'We have a live one Commander. Bringing him in now.'
Straker did not need the signs to guide him as he walked the corridors. The underground base had continued to develop over the years, adding new walkways, new sections, even lower levels, but the SHADO Commander knew every part and his mind was fixed on other things besides the layout of the base.
A live one. The first for over a year. Maybe this time they might have a chance. It was about time they got a break. He paused to let Alec catch up.
'Think we might be lucky with this one?'
Straker shrugged. 'It's time things went our way. The last couple of months...' Lost in thought he walked on, shoulders hunched.
The last couple of months. Skydiver 5 lost, three interceptors destroyed, and more than a dozen successful attacks by the enemy despite SHADO's best efforts. It happened. Alec was enough of a pragmatist to know that they could not always win, but somehow Straker took it personally. Maybe this capture would make a difference. He stuffed his hands in his pockets and strode on.
He reached the observation window and stood there wanting to step inside but forcing himself to wait for the doctors to finish.
Time passed. He ignored Alec and paced the bleak corridor, listening for the door opening, thinking about the alien and wondering if this time they might get some answers.
'Commander? You can come in now.'
He gave Alec a wry grin. Maybe. Just maybe. 'What have you got for us, Jackson?'
'The usual Commander. He fits most of the normal physiological profiles of all the other subjects that we have examined so far.'
'A healthy male with the characteristic green skin-tone and scars which might indicate heart and lung transplants. However…' Jackson paused, tapping his lips with one finger.
The doctor took a deep breath. 'There are some unusual features to this particular alien. It could be that he is from a different sub-culture to any previous subject, but I am undecided so far. '
'Unusual features?' Freeman stepped forward.
'Yes.' Jackson drew the syllable out as if reluctant to admit he was baffled. 'More hirsute, and with some anatomical differences to the bones in his arms and legs. We are in the process of making a full examination. But we will not get final results until we have completed an MRI scan later. Full gowns and masks please, if you are going in to see him.'
How many times had he stood here, face hidden behind the mask, gloved hands holding the bars as he peered down at an alien face. And still no response. This one was like all the others, silent and unresponsive, eyes closed, hair still plastered to its skull. He had to stop his interrogation in the end, not because he'd given up any hope of getting a response, but because Jackson was ready to move the patient to the scanner. There was no point in following them. He perched on a stool and folded his arms. Patient.
'They'll be a while yet. Why don't you get a coffee?'
Straker looked up, startled. 'What? Sorry, I was miles away.'
'Have a break. Stretch your legs, get a coffee.' Freeman held the door open. 'You can bring me one as well.'
'Giving orders now Colonel?' Straker grinned. 'Black, no sugar?' He pulled off mask and gloves and gown, bundling them all in the disposal chute. 'Five minutes.'
The nearest drinks dispenser was at the far end of the corridor and he lengthened his stride, enjoying even that brief exercise. He punched buttons, grinning at the thought of Alec ordering him about for once, took a quick gulp of his own coffee while he waited for the machine to dispense the second mug, and then began the walk back. The medical team were coming out with the alien at the precise moment he passed the door to the Scanning Department.
He stepped back to give them space but as the trolley swung around the alien opened its eyes and stared at him. Dark eyes. Feral eyes. Straker had no chance to respond before the alien lunged, mouth open in a silent snarl of hatred. There was just enough time to see long white teeth and claw-like fingers reaching out for his throat before…
'Ed. How are you feeling?' The voice came from far away. He opened his eyes for a moment but the light was too bright. His throat hurt and he put his hand up to touch the sore spot, but someone took hold of his fingers in a tight grip.
'Don't touch. Give it chance to stop bleeding.'
He lay still while his mind sorted out what had happened: the alien springing at him, fingers scratching his face and throat as it leapt from the trolley and pushed him to the floor, coffee spattering the walls and sharp teeth reaching for his neck. He shivered in horror at the memory and tried to sit up.
'No. Keep still. Jackson's just about finished.'
That was Alec's voice. He recognised it. Alec. He would do what Alec said. He lay still and waited, feeling the delicate contact of fingers fluttering around his throat. Not like the... He shuddered. 'The alien?' His own voice was unrecognisable, rough and grating.
'Dead. Not sure why.' The hand let go of his. Alec's hand. Alec's voice. 'You'll be fine. Jackson wants you to stay here for a while. Until you've woken up properly.' A strong hand touched his shoulder. 'I'll be back later.'
Freeman left the room and he lay still as Jackson's fingers – he could tell by the touch – wiped away blood then soothed over the scratches and the swollen bite marks before covering them with a dressing. He was tired. He could hear every tiny sound in the room: the slight asthmatic breathing of the nurse by the door, the faint thud of cotton swabs as they dropped into the dish, the intermittent drip of the tap in the far corner. Jackson was wearing a fresh cologne, sharp and tangy. It irritated his nose and made him want to sneeze. He could smell antiseptic and his own sweat, even the alcohol from the hand rub. He felt sick.
