March Writing Contest
Each month we hold a writing contest for our members, by our members. Writers are given parameters, such as a word count and/or a prompt. Entries are judged and discussed blindly. For March, submitters had up to 5,000 words to write a story with a morally ambiguous hero.
Rescued in the Nick of Time by Chris Vannes
Lucy’s first screams ring through the Cretaceous swamp just as the QT pod opens its doors.
He should call her Dr. Oliver. They aren’t on a first-name basis, not yet.
Stepping down from the pod is like walking into a moist, warm blanket. Ice crystals hiss and skitter down the sides of the egg-shaped device, sublimating directly into steam at the sudden change of environment. It’s like a crazy mashup of Portal, Destiny, and Horizon: Zero Dawn, only uncomfortable and too bright. But the oxygen-rich air filling his lungs is real, the shotgun reassuringly solid in his hands. Round in the chamber, check. Spare shells in the belt, check. Remote wrist unit linked to the QT, check.
The brutal afternoon sun hangs low over a floodplain that will one day be part of the Carolinas. To his left, a wide and sluggish brown river meandering through the rich alluvial soil. To his right, a narrow strip of open land bordered by a stand of magnolia trees. Virginianthus caly-something-or-other. The breeze carries heavy perfume and thick clouds of pollen from their crimson flowers. Fun fact: bees don’t exist yet, so the newly-evolved angiosperms rely on the wind for reproduction. The trees themselves are bisexual. Which sounds kind of lonely if you think about it.
His brand-new tactical boots make squelch noises in the damp earth as he jogs along the riverbank. Heart rate stable; he could maintain this pace for an hour. Before long, another scream. She sounds less panicked and more furious this time. That’s his Lucy. Brilliant, beautiful, and fierce.
There’s the game trail. Follow it inland, up the slope. Careful of those serrated ferns, they’re wickedly sharp and toxic. Don’t twist an ankle on the roots here.
Under the trees now. The family of hadrosaurs grazing nearby looks up, startled, watercress hanging half-chewed from their bovine mouths. He’s not big enough to be much of a threat, but he’s moving fast. They honk angrily through their bony crests and lumber away— perfect. All that rumbling and splashing will mask his own footsteps.
Westward along the ridge crest. There she is, backed up against a massive tree-trunk on the slope just below him. She holds a makeshift spear — really just a sharpened stick — in both hands, waving it erratically at the pair of human-sized theropods before her.
The menacing Deinonychus would comically resemble Hollywood nightmare lizards, if not for their iridescent blue and green feathers. Powerful hind-legs, meter-long feathered tails balancing a narrow ribcage, cruel-looking forelimbs. Heads the size of footballs. Footballs with gleaming teeth.
Lucy is cursing steadily, language to make a footballer blush. Her red hair is a wild halo, her Quantum Industries Mission One jumpsuit slashed and stained. She is radiant. Magnificent.
And completely unaware of the third Deinonychus on the ridge directly above her.
Clearly, she is in dire need of a hero.
He skids to a stop ten meters from the overgrown lizard. Shotgun firm against the shoulder; lean into it. The creature whips its head around at the sound of his approach. Squeeze the trigger.
The hollow boom of the shotgun merges with a wet crack as the explosive round splits the creature nearly in half. The mangled carcass falls from the ridge and tumbles the ten meters down the slope, to land dramatically between Lucy and the remaining pair of predators.
He half-slides, half-runs after it, lands in a crouch next to her with the shotgun ready. The nearer of the pair hisses at him, razor-lined jaws gaping wide enough to swallow his arm. It swallows another shell instead, disintegrates in a red mist of theropod residue.
Lucy has barely had time to register his arrival. The remaining Deinonychus, unexpectedly, leaps towards him. He swings around, gets off a shot. The impact of the slug knocks the creature from its feet, but he was too close; the explosive round didn’t go off. The creature thrashes and keens, sending feathers and mud flying.
What to do? He didn’t plan for this, but he can’t wait for it to get back up. He drops the shotgun and grabs the spear from Lucy’s unresisting hands. Crossing the clearing in a bound, he raises the weapon overhead in arms corded with muscle. The descending shaft pierces the beast and pins it to the ground, killing it instantly.
The grove falls silent, except for the ringing in his ears. He turns to her. “Are you alright, Dr. Oliver?”
Her eyes are far away, her hands shaking. “Oh my god oh my god oh my god. They were going to eat me. I tried to run but they were too fast. So fast…”
Two quick strides bring him to her side. He reaches out, tentatively. She doesn’t resist, so he folds her into his arms and just holds her until the shivering stops.
Gently, “Dr. Oliver, we should get going.”
She steps back, absently tucks a strand of hair behind one ear, focuses on him for the first time. “I don’t know how to say thank you, but you can start by calling me Lucy.”
He feels a foolish grin on his own face. “My pleasure. Call me Nick.”
She peers at him more closely. “Oh my god — Nikhil? You work in my lab. I didn’t even recognize you!” Looking him up and down. “When did you get so, uh, strong? And where did you learn to use a gun like that?”
“I’ve, um, been hitting the gym a lot the last six months or so. And learning about self-defense. You never know when it could come in handy.”
“About five minutes ago is when, apparently. If you hadn’t showed up just when you did…”
“So you might even say…I arrived just in the ‘Nick’ of time?”
It isn’t that funny. But it releases the floodgates. Both of them, doubled over, laughing hysterically. By the time it stops they are shoulder-to-shoulder, seated against the magnolia trunk, heedless of the mud.
