Commander Freeman stood in the corridor listening to the sounds from his control room, and smiled. It was no longer his control room, he would be handing it back to Straker soon, but there were things that needed to be done first. Not that he was unhappy in his role, far from it, but it was Ed’s place and Alec was happy to step aside. He had learned a lot this past week, more than he had believed possible, but not about the job. About himself.
He stepped around the corner, a tall figure striding with confidence and looking around at the action. Keith Ford looked up, a wide, knowing smile twisting his face, Paul Foster standing behind him watching the continuous readouts on the display. The two men nodded at Freeman, and followed him into the office and waited.
‘Alec. How’s Ed?’
Alec checked that the door was closed tight. ‘He’s fine Paul. Tired, but it looks as if he will make a full recovery. We have a problem though and I am going to need you to help. Both of you.’ he looked around the room and sighed. Everything was back in its place. Good. There was just one more thing needed here now, but that would have to wait.
He sat down in Straker’s leather chair, now restored to its rightful place behind the huge desk. Alec picked up the glass sphere, tossed it into the air in a brief moment of celebration then replaced it, before gesturing to the others to take a seat and then with quiet words explaining what Straker had told him.
‘So, someone in HQ, maybe even someone on the Control Room staff might be a traitor,’ he finished, ‘and we can’t risk Ed coming back here unless we know that he will be safe.’ Alec leaned back in the chair. ‘Paul, what’s happening at Mason’s? I didn’t expect you back so soon.’
Foster handed over Mason’s diary. ‘I thought you needed to see this as soon as possible. There are parts that seem to be in code and I didn’t want to hand it over to the research section once I realised that Mason might have an accomplice. I also downloaded the messages from his phone. Here.’ He handed over the recordings, his face blanching as he remembered hearing those distorted voices instructing Mason in fragmented English.
There was quiet in the room as they listened to the messages. Keith felt sick, his stomach roiling as the sounds filtered into his mind. There was something utterly obscene about the expressions used, the strange vocabulary with the pauses in the wrong place and the intonation all incorrect. He shuddered and put his hand over his mouth to hold back a soft cry of revulsion.
‘Sorry Keith,’ Paul looked at him with sympathy, ‘I felt the same when I first heard it. There’s something inherently evil about it isn’t there?’ He glanced at Alec and then went to pour a brandy for the communications officer.
Keith grimaced as he took the drink. ‘It’s the …the..’ He gulped the drink down and placed the empty glass on the desk before continuing, ‘That voice is not alien, at least I’m pretty sure it’s not. It’s a construct.’
‘Meaning?’ Alec leaned forward, his fingers interlaced and tense.
‘It’s created by combining genetic material with technology. A method of synthesising voices, but this is using human material that has been extracted. I researched this last year when I read about some scientists trying to develop a system of getting robots to speak with humanised voices. It was pretty vile.’ He shook his head. ‘All I can say for certain is that those sounds are coming from human vocal cords that are being manipulated by means of electrical charges.’
‘Dear God,’ Paul whispered.
‘And there is one more thing. Those vocal cords belong to a woman; you can tell by the pitch.’ Keith gazed at the empty glass on the desk, the bright lights reflected in its clear surface, and thought about the woman whoever she was, and he hoped she was dead.
The intercom buzzed, startling Freeman as much as the other two.
‘Dr Jackson is on the line for you Commander.’
Alec picked up the phone, listened, frowned, and looked up at the two men in his office before speaking. ‘Thank you Doctor. I’ll let your team deal with Mason and the other man. As for the Commander, he is due to be released from Mayland later today. Can you get back here? I need to discuss something with you.’
A pause, enough time for a brief consideration and then the muted voice on the other end of the line spoke. ‘Surely, Commander. Fifteen minutes,’ before Jackson closed the connection.
Alec looked up, ‘Right, gentlemen. No one in Headquarters apart from a very few trusted people know that Straker is alive. We need to keep it that way until we have lured any traitor out into the open. I’m hoping Dr Jackson will be able help us there. Until then, let’s keep this as quiet as possible.’ He stood up. ‘Fifteen minutes. Get a break and come back when Jackson arrives.’
