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Museum Piece

Chapter Text

 

“This is a bit of a coincidence, don’t you think?” said Claudia.

“How so?” asked Cutter.

“Oh, come on – an anomaly in the Natural History Museum?” Claudia said sceptically. “The whole thing just reeks of a practical joke.” She glanced suspiciously at Connor, who looked offended.

“Hey, that’s not fair! I would never…”

“It’s not a joke,” Cutter interrupted firmly. “The guy in charge of security is very upset about his missing guard. Something’s definitely going on.”

Claudia sighed. “Tell me what he said again?” she asked wearily.

“Just that one of his guards radioed in saying he’d seen something – something not human. Then his radio went dead and they haven’t been able to raise him since.”

“Something not human,” Claudia repeated. “That could be nothing more than a mouse, you know.” But she knew she was clutching at straws, and gave in. “So where do we start looking, then?”

“The guard was apparently in the Darwin Centre when he got in contact,” said Cutter. “That’s the new annex on the side of the building.” He turned towards Stephen and the soldiers, who were grouped together a short distance away, consulting floor plans of the museum. “Do we know where we’re going?”

Stephen looked up. “Yep,” he replied. “The Darwin Centre’s on the other side of the mammals galleries – bit of a trek, I’m afraid.”

“Oh, I love the mammals galleries,” said Connor excitedly. “That giant blue whale is supercool!”

“You’re staying here,” said Ryan, joining the conversation. “The professor, Hart, Robertson, and I will check out this Darwin Centre. Davis and Bradshaw will remain here with you three.” His gaze included Claudia and Abby alongside Connor. “Wait until you hear from us – then we’ll decide what to do next.”

“But…”

“No arguments, Connor.”

Connor looked appealingly at Cutter and Stephen, the former of whom just shrugged while the latter grinned at him.

“Sorry, Connor,” said Stephen. “But you heard the man. We’ll be as quick as we can.”

Connor huffed in annoyance, obviously sulking, while Abby and Claudia exchanged long-suffering looks. What Davis and Bradshaw thought about being stuck in Connor’s ill-natured company was anybody’s guess – their faces remained impassive.

As Cutter, Stephen, Ryan, and Robertson disappeared into the shadows beside the main staircase, Connor wandered towards the entrance of the Dinosaurs gallery.

“Connor…” Claudia called warningly.

“I’m only going to take a look,” said Connor. “Who knows – I might find the anomaly.”

“I’ll go with him,” said Abby, with the air of a parent dealing with a difficult child. “We won’t be long. He won’t be able to see much in the dark, anyway.”

“Fine. Five minutes,” replied Claudia. “But take a torch. And make sure you have your radios on.”

“Will do.” Abby hurried off after Connor.

*   *   *   *   *

Connor halted in front of the final interpretation panel in the gallery. He thought it might have something to do with the extinction of the dinosaurs, but with the gallery lights off he couldn’t be sure.

He had shuffled bad-temperedly along the entire winding length of the gallery, ignoring Abby’s repeated whispered protests that they should really be getting back. He was sick of always being told to stay behind, to stay put in case he got into trouble. He wasn’t completely stupid – he knew how to handle himself in crisis. But the way Cutter, Stephen, and Ryan went on, it was clear they thought he would just get in the way.

Sighing heavily, Connor turned away from the panel. Maybe he could get into the shop and check out the merchandise – then he could order anything he wanted off the Internet later.

Then he noticed the light. It was a silvery, flickering glow coming from the next door gallery, and Connor was in no doubt about what was causing it.

He punched the air triumphantly. This would show Cutter and Claudia! They’d have to admit that he was useful, after all.

Connor looked around for Abby, but she was nowhere in sight. Listening, he could hear her exclaiming over something further back down the gallery. Bit hypocritical, if you asked him – getting sidetracked after moaning at him about taking too long.

