Nick paced grouchily in front of the anomaly, the wait doing nothing for his mood. He’d spent some time talking to the support team who had stayed behind, including one of the communications officers, the two ambulance paramedics and their drivers, but he’d found that everything he’d said had come off as rude or terse and so he’d decided to keep himself to himself rather than insult someone gratuitously.
It struck him as almost ironic that he now knew something of what Claudia must have felt when they’d taken the future predators back, leaving her behind and expecting her to just wait, nervously wondering if they’d ever return. In hindsight it was an almost cruel thing to have put her through. He certainly wasn’t coping well with the same thing himself.
She’d said back then that she’d had a bad feeling about the whole mission, much like the one he was having now, probably. Nick just hoped that he was simply being paranoid and that he wouldn’t turn out to be as perceptive as she’d been.
Still, the wait was killing him, the idea of not knowing. He was almost getting to the stage where attempting to run past the armed men was actually starting to feel like a good idea. His fragile patience was nearly at an end when the anomaly shimmered and a solider ran through, hollering immediately for the medical team.
The men quickly ran up, kits at the ready, responding to the order with practiced professionalism. Nick tried to join them but he was immediately held back by the same man who’d stopped him earlier, explaining that he must stay clear.
He was close enough however to hear the returning solider say that he’d been told by the captain that the team was returning with severe casualties.
Nick was sure that for a moment his heart nearly stopped in shock, all his fears seeming to come true as the implication of those words sunk in. He wanted to run up to the man and demand more information – Who was hurt? Were they badly injured? Was anyone dead? – but he was prevented by a combination of the solider blocking his way and his own body frozen into immobility.
The concerned silence was soon broken.
Ryan appeared first, blood running from a head wound. The man slung over his shoulder was either unconscious or dead, it was hard to tell which from where Nick stood.
Stephen came next, carrying an unconscious Connor, with Claudia walking awkwardly alongside him, pressing a large pad to a heavily bleeding wound on the young man’s abdomen. Claudia’s face sported a large bruise as though she’d taken a solid blow. Behind them was Abby, looking bruised and battered, her face tear stained.
For Nick, shock heavily outweighed any relief he felt. It couldn’t be happening, he kept telling himself, it just couldn’t. He’d been paranoid and overly worried. His worst concerns weren’t supposed to come true.
Another two soldiers followed, one, bleeding heavily from a gash down his left arm, but still using it to support a heavily limping companion, both doing their best to aim rifles from the hip.
And that was it. No more came back. It was less than half of those who had gone. A pitiful number returning and all injured in some way.
“Keep it covered!” Ryan barked, as he left the man he had been carrying in the care of a medic. The uninjured men hurriedly fanned out in front of the anomaly, weapons trained and ready, their captain quickly joining them.
At last the soldier who had been holding Nick back joined his colleagues, but it made no difference to the professor. He continued to stand utterly still, his mind to unable to comprehend what he was seeing, leaving him able to do nothing but watch the chaos around him.
None of the others seemed to have even noticed he was there, all too busy in their own crises to worry about him.
Stephen laid Connor onto a stretcher. The young man looked in a bad way and Abby was crying as she looked on. Stephen threw his arm reassuringly around her shoulders.
Regaining some of his wits, Nick forced himself to stumble over to them, barely noticing those he pushed past in order to get there.
“Are you all right keeping pressure on that?” the medic was asking Claudia.
She nodded sharply, still pushing the pad against Connor’s abdomen, her hands already covered in his blood.
“What happened?” Nick asked, his voice hollow, following them as they wheeled the young man towards the ambulance.
Claudia glanced up at him briefly, visibly upset and shaken. The sight of the injury to her face coupled with her bloodied hands made Nick’s stomach turn.
“Helen,” she said, voice trembling, “She led us into a trap.”
In truth Nick had forgotten about Helen entirely. In the face of what he was seeing he’d forgotten their reason for going in the first place and he hadn’t even noticed that she hadn’t been brought back with them.
