The Shepherd 4: Grafted

Mr Freeman?’

Alec nodded, ‘Yes Miss Ealand, Dr Harper. She’s going below with me.’

One second of hesitation, in fact even less than that, before Miss Ealand smiled a welcome and opened the door to the inner office. Alec waved Sara inside.

‘Okay.’ He looked  at her. ‘Ready for this?’

Sara lifted an  eyebrow. ‘As ready as I’ll ever be I suppose. What do I have to do now?  A retinal scan?’  He could hear the scepticism in her voice but also  some hesitation, and who could blame her; after all, until last night she had been blissfully unaware of SHADO and aliens and now, well now Dr Sara Harper was about to be introduced to the best kept secret on the planet.               

Chapter 1

Jackson walked along the corridors, humming to himself  as his feet tapped  out rapid steps, walking with surety and confidence, as if he owned the passages, the  bleak and featureless walkways, and in some respects that was correct. Not many people had access to these areas, unless they were ordered to come here for examination or in some cases, interrogation. It did not have a comfortable reputation, far from it and Doug Jackson did nothing to prevent the spread of the rumours. In fact he encouraged the whispers about the nefarious activities that were supposed to take place behind the doors.

But today, unconcerned about reputations and rumours, his agile  mind was on other more important things as he strode the white corridors to his domain.

The doors, their sensors linked to his unique biometric signature, slid opened as he approached,  and,  as usual he marched in  to be stopped in his tracks by Paul Foster, standing, gun in hand and aiming at him.

‘Colonel Foster?’ The drawl was both approving and amused.

Foster scowled and lowered his arm. ‘You could have warned me Jackson. Ed’s still asleep in your isolation room. Don’t wake him.’  He turned his back on the doctor and went back to sit on the chair facing the door, his weapon still  in his hand.

‘Colonel, you look tired.  It is time that you got some sleep. We will need you to be alert later this afternoon. I suggest you go home now and leave Commander Straker in my protection.’ Jackson smiled.

Paul Foster looked around the room. ‘Sorry Doctor,’ he said, smiling in return, but his eyes  were cold and without any hint of apology or friendship, ‘I  take my orders from the Commander or Colonel Freeman. I won’t leave here until one of them gives me that order.’ He sat upright, tense as if waiting for trouble.

The soft  voice behind startled him. ‘I think Dr. Jackson is probably right. You’ve been awake all night. Go home. And, thank you Paul.’ Straker’s voice was filled with quiet appreciation.

Paul jerked to his feet, mouth open with surprise, ‘Ed.  I mean… Commander, I ..’

‘Colonel Foster, I  mean it.  You’ll be no use to anyone  if you can’t stay awake.’ But despite the severity of the words, Paul could see the genuine smile  in Straker’s eyes and knew that the commander was choosing his words with care. He smiled, tucked his gun away and tugged his jacket straight.

‘Yes sir, I’ll leave you with Dr Jackson.’  Paul cast a baleful glance at the doctor and walked out after one last look at Straker, as if he wanted to reassure himself  yet again that Straker was alive and here in SHADO.

‘So, Commander, did you sleep well?’ Jackson queried.

Straker sighed and shook his head, ‘You’d better tell me whatever it is that you  are planning Jackson. You aren’t here just to babysit me are you?’

‘Really, what makes you think that?’

Straker hunched his shoulders in the dressing gown, and frowned. ‘I know you, Doug. So go on. Tell me.’ He stared morosely at the floor, waiting, but the hand on his shoulder made him look up into Jackson’s sympathetic eyes.

‘Stop worrying please. Colonel Freeman will be here soon with someone who may be able to help us in our search for the clones.  That is all. Now, I suggest you get dressed while I organise breakfast.’

…….

The robotic voice of the identification system had startled Sara, but it was nothing to the sight of the underground base, with its maze of corridors, state-of-the-art technology and stern  operatives who gave her one swift glance before concentrating on their work. She had sat in the office as Alec had gone through the formalities, authorising her presence here and handing her a badge. ‘Wear this at all times,’ he warned her,  then  he had taken her by the arm and guided her out. She was lost and confused by the time they reached a junction and she was steered  along yet another  bleak and unspecified aisle to the door marked ‘Psychological Assessment Unit’.

Alec halted and looked down at Sara with a look of concern. ‘Okay?’ he asked.

She nodded, and squeezed his hand, ‘Yes. Don’t worry Alec, I’m fine. Honestly. I’m just glad you’re here as well.’

Alec stepped away from her and placed his hand flat on a metal plate, and, as the door opened, stepped back to usher her inside the reception area. Jackson was there, reading and he closed the file and put it aside before looking up. ‘Dr Harper. This way please,’ he gestured to her and she put her briefcase down on his desk before following him through one of the unmarked doors that led to other rooms.

It was the usual clinical suite that she had been expecting, an examination bench in the middle of the floor, a cabinet, chair in the corner, a low stool on wheels. A familiar feel to the room, as if it had been transplanted from any hospital. But Ed Straker was perched on the edge of the examination table, arms folded as if waiting for her.

He stood up and held out one hand. ‘Dr. Harper. Good of you to join us. I understand Dr Jackson has explained the situation to you? I apologise for the secrecy, but I am sure you understand the need.’ He hitched himself back onto the bench and smiled at Alec. ‘Well, what happens now? How do I fit into all this?’

Jackson stepped forward. ‘It is a simple matter. Dr Harper performed the autopsy on the clone; your clone. I want her to examine you and to look for anything that is different, something that the clone didn’t have.’

Alec Freeman, leaning against one wall with his arms folded, grinned at the expression on Straker’s face.

There was a long pause. Straker raised an eyebrow and sighed. ‘Very well. What do you need?’ And he frowned at Alec. ‘Are you enjoying this Colonel Freeman?

‘Me? No. Not at all, Ed.’ but Freeman’s smile widened. ‘I’m more than happy to help Dr Harper if she needs it.’

Sara Harper stepped forward. ‘Thank you gentlemen.  You may go now. I work alone. And Commander Straker doesn’t need any one to hold his hand.’ She turned to the slightly discomfited man now sitting upright on the bench. ‘I can check that wound first. I don’t expect anyone else has bothered this morning, have they?’

Straker gave a brief laugh, ‘No,’ he admitted as Sara watched Freeman and Jackson leave before  she stepped to the door  and locked it behind them. He   was still sitting there, uneasy, his eyes narrowed in thought, his hands clasped together. Then he looked up as if a sudden memory had come to him.  ‘Harper. You were there yesterday weren’t you? In the Shelter. I thought I remembered your face. I’m sorry, I hadn’t realised until now. Jackson just said that he had found a doctor who might help us.’ She saw him relax a little, the muscles ease, the fingers loosen their tight grip. ‘So, Doctor what do you want me to do?’

‘Start by calling me Sara, please,’ she grinned at him, ‘and then you can take off your sweater and let me check those stitches.’

He complied in silence, and then sat there staring at the far wall almost ignoring her presence as she pulled the dressing away from his ribs, her cool fingers touching around the edge, feeling for any signs of swelling. The room was quiet, her hands gentle, efficient and somehow soothing.  ‘Good. That’s fine. Clean and dry. Keep it like that and no stretching or strenuous activity.’ Her voice was matter-of-fact and practical, the tone of a doctor concentrating on her task and Straker stood up and reached for the roll-neck jumper at the end of the bench.

‘Sorry.’ Sara stopped him, her hand on his arm. ‘I haven’t finished.  You want me to help you find these clones?’

He nodded although there was a hint of reluctance, as if he knew what she  was going to say. ‘Yes, anything that will enable us to determine a replicant from the real thing.’

‘Fine. Then Commander, I need to examine you. Thoroughly.’

The faint blush that darkened his face was hardly noticeable, but it was enough to make her pause and turn away to give him some privacy.

‘I’ll just get my notes from outside,’ she said, her back to him,  crisp  professionalism in her voice, ‘so meanwhile undress and lie down. Here.’ She handed him a sheet from the end of the bench and unlocked the door. ‘Two minutes.’

The room was cooler than he would have liked. It was easy to slip off shoes and socks  and stand there, hesitant and somewhat unwilling with  the tiled floor cold under his bare feet,  but his responsibilities were paramount and with a sigh of resignation he continued undressing, placing  his clothes in a neat pile on  the chair before, shivering with  the slight chill in the air, he  lay down on the bench with the sheet pulled up to  just below his waist.

It was hard to relax; all his senses appeared to be stretched to their limits  as he  waited, listening for her footsteps and the door opening, anticipating her hands touching him. Not as they had before, dispassionate yet healing, no, he knew what she would do and he flinched from it. From that stranger’s  contact, that intimate yet utterly necessary examination that she was about to perform.

The door opened. He heard it close, and lock. He swallowed, allowed one hand to clench, then  forced the fingers open in a pose of relaxation. She stood next to him.  He noticed that she had  rolled her sleeves up past her elbows,  that her fingers were devoid of any jewellery, that her face was serious.

‘Ready?’ Her voice was softer than before, as if  she was faltering in her resolve to help them. And he sighed, knowing that he had to endure it, if they were to have any hope.

‘Yes.’

Chapter 2

She leaned over him, her eyes not looking into his, not even looking at him in a way. Instead it was as if her vision was fixed on a point far in the distance, and he was perturbed for a moment. Then, her fingers began to move in gentle circles over his cranium, caressing, feeling the shape of his skull, sliding through the short hair,  pressing against bone, her whole concentration focussed on just those simple movements. It was in a way, rather soothing, although his nakedness and her closeness were matters that disturbed him. Not from modesty, but more from the realisation that she was only just beginning her examination and it was going to be more invasive than he had anticipated. Her fingers eased around to the back of his skull and he raised his head slightly.

‘No, lie still. I want you to relax. Let me do all the work,’ she murmured, as  her fingertips lifted and he allowed his head to rest in surprisingly strong hands. She leaned closer this time,  looking straight  at him now, her eyes narrowing as she gripped his  skull with greater  pressure, feeling for indentations and  slight ridges, the shape, the strength. Then she lowered him back down onto the thin pillow.

He lay there, watching as she stepped back a pace, and took a deep breath as if to prepare herself and in a moment of quiet alarm, he closed his eyes, not wanting to see what she was going to do.

The lightest of sensations, gossamer-soft, fleeting across his cheeks, stroking under his eyes, tracing the bone structure under fine skin. He nearly turned into the contact, cherishing  the  feel of fingers, of a touch that was tender and caring, but she moved on, exploring the outline of his jaw. A fingertip pressed that single point where Mason’s gun had bruised his flesh, and he  flinched, an  imperceptible movement, but even that slight stiffening of small muscles was noticed.

‘Sorry. Is that painful?’ Sara’s voice close to his ear as she peered at the small bruise. ‘Ah, yes, I see it now. How did you get that?’ It was professional interest, detached and clinical.

Straker cleared his throat, ‘Mason. The one who died. He had a gun in my neck.’

‘Ah.’

Sara took her hands away from his face, and he opened his eyes to look up at her and murmur, ‘It’s just a bruise, that’s all. Nothing important.’ He relaxed again, allowing himself to lie still and not fight against what was happening.

‘The tiniest detail might be important, Commander. I don’t want to miss anything that could help.’ She smiled at him, before probing the bruise again, and then nodding to herself. ‘I see you have a small scar here as well, probably from a minor head wound. Hardly noticeable. Your clone didn’t have one there and it isn’t on your records either.’ She opened the file from her briefcase, shuffling through the pages, her back to him as she focussed on the report.

He lay there, unsure whether to interrupt her concentration. What to do, to answer, or leave her to the work. She put the file down and turned back. ‘So, one thing we do know is that these clones are not perfect replicas. Yours was missing at least two small scars, and undoubtedly some others. Ones that are so minor that they aren’t listed. I need to look more closely.’ She gave him a brief smile, ‘Sorry.’

He shrugged, and closed his eyes again as her hands started their work once more, ruffling through his hairline and then moving to stretch the looser skin on his throat with parted fingers.

Her breath on his neck, not soothing or intimate, but the mere exhalations needed for life. No cherishing closeness here, not like Rebecca’s breath on the nape of his neck. The hands traced his collar bone, out across his shoulders, to slide down his arms, in synchrony, feeling for any differences. Down to elbows, wrists, until his own fingers were lifted in hers, parted, held and then his hands lowered once again.  He resisted the impulse to move his arms, to wrap them over his body as if to regain control of himself. A soft hiss as she half-whispered, speaking  to herself in almost silent words, her thoughts vocalised as if she had forgotten that this was not a cold and  ashen corpse, but a man, watching and  aware.

Her head tilted downwards as she continued her examination, each arm now lifted, inspected, muscles tested, joints twisted. Straker compliant throughout, only the occasional shallow inhalation revealed his increasing discomfort at the physical invasion.

There was a pause, a brief respite in the assault on his body, his skin freed for a moment from the taunting caress of warm hands. And he sighed with the release, the freedom to breathe without her hands there, touching.

She picked a small swab from the table, leaned closer. ‘Open please.’ The soft cotton tip brushed against his lips before  she ran it along the inside of his cheek. Her face close to him,  her fingers  just inches from his mouth and he kept his  head  still but his  eyes followed  her movements. She slipped the swab into a container, placed it on the table and  turned back to him.

‘So you and Colonel Freeman have been working together for some years now?’ her unemotional voice broke the silence.

It was an unnecessary question, asked more to put him at ease than for information, and yet Straker was glad of her consideration. ‘Alec and I go back over fifteen years now. He was the first person I wanted in SHADO, and we built it up together; a good partnership I think.’

It felt strange, lying so still and answering her question; the urge to sit up was overwhelming but she moved again, her hands reaching out once more and the temptation was gone as he inwardly cringed.

‘He’s your second in command, am I right,’ Sara continued, even as her fingers now traced across his chest, in a subtle reminder of the scalpel that had sliced into that other Straker, ‘as well as working in the studios? That must be difficult, for both of you.’

Another random almost rhetorical question. He looked at her, wondering where the conversation was leading, what she was going to ask next, as fingertips smoothed down his chest, tracing his sternum and sliding outwards to feel his ribcage. He held his breath as she traced bone and flesh, feeling the muscles in his breast, touching, with such deftness as to be almost unnoticeable, the sparse hair.  Warm hands on his cool skin with a delicate sense of powder-dry softness instead of the sterile separation of latex.

Her question still hung in the air, waiting. He breathed out, ‘Yes,’ he sighed, ‘Alec works hard, sometimes too hard for his own good. I keep telling him he needs to relax,  get away  sometimes, but he can be stubborn. I think this last week may have been tough on him.’

Her hands moved in a smooth line, from breast-bone to abdomen, so swiftly that he had not had time to prepare himself for the feel of pressure on yielding flesh, that sharp discomfort as fingers probed, feeling for anything untoward.

‘It can’t have been easy for anyone. Even you.’ She stared at her hands as her fingers traced a scar on his belly. ‘Your clone had a scar here as well. How did you  get it?’

Straker put his hand on the scar, his fingers catching hers for a moment, ‘This?   A childhood accident. I fell off a gate. Stupid thing to do.’

Sara took hold of his wrist and moved his hand back to where it had been. ‘It seems to go deeper, into the muscles and not just a surface scar like the other one. Let me check something.’ She turned away, and Straker moved his hand back for a second, feeling that slight imperfection in the skin, a forgotten remnant of his childhood, before once more lying still.

‘As I thought.’ Sara had the file in her hand. ‘I remember there was something a little strange about the scars. They seemed very … superficial in away. As if they were all minor injuries.’ She put the file down and went to stand at the end of the bench. ‘Okay, Commander, it looks as if that’s one real difference. Let’s just make sure.’

The sheet covered his legs, hanging down over the end of the bench, and she folded it back on itself, to let it lie in a thick swathe that covered his hips. He clenched his fists as she leaned over to stroke the long scar on his right thigh. The sheet moved a fraction to expose the start of the scar, a narrow silvered line that ran the length of his thigh to just above his knee, the skin puckered and crinkled. She pressed down on either side of the line, fingers digging into the muscles and he grimaced at the unexpected pain. Sara ignored him, her eyes again with that distant look of utter concentration, all her senses focussed on what was beneath his skin.

‘Yes.’ Her  hands left his thigh, he breathed with relief as the discomfort eased. ‘Sorry, did that hurt?’ she apologised, seeing the slight distress on his face.

He shrugged again

‘Do you want to have a break?’ Her concern was obvious, but he shook his head.

‘No, the sooner we find anything the better.’ He paused, ‘You were asking about Alec. No, it can’t have been easy for him, dealing with my death and everything that entailed. And I regret that.’ He was aware of her continuing  the  examination. His legs now subject to the same intense scrutiny, lifted, bent, ankles rotated, reflexes tested. Perhaps he had said too much, admitted to this stranger more than he would have ever said to Jackson, or Shroeder or, even Alec.

