"The sun wobbles," Jensen told Cougar, who nodded and trickled cold, sweet water into Jensen's mouth for him to sip.
"Uh huh," Cougar said.
Jensen swallowed, then said, "It does! It's not right. It goes round and round."
Cougar patted his forehead.
"Sure. Do you hurt?"
Jensen hurt. Pain was nibbling away at him, tiny mind hamsters with razor sharp teeth, grinding at his nerves.
Head. Arm. Ribs.
Another pat from Cougar.
Cougar put a sliver of something bitter in Jensen's mouth, and Jensen chewed it, then drank the water Cougar offered.
"You're naked," Jensen told Cougar. "Where's your hat?!"
Cougar glanced down at himself, and nodded. "I am. You are too. Hat is in the lake."
Whatever Jensen was lying on cracked and rustled underneath his bare ass. Yep, he was naked as well. If Jensen lifted his head slightly—ow—he could see through the forest clearing and across a wild, open river valley, to distant snow-topped hills. No lake, though.
"No more questions," Cougar said. "I'll be back with food."
Jensen watched Cougar, buck naked, heft a sharpened stick on to his shoulder and walk out of the clearing through the trees.
"The others will not believe me," Jensen told the trees. "No fucking way."
The trees nodded their agreement.
The cold woke Jensen, creeping and snipping at his skin. When Jensen lifted his head to look across the clearing to the valley, the sun was hidden by low, gray cloud and angels were falling from the sky. Beautiful gleaming angels.
Cougar crouched down beside Jensen, and said, "Hey?"
"Angels," Jensen said. "Made of neon."
"Oh, you're tripping balls, man," Cougar said. "No more mushroom for you."
Cougar had ducks. Dead ducks. In a pile in the clearing.
"Where did you get them?" Jensen asked.
"Found them," Cougar said. "For dinner."
Jensen stayed where he was, buried under leaves and twigs, and watched Cougar gut and pluck the ducks using hands and a stick. Snow fell gently in the open valley, the occasional flake making its way through the trees overhead to land in the clearing. Jensen's head felt fuzzy, and when he touched his scalp, his hair was matted and sticky over a huge bump.
"Concussion," Cougar said, looking up from where he was chipping stones together. Cougar looked worried.
"What happened?" Jensen asked.
"You fell," Cougar said, leaning forward to blow on the stones. Moments later, something crackled, and Jensen caught a whiff of wood smoke in the clearing.
Cougar stayed hunched over the fire, feeding it twigs and scraps of leaves, and Jensen tried to think what other questions he should ask.
"Where are we?"
"Don't know," Cougar said, not looking up from the fire he was growing. "Hope Finland, not Russia. Long way north."
Jensen hoped they weren't in Russia as well.
Well, that explained why the sun didn't set.
The fire crackled, and Cougar balanced a larger piece of fallen tree branch across it, then packed stones from the clearing around the base.
"Sit by the fire?" Cougar asked, lifting some of the twigs and leaves off Jensen and offering his hand.
Jensen let Cougar ease him upright, so he was sitting. One of Jensen's wrists was swollen and sore, sticks strapped around it with lengths of bark.
"Is it broken?" Jensen asked, inspecting his hand and waggling his fingers, and Cougar shrugged.
"Hope not," Cougar said. "Need you to get us home."
A stream trickled through the clearing, bumping over stones and around tree roots. Jensen, with Cougar's help, staggered to the stream. Cougar helped him crouch down to drink long and deep, then wash his face.
Cougar guided Jensen over to the fire and sat him down, then propped bits of the dismembered duck carcasses around the flames on the rocks.
Out from his burrow of leaves and dirt, Jensen was even colder, crouching over the fire for warmth. Cougar, however, didn't seem to feel the cold as he moved around the clearing, gazing out over the valley or up into the hills through the trees.
"You have a plan," Jensen said. "Don't you?"
Cougar smiled over his shoulder. "Eat first, then plan."
"How come, even though I've been on a ridiculous number of jungle missions with you, I didn't know you had mad survival skills?" Jensen asked, partway through the first piece of ducky goodness. "How come you have never cooked me roast duck before?"
