You Can Always Count on Me
Part Three: Lost Without You
“Captain, a personal call for you, channel two.”
“Thanks.” Lew Waterman put his reports aside. The cabin door shut and he switched the phone button.
“Hey Lew, how are you, old man?” The voice of Colonel Collins sounded far away, disturbed by noise interferences. “It’s more difficult to get in touch with you than a pay raise from Commander Straker.”
“Uh, Craig, I’m not that old, only five months older than you whippersnapper.” He heard his friend chuckle. “You’re lucky, I’ve just finished my duty and we’re going back to base. Where are you? Still on Moonbase?”
“Yes, I’m waiting for my launch, taking a damaged part of the radar system back to earth. The UFO attack three days ago.”
Lew nodded. “Yeah, heard of it. How‘s Paul doing?”
“Black and blue allover, several cuts and contusions. Minto was really lucky that Paul was there to rescue him out of his crashed Interceptor. Well, you know Paul. The next day he wanted to return on duty as commander. But Straker had already ordered Virginia to take over. I’ll fly Foster back to Earth.”
“Give him a get-well from me. How long will you stay then?”
“I’ve got a few days off. That’s why I phoned you. What do you think about visiting you in Sandbank?”
Lew heaved a sigh. “Would be nice, but I’ve already planned a visit at my sister’sin Australia for the next few days. But, why don’t you accompany me? She’d be pleased to meet you.”
“Really? Okay… so why not. You organize the flight and I’ll check us out at SHADO security as soon as I’m back at headquarters.”
X X X
“Lew, at last!” The young woman who had opened the front door was all smiles when she caught her brother in her arms. She kissed him on his cheeks and then let him go, turning to the other man.
“And you must be Craig. I’ve heard a lot about you,” she added and proffered him her hand.
“Ah, yes, I’m Craig, ah…nice to meet you… Liza.”
Craig took a deep breath. He was overwhelmed. Lew had made no mention of his sister’s loveliness and the photo he had seen during the flight was already a few years old. Liza was smaller by a head than her brother but of the same slender figure. She wore her black hair shoulder-length, now bound in a ponytail which bopped with each of her movements. Her green eyes sparkled in her tanned face and Craig could see a row of perfect teeth as she smiled at him.
“Now come in boys, you don’t want to stay overnight on my doormat, do you?” She laughed and pulled Lew into the house. “I think you’ll want to freshen up after the long journey. I’ve to collect Lily first, she had her violin classes. We’ll be back in an hour, so serve yourselves with coffee and some biscuits in the kitchen. Catch ya later.”
The door slammed shut and Craig exhaled. “My, is your sister always like that?”
“Worse,” Lew answered grinning.
X X X
The noise in the pub was deafening and Lew had to bend over to his sister to make himself understood. “How long is the babysitter booked for?”
“Till midnight. What’s the time? Oh… already half past twelve. I’d hoped we could visit a nightclub after this pint, but …”
“Listen, that’s what I wanted to suggest. I’m feeling my headaches starting and I want to leave. Perhaps you and Craig go for a stroll through the discos and I take care of Lily at home?”
“Fantastic idea, if your friend agrees to it. Craig?” She touched his arm and shouted, “You and me … go dancing?”
He gave her a bright smile. “Nothing better than that. And your brother?”
“Returning home, headaches. Playing good uncle and looking after his niece. Lew, is that really okay for you?”
“Sure, no worries.” Lew ruffled Liza’s hair and winked at her. “Enjoy and get him back before breakfast, we’ll have a busy day tomorrow. Mate, behave yourself.”
On the next morning, a very tired Craig sat at the table. Liza had left the house, driving her daughter to school. Lew took his third croissant and looked at his friend. “What’s the matter? Not hungry?”
Craig wagged his head. “No, I’m feeling tired. Must bejet-lag.” He poured himself another cup of coffee. “Can’t understand why your sister is already so awake.” He yawned, hardly keeping his eyes open.
Lew finished his breakfast and stood up. “Well, come on, Rentalcars brought our jeep a quarter ago. If we want to reach the Kangaroo Valley before noon, we should start soon.”
“Nice, that’s all I need, now he begins speaking in rhyme.” Craig rolled his eyes and brought his rucksack. Lew had started the Cherokee and waited for him by the front door. Craig climbed into the car and moaned. “Please don’t accelerate so hard, take care of my head.”
They reached the valley three hours later. While the jeep climbed through the serpentines to their target, Craig unfolded the hiker map. A red cross marked the place where Daniel and his cousin had been found a few months ago. As far as he could see there were no routes nearby and he wondered how Lew had planned to get there.
He looked out of the window, enjoying a large falls plunging off a plateau of sandstone cliffs in white fogged cascades. “Nice picture, isn’t it?”
Lew nodded and slowed down. “Yeah, indeed. We’ll leave the road now.” He changed into four-wheel-mode and left the lane, steering the jeep among small bushes over shallow creeks and gravel until he finally stopped. “Here we are. All out.”
Craig sighed and climbed out. He took a few steps up to the place where the rocks fell away sharply. “Uhm, down here? Seems as if others had the same idea before.” His sight followed a small path to his right.
Lew shut the back door of the car and handed Craig his rucksack and a rope. “Yes, the sat nav says we have to follow it along the small creek for about two and an half kilometres. Maybe this is the path the rescue team took.” He folded his map and put it into his pocket. “The footprints look fresher, perhaps some hikers. Let’s go.”
After they had climbed down and reached the creek, the plane terrain allowed good progress for the first kilometre, but after they crossed the dry creek bed, loose stones and gravel slowed them down. Finally Lew stopped. He looked on his sat nav. “Okay, the coordinates say we’re right. Let’s check it with the picture.” He picked a transparent foil out of his rucksack.
