Lockhart handed over the component. ‘No prints, nothing of any use.’
‘Have you checked it?’ Freeman held the small flash drive up to the light, staring at it as if hoping to find something the security team had missed. It was a cheap brand, freely available in supermarkets and online, the blue plastic wiped clean, no fingerprints at all, not that they expected any. There was no point in wasting energy trying to track its source, far better to spend the time trying to analyse the contents.
‘Tech department say it’s clean. No viruses. Just a file. They didn’t open it.’ Lockhart put an envelope on the desk. ‘Nothing on this either. They would have worn gloves of course. Address printed on a cheap printer, envelope bog-standard from any big supermarket. Sorry Colonel.’ He looked shamefaced as if he was to blame for the lack of forensics.
‘Thanks Jack. I’ll let you see this, once…’
‘Sure.’ The security leader gave a brief nod of understanding. ‘Let me know if you need me for anything.’
Alone in the office, Alec tossed the small object in his hand for a moment, and then locked the door and inserted the drive into his laptop, watching the screen without a flicker of emotion.
The video stopped. He stretched one hand to the intercom. ‘Virginia. Jackson. In here. Now.’
They were waiting. He swivelled the screen so that they could all see it then ran the film again. No one spoke.
A bleak room. One window, one bed. They listened to the persuasive voices and the hesitant answers, hearing confusion and doubt in that familiar Boston accent. The screen blanked and Alec swore under his breath. ‘Bastards.’ The word choked him. He spun the laptop back, pulled the stick out and placed it on the desk.
Jackson sat motionless, his fingers interlaced and his eyes far away. ’Clever. Very clever.’ There was a note of appreciation in the psychologist’s voice.
Freeman’s snort of disgust broke the stillness. ‘Clever? Is that all you have to say? Did you see what they’re doing?’ His eyes narrowed. ‘Christ, Jackson, I feel sick and all you can say is ‘clever’?’
‘Alec.’ Virginia put a hand on his arm.
He glowered, tensing as if to reject her touch, but then relaxed just a fraction, the merest loosening of shoulders. ‘Doug.’ The closest to an apology that he might utter. He handed the stick across. ‘Will you… ?’
‘As soon as I learn anything. Alec.’ Jackson wrapped his fingers around the bright blue plastic as if to hide it. ‘Colonel.’ He gave a brief nod to Lake before hurrying out.
Alec bit his lip. Day Five. How many more?
No alarm now to wake him for work. No mobile on the bedside table. He lay there, staring at the ceiling his listless eyes watching dust motes tumble in the subdued light. Opaque blinds masked the small window, softening the sunshine from outside. Not that he was bothered about the weather. He wouldn’t be going out today. Hadn’t gone out yesterday, or the day before. Couldn’t remember the last time he left this room, whether he ever left it in fact. Didn’t even know where he was, or what lay beyond the door. Not even sure what day it was.
How long had he been here? Days? Weeks? Or perhaps longer; the past blurring into a fog of confusion. He used to remember things, important things, didn’t he? Or was it all a dream, a nightmare?
She would be coming in soon, with her sympathetic words and her soft voice. He hated all of them, hated their lies. They were so credible and so sure that he was mistaken that by now he was close to accepting what they said, doubting even his own veracity. Lies or the truth. He was no longer certain.
He heard voices outside the door, footsteps halting and the click of a key turning. They locked him in at night for his own protection; at least that was what they told him, but he didn’t believe them. He lay there and waited. He could do little else.
The door opened. ‘Morning Edgar. How did you sleep?’ Claire Bowman came into the room and stood, looking down at him. He flinched, expecting her to pull the covers back, to probe his body with her hands but she took his wrist as usual, holding it in her cold fingers and looking at her watch before dropping his arm down onto the crumpled sheet. ‘That’s fine. It’s lovely and sunny outside today. If you co-operate perhaps you’ll be allowed to leave your room later.’
Co-operate. He knew what she meant and he remained silent. It was pointless arguing. She just told him that he was being foolish. She was so convincing, so positive that she was right and every time he retorted that his name was Edward, Edward Straker, she gave a sigh of displeasure before informing him that SHADO didn’t exist and he was imagining it, was living a fantasy world full of make-believe people. It was nothing more than his mind attempting to escape the reality of his life. And with every day that passed it became harder to separate the hazy memories of his past reality from what she said. There was a time when he would have insisted that she was wrong, but now he was no longer sure.
