Okay. To everyone who has been waiting for an update on Just Pretend, this story is the reason I haven't updated in 30 days. This is my extremely late holiday exchange fic for seren_ccd, and I've been struggling to finish it all month. Unfortunately, instead of being able to finish it, all I was able to do was make it grow longer and longer until it became the unwieldy monster it is today.
Anyway – it's done, hurrah, rejoice, I can now write other things again.
If you manage to make it to the end, I'd love to know what you think!
Into the Woods
The anomaly alert went off at noon, just as Jess was thinking about going to get lunch. Typical, really – it had been far too quiet and peaceful that morning. She rushed over to the ADD as the supercomputer went to work locating the anomaly, and footsteps in the hallway heralded the rest of
the team heading her way.
"What we got?" Matt asked as he and Becker rounded the corner into the Hub. Jess barely glanced at them, instead staring at the screen as the ADD zoned in on the anomaly. It was taking a bit longer than it usually did.
"Hang on, it's still –" Jess frowned as the location of the anomaly came up on the screen. "Um… it's in Norway."
Abby, Connor and Emily arrived at the ADD just in time to hear Jess' announcement, and all five of the field team stared at her for a moment.
"Norway?" Becker said eventually.
Jess nodded. "Yep."
"You're kidding," Connor said.
Jess shook her head. "Nope."
Matt stepped round the desk so he was standing next to Jess. "There haven't been any overseas anomalies since Convergence," he said, sounding worried. Jess knew what he was implying and was already running a check on another screen. "Is there anything –"
Jess was already shaking her head. "No, it's just the one," she assured him. "It reads like a completely normal anomaly… it's just in Norway. It's in Oppland. On a mountain."
Becker groaned. "This is going to be a logistical nightmare," he said. Jess pursed her lips – he didn't need to tell her that, since she'd be the one coordinating said nightmare.
"What are you all standing around here for?" Lester snapped from behind them, making the whole team start and look round at him. He raised an eyebrow. "Isn't there an anomaly?"
Jess span her chair round so she was facing Lester properly. "Yep," she said. "In Norway."
Lester stared at her for a moment. "Huh," he said.
"I don't suppose there's a Norwegian ARC team that can deal with this?" Abby asked dryly.
"Unfortunately not," Lester said, equally dry. "I'd better call the Minister."
The ADD beeped behind Jess and she quickly spun round again to look at her screens – the signal from the anomaly was growing weaker, and the locators were scrambling. "Wait a minute," she said, tapping a few keys. "It's… it's gone." And it had. The anomaly had closed, mere minutes after it had opened.
"It closed," Matt said, leaning over Jess to see the screens.
"Stroke of luck," Connor said, also leaning round to see the screens.
"Maybe," Becker said tersely. He was standing beside the desk with his arms folded, and looked tense. Jess fought the urge to roll her eyes at his ominous announcement. Connor did roll his eyes, something that Becker noticed – he scowled at him. "Something could have come through," he explained needlessly. Yes, it was a possibility, but the anomaly had only been there a few minutes.
"Stand down for now," Lester said, shifting everyone's attention back to him. "Jess, keep an eye on communications in the area – look out for any potential sightings." Jess nodded, and Lester looked over at Becker. "Becker, come up with a contingency plan for taking a team there. Hopefully we won't need it." He nodded to them all and headed back to his office.
The team drifted off, back to whatever they were doing, but Becker stayed behind. Jess started tapping commands into the ADD. "I'll send you coordinates for the site and any other information I have," she told him.
He nodded. "Thanks," he said. "I hope we don't need to go – it really would be a nightmare."
Jess smiled. "What, you don't fancy doing some dinosaur hunting in Oppland?" She said teasingly. "Change of scenery and all that?"
Becker raised an eyebrow at her, but Jess could see he was amused. "Not in December," he said flatly.
Jess shrugged. "I wouldn't worry," she said. "It was open for less than three minutes. I very much doubt something came through."
"Yeah, because we're just that lucky."
It was three days before the first potential sightings came through. In that time Jess had been lulled into a false sense of security, thinking that she was right and nothing had come through the anomaly… but of course Becker was right about their luck. Something had come through, and the only reason there hadn't been more sightings was because the anomaly site was in the middle of a forest on the side of a mountain and there weren't exactly that many people around.
By the end of day four Jess had a handful of sightings that just couldn't be ignored, and she joined
Matt and Becker in Lester's office for a planning meeting that none of them wanted to be at.
"I've gone over the reports with Abby and Connor, and they think it's a woolly rhinoceros," Jess explained to the others. "It's from the Pleistocene, and it's exactly what it sounds like – a big rhino with wool."
"How big?" Becker asked.
"About three metres long, which corresponds with our reports," Jess told him.
"Woolly rhinos didn't live in forests," Matt said.
"No, they didn't – they're more suited to tundra, so I imagine it's pretty disoriented," Jess said.
"Excellent, so we have a ticked off giant rhinoceros loose in the middle of Norway," said Lester.
"It's going to be a nightmare, but it's doable," said Becker. He placed a tablet computer on Lester's desk and brought up a map of the area. "The anomaly site is here, but the sightings have been further north," he said, pointing to the map. Jess could see at a glance that the area was steep and very wooded… and over 700 feet above sea level. "It's moving north, up the mountain, so I propose taking a team out there and closing in on it."
"We've talked about it, and we think taking the field team out there will be a waste of time," Matt said.
"We couldn't all go anyway, given that at least a few of us have to stay here in case of any other anomaly alerts. So Becker and his men are going to handle this one."
Becker nodded. "So the plan is that I take fourteen men –"
"Fourteen?" Lester cut in. "That's rather a lot."
Becker gave him a look that Jess thought of as his 'high military' look.
"I know, but it's necessary," Becker said. "We have no way of tracking the creature – the sightings are all from yesterday, though we may have only heard about them today. The region is very sparsely populated, the nearest village to the anomaly site is over ten miles away. The only people that go into the forest are hunters and hikers, and there aren't many of either around at the beginning of December. We're going to need to split into three teams and move in, create a perimeter and close in on the creature. And let's hope that there's only one."
"Abby says there should be only one," Jess said. "They're pretty solitary."
Becker nodded, and Lester sat forward. "Very well," he said. "How will you get there?"
"We'll fly to this airbase, and take three separate helicopters to the area," Becker said. "Unfortunately the area's far too densely wooded to land where we want to, so we're going to have to land in these areas," –he pointed out several places on the map – "and hike in. That will probably take about half a day."
"Norway in December… how cold is it going to be?" Lester asked.
"It shouldn't be too bad," Becker said. "Luckily the mountain the anomaly formed on, Surtningssue, is one of the smallest in the area and isn't a glacier like a lot of the ones around it. Also the weather's been pretty mild in Europe in recent months, so there won't be much snow on the ground. We'll be fine."
"Say the name of the mountain again," Jess said.
Becker looked at her. "Surtningssue."
Jess grinned. "Now say it three times, really fast," she said.
"Yes, thank you, Miss Parker," Lester said flatly, though Jess could see his lip twitching. Becker gave Jess a mock glare before turning back to his map but she could tell he was trying not to smile as well.
"Once we're in position we'll close in until we get close enough to neutralise it."
"Abby is already making room for it in the menagerie," Jess told them. None of them looked particularly happy with that announcement, but they didn't say anything. Jess knew they didn't want the rhino to end up dead – they were just thinking of how much trouble it was going to be to transport the creature back to the ARC. She'd been thinking the same thing.
Oh well. They needed to catch it first.
"Alright, onto logistics," said Lester.
"We'll leave tomorrow morning – early," Becker said. "As I said we'll split into three teams of five and move in –"
"Yes, that's fine," Lester cut in. "The Minister has spoken to the Norwegians and they're not particularly happy about us taking care of this ourselves…"
"Oh don't say it…" Becker said, closing his eyes.
"But they've agreed, reluctantly," Lester finished. Becker looked extremely relieved, but Lester wasn't finished. "However, they have some conditions."
"Of course they do."
"First of all, they've established their own perimeter in the area."
"Don't worry, they're well away from any danger," Lester said. He looked to Jess to back him up, and she nodded.
"That's right," she said. "Basically local law enforcement have closed off all of the usual trails into the woods – it will actually work in your favour, since you won't have to worry about any members of the public wandering too close to the anomaly site."
Becker didn't look completely convinced, but he nodded. "Okay."
"They're going to have to be fed up-to-date positions, and we're going to have to monitor for any further sightings otherwise their perimeter might not be wide enough," Jess said.
"How will we do that?" Lester asked.
"I'm going to have to coordinate with local law enforcement, I guess via the Norwegian government,"
Jess said, scribbling on the notepad she'd brought in with her. "They'll have to relay me the positions of the perimeter so that I can make sure they're keeping out of the way. We don't anyone seeing anything... and we really don't want anyone getting hurt."
"This is getting more complicated by the second," Becker said. Jess shrugged and gave him a small smile - he returned it and turned back to Lester.
"Is there anything else?"