The awkward silence was broken as Sara, standing at the end of the bench grasped  one foot  and slid her fingernail up his sole. ‘That tickled,’ he complained in a loud yet amused voice.

And she grinned at him. ‘I don’t usually get that sort of response from my patients, in fact I don’t get much of a reaction at all.’

Straker had raised himself onto his elbows and was watching her now, as she manipulated his feet, watching the tendons, ligaments, as she tugged and twisted. She frowned at him. ‘Lie down would you?’

Straker lay back again, hands behind his head this time, resigned. ‘Anyway, Alec is good at his job. Very good. Fighter pilot before he went into  Military Intelligence, so he has the right background. I don’t think I would have got SHADO to where it is now without Alec Freeman.’ He turned his head to grin at her, ‘But, don’t tell him that.’ There. He had come out with the truth. He stared at the ceiling aware that she had come to stand beside him, her hand on his shoulder, and he sighed and moved his arms back to his sides.

‘Rebecca is a bit like that;  but she works hard, too hard really. The Shelter is her life, to the extent that she has few friends and a non-existent social life.’ Sara turned away, picking up the file and flicking through it, frowning as she read  her notes.

He heard her put the file down, heard her step next to him and the rustle of material as she reached out to lift the sheet off his body, folding it again before placing  it with meticulous care on top of his clothes, and he closed his eyes.

Chapter 3

Alec Freeman sat, arms folded, looking at the locked door. Over  an hour so far. What could be taking so long? He sighed and shuffled, restless and  concerned.

‘Relax Colonel, Dr Harper will be finished when she is finished. The Commander is in safe hands,  I can assure you. Sara Harper has an excellent reputation and she will look after him.’

Another sigh, but this time a sigh of amusement. ‘I know, believe me I do trust her, but well,  you know what I mean Jackson.’ He looked at the doctor.

Jackson smiled. ‘I do Alec. Really. Now, how do you propose to tell everyone that the commander is back from the dead?’

The office was small, too small for Alec Freeman’s comfort. He wanted to pace, wanted room to move and think and lean against walls as he worked though options in his mind. But he was here, confined and waiting with impatience. ‘Honestly? I have no idea at the moment. I’m still coming to terms  with it myself. I hadn’t even accepted the fact that Ed was gone; in fact I kept seeing him in odd corners, as if he was there.’

Jackson laughed, and nodded his head, ‘My thoughts exactly, Colonel. Headquarters and the  Commander always seemed inextricably linked together and to have him absent  made it appear somehow incomplete. However, once Doctor Harper has completed her work we may be in a better position to decide on our next course of action.’

Alec stared at  the closed door and wondered what was happening.

………………..

There was a  sudden draft of chill air  on his body and he flinched as he became aware of her moving around the bench. The wait was intolerable, agonising almost, as he lay there, exposed skin tingling in the coolness, eyes closed, although he could not decide which would be preferable; to see her standing there, or to be blissfully ignorant  of what she was going to do until……

A sharp intake of breath as he felt the heat of her hands against  his thigh  as they moved to  trace, with the lightest of  touches, that rarely caressed silk-soft skin. Pressing into his groin, exploring, questing. Vulnerable and open, he lay there, unyielding, the precise  and controlled movements of his ribcage the only indication that he was alive, that he was aware of the contact of  gentle hands that even now were slipping down to hold and feel the hidden parts of his being.

He held his breath, biting his lower lip as her  fingers eased away and down, and  firm pressure forced his thighs apart, feeling deeper, pushing against resisting skin. Unable to prevent himself squirming, he turned his head away, and his eyes closed tighter now as her open hand lifted soft tissues, warm against his own coolness. His fingers dug deep into the edges of the bench, his breathing shallow with the effort of concealing his quiet distress as heat suffused his face, before spreading inexorably through him.

The grip on his upper arm made him flinch and as her hand slid under his hip he submitted and turned over, grateful to press his face and his body  down against the cool surface, head resting on folded arms.

Slow breaths calmed him, as relief filled his mind and his fingers relaxed. It was easier now to bear the touch on his skin as she investigated  his spine, feeling each vertebrae, down from the nape of his neck, probing but not painful. Just pressure, although he tensed when her fingers moved between muscles to push against the base of his spine. Only for a second though, then she  removed her hands and he breathed again, a slight, shallow, exhalation of reprieve. The touch again. Firm this time  as,  in a  slow,  even movement she stroked her hands down  him, down over  shoulder blades  and his back, over buttocks  and thighs, his skin shivering under the contact. He lay still, unwilling to even turn his head away from her, though his neck was stiff now and cramped and his shoulders aching from the unaccustomed pose.

The rustle of paper again. A light grunt of either disapproval or disquiet, he couldn’t tell.

‘I’m missing something. Something important. It’s right there, in the back of my mind, but I just can’t quite grasp it.’ She was talking to herself more than Straker, as if he was nothing more than another of her usual patients, her voice subdued, concerned. A different sound now, not paper, a thicker ‘plastic’ noise, and,  curious to see what she was doing, Straker opened his eyes.

Photographs. She was leafing through photographs, quickly rejecting some, studying others intently. One dropped, fluttering down to lie face up on the floor, and he caught a glimpse before she picked it up. He felt his heart thump with the shock. That one quick look at himself. Ashen and lifeless. He saw again that quiet figure that stepped out from the shadows, felt the horror rush into his mind. His shuddering breath alerted her, and she bent down, her face to his, concerned.

‘What is it?’ She laid her hand against his face, her voice soft, but he lifted his head to shake it before turning away from her, drawing air deep into his lungs in an effort to still his trembling limbs.

Sara looked at the photograph in her hand. The clone, full length, face up on her table, chest cavity open,  ribcage removed,  but the  face was recognisable. She put it on the cabinet, and laid one hand on his shoulder, not to examine or test, or probe this time, but to comfort.

Enough. There was nothing else to be learned from him, but that one thought caught in her mind like the raw edge of a broken tooth against her  tongue.

Something. One detail. Just one tiny  ……………….

She grabbed the photograph. ‘Shit. Of course. Not what you have Commander, but what the clone had. I was looking for the wrong thing.’

He pushed himself up  onto his  side, looking at her with  puzzled eyes.

‘No, lie face  down again. I know what I am looking for now.’

He obeyed and lay still once more as she parted the hair at the base of his skull, leaning so close that he could feel the warmth from her body. Fingers rifling though short hair, searching before they moved to the base of his spine once more.  No longer gentle, but hunting, stretching the skin, feeling in that one specific area and nowhere else.

‘Turn over.’ The command was abrupt, and he obeyed without hesitation. Twisting himself over to lie on his back once more, but this time watching her, with no thought of his nakedness.

She bent over him, her eyes, her face, so near to his skin that for one moment he   wondered what she was about to do. Those firm fingers, around his navel, smoothing the tracery of fine hair, and again, stretching. He could hear her satisfied ‘Yes,’ and then he was released, free of her touch as she stepped back to lift the sheet and drape it over him, ‘You can get up now. Take your time; you’ve been lying down for a while and you might feel dizzy at first. Get dressed and join us when you’re ready.’

The suddenness of her departure as she closed the door, startled him for a moment, then  he lay back in the welcome solitude, allowing his body to relax and his senses calm, to enclose the memory of her touch behind his self-control.

Then, once more composed, he pushed the sheet away and  sat up to swing his legs over the edge of the narrow examination table. He saw the photograph on the cabinet, although he resisted the temptation to pick it up for further inspection.  Instead, he explored the back of his neck with hesitant fingers, feeling  for a scar or some other abnormality and wondering with no little  apprehension, what Dr Harper had found there. The floor was still cold under his  bare feet, but it was only a couple of minutes before he was tugging  the roll-neck sweater into place and shrugging into his jacket.

One last deep breath, a hand on the door, and he was outside, to see Alec and Jackson, and Dr Harper sitting there waiting for him. Freeman stood up as soon as he heard the door open, his eyes narrowed with anxiety for a moment as he saw his friend. A tight smile from Straker, an infinitesimal nod of the head and Alec relaxed, reassured that  he  was unscathed. Ed had been through enough in the last forty-eight hours from all accounts, though as Alec would tell anyone, he had a duty to ensure that the SHADO Commander was fit enough to take up his office again.

He came forward as Straker pulled up a chair to joined the others, ‘Okay Ed? Sara is ready to tell us what she found. Here. Coffee.’ He put the cup down, watching as Straker picked it up in hands that trembled imperceptibly for one moment, and a brief flash of understanding passed between the two.

Chapter 4

Rebecca had  woken late for once, and had lain there, wondering what to do with the day that stretched out  ahead of her, aimless and barren. No Christmas shopping to do; she’d done most of it online and anyway there were not that many people to buy for. Not now. Sara, of course, and she was always hard to buy for,  but this year  Rebecca had found the perfect  thing. It had taken some finding, but it was  now in her spare room, enveloped in layers of tissue paper, waiting to  be properly wrapped. A pure cotton, heavy Japanese kimono in darkest blue, with  rich embroidery on the sleeves. She had opened the parcel with some trepidation, scared that it might be a disappointment, not what she had hoped for, but as she lifted it up she had felt the weight of it, had stroked down the  exquisite hand stitching and sighed with relief and not a little envy. It had cost a fortune, but, to be honest, who else did she have to spend her money on?

Anyway, Christmas was always a letdown. She would spend the day in the shelter with the guys, handing out small presents and sharing  dinner with them. Though it did have its nice moments. She grinned to herself as she remembered last year and the gruff muttered ‘thank you’ from the tough men who clustered in the common room as parcels were distributed. Grown men, behaving like little boys, even Dale grinning as he took his parcels and scuttling away to enjoy them in the seclusion of his room.

Damn. She still needed to finish wrapping the boxes. It might be an idea to do that this afternoon. Saturdays were generally quiet and she  could sit in her office and get on with it. It would be one less job and fill a few hours anyway.

And he wouldn’t be there.  So it would be……… fine.

………………….

‘Well. What was all that about Doctor? What did you find?’ Straker wrapped both hands around the mug as if to warm them, watching the liquid swirl round, not willing to meet her eyes.

‘I didn’t find anything. That’s the good news,’ she answered, a note of slight smugness in her voice, and he looked up, frowning.

‘Don’t play games Doctor; I’m not in the mood.’

She looked at him, eyes scrutinizing. ‘Exactly how much sleep did you get last night? And don’t lie.’

Shoulders shrugged, and he stared at her. ‘I can sleep later. There was something  that I had to do, but….’ he shook his head,  ‘Answer the question.’

‘Nothing. That’s what I found. You had a scar that your clone didn’t, but trying to find non-existent scars on any suspected clones would be impossible. However, I found something you can use.’ She turned to Jackson, ‘You gave me the idea, Doctor.  You  said the clones would have been grown rapidly, over a few months maybe. I found three scars on the clone. Three very neat scars that I couldn’t explain. And Commander Straker doesn’t have those scars.’ Sara Harper grimaced. ‘I’m betting those marks  are where your aliens inserted neural implants and nutrients to force the  accelerated  growth you  mentioned.’

Straker put his hand to the back of his neck, and frowned, ‘Three?’

‘Yes,’ she nodded, ‘back of the skull and base of the spine. I assume those were to access the nervous system. The third one was in the navel linking  to the digestive system.’

Jackson smiled at her, ‘Excellent Doctor. I assume you have relevant images? Perhaps we could have a look at them?’

Sara Harper pulled out the  autopsy  photographs  to show  the three circular scars she had detected on Straker’s  replica.

Jackson inspected them with care, ‘Thank you. This will be most helpful.   And now,’ he looked at Freeman, ‘we will have another coffee. Colonel?’

The amnesia drug. Alec gave a stiff smile and nodded as Jackson tidied up the photographs.

Straker sat there, aware of the quiet tension in the room  and idly picked up Mason’s diary, to flick through the pages, his face grim as he tried once more to make sense of the code with its random symbols, some underlined, some repeated several times. Sara watched as he frowned over the inexplicable patterns and she moved to sit next to him, looking over his shoulder  at the page of the diary. ‘Interesting. What is it?’

Straker sighed and rubbed his face, ‘Nothing. At least I can’t make any sense of it. I think it has something to do with the clones, but we haven’t been able to decode it.’

‘Thank you,’ she acknowledged Alec with a smile as he placed her coffee on the table in front of her before  she turned back to Straker. ‘How many underlined symbols are there?’

He counted in silence. ‘Forty-six. Why?’

‘Hmm. Curious.’ She picked up her mug, but a strong hand clamped on her wrist, and coffee splashed onto the table.

‘Leave that.’ Straker’s voice was almost harsh, and she suddenly realised what he was, what this man did, every day. SHADO Commander. This was not the vulnerable man she had dealt with in the shelter, or the  reticent and  somewhat defenceless person she had just examined. She stared at him, at eyes that were focussed on her face, then down to his hand, still holding with that tight grip.

‘Alec?’ Straker reached out and took the mug from her unresisting fingers before handing it to his friend. ‘I think I need to hear what Doctor Harper has to say about this first.’ There was no smile, no acknowledgement of anyone else in the room as Straker released his grip   and turned to Sara. ‘Forty-six. That means something to you, doesn’t it?’

She almost flinched under that gaze, but met it, stared back and nodded. ‘Yes. It’s the number of human chromosomes. Some of those symbols look familiar; twisted and almost ‘warped’ but still recognisable. Can I have a closer look?’

He pushed the diary over without a word and then sat back, watching as she poured over the page, analysing  every symbol, every line. Alec shrugged his shoulders in puzzlement and Straker shook his head in warning.  They waited. Jackson sitting there, still and  unsmiling, fingers tapping silent rhythms on the table, eyes flickering from Straker to Sara and back again.

‘Right. I think this is beginning to make some sense, at least I hope so,’ she said. ‘It’s some form of genetic database. You can see the relationship between the underlined patterns and the shape of human chromosome. I don’t understand the rest of the symbols but I would hazard a guess that they are information about theDNAof this  specific man.’ She handed the diary back.

‘Shit.’ Alec’s quiet mutter cracked the silence

‘One man? On just that page?’ Straker asked, even as he was leafing through the diary, ‘What about this, and this…….’ He showed her more pages, and she looked at him, her eyes shadowed with fear

‘Let me see.’ A longer almost unbearable wait this time. Straker sitting, fingers interlaced, Alec standing behind now, arms folded but not relaxed, and Jackson across the table, watching like a hawk.

‘Six separate men. This page, and this one,’ she indicated other half-filled pages with scribbled out symbols, ‘these are women and incomplete data. There are missing chromosomes. But the others.. well….. if the symbols are, as I think, an incredibly advanced  shorthand for the human genome, then you can probably expect to find six different male clones. No. Five. Commander Straker’s  has been destroyed.’

‘Has it?’ His soft voice, so unlike his harsh command earlier, made her pause and she turned to look at him, puzzled, as he continued, ‘We can’t take anything for granted. Why stop at one? The science involved is phenomenally advanced, so why not create several  clones, tens of them, even hundreds? An army of humans under their control. That’s what I’d do.’

Jackson leaned forward. ‘Practicalities, Commander. Power and space. That is the simple reason. It would take an extraordinary amount of power to do this. Running any laboratory requires energy, and this…’ he indicated the coded page of the diary, ‘is not merely nurturing of babies. It is advanced accelerated development. That takes considerable resources. I think you could safely say that the aliens will be restricted to  creating a handful of clones at first.’

‘So where do we start looking?’ There was a note of despair in the question, as Straker looked around the table, his eyes bleak and apprehensive.

‘That is the easy part,’ Jackson’s smile was grim. ‘We start  here, in SHADO.’

Chapter 5

Mouth dry, lips cracked, teeth furred with dried saliva. But they had stopped, had left her alone again, and this time the lid was open. She could hear voices, could smell more than just her own foulness, her sweat. It was almost possible to recall her life before: silly things; her husband’s kisses, the taste of liquid in her mouth, soft, warm fabric against her skin, the sound of laughter,  all the things she had taken for granted.

The cold feeling in her gut spread and she knew that they were feeding her again. And at least she would sleep. That was the only spark of humanity in them; that they kept her sedated most of the time. It didn’t stop the nightmares though.

And as she felt the lethargy spread through her now-chilled limbs, her last waking thought was…Mason.

—————–

Straker pushed his chair back.  ‘Dr. Harper, would you excuse us for a moment?’ He opened the door to the small examination room and ushered her through, closing it before turning back to Alec and Jackson, one hand still on the handle. ‘I want to bring her into SHADO. As of right now. Don’t even think of arguing, Alec,’ he forestalled his friend’s response, ‘she’s proved her worth. And we need her. Jackson?’ He cast the question to the psychiatrist who was observing him.

‘I agree, Commander. Sara Harper has shown herself to be intuitive as well as knowledgeable. I am sure that Colonel Freeman will understand and may even be grateful that she will not have to have the amnesia drug.’ He smiled.