Cougar raised his shoulders nonchalantly. "When we get home, I'll cook for you."
Jensen was starving. He ate at least two of the ducks Cougar had caught and cooked, almost without pausing. Somewhere around the fifth drumstick, he wiped grease and charcoal from stubble with his undamaged forearm and asked, "How long have we been here?"
Six days? Jensen could remember two of them. What had he done for the other four days?
Also, no wonder he was hungry.
While Jensen sucked the marrow out of the duck bones, Cougar unbound and inspected his injured wrist.
"Move. Wriggle. Squeeze. Bend," Cougar said, making satisfied noises each time Jensen flexed or turned his hand. "Not broken, not much. Good."
Jensen lifted his wrist, mottled with bruising and still bulging, and inspected it. "Now what?" Jensen asked. "We're naked, stranded somewhere above the Arctic Circle, and have nothing with us. What's your plan?"
"Still seeing angels?" Cougar asked.
Jensen thought about saying yes, but opted not to and shook his head.
"We have these." Cougar cleared away dead leaves from under a tree and lifted out a bundle, bringing it over to Jensen. "Build something."
Wrapped in a scrap of faded plastic, Jensen found their two earbud communicators, batteries carefully removed; a cell phone, one of the safe non-smart kind, battery and SIM card removed; and a hunk of wiring and circuitry, probably from what had once been the cockpit of a chopper.
Jensen shook the phone carefully and put it to his ear.
"This has been wet?"
Cougar nodded. "Lake."
"But you still made sure nothing was putting out a traceable signal?" Jensen asked, poking at the earbud batteries.
"Sure," Cougar said. "Needed to hide."
Jensen rubbed at the sore bit of his head and winced. "I remember now. Russian oil rig? Then the gun fight? And the chopper? We jumped out just before it crashed?"
Cougar looked innocent. Jensen could understand why, since there was probably a very good reason why the chopper went down in the lake.
"Can you make something? Call Clay?" Cougar asked.
"You've given me two earbuds, a dumb phone, and a handful of wires," Jensen said. "No power source, no soldering iron, and I'm guessing no cell coverage."
Cougar looked at Jensen hopefully. "Send a message?"
"No," Jensen said. "I need a power source to have any chance of boosting a signal out of the valley. And a screwdriver at least."
"Phillips or square?" Cougar asked.
"Phillips," Jensen said, and Cougar nodded.
"Where are you going to get one?" Jensen asked. "We’re in the middle of the biggest patch of nowhere I have ever seen, and it's fucking snowing!"
Cougar patted Jensen's cheek gently and smiled.
"You do your magic. I'll do mine."
When Jensen looked up, Cougar was standing at the edge of the clearing, staring out across the valley. Cougar glanced back at Jensen, signalled for Jensen to join him, and held a finger to his lips.
Jensen stepped across the clearing as quietly as he could, and stood beside Cougar.
Cougar pointed across the valley.
A herd of animals was crossing the valley, along the bank of the river, they looked like specks in the distance. Jensen could just make out horns on their heads, so they weren't ordinary cows.
"Moose?" Jensen whispered, and Cougar gave a choking laugh.
"Reindeer," Cougar said. "Want one for dinner?"
"Fuck, no," Jensen said. "I want presents for Christmas, and if I eat reindeer, Santa won't visit me."
"It's June," Cougar whispered. "Santa will forget by December."
"If we're still here in December, I'll eat reindeer."
"Look," Cougar said, pointing at the herd of reindeer again. "See that big one? Can you see?"
Jensen ducked his head to look along Cougar's arm, and said, "No. You know how this goes. You try to get me to see something, and I can never see it. What's so special about the big one?"
Cougar put his arm around Jensen's shoulder and pulled him in for a hug. "I think we can ride it out."
Jensen hugged Cougar back, dirt and nudity and duck grease and all. Cougar was warm to the touch. "You're fucking crazy. Why aren't you freezing? I'm going back to the fire."
