Alec nodded, ‘Yes Miss Ealand, Dr Harper. She’s going below with me.’
One second of hesitation, in fact even less than that, before Miss Ealand smiled a welcome and opened the door to the inner office. Alec waved Sara inside.
‘Okay,’ he looked at her, ‘ready for this?
Sara lifted an eyebrow. ‘As ready as I’ll ever be I suppose. What do I have to do now? A retinal scan?’ He could hear the scepticism in her voice but also some hesitation, and who could blame her; after all, until last night she had been blissfully unaware of SHADO and aliens and now, well now Dr Sara Harper was about to be introduced to the best kept secret on the planet.
Jackson walked along the corridors humming to himself as his feet tapped out rapid steps. He walked with surety and confidence as if he owned these bleak and featureless walkways, and in some respects that was correct. Not many people had access to these areas unless they were ordered to come here for examination or in some cases, interrogation. It did not have a comfortable reputation and Doug Jackson did nothing to prevent the spread of the rumours. In fact he encouraged the whispers about the nefarious activities that were supposed to take place behind the doors.
But today, unconcerned about reputations and rumours, his agile mind was on other more important things as he strode the white corridors to his domain.
The doors, with their sensors linked to his unique biometric signature, slid opened as he approached and as usual he marched in only to be stopped in his tracks by Paul Foster, who was standing, his gun aimed at the doctor.
Foster scowled and lowered his arm. ‘You could have warned me Jackson. Ed’s still asleep in your isolation room. Don’t wake him.’ He turned his back on the doctor and went back to sit on the chair facing the door, his weapon still in his hand.
‘Colonel, you look tired. It is time that you got some sleep. We will need you to be alert later this afternoon. I suggest you go home now and leave Commander Straker in my protection.’ Jackson smiled.
Paul Foster looked around the room. ‘Sorry Doctor,’ he said, smiling in return, but his eyes were cold and without any hint of apology or friendship, ‘I take my orders from the Commander or Colonel Freeman. I won’t leave here until one of them gives me that order.’ He sat upright, tense as if waiting for trouble.
The soft voice behind startled him. ‘I think Dr. Jackson is probably right. You’ve been awake all night. Go home. And, thank you Paul.’ There was quiet appreciation in Straker’s words and Paul jerked to his feet, mouth open with surprise.
‘Ed. I mean… Commander, I ..’
‘Colonel Foster, I mean it. You’ll be no use to anyone if you can’t stay awake.’ But despite the severity of the words, Paul could see the genuine smile in Straker’s eyes and knew that the commander was choosing his words with care. He smiled, tucked his gun away and tugged his jacket straight.
‘Yes sir, I’ll leave you with Dr Jackson.’ Paul cast a baleful glance at the doctor and walked out after one last look at Straker, as if to reassure himself yet again that Straker was alive and here in SHADO.
‘So, Commander, did you sleep well?’ Jackson queried.
Straker sighed and shook his head, ‘You’d better tell me whatever it is that you are planning Jackson. You aren’t here just to babysit me are you?’
‘Really, what makes you think that?’
Straker hunched his shoulders and frowned. ‘I know you, Doug. So go on. Tell me.’ He stared morosely at the floor, waiting, but the hand on his shoulder made him look up into Jackson’s sympathetic eyes.
‘Stop worrying please. Colonel Freeman will be here soon with someone who may be able to help us in our search for the clones. That is all. Now, I suggest you get dressed while I organise breakfast.’
The robotic voice of the identification system had startled Sara, but it was nothing to the sight of the underground base, with its maze of corridors, state-of-the-art technology and stern operatives who gave her one swift glance before concentrating on their work. She had sat in the office as Alec had gone through the formalities, authorising her presence here and handing her a badge. ‘Wear this at all times,’ he warned her, then he had taken her by the arm and guided her out. She was lost and confused by the time they reached a junction and she was steered along yet another bleak and unspecified aisle to the door marked ‘Psychological Assessment Unit’.
Alec halted and looked down at Sara with a look of concern. ‘Okay?’ he asked.
She nodded, and squeezed his hand, ‘Yes. Don’t worry Alec, I’m fine. Honestly. I’m just glad you’re here as well.’
