Just a few weeks after my abruptly curtailed interview with Professor Cornish, the Mars Probe crisis exploded across the headlines. The round-the-clock live broadcasts from the British Space Centre generated incredible tension and soar-away ratings for the newly launched BBC3.
The nation seemed to stand still during the special broadcasts, as the Recovery 7 craft was sent into space to link up with Mars Probe 7. City streets were virtually empty and cinemas complained of a massive drop in attendances. They blamed the Mars Probe crisis - why should people go to the cinema to see simulated drama when the real thing was being beamed directly into their homes 24 hours a day? The event turned presenter John Wakefield into a television star overnight as his intelligent and thoughtful commentary gave simple explanations to the complex manoeuvrings going on behind the scenes.
Like most of Britain, I found myself transfixed by the pictures being sent back from space. I sat in front of the television long into the night, hugging Natasha, as we watched the flickering images.
I hardly need to recall the events in detail - the docking of Recovery 7 and Mars Probe 7, the loss of communications with Recovery 7 and its return to Earth. At the Chronicle, we were left to try and chase the story from the ground - talking to the wives of the missing astronauts, and sitting through official briefings that told us nothing we could not see by watching our own televisions.
Fortunately for us, there were some other newsworthy events taking place. The Government was still slowly falling apart after the plague fiasco, and around London there were a series of violent robberies of radioactive isotopes from nuclear facilities. We did our best to beat these stories up into a major scare about home-grown terrorists gathering parts to build their own nuclear bomb but the public were interested in only one thing - the Mars Probe.
Then the second recovery mission went up. It was while watching this that I spotted a familiar figure lurking at one side of the control room in the British Space Centre - Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart! What the hell was UNIT's involvement in this? Perhaps this was what Professor Cornish had been trying to tip me off about when he terminated our interview.
I telephoned the features editor at his home and urged him to reconsider including UNIT as part of the ‘Frontier Science’ series of articles I was still researching. Michael Dobbyn had been features editor at the Chronicle for little over a year. He had got his start as a cadet at the Chronicle a decade before, but defected to the Mail for five years where he gained a reputation for hard work and harder play. Still under thirty, he came back to the Chronicle as features editor. It proved a difficult assignment, especially as many in the department were more than twenty years his senior. Despite this, Dobbyn was staging a quiet revolution in Features and fervently hoped to never again be addressed as ‘whipper-snapper’.
I told him I now had proof of UNIT's involvement in the Mars Probe - the authorities could hardly deny what was being broadcast on national television. Not to mention the whispers about UNIT's part in the events at Wenley Moor, nor the presence of UNIT in the Ashbridge area just before the terrorist attacks of Black Thursday.
Finally, Michael relented. ‘All right, all right, you can look into UNIT. But be careful, for Christ's sake. If you've had this much trouble up to now trying to get any information about this cloak-and-dagger outfit, imagine how many doors will close once they know you're after them,’ he warned. So, while the rest of the world waited for a world-wide television link-up about the Mars Probe mission that never came, I was back in the reference library, poring over the old files for any background I could find on UNIT and its origins.
Most intriguing were the links I discovered between UNIT and the so-called secret service ministry, C19. One of my sources, a highly placed member of the intelligence community, confirmed that C19 acted as the official liaison between UNIT and the British Government. I tried to follow this up, but C19 decidedly reluctant about discussing its functions.
I put in numerous requests to the Ministry of Defence, the Home Secretary's Office and to the United Nations itself for information about UNIT. The most helpful information I got was from UN headquarters in Geneva - they gave me the London street address for UNIT! I made my way to a suitably anonymous building near the high street in Ealing Broadway, expecting at any moment to be firmly rebuffed, or even arrested. Instead a small brass plaque was mounted on the wall outside, with plain block lettering engraved into it: united nations intelligence taskforce.
Inside sat a pleasant, smiling receptionist behind a plain desk, with just a simple switchboard the only thing visible on its surface. But I was aware of a series of small, remote-controlled cameras following my every move as I entered the office.
‘How can I help you, sir?’ asked the receptionist.
