Ford looked up at Alec Freeman. ‘Yes Colonel. All staff have been given instructions to attend for medical examinations.’
‘Good. Oh, and Keith?’ Freeman put his hand on Keith’s shoulder and paused. ‘Thanks.’
Ford grinned with slight embarrassment, then adjusted his headphones and turned back to his monitors. The control room was busy, and he could get on with his tasks without interruption.
It seemed strange, being part of the conspiracy, not being able to trust anyone outside the small group, and he wondered what the end of this day would bring. One thing was for certain though, this was not the end of the matter. A vile thought, growing people as if they were plants, grafting them like rootstocks. Six men. Six male clones. Straker and five more. He wondered who the others were, then shook his head. He had enough to do without wasting time on idle speculation.
‘Everything organised?’ Straker was sitting behind the desk as Sara Harper entered Jackson’s rooms.
‘Relax, Commander, Alec has it all under control,’ she said, ‘and you look as if you got a decent night’s sleep.’
He grunted, unwilling to admit that he had slept well and was now impatient to get back to work and begin the daunting task that face them all.
‘Stitches okay? Not causing any problems?’
‘Persistent, aren’t you doctor?’ he grinned. ‘Yes I did get some sleep and yes I am fine. I just want to get back to work, to get this all behind me.’
She looked at him, ‘Well it will be a while yet. Alec insists on having all staff checked and that will take some time. I’m sorry,’ she said, seeing the look in his eyes, ‘I’m sure you want to get out of here as soon as possible.’
Straker tapped his fingers edgily, ‘You’re seeing Alec aren’t you. How serious is it?’ He stared at her, eyes piercing and intense.
‘That’s not your – ,’
‘Business? I’m afraid it is, Doctor Harper. Alec Freeman is Second-in-Command here. Have you any idea of the responsibility that entails? Relationships in SHADO tend to be … difficult, even when both parties work here.’ He gave her one long look before returning his gaze to the papers on the desk and continuing in a firm tone, ‘Your transfer to SHADO has been approved and the authorities have been informed. Once this is over I want you working in the research department with Jackson.’
‘Looking for clones?’
‘That first, yes, then afterwards, we will see. It depends.’ He shuffled through the papers, frowning before he looked up at her again. ‘Sorry, Dr. Harper, I have this work to do. Is there anything else I can help you with?’
‘No. I’ll head back now. Alec just wanted to know how you were doing and to tell you he’ll be along later.’ Straker watched her leave and then sat there immersing himself in paperwork and research into cloning methods.
The day dragged by, broken by visits from Alec and after lunch, Paul, dropping by on his way to catch the shuttle to Moonbase . A solitary meal early evening, and he toyed with it, his appetite quashed by lack of exercise, before putting it aside to carry on with his investigations. He looked up, suddenly aware that he had been so focussed on work that he had forgotten where he was, and the walls were closing in on him, and he could almost see, out of the corner of his eye, a grey shape, waiting.
He was safe, knew that no-one, least of all any aliens, could get to him but still the fear was there, that sudden thump of a missed heartbeat when he caught a glimpse of red or silver, the shiver that chilled him when he remembered running. The clone, his clone stepping out into the light. There was something that he should have recalled, some reason for his horror, but the more he tried to catch that elusive memory, the more it retreated, until he was shaking with the effort.
A futile exercise he realised, and he stood up, papers scattering across the desk, to pace the small confines of his cell, until he realised the futility. The silence seeped into his bones and he found himself listening yet again for those familiar sounds that had sustained him through the last week of isolation and solitude. He knew what he needed to do.
One quick phone call and he grabbed his jacket and, with a slight pang of guilt walked out, leaving papers still strewn across the desk. But he had to get away from here and anyway, he would be back soon enough.
He stepped into the corridor, paused to listen for approaching footsteps. Nothing. And, grinning to himself despite his anxiety, he strode to the nearest emergency escape route. As the concealed door responded to his command Straker edged sideways into the tiny elevator even before it had fully opened. Once inside he activated the lift and stood there, tension holding him rigid, until the elevator stopped and he could step out, free at last, into one of the storage sheds that the studio used for discarded props.
