TNP 25: Race to the Rendezvous

We stay underwater for several hours while the helicopters search over the island. Finally, the sounds of the rotors fade, and we see the dark shapes disappear out over the sea. Then we stumble out from under the dock, sopping wet and freezing cold.

“You think they’re gone?” Ball Buster says, teeth chattering.

“I think there be some Delta Force shits following close behind them to really look through this place,” Sue says, peeling off his shirt. Guy is seriously muscular.

Oh, that water was cold,” Sidewinder says, practically dancing.

“Oh, d-dear,” says, Heather, shivering all over. “Why didn’t I pack more clothes? I knew this was going to happen. H-hang on …”

            Then she takes off her shirt.

            I get just a flash of her bra before I’m turning around, my face red. I see Ball Buster next to me, also turned around, and beyond him Sue. Sidewinder I can’t see, but Destro’s looking up at the surrounding buildings in a very determined manner, and Mouse is staring out to sea.

            “Thanks guys, but it’s seriously okay,” Heather says, behind us. “Seems like running away from a secret government prison overshadows the whole modesty thing.”

            “Well, it’s just … you know,” says Ball Buster.

            “Man, you guys tripping,” Sue says, chuckling. “Getting all uncomfortable like this, after the shit we did with …?”

            He doesn’t say with Dolphin, but it’s sort of implied. It leaves an awkward silence.

            “It’s different,” Ball Buster says after a moment.

            “Different how?” asks Sue.

            “It just is!

            “What stuff?” Heather asks.

            “Nothing important,” I say.

            “I mean, yeah, Square gonna Square,” Sue says. “But suddenly you all prudish too, Ball brains?”

            “I notice you’re not looking either,” I say.

            He laughs but stops talking.

            “You guys can totally turn around now,” Heather says. “Thanks, but I’m all decent again. I just had to squeeze the water out.” We turn, and she’s looking at us with an odd smile. “Aren’t you all so chivalrous.” she says, giggling.

            Ball Buster flushes. “Square started it,” he says, elbowing me.

            “I’m not making fun.” Heather’s face clears. “It was very sweet.” Her shirt still looks damp, but it’s not absolutely dripping wet anymore. “Honestly, if the rest of you don’t want to catch pneumonia, you should probably also get out of your clothes.”

We find the package in the boathouse and bring it down to the beach. It’s … not what we were hoping for, but there is a note tacked to it.

You’ve done well to make it this far. Still, you didn’t honestly expect it to be that easy, did you? There’s no more gas for the boat, so you’ll have to make do with this survival raft and the electric motor. Meet with us on the Kamatchaka Peninsula at these coordinates. You have three days.

“Those …!” Ball Buster roars.

“We finally get here and they switch the goalposts on us?” Sidewinder says. “Square, you didn’t tell us these Templars were trolls.”

“They weren’t when I met them,” I say, studying the note. There’s a map on the back. “We don’t have to play their game. Doc Schaefer mentioned Marienburg—”

“Which is where, exactly?” Mouse is already ripping open the package. He looks up at me when I don’t answer. “That’s what I thought. We can complain when we catch up to these Templars,” he says, pulling out a plastic satchel. “Right now, we need to keep moving. Does anyone know what this?”

“Here.” Destro pulls on a random ripcord. There’s a fwhoom noise, and the life raft quickly inflates, right in front of us.

It’s bright pink.

“You have got to be fucking kidding me,” Sue says.

“Again, not a lot of options,” Mouse says, digging through the rest of the satchel. He pulls out a black metallic box. “This must be the motor. Any idea how to operate it?”

“Give it here.” Ball Buster holds his hands open wide, and Mouse tosses it to him. Bally starts to unfold bits of it out. “Fucking assholes. I swear, when we catch up to them …”

“How far away is Kamatchatka?” I look over at Heather, as Mouse and Sidewinder push the raft into the water.

“Maybe three days? I don’t know, Square. That’s farther out than I’ve ever been before. I mean, that’s Russia. Getting there really depends on the boat.”

“Bad news on that,” says Sidewinder pointing to the raft, bobbing in the ocean.

