“Just what exactly did you think you were doing, Captain Ryan?”
Lester’s voice was soft, dangerous, and promised severe punishment if he didn’t get the correct answer to his question.
But Ryan had a lot of experience dealing with ‘the management’, and he kept his stance rigid and his face immobile, willing himself not to react.
“Protecting civilians, sir,” he said succinctly.
“Protecting civilians,” mused Lester. “I see. And why exactly did you feel the need to protect them, Captain?”
“They had gone through the anomaly, sir.”
“Gone through the anomaly,” said Lester, making Ryan wonder if the civil servant was going to repeat everything he said. “Remind me of your orders for this particular assignment, Captain?”
“Guard the anomaly and prevent anyone stepping through it,” recited Ryan.
“Was there something about these orders you didn’t understand?”
“And do you feel you and your team have the qualities necessary to carry out those orders?”
“Yes, sir.” There was a no-win question if ever he heard one. Ryan was digging himself into a hole, and he wasn’t entirely sure how to prevent it.
“So why,” said Lester slowly, “did I receive a phone call this morning telling me that Professor Cutter and his assistant Hart had run into the anomaly, and that you had gone diving in after them?”
Ryan kept silent. Nothing he could say would satisfy Lester now, so he kept his mouth shut, staring expressionlessly yet fixedly at the civil servant.
It had been pouring down with rain for most of the day, and despite the fact that the precipitation seemed to have momentarily lulled, everything was still damp and messy. And yet Lester was still managing to look immaculate in his designer suit and snappy tie. The only sign that the conditions were affecting him was a slight curl in his carefully coiffed hair above his left temple. For some reason this one little flaw fascinated Ryan – he couldn’t tear his eyes away. It proved that even Lester was subject to the laws of nature, no matter how much he might like to pretend he was above such things.
“I asked you a question, Captain.”
Lester’s voice snapped Ryan back to attention again. Suddenly he was overcome with a desire to show Lester exactly how subject to the laws of nature he could be. His hands itched, and he clenched them into fists.
“I had to protect the civilians, sir,” repeated Ryan stubbornly, sparing a sour thought for Cutter and Hart and their ‘science before safety’ philosophy.
Lester looked like he was about to say something else, but he was interrupted by Claudia, who came hurrying up holding out a mobile phone.
“Telephone call for you,” she said breathlessly.
Lester accepted the handset and then shooed her away. Before lifting the phone to his ear he looked at Ryan.
“We will continue this later, Captain.”
* * * * *
Ryan felt like he’d been standing to attention for hours. Lester hadn’t been joking when he’d said he was going to continue his tirade. The man seemed to have a special talent for haranguing his underlings without having to draw breath, and without repeating himself once.
The soldiers had barely made it back to base before Ryan had got the call that had dragged him off to the Home Office. For a second he had been tempted to just disobey orders and not go. After all, what would be the point? All he would get was another one-sided telling-off from Lester, who was unlikely to listen to his point-of-view. And besides, there was no way Lester could take him off the project. There weren’t enough soldiers in the loop to simply dismiss one of them – and particularly the officer in charge – for what had been, at the time, a transgression that had saved the lives of civilians. Stupid civilians, granted, but civilians nonetheless. But after a moment of madness years of ingrained training had won out, and Ryan had taken himself off to the Home Office.
Now, however, after two hours in Lester’s office, Ryan was beginning to wonder if he had been right. Oh, he had been correct about the telling-off, and reckoned he had perfected the art of the vacant yet attentive facial expression. But the part where Lester wouldn’t throw him off the project – that he wasn’t so sure about. There had been some worrying signs that Lester was finally approaching breaking point when it came to the anomaly project – and that Ryan was going to have to be the one who took the fall.
“I put you on this project because I was told you were the best, Captain Ryan,” Lester was saying, possibly coming towards the end of his carefully controlled rant. “The best at following orders, the best at keeping control, and the best at working in difficult situations. But on this occasion you have spectacularly failed at all three of those things. What do you have to say for yourself?”
