Disclaimer: No infringement upon the copyrights held by ITV, Impossible Pictures or any others involved with that production is intended.
Thanks: THE jay tryfanstone has done a stupendous job, above and beyond the call of duty and cannot be thanked enough for sparing the time. Thanks also to Alyse and Aithine for their excellent organization.
Summary: Nick and Stephen struggle to reconcile during an onslaught of action
Spoilers: set mid season 2
The ululating cries of the seagulls outside woke Stephen. He smiled unconsciously at the noise and then his mind focused on remembering why he wasn't in his own bed. Where there were definitely no seagulls. The memories came back. After his run, as he'd entered his flat he'd heard the phone ringing over the beat of Monster on his MP3 player. He'd answered the phone, and hearing the excitable tones of Connor, knew without hearing the words that there was another anomaly and that the day wasn't over just yet.
He'd needed that run. Another day working on analysis of the last creature incursion at the ARC in the sterile, civilised, polite working environment felt like being bottled up. The run had allowed him to expel his pent up energy and distracted him from the empty feeling of yet another day being part of a team, rather than half of a dynamic partnership.
Half an hour after the call he'd been picked up in one of the large silver 4x4 vans, flinging his rucksack into the back where it balanced on a variety of bags and crates. The equipment checklists for each van were esoteric. The team carried with them anything from elephant guns to veterinary tranquilisers; nets; GPS sets; from radios to supplement their mobile phones to raw meat in cooler boxes. Dead bait had been found to be exceptionally useful in recent skirmishes.
In the back seat of the van he found himself sitting next to Cutter, while in the front were two of special service lads, dressed in their usual black garb. Stephen found himself a little elated to be almost alone with Cutter, although there as always these days there was a tinge of sadness as they failed even to glance at one another. Cutter didn't turn his head away from his vigilant survey out of the van window.
"Alright?" Stephen tried in a slightly forced fashion. Usually loquacious with Cutter but taciturn with others, words had become a recent inconvenience between the two of them.
There was only subdued, ambient lighting in the back of the 4x4, and he couldn't easily read Cutter's expression as the man's face finally turned towards him.
"Yes," Cutter's Scottish burr replied and, after the merest pause, unexpectedly continued. "Connor's machine appears to be showing an anomaly along the coastal area of Dorset".
Ah. That would explain the odd cant to Cutter's intonation, thought Stephen, grateful that the dim light also hid his expression. Despite trying, he could not quite prevent his face from breaking into a self satisfied smirk.
Cutter continued oblivious, "There has also been a report which may confirm that this is not the first time the anomaly has opened, just the first time the detector has alerted us. That report came from a group of geologists out fossil hunting. They were along the shoreline and one of the group picked up an ammonite. Except this one wasn't lithified, it was alive! They posted it on their website and Connor found it."
"What are Jenny and Lester attributing it to this time?" asked Stephen, in a voice that did not hide his irritation. "I still just don't understand how we think we can keep this contained and deny the public the right to know what's going on."
"Stephen, we've been through this. This is not a case of us being intellectual snobs. There are genuine and very real risks in telling people any of this."
"There are very real consequences of us not telling people! How many innocent and unsuspecting people's deaths have we been party to already? Were they unavoidable, could we have prevented it? We have a responsibility. This isn't just some overgrown dinosaur hunt. People die!" Stephen's tone was becoming louder and more heated, causing the stoic SAS passenger in the passenger seat to cock his head.
Stephen expected Cutter to fire back a comment, but was startled when the man looked him full in the face across the confined space of the back seat and said in a low voice "Too many, Stephen. And if I can stop any more I will."
It was said earnestly, with complete honesty, and was so openly conceded that Stephen could feel that Cutter meant it. More than that. If he heard right, Cutter had said that if he could take away Stephen's remorse and anxiety and shoulder the burden himself, he would. Stephen hadn't realised, but Cutter had taken his hand in that moment. Releasing it, Cutter looked at him for a few more seconds, the corner of his mouth seeming to lift in a half smile. Of reassurance, of regret? Then he turned back to staring out the window. Confused and bereft, Stephen was left looking at Cutter's profiled face outlined by the lights of the darkened motorway. The rest of the journey passed silently. Stephen found he'd dozed off and was only woken by Cutter, gently shaking him, and informing him they'd arrived.
Standing in the doorway of the bed and breakfast, Stephen looked out across the sea, which today was an iron grey colour mimicking the dull clouds overhead. The waves were shallow but rippled in response to the strong breeze that was ruffling his already unruly hair. During the lulls in the traffic he could hear the gentle shush of small waves breaking on the pebbly beach. In the far distance, on the horizon, small pools of light slowly shifted as the scant rays of sunlight shone down through the clouds miles away. The low cliffs of the English coastline, with their white chalk visible beneath the patchy green vegetation, formed a low wall that receded into the distance to the west.
Stephen came down the steps smiling, and thought to himself that as much as he liked hiking through unknown jungles or grasslands in search of specimens and tracking animals, there was something endearing about English seaside resorts and this one in particular. As he arrived on the street, still smiling, Cutter turned to face him.