Alec placed his hand flat on a metal plate, and, as the door opened, stepped back to usher her inside the reception area. Jackson closed the file he had been reading and put it aside before looking up. ‘Dr Harper. This way please,’ he gestured to her and she put her briefcase down before following him through one of the unmarked doors that led to other rooms.
It was the usual clinical suite that she had been expecting, an examination bench in the middle of the floor, a cabinet, chair in the corner, a low stool on wheels. A familiar feel to the room, as if it had been transplanted from any hospital. But Ed Straker was perched on the edge of the examination table, arms folded as if waiting for her.
He stood up and held out one hand. ‘Dr. Harper. Good of you to join us. I understand Dr Jackson has explained the situation to you? I apologise for the secrecy, but I am sure you understand the need.’ He hitched himself back onto the bench and smiled at Alec. ‘Well, what happens now? How do I fit into all this?’
Jackson stepped forward. ‘It is a simple matter. Dr Harper performed the autopsy on the clone; your clone. I want her to examine you and to look for anything that is different, something that the clone didn’t have.’
Alec Freeman, leaning against one wall with his arms folded, grinned at the expression on Straker’s face.
‘Me? No. Not at all, Ed,’ Freeman’s smile widened. ‘I’m more than happy to help Dr Harper if she needs it.’
Sara Harper stepped forward. ‘Thank you gentlemen. You may go now. I work alone. And Commander Straker doesn’t need any one to hold his hand.’ She turned to the man now sitting upright on the bench. ‘I can check that wound first. I don’t expect anyone else has bothered this morning, have they?’
Straker gave a brief laugh, ‘No,’ he admitted as Sara watched Freeman and Jackson leave before she stepped to the door and locked it behind them. He was still sitting there, uneasy, his eyes narrowed in thought, his hands clasped together. Then he looked up as if a sudden memory had come to him. ‘Harper. You were there yesterday weren’t you? In the Shelter. I thought I remembered your face. I’m sorry, I hadn’t realised until now. Jackson just said that he had found a doctor who might help us.’ She saw him relax a little, the muscles ease, the fingers loosen their tight grip. ‘So, Doctor what do you want me to do?’
‘Start by calling me Sara, please,’ she grinned at him, ‘and then you can take off your sweater and let me check those stitches.’
He complied in silence, and then sat there staring at the far wall almost ignoring her presence as she pulled the dressing away from his ribs, her cool fingers touching around the edge, feeling for any signs of swelling. The room was quiet, her hands gentle, efficient and somehow soothing. ‘Good. That’s fine. Clean and dry. Keep it like that and no stretching or strenuous activity.’ Her voice was matter-of-fact and practical, the tone of a doctor concentrating on her task and Straker stood up and reached for the roll-neck jumper at the end of the bench.
‘Sorry.’ Sara stopped him, her hand on his arm. ‘I haven’t finished. You want me to help you find these clones?’
He nodded although there was a hint of reluctance, as if he knew what she was going to say. ‘Yes, anything that will enable us to determine a replicant from the real thing.’
‘Fine. Then Commander, I need to examine you. Thoroughly.’
The faint blush that darkened his face was hardly noticeable, but it was enough to make her pause and turn away to give him some privacy.
‘I’ll just get my notes from outside,’ she said, her back to him, clinical professionalism in her voice, ‘so meanwhile undress and lie down. Here.’ She handed him a sheet from the end of the bench and unlocked the door. ‘Two minutes.’
The room was cooler than he would have liked. It was easy to slip off shoes and socks and stand there, hesitant and somewhat unwilling with the tiled floor cold under his bare feet, but his responsibilities were paramount and with a sigh of resignation he continued undressing and placed his clothes in a neat pile on the chair before, shivering with the slight chill in the air, he lay down on the bench with the sheet pulled up below his waist.
It was hard to relax; all his senses appeared to be stretched to their limits as he waited, listening for her footsteps and the door opening, anticipating her hands touching him. Not as they had before, dispassionate yet healing, no, he knew what she would do and he flinched from it. From that stranger’s contact, that intimate yet utterly necessary examination that she was about to perform.
