Claudia surveyed the unfamiliar landscape, her mind too filled with other things to really be impressed by the fact she was in both another time and place. Vast, craggy mountains dominated the distant horizon and with rocky outcrops littering the land in between. The soil seemed dry, hard and dusty but vegetation still grew, even though only the hardiest greenery survived.
It reminded her a little of Morocco, one of her holiday destinations as a child.
She supposed it was quite an impressive sight really but she only acknowledged the practicalities. The going wouldn’t be easy on the loose ground and the temperature was hot even though the sunny wasn’t that high yet. They needed to get this over with as quickly as possible.
“Stephen?” she questioned, looking expectantly at him.
The man nodded, tearing his own eyes from the landscape and checking his compass.
“That way,” he said, pointing towards the rising hill to their right.
After ensuring the radios still worked, Ryan ordered one man to stay at the anomaly with the instructions to keep their exit secure and contact them should it show any signs of weakening. Then they began to walk, the captain taking the lead.
The heat was already stifling and Claudia hoped they wouldn’t have to go too far.
She was in luck.
Half a mile from the anomaly they reached the top of a ridge. At the bottom of the slope was a small water pool and beside it sat Helen, right where she’d told Stephen she would be.
She glanced up as she heard them arrive but didn’t seem surprised nor did she make any attempt to escape. Her confidence made Claudia slightly nervous.
It was a feeling seemingly shared by the others, silent trepidation taking a hold of them as they came to a stop.
It was Abby who spoke first.
“Is she some kind of idiot?” the younger woman asked scornfully. In response to Claudia’s puzzled look she went on to explain further, “Predators hunt at watering holes. She’s making herself a sitting target.”
“Told you she was mental,” Connor chipped in, unhelpfully.
But Claudia was well aware that Helen was no idiot, nor was she crazy. She either knew the area was free from any dangerous predators or she was utterly confident in her ability to cope with whatever came her way. Which didn’t exactly bode well for them.
“Stay here,” Claudia told the others, “I’ll talk to her, see if I can persuade her to come without a fuss.”
Stephen instantly shook his head, “No. I‘d better do it. She’s more likely to listen to me.”
He’d already started to move without giving her a chance to answer but Ryan blocked his path. He looked at the captain questioningly before turning his gaze to Claudia, wondering why she didn’t trust him all of a sudden.
“You’re too close to this situation, Stephen,” she reasoned, “It’s better if I go.”
She ignored his protests, knowing Ryan wouldn’t allow him to interfere, as she walked off down the slope, watching her footing carefully on the loose ground. The last thing she needed was the ignominy of sliding down on her backside. Helen stayed sitting on the floor, refusing to stand to greet Claudia as though she wasn’t worthy of such courtesy, simply watching her approach. The scene had an air of the prey walking to the predator about it but Claudia refused to be intimidated. She’d faced scarier things than Helen Cutter in the last year.
“So,” the other woman said with a false smile when Claudia stopped in front of her, “Stephen sold me out then? Charming.”
It was hard to tell, her feelings well masked, but there seemed to be a trace of bitter disappointment in her words.
“He did the right thing,” Claudia stated, acting almost possessively of Stephen. He was part of their team. He was on their side, not Helen’s. Of course he’d told them.
“He did exactly what I suspected he might,” Helen said simply, as always wanting to demonstrate her superiority, “At least now I know who my friends are.” She smiled, seemingly amused by the situation. “I mean, look at all of you, coming out here just to see me.”
She had clearly taken note of the number of men accompanying Claudia.
Helen pulled a knife from her boot and began to saw away at the frayed material at the bottom of her trousers, tidying up the edges. Claudia was sure the gesture was another attempt to intimidate her and she refused to give Helen the satisfaction. She’d be quite safe. Helen wouldn’t dare try anything with Ryan and the others so close by.
“I see Nick’s not here,” the other woman said lightly as she continued to work, her attention fixed elsewhere as if to suggest that Claudia’s presence was nothing more than an inconvenience, “Chickened out of seeing me, did he?”
“He’s busy,” Claudia stated stonily, annoyed that he’d been brought up even though she’d expected that he would be. This wasn’t meant to be about him.
Helen laughed, obviously not believing that for a moment.
