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Primeval fic: Evolutionary Feats (Second Life verse)

December 22nd, 2014 (02:44 pm)
calm

feeling: calm

Title: Evolutionary Feats

Disclaimer: I do not own Primeval. lena7142 created the beloved Feral Stephen.

A/N: For kristen_mara. Also fills my mutation square for hc_bingo. This can fit into the Continuing Adventures of Feral Stephen. Beta by sockie1000.

Warnings: There's a decent amount of gore in this one.

Summary: Life, once in motion, changes as much as it has to in order to survive.



-o-

With all that had happened over the last few years, Cutter had always felt like life was vaguely out of control. Ever since that day Connor Temple came into his office, raving about conspiracy theories and dinosaurs in the Forest of Dean, Nick Cutter’s life had been in a constant state of perilous and stressful flux.

It was all part of the job description, except there really wasn’t a job description for what he did. He was an evolutionary biologist by education, but what he did now -- dinosaur hunting? Government work? Truth be told, sometimes it felt like nothing more than bloody suicide day by day.

But after finding Stephen in the past -- or the original version of Stephen, anyway -- Cutter was quite pleased with the way things had settled down. His team was stronger than ever, and far more reliable. They had a good system in place, and the risks they took were controlled and expected. They couldn’t control an anomaly call, but they had practice enough that Cutter felt confident going back out in the field each time.

It wasn’t an easy life, and it certainly wasn’t safe, but Cutter had a job he liked with a team he cared about. He also happened to have a woman he loved and a best friend he would never let go of again.

All things considered, life was pretty good. They had established their own kind of safe, predictable normal.

Which was why it was no surprise, really, that the next anomaly call was anything but normal.

-o-

“I’m afraid they weren’t very clear,” Claudia said, forehead furrowed as she looked slightly vexed. “Some reports suggested something like a T-Rex, but seemingly much smaller. A few people thought it was some kind of bear.”

“A new species!” Connor said, sounding excited at the prospect.

Becker tersely reached for his gun. “Wonderful.”

Scanning the area around the barricade, Nick tried to make a quick assessment. The decisions he made, after all, were the things that saved lives.

Next to him, Stephen stepped closer. “How fast was it moving?” he asked.

“Not too fast, fortunately,” Claudia said. “Everyone we’ve talked to was able to outrun the thing.”

“Maybe it’s not a predator,” Abby suggested.

“Or maybe it’s just not hungry,” Becker said.

“A T-Rex is fast partially because of its size,” Stephen said. “The long legs give it an advantage over most of its prey. But in a wooded area, they’re going to be at a disadvantage, especially if it has smaller legs but not the build of something like a raptor.”

Nick turned back, looking at Claudia. “Are we certain we have a secure perimeter?”

Claudia nodded. “As sure as we can be.”

“So do we have a plan?” Becker asked.

Nick glanced from Claudia to Stephen, meeting the other man’s knowing gaze. It still surprised him, sometimes, just how in step he and Stephen could be. They had known each other just over a year, and already it felt like a lifetime. Some things, it was clear, survived the cloning process better than Nick might have expected.

“It’s pretty simple,” he said. “We track it, and we catch it.”

All eyes turned to Stephen. It had taken all this time, but the other man finally didn’t flinched under the attention. Not in this context, anyway.

Nick inclined his head. “After you?”

Stephen checked his own gun, giving a small, confident smile. “It would be my pleasure.”

-o-

It didn’t take Stephen long to find the trail.

Of course, the creature didn’t seem particularly concerned with hiding its trail, so tracking it was actually unusually easy. The area was densely wooded but fairly compact, and with the surrounding checkpoints well contained, it probably wouldn’t be hard to find the creature and subdue it. Given that there were no casualties so far, this might be their luckiest call yet.

They were due for some luck, as far as Nick was concerned. Sometimes it seemed like working for the ARC was nothing but a long series of mishaps. They’d all lost more than they cared to sacrifice, and even after finding Stephen in the past, Nick had been forced to reckon with a world he barely knew how to cope with.

Not to mention the fact that death and disaster still seemed to follow them. Nick was fairly certain he’d aged ten years in the past fourteen months alone, because if Becker wasn’t trying to shoot something, then Connor and Abby were trying to be a couple or Claudia was being perfect and difficult all at once, and Stephen--

Well, Stephen was falling off roofs, jumping in front of cars and generally being a menace to his own safety. It was a miracle, truly, that the man had survived in the past so long when he’d done nothing but try to get himself killed since coming back to the present.

All of which was to say, they were due for some luck.

It was also, consequently, why they had no luck to be found.

-o-

Stephen heard it first.

At point, he went very still, and Nick had been around him enough to know what was happening. Stephen was finely attuned to things that most people missed, and for as much as Nick liked to be in control, he had learned a long time ago not to question Stephen in such things.

A few paces behind Stephen, Nick stopped as well, training his ears to listen. At first, he could only hear the sounds of the rest of his team coming to a stop behind him. Connor and Abby stopped side by side, and Becker behind them, turned back to cover their backs.

Then, Nick heard it, too.

A faint rustling in the leaves, someplace to their right.

He looked at Stephen, then followed the other man’s gaze into the thicket.

At first, he couldn’t make out anything.

Then, it seemed to go quiet.

For several long seconds, no one moved.

Finally, Nick inched forward. “Stephen--” he started.

But Stephen held up his hand. His eyes were still fixed on the forest, brows pulled together in concentration.

Nick frowned, trying to make out whatever Stephen was picking up on. It could be anything, though. The wind; another animal; a trick of the imagination.

“Stephen--” he started again.

Stephen shook his head, more vehemently this time.

Nick looked uncertainly out at the trees. A full minute had passed now, and then some. “Maybe it moved off,” he suggested, voice still low.

