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.
‘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.