Among The Stars
  by Damita Syn

Author's warning: Adult content

Part one

-- ONE --

1999

A lazy breeze blew through the stately oaks populating the slanting ground behind her. Emma reclined contentedly in a chaise lounge, stretched her long legs, sighed, and looked out from the stone terrace at water's edge. The sunlight played across the rippling lake causing changing, multi-colored patterns to appear and disappear on the surface of the water. She relaxed and relished a blissful feeling of satisfaction.

It had been a busy day. This morning, she had taught two classes at the nearby university, one in thermodynamics, and the other in applied mathematics. Her usual Tuesday and Thursday morning routine completed, she met old friends Margaret and Julia at a nearby country inn, where they ate a delightful lunch, reminisced, and shared a fine old bottle of wine.

Now the combination of mid-afternoon early-summer sun, mild breeze, and wine still in her system combined to thoroughly relax her. Aware that she might well fall asleep if she did not get up and move around, she opted for the happy tranquility of the moment, and opened a novel she had started yesterday. The slight wind ruffled her short, somewhat faded auburn hair. The occasional gray streak served to soften her appearance. She was 63 years old, but, so people said, did not look it. Her body had thickened somewhat with the passage of time, but she was meticulous about her appearance, exercised regularly, and had managed to maintain a slim-enough body. She certainly did not feel like a woman in her sixties, she thought, and then realized she really had no idea what a 63 year old should feel like. She considered going back up to house, where she had installed a small gym in the basement, and exercising for half an hour or so. Something, laziness probably, kept her rooted to the terrace.

Solitary afternoons at lakeside were to be treasured, she knew, but she could not avoid a trace of impatience. Her husband had gone into London for the day, to spend time with their grown, twin sons. "Boys-day-out," she had referred to it, as he left the house this morning. Unsure of the hour of his return, she decided to treat the entire afternoon as hers.

Returning her attention to the novel in her lap, she started to read. The characters, cold-war era spies, were in the midst of a dilemma involving counter-spies, deception, and intrigue. After a few pages, the story simply could not hold her attention.

"I could tell those spies a thing or two," she thought, "and they'd never believe it wasn't fiction."

Most women of her age had, she knew, a wealth of memories, but she doubted many had the bizarre, exciting, sometimes dangerous past she owned. Sometimes frightening, sometimes hilarious, her experiences in the 1960's were worthy of a novel, she mused.

"Maybe someday I'll write one, changing the names, and some of the situations, to protect the innocent...and the guilty" she thought, but knew that most of the cases she had been involved in remained classified, top-secret, even after the passage of so many years.

Sighing softly, she closed her deep brown eyes, and allowed her mind to wander.

Emma's reverie transported her gradually back in time, back before the birth of her children, the purchase thirty years ago of this house, beyond even that eventful year of 1968, a year of earth-shaking change not only for the world, but for her personally. Back she went, as she allowed her mind free rein. Back to 1966, one of several astonishing years during which she had lived a life few could imagine.


-- TWO -

1966


Sir Andrew Lofton and his wife Laura dined promptly at 7:30 each and every evening. Conservative by nature, and in his political life, Sir Andrew was set in his ways. So said Laura, when she felt compelled to needle him. Still, they had a good marriage, and continued to enjoy each other's company after 35 years together, years that included the raising of two daughters and Sir Andrew's steady rise in the political arena. He had been a Member of Parliament for more than ten years now, served on a myriad of committees and advisory panels, and worked directly with the Prime Minister on matters involving state secrets, both military and technological.

On this particular afternoon, a Friday, Sir Andrew and Laura had left London at about 4 o'clock, arriving at their country home outside Little Croxton on Wey shortly after 5:30. He did not have to be back in London until Tuesday morning, so they planned a long, quiet weekend, Laura tending to her garden, and Sir Andrew enjoying long walks around the countryside.

At 7:45, just as Sir Andrew was helping himself to more peas, they both froze, utensils poised in mid-air. A strange, low, rumbling noise surrounded the house. It sounded, at first, a bit like a large, old church organ's lowest, deepest note, but the noise did not stop. Indeed, as moments passed, the sound grew steadily louder and, though seemingly impossible, deeper. Laura covered her ears and looked, thoroughly terrified, toward her husband. She shouted something to him, but the noise was so intense he could not hear a word.

Though frightened himself, Sir Andrew stood, stoically walked around the dining table, and placed a reassuring hand on his wife's shoulder. Pulling a pen and snippet of paper from his coat pocket, he bent and wrote, "Stay here." Then he turned and went out the back door.

The grounds behind his home were bathed in a peculiar bluish light. It reached everywhere, covered everything. The noise was by now so intense, he wondered if his ear drums would explode. Covering his ears, he looked up, up into what should have been a starry, serene night sky. Instead, Sir Andrew found himself looking at a massive circle of pulsing blue light. He could not tell how high it was. The intensity of the light and noise confused his senses. Gradually, the bright circle of light seemed to be coming downward, closer and closer to him.

Suddenly a flash of hot white light shot downward toward him, blinding him. Then all, for Sir Andrew, went dark.


-- THREE --

It was a weekend morning, a Saturday, probably. A cup of sweetened white coffee in her left hand, a pencil in her right, Emma Peel puzzled over the word jumble in the morning newspaper folded in her lap. She had already solved five of the morning's six jumbles. The last one was posing an unexpected degree of difficulty. Usually, she solved all six in a flash, and moved on to the crossword puzzle.

Lounging comfortably, she extended her long slim legs toward a modern ottoman. Dressed, almost always, in the latest fashion, today she wore a cream-colored pantsuit of light, silky material. The trousers hugged her hips, and clung closely to her feminine figure, until reaching her knees, where they flared outward, in the style of the day. The jacket, a short, snug one, hung open, revealing a gray t-shirt, which matched perfectly the piping along the jacket's thin lapels.

"L-E-R-D-E-D-W-E-M-P-E-R-N-E," she read aloud, and reached for a notepad on the table next to her chair. Attempting multiple combinations of letters, she grew mildly frustrated. Just as she was about to toss the paper aside in aggravation, she stopped, something clicking in her brain. Her dark brown eyes flashed, widened, and she wrote slowly on the notepad, "M-R-S-P-E-E-L-W-E-R-E-N-E-E-D-E-D." Shaking her head, as if to clear it of ridiculous thoughts, she frowned down at the printed page.

"Couldn't be," she murmured aloud. "Impossible."

Turning to the front page, she checked edition and date. It looked entirely legitimate, but...

Just then, she heard the front door of the flat click open. She turned toward the sound and watched as a gray bowler hat, dangling precariously on the end of a matching gray tightly furled umbrella, extended its way into the room. A second later, the bowler and brolly were followed by a head of thick dark wavy hair.

"Mrs. Peel," he said in that familiar lilting voice - accent on the "Pe," voice traipsing downward on the "el".  "We're needed."

Closing her eyes briefly, she slowly shook her head in a manner of amused exasperation. Emma threw the folded newspaper full-force toward the figure at the door, only missing her smiling target by inches, as John Steed side-stepped at the last second.


-- FOUR --

Flying along the rural highway in Steed's racing green 1927 Bentley, Emma reveled in the scenery. The trees on either side of the roadway had already begun their annual autumn transformation. Here and there, bright gold leaves intermingled with lavish reds and brilliant orange hues. Scattering newly fallen leaves in their wake, they sped around a curve.

Emma brushed a strand of long auburn hair from her face and glanced to her right. She regarded the driver, and her fascination shifted from the bright fall foliage to her partner of two years, John Steed, happily maneuvering the big, ancient car. The gray bowler was set, as usual, at a jaunty angle atop the handsome head. Over an immaculately tailored three-piece gray suit, he wore a dark-blue overcoat cut from thick, rich material. A trace of crinkling at the edges of his eyes betrayed his age. He was 44, thirteen years her senior. His boyish, somewhat round, face, the quick, bright, and totally disarming smile, and the most expressive eyes she had ever encountered in a man, combined in a truly attractive and youthful countenance. Once again, as so many times before, she simply could not take her eyes off him.

Despite all the time they had spent together during the last two years, his looks, his elegance, seldom failed to captivate her. "Familiarity breeds, well, certainly not contempt," she thought. After two years of working together, playing together, and loving together, they had reached a point of mutual affection, familiarity, and, at least in her opinion, tempered adoration. They knew each other so well, there were times it seemed they could actually read each other's thoughts. Often, they completed sentences for each other, their minds synchronized. Occasionally, their dual stubborn natures collided, resulting in a flash of tempers. The conciliation that followed such scenes, though, most often made the whole process seem worth the aggravation.

Evidently sensing her looking at him, Steed glanced quickly to his left, performing a slight double-take as he caught the look in her eyes. Alternating quick looks at her, then back to the road ahead, and back again to her, he broke into a grin, a grin that never failed to melt her. Emma forced herself to look away, feeling a bit embarrassed at having been caught. Steed removed his left hand from the big steering wheel, reached it toward her, and grasped her right hand. He gently squeezed, and she returned the pressure. Smiling now herself, she thought, "Well, Emma, it's only fair. He stares at you sometimes too."

"Curve," Steed said, disengaging his hand from hers, and returning it deftly to the steering wheel.

"You know, Steed, modern cars have amazing features... like power steering," she teased. "And they've got steering wheels that are less than an acre in circumference."

"Ah," Steed said, "but what few advantages they may have are overshadowed when one considers power, speed, grace, and sheer elegance. The old girl and I are one with the road, my dear," he said loftily.

Emma gave Steed a wry smile and nodded her head, reacting to his sheer eccentricity.

"Tell me more about this case, Steed," she said.

"Well, it's an odd one, Mrs. Peel."

"Aren't they all?" she asked.

"Good point," Steed said.

"UFO's, Mrs. Peel," Steed began. "Unidentified flying objects... at Croxton on Wey, of all places, a quiet, charming English village.

"Complete with little green men?" Emma asked coyly. "I've always yearned for a close encounter with a little green man."

"I thought you preferred your men in a different hue, Mrs. Peel," Steed grinned. "And definitely not, er, little."

She gave him a quick sidelong look, lowering an eyebrow in warning. "Go on, Steed," she said in a tone of mock reproach.

"Beginning a few months ago, assorted inhabitants of Croxton on Wey started claiming to have witnessed UFO's in the night sky," he explained. "It started with a couple of local eccentrics. No one paid much attention. But, then more, ah, stable citizens began to see bizarre lights in the night sky.

"The ministry took note, maintained a small file on Croxton," he continued. "But that's just standard procedure. Then, about two weeks ago, the spaceship, or whatever it is, chose to pay a midnight visit to the country home of Brigadier Christopher Rushing."

"Rushing," Emma repeated. "He's privy to the government's top military and strategic secrets, isn't he?"

Steed nodded. "Exactly," he said.

Raising both eyebrows in a quizzical expression, Emma asked, "Did the general get to meet any charming visitors from outer space?"

"As a matter of fact, he did," Steed said.

Emma's brown eyes widened in disbelief. "You're not serious," she intoned.

"Oh, but I am, Mrs. Peel," Steed said. "Rushing, in fact, vanished without a trace. When the spaceship... well, the UFO, disappeared into the night sky, he disappeared too."

"Perhaps he engineered it," Emma said thoughtfully. "Maybe he felt a need to...get away for a spell."

"Spell would be the appropriate word," Steed said. He wasn't gone long. Six days later, he returned."

"Via flying saucer?" Emma asked.

