faye_dartmouth: (stephen blue wonder)
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A/N: Both Billy and Stephen are about to learn just how little they know. I make no promises on how it turns out...

Previous parts in the MASTER POST



PART NINE

-o-

Outside the old Ministry of Defence building, Billy dialled again. The call started to go through before it dropped abruptly.

Cursing, Billy put his mobile away. “The top bloody spy agency in the world and they can’t even get me a phone with decent coverage,” he muttered, squinting through the windscreen at the building again. He’d parked in a nearby industrial estate, a safe distance from the destination Helen had specified in order to scope it out before going in. He’d done enough of flying blind during the mission, and he’d rather know what was headed his way for the rest.

Unfortunately, nothing seemed to be working in his favour. There was nothing on the exterior of the building to suggest whether Helen might be lying or telling the truth – if it was the mole’s facility, then the traitor had done a good job of keeping it hidden and secret. The old sign had been removed and the vegetation was overgrown. The windows were darkened, a few cracked along the lower levels.

In truth, it didn’t look like a top-secret building at all, which Billy supposed would be the point. The resources needed to pull off such secrecy made Billy consider Lester as a viable candidate after all.

On top of that, he couldn’t get a phone signal. He hadn’t checked in with MI5 back on the beach – he’d been too set on fulfilling his promise to Fredericks – but when he’d got onsite, his mobile hadn’t been able to hold a signal. After Stephen had fled MI5, Billy had left in too much of a hurry to properly gear up with a new radio mic. He glanced down at his watch, hoping that at least one-way communication could be maintained.

He managed to provide a moderately clear view of the building for the camera, hoping that Fredericks and the minions on the other end might be able to glean something from it. “As you can see, nothing too suspicious,” he remarked. “Of course, I suppose that is the point of a top secret building?”

Sighing, Billy tapped his fingers on the seat restlessly. Patience, he remembered. It was invaluable for a spy.

But sometimes, so was action. A good spy knew how to discern which was in order.

Stephen’s conversation with Helen suggested immediate action was required. Whether or not she had been kidnapped, she wanted Stephen here at this location. The intensity of her story, be it true or false, warranted concern. Waiting could prove detrimental to safety and secrecy. If he had a window of opportunity to connect with Helen, this was it, and there was no telling how long the opportunity would last.

On the other hand, backup was probably on its way. Even if his mobile was useless, MI5 had other means of tracking him. More than that, they had Stephen’s intelligence. Once they found out that Billy had gone off, they’d follow, especially if they hadn’t managed to reestablish two-way contact.

Billy had shown himself to be questionable in the field. It was cause to consider his own fallibility and wait for clearance before going off and doing something decidedly impulsive.

Though, to be fair, he hadn’t become a spy due to his reservations. It took skill and cunning. Initiative was a trait favoured among the top brass.

So this could be a prime opportunity to redeem himself while simultaneously unfurling Helen’s motivations, the identity of the mole, and the fate of Cutter’s team.

Ultimately, it could go either way. Crash and burn, or the pinnacle of glory.

Fredericks’ voice was in his head, an unknowing blessing: It’s time for you to clean up.

More than that, his promise to Stephen mattered: I’ll do my best to make it right.

“It’s a proverbial rock and a hard place,” Billy muttered. Then he blew out a breath, hand on the door. “And this time I intend to blast through either way.”

His determination was shaky, but he forced himself to settle nonetheless. As he got out, the intensity of the sun made him squint, provoking the dull throb in his head from his multiple fistfights throughout the day. Still, he fought back the mild swell of nausea and weighed his options, first grabbing the pistol Stephen had left in the car before turning back to the building. Abandoned though it seemed, Helen had indicated that it was more functional than it appeared. Billy didn’t know the layout off-hand, but he had been in enough government buildings to know a bit of what to expect. A few grand halls, but mostly networks of offices. Helen had indicated she’d be closer to one particular exit, so as long as he stayed on the direct route toward the storage rooms, he’d be fine.

Fine from what, that much hadn’t been made overly clear. But seeing as he had no other intelligence to go on, he was stuck taking Helen at her word.

Which was always a precarious prospect.

