A UFO Story
Even underground, the pale coloured walls were cold. Condensation trickled down to pool on the floor before disappearing through the narrow gaps between spongy tiles. A splash of sharp scarlet attracted the eye to the suits that hung on racks, their silvered helmets arrayed in rows above and a low thrumming resonated through the floor and walls from the machines that worked to keep the room habitable.
If one could call it a room. A circular space, straight walls taller than a man, topped by a low domed roof and, adjoining it, a similar dome of the same design. The whole no more than ten foot high. Any taller and they would have breached the surface, and just one part of the construction did that.
The UFO slipped under the water, manoeuvring with slow caution until it positioned itself over the one part of the structure that protruded from the earth.
An airlock; hidden by mud and undetectable to human systems. But this was not human. The small craft lowered itself onto the river bed and shuffled down into the deposits of thick mud. Metal hit metal with a solid clunk and the airlock opened to lift up into the compact interior of the craft. A wide tube with a sectioned ladder that ran the whole of its length, led down through the mud and clay and bed rock to form the link between the two domes. Not the most logical way to access the structures, but the safest way to do so without being exposed to the destructive forces of the atmosphere. Or to SHADO’s ever vigilant scanners. Here, underwater and underground, the domes and their inhabitants were safe from detection.
The figure moved with hesitant steps down the ladder inside the tube, his limbs stiff and cramped. Down the tube until he reached an iris that slid open to allow him access into the lower section. Once he stood at the base of the tube he put his hand on the wall. Air hissed and the iris sliced across the tube again, cutting off the lower part. He was now isolated in this small and contained airlock. He waited, a clear panel allowing him to see through into the dome.
Another hiss of air as pressure equalised then the curved door slid sideways into the double walled tube to allow him into the larger of the two domes.
They were waiting for him. Submissive and silent as protocol decreed. They helped remove his helmet, helped him take those first gasping breaths, the green fluid spewing from his lungs and mouth to spray onto the floor and soak into the soft flooring. They held him as the spasms wracked his body until he straightened and pulled himself from their grasp. No words spoken. Then they stepped back, allowing him space as he pulled off his gloves. Still nothing said. The low thrumming sound reverberated through the dome, along with the muted moans and whimpers and high pitched animal-like cries that emanated from three of the transportation cylinders situated near the main control block, but he ignored them. Instead he looked around, eyes inspecting everything else, the machinery, the small and inadequate personal area with sleeping couches and food preparation section, the even smaller sanitation unit. Half-hooded eyes revealed nothing, no emotion, no reaction as he walked back to the tube to let the door slide shut behind him. He placed a hand on the wall, air hissed and, in front of him, another door opened and he took one step into the second dome.
A grimace twisted his lips. Brow furrowed, he stood there, observing the room, avoiding any close contact with the upright tubes lining the curved walls. The contents …… troubled him. Besides, he did not wish to risk disturbing any of the cables and tubes that snaked across the floor and looped like vines from the machines clustered in the centre of the space.
Time passed. The silence and the things that he saw disturbed his composure and he turned back to the tube to re-enter the small airlock and wait there in the cylindrical prison for a brief moment before the door opened again in front of him.
They had laid it all out on the table; data, records, predictions, all the relevant information that was required for these regular assessments. He sat, read through, frowned on a couple of occasions. They placed a flask on the table next to his hand and he picked it up, sipped, continued reading. Nothing said.
They waited with deference, the thrumming louder now, or perhaps it was that the silence was more intense. They stood there.
He sipped the last of the drink, pushed the flask away and stood up. Nodded once in curt acknowledgement and waited as they lifted his helmet down and held it out. Nothing was said. Words were not needed. They knew what he was thinking, what he had decided. They could continue their experiments for the immediate future, despite the current disappointing outcomes. And the two SHADO captives? They would be transported later, on the next supply craft that was due to arrive. They were a poor substitute for the one that had been intended as a primary target, but the two men might provide some information.
Once gloved up he allowed the fluid to fill his helmet, to trickle into his mouth and pour down his throat down before forcing himself to breathe. A moment of suppressed fear before he relaxed and then, with his lungs filled with the oxygenating liquid, he stepped into the access tube, the door sliding round to enclose him and the metal disc opening to allow him access to the surface. It was with a sense of relief that he climbed the ladder to the welcome warmth of his small compartment, sealing the airlock behind himself then settling into his couch to begin the journey back. Gloved hands manipulated controls and the craft quivered to release itself from the clutch of the river mud before moving away.
Anyone walking by might have noticed a flurry of water, fine bubbles rising and dissipating, a soft glow deep beneath the surface, but it soon faded. Just a trick of the eyes.
On the river bed, deep below the surface, silt dropped from the slow-flowing murky water to cover the circle of metal.
Sara Harper stood there, puzzled and more than a little annoyed with herself. She had always considered herself to have a good sense of direction, but these corridors all looked the same and she was sure she had passed this door already. It didn’t help that they were, for the most part, unmarked. Dammit, she had enough to worry about without trying to find her way in this maze. Another junction. She turned on her heel, unsure where to go. Left?
The quiet and somewhat amused voice startled her and she twisted round to smile in relief. ‘Good morning Doctor Jackson. I was just looking for ………..’
‘One moment.’ The man stopped, tilted his head and regarded her with a quizzical look. ‘Do you know who I am?’
He shook his head. ‘Really? Do you? Think, Dr Harper.’
She blushed with the realisation. ‘I hadn’t thought. I…..’ She stood there, at his
mercy. No-one to protect her if he was a clone. Last time she had been with Straker and he had been armed. Now she was alone. She took a step away from him.
Jackson turned his back to her. ‘Feel free to check Doctor. But I suggest that in future you do not roam these corridors unaccompanied. We do not know who else might have been taken.’ He put his hands on the wall as she moved to brush the hair from his neck with fingers that trembled all of a sudden. Nothing.
‘Very well, Doctor Harper, now that you know who I am I will escort you to wherever you were heading.’ He gave her a short, almost unnoticeable, bow.
‘I have to do the autopsy. On Alec…’ she hesitated, ‘on Colonel Freeman’s clone.’
Jackson closed his eyes for a brief moment. ‘Yes. I will assist you if you wish. It might make things a little easier.’ She was grateful for that look of understanding in his eyes now and she nodded as he led the way to the mortuary.
The room could have been any mortuary in any hospital. Someone, years ago, had perfected the design for the most efficient use of space and the plans had no doubt remained unaltered since then. At least that was what Sara had always suspected. Somewhere in a government administration block the original plan was no doubt mouldering in a drawer. Faded, maybe with a few minor alterations, but still the same design. It would have been given some official designation such as DM:23s9/C . A random set of letters and numbers. But everyone would know it as ‘Mortuary Plan A’. No doubt ‘Plan A’ had been pulled out of the drawer when SHADO was built.
She knew where everything was. The steel door had his name on it. A. Freeman; the tray slid out easily on its steel runners. Dark patches stained the sheet. She paused, and then began pulling it back.
The face was more tranquil than she had hoped. A quiet death then. She hadn’t been sure. So Straker had let him slip away with dignity and peace, and despite the fact that he was the enemy, and by rights she should hate him, she could not. He was Alec. She let her hand stroke his face. His skin was cold under the warmth of her fingers.
‘Doctor?’ Jackson was there, deferring to her and ready to assist. She helped him slide the body onto the table then she finished folding the sheet back and lowered Alec’s arms at his side. Jackson reached for the spray. ‘Shall I ?’
Dr. Harper nodded. She had to prepare herself, had to put scrubs on and it was foolish to waste time. Jackson was as capable of washing a body as she was, and in a way it was a relief not to have to do that to him, to Alec. Not wash him like that, with cold water, so…….. .
She scrubbed her hands and arms at the sink, the hot water running down her forearms, the lather dripping off her fingers as she listened to the sounds of water behind her. She had no particular need to scrub up, but she needed to be busy while Jackson was hosing him down. Enough. She dried her hands, pulled on the scrub suit, gloved up, and picked up a scalpel from the tray.
She pulled the visor over her eyes, leaned over him, and began.
Another body that affected her, another intense experience that cut through her emotions as she cut through his flesh. Straker, and Alec. Two men, so different and yet both of them changing her life in ways that she could not have comprehended a few weeks ago. She blinked, and the blade halted for a moment before she adjusted her stance, moving the knife on and across his chest to the sternum in a precise and professional stroke.
Jackson stood back, observing her hands, her movements as she worked, as she tried to detach herself from the man beneath her knife. Not Alec. Not; her mind screamed at her, but her eyes lied. She paused and turned away to change her weapon, but in reality to try to compose herself. Back to the table, fingers gripping the steel, looking down at the man on the table.
She lifted the blade. It felt heavy. Her wrist were aching. She found it hard to concentrate or focus on what she had to do. She put the blade down and pushed back the visor to wipe her forehead with the back of her hand, blinking through blurred eyes. He was still there though, as her sight cleared and she tried to switch off her distress.
‘Sara?’ Jackson’s hand was on her elbow, supporting her as she let the scalpel clatter on the steel table. It slid under Alec’s arm. Unreachable. ‘Step away Doctor, please.’ She let her hand trail over cold fingers as she moved back. His eyes regarded her with compassion, his hand still close should the need arise.
She looked up, chastened, her own face pale and her legs beginning to tremble. ‘Sorry.’ Her own voice was unrecognisable, her own hands alien in front of her. Still gloved and ….. and discoloured with foul stains. She tore the gloves off, flung them on the floor. ‘I’m a scientist. I perform autopsies every day. Children, adults. All ages. This should be just another body but for some reason it isn’t. And please. Don’t tell me I’m being foolish.’
She didn’t look up, didn’t want to see that figure stretched out in front of her. Alec. Oh she knew it wasn’t him, it couldn’t be him. Alec was ….gone. And then she knew. It hit her like a physical blow. Shit. She had never expected to feel like this about him. Not real love. And it was too late.
He tilted his head. ‘Foolish? Far from it Doctor Harper. I understand your reaction. I too find it hard to see this person as anything other than Colonel Freeman. After all, this clone was a perfect replica, even to the same emotions and the same strength of character, and I am sure that, had he known you, he would have cared for you as the real Alec Freeman does.’
Sara sat down, half-turned away from the sight of the corpse, his clone, her lover. ‘You know Alec well I take it?’ The question was more to give her time to divert her thoughts than out of curiosity.
Doug Jackson cast one quick glance at the centre of the room. ‘Alec? Yes. At first he was .. distrustful of me, but I understood his reasons. Since then we have developed a respect for each other. Sara.’ He paused and those sharp eyes fixed on hers. ‘I do care. I am, even though I may not show it, very concerned for him. He is more than a Colonel in SHADO, he is a well-loved member of a small team. Furthermore he is Commander Straker’s closest, if not only, friend. That makes him even more important. And from what I have seen recently, I know that Alec Freeman thought of you as more than just a friend.’
Sara tried to stop herself shivering. ‘Ed has a hard time in front of him, I think. To have done what he did. And then to have to carry on as if nothing had happened.’ She pushed herself to her feet. ‘You know he killed that other clone, Ford, and then he had to question Alec. I couldn’t have done that. And then he……’ She shuddered, wrapping her arms around herself.
‘Yes, to have to kill the enemy is one thing, but this clone was Alec Freeman. Should we not manage to rescue the Colonel, then Ed Straker will have to deal with the memory of killing someone who was, to all intents and purposes, his best friend. That will not be an easy task.’
‘No. It won’t be. And there is very little I can do to help him deal with that. The only thing might be if I can find a clue as to where these clones are made.’ Sara stood up, snapped on fresh gloves, pulled down her visor and reached for another scalpel.
Doug Jackson folded his arms and watched Dr Harper settle to her task. Hands now steady, her mind fixed on what she had to do here in this clean and clinical room. He watched her, as the scalpel etched lines, as she folded back skin in the same careful way as she had folded the sheet back over Straker’s legs. And with that same care and concern she worked on, silent for the most part but with the occasional muttered comment as she found something that perturbed her.
‘Damn.’ She stripped off her gloves and dropped them in the hazardous waste container, before pulling on fresh ones. ‘Jackson, look at this….No.’ She raised a hand before he got any closer. ‘Gloves, double gloves please and a visor. I’m still not sure what we are dealing with here.’ She waited until he had complied and then waved him nearer to show him the corpse. ‘Look here. The major organs. They are dead or dying. It wasn’t as advanced as this in Ford. It’s an indication that these clones are incapable of independent life outside the surroundings in which they are grown. A liquid environment seems feasible, at least the current theories are working on that idea. We are years behind anything like this though.’
‘So the clones may survive for a few hours at most?’ Jackson’s face lit up in relief. ‘That is to our advantage. And we do know the identity of three of the clones they have been creating.’
‘Don’t bank on it Doctor.’ She gave him a grim look. ‘A couple of hours might be all the aliens need. Anyway, I’ve completed it now. I’ll ……..’ she flinched with hesitation. ‘Do you have an assistant who might finish up for me?’
‘I’ll get someone.’ Jackson frowned. ‘The usual technician is off sick. I will have to inform Colonel Foster about that. It’s most unusual.’
He lay in bed for a few minutes, well, more than a few minutes really, reluctant to leave the comfort of the duvet and venture out into the chill of the pre-dawn.
That was the excuse, he told himself, but he knew that the room was warm, and he had no justification for staying under the covers however snug they might be.
But she was lying next to him, asleep.
Alec. Guilt twisted through him, cramping his muscles. Guilt that he had slept, that he had not been awake worrying about Alec. He had thought only of himself last night, not caring about the man who had been his mainstay all these years, the man who had been there for him when his divorce papers came through, the man who had supported him when John died, who had somehow saved him from death in Skydiver. Straker had pushed his friend to the back of his mind. With a shiver of disgust at his ingratitude he eased the covers back and stood, tucking them back around the woman still sleeping there, his hands lingering for a moment. One look, one hesitation before he collected his jeans and sweatshirt and stuff and headed for the bathroom across the landing.
A quick shower and out, shaking water from his eyes, and drying himself with brisk efficiency. Then onto the routine that he had perfected over years; cleaning his teeth as he contemplated the day ahead. Today he had one priority; finding Alec and Ford and the clones. Nothing else mattered. He concentrated on the simple task, brushing with efficiency, scooping cold water into his hands and spitting it out before dabbing his mouth with the handtowel.
He heard a gurgle of running water from the other bathroom. She was awake then, and up. He turned to the mirror in front of him. It was still blurred and he could not see his reflection with any clarity. But that did not matter. He had done this enough times over the long years; no real need for a mirror. He reached for the soap and ran hot water into the wide porcelain sink.
He stepped up to the mirror to rub his face, his eyes staring back at him in accusation while he was working the soap into his skin, and smoothing the thick lather over stubble, over cheeks and throat and chin. The razor that he had used just the other morning was where he had left it and he wiped condensation from the mirror and leaned forward more from habit than necessity.
The chill draft on his back puzzled him and then he saw her. A smudged shape reflected in the mirror. He became aware of her hands reaching round to hug him, her head between his shoulder blades, her dressing gown soft against his bare skin. She clasped him closer to her, pulling him against her warmth, her fingers spreading wide to enfold him, to make him hers. He allowed himself to lean into that embrace, just that brief moment of joining. Then she stepped back, her hands trailing away from him, fingertips stroking a light touch over his ribs and he turned to let his eyes meet hers, seeing that look of gentle amusement in her face as she perched on the edge of the bath, watching him, her arms folded, her eyes glinting at his slight discomfort.
Yet he could see something else in her look. Not just laughter; more than that. Delight at his presence in her sanctuary, at having someone here in her world. Her eyes caressing him, her lips a memory of the kiss they had shared last night, and she smiled, nodding her head as if to give him permission to continue with his task.
He could think of nothing else to do but carry on although it was strange, almost disconcerting, having someone sitting and watching him at such an everyday activity. He thought back over the years.
Mary had never even considered coming in to sit and talk to him when he was shaving, let alone in the bath. He had not been watched like this for… well since he had started shaving he supposed. A youthful teenager, hesitant and nervous, handling his first razor in a hand that had shaken. That realization that he was growing up and becoming an adult. Shaving soft downy growth. How many years ago? And now here was Rebecca, watching. He turned back to the mirror, trying to concentrate, yet aware of her presence.
The rasping of blades against his cheek, down in smooth even strokes to his jaw, the action familiar and soothing. The swish of the razor in the sink, water splashing as he rinsed stubble and soap from the blade. Rebecca was silent. Watching as if she had never seen this before.
He tilted his head to stretch looser skin and drew the blade up his neck, feeling it sweep through the coarse growth. No chance to speak to her. His mind engaged in each meticulous movement of razor against skin. Small sounds in the silence.
‘She told you. Sara.’ It was a statement, not a question.
He paused, holding the blade still, then continued with a careful upward stroke of steel through foam, one hand on the edge of the sink. He rinsed the razor, glanced at her once, and tilted his head backwards. ‘Yes. She was worried about you.’ The blade left a clear track up his throat, pale smooth skin, the scrape of metal on bristles.
‘It was a long time ago.’ She looked down at the floor. His footprints still there on the dark slate tiles. She heard the short staccato rasps of the blade.
‘I know. But not long enough. Not something you can simply forget.’ He lifted the facecloth, wiping stray soap from one earlobe before putting it down again, then stared into the mirror, watching her. She shuffled uncomfortably.
‘And you?’ Her voice was soft.
He swished the razor in the water, thinking. ‘Me? Married and divorced. You knew that.’ No accusation in his voice, just acknowledgment. He put the razor down. Picked up the cloth again. ‘I had a son, John. He died.’ The hot tap turned on, the facecloth rinsed under the flow and wrung out. Rebecca stared at the fading footprints. Soon there would be no sign that he had been here. Nothing to show his presence other than the razor. All evidence wiped away, gone like the boy in the photograph.
