“Survival can be summed up in three words: never give up. That’s the heart of it, really. Just keep trying.”
- Bear Grylls
100 Miles North of Alberta, Canada
There was a sensation of weightlessness he associated with freedom when in a helicopter.
It was truly his favorite way to travel—though he’d go to his grave denying he preferred a chopper over his precious GTO. All too often, the whomp-whomp of the rotor blades was synonymous with safety or rescue. Either offering it or receiving it.
Both set things right in Jack Dalton’s world.
Looking across the fuselage, Jack saw that his partner clearly did not share his relative comfort with their current mode of transportation. Mac had never really been a fan of flying, but he managed to mask it effectively when traveling via the Phoenix Foundation jet. It was a bit harder to do in an AH-64 Apache, stripped down to the skids for their arctic drop.
“So…Denendeh,” Jack shouted over the rattle and hum of the chopper blades beating against the frigid sky. He tilted his head as he studied the map in his hands. “Sounds like something out of Lord of the Rings.”
Glancing up, he watched as Mac pulled his eyes from the anemic sky and settled his gaze on Jack.
“Book or movie?” Mac’s smile was tolerant.
Jack’s answering grin, however, was purposefully wide; he felt his eyes crinkle up at the corners, drawing Mac in. “Eh, I could never get through all those made-up words in the book, kid, you know that.”
Mac shook his head once. “Denendeh is Athabaskan.”
“If you say so.” Jack lifted a shoulder, just glad Mac was engaging and not losing himself inside his own head. “Still sounds like something that George Martin dude made up.”
Mac huffed a laugh. “That’s Game of Thrones. Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings.”
Jack folded the map they’d been given and tucked it into the front pocket of his white camo TAC gear.
“And it’s officially the Northwest Territory,” Mac informed him. “The Dene are the native people of the region, and the Denendeh covers something like 30,000 miles—but our guy is in the Northwest Territory.” He frowned, looking down at his glove-covered hands. “Or so Matty thinks.”
Jack shifted in his heavy coat so that it settled easier across his shoulders. “Should just call it friggin’ cold.”
Mac nodded. “Not going to argue with you there.” He sighed, “We gotta be careful—it’s probably only going to get up to negative ten during the day.”
“Gear up, Gentlemen,” called the pilot. “We’re five miles out.”
“Roger that,” Jack shouted back, then met Mac’s eyes once more, nodding.
They were already wearing winter camouflage and TAC gear, but had held off on the head gear until they were closer to the drop zone so that they could keep communications with the pilot. Jack removed his headset and watched as Mac mirrored his actions, pulling their white ski masks on, their snow goggles in place, and their fur-lined hoods up.
“Comms check,” Jack tapped his earpiece.
“I read you,” Mac replied, his voice as clear in Jack’s ears as though the kid were sitting next to him.
Jack watched as Mac turned his attention back to the window, tension in every line of his body. Two months ago, they’d been in Kosovo and Jack had come the closest he ever wanted to get to losing his young partner. Since that time, the team Director, Matty Webber, had kept Mac State-side, assigning him to local issues or problems he could solve in a virtual environment. Jack knew that her thinking had been to give the kid time to heal both physically and mentally.
Unfortunately, during that time, MacGyver had been forced to witness the death of a young scientist he had been trying to save—along with her thirty-one students—in a stranded freighter. He’d managed to keep the students alive until the Coast Guard arrived, but watching the young scientist drown and being unable to do anything to help her had unraveled something in Mac. Something beyond the impact of losing the Ambassador and his family in Argentina. Something that shadowed the light Jack had always seen in the genius’ eyes.
It was like watching an internal eclipse.
Since the freighter, Matty had shifted her tactics, moving Jack and MacGyver back into regular rotation, assigning them to whatever missions came their way that fit their particular skill sets. So far, their success rate had been solid—and they’d returned to Los Angeles without so much as a paper cut.
But Mac had carried his tension like a shield, never truly at peace.