Stephen had no time to answer as the door banged open and Connor barged through in a tumble of arms, bag and laptop, scarf flapping. Behind him, and rolling her eyes, was an amused but equally cheery Abby. The silver 4x4 vans drew up and they piled in, the few tranquil moments shattered as the imperative of the previous night was resumed.
Last night, when they'd arrived, Stephen had been woken to find himself in a dark field where flood lights were being set up some distance from the suspended glittering mass of an anomaly. He could see Cutter standing still, staring. Elsewhere, there was a murmur of efficient activity as everyone got on with the set up tasks which were all too familiar to them now. As he watched, Abby's head popped into his field of vision, closely followed by Connor's.
"There's no sign of any creature incursions as yet, the special forces guys haven't found anything," Abbey said.
Connor was practically bouncing behind Abby, "Yeah. And I've lost my camera! The anomaly took it."
Connor was surprisingly excited considering the loss, thought Stephen.
Connor went on to recount, "The magnetic force around this anomaly is really strong. I'll have to get the kit out and get a better reading, but wow, it's quite impressive. One of the tech guys didn't duck in time and got walloped, that's when we realised the set up would have to go back."
"And if you'd not been mucking about letting coins go through just to see how strong the force was, and if you'd told the guys, he wouldn't have been hit by the flying spanner!" Abby said, somewhat crossly.
Connor looked sheepishly contrite at her mild scolding. The technician was part of the team and should know by now not to be between metal objects and the anomaly, but Abby had a point.
At this juncture Cutter interjected and told them that their temporary base was established, that there were no obvious threats, and that there was little more they could do that night. They should all go on to the accommodation. In the morning they could all return to examine the area more closely, and yes, Connor could bring his equipment and take readings. That at least would be slightly more scientific than using the coin of the realm to work out the strength of the magnetic field.
The next day, dropped back in the field. Stephen regained some of his early morning tranquility. In daylight the field was not so much flat as gently sloped, part of a small valley. The sides of it were ringed with trees in springtime leaf and the main part covered in short grass. The anomaly, still glittering even in the sunlight, was positioned at the bottom of the field near to one of the tree-lined edges. On closer inspection there was a short drop beyond, leading down to a river course. This was one of the valleys running down from the chalklands of the Dorset Ridgeway, the streams and rivers all making their way to the sea.
Stephen had been first out of the van, intent on scouring the area in the better light for any tracks. It had taken time to reach the site from the ARC, and tracks would evidence any creatures who had managed to come through the anomaly before the team's arrival. Several of the Special Forces men whom he trusted were deployed to assist him. Abby was helping an exuberant Connor with his gear: Connor chattering away while Abbey nodded and laughed. Cutter was on the phone to Lester, giving him a full update on the situation as it stood, and discussing the need to go through the anomaly with some force. It was part of Cutter's established objectives to start mapping the anomalies. Where they appeared in the present. If they moved. What their strength was, their duration, and most importantly, if it was possible to see when they originated in the past. Cutter was certain that collecting this data was essential to the team's understanding of the anomalies, and anyone who didn't agree was simply wrong and needed to be educated.
From the far edge of the trees, Stephen could hear the last strains of this familiar conversation, and he grinned to himself. Some things never changed and Cutter's sanctimonious attitude when he was right, as unnervingly he often was, was an experience few escaped. In this case, it was Lester's turn. Stephen could recall numerous occasions when students proposing dissertation topics, or submitting papers with glee in their hearts at a task well done, were rather pompously corrected by Cutter. The man was always right, but then that was the advantage of long worn experience and research few could match.
Stephen's smile faded as he continued to search for signs of spoor or broken foliage that might betray the passing of a creature. He knew that he and Cutter were well matched. Mutual respect had been hard won, but had brought forth an astounding partnership of such instinctive familiarity that a lifted eyebrow could carry as much information as a heated debate. But as Stephen and his team continued into the trees, he consciously redirected his efforts back to the search, making a deliberate decision not to dwell on how things stood between him and Cutter.
Stephen himself, when the team regrouped at the vans, was for once not preoccupied by Cutter but by how even the smallest clue reminded him of how his own world had changed. Even the vans used to be emblazoned with an embarrassingly endearing elephant and the signifier 'Centre for Evolutionary Zoology'. Now they were simply silver, with the 'ARC' symbol visible only if you choose to look closely enough. Stephen sighed to himself. But at least the tea did not change: he drank his from the thermos mug that someone had remembered to pack this morning, probably one of the special forces lads.
Refreshed, he could turn his attention to Connor, who had been regaling the team with the intricacies of the equipment and computer software set up that morning to study the anomaly. Connor had never seemed to grasp his team's lack of interest in precise technical specifications, and Abby, noticing the slightly unfocused looks on both Stephen and Cutter's faces, had pity on both of them.
"Shut up Connor. Tell them what you've found."