‘Are you sure Ed? Really?’ Alec frowned, ‘I ……………’ his voice trailed away in confusion.

Straker stepped away from the door to put one hand on Alec’s shoulder. ‘Yes. We need her. Jackson is good, very good,’ and he grinned at the now embarrassed psychiatrist, ‘but Sara Harper knows about the clones, knows about SHADO, and I’d rather have her working with us than risk her revealing anything. I want  you to ask her, Alec. She trusts you, but if she won’t join us, well, then we will have to give her the drug.’

A long look passed  between them, before Freeman nodded, opened the door and went in to Sara. She was sitting, like Straker before her, on the bench, hands loose in her lap, eyes watching the door.

He hitched himself next to her, hands also clasped in front, head lowered as if afraid to talk to her. ‘Sara,’ he paused, aware that what he was going to say was about to change her life.

‘Have they  finished talking about me?’ Her annoyance was obvious. ‘What did you decide then?’ She shuffled  away from him, just an inch or two, but enough. A separation.

There was nothing for it but to tell her and wait for the repercussions, the rejection. ‘Straker  wants you in SHADO.’ He looked at her, his eyes hooded with sadness. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘Sorry? Why sorry?’

‘Well, it changes everything.’

‘Why should things change? Okay,’ she admitted, frowning to herself. ‘I can see the need for secrecy being a problem, and I’ll have to give up my job…’ she looked at him, brows furrowed, ‘I will have to give up my job won’t I?’

He raised one eyebrow. ‘Yes. You would be assigned to work with Jackson after your induction, but Ed will want that to be fairly rapid.’ Freeman looked at her, ‘Sara, I know what you’re thinking, but SHADO needs you.’

She stood up. Squeezed his hand. ‘Come on then, I need to look at those genetic codes in more detail.’

Jackson and Straker were talking together in quiet tones when Sara emerged, to walk over to the commander. ‘Yes, I’ll join you. I just hope I can be of some help.’

‘So do I, Dr Harper. We need all the assistance we can get right now. Please, sit down and we’ll go through what we need you to do.’

It was after midday before the details had been organised for Dr Harper to join them and then they worked through  the code in the diary yet again, but to no avail. Sara took DNA from the other two  men present, but analysis would have to wait until she had the chance to run the samples  through SHADO’s  Research Laboratory.

By late afternoon Alec was weary of sitting in the suite of rooms that seemed airless, the walls closing in on them every time he looked up. And Straker seemed even more tired if possible, his face lined with fatigue, his movements slow and deliberate.

It was too much, too soon, Freeman realised and he stood up, stretching, ‘I think we should stop for now. You look dreadful,’ he accused Straker. ‘I need to get back to Control for a while to sort things out with Keith and then  I’ll take Sara home. You stay here and get some proper rest,’ he ordered, and Straker gave him a tired grin.

‘Very good sir. Any other orders?’ but there was a note of relief in the dry and amused retort. ‘Tell Colonel Foster to take the rest of the day off as well; I don’t need a babysitter. Dr Harper, thank you for your help, and I will see you tomorrow. First thing.’

Alec led her back through the maze of passages but she was too exhilarated to take much notice of the journey this time. SHADO. She was going to be part of SHADO, and her mind was thrilled and yet terrified at the prospect. Such secrets, such vast technological advancements, but such terrible enemies. She stopped so suddenly that Alec  had gone several paces before he halted.

‘Sara?’

‘The moon. Alec?’ her eyes were huge with almost childish wonder, ‘Straker said something about Moonbase. Will  I be  able to …….’

He grinned at her,  taking her by the arm to lead her onwards. ‘I expect so. There’s a lot to do before we even think about that though. Come on, let’s get  you home. You have a tough few days ahead of you.’

She paused again, tugging away from him, with  a look of distress this time.  ‘I won’t be able to tell Rebecca will I? Not a word, not about SHADO or who Straker really is. Oh Alec, she won’t understand.’

‘No. Not a word. You know that. It’s too much of a risk, for all of us. But what’s this about Rebecca and Ed?’

She held his arm this time, talking as they carried on, talking about Rebecca and John Shepherd.  And Alec Freeman smiled.

…………………

Straker looked at Jackson. ‘Yes. I know. Get some rest.’ He sighed, wondering what the aliens were doing right now, whether they were close to completing whatever plans they had been working on,  and the temptation to get back to work, to take control again, was almost overwhelming.  But it was  too risky at the moment. He was more tired than he  wanted to admit and Shroeder’s words came back to him. The last thing he needed now was a  return of those nightmares, those visions of people, of…  Straker shuddered as the memory  exploded again in his mind. That one image, of himself, and there was something about that memory that he could not quite hold onto. Some vital thing that he needed to recall, that might help them.  But it was gone, and he sighed again, before Jackson ordered him back into the small bedroom to lie down for a couple of hours.

Jacket off, shoes on the floor, but he didn’t lie down, not at first, instead  sitting there thinking, shoulders hunched with tiredness, hands clasped, looking at knuckles still bloody and stiff. He didn’t want to sleep, though he knew he needed to, didn’t want the dream to remerge, didn’t want to wake screaming and  sweating with terror.

Rebeccca. The thought of her calmed him, and he allowed himself to remember the   feel of her hair in his fingers.  On an impulse he pulled out his phone and  dialled.  

…………….

Fold, wrap, sellotape, card. The monotonous sequence was soporific,  requiring minimal  concentration and freeing her mind to wander over  recent events. The shelter was quiet, the residents out shopping or in some cases, as Rebecca was honest enough to admit, shoplifting. You had to be realistic in this job. There would always be those who abused the system, just as there would always be the unsung successes, the guys who dried out, got clean and just moved on

Another parcel done, another card written; ‘Dale’, and she stopped and put her pen down, leaned back and smiled. Dale. He had been working on the computer when she arrived earlier and had shown her, with justifiable pride, what he had been doing. She had never expected Dale Atwood to make anything of his life, despite her efforts, but there he was, sober, clean, and offering to make her a brew. It might just be that Dale was one of those who  got a second chance. That would be  great. She put the card on top of the parcel, and reached for another, just as the phone rang.

‘Hounslow Community Housing, Rebecca Steel,’ she answered. Nothing. No voice  answering her. She tried again. ‘Hounslow Shelter.’  There was a long  pause and then a click as the line went dead. She frowned and put the receiver down, annoyed.

Straker had  not expected to hear that  voice, her voice. He had thought to have a moment’s reprieve before speaking to her and his carefully thought out words disappeared as he wondered what to say. Ed Straker here  – but was he Ed Straker or  John Shepherd? Who was he to her?  I’m phoning to thank you for …………… for what, he wondered. Taking me in? Doing your job? Or more than that? For caring for me, being there, that night when you held me, slept beside me? What do I say to her?

He froze, silenced by the sound of her voice. It was an instinctive reaction to end the call, and he sat there, feeling somewhat foolish and embarrassed by his response.

He wondered what to do next. Sleep was out of the question, at least until he felt more composed; there were no books to read, and Jackson was outside, so no chance of getting to the laptop and doing some work. Nothing else for it  but to  lie there, head on his hands and looked up at the ceiling in an attempt to settle.

The noise startled him. A clatter outside, nothing alarming, but enough to waken him from the light doze that had captured his senses, allowing him to rest. He looked at his watch. He had drowsed for over thirty minutes without the feared nightmare. And he had to admit he was still tired, so, he would do the sensible thing, and get some proper sleep now.

Chapter 6         

Keith Ford looked at the list of tasks that Commander, no …. Colonel Freeman  had assigned to him before Freeman took Sara Harper home. Everything was now ready, apart  from one final piece of the puzzle that had to be slotted into its rightful position. Ford had spoken at length to Freeman on his return to the Headquarters and they had worked out a rough plan. Very rough really. This was an unknown situation, and even Alec Freeman had little idea of what they might find.

The first thing was for  Jackson and Harper to check every member of staff. Everyone. That was going to take time, and only after they were sure that there were no clones  would they announce that Ed Straker had been found alive. It remained to be seen if there were any ‘human’ traitors skulking in the base, waiting, and if they would try to contact Mason when Straker reappeared which was why  Ford had tapped into  Mason’s phones.

Hell, it was a risk though, bringing Straker back before they had guaranteed  his safety, but it was necessary. They had to prove the commander was alive and the only way to flush out any traitors was to bring him back into Headquarters.  The real danger would have been if the aliens had managed to get a clone inside H.Q. and whoever it was got close enough to Straker to do some harm; hence the reason for the delay.

Damn. Keith shuddered at the memory of going into the office on Alec’s return and then  being grabbed and held face  down across the desk before Dr Harper ran her fingers through the hair at the base of his skull. He had no idea that Freeman could be so strong, so determined; so ruthless.

Once Ford had been released he had pushed himself up off the surface, spluttering with a combination of rage and fear only to see Colonel Freeman standing there, gun ready. It took a while for Sara’s explanations to calm the communications officer, and he was still angry at the insinuation that he might be a traitor, but now he knew what they were facing.

And there was that terrible knowledge, as he looked around the Control Room, that anyone of these men could be a clone. Anyone. He wondered if Dr. Harper had thought to check Alec Freeman or Paul Foster, or even Doug Jackson.

Paul placed his hand on the palm-print recognition  pad and the door to the Assessment Unit slid open. Jackson was inside, sitting at the desk and writing in his usual   indecipherable scribble  in one of the files.

‘Colonel,’ the smooth drawl was amused, ‘I should have known you of all people  would disobey orders.  And you have brought…?’

Foster grinned and put the large box down with a sigh of relief. ‘Baked brie, pork dijonaise and citrus panacotta, with a decent red wine as well.  I thought the commander might appreciate some good food tonight.’

‘Excellent. He is in his room, working I expect, although he has been resting. I can leave him in your care?’ Jackson smiled, ‘And Colonel, I am sure he will be grateful for your company this evening. One moment though.’ He opened the desk drawer to lock the file away and reached in for his handgun, his expression as cold as his voice. ‘Turn round and put your hands on your head.’

It took a moment for Jackson to satisfy himself that Foster was not a replicate, and after a curt explanation he put his gun away again and dipped his head in brief acknowledgement before leaving without another word.

‘Back again? I thought Colonel Freeman had told you to take the rest of the day off, Paul?’ Straker appeared, moving with ghost-like silence. Ghost-like was the right phrase, Foster thought to himself, looking at his mentor. Straker might have recovered his memories, but he was still showing signs of the strain, his eyes drawn and lined, and his normal pallor even lighter if possible.

‘I’ve brought something better than the canteen would provide and certainly better than take-away.’ Foster grinned and began unpacking the container to reveal fine china and heavy cutlery, white damask napkins and finally, heated and sealed  containers.  ‘Here, sit down. And afterwards, chess or backgammon. No,’ he said, ‘no work, not tonight. Alec told me about the clones, and let’s face it, Ed, you can’t do anything yet. So, I’m here to make sure you don’t spend all night on the computer. Now, eat.’

They agreed on backgammon after the meal; ‘less competitive’ Straker said, although Paul wondered if the commander had ever seen the intense games played in some parts of the world, but he was not prepared to argue. If Straker wanted a relaxing  game he was happy to oblige although Paul’s ruthless streak was making itself felt even as he set out the pieces.

They settled to play, heads bent across the low table, the silence broken by dice rattling in the cup, and then rolling across  the baize covered board, the clink of counters being moved, the occasional  muttered  grumble when hoped-for numbers didn’t materialise. Straker found himself absorbed in the  game despite his initial reluctance, and the calming actions of rolling dice and sliding counters together with the companionable silence was soothing.

Paul poured himself another glass of Shiraz. ‘Ed?’ he held the bottle out, half-expecting another refusal, but Straker nodded.

‘Uh,  just a small one.’ He sipped it, then put the glass down, before focusing on the game in hand.

‘So,’ Foster moved a counter, his attention on the board, the neat markings, the tidy rows of red and white discs, ‘You’ve brought that pathologist in, huh?’

Straker rolled the dice. ‘Damn, no good. Yes, Harper will be useful. We’re going to have to check the whole staff for possible clones, and she’ll be helping with that.’ He slid pieces across the board.

‘It’s a small world.’ Paul made his move, handed the cup over. ‘And Miss Steel and her guys?’

Dice rolled, clattered, came to rest. ‘Alec’s idea to offer them places.  I like it; tax benefits and so on.’ Straker counted as he slid discs.

‘Makes us look good,’ Paul agreed. He rolled the dice, paused, thought,  and moved pieces on the board, noticing that he was in the  lead yet  again.  ‘And she seems to care about them. Miss Steel.’

‘Yes. She does a good job there.’ Straker picked up his glass of wine and finished the last  dregs, grimacing as he saw Foster’s position on the board and then looked at his empty glass with some surprise.

Paul held out the bottle, but Straker shook his head.

He indicated the  state of the current game and a rueful smile creased his face. ‘You have me on the run again.’ He looked at his watch, ‘Thanks for this evening,  for the food,’ he hesitated, smiled,  ‘and the wine.’

Paul tidied up the counters and closed the board, ‘It’s late now, so I’ll catch some sleep here if that’s okay. It’s easier than going home.’

Straker gave him a knowing look and  nodded before he went through to the small isolation suite where he undressed, wondering when he might get to sleep in his own bed, in his own house, without the need for guards or secrets. But despite the strangeness of the room, and the knowledge that someone in HQ, in his own organisation, someone was a traitor or even a copy of a trusted member of SHADO, his dreams were easy.

Doug Jackson looked at the photographs again. Three small scars. That was all. Just three hidden marks that were the only way to identify a clone. And even that wasn’t infallible. The aliens might have created newer clones, using other techniques. Jackson was no fool. He was well aware of the insurmountable differences between their abilities and the current level of  human scientific thinking and his only hope was that the aliens had not realised that SHADO had been alerted. But with the security team who had cleared the Shelter  all detained at the Research Centre, it was unlikely that anyone of them  would have had the chance to contact the aliens, although Jackson knew the team, knew them well and would have vouched for each one of them: at least he would have done, before the discovery of clones.

Now, no-one could be trusted. No-one. And until Straker was back in control and they had flushed out Mason’s accomplice, Jackson had to assume that anyone was a traitor.

Standing there in the  SHADO Commander’s office,  Jackson read through the latest update from Ford. Good. Everything seemed ready and there was nothing left for him to do now.

Chapter 7

‘Everything organised?’

Ford looked up at Alec Freeman. ‘Yes Colonel. All staff have been given instructions to attend for medical examinations.’

‘Good. Oh, and Keith?’ Freeman put his hand on Keith’s shoulder and paused. ‘Thanks.’

Ford grinned with slight embarrassment, then adjusted his headphones and turned back to his monitors. The control room was busy, and he could get on with his tasks without interruption.

It seemed strange, being part of the conspiracy, not being able to trust anyone outside the small group, and he wondered what the end of this day would bring. One thing was for certain though, this was not the end of the matter. A vile thought, growing people as if they were plants, grafting them like rootstocks. Six men. Six male clones. Straker and five more. He wondered who the others were, then shook his head. He had enough to do without wasting time on idle speculation.

‘Everything organised?’ Straker was sitting behind the desk as Sara Harper enteredJackson’s rooms.

‘Relax, Commander, Alec has it all under control,’ she said, ‘and you look as if you got a decent night’s sleep.’

He grunted, unwilling to admit that he had slept well and was now impatient to get back to work and begin the daunting task that face them all.

‘Stitches okay? Not causing any problems?’

‘Persistent, aren’t you doctor?’ he grinned. ‘Yes I did get some sleep and yes I am fine. I just want to get back to work, to get this all behind me.’

She looked at him, ‘Well it will be a while yet. Alec insists on having all staff checked and that will take some time. I’m sorry,’ she said, seeing the look in his eyes, ‘I’m sure you want to get out of here as soon as possible.’

Straker tapped his fingers edgily, ‘You’re seeing Alec aren’t you. How serious is it?’ He stared at her, eyes piercing and intense.

‘That’s not your – ,

‘Business? I’m afraid it is, Doctor Harper. Alec Freeman is Second-in-Command here. Have you any idea of the responsibility that entails? Relationships in SHADO tend to be … difficult, even when both parties work here.’ He gave her one long look before returning his gaze to the papers on the desk and continuing in a firm tone, ‘Your transfer to SHADO has been approved and the authorities have been informed. Once this is over I want you working in the research department with Jackson.’

‘Looking for clones?’

‘That first, yes, then afterwards, we will see. It depends.’ He shuffled through the papers, frowning before he looked up at her again. ‘Sorry, Dr. Harper, I have this work to do. Is there anything else I can help you with?’

‘No. I’ll head back now. Alec just wanted to know how you were doing and to tell you he’ll be along later.’ Straker watched her leave and then sat there immersing himself in paperwork and research into cloning methods.

