Alec opened his eyes. Darkness. Coldness and darkness. He tried to reach out, but his wrists were restrained. Uncomfortable restraints that bit into his skin, tight on the bones underneath. Pain in his head. He turned his face to one side, but a hand hit his cheek, the unexpected slap stinging his skin. He could feel his pulse beating hard, almost erratically, could sense the strangeness of his surroundings, could smell his sweat, sharp and sour. A blindfold over his eyes, so firm that he could not see even the slightest chink of light.
Muffled voices in the background, words that he could not make out. Strange, unfamiliar sounds that were unlike anything he had heard before. Panic filled him and he struggled against the ties that held him down, but it was useless. He wondered what they would do to him, his enemy, now that they had captured him, and he thought back over his life, memories of his past flooding through his mind.
There was a sharp pain in his arm, a hand on his body, a voice close to his head and he turned to listen, half-expecting another clout. The voice was familiar. He had been trained, been taught to recognise it, the voice of his enemy.
‘Where have you come from?’ a softly hissed question, and despite the blindfold he could visualise Ed Straker standing there, leaning over him, his hand pressing onto Alec Freeman’s shoulder. Warmth spread through him, a quiet lassitude as the drug relaxed him, blurring his efforts to focus on being silent. He was dizzy now, which was a new sensation although this body, this person understood the feeling. Too dizzy even to speak. Numb lips mumbled incoherently, his fingers stretched, clenched, twisted in an effort to bring his thoughts under control.
Another sharp pain on his face. Pain. He was used to that. The pain from the implants in his neck and spine, as his creators filled his mind with stolen thoughts, as his body had been forced to grow rapidly, as he realised with horror what he was. A mere copy. A shell, with one purpose only. Full of those memories that belonged to another person, and yet were also his own. His whole life a pretence, with one goal. To capture Straker if possible, or otherwise to eliminate him.
And the worst thing was that deep within, he had become Alec Freeman, has seen and delighted in the deep affection that Freeman had for his friend, and more frightening than anything, he too felt that same emotion for the man he had been programmed to regard as his ultimate enemy.
He had failed, and yet, he had also succeeded. Ed Straker was still alive, still free.
The question again, harsher this time, closer to his ear, the voice with a note of desperation. Alec shook his head, unable to answer, his feeble attempts to escape futile against the straps that held him down. A low moan escaped his mouth as he felt a needle once more in his flesh and another surge of light-headedness.
A different voice this time and he knew who it was. Jackson. He had hated Jackson once, he seemed to recall. At least Alec Freeman had hated Jackson. He could smell the man’s breath on his face, a slight hint of spiced tea, and Alec closed his eyes tighter under the blindfold.
‘Colonel. Tell me. Where did you come from?’ the voice was insistent, insidious, creeping into his brain past all his defences, all his barriers. He bit his lip, bringing blood.
‘It’s no use. He won’t answer.’ Straker’s angry retort filled the room.
‘Or he can’t, Commander.’ The slow drawl of Jackson’s accent was soothing. ‘It is quite possible that he has no knowledge of where he was created.’
Alec heard a hand slam on a hard surface. ‘I have to know. There has to be something you can do. At least, if not where he was grown, some clue as to where we might find Alec. The real Alec.’
‘I can only use the drug one more time Commander. Even then it is dangerous.’
‘Another dose. My orders.’
Pain. Heat . Dizzying vertigo. He wanted to tell them, to tell his enemy, his friend, but the words wouldn’t come out although he had been trying for so long.
Fingers gripped his arms, digging in. ‘Tell me. Where did you come from?’ Insistent, demanding. Another blow on his face, back-handed and hard. His eyes watering, his tongue tasting blood, words sticking in his throat.
‘Enough. That’s enough. You’ve been interrogating him for hours now.’ Her voice. The woman. The one of whom he had no memory, no reference point. She was not in his mind, not in the data that had filled his empty thoughts like water pouring into a reservoir.
‘I have to know Dr. Harper. This is no time for sentimentality.’ Straker. Cold and hard as Alec had so often seen him, and yet distressed as well. And Alec wanted to help. He swallowed, a stale taste in his mouth, and forced words out.
‘Water. Tunnel.’ The sum of his knowledge. Two words. Another blow.
‘Commander. Please. Stop.’
Straker released his hand. ‘Leave the room Doctor Harper.’
‘No. Listen. I finished the autopsy on that clone of Ford. I need to talk to you. Right away.’
He lay there, his swelling tongue exploring the inside of his bruised cheeks, feeling his light-headedness fade slightly as the drug released its hold on his body. More quiet mutterings away from where he lay, then Jackson’s hand on his wrist feeling for his pulse for a moment. He focussed on the words, the woman arguing with Straker. He was tired and more than tired. Something felt … wrong.
He could feel the acidic bile in his gut, a tingling in his face, not from a slap, but a warning and he had just enough time to twist his head to one side before he vomited. Coppery, salty unstoppable, blood gushing from his mouth.
