Even underground, the pale coloured walls were cold. Condensation trickled down to pool on the floor before disappearing through the narrow gaps between spongy tiles. A splash of sharp scarlet attracted the eye to the suits that hung on racks, their silvered helmets arrayed in rows above and a low thrumming resonated through the floor and walls from the machines that worked to keep the room habitable.
If one could call it a room. A circular space, straight walls taller than a man, topped by a low domed roof and, adjoining it, a similar dome of the same design. The whole no more than ten foot high. Any taller and they would have breached the surface, and just one part of the construction did that.
The UFO slipped under the water, manoeuvring with slow caution until it positioned itself over the one part of the structure that protruded from the earth.
An airlock; hidden by mud and undetectable to human systems. But this was not human. The small craft lowered itself onto the river bed and shuffled down into the deposits of thick mud. Metal hit metal with a solid clunk and the airlock opened to lift up into the compact interior of the craft. A wide tube with a sectioned ladder that ran the whole of its length, led down through the mud and clay and bed rock to form the link between the two domes. Not the most logical way to access the structures, but the safest way to do so without being exposed to the destructive forces of the atmosphere. Or to SHADO’s ever vigilant scanners. Here, underwater and underground, the domes and their inhabitants were safe from detection.
The figure moved with hesitant steps down the ladder inside the tube, his limbs stiff and cramped. Down the tube until he reached an iris that slid open to allow him access into the lower section. Once he stood at the base of the tube he put his hand on the wall. Air hissed and the iris sliced across the tube again, cutting off the lower part. He was now isolated in this small and contained airlock. He waited, a clear panel allowing him to see through into the dome.
Another hiss of air as pressure equalised then the curved door slid sideways into the double walled tube to allow him into the larger of the two domes.
They were waiting for him. Submissive and silent as protocol decreed. They helped remove his helmet, helped him take those first gasping breaths, the green fluid spewing from his lungs and mouth to spray onto the floor and soak into the soft flooring. They held him as the spasms wracked his body until he straightened and pulled himself from their grasp. No words spoken. Then they stepped back, allowing him space as he pulled off his gloves. Still nothing said. The low thrumming sound reverberated through the dome, along with the muted moans and whimpers and high pitched animal-like cries that emanated from three of the transportation cylinders situated near the main control block, but he ignored them. Instead he looked around, eyes inspecting everything else, the machinery, the small and inadequate personal area with sleeping couches and food preparation section, the even smaller sanitation unit. Half-hooded eyes revealed nothing, no emotion, no reaction as he walked back to the tube to let the door slide shut behind him. He placed a hand on the wall, air hissed and, in front of him, another door opened and he took one step into the second dome.
A grimace twisted his lips. Brow furrowed, he stood there, observing the room, avoiding any close contact with the upright tubes lining the curved walls. The contents …… troubled him. Besides, he did not wish to risk disturbing any of the cables and tubes that snaked across the floor and looped like vines from the machines clustered in the centre of the space.
Time passed. The silence and the things that he saw disturbed his composure and he turned back to the tube to re-enter the small airlock and wait there in the cylindrical prison for a brief moment before the door opened again in front of him.
They had laid it all out on the table; data, records, predictions, all the relevant information that was required for these regular assessments. He sat, read through, frowned on a couple of occasions. They placed a flask on the table next to his hand and he picked it up, sipped, continued reading. Nothing said.
They waited with deference, the thrumming louder now, or perhaps it was that the silence was more intense. They stood there.
He sipped the last of the drink, pushed the flask away and stood up. Nodded once in curt acknowledgement and waited as they lifted his helmet down and held it out. Nothing was said. Words were not needed. They knew what he was thinking, what he had decided. They could continue their experiments for the immediate future, despite the current disappointing outcomes. And the two SHADO captives? They would be transported later, on the next supply craft that was due to arrive. They were a poor substitute for the one that had been intended as a primary target, but the two men might provide some information.
Once gloved up he allowed the fluid to fill his helmet, to trickle into his mouth and pour down his throat down before forcing himself to breathe. A moment of suppressed fear before he relaxed and then, with his lungs filled with the oxygenating liquid, he stepped into the access tube, the door sliding round to enclose him and the metal disc opening to allow him access to the surface. It was with a sense of relief that he climbed the ladder to the welcome warmth of his small compartment, sealing the airlock behind himself then settling into his couch to begin the journey back. Gloved hands manipulated controls and the craft quivered to release itself from the clutch of the river mud before moving away.
