The relief on Stephen’s face was mingled with disbelief, and even something that might have been suspicion. And it was definitely noticeable that none of the soldiers had as yet lowered their weapons.
Nick raised his hands slightly in a placating gesture. “It’s me. I’m back.”
“You’re back?” Stephen was frowning suddenly. “You’ve been gone for this long, and all you can say is ‘I’m back’?”
Nick sighed. “Sorry. But what else do you want me to say?”
“An explanation would be nice.”
“Can’t you let me catch my breath first?” Nick retorted. He was becoming irritated – this wasn’t exactly the welcome he’d been hoping for.
“Gentlemen, please.” Another voice spoke, and then Jenny appeared from behind Stephen, and walked towards Nick.
“I suppose we can assume you are our Nicholas Cutter?” she asked. “You’ll have to forgive my asking, but you could have popped through from any old world, what with there being other timelines apparently just around the corner, as it were.”
“Well, I’m not sure how to prove it to you, but I think I’m your Nick Cutter,” Nick told her, smiling a little. “I followed Helen through an anomaly from this very spot a year ago today, and have been stuck in a parallel world ever since. Does that sound plausible to you?”
“You have been gone for a year,” Jenny confirmed. “It’s looking good so far.” She looked around at the soldiers. “I think you can lower your weapons now, if you don’t mind.”
There was a couple of seconds hesitation, and then at a nod from Captain Jacobs, all the soldiers dropped the muzzles of their rifles so they were no longer pointing at Nick.
“Thank you. Now, perhaps we’d better get you back to the ARC? It sounds like you have quite a tale to tell us, Professor.”
Nick nodded. “I do at that.”
“Wait a minute, Miss Lewis.” Jacobs stepped forward. “I appreciate that it’s likely that this is this world’s Professor Cutter, but we need to take some precautions. Lester needs to be informed before we bring him back, and I’m going to have to insist that one of my men accompanies him until further notice.”
“Do you really think that’s necessary…?” Nick began, but Jenny cut him off.
“The captain is right, Cutter,” she said. Then she smiled lightly. “Don’t worry, you’re not a prisoner or anything. We just can’t take any risks. You know if it was anyone else reappearing after being gone for a year, you’d be just as cautious as I’m being now.”
Nick thought about trying to argue again, but then gave it up. Jenny was right. He knew who he was, but the others had every right to be wary. And besides, the implacable look on Jacobs’ face told him that he wouldn’t like the results very much if he tried to argue.
Jenny nodded gratefully at his acquiescence, and then moved away slightly, pulling out her mobile phone. With half an ear on her conversation with Lester, Nick hovered near the still-open anomaly, remembering some of the things that had happened to him in the past year, and what he’d had to do to get home again.
He’d hoped Stephen might come over and talk to him, but disappointingly the other man seemed to be staying away, throwing him indefinable looks, a sharp contrast to Jenny’s encouraging smiles every time she made eye contact with him. Nick wondered if her discussion with Lester was really going as smoothly as her expression indicated.
But eventually she hung up and walked back over to Nick. “Lester’s agreed that you can go back to the ARC,” she said. “He trusts that you’re not going to try and blow us up, or unleash an army of clone soldiers on us.”
“How magnanimous of him,” Nick replied, rolling his eyes.
“He agrees with Captain Jacobs that you need an escort, though,” Jenny continued. “Just to be on the safe side.”
“Of course he does.”
A gesture from Jacobs brought Lieutenant Anders over to stand beside them. The soldier looked at Nick with undisguised curiosity, and Nick suddenly felt like an insect under a microscope.
“Right, the vehicles are back at the car park, but it’s only a short walk. I’m sure you remember that though…” Jenny was fishing in her pocket for her keys when Stephen spoke up unexpectedly.
“Wait. I’ll drive him.”
Jenny looked between him and Nick for a few seconds before nodding. “All right then. I don’t suppose it makes any difference either way, so long as Lieutenant Anders stays with you.”
“Great.” Stephen’s expression as he looked at Nick was faintly apologetic, although he attempted a smile as he stepped closer to Nick and Anders.
Jenny was talking to Jacobs again. “I’m sure you and your men can handle the anomaly until it closes, Captain.” She turned to Nick. “Is anything likely to come through?”
“There didn’t appear to be any creatures in the immediate vicinity,” Nick replied. “And besides, I shouldn’t think it’ll be open for too much longer. Helen told me this anomaly is only open on one day a year. That’s why it’s taken me so long to get back.”
Both Stephen and Jenny’s eyes narrowed at the mention of Helen, and Nick smiled ruefully.
“She helped me get back,” he admitted. “She said she found out I was gone, but couldn’t get to me until today. And she explained how the anomalies can cross timelines too.” Nick held up the device Helen had given him. “This tells you when an anomaly has switched to a parallel timeline.”
“Let’s leave all the explanations for when we get back, all right?” Jenny said firmly. “I’m sure you don’t want to explain yourself more than once.”
“I’m not sure I’ll be able to explain it the first time around,” said Nick. “Keeping everything Helen said straight in my mind is giving me a headache.”
I’ve got a notepad in the car,” said Stephen. “Maybe you could jot some of it down as we drive.”
Nick looked at him for a moment, and then nodded. “That’s a good idea. Thanks.”
“Come on, then.” Stephen and Anders started along the path towards the car park, but Nick hung back a moment longer.