He wipes the tears from his face, stands abruptly, retrieves the gun. “Come on. I want to show you something. On the way, you can tell me how the world-famous Dr. Lucy Oliver got stranded in the Cretaceous on mankind’s first ever time-travel demonstration trip.”
Her hand, slender and strong, lingers in his for a moment after she rises. “Well, I hope it’s a short walk, because there’s not much to tell. Other than that I am going to kick Travis’ pasty white tech-billionaire ass from Austin all the way to the Mexico border when I get back. Everything seemed fine. Alain was taking vegetation samples. Trav was recording a selfie video, of course.”
He guides her along the ridge, heading further west.
“I followed some tracks of what I hoped was a Struthiomimus into the trees. Next thing I knew, alarms were going off and everyone was yelling. But by the time I got to the arrival zone, the pod was gone.”
Shaking her head. “Spending the night out here was terrifying. Apparently I prefer my specimens well and truly fossilized. But then those Deino’s caught my scent. I don’t know what I would have done—oh, wow.“
Emerging onto a rocky outcrop, the panorama is breathtaking. The river is a serpent of orange fire in the evening light, framed to north and south by the dark masses of low hills. The sun settles behind the looming mountains; gradually, and then all at once. He takes her hand again as the last sliver drops below the horizon.
“See, the Cretaceous isn’t all bad. But we should get back to the pod.”
“That was beautiful. Nick — I don’t know what to say. If you hadn’t showed up when you did...“
“You would have been fine. You’re amazing.”
Lucy rolls her eyes at this but doesn’t draw away. “You’re pretty impressive yourself.”
She is nearly his height. All he has to do is lean in. Their lips brush, so lightly. He trembles.
Her hand on his chest. She takes a half-step back. “I’m sorry, I’m just a little overwhelmed.”
“There’s nothing to be sorry for.”
Her gaze is distant again. Then, suddenly, “Oh god, I didn’t ask about the others. Are they OK? Alain and Indira and Travis? Did they make it back?”
“They’re fine. Well, technically they won’t be born for another 140 million years. But they’re fine, um, then.”
This prompts another bout of hysterical laughter. She wipes her eyes. “I guess we should be getting back to them.”
“There’s no hurry. Think about it. We have a time machine, we have all the time in the world. We could go not just anywhere but anywhen. Want to meet Cleopatra, or the Buddha? We could see Shakespeare at the Globe! And there’s this little beach I found in the Caribbean. Thirty thousand BC, no people, no predators, just palm trees and sunshine and all the fish you can eat, cooked over a campfire.”
“That sounds amazing.”
He offers his hand. “Great, let’s go.”
“Nikhil — Nick — wait. I’ve had a very long day. I spent the night in a Cretaceous swamp and almost got eaten by actual dinosaurs. I honestly just want to go home. See my cat, watch some stupid cooking show on TV, make sure Travis is really OK.”
“How could you possibly want that, when we have billions of years to explore? Together.”
“C’mon Nick, I’m serious. Let’s go home.”
“NO!” He says it too loud. Takes a step back. Deep breath.
Something new in her eyes. “Why not?”
“Because that’s not the plan!”
“What are you talking about?”
He can’t look at her. But he tells her anyway, just to be able to say it out loud. “Because you haven’t kissed me yet, not for real. You never kiss me for real.”
“Never? Uh, Nick, you’re freaking me out here. We’ve barely exchanged three sentences before today. You’re a postdoc in my lab. Why would I—“
“How can someone so brilliant be so dumb? If you would trust me, just once, enough to kiss me for real, you’d know. Know how much I love you. How much I adore you. I’ve traveled 140 million years to reach you, keep you safe.”
“And I do really appreciate it, trust me. But I still don’t…”
Another deep breath. Finally meeting her eyes. “This is the eighty-seventh time I’ve come back for you. Risking my own life, every time. To be your hero.”
“Eighty-seven times? What does that even mean?”
“In the QT pod. I mean, the first twenty times I nearly died. For real. Like, game over. So I spent a year working out, getting stronger, getting comfortable with the shotgun. Then some reconnaissance runs. After that I had to figure out exactly the right time to arrive, and what order to kill the Deinonychus in. The last fifteen runs have just been detail tuning, getting it perfect. And it is! It’s the perfect rescue, right up until the point…right up to the point where you kiss me and realize it’s meant to be.“
He chokes back a sob, wipes his nose with the back of one hand. “Or you’re supposed to, anyway. I did everything right. To be your hero.”
There is a long silence. Lucy sags against a magnolia trunk, face hidden behind her tangled hair. When she speaks again her voice is smaller, sadder.
“Nikhil, this is crazy! This is real, not some video game. Why would you— how could you— even if that were true, even if it were possible, why would you tell me…”
She trails off as she realizes. She’s probably not even surprised at the sound of the shotgun chambering a shell.
He scowls. “You’re right, I shouldn’t have told you. But this iteration is trashed already. And you won’t remember it either way.”
She runs, of course, but she doesn’t get far. The report from the gun thunders across the river. A dozen crow-sized pterosaurs startle from the trees and flap downstream in a loose vee. He watches until they are lost in the gathering twilight.
Back into the QT. He’s always so hungry after these iterations. He should stop somewhen he can get a decent cheeseburger, and maybe some whiskey to help him sleep. She’ll be waiting for him again tomorrow. Maybe push the rescue another thirty seconds later this time, for dramatic effect. There’s plenty of time to get it perfect.
All the time in the world.