The radio crackled. "I've found the anomaly. It…" The voice broke off suddenly, and came back more sharply. "Something's coming through."
Cutter snatched up the radio. "Stephen! What is it? Be careful."
"It's enormous! It's…"
The interference surged, becoming a crackling storm. "Stephen!" Cutter shouted. "Stephen!" Dimly, he thought he heard the sound of a struggle, and then a voice, a single incoherent word. Cutter was on his feet, straining towards the door. "Stephen!"
Then, clearly, dreadfully, he heard Stephen speak. "Oh my God!"
And then nothing.
Stephen stared; swallowed; stared again. "You…" He struggled for the control he prided himself on. "You ate my radio."
"Apologies." The creature did not look sorry, unless that fluttering orange crest over one of its cavernous nostrils was its way of signalling contrition. You never could tell with creatures, after all. "It was just too tempting."
Another swallow. Backtrack a moment here. It could talk. It could talk. "Hello," it had said, in perfect English, though with perhaps a trace of a Liverpool accent. And then it had eaten his radio.
"I…" His voice wasn't normally that strangled sort of squeak, was it? He cleared his throat. "You… They… He…"
The creature furled its wings. It reminded Stephen of the sort of gesture an adult might make when settling down to explain something to an idiot. "As I said, it was too tempting. 'Oh my God!' you exclaimed, so wonderfully dramatic. But which god is that, I wonder? I don't like those Viking gods, all hairy and rampaging. The Greek ones sit around drinking wine all the time, except for when they turn themselves into animals or bits of vine in order to have sex with mortals, which is all very strange, if you ask me. But, no, you don't look Viking or Greek – I can't see your knees and you don't have a beard. But where was I? Oh yes. You gasped 'Oh my God!', so the only obvious thing to do was to eat your artefact of far-talking."
"Radio," Stephen corrected it. He wasn't sure why. It just seemed like a more appropriate thing to do than scream.
"Radio." The creature relished the vowels as if it was still eating them. "I like that. Better than artefact of far-talking, anyway. I'll tell the man with the pointy hat and the white beard as soon as I get home. His sort are all very well, but they don't really have an ear for a catchy slogan."
Perhaps he would just shoot it, Stephen thought. Shooting was good; it was what he did. Cutter worked out what needed to be done, and Stephen shot it with guns. The flame-thrower had been good, too, but he did not like to think too much about flames at the moment. Was that soot around the creature's great nostrils?
"But where was I?" The creature studied its massive foot, frowning at the dirt on one of its talons. "I ate your… radio. It had to be done. Now your friends have only the echo of your anguished cry, inexplicably cut off. It is so much more satisfying, don't you think? I presume they will be racing to your side, all the while hoping against hope that they won't get here too late." The creature's tongue snaked out past its enormous fangs. "I wouldn't recommend radios, to be honest, though perhaps it would have been better with a bit of… extra flavouring, shall we say."
Stephen was sure there was innuendo there, of the sort that gangster bosses make in gangster films, or super-villains make in super-villain films. Not that he watched such things often, being too busy with his running, and with Cutter. He reached for his gun. It was far simpler that way.
"Oh, do put that away," the creature said, lazily twitching its forked tail. "For I presume, from the look of manly determination on your face, that that curious metal thing is a weapon of some kind. That really irks me, by the way. Something bigger than you appears, and you immediately assume that it's hostile, and that violence is the only answer. It happens all the time. All those little farm boys with their inherited swords, all wanting to slay you just because you're bigger than they are, and because you can breathe fire – and can't help it, I must point out, but are born like that – and happened, accidentally and entirely by accident, to burn the village that their sweetheart lived in, even though you did say sorry afterwards and offered to get them another one…"
The gun was shaking in Stephen's suddenly-sweaty hand. His old instructor would never have let him live it down. I must be dreaming it, he thought. He tried to remember if he'd been bitten by any giant centipedes lately. Maybe he was lying delirious in a tunnel again. That sort of thing happened quite often. Humour the dream, he thought. After all, I won't remember it tomorrow.
