“Is there any particular reason why you find it absolutely necessary to flirt with anything with a pulse?”
Stephen blinked as he tried to process all the long words in a sentence that could have been much simpler. Then his brain reminded him that grammatical syntax was not was not what he should be focussing on right now.
“Hey!” he protested. “I do not flirt with ‘anything with a pulse’.”
Nick sighed and rolled his eyes. “Let’s see,” he began. “There’s Abby, Connor, Ryan, that guy in the canoe at the reservoir, the girl on the reception desk of the palaeontology building…” He was counting on his fingers as he went, and Stephen had a sneaking suspicion that Nick would run out of digits before he ran out of names.
“If we’re going to play this game,” he interrupted, “how about we count all the people I don’t flirt with? For example – Lester, Claudia, the cashier in the canteen, everyone else in the entire world, you.”
Caught up in his righteous anger, Stephen didn’t see the flicker of expression that crossed Nick’s face at his words.
“Fine. Okay. Whatever,” said Nick tiredly. “I take it back. You don’t flirt with everyone. Still, do you think you could keep it down to an acceptable minimum while we try to do our jobs?”
* * * * *
Several days later, at the site of the latest anomaly, Nick watched as Stephen chatted animatedly with Captain Ryan. The anomaly had yet to produce any prehistoric creatures for them to run away from, and so everyone was taking the opportunity to relax slightly while Nick took some readings, aided by (or should that be hindered by?) Connor.
At this precise moment, however, not many readings were being taken. Nick scowled as he saw Stephen step closer to Ryan, placing a hand on Ryan’s shoulder as he laughed at something the soldier had said. So much for toning down the flirting on the job.
Nick jumped as Connor waved a hand in front of his face, bringing him out of his reverie. “Yes, what is it?” he snapped. He immediately regretted his harsh tone when he saw Connor’s face fall. “Sorry,” he said more gently. “What’s the matter?”
Connor gestured to the anomaly. “Nothing’s really the matter,” he replied. “The magnetic readings are still steady, showing no signs of weakening. Looks like this one’s not going anywhere soon, so…”
He was interrupted by an ear-splitting roar. Everyone looked frantically around for its source, but Nick, his heart sinking, thought that he knew exactly where the noise had come from.
He was proved correct when the anomaly suddenly shimmered violently, before disgorging a huge dinosaur right on top of them. The creature was running full tilt, and Nick barely had time to throw himself out of the way, pulling Connor with him, before it trampled over the spot where they had been standing seconds before.
As he fell, he noticed that Ryan had thrown himself on top of Stephen, protecting him before rolling back over, rifle raised and ready.
But he was too late. The beast was already out of range, rampaging away through the trees, emitting more chilling roars as it went.
Connor was already scrambling to his feet, babbling about the creature’s height, weight and colouring – more as a defence against his fright, Nick suspected, than because he actually had any firm idea about what the animal might be.
Pushing himself up from the forest floor, Nick tried to listen to what Connor was saying, and purposely tried not to see that Ryan was now helping Stephen up, dusting him down, and checking him over for injuries.
“Connor,” Nick said abruptly, interrupting the young man’s flow of words. “Can you actually give me anything concrete about this thing?”
“Well, I’d need my laptop to be sure…” began Connor.
“Well, I suggest you go and get it, then,” instructed Nick.
“Righto, Professor!” Connor dashed off in the direction of his car, and Nick was suddenly absurdly grateful for the little bubble of silence that had descended around him. He quickly took stock of his own potential injuries, but found nothing wrong except for a throbbing elbow, which he seemed to remember connecting with a tree root on his way to the floor.
“Cutter? Are you alright?”
It was Stephen, who had apparently extracted himself from Ryan for long enough to check on someone else. Nick knew that thought was uncharitable, but he couldn’t seem to help it. It seemed that Stephen really would flirt with anything with a pulse, and now was really not the time for that kind of behaviour.
“I’m fine,” he replied shortly. “Is everyone else okay?”
“Seem to be,” responded Stephen, frowning slightly about something. “We were lucky. This time.” He glanced in the direction the dinosaur had gone. “What are we going to do about that thing? I mean, it’s not exactly cute and cuddly. And I don’t think a simple tranquilliser dart is going to work on something that big.”