"No," Steed replied. "He came stumbling into town one afternoon, disoriented, disheveled, and in the same pajamas and dressing gown he had last been seen wearing. The local constable corralled him, questioned him, and took him to the town's doctor.

"The doctor could find nothing physically amiss," he continued. "However, the Brigadier insisted, to anyone and everyone, that he had spent those missing days in an alien spaceship."

"Bizarre," Emma breathed.

"Quite," Steed responded. "And that's not all. The day after Rushing returned, the strange lights reappeared. This time, they paid a call at the country home of Horace Weatherby."

Emma's eyebrows arched in an unspoken question.

"That's right, Mrs. Peel," Steed said with a grin. "Same again."

"Horace Weatherby owns controlling interest in Weatherby-MacDuff Aerospace, Steed," Emma said, suddenly slightly agitated. "They've got defense contracts coming out their ears. In fact, isn't that the company that's currently developing the Z-11 stealth fighter helicopter?"

Steed nodded. "That's the one. Top secret stuff."

"And did Mr. Weatherby return after a time, as Rushing had?" Emma inquired.

"Indeed so, Mrs. Peel. Six days later. Pattern as before."

"My goodness," Emma mumbled.

"And...," Steed began.

"It's happened yet again?" Emma asked, knowing the answer.

"Sir Andrew Lofton."

"Member of Parliament," Emma said.

"On assorted top-secret defense committees," Steed said.

"Including one that works directly with the Prime Minister," Emma continued.

"And, again, he's privy to the highest level of government and military secrets," Steed concluded.

"There haven't been, just by chance," Mrs. Peel said, "secrets leaking out, have there, Steed?"

"Why, you renew my faith in your psychic abilities, Mrs. Peel," Steed smiled.

A short while later, nearing the turnoff to Croxton, Emma said, "So, we're a couple of journalists come to investigate the incidents for our newspaper, The, the, what?"

"The Inquirer-Globe," Steed answered. "Quite a sensationalistic rag. And, remember, Mrs. Peel. I'm the journalist. You're the photographer".

The Bentley pulled up to The Scowling Dragon, Croxton on Wey's only pub and inn, crunching gravel beneath the massive, steel-spoked tires. Steed leaped nimbly out, in his characteristic way, neglecting, as usual, to bother with opening the car door. Emma joined him in retrieving suitcases and paraphernalia from the rear seat.

Handing Emma a large black fabric bag with both handle and shoulder-strap, Steed said, with the trace of a grin, "Don't forget your equipment, Mrs. Peel," and headed towards the entrance.

The pub was dark and old, but had a relaxing, pleasant atmosphere. A rather corpulent middle-aged man behind the bar greeted them.

"Hello, travelers, I saw you pull up out front," he said in a friendly, deep voice. "Come to spend some time in our fair village?" he asked.

"Yes, I'm John Steed, with the Inquirer-Globe, and this is my photographer, Mrs. Emma Peel," Steed introduced.

"Ah, yes, Mr. Steed," the bartender said. "I'm Toby Jenkins, proprietor. We've been expecting you. I believe you requested, in your phone call, our one humble suite, with its little living room and table, for your work."

"Quite correct," Steed smiled, as he and Emma followed Jenkins up a narrow stairway.

The "suite" consisted of a small central room with aged couch, one slightly tattered overstuffed chair, and an incongruously new kitchen-type table. Through doorways to the right and left, were the two bedrooms.

"Hooray!" Emma shouted from her room, after Jenkins had departed. "I've actually got a bathroom. It isn't down the hall."

Following a few minutes of unpacking, Emma looked up to see Steed entering her room.

"No time for that now, I'm afraid," he said briskly. "We're running out of daylight, and there's something we need to see at Sir Andrew's home."

Crinkling her face in an innocent, quizzical way, Emma asked, "Not even time for a quick drink, Steed?"

Smiling, Steed said, "A fine malt whiskey, Mrs. Peel, in my suitcase," and he disappeared out her door. Returning quickly bearing a bottle and two plain glasses, he poured a short drink for each of them.

"I did so want a nice, hot bath, too," Emma entreated.

"Sorry, my dear," Steed said with a mischievous grin, "if it can wait 'til later, I'd be happy to assist." He paused momentarily and fixed her with one of his deep, intense gazes. Suddenly he said, "Later," downed his whiskey in one quick gulp, turned, and headed for the door.

Emma, too, gulped her drink, and took off after him, wondering, yet again, at Steed's chameleon-like ability to transform himself in a flash.


-- FIVE -

Trodding round and round in a large circle on the grounds behind Sir Andrew Lofton's stately home, Steed and Emma puzzled over the flattened grass. Neatly manicured, and showing only the early signs of fall yellowing, the lawn was a virtually flawless example of a skilled gardener's expertise. Except for that circle, that round area of completely flattened grass, measuring approximately 25 yards across.

"What do you think, Mrs. Peel?" Steed asked.

Snapping yet another photograph with her technologically advanced Nikon, Emma said, "Somewhat like those famous crop circles that have caused such speculation."

She turned to Sir Andrew's butler, standing near the rear of the house. "Grogan, what about Mrs. Lofton? Is she here?"

"Yes, madam," he explained, "she is here, but she is heavily sedated. The doctor says she will be unable to discuss the, ah, situation with anyone until tomorrow."

"Did you see anything yourself last night?" Steed asked the rigidly dignified gray-haired man.

"No, sir, I'm afraid not," Grogan replied. "I only arrived from London this morning. I had some," he paused, clearing his throat discreetly, "personal time last night, sir."

Emma continued to snap pictures, expertly switching lenses and filters, as Steed said, "Well, thank you for your assistance, Grogan." Handing the butler a business card, he said, "Would you mind telling Mrs. Lofton that I would very much appreciate a few moments of her time, just as soon as she has had time to recover?"

Heading back towards town, Steed detoured twice, so they could pay quick visits to the sites of the disappearances of Horace Weatherby and Brigadier Rushing. No one answered the bell at Rushing's home. They had better luck at the Weatherby domicile.

Weatherby himself, in fact, answered the door. A somewhat short man in his sixties, with a thick shock of unruly gray hair, Weatherby smiled graciously at them. Steed was surprised to note that Weatherby, after learning that they were investigating for a somewhat dubious tabloid, seemed excited and anxious to tell his story.

After inviting them in, seating them in a comfortable study, and pouring each a snifter of fine brandy, he described to them the deafening noise, the circle of pulsing blue light in the sky above, and the sudden flash of intense white light, followed by unconsciousness. He had awakened, he said, an indeterminate length of time later, in a small room with buffed stainless steel walls, and no windows. He lay, alone and confused, for perhaps thirty minutes.

Eventually, Weatherby continued, a circular door opened, and two small, oddly proportioned figures emerged. Their limbs were long and spindly, their heads disproportionately large. They appeared to be hairless, and wore one-piece suits of a reflective silver. Their eyes, Weatherby explained, were quite large and dark.

Panicked and terrified at first, Weatherby said he had relaxed a bit when they spoke to him.

"They spoke?" Steed asked.

"In English?" Emma asked.

"Yes," Weatherby replied. "They spoke English fluently. Their voices were odd - tinny, rather mechanical sounding - but they seemed friendly enough."

"Friendly," Emma said.

"Oh, yes, my dear lady," Weatherby said. "Within a few moments of their entrance into the room, I recall feeling oddly content. At home, in fact. A sense of tremendous well-being came over me. It's quite difficult to describe, actually," Weatherby said.

"What did they say to you?" Steed asked.

"That's the funny part," Weatherby replied. "I really don't remember one word. Not one word. In fact, the whole six days is a bit fuzzy, if you know what I mean. I remember bits and pieces. Nothing really solid. Odd," he said. "Food, I remember them bringing me meals," Weatherby said suddenly.

"And what culinary delights did they offer you?" Steed asked brightly.

"Porridge," Weatherby said.

"Porridge?" Emma asked, frowning slightly.

"Oh, it was delicious," the older man said happily. "It always looked the same, but it tasted different each time. One time it tasted like lobster, another time like an excellent steak, and so on."

 

-- SIX --

After a decent enough dinner in the pub, Emma wandered upstairs to enjoy her long-awaited bath. Steed remained behind, ordered himself a brandy, and settled in at the bar, intent on ingratiating himself with the locals.
Steed turned to a burly blond haired man seated nearest him at the bar and asked, "So, what do you think of the UFO's?"

Staring at Steed somewhat maliciously for a few seconds, the man relented to Steed's friendly face, and replied, "What do I think? I seen 'em, that's what I think." He lifted his glass and downed almost an entire pint in one long swallow.

"My land's not far from that bloomin' general's." he continued, accepting a fresh pint from Jenkins. "I heard the noise, saw the circle of blue lights. Reminded me of a giant neon sign in the sky. Solid, you see, not lots of blue lights in a circle. One continuous blue light.

"Folks around here claimed I was drunk," he said bitterly, scanning the room and its occupants in a menacing manner. "But I weren't," he said, "that drunk, that night."

"How long did the lights remain visible in the sky?" Steed asked.

"I don't know, really, I guess five or ten minutes from the time I first heard that blasted noise and looked up. Then there was a bright flash of light - like the world's biggest flashbulb. After that, the lights started rising up, and then vanished."

"Vanished?" Steed asked. "Flew off in the distance, or just, bang, vanished?"

"Bang, vanished," the man replied.

"What else do you remember," Steed asked, after considering the tale momentarily.

"A big ball of shiny white light," the man said. "It was up above the circle of blue. Reminded me of a twinkling star," he said. "You know, the light sort of spiked out from the center."

"Radiated outward," Steed mused.

"That's it," the man said. "I can never think of the right words." Quickly, expertly, he finished off this new pint.

Steed had an idea, and reached for a paper napkin on the bar. "How's your artistic talent?" he asked.

"Absent," the man replied, "but I'll give it a go, if you'd like."

He accepted pen and napkin from Steed, and, squinting in the dimness of the room, began to draw. His drawing complete, he downed this last pint, purchased a bottle of cheap whiskey from Jenkins, gave Steed a brusque, "Evenin'," and departed.

"Tommy Draper," Jenkins said to Steed from behind the bar. "Quite a drinker."

"Who else has seen the lights?" Steed asked.

"Well, there's old lady Wiley," Jenkins said thoughtfully. "She saw 'em."

"Ah," Steed said, "perhaps I should pay a visit."

"'Course she's a bit dotty herself," Jenkins added. "Claims to read minds and see the future."

Steed raised both eyebrows, listening intently, then frowned.

"That sort of thing, you see," the innkeeper said. Understanding Steed's dilemma, he added, "There are others who've seen the lights. They're not all daft."

Steed grinned.

"Most of them stop by the pub several times a week," Jenkins offered. "If you like, I'll introduce you to them if they come in while you're here. I think," he said, "you'd have better luck with them here, especially after a pint or two, than if you, a stranger, went knocking at their doors."

Understanding completely, and thanking the innkeeper graciously, Steed paid the bill, and went upstairs.

 

-- SEVEN --

Back in the old suite, Steed looked for Emma, and then heard a soft splashing sound coming from her room. Peering into the bedroom, he noted an open, partially consumed, bottle of red wine on the dresser, and the door to her bath, which was cracked, just slightly ajar.

"Need any assistance, Mrs. Peel?" he called through the bathroom door.

"Thank you so much for your kind, unselfish offer, Steed," Emma replied wryly. "But I do believe I can manage this all by myself. I'm a very experienced bather."