The studio park was hidden away from prying eyes, a well maintained oasis of calm in the bustle of the busy lots and soundstages. Sara and Rebecca had left the main building and, with time to spare before the rest of the group were ready to return to the shelter, they had wandered around the site, gazing like star-struck teenagers at well-known faces and voices that they had only ever heard on screen.
Despite the cold weather the park was sheltered from the worst of the wintry breezes and the fresh air was bracing. Rebecca was quiet as they explored the small Japanese area, with its raked shingle and boulders, and Sara looked at her friend with a concerned eye.
‘Go on. Tell me,’ she sighed, leaning on a tiny hump-backed bridge that spanned a pond, its water edged with ice. She looked down at the carp sliding in slow waves under the surface, their golden-red scales matching the glints of Rebecca’s hair as it was mirrored in the dark water.
‘Tell you what?’ Rebecca turned away, leaning back on the stone parapet to stare up at the sky, its dour greyness reflecting the way she was feeling.
Sara took hold of her and pulled her round so that she could look into Rebecca’s eyes. ‘What’s worrying you? What you are so scared of? Come on Rebecca, I know you well enough by now.’
The noise of a passenger jet approaching Heathrow drowned out the reply as Rebecca walked away, over the neat furrows of shingle, her footsteps slurring the sea-washed gravel out of its regimented order. Sara could see the tension, the tight shoulders, the way Rebecca walked, holding herself in, not only a physical stiffness, but an emotional rigidity as well. And she remembered the things that Rebecca had seen this morning, the things that Sara experienced every day at work.
Shit. She hadn’t thought about it had she? The bodies, the blood, the violence, and Straker, lying there on that sofa, unresponsive. Damn. She wondered how the hell Rebecca had managed to hold herself together for this long.
She hurried after her, grabbed her, held her. ‘It’s all right, it will be all right, it’s over,’ Sara murmured, as she had done so long ago when Rebecca had cried in her sleep in hospital.
It took a while. The torrent of shock and grief poured out as Rebecca sobbed unrestrained tears, as Sara held her and the sky grew darker, until, after the storm of her distress, she calmed and rested against her friend and allowed the cool winter air to soothe her face.
Sara’s phone rang, and Rebecca lifted her head away and grimaced. ‘Look at me. Twice in one day. Sorry.’
‘No need. Just let me answer this,’ her friend said, digging in her pocket, ‘Dr Harper.’
‘Ah, Dr Harper, Miss Ealand here. Can you come to Reception? Miss Steel’s group will be arriving back here soon.’
There was nothing for it but to agree, although Sara was worried about letting Rebecca return to the Shelter. She sighed and stood up, ‘Come on. The guys will be waiting for us.’
‘Well, back to the grindstone then.’ Rebecca wiped her face once more, gave a sheepish grin to Sara and took her arm as they walked to the large building in the distance.
Alec closed the folder and looked up at the three men around the table. ‘This doesn’t help much, Jackson. I need to find some way to identify clones. Dammit, if they could fool me with a genetic copy of Ed, who knows what they might have achieved by now. There might even be clones in headquarters.’ He sighed and rubbed his face with a tired hand. ‘Any suggestions before we move on?’
Jackson cleared his throat, ‘Perhaps we should talk to the Commander. After all he did see the clone while it was still alive. He might be able to give us some small details that would help. The way it moved for example, or how it spoke. Is that possible Colonel Freeman?’
There was a pause as Freeman twisted his ring finger in one hand, his head down, thinking. ‘As long as we don’t tire him too much. But we need to know exactly what we are up against and Ed might be the only one who can help us. Keith, I need you to stay here and monitor things.’ He stood up, and grimaced, ‘Come on gentlemen, let’s go.’
He picked up an overnight bag that had been lying on top of the Perspex desk and led the way, heading for the quiet corridor between HQ and Mayland. The route had been ‘shut down for maintenance’ so there was no possibility of them meeting anyone once they had passed the SHADO Science Department.
Straker was dozing, but he awoke and sat up as the door opened and the trio entered. ‘Alec? What’s happened?’
There was no point in prevaricating. ‘The clone, Ed. Your clone. We need to know everything you can remember. The slightest detail. How it walked, spoke, anything that might help us identify any others.’
