They were almost all gathered, nearly a hundred members of the Centre for Anomaly Research and Investigation staff. Nick Cutter, who rarely even turned up for his own university lectures back in his days as a professor, was fighting a rare case of nerves. He stood at the podium, looking out at all of them. Stephen had told him there were fifteen men in the Fieldwork Division, thirty in Control, and forty in Research, plus a handful of administrative and other staff. He spotted Connor in the front row with a laptop perched on his knees, and Abby towards the back, sitting beside a handsome tanned man whom he assumed to be Captain Jones. Claudia Brown still hadn't arrived. He looked up at the clock. She was five minutes late and the staff members in front of him were restless, but there was no way he was starting this meeting without her.
Just when he saw Connor begin to tentatively raise a hand, the door to the conference hall opened and James Lester entered, followed by Claudia Brown. At the sight of her, the tightness around his heart loosened a little. It's okay. She's still here. She took a seat in the back, not looking at him. Lester marched all the way up to the podium where Cutter stood.
"I apologise for my tardiness, Professor Cutter." Lester sounded the opposite of apologetic; it seemed that a three-year interim had done nothing to dispel his dislike for Cutter. "I simply was unaware until very recently that you had ground this entire facility's operation to a halt so that you could call an emergency meeting on a whim."
"It's not a whim," Cutter said, fighting to keep his voice under control. "If you'd sit down, Sir Lester, I can stop holding up this entire facility's operation and get started."
Lester shot him a glare that could have stripped paint, but took a seat.
"All right," he said into the microphone, and he swallowed when he saw all ninety-four faces turn expectantly towards him. "For those of you who don't know, my name is Professor Nick Cutter. I'm an evolutionary zoologist and an ex-lecturer of Central Metropolitan University. In 2005, I was called to investigate a creature sighting in the Forest of Dean and subsequently made the first recorded discovery of an anomaly, with the assistance of Stephen Hart, Connor Temple, Abby Maitland and Claudia Brown." His voice wavered only a little when he said her name.
"We formed a team under the supervision of Sir James Lester, then of the Home Office. Our small group was in charge of predicting and containing the anomalies, while also assuring the greater public remained unaware of their existence. In March 2006, the Forest of Dean anomaly to the Permian reopened – the same one that opened today. This time, it let through a dangerous predator from the future through another anomaly inside the Permian Era itself. I along with a team of special forces soldiers was tasked with finding and closing the future anomaly."
He stopped to take a breath. "Our mission on the other side of the anomaly was a disaster. The soldiers were all killed by the future predator; I was only given the chance to escape thanks to the timely arrival of a Gorgonopsid. I returned through the anomaly into the Forest of Dean, back into what I thought was the same present. It wasn't."
Cutter leaned forward, staring straight at Claudia Brown. "The new present into which I crossed was an alternate timeline. In this timeline, everything was different. Some people had been erased from existence." She glanced up at him and he quickly looked away. "There were others who claimed to be my colleagues whom I had never heard of. I had entered a parallel universe through the anomaly from the Permian and did not return to this present, which is why I've been marked down as missing for the past three years."
They were looking less confused than he'd expected them to; some were even nodding. Thank God Lester has hired intelligent people. "Do you understand what I mean?" he asked, looking out at the crowd. "The anomalies aren't just doorways in time. They're doorways between timelines. Every man or woman who passes through is now at risk of never making it back to their own universe, let alone their own time. If we thought travelling through them was dangerous before, that's nothing compared to what we know now."
"What happens if we have to go through?" asked Captain Jones from the back.
"We don't," Cutter said flatly. "You read Connor's email. There are to be no inter-anomaly missions, no exceptions, until we have a better idea of exactly what it is we're dealing with."
Jones did not look happy.
Cutter didn't care.
"Does everyone understand? No exceptions." He received a few nods from the audience and took that as encouragement enough. "Thank you." Without saying anything more, he stepped down from the podium. The rest of the staff began to file out. He went over to Connor. "Did you get all of that?"
"Yep." The young man slapped his laptop shut and nodded up at the Professor. "Next step is to figure it out, eh? Why some anomalies lead to separate timelines and others don't?"
Cutter nodded. "But first, I need to know everything you know. You're two years ahead of me in terms of research. Can we go to your office?"
"Yeah, of course."
"One moment, please." A thin woman, looking to be around Claudia's age, spoke up from Cutter's left and Connor immediately fell silent. "Professor. My name is Dr Brooke Shepard; I'm a psychologist and counsellor here at CARI."
"We have a psychologist now?"
"Yes," Dr Shepard replied crisply. "I also hold several science degrees majoring in evolutionary biology and quantum mechanics, and an arts degree in ancient mythological studies."
"I see," Cutter said.
"I would appreciate it if you could drop by my office sometime in the near future. I'm sure Master Temple would be able to show you the way."
"Look, I don't really have the time –"
"I insist, Professor." Dr Shepard smiled up at him and left the hall before he could make reply.