He watched with numb disbelief as Connor was loaded into the ambulance, accompanied by Claudia. The doors slammed and they drove off.
The only thought in his mind as he looked around him at the chaos and mess, the shocked and injured men, was that Helen had been the cause of all this.
Nick didn’t see Claudia at the hospital. By the time he, Abby and Stephen arrived she had already been called back to the Home Office, leaving instructions for her to be contacted should any of the injured people take a turn for the worst.
Connor had needed multiple stitches and had lost a significant amount of blood, but his injuries were mostly superficial and he’d be all right, if somewhat sore, providing he got some rest. From what Stephen had told him, the kid had been incredibly lucky. The creature had only just caught him with its claw, Abby pulling him out of harm’s way almost in time before Stephen had shot it. Had the stroke connected fully, he almost certainly would have been disembowelled.
Not that Connor seemed too traumatised by that fact as he lay comfortably in bed. From the mildly inane grin on the young man’s face, Nick suspected that his mellow mood could be probably attributed to a generous dose of painkillers.
Abby sat on the edge of his bed, having cleaned herself up, and was looking less shaken than she had before. Stephen stood to one side, the grim expression he’d had on his face finally softening as the three of them managed to smile even after what they’d been through.
Nick hovered by the doorway, just peeking in to check, not really feeling welcome. Feeling like he didn’t belong there in spite of what they might say. He hadn’t been a part of this. He had, in fact, purposely decided not to get involved. The sensible part of him knew it wasn’t his fault but he couldn’t stop himself taking at least a small proportion of the blame.
The irony was that he’d ended up doing exactly what he had warned the others not to do; he’d underestimated her. He’d never conceived that she’d be so callous as to secure her own escape in such a brutal manner. He still didn’t believe she would purposefully kill anyone, not in cold blood, but she was clearly perfectly happy to leave lives in jeopardy when it suited her. He’d always had her down as the type for well thought out plans and schemes, not desperate escape attempts. That mistake had proven to be nearly disastrous.
He slipped away from Connor’s room unnoticed, leaving the young man to rest, knowing that Stephen and Abby would ensure he was all right.
As he headed down the corridor he met Ryan, the captain looking even more grim than usual, the stitches on his face a sharp reminder that it wasn’t only Nick’s friends who had been hurt in all this.
“How many men did you lose?” he asked immediately, seeing no point in beating around the bush with the straightforward soldier.
“Eight,” Ryan said tightly, clearly affected but hiding it behind a hard, professional exterior.
Eight? He’d know the casualties were high of course from the small number who had come back, but hearing such a figure really brought it home.
“Bloody hell,” Nick muttered, “I knew it was bad but...”
“Bad?” Ryan bit back at him, “It was a fucking massacre. Those boys stood no chance. It’s a minor miracle any of us got out.”
The words chilled Nick, especially considering who they were coming from. He knew all too well that the captain wasn’t a man to exaggerate. He must have genuinely thought their fortune had run out.
“How are the injured doing?” he asked, not taking offence at Ryan’s bad mood given the circumstances. The guy was tired, hurt and rattled. He’d have to be some kind of machine not to react.
“Stitches here and there and one broken leg,” Ryan said, hesitating slightly before continuing, “One lad...They’re trying to stabilise him for surgery but it doesn’t look good. He’s in a bad way.”
“At least you got him back,” Nick pointed out, assuming it was the man he’d seen slung over Ryan’s shoulder, “And the others. You got them back too.”
Ryan didn’t seem particularly comforted but nodded in thanks anyway.
The captain was dependable, solid and good at his job and Nick thanked his good fortune once again that he’d managed to find a way to save him. He was sure that if Ryan hadn’t been there things would have gone a lot worse. That they really would have all been lost as the man feared.
When he’d first managed to put the changes in time right, Nick’s one big regret had been that he hadn’t been able to save Ryan too. But, as far as he could see, the man’s death had happened before the first change had taken place and therefore it wasn’t something he could alter. Besides, they’d found his body the first time they’d gone through an anomaly, a series of events he couldn’t risk messing with. It just had to happen. It was something he couldn’t change.