The shed was almost abandoned and he eased his way past broken gothic columns and crumbling plaster statues, until he reached the door and unlocked it, sighing with relief as fresh air chilled his face. The winter sky was dark and he shivered for a moment in the unexpected cold, but one deep breath restored his equilibrium before he headed for the main entrance and his waiting taxi.
‘Hounslow.’ He suddenly wondered what the address was. How strange. That he had lived there for over a week and yet still didn’t know the name of the street. ‘Main library, Hounslow.’ That would do. Straker leaned back in the seat and relaxed; he would be able to walk anyway, out in the night air, away from restrictions and enclosed spaces and being under constant watch.
A slow journey on icy roads but he was in no hurry and it was a relief anyway to be away from the confines of Headquarters, to be able to see the cloudy night sky, and breathe real air, not the recycled and purified and re-breathed air of Jackson’s rooms; to see silhouettes of trees, and lights from passing vehicles. The driver made an attempt at conversation but the monosyllabic and distracted answers from his passenger put an end to any effort and the journey continued in welcome silence.
‘Library.’ The taxi pulled up outside the imposing building, and the driver turned round. ‘Twenty-six forty.’
Straker had the notes ready, handed them over without a word, and opened the door, without waiting for change. He heard the taxi pull away but he was looking up at the building, remembering sitting there reading and trying to summon up the courage to return to the Shelter. He straightened his shoulders, turned round and walked along the high street past the shuttered shops and noisy groups heading for the pubs and bars, to that distant side street at the far end and ….
Rebecca turned, smiled, waited. ‘Hello Dale. Can I help you?’
He shrugged his shoulders, looking dejected. ‘You said something about funding for some computer courses, and I was wondering…..’
‘Okay, have you found one? Ah,’ she looked at his face, ‘expensive?’
He shrugged again, not the shrug of a man who doesn’t care, but a gesture of almost hopelessness. ‘It’s at the college. But, it’s a proper qualification. I could get a job with it.’ His eyes were downcast.
‘I’ll do my best, Dale. That’s all I can promise, but,’ she looked at her watch, ‘isn’t the match starting now on Sky? You don’t want to miss that.’ The Shelter manager smiled as Dale Atwood hurried into the common room to grab his seat, and she went to collect her coat. Time for home.
Straker had given up trying to warm himself with brisk walking. There was more than a chill in the winter air, the temperature was below freezing with the threat of snow and he rubbed his hands together in a vain attempt to restore some feeling. Perhaps he had been foolish to come here, but he had a desperate need to recall what had disturbed him. Or maybe there was a deeper reason, one that Ed Straker, responsible, dedicated SHADO Commander, was loathe to acknowledge.
He strode on, not concentrating on where he was heading, his mind fixed on that one unattainable memory. The clone, and what Straker had seen, had felt, when that man stepped out from the darkness. What was it? Even now he felt his heartrate increase, felt the beginnings of panic but the sudden quiet startled him out of thoughts of red and silver and white. With even being aware, he had reached the side street, had turned down and was now off the main road and heading to that familiar building.
Straker stopped. What was he doing here anyway? It was late, and he had things to do. He could get a taxi and be back in HQ before they even knew he had gone. That was the sensible thing to do. He retraced his steps onto the main area, to step under a street light and pull out his phone as snow began to descend in icy flakes.
‘Ed? What on earth are you doing here?’
A flash of red under the light, copper-red this time, and a smile and he put his phone away and smiled shyly, as if he had been caught out. ‘Wondering the same myself actually,’ he admitted with a grin. ‘I just wanted to see where I had spent the last week but I hadn’t expected it to be so cold. I was just leaving.’
She put out a hand, ‘Fancy a coffee?’ and when he hesitated she took his elbow. ‘Come on, you look frozen.’
