The Pyramid Scheme

by Rand Ratinac

Chris' vision exploded as sheer, magical life overcame his sight of the physical world. He could see Andy standing by his side, his aura sparkling with power, a pair of fire elementals awaiting his call nearby. Juan's presence was only slightly dimmer, small traces of dead blackness in his head showing where the dwarven mage had had a datajack and some cybernetic memory implanted. Chris thought Juan had been crazy for doing something like that, but then Juan had never been conventionally rational. Chris hesitated to actually call the dwarf "crazy" - weird he may have been, eccentric, most definitely. But insane?

Well, that was a question for another evening. Whatever the case, Juan was a brilliant mage and that was all that concerned Chris at the moment. He continued his astral inspection, noting the powerful ward that surrounded the room. He could see through it, but he knew that to anyone outside of its bounds, the ward was completely opaque. Good thing, too. It wouldn't do to have an audience tonight. The barrier spells were also in place along the walls, their shimmering forms completely enclosing the room - and the three men inside.

Chris glanced to his right and smiled when he saw the softly glowing blue cloud by his side. "Hoi, Suze," he greeted it.

A woman's smiling face, perfect in almost every way, appeared in the centre of the cloud. "Hey, big guy."

The elemental's response was almost drowned out as Juan caught Chris' words. "Suze? Your little tart's here, Chris? Ask her when she's finally going to dump you and come join my harem of beautiful spirits."

Chris smiled as the cloud that was Suzi zipped across the room to hover behind Juan. With a thought, he turned away from the astral to watch the show.

The figure of a slim, pale-blue woman, clothed in wispy clouds, appeared as Suzi took form on the physical plane. She snapped her wrist down, long nails flicking across Juan's posterior. The short mage yelped as his hands flew around to clasp his stinging bottom. "I can hear you quite well, Juan," Suzi responded sweetly as the dwarf spun to face her.

"Damn it, Suzi, that hurts!" he growled.

"That was the idea, sweetcheeks." Suzi winked at Juan as her body faded away once more, returning wholly to the astral.

Juan began to grumble, but a tinny voice, tight with irritation, drowned out his words. "Are you clowns done fooling around yet?" it snarled.

Juan frowned grumpily. "Jeez, get off our case, Stevens." He turned to Chris. "Let's do it and get outta here."

Chris nodded and glanced at Andy. "Keep your eyes peeled."

"I will," Andy replied, his soft voice tinged with a hint of a Russian accent. "Keep us safe."

Chris smiled. "I'll do my best. Ready, Juan?"

"You need to ask, elf-boy?" Juan shot back.

Chris rolled his eyes expressively. "Suzi," he called.

After a moment, the air elemental returned, standing attentively by his side. "Yes, Chris?"

"I need you to do something for me."

Suzi's smile was radiant. "Want me to catch for you?"


"You got it, bossman."

Chris nodded gratefully. "Okay, let's get this show on the road." Bringing his hands up, he began to intone words slowly in the musical language of Sperethiel. "Taratha ni ailin sidhe," he began. Almost without bidding, his perception seemed to shift, the words that rolled from his tongue shimmering in his psyche as his consciousness fell deep into the centre of his being. "Grant me the power to prevail," he whispered, unsure whether his mind was automatically translating the spoken Sperethiel, or whether he'd truly begun to think in the beautiful tongue. "Grant me the strength to endure. Grant me the focus to succeed. Grant me the wisdom to choose. Grant me my boon."

As the words died into echoes, a scintillating barrier of pure, magical force sprang up before him, separating the three mages from the majority of the long, rectangular room. Chris felt a wave of fatigue roll over him as energy drained from his body, but his mystical concentration allowed him to draw on the rejuvenating power of the surrounding mana, shunting the exhaustion aside.

As his momentary headache cleared, Chris turned to find Suzi watching him with concern. "Do you need me to take over?" she asked.

"No, Suze, I'm fine. Be ready, though." Chris nodded to Juan. "Go."

Juan bowed flamboyantly, a sardonic grin on his face. "As you command, oh great master."

Chris sighed. "This isn't getting any easier, Juan."

"Oooo, don't tell me it's too rough for the poor pretty boy," Juan replied in a babying voice.

Chris bit back a stinging retort as Andy spoke up, his voice whispery. "I see Chris' spell," he murmured. "I don't see yours, Juan. Maybe it's too rough for you."

Juan shot a glare at Andy, a glare that the younger mage couldn't see, with his vision firmly fixed in the astral. "You really think that? Well, let me just disabuse you of that notion." With that he moved into a swift, jerky dance, hopping around almost in place, his eyes shut tight.