“Actually, I think it might,” came a voice from behind them. They turned to see Connor coming back towards them, cradling his laptop in his arms. “I was right,” he continued. “The creature is an Allosaurus. Late Jurassic dinosaur. Up to 4.5 metres tall and 12 metres long. Carnivorous, of course.”
“So not a T.Rex, then?” offered Stephen jokingly. “Because I was definitely having some flashbacks to Jurassic Park a few moments ago.”
“Definitely not a Tyrannosaurus,” confirmed Connor, looking a little put out that his expertise wasn’t being respected. “The colouring is different, the head is a different shape, and it’s slightly smaller.”
“That thing is slightly smaller?” Ryan had joined the group, and he looked faintly incredulous at Connor’s claim.
“Yep. A T.Rex would be noticeably bigger than that,” replied Connor. “I guess you could say we got lucky.”
Ryan looked as if he was going contest this theory, but Nick jumped in before he could say anything.
“Captain Ryan, how quickly can you mobilise a team to go after the creature? We can’t let it roam the woods for much longer. Anything it sees will be lunch, and we definitely do not want that.”
“We can be ready to go in ten minutes,” replied Ryan. “But what exactly do you expect us to do about the creature? It looks as if it could walk right through a hail of bullets without even pausing.”
Nick looked at Connor. “I believe you said something about a tranquilliser dart being effective after all?”
Connor looked slightly nervous about being the person with all the answers, but nonetheless expanded upon his theory.
“I think, if you can hit it between the base of the skull and the shoulder blade, a tranquilliser should be effective. The nervous and circulatory systems are most vulnerable there, so any drug should be quickly transmitted throughout its body. You’ll still need a very large dose, though.”
“Not a problem,” said Stephen. “We’ve learned to carry around a large supply of the stuff.” He smiled at Nick, but the expression faltered when Nick didn’t smile back.
“But if that’s its most vulnerable spot, why can’t we just shoot it there with regular bullets?” asked Ryan. “Surely that would be the most effective way of stopping it, rather than relying on guessing the correct amount of drug, which after all may not be enough to bring it down?”
“Because we don’t want to kill any of these creatures if we can possibly help it,” said Nick. He was getting a little tired of repeating this mantra to everyone around him, and he let it show.
Ryan held up a hand placatingly. “Okay, Professor. We’ll try it your way. But I’m going to have some of my lads on standby, in case something goes wrong. Agreed?”
“Agreed,” said Nick. He knew it was the sensible thing to do, but he couldn’t help but be irritated by Ryan’s desire to always resort to killing as a solution for a problem. Even if that problem did happen to be a four metre tall carnivorous dinosaur.
“Right, well in that case, I’m going to need Stephen here,” instructed Ryan. “It pains me to say it, but he’s the best by far with the dart gun, and I’d say we’re going to need the best for this one.”
Stephen grinned. “What can I say? It’s a gift,” he said flippantly.
“Stephen! Do you really think now is the best time for jokes?” Nick’s tone was sharp, and Stephen looked slightly surprised by it.
“Sorry,” he said. Then, as Ryan went back to his men, and Connor turned back to his laptop, he drew Nick aside a few paces. “Are you sure you’re alright?” he asked again. “You seem a little jumpy, that’s all. Is something wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong. I just don’t want this creature to cause any damage. And it has the potential to cause a lot of damage.” He was lying, and he knew Stephen could tell he was lying, but the other man didn’t call him on it.
“Right, let’s go and get the drugs out of the truck. We’re going to need a pretty hefty dose if we’re going to bring this thing down.”
* * * * *
Twenty minutes later, Nick was beginning to wonder why he’d insisted on coming along on the ‘dino-hunt’. Ryan’s men had the firepower under control, and Stephen was a better tracker than he was. Not that they really needed a tracker. The Allosaurus had cut a swathe through the forest big enough to drive Nick’s truck down. It wasn’t going to be hard to find.
Noticing Stephen gesturing to Ryan, Nick hurried up to them in time to hear their muttered conversation.
“…the creature seems to be circling back towards the anomaly,” Stephen was saying.
