Although James Lester had been waiting hours for an update that never came, the sudden ringing of his phone still startled him. "Captain Becker, thank you so much for keeping me informed."
Becker's voice was tense and his words rushed. "They didn't come back through the anomaly."
"Danny, Abby and Connor. They went through after Helen but they never came out again."
"Christ," James muttered to himself. Damn that woman, damn her to hell. "All right, what do we know?"
"Sarah's got an idea. She's been going through Helen's journal and she thinks that Helen meant to go back in time and kill the first hominids. Our ancestors."
James resisted the urge to put his fist through something. "Of course she would. Well, I suppose at least we know she hasn't been successful yet."
"I want to take a team through the anomaly to find them."
"Becker, with what you've just told me, we can't even be sure whether they're in the future or the past. How do you expect to locate them?"
"With all due respect, sir, you're an idiot if you think I'm going to just sit here and do nothing! It's my responsibility to keep them safe and that's what I intend to do."
"With all due respect, Captain, you'd be wise to remember who you work for," James said, allowing a lingering pause for the words to sink in. "However, I will authorize a rescue expedition through the anomaly. We know that they went through, so we can assume that if they did make it to the past, they might try to return the same way. Dr. Page will of course be staying behind to continue examining Helen's journal."
"Yes, sir," came Becker's curt reply before the call ended.
James rested the phone back on its cradle, his grip white-knuckled around it. "Christ," he said again, and wondered why nothing could ever run smoothly. He silently beseeched whoever might be listening to allow Becker's mission to be a successful one.
Becker's next call came hours later, a sound of rushing wind in the background informing James that Becker was in the car. "We found nothing," he said. He sounded exhausted.
"How many men did you lose?"
Becker took a moment to respond, and James braced himself for the answer. "One," Becker said, and James couldn't help but feel relieved. It could have been worse. But then Becker continued, "His wife had a baby last week."
"I have to try again," Becker went on before James could even think of what to say. "I'll take another team in, maybe we can get further."
"Becker," James started to say and then stopped. God, it was all so useless. "All right."
There was a long pause and all James could hear was the hum of voices on the other end. Then Becker was saying, "Sarah says to tell you that you can't make her stay behind again."
"Please remind Dr. Page that I can make her do anything I want. That's what it means to be in charge."
The voices grew louder and James distinctly made out the words "bastard" and "woman". When Becker spoke again, there was the slightest hint of laughter in his weary voice. "I'll just let her talk to you herself when we arrive back at the ARC. We won't be long."
"Oh, joy," James said as he ended the call.
Indeed, it was only a short while before James glanced up at a sudden onslaught of noise to see Sarah march straight past Lorraine without a word, her face set in taut, angry lines.
James sighed. Fuck his life.
James opened the door of his flat late that night to hear the pattering of small feet running across his floor. As he closed the door behind him and switched on the light, the two diictodons came skidding to a halt in front of his shins. James ran a hand over his hair. "Damn, I'd forgotten all about you two devils."
James fancied the two creatures were glaring at him reproachfully as he set down his keys and ventured further into his flat. Not quite feeling up to discovering what they'd been up to while cooped up alone, James instead sat down heavily on the couch, pushing aside the sign he had made warning Connor off (though James was sure Connor had ignored it).
The diictodons had followed him, still watching him warily, though they glanced frequently in the direction of the closed door. "Yes, well, I'm afraid we're going to be stuck with each other for now." The creatures chirped. "What daft names did he call you by? Laurel and Hardy? No, I've got it. Sid and Nancy." They chirped again and James sighed. "Damned if I can tell which is which."
Becker stood in the centre of James' office, back straight in perfect military posture, eyes forward, jaw clenched as though he was waiting for a reprimand.
James cleared his throat before he began. "What happened to Sarah was a regrettable accident. She should never have been there in the first place. No training-- she should have kept to the lab."
"I should have--"
"I think you'll agree that rehashing the 'should haves' and 'could haves' will not accomplish anything productive, will it, Becker?"