It was not a discussion Claudia wanted to enter into, least of all with this woman. In fact, she didn’t really want to be speaking to her at all. What with the unpleasant company and rising heat she could only think how nice it would be to be back in her cool, air conditioned office. Or even worse, how the lovely weekend she’d just spent with Nick now seemed so far away. The sooner this was done with, the better.
“Look, I’m only going to give you one opportunity to come back with us of your own will,” she said firmly, refusing to be drawn into any verbal sparring, trying to keep to the professional.
Helen looked at her curiously, knife twirling against a rock, “And if I refuse?”
Claudia said nothing, not feeling the need to state what she was sure was obvious.
Helen smiled once more, apparently again amused by the notion. “Are you authorised to kill me, Claudia?”
Again, Claudia was silent.
“Oh, I’m sure you’d like that,” Helen pressed, clearly still trying to get a rise out of her, “Then you really would have him all to yourself.”
Claudia wouldn’t take the bait. She was better than that.
“It must give you a massive power trip too,” Helen mused, trying a slightly different line of taunting when her other attempts had clearly failed, “all those big burly men with guns doing exactly as you say. It’s a wonder they can bear to be bossed around by the likes of you though.”
“I told you, I’m here to ask you to come without a fuss,” Claudia said, ignoring her words whilst trying to hide her frustration. It angered her that she’d had to break her vow to only ask once, but the other woman had a remarkable ability to avoid the point of any conversation and Claudia needed to steer it back on track.
Even worse she was being reminded why she hated dealing with this woman so much and, despite what others might think, that was nothing to do with her connection to Nick. No, it was Helen herself. She looked at everyone with such an arrogant air of superiority and distain, as though they were a wholly different and much lower species to her. It made Claudia’s skin crawl. There was just something not right about the other woman, that much was clear, and it left her massively uncomfortable.
“And why would you be so nice, hmm?” Helen asked, finally deciding to tackle the matter at hand, perhaps seeing that Claudia wouldn’t be baited so easily into losing her cool, “Want to keep in Nick’s good books, I imagine.”
“You saved my life once,” Claudia intoned firmly, making it quite clear that her relationship with Nick was nothing to do with this aspect of her job, “I suppose the least amount of courtesy I owe you is to give you a chance to come peacefully and with dignity.”
“Oh yes,” Helen said, snorting a laugh, “I’m sure being dragged off to a government facility for the rest of my days would prove to be highly dignified.”
Claudia huffed, hands planted on hips and sweat trickling down her face in the increasing heat. Quite frankly, she didn’t particularly care how Helen felt about it. The woman must realise the threat that she posed and she’d never done anything to allay their fears. She’d had brought it on herself with the problems she’d caused and quite frankly, she was lucky it was just a nice, cosy government facility she was going to. After all, Dr Helen Cutter had been legally dead and therefore they could do with her what they liked. Not that Claudia would stoop so low as to point that out.
Still, she was in no mood to argue the toss and a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer was all she required. She was rapidly getting to the stage where she was distinctly considering having Ryan and his men come down here and haul the other woman away, kicking and screaming if necessary.
“Look, we don’t have all day,” she snapped, “Are you coming of your own accord or would you prefer to be dragged?”
She immediately wish she’d kept her irritation more firmly in check when she saw a spark of triumph in the other woman’s face, clearly delighted to know that she’d got to Claudia in some way.
Again, Helen steered the conversation off at a tangent.
“You’re threatened by me, aren’t you?” she asked, studying Claudia with cocked head and an interested look.
“No,” Claudia replied, her tone almost too blunt to be believable.
Helen grinned, “I wouldn’t worry. It’s quite clear he’s in love with you.”
That threw Claudia for a moment. Helen seemed to take great pleasure in taunting her about her own previous relationship with Nick. Making it plain that Claudia could only ever be second best. It didn’t seem like her to admit something like that.
“The only thing I worry about is you being free to wander around in our history,” Claudia stated, refusing to be further drawn into discussing Nick. It wasn’t what they were here for. This was business.
“You should be.”
Claudia was startled by that in spite of her resolve to be strong and unflappable, and she starred at Helen for a moment, trying to tell if she was serious or not. Nick had said it was impossible, but she couldn’t pretend that Lester hadn’t put doubt into her mind. After all, Helen knew these anomalies better than anyone. Was she serious or had she just said it to scare?