“What? Too slow?” I ask.

“No idea about the speed,” Sidewinder says. “But there’s no way this thing seats seven.”

We look at it, and it’s immediately apparent he’s right. The bright pink raft looks like a sturdier version of a river raft but not much larger. You could maybe fit six small people in it; for guys as big as us, it’s more like four.

“We could crowd—” Ball Buster starts to say.

“Size is only part of it,” says Heather. “The buoyancy won’t hold more than four of us, and that’s if we ditch all the gear. And there’s no fuel in the surrounding buildings for the other boat. Not enough, anyway. Mouse and I checked.”

“Why would they leave us with a raft that only seats four?” Ball Buster shouts.

“They weren’t expecting some of us to be here.” Sue sends a pointed look, but I can’t tell whether he’s looking at Heather or Destro.

“Or they’re just assholes,” Ball Buster says.

“Doesn’t make a difference either way,” Mouse says, climbing into the boat. “We need to decide which two of us are staying behind. Now.”

He says it so simply and so flatly that we all look at him, stunned. But he’s absolutely right, and there’s not a thing that can change it. 

“Isn’t it which three of us?” Ball Buster asks.

“No. Because one has to be Heather,” Mouse says. Again, the coldness takes us off guard. “She’s the only one of us not waiting on a death sentence. Should be easy to claim we kidnapped her. And Square, before you go all stupid noble again, one of the people in the boat has to be you, because you’re the only one who’s met with these Templar whackjobs.”

“I’m getting the feeling that counts for very little,” I say. “And we’re not leaving without Heather. How’re we even going to find Kamatchatka without her?”

“She just said she’s never been there,” Mouse says.

Heather starts to speak. “I—”

Mouse cuts her off. “This discussion isn’t worth having. Now, who’s staying?”

The guys are looking at each other. They’re spread out across the water in a loose circle. They look wary, with their hands at their sides, like gunslingers.

The only one who isn’t that wary is Destro. “I suppose I will stay also,” he says, sitting down with a smile. “I have no wish to press the issue.”

“Fine,” Mouse says. “That puts it down to Ball Buster, Sue, and Sidewinder.”

            “Draw straws?” Sidewinder suggests.

“Funny,” Ball Buster says. “Rock Paper Scissors?”

“I’m telling you right now,” Sue says softly. “I don’t care how it shakes out. I ain’t staying.”

The air feels pregnant with tension. The fight seems inevitable. Like a fact accomplished, something that’s already happened. I can barely even think.

But it also feels wrong, so I hold up my hand. “Wait, wait,” I say. My eyes roam over the island. “There might be something else we could try.”

Sometime later, we’re blasting across the ocean again in the military speedboat—‘we’ being me, Heather, Ball Buster, and Sidewinder. The others are a couple hours ahead of us, though we should catch up to them soon. The dark has long since fallen, and the stars are out again, but none of us are watching.

            “Thanks for this,” I say.

            “No problem,” Sidewinder grunts, his fingers pressed up against the box sitting on the deck. “Actually, sort of interesting to figure out a new way to use my powers. Call me Sidewinder the battery charger,” he says, grinning.

            “The Aleuts certainly left enough batteries behind,” I say, looking at the boxes stacked in the bow. “We’re lucky the boat has this emergency electric motor.”

            “Most don’t,” Heather says. “It must be a backup of some sort.”

            “Maybe the Templars intended us to find it,” I say. It doesn’t sound convincing, though, even to me. “Sidewinder, how many more can you charge up?

            “Maybe four or five,” he says, adjusting the glowing necklace around his chest. “Maybe more. Dunno. This Soulclasp thing is pretty amazing.”

            “With the boat and the batteries so light, we can make pretty good time,” Heather says. “Thanks, Bally.”

            Bally’s crouched by the gunwale. He waves good-naturedly, though his face is pale. “So long as it’s balanced. If anyone tries to pick up that pebble on the beach, they’re in for a surprise.”

            “You okay?” I ask.

“Yep. This is just the … Rot thing. I mean, it’s not fun, but I can tough it out.” He sighs. “Wishing right now I’d gotten one of those cards. It must be pretty far advanced with me.”