“No,” Stephen said, eyes tracking through the foliage. “Something is off about this. Something is different…”

“Well, Claudia did say that reports suggested something we hadn’t encountered before,” Nick said.

“But animal behavior has patterns,” Stephen said. “They’re predictable. A predator would have attacked us by now. If its behavior was entire defensive, however, I’d expect signs of actual retreat.”

Nick looked out into the forest, not relishing the fact that he wasn’t sure what to say. It was frustratingly common these days. How ironic it was to have Stephen be the expert. “Maybe it’s hiding,” Cutter said. “Some animals do freeze as a means of defense. And even a predator might not like its odds against the likes of us.”

Stephen drew a tight breath. “But there’s something different,” he insisted, though he seemed unable or uninterested in providing any evidence to back that statement up.

By now, Nick trusted Stephen, especially with this kind of thing.

Of course, he also didn’t trust Stephen at all, because he had an uncanny way of always putting himself in danger.

And standing there, in the middle of the woods, Nick felt like they were all in danger.

“Come on,” he cajoled, moving up alongside Stephen. “Maybe we can pick up the trail again.”

But before Stephen could respond, the leaves rustled again. Louder and closer this time, and Nick barely had a chance to look up when Stephen was shoving him out of the way.

Taken by surprise, Nick stumbled to the ground, hitting a fallen log hard even as the sound of gunfire broke out. His own gun was loose in his grip, and he got his bearings, flipping onto his back as best he could just in time to see the creature flying through the air.

And coming straight at him.

-o-

It probably should have felt old by now. This almost dying thing was part and parcel of what they did. But somehow, no matter how many times he found himself face to face with a creature trying to rip his throat out, it always got his adrenaline going.

Yet, if almost dying was an expectation, so was getting saved at the last minute.

By Stephen.

The other man was a blur, and he didn’t make so much as a noise as he charged the creature, tackling it off of Cutter before the thing even got its claw dug deep into his skin. There was a thwack and an inhuman shriek before several gunshots echoed through the forest.

And just like that, the leaves rustled and the forest fell silent once again.

Silent except for Nick’s own strained breathing.

Blinking up, he took in the fact that he was still alive.

Stephen came into view over him, mouth pressed together grimly.

“Bloody hell,” Nick breathed. “What the hell was that thing?”

Stephen knelt next to him, saying nothing as Nick struggled to sit upright. “Never seen anything like it.”

From farther off, Connor huffed. “The descriptions were surprisingly accurate,” he said. “A small t-rex with fur.”

“But that’s impossible,” Abby said. “Dinosaurs might be able to cross breed with lizards or birds, but mammals?”

“Whatever it is, it got away,” Becker said, looking none too pleased with his gun still at the ready.

Cutter pushed to his feet, staggering just a little as Stephen leaned in to support him. “We need to pick up the trail.”

Stephen shook his head. “No, we need to go back.”

Nick looked at Stephen. “You’re the one calling for restraint?”

Stephen did not look amused. “You’re bleeding.”

“I’m fine,” Nick said tersely, pushing away from Stephen to take a step.

A step he faltered badly with, his left leg nearly giving way. He hissed, unable to stifle the pain entirely. Looking down, he could see the red stain smeared across his thigh.

“You’re not fine,” Stephen told him, hastily shrugging out of his outer shirt and ripping it in half. “We need to go back.”

Nick shook his head, wincing while Stephen wrapped the shirt around his leg without so much as an invitation and no amount of gentleness. “I can get back on my own,” he said, working to keep the pain out of his voice while Stephen roughly tied off the bandage. “We need to finish the job--”

“You’re always telling me this is a team effort,” Stephen said, sounding far too rational for Nick’s liking. “We go back, get you looked at and then regroup.”

Craning his neck up, Nick glared at Stephen. “And since when did you listen to me?”

Stephen shrugged, trying not to look smug. He didn’t often have the high ground in these situations; clearly, he was relishing it. “A lot can change in a year.”

Nick let out a harsh breath, reluctantly balancing himself with Stephen’s help once more. “Fine,” he relented. “We head back.”

Stephen appeared somewhat gratified, and he made no fuss by taking up the center position with Nick this time. Abby and Connor took point together, and the reassuring sound of Becker’s footfalls came from behind. There was no other sound in the forest, but somehow that wasn’t as comforting as Nick would hope.

If anything, he was becoming increasingly confident that this typical anomaly call was just starting to spiral out of control.

-o-

They made good time on the way back, mostly thanks to Stephen’s support. He said nothing about it, but he half dragged Cutter part of the way, and Nick doubted the other man would have slowed down even if Nick had requested it. No, when it came to certain things, Nick had to pick his battles.

Considering he already lost one round with some creature he couldn’t identify, he didn’t have the energy to pick one with Stephen.

Besides, with the way his leg was starting to throb, a little time to regroup might not be such a bad plan after all.

At the main checkpoint, Claudia came out to greet them. “Did you get it already?” she asked.

Nick grunted, and Stephen shook his head.

There was no way to hide the blood from her, and Nick wasn’t thinking fast enough to soften his appearance.

“What happened?” she asked, concern coloring her voice more evidently now. She came up alongside Nick’s other side, easing him down onto a nearby crate.

“It’s nothing,” Nick said, trying to sound confident but mostly just sounding pained.

“Creature attacked him,” Stephen reported. “He needs a medic.”

Nick shook his head, indignant. “I’m fine--”

“It’s still bleeding,” Stephen told him. “We need a medic.”

“Stephen--”

“Don’t be an idiot,” Claudia said. “We’re getting a medic.”

Nick sighed. Even if he could win a verbal fight against Stephen, he was well and truly out of his league when it came to Claudia. Leaning back, he straightened his leg, sulking as Claudia turned to talk to the nearest soldier.

“We still need a plan of attack anyway,” Nick said.

