Series: Three Years, part 11
Characters/pairing: Ryan/Connor, Helen.
Warnings: AU, occasional language.
Spoilers: Anything through to episode 1.6
Disclaimer: Not mine. ITV and Impossible Pictures own them.
Word count: approx 8300
Summary: Out of the Jurassic frying pan, into the fire…
Links to previous chapters in the Five Days/Three Years series can be found here.
There was bright sunshine on the other side of the anomaly, and Ryan had to squint for a moment after the darkness of the warehouse.
“Bloody hell,” he murmured quietly when he could eventually see properly.
There were anomalies everywhere. Tens, maybe even hundreds of the bloody things.
He and Connor had come out on the top of a ridge of grassy hills. To their right was a shallow downhill slope, stretching off into the distance and sparkling with a maze of anomalies. On the other side the slope was steeper, and at the bottom there appeared to be a small stream with trees clustered along the edge of the watercourse. In contrast with the other side, there were only a couple of anomalies on this steeper slope. Further away all around them, grassy or wooded valleys rose and fell into the distance. The last time he had chased Helen Cutter through an anomaly he had ended up in a place like this, but Ryan was sure this wasn’t the same location.
And speaking of Helen, there was no sign of her. Of course there wasn’t. Much as he disliked her, Ryan had to give the woman some credit where it was due. She was smart, and she always had a bloody good escape route planned. In the time that he had been occupied with Connor and Thomson, she could have gone through any one of these to anywhere in time. Yet again Helen had slipped away from him and vanished.
“Helen’s gone,” Connor said quietly. He had stopped a little way away and was staring out across the hillside at the glittering scene below them. He didn’t sound particularly angry about that fact. Just resigned. It was a tone of voice that suggested he had just given up.
Without warning Connor wobbled and fell over. Ryan was at his side in a moment, but he knew straight away that the young man was unconscious. Whether that was from blood loss, shock, or just pure exhaustion he didn’t know. But Ryan did know that they needed to get away from here. Thomson and Harper weren’t a threat any more, but if reinforcements arrived they might be following through the anomaly any minute.
“Connor, come on mate, wake up.” Connor wasn’t responding, and he looked far too pale.
Ryan quickly assessed the injury. The bleeding had slowed but not stopped yet. His first impression was that Connor had been bloody lucky, though. The bullet had torn a furrow out of his upper arm, leaving a flesh wound without damaging the bone. Another half centimetre to the side it would have missed altogether. It was nasty, but it could have been a hell of a lot worse.
Ryan picked Connor up and carried him down the steeper side and into the trees. He tried to find a denser area would give them the most cover from anyone who might come after them through the anomaly from the warehouse, and gently laid Connor down beside the stream.
Ryan looked down at himself. Shit. Before he could treat Connor’s wound he had to get Thomson’s blood off his hands.
Ryan hadn’t meant to lose control. He really hadn’t. Even knowing who Thomson was, what he’d done, Ryan hadn’t meant to damn near kill the guy like that. And he sure as hell hadn’t meant to do it right in front of Connor. The look of horror on Connor’s face afterwards was something that Ryan suspected was going to stay with him for a long time.
But thinking about that wasn’t helping anybody right then. Ryan forced the thoughts out of his mind and concentrated on trying to keep the two of them alive.
He cleaned, padded and bandaged the wound, and then tried to put Connor in a position where he could keep the arm slightly elevated. It was warm here, whenever here was, but Ryan dragged one of the sleeping bags out and wrapped it around the younger man, trying to make him as comfortable as possible on the lumpy, tree-root strewn ground. Throughout this, Connor showed no sign of regaining consciousness.
Finally Ryan settled down, leaning against a tree, where he could keep a close eye on Connor, and watch the hilltop for any sign of activity. He tried very hard not to think about exactly how badly fucked their situation had just become.
It was a few hours before Connor woke up. Ryan had been starting to get seriously concerned by that time, and he couldn’t disguise the relief in his voice.
“Connor? Good to have you back. How are you feeling?”
“Yeah, getting shot will have that effect.” Ryan helped him as he tried to sit up, and Connor grabbed his shoulder for support.
“What?” Connor looked confused for a moment. Then his expression of endearing bewilderment abruptly changed as the memories returned. He broke eye contact and let go of Ryan’s shoulder too quickly, and then tried to make it look like he needed that arm free to shove the sleeping bag off.
Ryan wasn’t fooled for a second.
“Here,” he passed Connor a bottle of water and a couple of chocolate bars, and some painkillers. “You lost a lot of blood, you need to eat and stay properly hydrated.”
“Thanks.” Connor propped himself against a tree, still not making eye contact. “So where are we?”
“No idea. I haven’t seen any large creatures, though, so it’s already got my vote as a holiday destination. The anomaly that we came through closed not long ago. No-one came after us.”
“So we’re stuck here.”
