The voice was hesitant, and held a dark note of fear but it was enough to make Alec Freeman turn with joy to the man sitting beside him.
Just that one word, that one name was sufficient to crack the shield that had safeguarded Straker from the events that had precipitated his nightmare. He leaned forward, head in his hands as he remembered the underground garage space, and then..
‘It is you, isn’t it Alec?’ he said again, staring at his friend in horror. ‘I tried to get away from them, from what they were going to do. Mason, the aliens…. they wanted……..’ The image of a long grey cylinder invaded his mind and he closed his eyes, wrapping his arms tight around himself.
The flood of memories was too much and Alec pulled him close as Straker broke down, shaking in silent distress. Paul gave an anxious glance in the rear mirror. ‘Alec? What’s happening?’
Freeman cast one worried look at Foster. ‘I don’t know Paul. We need to get him to Mayland. Just drive.’
‘Alec?’ The voice was softer and more fragile if anything this time. Straker was still enveloped in Alec’s arms, his head against his friend’s shoulder. ‘What happened? Where am I?’
Freeman eased him back against the seat, making sure that he was steady and balanced before releasing his hold. ‘What do you remember, Ed? You were saying something about Mason and aliens.’
Straker closed his eyes again and whispered as if afraid that his enemy might still hear him, ‘Aliens. They were waiting for me. And I remember that name, Mason.’ He winced and pressed his hand to his side, before looking up, his expression confused. ‘Where are you taking me?’ There was fear in his voice, and Alec could see terror in his face. This was not Ed Straker, this was someone else, someone hurt and scared and very brittle.
‘You’re safe Ed. Just hang on. We’re taking you to hospital, to -’
‘No, not there, no hospital. Get Rebecca. Please.’ He reached for the door only to have his hand grabbed in a steel-tight hold. Irrational and unrestrained panic flooded through him; they were here, they had found him.
They had the cylinder waiting.
Paul gave one quick glance over his shoulder at the two men. Alec, sitting there, one arm around Straker’s shoulders to prevent him lunging for the door again, Freeman’s hand now gripping fingers that were white under his grasp, and Ed fighting to escape, his eyes unseeing and terrified. There was nothing Paul could do, except get Ed Straker to Mayland as soon as possible.
He concentrated on driving, ignoring the sounds of distress behind him, the quiet pleading reassurances from Freeman, the futile struggling as the Commander tried to free himself.
‘Ed. Stop it, calm down. I don’t want to hurt you.’ Alec was outwardly calm, but Paul could hear the stress in his voice. There was a desperate gasp as Straker fell back, exhausted by the effort, and as his enemy reached for him he gave one last cry of despair and surrendered to the darkness.
The car sped on with Straker now silent and oblivious to everything around him, the phone calls to Mayland, to Miss Ealand, to Henderson, but as Paul braked to a halt outside the hospital Straker opened his eyes and pulled away from Alec, staring at him in mystified recognition.
‘Alec? Why are we here?’ His voice was strained as he sat up, reaching out again for the door but Paul was out of the car and opening it before Straker had a chance.
‘Commander?’ Paul’s smile was genuine, his hand outstretched to help, but the man in the back of the car seemed to shrink away, turning to look at Alec with bewildered eyes.
‘Commander? What does he mean, Alec?’ He flinched and put his hand to his head as if in pain.
Freeman gave Paul a bleak look and shook his head with confusion. ‘Ed, it’s alright, you’re safe now.’ Alec put his hand on Straker’s shoulder and continued, ‘You’ve been hurt. Let Paul help you. Please.’
There was a pause, and Straker, after another glance at his friend sitting behind him, nodded with reluctance and stepped out, Paul’s arms reaching to help him just as Shroeder appeared.
‘What the hell is going on Alec?’ Foster murmured, as the doctor organised his team to take the injured man through to the base medical unit.
‘I don’t know what happened to him, Paul. Whatever it was he’s not over it. Not by a long way from the looks of things. I need you to get a team to Mason’s house and find out what the hell was going on. I’ll get back to HQ as soon as ………………’ Freeman didn’t need to finish. Paul Foster knew what the current SHADO Commander was saying … as soon as he had some idea of whether Ed Straker was going to recover.
Alec followed the wheelchair along the empty echoing corridors, staring with bleak eyes at Straker sitting there hunched, his head down as if fearful of this strange place.
Even once inside in the quiet of the SHADO medical unit, Straker’s haunted eyes looked around for some familiar face, someone who might calm his fears. Confused memories of recent events flickered through his mind and although he recognised his own name now, and was aware that Alec was his friend, he was still utterly bewildered by his surroundings.
Paul. He had recognised Paul but even that was a vague recollection and even Paul was to be feared. He could only trust Alec. And Rebecca.
He wished Rebecca was here.
She had helped him when he had been hurt, he remembered that much. And now he was here with Alec. It was confusing and his head still throbbed. But as they helped him onto the bed he could hear Alec talking to someone nearby. People leaned over him, peering, and he felt the panic begin again, his heart pounding, his eyes seeking a way to escape. Then, fingers entwined his in a firm grip. Twisting his head he scanned the faces and saw him there. Alec. The fear subsided. He would be safe now, Alec would protect him and Ed Straker relaxed, his fingers beginning to loosen their hold as Alec took control.
‘Shroeder, I want this room cleared of everyone who isn’t essential. Everyone.’ He fixed the doctor with the look that he had used before, the icy glare that even Ed Straker found hard to ignore.
Alec Freeman waited, his calm presence comforting his friend as Schroder dismissed all the staff, except for one nurse. before turning back to his patient. With deft movements the doctor slit open the t-shirt, and started.
Straker flinched when fingers skimmed over his ribs before touching his swollen skin, and as an icy spray numbed the wound he gasped and would have resisted any further treatment had Alec not been there to reassure him.
As the razor-sharp pain subsided, the relief spread blissful lethargy through him and although he was aware of the needle and local anaesthetic, and the dull and thick pressure of hands on his skin he allowed himself to drowse as the stitches went in, sealing the gash, but also closing more than just the edges of skin. It was as if it was also the closure of the nightmare that he had undergone, and although he was still bewildered and confused, that irrational terror was beginning to dissipate.
At last it was over and it was with a sense of regret that he stirred himself to wakefulness, ready for whatever he had to face next and he wondered how he was going to get from here back to the safety of the Shelter and his small spartan room.
Alec stepped forward, to put a hand on Straker’s arm. ‘Ed. You need to stay there for a little while longer. I will have to leave now, but I don’t want you to worry. Dr Shroeder is a friend and you can trust him.’ He squeezed Straker’s wrist in an attempt to reassure his friend. ‘How are you feeling now?’
Straker sighed and lay back, ‘My head still hurts.’ He closed his eyes again for a moment as the throbbing in his head made him feel sick. John Shepherd or Ed Straker? Who was he? His mind was unable to focus enough to hold onto the blur of random memories, and although he had been told that Shroeder could be trusted, there was still the fear that he would be left where his enemies would be able to find him.
If only they would let him go home. He would be safe there. He would be able to lock his door and go to bed and listen to the sounds outside as the other men watched television, or argued about football. But they were keeping him here, wherever ‘here’ was, and although he believed that he was safe with Alec, he was very afraid of what would happen after the one person he was able to trust had abandoned him to these strangers.
Alec Freeman pulled the SHADO doctor to one side. ‘Well, doctor? What’s the matter with him? Why is he so confused?’
Shroeder looked back at his patient and frowned, ‘I am concerned about the Commander. This amnesia worries me.’ He stared at Freeman, ‘Do you have any idea what happened to him when he disappeared last week? His loss of memory might be a direct result of some mental trauma.’
‘I have no idea. All I know is that he couldn’t remember anything about his past. But will he recover?’ Freeman persisted, ‘Will Ed Straker return?’
There was dead silence for a moment, as both men contemplated a future where Straker, his memories lost and his past a closed book, was discarded to live his life outside SHADO, cast off and alone, and in that instant Alec Freeman knew that, whatever happened, he would never abandon his Commander, his friend, whatever problems that might cause.
‘I can’t answer that, Commander Freeman,’ Shroeder said in a quiet voice, ‘we will just have to be patient. But, I will look after him. Trust me. Please.’
‘Do whatever it takes Shroeder,’ Freeman murmured and feeling like a traitor he gave one last glance at the man lying there looking lost and abandoned. ‘Call me as soon as there is any change in his condition, and keep this quiet for now,’ he ordered, and then left, closing the door behind him, before leaning against the wall, unseen, to close his eyes and think of his friend.
Rebecca stood on the pavement, Sara beside her as Alec closed the car door and leaned forward to instruct the driver. John, no; not John, he was Ed Straker wasn’t he, Ed was hidden behind the tinted glass of the powerful saloon car, but she could still see him, a darker shape just on the other side of the door, leaning back.
She reached out to put her hand against the window to show him that she was here, but before she could make contact the car moved off, wheels slipping for a second on the icy road before the tyres gripped and it eased away from the small group standing there. Rebecca watched despondently, rubbing her arms in the cold wind, until the car reached the top of the road, turned onto the high street and was lost from view.
She headed back to the doorway of the shelter, where a group had gathered, not bystanders, but stern men with stern faces, waiting there in silence. James was talking to a couple of them and Rebecca was going to speak to him but stopped as she saw Dale sitting in the ambulance, looking lost and alone so she stepped up and perched beside him on the narrow stretcher. She was aware of one of the men moving to stand in the doorway, watching and listening.
‘You okay Dale? What happened down there?’
He grinned at her with a sheepish look, ‘I couldn’t let him kill John. So I stopped him, Miss Steel,’ and he blushed with pleasure at the realisation that he, Dale Atwood, unemployed and homeless though he might be, had saved a man’s life. She returned his smile, squeezed his shoulder with gratitude, and climbed back out, wondering whether she should go down to the basement where the bodies were still lying or stay here in the cold air. The quiet man climbed aboard to sit in silence opposite Dale and then the doors were closed and it drove off, leaving her standing there again. Lost and alone.
There was a flurry of movement and she saw a couple of the men begin to cordon off the immediate area with police tape, the yellow markings a brilliant splash of colour in the drab side street. They moved closer to her, and she was forced to step back, out of their way on the other side of the tape, cut off from everything as if she was a mere bystander and had no part to play in what was happening.
Yet another vehicle had arrived, the sole passenger a thin man, dark-haired and with a narrow face, getting out to survey the whole area. He crooked a finger at James, who hurried to his side and, head down, started to talk, his voice so low that Rebecca was unable to hear anything. She noticed the surreptitious glances that they cast in her direction and she felt exposed and somehow threatened by their interest.
After some minutes the discussion ended and the thin man came over to where she was waiting. ‘Miss Steel? One question. John Shepherd. What room number?’ His accent was Eastern European, not what she had expected, and his eyes stared at her with a cold intensity that she found disconcerting.
‘Twenty. John was in room twenty. Will he be……….’
He cut her off, ‘Thank you for your assistance, Miss Steel. I have arranged for a taxi to collect you.’
‘But…….. what about Barry? And the other man. Surely,’ she faltered, torn between her need to stay here and the necessity to get back to the Studios to check on the guys. And there was John as well. She wanted to see him, to make sure he was alright.
‘It’s my job to deal with everything, Miss Steel.’ He pulled a small leather folder out of his pocket and flashed it at her. She caught a glimpse of a silver badge and an official looking card before he closed it up and slipped it back into his breast pocket with a tight smile. ‘Jackson. Special Investigations Unit. Leave us to sort this out; there isn’t anything you can do right now. Once we’ve finished here you can come back. We should have the Shelter open again for you by late afternoon.’ He tilted his head to look at her, ‘The best thing you can do is to go back to the Studios. I understand that you have a group there at the moment? They will most likely be wondering where you are.’
There was almost a note of insolence in his voice, as if she was unimportant and nothing more than an intruder into his own investigations, but his argument was reasonable. There was nothing she could do here. Not now.
