by Eildon Rhymer (aka rhymer23 or ladyofastolat)
Note: This was written just after the end of season one, following on straight from the season finale
He knew that they were trying to hustle him away; he knew that. He felt hands on his elbows, and saw hard faces that promised nothing. He heard Lester speaking, dismissing everything. Connor said something, his voice sounding as if it came from the other side of a mirror. Abby made a harsh reply. They were sounds only, not words. Words had vanished into the silver shards that had fractured his vision, and embedded in his brain.
He knew that his feet were walking, one two, one two, each after the other. He called out Claudia's name, his mouth managing to shape the syllables of her name. Slowly, he became aware of trees, dark as prison bars, and fallen leaves like shards of shattered glass. A bird flew past on black wings. People tramped behind him, but when he turned to see them, they were gone.
He saw a vehicle. The hands changed their hold. "I can drive it," someone said, and these words at least were clear, "but he's got the keys." A black-gloved hand reached into his pocket, and came out with a ring of shining silver, with metal gleaming like falling fragments of light. They arced through the air, beautiful and terrible, and were snatched by another hand, this one the colour of flesh.
Two people, he thought. The one who spoke is Stephen. A soldier is holding me, but not Captain Ryan. Captain Ryan is dead.
He found himself sitting in the passenger seat. Other people were outside now, shadows against the light. "Will he be all right?" That was Connor. "What happened to him?" Abby. "He was all right… Well, apart from… you know. But then…"
He closed his eyes; leant his head back against harsh plastic. Somebody fastened his seat belt. He opened his eyes sluggishly, but the person had already gone. The man with the black hands closed the door. The driver's door was still open, a portal of silver light, full of promises. Two legs blocked the light, and someone said, "He'll be fine. We'll meet you back at the hotel." That was Stephen, defending him as usual. But there was something about him, wasn't there? If only he could see past the silver…
A door closed sharply, sending shards screaming through his head. The car started up, and he watched the pair of hands on the steering wheel, pale against dark. He saw Stephen's eyes as they flickered up to the mirror. He half-expected the mirror to shatter, but it did not.
Stephen seemed about to speak. Cutter closed his eyes.
The road was bumpy, and the car swayed from side to side sickeningly. He's taking me somewhere terrible, he thought. Ever further away from the anomaly, ever further away from what was known. They had changed something. Claudia was gone. The world was unknown and full of fear. Every yard he went, he went deeper into a world he did not know. Every second that passed, this new wrong world became more solid and real. He had to go back through the anomaly; he had to.
He opened his eyes, scrambled for the door handle. "No," Stephen said, his voice urgent.
"I have to," Cutter tried to tell him, but his voice didn't work. It was hoarse, as if he had been shouting very loudly, for a very long time.
"I can't remember," he whispered, lips shaping the words that his throat could not utter. His arms fell down at his side. "I can't remember."
Stephen's face was a blank surface, with features sketched upon it. "I'll take you to hospital."
"No," he whispered. He needed to find Claudia. He needed to go back. He needed to change things back.
The radio crackled, and he jerked his head up, heart racing. It was the sound of shattered glass, of falling shards, or things that were neither one thing nor the other. "Liminal," he whispered. "On the cusp." He raised his hand, and thought that he could see right through it, to the car, to the trees, to this whole world that was not real. A voice was trying to struggle through the interference. By the time it spoke, he was no longer listening to it.
"It's closing," Stephen said. "The anomaly's almost gone."
But by then he knew it. Cutter lifted his head, and his voice was still ravaged, but his mind was his own again, or almost. "It's gone now," he said, and his voice was the voice of mourning.
Stephen's eyes shuttered over, as if he knew it, too.
He did not remember reaching the hotel, or climbing out of the car. He remembered standing in the lobby, with twin curves of staircases reaching into the unknown above him, and watching the others dance around him. Stephen; Connor; Abby. An invisible circle divided him from them. He could not reach out to them; they could not cross it.
They asked things, though. He remembering mumbling that he was all right, that he didn't need to go to a hospital, after all. He was sufficiently himself to wonder briefly what they thought of him, but then he overheard them whispering something about "shock" and "reaction to Ryan's death." He turned away, then. Perhaps that was all it was.
He drifted to his room, and closed the door, leaning against it, trembling. His clothes were still in a case, and he fumbled into something new, something not marked with the blood of a good man who had died as he watched.
The mirror drew him. Silver and mysterious, it showed him a scene that was not the scene that he saw before him. There were shadows and strange shapes and a bead of yellow light. When he raised his hand and touched it, there were ten fingers, five touching five. "Helen," he whispered, but the hands in the mirror moved as his own hands, and the shadows and shapes became his own discarded clothes on the bed behind him.