He found the door on the eastern side, just as Stephen had related. Billy spotted some surveillance equipment, so he kept himself close to the building to minimise his exposure. If it was a major concern, Helen probably would have mentioned it, but Billy wasn’t about to go by that alone. When he found the right door, it was locked. Fortunately, picking locks was one skill he had mastered as a spy, so getting it to open with a quiet snick was easy enough.

Inside, he felt his hackles rise. Though the exterior of the building had been almost decrepit, the interior was clearly much more maintained. The area he entered was obviously not intended for public use. It had a network of corridors. They appeared to be somewhat maintained but clearly industrial. But there were lights glowing dimly and the entire place seemed to have some sort of temperature control in place, suggesting that the place was certainly in use despite the darkened façade.

That alone was indicative of a cover-up, though it didn’t seem to be a very good one if he was able to enter the building so easily. Either the security system was down or not yet fully functional. He wasn’t sure if either option was particularly more appealing.

Normally, he would have preferred to scope the building out and get his bearings. He could see cameras but had no means of doing anything about them – not without proper equipment at any rate. Besides, at this point, time seemed to be the motivating factor so the key was to keep to himself and follow Helen’s lead and hope for the best.

Considering this mission, though, he wasn’t sure if the best would really be much to hope for.

If it was a trap, it was better that he was walking into it than Stephen.

Distantly, there was a sound quickly followed by another. It was a low growl and then a ruckus. Billy stiffened, going very still, but the noise drifted off.

He wanted to reach for his gun, which was nestled against the small of his back under his t-shirt, but reckoned walking around a secure bunker fully armed was probably an invitation to shoot first and ask questions later. It didn’t seem to be a relevant concern anyway. Despite the ominous nature of the building, he seemed to be entirely alone – apart from the rather disconcerting growls – further supporting his earlier assertion that the place was not in tip-top shape.

Though it also made him consider the validity of Helen’s claims. Something was clearly awry here, so a plot to kidnap and/or assassinate members of the ARC was possible. And this would be a prime place for that sort of thing. No one would think to look here and given the intricate network of spaces, it seemed probable that there were ample secure areas to hide people in.

Which also would make sense if Helen was hiding out.

Of course, one had to wonder why she was sticking around at all. With security lax enough for Billy to get in, she could surely get out. Moving by car had never been a concern of hers, so her insistence on Stephen’s presence did stand out as decidedly odd.

Before he could finish the line of thought, he turned a corner and recognised the bulkhead of panels and the row of skylights Stephen had described from his conversation with Helen. That meant Helen was close. Two doors down.

There was a new noise, and Billy suppressed a shudder. Something clanged and there was banging – and it was getting closer.

Swallowing, Billy took the time to reach for Stephen’s gun. He didn’t want to invite disaster, but he also didn’t want to be surprised by it either.

There was another growl – closer this time.

Billy tensed, remembering his training. Mentally, he located the sound, off to his left in the corridor that came to a T-junction not far away.

Cautious, Billy ignored the doorways, holding the gun out as he approached slowly. He inched forward, ready—

Not that it did him any good.

When the figure rounded the corner, Billy forgot to fire. He almost forgot to breathe.

Because there, standing in front of him was a sabre tooth cat.

An actual sabre-tooth cat. Large and living and looking right at Billy.

The thing paused, head cocked and licking its lips.

A hungry sabre-tooth cat.

Apparently Billy’s day could get worse.

For a second, he didn’t move. The cat didn’t either. Its yellow eyes seemed to meet his own, and then Billy dared to breathe and the thing’s body seemed to coil, readying to spring.

If he let it get close, Billy would have no chance. He had to kill it, he had to kill it, he had to –

He fired once, eyes narrowed and aim sound. He caught it in the shoulder as it lunged, throwing its jump off and it crashed into the wall. It snarled as it went down but barely slowed and Billy remembered to keep firing.

He counted the shots, feeling his chest tighten as the rounds dwindled in his clip down to three, to two, but didn’t stop until the thing fell in a bloody pile and stopped moving.

Billy stared, heart thundering in his chest.

A sabre-tooth cat. He’d just killed a sabre-tooth cat.

Screw international espionage and terrorists; he’d killed a prehistoric beasts and was still alive.

For now.

Billy remembered where he was. Somehow, he suspected that that wasn’t the only surprise waiting for him. He needed to find Helen and work this out so he could get out. And quickly. Whatever was going on in here, Billy would be more than happy to get out.

