Harsh cries and the leathery flap of wings.
Blood on her hands, on her clothes.
Her distorted reflection in a mirror, flying apart as she watched.
A loud roar and a mouth full of teeth, right in front of her…
With a gasp, Claudia awoke, alone, in the darkness of her bedroom.
“You look like you could do with this more than me, Miss Brown.”
A polystyrene cup of coffee was shoved under Claudia’s nose, and she looked up to see that it was being held by Captain Ryan. Briefly, she thought about refusing the offering, but then as another yawn threatened to surface, she took the cup and swallowed a grateful mouthful of the bitter, black beverage.
“Thank you,” she said. “And please, call me Claudia.”
Ryan ignored her admonition, instead assessing her with sharp grey eyes. “Are you feeling all right, Miss Brown?”
“Oh, I haven’t been sleeping well, that’s all,” she replied. “Bad dreams.” Then she wondered why she was telling Ryan this. Although she supposed it wasn’t really that much different from telling Cutter, as she had done in his office that morning.
“Not surprising, on this job,” Ryan said, his expression sympathetic, but also showing a trace of humour.
“I suppose not.” Claudia took another mouthful of coffee, and looked around at the frantic preparations that were taking place between the trees. The rest of Ryan’s men were busily and efficiently getting all the kit together, while Connor got in the way, and Abby tried to keep him out from under their feet. Cutter, Stephen and Lester were having a quiet debate off to one side, and Helen was standing near the anomaly, surveying everything much as Claudia was, only with a faint smirk on her face.
Claudia felt herself bristle as she looked at the other woman. As always, Helen Cutter exuded an air of smug superiority, of possessing information that others didn’t. Although she’d claimed not to know where the future anomaly leading from the Permian was, Claudia was suddenly very sure that she did know more than she was letting on, despite her protestations of wanting to help.
“This is a bad idea,” Claudia said quietly, almost to herself.
However, she’d forgotten the looming presence of Captain Ryan. “Miss Brown?”
Claudia debated just brushing him off and keeping her concerns to herself. But somehow, she knew Ryan wouldn’t mock her, and she couldn’t just let them all walk blithely off into the unknown without saying something.
“I’ve just got a really bad feeling about this,” she said. “I think this is a mistake. You shouldn’t go.”
“We’ll be careful, don’t worry,” Ryan told her. He cast a dark look at Helen. “And I’ll be keeping a special eye on her.”
Claudia knew that was the best she was going to get. She hadn’t really thought she’d be able to persuade Ryan, or anyone, not to follow through on the plan. At least someone else recognised the danger that Helen Cutter posed to them. Even if Ryan’s reassurances didn’t completely dispel the concern roiling inside her.
Cutter raised his voice suddenly. “I think it’s time we got going.”
“That’s my cue,” Ryan said. He placed a warm, gloved hand on Claudia’s shoulder briefly, making her blink at him in surprise. “Don’t worry,” said again. “We’ll be back before you know it.”
Claudia nodded, and then followed him over to the anomaly, stopping by Lester and keeping her expression strictly professional as she watched Ryan, Cutter, Helen and the others disappear into the past.
Pacing up and down was achieving nothing, but Claudia couldn’t seem to stop. She felt like she should be doing a better job of monitoring the situation, now that Lester had retreated back to the car that was parked some way down the forest track (it wouldn’t do to let his suit get damp and dirty, would it?), but in truth, there wasn’t much of a situation to monitor.
They were all just waiting, casting anxious looks at the anomaly when they thought no one else would notice, and trying not to assume the worse.
Claudia realised that Stephen, Connor and Abby had gone into a small huddle. Connor was on the phone, while Stephen and Abby looked on impatiently, asking questions that Claudia couldn’t quite hear. She was just about to stir herself to go over to them and ask what was going on when the anomaly pulsed suddenly, attracting everyone’s attention.
She hurried towards the group. “What happened?” she demanded.
Connor looked uncertain. “I’m not sure.”
“Did you see something?”
Stephen gave her a sideways glance. “Nothing.”
Connor pulled out his compass and moved towards the anomaly, holding it out in front of him.
“Is the anomaly getting weaker?” Claudia asked, voicing one of her primary fears. If it was, she and Lester would have to decide whether they could risk sending more men through to retrieve Cutter and the others. She wasn’t looking forward to that conversation at all.
“No. No change.”
Connor’s response should have been reassuring, but somehow it wasn’t. Claudia turned to him. “Who were you talking to on the phone just now?” she asked. “Do you have some new information?”