The day dragged by, broken by visits from Alec and after lunch, Paul, dropping by on his way to catch the shuttle to Moonbase . A solitary meal early evening, and he toyed with it, his appetite quashed by lack of exercise, before putting it aside to carry on with his investigations. He looked up, suddenly aware that he had been so focussed on work that he had forgotten where he was, and the walls were closing in on him, and he could almost see, out of the corner of his eye, a grey shape, waiting.

He was safe, knew that no-one, least of all any aliens, could get to him but still the fear was there, that sudden thump of a missed heartbeat when he caught a glimpse of red or silver, the shiver that chilled him when he remembered running. The clone, his clone stepping out into the light. There was something that he should have recalled, some reason for his horror, but the more he tried to catch that elusive memory, the more it retreated, until he was shaking with the effort.

A futile exercise he realised, and he stood up, papers scattering across the desk, to pace the small confines of his cell, until he realised the futility. The silence seeped into his bones and he found himself listening yet again for those familiar sounds that had sustained him through the last week of isolation and solitude. He knew what he needed to do.

One quick phone call and he grabbed his jacket and, with a slight pang of guilt walked out, leaving papers still strewn across the desk. But he had to get away from here and anyway, he would be back soon enough.

He stepped into the corridor, paused to listen for approaching footsteps. Nothing. And, grinning to himself despite his anxiety, he strode to the nearest emergency escape route. As the concealed door responded to his command Straker edged sideways into the tiny elevator even before it had fully opened. Once inside he activated the lift and stood there, tension holding him rigid, until the elevator stopped and he could step out, free at last, into one of the storage sheds that the studio used for discarded props.

The shed was almost abandoned and he eased his way past broken gothic columns and crumbling plaster statues, until he reached the door and unlocked it, sighing with relief as fresh air chilled his face. The winter sky was dark and he shivered for a moment in the unexpected cold, but one deep breath restored his equilibrium before he headed for the main entrance and his waiting taxi.

‘Hounslow.’ He suddenly wondered what the address was. How strange. That he had lived there for over a week and yet still didn’t know the name of the street. ‘Main library, Hounslow.’ That would do. Straker leaned back in the seat and relaxed; he would be able to walk anyway, out in the night air, away from restrictions and enclosed spaces and being under constant watch.

A slow journey on icy roads but he was in no hurry and it was a relief anyway to be away from the confines of Headquarters, to be able to see the cloudy night sky, and breathe real air, not the recycled and purified and re-breathed air of Jackson’s rooms; to see silhouettes of trees, and lights from passing vehicles. The driver made an attempt at conversation but the monosyllabic and distracted answers from his passenger put an end to any effort and the journey continued in welcome silence.

‘Library.’ The taxi pulled up outside the imposing building, and the driver turned round. ‘Twenty-six forty.’

Straker had the notes ready, handed them over without a word, and opened the door, without waiting for change. He heard the taxi pull away but he was looking up at the building, remembering sitting there reading and trying to summon up the courage to return to the Shelter. He straightened his shoulders, turned round and walked along the high street past the shuttered shops and noisy groups heading for the pubs and bars, to that distant side street at the far end and ….

……………………………

‘Miss Steel?’

Rebecca turned, smiled, waited. ‘Hello Dale. Can I help you?’

He shrugged his shoulders, looking dejected. ‘You said something about funding for some computer courses, and I was wondering…..’

‘Okay, have you found one? Ah,’ she looked at his face, ‘expensive?’

He shrugged again, not the shrug of a man who doesn’t care, but a gesture of almost hopelessness. ‘It’s at the college. But, it’s a proper qualification. I could get a job with it.’ His eyes were downcast.

‘I’ll do my best, Dale. That’s all I can promise, but,’ she looked at her watch, ‘isn’t the match starting now on Sky? You don’t want to miss that.’ The Shelter manager smiled as Dale Atwood hurried into the common room to grab his seat, and she went to collect her coat. Time for home.

Chapter 8

Straker had given up trying to warm himself with brisk walking. There was more than a chill in the winter air, the temperature was below freezing with the threat of snow and he rubbed his hands together in a vain attempt to restore some feeling. Perhaps he had been foolish to come here, but he had a desperate need to recall what had disturbed him. Or maybe there was a deeper reason, one that Ed Straker, responsible, dedicated SHADO Commander, was loathe to acknowledge.

He strode on, not concentrating on where he was heading, his mind fixed on that one unattainable memory. The clone, and what Straker had seen, had felt, when that man stepped out from the darkness. What was it? Even now he felt his heartrate increase, felt the beginnings of panic but the sudden quiet startled him out of thoughts of red and silver and white. With even being aware, he had reached the side street, had turned down and was now off the main road and heading to that familiar building.

Straker stopped. What was he doing here anyway? It was late, and he had things to do. He could get a taxi and be back in HQ before they even knew he had gone. That was the sensible thing to do. He retraced his steps onto the main area, to step under a street light and pull out his phone as snow began to descend in icy flakes.

‘Ed? What on earth are you doing here?’

A flash of red under the light, copper-red this time, and a smile and he put his phone away and smiled shyly, as if he had been caught out. ‘Wondering the same myself actually,’ he admitted with a grin. ‘I just wanted to see where I had spent the last week but I hadn’t expected it to be so cold. I was just leaving.’

She put out a hand, ‘Fancy a coffee?’ and when he hesitated she took his elbow. ‘Come on, you look frozen.’

Straker ran numb fingers through his hair. ‘I should have worn a coat,’ he complained with a rueful grin, ‘but I hadn’t really intended coming out here when I set off.’ He looked up at her under pale eyelashes, and smiled. ‘I’m glad I did. Coffee sounds good.’

The setts were treacherous underneath the thin layer of snow, and he took her arm as they walked up the narrow street to the apartment entrance. Very different to the shelter, although it too had a buzzer and heavy door. Rebecca opened it and stepped inside, shaking snow off her coat and hair, as Straker followed her into the wide entrance area that was lined with numbered doors.

‘I’m upstairs.’ She led the way up the elegant curved staircase to a landing and more doors, polished brass numbers, pristine paintwork. A quick rummage through her bag for the key and then inside. Rebecca tossed her coat onto the banister. ‘In here.’

He had dusted the snow from his jacket but it was damp and he shrugged out of it and hung it in the warm hallway. The high ceiling of the living area, higher than he had seen before in an apartment, added to the sense of space and he stood there somewhat surprised at the sheer scope of the room.

‘You don’t mind instant?’ She was busy getting out mugs and spoons but watching him as he looked around, in appreciation.

‘No, that’s fine.’

‘Sit down, I’ll just be a minute. You take sugar, don’t you?’

The conversation was stiff, as if they were strangers, and to some extent they were, Straker realised. He was a stranger to her, not the John Shepherd that she had taken in, and he wondered if he had been foolish to come here. He stood, his back to her, looking up at the picture on the wall, a huge depiction of a face, almost a skull. Dramatic and somehow familiar. She came to stand beside him, mugs in one hand, ‘Julius.’

‘Sorry?

‘Julius Caesar. A friend painted it for me when I graduated.’

‘It’s impressive.’

‘Yes. He is. And he looks good in here.’ She waved her hand around the room. ‘Sit down. Are you warm enough?’ She handed him a mug.

Warm enough. Being cold under the blankets, feeling her close against him, warming. ‘Yes I’m fine. Thank you.’ He sat, cradling the mug and perching on the edge of the cream leather sofa, uncomfortable and uncertain.

She sat down, jerkily, coffee slopping onto her hand and she shook it off, fumbling for a handkerchief, and blushing. ‘Oh damn.’

Silence.

Straker sat there ill-at-ease, hands wrapped around the mug, sipping it, fingers tingling as feeling returned to them. Perhaps he shouldn’t have come. It would have been simpler to just walk away and leave behind his memories. And his hopes. SHADO was his priority, and yet…..

‘How are things in – ‘

‘How are you – ‘

They spoke together, and Rebecca smiled, ‘The shelter? Fine. Although it’s going to take some time to realise what happened. To Barry I mean.’ She looked across at Straker. ‘Why did that happen? Barry?’

Straker lowered his head, ‘I don’t really know why.’ He put his mug down, and sighed. ‘I’m sorry you got involved in it all, that Barry was killed.’

‘And you? How are you?’

‘I’m fine. Back at work next week.’ Stilted words. Stilted movements. He should go. Now. But Rebecca was sitting there, cautious eyes watching him, and he didn’t want to leave.

‘Look,’ she blushed again, ‘I was going to have a quiet evening in front of the telly. Feet up, that sort of thing. Stay. Please? Unless you have……..’ her voice trailed away and she looked down at her fingers.

He couldn’t remember the last time he had spent an evening just watching television. It was usually on in the background, while he was working. Sounds and images in the corner in a vain attempt to make him feel less alone, less isolated. ‘Football?’ he asked with some hesitation and she laughed.

‘No. There’s enough of that at work. I’ve no idea what’s on. Here.’ she tossed the remote to him, ‘I’ll let you choose. Anything.’ She went into the kitchen with the mugs, leaving him to think.

The news. Safe enough. He flicked channels, and as unmemorable news reports filled the screen he relaxed in the repetitiveness of the everyday events. Shoes slipped off as his feet warmed, he pulled up a leg to grasp hold of his ankle, unaware of how he barricaded himself into the deep corner of the sofa. The weather report next.

Rebecca finished, and came through, placing plates with sandwiches on the table, tiny vine tomatoes and a handful of crisps on each plate. A bottle of mineral water and two glasses. He looked up at her, ‘There’s a film next. True Grit.’

‘Still cold?’ she asked and smiled, as if in relief, when he shook his head. Wrapping herself in the cream wool throw that was folded over the backrest, she sat down at the end of the sofa, tucking herself into the other corner in imitation of Straker and pulled up her feet underneath her, a compact figure, as if willing herself to be unseen. She motioned at the plates. ‘Hope cheese is okay.’

‘Fine. Thank you.’ His stomach growled and with a sheepish grin he reached out to help himself, realising just how hungry he was.

They ate as Mattie and Rooster set off on their search, and as Cogburn rode through the river and Mattie pushed her horse on to follow, Straker turned to Rebecca, ‘He didn’t like horses, you know.’

‘Really?’ She sat up, her legs unfolded as she moved to get her drink. ‘Wonder why he did westerns then.’

Straker looked at her, ‘Probably to pay the bills.’ He shrugged. ‘Actors have to work.’

‘I hadn’t thought about that.’ She crossed her legs and moved back into her corner of the  sofa.

The familiar story unfolded on the screen, so well-known that even Straker could recite some of the lines. Comfortable viewing, no need for talk, or explanations, no embarrassing silences as they both watched and ate.

Straker put his plate back on the table, rubbing the back of his neck and yawning as Rooster Cogburn eased himself into the saddle, leather creaking, the horse grunting under his weight before obediently responding to the reins and walking off. The sofa creaked under Straker’s shoulders as he leaned back, finally allowing himself to unwind enough to stretch one arm along the back of the sofa. Rebecca watched the screen, her eyes flickering sideways at intervals as if to check that her guest was not bored, not restless.

It was strange, having someone here, someone sitting on her sofa, in her home. This was her sanctuary in a way. Her bolt-hole from the reality of life. A place of safety, of calm, and she had brought him back here. Why? It was simple when she thought about it, when she analysed her actions with the same dispassionate efficiency that she used at work. It was not that he was cold, or that she was lonely. She wanted to see who he was; who he really was. No longer John Shepherd, the man whom she had come to know intimately during that short week, no longer the shy, reserved and bewildered stranger. This man was Ed Straker, and as such, although he looked and acted and spoke like John, he was not. Not John.

A touch on her leg, as if one of the cushions had slipped, and she reached out to move it, but a soft noise made her stop. He was asleep, eyes closed, his leg relaxed and now leaning against hers. Another snore, gentle, his head tilted back, arm still along the backrest, fingers now curled in sleep. She sat there, unwilling to move and disturb him, watching him as she had done before, and gradually seeing, not just Ed Straker, but also John. Then the realisation came to her; they were the same person. Different names that was all. She eased herself out of the throw to wrap it around him, hoping that he would not wake before she retreated back to her corner and tucked her legs under, her eyes watching him as Rooster Cogburn and Mattie Ross rode across the screen, now ignored.

Minutes ticked by, but she was not bored, or tired. He twisted his body and she wondered if he might wake and be embarrassed, but no, he shuffled down and she realised that he was deeply asleep, not just dozing. Aware that he would be uncomfortable and cramped later, she unfolded herself from the end of the sofa once again and with gentle care eased him down onto the cushions. There. Now he would be able to sleep properly. There was no longer room at the end for her to sit, but once she had tucked the throw round his shoulders and under his feet, she turned the television down to a murmur and curled up in the single armchair, comforted by the occasional subdued snore. True Grit ended, the late news and weather came and went unnoticed, followed by a repeat from some detective series that she had never enjoyed, but he slept on and she absorbed herself in the pages of her book, feeling contented and at ease.

Out in the hall his phone rang insistently, unheard and unanswered.

Chapter 9

‘Why the hell doesn’t he answer?’ Alec Freeman slammed the phone down on the desk, before putting his head in his hands.

‘Could he have been taken? The aliens?’ Sara was hesitant; she had no idea how to deal with this situation and the possible causes for Straker’s disappearance were …………frightening.

‘No. At least I hope not. They couldn’t have known he was here, and security is tight to say the least.’ His head still in his hands, fingers almost tugging at his hair with worry. He looked up. ‘Damn. At least I can track his phone, as long…..’ He didn’t look at her as he started the search and the sentence hung in the air, unfinished. Sara knew what he was thinking. …as long as Straker had his phone with him. As long as he wasn’t in the hands of his enemies.

‘TW3 1PD…………….’ he frowned, ‘that sounds-‘

‘Rebecca. That’s her postcode.’ Sara interjected. ‘He’s with her.’

‘How the hell…… Never mind. Let’s go.’ He hurried from the rooms, along the corridor, Sara almost running to keep up with his rapid strides.

‘Alec,’ she grabbed his arm, pulled him to a stop. ‘Just wait a moment. Let me phone Rebecca first. He might….’ She looked at him, one eyebrow raised. ‘Please?’

He grunted assent and she stepped away, dialled, waited.

‘Damn.’ Rebecca scrabbled for her phone, keeping her voice soft, ‘Sara? What’s the matter? It’s-‘

‘Is Straker there?’ No niceties, no hello, or hi, or even sorry it’s so late, just an urgent, almost desperate plea.

‘Ed? Yes, he’s….’ she looked over, ‘…sleeping. Do you want me to wake him?’

She could hear a muted conversation in the background, then a different voice, almost breathless, ‘Alec Freeman here, Miss Steel. Ed is alright? Asleep? He’s not ill?’

‘No,’ she paused, wondering, ‘I bumped into him in town earlier, and he came back here to get warm and fell asleep on my sofa. Shall I wake him?’ She was scared now. Mr Freeman seemed concerned, and it was more than just the normal anxiety for a friend.

‘No. No, leave him if he’s that tired. Is that all right with you? Call me if he wakes up and I‘ll come and pick him up, whatever time.’

‘Alright. I’ll do that, but I think he’ll sleep through.’ She had seen enough men sleep like this, worn out and exhausted either by stress or work. Straker was no different. ‘I’ll tell him you called when he wakes.’

‘Miss Steel, one more thing,’ Alec’s voice was even more urgent, more insistent. ‘Don’t tell anyone that Ed is with you, and don’t let anyone in. No-one. Except Sara or me. Understood?’

‘Err, yes. I won’t. I’ll see you in the morning, Mr Freeman.’ She closed her phone and stood there, looking down at Straker. The room was warm, the heating on overnight. He would be fine. And with a sense of reluctance she bent over him, tucked the throw in once more and then allowed her fingertips to trace along his jaw and down the soft skin of his throat before she turned away.

The hall light cast a soft glow into the room, enough to illuminate but not to waken, and he stirred a little, turning over and pulling the throw closer before settling deeper into his dreams.

Alec turned to Sara. ‘Rebecca? Is she .. I mean…..’

She held his arm. ‘Straker will be safe there. Trust me.’

He looked at her. ‘I do. But it’s not like Ed to just go off like that.’

‘No? I think it sounds just like him. Face it Alec. He’s been through a lot and you yourself said he’d been stressed, even before this latest incident. And then you lock him away in Dr Jackson’s rooms and expect him to carry on as if nothing has happened. No wonder the poor bugger walked out. Give him a chance Alec. Let him have one night away from all this. She waved a hand at the white concrete walls that enclosed them. ‘Let them….. you know?’ She grinned and wrapped her arm around him.

