"South Pacific, Commander, grid reference O-Blue-12-08, sir!" Keith Ford turned to his commanding officer, eyeing him warily.
Ever since that girl had died under such atrocious circumstances the commander had not been his usual acerbic, but at least calm and fair self. Instead he had been irascible on top of caustic, and he had taken it out more than once on his staff. While Ford could well remember every time he had earned himself a reprimand, he, and others, recently had been in for some that had not been justified.
"Get Waterman onto it, immediately. Phase the destruction data through to my terminal as soon as he has shot it down." Straker did not even wait for any acknowledgement, he simply stalked off into his office.
"Commander Straker, sir?" Ford's voice blared from the loudspeakers of his desk console.
Straker rubbed the bridge of his nose. He had already seen the report on his screen: one UFO destroyed, but Sky 3 damaged and Waterman injured and out of it for at least two months. He hit the intercom switch.
"The rescue team found some smaller debris. That is being transported here as we speak and should make it to our research unit by tomorrow."
He checked his watch, well past eleven. Realizing he was clocking overtime again, he hit the elevator button and stretched, then slipped into his jacket. Time to go home, get some sleep, then back to the grind again.
The quick anger had dissipated. What was left was the seething rage which had been a constant companion for the past weeks. He could have gone and discussed it with Jackson, only he already knew what was eating him. He also knew there was no remedy, except time and slowly burying what had happened under the daily rubble of experiences, thoughts and emotions, until that also was just another long forgotten piece of mental wreckage.
Miss Ealand must have gone home long ago, everything was shut down and shipshape in her office. It was dark outside, and apart from the lone security officer at the entrance there was no sign of anyone still being in the building.
His car was parked in the front row, only a few yards off, along with those of others still in delta shift. Only a couple of minutes now, and he could, maybe, sleep. An early storm front was stripping the trees and driving yellow leaves in swirls against his legs. A few playful gusts managed to lift aside his open jacket, sending chills up his spine. A light spray of wind-driven drizzle slicked the tarmac and tainted the spotless surface of his Saab, as he passed the gate and turned out onto the country road along the studio premises.
Could he have done anything to prevent Lew Waterman's accident, he wondered. They had had to cut him out of the crushed cockpit of the Skydiver, chest caved in, every rib broken on one side, only just making it out there alive. He shivered, quite against his will. The thought of having to wait for rescue, trapped inside a small space, crushed and in pain. No, he better had not go there. Dead tired he again rubbed his nose.
He barely perceived the flash of white streaking across the road. Combat-trained reflexes made him break against better knowledge. He could hear whatever it was hit the car with a solid thump. Then he lost his bearings as the Saab spun off on its own, turning the world into a merry-go-round.
His car shuddered to an almost gentle rest up a banking to the side of the road, sinking its headlights ever so slowly into soft earth. Straker spent a moment taking stock. On finding himself unharmed, he got the flashlight from the glove box and opened the door with a sick feeling in his stomach, to have a look at whom or what he had hit. Not again.
The storm had picked up, it was raining now. The beam of light cut but a meagre swath of visibility through the downpour and had there not been a low whine he would not have noticed the animal. It was a dog, small, white and tan where the coat was not dirty or bloody. Blood. He ran his hands over the meagre little body and found a broken hindleg, the bones protruding. The puppy was painfully thin, in a very low condition and in great pain. He would have to get his gun.
Just as he was about to straighten the panting animal turned its head around, towards the hand resting on its side. He was sure he would be bitten and started to pull back, but instead the puppy licked his fingers.
Straker shrugged out of his jacket, manoeuvred it as cautiously as he could under the tiny body, oblivious to the rain soaking him now. He lifted the animal, cradling it to his chest, trying to disturb the broken limb as little as possible. He would have expected more of a reaction, but all the puppy did was tremble and press against him, a keening whine streaming from its throat. He walked back to the car, opened the passenger door and put the shattered, tiny body on the light grey leather seat.
Who was it who had told him about a good veterinarian in the next village? Ayshea? Fumbling for his cellphone he dialled through to Ford, while backing the Saab down the banking and pointing it at the road again.
He rang the night bell of the animal hospital in Uxbridge that Ford had directed him to. It was well past midnight, yet a lanky, white-clad man with dark auburn hair and pale skin walked up to the floor-to-ceiling glass doors and unlocked one side of them.
"Accident?" he asked, taking one quick look at the leg. "I'm Dr. Llewellyn."
"Straker. It ran across the road in front of me, and I hit it."
"Then this isn't yours?" the young veterinarian asked, narrowing his eyes at him. He beckoned him inside and towards a long counter, against which a few small stretchers rested.
"Does that matter?" Straker asked.
"Well, sure," the other answered. "Someone has to pay for the treatment and this looks like several x-rays, possibly an operation, including a plate, screws, a cast for sure. We do take a couple of charity cases, but nothing that complex for strays."
While he had been explaining, the young man had nevertheless competently and gently relieved Straker of the small dog, placed it on one of the stretchers and done a cursory examination.
"I will pay, of course," Straker said, taking his wallet from the blood-sullied jacket. "I'll leave you my credit card details, just bill me. Is this a stray? It looks so young."
"He is a very young lurcher, or a whippet," the veterinarian answered. "Not more than nine or ten weeks old. Very thin, a belly full of worms, no one took care of him. Probably born to a stray and going by how emaciated he is I'd say his dam is dead. It's a wonder he is alive at all. Here let me check..."
Llewellyn bent over the counter and withdrew a microchip scanner, which he ran across the left side of the dog's neck.
"No, nothing," he stated. "He's got no tattoos either. He's too young to have run away, so yes this is a stray." He straightened. "So what do you want me to do? If I treat him that may well be a couple hundred pounds."