The door opened. He heard it close, and lock. He swallowed, allowed one hand to clench, then forced the fingers open in a pose of relaxation. She stood next to him. He noticed that she had rolled her sleeves up past her elbows, that her fingers were devoid of any jewellery, that her face was serious.
‘Ready?’ Her voice was softer than before, as if she was faltering in her resolve to help them. And he sighed, knowing that he had to endure it, if they were to have any hope.
She leaned over him, her eyes not looking into his, not even looking at him in a way. Instead it was as if her vision was fixed on a point far in the distance, and he was perturbed for a moment. Then, her fingers began to move in gentle circles over his cranium, caressing, feeling the shape of his skull, sliding through the short hair, pressing against bone, her whole concentration focussed on just those simple movements. It was in a way, rather soothing, although his nakedness and her closeness were matters that disturbed him. Not from diffidence, but more from the realisation that she was only just beginning her examination and it was going to be more invasive than he had anticipated. Her fingers eased around to the back of his skull and he raised his head slightly.
‘No, lie still. I want you to relax. Let me do all the work,’ she murmured, as her fingertips lifted and he allowed his head to rest in surprisingly strong hands. She leaned closer this time, looking straight at him now, her eyes narrowing as she gripped his skull with greater pressure, feeling for indentations and slight ridges, the shape, the strength. Then she lowered him back down onto the thin pillow.
He lay there, watching as she stepped back a pace, and took a deep breath as if to prepare herself and in a moment of quiet alarm, he closed his eyes, not wanting to see what she was going to do.
The lightest of sensations, gossamer-soft, fleeting across his cheeks, stroking under his eyes, tracing the bone structure under fine skin. He nearly turned into the contact, cherishing the feel of fingers, of a touch that was tender and caring, but she moved on, exploring the outline of his jaw. A fingertip pressed that single point where Mason’s gun had bruised his flesh, and he flinched, an imperceptible movement, but even that slight stiffening of small muscles was noticed.
‘Sorry. Is that painful?’ Sara’s voice close to his ear as she peered at the small bruise. ‘Ah, yes, I see it now. How did you get that?’ It was professional interest, detached and clinical.
Straker cleared his throat, ‘Mason. The one who died. He had a gun in my neck.’
Sara took her hands away from his face, and he opened his eyes to look up at her and murmur, ‘It’s just a bruise, that’s all. Nothing important.’ He relaxed again, allowing himself to lie still and not fight against what was happening.
‘The tiniest detail might be important, Commander. I don’t want to miss anything that could help.’ She smiled at him, before probing the bruise again, and then nodding to herself. ‘I see you have a small scar here as well, probably from a minor head wound. Hardly noticeable. Your clone didn’t have one there and it isn’t on your records either.’ She opened the file from her briefcase, shuffling through the pages, her back to him as she focussed on the report.
He lay there, unsure whether to interrupt her concentration. What to do, to answer, or leave her to the work. She put the file down and turned back. ‘So, one thing we do know is that these clones are not perfect replicas. Yours was missing at least two small scars, and undoubtedly some others. Ones that are so minor that they aren’t listed. I need to look more closely.’ She gave him a brief smile, ‘Sorry.’
He shrugged, and closed his eyes again as her hands started their work once more, ruffling through his hairline and then moving to stretch the looser skin on his throat with parted fingers.
Her breath on his neck, not soothing or intimate, but the mere exhalations needed for life. No cherishing closeness here, not like Rebecca’s breath on the nape of his neck. The hands traced his collar bone, out across his shoulders, to slide down his arms, in synchrony, feeling for any differences. Down to elbows, wrists, until his own fingers were lifted in hers, parted, held and then his hands lowered once again. He resisted the impulse to move his arms, to wrap them over his body as if to regain control of himself. A soft hiss as she half-whispered, speaking to herself in almost silent words, her thoughts vocalised as if she had forgotten that this was not a cold and ashen corpse, but a man, watching and aware.
Her head tilted downwards as she continued her examination, each arm now lifted, inspected, muscles tested, joints twisted. Straker compliant throughout, only the occasional shallow inhalation revealed his increasing discomfort at the physical invasion.