‘Christ.’ The woman was first to get to him, to lift his head, his shoulders and support his as he vomited more blood, spluttering and gasping. ‘Ed. Untie him. He’s going to choke.’ ‘What the hell……’ Straker’s hands now undoing the straps, lifting him to sit forward, blood still filling his throat and mouth, relentless as it poured out.
‘This is what I was afraid of.’ She was speaking now, even as she was wiping his face, clearing his lips as the deluge eased and he was able to gasp huge breaths into his starved lungs. Exhausted, he slumped back, to lie on his side as pain bit deep into his gut.
‘It hurts.’ His own voice, broken and childish, like the voices of others he had known, and a gentle hand stroked his face.
‘I know. Hold on. It will stop soon.’ Sympathy, love, concern? He could not tell, but her voice was kind and he put one hand on top of hers, to hold it and be cherished for once in his short life.
‘What’s the matter with…….’
‘It? Him? The same as Keith. Disintegration I think would be the best description. All his major organs are breaking down. Keith didn’t live long enough for it to become apparent.’ She smoothed Alec’s hair, spoke again. ‘It’s … painful. He doesn’t deserve this Ed.’
Alec saw his friend step closer to lean over him. ‘One last time. Where did you come from?’ The soft Bostonian accent now pleading. ‘Please.’
‘Ed,’ Freeman smiled, despite the agony that was building inside, ‘there was water and a tunnel. That is all I know.’ He closed his eyes, coughing as blood spattered onto the pillow.
‘Sara, Jackson. What can you do to help him?’ There was silence. Straker’s voice again, but now quiet and sad. ‘Nothing? As you say Doctor Harper, he doesn’t deserve this. I think he has helped us as much as he can. Please, leave us.’
Her hand was removed from his face and Alec felt the movement of air as she brushed past him without a word. He lay still, the worst of the coughing over, but his mouth was tainted with stale blood. The pain burnt him, sliced deep into him and he moaned.
‘Jackson. You know what I’m asking?’ Alec could hear his friend nearby, as if Straker was standing there next to the table, next to him, but it was too much effort to open his eyes and see.
‘I am. But, you know that I won’t… I can’t…’ That drawl again, but hesitant and reluctant this time.
Alec wondered what they were talking about as he coughed again, thick clots and dead black tissue spewing out as Straker raised him in a firm hold.
‘It’s my responsibility. Just give it to me.’ Straker still held him, heedless of the blood that surely must now be soaking into clothes. The sound of cabinets being opened, the rustle of plastic tearing. ‘Thank you. You can go.’ Straker, icily calm as if holding himself together by sheer willpower. Alec knew how determined Straker could be, even though he had only known of him for a short while. Not long enough really.
Alec felt the needle scratch his arm, felt the drug start to take hold, felt deep unending and welcome sleep begin to wash over him and at last the pain subsided as his friend, the man he had been sent to capture, released him.
Straker tore off his ruined jacket, and covered the face of Alec Freeman. It would do for now, would hide the sight of that face smeared with blood, blood everywhere, drying and stiffening even now on the pillow, on the floor, on Straker’s hands and spattered on his clothes. He would have stripped off and thrown his ruined suit away, but the sudden realisation hit him that there was no-one running headquarters. With Foster in Moonbase and Alec,…. Alec, please God, waiting to be rescued, it was down to him. He scoured his hands, scrubbed off the visible blood, dried them on a small towel was tossed into the bin.
There was no time for quiet contemplation, for coming to terms with what he had done today. Two men. He had killed two men, with cold-bloodied efficiency and without any remorse. Except that…. he rinsed his face once more, stared at his reflection and prepared himself. No jacket to tug straight, but he stiffened his shoulders and walked out to meet Sara Harper and Jackson.
‘Commander?’ Jackson tilted his head, his voice quiet and concerned. ‘I need to speak to you. Outside. Dr Harper, would you stay here for a moment?’
There was an uncomfortable silence then Sara nodded. ‘I’ll finish up with that autopsy then. Five minutes?’
‘Perfect.’ Jackson waved Straker out onto the corridor, and waited.
Straker sighed. ‘Miss Steel.’ He started walking.
‘Why makes you think that?’
‘You’re a psychologist, Jackson and unfortunately a very good one. Sometimes your perception in these matters is frightening.’ He stopped. Leaned against the one of the buttresses, folded his arms. ‘What do you need to know?’ He closed his eyes.
Jackson stood. ‘It is not just about Miss Steel, though she seems a remarkably..’ he paused, considered, a slight smile twitching the edges of his mouth, ‘should we say… interesting character. It is you, Commander that I wish to know more about.’ His arms folded in imitation of the man standing opposite, raised an eyebrow. ‘How you feel now.’
‘As in? I’ve recovered my memories. I am going back to work. What else is there to say?’ Silence.