Except he hadn’t been quite right. There did have to be a body to find but there had never been any conclusive proof that it was Ryan’s. That thought had suddenly struck Nick one night after the Permian anomaly had reappeared for the fourth time in as many weeks and he’d cursed his own stupidity. The others had believed it was an oddity and only he knew that it might be the sign of something more worrying.
He’d hardly ever been more relieved than when he’d been able to prove that the body they’d originally found had in fact belonged to one of Helen’s cloned soldiers instead. Changing things once again, sneaking into his own past and giving the warning that had saved Ryan’s life, had been risky and was something he’d had to do alone, but it had been worth it. Not only to stabilise time properly but also to have the man back. He was a good man and an excellent soldier and they needed him. Now more than ever.
Nick nodded at the captain, touching his shoulder in gratitude and understanding as he left, knowing there was nothing more he could say and that the man would have to find his own peace with what had happened.
Despite all that had occurred, the Home Office wasn’t busy when Nick arrived. Still, it was late and only a skeleton staff worked there overnight. He supposed there was no point in calling everyone in when there wasn’t much they could do to help. The injured men were in hospital and the anomaly had already closed. No point putting everyone else into a panic.
Had it been the ARC, it probably would have been teaming with scientists twenty four hours a day, but that was still in the planning stage, it’s final completion a good while off yet. In a way he was rather glad, still needing some time to adjust back to his old world and not needing elements of the changed one butting in just yet.
He found Claudia in her office. She was pulling a clean top on and stuffing the dirty one, the one covered in Connor’s blood, into a bag.
“Sorry...” Nick said when she glanced up at him, apologising for walking in on her half undressed even though it wasn’t exactly the first time he’d seen her without clothes.
She looked a little better than she had done before, hands and face no longer splattered with blood and dirt and now with clean clothes on. But the angry bruising was still there and she hadn’t shaken the air of someone who was very rattled by what had happened. Which was hardly surprising. From what he had gathered, it had been pretty horrific. From Stephen’s account, it appeared as though they’d come across a group of phorusrhacids, or terror birds to give them their common name. According to Stephen that description was apt. From the size he’d described, Nick guessed they’d been one of the largest species of the group, perhaps even brontornis burmeisteri itself. The fossils he’d seen were intimidating enough, he could barely imagine what they’d be like in flesh and blood and on full attack.
“I don’t know why I’m bothering,” Claudia joked humourlessly, barely taking notice of his apology as she zipped the bag shut, “I should just throw it, I’m never going to get it clean”.
Her manner was false and jittery and she clearly knew it. She sighed as she stood up straight, forcing composure onto herself as she ran her fingers back through her tangled hair. It took her a moment but eventually she looked at him.
She seemed to teeter on the verge of saying a number of things but it was the lingering bitterness of their conversation from that afternoon that finally won out.
“Well, I can’t pretend that I don’t feel like an ‘I told you so’ isn’t in order,” she said, voice uncharacteristically tight, balanced between upset and angry.
He couldn’t really blame her. She’d been right about Helen after all and it could have easily have cost her her life. Part of him just wanted to apologise for being wrong, but that seemed utterly redundant in the face of all that had happened, and so a cold silence reigned between them.
“Look,” she said, turning away from him and looking for something on her desk, “Maybe you should go. I have a report to write.”
And maybe he should go. But something told him that would be a massive mistake and this time he followed his instinct and acted on it, stepping further into the room rather than leaving.
“I wanted to know if you were okay,” he said, softly. It was stupid really. It was quite clear she was far from all right but he needed her to tell him that. Selfishly he wanted her to confide him the way she normally would.
She hesitated a moment before speaking.
“I’ve seen eight men die horribly today,” she said quietly, eyes fixed on the desk, “I’ve had to contact their families and tell that them their husband or father or son isn’t coming home and that I can’t tell them what really happened or give them a body to bury.” Her voice broke slightly at the confession. “It’s probably been the worst day of my life so, no, I am really not okay.”