“Well, that’s good, isn’t it?” replied Ryan. “The sooner we can get it to go home, the happier I’ll be.”
“Getting it back to the anomaly would be ideal,” said Stephen. “That way we won’t need to use tranquillisers or bullets on it. And we won’t have to get a dinosaur-sized trailer into these woods to move it once we’ve immobilised it. Problem is, we can’t guarantee that it will ultimately head straight back to the anomaly. It looks to be heading that way, but we can’t be sure. We need to lure it in the right direction somehow.”
“Well, I guess that’s where I come in, then,” interjected Nick. “Just slap a sticker on me saying ‘bait’, and I’ll be ready to go.”
“I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” said Stephen, looking more than a little worried. “Maybe I should do it.”
“Nonsense,” said Nick. “I need you to be ready with the drugs in case we need them after all. Head straight back to the anomaly from here, and get ready to shoot it if necessary. Take half of Ryan’s team with you for back-up. The rest can shadow me and provide me with my own back-up – unseen, of course.”
He looked at Ryan to see what the military man thought of his plan. Ryan appeared to consider it for a few seconds, and then nodded his head.
“Anders, Davis and I will accompany you, Professor. Jacobs, Crewe and Robertson, you go with Hart back to the anomaly site. And be prepared.”
The three soldiers going with Stephen nodded. Stephen looked as if he was about to protest some more, but a look from Nick silenced him before he could say anything. So instead he nodded too, and then the four of them started back in the direction they had come, jogging at a steady pace through the trees.
Nick watched until they were out of sight, noticing out of the corner of his eye that Ryan was also watching. Then he purposefully turned away to continue following the Allosaurus’ trail through the woods.
It wasn’t long before they found it. A low rumbling sound from up ahead alerted Nick that the dinosaur had stopped its headlong rampage, and was now stationary, or at the very least moving a lot more slowly. Motioning to Ryan and his men to keep silent, he moved slowly forward, peering cautiously through the damaged undergrowth.
The Allosaurus was right in front of him. It appeared to be sniffing the air, but being downwind meant that Nick was relatively safe, so long as he didn’t make a noise or show himself.
Quiet breathing at his left shoulder told him that the soldiers had moved up behind him. Turning slightly, he gave the nod to set the plan into motion. Without further ado Ryan, Anders and Davis melted away into the bushes, leaving Nick feeling very alone and incredibly exposed.
Well, it was now or never. Taking a deep breath, Nick shoved aside the foliage and stepped out into the dinosaur’s field of vision.
It saw him immediately. What it didn’t do was lunge forward and bite his head off, a fact for which Nick was extremely grateful. Man and dinosaur stared at each other for two seconds, mesmerised, before Nick suddenly remembered that he had a plan to execute. Hoping that his reactions were quicker than the Allosaurus’, he darted off into the trees.
The creature gave a deafening roar and came pounding after him. But its pause had given Nick a few vital seconds to gain a lead. He had a slight advantage over the dinosaur – he was small, and could slip through the gaps in the undergrowth at ground level. The Allosaurus, being much bigger, had to crash straight through the trees and bushes that were obstacles in its path. Still, being over four metres tall and weighing several tons meant that crashing through anything wasn’t exactly a problem, and very soon the dinosaur was gaining on him.
Nick knew that the anomaly was about half-a-mile away. A distance that wouldn’t have seemed that far to a walker out for a leisurely stroll, or a jogger pounding the pavement. But to Nick it seemed to stretch out into infinity. His heart was pounding, his breath was laboured, and his legs were killing him.
But he couldn’t stop. Because if he did, he died.
Finally, a thinning in the trees ahead signalled that he was approaching the anomaly site. And not a moment too soon. The Allosaurus was only metres behind him, and Nick was fully expecting to be knocked off his feet and eaten before too long.
He burst from the trees, heading straight towards the anomaly and expecting at any second to hear the report of Stephen’s dart gun as he shot the creature. Even the rattle of rifle-fire would be welcome right about now. Nick was fast losing his illusions about not killing any of their prehistoric visitors.
But the clearing was empty. No one was there. Nick almost stopped in shock, until another roar from the dinosaur behind him forced his legs to one last burst of speed.