Lester nodded. "The Norwegians want to be kept appraised of all developments," he said. "everything. They want updated accurate positions of your team every half an hour."
Becker rolled his eyes. "Fine," he said. "Well, Jess can track us on our black boxes and send through the coordinates – right?" He looked to her expectantly, and Jess shook her head.
"No, it's not that simple," she said. "The black boxes won't transmit that far – they won't work that far outside the UK. We're going to have to rely on GPS, but your standard GPS that you get on a smart phone isn't going to cut it in a region that remote. Standard GPS relies on mobile carriers as much as it does satellites, and of course you're not going to get a signal halfway up Surt… the mountain."
Becker quirked an eyebrow at Jess' complete failure to pronounce Norwegian, before shrugging.
"So… what do you suggest?"
"You're going to need to take heavy-duty hand-held GPS units with you, at least one per team," Jess said. "They take some time to calibrate but they'll give the most accurate reading, which will be read by the ADD and relayed to the Norwegians."
"How long is 'some time'?" Becker asked.
"A couple of minutes," said Jess.
Becker sighed. "Are they difficult to use?"
"Not at all," Jess said truthfully. "Though... well..."
Jess frowned as she thought about it in more detail. "Well, unless the calibration gets out of allignment... which is quite likely, really, given the remote area. In which case... I guess I'll have to recalibrate remotely from the ARC... though that would be complicated, and reliant on at least one of you being able to calibrate manually."
Becker sighed again. "Right."
"And though you'll be able to use radio to communicate between your teams, you won't be able to use radio to contact the ARC - it's too far," Jess said.
Becker nodded - he'd obviously figured that much out. "I know."
"So you'll need satellite phones, and again they'll need to be calibrated," Jess said.
"You'll also need to keep in contact with the ARC as far as possible," Matt said. "It's Jess who's going to have to keep the Norwegians in the loop, and she's also going to have to monitor any sightings and relay the information back to you."
Jess kept scribbling on her pad for another moment, already getting a headache from the logistics of the mission, and when she glanced at Becker she saw that he was frowning as if he felt the same way.
"Becker?" Lester said.
"I'm not sure this will work," Becker said, shaking his head. He looked at Jess and gave her an apologetic smile. "I don't doubt that Jess is going to be able to keep on top of it all, but I have serious doubts that we're going to be able to keep up with all of these checks out in the field. Surely they don't really need us checking in every half an hour."
"I'm sorry but my hands are tied on this," Lester said flatly. "The Minister had to do enough grovelling to get the Norwegians to agree to let us handle this ourselves, and this was the deal."
Becker rolled his eyes. "It's just going to split our focus and make it that much harder to find the damn thing," he said. "And on top of that you just know that the GPS won't work, and we're going to have to be phoning Jess every half an hour to get her to calibrate everything for us."
Lester pursed his lips thoughtfully. "Perhaps you should have a dedicated member of your team for coordination and logistics," he said.
Becker shook his head. "Ideally yes, but none of my men are trained for what's going to be required here," he said.
Lester shrugged. "Alright, take Jess with you," he said.
"What?" Jess said, surprised.
"What?" Becker didn't just sound surprised – he sounded furious. Jess' eyes widened a little at his reaction, but she focused on Lester as he kept talking.
"It's perfect – Jess can concentrate on coordinating your efforts with the Norwegians and touch base
with the ARC for updates," he said. "George can take over at the ADD - it sounds like all of the complicated calibrations will have to be done manually in the field, so Jess will be on hand to deal with all of that, and George can relay messages here at the ARC." He looked at Jess for her reaction, and she nodded. She was a little surprised at the suggestion, but only because she'd never been asked to do something like this before. But Lester was right – this was going to be a tricky operation and she did have the know-how to make it go a lot smoother if she was there on the ground. It also showed a level of confidence in her abilities that she couldn't but feel a bit flattered by.
Becker, however, didn't seem to see it that way. "It is not perfect, it is very far from perfect," he said angrily, leaning forward towards Lester.
Lester glared at Becker – Jess knew he didn't like being argued with like this. "Jess has all the technological knowledge needed and the requisite experience for handling something like this," he said, calmly but with a touch of steel in his voice. "We've already established that coordinating from the ARC is going to cause problems, and you said yourself that you need someone on the ground with you."
"Yes, but not Jess!" Becker exploded.
"Excuse me?" Jess exclaimed, glaring at Becker. "What's that supposed to mean?"
Becker didn't even look at her – he just kept glaring at Lester, who was glaring right back. "Jess is the most qualified for the job," Lester said, starting to sound annoyed.
"This isn't the Forest of Dean you know," Becker practically snarled. "We're going to be hiking through some very difficult terrain in the middle of winter –"
Jess had heard enough. "I'm right here you know," she snapped. Becker did look at her then, and she glared at him. "I'm well aware of how difficult this is going to be, and that's exactly why you need me there," she said.
Becker didn't look impressed by her reasoning, but Jess turned to Lester before he could protest further. "I'm perfectly happy to go on the mission," she said. "As I said I'm well aware of the difficulties, and on the ground I'll be able to coordinate with the local law enforcement and the ARC as well as track the other teams."
"Excellent, that's settled then," Lester said, pushing back his chair and standing up.
Becker immediately jumped to his feet. "This isn't –"
Lester cut him off. "I don't want to hear it, Captain," he said, sounding angry now. "This meeting is over – and you have a mission to prepare for."
Becker scowled at Lester for a long moment, before turning on his heel and stomping out of the office. Jess watched him leave before turning back to Lester. "Excuse me," she said darkly. Lester just quirked an eyebrow at her, and Matt looked faintly amused as she stormed past him and out of the office after Becker.
He was already halfway across the Hub, but she could run pretty fast in her heels and caught up with him in a few seconds. She grabbed his arm, forcing him to stop and face her.
"What the hell was that?" She demanded without any preamble.
Becker folded his arms sullenly. "You don't belong in the field, Jess," he said matter-of-factly.
Jess shook her head. "I'm the most qualified person to handle this and you know it," she said.
"You're not a field agent."
Jess glared at him. "I can handle myself perfectly fine," she said.
Becker shook his head. "I meant what I said in there – this isn't going to be some walk in the woods," he said tersely. "We're talking about a thickly forested mountain terrain, in Norway, in December."
Jess felt indignation rise up in her so strongly she had to fight down the urge to hit him. "I know that," she hissed. "And I'm telling you I can handle it. I may not be SAS but I'm not some delicate little girl who can't cope with camping outdoors."
Becker huffed out an annoyed breath. "I don't care, you're not coming," he said. "Lester will see sense by the end of the day, you'll see."
Jess folded her own arms across her chest, mimicking his aggressive stance. "Yes, we will see," she said, absolutely positive that Lester wouldn't change his mind. "Meanwhile I'll be here preparing for the mission. I suggest you do the same."
Becker scowled at her the exact same way he'd just scowled at Lester, and Jess returned it with one of her own. He dropped his arms and started walking again, heading out of the Hub. Jess watched him go, and couldn't resist a parting shot at his back.
"See you tomorrow!"
He kept walking. Jess scowled at his back for a moment more before sliding into her seat in front of the ADD and starting to bring up requisition orders for the equipment she was going to have to take into the field. After a few moments, though, she had to stop because her hands were shaking too much for her to type properly.
How dare he? She could understand him having some reservations about her going along, because yes of course she didn't have the same experience in the field as his men did, but she wasn't completely hopeless. He must know that she was the only one capable of coordinating all the logistics for them over there… but he hadn't even acknowledged that she'd be useful. Instead he'd completely humiliated her in front of Lester and Matt by saying that she shouldn't go.
But more than feeling angry, Jess felt hurt. She'd thought that Becker had some respect for her as a professional, but it was clear now that he just thought of her as a naïve and helpless girl. She thought of those times when he'd called her brilliant, and realised that he must have just been humouring her, teasing her like he always did.
And that hurt more than anything else. She stared blankly at the screens in front of her, afraid for a moment that she was going to start crying, but she didn't. She shook her head and clenched her hands into fists to stop them shaking before stretching them out and starting to type again.
She'd show him how wrong he was about her.
Jess got barely any sleep that night, her mind racing over the mission to come and the way Becker was acting. She hadn't seen him again since their fight, and they'd only communicated through email for the rest of the day – Jess had noticed that Becker cc'd Lester into every single one of the messages he sent her, presumably as a tactic to get their boss to change his mind. He didn't, though, and Jess was glad to see that at least someone had some faith in her.
By the next morning (though in her opinion 4.30am shouldn't qualify as morning) Jess had calmed down somewhat. She was willing to give Becker the benefit of the doubt – he was probably under a lot of stress worrying about how complicated this mission would be, and having her along was a variable he hadn't predicted. She didn't want things to be awkward between them while they were out in the field, so she'd decided to just put the whole messy business behind her.
With that in mind, she headed straight over to Becker when she'd parked her car at the ARC the next morning (4.30am! Seriously – urgh). Becker and the fourteen other soldiers going on the mission were milling around the underground car park sorting out supplies and loading them into various vans, and she sidled up next to Becker at the back of one of the vans. He was dressed all in black as usual, but Jess noted that the top was a fleece and the trousers were thicker than his usual BDUs.