“Not stuck. There’s dozens of anomalies that we can go through to somewhere else. It’s just unlikely that any of them go where we want them to go. So it depends on your definition of ‘stuck’.”
Connor almost smiled. There was a definite movement to the edges of his mouth, no matter how hard he was trying not to. “We’ve been spending too much time together. You’re starting to talk like me.”
Ryan did smile. Then he stopped, but only because smiling hurt. His lip and nose had stopped bleeding after a while, but most of the left side of his face was a mess of cuts and bruising, and one eye was so badly swollen he could barely open it. He was covered in other minor injuries after all the fighting, and now that Connor was awake and the threat of being followed by Thomson’s men had gone, Ryan was quite glad of the opportunity to relax in the shade of the trees.
“Helen’s gone, hasn’t she?” Connor said.
“Yep. She knew exactly what she was doing when she picked that one for an escape route.”
“So we can’t get home.” There was an air of finality to his voice that not only lacked the enthusiasm and fire of the old Connor, but also any sign of the obsession and determination of the last few days.
“No,” Ryan said simply. “You don’t know that. You have Cutter’s notes, maybe they’ll be able to help us.”
“It won’t be enough. We needed Helen.”
“You haven’t even read them properly yet. How can you say it’s not enough?” Ryan tried desperately hard to not lose his temper, but Connor wasn’t making it easy.
“I can’t do it, Ryan.”
“Yes you bloody can,” Ryan snapped. “Before we even started thinking about getting Helen to help us, you said that with Cutter’s research you could figure it out and find a way to get home. You said you could do it, Connor. You made me believe in this plan, so don’t tell me you can’t do it now.”
“Don’t lie to me Ryan, you never believed in this plan,” Connor snapped back.
“Maybe not. But I did believe in you.”
It was a dangerous move, and he knew it as soon as he opened his mouth. Pushing Connor, putting him under that much pressure might be enough to break whatever was left in there of him. Or, and this was the one thing that Ryan was clinging to, it might just make him raise his game one more time, for one last attempt to make it home.
He waited to see which way the dice fell and whether his gamble had worked.
“Okay. I’ll try.” Connor’s voice was quiet, but the edge of hopelessness that had been present ever since they stepped through the anomaly had finally gone.
“That’s all I’m asking,” Ryan said gently.
“We’re stuck in the past again, though,” Connor pointed out. “Or whenever this place is. It’ll all be about survival and stuff. When are we going to have time to work on it?”
“You let me worry about the survival stuff. You worry about getting us home.”
Connor reached for his bag and winced as the movement pulled at his arm. Ryan moved to get it for him, but Connor dragged the bag out of the way before he could get to it. He still wasn’t making eye contact. He pulled the pile of notes out and started organising them on his lap.
“Connor,” Ryan said softly. “I didn’t mean right now.”
Connor glanced up and then looked away again almost immediately.
As far as Ryan’s body clock was concerned, it still felt something like four in the morning, and he’d been awake for almost twenty four hours during which time he’d been involved in some pretty nasty fights. If it was completely necessary, he knew he could keep going for a lot longer, but right then he really wanted to get a bit of sleep. He seriously doubted that Connor was in a fit state to start any in depth work right then either.
Neither of them spoke for a while, and Connor fiddled round, trying to shove the notes back into the bag with only one hand. Ryan had learned better than to attempt to help him this time.
He wondered if Connor was going to say anything about what had happened in the warehouse, or if it was all going to be brushed under the carpet, like so many other issues between them. At least this time Connor wasn’t shouting and fighting and generally freaking out as he had after all the other traumatic experiences recently. Although Ryan wasn’t entirely certain if that was a good sign or not. He didn’t want to be the first one to mention anything that might start an argument, but there was one question that he needed to ask.
“Connor? Before Helen left she said something to you. What was it?”
Connor glanced up and caught his eye for a moment before looking away again.
“Find the hotspots.”
“That’s what she said.”
Find the hotspots? What the hell was that supposed to mean? Was it just more bloody mind games from the woman? Ryan had a vague memory of Helen referring to anomaly hotspots at some time or another, but he could only hope that the phrase meant something more to Connor than it did to him.
The sun was starting to go down, so Ryan busied himself pitching the tent and building a campfire. He hadn’t felt comfortable setting a camp here until the anomaly to the warehouse had closed, and there was no further possibility of being followed by Thomson’s men. True, there was still the threat of creatures that might live here, or come through any one of the anomalies, but in the few hours that he had sat guard, he hadn’t seen any sign of large or threatening creatures. He could hear what he presumed to be bird calls in the distance, and the occasional scurrying of small things in the undergrowth, but that was it.
If this place really was so idyllic, Ryan wondered if it might be exactly what they both needed. Connor in particular might respond to the opportunity to relax without all the threats, or constantly being on the move. Maybe here he could get his head together and get back to doing what he was best at – the science stuff, the academic research. Maybe he could get back to just being Connor.
