Alec Freeman locked the door and sat, arms folded and grimacing. ‘This is taking too long. What the hell is going wrong?’
‘You knew it was going to be hard. We both did. Look. He’s tough. It might take longer, but we’ll find him. We have to.’ Virginia poured a whisky and handed it over. ‘We have to hang on. There’s no other option.’
‘Failure? It could come down to that, you know. We should think about what we might have to do if we don’t…’ Alec gulped his drink and put the empty glass down on the table. He leaned back, stretching with weariness.
‘What? If we don’t succeed? You’ve put everything in place in case he tells them anything vital. Or are you afraid of what we might end up having to do?’
‘As you said, he’s tough. He’s proved that over the last ten days. Tougher than even I’d thought.’ He looked at his watch. ‘Are you ready?’
‘Are you? Can we ever be ready for this? And shouldn’t Jackson be here?’
‘He’s helping Ford. You know that. He’ll be with us as soon as he can.’ Freeman tilted his head. ’Would you rather leave?’
There was no answer. Alec checked the door once more then nodded at the woman. ‘Eighteen hundred. Time.’ He flicked a switch, there was clicking in the background and a female voice began speaking. They listened. ………
The voice paused.
‘And?’ Alec asked, his hand on the intercom switch. He glanced up at Virginia across from him and shook his head in frustration.
The voice started again. Louder this time. ‘Your failure to comply with our demands was only to be expected. That is of no real importance. We anticipate that shortly,’ and there was satisfaction in the bland voice, ‘your commanding officer will give us the information we require; details of all SHADO’s installations and weapons. We will have your organisation at our mercy and in return we will give you back … Edgar Strachan.’ The connection went dead.
Freeman shuddered once then leaned forward to press another switch. ‘Jackson. Any luck?’
‘We are working. It’s taking longer than anticipated.’ Jackson paused, and Freeman could see, even over the video-link, the hesitation and disquiet. ‘I am concerned about the techniques used in the clips we received earlier. They have increased in intensity as well as in the use of persuasive language, and the Commander’s responses do not augur well for his mental condition. He appears strangely disorientated.’
‘Do you expect me to give in to them? Shut down all operations? You know I won’t do that. We have to find him. Before it’s too late. How’s the search coming?’
‘Colonel. Be patient. We had very little time to trace the call and this was, after all, only the second verbal communication. They are using a system similar to our own. Multiple routes and random switching. A practical and most effective method to avoid detection, as I am sure you are well aware.’ There was a pause. Jackson turned away and Freeman heard the rustle of paper, Ford’s voice then a sigh from Jackson. ‘Ah, yes. Interesting.’
‘Well? Jackson?’ Freeman’s anxious voice broke the silence.
The psychologist nodded in affirmation. ‘I am on my way Colonel.’ The screen went blank.
Alec put his head in his hands for a long moment, then looked up, rubbing tiredness from his eyes. ‘Thank god. I thought we’d never find him. Ten bloody days and only two phone calls. I wonder who they are, the bastards who organised this.’ He stood up as Jackson entered the room. ‘Well? Where?’
Jackson passed a slip of paper. ‘A run-down business park outside Gravesend. Old warehouses and storage units waiting redevelopment. Ford is getting precise details.’
Alec scanned the paper and glanced up. ‘Virginia, you’ll run things from this end.’
She frowned. ‘I’d rather come along. You may need me.’
‘I advise against it.’ Jackson held out a hand as she started to protest. ‘Colonel Lake, I understand your desire to be of assistance, but line of command is the priority. It will be dangerous enough for Colonel Freeman. However, it is imperative that Alec is part of the search team. We do not know the Commander’s present status and I think he would benefit from seeing his closest friend.’ Another pause. ‘However, for the same reason it might be beneficial for Lt. Ford to accompany us.’
Freeman took a deep breath. ‘Very well. I’ll add his name to the team. I just hope Ed is …………’ his voice trailed off.
‘Colonel, we have seen the videos. These are experienced people. They have planned this with great care, down to the smallest detail. They do not want Straker dead. They have a darker agenda. They want SHADO destroyed and Straker broken. SHADO will survive, whatever happens but can you imagine if they succeed in altering his mind? Commander Straker, unable to remember us or any of this?’ Doug Jackson waved a hand around the room. ‘We would get over his death, eventually, but knowing that he was alive and that he was no longer Ed Straker would cripple us for a long time.’