Straker had been closely watching, now he looked up and extended his credit card.
"Just bill me for whatever it costs," he said.
The veterinarian went around the counter with his card and wrote the data down onto a patient chart.
"You can collect him tomorrow at, aah, twelve I'd say," the young man said.
Straker stared at him, taken aback.
"I can't have... I can't keep a dog!" he exclaimed. "Call those dog shelter people, they rescue strays, don't they?"
Something in the demeanour of the veterinarian changed. It was not much, and Straker could not have put a finger on it, but suddenly the man was businesslike, and nothing else.
"Okay," Llewellyn said. "I'll make the arrangements, Mr. Straker."
Straker nodded at him, cast a last glance at the tiny puppy, and left.
The alarm clock buzzed insistently, intruding on vague images of Catherine being hit and thrown through the air, somersaulting and hitting the pavement with a sickening wet thud, turning into a wizened old hag. Of her legs being broken, jagged bones sticking out through her skin at impossible angles, only now she had smooth short tan and white fur. A keening whine mutated into more strident buzzing and back again into a tiny snout emitting plaintive wails, liquid large eyes staring at him in reproach.
What a hell of a nightmare. And it was just the last one of a long row of them.
Straker heaved himself upright, groping for the alarm with one hand, rubbing his face with the other. His eyes felt so gritty and inflamed as if he had not slept at all. He swung his legs out of bed and sat, slumped, on the edge for a long moment, trying to summon enough enthusiasm to stand up and head for the shower. In the end it was his bladder which forced him up.
Just a coffee, while he stared out of his kitchen window into the garden. The small patch of lawn would need a last cut before winter. The roiling cloud cover, remnant of the early winter storm, kept the light level low, even though it already was well past seven. All Saints Day tomorrow, All Souls the day after. He sighed, he would not shirk going to the cemetary this year. Everything was empty. And quiet.
"Good morning, sir! Back early?"
He could see the reproach in her eyes, though she would never say it out loud, which was what made her, along with her efficiency, the best secretary he had ever had. Taking the car keys from his pocket, he held them out to her.
"Good morning, Miss Ealand," he said. "There was an accident yesterday evening, I need the car cleaned, there's blood on the leather. Have it taken to someone able to do something about that. And find me a replacement until I get it back."
"Accident?" her eyebrows lifted. "Are you fine, sir? Shall I ask Dr. Shroeder..."
Straker shook his head and ran a weary hand over his face.
"The blood's not mine," he explained. "I hit a dog on the way home. Couldn't break in time. I drove it to the vet hospital in Uxbridge and it bled all over the passenger seat."
"How's the dog?" she asked, as she took the keys, wrote a note and dropped both into a manila envelope.
"Well, I suppose," he said. "I've no idea. It was a half-starved puppy, a stray the doctor said. That will be on the studio credit card bill, by the way. Draw from my own account for that. Any news about Waterman?"
She had the medical report ready. In fact, that had been the first thing she had organized that morning, a detailed update on Lew Waterman's injuries and state. Sometimes she wished she could let the others know how closely the commander kept tabs on his staff, and that they came well and above the equipment.
"Here," she held the file out to him. "That's from this morning."
He flashed her a small thankful smile and started leafing through the pages.
"Sir? What about the dog?"
"Huh?" he regarded her, astonished.
"Well, you paid for the treatment," she reasoned. "So what are the arrangements for it? Shall I have it collected?"
"Why do people keep asking me this?" he answered, pulling himself upright, in an attempt to find his stride again. "I told the vet to have the shelter take it." The moment he said it, he saw the same expression on his secretary's face as on that of Llewellyn the evening before. It brought him up short. "What - what?"
"The shelter - that's the pound, sir," she said, her voice carefully neutral.
She had worked for him long enough to know that the vague emptiness surfacing in his blue eyes was neither coldness, nor arrogance. Instead she realized that he did not have the slightest clue as to what she was going on about.
"The pound kills strays," she pointed out.
"How do you know that?" he asked. "They rescue animals, they don't kill them."
"I'm sorry, sir, they kill them," she countered, her tone gentle now. "I worked at a pound for a while once. Strays with a history of sickness, anything costly, those are killed right away most times. The county doesn't have the money to do anything else. And you said the puppy is starved and has had an operation..."
He felt sickened. All through the night, when he had woken at varying stages of the nightmares the accident had brought back to him, he had consoled himself with the fact that the dog was in competent care and would eventually find a nice home.
"Call the hospital and find out how it is, please," he said. "Tell them - tell them to keep the dog on the premises. At my expense of course. Tell them I'll arrange for someone to adopt it. Whatever."
"Yes, sir," she agreed, observing him make for his office.
"It's not in your resume," he said, sitting down behind his desk. "That you worked at an animal pound."
"I was 15," she smiled when she saw his astonished expression. "Voluntary work, for the experience. We all did that at school." Her expression became more serious. "It wasn't the fun I thought it would be."
She picked up the phone and started to dial, watching the red doors close.
"So we've part of their computer?" he asked Colonel Lake. "Data files?"
"And their navigation console, we think," she nodded. "We'll be able to say more once the parts arrive here. They're keeping everything submerged."
"When will they be here?"
"Two or three hours, I should think," she answered him. "It's mainly the leg from the airport, which decides that."
"When they arrive, have me called."
"Commander Straker?" his secretary's voice intruded over the intercom.
"Yes, Miss Ealand?" he answered and handed Lake back her files at the same time, closing the office door after she left. "Any news?"