‘My name's James Stevens; I'm a journalist with the Daily Chronicle. I'd like to speak to Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart.’
‘I'm sorry, but the brigadier is rather busy cleaning up after that business at the space centre. Wasn't it exciting?’
‘Yes, very,’ I gushed in returned. ‘Do you know when the brigadier will be back?’ She just shook her head. ‘Perhaps there's somebody else I could talk to?’ Another shake of the head, her pretty blonde curls waggling slightly. ‘How about I leave my card and you could pass it on to the brigadier?’
‘I'm sorry, the brigadier doesn't speak with the media. But I will tell him of your interest. Thank you for calling,’ she concluded with another triumphant smile. The urge to wipe that smile off her face was almost overwhelming, but violence to a UNIT receptionist would do me no good. I dropped my calling card on her desk anyway and left, my movements still tracked by the security cameras.
It was just after my visit to the UNIT ‘store-front’ that I started to notice oddities creeping into my life, almost imperceptibly. Strange extra clicking noises on my telephone at work, then soon afterwards on my home phone lines as well. At first I thought I was imagining it, but then Natasha mentioned the noises as well. She put it down to the telephone engineers who seemed to have been stationed across the road from our flat working on the lines for days on end.
My requests for official information also seemed to be affected. Queries to which I could normally get an answer within hours now took days or even weeks to bring a reply. Some of my most reliable sources within the halls of power became reluctant to talk to me, and certainly not while they were at work.
‘The word's been spread James, anyone seen or heard talking to you is persona non grata, dear,’ whispered Martha, a friend from the Ministry of Science. ‘I'd keep my head down if I was you.’
These little niggles did not worry me. I only started to become truly nervous when the phone calls began. Strange messages were left for me at the Chronicle, sending me on wild goose chases for meetings with people I had never met but who wanted to give me information. I started receiving information packs at work for all manner of bizarre items: wheelchairs, stair-lifts, home loan offers...
Then the packages began to arrive: scraps of blood-stained clothing, crudely constructed figures of dead soldiers, information packs from funeral houses, and even a smashed and splintered crutch with my initials burnt into the wood. All were accompanied by threatening notes made up of letters clipped out of headlines published in the Chronicle. I tried to track down the culprits but there was virtually no way for the Royal Post to find the person responsible. ‘I'm sorry, but the postal service is open to abuse,’ explained a bored postal manager at the local sorting office. All very petty stuff but it was beginning to mount up, playing on my nerves.
Gradually, little by little, I was becoming more and more paranoid that an active campaign of harassment was being directed against me. I had the feeling of being watched all the time, as if my movements were being tracked by a person or persons unknown. Then the threatening phone calls started.
‘Is that James Stevens?’ said a male voice with a distinctive lisp.
‘I understand you're working on a story about UNIT. I might have some information for you...’ That got my interest. I grabbed a pen, waiting for the caller to continue. ‘Unless you want to spend some time in the Glasshouse, we suggest you go chase another story. This one could be hazardous to your health - permanently, if you know what I mean.’
‘Who is this?’ I demanded furiously.
‘Just something you could give some thought to...’ the voice trailed off as the receiver clicked, then went dead.
‘Who is this?’ I demanded again impotently before slamming my phone down and cursing out loud. I told the chief reporter about the call but he was dismissive, saying it was probably just some crank. I shifted desks and changed my direct-line phone number the next day, only for more threatening calls to come in on my new number. Eventually the chief reporter took it more seriously and called in the police.
By the time the police arrived in the form of two beat constables I almost felt foolish at having been so easily panicked. I apologized as they checked over my phone and took down the details of the calls. The young WPC was sympathetic, but she said there was little the police could do beyond putting a trace on my line. That would have to be approved by CID and that could take some time, but she promised to get back to me.
Her burly companion remained sour-faced and mono-syllabic throughout the short interview. Just before they left I noticed a glint of metal on his right hand. It was a gold ring with three raised symbols on its surface which read C19. I almost asked him why a beat constable was so conspicuously wearing such an item of jewellery, but his presence was quite intimidating.