"It is a reasonable assumption on my part." He tried to sound like Cutter. "You look hostile. You've got teeth. You ate my radio…"
"I said hello first!" The creature sounded outraged.
"And nearly all the creatures who come through these anomalies are hostile," Stephen pointed out. They usually try to eat us. I should know." His scars ached at the memory.
"An anomaly?" The creature had gone off on another tack again, apparently forgetting its pique. "So that’s what you call it. I did wonder what it was what, but it was shiny and sparkly, and it seems that certain things run in the blood, even though this whole treasure hoard thing is so old-fashioned and such a cliché and no-one does it any more. Ooh, shiny! I thought. Yes, yes, I admit it was hardly the most stellar demonstration of thought and reasoning, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. I wandered through, and here I am."
Here being in my dreams, Stephen thought emphatically. I'm lying in a tunnel. Cutter will find me soon.
"How strange, though," said the creature, "that you only get big and scaries. What sort of big and scaries?"
Delirious, thought Stephen, or dying. Yes, dying would be nice. "Prehistoric creatures, mostly," he said, "but sometimes…"
"Oh! You mean dinosaurs?" the creature exclaimed. "They're my distant relatives, in a tangled sort of fashion. Though I never liked them much myself. You know what family reunions are like. They're the strange cousins you don't like, but have to invite because Aunty Gladys will be offended if you don't."
You could not be interrupted by a creature who only existed in your tortured fever dreams. Stephen refused to accept that it was possible.
"Sometimes dinosaurs," he said firmly, "and something other prehistoric creatures, and once we got something from the future."
"But always big and scaries?" The creature looked interested.
"Not always," Stephen told it. "Sometimes we get something that's big and looks scary, but it turns out not to be threatening in the end."
"Ah, the classic red herring." The creature looked amused. "You run round chasing big and stupid, while small but lethal creates mayhem in the background. But you don't get any small and placids? No dormice? No fluffy bunnies? No rampaging flocks of peace-loving doves?"
Stephen shook his head, meaning no, and kept on shaking it, because he could.
"How odd," said the creature. "How strange of these anomalies to be so selective. I mean, there I was, wandering along yon blasted mountain fastness, when I came across this anomaly of yours, all shiny and lovely like a huge pile of treasure and jewels and diamonds and gold rings…" A spectacularly large drop of drool fell from its enormous jaws. It visibly pulled itself together. "Well, suffice it to say, I wandered through by my own free choice. Why, then, do you have no fluffy bunnies and gentle doves? It's as if some huge intelligence – some Dark Lord, shall we say – is controlling this thing, and making sure that you only get the scaries that can eat you. Something, I think, is trying to kill you."
I have wondered this myself, Stephen told himself firmly. Now he came to think of it, he clearly remembered a discussion with Cutter, late one night. This creature – No, he thought. Call it a dragon. It isn't real, so there's no harm done. This dragon was a manifestation of his own doubts, given the semblance of flesh by his near-death imaginings. It was obvious, really, when you knew what to look for.
Still, he hoped that Cutter came soon to rescue him from this tunnel.
He became aware that he was still holding his gun, and that his arm was aching from keeping it more or less steady for several minutes. He preferred to keep it there. It felt good.
"But I see you don't want to discuss it," the dragon said sadly. "People never do. All these heroes with their swords and shiny armour… They just want to slay me. They never show the slightest interest in my poetry, and not one has consented to join me in a debate about philosophy." Smoke issued from its nostrils as it sighed miserably. "We've got past the silly threats, so is it time to move on to the questions? You're wondering where I came from."
My mind, Stephen thought. You came from my mind. His cramped fingers trembled on the gun. It would have been deeply embarrassing had it not been a dream.