She pressed on, needing to hear the words spoken, although she knew the truth already. Sara had told her. ‘So there’s been no-one else? I mean…..’ she hesitated.
The cloth was hot against his skin as he wiped off the last of the foam. The dregs removed. A fresh start to the day. ‘No.’ He bent his head watching the water drain away. ‘No-one.’ He turned to face her, hoping that she would understand. ‘Ten years. Who…?’
‘Sara. Who else.’ She shrugged. ‘Alec told her.’
Straker gave a gentle, sardonic laugh. ‘Yes Alec would do that. He seems to think I need looking after.’ He looked in the mirror, and spoke in a soft, almost unheard, murmur. ‘Perhaps he’s right.’ He closed his eyes and dried his face in the hand towel, rubbing perhaps a little too hard for perhaps a little too long, pushing the soft cotton hard against his skin.
‘Last night.’ Rebecca stood up, and moved next to him, avoiding his eyes, but watching the man in the mirror.
He stared back at her reflection even as he ran one hand over his face, checking for any stray bristles that might have evaded the razor. ‘Last night.’ A confirmation. An acknowledgement of a simple fact. Nothing more to be said. He smiled into the mirror and she smiled back, before leaning in towards him, and giving him a quick hard hug.
‘Was lovely. Thank you. Tonight? If you are still having problems at your place?’ She stared straight at him.
The hesitation was slight. ‘I might be busy. I can’t say for sure.’ He started to turn, paused, took a breath. ‘It’s difficult. I’m sorry, that sounds … ‘ He looked at her. ‘Rebecca. This is all so… different.’
‘Why?’ A simple question. She turned on the tap, picked up the facecloth that he had wrung out and folded with neat precision on the edge of the sink and she held it under the hot water before wiping her face.
‘Why?’ He waved a hand. ‘Here I am. In your home. You, watching me here, now. Talking like this.’ His face had a slight flush. ‘I’m not used to it. To being with someone.’
It was her turn to blush, or perhaps that was the hot water on her skin. ‘Neither am I. Perhaps we need to get used to it then. Get dressed. I’ll go and make coffee.’ She dried her face, hung the towel on the rail and folded the flannel over the edge of the bath before reaching up to stroke along his jawline and then kiss him. He listened to her footsteps thudding on the stairs and he looked at his face in the mirror, and smiled.
Jeans and trainers. Shirt and sweat shirt. So different to his tailored suits. It would do for work today though. He tugged the sweatshirt into place and went downstairs to the living room.
‘John.’ She regarded him, her brow furrowed.
Another blush. ‘Those clothes. Last night when I saw you. It reminded me of when you arrived at the shelter. John Shepherd. I could see something about you.’
He looked down at his clothes. John Shepherd. And she had smiled when she had seen him in the hallway yesterday evening. He gave a wry grin.
She pushed a mug across the worktop. ‘So. Tonight. My spare room is there if you need it. If you want.’
He took a breath. Made the decision. Though it was not hard to decide. ‘Yes. I’d like that, though it might be late.’
‘No problem. I might be late myself anyway. I’ll let you have my spare key.’ Careless nonchalance in her voice, although he could hear a hidden note of something deeper. She opened a drawer and slid a single key over to him. ‘Whenever. If I’m not in, you know where everything is don’t you?’
He finished his drink and put the mug down. ‘Rebecca…’
She stalled him with a look. ‘This evening.’
The key was cold in his fingers as he slipped it into the pocket of his jeans. He stroked a finger across her cheek, gave her one gentle kiss then picked up his car keys and left.
Miss Ealand opened the blinds, peering out into the dark of the winter morning. The car park was almost deserted at this hour and in the grounds she could see the huge fir tree festooned with lights for the festive season.
In the past she had suggested that perhaps he might have some concession to the celebrations in his office, but he had looked at her with a somewhat quizzical expression and had shaken his head. So she hadn’t mentioned it again. No decorations then, in his office, or hers either.
But it wasn’t as if he ignored Christmas or refused to allow other people to celebrate. She put her hand to her necklace, the one he had bought her last year. She hadn’t been able to wear it since ……..
But that was over now. And this morning she would see him. The buzz of the phone startled her and she picked it up before going to stand at the window again. ‘Miss Ealand.’
‘Lt. James here. The Commander has just left and is on his way to the studios. Everything’s fine. We’ll keep tabs on him until he gets to you then we’ll head off home.’
She sighed with relief. ‘Thank you James. I’ll let Colonel Foster know. Did he see you?’
The answer was amused. ‘The Commander? No. We kept out of sight and just tracked the implant Dr Harper gave him. I’ll organise the security for when he leaves work as well.’
So, he was on his way. She went through to his office once more, tidying the already pristine desk, re-stacking yet again the files that were waiting for his signature, putting his favourite pen just so. She looked around and smiled. Everything ready.
Time for another glance out of her window before sitting down to start the day’s work, although she kept looking up at the door, kept stopping to listen for a car pulling up outside, kept wondering what she would say to him.
Straker switched off the engine and looked at the dark studio buildings. It was still too soon for the office staff to be at work although some stages were already in action with sleepy actors sitting in make-up departments, and gophers running errands. No one saw him as he walked through the darkened reception area. No-one around as he opened the door and stepped into the quietude of the outer office.
He had not expected to see her, not at this hour, well before usual. But somehow he had known she would be here, waiting for him. Over the years he had come to regard her as far more than just a very efficient secretary. He had come to rely on her.
‘Miss Ealand.’ He wondered what to say to her.
‘Commander.’ She stood up and smiled in return. ‘How are you sir?’
‘I’m…..fine. You’ve heard about Colonel Freeman? And Keith Ford?’ His voice was gruff and hesitant, as if the words were hard to say.
‘Yes, Colonel Foster told me earlier. I’m so sorry, Commander.’ She paused and handed over a file. ‘He went out about thirty minutes ago and asked me to give you this as soon as you arrived.’
‘Very good.’ He looked at her, and gave her that shy smile that was so rarely seen. ‘I wonder. Could you do something for me? It’s a personal matter.’ He handed her a slip of paper. ‘I need to get Miss Steel a small gift. I phoned yesterday evening and they said they would have it ready for collection today. Would you arrange for someone to pick it up for me?’
‘Of course. I’ll get onto it as soon as possible. Would you like me to have it delivered to her?’
Straker looked down. ‘No, I don’t think that will be necessary. Keep it for me and I’ll take it round tomorrow.’ He picked up the folder with a brief thank you and then he was in his office, the door sliding shut behind him. He dropped the folder on his desk, his mind occupied with thoughts of last night and this morning. The pleasure of sharing pizza and talking, of serious conversation and random chatter, and afterwards sitting to watch another re-run on television. Relaxed and at ease he had gone to bed and then…
He sat there in the stillness for a few moments, then pulled out the key that Rebecca had given him, holding it between his fingers and running his thumb along the serrated edge of the blade. It was unmarked and unused and he was about to slip it back into his jeans when he stopped. He put it on the desk before resting his chin on interlaced hands to sit there and think.
How long it would be before he had to lie to Rebecca? Although it would be hard, his personal feelings would have to be put aside if security was threatened. His fingers tightened their grip as he thought of his duty. And duty called as it always did. Duty and service and SHADO. There had been no time, no chance even, for a life outside the organisation. Perhaps it was time to take a risk. Ten years was too long.
He pulled out his own keychain, forcing the split ring apart with one nail before sliding Rebecca’s house key alongside his own, then putting the chain away in his inner pocket. It would be safer there, he told himself and he activated the elevator. As the room began to descend he let his hand drop for a second to touch the cluster of keys before reaching out to open the report from Paul Foster.
He stared at the sheets of paper, running a finger under words as if to check that they were real. Black letters on white paper. Bland words and terse phrases. But the facts were there.
Medical technician Warren Thompson. Absent from work. Nothing untoward about that, but Security reported that he had attempted to contact Mason Rimmer. They had picked him a couple of hours ago. Jackson had questioned him.
Straker gave an imperceptible wince as he thought of Jackson’s methods of interrogation, but he carried on reading.
The facts and the evidence. Thompson had broken. Had told Jackson everything. And now they knew.
Straker stood up, gripping the paper in his hand, the keys now forgotten as he took one deep breath to steady himself. The room came to a halt.
‘Tell Jackson I want to see him right away. Then tell Colonel Foster to report here the moment he gets back.’ Straker walked through the control room without breaking his stride. ‘And get me everything we have on the Woolwich Foot Tunnel and a copy of the tide charts for the Thames.’ He called over his shoulder as he headed to his office.
By the time Lt. Anderson arrived with several large scale maps Straker had cleared the large table at the end of the room by the simple act of sweeping all the papers onto the floor. They spread the charts out and Straker leaned over the table studying, then slid a couple aside with a brush of his hand, ignoring Anderson and reaching for a pen to start drawing on one of the maps. He began circling specific areas and making notes.
He did not look up from the chart. ‘High tide today at Woolwich.’ It was an order not a question, and Anderson had the information to hand.
‘High tide at 08:07 and then at 20:28.’ The Lieutenant was experienced enough to give just that information. No unnecessary details.
Another curt response. ‘Six metres thirty this morning, six metres forty tonight.’
Jackson entered the office and Straker glanced over. ‘Good work Jackson.’
‘Commander.’ Eyes met and Jackson gave a brief nod of his head before he walked over to stand beside the table. ‘Ah yes.’ He traced a line on the map. ‘Very clever. And undetectable.’
‘And also out of the atmosphere.’ Straker said. ‘Why didn’t I think of this before? It was right there in front of me.’ He stabbed at the chart. ‘A safe passage straight into the heart of the capital, and at high tide they could get a craft up there without any problems.’ He sat down, putting his head in his hands and rubbing his eyes in weariness before looking up at Anderson again. ‘Any news of Colonel Foster?’
‘Nothing so far Commander. When he last called in he said he was reconnoitring the area near the tunnel entrance on this side.’ The communications operative looked at the map and pointed to one area. ‘He also put Skydiver on red alert.’
‘Good.’ Straker sighed and straightened up. ‘Well gentlemen, it looks like we may well have found their hiding place. All we have to do now is go and knock on the door and see if anyone’s home.’
‘An evening assault Commander? At high tide?’ Jackson’s eyes glinted.
‘I think so. With any luck we might catch a UFO there if the water is deep enough, and it gives us time to get things planned.’ He leaned over the tale and pointed. ‘Two teams. Here and here. And,’ he paused, thinking, ‘we’ll have to evacuate the area, and get support units from naval operations. Jackson…’ He looked across.
‘Dr Harper. Your opinion. I want her along. If Alec and Ford are there…’ the SHADO Commander lowered his eyes to the chart lying on the table, and with one finger he tapped the dotted line that crossed the river.
‘I concur. She will be an asset, although I think it would be wise to keep her in the rearguard as it were. Do you wish me to inform her, Commander?’
Straker thought for a moment. ‘No. I’ll tell her what’s happening later this evening.’
He heard the door open, heard those familiar footsteps and he let out a sigh. ‘Paul. Thank God. Let’s get started.
‘That’s it then.’ Straker closed his laptop and looked at the two men sitting there. ‘Anything I’ve missed? Paul? Jackson?’
‘I can’t think of anything. It’s just a case of waiting.’ Paul Foster handed Straker a fresh coffee. ‘What do we do now?’
Straker took a mouthful and stretched his arms, wincing at the sound of his shoulders cracking. ‘Get some sleep Colonel. Be back here at seven for final briefing.’ He held up a hand as Foster started to protest. ‘If you intend leading one team then you have a break. That’s an order.’
It was enough of a threat to get Foster on his feet and heading out of the office after a last look at the maps spread out on the table.
‘Doug?’ Straker nodded at the other man. ‘You as well. Go on, off with you.’
Jackson gave a short bow that would have gone unnoticed by anyone else. ‘Until this evening, Commander.’ The door closed behind him as Straker pushed his chair back, stifling a yawn. The hours of intensive planning had wearied him more than he realised but at the back of his mind was the thought of Alec and Keith. He dropped his empty cup in the bin and decided against getting another drink. Too much caffeine might make him edgy later when he needed to be in complete control. Fresh air. That was what he needed now. Fresh air and exercise if he was to keep alert. There would be no rest for him until after.
He put the last hours behind him as he walked with brisk steps around the sound stages to the park, keeping his gaze averted from what was happening in the studios. He needed to focus his mind on the coming assault, not the trifling demands of directors. The small park was deserted as usual and the carp in the pond bobbed to the surface as he leaned on the narrow rails of the bridge. ‘Sorry, nothing for you today,’ he murmured, his fingers tingling in the cold air. He stuffed his hands in his pockets and touched the chain that was tangled there.
Keys. He pulled them out, tossing the bundle in his hand before closing his fingers tight.
Rebecca. Tonight. He needed to call her. He put the keys away and took the short cut back to his office.
Miss Ealand deleted yet another unsolicited email from an aspiring film producer who had no experience and even less talent. This was the unrewarding side of the job, the part that wasted her time when she had more important things to do. Her priority was organising Ed Straker’s workload, not dealing with trivia. She worked on, knowing that he would not know what she had been doing, would not notice in fact, but she was making his job easier. That was all that mattered.
He had gone out a short time earlier, walking straight out without stopping. Not from rudeness, he was not like that, but he had been preoccupied and had seemed unaware of his secretary.
Blinkered. That was the phrase she used when he was like this with his mind focussing on one thing to the exclusion of everything else. It was a rare occurrence, but she knew Ed Straker well enough not to distract him. When he returned, maybe he would acknowledge her, maybe he wouldn’t. It was not important.
Another unopened and unread email to be discarded. She was adept at scanning his inbox and clearing out the dross and there was a sense of satisfaction in the task in the knowledge that she was doing her own small part. She was about to delete the next batch of emails, but one name stood out.
Dale. Yes, she remembered him; a large man, shy and diffident, homeless and an alcoholic according to the details that security had given her. But none of that mattered. There was only one thing that was important about Dale Atwood. He had saved Ed Straker.
Intrigued, she opened the email, read it and smiled. Ed Straker, SHADO Commander, ex astronaut, Air Force Colonel and ….. she grinned even more; information technology teacher. But she had known him for years, had come to respect him and as she had told Sara Harper, John Shepherd was exactly the same as Ed Straker.
She deliberated for a moment before making up her mind. If the Commander had thought Dale Atwood had some potential, then she was not going to argue. There was a vacancy in the IT department, a trainee post, designed to teach a school leaver the basics and give them experience as well as qualifications, but one of her duties was also to oversee recruitment. She arranged for an interview in a couple of days. It would be her way of repaying Mr Atwood.
She slipped the formal letter to Dale into an envelope and was putting it aside to go with the rest of the afternoon’s post when the door opened.
‘Miss Ealand,’ Straker looked down with a quirk of his lips, ‘still busy?’
‘I’m about to finish,’ she said and held out a small box. ‘This is for Miss Steel. I picked it up at lunch time.’
He opened it to look inside then picked up a pen from the desk. ‘I’ll just add a note.’ He wrote briefly on the card and slipped it into the box before handing it back to her. ‘Thank you.’
She saw a distant smile on his face as if he was remembering one moment. ‘You just need to confirm tomorrow’s appointments,’ she said.
Straker was still holding her pen and he fiddled with it for a moment, his head down as if reluctant to look at her before he put it back. ‘Cancel all my appointments for tomorrow. I might be…’ He paused. ‘I’m sorry I can’t tell you any more at this time. But…,’ he gave her a smile. ‘Maybe tomorrow.’ Eyes met. She did not say anything, just watched as he went into the office and sat down, still looking at her, still with that expression on his face. A look of hope, and, as the door closed she saw him pick up the phone.
The Shelter was quiet with the men back in the familiar routine of sneaking out for a quick fag after lunch and then trailing back for their evening meal reeking of beer and cigarette smoke. Little mention of John Shepherd and after all, why should there be? Shepherd was just another anonymous transient who came and went, leaving no trace of his presence. Only Dale seemed to feel his absence.
Rebecca read through the Project worker’s update and bit her lip, then rifled through the pile of leaflets that had accumulated on her desk, looking for the one that Dale had given her. There. No. Far too expensive, even for someone on benefits. And the cheaper courses, the ones that the charity could afford, were useless. Damn. Perhaps Harlington-Straker might be able to give Dale a chance, even if it was in construction.
It was not the ideal solution, but better than nothing. She looked at her watch. Just after four. Not long to the end of work for today. She’d been to Marks at lunchtime to get something for supper. Stifado, a bottle of red wine, cheesecake for afters. Something decent for once.
‘Rebecca. Call for you. Private.’ There was a grin on the receptionist’s face as she held the door open. ‘Someone called Straker.’
She felt the heat rise in her face as she went through to pick up the phone and she turned away to answer. ‘Hi. Rebecca here.’
His voice made her blush even more. ‘Rebecca. Look…’ There was a note of hesitation. She heard a breath and he spoke again. ‘I’m sorry. Something’s come up. I’m going to be busy tonight. A…….’ another hesitation as if he was trying to come up with some excuse. ‘A night shoot and they need me there. Maybe tomorrow if that’s okay?’
There was a false brightness in her reply. ‘Sure, no problem.’ The receptionist was still listening and Rebecca searched for something else to say. ‘I’ll see you tomorrow then.’
She put the phone down. Stifado. And red wine. Dammit. She should take it to Sara’s tonight. The wine at any rate. Have a girl’s night in for once. Sara had seemed a bit down when they spoke yesterday, something to do with Alec being away, so there was no reason why Rebecca shouldn’t get over there for early evening. She had a key to Sara’s anyway so perhaps she should take the casserole as well; it was a decent meal and she could buy something else for tomorrow. It would be good to talk to Sara. To really talk. To tell someone who understood, about last night.
Rebecca went back to her office to start on the mind numbing complexities of funding and government initiatives.