As Jack watched, Mac’s eyes roamed the white expanse of their drop point, his naturally deep voice, when he reported his observations to Jack, losing its softness and turning into a thing with edges that could slice just from the pain of existing.
“We’ll have a good fifty feet from the drop point to the tree line,” Mac informed him. “If this Gray guy knows we’re coming, we’ll have to be alert.”
“Brother, I was born alert,” Jack grinned as he checked the clip on his Glock before sliding it safely into its holster.
Mac’s smile was genuine. “I believe you.”
A hand tapped twice on Jack’s shoulder.
“Two minutes,” Jack reported to Mac via comms.
Mac nodded, standing and shouldering his pack, stepping through the leg holsters before clipping the strap closed across his chest. Grabbing the thick drop ropes, he nodded at Jack, indicating he was ready for the other man to open the side door. The bitter wind reached in and grabbed for any bit of exposed flesh, turning the fuselage icy.
Getting the nod from the copilot, who stood ready to disengage the drop ropes, MacGyver and Jack shoved the ropes through the open door, waited for the helicopter to hover, and then descended one after the other at a rapid pace. Mac hit the snow first, curling forward. Jack dropped next to him, bending so that their backs were the only things exposed to the crazily whipping snow stirred up by the rotor blades.
The ropes dropped with a heavy vomph into the snow next to the two men and inside another minute the helicopter had pulled away, leaving them knee-deep in the wet, heavy snow of the Canadian wilderness. The minute the snow wasn’t being flung around in a man-made blizzard, Jack tapped his partner on the back and they turned as one to head for the protection of the trees.
Jack pulled his rifle from where the strap secured it across his shoulders and checked the wrapped barrel, both for camouflage and protection. Last thing he needed was to have his gun freeze up if Isaac Gray decided to put up a fight. He crouched next to the trunk of a thick spruce and shifted his goggles to his forehead, narrowing his eyes at Mac’s kneeling form.
“Talk me through it,” he ordered.
He knew the mission by rote, but there was something about the way Mac held himself, the way the kid was scanning the empty expanse of their drop zone, that compelled Jack to make sure he was engaged. Jack needed his partner here…not trapped in the vast expanse of his own mind.
“Last intel on Isaac Gray puts him inside a fifteen mile perimeter of our location,” Mac replied, not looking toward Jack as he spoke. “And he agreed to meet us as soon as he was sure there weren’t any…governmental entanglements.”
Jack nodded, eyes on Mac as his partner scanned the horizon as though mentally mapping the endless stretch of snow.
“Right,” he said, chambering a round in his rifle. “CIA wants their boy back because he has some super-special info on some KGB dudes.”
At that Mac finally did shift to glance his way. “FSB, Jack. KGB ended before I was born.”
“Right, right,” Jack lifted his chin. “Knew it was some kind of alphabet soup.”
Mac shook his head, but his shoulders relaxed slightly. “We bring him back—alive—and Matty’s square with the CIA for that favor she called in when we were in Argentina.”
Jack grimaced slightly at the bitter edge in Mac’s voice. He didn’t blame the kid. They’d only recently found out that Matty had to call in a favor to help handle cleanup for the failed mission in Argentina; it had taken Mac almost three months to put that behind him and the reminder was like opening a wound.
Jack had been tempted to take Matty aside and call her out on bringing that job up again—but before he could act on his instinct, she’d turned the tables on him, informing him that she’d considered sending him in alone. After all, he was the one with the CIA background and training; this was right up his alley and had nothing to do with Mac’s particular skill set. But they’d both known that sending Jack on a mission without MacGyver would be more detrimental to the young agent’s mental state than any reminder would have been.
“So, we track this guy down, talk him into coming home with us—which will be super easy since his own agency hasn’t been able to,” Jack grumbled, “and we’re all drinking beers on your back deck by tomorrow.”
Mac shifted his goggles to his forehead, pulling a laminated map from his breast pocket. “That’s the idea.”
Jack waited, thankful for the protection of the insulated cold-weather gear. For a guy from Texas, currently living in California, missions this far north weren’t exactly on his bucket list. He sniffed, the cold air attacking his sinuses.