"Oh yes, right." Connor coughed, and proceeded, "As you know, the anomalies all have a magnetic field around them which attracts metal objects. They also interfere with radio waves, which is how we can now detect them. That is, er, Professor Cutter's discovery, not mine." Connor's tone of voice sounded as if he was presenting a seminar, and the man took a moment to realise that Cutter himself and his audience were smirking at the basic explanation. Slightly embarrassed, but with his enthusiasm unabated, he continued: "Um. So the readings we've taken previously have shown that the magnetic fields vary over time. In close enough proximity, we can predict when anomaly is closing, because the strength of the field diminishes. If we continue to take readings at sites, we may start to see a relationship between the strength of the magnetic field and other aspects of the anomalies. So, it's possible we might find that the fields are stronger in anomalies closer to our own time."
Connor paused, looking from face to face expectantly.
Genuinely pleased, Cutter said, "That's excellent work." His smile was echoed in Abbey's beam, and Stephen found himself nodding.
Connor then added, "Last night I suspected that this anomaly might be different. If the readings I took this morning are right - and I've double checked them," he said, a defensive hint to his voice. " - then these are the highest readings we've ever seen. So far." He was smiling. "The majority of other anomalies have read at about 3 to 7 Gilberts. This one is much higher, it's an amazing 11 Gilberts! And, it's too early to tell yet, but it seems to be increasing slightly. Can you imagine? It's no wonder I lost my camera and that guy got hit by the spanner. Which really wasn't my fault. It wasn't." Connor looked away for a moment, and Stephen could see that his enthusiasm was momentarily diminished, but he did not take long to regroup. "So that begs the question," he said, "why is this one stronger? Is it the age of the era on the other side of the anomaly, or is it some other factor?"
"That's why I've got Lester to agree to an incursion through this one," Cutter stated. "We need to start mapping. This anomaly shows no sign of anything coming through, and should be safe. You didn't find anything, did you?" he said, belatedly looking to Stephen for input.
"No, but that doesn't mean its safe!" Stephen protested. "There could be any number of reasons why nothing's come through. Including, but not limited to, the strength of the magnetic field."
"Well, I suggest we keep a watch on it. Keep taking your readings, Connor. Stephen, Abby, the two of you can start getting together whatever we may need for a short jaunt through the anomaly. We need to be there long enough to establish what period it is, but no longer."
Cutter's voice was adamant, and he was clearly recalling his last visit to the past, accompanying Helen. As the others turned to go about their business, Stephen saw Cutter take a deep breath and shut his eyes for just a few moments. He could hear the echo of Tom Ryan's voice saying "It was me wasn't it, I was looking at me?"
Opening his eyes again, Stephen knew that Cutter's resolution was the right course of action. He knew it was, it had to be done. Both of them agreed that it was imperative they were able to comprehend the anomalies, stop them, prevent them. If the anomalies continued, people would have the right to know and to be able to safeguard themselves, but Cutter was determined they, the team, would solve the problem. The world had already been inadvertently changed by their actions, his actions. They could not exacerbate the situation by telling the world. After disbelief would come panic, and he dreaded the thought of what would happen if the story broke. Cutter believed that if they could stay in control, the anomalies would remain nothing more than a mildly interesting and shortly redundant scientific event.
But control of events was more limited than Stephen knew. As the afternoon activity in the camp continued, with men patrolling the outer area beyond the trees, Connor consulting his creature database and Stephen, Abby and a couple of the special forces men gathering provisions and arms, no one noticed that the metal equipment cases had edged fractionally toward the anomaly. From the work area a number of small, light objects sailed silently through the air in the same direction. Outside the zone delineated by Connor's measurements, they remained unobserved, and unlike the previous night no diagnostic flying object connected with an innocent technician.
Twilight was falling, bringing a dusky hued sky. Stephen thought, there would be a spectacular sunset over the sea tonight, and he smiled inwardly at where that image led him. It took effort to refocus on Abby's questioning voice.
"Yes," he'd replied to her standard, double-check query as to whether they had both doses of tranquilisers loaded in the guns. The preparations were as tedious as usual, and Stephen just wanted to get on with going through the anomaly. At least, this time, he wasn't going to be disobeying Cutter and going through after the man. Stephen felt physically sick to his stomach at the recollection and he searched the surrounding faces to reassure himself Cutter was still here, now. How Cutter could have thought Stephen wouldn't be able to read him, wouldn't have guessed that stupid, stupid plan ... As he packed the last pieces of equipment into his rucksack, Stephen repressed a shudder.
But Stephen was not the only team member checking on Cutter. Connor had been conscientiously checking his readings most of the afternoon, while everyone else packed around him. Now though, there was great excitement in his voice.
"Professor Cutter! The readings, they're spiking!"
And the urgency of Connor's voice was accompanied by the rapid fire of small metal objects heading, at speed, to the anomaly.
"Everyone down!" shouted Cutter.
Even the metal crates were shifting towards the anomaly, the nearest to it lifting off the ground and flying through. Everyone could feel the tug on zips and buttons on the clothes they were wearing.
"Try and get further back!" Cutter yelled.