He gave her a slightly wary look, and Jess smiled and held out a paper cup. "Peace offering," she said.
Becker smiled back and took the coffee. "Thanks," he said. He took a sip, looking away from her back into the van. No word of apology or anything like that, Jess noted, but she pushed that thought to the back of her mind. She took a sip of her own coffee, which was almost finished by now.
"Have we got everything?" she asked him.
"Looks like it," Becker said. "Did you take one of the rucksacks yesterday?"
"Yep," Jess said. "I wanted to pack it at home. It's in my car."
Becker looked like he had something to say about that, but he just nodded. "Right." He took another sip of coffee. Jess bit back a sigh – so much for things not being awkward between them.
"Nice boots," Becker said suddenly.
Jess smiled, looking down at her brand new walking boots. Definitely not what she usually wore, but they were surprisingly comfortable and definitely gave her plenty of support. In fact, none of what she was wearing right now was what she usually wore – she'd left work last night and gone straight to Millets, where she'd proceeded to buy everything she thought she might need for a camping trip to Norway. So, she was currently wearing black thermals underneath black hiker's leggings, a white thermal shirt and a grey fleece jacket, as well as a black fleecy hat. She'd gone for the best ones she could find, hence the distressing lack of colour. The boots were black too.
"Thanks," she said. "I got them at…" Her voice trailed off as she realised that Becker never commented on her footwear. She would be the first to admit that her taste in shoes veered towards the eccentric, and Becker had seen her come to work in shoes that even she had to admit were on the ridiculous side, but he'd never said a word. So why was he noticing now? Why was he looking at her feet?
Her eyes widened. "Oh my god," she said, "you actually expected me to turn up in heels, didn't you?"
Jess glared at him, all thoughts of a truce flying from her mind as her anger and hurt came rushing back – and anger was winning. "How dumb do you think I am?" She hissed at him, before spinning on the heel of her brand new walking boot and stomping back to her car.
She could hear Becker following her, but she didn't look round. "Jess – Jess wait," he said from right behind her. She ignored him, pulling open the boot and starting to sort out her stuff. He appeared next to her a moment later.
"Jess I'm sorry," he said straight away. "I don't think you're dumb, I never meant to imply…"
"Whatever," Jess said, cutting him off. He probably hadn't meant anything by it consciously, but it was all indicative of a Becker who had no respect for her as a professional, and she didn't have to stand for it. She put her now-empty cup into a corner of her boot to deal with later and shifted her rucksack so it was standing up. She'd packed incredibly lightly, and it was only about half full – which was good as she'd have a lot of equipment to add to it.
Becker was still standing next to her, and when she glanced at him she saw that he was staring at the rucksack with a scandalised expression. She followed his gaze and knew exactly what he was going to comment on next. She bit back a sigh.
"Is that your sleeping bag?" He said after moment.
"Yes," Jess snapped. "What about it?"
Becker blinked at her. "It's pink."
"Can't get anything past you, Becker," Jess said sarcastically.
Becker frowned. "Jess, do you have any idea how cold it's –"
"I know exactly how cold it's going to be," Jess said angrily. "And the colour of my sleeping bag has nothing to do with how warm it's going to keep me."
Becker rolled his eyes. "We've got army-issue sleeping bags already," he said.
"Ew, no, those things are never washed," Jess said straight away. Becker looked like he was about to roll his eyes again, and Jess snapped. "Contrary to what you obviously think I'm not an idiot, and this sleeping bag is a bloody good one."
Becker looked surprised at her outburst. "I –"
Jess didn't want to hear it. She hoisted her rucksack onto her shoulder and slammed the boot shut. "Where's the equipment I requisitioned?" She asked Becker, who was staring at her.
"It's… in that van there," he said, pointing the van out.
Jess nodded. "Good," she said. "I'll go check on it now." She started to walk away but changed her mind after a couple of steps. She turned around, reached out and plucked the coffee cup from Becker's hand, and then kept walking.
Peace offer rescinded.
The flight to Norway was extremely uncomfortable for Jess. Ordinarily she liked hanging out with the ARC soldiers; they were nice guys, and though they tended to tease her a lot she didn't mind it at all since she could give out as much banter as she took. However, now it was just awkward. And Jess blamed Becker.
He'd apologised again for implying that she was stupid, so Jess was slightly mollified on that front though far from satisfied. Becker's men had clearly been warned that Jess was coming on the mission with them as they'd shown no surprise to see her there, and many of them had greeted her as warmly as they always did. It was when they arrived at the military base to get on the plane to Norway that things started to get awkward.
Though he'd apologised, Becker was still very clearly not happy that Jess was coming on the mission, and this was blatantly obvious to all his men. Jess knew they had far too much respect for him to argue with him about it, and she suspected that more than a few of them agreed with him about her being there, and had only been nice to her because they were being polite. That all stopped. The soldiers were all reacting to the tension between her and Becker, and most of them were avoiding even looking at her.
Jess didn't care so much about the soldiers not talking to her, it just really annoyed her because she thought it was incredibly unprofessional of Becker to let his personal feelings affect the dynamic of the team… and if Becker was one thing, it was professional. So he really, reallydidn't want her there, and that just made her angry. And yes, it hurt.
So for the entire trip to Norway Jess sat in her seat glaring out of the window, too wired from her two cups of coffee to calm down her racing mind.
The transfer at the Norwegian military base was handled with – who'd have thought it – military efficiency, and their choppers were ready to leave when they arrived. Becker called them all together for a final word before they split into three teams.
"Right. I want to find this thing quickly, but let's not be stupid about it," he said. "This isn't like an ordinary anomaly alert – if you go down here, Jess isn't going to be standing by to have paramedics on the scene within five minutes."
Jess wasn't sure whether that was praise for her usual efficiency as a field coordinator, or a dig for not overseeing everything from the ARC as usual.
"You all know your drop zones and the perimeter we're creating. Stay in radio contact – report any sightings or evidence of creature activity immediately. The containment team will stand by here and move in once we have the creature neutralised – it will take them a few hours to get to wherever we are, so if you bring it down be prepared to stay there until they arrive."
Everyone nodded, and Jess stepped forward with an open box in her hands. "Here, I've got black boxes for everyone," she said.
None of the soldiers moved to take them, and most of them looked at Becker – Jess did too, and saw he was frowning. "I thought you said they don't work?"
"They don't – well, they can't be traced by the ARC," Jess said. "But I have an idea, and I don't know if it will work but if it does I need everyone to have a black box. So just switch them on and put them in your pockets."
Becker looked at her for a moment before nodding – the men all took that as their cue to step forward and grab a black box from Jess.
"Alright, good hunting everyone," Becker said once they were done. With a final nod the group split into their three teams. Jess handed the now-empty box to one of the containment team and started to head towards their helicopter with the rest of her team, but Becker caught her by the elbow.
"What's your idea?" He asked her.
"I mightbe able to programme my GPS to detect the black boxes, and then I'll be able to relay that data to the ARC instead of the other teams having to calibrate for themselves," Jess said. It had only occurred to her as a possibility right towards the end of the flight over here, and it was most likely not going to work – but she might as well try, and so everyone needed a black box. She was just glad she'd requisitioned them and brought them along just in case.
Becker was still holding onto Jess' elbow, staring at her intently. "Well, if you can do that, can't you stay and monitor us from here?" He said.
Jess' eyes narrowed. "No I can't," she said firmly. "I'd still need to calibrate the GPS from one location, and like I said it's just an idea." She stared at him defiantly - he was clearly trying to think of another way to keep her out of the field.
After a few moments Becker's mouth tightened and he let go of her arm. "Right."
The two of them started towards the helicopter – the other four members of their team were already on board – and Jess felt her steps get a little heavier the closer they got to it. Everything had happened so fast since the meeting yesterday, and she'd been so preoccupied with being annoyed at Becker, that she hadn't really thought about the fact that she was actually going on a mission. Properly going on one – not accidentally by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Becker must have seen something in her expression. "Have you ever been in a helicopter?" He asked her suddenly.
"No," Jess admitted. She looked up at Becker just in time to see him sigh, and she narrowed her eyes again. She was notgoing to be a useless little girl – she was going to be an asset on this mission, and she would show Becker that he was wrong to doubt her.
Without another glance at Becker, Jess strode purposefully towards the helicopter and climbed aboard.
"Alright, let's make camp."
They were the sweetest words Jess had ever heard in her life. They'd been hiking almost non-stop for about six hours, and Becker hadn't been lying when he'd told Jess that it would be tough. There wasn't very much snow on the ground – the trees' thick canopy had kept much of it out, and as had been brought up in the meeting it had been a mild winter so far – but it was still cold. Jess' nose and cheeks were frozen, and her fingers were basically numb. She envied the soldiers their gloves – she had a pair herself, of course, but had to remove them whenever she needed to use the GPS or satellite phone, which was often.