            “Right,” I say. He doesn’t look great, but I decide not to mention it. “Sidewinder, if you get tired, just say the word. We have enough gas to take over for a couple hours if we need to.” I turn to Heather. “Heather, you could have gone with the others. They’ve got room.”

            She looks uncomfortable. “I … just didn’t want to,” she says.

            Right. That. “Mouse didn’t mean anything by it,” I say. “He’s a survivor. That’s all.”

            She still looks uncomfortable. “He’s not wrong. I suppose I’m something of the disposable one, here.”

            “No one’s ‘disposable,’” I say.

We agree that I’ll man the boat half the night and Heather the second half. Bally, who’s looking better now that he has the Soulclasp back, offers to take a turn, but we tell him to rest.

            Still, he doesn’t fall asleep for nearly an hour.

“What do you think is up with these Templar idiots?” Bally asks.

             “I dunno. They seemed pretty on the level when I met them. Their leader was a bit weirdly obsessed with how much we’ve been mistreated. But they said they wanted to help.”

            “Funny way of helping,” Ball Buster says.

            He’s not wrong. I’m starting to wonder if they actually were watching the whole time. That flaming sword looks a lot like what I saw hovering over the camp those different times.  And there was the ring on the beach. I don’t know that it matters much: Doc was watching the whole time too. But it bothers me.

            And did they need to bomb the camp?

            Ball Buster seems to be thinking of something else. “Heather’s really something, isn’t she?”

            Something I hadn’t even known was inside me goes cold.

            “Yeah,” I say. “She’s pretty cool.”

            And that’s all we say If anything, I’d say after that, we’re even quieter, looking in completely opposite directions. We don’t say another word for half an hour.

            Bally finally rolls over to face the deck. “Goodnight Square,” he says.

            “Goodnight, Bally.”

            For as long as we’ve been roommates, we’ve never bothered to say “goodnight” before.

Heather takes over at around four in the morning, and I get up at eight. We have to switch out one of the batteries, but we finally catch up with the others. It’s just starting to dawn when we hear the helicopter again.

            “Shit.” Ball Buster looks at the sky. The sea’s speeding past us, but there’s miles of water on all sides. There’s nowhere to run.

            “We might be less visible if we cut the engine,” Sidewinder suggests.

            “Bit late for that.” Ball Buster points at a dot on the horizon. It’s getting larger—fast.

            “Evasive action!” I say.

            “It’s not going to do a lot.” Heather says. She’s already started weaving the boat back and forth.

            “They’ve got missiles on that thing!” I say. “They could blow us out of the—”

                 Bullets kick up the water on our left side, then on our right. I can see the boaters over on the pink raft having the same problem.

“Warning shots!” Destro calls over. “They’re not trying to hit us!”

            “Oh great, they’re all sensitive now,” Ball Buster snorts.

            “Escaped Inmates!” the voice echoes across the water. “Slow down and cut your engine! This is your only warning!”

            “Sidewinder,” I say, “any chance you can zap ‘em from this distance?”

            “They’re hanging back,” says Sidewinder, staring intently. “I can’t reach that far, I don’t think.”

            “Yeah?” I dig furiously in the bags by the gunwale. “What if you had something for the charge to bounce off of?”

            I find what I’m looking for. Pulling it out, I turn to show Sidewinder the samurai sword.

            Bullets kick up the water again, and I realize we don’t have time to be cool about this. Whipping around, I hurl the sword towards the helicopters—it flies straight out of my hand, like an arrow. They’re way too far for me to hit them. But of course, that’s not really the point.

            Sidewinder’s hands shoot out, lightning crackling from them, linking to the sword as it flies out over the water. The helicopters start to veer off, seeing the danger, but already it’s too late—electricity arcs from the flying sword and strikes first one helicopter, then the other, then the other.

            The helicopters don’t explode, exactly, but they do spiral downwards, crashing into the water. We’re already so far away, I don’t even see them sink.

            The guys on the next raft are whooping, hollering, and splashing water in our general direction. Ball Buster high-fives me.

