THE ONE WITH THE TRICERATOPS AND THE QUETZALCOATLUS
"Holy space-time alert, Batman," yelped Connor as they crested the hill. "A Triceratops, they said. One Triceratops. Professor..."
"We're gonna need a bigger boat," finished Cutter, eyes nearly as round as those of his young associate. "Yeah. I think we may be looking at all of Lester's worst nightmares. And several of mine."
"And at least one of mine," added Abby, before whistling softly. "Still, you've got to admit..." She gestured vaguely at the scene before her, and Stephen gave a low, answering laugh.
"I think the word you're looking for is 'awesome'," he suggested, and she looked up at him, unable to keep from smiling. He glanced down at her briefly, eyes bright and shining, but he didn't hold the eye contact for long. She didn't blame him. She didn't want to be looking at her colleagues just now either. Not when there was so much to look at elsewhere.
There were probably fifty of them, at least. Quite likely more. An entire herd of Triceratops, practically filling the valley, and cheerfully grazing on the unsuspecting twenty-first century greenery. Everywhere they looked, there were creatures - big ones lumbering, baby ones skittering about, a couple that appeared to be courting. One of them tipped back its head, bellowing out a sound not unlike that of a conversational elephant, and a baby squeaked back in answer. Up above them all, Cutter couldn't stop himself from laughing.
"It's..." He shook his head. "It's a bloody dream, that's what it is."
"I thought it was a nightmare?" teased Stephen. Cutter slapped him on the back.
"An organisational nightmare, maybe. Think what it's going to take to herd that little lot back through the anomaly. But look at them, Stephen. How many years have we spent in that poky little office together back at the university, theorising about creatures like this? And then a whole bloody herd of them stops by for a visit." He frowned. "How much of that whisky did we drink last night?"
"Not enough to make us hallucinate something like this." The two old friends stood together for a moment longer, enjoying the view, before Cutter heaved a sigh.
"Ah well. I suppose we'd better think about getting them shifted back through the anomaly. A whole herd of Triceratops isn't a very safe thing to have wandering about the countryside."
"How'd you get a herd of Triceratops to do something they don't want to do?" asked Connor. Stephen shot him a teasing glance.
"You're the dinosaur expert. That's your department."
"Me?!" The younger man looked aghast. "No, I'm more in the theory department. I think about things. You're the practical one."
"Don't worry, Connor. With the best will in the world, I don't intend to put you in charge of a job like this." Cutter nodded slowly as he thought. "Well, they're large herbivores. Is it fair to try thinking of them as elephants?"
"Hard to theorise on comparative intelligence, but behaviourally... perhaps." Stephen shrugged. "I'm not going to dash down there and fire a gun in the air, though. We might want them to move, but we want them to go in the right direction. What we need is for a few of them to lead the charge, and then hopefully the others will follow suit."
"Can I leave you to figure it out?" asked Cutter. "I'd like to get a closer look at some of them if I can."
"Sure. I'll go speak to the soldiers." Stephen jabbed a pointing finger at Cutter's chest. "You be careful. I don't plan on scraping what's left of you off the bottom of some creature's feet. Goodness knows how I'd explain that to your mother."
"I'll be a good boy. You just go and work out how to keep that lot from colonising half the county." Cutter looked around at the others. "Connor? Abby?"
"Oh, I'm with you." Clearly wildly excited, Connor didn't need any encouragement. He was already setting off down the slope, and Cutter went after him immediately, anxious to try to divert him from trouble. Abby laughed.
"Sorry Stephen. I'm with them too. This is too good an opportunity to miss."
"That's fine. You get on after them. I'd like to think there's somebody down there with a level head." Stephen smiled ruefully. "You have no idea how Cutter can get when he's over-excited about something."
"I've had a few demonstrations just lately." She patted his arm in a friendly fashion. "Don't worry. I'll stop him doing anything too reckless. Do you really have any ideas about how to get the herd moving, though?"
"Possibly. I spent a summer wrangling cattle in South America once." He shrugged. "Can't be that different, right?"
"I'm seeing one or two differences, yes." She laughed. "Good luck."
"Stay in touch." He waggled his walkie-talkie at her, and she nodded.
"Will do." A moment later she had scurried off, catching up with Cutter and Connor as they made their way down the hill. Stephen watched them for a moment, then turned around and went in search of the soldiers. They were not usually very far away, as ever doing their best to cope with a situation so far beyond the scope of their training that even the most experienced of them were at sea. He found a small gathering of them by one of their trucks, eyeing the milling Triceratops with obvious discomfort.
"Hi," said Stephen. He received one or two nods in reply. For the most part the soldiers were friendly, but they tended to view the scientists with a fair degree of suspicion. Stephen had won their respect following his single-handed battle against a Gorgonopsid some time earlier, but they still tended to view him as some kind of foreign species; not least because of his association with Nick Cutter, as alien a creature to the average military man as it was possible to be. "You boys don't happen to have any jeeps, do you?"
"Jeeps?" One of the soldiers, a tall and broad-shouldered sergeant, shook his head. Stephen hadn't managed to learn everybody's names yet, but he was fairly sure that the sergeant was called Patrick. Or possibly Peter. "No, just Land Rovers. Is that a problem?"
"No, I don't think so. Actually Land Rovers would probably be just as good." Stephen approached a likely looking vehicle, eyeing it up and down. It was rugged, of course; it could probably go quite fast if it needed to; and the canopy covering the back ought to be removable. He nodded. "Yes, I think this'll do nicely. Any of you boys ever worked on a farm?"
"A farm?" The-sergeant-who-might-be-called-Patrick-or-Peter looked distinctly baffled. "My dad's a farmer, but it's been a while since I helped him out. Why?"
"Arable or livestock?" asked Stephen immediately. Patrick or Peter blinked at him for a moment, then shrugged, clearly deciding that scientists couldn't be expected to make sense.
"Sheep," he said in the end. Stephen's grin grew, which seemed to worry several of the soldiers. They had come to learn that when the project's scientific contingent began smiling, strange things tended to happen, frequently involving gigantic flying creatures, or things with names that they couldn't pronounce; or, on one memorable occasion, a large and bothersome procession of highly excitable Trilobites.
"Excellent." Clapping the hapless sergeant on the shoulder, Stephen turned his attention to his chosen machine. "Give me a hand with this, then. We want the back open. Anything delicate inside? We're going to be shaking it up a fair bit."
"Nothing that can't take it." Patrick or Peter climbed up into the back of the Land Rover alongside him. "Look, I should probably clear this with Captain Ryan. If you'd wait just a moment..."
"Captain Ryan will have his hands full by now," Stephen told him. "It's his job to stay close to Cutter, and right now that means getting as close to a herd of Triceratops as possible. Believe me, the last thing that he wants right now is for his radio to suddenly start barking at him."
"Oh." Patrick or Peter nodded slowly. They had all seen what could happen when the scientists took it upon themselves to get close to the animals that came through the anomalies. No doubt they believed that they were all perfectly safe, but it was doing nothing for Captain Ryan's blood pressure. "Well, I suppose that's fair enough. Do I get to ask what we're doing, though?"
"Of course." Stephen was all smiles. "You and I are going to get those," he pointed at the Triceratops, "back though that," and he pointed at the anomaly. Patrick or Peter frowned, although notably he didn't object.
"Just the two of us?" he asked, somewhat doubtfully. Stephen nodded.
"In a Land Rover?" came the second question. Stephen nodded again. The sergeant also nodded, rather slowly, much as one might when humouring a madman.
"Right. Well." He slapped the cab of the Land Rover, and frowned out across the herd of grazing creatures. "I suppose we'd better get a move on then, hadn't we. You do realise that this probably isn't going to work? I mean, they're a lot bigger than sheep."
"And this is a lot bigger than a sheepdog," pointed out Stephen. His new friend nodded again, unable to argue with this logic.
"Fair enough." He shrugged off the rifle that was slung across his back, and laid it down on the floor. "Tell you what, though. If this thing winds up getting trampled to pieces by a herd of extinct reptiles, you're the one doing the paperwork."
"Sounds fair." Stephen set to work removing the back canopy, one eye on the creatures all the time. "One question."
"Yeah?" Beginning to work on the other side of the canopy, the sergeant glanced over at him. Stephen frowned back, clearly in thought.
"Last time I tried this, it was with cattle. We got the rest of the herd to follow the dominant male." He turned his frown to point instead at the dinosaurs. "How do you suppose you sex a Triceratops?"
"You're the scientist," the sergeant told him, not unreasonably. Stephen nodded ruefully.
"Blind guess?" he asked. Patrick or Peter grinned cheerfully.
"I won't tell anybody if you don't."
Stephen grinned back. "It's a deal," he said, already beginning to enjoy this latest venture. He couldn't help thinking that this was one of the days that was really going to turn out well.
Tom Ryan had seen a lot of things in his army career. He had experience of many of the world's trouble spots, and had handled situations that would have made a lesser man quail. Standing at the edge of a valley filled with prehistoric creatures was not one of the things that he had been trained for, and it certainly wasn't something that he had ever imagined himself doing, when he had first joined up. Nonetheless, it was what he was doing; and he had long ago learned to go with the flow. He was nothing if not adaptable. All the same, even he had his limits.
"We should try to get a sample of the dung," Professor Cutter told him, earning a vaguely resigned-looking nod. Dung collection wasn't high on Ryan's list of favourite duties, but it was his job to prevent Cutter from being killed, so he would have to tag along. "I'd like to get a swab of DNA, but I think we'll probably have to forego that."
"We might be able to get something from the dung sample," said Abby, sounding just as earnest and enthusiastic as the professor. Ryan eyed her doubtfully. She was so young and pretty, not at all how he would have expected an enthusiast of dinosaur dung to look - not that he had ever given the matter much thought. Cutter frowned.
"Possibly, yes. Well, we can certainly get plenty else that's useful from it, anyway. By the look of things there are a lot of potential samples. We shouldn't need to get too close to the herd."
"Oh!" Connor's shout made them all turn, rather worried that he might be trying to draw their attention to an approaching stampede. Instead he seemed to be bouncing on the spot, waving one arm in the air, in a display of the sort of badly bottled up excitement that they were coming to know quite well. "DNA sample! The grass! If we can get a bit that's just been bitten, it might have traces of saliva on it. Not much, granted, but you never know. Right?"
"It's certainly a possibility." Cutter turned back to look at the herd, and Ryan decided that now was the time to step in.
"Professor," he said, his quiet voice carrying a good measure of authority, "if you're planning on trying for a clump of grass that's just been bitten, then you're hardly going to be staying out of their way, are you. That sounds a lot like taking an unnecessary risk to me."
"I don't know about 'unnecessary', captain." Cutter's attention was almost completely taken up by the dinosaurs, his face showing an expression rather akin to rapture. "Think of it. Think of what we could learn."
"Yes, no doubt. And think of all the opportunities for getting squashed. I know they're herbivores, professor. I may not be a scientist, but there are some things that everybody knows. Herbivores or not, though, they're still dangerous."
"I know," Cutter told him, sounding as though his mind were on anything but danger. Ryan sighed, trying again.
"Look, every one of those things is big enough to kill you, probably without even noticing that you're there. Walking out into the middle of all that lot just to get a bit of dinosaur spit isn't safe. Surely there has to be some other way to get what you want?"
"Cheek swab?" suggested Connor, not very helpfully. Abby swatted his arm, and he pouted, cradling the limb as though it really had been hurt.
"I was thinking more about skin samples," Ryan told him, with a brief pause to glare. "Animals like to scratch themselves on things, don't they? Modern animals do, anyway, and I can't see dead ones being any different. There are a few trees around. When the herd has gone back through the anomaly, you can probably go around and collect all the DNA that you want. All the dung, too. There's no reason to do it now."
"You're probably right." Cutter's expression suggested that his planned expedition had been as much about getting close to the creatures as it had been to actually obtain any samples. He smiled rather wistfully. "All the same, though. Mixing with them..."
"It would be rather dangerous," Abby told him, remembering her promise to Stephen. Cutter nodded.
"It would. But still..."
"I know." Abby couldn't help grinning at him, unable to keep her eyes off the herd for more than a few seconds at a time. "The opportunities for study are incredible. They're so docile. Any wild animal is unpredictable, obviously, but compared to what we usually get coming through the anomalies, these are pussy cats."
"For the time being," pointed out Cutter. "By the time Stephen starts doing his thing, there's no telling what they could be like. Much as it pains me to admit it, I think Captain Ryan is right. We should keep back for now."
"Thank you," said Ryan, looking a little relieved, and apparently somewhat disbelieving. Cutter laughed.
"I don't actually have a death wish, you know," he told the other man. Ryan smiled one of his rare smiles.
"That's good to hear." He moved forward to join the two scientists, staring out across the slow-moving herd with his own expression of faint awe. "Are quite a sight, though, aren't they."
"We'll make an enthusiast out of you yet," Cutter told him, and they shared a smile, before the professor's expression changed suddenly to one of annoyance. "Oh, what is that infernal boy doing now?"
"Connor?" Abby looked around, startled to find that their young associate was no longer beside them. Instead, clearly lured by a baby Triceratops that had strayed a little way from its family, he was edging further and further away, a bunch of grass held in one hand.
"Hey there, mate!" He spoke quietly, and he was, Cutter was relieved to notice, at least not fool enough to make any sudden movements. "Have a look at what Uncle Connor's got for you here. Tasty grass! Swap you for some DNA, yeah?"
"Connor..." Muttering the word uselessly under his breath, not willing to shout, Cutter sighed in exasperation. His irritation was not at all helped by the fact that the younger man was not doing anything that he and Abby didn't want to be doing themselves. "It's not a blasted sheep."
"Connor!" Hissing her flatmate's name as loud as she dared, Abby crept off in pursuit. "What the bloody hell do you think you're doing? You can't keep it as a pet!"
"I'm not after a pet, smart alec," he told her, waving her on to join him. She did so, keeping rather a better look out for bigger animals than he was. "Look at it, though. Isn't it cute?"
"Yes," she admitted. "But that's hardly the point."
"You'll be thanking me when I've got a sample of its saliva," he told her, and held up his free hand. There was a test tube in it, and he gave it a waggle, as though by way of demonstration. Inching closer to them, the baby Triceratops looked distinctly more interested in the test tube than it did in the grass.
"No, mate. Not that," Connor told it, holding the grass out a little further. They were now barely a few feet apart, and they could see the creature's nose twitch. Humans were too far out of its understanding for their scent or appearance to mean anything to it, but the test tube, glinting in the sunlight, was interesting enough to make it come a little closer. After a moment, its tongue slid out of its mouth, and reached out towards the glass.
"You're supposed to eat green things." Sounding rather exasperated, Connor took another step forward. "It's nice grass. Honest."
"Do you really think it's going to eat out of your hand?" Abby asked. As though in answer, the reaching tongue changed trajectory, and wrapped itself around the grass, tugging it powerfully out of Connor grasp. He grinned, sensible enough not to shout in glee, and shot Abby a triumphant look. The tongue rasped briefly across his hand, and his grin grew bigger.
"DNA!" he whispered, unable to contain himself. Moving as slowly as he could, but mindful of the fact that the precious moisture might evaporate, he brought the test tube over to his other hand, scraping it across the sample coating his thumb. "Cheers, mate."
"Now let's get the hell out of here," Abby told him. "The last thing we want is his mother getting defensive. These are social animals, and you must know how protective they tend to be of their young. Make one wrong move, and we could have the whole herd chasing us."
"I know." He held up the test tube, and waved it in the air. "All the same, though..."
"Idiot," she told him, unable to avoid a fond smile. He grinned.
"Yeah, but I'm an idiot with a sample of Triceratops DNA. I reckon that earns me a night off doing the washing up."
"If you can get it back to the professor without something disastrous happening." He nodded at that.
"You're on. We've done the hard bit, oh ye of little faith. What on earth could go wrong now?" He frowned suddenly, having frozen almost completely. "I shouldn't have said that, should I."
"Probably not. What do you say we get out of here now? Quickly?"
"Right with you." Together they began edging away from the baby Triceratops, but the baby, clearly having enjoyed its handful of grass, began to follow them. Connor's eyes widened.
"Shoo!" he told it. It bounced slightly on the spot, and made a curious noise not unlike a squeak. Abby groaned.
"What was that about not wanting a pet?" she asked. Connor looked crestfallen.
"It wasn't intentional," he told her, then waved his arms at the baby again. "Go on! Shoo! Get out of here!"
"I don't think it understands English," deadpanned Abby. He glared.
"Well what language does it understand, then? Should we try Latin? Shoo! Look! A Tyrannosaurus"That's supposed to make it run away, is it? 'Look, a Tyrannosaurus'?" Abby sighed, exasperated. "Just ignore it. Maybe it'll go away."
"Yeah." Connor nodded, apparently deciding that this was going to work. "Right. Come on, then." They started off again, and once again the Triceratops followed them. This time, having clearly not got the reaction that it wanted, it nudged Connor in the back with its nose. He was thrown forward by the impact, barely remaining on his feet. Nearby, Ryan unslung his rifle from his back, and Cutter's eyes widened in horror.
"Oh no you don't."
"It could be dangerous, professor. May I remind you that my duty is to keep you lot safe, whether you like it or not." Ryan levelled the rifle, although he made no move to fire as yet. Cutter rolled his eyes.
"It's a baby."
"I can see that. It probably weighs a good ton, though, and don't tell me that it couldn't do some damage. I don't want to shoot it, but my first responsibility is to the humans on this team, not to whatever weird pet they've decided to adopt now."
"Fire that thing and you don't know what might happen," Cutter pointed out. Ryan glanced at him across the barrel of the rifle.
"I know." He tracked the creature's movements with the weapon, clearly still ready to fire if necessary. "Don't get in my way."
"No, of course not." Turning his head away in frustration, Cutter let out a sharp sigh. Short of attacking the other man, there didn't seem to be a lot that he could do - and he had already learned that if it came to a fight, there was no chance of Tom Ryan not being the winner. A short distance away, blissfully unaware of its possible fate, the excitable baby gave another little bounce, and nudged Connor once again. Once again he nearly fell, and Ryan's finger twitched briefly on the trigger. He didn't fire. He didn't need to - for at that moment, as though summoned by Cutter's despair, there was the loud roar of an engine, and an energetic whoop. A Land Rover, clearly driven by one of Ryan's sergeants, raced by with all four wheels clear of the ground, and Stephen hanging on to the outside for all he was worth. He held a rifle in one hand, and he waved it in the air as he yelled. Gradually the herd of Triceratops began to stir. One of them threw back its head, emitting a yell of its own, and the baby, coming to a sudden standstill, answered back. A moment later it turned around and trotted off back to the herd. Cutter breathed a sigh of relief and, lowering the rifle, Ryan smiled.
"Nice timing that assistant of yours has got."
"I know." They shared a grin, both relieved that the baby had escaped death. Connor, however, was less happy.
"My hat!" He clapped his free hand to his head, in comic illustration, and for the first time Abby noticed that his hat was missing. He continued to feel around for it, as though somehow it was still in place, but was just avoiding his hand. "Where's my hat? I must have..." He turned around, back to where he had met with the baby for the first time, but Abby caught his arm.
"No," she told him.
"But my hat! I love that hat!" His eyes roamed the ground, searching for any sign of his errant headgear, eventually spotting it some distance away. "I've got to get it."
"Connor, no! Stephen's stirring up the herd. Stay back!"
"But what if it gets trampled?" He looked from her to the hat, clearly caught in indecision. "I'll only be a second. Here." He shoved the test tube into her hands, then turned about and raced off.
"Connor!" Torn, she hesitated for a moment, then broke into a run, intending to follow after him. Ryan was with her in an instant, holding her back.
"Not your job," he told her firmly. She nodded, unhappy about staying behind, but knowing that he was right. She didn't retreat, however, remaining where she was as the soldier hared off in pursuit of the younger man. Close to them, unaware of their position, the pair in the Land Rover wheeled about for another pass.
"We're getting somewhere!" yelled the sergeant out of the window. Stephen barely heard, but he nodded anyway, firing his rifle into the air. The Triceratops, unused to being herded, were certainly used to moving as a group. They seemed quite obliging, and the only likely problem that Stephen could see was in getting the lead animals to aim for the anomaly. Fortunately, since it seemed to be either that or run straight into the side of a rather steep bit of hill, he was fairly sure that things were going to work out just fine. He wasn't wrong. What he hadn't counted on, however, was Connor. As the herd surged onward, the young student, desperate to rescue his hat, dodged the oncoming Land Rover at the last second, earning a curse from Patrick or Peter inside. The Land Rover jerked in an unscheduled turn that nearly dislodged Stephen; and Connor, having successfully negotiated it, now found himself in the path of far too many tonnes of unexpectedly fast dinosaur. His eyes widened. He was still wondering what on earth to do with himself when Ryan tackled him from behind, hauling him out of harm's way in the nick of time. They crashed to the ground together, and Ryan dragged his suddenly slack burden away from any further likely danger. The Land Rover roared past again, and Stephen waved briefly, apparently unaware of what had just transpired. Wearily, Ryan waved back. Scientists, he had decided, were infinitely more trouble than they were worth. All the same, he couldn't help admitting to himself that he much preferred them to be alive. He aimed a swat at the top of Connor's head that was only half meant in play.
"Oi," he said. There was no answer. "Oi, Temple." There was still no answer. He frowned, and took a closer look at the young man. There was blood on the pale face upturned to his, and a growing bruise on the unlined forehead. Clearly Connor had hit something on the ground, probably during the lifesaving tackle. Ryan groaned, and felt for a pulse. It was there, and it felt strong enough. Nonetheless, the boy would be needing medical attention, and as soon as possible. He stood up, hoisting the unconscious student over his shoulder, then turned around and headed back towards Professor Cutter. His life was never simple, he mused, as he trudged onward with his awkward burden. Even unconscious the scientists were trouble. Some days he was almost sure that he could hear the universe giggling.
Ryan's team medic gave Connor a brief examination, by which time the young man was awake again, and extremely sorry to hear that the last of the Triceratops were just disappearing through the anomaly. Despite his insistence that he was perfectly fine, he was sent off to hospital, his protestations ceasing only when Abby became unusually attentive. Beginning to appreciate the possible advantages of his position, he was immediately transformed into the very image of a dying soldier, much to everybody's amusement. Stephen heard the tale when he returned from his dinosaur-wrangling, and laughed to hear how their young friend had been acting up for Abby's sake.
"Claudia's gone with him," said Cutter, returning from seeing off the ambulance. "Our instructions are to avoid any further drains on the NHS."
"Some of us don't need reminding," said Stephen. Abby raised her eyebrows in faint amusement.
"Does the phrase 'giant centipede' not mean anything to you?" He shot her a mock glare.
"One slip-up." He held up his index finger in illustration. "One. Who just herded fifty giant prehistoric creatures through a tiny hole without a single mishap?"
"All right. Before your already sizeable head manages to swell any further..." Cutter slung an arm around the younger man's neck. "How about a little field trip to see where our friends have got to?"
"You're on." Stephen's eyes danced, and Cutter smiled back, no less excited.
"Abby, I hate to ask, but I need somebody that I know I can trust to watch the anomaly."
"It's okay." She nodded in understanding. "I think I've had my quota of close encounters for the day anyway. You go ahead, professor."
"Thank you." His eyes were bright and kind. "Next one's yours. Promise."
"I shall hold you to that." She frowned. "Unless it's something really horrible."
"No, that's fine. Really horrible things are Stephen's. It's tradition." They shared a smile, before Cutter nudged his companion forward. "Come on. We'd better go and find our escort, I suppose. No doubt they'll be over the moon about the idea."
"You never know. They were quite helpful getting the creatures moving earlier." Stephen fell into step alongside his old friend as they set off in search of Captain Ryan. The soldier saw them coming, and by the expression on his face, had apparently guessed their purpose.
"I don't really want to hear this, do I," he said. It wasn't a question. Cutter beamed at him, whilst Stephen fell a pace behind, back into the old position of assistant.
"Captain Ryan, you love our little excursions into the past." Cutter was rather coming to enjoy sparring with his opposite number, and suspected that the feeling was at least partly mutual. "You know you do."
"Just promise me that you won't try to stay there this time." Ryan sighed. For all his posturing, and his studiously forbidding exterior, he had proven more than once to share their enthusiasm for many of the creatures that passed through the anomalies. His attempts to appear distant and aloof were becoming increasingly unconvincing. "Fine, I'll put a team together. Who's coming?"
"Just Stephen and me," Cutter told him. "Abby is staying behind to watch the anomaly, so we'll have some advance warning in case it starts to close." Ryan nodded.
"Well, that's something. Has this been cleared with Sir James?"
"Do we have to clear everything with him now?" This was news to Cutter, who generally preferred not to have to ask permission for anything. Ryan frowned.
"I suppose not. He did hint that I shouldn't let you go wandering off through any more of these holes without getting all kinds of forms signed in triplicate." The soldier grimaced. "Like I've got time to worry about all of his protocols."
"Captain, I think you and I are destined to have a very fruitful relationship." By now positively beaming, Cutter glanced back at Stephen. "Get our things, Stephen."
"I'm on it." The younger man disappeared, and Ryan watched him go.
"Things?" he asked. Cutter shrugged rather vaguely.
"Specimen-collecting equipment, some bottled water. Usual field gear, you know the sort of thing. It's okay, it all packs into very small rucksacks, and we carry it all ourselves. You've seen it before."
"Yes." Ryan's expression was thoughtful. "All of it, gun included. I'm assuming that it's licensed, but even so, I can't see Lester turning a blind eye if he ever sees it."
"Of course it's licensed." Cutter was insulted on Stephen's behalf, and Ryan nodded.
"And he's good with it, I know. All the same, he's a scientist, not a bloody commando. In case it's escaped your notice, most people aren't allowed to suddenly start turning up for work with a gun."
"You tell him," said Cutter. Ryan shot him an exasperated look.
"I've been in war zones that were easier to deal with than you lot. Come on."
"Right behind you." Cutter fell into step alongside him as they headed back towards the anomaly. Despite their apparent antagonism, they were developing an increasingly relaxed relationship, and there was no sense of tension between them now. Ryan glanced back at Cutter as they drew near to the group of milling soldiers stationed around the anomaly.