An unmarked and nondescript van was pulling up alongside the remaining car, two uniformed men inside, and she put her hand out to Sara. ‘Can we move away from here? I don’t want to see……’
‘Sure, come on.’ Sara put her arm around her friend as they walked up the road, Rebecca shivering from more than the cold.
The taxi arrived before they had got halfway to the top of the road and there was no chance to look back and see what was going on behind her, not that she wanted to watch when they brought out Barry and the other man. It seemed a long journey back to Harlington after the almost headlong dash in Alec’s car, and she felt exhausted.
‘Rebecca, that man, John Shepherd, he was the one who ……….’ Sara broke the painful silence.
‘The one? Oh, yes. He was the one.’ Rebecca nodded, and turned back to look out of the window. John Shepherd. She smiled to herself as she remembered those insignificant moments. His fingers fastening the bracelet around her wrist, his hand on her head as she cried, watching him help Dale, seeing him there bleeding, hurt, and yet still trusting her as she trusted him.
Rebecca’s finger traced a shape in the condensation on the window before she realised what she was doing and wiped the pattern away with one embarrassed stroke.
Harlington. The signpost warned her that they were approaching their destination and she dabbed at her eyes before the taxi pulled up and the door was opened by an efficient concierge who ushered them into the main building. Rebecca had expected to meet Miss Ealand or even Max and the guys, but no, they were shown into a private dining room where the table was laid with a small buffet, and then left alone. Sara wandered around the room, looking at the Studio posters that were adorned the walls but Rebecca had already helped herself to a sandwich and crisps and was reaching for the sushi when Sara spoke to her.
‘So, how did Straker get that injury, Rebecca? You never explained.’ Sara turned away from examining a poster and tilted her head at her friend in expectation.
Rebecca blushed, remembering. ‘There was an incident late last night. A guy with a knife. John, no, not John,’ and she hesitated, unaware that the door behind her had opened, ‘Ed. He stopped the guy from attacking Sam, but got hurt himself. No one realised what had happened to him.’
The sharp intake of breath was sufficient to make Rebecca turn around, startled to see Miss Ealand standing there her eyes frozen, before the secretary blinked and loosened up enough to move to the table and reach for the coffee pot.
Sara persisted with her questions while Ed Straker’s secretary began pouring with hands that were still a little unsteady, ‘So why hadn’t he gone to hospital? He should have had it stitched Rebecca, you know that.’
Rebecca put down her sandwich and sighed, ‘Yes he should and I wanted him to go, but damn it Sara, you don’t know him. He didn’t even tell anyone he’d been hurt and he just went to his room. He was so stubborn, but really I think he was also frightened.’
‘Frightened?’ Miss Ealand interrupted, her voice concerned, ‘That doesn’t sound like Mr Straker at all.’
Rebecca shrugged her shoulders, ‘Well, he wasn’t, was he? I mean he wasn’t Ed Straker. He was John Shepherd and something had happened to him to make him lose his memory. Something appalling enough to make him shut down and forget everything, even his name.’ She looked down at the plate in her hand, at the crumbs and a smear of mayonnaise and the remnants of crisps, and thought of …… salt on her lips. ‘It didn’t help that he’d had a really bad nightmare earlier and I think he was still scared. I hope he is alright.’ She looked at Sara with worried eyes.
Straker lay still once Shroeder had finished his tests, too weary to do anything other than observe through half-closed eyes as the doctor moved around the small room, talking in a quiet voice to the nurse. He was aware of the weight of blankets on his body, a somewhat familiar sensation and he roused himself to look for Rebecca, wondering where she was, why she had not spoken to him, why he could not see her.
Why not? Where was she? Had she left him?
He cast around in fright, searching that for one person that he knew he could trust among these strangers, but cool hands fastened on his own face, hands that turned his head to one side, away from the activity going on in the room. He tried to twist out of the grip, to see what was happening, but they were too strong and he began to panic, fearful of who, or indeed what, was restraining him.
A soft voice pierced his anxiety, soothing and reassuring, ‘Shh.., lie still Commander, it’s all right. Look at me,’ and without even thinking about it he obeyed the order, to stare up into the face of the nurse. ‘Now, just relax.’ She held his gaze with the same intensity as she held his face, her hands comforting instead of restraining. He had no option but to yield to her, but even so he tensed as another unseen person lifted his arm to straighten it, strong fingers running in smooth firm strokes down the inside of his elbow.
Straker tried to pull away but he was aware of the person leaning over him from the other side and then Shroeder’s calm tones close to his ear, ‘Ed, I‘m going to give you an injection,’ as his arm was held in a tight and unwavering grip and there was a stinging scratch in the crook of his elbow. It hurt more than he had anticipated but the pain faded as the anaesthetic took hold and although there was a moment of terror as he felt oblivion encroaching he was powerless to do anything more than gasp before he slumped into unconsciousness.
‘Right,’ Shroeder sighed with relief, ‘let’s get him ready.’ He looked down at the man, the eyes finally closed in repose, muscles twitching in reaction to the drug and laid one hand on Straker’s forehead, as if to smooth away any lasting fears before stepping out of the way to let the nurse begin the process of preparing his patient.
It was a short distance to the room where the MRI scanner was waiting and the stretcher moved along the deserted corridor in haste. They had little time to spare if the patient was not to wake up whilst inside the machine, and yet Shroeder was reluctant to subject him to any stronger drugs. They slipped the sleeping man across onto the table and sliding it into the narrow opening of the scanner, then they headed into the small control station to monitor.
Alec Freeman gave a furtive look at his watch again as he sat in his office. How could time go so slow, he wondered, as he stared at the dial, and no, his watch was still working, the second hand moving round at its usual speed, the minute hand in a different place to when he had last looked. Twelve minutes, that was all that had passed, a scant twelve minutes at that. Insufficient time for Shroeder to have sedated Ed, let alone start the MRI scan. And then, well, they would need time to analyze the results before they could begin any treatment.
Fifteen minutes now. He tugged his cuff down and fiddled with the pen in front of him, wondering whether anyone out there in the control room had any idea of what was happening right now in the SHADO section of Mayland. With Paul now heading for Mason’s house to search for anything that might link the traitor to the aliens, Alec was facing this alone.
Enough. He needed to be busy. Anything rather than the memory of his friend, bloodied and exhausted and terrified, leaning against him in the car. He had to be patient, and wait and maybe, when Ed recovered enough, he would be able to give them some answers.
Straker stirred, aware that something was different, that there was no longer a pliable mattress beneath him. This surface was rigid, unyielding; alien. His senses roamed, seeking information, trying to pinpoint his location, for there was only one thing he knew; he was no longer in that small, safe room. The smell was different for one thing. That unmistakable scent of antiseptic had been replaced by a sterile nothingness. No discernable odour at all in his nostrils, no breath of moving air against his skin. No hands on his face, or his arm. No blankets heavy on his body. He trembled as he summoned up the courage to focus on those few sensations that he was able to isolate.
The chill of hard plastic under his shoulders, his hips, his heels, his fingers touching smooth coldness while hands twitched in tiny, uncontrolled and erratic jerks. Cotton, light on his skin, and darkness, his eyelids open a mere slit, but still greyness and silence. Total silence. Nothing. He pushed out one hand. A span, if that. The surface solid and resilient against his knuckle.
Too terrified to open his eyes wide, knowing what he would see, he lay there listening to empty silence, hoping for just one single sound, for any indication of life outside the metallic cocoon that encased him. Then the noise exploded in his ears, a deafening agony of hammer blows, a rhythmical assault on his eardrums that pounded through his body as it reverberated round the cylinder.
Mason. The aliens. They had won. They had caught him. It flooded back into his mind, and Ed Straker, screaming and with fists clenched, thrashed in blind and total panic.
Sitting in the small dining room, Sara finished her mouthful of fudge cake, dabbing up the tiny curls of chocolate that had fallen onto her plate, before licking her fingers with undisguised pleasure. The last of the coffee had been finished some time earlier, and she was tempted to interrupt the conversation between Rebecca and Miss Ealand but they were talking and she hadn’t seen her friend so animated and cheerful for a long time. She sat there, a little on the sidelines, as the two chatted about Ed Straker and John Shepherd, swapping stories and laughing.
‘So, anyway, he didn’t make a big thing out of it. Just handed it to me with a smile.’ Rebecca reached out for a scone in an effort to distract attention from the redness that she could feel rising in her face.
‘Oh yes.’ Miss Ealand looked at her, ‘Ed Straker is like that, quiet and thoughtful. People don’t often see that side to him. They just see the Studio boss, brusque and efficient. And I know what you mean about that smile.’ She looked with some sympathy at the other woman, seeing beyond the faint blush. ‘Did you know he was once married?’
Rebecca frowned, ‘He didn’t remember anything about his past; nothing at all. I noticed he didn’t wear a wedding ring, but not everyone does and he seemed very quiet and reclusive, if you know what I mean? So he was married then. What happened?’ She waited for the answer, looking at the scone she had bitten into, at the layers of butter and jam, wondering if it would still taste as delicious once she knew about John’s marriage.
There was a touch of a hand on her wrist and she looked up, seeing the other woman looking at her with understanding. ‘They divorced. A long time ago. He never remarried and after his son died he kept himself to himself.’ Straker’s secretary tightened her lips, her eyes suspiciously bright.
‘John. His son was John; the boy in the picture wasn’t he? Oh how terrible, to lose a child.’ Rebecca pressed her hand against her lips as the realisation hit her, ‘and I gave him the name John. John Shepherd. I remember he smiled when he said it for the first time. His son’s name, and it made him happy even though he had no memory of his child.’
Another folder signed and put aside and Alec downed the last dregs of his coffee and reached for the next plastic-covered file, but the insistent buzz of his phone interrupted the action. The Mayland tone. For a second he wanted to walk away, to ignore the call, terrified of what he might hear when he picked it up. But it had to be done and he sighed and reached across wondering who would be the one to give him the bad news that he was expecting.
A hesitant voice on the other end. Shit. Alec cringed away from what was coming, his hand slippery with sweat on the receiver. ‘Yes Shroeder?’
The pause was endless, although in reality it was no more than a clearing of a throat, then the caller spoke again. Commander Freeman’s fingers tightened as he listened.
‘On my way.’ The empty chair gave a reproachful squeak as he pushed it back and was gone from the room.
Jackson watched the two women walk up the street away from the Shelter and sighed with relief. There would be no need to give either of them the drug, in fact it would complicate matters even more if he did. It was clear that Miss Steel had no idea who she had been sheltering for the last week, and to remove her entire memories of John Shepherd would be a very difficult task, even for someone of his expertise.
He moved with quick, neat steps down to the common room where the members of the clean-up detail were awaiting orders.
‘Reception area. Clean it. Then wait for my instructions.’ Jackson turned away from the team to watch as Mason’s body was lifted into the blue plastic bodybag. This situation was perplexing, and he had to deal with it in as efficient a manner as possible. The fact that their dead Commander had reappeared was the only good thing but it was up to Jackson to make sure that nothing here could lead back to SHADO.
Jackson picked up his case and, ignoring the activity around him, headed for the starting point of his investigations.
The door opened with ease and he stood there on the threshold just observing the small space. There was no sign of occupancy other than a bed, its sheet and blankets crumpled and stained, and a small heap of discarded clothing on the floor. A plastic bag with cheap toiletries. Nothing else. No pictures, no personal items. It was as if the room had been nothing other than a place to sleep, as if the man who had stayed here had no possessions, no past, no place other than this room, this small sanctuary.
SHADO’s lead inquisitor pulled out a spray and started his work.
The blue luminescence sparkled across the room, the extent of the residue of blood disquieting even the imperturbable Jackson. He studied it, analysing the pattern and allowing his scientific mind to visualise the events as if they were occurring right there in front of him. Straker, sitting on his bed, a crescent-shaped blemish of spilt blood on the wrinkled blanket, the shabby clothes discarded, and the tracery of droplets leading out of the room.