"I spoke to a Dr. Caine. The puppy was operated on in the night," she said reluctantly. "Everything went fine, he got a cast and was okay. But the man from the pound came early today, because of Halloween. The puppy's at the shelter since 10 a.m.. I called, they're destroying unwanted animals today, as none of their volunteers are around. The kennel isn't answering the phone." She cleared her throat. "I'm sorry, sir."
"Is there a car for me?"
"Yes, the garage..."
"I'm coming up. Have it ready."
The heavy Mercedes limousine they had sent him as courtesy car negotiated the country roads with quiet sobriety, even at the speed he was pushing it to. Sullen clouds lashed the tarmac with squalls of rain at erratic intervals and where the morning fog had been reluctant, sky and ground meshed.
The pound was at a discreet distance outside town and he passed sedate country homes on his way. Once he had lived in one of them. Many displayed carved pumpkins and lovingly constructed scarecrows on the front lawns. He had forgotten about that. John had loved Halloween, telling him in every detail about the trick-or-treating forays with his stepfather, giving him by the minute accounts of what had happened. How he had been not scared at all and what he had run home with, oblivious to the searing pain he was causing. In afterthought he was glad that he had been able to keep this from his child. John had never surmised that his father would have cherished being his chaperone, at least once. Yet visiting days never coincided. The stray thought came, and went like one of the lashings of rain and dead leaves.
The buildings slowly turned more industrial, until the satnav told him to pull into a lane past what looked like a derelict factory. The asphalt was cracked in places and not maintained, greens pushing through where it crumbled, large puddles bisecting it. The Mercedes splashed through the water in dogged resolution, the state of the road not making any impression on the inside of the car. The lane ended with a parking lot, half flooded and unswept, in front of a 10'-wire mesh fence topped with razor barb.
It was the pound alright, he could hear the frenzied barking as soon as he stepped out of the car. The high wire mesh gate was closed, there was no light in the low prefab office building he could see from where he was.
Straker rang the bell and waited. The barking and howling originating from the back of the grounds never ceased, there was nothing even vaguely friendly about the chilling sound. He had not ever before heard anything similar.
He rang a second time, then tried to coax the gate open again. Now the sound of a diesel motor firing was added to the cacophony of panic, and for some of the many voices the tone changed. Straker felt his skin run cold with an almost primeval dread. Without further preparation he lanced himself upwards and scaled the gate, dropping down lightly on the other side.
Following the sound of the diesel engine, he weaved through the rows of drab, run-down kennels. Even though not spacious most of them harboured groups of four or five dogs, which to the last of them were putting up the unearthly racket he had heard from outside. The terror and panic in their faces left him in no doubt, that, mere animals or not, they were perfectly aware of what was taking place.
Reaching the last pathway, and the source of the diesel sounds, he realized that everything was worse. Much worse.
He had not thought about how they would kill the animals. Vaguely he had assumed that this would be done in some humane manner, the way it was shown on TV, full anesthesia and a deadly injection once the dog was asleep. The logical part of his brain now told him that this of course was unlikely, given the kind of mass processing needed in such an institution.
The rest of his mind was not that reasonably inclined. Had anyone watched him right then, they would have seen an expression of utter revulsion at the horror and suffering he witnessed. As it was, the two men dealing out death had not noticed him yet, concentrated on their job.
The exhaust pipe of the diesel was connected to a metal cubicle the size of one of the kennels, though only half as high. The top had a door to one side of it. A short length of metal piping was thrust through the handles to keep it shut, diesel fumes trickled through the cracks. From inside streamed the worst sounds, the whole structure shook with the death throes of what must have been dozens of dogs. Those near the opening tried frantically to break out. Straker was not sure he would ever be able to forget the inhuman shrieks hitting his ears. One man was pushing the lids down, while the other was revvying up the diesel to hurry the asphyxiation process on.
To the side of the structure stood a huge refuse container filled with the cadavers of those already destroyed. Straker could not help noticing that the animals had bitten each other in their agony, most bodies were bloody and mangled. Protruding swollen tongues and eyes almost outside their sockets gave gruesome evidence to the lack of compassion at work here.
Already the screams were dying down, replaced with low whining and coughing. Then silence.
He could feel bile rising in his gorge, hitting the back of his teeth. Restraining himself with difficulty he stepped into the line of vision of the worker at the diesel. The man's hands came up, warding off what must have been written on his face. The motion brought the other workman down from the metal container.
"Hell! How did you get in?" the man asked in a slow, sing-song Welsh accent, fumbling in the pockets of his scuffed corduroy trousers for his cellphone. "We don't need no trouble here, I'll call the police, I will."
"I'm looking for a puppy with a cast," Straker said with as much composure as he could muster. No need to frighten the worker any more than he already was. "It was taken here by mistake, this morning, from the vet hospital downtown."
Both men exchanged knowing glances, and for a moment the vile feeling of having again lost out rushed his heartbeat until it was pounding in his ears.
"Are you the owner then?" the older man asked, switching off the diesel engine. Straker nodded.
"Here," the workers led him a few yards down the path, where more dogs were caged in what was clearly the open, roofless holding area for those to be destroyed. It took Straker but a split second to identify the tiny white and tan puppy with its oversized blueish cast cowering in mortal terror against the back of the cage. He pointed.
Taking along a dogwhip the younger of the two workmen opened the cage door, chased larger animals aside and picked up the small whippet which had thrown itself on its back in abject fear as soon as he bent over it.
"Well, it seems some get lucky even on Nos Calan Gaeaf," the Welshman said in a gruff but not unkind tone, watching Straker take the young puppy and cradle it in the safety of his arms. "Always glad when at least a few get away from this."