"So what are we likely to be dealing with?" he asked. Cutter blew out a long breath.
"Hard to say. Given what we've just herded back through it, that anomaly must lead to the Cretaceous, and there was a fascinating diversity of life in that period." He saw the expression on Ryan's face, and reined in his professional urge to waffle. "One contemporary was the T. rex, obviously, and we do have to consider the possibility that it'll be around. There's plenty of evidence that the Tyrannosaurus preyed on the Triceratops. That's a worst case scenario, though. I don't expect trouble."
"It's my job to expect trouble," Ryan reminded him. Cutter nodded slowly.
"Fair enough. When you think about it, though, you can observe any number of prey animals on safari in Africa for hours without ever catching sight of a lion. It may well be that a good feed would keep a T. rex happy for several days, and we have no idea how many of them a region could support. We don't have the data to be able to guess at how territorial they might have been, for example. We can only make guesses based on the behaviour of animals today."
"All very nice, professor, and all very technical. To me it still sounds like there's a chance we'll all get eaten."
"Maybe." Cutter sounded almost blasÚ. "In practice we have no idea if a creature of that size would even pay attention to us. If it's used to large prey, then what are we to it? Although of course there are plenty of other things there that would cheerfully eat us instead." He smiled at Ryan's deepening frown. "Relax, captain. I'm mostly just teasing you. The Triceratops, as far as we know, favoured open territory. You've seen the sort of creature that it is. A herd would need a lot of space to graze in. We should have good visibility all around, and if there's any sign of trouble, we can just go back through the anomaly. I'm sure your soldiers can secure it once we're back through."
"Now that you can bet on." There was a flare of pride in Ryan's eyes. "No creature is going to get through that anomaly if we don't want it to, no matter how big it is. We've got grenades enough to take out a small army if we have to."
"Hmm." Cutter hid a wince. If it came to protecting Britain from a rampaging Tyrannosaurus rex, he couldn't really argue with Ryan's methods. All the same, the idea of a dinosaur - or any other animal come to that - being torn apart by grenades would never be something that he would truly welcome. Ryan saw his reaction and smiled.
"You can try talking to it nicely if you'd rather," he suggested, not unpleasantly. Cutter laughed.
"No, I think I'll give that one a miss."
"Are we going through the anomaly, sir?" asked a nearby soldier as the pair approached. Ryan nodded.
"I want five volunteers to come along. The rest of you are to stay here, and make sure that nothing but us comes back through that thing. That means anything, big or small, including anything that Miss Maitland might feel inclined to adopt." The soldier hid a smile.
"Yes sir. Any idea how long the anomaly is likely to last?"
"That's Professor Cutter's department." Ryan looked over at Cutter, who shrugged, rather at a loss. For the time being, predicting how the anomalies would behave was still very much an inexact science. He could see, however, that there was a strong magnetic field acting upon the rifles carried by the soldiers, which gave him some indication.
"The field is still strong. We should have a few hours at least."
"Unless it decides to act up." This last came from Stephen, striding over towards the group with a pair of rucksacks in his hands. He passed one to Cutter, and slung the other over his shoulder.
"Act up?" asked Ryan. Stephen nodded at the anomaly.
"We haven't found a pattern yet," he explained. "These things don't all behave in the same way, at least as far as we can tell. Sometimes the magnetic field fades gradually, and other times it disappears almost instantly, taking the anomaly with it. We're still working on a proper theory, but until we've got one it's all guesswork."
"Great. One of these days I'll learn to stop asking questions." Ryan checked the load in his gun. "Do I have those volunteers?"
"Sir." The sergeant who had accompanied Stephen in his dinosaur-wrangling stepped forward smartly. "I'd like to volunteer to go." Apparently taking their cue, four other men joined him immediately. Ryan nodded, clearly satisfied with the group.
"Good. You others, you have your orders."
"Yes sir." One of the soldiers who was to remain behind nodded smartly. "Good luck, sir."
"Hmm." Ryan didn't sound as though he greatly approved of being wished luck - or of the suggestion that he might need it. He looked across at the two scientists. "You know the drill by now. Stay behind us, stay where we can see you, and stay out of trouble."
"I'm never entirely sure if it's possible to obey both of the first two." Cutter smiled at Ryan's withering stare. "Are we ready then?"
"My men are always ready." Ryan raised his rifle, preparing for whatever might be waiting for them on the other side of the anomaly. "All right, everybody. Let's go."
It was dark on the other side of the anomaly, and a chill hung in the air. Cutter pulled his light jacket more closely around him, and grumbled something indistinct about the vagaries of space-time travel. Stephen laughed, digging around in his rucksack for a torch.
"You're just getting old," he said. Cutter laughed as well.
"Old? I won't even be born for another seventy-odd million years."
"That how far back we are?" Ryan was looking about, clearly a little unsettled by the sudden step into evening. "That's more recent than most of our trips, right?"
"It is, yes." Cutter gestured around at their indistinct and murky theatre. "This is the Cretaceous, and late-era Cretaceous too, given our Triceratops friends. In theory at least, we should be seeing a lot more around here that's familiar to us from our own time."
"Like giant, man-eating lizards, for instance." Ryan smiled faintly. "All right, everybody. Fan out a short way, and look sharp, for goodness sakes. Unless you want to have a Tyrannosaurus sneak up on you?"
"Sir." Snapping to attention, his little unit switched on their torches, their light adding to Stephen's to give a much better view of their surroundings. Far from the open plains that Cutter had expected, they seemed to be in a place where the ground rose and fell in low hills, with a good deal of bushes and low vegetation. It was tough and scrubby looking, and noticeably short on greenery. Added to the coolness of the air, there was a marked suggestion of winter.
"Quite a change from the weather we usually get on these excursions," observed Cutter, who had so far encountered bright sunshine and great warmth in his visits to the past. Stephen nodded.
"Had to happen sometime, though. You can't always expect the good stuff." He frowned suddenly, directing his torch beam at something just visible at the limits of their vision. "What's that? Can I have some more light over there?"
"Is that a dead dinosaur?" His grumblings about wintertime forgotten, Cutter was immediately interested. As several soldiers obliged by directing their torches after Stephen's, the shape that he had seen was immediately lit up. "It is! Either that or its chosen a very strange place to spend the night. Come on!"
"Be careful!" Ryan told him, but Cutter and Stephen were already hurrying away, over to where the large, sprawled shape of something lay in the shadows. To him it looked vaguely lizardy, and not terribly exciting. The two scientists clearly disagreed, and he sighed in resignation. "Come on, we have to back them up. If they get eaten we shall never hear the end of it." His soldiers followed after him, spreading out to come at the dead creature from several different angles.
"So what have you got?" asked one conversationally as he neared the beast. Stephen glanced up, recognising his dinosaur-wrangling cohort from earlier.
"Hello. It's... Peter, is it?"
"Paul," his friend told him, extending a hand. "Sergeant Paul Winchester."
"You're sure it's not Peter?" Stephen had been quite convinced on that score, but then he never had been much good with names. The sergeant looked faintly amused.
"Quite sure." He nodded at the dinosaur. "You better at naming monsters?"
"I hope so." They shared a smile. "It's some sort of hadrosaur, anyway. It's not easy to be much more specific in this light. What do you think, Cutter?"
"I'd need to do a more thorough examination, preferably in full daylight," his colleague told him. "Given the size, though, and the era and likely region, I suppose we can make a few guesses."
"That would be my first guess." Cutter gave one sprawled foreleg a brief pat. "Look at it. It's a perfect specimen! Imagine giving it a proper autopsy."
"Maybe we can. If we can stay here until morning, we could try something." Stephen glanced back at the anomaly, but it was too hard to tell from such a distance whether or not it was likely to last many more hours. "How long do you suppose it would take to organise some decent lifting gear, so we could take it back through?"
"Too long." Cutter looked rueful. "And where would we take it? Doing a secret autopsy on a dodo is one thing, but I doubt we could hide this thing at the university. Still, we can make some kind of study at least. Shine your torch on its face, could you. We can take a look at its mouth, then, and that might give us some idea of its last meal."
"You're not going to go poking around between its teeth?" asked Winchester, recoiling slightly. Cutter laughed.
"You soldier boys have remarkably weak stomachs," he teased. "And there was I hoping we could count on your torch as well, for a little extra light."
"I suppose you can." The sergeant went dutifully towards the creature's head. "Funny looking beastie, isn't it."
"Highly efficient design though, as far as we can tell." Cutter crouched down, looking into a half-closed eye. "Many a dinosaur would likely look odd to you, but these things lasted for millions of years, all over the world. Humans can't even begin to compare, and they won't for a long time yet. A very long time."
"Maybe." Winchester frowned thoughtfully, looking down on the peaceful face. "I suppose we are sure that it's dead?"
"You can check its pulse if you like," Stephen told him. The sergeant shot him a sardonic glare.
"I'm being serious. There's nothing taking an interest in it, after all. Dead animals in the wild usually attract scavengers pretty quickly."
"True enough. There are no signs of animal interference or decomposition, so I think we can assume that it died very recently. It is dead, though. It would hardly be allowing me to manhandle it like this if it were alive." Cutter reached out, pushing the slack eyelid upwards so that Stephen's torchlight fell more fully onto the creature's eye. "The scavengers will be along eventually, once we've let it alone. Once it starts to rot, the carcass could bring creatures from miles around. I'd imagine that the smell of a rotting dinosaur to the natives is like roasting chicken to us."
"They're welcome to it." Winchester frowned, as though at something half-remembered. "Didn't I read something about Tyrannosauruses... Tyranno... whatever the plural is... being a scavenger rather than a predator? You definitely said something about them being around in this period before we came through. Hanging about some dead creature maybe isn't such a great idea."
"It was probably both," said Cutter, setting to work at easing open the dead hadrosaur's mouth. "With a head like that, I'd be surprised if it was just a scavenger, but it probably ate carrion when it came across it, certainly. You can't miss up the chance of a good meal. I wouldn't expect to see one until the smell starts circulating, though. More light, Stephen. I can't see much beyond its teeth."
"Any sign of any food residue?" Lying down on the ground so that he could direct the torchlight properly, Stephen glanced up at his friend. Cutter frowned.
"Doesn't seem to be, no. Here, can you come a little closer? You're lower down than me, and you might be able to get a better look down its throat."
"Are you sticking your head in its mouth, Hart?" asked Ryan, coming over to see what was going on. Stephen laughed.
"It's a party trick of mine. Less impressive with a dead herbivore, though. I can't see a thing, Cutter. Either it hasn't eaten recently, or its dental hygiene is better than we'd hoped. We could cut open its stomach easily enough, though. We've got good enough knives."
"Yes. I was hoping we wouldn't have to bother. That might really be risking the local scavengers taking an interest." From Cutter's expression, it was obvious that he wouldn't be able to resist for long. "Maybe we should do more of an external study first. Have you got your camera with you?"
"Of course." Stephen pulled it out, then at Cutter's direction, began taking a series of photographs of the creature, particularly of its head and its feet. Ryan crouched down beside it to get a better look.
"What sort of scavengers?" he asked, always aware of the team's safety. Cutter shook his head slowly.
"Too difficult to tell. The possibilities are almost endless. Don't forget that we don't know all of the animals from this period. We only know about the ones that we've found fossils of back in our time. Even with what we know there are a lot of possibles."
"It's practically dark, though," pointed out Winchester. "Dinosaurs are reptiles, so they're not going to be doing much at night."
"Only if they were cold-blooded," Stephen told him, waving him back out of the way so that he could get a better shot of the eye. "They tend to be thought of more often as warm-blooded nowdays. Not all of them, perhaps, but some."
"That's cheating," Winchester told him. Ryan laughed.
"Nothing's simple anymore, sergeant. Hadn't you noticed?"
"I'm starting to." The sergeant seemed suddenly to recollect that he was technically still on duty. "Sorry sir. Was there somewhere you'd prefer me to be stationed?"
"No, you're fine where you are. The more of us that there are watching these two, the better." Ryan gestured towards Cutter. "This one would happily run into a whole nest of Tyrannosaurus just to get a better look at their behaviour; and this one," he gestured at Stephen, "would cheerfully follow. And jump down one of their throats after the professor if he thought it would help."
"Very funny," Stephen told him, busy clambering over the creature's tail so that he could get a better shot of its hind legs. "Here, shift over, Ryan. I need to get a good shot of its back end."
"See?" Ryan jerked a thumb at the younger man. "They're weird, the pair of them. Last time I spent some time with Hart here, he was tasting dinosaur dung to see what it had been eating lately."
"That was a pterosaur, not a dinosaur," Stephen told him. "It's all useful study, you know. We can learn a lot from dung."
"And from a dinosaur's naughty bits, by the look of things," added Winchester with a grin. Stephen glanced up at him.
"We were thinking of doing a dinosaur pin-up calendar. Anyway, think about it. These things are only known by their skeletons, and occasional skin impressions. We know a bit more about hadrosaurs, as they're quite common in the fossil record, but even so, sexual organs, the soft bits... it's almost all guesswork."
"And guesswork definitely has its limits." Cutter sat back on his heels. "If we were to cut here, and here... what do you think, Stephen?"
"Looks fine to me." Stephen fished around in his rucksack once again, this time producing a gigantic, sheathed knife. Ryan's eyebrows shot up.
"Bloody hell! That's not a knife, it's a sword!"
"Not quite." Stephen frowned up at him, still crouched by the dinosaur's back legs. "Are you interested in swords?"
"It's been a while." Taking the knife to give it a brief perusal, Ryan handed it on to Cutter. "I learnt to fence some years back, though. Seemed the thing. Officer and a gentleman, you know?"
"We'll have to spar sometime," said Stephen. Ryan smiled, clearly becoming interested.
"Turn him down, captain," said Cutter dryly. "He was a junior champion, and an Olympic candidate at that. He'll make mincemeat out of you."
"I don't know about that. A science geek challenging a soldier is a matter of honour." Ryan's smile grew. "We'll talk about it when we get back. Been meaning to have a word with you anyway, Hart. If you're going to run around the place with that gun of yours, I need to see what you can do. I want to set up an exercise sometime so that you and my team can run through some manoeuvres together."
"Sounds like fun," said Stephen. Ryan nodded.
"Maybe. I'm serious, though. We don't just have your safety to think about when we're out on an operation. There are often civilians around. Members of the public, that sort of thing. I can't have you shooting bullets off about the place unless I can be sure that you know what you're doing. Really know what you're doing. So when I say that I need to put you through your paces sometime, it's not a request. It's an order."
"Yes sir." Stephen smiled up at him, before clicking off a final series of shots, and stowing the camera away again. "You want some help, Cutter?"
"I can certainly manage the initial incisions on my own. Why don't you take a look around at the plant life while I get set up here?" Cutter was pulling on a pair of latex gloves. "Watch out, though. It's always been a theory that hadrosaurs lived in wet or swampy areas, so watch where you step. I don't need to warn you about the local wildlife, I hope."
"It's all right, I'll be careful." Stephen stood up, looking around for a likely place to start. "I'll grab a few samples of the fauna, and some water if I can find any."
"Only if it's a small water source," Cutter told him. "I'm not having you sticking your hands into any bigger lakes or rivers. Goodness only knows what might be lurking in them."
"Don't worry. I'm not planning on getting myself eaten." Stephen smiled, ever imperturbable. "I doubt I'll go far anyway, and it doesn't look like there are any large bodies of water close by."
"Stay within sight of the anomaly," Ryan told him. Stephen nodded.
"I will. Besides, I want to be on hand in case Cutter needs help." He waggled his fingers in farewell. "See you."
"You want me to go with him, sir?" asked Winchester. Ryan looked after Stephen as he headed off into the gloom.
"Maybe. You don't have to follow too closely, but I'd prefer there to be somebody keeping an eye on him. I'll stay here with the professor."
"Sir." Snapping briefly to attention, the sergeant disappeared off on his errand. Cutter glanced up at Ryan.
"You sure you want to stay with me, captain? I am going to be slicing into this thing's stomach in just a little while."
"Which means what?" asked Ryan, a suspicious look beginning to cross his face. Cutter grinned.
"Ever seen Jaws?"
"Course. Everybody's seen Jaws." Understanding dawned. "Oh, right. Stomach acid. Horrible smell. I remember." He sighed, a look of resignation once again crossing his face. "Sometimes I wonder what I did to deserve this posting."
"That's between you and your confessor, captain." Cutter smiled, then gestured towards the creature's head. "If you stand over there, you should be all right. You might want to watch your feet, though. I can't promise that you won't end up standing in a puddle of something you'd rather not be standing in."
"What about you?" asked Ryan. "Whatever comes out of there, surely you'll be kneeling in it?"
"Not in the acid itself, I won't be! But anyway, I have a much stronger stomach than most. I once spent the best part of a year up to my eyeballs in animal innards when I was studying for my initial doctorate."
"You have some weird hobbies," Ryan told him. "You didn't do that thing that medical students do with their cadavers, did you? Leaving bits lying around on buses and all that sort of thing? You should hear some of the stories our medic comes out with. He's a twisted sod, I swear."
"It's traditional," Cutter told him, unable to keep from smiling at the other man's expression. "I once left a pair of deer's eyeballs sitting in a friend's glasses case. She got me back, though. I put my hand in my coat pocket later, and found a good chunk of digestive tract waiting for me."
"I hope the deer appreciated it," said Ryan, wrinkling up his nose in an expression of amused distaste. Cutter shrugged.
"He should have. We were cutting it up to find out what had killed it. Turned out to be a virus, and we were able to stop it from spreading. I don't cut things up for fun, you know."
"Could have fooled me." Watching as the huge knife made its first incision, Ryan took an involuntary step back. "Yuck. That really is revolting."
"Wait until we're properly inside." Cutter sat back for a second on his heels, contemplating his subject. "Of course this is a little hit and miss. Generally when I cut up an animal in the autopsy room, I know exactly what it's going to look like inside. I don't suppose anybody has ever cut up a fresh dinosaur before, though."
"You don't suppose? I'd be willing to bet on it, unless you're going to tell me that humans existed back in this time after all." Despite himself, Ryan was edging closer again. Cutter glanced up.
"Don't forget Helen," he pointed out. Ryan nodded.
"Oh. Right. Sorry, didn't think."
"No reason you should have." Cutter sounded light; almost cheerful. "Now, let me see. Here, I think." He made another incision, then smiled happily. "That's good. Couldn't shine your torch just down here, could you?"
"So much for me staying out of the mess," said Ryan, although he didn't sound half as irritable as he might have done. Cutter shrugged, busy once again with the knife.
"All in the name of science, captain. All in the name of science. Bit lower. Bit to the left, too. Up a bit..."
"You need one of those lamps you can wear on your head," Ryan told him. Cutter glanced up.
"Nice idea. I like that. I might try requisitioning for one. Bit more to the left there, if you don't mind."
"Fine..." Ryan did as he was asked, well aware that he now seemed to be standing in just the right place to be in the firing line when the stomach was opened. "This stomach acid. Just how strong is it?"
"It's powerful stuff. It has a lot to break down. Why?"
"I'm just wondering if my boots are up to the job. They're only army issue. Hardly top of the range."
"If your feet start tingling, run for dry ground," Cutter told him. They shared a brief smile, and Ryan shook his head.
"One of these days I'm going to learn not to ask questions. Go on, professor. Get it over and done with. Just for the record, though, if anything really disgusting comes out of there, I'm not ruling out squealing and running away."
"Sounds fair to me." Cutter bent once again to the task. "Take a deep breath, captain. This is where it might just start to get unpleasant."
The area was not exactly stocked with lush greenery, but Stephen found plenty to interest him. Short, stumpy trees, and rough, coarse bushes; a low layer of undergrowth, tangled and stiff, and surely only of use to something with a mouth as powerful as those of the Triceratops herd that had recently passed this way. He couldn't imagine the Edmontosaurus having found much food in this place. It didn't look as though it was built for such harsh fare. He stooped down to take a sample of the tough plants, and found that he had to use his knife to cut through the woody stem. No wonder, then, that there had been no traces of a recent meal in the Edmontosaurus's mouth. It must have wandered from its own feeding ground. He wondered what had killed it, but until Cutter's makeshift autopsy began to deliver answers, there was little point in too much speculation. There were just too many possibilities. Reaching up to pull a few leaves from a nearby tree, he glanced back to the dead dinosaur. Cutter was not visible from his current position, but he could see the light of Ryan's torch, and the silhouette of the soldier as he stood nearby. Stephen could imagine him protesting at having been drafted in as an unofficial assistant, but no doubt helping anyway. Ryan had turned out to be a useful member of the team, not nearly as forbidding as he had initially seemed to want them to think.
"Don't stray too far," said a voice beside him. Stephen, who had heard the footsteps approach from some distance away, smiled.
"Don't worry. I love a good field trip, but I have no intention of making this one permanent."
"I didn't mean the anomaly. There's a bloody great cliff right over there." The sergeant jerked his thumb to indicate, and Stephen shone his torch over to see. He saw a steep slope, the ground covered with browning, coarse-looking plants, and glanced back at his companion.
"Hardly a cliff."
"Yeah, but would you have been careful if I'd said 'look out for the slight hill'? You could still do yourself some damage falling down there. Hardly dressed for rough stuff, are you."
"Suppose not. To be honest, I didn't exactly get dressed this morning with a mind for a quick trip back sixty-five million years."
"Ah ha. That's where you're going wrong, see, especially with the life we're all living now. Always be prepared, young Padawan."
"I am." Stephen held up a specimen jar, and waggled it in indication. "Anyway, don't worry. I don't plan to fall down any cliffs. Be just my luck if you lot all went back through the anomaly and left me there."
"Oh, we wouldn't do that. Just think of the paperwork." Winchester took one of Stephen's sample jars, peering at the stubby vegetation inside. "Local diet isn't up to much, is it."
"No. This isn't one of the more inviting landscapes that we've encountered in the past, that's for certain." Stephen stowed his filled jars away in his rucksack, before turning his attention to a nearby bush. There were several flowers on it, dead or dying now, and he eased one of them into yet another jar. He was surprised to see them growing, when the rest of the surroundings seemed to point so clearly to wintertime, and he looked forward to doing some closer study of the sample back at the university. He took several other cuttings from the same bush, aware suddenly that Winchester was watching him with amusement.
"What?" he asked, well aware what the other man was smiling about. The sergeant shrugged.
"Oh, you know. You and your plants. Fascinating, are they?"
"Yes." Stephen pointed at the flowers. "Aren't you interested in the lifecycle of a plant that flowers when all of the other plants nearby seem to be slowing down for winter?"
"Well, now that you come to mention it..." Winchester grinned. "Sorry. Never was exactly green-fingered. I suppose the animals interest me more, although around here I'm not so sure about that. Everything's so bloody big back in this sort of time."
"Common misconception," Stephen told him. "A lot of dinosaurs were very small - and besides, it's not all about dinosaurs. There were plenty of mammals about, and birds too by now."
"And really exciting plants," said Winchester. Stephen threw a handful of twigs at him.
"Well I find them interesting."
"Going to take them back to your office, and do an autopsy on them too?"
"Actually I was hoping I might manage to get some of these cuttings to take root. I had thought that most of the vegetation around here was dead, but these flowers suggest that it isn't. Isn't far off it, though. Possibly we've just missed a sharp frost."
"You'd be fascinating at a dinner party, you would."
"And talking about guns and marching is better, I suppose?"
"Hell no. You ever get stuck with a bunch of soldiers who can only talk about the job, run. By the time they've tried engaging you in a discussion on the merits of wearing insoles for long distance marching, it's already too late. Your brain will have gone into meltdown." Winchester pointed upwards. "Is that fruit?"
"I doubt it. Not at this time of year." Stephen looked up, seeing a clump of something hanging from one of the taller trees. "Oh. Could be. A late blooming, maybe. Looks like its rotted on the branch, instead of falling."
"Most people wouldn't be quite so delighted by that," observed his companion. Stephen shrugged.
"Most people aren't as interesting as me." He glanced back again towards Cutter and the others, checking that they had not wandered too far. The anomaly was still visible, glittering gold and silver in the distance, and taking heart from that, he returned his attention to the tree. It was not tall, and it was no great feat to shin up the trunk and fetch down the little clump of fruit. It had clearly begun to rot, although the process was not far along. A maggot stuck its head out of the dead flesh, and Stephen smiled in satisfaction. Winchester rolled his eyes.
"You're excited about the maggot, aren't you. You need to get out more."
"You can learn a lot from a maggot." Stephen frowned. "Although it might be better to leave it behind. There's no telling what it'll grow into. Best ask Cutter." He slipped the fruit and its guest into another of his specimen jars, then settled his rucksack back over his shoulder. "Come on. Let's see what else we can find."
"I don't know." Winchester looked doubtfully at his watch. "We've been gone some time. We really better head back to the others."
"I suppose." Stephen brightened. "Still, we can always assist Cutter."
"In cutting up a dinosaur." Winchester looked less than impressed. "You people have a funny way of amusing yourselves."
"Everybody's got a hobby." Turning about, Stephen began to walk back towards the rest of their group. He had gone no more than a few steps, however, before Winchester suddenly caught at his arm.
"Hey," he said, his voice a mixture of genuine interest and obvious trepidation. "What exactly is that?"
"What's what?" Instantly on the alert, Stephen turned. The sergeant was staring up at the sky, and Stephen followed his gaze upward. There was a shape in the darkness, heading roughly their way, and he could see at once why the soldier was so agog. He smiled, his own expression one of pure delight.
"Can't be sure, but I'd swear that it's a Quetzalcoatlus." His eyes widened slightly, and he became painfully aware that his mouth was falling open. "It must be. Look at the wingspan!"
"I am looking at the bloody wingspan! It's as big as a house!" Winchester raised his rifle, but Stephen immediately knocked it down.
"Relax. I know it's big, but it doesn't have any teeth. It's unlikely to bother us."
"Does it know that?!"
"I'd say it's probably noticed, yes. It's big, but it's built like a glider. It doesn't have anything like the mass necessary to make off with a human being. None of us are particularly small."