“I know I said nothing was likely to make a surprise visit, but you might want to warn Captain Jacobs to keep an eye out for Helen,” he said quietly. “She left me before I came back through the anomaly, but you never know…”
Jenny looked at him for a few seconds, and then nodded. “I will.” Then she gestured after Stephen. “Don’t wait for me. I’ll follow on behind you in my own car in a few minutes, and meet you back at the ARC.” She smiled suddenly. “I wish I could see the look on Lester’s face when you walk in there. As you can imagine, his enthusiasm when he heard you were back wasn’t overwhelming – between you and me I think he’s been enjoying the peace and quiet!”
Nick laughed, and then set off after his escort, who had paused at a bend in the path to wait for him. He was going to have a lot of explaining to do, but it was nice to be home.
The pen dropping from his fingers and clattering into the foot well startled Nick from his reverie. He looked down at the grand total of two sentences he’d managed to write, and then sideways at Stephen, whose eyes were on the road, but who was also wearing a faint smile – a contrast to his earlier uncertain expression.
“Penny for them?” the other man asked, without turning his head.
“Where do you want me to start?” Nick replied lightly. “I still can’t quite believe that I’m back.”
“Neither can I,” said Stephen.
“And neither can I,” added Anders from the back seat.
Nick started again – he had momentarily forgotten the soldier was there.
“Hart here’s been moping around for months,” the lieutenant continued mischievously. “He’s been missing you something rotten.”
“I have not!” Stephen protested. “Well, obviously, I’ve missed you of course,” he amended. “But I have not been moping!” He glared at Anders’ reflection in the rear-view mirror, but the soldier just grinned back unrepentantly.
Nick smiled slightly. “So you did miss me, then?” he asked, the faint emphasis unmistakeable.
Stephen glanced at him quickly. “Sorry about the less than warm welcome,” he said. “I guess I was just little shocked to see you, that’s all. We all were.”
That all drew Nick’s thoughts back to what had really been distracting him from his writing. He took a deep breath. There was no avoiding the obvious question any more. “Where’s Connor, anyway?” he asked, hoping he was carrying off the nonchalant tone he was aiming for. “And Abby?” he added. “Why weren’t they at the anomaly site?”
Was it his imagination, or did Stephen hesitate slightly before answering?
“Actually, they’re at another anomaly,” he replied. “They were already on their way there when the detector went off again to signal your anomaly, so you just got Jenny and me. And Captain Jacobs’ team, of course.”
“Another anomaly?” questioned Nick, making an effort to sound interested. “Whereabouts?”
“Near Birmingham. Jenny had a report shortly after they arrived – it all seemed pretty low-key, and Connor reckoned it was already getting weaker. I wouldn’t be surprised to find they’re back at the ARC before we are.”
Nick tried to ignore the sudden beating of his heart and the butterflies tap-dancing in his stomach. He absolutely refused to ask Stephen whether Connor had missed him too, particularly with Anders still grinning in the back seat. But silently he started to will the other man to drive faster.
The ARC looked just the same on the outside as Nick remembered. On the inside, however, there were a few differences, chiefly in the atrium. Whereas before the open space had only housed the anomaly detection device and a couple of desks, there were now several workbenches scattered around, on which stood several computers, and the paraphernalia of more than one unidentifiable project. Nick recognised the detritus as the result of Connor’s enthusiastic, but haphazard, way of working, and smiled a little.
Stephen noticed him looking at a pile of wiring and components on one of the benches. “Connor’s trying to construct an anomaly locking device,” he explained quickly. But upon seeing Nick’s confused look, he elaborated further.
“About six weeks ago there was an anomaly at the British Museum, of all places. Connor accidentally managed to ‘lock’ the anomaly using an electrical current, and now he’s trying to replicate the effect. He’s not been having much luck so far, though – mainly because he’s not exactly sure what he did to make it happen the first time.”
“Locking the anomalies?” questioned Nick. “As in, stopping anything coming through? That could be very useful.” Then he looked at Stephen, his eyes twinkling. “I bet Lester was overjoyed about an anomaly in the British Museum, though.”
Stephen grinned. “Not quite the word I’d use,” he replied. “Luckily, the pristichampus that came through didn’t do much damage to the museum. The Royal Festival Hall is a whole different story, though. Jenny’s had a bit of a task on her hands with that one. She did manage to get the Egyptologist to keep quiet, though.”
“One Dr. Sarah Page – she was working late at the museum when the anomaly opened. She was quite helpful, actually.”
“Sarah Page? You’re kidding me.”
“Is something wrong?”
“No, not at all. It’s just…look, perhaps we’d better find Lester. I really need to tell you guys what’s been going on.”
“No need to look, Professor. I’m right here.”
Nick looked up at the sound of Lester’s voice to find the civil servant regarding them from the balcony outside his office. The man’s expression was more than a little resigned, and Nick fought not to roll his eyes as he was beckoned to imperiously.
“I suppose I’d better go and report in, then,” he muttered to Stephen.
“I’ll come with you. I really want to know what’s been happening.”
Nick looked around. “Hopefully Jenny should be here in a minute. Like she said, I don’t really want to go through all the explanations more than once. And where are Connor and Abby? I thought you said they’d be back by now?”
“They’ve probably just been held up,” said Stephen, and again Nick sensed something slightly off in the other man’s reply. “Traffic or something.”
But at that moment the atrium doors swung open and Connor and Abby entered, chatting and laughing together.
They were holding hands.