Straker eyed the little dog critically every once in a while, steering the unfamiliar limousine back to the studio grounds. It had rolled up on the passenger seat, pathetically small and meagre, not more than two handfuls. The cast forced one leg aside and out, but appeared to have not been compromised. Except that it was trembling fit to shake its bones loose it did not look worse for the wear.
The release chit he had had to sign had fallen untidily into the passenger footwell. He had no experience with animals. As a boy he had desperately wanted a dog, some dependable fellow, a retriever or collie, big, warm and friendly. But he had been unable to convince either of his parents, who saw no need to provide anything above the necessary.
He wondered whether animals also could suffer from mental trauma, only to realize with a start that this was most likely what he was seeing. It had not shivered as much, nor been so introversive before, even right after the accident. Tentatively he stretched out a hand, and when the puppy gave no signs of further intimidation, ran it along the small body in what he hoped was reassuring. The coat felt silken and soft under his fingers. Within moments the shivering slowed, then ceased, and the pup startled him again with a quick lick of his hand. It breathed in profoundly, and exhaling with an audible sigh snuggled deeper into the upholstery.
"Miss Ealand?" he glanced around the empty orderly office.
"In here, sir," she called out to him from where she was leaning across his desk, looking up. "Colonel Lake has been trying to reach you, the debris has arrived..."
She trailed off on noticing what was nestling in his arms, the sight so incongruous, she was hard put not to laugh out loud.
"So you got there in time," she smiled, and walked up to him. "That's great! And what a cute boy!" She bent down towards the puppy, which peered at her with some reserve, pressed tightly against Straker's chest.
"Yeah," he said. "Just in time." Something in his voice made her glance at him, and she had no difficulty identifying what showed in his eyes for a split-second.
He carefully detached the small dog from himself and held it out to her.
"Anyway," he continued, "I'm afraid you'll have to, ah, dogsit him for now. I can't take him below. Please get him the things he will need, bedding, food, collar and such. And ask around who might want a puppy. There has to be SHADO staff with kids wanting a dog, or, whatever."
"Yes, sir. Of course, sir." She studiously hid her smile on seeing him run his hand across the puppy's head a last time after she had taken it. "What's his name?"
Already half through to his office Straker turned, frowning.
"It's got no name," he answered. "Let the people who'll take him do that."
"Commander!" Colonel Lake fell in step with him, the moment he walked into the control room.
"Where is it?" he asked, quickly divesting himself of his jacket and briefcase.
"It's a major find, sir" she said, excitement open on her face. "If only we can keep it viable. There's a whole computer bank!"
As she had expected his eyes lit up at the possibility of finally getting a break. This was their very first chance to learn something about their navigation, star charts, possibly the location of their homeworld.
In the containment area of the main research laboratory people were already busily swarming around a huge glass tank filled with water, several pieces of alien equipment resting well submerged within it. Straker knew this was saltwater, the precise composition of that ocean which the UFO had crashed in. No guarantee the alien debris would not disintegrate, but it had proven to be the best shot in the past.
"With what do you want to interface it?" Straker asked Colonel Lake, intently watching his staff connecting the alien computer to their most powerful research mainframe.
"I'd love to link it to the Cray," she answered, yet shook her head at the idea the moment she tendered it. "But that would endanger HQ integrity. As it is, I was thinking of the back-up unit we have sitting behind the communication mainframe in the control room. It should bring some clout. What do you say?"
Straker turned away from the water tank and nodded.
"That could work," he said, "but we'd need to make that a manual connection." He chuckled ruefully. "Ford won't be happy." And neither would he.
"I hope all that's right, Ma'am," the greensman she had grabbed hold of for the shopping looked expectantly at her, twisting a woollen cap round and round in his broad hands. He belonged to Paul Foster's latest project, and she doubted the colonel would disapprove of the short time she had sent him onto an own errant.
"Let me have a look, Marksen," she answered, rummaging in the cardboard he had deposited on her desk.
There was enough puppy food to last two weeks, a dark grey slumber dog bed, a tiny black leather collar with a matching leash, an assortment of dog toys and puppy-sized rawhide chews, a dog blanket for the car and two feed bowls. She nodded at him in open satisfaction..
"Perfect, thanks for the help!"
"Any time, Ma'am," he said and left with a slow pleased smile on his face.
She pulled the dog bed out of the carton and placed it on the floor beside her desk, then looked for the puppy. It had been remarkably loathe to stay close to her even after the ordeal it had been through. Instead she had watched it thoroughly sniff the premises and in the end curl up under the coat rack. At first she had thought that it liked the sheltered feeling it might derive from the garments above it, only to chuckle a short while later upon realizing that the Commander's coat hung there and that this was the one place in her office most likely to smell of him.
But the puppy was not there and a quick, thorough survey of the room told her it also had not slipped under any of the furniture. The puppy was gone.
The intercom rang.
"Ealand here," she said, crouching once again on the floor in the hope of having overlooked the little dog.
"Miss Ealand," Dr. Jackson's rich eastern accent held a quietly baffled note. "I seem to have been followed by a stowaway. Can you tell me anything about this?"
"Let me guess, Doctor," she said, relieved, remembering the man had just been through the office. "It's a puppy with a cast?"
"It looks like a male whippet with a broken leg, ye-e-es," Jackson's tone was openly amused now. "Who, if I may ask, does it belong to?"
She sat back. Well, why not right away? She straightened.
"You know, that's something I really wanted to talk to you about," she answered, a smug smile on her face.
Keith Ford observed Colonel Lake and the commander burrow into the depths of the communication mainframe with a vague feeling of dread. Had anyone asked him, he would not have been able to say why he was so anxious. He had twice had to work inside the coffin-like structures harbouring the huge stacks of arrays and they had not been nice experiences.