Claudia sat on a crate next to him. “So you did see it, then?”

“Some of us saw it,” Stephen said. “Others felt it.”

Nick glared at him.

“What was it anyway?” Claudia asked.

“It was amazing, that’s what it was,” Connor said.

Claudia raised her eyes, curious.

“Like nothing we’ve ever seen before,” Abby agreed.

“It’s this cross between a bear and a t-rex,” Connor said, a bit too enthusiastic.

“Which is impossible,” Abby said.

“So can it be contained?” Claudia asked.

“It’s not the fastest we’ve seen,” Becker reported. “Bugger got us by surprise.”

“Because it doesn’t act like any creature we’ve met either,” Stephen said. “It moves like a dinosaur, but it seems to have some of the instinct of a mammal. The attack, it wasn’t overtly offensive.”

Claudia clicked her tongue. “I’m not so sure about that,” she said with a long glance at Nick’s leg.

Nick shifted uneasily. “I think we’re missing the point.”

“The point,” Stephen said. “Is that it’s aggressive, for whatever reason. We have to find it, and stop it.”

“And we will,” Nick said, trying to sound reasonable. Between Connor’s boyish enthusiasm and Stephen’s plaintive hunting style, it was always something of a trial to keep his team on track. This call, for whatever reason, seemed to be making it so much worse. “But first we have to know what we’re dealing with.”

In exasperation, Stephen sighed. “We already said,” he blurted. “It’s something we haven’t seen before. That makes it dangerous. That means we need to move--”

“You were the one who wanted to come back,” Nick reminded him. “To regroup.”

“And I’m regrouped,” Stephen said. “You get medical attention; I get the creature.”

“Now that sounds more like the Stephen I know,” he muttered.

Stephen crossed his arms over his chest. “Fine,” he said, sounding more like a petulant child than a capable adult. “What’s the point?”

Restraint was quickly becoming Nick’s most relied upon skill. Not that Stephen made it easy for him. “Well,” he began, bracing his leg slightly. “We keep pointing out how something like this couldn’t happen in nature. So what if it didn’t?”

It was a simple question, but they all looked at him, somewhat dumbfounded. Nick wouldn’t deny that he enjoyed that moment.

“You’re saying it was engineered,” Abby said, processing the idea.

“Wonderful,” Becker muttered. “That’s a whole new category of beasts.”

“But it would make sense,” Connor said. “Though the science involved, I don’t know….”

Stephen worked his jaw, clenching his teeth together but saying nothing.

“I’m saying sometimes the most obvious answer is right,” Nick said. “Do we have any specimen samples?”

“I got a shot off, but it didn’t slow down,” Becker said.

“And we were out of there too fast to collect anything,” Abby said.

Nick chewed his lip, trying to come up with an alternative.

“It’s not that hard,” Stephen said finally. “That thing has been living in the woods for at least a day or two, maybe more. And it’s not the size of a dinosaur, but it’s big enough.”

“Big enough for what?” Becker asked.

Stephen shrugged.

Nick snapped his fingers, picking up on Stephen’s line of thought. “Scat.”

Becker made a face. “I shouldn’t have asked.”

“It will do for analysis,” Nick said. “Do you think we can get some?”

“We already have some,” Stephen said. He nodded off toward the contingent of Special Forces. “I used the scent to help start the trail.”

“Perfect!” Nick said, feeling his enthusiasm buoy. He tried to get to his feet.

Claudia held him down. “Perfect for someone else,” she said. “I’ll have someone get right on it.”

“What are you thinking, then?” Abby asked.

“Well, anomalies, they don’t just open to the past,” Nick reminded them. “We’ve had contact with the future before.”

“The future predators,” Connor said.

“Those things were trained killing machines,” Abby pointed out. “These are strange, no doubt, but they don’t seem to be as advanced.”

“Not all genetic blending has the same goal,” Nick pointed out.

“Or the same outcome, for that matter,” Connor agreed.

“But if we can analyze DNA from the scat, we should be able to trace the genetic markers,” Nick said.

“Which would tell it what it was crossed with,” Abby said.

“And may prove if it’s tied to the future predators, even,” Nick concluded.

Abby nodded, still thoughtful. “Evolution by science.”

Nick grinned. “It’s not so abnormal to consider,” he said. “Genetic mutations happen all the time. That’s how species come to exist.”

“So if we know what,” Claudia said. “Do we know how?”

“How do any of them get here?” Nick asked with a shrug. “It could be accidental.”

“That’s a bit coincidental,” Becker mused.

“And if it is tied to the future predators, then we may have to suspect some other interference,” Connor said.

Claudia's face darkened, and she inched closer to Nick. “I swear, if this comes back to Helen--”

“It doesn’t matter,” Stephen interjected, a bit more gruffly than usual. “We need to hunt the thing down -- and now.”

Nick frowned. “It is contained,” he ventured reasonably. “And honestly, it still hasn’t shown signs of aggression.”

“It attacked you!” Claudia said.

“Because we were hunting it,” Nick said. “If this is an experiment, it could be highly intelligent.”

“And highly deadly,” Stephen said. “It could have already learned from the first encounter, making the second more dangerous.”

“More reason to think this through--” Nick started.

Stephen shook his head. “We need to put it down,” he insisted. “Now.”

It was so blunt and so cruel, that for a moment, Nick didn’t even know what to say. Stephen was hardly sentimental, and he had been known to dispatch dangerous creatures in some spectacularly violent ways in the past, but he was also a conservationist. That much, as it turned out, had never changed in any iteration of Stephen. While pragmatic, Stephen had never been one to blame creatures for making incursions. If anything, he’d been the only one on the team to lead with restraint.

Stephen having restraint.

It sounded so ridiculous that Nick wondered how he’d even managed to muster such a thought.