Still, I feel uneasy. “They weren’t trying to kill us.”

            “Not yet,” Sidewinder says. “But they were on their way.”

            I look back. There’s a plume of orange smoke—not a fire; more like a signal. Looks like someone survived, at least.

            “We need to hurry,” I say. “They know where we’re headed.”

We keep going, outpacing the pink raft, but we’re using up batteries faster than Sidewinder can recharge them. And he’s looking pretty worn out.

“You notice that helicopter hasn’t been back?” Bally asks, as Heather and I mess around with the flood curtain.

             “I have. Maybe they got thrown off the scent,” I say. I’m not sure what’s the other alternative that I’m afraid of.

            “Focus, guys,” Heather says. “We don’t have extra materials for this. Now, melt the fabric together here.”

            I press my flaming knife to the rubber, and it comes away with a horrible smell, but with a noticeable loop in the rubber.

            “Okay,” she says. “Now we’re going to need those poles I asked you to bring from the village. Stick the long one in that stand in the middle—must be where they mount the machine gun. Wait! Loop the rubber through the top before you do.”

            “Why didn’t we do this sooner?” I ask, as I struggle to heave the beam upright.

            “Because there wasn’t enough wind before,” Heather says, helping me to guide the pole into the stand. “It would have just been a drag on the boat. Okay, let it drop!” The pole thuds into place on the stand. The flood curtain is flapping uselessly in the breeze.

            “All right!” Heather runs to grab the other pole. “Okay. Now hold this here … let me fix it in place. Okay. That should work … take the other end … careful! Don’t let it tear! Just loop it around the end, and … good work!” Heather steps back, beaming.

            We all stare. “A sailboat,” I say in disbelief. “Dang.”

            “You seriously say ‘dang’?” Ball Buster says to me.

            Heather soon shuts us up. “It’s not done. Grab that rope. We need to tie it in place.”

The next two days pass without incident. Sidewinder takes over whenever the wind flags. Heather checks her weather monitor and directs us where to steer. Ball Buster hangs onto the Soulclasp and does his best to rest. We hit just a light drizzle of rain. At one point, we see a killer whale surface alongside us. Aside from that, the voyage is pretty boring.

            When we finally come in at Kamachatka Peninsula, we find not the Templars, but another note, at the mouth of a river.

            “Thought you might be hungry. Here’s some food. Head southwest and meet us at the bay,” Sue reads. “Are they fucking serious?”

            “Again, we don’t really have a choice,” Mouse says, grabbing the paper out of his hands. “If someone’d told us they’d give us an escape boat and a chance to disappear, and all we’d have to do was take the boat all the way to Kamachatka, we’d have jumped at it. These guys just didn’t give us the full story at once.”

            “Yeah! And guys who don’t give me the full story piss me off!” Sue says. “Makes me wonder what else they’re not giving us.”

            “Can’t disagree,” Mouse mutters. “Still, as I say, doesn’t change the facts.”

            “What do we even need them assholes for, anymore?” Sue asks. “We in Russia, right? Let’s just find us a village or some shit where we can get some plane tickets.”

            “We’re in the middle of freaking Siberia, man,” says Ball Buster. “In winter. In Russia. If we don’t die from the cold, we’re probably going to end up locked up in some Cold War testing camp.”

“Kamachatka isn’t Siberia,” Sidewinder says. “It’s…”

“Do I look like I give a shit?” Ball Buster says, glaring at him. “All this is leaving aside the fact that we’re dying and need someone to tell us how to not do that.”

            “So we need to get hiking,” I say, looking inland. Kamachatka looks to be very hilly, with a healthy abundance of trees. Very green, too. “Hey. If it’s winter, how’s there so little snow?”

            “Oh,” says Heather. “There are hot springs and stuff here. Kamachatka is technically a string of volcanoes.”


            “Well, I guess we should get moving,” I say.

“Southwest” sounds detailed enough, but it’s really not. Heather looks at the map they gave us earlier and pinpoints the spot she thinks they’re talking about, but it’s guesswork. Still, guesswork has served us pretty well so far.