Straker ran numb fingers through his hair. ‘I should have worn a coat,’ he complained with a rueful grin, ‘but I hadn’t really intended coming out here when I set off.’ He looked up at her under pale eyelashes, and smiled. ‘I’m glad I did. Coffee sounds good.’
The setts were treacherous underneath the thin layer of snow, and he took her arm as they walked up the narrow street to the apartment entrance. Very different to the shelter, although it too had a buzzer and heavy door. Rebecca opened it and stepped inside, shaking snow off her coat and hair, as Straker followed her into the wide entrance area that was lined with numbered doors.
‘I’m upstairs.’ She led the way up the elegant curved staircase to a landing and more doors, polished brass numbers, pristine paintwork. A quick rummage through her bag for the key and then inside. Rebecca tossed her coat onto the banister. ‘In here.’
He had dusted the snow from his jacket but it was damp and he shrugged out of it and hung it in the warm hallway. The high ceiling of the living area, higher than he had seen before in an apartment, added to the sense of space and he stood there somewhat surprised at the sheer scope of the room.
‘You don’t mind instant?’ She was busy getting out mugs and spoons but watching him as he looked around, in appreciation.
‘No, that’s fine.’
‘Sit down, I’ll just be a minute. You take sugar, don’t you?’
The conversation was stiff, as if they were strangers, and to some extent they were, Straker realised. He was a stranger to her, not the John Shepherd that she had taken in, and he wondered if he had been foolish to come here. He stood, his back to her, looking up at the picture on the wall, a huge depiction of a face, almost a skull. Dramatic and somehow familiar. She came to stand beside him, mugs in one hand, ‘Julius.’
‘Julius Caesar. A friend painted it for me when I graduated.’
‘Yes. He is. And he looks good in here.’ She waved her hand around the room. ‘Sit down. Are you warm enough?’ She handed him a mug.
Warm enough. Being cold under the blankets, feeling her close against him, warming. ‘Yes I’m fine. Thank you.’ He sat, cradling the mug and perching on the edge of the cream leather sofa, uncomfortable and uncertain.
She sat down, jerkily, coffee slopping onto her hand and she shook it off, fumbling for a handkerchief, and blushing. ‘Oh damn.’
Straker sat there ill-at-ease, hands wrapped around the mug, sipping it, fingers tingling as feeling returned to them. Perhaps he shouldn’t have come. It would have been simpler to just walk away and leave behind his memories. And his hopes. SHADO was his priority, and yet…..
‘How are things in – ‘
‘How are you – ‘
They spoke together, and Rebecca smiled, ‘The shelter? Fine. Although it’s going to take some time to realise what happened. To Barry I mean.’ She looked across at Straker. ‘Why did that happen? Barry?’
Straker lowered his head, ‘I don’t really know why.’ He put his mug down, and sighed. ‘I’m sorry you got involved in it all, that Barry was killed.’
‘And you? How are you?’
‘I’m fine. Back at work next week.’ Stilted words. Stilted movements. He should go. Now. But Rebecca was sitting there, cautious eyes watching him, and he didn’t want to leave.
‘Look,’ she blushed again, ‘I was going to have a quiet evening in front of the telly. Feet up, that sort of thing. Stay. Please? Unless you have……..’ her voice trailed away and she looked down at her fingers.
He couldn’t remember the last time he had spent an evening just watching television. It was usually on in the background, while he was working. Sounds and images in the corner in a vain attempt to make him feel less alone, less isolated. ‘Football?’ he asked with some hesitation and she laughed.
‘No. There’s enough of that at work. I’ve no idea what’s on. Here.’ she tossed the remote to him, ‘I’ll let you choose. Anything.’ She went into the kitchen with the mugs, leaving him to think.
The news. Safe enough. He flicked channels, and as unmemorable news reports filled the screen he relaxed in the repetitiveness of the everyday events. Shoes slipped off as his feet warmed, he pulled up a leg to grasp hold of his ankle, unaware of how he barricaded himself into the deep corner of the sofa. The weather report next.