Straker waited. The concrete wall was rough against his shoulder, the floor smooth under his feet. Contrasting sensations, just as his emotions were divided; his sense of duty tugging him towards his office to take control and start the desperate search for Alec, and yet there was a craving to leave here, to go back to that shabby side street and say the words ‘John Shepherd’ and go back down to the safe confines where he had no responsibilities, no duty.
Where he would be able to talk to her, to Rebecca. As he had not talked last night.
It was not the same though. It would never be the same. He was no longer John Shepherd, someone to be cared for and protected. He was the one doing the protecting, now. But he had not saved Alec or Keith. ‘Alec,’ he murmured and shook his head, grimacing. Remembering.
‘Commander?’ Jackson put a hand on his shoulder. You were saying?’
Straker turned away. ‘Nothing. There is nothing Jackson. I have my duties to see to now. As for Miss Steel? She looked after me. That is all. She did her job and I have to move on. I have to start the search.’ He looked at Jackson. ‘Is that all?’
‘For now Commander.’ Jackson looked at him with narrowed eyes. ‘But later we should talk. About you, and what happened in the Shelter. To you.’
Straker straightened up, looked at the psychologist and took one step away. ‘I need to get back Jackson. Tell Dr Harper to join me here and then you can continue with the checks on staff.’
He stood there in the corridor watching as Jackson went back to his rooms and as Sara came out and hurried towards him.
‘Come with me.’ Straker ordered, even as his brisk steps were taking him towards his office, towards the Control room though he had no idea what he would do when he got there. For one ludicrous moment he envisioned himself being arrested as an imposter, and a mirthless grin twisted his lips, until he remembered Alec dying in his arms. And it was Alec, even though he knew that it was only a clone. It had Alec’s memories, Alec’s personality, even Alec’s bravery. He paused, waiting for Sara to catch up to him.
‘Where are we going?’ Her concern for Alec was overshadowed by her worry for the man standing in front of her, his clothes stained, his eyes shadowed.
‘Going? I am going back to work Dr. Harper. I need you with me, if….’ he looked at her questioningly, ‘if you don’t mind.’
‘Why Commander? Why me?’
‘Simple. I know you are not a clone and I trust you. More than I trust anyone else at the current time.’ He lowered his head, ‘I need your help Sara. I need you to help me find Alec and Keith and where the aliens are growing these clones.’
‘And what about him, Alec? I mean…………….’ Sara gestured back along the corridor.
Straker’s eyes narrowed, ‘The clone? He’s not your concern. Not now.’ He walked away, long strides eating the distance, not speaking again until she had scurried to catch up with him and was almost running alongside in an effort to keep up. He stopped at an unmarked door, placed his hand on a metal plate. ‘Wait there.’ The door slid open and he went inside, just for a few seconds, to reappear with a handgun, then carried on walking down the corridor as if there was nothing untoward. As if it was perfectly natural for him to handle a gun, to slide the magazine into place, and check the weapon over with an expertise that made her feel more than a little uncomfortable. She noticed the way he held it, as if it was a part of himself, a mere extension of his hand.
It was not until they had reached the final corner, and the hubbub of noise from the control room was beginning to filter out into the corridor that Straker slowed down. They had not encountered anyone on the walk from Jackson’s base, but Straker had taken a quieter route. Perhaps in a subconscious attempt to avoid such an event. It wasn’t going to be easy for him, Sara realised, as he paused, his eyes narrowed in thought.
Nervousness? But no, her thought vanished as he put one hand on her arm, his voice soft and tight and controlled. ‘Stay behind me. We don’t know who else might have been cloned. And you are not armed.’ She stepped a pace nearer, truly frightened for the first time.
Ten more paces, round the corner, two steps and …… Straker waited in the opening, Sara behind him, out of sight.
‘Attention.’ Straker stepped forward as the control room sounds splintered and fragmented into shards of silence. His jumper and trousers stained with Alec’s blood, his eyes deeply lined with the horrors he had experienced. The cylinder, the loss of his memories and his purpose, the assassin in the shelter, waking in the scanner, the feel of his knuckles striking Keith; those memories were distressing enough, but…… Alec. Slipping the needle under tight skin, pressing down, watching …Alec… take that last shuddery incomplete breath. And now, Ed Straker was here, back where he was needed.
Lieutenant Johnson stifled one short scream as Straker walked towards her, a haunted and spectral figure, his clothes spattered with blood, his face lined with strain. No other movement, as if that second of time had been captured in a freeze-frame shot, then there was a sudden release as reactions made themselves felt. People standing, moving to him, even the security team, wide-eyed and hesitant, taking cautious strides towards where he still waited, gun in hand, but that hand down by his side, unthreatening, poised, not to move but waiting for their response.
‘I am armed. Stay where you are.’ That calm voice, instantly recognisable. ‘Dr Harper. Go to my office. Wait there.’ He spoke without looking at her, and Sara moved to comply, casting one look up at his face as she passed him while he stared down the glare of the blue-clad guards. Without breaking his gaze he spoke again. ‘Lt. Johnson, take over at communications. Contact Moonbase and tell Colonel Foster to return at the first available opportunity. Everyone else; remain at your posts.’