“Since no one apparently trusts this guy to keep up his side of the bargain, the plan from the Phoenix calls for us to split up and circle around here,” Mac pointed to a section of the map.
“Sounds like you disagree,” Jack replied, wondering why his partner was only now bringing up his feelings about the mission parameters. Jack had been fairly vocal with his objections to only periodic communications and a radio evac rather than constant monitoring, calling a respectful bullshit to Matty’s CIA-related reasoning. Mac had simply sat still and quiet, absorbing the information provided, before heading out to gear up. “You got a better idea?”
Mac sighed looking around. “We’re eighty miles from any sort of civilization, in the middle of wolf country. I think splitting up is a very, very bad idea.”
“Never really worked out well for the Scooby gang, either,” Jack agreed, earning a smirk from his partner. “And, I’m guessing that just chillin’ here and waiting for the dude to find us is out of the question.”
“It’s barely above zero with the sun shining,” Mac pointed out, tipping his hand up in a question. “Pretty sure staying here and waiting for him will redefine ‘chilling’ for you.”
“Valid point.” Jack tipped his head back in agreement. “So, we pick a direction?”
Mac nodded. “There are natural caves about two miles that way,” he nodded to the west, “according to the map. It’s as good a place as any to start tracking this guy down.”
“You’re forgetting that he did radio in—which is why we know to be here at all,” Jack stated.
“I’m not forgetting,” Mac shifted from his knees to balance on the balls of his feet. “I’m counting on his attempt to reach us being our way to reach him.”
“Well, all right then,” Jack pushed to his feet, still sheltered by the cover of trees. “Lead on MacDuff.”
“Shakespeare and Tolkien? You’re just full of surprises,” Mac grinned, pulling his goggles back in place and heading west along the tree line.
“Eh, don’t get too excited,” Jack shrugged, following his partner, his head on a swivel. Gray might have wanted to make contact at one time, but there was a reason the man was hiding from his own government, and Jack wasn’t about to let that reason take their heads off. “I can never remember which one ends with everyone dying.”
Mac chuffed. “That’s…well, all of them.”
They carried forward, their voices low, muffled by their cold weather gear, but clear enough in their comms. Jack kept close to his unarmed partner, his rifle in ready position in case Gray decided to take a pot shot. Or a wolf showed up.
“So what is it you think this guys has that’s so important to the CIA?” Jack mused.
Mac made a humming noise in the comm, one Jack had come to associate with the younger man’s internal gears at work.
“Well, if you think about the fact that they could have sent a strike team in to take him out,” Mac mused, wading hip-deep through some snow before climbing to a more-level area of land, “it’s not something they want to keep him from selling to another government.”
“And if they’re sending us in, counting on your CIA background to help us think like this spy— “
“Hey,” Jack broke in, “don’t forget about your wicked-smart improv.”
“Please,” Mac scoffed, pausing next to a rather broad tree to consult the map once more. “The only reason I’m here is that Matty doesn’t know what else to do with me right now.”
“And she figured if she sent you in alone, I’d go more crazy worrying about you.”
Jack frowned, reaching out to grab Mac’s shoulder and turn the younger man around. “You’re not crazy, Mac.”
Mac held still; Jack hated that he couldn’t see the kid’s expression through the cold weather protective gear.
“You got some things going on with you right now, sure, but,” Jack shrugged, keeping his hand steady on his partner’s shoulder, “that happens to all of us, man.”
“Yeah, that’s what Freddie said,” Mac replied quietly, rotating his head away from Jack.
“Freddie?” Jack dropped his hand from Mac’s shoulder in surprise. “You mean my sniper friend, Freddie? You went to his group?”
Mac nodded, still looking out across the landscape of snow. Jack remembered telling Mac about the former sniper and the veterans support group he’d founded a couple months back when the younger man had been struggling to put the loss in Argentina behind him.
“After Zoe—“ Mac’s voice cracked with emotion and he paused, clearing his throat. “After the research team was rescued from that ship.”
Jack took that in for a moment. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“You had enough going on with Riley and Elwood…I just….”
