The door was still closed and he began to feel that familiar tightening in his chest, the growing sense of panic, fear now starting to blur his composure. He pressed his hand on the panel. Harder. Nothing. No hiss of air, no vibrations. He reached into his pocket for the radio. He had left it behind.
Panicked now, he slammed his hand against the window, hoping that something, anything might open the door. It was as if he had hit solid steel. And even more obvious that no sound was transmitting to the other side. He could see Sara and Paul helping Alec to stand, could see the team members beginning to carry anything portable out into the tunnel. Could see others lift Chloe Rimmer and take her out, unconscious. But they hadn’t seen him here, trapped in this airlock, hammering and his fingers now clawing at the edges in a futile attempt to force the door open.
Then. Then he heard the hiss of air and a cold shiver of relief flooded through him. The door would open now and he shuffled his numb feet. He looked down.
Water. Icy water filling the small space in which he was imprisoned. Ankle deep already, filthy river water, winter cold and as murky as the liquid that had filled the cylinders. Where was it coming from? It splashed onto his shoulders and he looked up. The metal seal above his head had started to open and had jammed part way allowing water to gush down.
It was too small an aperture to climb through though. There would be no escape for him up the tube. And there was nowhere for the water to drain away. In desperation he hammered on the panel again, but all attention was on Alec and retrieving anything that might be salvaged before the domes collapsed and all was lost.
Straker pressed his hands against the window as Sara started to help Alec out into the narrow passageway that led to the tunnel. The water had reached his knees and he was unable to control his shivering, his legs cramping with the cold as it poured down, drenching his head as the torrent increased. He realised what had happened. The disintegration of the dome had also damaged the access tube. There was no way he could stop the flood. He had to get out.
And Alec saw him. Even trapped in this upright cylinder, Straker could see the look of utter horror distorting Alec’s face and making him drag himself from Sara to stagger across and put his hands against Straker’s. Half an inch, if that. A mere half-inch was all that was separating the two men. But it was enough. The water was up to Straker’s chest now, falling faster, and he pressed his hand flat as if to touch Alec’s hand, as if to get some last fragment of comfort, some small amount of warmth from the man standing there.
Water pouring down, bone-numbingly chill, his hands now bloodless and white, even as he saw Paul drag Alec away from the window and scrabble at the door. Straker was too cold to mouth a final message as the water covered his shoulders, and he tilted his head back as it lapped under his chin, almost paralysing him. Too cold now even to shiver, his hands still flat against the panel, but unfeeling, unaware of the contact.
No longer able to see Alec or Sara or Paul now, he put his head back until he was staring at the steel grey petals of the iris that were so near to him. Only a few more inches before…..
The water started trickling into his mouth, thick silt-laded water, the taste of scum on his lips and he swallowed and spluttered, kicking upwards in a last effort to press his face against that opening, to breathe those last precious mouthfuls of air into heaving lungs. One desperate and frantic gasp before his strength failed him and, despite his efforts, he slipped below the surface.
The ladder. If he could find the ladder he could hold on for a few moments longer. It might be long enough. But his hands were lifeless with cold. He pushed up again, managing one final intake of breath with his lips pressed against the cold metal of the iris even as water began clogging his nose and then he closed his eyes against the salty stinging.
Exhausted, he sank down, holding his breath even as he knew that it was hopeless, that whatever he did he could not survive, but the deadened fingertips of one hand still reached out to caress the panel as if that last remaining contact might be enough to sustain him.
Alec. At least Alec was safe, would carry on. Maybe it was time to stop fighting, to try to accept the inevitable and deep within him there was some sense of relief. It would be the end. His life would finish here. But that one regret was there, that one unfinished task. Rebecca. He would have liked the chance to explain to her, to tell her that he, Ed Straker, John Shepherd, whoever he was, he loved her. But it was too late now. He had made so many mistakes, done so much harm, and perhaps this was his punishment.
His burning lungs finally disobeyed him and he breathed, knowing in that last instant of consciousness that he would die here. It would be a proper end though, not the terrible living death that the aliens had promised with their cylinder and green fluid. And that was all that mattered now. He had to be content with that.
His hand slid away, his mind grew dark and on the other side of the window Paul Foster, his fingers as bloodied and raw as Ed Straker’s were white and cold, watched in horror as the body of his Commander sank down in the cylinder, the blond hair drifting in the water like fronds of pale seaweed, the lifeless blue eyes staring with a look of despair and the lips open to take in that final breath.
‘Stand back.’ Lt. James pushed Paul aside and swung the heavy crowbar at the curved door. Again and again. The noise reverberated through the space, screeching as the steel scraped over the transparent surface. James lowered the tool. ‘It’s no good.’
‘Let me. I’m stronger.’ Foster grabbed it, slamming the narrow claw into the tiny gap between the wall and curved door. A powerful blow with all his strength behind the action. And more than strength. He heard Alec cry out behind him, felt Freeman’s hands reaching out to try to take the bar.
‘Get him out of here.’ Foster didn’t stop his assault on the tube, as James dragged Freeman away into the tunnel and to safety. Sara stood next to him. Just the two of them here now. The dome was beginning to deteriorate. They had scarce minutes left before it collapsed.
He ignored her, tensed his shoulders, pulled once more with every fibre of hatred he could muster. Hatred of the enemy who had done this to Straker. Hatred of Rimmer and Thompson. Hatred of death itself.
He heard it crack, felt it give way, and he gave it one final jerk then stepped back as the cylinder’s surface shattered. Heedless of the sharp edges that cut into his already bloody fingers, he pulled at the shards as Sara came to help force an opening, and as the tube disintegrated the torrent of water that poured out carried Straker’s limp form onto the floor where he lay there, pale and lifeless.
Foster knelt down to scoop him into an embrace. ‘Ed,’ he whispered, and closed his friend’s eyes before he looked up at Sara. ‘It’s too late. He’s…’
Straker’s head was cradled in his hands now, and he felt tears fill his eyes.