Craig bowed his head over the picture. “What is it?”
“The rescue team took a photo of that what they called the ‘crime scene’. Look at this special rock formation, where they found Danny’s remains. Must be this one.” He pointed to a low heap of sandstones where shovels had left tracks of digging on the surface.
“Yeah, I see. I think you’re right. What do you want to do now?”
Lew raised his head. “Would you mind leaving me alone for a few minutes? I want to say a last farewell to Danny and … leave this here for him.” He reached into his rucksack and took out a framed photograph.
“Oh, that’s nice, Liza, Lily and you. And who is that guy?”
“Liza’s husband, Lily’s father. He was killed two years ago in a car accident in the outback. His truck overturned, you know. A real dill, if you ask me. But Liza had loved him.” Lew had placed the frame in a small rock shelter and sat back on his heels. “Please, we can discuss later, but now…”
Collins nodded. “Understood. I’m going to explore the area, along the creek there. Give me your map. Will be back in an hour. If you need me here earlier, phone me, okay?”
Craig left his friend behind and followed the creek out of the small valley. He noticed signs that other people had been here: footsteps in the sand, broken twigs, an empty plastic bottle. But the farther he went the less tracks he saw, and eventually he knew no other human being had been here for a long time.
He stopped, reaching for his water bottle and looking around over the valley as he sat there, resting. His gaze roamed across a small rock formation, and, following it up to the horizon, the shape of another rock caught his attention, pulling his view back down to the ground.
He looked at his watch. Time to return before Lew filed a missing person’s report. Craig bent down to put his bottle into his rucksack, but then hesitated. In the blink of an eye he was aware that something had disturbed him.
He looked up. Nothing uncommon. The rocks were exactly at the same place where he had seen them moments before. He focussed his view and searched the landscape again. And now he knew what had puzzled him. The rock face on his right side was a one-to-one-copy of that to his left.
Craig’s inner alarm bells rang. Since the first alien clones had appeared a few months ago, everybody at SHADO had increased the alertness on uncommon circumstances, and this was definitely one.
After a few hundred metres he reached the stones. Cautiously he put out his hand and touched the surface. The surprising sensation of warm material was his last impression before a white flash exploded in his head. His body stiffened to complete immobility within a second, and with a deep hum the strange substance enclosed Craig’s hand and pulled him inside.
X X X
It was silent. The light breeze that had cooled Lew’s face had gone. No sound disturbed the calmness of the place where Danny must have experienced his last breath, his last gaze, his last feelings. He had died too young, much too young. Lew’s thoughts returned to the day so many years ago when he had seen his brother alive for the last time. He would never forget Danny’s bright smile with the gap where he had lost a tooth just the day before they started to the camp. And he would never stop hunting those who had come to Earth, taking the lives of innocent children and other people.
He glanced at the photograph he had propped against the stones. Danny was not the only member of his family who had passed away, but Lew didn’t feel any regret for his deceased brother-in-law. Shaun had treated Liza so badly during their marriage that Lew had been almost relieved when the news of his death had reached him. And he was very thankful that Liza and even Lily had quickly come to terms with Shaun’s death. His sister looked much more relaxed now and Lew was proud of being the brother of such a good looking woman. He smiled as he remembered Craig yesterday standing open-mouthed in front of her.
Uh, Craig. Lew sighed. He was not sure if he liked the idea of him and Liza as lovers. Sure, Craig was a loyal and faithful friend who would even give his shirt off his back if any of his comrades needed his help. But on the other hand he was a caustic and hotheaded guy, acting without thought for the consequences. And Liza needed a partner sharing her everyday life, who could be a close friend to her daughter. Not someone who had a pilot job in a secret organisation, spending weeks in shuttles between Moon and Earth, returning home every other month. He knew himself too well how damaging their profession could be to a friendship. After six months he had lost his own girlfriend after she decided she’d rather see a banker in Glasgow with a nine-to-five job than waiting for him in Sandbank.
Lew rubbed his eyes, trying to dissipate his dark thoughts. A glance at his watch brought a groan of displeasure. Craig had left him more than an hour ago and it was time to return to the car if they didn’t want to spend the night in the valley. He took his mobile phone and dialled, but a look on the screen told him that it was in vain: no network available. Grumbling about the poor reception he followed the footsteps of his friend along the creek.
X X X
Collins awoke, trying to get through the layers of darkness which still enclosed his brain.The rock. He remembered the glaring flash and the void in which he had fallen after something had grasped his arm. His eyes snapped open and he tried to sit up, but failed. Something held him back, made his efforts useless. He found himself stretched on a narrow table, face-down, hands and feet bound at the edges. He shivered, suddenly aware of the lack of any clothes. Tapes around his waist and over his shoulders held him tight, making it impossible to move. Fear pushed a surge of heat into his blood.
He raised his head as far as he could, searching the room with his eyes. He was alone, inside kind of a dome. His prison seemed to be just one of several sections separated by coloured glass walls. But the most confusing thing he saw were the transparent outer walls of the dome, which allowed the sunrays to fall in, creating a dimmed lightness inside his cabin.
A noise at his side made him cringe. From out of nowhere two figures in silver-red spacesuits stood beside the table. Craig held his breath, frozen in shock. He forced himself to turn his head and look into their faces. They were aliens, no doubt. Against his expectations they didn’t wear helmets, so that he could see the green skin of their faces, coloured by the reflected light of the glass walls.
With a callous expression they stared down at him, like a scientist would have examined a rare species on his object table. One of them moved to Craig’s other side and raised his hand. For one moment Craig caught a glimpse of the scalpel in his glove, then the other pushed his head back with brute force on the table.