Jack shuffled forward, creating twin furrows in the snow, until he was close enough to clink goggles with his partner. “You listen here, bud. You listening to me?”
Mac nodded, silently.
“There is nothing I wouldn’t put aside for you. Nothing. You got that?”
“Yeah, Jack,” Mac replied, but it was rote, pacifying the older man so that he backed up and put his hackles down.
Jack took a breath, trying to balance his instinct to protect with the knowledge that MacGyver was a grown man who didn’t need his partner trying to solve his problems for him.
“Did it help? Freddie’s group?”
“I only went the one time,” Mac confessed. “He…, uh.” Mac cleared his throat. “Freddie is a nice guy. Good listener.”
Jack nodded, tamping down on the sensation that his heart was loose inside his chest, getting caught on his rib cage and tearing. “Good,” he said, patting Mac on the shoulder. “That’s…uh, that’s real good, bud.”
Mac indicated with the map. “The caves are a bit further.”
They continued to move west, comms silent, minds busy with possibilities and obstacles. As they broke the tree line, Mac held up a hand, looking above them at the tree tops for any indication of a hunting blind or the gleam of a barrel. Jack did the same, scanning the snow between them and the opening to the cave.
“No footprints,” he reported quietly.
“Yeah, I got nothing in the trees, either,” Mac replied.
As they made their way to the cave entrance, Jack picked up on a scent even through his ski mask; it was musky, wild. The hairs on his neck stood on end.
“Watch out for wolves, bud,” Jack warned.
Still several feet from the entrance to the cave, Mac pulled a small Maglite from his vest, shining it in the interior. Jack wasn’t able to see what the light hit, but there was no mistaking the instant tension in his partners frame when Mac stopped moving.
“Jack, back up real slow,” Mac ordered, his voice low and careful.
Without question, Jack did as requested, one hand on Mac’s shoulder to help guide the other man away from the cave entrance. When the opening was no longer visible, Jack stopped and felt Mac’s shoulder relax.
“Bear,” Mac reported before Jack had to ask. “Pretty sure our guy didn’t use that cave.”
“Or, the dude was a snack and we came all this way for nothing,” Jack huffed, pulling his ski mask away from his mouth and wiping the moisture from his upper lip before it turned into mini icicles.
“Okay, you were a spy,” Mac said, putting his back against Jack’s so that they kept a look out on both sides. “What would you do if you were 80 miles from civilization and trying to hide from your own government?”
“Find shelter?” Jack tried very hard to not make it sound like a question.
He heard the rustle of the map as Mac consulted it once more. “There’s not much out here…and it’s going to be dark soon. I agree, he didn’t made it this long without some kind of shelter.”
“Maybe there’s a ranger station or a wildlife watch tower close by,” Jack offered, keeping one eye on the direction of the cave.
“Jack, you’re a genius!” Mac replied, the grin plain his voice. “There’s a fire jumper tower about three miles east.”
“Let’s do it,” Jack nodded, wrapping the shoulder strap of the rifle around his forearm.
Three miles wasn’t much for two men who spent the Phoenix Foundation’s required time at the gym each week. Three miles in knee-deep snow, though, was a different story entirely. By the time they reached the base of the fire jumper tower, they were both sucking desperately for air and Jack’s lungs ached.
Night had found a toe-hold and was climbing the sky, pushing the sunlight lower in its quest for dominance. Jack did a quick sweep of the tower’s base and saw no human footprints in the snow—but enough animal tracks to make him worry.
If Gray was up in the tower, he was going to have to shove over and make room; they weren’t staying out in the open tonight.
“He’s not up there,” Mac said quietly.
Jack looked over, surprised by the certainty in his partner’s voice. “How do you figure?”
Mac pulled his goggles off, letting them hang around his neck as he looked up the ladder to the darkened door at the underside of the shelter. “See that orange tag?”
Jack pulled down his own goggles. “Yeah, so?”
“It’s like a seal—applied by the last jumper to leave, broken by the next team to report to the shelter.”