Chris smiled to himself. He had no idea where Juan had come across the dance he used to centre himself and his magical energies, but the dwarf was surprisingly good at it. Even if he did look like he was suffering some kind of fit.

Reaching the crescendo of his performance, Juan spun, his hands shooting out towards Chris' barrier. The hairs on the back of Chris' neck rose. He could feel it! Something was changing! His excitement peaked and died in a fraction of a second as, a bare instant later, a brilliant glow flared at the far end of the room before dying with a pop. Chris' stomach sank, but a meaty thump from behind distracted him from his growing disappointment.

Turning around, Chris' eyes fell on Juan. The dwarf mage was seated upon the floor, his olive skin totally drained of colour. "Damn it, Juan," Chris sighed as he stepped across the room to kneel at his friend's side, his forgotten barrier shimmering into nothingness behind him. "You know you shouldn't stack the spells."

Juan shook his head, his eyes vacant. "Did...did it work?" he asked muzzily.

Chris sighed. "Not exactly." He looked up as Andy came to a halt before him. "Well?"

Andy shook his head. "The transmutation spell did something," he reported quietly. "Just not what we were hoping."

"What then?"

Andy shrugged. "I don't know, but I wouldn't breathe the air down that end of the room if I were you."

Juan shook his head, slowly pulling himself back together. "Frag it," he growled with a wince. "This is all we need."

A door cracked open at the far end of the laboratory and a pair of men in chemical suits entered. As they began to sample the air with a gas spectrometer, the same, sarcastic voice as before sounded over the room's speakers. "Great job, goof-offs. Great job. Clean up your mess and head home. I'll see you all tomorrow. Unfortunately."

Chris looked up. "Wait a minute, Stevens. I've been making a few alterations to the formula. I want to give them a try."

Stevens sighed. "Tomorrow, Nash. It's late and everybody wants to get out of here. Everyone except you, it seems. Anyway, Cortez couldn't hold a barrier up to save his life. Go get some rest. Or meditate. Or whatever it is you walking freakshows do." The loud click as Stevens switched off the intercom signified louder than words that the conversation was over.

Chris glanced up at Andy and shook his head. "How a man like that was put in charge of the magical research department, I'll never know."

Juan grunted irritably, ignoring Chris' words completely. "'Couldn't hold a barrier up to save his life.' Pendejo." As he climbed somewhat unsteadily to his feet, he glared at Chris. "And you - who do you think you are? 'I've made some changes I want to try out,'" he simpered in a very bad imitation of Chris' voice. "I'm the drek hot mage around here."

Chris sighed, but again Andy came to his rescue. "And Chris is the novahot theoretician," he broke in calmly. "We wouldn't even be this far along without him."

Juan glared at the tall Russian for a moment before he sighed and nodded. "Yeah, yeah. Sorry, Chris," he said, reaching out his hand. "Just in a bad mood."

Chris nodded and took Juan's hand firmly. "I know, Juan. I really thought it would work this time, too."

A derisive snort sounded from behind. Chris turned and drew back as he beheld the man standing behind them. An Aztlaner like Juan, the dark-haired man leant casually against a heavy steel door, arms crossed over his chest. His name was Hernandez - and he had a real problem with researchers. "You slots are a joke," he growled. "'Drek hot mage'. 'Novahot theoretician'. If you were real mages you'd be out working in the field, not skulking around in your labs, hiding from the real world."

"Frag off, Hernandez," Juan snarled. "This is art. What you do, that's hackwork. You're just jealous."

Hernandez burst into laughter. "Jealous, halfer? Of you? You gotta be kidding me." He shoved off from the wall and glared at Chris. "You're supposed to be in charge of this fiasco, Nash, so I'm telling you now - move your hoop. We won't wait for your new spell forever. Shape up, or sharpen up your janitorial skills." Hernandez whirled and jerked open the door before stalking out.

Juan flicked his middle finger at Hernandez's back before turning away. "Ignore him, Chris," he said. "He's just a fragwit who thinks he's a hotshot. What are you guys doing now?"

"Chris and I were going for a drink at Bosco's," Andy told him. "Wanna come?"

"Surely you jest!" Juan scoffed. With a snap of his fingers, he touched another ring. Instantly his appearance changed. He grew tall and muscular, his beard vanishing to be replaced by a smooth, cleft chin. His unassuming brown hair became long and golden, held in place by a silver circlet. His lab clothes also changed into a pearlescent toga and leather sandals, completing the appearance of a Roman sybarite. Flexing his newly acquired muscles, Juan grinned. "I'm off to the Inferno!"