When he moved away from the mirror, the clock told him that an hour had passed.
The television loomed in the corner, its blank screen threatening him with truths. Come and see how much you changed, Cutter. You can't hide from the truth. When he closed his eyes, he saw riots and crumbling sky-scrapers. He saw children dying in the street, and the whole world gone wrong, because of something he had done.
"Not yet," he rasped. "Not yet."
He shambled to the window, where the twilight was huge and featureless over the alien forest. He pressed hand and forehead to the glass, running his index finger up and down, tracing patterns in the condensation from his own breath. He breathed it, then erased it. Life, and then death. She had existed, and then she had gone.
Like a diver straining towards the light of the surface, he forced himself to awaken. I am still not right, he thought. The world is not right. Perhaps outside, in the garden, with the cold touch of evening on his flesh. Yes. Yes. Outside.
The television laughed its triumph.
He headed out, struggling with the lock. The key was dull and dark, with no silver promises of light. Outside, he found a patio, edged with a rail. He leant on it with his elbows, then rested both forearms on the metal, and settled his chin on his folded hands.
Claudia. Her name in his mind trailed away into the grey dusk. It became one with the trees; it was taken up by the roosting birds, and called by the owls, one to another. Helen.
"Have you eaten yet?"
Cutter did not jump at Stephen's voice. It was expected. It was a figure slowly taking shape out of the shadows, with no clear distinction between "not there" and "there."
He shook his head. When he moved, he found that his neck was stiff, and his hand had gone numb. It was darker than it had been; almost fully night. Stephen was lit by a light from the hotel, falling slantwise on his face. It made him look like someone Cutter had never known before.
"I'm not hungry." At least his voice was back, fractured, but his own.
Silence. Stephen took his place beside Cutter on the railing, further away, perhaps, than he once would have been. His hands looked nervous. "We need to talk," he said.
Cutter clawed his thoughts back from whatever place had taken them. "I suppose we do."
"I was barely twenty." Stephen's fingers tightened on the railing. "She was… older, and my tutor. I didn't know… I didn't know you then. She came to me. She…"
Tiny silver stars were appearing in the blackness. If he half-closed his eyes, they started to fall, like scattered shards drifting to the earth. If he held out his hand…
"Are you listening to me?"
Yes, he thought. He stifled his smile. Poor Stephen, at a loss for words. Then he replayed what Stephen had just said, and found that he was not too far changed, after all. "Are you blaming her? Are you trying to say it wasn't your fault?"
Stephen shook his head; Cutter heard that, rather than saw it. But, "I barely knew you," was all he said. "I knew the two of you were married, but I thought… I was young. I assumed…"
"That I was a middle-aged boor who didn't understand her," he said harshly. "I understand." Anger was good. Anger was sharp and red, and banished the silver and the greyness from his mind. He whirled round, and struck Stephen for the first time ever, a lunging fist on his jaw. "You slept with my wife."
Stephen did not react to the blow. Cutter grasped at the railing with both hands to stop himself from falling. The knuckles of his right hand hurt, and pain was even redder than anger.
"It only happened once," Stephen said quietly. "It shouldn't have happened at all."
"You're lying." He meant it to be a shout. Instead, it came out as a whisper, and he brought his hands up to his face, knuckles into his eyes, kneading them.
Cutter clapped his hands on the railing again, metal slapping against his palms. The stars hung suspended over the trees, promising of other worlds. "I never thought you were the sort of person to grovel for forgiveness," he said, carefully nurturing the anger.
"I'm not." Stephen was all in shadows, now, and his face could have been anyone's face. "I just want you to understand. I…" His voice cracked. Cutter had never heard him sound like this before. "I fell in love with her. I regret it, but I can't apologise for it. She was my first. I haven't…"
Silence again. Cutter knew what was unsaid. He had always known that Stephen had had his heart broken in the past, and had found it hard to get close to anyone ever again. He had known it, but, in the way of men with other men, he had never spoken about it.
But he turned away. "I could forgive all that," he said coldly, "but you lied about it. Seven years, we've been working together, and you kept that from me."
"How could I tell you?" Stephen cried. "You were mourning her as dead. How could I speak ill of the dead? How could I tell you she was not the person you thought she was?"
"So, instead, you watched me grieve for a lie." He kept his eyes turned away from the lure of the stars, and instead grasped the metal railing hard enough to hurt. "You watched me pass my life in shadow for all those years, and didn't say a word."