Stephen could see he was looking around to see where everyone was, even as Abby's slight frame was being pulled to safety by Connor and the Special Forces lads secured the technicians. He himself fought to remain level with Cutter as they headed away from the anomaly, an unspoken pact that shared the risks. It was Stephen who spotted the van move. Succumbing to the magnetic force of the anomaly, it was sliding down the slope, and Cutter stood directly underneath the path of it. Racing, Stephen tried to reach Cutter in time to knock him out of the way, but timing was not on his side. The sliding van hit both of them, unstoppable, and all three barreled through the anomaly.
As the van tipped and rolled through the undergrowth of an entirely another era, Cutter and Stephen were nothing more than a tangle of limbs tumbling down the same slope. It was the entwined pair who halted first, stopped by a tangle of branches: the sound of the van crashing through vegetation only ceased with a thud that suggested the vehicle had collided, hard, with a tree trunk.
There was silence and darkness.
Back in the present, the anomaly had closed seconds after Cutter and Stephen fell, leaving the field in the inky blackness of night, and with the generator cables pulled out by the magnetic activity the floodlights were out of commission. As everyone on the team tried to find out if everyone else was okay, it was a while before the missing van and Cutter and Stephen's absence was noticed. In the mayhem, no one had seen clearly what had happened, but the trail of wreckage across the field told its own story.
Abby looked, distraught, at Connor, who swallowed nervously at the implications. Cutter and Stephen were trapped beyond the anomaly, possibly injured, in an era with unknown dangers.
He swallowed before he said, "It'll be okay, Abby. They know the anomalies recur at the same locations. All they have to do is wait." He looked at her directly, not lying, but the nervous tone of his voice was evidence of Connor's uncertainty and fear for his friends. Abby moved closer and they sought solace in a hug.
Stephen had no idea how long he and Cutter been unconscious, but he didn't think it had been long. He stirred, trying to move his rangy limbs and see if anything was broken. Cutter responded in kind and after gentle shifting the two were sat, slightly dazed, in their new surroundings.
"You okay?" asked Cutter.
Stephen nodded gingerly. He'd definitely bumped his head on the way down but aside from scratches and what were going to be some spectacular bruises he was fine. "You?"
"Yeah, I'll live a little longer," snorted Cutter. "We really will have to watch where we park the vans in the future."
As Cutter chuckled the irony of the comment didn't pass Stephen by, and then they both started laughing. Alive, slightly exhilarated by survival and on the other side of the anomaly. The moment passed and Stephen looking round said, "When do you think we are?"
"No idea, yet. Let's see if a little bit of hands on empirical research can enlighten us".
They'd fallen through the anomaly as darkness was settling over the small Dorset valley. Now millions of years away in time the scene was completely different. Together, they rose up from the ground, and set off.
Their first impressions were of a fairly dense stand of exotic looking trees, low lush undergrowth and the clear blue skies of daylight beyond the canopy of fronds.
"We should mark where we reckon the anomaly appeared here, then we should be able to find it again," stated Cutter.
"If the thing reopens you mean," added Stephen, raising an eyebrow in a slightly antagonistic manner. Now wasn't the time for a Cutter lecture.
Brushing this aside, Cutter headed towards the spot they must've come from, "It will. We know several have before and there's no reason for this one not to."
Stephen's silence made the man turn round and look. Stephen had his head tilted, his eyebrows raised.
"Okay, so I'm not always right, but you'd bloody well better hope I am this time." Cutter's Scottish burr showed through more with his determination.
Shaking his head, but smiling, Stephen started walking and passed Cutter by heading to their original spot. Once there he stood and thought, before reaching under his shirt and tearing a strip off the red T-shirt underneath. Tying it at shoulder height on the nearest tree, he said, "There, that should give us a clue. As long as nothing eats it," he added. "Right, now what, stay close and wait, or go and explore further afield?"
As it turned out they both opted to go and explore, almost as if they weren't stuck on the wrong side of an anomaly and were simply on one of Cutter's expeditions over the summer breaks. The day was warm, like a humid summer's day, and they tramped through a relatively dense forest of coniferous trees, that left the scent of the pine hanging in the air. The lowest part of the trees were fairly bare, with the first branches being far above head height. Looking up, Stephen let out a low soft whistle: the tree trunks were almost endless. "They must be over 50 meters high!" At the base of some were odd growths. "What do you think those are?" he queried, wary in case they exploded into something nasty. Things had a habit of doing that, he'd noted from his experiences with the past.
"Algal burrs?" Cutter answered.
They continued, gradually becoming aware of the rustling of the trees. The breeze seemed to become stronger until they emerged out of the trees and saw the view. They were on a raised beach, on the margins of a sea, but this sea was definitely not the same one they'd seen emerging from the B&B that morning. This one was a clear azure blue, with what appeared to be several islands in the distance surrounded by shallow shoals. Walking towards the edge of the shoreline, some way from the tree line, Cutter mused, "Warmer than present day, I'd say, tropical coniferous forest, I wonder ..."
After no more words were forthcoming, Stephen, despite the frown on his face, shrugged minutely and carried on walking. Beside Cutter, his tall form easily matched the man's pace.
At the shoreline there were the first signs of animal life. Tracks could be seen in the sands, although they were impossible to make out clearly since they'd been partially washed away by the gentle waves.
