Andrea Herrera was not expecting to find a bunch of iron-age soldiers around her time machine.
Not that that excused her failure to protect her clients, to maintain her situational awareness, protect her employer's assets, or do her job and protect her clients from being fucking murdered by angry natives. Because natives? In the fucking Cretaceous? That came as something of a shock.
"Shit!" That was Larsen. The gangly paleontologist had dropped his equipment and cranked his powersuit into full freak-out mode, black fabric flowing to extend the legs and arms, anti-personelle spines extruding like the hackles on a dog. "What---?"
"Quiet!" Andrea hissed, smoothing the matte material coating her own powersuited arms, blinking commands into the HUD-bindi on her forehead.
EMERGENCY OVERRIDE: Dr. Christopher Larsen. POWER DOWN.
"Get down," she commanded her client. "Don't let them know you're here."
"Them!" Larsen crouched down next to her. "Goddamn humans in the goddamn Maastrichtian!"
Andrea was a soldier. Had been a soldier. In any case she wasn't a paleontologist, but she knew that humans and dinosaurs didn't belong on the same page of history book. She also knew there were fucking dinosaurs roaming the goddamn earth around camp, which meant those centurion cos-players had the right to be here, fucking around with Andrea's stuff.
"Shh!" Andrea tapped her HUD-bindi, zooming in her vision on the figure standing in the center of the clearing. He was bigger than the others, and wearing a lot fewer clothes, his hands and neck shut in some sort of wooden restraint device. He must be a prisoner of the short, stocky man with the red beard and exhasperate expression, who was crouching next to---
"Shit," said Andrea. "I see Dr. Yang. She's let them intimidate her."
"Well, those guys are pretty intimidating," said Larsen. "Even if they are only figments---"
Andrea held up a hand to shush him. The big man had turned to face in their direction. His mane of brown hair shook. His hands clenched and opened in quick flashes of pink palm. Muscles like tectonic plates under skin smeared with some kind of white-blue clay. Green eyes flashed over a sudden, toothy grin.
Only then did Andrea notice the half-dozen other cavemen crouching in the underbrush all around them.
The big, brown-maned caveman opened his mouth and raised his head like a crocodile snapping up a chicken. His hands flashed a signal and, suddenly, noiselessly, the cavemen attcked. They unfolded themselves from the forest shadows like hairy, nudist ninjas.
Andrea's arms came up, eyes twitching trigger commands. Why the hell hadn't her suit warned about this ambush?
Because of course these cavemen weren't a threat. Stone-age hunters armed with arrows and spears could hack at Andrea all day without putting a dent in her suit.
In the face of the onrushing, scantily-clad horde, Andrea let out a slow breath. She was safe. Her clients were safe.
"Okay, Larsen," she said. "Stay calm."
Larsen collapsed under a caveman.
The spear loomed in Chris's vision. Bronze, wickedly pointed, rock-steady, and a centimeter from his nose.
WEAPON DETECTED, scrolled across his HUD, CLASS 8. NO THREAT. DISENGAGE COMBAT MODE?
"Tell it to disengage," Andrea commanded from behind her own hairy, murderous barbarian.
"Why? Combat mode sounds like a great idea."
"You don't know what you're doing, and you could get us both killed." She sounded as if she were speaking through a smile. "Nice caveman. Good caveman. You don't want to stick me with that thing, believe me."
Despite her threats, an EXECUTIVE OVERRIDE message flashed in Chris's vision and the suit clamped down around him.
"Just stay calm, Chris," she said.
Chris stared at the spear and the hairy, muddy hands that held it. Mud covered the guy's entire body. In fact, mud was all he wore, unless you counted ethnic ornamentation. And hair. A lot of hair. Matted, leaf-crusted dreadlocks hung to mid-nipple.
"My, what a lovely septum-ring you got there," Chris said. "You know, my dad knows this guy who used to be a hipster who'd love to compare—"
The caveman twitched his spear at Chris's forehead and grinned like a Creationist in a Missouri school board meeting.
"Stay calm, Chris. I got this," Andrea repeated.
"Yeah, what do you got exactly?" God, were the guy's teeth filed? "Because one twitch from our muddy friend, and I get an unskilled but very enthusiastic lobotomy."
"Look," murmured Andrea. "You're on the ground. I'm standing up. His buddy is glaring at me, but he's holding you at spear-point."
"Yes," said Chris. "That is the problem I referred to earlier."
"That means he thinks the man is the one in charge," said Andrea.
"Curse that Mesozoic patriarchy. I'd say this guy's an ideological dinosaur, but that would be—"
The spear moved, and the right side of Chris's head exploded in pain.
When he blinked the black stars out of his vision, he was flat on his back, looking at his abuser from an extremely bad angle.
"Good," said Andrea, "keep saying stupid shit to distract him."
The caveman grunted something low and guttural. Quiet, most likely. Chris had never been very good at quiet.
Leaves rustled as his bodyguard shifted her weight. "Focus their attention on you, Chris."
"Do you know that I hate being the focus of attention of burly naked savages? I'm sure I must have mentioned it. It all goes back to high school, you see, when my mom forced me to join the football team—"
The spear swung back down to his face.
