“You took your time getting here,” Lester complained.
“The road turned into a bus lane with no warning,” Cutter said. “The street layout here is a nightmare.”
“And the roundabouts are really confusing,” Connor added.
Lester’s eyebrows rose and fell. “I’m not interested in excuses. Do better next time.” He turned away, the matter seemingly already forgotten, and moved away to put the armed response unit between himself and the anomaly.
“How did he get here so quickly?” Cutter wondered.
“He probably flew on his broomstick,” Connor suggested. “Or his last job before the ARC was planning Oxford’s traffic layout and he’s the only bloke who understands it.”
Abby bounced up and down on the balls of her feet and stared at the shimmering portal. “Has anything come through yet?”
“Just one big ugly bugger, miss,” one of the black-clad guards reported. “We gave it a flash-bang and it trotted off back to where it came from.”
“What did it look like?” Connor asked. He opened his laptop and booted up.
“A bit like a stegosaurus,” the guard said. He grinned. “Don’t look so surprised, mate, I’ve seen ‘Jurassic Park 2’. Not as big, maybe, and with more spikes and less of those flat plates sticking up.”
,” Connor deduced. “Mid-Jurassic.”
“The heyday of the sauropods,” Cutter added. “We could get some great big beastie coming through that would make a hell of a mess of the dreaming spires.”
,” Connor suggested. “Eighteen metres long.” He grinned. “At least they’d probably let it use the bus lanes.”
“We can’t allow that,” Cutter said. “Oxford is full of people who could probably identify and classify dinosaurs even better than you can. The whole story would be out in no time. We might as well go public about the anomalies if that happens.”
“I hope I didn’t hear you say what I thought I heard,” Jenny’s voice came from behind him. Cutter turned and saw the PR officer approaching.
“I still don’t know how she can even walk in those heels,” Abby muttered under her breath.
“I was just saying that we have to stop any incursions,” Cutter said. “We’d have a hard time passing off a hundred eye-witness reports from Oxford dons and students as mass hysteria. Also, there are hordes of tourists with camcorders around.”
“If something gets past us and wanders the streets,” Connor put in, “there’ll be a thousand videos up on YouTube in no time.” He glanced down at his laptop screen. “Oh. Of course. It could be worse than a Cetiosaurus
turning up. I forgot about what ate them. Megalosaurus
“I take it that’s a big dinosaur with teeth?” Jenny came up behind Connor and peered over his shoulder. “Oh. That’s obviously a ‘yes’.”
“Nine metres long,” Connor said. “It’s not one I’d like to meet. Well, I wouldn’t mind seeing one, but only at a nice safe distance. A mile or so should do.”
“And another one that everyone in Oxford will be able to identify,” Cutter said, “as long as it’s not biting them in half at the time.”
“I think Oxford’s over-rated,” Connor said. “They only do so well on University Challenge
because Jeremy Paxman plays favourites. He always gives them more time than the others and, if they’re behind near the end and there’s not much time for them to catch up, he speeds up the questions. He slows down if they’re ahead.”
Cutter ignored the remark. “Don’t take any chances,” he ordered the security detail. “If flash-bangs don’t turn a creature back, shoot to kill.”
“That could cause its own problems,” Jenny pointed out. “A gigantic corpse in the middle of Oxford could take some explaining.”
“Aye, well, that’s supposed to be your speciality,” Cutter pointed out. “I’m sure you’ll come up with some story.”
“Perhaps we could bulldoze a corpse back through the anomaly,” Jenny mused. “I wonder how quickly I could arrange a bulldozer?”
“Good luck getting it here through the traffic system,” Abby said.
“You could disguise it as a bus,” Connor suggested.
Jenny sucked in her lips. “Hmm. The corpse could be a replica for delivery to the Natural History Museum,” she said. “Of course the shooting would be a little hard to account for.”
“Just say the police saw a Brazilian electrician on his way to work,” Cutter said. “That would explain it.”
Jenny grimaced. “That’s not nice.”
“I’m not in a nice mood,” Cutter said. He stared at the anomaly. “Of course, we could be lucky and nothing else might come through.”
“Oh, bugger, you’ve jinxed us,” Connor muttered.
“And that’s usually your job,” Abby said. Even as she spoke the shimmering of the portal darkened slightly as something began to cross over.
“Weapons ready!” barked the commander of the security detail. Half a dozen MP-5s and a 7.62 mm L7A2 GPMG light machine gun were pointed at the anomaly. The officer raised a stun grenade and held it ready to throw.
Two figures appeared. Not lumbering stegosaurids or sauropods, and not ravenous theropod predators, but humans.
Two young women. Very pretty young women, in fact, although their clothes were dirty and ragged. One of them was a blonde, so spectacularly curvaceous that it was the first thing that registered on the male watchers; even before they noticed something that was already causing Abby and Jenny’s jaws to drop and their eyes to open wide. She held a sword in one hand. The other was a brunette, six foot tall and with the slim figure of a catwalk supermodel, who held a bow with an arrow nocked and ready. It wasn’t aimed at anyone and she made no move to adopt a more offensive position.