With unexpected assuredness Cutter sat down, took off his boots and rolled his socks off, Stephen watching in amazement, followed with his eyes as Cutter's form waded out into the shallow waters. Bending closely to stare at something below the water, he exclaimed "Ha!" and was calling out with excitement. "Look Stephen, it's an ammonite. Judging from the ridge patterns, I think it must be a Haplocerataceae type. It's beautiful"
Joining him in the water, which was blissfully warm with the sand squeezing between his toes, Stephen looked at his mentor, his friend, his partner in so many things, and could see the sheer happiness radiating from him. How odd, to feel so free of the tribulations which had been troubling them on a daily basis, now that they were stuck on the other side of an anomaly.
This was not the only magnificent spiraled shell, and the two of them were soon reveling in the number and variety of ammonites, their opalescent shells glistening. They watched as the creatures continued feeding, resting peacefully on the seabed or gently propelling themselves around in the same way as modern squids. Weaving amongst them were a variety of fish and other invertebrates, all unthreatened by the presence of human legs standing in the water. It was like they'd gone on a bizarre Caribbean holiday instead of through a rip in time. Normally there would have been running and screaming before this.
"So what, we're in the cretaceous period?", Stephen finally asked after a lull in an impromptu discussion of ammonite behavior and how similar it was to modern day species such as Nautilus.
"No, I don't think so. I'd say more probably the late Jurassic, but we'd need to see other species to be more positive".
The sun had drifted across the cloudless sky and tinges of red were visible. Clearly sunset wasn't far away and the thought of being out in the wilderness for the night was not reassuring. Cutter and Stephen made their way back onto the shore, and after letting their feet dry, they replaced their boots, and without a word they both started to make their way back to the gap in the tree line where they'd entered the beach. They were clearly unified in the desire to go back and see if the anomaly had returned, but walked in a comfortable silence.
"It might've been an idea to grab one of Connor's handheld detectors, then we'd know when it was returning," Cutter offered, although in all honesty he was half heartedly trying to be amusing, since they'd had no idea they would be flung through the anomaly.
Stephen picked up on his attempt at levity and was grateful. He swung the pack he'd been carrying, the one he'd put on just before the anomaly went crazy, and fished around in one of the side pockets. Eventually he came up with a welcome bar of chocolate. Breaking off chunks, he shared them as the two men picked their way through the undergrowth beneath the trees, so reminiscent of pine and yews but so much larger in scale. It was easy and they were carefree, expecting the anomaly to have returned.
An optimism slightly dampened by the sight of the strip of red material hanging on the branch, and no sign of a glittering doorway home.
Up to now the enormity of being stuck hadn't really been at the forefront of their minds, but they were both capable and although it was unnerving, they would manage.
"So, back to the beach then or camp here for the night?" Stephen asked, smiling.
Cutter responded, "What do you think?"
"Beach it is. We'll leave a few more markers this time in case the anomaly opens. If we don't return the others can come through and will find us, but I'm not sure I'd want to spend the night in the trees. The open beach would be better."
In no time at all they'd returned and without any discussion or preamble had gathered some of the drier wood they could find, and lit a fire. They had set camps before, the fire would provide heat and light and even if it did draw any creatures, it could easily be used as a deterrent. Besides they'd seen no sign of large predators, and the partially obliterated footprints had been of small creatures.
As intended, Stephen's pack had contained a number of useful items. Aside from a camera, matches, torch, chocolate, compass, hats, sunscreen and the obligatory first aid kit, there were also sample tins which were adapted to boil water and desalination tablets, so they had something to eat and drink, albeit rather basic. Stephen and Cutter sat together, leaning on a log they'd dragged over, shoulders touching, reassuring themselves that they were not the only human in existence at that time.
"It's not quite like the last time we were on a beach in Weymouth, is it?" Stephen asked quietly.
Looking at him, but unfocused as if seeing something beyond him, Cutter answered Stephen softly "No, it isn't." That had been six years ago.
"Do you remember that girl, the one who insisted on following you everywhere?" Stephen said, "She had such a big crush on you; the eminent professor."
Nick laughed at that. "Yeah, she nearly got us all chucked out of the pub, following me into the gents!"
"That was a fieldtrip to be remembered. You were merciless to those students, you had them up at all hours, off surveying, drawing, collecting and cataloguing all along the coast, in that awful weather."
"Yeah, while I concentrated on writing a paper I had to give in the pub. Mind you, you didn't really endure any hardships, watching them from the teashop on the cliff top! But it was memorable for more than that." Cutter said looking openly at Stephen.
It hadn't been an easy fieldtrip. Cutter hadn't wanted to go. He'd emailed the Dean and said as much. Shortly, she'd arrived at Cutter's desk, and although Stephen had attempted to make a tactical withdrawal from their shared office, it was simply too late. Cutter reiterated his arguments and point blank refused to go, to the Dean's face, saying he had far too much work to do and had no intention of babysitting a bunch of snotty nosed undergrads.
The Dean had practically exploded with rage shouting that these students were entitled to the fieldtrip and that Cutter knew full well it was an integral part of their course, and that the practical skills were essential. He had to take them, everything was arranged, the minibus, the field centre they were staying in, it had all been paid for, everything! Cutter would go or he would face disciplinary action.