Cougar shrugged and went back to watching the reindeer, and Jensen crouched beside the fire in the warmth, and peered at the wires and capacitors again.
Memories were shifting in his head, making him rub his bruise and ponder. He thought he could remember some kind of ride or journey, over rough ground. Maybe on a travois? Heat and cold alternating, and someone talking to him in another language. Spanish? Not Spanish.
When he looked up again, Cougar was gone, along with his hunting spear.
"No dead reindeer," Jensen told the trees, and that time they didn't talk back to him.
The sky had cleared and the sun reappeared before Cougar came back, silent on the melting snow.
Some kind of rigging was slung over Cougar's shoulder, and he offered it to Jensen.
"This help?" he asked.
Jensen took the rigging and poked at the encapsulated device inside the harness or collar.
"It stinks!" Jensen said, turning it over and sending a shower of animal hair over himself. "What the fuck is it?"
"GPS tracker from a reindeer."
Jensen blinked. "You're amazing. This is a fucking satellite modem!"
"Can you hack it?" Cougar asked.
"No," Jensen said. "Maybe if I had more than rocks and twigs?"
"Power source?" Cougar asked.
"Oh, it's a power source," Jensen said. "Long life, lithium ion battery in this, no doubt."
"Good, because it would be a long walk to a weather station," Cougar said. "And that was the next choice."
"Also," Jensen said, "if I can't hack this, then we can strap it on to you, and get you to run around in a huge decreasing spiral. Then, whenever the researcher looks at the data, they'll know that some weird shit has happened out here, and to send a search party."
Cougar stared at Jensen over the fire.
"I'll try and hack it first," Jensen said. "It's always good to have a fall back plan."
Jensen worked the GPS sender free of the webbing carefully.
"Actually, you wouldn't need to run in circles," Jensen said, turning the webbing around to look at the sensor inputs. "We could just strap it to you and send back your telemetry. I reckon a human heartrate and body temp appearing in the middle of someone's reindeer data would get us some attention."
Cougar chuckled. "Or you could send a message?"
Jensen looked up from trying to prize open the casing using a stick and the edge of a rock, and Cougar was hunched over, rubbing sticks and rocks against each other purposefully.
"Unless you are secretly a reindeer," Jensen said.
Cougar's grin was wide, when he looked up at Jensen.
"Just get us out of here," Cougar said.
Jensen cracked open the casing and eased the components apart, sighing with happiness at the satellite modem and the long life battery. If he could connect the phone to the modem…
"Screwdriver," Jensen said, under his breath, and something poked his uninjured arm.
Cougar was holding out a finely whittled stick, with the end shaped like a Phillips screwdriver.
"Next time we run an op on a Russian oil rig and it goes horribly wrong, I want to be stranded with you," Jensen said. "I want to be stranded with you every time something goes wrong."
"Okay," Cougar said. "Now call Clay."
"Not so simple," Jensen said, popping the case off the phone and using the stick to open up the circuitry. "If I wasn't here in the wilderness, I would make sure that the team was monitoring the satellites covering the area the missing people might be in, which in this case is the NOAA POESs. Since I am here, I'm hoping Clay has hired a temporary me, competent, but not so good I'm out of a job, to cover these options. If say Pooch is in charge of listening for us, this message might not get through."
"Aisha," Cougar said.
"Point," Jensen said, easing the voiceband/baseband CODEC unit out of the phone, without disconnecting the keypad from the DSP.
He hooked the reindeer tracker battery to the phone, which flickered into life, and said, "C'mon, darlin', find the modem."
Jensen figured the smell of over-heating components was a good sign the gadget was live. He rapidly tapped in their crisis code before anything fried, and then pulled the wires off the battery unit, shutting it down.
"Beauty of this is that we don't need to know where we are," Jensen said. "Since the whole thing is a GPS locator."
"Good," Cougar said. "Since we're lost."
"If this doesn't work, you'll have to go find another one, and get ready to run in circles," Jensen said.
Cougar shrugged. "How long?"
"Don't care," Jensen said. "I'm going to nap, since there isn't an actual nighttime here to make sense of when to sleep."