Craig cried out as he felt the razor-sharp blade scarify the skin on his back. He strained against the tapes, trying to escape, but the restraints were too strong. The alien slid the scalpel into his flesh. An excruciating pain hit his body, making him unable to breathe. His thoughts started spinning around, rushing through his mind. His memories of SHADO, his comrades, Moonbase - all whirled in a wild maelstrom through his brain.
An animalistic howl escaped his lips as the blade entered deeper. His tormentor looked up and hesitated, exchanging a glance with the other alien. A slight nod and the scalpel was pulled out of his back. Craig felt certain that the alien would kill him with the next cut. He tugged at his binds, not wanting to die like this by the hands of the enemy, misused as human organ supplier. He twisted, trying to lash out and hit one of them, but all his strength seemed to be gone after the first attack. He collapsed and passed out.
X X X
Lew stood still. After he had found Craig’s empty waterbottle he was sure that his friend was out there, somewhere at the creek. But nothing. He had searched the ground, bushes and sand for traces, shouting his name, listening for any reply, but the valley kept silent.
He had to admit that he needed help, maybe they both needed help. Mobile phone and sat nav were still without reception and dusk was approaching. He had to reach the jeep before it got too dark, and ride to the next telephone. Craig’s sudden disappearance irritated him more than it should. Maybe Craig had only lost his direction and therefore decided to camp for the night between the rocks. He was well trained and had some equipment in his rucksack, so no need to worry. But deep in his mind Lew knew that something had happened. And the memory of the UFO he supposed had taken Danny’s life was all too clear, even after so many years.
Lew scanned the landscape for a last time, his gaze moving over the nearby rocks and bushes. Nothing. He started hurrying back to their car, knowing the light would not last long, but he hoped he could reach the vehicle before the sun touched the horizon.
The strange notions caught him off-guard. He heaved a loud moan and fell to his knees, pressing his hands against his temples. Shreds of another human’s mind hit his own brain and let him gasp. In a split second he knew it was Craig whom he discerned, whose agony and fear of death he was sharing in this moment. He screamed, fought against the pain, not knowing that only a few steps away Craig fought for his life. He was not able to look inside the camouflaged dome, watching his friend twitching in the bonds, blood crawling down his back. And then, in the blink of an eye, the horrific sight was over, as if a door was shut.
Half blind with terrible headaches, Lew struggled to his feet and started lurching back to the jeep.
X X X
Freeman switched the talk button. “Ford, connect me with Sidney, Colonel Grey.” He waited until the face of the communications officer returned on the screen.
“Sir, Colonel Grey on line two.”
Freeman changed the line. “Good evening, John.”
“Hello, Alec. Ford told me you wanted to talk to me.”
“That’s right. I got a call from Lew Waterman. He is in Australia on holiday together with Colonel Collins and I’m afraid they are in troubles.”
Grey couldn’t repress a frown. “Craig Collins? No wonder that they ran into difficulties. What can I do for you?”
Alec looked on the map of New South Wales which lay unfolded on his desk. “Well, they went to the Kangaroo Valley today to see the place where Lew’s brother had been found. Collins went off to look around the area on his own and ...”
Grey interrupted. “Let me guess: he didn’t return and is still missing?”
Now it was Freeman’s turn to cock his eyebrows. “Exactly. Listen, John. Waterman is very worried about him. He found Craig’s empty waterbottle out there, but no sign of him. This area was visited by aliens earlier and …”
“Okay, I see. And I agree. We’ve been observing strange fluctuations in the voltage south of Wollongong for 24 hours now and some satellite disturbances. Maybe there’s something dubious about it. I’ll send two of our mobiles to the valley. And Skydiver 6 is …”
Before he could finish his sentence, an operative rushed into his office. “Sir, UFO sighting on coordinates 34° 43’south, 150° 31’ east.”
“That’s the Kangaroo Valley,” Alec added with a grim expression.
Three hours later a Marker’s Universal Transporter brought the mobiles into the target area. After picking up Lew Waterman with the aerocopter, Colonel Grey had joined the team and taken control himself over the search parties. The powerful lights of the vehicles bathed their way in dazzling light while Lew guided them to the rocks where he had lost Craig’s trace.
“Okay, John, this is the place where I found his bottle.”
Grey nodded and switched the talk button of his microphone. “Mobiles stop here. Turn on search lights. Team one and two, get out.” He turned to Waterman. “Do you want to stay in the mobile, if your headaches return?”
“Thanks, but no need, I can handle it. Let’s go, we have to find him as soon as possible.”
Waterman jumped out of the mobile. What he concealed from Grey was a slight nagging pain which had started just after they reached the area, an uncomfortable but somehow reassuring sign for him that his comrade was still alive.
Lew looked around. The spotlights of the mobiles moved over the surface of the rock formations, causing strange shadows of each object they hit. Lew’s eyes followed the lights until they abruptly stopped on seeing a human body.
“John, there!” Lew started running. He reached the dead-still body together with Colonel Grey and sank to the ground. “Craig! Craig, it’s me, Lew. Can you hear me?”
Searching with trembling fingers for a pulse in his neck, he was almost afraid to touch the cold skin of his naked friend.
“Is he alive?” Grey asked with a concerned voice, taking off his jacket to cover Collins with it to bring some warmth back to him.
“Wait … yes. Thank God, yes. Craig, wake up, come on, talk to me.”
Craig’s eyes snapped open, frightened and unfocussed. “Aliens… aliens,” he whispered while he tried to sit up.
“Keep still, Colonel. We’ll fly you to our medical unit.” Grey waved two operatives with a stretcher. “Hold on a bit, you’re safe now.”