Whether or not they ever got home, that would be a start.
“So, where do we start?”
They both stood on the hilltop, looking down over the sea of anomalies spread out beneath them.
Connor shrugged before he remembered that it hurt when he did that. In truth he had no idea where to start, and every time he thought about what they were intending to do, he found himself being overwhelmed by the enormity of the task, even more so by the fact that Ryan appeared to believe he could do it. Despite all his talk of the last few days, if he was being brutally honest, Connor shared no such certainty.
“I guess you should start with the ones closest,” he said eventually.
“Are you coming with me? I hate to point this out, but you’re the one who knows what to looks for. You’ll be able to recognise the time periods, not me.”
“I can’t be in two bloody places at once,” Connor snapped. “Either I’m studying Cutter’s notes or I’m exploring anomalies with you. I can’t do both.”
Ryan’s carefully controlled silence was almost as annoying as his continued insistence that they could find a way home. Connor hated the tension between them, but he had no idea what to do about it any more. Seeing Ryan lose control in the warehouse had scared him, and that wasn’t something he wanted to admit out loud. Nor was the fact that since that moment, it had stripped away the sense of comfort and safety that he used to associate with the man, and that hurt even more than his arm did right then.
“Maybe if I go through the first few with you,” Connor amended carefully.
The morning progressed with Eocene, unidentified desert, unidentified temperate forest, Cretaceous, another unidentified (but different to the last one) desert, late Triassic, and holy-shit-that-one-comes-out-on-the-edge-o
They were still sitting on the grass catching their breaths after the shock of the last one when Connor began to realise that he’d already lost track of which one was which. It occurred to him that they perhaps hadn’t planned this quite as well as they should have.
“Connor, I’m starting to lose track of which one’s which,” Ryan commented.
Connor laughed, and noticed immediately the brief expression of surprise on Ryan’s face.
“Me too,” he admitted. “Maybe we need to make a map or something.”
After some degree of trial and error, they ended up laying a numbered marker, mostly sticks and stones from the stream, at the base of every anomaly, with Connor keeping a master list of what time period every number related to.
When they stopped to rest for lunch, Connor was starting to feel a little useless. Despite all his knowledge about prehistory, unless he could see an obvious and distinctive animal of some kind, as often as not he could only take a wild guess at what time period they were looking at. And unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately depending which way you looked at it, the areas on the other side of most of these anomalies seemed curiously devoid of creatures. Which he suspected might be significant, even if he could only speculate about the reasons why.
Still, fascinating as this was, he had a nagging doubt that what he really needed to be doing was reading Cutter’s work. All of this exploration was great, but until he knew what to look for it was unlikely to help them in the long term. There was no guarantee how long any of the anomalies that they investigated would stay here for. Even while they had been at work that morning, he was aware that several anomalies had vanished, and new ones had appeared. They were always very careful to make sure they only explored the ones that looked strong and stable, and never strayed far from it on the other side. That, at least, was one thing they both very definitely agreed on.
“Maybe you should sit it out for a bit this afternoon, do that research stuff,” Ryan suggested.
The fact that Ryan appeared to be able to read his mind was starting to get a little creepy.
“Like you said, you can’t identify the time periods.”
“No offence, but half the time neither can you.” Ryan’s voice suggested that was merely a statement of fact, not a criticism. “I’ll make notes on what the environment’s like on the other side, and if there’s any creatures I can give you a yell. How’s that sound?”
Connor didn’t elaborate. He didn’t want to admit to Ryan how much all this activity was making his arm hurt. Or how much he just wanted some time on his own, not just to research, but also to set things straight in his own mind, to work through all of the events of the last few days and figure out how he felt about it all. Ryan didn’t need to know any of that. He would only worry.
Ryan felt exhausted. It wasn’t even that he had been doing anything particularly strenuous all day, but the constant tension of not knowing what he might encounter every time he stepped through an anomaly had got to him after a while. He had been quite relieved when the failing light had given him an excuse to stop for the day. Now they were back in camp, and the night was becoming chilly after the warmth of the day.
Connor had finally given up trying to read Cutter’s notes by the light of their campfire, and now he just appeared to be staring into the flames, his knees drawn up to his chest in a protective huddle.
Things had seemed better between them today, especially once Ryan had accepted the fact that Connor seemed to need a certain amount of physical distance between them. Ryan suspected he knew why. But Connor had shown no interest in talking about it, and Ryan had no idea how to talk about it even if he’d wanted to, and-
“Would you have killed him?”
Connor’s voice startled Ryan out of his thoughts. The question itself wasn’t a surprise, but the directness with which he’d asked it was, as was the fact that it had seemingly come out of nowhere. Ryan didn’t immediately reply.
“If I hadn’t stopped you, would you have killed him?”
Ryan knew the answer that the young man wanted to hear. He also knew that if he lied now it would kill any semblance of trust left between them.