Shaking his head, he tried to focus once more. “First, we need a plan,” he said. “You’re the one who insisted on that in the first place, remember?”

Nick was right, and not even Stephen could argue that point.

That didn’t mean Stephen was going to concede graciously.

No, not Stephen.

Instead, he stared viciously at Cutter for a long moment, before crossing his arms over his chest and turning away. Almost in a huff, he strode away toward the soldiers,

He was acting childish, and honestly, that was the last thing Cutter wanted to deal with -- now or ever. He’d coached Stephen through some of the most tedious and frustrating parts of his reacclimation to modern life, And just when he thought they’d finally made progress, something like this happened to set everything back to the very start.

Not that Cutter knew what it was about this call.

But it was probably time to find out.

He got to his feet, sucking in a sharp breath at the pain. Claudia reached for him, neatly pulling him back. “Uh uh,” she said.

NIck gestured toward Stephen, who was clearly looking at a pile of poop. “I’ve got to talk to him--”

“You need to let the medic look at you,” Claudia said firmly.

“But the creature,” Nick said.

“Is contained, just like you said,” she said.

He sighed. “But I need to--”

She raised her eyebrows. “You need to listen to your own advice,” she said, all but scolding him now. “First, your leg. Then, Stephen. Then we can get back to the business of stopping creatures.”

Nick considered protesting, but Claudia was clearly determined on this point. He looked at Abby and Connor, who shrugged. Becker studiously avoided eye contact.

Cowards.

“Fine,” he relented. “But make it fast.”

Because he had a creature to take care of, this was true. But he also had a best friend to figure out.

-o-

The medic was chatty, which Nick endured with marginal tact. In truth, he was probably too distracted by Stephen’s unusual behavior to pay much attention to the mindless prattle. Either that, or his time around Connor was finally making him immune to such things.

Whatever the case may have been, the medic said the wound didn’t even need stitches, although he did recommend a follow up with a doctor when all this was done. No doubt, Cutter was looking at a course of antibiotics, just to be safe, but within twenty minutes, his wound was assessed, cleaned and bandaged and he was on his way.

Becker was organizing a response team with Special Forces; Connor and Abby seemed to be researching possible real world ties to their mystery creature. Stephen was flitting between both groups, though decidedly saying nothing. The other man had become somewhat skilled at hiding his awkward interactions with people by staying active -- moving around seemed to be his best defenses, whether it was against predators or social contexts he found unbearable.

On his feet, Cutter turned toward him.

He stopped short when Claudia got in his way.

Nick drew a breath, rallying his strength. He could handle the leg wound; circumventing Claudia, on the other hand. “I got the all clear--”

“I know,” she said.

“So I need to start--”

“I know,” she said. “You need a plan.”

“I’m sure Connor and Becker can come up with something for the creature--”

“A plan about Stephen,” Claudia clarified.

It wasn’t surprising. Although everyone at the ARC had taken some effort to get to know Stephen, Claudia had had a unique perspective as Cutter’s girlfriend. After all, it was Claudia who had graciously accepted Stephen as Nick’s best friend, enduring all the trials that came along with that. She’d always been supportive, even when Stephen seemed like more trouble than he was worth.

In all of that, it might be easy to think Claudia merely tolerated Stephen on Nick’s behalf. But it was increasingly clear to Nick that she cared about Stephen in her own right -- because she was that kind of person.

Besides, Stephen was somewhat likeable. Once one got past the antics and the eccentricities.

“I’m going to get him back on track,” Nick said.

“So you don’t know what’s set him off?” she asked.

Nick glanced toward Stephen, who appeared to be sniffing dung again for lack of something better to do. He shook his head. “Not a clue,” he said. “This call’s been a little unexpected, but nothing harder than we’ve seen before.”

“He doesn’t like it when you get hurt,” she pointed out. “A fact in his favor, I might add.”

Nick blushed. “I don’t think that’s it this time.”

“The creature, then?” Claudia asked.

“Hard to say,” Nick said. “He’s wanted to go after this thing since the moment he saw it. Usually he’s the one talking Becker down, but now he can’t get a gun in his hand fast enough.”

“We did bring up Helen,” Claudia said. “I shouldn’t have said it--”

“We were all thinking it, though,” Nick said. “She always shows up when something strange happens.”

“So you think that’s it?” Claudia asked.

“Maybe,” Nick said. “I just thought we were past the point where he thought he had to prove himself.”

“Maybe it’s defensive,” Claudia said. “He does have strong fight or flight instincts.”

Strong was an understatement. It had taken the better part of a year to make Stephen realize that such extreme reactions should only be used in extreme situations. It was probably a hard habit to break, the threat of insecurity at any given time. For ten years, Stephen had survived in the most dire situation possible. That sort of thought process wasn’t easy to lose, especially when Helen was involved.

She had effectively taken a decade of Stephen’s life. Of all the predators Stephen had faced, she was the only one he hadn’t subdued.

He looked at Stephen again. He was frustrating and difficult, and he was still coping ten times better than most people would. Including Nick himself.

“Okay,” he said. “I’ll talk to him first.”

Claudia smiled, reaching out and squeezing his hand. “Good luck.”

Nick grunted. “I’ll probably need it.”

-o-

In all truth, Stephen Hart was probably more trouble than he was worth in Nick’s life. Ever since he’d met the man -- or the man’s clone, as it had been -- he’d been a difficult, complicated and consistent source of drama for Nick. The affair had been one thing, but then the man had gone and got himself killed, leaving Nick with an unimaginable case of survivor’s guilt. He could still see it, sometimes -- the look on Stephen’s face as the first predator tore into him. No matter what Nick fixed or changed, he’d never be able to forget that.

And of course, then there was the real Stephen Hart. Feral, primal and raw. He was stronger and smarter than the clone, and he was also bitter and sarcastic. Where the clone had been a pushover and reticent in social context, the real Stephen was stubborn and bristled around others. Now Cutter had a second chance, and with that came the terror of getting it wrong -- again.