Yawning, Emma realized she had been half-dozing in the bath, among the warm bubbles, before Steed had called to her. With a trace of regret, she wished she had been more alert when Steed made his offer. She might well have enjoyed his... assistance, she thought. Plus, the sight of his strong body, minus his usual layers of oh-so-proper clothing, was always welcome.

"How about some more wine?" she heard Steed call from the other side of the door. "Good," she thought, "he's a steadfast fellow, as usual. Seldom gives up easily."

"Yes, Steed, that would be nice," she replied sweetly. "And bring a glass for yourself."

"Already got it," Steed said, happily entering the small room with wine bottle in one hand, and a stemmed glass in the other.

Expertly, he refilled Emma's glass, perched conveniently in a wire soap dish hanging on the inside lip of the large, old-fashioned, claw-footed bathrub.

"They don't make 'em like this anymore, do they, Mrs. Peel?" he asked, patting the side of the bathtub. He pulled up a small wooden stool next to the tub, seated himself, and poured dark red liquid into his own glass.

With a deep, satisfying sigh, he said, "You have a bubbly personality, my dear."

"A girl should never, ever leave home without her favorite bubble-bath," Emma said, noting his eyes roving across the bubbles, taking in every detail, and landing, finally, on that spot where the water, and the bubbles, came up just above her breasts, barely covering them.

"Find out anything interesting downstairs?" she asked.

"I met a charming, rather huge, fellow name of Tommy Draper," Steed said.

"He saw the light."

"Oh?"

"Yes, the night Brigadier Rushing disappeared," Steed said. "His description was similar to Weatherby's, but he saw it all from a different angle, not from directly underneath the lights."

Steed recounted Draper's description, including the large, radiating orb of white light above the circle of blue. "And I discovered a need to meet a lady," Steed said.

"Don't you always?" Emma asked with a look of amusement.

"Old lady Wiley," Steed said airily. "That's what they call her. She reads minds, predicts the future, and..."

"Saw the UFO," Emma finished.

"Right," Steed said with a grin. "There are, fortunately, others. Our friendly innkeeper intends to introduce me."

"Any sane, non-drunks?" Emma asked, smiling sweetly.

"So he says, Mrs. Peel," he replied. "We'll see."

"Oh, I almost forgot, Mrs. Peel," Steed said, reaching into the breast pocket of his gray jacket. Friend Draper drew me a picture."

He paused before withdrawing Draper's artistic efforts from his pocket, and said, "It is a bit warm and humid in here, isn't it?" Standing, he removed coat, waistcoat, and tie, hanging the assemblage on a hook on the back of the bathroom door. He reached back into the jacket pocket, retrieved a rather wrinkled-looking paper napkin, and returned to his place on the stool.

"Let's see," Emma said, reaching for the napkin.

Steed hastily pulled the napkin back, away from her outstretched hand.

"Water, bubbles, and flimsy paper napkins do not mix well, Mrs. Peel," he said warningly. "Besides, your hands are wet."

He held the napkin out over the water and bubbles so she could examine the drawing. "Don't touch," he said.

Emma sat up straight in the tub, to give herself a better view. The water level, and bubbles, were now just above her waist level. Scrutinizing the elementary drawing, she said, "So this, this blob with the spiky projectiles is, I take it, the radiating ball of white light. And here we have..."

She stopped talking, frowned, and said, "Steed, keep a steady hand, for goodness sake. I can hardly tell what I'm looking at. Your hand is trembling."
Emma looked up at Steed, becoming aware now of a potential cause for his shaking hand. Immediately, she noted that his eyes had taken on that tender, intimate, familiar luminescence. A sure sign of his desire for her, his eyes were open only three-quarters wide. He was slowly playing his field of vision over her shoulders, arms, breasts, and then her face. For several seconds, they sat completely still and silent, mesmerized, looking into each other's eyes.

It was Emma who broke the silence. "If you intend getting into this bathtub, Steed, you'd better take off those clothes first. And put that napkin in a nice, safe, dry spot."

He swallowed, smiled, stood up, and went out the bathroom door.

"I didn't intend to drive you away," she called after him.

Just then, so hastily returning, he re-entered the tiny room, naked as a newborn, but bearing certain physical evidence with which no self-respecting newborn would be caught.

Emma marveled at his body as he approached. The broad shoulders, muscular, but soft, somewhat rounded chest, strong arms, sturdy long legs... she could never get enough of him.

Carefully, he stepped into the big venerable bathtub, lowered himself into the warm water, and seated himself facing her. Emma reached a hand forward and touched the soft brown hairs in the center of his chest. "Just right," she thought once again, "not too much hair - just enough to look so masculine."

She slid forward toward him, maneuvering her legs up and over his, which he stretched out on either side of her. Settling comfortably, familiarly, their pelvises touching, their torsos mere inches apart, she felt the warmth radiating from his skin. Running her fingers gently across his chin, along his cheek, all the while looking directly, honestly into his gleaming gray eyes, she softly whispered, "Steed."

He leaned slightly forward, encircling her in his arms. She responded by draping her arms across his shoulders and around his neck. Simultaneously, they tightened their holds on each other, pressing hard against each other, and kissed. Long, urgent, and deep, with each second the kiss continued, she liquefied, melted further into him. Those kisses, their specialty, really, she thought.

As Steed's hands delicately traversed her back, and moved down to her buttocks, she could feel his excitement growing. He pressed her hips tightly to his, and they disconnected their mouths. Lowering his head to her damp shoulder, he buried his face in her neck, kissing her skin softly.
"Emma," he breathed quietly. "My Emma."

She closed her eyes and ran her fingers through his thick, wavy hair. She knew, of course, that he had been with a multitude of women before her. Early in their partnership, she had even wondered occasionally how she compared. Now, after two years of such a strong, fulfilling relationship, an alliance in every way, she believed she knew... knew he had never encountered anything quite like this. The chemistry, the unabashed mutual admiration, the surge of electricity it seemed each of them was capable of sending through the other with no more than a glance - these things, coupled with an earnest and sincere friendship, and the trust that had grown out of their working partnership. All of these things combined into the most powerful, passionate relationship she had ever experienced. She felt certain his feelings mirrored hers.

After all, this was the man who, prior to meeting her, had announced to close friends on a regular basis, and occasionally even to lady friends who seemed to have leanings toward a more permanent liaison, that he would never, ever, allow himself to become entangled in a long-term, monogamous relationship with any woman. He also had stated firmly that he would never fall in love, and never consider marriage. It was, he explained to friends, an essential part of his profession. An agent, especially a high-level, top secret agent, simply cannot afford entanglements, he said. "Too... entangled."

Rule number one had already been shattered into tiny bits. Not only had they been together, lovers and partners, for two years, but during almost all of this past year, they had neither of them so much as considered a casual date with anyone else. Nothing had been said, no discussion preluded the change. They simply spent almost all of their time together. Steed continued to flirt, naturally, with other women. This characteristic was as essential to his personality as breathing. She knew, though, that it had been a long time since he had followed through on any of those flirtations.

As for the other two rules, she felt certain that he loved her, loved her deeply and desperately. She could see it in his eyes, feel it in the way he held her. Sometimes, she thought she detected a surprised look in his eyes, as if he were trying to figure out what had happened, how it had happened, what had become of his rules to live by. Other times, she thought she saw a trace of confusion in his face. He could not figure out what to do about it, she assumed.

Emma, on her part, had certainly never previously felt anything remotely like the emotions Steed drew from the utter depths of her soul. She had been married before, yes, and she had loved her brave test-pilot husband. When he disappeared during a test flight over South America, her grief seemed limitless. Time passed, though, and she had gradually healed. She had even begun to occasionally accept a few tentative dates, when this phenomenon called John Steed had burst unexpectedly into her life. He turned everything around, upside-down, and sideways, introducing her to a new career as his partner in espionage, undercover work, and a multitude of highly secret, extremely dangerous activities. A couple of short months after meeting, they had naturally, sweetly, become lovers.

Their affection for each other grew steadily, until now, it almost seemed to be a solid, tangible thing. She had never known it was possible to love someone so much, but she, like Steed, had not uttered that word, "love." It seemed, though, to be something understood silently between them. Why else would a man like Steed have so completely discarded his rule number one, if not because rule number two had crumbled before it?

Emma knew, of course, that rule number three was a different story entirely. The likelihood of the no-marriage rule shattering was doubtful. She understood, after all, the logic behind the rule. An active government agent, like Steed, if married, would only put his wife and family, at the gravest risk. And the knowledge on the part of lethal enemies that he had a wife and family would make him vulnerable, liable to compromise. This very factor, she knew, was one reason he continued to call her, "Mrs. Peel," and outwardly, to the world beyond their secret, show no tangible proof of their tender relationship. Most people assumed they were, "just good friends," though the inevitable gossip and speculation around the ministry occasionally reared its head.

For now, anyway, Emma was satisfied with the status quo. She knew the day may well come when this would all have to end. She did, after all, want children. When that fateful day of decision did arrive, some time in the future, she would, she knew, be the one to end their time together. Emma sometimes wondered if she would have the strength to leave him, when the moment came. Those hoped-for children were vague, faceless images, not yet real to her. Steed, on the other hand, here with her now, was so real, so alive. Best not to think about all that right now. No use destroying the moment.

Steed was kissing her again, and started to move his hips in a gently rocking pattern. Pressing himself firmly against her, then releasing the pressure, then moving forward again.

When their kiss ended, she traced her fingers lightly along the center of his chest, down his abdomen, then below the water line. Down there, down under the water, she felt the almost unreal hardness of him. Emma ran her fingers slowly down and then up, feeling him quiver beneath her touch. She heard a sharp intake of breath escape his lips, then another, then a mild groan, as he tilted his head backwards with eyes tightly closed. Looking down, she watched, fascinated, as the muscles in his abdomen repeatedly contracted, and then released. She felt a thrill of pleasure as she ministered to him. He was customarily so composed, always in control. These private moments, when she deftly stripped away his command over himself, were gratifying.

His hands moved below the water line, softly removing her hands from him. Gently, smoothly, he sought, and found, her most vulnerable site. Within minutes, his talented fingers had transformed her into a moaning, whimpering, trembling thing, her back arching with intense pleasure. Then they were embracing and kissing again. The occasional whispered, "Emma," or, "Oh, Steed," punctuated their muted, heavy breathing.

Locked in a deep kiss, Steed moved both hands down to her hips and expertly lifted her up and onto him. She slid downward naturally, easily, feeling herself filled. Simultaneously, they broke from their kiss, moaned together, and held each other tighter. He began thrusting slowly, regularly, in a mesmerizing rhythm, which she soon picked up. Clinging to each other, sometimes showering each other's cheeks, eyes, foreheads, and necks with tiny kisses, they abandoned themselves to the sweet, powerful motion of their bodies.

Gradually, undulating in perfect synchronization, their rhythm increased. At this point, Emma lost all sense of time and space. Her mind was soaring. Her body felt as though fused with Steed's. All rational thought had been driven from her head. They trembled together, moaning and gasping. Finally, they both exploded, and cried out involuntarily and unashamedly.

Steed remained inside her, as they continued to hold each other through several after-shocks. Gradually, their equilibrium returned, their breathing slowed. Kissing each other's cheeks and necks lightly, they whispered words of affection and flattery.

Finally, Emma said softly, hating to break the spell, "Steed, the water's getting cold."

"Mmmm," he murmured. "You're right, love." He kissed her mouth again, smiled at her, and said, "I suppose we should get out before we're pickled and frozen."

