always."
He grinned in relief, but his flush took a while to fade.
As he pulled into the studio lot, he became grim again as he remembered why they were there.
She noticed, and asked, "If you are not upset with me, then who has angered you, Ed?"
His voice was clipped when he answered. "Jackson."
He brought her in the back way, so that Alec wouldn't see them. He didn't want any questions from his friend. He checked with security to make sure that Jackson was still in his office.
Then he walked right into the Medical Centre and up to Jackson's desk. "Doctor."
Dr. Jackson looked up from his reports and blinked in surprise. "Commander Straker!" He noticed the woman with him and said, "May I help you?"
Straker raised a brow. "I don't need your help, Doctor. But there's someone I'd like you to meet."
Jackson could not fail to hear the steel in his voice, so he gave the woman a closer look. "Indeed?"
"Yes." The commander drew her closer to the desk with a hand on her arm and said, "Dr. Jackson, I'd like you to meet Pam."
The doctor met his eyes in shock. "Pam?"
But Straker only glared at him in return.
Jackson turned and looked at the woman standing so quietly behind the commander. She was quite lovely, with dark hair that fell to just below her jaw and eyes the color of deep chocolate. Her casual jumpsuit fit her well, giving broad hints of the lush body it covered. It was made in a dark purple fabric -- almost eggplant, with undertones of an electric blue – that wasn't cotton, linen, silk, or any fabric that he had ever seen before.
She met his open-mouthed stare with a direct, inquiring look that finally snapped him back. He swallowed and stood up, coming around the desk to take her hand. He bowed over it in a courtly manner and said, "How do you do, my dear? I am so glad to have the opportunity to meet you. I have long wished I might."
"Why would you want to meet Pam?" Straker asked sharply.
The doctor spread his hands. "To thank her for all that she has done for SHADO, Commander."
"I am pleased to make your acquaintance, as well, Doctor," Pam said. "I have wished to thank you for caring for Ed while he was in the hospital. However, I feel that he was sent home too soon. Perhaps you . . ."
Straker interrupted. "Pam, it was my choice to leave the hospital when I did. Not the doctor's."
She looked as though she might debate the subject further, so Dr. Jackson said, "It is true, Pam, that the commander does not like long hospital stays. But I agree that he would have been better for a few more days in our care before going home."
The commander muttered, "Don't encourage her, Jackson."
The doctor hid a grin and motioned for Pam to take a seat, then he leaned against the edge of his desk nearby, folding his arms with one finger pressed against his lips. "I wonder if you might help me to answer a few questions that we have encountered where you are concerned, my dear."
Pam met his gaze with a small frown. "I do not understand why you would have any questions about me, Doctor."
He glanced at the commander before saying, "Well, my dear. Certain aspects of your dealings with our commander made us doubt that you were real. And since you obviously are, those details come into question."
"Of course, I am real." She looked up at Straker. "Did you doubt, Ed?"
He took her hand, but flicked a hard look at the doctor before meeting her eyes. "I was told that you weren't real because of certain discrepancies about you that couldn't be reconciled to the facts. With no other options available to me, I accepted that I had dreamed you up. In spite of the fact that you never seemed less than real to me."
She looked from him to the doctor in silence for a moment, then asked, "What were these discrepancies?"
The commander sighed. "No one ever saw you, Pam. Neither the rescue team in the woods nor the staff at the hospital ever saw you."
"I did not wish to be seen," she said calmly.
He smiled slightly. She was often so refreshingly literal. "Yes, well. You did a good job."
She blinked at his dry tone, then said after a moment, "You wish to know how I managed it."
"It was a simple matter. Your rescue team were searching the ground, so I stayed in the trees. They did not look up."
"Interesting," the doctor said. "You were not thinking linearly, but in all three dimensions. However, that would not have helped you in the hospital, where the corridors had tight security."
"I did not use the corridors," she explained. "I came in through the window."
Straker frowned. "Pam, my hospital room was three floors up!"
"Yes, Ed," she agreed calmly. "But it was only one floor down."
Jackson gave a crack of laughter. "You came down from the roof."
"Yes," she said. "It seemed the simplest method for my needs."