"I thought she was dead," Stephen said quietly. "I mourned her, too. I thought no-one would ever know. I thought there was no need for you to know. If I'd told you when you were grieving… It would have been unforgivable."
"Yes," Cutter said. "It was unforgivable." And he walked away.
And then there were dreams. They did not confine themselves to the hours of night. Like the shadow of a drifting cloud, they fell upon him, encased him for a while, and then were gone. He was not aware of falling asleep. Waking, too, was smooth, and he opened his eyes to find no monsters and no anomalies, but just the back of his own hand, and the grain of the wood on the table beneath him.
What is happening to me? he thought, but he did not say it out loud. He had no-one to say it to. Stephen had betrayed him, and Claudia was gone. Connor was his student, and Abby he barely knew. Helen did not feature at all. She was more dead to him now than when he had thought her dead.
He remembered the journey back to London. Stephen drove, and he sat in the passenger seat, but an anomaly clove the car in two. He was in one world, and Stephen in another. Sometimes Stephen tried to talk to him, but Cutter looked out of the window, his eyes unfocused, so that the cars outside were blurs of unreality, and even the stationary things were not really there.
Whole worlds were passing by on the far side of the glass, but Claudia was still not there.
The silence grew too heavy. After a while, Stephen reached out and switched on the radio. Cutter stiffened, but the tune was something he dimly remembered hearing before, in the other world before things had changed. Then the presenter's voice announced the time, and a different voice started reading out the news.
No, Cutter thought. No, please no. But he could not say it. He could not be a coward out loud, even if he wanted to hide inside his head. He had to know how much else they had changed.
The voice spoke of tax increases, and an earthquake. A suicide bomb had gone off in the Middle East, and three people had been murdered in a small market town in the Midlands. How much of this happened because of me? he thought. He had barely read a newspaper in weeks, caught up as he was in his work with the anomalies. The radio spoke of politicians he had not heard of, but that didn't have to mean anything. He wished he could ask Stephen, but he could not.
Perhaps he dozed, then. A tiny crack appeared on the windscreen, and spread and radiated like a cobweb. The cracks deepened and became fissures, with a silver void at their depths. He reached out to touch one, his fingers soft and feather-light, and the void lapped around his wrist like water. Deeper, and his fingers bumped against something hard and cold and scaly. It shifted; it stirred. He snatched his hand back, but it was too late. It was coming. It was coming.
He opened his eyes, and the windscreen was whole again. Music played quietly on the radio, and outside he saw the familiar sights of home.
"Are you sure you'll be all right?" Stephen asked him.
"Fine," Cutter lied.
The predator hurled itself against the window, drawn by the blood on his clothes. The window cracked. Claudia screamed, and he reached out backwards for her hand, but found only the retreating tips of her fingers. She was screaming to him to help her, screaming his name, screaming in terror, screaming in pain. Something had grabbed her, something was pulling her away from him, but he was glued to the ground, his neck as solid as stone, and he could not turn to see what it was. All he could do was reach with his useless fingers, finding nothing now but empty air. All he could do was watch as the predator crashed through the window, in an explosion of glass. Tiny shards flew up in the air, and hung suspended, sparkling like spray from a fountain on a summer's day. Then, ever so slowly, they started to fall...
He woke, then, but not in his own bed. There was dust between the letters on the keyboard, and the space bar was worn as smooth as a mirror. Raising his head – his neck as solid as stone – he saw the screensaver scrolling uselessly above him. He flicked the mouse with one weary finger, and saw again the screen full of information that withheld all answers.
"You started early," he heard Stephen's voice say. "Or have you been here all night?"
He fought the urge to stretch. Weariness is better, he thought. I step through the barriers when I sleep.
"Maybe you should go home," Stephen said.
He sat up a little straighter, blinked, but Stephen's face did not change. He was wearing different clothes. Cutter became aware that he had not changed since that night in the hotel, two days ago, or three? When he touched his chin, he felt the stubble of three days' growth of beard.
"Maybe you're the one who should go home," he managed to say. He remembered how the redness of anger had driven away the greyness, hours ago, days ago, months ago in the forest. "You have a nerve, coming in to work as if nothing has happened."
"Nothing has happened," Stephen said, "professionally."
"Stuff professionalism." Cutter turned away, yearning for Claudia, who was gone.
"There's still work to do," Stephen said, "and we're the ones who can do it."
It was so typical of Stephen. Cutter thought that, then a moment later wondered why he had thought it. He had worked alongside Stephen for years, but had never thought to wonder what sort of a man he was. But he was brave, he knew that now. A different type of man would have skulked at home, too afraid to come into work and face the man whose wife he had stolen. Stephen faced up to predators, and he faced up the man he had betrayed.
