The Trojan Project
“Oh, my God! What on earth…?” Sarah screamed, as a huge ball of pale, baleful light rose from behind the distant hills. Frozen with fear, she could only watch in horror as the light slowly turned a sinister shade of green, while continuing to climb into the night sky. It grew larger and more vivid with every passing second before finally coming to rest, where it hovered, menacingly, high above the hills.
The glare was blinding and Sarah cupped her hands around her eyes to shield them from the brilliant rays beaming down onto the cottages in the valley below. Yet strangely, the farmhouse and fields on the hill where she stood remained in complete darkness. She wondered how such a thing could be possible.
Terrifying screams from the valley below interrupted her thoughts and, turning back to look down the hillside, she saw men and women fleeing from their homes. The people below were her friends. She wanted to go to them, to comfort them, but the light was too intense, making it impossible to see properly.
And then, as rapidly as it had appeared, the light was gone, disappeared completely. It was almost as though an unseen hand had flicked off a switch. The whole episode had lasted little more than a few seconds, yet to Sarah it seemed like an hour.
Trembling with fear, Sarah now thought of her children. They were still sleeping in the farmhouse at the top of the long winding drive. She tried to move, but her legs felt like lead blocks and she slumped to the ground – her heart beating wildly. A horrifying thought occurred to her. A massive explosion might follow such a bright ball of light.
With a superhuman effort, she heaved herself from the ground and began to make her way back to the farmhouse, forcing her stricken legs to move faster. She stumbled in the darkness and crashed to the ground, grazing her arms and legs on the sharp gravel. Scrambling to her feet again, she moved forward, oblivious to the pain or the warm sticky blood oozing from her wounds.
“Come on, Betts! Come on, quickly!” she screamed out to the old sheepdog to follow her. She had to get back to the house – to her children. Their safety was now the only thing on her mind. She must reach them before the explosion: they would be frightened – even worse, they might be killed.
Killed! That one dreadful thought gave her the extra strength she needed. With a sudden burst of energy, she bounded forward. She had to get her two children away from the house at all costs. Sarah's mind raced as she drew nearer to the farmhouse. Where would they go? Perhaps if she took them over the hill, behind the farm, they might be sheltered from the blast. There, they might have a slim chance of survival. But on reaching the door she stopped and turned back to face the valley. Something was missing. What was it?
Looking out into the darkness, she realized the screams in the valley had stopped. Now thinking back, she recalled how even before the light had disappeared, the screaming had ended.
Listening hard, she realized there were no sounds at all, just an all pervading silence that hung like a pall over the valley. She glanced around nervously. Even at this time of night, it was never this quiet. There was always the reassuring hoot of a distant owl or the gentle rustling of nocturnal animals foraging for food in the undergrowth. Where were they tonight?
Tears rolled down Sarah's cheeks, as she stood alone by the farmhouse door. Burying her face in her hands, she desperately wished Pete would come home.
Sarah had worried about her husband all evening. After putting the children to bed, she paced up and down the kitchen floor, growing more concerned with each passing minute.
Glancing at the clock for the umpteenth time, she wondered where he could be. What was keeping him so late? Pete always made a point of being home in time to read a bedtime story to their two young daughters. Four-year-old Josie and little Becky, half her age, looked forward to it and nothing short of an emergency could keep him away.
But this evening Sarah had even more reason for concern. As Pete believed her to be spending the night with her friend in Alnwick after a trip to the theatre, he should have collected the children from Laura, the wife of one of his farmhands, several hours ago.
As it turned out, Josie had awoken that morning with a sore throat. Though a dose of throat syrup seemed to cure it, Sarah cancelled her arrangements for fear of it recurring. But Pete wasn't aware of the change of plan. When she had tried to reach him on his mobile, she couldn't get through.
At first she hadn't been too worried: the Cheviot Hills were probably blocking the signal. Besides, Laura would explain what had happened when he arrived to pick up the children. But Pete had never turned up. Nor had he rung Laura to tell her why he was late.
Sarah telephoned Laura several times during the early evening, desperately hoping she might have news of why Pete had been delayed, but the answer was always the same.
“I'm sorry, Sarah, I haven't heard from Pete. But I promise to call you the moment I hear anything at all.”
Something had happened. Sarah was sure of it. She knew Pete wouldn't simply leave his children with Laura without calling her first. Feeling helpless, she sat by the phone almost willing it to ring – yet it remained silent. Finally, unable to stand it any longer, she rang Laura again. Dave, Laura's husband, should be home by now; it was possible he might know Pete's whereabouts. Laura sadly, had no words of comfort, in fact quite the opposite.
“Sarah, now I'm worried. Dave hasn't come home either. I understood he was working around the lower fields today. Could there have been a change of plan?”
Assuring her she didn't know of any changes to her husband's arrangements, Sarah hung up. She decided not to ring again. Laura obviously had problems of her own.
She switched on the television and sat down, only to stand up a few minutes later, the sound and picture nothing more than insignificant backdrops to her sense of worry. She paced the floor again, pausing only for a moment to straighten a picture on the wall. Glancing at the clock, she checked the time against her watch. It was no good, she couldn't simply sit here; she had to do something.
Turning off the television, she looked into the children's bedroom. They were still sleeping soundly. It was likely they wouldn't wake before morning. They always slept right through the night. It would be quite safe to leave them for a few minutes while she walked down the drive to the farm gates. From there she would see the headlights of Pete's truck when he swung into the lane.
Outside, the air felt warm against her face. The long hot summer, reluctant to make way for autumn, was lingering on. Overhead, the night sky was clear and the stars glittered in the heavens like large diamonds. It was a perfect evening. The kind of evening her and Pete enjoyed spending together on the porch.