“Hold your...” Cutter began. He took in the girls’ appearance more comprehensively and his eyebrows shot up. “...fire,” he finished. “Wings. My God, they’ve got wings.”
“That is so cool,” Connor said. “They can’t be from the past. It must be a future anomaly. The stegosaurid must have been a genetic reconstruction. Wow. In the future we’ll have wings.”
“No way are those real,” Abby stated.
“They might be cybernetic attachments,” Connor agreed, “but the way they flap certainly looks biological.”
Abby rolled her eyes. “I wasn’t talking about the wings.”
“Then what...?” Connor began. “Oh.”
“Civilisation,” the tall girl said. A beaming smile appeared on her face and she relaxed her pull on the bowstring. “We’ve made it at last.”
“Better than civilisation,” said the blonde. “I see men
Cutter strode forward. “Who are you?” he asked. “What time period do you come from?” One of the guards advanced at his side with an SMG held at the ready.
“I think that’s a weapon of some sort,” the blonde girl warned her companion. “Don’t do anything chancy. It might be capable of harming us.” She lowered her sword.
The brunette lowered her bow and took her hand away from the bowstring altogether. “Easy, cutter,” she said.
Cutter tensed. “How do you know my name? Are you working for Helen?”
“I don’t mark your drift, cutter,” the girl said. Her expression appeared to be one of genuine puzzlement.
The blonde gave a short laugh. “He means it’s his name
, Dracaena. His name must be Cutter.”
“Your name is Cutter?” The dark girl’s eyebrows rose. “Then these others are, perhaps, Berk, Sod, Prime and Clueless?”
“Here we are the Clueless, Dracaena,” the blonde said. “It would be wise not to antagonise these Primes needlessly.”
“True,” said the dark girl, whose name appeared to be Dracaena. “It is ill-mannered of me also.” She fixed a piercing gaze on Cutter’s face. “Forgive me, sir Prime, I meant no offence. For us Cagers ‘cutter’ is a friendly greeting, a name for one who seems resourceful and with the capacity to make a worthwhile comrade, and I called you that because you were first to approach us and you seem to be in command.”
“I don’t understand what you’re talking about,” Cutter said. “What’s a ‘Cager’? What year are you from?”
“A Cager is one who dwells in Sigil, the City of Doors,” Dracaena explained, “as we did before we were forced to flee. As to what year, well, for us it was the year 984 by the Clarillean calendar when we jumped the gate. We were a year and a half in the realm in which we found ourselves, I believe, although I did not think to keep careful count. What that would make it by your calendar I cannot guess. I know not even what world this is.”
“You’re from another world?” Cutter had to make a conscious effort to keep his mouth from dropping open.
“That explains the wings, then,” Connor remarked. “Another planet? I have to see.” He set his laptop aside and headed for the anomaly.
“Be not so eager, rash Prime,” Dracaena cautioned him, “unless your weapons are truly potent.”
The blonde girl sniggered.
“Latch your bone-box, Eisheth,” Dracaena ordered. Cutter guessed that the words were scathing but the girl’s tone was one of affection tinged only slightly with irritation, with an accompanying roll of the eyes and a quirk of the mouth, in a manner very reminiscent of the way in which Abby would address Connor when the young man said something stupid.
“Beyond that gate lies deadly peril, berk,” Dracaena continued, turning her attention back to Connor. “Beasts great and ferocious, like unto wingless dragons, mighty enough to pose dire threat even to us. Did you not mark what I said? That is not our world, addle-cove, but the one to which we fled. This portal seems not to be a Planar gate, such as the ones we know, but rather to lead between different times in the same world.”
“That’s what we discovered,” Cutter said. “So, you travelled from your world to ours and found yourselves stuck in the past?”
“Indeed so,” the blonde girl, Eisheth, confirmed. “It was tedious in the extreme, and perilous, although better than the fate that would have found us had we not fled. I hope that I never have to eat lizard again.” She swept her gaze over all the men. “It is good to see males once more. Dracaena is a skilled bed-partner, and I love her dearly, but it is the touch of a man that I crave.”
“I would be hurt,” Dracaena said, “but I share your desire.” She spotted Lester, lurking at the back of the group, and fixed her attention on him. “Now there is a blood who shows distinction,” she said, striding toward Lester. “I have not seen clothes so well cut even on a Factol or one of the Lords of the High Houses. Are you the true leader of this group?”
Lester put his hand to his neck and adjusted his tie. His normal cool composure cracked for a moment. “I am,” he confirmed.
“I shall favour you with my attentions, then, first of all,” Dracaena said.
“Ah, I’m afraid I’m not interested,” Lester said.
Dracaena grimaced. “I must seek out a hot bath. I must be grimy and bedraggled indeed if my charms have so diminished.”
“It’s not that,” Lester said. He fidgeted with his tie again. “You’re an extremely attractive young lady. It’s just that I’m happily married.”