When Jensen woke, his head hurt less and it didn't seem nearly as cold. Cougar was sitting at the entrance to the clearing, singing quietly under his breath, with a row of sharpened sticks lined up beside him.
Jensen relieved himself and drank from the stream, then squatted down beside Cougar. The sun was higher and the valley stretched out below them, empty and beautiful.
"What can you see?" Jensen asked.
"Hawk," Cougar said, pointing up into the sky. "Hunting something small, by the river."
Jensen couldn't see either the hawk or the prey, but he was accustomed to this.
"No rescue chopper?"
Cougar shook his head.
No choppers full of people who wanted to see them both dead, either, so it was win/lose situation really.
"What were you singing?" Jensen asked.
Cougar rubbed at his substantial stubble. "Old song. Very old."
"It didn't sound Spanish."
Seeing Cougar sitting naked, gorgeous and naked, on the edge of a forest and looking out into the wilderness, handmade weapons laid out beside him, made an idea stir in Jensen's mind.
A crazy idea. One no one would ever believe.
"Cougar?" Jensen asked. "How far can you see?"
A raised eyebrow.
Cougar pointed with the spear. "That hill, across the valley? I can see birds in the trees."
Jensen considered. The air was clean and clear, and very still. They were elevated, well up the hill on their side of the valley. He could make out the shapes of trees on the slopes of the hill, if he tried. Ten miles? Fifteen? What was the angular resolution for that kind of distance?
"My people came from somewhere like this once," Cougar said. "This place calls to me."
"We can come back," Jensen said. "With clothes and a working satellite phone."
"You would do that?"
"Hey," Jensen said. "I've just found out you know how to collect shrooms. I'm going camping with you again."
Cougar looked up at the sky. "Chopper."
Cougar handed Jensen a spear and stood up, spear in his own hand.
The sound of the chopper was first, then it appeared, a dot in the sky, following the path of the river.
Jensen and Cougar stayed out of sight behind the trees. The chopper dipped lower, then Cougar said, "Pooch!"
Pooch's voice called out, on a loud hailer, "Losers! Where are you?" echoing around the valley.
Jensen went to step out of the clearing into sight, and Cougar grabbed his elbow. "Don't tell the others."
"That I've realized you're a fucking elf?" Jensen asked. "There's no way they'd believe me if I did!"
The pair of them walked out of the clearing and down the hillside, with Pooch hooting with laughter over the loud hailer as he landed the chopper at the bottom of the hill.
Aisha was first out of the chopper, followed by Clay and Pooch. She met them, running hard up the hill, then throwing her arms around the pair of them.
"Oh, fuck, you both stink!" she shouted, hugging them simultaneously.
Clay hugged them, and Pooch opened the field first aid kit that was slung over his shoulder, shaking his head.
"Don't fucking do that again," Clay said.
"Where are we?" Jensen asked, holding his arm out so Pooch could strap his wrist, while Cougar pulled on Clay's trousers, leaving Clay in shirt and underwear.
"Norway," Pooch said. "Next time, ditch in a country that's part of the EU?"
Aisha came back from the clearing with Jensen's bundle of hot-wired tech. "Anything else?" she asked Cougar.
"That's all," Cougar said.
Aisha had sweats in the rescue kit, which Jensen was glad to pull on before he strapped in. Ration bars, chocolate and electrolyte replacement fluid were passed to him and Cougar, as the chopper took off.
"So, the two of you survived all this time up here, with nothing?" Clay asked over the headsets.
"Impressive," Aisha agreed, as the chopper banked. Jensen got a chance to look out of the window at the valley spread out below. The vast Arctic wilderness rolled as far as he could see, with the ocean a blue and white streak on the horizon. "What I'd really like to know is, not how you survived, but what you were doing naked in the first place?"
Cougar chewed a ration bar as nonchalantly as anyone Jensen had ever seen. Jensen looked back out the window, at the ice, snow and forest beneath them, and pretended he hadn't heard.
When they reached home, Jensen was buying Cougar a fucking long bow.