Perhaps bravery was just another word for selfishness.
Light and shadow played on the computer screen, taunting him with echoes of what might have been. "I don't want you here," he told Stephen.
Stephen did not answer. Was he even there? The shards of the anomaly were jagged and sharp, and could gouge anyone out of existence. Its fissures were deep and could swallow up whole worlds. One by one, everyone he knew would disappear, until he was all alone, staring into the void that swallowed all hopes and promises.
He turned his head round sharply, stifling the inarticulate cry. Stephen was still there, as placid and solid as ever. "Claudia, again?" he said softly.
"You remember her?" His face was stiff; he had not smiled for days.
But Stephen was gesturing at the screen, where Cutter had been searching the Internet for a Claudia Brown. "Who is she?"
"Someone I have to find." Cutter shifted position, so his whole body, and everything that he was, was turned away from Stephen. "Now leave me alone. I want you to go." There was no sound of movement. "That's an order, Stephen."
Reflected in the glass of all the windows, something laughed.
He went home and got changed; he managed that. Showered; washed; shaved. His shower was so hot that the mirror clouded over with thick condensation. After he had shaved, he found himself tracing patterns in the steam. Trailing behind his finger, the silver lines seemed to move and glow. With a cry, he turned away from the mirror, and kept his gaze averted from all the other mirrors in the house.
Snatching up the print-out, he left his house, and walked through strange streets towards the underground station. Stephen almost died in a tunnel like this. He went back to save me, and he almost died. The lights flickered, and he saw the edge of the tunnel, dark wires coiling like worms. Helen left him there to die.
People sat on the seats, blank eyes staring at nothing. Others stood, and when the train jolted, their shoulders bumped together, but they did not react. Perhaps they were all in other worlds, he thought. Perhaps everyone was alone, a single figure drawn on a sheet of plastic. When the sheets were overlaid, you thought you lived with other people, but you were never anything other than alone. You could reach out, and sometimes your fingers would brush, but you could never touch.
The train stopped. He jolted awake – had he really been asleep? – and stepped carefully over the gap. Another gulf. Another new world. Every choice, every breath, could cause the world to fracture. Claudia was not here. In this world, Helen had…
No. This was not the place for it. He stepped onto the escalator, and became a passenger, letting it take him wherever it wished. He knew by now what things he should avoid: mirrors; glass; anything that reflected; anything with cracks. Things that were not reflections moved in the plastic coverings of advertising posters. People flickered in and out of existence behind him, but he stared fiercely forward, and did not let them trick him into turning round.
He emerged into light, into a sunlight that was familiar, even if the streets were not. He studied the print-out again, which was warped, now, and damp from the tightness of his grip. Claudia Brown, he read. Claudia Brown, teacher at St Margaret's Primary School, educated at Oxford, graduated at about the right time. And a grainy picture on the school website, showing Miss Brown glimpsed from the distance on a school trip. Right height, right build, right hair colour… It won't be her, he told himself. It's not a particularly unusual name. I won't get the right one first time.
He waited near the school gates, hand curled round the iron railing. He blinked, then blinked for longer. People were screaming, racing down the street to get away from a silent killer. He saw himself reflected in the yellow of its eye. He saw blood on its claw, and a new world reflected in its iridescent flesh. Then his head jolted up again, and he realised that the children were already leaving. A parent was looking at him askance. "I'm not a paedophile," he wanted to say, but the words died in his throat. Instead, he turned away, and pretended to be interested in something else. If the street was a picture drawn on plastic, it was one that was fading. He could almost see through it now to the horror that lay beneath all worlds. If he looked a little bit harder… If he lost himself a little bit more…
He snatched himself back, and the children were all gone. The light was beginning to fade. Street-lights were smears of yellow light, doomed never to drive back the grey.
"Are you all right?"
Claudia. It was Claudia's voice. It was Claudia. He turned round and saw her fully, drinking in her face like a parched man drinking water. "Claudia." His voice was just a croak at first. He cleared his throat, and tried again, his weary muscles cracking into a smile. "Claudia." She was not painted on plastic. She was real and three-dimensional – the only real thing in all this shallow world that surrounded him.
"Yes?" She frowned, voice polite but eyes cold. "Do I know you?"
He wanted to take her hands; he wanted to kiss her. He reached instead for the iron railing, its coldness shocking against the warmth of his palm. "Yes. We're supposed to know each other. Something went wrong."
She took a step back. Her eyes were cold, but her face was softer than the Claudia he knew. Her clothes were casual and flowing, and her mouth was made for smiling. "Is this an attempt at a chat-up line?"