Rebecca finished, and came through, placing plates with sandwiches on the table, tiny vine tomatoes and a handful of crisps on each plate. A bottle of mineral water and two glasses. He looked up at her, ‘There’s a film next. True Grit.’
‘Still cold?’ she asked and smiled, as if in relief, when he shook his head. Wrapping herself in the cream wool throw that was folded over the backrest, she sat down at the end of the sofa, tucking herself into the other corner in imitation of Straker and pulled up her feet underneath her, a compact figure, as if willing herself to be unseen. She motioned at the plates. ‘Hope cheese is okay.’
‘Fine. Thank you.’ His stomach growled and with a sheepish grin he reached out to help himself, realising just how hungry he was.
They ate as Mattie and Rooster set off on their search, and as Cogburn rode through the river and Mattie pushed her horse on to follow, Straker turned to Rebecca, ‘He didn’t like horses, you know.’
‘Really?’ She sat up, her legs unfolded as she moved to get her drink. ‘Wonder why he did westerns then.’
Straker looked at her, ‘Probably to pay the bills.’ He shrugged. ‘Actors have to work.’
‘I hadn’t thought about that.’ She crossed her legs and moved back into her corner of the sofa.
The familiar story unfolded on the screen, so well-known that even Straker could recite some of the lines. Comfortable viewing, no need for talk, or explanations, no embarrassing silences as they both watched and ate.
Straker put his plate back on the table, rubbing the back of his neck and yawning as Rooster Cogburn eased himself into the saddle, leather creaking, the horse grunting under his weight before obediently responding to the reins and walking off. The sofa creaked under Straker’s shoulders as he leaned back, finally allowing himself to unwind enough to stretch one arm along the back of the sofa. Rebecca watched the screen, her eyes flickering sideways at intervals as if to check that her guest was not bored, not restless.
It was strange, having someone here, someone sitting on her sofa, in her home. This was her sanctuary in a way. Her bolt-hole from the reality of life. A place of safety, of calm, and she had brought him back here. Why? It was simple when she thought about it, when she analysed her actions with the same dispassionate efficiency that she used at work. It was not that he was cold, or that she was lonely. She wanted to see who he was; who he really was. No longer John Shepherd, the man whom she had come to know intimately during that short week, no longer the shy, reserved and bewildered stranger. This man was Ed Straker, and as such, although he looked and acted and spoke like John, he was not. Not John.
A touch on her leg, as if one of the cushions had slipped, and she reached out to move it, but a soft noise made her stop. He was asleep, eyes closed, his leg relaxed and now leaning against hers. Another snore, gentle, his head tilted back, arm still along the backrest, fingers now curled in sleep. She sat there, unwilling to move and disturb him, watching him as she had done before, and gradually seeing, not just Ed Straker, but also John. Then the realisation came to her; they were the same person. Different names that was all. She eased herself out of the throw to wrap it around him, hoping that he would not wake before she retreated back to her corner and tucked her legs under, her eyes watching him as Rooster Cogburn and Mattie Ross rode across the screen, now ignored.
Minutes ticked by, but she was not bored, or tired. He twisted his body and she wondered if he might wake and be embarrassed, but no, he shuffled down and she realised that he was deeply asleep, not just dozing. Aware that he would be uncomfortable and cramped later, she unfolded herself from the end of the sofa once again and with gentle care eased him down onto the cushions. There. Now he would be able to sleep properly. There was no longer room at the end for her to sit, but once she had tucked the throw round his shoulders and under his feet, she turned the television down to a murmur and curled up in the single armchair, comforted by the occasional subdued snore. True Grit ended, the late news and weather came and went unnoticed, followed by a repeat from some detective series that she had never enjoyed, but he slept on and she absorbed herself in the pages of her book, feeling contented and at ease.
Out in the hall his phone rang insistently, unheard and unanswered.
‘Why the hell doesn’t he answer?’ Alec Freeman slammed the phone down on the desk, before putting his head in his hands.