The threatening phone calls continued and soon Natasha was receiving them at home too. She said the caller was a man with a lisp and he claimed to have some information about me and my personal habits she might find very revealing. I had our home phone changed to an ex-directory number, but still the calls continued. Natasha called in the police, but they also said their powers were limited in such matters. Eventually we installed a phone that only accepted outgoing calls and employed an answering service to screen out the threats.
Once everything had settled down to normal again, I asked Natasha to describe the police officers who had visited the flat. Their descriptions matched those of the policeman and woman who had visited me at the Chronicle office in Fleet Street, despite the fact that both pairs claimed to have come from the local police station. Something very strange and disturbing was going on. Natasha had even noticed the policeman had something written on his signet ring, as she described it.
‘What, like his initials?’ I asked carefully, trying not to let slip my suspicions. She was only just recovering from the phone calls, I did not want her frightened any more.
‘No, it was two numbers and a letter. I think it said C19,’ she replied thoughtfully. ‘I noticed because I thought it odd they had consecutive serial numbers on their epaulettes - C19101 and C19102. Does that mean anything to you?’ I turned away and shook my head, not wanting her to see the fear on my face.
Now I had something new to investigate. I knew about C19's role as liaison to UNIT, but why was C19 trying to intimidate me? Was there any link between this and UNIT's role in recent incidents like Black Thursday and the Mars Probe crisis? Was this taskforce a force for good or some secret counter-insurgency agency that jealously protected its true identity? Could UNIT be fighting terrorism, or was it a covert terrorist force itself?
To find out more about UNIT, I would need to devote myself fully to an investigation of its origins as well as its current status. Citing my ‘Frontier Science’ feature series, I took a seven-week sabbatical from the Chronicle offices to concentrate solely on my UNIT investigations. After nearly two years working non-stop at the Chronicle, I had two months holiday owing to me anyway; indeed, my honeymoon with Natasha had been just a weekend in a suite at the Savoy, I recalled guiltily.
I set up a private office in the spare bedroom of the flat, forbade Natasha entry to it, and even barred the cleaning lady from taking out the rubbish. I was determined that there could be no distractions and no chance for anyone to intercept the work I was doing. From now on, all my calls to contacts were made from public call boxes, meetings took place in a different location every time, and I took elaborate steps to make sure I was not being followed.
At times I felt foolish for such paranoid measures, but the threatening phone calls had chilled me to the bone. I had been warned off stories before, but never with such ferocity. I was taking these threats seriously. As the news editor at the Chronicle had once told me over a drink, ‘If you want to play with the big boys, you've got to be prepared to fight dirty. If they've got things to hide, there are people in this country who are prepared to do anything to protect themselves. Anything.’
The information I gathered over those seven weeks of intensive detective work came from a variety of sources. It was surprising what information was freely available if you knew where to look for it, while other facts that seemed far more trivial were bound up by the Official Secrets Act and would not see print until long after I was dead. My contacts within various Government ministries and outside agencies proved invaluable, as did the staff at the Chronicle's reference library.
Almost nobody would go ‘on the record’ to talk about UNIT, its members, or its relationship with C19. Those in official positions were risking their jobs and perhaps much more just by talking to me. Others would only speak in riddles for me to decipher, or merely confirm or deny any facts and suppositions I put to them. One person was willing to talk to me on the record, but how much credence I could place on what she said was another matter. Her name was already a standing joke in Fleet Street.
A rising star in the world of fashion photography, Isobel Watkins was most famous for a series of wild claims she made earlier in 1969 about an attempted alien invasion of Earth. To back up her story, she produced a series of photographs of the alien invaders, which were widely denounced as fakes by various experts of the time. All of this was merely good novelty fodder for the more bizarre end of the Sunday tabloid market. What made me interested in Miss Watkins was an overlooked detail in her claims, namely that UNIT and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart had been intimately involved in fighting off the extra-terrestrial attackers. Sceptical as I was about her claims, I could hardly ignore them.