He waited until the noise had subsided, until they had all settled and were watching him, their faces still registering the shock of seeing the man that they had believed dead, standing there, watching them.
‘I need you all to listen.’ Straker allowed himself to relax, just the merest fraction, no more than the tiniest loosening of stiff shoulders, before a wry grin twisted his lips for a second. ‘I am, as you can see, very much alive. Explanations will have to wait. Right now there is an emergency to deal with.’ He looked around the room, studying each individual, wondering if any of them had a small round scar at the base of their skull. ‘Lt Anderson, I want updates from all heads of department in thirty minutes. The rest of you, carry on.’
The walk to his office, through the control room was difficult. Eyes watching him, as if waiting to make an attack, as he passed each operative, each console. But no one moved apart from a brief startled nod, or bewildered smile as he walked by. His office door closed behind him and he realised just how tightly he had been containing himself.
Sara waited Straker sat down behind his desk. His desk. He spared himself the briefest luxury of leaning back into the welcoming curve of the chair. Enough. No time for selfish desires. ‘Dr Harper. Sit down. We need to talk.’
‘Talk? With Alec missing? Don’t you think you need to do more than that?’ There was a slight hint of distaste or maybe even revulsion in her voice and Straker understood only too well how she was feeling.
‘I know. I want to get out there and start looking, but tell me. Where exactly do we look? And who do we trust? The best thing we can do is to go over all the information we have. It might point us in the right direction.’ He shook his head. ‘Sara, please. Work with me. Help me to find him.’
His voice was quiet, and pleading, and wordlessly she pulled up a chair and sat opposite him, hands clasped together one finger tapping her lips as she organised her thoughts. ‘Right. These clones. So far we have found that they …………..’ She carried on talking, eyes half-closed as she concentrated on recalling what she had discovered.
Straker made notes as they talked, as Sara expounded theories and he contradicted her, as they put together all those disjointed fragments of data that had accumulated in the last week trying to make some sense of what had happened.
The department reports had been handed in, the Beta shift had started work and Sara was weary by the time they had gone through all the facts and worked out what might possibly have occurred. Most of it assumptions, speculations, and hit and miss guesswork, but a rough theory anyway. The aliens had been given information from SHADO medical records, maybe even the results of the brain scans that all staff were subjected to, although how they were able to convert that was beyond Straker’s or Sara’s understanding. That could explain why the Freeman clone had not recognised Dr Harper, as its memories were based on older scans done prior to Straker’s death.
Sara had even postulated that the clones were grown in some protective liquid, similar to the fluid used to provide oxygen to the aliens, and that, once removed from that environment, they were, like their creators, subject to decay in Earth’s atmosphere. The breakdown of tissue and organs was painful and irreversible, but at least it was a flaw in the make-up of the clones. They thought that the Straker clone had not been ‘decanted’ for long enough for the effects to take hold.
It was not much, but it might help. As for Alec and Keith? There were no clues as to how they had been captured – phone tapping, bugging devices, a member of SHADO reporting to a colony of aliens? Who could tell.
Now it was a case of trying to find any location where there was a tunnel and water. Straker grimaced. An impossible task. Thank God Headquarters was quiet, although he could imagine the uproar that was going on throughout SHADO. He was back, and the aliens would, by now, have been informed and no doubt planning their next move.
Paul Foster would not arrive until the morning and Straker had called Colonel Lake in from her furlough. Until then he would have to carry on, despite the unseen torrent of emotion that was shredding him into pieces. He looked up at the woman sitting there opposite him, his voice as calm as he could make it.
‘Dr Harper. I think we have done as much as we can for now. I want Jackson and you to continue the check of all staff but I doubt now that there will be any clones based in headquarters. At least until the aliens have perfected a way to stop them dying so quickly. They may have simply been trying to use them as decoys, in an attempt to get at either me or other members of the command staff. But everyone who comes on duty must be verified.’ He put his head in his hands in a gesture of despair. ‘How the hell they got to Alec and Ford though, is beyond me.’
There was nothing to say, no words of comfort or reassurance. Sara looked at the man and saw a grim look in his face. She knew what he was thinking.
SHADO was losing the fight.
Dr Harper and Jackson had finished testing the numerous staff members and had devised an intradermal implant that would register on SHADO’s security systems. Sara had spent the rest of the day making herself unpopular as she injected all the operatives once they had been approved. An uncomfortable procedure but necessary. At least they would not have to re-examine staff every time they arrived for work; the implants would be sufficient evidence.
Lake had arrived and had been scrutinized and injected by Sara with a clinical thoroughness that did not endear her to the SHADO Colonel. The uneasy tension went unnoticed by Straker, his thoughts focussed on organising a search of possible sites for the alien base. It was strange to be back here, even though it had only been ten days or so since he had walked out with Alec to his waiting car. Ten days. And now Alec and Ford were missing, and the aliens were ahead of them again. Straker had no fears that either man would willingly betray SHADO, their training was too good, but he knew what the aliens were capable of doing. And treacherously he hoped his friends were dead.