A howl tickled the corners of the darkness, causing both men to jump.
“Pretty sure we’re that next team, bud.” Jack gave Mac a little shove and the younger man began to climb the ladder, Jack close on his heels.
They paused at the top of the ladder as Mac pulled out his Swiss Army knife and cut the seal. He had to hold the mini Maglite in his teeth while he picked the padlock, but then they were climbing up into the cold stillness of the fire jumper tower. Once the trap door was closed, there was roughly enough room inside for them to stretch their arms in each direction, but that was it.
“Cozy,” Jack remarked, looking around at the sparse equipment within.
“There’s not going to be much here in the way of supplies,” Mac predicted. “It’s mainly a look-out and protection for the smoke jumpers.”
“If it keeps us from getting eaten by wolves, I’m good with it,” Jack said, pulling his hood down and shrugging out of his pack. He set the rifle in one corner and removed his ski mask and goggles, rubbing a hand over his sweaty head. “You hungry?”
Mac nodded, following Jack’s lead. They dug into their packs and pulled out an MRE each. Jack tugged his gloves off with his teeth, breathing into his curled fists before opening his food packet.
“You up for the irony of building a fire in a fire jumper tower?” Jack asked, nudging the small, portable cook stove in his pack.
Mac shook his head. “The light would put us at a disadvantage…plus we’ve got nothing to contain it.”
Jack put his pack between his back and the cold wall. “Too smart for your own good.”
“At least this way we can both get some sleep instead of one of us having to keep watch,” Mac offered, eyebrows up.
“Keep seeking that silver lining, bud,” Jack groused, sucking out more protein from the pouch.
Mac leaned closer to him, peering up through the window. “Speaking of….”
Jack looked over his shoulder, eyes catching on the green and blue dancing lights of the Aurora Borealis that had caught Mac’s interest.
“Well, isn’t that something,” he said with reverence. “It’s like…nature’s magic.”
“Actually, it’s caused when electrically charged particles from the sun collide with oxygen and nitrogen from the earth’s atmos— “
Jack reached out and clapped a hand over Mac’s mouth. “It’s. Nature’s. Magic. Jesus, weren’t you ever just a kid?” He dropped his hand when he felt Mac’s half-grin.
“This was me as a kid.”
“Someone should have read you a bedtime story once in a while.”
Mac looked back up at the dancing lights, the tautness in his face softening. For a moment, he almost looked his age.
“My mom did,” he recalled. “Before she got sick, I mean. I don’t remember much except…sitting next to her. How her arm felt around me. The sound of her voice—the way it undulated, you know? Not the actual words.”
“You lost magic at five years old,” Jack said quietly when Mac’s voice tapered off. “That explains a lot about you, bud.”
“What about you?” Mac shifted so that his back was against his pack, propped up in the corner of the small shelter.
“I still believe in magic,” Jack grinned, gathering their empty MRE pouches and stuffing them away in his pack.
Mac chuckled. “Of course, you do.”
“Dude, how else do you explain me making it out of as many scrapes as I did before I had you to invent random ways to save my life?”
“Skill? Luck? General bad-assery?”
“Bad-assery,” Jack chuckled, tipping his head toward his partner in a salute. “I like that one.”
They settled in for the night, lying with their backs to each other for warmth, boots pressed against the opposite wall of the shelter. Jack watched the dance of the lights, feeling Mac relax against him, hearing the younger man’s breathing even out in sleep. The shelter rocked slightly as the wind picked up, sending an almost mournful cry through the tops of the trees, whistling around the edges of the building, and drawing up the echoing howl of wolves as they roamed the darkness beneath them.
Jack didn’t recall the moment he dipped from awareness to sleep, but he immediately registered the moment his partner’s demons came knocking. Mac jerked against his back, jolting Jack into wakefulness. At first, he was confused; he looked around the gloom of the small shelter, getting his bearings.
They were lying on top of the trap door, so no one had gotten in. The wolves weren’t howling. The Northern Lights had even given way to the demands of the night. The darkness in the shelter was nearly complete—only ambient starlight filtered in through the viewpoint windows from the moonless night sky.