Craig moaned and brought his hand to his back. “They cut me open. The pain … is killing me.”
Lew changed a quick look with Grey. He gripped at Craig’s arms and managed to lay him prone on the stretcher. The sight of his back was horrible. Dried blood, dirt, sand and a green fluid had left stains in various colours on his skin. A long scar, light-red and obviously new, ran from under his ribs across his back to his spine.
“Christ, what have they done to you?” Lew muttered. His fingers followed the wound with gentle care.
“What is it, Lew?” Craig grunted. “I need to know, if …” He didn’t finish his sentence, but Lew knew anyway what his friend meant.
“I can’t say, here is a long scar, very neat. Not bleeding now, as if it was sealed with glue or something. Like Colonel Grey said, we’ll fly you back to Sidney and the medical staff will check if you are still in one piece.”
X X X
Dr. Noongar wrinkled her black eyebrows while she held the radiograph against the bright panel. “Colonel, I’ve got good and bad news for you. The good is, nothing is missing. I mean, all your organs are at their place, the aliens didn’t take a hair from you.”
Collins looked up to the leader of the medical ward with an expression between utter incredulity and guarded optimism. “You mean, they did not steal any part of me? Lew, you said, the slash on my back looks like a surgical scar. And it’s just over my kidneys, isn’t it?”
Lew raised his hand, silencing his comrade. “Sorry, but I’m no medic. If Dr. Noongar says there is nothing missing, then it’s as simple as that.”
“But…ouch…” Hissing because of a sudden pain in his back, Craig tried to revisit the topic. “Doctor, so tell me why it hurts like hell at each movement if it’s only a harmless flesh wound?”
“That’s the bad news, Colonel. The blade penetrated very deep into your flesh, cutting through several layers. My screening showed that the aliens connected them properly in some way – don’t ask me how -, but an injury remains an injury.”
“And that means…”
“Bedrest. For some days. You might return to London in two days if you want to consult my colleague Dr. Jackson. Now excuse me, Colonel Grey is waiting for my report.”
Waterman took the radiograph from the doctor and stepped to Craig’s bed. “Okay, so you have to stay here for some more time. I’ll return to Liza and bring your stuff, if you don’t mind.”
Craig took the radiograph out of Waterman’s hands. “Yes, that’d be great, I think I need some fresh clothes. Can’t return to headquarters in nothing more than bare skin, can I?” He grinned, examining the picture. “Really, I think Dr. Noongar is right, nothing is missing. But what on earth did the aliens plan for me, why this scar?”
“Yes, that’s one question, Collins.” Unnoticed Colonel Grey had entered the room. “But more important is, why didn’t they kill you? If they were disturbed while cutting you up, why didn’t they throw you out of the dome consigning you to your fate?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Craig snapped back, feeling the anger turning his cheeks a furious red.
Fixing his eyes on the other man’s face, Grey rounded the bed and sat down at Craig’s feet. “This is as much as to say they applied a lot of effort to keeping you alive. And I wonder why.“
Sitting straight up, Craig grabbed at Grey’s arm. “You bastard, do you think I’m a renegade?”
For a moment, Grey lost his own temper. His eyes darkened and shaking off Collins’ hand, he jumped up. “Don’t you dare…”
Lew knew it was high time for settling the dispute. “Stop it, Craig. And John, Colonel Collins is not in the right condition for an inquiry. Better leave it to Commander Straker when Craig returns to headquarters in a couple of days.”
Pressing his jaws so tight that Waterman could imagine he heard grinding teeth, Grey turned to the door but then looked back. “You can bet on it, Lew. Straker will demand an answer.” The door clicked shut. Waterman sighed and strolled to the window which allowed a wide view over the harbour.
“For God’s sake, can’t you hold your tongue? You know Grey’s manner of sounding things out and you go through the roof. “
“You heard what he accused me of! A renegade… that’s ridiculous. Me, who joined SHADO directly after my astronaut training, spending half of my life hunting and killing aliens.”
“Calm down, Craig. John didn’t say that, you used the word. And by the way, there’s still the question why they spared you lucky sod. Well, I have to go, Liza is expecting me. Oh, she asked after you.” He took his jacket from the chair. “And don’t let John bring you out of your shell again.”
“All right, thanks. See you. Oh – and greet her.” Closing his eyes, Craig sank back onto his pillow. He was tired, exhausted, he felt adrift and his back hurt. Before he fell into a restless sleep, a hidden voice echoed in his head ‘We - come – back’.
X X X
“And you can’t remember what happened to you after the alien pulled the scalpel out of your body, Colonel?” Dr. Jackson’s pale-grey eyes studied Craig’s face with a look of expectancy while he put Dr. Noongar’s report back on the table.
“No, I passed out and the next I remember is the face of this lad here.” Craig grinned and pointed to Lew, who was attending the conference at headquarters together with Commander Straker, Colonel Grey and Colonel Freeman. “Think you saved my life again, Lew.”
“Any time,” his comrade answered smiling. “But don’t let it become a habit.”
“Colonel, back to the dome.” The impatient undertone of Jackson’s voice was unmistakeable. “Are you sure that there were only two aliens inside? Isn’t it possible that it served as shelter for more of them?”
“No idea. As I said, the dome had transparent walls, but I was bound face-down and couldn’t raise my head high enough for a 360-degree-view. And I didn’t have much time to examine my jail before they started slashing me open. God, I’d like to see you in this situation – fighting for your life.”
Commander Straker shot a displeasing gaze at Collins. “Craig, answer his question. Dr. Jackson needs any information he can get. You know, the dome exploded just after you’ve been rescued, leaving a lot of debris behind.”