He wanted to pour everything out, to fall at her feet, but enough sanity remained for him to know that he could not. "I'll do everything I can to set things right," he promised her. "I just need to know why… why didn't you join the civil service?"
Another step. "How did you know…?" She looked over her shoulder, a cornered woman desperate for help. "I was going to apply, yes, but… How did you know? Who are you?" There was unveiled fear in her eyes, now. "What do you want?"
He realised the truth, then, and the world came to a halt, then reshaped itself in a different form. All things were clear. Best of all, he knew what to do about it. "It was Helen, wasn't it? She went back, visited you where you were making your decision, and influenced you somehow. It was pure spite. She doesn't want me, but can't bear the thought of anyone else having me, either. She didn't change anything else, just this. All I need to do is stop her."
"How do you know about…?" She shook her head briskly, and all cracks in her armour were gone. "If you don't leave me alone now, I'm going to call the police." She pulled out her mobile phone. "I mean it."
He left. He had no reason to stay. Twilight claimed the world, but this time he was smiling.
Lester would not talk to him. He had Connor and his Internet friends scouring the world for hints of anomalies. He opened box after box of Helen's writing, searching for clues.
In her writing, she never mentioned Stephen at all. In her writing, there was no hint that she even possessed a husband.
Invisible things still laughed at him from mirrors. "I know it's you, Helen," he told them, gouging the heel of his hands across his eyes in an attempt to keep himself awake. "I know what you did, and I know what to do about it."
But there was no anomaly. He saw them in waking dreams, and he saw shards of light in the reflections that arched from glass. Half-dreaming, he tried to step through a mirror, once, but cold glass stopped him. Once, furious, he hurled a book at the window, and watched as a crack appeared, stretching from side to side, silver-edged, but dark. He touched it with spread fingers, but it resisted, and would not let him through.
The doorbell was a clarion of silver. He went to the door, his steps shambling, and opened it to find Stephen there, his face uncompromising and unrepentant. "You weren't at work," he said, "today or yesterday." Anything else, he left unsaid.
Had it been two days, then? His gritty eyes told him it had been a long time, but his empty stomach thought it had not been as long as that.
Stephen came in, and Cutter let him. Habit took over, it seemed, even when the gulf between them demanded that the door be slammed shut and locked forever.
Cutter made coffee for Stephen, and tea for himself, his hands measuring out exactly the right amount of coffee, and topping it up with exactly the right amount of water. That, too, was habit. It gave him something to do with his hands, something to keep his mind busy.
All the while, Stephen watched him. Cutter's hand trembled, and he almost dropped the milk. There were too many things unsaid. He could hear the ghosts of the unspoken words, fluttering like a thousand dark-pinioned wings. I'm sorry, and, She was lying, and, None of it really happened at all.
He lunged for the radio, and turned it on, so the music would drown out the words that would never come. He was not afraid of the radio now. The world was as it had been, and he had changed nothing. Helen had subsequently gone back to ensure that Claudia's life took a different path, but that was all.
Stephen took the coffee, curling his hand around the mug, heedless of the heat. "We're all worried about you, Nick."
Stephen hardly ever used his first name. Cutter put down his own mug before he could spill it. "We? You're all talking about me, then, are you?"
Stephen did not shy from his gaze, but faced him, as he faced everything. "Yes. You haven't been the same since you came back. We all saw the anomaly surge before it started to fade. I think it might have done something to you."
He could have laughed, but perhaps the laughter would have been closer to tears. Did something to me? Of course it did. He wanted to be able to confide in Stephen. For seven years, Stephen had been the closest thing he had had to a friend. Not that often talked about the things that really mattered, except occasionally, over drinks. They were men. More, they were the sort of men that they were. And Stephen, he knew now, had every reason for secrecy.
He picked up his mug, and swirled it, so beads of light raced round in a liquid vortex. "I think it did," he found himself saying, "but it's getting better now." The heat of the tea was burning his hand. "I found Claudia."
Stephen was still holding his coffee with both hands wrapped around the hot mug. Until he had found him in the tunnel, Cutter had sometimes wondered if Stephen was able to feel pain. "Who is she?" Stephen asked.
Cutter wrenched his eyes from the siren-call of the reflective liquid. The tea was pleasant in his dry mouth. "Before I went through the anomaly that last time, she worked alongside us," he said. "She was a civil servant, junior to Lester. Now she's a teacher, who never joined the civil service at all. Helen went back and did something to stop her."
Stephen grimaced. "The sounds like Helen."
This time he embraced the heat. "What do you mean?"