There'd already been a couple of times when Jess had had to recalibrate the GPS on the spot, so she felt justified in being there… not that Becker or any of the other soldiers had commented on it. Becker called a halt every time Jess had to send their coordinates to the ARC, since she couldn't walk and calibrate at the same time, and she tried to be as quick as humanly possible in checking in so they could keep going. She thought things were going smoothly and knew she was being helpful, but Becker's expression had just got grimmer every single time he called a halt. It was like every time they needed to check in he was reminded that Jess was with them, and he just didn't want to be reminded of that fact.
It was taking all of Jess' willpower not to show how worn out she was, but she was determined to keep up and not complain. And, so far, she'd succeeded, though it was very difficult for her. She wasn't exactly unfit – she went jogging four times a week – but hiking wasn't something she'd really done before, and certainly not up a freezing wooded mountainside with a bunch of highly-trained super-fit soldiers. She knew that the only reason they were stopping after six hours was because it was too dark to carry on, not because they were tired.
She was though. Of course she was. Her pack had seemed to grow heavier by the hour and her legs and feet were aching – though her boots were proving they were worth the ridiculous amount of money she'd paid for them and she didn't have any blisters. She'd pushed through the pain, refusing to let her calm and focused exterior slip for even one moment, as she didn't want to give Becker any ammunition to use against her being there.
It didn't help that Becker had stuck to her like a limpet for the entire day.
He'd had Lieutenant Hollings take point, which was unusual for him – Jess had monitored him on enough missions to know that Becker always took the lead. But not today – instead he stayed by Jess' side the entire time. Jess wouldn't have minded this at all, except she was still annoyed by his treatment of her and it just meant she couldn't let her façade slip for even a moment. That in turn made her angrier – she wasn't trained for this kind of mission and she shouldn't feel ashamed about feeling tired, but instead she was spending half her energy hiding her true feelings.
What made it worse was that he barely spoke to her all day. In fact the entire team was basically silent – Jess assumed they were all concentrating on the job in hand, but she had a feeling that some of the silence was due to the fact that Becker was clearly in a foul mood.
Again, stupid Becker.
Jess resisted the urge to flop down against the nearest tree and instead slowly and calmly removed her heavy pack as the others started to do the same. The ground had levelled out a bit here and the trees were slightly thinner – it was a good place to pitch tents.
Jess was a carrying a lightweight one-person army-issue tent strapped to her rucksack, but she had no idea how to put it up. Ordinarily she would have asked someone for help and not felt embarrassed about it, but instead she took her time calibrating their exact position and relaying their coordinates to the ARC whilst surreptitiously watching as Hollings and Adams pitched their tents… it was actually pretty simple, and she didn't think she'd have a problem. It was only when she reached for her own tent that she realised it was gone.
Becker was a few feet away, her tent already up and halfway through putting up his own.
Jess felt a childish urge to complain, and she fought it down, trying to hide any reaction at all. "Thanks," she said reluctantly, before dragging her backpack into her tent and zipping closed the flap behind her before Becker could say anything to her. She needed a minute alone.
Once cut off from the outside world Jess let out a shaky breath and flopped down onto her back, just staring up at the green canvas barely three feet above her head. The tent was tiny, built for one man to lie in and nothing else. She could just about sit up if she bowed her head, so Becker would have no chance. The thought of him being uncomfortable gave Jess a kind of savage pleasure.
Of course he was used to it – it was probably the lap of luxury to him.
Jess sighed and shut her eyes, trying to empty her mind of any thoughts of Becker. She concentrated on her breathing, trying to block out any other sounds and allowing her body to relax into the ground under her. It worked for a few minutes, but soon she couldn't ignore the sounds of the soldiers walking around the site, talking to each other as they gathered wood for a fire and discussed making dinner. Jess could hear Becker directing it all, and it sounded like he was still next to her tent. Then she heard one of them – she thought it was Adams – calling out that he'd found some tracks, and she heard Becker walking away to investigate.
They'd been finding tracks all day – huge footprints and broken branches that let them know they were on the right track. Those footprints were days old, though, and Jess guessed that these footprints would be no different.
Sighing again, Jess sat up as much as she could and powered up her GPS. She didn't really want to go back outside right then, but she might as well make herself useful. She hadn't had time during the day to work on her idea of reading the black boxes, but she set to it now. It didn't take too long to recalibrate the device and soon she had readings of all of the black boxes in the forest. It was going to make life a lot easier – the black boxes gave far more sophisticated readouts than the hand-held GPS units, and with this the other teams wouldn't have to worry about checking in themselves.
Jess figured it was time to stop hiding in her tent, and so she grabbed her torch and crawled out through the flap, leaving her rucksack inside.
A couple of the men had started a largish fire and were sitting next to it, talking quietly and warming their hands. Jess wandered over but apart from brief nods they didn't say anything to her. She sat down on the other side of the fire, near enough to feel its warmth – it was so nice after their long, cold trek.
Jess stifled a yawn – the warmth was creeping over her and making her feel sleepy, and her aching legs were starting to throb. She wanted nothing more than to take off her boots and crawl into her lovely new sleeping bag until the morning. She looked over at Becker – he was standing about twenty feet away, talking to Hollings. From the way he was pointing Jess assumed he was giving orders about setting up a perimeter. She knew better than to offer to help – she could only imagine what Becker's reaction would be if she suggested she took the first watch.
Becker glanced over at her then and Jess looked away quickly, back at the fire.
Jess realised that she needed to use the loo and shouldn't put it off anymore – she'd avoided asking for a toilet break during their long trek and now she was pretty much bursting. She sighed and went back to her tent to grab the small EMD she had attached to her rucksack. That in hand she quickly headed out to find a piece of forest thick enough and far enough away from the site to give her some privacy.
A few minutes later, she was only halfway back to the site when Becker stepped out of the shadows at the edge of her torch beam and scared her half to death.
"Jess!" Becker exclaimed, stomping over to her.
"Jesus, Becker, you scared me!" Jess said, pressing her hand to her heart.
"What the hell were you doing?" Becker demanded as he reached her side.
Jess saw his face as he stepped into her light and that he looked furious. She frowned, confused. "Excuse me?"
"I turned around and you were gone!" Becker exclaimed. "You can't go wandering off in the dark!"
Jess rolled her eyes. "I wasn't wandering off, Becker," she said. "I took a torch, and a radio, and an EMD. And I was only gone two minutes!"
She stepped round him and started walking again, but Becker grabbed her elbow, forcing her to stop.
"I don't care! What the hell were you doing?" He ground out through gritted teeth. His grip on her elbow tightened and he took a step closer, looming over her side.
Jess was unable to speak for a moment; she was so taken aback by his anger and the intensity in his gaze. Then she snapped out of it and felt her own anger rising up inside her. She glared at him. "What do you think?" She snapped, hating that her cheeks were going red. At least he couldn't see.
Becker's grip slackened but he still looked furious. "You can't go off by yourself," he said flatly.
"I didn't want an audience," Jess said angrily. "And I was two minutes."
Becker let her go but took yet another step closer to her, so she had to tip her head back to see his face. "Don't ever leave the camp like that again," he said. "I need to know where you are at all times."
Jess returned his glare for a long moment, but though she wanted to argue with him she knew that it wouldn't do her any good. Not while he was in this mood. "Fine," she spat, before stepping away from him and starting back towards their tents.
Becker followed her immediately, close to her back. "I mean it Jess," he said darkly.
"I said fine," Jess snapped, shooting him another scowl over her shoulder. "What more do you want?"
"I want you not to be here."
It was said so quietly that Jess almost didn't hear it over the sounds of the leaves and twigs cracking underfoot. But she did hear it, and she rounded on Becker so fast that he swayed on the spot from stopping so suddenly.
"Well I am here," she growled, shining her torch in his surprised face. "Oh, and by the way, I've recalibrated the GPS to read the black boxes, so the other teams won't have to do anything now – I can register them remotely and relay their positions to the ARC."
Becker was silent for a moment, just staring at her, before his face took on the grim expression he'd worn all day and he nodded. "I'll let them know," he said.
Jess nodded back. They were in sight of the tents now, and it was time for her to get away from him before she did something she'd regret, like suckerpunch him. The problem with such a course of action is that she'd likely hurt herself more than him.
"Good night, Captain," she bit out before turning and stomping towards her tent.
Becker followed her. "You need to eat some –"
"I've got food in my tent," Jess snapped, refusing to look at him. "Good night."
The other soldiers were within earshot now, and they were all staring at her. Furious at them, herself and (mostly) Becker, Jess yanked up the zip of her tent, flung herself inside and yanked it closed behind her.
She refused to say it out loud, but she was screaming on the inside. What the hell was wrong with the man? Yes, alright, he didn't want her on the mission, but she was here and there was nothing either of them could do to change that, so surely it was time to let it go?
Becker clearly didn't think so, and Jess had a feeling he was going to keep up his surly, immature and infuriating behaviour for the rest of the mission.
