Straker lay still once Shroeder had finished his tests, too weary to do anything other than observe through half-closed eyes as the doctor moved around the small room, talking in a quiet voice to the nurse. He was aware of the weight of blankets on his body, a somewhat familiar sensation and he roused himself to look for Rebecca, wondering where she was, why she had not spoken to him, why he could not see her.
Why not? Where was she? Had she left him?
He cast around in fright, searching that for one person that he knew he could trust among these strangers, but cool hands fastened on his own face, hands that turned his head to one side, away from the activity going on in the room. He tried to twist out of the grip, to see what was happening, but they were too strong and he began to panic, fearful of who, or indeed what, was restraining him.
A soft voice pierced his anxiety, soothing and reassuring, ‘Shh.., lie still Commander, it’s all right. Look at me,’ and without even thinking about it he obeyed the order, to stare up into the face of the nurse. ‘Now, just relax.’ She held his gaze with the same intensity as she held his face, her hands comforting instead of restraining. He had no option but to yield to her, but even so he tensed as another unseen person lifted his arm to straighten it, strong fingers running in smooth firm strokes down the inside of his elbow.
Straker tried to pull away but he was aware of the person leaning over him from the other side and then Shroeder’s calm tones close to his ear, ‘Ed, I‘m going to give you an injection,’ as his arm was held in a tight and unwavering grip and there was a stinging scratch in the crook of his elbow. It hurt more than he had anticipated but the pain faded as the anaesthetic took hold and although there was a moment of terror as he felt oblivion encroaching he was powerless to do anything more than gasp before he slumped into unconsciousness.
‘Right,’ Shroeder sighed with relief, ‘let’s get him ready.’ He looked down at the man, the eyes finally closed in repose, muscles twitching in reaction to the drug and laid one hand on Straker’s forehead, as if to smooth away any lasting fears before stepping out of the way to let the nurse begin the process of preparing his patient.
It was a short distance to the room where the MRI scanner was waiting and the stretcher moved along the deserted corridor in haste. They had little time to spare if the patient was not to wake up whilst inside the machine, and yet Shroeder was reluctant to subject him to any stronger drugs. They slipped the sleeping man across onto the table and sliding it into the narrow opening of the scanner, then they headed into the small control station to monitor.
Alec Freeman gave a furtive look at his watch again as he sat in his office. How could time go so slow, he wondered, as he stared at the dial, and no, his watch was still working, the second hand moving round at its usual speed, the minute hand in a different place to when he had last looked. Twelve minutes, that was all that had passed, a scant twelve minutes at that. Insufficient time for Shroeder to have sedated Ed, let alone start the MRI scan. And then, well, they would need time to analyze the results before they could begin any treatment.
Fifteen minutes now. He tugged his cuff down and fiddled with the pen in front of him, wondering whether anyone out there in the control room had any idea of what was happening right now in the SHADO section of Mayland. With Paul now heading for Mason’s house to search for anything that might link the traitor to the aliens, Alec was facing this alone.
Enough. He needed to be busy. Anything rather than the memory of his friend, bloodied and exhausted and terrified, leaning against him in the car. He had to be patient, and wait and maybe, when Ed recovered enough, he would be able to give them some answers.
Straker stirred, aware that something was different, that there was no longer a pliable mattress beneath him. This surface was rigid, unyielding; alien. His senses roamed, seeking information, trying to pinpoint his location, for there was only one thing he knew; he was no longer in that small, safe room. The smell was different for one thing. That unmistakable scent of antiseptic had been replaced by a sterile nothingness. No discernable odour at all in his nostrils, no breath of moving air against his skin. No hands on his face, or his arm. No blankets heavy on his body. He trembled as he summoned up the courage to focus on those few sensations that he was able to isolate.
The chill of hard plastic under his shoulders, his hips, his heels, his fingers touching smooth coldness while hands twitched in tiny, uncontrolled and erratic jerks. Cotton, light on his skin, and darkness, his eyelids open a mere slit, but still greyness and silence. Total silence. Nothing. He pushed out one hand. A span, if that. The surface solid and resilient against his knuckle.
Too terrified to open his eyes wide, knowing what he would see, he lay there listening to empty silence, hoping for just one single sound, for any indication of life outside the metallic cocoon that encased him. Then the noise exploded in his ears, a deafening agony of hammer blows, a rhythmical assault on his eardrums that pounded through his body as it reverberated round the cylinder.
Mason. The aliens. They had won. They had caught him. It flooded back into his mind, and Ed Straker, screaming and with fists clenched, thrashed in blind and total panic.
