Rebecca had woken late for once, and had lain there, wondering what to do with the day that stretched out ahead of her, aimless and barren. No Christmas shopping to do; she’d done most of it online and anyway there were not that many people to buy for. Not now. Sara, of course, and she was always hard to buy for, but this year Rebecca had found the perfect thing. It had taken some finding, but it was now in her spare room, enveloped in layers of tissue paper, waiting to be properly wrapped. A pure cotton Japanese kimono in darkest blue with rich embroidery on the sleeves. She had opened the parcel with some trepidation, scared that it might be a disappointment, not what she had hoped for, but as she lifted it up she had felt the weight of it, had stroked down the exquisite hand stitching and sighed with relief and not a little envy. It had cost a fortune, but, to be honest, who else did she have to spend her money on?
Anyway, Christmas was always a letdown. She would spend the day in the shelter with the guys, handing out small presents and sharing dinner with them. Though it did have its nice moments. She grinned to herself as she remembered last year and the gruff muttered ‘thank you’ from the tough men who clustered in the common room as parcels were distributed. Grown men, behaving like little boys, even Dale grinning as he took his parcels and scuttling away to enjoy them in the seclusion of his room.
Damn. She still needed to finish wrapping the boxes. It might be an idea to do that this afternoon. Saturdays were generally quiet and she could sit in her office and get on with it. It would be one less job and fill a few hours anyway.
And he wouldn’t be there. So it would be……… fine.
‘Well. What was all that about Doctor? What did you find?’ Straker wrapped both hands around the mug as if to warm them, watching the liquid swirl round, not willing to meet her eyes.
‘I didn’t find anything. That’s the good news,’ she answered, a note of slight smugness in her voice, and he looked up, frowning.
‘Don’t play games Doctor; I’m not in the mood.’
She looked at him, eyes scrutinizing. ‘Exactly how much sleep did you get last night? And don’t lie.’
Shoulders shrugged, and he stared at her. ‘I can sleep later. There was something that I had to do, but….’ he shook his head, ‘Answer the question.’
‘Nothing. That’s what I found. You had a scar that your clone didn’t, but trying to find non-existent scars on any suspected clones would be impossible. However, I found something you can use.’ She turned to Jackson, ‘You gave me the idea, Doctor. You said the clones would have been grown rapidly, over a few months maybe. I found three scars on the clone. Three very neat scars that I couldn’t explain. And Commander Straker doesn’t have those scars.’ Sara Harper grimaced. ‘I’m betting those marks are where your aliens inserted neural implants and nutrients to force the accelerated growth you mentioned.’
Straker put his hand to the back of his neck, and frowned, ‘Three?’
‘Yes,’ she nodded, ‘back of the skull and base of the spine. I assume those were to access the nervous system. The third one was in the navel linking to the digestive system.’
Jackson smiled at her, ‘Excellent Doctor. I assume you have relevant images? Perhaps we could have a look at them?’
Sara Harper pulled out the autopsy photographs to show the three circular scars she had detected on Straker’s replica.
Jackson inspected them with care, ‘Thank you. This will be most helpful. And now,’ he looked at Freeman, ‘we will have another coffee. Colonel?’
The amnesia drug. Alec gave a stiff smile and nodded as Jackson tidied up the photographs.
Straker sat there, aware of the quiet tension in the room and idly picked up Mason’s diary, to flick through the pages, his face grim as he tried once more to make sense of the code with its random symbols, some underlined, some repeated several times. Sara watched as he frowned over the inexplicable patterns and she moved to sit next to him, looking over his shoulder at the page of the diary. ‘Interesting. What is it?’
Straker sighed and rubbed his face, ‘Nothing. At least I can’t make any sense of it. I think it has something to do with the clones, but we haven’t been able to decode it.’
‘Thank you,’ she acknowledged Alec with a smile as he placed her coffee on the table in front of her before she turned back to Straker. ‘How many underlined symbols are there?’
He counted in silence. ‘Forty-six. Why?’
‘Hmm. Curious.’ She picked up her mug, but a strong hand clamped on her wrist, and coffee splashed onto the table.
‘Leave that.’ Straker’s voice was almost harsh, and she suddenly realised what he was, what this man did, every day. SHADO Commander. This was not the vulnerable man she had dealt with in the shelter, or the reticent and somewhat defenceless person she had just examined. She stared at him, at eyes that were focussed on her face, then down to his hand, still holding with that tight grip.
‘Alec?’ Straker reached out and took the mug from her unresisting fingers before handing it to his friend. ‘I think I need to hear what Doctor Harper has to say about this first.’ There was no smile, no acknowledgement of anyone else in the room as Straker released his grip and turned to Sara. ‘Forty-six. That means something to you, doesn’t it?’