‘Could he have been taken? The aliens?’ Sara was hesitant; she had no idea how to deal with this situation and the possible causes for Straker’s disappearance were …………frightening.
‘No. At least I hope not. They couldn’t have known he was here, and security is tight to say the least.’ His head still in his hands, fingers almost tugging at his hair with worry. He looked up. ‘Damn. At least I can track his phone, as long…..’ He didn’t look at her as he started the search and the sentence hung in the air, unfinished. Sara knew what he was thinking. …as long as Straker had his phone with him. As long as he wasn’t in the hands of his enemies.
‘TW3 1PD…………….’ he frowned, ‘that sounds-‘
‘Rebecca. That’s her postcode.’ Sara interjected. ‘He’s with her.’
‘How the hell…… Never mind. Let’s go.’ He hurried from the rooms, along the corridor, Sara almost running to keep up with his rapid strides.
‘Alec,’ she grabbed his arm, pulled him to a stop. ‘Just wait a moment. Let me phone Rebecca first. He might….’ She looked at him, one eyebrow raised. ‘Please?’
He grunted assent and she stepped away, dialled, waited.
‘Damn.’ Rebecca scrabbled for her phone, keeping her voice soft, ‘Sara? What’s the matter? It’s-‘
‘Is Straker there?’ No niceties, no hello, or hi, or even sorry it’s so late, just an urgent, almost desperate plea.
‘Ed? Yes, he’s….’ she looked over, ‘…sleeping. Do you want me to wake him?’
She could hear a muted conversation in the background, then a different voice, almost breathless, ‘Alec Freeman here, Miss Steel. Ed is alright? Asleep? He’s not ill?’
‘No,’ she paused, wondering, ‘I bumped into him in town earlier, and he came back here to get warm and fell asleep on my sofa. Shall I wake him?’ She was scared now. Mr Freeman seemed concerned, and it was more than just the normal anxiety for a friend.
‘No. No, leave him if he’s that tired. Is that all right with you? Call me if he wakes up and I‘ll come and pick him up, whatever time.’
‘Alright. I’ll do that, but I think he’ll sleep through.’ She had seen enough men sleep like this, worn out and exhausted either by stress or work. Straker was no different. ‘I’ll tell him you called when he wakes.’
‘Miss Steel, one more thing,’ Alec’s voice was even more urgent, more insistent. ‘Don’t tell anyone that Ed is with you, and don’t let anyone in. No-one. Except Sara or me. Understood?’
‘Err, yes. I won’t. I’ll see you in the morning, Mr Freeman.’ She closed her phone and stood there, looking down at Straker. The room was warm, the heating on overnight. He would be fine. And with a sense of reluctance she bent over him, tucked the throw in once more and then allowed her fingertips to trace along his jaw and down the soft skin of his throat before she turned away.
The hall light cast a soft glow into the room, enough to illuminate but not to waken, and he stirred a little, turning over and pulling the throw closer before settling deeper into his dreams.
Alec turned to Sara. ‘Rebecca? Is she .. I mean…..’
She held his arm. ‘Straker will be safe there. Trust me.’
He looked at her. ‘I do. But it’s not like Ed to just go off like that.’
‘No? I think it sounds just like him. Face it Alec. He’s been through a lot and you yourself said he’d been stressed, even before this latest incident. And then you lock him away in Dr Jackson’s rooms and expect him to carry on as if nothing has happened. No wonder the poor bugger walked out. Give him a chance Alec. Let him have one night away from all this. She waved a hand at the white concrete walls that enclosed them. ‘Let them….. you know?’ She grinned and wrapped her arm around him.
A memory surfaced. Straker walking to his car, stopping and turning to his friend, the bitter note in his voice as he said to his friend ‘I am ushered everywhere, shepherded from one point to another with no freedom and virtually no privacy. Oh I know it’s necessary, but sometimes I just want to be…anonymous.’ And then he had stopped, and grimaced and shaken his head, misery evident in his hunched shoulders, his whole despondent stance. And Alec remembered that look of resignation as Straker accepted his loss of freedom on that night when he had died.