Becker looked as though he wanted to say something more, but he merely lowered his eyes and nodded once. God bless the military, James thought. They knew how to teach a man to keep his mouth shut.
"Of course you understand that I simply cannot authorize any more rescue missions. The risk is too great and I will not lose any more of our people in a fruitless chase." James could not allow the lives of their missing colleagues to become more important than those of everyone else, surely Becker had to see that? A muscle tightened in Becker's jaw but he let James continue uninterrupted. "We must assume, as we are still here, that Danny, Connor and Abby were successful in stopping in Helen. We must now trust that they can return to us on their own."
James held Becker's gaze for several long moments until Becker nodded. "I understand, sir. Will that be all?"
James waved him away and Becker turned smartly on his heel, striding out of the office. James waited until he was out of sight before allowing himself to rub his fingers against the pounding in his temples.
There was nothing he hated more than funerals, James decided. The empty words, the crying, the cloying smell of flowers. When he had first entered the civil service, James had had no idea that he would end up attending so many funerals because of it.
If he had, he might have made a different choice.
Standing next to Becker as Sarah's empty coffin was lowered into the ground, James' mind insisted on reliving the memories of the previous miserable affairs he had attended because of the ARC. Each one seemed to be even worse than the last. Would it never end?
James offered his condolences to Sarah's grieving family, feeling uncomfortable and knowing his words would likely mean nothing, but politeness and responsibility (and guilt-- yes, there was a lot of guilt) would allow him to do nothing less. Sarah's mother just stared disdainfully at him, tears drying on her cheeks, and James knew she thought him the worst sort of scum imaginable, a slimy government weasel who had caused the death of her daughter and wouldn't even give a straight answer as to what had happened.
When she turned away from him into the comforting arms of her husband, James sought out Becker. "I need a drink," he said. "And I imagine you do too." He started to walk toward his car, Becker falling into step beside him.
As though Sarah's funeral wasn't enough, the unpleasant task of reaching out to the loved ones of Danny, Connor and Abby unfortunately fell to James. He could have delegated it to someone else, but he knew it should be him. He owed it to them. While of course the families could not be told the truth, the three had been missing for too long to do nothing, not with the possibility of their return becoming bleaker with every day that passed.
Abby's brother was the only one who was told some semblance of the truth, given that he had already been through an anomaly himself. Connor's mother was the worst. She collapsed into tears on James' shoulder and he was forced to awkwardly pat her on the back until he was able to maneuvre her onto a couch. He left her with a pot of tea (after having been obliged to listen to more stories about a young Connor than James had ever cared to hear) and she left him with a disgusting damp spot on the shoulder of his expensive suit.
Seeking some hint of normality, of comfort, after the nightmare his life had seemed to be of late, James found himself dialing his wife's number. He did not often speak to her during the week, as he was busy and he knew she was as well. There wasn't much he was able to tell her, anyway. His position at the ARC had been hard on his marriage.
But he needed-- he needed something that was real, that was good, that was his.
Agatha picked up on the third ring. "Hello?"
The surprised tone came through clearly even over the phone. "James? Is something wrong?"
"No, no, everything's fine. I just-- wanted to hear your voice." James lowered his head.
There was a long moment of silence. "Are you sure you're all right?"
"Yes, Agatha, I'm perfectly fine. It's been a rough few days at work, that's all."
"I thought all you do is paperwork and meetings," Agatha said, with a huff of laughter. "It can't be that bad, surely."
James felt the onset of a migraine and thought perhaps this had been a bad idea, after all. "You'd be surprised."
"Well, would you like to talk about it?"
"No, I-- Tell me about the children."
Agatha's voice softened. "All right, James."
Before Connor had come to stay with James, he had been accustomed to a certain amount of quiet when he was at home. James had always appreciated the value of stillness, of time to oneself. Life at the ARC was certainly hectic enough for James to want some peace in his own space.
And then Connor had arrived. James had frequently rued the moment of weakness, the glimmer of compassion that had led him to take pity on the boy bunking in the ARC with his pet creatures. Along with the mess, Connor had brought noise. The diictodons chattering to each other. Connor's near-constant running commentary, the hum of the television set to programmes James had never before realised existed, and even-- this was the one that had really got him-- an irritating habit of singing (very poorly) in the shower.