He hated no-win situations.
After a few moments thought, Ryan gave the most honest answer he could, his eyes never leaving Connor’s.
Connor held his gaze for a moment longer, nodded, and went back to staring into the flames. The flickering of the light on Connor’s face gave him an almost eerie appearance, the constantly shifting shadows making him seem older. Ryan felt a sudden and unusual urge to justify himself.
“I couldn’t let him follow us through the anomaly. You saw what he was like, he would have hunted us down, wherever we went. And after what he did to you, and Abby, and Stephen, hell maybe even Claudia and Barclay as well…”
Connor looked up sharply.
“So that makes it okay for you to murder him?”
“For fucks sake Connor. I’m a soldier. I kill people. It’s part of the bloody job description. I don’t enjoy doing it. I don’t get a kick out hurting anybody, but I… god I don’t know.”
Ryan knew he wasn’t helping Connor to understand at all. He didn’t have the words to explain the morality of a career that necessitated the kinds of things that he had done, things he had to do.
Connor shrugged, his eyes fixed on the fire again.
If Ryan had been having this discussion with anyone else he would have got up and walked away right then. Normally he didn’t care what people thought of him. He didn’t expect them to understand. But Connor was different, and he couldn’t leave it like this.
“Connor,” he said trying to keep his voice calm and quiet. “You knew what I was when we started this. What the hell did you think I did before all this dinosaur shit started happening?”
“Mostly I tried not to think about it at all.”
Ryan sighed. He had feared as much.
“Then I think we have a problem,” he eventually said.
“I don’t know what you want me to say. I can’t change who I am or what I do.”
“Do you think you can be okay with that?”
Connor waited a long time before he replied, and when he did, he couldn’t meet Ryan’s look.
“I don’t know.”
Neither of them spoke for a while. It was Ryan who finally broke the silence.
“Would you have killed him? If I hadn’t stopped you?”
Connor’s gaze very briefly flickered up to meet his, and Ryan saw fear in the young man’s eyes before he looked away again.
“I don’t know,” Connor said again.
Ryan nodded. He suspected Connor wasn’t being evasive, it was entirely possible that he didn’t know what he might have done if the situation had gone on any longer.
“I hope you never have to find out,” Ryan said.
Connor glanced up again.
“Why did you stop me? Why were you protecting him?”
Ryan shook his head. However intelligent Connor was, about some things he could be completely clueless.
“I wasn’t protecting him, Connor. I was protecting you.”
Connor stared into the fire again, his fingers fiddling with a twisted length of grass that he’d picked up from somewhere.
“Right,” he said eventually.
Ryan couldn’t tell from his voice whether that was supposed to be a comment of understanding, or a criticism, or something else entirely. This wasn’t a subject that he wanted to poke at much further, though, so he didn’t reply. He also decided not to point out that people who throw stones probably shouldn’t have been pointing guns at their friends. He suspected that wouldn’t go down too well either.
Ryan lay back and closed his eyes. It was hard to believe this was the same young man who, not much more than a fortnight ago, had been so full of wide-eyed enthusiasm, who had wanted to touch a dinosaur for no other reason than because it was there. Everything had been so much more simple back in the Jurassic. His own feelings about Connor had been straightforward then. No, Ryan decided that wasn’t quite what he meant. His feelings about Connor were still relatively straightforward. It was just the bloody relationship that was complicated.
“Okay, so as far as I can tell from Cutter’s work, the anomalies come and go in regular cycles. That’s how he managed to predict that one in the forest, and that’s presumably how Helen finds her way around them.”
“What do you mean, cycles?”
Connor looked out over the anomaly field and tried to sort his thoughts into an explanation that Ryan would follow. They had been at it for three days now, and his master list of anomalies numbered one hundred and forty eight. Although, admittedly, quite a few of those had disappeared and not come back, and at any one time the number of open anomalies seemed to hover around the ninety mark. As far as he could tell, none of them led to the twenty first century, and the one that they had arrived through hadn’t returned. And so far, they had only had two creature related incidents while exploring.
“Cutter’s observations are obviously only relevant to the anomaly cycles for the twenty first century, but I guess the theory holds all across time. See, some anomalies open at regular intervals, maybe once every month, or every six months, or every year or something. The ones that Cutter has seen the most often over a three year period are the one to the Permian in the Forest of Dean, and the fault line ones to the Jurassic, that we went through. There are a few others, but they’re the most regular ones.”
Connor paused for breath. Ryan was clearly with it so far, and hadn’t yet got the slightly glazed expression, which Connor took as a good sign.
“Problem is, even the regular ones don’t always go to the same point in time in the past. The one in the Permian jumps around between different times, but always to the same location, because Cutter’s notes say the second time it appeared it led to a time before the one that you and him went to through the first anomaly.”
“So how does this help us get home?” Ryan apparently wasn’t that interested in the finer points of anomaly theory.