"Did you love Claudia?"
The words seemed to come at him from nowhere, bearing no relation to Stephen's moving lips. Cutter swallowed; moistened his dry lips. "Why do you ask?"
"When you came through, after the anomaly surged, you were shouting for her so desperately. They physically had to hold you back." Cutter did not remember that. "And it would explain Helen's actions, too. She always did have a possessive streak."
"You want me to say yes, of course." The surface of the tea was quivering. "Then you won't have to feel guilty about what you did with Helen."
Stephen said nothing. His eyes gave nothing away.
Cutter let out a breath. "I kissed her. She kissed me, actually, but I kissed her back. It was just before we went through the anomaly. Helen saw it. She wasn't pleased. But I don't love Claudia, not yet. It's too soon, and there's still Helen…"
"But you're desperate to get Claudia back," Stephen said.
Cutter nodded, and it felt good to admit it. He wondered how Stephen had guessed. "I need to find the next open anomaly and go through it. I need to find Helen. I need to make her undo whatever she did…"
"So Claudia will be back on the team, and you can continue…"
"You don't know anything about it!" Cutter shouted, pushing his chair back, the legs screaming on the wooden floor. He walked to the window, hands against the glass.
If Claudia came back… If the world changed… What else would change with it? Helen was jealous and possessive. Helen didn't want to be alone. If she had gone back in time to take Claudia away from him, then she could have gone back in time to do something else. Approached a young student, perhaps, seduced him, changed things… Perhaps the Stephen he knew had never lied to him, because the affair had never happened. Perhaps it had only happened in this warped reality, produced by Helen to leave him isolated and alone.
But that he could not say. That he could not even think. Until this moment, he had never even put the hope into words.
"My wife is a bitch, as you rightly said," he managed to force out. "I can't let her win."
He turned round to see Stephen nod, with the air of someone finally making up their mind about something.
He thought he was cured. For the hours of evening, his mind was close to how it had been before all of this had happened. He stared into mirrors, and saw only himself. Windows showed the world outside, and nothing more.
At night, the stars came, and he stood in the garden, and gazed up at the constellations. They stayed in their places, and did not fall from the sky, silver shards plunging to the earth.
On the cusp of a waking sleep, he remembered a song his grandmother had once sung. "Oft in the stilly night," he murmured, "ere slumber's chains have bound me." Then something about the light of other days… and he remembered that because of a story he had read as a teenager, that used that line as a title. Other worlds and the past could be seen reflected in panes of glass.
But what happened if you shattered the glass…?
He shook himself awake; drifted inside. His sleep was deep, and if he had dreams, he did not remember them when he woke. He showered and dressed, and then someone was knocking at his door, ringing the bell and hammering. He looked at his watch. Six thirty in the morning. Early morning, and barely light, with shapes at his door like shadows.
It was Stephen, with Abby and Connor behind him. "A new one's opening up," Stephen said, without preamble.
"Come on." Connor was bouncing from foot to foot. "We have to go and save the girl. It's like in Star Wars, with Princess Leia."
Cutter had eyes only for Stephen. "You told them."
"Yes," Stephen said simply. "We need to go."
"So what am I really like?" Connor nudged Cutter in the elbow. "In the world on the other side of the paradox? Wait, wait, let me guess! I've got a glamorous girl friend. I'm president of the Star Wars society. Abby…" He lowered his voice. "Abby is desperate to go out with me."
"I can hear you," Abby said. She was standing by herself, and seemed to be very deliberately not looking at Stephen.
It was better to ignore the lot of them. He did not have to be friends with these people, only work with them as useful allies. "What about Lester?" he asked Stephen.
"If we're lucky, Lester won't know about it until we're through it," Stephen said, his face impassive. "I found out about this one through… other sources. But if he turns up, we'll deal with him."
What other sources? Cutter wondered, but he did not ask it. Stephen had always been the follower. Had he ever really known him at all?
Connor had asked him what had changed. Hardly anything, Cutter could have answered him, except that now I realise how little I know any of you. Now I realise that I am, and always have been, alone.
The anomaly was unguarded. "It's too easy," Connor said. "Whenever it's this easy in films, it's because the villains are waiting behind the trees to jump out and gloat."
Abby looked uncomfortable. Stephen was calmly unloading guns from the back of the vehicle, and a pair of armoured jackets that he must surely have filched from the special forces.
"It's too easy," Connor said again. Maybe it was, Cutter thought, but nothing on earth was going to keep him from going through it. Now that he stood in front of the anomaly, he felt anchored and at peace. Its shards were beautiful, and this was home. This was what his whole being had been crying out for. This was why he had seen the echoes of anomalies in every piece of glass. His body needed to be here, and now everything was going to be all right.