Straker finished his last check of the details and looked at his watch again. Paul was due back in less than an hour, and that gave Straker time to get to Sara’s house and talk to her, to explain what was going to happen and get her back here. He looked around the office. No charts, no maps, nothing left out that might give a clue to the operation that had been planned with such care. Time to go and he opened the door, before an irrational fear came into his mind.
Would he see this room again? A dark image leapt into his thoughts and he shuddered as if he was trapped once more in alien hands with the cylinder waiting for him, ready to embrace him with coldness and the promise of a lingering and drowning death. He shook his head, leaning on his desk until the terror faded and the vision retreated. Shroeder had warned him this might happen if he got tired, but there would be time to rest afterwards, though he could not prevent the treacherous thought burning in his mind once more: if there was an afterwards.
He walked out, closing the door behind him and not looking back.
Darkness had fallen earlier and he drove to Sara’s small townhouse even as his mind deliberated over the plans for rescuing Alec. Woolwich Foot tunnel. How the hell had the aliens discovered that the tunnel had been put out of use for the foreseeable future? It was a perfect access point for them, a base camp hidden under the murky water of the River Thames where they could create clones. Maybe they had built a dome there.
There was no point in idle speculation though. It would all become clear tonight. At high tide. He tightened his grip on the steering wheel as a shiver of fear made his hands tremble.
It was with relief that he pulled up outside Dr. Harper’s house. Action at last, instead of the monotonous grind of discussing tactics. He had not told her that he was coming and yet she was there, opening the door as he walked up the narrow path, then stepping aside to let him in without saying one word. He went into the lounge and turned to her before he saw the look of dread on her face and realised with horror what she was expecting him to tell her.
‘No Sara. It’s not Alec.’ He was quick to reassure her and he reached out a hand to grasp her arm. ‘I’m not here with bad news. Far from it.’ He made her sit down. ‘Now. I need you to listen.’
Rebecca stopped. There was a car parked outside the town house and she hesitated, but no, Sara had said that Alec was away, and anyway, this car wasn’t his. She tapped on the door and waited and when it was clear that no one was going to appear, used her key to open the door and walk in. The lounge door was closed and she pushed it open.
She stopped and put her hand up to her mouth to suppress a cry of disbelief. She had been such a fool.
Straker held Sara’s hand as he told her, as her eyes filled with tears, and she sniffed and rubbed them with her sleeve until he pulled out a clean handkerchief and handed it to her. ‘So. I think there is a good chance that Alec and Keith are alive, and if so I want you there.’ He looked at his watch. ‘Paul will be waiting at headquarters for us.’ He stood up, moving as if he was stiff and she saw him wince and put one hand against his side. ‘Ready?’ he said.
Sara frowned. ‘Hang on. Are those stitches hurting?’ She reached out and he shied away.
‘No, just a little tight. I’ll get them seen to in the morning.’ He dismissed her question but her reply startled him.
‘No you won’t. Strip off. Let me see them.’ She was heading out of the room even as she spoke and he stood there, perplexed and not moving. He heard water running in the small cloakroom, heard her washing her hands and drying them, and then she came back into the room with her bag in one hand. She glared at him. ‘I told you. Let me take a look.’
She saw him grimace as he pulled his sweatshirt and then the t-shirt up and over his head, dropping them onto the sofa and then standing there with his arm lifted out of the way so that she could see the dressing on his ribs.
‘This hasn’t been changed for at least a day has it?’ Her voice was stern and he felt like a schoolboy again, standing in front of his headmaster.
‘I was busy.’
‘That’s no excuse. Stand still.’ She tugged the covering away. ‘Idiot. No wonder they hurt. They’re ready to come out.’ She turned away and opened the small bag and he heard the snap as she pulled on latex gloves. A slight noise from outside distracted her for a moment but she ignored it and concentrated on the man standing in front of her. ‘Hold still now.’
He was aware of sharp stinging as she cut the stitches and removed them and then a welcome release from the hot prickling tightness that had been irritating his ribs for the last hours. He sighed and loosened muscles that had been held rigid for too long as Sara stripped off her gloves. ‘You should feel much more comfortable now, but they’ve healed well.’ She ran her bare fingers over the neat red line on his ribs to check once more, and then turned at the sound of the lounge door opening.
‘Rebecca? What are you doing here?’
Rebecca stood in the doorway, one hand pressing against her mouth as if she was going to vomit. And she felt as if she might. She looked at the two of them, Ed standing there half-undressed with Sara next to him her hands touching him, holding him.
She forced words out, as if they were poison. ‘Ed? What ………..?’ then put the carrier bag down, still, in some foolish way, mindful of the bottle of red wine, the casserole, the cheesecake.
Straker looked at her and took one step but she backed away from him, her eyes wide with horror and with the realisation that he had deceived her, he had betrayed her, and the words came spilling out.
‘You lied to me. You lied. I thought you… we… I thought that … Don’t touch me,’ she cried as Straker put out a hand to her. ‘Don’t. I trusted you. And you …’ She turned away, knocking over the bag, stumbling from the room. Sara ran after her, but Straker heard the front door open and slam shut and Rebecca was gone.
He sank down onto the sofa, his hands clasped together, his body shaking as he closed his eyes. There was a touch on his shoulder, a concerned voice close to him. ‘Ed. Are you all right?’ but he could not answer. There was nothing to say. He had lied again.
Straker had insisted that Sara wear dark clothes and she had gone upstairs to change while he pulled on his sweatshirt and then sat there on the sofa. He stood up, forcing a grim smile as Sara came back into the room. ‘Good. You’ll be less conspicuous in those. Have you got a black coat?’
‘Ed…..’ she paused, gesturing to the carrier bag that he had picked up and placed on her coffee table.
He stared at her and she glanced down, hating the dead look that was filling his eyes. ‘A black coat. If you have one. And a dark hat. You won’t need anything else.’
‘What about you?’
‘Me?’ An expressionless voice. ‘I’ll stop on the way and pick up my things, change when we get back.’
He led the way out, walking to his car in silence. Not a word spoken even when he pulled into the driveway of his own bungalow and turned off the engine.
The small bunch of keys lay in his palm and he tightened his fingers around them. ‘One minute.’
Sara watched as he walked away, his hair shining in the beam of the security light, his stance unbending. She wanted to console him somehow and yet, and yet, there was nothing she could say to him. Nothing. And that worried her. Ed had enough to deal with tonight.
The only hope was that they might rescue Alec. Alec would know what to do. But that might be too late.
He came out with his suitcase and put it in the boot, got back in, pulled the seatbelt across.
Her voice broke the silence. ‘Ed. Please?’
He stared straight ahead. ‘Later.’ A silent journey. He did not speak again until he was in the outer office and then it was just to say that one obligatory word; ‘Straker’. His voice was dull and lifeless, sounding so unfamiliar that Sara wondered for a moment if it would be recognised, but the system accepted him and the room descended.
A brisk walk through to his office where Paul Foster was waiting, pacing up and down, restless and uneasy.
Straker put his suitcase down. ‘Is there a problem, Paul?’
‘No.’ Foster sighed, ‘I just want to get going, want to be doing something rather than wait here.’ He smiled at Sara, ‘I’m not very patient at the best of times, Dr. Harper, and knowing that Alec and Keith might be out there, well, …’ he shrugged his shoulders.
Straker perched on the edge of his desk. ‘I know Paul, I feel the same way. Anything I need to know?’ His voice was back to its normal tone, no hint of the distress of earlier, and Sara gave him a quick look. His face was still pale and she could see the strain in his eyes but the mask of Commander had slipped back into place. She wondered how many other times he had hidden his emotions behind that façade of steel control.
‘No. Everything’s ready. ETA nineteen fifty.’
‘Fine.’ Straker gave a brief smile. ‘I’ll meet you both up top. Sara?’ He tilted his head at her. ‘You stay with me once we get there. Understood?’
She held his gaze. A long look. ‘Yes Commander. I do.’
‘Good. Go with Paul now.’
He changed into dark clothes; black trousers, t-shirt, sweater. Black jacket. All the while re-examining the plans in his mind, checking for any minor details that he might have overlooked. But he knew he had covered everything. Every last detail. He pulled on soft soled shoes, folded his jeans and sweatshirt and put them away. The emergency evacuation of the areas around the two entrances to the tunnel would be starting now and by the time they got there both areas would have been cleared. No one would see them move into place. Time to go. He picked up his keys, fastened his jacket and left.
Paul was waiting. It was all he could do. He was ready and almost excited in a perverse way. Something positive to do at last, instead of sitting there planning and thinking and talking. He shrugged his shoulders, settling his backpack into place and touching his helmet to check yet again that his goggles were still in position. His group were ready, standing at the entrance to the boarded-up rotunda that housed the steps leading down to the tunnel. He could feel his hands sweating inside his fine leather gloves.
One more look around, one more check. Straker there in the background with Harper. No one else, no onlookers who might see something. The evacuation of the area had been efficient and thorough. After all, unexploded wartime mines still turned up after being buried for years in the mud of the river bed. A convenient excuse and anyway who was to say that there wouldn’t be an explosion here, later.
‘SHADO leader here. All units sound off.’ Straker’s voice was loud in his ears.
He swallowed, the sound loud in his ears. ‘Sierra Team. Ready.’ He wondered if his voice betrayed his nerves. He shifted the strap of his rifle again, shuffled his feet and looked at the entrance, waiting for that peculiar ‘open’ sound that precedes a radio message.
‘November Team confirms ready.’ Lt. James, sounding hushed and controlled. Out of sight on the other side of the river. Paul held his breath, waiting as the calls continued. He pulled his goggles down. Any moment now.
The teams reported in. Skydiver ready, medical support teams on standby, the two purloined SBS inflatables patrolling in stealthy silence, unlit and unseen. Everything in place. It was up to Straker now to order the operation. Paul waited, forcing himself to breathe, his heart pounding.
‘This is SHADO Leader to all teams. You have a Go to commence. I repeat Go to commence.’ Straker’s calm voice was the catalyst and Paul was moving even before the message had ended to lead his team through the doorway and sweep through the upper part of the glass domed structure. He ran down the rusting spiral steps, aware of the threat of aliens and searching for any movement, anything untoward as his goggles turned the blackness of the unlit space into monochrome gloom. Shadowy figures followed him as they cleared the steps down to the tunnel entrance.
He clicked his radio. ‘All clear Commander.’ A terse message. Paul was busy deploying troops by the time Straker had joined them at the bottom of the steps, Dr Harper close behind him.
‘Colonel.’ The brief word from Straker was sufficient. Paul gestured with a sweep of his hand to begin the careful exploration of the tunnel itself. The movement behind him made him look round in concern. Straker was stepping closer, wanting to get involved and be part of the rescue.
‘Sir. Wait here. I don’t want to have to leave someone to watch you.’ A command.
Straker froze, then, nodding, stepped back from the tunnel entrance to separate himself from the group. ‘Very good Colonel.’ It was more than compliance, it was his tacit acknowledgement of Foster’s leadership.
No time to worry about hurt feelings though; the tunnel entrance was waiting.
Silence, not even the squeak of soft soled shoes moving in stealth over the damp paving slabs. His breath hissing in his ears, sweat between his shoulder blades despite the cold and his protective vest.
Down the long slope, the air tinged with the sour smell of vagrancy and neglect. Nothing. No movements ahead, but that was no reason to lower one’s guard. Foster paused before they reached the main stretch and held up one hand.
Instant obedience as the team halted. Once they reached the level section they would be exposed to the view of anyone, or anything, ahead. He flicked his radio, whispered, ‘Sierra to November. Ready to advance,’ tensed himself and, with senses sharp with adrenaline, ran down the slope to the main body of the tunnel, dropping to the floor to aim his weapon down the dark tunnel.
The others clustered behind, kneeling or flattening themselves against the white tiles that were filthy with scum and graffiti and who knew what other malodorous grime, breaths frighteningly loud in the silence.
All clear. They moved on with cautious steps, searching for booby-traps, listening for any untoward sounds. Despite the colourless shadows he could see movement ahead and he stopped, waiting, finger tensing on the trigger. A double blink of a single light. James’ team.
Still no haste, no incautious or impetuous dash to their target. Too much at stake here, and the last yards covered with as much care as the first, until the door was there, set back and almost unseen. Paul looked around as the other team came up to join them.
‘So far so good.’ One quick grasp of James’ hand before he flicked his radio. ‘Sierra to SHADO Leader. Tunnel secured. Next stage about to begin.’ He could hear a pause as if the Commander wanted to say something in reply, but then the radio went silent. And after all what could Straker say to him that hadn’t already been said. Paul knew what would be happening now; Straker and Harper would be coming along the tunnel; coming to help rescue Alec.
The keypad lock on the door was new, with no signs of damage, but it yielded with a loud snap of breaking steel as Franklin levered it off with a heavy crowbar. Paul swung his gun up, expecting to see the door bursting open and the aliens counter-attacking. The group stood, frozen, waiting. Another soft rustle, a movement behind and Paul spun around, ready to fire. Straker. And Dr Harper. Approaching on cat-like feet. They halted as Foster raised his hand.
Seconds passed, long slow seconds. Dragging out into minutes. Slow exhalations of air. Straker and Harper standing apart and safe. He glanced at them, once, their eyes hidden behind the goggles, their dark clothes hiding them from casual view.
He turned back. This was his responsibility, his call. ‘Now.’ It was not a question, it was an order. A quiet shuffle as three men moved into position. Franklin grabbed the door handle, tested it, an almost imperceptible nod of his head to indicate he was ready, and ….. the explosion of activity as the heavy metal door was dragged open and the three stormed the antechamber was almost a relief after the stillness.
Empty, as they had hoped. Paul beckoned the rest of the team inside and began exploring the cabinets that lined the walls. Electricity transformers and back up generators in case of power failure to the lighting or air pumps, emergency first aid, even cleaning equipment. No signs of aliens.
The far wall opposite the door had once been covered in white rectangular tiles like the tunnel itself, but in one area the wall had been removed and replaced by what appeared to be thick plastic material. Paul had seen something like this before. Underwater. The alien dome deep below the Atlantic. But this had to be below ground, below the river bed.
He pulled out his knife and with the utmost caution scraped the blade over the surface of the material. No scratch, no marks. Thompson had not gone beyond this point, and had no idea where the aliens had come from, except that they had met him here in silence. But Paul knew where they were now and knew how to get to them.
‘Listen up.’ He drew the teams closer, murmuring his instructions to them even as he could see Straker there, in the doorway watching, wanting to be in on the action. To be doing something. The teams moved away again and Paul went over to his commander.
‘Ed? Stay here until it’s secure.’ He saw the aching need in Straker’s strained face, even though the eyes were hidden from view. ‘Until we know it’s safe. You and Dr Harper.’ He lowered his voice. ‘Please?’
Harper put her hand on Straker’s arm, spoke in a tone that Paul had to strain to hear. ‘You know he’s right Commander. Wait here.’
Straker pulled away from her, turned away from them both and Paul Foster could see the effort it took as the SHADO leader brought himself back under control an spoke. ‘Carry on.’
The smooth plasticised surface felt cool under his hands. He knew that everyone was watching, holding their breath in anticipation of what would happen when he made that first slice into the sleek fabric. He had done this before, and so had Straker, but Ed was standing back as ordered. Out of harm’s way. He raised the knife and placed the tip against the taut membrane. Like a scalpel on skin. Pushed. Just the tiniest mount. The surface dimpled beneath the point, dimpled, rippled and ….. separated. With one stroke he opened a slit, long enough to pull apart the edges to let two of them get through, weapons at the ready to stand on the other side and hold open the gaping wound letting the others cross over.
Paul had one last look at Straker, standing there in the antechamber before the gash sealed itself once more, cutting him off from sight.
Sara tugged off her night goggles, and wiped sweat from her forehead. They had been waiting here in the small antechamber for what seemed like an eternity. There had been sounds of gunfire from behind the barrier and she had been aware of Straker flinching at every noise, but he had remained still and had not spoken once. He had stood there, arms folded, watching, waiting. Jackson had come along the tunnel and joined them after a few minutes, but he too had been silent. Her rucksack was uncomfortable and she twisted her shoulders to ease the weight. She was thirsty and her heart was pounding with … fear? Apprehension? She shuffled her feet and Straker looked across at her, and pulled his own goggles away before he too rubbed his face with one hand. There was a sound nearby and as a shadow moved across the dim light behind the alien wall
Straker pulled her behind him before the material split open once more.
‘All Clear, Commander.’ Lt. James held the slash open to let them step through.
‘Casualties?’ One word from Straker, but Sara heard the concern behind it.
‘Minor injuries.’ James knew well enough that the SHADO Commander was not thinking about aliens. ‘Franklin, Croft, Wilson. All conscious, all mobile.’
Sara placed her hand on the walls of the short passage as she followed Straker and James. Smooth textured material resembling soft plastic yet with an unfamiliar feel to it. The passage was short and she stepped out into the brightly lit underground dome with a sense of shock. The arch of the dome curved above her in soft pastel shades that were soothing to the eye despite the strangeness of the environment. She stood there, a little awed by the alien beauty of her surroundings and at the people who created it.
Straker dropped his goggles and pulled off his backpack even as he was heading for the small group of casualties that were clustered together. She heard him talk to each man, saw him touch them with a concerned hand, saw him watch as Jackson started treating them. Then he straightened and stared around the space as if seeing it for the first time.
‘Dr Harper. Here.’ The Lieutenant’s voice startled her and she turned to see where he was. ‘It’s Colonel Freeman.’