A memory surfaced. Straker walking to his car, stopping and turning to his friend, the bitter note in his voice as he said to his friend ‘I am ushered everywhere, shepherded from one point to another with no freedom and virtually no privacy. Oh I know it’s necessary, but sometimes I just want to be…anonymous.’ And then he had stopped, and grimaced and shaken his head, misery evident in his hunched shoulders, his whole despondent stance. And Alec remembered that look of resignation as Straker accepted his loss of freedom on that night when he had died.

Alec shook his head. ‘Ed? No, Ed hasn’t ….. since his divorce. … there was no one at all.’ He looked at her with regret , ‘And I didn’t think, did I? Just put him somewhere he would be safe and didn’t think.’

But he had been so worried about Ed, about the fact that somewhere there might be a clone or a traitor waiting for him. The need to protect him was paramount, but deep down he had the feeling that he too had betrayed Ed. And when he had arrived earlier at Jackson’s rooms, only to find them empty and Straker nowhere to be seen, he had been gripped with fear.

‘What do I do, Sara? How do I help him?’ He lowered his head, and stood there, near to tears and she stepped close to him, held him, and pulled his head down onto her shoulder as Alec Freeman clung to her. She held him, tight, her hand through his hair, restraining him in strong fingers, refusing to release him until he had calmed, his shuddering breaths settling into back into its normal rhythm.

‘Come on. Let’s go. He’ll be fine. Trust her. Ed does.’ She took his arm. ‘Let him rest, tonight.’

He hesitated, torn between the compulsion to go and drag Straker back to the safety of HQ and the realisation that Sara was right, that Ed needed this space, and that he would be safe for the night. ‘Okay,’ he agreed, with some reluctance, ‘as long as I can get him first thing in the morning.’

Sara shook her head in exasperation. ‘In that case you’d better spend the night at my place. It’s close to Rebecca’s and if there are any problems you can get there quicker.’ And she grinned at him. ‘Come on. It’s been a long day and I’m tired.’

‘Too tired?’

She raised an eyebrow. ‘Got something in mind?’ and laughter echoed in the empty corridor as she took his hand and led him away.

Straker woke, aware that he was not, as he had thought, in his bed in the isolation suite, nor in his room in the shelter either, or at home. He thought back to the last thing he remembered. Being cold, drinking hot coffee, and.. damn. He sat up with a sheepish grin, expecting to see Rebecca sitting there, still watching television. The room was dark although the soft glimmer from the hallway was sufficient illumination to let him see that he was alone. Rubbing eyes gritty with sleep he wandered to the small downstairs cloakroom and then went back to sit on the sofa, wondering what to do next. There was a piece of paper on the table, and he picked it up, reading Rebecca’s neat script: Ed. Alec phoned. He’ll be round in the morning to pick you up. Rebecca.

Great. He wondered what Alec Freeman would have to say about this. Probably very little, although Alec could say enough with one twitch of his mouth. It was……. he looked at his watch, not yet three a.m. The sofa was comfortable, the room warm and he felt, well, he didn’t quite know how he felt. ‘Slack’ was the best word. As if all his tension had drained away for once, and then, curious as ever, he wondered where Rebecca was.

The stairs creaked underfoot, the banister was smooth to his hand, and his eyes were still bleary as Straker went in search of her. Closed doors, and one just ajar, the slightest gap, enough for him to see the dim light in the corner. He paused, and then pushed the door open, taking care not to wake her. Shoeless feet made no sound on the carpet as he moved to stand at the end of the bed, watching as she slept, the slender body wrapped in covers as if cocooning herself, hair glinting gold-red in the light, motionless apart from the slightest rise and fall as she breathed.

Straker observed in silence, the faintest sad smile on his lips, as he thought about his past and his mistakes. The opportunities he had thrown away or squandered without a thought, and he realised that he was as much a failure as Dale, and like Dale he had been given a chance. In the silence he waited, breathing in synchrony with her, eyes wondering at the fragile beauty that he saw revealed at last as she slept and allowed her tight defences to fall away. Two steps closer, to stand at her side, his head tilted as he regarded her. Another step, and his hand reached out to stroke, with the lightest of touches, the hair that fell across her cheek. She stirred, lips parting as she murmured, and he separated himself from her, moving back to stand once more and simply watch. Until, with a final smile, he turned and walked away, closing the door before going down to lie on the sofa once more.

Chapter 10

The rattle of china startled him from dreams. Blinking, he rubbed his face to  stretch and awaken skin dulled by deep sleep, then  pushed himself upright before remembering where he was.

‘Morning. You slept well.’

He looked around. Rebecca, hair tousled and still charmingly half-asleep herself was puttering in the kitchen, scooping coffee into mugs while the kettle boiled. He wrapped the throw around his shoulders, and sat back, allowing himself the luxury of waking slowly while she yawned and poured milk into mugs.

‘Here.’ A brief contact of hands as he took the mug and she sat beside him. ‘You were tired.’

‘Sorry,’ but he wasn’t. Not really.

‘I don’t mind. Really.’ She smiled. ‘Go and have a shower before Mr Freeman arrives. He phoned last night and said he’d pick you up first thing.’

Straker grimaced. ‘Alec. Typical.’ He leaned back, sighing. ‘Thank you for last night. It was …. ‘

‘I was glad to be able to help.’ She stood up, ‘Finish your coffee, there’s towels and stuff in the bathroom. I’ll make breakfast when you come down.’ She regarded him for a moment, then reached out to stroke his jaw, ‘There’s a razor as well. Ladies, but it will do.’

He turned away before his expression could betray him. ‘Thank you.’  The mug held tight, he hunched over the fragrant aroma, waiting until she had walked away. He concentrated on the brew, the taste, anything other than watch her as she tidied up and cast glances at him, then he walked upstairs, into the bathroom and turned on the shower. In silence.

Rebecca wrapped her dressing gown around herself, tugged  the belt tighter and listened to the sounds from the bathroom above. Water running, faint footsteps, that stillness  as he undressed, then more steps across  the space. The flow of water interrupted, random splashes, water draining away, down over him, over blond hair and………………

She stood there,  her hands fiddling aimlessly with teaspoons, hearing the unfamiliar noises of someone else in her  home.

The cessation of flowing water above. A soft thump  as he stepped out to dry himself  then  a  gurgle of water in the pipes as, she realised,  he started to shave.

The doorbell rang, wakening her from her reverie.

‘Come on.’ Alec pressed the bell again, his voice a soft hiss as if  unwilling to show his concern.

‘Give her a chance Alec.’ Sara pulled him back. ‘It’s early. And ..’ she turned as the door opened. ‘Hi.’ She gave Rebecca a sheepish grin in apology.

Rebecca stood there, barring the way. ‘Sara. Mr Freeman.’

‘Is Ed awake? I want to see him.’ Alec wanted to push past her but held back, aware that Sara was stepping forward now.

‘I’m sorry about this Rebecca, really sorry. We were worried about Mr. Straker when we couldn’t contact him last night and after the last few days .. well you know.’ She shrugged.

Come in.’ Rebecca led the way into the living room, picking up the throw to fold and drape it over the back of the sofa, before tossing the cushions back into place. ‘He’s in the shower.’ She was angry now, although she couldn’t really say why, just that Mr Freeman, and Sara as well,  were acting like prison guards, demanding the return of some miscreant. No wonder Ed had wanted a  quiet evening away from everything.

Alec sighed. ‘I’m sorry. I’m overreacting. My apologies Miss Steel. I was concerned about  Ed even though Sara said he would be safe with you.

Sara frowned at Alec in warning. ‘We wondered if he’d had a relapse. The doctors said it was a possibility.’ There, that should allay any further questions.

Rebecca pulled her dressing gown even  tighter around herself and straightened as if coming to a decision, ‘No, he’s fine. I was just about to make breakfast.’

They stood there, Rebecca in the kitchen area, Alec and Sara on the other side of the breakfast bar. The kettle boiled, she went through the simple routine of spooning and pouring, adding milk and stirring before passing the mugs across the barrier, still in silence and she heard the creak of old wood as  Ed came out of the bathroom,.

Alec put his mug down and hurried across the room, looking up the staircase and as he did so Rebecca turned to Sara. ‘So? What?’

Sara took her mug, sat on the sofa and shook her head almost imperceptibly, her eyes flickering to Alec Freeman. ‘Not now.’ she murmured, and Rebecca nodded at last, aware that Sara relaxed.

Straker walked down the stairs, vigorously rubbing his hair dry with a small towel and brushed past his friend. Frowned. ‘Alec.’

‘You alright Ed?’ Freeman waited.

‘Why shouldn’t I be?’ Fingering his damp hair with abrupt movements, Straker lifted a not too friendly eyebrow. ‘I’m not an infant, dammit.’

‘I was worried,” he started. “Anything could’ve…’

Straker took the mug Rebecca held out to him. ‘But it didn’t. Leave it Alec.’ Visibly pulling himself together he nodded at Sara. ‘Dr. Harper.’ A terse almost rude acknowledgement before he sat on the sofa, reaching down to pick up his discarded shoes and pulling them on.

Rebecca continued in the kitchen,  getting  butter, knives, plates, putting everything out, in the growing silence.

‘Ed?’ she gestured to him, a wave of her  hand and he came and sat at the  bar, taking  a slice of hot toast, ignoring Alec and Sara as they finished their drinks. Alec stepped forward, putting his mug down, one glance at Rebecca.  ‘We’ll wait in the car.’

Sara flashed a quick look at Straker before  nodded at Rebecca. ‘I’ll call you later. Talk to you properly. Lunch this week maybe?’  She followed Freeman out into the cold morning.

Rebecca heard the front door close, turned to Straker. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘Alec always was …. protective,’ he grimaced, ‘I should have told him where I was, but…’

She passed him the marmalade, the taste reminding him of another  breakfast, another morning.

‘I should go.’ He put the last crust down on the plate, the knife on top, pushed it a few inches away. Looked at her.  ‘Thank you.’

She heard the lock on the  front door click. Footsteps going down. She could see the car outside waiting under a streetlight, and he got in the back, hidden behind the dark glass. It drove away and she stood there for a while, looking up  the empty street at the  wide tyre tracks on the thin layer of snow that covered the setts,  before she  went upstairs to shower and dress for work.

Sara stared straight ahead, aware of the tension in the vehicle as Alec drove, his fingers gripping the wheel. He had not spoken since Straker had got in. Neither man had. She tightened her  lips and kept her thoughts to herself.

Out of Hounslow, heading along busy roads, the traffic slower than usual on the treacherous roads, Straker rigid with arms folded, Alec glancing up every few moments to check him in the rear-view mirror. Sara sighed and tried to relax. The car picked up speed on the quieter side road to Harlington, Alec’s eyes constantly flicking  to the mirror, watching the quiet man in the back seat.

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‘Fuck.’ There was a heart-stopping sensation as he looked ahead and realised the car had drifted  into  the middle of the road, towards  oncoming traffic.
Alec’s muttered oath broke the silence  as he swerved back  then  eased off the accelerator and held  the wheel steady, his fingers white with stress. The car slowed to a halt, he loosened his hold, casting a glance up at the mirror to check his passenger. ‘You okay, Ed?’

’Trying to get rid of me Alec?’ but there was a hint of relief in the voice, as if Straker had been waiting for an opportunity to breach the uncomfortable atmosphere. He unfolded his arms, ‘Sara?’

She twisted round to face him, ‘I’m fine.’ She patted Alec on the knee. ‘Just a little more  care if you don’t mind.’

‘Sorry.’  He looked up again. Eyes met, and Straker gave the briefest of nods.

‘Alec, I could do with some stuff.  Can you drop me at my place?’ A casual request but   Straker hoped his friend wouldn’t put up any objections. He did want some clean clothes but more than that he needed to assure himself that  he still had a home, still had somewhere that he could retreat to when he wanted to be alone. A place of his own, not some anonymous basement room with the bare basics.

Another meeting of eyes. ‘Okay.’ Freeman slipped the car into gear and drove on, slower now and with more care.  The turning ahead, Straker’s house close by now,  and Alec pulled up in the driveway. ‘Damn. Keys. I’ve got them somewhere.’ He started to  rummage  though his briefcase while Straker waited, standing  in front of the neat bungalow.

‘These?’ Sara held up a bunch she had found in the glove box  and when Freeman nodded, with a sheepish grin, she got out to take them to Straker.

‘Thank you.’ He took one pace towards the small porch, turned back. ‘Sara. A word with you?’ He stepped closer, turning his face away from the car, from Alec, waiting there. ‘Alone?’ his voice almost a whisper.

Solemn blue  eyes,  not pleading but earnest, regarded her, and it all fell into place. ‘Rebecca?’ her reply as soft as his question and he nodded once.

‘Alec,’ Sara Harper leaned into the car. ‘I’ll give him a hand,’ her eyebrow lifted in silent entreaty.

‘Okay.  I’ll send Keith to pick you up in a while.’ He smiled at her, ‘Look after him,’ and drove off.

 

Chapter 11

Someone had been in the house while he had been away. The heating was on, the rooms warm, without that  musty smell of an unaired, uninhabited house. It seemed bigger than he remembered and more welcoming.  There was a pile of letters and he picked them up,  flicking through them before  dropping several back onto the hall table with a grunt of disgust. Without a word he led Sara down the hall to the living room.

Lights clicked on, and he stood there, appreciating being back in his quiet anchorage, this one place where he felt grounded, secure. And yet somehow it all seemed a little unnecessary, all the trappings, the expensive furniture, the paintings, as if all he really needed was a safe place to sleep and someone to talk to, to share a meal. Perhaps it was time he moved on. Away from here.

Sara looked around, getting the feel of the room, a masculine room, unadorned by small intimate items that tell of a woman’s presence, but a ‘handsome’ room all the same. Aesthetically pleasing, although that didn’t surprise her. She had developed a quiet respect for Ed Straker in the short time she had come to know him, and his words to her outside spoke of a thoughtful although diffident man. He turned to her, eyes half hidden as if reluctant to open himself to her scrutiny.

‘Commander? You wanted to speak to me.’  There. Out in the open. It was up to him now.

Straker sighed. ‘Not Commander. Ed. This is a …private matter.’ He sat down, hands clasped, head lowered for a moment and she watched the change in him as he came to his decision, as he straightened, as resolve filled him. One breath,  before  he  stared at her. ‘Rebecca.’

‘Yes.’

‘I need to know.’ His hands  were tight together. ‘What happened.’

Sara looked away from the raw pain in his face. ‘What do you mean?’

He stood up, restlessly pacing across the room before he stopped to straighten the picture hanging above the mantelpiece. ‘You know. Something made her retreat from life. I have my suspicions, but……….’ he made another tiny, insignificant adjustment to the position of the painting, ‘I don’t want her to be hurt. Again.’

Hell. And not a swear word either. That was what had happened to Rebecca. How could she tell this man, this  gentle, concerned man who even now was standing there with his back to her, broad shoulders stiff with tension  as if anticipating the worst.

‘Sit down Ed. Please.’ She gestured to him. ‘This is going to be hard.’

‘I’m sorry. You don’t need-.’

She interrupted him. ‘No. Hard for you. So …… just listen.’ It was her turn to stand now, to intertwine her fingers, to pace the room, wondering if perhaps she was  doing the right thing. She looked down at him, considering  how to tell him. Sitting down again, close to him this time, she reached for his hand and remembered him lying there while she examined him, recalled his self-control, his ability to cope with what was, after all an intimate intrusion into his privacy. The answer was there.

Dr Harper took a breath, gripped his hand, and started to talk.

‘Rebecca was engaged. Doesn’t matter who to, or his name, but he was … wealthy, influential, used his position to get what he wanted. You know the sort of person.’

Straker nodded, his fingers still held between hers, not as she had held them before, to examine; this hold was for comfort, and he felt afraid. She carried on talking, her eyes not meeting his now, looking past him into the distance. ‘They had the wedding planned. Big wedding, the works. Church, flowers, reception; everything. Then, …’

His fingers, interlaced with hers, tensed. She swallowed, looked at him. ‘One night he raped her.’ Fingers tightened. She closed her eyes and continued, reciting the details in her professional voice, the only way she could bring herself to tell him without breaking down. ‘He was drunk and  – brutal.  She suffered serious vaginal damage, torn labia,  and bruising to the cervix. Extensive anal tearing.’ Fingers clenched now. ‘He broke her cheekbone and jaw, fractured three ribs, attempted to strangle her. But,’ Sara turned to him, seeing his eyes glisten, ‘she survived.’

He turned away, rigid, short shallow breaths as he processed the information, thought about the facts, and analysed them. Rebecca. A hand stroking his face, copper-red hair lying across her face, her eyes closed in sleep.

‘When did it happen?’

‘Eight years ago. Rebecca recovered, went back to university, got her Masters. Moved on. Except…’

Straker shook his head. ‘No. You don’t move on. You can hide something like that, bury it away but it’s always there.’

‘Yes.’