He smiled at them all, even at Stephen. "I'm going through."
Stephen had gone down on one knee, studying the ground. "There are no tracks yet. Nothing's come out. But at least one of us needs to stay. If anything does come through, you need to get the message to Lester and the army, even if we haven't come back yet."
"You," Abby echoed. "We. You've decided, then. Connor and I get left behind again."
"Yes." Stephen slung a gun over his shoulder.
There was no time for anything more. Stephen went through first, and Cutter followed.
But, when he came through, he knew that he had been wrong. A moment before, he had stood before a lone anomaly in a dingy wood, and thought that it was what his soul had been crying out for. But this… But this…
"I have been here before," Stephen said.
A dozen, a hundred, a thousand anomalies encircled them, each one more beautiful than the one before. He was at the heart of the galaxy, surrounded by nascent stars. All of creation was unfolding before him. If he reached his hand through here… If he walked through there… There was nowhere he could not go. There was no power that he could not possess.
"No." Stephen's hand closed on his wrist. Cutter found himself barely an inch from an anomaly of heart-rending beauty… No, not an anomaly. These were how things were meant to be. The static world around them was what was wrong and anomalous. Reality was meant to be fluid, and he, Nick Cutter, had his own allotted part in it. He had been meant to come here. Something wanted him here. Something wanted him to…
"No." Stephen's voice was sharper, and hands like vices dragged him away and shook him.
Blinking, Cutter shook his head, like a dog shaking off water, and was able to see the grass and the grey mountains beyond the silver shards of light. "There's something behind it," he whispered. "Some intelligence."
"But that's not what we're here for." Stephen's voice was firm and calm, an anchor in the shifting sands upon which he stood. "I've marked the one that leads to home."
"Helen…" He cleared his throat. "Helen could be through any of them."
"And if we go through, we could make things worse." Stephen was still holding his wrist, his grip merciless. "We should look around here first. She might have left signs."
They walked away. Cutter kept looking over his shoulder, looking more at the place they were leaving, than at the grey emptiness they were walking towards. Stephen would not let him fall. Then a bluff separated him from the swarm of silver. He could not stifle the moan of loss.
Have to think about something else. Have to… "I don't know how you can do this," he said. "Be here as if nothing's happened."
Stephen did not answer, but a muscle tightened in his jaw. Maybe he's hoping it, too, Cutter thought. Maybe he's hoping that we can change things so none of this happened. But it was not like Stephen to run away. No, he corrected himself, it was entirely like Stephen to run away. For eight years, he had run away from intimacy, and he had been too much of a coward to tell Cutter the truth.
And perhaps he was a coward, too, because he sighed, and ran away from the issue. "Where are we going?"
"There were tracks," Stephen said tersely. "Human tracks." He released Cutter's arm, and brought his finger up to his lips. "Quiet."
"Helen?" Cutter whispered.
"Who else?" Stephen pressed his lips together.
Their path took them down a pass, past a waterfall, and through marshy ground strewn with strange vegetation. The skies were empty. There was no sign of animal life, and no sign of any birds. They've all gone through the portals into other worlds, he thought, and his heart ached, because he could not go, too.
Stephen grabbed him again, hand on wrist. "There she is."
She was far away, framed on a hill top. Further away were mountains, and something about the shape of them made Cutter think they were only a few miles from the place where Ryan had died. "She knows we're here," he said, with certainty.
Stephen nodded. "Yes."
Their eyes met, and for the first time in days, there was no shadow between them. They were two people tackling a problem. "Then what…?"
Cutter began it. He saw Stephen's expression change, but carried on stubbornly. "…shall we…?"
Then Stephen lunged at him, hurling him to the ground. Cutter struck it heavily, hand sinking into the marsh, forehead striking a submerged stone. Brackish water filled his mouth, and he gagged and spat. Stephen held him down, one hand on his back. Then the hand left him, and there was the sound of a gun firing, once, then twice. Cutter struggled round into a sitting position in time to see a grey shape limping away, trailing blood. Stephen shot at it one more time, and missed; a second time, and the bullet splashed into the marsh, sending up a shower of dark water. A third time, but the creature was already almost out of sight. One more shot, and then the gun fell to the ground.
Cutter did not have to see the blood to know that Stephen was hurt. He watched him grope for the gun, and struggle over to a fallen tree, and lean against it heavily. Cutter saw the mangled fabric across his upper arm and chest. He watched the trails of red that were running across his left hand, lingering at his fingertips, dripping into the mud.