Anxiously, he reoriented himself, finding the door, reaching for the handle. He tested it and found it locked. Leaning closer, he was surprised to find the lock had been damaged – someone had wanted to make it impossible to open. So picking it was out.

Billy stepped back, assessing it. It was sturdy but not impenetrable. Picking it was out, but brute force was still an option.

Gauging the hinges, he judged the placement and amount of force. Then, with one deep breath, he kicked. The door shuddered and he kicked again, sending it open.

He braced himself, prepared for anything.

But there was only Helen.

She was standing at the ready, knife in hand. There was a moment she was ready to strike but then recognition dawned and she looked genuinely relieved. More than that, she seemed none the worse for wear as her posture relaxed and the aim of her knife slipped.

Because she was waiting for Stephen, Billy recalled. Stephen who she thought had lost everything for her. Who had slept with her and who she was probably quite certain loved her.

Billy found the persona stiffly, moving forward quickly to hug her. Normally, he might put up some more flair, but he hardly had it in him. Besides, with the news she’d used to lure him here, it didn’t seem appropriate.

Still, first things first. As they parted, Billy nodded to the walls. “What is this place?”

Helen shrugged. “I don’t know,” she said, although it sounded vaguely rote to Billy. “Lester’s people brought me here.”

It was an effective continuation of the lie. Specific but not too much. The words had the right inflection but not enough emotion. It was still awfully convenient, and although the identity of the mole was important to the mission, Billy still remembered his promise to Stephen. “What happened to Cutter?” he asked.

She looked at him, eyes wide but too knowing. “There were creatures, Stephen,” she said, using gentle weight on his name to bind him to her. “He was killed.”

Creatures; that much made sense. The anomaly project was rife with such perils and he had just come face to face with one. But why? Were they used on purpose? Or was it an accident? If on purpose, then how was that engineered?

There was still one thing to be certain about, though. “You saw it?” he asked, watching her as carefully as possible for any indication of falsehood.

This time, she didn’t speak, but her nod was indisputable.

It wasn’t enough. She was forcing this. If Cutter were dead, she would have more concern than that. She would take it worse than that. No matter what she was trying to convince Stephen of, she loved Cutter. His death would shake her more deeply.

Which meant she was lying. If she was lying about Cutter, then she could be lying about a lot of things. About being kidnapped, about Lester.

But then why was she here? She was clearly in some sort of trouble, but why did she need Stephen? Had her other allies deserted her? Was she planning some great escape through time and needed a partner to see her through? Helen was strong enough to do such things on her own, but she was proving herself to be sentimental in some regards.

Or she just didn’t fancy being lost in the past without someone to shag.

Whatever the case, Billy could make use of her unusual dependency. It was time to press this issue. “Where’s Lester?” he asked, playing along for now. If Stephen believed Lester to be responsible, he would want to confront the man himself. Stephen had already proven himself determined in that regard and Billy had the throbbing headache to prove it.

“Oh, it’s too late, Stephen. We can’t stay here,” she said, although the sympathy she mustered sounded forced to Billy’s trained ears. She hesitated before continuing, “I’ve been thinking. We should find another anomaly. Wait on the other side until it’s safe.”

There it was: Stephen’s usefulness. Helen had not intended to find herself alone at this point; chances were something had gone wrong in her plans and Stephen was her exit plan.

It was clear she had no intention of coming clean with Stephen. Not about the actual traitor or Helen’s probable association with him. She probably thought the team’s demise would ensure that Stephen would not want to turn back. It was a surprisingly cruel method, though she had underestimated Stephen’s devotion and guilt.

And she had still not discerned that Billy wasn’t Stephen at all. Billy had a mission, and he wasn’t about to go bopping through time with the cleavage of doom. He shook his head. “We have to confront him,” he said, unyielding in this much. Whether or not Lester had done it, a confrontation would put the facts on the table.

“We have to go,” she said.

That actually sounded like a good idea to Billy. Running around a building that possibly had more deadly predators on the loose was actually fairly low on his list of desirable activities, but still. There was a mission. He hadn’t got himself this deep into things to bail out. Not with the head of the proverbial beast still in place.