She stopped in front of the door, turned to look at him.
‘If by any chance he’s still alive, I will find him. I promise you.’
She blinked back the tears, nodded once, too afraid to actually speak, afraid that the tears would fall.
‘Go home Dr. Harper. If there is any news, I’ll call you.’ Straker picked up his phone and turned away from her, to hide his own misery. He heard the door open, her footsteps fading away into the subdued noise from outside.
‘Commander?’ Virginia Lake stood on the threshold. ‘You should go as well. We are doing everything we possibly can. You need to trust us, but more than that, you need to get some sleep.’ She was right and he knew it although it felt utterly traitorous to leave here, to abandon headquarters while the desperate search continued.
But the computers were handling it, and there was a limit to the amount of data that anyone could input. Sleep might help to clarify his mind and allow him to make sense of the whirlpool of ideas that were rioting around his head.
Hiding a yawn, Straker frowned at the elegant woman still standing there, as if to keep the door from closing. ‘Very well. Take over here, Colonel, but,’ and his gaze was no longer stern or forbidding, but earnest, ‘call me if anything happens?’
‘Of course, Commander.’ Lake stepped back as he walked out, past the Delta shift now, their faces staring at him, idle chatter ceasing as they watched him leave. Straker, here. Not a figment of the imagination, not a ghost. Here and alive.
Lake had organised a car for him; the keys left on his studio desk, and he scooped them up and walked out, through Miss Ealand’s dark and empty office to the nearly deserted parking lot.
It was well after rush-hour now and the roads were emptying, with the late-night workers eager to get home. A fifteen minute journey home, and he drove automatically, not really conscious of other vehicles or even his own actions. A familiar route, his mind concentrating more on what might be happening to Alec rather than the humdrum task of steering, changing gears, braking.
The car had pulled to a halt outside the bungalow and he turned the engine off even before he realised where he was. Home. Except…. he shuddered as the memory raced through hi of Keith’s throat crumpling under his knuckles. No. He could not stay here. Not yet. Not until…….and anyway, he rationalised the thought to himself, the aliens knew where he lived now.
The key turned under his fingers, the car grated on the gravel as he reversed out, heading for……. where? Jackson’s rooms? No. Those memories were also too painful. Alec, in his arms. Even though it was not Alec, would never be Alec, the memory served to remind him of what his friend might even now be enduring.
He drove on, tiredness beginning to creep over him, and he knew that his reflexes were too slow to drive for much longer. He would find a hotel, somewhere bland and anonymous. That would suffice.
But something made him slow down, and without conscious thought he pulled into a layby, turned off the engine and sat there, in the darkness, hands on the wheel, as if frozen in time.
Cars passed by, their headlights illuminating the interior while his fingers held the steering wheel as if his existence depended on the contact. Finally he released his grip to reach into his breast pocket. It was a simple matter to speed dial, and he held his breath then spoke.
‘Rebecca, Ed here. I need a favour. I wonder……. ’
A few minutes later, he pulled the car back onto the road, his mind focused and decisive once more. The highways were quieter now as winter mists made visibility hard and he found himself blinking with the effort needed to stay alert and he slid the window open to let in a knife edge of icy air. The unfamiliar roads demanded his concentration but a brightly lit retail park caught his eye and he turned off the main road. The car park was fairly quiet and he pulled up close to the entrance of the superstore.
Bored staff ignored him as he headed for the racks of cheap clothes. Jeans, a t-shirt, dark sweatshirt. He picked up what he needed, looked down at his shoes. Stained as well, and anyway he did not want to keep anything that reminded him of today. Trainers then. Practical and comfortable. He swiped them through the fast check-out, bagged them, headed for the gents.
No one in there either, but he went into a cubicle, striped off his soiled trousers and jumper, and undershirt, dropping them onto the floor. Tags torn off the new clothes before he pulled on the jeans. They fitted as he expected, as cheap jeans do. But they would suffice for now. Trainers next, surprisingly comfortable after his leather ankle boots, and then the t-shirt and sweatshirt. Loose on him. He stuffed his discarded clothes into the thin plastic carrier bags, walked out, dropping the bags in one of the litter bins. He sat in his car for a few minutes, thinking, then he made one phone call and drove off.
Nearly there. Hounslow high street was devoid of traffic and he parked down the familiar side street in one of the vacant bays. No strangers lurked in dark doorways or sheltered in the ginnels as he walked the few steps to the heavy door. His finger pressed the buzzer and he waited.
He leaned closer. ‘It’s Ed.’
A click, the door unlocked and he pushed it open, stepping into the wide entrance and looking up at the hallway with its sweeping stairway. Rebecca was coming onto the landing, watching out for him and he thought he saw a look of surprise in her face for a moment. She called to him. ‘Come up….,’ she paused, and he heard her change what she was about to say. ‘… Ed. I’ve got pizza nearly ready.’