Straker shook his head in wonder. So easily she had made herself mysterious, merely by thinking in unexpected ways. "Pam, I don't understand why you would go to all that trouble for me."
She said, "Because you are important. You do not see it, but you are."
The doctor said, "You are quite right, my dear. He is very important. But you will not convince him of that."
She agreed with a shake of her head. "He does not understand how necessary he is to the continuation of your world. I have tried many times to tell him of this, but he seems impervious."
"My world?" Straker asked. "You've called it that before, haven't you? My world, not yours. Where are you from, Pam?"
"You would not know of it were I to tell you," she said. "We are quite far away from here. I do not believe our sun is even on your star charts."
Jackson frowned. "Then how do you know of us?"
She frowned for a moment before answering. Her eyes sought Straker's as she said, "This information is not for public domain. I am authorized to share it only with you, and only as it becomes necessary."
He took her hand. "Pam, you have to understand that it is necessary to tell me everything now. You are too much of a security risk for us to let things continue as they are at present. You see that, don't you?"
She searched his eyes for a long moment. Then she said, "Very well. Do you authorize Dr. Jackson to remain?"
The doctor stiffened. After all, it was his office! But as he met the commander's suddenly twinkling eyes, he realized that his face gave away his outrage at being so easily dismissed. He tried to look unconcerned.
Straker raised an ironic brow at him, but said after a moment, "Yes, Pam. He needs to be here to witness what you tell me. My credibility has been suffering as of late."
Dr. Jackson gave a sheepish smile at that dry tone. "Commander, I believe that Pam has reestablished your credibility merely by coming here tonight."
"That's good to know," he replied blandly. He turned back to Pam. "How did you know about the attack on my life two months ago? And why would it matter to your people?"
She said, "We knew of the attack because it happened. And we cared about it because we are a salvage vessel."
He stared at her for a long time. "Maybe you'd better answer one question at a time, Pam. What do you mean, it happened?"
"You were attacked in those woods by Thoelians on that day. They captured you and took you back to their planet for interrogation. Subsequently, they returned to Earth in force and took out SHADO, which was ineffective in repulsing them because of the grief and shock that was caused by your capture. With no military force left capable of stopping them, they took over your planet, killing your people and utilizing your resources until they were gone. Then they left to find a new home. It is their pattern."
She spoke of the horrors so calmly that it took Straker a moment to process it. "Earth was destroyed?"
He seemed incapable of accepting such an eventuality. "Then how . . . ?"
"Time travel," the doctor said softly. "You've come back in time to change things, so that Earth was not destroyed."
She nodded. "We are a salvage vessel. Our mission is to police the galaxy, looking for planets that no longer are habitable. When we find one, there is a Board of Inquiry set up, headed by the Chief Redemption Officer, that conducts surveys to find out what happened to the planet. They then decide if the planet is salvageable."
Straker said, "And Earth was salvageable?"
"Yes. In fact, Earth represented a unique opportunity for our scientists."
The commander said, "Because of the Thoelians?"
"No, Ed. Other planets have been destroyed by Thoelians. Earth was unique because of you."
She nodded. "Never before in our history has this situation come up. You see, changing time is a delicate process. It is vital that the Survey team find all the catalysts that caused the destruction of the planet. All catalysts must be identified if conditions are to be reversed."
"What are the catalysts?" the doctor asked.
"They are people who, through their action or inaction, have an adverse effect on their planet to the point that it is destroyed. They are quite unaware that their actions will have that effect. But by sending Modulators into the planet's past to interact with them, these catalysts can be kept from performing whatever action it was that led to their planet's destruction. And so time is changed, so that the planet and its people are redeemed and can continue."
"That's ingenious!" the doctor said.
"So I take it that I was a catalyst," the commander said. "How did that make Earth unique?"
She gave him a soft smile. "You really have no idea, do you? In every redemption model ever produced by the Survey teams, there are multiple catalysts that effect the planet. Usually, there are five, although occasionally there are three. Dr. Todd, our Chief Redemption Officer on board the UCP Salvation, has even been present in a few situations where there were seven catalysts for a planet. No one knows why the number is always odd. But invariably, it is. However, Earth was unique in that it only had one catalyst. This has never happened before."