"You're sure, are you? This isn't just some theory that's about to be proved spectacularly wrong?"
"I'm pretty sure, yeah." Stephen followed the beast's trajectory as it came nearer and nearer. Suddenly it was extremely easy to forget years of careful study.
It was gigantic, bigger even than a Pteranodon, the wingspan perhaps eleven metres or more. Gliding overhead, it turned in a lazy circle, swooping down so low that they could see every detail of its taut wings and huge head. Somebody nearby shouted, but nobody fired. Stephen wondered if Cutter had stopped them, or if they had realised that the creature was unlikely to pose a threat.
"Go flap at somebody else, you big weirdo." Winchester took a step back, unnerved at the way that the creature seemed unwilling to fly away. Stephen smiled.
"I think it might be attracted to the torchlight. Maybe ours is the first it saw, so it zeroed in on us?"
"Lucky us. It's bloody freaky." The sergeant flapped his arms at the creature, as for a second time it swooped down startlingly low. "You're sure it's got no teeth?"
"Do you think it needs reminding?" The sergeant took a step back. "I wouldn't have thought it could manoeuvre so well. Looks like a sodding barn door whizzing about up there."
"Yes, I'm rather surprised. I think its curiosity has got the better of it, though. It must need up-currents to rise properly. Another swoop like that, and it won't be able to get the height again."
"Well I'm not going to lead it back up to high ground." Winchester raised his gun again. "Maybe it's hoping to use that slope over there to get itself some lift. Harmless or not, anyway, I don't want it coming any closer. You'd feel it if it clobbered you with one of those wings, that's for sure."
"It looks like it would damage itself more easily than one of us." Stephen was not at all sure whether it was advisable to fire a gun any more often than was necessary. Winchester's mind had clearly travelled along a similar path, for he looked across at the scientist with a frown.
"What else is likely to get curious around here?"
"I don't know. My job is usually to theorise about fossils, not living creatures. Not ones that have been extinct for sixty-five million years, anyway. Let's head back to the others. More people might scare it away."
"Sounds fine to me." Rifle still ready to fire, Winchester gestured for Stephen to lead the way back to the others. The scientist complied, eyes still on the sky. They had gone no more than a few feet when the vast creature wheeled in the air, its wings balancing it as it drew a mighty circle in the air. With a great cry, it swooped, seeming to drop out of the air like a stone, and although Winchester fired his rifle, he missed by quite a margin. He swore loudly.
"Nothing to worry about?" he asked Stephen. The younger man stared upwards, rather stunned.
"It doesn't make any sense. It can't possibly hope to eat us. Perhaps the scent of that dead Edmontosaurus...?"
"Then let it swoop at bloody Edmond!" The sergeant's flare of indignation broke off sharply as he ducked again, dodging a broad swipe from the animal's mighty beak. The outcome, perhaps, was inevitable. Carried forward by his own momentum, caught a glancing blow by the giant head, Winchester wobbled uncertainly on the edge of the slope. He yelled out, more startled than afraid, before losing his balance and tumbling awkwardly downwards. Helpless, he fell faster and faster, his arms and legs flailing as he tried to right himself. Stephen, who had made a wild grab to save him, himself overbalanced, caught across the back by a preposterously long wing. He fell, looking up into an eye that seemed more confused than baleful, and although his hands had closed around his gun, he didn't bring it up to fire. A powerful screech that any palaeontologist would have paid a fortune to hear - if perhaps not at quite such close quarters - rang out loudly just above him, before the creature shot off the edge of the slope and glided away. Stephen's head flopped back onto coarse, scrubby grass, and he breathed a sigh of relief.
"Stephen!" Cutter was beside him almost before he had had time to draw breath, hands checking for injuries, taking a moment to brush, gently, at his hair. "Are you all right? How many fingers am I holding up?"
"I don't know, I've got my eyes shut." Stephen opened them, smiling up at his old friend. "I'm fine. Barely a scratch. Peter-?"
"Peter?" asked Cutter. Stephen struggled up into a sitting position, Cutter lending a hand to help him up. At the edge of the slope, they both looked down, to where the sprawled figure of Winchester lay, having fallen some considerable distance. He was caught up amongst some bushes, and didn't appear to be moving.
"Peter!" shouted Stephen, scrabbling for his fallen torch. He didn't need it. All around him there seemed to be soldiers now, all with flashlights far more powerful than his, flooding the slope with their beams. Caught in this sudden spotlight, the downed sergeant stirred slightly, before raising his head, and squinting into the powerful glare.
"It's Paul!" he roared upwards. Stephen smiled, greatly relieved.
"I think that means he's okay."
"Course he's okay." Standing nearby, Ryan was assessing the situation with a practised eye. "My boys need more than that to put them out of action. Two of you get down there, but take it slowly. Last thing I need is any more of you getting yourself banged about. What the hell was that creature, Professor?"
"It was a Quetzalcoatlus, at least as far as I could tell," Cutter told him. "Stephen, you got a better look at it."
"Yes, I'm sure that's what it was. With that wingspan, I think it would have had to have been. No teeth, just this enormous beak. I never expected it to attack."
"Neither did I," Cutter told him, somewhat sheepishly. "I stopped Ryan from firing."
"Couldn't have done a lot anyway," the captain told him, one eye still on his men. "Once we knew it was a danger, it was already too close to Winchester and Hart. Too much risk of shooting one of them instead." He turned away, staring after the now vanished beast. "Do you think it'll come back?"
"Hard to tell without knowing for certain why it was here this time." Cutter shook his head slowly, still baffled by the creature's actions. "It has been theorised that they might have been carrion feeders, at least to some degree. I suppose it could have smelt the Edmontosaurus, and decided to come in for a closer look."
"Could it have been confused by the anomaly's magnetic field?" asked Stephen, still trying to think of a reason why the animal would have dived at him and Winchester. Cutter nodded.
"Yes, that's certainly a possibility. We've not really done a study of the effect that those things might have on a native population. We're always just shovelling the poor things back."
"Confused or not, if it shows its face here again tonight, it'll probably lose it." Ryan glanced down at the two men still sitting more or less at his feet. "Sorry, but I can't risk it trying a proper attack next time." A shout from the bottom of the slope pulled his attention away from the scientists, and he looked down to the men sent to assess Winchester. "How's he look?" he called.
"Leg's broken!" came the answer. "We can bring him up, but it'll take a while. The ground's pretty dodgy down here. He's landed up against some bushes, and there's one hell of a sheer drop behind them."
"Told you it was a bloody cliff, Hart!" bellowed up Winchester. Stephen waved a hand in acknowledgement.
"Need a hand?" he offered. Ryan glanced down at him.
"You still in one piece?" he asked. The answer was a wry smile.
"Just about. Look, you've still got one man back watching the anomaly. With three down there, that's going to leave you pretty short-handed. Let me help get him back up."
"Yes, I suppose that's sense." Ryan gestured to his one remaining man, ordering him to pass across the rope that he carried over his shoulder. "We'll tie this to that tree over there. Pay it out as you go down. You'll want it when it's time to bring him up. They'll be doing a field splint, so he should be okay to travel. Just don't fall and break your neck."
"That wasn't high on my list of priorities." Stephen took the loose end of the rope, then with a nod at Cutter, started off down the slope. He had gone no more than a few feet when he heard Ryan's radio crackle into life. Intent on keeping his footing, he paid no attention to what was being said, although he suspected that he knew. Only one person would be radioing Ryan - the man left to guard the anomaly. There were not many reasons why he would be calling, either; and probably only one obvious one. Stephen's jaw clenched, and he began to go faster. He had a feeling that there was suddenly no time to spare.
Up above him, Ryan heard his soldier's report over his ever-present ear piece, his jaw tightening in response. It was the only outward sign of reaction that he showed to the news, but it was enough for Cutter. He kept his voice light when he spoke, mindful of the soldiers busy below.
"Trouble with the anomaly?" he asked. Ryan nodded slowly. The other soldier who had waited with them, currently engaged in watching for likely predators, must surely have heard. Just like Ryan, however, he did not seem to react.
"It's fading," he said, and his practised eye surveyed the situation beneath them. It would take time to get Winchester ready to be pulled back up, and even if they dispensed with the niceties, and just dragged him, it would still take precious minutes to get him up the slope and back to the anomaly. It was Cutter's turn to nod.
"How long?" he asked. It was an impossible question to answer with an anomaly. Some faded over hours, others merely disappeared. Ryan's eyes narrowed, however.
"Can't say," he said. "It's behaving oddly, apparently, and the magnetic field's decaying fast. You need to get out of here, professor."
"I need to get out of here?" Cutter's eyebrows nearly disappeared into his hairline. "Why me?"
"You and Hart. You're civilians, and it's our job to look out for you, see that you get back through." Ryan was still staring down at his soldiers, not looking at Cutter at all. "The rest of us have a duty here."
"Oh, right. 'Never leave a man behind', and all that sort of thing. Very commendable, captain." Cutter's own professional eye surveyed the scene beneath them. He recognised faces, even though, much like Stephen, he had not yet learned all of the names. There were men here who had risked their lives for him more than once, and who had helped ensure that he and his band of academics made it out of other time zones alive. More than that - they helped to ensure that Britain was kept safe, time and time again, from any number of dangerous creatures. Walking out on them now didn't just seem dishonourable or disloyal - it seemed unthinkable. He shook his head. "Well, hard luck. I'm not leaving."
"That's an order, professor." Ryan's head snapped around, his narrowed eyes staring straight back at Cutter's. The professor smiled.
"You can't knock me out and drag me back through this time, captain. Not without leaving your men. Now I'd suggest that we see if we can get that man back up here before the anomaly vanishes, wouldn't you?"
"You're a bloody liability, you are." There was grudging respect in the harsh words, and Cutter smiled.
"So I've been told. You better stay up here on watch. I'll go down there and help out. Only fair to give Stephen the chance to leave if he wants to."
"Some chance. Just make it quick, professor. If you're going to ask him if he wants to go, I don't think you've got much time."
"Point taken." Cutter went immediately down the slope, though more slowly than Stephen, holding the rope carefully for much of the way. Stephen, who had not long joined the rescue party, looked up at him as he approached.
"Trouble?" he asked. It was clear to Cutter than he had guessed the situation, and his old friend saw no point in trying to soften the blow. The soldiers deserved to know the truth as well.
"The anomaly is fading," he said. On the ground, Winchester swore loudly.
"Of all the bloody luck," said another of the men. Stephen looked back to Cutter.
"What are you doing?" he asked. Cutter shrugged. Up above, faced with the implacable Ryan, his determination to remain behind to help out had seemed straightforward enough. Down here, with a man he had known for years, and had been through so much with, it seemed far less clear.
"I said I wasn't going alone," he said in the end. Stephen merely smiled, turning back to the little group of soldiers.
"How are you doing?" he asked Winchester. The sergeant glared up at him.
"Guess. This is all down to your sodding dinosaur. If it comes back here, I'm going to blow its bloody head off."
"Not a dinosaur. And also not a good idea. Think what the smell of blood might attract." He looked the broken leg over carefully. Although not medically trained, he had handled more than one animal injury over the years, and his familiarity with bones due to fossil study gave him a degree of professionalism better than most. "Looks painful."
"Right now it just looks bloody embarrassing." Winchester's head dropped back, resting on the ground. "Get out of here. Go on, all of you. No sense in sticking around here and getting eaten by God knows what, just because I couldn't stay on my feet."
"You were attacked by a hostile force," one of his colleagues told him. "Not like you just tripped over, is it. Now keep still so I can finish getting this splint done."
"Stephen?" asked Cutter. He was fairly sure that he had already got his answer, but it seemed only fair to give the man another chance. "Ryan says that there probably isn't much time."
"Get lost, Hart," Winchester said, eyes still closed. Stephen smiled, glancing back up at his old friend.
"We can't leave them, Nick," he said. He didn't often use Cutter's first name. Somehow it was a habit that he had never got into. Its use now spoke words aplenty on its own, and the professor nodded slowly. Stephen was right, and not just for the reasons that he himself had considered before coming down the slope. It wasn't just about honour or loyalty. These men knew nothing of the world that they might be about to become trapped in. They knew nothing of the plants, the animals, the climate, the terrain. He and Stephen did. Abandoning them truly was unthinkable. Slowly he crouched down beside the younger man, his hand falling lightly on Stephen's shoulder.
"Right," he said, the decision already made for all of them, mostly without the use of words. "Sergeant Winchester, isn't it? Let's get you the hell out of here, sergeant. That anomaly hasn't closed up on us yet."
Abby was bored. It had begun to rain soon after the others had gone through the anomaly, and she had taken shelter in the Land Rover that Stephen and his sergeant co-conspirator had abandoned nearby. It was close enough to the anomaly for her to be able to see the effect of the magnetic field on the windscreen wipers, and to feel it when she dangled the keys out of the window every so often. In the meantime, down the rain came, until she could no longer see clearly through the glass, and the ground became progressively more muddy. Quite where the rain was coming from, she had no idea. It seemed insane that any cloud could hold so much. It thundered so loudly against the roof of the cabin that when a rumble of true thunder came, she almost didn't hear it.
"Any room in there for one more?" asked a voice a moment later. She jumped, before telling herself off for being so stupid. She was surrounded by soldiers; it wasn't as though there was any chance of being approached by somebody unsavoury. Reaching over, she opened the passenger door, revealing an extremely wet young man with a heavy looking radio strapped to his back. He scrambled in beside her.
"Thanks. Sorry to be such a pain, but if we get lightning, this thing's a real risk." He slapped the radio, struggling to pull it off and put it somewhere where it wouldn't be too much in the way. "I'll put it on the floor. The aerials should be less of a temptation, then."
"Lightning would probably prefer to go for the car anyway," she told him, rather liking the image of it being tempted by a particularly attractive target. The soldier nodded.
"Maybe. I'm sure you know the drill. Keep your hands on your lap, away from the doors."
"Yes, I know. Keep within the Faraday Cage. How about your friends?"
"Some of them might be along, but there's no canopy on the back of this thing anymore, and there's only so many of us as can fit in the cab." He smiled, sticking out a hand. "Greg. Corporal Greg Lyons, I should say, but that always seems a bit officious when I'm talking to a civilian."
"Abby Maitland. Pleased to meet you." She shook his hand, eyeing him curiously as she did so. He didn't look much older than Connor, his sodden hair making him seem even younger, and his big black eyes only accentuating the illusion. She had been under the impression that Captain Ryan's squad were all battle-toughened commandos, but this one looked like he could still have been studying for his A-levels. He smiled at her, apparently aware of her scrutiny.
"I know. I look about twelve. Believe me, the other lads don't let me forget it. I am old enough to be out without a letter from my mother, though."
"Sorry." She coloured slightly, and he laughed.
"No matter. Still, it's nice to look young, I suppose. Makes it bloody hard to buy beer, mind, especially nowadays."
"We've all had that at some time." She smiled, relaxing slightly. "So, are you as bored as I am?"
"At least. I wasn't around when the captain asked for volunteers, or I'd probably have gone along. Sucks sometimes, having to stay back in support. I went through one of those things about a week ago, with some of the lads and your friend Hart. Bloody mental, it was. Dragonflies that I'd swear were a metre long."
"Yes, I saw a few of them myself. I suppose we've all seen some pretty amazing things now." She glanced away, over towards the anomaly, wondering what the others were seeing on the far side of it. As she did so, another rumble of thunder came from overhead, far louder this time. It seemed as though the rain hit the cab even more violently in response. "I hope they're having better weather through there, anyway. They don't have any Land Rovers to shelter in."
"Where are they?" asked Lyons. "Or when, I suppose I should say."
"Both, probably. As far as we've seen, you don't come out in the same place geographically. Those were Triceratops that came though before, and I'm pretty sure they've mostly been found in Montana. Maybe in New Mexico?" She smiled, a little awkwardly. "I'm not really the expert on that sort of thing, though. I'm more into things that aren't extinct yet."
"Yes, I'm better with those myself." They shared a brief laugh. "Montana. So they're in North America now? Or, what will be North America? It's weird, but I find that almost as hard to believe as them having gone back millions of years. Funny old world, isn't it."
"Getting funnier all the time." She looked back, once again, to the anomaly, just as a deafening roar of thunder broke overhead. Lightning flashed from cloud to cloud, but beyond that, and the sparkle of the anomaly itself, it was hard to see anything through the ferocity of the rain. "They've gone back at least sixty-five million years. There are all kinds of things that could swallow them whole." She sighed. "And I really wish I was with them."
"Being chased by a T. rex seems more attractive than hiding from the rain in a Land Rover, yeah." Her new friend settled back in his seat, staring morosely out of the rain-obscured windscreen. "'Specially given the company." He froze suddenly, clearly aware of how that had sounded. "Oh. Sorry. I don't mean the company here. I mean I'd rather be..." He pointed rather vaguely towards the anomaly. "That is I... Well." Despite her earlier glum feelings, Abby began to laugh.
"Don't worry about it. So who is it, then? One of your lot or mine?"
"Was I that obvious?" He blushed slightly, the flush adding an attractive shade to his dark skin. "One of yours, as it happens. Don't suppose you know if Hart would be interested?"
"Ah." She sighed at that. "Isn't that the million dollar question."
"Oh." He looked rueful. "You too, then?"
"You, me, who knows who else. There's no getting him to take notice though. Either he's carrying a torch for Nick Cutter, or he just isn't interested in anybody." She smiled. "I'd rather think of it that way than believe that he's just not interested in me."
"Now there's an attitude that I'll drink to." Lyons shrugged. "Or would, if I wasn't on duty. And if I actually had anything to drink." He smiled warmly, his eyes glinting in the sudden flare of a bolt of lightning. "Bloody hell!"
"It's forked." She stared out of the window with him, watching as the bolt struck the ground near to the anomaly. The glittering edges of the gateway flared in response, and, seconds later, another bolt struck the same, smouldering piece of land. "That doesn't often happen. Does it?"
"Well it wasn't quite the same place twice, but it wasn't far off, that's for sure." As they watched, a third bolt struck the ground, and this time the anomaly swelled up, before shrinking down to half its previous size. "Abby..."
"That's not good." She fumbled with her door handle, but he grabbed her quickly, holding her back.
"Don't be a fool. Do you think you'd be even remotely safe going near that thing now?" As they watched, another bolt of lightning struck, this time catching the anomaly dead centre. There was a huge flash of gold and silver light, and the soldiers who had been waiting nearby began to shout, retreating in neat, if noisy, order. The anomaly flared up again, this time to at least three times its original size.
"We have to do something!" Abby shouted, her words almost lost in another breathtaking peal of thunder. "It's attracting the lightning. We don't know what the effect might be. What if it closes?"
"Those are my friends on the other side of that thing. Do you think I don't care about that?" For a moment he looked quite fierce, and no longer nearly so young. "My job is to secure the area, and to keep you safe. I follow orders, Abby. And if anything does happen to that thing, then I have to be here, in one piece, to keep guard in case it comes back. What good does it do to anybody if we go chasing out there and get hit by lightning ourselves? Or lost in the past? Do you think Cutter, or Hart, or Captain Ryan, or any of the others, would thank us for that?"
"No." She let him pull her back from the door, back into the middle of the cab, and well within the confines of the Faraday Cage. She didn't believe that they were in danger of being struck now, however. The lightning cared only for the anomaly. With another strike dead centre, with another huge flash that broke the light up into all the colours of the rainbow, the anomaly flickered, and then disappeared. Beside her Lyons swore. She felt like joining in.
"They're gone," she said, thinking of Nick Cutter and Stephen Hart, men she had barely got to know, and yet had come to like so much. Of Captain Ryan, with his impassive face, and unexpected flashes of humour. And of the others. The ones whose names she hadn't yet even bothered to learn. Lyons closed his eyes.
"Sixty-five million years ago," he said, his voice filled with bitterness. She could see then that it had hurt him just as much as it had hurt her. More, she guessed. He had known his colleagues for far longer than she had known hers. How hard it must have been for him to stay back in the Land Rover, instead of running to try something reckless in the heart of the storm. "Sixty-five million years."
"It might come back," she said, her voice a pale whisper of its usual self. He nodded mechanically.
"Sure. They sometimes do. And... and one's never done that before, that we know of. So..."
"So it might come back." The rain was slowing, she thought. The thunder no longer seemed quite so frequent. He made no move to stop her this time, when she reached out for the handle of the door. "Come on."
"Yeah." He stumbled out of the cab, his remaining colleagues around him, all of them muttering amongst themselves in voices that she could barely hear. "Secure the area!" somebody was saying. And "Check the equipment! Look at the readings!" It all went over her head. All that she could think about was the rest of the group, lost now in the past; and about how she should have been with them. How much she would have preferred to be there, with whatever they were facing. She might not be any use in the depths of the Cretaceous, but it would surely be better to be there now, than left here, in this suddenly empty world.
They were almost to the top of the slope when the call came telling them that the anomaly had closed. Ryan passed the message along dispassionately, much as he did everything else, and his men took the news in the same way. Only Winchester reacted, dropping his head down onto his makeshift stretcher, and closing his eyes. One of his colleagues reached out, ruffling his dark red hair.
"Buck up, mate. It's not the end of the world."
"Easy for you to say." Winchester sounded bitter. "It's not your bloody fault."
"It's not your fault either, sergeant, so snap out of it." Ryan's voice was sharp, the voice of the unit commander. To Cutter and Stephen, who had only rarely heard him in full army mode, the sudden change came as something of a surprise. "I'll have no self-pity in my squad. We were under attack from a hostile. There's nobody to blame. Understood?"
"Yes sir," Winchester replied, his voice sounding somewhat listless. Ryan's eyes narrowed, and his voice leapt up several decibels.
"I said is that understood?"
"Yes sir!" His entire squad answered him in once voice, and Cutter jumped, startled. He almost felt as though he should have joined in. Ryan, meanwhile, nodded in satisfaction.
"Good. Now let's hear no more about it. We need to dig in, and wait to see if that anomaly reopens. Professor Cutter?"
"Yes?" It took an effort not to respond like one of the soldiers, such was Ryan's sudden authoritarian approach. Ryan's intense gaze focused on him entirely, the man's training and professionalism as a soldier shining through like never before.
"If the anomaly is likely to come back, is there a period of time that it's most likely to happen within?"
"I don't know." Cutter shook his head slowly. "I'm sorry captain, we're just not familiar enough with the things as yet. The one in the Forest of Dean seems to return on a fairly regular basis, but many of the others have never reopened to our knowledge."
"Hmm." Ryan was frowning. "There comes a time, professor, when you have to stop hanging around hoping for something that's never going to happen. Does morale no good. It's something that we need to think about. Still, we'll worry about that later. In the mean time, we need to know something more about where we are, and what we're likely to face here. You said that this was the Cretaceous, and you've already mentioned that we might see a Tyrannosaurus. We know that those Triceratops things are around, and that wretched flapping thing. What else?"
"Well we're probably in North America. The fossil record for this region is particularly rich, which I suppose gives us a good start. You have to remember that only a fraction of life ends up preserved as fossils. Captain, I hate to give you a second vague answer, but the truth is, we really don't know. Anything could come over the horizon. Anything save humans."
"Right." Ryan was silent for a moment, one hand tapping irregularly on his trouser leg. "Okay, forget specifics. What sort of thing do we need to worry about, aside from being eaten by some prehistoric monster? Give me basic ideas, professor. If we're going to be here for any length of time, we need to get some kind of game plan together. When I take my men abroad, we have to think about local terrain, weather, insects, water, all that kind of thing. Give me a picture of this place."
"Insects." Stephen spoke up at that. "That's a point."
"Yes. I was hoping we'd be in and out of here before morning. They're less of a bother at night, generally." Cutter nodded shortly, and Ryan's eyes narrowed once again.
"If you're going to tell me that we can expect some of those monster bugs like we met in the Underground..."
"No, those were from the Carboniferous," Stephen told him. "There's nothing like that here. The atmosphere is completely different. There are horseflies, though."
"Oh, brilliant. They make my life a misery is the twenty-first century, and now it turns out that they're here, too." Ryan did not look impressed. Cutter smiled rather thinly.
"Think again, captain. The sort of horseflies that we have in Britain today might be painful and annoying, but they're nothing to the ones that we could encounter here. These creatures had some seriously tough hide to pierce with their mouth parts. Think about that."
"Flies that can bite dinosaurs?" One of the younger soldiers spoke up suddenly, his eyes as wide as dinner plates. "You've got to be joking!"
"I wish I were," Cutter muttered. "They might not bother us. Not if we don't look like lunch. If they're attracted to body warmth, and we're not the right temperature... well maybe they'll let us be. On the other hand, if we do look like lunch..."
"Then we're going to look like the easiest lunch they've ever had." Ryan nodded. "Great. And what kind of diseases might they transmit?"
"That's a good question," said Stephen. "It's not one that anybody has an answer for, though. Not until one of us catches something, anyway."
"Pardon me for not wanting to take part in any medical experiments, Hart." Ryan took the pack from his back, and rifled through it, eventually holding up a tube of insect repellent. "My boys come prepared. Standard equipment. How about you two?"
"We're all right, yes," Cutter told him. "We go abroad a lot on field trips, or we did before this anomaly business started up, anyway. We always have something with us." He slapped the rucksack that hung loosely from his shoulder. "Not exactly industrial strength, but it's a start."
"Works in the rainforest," said Stephen.
"Let's hope it works here too," shot back Ryan. "We'd better hold off using any of it until we have to, though. It's not like we've got enough to last for long. Right. How about food?"
"I've got half a Kendall mint cake," Cutter told him. "I'm sorry, captain. Ask for a test tube or a new Biro, and I'm your man. I'm not a walking survival kit."
"Needn't be an issue." Stephen was eyeing the terrain with the eye of a man used to spending time in the wilderness. "There's not much growing around here, but with enough boiling some of it might be edible, and we can always forage further afield. I've studied prehistoric plants enough to be fairly sure of identifying what's safe to eat. It's mostly a question of looking for things that still have descendants in our time; and by the late Cretaceous there was plenty growing that we're going to recognise anyway. As for the rest of it, we can hunt things easily enough."
"No fish, though," Cutter added. "Not unless they come from a small stream. I don't trust any larger body of water."