She almost flinched under that gaze, but met it, stared back and nodded. ‘Yes. It’s the number of human chromosomes. Some of those symbols look familiar; twisted and almost ‘warped’ but still recognisable. Can I have a closer look?’
He pushed the diary over without a word and then sat back, watching as she poured over the page, analysing every symbol, every line. Alec shrugged his shoulders in puzzlement and Straker shook his head in warning. They waited. Jackson sitting there, still and unsmiling as his fingers tapped silent rhythms on the table and his eyes flickered from Straker to Sara and back again.
‘Right. I think this is beginning to make some sense, at least I hope so,’ she said. ‘It’s some form of genetic database. You can see the relationship between the underlined patterns and the shape of human chromosome. I don’t understand the rest of the symbols but I would hazard a guess that they are information about the DNA of this specific man.’ She handed the diary back.
‘Shit.’ Alec’s quiet mutter cracked the silence.
‘One man? On just that page?’ Straker asked, even as he was leafing through the diary, ‘What about this, and this…….’ He showed her more pages, and she looked at him, her eyes shadowed with fear.
‘Let me see.’ A longer almost unbearable wait this time. Straker sitting, fingers interlaced, Alec standing behind now, arms folded but not relaxed, and Jackson across the table, watching like a hawk.
‘Six separate men. This page, and this one,’ she indicated other half-filled pages with scribbled out symbols, ‘these are women and incomplete data. There are missing chromosomes. But the others.. well….. if the symbols are, as I think, an incredibly advanced shorthand for the human genome, then you can probably expect to find six different male clones. No. Five. Commander Straker’s has been destroyed.’
‘Has it?’ His soft voice, so unlike his harsh command earlier, made her pause and she turned to look at him, puzzled, as he continued, ‘We can’t take anything for granted. Why stop at one? The science involved is phenomenally advanced, so why not create several clones, tens of them, even hundreds? An army of humans under their control. That’s what I’d do.’
Jackson leaned forward. ‘Practicalities, Commander. Power and space. That is the simple reason. It would take an extraordinary amount of power to do this. Running any laboratory requires energy, and this…’ he indicated the coded page of the diary, ‘is not merely nurturing of babies. It is advanced accelerated development. That takes considerable resources. I think you could safely say that the aliens will be restricted to creating a handful of clones at first.’
‘So where do we start looking?’ There was a note of despair in the question, as Straker looked around the table, his eyes bleak and apprehensive.
‘That is the easy part,’ Jackson’s smile was grim. ‘We start here, in SHADO.’
Mouth dry, lips cracked, teeth furred with dried saliva. But they had stopped, had left her alone again, and this time the lid was open. She could hear voices, could smell more than just her own foulness, her sweat. It was almost possible to recall her life before: silly things; her husband’s kisses, the taste of liquid in her mouth, soft, warm fabric against her skin, the sound of laughter, all the things she had taken for granted.
The cold feeling in her gut spread and she knew that they were feeding her again. And at least she would sleep. That was the only spark of humanity in them; that they kept her sedated most of the time. It didn’t stop the nightmares though.
And as she felt the lethargy spread through her now-chilled limbs, her last waking thought was…Mason.
Straker pushed his chair back. ‘Dr. Harper, would you excuse us for a moment?’ He opened the door to the small examination room and ushered her through, closing it before turning back to Alec and Jackson, one hand still on the handle. ‘I want to bring her into SHADO. As of right now. Don’t even think of arguing, Alec,’ he forestalled his friend’s response, ‘she’s proved her worth. And we need her. Jackson?’ He cast the question to the psychiatrist who was observing him.
‘I agree, Commander. Sara Harper has shown herself to be intuitive as well as knowledgeable. I am sure that Colonel Freeman will understand and may even be grateful that she will not have to have the amnesia drug.’ He smiled.
‘Are you sure Ed? Really?’ Alec frowned, ‘I ……………’ his voice trailed away in confusion.
Straker stepped away from the door to put one hand on Alec’s shoulder. ‘Yes. We need her. Jackson is good, very good,’ and he grinned at the now embarrassed psychiatrist, ‘but Sara Harper knows about the clones, knows about SHADO, and I’d rather have her working with us than risk her revealing anything. I want you to ask her, Alec. She trusts you, but if she won’t join us, well, then we will have to give her the drug.’
A long look passed between them, before Freeman nodded, opened the door and went in to Sara. She was sitting, like Straker before her, on the bench, hands loose in her lap, eyes watching the door.