There was a pause, a brief respite in the assault on his body, his skin freed for a moment from the taunting caress of warm hands. And he sighed with the release, the freedom to breathe without her hands there, touching.
She picked a small swab from the table, leaned closer. ‘Open please.’ The soft cotton tip brushed against his lips before she ran it along the inside of his cheek. Her face close to him, her fingers just inches from his mouth and he kept his head still but his eyes followed her movements. She slipped the swab into a container, placed it on the table and turned back to him.
‘So you and Colonel Freeman have been working together for some years now?’ her unemotional voice broke the silence.
It was an unnecessary question, asked more to put him at ease than for information, and yet Straker was glad of her consideration. ‘Alec and I go back over fifteen years now. He was the first person I wanted in SHADO, and we built it up together; a good partnership I think.’
It felt strange, lying so still and answering her question; the urge to sit up was overwhelming but she moved again, her hands reaching out once more and the temptation was gone as he inwardly cringed.
‘He’s your second in command, am I right,’ Sara continued, even as her fingers now traced across his chest, in a subtle reminder of the scalpel that had sliced into that other Straker, ‘as well as working in the studios? That must be difficult, for both of you.’
Another random almost rhetorical question. He looked at her, wondering where the conversation was leading, what she was going to ask next, as fingertips smoothed down his chest, tracing his sternum and sliding outwards to feel his ribcage. He held his breath as she traced bone and flesh, feeling the muscles in his breast, touching, with such deftness as to be almost unnoticeable, the sparse hair. Warm hands on his cool skin with a delicate sense of powder-dry softness instead of the sterile separation of latex.
Her question still hung in the air, waiting. He breathed out, ‘Yes,’ he sighed, ‘Alec works hard, sometimes too hard for his own good. I keep telling him he needs to relax, get away sometimes, but he can be stubborn. I think this last week may have been tough on him.’
Her hands moved in a smooth line, from breast-bone to abdomen, so swiftly that he had not had time to prepare himself for the feel of pressure on yielding flesh, that sharp discomfort as fingers probed, feeling for anything untoward.
‘It can’t have been easy for anyone. Even you.’ She stared at her hands as her fingers traced a scar on his belly. ‘Your clone had a scar here as well. How did you get it?’
Straker put his hand on the scar, his fingers catching hers for a moment, ‘This? A childhood accident. I fell off a gate. Stupid thing to do.’
Sara took hold of his wrist and moved his hand back to where it had been. ‘It seems to go deeper, into the muscles and not just a surface scar like the other one. Let me check something.’ She turned away, and Straker moved his hand back for a second, feeling that slight imperfection in the skin, a forgotten remnant of his childhood, before once more lying still.
‘As I thought.’ Sara had the file in her hand. ‘I remember there was something a little strange about the scars. They seemed very … superficial in away. As if they were all minor injuries.’ She put the file down and went to stand at the end of the bench. ‘Okay, Commander, it looks as if that’s one real difference. Let’s just make sure.’
The sheet covered his legs, hanging down over the end of the bench, and she folded it back on itself, to let it lie in a thick swathe that covered his hips. He clenched his fists as she leaned over to stroke the long scar on his right thigh. The sheet moved a fraction to expose the start of the scar, a narrow silvered line that ran the length of his thigh to just above his knee, the skin puckered and crinkled. She pressed down on either side of the line, fingers digging into the muscles and he grimaced at the unexpected pain. Sara ignored him, her eyes again with that distant look of utter concentration, all her senses focussed on what was beneath his skin.
‘Yes.’ Her hands left his thigh, he breathed with relief as the discomfort eased. ‘Sorry, did that hurt?’ she apologised, seeing the slight distress on his face.
He shrugged again.
‘Do you want to have a break?’ Her concern was obvious, but he shook his head.
‘No, the sooner we find anything the better.’ He paused, ‘You were asking about Alec. No, it can’t have been easy for him, dealing with my death and everything that entailed. And I regret that.’ He was aware of her continuing the examination. His legs now subject to the same intense scrutiny, lifted, bent, ankles rotated, reflexes tested. Perhaps he had said too much, admitted to this stranger more than he would have ever said to Jackson, or Shroeder or, even Alec.