Connor glanced at Stephen and Abby before replying. “It was the lab, with the results of the autopsy on the predator Cutter killed…” he began.
Half an hour later, and they were still waiting. Claudia was now thinking longingly of the warm, dry interior of Lester’s car herself, but she didn’t feel like she could leave the anomaly site. Something was telling her she needed to stay here, even though it could be hours before the team returned.
Upon finding out from Connor that the dead predator was a male, and that there was likely another, female, one in the picture, Claudia had called Lester, dragging him back to the clearing for the hoped-to-be-avoided debate about sending backup after the others. Unsurprisingly, Lester had vetoed the idea, stating that they couldn’t be certain whether they had just missed the female predator going through the anomaly, and even if it had been, no backup team would be able to reach the others in time to help anyway.
His attitude rankled, but while neither she nor the others liked it, Claudia had to admit that he had a point.
Of course, that didn’t make the waiting any easier.
She had started pacing again, backwards and forwards across the clearing. It was something to do, after all.
However, as she passed the stump where Abby was sitting, she stumbled a little, a small wave of dizziness sweeping over her.
Abby was on her feet immediately. “Claudia? Are you all right?”
“It’s nothing,” Claudia waved her away. “I’m just tired.”
But then another, stronger, wave of dizziness overtook her, and she swayed where she stood.
Dimly, she was aware that Abby was reaching out towards her. But the other woman wasn’t quite quick enough.
Black spots danced in front of her eyes, and Claudia felt herself falling.
It seemed to take a long time to reach the ground.
When she woke up, it took her a moment to realise she was still in the forest. She stared up at the leafy branches above her, struggling to gather her thoughts but feeling strangely peaceful.
It wasn’t until it occurred to her to wonder why she was still in the forest that she forced herself to sit up and look around for the people who had apparently deemed it okay to leave her lying unconscious in the dirt.
But there was no one there.
The clearing was completely empty except for her and the still open anomaly. There was no Stephen, no Connor, no Abby, not even Lester. There were no soldiers, no vehicles, and no equipment.
It was as if they’d never been there.
Claudia dragged herself to her feet. She felt light-headed again for a moment, but then it passed, and she was able to look around properly.
There was definitely no one else here.
“Hello?” she called tentatively, feeling a little silly.
No answer, as she had expected.
This was ridiculous. The others wouldn’t just go off and leave her. Maybe this was another one of the weird, unsettling dreams that had been plaguing her sleep lately. Maybe she was still unconscious, and was actually in the back of an ambulance on her way to hospital.
Wake up, she thought fiercely at herself, but unsurprisingly, that didn’t provide any result either.
Maybe something had happened to the others.
That idea froze her for a moment, but then she gave herself a little shake and dismissed it. An attack by the female future predator – the most likely candidate, after all – didn’t explain where all the vehicles and equipment had gone. It also didn’t explain why she was still alive. Unconscious and vulnerable, she would have made the perfect target.
Claudia turned in a slow circle, ending up facing the anomaly. It looked perfectly innocent, and rather beautiful, sparkling softly under the trees, but to Claudia it represented worry and danger.
However, right now, it also represented hope.
She couldn’t say why she started to move towards it. Yes, Cutter and the others were still on the other side, in the Permian, but they were hardly her best hope of getting herself out of this, admittedly extremely odd, situation. On this side of the anomaly she wasn’t actually all that far from civilisation. It would be a bit of a walk, but she was sure she could make it to the nearest village, or even one the visitor centres scattered throughout the forest. Then she could find out what had happened to the others.
But still her feet carried her towards the anomaly, only stopping when she was right in front of it.
She reached out, and let some of the swirling shards of light drift past her fingertips. She couldn’t decide if she was imagining the tingling sensation on her skin or not. Cutter and Stephen and Ryan had all described the sensation of going through the anomalies as strange, but had been unable to articulate it further than that.
She should leave, go and find help, and an explanation. There was nothing she could do to help Cutter and the others, and she had no way to protect herself in the Permian while she tried to find them.
Claudia stepped through the anomaly.
The Permian sun was bright, the glare of it adding a surreal tint to the harsh, rocky landscape Claudia found herself in. Everything seemed to shimmer, dream-like, and she felt like she could simply reach out and touch trees and mountains that she knew to be many miles off.
She paused for a moment, and looked her fill. The anomaly was right behind her, offering a way back if she wanted it – a return to civilisation and normality.