Straker sank onto the edge of the desk. After a moment, he said, "So, you're a Modulator. And you were sent back in time to save my life and thereby change time, saving my planet from destruction."
"Then why are you still here?" he asked. "Why haven't they brought you back to the future now that Earth is safe?"
She shook her head. "That is not possible. Traveling through time is difficult. It is only possible to travel one way, into the past. Trying to breach the future is far beyond our capabilities. It is also unnecessary. Once they have completed their task, Modulators simply find a safe place to shut down and await pickup from their ship in the new future of the planet."
She tilted her head slightly at his tone. "Yes, Ed. Every Modulator is equipped with a shut off button. This conserves our power cell, enabling us to be used on several missions."
"Power cell?" he asked incredulously.
Jackson said, "You're a robot!"
She frowned. "I do not know this term. I am an android. I am PAM."
"That's not possible," Straker said softly.
"What does PAM stand for?" the doctor asked.
"Positronic Adjustment Modulator," she answered with pride. "I am one of the latest series of models. I have only been in operation for three of our years. However, I have been on several missions in that period. This is my tenth mission."
Straker took her hand, searching her eyes carefully. "Pam," he said quietly. "I know that you're not a robot. I know this."
She lifted her other hand to his cheek, her dark eyes softening as she took in his concern. "Of course, I am not a robot, Ed."
"I knew it."
"I am an android."
He shook his head, refusing to believe her words. "I've touched you," he said urgently. "I know you are real."
She seemed puzzled. "Yes, Ed. I am real. But I am also an android. Perhaps you do not understand that I am an advanced model, fully functional in all areas of human activity."
He pulled away from her, saying nothing more. But he continued to stare at her in bafflement.
Dr. Jackson said, "Pam, why would your people send an android for these missions? I would think that it would be simpler and much less costly to send a human."
"It would be disastrous to send a human, Doctor. Human flesh cannot withstand the forces created by time travel. Modulators are specially manufactured using tynsil, a poly-alloy capable of withstanding those pressures."
Abruptly, Straker left the room.
Pam's eyes followed him until the door closed behind him, then she returned her gaze to the doctor. "He does not believe me," she said sadly.
Jackson took a breath. "No, Pam," he corrected. "I think he finally does."
*** *** ***
He went home. It was stupid to leave, to just walk out like that. But he didn't care. It was all far too much to take at once, and he needed time to think.
But when he got home, the house was at once so full of her and yet so empty without her there. He found himself wandering the rooms like a hurricane survivor surveying the wreckage of his life. What was he supposed to do?
He'd been better off when he thought she was just a fantasy.
Not really, though. He'd been glad to find out that she was real. Even with all the questions, the security concerns, he'd been so very glad to find out that she was real. It had made that small ache in his heart that had been with him for two months completely disappear. She was more than a dream. She was a real woman!
Yet she wasn't. Not in the strictest sense of the word. She wasn't human. It might somehow have been bearable if she'd been an alien. Difficult to swallow, perhaps. But it would have been better than this. A machine. A robot.
And what did it say about him that he had fallen in love with a robot?
He sat on the couch and put his head in his hands. It was so difficult to accept. He remembered her laughter, her teasing smile, her warm embrace. How was it possible that he had never noticed that she wasn't human? That instead she was made of metal or this tynsil she spoke of. You would think a man would notice the difference.
But somehow he never had. Did that make him ridiculously unobservant, or was she so well-crafted that it was impossible to tell without an x-ray? And if that was the case, where did you draw the line between human and machine?
He thought about her wit, her brilliant and clever mind, and her sweetness. In many ways, she was far superior to any woman he had ever known. She wasn't vain, self-absorbed, or greedy. She had no secret agenda; she played no mind games. She was loving, giving of her time and attention without hesitation or expectance of reward. She was simply a wonderful person.
Without actually being a person.
What was he supposed to do?
She was a robot, for God's sake! Well, she called herself an android, but it was really the same. Wasn't it? When he thought of a robot, his mind conjured the image of a metallic hulking figure without features and with mechanical movements. When he thought of an android, he found himself thinking of . . . Pam. She was after all the only android he knew. And she was nothing like a robot. She was . . .