And part of him didn’t want her to get what she wanted quite so easily. If they left this building, he’d have a harder time keeping her in one place, increasing the odds she’d get away. Even if she led him on a wild goose chase in here, he needed to stick close to her until backup arrived. Then, as far as he was concerned, MI5 could search the entire place and sort it out themselves.

Convincing her, though, might be a struggle. So he played the one card he had: “He killed my friends.”

Stephen’s loyalty was everything to him. Though the others questioned it, Billy knew that it was at the other man’s core. Betraying that loyalty had almost crippled Stephen He wouldn’t allow his friends to die in vain. Billy knew that, even having only known the man for a few days.

And Helen knew it, too. She looked reluctant, but she nodded. “Okay,” she said. “But I’ll warn you, it’s not safe.”

Billy shrugged grimly. “As if any of this has been safe.”’

“We may be too late,” Helen hedged.

Billy shook his head. “We’re going to find him,” he said.

She moistened her lips. “All right,” she said. “This way.”

Stomach tense and nerves tingling, Billy followed Helen back out into the corridor.

-o-

The driver didn’t waste any time. As soon as the door was closed, the car lurched away from the kerb. Fredericks was already poking through his files, muttering as he tried to organise them.

Stephen waited a moment before he asked, “So what’s this about?”

Fredericks sighed, flipping pages wildly. “It’s about the entire mission being turned on its head,” he said.

“Because the team was killed?” Stephen asked, the words still hard to say. Tears burned unshed in his eyes.

Fredericks looked up at him, forehead creased. “God help us if that’s true,” he said.

Stephen was confused. “Then what? Is it Lester?”

Fredericks laughed. “Don’t I wish,” he said.

Stephen’s eyes widened. “It’s not?”

Fredericks put the papers down, as if giving up. “No,” he said. “He’s the only reason we have any idea what’s going on at all.”

“But Helen—“

“Is a conniving bitch,” Fredericks concluded. “You and I don’t agree on much, but I’m fairly certain we can both say that much without a doubt.”

Stephen couldn’t deny it, but the shock was almost too much. “I don’t understand.”

Drawing a breath, Fredericks let it out again, looking uncharacteristically weary. For a moment, he actually looked human. “After Billy left to find you, we received a call from Lester,” he said. “He told us that the ARC had been compromised and members of the staff had been abducted while the ARC underwent a massive attack, both electronically and from some type of predator we can’t identify. Security systems are a total mess and everything is compromised.”

Stephen could only blink. “But – who?”

“Oliver Leek,” Fredericks said.

Stephen almost couldn’t believe it. “But he’s nothing more than Lester’s lackey,” he said.

“We’re aware of that,” Fredericks said. “But with his proximity to the project, his unduly ambitious nature – some people are just easily swayed by the temptation of power.”

“But why?” Stephen asked, struggling to understand.

Fredericks gave a grim shrug. “Hard to say,” he said. “But we do know that he’s created a secure alternate facility, a secondary ARC of sorts. His intention is to control the anomalies and the creatures. He’s decided to show what he’s capable of and, according to Lester, he’s got predators in semi-secure locations throughout the city. Apparently, he’s threatening to release some of his predators into the general populace. Your giant scorpion on the beach was something of a trial run, it appears.”

At that, Stephen had to gape. “But—“

Fredericks nodded. “Fortunately, your team managed to plant a virus which not only disrupted Leek’s systems, but gave the ARC complete access to his formation,” he said. “We’ve confirmed the locations of the predators and we’ve already sent teams out in conjunction with ARC special forces to dismantle those threats. But we’re still faced with taking down the heart of the operation.”

Stephen had to force himself to breathe. There it was: the plot unfurled. And it was like nothing he’d expected. Leek, not Lester. Predators taking the anomalies public, not a clean press release.

And he hadn’t even known. He hadn’t suspected anything. “But how?” he asked finally. “How could he pull that off?”

“Well, he had help,” Fredericks said. “He’s created a secure alternate facility, almost impossible to detect. If not for Helen’s call to you, we probably would have worked it out too late. But Helen’s call and Lester’s information have allowed us to find the location and plan a counter-offensive.”