She challenged him with her honesty, not willing to pretend that she was fine. Just daring him to say ‘there, there, it’ll be all right’ as tears stuck in her throat.
He said nothing. Instead he walked over and put his arms around her, pulling her close, hating the fact that for a moment she was as stiff as a board and only relaxing a little when she finally allowed herself to. Almost like she was accepting his unspoken apology.
It wasn’t long before he felt wetness against his shirt, and he held her tighter, refusing to look. The last thing she would want was for him to see her cry.
Her eyes were dry but blood shot by the time she pulled away. He took a moment to look her, hating to see her so bruised and battered and upset but hoping the sight would burn into his brain as a reminder him never to underestimate Helen again.
“What happened to your eye?” he asked, gently thumbing the area, stomach clenching at the way she flinched. It really did look painful.
She let out a weak, bitter laugh.
“Helen hit me,” she said, sounding as though she thought the notion was almost ridiculous, “I get the impression that she doesn’t like me much.”
For some reason that instantly angered him more than anything else the woman had done. At least her other actions had had a reason, no matter how inhumanely selfish they’d been. This had jut been vicious for the sake of it. Petty revenge.
“It’s not serious,” Claudia reassured him, not liking his silence, “It’s going to look dreadful for a while but it’s only bruising.”
He didn’t know what to say to that, didn’t trust himself to say anything really, and so he kissed her tenderly instead, careful of her sore face.
“You know, I’m supposed to be at my daughter’s first play,” a voice said from the doorway. They broke apart and round looked to see Lester standing there, not at all bothered that he had just interrupted.
“And whilst the Little Red Hen is hardly the cultural highlight of my week,” he continued, walking into the room, coat tucked over his arm, “there’ll be hell to pay if I don’t at least get there for the second act. So, let’s make this meeting quick, eh? After all, what’s there to say? The mission was an utter disaster and we lost nine highly trained servicemen.”
Nick was about to jump to Claudia’s defence, not liking at all the insinuation that perhaps this was somehow her fault, especially when it was being said whilst she was already upset, but she got there first.
“Nine?” she asked anxiously, quickly picking up on the implication.
Lester nodded, looking suitably sombre, “Yes. The hospital has been in touch. One of the soldiers you brought back died in surgery half an hour ago.”
Claudia sank heavily into her chair, Nick’s hand going to rest on her shoulder.
“So,” Lester continued, not seeing the point of dwelling on that when there were other things to discuss, “You came across Helen, yes?”
Claudia nodded numbly.
“And you gave her the opportunity to come quietly and which point she refused, hit you and ran?”
“You went in pursuit, giving the order that she was to be taken alive. She then led you into a nest of creatures which she disturbed so they attacked you, giving her the chance to escape, correct?”
Nick almost protested at what he saw as an interrogation, but Lester pre-empted him, holding up a hand to make him wait.
“Well, then,” he said, seemingly satisfied, “I don’t know what else you could have done. Frankly, it’s probably a massive stroke of fortune that any of you got back alive, so well done on that front at least.”
Nick nearly smiled in gratitude, seeing what the other man was doing. He almost certainly knew Claudia well enough by now to know that internally she was taking much of the blame for how things had worked out, the mission being her responsibility. He was just reassuring her, in his own way, that no else blamed her so why should she. Nick was grateful for that although he couldn’t help but be a little surprised. It wasn’t as if Lester often showed such thought for others.
“Now then,” the other man continued, straightening his suit, “I suggest you go home and get some rest whilst I get off to the delights of junior theatre. There’s no more we can do here tonight.”
“The report,” Claudia reminded him, “I should-.”
“Go home, Claudia,” he interrupted quietly, for once a hint of understanding in his tone, “You look dreadful.”