He hitched himself next to her, hands also clasped in front, head lowered as if afraid to talk to her. ‘Sara,’ he paused, aware that what he was going to say was about to change her life.
‘Have they finished talking about me?’ Her annoyance was obvious. ‘What did you decide then?’ She shuffled away from him, just an inch or two, but enough. A separation.
There was nothing for it but to tell her and wait for the repercussions and the rejection. ‘Straker wants you in SHADO.’ He looked at her, his eyes hooded with sadness. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘Sorry? Why sorry?’
‘Well, it changes everything.’
‘Why should things change? Okay,’ she admitted, frowning to herself. ‘I can see the need for secrecy being a problem, and I’ll have to give up my job…’ she looked at him, brows furrowed, ‘I will have to give up my job won’t I?’
He raised one eyebrow. ‘Yes. You would be assigned to work with Jackson after your induction, but Ed will want that to be fairly rapid.’ Freeman looked at her, ‘Sara, I know what you’re thinking, but SHADO needs you.’
She stood up and squeezed his hand. ‘Come on. I want to study those codes in more detail.’
Jackson and Straker were talking together in quiet tones when Sara emerged, to walk over to the commander. ‘Yes, I’ll come to work for you. I just hope I can be of some help.’
‘So do I, Dr Harper. We need all the assistance we can get right now. Please, sit down and we’ll go through what we need you to do.’
It was after midday before the details had been organised for Dr Harper to join them and then they worked through the code in the diary yet again, but to no avail. Sara took DNA from the other two men present, but analysis would have to wait until she had the chance to run the samples through SHADO’s Research Laboratory.
By late afternoon Alec was weary of sitting in the suite of rooms that seemed airless, the walls closing in on them every time he looked up. And Straker seemed even more tired if possible, his face lined with fatigue, his movements slow and deliberate.
It was too much, too soon, Freeman realised and he stood up, stretching, ‘I think we should stop for now. You look dreadful,’ he accused Straker. ‘I need to get back to Control for a while to sort things out with Keith and then I’ll take Sara home. You stay here and get some proper rest,’ he ordered, and Straker gave him a tired grin.
‘Very good sir. Any other orders?’ but there was a note of relief in the dry and amused retort. ‘Tell Colonel Foster to take the rest of the day off as well; I don’t need a babysitter. Dr Harper, thank you for your help, and I will see you tomorrow. First thing.’
Alec led her back through the maze of passages but she was too exhilarated to take much notice of the journey this time. SHADO. She was going to be part of SHADO, and her mind was thrilled and yet terrified at the prospect. Such secrets, such vast technological advancements, but such terrible enemies. She stopped so suddenly that Alec had gone several paces before he halted.
‘The Moon. Alec?’ her eyes were huge with almost childish wonder, ‘Straker said something about Moonbase. Will I be able to …….’
He grinned at her, taking her by the arm to lead her onwards. ‘I expect so. There’s a lot to do before we even think about that though. Come on, let’s get you home. You have a tough few days ahead of you.’
She paused again, tugging away from him, with a look of distress this time. ‘I won’t be able to tell Rebecca will I? Not a word, not about SHADO or who Straker really is. Oh Alec, she won’t understand.’
‘No. Not a word. You know that. It’s too much of a risk, for all of us. But what’s this about Rebecca and Ed?’
She held his arm this time, talking as they carried on, talking about Rebecca and John Shepherd. And Alec Freeman smiled.
Straker looked at Jackson. ‘Yes. I know. Get some rest.’ He sighed, wondering what the aliens were doing right now, whether they were close to completing whatever plans they had been working on, and the temptation to get back to work, to take control again, was almost overwhelming. But it was too risky at the moment. He was more tired than he wanted to admit and Shroeder’s words came back to him. The last thing he needed now was a return of those nightmares, those visions of people, of… Straker shuddered as the memory exploded again in his mind. That one image, of himself, and there was something about that memory that he could not quite hold onto. Some vital thing that he needed to recall, that might help them. But it was gone, and he sighed again, before Jackson ordered him back into the small bedroom to lie down for a couple of hours.
Jacket off, shoes on the floor, but he didn’t lie down, not at first, instead sitting there thinking, shoulders hunched with tiredness, hands clasped, looking at knuckles still bloody and stiff. He didn’t want to sleep, though he knew he needed to, didn’t want the dream to remerge, didn’t want to wake screaming and sweating with terror.
Rebeccca. The thought of her calmed him, and he allowed himself to remember the feel of her hair in his fingers. On an impulse he pulled out his phone and dialled.
