Cutter still blamed Helen. Stephen wasn't sure how far he shared that belief in her guilt. It was too much, surely, even for her? Deep inside though, his certainty wavered. He could see her, in his mind's eye, meddling here, plotting there – with that familiarly cold, scientific detachment – learning just enough about the tears in time to spring her final surprise. And what a surprise. At first the outbreak of fresh anomalies had made them smile – even Ryan – joking about the headache that it would mean for Lester. Then the levity had ground to its brutal halt. Anomaly after anomaly; the home counties torn apart; a stampede of animals straight out of the Cretaceous, trampling their world underfoot. When they dwarfed elephants, even the herbivores were lethal; and when they travelled en masse, as some of them did, the level of destruction could be insane. They had found out soon enough that it was not just Britain under attack. Egypt, Mexico, the United States – all flooded by creatures long extinct. The Low Countries were awash with waters pouring in from an ancient sea. There had been garbled reports from China, from India, from Australia; from every populous area across the globe. Everywhere there were animals, racing through anomalies in panicked streams, as though chased by unfathomable, primeval terrors. The basic infrastructure of society had not stood a chance. First disbelief, then panic, then a desperate attempt by the authorities to take control – a pattern repeated across the globe. Those lucky enough to have houses had hidden in them – those without had perished quickly, or fought pitched battles to gain admittance to buildings stout enough to give shelter. Stephen had seen enough of it first-hand to be sure of how it must have been mirrored elsewhere. A bloodbath, with almost as many deaths caused by humans as by the dinosaurs. Did it really all bear Helen's fingerprints? He did not want to believe so. It was telling, however, that he alone seemed prepared to consider her innocent.
"Tea?" Abby was at his elbow, bearing a tin mug of something that smelled suspiciously adulterated. He took it with what might have been a smile. It probably spoke volumes about the state of civilisation that they had begun to drink their tea with a stiff measure of something at least seventy percent proof.
"Thanks." He didn't drink it, but it was useful for warming his hands. "How are the talks going?"
"Don't know. Gave up listening." Lester had gathered their little team together to speak to a straggling collection of politicians, all that had managed to avoid being trapped within the seething morass that was London. It was no easy task. The secrecy of their research meant that barely anybody outside of their group had even been aware of the anomalies prior to the disaster. Now everybody was angry at being kept in the dark; about the lack of forewarning, and about the missed opportunities to prepare. With the senior figures in government all effectively lost in the capital, it seemed they were dealing with the less experienced or the less talented, which hardly helped. As an indication of who might be in charge of any rescue attempts – let alone any future rebuilding – it did not invite much confidence.
Not that there was much alternative. Water from somewhere – from somewhen – had flooded the Thames, and a plague it had very likely brought with it was already laying waste to the citizenry. The Age of Dinosaurs, it seemed, did not kill just by tooth, claw, and oversized, trampling feet. It came equipped with a microbial population as thriving as any in the modern world. With the added burden of weather patterns sent wild by countless holes ripped through to another climate, so much had fallen apart so quickly. They were all effectively isolated from everywhere else. The electrical grid was down, the gas supply had given up. Stephen had no idea if the water main was still functioning – without electricity, he suspected not. There had been little opportunity to find out. He had spent the past week living in a hastily erected tree house in the Forest of Dean, bearing witness to the wholesale failing of global society. Television, radio, the internet; light, heat, and a reliable supply of food. Strange how quickly two hundred and fifty years of industrialisation could collapse.
"You okay?" asked Abby, from a hundred miles away. He glanced at her askance, and shrugged.
"Clearly." She never stopped trying. In permanently good spirits it seemed, even now – although perhaps now it took a little more work to keep the smile going. She was a chatterer; an extrovert; a more restrained version of Connor. The complete opposite of Stephen, so quiet and self-contained. "Thinking about Helen?"
"Yeah." He shrugged, the words not wanting to come at first. "Maybe it doesn't even matter now. If she did all this, I mean. I'm just wondering."
"How she did it, or how she could do it?" He shook his head, not waiting for an answer. "No. My question is why. She always has her reasons; for everything. If she did do this, then what was her motive? She's not an anarchist, and as far as I know she doesn't have a grudge against humanity. No more than most of us anyway."
"Eco-terrorism gone mad?"
"Helen? No, she's no more green than average. Science is always her goal, one way or another. Or it was. I suppose all that wandering alone out there..." He shrugged. "Maybe this was always going to happen? Maybe whatever caused the anomalies was always going to lead to this? Like... like a windscreen eventually splintering after it's been cracked?"
"Maybe." There was no mistaking the dubious edge to her tone. He didn't blame her. If it was a natural phenomenon, then why had it given priority to areas of the highest population density? She didn't argue, however, and merely sipped at her own tea, watching with one eye as Ryan ran through equipment drills with their handful of soldiers. They had started off with twelve men; they were down to eight now. Abby herself had seen one die in the jaws of something huge, nocturnal, and deadly; and another had disappeared the following night, a day's march out of London. They were all hoping he had just deserted. Nobody was talking about what had happened to the other two, but whatever it had been, it had brought Stephen, and even the usually stoic Ryan, back to camp with white faces, torn clothes, and more than the usual collection of scrapes and bruises. Ryan was still favouring his right arm. Stephen was neatly avoiding all questions, and by now all save Lester had got the message.