Intrigued, he followed the track across the hallway and into the nearest bathroom, his inner eye seeing the injured man walk in and stand at the utilitarian sink, clear traces of his hands clasping the edge, a hand on the wall of the shower, more residue on the floor. There were no clothes here, no signs of disturbance but Jackson knew what had happened.
He followed the spattered drops, less of them now, but still traceable under the fine mist from his spray, along the dark corridor and into yet another austere room. Jackson took his time in here, examining in minute detail those small inconsequential items that appeared to have no relevance to the investigation. A bloodstained bath towel, the small litter of detritus in the waste bin, each item lifted and scrutinized with care and all the while Jackson’s emotions kept confined behind his impassive yet devious exterior.
The pillow had an indentation still evident in the surface, and he leaned over to pick a blond hair from the surface. A short hair. He nodded to himself then bent again to examine the bedding before taking a couple of quick steps and closing the door. Once alone and undisturbed he returned to peer at the bed, a puzzled expression on his face as he reached out to pick up a single copper-red strand. A long one; he measured it between his slender fingers before tilting his head to regard the bed, the crumpled bedding, a slight smile twisting his face.
‘Fascinating,’ that one word murmured under his breath before he placed the hair in the waste bin and looked around one last time.
He stepped out into the corridor again, not needing Luminol this time to see the fresh blood stains that marked where Straker had fallen and then crawled to the bathroom, or to see the smears on the white tiled walls. With a grimace, he called to his team.
‘Level 3 sanitization of this room, the one next door and the entire corridor, also the medical room. Room 20 needs to be a full decontamination. Everything. Leave nothing behind that might indicate that the commander was present.’ He stalked away, to begin his inspection of the common room and wondering what other troubling details might appear.
Mason’s body had been removed, although a thick puddle of blood marked where his body had fallen. Jackson looked with distaste at the stain then scanned the room, studying the facts as they filtered into his mind.
Straker, walking into the room, one faint handprint on the wall testimony to his passage from the bathroom, falling onto the leather cushions of the sofa where fresh blood still glistened, helpless as Mason aimed his gun at him. Other evidence; a gun still on the floor, Mason’s gun and the soiled and bloody dressing lying where the doctor had discarded it.
What had happened here? He stepped back into the shadows at the edges of the room and considered the facts as they had been presented to him. It was clear that Mason had sought out the Commander, that somehow the SIS officer had been informed that Straker was still alive. Why then had he not contacted SHADO and why try to kill the man he was supposed to have been protecting.
There was only one possibility; Mason had been working with the aliens. ‘Yessss,’ that long syllable hissed through the darkness as Jackson exhaled with satisfaction. All he had to do now was find a plausible reason for Mason shooting the other man and then himself. That should be sufficient to block any police enquiries. But that could wait until he had received information from Colonel Foster. Right now his responsibility was to ensure nothing remained to compromise SHADO security.
He watched as the decontamination proceeded, as Room 20 was stripped of everything, bedding, clothes, the bag with its cheap shaving foam, shower gel and single disposable razor. Even the mattress and pillows were taken away, before the room was ‘sterilised’, until no trace of its former occupant remained. The other rooms cleaned and checked to ensure that any residue had been removed.
By the time Jackson was satisfied it was early afternoon and the winter sky was sullen and grey as he left the basement with the final members of the team. The Shelter was clean. Nothing remained of Shepherd, and Mason and Barry had both been dealt with. The locked door of Room 20 still had its grubby plastic numbers peeling away at the edges, but anyone opening the door would have been somewhat surprised to see the mattress and pillows, the tidy pile of crisp bedlinen and blankets, all looking new and unused.
He stood on the pavement, ignoring the cold as it bit into his body, ignoring his team as they busied themselves putting their equipment away in the vans. He thought about Straker, about what the man had endured, and he remembered that one copper-red hair, and smiled, before pulling out his phone to called HQ.
‘Jackson. Put me through to Commander Freeman,’ he paused, waited and gave a quick glance around to see if he could be overheard before continuing, ‘Situation Green, Colonel Freeman, and, is there any news of the Commander?’
Even though they had got him out within seconds, Straker’s knuckles were bloodied and broken from pounding on the tube that encased him, his gasps too shallow to do more than exacerbate his terror and his mind consumed with the influx of overlapping memories of the last days. Straker/Shepherd, he writhed in anguish, feeling alien hands on him again, holding him down in the sarcophagus in which he would lie imprisoned until……..
Hands held his face, hard, not caressing like the nurse earlier, or comforting like Alec in the car. Hard with intent. Skin against his skin. Grasping fingers digging into his cheeks, forcing his head back down, and he felt further hands clutching his arms and legs as they fought to prevent his escape.
The fingers rasped against the rough bristles of his jaw and irrationally he wondered if his beard would continue to grow once they closed the lid and trapped him in the capsule. Would he still be conscious, while green fluid trickled into his mouth and down his throat before he succumbed and, with spluttering desperation allowed it to drown him? To choke in the liquid, but not to die; that was the worst fear, knowing that he would still be alive.
His screams had stopped now, not from any conscious effort on his part but because he could no longer summon the breath needed to do more than whimper, and sounds began to filter into his mind above his own harsh rasping inhalations; anxious voices calling to one another and someone close to him repeating his name in synchrony with the fingers that were now stroking his face.
Human voices though, and he strained to hear what they were saying, even as he fought them until, muscles burning, he could fight no more, and lay there exhausted, loathing the human frailty that betrayed him as much as he reviled their callous indifference to his fears.
No, he determined, he would not give them the satisfaction of seeing him cower away from them. He would damned well open his eyes and stare with defiance at them as they closed the lid. At least he would show them that he could die with some small courage. He swallowed, trying to delay the moment when he had to open his eyes and look up into those hate-filled faces.
And then, although he was sick with apprehension, he forced his reluctant eyelids apart and blinked, blinked again and again as he looked at the faces that surrounded him.
A bright space, so bright that his eyes filled with tears, distorting his vision even more, but even as tried to focus, as he felt a gentle touch on his face, wiping the moisture from his eyes, he realised that he was free. That he was no longer trapped in that meagre tube, that the faces around him were familiar and that he was out of harm’s way.
A last convulsive shudder of fear escaped his control then he slumped back onto the table as the hands that had held him with such strength eased their painful grip on his limbs. ‘Dr Shroeder? It is you?’ His voice was hoarse, strange even to his own ears, and he waited, desperate to hear a voice he could rely on, to know that he was safe at last.
‘Yes, Commander. I’m here, just rest.’
Straker reached out, ‘No, please, not here.’ He tilted his head back to look at the scanner close behind him, its aperture waiting, and he began to tremble. Curling up on the narrow table he drifted into confusion once more, muttering indistinct words.
Shroeder put his fingers on Straker’s wrist, feeling the rapid pulse and trying to make out what his patient was saying but all he could discern was one word: ‘cylinder’ and that was enough.
He had to get him out of here and away from anything that was a reminder of aliens and transport capsules. And he needed to get Alec Freeman.
Any estate agent would have described it as ‘a delightful two bed apartment with large balcony’. Paul Foster, once he had circumvented the security system and had checked to make sure there was no one inside, looked around and decided it was more of a bijou flat with pretensions of grandeur. A two-bed duplex in a popular area, but nothing special.
A small but for all that a well-organized kitchen, the sink empty and unused, with a stiff dried-out dishcloth folded over the mixer tap. Take-away cartons filling the waste-bin, Mason’s shirts and underwear still in the dryer, milk in the fridge, an empty bottle of bourbon on the worktop next to a heavy tumbler. Paul gestured to the security team to collect the glass, and, as an afterthought, the bottle.
The lounge was just as neglected, with a pile of old broadsheet newspapers dumped in careless disarray on one end of the sofa. Foster knew very little about Mason although from the looks of it, the man might have been recently divorced. No photographs, no personal items on show, nothing that gave any indication of a woman living here. As Jackson had done in the Shelter, he too studied this room, looking for any signs that might give a clue to why a successful SIS officer should turn traitor and try to kill the person he was supposed to protect.
The Colonel grimaced at the loneliness that pervaded this empty space, at the dust that had crept in, the small almost unseen cobwebs in the corners, the sense of indifference that seemed to fill the room. He shook his head and went into the main bedroom, his nose wrinkling in expectation of what he might find there.
It was not what he had expected. The bed was messy, its sheets tangled and twisted, but the largest wardrobe was full with a neat array of clothes. Not Mason’s either. These were delicate blouses, linen trousers, raw silk jackets. Expensive and feminine, and yet there was that faint musty smell of a wardrobe that had not been opened or used for some months. Foster pulled one jacket out and examined it; size 10, and from a London fashion house. One of his ex-girlfriends with expensive tastes had lusted after a coat from the same designer and Paul had a pretty good idea just how much this might have cost. Intrigued, he looked around the room, wondering why any woman would leave these garments behind.
A photograph frame was placed on one of the bedside tables; a picture of a couple, Mason and a woman, the photograph taken a few years earlier judging from the last time Paul Foster had seen Mason. He put it aside to be taken back to HQ and opened the drawer underneath, pulling out a diary that was on top of the usual oddments one keeps in a bedside table. It was one of those office style page-to-a-day diaries and Paul sat on the edge of the bed as he leafed through the early pages with their inconsequential recordings of appointments and birthdays, looking for any reason why the woman who had once lived here had left everything behind.
Minutes ticked by as he searched. Then, ‘Bloody hell,’ he murmured, and pulled out his phone. ‘Put me through to Commander Freeman. Priority call.’
Alec Freeman, walking along the quiet side corridors to Mayland, cursed as his phone buzzed. He paused just long enough to see who was calling before he flicked it open and answered.
‘Paul? What have you found?’
‘Mason. I know what happened. It’s …..’ Foster hesitated, ‘his wife, Alec. She was taken by aliens four months ago.’
‘Shit. So he blames us?’
‘No, it’s worse than that. I haven’t got all the details yet, but it appears that he was working for them, the aliens. They told him he would get her back if he managed to get Straker for them.’ There was a pause, ‘It’s all in his diary. From when she was taken. Everything. He promised them anything if they would return her unharmed.’
‘Look Paul, take Mason’s house to pieces if you have to, but find everything you can that links him to them. I need to know what happened to Ed, and how the aliens are creating clones,’ Freeman said, ‘Anything Paul, even the slightest detail.’
‘Alec?’ Pauls voice was hesitant, ‘Ed, how is he doing?’
Commander Freeman stopped walking and rubbed his forehead with one weary hand. ‘I’m on my way to see him right now Paul. Shroeder called me a few minutes ago. Ed’s woken up, and Shroeder wants me there but that is all he would say. I’ll be in touch as soon as I know any more.’ He closed the phone, unwilling to answer any further questions.
Medical Centre. The words loomed up ahead and he turned the corner, to see Shroeder walk out of one of the rooms ahead. Alec quickened his pace.
‘Commander.’ The tension in Shroeder’s face was clear to see, his lips tight, eyes drawn with the strain as he stood in the bleak corridor and waited for Alec to get closer. ‘Thank you for coming so quickly.’
‘How is he?’ Alec Freeman wasn’t about to waste time with pleasantries. His immediate priority was Straker, and routine small talk had no part to play here.
Shroeder looked down for a second, just a fractional lowering of his head in thought, as if considering his answer, and Alec Freeman felt his heart jolt with fear.
He pushed forward, past the doctor, to look through the glass partition in the door at Ed lying there curled up, eyes closed. Freeman started to push the door open, but a hand gripped his arm, ‘Alec, give him a chance to rest. He came to while he was in the scanner.’
Their eyes met and Freeman winced as he visualised Straker, confused and bewildered and awakening inside the tight confines of the tube. He turned to Shroeder horrified, ‘Hell, how did that happen? Didn’t anyone check on him?’ he peered through the small pane of glass, hand pressed against the glass, hoping that Ed might somehow sense that he was here, that he was just on the other side of the door.