. . . the woman he loved, who loved him back only because she was programmed to do so.
It was nearly dawn when he finally undressed and went to bed.
*** *** ***
"I don't want to hear it," Straker said when Jackson cornered him in his HQ office the next afternoon.
The doctor compressed his lips. Pam had looked so lost when he had left her in one of the dorm rooms for the night. He had given the commander a night and a day to deal with the realities of his situation. But he refused to let things remain in this state of impasse for another night.
"Commander, I realize that this entire situation comes as a shock to you. But if you'll consider for a moment, you'll see that this actually creates an ideal situation."
"Really?" The commander's sarcasm was marked. "Isn't that what you thought the last time?"
Unexpectedly, the doctor smiled. "I am sorry for that. You have every right to be annoyed with me for not accepting that you were telling the truth about Pam. But even you must admit that the evidence against you was overwhelming."
"Don't bet on it."
Jackson sighed. "You need to consider the situation as it stands. Pam's mission here is to keep you safe. This makes her of far greater value than a mere fantasy, for she can act as a bodyguard for you."
"I don't need a bodyguard."
The doctor's lips thinned. "Commander, haven't you been listening? Earth's future depends on one thing: your survival. Time may have changed, but that hardly guarantees that the aliens won't make further attempts to capture you. Having Pam around will ensure that you remain safe."
"You've got it all figured out, don't you, Doctor?" Straker asked in a hard voice. "When you thought she was a fantasy, you were certain she could at least help me relax and de-stress. Now that she's an android, you'd like to add the duties of a bodyguard to her job description. What will you come up with next, I wonder?"
Jackson frowned. "I'm not certain that I understand your question."
Straker leaned forward in his chair. "The question is this, Doctor. What about her?"
"Ah!" The doctor nodded his head. He had been expecting this question. "I realize it may be difficult for you to reconcile to yourself the fact that the woman you have come to know so intimately is an android. However . . ."
The commander interrupted him. "Robot, android. It hardly matters what you call it. The fact that you seem to be overlooking is that she is a sentient being, and as such, deserves to have a choice about her existence. They've taken that away from her by sending her here, programming her to do what they want without any regard for her wants, her desires. Shall we allow them to continue using her, Jackson? Or shall we use her ourselves to suit our own ends?"
The doctor stared at him in shock. Finally he said, "I'm sorry, Commander. It had not occurred to me to see the situation in that light."
"No, of course not," Straker said. "Your concern is for my safety and, by extension, Earth's. Her people feel as you do. They are concerned with the redemption of planets and are willing to sacrifice the free will of their own creations to get what they want. Are their goals noble and good? Yes, of course. But their methods leave a great deal to be desired. None of them seem to be very worried about whether any of this is even what Pam wants. I can't and won't justify what they're doing by being a part of it. Pam must be allowed to live according to her wishes, not theirs. And not even ours."
Jackson thought for a long moment. Then he said, "But, Commander. Once she considers her task finished, she has orders to shut down. How will you implement this free will for her?"
"I don't know. I'm hoping that there is a way around it."
The doctor looked at him in confusion. "What do you intend to do?"
Straker stood up, adjusting his jacket with a snap. "I'm going to take your advice, Doctor. I'm going to ask her."
*** *** ***
She jumped up from the couch as he entered the small dorm room and came to him, taking his hands in hers.
"Ed, I am so sorry! I have distressed you. I should not have told you everything. You were not ready to hear it."
She looked so upset that he drew her back to the couch and sat with her. He kept hold of her hands in an effort to soothe her. And himself.
It felt so good to see her, to touch her again. He knew that he was doing the right thing. But he would have dearly loved to be able to keep her with him.
"No, Pam," he answered her calmly. "You were right to tell me. I needed to know the truth."
"Not if it distressed you," she insisted.
"What distresses me is that they gave you no choice."
She looked bewildered. "No choice? What do you mean?"
He sighed. "I don't know if I can explain it so that you understand." He searched her eyes for a moment, then said, "But I'll try.
Your people created you for one purpose: to help them redeem planets from destruction. Is that correct?"
She nodded. "That is my primary function."
"You said that time travel is difficult. Even dangerous. What is the failure rate on these missions?"
