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Jaxon Jeremiah, STAR Defense Squad, stood on deck on the small boat. He was doing his best not to show it, but he was a bundle of nerves and fears at the moment. The island was in sight. By now, the Assault Squad would be in the base, doing as much damage as possible. With luck, they'd level everything, kill Danya and his crew, and put an end to this game once and for all. Counting on luck was a terrible strategy, though, so the Defense Squad was providing a little extra insurance, a little distraction to give the terrorists yet another worry.

Of course, their goal wasn't entirely noble. Jaxon wasn't quite sure how he felt about things. It was quite a moral dilemma. They'd talked about it again and again in the past hours, ever since receiving Brynn's communication.

Originally, a rescue hadn't even been on the cards. Danya took great measures to prevent such a thing from being possible. The actual location of the island was known only to those members of the terrorist group who were responsible for ferrying people to and from it. Secrecy was maintained fairly well, given Danya's penchant for having those who caused trouble killed on the spot. STAR had tried to find out which island was being used. They'd figured out that the operation was based out of an area near Alaska, in the same general vicinity as the terrorists' current HQ. They'd had no luck getting anything more specific, though, until one group of students had fed them the exact latitude and longitude.

The other big problem had been the collars. Danya was not the sort who enjoyed losing. The STAR planners had been pretty sure he would blow every collar on the island rather than let anyone escape. That, too, had been resolved, though. A girl on the island had done something to her collar, forcing adaptation of the system. Now, a signal was sent preventing the collars from exploding. Brynn had sent them the details on that signal, and they had gear on the boat to reproduce it and override anything from base. As long as STAR was around, collars wouldn't explode unless they were yanked off. Garnett and Grossi had given them some tips on removing them, too. The design had changed, but not that much. Not enough to stop them from removing the collars using Brynn's inside information.

They were going to grab as many students as they could, knock their collars off, and then run. Give Danya a big old black eye, assuming he survived the attack. True, there would be patrol boats coming soon. They'd been diverted earlier, though, back to base to deal with the attack. The estimate was that they had three hours for this operation.

It was plenty of time to get some students. Not all of them.

But then, not all of them were welcome anyways.

This was the part of the plan that had caused the most debate.

The goal of STAR, first and foremost, was to put an end to the Survival of the Fittest program. To that end, sometimes sacrifices had to be made. There was a chance that Danya would blow all the collars somehow. They had decided that that was a risk worth taking. It was one extra death, in return for striking a huge blow against the game.

That same reason was what led them to decide to exclude players from the rescue.

Jaxon looked at the list in his hands, at the faces next to the names, at the indexes of crimes committed. In the end, he believed they were all innocent. He didn't think you could hold kids accountable for things they did under threat of death. After all, hadn't he nearly done the same?

But the argument made all too much sense.

People played because they wanted to live. It was the only reason to do it. Remove that reason, and you left no motivation to play, no justification for killing. STAR had chosen to leave the players behind as a statement to the kids next season, assuming that they would fail to utterly destroy the program. The message was simple: By playing, you are actively reducing your chances of survival, because we won't come save you.

It was indirect warfare. A psychological trick. Jaxon wasn't sure he liked it at all. They'd all agreed in the end, though. If it worked, if it led to future classes refusing to play, it would all be worthwhile. If it even slowed things down and damaged the program, it would be worth it. He kept telling himself that.

Besides, some of these people, to blame or not, had done positively horrible things to their classmates.

Jaxon still didn't feel very good about it, but he wasn't going to mess things up. They would present a unified front.

The boat closed in. It was a small vehicle, capable of getting very close to the shore. They had a small raft to ferry the students from island to escape vessel. As the boat came to a stop, Jaxon glanced over the materials, triple-checking that everything was in order. It was. They had the tools to disable the collars. They had a megaphone hooked up to a powerful amp and a small portable generator. They had four members of STAR, armed with assault rifles and wearing armor. Their equipment wasn't as good as what the terrorists had. They were a ragtag militia, but they had drive. They'd thrown everything they had, and a great deal they'd been forced to beg, borrow, or steal, into this mission. It was the moment of truth.

Jaxon hopped into the raft with his four armed friends and another boy, the one who would be working the tricky technology.

The entire ride over felt tense. Sweat was pooling in Jaxon's armpits. He was going back to an island. There would be bodies on this beach, bodies of students killed by their peers. He was a part of the horror once more.

He'd beat it again, though. He had to. They had to.

He hadn't heard any news of any parts of their plan going wrong. They had to assume it was all working. They had to try.

They landed and set everything up. Jaxon shifted nervously. He was running this side of things. There was another boat elsewhere on the island, grabbing other students, but they weren't in contact. Safer that way. Better. It spread out their coverage and increased both the numbers of students that could be retrieved and the odds of at least one boat actually getting away. From here, it would be a very tense ride to the rendezvous, on another nearby island, where a few helicopters had been stored.

Jaxon shook his hair out, forcing himself to focus. It was time. The part of the beach he was standing on was totally empty. He looked up at the sky for a moment, then picked up the megaphone. He made sure the speaker was pointed away from him. This was going to be loud.

"Hello, students of Bayview Secondary School," he said. "My name is Jaxon Jeremiah. I'm here with a group of people who can get your collars off and take you home, on one condition: that you have not been murdering your classmates over the past week. If that describes you, and you want a lift, come to the beach as quickly as you can. We won't be here for long.

"If you've been playing, I'm sorry, but you're too much of a risk. We're armed, and we will not hesitate to open fire and send you away. All I can suggest is that you hold out and hope we tear this game to the ground. Should that occur, we will come back for you too."
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The Cavalry Arrives · The Beach: North