Smiling back at him, she disengaged herself, and stood up on shaking legs. After she left the bathtub, grabbing a large, thick, white towel, he followed.

Warm and dry in her bed, they kissed some more, and held each other until they drifted off into an exhausted, satisfied sleep.


-- EIGHT --

Finishing her second cup of strong, sweet white coffee, Emma looked down at her plate, as she sat alone at a corner table in the pub. "Finished off every morsel, didn't you, old girl?" she thought.

She watched as Steed entered the pub and rounded the corner of the bar, heading her way. He was dressed in fawn-colored trousers, a dark brown sports coat, and a pale yellow knit tie. The lanky, masculine, somewhat loose-limbed saunter brought an involuntary beam to her face.

"I thought I'd lost you," he said in mock seriousness, as he seated himself next to her.

"I tried to wake you," she said, "but you were sleeping like a baby, and, since you don't eat breakfast, I thought I might as well come on downstairs. I was starving."

He helped himself to a cup of coffee from the small carafe on the table.

"You look lovely this morning, my dear," he said quietly, seriously. Taking her in, his eyes noted with approval the deep blue one-piece suit she wore.

Zippered down the front, and constructed of comfortable, stretchy material, she claimed these outfits were essential to her success in sticky situations. They gave her a freedom of movement that helped her in her endeavors. To Steed, who referred to them as "catsuits," they were a delight for other reasons. Her athletic long lean body, with feminine hips and breasts, was much in evidence when she dressed this way.

"What's on the agenda for today?" she asked.

"Since, as yet, it seems we're alone here in the pub," he said, "I thought a nice, friendly social call on Old Lady Wiley would get us off to a good start. Then, later, when the pub's busier, we can soak up a bit more local color."

Ringing the bell at the front door of a dilapidated old cottage on the edge of town, Steed and Emma were greeted by a tiny, elderly lady, who surprised them both by immediately uttering, "Ah, come in. I've been expecting you."

"Miss Wiley?" Steed asked.

"In the flesh, young man," she said with an accompanying wink. "Have a seat here in the front room. I'll get tea, and will be back in a flash." Exiting the room in a stooped, shuffling manner, she seemed no more than four feet tall, her gray hair pulled up on her head, disobedient strands shooting down and out in every direction.

Steed and Emma seated themselves on an ancient dark red couch, with worn upholstery. Turning to look at each other, Steed raised one quizzical eyebrow, Emma shrugged her shoulders, and leaned back.

"I'm back, darlings," called Miss Wiley, reentering the room, with tea tray in hand. Steed immediately stood and moved forward to assist. "No, no, young man. Sit yourself down. I can handle this."

Obediently, Steed sat down. Miss Wiley slowly moved toward a battered tea table nearby, and started pouring.

Once all were settled, with tea in hand, Steed said, "Miss Wiley, I'm sorry, but, er, you were expecting us?"

"Oh, yes, I certainly was. You and your lady friend were in my dream last night," the old woman said with a gleam in her eye. "I saw you last night."

Steed briefly froze, his eyes widened, and he glanced sheepishly toward Emma. If Miss Wiley noticed, she gave no indication.

Clearing his throat, Steed launched in. After explaining to Miss Wiley their purpose in Croxton, he asked, "Is it true, Miss Wiley, that you saw those mysterious lights in the night sky on one occasion?"

"More than one occasion, young man," she replied quickly. Yes, I did see them the night Mr. Weatherby disappeared, and again two nights ago. But I had seen them before. They've been visiting the area for several months."

"Do you mind giving us a description?" Emma asked kindly, for she had a soft spot for old people.

As Emma snapped a few shots of the elderly woman, Miss Wiley described the visions she had seen five times over the last few months. They matched, to a tee, Tommy Draper's description. She concluded, "I like to sit outside on my porch at night, if it isn't too hot or too cold. Sometimes people stop in for a visit or a reading, but usually nothing much happens at all. Things have certainly changed."

Steed rose, about to excuse themselves from her presence, when Miss Wiley suddenly said, "Young man, young lady, I'd like you to come to dinner tonight."

Unable to think of a quick excuse, Steed and Emma both nodded, and left to return to the pub.

Steed noted with approval that business in the pub had picked up considerably since they departed earlier. Without a word, just a faint nodding of his head, Steed headed to the bar, and Emma knew she was to seat herself elsewhere. They could cover more ground, meet more locals this way.

The innkeeper, knowing Steed's intentions, looked at him, and then pointedly turned his head toward a somber-looking thirtyish man near the end of the bar. Steed slid down nearer to him, but not so near as to threaten his space. Jenkins walked toward Steed, and asked for his order.

"Just some tea right now, I think," Steed said. "It is a bit early."

"Got to keep a clear head, anyhow," Jenkins said a touch too loudly, "while searching for aliens."

The younger man looked up sharply at Jenkins.

"Mr. Steed, this is Troy Upthegrove here," the portly man said. "He's a schoolteacher."

"How do you do," Steed said in his best friendly tone. "Well, pardon my intrusion, but, since you are a teacher, I wonder what you think of all the odd goings-on around here. From an...educated point of view, that is."

"Confusing," Upthegrove said slowly. "It's difficult to know what to tell the children."

"What have you told them?"

Upthegrove rubbed his forehead, looked down at his coffee, and said, "Not much, really. Of course, they all wanted to hear about what I saw. I wasn't sure if I should tell them or not. I'm not sure what I saw."

Across the room, Emma stirred her tea, and tried to eavesdrop on conversations nearby. A table for eight, adjacent to her, seemed to be the most lively. Six men and four women chattered, interrupting each other, full of excitement.

"Jack will be in charge of the photographic equipment," a handsome, dark-haired, strong-jawed man was saying, "and Trudy, you assist him. Thomas, naturally will handle the mapping."

"I say, this is so exciting, I can hardly sit still," a young blond woman interrupted.

"Exciting, yes, Samantha," the handsome fortyish man said sternly, "but, more importantly, the opportunity of a lifetime. We've known, all of us, all our lives, that there are other living creatures out there," he gestured expansively toward the ceiling, "but none of us have had the privilege of seeing them, meeting them." He paused.

"Until now. It is our duty to handle this in a scientific, responsible manner. Others have encountered these beings before. There's no doubt of it. But, because they had no proof, and their stories sounded so outlandish, they have been dismissed as cranks," he said. "That will not happen this time."

One of the men moved an open briefcase to the empty table between her and them. Trying her best to read some of the paperwork in the case from such a distance, Emma was able to make out what appeared to be a fact sheet on Sir Andrew Lofton.

Deciding on the direct approach, Emma walked to the larger table.

"Excuse me, I'm so sorry to intrude," she said with a sweet, innocent look.
The handsome man shook his head in irritation, then looked up at her. His demeanor instantly changed to one of pleasure. Emma knew she sometimes had this effect on men, and took advantage of it in her work.

"Yes, my dear, what may we do for you?"

"I, ah, well," she stammered.

"Yes?" he said patiently. The ladies at the other end of the table, Emma noticed, did not look quite so friendly at this particular moment.

"Well, I didn't mean to eavesdrop, but I couldn't help overhearing. You believe, all of you, don't you," Emma said earnestly.

"Believe?" a bespectacled man two chairs down asked.

"Yes, believe...in them," Emma said, pointing a single finger upward.

"My dear, we certainly do," said the handsome group leader. "That is why we are here."

"Yes, yes, I thought so. Me too," Emma said, "in a sense."

She launched into an explanation of her position as newspaper photographer, and expounded again on her "belief." This was followed by a mild tirade against her partner, the "journalist."

"He simply doesn't believe," she said with a sigh. "He just wants to find a story that will sell newspapers. He keeps referring to the visitations as 'swamp gas.'" She frowned.

"But there are no swamps anywhere near here," one of the ladies said.

"I know," Emma agreed. "He's impossible. Keeps making fun of the people who have seen the lights, even the people who have been abducted."

"It is our position, young lady," the leader said, "that these so-called abductions are merely our visitors' way of getting to know us. They mean no harm and always return the borrowed person home safe and sound. It may be that they want only to... study us. Our goal is for one of our group to be the so-called abductee, so we will have a chance to study them, to get to know them."

"Your group," Emma said, "tell me about your organization."

"SWAB," the man said briskly.

"Pardon me?" Emma said.

"SWAB," he repeated. "Society for the Witness of Alien Beings."

"Ah," Emma nodded. How does one join?"

"Not a simple matter of signing a membership card, I'm afraid," he explained. "We insist that our membership be informed, well-trained, so that no mistakes will be made... when the time comes."

"I would very much like to join," Emma said. "I do have some training in astronomy, and..."

She was interrupted by the square-jawed leader. "I'm sorry. It'll take more than that. We have our own methods. You'd have to agree to a full five-day course. There's one beginning tomorrow in London. Michelle, down there," he pointed to a tall brunette at the far end of the table, "and a few others are participating in an indoctrination starting in the morning."

"Could I?" Emma looked beseechingly at the man.

"Well, I don't see why not," he said, smiling. "We've got a van leaving in the morning for London. And you will return on Friday afternoon, after your training is complete. You will reside, during the course, at our London facility. You will be unable to leave for any reason during that time. Do you understand?"

"Yes," she said. "I believe I do."

"You're doing what, Mrs. Peel?" Steed asked, when they were alone in their suite upstairs.

"I'm joining SWAB," she said dramatically. "We... believe."

"You do?" he asked.

"We do," she stated, plopping herself down on the ancient couch.

"And you'll be leaving here in the morning... and not returning until Friday afternoon," Steed repeated what she had told him moments ago.

"Correct, you, you non-believer," she scowled at Steed.

Steed paced the room. "Could be a wild goose chase, Mrs. Peel," he said, "and, in the meantime, you may miss something significant here."

"I trust you to hold the fort," Emma said. "Besides, if what's in the briefcase is any indication, this may be more than a goose chase."

"Could be that they're simply assembling all available information," Steed said, "in order to assess the situation. I can think of a certain other two other people who are here for the same purpose."

"Yes, Steed, I know. But the fact remains, I'm curious, and I'm going." She smiled slyly at him. "I think you might, maybe, survive without me for a few days."

"Five days," he said. "Hope you're right, Mrs. Peel."

"I could, um, try to give you a little something to tide you over."

"And just what would that be, Mrs. Peel?" Steed strode to the couch and crouched down in front of Emma.

She stroked his hair, then his cheek.

"Oh, just...something."

Two hours had passed, and Steed and Emma arrived again at Miss Wiley's aged front door. Steed's finger was poised on the bell, when the door suddenly flung open.

"Miss Wiley!" Steed said in surprise.

"Ah, young man, young lady," she gushed. "I'm so happy you're here again. Come in. Come in."

Following the elderly woman into the living room, Miss Wiley continued, "You know what? You are two of my favorite people. Have a seat, please. Dinner will be ready in half an hour."

"Thank you so much, Miss Wiley," Emma said, "but really, we've only just met this afternoon."

Removing a dusty bottle of scotch whiskey from a cupboard with a flourish, Miss Wiley explained, "No, dear, that's not the way I see people. Some people are new to me, even after I've seen them and even spoken with them on a daily basis for years. Others, though, like the two of you, I know already. I knew you the minute I saw you".

"It's a matter of souls, in my opinion," she continued. "Friendly, familiar souls. Oh, and there's the other thing."

"Ah, what other thing?" Steed asked in confusion.

"I do so enjoy being in the presence of two young people in love. Restores my soul," she chattered on. "I never married myself, you know, because I refused to accept second best. I could never have married just to marry, even if it meant denying myself children. The right man simply never came along. And I was quite a looker, mind you, in my youth..."