‘Thank you. For telling me.’ He let go of her hand. ‘Do you want to make a drink, while I get changed?’

‘Sure.’ Sara reached out and stroked his cheek, wiping away a single tear that had escaped. ‘You go and get sorted.  And Commander….?’

He smiled at her, a thin sad smile. ‘Yes, Doctor Harper?’

‘She won’t say it, but you mean a lot to Rebecca. I know you  won’t hurt her.’

He didn’t reply, his look was sufficient, and smiling now she went into the kitchen to search for mugs and spoons and coffee.

…….

Keith Ford stood  there. Straker’s house. The message had come through and he had followed his  instructions. With some reluctance, unwilling to disturb the  exquisite peace of the cold winter’s morning, with  ice still hanging in the air and  the gravel frozen  solid underfoot, he walked to the front door.

Straker had changed, his slept-in crumpled suit now hanging ready for the  cleaners,  and his suitcase open on the bed. With methodical care he folded sweaters, shirts, underwear and placed them in precise order in the case, all the while his mind thinking of her. Pyjamas. And he grinned mirthlessly, recalling the pair he had worn last week. A couple of suits last, on top of the other items and the case closed. He picked it up and walked out, without further thought.

Sara had made coffee, ‘Black, I’m afraid, but sugar in yours.’

‘Thank you.’ He seemed to be saying that a lot recently. They looked at each other, Ed Straker and Sara Harper, a secret now shared between them.  He needed to talk, to ask for help, but she was not the right person. He concentrated instead on the drink in his hand. Black coffee. As bitter and dark as his thoughts.  The door bell rang and he frowned, troubled by the intrusion.

‘Keith.’ Sara assured him. ‘Alec said he would send Keith to collect us, but,’ she looked at her watch, ‘he’s a bit early.’

‘I’ll get it.’ Straker sighed, with the realisation that he would soon be heading back to Jackson’s rooms, to sit there, no doubt alone while the search continued for any clones in the headquarters.  ‘Lt Ford.’ He stepped back, leaving the door open for the man to follow him inside.  ‘Come in. I’m nearly ready.’

He heard the footsteps behind him, hesitant and soft. A quiet voice, ‘Straker,’ behind him, too quiet  somehow,   and he realised with dread that something was wrong. Very wrong. Keith never called him Straker. He spun round.

And remembered.

A figure, stepping out from the gloom, dark-suited, the helmet of pale hair gleaming under subdued lights. And then, the one thing he had forgotten in the horror. The voice. His own voice, soft and full of despair and regret, and yet loathing.  ‘Straker’ And looking into his own eyes to see the sadness there. His clone.  Sentient and aware. A living being, programmed to do as ordered, yet Straker could see the man’s soul staring back at him.

Straker froze, caught in a long moment of paralysing shock. Unable to move, he looked into Keith’s eyes. Keith Ford. SHADO Communications officer. Yet not Keith. Not the man that Straker had known for years.  The difference was there in the eyes.  That unmistakable  look. A clone, his enemy, and yet…..

But this was his home. His last place of retreat. How dare they intrude on his private life? Rage filled him, and he was about to react when, with astonishing silence and speed, Keith  grabbed him by the throat, tightening his fingers as Straker’s own fingers had tightened on Sara’s hand earlier.

Straker reacted instinctively, extending  his arms, moving  his hands swiftly inside Keith’s locked elbows, his longer  reach giving him enough room to grasp the thicker neck of his assailant. The carotids first. Pressing as hard as he could, although his own mind was beginning to blur from the constraint of the hands around his throat, until he felt Keith’s own fingers falter and drop away. Then Straker released his hold, one hand sliding now  through Ford’s hair to yank the   head back and  he  clenched his other fist and hit, with all the power and rage and anger that had filled him. He felt the throat  crumple under his knuckles, the crunch of bone, the appalling sensation of his knuckles punching almost through to the vertebrae of the neck. The effect was immediate. And horrific.

With his larynx crushed and pulverised Ford writhed, choking and gasping, his bubbling  gurgles an indication of his  desperate efforts to drag air into his lungs.

Straker turned as Sara’s muffled shout of fear as she came into the hallway. ‘Stay there.’ he ordered her, his voice rough from the constriction of Keith’s fingers. He dropped down to kneel beside the thrashing figure and with callous disregard for the man’s frantic attempts to breathe, flung  him face down. One hand pressed against Ford’s cheek, fingers pushing brutally into soft skin of the mouth, holding his attacker hard against the floor,  before  his free hand parted  the  hair at the nape of the neck.

A small circular scar.  He clamped his hand on the neck, as  Keith shuddered one final time, before lying still.   Straker pushed himself up.  Stood there, eyes hard and distant, until he heard Sara come  closer to look over his shoulder.

‘I told you to stay away.’ He took her elbow and moved her away.

‘Is that…’

‘A clone.’ He rubbed his neck, where strong fingers had bruised soft tissue, ‘Use the phone in the kitchen. Dial seven. It gets straight through to Colonel Freeman. Inform him we have a level three security situation. Tell him to come alone.’ He turned back, to kneel once more beside the prone body, and began the process of stripping the corpse.

Two more scars. He stood up, dusting his hands as if to remove unseen dirt as Sara reappeared.

‘Alec is on his way.’

‘Good,’ his voice was hoarse. ‘Wait outside for him.’

‘Ed…’ She came closer.

He looked at her, frowned. ‘That was an order Dr Harper.’

There was a pause.  Sara stared into cold eyes, stepped back. ‘Yes….  Commander.’

vlcsnap-227031

 

Chapter 12

Sara opened the front door. ‘Alec’s here.’

Straker looked up at her, and she stepped back, away from the sight of the body with its killer. She felt a little sick, which was surprising. The sight of a corpse had never upset her before, but perhaps it was the fact that she had seen something in Straker that she had not anticipated; that cold ruthlessness. Alec got out of the jeep and she waited for him, waited for a look, or even a quick enquiry, but he brushed straight past her, heading for the hallway. She heard him say, ‘Straker,’ before the door closed and she was left outside.

The door opened once more, and she watched them haul the body out, carrying the dead weight in silence, Straker avoiding looking at either of them. He had killed a man, had ended a life. He had seemed so distant, almost callous, in the house, kneeling there stripping the shirt from Keith Ford, his hands moving with deft efficiency. She had seen his strength and she was suddenly afraid, as if his true nature had been revealed. Not a cruel man, she was knew that, but he was someone who would stop at nothing to achieve what he deemed necessary. She wondered if Alec could be merciless and professional, wondered if he had ever killed a man, as Straker had just done.

But then for one moment, as Straker’s hands reached under the body to lift it, his eyes met hers, briefly. And she saw the distress in his face before he averted his gaze as if he knew full well what she had been thinking.

She stood there on the driveway, keeping in the background as much as possible, as they completed the unpleasant and difficult task of getting the limp body bundled into the back of the jeep. Without a word Straker strapped himself in behind Alec and sat there, arms wrapped around as if to shield himself from the outside world. Neither man spoke. Sara climbed in the front, closed the door, fastened the seat belt, all in silence, although she ached to say something to comfort him. But not at the present time. Not right now.

She was edgy, her hands clasped in her lap, as if the reality of the situation was only now beginning to make itself known to her. Clones had infiltrated SHADO, despite all their attempts. She twisted round to look at Straker, sitting in silence behind Alec, eyes half-closed in concentration. And Alec. He was silent as well. Less than five words had passed between the two men. As if they were strangers.

Straker sat there, remembering the feel, the sound of his fist crushing through soft cartilage, destroying tissue, airways; life. Blood on his hands. He unfolded himself, stared at his hands, turning them over. Nothing. Yet he could still feel the blood. He looked up, but his friend was concentrating on the road, not even glancing up to check the mirror. Sara had turned to stare at him, one brief glance before she too ignored him.

Straker grimaced. It was an unpleasant introduction to life in SHADO for the pathologist, and there was going to be worse to come. There was always worse. He closed his eyes for a moment, breathed deeply, brought himself back under control.

‘Use the cargo lift Alec.’ He leaned forward, voice still rasping and sore. Alec nodded, eyes still watching the road ahead. No further talking, no chatting, no idle conversation. Harlington. They turned into the Studio complex, into the secluded warehouse that housed the lift. The body dragged out, heaved onto a stretcher; all without acknowledgement of each other.

Sara, disregarded by both men, hung back as they wheeled their burden along the corridor to Jackson’s rooms, as Straker lifted Ford’s shoulders and eased the body onto the same bench that he had lain on for Sara’s examination. Then he looked down at it and reached for the same sheet, before, with almost tender care, as if covering a child, draped it over the corpse to cover the ruined and distorted throat, Keith’s mouth caught in that last rictus of agony, the sightless staring eyes.

‘I need you to do the autopsy Dr Harper. As soon as possible.’

‘Commander.’ Sara’s first word to him since being ordered to leave his house. A curt word of acknowledgement. He expected nothing else. He had killed this man, killed him with callous efficiency, without recourse to surrender or mercy and he remembered what Sara had told him about Rebecca. Dr Harper must despise him. A brutal, violent man. Straker smoothed the wrinkles out of the sheet and pulled it tighter before turning away, casting one final look at her over his shoulder.

‘I’ll want your report by this evening.’ Damn. His voice sounded harsh and gruff, and she looked at him with some unease. He rubbed his neck, feeling the roughness of bruised tissues, the discomfort as he swallowed, his mind full of  thoughts of Keith and unaware of tension in the room, of Alec standing there just watching him.

‘Is your throat sore?’ Professional concern only in her voice. He nodded with reluctance and she turned to Freeman who was standing there watching. ‘Get the Commander some iced water please while I take a look at him.’

She reached out to him as Alec left the room, stepping close enough to place her hands on Straker’s arms. ‘Ed.’ Her voice now dark with worry, with fear. ‘I was hoping I was wrong. But now I don’t think so. That’s not Alec. At least I … in a way, I hope it isn’t.’

The words hung in the air like a death sentence. Straker looked at her. ‘Not Alec?’ And the sudden gut-wrenching sense of loss was nearly his undoing. Not Alec. A clone.

Alec. Taken by aliens. Alec trapped in a transporter capsule, drowning. It all fitted into place. The complete lack of awareness towards Sara, as if she was nothing more than a random person, not the woman that he was sleeping with; the careful journey back to headquarters almost as if he was recalling how to drive; the silence.

There was one chance and Straker pulled away from Sara, to open the cabinets and rifle through the contents before turning back to her. ‘Dr. Harper, we need to take it alive. I have to know where the factory is. A sedative. Anything.’

One glance at his face and she understood what he intended and brusquely pushed him aside, to search through the small bottles and grab one. ‘Find me a syringe, any size, doesn’t matter.’ She heard him tear open a box and then a sealed packet as she pulled out a small bottle.

‘Here.’ The hypodermic in his hand, ready. She filled it, heedless of accuracy, of making sure that air was displaced. They might have only seconds before it reappeared. It. Sara could not think of the man as Colonel Freeman, as Alec.

She looked at Straker. ‘Can you hold it? Just for a moment? That’s all I need.’ He nodded, and then stepped to the side of the door.

The wait seemed endless, and for one moment Straker wondered if perhaps the clone had left and headed for the control room, but the fact that it had come to his house was proof that their intention was to get Straker. And he prayed that Alec was unharmed, and then, with a pang of remorse, he remembered Keith. He might be with Alec. Might be. They had to keep this one alive, had to interrogate it.

The door slid open. Freeman entered and Straker moved to twist the man to the floor as Sara Harper dropped beside the struggling figure and jabbed the needle deep into its neck. She pushed the plunger down and then ….they waited.

 

Chapter 13

Alec opened his eyes. Darkness. Coldness and darkness. He tried to reach out, but his wrists were restrained. Uncomfortable restraints that bit into his skin, tight on the bones underneath. Pain in his head. He turned his face to one side, but a hand hit his cheek, the unexpected slap stinging his skin. He could feel his pulse beating hard, almost erratically, could sense the strangeness of his surroundings, could smell his sweat, sharp and sour. A blindfold over his eyes, so firm that he could not see even the slightest chink of light.

Muffled voices in the background, words that he could not make out. Strange, unfamiliar sounds that were unlike anything he had heard before. Panic filled him and he struggled against the ties that held him down, but it was useless. He wondered what they would do to him, his enemy, now that they had captured him, and he thought back over his life, memories of his past flooding through his mind.

There was a sharp pain in his arm, a hand on his body, a voice close to his head and he turned to listen, half-expecting another clout. The voice was familiar. He had been trained, been taught to recognise it, the voice of his enemy.

‘Where have you come from?’ a softly hissed question, and despite the blindfold he could visualise Ed Straker standing there, leaning over him, his hand pressing onto Alec Freeman’s shoulder. Warmth spread through him, a quiet lassitude as the drug relaxed him, blurring his efforts to focus on being silent. He was dizzy now, which was a new sensation although this body, this person understood the feeling. Too dizzy even to speak. Numb lips mumbled incoherently, his fingers stretched, clenched, twisted in an effort to bring his thoughts under control.

Another sharp pain on his face. Pain. He was used to that. The pain from the implants in his neck and spine, as his creators filled his mind with stolen thoughts, as his body had been forced to grow rapidly, as he realised with horror what he was. A mere copy. A shell, with one purpose only. Full of those memories that belonged to another person, and yet were also his own. His whole life a pretence, with one goal. To capture Straker if possible, or otherwise to eliminate him.

And the worst thing was that deep within, he had become Alec Freeman, has seen and delighted in the deep affection that Freeman had for his friend, and more frightening than anything, he too felt that same emotion for the man he had been programmed to regard as his ultimate enemy.

He had failed, and yet, he had also succeeded. Ed Straker was still alive, still free.

The question again, harsher this time, closer to his ear, the voice with a note of desperation. Alec shook his head, unable to answer, his feeble attempts to escape futile against the straps that held him down. A low moan escaped his mouth as he felt a needle once more in his flesh and another surge of light-headedness.

A different voice this time and he knew who it was. Jackson. He had hated Jackson once, he seemed to recall. At least Alec Freeman had hated Jackson. He could smell the man’s breath on his face, a slight hint of spiced tea, and Alec closed his eyes tighter under the blindfold.

‘Colonel. Tell me. Where did you come from?’ the voice was insistent, insidious, creeping into his brain past all his defences, all his barriers. He bit his lip, bringing blood.

‘It’s no use. He won’t answer.’ Straker’s angry retort filled the room.

‘Or he can’t, Commander.’ The slow drawl of Jackson’s accent was soothing. ‘It is quite possible that he has no knowledge of where he was created.’

Alec heard a hand slam on a hard surface. ‘I have to know. There has to be something you can do. At least, if not where he was grown, some clue as to where we might find Alec. The real Alec.’

‘I can only use the drug one more time Commander. Even then it is dangerous.’

Alec listened.

‘Another dose. My orders.’

‘Very well.’

Pain. Heat . Dizzying vertigo. He wanted to tell them, to tell his enemy, his friend, but the words wouldn’t come out although he had been trying for so long.

Fingers gripped his arms, digging in. ‘Tell me. Where did you come from?’ Insistent, demanding. Another blow on his face, back-handed and hard. His eyes watering, his tongue tasting blood, words sticking in his throat.

‘Enough. That’s enough. You’ve been interrogating him for hours now.’ Her voice. The woman. The one of whom he had no memory, no reference point. She was not in his mind, not in the data that had filled his empty thoughts like water pouring into a reservoir.

‘I have to know Dr. Harper. This is no time for sentimentality.’ Straker. Cold and hard as Alec had so often seen him, and yet distressed as well. And Alec wanted to help. He swallowed, a stale taste in his mouth, and forced words out.

‘Water. Tunnel.’ The sum of his knowledge. Two words. Another blow.

‘Commander. Please. Stop.’

Straker released his hand. ‘Leave the room Doctor Harper.’

‘No. Listen. I finished the autopsy on that clone of Ford. I need to talk to you. Right away.’

He lay there, his swelling tongue exploring the inside of his bruised cheeks, feeling his light-headedness fade slightly as the drug released its hold on his body. More quiet mutterings away from where he lay, then Jackson’s hand on his wrist feeling for his pulse for a moment. He focussed on the words, the woman arguing with Straker. He was tired and more than tired. Something felt … wrong.

He could feel the acidic bile in his gut, a tingling in his face, not from a slap, but a warning and he had just enough time to twist his head to one side before he vomited. Coppery, salty unstoppable, blood gushing from his mouth.

‘Christ.’ The woman was first to get to him, to lift his head, his shoulders and support his as he vomited more blood, spluttering and gasping. ‘Ed. Untie him. He’s going to choke.’ ‘What the hell……’ Straker’s hands now undoing the straps, lifting him to sit forward, blood still filling his throat and mouth, relentless as it poured out.