The words were plain, their meaning clear, but Stephen could barely understand. Almost didn’t want to understand. The blood drained from his head and his ears started to buzz. He tried to breathe through it, but was only moderately successful. He found himself stuttering. “But, Helen—“

“Was in on it from the beginning,” Fredericks said. “But since she wants out, the best we can assume is that she had a falling out with Leek. She’s the only explanation for the heightened technology that Lester has reported.”

“So Lester’s on our side?” Stephen asked, still trying to make sense of the information.

Fredericks smiled a little. “He has been since the start. He’s got clearance with MI5. Good friends with York, our boss. We couldn’t rule him out, of course, but we were fairly certain.”

And Stephen had been so sure.

Though, if he were just taking Helen’s word, that was probably the problem. Helen was a conniving bitch; everything she said had an ulterior motive. From her invitation back in the Forest of Dean to bedding Billy. She could have lied about Cutter, too.

For a second, Stephen dared to hope. Helen could have lied about that. She could have used it to get him to do what she wanted.

Cutter and the others could be alive.

The relief spread through him so fast that it made him light-headed. It might not be too late. Stephen might have another chance. Cutter could be alive.

“So, the team – they’re not dead?” he asked, not bothering to hide the plain, desperate hope in his voice.

Fredericks shrugged. “We have no knowledge to indicate that’s the case,” he said. “Lester has reported that there have been prisoners taken, including your teammates. Lester believes most of them have escaped, though, and there’s nothing conclusive that indicates that there have been any casualties.”

It wasn’t a definitive answer, but it was hope.

Hope. What a novel concept. Stephen felt the tendrils of it settle in his stomach, gripping him and bringing him back to life.

To think, he’d been ready to follow Helen blindly in his grief. Helen knew his weaknesses – always had. She’d used them against him time and again and he’d almost let her do it again.

Horror filled him. To think, he’d sent Billy after her.

“We have to tell Billy,” he said. “He has no idea.”

“We’ve tried,” Fredericks said. “We’ve been trying to get hold of him via his mobile, but there seems to be something interfering with the signal. We get occasional snippets from the transmitter in his watch, which has a much more powerful booster, but even that has become unreliable.”

If Helen needed Stephen, then the mission couldn’t be safe. She had never wanted him unless her back was against a wall or if she had an itch that needed to be scratched. This time, it might actually be both. And if she’d had a falling-out with Leek, she may have wanted Stephen there to clean the mess up. By telling him that Cutter was dead, Stephen would be willing to do anything.

It was a set-up. For what, that wasn’t certain, but he’d just sent Billy into it. While Billy was prepared for Helen’s schemes, he had no idea just how deep she was in the mess. Or that she could be in cahoots with Leek. Or even that Leek was really the enemy.

Billy was good, but with odds like that, he might not be good enough.

“What do you think she wants with me?” Stephen asked, hoping for once that the MI5 agent might actually be worth the bother. Still, it was reflex now to brace for a fresh insult or two.

Fredericks was almost apologetic. “We’re not sure,” he said. “We’re guessing that Helen wants to escape, probably back into an anomaly. It’s one place she’s safe from the authorities.”

“But why did she want me, then?” Stephen asked.

Fredericks made a pinched face. “Leek’s facility isn’t just secure for keeping people out,” he said. “It’s for keeping things in.”

Stephen stared as Fredericks produced an image from one of his files. It was grainy, clearly taken from a taped video feed, but the image of a massive future predator was clear enough.

“I realise it’s not much, but it corroborates what Lester is telling us,” Fredericks said. “Leek’s created a menagerie of sorts, trying to control the animals to do his bidding. It’s the ultimate weapon of power and control. Versatile, terrifying and deadly.”

And Billy was waltzing in there with a handgun and the promise of justice.

“We think she may also have thought you might be useful for your tracking and self-defence skills,” Fredericks continued.

Stephen’s mouth went dry as he looked from the picture back to Fredericks. “We have to get there. Billy’s in danger along with everyone else,” he said.

“Agreed,” Fredericks said. “We’ll drop you off at a secure location—“

Stephen shook his head. “Now,” he said.

Fredericks’ exasperation was evident. “I appreciate your effort to play the hero, but the stakes just got higher,” he said.

“Which is why you can’t wait,” he said, feeling the certainty in him solidify. This wasn’t just about him. It was about the project. It was about the team. It was about Billy. It was about Cutter.