Tonight though, Sarah was too worried about her husband to notice anything. Pete would never be this late unless one of the animals was in distress. Desperate to find an explanation, she wondered whether that might be the reason why he was late tonight. But then she dismissed it; he would have called Laura to tell her.
Sarah knew Pete had gone to check the sheep on Top Meadow, a beautiful green pasture high up on one of the hills on the far side of the valley. Taking his two working dogs, he had set out early that morning, intending to pick up a couple of farmhands on the way. She tapped her foot nervously on the gravel. They should have been back hours ago. Why wasn't he here?
Standing there by the farm gate in the darkness, she suddenly became aware that the animals were restless. They were stamping their feet and making strange sounds; something was troubling them.
She listened hard. Was it a beast – a fox, perhaps? Only recently a neighboring farm had lost several sheep to a fox. Though she couldn't hear anything, the thought of something out there disturbed her, and despite the warm evening she shivered and pulled her jacket tightly around her. If only Pete were here he would know what to do.
Looking down into the valley, she felt reassured by the warm glow of light coming from the farm cottages. Everything seemed normal down there. Surely if there was something wrong, the farmhands would know about it? Many came from a long line of farming families, and knew instinctively when trouble was lurking.
She looked down at the old collie by her side. “I'm imagining things, Betts,” she murmured.
But when the dog began to growl softly, Sarah's fears returned. Bending down to place a restraining hand on Betts's collar, she was further alarmed to find the hairs on the dog's neck were bristled.
“What is it, old girl? What's out there?”
She strained her eyes against the darkness, but was unable to see anything. For one brief moment she toyed with the idea of going back to the house for Pete's gun. A shot into the air might drive away whatever was worrying the animals. But that was all she could do. She might be a farmer's wife, but she had never been a farmer's daughter. Having been brought up in one of the most exclusive areas in London, she didn't have the stomach to kill anything. She knew even Pete was loath to shoot any animal unless he believed it was absolutely necessary.
She scanned the lane again, desperately trying to pick out the headlights of her husband's truck. But only blackness stretched before her. Surely he wouldn't be much longer?
Feeling very alone, she allowed her mind to drift back to the time before her marriage. Her parents had warned her that by marrying a farmer, she would be left on her own most of the day.
“Farming is a hard life, especially for a girl brought up in the City with all the luxuries it has to offer,” they had told her. “There will always be crops or some sick animal to see to. That's not for you, Sarah. A farmer's wife needs to be born into that kind of life.”
Her father, Sir Charles Hammond, being an eminent government scientist, had been in a position to send his only child to the very best of schools. As she was fluent in three languages, her parents had encouraged her to become a diplomat.
Ronald Woods, her mother's brother, held the post of Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. Occasionally, while on various assignments around the world, she had accompanied him as his interpreter. But though she enjoyed working with her uncle, she had never considered taking on such a role permanently. Continually flitting from one boring meeting to another didn't appeal to her.
A few years ago her parents, especially her mother, Irene, had been keen for her to marry Rick Armstrong, a young colleague of her father's. His excellent prospects made him a suitable son-in-law.
“He has a brilliant mind,” her father had said on more than one occasion. “Though a little impetuous at times, he'll go a long way. He has a great deal to offer a wife.”
To please them, she had accompanied Rick to several functions. But though she found him witty and charming, she could never envisage spending the rest of her life with him. Then quite out of the blue, while attending a charity dance with Rick, she had met Pete Maine.
Her eyes had been drawn to the tall, young man standing alone in one corner of the ballroom. Constantly straightening his tie and flicking non-existent fluff from his jacket, he looked rather shy and ill at ease, almost as though he would rather be somewhere else. Her eyes had lingered on him for a few minutes, trying to remember whether she might have seen him at another recent gathering. But no, she wouldn't have forgotten such a striking young man.
Later that evening, as she and Rick passed by him, Pete gave her a boyish grin. His brown eyes, almost the colour of his hair, were warm and friendly. Though she smiled back, neither said a word. However, when Rick disappeared to the bar to order drinks, he had sought her out.
While they danced, Pete told her he was a farmer, having inherited Hillsdown Farm in Northumberland from his grandfather. “I don't like the city. I'm only here at my brother's insistence.” He laughed. “He thinks I need a break.”
His enthusiasm for the farm fascinated her. He wasn't just a farmer at all – he was a man of ideals and principles, who felt responsible for the men who worked for him and the animals he reared.
When the dance ended, he began to escort her back to where Rick waited. But on the spur of the moment, he changed direction and led her into the garden. “Sarah, I know that you and I together could make the farm work.”
She had been rather taken aback. How could he make such a judgment, having only just met her? “You don't know anything about me and I know nothing of farming,” she had uttered.
It was true. Until a few moments ago, she had never given a thought to where food came from or how it was produced. As far as she was concerned, it was delivered to the house on a regular basis from Harrods.
But taking her hands in his, Pete had spoken earnestly, assuring her he knew everything he needed to know. “As soon as I saw you, I wanted you to be my wife.”
Strangely enough, she found herself attracted to him and agreed to meet him the following day. After several dates, all within the space of a week, she couldn't imagine life without him and they were married after a whirlwind romance. Looking back now, it seemed like a fairy tale. Things like that didn't happen in the real world. She recalled that her parents had been quite alarmed. But Pete quickly charmed them with his sense of humour and kindness.
Rick's attitude, in total contrast, had been quite different. She knew he loved her; he had never made a secret of it, yet she had never given him any reason to assume she felt the same about him. There had always been something about him…