Dear God. Alec. Ford. And she hurried over to where the Lieutenant was standing as Straker joined her. James had opened one of the three grey cylinders that were lying against the edge of the space and she looked down at Alec’s face. Grey and sickly looking, his eyes sealed shut, a narrow hose down his throat. He looked as lifeless as his clone. Her fingers touched his cheek and she gasped with relief as she encountered the warmth of living flesh. ‘Alec?’ She wanted to lift him up, to hold him, to get him out of this place that had now taken on a nightmare appearance, but she saw the thin tube that went into his navel. Straker leaned over his friend to place one hand against Alec’s cheek and Sara heard him whispering. She stepped away for a moment.
‘Commander.’ James had opened the other two containers and was looking sick with revulsion. Sara joined Straker as he went over. ‘Oh god.’
It was a woman. Naked, skeletal, a feeding tube running into swollen and infected flesh. Skin raw and flaking from dried sweat and lack of care. And yet that was not the worst thing. Sara turned away and nearly retched.
Chloe Rimmer. Straker recognised her face, even distorted and damaged as it was. But it was not the face with its haggard lines, its dry and cracked lips with festering sores, its matted and tangled hair that had made Sara turn away. Chloe Rimmer looked up at Straker and opened her mouth to speak, to scream. No sound came out, apart from a hiss of air from the gaping hole in her neck.
Straker would have turned away as well, but he remembered Keith Ford sitting in his office, drinking brandy and shaking. And he remembered Keith’s words: ‘Those sounds are coming from human vocal cords that are being manipulated by means of electrical charges. And there is one more thing. Those vocal cords belong to a woman, you can tell by the pitch.’
Chloe Rimmer. Innocent victim. He laid his hand on her forehead and smiled at her. ‘Chloe. You’re safe now. Lie still.’ She blinked at him, her lips moving as if she was trying to speak, her eyes distressed as she tried lifting her hand. ‘Shh,’ he murmured, as if to a child. ‘It’s alright. We’ll get you out of here.’
Sara leaned over the woman now, her eyes looking not with horror, or even compassion but with clinical concern. She took hold of Straker’s arm to pull him away from the cylinder and the woman. ‘I …….. ‘ She held her hands out in a gesture of hopelessness.
He glanced back at the woman, then at the other two containers, one with Alec, and the other now open to reveal Keith Ford, alive but unconscious. ‘Do what you can.’
Sara considered for a moment. ‘I’ll get Keith out and see how it goes with him first. The woman will be a risk.’ She stared at Straker before turning back to lean over Keith Ford.
The SHADO Commander went to stand near Alec, but there was nothing he could do to help here and he had other duties. Sara was working on Keith; Jackson was busy with the injured men. The aliens, three of them, lay huddled on the floor, spattered with bright blood. It did not matter that the enemy were all dead. They had rescued Alec and Keith. It was just a case of getting them out of here. Alive.
He looked around the space, wondering how the aliens had managed to hollow out this cavern deep under the river bed. Perhaps they would never find out. A darker section of the wall, on the opposite side to the tunnel entrance, caught his eye and he went over to look at what had to be an airlock. He peered though the transparent panel but all he could make out was a cylindrical space, no more than a metre wide. There seemed to be no way to open the door, no controls, no keypad. In frustration he pushed his hand against the panel ……. and the curved door slid round.
He did not hesitate. One step took him inside the airlock, and he looked up to see if this was, as he suspected, the access route to the surface. It was impossible to tell with any accuracy. There was a sectioned ladder but the airlock was closed off above his head by some kind of seal. He reached up to flick it with a fingernail. Metal. He wondered how it opened, and what was above it. An airlock on the river bed? That would be the logical explanation. It would have to be checked out later. He looked around and saw another panel, smaller and below eye level and as he leaned down to look through, and as his hand touched the pane, the door behind him began sliding across.
He spun around, but he was too late and he knew that even if he had managed to get his fingers against the edge of the curved door he would not have been able to prevent it closing. He was trapped. Perhaps he could force the metal seal open, climb up the ladder…
There was a loud hiss of air, and he felt pressure in his throat and jaw, painful pressure and he swallowed as he pressed his hands hard against his ears to try to ease the discomfort. There was a draft of air behind him and he turned again to see another door slide across, opening the way into a second dome. There was nothing for it but to take that first step, and hope that no aliens were waiting.
He stood there, getting the measure of the room before making any move. A larger dome than the other one; he reckoned it to be at most seven meters across and lined with what appeared to be tall glass-like cylinders, each wide enough to hold a man standing upright. Tangles of cables and wires looped across the floor from the central cluster of assorted equipment and machines before snaking into the base of each tank. He noticed that the cylinders seemed to be in distinct groups, five of them close together, then a gap and then another five, lining the circumference of the room, with another space for the entrance. No aliens in sight. He let himself relax slightly.
His radio clicked. ‘Ed.’ Paul’s voice sounded frantic with concern. ‘Where are you? Are you okay. Are you safe? We can’t get through to you.’
‘I’m fine, Paul. There’s another dome here. Only one as far as I can tell. No aliens though. This must be where they create the clones. I’ll have a look round and get back to you. Make sure you get Alec and the others out.’ Straker’s voice was calm but he shivered with the knowledge of what he had found as he moved to look into of one of the nearby containers, half knowing what he would see.
His own eyes, only not. Huge bright blue eyes staring through the cloudy liquid. John. That was all he could see. His son. Those blue eyes, his eyes. John’s face.
And not just one face. He looked around, seeing others peering out of the tall cylinders forming the perimeter of this space. So many others. He, John, was there in the tube in front of Straker, floating naked in the murkiness. Next to him, another tall pipe filled with the same coloured fluid and as he peered closer to see the small shape within, a gasp of horror broke from his lips.
A baby, cherub-plump and naked, his eyes closed in sleep, one thumb in the rosebud mouth, tiny feet curling up. So small, so innocent, floating there half-hidden, twisting and squirming in his dreams; and as he uncurled Straker saw the wires that connected to the infant’s spine, saw the swellings where the neural connections had pierced that delicate skin to link into the nervous system.
Straker felt sick, and sicker yet when he noticed the umbilical that entered the tiny abdomen. Obscene in its thickness, its segmented surface was vibrating with a steady mechanical pulse. He shuddered with the horror, staggering back till he was brought up short against the consoles in the centre of the area, still staring at the line of five tall cylinders tubes in front of him. Each filled with swirling, shadowy fluid and each one containing a clone.
Five of them. Dear god, how ironic. How fucking ironic. The ages of man. From birth to middle-age. Growing there until they reached the age at which they could be used. It was probable that they had a limited life. He wondered how many they had grown and discarded, unused. A constant supply of clones.
Directly in front of him was the baby and in the next tube; John. Straker reached out to put one hand on the cylinder that held the young boy, feeling the blood-heat of the contents even through the thick and distorting transparent material.
The stillness in the room was not just of sound, but the cessation also of the steady vibrations that had gone almost unnoticed and he pulled his hand off the surface, fearful that even that slight contact had been sufficient to disturb the systems. His radio buzzed.
‘Straker.’ He could not drag his eyes away from the young boy.
‘Ed. Everything’s gone down in here. It looks as if they set off some kind of destruct system. Things are beginning to shut down. The structural integrity has been compromised as well. We’re saving as much as we can but it’s not looking good.’ Paul’s voice was worried.
‘Give me five minutes’ Straker paused, took a breath, asked. ‘Alec? Keith?’
Silence. He closed his eyes.
Sara’s voice in the radio now, and he breathed again as she spoke. ‘Keith is fine. Jackson’s with him and Alec is waking right now. Hurry up Ed. Please.’
He put the radio down on the flat surface of the console behind him, turned to the line of cylinders and reaching out again with a hand that trembled. Those open and unfocused eyes gazed beyond him. John. But it was not his son was it? It was him. Ed Straker, age seven. Both his hands now on the cylinder even as it started to cool, as poisonous bubbles from the failing systems began tainting the protective fluid. He leaned against the surface as if by the pressure of his hands he could somehow push through, could take hold of the boy and release him.
And with a dread certainty he realised what he had to do. His task was not free these clones, this small boy, the baby. He had to destroy them.
The disintegration of the domes would result in the death of all these innocents; an agonising and slow death. Alec had died like that, vomiting blood as his organs decayed. Straker would not let that happen here and he leaned his forehead against the tube as tears tracked down his cheeks to fall on hands that were unable to touch the boy on the other side, unreachable, unsaveable.
One sob of utter anguish escaped his throat before he stroked the transparent surface in farewell and turned away. How many others? He looked around at the cylinders that arrayed the room, some empty, dry, the wires and umbilical connections tangled on the floor.
He didn’t want to look further along this row of containers. His clones, trapped and dying. One tube would be empty, he was aware of that, but what of the others? He took a breath and forced himself to inspect the line as his fingers trailed across the surfaces, a farewell to each prisoner. The baby, wriggling and burbling as he began to wake, the young boy, then the teenager, gangly, tall, a shock of longer hair floating like seaweed. Unscarred, unmarked. No sign of those injuries that he himself had suffered; the fall from the gate, the bicycle accident that damaged his thigh.
Straker moved on in a daze, blinded by tears that he was not aware of, wiping his eyes and sobbing with the nightmare, the knowledge of what he would have to do.
Another Straker, older, as he was at the time of his marriage. But this one had undergone surgery; incisions, stitches, deliberate maiming of undamaged flesh. All those places that where he himself was scarred. The skin sliced open and stitched to match his own disfigurements. The puckered line on the thigh, the belly cut open and resealed. The obscenity of dark thread on pale skin. A familiar face, but this one’s mouth was open in a silent scream, the eyes open and……….. dear god, watching him. Sentient and aware. Its lips moving as it watched him and one hand, the fingers tangled in the wires, reaching out to flatten itself against the inner surface, mirroring Straker’s own outspread hand.
‘Alec, Alec, come on, wake up.’ The voice was insistent, pushing into his mind, driving like a nail into the place where he had hidden away from what was happening. The tape was pulled from his eyelids, stinging as it dragged the loose skin up to let light burn his retinas. More pain as something rough scraped up the inside of his throat, catching on his teeth as it was drawn out of his mouth.
He screwed his eyes up against the brightness and reached out with a hand, aware that he was free, that the restraints had gone. He took a deep instinctive breath and filled his lungs with air.
‘Ed?’ A faint croak was all he could manage as his hand pawed around for that contact. He had been found.
‘Lie still for a moment longer Alec. Just a moment. Nearly there.’
That was not Ed’s voice was it? Who was it? His hand reached, then touched another’s fingers as he surfaced into awareness and as the coldness inside receded he sensed a sudden agonising stab in his gut. One short scream escaped his control but the sensation faded, and he lay there gasping, drawing huge breaths as the memories returned. He had to get away from here. Had to escape.
The voice again, firm and controlled, close to him. ‘Alec. It’s Sara. Lie still. Don’t move yet.’ Hands on his body, soft and warm where the pain had been, soothing the soreness, warming him. Sara. It took all his control to do as she ordered, but he obeyed her and although he trembled with the desperate need to sit up and to get out of here, he forced himself to lie still.
He could hear sounds nearby, footsteps, other voices, quiet cries and moans. The stench of burnt electrics filling his nostrils and he could sense warm air on his skin and strong hands that were now helping him up. Eyes opening the slightest crack, even though that was like looking at the sun. A cool cloth wiping the moisture away from his face.
‘Sara?’ he could recognise his own voice now, rasping and hoarse though it was.
Another voice close to him.
‘She’s won’t be a minute. Hang on Alec, we’ll get you out of here soon.’
Paul. Calm and comforting. Alec leaned against him, needing to feel that closeness, that strength. He swallowed, his throat feeling like sandpaper as he wondered where Ed was and why he was not here . He had one moment of terror before he forced the word out again. ‘Ed?’
‘He’s okay Alec, he’s here, just busy.’
The quiet words held a note of false confidence, and Freeman lifted his hands to rub at his face and blink as he forced himself to open reluctant eyelids and peer with bleary and bloodshot eyes into the room.
He didn’t remember much really, just being taken and those moments of pain and cold sleep. The cavern, as he later called it, seemed to be filled with people. Dark-clothed, armed, and …… SHADO. No aliens to be seen….. until he looked around and saw the crumpled shapes on the floor.
Paul wrapped a blanket around his shoulders. ‘Okay? Sara will be finished soon, and we can get you out.’
Straker flattened his hand against the tube, so close to the hand on the other side. His hand. I’m sorry. He looked into his own eyes. I’m so sorry. The words clogged in his throat, stifling him.
And it understood. The head moved in acknowledgement, the eyes closed and the hand drifted away and disappearing into the cooling murky liquid. Straker stood there, waiting without hope until a movement caught his eyes
The dome had started splitting, a dark crack opening in the smooth surface, and thick and stinking mud from the river bed beginning to slide down the pale walls. He turned, horrified at the sharp crack of splintering glass and the gush of fluid, and saw a cylinder crack open, spewing its contents out onto the spongy floor; a young man. Dark haired, thin, writhing on the floor as wires disconnected from his spine and the umbilical ripped from his abdomen leaving dark blood spurting uncontrollably.
Waterman. Straker knelt beside him, in a desperate attempt to staunch the bleeding, to ease the pain, before he realised the sheer futility of his actions. He stroked one hand over Lew’s forehead in supplication, asking for pardon for what he was about to do, even as he pulled his gun from his shoulder holster.
He could do one thing. And so he did. Cold, efficient, his hand rock-steady, he pulled once on the trigger, a hard pull, his aim sure. No thought of the dangers of firing a weapon in such a confined space; he did what was necessary.
He had two spare magazines. That would be enough. Prepared for anything, and he rubbed his eyes fiercely, tightened his fists, nails digging into his palms, short though they were. One long shudder of revulsion at what he was going to do.
Then he began.
The ones around Lew’s smashed tube first, tears blurring his eyes as he aimed at the children who were half-hidden in the cloudy fluid. He moved onto the other clones. Keith, with one cylinder empty, and Straker’s hand betrayed him with a tremor as he recalled the sensation of Keith’s throat crushing under his fist. He was aware that tubes were cracking and shattering as they broke open to let fluid gush onto the floor. Other sounds now disrupted the dome: soft thumps as small bodies fell, and harsher thuds as the older and bigger clones dropped to the floor, misshapen and distorted, tangled in wires and dripping with the remnants of the nutrient liquid. But no screams of agony, no cries of pain. At least they were lifeless.
He was a good enough shot, even in his despair, to ensure that death was instantaneous. A welcome release. Waterman, Ford, Jackson. Stand in front of the next tall cylinder, don’t look too hard, don’t think about who it is, how old it is; just aim at the head, pull the trigger. Move onto the next one while behind him the cylinder cracked apart. He did not look back at the bodies. He moved with methodical steps from one to the next. Paul’s turn. His gun ran out of ammunition. He threw the empty magazine away, slotted the next in place. The last two Foster replicants. Then Alec.
He faltered. Alec. As he had known him when they first met years ago. Vibrant, alert, alive. But no. His Alec, the real Alec was out there, alive and waiting for him.
He blinked, rubbed burning eyes and forcing himself to focus. His finger tightened on the trigger. Tighter.
He moved on.
His own clones now, and he stood in front of his younger self once more. The eyes watching him again, but the hands now clawing at its scarred and stitched abdomen. A thick spittle of blood trailed from the open mouth. Blackened blood. The first signs of death floating in thick globules in the liquid. Disintegration had started.
It was enough. The pain was obvious. He could do nothing to help. He swallowed, hardened his mind to his finger pulling back the warm curve of metal and then turned away.
The lanky and awkward teenager released next, and then…
John. This was John as he remembered him. And what man was enough of a monster to murder his own child let alone a baby. There had to be some way to save them. But then he saw the blood, saw the perfect mouth open in a scream.
And he freed them both, first John and then the tiny infant, before he fell to his knees in the mess of blood and fluid and shattered debris that flooded the floor, flinging his gun away to scoop up the tiny bodies and clutch them to him as he rocked back and forth in distress. Even with two of them it was such a small burden, so light and insignificant.
The insistent buzzing of the radio broke though his quiet weeping as he cradled them together in one arm, reluctant to lower them to the water-logged floor that was filthy with bodies and alien foulness. He dragged one sleeve across his eyes and swallowed. ‘Straker,’ his voice thick and unrecognisable.
‘Time’s up. Get out of there now Ed. Five minutes at most here. Do you need help?’ Paul’s voice was urgent.
He stood up to lay his children on the cold surface of the centre console. Warm and soft, their small naked bodies exposed to the chill air and the encroaching mud. He ignored the others even as he knew that what he was doing was irrational and pointless, but it didn’t stop him stripping off his jacket and tugging his sweater over his head. It would be sufficient. It was all he could do.
It seemed as if he had been in here for hours, an eternity spent in killing, but it had been a mere five minutes. Five minutes. So much death. He lifted John once more. The bullet had left one neat hole in the forehead, just a small hole, not that large a hole. He bent to press his lips to one warm cheek and then wrapped his jacket around the boy, before lying him down again. Then his baby son, now snug and safe and warm in his sweater. The tiny face exposed, eyes closed in sleep. He would not take these small children back to be cut open and pawed over by scientists. He would let them sleep here, undisturbed and in peace.
Then his fingers stroked across lips with a last parting caress before Ed Straker said goodbye and stepped unseeing over the lifeless clones, heedless of the thick mud and slime that was reclaiming the space and covering the bodies.
He walked into the airlock without looking back. The door slid shut, enclosing him once more in the access tube and he waited for the hiss of air, waited for the other door to open in front of him.
He was willing to wait now, to allow his heart to cease its painful thudding, to allow his arms to forget that sight weight that he had held with such care. He ran a hand over his eyes and took a breath to steady himself. Through the transparent panel he could see Sara talking to Alec, could see Keith Ford being helped out of the dome back to the world above.
The confined space did not distress him this time. He was drained of all emotion, all fear. Nothing could be worse than what he had faced, what he had done.
Nothing worse than holding those bodies.