"Fair enough. Having seen that mososaur a few weeks back, I'm not going to argue." Ryan nodded. "Fine. Hart, you're in charge of food collection. What about that dead thing over there? I don't see any reason why we shouldn't make use of that."
"Eat a dinosaur?" Cutter sounded half-revolted, half-fascinated. "I don't know. There's no telling what we might catch eating local meat."
"Oh, come on. Where's your sense of adventure?" Stephen flashed him a smile that the older man soon found himself returning. "Cooked properly there shouldn't be any danger. Besides, there are plenty of things that we could catch every time we take a trip into the past. Theoretically we should have been setting up proper decontamination units by every anomaly, to hose us down before we go through and when we get back. Why worry now?"
"Maybe I'm just a little fussy about what I eat." Cutter looked over to the dead Edmontosaurus. It was still fresh, so in theory there was no real reason why they couldn't use it. Somehow the idea of roasting a dinosaur steak over a bonfire just seemed wrong. It was too much of a leap outside of his comfort zone. The soldiers, however, seemed to love the idea, and in no time at all, one of them had set to work to carve some steaks from one of the large back legs. He carefully avoided the scene of Cutter's earlier autopsy work, with a thoroughness that both scientists found amusing.
"Was there anything interesting in the stomach?" asked Stephen, accompanying Cutter back to the now increasingly sorry looking corpse.
"I didn't see a lot." Cutter leaned against the beast, surveying his work rather critically. "Got a bit distracted by that show you were putting on."
"Sorry about that." Stephen crouched down beside him. "I never expected to see a Quetzalcoatlus acting like that." Cutter laughed softly, earning a quizzical frown in response.
"Sorry," he said, his sudden flash of humour going a long way to easing some of his recent tension. "I never expected to see a Quetzalcoatlus at all. Never mind how it was acting."
"Fair point." They shared a smile, before settling back down to re-examine the beast. It did not take long to discover that the stomach was empty of all traces of food, containing only a handful of small stones. Cutter poked at them carefully with the point of the knife.
"Gastroliths?" he said. Stephen nodded.
"Looks like it. We should take them. I suppose we can't get the geology department involved?"
"No, we probably shouldn't. We can always study them ourselves, though. One weekend perhaps." Cutter carefully shovelled the pebbles into a specimen jar, giving it a thoughtful rattle. "You're not quite grasping the point, though, Stephen. Did you not read my last lecture? Old Edmond here was supposed to have developed specialised teeth. He's not thought to have needed stones in his stomach to grind his food up."
"I suppose he wandered out of his own territory, and got lost here," said Stephen. "Not a lot to eat in this place, is there. If he had to have a go at some of the tougher plants growing locally, maybe he had to try swallowing stones as well? The instinct might still have been present."
"Perhaps. You'd likely have to be a Triceratops to make use of most of this vegetation." Cutter gave the dinosaur a regretful pat. "Sorry old thing. Still, your loss is our gain. I just wish I could offer you immortality in an article some time."
"Maybe we can go public eventually," Stephen told him. "If the anomalies keep occurring, chances are we won't be able to keep them a secret forever."
"There's a thought. Armies of tourists marching into the past on sight-seeing trips." Cutter winced. "Still, if enough of them get eaten, they might stay away. Not that the dangers seem to be stopping us."
"Would you rather they had?" Stephen asked him. Cutter hesitated before answering.
"No comment." He smiled faintly. "Come on, shift out the way there. I'm going to take a look at one of its eyes. I'd like to make a proper study of the sexual organs, but maybe we'd better wait until the soldiers are busy elsewhere. Some of them look about ready to faint as it is."
"Oh, let them faint." Stephen moved over to look into the uppermost eye. It stared back at him, and he felt a burst of sorrow. "Poor thing. I'd love to see one of these things alive. It reminds me of when we first met, and you took me along to do that autopsy on an African elephant at the West Midlands Safari Park. I'd never seen anything so big close to at the time, and I thought I couldn't wait to get started. Soon felt differently, though."
"I know what you mean. When I was a student I was asked to assist on an autopsy on a humpback whale that had been beached. Amazing opportunity, but it soon started to lose some of its appeal." Cutter stood up, joining his old friend beside the eye. "We'll see other ones, Stephen. If we end up having to stay here, then just think of some of the things that we're likely to see. Ryan's quite right about not waiting forever for that anomaly to reopen. We'll have to find a better place than this to live in, if this becomes permanent."
"Somewhere with water, and better vegetation." Stephen found that he was smiling again. "There could be any number of creatures living in a place like that. Mammals, birds, fish..."
"... Gigantic predatory dinosaurs..." Cutter laughed softly, not entirely without humour. "How do we get ourselves into these things?"
"Mostly by walking through large holes in time without stopping to think about the consequences." Stephen pulled out a much smaller knife, far more suitable for delicate work on an eye, handing it over to his companion. "Although as I recall, we've never needed anomalies to get us into trouble in the past. Pirates off the coast of Mexico ring any bells? Poachers on the Amazon?"
"And that madman that Helen hired to fly us around the South Island over in New Zealand." Cutter winced. "You're right. Maybe it's time I looked for a new career."
"We're all thinking of that right now," Ryan told him, striding up suddenly with an armful of firewood. "Are you two still playing with that thing?"
"We're finding out some fascinating things, captain." Cutter wagged the knife at him, as though admonishing a small child. "You should watch."
"If we end up having to stay here, I'll soon know more than I could ever want to know about dinosaurs. If you don't mind, I'll start with their teeth and claws rather than whatever you're cutting up." Ryan smiled nonetheless, clearly not nearly as impatient with them as it might have appeared. "Look, we're setting up camp over there, where we can't smell this thing's stomach acid quite so strongly. Don't take too long, or the boys might eat all the dinoburgers."
"Thinking of food already, captain?" asked Cutter. "We hardly seem to have been here five minutes."
"Try a couple of hours. And anyway, food is good for morale. I have my men to think about. Speaking of which, I do seem to remember putting you in charge of the kitchen, Hart."
"It's all right, Stephen. I can manage an eye or two on my own." Cutter gestured to the dead dinosaur. "It's not like he's going anywhere. See if you can find us something green, yes? I don't plan on turning carnivorous."
"We don't have the water to spare to boil any of this tough stuff long enough to make it edible," Stephen told him. "Not yet anyway. I'll have a scout around, though. There might be something."
"Fine." Cutter fixed him with a sharp look that Stephen knew well. "Just be careful."
"This from the man who doesn't seem to know what danger is. Don't worry."
"Don't get cocky," Ryan warned him. "And don't get yourself eaten by a giant bird this time. Look, give me a moment, and I'll come with you. You can let me in on the secret of how you're planning on boiling things anyway, when the most we've got to use as a container is rucksacks."
"Oh ye of little faith." Stephen smiled good-naturedly, nodding farewell to Cutter, and trailing along after Ryan towards the makeshift camp. One of the soldiers was already starting a small fire, and Ryan unloaded his armful of wood nearby. "It's not hard. I thought you were the expert in survival training?"
"Survival training yes. Cordon bleu cookery, no. We're taught to go for earthworms and termite grubs, that sort of thing. Not how to cook a three course meal in the Cretaceous."
"Ah, well. I can't reveal all of my secrets, captain. Not on the first date."
"You're expecting to get stranded in a dinosaur's playground twice?" Ryan stacked up his firewood a little more neatly, then straightened up and took a quick look around at the horizon. So far there was nothing unpleasant visible upon it - at least as far as he could see. He tried not to be too discouraged by how short a distance that was. "Right, you hopeless rabble." Raising his voice as he addressed his men, he turned in a half circle to give them all the benefit of his appraising stare. "Hart and I are going on a little recce in search of some salad for the professor. Don't get eaten by anything while I'm gone. And hurry up and get that fire going properly. We might be glad of it by dawn. You never know what kind of animals are going to come calling when the sun comes up."
"How do we know that a fire won't attract the animals?" asked one of the soldiers. Ryan glared at him.
"We don't, but we're being optimistic. Come on, Hart."
"It's Stephen," Stephen told him, as they began to walk away from the camp. Ryan shot him a sidelong glance.
"I know. I run a military unit, not a coffee bar." He smiled suddenly, relaxing a little as they walked. "Some habits are hard to break."
"Not easy, is it, having to be the leader when you're stuck in a world you know nothing about."
"Yeah, well. I'm a soldier, I don't get to choose my battles. I've been in tough spots before." He glared up at the sky. "I just wish it was lighter around here."
"Yes, I know. Still, it could be worse. It's not very dark."
"No. I suppose we should be glad that there seems to be a full moon behind all that cloud. I'd still feel happier if it was daytime." He glanced back at his companion. "What about you? You're taking all of this pretty well."
"I'd rather be stuck here right now than back home worried sick about Cutter. Sometimes it's not so bad to be stranded." Stephen shrugged. "Anyway, we've been in trouble before. It's not like we were living some safe and uneventful life before we found out about the anomalies - any more than you were."
"You're ruining a perfectly good stereotype here, you know. You're geeks, the pair of you. You're supposed to cower in libraries, and hide at the first sign of trouble."
"Ha. You wouldn't say that if you'd seen Cutter and Helen take on a gang of poachers in the middle of the rainforest. One gun between them, and it was old enough to have been used by Percy Fawcett."
"Cutter? With a gun?" Ryan looked as though he suspected his leg was being pulled, but Stephen merely smiled.
"It was Helen who had the gun, and I don't think it was loaded. I wasn't joking about how old it was, so it might not have fired anyway. She found it in a boat half-wrecked along the Amazon."
"You really are having me on, aren't you." Ryan eyed him suspiciously, but discovered that Stephen's expression was entirely unreadable. "You lot up against a gang of poachers, with only one unloaded gun between you? Why aren't you dead?"
"Helen is very good at bluffing," Stephen told him, sounding oddly rueful. "I'll tell you the story properly some time, preferably over a beer."
"Deal." Ryan glanced around, surveying their immediate surroundings with a critical eye. "So where do we look for tasty green things for the professor?"
"There's a bush just over here that I saw earlier. If I'm right about it, the leaves should be edible. A little bitter perhaps, but probably no worse than some salad leaves."
"Then why didn't that Edmonto-thing have them?" asked Ryan, not unreasonably. Stephen shrugged.
"Maybe it didn't find them in time? The bigger you are, the easier it is to starve to death. Think how much food it would take to keep a big dinosaur going. Old Edmond back there might have wandered for several days without finding anything suitable, and then he just couldn't go on any further. He's not as big as some, obviously, but he'd still need to spend a good part of the day grazing."
"Sucks to be a big herbivore, doesn't it." They arrived at the bush, and Ryan frowned at the sight of it. "Not exactly tasty-looking. You sure you're not going to poison us all?"
"Pretty sure. I'll eat first, if you'd rather." Stephen pulled off a few of the leaves. "They've seen better days, of course. Late growth, perhaps."
"Not that late," Ryan told him. "Look around. If winter's on the way, where are all the red and yellow leaves on the ground? Autumn still comes before winter all this way in the past, surely? There's plenty of dead leaves here, but they're green, or green-ish."
"That's true. I hadn't really thought about it before. Evergreen trees far outnumbered the deciduous kind at this point in history, but there should still be some signs of the season about." Shining his torch around, Stephen wandered off a short way, examining the ground with renewed interest. Ryan rolled his eyes.
"That wasn't supposed to be a hint that I wanted to go on a botany expedition. Forget it. Leave it for the daylight, when we can actually see what might be coming after us."
"I suppose." Stephen sounded reluctant, and Ryan sighed. He had become fond of the scientists since they had all been thrown together on the anomaly project, but at times they still drove him up the wall. Most of the time in fact.
"Hart, we're straying too far from the camp."
"Sorry." Stephen turned back towards him, but something nearby on the ground clearly caught his eye, and he looked away again. "Hang on just a tick."
"Unless you've found a vegetable garden, forget it." Ryan went over to join him, half considering throwing the younger man over his shoulder, and taking him forcibly back to the camp. Stephen crouched down, apparently studying a rather scrubby bush. "Well I'm certainly not eating that."
"I should hope not." Stephen gestured for him to take a closer look, and with a sigh that was not quite as exasperated as he might have liked, Ryan crouched down beside him. What he was looking at was not a bush, he realised then - it was a nest. The remains of six eggs surrounded by twigs and leaves - and resting on a bed of grasses and feathers in the midst of it all were six tiny, feather-covered creatures. Despite himself, he realised that he was delighted.
"Baby dinosaurs?" he asked. Stephen nodded.
"Not sure what type, though." He looked up at Ryan for a moment, and a broad grin lit up his face. "Aren't they amazing?!"
"They're..." Ryan had been about to make a typically sarcastic comment about dinosaurs, but instead he was unable to keep from smiling back. "They are sort of cute, in a weird sort of way. You're not bloody keeping them though, Hart."
"I know." Stephen returned his attention to the nest, completely enraptured by the chicks. He had seen many fossilised dinosaur nests during his career, but this was something else entirely. All baby creatures tended to be endearing, especially to a man who was so fond of animal life in general - but a nest full of baby dinosaurs was a sight to remember forever. It was only his professional instincts telling him to leave nature alone that prevented him from touching one of the creatures. Instead he sat back on his heels, and merely gazed. Ryan had to struggle to regain his attention.
"Come on," he said in the end, almost unwilling to leave the nest himself. "We were only supposed to be looking for food. Unless you're proposing dinosaur veal?"
"That's not funny!" Stephen cast a longing look back at the nest. "I could do such a good study of a dinosaur family..."
"You're getting to be worse than Temple." Ryan rolled his eyes. "Oi. Earth to David Bellamy."
"Sorry. Look at them, though."
"I am looking." Ryan sighed, relenting a little. "They're cute. Really. Now hurry up, before their mother comes back."
"That's a good point." Stephen glanced about, although there was no sign of any animal approaching as yet. "She might not be far away. If we don't stray too far, we may see her visiting the nest."
"And we might get eaten by her as well," Ryan told him. "Which makes this our cue to leave. I may not be an animal expert, but I do know that you don't mess with a creature's young without expecting trouble - and there are too many animals in this neck of the woods that I don't want to antagonise. About face, Hart. Back to camp."
"I'm coming." Stephen stood up, although he couldn't pretend that it was not a wrench to walk away from the babies. "The mother must have gone to search for food. I'd love to see her feeding the--"
"Move!" His minder barked the order in a voice that was not to be disobeyed - although there was a clear spark of humour in his eyes. "I know you people like making scientific discoveries, but getting yourself eaten is one discovery too far." He hesitated however, looking down once again at the nest. "They are cute little buggers though, I'll give you that."
"We'll make a palaeontologist out of you yet, captain," joked Stephen. Ryan shook his head.
"Hardly. I'm not turning into anything I can't spell. Now march. We've been away from camp long enough."
"Yes, okay." Stephen allowed himself to be herded away from the nest, back towards the bushes they had been looking at before. "There's not a lot here for us to collect, is there."
"Not really, no. Still, we've got steak. What more does a good barbecue want?" Ryan smiled at him, allowing a decreasingly rare glimpse of the good-natured man behind the professional soldier. "We're not likely to starve, at least. We'll worry about getting our five-a-day once we know if we're here to stay. Come on. Last one back to camp does the dishes."
"You can be a strange sort of soldier at times, you know," Stephen told him cheerfully. Ryan laughed.
"You need to be strange in this line of work. Need to be strange in yours too, if you ask me. Tasting dinosaur dung, and cutting up stomachs, and goodness only knows what else."
"You're jealous," Stephen shot back. Ryan raised his eyebrows.
"Like hell. Anyway, I reckon if either of us is jealous, it's you. You'd far rather be a soldier, admit it. You like guns, and the action man bit. That's obvious every time we get a bit of excitement."
"Maybe. I did think about it once, years ago. Got bitten by the whole Saving The Planet bug pretty early on, though. Rather changed my perspective."
"Yeah, well you don't need to worry about saving the planet here, that's for sure. There won't be any pollution for another sixty-five million years." Ryan drew a deep breath as though to illustrate the quality of the air. He broke off, however, coughing. "I take that back. I smell... what is that smell?"
"What smell?" Stephen breathed in, frowning slightly as he identified something. "Not sure. Raw meat?"
"Yeah, it is a bit like that. We're too far away to smell that butchered Edmonto-whatnot of yours, though, surely?"
"I think so, yes." Turning abruptly to the right, Stephen began to walk off in search of the source of the scent. Ryan sighed in exasperation. "Oi! Bloody Poirot."
"It might be anything, Ryan. A plant or something. There are certain types that smell of raw meat, and even if it isn't..." He broke off, and Ryan hurried to catch up with him.
"What is it?" He flashed his torch about, the beam catching what Stephen had spotted. A carcass, possibly of a dinosaur, although there was no longer enough left of it to be sure. It had clearly died only recently, for the scent of the meat carried no tang of decay. Something, however, had already stripped it almost to a skeleton. Many sections were missing, clearly carried away to be eaten elsewhere, and the ground was a mass of bloodied feathers.
"No bloody T. rex did that," said Ryan, instinctively keeping his voice low. Stephen nodded, a chill of fear running up his spine, although his scientific interest didn't waver.
"Looks more like an attack by a pack of creatures," he said. "Cutter would know more, but look at the ground. I'd say that there were a lot of claws making those marks. The missing pieces suggest that parts of the prey were carried off to be fed to the attackers' young, and again it does look rather as though several animals were involved in that. See the ground?"
"Yeah, I see the ground. I also see the blood, and the stripped carcass. Hart, something with nasty teeth did that. Lots of somethings with nasty teeth. No offence, but I don't care much for your breakdown of its community behaviour."
"You may have a point." Stephen glanced across at him. "Back to camp?"
"Yeah. Where there's a dead Edmond nearby just waiting to attract whatever ate this." Ryan smiled uneasily. "Might just have a lot to learn about camping in the Cretaceous, don't you think?"
"What makes you think these things are interested in dead creatures particularly?" Stephen gestured towards the beast. "Look at the blood. I think this thing was attacked when it was still alive. And that means--"
"That means we look like lunch. Move it. Now."
"I'm right behind you." They turned to head back to the camp, eager suddenly for the relative security that came with a fire and the company of others. They had gone no more than a few feet, however, before Ryan froze.
"You hear that, Hart?"
"Something scratching. Like... footsteps?"
"I'm thinking clawed footsteps, yeah. So, Mr Natural History. Do we run, or stand still and hope they don't notice us?"
"We already are standing still," pointed out Stephen, who had frozen at the same time as Ryan. "Do you feel like you're not being noticed?"
"I feel like it's time to start shooting," Ryan told him. "You armed?"
"I have my handgun. Could probably do with something a bit more powerful, though." Very, very slowly, Stephen started to turn around. A short distance away, eyeing him up and down in an obviously interested fashion, was a creature. A dinosaur for certain, although it was not one that he ever remembered seeing before. He did not carry quite as much detail around in his head as Connor, however. This was hardly the first time since finding out about the anomalies that he had encountered an animal he was unable to immediately identify. Nonetheless, Ryan clearly felt that he should be able to tell exactly what it was.
"Tell me it's a herbivore," he muttered. Stephen arched an eyebrow. The creature, perhaps three to four feet tall, was a two-legged beast clearly built for speed. Its teeth, just visible in its half-open mouth, did not suggest at a vegetarian diet. He shook his head.
"I could, but I'd be lying."
"That's what I thought." Very slowly, Ryan raised his rifle. "Okay. When I say run... bugger off sharpish."
"You have such a way with words, captain."
"It's the poet in me." Ryan sighted carefully along the rifle. "Okay. Run!"
Stephen ran, the shot from Ryan's rifle echoing in his ears. He didn't wait to see where the bullet had gone - and neither, it seemed, did Ryan, who was less than a pace behind. Only when they had run some distance, and the expected teeth and claws had not come, did they slow, turning to look back by unspoken agreement. The sight that met their eyes was not reassuring. At least three more of the creatures had appeared, falling upon the first in a feeding frenzy, and tearing it to shreds in mere moments. Clearly it had been wounded by Ryan's shot at the very least, perhaps killed, and its kith and kin were not slow to take advantage. The air was stained by a red mist of blood, and countless feathers floated back to earth with a serenity that belied the savagery of the scene beneath them. As Ryan and Stephen watched, transfixed, another of the creatures appeared to join in the meal, and then another - but by then the pickings were slim. The speed with which the animals seemed able to strip a carcass was frightening, and as the feeding slowed, it was clear that they had left little behind them. A skeleton, almost clean, was all that remained behind. One of the creatures picked up a rib bone, nibbling at the scraps of meat that remained in an action that was startlingly human. There was little left for it to chew upon, however, and casting the bone aside, it turned, almost casually, to look towards the watching humans. Stephen swallowed hard.
"Yeah." Words were not really necessary. Grabbing the scientist by one arm, Ryan spun him around without ceremony, pushing him roughly in the direction of the camp; not that Stephen really needed the telling. Just now his scientific interest had definitely taken a backseat. Aware now of footsteps coming in pursuit, painfully certain that they could not outrun such creatures in the long-term, they raced back towards their friends. As the camp came into sight, Ryan yelled an order that, to Stephen, sounded like little more than a indistinct blur of words. It was enough. Looking up at the sound, the other soldiers reacted immediately, their rifles snapping up, their marksmanship showing. Stephen heard a thud just off to his left that told him how very, very close he had been to death, and he had to force himself not to think about it; not to think about how close the other creatures might be. Running onward in a hail of bullets, he and Ryan all but fell into the camp, looking back in time to see the last few creatures giving up on the chase. Abandoning the tempting bodies of their confederates, they turned around and departed, heading back to wherever they had come from. Ryan, flat on his back beside the campfire, closed his eyes.
"I bloody hate dinosaurs," he announced. Right at that moment, Stephen was just about ready to agree.
"You two all right?" asked Winchester, lying nearby in the local equivalent of regal splendour. Ryan nodded, without opening his eyes.
"Yeah. Fine. Thanks lads, that was some nifty shooting."
"Yes." Offering the soldiers a breathless grin, Stephen accepted the bottle of water that Cutter had shoved towards him. "Thank you, everybody."
"No problem," a remarkably cheerful corporal told him, much as though they had done nothing at all. "Where'd you find those things?"
"Never mind where we found them." Sitting up, and taking the bottle of water from Stephen with a nod of thanks, Ryan drank deeply. "What the bloody hell were they? I shot one of them, and the others stripped it to clean bones in seconds. Like piranha fish, but... not." He stretched his hands out towards the fire, glad now of the warmth. It was not so very cold, but he felt as though it was. One of his men leaned over towards him, clapping him on the back.
"Looks like they really took a fancy to you, captain. That's quite a tear in the back of your shirt."
"What?!" Ryan craned his neck to see, and although it was impossible to get a good look, he suddenly felt a telltale draught of wind across his shoulders. Several words jumped to mind then, but he said none of them. Somehow it was easier merely to sit there in silence and blink. A moment later, raising the bottle of water in salute, he recovered his sense of humour and managed a shaky grin. "Well, thanks to whoever got that one off my tail. Another second and I'd have been one seriously anachronistic fossil."
"Amen to that." Cutter sat down beside Stephen. "That's the last time I send you out to the corner shop."
"I'm fine. It's all good exercise." Stephen smiled over at him, trying to reassure his old friend. "Did you recognise those things?"
"Oh, hark at the scientists," said Ryan, his eyes teasing. "We nearly get eaten, and all they're worried about is identifying the things."
"Well you did ask first," Cutter reminded him. He looked over to one of the closest corpses, frowning at it thoughtfully. "Honestly, though, I don't have a clue. I don't recognise it. We shouldn't be too surprised of course. Probably most of the creatures that lived back in these days wouldn't have survived into the fossil record." He smiled suddenly. "Fascinating, isn't it. We know that some dinosaurs had feathers, but to actually see one with them... And look at the colours, too. There's no effort here to blend in with the surroundings. No camouflage. They seem to be primarily red and green."
"They don't need camouflage," Stephen told him. "The speed they have, and the way they attack in number... I don't think there's any need for stealth. Without guns, or some serious body armour, any prey wouldn't stand a chance."
"It's something new, then?" asked Ryan, interested despite himself. Cutter nodded.
"I think so, yes. I'd like a closer look to be sure, but I'm almost positive. So tell me, captain. What's it like to have discovered a whole new species of dinosaur?"
"There are things that I'd rather be doing with my nights," Ryan told him, before smiling suddenly. "Lads, get the professor a couple of those things to look at. Just the closest ones. No risk taking. I hope you understand, though, that any discoveries you make will be top secret. It might be a new species, but you can't go public with it."
"I know." There was a trace of regret in Cutter's voice, although clearly he understood. "If it is a new species, though, it was you two who found it. You should be the ones to come up with a name."
"I vote we call it Ryanosaurus," piped up one of the soldiers, with a meaningful nod at the gash on the back of the captain's shirt. Cutter laughed.
"Well, it does have a certain ring to it, I suppose. What do you think, Stephen?"
"I think it rather suits it." Stephen grinned over at Ryan, who offered him a finger in reply.
"I thought you were supposed to be in charge of the food, Hart," he growled, although his eyes showed humour. Stephen nodded.
"I'm on it. Didn't quite get the salad we were hoping for though, Cutter."
"Given the circumstances, I don't mind in the slightest. I'd far rather have you two in one piece." Cutter looked over to where several soldiers were hauling some dead Ryanosaurus into camp. "Speaking of which, why don't we donate one of these things to the barbecue? Seems fitting."
"Now that I will not argue with." Ryan jumped to his feet, appropriating the smaller of the two carcasses, and eyeing it critically. "I suppose I pluck it like a chicken?"
"But keep some of the feathers," Cutter told him. "That way I can do a comparative study of the DNA of both of the these things once we're back home." Ryan nodded obediently, his expression suggesting that the professor was quite likely insane, then looked across at Stephen.
"You know, strictly speaking this should be your job," he said, giving the dead Ryanosaurus a hopeful waggle. Stephen feigned a rather unconvincing show of regret.
"Sorry. I'm going to be busy looking after the steaks."