The awkward silence was broken as Sara, standing at the end of the bench grasped one foot and slid her fingernail up his sole. ‘That tickled,’ he complained in a loud yet amused voice.
And she grinned at him. ‘I don’t usually get that sort of response from my patients, in fact I don’t get much of a reaction at all.’
Straker had raised himself onto his elbows and was looking at her now as she manipulated his feet and watched the tendons and ligaments as she tugged and twisted. She frowned at him. ‘Lie down would you?’
Straker lay back again, hands behind his head this time, resigned. ‘Anyway, Alec is good at his job. Very good. Fighter pilot before he went into Military Intelligence, so he has the right background. I don’t think I would have got SHADO to where it is now without Alec Freeman.’ He turned his head to grin at her, ‘But, don’t tell him that.’ There. He had come out with the truth. He stared at the ceiling aware that she had come to stand beside him and place her hand on his shoulder. He sighed and moved his arms back to his sides.
‘Rebecca is a bit like that; but she works hard, too hard really. The Shelter is her life, to the extent that she has few friends and a non-existent social life.’ Sara turned away, picking up the file and flicking through it, frowning as she read her notes.
He heard her put the file down, heard her step next to him and the rustle of material as she reached out to lift the sheet off his body, folding it again before placing it with meticulous care on top of his clothes, and he closed his eyes.
Alec Freeman sat, arms folded, looking at the locked door. Over an hour so far. What could be taking so long? He sighed and shuffled, restless and concerned.
‘Relax Colonel, Dr Harper will be finished when she is finished. The Commander is in safe hands, I can assure you. Sara Harper has an excellent reputation and she will look after him.’
Another sigh, but this time a sigh of amusement. ‘I know, believe me I do trust her, but well, you know what I mean Jackson.’ He looked at the doctor.
Jackson smiled. ‘I do Alec. Really. Now, how do you propose to tell everyone that the commander is back from the dead?’
The office was small, too small for Alec Freeman’s comfort. He wanted to pace, wanted room to move and think and lean against walls as he worked though options in his mind. But he was here, confined and waiting with impatience. ‘Honestly? I have no idea at the moment. I’m still coming to terms with it myself. I hadn’t even accepted the fact that Ed was gone; in fact I kept seeing him in odd corners, as if he was there.’
Jackson laughed, and nodded his head, ‘My thoughts exactly, Colonel. Headquarters and the Commander always seemed inextricably linked together and to have him absent made it appear somehow incomplete. However, once Doctor Harper has completed her work we may be in a better position to decide on our next course of action.’
Alec stared at the closed door and wondered what was happening.
There was a sudden draft of chill air on his body and he flinched as he became aware of her moving around the bench. The wait was intolerable, agonising almost, as he lay there, exposed skin tingling in the coolness, eyes closed, although he could not decide which would be preferable; to see her standing there, or to be blissfully ignorant of what she was going to do until……
A sharp intake of breath as he felt the heat of her hands against his thigh as they moved to trace, with the lightest of touches, that rarely caressed silk-soft skin. Pressing into his groin, exploring, questing. Vulnerable and open, he lay there, unyielding, the precise and controlled movements of his ribcage the only indication that he was alive, that he was aware of the contact of gentle hands that even now were slipping down to hold and feel the hidden parts of his being.
He held his breath, biting his lower lip as her fingers eased away and down, and firm pressure forced his thighs apart, feeling deeper, pushing against resisting skin. Unable to prevent himself squirming, he turned his head away, and his eyes closed tighter now as her open hand lifted soft tissues, warm against his own coolness. His fingers dug deep into the edges of the bench, his breathing shallow with the effort of concealing his quiet distress as heat suffused his face, before spreading inexorably through him.
The grip on his upper arm made him flinch and as her hand slid under his hip he submitted and turned over, grateful to press his face and his body down against the cool surface and rest his head on folded arms.