Sitting in the small dining room, Sara finished her mouthful of fudge cake, dabbing up the tiny curls of chocolate that had fallen onto her plate, before licking her fingers with undisguised pleasure. The last of the coffee had been finished some time earlier, and she was tempted to interrupt the conversation between Rebecca and Miss Ealand but they were talking and she hadn’t seen her friend so animated and cheerful for a long time. She sat there, a little on the sidelines, as the two chatted about Ed Straker and John Shepherd, swapping stories and laughing.
‘So, anyway, he didn’t make a big thing out of it. Just handed it to me with a smile.’ Rebecca reached out for a scone in an effort to distract attention from the redness that she could feel rising in her face.
‘Oh yes.’ Miss Ealand looked at her, ‘Ed Straker is like that, quiet and thoughtful. People don’t often see that side to him. They just see the Studio boss, brusque and efficient. And I know what you mean about that smile.’ She looked with some sympathy at the other woman, seeing beyond the faint blush. ‘Did you know he was once married?’
Rebecca frowned, ‘He didn’t remember anything about his past; nothing at all. I noticed he didn’t wear a wedding ring, but not everyone does and he seemed very quiet and reclusive, if you know what I mean? So he was married then. What happened?’ She waited for the answer, looking at the scone she had bitten into, at the layers of butter and jam, wondering if it would still taste as delicious once she knew about John’s marriage.
There was a touch of a hand on her wrist and she looked up, seeing the other woman looking at her with understanding. ‘They divorced. A long time ago. He never remarried and after his son died he kept himself to himself.’ Straker’s secretary tightened her lips, her eyes suspiciously bright.
‘John. His son was John; the boy in the picture wasn’t he? Oh how terrible, to lose a child.’ Rebecca pressed her hand against her lips as the realisation hit her, ‘and I gave him the name John. John Shepherd. I remember he smiled when he said it for the first time. His son’s name, and it made him happy even though he had no memory of his child.’
Another folder signed and put aside and Alec downed the last dregs of his coffee and reached for the next plastic-covered file, but the insistent buzz of his phone interrupted the action. The Mayland tone. For a second he wanted to walk away, to ignore the call, terrified of what he might hear when he picked it up. But it had to be done and he sighed and reached across wondering who would be the one to give him the bad news that he was expecting.
A hesitant voice on the other end. Shit. Alec cringed away from what was coming, his hand slippery with sweat on the receiver. ‘Yes Shroeder?’
The pause was endless, although in reality it was no more than a clearing of a throat, then the caller spoke again. Commander Freeman’s fingers tightened as he listened.
‘On my way.’ The empty chair gave a reproachful squeak as he pushed it back and was gone from the room.
Jackson watched the two women walk up the street away from the Shelter and sighed with relief. There would be no need to give either of them the drug, in fact it would complicate matters even more if he did. It was clear that Miss Steel had no idea who she had been sheltering for the last week, and to remove her entire memories of John Shepherd would be a very difficult task, even for someone of his expertise.
He moved with quick, neat steps down to the common room where the members of the clean-up detail were awaiting orders.
‘Reception area. Clean it. Then wait for my instructions.’ Jackson turned away from the team to watch as Mason’s body was lifted into the blue plastic bodybag. This situation was perplexing, and he had to deal with it in as efficient a manner as possible. The fact that their dead Commander had reappeared was the only good thing but it was up to Jackson to make sure that nothing here could lead back to SHADO.
Jackson picked up his case and, ignoring the activity around him, headed for the starting point of his investigations.
The door opened with ease and he stood there on the threshold just observing the small space. There was no sign of occupancy other than a bed, its sheet and blankets crumpled and stained, and a small heap of discarded clothing on the floor. A plastic bag with cheap toiletries. Nothing else. No pictures, no personal items. It was as if the room had been nothing other than a place to sleep, as if the man who had stayed here had no possessions, no past, no place other than this room, this small sanctuary.
SHADO’s lead inquisitor pulled out a spray and started his work.
The blue luminescence sparkled across the room, the extent of the residue of blood disquieting even the imperturbable Jackson. He studied it, analysing the pattern and allowing his scientific mind to visualise the events as if they were occurring right there in front of him. Straker, sitting on his bed, a crescent-shaped blemish of spilt blood on the wrinkled blanket, the shabby clothes discarded, and the tracery of droplets leading out of the room.