As it was, he had no trouble reading the commander's body language. It was clear that he either did not appreciate delving so deeply into the heavy cabinets. He had heard it rumoured that Straker suffered from claustrophobia, and watching him now, he wondered whether he should not have dismissed that rumour so quickly.
They had pulled forward a third of the communication mainframe. In the dark, sparingly lit recesses behind it rested, dusty and looking just so much like ancient sarcophagi, the redundant back-up units, which they now were separating from the mainframe. Technicians were running thick cables through the open gap of the front row, one to each of the huge computer banks. All three of them were inside the units, past the open, vertical fronts riding in smooth metal tracks top and bottom, and connecting the arrays to the cables leading off to the research mainframe a hundred yards down the hallway. Straker looked decidedly ill at ease, but stolidly kept going in their race to download the content of the alien hardware before it disintegrated.
Ford avoided looking directly at his commanding officer whenever Straker retreated from the confined, narrow spaces, wishing to give the man the privacy needed to compose himself.
It did not help that he knew that the huge lead-lined caskets could slam shut at a moment's notice when a breach alarm was sounded. He had seen, and heard, it happen once, and that had been quite enough already. It had taken them hours to open them up again and reconnect the wiring harnesses. The emergency system might be effective, but it also was - eerie.
He sighed. Maybe he just wished they had not been doing this on Samhain of all days.
Straker knelt inside the open front of the array unit he was rewiring. The air felt stale in the recess. It was so dark, inspite of the mainframes they had moved to give them access, that he kept needing the flashlight. The niche felt very different from ten years ago when they had set up the communications mainframe. At the time they had done the wiring without the front row already installed. The whole expanse had been open and spacious. The heavy steel and lead shielding of the units had been added after the arrays had been wired, the whole setup left him with the feeling of working in some sort of a mausoleum rather than HQ itself.
He sat back on his haunches to stretch his cramped thighs and connected with the casket door. The hair on his neck rose with unwanted fear. He knew what it was, he would have preferred not provoking that special area of personal failure, but the timeframe they were working on left him little choice. He was one of those few capable of rewiring the large banks, and no one could say how long the alien hardware would hold out against earth atmosphere, even submerged.
Right after the submarine accident last fall he had hoped having finally overcome his fear. For a while he had been so little bothered by it, that he had presumed the accident had been sort of a therapy. But he had not been that lucky: slowly, progressively, his claustrophobia had reasserted itself. Not to the same extent as before, but enough to now make it eminently uncomfortable to work inside the narrow confines of the lead shields surrounding the banks.
Straker looked down at his hands. They trembled ever so lightly. He clasped them together, tried to still the light shivers, casting surreptitious glances at the others to gauge whether or not they were noticing his plight. But Ford and Lake were quite obviously way too busy working to pick up on this. He would be relieved when this day was over, he thought, then bent back to the job.
Doug Jackson did not mind the impromptu, clandestine operation in the slightest.
He had been as deeply disquieted by the commander's continued negative reaction to Catherine Frazer's death as Miss Ealand. What she had told him about the pup, the commander's role, how he had behaved and what she had deducted from it, what possibilities she saw, all that was eminently sound reasoning. But then he had always been convinced of Straker's unerring instinct where it came to choosing superior staff.
Unlike Miss Ealand he had been there when that girl had woken, had connected with Straker as per his own suggestion, and he had watched the commander reciprocate that attachment, to the point of being unable to order risky interrogation measures, to the point of inquiring into how he might support Catherine after Mayland. He had watched him react to yet another failure to provide for someone he had come to deeply care for and other than the rest of the staff he knew just how often that had happened in the man's past.
The small whippet, now equipped with a proper collar, quietly rode on his arm as he made for Straker's underground office, the dog bed and some of the toys and chews along. He reminded Jackson of the magnificent sighthounds of his youth. Big enough to bring down even wolves and stags, as fast as the wind, fiercely guarding their masters and homes. The pup would not grow up to be as big of course, but it was alive, it was capable of loving someone, it was warm and soothing to the touch, and it was bold and entertaining. When push came to shove he was quite sure that he would be able to deal with Henderson. It was time to cut Straker some slack. And it was time Straker cut himself some of that as well.
The moment he entered the Commander's office the puppy grew restless and struggled to get down. Jackson set it onto the ground, before it could do itself any further injury. Immediately the little dog started to scent, homing in on Straker's perspex desk and barked at it with a wildly wagging long thin tail.
A wide, pleased smile of satisfaction formed on the doctor's face.
"Was that a bark?" Ayshea sat back and scanned the control room.
Just when she was about to accuse Lieutenant Anderson next to her of playing puerile Halloween tricks, she saw a tiny puppy make a beeline for the stairs leading towards the ripped open communication mainframe. Striding after the little dog was Doug Jackson, an unreadable expression on his face. She could have sworn it was some sort of quiet amusement, but that was impossible.
Then several things happened so fast and close together, that later Ayshea wondered whether any measurable time had passed between them at all. Still, for her they were occurring in that curious slow motion reserved for watching major negative events unfold, like accidents or acts of terror, when one felt utterly unable to change or do anything, and could but stare.
A flash of brilliant light, followed by a resounding explosion and the sound of water splashing started it. After that the ground shook with the impact of the blast, heavily enough to send Jackson sprawling to the floor and throwing her and Anderson out of their chairs. For a moment the world went black, as she hit the edge of the console with her head.
The breach alarm sounded, just once, and then the computer caskets slammed shut with such a sound of finality to it, that she yelled out in fright. Lake and Ford stumbled from the recess, staring at each other wideeyed. Then they turned, whitefaced, and went looking for the commander.