He compressed his lips. "So out of every hundred Modulators sent out on missions, eight don't make it back. They fail."
She said sadly, "Sometimes, even with all our efforts, a planet resists redemption, preferring to be destroyed. It is bizarre, but it does happen. And it is mostly in these instances that Modulators are lost."
"Tell me this, Pam. Are Modulators told of the risks before they are sent out? Are you given a choice whether you want to take on a mission or not?"
"Why would we refuse a mission, Ed? It is an honor to be chosen to help save a world."
He sighed. "I was afraid that you might feel that way."
She searched his eyes, trying to understand. "Have I disappointed you?"
"No. Not in the least," he replied, lifting a hand to her cheek. "But I believe that it is a limitation of your programming. You are required to be willing to give your life on any given mission for people you don't even know, who may not even want your help."
She said seriously, "Are you not required to do the same, Ed? Does not your position as commander require just as much self-sacrifice?"
"Yes," he said quietly. "But I chose this job, knowing all that it might require of me. Can you say the same? Were you given a choice?"
"Yes, of course. Dr. Todd is always very thorough in his mission briefings. Modulators are made aware of any risks involved before accepting their mission."
"Have you ever refused a mission, Pam?"
She looked shocked. "No, of course not! Why would I? It is an honor to help save a world."
He ran a hand over his eyes. "You believe that, because you have been programmed to consider human life of greater worth than your own."
She shook her head firmly. "I believe that because I am programmed to consider the good of the many of more worth than the good of the one. You believe the same way or you would not be commander."
He could not deny it. But he said, "It is an axiom that works in theory, but not always in practice. I once chose the good of the world over the good of one person. And I have never ceased to regret that choice. In your case, as I have come to know your valiant spirit and kind heart, I have come to admire you greatly. If I was asked to choose, I would gladly choose your life over the rest of the world."
He sighed. "I think it would be best if we let you go. Let you decide for yourself how you want to spend the rest of your time here."
She looked at him in surprise. "You wish me to go?"
He swallowed. "What I wish doesn't enter into it. It's what you want that counts, Pam. What would you like to do?"
"I wish to continue my mission."
"Of course," he murmured.
She clarified. "I wish to stay with you."
He choked back his automatic response, saying instead, "That's because you've been programmed to want that."
He lifted her chin, making her meet his eyes. "What do you mean, 'not exactly'?"
She sighed. "My mission was simple. I was to save your life."
"Which you did," he said.
She nodded. "Which I did." She looked at him beseechingly. "However, it seemed the best plan was to take out the Thoelian ship first. Statistics pointed to a higher success probability with their avenue of escape destroyed."
"That makes sense."
"Yes. But by focusing on the ship first, I allowed you to be injured."
He patted her hand. "It's alright, Pam. It wasn't your fault."
"Badly injured," she persevered. "I was concerned that you might not recover."
"So you came to visit me in the hospital."
"Yes. I had to be sure that you would be well."
He smiled at her serious tone. "I trust that you were reassured."
He lifted a brow. "Why not? I recovered as quickly as I normally do."
"Yes. Physically, you were doing quite well. However, I began to realize that you had other wounds that were not healing."
She touched his hand. "You were so alone, isolated from all those you protected in a way that was affecting your spirit. You cared for so many others, but there was no one to care for you. And it caused you pain."
He had to swallow before he could say, "And you felt responsible for me?"
"Yes," she said, dropping her eyes to where her fingers were caressing the back of his hand. "But mostly, it gave me a reason to stay, to continue my mission. I wanted to help you heal."
His heart leapt at her words, but he said cautiously, "And now that I'm better? What now, Pam? Does your mission continue?"
She searched his face. "If you still need me. If you still desire my companionship, I can stay and consider it a continuation of my mission."
Straker met her eyes, realizing that he had been wrong in his conclusions. She wasn't locked into a program written for her by her creators. She wasn't following any program other than the dictates of her own tender heart. And that heart wanted him. He could hardly believe his good fortune. He ran a finger down her cheek. "Is that what you want, Pam? To stay with me?"
"Yes," she said fervently.