Intrigued, he followed the track across the hallway and into the nearest bathroom, his inner eye seeing the injured man walk in and stand at the utilitarian sink, clear traces of his hands clasping the edge, a hand on the wall of the shower, more residue on the floor. There were no clothes here, no signs of disturbance but Jackson knew what had happened.
He followed the spattered drops, less of them now, but still traceable under the fine mist from his spray, along the dark corridor and into yet another austere room. Jackson took his time in here, examining in minute detail those small inconsequential items that appeared to have no relevance to the investigation. A bloodstained bath towel, the small litter of detritus in the waste bin, each item lifted and scrutinized with care and all the while Jackson’s emotions kept confined behind his impassive yet devious exterior.
The pillow had an indentation still evident in the surface, and he leaned over to pick a blond hair from the surface. A short hair. He nodded to himself then bent again to examine the bedding before taking a couple of quick steps and closing the door. Once alone and undisturbed he returned to peer at the bed, a puzzled expression on his face as he reached out to pick up a single copper-red strand. A long one; he measured it between his slender fingers before tilting his head to regard the bed, the crumpled bedding, a slight smile twisting his face.
‘Fascinating,’ that one word murmured under his breath before he placed the hair in the waste bin and looked around one last time.
He stepped out into the corridor again, not needing Luminol this time to see the fresh blood stains that marked where Straker had fallen and then crawled to the bathroom, or to see the smears on the white tiled walls. With a grimace, he called to his team.
‘Level 3 sanitization of this room, the one next door and the entire corridor, also the medical room. Room 20 needs to be a full decontamination. Everything. Leave nothing behind that might indicate that the commander was present.’ He stalked away, to begin his inspection of the common room and wondering what other troubling details might appear.
Mason’s body had been removed, although a thick puddle of blood marked where his body had fallen. Jackson looked with distaste at the stain then scanned the room, studying the facts as they filtered into his mind.
Straker, walking into the room, one faint handprint on the wall testimony to his passage from the bathroom, falling onto the leather cushions of the sofa where fresh blood still glistened, helpless as Mason aimed his gun at him. Other evidence; a gun still on the floor, Mason’s gun and the soiled and bloody dressing lying where the doctor had discarded it.
What had happened here? He stepped back into the shadows at the edges of the room and considered the facts as they had been presented to him. It was clear that Mason had sought out the Commander, that somehow the SIS officer had been informed that Straker was still alive. Why then had he not contacted SHADO and why try to kill the man he was supposed to have been protecting.
There was only one possibility; Mason had been working with the aliens. ‘Yessss,’ that long syllable hissed through the darkness as Jackson exhaled with satisfaction. All he had to do now was find a plausible reason for Mason shooting the other man and then himself. That should be sufficient to block any police enquiries. But that could wait until he had received information from Colonel Foster. Right now his responsibility was to ensure nothing remained to compromise SHADO security.
He watched as the decontamination proceeded, as Room 20 was stripped of everything, bedding, clothes, the bag with its cheap shaving foam, shower gel and single disposable razor. Even the mattress and pillows were taken away, before the room was ‘sterilised’, until no trace of its former occupant remained. The other rooms cleaned and checked to ensure that any residue had been removed.
By the time Jackson was satisfied it was early afternoon and the winter sky was sullen and grey as he left the basement with the final members of the team. The Shelter was clean. Nothing remained of Shepherd, and Mason and Barry had both been dealt with. The locked door of Room 20 still had its grubby plastic numbers peeling away at the edges, but anyone opening the door would have been somewhat surprised to see the mattress and pillows, the tidy pile of crisp bedlinen and blankets, all looking new and unused.
He stood on the pavement, ignoring the cold as it bit into his body, ignoring his team as they busied themselves putting their equipment away in the vans. He thought about Straker, about what the man had endured, and he remembered that one copper-red hair, and smiled, before pulling out his phone to called HQ.
‘Jackson. Put me through to Commander Freeman,’ he paused, waited and gave a quick glance around to see if he could be overheard before continuing, ‘Situation Green, Colonel Freeman, and, is there any news of the Commander?’
Even though they had got him out within seconds, Straker’s knuckles were bloodied and split from pounding on the tube that encased him, his gasps too shallow to do more than exacerbate his terror and his mind consumed with the influx of overlapping memories of the last days. Straker/Shepherd, he writhed in anguish, feeling alien hands on him again, holding him down in the sarcophagus in which he would lie imprisoned until……..
Hands held his face, hard, not caressing like the nurse earlier, or comforting like Alec in the car. Hard with intent. Skin against his skin. Grasping fingers digging into his cheeks, forcing his head back down, and he felt further hands clutching his arms and legs as they fought to prevent his escape.