A very short time ago James would have relished having his flat to himself again. Now, however, the silence felt heavy and oppressive, the flat large and empty. The diictodons seemed to be moping without Connor and had taken to following James around and nudging him until he was forced to pay attention to them. He didn't know if he should feel insulted that he was so clearly their second choice.
James often found himself turning on the television or the radio just to have some background noise, to fill up the silence so that he perhaps might be able to concentrate on something. He avoided Connor's small neglected square of space as though it were a dead body.
In the relatively short time that Connor Temple had been James' unwelcome house guest, he had somehow become a fixture in James' life whose absence was nearly quantifiable.
Though he knew he shouldn't expect anyone on the outside to understand, a politician least of all, James could not stop himself trying to explain. To explain what they did, the importance of it, what would happen if the anomalies were left unchecked.
It didn't do any good.
James also knew he shouldn't shout at the Prime Minister, but he was afraid his tone may have crossed the line.
"You're going to regret this," James ground out. "And I hope I'm there to see it." He slammed the phone down onto the cradle and glared at it, breathing heavily, before leaning back into his chair. When he raised his eyes, he saw that Becker was standing just outside the office door, looking through the glass. Even across the distance James could read the bewilderment on the other man's face. James stood up and walked around his desk, then straightened his suit and jerked his head to convey 'enter'.
Becker strode in and said, "Is this a bad time, sir?"
"That depends on what you want."
Hands folded behind his back, Becker replied, "I want to resign as the ARC's head of security."
"All right then."
"Sir?" Becker seemed surprised not to have met with any resistance. He'd probably had a whole speech worked out, James thought.
"The Minister has suspended our work indefinitely. Too many losses, not enough 'production'," James said with a sneer. Becker's eyes clouded over and if James were a more sentimental person he might have offered a word of sympathy. "It seems we're both out of a job, regardless of your resignation."
"But what about the anomalies? Surely they can't think that the creatures will miraculously leave everyone alone with no one to keep them in check."
"I assure you that I did explain that, quite plainly. If the Minister wants to risk it, I'm afraid there's nothing you or I can do about it any more."
Becker closed his eyes briefly and shook his head. "Don't they realise? After everything, after everyone we've lost, they're just going to-- Like none of it made a difference, like it was for nothing-"
"It was never for nothing," James said firmly. "Don't ever let the stupidity of others make you think what you've done didn't matter. You saved lives, Becker, and if they want to pretend otherwise then that is on them. Not you."
Becker was staring, his eyes wide, and James shifted uncomfortably. This was exactly why he didn't allow his personal feelings to get in the way of his duty. All it did was make things awkward. What had compelled him to speak? Damn Becker and his fucking sad eyes.
Then Becker stretched his hand out. "I never thought I'd say this, Lester, but it has been a pleasure working for you."
James clasped his hand and shook it. "Captain."
When James returned home he found the diictodons participating in a tug-of-war with a battered length of... something. James sighed and started to walk forward, saying, "What have you destroyed now, you--" Pausing mid-breath, he realised that it was Connor's blanket and that pieces of it were littered all over the floor.
Something in James seemed to snap at that moment and he found himself yelling as he stooped to grab what was left of the blanket. "Let go of it, you stupid monsters! Can't you bloody well leave anything alone? Get off!"
The diictodons seemed to quail at the sound of James' upraised voice and released the blanket, scampering off into a corner of the flat with their heads down. James overbalanced slightly and let himself crumple into a heap on the ground, clutching the tattered pieces in his hands. He forced himself to take deep breaths in and out through his nose, returning back to his habitual calm.
James got to his feet and began to pick up every piece of the blanket, dumping it into the bin. After he was finished, he found a box and set it down beside Connor's things. He knelt down and started to pull off the tape that had cordoned off Connor's living space from the rest of the room, throwing that into the bin as well. He then quickly but methodically packed up all of Connor's belongings into the box. James got a black felt-tipped pen from his desk and carefully wrote 'TEMPLE' in large letters on the side of the box and stored it in the back of his coat closet.