Dr Claire Bowman. That was her name. A junior doctor, working for the rehabilitation clinic. Dr Cooper was the man in charge. Cooper and Bowman. He tried to sit up, but she put one hand on his shoulder and he lay back.
‘Stay there Edgar. The orderly will be along in a while and Dr Cooper will come to see you afterwards. And this time…’ She frowned as she looked down at him. ‘Try not to argue. He is only trying to help you. We all are. Trust us.
‘Not Edgar. Edward.’ How many times did he have to tell them? Yet they still maintained that he was Edgar. They had brought his passport and driving licence. Edgar Strachan. His photograph. His scars. But that was not him. Not Ed.
She sighed again and put her hand on his forehead, her touch cold and uncaring, holding him fast when he tried to pull away. ‘Edgar. Please stop this pretence. It’s pointless. We both know you are lying, to us and to yourself and your family and friends are worried about you. Now. You seem to have a slight temperature. Perhaps that’s why you are a little confused this morning.’ She frowned, looking at him with concern. ‘Does your head hurt? Are you beginning to remember?’
He turned his face away, hopeless. ‘No.’ He had no intention of telling her that his head ached. She would blame it on his continuing resistance.
Her fingers trailed over his cheek and he kept still, enduring the touch though his mind wanted to scream. ‘I’ll give you something to lower your temperature. It should make you more comfortable.’ She raised him up, tucking more pillows behind.
The tablets looked the same as the ones she had given him yesterday, and the day before that and … He took them in his hand, his lips and mouth dry, fingers fumbling for the glass and swallowing them down with the merest sip of tepid water.
‘Edgar, everyone is trying to help you. Really. You have to stop this pretence. You’ve been here three weeks, and it’s about time you got a grip on reality.’ There was sharpness in her voice as if she was losing patience, then she smiled in an effort to lessen her words. ‘Lawson will be along in a while.’
The door closed behind her; he waited for the click of the lock before pulling himself upright and spitting the tablets out into his hand. He crushed them before wiping his palm on the sheet under the pillows. No one would notice the crumbs, certainly not Lawson, the sullen nursing assistant.
He sat there, head aching, remembering this happening before, convinced that every morning Dr Bowman gave him the same medication under pretence of a temperature or pain relief or even antibiotics. Every morning, after he had obeyed her and swallowed the tablets, he fell asleep, waking much later, his mind once more confused.
Lawson would bring breakfast and leave him drowsing in the thick, oppressive murmuring of the air-conditioning unit, the hours passing unnoticed until Cooper bustled into the room to sit and talk, his quiet words filling Edgar’s mind and crushing any remaining scraps of resistance. The hateful and persuasive voice, telling him to let it all go, to erase the fantasies from his mind, to talk to Cooper, tell the doctor everything about the fairy-tale world of SHADO. The people, the places, even the trivial things like the passwords and codes. Expunge them from his mind, admit that they were false, that it was all false. Only then would Edgar’s subconscious accept that SHADO did not exist and that he was imagining it all. Only then would his mind accept the truth and start the slow process of recovery and Edgar would be able to return to his family.
Cooper would start with the gentle, easy questions.Who designed the uniforms? Which of his friends worked with him? Then the trick questions started. Are the ‘aliens’ are from this solar system? Why keep their existence a secret? Do your friends at work know about this imaginary organisation? What would your head teacher and the parents say if they knew you were living such a fantasy? Stop it now Edgar. Tell us all about SHADO and we can help you overcome this daydream, this fallacy.
Once or twice he, Ed – or was he Edgar – came close to slipping up, starting to answer back with a sharp retort, a response to clarify the truth before checking himself.
And each time it took him longer to regain his identity, to recall that he was not Edgar but Ed, and that all this was a lie, an attempt to bewilder him.
But not today. Today was different. Today he was awake and alert, at least more alert than for a long time. Last night he was handed the usual tablets and out of sheer bloody-mindedness pretended to take them, sleeping free of drug–induced nightmares to wake with his mind clear and the truth returning.
Ed. Not Edgar Strachan. Ed Straker. It was coming back to him, the memories, the reality. He had to get out of here.