But no, she reminded herself. Things weren’t normal back there any more. And there was some kind of inexorable impulse pulling her forward, no matter that this place was as dangerous as it was possible to be, in every conceivable way
Claudia took one final glance back at the anomaly, and then started walking. Cutter had said that the campsite they had found during their very first trip through the anomaly was to the east, and Claudia decided that that was where she would go first. She knew that the team had meant to start their search for the future anomaly there.
Looking ahead, she could see the ridge that must be where the campsite was located, only a few miles away. Hopefully it wouldn’t take her that long to get there.
It didn’t. In fact, it seemed like no time at all before the ground started to rise in front of her, and she knew she must be getting close.
She’d kept her eyes peeled for dangers the whole time – she remembered vividly how frightening the gorgonopsid had been, after all, and now it would be in its own habitat – but nothing approached her. The entire landscape seemed strangely deserted. There weren’t even any of the herds of scutosaurus or flocks of coelurosauravus that Cutter had described previously.
It wasn’t until she finally found the campsite that she came across another living creature. And even though he was one of the people she had been trying to find, he still wasn’t necessarily what she had expected.
Sitting on a rock under a tree, completely alone, was Captain Ryan.
He looked up as she approached, expression calm. “Hello, Miss Brown.”
“Claudia,” she corrected automatically, before realising that that was the least of her concerns. “Where are the others?”
“I don’t know.” Ryan didn’t seem all that bothered by this, and Claudia knew she should be concerned. And yet, for some reason it didn’t really seem odd that they were the only two people here.
“I’m not sure.”
Claudia made an effort to pull herself together. “Why don’t you start at the beginning, Captain,” she said sternly.
Her tone of voice seemed to shake Ryan out of whatever stupor he’d allowed himself to sink into, and he suddenly looked a lot more awake.
“Well, after we came through the anomaly we made our way straight here,” Ryan began. “We were setting up camp when Professor Cutter realised that our campsite was the one we’d seen before, and that we were in fact creating our own past.”
“Okay.” It was possibly a little worrying that that made perfect sense to Claudia.
“Then, with no warning, a future predator turned up. It went straight to the babies and opened the crate. I tried to shoot it, and the last thing I remember is it coming straight at me, and then a whole lot of pain and Cutter crouching over me. The next thing I know, I’m waking up, perfectly fine, but everyone else is gone.”
“A similar thing happened to me, only minus the future predator,” Claudia told him, and explained how she’d collapsed and then awoken to find the clearing completely deserted. “Going through the anomaly just seemed like the right thing to do somehow,” she finished. “Perhaps I was meant to come and find you.” She hesitated, and then voiced the thought she’d had as soon as Ryan had mentioned being attacked. “Do you think we’re…dead?”
“Well, if this is the afterlife, then I want my money back,” Ryan replied, displaying another flash of humour.
Claudia laughed, surprising herself, and Ryan smiled.
“I honestly don’t have a clue what’s going on,” he said. “Do you think you were dying when you collapsed?”
“It didn’t feel like I was,” replied Claudia. “I just felt a bit dizzy, and then I was falling.”
“I don’t think we should jump to any conclusions,” said Ryan, sounding like the sensible, pragmatic soldier Claudia had come to rely on over the past few months. “But tell me this – do you feel tired right now? Or thirsty?”
“Well, no,” Claudia admitted, after a moment’s thought. It was true – despite the fact that she’d walked several miles in the baking hot sun, she felt perfectly fine. Perfectly…normal. In fact, she didn’t feel like there was anything wrong with her at all. The weariness that had built up over recent sleepless nights was gone, as was the suspicion of a sore throat she’d noticed that morning, and – she checked – the bruise on her shin where she’d managed to walk into her coffee table a couple of days previously.
“Here.” Ryan shuffled over on his rock, making space for her. “Take a seat.”
Claudia sat. She felt like she should be panicking about their predicament, and the fact that she might be dead, but it seemed like too much effort. “So, what do you think we should do now?” she asked instead. “Go back to the anomaly and try to get home?”
“I don’t think that would do any good, do you?” Ryan said.
“No, I suppose I don’t. Maybe we should try and find the future anomaly instead.”
There was a pause, and then, to Claudia’s surprise, Ryan reached over and took one of her hands in his. “I probably shouldn’t say this, being a big tough soldier and all, but I’m glad you’re here, Miss Brown.”
“Claudia,” Claudia corrected again.
“Claudia,” Ryan amended agreeably, surprising her again.
She smiled at him, and gave his hand a small squeeze. Together, they stared out over the starkly beautiful Permian landscape, and tried to decide what to do next.