Lake stared at the psychologist. ‘Did we do the right thing, keeping this from the staff? Not letting anyone else know. Perhaps we might have done it quicker if – ‘
Alec shook his head. ‘Stop that. We agreed to keep this between ourselves, although I suspect many of the staff have already guessed. They aren’t fools. It’s what happens next that we have to consider. What if he is no longer Ed? You need to face that fact. Yes, he’s my friend, one of my closest friends, as well as my commander but SHADO is more important than friendship. I’ll tell you one thing though,’ and there was a ferocious look in Freeman’s eyes now as he continued, his voice filled with cold rage. ‘If we don’t get him back, I’ll make sure someone pays.’ He stood up. ‘Send Keith through. The sooner we get started, the happier I’ll be. I want him back here.’
The whispers were in the room, not in his mind, talking to him, calling him Edgar, telling him about his life at Harlington-Straker Comprehensive. The voice was unrecognisable, the words persuasive. He looked around the room for the source.
There. A tiny speaker concealed in the cracks between ceiling tiles. Now he knew for certain. Voices, brainwashing him as he slept away the hours, reinforcing the indoctrination. He looked at the cards scattered across the floor. They were as forged as his memories of teaching 10 Red, the worst class in the school.
He had never taught 10 Red nor spent evenings drinking pints of bitter and chatting to Keith. No Saturday afternoons on the terraces watching Spurs. He didn’t even like football. And no John. That was the hardest part. John was dead. Ed Straker knew that. Had known it all along, but it was hard to discard those dreams in which Mary loved him and John was alive. Such beguiling dreams.
He closed his eyes but Mary’s face was burned on his retina, a look of utter horror as his hand slapped her, of contempt as she said the words. You always had to go. Such hatred as she screamed she never wanted to see him again. ‘Mary.’ He whispered her name again in remorse, but he knew the truth.
Too late for lost desires now, he knew where his future lay: SHADO and aliens and Moonbase, not the false world of science classes and lesson plans.
Nevertheless the words persisted. He was still aware of them in his mind, their tantalising promise twisting his thoughts, Mary and John beside him, sharing his life. Panic filled him. If he could not stop those words then he would be lost. Soporific and mesmerising, they strove to pull him back from the harshness of a dead son and his solitary life, wrapping him in the comfort of friends and a life away from the unforgiving life of SHADO Commander. And if he submitted he would hand SHADO’s secrets to Cooper and Bowman and whoever else betrayed him with names of his friends and colleagues and details of his life.
He was close to the wheelchair now, an arm’s length away, a light-year away, his arm reaching across the chasm, stretching until one fingertip caught the edge. He pushed himself further, leaning over the bars at the end until fingers crooked over the armrest and he started to pull.
A careful shuffle, pausing as he summoned up the courage to swing himself over the gap, a creak of his weight settling into the seat. He leaned over to release the brakes, nearly toppling and swearing under his breath. Stupid. He needed to take his time, not rush into action. Deep breaths calmed him and he looked around, seeing the sparse room for the first time from this different aspect: crumpled sheets on the bed, jug of water on the cabinet, cards strewn across the floor and, at the end of the bed, a locker.
His hands turned the wheels, moving him closer and he opened the drawer, pulling out pyjamas and allowing himself a tight grin of triumph. He tossed the garments onto the bed and began massaging his limbs as far down as he could reach, fingers digging in, squeezing and rubbing, ignoring the sharp stabs of discomfort as unused muscles cramped.
He lifted one knee -a cautious movement – then put his foot on the floor and pressed down. The other foot, before shuffling to the edge of the seat and holding the armrests in a steel grip. No time to practise or build up his strength, no time to do anything other than risk it all on one single action.
Edgar Strachan might sit here in this wheelchair and submit to their demands, but Ed Straker would not. He stood, balancing himself with exquisite care, holding the armrests and leaning forward until he dared straighten.
He let go.
He did not stand there for long. A couple of seconds was enough to restore the strength of mind that had eluded him in recent days. It was enough to drive him onwards. He tumbled onto the bed, gasping with the effort and the elation of success.
The pyjamas were loose on him and his feet bare, but that did not matter. Nothing else mattered now that he could sense his strength returning. He may be able to walk out of here, unaided, but for now, he used the wheelchair as support, pushing it ahead and shuffling across to the bathroom.