Wherever ‘here’ was.
His watch lay on the cabinet. No, not his, although they assured him it was. His watch was not like this, its cheap plastic strap worn and cracking, the dial flashy and oversized. He wrapped it around his wrist anyway aware that his hand looked unfamiliar and thinner than he recalled, the knuckles white and skin loose. The hands of an invalid. How had he ended up like this, worn and feeble as though he had done nothing other than lie here out of sight in this bland room, not even able to see outside? They never opened the blinds that covered the small window and he could not recall ever leaving this place. Bowman said three weeks. Was it that long? Where had the days gone?
And he knew.
In sleeping, drowsing, slumbering; unnumbered hours spent in nightmares, dead to the real world, his body deteriorating and his mind weakening under the onslaught of words that sought to turn him from the truth.
The strap fitted as though he had worn it for months, the prong of the buckle slipping straight into the hole in the thin plastic. His watch? Doubt overwhelmed him once more. It would be so easy to do as they asked; admit that he was Edgar Strachan, inoffensive physics teacher, science fiction fanatic. A modern Walter Mitty. And with a cold wrench of horror that twisted his gut, he remembered wearing this very watch in school during interminable hours teaching the laws of physics to unwilling adolescents.
Perhaps he should give in. Admit that he was Edgar. Tell them what they wanted to know. Get the memories out of his mind. The passwords and details that he had guarded for so long, or invented, as Bowman kept insisting. Dr Cooper would take him outside into fresh air and sunshine, let him listen to the radio, bring him a newspaper. He could find out what was happening in that world outside this bleak room.
No. It was not his watch, however snugly it wrapped around his wrist as though it belonged there. He was Ed Straker. His world was real.
His fingers shook despite his determination. A few minutes after seven. On other mornings he would have fallen asleep again, waking only when Lawson arrived to help him into the bathroom and afterwards bring him a tasteless and unsatisfying breakfast. He would eat a few spoonfuls before falling asleep.
But today was different. Today he was awake and they would not disturb him for perhaps another couple of hours. Was that enough time? The wheelchair was in the corner of the room. He had to find something to wear, get the door open, and then, somehow, impossible though it might seem, find a way out of this place.
He flung back the sheets, looking down at his legs as if seeing them for the first time. Pale and wasted. How long had he been lying here in this room, immobile, not even walking to the bathroom and back? No wonder he was so feeble. Even that small act of sitting and pushing the covers away had wearied unused muscles. It was pointless. He would never break free. They would be waiting for him outside, their soft voices and the whispers in his mind blotting out his previous life. Trying to put something else in its place. Someone else.
Edgar Strachan. Science teacher at Harlington-Straker Comprehensive. He looked around the room. The small array of cards on the cabinet the only splashes of colour, the only indications of a world outside this room. He didn’t remember opening them, in fact couldn’t even remember seeing them before. How long had they been there? He reached out and shuffled through the small collection.
One from his head teacher, James Henderson. Doubt filled him again. Was that the truth? Was it all in his imagination – SHADO, aliens, Moonbase?
More cards, more familiar names. Keith Ford, his drinking partner and football rival, promising to take Edgar to the next derby and buy him a pint. Keith supported Chelsea. Rubbish team. Tottenham were going to thrash them this year. Alec, Paul from the I.T. department, Miss Ealand in the Bursar’s office. All names he knew, names from the staffroom but the faces were indistinct and he could not picture them in his mind. He read the platitudes, those trite messages people write when at a loss for words.
And then, the final two cards. A hand-made one; his own hand shaking as he read the words on the front. ‘Get Well Daddy’. He opened it, his heart pounding fit to burst.
A ticket to the next match at White Hart Lane covered the handwritten message inside the card. He lifted the strip of card and read the words underneath.
‘To Daddy Get well soon. Lots of love from John.’
John. Oh god. John. Lying on the verge, in the hospital, in the white coffin. And yet he remembered John visiting him the other day. Yesterday? The day before? John had tried not to cry. And Mary, she had been there, smiling even though she was upset. They hadn’t stayed long; Cooper only allowed them a brief visit but Mary kept telling him that she loved him and she wanted him to get better and all he had to do was accept what had happened and Henderson was already working out a reduced timetable so that Edgar could be back teaching.