Cutter, who could be alive. Stephen wasn’t going to be ferried to safety when there was a chance to save his friends.

Feeling desperate, he refused to look away from Fredericks now. “Even if you don’t let me near the creatures, you can’t wait,” he said emphatically. “Helen was in a hurry. If we don’t get there, she’s either going to get away or more people will die. And if there are creatures in there, I can help provide insights into their behaviours and weaknesses. I can help.”

He didn’t want to be idle, but it was a concession he was willing to make. This wasn’t just about Stephen proving himself; it was about the safety of the people he cared about, first and foremost. For that, he’d do just about anything, including doing nothing.

Fredericks kept his gaze while chewing his bottom lip. Finally he nodded. “Fine,” he relented. “But you stay out of trouble at all costs. This is a mess enough as it is, understood?”

Stephen nodded, his stomach feeling tight, his palms sweaty. “Perfectly.”

-o-

Billy mentally traced the corridors, mapping them out in his head as best he could. Helen’s path was winding, though it wasn’t immediately clear to him if the roundabout trail was because she was avoiding detection or just to make Billy think she was taking him somewhere.

Part of Billy wanted to push her on this tactic, but the circuitous route was affording him a more in-depth look at the facility and more time for back-up to arrive. It became readily apparent that it been renovated from its original purpose. Offices had been removed and open passageways had been reworked. The long, darkened corridors and connecting rooms were functional but not completely up to par, leaving much of the facility with what appeared to be emergency lighting. The security system, as far as he could tell, was either not functional or not properly staffed. Which, given the lack of personnel they’d come across, didn’t seem like an unlikely assumption.

Whatever this place was now intended to be, it was an ambitious endgame but not necessarily an immediate threat. Helen seemed to know her way around, and when Billy voiced some scepticism, she told him vaguely that she’d been spying there for a week.

As if this had been her discovery that she’d wanted to share.

It was a viable point, Billy supposed, and this kind of thing would blow the lid of the ARC. She’d provided a few other details – the creatures were dangerous and altered to be controllable. It was by this means that the anomaly project could be exploited for government posturing.

Oh, and they were also roaming freely about the building due to a glitch in the computer systems. A minor detail that Billy would have liked to have known before he’d walked unwittingly down the corridors with nothing more than a handgun. The fact that he was still alive was increasingly a marvel to him.

In all, the story somewhat proved her point, and Billy found himself wondering if maybe she’d been telling the truth about some of it. Maybe about Lester, maybe about the team. That wasn’t what Billy wanted, but ascertaining Helen’s truthfulness was imperative to overall mission success. Besides, if anything she said was true, then there were larger security issues to consider. If predators got out into the public, the result would be bad.

It would be more than bad; it might be catastrophic. Billy would not like to be responsible for finding out.

“I just don’t understand why, that’s all,” Billy said, trying to make it sense of it all as they passed.

Helen didn’t look back but kept up her brisk pace, darting past doorways with the natural stealth of an evolved predator. “Power and control are basic animal instincts,” she said. Then she glanced back. “It’s been that way since the dawn of time, and that’s something I would know a bit about.”

That much at least was true, though Billy didn’t find it overly encouraging. “But why kill the staff? Why kidnap you?”

Helen shrugged as she led them on. “Too many people at the ARC know more than they should and can’t easily be bought,” she said. “And given the line of work, death is a convenient cover-up.”

The response was so straightforward, so unflinching that Billy nearly felt his stomach turn over. Of course, the possible untreated head wound probably wasn’t helping, but Helen was talking about murder. Of innocent people. Of people who had willingly risked their lives for the common good.

“As for me,” Helen continued, “I imagine I might have piqued Lester’s interest. I have my uses.”

Of course she did. Her assessment of herself would be more laughable were it not unsettlingly accurate. But she said it without humour irony or any self-awareness of her own heartlessness.

It stopped him in his tracks, and Helen only made it two paces before she turned and looked at him. The question on her face solidified to realisation and she seemed to understand her mistake.

She moved toward him, the hardness of her face easing with concern. “That came out wrong,” she said. “Sometimes it’s hard. Survival of the fittest isn’t just a biological theory for me; I’ve lived it. Too long, I think.”

Billy didn’t give in; he knew Stephen would appreciate that.