“I proposed not marriage, berk,” Dracaena said. “Disport with me for an hour or two. Thereafter you will still be married but you will be even happier.”
“I... ah... things just aren’t done like that in this world,” Lester said.
“He obviously doesn’t read ‘Heat’,” Abby said to Connor.
“Or the ‘News of the World’,” Connor replied. “Come to think of it, he can’t even watch much TV.”
“I sense affection between you,” Eisheth said to them, “and I shall not come between you. Well, not unless your preferences run that way.” She looked into Abby’s eyes. “You are pretty, for a Prime, and you have spirit. You may keep your man.”
“He’s not my man,” Abby denied. “We share a house, yeah, but that’s only to keep expenses down and because we both like Rex. That’s our lizard.”
Eisheth raised an eyebrow but made no comment.
“It’s true,” Abby insisted. She gave Eisheth a hard stare. “That doesn’t mean I’d want you to get your claws into Connor.”
“It matters not to me,” Eisheth said. “I like you, girl, and you need fear me not. It is Cutter that I claim.”
“Hey!” Cutter protested. “Lester’s right. You can’t just claim people like that.”
“So, then, the woman in the impractical footwear is yours?” Eisheth asked, causing Jenny to sniff pointedly and glare at her.
“No!” Cutter replied. “She’s just a friend. A colleague.”
“The mores are different here, it seems,” Dracaena said, “but these bashers will surely not resist us. Warriors are the same in all worlds.” She left Lester and returned to the main group.
“We’re on duty, miss,” the security detail commander told her.
“Soon as we get off,” one of the soldiers muttered, “I’m up for it. What a bloody gorgeous pair!”
“The black-haired one’s a bit of a smasher, too,” another commented.
“This portal will close soon,” Dracaena said. “If your duty is only to guard it, well, it will not be long before we can engage in more... pleasurable activities.”
“You can tell when anomalies are about to close? Without testing the magnetic field strength?” Cutter came to the alert.
“We can,” Dracaena confirmed. “We know much about portals. I estimate that this one will last another hour, that is, one twenty-fourth of a day. Perhaps a little less.”
“That’s what we call an hour, too,” Cutter said. “Hmm. That could be a very useful ability. Would you be willing to assist us with our mission?”
“You guard your people from creatures that might come through these portals, is that correct?” Dracaena gave Cutter a cool and level look. “We must find work here, in any event, and your mission seems worthy. Act as guides to us, and help us find a case or at least a kip, and we will be happy to aid you.”
“The wings might be something of a problem,” Jenny said. “They’ll attract almost as much attention as a dinosaur trundling past Trinity College. We’ll need to cover them up.” Her eyes flickered. “And cover up a couple of other things,” she added, under her breath.
“There is no need,” Eisheth said. Her wings vanished. “There are many places where our wings would mark us out,” she said, “and we have ways to deal with that.”
Dracaena followed suit. “I am proud of my beautiful wings,” she said, “but I can do without them when in the sight of the Clueless. You will, then, act as our guides to this world?”
“We can certainly do that,” Lester agreed. “Miss Lewis, I think that you’re best suited to that role.”
“Oh, thanks,” Jenny said, insincerity evident in her tone. “Just the job I always wanted.”
“This could be something of a break-through,” Cutter said. “Knowing when an anomaly will close might not be as useful as knowing when one will open, of course, but it’ll be a big help when we’re working out how to deal with an incursion. We can make proper plans for allocation of resources.”
“Yes, yes, very good,” Lester said. “I’ll leave you to it. I’m going back to the ARC.” He set off for his car. He passed close to Cutter on the way and leaned close to the Professor’s ear. “Just keep that woman away from me,” he hissed, and then strode quickly away.
“I wish to change my clothing,” Dracaena said. “I have garments in my pack, preserved against need, that are not so different from those that your womenfolk wear.”
“And I,” said Eisheth. “A bath would be pleasant, but it can wait. Perhaps some volunteer could be found to... scrub my back.” A shuffling of feet amongst the security detail indicated that such a volunteer would not be hard to find.
“I suppose that I could escort you to the Ladies,” Jenny said, sounding as if the concession was being wrung out of her by the application of hot pokers. “At least you can wash your faces and change your clothes. Come on, then, follow me.” She led the two girls away from the anomaly, past the Police barrier tape lines that sealed off the area, and out onto the streets of Oxford.
“Shops,” Dracaena said, “and stocked with many sorts of goods. I think that I shall like this world.”
“Shops indeed,” said Eisheth, “and men in great numbers. What more could we desire?”
Dracaena smiled and opened her mouth to reply. No words came forth. Instead she stopped dead in her tracks and stared at a display in a shop window.
“What is it?” Eisheth asked. “Is something wrong?”
“No, the opposite,” Dracaena said. “It would seem that this world is a true paradise for those in female form. Shops, men, and not only that,” her voice took on a tone of reverent ecstasy, “they have chocolate!”