"Maybe we should hope it is Helen behind it all," she mused, earning an unconvinced look from Stephen. She shrugged her narrow shoulders. "If time itself is splintering... well that doesn't sound very good, does it. For any of us – for the whole universe maybe. If this is just some mad scheme of Helen's, at least we know that reality itself isn't falling apart. I don't know about you, but I can face life in a tree, just about. But the end of everything?" She fell silent for a moment, although her thoughts were written clearly in her bright eyes. "I know you're fond of Helen..." He didn't look at her, and continued staring into his untouched tea. "But... well. There's worse things than betrayal, or old friends gone mad. At least if we hope to survive."
"Yeah." He shot her a sideways smile – or half of one at least, which seemed to her to be at least half a victory. "Still don't know what to do about it all, though. Helen or the universe, we still have a world full of anomalies to sort out, and all these animals to somehow round up. I don't see how we can keep them here; and if we kill them we might destroy history as we know it."
"Or have it go the way we've always known it to."
"Yeah. There's the rub. And even if we don't break a good hundred million years of Earth's past, we've still got the present to rebuild, if we can."
"Survive today. Then worry about tomorrow."
He smiled at that – the first proper smile that she had seen from him in several days. "You have a practicality to you that is quite refreshing, you know that?"
"Haven't I always tried to tell you people how perfect I am?" She smiled cheerfully, although it did not entirely reach her eyes. "What else can we be but practical? We can't plan ahead with something so... so insane. And we have so little information. Our communications are a mess. So we... we do what we can here and now."
"All true enough. Right now, anything could be happening in the rest of the world. Anything could be happening ten miles down the road, for that matter. Get all of this magically sorted out tomorrow, and we'd still never know the death toll. And we're not going to get it all sorted out tomorrow."
"Think about today, Stephen. Just today."
"A world full of non-avian dinosaurs, and all their accompanying bacteria? Yeah. I am." They both fell silent at that, and somewhere in the distance, beyond the muted sounds of Ryan's drill, they heard a deep, guttural cry. It was a sound that could only have come from something extremely large. Stephen set down his cooling tea, and rose to his feet.
"Stations, everyone!" Ryan tossed a rifle to Stephen, who caught it one-handed, offering Abby another half-smile as he did so.
"Rex been inviting friends over?"
"I'll tell him he's grounded." Her expression turned rather more serious. "We've been lucky. I'd half thought... maybe somehow they'd pass us by."
"There's no hiding from this. It's everywhere." He checked his rifle over. "Look after yourself. Try to look after Connor. Stay up in the trees and you should be okay, at least for now."
"I have to go. I have to see what it is. Maybe this time it'll be something we don't need to fight."
"Well at least the laws of averages are on your side. Even if we do seem to be magnets for every large carnivore throughout history."
"And there was I thinking you were the optimist here." She scowled, and he laughed – shortly and without much humour. "Well, whatever it is, we need to check the perimeter. We're due another sweep for civilians anyway. No use surviving the Apocalypse if we're the only ones left, right?"
"The Apocalypse?" Her expression showed that she hadn't thought of it that way. Not yet. A near thing, maybe, but not quite yet. "I—"
"Ryan's waiting, Abby."
"I know. Just make sure you come back. We've got a conversation to finish."
"Learn a few new skills, and you can come along. Then we can talk on the move."
"Maybe I'm going to have to." It was a disturbing thought, and it had come twinned with another. "Could this really be the Apocalypse? I mean... really?"
"Honestly? I don't know. As near as damn it, maybe, yes. And we're the best hope this country has of making sure it doesn't get any worse." This time his smile was real. "The human race might very well be gambling its future on the contents of Connor's brain. And if that isn't enough to give you nightmares..."
"Time to move out, Hart." Ryan was distributing ammunition, and Stephen gave Abby a nod of farewell, before going off to join the soldiers. As he did so, the unseen creature bellowed again, this time answered by a second, and then by a third. From a fourth direction came another vocalisation – of alarm perhaps, or of greeting. It was impossible to tell. They knew only that it was a sound that had no place in the 21st century. Ryan smiled grimly as he handed over Stephen's share of the ammunition.
"Always thought I might retire to the country. Didn't expect it to be quite so soon. Or quite so dinosaury."
"Yeah, well. Wouldn't want it to be too quiet, would you."
"Precisely." They shared a smile, before Ryan shouldered his rifle, and called out to his men to fall in. "Come on. Let's go save the world. Or a bit of it at least."
"One bit at a time?" asked Stephen.
"That's the plan. I checked my diary. Turns out I don't have anything else planned for the next forty-odd years."
"Isn't that a bit of luck." Stephen smiled faintly, and cast a look back towards their camp. Abby had disappeared, but he could see Cutter, emerging from the makeshift room, halfway up a massive oak tree, where the temporary Parliament was housed. He looked harassed, and typically crumpled. For all the unusual surroundings, it was a reassuringly normal sight. It made Stephen smile again, if guardedly. As he headed out to meet who knew what, it was good to remember what he was fighting for. Not for the world – that was far too big and impersonal. Friendship, though – that was good. Friendship, and safety, and the hope for tomorrow. Doubly important, now that somehow it had become his job to make sure that there was one.