But the man in the bed didn’t move.
‘We got him out straight away, and moved him into this room,’ Shroeder said as he tugged Alec Freeman away from the closed door that separated him from his friend. ‘However, he does seem to have regained his memories, which is why I wanted you here. I think the aliens had captured him and were planning to take him back alive. I thought you needed to be aware of that. But I suppose you can go in and see him now you are here.’
Freeman gave him one look and moved his arm away from the restraining hand before pushing open the door and stepping in.
‘Ed?’ it was his voice this time that was hesitant and afraid, his steps that were slow and cautious, and he was aware of Shroeder standing in the doorway, no doubt ready to help if necessary.
The eyes stayed closed, the ashen face pressed against white cotton, the hand on the pillow motionless and the body curled like a child hiding from unseen terrors. Silence.
Alec turned back to Shroeder, his face furrowed with concern, ‘What should I do?’ he murmured, feeling at a loss. If it had been anyone else lying there he would have known what to do, how to act, but this was different. He didn’t want to scare Ed, but he needed to speak to him, to find out what had happened and see if there were any details that Ed could give him regarding Mason and aliens and clones. But more than that he wanted to talk to Ed, his friend.
Shroeder stepped closer. ‘He’s very tired, but it might do him good to know you are here. The best thing to do is to let him wake up when he is ready, so try not to startle him.’
There was a big easy chair by the bedside, a soft and inviting chair, and Alec eased himself into it with caution, unwilling to make any unnecessary noise that might scare the sleeping man into wakefulness then he sat and waited, his fingers light on Straker’s outstretched hand.
Dr Hartley scowled as he flicked through the folder and saw the address. Yet another homeless drunk, no doubt having been in a fight, aggressive, ready to cause trouble and taking up precious time. His precious time. He had been here too many times before to care about yet another waste of space. If the ambulance hadn’t brought this one in then Hartley would have pushed him to the end of the queue and made him wait. He stepped into the cubicle and stopped. The patient was not alone. There was another man there tall, quiet, arms folded, inexpressive yet watchful eyes. Hartley paused, assessing the two men and wondering which one to address, before making his decision and turning to the man sitting on the bench.
‘Atwood. You’ve banged your head I understand?’ The doctor’s dismissive tone made the tall man frown with displeasure, but he remained silent as the questioning continued. ‘When did you last have a drink?’
Dale blushed ‘Last night,’
‘And how many units a week do you drink?’
There was a pause. Dale looked up at the man who had accompanied him, a quick humiliated glance before he clasped his fingers together and muttered an answer under his breath.
There was a curt ‘humph’ as the doctor stepped forward to tilt Dale’s head back and look into his eyes. ‘Well, I suppose I could send you for an x-ray, though it looks like nothing more than a bump. What did you fall over?’ he turned away to start on his notes, only to have his arm gripped.
‘One moment,’ the tall man said, flicking open an identity card, his fingers still tight on Hartley’s upper arm, ‘Mr Atwood didn’t fall over, and neither was he drunk. I expect you to treat him with due consideration and respect. Is that understood?’ The tone was clear and it was Hartley’s turn to blush this time. He busied himself organising an x-ray while Dale looked up with some unease at the stranger who had travelled with him.
‘Thank you,’ he murmured, feeling ill at ease and not understanding why this person was bothered about him.
There was a slight smile. ‘No need Mr Atwood.’ But he would say no more.
There was the usual long queue in the x-ray department, and Dale was weary to the bone by the time he returned to the cubicle to wait once more. He ached from the discomfort of sitting in the wheelchair and sighed with relief as he eased himself onto the examination table. The man waited with him, standing there as if he had all the time in the world to waste here, listening to footsteps and voices, the rattle of machinery, the sounds of ambulances in the distance.
With an increasing sense of fear Dale wondered what he had done to have merited a guard, even such a polite one, and what they expected him to do anyway. He was too far away from the shelter to walk back there, he had no money for a bus and even if he managed to evade this rather intimidating sentry, he would soon be recaptured. There was nothing for it but to wait. He closed his eyes and relaxed. He’d been arrested enough times anyway so once more wouldn’t make much difference and at least the food in the local cells was good.
Alec Freeman shut his eyes for a moment, drowsy in the warmth of the room, despite the bright lights and gentle hum of monitors. The stress of the morning had finally hit home, and despite his efforts sleep was creeping over him. Ed had not stirred, had not moved in fact, even when Shroeder had come in to make a brief check. Alec had managed to send a text to Miss Ealand, that was all, but it was enough. He knew that she would let Paul know what was happening, and also Keith Ford, and if the Control room wanted him, he could make it back there in a few minutes.
He looked at his watch, let his head tilt back against the padded headrest and allowed himself the luxury of rest. Just a few minutes he promised, just enough to dispel the lassitude that was befuddling his mind.
The sound filtered into Straker’s world. A faint slow sigh, a low rumble, a pause, before it started again, rhythmical yet soothing. He was curled up in an uncomfortable position and he stretched his legs out, enjoying the sensation as muscles eased and reawakened and feeling cool linen against his skin. Bare skin.
Where the hell was he? His hand twitched, and there was a sudden snort, a break in the almost hypnotic noise that had disturbed his rest. Curious to know both where he was and the source of the noise, and somehow not afraid any more although he wondered why that thought was in his mind, he opened his eyes.
One sigh, one deep breath of acceptance and relaxation and sheer relief as the contrasting memories coalesced and settled in his mind. The past was over, the fear dissipated, he was safe, he was home. Not ‘home’ as such but he knew where he was, knew who it was sitting beside the bed, fingers just touching his own. Alec, looking drawn and tired, head back in the chair and dozing.
At any other time the man in the bed would have been content to close his eyes again and drift back into the warm cocoon that protected him, but he was no longer John Shepherd, aimless and without responsibilities, he was Ed Straker, SHADO Commander and with that overriding thought he reached out to the hand on his pillow and squeezed the fingers.
Alec jerked, pulling his hand back and gasping as a shiver of wakefulness startled him. ‘What the…. Ed?’ he leaned forward questioning.
‘Hi Alec,’ Straker gave a hesitant smile. ‘I’m awake and I suppose I’d better fill you in on what happened.’ He groaned as he levered himself up to sit, then frowned, ‘I need to get up. Pass me that robe will you?’ He swung his legs out of the bed, wincing at the stiffness in his side, then he looked up, concern in his eyes. ‘Dale. What happened to him? Was he hurt?’
‘Take it easy, Ed. Dale is fine. You need to relax and lie down.’ He put a hand on Straker’s shoulder, but his friend shook his head and reached for the dressing gown on the end of the bed.
‘No Alec, I’m okay, though you look tired.’ He gave Freeman a piercing stare. ‘Give me a few minutes to wake up.’ Straker pulled the gown on over his shoulders and stood up, balancing himself with one hand on the edge of the bed, before straightening up and tying the belt. ‘You’d better see about finding me some clothes as well,’ he grinned with resignation as he made his way with unsteady steps across to the bathroom. Alec followed, ready to grab him should the need arise, but Straker shrugged off the hand and closed the door behind him.
The bathroom was spacious and light, and Straker leaned his head for a moment against the cool tiles in an effort to keep himself awake and upright, then once the mundane necessity of relieving himself had been taken care of, he turned on the taps, splashing warm water over his face, his head, his hair, before reaching for one of the thick towels to rub himself dry.
With both hands holding the edge of the sink he looked at his reflection, remembering his first day in the Shelter, the stranger’s face that stared back out of the mirror and the flash of fear as John Shepherd recalled that man in the darkness, in the garage. And Straker clenched his fingers on this sink, and closed his eyes tight again, not with fear of that stranger, but with the deeper fear that now filled him.
The aliens had the ability to create clones, and he had no idea how to stop them.
Miss Ealand heard the unmistakable tone of her mobile, alerting her and she nodded a quick apology to Rebecca as she read the message from her Commander, her face giving no clue as to the contents of the text. It was clear however, that this was important, not just a memo, or reminder. Her stillness, the tension as she read the communication told Rebecca everything. This was news about John, about Ed.
Rebecca watched, glancing across to Sara with anxious eyes as they waited, and feeling guilty that as she had carried on chatting to Ed Straker’s personal assistant she had relaxed enough to stop thinking about him lying there injured. She wondered if he was scared for he had certainly seemed frightened when they had tried to get him into the ambulance. Sara reached out and squeezed her fingers.
‘He’ll be fine, don’t worry,’ she murmured, and smiled but it was no comfort to Rebecca. She looked at the clock. Was it still only half-past one? It seemed as if years had passed since she had set off this morning to come here with the guys. So much had happened, the frantic drive back, seeing Barry there and Dale and John and the other man, and then John being driven away and Rebecca coming back here and not knowing…
‘That was Mr Freeman. He wants you to know that Mr Straker is asleep right now, but the doctor has said that he should make a full recovery.’ Miss Ealand’s voice interrupted her thoughts and for no reason at all Rebecca wanted to cry.
She dropped her head into her hands as the tears started, as the relief flooded through her and all those tiny memories surfaced from where they had been buried. The unimportant memories, but at the same time the ones that mattered most. Not the way he looked, or how he spoke, not the clothes he wore, as if those mattered anyway. No it was the way he made her feel. That blissful sense that, for the first time since…… since, and as she gulped she felt Sara put a handkerchief in her hand.
John. She would probably not see him again now. But in a way that was to be expected. After all, he was not homeless, not any more; he had a job, a good job, and friends and colleagues who cared about him, and after all she had known him for just one week.
One week. That was all, and yet so much had happened. She would miss him, though, and that realisation was the worst thing. To know that there was someone out there in the world who she could trust, who she wanted to be with, and he would no doubt forget all about her and the Shelter and everything as soon as he was back at work. Drunks and drug addicts. Who would want to be connected to them? Ed Straker would obliterate that week from his memories and carry on. Without her.
She wiped her eyes. She had done it before, had moved on, had started afresh, and she could do it again. She was being silly, and this was just a reaction to everything that had happened today. But it was still hard and she squeezed her eyes tight to force tears back, even as she felt Sara’s hand on her shoulder, comforting and calming. Enough. She straightened her back, mopped the last defiant tear from her eyelashes and shook herself as if to throw off those emotions that were threatening her.
‘I’m fine. Sorry about that,’ she gulped, ‘I was just remembering what happened. It’s seems almost unreal somehow, Barry being killed and that other man, and Mr Straker being hurt,’ she looked at Miss Ealand, ‘I’m glad he will be alright. You must have been very worried about him. I don’t suppose there is any more coffee is there?’
‘I’ll get some sent in, although,’ Ed Straker’s secretary gave Miss Steel a gentle smile, ‘perhaps you’d like to freshen up first? The Ladies is just down the corridor.’
Rebecca blushed, ‘Yes, that’s a good idea, I must look a mess.’ She reached for her bag and went out, her head averted to avoid curious stares at her swollen eyes and smudged make-up. The door closed behind her, leaving the two women alone.
‘Well?’ Miss Ealand looked at Sara Harper.
Sara looked back, into eyes that were not fooled by Rebecca’s statement. It was time to be honest with this professional and above all perceptive woman. She sighed, knowing that Rebecca would hate her for what she was about to say, but that it had to be said.
‘She’s lying. You know that, and so do I. She cares about him, desperately. Look,’ she paused, wondering just how far to go with the truth, ‘Rebecca was hurt by her fiancé a long time ago. She has never really got over it, never really been able to get close to any other man since then. Except for this Ed Straker.’
‘Hurt? Can you tell me more? Or would that be breaking a confidence?’ Miss Ealand asked, her voice gentle and concerned.
