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Captain, My Captain

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Miss Brahms lies in the Captain's arms, in the Captain's bed and the Captain lies awake, watching the room grow slowly lighter with the oncoming day.

The Captain is on the reserve list, turned to civilian life and working in a shop, which makes him unaccountably happy. The shop - or should one say a store - is honest work even if Eydie Brahms does claim he only took the job so he can say he works in women's clothing, which she does though the Captain's role takes him throughout the store. He uses his old SPECTRUM name as a surname, preferring it to his original name. There are still people around who know him by the old name and in many cases he would rather they didn't find him, not in his new life with a new lover and a good job.

But he is troubled. The old foe, the one defeated, is back, striding the Earth. Although nothing has been said, he is sure of it. Bombs go off in many places.

What do they want, he wondered once, towards the end of his time on active duty. He and Adam Svenson, codenamed Captain Blue, were in the Lamb and Flag on Hartman Street, their usual Friday night spot, at least until Miss Brahms had walked into the Captain's life and his bed and his heart. I know why they attacked us, said the Captain – because we blew up their Mars base without any provocation. But what do they ultimately want?

What does any alien being want, said Svenson. Your ass. For some reason the human rectum has a galactic reputation like wolf coffee or Mont Blanc pens. Wherever you go there's a BEM that wants yer bum.

The Captain wasn't sure. He could not imagine the old enemy would go to the trouble of duplicating human bodies just for the shitter.

No, it's true, said the increasingly drunken Captain Blue. Bum is the driver. The galaxies wheel and across unknowable gulfs of space, intelligences vast and uncool and unsympathetic watch us and prepare a botty raid. Why do you think we're so frightened of them? We live in fear, buddy. Not just the fear of being replicated by Elevens but of being assholed by them. The primordial fear, man.

Whatever the truth of Adam's theory (and his use of the word 'Elevens'. Mister 'onze', yes), bad things were happening. Terror groups with no comprehensible ideology, weird politico-religious movements. If Peacock had believed in the end times as being anything other than on a Friday night when Tony Jarsdel called time on his customers, he might have thought the end times were coming.

No, he could see the Mysterons behind it all. Pushing, pushing until humanity cracked and was no longer a threat.

And what do you want, buddy? said Svenson.

To live my life, said Peacock. And Eydie. Even if everyone else thinks I'm too old for her, she doesn't.

He wondered if the Elevens would let him.

 

Grace Brothers occupied a large Victorian block in a fashionable suburb of South London, not too far from the railway station or the bus routes into the centre, near to the long sweep of the Thames and the start of the Boat Race.

Young Mr Grace, the director was somewhere over a hundred years old and mechanically assisted by means of a cunning fireless engine that chugged him round the floors in the half hour before the department store opened to the public at nine sharp. Few dared ask about Old Mister Grace, the Founder. Rumour had it he was pickled in a vat of rum in the basement and only decanted to participate in the annual Shareholders' Meeting.

My office, nine-oh-five, said Young Mr Grace.

The doors opened at nine on the dot and this looked like being a good day.

Are you free, Mr Humphries, said the Captain.

I'm free, said Humphries. Senior Assistant in menswear these days, i.e. top of the department, he rocked a subtler look than in his junior assistant days (the man who puts the ass into assistant, he had been called). Bushy beard, white round-collared shirt, beige corduroys, braces (suspenders, Captain Blue would have called them), and DM's on his feet.

I'll leave the customers to you then, said the Captain and went to Young Mr Grace's office.

Ah Peacock, said Young Mr Grace, his fireless engine wheezing. We have a distinguished visitor coming. Twelve o'clock today. Serge Frelon, the French astronaut. I believe you speak French and of course your distinguished military history - the Commandos, was it not? - makes you the right person to greet him and show him round, I believe.

Yes sir, said Peacock.

Ten minutes later he had the gen on Frelon. Lieutenant-Colonel in the French Air Force, thirty-nine years old - in SPECTRUM terms he'd be off the active list pretty soon although he was a mere kid by Peacock's standards. Led the Moon mission four years ago (ah. I knew the name sounded familiar) and, this is interesting, went to Mars in a two-person recce mission. His sidekick, Lieutenant Fabienne Tolansky, died in a mysterious plane crash shortly after they returned. The only explanation for the Cigogne II's destruction was pilot suicide.

At twelve precisely the revolving door spun and a tall man with receding fair hair, dressed in a pale grey suit of as good a cut as had been seen on the floor of Grace Brothers many a year, walked in. He looked very much like his photograph.

Lieutenant-Colonel? said Peacock. The man inclined his head. My name is Peacock. I trust you had a pleasant journey.

Very much so, said Frelon, his English impeccable as Peacock had expected.

Tea? Then I can show you round.

Yes please.

They sat in the back and drank tea. There was something about Frelon that Peacock couldn't put his finger on. The guy was hellishly slick but then he was an astronaut and you didn't get too many of them to the pound, even these days. Yet there was something dimly revolting about the man. He was polite enough but not quite right.

They reached the top floor, its marble staircase leading up and providing a view down into the store. Four floors of busy work, colour, people bustling about. Frelon leaned over for a better look.

Peacock seized Frelon by the belt and pushed him over the rail.

The astronaut wheeled, arms and legs flailing, bounced off the railing by Menswear and landed with a crump on the stone floor of the basement.

There were screams, cries, people running away. Frelon's body lay surrounded by a pool of blood. People looked up and saw Peacock watching down at them.

It's no use, thought Peacock. They will regenerate him anyway.

On the way down to the ground floor Mrs Slocombe was running away faster than he would have thought her capable of.

The familiar circles of green light swept over the body of the astronaut as Peacock approached.

He turned and saw Young Mr Grace watching him, a peculiar frown on his face. There was something wrong there, too. The steam hissed, louder than before. The pressure gauge on Grace's carapace had its needle in the red. Rings of green light swept across the walls.

You, said Mister Grace.

No, said Peacock. You. You are one of them.

Nonsense, said Grace.

He may not know, Peacock thought. The steam hissed louder and Grace walked towards him. Beyond the old man Peacock could see Eydie looking at him with horror, from the doors.

"Get everyone back!" Peacock called. "Go!"

The needle was beyond the red and in the black now. He's a bomb, Peacock thought. Calm now. Take this slowly. I cannot defuse it. Grace looked confused.

I don't think he knows, Peacock thought.

Come with me, Mister Grace, Peacock said. Taking him by the hand he led him down the stairs to the basement, where the French astronaut still lay at the foot of the last stair. I will have time, he thought. I will have time.

He ushered the old man into the steel-lined stockroom, wrested the steaming device off him.

I'm sorry, Mister Grace, he said; took the old man in his arms and carried him out, reached one hand back and locked the storeroom behind him.

Then he ran upstairs and out into the sunlight and at that moment there was a crump from within the bowels of the earth and the very building shook.

Gobbets of plaster showered into the street and somewhere a window shattered.Captain Peacock lowered Young Mister Grace to the pavement. 

Sunlight poured down on the just and the unjust alike.