Straker frowned, ‘There’s not much I can tell you. I remember seeing……’ The flinch was almost imperceptible, but Jackson stepped forward as Straker paused.
‘Commander, take your time, please. We have to get as much information as possible, however irrelevant it might appear to you.’ He regarded Straker through half-closed eyes. ‘Anything Commander; the tiniest thing. A sound, a smell, one unusual feature that you might have noticed, perhaps without being aware of its relevance. That is what we need.’
They waited as Straker leaned back, thinking, his eyes focussed on the ceiling and fingers lying motionless on the white blanket, lips parted and moving as, murmuring to himself, he relived that moment.
There was silence in the room, each one hoping that some random spark of memory would provide them with that one thing they needed. A means of identification.
The man in the bed sighed. ‘No, there’s nothing. I can’t recall anything unusual, apart from the fact that it was me. I mean…I…,’ he halted, almost stuttering with the stress of the memory. ‘It was… I knew that it wasn’t me, but yet it was. I don’t remember much after that. Just …….’ He closed his eyes in an effort to recall.
The voice was soft and gentle, ‘Relax Commander, it was a suggestion, that was all. There is no need to be concerned that you are unable to remember what happened. In fact it is remarkable that you have any recollection of the events.’
Straker pressed his hands against his face as if trying to push away those quiet fearful memories, before he looked up again. ‘Sorry Jackson, I can’t help at all.’ He grimaced. ‘I wish I could.’
Freeman smiled, ‘No worries Ed. It was just a thought. There is one thing for certain though. You are not coming back to HQ until we’ve found some way to identify any replicates that might have infiltrated the place. We’re moving you into Jackson’s rooms for a few days while we plan our next step. Get yourself dressed and I’ll clear things with Shroeder. Here.’ Freeman handed Straker the small overnight bag.
It was only a few minutes before Straker emerged from the bathroom, fastening the dark jacket of his suit. He gave a meagre smile to Alec. ‘Well then, shall we go?’
Paul led the way aware that despite the instruction to clear this route they could still meet anyone, human or clone, friend or traitor; who could tell. He loosened his jacket to ease his pistol in its holster but they reached the psychologist’s suite of examination rooms without incident.
‘Very well, we will be undisturbed here.’ Jackson assured Straker once the doors had been secured, ‘Let me tell you what we are planning Commander.’
Straker looked at the men. ‘I presume you mean to set a trap. Probably when Alec here tells everyone that I am still alive? That’s what I would do, make the announcement and then wait for some reaction. Any traitor will try to contact Mason or even the aliens.’
Alec grinned, ‘Yep, Keith is setting that up right now, all mobiles, all internet, everything covered. He will be checking every communication to and from the base,’ and Freeman paused, ‘but the problem is …’
‘Yes. I know. We still don’t know how to identify the real thing.’ Straker said. ‘We don’t even have a clone to compare with an original.’
‘It’s a pity that I was not able to do the autopsy on you, Commander. That might have provided valuable information. We know that the aliens can replicate an exact likeness but there must be some physical signs of the medical intervention. However it is too late now.’ Jackson sighed and interlaced his fingers.
Straker frowned, ‘Dr Harper. You told me, Alec, that she did the autopsy on that clone?’
‘Well then, perhaps Jackson could talk to her about it, as one doctor to another? Out of professional interest maybe?’ he leaned back with a quizzical look.
‘I shall endeavour to do that Commander Straker,’ Jackson smiled, ‘however; Commander Freeman’s absence will be noted in Headquarters so I suggest that we leave you here in Colonel Foster’s care until the morning. Get some rest if possible. Tomorrow is going to be busy.’
‘And I need to see Miss Steel and her group before they leave in…’ Alec looked at his watch, ‘ten minutes,’ he said glancing at his friend as he stood up. ‘I’ll see you in the morning Ed, and I’ll tell Dr Harper that Jackson wants to have a chat with her.’
The group from the Shelter were standing there waiting, when Rebecca arrived back at Reception. She could tell the trip had been successful, the guys, her guys as she often thought of them, were keen to tell her about the things they had seen, film stars, current productions and even some of the filming that was taking place.
