Shepherd 5: Chapter 9

Chapter 9

He stood there, getting the measure of the room before making any move. A larger dome than the other one; he reckoned it to be at most seven meters across and lined with what appeared to be tall glass-like cylinders, each wide enough to hold a man standing upright. Tangles of cables and wires looped across the floor from the central cluster of assorted equipment and machines before snaking into the base of each tank. He noticed that the cylinders seemed to be in distinct groups, five of them close together, then a gap and then another five,  lining the circumference of the room, with another space for the entrance. No aliens in sight. He let himself relax slightly.

His radio clicked. ‘Ed.’ Paul’s voice sounded frantic with concern. ‘Where are you? Are you okay. Are you safe? We can’t get through to you.’

‘I’m fine, Paul. There’s another dome here. Only one as far as I can tell. No aliens though. This must be where they create the clones. I’ll have a look round and get back to you. Make sure you get Alec and the others out.’ Straker’s voice was calm but he shivered with the knowledge of what he had found as he moved to look into of one of the nearby containers, half knowing what he would see.

His own eyes, only not. Huge bright blue eyes staring through the cloudy liquid. John. That was all he could see. His son. Those blue eyes, his eyes. John’s face.
And not just one face. He looked around, seeing others peering out of the tall cylinders forming the perimeter of this space. So many others. He, John, was there in the tube in front of Straker, floating naked in the murkiness. Next to him, another tall pipe filled with the same coloured fluid and as he peered closer to see the small shape within, a gasp of horror broke from his lips.

A baby, cherub-plump and naked, his eyes closed in sleep, one thumb in the rosebud mouth, tiny feet curling up. So small, so innocent, floating there half-hidden, twisting and squirming in his dreams; and as he uncurled Straker saw the wires that connected to the infant’s spine, saw the swellings where the neural connections had pierced that delicate skin to link into the nervous system.

Straker felt sick, and sicker yet when he noticed the umbilical that entered the tiny abdomen. Obscene in its thickness, its segmented surface was vibrating with a steady mechanical pulse. He shuddered with the horror, staggering back till he was brought up short against the consoles in the centre of the area, still staring at the line of five tall cylinders tubes in front of him. Each filled with swirling, shadowy fluid and each one containing a clone.

Five of them. Dear god, how ironic. How fucking ironic. The ages of man. From birth to middle-age. Growing there until they reached the age at which they could be used. It was probable that they had a limited life. He wondered how many they had grown and discarded, unused. A constant supply of clones.

Directly in front of him was the baby and in the next tube; John. Straker reached out to put one hand on the cylinder that held the young boy, feeling the blood-heat of the contents even through the thick and distorting transparent material.

The stillness in the room was not just of sound, but the cessation also of the steady vibrations that had gone almost unnoticed and he pulled his hand off the surface, fearful that even that slight contact had been sufficient to disturb the systems. His radio buzzed.

‘Straker.’ He could not drag his eyes away from the young boy.

‘Ed. Everything’s gone down in here. It looks as if they set off some kind of destruct system. Things are beginning to shut down. The structural integrity has been compromised as well. We’re saving as much as we can but it’s not looking good.’ Paul’s voice was worried.

‘Give me five minutes’ Straker paused, took a breath, asked. ‘Alec? Keith?’
Silence. He closed his eyes.

Sara’s voice in the radio now, and he breathed again as she spoke. ‘Keith is fine. Jackson’s with him and  Alec is waking right now. Hurry up Ed. Please.’

He put the radio down on the flat surface of the console behind him, turned to the line of cylinders and reaching out again with a hand that trembled. Those open and unfocused eyes gazed beyond him. John. But it was not his son was it? It was him. Ed Straker, age seven. Both his hands now on the cylinder even as it started to cool, as poisonous bubbles from the failing systems began tainting the protective fluid. He leaned against the surface as if by the pressure of his hands he could somehow push through, could take hold of the boy and release him.
And with a dread certainty he realised what he had to do. His task was not free these clones, this small boy, the baby. He had to destroy them.

The disintegration of the domes would result in the death of all these innocents; an agonising and slow death. Alec had died like that, vomiting blood as his organs decayed. Straker would not let that happen here and he leaned his forehead against the tube as tears tracked down his cheeks to fall on hands that were unable to touch the boy on the other side, unreachable, unsaveable.