Cutter's mouth had dropped open, and before anything further could be said, Stephen stepped into the fray and said that it would all be fine, he would also be attending. Cutter could take work with him to finish, and the students would indeed get their instruction and fieldwork education. It was a successful mollification, and the Dean had left Stephen staring at Cutter.
"It's Helen isn't it?"
Nick sunk down in the chair behind his desk, as Stephen continued "It's been nearly two years hasn't it, and the anniversary of her disappearance is during the field week. You think I don't know?"
From where he sat on the edge of the desk, leaning forward slightly, Stephen could look down at Nick's bowed head. "She's still just missing," he said. "She may turn up one day. This might be some hair brained idea that she acted on. You know how impulsive she is."
Cutter raised his head, and the expression on his face suggested he thought this unlikely in the extreme. "She's my wife. She would never just go off and not tell me, so something has to have," and he paused, "Happened to her. The police have uncovered nothing and it's been two years. In another five, if there is no sign of her she'll be declared dead. I just, honestly can't stand losing her this way, the uncertainty, the not knowing ..." His voice trailed off.
Somehow Stephen had managed the field trip, but more importantly he'd got Nick together. He cajoled and used all his wiles and it had worked, Cutter had made it to Weymouth. These last two years had been hard on both of them, a dynamic that had fundamentally altered their relationship.
When he had still been a postgraduate, before either of them had given the word anomaly more than a second thought, Stephen had been a good student. Somehow, he'd engaged with Professor Cutter and his wife and of the few post-graduates in the department, he'd found himself invited to do research with Cutter. They'd got along, sharing a sense of humour, work ethics and a male fraternity that Helen had seemed to bully her way into when she deemed necessary. He'd often been invited round for dinner, where most occasions seemed to end raucously in a haze of Scotch whiskey, the preferred variety being Macallan although most Islay malts would do at a pinch.
Helen's disappearance had changed that dynamic.
Stephen had still gone round to Cutter's elegant Victorian house, with its dark wood and antique style decoration, but to give Cutter human company. It could have been a thankless task, but they'd remained and redefined their friendship. Stephen couldn't really bear to merely observe the Cutter's mostly stoic distress, with the odd unpredictable tantrum thrown in. It was easier being there than not being there.
At the university Stephen had unknowingly, gradually, taken up more of Cutter's office, until the two of them had encroached into the space that Helen had occupied. The process of obliteration had only been accelerated when the specimen shelves had been knocked over by a haphazard student, leaving the office in too much of a hurry after a Cutter dismissal. The resultant spillage and chaos had meant a lot of mopping up and re-arranging throughout the office, although afterward it still looked like a cross between a museum and a typical, eccentric, professorial paper littered study.
It was one of the things that Stephen liked best about Nick. Despite being hard bitten and cynical about many things he also had an unabashed enthusiasm and a well-hidden gentle empathy. He was also pig headed, demandingly right about everything, and railed against authority. Frequently. The incident with the Dean was not the only time Stephen had found himself caught between his colleague and the University.
That week away in Dorset had been a peculiar turning point. The field centre had had insufficient rooms for them all, and everyone had to share. Cutter was unperturbed by the whole thing and naturally he and Stephen were left to share while the boys slept in one dormitory and the girls in the other. There was a lot of laughter at the end of each day, cooking was done by rota and most evenings culminated in a trip to the nearby pub, who were particularly accommodating to the slightly rowdy behavior of the students. This might have been due to the fact that there was generally little business at the end of September, and that the students were a genuinely cheerful and obliging group.
Stephen was not cheerful.
It was during this week that Stephen had discovered, to his mounting horror, that he himself actually had a crush on his professor.
It had started when everyone else was teasing the poor girl who had a crush on Cutter. She had seemed oblivious to the courtesy that suggested following your professor at all times was not normal behavior, but the others made it apparent. But having made her willingness to be seduced obvious, she became fair game for the students, and a couple of days later the attention of one of the other lads had turned her head. Leaving an harassed Cutter more than relieved, and the man had almost clung to Stephen's company as a bulwark against further unwanted attention.
However, the sustained close proximity to Cutter had Stephen doing things he wouldn't necessarily have done, or at least not so intensively. Prior to this, he may have occasionally admired Cutter's physique while they were working, but now his gaze was somehow, subtly different. He had access to Cutter that no one else did. He could look when he wanted to, and found himself doing just that. It was almost as if he was seeing Cutter though the girl's eyes.
He'd always been drawn to Cutter, a deep level of friendship and an established bond leaving him capable of doing almost anything for the man. Even prior to Helen's disappearance he'd always felt a compulsion to have Nick's company to himself. Helen ... He'd felt confused when she'd made overtures to him and he'd resisted, but she was a skillful manipulator and her tales of woe and loneliness had touched Stephen. Had part of his mind actually thought that if she sought solace with him it would be better than going to a stranger? That if he was with her it was part of being close to Cutter?