Seconds passed in silence. There was no hiss of air, no need to swallow to equalise the change in pressure. Perplexed now, he reached out to place his hand flat on the panel as he had done before, expecting to feel that throb as it responded to the contact. Nothing. No change, no curved door sliding away. He spun around, fearful once more, to look back at the space he had left. Large cracks had appeared and thick mud was beginning to spread across the floor, hiding the blood and muck and horror, and burying the clones. The two small bundles wrapped in black were still untouched and he was glad.
It was clear now that the domes would soon disintegrate and that their cohesive shells would fail. No need for Skydiver to use a missile, no need for explosives to destroy this vile place. Earth to earth. A decent burial for innocents who deserved some measure of respect. And Ed Straker, atheist, bent his head and murmured a brief prayer from his childhood before turning back to wait.
The door was still closed and he began to feel that familiar tightening in his chest, the growing sense of panic, fear now starting to blur his composure. He pressed his hand on the panel. Harder. Nothing. No hiss of air, no vibrations. He reached into his pocket for the radio. He had left it behind.
Panicked now, he slammed his hand against the window, hoping that something, anything might open the door. It was as if he had hit solid steel. And even more obvious that no sound was transmitting to the other side. He could see Sara and Paul helping Alec to stand, could see the team members beginning to carry anything portable out into the tunnel. Could see others lift Chloe Rimmer and take her out, unconscious. But they hadn’t seen him here, trapped in this airlock, hammering and his fingers now clawing at the edges in a futile attempt to force the door open.
Then. Then he heard the hiss of air and a cold shiver of relief flooded through him. The door would open now and he shuffled his numb feet. He looked down.
Water. Icy water filling the small space in which he was imprisoned. Ankle deep already, filthy river water, winter cold and as murky as the liquid that had filled the cylinders. Where was it coming from? It splashed onto his shoulders and he looked up. The metal seal above his head had started to open and had jammed part way allowing water to gush down.
It was too small an aperture to climb through though. There would be no escape for him up the tube. And there was nowhere for the water to drain away. In desperation he hammered on the panel again, but all attention was on Alec and retrieving anything that might be salvaged before the domes collapsed and all was lost.
Straker pressed his hands against the window as Sara started to help Alec out into the narrow passageway that led to the tunnel. The water had reached his knees and he was unable to control his shivering, his legs cramping with the cold as it poured down, drenching his head as the torrent increased. He realised what had happened. The disintegration of the dome had also damaged the access tube. There was no way he could stop the flood. He had to get out.
And Alec saw him. Even trapped in this upright cylinder, Straker could see the look of utter horror distorting Alec’s face and making him drag himself from Sara to stagger across and put his hands against Straker’s. Half an inch, if that. A mere half-inch was all that was separating the two men. But it was enough. The water was up to Straker’s chest now, falling faster, and he pressed his hand flat as if to touch Alec’s hand, as if to get some last fragment of comfort, some small amount of warmth from the man standing there.
Water pouring down, bone-numbingly chill, his hands now bloodless and white, even as he saw Paul drag Alec away from the window and scrabble at the door. Straker was too cold to mouth a final message as the water covered his shoulders, and he tilted his head back as it lapped under his chin, almost paralysing him. Too cold now even to shiver, his hands still flat against the panel, but unfeeling, unaware of the contact.
No longer able to see Alec or Sara or Paul now, he put his head back until he was staring at the steel grey petals of the iris that were so near to him. Only a few more inches before…..
The water started trickling into his mouth, thick silt-laded water, the taste of scum on his lips and he swallowed and spluttered, kicking upwards in a last effort to press his face against that opening, to breathe those last precious mouthfuls of air into heaving lungs. One desperate and frantic gasp before his strength failed him and, despite his efforts, he slipped below the surface.
The ladder. If he could find the ladder he could hold on for a few moments longer. It might be long enough. But his hands were lifeless with cold. He pushed up again, managing one final intake of breath with his lips pressed against the cold metal of the iris even as water began clogging his nose and then he closed his eyes against the salty stinging.
Exhausted, he sank down, holding his breath even as he knew that it was hopeless, that whatever he did he could not survive, but the deadened fingertips of one hand still reached out to caress the panel as if that last remaining contact might be enough to sustain him.
Alec. At least Alec was safe, would carry on. Maybe it was time to stop fighting, to try to accept the inevitable and deep within him there was some sense of relief. It would be the end. His life would finish here. But that one regret was there, that one unfinished task. Rebecca. He would have liked the chance to explain to her, to tell her that he, Ed Straker, John Shepherd, whoever he was, he loved her. But it was too late now. He had made so many mistakes, done so much harm, and perhaps this was his punishment.
His burning lungs finally disobeyed him and he breathed, knowing in that last instant of consciousness that he would die here. It would be a proper end though, not the terrible living death that the aliens had promised with their cylinder and green fluid. And that was all that mattered now. He had to be content with that.
His hand slid away, his mind grew dark and on the other side of the window Paul Foster, his fingers as bloodied and raw as Ed Straker’s were white and cold, watched in horror as the body of his Commander sank down in the cylinder, the blond hair drifting in the water like fronds of pale seaweed, the lifeless blue eyes staring with a look of despair and the lips open to take in that final breath.
‘Stand back.’ Lt. James pushed Paul aside and swung the heavy crowbar at the curved door. Again and again. The noise reverberated through the space, screeching as the steel scraped over the transparent surface. James lowered the tool. ‘It’s no good.’
‘Let me. I’m stronger.’ Foster grabbed it, slamming the narrow claw into the tiny gap between the wall and curved door. A powerful blow with all his strength behind the action. And more than strength. He heard Alec cry out behind him, felt Freeman’s hands reaching out to try to take the bar.
‘Get him out of here.’ Foster didn’t stop his assault on the tube, as James dragged Freeman away into the tunnel and to safety. Sara stood next to him. Just the two of them here now. The dome was beginning to deteriorate. They had scarce minutes left before it collapsed.
He ignored her, tensed his shoulders, pulled once more with every fibre of hatred he could muster. Hatred of the enemy who had done this to Straker. Hatred of Rimmer and Thompson. Hatred of death itself.
He heard it crack, felt it give way, and he gave it one final jerk then stepped back as the cylinder’s surface shattered. Heedless of the sharp edges that cut into his already bloody fingers, he pulled at the shards as Sara came to help force an opening, and as the tube disintegrated the torrent of water that poured out carried Straker’s limp form onto the floor where he lay there, pale and lifeless.
Foster knelt down to scoop him into an embrace. ‘Ed,’ he whispered, and closed his friend’s eyes before he looked up at Sara. ‘It’s too late. He’s…’
Straker’s head was cradled in his hands now, and he felt tears fill his eyes.
A strong hand gripped his shoulder, hard enough to get his attention.
‘Can you carry him? Paul?’ Sara Harper’s voice cut through his grief like a knife. ‘Are you strong enough?’
He didn’t reply, just tensed and held his breath, then stood up, groaning with the effort but with Straker in his arms. A sleeping child being carried to safety.
‘What now?’ he grunted, as Sara led the way out
‘We have to get to safety. Hurry Paul. Please.’
The fabric of the entrance had not re-sealed itself after the last group had cut their way out. Proof, if any were needed, that the domes were decomposing or disintegrating or whatever it was they were doing. It didn’t matter though, and he forced his way through the gap still holding Straker close to him, his friend’s body cold with no sign of life, not a flutter of an eyelid or a single twitch of lips.
Through the small room and out into the tunnel itself now, Sara running ahead and looking back to see if he was following. He wanted to run as well, but the dead weight in his arms slowed him down although he refused to abandon Ed. He heard footsteps ahead, saw others coming to help and he staggered to a halt to lean breathless and gasping against the filthy walls as they took his burden from him.
There was a soft explosion of sound from behind. A blast of thick and foul-smelling air pushed into the tunnel and Paul knew that the domes had given way and that the alien base was now crushed under the rock and clay and mud of the river bed. But there was no influx of mud or water into the tunnel as he had feared there might be. They were safe. His legs trembled and gave way and he slid down against the wall until he was slumped there, his chest heaving as he tried to catch his breath.
He looked up, to see that they had lowered Straker to the floor and Sara was on her knees and leaning over him, her fingers touching his throat. She bent to lay her head on his chest and Paul wondered what she was doing. His heart was thumping and his mouth dry, but he hitched himself across the uneven slabs of the floor to move nearer.
‘Sara,’ he croaked, ‘what’s happening?’ Hope flared inside him.
She was too busy to answer him, her whole concentration on the man lying there. ‘Come on Ed,’ Paul heard her mutter, ‘don’t give up on me,’ and she interlaced her fingers and pressed her hand on Straker’s chest. Paul could do nothing but watch as she pushed down hard, over and over again, counting aloud to herself to keep the rhythm steady. Over and over. She tilted Straker’s head back to give him two deep breaths and Paul saw the chest rise and fall twice, before she continued with the compressions. Hard compressions. He heard a crack and saw Sara flinch but she carried on even as Jackson and James came running along the tunnel.
Paul was pushed aside as they gathered around Sara and the man she was trying to save, and despite his desperate wish to help there was nothing he could do. He was in the way and he struggled to his feet and leaned against the wall, watching the huddle of medics, watching Sara still pushing down on Straker’s chest, sweat beginning to drip off her with the effort.
‘Jackson, James.. ready,’ she gasped. ‘On my mark. Three… two… one… Mark.’ She lifted her hands in one smooth movement and slid away as Jackson moved into position. James forced another two breaths into Straker before Jackson took over from Sara. She pushed herself to her feet, looking up at Paul, her face pleading. ‘There’s a chance. It’s not too late.’ She stared back at the group clustered round the lifeless figure of Straker, his hands limp by his sides, skin ashen and the only discernable movement the rise and fall of his chest when James breathed air into his lungs. She bit her lip anxiously, and Paul reached out to grasp her hand and wrapped one arm around her as she shivered. Two breaths, thirty compressions. Over and over. They counted in silence. James bent again.
‘James!’ The shout from Jackson was enough to make the other man lift his head and pull away as Straker started to vomit. They twisted the unconscious man over as he began retching, his fingers twitching as spasms tore through him, but his eyes remained closed and unaware of those who knelt by him, their faces concerned.
Jackson placed his hand on Straker’s throat, a light touch with the tips of his fingers just pressing into the flesh before he sat back and sighed. ‘I can feel a pulse.’ And he let his hand rest on the sodden t-shirt to feel for any movement of ribs. ‘He’s breathing.’ He grinned up at Sara. ‘Dr Harper.’ He turned back to Straker, his finger lifting the eyelids in turn. ‘Both pupils responsive. Good. We need to get him warm. Get a stretcher. And blankets.’
He bent over again, his fingers checking the rapid and fluttering pulse in Straker’s neck, while James radioed to the teams above. It was too cold in the tunnel and the floor leeched heat from bare skin. Jackson stripped off his jacket and with the help of Sara slid it under Straker in an attempt to protect him. It was not sufficient though and he sighed with relief as they heard the sounds of running footsteps and the rattle of the stretcher.
‘Sara? A hand if you please.’ Jackson organised the small group, lifting his patient and then stripping him of his sodden and icy clothes. He put a hand on Straker’s abdomen and frowned. ‘Too cold.’ But Paul had already pulled off his jacket and was tugging his thick sweater over his head to pass them to the doctor.
Jackson tucked the still-warm clothes over Straker’s torso before wrapping him in the blankets. It would have to do until they got their patient to the surface. He looked down for one last check then nodded at the group. ‘Gentlemen. Let’s go.’ As they hurried along the tunnel Jackson kept pace with the stretcher, his eyes watching with concern.
Sara followed, numb with cold and the sheer disbelief of the past minutes, and even as she walked she stumbled and Paul’s arm was around her again, holding her. She leaned on him, her cheek brushing on the warmth of his startlingly soft bodyhair, almost too exhausted to keep walking, but the tunnel ended and they came out into the entrance area where others were waiting. There was frantic action and noise as orders were given and the stretcher was lifted up the steps, with Jackson still alongside, refusing to leave until he knew Straker was safe.
Sara followed step by weary step, only the fact that Paul was holding her up stopping her from sinking down onto the crumbling treads and sitting there unable to move any more. She had never felt so drained.
The area outside the rotunda was busy with SHADO people marshalling casualties and loading equipment into jeeps and trucks. Paul gave her a quick hug. ‘Okay?’ and then he was moving away to see to his team and check on Straker. She looked around at the confusion of lights and noise and people. People standing waiting. Watching. And then she saw him.
Alec. Alec was there. Waiting for Ed and for her and she went to him and clung to him and sobbed, not caring who saw her, or what people thought. He held her close as she cried, as the horror of the last days faded and she leaned against him, feeling his heartbeat, wanting to hold onto him. The warmth of his body, the soft murmur of words in her ear, his hand lifting her face up to meet his as he bent to kiss her. Not a passionate kiss of desire, not even an intimate kiss, but one that spoke of love and thankfulness and longing. And gratitude that she was here, that he had survived and that the nightmare was over. She felt him shudder as if to cast off the horror and then he released her though one hand reached out to clasp hers as if he could not bear to part from her.
‘Paul.’ Alec called out as Foster banged on the door of an ambulance to send it on its way. ‘Ed. What’s happening?’
Paul came hurrying over, oblivious to the cold air as he concentrated on completing the operation. ‘Jackson’s gone with him. We’ll know more later. But he’s optimistic. Says the temperature of the water helped.’ One of the remaining medics approached with a blanket and Paul wrapped it around his shoulders, an incongruous sight now in the thin silver covering. He flicked his head at the remaining ambulance. ‘You have to go now Alec. Dr Harper? I leave it to you to make sure Colonel Freeman obeys my orders.’ He smiled at her. ‘And …thank you.’
She was waiting for those first indications, the movement of eyes under closed lids, those slight twitches of eyebrows as consciousness slowly returned. She was patient, after all there was no reason to wake him. She sat there, watching the monitors, checking his signs, doing what was necessary. Alec was asleep in the other room, the deep slumber of a man who had been through hell and had returned. Sara had held his hand while he had fallen asleep, had stroked his face, had kissed him and then had left him to rest. She had checked on Ford, spoken to Jackson and then had opened the door to the High Dependency Unit. There was only one bed occupied.
The nurse had glanced up from her magazine to exchange a look before leaving her there to sit and watch. Sara had nowhere else to be right now. This was important. To her, and to Alec. She was doing this for him. For Alec. But also for Ed, lying there with no-one near to care for him. to hold his hand. To be there when he woke.
Time passed. Signs of stirring. His eyelids flickering, fingers jerking and a change in the rhythm of his breathing, becoming shallow and stilted as if it was painful. She stroked his face, wanting him to feel the touch of another person. It should be Alec here, or Paul, but Paul was busy in headquarters. There was no one else. No one who was close to Straker.
It was time. ‘Hello,’ she murmured, her hand soothing his face. ‘You’re safe now. I’m here.’
He gave a soft groan but his eyes remained closed as if he feared what he might see if he opened them. Perhaps the water pouring down from above, or Alec’s hand pressing flat against his, or even those small bodies, lying there. His children. His sons.
A hand on his face. Rebecca? But then there was the memory of her running from the room, and he turned away from the hand, opening his eyes to see who was there with him.
‘How are you feeling?’ She leaned over him.
He looked listless, the spark gone from his soul, washed away by brackish water and memories that swamped him. Eyes dulled by more than tiredness and a weary apathy evident in the way he regarded Sara.
‘My chest hurts.’ He gasped another breath. Pain in his breastbone. Deep bruising and a sharp ache. He knew what had happened, what they had done to him. He had dealt with worse than cracked ribs. Physical pain eased in time. It hurt to think of Rebecca as well. But there was no cure for that. Nothing would soothe that ache.
He lay still as Sara checked him over, not even flinching when her cold hands touched bruised ribs. Flesh would heal.
‘Alec?’ Another gasp, short spare breaths.
‘He’s fine. Sleeping right now. So is Keith. Don’t worry.’ Dr Harper finished and tucked the sheet back over her patient. ‘You had a bad time back there. How are you feeling?’
He turned his face away and tried to push the pain away as well, but it consumed him. Sharp and acid in his mind, fluttering and pawing in his chest and that empty desolation deep within. And the fear. That was the worst. He felt his heart race again and tried to swallow down the terror as he had tried to swallow the salty water. But it was hopeless.
However much he tried to drag the calmness back into his mind, to rise above the encroaching tide of dread he was unable to stop it and hands that had stretched out in desperation now tightened under the covers, unseen.
Eyes closed, not to stop the water blurring his last sight of life but to stop his emotions betraying him. How could anyone understand what he was feeling? He lay still, afraid that if he spoke his voice would reveal the truth. If only Sara would leave him alone, leave him to sleep.
The mattress creaked as a weight settled on the edge beside him. A cool hand rested on his forehead and he kept still, rigid with the fear of what she was going to force him to reveal.
Nothing mattered anymore. Alec was safe, and Sara would look after his friend. It was not as if Rebecca wanted him, she had made that quite clear. She wanted someone reliable, someone who was there for her, who would not lie to her.
He pulled away from that hand, as if he did not deserve the comfort of her touch. He had made so many mistakes in his past, so many foolish errors and this was his penance for all the wrongs, the lies. For failing John, for failing Rebecca.
He reached out to feel on the cabinet for his keychain. ‘Do one thing for me. Take Rebecca’s key and give it back to her. And then leave. Please.’ He waited for her to go.
The answer was not what he expected.
‘Not this time Ed. You need to talk. I’m here. Hell, I saw you die.’
He opened his eyes, pushing himself up despite the stab from cracked bones. ‘You saw me die. Well, congratulations Dr Harper, you managed to bring me back. I assume it was you?’ He lay back on the pillows, gasping with the effort it had taken. ‘You know nothing about what happened to me. Go. Please.’ There was acid in his voice now, and more than sourness. An emptiness as if he had no future. As if his past was a horror that had consumed his existence. She could not bear to look into those eyes that were so full of self-loathing.