“I had to protect the civilians, sir,” said Ryan, aware that he was starting to sound like the world’s most boring parrot, but deciding that sticking to his guns was the best course of action.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” muttered Lester, betraying a hint of irritation for the first time. “Cutter really has got you wrapped round his little finger, hasn’t he? Might I remind you, Captain, that the government is in charge of this project, and not the professor and his little band of misfits. They need to learn that they can’t just go charging off into the past whenever they feel like it. We must have order! Do you understand me, Captain?”
Lester had stepped close to Ryan and was speaking directly into his face. Ryan, who had personal space issues at the best of times, felt his control starting to slip.
“Are you suggesting I should have left them in the prehistoric then, sir?”
The words were out before he could stop them, although oddly, Ryan felt no desire to call them back. It was time someone stood up to this jumped-up little administrator. Lester needed to be taken down a peg or two.
“I am suggesting, Captain, that you should have exercised enough control over them in the first place to stop them going anywhere. Or are a few scientists too much for you to handle?”
Lester was no more than a foot away now, so close that Ryan could make out every detail of his face, could smell the tangy scent of his cologne, and feel his warm breath on his own skin.
“Are you listening to me, Captain?”
Ryan snapped. His hands shot up from his sides to grasp the lapels of Lester’s expensive jacket, and he yanked Lester towards him, crushing their mouths together in a kiss.
For a second Lester was frozen in shock. Then he started to struggle against Ryan’s grip. With reactions born of years negotiating hostile situations, Ryan propelled the civil servant backwards until he was pinned between the soldier and his own desk. He wasn’t going to let Lester get out of this that easily.
And yet, in the back of his mind, it came to him that Lester didn’t quite seem as if he were struggling to get away. His hands were scrabbling at Ryan’s body, but as if to gain purchase, not to push Ryan away. Startled, he drew back slightly, breaking the kiss and staring at Lester.
Lester curled his lip in disdain. “You have overstepped your bounds, Captain,” he snarled. “On what grounds do you presume to assault me in this manner?”
But without waiting for an answer he pulled Ryan back towards him, bringing their mouths together once more.
There was no attraction or affection behind this kiss. It was a pure battle for the upper hand – a struggle for dominance between a fighter and a manipulator. Ryan, after his momentary distraction, was using all his weight and not inconsiderable muscle to keep Lester trapped against the desk. He knew Lester couldn’t win against brute force.
But the civil servant had other tricks up his sleeve, apparently. By degrees he relaxed until he felt Ryan untense slightly. Then, with a surge of effort he flipped them round until Ryan was the one wedged against the desk, catching the Ryan’s hip against a protruding corner as he did so. As Ryan gasped in pain Lester aggressively thrust his tongue into Ryan’s mouth, knowing he had to take advantage while he could – Ryan wouldn’t allow himself to remain in this position for long.
And nor did he. Although he was privately impressed by Lester’s devious little ploy, Ryan wasn’t going to let that, or Lester’s tongue in his mouth, distract him from his purpose.
He pushed Lester back with just enough force to separate their lips, then reached around and grasped Lester’s hair, pulling his head back and clamping down on the side of his neck, his teeth sinking into the smooth skin underneath the ear.
Lester hissed in pain and convulsively dug his fingers into Ryan’s forearm. The elegantly manicured nails broke the skin, and Ryan grunted as pain assailed him again.
The sensation was like a bucket of cold water to both of them, and gasping they suddenly broke apart – angry red marks appearing on Lester’s neck, while drops of blood were welling up on Ryan’s forearm. For a second they just looked at each other. Then – he couldn’t help it – a corner of Ryan’s mouth quirked upwards in something like a smile. Lester responded with a raised eyebrow, which arched upwards in a not entirely unimpressed way.
“It would seem we have reached an impasse, Captain.”
“It would appear so, sir.”
“Do you understand me now, Captain?”
“I would say we understand each other now, sir.”
Lester paused for a second, and then nodded once.
“I think we do.”
“Any further instructions, sir?”
Lester sighed. “I know that lot can be a law unto themselves,” he said wearily, “but do think you could try and stop Cutter and his motley crew from taking matters into their own hands in future?”
Ryan snapped off a half-mocking salute. “I’ll definitely try, sir."