One sob of utter anguish escaped his throat before he stroked the transparent surface in farewell and turned away. How many others? He looked around at the cylinders that arrayed the room, some empty, dry, the wires and umbilical connections tangled on the floor.

He didn’t want to look further along this row of containers. His clones, trapped and dying. One tube would be empty, he was aware of that, but what of the others? He took a breath and forced himself to inspect the line as his fingers trailed across the surfaces, a farewell to each prisoner. The baby, wriggling and burbling as he began to wake, the young boy, then the teenager, gangly, tall, a shock of longer hair floating like seaweed. Unscarred, unmarked. No sign of those injuries that he himself had suffered; the fall from the gate, the bicycle accident that damaged his thigh.

Straker moved on in a daze, blinded by tears that he was not aware of, wiping his eyes and sobbing with the nightmare, the knowledge of what he would have to do.

Another Straker, older, as he was at the time of his marriage. But this one had undergone surgery; incisions, stitches, deliberate maiming of undamaged flesh. All those places that where he himself was scarred. The skin sliced open and stitched to match his own disfigurements. The puckered line on the thigh, the belly cut open and resealed. The obscenity of dark thread on pale skin. A familiar face, but this one’s mouth was open in a silent scream, the eyes open and……….. dear god, watching him. Sentient and aware. Its lips moving as it watched him and one hand, the fingers tangled in the wires, reaching out to flatten itself against the inner surface, mirroring Straker’s own outspread hand.

…………………….

‘Alec, Alec, come on, wake up.’ The voice was insistent, pushing into his mind, driving like a nail into the place where he had hidden away from what was happening. The tape was pulled from his eyelids, stinging as it dragged the loose skin up to let light burn his retinas. More pain as something rough scraped up the inside of his throat, catching on his teeth as it was drawn out of his mouth.

He screwed his eyes up against the brightness and reached out with a hand,  aware that he was free, that the restraints had gone. He took a deep instinctive breath and filled his lungs with air.

‘Ed?’ A faint croak was all he could manage as his hand pawed around for that contact. He had been found.

‘Lie still for a moment longer Alec. Just a moment. Nearly there.’

That was not Ed’s voice was it? Who was it? His hand reached, then touched another’s fingers as he surfaced into awareness and as the coldness inside receded he sensed a sudden agonising stab in his gut. One short scream escaped his control but the sensation faded, and he lay there gasping, drawing huge breaths as the memories returned. He had to get away from here. Had to escape.

The voice again, firm and controlled, close to him. ‘Alec. It’s Sara. Lie still. Don’t move yet.’ Hands on his body, soft and warm where the pain had been, soothing the soreness, warming him. Sara. It took all his control to do as she ordered, but he obeyed her and although he trembled with the desperate need to sit up and to get out of here, he forced himself to lie still.

He could hear sounds nearby, footsteps, other voices, quiet cries and moans. The stench of burnt electrics filling his nostrils and he could sense warm air on his skin and strong hands that were now helping him up. Eyes opening the slightest crack, even though that was like looking at the sun. A cool cloth wiping the moisture away from his face.

‘Sara?’ he could recognise his own voice now, rasping and hoarse though it was.

Another voice close to him.

‘She’s won’t be a minute. Hang on Alec, we’ll get you out of here soon.’

Paul. Calm and comforting. Alec leaned against him, needing to feel that closeness, that strength. He swallowed, his throat feeling like sandpaper as he wondered where Ed was and why he was not here . He had one moment of terror before he forced the word out again. ‘Ed?’

‘He’s okay Alec, he’s here, just busy.’

The quiet words held a note of false confidence, and Freeman lifted his hands to rub at his face and  blink as he forced himself to open reluctant eyelids and peer with bleary and bloodshot eyes into the room.

He didn’t remember much really, just being taken and those moments of pain and cold sleep. The cavern, as he later called it, seemed to be filled with people. Dark-clothed, armed, and …… SHADO. No aliens to be seen….. until he looked around and saw the crumpled shapes on the floor.

Paul wrapped a blanket around his shoulders. ‘Okay? Sara will be finished soon, and we can get you out.’

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