Jack felt his partner flinch once more. They’d spent enough nights sleeping in strange locations for Jack to know that his partner slept tense—as though he was waiting for the bottom to drop out of the world.
He turned over carefully so that he was facing MacGyver’s back. The younger man had his arms wrapped around himself, almost as if he were trying to catch bits of himself before they tumbled free and shattered completely.
Jack watched, not wanting to wake the young agent unnecessarily, and saw Mac jerk once more, this time with a low mutter as though he were angry. Jack couldn’t see his partner’s expression, but he knew that tone. He rested a hand on Mac’s arm, intending to shake the younger man awake.
He should have known better.
One minute he was leaning sleepily over his partner, the next he was flat on his back with Mac’s hands gripping the opened edges of his camo jacket at the base of his throat, knuckles digging into Jack’s throat. Mac’s eyes were wide, the starlight reflecting in the bright blue. Jack coughed out a surprised breath, thankful that the kid wasn’t aware enough to exert full pressure.
“Hey,” he wheezed, resting his hands on Mac’s wrists. “Hey, there, bud…it’s okay. It’s me. It’s Jack.”
Mac slowly loosened his grip, resting his hands on Jack’s chest. Jack kept his hand on Mac’s wrists.
“You with me, Mac?”
“Jack?” Mac asked in a voice so raw it didn’t hold weight.
Jack patted Mac’s hands, slowly shifting until he was propped up on his elbows. “I’m right here.”
Mac exhaled slowly, sitting back on his heels, and covering his face with his hands. “Son of a bitch.”
Jack sat all the way up, drawing his knees forward until they paralleled Mac’s, and peered through the darkness at his partner. “Want to talk about it?”
Mac curled his gloved hands into fists. Jack could feel the kid trembling through the contact of their legs, his silence taut, like he was trying to prove something to himself. He felt Mac shake his head, heard him exhale. Jack had lived long enough to know that the stakes are never higher than when the opposition is a mirror.
“Just need a second,” Mac replied, his voice breaking on the last word. He took a breath, then dragged his fingers down his cheeks.
Jack knew the need for that beat, that breath, the moment of a reminder of what was now—not then, but now—all too well. He’d heard the break in Mac’s voice before. He’d felt his own shatter, felt the impact of reality rain down around him.
“You okay?” Mac asked in a small voice.
“I think that’s supposed to be my line.”
“I wasn’t the one who just about got strangled,” Mac pointed out.
Jack dropped a heavy hand on Mac’s arm. Mac almost flinched away, but Jack felt him fight to hold still. He wanted to tell him he wouldn’t look at him if he didn’t want him to. He wasn’t trying to catch him out. But, he didn’t.
Instead, he attempted to reassure the younger man. “I’m good, Mac. Don’t beat yourself up about that. Got it?”
After a heartbeat or two, Mac replied softly, “Got it.”
“Sure you don’t want to talk about it?”
Mac shook his head—a motion Jack only registered because he felt it through his grip on Mac’s arm. There had been something going on with his partner for months—since Argentina, since the research ship. Enough to send Mac to find Freddie. Enough that he pulled it all inside, keeping it from Jack, sparing them both the inevitable fallout.
Jack just wasn’t sure anymore how to get behind the kid’s walls.
“Think you could get back to sleep?”
“I can try,” Mac sighed, then lay down face-up rather than on his side.
Jack mirrored him, crossing his arms over his chest, his right side flush against Mac’s left. They lay still and quiet for several minutes, then Jack spoke up.
“What kind of bedtime stories?”
It only took Mac a beat to connect the question with their earlier conversation. “Well, I was four, so…Dr. Seuss, mostly.” He waited a moment. “What did your parents read to you?”
“My dad read me Zane Gray westerns,” Jack recalled, feeling his cold skin of his face crinkle slightly at the corners of his eyes as he smiled. “Riders of the Purple Sage, The Last Trail, Spirit of the Border.”
“Cowboy stories,” Mac asked, his voice drowsy with sleep.