Connor hesitated. “Well, it doesn’t, not directly. But Helen mentioned hotspots, areas of really major anomaly activity, with anomalies appearing all the time, going all over the place, but within a relatively small geographical area. Like here, like the Jurassic, again possibly the Permian. Cutter mentions the same thing in his work. Helen said to find the hotspots, so unless she was really trying to mess with us, I think that’s what we need to do.”
Connor knew this was the part where he ventured out of the known territory of research and observed science, and into the realms of speculation. He only hoped it would be enough to justify Ryan’s faith in him.
“Maybe if we stay here long enough we’ll find an anomaly that goes where we want it to, or maybe we’d need to find another hotspot somewhere else. I guess the Jurassic and the Permian might be our best bets, we know for a fact that they regularly go to the twenty first century. If we can explore enough of them, sooner or later we’ll find one of these that have appeared over the last three years that Cutter lists in his notes.”
“That’s a lot of guesswork,” Ryan pointed out. “And a lot of trial and error to find the right one.”
“I know. I never said it was going to be easy. But if I’m right, it means at least it’s possible.”
Connor glanced down the hill, as an anomaly near the edge of the cluster flickered back into existence.
“Number 38’s back,” he commented. “Right on time.” Connor made a quick note on his master list.
Connor had become fascinated with Number 38. It seemed to lead somewhere quite early, possibly the Carboniferous, and had a cycle measured in hours rather than days or months. After two days of watching it flicker on and off, Connor had decided to put markers on the other side of the anomaly as well, to test whether it went to exactly the same time and place every time. Turned out it actually cycled between three distinct points in time, but always the same geographical spot. Admittedly it was of no obvious use to their objective of getting home, but still, Connor couldn’t wait to tell Cutter about all of this.
“Do you want me to check it?” Ryan was already standing up and heading down the hill before he even asked the question.
Connor had been quite surprised by how easily Ryan had slipped into the role of following his instructions, of being the one who went out and collected the data while Connor was the one who co-ordinated their exploration and collated all the information to make sense of it.
Things had improved a lot between them over the last couple of days, but there was still a degree of physical distance, and Connor knew that was largely his own fault. He didn’t know how he felt about Ryan any more, and he suspected that was something he really needed to work out pretty soon. But every time he tried to think about it, he ended up with everything going round and round in a confusing and distracting maelstrom in his head. Ryan’s actions in the warehouse had opened his eyes to an aspect of the man that quite frankly frightened him, and that was something he was still having difficulty reconciling with everything else he knew about the man. But at the same time, after his own behaviour since Abby’s death it was entirely likely that Ryan thought he was a complete headcase anyway, so to some extent they’d both seen things in each other that they didn’t like. Connor couldn’t deny he still felt something. He just didn’t know what that was any more. Or what the hell to do about it.
So mostly he tried to avoid thinking about it too much, and immersed himself in the intellectual challenge of understanding the anomalies. In many ways it was this work which had done the most to restore Connor’s sense of normality and equilibrium. The familiarity of academia, the sense that he was actually doing something that was of real, practical use gave him a purpose beyond simply survival. He couldn’t say that he was happy yet, he wouldn’t go that far. But sometimes he dared to hope that he was getting there.
Ryan reappeared out of Number 38 and held up three fingers. Connor waved back, message understood, and noted it down. Exactly what he’d been expecting. He smiled to himself. This might actually be possible.
He looked up again, and saw a new anomaly had appeared not far from Number 38. Ryan had seen it too, and was already heading that way to investigate it. Connor watched him go, as always holding his breath for a few seconds after he disappeared, waiting to see if he would come racing back pursued by something dangerous. Everything remained quiet, and Connor went back to his work.
“Give it another couple of hours and 38 should go back to marker one,” he mumbled out loud. “And 88 might come back tonight. That’ll be the real test.”
“Making progress, then?”
Connor jumped, and closed his eyes for a moment to get his heart rate back under control.
“Don’t you ever just arrive normally anywhere? Why does it always have to be a dramatic entrance?” he complained.
Helen laughed as she sat down next to him.
“So how’s it going? I see you seem to be picking up on the patterns quite quickly.”
“I had a bit of a head start.” Connor patted the pile of Cutter’s notes beside him.
“That’s cheating,” Helen said in what he could have sworn was a gently teasing voice. If he hadn’t known her better, that was.
“That’s practicality,” Connor replied. “Besides, it’s only the same as what every other scientist in the world has ever done: used the work of others and taken the next step.”
“And yet you’re still here,” she observed.
“Why are you here?” Connor suddenly asked. “You abandoned us, again, and now you’re here making sarky comments about my research methods. What do you actually want?”
“I was bored. Thought I’d stop by and see if you’d managed to get anywhere.”
She sounded a touch too nonchalant, and Connor noticed that she was sitting quite still, and breathing a little shallowly.