He enfolded her in his arms and kissed her, drawing back after a moment as he remembered that she wasn't human, but an android. He looked into her dark eyes, eyes that hid none of her sweet spirit from him. He looked at her mouth, so responsive to his every kiss, trembling now with passion. So. The facts as they were? Or how he saw them?
He grinned and kissed her again.
"Captain, we're approaching Star 75832 and its system," said Jons at navigation.
"Very well. Are we receiving any scans from the third planet?"
"Captain," said Kahli at his station. "We are being hailed."
"Put it onscreen."
The image that came up was of a man stiffly dressed in a drab uniform. His manner too was stiff as he said, "This is Earth Alliance. I am Col. McCaughey. Please state who you are and what your purpose is for being in this system."
Captain Jamison sat forward in his command chair. "We are the UCP Salvation, Colonel. Registration number 3472. We are here to retrieve an artifact that was left on Earth 307 years ago."
The colonel frowned. "That's a civilian matter. You'll have to take it up with the Historic Division. Artifacts are their province. You may establish orbit for twenty-four hours while you conduct your business. If you are found here after that time, this will become a military matter."
"Understood, Col. McCaughey. Thank you. Salvation, out."
As the screen blinked off, the Captain turned to Kahli. "Get me Dr. Todd."
*** *** ***
They were directed to a Mr. Jasper, a midlevel official in the Historic Division. After a short wait, they were ushered into his office. He was a small man with glasses and a receding hairline. In spite of these shortcomings, he was efficient.
"Your artifact is located in Sector 5-11, according to the coordinates you have given me." Mr. Jasper adjusted his glasses as he checked his desk grid. "Hmmm. That can't be right." He enlarged the sector, double-checking to be sure.
After a moment, he looked up. "Captain Jamison, if you don't mind my asking, what is the nature of this artifact of yours?"
The captain frowned. "I'm sorry, Mr. Jasper. That information is classified. Is there a problem?"
"Hmmm. Yes. It's just that these coordinates fall in a cemetery. Is it possible that your artifact was inadvertently buried?"
Captain Jamison looked at Dr. Todd.
The doctor answered. "Remotely possible."
*** *** ***
"This cannot be a good sign," the captain said as they walked through the gravestones toward the coordinates.
The doctor's small hand scanner was beeping softly as it zeroed in on the homing beacon in their PAM unit. He was watching the readout and only grunted in answer.
"How much farther?"
Dr. Todd stopped. "Right here."
They both looked down. They were in front of a large headstone that bore the name Straker in capital letters. Under the name, there were two entries side by side. One claimed to be Edward A. Straker. The other said Pam Straker. Beneath their birth and death dates, near the bottom of the headstone, was the phrase: Together Forever.
Jamison scratched his head. "What do you make of it, Doctor? It seems that she married him. That's an odd thing for a Modulator to do."
But Dr. Todd was looking at the dates. "They were together nearly fifty years," he said softly. "And they died the same day."
"An attack?" asked the captain.
"It's impossible to tell after all this time," said the doctor. "But he would have been in his nineties. It's more likely that he died of natural causes, and she shut down once he was gone."
"But why did she let them bury her? She must have known that we'd have the devil's own time recovering her from a cemetery."
The doctor sighed. "We won't be recovering her, Captain."
"What do you mean? She's a PAM, for God's sake! We can't afford to lose her."
Dr. Todd shook his head. "I believe we've already lost her."
The captain scowled at him. "How?"
"I've run across something like this before. It's an odd quirk that some of the PAM units have. Every great once in a while, one will get too attached to their catalyst. When we get them back to the ship, they refuse to turn back on."
Jamison said, "Can't you just wipe their memory circuits and start over?"
"We tried that," the doctor explained. "They'll work that way, but not well and not for long. It's very discouraging when it happens. They have to be completely scrapped."
"So we just give her up? Without trying?"
The doctor shrugged, but his eyes kept straying to the phrase at the bottom of the headstone. "Actually," he said softly. "I don't think she wanted us to take her back."
"Damn it!" muttered the captain. "What are we supposed to do now? She was the best model we had."
Dr. Todd agreed, but said as they walked away, "The new upgraded models promise to correct that problem. They're in production now and should be available before the end of the year. Shall we get one?"