Where the fuck was everyone? Had they all run away when they heard the creature coming? It seemed unlikely, but then again, they definitely weren’t here. And Ryan and his two men were nowhere to be seen, either.
What about the plan? Was no one going to shoot the damned thing? It seemed it was up to him now. And since he didn’t have a gun of any description, he was going to have to try a different tack.
As he hurtled towards the anomaly, Nick tried to judge when the right moment to swerve aside would be. Too early, and the Allosaurus would be able to swerve too, meaning it would miss the anomaly entirely. Too late, and he himself would be carried through the anomaly, with no way to escape the dinosaur once he was on the other side.
Not yet, not yet, he thought, as the anomaly got closer and closer. Just a little further.
Suddenly something impacted the side of his body, knocking him off balance and tumbling him away from the anomaly. Nick closed his eyes, expecting that the next thing he felt would be the Allosaurus’ teeth closing around him. The dinosaur bellowed deafeningly, and then…
Nothing. Nothing happened.
Nick decided to risk it. Opening one eye, he swivelled his gaze towards the anomaly. It hung there, shimmering innocently, offering him no clues as to what had just occurred. Then, as he watched, it gave one last pulsating flicker, and winked out of existence.
It was then that Nick became aware that he was lying on the floor. And that someone was lying on top of him. Opening the other eye, he saw that that person was Stephen. Who was grinning. Although Nick noticed that the grin didn’t quite reach his eyes, which instead were looking rather worried.
But Nick didn’t feel like grinning. “What the bloody hell happened?” he demanded, pushing Stephen off him and scrambling to his feet. He wobbled slightly as he stood and Stephen, who had jumped up too, grabbed his arm.
Nick shook him off and rounded on him. “Where were you?” he asked. “I could have died, you know!”
Stephen looked slightly nervous now. “We were all back there, in the trees,” he replied, pointing to where Connor was emerging from the woods, accompanied by Jacobs, Crewe and Robertson. “We thought that our presence might scare the Allosaurus away from the anomaly again. And we didn’t want to risk that. Don’t worry, we all had our guns trained on it as soon as it appeared. We wouldn’t have let it get you.”
“Don’t worry? Don’t worry?!” began Nick incredulously, but he was interrupted by a crashing noise in the bushes he had only recently been running through.
Everyone swung towards the sound, the soldiers automatically raising their weapons against any possible threat.
But it was only Ryan, Anders and Davis, all of whom all looked a little out of breath, and a little sheepish.
Ryan walked over to where Nick and Stephen were standing. “Sorry, Professor. We couldn’t keep up. It seems the ‘flight’ part of your ‘fight or flight’ responses is in fine working order. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone run so fast.”
“Well, being chased by a large carnivorous dinosaur tends to motivate a person,” Nick retorted.
“Still, at least you had Hart here to protect you,” offered Ryan, clearly trying to look on the bright side.
Nick scowled and Stephen chuckled weakly. Ryan looked confused.
“What? What is it?”
“Well…” began Stephen, but Nick interrupted.
“It doesn’t matter now. All that matters is that we got the Allosaurus home. I assume it did go home?” he added, looking at Stephen.
“Yep,” confirmed Stephen. “Went straight through the anomaly after I’d pushed Cutter aside. Plan worked like a charm. Well, almost,” he amended, upon seeing Nick’s look.
Nick sighed and turned away, leaving Stephen to explain things to Ryan, who was looking more perplexed than ever. But he couldn’t help overhearing Stephen’s first words to the Special Forces leader.
Oh, so it was ‘Tom’ now. Not ‘Ryan’. Not ‘Captain’. But ‘Tom’. Well, that was just great. That made Nick’s day, that did.
It was Connor, who was wearing a look that suggested he was as scared of Nick right now as Nick had been of the Allosaurus.
“Are you alright?”
Nick sighed again. At least someone here cared enough to ask, even if it was only Connor.
“I’m fine. Thank you for asking.”
Connor smiled tentatively. “Good. I wouldn’t have wanted you to get eaten.”
* * * * *
Hours later, as dusk deepened outside and his office grew slowly darker around him, Nick sat back in his chair, scrubbing at his tired eyes with his fists. He knew he should get some sleep, but he was still too full of adrenaline to attempt it. So instead he was trying to write a report for Lester on the day’s events. But that wasn’t going too well either, and Nick was dangerously close to hurling his computer across the room.