"Figures." Settling down on the ground, Ryan set to work at his feather-plucking, gathering speed once he began to get the hang of it. There was something strangely satisfying, he decided, in preparing to eat something that had been attempting to eat him. It was the sort of poetic revenge that he had never expected to be able to exact upon the enemies he met in the field. Sitting opposite, meanwhile, Stephen began to busy himself about his own work. He had apparently decided to take his role as head chef quite seriously, fashioning a home-made spatula out of a piece of firewood, before turning his attention to the food. The few leaves that he had collected before being distracted by the nest were not nearly enough to serve as an accompaniment, so instead, as he laid the waiting Edmontosaurus steaks on hot rocks at the edge of the fire, he gathered the leaves up, and with an appropriate flourish, sprinkled them over the meat. Winchester applauded lightly.
"Is that what Nigella Lawson recommends for grilled dinosaur?" he asked. Stephen nodded.
"Of course. All the best restaurants garnish their extinct species this way. Here, somebody chuck a bit more wood on the fire, would you? It needs to be hot to sear the meat. And put out the napkins and the best cutlery."
"Better do what he says," Winchester told the others. "You know how testy these chefs get."
"Smells pretty good already," one of the younger soldiers said, as he leant over to stoke up the fire. "Course, we really need some of those buns with the sesame seeds on them. And some tomato ketchup."
"You'll have a long wait for the ketchup," Cutter told him. "I think humans turned up before tomatoes did."
"I'll have a word with the Home Office, and have some included in our survival kit," deadpanned Ryan. Winchester laughed.
"Put in a word for Thousand Island while you're at it, then. And some half decent mustard."
"And gherkins," suggested somebody else. Ryan rolled his eyes.
"Britain's fighting elite. Listen to them. They're like a day out in Harrods food hall." He nodded across at Stephen, busy flipping cuts of meat with his makeshift spatula, and held up his now half-bald Ryanosaurus. "Oi, Fanny Craddock. I got most of the feathers off. What do I do with it next?"
"Now who sounds like Harrods food hall." Stephen turned back to look at the dead creature, dangling gruesomely from Ryan's hand. "Okay, I take that back. Maybe Madame Tussauds."
"I don't know. I'm starting to think it's quite pretty." Ryan laid the increasingly ragged corpse down on the ground near to the fire. "Anybody fancy a drumstick?"
"Quite something, aren't they." Winchester leaned over for a look. "Bloody hell. Look at the teeth on that thing."
"Yeah. Got a pretty good look at the teeth earlier, thanks." Ryan brightened, his sense of humour now well restored. "Still, look which one of us ended up as the main course. That's evolution for you."
"Well - guns, at any rate," supplied Cutter, from where he was examining the other Ryanosaurus nearby. Ryan nodded.
"Same thing. I don't see any of these overgrown lizards running around with rifles." He frowned speculatively at the still-feathered specimen in Cutter's lap. "Although these ones aren't exactly lizards, are they. They look more like birds."
"They do, don't they." Cutter was busily counting his subject's teeth, apparently not finding it at all complicated to hold a conversation at the same time. "Until you look at these arms, anyway. Nothing really wing-like about them."
"Nice plumage, though," commented a nearby corporal. "Reckon we should take a few back with us, and sell them to hat makers?"
"Bright red and green?" One of his colleagues winced. "You planning on making colour blind hats?"
"Now now, boys. Behave, or you won't get any overgrown chicken." Ryan held up his dead dinosaur once again, and eyed it critically. "Needs some more of the feathers off really, doesn't it."
"Give it here, sir." Winchester held out a hand. "I used to be pretty good at plucking pheasants. How different can this thing be?"
"I don't know. When was the last time you were chased by an angry pheasant that wanted to eat you?" Ryan handed the creature over, then sat down beside the fire. "Well I don't know about anybody else, but I fancy a beer."
"There's plenty of water," Stephen told him, and earned a half-hearted glare. "Sorry. Best we can do. If we have to stay here, maybe we can work on some alcohol, though. It's supposed to be pretty easy."
"If you have to get stranded, always do it with a scientist." Ryan began checking over his gun. "Preferably two. That's your lesson for the day, lads."
"I'd still rather not get stranded at all," said somebody. Winchester gave a forlorn nod.
"There's places I'd rather be right now, certainly." He gestured to his leg. "Like in bed, preferably."
"Or in somebody else's bed," corrected a young soldier nearby. Ryan laughed.
"All right. Pipe down now. Let's not go giving ourselves a bad reputation in front of our guests here. Proper decorum and manners, and none of your dirty stories." He looked over at Cutter with a smile. "Unless the professor especially wants to hear some."
"The professor is largely indifferent, thank you." Cutter glanced up, unable to keep from laughing. Ryan was clearly doing his best to see that morale stayed high, and in the process was revealing a more light-hearted side than he usually chose to show. Cutter rather liked it. "Besides," he added, hiding a sudden smirk. "I've probably heard most of them anyway."
"Now that sounds like a challenge." Ryan looked around at his men, secretly pleased to see so many smiles. "Go on then, lads. Who's going to give it first go?"
They made a cheerful company, or as cheerful as could be expected, seated around a spectacular campfire that lit up their little gathering with a warm and friendly glow. The Edmontosaurus steaks cooked nicely on the hot stones, whilst the Ryanosaurus roasted on a home-made spit fashioned by Stephen. Ryan was clearly impressed.
"I suppose I took you for a vegetarian," he said, as he turned the handle to allow his namesake to cook evenly. Stephen smiled.
"I could be, easily enough. It's not eating meat that I object to - it's just the way that it's produced. If I can eat something that I know hasn't been exploited by humans, I feel a lot better about it." He used one of his knives to test the progress of the steaks. "I think we can assume that this thing lived a fair life. It was certainly free range."
"You're a soft touch, Hart," teased Ryan, not with any malice. Stephen shrugged.
"No, but I am an environmentalist. And generally I prefer animals to humans. They're not the ones screwing up the planet, so if I can make life a little easier for them, why not?"
"I like beef burgers too much to be all moral about it," piped up one of the soldiers. Ryan laughed.
"You'll have to make do with free range dinosaur burgers instead. One hundred percent organic. Poor bastard even died naturally."
"Speaking of which, I think they're about done." Stephen gave another of the steaks a quick jab with the knife as a test, apparently pleased with the results. "Pass me over my rucksack, somebody."
"Here you go." The rucksack came across, passed from hand to hand by Jubilant Soldier Express, finally being presented to him by a young lance-corporal with strangely old eyes. He smiled as he handed it over.
"Salt and pepper, is it?"
"Not exactly, no." Stephen pulled out some big leaves that he had taken on his fauna-gathering expedition earlier, and used them as makeshift napkins to pass around the steaks. "How's that Ryanosaurus coming along?"
"It's big. It'll be a while cooking yet, I should think." Ryan gave the handle a quick spin, and set the creature rotating rather jauntily. "Maybe we can have it for breakfast."
"We'll be home by then," said one of his men, eyeing his dinosaur steak with some trepidation. "It'll be bacon and eggs all round, I reckon. With some good strong tea and a load of baked beans."
"And hash browns," muttered the man seated next to him. Ryan shot them both a sharp look.
"Maybe. And maybe we'll be camping here, with a giant toothy chicken to eat for breakfast, and a whole lot of hard work to look forward to." Ryan accepted a large chunk of meat from Stephen, and nodded his thanks. "Now eat your food, and don't think too much about what you'd rather be eating. It'll taste a lot better that way."
"Trouble?" asked Cutter very quietly. Ryan shook his head, almost imperceptibly.
"No, they're good lads. All of them. I just want to get tough for a bit, and make sure nobody gets too wistful for what might be. Especially the more experienced ones. I need them to set an example." He took a bite of his meal, and nodded at Stephen. "Here, this isn't half bad. I'll come to this restaurant again."
"In the morning. The kitchen's closed for the time being." Stephen glanced at his watch. It could of course only tell him what time it was for his body clock, but it was illustrative enough. It had been a long day, and in good shape though he was, he was tired.
"Maybe we can find another nest in the morning," suggested Ryan. "There might be some eggs in one if we're lucky." Winchester looked unconvinced.
"You think that's a good idea?" he asked. "I know we're going to have to move around a lot if we're staying here, but foraging doesn't sound all that safe." He looked down at his leg. "I wouldn't mind so much if I could help out, instead of just sitting here while the rest of you take all the risks."
"You're in as much danger as we are, sergeant. Anything could attack the camp." Ryan frowned into the fire. "We can't all just huddle together here. We need food, and we need water."
"If it helps, I think these little beasties are nocturnal." Cutter had set aside his Ryanosaurus in order to eat, but he gestured towards it as he spoke. "Their eyes certainly suggest that. Once the sun comes up, we might be more or less safe from them."
"More or less?" asked one of the younger soldiers, looking a little unhappy. Cutter waved a hand in the air to indicate uncertainty.
"I can't be sure. And it's never a good idea to assume with animals anyway. Stumble over one when it's asleep and it'll probably still rip your throat out. If we're careful, though, we should be all right, at least where these things are concerned. Let's not forget, this is a world full of creatures that could cheerfully eat the lot of us - and many of them we don't stand much chance of fighting."
"Which does bring up one question that I've been wondering about," said Ryan. "If this is a world full of dangerous animals, then where are they? I thought this was the Age of Dinosaurs? I suppose I imagined great herds of the things would be wandering about the place."
"There's not a lot of food for them around here," pointed out Cutter. "The whole area looks as though it's been thoroughly grazed already, so I suppose the herds have moved on. There certainly will be herds, though; like the Triceratops that we saw earlier. The hadrosaurs may have moved in big family groups too. Just not here. What's left of the vegetation is too tough for most animals." He looked out towards the horizon. "There are probably all kinds of creatures out there somewhere, closer to a water source, and to better food. I'd certainly love to see them."
"I think I can live without that experience," said Ryan with a smile. "Bloody great packs of dinosaurs roaming about the place, and me with you two to look after. That's going to be fun." Cutter smiled back.
"I promise not to get trampled to death. On a more serious note, though, we should think about finding them if we have to stay. Wherever the herds are is where we'll want to be. Where there's water and some decent vegetation."
"And blood great predators waiting to pounce," added Ryan. "Which leads me to another issue: what to do when we run out of bullets. We need to think about not using guns to hunt with, for starters. If we go after smaller animals to eat, we can use other methods to kill them. We all have knives, but we'll have to think bigger than that for defensive purposes." There was an uneasy silence, although he could see his men nodding their agreement. Fish out of water though they may be, they were trained soldiers, and he knew that he could count upon them to look at the situation practically when they had to. It was Stephen and Cutter that he was not sure about. Stephen nodded, however.
"I used to be pretty good at archery once upon a time," he said quietly. He did not sound happy, but clearly he too could see that there was sense in what Ryan was saying. "I'm a little rusty, but it's a start. The problem is in making the weapons."
"There's no shortage of wood," Cutter told him. "We already have bone, and there's no reason why we shouldn't use flints. Take a leaf out of the caveman's book before he even starts to write it. Given enough time here, we might even be able to start thinking about using metal." He looked around at the soldiers, surprising himself by how calm he was feeling. "Anybody here any good at throwing the javelin?"
"I was county champion three years running," said one soldier. Cutter nodded.
"Fine. Then you're our main spearman. You can teach the rest of us, and Stephen can take the archery class. Picking battles that we can win is probably the most important thing. There are some animals that I don't want to think about fighting."
"I certainly don't have a problem with beating a tactical retreat," said Ryan. "There are only eight of us, and looking at it in a purely practical sense, we can't afford to lose anybody. We'll have to post scouts, so we can see what's coming. Realistically there are going to be things that we can't run away from or fight, so it's best to avoid them altogether."
"Sounds reasonable to me." Cutter glanced down at the dead Ryanosaurus at his side, thinking about the tests that he was hoping to conduct once he was back at the university. He didn't especially want to consider the possibility that he might never return there, and might never be able to live his old, easy life once again. He looked across at Stephen, and the younger man flashed him a heartening smile. Cutter smiled back, albeit with rather less vigour. Stephen had always enjoyed the outdoor life; had always liked to test himself. He had skills and abilities that Cutter could not hope to match, and was in far better physical shape. If they did have to remain in this wild and tough world, Cutter could not help but think that he himself was likely to be far more of a hindrance than a help. Perhaps Stephen guessed his thoughts, for he stood up suddenly, and came over to sit beside his old friend.
"Just as well you're here," he said, offering the older man a bottle of water. "I never did know even half as much as you. You're our local expert."
"Maybe." He could not fail to be unsure of himself however, sitting here amongst the soldiers, when in comparison he was hopelessly unfit. Ryan clearly had other ideas.
"Hart's right," he said, waving a half-eaten chunk of dinosaur meat in the air as he spoke. "Without a brain like yours, we're dead in the water. Any of us can look at a T. rex and guess that it's best not to get too close, but you're the one who really knows what's most likely to be dangerous; what we need to run away from. Every good military operation needs good intelligence. You're it, professor."
"Suddenly I wish that Connor were here," said Cutter, half-embarrassed. Ryan laughed.
"I don't. He might be a brain on legs, but we'd have to spend half our time rescuing him from things." He finished his steak off with a quick gulp, then jumped to his feet. "Right, you lot. I reckon we're all tired, so since it's night here, we might as well take advantage of that. We need sleep. I want at least two men on watch at all times, and make sure that you keep the fire going well. Professor, don't take this as an insult, but I'm leaving you off the guard rota for the time being. You're still an unknown quantity with a gun. Hart, you can stand guard with me. That way I can keep an eye on you."
"I'd have thought you'd have been better placed keeping an eye on the wildlife," Stephen told him, his tone dry. Ryan nodded.
"Maybe. Again, no offence, but you're not one of my men. I'm willing to use you, but I'm not sure how far I trust you yet." He smiled faintly. "Give it some time and we'll see."
"You really think we'll have to stay here, sir?" asked a soldier on the other side of the fire. Ryan looked across at him, his own expression unreadable.
"I don't know," he said, after a moment's pause for thought. "What I do know is that we're here now. That anomaly might reopen five minutes from now, or it might never reopen at all. In the meantime, we do what we were trained to do. We adapt, and we survive. Right?" There was a ragged chorus of agreement from his men, and he favoured them all with a sweeping, impressive glare. "Right?"
"Sir." The word seemed to snap from every mouth at once, and he nodded in muted satisfaction. "Good. Winchester, are you up for taking a turn on watch?"
"I think so, sir. I have a good view of this side of the fire at any rate, and I can shoot sitting down. I can certainly raise the alarm if I have to."
"Good man. In that case, you can make a threesome with me and Hart - in a manner of speaking. Martin and Peterson, you're on first shift. Wake somebody else two hours from now to take your place. The rest of you, as soon as you've finished eating, get your heads down, and get some sleep. We all need it. Come the morning we'll need to do some proper foraging, and get a proper look at where we are. I want clear heads. Understood?"
"Sir." Again they all spoke at once, the little bunch of joking men transformed in an instant into soldiers. Ryan smiled around at them briefly.
"Right. I'm calling lights out in ten minutes, so settle down. That goes for you too, professor. You can get back to your autopsy work in the morning."
"Understood." Cutter was not sorry. Much as he wanted to do his work, he was as tired as everybody else, and it was hardly easy to conduct careful examinations in the current light. Even with torches and a good-sized fire to help, he could not do nearly as much as he wanted. It would be better in the morning, he was sure. Everything would look better in the morning. He had learnt many years ago that there were few situations that could not be made better by the light of the sun. Even stranded in the Cretaceous, he was quite certain that that old fact would prove to be true.
Several hours later, however, Stephen was not nearly so sure. He awoke to chill air, and the same grey gloom as before, and blinked about in the vague stupor of one who was still half asleep. Rubbing his eyes with one hand in an attempt to clear his vision, he sat up, feeling somehow slow and ungainly. Had he not slept at all? His watch said otherwise, but his eyes were telling him a different story. He gazed around, seeking some sort of clarity.
"If you have any explanations," said Ryan, speaking from close beside him, "then I'd certainly like to hear them."
"Explanations?" Stephen frowned, as confused by Ryan as he was by his own observations. His watch was telling him that close to eight hours had passed since they had travelled through the anomaly - but why then was there still such little light? Given how late it had seemed to be when they had arrived, the sun should surely have been on its way up by now; or at the very least the moon should have begun to sink; but instead the sky was the same colour as before. It made no sense to him; and as ever when he had no answers, he looked to the man who always seemed to have at least some.
"Cutter?" His old friend was sprawled beside him, as he had been on so many a night, on so many a field trip, in rather less hazardous circumstances. Stephen reached out for him, shaking him less than gently. "Cutter, wake up."
"Hmm... Stephen?" The pale blue-grey eyes of the professor opened slowly, and blinked up at him. "Oh, hello. Is it still night-time? Do I get to stand watch after all?"
"Not exactly, professor." Ryan loomed over them both, outlined by the light from the fire. "A question for you. We've been here for hours. I know you're assuming it's winter, so maybe the nights won't be all that short, but we should be seeing some change by now." He looked up at the murky dark grey of the sky, before gesturing about at the twilight that still surrounded them. "So what gives? Was the world on a different orbit millions of years ago?"
"I... What?" Cutter, dragged to full wakefulness in an untidy rush, scrambled to his feet. Stephen steadied him, catching one arm automatically as the older man immediately tipped back his head to stare up at the sky. "Well that doesn't make a lot of sense. Perhaps we haven't been here as long as we think?"
"All our watches are wrong?" asked Ryan, not convinced. Cutter shook his head.
"No, of course not. Still, as you said, it is winter, and..." He trailed off. "Winter."
"Yeah." Ryan was eyeing him oddly. "Cold time of year. The sun does usually make an appearance, though."
"No. No, that's not what I meant." Cutter turned slowly towards Stephen, his face having gone an unhealthy shade of pale. "Stephen, think about it. The sun should have come up by now."
"Yes, I know. I'm afraid I'm as baffled as everybody else, though." Stephen was looking around at the darkened world, not up at the sky. "Why should--"
"Stephen." Cutter's voice held a hard note that Stephen had heard often in the past. An edge of urgency that usually meant that they were in danger. "Think about it. We thought that it was winter. In a sense, I suppose that we were right."
"We were?" Stephen glanced back at him, forehead crinkled into a searching frown. Cutter didn't elaborate, even though Ryan was beginning to twitch with obvious annoyance; and for a second Stephen's frown deepened. A second later it cleared, and Cutter gave him a brief, grim nod.
"Oh." The look in Stephen's eyes was unreadable, his face empty of expression. Cutter was fairly sure that it was an emptiness that was mirrored upon his own face, for instead of experiencing emotions or feelings, his mind was just a blank. His hand found his associate's shoulder, clapping him briefly there in a gesture that was as much to reassure himself as it was to comfort his friend. He drew in a deep sigh.
"It answers so many of our questions," he said, his voice sounding oddly thick even to him. Stephen nodded, the movement stiff and somehow heavy.
"The dying plants. The odd behaviour of that Quetzalcoatlus; and of old Edmond as well I suppose. The fact that he starved to death, too."
"Precisely." Cutter's hand tightened its grip on Stephen's shoulder. "We certainly do have a talent for trouble, don't we," he said quietly, his accent far stronger than usual. "I think we've outdone ourselves this time, though."
"Should I congratulate you?" Ryan had folded his arms, his body language beginning to verge on hostile. "If you're done with all the conferring, perhaps one of you could tell me what's going on? What the hell is this all about?"
"Nuclear winter," said Stephen. Ryan frowned.
"Nuclear winter? You're telling me that somebody has been travelling about in time setting off nuclear weapons?"
"Not exactly, captain." The other soldiers were taking an interest now, looking up from their various gun-cleaning and breakfasting activities to see what was going on, and Cutter raised his voice accordingly. "Stephen wasn't speaking literally. Take another look up at the sky, and this time really think about what you're seeing there. It's not night-time, it's day. That's not a full moon hidden behind cloud. It's the sun. The sun hidden behind countless tonnes of dust and debris thrown up into the air by a meteorite impact so powerful that it changed the entire course of history. Think about it captain. Sixty-five million years ago. It's a date that every school child knows."
"Bloody hell." It was Winchester who spoke, from his place on the other side of the fire. Ryan raised an eyebrow.
"Not quite how I would have put it, but yeah." His gaze switched back to Cutter, sharp and searching. "You're sure about this?"
"Yes." Cutter's voice was suddenly quiet again, his previously expressionless face now given new highlights by the seriousness in his eyes. "The meteorite has struck. All over the planet, plant life and the creatures that live on it are dying. The big creatures especially - all those giants needing tonnes of food every day just to stay alive. It's already started. We saw it in the Edmontosaurus." He turned his head to look out across the scrubby vegetation, so tough and uninviting; at the trees with their withering leaves, dead flowers and rotten fruit. "Look around you, captain. Almost everything that you see is dying. You're a witness to the end of the world."
"Not quite the end of the world, professor. The end of a world, maybe." Ryan whistled softly, unable to keep from looking about in wonder. "So give me a guess. Your best estimate. How long until the sun comes back out?" Cutter was silent for a moment, shaking his head slowly to-and-fro.
"I don't know," he said in the end. "I really don't know. It was hidden for long enough to cause a global catastrophe, but not for so long that all of the plant life died. We know that all manner of species survived. Long enough to have done for a great many organisms, though. Long enough to make a difference."
"Months?" asked Ryan. Cutter nodded.
"Possibly. Or possibly years. Stephen and I have been to a couple of conferences theorising about how this scenario might have played out, and our university has even been host to one, but we're talking about looking back sixty-five million years. Educated guesses have their limits, and now that we're here..." He sighed, at a loss. "I just don't know. The best that I can say is to wait and see."
"Well hopefully we won't have to." Ryan was silent for a moment, turning away from the scientists to stare into the nearby fire. Nobody spoke. It was clear that he was thinking, and nobody felt it appropriate to interrupt him. After a moment he nodded sharply, and turned to look around at his waiting men.
"Right." There was a new hardness in his voice now. It was the voice of a soldier with a plan of action, and the authority to make sure that it was carried through. "We'd hoped for light. Looks like we're not going to be getting a whole lot more than we've got already, and presumably it'll get darker still. I'm betting the real night is yet to come. That means we have to think more about safety. There's a good chance that we won't see a threat until it's too close to do a whole lot about, so I suggest we move our camp over to the slope that Winchester fell down. It's steep enough to make an attack from that direction unlikely, and that at least gives us some measure of security. We won't have to watch our backs all the time. We should still be able to see from there if the anomaly comes back."
"We will," said Stephen, rather quietly. "It was visible from there before."
"Fine." Ryan nodded decisively. "This isn't a democracy, but if anybody has any serious issues with this plan, you're welcome to say something."
"Just one thing, really." One of his men spoke up thoughtfully. "Doesn't that take us a little close to where you and Hart encountered the Ryanosauruses?"
"They were some distance from there, on the other side of a wooded area." Ryan hefted his rifle. "And if we have to make another species extinct to keep ourselves safe, I'm not going to lose any sleep over it. With luck the fire should keep them away anyhow."
"We do still have to collect firewood, though," pointed out Cutter. Ryan nodded at the wisdom of this.
"We go in groups of three, all armed. We can collect what we need for a few days that way. We're not going to be staying here for very much longer than that, Professor. We can't. We're too exposed here, and if that anomaly hasn't reopened in a few days time... well, we've already discussed this. We have to start thinking in terms of permanence, and long term survival." He paused, then nodded again. "I think we're decided. We head for that hillside. Winchester, I'm sorry, but this is likely to hurt. I'll make sure that your leg is bound up tight before we move you, but all the same, you're going to get knocked about on the way."
"I know." Winchester made no further comment. There had been no suggestion from anybody that he was in some way to blame for their being stranded, but he did still consider himself at least in part responsible. He certainly wasn't going to complain now. He knew better than to suggest that he be left behind, however, for Ryan would be furious at the very idea. Ryan nodded sharply.
"Right. Lads, get together some of this firewood, and build a proper litter. Something stronger than what he's on now. Get the rest of the firewood into bundles, too. We might as well take it with us. Hart?"
"Yes?" Stephen didn't quite jump to attention, but something in Ryan's voice almost made him want to.
"Take Winchester's rifle. He can't fire it while he's being carried, so it might as well go somewhere where it can be of use. Just... don't shoot any of us with it."
"I have no intention of shooting you, captain." Stephen's smile was faint, but warm. Somebody - he had an idea it was the soldier named Peterson - rose up and handed him the rifle. He nodded his thanks.
"Collect up what's left of the food as well," Ryan told him. "You're still head chef."
"Yes, of course." Having received his orders, he set about his work just like everybody else, collecting up what was left of the ready-cut Edmontosaurus meat, as well as the roasted Ryanosaurus. Most of it fitted into his rucksack after he transferred his specimens to Cutter's instead. Cutter, meanwhile, collected up his own instruments, and the second dead Ryanosaurus. He was still determined to make at least a basic examination at some point. Ryan made no comment, presumably sure that his own men, with Stephen co-opted, would be enough to do what needed to be done. Cutter was a wild card, free to follow his own path. He was grateful for that. To lose a specimen as perfect at the Ryanosaurus, when he had so far been able to do little save look at its basic shape and feathers, would have been a terrible blow.
The litter was built quickly, the firewood bundled up in no time at all. The soldiers might occasionally be an irritation to the more free and easy Cutter and Stephen, but there was no denying their practicality and professionalism. Stephen caught up one of the bundles of firewood as well, for they were down several hands with the litter needing to be carried. He offered to carry it himself, on the basis that Ryan might prefer it if a more experienced person were free to use their gun, but Ryan shook his head. Perhaps he didn't trust the welfare of his wounded man to anybody but his own. Stephen didn't really blame him, if that were the case.
"Is this really going to do any good?" asked Cutter, as they began to move out. Stephen smiled across at him.
"Upset at having to leave Edmond behind?"
"I never did get to finish that eye dissection." Cutter glanced back somewhat ruefully, to where the dead Edmontosaurus still lay. "But no, I just don't see that we're going to be any safer over there. That cliff might give us some protection, but we still have the visibility problem. I can't see a bloody thing in this light."