Somewhere the dog was keening.
The darkness was abrupt, absolute and unrelieved. Like the silence, the only sound he could hear was his own breathing. He put out his hands, to the sides, to his front, and to his back. A mere foot into every direction, solid steel walls, packed with lead. He leaned backwards into a corner and allowed himself to sink down along the main computer array until he reached a sitting position. He drew up his knees as much as he could, encircling them with his arms. He was not keen on touching the opposite wall.
In emergency shutdown the individual units were not only severed from the outside, they were also separated from each other on a purely mechanical level. The wiring harnesses normally interfacing the banks were jettisoned, the ports closed off with steel sliders. That meant that there was no air circulation within the units now. He had roughly twenty minutes, half an hour if he did not panic. There were twelve units they had worked on. How long would it take them to discover which of them held him?
He tried to do the exact mental calculation on how fast he would use up the oxygen left. But he could not come up with a valid number. He knew the symptom and it was not the only one. He could feel the first signs of a massive panic attack rush his system: he was breaking out in sweat, his heartbeat had accelerated and his hands were beginning to tremble uncontrollably. He swallowed, willing himself to be calm, to not give in to the senseless terror nudging not so gently at the gates of his mind.
Then a stray wave of nausea racked him so precipitously that he succumbed to it without the slightest chance at resistance. And it broke his meagre line of defense. He vomited, once, twice, three times, until he was reduced to retching out mere bile, helplessly shaking with debiliating, mortal fear as the walls closed in on him. He screamed.
The colonel was thankful for small favours. There were no casualties or injuries among those working at the water tank. They had seen the onset of the disintegration process early enough to make it to the reinforced, practically bombproof shelter areas of the observation room. Unfortunately someone had left open the heavy front gate, which had directed some of the blast down the hallway and towards the control room. It was that which had also allowed for the impact to travel past the containment area. There would be a change of certain protocols she mentally noted.
The only injured victims that they so far knew of were Ayshea, who suffered from a laceration above her left eye and one of the radar screen operatives, whose hands had been cut by flying glass shards when his screen had smashed to the floor. And then there was Straker, condition unknown, locked into one of the caskets, time running out.
"Does anyone know which of the banks he was working on when the shutdown occurred?" Lake asked in frustration. "How much time yet? These are all airtight now, right?"
"Twenty-five minutes, at most," Ford answered reluctantly.
"How long does it take to remove just the sliders?" she gestured at the nearest container. "That would buy us time."
"Why don't you start with this one?" Jackson asked quietly and pointed to where the puppy was sitting near one of the units, amidst cables and tools, keening and shivering. Both Ford and Lake threw him a sick look, immediately setting to work.
Jackson walked over to the small dog, scooped it up before it could get hurt in the frenzied bustle and headed back to Ayshea, placing it onto her lap.
"Keep hold of it," he admonished with a tight smile. "I'll go and get something to stop that bleeding with."
Returning with the medikit from Straker's office he found her crooning and caressing the little whippet, which was badly trembling, eyes riveted on where Ford and Anderson were going at the steel slider with two sledgehammers.
"Is that your dog, Doctor?" she asked, not even wincing when he dabbed the cut liberally with disinfectant. Jackson straightened and stared at her for a long moment. Life had taught him to be leery of the future. Especially when accidents and hurt people were part of it.
"No," he answered and sprayed the wound, sheltering her eye under one of his hands, then applied a tight medical strip. In a few hours the wound would start closing.
"It looks as if the commander owes it something," she said and pointed her chin at Colonel Lake kneeling in front of the battered-open linkage hatch, the steel slider but a twisted, crumpled piece of metal beside her. She was waving for him to approach. With an apologetic smile Jackson relieved Ayshea of the puppy and climbed over cables and tools into the recess.
"He's in there," Lake said, as soon as he knelt down beside her. "We can hear him breathe, but he's not responsive. The breathing frequency is way too fast for someone who's unconscious. With that vent open there should be enough oxygen in there now."
Jackson had a good idea what was happening inside that steel casket. The psychology department had downgraded Straker's claustrophobia several points after the submarine incident, but he had not believed in a complete cure, nor had Shroeder. They simply had not wanted to discourage Straker when he had been certain his phobia was a thing of the past.
"Commander?" Jackson spoke directly down the vent, stretched out flat, head cocked and listening. There was no response, but he could hear what Lake had talked about. Straker was hyperventilating back there, badly. He might send himself off into an episode of severe hypocarbia, and thus a dead faint. Not something Jackson wanted to happen, without knowing how he might be otherwise hurt. He turned towards Ford. "How much room is between the computer arrays and the casket?"
"A foot. Roughly."
"And the floor is clear?"
Ford nodded, puzzled. With an enigmatic smile Jackson let the whippet go, watching it make straight for the vent. It fitted through easily.
Far back in the recesses of his mind he knew that the reverberating pounding the casket was subjected to meant that he had been found, that they were trying to free him, that he would be provided with air to breathe.
That did not change the effect the sound had on him. Too close, too loud, too much, it added to the panic attack already in a feeding frenzy. He had been retching dry for minutes. The involuntary movements had twisted and jerked his body until he had so badly jammed himself into the tight space, that he was unable to find his way back to a sitting posture. He had tried clawing himself into an upright position, raging against the array stacks. All he had done was shred his hands, which were slick with bleeding now. The cloying, coppery smell of blood, the sour stench of his fear-sweat were so overpowering in the narrow confines of the casket, that they kept triggering a nausea which made him want to vomit out his very entrails.