Sara paused, ‘I don’t think it would be. And even if it was, I think you should know.’ She took a deep breath, hating the words that she was about to say, and feeling the rage build inside her. ‘Her fiancé got drunk, wanted sex one night. She didn’t. So…….so…..’
‘Do you want to stop?’
‘No. You need to know this. It changes everything about Rebecca. Why she acts the way she does, and why I think that Ed Straker is the best thing that has happened to her in years.’ Sara took a deep breath, ‘Her fiancé raped her. Beat her to a bloody pulp and raped her. She nearly died.’ The pathologist clenched her fingers together, the knuckles white with the ferocious anger that still consumed her every time she recalled seeing Rebecca in the hospital afterwards.
The door opened and Sara jerked, concerned that her friend might have returned, but no, it was the waiter, quiet and discreet, bringing more coffee.
Miss Ealand poured a fresh cup for Sara then sat watching as Dr Harper took deep breaths and recovered her composure. The coffee was hot and fragrant and she sipped it with appreciation, relieved that Rebecca had not returned, and that she had spoken to this quiet and anxious woman who surely understood what Sara had seen. That Rebecca had found a man who she trusted and who would not hurt her.
But that was the problem. Ed Straker wasn’t that man in the shelter, he was different now, very different by all accounts, and Sara knew that Rebecca was trying to distance herself from further hurt.
Perhaps it was the right thing to do. Perhaps Mr Straker would settle back into his comfortable life and forget the past, but Sara had seen how devoted Alec Freeman was to the man and she trusted Alec. He wouldn’t care so much about someone who could be shallow and thoughtless enough to ignore Rebecca. Not after what had happened, not after all that Rebecca had done for him.
‘You know Mr Straker well, don’t you and Alec is very close to him isn’t he?’ and she blushed a little with the memories of the previous night. ‘I just don’t want Rebecca hurt again. That’s all.’
Miss Ealand smiled, ‘I’ve worked for Mr Straker for a long time, and although Miss Steel only knew him as John Shepherd, from what I have heard I would say that John Shepherd wasn’t any different to Ed Straker, just different names, that’s all.’
‘She trusted him… not to…’
‘As I said, not much difference, probably far less than most people would realise.’ Miss Ealand stared, willing Sara to understand what she was saying, and yet also not saying.
They looked at each other, and Sara nodded. ‘Thank you. I’ll talk to Rebecca later.’
Miss Ealand stood up, ‘Now I have to go and make a couple of calls. Do you want to come back to my office when Rebecca is ready?’’
‘Sure, and….. thank you.’ Sara smiled.
‘Paul. Alec has asked me to contact you.’ Miss Ealand said, ‘He wants you to know that Mr Straker has regained consciousness and the doctor says he is recovering well.’ A bland and unemotional statement, but this was the studio office and security was paramount.
Paul gripped the phone as he closed his eyes. ‘Miss Ealand, can you let Alec know I’ll be back as soon as possible. And,’ he paused, thinking about Ed in the car, confused and frightened, before he sighed with relief, ‘thank you.’
Miss Ealand put the phone down. An easy call that one, but Colonel Foster had known about Ed Straker. This next one would be harder.
There was a pause, then. ‘Keith, this is Miss Ealand. I have some information for you. …………’
Keith Ford put the phone down in silence. Bloody hell. He looked around the control room, at everyone focussed on their consoles.
Straker. Ed Straker. Alive. And he grinned almost foolishly, a huge grin that threatened to burst out of him in a crescendo of laughter. Commander Straker. Here in Mayland. He was not a man who resorted to swearing but, bloody hell.
He wanted to shout it out, but his orders had been specific. Commander Freeman’s orders in fact, and so he pulled off his headset, locked the console and went into Alec’s, no, Straker’s office.
He closed the door and stood there, looking at the room, and this time he allowed the sound to escape. ‘Yes!’ he shouted, his voice loud in the soundproofed silence. Then, blushing a little at his own almost childish emotions, he set to work.
Miss Ealand put the phone down and looked with resignation at the work that was waiting on her desk, but as she reached out for a folder one of SHADO’s security members entered, holding the door open to allow another man to come in behind him.
‘Miss Ealand, this is Dale Atwood. He is one of Miss Steel’s group and he’ll be joining them after he’s had some lunch. Can you let her know he’s here and he is fine? I think she was worried about him. And,’ the tall man paused, ‘any news?’
There was no necessity to speak out loud. Miss Ealand smiled and gave a slight nod, but the other man, his clothes a little unkempt and a livid bruise on his face, stepped forward. ‘Mr Shepherd. That’s who you mean? Is he alright? I didn’t see him apart from when they got him in the car.’
The door opened again, and Miss Ealand looked up in some exasperation, only to relax at the sight of Sara and Rebecca.
‘Dale. I am so glad to see you.’ Rebecca gave him a quick hug, no more than a brief contact of her hands on his shoulders before stepping back, embarrassed. She turned to the man who had been with him. ‘Thank you for looking after him, I was worried.’
The man stood there, rigid as if on parade, then he gave a silent salute to Dale, nothing more than a brief nod of his head, but it was recognition of an equal, of a man who had risked his own life to protect another.
‘Nice to have met you, sir.’ He put his hand out and Dale, almost without thinking, responded and found his own thick fingers, nicotine-stained and with begrimed nails, held and shaken in a firm and resolute grip and then the man was gone, walking with brisk confident steps out of the room, leaving Dale standing bewildered and yet honoured by that simple gesture.
He stood there abashed, his face reddening with embarrassment, and no small measure of pride and then turned to Miss Ealand, ‘So, he is going to be alright? John?’
‘Yes, Mr Atwood, Mr Straker will be fine. And thank you as well. Miss Steel told me you had helped him. Now. Lunch. I will get a receptionist to show you to the canteen. The rest of your group are there now if you would like to join them.’ She set about organising matters with her customary efficiency and soon Dale, with a satisfied smile, was being escorted to meet his friends.
Alec watched as Straker, his hair still damp and tousled, stepped out of the bathroom and stood as if wondering what to do, as if he was waiting for directions or instructions. One quick shiver ran through him and he blinked like a man waking up.
‘Shroeder is on his way.’ Alec said, ‘He wants to check you over and I need to find out, first-hand, what happened.’
Straker clenched his fist, half-hidden in the long sleeve of his robe, before he relaxed and eased himself back into bed, sighing as he leaned against the pillows. ‘Okay Alec, I’ll tell you as much as I can, but some of it is pretty hazy.’ He looked down at his intertwined fingers as if wondering where to begin then, with hesitation, started to talk.
It took time even though Straker kept his account as brief as possible. Alec needed to know the full facts about Mason, the aliens and the clones. That was the priority now, and SHADO commander kept the details of his time in the shelter to himself. There was no reason to involve Alec Freeman in irrelevant minutiae, but even as he told Alec about Mason finding him in the Shelter he was remembering Rebecca’s hand on his chest as he awoke, the way she looked at him and the feel of her head against his shoulder.
‘So, where do we go from here Ed? Paul is at Mason’s flat right now, searching for any other links to the aliens and where they manufactured that clone. We might get lucky, but somehow I doubt if there will be anything there that we can use. Mason was SIS after all. He no doubt had more sense than to leave anything that might tie him to aliens.’ Alec frowned, ‘The bastard.’
Straker looked thoughtful, ‘I wonder how the aliens contacted him, and if there was anyone else involved. You know, it’s more than likely that we have a traitor in SHADO. Someone who was working with Mason, passing information about our operations, letting him know what we were doing, even to letting him know my schedule. And it wouldn’t have been Locke or Patterson. They had no access to my data. Mason must have got my medical details from someone. Someone in SHADO. We need to find that person. Talk to Jackson, Alec, he might be able to help.’
The door opened and they looked up. Shroeder. And for a fleeting moment Straker felt a sharp tang of doubt race through him. No. He crushed it down. Shroeder was trustworthy, wasn’t he? He shook his head in disgust at his own thoughts and smiled up at the doctor.
‘So, can I get back to work now?’ There was no hint of suspicion in his voice, just concern at having to stay here while there were vital tasks that needed to be done.
‘I need to do some more tests first Commander,’ Shroeder began then raised his hand as Alec started to protest, ‘no, no scans, just the usual observations. Perhaps Colonel, you could see about getting the commander some clothes? There is no rush, he won’t be ready for a couple of hours at least.’
It was a neat dismissal and Alec knew it but Ed nodded and Freeman had no option but to follow orders. He grunted in reluctant agreement, placed one hand on Straker’s shoulder, then left the room, looking back once as the doctor approached the bed to begin his tests.
Shroeder looked with some hesitation at his patient. ‘Commander, I would like to apologise for –.’
Straker interrupted him. ‘You didn’t do it deliberately. It wasn’t the most pleasant experience, waking up like that, but it did have one advantage in that it made me remember. Forget it Doctor, it’s something I can live with. I have to. Now. What tests do you need to do?’ His eyes were calm, but Shroeder could see the fear still hiding there, the cold dread that was just under the surface, waiting to bubble up, and overcome him if Straker was not strong enough.
‘Nothing. I just needed to talk to you alone Commander, without Colonel Freeman being present.’ Shroeder sat on the edge of the bed, reaching for Straker’s wrist with a nonchalant gesture to feel the pulse there. ‘Good. Now, I will be honest Ed. That physical injury is comparatively minor and is no reason to stop you returning to work. I am however concerned about your mental condition. You’ve had a severe shock, not just today, but something happened to cause your amnesia. Wait.’ He stopped as he felt the pulse beneath his fingers begin to race. ‘Listen to me Commander. All I am saying is that I am here, when you need to talk about it, and believe me, you will need to talk to someone at some stage. Colonel Freeman is a good friend, but I doubt if he will be able to help you with your fears.’ He released Straker’s wrist and stood up. ‘Now, I will bring you something to eat, you get some more sleep and when Alec returns later this afternoon you can go.’
Straker was silent for a moment, staring at the white cellular blanket that covered the bed, his fingers tracing the patterns. He looked up, a tight smile on his lips. ‘Thank you Shroeder. I will do that.’
‘Commander, I do insist however that you take things easy for a few days though. Don’t tire yourself out, or you may find that your nightmares are not so easy to keep under control.’ He gave Straker one last look and then left.
Straker lay back, remembering. And despite all his resolve the memory of the metal cocoon shuddered through him and he felt his heart pound once more and sweat break out again.
Commander Freeman stood in the corridor listening to the sounds from his control room, and smiled. It was no longer his control room, he would be handing it back to Straker soon, but there were things that needed to be done first. Not that he was unhappy in his role, far from it, but it was Ed’s place and Alec was happy to step aside. He had learned a lot this past week, more than he had believed possible, but not about the job. About himself.
He stepped around the corner, a tall figure striding with confidence and looking around at the action. Keith Ford looked up, a wide, knowing smile twisting his face, Paul Foster standing behind him watching the continuous readouts on the display. The two men nodded at Freeman, and followed him into the office and waited.
‘Alec. How’s Ed?’
Alec checked that the door was closed tight. ‘He’s fine Paul. Tired, but it looks as if he will make a full recovery. We have a problem though and I am going to need you to help. Both of you.’ he looked around the room and sighed. Everything was back in its place. Good. There was just one more thing needed here now, but that would have to wait.
He sat down in Straker’s leather chair, now restored to its rightful place behind the huge desk. Alec picked up the glass sphere, tossed it into the air in a brief moment of celebration then replaced it, before gesturing to the others to take a seat and then with quiet words explaining what Straker had told him.
‘So, someone in HQ, maybe even someone on the Control Room staff might be a traitor,’ he finished, ‘and we can’t risk Ed coming back here unless we know that he will be safe.’ Alec leaned back in the chair. ‘Paul, what’s happening at Mason’s? I didn’t expect you back so soon.’
Foster handed over Mason’s diary. ‘I thought you needed to see this as soon as possible. There are parts that seem to be in code and I didn’t want to hand it over to the research section once I realised that Mason might have an accomplice. I also downloaded the messages from his phone. Here.’ He handed over the recordings, his face blanching as he remembered hearing those distorted voices instructing Mason in fragmented English.