How could he have forgotten Mary and John? Her words floated in his mind. ‘We want you home Edgar. Both of us.’ He remembered her kiss, her scent, her hand stroking his face. She had given him the cards and left and John had given him a shy, half-scared, wave. Why had he forgotten them?
‘Mary.’ His voice was a whisper. The cards fell from his hands, slithering onto the bedcover, and he sat there, eyes stinging, wondering how he could have been so stupid. John. Mary. His family. What was he doing here, pretending that John was dead, that Mary, the wife he adored never wanted to see him again? What had he said when she came to visit? Had he upset her? Or John?
What an utter fool he was, risking everything of value, everything he held dear, not only family and friends, but all those little things that made life meaningful: Saturday afternoons on the terraces shouting on his team with John beside him, once a week having a couple of pints at the Golden Lion with Keith and arguing about football, eating curry and complaining about the state of education. John was doing well and had a place at a first-rate secondary school next year.
Confusion burned in his mind. Which of his lives was the real one? Ed Straker and SHADO, or Edgar Strachan and Harlington-Straker Comprehensive? And more to the point, which life did he want? Did he even have a choice?
He looked at the cards again, concentrating on those familiar names. Nina. He knew that name, knew that face. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. It was not the stale air of Skydiver, stinking of burned electronics and carbon dioxide, but even so he was back there in the control room with Nina beside him. How could he forget? It was not possible to invent something so harrowing even in his wildest imagination. He flung the cards across the floor.
‘You need to stop this ridiculous charade and accept reality.’ Bowman’s venomous words burned in his thoughts and resolve filled him. He was not Edgar. He was Ed. Ed Straker. He was. He knew he was. He held onto the thought. Ed Straker. And SHADO. SHADO was real, Alec was real. Paul and Virginia. Nina. And the same doggedness that kept those names alive in his mind forced him to move stiff limbs, dragging them off the bed until he was sitting there, feet on the floor for the first time in …he had no idea.
No idea how long he had been here, or whom these people were, no idea who they worked for, or what they wanted, although he had his suspicions. He knew what they wanted. Those details. And more besides. They could have torn those from him by other means: drugs, torture, coercion, but this was….. clever. Very clever. They wanted more than just SHADO’s secrets. They wanted to destroy him. Payback. A neat revenge.
He wondered how long they had taken to set it all up: the Range Rover, the breakdown truck to get his own car off the slip road and out of sight and, more frightening than anything else, those all-important background details. Ford and Mary and John. He shivered with the thought that aliens were behind this. No-one else could have devised such a plot.
But that didn’t matter. Nothing mattered right now apart from getting to the wheelchair and once there he could plan his next move.
It was hard keeping upright as he shuffled down to the end of the bed. The metal frame rattled, and the constant dread that they would hear him moving made him flinch at every noise, but he made it, sat there resting his hand on the bars at the end, feet on the floor, legs aching with weariness.
This was bloody stupid. What did he hope to achieve? He may be able to walk to the door but that was all. He should give up now. He put his head in his hands. The sound of footsteps startled him and he froze, waiting for them to come in and find him. It would be the end. They would drug him again but this time they would not be gentle, they would break him. They would take away everything that he was and put Edgar in its place. They would rip SHADO’s secrets from him, every last one.
He clung to the bars, wondering whether he had the strength to stand up when they entered, to have the satisfaction of being Ed Straker, for perhaps the last time.
The footsteps paused. He held his breath, heard them fading into the distance, the sound of a heavy door closing and then… nothing. He looked at the cheap watch on his wrist. Five minutes. It had taken him that long to get to the end of the bed and recover his strength. It was hopeless. And then, above his breathless gasps, he heard a familiar voice telling him he was wrong, he was not even an American, was living a pathetic fantasy; the words whispering and murmuring deep in his mind, telling him to forget SHADO, to forget about aliens, to accept his real name and go home to Mary and John where he belonged.
He leaned forward, hands over his ears in a desperate attempt to stop the treacherous thoughts. The silence startled him and he looked up. Those voices were not in his head, he was not going crazy. He could hear, with absolute clarity, Bowman and Cooper talking to him. But not in his mind. Their voices filled the room, and he knew. At last, he knew for certain.