The fingers rasped against the rough bristles of his jaw and irrationally he wondered if his beard would continue to grow once they closed the lid and trapped him in the capsule. Would he still be conscious, while green fluid trickled into his mouth and down his throat before he succumbed and, with spluttering desperation allowed it to drown him? To choke in the liquid, but not to die; that was the worst fear, knowing that he would still be alive.
His screams had stopped now, not from any conscious effort on his part but because he could no longer summon the breath needed to do more than whimper, and sounds began to filter into his mind above his own harsh rasping inhalations; anxious voices calling to one another and someone close to him repeating his name in synchrony with the fingers that were now stroking his face.
Human voices though, and he strained to hear what they were saying, even as he fought them until, muscles burning, he could fight no more, and lay there exhausted, loathing the human frailty that betrayed him as much as he reviled their callous indifference to his fears.
No, he determined, he would not give them the satisfaction of seeing him cower away from them. He would damned well open his eyes and stare with defiance at them as they closed the lid. At least he would show them that he could die with some small courage. He swallowed, trying to delay the moment when he had to open his eyes and look up into those hate-filled faces.
And then, although he was sick with apprehension, he forced his reluctant eyelids apart and blinked, blinked again and again as he looked at the faces that surrounded him.
A bright space, so bright that his eyes filled with tears, distorting his vision even more, but even as tried to focus, as he felt a gentle touch on his face, wiping the moisture from his eyes, he realised that he was free. That he was no longer trapped in that meagre tube, that the faces around him were familiar and that he was out of harm’s way.
A last convulsive shudder of fear escaped his control then he slumped back onto the table as the hands that had held him with such strength eased their painful grip on his limbs. ‘Dr Shroeder? It is you?’ His voice was hoarse, strange even to his own ears, and he waited, desperate to hear a voice he could rely on, to know that he was safe at last.
‘Yes, Commander. I’m here, just rest.’
Straker reached out, ‘No, please, not here.’ He tilted his head back to look at the scanner close behind him, its aperture waiting, and he began to tremble. Curling up on the narrow table he drifted into confusion once more, muttering indistinct words.
Shroeder put his fingers on Straker’s wrist, feeling the rapid pulse and trying to make out what his patient was saying but all he could discern was one word: ‘cylinder’ and that was enough.
Any estate agent would have described it as ‘a delightful two bed apartment with large balcony’. Paul Foster, once he had circumvented the security system and had checked to make sure there was no one inside, looked around and decided it was more of a bijou flat with pretensions of grandeur. A two-bed duplex in a popular area, but nothing special.
A small but for all that a well-organized kitchen, the sink empty and unused, with a stiff dried-out dishcloth folded over the mixer tap. Take-away cartons filling the waste-bin, Mason’s shirts and underwear still in the dryer, milk in the fridge, an empty bottle of bourbon on the worktop next to a heavy tumbler. Paul gestured to the security team to collect the glass, and, as an afterthought, the bottle.
The lounge was just as neglected, with a pile of old broadsheet newspapers dumped in careless disarray on one end of the sofa. Foster knew very little about Mason although from the looks of it, the man might have been recently divorced. No photographs, no personal items on show, nothing that gave any indication of a woman living here. As Jackson had done in the Shelter, he too studied this room, looking for any signs that might give a clue to why a successful SIS officer should turn traitor and try to kill the person he was supposed to protect.
The Colonel grimaced at the loneliness that pervaded this empty space, at the dust that had crept in, the small almost unseen cobwebs in the corners, the sense of indifference that seemed to fill the room. He shook his head and went into the main bedroom, his nose wrinkling in expectation of what he might find there.
It was not what he had expected. The bed was messy, its sheets tangled and twisted, but the largest wardrobe was full with a neat array of clothes. Not Mason’s either. These were delicate blouses, linen trousers, raw silk jackets. Expensive and feminine, and yet there was that faint musty smell of a wardrobe that had not been opened or used for some months. Foster pulled one jacket out and examined it; size 10, and from a London fashion house. One of his ex-girlfriends with expensive tastes had lusted after a coat from the same designer and Paul had a pretty good idea just how much this might have cost. Intrigued, he looked around the room, wondering why any woman would leave these garments behind.