There was quiet in the room as they listened to the messages. Keith felt sick, his stomach roiling as the sounds filtered into his mind. There was something utterly obscene about the expressions used, the strange vocabulary with the pauses in the wrong place and the intonation all incorrect. He shuddered and put his hand over his mouth to hold back a soft cry of revulsion.
‘Sorry Keith,’ Paul looked at him with sympathy, ‘I felt the same when I first heard it. There’s something inherently evil about it isn’t there?’ He glanced at Alec and then went to pour a brandy for the communications officer.
Keith grimaced as he took the drink. ‘It’s the …the..’ He gulped the drink down and placed the empty glass on the desk before continuing, ‘That voice is not alien, at least I’m pretty sure it’s not. It’s a construct.’
‘Meaning?’ Alec leaned forward, his fingers interlaced and tense.
‘It’s created by combining genetic material with technology. A method of synthesising voices, but this is using human material that has been extracted. I researched this last year when I read about some scientists trying to develop a system of getting robots to speak with humanised voices. It was pretty vile.’ He shook his head. ‘All I can say for certain is that those sounds are coming from human vocal cords that are being manipulated by means of electrical charges.’
‘Dear God,’ Paul whispered.
‘And there is one more thing. Those vocal cords belong to a woman; you can tell by the pitch.’ Keith gazed at the empty glass on the desk, the bright lights reflected in its clear surface, and thought about the woman whoever she was, and he hoped she was dead.
The intercom buzzed, startling Freeman as much as the other two.
‘Dr Jackson is on the line for you Commander.’
Alec picked up the phone, listened, frowned, and looked up at the two men in his office before speaking. ‘Thank you Doctor. I’ll let your team deal with Mason and the other man. As for the Commander, he is due to be released from Mayland later today. Can you get back here? I need to discuss something with you.’
A pause, enough time for a brief consideration and then the muted voice on the other end of the line spoke. ‘Surely, Commander. Fifteen minutes,’ before Jackson closed the connection.
Alec looked up, ‘Right, gentlemen. No one in Headquarters apart from a very few trusted people know that Straker is alive. We need to keep it that way until we have lured any traitor out into the open. I’m hoping Dr Jackson will be able help us there. Until then, let’s keep this as quiet as possible.’ He stood up. ‘Fifteen minutes. Get a break and come back when Jackson arrives.’
The studio park was hidden away from prying eyes, a well maintained oasis of calm in the bustle of the busy lots and soundstages. Sara and Rebecca had left the main building and, with time to spare before the rest of the group were ready to return to the shelter, they had wandered around the site, gazing like star-struck teenagers at well-known faces and voices that they had only ever heard on screen.
Despite the cold weather the park was sheltered from the worst of the wintry breezes and the fresh air was bracing. Rebecca was quiet as they explored the small Japanese area, with its raked shingle and boulders, and Sara looked at her friend with a concerned eye.
‘Go on. Tell me,’ she sighed, leaning on a tiny hump-backed bridge that spanned a pond, its water edged with ice. She looked down at the carp sliding in slow waves under the surface, their golden-red scales matching the glints of Rebecca’s hair as it was mirrored in the dark water.
‘Tell you what?’ Rebecca turned away, leaning back on the stone parapet to stare up at the sky, its dour greyness reflecting the way she was feeling.
Sara took hold of her and pulled her round so that she could look into Rebecca’s eyes. ‘What’s worrying you? What you are so scared of? Come on Rebecca, I know you well enough by now.’
The noise of a passenger jet approaching Heathrow drowned out the reply as Rebecca walked away, over the neat furrows of shingle, her footsteps slurring the sea-washed gravel out of its regimented order. Sara could see the tension, the tight shoulders, the way Rebecca walked, holding herself in, not only a physical stiffness, but an emotional rigidity as well. And she remembered the things that Rebecca had seen this morning, the things that Sara experienced every day at work.
Shit. She hadn’t thought about it had she? The bodies, the blood, the violence, and Straker, lying there on that sofa, unresponsive. Damn. She wondered how the hell Rebecca had managed to hold herself together for this long.
She hurried after her, grabbed her, held her. ‘It’s all right, it will be all right, it’s over,’ Sara murmured, as she had done so long ago when Rebecca had cried in her sleep in hospital.
It took a while. The torrent of shock and grief poured out as Rebecca sobbed unrestrained tears, as Sara held her and the sky grew darker, until, after the storm of her distress, she calmed and rested against her friend and allowed the cool winter air to soothe her face.
Sara’s phone rang, and Rebecca lifted her head away and grimaced. ‘Look at me. Twice in one day. Sorry.’
‘No need. Just let me answer this,’ her friend said, digging in her pocket, ‘Dr Harper.’
‘Ah, Dr Harper, Miss Ealand here. Can you come to Reception? Miss Steel’s group will be arriving back here soon.’
There was nothing for it but to agree, although Sara was worried about letting Rebecca return to the Shelter. She sighed and stood up, ‘Come on. The guys will be waiting for us.’
‘Well, back to the grindstone then.’ Rebecca wiped her face once more, gave a sheepish grin to Sara and took her arm as they walked to the large building in the distance.
Alec closed the folder and looked up at the three men around the table. ‘This doesn’t help much, Jackson. I need to find some way to identify clones. Dammit, if they could fool me with a genetic copy of Ed, who knows what they might have achieved by now. There might even be clones in headquarters.’ He sighed and rubbed his face with a tired hand. ‘Any suggestions before we move on?’
Jackson cleared his throat, ‘Perhaps we should talk to the Commander. After all he did see the clone while it was still alive. He might be able to give us some small details that would help. The way it moved for example, or how it spoke. Is that possible Colonel Freeman?’
There was a pause as Freeman twisted his ring finger in one hand, his head down, thinking. ‘As long as we don’t tire him too much. But we need to know exactly what we are up against and Ed might be the only one who can help us. Keith, I need you to stay here and monitor things.’ He stood up, and grimaced, ‘Come on gentlemen, let’s go.’
He picked up an overnight bag that had been lying on top of the Perspex desk and led the way, heading for the quiet corridor between HQ and Mayland. The route had been ‘shut down for maintenance’ so there was no possibility of them meeting anyone once they had passed the SHADO Science Department.
Straker was dozing, but he awoke and sat up as the door opened and the trio entered. ‘Alec? What’s happened?’
There was no point in prevaricating. ‘The clone, Ed. Your clone. We need to know everything you can remember. The slightest detail. How it walked, spoke, anything that might help us identify any others.’
Straker frowned, ‘There’s not much I can tell you. I remember seeing……’ The flinch was almost imperceptible, but Jackson stepped forward as Straker paused.
‘Commander, take your time, please. We have to get as much information as possible, however irrelevant it might appear to you.’ He regarded Straker through half-closed eyes. ‘Anything Commander; the tiniest thing. A sound, a smell, one unusual feature that you might have noticed, perhaps without being aware of its relevance. That is what we need.’
They waited as Straker leaned back, thinking, his eyes focussed on the ceiling and fingers lying motionless on the white blanket, lips parted and moving as, murmuring to himself, he relived that moment.
There was silence in the room, each one hoping that some random spark of memory would provide them with that one thing they needed. A means of identification.
The man in the bed sighed. ‘No, there’s nothing. I can’t recall anything unusual, apart from the fact that it was me. I mean…I…,’ he halted, almost stuttering with the stress of the memory. ‘It was… I knew that it wasn’t me, but yet it was. I don’t remember much after that. Just …….’ He closed his eyes in an effort to recall.
The voice was soft and gentle, ‘Relax Commander, it was a suggestion, that was all. There is no need to be concerned that you are unable to remember what happened. In fact it is remarkable that you have any recollection of the events.’
Straker pressed his hands against his face as if trying to push away those quiet fearful memories, before he looked up again. ‘Sorry Jackson, I can’t help at all.’ He grimaced. ‘I wish I could.’
Freeman smiled, ‘No worries Ed. It was just a thought. There is one thing for certain though. You are not coming back to HQ until we’ve found some way to identify any replicates that might have infiltrated the place. We’re moving you into Jackson’s rooms for a few days while we plan our next step. Get yourself dressed and I’ll clear things with Shroeder. Here.’ Freeman handed Straker the small overnight bag.
It was only a few minutes before Straker emerged from the bathroom, fastening the dark jacket of his suit. He gave a meagre smile to Alec. ‘Well then, shall we go?’
Paul led the way aware that despite the instruction to clear this route they could still meet anyone, human or clone, friend or traitor; who could tell. He loosened his jacket to ease his pistol in its holster but they reached the psychologist’s suite of examination rooms without incident.
‘Very well, we will be undisturbed here.’ Jackson assured Straker once the doors had been secured, ‘Let me tell you what we are planning Commander.’
Straker looked at the men. ‘I presume you mean to set a trap. Probably when Alec here tells everyone that I am still alive? That’s what I would do, make the announcement and then wait for some reaction. Any traitor will try to contact Mason or even the aliens.’
Alec grinned, ‘Yep, Keith is setting that up right now, all mobiles, all internet, everything covered. He will be checking every communication to and from the base,’ and Freeman paused, ‘but the problem is …’
‘Yes. I know. We still don’t know how to identify the real thing.’ Straker said. ‘We don’t even have a clone to compare with an original.’
‘It’s a pity that I was not able to do the autopsy on you, Commander. That might have provided valuable information. We know that the aliens can replicate an exact likeness but there must be some physical signs of the medical intervention. However it is too late now.’ Jackson sighed and interlaced his fingers.
Straker frowned, ‘Dr Harper. You told me, Alec, that she did the autopsy on that clone?’
‘Well then, perhaps Jackson could talk to her about it, as one doctor to another? Out of professional interest maybe?’ He leaned back with a quizzical look.
‘I shall endeavour to do that Commander Straker,’ Jackson smiled, ‘however; Commander Freeman’s absence will be noted in Headquarters so I suggest that we leave you here in Colonel Foster’s care until the morning. Get some rest if possible. Tomorrow is going to be busy.’
‘And I need to see Miss Steel and her group before they leave in…’ Alec looked at his watch, ‘ten minutes,’ he said glancing at his friend as he stood up. ‘I’ll see you in the morning Ed, and I’ll tell Dr Harper that Jackson wants to have a chat with her.’
The group from the Shelter were standing there waiting, when Rebecca arrived back at Reception. She could tell the trip had been successful, the guys, her guys as she often thought of them, were keen to tell her about the things they had seen, film stars, current productions and even some of the filming that was taking place.
Dale was wistful, ‘I wish I could have brought my son,’ he said and Rebecca saw how the events of the past days had changed Dale Atwood. He had grown up at last, and she smiled, knowing that he had taken that first step to restarting his life and she hoped that John Shepherd, or Ed, or whoever he was, would maybe, just once, get in touch with Dale to encourage him. It was unlikely though. Few ex-residents ever revisited, even the successful ones and she would have to watch Dale over the next few days when he might struggle without support. That would be the dangerous time, when he might turn to alcohol and drugs.
‘Tell you what Dale,’ she took his arm, ‘Mr Freeman seems keen to help, so shall I ask him if we could come again, and bring children next time?’
Sara came up to tell her the coach was ready and Rebecca looked around for Miss Ealand, only to see Alec walking towards them, smiling broadly. ‘Miss Steel, Sara, glad I caught you. Everything okay?’
He listened to the buzz of conversation from the men, and held his hand up, laughing, ‘Hang on. I’ll get one of our HR people out to you on Monday and they’ll start the certification course then for anyone who’s interested.’
‘That’s great Mr Freeman, it’s going to make big difference. You realise that don’t you.’ Rebecca stared at him.
‘I do, Miss Steel, believe me.’ Alec shook her hand, and turned to Sara, ‘See you later Sara?’