Cutter was muddy from head to toe. "You saved my life," he said. Stephen was looking at him strangely, his face pale. "Don't expect this to make everything all right. It doesn't work like that."
"No." Stephen shook his head. "I know."
Cutter looked at the hilltop, but Helen had gone. "Helen!" he shouted. The two syllables echoed off the edges of the shallow valley, until the whole empty world reverberated with her name. "You have to change things back!"
They waited. Blood dripped steadily from Stephen's hand. Cutter helped him sit more solidly on the fallen tree, and when he had no other choice, allowed him to lean against him, shoulder against shoulder.
"Do you think she's coming?" Stephen whispered.
"It would be like her to come and gloat." His voice was harsh. But it was true, he realised. For eight years, he had mourned someone who had never existed. Helen dead had been perfect and without fault. Helen alive was the sort of person who could interfere with a young woman's future out of jealousy and spite. She was the sort of person who could seduce a student, then cast him aside, his heart shattered. She was the sort of person who could leave a man to die all alone in a tunnel.
Stephen had known that. Stephen had let him mourn his illusion. It was the wrong choice, perhaps, but could he really blame him for making it?
Here, an eternity before their own time, there was no anger in the thought, only a dull regret. "If only you'd told me the truth," he said, "I could have moved on." With Helen perfect and missing, he would have been loyal to her until death. It was only after her return that he had been able to notice Claudia for what she was.
"Maybe I wasn't ready to move on."
It was little more than a whisper. "What?" Cutter asked sharply, but Stephen's face was clenched tight with endurance of pain. Some things, Cutter thought, were more important than recriminations over the past. "We need to get you back."
Stephen nodded. Cutter helped him off the tree, and he swayed for a moment, but did not fall. He refused Cutter's offer of an arm, and walked by himself, his right arm clutching his left arm to his body. When he spoke, though, his voice was almost normal. "It was the same creature."
Cutter's steps faltered, then resumed again.
"The creature from the future. One of its babies must have survived. This one wasn't full grown, but…"
One of the babies. But Helen had said… "She lied," he said bitterly. "She's lied about every single thing."
They passed the waterfall, and climbed away from it, up through the pass. After a while, Cutter noticed the trail of blood ahead of them. He almost said something, then realised that Stephen probably already knew. They were following the path of the wounded animal. When he turned round, there were two trails of blood on the path behind them. He moved closer. "Let me…"
And then there were the silver anomalies, dazzling and beautiful. They were still calling to him, but this time their call was muted. Other things were more important. To go through an anomaly was to run away from reality, to hope for a magic wand that could make everything well. The anomalies spoke of a promise that things would be better in another world, but perhaps the important thing was to do the best you could in the world that you had been given. Claudia seemed happy, and there would be other women, other Claudias. And, sometimes, a friendship could be stronger for having survived a test, than if it had never been tested at all.
"But it will take time," he said, and Stephen said, "I know," although he could not possibly know what Cutter was talking about.
They reached the anomalies, one of them marked with a small pile of stones. Cutter thought that the trail of blood was hidden by the grass, but Stephen was still following it. "Look." His arm pinned to his side, he gestured with his chin. "Blood. It dragged itself here, then through the anomaly."
It was not the anomaly that led to home.
Stephen took a few more tottering steps. "And human footprints, flattening the grass. Helen…"
If he went through them now, he could give chase. He could follow Helen, and beg her to change things back. He could threaten her, drag her back, force her to stop her mischief. He could hunt the creature, and finish what Stephen had begun. He could find out why they had been calling to him. His mind was clear now, but for how long? How long before he saw silver shards in every mirror, and lost whole days to waking dreams?
Stephen looked close to collapse. Cutter made up his mind. "Come on." He headed for the pile of stones. "Let's go home."
"But to what?" Stephen said, bloody hand reaching for the silver. His eyes were glazed. He looked, Cutter thought, as he himself has looked a few days earlier, caught in the grip of the anomaly.
The predator had gone through an anomaly to an unknown time and place. Helen had followed. Stephen's blood lay thick on this primeval landscape. Guns had been fired, and bullets lay buried in the swamp. There was alien air in their lungs, and alien soil on their boots. Even if they got Claudia back, it could be at the cost of horrendous changes in everything else they held dear.
"I don't know," he said truthfully. "All we can do is go through, and face it."
Stephen nodded, smiling grimly. He stepped through the anomaly, and was gone. Cutter paused only for a moment. Home, he thought, and although he stood before shards of silver, they had gone completely from his mind. To face whatever is there, and this time not to run from it.
He stepped forward, and let himself be embraced by silver.