Stephen, almost naturally, seemed intent to push that to the limit. When he wasn’t trying to get himself killed, he seemed to be experiencing undue amounts of angst regarding everything from his decision to trust Helen in the first place to being shoehorned back into a life that someone else had lived for him for the better part of a decade.

All things considered, perhaps the angst wasn’t undue.

For either of them.

So when Stephen frustrated him -- which Stephen invariably did -- Nick reminded himself not only of losing the clone, but of the friendship he’d built. One could argue that that wasn’t Stephen, that Nick owed nothing to the man who’d really had an affair with Helen -- but he wasn’t inclined to accept that. Maybe it was Nick’s guilt; maybe it was just the graceful revelation that they’d all made mistakes, and they all needed a second chance.

And a third chance, and a fourth chance. They needed all the bloody chances in the world, given their line of work.

He had to remind himself of that more often than he liked to admit.

Such as, right now.

He was still limping slightly, but after several paces he managed to get control of the pain. He nodded benignly to the soldier, making his way past them to where Stephen was trying to look productive.

Nick knew better. Stephen, despite his best efforts, was mostly sulking.

“So,” Nick said. “Did you learn anything?”

That was the diplomatic way to start, and though some might accuse Nick of being a coward by not getting straight to the point, he knew that sometimes the direct approach would only bring Stephen’s stubbornness to the foreground.

Besides, Nick was okay with being a bit of a coward.

Stephen shrugged his shoulders stiffly. “We got a sample of DNA,” he said. “Connor and Abby are running the analysis now.”

Nick nodded back, wishing not for the first time that Stephen was a bit more forthcoming. Some things hadn’t changed, even in the cloning process. “Well, that’s good,” he said. “We should have some idea what we’re looking at then.”

Stephen industriously avoided eye contact, a classic maneuver that indicated just how uncomfortable Stephen truly was.

Clearing his throat, Nick shuffled his feet, stifling the pain. “You know,” he continued. “If something’s bothering you--”

At this, Stephen looked up, eyes furiously bright with an anger that could only be borne of one thing: fear.

“You know you can talk to me--”

Stephen shook his head. “Nothing’s wrong.”

“You didn’t even consider trapping that thing,” Nick said. “It’s a good candidate for humane capture -- and it could even provide us information about what we’re looking at in terms of future threats--”

Shaking his head again, Stephen got to his feet. “We can’t take that risk--”

“But risk is inherent--”

“And not always acceptable!” Stephen snapped, almost fuming now.

Nick took a breath, willing his own temper not to rise to Stephen’s. It wasn’t easy -- he’d always been a bit of a hot head himself -- but he was learning.

Stephen certainly gave him plenty of opportunities.

“I’m saying, this isn’t like you,” Nick said, getting the conversation back on track.

Stephen squared his shoulders, lifting his chin defiantly. “I’ve been killing creatures longer than you have--”

“And showing us all that there are often better ways,” Nick said. “Stephen, if this creature has to die, then it has to die. But if there’s something else going on--”

“I’m just trying to get the job done,” Stephen insisted.

“You know you can’t lie to me,” Nick said.

“And you know I don’t lie as a general rule,” Stephen snapped.

Nick sighed. Clearly, his gentle approach wasn’t working. “I just know if we talk about it--”

“What?” Stephen asked snidely. “A little heart to heart can fix everything?”

“Well, maybe,” Nick said. “We’ve had luck with it before.”

“Luck is not something I want to rely on,” Stephen said. “Not with something like this.”

Nick tilted his head. “Are we still talking about the creature, or--?”

Stephen’s mouth was open to respond, but he never got the chance. From off in the woods, there were several reports of gunfire.

Then, several more.

Without any hesitation, Nick and Stephen were both at attention, turned toward the commotion even as the soldiers around them scrambled to get into position.

More gunfire erupted.

“That’s from the far side,” Nick said. “The other checkpoint, maybe?”

“Must be trying to escape,” Stephen mused, eyes narrowed in concentration.

“Defensive, you think?” Nick asked.

“At this point, the effect is the same,” Stephen said. “If it’s making a defensive attack, it feels cornered. It’s not likely to stop if it feels like it’s being trapped.”

“So what do you suggest?” Nick asked, casting a keen glance at his friend.

Stephen looked back, all doubt and aggression gone for the moment. “We go stop it,” he said. “By any means possible.”


It was still a little more forceful than Nick might prefer, but this time, Stephen was right.

Nick nodded. “Okay, then,” he said. “After you.”

-o-

Nick had been insistent that he was fine, but sprinting through the woods after a dangerous predator was probably a bit ambitious, all things considered. His leg was throbbing now, and it was all he could do to keep pace with the rest of the group. Even with this exceptional effort, Nick found himself at the back this time, falling behind Abby and Connor, who were several paces behind Stephen and Becker at the front.

At least at the back, he could hide just how much agony he was in. Better still, it was possible that they might all think it was an intentional choice and he was being protective.

Cutter could be like that sometimes, couldn’t he?

He was so focused on keeping himself upright that he almost didn’t see his teammates coming to a stop in front of him. He came to a stumbling halt at the edge of the treeline, breathing heavily as he shifting his weight to his good leg and did his best not to appear completely winded.

There was a roar and some gunfire, and Nick barely had time to pull himself behind a tree as Stephen and Becker took position, firing off a fresh volley of fire.

The roaring increased, and Nick wished like hell he’d spent more time coming up with a plan for the creature instead of a plan for Stephen. He should have realized, after all, no plan for Stephen would ever really work anyway. A plan for the creature, on the other hand, might mean fewer injuries and a live creature when all was said and done.

He closed his eyes, dropping his head back against the trunk.