Jess sat down in her tent and ate one of the MRE packs she had with her – she didn't care that it was cold, since she knew from music festival experience that heating it up wouldn't make it taste any better anyway. Jess was shivering by the time she finished her meal and she made short work of pulling on a couple of extra layers out of her rucksack and snuggling into her sleeping bag. She positioned her rucksack where she could use it as a pillow, and lay back.
The temperature had dropped substantially since nightfall, and it was getting colder with every passing half hour. Jess was shivering in her sleeping bag before very long, thinking longingly of the fire outside and wishing she was sitting by it. But there was no way she was going back out there and letting Becker know how cold she was – no way she was giving him the opportunity to make a dig about her pink sleeping bag.
The stupid, stupid man. She knew she shouldn't let him get to her, knew that he was just acting ridiculous and that none of it was her fault, but she couldn't help it. It was Becker. Becker didn't act like this, not ever. He could be snarky, sure, but he was never downright rude, the way he'd been with her this past day. He never belittled anyone and made them feel like they weren't good enough.
Jess would never in a million years have thought that he would treat her so callously. Not only because it wasn't in his nature, but because he'd always treated her with nothing but respect, kindness and even affection. She'd thought that they were friends at the very least – and she'd hoped that at some point they'd be more.
Well, she was going to have to forget about that. He clearly was not only very not interested, but also thought she was nothing but a useless little girl. She'd at least thought that he respected her abilities; now that she knew that wasn't true.
It was liberating, really. For over a year now she'd thought of no one but Becker, not even considered any other man. Not anymore. No, as soon as they found this rhino and she got back from this bloody forest she was going to move on, and Becker could just do as he damn well pleased.
Jess lay there in the darkness, seething with self-righteous anger, but it was hard to keep up her seething when she started shivering again. She'd bought a few disposable heat packs from Millets on whim, just in case, and now she was very glad she had. She got one out of her rucksack and bent it to activate it before shoved it down into the bottom of her sleeping bag to warm her feet. She put another one by her hip to warm her middle. She felt much better for it, and lay back again, enjoying the warmth.
Take that, Becker, she thought as she drifted off to sleep.
It was only a few hours later that she woke up, shivering from the cold again, the heat from her packs long-since faded. Sighing, she reached for her last two packs and activated them, praying they found the stupid rhino quickly the next day so she wouldn't have to spend another night in this stupid forest.
Jess woke up at the crack of dawn, freezing cold and stiff. Becker and all the other soldiers were, of course, already up and about, and if they'd been as cold as Jess had been during the night they did a very good job of hiding it. Becker was just as surly this morning – if not surlier – than the day before, so Jess did her best to ignore him. This was difficult since he was once again dogging her steps, though he did at least give her five minutes by herself in the woods before they all set off again.
Jess' recalibration of the GPS the night before meant that their checking in was a much quicker process, so they made good progress through the morning. The terrain didn't really change, but the temperature was getting noticeably colder as the day wore on, and Jess was dreading having to spend another night camping out.
There were more tracks around than yesterday, so at least they knew they were still going in the right direction… though, again, these tracks were a couple of days old at least, so there was no telling exactly where the rhino was now. All they could do was keep going.
It was well after noon that Jess noticed what looked like a small camera in one of the trees. It was tiny, and well hidden in the foliage, but she noticed light reflecting off the lens and it only took her a moment to spot the small transmitter attached to it.
"Becker," she said, stopping short.
The only times she'd spoken to him all day was when she needed to stop for their half hour check ins, so he looked confused now. "It's only been ten minutes," he said.
"I know," Jess said, rolling her eyes. She pointed into the trees. "Look – there's a camera up there."
Becker squinted up into the trees and Jess saw his eyebrows knit together as he spotted it. "That's weird," he said.
Jess shook her head, already reaching for her satellite phone. "Not really," she said. "It's probably for environmental surveying – to track endangered species and that kind of thing. I need to phone George."
"Why?" Becker asked, sounding a bit exasperated. The satellite phone took longer to calibrate than anything else, and he liked to keep the calls to two a day to save time.
Jess refused to let her excitement be dampened by his grouchiness. "Because if there's one camera, there'll be more," she said. "And George might be able to find the pictures transmitted from the cameras and tell us where the creature actually is right now."
Becker was silent for a moment before he nodded. "Alright, make the call," he said. He called for all the men to take a break for a minute, and Jess got to work on the phone. It took her a few minutes to put the call through to George, and then a couple more minutes to explain the situation to him. He asked for fifteen minutes to look into it, so she agreed to call him back then. Becker decided they might as well wait until after that call to move on again, so he called for lunch.
Jess sat down with her back to a tree, glad of the rest, and dug around in her bag for one of her MREs. The others were doing the same, though Jess could see that they were all still on alert, ready to jump into action at any moment. Becker didn't even bother to sit down – he just crouched.
Lieutenant Adams was sitting just a few feet away from Jess, and staring up at the camera in the tree. He shook his head and looked over at Jess. "It doesn't look like a video camera," he said.
Jess nodded. "It probably just takes stills, and it's most probably got a motion sensor on it to trigger the pictures," she guessed.
"And you really think we'll be able to use the cameras to find the creature?"
He sounded doubtful, but not in a mean way, and at least someone was actually talking to her. Jess nodded again. "I can't say for sure, but it looks like there's a transmitter attached to it, probably sending the photos, so George should be able to track similar signals and hack them to access any other photos, and hopefully we'll get lucky," she said. "Also, he's going to have to delete any photos that were taken, otherwise there'll be some very confused conservationists."
Adams smiled. "Well, good spot," he said, before going back to his lunch.
Jess smiled as well, warmed by the praise. At least someone was starting to appreciate her worth on this mission. She glanced at Becker and saw that he was staring up at the camera, still as stony-faced as ever. She rolled her eyes and concentrated on pretending what she was eating was something else.
Fifteen minutes later she pulled out her satellite phone and called the ARC again. George had struck gold – the rhino had triggered cameras three times in the past two days, the last one as recently as two hours ago. It was heading East around the mountain, not up it like they were going, and they would have to change their heading to intercept it. Jess told Becker the new coordinates and he relayed them to the other two teams before telling them all to get going again. He didn't say a word of thanks but Jess got a couple of encouraging smiles from some of the others, and she was feeling pretty smug as she shouldered her bag and started off again.
They'd been going for about three hours when they came upon the creature. It happened very suddenly – Lieutenant Hollings stopped and held up his fist, and the others stopped as well. Jess couldn't see anything over Holling's shoulder, but she could clearly hear something in front of them, and she knew by the way Becker tensed that they'd found what they were looking for.
Becker beckoned the soldiers closer to him and Jess suddenly found herself in the middle of a huddle – Hollings kept his back to her, presumably keeping his EMD trained on the creature.
"Right," Becker whispered. "We fan out and surround it – watch me for the signal to fire. "Adams, Wallis, you two go round to the right, Harvey you're with me on the left. Hollings?"
"Sir?" Hollings replied quietly, not turning round.
"You stay here with Jess and keep down," said Becker.
Becker gave Jess a serious look, which Jess returned with a glare. He opened his mouth again but she cut him off. "Save your breath," she hissed, "I'll stay down." Honestly, did he think she was going to go charging at the damn thing?
Becker just nodded, gave her one last tense look, and then gestured to the others to move out. They did so quickly and silently, and Jess suddenly found herself alone with Hollings. He stepped to the side, and Jess saw the rhino for the first time.
It was like a cross between a modern rhino and a woolly mammoth, which she supposed she should have expected, but seeing it in the flesh was very different to her imagination. It was extraordinary. Shaped like a modern rhino with thick and shaggy brown fur, it was standing with its back to them, chewing on the lower branches of a fir tree. It was about forty feet away, but the trees had thinned out a bit here and so they could see it pretty clearly. Jess leant against a tree and, at a look from Hollings, crouched down low. Hollings knelt down a couple of feet away from her, his EMD trained on the clueless rhino.
Becker and the other soldiers were creeping through the trees either side of the rhino, which clearly hadn't noticed them yet. Jess swallowed hard and had to remind herself to breath properly. Angry as she still was at him, she couldn't help but watch Becker more than any of the others as they got closer to the rhino, hoping that he wasn't about to do anything stupid and heroic and get himself hurt.
She needn't have worried, though. Becker raised his hand, which must have been the signal, and all four of them opened fire with their heavy duty EMDs. The rhino reared up, letting out a high-pitched bellow as the blue energy of the EMDs hit it from four angles. Its hide was thick though, and it took a couple of shots from all of them before it collapsed to the ground with a groan.
And that was that. It was easy. Too easy, really. Jess frowned and stood up as Becker and the others moved cautiously towards the unconscious rhino. She'd completely misjudged the distance – they were more like thirty feet away, if that… the rhino was a lot smaller than she'd expected. The reports had said it was about two metres long, but now she had the perspective of Becker and his men standing beside it she could see it was actually only about a metre long. Standing up she could also see that it didn't have any horns on its snout, only nubs.
Jess gasped. "It's a baby," she whispered.
Hollings frowned and looked round at her. He'd lowered his EMD when the rhino had collapsed, but his grip tightened when he caught sight of Jess' face. "What?"