Dale was wistful, ‘I wish I could have brought my son,’ he said and Rebecca saw how the events of the past days had changed Dale Atwood. He had grown up at last, and she smiled, knowing that he had taken that first step to restarting his life and she hoped that John Shepherd, or Ed, or whoever he was, would maybe, just once, get in touch with Dale to encourage him. It was unlikely though. Few ex-residents ever revisited, even the successful ones and she would have to watch Dale over the next few days when he might struggle without support. That would be the dangerous time, when he might turn to alcohol and drugs.
‘Tell you what Dale,’ she took his arm, ‘Mr Freeman seems keen to help, so shall I ask him if we could come again, and bring children next time?’
Sara came up to tell her the coach was ready and Rebecca looked around for Miss Ealand, only to see Alec walking towards them, smiling broadly. ‘Miss Steel, Sara, glad I caught you. Everything okay?’
He listened to the buzz of conversation from the men, and held his hand up, laughing, ‘Hang on. I’ll get one of our HR people out to you on Monday and they’ll start the certification course then for anyone who’s interested.’
‘That’s great Mr Freeman, it’s going to make big difference. You realise that don’t you.’ Rebecca stared at him.
‘I do, Miss Steel, believe me.’ Alec shook her hand, and turned to Sara, ‘See you later Sara?’
‘But won’t Mr Straker need you?’’ she said aware that Rebecca was listening.
‘Ed? No. I’ve just come from him. All he needs now is some rest.’
She grinned, ‘Good, Okay then, my place, eight thirty?’ and she gave him one quick kiss before she boarded the coach.
Straker watched as Alec and the doctor left, then turned to Foster, ‘Well, Paul, what did you find at Mason’s house?’
Paul grimaced as he pulled out Mason’s diary, opening it and flicking through pages of neat writing until he came to one of the indecipherable sections. ‘This is Mason’s diary, and some parts are in code. I’ve tried to work it out, but nothing so far.’
Straker reached across the table for the book, twisting it round to peer at the tidy lines of symbols and letters, one finger tracking down the page. ‘I’ve never seen anything like this. We’d need to link into the mainframe computers to have any serious hope of translating it.’ He pushed the diary back. ‘Let’s see what we can do though.’
‘Shouldn’t you be resting?’ Paul asked. ‘It’s been a rough day for you.’
Straker sighed, ‘Look Paul, this could be important. Forget about sleep, I need to know what Mason was doing. It might give us an idea where the aliens have been hiding, and where that clone was created. That has to be our main priority now.’
They sat and worked through the entries in an attempt to interpret the messages but without success. It was well into the evening before Straker yawned and stretched, pushing the laptop away. ‘Hell, it’s later than I thought. And we haven’t got anywhere with this.’ His stomach growled in complaint. ‘Time for something to eat I think.’
Paul picked up the phone. ‘Chinese or Indian?’ he grinned. ‘I’m buying. And then, Commander, you get some sleep. Oh, and Ed? I forgot to say earlier; it’s good to have you back.’
Hounslow, and the shops on the main streets were busy with the late afternoon rush as the coach pulled up outside the quiet building.
It all seemed so calm, so ordered, as if nothing had occurred earlier, no yellow police tape cordoning off the doorway, no ambulance, no dark cars parked in haphazard carelessness across the black tarmac. The door was closed, and for one moment Rebecca was about to buzz Reception then she remembered. Barry.
With a hand that was trembling, she swiped her passcard and pushed the door open, then, with one backward look at Sara, she headed down to the reception area. Her hand froze as she started to open the bottom door, seeing a dark silhouette through the thick glass of the fire door, but she pushed it open and stepped into the room, wondering who it was standing there, waiting.
‘Miss Steel.’ It was James, standing there alone in front of the desk, no sign of any disturbance marring the space. Rebecca looked around at the clean walls, the unstained carpet, the total absence of any marks, any damage. It was….as if nothing had happened here, the attack late last night, John being hurt, then Barry’s death today; everything had been obliterated.