So much for a normal anomaly call.

“Cutter,” Stephen said sharply, breaking Nick from his reverie.

Pushing himself upright again, Nick tried to look alert. “What have we got?”

“The creature is pinned down between the checkpoint and the woods,” he reported.

“What’s funny is that it’s not attacking viciously,” Abby said. “It’s almost like it doesn’t want to attack.”

“Defensive,” Nick said. “Confirms our earlier suspicions that this thing may be highly intelligent.”

“Intelligent or not,” Stephen said. “It’s agitated. It’s only a matter of time before it hurts someone else -- or worse.”

“Stephen’s right,” Becker said. “And the longer we debate this, the more risk we’re taking.”

“Easy now,” Nick said, taking a deep breath to steady himself even further. “It takes just as much time to take this thing down as it does to subdue it.”

“It’s too fast,” Stephen said.

“And resilient,” Becker said. “Direct hits, and it’s not showing signs of any real injury.”

“More reason to subdue it,” Nick said. He looked to Abby. “What about tranquilizers?”

“We’d need a massive dose,” Abby said. “And even then, it’s impossible to determine the effective on its physiology.”

“We could do more harm that way,” Nick said.

“Or we could just make it mad,” Stephen said. “It’s not safe.”

“And this is?” Nick countered. “We need a plan--”

“And we have a plan,” Stephen said definitively. “Get closer, find its weak spot and kill it.”

Nick let out a breath, shaking his head. He’d lectured Stephen time and time again. In fact, in the past, he’d always been frustrated by Stephen’s reticence to use lethal force. If anything, he’d been relieved when Stephen started favoring a gun again.

But this.

This wasn’t Stephen.

Stephen could be cold in his pragmatism, but he wasn’t unnecessarily cruel. He’d always harbored respect for creatures, even those that posed a risk to his life. The man had been their equivalent of a dinosaur whisperer, and he’d come to count on Stephen’s lethal restraint in contrast to the pressure from Becker and Special Forces to get the job done as fast as possible.

So what was so different about this? What about this call, about this creature, turned Nick’s best friend into a heartless killer?

“This isn’t normal, Stephen,” Nick said finally, with no other recourse.

“No,” Stephen agreed. “This isn’t normal. This creature isn’t normal.”

The shift in verbiage was subtle but noticeable. Nick furrowed his brow. “What makes you so set on killing it?

“You always tell me not to take unnecessary risks,” Stephen said.

“And you remind me that it’s not the creature’s fault,” Nick retorted.

The tense back and forth was too raw for company, but there was nothing to be done for it. Becker took up position at the tree line, providing sporadic cover fire for the forces across the way. Abby and Connor were left to stand awkwardly, watching the verbal volleys with blank, dumbfounded stares.

Stephen’s mouth quirked into a bitter smile. “It’s funny timing,” he said wryly. “To say I’m right.”

“You want to tell me I’m right instead?” Nick said.

Stephen clenched his teeth, steeling his jaw. “No,” he said. “I want to put an end to this. Now.”

“If you really think that’s the right thing,” Nick said, laying down the line. It wasn’t quite a bluff, but it was certainly a line in the sand he had to hope Stephen wouldn’t cross. He liked to think that Stephen respected him enough; that Stephen had learned enough to know when to step back and realize the faults of his own impetuousness.

He liked to think.

Too bad Nick couldn’t be right about everything.

“Good,” Stephen said, handing his rifle off to Connor before pulling a pair of knives from his belt. He stalked toward Becker at the treeline. “Then let’s do this.”

-o-

Ironically, that was when things finally got normal.

Without further discussion, Nick’s team fell seamlessly into place. Becker took a strong central stance, flanked on either side by Abby and Connor. As they laid down a strong array of cover fire, Stephen ducked through the trees, making his way toward the creature from another position.

The creature, for its part, turned toward the treeline, making several lunges but not getting close enough to warrant an actual threat. From his vantage point behind the line of fire, Nick got a good look at the creature for the first time.

It was remarkable. The body was lean, and its elongated snout sported nasty looking teeth. The eyes darted much like a dinosaur, but the glistening coat of black fur was something akin to a black bear. And watching it dart about, Cutter could almost see traces of other creatures as well. The agility of a bird. The power of a large cat. The intelligence of something more than all of those combined.

This creature was more than a mutation. It was an amalgamation of all the best characteristics found in nature, put into one body. Most notably, though it clearly had the strength and power to be a destructive force, it had yet to land one killing blow.

The things this creature could teach them, about science, about nature, about the future, about themselves.

It was nothing short of spectacular.

Nick was just coming to this conclusion as Stephen closed the final gap and threw himself at the creature, plunging his first knife into the back of its neck.

The creature howled, a deep, guttural noise that echoed off the trees with an intensity that shook Nick to the core. That cut hurt the thing, in a way that none of the other attacks had.

Face set like stone, Stephen showed no emotion as he pulled the knife back out, coated with blood. He plunged it in again, ripping it through the fur and even from a distance, Nick could see the tear in the flesh down to the bone.

At least, he could see it for a moment before the skin started to pull itself together, almost stitching before Nick’s very eyes.

Mutation was an understatement.

This creature was an evolutionary feat no matter how it came to be. With regenerative properties like that--

In pain, the creature seethed again, this time bucking with fresh vigor as it kicked its legs and jostled itself in an attempt to dislodge Stephen from its back.

Any other person would have let go.

Not Stephen, though.

Stephen held on with a feral ferocity, fists clenched so tight that Nick could see his bone-white knuckles even from the treeline. Becker and Connor were laying down additional cover fire, but it was far enough away to avoid risking a hit to Stephen. Most creatures wouldn’t know the difference and respond to the noise.

Not this one, though.

It thrashed, half flinging itself on its side as it gnashed its teeth, neck bent back in an attempt to reach Stephen.