‘This is what I was afraid of.’ She was speaking now, even as she was wiping his face, clearing his lips as the deluge eased and he was able to gasp huge breaths into his starved lungs. Exhausted, he slumped back, to lie on his side as pain bit deep into his gut.

‘It hurts.’ His own voice, broken and childish, like the voices of others he had known, and a gentle hand stroked his face.

‘I know. Hold on. It will stop soon.’ Sympathy, love, concern? He could not tell, but her voice was kind and he put one hand on top of hers, to hold it and be cherished for once in his short life.

‘What’s the matter with…….’

‘It? Him? The same as Keith. Disintegration I think would be the best description. All his major organs are breaking down. Keith didn’t live long enough for it to become apparent.’ She smoothed Alec’s hair, spoke again. ‘It’s … painful. He doesn’t deserve this Ed.’

Alec saw his friend step closer to lean over him. ‘One last time. Where did you come from?’ The soft Bostonian accent now pleading. ‘Please.’

‘Ed,’ Freeman smiled, despite the agony that was building inside, ‘there was water and a tunnel. That is all I know.’ He closed his eyes, coughing as blood spattered onto the pillow.

‘Sara, Jackson. What can you do to help him?’ There was silence. Straker’s voice again, but now quiet and sad. ‘Nothing? As you say Doctor Harper, he doesn’t deserve this. I think he has helped us as much as he can. Please, leave us.’

Her hand was removed from his face and Alec felt the movement of air as she brushed past him without a word. He lay still, the worst of the coughing over, but his mouth was tainted with stale blood. The pain burnt him, sliced deep into him and he moaned.

‘Jackson. You know what I’m asking?’ Alec could hear his friend nearby, as if Straker was standing there next to the table, next to him, but it was too much effort to open his eyes and see.

‘I am. But, you know that I won’t… I can’t…’ That drawl again, but hesitant and reluctant this time.

Alec wondered what they were talking about as he coughed again, thick clots and dead black tissue spewing out as Straker raised him in a firm hold.

‘It’s my responsibility. Just give it to me.’ Straker still held him, heedless of the blood that surely must now be soaking into clothes. The sound of cabinets being opened, the rustle of plastic tearing. ‘Thank you. You can go.’ Straker, icily calm as if holding himself together by sheer willpower. Alec knew how determined Straker could be, even though he had only known of him for a short while. Not long enough really.

Alec felt the needle scratch his arm, felt the drug start to take hold, felt deep unending and welcome sleep begin to wash over him and at last the pain subsided as his friend, the man he had been sent to capture, released him.

 

 

Chapter 14

Straker tore off his ruined jacket, and covered the face of Alec Freeman. It would do for now, would hide the sight of that face smeared with blood, blood everywhere, drying and stiffening even now on the pillow, on the floor, on Straker’s hands and spattered on his clothes. He would have stripped off and thrown his ruined suit away, but the sudden realisation hit him that there was no-one running headquarters. With Foster in Moonbase and Alec,…. Alec, please God, waiting to be rescued, it was down to him. He scoured his hands, scrubbed off the visible blood, dried them on a small towel was tossed into the bin.

There was no time for quiet contemplation, for coming to terms with what he had done today. Two men. He had killed two men, with cold-bloodied efficiency and without any remorse. Except that…. he rinsed his face once more, stared at his reflection and prepared himself. No jacket to tug straight, but he stiffened his shoulders and walked out to meet Sara Harper and Jackson.

‘Commander?’ Jackson tilted his head, his voice quiet and concerned. ‘I need to speak to you. Outside. Dr Harper, would you stay here for a moment?’

There was an uncomfortable silence then Sara nodded. ‘I’ll finish up with that autopsy then. Five minutes?’

‘Perfect.’ Jackson waved Straker out onto the corridor, and waited.

Straker sighed. ‘Miss Steel.’ He started walking.

‘Why makes you think that?’

‘You’re a psychologist, Jackson and unfortunately a very good one. Sometimes your perception in these matters is frightening.’ He stopped. Leaned against the one of the buttresses, folded his arms. ‘What do you need to know?’ He closed his eyes.

Jackson stood. ‘It is not just about Miss Steel, though she seems a remarkably..’ he paused, considered, a slight smile twitching the edges of his mouth, ‘should we say… interesting character. It is you, Commander that I wish to know more about.’ His arms folded in imitation of the man standing opposite, raised an eyebrow. ‘How you feel now.’

‘As in? I’ve recovered my memories. I am going back to work. What else is there to say?’ Silence.

Straker waited. The concrete wall was rough against his shoulder, the floor smooth under his feet. Contrasting sensations, just as his emotions were divided; his sense of duty tugging him towards his office to take control and start the desperate search for Alec, and yet there was a craving to leave here, to go back to that shabby side street and say the words ‘John Shepherd’ and go back down to the safe confines where he had no responsibilities, no duty.

Where he would be able to talk to her, to Rebecca. As he had not talked last night.

It was not the same though. It would never be the same. He was no longer John Shepherd, someone to be cared for and protected. He was the one doing the protecting, now. But he had not saved Alec or Keith. ‘Alec,’ he murmured and shook his head, grimacing. Remembering.

‘Commander?’ Jackson put a hand on his shoulder. You were saying?’

Straker turned away. ‘Nothing. There is nothing Jackson. I have my duties to see to now. As for Miss Steel? She looked after me. That is all. She did her job and I have to move on. I have to start the search.’ He looked at Jackson. ‘Is that all?’

‘For now Commander.’ Jackson looked at him with narrowed eyes. ‘But later we should talk. About you, and what happened in the Shelter. To you.’

Straker straightened up, looked at the psychologist and took one step away. ‘I need to get back Jackson. Tell Dr Harper to join me here and then you can continue with the checks on staff.’

He stood there in the corridor watching as Jackson went back to his rooms and as Sara came out and hurried towards him.

‘Come with me.’ Straker ordered, even as his brisk steps were taking him towards his office, towards the Control room though he had no idea what he would do when he got there. For one ludicrous moment he envisioned himself being arrested as an imposter, and a mirthless grin twisted his lips, until he remembered Alec dying in his arms. And it was Alec, even though he knew that it was only a clone. It had Alec’s memories, Alec’s personality, even Alec’s bravery. He paused, waiting for Sara to catch up to him.

‘Where are we going?’ Her concern for Alec was overshadowed by her worry for the man standing in front of her, his clothes stained, his eyes shadowed.

‘Going? I am going back to work Dr. Harper. I need you with me, if….’ he looked at her questioningly, ‘if you don’t mind.’

‘Why Commander? Why me?’

‘Simple. I know you are not a clone and I trust you. More than I trust anyone else at the current time.’ He lowered his head, ‘I need your help Sara. I need you to help me find Alec and Keith and where the aliens are growing these clones.’

‘And what about him, Alec? I mean…………….’ Sara gestured back along the corridor.

Straker’s eyes narrowed, ‘The clone? He’s not your concern. Not now.’ He walked away, long strides eating the distance, not speaking again until she had scurried to catch up with him and was almost running alongside in an effort to keep up. He stopped at an unmarked door, placed his hand on a metal plate. ‘Wait there.’ The door slid open and he went inside, just for a few seconds, to reappear with a handgun, then carried on walking down the corridor as if there was nothing untoward. As if it was perfectly natural for him to handle a gun, to slide the magazine into place, and check the weapon over with an expertise that made her feel more than a little uncomfortable. She noticed the way he held it, as if it was a part of himself, a mere extension of his hand.

It was not until they had reached the final corner, and the hubbub of noise from the control room was beginning to filter out into the corridor that Straker slowed down. They had not encountered anyone on the walk from Jackson’s base, but Straker had taken a quieter route. Perhaps in a subconscious attempt to avoid such an event. It wasn’t going to be easy for him, Sara realised, as he paused, his eyes narrowed in thought.

Nervousness? But no, her thought vanished as he put one hand on her arm, his voice soft and tight and controlled.  ‘Stay behind me. We don’t know who else might have been cloned. And you are not armed.’ She stepped a pace nearer, truly frightened for the first time.

Ten more paces, round the corner, two steps and …… Straker waited in the opening, Sara behind him, out of sight.

Time: 47.48 Straker

‘Attention.’ Straker stepped forward as the control room sounds splintered and fragmented into shards of silence. His jumper and trousers stained with Alec’s blood, his eyes deeply lined with the horrors he had experienced. The cylinder, the loss of his memories and his purpose, the assassin in the shelter, waking in the scanner, the feel of his knuckles striking Keith; those memories were distressing enough, but…… Alec. Slipping the needle under tight skin, pressing down, watching …Alec.. take that last shuddery incomplete breath. And now, Ed Straker was here, back where he was needed.

Lieutenant Johnson stifled one short scream as Straker walked towards her, a haunted and spectral figure, his clothes spattered with blood, his face lined with strain. No other movement, as if that second of time had been captured in a freeze-frame shot, then there was a sudden release as reactions made themselves felt. People standing, moving to him, even the security team, wide-eyed and hesitant, taking cautious strides towards where he still waited, gun in hand, but that hand down by his side, unthreatening, poised, not to move but waiting for their response.

‘I am armed. Stay where you are.’ That calm voice, instantly recognisable. ‘Dr Harper. Go to my office. Wait there.’ He spoke without looking at her, and Sara moved to comply, casting one look up at his face as she passed him while he stared down the glare of the blue-clad guards. Without breaking his gaze he spoke again. ‘Lt. Johnson, take over at communications. Contact Moonbase and tell Colonel Foster to return at the first available opportunity. Everyone else; remain at your posts.’

He waited until the noise had subsided, until they had all settled and were watching him, their faces still registering the shock of seeing the man that they had believed dead, standing there, watching them.

‘I need you all to listen.’ Straker allowed himself to relax, just the merest fraction, no more than the tiniest loosening of stiff shoulders, before a wry grin twisted his lips for a second. ‘I am, as you can see, very much alive. Explanations will have to wait. Right now there is an emergency to deal with.’ He looked around the room, studying each individual, wondering if any of them had a small round scar at the base of their skull. ‘Lt Anderson, I want updates from all heads of department in thirty minutes. The rest of you, carry on.’

The walk to his office, through the control room was difficult. Eyes watching him, as if waiting to make an attack, as he passed each operative, each console. But no one moved apart from a brief startled nod, or bewildered smile as he walked by. His office door closed behind him and he realised just how tightly he had been containing himself.

Sara waited Straker sat down behind his desk. His desk. He spared himself the briefest luxury of leaning back into the welcoming curve of the chair. Enough. No time for selfish desires. ‘Dr Harper. Sit down. We need to talk.’

‘Talk? With Alec missing? Don’t you think you need to do more than that?’ There was a slight hint of distaste or maybe even revulsion in her voice and Straker understood only too well how she was feeling.

‘I know. I want to get out there and start looking, but tell me. Where exactly do we look? And who do we trust? The best thing we can do is to go over all the information we have. It might point us in the right direction.’ He shook his head. ‘Sara, please. Work with me. Help me to find him.’

His voice was quiet, and pleading, and wordlessly she pulled up a chair and sat opposite him, hands clasped together one finger tapping her lips as she organised her thoughts. ‘Right. These clones. So far we have found that they …………..’ She carried on talking, eyes half-closed as she concentrated on recalling what she had discovered.

Straker made notes as they talked, as Sara expounded theories and he contradicted her, as they put together all those disjointed fragments of data that had accumulated in the last week trying to make some sense of what had happened.

The department reports had been handed in, the Beta shift had started work and Sara was weary by the time they had gone through all the facts and worked out what might possibly have occurred. Most of it assumptions, speculations, and hit and miss guesswork, but a rough theory anyway. The aliens had been given information from SHADO medical records, maybe even the results of the brain scans that all staff were subjected to, although how they were able to convert that was beyond Straker’s or Sara’s understanding. That could explain why the Freeman clone had not recognised Dr Harper, as its memories were based on older scans done prior to Straker’s death.

Sara had even postulated that the clones were grown in some protective liquid, similar to the fluid used to provide oxygen to the aliens, and that, once removed from that environment, they were, like their creators, subject to decay in Earth’s atmosphere. The breakdown of tissue and organs was painful and irreversible, but at least it was a flaw in the make-up of the clones. They thought that the Straker clone had not been ‘decanted’ for long enough for the effects to take hold.

It was not much, but it might help. As for Alec and Keith? There were no clues as to how they had been captured – phone tapping, bugging devices, a member of SHADO reporting to a colony of aliens? Who could tell.

Now it was a case of trying to find any location where there was a tunnel and water. Straker grimaced. An impossible task. Thank God Headquarters was quiet, although he could imagine the uproar that was going on throughout SHADO. He was back, and the aliens would, by now, have been informed and no doubt planning their next move.

Paul Foster would not arrive until the morning and Straker had called Colonel Lake in from her furlough. Until then he would have to carry on, despite the unseen torrent of emotion that was shredding him into pieces. He looked up at the woman sitting there opposite him, his voice as calm as he could make it.

‘Dr Harper. I think we have done as much as we can for now. I want Jackson and you to continue the check of all staff but I doubt now that there will be any clones based in headquarters. At least until the aliens have perfected a way to stop them dying so quickly. They may have simply been trying to use them as decoys, in an attempt to get at either me or other members of the command staff. But everyone who comes on duty must be verified.’ He put his head in his hands in a gesture of despair. ‘How the hell they got to Alec and Ford though, is beyond me.’

There was nothing to say, no words of comfort or reassurance. Sara looked at the man and saw a grim look in his face. She knew what he was thinking.

SHADO was losing the fight.

 

Chapter 15

Dr Harper and Jackson had finished testing the numerous staff members and had devised an intradermal implant that would register on SHADO’s security systems. Sara had spent the rest of the day making herself unpopular as she injected all the operatives once they had been approved. An uncomfortable procedure but necessary. At least they would not have to re-examine staff every time they arrived for work; the implants would be sufficient evidence.

Lake had arrived and had been scrutinized and injected by Sara with a clinical thoroughness that did not endear her to the SHADO Colonel. The uneasy tension went unnoticed by Straker, his thoughts focussed on organising a search of possible sites for the alien base. It was strange to be back here, even though it had only been ten days or so since he had walked out with Alec to his waiting car. Ten days. And now Alec and Ford were missing, and the aliens were ahead of them again. Straker had no fears that either man would willingly betray SHADO, their training was too good, but he knew what the aliens were capable of doing. And treacherously he hoped his friends were dead.

‘Sara.’

She stopped in front of the door, turned to look at him.

‘If by any chance he’s still alive, I will find him. I promise you.’

She blinked back the tears, nodded once, too afraid to actually speak, afraid that the tears would fall.

‘Go home Dr. Harper. If there is any news, I’ll call you.’ Straker picked up his phone and turned away from her, to hide his own misery. He heard the door open, her footsteps fading away into the subdued noise from outside.

‘Commander?’ Virginia Lake stood on the threshold. ‘You should go as well. We are doing everything we possibly can. You need to trust us, but more than that, you need to get some sleep.’ She was right and he knew it although it felt utterly traitorous to leave here, to abandon headquarters while the desperate search continued.

But the computers were handling it, and there was a limit to the amount of data that anyone could input. Sleep might help to clarify his mind and allow him to make sense of the whirlpool of ideas that were rioting around his head.

Hiding a yawn, Straker frowned at the elegant woman still standing there, as if to keep the door from closing. ‘Very well. Take over here, Colonel, but,’ and his gaze was no longer stern or forbidding, but earnest, ‘call me if anything happens?’

‘Of course, Commander.’ Lake stepped back as he walked out, past the Delta shift now, their faces staring at him, idle chatter ceasing as they watched him leave. Straker, here. Not a figment of the imagination, not a ghost. Here and alive.

Lake had organised a car for him; the keys left on his studio desk, and he scooped them up and walked out, through Miss Ealand’s dark and empty office to the nearly deserted parking lot.

It was well after rush-hour now and the roads were emptying, with the late-night workers eager to get home. A fifteen minute journey home, and he drove automatically, not really conscious of other vehicles or even his own actions. A familiar route, his mind concentrating more on what might be happening to Alec rather than the humdrum task of steering, changing gears, braking.

The car had pulled to a halt outside the bungalow and he turned the engine off even before he realised where he was. Home. Except…. he shuddered as the memory raced through hi of Keith’s throat crumpling under his knuckles. No. He could not stay here. Not yet. Not until…….and anyway, he rationalised the thought to himself, the aliens knew where he lived now.

The key turned under his fingers, the car grated on the gravel as he reversed out, heading for……. where? Jackson’s rooms? No. Those memories were also too painful. Alec, in his arms. Even though it was not Alec, would never be Alec, the memory served to remind him of what his friend might even now be enduring.

He drove on, tiredness beginning to creep over him, and he knew that his reflexes were too slow to drive for much longer. He would find a hotel, somewhere bland and anonymous. That would suffice.