"That's a baby," she repeated. "The sightings said it was much bigger – it must be a mother and its calf."
Hollings stared at her for a moment before fumbling for his radio on his flak jacket. "Sir? We might have a –"
Hollings' eyes widened fearfully, and Jess didn't need to look round to know that she was right – she could hear the sound of something approaching to her right; something big.
"Jess, get down!" Hollings yelled out, his EMD coming up. Jess didn't need to be told twice – she immediately ducked back down into a crouch next to the tree again, and Hollings leapt out and began firing. She heard a roar, similar to the one the other rhino had given out but much louder and much lower in pitch. She could hear shouting underneath the sound of rhino's roar, but she didn't look towards where she knew Becker and the others must be heading towards them. She peered out around the tree trunk to see what was happening.
Hollings was firing his EMD but he wasn't standing still – he was moving towards where the other rhino was, drawing the creature away from Jess and towards the other soldiers. Some of his shots were hitting the rhino, but this one was more than twice the size of the baby, and the wool covering her hide was a lot thicker. Jess gasped with horror as she roared again and ran towards Hollings.
He stood his ground and kept firing, and one of his shots hit the rhino square in the face – the rhino stumbled slightly, shaking her head groggily, before letting out an angry bellow and lunging forward towards Hollings. Hollings jumped out of the way of the rhino's horn which would have otherwise skewered him in the gut, but the rhino just swept her head into Hollings' side, throwing her entire weight into the man.
Hollings was launched into the air and slammed into the tree next to Jess – she screamed and ducked instinctively, falling onto her hip and flinching away as Hollings slid down the trunk to land in a crumpled heap next to her. Jess shook herself and quickly knelt up next to him – he was unconscious, but still breathing – but the rhino let out another roar that seemed somehow louder than any of the others Jess'd heard. A glance told her why – the rhino was closer than she had been when she'd tossed Hollings, and was now facing Jess head on.
Distantly, Jess heard someone calling her name, but she could only focus on the massive prehistoric rhinoceros standing ten feet from her, looking like it was about to charge. She did the only thing she could do. She fumbled for the clip attaching Hollings' EMD to his vest and quickly undid it. She hoisted the gun up – it was bigger than any other EMD she'd ever handled – and fired. Her first shot was wide but her second hit the rhino right between the eyes.
Jess could see other bursts of blue hitting the rhino's side and back, but her wool was protecting her from the worst of those shots. She was clearly unhappy, though, and roared again, rearing back, and Jess fired off two shots in quick succession – these ones hit her chest, exposed as she reared up, and the rhino's eyes rolled up into her head. She started to fall forward, and it seemed to Jess like she was falling in slow motion. Her eyes followed as the rhino pitched forward in an almost elegant arc, and Jess gasped and lunged forward just in time to pull Hollings' leg back before the rhino's head crashed down onto the spot where his foot had been.
The rhino shuddered and twitched for a moment before becoming very still.
There was a long moment where everything and everyone was silent, waiting to see if a daddy rhino was going to suddenly appear. It didn't.
Jess let out a breath she didn't even know she was holding, and then gasped in another one. She looked up, over the rhino's unconscious body, and saw Becker and his men stepping out from behind the trees, EMDs still in hand. Jess looked down at the EMD still tightly clutched in her hand before carefully putting it down on the forest floor next to her.
Hollings let out a soft groan. Jess tore her eyes away from the EMD and scrambled onto her knees next to him as he started to shift, grimacing. "No, don't move," she said, putting a hand on his shoulder. "You took a nasty knock to the head."
"Jess?" Hollings said groggily.
"Yep," Jess said, carefully feeling the back of his head for a wound – there wasn't one. "Stay still."
"Okay," Hollings said quietly.
"Nice shooting, Jess!"
"You got it!"
Jess looked up again and saw that Harvey and Adams had skirted round the downed rhino and were hurrying over to her, EMDs hanging loose in their hands and looks of admiration on their faces.
"Seriously, that was pretty impressive," Harvey said, grinning at her.
"Definitely," Adams agreed.
Jess couldn't help but feel warmed by their praise, but she only managed a small smile. "Harvey, Hollings is hurt – he might have a concussion," she said. She knew that Harvey had the most medical training of all of them.
Harvey nodded, his face turning serious as he knelt down next to Hollings to check on him. Jess got unsteadily to her feet, reaching into her pocket for her satellite phone.
"All teams this is Becker – be advised there were two creatures, and we have brought them down – repeat, creatures are down. All units cease and desist search. Team Two return to your check point and await further instructions; Team Three continue course for rendezvous, Jess will send you our coordinates. Becker out."
Jess looked over at Becker for the first time and saw that he was standing a little way back behind his men, covering the mother rhino. She could see Wallis further behind him, covering the baby. As she watched him, Becker cut the transmission on his radio and looked over at her. Where the looks his men had given Jess had been admiring, impressed and pleased… the look he gave her was nothing but grim.
It seemed it would take more than bringing down a fully-grown phrehistoric rhino to impress Captain Becker.
Jess turned away from him and switched on her satellite phone, waiting for it to calibrate and ignoring everything and everyone while it did. Okay, ignoring Becker while it did. What was his problem?
The phone came to life and Jess put through a call to the ARC to tell them they had the creatures, and to rearrange the transport for the creatures now that there were two of them. In her other hand she calibrated their coordinates and sent them through to George. Matt came on the phone and she spoke to him briefly about what happened, and he told her Abby had the menagerie ready for the rhinos.
Getting the rhinos to the menagerie was going to be a different matter entirely. The containment unit would be leaving the airbase right now, but the nearest helicopter drop point was a good three hour trek from here. Once they got to them they would have to clear the canopy as much as possible and fit harnesses around the rhinos so that the chopper could come back and airlift them out. They would have to stay with the rhinos until the containment team got here, and that would likely not be until after dark… and it would be extremely foolish to attempt the extraction at night.
Becker seemed to have reached the same conclusion, because he was ordering his men to set a perimeter around the area.
Jess shuddered the thought of spending another night in her freezing tent – it was already so much colder than this time the day before. Still, there was nothing to be done about it so she threw herself into handling the logistics of the creature transport, liaising with George at the ARC and the team back at the airbase.
Team Three, who had been closest to their own team when they'd got the rhinos' coordinates from the cameras, arrived at their site within an hour, and Becker assigned men to guard the rhinos – one on the baby, two on its mother.
Once again, Jess' tent was put up for her while she was on the phone, and once again it was right next to Becker's. But this time she didn't feel any qualms about sitting by the large fire the soldiers lit – she wanted to stay warm as long as she could. And this evening the soldiers weren't avoiding looking at her; in fact they greeted her with big grins and made room for her close to the flames.
"So Jess, how does it feel to be the hero of the hour?" Adams asked her as she sat down next to him.
"Heroine," she corrected him with a wink, making the others laughed. She shrugged. "It was nothing, I just took the shot."
"Well from what I hear it was a pretty damn good shot," said Sergeant Innes, who'd arrived with Team Three.
"It was," Harvey confirmed. "Hollings couldn't handle it but Jess just pointed her gun and bam."
"Hey," Hollings protested from where he was sat next to Harvey. He was still a bit light-headed and had a hell of a bump to the head, but it didn't look like he had a concussion. Everyone chuckled as he glared at Harvey.
Harvey shrugged. "I'm just telling it like it is," he said.
Hollings snorted. "Yeah, well, somebody had to help out with the grown up rhino, what with you four all being busy with the baby," he said.
They all laughed again, including Jess, but her laughter died when she caught sight of Becker's face. He was sitting on the other side of the fire, looking straight at her, and he looked positively pained. Her eyes widened but he blinked and looked away, and when he looked back his expression was back to the grim one he'd worn since Lester had suggested she go on the mission.
Jess sighed, and reminded herself that she didn't care what he thought.
The containment unit arrived about four hours after they'd found the rhinos, and they affirmed Jess' belief that attempting to move the rhinos in the dark would be asking for trouble. They'd bought heavy-duty tranquilisers with them which they injected the rhinos with, so they didn't have to worry so much about them waking up. They also set up some small floodlights they'd brought with them so they could all see if the rhinos were waking up.
Jess stayed where she was by the fire – though the men all had a new appreciation for her, there wasn't really much she could do to help with setting perimeters and keeping watch… they were professional soldiers after all, so she was a bit superfluous here.
She stayed by the fire until she was nodding off where she sat, and finally conceded that she should go to her tent. She said goodnight to the few soldiers who were still by the fire and walked away. Becker had taken the first watch and was standing on the other side of the site, with his back to Jess as she skirted round the big rhino and made her way to their tents. The tents were all dotted in large circle around the rhinos, and hers and Becker's were next to each other, a little apart from everyone else's. She had to wish that he'd put them up a little closer to the fire, but she wasn't going to say anything.
Jess went straight to her tent, trying to ignore how cold it had got tonight. The tent was on the edge of the pool of light from the floodlights and they lit up the inside of her tent just enough so she didn't need a torch. She toed off her boots and got straight into her sleeping bag in the hope that some of the warmth she'd gained from the fire would get trapped within it.
