March 17, 2006

"Any change?" Claudia asked for the fifth time.

"No," Connor answered patiently, his eyes on the compass in his hand.

Claudia was beyond tense. She hadn't moved for an hour, standing in front of the shimmering rip in space-time through which Cutter had disappeared with several soldiers and his wife. One hour. How long had they been expecting it to take? The Permian was huge, after all, and who knew where the future anomaly they sought had opened up? Maybe Helen had been lying, and there wasn't a future anomaly at all. Maybe the future creatures they'd taken with them wouldn't be able to find it. Maybe it had closed...

Don't think about that. Claudia forced her mind away from the direction of closing anomalies. She remembered asking Cutter moments before he had left: "What if the anomaly closes while you're on the other side?" His answer had been typical, really: "We wait until it reopens." They had food, water, shelter. They could have stayed on the other side for a month or more. Claudia didn't like the thought of Cutter sharing a tent with his wife for that amount of time, but it couldn't really be helped.

"Hold on..." Connor said slowly, holding the compass out in front of him.

"What?" Claudia was at his side in a second. Abby and Stephen were quick to glance over his shoulder too, and even Lester tore himself away from the tree he had been leaning on to have a look.

"Nothing," Connor said quickly, stuffing the compass into his pocket. "I just thought it... wobbled a bit, that's all."

"And did it?" Claudia demanded. "Is it getting weaker?"

"I don't know… maybe a bit. Just a bit, though. It's not in danger of closing yet."

Yet. Claudia closed her eyes briefly, but when she did, all she could see was Nick walking through the anomaly beside Helen, possibly never to return.

"Claudia, come and sit down for a little bit. You've been standing up for ages. Aren't your feet tired?"

"What?" Claudia was only half-focused on Abby's words; the other half of her mind was thinking over every interaction she and Nick Cutter had ever shared. They said that every moment in your life flashed before your eyes as you were dying... What did that mean, then? Their first kiss at the bar; the second in the hotel; the third – their last – only hours ago, in almost this very spot. Cutter saving her life countless times, and the lives of so many others. The banter they'd shared back and forth for months, so clever, always hiding the truth of the moment behind witty words – but they had never talked about their feelings for each other. There had always been something in the way: a creature, an anomaly... his wife.

"Come and sit down," Abby repeated. "Eat something. They'll be back soon, and you know Cutter wouldn't want you to exhaust yourself waiting. Come on." She took Claudia's hand and led the woman away from the anomaly to where the others were sitting in the dirt, eating. Claudia walked sideways so that she always kept the anomaly in the corner of her eye; she was terrified that if she looked away, it would disappear. She was almost too scared to blink.

Abby fed her, but she hardly tasted whatever it was she ate. The others were talking in low voices, about the weather, the news, politics, whatever – it could have been anything, and Claudia would not have been interested. She watched the anomaly shimmer in the air. She waited.

The hours stretched on, and on, and on. Night fell. Lester checked his watch. Stephen paced anxiously around the clearing. Connor pulled the compass from his pocket, checked it, put it back, pulled it out again. A headache began to pound behind Claudia's eyes. Where are you? she thought, silently, desperately. Leave the creatures. Leave Helen. Come back to me.

She looked away from the anomaly only when she heard shouting. Stephen and Lester were talking off to the side. "He's my friend!" Stephen was saying. "God damn it, he's been gone for hours. Anything could have happened. Please, just let me go to him."

"Out of the question," Lester said flatly. "If something has happened, we've lost enough men as it is." He saw Claudia looking and gestured emphatically at her. "Tell him!"

Claudia looked at Stephen and the words stuck in her throat. She wanted to say, Go to him. She wanted to say, Take me too. She wanted to tell Lester where he could shove his instructions and protocols. She opened her mouth to speak.

Connor cried out.

Claudia turned, knowing, already, what she would see. The anomaly was moving, shifting, convulsing – bigger and smaller and bigger and smaller – and smaller – and smaller –

Stephen threw himself forward.

Claudia screamed.

She went back the next day, and the day after that.

She returned to the clearing. The first flowers of spring were blooming, late this year – the scent of them stuck in her nose as she walked along the forest paths to where they'd set up a camp, waiting for the anomaly to reopen. The soldier on duty nodded at her, but she barely noticed him. She stood in the same spot where she had the night before, staring at the empty space in front of her, mirroring the space in her heart. She paced, around and around as Stephen had, or walking back and forward over the spot where the anomaly had been, as though she could return it to the clearing if she agitated the soil above which it had hovered, if she only tried hard enough. Sometimes she was there for hours, and sometimes Stephen would join her. They never spoke, though, not wanting to voice the awful thoughts they both shared, not wanting to intrude upon the layer of grief surrounding each other's hearts.

After a week, she stopped visiting every day. After a month, she stopped visiting at all. The memory of that day became too painful, and she saw the place in her dreams almost every night anyway. She remained frozen, though, unable to forget, unable to move forward into the future that Cutter had been searching for. Abby and Connor and Lester were scared for her, she knew. Stephen coped with his grief in other ways, throwing himself into the anomaly project, picking fights with dinosaurs ten times his size just to have something to occupy his mind. Claudia, though, would zone out at her desk, lost in recollection, sometimes for hours at a time. More than once Lester suggested that she should quit the anomaly project altogether... but that felt wrong somehow, like she would be insulting his memory by doing so.

After two months they cleared out his office. She went with Stephen to sort through papers, journals, books stacked three feet high. There were memories here, too – joking sexual harassment accusations and questions Cutter hadn't wanted to answer. Eventually they just packed everything up and sent it to Stephen's house to sit in boxes until Cutter returned. Claudia kept his house off the market for as long as she could, but eventually Lester and Dr Shepard and the others convinced her to let it go. She visited it once before she did, though, in case there was anything precious that he would have wanted kept. In case there was anything she could keep, to remind herself of him.

After half a year she began to recover. Sessions with Dr Shepard were helping more than Claudia had expected; hiring her had been one of Lester's cleverer ideas. There were still nights when she was haunted with visions of what they now called 'future predators', but they were becoming few and far between. She put more effort in at work, even went out once or twice with friends. She met Jem. She began to smile again.

After one year she returned to the Forest of Dean. They'd abandoned that camp after the invention of the Anomaly Detection Device, since they would be able to tell remotely when – if – the anomaly there ever reopened. There was nothing at all to mark the place, no warning sign or stone, but Claudia knew exactly where it was. She knelt there and left flowers, as a memorial, as on a grave.