It was no good forcing him. She got up. ‘Maybe later. When you feel better.’ The door closed behind her and he lay there, waiting until the burning pain had eased enough for him to take shallow breaths again. He would get through this; the terror, the panic, the recollection of the water beginning to fill the capsule and the way he knew, even then as he was trying to open the door, that the aliens had won. But he doubted that he would ever get over the memory of raising his gun, of pulling the trigger, and watching his two innocent children die.
The nurse re-entered the room and he closed his eyes and pretended to sleep.
Jackson was waiting outside the HDU, leaning against the wall with an almost indolent look, but Sara was not deceived by his half-hooded gaze.
‘He’s awake, but I don’t think he’s going to talk to anyone. I didn’t get very far,’ she admitted with a frown.
‘I will leave it for now I think.’ Doug Jackson cast a glance over at Straker’s room. ‘Perhaps when he is at home it might be easier.’ He sighed with frustration. ‘The past weeks have been hard enough for the commander and this latest incident concerns me. I think that there is more to what happened than we are aware.’
‘Is there anything I can do to help?’
Jackson shook his head. ‘I think it would be more prudent for you to take Colonel Freeman home. Maybe…’ he paused and stroked his chin, ‘perhaps together, you might come up with some solution that would help the Commander. Alec Freeman is closer to him than anyone else.’ He stopped talking and looked at Sara. ‘But that will have to wait. Go home, Dr Harper. At least go and get some rest.’
Her reluctance was obvious and Jackson watched the indecision on her face. To stay here in the faint hope that Straker might relent and talk to her, or to wake Alec and take him home. Jackson placed a hand on her elbow ‘Dr Harper, do I have to order you? Colonel Freeman will sleep far better in his own bed.’ His hand twisted in a gentle touch and she found herself following his lead and heading back to where Alec was still asleep. She looked down at him and as she touched his face he stirred and looked at her.
‘Come on. Let’s go,’ she whispered, close to tears and she leaned over to kiss him again.
Alec sat hunched and silent, the mug between his fingers, watching cream swirl in the chocolate. ‘Did you speak to Ed? Was he alright?’
‘He was awake. Worried about you. I told him you were fine.’ She put her mug down. ‘You will be okay won’t you?’
He put one arm round her, lowering his head onto her shoulder. ‘Don’t.’ She felt him shudder before he sat up and stared across the room, leaning forward and still shivering. ‘Hell, I’m cold. Let’s go up and get warm.’ He stood up and held out his arms before he looked at her in concern. ‘What’s the matter?’
She shook her head, unwilling to burden him with her concerns about Straker. Alec had his own nightmares to deal with without her adding to them.
But he stood there waiting. ‘Tell me.’ He held her hand. ‘Is it Ed?’
There was nothing for it but to be honest. ‘It’s Rebecca. She came to my house. Saw Ed there with me. She thought he had been lying to her and………..’
Alec closed his eyes in despair. ‘And he couldn’t tell her, could he. Damn. How bad?’
‘Bad? How bad do you think. Ed was… well… devastated I think is the only word. He refused to talk to me about her. Told me to give this back to her.’ Sara pulled the key out of her pocket. It lay there on her palm, glinting in the soft lights. ‘Alec, when I left him he seemed to have given up. He was angry that he was still alive. But I think there’s more to it than that.’ The key clinked on the glass surface of the table. ‘Something happened and he won’t talk about it.’
Alec pulled her close in a firm hug of reassurance. ‘There’s nothing much we can do right now. Maybe tomorrow. Now I …’ he looked at her. ‘I just want to hold you.’
Later that night, after they had talked, after Sara had told him of his clone and Ed killing it, after she had cried against the warmth of his chest when she remembered cutting into that cold body, he had comforted her with gentle kisses. Nothing more. But it was enough. She lay there next to him with her arm over his chest and her head on his shoulder. Asleep and snoring and he smiled a little in the darkness before the memory of recent days returned to make him shiver and snuggle even closer.
But he could not settle, despite his tiredness. His mind continued to return to the horror of waking and realising that he was a prisoner of the aliens. He lay there, trying to sleep, yet also fearful of the nightmares that sleep might bring. And it was not just his own experience that had affected him; lurking there in the dark recess of his thoughts there was the image of Ed trapped in the airlock as the water flooded into the space. His friend, drowning, dying. Too many horrors, too many flashes of dread when he closed his eyes.
He needed to sleep if he was to have any chance of overcoming this. He closed his eyes and forced himself to relax.
Rebecca lay in bed, eyes closed. The night light was dim enough not to keep her awake, but she could not stop that image reappearing in her mind. Ed. Standing there as Sara caressed him. Her eyes were puffy and hot; her face felt swollen and tight but her mind hurt most.
She had opened herself to him, touching him, kissing him, and even now her hands clenched in an attempt to drive away the thought of his skin under her fingertips. The feel of his throat under her lips, those short bristles that she had stroked with such a casual gesture. And he had kissed her as well. He had held her, had caressed her. And yet it had all been a lie. She felt sickened at her own stupidity, her trust. At least they had not……
She flung back the covers and went to the bathroom to shower yet again, drenching her hair and her face and her body in cooler water in a vain effort to wash away the memory. His razor was still by the sink and she picked it up and tried to break it in two, but it was too strong and in the end she threw it into the bin and flung the facecloth on top of it. Too many memories. She would get the lock changed later. And her mobile number. As for Sara… that betrayal was the hardest to bear. She was alone now. Completely alone.
The living room was in darkness and she made her way to the chair, curling up and waiting for this interminable night to end.
Doug Jackson touched the woman’s wrist. The pulse was still thready and erratic, but she was alive. There was no need to use his fingers for this, the monitors did a more accurate job in all respects, but he was an old-school physician and respected the traditional ways. That simple contact of fingers on her wrist might comfort her, might get through to her subconscious. He hoped so; he hoped that Chloe Rimmer was strong enough to survive. Not just the physical ordeal, although that was severe enough, but Jackson was a specialist in mental trauma and as he looked down at the woman he shook his head. Oh, they had closed the opening in her throat, they had treated the sores and the other physical conditions, but she had to wake sometime and face the memories. He might use the amnesia drug on her; at least to ease the worst of them. He would look into it later. Right now he had other patients to see.
He checked on Keith Ford; resting well and due to be released as soon as he woke up. Looked in on the three casualties from the assault who were also sleeping. Walking wounded. They had been lucky to escape with so few injuries. And that left only one patient.
He stood outside the door to the HDU wondering what he could do or say. Probably nothing, but his professionalism and his concern forced him to take that first step and push the door open. The dim light revealed a figure lying flat on his back. There was no movement, no acknowledgment of Jackson’s entrance and yet the doctor knew that this patient was awake and had been so for a long time.
Now that the patient was recovering there was no need for a nurse on duty so Jackson pulled up a chair and sat down. He would wait. There was no rush. The man in the bed knew he was here, and that was all that mattered. If Straker wanted to talk he could do, but Jackson would not force him. He was here. He would wait.
He watched as fingers gripped the sheet.
Paul tossed the paper cup across the room, grinning as it landed in the bin. He leaned back in the chair, putting his hands behind his head and stretching his shoulders as he yawned. The debriefs were done, the updates in hand, he’d organised a clean-up detail to erase any evidence that might remain and all that was needed now was to finish writing up his personal report.
He hadn’t heard from the Medical unit. But Jackson would have contacted him if anything had gone wrong. Alec was safe, as was Ford, but Ed had been his main concern. The cold body, the blue lips, and standing there watching as he died. That had been the worst part. Being helpless and unable to do anything as the water rose.
But now it was over. He paced round the desk unable to settle to any task, wide awake despite the late hour. Just that report to do. But he couldn’t concentrate on it, couldn’t unwind that tight coil of exhilaration. He did not want to go home, even though Colonel Lake was on her way in. He began fiddling with a pen on the desk, starting to write, then screwing up the paper and tossing it into the bin to join the crumpled paper cup.
Perhaps he should walk over to the Medical Unit and see what was going on there. Jackson would have been in touch if there was a problem, but it would not do any harm to check for himself. And there was no way he could sleep until he knew that Straker was on the mend. He would make one quick visit and come back to finish his report. Maybe then he could relax, get over this feeling of elation. It seemed wrong to feel this way, knowing that his friends had been hurt, but dammit; he had done a good job, and he knew it. And Ed was alive. That was more important than anything. Anything.
Jackson sighed. It had been over two hours now. That was of no concern, it was merely the passage of time, but Straker was still awake. During those two hours the man in the bed had, with imperceptible slowness and caution, turned his face to look at his visitor through the slightest of open eyelids. It had not made any difference. Straker still lay there as if asleep.
‘Enough. I’m not going to force you to talk, Ed.’ Jackson leaned forward, his voice soft and concerned. His use of Straker’s personal name made the man in the bed open his eyes a little more. Not enough for Jackson to see the dark pupils, but a glint of white now. He stood up and inspected the IV in Straker’s hand. ‘You need to sleep. And I don’t think you are willing to do that.’ Jackson pulled out a syringe and injected the contents into the connector. ‘There. Get some rest, Commander.’ He patted the fingers of the hand that lay on the sheet. ‘I’ll be here for a while longer.’
The eyes slowly closed, and Jackson watched as Straker fell asleep, muscles relaxing at last and the face of the SHADO Commander settling into a rare look of peace.
Mr. Dale Atwood. The envelope looked important and official and he panicked for a moment as he wondered who could possibly have a reason to write to him. There was a temptation to throw it away without opening, and in the past he had done that with letters from the banks and building societies and credit companies, but he turned the envelope over with a trembling hand and read the return address.
One finger slid under the flap of the envelope, fumbling it open before pulling out a single sheet of paper with that distinctive logo at the top. He read through the letter with disbelieving eyes. Tomorrow morning. An interview, tomorrow morning. And that name below the signature. He folded the letter, and tucked it safe in his pocket then he hurried to his room to get out his decent pair of trousers and get them clean and pressed. A shirt as well. And a tie. And polish his shoes. And he had better check up on bus timetables as well. Or perhaps a train. He wondered if he needed to get his hair cut.
The last document was completed and Miss Ealand slid it into the appropriate folder before opening the safe to put away the day’s work. The small box was sitting on top of the folders, and she lifted it out, wondering what to do with the gift. It was unlikely that her boss would be back at work for several days yet, according to Paul Foster, and she held the box for a moment, remembering those words. Keep it for me and I’ll take it round tomorrow.’ It was too late in the day to do anything with it right now but she would have it couriered out tomorrow morning to Miss Steel. And with any luck the commander would be out of hospital in a few days. She put the box in the safe.
Fuck. Rebecca knew that she looked like one of the guys after a binge. That half-vacant look of confused exhaustion. She slumped in her seat, too weary to even bother getting a coffee to help keep her awake. The bastard. The bloody cheating bastard. And yet the worst thing was that she didn’t hate him. Not like that. Not that satisfying hatred that gave you strength. This emotion drained her. She just wanted the hours to pass, to get through the next day, and the next and the next. It seemed to stretch out ahead of her … grey and interminable and empty. There was no physical pain this time, no need for morphine to blur her mind, but in a way this was worse. Her mother had been there last time, and Sara, but now there was no-one. She used to think that nothing could be as bad as that time, but …………. she shook her head.
She had done it before. She could do it again.
It was cold in the office, or perhaps it was just that she was so sodding tired and even in the thick cardigan that she had dragged out of the back of her wardrobe she was shivering. Who gave a damn what she looked like anyway. He certainly hadn’t cared had he? Shit. The tears started again and she dashed them away with an angry hand, scrubbing until her eyes felt raw.
It was no good. She was a fool to have come in today. She couldn’t settle, couldn’t even think straight. And she had work to do right now, things to sort out, important things. She went through to the kitchen to talk to the cook about the Christmas rota. Dale was scuttling through the common room on his way to his room, and she was about to call to him, but he had gone.
‘Alec?’ Sara rolled over and looked at him as he lay there. ‘You were calling out in your sleep.’
‘Hmmphm..’ A muffled grunt. ‘I was dreaming.’
‘Not nice dreams either from the way you sounded.’ She touched his shoulder and he opened his eyes. ‘How are you feeling?’
He rolled onto his back, to stare at the ceiling. ‘I am ….fine.’ He wasn’t though. The nightmare might be fading into the darkness of his mind, but the feeling of horror was still there. That heart-pounding realisation that the aliens had captured him and all he could do was to lie there, imprisoned and unable to move, waiting for the first touch of a knife. Those long waking moments of consciousness and coldness and fear. Being trapped and helpless. He pushed the sheets away and swung his legs out of bed to sit on the edge and breathe great gasps as sweat cooled on him.
He shivered and she got out of bed to come round and sit next to him, her arm around his shoulders,
He couldn’t tell her. Couldn’t bring himself to admit that he was utterly terrified, that he wanted to hide where they could not find him. He turned away, ashamed of such a primitive reaction and she pulled him close and looked into eyes that were dark with terror and the fear of the unknown, and Sara had no idea what to say or do. She could only hold him as he flung himself into her arms, as ragged and silent sobs shuddered through his body. He clung to her and buried his face in her shoulder as his fingers dug into her flesh. A hard and painful grasp, but she held him and made no sound. His breathing deepened and then the black terror splintered and was gone under the touch of her hand. The release of tension unchained his need for her, and he took her, thrusting himself into her as she opened herself to him and their bodies came together as one; deep and intense and sharing.
Straker woke up. No one in the room with him this time and so he eased himself up to sit on the edge of the bed as his tentative fingers explored the extent of the bruising on his chest. He had no idea what time of day it was, other than it was light outside, and he reached out for his watch. His hand caught the key chain that was there. His keys. That was all now.
He lay back. There was no reason to get up. Nothing that he had to be doing. The IV had been removed sometime while he was trapped in that drugged and somehow unsatisfying sleep, and although he still ached and felt drained he knew that the worst was over and that he would be going home, maybe even today. To what though? An empty house? Being alone again? There had to be some comfort in the fact that he had survived and that his memories had returned but there was a desperate sense of loss as well and not just the loss of Rebecca. Those days at the Shelter had made him realise that he missed the simple pleasure of companionship, the quiet moments spent sitting and watching television and having friends around him. And yes, they were friends. They had accepted him, had included him and had cared about him.
He sat up again, wincing with the discomfort and remembering Dale helping him in the medical room, making him a drink and breakfast, and he wondered how the man was doing. There had to be some way to repay Dale. Perhaps Miss Ealand might have an idea. For now, he just had to concentrate on getting out of here and getting over the memories. All of them. If that was possible.
The door opened and he looked up, half-hoping to see Alec, but no, it was Jackson, looking tired.
‘Commander.’ The smooth drawl had an air of satisfaction to it, a note of victory, as if Jackson was gloating. Or perhaps it was his imagination.
‘Jackson.’ Straker refused to be drawn. If the doctor wanted a conversation then he would have to make the first move.
‘Did you sleep well?’
‘Yes. I slept.’ A curt answer. But it was the truth. He had slept. If not well. He couldn’t remember all the dreams though. Not properly.
‘Good. I am going off duty. Shroeder will be along to check on you and I have recommended that you stay here one more night just to ensure that there are no unforeseen complications. You can go home in the morning. I will see you then, no doubt.’ Jackson nodded a brief salute before leaving as quietly as he had entered.
Straker lay back and waited. He would get through this. Somehow.
Miss Ealand watched him come into the Main reception area, a hesitant figure, looking incongruous in the ultra-modern surroundings. He stood there, casting around and worried and she went out to greet him.
‘Mr Atwood. Good to see you. You are here for the interview?’
He nodded, grateful to see a familiar face.
‘Excellent. Come with me.’ She led him to a side room, and opened the door. ‘If you would wait in here, please? Someone will come for you in a few minutes.’ She put her hand on his arm. ‘Don’t worry Mr Atwood, I’m sure you will be fine. Mr Straker had a lot of confidence in you.’
Dale pulled out a chair and sat down, twisting his fingers together as he watched the door and waited. It was a long time since he had been in a situation like this. He heard footsteps and tensed as they halted. The door swung open. There was a familiar look to the man now walking in with his hand held out.. ‘Mr Atwood? I’m Dr. Jackson. We’re ready for you now.’
The biker tried again. He would have given up and returned later with the package, but Harlington-Straker was an important client of the courier firm and his instructions had been specific. Delivery this morning. There was a second address, nearby, but he had been told to try this one first.
‘Rebecca Steel? Package for you. Needs a signature.’ He listened to footsteps coming down to the outer door, the heavy lock opening and then she was there with tousled hair and tying her dressing gown belt. He handed her the pad and waited while she scrawled an indecipherable signature on the electronic recorder. Her fingers closed over the small parcel as the courier walked away to sit astride his motorbike and pull his helmet over his head. Puzzled and still half-asleep, Rebecca watched him weave his way through the cars on the street before she shut the door. It needed a hefty push to make sure it closed and she shook her head with annoyance. The agent should have repaired that by now. But, it wasn’t going to be a problem much longer. She had decided to move on, to find somewhere else. Somewhere without the ache of recent memories.
She went into the kitchen where the kettle was just coming to the boil and put the box down on the worktop. A drink first.
She let the tea brew for a minute and picked up the box , giving it a gentle shake. Nothing rattled. No clue as to the contents. No clue as to the sender either. Her name and address had been typed on the label. Intrigued, she unwrapped the parcel.
It was….. beautiful. Silver. Or was it? She held it in her fingers, marvelling at the graceful simplicity. There was a card beneath it and she pulled it out from under the tissue to read. The Shepherd’s Crook bracelet in white gold. Her heart pounded suddenly and she turned the small card over.
Three words. That was all.
Just three words, in neat script. No signature, nothing other than those words.