Fold, wrap, sellotape, card. The monotonous sequence was soporific, requiring minimal concentration and freeing her mind to wander over recent events. The shelter was quiet, the residents out shopping or in some cases, as Rebecca was honest enough to admit, shoplifting. You had to be realistic in this job. There would always be those who abused the system, just as there would always be the unsung successes, the guys who dried out, got clean and just moved on.
Another parcel done, another card written; ‘Dale’, and she stopped and put her pen down, leaned back and smiled. Dale. He had been working on the computer when she arrived earlier and had shown her, with justifiable pride, what he had been doing. She had never expected Dale Atwood to make anything of his life, despite her efforts, but there he was, sober, clean, and offering to make her a brew. It might just be that Dale was one of those who got a second chance. That would be great. She put the card on top of the parcel, and reached for another, just as the phone rang.
‘Hounslow Community Housing, Rebecca Steel,’ she answered. Nothing. No voice answering her. She tried again. ‘Hounslow Shelter.’ There was a long pause and then a click as the line went dead. She frowned and put the receiver down, annoyed.
Straker had not expected to hear that voice, her voice. He had thought to have a moment’s reprieve before speaking to her and the words he had planned disappeared as he wondered what to say. Ed Straker here – but was he Ed Straker or John Shepherd? Who was he to her? I’m phoning to thank you for …………… for what, he questioned. Taking me in? Doing your job? Or more than that? For looking after me, being there, that night when you held me, slept beside me? What do I say to her?
He froze, silenced by the sound of her voice. It was an instinctive reaction to end the call, and he sat there, feeling somewhat foolish and embarrassed by his response.
He wondered what to do next. Sleep was out of the question, at least until he felt more composed; there were no books to read, and Jackson was outside, so no chance of getting to the laptop and doing some work. Nothing else for it but to lie there, head on his hands and looked up at the ceiling in an attempt to settle.
The noise startled him. A clatter outside, nothing alarming, but enough to waken him from the light doze that had captured his senses, allowing him to rest. He looked at his watch. He had drowsed for over thirty minutes without the feared nightmare. And he had to admit he was still tired, so, he would do the sensible thing, and get some proper sleep now.
Keith Ford looked at the list of tasks that Commander, no …. Colonel Freeman had assigned to him before Freeman took Sara Harper home. Everything was now ready, apart from one final piece of the puzzle that had to be slotted into its rightful position. Ford had spoken at length to Freeman on his return to the Headquarters and they had worked out a rough plan. Very rough really. This was an unknown situation, and even Alec Freeman had little idea of what they might find.
The first thing was for Jackson and Harper to check every member of staff. Everyone. That was going to take time, and only after they were sure that there were no clones would they announce that Ed Straker had been found alive. It remained to be seen if there were any ‘human’ traitors skulking in the base, waiting, and if they would try to contact Mason when Straker reappeared which was why Ford had tapped into Mason’s phones.
Hell, it was a risk though, bringing Straker back before they had guaranteed his safety, but it was necessary. They had to prove the commander was alive and the only way to flush out any traitors was to bring him back into Headquarters. The real danger would have been if the aliens had managed to get a clone inside H.Q. and whoever it was got close enough to Straker to do some harm; hence the reason for the delay.
Damn. Keith shuddered at the memory of going into the office on Alec’s return and then being grabbed and held face down across the desk before Dr Harper ran her fingers through the hair at the base of his skull. He had no idea that Freeman could be so strong, so determined; so ruthless. Once Ford had been released he had pushed himself up off the surface, spluttering with a combination of rage and fear only to see Colonel Freeman standing there with his gun ready. It took a while for Sara’s explanations to calm the communications officer, and he was still angry at the insinuation that he might be a traitor, but now he knew what they were facing.
And there was that terrible knowledge, as he looked around the Control Room, that anyone of these men could be a clone. Anyone. He wondered if Dr. Harper had thought to check Alec Freeman or Paul Foster, or even Doug Jackson.
Paul placed his hand on the palm-print recognition pad and the door to the Assessment Unit slid open. Jackson was inside, sitting at the desk and writing in his usual indecipherable scribble in one of the files.
‘Colonel,’ the smooth drawl was amused, ‘I should have known you of all people would disobey orders. And you have brought…?’
Foster grinned and put the large box down with a sigh of relief. ‘Baked brie, pork dijonaise and citrus panacotta, with a decent red wine as well. I thought the commander might appreciate some good food tonight.’
‘Excellent. He is in his room, working I expect, although he has been resting. I can leave him in your care?’ Jackson smiled, ‘And Colonel, I am sure he will be grateful for your company this evening. One moment though.’ He opened the desk drawer to lock the file away and reached in for his handgun, his expression as cold as his voice. ‘Turn round and put your hands on your head.’