"You always did have lousy vision, Cutter," Stephen's voice was fond. "Look around you. It's no worse than dusk, really. Not when you think about it. Your eyes should be getting used to it by now."
"I can see more than I could, yes, but it's hardly bright daylight, is it. It's making me jumpy."
"With those Ryanosaurus about, that's probably a good thing." Stephen still seemed in good spirits, although Cutter knew him well enough to be sure that it was not exactly genuine. "These rifles have good night sights, you know. That could come in handy. Could be worse."
"Aye, maybe." Cutter sighed, reaching out to slap his companion on the back. "You're always showing me up on field trips, you are."
"Me? You're the walking brainbox. I'm just the muscle." They both laughed, glad of the release of a little tension. "I'd offer you the rifle so you can take a look through it, but I don't think Captain Ryan would approve. I'm supposed to be on guard."
"He has rather adopted you as one of his own lately, hasn't he." Cutter smiled at the thought. "Look lively there, Private Hart."
"I don't mind, not really. We need to all work together now, don't we." Stephen gestured towards his borrowed weapon. "I could give you lessons, if you like."
"Thank you. I appreciate the thought." Cutter wanted to glance back towards the place where the anomaly had been, but he forced himself not to. There was no sense in being too wistful. "I haven't given up hope, though. If it turns out that we have to stay, then by all means I shall have to take up some kind of arms. Not until I know that I have to, though. I'm not a violent man, Stephen."
"Neither am I," pointed out his associate, then shrugged, as well as he could whilst weighed down by his various loads. "Still, you're right. No sense in acting like this is permanent until we know that it is." He frowned, however, staring at the ground. "Cutter..."
"What if it is permanent?"
"I don't know. I really don't know. We manage, I suppose. Given what we do for a living, we ought to be as well prepared for a life like this one as anybody. There's something else to consider, though. If we don't come back, Helen is bound to hear about it eventually. And if she knows as much about the anomalies as she seems to..."
"You think she'll come here to find us?" Stephen shook his head. "No way."
"She's asked me before to join her. Don't you think that she'd like the idea of having us both stuck here, especially with her controlling the way back? Whether she'd take us home, or just come to mock, though - that's a different question."
"I suppose she'd like it if we owed her something," mused Stephen. Cutter nodded.
"She would. Rescuing us might just appeal to her warped sense of humour. Or leaving us stranded here might too. It could be that we'll never see hide nor hair of her. Until I see her swaggering towards me with that smile of hers, I've learnt never to expect a damned thing." He smiled. "I'm sounding like a bitter divorcÚ now, aren't I."
"Maybe. A little." They shared a brighter smile. "Still, what does that make her?"
"Don't tempt me." Cutter laughed briefly. "Honestly, I don't know whether to hope that she shows up or not. I really couldn't say what her motives would be, if she did try to track us down. Still, we shouldn't even be thinking about it. That anomaly is going to reopen."
"Of course." They walked on for a little longer, trudging along side by side. The soldiers kept up a low buzz of conversation, but for the most part the two scientists ignored it. It appeared to be of a mostly military nature, and of little real interest to them. After a while, Stephen pointed towards the dark shape of some distant trees.
"Somewhere on the other side of them, there's a nest. Ryan and I saw it earlier, before we were attacked. Almost missed it, it was that well camouflaged."
"Eggs?" asked Cutter, immediately interested. Stephen shook his head.
"Hatchlings. Tiny little feathered things, all snapping teeth and lethal looking little claws." He grinned. "They were adorable. Not sure I'd want to cuddle one, though."
"Any idea of the species?"
"No. I took a couple of photographs. You can look at them later. To be honest, though, I couldn't see anything familiar."
"It's not easy to identify a species from a juvenile example. Especially a very young one." Cutter smiled. "I wish I'd seen that nest."
"Maybe you still can. It's not all that far away. I suppose we have to think about that pack of Ryanosaurus, though." Stephen tore his eyes away from the trees, looking back along their route. The foremost soldiers had stopped now, and it appeared that Ryan had chosen his spot for a camp. "They're going to die, aren't they."
"The hatchlings?" Cutter nodded. "It's certainly a possibility. I'm sorry, Stephen."
"Not your fault." The younger man shrugged. "There was a skeleton nearby. I don't have any proof, but I'd say from the shape that it's a good chance it was their mother. The Ryanosaurus had eaten her. So even if the meteorite hadn't struck, I suppose the chances are that they wouldn't make it." He stole another glance towards the trees. "That's life, I suppose."
"There's nothing wrong with lamenting the cruel hand of nature, you know. Just because we're supposed to be all scientific about it, doesn't mean that we're not allowed to feel." Cutter laid a brief hand on his old friend's shoulder. "Besides, you wouldn't be you if you weren't getting all sentimental about something further down the food chain."
"Are dinosaurs further down the food chain?" asked Stephen, his smile having crept back out. Cutter laughed.
"Let's not put that theory to the test." They arrived at the camp, and began to unload themselves of their various burdens, trying not to get in the way of the soldiers. The military contingent had gone into full battle mode, or so it appeared, the joking attitude of earlier abandoned in favour of a united action that seemed almost to be the work of one brain rather than many. Clearly they did not need the help of a pair of untrained scientists. Abandoning their things a short distance away, Cutter and Stephen backed off. To have done otherwise would have felt rather like getting in the way of a ballet company in the midst of a performance.
"Don't stray too far," said Ryan, without looking up. He appeared to be supervising the construction of some sort of legs for Winchester's litter, so that he would no longer have to lie so close to the cold ground. Cutter nodded.
"We won't. We'll be just over here." There was no answer. With the barest of nods, the busy captain had turned his attention to gun placement, deciding what would be the best positioning of his sentries around their new perimeter. Cutter blocked them out, with their jumble of noise and blur of activity. Instead he stood on the edge of the slope, and looked out at the rather grey view.
"Just as well we didn't come here for the sun, isn't it," he said, frowning at the endless half-dark. Stephen stood alongside him.
"Do you want to use the gun-sights?" he asked. Cutter shook his head.
"Too ungainly. Where's your camera?"
"Here." He pulled the small gadget from the inside pocket of his jacket. "It's not all that good for seeing in bad light, though."
"I know. I just thought I'd get a few shots of the view. If necessary we can brighten them up a bit more with the software back at the university. Some good pictures of the terrain could be invaluable for study purposes. I've not been taking nearly enough on previous trips back."
"In all fairness, there's not often been the opportunity. As I recall, the last time we came through an anomaly, we spent half of our time hiding from Helen, and the other half trying not to be eaten by an Allosaurus. And the time before that--"
"If your intention is to make me reconsider my line of work, you're doing a very good job." Cutter smiled faintly. "Here, get your gun-sights pointed over there. I can see something moving. Looks like..." He frowned. "Hey, is that our Triceratops herd?"
"Where?" Stephen searched the terrain, then raised his rifle to get a better look. Cutter had been right, he realised immediately. The herd - he could only assume that it was the same one - had just come ambling into view some way from the bottom of the cliff. A smile came immediately to his face, before he remembered, suddenly, how they would inevitably meet their fate. His smile faded.
"They're going to die," he said, his voice quiet. "Just like those chicks back in that nest." Cutter looked across at him, watching him stare out at the scene, apparently without moving a muscle.
"Yes, they are." There was no point in trying to lie about it, or dress it up in different colours. They had been studying prehistory together for far too long for such an attempt to be anything other than ridiculous. Stephen nodded.
"And I sent them back here. I thought it was a good game, rounding them up like I was some kind of cowboy."
"You couldn't very well have left them." Hesitating for a moment, the professor reached up to put his hand once again on the younger man's shoulder. "It's not like we could have let them go wandering around the English countryside indefinitely."
"I know." Stephen still wasn't looking at him, his eyes fixed on the meandering herd. He smiled, however, very briefly. "No wonder they looked so happy in that valley. All that grass. They must have thought they were in heaven."
"They must." Cutter smiled too, faintly. "I'm sorry. This is a lousy place to have brought an conservationist to." Stephen laughed, although it was a shadow of the usual sound.
"I've been to better places, that's for certain. Of all the destinations in the world, somewhere where most of the animals are going to die does pretty much take the biscuit."
"Yeah." Cutter couldn't deny the sadness that he felt. He had spent a large part of his career studying the Mesozoic Era, and here he was standing at the end of it, as the creatures that he had always so loved began to disappear. It was the extinction not just of a species, but of an entire world. There would be survivors of course, and many of them, but the Earth would never be the same again. His hand, still on Stephen's shoulder, tightened its grip.
"We should probably stop looking at them," he said. Stephen nodded.
"Yeah. I know."
"It's all right, Cutter. It's history. I just never thought that I'd have to stand here and watch it. It's... not going to be easy, if we have to stay."
"With the best will in the world, if we have to stay here, I think we'll have other things on our minds than conservation."
"Yeah." His old friend glanced across at him, a rueful smile ghosting its way across his face. "I guess you're right. All the same, though..."
"Yes, I know. I know." They had spent so long in their little office, studying these creatures together, from the comfortable distance of millions of years. Dinosaurs were a big part of their relationship; they were old friends, shuffling their way through so many conversations; though so many evenings spent with a pile of paperwork and a bottle of whisky; through so many field trips in so many countries over so many years. Nick Cutter could not help but be sad to think of their passing.
"Come on, you horrible lot! We need to get that fire started!" It was Ryan, bellowing out his orders, and effectively putting an end to the reflections of the two scientists nearby. They returned to the camp together, his practicality dragging them back to their immediate present. Stephen went to help build the fire, arranging wood neatly to make what would be the heart of the blaze.
"You're good at that," said a voice at his elbow, and he smiled, still a little distracted. He had no name to go with the friendly face, which bothered him a little. Somehow it had always been the scientists on one side, and the soldiers on the other - certainly since the arrest of Helen Cutter. It wasn't that they were the enemy as such, but they had never seemed much like friends. That was changing, he knew. Ryan was defrosting well; Winchester was another friend of a kind. If they were all to be staying here, then soon enough the old lines of demarcation would have to disappear completely.
"Thanks," he said. Then, a moment later, "Stephen."
"Yeah. We all know you lot. Get briefings, don't we." A large hand gripped his briefly. "Smoky."
"That's your name?" It didn't seem likely; but then neither did it seem likely that he had been given it as a nickname. He was pale-faced, with green eyes and reddish blond hair, and not a trace of smoke anywhere about him. A broad grin met the question, but it was somebody else who answered it.
"No. What lunatic would name their kid Smoky? Although I don't know. There's no guessing what half the parents of this lot must be like." Winchester flicked a stick of firewood expertly at Smoky. "Probably are lunatics."
"Hey, I'm not denying it," his friend answered back. "My father's sixty-nine, and he still races motorbikes every weekend."
"Explains a lot, mate. A lot." Winchester turned back to Stephen. "Anyway, we call him Smoky because the useless half-wit once set his bed on fire with a cigarette after lights out. Takes a lot to keep something like that quiet, I can tell you." He grinned, surprisingly wickedly. "Some poor little lad who'd only just joined up practically got stuffed head first into the smoke detector, so it wouldn't go off." He frowned then. "Technically speaking, I suppose we should have called him Smoky, now that I think about it. What did we call him?"
"Bugger knows," said Smoky, poetically. "Left about a fortnight later, didn't he. Claimed his ankles were giving him trouble. Still, it's for the best. Can't imagine going up against the Mesozoic's finest with a little fellow like that to back me up. Not when he squeaks at the first sign of trouble."
"To be honest, I think I'd squeak if somebody tried to force-feed me to a smoke detector," said Stephen. Smoky nodded.
"You could have a point there. Still, we're here, and he's not." He frowned. "You know, that didn't sound quite as triumphant as it might have done."
"You two leading the scientific contingent astray?" asked Ryan, coming over to watch as the fire was finally lit. Smoky nodded cheerfully, before producing a rather battered packet of cigarettes, and lighting one on the nearest smouldering branch. He offered it around, to a chorus of refusals, which made him smile brightly.
"Oh well, I shan't complain. Once these are finished, I might have to wait sixty-five million years for another."
"Maybe we can find you something else to smoke," said Ryan consolingly. "Some prehistoric moss, or something."
"Maybe." Smoky frowned thoughtfully as he puffed. "How would we know it wasn't dangerous, though? Like funny mushrooms, or something? What you reckon, Hart?"
"Don't look at me," Stephen told him, rather amused. "The hallucinogenic properties of prehistoric plants isn't one of my speciality subjects. Try asking Cutter."
"He's gawping at rocks again," said Winchester, not unkindly, nodding at where the older scientist was examining the ground around their camp. It was such a familiar sight, whatever the rarity of their situation, that Stephen had to smile. Ryan shook his head.
"Weird, the both of you. Anyway." He bent down, pulling a pair of sticks from the fire, before raising his voice to address the whole camp. "Volunteers, gents, please. I want to have a proper look around. We'll take some fire with us as well as the guns as an added precaution. We don't really know what we might come up against."
"We know about the Ryanosauruses," piped up Smoky, with perhaps a little too much relish. Ryan shot him a sour look.
"I wasn't planning on going in that direction. There's a whole bloody country to walk around in." He tossed the other man one of the firebrands. "And congratulations, by the way. You just volunteered."
"Sir." Smoky stood, nodding towards Stephen as he did so. "How about you, Hart? We could use somebody who knows the local wildlife, so to speak."
"Is that a good idea?" asked Stephen, rather surprised at the suggestion. "The anomaly could return, and we might be miles away from it."
"I certainly don't intend to go out of radio range," Ryan told him. "And if we have to come back here at the double, then so be it. We need to know where we are, though. More importantly, if we wait until we've given up on the anomaly, it'll be too late to search for water. We need to start that sort of thing now. Interested?"
"Well in that case, yes, why not." Rather inspired, Stephen immediately got to his feet. "It's got to be better than sitting around here moping about things that I can't change. Cutter? What do you think?"
"Hmm?" Distracted by his study of the rocks, his old friend looked momentarily confused. Ryan rolled his eyes.
"Do try to stay focused, professor. It's easier not to get eaten that way." He fetched another pair of flaming sticks. "We were thinking about a little sightseeing expedition. Smoky's right. You and Hart would be useful people to have tagging along."
"Well if you don't think we'll get in the way, I'd be delighted." A rather childish glee lit the older man's eyes momentarily. "You never know. We might find out where all those vast herds of dinosaurs that we were talking about are hiding."
"Oh joy." Ryan handed him one of the lighted sticks, raising an eyebrow when the professor took it somewhat gingerly. "Just remember, if we encounter something that looks like it might be hostile, jab that thing at it first, and take notes second."
"Yes, thank you." Cutter rolled his eyes, only a little exasperated by the teasing. Stephen laughed.
"It's okay. He handles himself well. You should see him take on a polar bear with a tent peg."
"One of these days I might demand you both live up to all of these stories." Ryan tossed another of the firebrands at him, and Stephen caught it, trying not to look too startled by the sudden flash of flame leaping unnervingly towards his eyebrows. "The rest of you, get together a rota for keeping watch over the anomaly site. And don't forget to keep the fire going. There should be enough firewood for another day or so, so don't go trying to collect any until we're back." The other soldiers nodded their understanding, before Smoky, still puffing on his cigarette, blew a leisurely smoke ring.
"We off then?" he asked. Ryan nodded.
"We are," he said, and gestured for the other soldier to take the lead. "Try not to step on anything too deadly."
"And if I see a T. rex?"
Ryan smiled. "Sacrifice yourself for the good of the unit."
"Gotcha." Smoky nodded his head in apparently serious acceptance, then looked around at Cutter and Stephen. "Come on then, folks. Let's go dinosaur hunting."
They walked at a fast pace, despite their unfamiliarity with the ground. Ryan was eager to see as much of the local area as possible, and as the miles went by, they found themselves doing just that. It was not a cheerful walk, however. Although there was no evidence to suggest that death had already become widespread, they passed several corpses along the way. Some were large, some small. The half-eaten remains of what could only have been a juvenile sauropod lay sprawled on the ground in one place, its long neck and tail stretched out. It looked pitifully tiny, and did nothing to improve either scientist's deteriorating mood. Both men were well aware that they were nothing but helpless witnesses to the situation, but that did not stop them from feeling that there ought to be something they could do. A dead baby, predictably, only made matters worse. Stephen crouched down beside it, and made a good show of trying to maintain his scientific objectivity.
"Have you still got my camera?" he asked. Cutter nodded. "You should get some shots of this. We've not seen many babies so far."
"Yes." The camera stayed in his pocket, however. He didn't want to record this scene. Stephen certainly didn't press the issue, and as they walked on again, he lapsed into silence. Ryan and Smoky seemed to sense their mood even if they didn't share it, and remained quiet themselves. Only when they found another body - this time the fresh carcass of another hadrosaur - did the silence break.
"I suppose we should be glad that we haven't seen our vast herds after all," said Cutter, as he paused to look down at the slumped beast. "One body on its own isn't so very bad."
"It probably left its feeding ground through desperation, just like Edmond did," said Stephen. "The herds will be elsewhere. I think I can live without seeing what they're going through right now."
"My sentiments exactly." Cutter was thinking back to his enthusiasm when they had first discovered their dead Edmontosaurus. He couldn't feel the same about its cousin before him now. Not now that he knew how it had died. "Come on. Let's get out of here. With luck this will be the last body for the time being."
It wasn't, although it was the last dead dinosaur. Birds were strewn about the place, as well as one or two mammals - tiny creatures, the perfect size to be stowed away as specimens for later study. Neither Cutter nor Stephen picked them up. The situation was leaving them both increasingly miserable, and Ryan couldn't help but wonder if he shouldn't have left them behind. Smoky moved into the lead, pulling ahead as the rest of the party began to move more slowly, his eyes scanning the horizon for anything that might be zeroing in on the various dead bodies. Silence fell again, and this time it was Smoky who ended it, calling back to the others that he had found some sort of nest. It was extremely large, but clearly long abandoned, the eggs inside broken open by something. Hurrying to catch up, Cutter crouched down for a better look, poking at one of the shards of shell with a ballpoint pen.
"Hatched or eaten?" asked Stephen, bending down beside him. His flaming branch lit up his old friend's suddenly excited face, and encouraged him to smile as well.
"I don't suppose there's any way to tell. I can't see anything nearby that might have been used to break the eggs open, but we still can't rule it out." Carefully picking up one of the large pieces, Cutter handed his branch to his companion so that he could stow the shell away. It would make a good specimen for study back at the university. "I wonder whose nest it was."
"Something big," guessed Ryan, his expression suggesting that he would far rather they did not stand around for long. "And probably extremely hungry by now."
"Oh, it's gone, captain." Cutter turned around, staring out into the gloom all about them. "There are some bits of spider's web on the shells, quite old themselves by the look of it. Whoever laid these eggs will have moved on."
"Bird or dinosaur?" wondered Smoky. The professor nodded.
"Good question. Can anybody see any tracks?"
"Yes, quite a few." Stephen pointed at several footprints on the ground. "They're all recent, though. Very recent, some of them. I doubt they're anything to do with this nest."
"Then keep your eyes peeled. And look up, Hart, not down." Ryan gestured ahead. "Come on. There's been enough dawdling. I want to get as far as we can before it's time to head back."
"We're right with you, captain." Cutter took a moment more to look at the construction of the nest, then rose to his feet, retrieving his lighted branch. It was beginning to burn low, the flame deepening to a dark red that rather resembled sunset. Ryan scowled at the sight.
"Oh for some pitch to dip these things in." He reached over, relighting Cutter's branch with his own. "Perhaps we shouldn't go much further after all. These sticks aren't going to keep burning for very long."
"Just a little longer?" Cutter was aware that he was in danger of sounding like a small child begging its father, but he didn't care. He wanted to see where they were; he wanted to see more of this world. A few broken eggs in a nest was more than he could ever once have dreamed of seeing, but he knew that it was not enough. Not now, when the only dinosaurs he had seen had been dead ones. Just a little further. Just a little more. Ryan perhaps agreed, or possibly he just didn't want to argue. He nodded his head.
"We'll go on for a bit. Sing out if your sticks start to burn low, though. We don't want any of them to go out."
"Thank you, captain." Cutter found that he was relieved. He didn't want to walk past that dead baby sauropod again so soon, and certainly not without having seen anything first that might lighten his mood. They had not gone far, however, before an almighty bellow rang out around them, making even Ryan start in surprise. His hands tightened around his rifle, and he turned in a circle in search of the source of the noise.
"I have no idea." Cutter, perhaps unsurprisingly, looked more fascinated than afraid. "Though I would dearly love to find out. What do you think, Stephen?"
"I hate to guess." His colleague tilted his head on its side, hoping for a repeat of the noise, though none came. "Would you say it was more a shout or a roar?"
"A shout, I think." Cutter was frowning, searching for necessary adjectives. "More ringing in tone than a roar would be, at least by my definition."
"Shout, moan, roar, shriek, what's the bloody difference?" Smoky looked uncharacteristically shaken. "Stuff of nightmares, that was."
"It makes a difference in guessing what made the noise, not to mention the how and the why of it," Cutter told him. "Animals make all kinds of noises. Fear, rage, alarms of all sorts, mating displays, or just ordinary social calls between the members of a group. It helps to try to guess what the message in the call might be, especially if we're going to be headed anywhere near it."
"Big noise, big animal," said Ryan, with typical bluntness, and eyed his rifle somewhat doubtfully. By now they had all encountered animals that could not be stopped by gunfire, and here their other defensive options were rather limited. Besides their rifles and fire sticks, the best that they had to use were Stephen's dissecting knives. It was not encouraging.
"Don't tell me you're nervous, captain," said Cutter. His smile was gently teasing, but there was resolution in his eyes, and it was a resolution that Ryan had come to know. Cutter wanted to see what had made that noise, and short of trussing him up, or knocking him out, there would be little that anybody could do to stop him. He nodded slowly.
"A little. Some of us have a working self-preservation reflex. Still, I did say that we could go on a little further, and I don't see any clear reason to turn back now."
"Thank you." This time there was real sincerity in the professor's blue-grey eyes, but Ryan merely raised an eyebrow.
"Don't get your hopes up. We both know that that sound might have come from miles away. I'm not walking for hours on the off chance that we'll see something." He quickened his pace slightly. "Besides, unless you have much better hearing than I do - which I doubt - then we still don't really know which direction to aim for."
"I'm not so sure about that." Stephen was still studying the ground, glancing up every now and again to check the way ahead. "There really are rather a lot of tracks here, you know. As far as I can see, they're all heading in the same direction."
"A local food source that might still exist?" asked Cutter. Stephen nodded.
"Possibly, yes. Or something else. Think African Bush."
"You mean..." Cutter's eyes widened, and Stephen grinned.
"I can't promise anything, but it's the best theory I've got. Of course the position of that nest seems a bit odd if I'm right."
"Not necessarily. It was an old nest. Perhaps this didn't become such a popular thoroughfare until recently." Cutter looked rather sad again. "The world's been going through a lot of changes recently, after all."
"Yeah." Stephen's own smile faded, and Cutter banged him on the back.
"Come on. Reflection later. For the time being, let's just go and see if your theory is correct." He sped up, leading the way with Stephen at his heels, the pair of them beginning to chatter like excited schoolboys on a day trip. Ryan shook his head.
"What was all that about?"
"No idea, sir." Smoky shrugged his powerful shoulders. "I suppose we still have to follow them, and make sure they don't get eaten?"
"We ought to, yes." Eyes sweeping the landscape, Ryan searched for some clue as to what might have got the two scientists so excited, as well as keeping a customary eye out for danger. For a moment, as he hurried to follow the others, he thought that some great shape had moved far off to his left - but whatever it was, if it was anything at all, it was gone before he could be sure if he had really seen it. He frowned.
"Wretched darkness. Trust us to wind up in a place like this."
"At least it's not as dark as real night." Smoky made a quick sweep of the area through the night sights of his rifle. The field of vision was too limited to be an effective method of watching for danger, but it did give him a fairly good idea of what to expect from the terrain ahead. "Looks like a line of trees further on. Stretches quite some way." He scowled. "Visibility's not that good, though. The ground's up and down all over the place from now on."
"Great." Ryan took a quick look himself through his own rifle, but found that his companion was right. It was too hard to be sure of the land before them. "Is that a forest ahead? I hope they're not planning on going in there if it is. It'll be hell to keep watch in all those trees."
"You want me to stop them?" offered Smoky. Ryan hesitated, then shook his head.
"No loud noises. Leave them on a long leash for now. Just be ready for trouble. If there's one thing that those confounded Ryanosaurus showed me, it's that there's no point worrying about some giant monster coming to eat you when something small can come crawling up out of anywhere. Like out of a forest."
"Right." Smoky turned away, eyes rapidly searching their limited horizon. "Still, at least we haven't heard that awful noise again."
"I wouldn't go speaking too soon if I were you." They went on again, even more carefully now. Beneath their feet the ground became more damp, more muddy, and the tracks that Stephen had been following became more pronounced. They were spectacularly diverse - even the characteristically sceptical Captain Ryan could admit that; and some of them were quite unnervingly large. Somehow this time it came as no surprise when the great bellow of earlier came again, and so very much louder this time. Such a cry belonged in a place where a world of strange creatures had left such footprints in the mud.
"Something tells me we're about to see what's making that noise," said Smoky. He didn't exactly sound happy about it, and Ryan didn't really blame him.
"Something tells me you're right." They were closer to the trees now - close enough to see that it was not a forest that they were looking at all, but a jumbled collection of greenery thrusting up from thick, cloying mud. Some of it was still green, clinging to life while around it the other plants turned brown and died. Green, brown or otherwise, it was all tattered, having clearly been fed upon over a long period of time. Everything looked chewed. Having been some distance ahead, Stephen and Cutter had already reached the copse, and were pushing through it. Somehow it did not seem a good idea to shout out to them. Instead Ryan and Smoky hurried after, having to be careful of their footing now. The mud caught at their boots, and tried to hold them, and around them the mess of footprints made the going uneven and awkward. They struggled on, reaching the trees moments after the scientists; but much, much less prepared for what they were about to see. Smoky gaped, staring out at the gloomy world that lay before them. "Bugger me," he breathed, not exactly tastefully, eyes widening at the sheer scale of the view. "It's a sodding waterhole!"