Held in a pitchblack embrace of steel, senses overloading, he was gasping rapidly for breath, less and less air making it down into his lungs, nevermind how much he forced it in. His hands tingled, and he began feeling lightheaded, disconnected.
Far, far away someone was calling his name. A voice he knew, he was sure he should be able to place it. Then he could hear a scuffling sound. It was way too early for the casket lids to move open, they would need hours to do that. The very thought of having to stay for that unbelievably long stretch of time shut tightly into a steel tomb provoked another spell of heavy retching. Again he heard the light scratching noise.
"Could I have a word with you please, Lt. Ford?" Jackson asked.
Ford started, scared by the calm, deep voice directly in his ear. He had not noticed the doctor's approach. The man was downright uncanny.
"Of course, sir." He turned away from observing Colonel Lake and one of the computer technicians of her department working on the coding console which controlled the alarm state and position of the casket lids. "How can I help you?"
"It is not me you possibly may want to help, Lieutenant." Jackson's pronounciation was mesmerizing, his strong sibilants and rhotics almost visibly sailing through the air. "The commander might appreciate your help."
Ford kept looking at him as blandly as he could. That was the safest way to respond to requests he did not understand. Jackson lifted an eyebrow at him, and he had the feeling the Polish doctor knew precisely what he was thinking. Uncanny.
"Lt. Ford, have you noticed anything... untoward about Cmdr. Straker today?" The doctor's large expressive eyes appeared to be friendly and free of any ulterior motives. Ford wondered what he was driving at, and when the man just kept staring it slowly dawned on him.
"He was not very comfortable, I think," he said cautiously. "Of course I may be mistaken..."
Jackson shook his head. "Yes, but do you think you are indeed in error?"
"No, I think he was very uncomfortable," Ford finally decided to own up to the rumours he had heard and lowered his voice. "I'd heard it said that the commander suffers from claustrophobia. I discounted that up to today, but the way he looked... I think it must be true. Why do you ask, Dr. Jackson? What can I do to help?"
"It won't be long and everyone will have a look," Jackson answered. "I have no idea what the commander's state is when the container will be opened. I also am afraid we may get to hear... signs of his discomfort. The commander is a very private man. I am certain that he would value some privacy now, and as little exposition of the fact as possible. Do you think you can arrange that? Somehow?"
For a long moment Ford just looked into Jackson's eyes. They did not betray any kind of emotion or inner thoughts of the man. At last he nodded.
"It will be no problem," Ford said quietly. "That is my communication mainframe, and my responsibility. I do not think anyone but Colonel Lake, you and her technician have any business in there."
The pleased smile of the other told him he had it right.
"Why, thank you, Lieutenant," Jackson said, "this is a very logical decision. I appreciate it."
Cold. Wet. On his neck.
He slowly came to, sensing that something was very wrong. He had blacked out. He had never done that before. Cramps so painful in his shoulders, arms and legs that he had bitten himself upon waking. Cramps constricting his ribcage, making it difficult to breathe.
He cried out in terror when he felt something brush against his skin, wanting to back away, unable to move as much as an inch. He tried to ward it off with his hands and discovered they were contorted beyond being of any use. Helpless he lay there and suffered the touch of whatever was there in the casket with him.
The constant, repetitive stroking finally seeped through his bewildered mind and made itself known to him. Warm, wet and dedicated, rasping on his neck, he realized it had to be the puppy, licking him, cleaning the sweat and blood off his skin. Now that he had identified the little animal, he could sense the rest of its body perched on his belly, all four legs splayed, the tail wagging so violently, he was lashed across his chest with each turn.
He moved his head towards the dog, which now swarmed up his chest and started licking the tears off his face, trembling and crooning at him.
"Where've you come from?"
His voice was loud inside the narrow confines, startling him more than the puppy. It did not seem to mind that he sounded cracked and harsh with what he was going through. Apparently it was quite enough that he was addressing it. The little dog lay down on his stomach, breathing noisily, nudging him on the chin with a cold nose every few moments as if needing to verify he still was there.
"I'm sorry, puppy, I'm not exactly good company right now," Straker said into the darkness.
Whether it was the calming effect of another presence, or that his breathing had gone back to normal, he could feel his muscles unlock and loosen gradually, beginning with his hands. It was a natural thing to start caressing the dog, he let his hands travel over the fine, soft fur, showing the puppy it was alright to curl up where it lay. His fingers discovered the new collar, and he wondered what colour his secretary had chosen.
Relaxed enough at last to sort his own limbs out, he patiently twisted and shoved until he had manoeuvred himself back into a normal sitting posture, the puppy cradled on his lap, his feet braced against the off wall.
"We've got to find you a name, you know?" he murmured wearily, resting his head against the stacked computer banks. The little whippet simply burrowed deeper into him. Hugging the warm, small body close, Straker willed himself into calm patience.
"Everything alright?" Colonel Lake stepped up to him, looking over his shoulder as he was making last adjustments to his report.
"Yes, Ma'am," Ford nodded, relieved when she moved on. He felt in need of a few moments alone. There had been so much that had happened today. It was not just the accident, or the frenzied race to save the commander. It was also that he had gained insights into both Dr. Jackson and Straker that he had not counted upon.
Learning about the commander's phobia had been a shock. He had always considered the man being without fears, flawless. It had been even more astonishing to witness Straker being freed: sitting there, dishevelled, blinking into the sudden light, the tiny dog on his lap. Yet the first thing he uttered, with a voice barely audible, had been the question of who had been injured.
They had whisked the commander off into Jackson's practice rooms, where he supposedly was being treated and recovering. Ford signed the papers he had printed out. The doctor's compassion, and his wilyness had been just as astounding. He felt as if someone had taken his universe and rattled it, only a little bit, but enough to change some views. And fears.