For his part, Stephen shifted, using one hand to hold tight to a tuft of dark fur while he dug in the knife again, pulling it up the neck in a clean, deep slice.

Blood gushed, soaking the fur around Stephen’s fingers with such intensity that when the creature flings itself to the side again, Stephen’s grip slipped and he was thrown hard to the ground. He landed on his side, precariously sprawled beneath the creature as it stamped its feet and slashed at the air blindly. It was a miracle that Stephen wasn’t trampled, but he did catch a few blows, including a slash from one of the back claws while he was retreating fast on his belly.

Nick lurched forward in sudden fear, the possibility of losing Stephen again tingling down his spine. Connor caught him, though, just as Becker stepped out of the treeline and started to fire anew.

“You go out there, you’re going to be caught in the crossfire,” Connor said, raising his voice over the increased sound of gunfire.

“We can’t leave him out there!” Nick protested, watching as the creature ignored the gunfire and turned on Stephen.

“We’re not!” Abby said. “They’re closing in--”

“The bullets don’t hurt the damn thing,” Nick said. “Have you seen it’s wounds?”

Even now, he watched as the latest wound pulled itself together, leaving nothing but matted hair and drops of blood on the ground.

Still on his back, Stephen was down to one knife, and he was favoring one side even as he stared up at the creature, eyes locked and unyielding.

The idiot was having a staredown with a creature that probably couldn’t be killed and had every reason in the world to rip Stephen to shreds.

And Cutter was standing on the sidelines, watching.

This was one part of Stephen’s past he wasn’t going to relive.

He surged forward again. “We have to get out there!”

But even before he could break free, Stephen feinted, avoiding the creature as it snapped its jaws. Instead of rolling clear, however, Stephen rolled toward the creature.

Enraged, the creature twisted, catching Stephen once again with its claws. Stephen didn’t flinch, though, keeping his position underneath the creature as it tried to back up and take a fresh bite at Stephen.

It never got the chance.

Stephen thrust his knife up, connecting with the light underbelly of the creature. The first stab made the creature convulse, tensing up in agony as it flailed. Stephen couldn’t quite keep his grip, and the knife slipped out as he was caught on one of the feet, being dragged along with the creature while it danced in pain.

Nick cringed -- one more bad hit from the creature and Stephen wouldn’t be getting up again. He needed to get out there. He needed to--

His heart skipped a beat when Stephen thrust upward again, this time dragging the knife with obvious force through the skin. Using the fur to anchor him, Stephen plunged the knife all the way in until his hand all but disappeared, face contorted in concentration as he held fast and pulled.

The skin flayed, splitting wide as blood poured out. The creature writhed, its high pitched cry so intense now that Nick almost had to cover his ears. The keening built to a pitch while Stephen jerked the knife one more time and something slimy slid out.

The cry stopped suddenly short and the creature listed badly. Its knees buckled, and its body wobbled, teetering to the side while Stephen struggled to extricate his hand from the body mass. When the creature finally fell, Stephen flopped free, lying on his back, covered in blood.

The creature didn’t move.

After several long moments, Stephen sat up. He looked critically at his knife, wiping the gore off on his already ruined pants. It was a macabre image, the creature eviscerated and Stephen so drenched with blood that he looked like an axe-murderer in a very literal sense.

Finally, Stephen got stiffly to his feet, face tight as he looked at Cutter.

“There,” he called out across the clearing, voice almost devoid of emotion. “That’s how we do it.”

A successful anomaly call; a creature subdued; everyone going home in one piece.

That was how they did it.

But Nick couldn’t shake the feeling of just how wrong this was.

-o-

This time, it was Stephen getting stitched up.

He took it about as well as Nick had.

While the team had loitered for a bit, once it was clear Stephen was going to be fine, they seemed to disperse. Becker talked about debriefing with Special Forces. Abby and Connor wanted to monitor the clean up and ensure that the creature’s remains were treated correctly. Claudia didn’t need a reason. She knew without asking that Nick wanted some privacy.

Even the damn medic looked relieved when Stephen’s wounds were stitched and bandaged, telling the younger man to check in with the doctor along with Nick.

They were both bloody idiots, as it turned out.

Only Nick was at least exhausted enough to talk about it.

“So,” Nick said, rubbing his palms on his thighs as he leaned on a crate. “You want to tell me what that was about?”

Stephen shrugged, having the audacity to look nonplussed. “We contained the threat.”

Nick laughed. “Oh, is that what that was?”

“It was a clear and present threat,” Stephen said. “You saw that thing. With its regenerative properties--”

“With its regenerative properties, it probably would have been safer to capture the thing,” Nick said. “It’s clearly benefitting from numerous mutations--”

Stephen’s face scrunched up. “--which probably would have made it impossible to catch,” he said. “With regenerative capabilities, you think any drug concoction we know would have subdued it? And you think it would have let us get close enough to put a lasso around its neck?”

“Well, you certainly didn’t have a problem getting close enough to slaughter the thing,” Nick said, getting to his feet now and ignoring the pain in his leg.

Stephen got to his feet as well, face turning furiously red. “I did what I had to do.”

“You did what you wanted to do from the beginning,” Nick said, refusing to back down. “You wanted to kill that thing the moment you saw it. And nothing was going to stop you. So, I’ll ask it again, what the hell was that really about?”

Fuming, Stephen’s brows were furrowed tight. “I did what needed to be done,” he said, words taut and venomous.

“Oh really?” Nick asked. “Because I saw you out there. I saw you ignore reason and logic; I saw you go after a creature that was displaying defensive behavior without even considering alternatives that might have kept you from harm and spared the creature. I saw you act stubborn and stupid. I saw you be the man you were a year ago, as if nothing had changed since I first found you in the past where Helen left you to die.”