            We walk through the night. If we were ordinary hikers, we’d probably want to consider paths, passes, easy ways through the rocky bluffs and tall forests. Instead, we basically blunder on through by pure force, wandering haphazardly across the woods, shoving boulders out of the way. When we discover we’ve gone the wrong way and we’re up against a ten-foot stone face, we just jump up to the top and keep walking. It’s a vaguely … intoxicating feeling: to know that there’s not much in your way that can stop you.

            Of course, we still run out of breath awfully quick. Even Ball Buster with the Soulclasp isn’t doing so great.

            “How … much … time … do we have … off the rendezvous …?” Sue gasps, as we crowd, hunched over in a circle, around a river.

            “A …bout … two hours,” I say, checking my watch. “Hea … ther … how close … would you say … we are?”

            “I keep telling you guys, I’ve never been here before.” Heather has been riding on Ball Buster’s back for most of the rougher sections, so she’s practically the only one who hasn’t gotten exhausted. “But I think we’re close.” She tilts her head. “You hear that? Waves, crashing. We’re near the sea.”

            Ball Buster stoops to the ground. His fingers splay out against the grass, and he closes his eyes. Then he opens them. “A mile or so off,”  he says, pushing himself slowly to his feet. “Straight down this river. I can’t get a lot of detail that far out, but there’s a bunch of shapes gathered around a narrow cape, and more around the river. That’s got to be it.”

            The rest of us spring up with renewed vigor and start jogging along the river. It’s a pretty good-sized river. You can even see some good-sized fish in it, swimming upstream. It’s surrounded by seven-foot stone bluffs, but there’s enough gravel on either side for us to run comfortably.

            Then Ball Buster stops. Like, he draws up short, so that I run into the back of him. And when I shove him out of the way, I see what made him stop.

            It’s not just one Russian bear. It’s seven or eight of them. With cubs. Gathered around the river, swatting at the fish (salmon, I guess) swimming up the river.

            “Fuck us sideways,” Bally says. “I guess those are the things I sensed by the river.”

“Oh… wow.”  Mouse says.  “That is… that…. what even are those?  Some sort of dog?”

            “Does that look like a fucking dog?”  Sue says. 

            “I don’t know… sort of? Nothing like I ever saw in the city.”

            Destro, next to me, looks like a kid with a birthday present, staring at the scene with utter glee. I really don’t get that guy.

            “Okay, okay.” Sidewinder raises his hands. “It’s no big deal. This is just like when we ran into that hot spring. We just jump on the rocks above and walk past. But move. We don’t have much time.”

            One at a time, we jump up onto the bluffs to head past. Sidewinder, me, Sue, Destro, Mouse, and lastly Ball Buster, with Heather clinging to his back.

            Maybe it’s the extra weight. Maybe it’s because he’s tired, or nervous because of the bears, or careless because we’re almost in. Maybe it’s simply an accident.

            But when Bally comes down on the bluff, his foot lands wrong on the stone and he trips, stumbles, and falls off the bluff, with Heather still clinging to his back.

            The red Soulclasp goes flying. Bally falls, hits—almost bounces off—the rocks. He’s clearly doing his best to shield Heather, but there’s only so much he can do. He slides down the gravel slopes and slams straight into one of the mama bears. She whirls around with a sharp claw, knocking Bally down. He and Heather collapse on the shore as the bears close in.

            I wish I could say my feet think on their own, that I jump without a thought for the danger. But actually, I’m rooted stock still for a moment, trying to absorb it all. Then there’s a single horrible insight that those are huge freaking bears down there, and they’re going to rip them to shreds. I should do something, but oh God, those teeth …

            you took out a crazed gunman with nothing but your fist Chad you asshole now move, move, move…!

            I jump off the cliff. The ground rushes up at me, and I land right between the bears and Heather, swords flaming to life.

Huh. Back to machetes again. Ace.