‘I appreciate it. Thank you. I wasn’t sure….’ He halted, facing her, his shoulders hunched with embarrassment.
‘It’s no problem. Honestly. Sara called me earlier today and said there’d been a problem at your house. I wasn’t expecting to hear from you actually until you’d got everything sorted.’
She closed the door behind him, smiled. ‘Go through. You look tired, but no sleeping on the sofa. You can have my spare room tonight.’
It had been a hard week. Well, more than a week really, since Ed Straker’s death and the upheaval that had followed. Warren Thompson had kept out of the way, kept his head down, kept his smile well hidden. A week of day-dreaming and planning, where to go and what to buy first. The money was burning holes in his pocket and he was just waiting for one more payment and then he would disappear with a fat bank balance to keep him happy for a long time. Hot beaches and sunshine instead of concrete corridors and military rules. The morality of what he had done didn’t bother Thompson. He’d given them everything they had asked for; everything. Brain scans, medical records, all the information they needed to create their clones, and they’d paid him very well indeed. It was a pity in a way that Straker had had to be sacrificed, but it was a ‘dog eat dog’ world out there and Straker was just a ticket to a better life. The Caribbean. That would be his first stop.
His phone beeped. Diane. What did she want now? She was always trying to chat him up, trying to get him to invite her on a date, telling him the latest gossip. This would be more boring news about one of her friends, or workmates, or the latest film that she wanted to see, with her thinly veiled suggestion that he take her.
He opened it. Read.
Shit. He deleted the message with fingers that trembled. Shit. How the fuck had that happened. Straker. Alive and in Headquarters.. So what the hell had gone wrong? Dammit.
He would have to phone his contact, Mason. Unless of course Mason was involved in whatever was now going on. He put his head in his hands. They might be checking staff even now. He dialled a number. Waited. A recorded voice answered and he swallowed his nervousness and spoke.
‘Warren Thompson. SHADO operative 362. Medical Section. I won’t be in work tomorrow. Got a touch of flu I think.’ Not a good enough excuse, not really, but it might keep them off his back for long enough to give him time to see what had happened, how Ed Straker had managed to survive; and to get that last big payment. Three days. That was all he needed. And then he would have to run. Bugger the hot beach. Anywhere would do.
Yet another unfamiliar room, another strange bed. Another night of nomadic existence, drifting from place to place, uneasy and restless. Homeless, once again. Even his clothes seemed to taunt him with their reminder of who he had been. John Shepherd.
Straker, reluctant to disturb Rebecca asleep in her own room, undressed with care and pulled back the duvet. Thick pillows, crisp cotton covers, unworn covers as well, as if the bedding was unused and had retained its newness. But it was warm and safe, and a place to sleep without fear. He had slept in this house last night, slept well and without nightmares. He could do the same tonight. But sleep didn’t come. He lay there, listening to the noises from outside. Traffic, the occasional siren of a police car, odd shouts of laughter, peculiar sounds from the attic above. Bats, most likely.
He forced himself to relax, to push thoughts of Alec aside and concentrate on other memories. That flash of red hair under the street lights and sitting on her sofa to watch John Wayne. Touching her hair while she lay asleep. Her hand on his face, stroking the roughness of his unshaven throat. Her quiet, unspoken anger at Alec and Sara for their intrusion in the morning. And then the memory of Sara holding his hand and telling him. His hands clenched even now with the pain of remembering those words.
The unused pillows were too thick and he tossed one onto the floor then lay on his side drifting towards sleep. A floorboard creaked and startled him into alertness. He kept still, hoping that darkness would reclaim his thoughts, but then his door opened and dim light poured in. In silence she stepped into the room, to stand at the end of the bed. He waited, eyes open the merest crack, his even regular breaths not disturbing the fragile quiet, not moving, afraid to speak as if one word might shatter the moment, might scare her into fleeing.
She came closer and he could almost feel her anxiety, before she moved away out of sight. His eyes closed as he heard a rustle of material, the silken slur as she let her robe slide to the floor and lifted the bedcovers. Cool air on his back as she lay down. Not touching, not even close, but there behind him. Her meagre breaths loud in the silence. He could sense her fear, and yet her need but there was nothing he could do apart from let his hands unclench, his shoulders ease and… wait.
Time passed, both of them lying still, breathing now in synchrony, sharing space.
Alec wanted to vomit, but the pounding in his head was agonising. The slightest movement made his guts churn. Stale vomit in his mouth, the acid of it in the back of his throat. Rough fingers forced his eyes open, heedless of the brilliant lights that burned into his retina, hands clamped on his jaw, as he twisted, desperate to escape the searing beam that scorched into his brain. They had taken him, had captured him easily, so fucking easily. Dragged from his car, gassed and taken prisoner. And now, he was here, freezing and shivering in the sub-zero temperatures. He felt them grab his arms, felt their fingers dig into him as they hauled him upright before dragging him across a smooth surface, as he fought them. Useless. The blow on his head stunned him but even so he was still aware of his jacket being torn open and the sharp stab of a needle into his abdomen and he managed to scream just once, the sound muffled and distorted in his ears, before convulsions ripped through his brain and body.