It was a low blow, and Nick knew it. It was going after one of Stephen’s most pronounced weaknesses, the one thing he’d still yet to really face since Nick found him. It was at the heart of the issue, though.

And damn it all if Nick didn’t want to get the truth out of Stephen without any more bloodshed.

Stephen’s eyes were bright, but he held his ground. “Are you trying to insult me, then?”

“No,” Nick said. “I’m trying to figure out what the hell is wrong with you because you’re my friend, and you scared me out there.”

That was the right turn, and Nick knew that, too. Stephen’s face shifted, and he turned away before he could show any real emotion. Still, his shoulders slumped just enough for Nick to know he’d hit a nerve.

Stepping closer, Nick lowered his voice. “What’s really going on?” he asked. “This isn’t a normal anomaly call, is it?”

Stephen shrugged one shoulder, almost reluctantly. There was a long moment of silence before Stephen finally muttered, “It didn’t belong here.”

Nick circled around, careful not to corner Stephen or stand in his blind spot. “So we send it back,” he said. “Just like we always do.”

Stephen drew a breath, shaking his head as he finally looked at Nick again. “It didn’t belong there either.”

Nick frowned. “But--”

“It didn’t belong anywhere, Cutter,” Stephen said, the words rushing out now. “You said it yourself. It was a mutation. An aberration. A scientific mistake that Helen probably created for her own purposes. It was better off dead.”

Nick blinked, surprised by the deluge of words. The reasoning was stark, but not out of the realm of normal for Stephen. Especially since Nick was pretty sure the younger man wasn’t talking about the creature. Not with that vitriol. Not with that amount of self loathing written so plainly on his face. “Stephen,” he said. “You can’t possibly think that--”

“I can’t?” Stephen asked.

Nick let out a breath. “After a year,” he said, almost in disbelief. “You really think you don’t belong?”

This time, Stephen couldn’t quite hide the emotion. “I’m different,” he said. “I don’t fit here, and I didn’t fit back there. Life has evolved without me, and now I don’t belong anywhere.”

“Stephen,” Nick said, downright incredulous now. “This is your life. You do belong here.”

“I’m just like one of Helen’s experiments,” Stephen said. “People look at me, and maybe they’re scared or maybe they’re amused. They could even be impressed. But they all know it when they look at me. They all know that I’m different, even now. Even after all this time. One look is all it takes.”

“Different isn’t all bad though,” Nick said.

“And it’s not all good,” Stephen countered.

It was something to consider. What it was like to be a man out of time, a creature without its natural habitat. When Helen took Stephen to the past and left him there, she did create a new man -- a different man. The change was palpable and even after a year, Stephen was right -- it was still there. At this point, it was impossible to say how much was inherently Stephen and how much was the effect of a decade of isolation in nonstop survival mode.

No matter how much Stephen adapted, that difference would remain. He couldn’t erase that part of him, just like he couldn’t change his DNA.

“Stephen,” Nick said, even more gentle now. “We can’t change the past, and we can’t predict the future. We can only live where we are. Besides, mutation is never about the catalyst, but the effect. The reason we change is never as important as the thing we change into. It’s not about what we were, but what we can become.”

Stephen swallowed, eyes darting down. “Why do you think I killed that creature?” he asked, glancing up just a little. “Because it was terrified, Cutter. It didn’t know what was coming, and it didn’t want to find out. I was doing it a favor.”

“And that’s the same for you?” Nick asked.

Stephen shrugged again, even smaller this time. “It all still scares me sometimes,” he admitted. “Just when I think I know what’s coming, I realize that I still barely know what really happened to me. Helen changed me, in ways I can’t even articulate. I may never know, and I don’t always know what to do with that.”

Nick sighed, his anger drained entirely. “Let me tell you something,” he said. “The future? That’s anyone’s guess. None of us know where we’ll end up. None of us have a clue who we’ll become. We’re all just making it up as we go along.”

Looking down again, Stephen refused to acknowledge the sentiment.

“Besides,” Nick said, a little cajolingly now. “Mutation isn’t just made in a laboratory. It’s also nature’s natural response to environment changes. And things don’t just change once. Life, once in motion, changes as much as it has to in order to survive.”

Stephen glanced up at him, skeptical. “So you’re saying I am just like that creature.”

Nick did his best not to roll his eyes. “I’m saying you may have changed in the past, but you’re changing now, too.”

Stephen tilted his head, almost begrudgingly.

“And you’ll continue to change until you fit in with the rest of us,” Nick continued. “There’s hope for you, Stephen.”

He looked up again, uncertainly now. “You think so?”

“I know so,” Nick said emphatically. “There’s hope for all of us.”

After a moment, Nick shrugged.

“Assuming you don’t go around gutting every threat you see,” he added.

Stephen almost laughed. “I make no promises.”

Nick chuckled, clapping Stephen gently on the shoulder. “I’d expect no less.”

Things hadn’t gone as planned; they hadn’t walked away unscathed. But they were all walking away, together.

Which made this anomaly call just about as normal as any of the others.

Comments

Posted by: kristen_mara (kristen_mara)
Posted at: December 25th, 2014 06:22 am (UTC)
Team


Eeeeeek! Hopefully Feral won't keep taking such chances! Interesting comparisons between himself and the creature, and also Nick's musings about Feral and the clone. Nick has quite a life's project in Stephen!

I do miss Feral Fridays ;) Thank you!

(PS: Probably better put an M rating on it for the gore/violence)


Posted by: do i dare or do i dare? (faye_dartmouth)
Posted at: January 23rd, 2015 03:03 am (UTC)
feral stephen

I think Feral Stephen doesn't know how NOT to take chances, no matter how far he goes. I still hope to do another longer fic with these two, to suss out more of their issues :)

Anyway, I hope this was an okay gift for Christmas. I missed Feral and was out of other ideas!

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