She felt sick.
A flood of memories.
He was standing in the Reception area surrounded by the police with his head down looking lost and alone; standing in the common room and fastening her bracelet around her wrist; standing on the High Street looking scared; standing in her office. Holding her.
She was watching him. As he worked at the computer in the common room; as he slept beside her in the shelter; as he sat on her sofa; as he shaved.
The feel of stubble under her fingers that morning when she stroked his jaw. The feel of soft skin of his throat under her fingers. The feel of his lips on hers.
She fiddled with the bracelet, its surface smooth and cool under her fingers.
John Shepherd. Ed Straker. Could she really have been so wrong about him? Could there be some other explanation? And Sara?
But then she remembered seeing him there, Sara’s hands touching him and the look of shock and dismay when he saw her, as if he was hiding some secret.
No. He had lied to her.
Tissue paper rustled as she put the bracelet back and replaced the card. It was time to get ready for work, and today she would start looking for something else. Perhaps with Big Issue. Or even something away from this world of drug addicts and hopeless causes.
There was a knock on her door.
Alec was silent on the drive to Rebecca’s apartment. He had tried to see Ed the day before, but Jackson had been adamant that Straker was not to have any visitors until he had been discharged from Mayland. And to be honest, Alec wondered what he could say to Ed, what words might comfort his friend. There was nothing. Perhaps Sara and he might be able to convince Rebecca that she had been wrong. He hoped so.
Sara gave him a worried look as she opened the outer door to the small cluster of apartments. ‘I hope she’s okay. I tried texting again last night, but she still hasn’t replied.’ She led the way up the wide stairs and knocked on the apartment door. A hesitant tap as if she didn’t want Rebecca to hear it, almost as if she was trying to avoid the unpleasantness that she knew was going to come. Rebecca, standing there with a look of accusation on her face, or even worse. Hatred and contempt. Sara knew what Rebecca had thought when she had seen Straker standing there as Sara ran her hand over his ribs. Such an innocent gesture, yet so misunderstood. And the worse thing was that Sara could not tell her the truth.
She glanced up at Alec and squeezed his hand. The door opened. Rebecca, her face etched with fatigue and unshed tears, barred the way.
‘What do you want?’ Her voice was cold and she lowered her eyes, her hand gripping the door as if she was afraid that they might push past her.
‘I have to explain. Please?’ Sara put her hand out but Rebecca shied away from the touch.
‘Go away. There is nothing you can say.’ She started to close the door but Alec stepped forward.
‘No Miss Steel. We need to talk to you.’ He waited, determined and implacable and after one glance at his face she stepped aside to let them in.
She perched on the very edge of the sofa, her tea now tepid and undrinkable. They had betrayed her. Sara and Ed. She would listen to the explanations, the excuses, the pleas for understanding and then she would tell them to go. No offers of coffee, no smiles. No meaningless conversation. She would be firm. But the tears that were tracking down her face betrayed her.
She was aware of Alec going into the kitchen and then the sound of the kettle boiling and the clink of spoons. Then he was back, sitting beside her and holding out a mug for her to take.
‘Drink this.’ There was a note of command in his voice and she found herself obeying him without question, her hands wrapping around the china.
She concentrated on drinking. It didn’t matter what excuses Sara came up with, she had seen them, together. Sara with her ………
There was a hand on her wrist. Sara’s hand and her voice. ‘Look at me Rebecca. You need to listen. What you saw? Ed and me? That was not what you think. Trust me. Please.’
She scrubbed at the tears with the sleeve of her dressing gown. ‘What else could it be? I saw… ’
There was a long exasperated sigh. ‘For heaven’s sake Rebecca. Will you shut up and listen for once? You want to know what I was doing? Okay. I was removing his stitches. That was all.’ Sara removed her hand from Rebecca’s arm. ‘Nothing more. Nothing.’ The last word was fierce with emphasis.
Oh god, she had been a fool. Of course. And yet…
‘But there was more to it. Why didn’t he tell me? Why did he look as if he was hiding something?’ Rebecca stood up and walked away before turning back to face Sara. ‘And why you?’
Another sigh. But not of exasperation this time. And it was Alec who sighed. ‘I think there are some things you need to know.’ He shook his head at Sara, ‘No, not everything, but as much as possible.’ He stood up and stared at her. ‘Miss Steel. What do you know about Ed Straker? Really know I mean?’
‘He runs the film studios.’ Rebecca sounded perplexed and Alec laughed. A gentle laugh with no hint of mockery.
‘Yes, he does indeed, but did you never think to search on the internet? Find out his background? I suggest you do that now.’ He looked around the living area. ‘’Google’ him. See what comes up.’ It was an order, clearly to be obeyed, and he folded his arms, waiting.
It only took a moment to type his name. As expected. Ed Straker: Film Studio Executive. She looked up at Alec who was leaning over her shoulder. He pointed to the screen. ‘No. Not those entries. That one.’ One of those insignificant pages.
Obediently she clicked. And read. She was aware of Alec stepping away from her and talking to Sara, of muttered words, but the screen drew her back. This wasn’t the same Ed Straker was it? It couldn’t be. Master’s Degree in astrophysics, astronaut. Colonel. There had been a mix-up. Someone with the same name. Then she saw the photograph. He looked so much younger, and nervous as he stood in the doorway of the plane. But the same shy look all the same. His uniform suited him. She had no idea what the ribbons signified, but there were several rows.
Alec was there again, close to her, his cologne so different to the one that Ed used, a heavier and muskier scent. His face was almost touching hers as he leaned in again, to point once more at the screen.
‘Colonel Ed Straker. United States Air Force. Military Intelligence. Rebecca….’ He swivelled her chair round so that she was facing him. He perched on the edge of the table. ‘Ed runs the film studio. That is what he wants people to believe, but that’s not all he does. Or myself for that matter. Don’t ask me to tell you more. I can’t and I won’t. It’s safer that way. For everyone.’
She turned back to the screen and scrolled down the pages, engrossed in the words there. Those details about his past, his work. ‘He said he was going to be busy,’ she murmured to herself, ‘a night shoot.’ Rebecca pushed her chair back and stood. ‘So there was nothing in it? Between you and …?’ she stared at Sara.
‘Nothing. Although I think there is something else you should know. Something that affects me.’ Sara cast a glance at Alec and he nodded in assent. Rebecca waited, biting her lips in fear. ‘I’m working for Ed and Alec now. Please don’t ask me about it either. All I can tell you is that it is far more important work than I was doing before.’
There was nothing much to say was there. Sara and Alec and Ed. All working together. She felt even more uncomfortable now. What place did she have in a world of conspiracies and secrets. How could she possibly have any future with a man who had done the things that Ed Straker had done. A man with all those medals.
‘So what now? I mean, if Ed is as important as you say, why are you here? He won’t be interested in me.’ And yet he had written those words. She picked up the jewellery box as if to reassure herself. The card fell onto the floor and Alec bent down to pick it up.
She watched him read the words. Ed’s words.
‘With Love. Yours.’
And then he looked at her, a somewhat sad half-smile on his lips.
‘Ed was married.’ It was a bleak statement and she nodded. He carried on, speaking in a subdued voice. ‘His wife left him after their son was born – accused him of cheating on her, and adultery. They divorced soon after. But Ed was never unfaithful. Ever. He adored Mary.’ He shrugged his shoulders. ‘He simply wasn’t able to tell her the truth about what he did. She knew he worked for Military Intelligence but she couldn’t..’ and there was bitterness in Alec Freeman’s voice, ‘…or wouldn’t, understand there were things he had to keep a secret. He was working every hour God gave him and she wanted to know where he was and what he was doing.’
His thumb smoothed over the embossed surface of the card before he handed it back with a grimace. ‘It nearly killed him when Mary walked out.’
Rebecca put the card into the box. There was nothing she could say.
‘He needs you. You know that, don’t you? Needs you more than anyone or anything else.’ Alec said.
‘Needs me? Why? Why would he need me? I was so …..’ She took the bracelet out and held it on the palm of her hand. A shepherd’s crook. John. Ed. The silence made her look across at Sara and Alec. ‘What is it? What’s wrong?’ She tightened her grip on the delicate bangle. ‘Oh God. What’s happened to him?’
‘Sit down and I’ll tell you.’
Dale came out of the room and closed the door before standing there bewildered and still a little dazed after the intense questioning. It had been a long hour and he felt drained. He been expecting the sort of questions that asked about his background, his past history, his poor work record, his previous unreliability. His ‘problems’.
But no. Instead it had been all about his strengths and weaknesses, his ambitions. Jackson wanted to know his abilities, even the salary that he wanted. Serious enquiries about his computer skills, and what he hoped to achieve. But he considered each question and answered although he had a suspicion that there was more to the questions than he anticipated. Miss Ealand and the quiet man who had accompanied him to the hospital were also there but the only question she had asked was how he had got the bruise on his face.
It was the one time that he had hesitated. He blushed a little and told the truth. The quiet man had not spoken. But he had shared a look with Dr. Jackson.
They had asked him to wait outside. So here he was. Waiting.
The door opened and Miss Ealand walked towards him and he felt scared, as if his whole world was balancing on this moment. That pivotal moment. She smiled at him and it was as if he was a child again. A thrill of pleasure. There was no need for her to say the words, but she said them anyway.
‘Mr Atwood? We’d like to offer you the post.’ She held out her hand and he grasped it and shook it, knowing that he was grinning. She held his hand in a firm grip and stared at him. ‘I know you won’t let Mr Straker down, Dale,’ she said.
And he nodded.
Rebecca sat there, her hands clasped together to stop them trembling, but it was impossible. She herself was shaking, not from cold, but from the thoughts of what had happened. And he had drowned, had died in fact, thinking that she hated him.
‘Can I go and see him now? To explain….’ she faltered, but Alec shook his head.
‘He’s going to be discharged today. I’ll let you know when he gets home.’
‘I need to talk to him, Mr Freeman. I have to tell him I was wrong.’ She and stood up and walked across the room to stare out of the window, her arms wrapped around herself as she looked down into the street. ‘I hope he can forgive me.’
Sara put a hand on Rebecca’s shoulder and turned her round. ‘Silly girl. Of course he will. Haven’t you realised yet? He loves you,’ she smiled, hugging her.
It was late morning by the time Rebecca arrived at the Shelter, her hair still damp from a quick shower, and her mind focussing on things other than work. She paced her office for a while, unable to settle and wondering what Ed was doing. If he was alright. What should she say to him? What words might he say to her? He had drowned. Dear God. When Alec had started to tell her about it, he had crumpled somehow, had turned away and been unable to continue and Sara had carried on in her calm and clinical voice. All the details. Everything. Apart from why and where. It was enough to know that Ed, her Ed, had been trapped and they had watched as the water flooded in. She wanted to go to him now. Not have to wait until later. Now. Even if he was in the hospital. Except.,., they wouldn’t even tell her which hospital. She started her work, looking at the phone and willing it to ring.
It seemed forever before Alec called. A brief message, but it was all she needed to hear. She grabbed her coat and hurried home, heedless of the cold. But once inside the sanctuary of her home the doubts struck her. He might refuse to see her. He might treat her with the same callous contempt that she had shown him, casting her aside as if she was nothing.
Her hand trembled on the banister and her legs felt weak, but she dragged herself upstairs to change. It had to be done. She had to know. And he had the right to tell her. Whatever he said. He had been blameless, and she had been so wrong, so thoughtless, so demanding.
She got ready and picked up her keys.
The winter weather had frozen the ground and had made impossible any thought of digging over the borders that edged the lawn. Straker unlocked the shed. The wooden door was swollen and caught on the frame and he had to jerk it to get it open. The old apple tree had been cut down in the summer, not from choice; the branches had been creaking with age and the trunk leaning at a precarious angle. It seemed wrong to hack down such an old tree even though he had known that it was past its usefulness. He couldn’t even recall when it had last produced a decent crop. He had planted another of the same variety nearby and his chainsaw had made short work of slicing the timber into pieces that he had stored in the shed, though why he had done so he had no idea. It was just that the tree deserved better than to be cast aside, as if it was no longer of any value. He had considered cutting it into neat rounds to use as edges to the vegetable beds, or even piling it up in the far end where the untamed area of the garden attracted wildlife.
Today he was going to deal with it.
The axe was dulled by disuse, blunted and rusting and he immersed himself in the simple task of oiling it before he set about honing the edge on an old whetstone. Pure physical activity. The rasp of metal on the stone. The satisfaction of seeing the metal shine, of watching as the blade returned to its rightful condition.
He lifted a piece of wood and carried it out. It took a moment to stand it upright, to swing the axe down and splice into the dry wood. The satisfying crack as the blade sank deep and then the wood was lifted and thumped down again, and again on the paving slab. His cracked ribs shouted at him to stop, but he ignored them and pushed on, pushing the axe down, pushing the pain away, pushing the thoughts to the back of his mind.
The stack of split logs grew. He stripped off his thick winter jacket to draped it over the garden bench before he carried on. The rhythmical sound of metal on wood, the clunk of the splitting timber and the creak of the pieces as the axe tore them apart. He wiped welcome sweat from his face, gulping down a mug of water that was so cold it made his teeth hurt, pulled another log out of the shed and set to work. There was nothing to distract him from his task and he had to concentrate on every move, even to controlling his breathing.
There had been time to think about things as she drove to Ed’s house. Time to remember those certain moments that she kept as secret as the other world that Ed inhabited.
Secrets. A world of secrets. Was she ready to be part of that? To accept what he told her, to not ask questions, to wonder what he was doing on those evenings when he was busy? A night shoot. What did that mean? And anyway, even if she did get to see him tonight, who was to say that he wouldn’t look at her with contempt. She had been a fool and he had gone to his death knowing that she hated him. Her hand tightened on the steering wheel until her fingers hurt. She might never have had the chance to put things right.
He could have died. The image was there in her mind. She knew how he had felt and how frightened he would been. She had been there as well. That desperate gasping for air, the struggle to breathe as ribs hurt and burned and eyes were blurred from tears. Those last terrible thoughts as he knew that he was going to die alone and without anyone to embrace him or love him. Alone. No one there to hold his hand and caress him.
Then that moment when death was forced back and consciousness dragged you into a world of pain and nightmares and despair. And you hoped that there was someone there beside you who cared.
He could have died. And she would have killed him as surely as if she had held his face under the water, and she would never have been able to tell him how she felt, how wrong she had been.
She pulled up outside Ed’s bungalow, to see a somewhat familiar figure just letting himself in at the front door. Jackson. That was the name. She sat in the car waiting. If necessary, she would wait all night.
‘What do you think you are doing?’
The sharp voice startled him and he dropped the branch that he was dragging. ‘Jackson? Why are you here?’ Straker laid the axe down on the bench and picked up his jacket. The temperature was close to freezing and he could feel the sweat begin to turn cold on his body. He faced the doctor, unwilling to offer any explanation or justification for what he was doing. This was his home, his personal space and he could do what he wanted here, couldn’t he?
‘I came to see how you were feeling, Commander.’ That soft voice, that voice that threatened him with its compassion and its pretence of understanding. ‘I did not get to see you before your discharge this morning, and I was concerned.’
Straker shivered, not from the chill of winter ice, but from the fear of what Jackson might expect from him.
‘Me. I am fine. Just…’ Straker waved a hand at the pile of split timber. ‘Just catching up on jobs.’
‘I didn’t realise that you had a wood burner in your house, Commander. But you should have left that task for a few weeks. I am sure you must still be in some discomfort.’ The question hung like ice crystals in the air.
‘Wood burner? No, I…’ Straker paused and looked down at the kindling. Why had he done this? What purpose had it served, apart from make his ribs burn and his body weary. Respite. It had taken his mind off the nightmare. That was all. ‘I…’ He stood there, his mind a blank before he bent down to lift the axe from the bench with the intention of putting it away. A hiss of discomfort escaped him and Jackson stepped forward to take the heavy implement from his hand.
‘Go inside Ed. I’ll put this away for you and then we need to talk.’ He held Straker’s gaze with his own. ‘No excuses this time, no evasions.’ He waited until the other man had trudged into the house, then put the axe away, scooping up the wood and dropping that inside the shed as well. The door complained as he forced it shut, but he pushed his shoulder against it and it succumbed.
Straker was in the kitchen watching him but as Jackson went up the path and opened the back door he turned away, putting both hands on the work surface and staring down at them.
Jackson hesitated for a moment despite knowing what was needed. Then he stepped forward to placed his hand around a shoulder, feeling muscles tightening with fear. ‘What are you afraid of?’ His voice was almost a whisper. He waited for Straker to twist away, to turn around and face him eyes blazing with anger or icy contempt. But the man was still. His shoulders hunched now, yet still accepting that touch. The head lowered as if in contrition, the hands flat, fingers pressing down hard. A tremor ran through the man in front of him and the hands stiffened.
‘Afraid?’ The single word was almost inaudible. ‘You wouldn’t understand.’
‘Trust me. I will.’
Straker turned round. ‘And what if I don’t? What if I don’t trust you? If you don’t understand? What then?’ He walked over to the sink and washed his hands while Jackson, arms folded, watched in silence.
‘You have to trust someone. It might as well be me. Whatever happened, do you think it is fair to ask Colonel Freeman to help you? It would be an added burden for him, considering what he has undergone.’ Jackson’s voice was cold and he saw Straker flinch at the selfishness of his own thoughts.
‘There’s no need to involve Alec. No need to involve anyone, least of all you, Doctor. I will be back at work next week.’ He kept his eyes averted as he dried his hands on the towel. ‘As I told Doctor Harper, you know nothing about it. And,’ he paused and Jackson saw him swallow hard before he continued, ‘there is nothing to tell.’ He looked up and grimaced. ‘Believe me.’
