A strong hand gripped his shoulder, hard enough to get his attention.
‘Can you carry him? Paul?’ Sara Harper’s voice cut through his grief like a knife. ‘Are you strong enough?’
He didn’t reply, just tensed and held his breath, then stood up, groaning with the effort but with Straker in his arms. A sleeping child being carried to safety.
‘What now?’ he grunted, as Sara led the way out.
‘We have to get to safety. Hurry Paul. Please.’
The fabric of the entrance had not re-sealed itself after the last group had cut their way out. Proof, if any were needed, that the domes were decomposing or disintegrating or whatever it was they were doing. It didn’t matter though, and he forced his way through the gap still holding Straker close to him, his friend’s body cold with no sign of life, not a flutter of an eyelid or a single twitch of lips.
Through the small room and out into the tunnel itself now, Sara running ahead and looking back to see if he was following. He wanted to run as well, but the dead weight in his arms slowed him down although he refused to abandon Ed. He heard footsteps ahead, saw others coming to help and he staggered to a halt to lean breathless and gasping against the filthy walls as they took his burden from him.
There was a soft explosion of sound from behind. A blast of thick and foul-smelling air pushed into the tunnel and Paul knew that the domes had given way and that the alien base was now crushed under the rock and clay and mud of the river bed. But there was no influx of mud or water into the tunnel as he had feared there might be. They were safe. His legs trembled and gave way and he slid down against the wall until he was slumped there, his chest heaving as he tried to catch his breath.
He looked up, to see that they had lowered Straker to the floor and Sara was on her knees and leaning over him, her fingers touching his throat. She bent to lay her head on his chest and Paul wondered what she was doing. His heart was thumping and his mouth dry, but he hitched himself across the uneven slabs of the floor to move nearer.
‘Sara,’ he croaked, ‘what’s happening?’ Hope flared inside him.
She was too busy to answer him, her whole concentration on the man lying there. ‘Come on Ed,’ Paul heard her mutter, ‘don’t give up on me,’ and she interlaced her fingers and pressed her hand on Straker’s chest. Paul could do nothing but watch as she pushed down hard, over and over again, counting aloud to herself to keep the rhythm steady. Over and over. She tilted Straker’s head back to give him two deep breaths and Paul saw the chest rise and fall twice, before she continued with the compressions. Hard compressions. He heard a crack and saw Sara flinch but she carried on even as Jackson and James came running along the tunnel.
Paul was pushed aside as they gathered around Sara and the man she was trying to save, and despite his desperate wish to help there was nothing he could do. He was in the way and he struggled to his feet and leaned against the wall, watching the huddle of medics, watching Sara still pushing down on Straker’s chest, sweat beginning to drip off her with the effort.
‘Jackson, James.. ready,’ she gasped. ‘On my mark. Three… two… one… Mark.’ She lifted her hands in one smooth movement and slid away as Jackson moved into position. James forced another two breaths into Straker before Jackson took over from Sara. She pushed herself to her feet, looking up at Paul, her face pleading. ‘There’s a chance. It’s not too late.’ She stared back at the group clustered round the lifeless figure of Straker, his hands limp by his sides, skin ashen and the only discernable movement the rise and fall of his chest when James breathed air into his lungs. She bit her lip anxiously, and Paul reached out to grasp her hand and wrapped one arm around her as she shivered. Two breaths, thirty compressions. Over and over. They counted in silence. James bent again.
‘James!’ The shout from Jackson was enough to make the other man lift his head and pull away as Straker started to vomit. They twisted the unconscious man over as he began retching, his fingers twitching as spasms tore through him, but his eyes remained closed and unaware of those who knelt by him, their faces concerned.
Jackson placed his hand on Straker’s throat, a light touch with the tips of his fingers just pressing into the flesh before he sat back and sighed. ‘I can feel a pulse.’ And he let his hand rest on the sodden t-shirt to feel for any movement of ribs. ‘He’s breathing.’ He grinned up at Sara. ‘Dr Harper.’ He turned back to Straker, his finger lifting the eyelids in turn. ‘Both pupils responsive. Good. We need to get him warm. Get a stretcher. And blankets.’
He bent over again, his fingers checking the rapid and fluttering pulse in Straker’s neck, while James radioed to the teams above. It was too cold in the tunnel and the floor leeched heat from bare skin. Jackson stripped off his jacket and with the help of Sara slid it under Straker in an attempt to protect him. It was not sufficient though and he sighed with relief as they heard the sounds of running footsteps and the rattle of the stretcher.
‘Sara? A hand if you please.’ Jackson organised the small group, lifting his patient and then stripping him of his sodden and icy clothes. He put a hand on Straker’s abdomen and frowned. ‘Too cold.’ But Paul had already pulled off his jacket and was tugging his thick sweater over his head to pass them to the doctor.
Jackson tucked the still-warm clothes over Straker’s torso before wrapping him in the blankets. It would have to do until they got their patient to the surface. He looked down for one last check then nodded at the group. ‘Gentlemen. Let’s go.’ As they hurried along the tunnel Jackson kept pace with the stretcher, his eyes watching with concern.
Sara followed, numb with cold and the sheer disbelief of the past minutes, and even as she walked she stumbled and Paul’s arm was around her again, holding her. She leaned on him, her cheek brushing on the warmth of his startlingly soft bodyhair, almost too exhausted to keep walking, but the tunnel ended and they came out into the entrance area where others were waiting. There was frantic action and noise as orders were given and the stretcher was lifted up the steps, with Jackson still alongside, refusing to leave until he knew Straker was safe.
Sara followed step by weary step, only the fact that Paul was holding her up stopping her from sinking down onto the crumbling treads and sitting there unable to move any more. She had never felt so drained.
The area outside the rotunda was busy with SHADO people marshalling casualties and loading equipment into jeeps and trucks. Paul gave her a quick hug. ‘Okay?’ and then he was moving away to see to his team and check on Straker. She looked around at the confusion of lights and noise and people. People standing waiting. Watching. And then she saw him.
Alec. Alec was there. Waiting for Ed and for her and she went to him and clung to him and sobbed, not caring who saw her, or what people thought. He held her close as she cried, as the horror of the last days faded and she leaned against him, feeling his heartbeat, wanting to hold onto him. The warmth of his body, the soft murmur of words in her ear, his hand lifting her face up to meet his as he bent to kiss her. Not a passionate kiss of desire, not even an intimate kiss, but one that spoke of love and thankfulness and longing. And gratitude that she was here, that he had survived and that the nightmare was over. She felt him shudder as if to cast off the horror and then he released her though one hand reached out to clasp hers as if he could not bear to part from her.
‘Paul.’ Alec called out as Foster banged on the door of an ambulance to send it on its way. ‘Ed. What’s happening?’
Paul came hurrying over, oblivious to the cold air as he concentrated on completing the operation. ‘Jackson’s gone with him. We’ll know more later. But he’s optimistic. Says the temperature of the water helped.’ One of the remaining medics approached with a blanket and Paul wrapped it around his shoulders, an incongruous sight now in the thin silver covering. He flicked his head at the remaining ambulance. ‘You have to go now Alec. Dr Harper? I leave it to you to make sure Colonel Freeman obeys my orders.’ He smiled at her. ‘And …thank you.’