Nick didn’t sleep at all that night. He’d persuaded Claudia to come back to his house. He’d cooked her something to eat and run her a warm bath. He’d got her an ice pack to try to take some of the swelling down on her face, passing pain killers to her to help her feel more comfortable. He‘d sat on his sofa with her, cuddled her into his side whilst she watched some period drama that for once he didn’t complain about sitting through. Unsurprisingly she was pretty quiet throughout and he didn’t force her to try and talk, knowing how he’d feel had he been in her situation.
Now, he watched her whilst she slept next to him in his bed, two thoughts filling his mind. Firstly, how ridiculously protective he had become, even though he couldn’t help himself. The idea that Helen, or anyone for that matter, had hit her, somehow seemed worse than any injuries she’d ever picked up from the creatures they’d come across. Her nastily bruised face was going to be a reminder of that for weeks to come and it churned his stomach to contemplate it.
What truly kept him awake, though, were deeper fears. What was Helen doing, out there, right now? Had she already decided that the possibility of getting caught was worth taking a few risks to avoid? If so, what would she try to do to ensure her freedom?
In the dark and the silence of his bedroom, Nick truly began to believe that if he only kept his eyes on her, then Claudia simply couldn’t vanish again. That she couldn’t just slip away in front of him, if he had his hand resting on her hip and could feel her beneath his fingers. And so he watched her until morning when the idea suddenly seemed ridiculous in the dawn sunshine but the fear was no less real.
No one had smiled as much recently as they did in the photos on Nick’s desk.
One was of him and Stephen, from many years ago, on an expedition, the two of them grinning before they set out on an adventure. One was of Abby, Connor and Stephen, pulling stupid faces and waving at the camera. The last was of him and Claudia, his arm easily resting around her shoulders whilst she beamed a smile, looking as beautiful as she ever did.
But nine funerals within the space of three weeks had taken their toll on them all and there were no happy smiles to be had at the moment. Lester had said that, whilst the deaths of the men were indeed a tragedy and he understood that the others wished to show their respects, them all running off around the country to attend different services seemed a little too much for him, especially since an anomaly could appear at any time. Ryan, of course as their commanding officer, had said he had to be at every one. The surviving men had a right to be there too. Claudia had insisted that she should go, reasoning that it would look very poor if a representative from the Home Office wasn’t present and that it should really be her. Nick had insisted upon going with her and if they were both going then Stephen, Connor and Abby had said they were too.
In the end Lester had had no choice but to relent and let them all go, even though he added that they would all be called back at a moment’s notice should the need arise. Despite his words though he turned up to a few himself, when the job allowed him to.
Nick had found it all particularly tough, not only because he still took some of the responsibility on himself, but also because it brought up hard memories of Stephen’s funeral and the day he’d mistakenly let Claudia go. It had been his lowest point and one he didn’t need so many reminders of.
With the last one done, Claudia said she was going to give the clothes she’d brought especially to charity, not being able to bear the thought of wearing them again.
On the whole, things were starting to get back to normal. The arrival of the first new anomaly saw to that, the necessity to just get on with it like professionals overriding any lingering upset and fears. Nick couldn’t totally bury his feelings, however. His paranoia had come back in full force, making him almost the same tetchy and worried person he’d been when he’d discovered there was a traitor in their midst, back in the other timeline.
The happiness he’d felt in the last few months was well and truly gone. Buried along with the nine men who’d died. He kept catching himself looking at his friends, checking they were still there and watching the world for any little signs of change. It was an utterly draining way to live and after just a few days he decided he couldn’t go on like that.
He’d called the meeting with Lester himself, had told him that Helen was going to have to be captured or stopped whatever that entailed, and that he was more than willing to help. Lester, for once, thoroughly agreed with him.
Nick couldn’t say he was entirely happy with the idea, not liking what would have to be done to see it through. But that was good. It meant he still possessed more humanity than her. His only saving grace being that whatever he was forced to do, he remembered that his future self, the one he’d met and who had helped him put everything right again, had looked happy and at ease.
Nick sincerely hoped that future wasn’t too far away.
He’d never wanted a battle with Helen, had never wanted to be at war with her, but to protect his friends and those he loved he would take the fight to her. She had at last forced his hand.