“Adventurers, heroes, everything he admired,” Jack said. “Everything he wanted me to be, I guess.”
The quiet of the night filled the small shelter and Jack listened to his partner’s breathing once more. It didn’t taper and ease quite as quickly as it had earlier in the night.
“I can still remember some,” Jack offered.
“Mmmhmm,” Jack confirmed. “Want to hear?”
“Sure,” Mac shifted, tucking his gloved hands flat beneath his folded arms, pressing close to Jack for warmth.
Jack began talking, low and slow, recalling the rhythm and cadence of his father’s baritone, thinking about the way his dad’s hands had looked holding the narrow books, their weathered pages bent and crackling with age. His recall was so vivid, he almost didn’t register when Mac had once more relaxed against him, his face turned toward Jack’s shoulder.
Quieting, Jack held on to the memory of his father sitting at his bedside, glasses low on his nose with the book tilted toward Jack’s desk lamp, and let that soothe him into a—thankfully uninterrupted—slumber. When the first rays of morning sun danced orange and red across his closed lids, Jack realized he hadn’t fully appreciated the shelter’s windows the night before.
He opened his eyes, then clamped them shut once more, immediately regretting that decision. Dragging a hand down his face, the cold stiffness of his gloves scratching against the scruff of beard on his chin, he turned his head to the side to blink awake.
Not one to enjoy the process of waking up—especially after such a restless night—Mac was staring at him sullenly as though Jack was personally responsible for the sunrise.
“Morning,” Jack rasped, clearing his throat, and pushing up to his elbows. “We got any coffee beans I can chew on or something?”
Mac groaned slightly as he sat up, shifting away from Jack, and reaching for his pack, coughing a bit into the crook of his arm as he cleared away the morning cobwebs. “I was dreaming about cowboys,” he said softly. “Does that make sense?”
“You remember what else you were dreaming about?” Jack asked, pushing to his feet, and stretching his arms over his head. He heard rather than saw Mac freeze in memory.
Jack glanced down and saw Mac reach for his throat then look up at Jack with an expression of horror on his face.
“I’m good, bud. We covered that.”
“Oh, man, Jack, I’m so— “
“Do not say you’re sorry,” Jack ordered, turning to face his partner. “You’ve helped me through some shit I don’t think either one of us wants to remember, so let’s just chalk last night up to…to the effects of the Northern Lights and leave it at that.” Mac opened his mouth and Jack held up a hand, stilling his partner’s protest. “Eh! Before you tell me it doesn’t work like that, I’m just going to tell you to shut it. As far as I’m concerned, it works exactly like that.”
Mac drew out a silver canister from his pack. “I was going to say, I have coffee.”
Jack frowned. “Not…actual coffee.”
Mac unscrewed the top and the scent of coffee wafted around the small shelter.
“Oh…my…God…,” Jack groaned, closing his eyes in delight. “I could kiss you right now.”
“Please don’t,” Mac chuckled. “Your morning breath is terrible.”
“Wait until I marinate it in caffeinated bliss,” Jack held out his hand and took the proffered canister from Mac. “It’s even hot!”
Mac nodded. “I reverse engineered the containers we use to keep the bioweapons inert and used the same process for coolants to generate a continuous heating conductor— “
“Blah blah blah magic,” Jack grinned after downing a mouthful of hot coffee.
“Science,” Mac corrected, standing, and pulling out a protein bar before shouldering his pack.
“With a little bit of magic,” Jack pressed, handing Mac the canister and grinning as the younger man took a drink and sighed as though he could feel the caffeine hit his toes. “Eh? Eh? See?”
“You win, Jack,” Mac grinned, taking another drink before handing it back. “Coffee is magic.”
“Okay, so…since we aren’t going to find this dude hanging out in this treehouse, what’s the plan?”
Mac spread the map out on the window. “I’ve been thinking…maybe we’re going about this wrong.”
“Oh, so now you think the whole splitting up idea is a good one?”