It was a scene from a child's picture book - an artist's imagination given life. As Cutter stood at the edge of the trees, that was the thought that came to him at first. He was looking at a picture; he had to be. A giant, moving picture. Perhaps he was dreaming. Perhaps the entire anomaly project had been a dream, and he was about to wake up in some damp, cramped tent, with Stephen and two hundred specimen jars. He would have considered pinching himself, had he ever been able to think of any logical reason why that should work.
The waterhole was huge. Although it was not wide, the far side visible despite the limited light, it stretched out far to his left and to his right. And there was, he saw now, a Quetzalcoatlus walking past him, hobbling awkwardly along using its bent wings almost like an old man struggling along on crutches. It appeared to be rooting through the mud with its beak, presumably looking for things to eat. Just beyond it, no more than a stone's throw away, an Anatosaurus was wallowing in the shallows; and opposite, on the far side of the lake, a lone and very gnarled-looking old Triceratops was taking a drink. To Stephen's right three Edmontosaurus were munching on some unappetising vegetation in a patch of mud, and just past them was a blur of moving, indistinct flesh. The place was clearly a hadrosaurs' paradise. A group of Kritosaurus were squabbling over some sort of bush, and further Anatosaurus ambled about amongst them. Overhead, meanwhile, a Pteranodon wheeled, its cry borne gently down to them on the wind - the cry of the ancient dead. Cutter was almost sure that he was about to faint.
"Cutter." Stephen's voice was a desperately excited whisper. "Ten o'clock. Parasaurolophus."
"What?" The professor turned, staring in the direction indicated. Sure enough, there was the creature, just coming into view as it drew nearer. Two feathered juveniles scuttled along in its wake, tripping over its tail, and then scurrying past it to splash at the water's edge. Cutter felt his mouth drop open.
"When I was six that was my favourite dinosaur," he said, and reached out a strangely weakened hand for Stephen's arm. "Look at it!"
"I am looking." Stephen was grinning, probably stupidly, and didn't care. Cutter matched the expression, not really caring either. As they watched, the grown Parasaurolophus tipped back its head, making a curious tooting sound that the youngsters at its feet attempted to repeat. Moments later, several more of the creatures appeared out of the darkness. There were no more young, but the adults were more than enough for Cutter. He fumbled for the camera, fingers seeming suddenly to belong to someone else.
"If I'm dreaming, let me sleep a while longer yet," he breathed. Stephen laughed quietly, turning away to look at something else. Whatever it was, Cutter wanted to see it too, but could not quite bring himself to look away from the family of Parasaurolophus. Only when Ryan and Smoky came to join them, slithering quietly in the mud, did he look around, and then for just long enough to offer a faint, stunned smile of welcome. Smoky swore.
"Are any of this lot dangerous?" he asked. Stephen shrugged.
"Most of them are several times your size. What do you think? So far I can only see herbivores though. They might trample you to death, but they won't eat you afterwards."
"That's reassuring, thank you." The soldier glanced up as the wheeling Pteranodon screeched again. "What about that thing?"
"Not sure. Might be after fish in the lake. It won't eat you, though, don't worry." Stephen also looked up at it, trying to judge its size. It was difficult to be sure of such things when it was impossible to know how far away the creature was. "They're mostly toothless anyway."
"I'll take your word for it." A nearby Edmontosaurus made a sound not unlike that of a cow, and Smoky gave a start. "Okay. It's a giant, two-legged, green cow. That's... nice."
"I certainly like it more than our dead one," Cutter told him, still gazing adoringly at the Parasaurolophus. Stephen reached out for his arm, directing him and the camera towards the Euoplocephalus that had just come into view on the far side of the lake. Behind them, finally shaking off his initial shock, Ryan stuck his firebrand in the mud, in the hope that it would discourage any of the creatures from coming any closer.
"Whether you like them or not, they're a danger. Let's not fall into the trap of thinking that this is some sort of school outing. Hart!" This last was an angry hiss, as the younger man began to move further away. "For goodness sakes, stick together. As a group we make a bigger target."
"Or a more tasty snack," said Smoky doubtfully, still apparently not very sure about the herbivorous status of the locals.
"If we keep quiet, I really don't think there's any need to worry." Cutter tipped back his head, trying to zoom in on the circling Pteranodon. "Waterhole etiquette, gentlemen. Even lions and antelopes will drink together from the same place, you know. Perhaps not happily, but they'll do it."
"Which is just what the crocodile likes," deadpanned Stephen. Cutter laughed. Ryan merely rolled his eyes.
"So you think that this lot won't accidentally trample us to death because of some mystical code of conduct?" he asked. "Professor, I really--" He broke off, as the ground around them began to tremble. "Please tell me that's an earthquake."
"Could be." Cutter frowned suddenly, lowering the camera. "But I don't think so. Look around you. The animals aren't reacting." The shaking came again, and this time there was a sound that came with it - a rhythmical thumping that was unmistakably the sound of footsteps. Powerful, heavy footsteps. Ryan was somehow not at all surprised to see that Cutter was beginning to smile.
"Over there." Pointing with a hand that showed a slight tremble, Cutter was gazing at the trees off to his right. Sure enough, the sound was coming from that direction, and a moment later a head rose into view over the tops of the trees; a distant grey-green head on the end of a long and powerful neck. The trees bent apart under the approach of the creature, bowing away from it to allow its passage. A moment later a vast body followed the neck, and finally the creature was there beside the lake. The Quetzalcoatlus glared at it in apparent disapproval, and hobbled off out of the way. Ryan looked up, and up, and took a step backwards in sheer amazement, nearly tripping over the retreating Quetzalcoatlus. It squawked at him, and made a jab at his trouser leg in revenge.
"Is that an Apatosaurus?" the slightly dazed captain asked, not caring that he sounded rather less confident than usual. These were extreme circumstances, after all. Cutter, utterly delighted by the new arrival, took a moment to answer.
"I'm impressed, captain." He was still grinning. Ryan was beginning to wonder if they were ever going to be able to get him to leave. "Most people would have tried to call it a Brontosaurus. Has Connor already given you the lecture?" His answer was an eloquent glare that seemed to make the grin even wider. "I'll take that as a yes. But no, as far as we know, the Apatosaurus never made it out of the Jurassic. Given where we are - or where we think we are - this is quite likely an Alamosaurus." He shot a glance over at Stephen, who seemed equally entranced. "What do you think? Seventy feet long?"
"It's certainly not much smaller than that." Stephen grinned at him, eyes bright. "Connor is going to flip when he hears about this, you know. He won't speak to us for weeks."
"I shall try to live with the hardship." They shared a smile, before turning back to watch the creature again. A second later it lifted its head from the water, and loosed an almighty bellow that echoed around the ring of trees. It was a familiar cry by now, and somehow it did not seem nearly as terrible as it had before. Apparently content, the Alamosaurus shuffled off to graze on the tops of the trees, cutting across the corner of the lake as though it was no depth at all. Cutter took a quick photograph, having finally remembered how to move.
"Look at it." Stephen spoke so quietly that he could barely hear, and he moved a little closer to catch the words. "There's not enough food for it here, Cutter. Not even nearly. It's too thin already. Look at its flanks."
"Yes." They had both been quite giddy at the sight of so many dinosaurs, after so long seeing almost nothing at all, but Stephen's words brought Cutter back to the reality of the situation. A creature like the Alamosaurus would need to graze almost constantly just to stay alive. This one was all too clearly suffering from the decrease in available food. The trees around the waterhole would provide it with sustenance for a while, but the various hadrosaurs were already doing their own share of damage to what little greenery remained. The Euoplocephalus had begun to graze, and the family of Parasaurolophus were feeding as well. It was all too obvious that there would not be enough food for all of them. Soon enough, this whole area would be stripped bare. Cutter reached out, putting a consoling hand on his companion's shoulder. "It might be the beginning of the end," he said after a moment, "but I doubt that it actually is the end. There were countless dinosaurs all over the face of the planet. They won't all be dying, not yet. There will be places with enough food to keep whole populations going for some time."
"Yeah." Stephen glanced back at him, smiling sadly. "It's just so much easier when this is all a chapter in a text book." He sighed, managing a stronger smile. "I'm sorry. I've spoilt the fun rather, haven't I."
"No. No, I was thinking it all anyway." They fell silent again, turning about to watch the vista before them. If they ignored the fact of the dwindling food and the haggard Alamosaurus, it was still a glorious sight. One of the young Parasaurolophus wandered closer to them, pecking at something vaguely green that was growing near to Cutter's left foot. The professor, who had visited every continent on the planet, and seen so very much, felt the breath stilled in his lungs. The small creature tooted softly, then tipped back its head, its eyes trailing up one trouser-clad leg, up past the battered fawn jacket, and on up to the head that stood at the top of it all. Cutter smiled, as though somehow the creature might understand what he meant.
"Tell it to take you to its leader," suggested Smoky. The baby shook itself, apparently dismissing the suggestion, its feathered hide fluffed up in an illusion of greater size. After a moment it gave another curious toot, before fleeing back in search of its parents. Cutter began to laugh.
"I'm half-tempted to take it home as a house pet," he told the others. Ryan, one eye on the fully-grown version, made a harrumphing sound.
"You'd need one hell of a litter tray," he said. Cutter nodded sagely.
"And with that piece of great wisdom," said Smoky, looking at his watch, "shouldn't we be heading back? I don't like to break up the party, but..."
"But we didn't have any intention of camping here permanently, no. Not yet anyway." Ryan had to drag his eyes away from the many milling dinosaurs, although he would never have admitted to it. "I'm sorry, professor, but we can't stay here. Unless I'm imagining it, it's getting darker, and goodness knows it's dark enough already."
"Of course." Cutter gave a brisk nod, although he was still watching the Parasaurolophus baby. It was with its young brother or sister, preening as though proud of itself for having approached the weird new arrivals. "How long do we have?"
"A little time." Ryan caught up his fire-stick, now burned down almost to nothing. "Smoky and I are going to leave you here for a bit, provided you promise to keep your heads down. With all these dinosaurs about, not to mention all those footprints we saw, I want to be as sure as I can be that we're not going to get eaten on the way back, so we're going to scout ahead some to check out the route. You can harp on all you like about this lot being herbivores, but where there's food there's things that want to eat it." He glanced down at his once flaming branch. "We'd better cut some more of these on the way, too. Hart, you're on guard, so stay alert. Smoky?"
"Sir." His subordinate went to him immediately, taking a moment to tap Stephen on the shoulder as he passed. "Stay put," he advised; then, as a parting shot, "and don't get eaten."
"We'll do our best," Stephen promised, and with an apparently satisfied nod, the other man set off at Ryan's heels. Left behind, Cutter turned back around to look at the far side of the lake. The Euoplocephalus was making evil eyes at a pair of young Pachycephalosaurus, and twitched its tail at them in warning. They gave it a wide berth, more interested in a mock fight with each other than in engaging it.
"I think we're running out of space on your camera," he said sometime later, after an earnest period snapping away at almost anything that moved. Stephen rifled through his pockets in search of more memory cards, but came up empty. He shrugged.
"See if there's anything you can delete. I think there's a few pictures on there of some of the specimens back in the office. I was supposed to be e-mailing them to that professor in San Francisco. They can go."
"Ah." Cutter glanced back at the camera. "Would these be the pictures of the fossilised fish that I deleted about five minutes ago? I, er... well, that baby Parasaurolophus..."
"You're hopeless," Stephen told him with some amusement, and pulled out his mobile phone. "There's some space on here. You can't get such a good shot, but it's something. If you'd buy yourself a half decent mobile then you could use that too."
"You know I can barely phone somebody up on one of these things." Cutter struggled to turn the little device on, and nearly dropped it in the mud at their feet. "Whoops. That wouldn't do a lot for the fossil record."
"Not really, no." Smiling to himself Stephen turned his head, looking over to their right, where the Pteranodon had come to a halt in its circling. A moment later it upended itself in mid-air, and like a giant dart, fired itself down into the water. It emerged a few moments later, struggling up onto the muddy beach with a fish in its beak. A tiny Hesperonychus that had been foraging about nearby gave a squawk of surprise, and scuttled away under a bush. The Pteranodon swallowed the fish whole, tipping back its huge, long head, then gave a rather self-satisfied squawk. Stephen smiled at the sight, letting his eyes drift past the contented creature, away to the limits of his vision. The gloom was frustrating, for he was sure that there must be other things to see further away. Certainly it sounded as though there were. It was tempting to make a circuit of the lake, but there was unlikely to be time for that now. There was no doubt that the world was growing darker, and it would be better not to linger in a place where they could see less and less of the creatures around them with every passing moment. As though to torment him for his limited vision, the trees rustled and swayed, and he wondered what was moving about amongst them. Whatever it was, he would barely be able to see it unless it came closer. Oh for some daylight. The thought inescapably brought his mind back to the reason for the darkness, and the sadness grew once again in his chest. Oh for some daylight, yes - and a reprieve for all of these creatures. It might all be ancient history for the human race, but right now it was his present, and it hurt. The Pteranodon, as though sharing his feelings, squawked again, a lower, more cautious sound than before. A second later the young Hesperonychus came flying out from underneath its bush, and a second later was cowering behind Stephen. Apparently it thought that he was a tree, or perhaps it just didn't care. Nearby, Cutter had frozen.
"Stephen..." His voice was the barest whisper. "Listen." Around them, the world had gone quiet. The animals on their side of the lake had ceased their exotic chatterings, and many of them were now standing very still. "There's a predator about."
"I think you're right." Stephen didn't look back at him, preferring, for the time being, to keep as still as everything else. "That waterhole etiquette thing..."
"Probably doesn't mean a whole lot in a world where there's very little food, no. If it means anything anyway." Cutter would have shrugged, had he dared. "It's really just a story."
"It's a nice story," suggested Stephen. Cutter gave the barest of nods, although Stephen's back was still turned.
"Very nice. Should we, er...?" But before he could finish the sentence, the trees up ahead of them parted, and a new creature came into view. Somehow, Cutter had known all along what it would be. Huge and powerful, its great head almost as familiar to him as his own, it stalked up to the water's edge. The Pteranodon made itself scarce immediately, and the Hesperonychus at Stephen's feet gave a shiver that he felt through his jeans. He had a sudden urge to pick it up and comfort it. If it had seen any of them, the Tyrannosaurus gave no sign. It merely sank its jaws into the water, and took a drink. Nearby, the Alamosaurus began to stir.
"Our giant friend there doesn't look happy," breathed Cutter. "If there's going to be a fight, I'm not sure that we want to be here. Or... we do, obviously. Just not right here."
"We should back off a little at least." Stephen took a step away from the lake, careful not to tread on the Hesperonychus, which whimpered slightly when its covering tree tried to walk away from it. "Ryan won't be impressed if we go far, though."
"Ryan will be a damned sight less impressed if we get ourselves eaten," Cutter told him. "Or flattened by a bloody great sauropod. Make for where the Parasaurolophus are. If we go past them, there's some better cover. Just don't spook them. Hadrosaurs are perfect T. rex bait, and you don't want to be in the middle of a group of them if it takes an interest."
"Right." Stephen bent, catching up the Hesperonychus, and tucking it into the crook of his arm. It continued to tremble, but made no sound. Apparently it was trying to decide whether he or the TyrannosaurusTyrannosaurus finished drinking, and stood back up to its full height, which clearly made up the tiny creature's mind with no further ado. It buried its head in Stephen's jacket, and made no complaint as he began to back away, following Cutter towards the Parasaurolophus.
"You really think that that Alamosaurus is going to challenge it?" Stephen asked, as they edged further along the bank of the lake. Cutter glanced over to where the huge sauropod was standing, its tree trunk legs unexpectedly close by. He had no real idea, but when two huge creatures were near, and at least one of them was beginning to look riled, it made sense to be very careful. Moving as slowly as possible past the family of Parasaurolophus, they began to flatten themselves against the undergrowth as they went, intending to make themselves as invisible as possible. It was not quite invisible enough, however. The Parasaurolophus, already unnerved by the presence of the Tyrannosaurus, began to grumble and fret, and after a moment the babies turned and ran. The sudden movement made the T. rex turn, its huge head staring straight down the bank towards the rest of the creatures. Nearby, other hadrosaurs began to panic; and suddenly in a rush they all turned and fled, stumbling over each other, and tripping over young trees in their panic. The Tyrannosaurus let out a bellow that might have been a sound of glee, before giving chase. Cutter gulped, caught in a moment of indecision.
"Back!" Sensing his confusion, Stephen grabbed him, hauling him backwards into the bushes nearby. They fell through a layer of harsh, spiny twigs and thorns, and the Hesperonychus burrowed further into Stephen's clothing, scattering feathers as it went. A second later the T. rex charged past, head lowered and tail outstretched, its huge feet spraying thick mud up into the air. There was a screech from nearby, and in the murk up ahead, where their vision reached its limit, they saw a Kritosaurus seized by the back of the neck. The Tyrannosaurus gave a flick of its head, and its huge jaws tore the creature's spine in two. It flopped to the ground, blood mingling with the mud, and running down into the lake. The Alamosaurus gave a low, rumbling sound of displeasure, but seemed mollified. Perhaps it was reassured by the fact that the T. rex was now eating. Cutter allowed himself a long, low breath.
"We should get out of here," he said. Stephen nodded, still gazing at the scene just ahead. "Before it decides to go looking for some dessert," emphasised his companion. "And get rid of that Hesperonychus before it takes your hand off."
"Oh." Stephen glanced down at the small dinosaur, which still had its head buried in his jacket. It made no objection when he extracted it and set it down on the ground, but with a shake of its feathers, and a farewell peck at his watch glass, it scuttled away further into the bush. "Sorry. It just looked so desperate."
"At least I have the sense to get attached to herbivores." Cutter smiled, glad of the chance at a little humour. "Come on. Slowly now."
"Right with you." Taking the lead, as he so often did when there was danger about, Stephen parted the side of the bush, and crawled carefully out. The Tyrannosaurus was busy tearing great chunks out of the dead Kritosaurus, and paid no attention to the scrabbling humans. The Alamosaurus grunted at them, but the hadrosaurs all seemed to have disappeared. There was nothing to complain as they hurried back the way that they had come, moving on past their previous position, and further into the undergrowth down the bank. Opposite them, unmoved by the drama that been going on across the water, the Euoplocephalus and the duelling young Pachycephalosaurus were apparently going about their business as normal.
"Ryan must have heard at least some of that," said Stephen, as they made their way further down the bank. "Should we look for him?"
"And risk missing him? No, the best thing to do is to stay undercover until that monster has moved on." Cutter cast a look behind them, but the T. rex was out of sight now, swallowed up by the gloom. The fact that it was invisible was not a comfort. "Hopefully it'll move on once it's finished eating that poor creature. Then we'll be a little more free to move about." He gave a low laugh. "Good grief, man. Look at us. If I look as bad as you, I must be a proper sight."
"No worse than you look most mornings," Stephen told him, reaching out a hand to gesture at the professor's wild hair. The combination of clambering about in a thorny bush, and being splattered with mud by the charging T. rex, had left his dark blond hair in a series of rather excitable-looking spikes. Cutter glared.
"Very funny. You look like you've been fighting with something. There's blood on your head. Did you catch it on those thorns?"
"Maybe." Stephen went down to the water, anxious to wash off any traces of blood. They did not want to risk attracting the Tyrannosaurus, and blood was certainly one possible way to do that. As he stood up again, something nearby caught his eye. It was a creature roughly the size of a dog, clearly mammalian, and covered in dirty brown fur. It was stuck in the mud, and struggling fearfully, its eyes rounded and wide. Obviously it was aware of the presence of the Tyrannosaurus, and afraid of the two humans as well. "Cutter..."
"I see it." The older man approached carefully, anxious for a proper look. "Looks something like a giant squirrel. I can't place it, though."
"Bit hard to tell what it is when it's all covered in mud." Stephen rose up from the water's edge, creeping slowly towards the panicked animal. "Hey, easy there. We'll soon get you out." He held out his hands. "Look, see? No claws."
"I don't think it's interested." Cutter reached out, catching his old friend by the arm. "Best keep back, hey. Don't interfere."
"Cutter, it'll be eaten. That thing is bound to notice it when it's finished its meal, and why not grab a little something extra in passing? If its food is getting as scarce as everything else's, it'd be a fool not to."
"I wouldn't start assigning logical behaviour to a T. rex." Cutter glanced back over his shoulder, sure that they would soon hear the creature's footsteps once again. "Look, we're in the middle of a delicate balancing act here. What if we free it? We could change the whole course of history. Maybe it's supposed to be eaten?"
"Or maybe it's not. If the T. rex doesn't eat it, it'll likely tire soon. Maybe even drown in all this mud. Do you really want to see that happen?" Stephen was edging closer again. "Come on, Cutter. The whole bloody world is dying. Can't we at least see that one thing doesn't? Besides, maybe us doing nothing is what would change history."
"That's a fair point," admitted Cutter. As a scientist he was inclined to believe that one should not interfere, but as an animal lover he had never been a strict adherent to that rule. Being partnered with an environmentalist certainly didn't help.
"Your head or your heart, Cutter," said Stephen. "Which is it?"
"You're a curse, you are." There was warmth in the professor's voice, though, and he began to struggle forward through the mud. "If we all end up being a T. rex's dessert course, I shall hold you responsible."
"Fair enough. Here, give me your hand." Stephen began to edge closer to the trapped mammal. "Best if one of us stays back on firmer ground."
"You're stronger than I am," pointed out Cutter. "Shouldn't you be the anchor?"
"You might not be strong enough to tug that thing free," pointed out his companion, already up to his knees in the mud. "Easy there, boy. Easy."
"It might be a girl," said Cutter immediately. Stephen eyed it critically.
"Can't really say with all this mud. I'll apologise later if I'm wrong." He glanced back. "Anyway, I'm not planning a date with it."
"Just as well. Another five minutes and neither of us is ever going to be dating again." Cutter cast another glance back over his shoulder. He was not sure, but it appeared as though the Alamosaurus was growing restless again. Could the T. rex have finished its meal? Up in the trees, a group of birds took off en masse, flying up into the sky and disappearing from sight. It was not encouraging. "Stephen..."
"Just a few more minutes." His friend had let go of his arm, and had reached the mammal, beginning to haul it out of the mud. Cutter swore.
"I thought I was supposed to be your anchor?" Throwing caution to the wind, he struggled after Stephen, getting a grip on the mammal's back end. "On three?"
"I don't think it can count," Stephen told him. Cutter smiled, although he didn't feel much like humour. He could hear footsteps now, and they were unmistakably heading their way.
"I hope history appreciates this," he said, and bent to the task with greater focus. The mammal moved, its feet scrabbling for better purchase; and a second later, with a flurry of mud and a terrified squeak, it came free, hurtling away from the lake and back up to firmer ground in an instant. Stephen watched it go, eyes bright in a very muddy face.
"I appreciate it," he said, and his voice was heartfelt. "If we can't save everything else, we can at least know that we saved something."
"Right now we'd be better off saving ourselves," Cutter told him, and grabbing a handful of his companion's collar, he hauled him forward. They slipped and slithered in the mud, and Stephen struggled to draw his gun. He had left the rifle behind with the firebrands, and there was no way of telling where it was now. Lost in the mud during the hadrosaur stampede perhaps. Not that it would have been much use against a Tyrannosaurus anyway.
"Stephen, that gun is going to be about as much us as a peashooter," hissed Cutter, as they scrambled up out of the mud. Stephen glanced down at it, hopelessly tiny, and shrugged. It was all that they had. As the T. rex came into view, its head turning left and right in search of something to interest it, he pointed the gun. Where exactly did one aim in order to fight a T. rex? An eye? There was little about its huge body that suggested it might be susceptible to bullets from a small pistol. Especially, he now realised, one that was soaking wet and filled with mud. Cutter pulled him back into the trees. A few rather miserable looking plants might not be much protection against a giant theropod, but it was better than nothing. Out of sight, hopefully, was out of mind.
"One more step..." Cutter wasn't sure if he had spoken the words aloud. They filled his mind, but he was no longer sure if he had breath enough to speak. One more step, and the creature would be past them, and they might then be able to relax. It didn't take the step, however. Instead it stood still, apparently sniffing the air. Stephen's hand went to his head, checking that there was no more blood, but his hand came away clean. That was a relief at least. Nonetheless, the giant predator had sensed something, and as they watched, helpless, it turned its head towards them. Perhaps it could see them through the undergrowth, for it seemed to be looking their way, and Cutter felt his heart still in his chest.
"We could use the cavalry about now," he said, his mouth unexpectedly dry. As though to torment him, a nearby crowd of birds rose up into the air, squawking and screeching in what looked like a show of solidarity towards their gigantic relative. It was the avian equivalent of painting a sign, and with a low rumble of a growl, the T. rex took one small step towards the bushes.
"Make a run for it," said Stephen, his hopeless pistol still in his hand. "I'll hold it off." It was such an absurd offer that it could almost have been an attempt at humour, although he looked grim and serious enough. Cutter was half tempted to laugh, more through fear than genuine amusement, and his hand found his friend's khaki-clad shoulder.
"Aw hell, Stephen. You know I've got a dodgy knee anyway." He smiled a hesitant smile, and after a moment, Stephen returned it. That was that, then, Cutter supposed. Saying goodbye was hardly their style. Snuffling at the air, its tail swishing about, the Tyrannosaurus opened its mouth and screeched, a shockingly bird-like cry that echoed across the lake. Nearby, the already nervous Alamosaurus rumbled its displeasure. The T. rex lashed its tail again, this time striking the surface of the water, and setting up ripples that spread out across the lake. This seemed to be the last straw for the restless creature standing within it, and with a scream that sounded unnervingly human, the Alamosaurus charged. Large and heavy though it was, it possessed unexpected speed, its powerful legs driving it forward through the muddy waters of the lake. The ground shook, and suddenly afraid that they might be about to swap the jaws of the T. rex for the feet of its attacker, Cutter and Stephen scrambled desperately out from the bushes, running blindly out of the path of the furious beast. The Tyrannosaurus saw them, its great head turning in their direction, lowering as though to charge. Another shriek from the Alamosaurus changed its mind, however, and it swung back to look, the furious sauropod alarming even it. A low growl rumbled around the lakeside, but even the T. rex apparently had no intention of meeting the Alamosaurus head on. It turned and ran, the undergrowth tearing apart as it hurtled though. The Alamosaurus gave chase for several moments, bellowing in a mixture of anger and primal fear, before gradually coming to a halt. It stared after the T. rex, its too thin flanks rising and falling in a series of unsteady gasps. A moment later its head turned, and it began to graze on the tops of the bushes. Cutter let out a long, low sigh of abject relief.