It took a moment for Jackson to satisfy himself that Foster was not a replicate, and after a curt explanation he put his gun away again and dipped his head in brief acknowledgement before leaving without another word.
‘Back again? I thought Colonel Freeman had told you to take the rest of the day off, Paul?’ Straker appeared, moving with ghost-like silence. Ghost-like was the right phrase, Foster thought to himself, looking at his mentor. Straker might have recovered his memories, but he was still showing signs of the strain, his eyes drawn and lined, and his normal pallor even lighter if possible.
‘I’ve brought something better than the canteen would provide and certainly better than take-away.’ Foster grinned and began unpacking the container to reveal fine china and heavy cutlery, white damask napkins and finally, heated and sealed containers. ‘Here, sit down. And afterwards, chess or backgammon. No,’ he said, ‘no work, not tonight. Alec told me about the clones, and let’s face it, Ed, you can’t do anything yet. So, I’m here to make sure you don’t spend all night on the computer. Now, eat.’
They agreed on backgammon after the meal; ‘less competitive’ Straker said, although Paul wondered if the commander had ever seen the intense games played in some parts of the world, but he was not prepared to argue. If Straker wanted a relaxing game he was happy to oblige although Paul’s ruthless streak was making itself felt even as he set out the pieces.
They settled to play, heads bent across the low table, the silence broken by dice rattling in the cup, and then rolling across the baize covered board, the clink of counters being moved, the occasional muttered grumble when hoped-for numbers didn’t materialise. Straker found himself absorbed in the game despite his initial reluctance, and the calming actions of rolling dice and sliding counters together with the companionable silence was soothing.
Paul poured himself another glass of Shiraz. ‘Ed?’ he held the bottle out, half-expecting another refusal, but Straker nodded.
‘Uh, just a small one.’ He sipped it, then put the glass down, before focusing on the game in hand.
‘So,’ Foster moved a counter, his attention on the board, the neat markings, the tidy rows of red and white discs, ‘You’ve brought that pathologist in, huh?’
Straker rolled the dice. ‘Damn, no good. Yes, Harper will be useful. We’re going to have to check the whole staff for possible clones, and she’ll be helping with that.’ He slid pieces across the board.
‘It’s a small world.’ Paul made his move, handed the cup over. ‘And Miss Steel and her guys?’
Dice rolled, clattered, came to rest. ‘Alec’s idea to offer them places. I like it; tax benefits and so on.’ Straker counted as he slid discs.
‘Makes us look good,’ Paul agreed. He rolled the dice, paused, thought, and moved pieces on the board, noticing that he was in the lead yet again. ‘And she seems to care about them. Miss Steel.’
‘Yes. She does a good job there.’ Straker picked up his glass of wine and finished the last dregs, grimacing as he saw Foster’s position on the board and then looked at his empty glass with some surprise.
Paul held out the bottle, but Straker shook his head.
He indicated the state of the current game and a rueful smile creased his face. ‘You have me on the run again.’ He looked at his watch, ‘Thanks for this evening, for the food,’ he hesitated, smiled, ‘and the wine.’
Paul tidied up the counters and closed the board, ‘It’s late now, so I’ll catch some sleep here if that’s okay. It’s easier than going home.’
Straker gave him a knowing look and nodded before he went through to the small isolation suite where he undressed, wondering when he might get to sleep in his own bed, in his own house, without the need for guards or secrets. But despite the strangeness of the room, and the knowledge that someone in HQ, in his own organisation, someone was a traitor or even a copy of a trusted member of SHADO, his dreams were easy.
Doug Jackson looked at the photographs again. Three small scars. That was all. A trio of hidden marks that were the only way to identify a clone. And even that wasn’t infallible. The aliens might have created newer clones, using other techniques. Jackson was no fool. He was well aware of the insurmountable differences between their abilities and the current level of human scientific thinking and his only hope was that the aliens had not realised that SHADO had been alerted. But with the security team who had cleared the Shelter detained for now at the Research Centre, it was unlikely that anyone of them would have had the chance to contact the aliens, although Jackson knew the team, knew them well and would have vouched for each one of them: at least he would have done, before the discovery of clones.
Now, no-one could be trusted. No-one. And until Straker was back in control and they had flushed out Mason’s accomplice, Jackson had to assume that anyone was a traitor.
Standing there in the SHADO Commander’s office, Jackson read through the latest update from Ford. Good. Everything seemed ready and there was nothing left for him to do now.