I arranged to meet Miss Watkins at her flat in Bloomsbury. It was a chill December evening as I approached the address. After reading a few old clippings describing her alien invasion claims, I had half expected a wild-eyed woman ranting and raving about little green men and monsters from Mars. Instead, Miss Watkins - ‘Call me Isobel,’ she urged - was sane, sensible and quite beautiful. In her twenties, she was tall and willowy with fine blonde hair cut in a Mary Quant bob. With cheekbones to match those of any model currently on the cat-walk, I could not help but ask why she was not a model herself.
‘If I had a pound for every time somebody has used that line on me,’ she said. I dug around in my pockets and offered her two of the gleaming new seven-sided fifty pence pieces.
‘I know we're not decimalized yet, but will these do?’ I replied. She smiled and invited me inside. From the exterior the mansion block containing her flat looked staunchly Victorian, made of stolid brick and mortar. But inside, the flat was a riot of colours, with bean bags piled across the floor and sitar music gurgling in the background. Most fascinating of all were the walls, covered with dozens of photographic blow-ups of her work.
All the faces of the Swinging Sixties were represented: a bleary-eyed Jimi Hendrix; the Rolling Stones releasing three and a half thousand white butterflies at their massive Hyde Park concert from the previous summer; Twiggy and Lulu; Paul McCartney emerging into a near riot of screaming, tearful fans after his marriage to Linda Eastman... Isobel herself appeared several times in self-portraits. ‘Cheaper than paying for a model,’ she explained before I could comment.
Another striking visage belonged to another girl on Isobel's wall of fame. The face was elfin with intelligent eyes, framed by a square fringe and a wild feather boa. The features were appealing but unfamiliar. ‘That's Zoe, a friend who posed for me,’ Isobel said.
Finally, there was the series of big, grainy black and white pictures that had brought this young photographer so much grief and ridicule. Each showed a tall, metallic figure looming menacingly in what appeared to be a tunnel or sewer pipe. They looked like men dressed up in rubber suits and metal masks that had been sprayed with silver paint. Yet the figures were quite intimidating, with a chilling, inhuman quality.
‘These are the extra-terrestrials I photographed,’ said Isobel matter-of-factly. There was no shame or embarrassment, no hint of deceit or hyperbole about her words or her manner, just utter candour. I decided to test her resolve, to see how she would react to having her claims thrown back in her face.
‘Photographs which every expert in Britain says are fakes and cheap forgeries,’ I challenged. She did not flinch or become angry.
‘I know,’ she said resignedly. The pretty young woman in the daringly short mini-skirt carefully folded herself onto a bean bag and invited me to sit opposite her. ‘But they aren't fakes, they're as real as you or I. You try taking photographs in a dark sewer with virtually no lighting while being attacked by an inhuman killer from another world and we'll see how good your pictures are!’
I sat down and explained about my investigation. She had told her story a hundred times, but would she retell it to me. Perhaps there was some detail she had missed before, some fragment that could help me prove what she was saying was true? Reluctantly, Isobel agreed, outlining her tale for me.
The extra-terrestrials tried to conquer Earth in the spring of 1969 and nearly succeeded, she said. They put the whole world into an hypnotic trance for several hours and began seizing control of crucial power and communications centres around the globe. Only the international fighting forces of UNIT had been able to stop them, led by Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. Isobel said that she had accompanied UNIT on several of its missions and had even made friends with some of its secret operatives.
‘Who were they?’ I asked. So far Isobel had told me nothing new - she was about to change that.
‘Well, there's Zoe, who you've already seen,’ replied the photographer, gesturing back at the elfin face on her wall. ‘She was a genius at maths. Then there was a Scots lad, Jamie, who wore a kilt all the time. He was a real Scotsman,’ said Isobel, a quiet smile on her lips. ‘And, of course, the Doctor.’
‘The Doctor,’ she replied. ‘I think Zoe said his name was Doctor John Smith, but everyone just called him the Doctor. Do you know him?’
‘I've never heard of him before. What does he look like?’
‘Short, crumpled, quite cute actually - he had his hair just like the Beatles used to, in a moptop.’
‘And what did this trio do?’