“But there’s nothing I can tell. I heard, the largest piece measured about six inches?”
“Yes, but we also found some evidence that aliens had been inside the dome at the time of explosion, though the UFO must have left the area minutes before,” Straker added. “I regret Sky 6 couldn’t damage it enough for a forced landing. Maybe we would have found our answers in the ship, if she hadn’t escaped.”
Making a mental note of the insufficient training for the jet pilots he turned to Grey. “You were the commanding officer for this mission. What‘s your opinion?”
Grey hesitated. Knowing about the close friendship between the commander and Collins he searched for the right words. “I think, the aliens followed a plan. Probably Collins was a victim by accident first and the aliens wanted to get his organs. But …”
“Yes, that’s also what’s in my mind.” Straker interrupted, fixing his eyes on Collins’ face. “We know they always take what they need without any mercy. Craig, you have to tell me, what happened in that dome. Why did the aliens let you survive?”
Craig jumped up, crashing his chair to the wall. “I don’t know, for Heaven’s sake!” He slammed his fist on the table. “How many times must I repeat it? I passed out cold and when I came to, Lew was kneeling by my side. That’s it. I don’t know why those bloody aliens didn’t kill me, damn!”
Although Straker knew about the temper of his friend, he had never experienced it on duty as openly as this. With an icecold gaze and a voice which could have flash-frozen the mineral water in their glasses, he turned to his officer. “You will sit down. Now.”
Collins’ furious stare dropped at once and made room for a bland smile. “Sorry, Ed,” he murmured, pulling his chair back. “I don’t know what came over me. I’m not feeling well, still this pain in my back and the loss of my memory. That’s getting me down.”
Accepting the apology with a short nod, Straker leant back in his chair. “Alright, let’s end the discussion for now. Captain, you’re expected on Skydiver, ETD sixteen hundred. Thank you.”
When the men left the conference room, Straker held Freeman back. “There are some points I still want to discuss with you.”
Alec followed the commander into his office. After closing the door, Straker sat down at his desk and pulled a sheet out of a pile of papers. “I don’t get it, Alec. Dr. Jackson’s report gives Craig full clearance, and so does Dr. Noongar. But what the hell was that in the conference room?”
Freeman crossed his legs and shifted in his chair. “Well, you know him better than I do. Didn’t you tell me he’s always been a hothead? And the doctors didn’t find anything strange in his state of mind. He went through the mental tests with a 100 per cent result, didn’t he?”
Straker looked up. In a voice that was unusually low he answered, “And when was the last time you passed a test with a result like that?”
X X X
“Where are you, Lew? I rang you already yesterday.”
“In the wild, wild ocean, Craig.” Captain Waterman shut the door of his cabin and took a sip of coffee. Changing to a more serious tone he added, “To be exact, in the Atlantic near to the Azores. We were given a line by a container ship on an airborne missile looking like flying fish.”
“Sounds like you’re enjoying your day, mate. Listen, I wanted to say I’m sorry for last week, my visit at your place was different than planned and …”
“Forget it. It was just my fault as well. I didn’t know Liza wanted to visit me, and I’m convinced neither did she know you and Virginia were in Sandbank.“
“If she hadn’t slapped my face I wouldn’t have grabbed her arm so hard and you…”
“And I shouldn’t have knocked you down,” Lew completed the sentence. “Shit happens, Craig. Well, back to business. Where are you, by the way?“
“Business is the catch-word. I’m bringing rock samples back from Moonbase and hoping Ed gives me a more exciting job, instead of being a bus driver.”
Lew snorted with laughter. “Want to see you in a crisp uniform. Let me know, if…”
A knock at his cabin door let him break off.
“Captain, we’ve reached the target area.”
“Affirmative, Masters. Stop the engines.Periscope depth. I’ll join you in a minute.” He arose and pulled on his uniform jacket. “Craig, I’ve to get off, duty calls.”
Collins cut the connection and switched the next button. “Ship 534 to Moonbase commander.”
“Go ahead, 534.” A touch of joy sounded in Commander Lake’s voice.
“Approaching earthly re-entry and feeling blue.” Imagining her standing at the microphone among the other Moonbase colleagues, a sly smile crept over his face. “All right for Saturday night, darling?”
X X X
Captain Waterman parked his SUV in front of his house and climbed out. After weeks on duty and a lot of double shifts he was dead on his feet. The uncertain destiny of Craig Collins after crashing into the south Atlantic during his re-entry procedure had shaken Lew to the core. Straker had ordered him into the supposed area, searching for the wreck and his old friend. During the last weeks he had flown Sky 1 over so many uninhabited volcano islands, along white beaches and green jungle that he could have drawn a map of the area from memory. But all had been for nothing. No scorched ground, no piece of bent metal, no Craig.
To be honest, hardly one of his colleagues at SHADO would bet his money on the possibility that Collins was still alive. Even the commander had finally archived Craig’s file. It seemed as if only Straker’s secretary Miss Holland and Lew himself had not given up hope of saving his comrade’s life.
Lew opened the frontdoor and stepped into the entrance. A lot of junk mail and several issues of the Holy Loch Herald were spread over the floor. Lew grumbled and kicked the paper out of his way. He didn’t feel in the mood for tidying up; what he needed was a hot shower, a meal and some pints of beer. He took a casserole out of the freezer and shoved it into the oven. While searching for a plate and cutlery his thoughts returned to the day when Craig had visited him in Sandbank first. He slumped onto the chair, remembering sitting with him right here in the kitchen, examining the healed broken leg of his friend and teasing him about his scrubby beard, and he could not dissipate the fear that he would perhaps never welcome his friend at his place again.