‘But won’t Mr Straker need you?’’ she said aware that Rebecca was listening.
‘Ed? No. I’ve just come from him. All he needs now is some rest.’
She grinned, ‘Good, Okay then, my place, eight thirty?’ and she gave him one quick kiss before she boarded the coach.
Straker watched as Alec and the doctor left, then turned to Foster, ‘Well, Paul, what did you find at Mason’s house?’
Paul grimaced as he pulled out Mason’s diary, opening it and flicking through pages of neat writing until he came to one of the indecipherable sections. ‘This is Mason’s diary, and some parts are in code. I’ve tried to work it out, but nothing so far.’
Straker reached across the table for the book, twisting it round to peer at the tidy lines of symbols and letters, one finger tracking down the page. ‘I’ve never seen anything like this. We’d need to link into the mainframe computers to have any serious hope of translating it.’ He pushed the diary back. ‘Let’s see what we can do though.’
‘Shouldn’t you be resting?’ Paul asked. ‘It’s been a rough day for you.’
Straker sighed, ‘Look Paul, this could be important. Forget about sleep, I need to know what Mason was doing. It might give us an idea where the aliens have been hiding, and where that clone was created. That has to be our main priority now.’
They sat and worked through the entries in an attempt to interpret the messages but without success. It was well into the evening before Straker yawned and stretched, pushing the laptop away. ‘Hell, it’s later than I thought. And we haven’t got anywhere with this.’ His stomach growled in complaint. ‘Time for something to eat I think.’
Paul picked up the phone. ‘Chinese or Indian?’ he grinned. ‘I’m buying. And then, Commander, you get some sleep. Oh, and Ed? I forgot to say earlier; it’s good to have you back.’
Hounslow, and the shops on the main streets were busy with the late afternoon rush as the coach pulled up outside the quiet building.
It all seemed so calm, so ordered, as if nothing had occurred earlier, no yellow police tape cordoning off the doorway, no ambulance, no dark cars parked in haphazard carelessness across the black tarmac. The door was closed, and for one moment Rebecca was about to buzz Reception then she remembered. Barry.
With a hand that was trembling, she swiped her passcard and pushed the door open, then, with one backward look at Sara, she headed down to the reception area. Her hand froze as she started to open the bottom door, seeing a dark silhouette through the thick glass of the fire door, but she pushed it open and stepped into the room, wondering who it was standing there, waiting.
‘Miss Steel.’ It was James, standing there alone in front of the desk, no sign of any disturbance marring the space. Rebecca looked around at the clean walls, the unstained carpet, the total absence of any marks, any damage. It was….as if nothing had happened here, the attack late last night, John being hurt, then Barry’s death today; everything had been obliterated.
‘What? I mean…..’ Rebecca began, but was interrupted by the men wandering down the steps, heading for the common room and oblivious to the drama that had occurred here. In frantic haste, she turned to James, ‘What about Barry? What do I say to …’ she gestured to the residents now gathering in the common room.
James paused, ‘Miss Steel, the man who was here wanted to kill Mr Straker, and unfortunately Barry Hunter got in his way. If Mr Atwood hadn’t stepped in, then Mr Straker would have been killed as well. We really are very grateful to Dale.’ He stepped away from her, and smiled. ‘We’ve done everything we need to, so I’ll be off now. I’ll see you tomorrow to clear up any final details.’ The fire door closed behind him and she turned to go into the common room.
‘Okay, Jackson, what do we do now?’ Alec Freeman was back in his office, sitting behind the desk but not relaxing. There was too much to worry about, clones, secrets, traitors as well as the constant monitoring for aliens. The only bonus was that Ed Straker was safe, for now, but tomorrow might bring new dangers and new threats. He stretched his arms above his head, yawning hugely.
‘Now?’ Jackson stood up. ‘Now Commander Freeman, you need to go home. Trust me, SHADO will still be here in the morning, and so will Commander Straker.’
Freeman looked at his watch and sighed, ‘Very well, I’ll just check in with Paul before I go.’
‘No, Commander Freeman. You trust Paul Foster don’t you? So, trust him tonight. He will look after Ed Straker.’ He peered at the man sitting across the desk, his head tilted sideways as if examining a patient. ‘You look tired Alec. Go home. Get some sleep.’ He nodded and headed for the door, before pausing and turning round. ‘Commander? Dr Harper. Do you intend going to see her this evening?’
Alec frowned. ‘Yes, why?’
‘Because I also wish to speak to her, and it would be easier if we were both there. So,’ he smiled, ‘I will pick you up at eight o’clock.’ He opened the office door and walked out.
Dale was the centre of attention now, and Rebecca was glad to escape the common room, to get away from the questions, so she walked down to the Medical room to see what needed doing there. The room was clean. Nothing out of place, no sign of any recent use, and, feeling a little perturbed, she went to Room 20, hoping, in the secret depths of her heart, to find something, anything, belonging to John.
It was a shock really, opening the door and seeing the room. Outwardly there was no indication that anything had happened; the plastic numbers were still peeling and the handle was starting to come loose once more. But once inside she halted. She had expected it to have been cleaned, the stains removed, the bed remade, but this was far beyond her expectations. The room smelled of fresh paint, a new mattress on the bed, pillows still in their plastic covers, a pile of bedding and linen that was, again, unused and still showing the creases from its packaging. No sign of John Shepherd. She searched for anything that might have been left behind, cursing as the cheap drawers stuck and jarred as she tugged them open, but it was as if he had never existed. Any indication of John Shepherd’s presence here had been neatly removed from the shelter, his former presence erased, nothing left of him.
She closed the door, locked it, and turned away. There was a report to write before she went home. She had better get on with it.
Alec shrugged his jacket on over his shoulders and stepped out to meet Jackson as he heard the car pull up outside. He’d never had much to do with the head of the Psychology and Psychiatry section of SHADO and this evening would be….. interesting. That was the best way to describe it, no doubt. A quiet evening with Sara, that was all that Alec Freeman had wanted after the unexpected events of today, but Doug Jackson’s presence would complicate matters, and he wondered how she would react to his arrival, unannounced and, quite possibly, unwelcome.
Jackson drove; no music, no chatter breaking the hush in the car, not even a Satnav voice giving directions.
‘You know where to go?’ Alec broke the uncomfortable silence.
Jackson turned his head to give a quick reassuring glance. ‘Of course Commander, or perhaps I should now call you Colonel. I took the liberty of perusing Dr Harper’s file before I came. Interesting reading.’
He focused on the dark unlit road, driving with a confident almost casual skill.
There was nothing else to do but sit there and allow Jackson to get on with it. As the car gained speed on the dual carriageway, Alec leaned into the leather seat, feeling ill at ease in such an unusual situation. The car was not what he expected a doctor of psychiatry to own. If asked, Alec would have pondered the question then suggested a low-slung sports car, something racy and sleek, not a Citroen DS, old-fashioned and to be honest, a rather ungainly vehicle. But despite that, there was an understated attraction to the car, and he found himself beginning to appreciate the workmanship, the elegance that could be seen in the details and the power hidden under the bonnet. A bit like Jackson himself, Alec thought and, grinning in the darkness, he settled back to enjoy the rest of the ride.
‘Alec.. and ..? ’ Sara recovered herself quickly, ‘you were at the Shelter this morning weren’t you? Mr..?’
‘Good evening Dr Harper, my name is Jackson, Dr Jackson. I hope you don’t mind my intruding on you, but there are some things I wish to ask regarding the autopsy that you performed on …’ he halted, a little unsure how to continue.
‘The other Ed Straker? Confusing isn’t it.’ Sara laughed and stepped back. ‘Come in both of you. It’s too cold to be standing there.’
Her small living room was warm and welcoming and Alec went to rub his hands in front of the fire, aware that Jackson was looking around the room as if analysing it prior to writing a report. ‘Alec, Dr Jackson, what would you like to drink? Tea or something stronger?’
‘Tea will be fine th……….,’ Alec replied, but Jackson’s soft and amused voice interrupted him.
‘Surely not, Alec. At this time of night? I rather think you would prefer something a little stronger, and after all you are not driving.’ He gave a quirky grin, ‘A whisky for Mr Freeman I think, if you have one Dr. Harper?’
She laughed, ‘Please. Sara. Not doctor. And anyway I never consider myself a proper doctor. I only deal with corpses, well,’ and she paused, thinking about the events of the morning, ‘apart from in emergencies that is. By the way, how is Mr Straker?’
‘Resting comfortably.’ Jackson said and then laughed as well. ‘I sound like some Senior Houseman on rounds. Mr Straker is the reason I am here, so perhaps we could sit down and I will tell you what I need to know, but first, that drink for Mr Freeman.’
There was a glint of humour in Jackson’s expression, but Sara smiled as well, ‘and you Doctor Jackson? What would you like? I also have brandy, vodka and even some rather nice grappa in the fridge.’
‘Grappa.’ Jackson almost purred with pleasure ‘I have not had that for a long time. That would be most acceptable, Sara, but just a taste. After all,’ and he looked at Alec, with a knowing expression, ‘I do have to drive home later.’
‘So, Doctor,’ Sara started, once drinks had been sorted and she had sat down on the sofa with grappa as well, ‘what do you want from me? I can’t see how I can possibly be of any help to you.’
Alec sat there, silent and cut out of the conversation as Jackson settled himself in the only single armchair in the room and leaned forward, stroking his chin, as if in thought. ‘It regards the autopsy on that other body, the one that we thought was Mr Straker. What I require from you are any unusual details about that person. Anything out of the ordinary as it were; maybe something that you noticed that struck you as different, or out of place. A scar perhaps, or some indication of a surgical procedure that Mr Straker had not undergone. You have studied his medical records I understand?’
Sara looked at him then at Alec and her eyes narrowed before she stood up and walked to the window where she gazed out at the darkness, her arms folded, as she remembered kneeling by that sofa in the dim light of the common room, her fingers smoothing his blond hair into place. And that thought came back to her as if it were speaking to her from inside her mind; that ‘other’ Ed Straker was a mere copy of this man, a thin and false replica, without heart or emotions, and with a sick feeling that twisted her gut, she knew. God help her, she knew.
The quietness in the room spread. Jackson picked up his glass and sipped the last drops, his eyes vigilant and watchful as he stared at the woman, her face reflected in the glass. Even Alec Freeman could sense the tension that emanated from her before he broke the silence. ‘Sara?’
She turned round, her face contorted with revulsion. ‘I know. I know what he was. The man, the thing I suppose, that I examined.’ She retreated a couple of steps as both men stood as well, then looked at each other, Alec with horror at the thought of what she might say, Jackson however with eyes glinting in anticipation.
‘And, what do you suppose he was, this man?’ Jackson didn’t move, didn’t take a step, just stood there, waiting. Alec tightened his lips.
Dr Harper glanced from one to the other, then to the door. Her shoulders slumped, and she winced as if in anticipation of something catastrophic.
‘He was a clone wasn’t he?’ The question in her voice was unmistakeable, the repugnance in her eyes palpable. ‘A replica. I should have seen it earlier. How the hell did you do it? You must have started this what… more than forty years ago? That’s impossible. Alec….’ she turned to him, ‘are you part of this? Please, tell me the truth.’
Jackson stepped forward, one hand reaching out to her, ‘Sit down, Dr Harper. Let me assure you, Mr Freeman has nothing to do with clones, nothing at all. We merely require your assistance in what is a simple matter.’
Scornful laughter echoed through the room as Sara vented her abhorrence. ‘Simple matter? Who the hell are you kidding? You created a clone; only it died didn’t it? How inconvenient, especially after what, nearly forty years of nurturing? What do you want me to do? Show you where you went wrong? You know where the door is. Now leave.’ She turned back to stare out at the darkness, the emptiness ahead of her on the other side of the window. ‘Go on.’
