They knew where he was most likely to be in terms of general location. Somewhere inside the HQ. Hopefully within the Staff Lounge at some point. The resonance of piano music was their only clue, but it was enough to go on for now.
What was needed next was to pinpoint his precise physical position and then Colonel Lake would be able to make the minute adjustments to the transponder to alter the time inconsistency by a matter of picoseconds. And then, he would re-enter their time frame.
They fitted the equipment in the Staff Lounge, carefully aligning the arrays so the floor area was completely covered by overlapping circles of detectors. Colonel Lake checked and rechecked everything, and then nervously checked again. Finally she agreed that there was nothing else to do, apart from switch the system on. And wait.
So that was what they did.
It was an anticlimax really. Alec had not known what to expect; possibly flashing lights, or beams that flared across the room, illuminating the corners, and outlining the figure of Ed Straker. Or even Ed appearing suddenly in the room. But there was nothing.
'Well?' he asked Ginny, fiercely. 'What's happening?'
'It's working Alec, just be patient. There's no point in doing anything until we know the Commander is in this room. It could take a long, long time. Ed might not come here. He may have gone elsewhere. He may, by now, be…' she did not continue, but Alec could hear the unspoken words…. 'dead.'
'No. He won't be. He'll be here. We just have to wait. Just wait until he plays the piano. Then we'll know where he is and you can focus on him.' he almost growled the words and Rachel Philips put her hand on his arm. He looked down at her and a gentle smile creased his face. She suddenly realised, for the first time how truly beautiful and expressive Alec Freeman's eyes wereThey waited, sitting on the sofas, quiet, not talking much. The long minutes ticked by, slowly. An hour passed, and another and they still waited. And listened.
He was by now, desperately thirsty, and tired, and hungry, but the thirst was the greatest problem. He wondered how much longer he would be able to survive. Probably for another day or so at the most.
And his feverish mind played out the scene as if he was standing at the back of a sound stage watching a production; not of a chick-flick but something more sinister. A Gothic horror probably.
He watched himself as he took his last breath, gasping, parched, sitting there on the sofa. Alone, in the silence, surrounded by everyone but with no-one seeing him. Then he visualised his body gradually decomposing, here in the lounge, unnoticed, as life went on around him.
Eventually there would be nothing left apart from a skeleton, with scraps of hair still clinging to the skull, and rotting clothes covering his bare bones as they sagged back against the soft leather.
The last image; a rictus skeletal grin as his remains lay there ignored, invisible to the world that was so very very close to him, and yet so very far away.
But Rachel and Alec would never know that Ed Straker was still here, still in this underground complex.
He decided there and then that he would go outside to die. He would play the piano one more time, her favourite sonata, and then he would make the slow, weary journey up to the surface and find a quiet place where he would be able to see the Moon and stars later, when they suddenly appeared in the disjointed, time-fractured sky.
He would wait there to die, alone, but watched by the ever-constant universe. He would not rot away underground. His body would decompose much quicker outside. He would return back to ashes and dust in this tasteless, senseless world of ash and dust. A better death. A better end.
He went to sit at the piano, wiping his eyes tiredly, as if to clear them of unshed tears.
And then, a soft, delicate echo filled the room. Piano music. The piano seat was empty, the zebra stripe of keys still. But it was there all the same. Rachel turned to Ginny, a hard look of expectation lighting her face.
'Yes.' Colonel Lake breathed out the affirmative. She turned to Alec. 'Well, you know the drill. Get out of the focus and I'll locate him.' She looked at him. 'Go.' she shouted.
Alec and Rachel moved as quickly as they could, hugging the walls to avoid getting caught up in the beams from the adapted transponder as Ginny activated the position fixing sensors that would fix his precise location before she could initiate the transponder .
Fine lines of light strobed the room, illuminating everything in flashes of brilliant white. Rachel could hardly dare to breathe as she waited, desperately hoping, fists clenched. The lines coalesced at one specific point.
He was sitting at the piano, fingers still slowly moving across the keys, head bent with exhaustion. He looked up as the lights focussed on him, looked directly at them and stopped, smiled hesitantly, questioningly, and stood up as if to move towards the small group.
'Don't move.' Colonel Lake had never shouted so loudly. 'Ed, don't move.' Her voice was forceful and he paused, tilting his head to the side as if to listen to some distant sound.
He sat down again, hands in his lap, waiting, absolutely motionless, looking expectantly at the corner from where he had heard the sound of Ginny Lake's voice calling to him and where he had seen the shadowy nimbus outlines of his friends.
There was no epiphanic moment, no great fanfare as the timelines coalesced. He simply sat there, hands trembling and face drained and grey, until Ginny said, in a quiet voice that was in its own way as triumphant as a glorious shout, 'That's it. Welcome back Commander.'