Helen looked down. “And I admit, if I let myself think about it – if I think about Nick—“ She looked up, a slight glistening of tears in her eyes. “I just know I can’t lose you, too, Stephen.”

And Billy understood why Stephen had wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt. Because there was something earnest in her. Still something that seemed good. If she were lying about this, then she had no soul left to reckon with.

His throat was too tight to speak, and at this point, he wasn’t sure he trusted himself with extraneous words. A straight answer from Helen was a good sign, but the implications were still hard to stomach. The idea that Cutter really was dead…

Billy couldn’t let himself think on it. Not with the rest of the mission at stake.

Instead, he nodded, and Helen smiled faintly in reply as they started walking again. Billy was just starting to get a feel for things when she took a sharp turn, opening a door and leading them through.

Billy followed without question, but once inside, his analytical mind went into overdrive. The darkened space opened up, revealing a walkway over the ground below. Billy glanced through it, trying to work out what the space might be used for, then he saw a figure illuminated in the dim emergency lights on the far side.

This was noteworthy because it was the first other person he’d seen.

This was also noteworthy because it was Cutter.

Cutter. Alive and generally well. And understandably pissed off.

Billy knew how he felt. He looked to Helen, feeling his temper flare. “You said he was dead,” he said, sharp and cutting, his cover be damned. Helen had lied. She’d lied about everything and she’d used him in the most profound ways possible. She wasn’t just heartless, she was practically amoral, no better than the predators that stalked through the anomalies and wreaked havoc on the present world.

At least the creatures didn’t know better.

She did. And she did it anyway.

His stomach turned cold and hard and his jaw set so hard it hurt. “What have you done?” It wasn’t so much a question as it was a demand. She wasn’t just involved, she was deeply involved and trying to construct her own way out at everyone else’s expense. Whatever this was, Billy was in over his head and Helen had all the cards while feeding him lie after lie.

Cutter was watching him disdainfully. “Not you too,” he said, spitting the words. “Don’t tell me you knew about this.”

The bitterness was almost surprising, but given the network of insanity that Helen had described, Billy could only imagine it was warranted. Though, Cutter had known something. How much, Billy couldn’t be sure, but he’d known something, and kept it to himself.

He wasn’t mad at Cutter necessarily, but he was mad at Helen. He was mad at this mission. He was just angry. Because there were lies and cover-ups and then there was this. “Oh, I have never seen this place before in my life.”

From nearby, Helen protested. “I told you the truth!” she said. “Lester brought me here!”

Truth or lie, it didn’t matter. She couldn’t be trusted; she didn’t deserve to be trusted. In the mission or in life.

“You ask her,” Cutter interjected. “Ask her about what she really wanted to do. Go on, ask her about Leek, about how many people were going to die.”

The revelation confirmed what he’d suspected. As a spy, Billy knew that mattered. But as a person – as someone who’d left a broken Stephen Hart with nothing but a promise – Cutter’s role hurt, too. How much had he known before? How much did he keep from Stephen all along? If they’d just talked, then they could have prevented this. They could have worked together and made the right choices, better choices.

And not just for the bloody mission.

Helen stood tensely. “He’s trying to trick you,” she said.

Her attempts to pit him against Cutter were actually humorous but Billy couldn’t find it in himself to laugh. It was funny, though. Standing there, the go-between for two Cutters, neither of whom had worked out he wasn’t Stephen at all. The entire thing was so much bigger than he was, the tensions between them was theirs and theirs alone, but there he was, too willing and yet unwittingly in the crossfire. They both had their secrets and their truths, and neither had bothered to give him the benefit of the doubt to see the facts and to make his mind up on his own.

This was how Stephen must have felt, torn between them and not sure who to alienate and who to trust. Helen had lied to him outright; Cutter had stopped trusting him. Stephen had only wanted to do right by them both, and neither had wanted to give him a fair go.

Not that they were comparable, but the tension was still there. Stephen had never stood a chance. He was stuck between two planets, pulled by both of them until their gravity proved too much and he was crushed altogether.

He looked to Helen, feeling broken on Stephen’s behalf. “I so badly wanted to believe you,” he said. Then his eyes flashed to Cutter, feeling the swell of frustration at how they didn’t have to be here, how Stephen had never wanted it to get this bad. “But that doesn’t put you in the right!”