Oh well, she’d soon catch up to him. It just meant that he could claim the discovery of the anomaly as all his own. As he headed towards the doorway from which the light was coming, he tried to remember what was in the next gallery. Oh yeah, that was right! It was the room with the animatronic Tyrannosaurus Rex in it. Connor would never admit it, but he’d once been a little scared by the model – it did look quite realistic, after all. Of course, that was before real life prehistoric creatures had tried to eat him. A jerky robot just didn’t compare after that.

There was a sign on a stand by the door to the gallery, but Connor only glanced at it quickly before ducking under the rope stretched across the doorway. As he entered the room the model T-Rex loomed above him, still now that it had been switched off for the night.

But Connor barely noticed it. He had been right. Down at the far end of the gallery, beyond the T-Rex, the anomaly hung in the air. Its effect in this darkened room was rather like that of a giant disco glitter ball – light and shadows chased each other across the walls and ceiling.

This was fantastic! Connor started to walk towards the anomaly, wanting to see if he could determine how strong it was, and how long it was likely to remain for.

Then something that had been niggling at him finally managed to barge its way to the front of his brain. What had that sign by the door said? He’d barely read it, but apparently his mind had taken in the words anyway.

Notice to visitors.

The T-Rex has been removed for essential maintenance until August 2007.

Apologies for any inconvenience caused.

And now he noticed the sound. Soft breathing. Extraordinarily quiet, really, for something that big.

Connor looked up at the T-Rex. The T-Rex looked down at him. And it blinked.

Slowly, so slowly, Connor started backing towards the door. All that stuff about a Tyrannosaur not being able to see you if you stayed still was utter bollocks, but even if it had been the truth, there was no way Connor was staying in a room with the greatest predator the world had ever seen only ten feet away.

The T-Rex carried on watching him. It seemed curious rather than anything else, and it was showing no signs of wanting to eat him. But Connor wasn’t about to take any chances. He moved steadily out the door, out of its line of sight, and then instantly turned, walking fast back the way he had come, desperate to find Abby. He didn’t run – something told him if he did that, the T-Rex would know. He suspected running generally equalled prey. And he didn’t want to be prey.

He ran into Abby halfway down the gallery.

“Connor! Where have you been? Look what I’ve found…”

“We have to go.” Connor grabbed her arm and started dragging her along with him.

“Connor! What are you…?”

“Trust me on this,” said Connor grimly. “We really have to go.”

*   *   *   *   *

Cutter edged slowly down a dark aisle, trying to decide if it was one he’d already checked, or a different one. It was so bloody difficult to tell – they all looked the same. All narrow, and all lined with shelves filled with glass jars. Okay, so the jars were all filled with different things, but Cutter preferred not to check them too closely. For someone used to working with bones and fossils for a living, the Darwin Centre’s collection of pickled specimens wasn’t particularly appealing.

“Any sign?” Stephen’s whisper came from the next aisle over.

“Not so far.” That was Ryan, another aisle over again.

Cutter suppressed a sigh. This could take all night. The Darwin Centre comprised several floors of storerooms exactly like this one. All full of shadowy nooks and corners, and all perfectly capable of hiding a dinosaur – or a scared security guard – from the sight of two scientists and two soldiers.

He was just on the point of expressing this opinion when a quiet sound met his ears. He tensed, and although he couldn’t see any of the others, knew that they would have done as well.

There was a second of silence, and then Ryan said, as quietly as possible, “Move forward.”

The sound had seemed to come from in front of them, although it was difficult to really tell. Sound bounced oddly down these glass-lined alleyways – it could easily have come from behind them.

Cutter reached the end of his aisle at the same time as Ryan. A second later Stephen and Robertson stepped out next to them. They appeared to have come upon a laboratory area – there were lots of gleaming silver benches, and banks of cabinets that presumably contained more jars and preserving chemicals. And opposite them, behind the second row of benches, were three doors.

Ryan gestured them all forwards again, and they weaved through the benches, all checking carefully as they went in case something was lurking underneath them, ready to jump out.

But they reached the doors without incident, and Cutter made a questioning gesture – which one shall we try?

Ryan shrugged, and then positioned himself, with Robertson next to him, in front of the left hand door. They would just have to check them all.