The sound of the door opening and closing brought his hands away from his eyes. For a few seconds spots danced in his field of vision. Then they cleared, and Nick saw Stephen standing in front of him.
“I thought I’d find you here. You should be at home, getting some rest.”
Nick shrugged. “Can’t sleep.”
“And why are you sitting here in the dark? You’ll ruin your eyesight.” Stephen leaned over the desk and flicked on the lamp. The glare was blinding, and Nick raised one hand back to his face in protest until Stephen tilted the shade slightly to direct the light downwards.
Silence reigned for a few seconds, before Stephen shifted uncomfortably and then sat down opposite Nick.
“So, are you alright? You look, if you don’t mind me saying, a little beat up.”
“I was chased through the forest by a huge dinosaur,” pointed out Nick. “How do you expect me to look? Oh, and thanks for asking, by the way,” he finished nastily.
Stephen looked slightly taken aback. “Why wouldn’t I ask?” he said. “Ryan said you were running fit to burst before he lost sight of you. I was worried.”
Nick ignored Stephen’s last words. “Ah yes, Ryan. Or should that be ‘Tom’? How is he, anyway? I suppose you’ve been with him all afternoon?”
Now Stephen looked like someone who had started watching a television show halfway through, but who hadn’t been brought up-to-date on the plot. “Of course I was,” he replied. “We had to clear up the mess left by the Allosaurus. Check no one else saw it. Phone Claudia and Lester with updates. That kind of thing. Why, what did you think I was doing?”
Nick suddenly felt totally stupid. Of course they would have had to clean up. The aftermath of a rampaging Allosaurus didn’t just look after itself now, did it?
Some of what he was feeling must have shown on Nick’s face, because Stephen’s face suddenly showed a look of comprehension.
“Oh my god. That’s what you thought? That Tom and I were… Oh my god.” He laughed. “Nick, Tom and I are friends. Nothing more.”
“But you were flirting…” Nick said weakly.
“You’re the one who said I’ll flirt with anything with a pulse!” exclaimed Stephen. “It doesn’t mean anything.”
“You don’t flirt with ‘anything’ with a pulse,” muttered Nick sourly, unable to help himself.
“Meaning you, I suppose?” replied Stephen, for whom the pieces were apparently all clicking together.
Nick said nothing.
“Nick, the reason I don’t flirt with you is precisely because flirting means nothing. You mean something. I would never act around you like I act around everyone else. I would never be that shallow towards you.”
“But you don’t flirt with Claudia or Lester, either,” Nick pointed out childishly. He knew he should be happy at Stephen’s words, but he was still smarting from apparently being slighted.
“They’re civil servants!” said Stephen. “Can you imagine the reaction if I ever tried it on? Claudia would tell me where to shove it, and Lester would give me that look of his. You know the one – it feels like he’s freezing the blood in your veins.”
He grinned, and finally, Nick smiled back.
“Okay, I get it,” he said. “No flirting equals meaning something. So, if I mean so much to you, why haven’t you done anything about it yet?”
“You’re still hung up on Helen,” said Stephen simply.
“I’m still hung up on Helen’s disappearance,” Nick corrected him. “I want to know why she left me, and what she’s been doing all this time, sure. But I don’t want her. She’s still in my head, but she’s not in my heart any more.”
“Oh,” said Stephen. And there didn’t seem to be any more to be said.
Nick stood up and leaned over the desk. Taking Stephen’s face in his hands, he placed a chaste kiss on the other man’s lips. Then he let go and walked around the desk towards the door, flicking the lamp off as he went.
As he reached the door, he heard the scrape of chair legs against the floor. Turning, he saw Stephen’s silhouette coming towards him. As the younger man pushed past him to the door, just enough of their bodies came into contact to make Nick’s heart jump slightly. Stephen’s throaty chuckle told him that he had felt it too.
As he pushed the door open, Stephen looked back at Nick.
“You’d better hurry up, or I might decide that Ryan is the better catch after all.”
Nick made an annoyed sound in his throat and followed Stephen out of the door, already vowing revenge for that last comment.