Yes, much had happened today. Especially to some of his assumptions about others.
"Look," Straker reasoned, "how can I keep a dog? You know my schedule! And what should I do when I have to go on a business trip?"
Jackson looked up from dabbing Straker's carefully cleaned hands with betadine tincture.
"It is an obedient little dog," he answered. "You can bring it here to work with you. I am sure there will be many people willing to take care of it when you can't have it around you."
Straker glared at him. Jackson was making things needlessly complicated. It already would be a wrench to give the dog to someone else after the hours the two of them had spent together inside the steel trap. He looked down where the pup was watching them, resting across Straker's foot, as if to ensure he would not be going anywhere unnoticed.
The doctor regarded him with his peculiar, unflinching, utterly still gaze that many at headquarters found intimidating.
"Commander," he said at last. "I can make this very easy for you. That puppy is a prescription. Your very personal therapy dog. It is either that or I'll sign you in for half a year of psychological evaluation, treatment and recuperation from stress-induced mental trauma."
Straker blinked. "You can't do that!"
"Try me," Jackson replied in a tone that told Straker he was absolutely sure of himself. "None of us liked what we saw happen to you the past weeks. Together with what happened today, Commander, you can be sure that I can."
Throwing up his hands in exasperation the doctor brought his face close to Straker's.
"You want that dog, it's written all over you. The dog wants you, it's been bashing its nose in most of the past two days to be with you. It rescued your hide back there inside that container. Don't bother about protocol, I will personally see to it, that no one challenges its presence here. And if you need someone to take it when you travel, I am willing to do so. So!"
"Okay - okay!" Straker said, the decision a split-second one. He was feeling suddenly lightheaded and very relieved. "I'll take him. But I'll have that last part you said in writing and signed."
Delta shift had signed in a while ago. Somewhere not far off he could hear carpenters prepare the sets for the next workday. The security guard at the entrance nodded at him. Just another late evening.
Outside, the parking lot was as deserted as it had been the night before. The storm had brushed the leaves off the trees shading it in summer, laying a wet carpet of oddly bright yellows and reds. The puppy moved sleepily on his arm, when he opened the door to the passenger side. His secretary had already placed the dog blanket on the seat, the edges stuffed into the upholstery. He set the small dog down on the soft surface and walked around to climb in behind the wheel. The short moment was enough to rouse it from its doze. Alert, wide eyes keenly trained on him the puppy followed his every move, relaxing again only after he had belted up and started the car.
As soon as the heavy limousine was moving, it rolled itself into the seat, as if it owned the place, the car, him. Not taking his eyes off the road Straker extended one chafed, bruised hand and ran it in a quiet caress along the meagre body. He would have to feed it up, even a sightdog should not be so thin. The puppy caught his hand between its front paws and started licking it, clearly wishing to relieve him of what must have been noisome smells for a sensitive dog nose. Jackson had all but bathed his hands in betadine tincture.
He still was astounded by the consistent tenderness he was given. Freely, generously and in the face of his earlier betrayal. He had not done anything to merit this uncompromising affection.
"How do you like Calan?" he asked, his voice still somewhat rough from screaming. The puppy lifted its head from its self-assigned task and when he did not say anything more, bent back to methodically cleaning him.
Straker chuckled. "I'll take this is a yes." He withdrew his hand, after ruffling its fur gently. "Better pay attention, as done in as I am. Did you know that on Nos Calan Gaeaf the ancient Britons decided which animals may live and which will be slaughtered? That's tonight. Halloween. And tomorrow is Calan Gaeaf. All Saints day. I'll go and visit John's grave again. I haven't done that in years. Anyway. You were lucky today... and Calan has a nice sound to it." The puppy had been following his every word, the tail slowly wagging.
He pulled into the narrow lane leading to his house, brought the car to a halt in the gravelled driveway and killed the motor.
"How about showing you your new home?" Straker said to the pup, not without a large dose of self-mockery tinging his tone. But who could hear him here? No one. He could do as please on his own grounds, and if a grown man like himself wanted to talk to a small dog, then be it. As Jackson had said, they needed talking to, for training. He got out, walked around the limousine, and lifted Calan out of the car, carefully setting him down. The whippet shook himself noisily, then trailed him as Straker collected the dog's belongings from the boot.
He showed no anxiety inside the large house, busily sniffing everywhere, following Straker into the kitchen in a haphazard manner. Not yet knowing that this would turn into a routine, the slender man filled the dog's bowls with water and food, let him out into the garden, speaking to the dog in a manner growing more comfortable and natural by the minute. Whether it was the way the whippet cocked his head at the man, or whether Straker finally accepted that he needed this warm, lively presence, it did not matter.
He made himself a sandwich, accompanied by a large glass of milk, soothing his upset stomach, and watched the dog chew on one of the rawhide twists. He would have to go and see Dr. Llewellyn again, about the leg, about the vaccinations, and dewormings and all those things which suddenly had become relevant to him. And he wanted to show the man what had not taken place. It had not just been the dog who had been lucky, he conceded to himself. He did not want to go near what might have happened had Calan not joined him inside the casket.
Inside his sleeping room he placed the slumber bed directly beside his own, changed into his pyjamas and coaxed the pup into the soft dog bed, caressing it until it lay down and rolled up. For a moment he considered closing the curtains, but then he could not bring himself to do that. He had had enough of dark places for a while. Allowing the moonlight to play across the bed he slipped between the cool sheets and almost immediately started drifting off.
It certainly had to be a reminiscence of what occurred in the casket that made him feel something warm snuggle up to him.