No such luck. Within minutes she could feel the cold seeping into her bones, and soon after that she started shivering.
Jess was still awake and still shivering two hours later. She knew it was two hours because that was when the watch was due to change, and she could hear Becker talking quietly to one of his men and then his footsteps as he walked over to his tent. Jess clenched her jaw to stop her teeth from chattering as he went past, but it made her jaw ache and she soon let her teeth start chattering again.
She heard Becker reach his tent, and then the sound of a zip being undone. There were rummaging noises, and then the zip closed again. Jess closed her eyes, determined to fall asleep, and but a second later she heard the sound of footsteps again, and she was sure they were Becker's. Her eyes flew open.
The zip on her tent started to pull up, and Jess tensed in her sleeping bag, staring at the opening as it got wider. Her instincts told her it was Becker, but she wasn't entirely sure. And anyway, what did he want? To sit there glaring at her in sullen silence? Or to snap at her some more?
It was Becker. Jess relaxed a little, but was frowning as his face appeared in the gap. "Is s-s-something wr-wrong?" She said through chattering teeth, hating herself for letting Becker see how cold she was.
Becker unzipped the flap further and pushed his shoulders through – she could see his face clearly in the filtered light, and he looked grim as ever. "I could hear you shivering from the other side of the camp," he said.
"I'm f-f-fine." She tried to make her voice sound indignant, but it just came out stammering again. Damn it.
Becker's face disappeared for a moment and then, suddenly, his sleeping bag filled the gap as he pushed it into the tent.
Jess pushed herself up onto her elbows – or as far as she could swaddled in her sleeping bag. "B-Becker!" She protested. "You c-c-can't give m-me your s-sleeping b-b-bag!"
"I'm not," he said calmly, pushing the rest of it in.
Jess frowned again. "Who's-s-s is it-t-t-t?"
"It's mine," Becker said. He was now following his sleeping bag through the gap, climbing fully into her tent. He must have seen her confused expression, because he shrugged at her. "I'm not giving you my sleeping bag – I'm just going to sleep in here tonight."
"What?" Jess demanded, her shivering ceasing in her shock.
Becker was zipping up the tent behind him, and when he looked back at her his face was determined. "You're freezing, Jess," he said flatly. "You need body heat. So. Move over."
Jess was frozen, but out of shock, not cold. He couldn't be serious, could he? He'd basically ignored her for two days – stayed close to her, yes, but pretty much ignored her unless it was to have a go at her. Now he wanted to share her tent? Before this mission she would have been ecstatic at the idea – now she was too angry with him to want him anywhere near her.
She opened her mouth to tell him so, but he chose that moment to take matters into his own hands. Literally.
He was crouching next to her, stretching the fabric side of the very small tent behind him, and when she didn't move he slid his forearms underneath her body – one under her shoulders, one under her thighs – and pushed her away, as far as she could go.
"B-Becker!" She exclaimed.
"No arguments, Jess," he said sternly, sitting down next to her and starting to sort out his sleeping bag. "You need to get warmed up."
Jess glared at him, completely unwilling to admit that he was right. "I was f-f-fine last-t-t n-night-t-t," she said.
"It's a lot colder tonight," Becker said matter-of-factly.
This was true, of course – Jess had felt the drop in the temperature, and lord knows she'd been cold enough as it was the night before, and that had been with heat packs… but no, this was ridiculous.
Becker had removed his boots and was now stretched out next to her, his sleeping bag arranged so that the open zipped side was facing her, and he suddenly reached for the zip of her own sleeping bag and started pulling it down.
"What-t-t are you d-d-doing?" Jess demanded.
"Warming you up," Becker said firmly. He had her sleeping bag open now, and Jess was too cold to move away from him or try to close it again. He tugged on the edge of her sleeping bag to drag it closer to him, shifted towards her and then reached out and pulled her into his arms, so her face was tucked into his shoulder, and closed her sleeping bag over their sides before pulling his own sleeping bag over the both of them. He sat up and somehow pulled the zip of his sleeping bag mostly closed around them before lying back down next to her.
Jess immediately felt the warmth from Becker's body and the double layer of their combined sleeping bags start to warm her chilled limbs, but she felt she should say something else in protest for the sake of her dignity. "This is c-completely unnec-c-cess-s-s-s-sar-ry," she said, her voice muffled against the fleece of Becker's jumper.
"Right," Becker said, sounding entirely unconvinced. He ran his hand up and down her arm, and Jess couldn't help but snuggle closer to him, into his warmth. She really was very cold… she closed her eyes and let herself be warmed up.
After a few minutes, when she had stopped shivering and was warm enough to think straight, Jess started to feel uncomfortable. She and Becker were lying on their sides facing each other, and Jess was pressed closely against his torso, his arms wrapped tight around her and her arms squashed between their bodies, pressed against his chest. Their legs were tangled together. It was the closest Jess had ever been to him – she could feel the muscles of his chest moving against her hands every time he took a breath.
She was so annoyed right now. She should be lying her completely happy, enjoying the feel of his arms around her. But she wasn't. Instead, because of the way he'd been treating her she just felt completely resentful of the fact that he'd had to warm her up like this. Any other time she wouldn't feel ashamed of getting too cold in a situation like this, but right now that's how she felt – ashamed. Like she wasn't good enough, not tough enough for the mission. He made her feel like a useless little girl.
She didn't know what more she could have done. She'd kept up with them and, as far as she could tell, hadn't slowed them down or got in the way. She'd handled the logistics of the check-ins and coordinating the teams perfectly. They'd found the creatures with her help, and she'd even been the one to shoot the thing! What else could she have done?
"What else could I have done?" Jess said out loud.
Becker started slightly – Jess didn't know if she'd woken him up or whether he'd just thought she was asleep. "What?"
"What else could I have done?" She repeated, lifting her head to look at him. He looked a little wary, but mostly confused. Jess suddenly felt nervous – they were alone in a tent, so he couldn't get out of this conversation easily… and neither could she. But it had to be said.
"I don't know what more I could have done," Jess said quietly but firmly. "I kept up, and coordinated everything, I even shot the rhino."
"Of course you did," said Becker.
Jess blinked. "What do you mean, of course I did?"
"You're you," Becker said with a shrug. "I knew you'd handle everything perfectly with the logistics." He rolled his eyes. "And I should have known you'd be the one to bring it down."
Becker shrugged again. "Seriously, I've seen you shoot far more accurately than that… and you were half conscious at the time," he said matter-of-factly.
Jess was so confused, and lost, and angry… she spluttered, unable to articulate what she was thinking. "I don't… you… urgh!" Giving into an impulse she'd had since the meeting the other day, she punched him on the shoulder as hard as she could.
"Ow!" Becker exclaimed, though it was more in the way someone might do if they get a paper cut rather than if they've been punched. Jess growled and punched him again, both her fists pounding against his chest, hitting any part of Becker she could reach. She only managed to get in three or four punches before Becker grabbed hold of her wrists, pulling her hands tight against his chest and thwarting her attack.
He didn't look angry at her for attacking him – he looked incredibly confused. "Jess, what are you doing?" He demanded.
Jess was still too angry to talk properly. "You are the most – I just – what is your problem?" She exclaimed.
Becker raised an eyebrow at her. "My problem – you're the one hitting me!"
"I just don't get you, Becker!" Jess hissed at him. "You say these things, like you have all this faith in me, but the past two days you've made it clear that nothing I do will prove to you that I can do this job…"
Becker blinked at her. "Prove?" He repeated blankly. "You don't need to prove to me that…" He shook his head for a moment and then looked at her intently, his hands tightening around her wrists. "Jess, I do have faith in you," he insisted. "How could you think I don't?"
Jess swallowed. "You didn't want me to come on the mission," she said.
"Of course I didn't," Becker said firmly.
"Becker!" Jess growled, trying to hit him again. She failed, of course, so she kicked him instead, finding his shin with her foot and jabbing as hard as she could.
"Ow, stop that!"
Jess went to kick him again, but in a move Jess did not think he'd be capable of in the confines of a sleeping bag, Becker got one leg under hers and the other on top, pinning her lower legs between his and leaving her completely immobilised.
Jess glared at Becker and he looked back at her with a bewildered expression. Then his eyes widened as he seemed to realise something. "Wait – you thought that – that wasn't because I didn't think you could do the job," he said. "Of course you can – you're you."
Jess just stared at him, and Becker rolled his eyes. "Jess, I don't know how many times I need to tell you this – you're brilliant," he said earnestly.
Jess felt like she was going to get a migraine, she was so confused by this point. "Then why didn't you want me to come?" She demanded, once and for all.
The look Becker gave her was the very definition of sardonic. "Jess, we were hunting a prehistoric rhino," he said as if the answer was obvious. "It came five feet away from gorging you to death!"
Jess rolled her eyes. "It was more like ten feet…"
Suddenly, Jess was flat on her back with her wrists pinned either side of her head by Becker, who had rolled with her and was now looming over her, propped up on his elbows and staring down at her with a look of such intensity that Jess shivered… and it was nothing to do with the cold.