Alec shook his head. ‘Ed? No, Ed hasn’t ….. since his divorce. … there was no one at all.’ He looked at her with regret , ‘And I didn’t think, did I? Just put him somewhere he would be safe and didn’t think.’
But he had been so worried about Ed, about the fact that somewhere there might be a clone or a traitor waiting for him. The need to protect him was paramount, but deep down he had the feeling that he too had betrayed Ed. And when he had arrived earlier at Jackson’s rooms, only to find them empty and Straker nowhere to be seen, he had been gripped with fear.
‘What do I do, Sara? How do I help him?’ He lowered his head, and stood there, near to tears and she stepped close to him, held him, and pulled his head down onto her shoulder as Alec Freeman clung to her. She held him, tight, her hand through his hair, restraining him in strong fingers, refusing to release him until he had calmed, his shuddering breaths settling into back into its normal rhythm.
‘Come on. Let’s go. He’ll be fine. Trust her. Ed does.’ She took his arm. ‘Let him rest, tonight.’
He hesitated, torn between the compulsion to go and drag Straker back to the safety of HQ and the realisation that Sara was right, that Ed needed this space, and that he would be safe for the night. ‘Okay,’ he agreed, with some reluctance, ‘as long as I can get him first thing in the morning.’
Sara shook her head in exasperation. ‘In that case you’d better spend the night at my place. It’s close to Rebecca’s and if there are any problems you can get there quicker.’ And she grinned at him. ‘Come on. It’s been a long day and I’m tired.’
She raised an eyebrow. ‘Got something in mind?’ and laughter echoed in the empty corridor as she took his hand and led him away.
Straker woke, aware that he was not, as he had thought, in his bed in the isolation suite, nor in his room in the shelter either, or at home. He thought back to the last thing he remembered. Being cold, drinking hot coffee, and.. damn. He sat up with a sheepish grin, expecting to see Rebecca sitting there, still watching television. The room was dark although the soft glimmer from the hallway was sufficient illumination to let him see that he was alone. Rubbing eyes gritty with sleep he wandered to the small downstairs cloakroom and then went back to sit on the sofa, wondering what to do next. There was a piece of paper on the table, and he picked it up, reading Rebecca’s neat script: Ed. Alec phoned. He’ll be round in the morning to pick you up. Rebecca.
Great. He wondered what Alec Freeman would have to say about this. Probably very little, although Alec could say enough with one twitch of his mouth. It was……. he looked at his watch, not yet three a.m. The sofa was comfortable, the room warm and he felt, well, he didn’t quite know how he felt. ‘Slack’ was the best word. As if all his tension had drained away for once, and then, curious as ever, he wondered where Rebecca was.
The stairs creaked underfoot, the banister was smooth to his hand, and his eyes were still bleary as Straker went in search of her. Closed doors, and one just ajar, the slightest gap, enough for him to see the dim light in the corner. He paused, and then pushed the door open, taking care not to wake her. Shoeless feet made no sound on the carpet as he moved to stand at the end of the bed, watching as she slept, the slender body wrapped in covers as if cocooning herself, hair glinting gold-red in the light, motionless apart from the slightest rise and fall as she breathed.
Straker observed in silence, the faintest sad smile on his lips, as he thought about his past and his mistakes. The opportunities he had thrown away or squandered without a thought, and he realised that he was as much a failure as Dale, and like Dale he had been given a chance. In the silence he waited, breathing in synchrony with her, eyes wondering at the fragile beauty that he saw revealed at last as she slept and allowed her tight defences to fall away.
Two steps closer, to stand at her side, his head tilted as he regarded her. Another step, and his hand reached out to stroke, with the lightest of touches, the hair that fell across her cheek. She stirred, lips parting as she murmured, and he separated himself from her, moving back to stand once more and simply watch. Until, with a final smile, he turned and walked away, closing the door before going down to lie on the sofa once more.