Rebecca felt the heat of his body. The man in front of her had not moved and so she allowed her hand to creep a few small inches towards the broad shoulders that faced her, that smooth skin she had kissed just once. Not touching. Not yet. Just sufficient to be able to lean over and watch the rhythmical movement of his chest as he breathed, the pulse in his throat, and the hair that curled at his neck, before she lowered her face towards skin fragrant with his masculinity. One deep breath and she lay down to face his back again, watching.
Long minutes passed. She reached out to stroke her fingers over his shoulder. Cool skin. The ripple of muscle and rigidity of bone just beneath the surface.
He hand brushed across his shoulder, paused to cup the joint, and then trailed down his arm, feeling the shape and strength and texture of skin and muscles. Onto his flank now, against his ribs and then around the edges of the dressing that covered his wound. Her face closer to him now, her breath on his neck. Her fingers traced down to the tight curve of hard muscles at his hips.
Skin that was firm yet so fragile, short blond hair gleaming in the light, that scent of maleness, his slow, even breaths in the silence and ….. she kissed his shoulder. No salt this time as she moved closer to taste the fine skin at the nape of his neck.
She was curled tight now, sharing his space, her head on his shoulder, one arm wrapped over him, a hand on his breast. Straker gave a soft sigh of contentment and she knew that he was awake, that he was, and had been, aware of her all the time.
Alec was scared now, profoundly scared. He had roused to the sensation of lying in tepid liquid, chilly on his feverish skin and stinging on the cuts and scrapes that covered his body, the ache of hard bruising on soft tissue, but where he was now he had no idea. His eyes were sealed shut, a tube rasped down his throat and try as he might he could not utter a sound other than a muffled frantic groan from deep within his chest. There was not even enough room to writhe against the pain that engulfed him, spreading out from his gut to burn through bones and flesh until even his scalp felt as if it was on fire.
Straker lay there, his shoulders tense as he waited for her to abandon him. She did not move. He felt her fingers clench as they dug into his flesh, her knees stiff against his legs, pushing hard against him. The rigidity of her fear. He knew that the slightest move on his part would be sufficient to make her leave him. And he did not want that. He wanted…
‘I know,’ he murmured, his voice as soft as he could make it and even so it seemed too loud. Her nails bit into him and she choked back a sob. Her body trembled and he reached up to place one hand on the arm that lay across him. With a slow caress, he reassured her, running strong fingers down over that cool and shivering skin, tracing down to her fingertips with repetitive strokes, his fingers wrapping around the slightness of her arm. Another sob, muffled against his back this time and he paused, holding himself still as she buried her face in the curve of his neck.
‘Stay. Please.’ His voice even quieter now, his back a fortress for her to lean against, to hold onto. The thought of what she had endured darkened his mind and although he longed to turn over to face her and hold her, she was too fragile. As he was, he admitted to himself. So, he would lie here as she wrapped herself close, and he would let her hold him, let her cry on his shoulder if that was needed. He sighed with longing. ‘Stay with me.’
Her tight hold eased, and he laid his hand on hers, just to let her know that he cared, that he understood. Slender fingers threaded up between his. Hands entwined. A sigh as she relaxed and her face lifted from his neck, to snuggle down against his shoulder, her arm still tight against him. Not in fear, but with an unspoken need to be close to him. He blinked hard, swallowed back the tears that had threatened.
He breathed with her felt her slight form tucked behind him, her head only just reaching his shoulder blades as she bent her knees to spoon his own length. Joined hands now resting on the scar that marked his skin, moving in time with his breaths, even as she leaned against him, as he felt her breasts against the bare skin of his back.
Another siren faded into the distance, a taxi rumbled to a stop, the door slamming, muffled words disturbing the silence, but Straker lay there, one finger edging over her knuckles. Her breath curled around his shoulder, her body so close to him that it was as if they were one person.
Rebecca felt the warmth of his skin under her hand as she tightened her grip, pulling his hand further down on hers. Beneath her fingers the feel of soft hair, supple skin, the slight hollow of his navel, and she ventured to stretch one finger across before retreating back to the shelter of his hand. She felt his ribs move as he sighed again, and she realised with a sudden thrill that he wanted her there, holding him, touching him. And she was not afraid. Not anymore.
She straightened her fingers to loosen them from his grasp, felt his shuddering breath, but she leaned forward, her hand now on his ribs to ease him onto his back and wriggle, with an unseen and contented smile, under his arm.