Stephen placed his hand on the door handle, while Cutter moved back a couple of steps. On Ryan’s signal, the door was wrenched open, the two soldiers swiftly taking aim…

…at nothing. The door led into a storage cupboard, which was empty of anything except stacks and stacks of jars.

They repeated the process with the middle door, with the same results. And as Ryan and Robertson placed themselves in front of the last door, it was clear everyone was thinking that this one would be empty too. The sound they’d heard had probably been nothing – just one of those night noises.

Ryan counted down silently with his fingers. Three, two, one… Cutter braced himself, Stephen pulled the door open, and the soldiers aimed their weapons.

“Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!”

The missing security guard was cowering on the floor of the cupboard, his arms over his head, obviously terrified. Cutter pushed his way past Ryan and Robertson, and crouched down next to him.

“It’s okay. You’re okay. No one’s going to hurt you.”

“Are you sure?”

Cutter smiled briefly. “Yes, I’m sure. Now, what’s your name?”

“Charlie. Charlie Smith.” The security guard lowered his arms slowly, revealing as he did so that he had a nasty bite on his right forearm.

“Hello, Charlie. I’m Nick Cutter. And these are my colleagues.” Cutter made a quick round of introductions. “Now, if you don’t mind me asking, how did you get that bite on your arm?”

“One of them did it,” replied Charlie, visibly shuddering.

Cutter looked sharply at the others. Stephen nodded quickly, while Ryan just looked resigned. “One of what?”

“One of them creatures. I don’t know what they were, but they looked like…” Charlie’s voice tailed off.

“Looked like what?” Stephen asked.

Charlie shook his head. “You’ll think I’m stupid,” he said.

“We promise we won’t think you’re stupid,” said Cutter firmly.

“Well, okay. They looked…like dinosaurs.” Charlie gave them a sheepish smile. “See? Now you think I’m bonkers.”

“We really don’t,” said Stephen dryly.

“What…you mean they were dinosaurs?”

“We need to get him out of here,” said Ryan abruptly. “That bite doesn’t look too good, and who knows how many of the creatures there are around here.”

“Can you walk?” Cutter asked the security guard, who was looking between them all with an expression of amazement.

“Uh, yes. They only managed to take the chunk out of my arm before I shut myself in here. Although they did get my radio too. I dropped it and one of them stepped on it. Otherwise I would have radioed my manager for help.”

“How many of them were there?” Cutter tried not let any worry bleed into his voice – he didn’t want to scare Charlie again.

“Not sure. Maybe five or six? I only had my torch – and I didn’t really have time to count them. They didn’t seem to like the light, though. They kept ducking away when I shone it at them. That’s how I managed to keep them pretty much at bay so I could duck in here. Except for the one who decided I looked tasty, of course.”

“You probably just frightened it, that’s all. How big were they?”

“About three feet tall. They walked on two legs – I did notice that.”

“Definitely not trying to eat you, then,” said Stephen lightly. “Even with a few of them, you’re too big for them to seriously consider you as prey.”

“Well, that’s good to know.” Then Charlie winced as he flexed his injured arm.

“Right, come on. Time to go.” Cutter stood back as the guard scrambled to his feet. “We’ll take you back to the main hall. Some more of our team are there – they’ll see you get safely to a hospital.”

But at that moment Ryan’s radio crackled. “…ptain Ryan? Pro…sor …utter?”

Claudia’s voice was faint and crackly – Ryan twisted a couple of knobs, trying to improve the reception, before answering.

“Miss Brown? What is it?”

Cap… …an?” She obviously couldn’t hear them, and the reception was getting worse.

Cutter grabbed the radio off Ryan, earning him an annoyed look from the soldier. But he didn’t notice. “Claudia? Claudia? Can you hear me?”

…ick? Some…g’s here. Conn… says…

But whatever Connor had said was lost in a burst of static. Then, abruptly, the reception cleared, just in time for them all to hear Claudia’s voice say, quite distinctly, “Oh my god,” followed by a tinny, but ear-splitting roar. Then the radio went dead.