Steed finally interrupted her. "Excuse me, I'm sorry. Miss Wiley, we're co-workers. We work for the same newspaper. I'm a reporter. Mrs. Peel is a photographer. We're in town on business, to investigate this..."

She turned the tables and interrupted him, "Oh, my, young man, don't think you can pull the wool over my old eyes. I say, how about a reading while we're waiting for the roast to finish cooking."

"A reading?" Emma asked, smiling.

"Yes, dear, it will be fun. You can take anything and everything with a grain of salt, if you like," Miss Wiley offered. "Most of the folks in these parts think I'm a bit daft, anyway. But, I'll tell you this, I might be able to tell you a thing or two of, ah, well, interest."

Steed was obviously hesitant. He was, in fact, uncharacteristically uneasy, fidgeting on the couch, and saying, "I'm not so sure..."

"Steed, it will be fun!" Emma said quickly. "We'd love it, Miss Wiley."

"All right, dears," she said, reaching for a stack of playing cards on the table next to her. Now you two just sit right there and relax. I'll do all the work."

One by one, she pulled cards from the deck, spreading them in a pattern on a low table in front of Steed and Emma. She then studied them, scrutinized them for a few minutes.

"I was right, of course," Miss Wiley said. "Co-workers indeed. Well, you may be co-workers, but there's more to it than that, quite a bit more to it. And a newspaper? I don't think so. Can't tell just what work it is you do, but I daresay it isn't a newspaper."

Steed continued to fidget. Emma was beaming.

"I see danger, dears. I'm so sorry to tell you that. But perhaps it's something you deal with on a regular basis, hmmm? Now, the future. The future is so tricky, much more difficult than the past and present." She paused.

"The future. I see a time of trial, a terrible difficult time, for both of you. And, mind you, this is not so far away."

"Trial?" Emma asked in a hushed tone.

"Yes, dear, I'm so sorry. The trial I see is of an emotional nature. This is different than the physical danger I spoke of previously. You will both endure a quite traumatic emotional event. Fortunately, things brighten up considerably after a relatively brief period of time."

She continued, "Oh, how nice. I see children too."

Steed's eyes widened and he cleared his throat.

Miss Wiley smiled at him. "I will tell you this, young man. I cannot tell if these children are yours, or hers, or both. I simply see children. One of the difficulties in doing a dual reading. Of course, I see marriage too." She snickered, a surprisingly girlish laugh.

"I should have mentioned that before the children. But, once again, I can't be specific. Could be that just one of you ends up married, to someone else. I will say this, I do see two very long, very contented lives. You've got to get past that difficult time I mentioned, and then it appears all will be well."

"Thank you, Miss Wiley," Emma said, "that was quite enlightening."

Steed fidgeted again, and then, remembering himself, said, "Oh, yes, thank you so much, Miss Wiley. That was quite entertaining."

The roast was truly delicious. Steed had brought wine. They discussed the unusual events going on in the area, Miss Wiley behaving as though the peculiar goings on were the most natural events in the world.

As they took their leave later in the evening, Miss Wiley called to Steed just as he was about to climb into the car.

Returning to her doorstep, he said, "Yes, Miss Wiley."

"You have told her, haven't you?" Miss Wiley said in a raspy whisper. "You must tell her."

Steed shifted his weight, looked at her with a puzzled smile, and asked, "Tell her what, Miss Wiley?"

"How you feel," she said. "You may think it isn't the right thing to do now, but someday you'll wish you had. Tell her, young man. Tell her before it's too late."


-- NINE --

Steed was frustrated. It was mid-week, and he felt he was getting nowhere, absolutely nowhere. Every story was the same. Same description, same lights, same sounds. "Consistency," he muttered to himself, "has no place in an investigation of UFO's."

He desperately needed something to happen, the appearance of some miniscule clue, anything. He had finally been able to speak with Mrs. Lofton, who was unable to assist in any way. She clearly had been medicated to the point of lethargy.

Sir Andrew Lofton had stumbled back into town that morning. Looking wild-eyed and dishevelled, he wandered down the main thoroughfare. Someone had poked a head into the pub, shouted to all inside, "Lofton's back," and slammed the door.

Steed rushed outside, watching a small crowd gather around Lofton. Someone took Sir Andrew's left arm and draped it around his shoulders, helping walk him down the street to the doctor's office. Just as Sir Andrew was ushered inside, Steed watched as the town constable flew out of his office door, and ran toward the doctor's.

Steed finally got his chance with Sir Andrew several hours later. Still at the clinic, heavily sedated, Lofton did manage to answer Steed's questions. His descriptions of the events of the last few days mirrored Weatherby's. They even used the same phrases, exactly the same words. This meager coincidence was all Steed had to hang his hat on.

"Kidnapping, brainwashing, wrenching out some secrets, reinserting a new experience as a cover for the real experience," Steed speculated once back in the suite, talking softly to himself. "That's got to be it. But who, and how?"

He wished Mrs. Peel were here. He could bounce some of this off her. It often was a help, the two of them discussing a frustrating case. Where one mind may see things one way, the two of them together could sometimes discover a new angle, a different way of seeing thing.

Emma, meanwhile, was straightening her tiny camp bed, and listening to Michelle chatter away about her desire to go aboard a spaceship. The week, so far, had been useless. There were five of them in training together. This was Wednesday - two more days to go.

Their mornings were spent in classes studying astronomy, histories of reported alien and UFO sightings, reviews of assorted governmental "cover-ups," and group discussions. Afternoons were spent in physical training, maproom reviews of the area around Croxton on Wey, a rest period, and instruction in the use of various equipment, telescopes, cameras, and so on.

"Hey ho, away we go," she muttered to herself in a sing-song lilt, "off to boredom-central." She tossed her pillow onto the bed and sighed.
Once, only once, something happened that pricked her interest. Charles, the handsome, square-jawed leader, was conversing quietly with Joseph, the smaller, bespectacled man. Standing alone in a small classroom as Emma passed by, Joseph apparently disagreed with something. She heard bits of the conversation: "But, Charles... best interest of... we can't possibly." And, from Charles: "Ignore our personal agendas... for the better good of... the boss said." She thought she might have heard Charles say, "Weatherby," and "Rushing," but she could not be certain.

That evening, after Michelle was asleep, as were, she hoped, the rest of the trainees and staff, Emma rose from her bed, pulled a tiny penlight torch from her bag, and crept out the door of her room. Softly padding down a long dark hallway, she turned a corner, and went to the group's office.
She pulled a lock-picking kit from her pocket, and set to work on the door.

Once inside, she switched on the penlight, and crept toward a desk, opening draws, examining contents, then moved on to the next desk, and then, finally, to the filing cabinets. Finding nothing remotely interesting in the first two, she moved to the third and last filing cabinet. It seemed to be made of heavier steel than the others. Picking the lock, she pulled out the first file she came to.

"Horace Weatherby," she whispered. Opening the file, she at first saw nothing but a biography, head and shoulders photograph, notes on his business activities. The next sheet of paper, however, contained detailed information on his company's defense contracts. It was the next piece of paper that most intrigued her. Printed on thick yellow paper, with holes cut along the left side for use in binder insertion, the paper was ruled from top to bottom. A date was stamped in red at the upper left corner, the date of Weatherby's disappearance. Assorted scribbled notes filled the space next to the date. Blood pressure, heart rate, other diagnostic information. It looked like a page from a doctor's chart. There also was a list of drugs. The first, Cineroid, was a known knock-out drug. A time, 12:05 a.m., was penned next to dosage. The second drug, Thalderol, she thought could be used to rouse patients from anesthesia. Time of dosage: 7:00 a.m. A chill went through her when she noted that, at 8:00 a.m., the drug of choice was Anaxil. She knew, from indoctrination into her job for the ministry, that Anaxil, a potent, dangerous drug, was commonly used as both a truth serum, and, when combined with other drugs, a powerful brainwashing agent.

Quickly glancing back into the filing cabinet, she saw that the other files were labeled, "Rushing," and "Lofton." She returned her attention to the yellow paper in her hand. Below the list of drugs was another hand-written list of times. The entries read, "Unresponsive," "Disoriented," "Rebellious," and...

Hearing a faint click, she ducked quickly behind the cabinet. Seeing nothing, and hearing nothing further, she slowly reappeared, shoved the file back into the cabinet, closed the drawer, and relocked it, using her tools.

The sound of voices in the hall, several doors down, she gauged, momentarily startled her. She froze. Then there was silence.

Silently, her heart beating so loudly in her ears that she felt certain it could be heard throughout the building, she crept along the wall toward the door. Se opened the door just a sliver and peered down the hallway. No one there. Silently she slipped out, closing the door softly behind her.

Steed decided on a new tactic. Driving to a secluded spot outside town, he phoned headquarters from the Bentley. The list of equipment, high-tech, all of it, and some of it newly developed, seemed to frustrate the junior agent with whom he spoke.

"All of that?" he asked.

"All of that, Thompkins," Steed said firmly and a bit coldly. He disliked being questioned by juniors. Truthfully, he disliked being questioned by anyone.

"Have someone disguise a truck and bring it to the following location."

"Yes, sir," Thompkins said reluctantly, "What location?"

On Friday morning, blessedly Emma's last day of training, Charles took her aside. "Come with me to my office for a moment, my dear," he said softly.
Once seated before his desk, Emma was curious.

"Yes?"

"We've a special assignment for you, if you choose to accept it," he said smoothly. "First, I must ask. Now that you've been through training and indoctrination, how do you feel? Are you committed to SWAB?"

Thinking silently to herself, Emma mused, "Oh, yes, I'd just love to SWAB. Swabbing is my life!" She reined in her natural sarcasm, and replied earnestly, "Oh, yes, Charles, I'm more excited than ever. I can't wait until tonight."

The trainees had been informed that tonight was to be their first night to "watch" the night sky. The group leaders appeared confident that something would happen in Croxton on Wey on this evening. Emma had been unable to discern a reason for their assurance.

"We've got something else for you, my dear," Charles said. "On occasion, we ask members to perform special services for SWAB. The members are not to question their assignments, once accepted. You do have the opportunity to turn down the assignment, but you would have to do so before finding out what it is."

"I'm willing to do anything," Emma said stoutly, "almost."

"So you accept the assignment?" Charles asked.

"I accept, proudly."

"This fellow Steed..."

"Yes, what about him?" Emma asked, frowning.

"We'd like to know more about him." Charles stood and circled the desk, finally stopping and sitting on its edge. Leaning nearer Emma, he said, "We need to know what he's really up to. He's been snooping around all over Croxton, asking questions, talking to everyone."

"But that's his job," Emma objected. "He's a journalist. He's trying to get a story."

"I'm well aware of that," Charles said. "But he is getting too close to, ah, certain things. There are members of the group, myself included, who think he just might have an ulterior motive."

"Ulterior motive," Emma repeated, scratching her head to convey that this was all beyond her comprehension.

"Find out everything you can about him. Everything. We want to know his background, his motives, his opinions, his strengths, and his weaknesses. Working with him as you do, you should be able to manage it, my dear. Ply him with liquor, get him talking, do whatever is necessary."

Emma nodded wanly.

"You are to report to me, without attracting attention, the moment you discover anything significant," Charles said. "Anything at all."

Steed was sitting alone, solemnly nursing a brandy, on Friday afternoon at 4 o'clock, when Emma reappeared. She entered the pub with a group of at least ten people, all of whom seemed to be talking at once. He managed to catch her eye. She walked toward him.