“Are you okay?”
She raised her eyebrows. “I thought you didn’t care?”
“I’m probably the only person this side of a million years who does care. But if you’re going to be like that about it…”
Helen hesitated before she admitted, “Couple of cracked ribs. I got in the way of an angry gastornis.”
“Ouch,” Connor said. “On the other hand, I’ve never seen one of those before, so kind of cool as well. Although, probably not so much for you.”
He wondered why he was sitting here having what amounted to a civilised conversation with a woman who he really couldn’t bring himself to like very much. Respect, hell yes. But he didn’t like her. Although he suddenly suspected he understood why she was here with them. After two gunshot wounds in recent history, and now this latest injury, she was looking for safety in numbers.
“How’s Stephen?” Connor asked. He almost didn’t want to know, but had to ask.
“I don’t know. I haven’t been back.”
Connor glanced down the slope and realised that there was no sign of Ryan. With the sudden arrival of Helen, Connor had not been paying attention to the time, but he suspected it was longer than the few minutes they usually gave to the investigation of a new anomaly.
“Are you still planning on changing history?”
“Yeah.” He was only half paying attention now.
Helen leaned over and took the master list notes from his lap. “Interesting system,” she commented.
“Sorry, am I distracting you from something?” she teased.
“Yeah. Ryan should be back by now.”
Connor got up and started heading down the slope. He was aware of Helen following him.
“I hate to point this out, but if he is in trouble you don’t have a weapon.”
It was true. This time round, Ryan hadn’t entrusted him with the pistol. After everything that had happened, Connor was secretly quite glad about that.
He didn’t bother answering her, he had more important things to worry about. Connor approached the anomaly warily, braced himself, and stepped through it.
Sea spray hit him in the face, and a strong wind almost knocked Connor off his feet onto the jagged black rocks. He caught his footing and looked round. Behind him the stormy grey sea crashed in around the outcropping that he was standing on. In front of him the spiky volcanic rocks ended at a cliff that rose up so high he could barely see the top through the sheeting rain.
At the base of the cliff there was a creature, a something, apparently swiping at the cliff itself. Connor looked again, and realised there was actually a narrow fissure in the rock, and Ryan was wedged sideways into it where the creature couldn’t reach him.
The academic part of his brain was still trying to work out what the hell it was, when the practical side kicked in and decided it was time to cause a distraction. He did the only sensible thing he could think of. He picked up a rock and hurled it at the creature, yelling, “Hey! Leave him alone.”
The rock bounced off its greyish back, and the creature spun round, lightning fast, and snarled at Connor. He froze.
It was a little bigger than a human, hairless, and while it appeared to be moving on four legs, it was clearly capable of using its front limbs as arms and hands, hands that had very large claws on them. But it was its face that caught Connor’s attention, its huge domed head, its bared teeth, the fact that it appeared to have only the tiniest slits where eyes should have been.
It made a clicking sound, and turned around fully to watch Connor.
Ryan was yelling something at him, but Connor couldn’t hear over the wind and the rain. He did hear Helen swear as she appeared behind him.
Abruptly it lunged at him. It moved fast, too bloody fast, and Connor only got out of the way because Helen grabbed his jacket and yanked him backwards at the last second. They both slipped on the rocks and went down. The creature tried to twist in mid air but it missed them and its trajectory took it straight through the place where Connor had been standing and on through the anomaly.
“What was that?” Connor gasped, trying to get to his feet even as the adrenaline was still pounding through him.
“Predator from the future.”
Connor realised that it was quite possibly the first time he had ever seen Helen Cutter looked scared. That alone told him how dangerous the creature was.
Ryan had managed to get out of the fissure in the cliff and was scrambling across the rocks towards them, assault rifle in his hand.
“What the hell do you think you were doing?” he demanded as soon as he was close enough to be heard. “You could have got yourself killed.”
“I was trying to rescue you,” Connor shot back, feeling slightly put out and definitely underappreciated.
“Quiet, both of you,” Helen hissed. She was still crouching low among the rocks, trying to move away from the anomaly. Connor’s foot skidded and he grabbed hold of Ryan’s arm to steady himself.
The creature charged out of the anomaly and crashed into both of them, sending Connor flying onto the rocks again. He yelled out when his injured arm impacted a jagged edge, and he felt the partially healed wound tearing. Then he heard Ryan scream. Connor looked round. The creature was crouched over Ryan, and as Connor watched it reached back and swiped its massive claws across Ryan’s chest.
Connor saw the dropped assault rifle between them and lunged for it without even thinking about what he was doing. He was still on his knees, trying to steady himself against the diagonally slanting geology when he realised he had never used the weapon before. There wasn’t time to panic. He had seen Ryan fire it enough times, he could work it out. Ryan screamed again, and Connor braced himself, took aim, and fired the assault rifle at the creature. Blood sprayed from its side, and it turned towards him, snarling. Connor fired again, and this time the recoil from the burst threw him backwards. He saw movement as the creature leapt towards him, and knew he couldn’t bring the rifle round fast enough. He stared death in the face for a split second. Then it bounded over his head, and raced off across the rocks, flecks of blood spattering from multiple wounds in its side as it went.