Anyone walking by might have noticed a flurry of water, fine bubbles rising and dissipating, a soft glow deep beneath the surface, but it soon faded. Just a trick of the eyes.
On the river bed, deep below the surface, silt dropped from the slow-flowing murky water to cover the circle of metal.
Sara Harper stood there, puzzled and more than a little annoyed with herself. She had always considered herself to have a good sense of direction, but these corridors all looked the same and she was sure she had passed this door already. It didn’t help that they were, for the most part, unmarked. Dammit, she had enough to worry about without trying to find her way in this maze. Another junction. She turned on her heel, unsure where to go. Left?
The quiet and somewhat amused voice startled her and she twisted round to smile in relief. ‘Good morning Doctor Jackson. I was just looking for ………..’
‘One moment.’ The man stopped, tilted his head and regarded her with a quizzical look. ‘Do you know who I am?’
He shook his head. ‘Really? Do you? Think, Dr Harper.’
She blushed with the realisation. ‘I hadn’t thought. I…..’ She stood there, at his
mercy. No-one to protect her if he was a clone. Last time she had been with Straker and he had been armed. Now she was alone. She took a step away from him.
Jackson turned his back to her. ‘Feel free to check Doctor. But I suggest that in future you do not roam these corridors unaccompanied. We do not know who else might have been taken.’ He put his hands on the wall as she moved to brush the hair from his neck with fingers that trembled all of a sudden. Nothing.
‘Very well, Doctor Harper, now that you know who I am I will escort you to wherever you were heading.’ He gave her a short, almost unnoticeable, bow.
‘I have to do the autopsy. On Alec…’ she hesitated, ‘on Colonel Freeman’s clone.’
Jackson closed his eyes for a brief moment. ‘Yes. I will assist you if you wish. It might make things a little easier.’ She was grateful for that look of understanding in his eyes now and she nodded as he led the way to the mortuary.
The room could have been any mortuary in any hospital. Someone, years ago, had perfected the design for the most efficient use of space and the plans had no doubt remained unaltered since then. At least that was what Sara had always suspected. Somewhere in a government administration block the original plan was no doubt mouldering in a drawer. Faded, maybe with a few minor alterations, but still the same design. It would have been given some official designation such as DM:23s9/C . A random set of letters and numbers. But everyone would know it as ‘Mortuary Plan A’. No doubt ‘Plan A’ had been pulled out of the drawer when SHADO was built.
She knew where everything was. The steel door had his name on it. A. Freeman; the tray slid out easily on its steel runners. Dark patches stained the sheet. She paused, and then began pulling it back.
The face was more tranquil than she had hoped. A quiet death then. She hadn’t been sure. So Straker had let him slip away with dignity and peace, and despite the fact that he was the enemy, and by rights she should hate him, she could not. He was Alec. She let her hand stroke his face. His skin was cold under the warmth of her fingers.
‘Doctor?’ Jackson was there, deferring to her and ready to assist. She helped him slide the body onto the table then she finished folding the sheet back and lowered Alec’s arms at his side. Jackson reached for the spray. ‘Shall I ?’
Dr. Harper nodded. She had to prepare herself, had to put scrubs on and it was foolish to waste time. Jackson was as capable of washing a body as she was, and in a way it was a relief not to have to do that to him, to Alec. Not wash him like that, with cold water, so…….. .
She scrubbed her hands and arms at the sink, the hot water running down her forearms, the lather dripping off her fingers as she listened to the sounds of water behind her. She had no particular need to scrub up, but she needed to be busy while Jackson was hosing him down. Enough. She dried her hands, pulled on the scrub suit, gloved up, and picked up a scalpel from the tray.
She pulled the visor over her eyes, leaned over him, and began.
Another body that affected her, another intense experience that cut through her emotions as she cut through his flesh. Straker, and Alec. Two men, so different and yet both of them changing her life in ways that she could not have comprehended a few weeks ago. She blinked, and the blade halted for a moment before she adjusted her stance, moving the knife on and across his chest to the sternum in a precise and professional stroke.
Jackson stood back, observing her hands, her movements as she worked, as she tried to detach herself from the man beneath her knife. Not Alec. Not; her mind screamed at her, but her eyes lied. She paused and turned away to change her weapon, but in reality to try to compose herself. Back to the table, fingers gripping the steel, looking down at the man on the table.
She lifted the blade. It felt heavy. Her wrist were aching. She found it hard to concentrate or focus on what she had to do. She put the blade down and pushed back the visor to wipe her forehead with the back of her hand, blinking through blurred eyes. He was still there though, as her sight cleared and she tried to switch off her distress.