Dr Harper, I will tell you the truth….’Jackson put a hand up as Alec opened his mouth to interrupt, ‘No, Colonel Freeman, Dr Harper is the sole person who can give us the assistance that we need. You know that our Commander would agree with me if he were here right now.’ Head tilted he regarded Freeman, as if anticipating the objection that was about to be spoken, and under that piercing gaze Alec Freeman sighed with acceptance.
‘I don’t suppose we have much choice.’ He put a hand out to Sara, hoping that she would listen, would understand and would forgive him for what he was going to do to her. He knew that she would forget everything about clones and SHADO later on, after she had helped them and after Jackson had given her the amnesia drug, but he mourned the fact that she would forget him, Alec Freeman, and yet he would still remember her and last night.
Sara had twisted round, her brow furrowed with uncertainty, ‘Colonel? I thought you were a film executive, Mr Freeman.’
Alec could hear the derision in her voice but there was now a faint undertone of intrigue. He held his hands out to her, hoping that she would listen, would allow him to explain. ‘Sara, it’s not what you think. We have nothing to do with making clones; in fact we are trying to stop it. You can help us, I hope. Please, let us explain it to you.’ His eyes stared at her and she saw the honesty in them, and also the sadness and desperation, and she remembered the way he had held Ed Straker.
‘Very well. It had better be a damned good explanation though,’ and she sat down, on the single chair this time, facing them, her arms folded in defiance.
Jackson smiled. ‘Excellent. Now, tell me Dr Harper, what do you know about aliens…………’
It was after eleven before all Sara’s questions had been answered to her satisfaction, although she suspected that she had not been told everything. She had refilled their glasses and later made sandwiches and coffee, before going back into the living room, though this time sitting next to Alec on the sofa in a silent gesture of apology. Jackson looked tired; she could see the strain in his eyes, although she felt that the mysterious doctor was a man who would strive to conceal any sign of weakness. Alec was yawning, despite the caffeine and she glanced at him, ‘So, you need me to help identify any possible clones that may have infiltrated SHADO. That won’t be easy you know. The clones would be human, just like you and me. There should be no obvious discrepancies. That replica of Mr Straker, sorry, I mean Commander Straker, that was perfectly normal, scars and all, apart from that one small one that no-one had thought to record.’
‘Ah, but you see Sara, you are forgetting,’ Jackson stood up, stretched and smiled, ‘these clones are not human, at least not as we know clones. The aliens must have perfected a method of progressing their development over a matter of months, maybe even weeks, until they reached maturity. Imagine the resources that must take, the knowledge, the advancements in science.’ His eyes gleamed for a second before he continued, ‘there has to be some evidence of that, some slight indication that you may have overlooked. We are resting our hopes on you. And so, now I will go home, and rest. Colonel Freeman will remain here, to answer any further questions that you may have, and to escort you to SHADO in the morning. Goodnight Dr. Harper.’ And he nodded one last time, a quick jerk of his head, before leaving.
They stared at each other, Alec loathe to speak, Sara still almost overwhelmed with the shock and the disturbance of her calm and ordered existence. ‘You’re staying here to make sure I don’t contact anyone aren’t you? I wouldn’t worry, after all who the hell would believe me.’ Her voice was dull with fatigue and despondency and she pushed herself up off the sofa to stand there looking down, her face expressionless. ’Come on,’ she said, her voice weary, ‘let’s get some sleep.’
Alec didn’t move, his head lowered, eyes downcast. ‘You go to bed. I’ll sleep on the sofa.’ He paused, ‘Goodnight.’
She stood there, silhouetted against the light in the hall, as if she was about to say something else, or waiting for Alec to speak, but nothing was said and the moment passed.
He heard her muttering to herself as she left the room, but he was too dejected to listen, aware that there was precious little chance of building a future between them now. He had lied to her and that was no basis for any serious relationship. He could hear her clattering about in the kitchen, loading the dishwasher and turning off lights before she went upstairs. The house settled into quiet, no noise disturbing the dark emptiness of the living room as he shifted cushions into place and lay back, closing his eyes in an effort to at least get some rest and thinking back over the day.
Sleep was impossible.
The fire ticked as it cooled. In the distance a siren blared. A car drove past. Straker was alive and safe now. Would Paul stay awake all night, to protect him? The aliens were making clones. Who could he trust? How had Shroeder allowed Ed to wake up in the scanner? Would the plan to try to flush out any traitor work? And Sara would be given the drug and she would forget all about him.
The thoughts wouldn’t let him rest, wouldn’t leave him alone and he sighed and sat up, massaging his shoulder. Memories of Ed leaning on that shoulder earlier, his head heavy, his body slumping. Freeman stood up and looked out of the window, rubbing his tired face with a weary hand, seeing the stars and wondering if, even now, another UFO was on its way from a planet that circled one of those stars. And he shuddered as he recalled the bodies he had seen.
He turned. Wiped his eyes with one hand. She was there, looking at him. He hadn’t even noticed the light outside in the hallway.
‘This is ridiculous. You look shattered.’ She paused and gave a hesitant smile, ‘Come upstairs. You need to get some sleep and you won’t do on that sofa. Believe me, I’ve tried it myself.’ She held out her hand, ‘Look, it’s late, and I…well…. I’ve had a shock tonight. I need to think about things. But that can wait until tomorrow. Bed. Now.’ And she took his hand and led him out of the room and upstairs.
She was half-asleep by the time he had undressed, half-asleep and facing away from him, so he slid under the covers and lay there next to her, not touching, not even close as he tried to relax, knowing that he needed to be ready for the morning.
An unexpected coolness disturbed him as Sara tugged the covers around herself and he reached out to tuck the duvet against her shoulders, his fingers just grazing against her skin. He felt her flinch with the touch, and he flinched too, aware that she was awake and no doubt lying there hating him for what he had done, maybe even hating herself for sleeping with him last night. He was about to ease himself out of the bed, and return downstairs, then she spoke, her voice sleepy and muffled by the duvet.
‘For goodness sake Alec, you’re bloody freezing. Snuggle up and get warm. Here.’ And she wriggled back against to him, until she was pressed against his chest, her legs against his, spooned together, companionable, trusting, caring. She reached back with one arm to pull him against her and with cautious movements, he wrapped one arm over her to nestle even closer. ‘G’n’t’ she murmured and sighed with contentment.
And so Alec slept.
Rebecca unlocked her door, jerked her coat off and allowed it to fall to the floor, before she dragged shoes off aching feet and let them too, lie in careless abandon. She’d eaten at the shelter, a drab meal of cheap mince made into cheap chilli, tasteless and unsatisfying, but at least it saved her the bother of making a meal and eating it by herself once she got home.
Another late night. Her overtime must have clocked up at least four weeks now, but there was precious point in trying to claim the time back. And anyway, what the hell would she do if she did take time off? Go on holiday? It would have to be by herself as well. Sara wouldn’t be able to take the time, and anyway, it looked as if Sara had found the man she had been waiting for. Alec Freeman seemed nice enough, although…………………
Rebecca felt ashamed of herself. There, deep down, she had wanted it to fail. Wanted Alec to stop seeing Sara, not because she envied Sara, but because Alec was Ed Straker’s friend. And that meant that one day she, Rebecca Steel, might bump into John Shepherd again. She couldn’t bear that.
Too soon to go to bed. She roamed the rooms, tidying random things, straightening books, wiping dust from shelves with her fingers until she was found herself back in the lounge where she turned on the TV and began flicking through channels for something mindless to watch, but it was full of senseless reality programmes about inadequate families or hospitals or …… weddings.
Enough. The television was switched off, the remote dropped onto the sofa. She would have a bath and then maybe read a book in bed, and with any luck she might sleep.
Ed Straker woke up with a feeling of unease. There was something that he needed to do, something important, that only he could deal with. It was there in the back of his mind at him, a niggle that would not go away and that was preventing him from settling down again. He thought back over the day, the terror of the morning with Mason’s arrival, then waking up in the scanner. He sat up with a sudden desperate need to be free, looking around the small isolation suite where Jackson treated patients and where he had fallen asleep. The dim lighting was enough to allay the sharp jerk of panic that coursed through him, but even so he was reluctant to lie down in case the memories returned.
He listened to the sounds outside the room, but there was nothing, not even a hum from the air conditioning. No footsteps outside, no distorted sound from the television in the background, nothing that even reminded him of that small room that had been his sanctuary for the last week. Even the walls were a soft muted shade of grey. He sat there, his hands clasped round bent knees, thinking.
Then…. yes, that was it. He knew what he had to do. Foster would be in the outer office, and Straker could avoid being seen by him, as long as Paul didn’t come in. That was unlikely though; his provisional ‘bodyguard’ had been adamant in his instruction to his commander to get some sleep despite Straker’s half-hearted protests.
He opened the door, reached for the laptop and carried it back to the warmth of his bed. It was easy bypassing the security codes although he froze at one stage when he heard someone outside. It was just Paul though, moving across to the bathroom with stealthy steps so as not to disturb his charge. The window opened and he started typing.
Dale should have gone to the pub. It was his Friday night routine. Every Friday night without fail. Pub, take-away and then a few drinks in a quiet corner on the street with his mates, scrounging fags off them and arguing about football managers and referees. Not tonight though. His excuse was that his head was still sore, but once the common room was empty he switched on the computer and sat down, hoping that he would remember how to do the next part of the task that John had set. Website design. He opened the screen and looked at what he had done so far. It looked… well, childish, and in a sudden fit of pique, he was about to delete it when a small screen opened and words began to form: Dale. John Shepherd here. This looks very promising. The design is simple, which is exactly what is needed. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Nice work, but you have a few too many hyperlinks. It shouldn’t take anyone more than four steps to get to anywhere on your web site. I’ll show you how to reduce these. Okay, now, what you need to do is…………….
Dale, smiled, read on and began to type.
The cylinder was open, for once. It didn’t happen very often, and when it did it was almost worse than when it was closed. At least then she knew that she was alone, that they would not be doing more to her. The light blinded her, and she opened her mouth to scream, but nothing came out. How could it?
But Chloe Rimmer screamed anyway.
09.04.11 – 21.5.11
Damn, this was meant to be a brief almost ‘epilogue’ story that began with Straker back in HQ and starting to renew his relationship with Rebecca. I envisaged him turning up at the shelter in his new car, rather diffident and shy. And the two of them fumbling (Not physically!!) to come to terms with the fact that he is now no longer John Shepherd, but a different person.. although still with the same hang-ups. Rebecca is too good a character to simply let fade away, and I wanted to explore how she had changed since John Shepherd had been in the Shelter. I even had the final moment all planned ,.,. and at the current time I might JUST be able to make that work as well. But, no.. G decided that it was too easy to do that. (and hell it would have been SOOO easy!!) so instead I am slaving away, (sometimes only managing a couple of sentences a day!) to write about the immediate aftermath. What is great fun though is trying to develop the characters, not just the obvious ones such as Straker and Rebecca, but the peripheral ones, who haven’t really been important so far. Miss Ealand for example. Not an easy person to do and I have rewritten some parts at least three times, and I don’t mean ‘tweaking’ them, I mean complete re-writes.
Jackson has been an utter delight to do. A wonderful character to write although he has a tendency, like Sheybal, to steal the scene.
I have gone against my beta-reader, which is a very rare thing for me to do, by ending this story at this point. I had intended carrying on to the events of ‘tomorrow’ but mentally, I was ‘finished’ at this point and I couldn’t summon up the energy to continue.
So, a new story..Shepherd: Grafted. My current thinking is that it will be more violent, (really?) and will hopefully resolve some of the issues raised in Drafted.
‘Grafted’ is the term used to describe the means by which a shepherd will fool a ewe into accepting a lamb that is not her own.. sometimes by rubbing it amniotic fluid from the ‘foster’ mother, or even skinning a dead lamb to put the skin over the orphan, so that the ewe thinks the lamb is her own. There SHOULD be another story after Grafted. Just need to think of a title now.