As the door closed behind him he realised something was wrong. He twisted around, concerned that perhaps Lawson had crept into the room, but he was alone and then he knew. An absence of voices. In his fierce concentration to get mobile once more he had forgotten the whispers permeating the other room.
The emptiness was almost physical and he stood for a moment, grasping the chair, his mind buzzing in the silence. Enough. He locked the door, aware that even that small action would be useless should Lawson or the others enter the room, but it would give him some warning. He leaned against the sink, splashing water on his face, the taste on his lips awakening him to his own desperate thirst. They always gave him water from the jug, refilling it while he was sleeping. It tasted … strange, but he had not commented on it. Now he drank deeply, cold clean water. No taint of additives here, and, his thirst quashed, stood straight, strength flowing through him as if his body had craved that one pure drink. He looked around. Tissue paper. He pulled a couple of sheets, tore them into shreds, stuffing them into his ears. It deadened the words enough to let him focus on his next task.
He stumbled back to the room, still reliant on the chair for support, but each step bringing new strength, his muscles rejoicing after such long neglect and those voices nothing to him now. No distraction.
The door was locked. He tried the handle, more out of habit than from any hope that they would have forgotten, but it resisted his attempts to force it open. A simple internal lock, but even that was sufficient to trap him. He looked at it, running fingertips over the keyhole, remembering. A piece of metal. Strand of wire, hairclip, anything. He looked around, no desk, no equipment; nothing to help him. The buzz of voices distracted him again. He could hear muffled words, and despite his reluctance, he found himself craning to listen. Keith. Harlington. Mary. John.
John. Please, not John, who had sent him a home-made card. White card. Spurs colours and with a match ticket inside – 17th July against Stevenage – and even now Edgar betrayed him with a rush of conceit. Spurs would thrash Stevenage.
He shook his head to dispel the intruder and then recalled the ticket, fastened to the card by a paper-clip. A strong paperclip. He might still win.
He would have to get down to the floor to reach the precious card; there was no way he would be able to bend and pick it up but his victory over Edgar had given him courage and, first balancing himself on the edge of the bed, he slid to the floor.
There was dust under the bed, thick dust, together with discarded syringes and plastic wrappers. He sat for a moment before reaching for one of the wrappers, his fingers smoothing it so that he could read the label. Phentothiazide. A familiar name and he wondered why. He tucked the wrapper into the pocket of the thin cotton jacket and then remembered; Jackson. One of the doctor’s reports a couple of months ago was about a new anti-psychotic drug. Jackson was hopeful that it would make aliens more susceptible to interrogation. Phentothiazide. That was the name. He pushed his sleeve up, staring at mottled bruises in the crook of his elbow.
They had drugged him, and more than once, and with a flash of horror he realised that there might be no escape, not from here. They could dispose of him once they had what they wanted. SHADO’s secrets. The means to destroy the organisation. He would not tell them. He straightened up, dropping one hand to let it trawl across the floor as he thought about his future, then looked at the marks left in the dust by his doodling. Ed Straker. His fingers knew his name, even if he was uncertain at times.
The card was within reach. It took him a second to pull the paper clip away before shredding the card into tiny pieces and brushing the scraps onto the floor where they belonged.
The metal frame of the bed provided handholds but it was his anger that helped him most as, shaking with rage, he pulled himself upright, standing defiant and resolute.
No need for the chair this time. He took the steps to the door and leaned against it, fingers bending the paperclip out of shape before inserting it into the narrow keyhole. A straightforward lock, nothing fancy or strong, but sufficient to keep him contained here. He could do this. He had to do it.
He closed his eyes to concentrate on the sensations: the wire sliding inside the lock and rasping on the metal, his fingers pushing it harder, his other hand twisting the handle. The click, when it came, was hardly noticeable but the handle turned and the door opened a crack. He secured the lock and closed the door again. Now it was time to prepare for whatever was out there.
He pulled the tissue from his ears, flinching as voices penetrated his mind once more. They seemed to be louder, more insistent if anything, and he knew that Edgar was lurking in the recess of his mind, but he needed all his senses if he was to get out. Time to open the door and face them. He had no weapon, nothing to defend himself but, for the first time in days, he was not afraid.
He held onto the door and peered outside, expecting wide corridors and doors leading to other rooms. Nothing. Literally nothing, apart from a vast open space so large and dimly lit that he was unable to see walls at the far end.
Darkness? But it was daylight outside his room, and he turned round to look behind him at that small window with its bright light. Not sunshine. Where the hell was this place?