‘A lot of running around, really. I got the impression they knew an awful lot more about these invaders than anyone else. The Brigadier seemed to know him and Jamie from a previous meeting,’ said Isobel. ‘The Doctor, Jamie and Zoe turned up out of nowhere, helped UNIT save the entire planet and then just disappeared again.’ She stood up and indicated it was time for me to leave. ‘It's not that I mind talking about what happened, I just know you'll never find any proof to back me up. They've covered their tracks far too well.’
‘Who has covered their tracks - the Doctor and the others?’
‘Everyone. The British Government, the super powers, UNIT, those bastards at C19-’
‘C19?’ I asked. ‘What has C19 got to do with this?’
Isobel sighed, pushing a few strands of hair out of her face before continuing wearily. ‘Afterwards, when it was all over and I went public with my story, I started getting threatening phone calls from a man with a lisp. He dropped heavy hints that he was from C19 and I should keep my mouth shut or else.’
‘Well, suddenly my photos were being derided across the media as fakes. It's taken me months to get any new photographic work; none of the agencies will touch me because of all the stories about me in the papers. It's as if someone has put me on some kind of invisible blacklist. I even lost my boyfriend because of C19: they said his career with the army was in jeopardy if he kept seeing me!’
‘Has the harassment stopped yet?’
‘I think so. At least the phonecalls have stopped,’ she said wearily. ‘Look, I've got to go out and drag my portfolio around the agencies again. If you need any more information, you know where to call me, okay?’
I soon found myself standing outside her flat, my mind racing as it tried to absorb the significance of what Isobel had told me. I stumbled down the stairs and out into the chill early evening air. I had to find a drink and a quiet corner in which to think. My gaze wandered up and down the tree-lined avenue, looking for the familiar hanging sign of a pub.
My eyes settled on a black Jaguar car parked opposite Isobel's building. The windows were tinted but the flare of a match lighting inside the vehicle outlined the features of its male occupant. His face was the same as the burly ‘policeman’ who had come to see me at the Chronicle and who had been to my flat as well. I swore under my breath and strode off quickly towards Russell Square, glancing back only once to see if I was being followed. But the car remained opposite Isobel's flat.
Soon afterwards I was grimly clutching a pint of bitter in a pub on Marchmont Street, the Lord John Russell. The appearance of the C19 operative outside Isobel's building had scared the hell out of me. Was he there watching her or me? The threatening phone calls to me had stopped but had the covert surveillance I was sure had been going on also ceased? The fact that Isobel Watkins had also been the victim of harassment by C19 was almost reassuring, because it showed I had not been imagining the whole thing. But it just made me all the more paranoid, because now the stakes were being raised.
There was more at risk here than just my reputation, there were others at risk from this conspiracy. What the hell was being covered up? A single, terrible secret or a series of incidents? Could this just be part of some ongoing covert intelligence work by the Government, directed through the likes of C19 and UNIT?
I forced myself to put this unhelpful speculation to one side and focus on what Isobel had told me. I could not believe her story about alien invaders, it was just too fantastic. But like many legends and religious tales, there were obviously some truths hidden within the elaborate fantasy she had concocted. Just how much was I willing to believe?
The strangest part of Isobel's story was how much she believed in it. There was no hyperbole to what she said; she was not trying to cast herself as the hero or play up her role in the events she described. She spoke of this ‘invasion’ with complete and utter conviction. But who were this Doctor John Smith and his two friends? Were they operatives of UNIT, of C19, or some other, as yet unknown agency? All of these questions I had to find answers for if my feature about UNIT was to see print.
I pieced together the information in the chapter that follows painstakingly over the months of December 1969 and January 1970. The Christmas and New Year's breaks that year were a blur of secret meetings and quiet whispers in corners at ministerial office parties, with gifts that consisted of bundles of sealed documents wrapped inside elaborately shaped parcels.
I finally sat down at the end of January 1970 and assembled the facts available into a rough chronological order. I was attempting to chart the events and principal people who lead to the formation of UNIT, and what that covert organisation's real activities were, as far as I could determine.
A new decade had begun and it was time for some home truths to be uncovered. What follows is the article I prepared for publication in the Daily Chronicle. These were my findings on the truth about UNIT, based on the facts, documented evidence and eye witness statements I had accumulated at the time.