"Do you have any idea how much I worry about you?" He demanded in a hoarse whisper. "How many nights I wake up in a cold sweat because I have nightmares about you getting torn apart by some monster because I can't get to you in time?"
Jess swallowed and opened her mouth, but Becker ploughed on before she had the chance to say anything. All she could do was stare up at him as he continued, his voice growing more terse and his body getting tenser and tenser with every word.
"We have a dangerous job, and I accept that there are risks, but the only thing that keeps me sane is knowing that you're behind your desk at the ARC watching what's going on through a camera, and that you're safe from whatever we're out there hunting. And even then it's not right, because I know that anything can happen to you in the ARC too. Like future predators, or deadly future insects. But I put up with it, because most of the time you're safe. So yeah, I didn't want you to come on this mission. I don't want you to go on any mission. The thought of you out in the field… it terrifies me. More than anything – way more than that giant rhino that's out there. Because anything can happen, and I know that one wrong move, one wrong decision and that's it – I'd lose you. And I can't lose you, Jess. I can't."
Jess' eyes had gotten wider and wider with every word Becker said, and by the time he was finished they looked like saucers.
He was in love with her.
He hadn't said it, he probably didn't even realise it, but everything he had said… oh my god. Jess stared at him, and he stared at her, his gaze as intense as she had ever seen it. And considering that he was laying almost entirely on top of her, pinning her flat with both his torso against hers and his hands still clamped around her wrists, his face no more than three inches from hers, it was pretty damn intense.
She got it now, why he hadn't wanted her on the mission. It didn't excuse his behaviour, but her anger was swept aside for the moment by the almost unbelievable realisation that he felt that way about her. He loved her.
He was still staring at her, but Jess saw a glimmer of embarrassment or something like it in his eyes, and she knew he was about to pull away.
"You're…" In love with me was what she'd planned on saying, but she stopped herself. She didn't know if she was ready for that. But she did know Becker, and he definitely wasn't. Instead he'd spent the last two days snapping at her because he'd been so worried she was going to get hurt that he couldn't think straight.
"…An idiot," she finished.
Becker sighed and looked away from her. He let go of her wrists and shifted as though he was going to roll away, but as soon as her right hand was free Jess wrapped it round the back of his neck and pulled him back down to her. She saw his eyes widen again but he didn't resist.
It was a slow kiss, soft and searching. Jess kept her hand on the back of Becker's neck, and he braced himself with his free hand. At first he didn't move, but then his lips parted over hers and he was kissing her back. For a moment.
He pulled away a little after a few seconds – only far enough to part their lips – and rested his forehead against hers. Jess' eyes fluttered open and she could just about see that his eyes were still closed.
"You know," he said, his voice low and husky, "this isn't going to help me stop worrying about you."
Jess grinned and slid her hand up into his hair. "Shut up," she said. "Don't make me punch you ag –"
Her threat was unceremoniously cut off by Becker swooping down to kiss her again. He seemed to sink into her, and Jess moaned in the back of her throat at the feel of his body pressing her down into the hard ground. His hands, no longer needed to brace himself, went one under her shoulders and one down her side to rest on her hip, pulling her even closer to him. Becker tilted his head and deepened the kiss, and Jess moaned again, meeting him kiss for kiss as her hands found their way under the collar of the three or four layers he was wearing to allow her to dig her fingernails into the taut muscles of his back. His hips rocked into hers, seemingly of their own accord, and Jess grinned against his lips, hooking her heel over his calf to lock their hips together. Becker paused for a moment, a very short moment, and then he sucked her lower lip in between his teeth as he rocked his hips against hers again, deliberately and very slowly.
Jess groaned, and tried very hard to remember that they were in a tent, with lots of other people not very far away. Then Becker moved his mouth down her neck and started to suck on the pulsepoint on her throat, and her chief concern became how many layers of clothing currently stood between her skin and Becker's, and how difficult it was going to be to remove them in a sleeping bag.
The one thing she definitely wasn't worrying about was the cold.
It was late when Jess woke up. Well, not by any normal person's standards – late in that the sun was up and she was pretty sure that everyone else in the camp was already awake.
Including Becker. He was gone, his boots were gone, and if it wasn't for his sleeping bag still tucked around her Jess would have convinced herself that she'd imagined what had happened the night before.
Jess grinned and stretched. She was reluctant to leave the warmth of her sleeping bag(s), but she needed to find Becker. She didn't think that he was going to regret the night before, not after what he'd said to her, but it was Becker, and there was no telling what kind of craziness he'd talked himself into apart from her.
Which reminded her; she still needed to berate him for acting like such a prat for the past three days. Worried about her or not, he had no excuse. But she could wait until they got home to punish him…
Still grinning to herself, Jess shucked off the sleeping bags and, shivering slightly in the sudden cold, pulled on her boots and unzipped the tent. It was a bright, very cold morning, and there was a layer of frost on the ground and over the tents. Her eye was immediately drawn to the adult woolly rhino fifteen feet away, still out cold but surrounded by four soldiers.
They all looked over at her as she stood up next to the tent. She waved and they nodded back, smiling. No, not smiling – smirking. Those were definitely smirks. Jess frowned slightly and turned away, thinking that she must be imagining it. She couldn't see Becker anywhere so she started for the perimeter of the camp. She saw Hollings sitting up against a tree a little way away, Harvey and Adams standing next to him. They caught sight of her and waved, but again they weren't smiling, they were smirking.
Jess' eyes widened and she stumbled backwards, straight into something too warm to be a tree trunk.
Jess spun round to face Becker, who was smiling down at her, all traces of that horrible grim expression gone. Jess was too embarrassed to even feel relieved that he seemed to be okay with what had happened – she just looked over her shoulder at the soldiers nearby, who were all pointedly not looking at her and Becker.
She looked up at Becker with wide eyes. "I think they all heard us," she whispered.
Becker raised an eyebrow and then looked over her shoulder with narrowed eyes – Jess didn't look round again, but she knew he was looking at Hollings and the others, and the soldiers by the rhino.
He looked back at her with a calm expression, and then nodded. "They definitely did," he said. Then he smirked too.
Jess immediately jabbed him in the side with a finger. "It's not funny!" She hissed. She covered her eyes with her hands. "Oh god," she said. "Oh god, I'll never be able to look at any of them ever again."
"Jess – Jess it's okay, I'm only joking," Becker said, obviously trying not to laugh as he pulled her hands down. She glared at him suspiciously, and he nodded. "Seriously, they didn't hear anything. They just saw me coming out of your tent a few minutes ago and they're drawing their own conclusions. That's all, I promise. And I told them I was just keeping you warm."
Jess looked at him for a long moment before letting out a relieved breath. "Good," she said. "It's not that I'm… you know, that I think it was a…"
Becker nodded. "It's okay," he repeated.
Jess nodded back, a little thrown by the unexpected role reversal. She was looking for him thinking she was going to have to calm him down, but instead the opposite was happening. It wasn't that she regretted what had happened, because lord knows she didn't at all… she just preferred to keep her private life private. Most of the time.
"Right," she said. She glanced into the woods and nodded her head in that direction. "I'm just gonna…"
"Jess wait," Becker said, reaching out to take hold of her elbow. "About last night…"
Jess looked up at him, wondering if their roles weren't so revered after all.
Becker gave her a very serious look. "I'm sorry," he said. Jess' heart plummeted, but he carried on before she could think to say anything. "I thought about what you said and you were right."
Jess frowned, suddenly very confused. Becker took her confusion as his cue to continue.
"I was really thrown when Lester said you should come on the mission," he said. "I was already worried about it, I knew it was going to be a hard one, and then suddenly you were coming too and I didn't handle it well. You out with me on a normal mission is difficult enough to think of but something like this is a nightmare. But I shouldn't have acted the way I did. Looking back on it now I can see how you must have thought that I didn't think you were good enough to be here, but please believe me that that isn't the case. You really are brilliant – at your job, at everything. But even so I hate the idea of you in danger more than anything. Still, I was a prat and I'm sorry."
Jess forgot that there were a dozen or so soldiers nearby probably watching them closely. Or, rather, she didn't care. She rocked forwards onto the toes of her boots, grabbed Becker's collar in both hands and kissed him. Becker caught on quickly, and wrapped both his arms around her back to steady her and keep her close as he kissed her back. She could feel him smiling against her lips, and she smiled too as she pulled away. His arms around her didn't let her get far.
"Does that mean I'm forgiven?" Becker asked, starting to grin.
Jess glanced over Becker's shoulder and saw that Hollings, Harvey and Adams were staring at them. When they saw her looking at them they quickly looked away, but Jess could see them grinning. She grinned too and pulled away from Becker. He let her go, and she shrugged at him.
"I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions," she said.
THE END (YAAAAAAAAAAAAY!)
There were two prompts – huddling together for warmth, and Jess impressing all the soldiers in the field except Becker, who already knew she was brilliant. I stupidly decided to combine the two, hence the 16,000 words.