He took a cautious step outside, clinging to the frame of the door and shaking with the realisation that all this was false, and his room, which had imprisoned him for so long, and which he thought was one small part of a large medical complex, was in fact a fake. Stud partition walls, and an exposed wooden framework. He stumbled away from the door into the warehouse, or whatever it was. He would not have been surprised to find a film crew in the corner; it was so reminiscent of one of the sound stages, but whatever this place was, it was cavernous. And deserted.
He could see light behind him, casting shadows across the dusty floor.
Light. And then he saw the spotlight shining against the small window with its opaque blind. It was not daytime. Or was it? There was no light from outside the warehouse or soundstage or whatever it was. Did that mean it was night outside, in the real world? Just how many days had he been here? Was this just to confuse him further? To warp his mind so much that, if he came face to face with the reality, he would crumble. He could believe nothing not even his own sanity. He stepped out and closed the door behind him, cutting off the compelling voice in mid-sentence.
There were no other sounds in the still air, just his own gasping breaths. He took a tentative step, another. And again, until he was walking around the outside of the room, one hand reaching out to the wooden structure of the outer walls, ready to grab should his strength give way, stepping over pipes and electrical cables running into one side of the building. They had considered every aspect, making this place as real as possible. Perfect deception. All this to make him believe that SHADO was nothing more than a figment of his imagination, to get him to talk, tell them the details they needed. But he hadn’t given them what they wanted. Had he?
Fear struck him and he stood there, wondering what else they might have done, if he was even on Earth. Could it be that Cooper and Bowman and Lawson were aliens? The thought was ridiculous, but they had fooled him so far and he could trust no one.
He turned the far corner. In the dim light he caught sight of the Range Rover and halted, struck by sudden panic. It was as he remembered, an anonymous vehicle, no identifying marks, its tinted windows hiding any passengers. Perhaps they were inside the vehicle even now, laughing at his attempt to escape. He clung to the frame of his prison, waiting.
Seconds passed. No car doors opening, no angry voice shouting. He was alone here but they would be back some time, might even be on their way right now. He went over to the Range Rover only to see on the other side of it, hidden by the bulk of the larger vehicle, his own car with shattered windscreen and crumpled passenger side where the Range Rover had slammed into it. There were deep gouges on the driver’s side from scraping the crash barrier. He remembered the impact, the air-bags exploding, the sound of voices, and being hauled out of the vehicle too dazed to resist.
His car was useless, but he kept a spare mobile in the glove box, just for emergencies. It might still be there. He peered inside the Rover, seeing his briefcase still on the passenger seat. The window was gone, broken glass strewn everywhere and it was a simple matter to reach in and pull out the briefcase before scrabbling through the papers in the glove box. As he expected, the phone was not there.
He leaned against the car, trying to calm himself even while he was listening for any indication that Cooper and Co, as he was beginning to call them, were returning. It was foolish staying here but he needed to rest and he turned back to the Range Rover, trying the passenger door. It opened and he tossed the briefcase in, hauling himself up onto the seat with a sigh. The car’s internal light illuminated the interior as he closed the door. It was a relief to be behind the dark glass and out of that open space with its threatening emptiness.
The Rover’s glove box was unlocked and, desperate to get any information about his captors, he opened it, stretching fingers out to explore the depths. There was a familiar shape in the corner. A phone. The last thing he had expected.
Fingers fumbling with impatience he switched it on and peered at the screen, hoping. Enough battery power, enough credits. He could not risk contacting SHADO directly, not without a secure line, but he might get through to Miss Ealand, unless it was night outside.
He pressed the digits with care, aware that he might have this one chance. If his guards realised that he escaped they would be on their way to take him back to that small room. The phone connected. He held it to his ear, desperate to hear a familiar voice.
The automated reply was the last thing he expected to hear.
‘Welcome to Harlington-Straker Comprehensive School. To report a pupil absence, press 1. To speak to the Finance department, press 2. To speak to a head of year, press 3. For all other enquiries please hold.’
He spun the briefcase around, looked at the small metal plate that was engraved with his name. Edgar Strachan.
Oh god… The phone slipped from his fingers.
Edgar Strachan. Harlington-Straker Comprehensive.
His strength gave way, and he slumped onto the seat as the interior light went out.
They had won. They had crushed him. Completely. Unseen in the darkness he closed his eyes. They would find him soon enough.
Perhaps they were right after all. Perhaps he was Edgar.