"Palaeontology never used to be this dangerous," he groaned, and sank rather uncomfortably to the ground. He was suddenly very, very tired, and it was pleasant to close his eyes for a moment. The ground upon which he was sprawled was hardly dry, but given the mess that he was already in, he didn't think that a little extra mud was going to make a lot of difference. Stephen smiled.
"Go ahead and get some sleep if you want. I think we're safe enough here. I'll keep watch."
"Don't bother. If anything big comes, I'm too tired to run anyway." All the same, Cutter had not actually intended to fall asleep. He realised that he must have dozed off, however, for when he next opened his eyes the world was unmistakably darker - and there was a small, furry creature sitting on his chest. It squeaked in a panic when he moved, and he smiled at it in drowsy confusion.
"Hello there." It gave a start, doing an impressive job of trying to hide behind the small grub that it was holding in its mouth. The professor felt almost guilty for having disturbed it. "Stephen," he said, looking towards his companion. "Am I still asleep, or is there a Cimolestes sitting on top of me?"
"There's something, yes." Stephen sounded amused. "I'll have to take your word on what it is, though."
"Poor thing. You'll hurt its feelings." Cutter tried out a reassuring smile, but the small creature did not seem impressed. "Ignore him," he told it, with a flash of restored humour. "He probably doesn't think you're glamorous enough." The Cimolestes, as though taking offence, promptly fled, and Cutter propped himself up on his elbows to look around. All about, small creatures had broken cover, taking advantage of the crushed vegetation to grab an easy meal. One hopped up onto his leg, its mouth full of shredded leaves.
"I think it's trying to say that it's good to be alive," said Stephen, and scattering the small creatures left and right, he hauled his old friend to his feet. "For the time being, at any rate."
"For the time being is all that any of us can count on." Cutter smiled at him, turning his head to look away into the distance. The Tyrannosaurus had long vanished into the murk of course, but this time its invisibility did not bother him. He was sure enough that it would have run some distance away. "How long was I asleep?"
"Not that long. It's a bit hard to tell." Stephen held up his wrist, showing his companion a decidedly mangled looking watch. "A parting gift from that Hesperonychus."
"Ah." Cutter suddenly found that he couldn't stop smiling. "Still, it's not every day that your watch gets eaten by a dinosaur." Stephen nodded.
"And it's not every day that your life is saved by a stampeding Alamosaurus, for that matter," he said. Cutter laughed.
"I'm not sure that one on its own is exactly a stampede. But no, that's certainly one for the memoirs." His smile grew more melancholy. "And we saved a life too. That counts for something, I think. Maybe there's nothing that we can do for the dinosaurs, but it just goes to show - it isn't really the end of the whole world."
"No. No, I know it isn't. These little fellows here are proof, I suppose." The small creatures had recovered from their shock, and were clambering about the place again, eager to capitalise on the mess made by the panicked Tyrannosaurus. One or two were small dinosaurs, brightly-coloured, feathered and strange, destined perhaps to be forever unknown to science. Some were mammals, however. Inspired to come forth now that there were fewer large animals around, they scuttled about in the debris. They were timid and ruffled, mud-splattered and drear, and they looked nothing like the future rulers of a planet. One, a mouse-like creature that Cutter was fairly sure was a Purgatorius, gave an experimental tug on one of Stephen's shoelaces. He glared at it.
"Is it rude to kick your ancestors?"
"Stephen!" Cutter laughed, the sound making the animals stare up at him in interest. "You'd no more kick an animal than I'd..." He glanced up, the glow of approaching light making him smile both in amusement and in relief, "than I'd run up there and throw myself at Captain Ryan."
"I sense that I've entered this conversation at the wrong point." Rounding a large clump of bushes, Ryan stood at the top of a small rise, staring down at the two decidedly rumpled scientists. He was holding a flaming torch, the light of which was extremely welcome, and his face bore its familiar expression of soldierly reserve. "Where the bloody hell have you been?"
"Long story, captain." Scattering hungry mammals and small, feathered dinosaurs as he went, Cutter began to climb somewhat awkwardly up the bank. It was wet and muddy, and the departing Tyrannosaurus had left an impressive mess in its wake, which did nothing to make the going any easier. Stephen went to help him in the end, and they were both laughing when they eventually neared the top. Ryan rolled his eyes.
"I suppose I shouldn't ask." He sounded distinctly long-suffering, which was, thought Stephen, somewhat unfair. They hadn't really known each other for that long, after all. After a moment the soldier smiled, however, and offered a hand to pull Cutter up alongside him. "It's good to see you," he said, in what might have been faintly grudging tones. "We heard one hell of a racket. I was almost worried."
"Almost?" asked Cutter. Ryan's smile broadened.
"Yeah, well. You have to think about the paperwork." He pointed an accusing finger at Stephen, as the younger man scrambled up the last of the slope. "But you're a different matter. You lost your rifle, Hart. A good soldier never loses his rifle."
"I'm not a soldier," pointed out Stephen, not unreasonably. Ryan glared.
"I'll expect a full report later." He smiled again, and banged the other man on the back. "Come on. Smoky's got the bloody thing. What would your lot back in the twenty-first century have made of that fossilised in the middle of your wretched Mesozoic strata-whatnots?"
"I'm sure it would have pleased the Creationists, anyway," said Cutter, then smiled, and gestured along the bank. "Come on. We've got miles to walk yet, and I'm hungry. Nearly being eaten by a T. rex gives you an appetite."
"Nearly being...?" Ryan's eyes widened. "Is that another of your tall tales? For pity's sake. That's the last time I'm leaving you two alone. You're more trouble than Connor bloody Temple." He pointed to where Smoky had just come into view, somehow managing to balance a fire stick and a pair of rifles, and still look ready for action. "March."
"Marching." Cutter fell into step alongside Stephen, dripping mud as he went, a curious feeling stirring in his chest. He had stood alongside dinosaurs in their natural habitat; he had been witness to their everyday lives. As a palaeontologist it awed him; as a human it made his head swim. He wanted to smile at the thought of it all; he wanted to think about all that he had seen, and revel in it properly. As they walked, however, and they passed the dead bodies once again, he knew that he could not be truly happy. Not when the creatures he had stood alongside so recently would soon all be gone.
It was a slow walk back to the camp. Ryan was worried about the possibility of further appearances from the Tyrannosaurus, although Cutter assured him that it had gone in the opposite direction. Nonetheless they were careful, the decreased light making all of them a little edgy. As it turned out, they met very little on the return journey, however. A young Torosaurus busy gnawing at a gnarled old walnut tree glowered at them as they approached, but made no real objection when they stopped to gather some of the nuts. It seemed more wary of their fire than it was of them, although when Cutter attempted to take its photograph with Stephen's mobile, it made a half-hearted attempt to eat the phone. Beyond that they saw nothing but a solitary Alphadon, scuttling about with its fur ruffled up against the cold, foraging for insects in what remained of the vegetation. Smoky eyed it suspiciously.
"Is that a rat?" he asked. Cutter shook his head.
"Not really. Anyway, it's cuter than a rat."
"Rats are pretty cute," said Stephen, and threw one of the walnuts at the creature. It snatched it up off the ground, then ran away to eat it in private. "All rodents are."
"You wouldn't think that if you'd slept in some of the places we have," said Smoky with feeling. Cutter smiled across at him.
"Try inadvertently sharing your tent with a hungry Capybara. Although to be fair, they really are cute. Helen didn't look too impressed, though."
"Actually, I thought at first that it was Helen," put in Stephen. Cutter laughed a little at that.
"At any rate, rodents are a fascinating group of animals. You should try to get to know them a little better, corporal."
"Maybe." Smoky sounded extremely doubtful, which clearly amused Ryan.
"Trapped in a world of giant carnivorous lizards, and it's rats that he's worried about. You're lucky that these two have signed the Official Secrets Act, sunshine. Otherwise you'd be bringing the British Army into disrepute."
"It's the whiskers," said Smoky. "Them and those tails. At least with a T. rex you've only got to worry about the teeth."
"Speaking from recent experience," Cutter told him, "the teeth are more than enough. If it hadn't been for one very angry Alamosaurus, Stephen and I would have got rather too well acquainted with those teeth."
"He's about to regret not having been able to get one for closer study," said Ryan immediately. Cutter, who had already opened his mouth as though to continue, abruptly closed it again.
"Well it is a shame," he said in the end. Ryan laughed.
"Another day, professor," he said, clapping the older man on the shoulder. "Another anomaly."
"We've got to escape from this one first," pointed out Smoky. Ryan shrugged.
"Well if we stay here then there's even more opportunities to collect teeth, aren't there." He glanced up at the sky. "Come on now, folks. I've had enough of tramping about in the dark. It's long past due that we were back."
The campfire welcomed them long before any of their companions. Big and bright, it lit up the horizon, and encouraged them all to walk faster. By the time that they reached the camp, they had collected a small honour guard of soldiers, cheerfully detailing another attack from a band of Ryanosaurus. They had cooked a second, and it was over a meal of walnuts and roasted dinosaur that the little band of explorers related some of their adventures. Pressed into it by Smoky, Cutter told the tale of their encounter with the Tyrannosaurus, although his heart was not really in it. His mind kept being drawn to the Parasaurolophus, and particularly the babies. None of it seemed a matter for rowdy fireside chat. When the story came to its end, Ryan shook his head.
"I distinctly remember telling you both to be careful," he said. Cutter smiled a little, his mind drawn back over all that he had seen.
"It wasn't all bad," he affirmed, somewhat sleepily. Neither he nor Stephen had mentioned their rescue of the small creature that had been stuck in the mud. Somehow, by unspoken agreement, they had decided to keep it between themselves. Ryan looked sceptical.
"I'd rate nearly being eaten as fairly high on the list of bad things. Still, we'll save that argument for another time. We've walked for miles and we need some rest, or we're going to be good for nothing. Winchester?"
"Sir?" The sergeant was seated nearby, clearly in charge of maintaining the fire.
"Wake us in a few hours, or if something tries to eat us. In the meantime, try to keep this lot quiet for a bit. I could sleep for a week."
"Sir." Winchester repeated the order for silence at such volume that it rather negated itself. "Don't worry. Quiet as mice, us."
"Yeah," muttered Ryan, settling himself down on the hard ground. "Giant prehistoric mice. And nobody tell me there's no such thing."
"Please do," put in Smoky. Stephen smiled.
"Stick around here for long enough, and you never know what you might find. Sleep well, though, hey." A stone's throw away, Smoky began to settle down, and appeared to give no answer. He said something, however, as he lay back and closed his eyes. To the soldiers scattered around, it sounded like a rather resigned "Bastard."
In later years, Cutter was never sure what had woken him first - Stephen's hand on his shoulder, gently shaking him, or the faint glimmer of gold and silver light far away to his left. He raised his head, blinking uncertainly in the infernal twilight, and felt a strange, unfamiliar stillness in his chest at the sight of the anomaly. It was the sensation of repressed hope, perhaps; a hope that he dared not feel.
"When did it appear?" he asked, struggling to his feet. He still felt tired, the few hours of sleep not nearly enough after everything that had preceded it. Ryan answered, busy making sure that everything had been collected up.
"About ninety seconds ago. We're pretty on the ball, professor. Get that fire stamped out, somebody. Hart, make sure that you and the professor have all of your things."
"Right." Stephen took off on his errand immediately, the borrowed rifle in his hand looking strangely natural already. Cutter had visions of him trying to patrol the university with it, and had to bite back a rather inappropriate laugh.
"Is Winchester all right to travel?" he asked. Ryan nodded.
"Bearing in mind that--" Cutter broke off. Morale was important, of course, but he had to voice his concern, just in case there was a chance that nobody else had considered it. Ryan, already busy once again in directing his men, glanced back briefly.
"What?" he asked. Cutter's eyes drifted back towards the anomaly.
"We don't know where it leads," he pointed out. "We could get back over there, and find ourselves looking straight into the Permian, or the Devonian - or even, God forbid, somewhere in the Pre-Cambrian."
"Or we might get home," said Ryan. He sounded, as ever, calm and collected. "Don't worry, I had thought about it. We're not going to just leap blindly through. There could be anything on the other side of there. Deep sea, rivers of lava, an Ice Age." He smiled. "I do occasionally do some research, you know."
"Sorry." Cutter smiled too, somewhat bashfully, but if he had thought that Ryan might have been offended, he was wrong. With a brief, almost comradely slap on the professor's shoulder, the captain was off again, barking orders and generally harassing his men. A second later Stephen returned, carrying both rucksacks and the dead Ryanosaurus specimen.
"You got the camera?" he asked. Cutter put a hand to his pocket, and nodded.
"And your phone."
"That's okay. I'm not expecting any calls." They both smiled, although the joke had not been an especially strong one. "Cutter?"
"Yes?" Taking his pack, and the dead dinosaur, Cutter struggled into the former.
"Do you think that that anomaly really is the way home?"
"It's appeared in the same place as the other one."
"That's not really an answer."
"No, I know it isn't."
"If it isn't the right one, should we go through anyway?"
"Precisely what I've been wondering. If we stay here, is there still a chance that the anomaly we want will reappear, or should we just take our chances in another time zone? Perhaps a less dangerous one."
"A lack of dinosaurs doesn't necessarily make the world safer," pointed out Stephen. Cutter nodded.
"We could run into anything, even very close to our own time; and goodness knows there are threats enough if we go back further than this."
"Thinking up more difficulties, professor?" Ryan was striding up, a flaming torch held aloft. It was all that remained of the fire now. "Is pessimism a Scottish thing, or are all scientists like you?"
"It's a Scottish thing," said Stephen immediately, neatly stepping out of the way in case Cutter chose to retaliate. Instead the professor merely glared, and threw him the Ryanosaurus.
"Here. I've decided that you can carry this."
"Fair enough." Careful to be sure that he was still ready for action with the rifle even with one hand now full of dead dinosaur, Stephen looked over to Ryan. "We ready to move out?"
"Yeah." Ryan raised a hand. "All right, people. March. Just don't get over-excited and forget to keep your eyes peeled."
"Yes sir!" came a ragged chorus. Moments later, holding Winchester high above them, they began to move forward, following their own footsteps back towards the anomaly. Ryan called a halt when they neared it, and went on alone.
"Be careful," Cutter called after him. Ryan waved a hand in answer, advancing at a steady speed with his gun levelled. All of the men behind him were watching him intently, and as he stepped forward to put his head through the bright light, he was almost sure that he could hear them collectively take a sharp breath.
Back in the twenty-first century, meanwhile, Abby was not having one of her better days. Tired and strung out, and having drunk far too many cups of Army-issue coffee, she felt quite ready to go mad. Only the companionable Lyons kept her from doing so, chattering cheerfully whenever her mood began to worsen. He had a remarkable ability to find sandwiches for her on a regular basis, and didn't seem to mind in the slightest when her patience gave way, and she snapped at him. She kept wanting to apologise, but rather got the impression that it wasn't needed. He took everything in his stride; right up until the moment when the anomaly returned. Abby was dozing in Cutter and Stephen's huge Hilux, which she had had a soldier bring into the valley in case there was anything amongst its piles of arcane equipment that might help to detect a returning anomaly. There was nothing, she had quickly found - nothing save mountaineering equipment, notebooks, and an inordinate amount of chocolate wrappers. Had she not been so worried, she might have been charmed by the quaintly amateurish nature of their operation. As it was, when a loud whoop sounded out from close by, she merely became exasperated by the tent poles that jabbed her in the back of the head when she sat up too quickly.
"What's going on?" she asked, still half asleep, and vaguely expecting to find herself still in the middle of a Triceratops invasion. She was greeted instead by an anomaly, and by the sight of a very happy Lyons grinning at her through the windscreen. She clambered out of the 4x4, and tried not to gape.
"When did it-- How long-- Has anybody-?"
"How about you finish at least one question?!" Lyons slung an arm around her shoulders. "Just now, and no. Stay back, just in case. We're going to send a team in to see what's going on."
"Yes, of course." She hung back, watching as a group of soldiers lined up in front of the anomaly. She wanted to go with them, but she knew that it made sense to let them go first. A second later, however, the situation resolved itself, when Captain's Ryan's head suddenly appeared in the middle of the anomaly; a blinking, puzzled-looking image, set about with shining squares of broken light. The soldiers gaped at him, and one of the men stepped forward, presumably to welcome him back. Ryan had already gone, however, vanished back into the light.
"Ryan?" said Abby, running forward. Somebody caught her arm to hold her back.
"Not just yet, miss. Keep it clear. They'll probably be coming through." Sure enough, a moment later came the small procession of lost soldiers, two of them carrying a third on an improvised litter. A cheer went up from the men who had stayed behind, and seconds later the wounded man was being carried away with great ceremony towards the team's garrulous medic. Ryan had not reappeared, however, and there was still no sign of Cutter and Stephen. Once again, Abby moved forward, closer to the anomaly.
"Where are they?" she asked, to nobody in particular. Lyons answered, a hand resting gently on her shoulder.
"The captain is with them. They'll be fine," he said, apparently with all confidence. "They've probably just stopped for one last look around."
"Yes, I suppose." Nonetheless, she couldn't relax. What if the anomaly disappeared again? How long would they be lost for then? On the other side of the portal, Captain Ryan was wondering much the same thing.
"Come on, you two. Time to move out." His men were all through. Only Cutter and Stephen remained now, standing looking back at the darkened world. Cutter nodded briefly, but he showed no sign of hurrying. On the contrary, his face bore the reflective look of a man in danger of becoming poetic.
"Time to go," he said after a moment. "Strangely hard, isn't it." Ryan bit back a very simple answer.
"Harder than I thought." Stephen waved an arm out into the darkness, a gesture that stood for many words. "I keep thinking about your dratted baby Parasaurolophus. And that Alamosaurus. Cutter--"
"No," said Ryan, stepping forward abruptly. "Whatever the question was going to be, the answer's no." He sighed, feeling distinctly out of his depth when faced with a pair of all too human scientists. "Look, I get it. You've spent your lives studying these animals, and now you're standing here at the end of it all, and I suppose that pretty much sucks. Maybe it would be good to save them, but you both know that it isn't possible. It's over. They've already been dead for sixty-five million years." He made no attempt to soften his voice. "And you both know that if they weren't, none of us are likely to have existed. So turn about, the pair of you, and get back to our world. Don't make me make it an order."
"Very well put, captain." Cutter smiled slightly, glancing back at him. "Just for the record, though, we don't actually have any intention of staying."
"Oh." Ryan frowned slightly. "You don't?"
"We're not quite that daft." The professor's eyes drifted back to Stephen, a teasing glint lighting them briefly. "Well, I'm not. We were just taking a moment to think, that's all."
"Right." Ryan looked slightly embarrassed. "Sorry."
"Don't worry about it. I know what it must have looked like." Cutter glanced around once again at the landscape. "I just... I just wish..." The sentence remained unfinished, but as it faded into silence, Stephen smiled anyway.
"I know," he said. "Me too." He shivered then, pulling his thin jacket more closely around him. "Getting cold, isn't it."
"Everywhere." Cutter looked up at the sky, still wishing his impossible wish. "Come on. Let's go home."
"Yeah." Beside him, Stephen lowered his head for a moment, staring down at the ground. The tracks of the Triceratops herd were still visible there, criss-crossing over each other as they stretched off into the horizon. Footsteps into infinity. He sighed. "Be a bit bloody silly to get stuck here again, anyway."
"And unless I'm very much mistaken, we have bottle of whisky to finish."
"Yeah." This time Stephen's smile was broader, brighter, although his eyes were still rather sad. "Okay, Ryan. We're coming."
"Good." Sometimes, Ryan was sure, he came back from these trips into the past with noticeably greyer hair; and it was nothing to do with dodging flesh-eating monsters. Ushering the scientists forward, he took up the rear, shepherding his forever awkward flock back to the Holocene. Behind them, back in the dark world of the Cretaceous, everything was still. Everything save a lone, tiny mammal, feeding on the body of the Edmontosaurus.
It was bright back in the twenty-first century. The sun was shining, and the feel of it on his skin seemed to Cutter to be the finest thing in the world. All the same, there was a heaviness inside him that he knew no amount of warmth could entirely dispel. Abby ran over to give him a quick, impulsive hug, and he returned it along with a genuine, if distant, smile.
"Hello there, Abby."
"Is everything all right?" she asked. "One of the soldiers was hurt...?"
"He's okay. A broken leg." The professor summoned a more cheerful expression. "He and Stephen went up against a Quetzalcoatlus."
"Is that bad?" she asked. He laughed.
"Ask Connor. And speaking of which..."
"Oh, he's fine. Strangely excited about having been almost trampled by a herd of Triceratops, and sulking that he can't blog about it." She smiled. "He's still stuck in hospital, actually. He wasn't allowed to drive himself home, and we've all been here."
"Go to him." Cutter glanced back at Stephen, who was standing with a group of the soldiers. Smoky was the centre of attention, gesturing every so often at the young scientist, and no doubt telling some tall tale. "You've got your car?"
"Yes. You're sure you don't need any help here?"
"There's nothing for me to do now. It's the soldiers' job to tidy up, and wait for the anomaly to fade." He smiled, seeing that her eyes too were straying to Stephen. "Thank you for waiting here for us. We appreciate it. Both of us do."
"I was hardly going to go off and leave you, was I." She reached out for his hand, giving it a quick squeeze. "I'm just glad that you're all right. All of you."
"So am I." He looked down at her, eyes crinkling in the corners as he smiled his first proper smile since returning. "Go on, clear off out of here. Get yourself a proper meal, and liberate that poor boy. I'll pass on your good wishes to Stephen."
"Thanks. I should be getting back to Rex, too. He'll be all lonely." Her eyes drifted one last time to Stephen, a faint trace of regret showing in the back of them, then she smiled and turned to leave. Cutter watched her as she went back up out of the valley, following the path that they had taken earlier, when they had come down to gaze at the Triceratops herd. He smiled at the memory, then turned back to see where his assistant had got to. Stephen was still with the soldiers, the little gaggle of men looking more orderly now as Ryan went over to join them.
"Winchester is on his way to hospital," the captain announced as he arrived. "You're welcome to visit, but please go in small groups. I don't want any more scrums in hospital corridors. I wind up getting phone calls from irate nurses."
"I think I'd quite like an irate nurse," piped up a young soldier. There was a rowdy chorus of approval from the others, and Ryan held up a hand for silence.
"All right, all right. That's enough of that. We've still got work to do." He looked over at Stephen. "Listen, we have some things to do here yet, but we'll be going to the pub later. There's a little one not far from here. You're welcome to join us. I reckon the boys would like it."
"Thanks." Stephen sounded as though he meant it. "If you don't mind though, I'd better take a rain check. Term starts again on Monday, and Cutter and I seem to have spent the entire summer chasing dinosaurs around the Home Counties. You have no idea how much paperwork we need to get done."
"If there's one thing your lot and mine have in common, it's paperwork," Ryan told him. "I understand. I meant what I said back there, though. About you joining us for some exercises."
"Sure." Stephen nodded in understanding. "I've always got my phone on me. When Cutter hasn't stolen it to take photographs of things, anyway." He handed over his borrowed rifle. "There you go. I don't think the university would like it much if I kept this."
"Probably not a good idea, no." Ryan smiled. "See you around, then. Probably sooner rather than later." He raised his voice to be sure to include Cutter in the conversation. "Try to stay out of trouble in the meantime."
"We'll do our best, captain," Cutter assured him. Stephen smiled, going over to join his old friend, and shedding Ryanosaurus feathers all the way. Cutter eyed the corpse ruefully.
"We need to get that thing on ice before it decomposes any further. As it is we're going to have feathers all over the blasted car."
"It'll be all right." Stephen climbed into the back of the Hilux, wrapping the dead dinosaur in a sheet of tarpaulin. "We can stick it in your fridge overnight."
"We can't exactly store it at the university, can we. And my fridge is hardly going to be big enough."
"Sometimes I hate your logic." They shared a smile, before Cutter glanced back towards the soldiers. "Listen, I can manage, you know. Might do you some good to go out for a drink."
"No. Not today. Besides, you're half asleep, and no way do I trust you to drive just at the moment." Jumping down from the back of the car, Stephen pulled open the driver's door, climbing into the cabin. "Come on, saddle up. I'll do the paperwork, and you can sort those photographs out. You'd better have got some good shots of that T. rex. Goodness knows we were close enough to it."
"I was hardly thinking about photography at the time." Cutter's eyes widened slightly. "Bloody hell, Stephen. We were so close, I swear I saw its throat muscles twitch."
"Yeah." Stephen's tone of voice turned somewhat sheepish. "I think we could both do with a holiday after that little adventure."
"Amen to that." Going around to the passenger door, Cutter cast one last look back at the anomaly. It looked so quiet and beautiful, so bright and alluring. It was strange to think that on the other side of it an entire world was coming to an end - and here was he thinking about a new term at the university, and a new crowd of freshers to clutter up the corridors. He climbed up to sit beside Stephen.
"Oh, screw the paperwork," he said, as he buckled up his seatbelt. "Let's just go and crack open that whisky."
"There is quite a lot of it," said Stephen with some amusement, and switched on the engine, beginning to coast the big vehicle away towards the road. Cutter smiled.
"Paperwork or whisky?"
"I was thinking about the paperwork, but now you mention it, it's not exactly a small bottle. You mentioned finishing it. That could take the best part of the night."
"Aye." Cutter's voice faded to little more than a whisper, as his eyes drifted toward the sparkle of golden light in their rear-view mirror. "And maybe beyond that. We're entitled. We've got a lot of old friends to drink to."