Still, at very least it validated their reason for being here. If she was prepared to use that as a threat then it would be foolish of them to just wait and see if she carried it out.
“Is that meant to scare me?” she asked, her voice suggesting it didn’t at all even if deep down her worry made her stomach churn.
Helen smiled secretively, “You have no idea, have you?”
Now, Claudia really had had enough. There wasn’t any truth behind any of it, was there? She was just being toyed with. It was all just an act, lies to wind her up and put her off guard. To scare her into making a mistake. Well, she wasn’t playing silly mind games anymore and if Helen wanted to act all dangerous and elusive, then she could do that in some holding facility where she could plot to her heart’s content and not harm anyone.
Let Ryan deal with her. She was sure Helen wouldn’t have quite so much luck planting doubts in his mind, nor would she find it so entertaining.
“Is that really why you’re here, Claudia?” Helen called after her as Claudia started to walk away, the conversation over as far as she was concerned, “For the good of mankind?”
Against her better judgement, Claudia turned back.
“Or are you just worried that some day he might remember why he married me in the first place?” Helen taunted, walking right up to her, “Is that what it is? Would you feel more secure with me locked away?”
It was a standoff of sorts and Claudia refused to back down. She wouldn’t let the arrogance of the other woman win. In hindsight she probably should have.
The blow came hard and fast, Helen’s elbow slamming into Claudia cheek and connecting viciously with the edge of her eye socket. She crumbled straight to the floor, the blow knocking her head back and leaving her lying dazed in the dust from the shock as much as the force of it. Sudden nausea prevented her from getting up.
She heard instant shouting and then saw rocks and dust sliding past her as the others hurried down the slope. Her hand was resting protectively over the eye that had been hit, but from the other she saw Helen running in the opposite direction.
“Hold your fire!” Claudia shouted, gathering enough of her wits to give the order as soon as she heard the readying of guns, “She’s more use to us alive!”
Despite it all, she had no desire to see the woman mowed down by gun fire and practically she was right. They got little from her being dead.
Moments later hands were under her arms, dragging her to her feet. She realised they belonged to Ryan when he prized her hand away from her face to get a better look at her injuries, instantly calling for a medic.
“I’m alright,” she insisted, even though her face was throbbing and her head spinning. She was sure it would pass given a moment. Her eye was watering badly and felt red hot but she could still see out of it so it couldn’t be too bad.
The medic flashed a small torch in front of her eyes just to be sure, checking her pupil reactions.
“She’ll have a lovely bruise and she might have a mild concussion,” he told Ryan, before turning his attention back to Claudia, “Did you lose consciousness at all? Black out even for a moment?”
“No,” she insisted hurriedly, priorities elsewhere, “We don’t have time for this. I’m fine. We have to get after her.”
She was certain that she’d been right to have stopped them shooting Helen, but at the same time she didn’t want to be responsible for the woman remaining loose should they now fail to capture her.
“Maybe someone should take you back to the anomaly, ma’am,” Ryan suggested, looking mildly concerned. And, she realised, the side of her face was already starting to feel puffy and tight. It probably didn’t look so good and was only going to get worse. But, it wasn’t as if she had an arm hanging off or anything.
She shook her head. “No, I’m alright, thank you. Let’s just get moving.”
Ryan seemed to contemplate disagreeing for a moment before he relented and nodded, ordering his men to follow him.
Claudia ensured that she stayed out of the captain’s sight as they moved again, not wanting him to see that she wasn’t quite as recovered as she suggested. She was grateful when she felt Stephen’s hands on her shoulders, steadying her slightly wobbly gait until her head stopped spinning and she could walk with a sure footing again.
A few hundred yards up ahead they spotted Helen. She’d arrived at one of the rock structures that were dotted all over the dry landscape. She glanced back at them, and Claudia quickly got and then dismissed the idea that she’d been waiting for them, before the other woman disappeared out of sight.