"—and we're back to the business of excavating holes in my skull. Are you ready for whatever it is you were going to do, Andrea? Because I am totally ready for you to open up a can of cybernetic whoop-ass."
Nothing. The caveman just stared at Chris. Now where had Chris last seen that mixture of amusement and contempt? Oh, right, when he'd been talking to Andrea. It was a thought that did not fill him with confidence in her commitment to save his life.
"Any time now, because—yes, now his spear is actually resting against my glabella. That would be the smooth area of skin between the eyebrows." Chris crossed his eyes and swallowed. "I hope this running monologue is doing you some good Andrea, because he's bearing his weight down on me now and—"
"Ahem," said Andrea, and the caveman vanished in a black blur.
Chris propped himself up in time to see Andrea uncoil from her fighting stance, cooling fins spread and steaming, suit forearms swollen and whining with power. That Smart Actin stuff could look fantastically scary.
"Yes?" said Chris.
She frowned. "Yes what?"
Chris got to his feet, wiping mud off his suit. "Nothing. I just expected you to say something like, 'looks like he's pre-history.' Or 'Now the missing link's missing a few teeth.'"
A feather-ended dart twanged off her bristling armor plates. "Do you always babble when you're scared?"
"Couldn't say. I've never been this scared before."
Andrea tapped the HUD-bindi between her eyes. "Dr. Yang. Dr. Upton. Come in. Emergency. Come in." She swore and waved her black-clad arm at the jungle. "We need to get back to the time machine like—"
Chris's HUD lit up red a fraction of a second before something punched him in the chest. The spear exploded into splinters against his suit, but the force of the blow knocked him backward. The suit struggled to keep him upright as another caveman dropped on him.
Chaos. White teeth flashing from flying mud and hair. A hand-sized metal blade flashing down—ENGAGE COMBAT MODE?
Chris's hand was there, between his face and the sword. Black material rippled over his fingers, knobbled bulges like the world's worst case of arthritis swelling as the suit built itself the leverage it needed, then a flick, the caveman screamed, and the sword went spinning away.
Chris stood, or rather sprang to his feet, black material stretching around him. He looked down at hands elongating into ebony claws. "Wow," he said, and Andrea had him by an arm and shoulder.
Smart Actin plates bulging, the soldier screamed into his face. "Just fucking move."
Chris realized what she was going to do an instant before Andrea braced her feet and hurled him like a discus.
"What are you doing over there?"
"Examining your conquest, mighty captain." Trals spoke over the muffled cries emerging from the undergrowth.
Ngarong seemed unaware of the struggle taking place just beyond his pickets. "The prisoner doesn't seem to understand me," he said. "And the tongue she babbles doesn't sound like Ngwira or Senerian. Is she," Ngarong shook his head, "I mean it, the angel. Is it speaking a southern language? Or that backward mountain nonsense?"
The strange woman looked at Trals, odd, black-irised eyes wide.
"Well?" said Ngarong. "Say something to her."
Trals rolled his eyes. "This man is our mutual enemy," he said in the Skii language of the Cycad-men. "I can aid you if you do as I say." He tried Mountain Fesh and Shnamn, Epki of the rugged coast of the Current Sea. "I have men all around us. They have captured your friends. Blink twice if you understand me."
The angel woman trembled.
"Nothing!" Ngarong angrily shoved his Club of Office back into its holster. "Now what the devil am I supposed to do? Roll the angel and the damn relic down this mound? We certainly can't camp here. If we call the triceratops—"
Something flew through the clearing.
Trals caught a glimpse of splayed limbs, matte armor, an open, howling mouth. The creature's voice cut off with a metallic KONG: the noise the Ship of Years made when struck by a limp body. One of the angels, or whatever they were, had just hurled the other into the middle of Ngarong's defensive formation.
Ngarong himself did not possess the quick wits of Trals Scarback. "What the frothing hell was that?"
The joy of upcoming battle tingled in Trals's limbs. "That, my dear captor, was the angelic counter-offensive."
He was unsurprised to see the trees on the southwest corner of the clearing fly burning from another black figure. Spined hands rose, flickering with silver fire, black feathers spread in jagged arcs from hunched and powerful shoulders.
"Angels, devils, and beasts," Ngarong swore.
Trals laughed. "Perhaps all three at once."
The creature opened its mouth, and Trals wondered at the scaly apparition's high, feminine voice. It spoke the same language as the prisoner, something incomprehensible and full of hard consonants and muffled vowels. Those would be commands for the flying angel, who was already on his feet, looking at the place where his comrade lay dead. He screamed.
"Release me from this cangue," Trals said.
That brought Ngarong back to awareness. "Never."
"You must release me before that thing kills all of us."
"Don't take me for a fool, Trals."
"It was my instructions that saved you in the last angelic encounter."
More screaming, back and forth. The black-clad foreigners knew Trals had killed one of their number.
"I doubt these ones will stand still while we hurl spears at it," Ngarong said. "When the power of Departed God's servants is irresistible, we can do nothing but proclaim our devotion. Men," he bellowed over the rising clamor of the foreigners, "on your knees."
The monster-woman's head swiveled from her fallen comrade to the shouting, prostrating Ngarong.
Under the rising hum of battle-lust, Trals Scarback considered the choice now before him.