‘What? I mean…..’ Rebecca began, but was interrupted by the men wandering down the steps, heading for the common room and oblivious to the drama that had occurred here. In frantic haste, she turned to James, ‘What about Barry? What do I say to …’ she gestured to the residents now gathering in the common room.
James paused, ‘Miss Steel, the man who was here wanted to kill Mr Straker, and unfortunately Barry Hunter got in his way. If Mr Atwood hadn’t stepped in, then Mr Straker would have been killed as well. We really are very grateful to Dale.’ He stepped away from her, and smiled. ‘We’ve done everything we need to, so I’ll be off now. I’ll see you tomorrow to clear up any final details.’ The fire door closed behind him and she turned to go into the common room.
‘Okay, Jackson, what do we do now?’ Alec Freeman was back in his office, sitting behind the desk but not relaxing. There was too much to worry about, clones, secrets, traitors as well as the constant monitoring for aliens. The only bonus was that Ed Straker was safe, for now, but tomorrow might bring new dangers and new threats. He stretched his arms above his head, yawning hugely.
‘Now?’ Jackson stood up. ‘Now Commander Freeman, you need to go home. Trust me, SHADO will still be here in the morning, and so will Commander Straker.’
Freeman looked at his watch and sighed, ‘Very well, I’ll just check in with Paul before I go.’
‘No, Commander Freeman. You trust Paul Foster don’t you? So, trust him tonight. He will look after Ed Straker.’ He peered at the man sitting across the desk, his head tilted sideways as if examining a patient. ‘You look tired Alec. Go home. Get some sleep.’ He nodded and headed for the door, before pausing and turning round. ‘Commander? Dr Harper. Do you intend going to see her this evening?’
Alec frowned. ‘Yes, why?’
‘Because I also wish to speak to her, and it would be easier if we were both there. So,’ he smiled, ‘I will pick you up at eight o’clock.’ He opened the office door and walked out.
Dale was the centre of attention now, and Rebecca was glad to escape the common room, to get away from the questions, so she walked down to the Medical room to see what needed doing there. The room was clean. Nothing out of place, no sign of any recent use, and, feeling a little perturbed, she went to Room 20, hoping, in the secret depths of her heart, to find something, anything, belonging to John.
It was a shock really, opening the door and seeing the room. Outwardly there was no indication that anything had happened; the plastic numbers were still peeling and the handle was starting to come loose once more. But once inside she halted. She had expected it to have been cleaned, the stains removed, the bed remade, but this was far beyond her expectations. The room smelled of fresh paint, a new mattress on the bed, pillows still in their plastic covers, a pile of bedding and linen that was, again, unused and still showing the creases from its packaging. No sign of John Shepherd. She searched for anything that might have been left behind, cursing as the cheap drawers stuck and jarred as she tugged them open, but it was as if he had never existed. Any indication of John Shepherd’s presence here had been neatly removed from the shelter, his former presence erased, nothing left of him.
She closed the door, locked it, and turned away. There was a report to write before she went home. She had better get on with it.
Alec shrugged his jacket on over his shoulders and stepped out to meet Jackson as he heard the car pull up outside. He’d never had much to do with the head of the Psychology and Psychiatry section of SHADO and this evening would be….. interesting. That was the best way to describe it, no doubt. A quiet evening with Sara, that was all that Alec Freeman had wanted after the unexpected events of today, but Doug Jackson’s presence would complicate matters, and he wondered how she would react to his arrival, unannounced and, quite possibly, unwelcome.
Jackson drove; no music, no chatter breaking the hush in the car, not even a Satnav voice giving directions.
‘You know where to go?’ Alec broke the uncomfortable silence.
Jackson turned his head to give a quick reassuring glance. ‘Of course Commander, or perhaps I should now call you Colonel. I took the liberty of perusing Dr Harper’s file before I came. Interesting reading.’
He focused on the dark unlit road, driving with a confident almost casual skill.
There was nothing else to do but sit there and allow Jackson to get on with it. As the car gained speed on the dual carriageway, Alec leaned into the leather seat, feeling ill at ease in such an unusual situation. The car was not what he expected a doctor of psychiatry to own. If asked, Alec would have pondered the question then suggested a low-slung sports car, something racy and sleek, not a Citroen DS, old-fashioned and to be honest, a rather ungainly vehicle. But despite that, there was an understated attraction to the car, and he found himself beginning to appreciate the workmanship, the elegance that could be seen in the details and the power hidden under the bonnet. A bit like Jackson himself, Alec thought and, grinning in the darkness, he settled back to enjoy the rest of the ride.