Hurrying more quickly, eager not to lose track, they soon discovered that the rock was in fact more like a cave, a honeycomb of structures inside and warm sunshine pouring through holes in the top like spotlights. Ryan held up his hand to stop them all, clearly not happy with this new, unknown area, silently giving signals to his men who began to fan out. Claudia remained in the middle of the group with Stephen, Abby and Connor, nervously looking at the scene around her. If Ryan didn’t like it, then neither did she. Nor did she want to be a burden to the soldiers. By staying in the middle, the men could concentrate on their jobs, not on the civilians.
Slowly they advanced, Stephen quietly indicating to Ryan the direction that Helen had taken from the faint tracks on the ground. Claudia tried not to look down any of the dark passageways leading further into the heart of the rock structure, not wanting to see anything there. Still, at least it was much cooler in here.
All of a sudden Helen appeared, somehow having reached a high, rock ledge in front of them. Instantly, twelve weapons were aimed at her, the men just waiting for the order.
This didn’t seem to faze Helen at all, which Claudia immediately found disconcerting.
“Okay,” she mediated, stepping forward a little but being sure to keep within the circle of soldiers, “You’ve had your chance. Now come down and this doesn’t need to go any further.”
“Sorry, Claudia,” Helen said, almost sounding like she meant it, “But I think it does.”
She picked up a reasonable sized rock and threw it hard. Claudia instantly thought she was aiming for her and prepared to duck, but it missed her by severely feet and she couldn’t imagine Helen had such a bad aim. Besides, what good was a rock against so many men armed with high powered weapons?
She whirled round and watched as it flew instead down one of the dark passageways, making one heck of a racket as it bounced off of the walls, the noise echoing all around.
It was immediately followed by a high pitched, angry sounding squawk. Then the sound of movement followed. The fast, heavy movement of creatures coming to check out the noise.
Claudia’s gaze whipped back to ledge, eyes suddenly fearful, wondering what Helen had knowingly done. The woman in question was already gone.
But they had bigger things to worry about. Like the fact that a large group of creatures was approaching them from the darkness, their cries sounding like screams of fury.
“Back up!” Ryan barked, “Head for the exit!”
They moved back as quickly as they could, the men’s guns trained and ready for the attack.
They weren’t quick enough.
More than a dozen creatures suddenly charged from the dark passageways, going straight into an attack. Amid the abrupt chaos of screaming animals and gunfire, it took Claudia a moment to realise that they were like giant, hideous, wingless birds. Far taller than the largest of Ryan’s men, powerful and dangerous, and there seemed to be no let up in their numbers with more and more pouring into the cavern, screaming in angry fury. Had they stumbled across a nesting ground or something? Why else would there be so many creatures like this in one place and why would they be so quick to charge at any sign of intruders?
She clamped her hands automatically over her ears as the level of noise increased to almost painful levels, the sound of bullets and screaming creatures echoing throughout the cavern, being turned into one massive, overwhelming crescendo.
The creatures were frighteningly fast, even in the honeycomb of the cave. Claudia had seen an ostrich running at full speed once and these things were easily as quick and far more deadly.
It was their speed and numbers that overwhelmed the soldiers.
Claudia had almost convinced herself that they would be all right. These were some of the best trained men in the world, and many of them had been on the anomaly project since the start, having faced all kinds of creatures before. Surely they could shoot at the attacking creatures, whilst backing towards the exit? Once out in the open they would find defending themselves far easier. They may lose Helen but at least they’d escape with their lives.
But even for the best men in the world, such a frenzied and chaotic attack was hard to deal with and it was only a matter of time before they made mistakes.
The first man to do so was only a few feet away from her. He was so busy dealing with a creature in front of him that he didn’t see the one charge from the side. Seeing the danger, Claudia instantly cried out a warning but it was already too late. By the time he’d turned his gun the creature was on him, knocking him to the floor, massive claws and enormous beak going to straight to work. The man screamed, then gurgled and then was silent.
Claudia’s gaze was only torn away from the horrifying sight when another man shot past her, the creature who’d sent him flying leaping straight on top of him. Her instinct was to help but there was nothing she could do but listen to more screams.
She almost screamed herself when something grabbed her before she turned and realised that it was Stephen. He was holding a gun that he must have got from one of the fallen men and he quickly herded her towards Abby and Connor, clearly determined to keep the three of them safe if nothing else.
“Close in!” Ryan yelled without breaking fire, trying to get his men together so they couldn’t be picked off so easily.
It was already too late for many of them.
To Part Three...