“Not splitting up completely,” Mac folded his face into the someone else might be right and I’m not sure what to do about it expression that Jack always found endearing. It made the guy seem human once in a while. “Just adjust our approach so that we cover grids. Um…separately.”
Jack chuckled, shoving half a protein bar into his mouth and watched as Mac showed him first on the map and then out in the blinding white of the snow-covered wilderness which way each of them would go. They finished their breakfast, checked their gear, and climbed out of the tower—Mac making sure to relock the trap door, even though he couldn’t re-affix the orange tag.
At the base of the tower, they pulled on their ski masks and goggles, checked their comms, and parted ways. For all his complaining, Jack was skilled at tracking by landmarks and trajectories without needing repeated viewings of a map. The biggest challenge he faced now was that the snow leveled the playing field. The sun’s rays hit the landscape, reflecting off of the icy crystals and against his goggles, and he had to stop more than once to orient to his grid.
Mac’s voice in his ear at regular intervals helped keep him grounded and before he knew it mid-day had overtaken them and he was no closer to finding evidence of this rogue CIA agent they were after than he had been that morning. Mac’s frustrated voice in his ear echoed the same sentiment.
“I’m breaking for chow,” Jack announced. “Even former spies gotta eat.”
“Roger that,” Mac replied.
Jack hunkered down against a tree, his rifle across his lap, and peeled off the wrapper to another protein bar. As he scanned the quiet wilderness around him, he registered that something felt off. It took him a full minute to realize that he was being watched.
He wadded up the wrapper and slowly stuffed it into a vest pocket, shifting his hands to his rifle and scanning the visible perimeter without moving his body.
“Mac,” he whispered.
“I’m here,” Mac replied.
“I’ve got eyes on me.”
Mac was quiet a moment. “Can you get to cover?”
“Not without drawing focus.”
“On my way.”
It was a glint—nothing more than a quick flash of reflection—that gave away the barrel. The man was in a hunting blind fifty yards from Jack and had essentially taken a breath, shifting the barrel of his rifle enough the sun caught it. Jack rolled to his right toward a thick cluster of trees, tensing for a shot that never came. Pressing his back against a tree, now in shadow from the sight line of the gun barrel, Jack commed Mac once more.
“Gotta be our boy,” he said, breathless from the adrenalin.
The fact that Gray had him sighted down a rifle barrel was unsettling, to say the least. Especially since the CIA Agent was the one to set up this whole winter trek.
“He take a shot?”
“Negative.” Jack angled a glance around the tree. “He’s about 100 yards out from our meeting point, if you come up that way.”
“Work around to the west. Box him in?”
“Roger that,” Jack breathed, pushing away from the tree, and making his way along the tree line toward the hunting blind.
As he rounded a cluster of trees, his eyes caught on a stretch of snow churned up by multiple tracks. Wolves—or possibly mountain lion. Whatever they were, there were several of them, and they were as big as his hand.
Gripping the barrel of his rifle tighter, Jack moved forward down the path. He didn’t register the pressure of the trip wire against his leg until he heard the pin pop. For a split second, Jack felt completely certain he was about to be shattered by the destructive impact of an exploding grenade.
Therefore, when the jolt of a stabbing pain hit him in the thigh, he jerked from surprise. Staggering to the side, he sank into the snow without even a whimper. Blinking, Jack looked down at his leg and saw the small silver canister and green tassel of a tranquilizer dart sticking out from his camo.
“M-Mac…,” he tried, his tongue feeling heavy, numb. He had to tell him. Had to warn him. “Tr-trip wire.”
“Jack? Jack, talk to me!”
He was trying, honest.
It was just that the world had started spinning—a kaleidoscope of greens and browns smearing against white…so much white. And then the spinning stopped, replaced by a thin darkness, which would have made him panic except that he’d slipped behind cotton, wrapping around him and muting the world until Jack wasn’t really even part of it anymore.
He floated, suspended and weightless, and not even the panicked cries of his partner turning tinny in his ear was enough to shake the cobwebs loose. Vision slipping out of focus, the last thing Jack saw as he sank deeper into the snowbank was the glint off of the barrel of a rifle.