            It feels so incredibly bizarre, and for a moment I could be on a gravel road in Pittsburgh. The huge furry creature immediately in front of me doesn’t feel real, even when its head snaps up with alarming swiftness and the fire comes on in its eyes. The lead mama bear rumbles forward and holy shit, she’s moving milky smooth …

            The bear swipes at me. I almost take a claw in the side, she’s moving so quickly. It feels, bizarrely, a bit like the game again: laser swords against the dragon. But there’s no martial arts here, no bob-and-weave. Just pure savagery. Even as I deflect the paw, her right is slashing at me, trying to crush me in between the two, and holy shit that’s her mouth.

            I flip back just in time. Her jaws snap inches from my face. I can hardly see anything but teeth, and already they’re open again, snarling, snapping at me. I backpedal furiously, hoping to get my bearings (heh), but she’s charging after me. There’s no chance to reorient myself.

            Ball Buster and Heather are behind me. I can’t keep retreating.

            I lunge forward, under the bear’s claw, and shove the machetes up into her skull. A horrific smell is in the air, but there’s another bear on my left and oh

            I fly backwards, slam into the back bluff with all the force of a bear’s claw. Five searing lines are burning in my chest, and I can see the angry eyes of the bears coming closer.

            I push against the wall and launch outwards, straight at the bear on the right, but she dodges away with speed beyond her size and slashes me across the back. I roll over. She’s there, practically all jaws and teeth, and my machete flashes across her face. She recoils, howling (roaring? Moaning? Grunting? I’ve never heard a bear make a noise like that before.)

            I hear a thudas someone lands behind me in the stream. Sue. “C’mon, you hairy-ass bastards!” he screams. He starts to attack the bear behind me (shit, I didn’t even notice that one) with the log he’s got in his hand.

            My bear is back, and it’s pissed. And her two cubs, about the size of two Rottweilers, have decided to get in on the action, coming in at me from the left. I duck the first strike and slash the left cub across the throat. The mother roars and charges straight into me like a locomotive.

            Pain. Can’t breathe. She’s got me down in the water. Holy shit, she’s standing on me, snarling downwards. Her furious muzzle is even more horrific distorted through the water. My arms are trapped, but I curl up my legs and kick, with both feet, as hard as I can.

            Mama Bear No. 2 goes flying upwards and back, her face almost comical, slamming into the bluffs with a wet-sounding thudbefore slumping to the ground like a furry bean bag chair.

            The other cub runs at me, snarling, and I stab it through the chest. I’m sorry, Paw Patrol fans, but those things are solid muscle and freaking terrifying. Sizzling blood comes out as I rip my swords back, carrying chunks of burnt intestine. The cub staggers, bats at me feebly a few times, then collapses into the water.

I take a second to look around. Destro’s in the water. Sidewinder’s in the water, wielding his electric staff with (I hope) great care and precision. Mouse, armed with only a tent pole, screaming in terror, is trying to fend off a furry attacker on the far left. I see two other furry corpses in the water.

Holy shit. We’re actually doing this. And then, I think, of course we are. We’re the goddamn Nephilim.

            I shake my head to get the water completely clear, determined not to waste this chance. Mouse’s bear is completely turned away from me—one wide, hairy, defenseless mass of flesh. I crouch, summon up the full machete length of my swords, and leap high in the air, whipping down both swords in a stabbing motion.

            The swords sink deep with a sickening crackle, filling the air with the smell of burning flesh and hair as the she bear rears back, roaring. I hold on for dear life. I don’t trust where I might end up if she shakes me loose. The only thing I can hear is roaring. Something’s slashing at my left side with a claw-shaped meat hook. No … they’re pulling me. I’m losing my grip …

            I’m flying through the air before I know what’s happening until a hard cliff wall knocks the wind out of me. I tumble down into the water, but I catch myself in time to stand up. Mama Bear is coming for me, yarling and snapping, but also clearly with a wobble to her gait—she’s in pain.

            Mouse jumps off the rock, still screaming, and stabs the tent pole at her. It bends in the middle and breaks off, causing him to face-plant on the bear’s hairy back. He manages to hang onto the pole and stabs the bear in the back of the neck. Then again. Then again. And again. He’s just screaming hysterically as he stabs the jagged end of the tentpole into the bear’s neck.

            Sue and Sidewinder are taking on one bear together. Destro looks like he’s leading his bear further away, down the stream. And the last bear … shit!