"Not the past." It now seemed to be trying to tease him, its yellow eyes gleaming beneath scaled eyelids. "Not the future. Yes, my friend, I come from… the world of fiction."
There was nothing he could say to that. If Cutter didn't find him soon, he was going to give this thing up forever, if he lived. He could take the injuries and the scars and the painful weeks in hospital, but not this. He had never been fanciful, had always prided himself on being down to earth. This was not right. This was so extremely not right.
"Although," the dragon said, "I like to tell myself that I'm the real one, and you're all works of fiction. It feels more comfortable that way – better for my self-esteem. It's like that old philosophers' question: am I dreaming the world, or am I just a character in someone else's dream? Existentialism, is that what it's called? Or maybe that's something else. My philosophy's a bit rusty, thanks to those cursed heroes."
Stephen was suddenly hit with the certainty that he was about to die. He had to keep the dragon talking. If it stopped talking, that meant that his delusion was fading, and that meant that death was near. He had never been so deep in delirium that he had lost all sense of the real world around him. "So you're from a book. Tolkien, or something. Is that why you can speak English?"
"Maybe you speak Dragonish?" Its toes were twitching, as if it was uncomfortable about something, and its teasing sounded strangely half-hearted. "No, I speak your language because I can. Next question. I like questions. Most men just like to talk about themselves, don't you find? It's enough to make a girl cry."
"Which book are you from, then?" he managed to ask. Not that he had ever been much of a reader himself. As a child, it had all been animals and sport, and some things never changed.
"Oh, nothing you've heard of." The dragon looked even more shifty. "Something written by someone in another world, or in the future, or something. It's just as well. I went through a strange sort of gate thing once, and ended up somewhere where they went simply wild as soon as I started talking. They were shrieking something about crossovers not being popular, and copyright and law suits. You humans are very strange."
That rumbling sound beyond the trees… It wasn't a car; it was the rescue party coming through the tunnels. Not that he often needed rescuing. He liked to think of himself as the sort of person who did the rescuing, but there was no shame in sometimes needing help. That was why he was still alive, when other men had fallen, and better men had died. That was why…
"You're doing an angst-ridden interior monologue," the dragon said stiffly. "Please don't. It does funny things to your face."
"You're fictional," he retorted. "You just told me so." To be insulted by a delusion seemed like the worst thing of all.
"Ah!" cried the dragon, delighted. "Here come your little friends. What fun! Pretty as you are, you're beginning to get boring." It leant its enormous head close to Stephen, close enough that he could smell the sulphur on its warm breath. "I think you're trying to pretend I'm not really here, aren't you? I've seen people do that before. Of course, they usually end up getting eaten because this so-called non-existent monster is not only real, but hungry, too. Present company excepted, that is." It plainly though that Stephen was very stupid, for it added, in a confiding whisper, "That means me."
The jeep turned up with a squeal of tyres. "Stephen!" Cutter was out of the door in seconds, with Connor scrambling in an ungainly fashion from the passenger seat. "What is it?" Cutter's steps shambled to a halt. It would have looked quite comical if it had been real, rather than a delusion. "What is it?" This time his tone was very different.
"A dragon." Stephen's voice was dry. Cutter was here, with day-old stubble and a rumpled coat. And Connor… He wouldn't dream Connor.
It was true. Of course it was true. He had known it was true all along, hadn't he, but he was a scientist, and these things didn't happen. He kept his emotions tightly reined. He had to. He had felt too much as a student, and still had to live with the aftermath of that. Cutter had barely spoken to him for months after Helen had chosen to reveal their secret, and even now, two years on, things were not as they once had been.
"A dragon!" Connor was ecstatic, of course. "A red dragon. They're quite powerful, but usually evil. You need magic weapons, at least plus twos."
"Oh." The dragon rolled its eyes. "We've got one of that sort."
"Believe me, I know what you mean," Stephen said. Now that he knew that the dragon was real, everything suddenly became easier. It was almost like an old friend.