Lew sighed and got up. There was still a ray of hope that his stubborn fellow had made it somewhere in the wilderness. He entered the bathroom and took off his clothes, piling them absent-minded on the laundry basket. He turned the jets on and slipped under the hot water. Closing his eyes he leant against the shower tiles. His tensed muscles began to relax under the steady stream of water and his thoughts returned to the last shift which he had finished with another unsuccessful attempt at finding Craig.
The ringing of the telephone brought him back to reality. Grunting about the disturbance he turned off the jets, gripped at a bath towel and stumbled into the dark living room.
“Carlin here. We’ve …” The connection was disturbed by static and whirring and Lew missed the next words. “… and he is alive. Captain Waterman? Can you read me?”
“Yes, Peter, repeat, who is alive? Is it Collins?”
Lew inhaled with a half choked noise. “Is he okay? Where is he?” Staring at the receiver in his wet hand he didn’t take notice of the water dripping on the carpet.
“Collins is well, as far as I could see. I found him on a recce flight over a small island. I noticed smoke and saw him at the beach, waving a thermal blanket.”
“The old bugger.” Lew twisted his mouth in a crooked smile, shaking his head in disbelief. “What is your position now?”
“About eighty miles east of Tobago. One of our helicopters is just on the way to fetch him.”
Lew put down the phone and grinned from ear to ear. The next minutes under the shower his whistling sounded all the way through his cottage and he was glad that nobody else was there to hear it.
X X X
“Good morning, Miss Ealand, Commander Straker is expecting me.”
Straker’s secretary smiled at the visitor and opened the door of the elevator. “I know, Captain.”
Seconds later Lew Waterman entered the hidden rooms of SHADO. Crossing the control centre he wondered why the commander had ordered him back out of his days off, but he also hoped to meet Craig at Headquarters. He stopped in front of Straker’s office and reached for the button, when the door opened by itself, Craig Collins rushing out of it, nearly colliding with him.
“Hey, ol’ fellow, slow down.” Lew grinned at him, pulling at his sleeve.
“Lew.” Craig squeezed his comrade’s shoulder. “I didn’t expect seeing you here. Supposed you were enjoying your garden in Sandbank.”
“No, the commander called me; I guess some difficulties with the new Skydiver. We can go for a beer or something after that.”
“I’m sorry but I’ve to hurry. Ed gave me a new task, repairing S.I.D. Providing that Dr. Jackson gives me full clearance after my last open-air test in the jungle.” He laughed, and pointing inside Straker’s office he added, “Colonel Grey is still in there, you might want to wait a minute?”
Craig turned to continue his way, but Lew grabbed his arm. “John Grey? Is he also on the project?”
Collins’ face clouded. “Not only on the project but in charge of it. Thank God fixing S.I.D. is an astronaut’s job, so we can get out of the way. He…” The words died down and his head jerked into Lew’s direction. A visible stiffness had gripped his body and with a vacant stare he stood there in front of his comrade, motionless, expressionless,…dead.
“You’re okay?” Alarmed by the strange reaction Lew touched Craig’s arm and shivered as he felt the rigidity of the muscles.
Collins’ gaze focussed on Lew. For one moment Lew was hit by the impression of pure desire to kill in his friend’s eyes, but then they lost their mortal fire and made room for a bland look.
Shaking off his comrade’s hand Craig took a step back. “I’ve to go.” He walked away, leaving Lew standing at the door wondering what the hell had got into his old friend.
X X X
Six days later Lew Waterman left the airlock of Moonbase after passing the electronical ID control and entered the main sphere. The lunar module would take him back to Earth in three hours; time enough to pay a visit to the medical ward.
Paul Foster was sitting on his bed, two pillows in his back, his outstretched leg bandaged. A heap of paper and construction plans were spread over the duvet and he seemed to be absorbed in what looked like S.I.D.’s control unit.
“Put the pills here, please,” he mumbled, his head bent over the plans.
Waterman grinned and held the sports magazine out to him. “How about this instead?”
Paul looked up, puzzled by the unexpected visitor. “Lew. I thought Dr. Granger brought my painkillers. What are you doing here?”
Waterman pulled up a chair and sat down beside the bed. “I’m meeting Colonel Bradley. The schedule of the new training routine for the pilots. But what about you? I heard of your accident. What happened?” He pointed to the strapping around Foster’s bare chest.
“Craig Collins happened,” Paul sighed. “No, seriously, a training incident. You know he wanted me as co-astronaut?”
Lew nodded. “Yes, Commander Straker mentioned it. He also said you had to shape up before you could get a go for the mission.”
“That’s right. Well, Collins and I were pumping irons and he lost balance and let the barbell fall onto me, cracking my leg and my rib.” He touched the bandage and winced.
“I would say Craig did a good job on you. Was never subtle in his choice of methods when it comes to knocking a rival aside,” Lew smirked, looking into the direction of the control sphere.
“What? Virginia? You think he wanted to hit me because he’s jealous?”
“Who knows? Look, I know he and Colonel Lake were lovers before he disappeared. And when he came back he had to realize that you had snatched her from under his nose. How would you react?”
Foster leant back and shrugged. “Virginia was fallen out of love with him. She’s a nice girl and I was single, needing some pleasure… oh come on, you know what I mean.” He shifted and took a large plan from his knees. “I can’t imagine that Collins would compromise the project for his sensitivities. S.I.D. ranks first, especially for him.”
Lew stood up. “Well, I’d say. Have to leave now. Is the project placed on hold until you’re okay?”
Their eyes met and Lew discovered a concealed anger in it. “No. There’s no time. The mission starts in two days. Commander Straker will take my place, together with Collins. I’m returning to Headquarters tomorrow, trying to help from the technical point of view.”