'Can I have a drink?' His voice rasped.
Jackson slipped an arm under his shoulders to raise him up and he was aware of a straw against his lips. The water was tepid and tasteless but he swallowed a few mouthfuls and leaned back.
'What time is it? And when can I leave?'
'Fourteen thirty-seven, Commander. I would like you to have a couple of hours sleep first. Your heart rate became very erratic at one stage and your temperature is somewhat elevated. I would like to make sure that you are fully recovered before I release you.'
Straker opened his eyes just enough to see the face close to his. He had an irrational desire to push the man away, to exert his authority over Jackson, but wisdom prevailed. He let his hand touch the dressing on his neck, the skin felt raw and hot and he flinched away from further exploration. He knew he was safe here and that nothing could harm him and so he curled onto his side and fell asleep.
Jackson watched the sleeping man for a few minutes before raising the bars at the sides and dimming the lights. He looked back once with a frown on his face before he closed the door. He had an alien to examine and questions that needed answering.
'Move the light closer.' Jackson peered at the body through his visor. 'Interesting. See how the canine teeth are elongated? Upper jaw and lower? Pliers.' He held out a hand. The implement slapped into his palm and he bent to his task. There was a crack and the clatter of something hard dropping into a dish. 'I want a full report.' He carried on working while his mind ran over possibilities. Outrageous possibilities. He cast the ridiculous thoughts aside and reached for the saw.
Straker stretched and yawned, alert and uncomfortably aware of the stench of blood in the distance. Not his blood. This was strange blood and yet somehow familiar as if he knew the smell, could even taste it on his tongue. He opened his eyes and blinked. The lights were dim yet he could see everything with utter clarity. He found his clothes and dressed with haste, telling himself that he had done as ordered, and Jackson would get in touch with him if necessary.
On the way he stopped to get a brew, two sugars, extra cream, in an attempt to eradicate the stale taste of tepid water in his mouth but the smell of the coffee was overpowering and almost nauseating. He put the cup down and walked away, shaking his head in confusion before standing at the entrance to his Control room to watch and check that all was as it should be. He did not want to intrude, just needed to make sure. He heard soft footsteps behind. Alec.
'You okay?' The loud voice startled him and the hairs on the back of his neck rose. He straightened his shoulders and turned.
'Yes. I'm fine.' His throat itched. A good sign; it was already healing. He resisted the temptation to scratch it.
'Get some fresh air. I'm on duty for a while.'
Fresh air. The thought was tempting, a breeze on his face and a smell of grass and damp earth instead of this scentless and sterile underground. He gave a curt nod and strode away as Alec called after him. 'I'll let you know if Jackson finds anything.'
It was a relief to get inside his 'outer' office and flick open the cigarette box. His voice was rough and rasping but it was enough to identify him and he paced the perimeter growing more impatient with each step. When the room came to a halt he fumbled the switch, pressing two buttons instead of just the one but he corrected the mistake; tiredness, that was all. The door opened and he was free.
Miss Ealand was not there, no doubt taking some files to the archives or perhaps getting some fresh air herself. She had not been gone for long. He could smell a different perfume to her usual soft fragrance and she had eaten curry the previous night. He wrinkled his nose in slight disdain and opened the window to clear the lingering smell. Then he scrawled a brief note on a piece of paper and walked out. The scrap of paper fluttered to the floor, unseen.
It had rained while he had been underground and he stood there, taking deep breaths and inhaling the scent of clean-washed air. A studio car drove past on its way to the exit, and he curled his lip in disgust at the fumes then set off walking past closed sound stages and empty parking lots. The parkland was not far away, and at this time of day it would be deserted.
Once under the shade of the trees, Straker removed his sunglasses with a sigh of relief and stood there, rubbing the bridge of his nose to ease the headache lurking there. The park was quiet, the only disturbance the rustle of small animals in the thick undergrowth and the soft calls of birds as they found a roost among the old oaks. A grey squirrel scrabbled up a tree trunk, barking at him in annoyance and he scowled at its impudence and walked on, running a hand through his hair and rubbing the back of his neck to ease the stiffness there. His hair needed cutting. It was getting shaggy, and ... he rubbed his jaw; perhaps he needed a new razor. The current one must be blunt even though he had replaced it a couple of days ago.
Shadows lengthened as the sun set although he was not perturbed about the coming dusk. He yawned again, stretching his arms out and rolling his head. The birds fell silent. He took another step forward and stopped at the sharp pain across his shoulders, and the sound of material giving way, ripping under strain. Damn. What the hell?
He stripped off his jacket, wondering if he had caught it on a stray branch and held it up for inspection. The squirrel barked a warning and he spun around only to fall as pain lanced through his body. There was no opportunity for thought or sensible and rational decisions. Instinct drove him into action and he managed one harsh scream before his throat refused to obey his commands.