But something made him slow down, and without conscious thought he pulled into a layby, turned off the engine and sat there, in the darkness, hands on the wheel, as if frozen in time.

concerned

Cars passed by, their headlights illuminating the interior while his fingers held the steering wheel as if his existence depended on the contact. Finally he released his grip to reach into his breast pocket. It was a simple matter to speed dial, and he held his breath then spoke.

‘Rebecca, Ed here. I need a favour. I wonder……. ’

A few minutes later, he pulled the car back onto the road, his mind focused and decisive once more. The highways were quieter now as winter mists made visibility hard and he found himself blinking with the effort needed to stay alert and he slid the window open to let in a knife edge of icy air. The unfamiliar roads demanded his concentration but a brightly lit retail park caught his eye and he turned off the main road. The car park was fairly quiet and he pulled up close to the entrance of the superstore.

Bored staff ignored him as he headed for the racks of cheap clothes. Jeans, a t-shirt, dark sweatshirt. He picked up what he needed, looked down at his shoes. Stained as well, and anyway he did not want to keep anything that reminded him of today. Trainers then. Practical and comfortable. He swiped them through the fast check-out, bagged them, headed for the gents.

No one in there either, but he went into a cubicle, striped off his soiled trousers and jumper, and undershirt, dropping them onto the floor. Tags torn off the new clothes before he pulled on the jeans. They fitted as he expected, as cheap jeans do. But they would suffice for now. Trainers next, surprisingly comfortable after his leather ankle boots, and then the t-shirt and sweatshirt. Loose on him. He stuffed his discarded clothes into the thin plastic carrier bags, walked out, dropping the bags in one of the litter bins. He sat in his car for a few minutes, thinking, then he made one phone call and drove off.

Nearly there. Hounslow high street was devoid of traffic and he parked down the familiar side street in one of the vacant bays. No strangers lurked in dark doorways or sheltered in the ginnels as he walked the few steps to the heavy door. His finger pressed the buzzer and he waited.

‘Yes?’

He leaned closer. ‘It’s Ed.’

A click, the door unlocked and he pushed it open, stepping into the wide entrance and looking up at the hallway with its sweeping stairway. Rebecca was coming onto the landing, watching out for him and he thought he saw a look of surprise in her face for a moment. She called to him. ‘Come up….,’ she paused, and he heard her change what she was about to say. ‘… Ed. I’ve got pizza nearly ready.’

‘I appreciate it. Thank you. I wasn’t sure….’ He halted, facing her, his shoulders hunched with embarrassment.

‘It’s no problem. Honestly. Sara called me earlier today and said there’d been a problem at your house. I wasn’t expecting to hear from you actually until you’d got everything sorted.’

She closed the door behind him, smiled. ‘Go through. You look tired, but no sleeping on the sofa. You can have my spare room tonight.’

……………….

It had been a hard week. Well, more than a week really, since Ed Straker’s death and the upheaval that had followed. Warren Thompson had kept out of the way, kept his head down, kept his smile well hidden. A week of day-dreaming and planning, where to go and what to buy first. The money was burning holes in his pocket and he was just waiting for one more payment and then he would disappear with a fat bank balance to keep him happy for a long time. Hot beaches and sunshine instead of concrete corridors and military rules. The morality of what he had done didn’t bother Thompson. He’d given them everything they had asked for; everything. Brain scans, medical records, all the information they needed to create their clones, and they’d paid him very well indeed. It was a pity in a way that Straker had had to be sacrificed, but it was a ‘dog eat dog’ world out there and Straker was just a ticket to a better life. The Caribbean. That would be his first stop.

His phone beeped. Diane. What did she want now? She was always trying to chat him up, trying to get him to invite her on a date, telling him the latest gossip. This would be more boring news about one of her friends, or workmates, or the latest film that she wanted to see, with her thinly veiled suggestion that he take her.

He opened it. Read.

Shit. He deleted the message with fingers that trembled. Shit. How the fuck had that happened. Straker. Alive and in Headquarters.. So what the hell had gone wrong? Dammit.

He would have to phone his contact, Mason. Unless of course Mason was involved in whatever was now going on. He put his head in his hands. They might be checking staff even now. He dialled a number. Waited. A recorded voice answered and he swallowed his nervousness and spoke.

‘Warren Thompson. SHADO operative 362. Medical Section. I won’t be in work tomorrow. Got a touch of flu I think.’ Not a good enough excuse, not really, but it might keep them off his back for long enough to give him time to see what had happened, how Ed Straker had managed to survive; and to get that last big payment. Three days. That was all he needed. And then he would have to run. Bugger the hot beach. Anywhere would do.

…………………………..

Yet another unfamiliar room, another strange bed. Another night of nomadic existence, drifting from place to place, uneasy and restless. Homeless, once again. Even his clothes seemed to taunt him with their reminder of who he had been. John Shepherd.

Straker, reluctant to disturb Rebecca asleep in her own room, undressed with care and pulled back the duvet. Thick pillows, crisp cotton covers, unworn covers as well, as if the bedding was unused and had retained its newness. But it was warm and safe, and a place to sleep without fear. He had slept in this house last night, slept well and without nightmares. He could do the same tonight. But sleep didn’t come. He lay there, listening to the noises from outside. Traffic, the occasional siren of a police car, odd shouts of laughter, peculiar sounds from the attic above. Bats, most likely.

He forced himself to relax, to push thoughts of Alec aside and concentrate on other memories. That flash of red hair under the street lights and sitting on her sofa to watch John Wayne. Touching her hair while she lay asleep. Her hand on his face, stroking the roughness of his unshaven throat. Her quiet, unspoken anger at Alec and Sara for their intrusion in the morning. And then the memory of Sara holding his hand and telling him. His hands clenched even now with the pain of remembering those words.

The unused pillows were too thick and he tossed one onto the floor then lay on his side drifting towards sleep. A floorboard creaked and startled him into alertness. He kept still, hoping that darkness would reclaim his thoughts, but then his door opened and dim light poured in. In silence she stepped into the room, to stand at the end of the bed. He waited, eyes open the merest crack, his even regular breaths not disturbing the fragile quiet, not moving, afraid to speak as if one word might shatter the moment, might scare her into fleeing.

She came closer and he could almost feel her anxiety, before she moved away out of sight. His eyes closed as he heard a rustle of material, the silken slur as she let her robe slide to the floor and lifted the bedcovers. Cool air on his back as she lay down. Not touching, not even close, but there behind him. Her meagre breaths loud in the silence. He could sense her fear, and yet her need but there was nothing he could do apart from let his hands unclench, his shoulders ease and… wait.

Time passed, both of them lying still, breathing now in synchrony, sharing space.

 

Chapter 16

Alec wanted to vomit, but the pounding in his head was agonising. The slightest movement made his guts churn. Stale vomit in his mouth, the acid of it in the back of his throat. Rough fingers forced his eyes open, heedless of the brilliant lights that burned into his retina, hands clamped on his jaw, as he twisted, desperate to escape the searing beam that scorched into his brain. They had taken him, had captured him easily, so fucking easily. Dragged from his car, gassed and taken prisoner. And now, he was here, freezing and shivering in the sub-zero temperatures. He felt them grab his arms, felt their fingers dig into him as they hauled him upright before dragging him across a smooth surface, as he fought them. Useless. The blow on his head stunned him but even so he was still aware of his jacket being torn open and the sharp stab of a needle into his abdomen and he managed to scream just once, the sound muffled and distorted in his ears, before convulsions ripped though his brain and body.

……………………..

Rebecca felt the heat of his body. The man in front of her had not moved and so she allowed her hand to creep a few small inches towards the broad shoulders that faced her, that smooth skin she had kissed just once. Not touching. Not yet. Just sufficient to be able to lean over and watch the rhythmical movement of his chest as he breathed,  the pulse in his throat, and the hair that curled at his neck, before she lowered her face towards skin fragrant with his masculinity. One deep breath and she lay down to face his back again, watching.

Long minutes passed. She reached out to stroke her fingers over his shoulder. Cool skin. The ripple of muscle and rigidity of bone just beneath the surface.

He hand brushed across his shoulder, paused to cup the joint, and then trailed down his arm, feeling the shape and strength and texture of skin and muscles. Onto his flank now, against his ribs and then around the edges of the dressing that covered his wound. Her face closer to him now,  her breath on his neck. Her fingers traced down to the tight curve of hard muscles at his hips.

Skin that was firm yet so fragile, short blond hair gleaming in the light, that scent of maleness, his slow, even breaths in the silence and ….. she kissed his shoulder. No salt this time as she moved closer to taste the fine skin at the nape of his neck.

She was curled tight now, sharing his space, her head on his shoulder, one arm wrapped over him , a hand on his breast. Straker gave a soft sigh of contentment and she knew that he was awake, that he was, and had been, aware of her all the time.

…………….

Alec was scared now, profoundly scared. He had roused to the sensation of lying in tepid liquid, chilly on his feverish skin and stinging on the cuts and scrapes that covered his body, the ache of hard bruising on soft tissue, but where he was now he had no idea. His eyes were sealed shut, a tube rasped down his throat and try as he might he could not utter a sound other than a muffled frantic groan from deep within his chest. There was not even enough room to writhe against the pain that engulfed him, spreading out from his gut to burn through bones and flesh until even his scalp felt as if it was on fire.

…………………………

Straker lay there, his shoulders tense as he waited for her to abandon him. She did not move. He felt her fingers clench as they dug into his flesh, her knees stiff against his legs, pushing hard against him. The rigidity of her fear. He knew that the slightest move on his part would be sufficient to make her leave him. And he did not want that. He wanted…

‘I know,’ he murmured, his voice as soft as he could make it and even so it seemed too loud. Her nails bit into him and she choked back a sob. Her body trembled and he reached up to place one hand on the arm that lay across him. With a slow caress, he reassured her, running strong fingers down over that cool and shivering skin, tracing down to her fingertips with repetitive strokes, his fingers wrapping around the slightness of her arm. Another sob, muffled against his back this time and he paused, holding himself still as she buried her face in the curve of his neck.

‘Stay. Please.’ His voice even quieter now, his back a fortress for her to lean against, to hold onto. The thought of what she had endured darkened his mind and although he longed to turn over to face her and hold her, she was too fragile. As he was, he admitted to himself.
So, he would lie here as she wrapped herself close, and he would let her hold him, let her cry on his shoulder if that was needed. He sighed with longing. ‘Stay with me.’

Her  tight hold eased, and he laid his hand on hers, just to let her know that he cared, that he understood. Slender fingers threaded up between his. Hands entwined. A sigh as she relaxed and her face lifted from his neck, to snuggle down against his shoulder, her arm still tight against him. Not in fear, but with an unspoken need to be close to him. He blinked hard, swallowed back the tears that had threatened.

He breathed with her felt her slight form tucked behind him, her head only just reaching his shoulder blades as she bent her knees to spoon his own length. Joined hands now resting on the scar that marked his skin, moving in time with his breaths, even as she leaned against him, as he felt her breasts against the bare skin of his back.

Another siren faded into the distance, a taxi rumbled to a stop, the door slamming, muffled words disturbing the silence, but Straker lay there, one finger edging over her knuckles. Her breath curled around his shoulder, her body so close to him that it was as if they were one person.

Rebecca felt the warmth of his skin under her hand as she tightened her grip, pulling his hand further down on hers. Beneath her fingers the feel of soft hair, supple skin, the slight hollow of his navel, and she ventured to stretch one finger across before retreating back to the shelter of his hand. She felt his ribs move as he sighed again, and she realised with a sudden thrill that he wanted her there, holding him, touching him. And she was not afraid. Not anymore.

She straightened her fingers to loosen them from his grasp, felt his shuddering breath, but she leaned forward, her hand now on his ribs to ease him onto his back and wriggle, with an unseen and contented smile, under his arm.

His heartbeat thudded beneath her head, her cheek and lips tickled by sparse hair. She reached up to brush one hand across this chest and appreciate the broadness of his body, before tucking her arm over him to cling even closer for a moment, as if to crush him to her. A sigh of satisfaction echoed in her ears as she smoothed her hand round and down his ribs and back up again, pressing herself ever tighter, skin hard against skin. Her fingers stroked and explored as she lay there, touching him, trusting him. Caresses in the night. The slow throb of his pulse, the warmth of his breath on her face. All in silence. Knowing that he was aware of her every move she tilted her head back to kiss the soft skin of his throat.

That fleeting touch was enough to make him gasp and Rebecca caressed his cheek with her hand before she once again soothed the softness above his collarbone with warm lips and tongue.

So long forgotten, that feeling; that unmistakeable sensation of delicate breath on his face, the warmth of another person close to him, cherishing him. To feel her hands on his body, not to test him or to probe, but to share. And the thrill to know that he was capable of being wanted and trusted and ….cherished.

A man who had locked his desires and needs and longings away for so many years.

His fingers drifted through the golden-red strands of her hair as she settled ever closer on him, resting her leg over his, her arm across him, heavy.

He could feel her hand on his hip.

He lay still, acknowledging her touch, her caress, that tantalising sensation of fingers. There. Her arm lifting with every breath he took, her head on his chest as he held her, breath fluttering over bare skin. His hand roamed across her face, following the line of her hair before he traced the curve of her ear. A tenuous contact, unsure and hesitant, as if he was expecting a sudden sharp rejection, but she snuggled even closer if possible and sighed.

‘Alright?’ his whisper asked, his fingers light on the pale skin of her throat and Rebecca turned her head to kiss.

‘Oh yes,’ he heard her whisper but he tensed as her hand moved, and his breaths were shallow, not from fear but the years-old ache of longing as he felt her hands against softer flesh, brushing over the downy skin below his navel, touching the edges of coarser hair, reaching ………

A quick shudder coursed through him, and he flinched, afraid of what she might expect, before he turned his face away. He lay there trembling, his frailties revealed, and she moved her hand away, sliding it with languid ease up his side to stroke ribs and nipples, the pad of his breast and then to come to rest on his face. Straker closed his eyes to lean into the touch of her palm on his cheek as her fingers tangled in his hair.

‘Ten years is a long time,’ she whispered. He took deep breaths and calmed his shivering body as she caressed his face before she raised herself on one elbow to look down at him. Her hand lifted to smooth fingers over eyebrows and pale lashes, to brush over stubble and dip into the cleft of his chin before she traced the boundary of his lips with the lightest discernible touch of a single fingertip.

Lips touched.  He closed his eyes as he tasted her. A kiss such as he had never known before. An honest kiss. Not lust or desire, not demanding or expecting. He drew back, uncertain and shy, but then he reached out to lose himself in the feel of lips and tongue and hands meeting his and he opened himself to her until, emotions exhausted, they separated yet still holding, loathe to break contact.

‘Just hold me. That’s all,’ she murmured and clung to him, pressed against his body. In silence he obeyed her as she snuggled to sleep, her head on his breast again, her hand resting on his shoulder.

He stared at the ceiling. It had been so long. He had, years ago, accepted his solitary life, the lack of contact, the absence of even a welcoming hug. His responsibilities precluded that sort of thing, or so he had told himself in the dark emptiness of solitary nights.

But lying here, as she settled closer into his embrace, as he stroked her hair and bent to kiss the top of her head, he knew that something had returned into his empty existence, and, consoled, he slept.

Epilogue

Was this how his life would end? Here; blind, speechless, alone. Surrounded by inhuman creatures? Would he feel the knife as they cut him open? His heart pounded so fiercely that he thought, and he hoped, it would fail him. He would welcome death. But then he felt a coldness fill his belly, icy fingers that froze his gut, that made him clench and whimper in futile silence. And as sleep was forced into him, as he felt unconsciousness eat into his mind he hoped that Ed would find him. But it was doubtful.

 

Author’s Notes.

Well, what do I say? I nearly stopped writing this story several times, for a variety of reasons. ( I don’t particularly enjoy being on the receiving end of pretty vile and disgusting abuse, both in comments in various places and also published ‘stories’ from people who set out to slander both me and my family simply because I like to write canon stories most of the time.)

But I didn’t give up. And I am glad now. Some parts of Shepherd 4 were blissfully easy to write – the scene with Straker and Sara at the beginning was so very easy, but the ‘touchy-feely’ scene at the end between Ed and Rebecca took me over three weeks of continuous rewrites before my beta-reader was reasonably satisfied.

The ‘Alec’ clone was never intended. But, as writers out there will no doubt understand, sometimes your story runs away with you. I found myself writing that scene where Ed interrogates ‘Alec’ almost without thinking, and certainly I did very, very few revisions to it. It took the story in a whole new direction as well, but did allow me to bring Paul Foster back in again!

I expect some readers will think I ‘copped out’ by not letting Straker and Rebecca have sex. But he wouldn’t have. At least, MY Ed Straker wouldn’t. And I am pretty sure Ed Bishop’s Straker wouldn’t have either. And that is all that matters.

 

 

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