‘Sara?’ Jackson’s hand was on her elbow, supporting her as she let the scalpel clatter on the steel table. It slid under Alec’s arm. Unreachable. ‘Step away Doctor, please.’ She let her hand trail over cold fingers as she moved back. His eyes regarded her with compassion, his hand still close should the need arise.
She looked up, chastened, her own face pale and her legs beginning to tremble. ‘Sorry.’ Her own voice was unrecognisable, her own hands alien in front of her. Still gloved and ….. and discoloured with foul stains. She tore the gloves off, flung them on the floor. ‘I’m a scientist. I perform autopsies every day. Children, adults. All ages. This should be just another body but for some reason it isn’t. And please. Don’t tell me I’m being foolish.’
She didn’t look up, didn’t want to see that figure stretched out in front of her. Alec. Oh she knew it wasn’t him, it couldn’t be him. Alec was ….gone. And then she knew. It hit her like a physical blow. Shit. She had never expected to feel like this about him. Not real love. And it was too late.
He tilted his head. ‘Foolish? Far from it Doctor Harper. I understand your reaction. I too find it hard to see this person as anything other than Colonel Freeman. After all, this clone was a perfect replica, even to the same emotions and the same strength of character, and I am sure that, had he known you, he would have cared for you as the real Alec Freeman does.’
Sara sat down, half-turned away from the sight of the corpse, his clone, her lover. ‘You know Alec well I take it?’ The question was more to give her time to divert her thoughts than out of curiosity.
Doug Jackson cast one quick glance at the centre of the room. ‘Alec? Yes. At first he was .. distrustful of me, but I understood his reasons. Since then we have developed a respect for each other. Sara.’ He paused and those sharp eyes fixed on hers. ‘I do care. I am, even though I may not show it, very concerned for him. He is more than a Colonel in SHADO, he is a well-loved member of a small team. Furthermore he is Commander Straker’s closest, if not only, friend. That makes him even more important. And from what I have seen recently, I know that Alec Freeman thought of you as more than just a friend.’
Sara tried to stop herself shivering. ‘Ed has a hard time in front of him, I think. To have done what he did. And then to have to carry on as if nothing had happened.’ She pushed herself to her feet. ‘You know he killed that other clone, Ford, and then he had to question Alec. I couldn’t have done that. And then he……’ She shuddered, wrapping her arms around herself.
‘Yes, to have to kill the enemy is one thing, but this clone was Alec Freeman. Should we not manage to rescue the Colonel, then Ed Straker will have to deal with the memory of killing someone who was, to all intents and purposes, his best friend. That will not be an easy task.’
‘No. It won’t be. And there is very little I can do to help him deal with that. The only thing might be if I can find a clue as to where these clones are made.’ Sara stood up, snapped on fresh gloves, pulled down her visor and reached for another scalpel.
Doug Jackson folded his arms and watched Dr Harper settle to her task. Hands now steady, her mind fixed on what she had to do here in this clean and clinical room. He watched her, as the scalpel etched lines, as she folded back skin in the same careful way as she had folded the sheet back over Straker’s legs. And with that same care and concern she worked on, silent for the most part but with the occasional muttered comment as she found something that perturbed her.
‘Damn.’ She stripped off her gloves and dropped them in the hazardous waste container, before pulling on fresh ones. ‘Jackson, look at this….No.’ She raised a hand before he got any closer. ‘Gloves, double gloves please and a visor. I’m still not sure what we are dealing with here.’ She waited until he had complied and then waved him nearer to show him the corpse. ‘Look here. The major organs. They are dead or dying. It wasn’t as advanced as this in Ford. It’s an indication that these clones are incapable of independent life outside the surroundings in which they are grown. A liquid environment seems feasible, at least the current theories are working on that idea. We are years behind anything like this though.’
‘So the clones may survive for a few hours at most?’ Jackson’s face lit up in relief. ‘That is to our advantage. And we do know the identity of three of the clones they have been creating.’
‘Don’t bank on it Doctor.’ She gave him a grim look. ‘A couple of hours might be all the aliens need. Anyway, I’ve completed it now. I’ll ……..’ she flinched with hesitation. ‘Do you have an assistant who might finish up for me?’
‘I’ll get someone.’ Jackson frowned. ‘The usual technician is off sick. I will have to inform Colonel Foster about that. It’s most unusual.’