"I always knew it was true!" Connor exclaimed. "It had to be. They were all so similar, with their magic jewels and the halflings and the elves. Why would the stories all be so similar if there wasn't some truth in them, after all?"
Cutter had come up to Stephen, and clapped him on the back, his other hand briefly squeezing his shoulder. "Are you all right? I thought…" He swallowed.
"It ate my radio." Stephen flapped his hand at the dragon. It was amazing how easy it had suddenly become. Really, dragons were not much stranger than predators from the future, and the prattle was no worse than Connor in full flow. "It seems to come from some sort of generic fantasy novel."
"And – Oh! Oh! – all the others must be true, too." Connor was capering excitedly, but was being careful to keep several trees between himself and the dragon. Stephen wondered if he should point out the flammable nature of wood. "Star Wars. The X-Men. Doctor Who. What if Obi-Wan Kenobi comes through with his lightsabre? That would be so cool."
The dragon unfurled its wings, stretched them, and stowed them neatly away again. "Excuse me, small and tasty-looking excitable person, may I ask what you're wearing?"
Connor stopped his capering. He was wearing his usual hat, a scarf, and a tatty waistcoat, covered with badges whose slogans Stephen had no desire to understand. "E…excuse me?"
"You called me evil." Its eyes glinted unpleasantly. "And yet there you stand, without any armour or any of the usual trappings of a hero. If I decided to eat you, I'm just wondering how you are planning to defend yourself armed only with a…"
"Space pen," Connor explained, "used by astronauts in space. It works in zero gravity." He subsided, and began to back away. "Stephen," he hissed. "Save me."
"Admittedly your clothes are not as impractical as some I've seen," the dragon mused. "Those barbarian ladies who come in almost naked, with strange pointy metal bits covering those tasty morsels of flesh that human ladies have… I have never understood that."
"It's going to eat me," Connor gibbered. "Shoot it, Stephen. It's going to eat me, or burn me to a crisp."
Stephen took pity on him. "It's teasing you." He shot a stern look at the dragon. "I think."
"A dragon," Cutter said wonderingly, moving forward. He held his hand out, like someone trying to coax a nervous puppy to trust him. "I thought I'd seen everything, but apparently not."
Stephen was almost carefree, it seemed, now that he knew that he wasn't dying in a tunnel after all. "I think that creature of Connor's was more strange than this."
"The thing that had evolved from one of the pens he'd dropped through the portal?" Cutter sounded distracted, his eyes firmly on the dragon. "You could be right."
"Guys!" Connor hissed. "Guys! It can talk."
"Can I?" the dragon said. "How amazing. I hadn't noticed."
"I want to go home." Connor was clearly trying to look dignified, but failing wildly. "I'm going to wait in the jeep."
They watched him go. Stephen could have sworn that the dragon was smiling.
"Well," Cutter observed, after the door had slammed with painful dignity, "you've broken Connor, and I didn't think that was possible. I think you and I might be friends."
An idea occurred to Stephen. "Imagine Lester's face."
Cutter turned to face him, and for a moment it was as if the last two years had not happened, and Helen had never said what she had said. "Let's keep him."
"Her," Stephen corrected, remembering something it had said earlier. "It's a girl."
"Hey!" the dragon protested. "I am here, you know. I can decide these things for myself."
"You'll like Lester," Stephen told him. He smiled at the thought of this dragon destroying the brightest and best of the Home Office with her endless prattle. Maybe they could introduce her to the Prime Minister…
The dragon tilted her head to one side. "Very well," she said, at last. "I find that I want to see more of this world of yours, after all. Does this Lester taste better than a radio?"
"This is very, very wrong," Cutter whispered a little later, but he was smiling, and they were back to how things once had been, before any of this has started.
Stephen smiled back. Yes, this was far better than being dead. Life, he thought, might almost be good again.