‘Unfortunately Commander, I don’t.’ Jackson sighed. ‘We are going to talk. Like it or not. Either here, or…’ The threat was implicit. Jackson’s rooms. ‘Ed. You need to tell me. And I will listen. It goes no further than this room. But you will talk. You have to let go of it, of whatever happened.’
‘I can’t.’ Straker rubbed his face with a shaking hand, his voice even less than a whisper now. ‘If I let go Doug, I may never come back. There are too many horrors there.’
‘Do I have to make it an order?’
Straker looked up at the hard resolve in Jackson’s voice. ‘And you would. I know.’
He turned to look outside at the small sapling growing near to where the old tree had once stood. New growth. New hope. Grafted stock guaranteed to be healthy and fruitful. To flourish and mature. It had hurt to cut away the dead wood, but it had been the right thing to do.
He made his decision. ‘You’d better sit down then. This is going to take some time.’
Rebecca turned the heater up and pulled the sleeves of her thick coat down over the bracelet he had given her.
With love. Yours.
Just three words. Thoughts gnawed at the edges of her mind. If he had died she might never have found out the truth. She would always have believed that he had lied. She would have thrown his bracelet away, discarded it like a piece of worthless rubbish. She would have felt nothing for him. And now she would go to him and tell him the truth. She would have to be honest. He deserved that much. If he would listen.
If he was prepared to forgive her. If they had a future together. He had died. And she had nearly lost the one thing that was more precious to her than anything else.
She sat and watched the house as she waited for Jackson to leave, twisting the bracelet on her wrist. It looked fragile and delicate, but she knew how strong it was, how precious. Like life in a way. She had survived, and so had Ed.
Straker’s voice was dead and impassive. It was the only way he could say the words. ‘I deserved to drown.’ He put his head in his hands for a moment then stared up at the window. ‘I found the clones, Doug.’
Jackson looked at him with no hint of any emotion in his face or his voice. Just calm acknowledgement of the fact. ‘Tell me what happened. From the beginning.’
The watery afternoon sun sank behind the horizon as Straker talked, his head lowered to avoid seeing Jackson’s responses, his hands scrunched into tight knots. His words stiff and painful. Short and staccato phrases uttered in a soft and almost desperate voice. Jackson sat in silence and listened, his expression indecipherable, but his eyes were filled with compassion. There was little to say to his commander. Little that he could do to help Straker deal with the demons that haunted him. Only Straker could do that.
And as the quiet and hesitant words slowed and grew softer the silences grew less painful. Jackson poured them both a brandy and refilled Straker’s glass after the man had drained it in one gulp, his face white with strain. The commander avoided Jackson’s eyes, as if he was ashamed of the words that had fallen from his lips. As if he was waiting for words of condemnation. He put the glass down on the table and sat there emptied of everything except hatred of himself. The last words, the last confession of guilt and his clasped hands shook as he spoke of the two small bodies that he had left behind.
A hand reached across and covered his. Straker waited for Jackson to speak, but there was silence and he looked across expecting to see utter disgust in the doctor’s expression. But the face was filled with anguish. There was no need to say anything.
Jackson pulled the front door closed and walked to his car. They had not discussed Rebecca; he would bring that subject up later, but for now his Commander was resting. That was the main thing. He cringed at the thought of what Straker had endured alone, and would continue to endure, but Jackson had given his word and despite his reservations he would not betray that confidence. It might be that in time Straker would be able to tell Alec Freeman what had happened.
He drove away, leaving the house in peace.
Straker listened as the noise of the engine faded into the distance and then he pushed back the blanket and walked out into the garden. The shed door complained with a screech as he tugged it open but he was past caring. The lights from the kitchen were enough for him to be able to see as he stood the log upright on the frozen ground and raised the axe.
Jackson had left. Had driven away without seeing Rebecca sitting there waiting and thinking.
It all came down to one thing when you thought about it.
Trust. She had not trusted him, and yet it had been such a silly thing really. She had acted without thinking. She had not given him a chance to explain and she remembered that look on his face. Not a look of horror at being caught out, but a look of despair. Of devastation. That was the word Sara had used. Devastated. As if his world had ended. As if he had lost everything.
Alec had told her all about Mary and John. Rebecca knew about pain. About physical and emotional pain, about betrayal and hurt and duplicity. About starting again. However hard it was. Ed had not lied to her, he had not lied to Mary either, but neither had he told Mary the truth. How could he? Rebecca didn’t know what the truth was and didn’t want to know. It came down to that one word again. Trust.
She had trusted him. In the Shelter when she had found him in the throes of the nightmare, and later when he had been hurt. She had taken him home on the night when she met him on the high street and let him sleep on her sofa, and had trusted him. She had given him her spare bed to sleep in and had joined him there and had held him and been held. And trusted him.
The gravel crunched underfoot as she walked up to the front door. Even if he did not forgive her, he had to know that she trusted him. That she believed in him. Whatever happened.
She rang the bell.
There was no answer. Yet he had to be there. Even if he had gone to bed he would have heard the door. She tried again. He wouldn’t ignore her. Surely.
Again, her finger insistent on the buzzer. And she began to worry.
Another piece of wood dragged out to be stood on its end. He stepped back then raised the axe in both hands and brought it down in one swift move. Timber splintered and he carried on, ignoring the sound from the house behind him until it intruded on his work and he paused to wipe sweat from his face and listen.
Someone at the door. He embedded the axe into the wooden block, safe and out of harm’s way, before he stumbled inside, weary beyond measure. It took him two attempts to twist the catch of the lock and he opened the door without bothering with security precautions. ‘Rebecca?’ He dragged his arm across his eyes and stood there holding the door frame, not to prevent her coming in, but to keep himself upright. He looked at her, and blinked. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘Can I come in?’
‘Yes, of course.’ He turned away to put one hand out on the wall for support as she slipped inside to close the door behind him. He stood in the lounge, worn out yet unwilling to sit. Tired muscles ached with the strain and his ribs burned from his recent exertion. Perhaps he would sleep tonight. He wondered why she was here.
He looked white with tiredness, but he was watching her, his head tilted a little as if he was waiting for her to break the silence.
‘Am I disturbing you?’ A bland comment, but she felt uncomfortable, as if she was intruding. As if she had stopped him doing something necessary.
‘No. I was just…. ‘ He paused, looking down at his hands and the reddened patches where blisters were starting to form. He shivered and gave her a rueful look before he went to the fireplace. ‘It’s cold in here. I’ll put the fire on.’
Rebecca caught the grimace of discomfort as he bent down with obvious reluctance before lighting the fire. She stepped to where he was now standing, one hand against the wall, the other pressed to his ribs.
‘Damn.’ It was the faintest of murmurs, and he looked at her with an apologetic frown. ‘Sorry. I’m just tired.’
‘And cold from the looks of it. Sit down for a moment. Alec told me what happened to you. I’ll just be a minute.’
She waited until he had lowered himself into one of the armchairs. He sat in silence as she left him there to explore the house. The ensuite bathroom had a decent sized bath and she turned on the taps before returning to where he was still perched, stiff and uneasy. ‘Now. Come with me.’ She used the voice that she had developed over the years. The voice that subdued the drunks and the argumentative youngsters and the ones who thought that because she was a woman they didn’t have to listen to her.
His lips creased in a slight grin, and he pushed himself out of the chair, with slow and cautious movements. He followed her in silence, down the hallway and into his bedroom. The bathroom door was open and steam was beginning to spread into the bedroom. ‘Right. Sit down on the bed.’ Her voice was brusque and business-like and he obeyed her, even though his whole body ached. He wondered how he was going to summon up the energy to get undressed let alone do such simple tasks as take off his trainers. But she knelt down and he felt her hands undoing the laces and tugging the shoes off his feet as if he was a child, and then cold fingers pulled off his socks.
She left him for a moment and he heard her swishing water around in the bath, the taps turned off, and her footsteps as she returned and put a bath towel on the bed beside him. He focussed on the floor and his bare feet. He needed to take his sweatshirt off, but he was too sore and stiff. Then she leaned over him to lift the fleecy material up and ease his arms out. It ruffled his hair as she pulled it over his head and dropped it on the floor in an untidy heap. She traced her fingers across his ribs and he heard a sharp intake of breath as she became aware of the extent of his bruising. Christ he was tired. Once she had left he would lie down. And maybe sleep. But she was here, and again he wondered why. He watched her and saw a flash of silver on her wrist.
‘Stand up.’ That voice again. He sighed, but stood anyway, and then the hands were unfastening his belt, pulling it out of the loops. He put his hand down when he felt her fingers inside the waistband of his jeans, twisting at the button at the top.
‘I can do that.’ He frowned at her, pulling her hand away.
‘Then do it. And come through.’
There was no point in arguing. And she had gone back into the bathroom anyway. He undid the buttons and pulled his jeans off, then his boxers before wrapping himself in the towel and opening the door. She was leaning against the wall, waiting for him. ‘Get in and I’ll fetch you a drink. You look as if you need one.’
He lowered himself in gingerly and let the heat relax him. Hot water. It felt good. It soothed his skin and he sighed as his muscles loosened and the tension dissipated. The facecloth was folded on the side and he reached for it as the bathroom door opened. A chill draught. A reminder of her coming in to stand and watch him shave. Not this time though.
She knelt beside the bath and passed him a tumbler. ‘Brandy? The bottle was already out.’ He put out a hand to take it, but she grasped his wrist and looked at his palm. ‘Those will hurt tomorrow. What were you doing?’
The water was hot, but he leaned forward to turn the tap with his free hand and add more, letting it swirl round him. He pulled his hand out of her grip and let it trail in the heat, the stinging welcome on raw skin. She put the glass on the floor, and lifted the facecloth to soak it and then let the water sluice down his back. She wiped down his spine in a soft caress before soaking the cloth again to repeat the action. He leaned forward lowering his head with the bliss of the warmth over his shoulders and down his back as the water poured down in rivulets.
The soporific heat, the feel of the cloth wiping over his skin, washing away the aches and the tiredness and the fear. He felt her hand on his shoulder and he turned to her.
‘Here.’ She handed him the glass and paused. ‘We need to talk.’
He gave her a long look before lowering his head in resignation. She put her hand on his shoulder for a moment in understanding then lifted the facecloth again and soaked it to caress him once more in silence.
His free arm rested on the edge of the tub and she trickled water down over his biceps and his forearm before her fingers touched his. Fingers intertwined for one brief and intimate moment before she released him and returned to that rhythmical action of the cloth lowered in the hot water and then lifted against his skin. No sound other than the splash of water, his deep breathing, the chink of the empty glass as he put it down. Rebecca did not speak.
There was nothing to say yet. No need to say anything. There would be time for that. Later.
The warmth of the cloth sliding over his shoulder and down his chest. A deft touch over bruised skin, a touch so gentle that he might have been ignorant of the contact but for the warmth as she smoothed it round his neck and up his throat then down the curve of his shoulder again.
She reached forward and turned the tap on again, swishing the freshly hot water around his legs. ‘Lie back now.’
He hesitated for no longer than a heartbeat, then slid down to lie flat, the water swirling round him. He closed his eyes.
The water bathed his body, hot on his neck as tendrils of his hair floated in the liquid. Warmth filled him and he felt that gentle sensation of floating. Tiredness washed over him and even the bright lights in the room were not enough to prevent the drowsiness that saturated his body. Minutes passed as he let the hot water sooth all those aches. The pain of the day faded.
There was a touch on his arm, and he stirred, water slopping over his body as he turned his face to her, the cloth in her hand and she dipped it and squeezed the water out before she wiped his face.
‘Don’t go to sleep now.’ She stroked his cheek with one finger. ‘You need to get out.’
He sank beneath the surface for a moment then heaved himself upright to let the water pour off his body as he sat up, free of the confines of the water, free and alive and breathing. She was standing there with the towel held out for him and he gave her a cautious smile as he levered himself to his feet and stepped out.
‘Dry yourself off and I’ll get some hot milk. And..’ she said over her shoulder as she left the room, ‘get straight into bed. You look worn out.’
Straker waited until she had gone, until her footsteps had faded then he sat on his bed, damp and hot and weary. He would get into bed, and then, once she had gone he would find something else to do, something to keep him awake and stop the nightmares. He wondered why she had come here. It was probably out of a sense of duty. Not to forgive him, he was sure of that, and anyway there was no future for them now. He had come to accept that. He doubted if any woman would want to stay with a man who was unable to tell her the truth.
He rubbed the towel down over the long scar on his thigh and remembered Sara’s fingers probing deep into the flesh. Sara and Alec. How he envied them. No secrets, no lies. Even if their relationship didn’t last there was no deception, no deliberate twisting of the truth. He had lied to Rebecca, an intentional lie and she knew that he could no longer be trusted.
He pulled the duvet up and lay back, listening for her returning footsteps. He would drink the milk, pretend to sleep and then……
Rebecca stirred sugar into the mugs. How was she going to tell him? What words could she use to explain. He had been so hurt by her rejection, and she knew that there were things in his life that would always have to be hidden and kept secret from her. She had no idea what he had been doing when he was in the accident and he would not talk about it, she knew that much. She had been warned not to talk about his past, his time as an astronaut, or as a Colonel, or even in Military Intelligence. And yet by doing that she was lying to Ed as much as he had lied to her.
But he hadn’t lied had he? He had been protecting her. How could she make it right? Words were not enough. Words could be twisted and warped, words could be lies. She stared down at the mugs, at her hand that was still stirring the spoon, round and round. Her keys were on the kitchen worktop. And she knew.
The comfort and warmth of his bed were overpowering and he found himself drifting into sleep despite his attempts to keep the threatening lethargy at bay, with its promise of dark and evil dreams. He was barely aware of her coming back into the room, but the soft thump as she put a mug down on the table roused him. He heard her sigh and she sat down as her hand stroked his hair. ‘You are tired. We have to talk, but it can wait until morning. Here. This is for you. It’s yours. If you want it.’ Her voice was anxious, as if she expected him to reject whatever it was she was giving him.
He felt her place something small and hard in his hand and he explored the shape with his fingertips, the shape familiar, running his thumb over the rough serrated edge. He opened his eyes for a brief moment, tired eyes, eyes that had been dark with pain and loneliness and fear and he smiled at her. His hand closed over the key. Her key.
And he slept.
Eek. Okay, I started this story with a rough outline of where it was going to go. All I had in mind was Ed and Rebecca having an argument, then the assault on the clone factory, Ed walking down between the clones with a machine gun and crying (Not how it worked out, but the basic idea was there in the background) and the one immovable, absolute moment. Ed, drowning. THAT would be the moment that brought everything together. His claustrophobia, his fear of being trapped in the cylinders, his acceptance that, after everything he has done perhaps he doesn’t deserve to live.
And yet he does. And it will have a happy ending.
Reading through this story, today, the day after I typed those ‘last’ words: ‘His hand closed tightly over the key. Her key. And he fell asleep.’ (I changed the last sentences later!), I am almost ashamed to admit that I am rather proud of the whole of The Shepherd. It was never intended to be this long. Even this last part ‘Laired’ was only going to be about 15,000 words at the most. My beta reader gave me the inspiration for Straker killing the clones and I suddenly had the realisation that the story would come full circle if he was to drown afterwards. It would be as if the actions of the aliens at the start had, despite everything, been successful.
It has been a difficult part to write. I have felt ‘hesitant’ throughout. I am not one of those writers who is confident about their work, who prefaces each new chapter with.. ‘Hey guys! This next part is going to be amazing! Watch out!’ I worry all the time about whether anyone IS in fact reading it! But I know that there are readers out there; silent readers, but readers nonetheless. I hope you have enjoyed this not-so-brief foray into Ed Straker’s life.
What have I learned while doing this story? Several things. Mainly , I need to get my characters in my mind first. Rebecca was pretty unformed really., until my Beta told me to get a grip on her. I should have had her ‘fleshed out’ before I started, but, there again I had NO idea this would ever end up as a full length novel. Also it would have been easier to write later parts if I hand kept a detailed account of who was where and doing what (I did do that at one point, but it was on a piece of thick lining paper measuring seven foot by two foot six and NOT easy to carry round with me!
But I got it all to work out in the end. Straker and Rebecca .. together.
And a confession. I wrote those last words yesterday, and even though I KNEW that this was not the ‘true’ end of the story I found myself sobbing and heartbroken. I have loved writing this story. Loved the characters, the way the plot unfolded, the way I realised that Jackson and Paul and Alec and Dale and all those peripheral characters were actually existing in my mind. Even Lt. James. And the silent, unnamed man who accompanies Dale to hospital. I feel that I have lost a lot of close friends who have been with me for the best part of a year.
There have been times when it has been unbelievably hard and the words were wrong. When I spent weeks over single scenes. One in particular was the where Straker finds out that Paul has discovered where the aliens have been hiding! Such a short section. But I simply could not get it right. And yet there were times when scenes just wrote themselves. Sara’s examination of Straker. Rebecca watching him shave. Straker killing the clones, and then drowning. Paul, leading the mission (and I hope you approve of the way I wrote Paul!).
The final scene was painful. I KNEW the end was near and I didn’t want to end. But my beta-reader persuaded me that the bath was a good idea. And it was.
So. It is over… apart from the editing and tweaking. As for the title? The Shepherd.. That is easy. It’s ‘John Shepherd’ and yet what about the other ‘shepherds’: Alec, looking after SHADO when he thought that Ed had died, Rebecca caring for her ‘flock’ of misfits and looking after John Shepherd. Miss Ealand looking out for Straker and Dale and Rebecca. And even Lt James, guarding Straker, unseen and no doubt unthanked.
Finally: A photo of my desk where I worked on Shepherd. It seems a long while ago, and a lot has happened since then, but although I have moved on (literally as well as figuratively) I am still writing Ed Straker, and will continue to do so, as long as there are people out there reading.
My thanks go to my beta-reader, without whose support and encouragement (which continues to this day) this novel would never have been written.
I dedicate The Shepherd to her