‘Alec.. and ..? ’ Sara recovered herself quickly, ‘you were at the Shelter this morning weren’t you? Mr..?’
‘Good evening Dr Harper, my name is Jackson, Dr Jackson. I hope you don’t mind my intruding on you, but there are some things I wish to ask regarding the autopsy that you performed on …’ he halted, a little unsure how to continue.
‘The other Ed Straker? Confusing isn’t it.’ Sara laughed and stepped back. ‘Come in both of you. It’s too cold to be standing there.’
Her small living room was warm and welcoming and Alec went to rub his hands in front of the fire, aware that Jackson was looking around the room as if analysing it prior to writing a report. ‘Alec, Dr Jackson, what would you like to drink? Tea or something stronger?’
‘Tea will be fine th……….,’ Alec replied, but Jackson’s soft and amused voice interrupted him.
‘Surely not, Alec. At this time of night? I rather think you would prefer something a little stronger, and after all you are not driving.’ He gave a quirky grin, ‘A whisky for Mr Freeman I think, if you have one Dr. Harper?’
She laughed, ‘Please. Sara. Not doctor. And anyway I never consider myself a proper doctor. I only deal with corpses, well,’ and she paused, thinking about the events of the morning, ‘apart from in emergencies that is. By the way, how is Mr Straker?’
‘Resting comfortably.’ Jackson said and then laughed as well. ‘I sound like some Senior Houseman on rounds. Mr Straker is the reason I am here, so perhaps we could sit down and I will tell you what I need to know, but first, that drink for Mr Freeman.’
There was a glint of humour in Jackson’s expression, but Sara smiled as well, ‘and you Doctor Jackson? What would you like? I also have brandy, vodka and even some rather nice grappa in the fridge.’
‘Grappa.’ Jackson almost purred with pleasure ‘I have not had that for a long time. That would be most acceptable, Sara, but just a taste. After all,’ and he looked at Alec, with a knowing expression, ‘I do have to drive home later.’
‘So, Doctor,’ Sara started, once drinks had been sorted and she had sat down on the sofa with grappa as well, ‘what do you want from me? I can’t see how I can possibly be of any help to you.’
Alec sat there, silent and cut out of the conversation as Jackson settled himself in the only single armchair in the room and leaned forward, stroking his chin, as if in thought. ‘It regards the autopsy on that other body, the one that we thought was Mr Straker. What I require from you are any unusual details about that person. Anything out of the ordinary as it were; maybe something that you noticed that struck you as different, or out of place. A scar perhaps, or some indication of a surgical procedure that Mr Straker had not undergone. You have studied his medical records I understand?’
Sara looked at him then at Alec and her eyes narrowed before she stood up and walked to the window where she gazed out at the darkness, her arms folded, as she remembered kneeling by that sofa in the dim light of the common room, her fingers smoothing his blond hair into place. And that thought came back to her as if it were speaking to her from inside her mind; that ‘other’ Ed Straker was a mere copy of this man, a thin and false replica, without heart or emotions, and with a sick feeling that twisted her gut, she knew. God help her, she knew.
The quietness in the room spread. Jackson picked up his glass and sipped the last drops, his eyes vigilant and watchful as he stared at the woman, her face reflected in the glass. Even Alec Freeman could sense the tension that emanated from her before he broke the silence. ‘Sara?’
She turned round, her face contorted with revulsion. ‘I know. I know what he was. The man, the thing I suppose, that I examined.’ She retreated a couple of steps as both men stood as well, then looked at each other, Alec with horror at the thought of what she might say, Jackson however with eyes glinting in anticipation.
‘And, what do you suppose he was, this man?’ Jackson didn’t move, didn’t take a step, just stood there, waiting. Alec tightened his lips.
Dr Harper glanced from one to the other, then to the door. Her shoulders slumped, and she winced as if in anticipation of something catastrophic.