A photograph frame was placed on one of the bedside tables; a picture of a couple, Mason and a woman, the photograph taken a few years earlier judging from the last time Paul Foster had seen Mason. He put it aside to be taken back to HQ and opened the drawer underneath, pulling out a diary that was on top of the usual oddments one keeps in a bedside table. It was one of those office style page-to-a-day diaries and Paul sat on the edge of the bed as he leafed through the early pages with their inconsequential recordings of appointments and birthdays, looking for any reason why the woman who had once lived here had left everything behind.
Minutes ticked by as he searched. Then, ‘Bloody hell,’ he murmured, and pulled out his phone. ‘Put me through to Commander Freeman. Priority call.’
Alec Freeman, walking along the quiet side corridors to Mayland, cursed as his phone buzzed. He paused just long enough to see who was calling before he flicked it open and answered.
‘Paul? What have you found?’
‘Mason. I know what happened. It’s …..’ Foster hesitated, ‘his wife, Alec. She was taken by aliens four months ago.’
‘Shit. So he blames us?’
‘No, it’s worse than that. I haven’t got all the details yet, but it appears that he was working for them, the aliens. They told him he would get her back if he managed to get Straker for them.’ There was a pause, ‘It’s all in his diary. From when she was taken. Everything. He promised them anything if they would return her unharmed.’
‘Look Paul, take Mason’s house to pieces if you have to, but find everything you can that links him to them. I need to know what happened to Ed, and how the aliens are creating clones,’ Freeman said, ‘Anything Paul, even the slightest detail.’
‘Alec?’ Pauls voice was hesitant, ‘Ed, how is he doing?’
Commander Freeman stopped walking and rubbed his forehead with one weary hand. ‘I’m on my way to see him right now Paul. Shroeder called me a few minutes ago. Ed’s woken up, and Shroeder wants me there but that is all he would say. I’ll be in touch as soon as I know any more.’ He closed the phone, unwilling to answer any further questions.
Medical Centre. The words loomed up ahead and he turned the corner, to see Shroeder walk out of one of the rooms ahead. Alec quickened his pace.
‘Commander.’ The tension in Shroeder’s face was clear to see, his lips tight, eyes drawn with the strain as he stood in the bleak corridor and waited for Alec to get closer. ‘Thank you for coming so quickly.’
‘How is he?’ Alec Freeman wasn’t about to waste time with pleasantries. His immediate priority was Straker, and routine small talk had no part to play here.
Shroeder looked down for a second, just a fractional lowering of his head in thought, as if considering his answer, and Alec Freeman felt his heart jolt with fear.
He pushed forward, past the doctor, to look through the glass partition in the door at Ed lying there curled up, eyes closed. Freeman started to push the door open, but a hand gripped his arm, ‘Alec, give him a chance to rest. He came to while he was in the scanner.’
Their eyes met and Freeman winced as he visualised Straker, confused and bewildered and awakening inside the tight confines of the tube. He turned to Shroeder horrified, ‘Hell, how did that happen? Didn’t anyone check on him?’ he peered through the small pane of glass, hand pressed against the glass, hoping that Ed might somehow sense that he was here, that he was just on the other side of the door.
But the man in the bed didn’t move.
‘We got him out straight away, and moved him into this room,’ Shroeder said as he tugged Alec Freeman away from the closed door that separated him from his friend. ‘However, he does seem to have regained his memories, which is why I wanted you here. I think the aliens had captured him and were planning to take him back alive. I thought you needed to be aware of that. But I suppose you can go in and see him now you are here.’
Freeman gave him one look and moved his arm away from the restraining hand before pushing open the door and stepping in.
‘Ed?’ it was his voice this time that was hesitant and afraid, his steps that were slow and cautious, and he was aware of Shroeder standing in the doorway, no doubt ready to help if necessary.
The eyes stayed closed, the ashen face pressed against white cotton, the hand on the pillow motionless and the body curled like a child hiding from unseen terrors. Silence.
Alec turned back to Shroeder, his face furrowed with concern, ‘What should I do?’ he murmured, feeling at a loss. If it had been anyone else lying there he would have known what to do, how to act, but this was different. He didn’t want to scare Ed, but he needed to speak to him, to find out what had happened and see if there were any details that Ed could give him regarding Mason and aliens and clones. But more than that he wanted to talk to Ed, his friend.
Shroeder stepped closer. ‘He’s very tired, but it might do him good to know you are here. The best thing to do is to let him wake up when he is ready, so try not to startle him.’
There was a big easy chair by the bedside, a soft and inviting chair, and Alec eased himself into it with caution, unwilling to make any unnecessary noise that might scare the sleeping man into wakefulness then he sat and waited, his fingers light on Straker’s outstretched hand.