He found the diictodons underneath his dining room table, chewing on that morning's newspaper. They stared at him balefully with their large eyes and made no move to come closer. James went into the kitchen to fill up a bowl with salad greens and set it down next to them as a peace offering. They backed away slightly when he came near, but James remained still and then murmured, feeling faintly ridiculous, "I'm sorry I yelled at you. It was just an old blanket anyway."
The one he thought was called Nancy moved toward him then, chirped once and bumped her head against James' knee. He patted her on the head and watched as the other one went to eat the greens. James stroked Nancy's snout and said, "I miss him, too." It was somehow easier to admit to the diictodon than it had been to himself.
When he first learned of the incident with the stegosaurus in the House of Commons, James laughed. Hadn't he warned them this would happen? Hadn't he explained in no uncertain terms? It served them right.
The Minister should feel grateful it had only been a stegosaurus.
James Lester was not a man who enjoyed relinquishing control, and yet it was almost a relief to know that he would not be returning to the ARC as it was, that Burton was coming in to help shoulder the burden. If James was completely honest with himself, which admittedly happened rarely, he knew that he had been in over his head. Had been for a long time, but in the past, James had had intelligent, competent people to help him. Nick Cutter, Tom Ryan, Stephen Hart, Jenny Lewis, Danny Quinn, Connor Temple, Abby Maitland, Sarah Page. The ARC had plenty of scientists, but none to match those who were gone. James felt as though he were treading water now that he had lost them.
And he had lost them. Underestimated Oliver Leek. Mishandled Helen Cutter. Allowed civilians with no military training to work in dangerous field situations. All the mistakes James had made had cost lives.
Perhaps it was for the best to have Philip Burton come in.
James supervised the movement of the displaced creatures into the facilities of the new ARC. While the area was large and clean and probably had cost Burton a ridiculously large sum of money, James couldn't help but think that Abby would have been disappointed at the sight. Even James felt a twinge thinking of these prehistoric animals confined to wandering around in four walls of enclosed space. While they remained sedated at the moment, they would soon wake in their new habitat, creatures that had been accustomed to roaming free, now worse off than an animal in a zoo. At least in zoos the animals could see the sky.
He found his eyes drawn to the mammoth lying on the floor of its cell. That mammoth had saved James' life once and now when it woke it would find that it barely had room to stretch its legs.
Still, there was nothing for it. Clearly they could not be allowed to wander England.
A green blur suddenly zoomed around James' head, alighting on the table in front of him. "It's you, is it?" James said. Abby's lizard chirped. "I suppose there's no point trying to keep you locked away. Goodness knows it's never worked in the past." James reached a hand out and gingerly patted the lizard on the head. As it rubbed its face against James' hand, he felt a sudden fierce pang of loss for Abby, for her spirit and sweetness that had always reminded him of his own daughter. "Can you keep a secret?" James idly mused that he no longer felt silly talking to extinct animals as though they could understand him. He blamed Connor. "Your two destructive friends are still living in my flat. God only knows why; I should've stuck them in here with this lot."
The lizard chirped again and rose into the air, brushing against James' shoulder. It circled around, clearly happy to be free. "Yes," he murmured. "You've got the right of it."
The day before Matt Anderson was to report to the ARC as the new team leader, James found himself wandering the still mostly empty halls from his office to the locker room. He stood in front of the lockers that had belonged to Danny, Connor and Abby, still wrapped in plastic from the move.
It had been at James' behest that these three lockers had been kept whole and intact and moved into the new ARC. It was possibly the most sentimental thing he had ever done and he would deny having ordered it to anyone who asked, and yet he could not imagine having let the lockers be discarded.
James was not a man who clung to false hope. He knew how the world worked. Things didn't work out just because you wanted them to, just because you worked hard and did the best you could and tried to do what was right. The world wasn't fair.
James was eminently practical. He had kept the lockers because he knew that one day, Danny, Connor, and Abby would be back, and they would need the things they had left behind.