Connor closed his eyes and breathed.
He got up and clambered across to the other man. His first impression was of blood. Far too much blood. Then he realised that Ryan was still conscious, and Connor pulled him into a sitting position and helped Ryan to get his arm around his shoulders.
“Helen. Help me get him back through the anomaly,” Connor yelled.
Ryan could barely stand, and he sure as hell wasn’t up to walking, so Connor and Helen had to drag him back out of this nightmarish hellscape through to the tranquil, sunny hillside. They staggered up to where he had left his bag and pile of notes, Connor refusing to stop until they got that far, away from the anomalies and to where he knew there was a first aid kit.
Connor tore open what was left of the front of Ryan’s t-shirt, and tried to assess the damage. He was no medic, but even he knew it looked bad. Two deep lines were raked in a diagonal across Ryan’s chest, and what appeared to be a puncture or gouge had been taken out just above his collar bone. Connor took one look at how much gauze padding they had left, and then ignored it, instead pulling a relatively clean t-shirt out of the bag and using that to press down on the bleeding.
“Helen, help me, please.” He didn’t have enough hands for this, and he knew it. “If you put some pressure on the wound by his collar bone, I can deal with the rest.”
Helen crouched on the other side of Ryan and did what Connor had asked. But her voice was quiet and steady when she said, “Connor. You can’t save him.”
“Don’t say that,” Connor snapped. “He’s going to be okay.”
He had failed to save Abby. He wasn’t going to let it happen again.
“Connor,” her voice was getting harder. “He’s beyond any help that either you or I can give him. Even if the blood loss doesn’t kill him, out here, an infection probably will.”
Connor wanted to yell at her to shut up, that it was going to be okay, that they could fix this, but suddenly he knew she was right. However much he didn’t want to admit it, she was right. But maybe, just maybe, if they could control the bleeding long enough to get him to a proper medic he might survive.
Connor suddenly understood what he had to do. Helen had said if they wanted her help they should make her a better offer. This was his better offer. It was the only thing he had left to offer.
“Here’s the deal. If you help me to get Ryan back home, where he can get medical attention, then I’ll stay with you in the past.”
Helen’s expression suddenly became very, very interested.
“What makes you think I still want you to come with me? I made that offer three years ago.”
“Because you’re injured. That’s slowing you down, and in any other time period that could mean the difference between survival and being breakfast for a predator. You might not want to admit it, but right now you need someone.”
“You really think you could protect me?”
“You’d be surprised what I’m capable of doing these days.”
Helen seemed to be considering his offer. Connor pressed harder with the t-shirt, trying to ignore the fact that Ryan’s hand was grasping ineffectually at his wrist, trying to keep his eyes locked on Helen.
“If he dies you’ll be here alone. You’ll need me then anyway,” Helen said.
“If he dies you can go to hell for all I care.”
For a few moments there was no sound but the harsh rasping of Ryan’s breathing.
“And just so we’re completely clear,” Connor said in a surprisingly steady voice, “I want you to take us back home to a point near to where we disappeared. I still intend to change time. Ryan can do that just as well on his own, he doesn’t need me for that. But I intend to make sure none of that future happens. It’s in your interests as well, Helen, and you know it. If we get rid of Thomson then it’ll be better for you as well as for us. Lester might be an officious bastard, but at least he can be reasonable, he doesn’t kill and torture people.”
For just a moment it looked as though she was considering his proposal.
“I know you don’t care about Ryan. Or stopping Abby from dying. But I know who you do care about. Right now, Stephen’s either dead or critically injured in hospital. And Cutter’s almost certainly under arrest. You can help me change that, make it so it doesn’t happen. That’s not an opportunity you get every day. So? Deal?”
Helen smiled that predator smile of hers.
The next half hour or so passed by in a blur. Connor managed to get the bleeding to slow, and bandaged, padded, and taped up everything that he could. While he was doing that, Helen constructed a stretcher from one of the sleeping bags and two relatively straight and sturdy saplings. Connor left Ryan for long enough to run back to their camp and refill their water bottles, and also to ditch anything non-essential out of his own rucksack and replace it with anything he thought he might need out of Ryan’s.
As he raced back to Ryan, Connor became peripherally aware that his own arm had been bleeding again. He ignored it. There was nothing he could do about it himself anyway, not one-handed. He’d have to get Helen to take a look. That was no doubt going to be fun.
Ryan was apparently trying to move when he got back to him.
“Hey, hey, keep still,” Connor pressed him back down. “It’s okay, I’m here.”