Rachel reached him first. Clung to him and kissed him as she held him, and he ran his fingers wonderingly through her hair, as if he had never touched it before, had never felt her kisses before.
'I've missed you,' he said hoarsely, 'missed you so much. I didn't think I'd ever see you again, anyone again.'
She just held him, unable to speak, thinking about the horrors he must have endured over the last days.
Straker turned his head to look at Alec Freeman, 'Marie. Did you find her? Is she safe?' the urgency in his voice was unmistakable.
'She's fine Ed. She's safe and home with her family. The bracelet she was wearing disintegrated shortly after she appeared back in the studio and we had no idea what it had been used for. It was Ginny and Keith Ford who realised that the aliens had adjusted the time line so that you were just fractionally out of synch with us. Ginny,' and Alec turned and smiled, lovingly, at her, 'Ginny worked out how to adapt the transponder so that it could be used to resynchronise the times, and Rachel discovered that, from various reports of unusual occurrences, you were probably spending time in this area and you had been heard playing the piano. That gave us a location to concentrate on and then it was just a matter of getting all the equipment ready and working.'
Straker stood up, Rachel holding his arm as he staggered slightly, and walked over, not to the nearest sofa, the one where he had visualised his death and eventual decay, but to one further away, dropping into it with a sigh of relief. He looked at her, pleadingly. 'Rachel, could you get me some water please. I haven't been able to find anything to drink for a long time.'
His hands were trembling with weariness as he took the glass she brought. The intense taste of the water shocked him. He had never known pure cold water to taste this vivid, as if it was a captured, liquid rainbow. He finished it quickly, almost gulping it down, and she refilled it and brought it back to him.
He sat there quietly, drinking the water more slowly now, gradually composing himself , and then, his voice quiet with strain, started to speak.
'I realised that the spheres were a decoy, a means to inject me with a marker that the alien could use to locate me in the particular timezone when he had sent me into the other divergent time using his weapon. Unfortunately, his armlet would only transport one person. The first time I used it I ended up back in HQ alone, and I had to return immediately to Marie. It was then that I discovered that it had a limited number of trips. There was only one button still lit so I had to send Marie back alone. I was pretty sure that the device would not work again after she left me. I was desperately worried that something might have gone wrong. Thank God she is okay.' He smiled at the memory of the small child asleep in his arms.
'How did you get hold of the device Ed?' Rachel, sitting next to him asked quietly.
'Marie lured the alien into the corridor and I jumped him.' His eyes had a hard expression. He would not give them the details. 'After I sent Marie back I managed to drag his body outside and I buried it in the waste land near the south entrance. It's in that other time frame so we will never be able to retrieve it.'
'I wonder why the alien simply didn't kill you when he saw you out on the studio stages?' Ginny Lake mused.
Straker looked at her. 'I think he was probably trying to get the command codes from me. Or perhaps just to remove me permanently from SHADO. He wouldn't have been able to take me back to the normal time frame.' He sipped his water. 'We'll never know.'
'It doesn't really matter does it?' Rachel murmured, 'you're back here, with us, with me,' and she smiled at him.
'So, what now?' he looked up at Alec, his eyes reddened with tiredness. 'Is there anything I need to do?'
'Yes.' Alec grinned with pleasure. 'Relieve me of command if you don't mind. I hate being in charge. I'll take care of things here, as long as it's understood I'm not the Commander. That's your job. As soon as you've done that you can go home and get some rest.'
'Good idea,' Rachel nodded
Straker stood up, shakily. 'Very well, Colonel, I relieve you,' he smiled tiredly, 'and Alec; thanks. And that goes for you too Ginny. I'll speak to Keith on my way out.'
He put the glass down on the table and walked over to the piano, gently brushing his fingers across the keys in a silent salutation of gratitude before closing the lid. He turned to his fiancée. 'Rachel, do you mind taking me home?'
She led the way through the corridors to the Control Room. Straker was finding it difficult coping with the clamour and movement of people after so many days as a virtual hermit, sealed in his prison of silence, but she held his arm and gently guided him in to the bustling centre of operations.
There was a gradual cessation of noise as they saw him, and he stood for a moment, looking around at everyone just glad to be back in this room, in this 'now', after so many hours of haunting the empty spaces of HQ.
Keith Ford came over to him. 'Glad to see you, Commander,' he smiled and Straker shook his hand.
'Ginny told me you helped find me, Keith. Thank you.' He didn't say more, he didn't need to.
Smiling gratefully, he walked out to his waiting car, and sat in the back seat trying to stay awake. He wondered if he would ever see Marie again. Probably not, but it was enough to know that she was safe. That she was well.
And late that night, when noisy revellers woke him from his dreams, he didn't complain, but listened gratefully to the laughter and songs that echoed through the night, letting the noises gently lull him before he fell asleep, held closely, safely, in her arms.
March 2010 Not edited/re-written/altered apart from one minor change