"Steed," she said, smiling broadly.

"Mrs. Peel," he said softly.


-- TEN --

Unfortunately for Steed, Charles, the apparent leader of SWAB, arrived at Steed's table seconds after Emma.

"Introduce me, my dear," he said to Emma, smiling.

"Why, yes, of course, Charles," Emma managed, having difficulty taking her eyes off Steed's face. "John Steed, Charles French."

Steed rose, shook hands, and said, "How do you do."

Charles instantly dropped himself down into the chair across from Steed's pub bench, and offered, "I'd like to buy you both a drink. Have a seat, my dear," he said to Emma, gesturing toward the open space on the bench next to Steed.

"Well, Mr. Steed," Charles said expansively, "we can't thank you enough for loaning us Mrs. Peel for a few days. I trust things have been, ah, quiet around here while we've been away?"

"Moderately quiet," Steed replied. "Sir Andrew Lofton returned yesterday."

"Ah, yes, heard about that," Charles said, turning to place their drinks order with the waitress.

Under the table, Steed surreptitiously pressed his right thigh against Emma's left. She returned the favor, just before Charles turned back around to face them.

"We're watching tonight, Mr. Steed," Charles said. "We'll have SWAB members posted throughout the area. Since Mrs. Peel is a member, she'll be watching too. And because, of course, you two are here for a purpose, and do indeed work together, we thought we'd allow her to watch with you tonight. She'll need to report any sightings, any peculiar events, to our group, but she should be able to assist as your photographer too."

A bit sarcastically, Steed replied, "Thank you so much."

Charles raised his glass, and waited for Emma and Steed to do the same. "To an eventful evening," he said.

They clinked glasses.

Steed looked at his watch, and said, "Oh, dear, look at the time. I hope you don't mind, Mr. French, but I do need to borrow Mrs. Peel right now. There are a few things I need to show her before nightfall."

"Certainly, Mr. Steed," Charles said. "And good luck to you tonight."

Driving away from the pub in the old Bentley, Emma was perturbed. In the past, whenever she and Steed had been apart for more than a couple of days, they had reunited in a flame of passion. It was as though they each were wells gone dry, desperate, thirsty for water, completely unable to restrain themselves. She remembered the last time they had been separated for a week, and their reunion. The next day, she had given up on mending the seams of the dress she had been wearing, and tossed it in the wastebin. She had even debated, for a moment, about replacing the couch, but decided against it.

Now, here they were, apart for five days, and they were cruising along in this damn old car, on their way to see God knew what. She scowled, and tried shooting Steed a scorching look, but he seemed oblivious, his eyes on the road ahead.

Eventually, Steed turned the massive car off onto a bumpy dirt road. They bounced along for some minutes, Emma growing curious.

As he pulled the car up to a dilapidated old building, a shack, really, Emma looked at him questioningly.

"And this is... what, exactly?"

"Equipment, supplies. All the latest gadgets, Mrs. Peel," Steed said airily.

"Come in and see."

With an irritated sigh, she debarked from the huge car, and followed Steed to the door.

He unlocked a giant padlock, opened the door, and gestured for her to enter.

She went inside, and was immediately astonished to see modern radar equipment, assorted reel-to-reel tape recorders, radio equipment, computer equipment, and a few electronic devices she could not identify.

"Steed," she began, but stopped in an instant as she felt two strong arms encircle her from behind.

"Yes, Mrs. Peel," Steed said.

"Never mind," she said.

He lifted her hair from behind, and kissed the back of her neck. "It's private here," he said, already breathing heavily. "No danger of anyone overhearing... anything."

Emma turned quickly to face him, throwing her arms around him and clutching him to her. He immediately began to kiss her, moaning already.
She slid her arms under his jacket, and removed it. She tried to unbutton his waistcoat while continuing to kiss. She fumbled, her fingers too frantic. She was breathing heavily.

Keeping his lips on hers, he unbuttoned and removed his waistcoat, tie, and shirt, then reached behind her and unzipped her maroon catsuit. Briefly removing his mouth from hers, he said, "Zippers in a different place every day." His mouth hungrily went back to hers, as he slipped the garment off her shoulders and arms, leaving it dangling at her waist. An occasional soft high "oh," emanated from his lips, punctuating the hungry kisses. Reaching behind her with both hands, Emma unhooked and removed her bra, tossing it in an undetermined direction, and flung her arms back around Steed.

Emma felt a roaring in her head, the blood pulsing through her body. She held him as tightly as she could. His lips moved from her mouth to the soft skin of her throat, his body pressed firmly against hers. Already, though still clothed from the waist down, they were thrusting against each other, their quick, desperate rhythm already established. Short strident sounds began emerging from her mouth. He responded in kind, with quick breathy "uh, uh" noises.

There and then, they dropped together to the braided rug on the floor below. Their lips were again locked together, they grasped each others bodies in desperation. They were out of control, like animals. Groping, Steed attempted with shaking fingers to pull Emma's catsuit down below her hips. It was as though all human abilities, dexterity, reasoning, thought, had escaped him. She helped him, keeping her lips on his, raised her hips slightly, and pulled the clothing off.

Immediately, the thumping, raging rhythm resumed. Neither of them could stop it. Emma tried to reach for his belt, but Steed beat her to it, raising himself and pulling off his remaining clothing as quickly as possible.
In an instant, he was inside her, their usual routine of ample foreplay thrown by the wayside. They trembled and moaned, and even shouted out at times, as they pumped and held each other tightly, their torsos blending as one. Their entire bodies, head to foot, undulated in a perfectly synchronized animalistic act. He grunted, she sucked in air with loud, ragged gasps. After a few moments, she began uttering a series of involuntary high-pitched screams. With each thrust, she screamed, and was further out of control. Completely unbridled, open, unashamed, her fingers drew blood on his back.

His groans and grunts evolved as the plunging cadence increased in speed and blinding intensity. Soon, he was emitting short sob-like sounds with each push. From somewhere deep within, the tiniest trace of comprehension returned briefly to Emma. She heard the sobs, clutched at him, kissed his left cheek, and then was again transported.

It did not take long, though neither of them was aware of the passage of time. Their needs were acute, their actions unthinking, and, with cries that sounded as though they were being tortured, they climaxed tumultuously together.

For several minutes, they clung tightly together, each of them attempting to draw in enough oxygen to return to normal. They eventually calmed, though still gripping each other. Steed then went almost completely limp, his body still atop hers. She thought he had passed out. A moment later, though, he twitched, sighed, and croaked, "Sorry. I'm suffocating you."
"Stay where you are," she said quietly.

So there they remained, until the light coming through the windows began to fade, and they regained the strength to move.

Steed planted one last, lingering kiss, said lightly, "Something tells me, my dear, that you've missed me," and stood up.

Emma beamed up at him from her territory on the rug.

"I think," he said, "it is time I showed you my equipment."

"I've already met your equipment, Steed," Emma quipped, struggling to an upright position.

"Ha!" Steed smiled. "I mean equipment of the electronic variety, my dear."

Steed quickly reviewed the array of high-tech devices located throughout the little room, pointing out radar equipment, sensitive recording devises, a machine that could analyze sounds, radio apparatus, and tracking devices. All were linked, he explained, to assorted sensing devices he had planted surreptitiously on hillsides and in fields throughout the area surrounding Croxton.

"Hopefully," he explained, "should our mysterious visitors make an appearance tonight, we'll end up with a tad more information than we have had previously. And these," he said, turning to point at the bank of reel-to-reel recording devices, "will tape the whole thing."

As he turned his back to her, Emma let out a mild gasp. "Steed, you're bleeding!"

"I am?" He looked curiously down at his lower body. "Where?"

"No, not there," she said. "Your back. Your back is bleeding."

"Oh," he said, matter-of-factly.

"Where's your handkerchief?" Emma asked, gently touching a wound she knew she had induced.

Steed paused, looked around the room, noted assorted items of clothing draped haphazardly across this and that piece of electronic equipment, and said, furrowing his brow, "Mrs. Peel, I don't have a clue."

He reached casually toward a piece of computer equipment and retrieved his trousers. "Do you have any idea, my dear, where my underwear might be?"

Emma started to laugh, Steed chuckled, and soon they succumbed to a contagious fit of laughter, wrapping their arms around each other in an affectionate embrace. As their mirth subsided, they stayed there, standing in mid-room, holding each other happily, sweetly, swaying slightly.

The sun had fully set as Steed swung the Bentley off the road into a secluded spot on a hillside above town. Emma pulled fabric bags full of camera equipment from the rear seat, as Steed loaded his arms with blankets, a small battery-powered lantern, and warm coats.

"Just down there," he said, pointing to a path worn among the thick trees.

"Ah, a perfect vantage point," Emma said, as they emerged on the other side of the copse of trees. "A flawless view of the village, and, I see, most of the country homes which our friends from outer space seem to favor." She paused. "Steed, this really is a lovely setting."

"I agree, Mrs. Peel," he said, spreading a blanket on a small flat spot on the hillside.

"Just one problem," Emma said. "I'm famished. We haven't eaten."

Steed said simply, "Ah," and disappeared back through the grove of trees.

Reemerging shortly, he bore a wicker basket in one hand, and an ice chest in the other.

After seating himself Indian-style on the blanket, he opened the wicker basket, and began pulling out plates, napkins, silverware, and champagne glasses in the lavish manner of a magician on stage. Opening the ice chest, he presented Emma with containers of boiled cold shrimp, cold marinated chicken, artichoke hearts, a cucumber vinaigrette salad, and, naturally, a bottle of chilled champagne.

"Think this'll do?" he asked casually.

As the hours passed, the night air grew colder. Donning the warm coats Steed had brought along, they sat close together, their shoulders and hips touching. The half-moon peeked out from behind thick, fluffy clouds. Stars more numerous than they were accustomed to amid the city lights of London thickly crowded the deep blue sky. Eventually, growing sleepy, Emma leaned her head onto Steed's shoulder. He suggested they move the blanket back a bit, so he could rest his back against the trunk of a large tree. Once settled again, he gestured toward his shoulder, and held his left arm outward, providing her room to lay against his side.

"Sorry, Steed," she said. "I'm trying my best to stay alert, but it's been a long day, and the food, and the..."

"Never mind, Mrs. Peel," he said as he wrapped his left arm around her shoulders. "We'll take turns. I'll wake you when I get sleepy. No way to know how long it may be before something happens... if it happens."

Two hours later, shortly after midnight, Steed's body jerked. Realizing he had momentarily dozed off, he rubbed his face with his right hand, and took a deep breath. Emma slept soundly, nestled against him, her breathing slow and regular. He shook his head a few times, and thought he had the cast the sleepiness away. A short time later, though, it happened again. He realized he had to sleep, just for a while.

"Mrs. Peel," he said softly. "Mrs. Peel."

No response.

"Mrs. Peel," he repeated, louder.

"Emma," he said in a normal speaking voice.

"Ummmm," she mumbled, stirring.

"Sorry," he said, "I'm afraid I'm dropping off. Do you think you can stay awake for a while? Let me take a little nap?"

Sitting upright and stretching, Emma rubbed her face, breathed deeply, and finally said, "Um hum. Yes, of course. How long have I been asleep?"

"About two hours," he said. "Do you mind?"

"No problem," she said. "Give me your tree."

They switched places, Emma resting her back against the tree trunk. Steed laid his head in her lap, and adjusted his position until he was comfortable. She softly stroked his hair. He closed his eyes and quickly fell asleep.