“Connor,” Ryan’s voice was so quiet Connor had to get closer to hear. “Don’t do it. Don’t go with her. ”
“Hush, it’s okay. Just try to stay still. You’ll be okay soon.”
Ryan managed to catch hold of his arm and looked like he was struggling to form words. Connor only heard one clearly.
Connor closed his eyes for a moment.
“No. Ryan, listen to me. I can’t get us home. Maybe I could if we had weeks or months to research and experiment and explore the anomalies, but we don’t have that time. You don’t have that time.” He hesitated, and then admitted the one fact that was currently directing his every action, every thought. “Ryan, too many people have died because I screwed up. I will not let you be one of them.”
He leaned down and very gently kissed Ryan.
And suddenly it was as easy as that. Suddenly the maelstrom in his head was gone, and Connor knew exactly how he felt about the other man. He knew that right then, Ryan’s life was more important to him than his own chance of going home. It was that simple. The irony of only realising that at this point was not lost on him in the slightest.
Helen walked over to them.
“That’s very touching, but we have to go. Are you ready?”
Connor took one last look around. They had been so close to working it out for themselves. So very, very close. And yet…
He closed his eyes and locked away his memories and his hopes, and everything that might have been.
“Yeah. I’m ready.”
Eocene… Triassic… Oligocene… Permian. Connor’s running commentary was a half understood haze that faded in and out. All that Ryan was aware of was that they were moving, and that sometimes the environment around them changed abruptly. Sometimes the pain faded a little, but when that happened Connor’s voice faded as well, and somehow it seemed important to hang onto that voice, those words, telling him he was going to be okay, even though he knew damn well that something was very, very wrong.
Sometimes Connor tried to get him to drink water. Sometimes he even managed it without nearly choking. He was only vaguely aware of how much time passed, but he thought there was at least one point where they stopped moving for a while, and it was dark.
For a little while now Connor’s voice had taken on a new urgency, a fresh insistence that he hold on for just a little while longer, that they were nearly home.
Without warning everything tilted and he rolled and was falling, and then he hit the ground and the sudden burst of pain brought everything into sharp focus. Ryan suspected he might have screamed.
“Shit, sorry, sorry, sorry.”
There was some manoeuvring, and then they were moving again. He opened his eyes and squinted against the bright blue glare of the sky. There was something very important that he was supposed to be telling Connor to do. Or not to do. Or something. He couldn’t remember, and it worried him that he couldn’t remember.
Movement stopped for a moment, and then blue sky was replaced by crystal shards, and that in turn replaced by tree canopy.
For the first time in what seemed like an eternity, Ryan heard a voice that wasn’t Connor or Helen.
“Oh my god! Connor!”
He knew that voice. Abby.
“Shit. Captain Ryan. What the hell happened to him?”
He knew that voice as well. Corporal Barclay.
Ryan felt himself being put on the ground, and became aware of new faces crowded over him.
“What date is it?” Connor asked.
“Where have you been? You disappeared in the Jurassic but this one goes to the Per-”
“What date is it?” Connor demanded.
“July fourteenth.” Abby sounded startled.
“Three months later. That’s close enough. We did it.” Ryan managed to catch a glimpse of the relief on Connor’s face.
“Connor, what is going on? What are you talking about?” Abby demanded.
“Where’s everybody else? Is it just you two here?”
“There’s a few soldiers around here. The others are all at another anomaly site, I can call them-”
“No,” Connor interrupted.
Ryan could hear Barclay on the phone or a radio or something, calling for an ambulance.
“Listen to me, this is very important,” Connor was saying. “Do not tell anyone else that you’ve seen us. Tell only Lester and Claudia and Cutter. Do not let anyone else talk to him. Just them. Promise me, Abby.”
“Yeah, whatever. Connor, where have you been? What happened? Are you okay?”
“There isn’t time. Abby, he’s bleeding again. Put your hands here, help me control it… that’s it, stay there, just hold that, I’ve got to grab something we left on the other side. I’ll be right back.”
No. Don’t let him go.
But Ryan couldn’t make the words form, and there was nothing he could do.
For a short while there was only Barclay’s voice, giving directions and then pausing briefly before he asked to speak to Lester.
“Where is he?” That was Abby again. “What’s taking so long? Maybe I should go check.”
“No. Keep hold of that. I’ll go look.”
There was a pause, and Ryan was vaguely aware of a fresh burst of pain as Abby pressed down hard on his ribs.
“Josh, where are they? Where’ve they gone?”
“I don’t know, they’re not there any more. Shit, I am so dead if Thomson finds out I let Helen Cutter escape.”
Thomson. Ryan thought that was important. He was supposed to be doing something about that, he was sure of it. Connor had told him over and over that he had to change things, that it was up to him to fix it. But Connor had gone. He had really gone, and Ryan had nothing left to hold on to.
For the first time in his adult life, Ryan stopped fighting and surrendered to the darkness.