His heartbeat thudded beneath her head, her cheek and lips tickled by sparse hair. She reached up to brush one hand across this chest and appreciate the broadness of his body, before tucking her arm over him to cling even closer for a moment, as if to crush him to her. A sigh of satisfaction echoed in her ears as she smoothed her hand round and down his ribs and back up again, pressing herself ever tighter, skin hard against skin. Her fingers stroked and explored as she lay there, touching him, trusting him. Caresses in the night. The slow throb of his pulse, the warmth of his breath on her face. All in silence. Knowing that he was aware of her every move she tilted her head back to kiss the soft skin of his throat.
That fleeting touch was enough to make him gasp and Rebecca caressed his cheek with her hand before she once again soothed the softness above his collarbone with warm lips and tongue.
So long forgotten, that feeling; that unmistakable sensation of delicate breath on his face, the warmth of another person close to him, cherishing him. To feel her hands on his body, not to test him or to probe, but to share. And the thrill to know that he was capable of being wanted and trusted and ….cherished.
A man who had locked his desires and needs and longings away for so many years.
His fingers drifted through the golden-red strands of her hair as she settled ever closer on him, resting her leg over his, her arm across him, heavy.
He could feel her hand on his hip.
He lay still, acknowledging her touch, her caress, that tantalising sensation of fingers. There. Her arm lifting with every breath he took, her head on his chest as he held her, breath fluttering over bare skin. His hand roamed across her face, following the line of her hair before he traced the curve of her ear. A tenuous contact, unsure and hesitant, as if he was expecting a sudden sharp rejection, but she snuggled even closer if possible and sighed.
‘Alright?’ his whisper asked, his fingers light on the pale skin of her throat and Rebecca turned her head to kiss.
‘Oh yes,’ he heard her whisper but he tensed as her hand moved, and his breaths were shallow, not from fear but the years-old ache of longing as he felt her hands against softer flesh, brushing over the downy skin below his navel, touching the edges of coarser hair, reaching ………
A quick shudder coursed through him, and he flinched, afraid of what she might expect, before he turned his face away. He lay there trembling, his frailties revealed, and she moved her hand away, sliding it with languid ease up his side to stroke ribs and nipples, the pad of his breast and then to come to rest on his face. Straker closed his eyes to lean into the touch of her palm on his cheek as her fingers tangled in his hair.
‘Ten years is a long time,’ she whispered. He took deep breaths and calmed his shivering body as she caressed his face before she raised herself on one elbow to look down at him. Her hand lifted to smooth fingers over eyebrows and pale lashes, to brush over stubble and dip into the cleft of his chin before she traced the boundary of his lips with the lightest discernible touch of a single fingertip.
Lips touched. He closed his eyes as he tasted her. A kiss such as he had never known before. An honest kiss. Not lust or desire, not demanding or expecting. He drew back, uncertain and shy, but then he reached out to lose himself in the feel of lips and tongue and hands meeting his and he opened himself to her until, emotions exhausted, they separated yet still holding, loathe to break contact.
‘Just hold me. That’s all,’ she murmured and clung to him, pressed against his body. In silence he obeyed her as she snuggled to sleep, her head on his breast again, her hand resting on his shoulder.
He stared at the ceiling. It had been so long. He had, years ago, accepted his solitary life, the lack of contact, the absence of even a welcoming hug. His responsibilities precluded that sort of thing, or so he had told himself in the dark emptiness of solitary nights.
But lying here, as she settled closer into his embrace, as he stroked her hair and bent to kiss the top of her head, he knew that something had returned into his empty existence, and, consoled, he slept.
Was this how his life would end? Here; blind, speechless, alone. Surrounded by inhuman creatures? Would he feel the knife as they cut him open? His heart pounded so fiercely that he thought, and he hoped, it would fail him. He would welcome death. But then he felt a coldness fill his belly, icy fingers that froze his gut, that made him clench and whimper in futile silence. And as sleep was forced into him, as he felt unconsciousness eat into his mind he hoped that Ed would find him. But it was doubtful.
To be continued in Shepherd: Laired
Well, what do I say? I nearly stopped writing this story several times, for a variety of reasons. ( I don’t particularly enjoy being on the receiving end of pretty vile and disgusting abuse, both in comments in various places and also published ‘stories’ from people who set out to slander both me and my family simply because I like to write canon stories most of the time.)
But I didn’t give up. And I am glad now. Some parts of Shepherd 4 were blissfully easy to write – the scene with Straker and Sara at the beginning was so very easy, but the ‘touchy-feely’ scene at the end between Ed and Rebecca took me over three weeks of continuous rewrites before my beta-reader was reasonably satisfied.
The ‘Alec’ clone was never intended. But, as writers out there will no doubt understand, sometimes your story runs away with you. I found myself writing that scene where Ed interrogates ‘Alec’ almost without thinking, and certainly I did very, very few revisions to it. It took the story in a whole new direction as well, but did allow me to bring Paul Foster back in again!
I expect some readers will think I ‘copped out’ by not letting Straker and Rebecca have sex. But he wouldn’t have. At least, MY Ed Straker wouldn’t. And I am pretty sure Ed Bishop’s Straker wouldn’t have either. And that is all that matters.