An hour later, Emma was again feeling the narcotic effect of the late hour, and wondered if she would be able to maintain her part of the deal.
With a start, she sat up straight. She turned her right ear in the direction of the sky over Sir Caldwell Russell's estate, hearing a strange low pulsing noise.

"Steed," she said, shaking his left shoulder.

"Steed!" she almost shouted.

"Um, what?" he mumbled, shifting in her lap.

"Steed, sit up!" she ordered, and he obeyed, squinting in her direction.

"What is it, Mrs. Peel?" he inquired in a confused, half-asleep manner.

"Look," she said, pointing toward the sky above the valley.

He turned his head, his eyes widened, and, in an instant, he was on his feet. She followed him, as they moved forward, away from the tree.

They stopped, stood stock-still, and, without thinking, Emma grabbed hold of Steed's left arm. Staring wide-eyed up and out over the valley, the two seasoned, experienced agents, who sometimes felt that they had seen it all, allowed nature to take its course, and their jaws dropped.

Part Two

--ELEVEN--

Steed and Emma stood immobile on the hillside for several moments, transfixed by the vision before them. A massive sphere of twinkling white lights hovered over the valley. Below it a hollow circle of radiant blue hovered in the night sky. The apparition was accompanied by a deep, pulsing, organ-like sound.

Eventually, the two agents turned their heads slowly toward each other. Steed arched an eyebrow, and Emma arched both. As one, they suddenly sprang into action, each leaning down to the blanket behind them to quickly grab a camera. Emma had laid out an array of zoom lenses, each already equipped with a different filter.

She had reasoned beforehand that, since the metal-rimmed filters screwed onto the lenses, but the lenses themselves could be attached to the cameras by means of a quick insert-and-twist locking method, time would be saved, and more multi-filtered shots obtained, if they simply switched lenses repeatedly. As the airborne object moved across the night sky over the valley, and neared their hillside perch, Steed and Emma snapped away, rotating the lenses to obtain photographs of different focal lengths, then bending swiftly to switch to a new lens.

The object grew closer to them, and hence to Sir Caldwell Russell's estate below. The noise was deafening. Emma fought an almost irresitable urge to drop the camera from her hands and cover her ears. For a brief moment, the object stopped and hovered directly over Russell's land. Steed and Emma continued to snap furiously. The thing then began lowering itself, moving downward toward Russell's home. Soon it was below them, and shortly it floated over Russell's lawn. There it remained, immobile, for perhaps five minutes.

Abruptly, the ground under the object seemed to light up of its own accord. About a minute later, the object rose into the sky, moving quickly now. It seemed to shoot straight up, then stopped and levitated loudly in the air, almost directly over Steed and Emma's heads. It rotated once, then sped off rapidly away from the valley, away from Croxton, and toward a ridge at the valley's edge. Before reaching the ridgeline, while still high aloft, the thing suddenly vanished.

The deep sound continued, but decreased in intensity, possibly due simply to distance. Steed lowered the camera he was holding and squinted in the direction of the noise. He became aware that Emma continued to snap photographs, apparently of nothing.

He cleared his throat. "My dear?" he said, "Mrs. Peel?"

"Eh?" she asked absently, clicking away.

"It's gone," Steed said.

"Maybe," Emma replied.

She continued taking photographs, as Steed stood and watched curiously, until she ran out of film. About that time, they both noticed that the last traces of the distant rumbling noise had faded.

"Finished?" Steed asked.

"Finished," Emma said, matter-of-factly.

The two quickly gathered up their camera equipment and other belongings, and headed to the car.

As Steed swung the big old Bentley expertly through the gates to Sir Caldwell's estate, he and Emma immediately spied a nest of activity on the front lawn. Steed screeched the car to a halt on the drive in front of the big, old house, simultaneously pulling upward on the handbrake, and leaping up and out. Emma, too, was out of the car and running in a flash. Both headed toward the village constable, who stood engaged in earnest conversation with a tall brunette woman who they assumed to be Russell's wife.

Emma veered away, though, when she caught a glimpse of three figures huddled in conversation next to a tan sedan near the side of the house. She arrived, breathless, at the side of Charles, Joseph, and Trudy of SWAB and instantly shifted her persona from that of a curious professional to that of a thrilled new SWAB member.

"Did you see it?" she asked, panting.

"Certainly, my dear," Charles said happily. "Quite a show."

"Amazing,," Emma said, "Absolutely amazing. I can't believe it! I actually saw one. Finally! After a lifetime of waiting, what a thrill!"

"Wasn't it incredible?" Trudy breathed.

"Truly," Emma said with apparent joy.

Turning toward Charles, Emma asked, "Are we to meet now? To discuss it? To talk about what we saw?"

Charles frowned and scratched his chin. "No, I think not. I think everyone needs some sleep first. Tomorrow afternoon, at the pub," he said flatly.

"But, surely," Emma started, "while the sight is still fresh in our minds…"

Charles interrupted. "Tomorrow afternoon," he said again, "at the pub."
Emma watched as Charles started walking toward his car, followed closely by Joseph and Trudy.

Charles stopped and turned back toward Trudy. "You don't mind, do you, my dear? Hitching a ride with Mr. Steed or the constable? Joseph and I have a few things to discuss on the ride back."

Emma felt sorry for the young lady, and immediately offered her a ride, only realizing after the words had left her lips that the backseat of Steed's car was covered not only with the expected photographic equipment, but also with an assortment of highly technical audio-recording devices, a small, portable radar device, and other equipment not available to the garden-variety journalist. Emma quickly established herself in the backseat, draping her legs over the equipment, and covering all with the plaid blanket.
"Trudy, you take the front seat, please," she said sweetly.

Steed joined them within a couple of minutes, started the big old car, and pointed it in the direction of the The Scowling Dragon back in Croxton. He drove fast, which caused Trudy to lean in toward the windscreen in an effort to block the chill night air rushing by. Emma, ensconced in the back, her legs tangled among the clumps of equipment under the blanket, knew that Steed was driving at a fast clip for a very good reason. The faster he drove, the less the chance of Trudy aiming more than a cursory glance toward the backseat, and wondering about the bulges under the blanket.

Herself freezing in the rear of the car, Emma briefly wondered if she should bless Steed or curse him for his fortuitous reading of the situation. She clenched her jaw in an effort to keep her teeth from chattering.

Having deposited Trudy at the inn, and making a generic excuse about forgetting some binoculars back on the hillside, Steed and Emma were soon at the supply shack where their analyzing equipment awaited them.

Steed instantly busied himself building a fire in the rusty pot-bellied stove. He then reached into a cardboard box and miraculously retrieved a bottle of fine brandy and two snifters. He handed a glass of the brown liquid to Emma.

"Sorry, love," he said, beginning to massage her free hand to warm it.

Emma took a large swig, a gulp really, of the brandy. Steed raised a surprised eyebrow, astonished by the snifter in her hand, now half as full as before. He quickly grabbed the bottle, and replenished her supply.

"Warming up?" he asked with a little smile.

"Yes, thank you," Emma said.

"Feel like checking for big developments now?" he asked.

Waiting a beat before answering, Emma replied, "Big?"

"Could be very, very big," Steed said, smiling.

"Hmmm," Emma intoned with a sly smile.

After a pause, she said, "I suppose we'd better develop the photographs and check the radar and recordings first, Steed."

Steed frowned like a little boy who has just watched his favorite toy boat sink to the bottom of a lake.

"Oh, yes, Mrs. Peel," he said wistfully, "Priorities."


--TWELVE--

"Yes, sir," Charles spoke into the heavy old phone receiver. "Yes, sir, I agree. Yes, yes, sir."

He hung up the telephone and turned with a sigh to Joseph, ensconced in a large padded armchair in Charles' room at the inn.

"Well?" asked Joseph.

"The boss is concerned about that fellow Steed. Doesn't trust him," Charles said thoughtfully.

"What about Mrs. Peel?" Joseph asked.

"Her too," Joseph said. "He's had someone check their stories. Got a report back that all's in order. They are indeed working for that newspaper."

"Then why worry?" Joseph asked.

"The boss has a feeling, just a feeling," Charles said. "And, fact is, so do I."

Charles paced silently around the room for a minute. Joseph sat and watched.

"I've asked Mrs. Peel to fill me in," Charles said, "to find out all she can about Steed. Tomorrow I expect some sort of response from her. We'll see what, if anything, she tells us."

"But if she's not to be trusted either," Joseph started, "how…"

Charles interrupted. "That's just the point," he mused. "What she tells us about Steed, if anything, may tell us something about her. Two birds. One stone."

In a tiny self-contained portable darkroom at the rear of the shack, Emma, concentrated as she hung wet prints to dry from a line suspended at eye level. She called to Steed, but received no reply. She called again.

"Steed! Come look."

Still no response. Irritated, she clothes-pinned the last two prints to the line, removed her rubber gloves, now reeking of photographic chemicals, and stepped out of the darkroom.

"Steed, I've been calling you," she said impatiently. "Steed!"

She finally noticed a set of headphones covering Steed's ears as he sat at a heavy old table covered with radar and audio equipment. He seemed to be marking a path on a map spread in front of him.

Emma went to his side and tapped him on his shoulder.

"Oh, Mrs. Peel," Steed said a little too loudly. "Finished?"

"YES," Emma practically shouted. She grabbed an earphone from Steed's left ear and let it spring with a whack back onto his ear.

"Ouch," Steed said with a grimace. He removed the headset and stood.

"Sorry, Mrs. Peel. Have you been calling me?"

"Yes, Steed, I have," Emma said. "What have you discovered?"

"The audio analyzing equipment tells me the sound, that low rumbling sound, is quite ordinary, Mrs. Peel. Ordinary, but loud. Could easily have come from a bank of huge loud-speakers. Quite powerful speakers, of course, and many of them, with an impressive amplifier boosting the sound. Not necessarily other-worldly at all, but one never knows."

"One doesn't," Emma said.

"The radar tracking and recording device has turned out to be quite handy," Steed said. "I've traced the apparent path of our friendly neighborhood spaceship on this map."

He stood and arranged the large sheet of paper so Emma could see.
Moving his finger along a he had marked on the map, he said, "Here's the village, here's Russell's place, and here, you see, is the ridge we saw the thing about to cross when it disappeared. According to the radar, it continued onward in this direction," his finger turned northward a bit on the map, "for 2.24 miles. And right here," he said, jabbing his finger at a point on the map, "is where it really disappeared, or landed, not at the edge of the valley where it disappeared suddenly from our sight."

"What do we know about that area, Steed?" Emma asked.

"Uninhabited. A thick forest covering rolling hills."

"Now, isn't that convenient?" Emma said with a smirk.

"Quite," Steed said.

"Now, come with me, and I'll show you something extremely interesting," Emma said, tugging lightly at Steed's lapel.

Somehow the two of them managed to squeeze into the cramped quarters of the tiny darkroom. The red light cast an eerie glow on their faces.

"Sorry, I've got several more prints developing," Emma said, putting the rubber gloves back on. "Can't turn on the overhead light just yet."

She pointed at a print at the far left of the clothesline. This is what we saw," she said, "simply a bright ball of light with a circle of blue light apparently suspended below it."

"Right," Steed said.

"Now, the rest of the prints are taken with different filters, and different lens settings," she said. "In this one, for example, you can see.."

"There's something behind the lights," Steed said, "but I can't quite make out its shape."

"Right," Emma said. "Here, let's switch places. Look at the others, left to right."