His self-awareness made him want to laugh out loud at the teenage crush, and yet he cringed at the same time. How immature was he? This thing with Cutter, his colleague, was ridiculous and it would pass. He'd never had any problem with the concept of same sex partners, and had always viewed love as one of those things that could surpass any preconceptions. He knew he was handsome and could have a number of girlfriends, but he'd learnt that appearance did not always make for a worthy person and he generally seemed to get along without partners, preferring the stability, companionship and excitement of friends more.
So those days on the field trip, like the ebbing autumn clouds, drifted on.
They'd arranged to have a barbecue on the beach one evening. It was one of the rare warm evenings which can occur in southern England even in late September. A fire had been lit, the students having gathered wood, and liberating some timber from the town skips earlier. They had all eaten locally caught fish, sausages, burgers and jacket spuds, with marshmallows for afterwards. The consumed alcohol had lead to great hilarity for all and some amusingly burnt and dripping mallows being sacrificed to the sand rather than being eaten.
In the pitch dark just after midnight Cutter had insisted, in his best 'I'm not drunk, I'm a responsible adult' voice that all the students go back to the field centre and he then merrily volunteered Stephen to help him tidy up and take the rubbish, including the disposable barbecues back with them. They'd managed to do most of the clearance before they agreed that really they needed a rest before they headed back. And there leaning against a large tree trunk the two sat leaning squiffily into each other in front of the fire.
"You miss her."
"I do, but I have you."
"I seem to survive without her, but I really can't imagine you not being in my life every day."
Cutter was looking at Stephen, his eyes bright in the reflected firelight. He just reached over and stroked Stephen's face, the movement continuing and the hand falling to rest on his chest. "You have a beautiful face," he said. "And you, you're with me. You make me smile, you take all the grumpy silences and the snipping remarks ... "
Stephen hadn't flinched in the slightest. He'd turned his face toward Nick and unconsciously his mouth had parted slightly. Without any hesitation Nick leaned in and Stephen's body mirrored his. The kiss was firm, their mouths fitting perfectly, and both tasted the alcohol and something, other. Their eyes were closed and Stephen's hand reached over and smoothed up Nick's neck to hold his head in place as their kiss deepened and became less exploratory and more needy. Breaking apart to breathe, their eyes locked, and questions, uncertainties and a shared surprise all flew like sparks between them. But Nick's hand was still on Stephen's chest and Stephen's own fingers were still laced in Nick's hair.
Something should be said, but the alcohol and the underlying passion ignited in the moment overruled. Infinitesimal movements and shifts in their muscles brought them back together as the kissing become more impassioned: Nick groaned softly and the reverberations went through Stephen, causing him to shudder slightly. In response Nick reached out and pulled him closer, their bodies pressed together, hands running over muscles taut beneath their T-shirts.
Stephen continued to bestow feather-light kisses along the valley between Nick's neck and shoulder, accessible as Nick's T-shirts were always on the baggy side. He wrapped his arms around Nick and neither seemed inclined to stop, Nick turned his head, suddenly seeming urgent on kissing Stephen, as if to check for himself that they were okay with where this was going. The stars sparkled in the sky, winking at them from above; the embers of the bonfire were a mere glow and finally Nick huffed "Come on, let's go inside. I'm getting too old for all these outdoor shenanigans."
"Oh, so this isn't your first time, Professor?" Stephen's teasing tone was unmistakable.
"Certainly won't be my last," was the loaded response.
It shouldn't have been that easy, and perhaps it hadn't really ever been that easy. There should have been repercussions the next morning. Doubts, maybe. Awkward moments. But no, somehow it all just blended together. They even laughed at the discovery of sand in their clothes, a testament to their actions. In their shared room they were comfortable friends and lovers: outside it, professional academics for the students. Their attraction and desires led the way.
Back at the university there was no obvious outward change in their behavior. There was no need. They'd been close companions before and now they were practically inseparable for extended periods of time. They never seemed to talk about it though, just got on with their lives. Giving lectures; taking seminars; fending off undergraduates; conducting research, they remained mutually admiring, reveling in each other's company in whatever manifestation it came. The very air seemed to have less oxygen in when the 'other' wasn't there. Laughing. They were often observed laughing, but their laughter felt like an exclusive activity reserved for them alone and any attempts to join in were gently ignored.
Helen was a specter hovering unacknowledged in the background between them. Cutter could become maudlin and on occasion would seemingly lash out in some form at Stephen, feeling that he was betraying Helen.
For Stephen his charm and good looks often seemed to land him with females who inveigled themselves into his life and decided they were his girlfriends, though he gave them little cause so to do. Discussions over lunches in the canteen could be interrupted by any number of the women. His taciturn nature seemed to imply acquiescence to their eyes, and oddly Cutter thought this amusing, and with twinkling gaze he'd raise an eyebrow and watch as Stephen was dragged off. Cutter, entirely secure that Stephen would come back, felt no threat. In such circumstances he lacked the compulsion to be jealous. Stephen was here, at the university, with him. Their shared life was complicated, but only if they made it so.
How it was then: the past was evidently playing on both their minds.