Because damn Cutter and his rationalisations about who got to know what. Damn him and his inability to see beyond Stephen’s past to look toward the future for all of them, Billy included.

Cutter’s expression shifted, settling from anger and distrust to simple determination. “Stephen, there’s a whole army of predators in here,” he said, eyes meeting Billy’s with a passion that almost made Billy flinch. “If any of them make it above ground, there’s going to be nobody left.”

And there it was: the truth. The crux of what was going on. This was a breeding ground and a holding pen; a deadly zoo where visitors were eaten. Which explained his encounter with the cat. It also explained why it was so well secured and even what the mole had wanted to accomplish. An army of predators could be a formidable power source, and if Billy knew anything from his limited days of international espionage it was that people always looked for new ways to control the masses and destroy the enemy.

That was what he saw all day in the files he read. That was the type of intel he put together for other agents’ missions. It seemed radical extremists were always looking for new and inventive ways to cause chaos and pain.

So animal warfare probably wasn’t so surprising. Not given the mammoth and the giant scorpion and rifts in time.

But Billy still found it hard to move. Because Cutter was looking at him – really looking at him, his eyes meeting Billy’s for what seemed like the first time since this mission began.

And Billy felt the connection all over again. Even stronger now. Even with the betrayals, even with the lies and the secrets, there was still something here, and that was what Cutter was appealing to now.

Helen could try, but she could never replicate this.

“Now if you want to help people, we have to do this!” Cutter said, bringing his point to a passionate pitch.

They were on the same side. They had been since the beginning. But Billy had been too set in the mission, too determined to protect the man; Cutter had been too hurt, too caught up in being in control.

“They’re too powerful, Nick,” Helen said. “There’s nothing you can do.”

It wasn’t just a line; she meant it to some degree. Helen had come into this with all the power and now she was turning tail and running when she’d lost it. She needed to retreat, reassess and regain control.

That was the problem for these three. They all wanted control and no one knew how to give it up except Stephen. Billy could only hope that Stephen’s sacrifice might save them all.

“Well, you’re going to have to think of something or we’re all going to die,” Cutter snapped at Helen. “Now you brought them here and you know them.”

That confirmed even more. Helen wasn’t just a part of this, she was the central part. Without her, this entire building probably wouldn’t exist. At the very least, it never could have flourished or amounted to anything. She was still the errant scientist, running uncontrolled experiments and then cutting ties when things got out of hand, leaving everybody else to clean up after her.

And Billy had let her seduce him. And Stephen had given her the benefit of the doubt.

All of the pieces could have been put together sooner. It didn’t have to be like this.

But it was like this. Now Billy was in the thick of it, and it was all he could do to keep his act together and hope back-up arrived in time.

Lots of backup, if Cutter’s demeanour and Helen’s desire to flee meant anything.

“The siren,” Helen said suddenly. Billy looked at her, seeing the idea light up in her eyes. “The creatures associate the sound with food. They’ll come back to the cage room whenever it sounds.”

Cutter picked up the line of thought without hesitation. “If we can lock them in with the predators, then they’ll destroy each other,” he said.

It was a viable tactic, as old as time itself. When faced against insurmountable foes, the best way to fight them was not to fight at all. Pitting them against each other would often take care of the problem with much less danger and risk.

Of course, there was always the issue of an inconvenient crossfire, but given that there were angry, uncontrolled and presumably hungry predators roaming about, Billy wasn’t about to question that. He was a spy; this was Stephen’s arena. Billy had lived and breathed in this cover fairly well, but he knew he was out of his depth here.

All he could do was agree.

Helen exchanged an uneasy glance with him. This wasn’t her first choice, obviously, but there was a part of her that cared. Whether for Stephen or Cutter or the general good, that much was hard to tell, but maybe there was something human in her after all.

Maybe not. That wasn’t Billy’s main concern. Once they had her in custody, he’d let the interrogators at MI5 work it out.

When no one disagreed, Cutter nodded, resolved. “Come on, then,” he said.

Come on. Cutter said it so simply, so Billy tried not to think about the implications of what he was doing. About the price to be paid if he was wrong. He was a spy; back-up was on the way; he could do this.

More than that, he would do this.

One way or another.

NEXT

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