They squeezed past each other, changing places. Steed managed to place a deft hand on Emma's breast in doing so. He gave her a sheepish grin.

"Sorry, Mrs. Peel," he said quickly.

"First things first, Steed," Emma said, shaking her head at him.

Steed examined the moist prints, left to right, uttering quiet "hmmm" noises as he did so. When he got to the last print, he said, "Mrs. Peel, this looks almost like the shape of a helicopter, doesn't it?"

"Um hum," she said. "But not your average helicopter. It's massive, and most likely painted with a flat black paint. Let me get at those trays, and we'll check out these last few prints."

Steed backed out of the way as best he could, and watched Emma work. Eventually, she pinned three more prints on the line. They both inched their faces as close as possible to the photographs hanging before them.

"Ooooh," Emma intoned.

"Oh, my," said Steed.

"Looks remarkably like the Z-11 stealth fighter helicopter," Emma said.

"Recently developed, but not yet tested," Steed said.

"By Weatherby Aeronautics," Emma said, raising an eyebrow.


--THIRTEEN--

Emma woke the next morning as the sun slowly filtered into the cabin through dingy windows.

"Steed. Steed?" she whispered quietly toward the sleeping figure next to her on the small rollaway bed. He moaned a little, but did not move.

"Steed," she whispered again.

This time he turned toward the sound of her voice and draped an arm across her naked midsection, moaning happily, his eyes still closed.

"Steed, wake up," Emma said in a normal speaking voice.

Steed opened his eyes, squinting against the light and looking curiously at her.

"After developing the film last night, we didn't go back to the inn," she said.

"Other developments," Steed croaked sleepily.

"Demanding our undivided attention," Emma said, smiling.

"Ummm," Steed purred.

"I agree completely," she said, smiling at Steed's tousled head and sleepy face. "Believe me, I'm not complaining, despite the fact that I may well perish from sleep deprivation, but don't you think we'd better get busy?"

Finally, Steed sat up, gaining some control of his senses.

"Yep, you're right," he said. "There's a jar of instant coffee on the table. I'll add wood to the fire."


The SWAB membership gathered around the long table near the rear of the pub. Emma joined them at the last minute, emerging from the stairs with a bounce. She and Steed had arrived at the inn shortly before, discovering a note pushed under the door to their suite, which read, "Mrs. Peel, lunch and SWAB discussion, downstairs, noon."

As their soup and sandwiches were being served, Charles opened the meeting. "Well, we had quite a treat last night, didn't we?"

"Yes, yes," agreed Trudy happily, and the others around the table nodded in enthusiastic agreement.

"I suggest we go around the table and describe what we each saw," Charles said. "We were situated at different vantage-points. It should be most interesting. Michelle, my dear, please take notes."

Emma listened to each member's description. They all saw the same thing, the descriptions almost unvarying. Those who were situated lower, down in the valley, described the bright lights directly overhead as practically blinding, and did not see that there were, indeed, two balls of light. Those who had spent the night on hillsides, like Emma, described the round ball of bright light, and the circular, almost flat, plane of blue light below.

When it came her turn, Emma described exactly what she had seen from the hillside, without embellishment, without allowing herself to slip and give away any of the additional facts she and Steed had discovered later. She pulled the most simple of the prints from a bag by her chair, the ones taken without special filters, and placed them in the center of the table. The group ooohed and aaahed as they passed the prints around.

"Evidence," Charles said brightly. "Excellent, Mrs. Peel."

"Thank you, Charles," Emma breathed proudly.

"For those who may not yet know all the details," Charles said, "last night our friendly aliens took Sir Caldwell Russell from his estate outside town. If all goes as before, Sir Caldwell will rejoin us in a few days, none the worse for wear."

"Lucky Sir Caldwell," Michelle said with a smile.

"Yes, truly," said Joseph.

The luncheon and discussion broke up about an hour later. As members scattered toward the stairs and the bar, Charles took Emma aside.

"My dear, thank you so much for sharing the photographs with us."

"Oh, Charles," Emma said with a smile, "thank you for allowing me to be a part of this. It's so very exciting. Breathtaking."

"Certainly, my dear," Charles said. "I do wonder, though, in your evening on the hillside, or at any time yesterday, were you able to determine any new information about our Mr. Steed?"

Emma took a deep breath, and tried to hide her feelings. Over coffee earlier at the shack, Steed had instructed her to tell Charles the truth, the partial truth anyway, about his position.

"Tell him I'm a government agent," Steed had said to Emma, "that you think I'm here investigating the situation for some top-secret agency."

Emma's mouth had dropped open as she stared at him, shocked.

"Tell him you don't think SWAB can trust me."

When Emma regained the power of speech, she had said, "Steed, have you lost your mind? That's insane, dangerous, ridiculous!"

"Yes, I know, my dear," Steed had said. "But there are times when one needs to put out a little bait, to see what creatures might well scurry out of the woodwork."

"And you're the bait."

"Right, I'm the bait," Steed said calmly.

Emma had argued vehemently. Steed's idea placed him in far too much peril, she said. It was obvious that the organization behind SWAB was powerful, that there was something quite fearsome behind the whole thing.

Steed had refused to budge, and Emma finally, very reluctantly, agreed to do as he asked.

"Well, Charles," Emma said, "I did what you asked. I would prefer not to say how I managed to loosen his lips," she said with a feigned trace of embarrassment.

"No need, my dear," Charles said, patting her shoulder gently. "I am well aware that you and Mr. Steed didn't return to the inn until late this morning. I do appreciate, er, whatever you did to help us. Just tell me what you discovered."

Emma recounted her "discovery" that Steed was an agent, working surreptitiously for an extremely secret arm of the government.

 

--FOURTEEN--

While Emma spent time with the SWAB group, Steed wolfed down a sandwich in their suite, padded down the back stairs, and headed off in the Bentley for the Weatherby estate.

Upon arrival, he explained to Weatherby that he had actually witnessed the previous night's visitation by the alien ship, and, now that he had seen it with his own eyes, wanted to ask Weatherby a few additional questions about his experience.

Weatherby graciously invited him in. Once Steed was seated comfortably in a wing-backed chair in Weatherby's luxurious wood-paneled study, the older man offered Steed a brandy, and sat in a leather chair across from him.
"Now, what can I do for you, young man?" Weatherby asked with a smile on his face.

Steed sipped the brandy, "My, an excellent brandy," he said.

"Thank you, Mr. Steed. There's more where that came from," Weatherby said, sipping a taste of the brown liquid himself.

"Well, Mr. Weatherby, you're a levelheaded man," Steed said, and Weatherby nodded. "You're a success in business, conservative by nature…"

"Yes, I know, Mr. Steed," Weatherby said. "One would think I'd be the last person to believe in these, ah, visitations by aliens. One cannot, though, discount one's own experiences, Mr. Steed. You know that now," the pudgy gray-haired man continued. "You saw the ship yourself last night. Imagine having actually been in that ship."

"I'm trying," Steed said. "Part of my difficulty, Mr. Weatherby, is in accepting what I saw. I'm a skeptic by nature."

"So was I," Weatherby said. "I understand your point of view entirely. A few short weeks ago, I would have felt the same way. In fact, when my neighbors were abducted before me, I racked my brain for a logical explanation. I wondered if they hadn't simply wanted to get away from things for a while, or if they themselves were up to something, something odd. When some of the townspeople described their visions of the UFO, I discounted them. After all, most of those witnesses were, well, not exactly the most reliable of sources."

"True," Steed said.

"But when the local schoolteacher said he had seen it," Weatherby continued, "I did start to wonder. He's a decent chap, normally reliable, steady, sensible."

"Yes, I spoke with him," Steed said.

They both paused, and sipped at the brandy, Weatherby staring into the fire.

"Mr. Steed," he said thoughtfully, "do you think I've lost my mind? Do you think I imagined my experience aboard the ship?"

"No, no, of course not," Steed said. "I wonder if you'd mind recounting your experience for me once again. It might make a difference for me, now that I have seen it."

Weatherby spoke for almost an hour, Steed making spidery notes on a pad of yellow paper. He described again the moment of abduction; the deafening sound, the blinding light, and the gap in his memory as he apparently lost consciousness. He told Steed about the creatures dressed in silver, their large dark eyes, and recalled that they spoke English perfectly. He recounted the amazing food, the porridge that tasted like a fine meal, and how well treated he was.

Eventually, Steed spoke again. "What do you think their purpose was, Mr. Weatherby? Why did they abduct you and then release you a few days later?"

"They were simply studying me, I think," Weatherby said. "They treated me well, but I suspect they did some sort of highly advanced testing on me. Testing I wasn't even aware they were doing. Perhaps while I slept."

Steed arched an eyebrow. "Perhaps," he said.

"By the way," Steed continued, "your company wouldn't happen to be missing any helicopters just about now, would it, Mr. Weatherby?" He smiled, exuding a friendly charm.

"Why, no," Weatherby replied, puzzled. "Certainly not."

"Are you sure?"

"Of course I'm sure, Mr. Steed," Weatherby said, giving Steed a glance that seemed to convey his growing conviction that the younger man most certainly had lost his mind. "I'm certain someone would have noticed…"

They heard a soft knocking at the study door.

"Yes, come in," Weatherby said.

The butler opened the door. "Mr. Weatherby, sir, you have another visitor. Mr. Charles French. I placed him in the library."

"Oh, my, I am popular today, Mr. Steed," Weatherby said. "Will you excuse me for a moment?"

"Certainly," Steed said, rising.

"I'll only be a few moment," Weatherby said, exiting the room.

Steed wandered around the study while awaiting Weatherby's return. When the older man did not come back in five minutes, Steed placed his brandy snifter on a table, and carefully opened the study door, peering out into the dim hallway beyond. Quietly, he emerged from the room, wandering aloofly down the hall, seemingly entranced in inspecting the expensive oil paintings lining the walls. He heard a distant muttering, a conversation going on behind a heavy oak door at the far end of the hall. Slowly, Steed made his way in the direction of the sound, studiously eyeing each painting as he went along.

Upon reaching the door behind which the muffled conversation was transpiring, Steed leaned against the wall, and pushed quietly against the door, allowing it to open silently a fraction of an inch. He inwardly thanked Weatherby's domestic staff. No squeaking hinges in this house.

Steed could not hear the entire conversation. Weatherby and French spoke in low tones. He did manage to pick up a snippet of speech occasionally.

"Got to deal with…," Weatherby said.
"…a threat to…," French intoned.
"…the woman?" Weatherby asked.
"Not sure," French said.
"…in there, in the study," Weatherby said quietly.
"…got an idea," French said. "Not now, though… use the situation to our advantage."
"…information from him, you think?" Weatherby asked.
"…our new method," French said. "We can deal with…"

Steed heard footsteps heading toward the door, nearing him. Quickly and quietly in rubber-soled Chelsea boots, Steed moved halfway down the hall, and peered closely at a painting of an English countryside.

Weatherby emerged. "Ah, inspecting my Hamilton landscapes, Mr. Steed? I'm quite proud of those. I do apologize for keeping you waiting."

"No problem, Mr. Weatherby," Steed said. "I'm a great admirer of Mr. Hamilton's work. I've been completely engrossed."

Continued in Part Two

 
©  Damita Syn 1999
No aspect of this story may be used elsewhere without the expressed prior written consent of the author. These stories may not be altered in any way or sold; all copyright information must appear with this work at all times. Please read disclaimers and warnings on top of each story. Feel free to send constructive comments to the author.. :o)  

 
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