Nick turned his head and looked at Stephen, who returned his look evenly. In the firelight, they could both appreciate the other, and the attraction between them was still there. But there were a lot of issues separating them. The looks weren't ones of open love and a healthy measure of lust, but of sizing each other up. The hurt, the cost, the gain. And even then, Nick found his hand reaching up to hesitantly stroke Stephen's face, and when the man didn't recoil, he ran his thumb ran gently over Stephen's lips. They parted slightly, leaving Stephen's normally tight lipped expression open and willing.
'We, I, shouldn't do this,' thought Nick.
They were not in a good place, He'd been betrayed by everyone and everything around him. He was occasionally overwhelmed by the unreality of it all, and he caught himself wondering at times just what would happen if ... He felt like an observer not a participant. When the gun had jammed in the bowling alley and he was within a breath of losing Stephen his life had momentarily stopped. What if there was no Stephen? What if the creature ripped him to pieces right before his eyes? Would he feel anything? And then for Stephen to insidiously accuse him of wanting him dead. It hurt. All of it, it all hurt, everything since the anomaly eight years ago.
He'd let his hand fall away, but Stephen had captured it in his, brought it to his lips, and kissed it. Looking at Nick, holding his eyes, with his voice catching in his throat he barely whispered, "I miss you. I'm. Sorry."
They'd done this before, more brashly in the shopping mall when they'd been antagonistic, both spoiling for a fight amongst the recriminations. Now stranded together the other side of existence it was just the two of them, and it was genuine sorrow and regret that tinged Stephen's words.
Tiredly Nick replied, "I know, me too. We should really sort all this out and I can't think of a better time or place." When he laughed he could hear the bitter note in his voice. "But we're not that type, are we?"
Slightly desperately Stephen replied, "Maybe not. But I could try, if that's what it takes. Is what you want?"
Shaking his head and smiling in the red glow, Nick just pulled Stephen to him, and with some difficulty, managed to kiss the top of his head. "No. Don't change for me, Stephen, be yourself. We'll get past this, just not tonight, eh?"
With a tacit agreement that this round of soul searching and recrimination was over, they mutually shuffled round, and settled down lying together lengthways. Stephen's longer frame and arms wrapped around Nick's in the manner familiar to them both. 'Spooning,' thought Stephen to himself with a small sigh of contentment. He had always relished his side of their dual roles of protector, in their relationship. The odd noises of this age, old era, receded into the distance as, with the security of the other body and the warmth of the fire, they dozed off.
Not that the sleep was deep or comfortable.
The roar startled Abby, who was carrying two mugs of tea over to a fretting Connor. Nearly spilling the contents all over him, she uttered, "Er, what was that?"
Distracted from unproductive thoughts about what might be happening the other side of a closed anomaly, Connor replied hopefully, "The Beast of Bodmin?"
There was an exchange of looks and an increase in activity in the camp as men got ready to go in search of the source of the noise, knowing all too well that it was not a feral big cat. It was obvious that they'd missed something and whatever it was had got out of the area before they'd even put a cordon in place.
It was soon clear that the tracks of the animal had been eradicated by the vans on arrival, but in the dark, they could not have known the consequences of their precipitous arrival. Circumstances were sometimes beyond control, particularly when it came to dealing with eras millions of years ago.
The special forces men split into organized groups and set off in the direction of the sound. Abby went firmly grasping a large tranquilizer gun with one group, and Connor reluctantly watched her go as he headed off with another group, and a no so large gun. Abby still had not forgiven him completely for shooting her in the bowling alley, no matter how often he decried that it was an accident.
They were close to the area from where the roar had emanated and Abby gripped the long gun more tightly. Without Stephen's tracking ability and his and Cutter's assured gung ho attitude she felt very vulnerable. It was amazing how such a loss had affected them all, and she knew the unsettled feeling was more widespread among them than anyone cared to admit. The scattering of a flock of birds, rising up from the trees nearby, interrupted her introspective thoughts and over the radio came Connor's hushed voice.
"I see it! It's massive, over 8m in length, and it's obscured in the trees about 100m away from us."
"What is it, can you tell?"
"Um, it's upright, a ... I think it's some kind of sinraptorid dinosaur, maybe a Metriacanthosaurus from the looks of it"
"English please!" Abby whispered.
"Oh, oh right. A really big carnivorous dinosaur! With really big teeth. Oh ... it's moving, it's ... it's heading your way!"
"Right then." And with that Abby's radio went silent, leaving Connor and the men with him to follow in the enormous monster's wake.
Abby stood braced and ready sighting down the gun as the noise of the huge dinosaur approaching, snapping branches from the trees in its path, heralded its emergence. Time seem to elongate until the enormous grey green bulk of a towering form crashed into view. It did not suspect the welcome that awaited it, but as the darts from the modern tranquilizer guns carried by Abby and several others burrowed under the thick skin of the 150 million year old dinosaur, it clearly didn't feel them. But it did instinctively perceive the collection of small humans as a threat, and with a deafening roar its massive head lurched towards them, jaws open. Abby turned and, yelling as she did so, ran full tilt through the trees away from the enraged Metriacanthosaurus. The creature was so close behind her she swore she could feel its breath on her neck.
( Way to Go - Part Two of Two )