The last bear’s nearly on top of Heather, leaning over her, jaws bared. I’m running, running, but there’s no way to get there in time.

An apple-sized rock knocks against the bear’s ear. Ball Buster’s only halfway up, deathly pale, but he’s throwing anything he can get his hands on at the bear—rocks, twigs, pebble, dirt. The bear roars and turns on him.

It’s all the time I need. Swords flame to life in my hands.

            I feel a sharp pain in my chest.

            I trip over my own feet and collapse into the river only two feet from the bear’s claws. Gotta get up … gotta … I’m gasping, choking. My rib cage feels like it’s about to explode apart. It can’t matter. It can’t. I can’t let the limit stop me now.

I stumble halfway upright, but the bear swipes at me, knocking me breathless to the river. Water’s swirling in my hair. I hear the roar overhead—too close too close: roll over—and see a grotesque blur of snout and teeth. My hands fly up and grab the bear’s massive head. Limit or not, I still have my strength. The bear claws at my arms, shredding skin and flesh. I didn’t know you could feel pain this deep.

            And then, a rock smashes through the bear’s head, right in front of me. I get just a blurry impression of the stone cracking through the bone on one side, the explosion of blood and brains on the other, but I feel the bear’s muscles slacken instantly. The bear slumps forward and collapses on top of me.

            Sidewinder hauls the giant carcass off of me. “Dude, that was amazing!” he says, helping me up. “Ooh. You’re bleeding … like … a lot, man.”

            “Thanks,” I say. Honestly, I feel a little faint, which I’m guessing is not good if you’ve lost a lot of blood.

            Sue’s practically dancing on the water. “Fuck yeah! Don’t mess with the neff, bitches! Mighty men of valor, right here! Mm! Up yours!”

“Holy shit, are these things all over America?”  Mouse is looking over the body.  “It’s like a giant hairy… ogre-thing!  How do you guys live?”

            “Yo, man, we in Russia, not America. And what the shit you talking about anyway?”  Sue looks at him.  “Don’t you got bears in Turkey?”

            “Not in Ankara we didn’t!” Mouse shakes his head.  “This place is insane.”

            I sit up to look at Ballbuster. He’s slumped against the rock wall, breathing hard. Heather’s hanging onto him, sobbing. With relief, I guess?

            “Is she okay?” I ask him.

            “Think so.” He holds her out a bit. “You okay, Heather?”

            “Aaah!” Heather shudders. “Oh, I thought we were …” Her breath is coming in great gulps, like she’s still crying. “I thought there was … you almost …” She punches him “Never do that to me again, you moron!” She grabs onto him and hugs him close.

            “I … think … she’s fine,” Ball Buster says, patting her on the back.

            “Thanks,” I say. “For the save. I thought she had me.”

            “Yo, she did, man. She fucked you up bad,” Sue says.

            There are nine bear corpses in the water. The cubs, apart from the ones I killed, are nosing around their mothers’ bodies.

            “You rule, man.” Sue gives me another swat on the back.

            “Anyone see where that Soulclasp thing got off to?” asks Mouse, hunting by the rocks.

            “We don’t have time,” Destro says, looking over. “We need to go.”

“Right.” Ball Buster hauls himself to his feet, pushing against the rock. “This whole shit is going to be worthless if we don’t catch up with those assholes.” He takes a step and almost falls over.

“H-here,” Heather says, wiping her face. “Lean on me.”

“I’m like twice your size.”

“So lean on me carefully. Just don’t put all your weight down on me.”

“You sure you’re okay?” Bally asks.

“Am I okay? I just needed a quick cry. I’m fine.”

            We all hurry down the river. As quick as we can, anyway—I’m bleeding from just about everywhere, and most of the other guys got one or another thing busted in the fight. But we can hear the ocean, just around the bend. We’re almost there.  

            We turn the bend of the river, all together, and see the bay. High cliffs surround a plain of gravel bleached white, all framing the bright blue sea stretching to the horizon.

We also see Coach, sitting on a rock by the bay, with a rocket launcher in her lap.

            “Hello boys,” she says.

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