Slow breaths calmed him as relief filled his mind and his fingers relaxed. It was easier now to bear the touch on his skin as she investigated his spine, feeling each vertebrae down from the nape of his neck, probing but not painful. Just pressure, although he tensed when her fingers moved between muscles to push against the base of his spine. Only for a second though before she removed her hands and he breathed again in a slight and shallow exhalation of reprieve. That touch once more. Firm this time as, in a slow, even movement she stroked her hands down him, down over shoulder blades and his back, over buttocks and thighs, and his skin shivered under the contact. He lay still, unwilling to even turn his head away from her, though his neck was stiff now and cramped and his shoulders aching from the unaccustomed pose.
The rustle of paper again. A light grunt of either disapproval or disquiet, he couldn’t tell.
‘I’m missing something. Something important. It’s right there, in the back of my mind, but I just can’t quite grasp it.’ She was talking to herself more than Straker, as if he was nothing more than another of her usual patients, her voice subdued, concerned. A different sound now, not paper, a thicker ‘plastic’ noise, and, curious to see what she was doing, Straker opened his eyes.
Photographs. She was leafing through photographs, rejecting some, studying others with keen attention. One dropped, fluttering down to lie face up on the floor, and he caught a glimpse before she picked it up. He felt his heart thump with the shock. That one quick look at himself. Ashen and lifeless. He saw again that quiet figure that stepped out from the shadows, felt the horror rush into his mind. His shuddering breath alerted her, and she bent down, her face to his, concerned.
‘What is it?’ She laid her hand against his cheek, her voice soft, but he lifted his head to shake it before turning away from her, drawing air deep into his lungs in an effort to still his trembling limbs.
Sara looked at the photograph in her hand. The clone, full length, face up on her table, chest cavity open, ribcage removed, but the face was recognisable. She put it on the cabinet, and laid one hand on his shoulder, not to examine or test, or probe this time, but to comfort.
Enough. There was nothing else to be learned from him, but that one thought caught in her mind like the raw edge of a broken tooth against her tongue.
Something. One detail. Just one tiny ……………….
She grabbed the photograph. ‘Shit. Of course. Not what you have Commander, but what the clone had. I was looking for the wrong thing.’
He pushed himself up onto his side, looking at her with puzzled eyes.
‘No, lie face down again. I know what I am looking for now.’
He obeyed and lay still once more as she parted the hair at the base of his skull, leaning so close that he could feel the warmth from her body. Fingers rifling though short hair, searching before they moved to the base of his spine once more. No longer gentle, but hunting, stretching the skin, feeling in that one specific area and nowhere else.
She bent over him, her eyes, her face, so near to his skin that for one moment he wondered what she was about to do. Those firm fingers, around his navel, smoothing the tracery of fine hair, and again, stretching. He could hear her satisfied ‘Yes,’ and then he was released, free of her touch as she stepped back to lift the sheet and drape it over him, ‘You can get up now. Take your time; you’ve been lying down for a while and you might feel dizzy at first. Get dressed and join us when you’re ready.’
The suddenness of her departure as she closed the door, startled him for a moment, then he lay back in the welcome solitude, allowing his body to relax and his senses calm, to enclose the memory of her touch behind his self-control.
Then, once more composed, he pushed the sheet away and sat up to swing his legs over the edge of the narrow examination table. He saw the photograph on the cabinet, although he resisted the temptation to pick it up for further inspection. Instead, he explored the back of his neck with hesitant fingers, feeling for a scar or some other abnormality and wondering with no little apprehension, what Dr Harper had found there. The floor was still cold under his bare feet, but it was only a couple of minutes before he was tugging the roll-neck sweater into place and shrugging into his jacket.
One last deep breath, a hand on the door, and he was outside, to see Alec and Jackson, and Dr Harper sitting there waiting for him. Freeman stood up as soon as he heard the door open, his eyes narrowed with anxiety for a moment as he saw his friend. A tight smile from Straker, an infinitesimal nod of the head and Alec relaxed, reassured that he was unscathed. Ed had been through enough in the last forty-eight hours from all accounts, though as Alec would tell anyone, he had a duty to ensure that the SHADO Commander was fit enough to take up his office again.
He came forward as Straker pulled up a chair to joined the others, ‘Okay Ed? Sara is ready to tell us what she found. Here. Coffee.’ He put the cup down, watching as Straker picked it up in hands that trembled imperceptibly for one moment, and a brief flash of understanding passed between the two.