Paul let his gaze fall back on his plans, studying the constructions while Lew was studying him. He noticed the disappointment in Foster’s face and understood all too clear the feelings of the other man. Being thrown out of an important project, only because of Craig’s carelessness was not easy to handle, he knew that.
He left the room in silence and, resting for a moment at the door jamb, he decided to talk to Craig as soon as possible.
Two hours later on his flight back, he sat in the lunar module, still poring over the man whom he considered as his closest friend.
X X X
The white corridor was deserted and smelled of cleaning and disinfection solution. Lew Waterman hated visits to Mayland Hospital more than anything else, but there was something left he wanted to clear before returning to Skydiver later this day. He hurried to open the door to the medical ward for SHADO personnel until he finally stopped in front of the entrance to the laboratory. He knocked and looked around the half-open door. Dr. Jackson sat at his desk, reading in a book. When he noticed the visitor, he put the book aside and leant back.
“Captain Waterman. A rare guest in my rooms.” He pointed to the chair in front of his desk and Waterman sat down. “I guess you are not seeing me because you’re ill.”
“No, Doctor. I want to ask for your expertise.”
Dr. Jackson lifted his eyebrow in astonishment. “Yes, Captain?”
Lew looked on his interlaced fingers, searching for the right words. “It’s about Craig Collins.”
Jackson sent a piercing glance at him. “What do you want to know?”
“Well... perhaps you know Craig and I became friends over the last months. Good friends, I would say.” Lew looked at the doctor who hadn’t moved, listening in silence. “I was shocked when he was assumed dead. And maybe you can guess how relieved I was when he was found. But…”
Jackson watched with interest that Lew had started toying with a pencil. “Nervous, Captain?”
“No… yes, a bit. It’s not easy speaking about a friend if you feel there’s something wrong with him. Since he returned from that island, he’s … different.”
Lew looked up to find the doctor’s grey eyes staring at him. “What do you mean?”
Taking a deep breath Lew answered, “He …changed. His behaviour, his sense of humour, even his way of talking… When I met him a week ago at Straker’s office he reacted almost like an enemy. And then Paul Foster …”
“What’s with Colonel Foster?”
“I visited him on Moonbase after Craig had injured him. I’m convinced it was no accident.”
“What else, Captain?”
“First I thought of an act of jealousy, but later… I’m not sure, but I strike on the idea Craig wanted to knock him out of the project, getting rid of him.”
“You think Collins wanted to kill him?”
“I wouldn’t go that far. But all fits together. Since he returned we had only a few occasions to talk in private. Remember, he is on a vital mission. And … it’s only an instinct, but … there are moments which let me think he’s been brainwashed.”
Dr. Jackson shot him a sidelong glance. “That’s interesting, really interesting,” he started in his slow manner of speaking while he searched through some papers on his desk. Picking up the desired readout and then stepping to the door he continued, “Follow me, please? I want to show you something”.
Puzzled about the doctor’s request Lew arose and found him in the next room standing beside a door with an orange spot on the front.
“An hour ago I had another guest. Colonel Grey. The reason for his visit was to check if he had overlooked something in Collins’ clearance tests.” He unlocked the door and opened it, giving sight onto a second also closed door just behind it. “You know, what it is?”
Lew shook his head. “No, never seen it before.” He came closer. The doctor pushed a button and the door slid aside, opening the way into a dark room with a wall of pulsating lights in various colours. Jackson caught the flicker of surprise in Lew’s eyes.
“It’s a test lab, isn’t it? What are the lights for?”
The doctor entered the room and then turned back to Waterman. “I call it an isolator. Once inside it cuts you off from all outside waves, no matter if microwaves, sound, light or cosmic rays.”
“I understand. And?”
Jackson left the room, stopping in front of his visitor. “I did unofficial tests on Colonel Collins, checking his brain activities. The first after you rescued him in Australia, the second after he was found on that island.” The doctor paused and crossed the room to his desk.
“What do you want to tell me? What’s with Craig?”
Jackson lifted his hand, showing the readouts to Lew. “This is the test result after Australia.” He put the first on the desk and pointed to the lines on it. “It’s quite normal, only a few spots irregular, but not of further interest.”
He placed the second readout over the other and looked up. “I made this after his return six days ago. Do you see what I mean?”
Lew stared on several lines, running straight and without any edges over the paper. “No, I don’t get it. Where are the spikes and waves?”
“That’s the point, Captain.” Lowering his voice, Jackson peered at Lew. “There are no spikes and waves. Collins’ electrical patterns were normal outside the cabinet. But inside, when I isolated him from all stimuli, his brain went dead.”
Lew’s eyes widened in surprise. “You mean, he’s a person without own will? Controlled by someone else? Eventually by … the aliens?”
“Maybe. But it’s too early to be sure. Colonel Grey asked me if I have a conclusion, but first I want to exclude all possibilities of mistakes.” Jackson collected the readouts and sat on the edge of the desk. “I put the central computer on it after he left. As soon as I get a result he wants to be informed. Which I expect later this night.”
Lew inhaled deeply and nodded. “My duty starts soon. I’ll try to talk to Grey before I leave. Thanks, doctor.”
Jackson’s gaze followed him to the door. “Captain, one thing: keep this conversation private as long as there’s no proof of Collins’ state.”
Looking back to the psychiatrist, Lew gave him a grim nod of assent and left the room. A look at his watch let him rush through the corridors. His helicopter to the harbour would take off in less than an hour, so no time left for a short visit at Grey’s office. Fiddling for the car keys in his pocket Lew dashed to his Audi. He opened the door and slumped into the driver seat, glad about the fact that he had parked it in the first row. He started the car and revving the engine, he barged his way through the dense traffic.
X X X
Craig Collins pushed himself out of the rocket, following Commander Straker through the weightlessness of outer space on his way to S.I.D. The pressure of the spacesuits made moving difficult, but both men were trained astronauts and knew how to deal with it.
Ed grabbed at a handle on S.I.D.’s hull and stopped moving. Turning to his friend he raised his gloved hand and pointed to a charred metal plate on the communication unit. “Look at this, Craig. The UFO hit her right here.”
“Yeah, I see.” Manoeuvring nearer, Craig examined the outer casing. “Burnt to a cinder, literally spoken. A pile of work, if you ask me. We should …start... repairing…”
His voice broke off. Straker, bending over the destroyed part of an antenna, took a split second before noticing the change in Craig’s voice. Alarmed, he lifted his head. Collins had floated closer to him, their helmets nearly touching, his raised hand holding his manoeuvring unit, ready to dashing it against his friend.
“Craig!” Ed’s sharp cry caused a flicker in Craig’s lifeless eyes. For a moment it seemed as if Collins could escape out of the claws that held his brain in their grip, get his own personality back. But this moment passed and the alien power regained the mastery over his consciousness.
Craig squeezed his eyes shut. He remembered his instructions, anchored in his brain in the alien dome. He had to kill him. Ed Straker. His enemy. Their enemy. As he was told. Kill Straker, kill everyone who wants to stop you. Like Colonel Grey. And now he would …
“Commander, this is Foster. Collins is going to kill you!” Paul’s voice sounded skewed through the headset of Craig’s helmet. Why did the colonel know about his plans? Damn Foster, damn SHADO, damn… Straker. Craig’s fists shot forward and dug in Ed’s spacesuit, pushing him against the satellite. He grabbed at the other man’s helmet, twisting it as far as he could, trying to snap open the clasps between suit and gasket while the commander did all he could to ward off Craig’s attacks.
“Craig, for Heaven’s sake, stop it, “ Ed gasped, trying to defend himself without hurting his partner. “The aliens may have your mind, but they will never get your soul. We can help you. Let me help you.”
Two pairs of blue eyes met, establishing an extrasensory connection between both men. For a moment, Straker felt that there was still a gleam of hope for rescuing his friend. But then this chance was gone and the fire in Craig’s eyes died.
“Come in, Commander Straker. Are you receiving me?”
Ed recognized the urgency in Foster’s call, but he needed all his concentration for defending himself. Collins’ hands had closed around Straker’s air tube, trying to squeeze it shut. Ed turned around, loosening the grip. Helmet beside helmet, their eyes locked again. Was there a last way out for Craig? Could he finally defeat the enemy in his brain? In the blink of an eye Straker realized that Collins was beyond any help. His friend was lost, a living dead without a brain, a killing machine with one order: to eliminate his commander.
Straker knew it was time. He had to think of SHADO, of their fight against the aliens, even if it would cost his friend’s life. There was no alternative. He reached for Craig’s air tube, ripping it off the backpack. The oxygen escaped out of the now useless hose into space. Craig’s head jerked to Ed, his face contorted with anger. He raised his hands, trying to get the commander and succeed in his mission.
“Craig … forgive me.” Straker took a deep breath and then gave Collins a hard push.
Craig’s body drifted away from the satellite, his gloves clutching at his throat, gasping for air. The more oxygen he lost, the more of the aliens’ influence vanished. His expressionless gaze cleared and suddenly he understood. Ed. He had tried to kill his friend. Had he managed to…? No! No. He could see him near S.I.D., obviously alive, watching him. Thank God. Yes, he understood. Understood, why Ed had cut him off the air, his air.
Craig’s sight grew dim and with ringing ears he floated through the darkness. Lew. His other friend … Lew. Where are you?… Rescue me, Lew… please … Lew… help …. me …
Craig’s lungs collapsed. And then it was over.
X X X
“Captain, a personal call for you.Colonel Foster on line one.”
Waterman nodded. He left the control room and entered his cabin, shutting the door behind him.
“Waterman. Come in, Colonel.”
“Lew. I’ve got bad news for you. It’s about Craig Collins”.
Fear gripping his heart in an iron hold, he had to clear his throat before answering. “Go on, Paul. What is it?”
“Craig is dead. I’m sorry. He died on the mission, two hours ago.”
Lew’s heart skipped a beat. He sank onto his chair, swallowing hard, turning his pale face to the screen where Foster was waiting for him.
Lew’s voice, dry and gritty with emotion, sounded unfamiliar to the colonel. He felt sorrow with the captain knowing about the close friendship between him and his hotheaded comrade.
“Collins attacked Commander Straker while repairing S.I.D., tried to kill him. Ed could nothing do but defend himself.” He paused for some seconds, looking up to Lew. “It was a fight to the death.”
“And Ed won.”
“Yes. Listen … I regret what happened. Straker ordered me to call you back as soon as possible. There are some things left to clarify about Collins. And …hang in there, Lew.”
With a silent nod Lew cut the connection. He buried his face in his hands, trying to collect his thoughts. Craig. They had taken his best friend from him. Another life, another victim of those damned aliens. Lew’s mind turned back to the Kangaroo Valley after he had found Craig, hurt but alive. Would he and the rest of SHADO ever stop the aliens from bringing so much harm over the human kind?
He switched the talk button of the intercom. “Masters, take over for an hour. And alter course, back to our homeport.”
- THE END -
Part One: Fight for Survival
Part Two: Friends Will Be Friends
Epilog: A Letter From Beyond