Chris arched a delicate, red eyebrow. "Orgy night?" he asked somewhat sceptically.

"No, but it will be once I'm done." Juan grinned wickedly as he looked at Chris and Andy in turn. "I think I'll pick up an elf and a Russian. Just so I can show you losers what you're missing out on tomorrow morning."

Andy rolled his eyes eloquently and Chris snorted. "Just don't pick up anything communicable," he retorted only half-jokingly.

Juan laughed and snapped his fingers again. Instantly, four elementals - two fire and two air - appeared by his side. Each wore the same form - that of a heartbreakingly beautiful woman. Chris couldn't help wondering whom it was Juan had modelled them from. "Come, girls," Juan instructed. "Time to go."

The air elementals knelt and took hold of his feet. As they rose again, the fire elementals caught the weight of his upper body. Juan was lifted into the air, borne aloft on a cushion of ethereal arms. With a grin, he turned onto his side, resting his head on the palm of one hand. "Put some effort into it, girls!" he barked. "My public awaits!"

Chris sighed and turned away as Juan was conveyed from the room. He couldn't stand how Juan treated the spirits he summoned, but there was nothing he could do about it. The dwarf mage was of the school of thought that said elementals were nothing more than an imprint of a mage's consciousness on the malleable energy of the astral plane. Chris knew they were much more than that; that they were beings in their own right. Unfortunately, nothing he said on the matter seemed to convince Juan. Speaking of which, though...

Colours burst upon Chris in a dizzying parade as he looked into the astral. His eyes fell on Suzi, patiently waiting by his side. "Sorry, Suze," he apologised. "I got a bit distracted. We're done for the night."

Suzi smiled. "That's okay, Chris. Think I'll hang around for a while. Mind if I tag along?"

"Sure. No materialising in the middle of the bar this time, though. You know the manager doesn't appreciate us scaring the customers."

Suzi pouted. "You're no fun."

Chris chuckled. "Aren't I just?" He waved to Suzi before focusing on the physical plane once again.

"We're having company?" Andy asked.

"Yeah. Although I'm not sure how good an idea that is," Chris replied, pointedly raising his voice. "Suzi can get pretty rowdy, you know."

Andy chuckled. "That girl's a party animal," he observed in an equally loud voice. "It must be because she's an air elemental. They're so flighty."

The two mages waited expectantly, but there was no response. "She must be ignoring us," Chris observed eventually.

"I would," Andy responded with a laugh. "Well, I've sent my boys home. Shall we go?"

Chris nodded and waved a hand towards the door. "After you."

Chris tapped his fingers against the steering wheel of his Eurocar Westwind as he drove along the rain-slicked streets of downtown Seattle. It had been a relaxing evening after a hard day of preparation and experimentation and he was feeling good again. Andy was also in a cheerful mood, humming along with the grunge-rock blaring from the sports car's speakers. It was late, though; time to be getting back to the Pyramid. Tomorrow was shaping up to be a busy day.

They rounded the corner of Belmont and Harrison, just a few blocks away from the Pyramid. There was little warning, only a glimpse of a pale, startled face and waving arms. Without conscious thought, Chris spun the wheel and stomped hard on the brakes for an instant before shifting back to the accelerator again. The Westwind shuddered horribly for a moment, before shooting off at an angle away from its former direction of travel. Like an automaton, Chris applied the brakes once more, steadily this time, until the car cruised to a halt. "What...what was that?" he asked, his voice shaking and his own face white.

"Frag, Chris, you almost ran her over!" Andy exclaimed, craning his neck around to stare through the rear window.

"Her? Damn!" Again, Chris' response was instinctive. Before he knew it, he was out of the Westwind and racing up the street to the figure lying in the middle of the road. It became quite obvious that his near victim was a woman as he approached her. Head down, she lay on one hip, her entire body shivering as she supported herself on trembling arms. Crouching down beside her, Chris whipped off his jacket and wrapped it around her shoulders. He could feel her shaking and began to rub her arms gently. "Miss? Miss? Are you okay?" She did not respond.

Footsteps splashed through the puddles and an angry voice broke in. "Damn it, get away from her!" The speaker, a strawberry-blond woman, pushed Chris aside as she arrived and hugged her friend. "Nadia, are you all right?" she murmured.

The first woman, Nadia, finally raised her head and met her friend's gaze with a wan smile. "I'm okay, Jess. Just a bit shook up."

Still on his haunches, Chris leaned forward, tenting his jacket over the two women. "I'm really sorry," he apologised. "I-"

The second woman rounded on Chris, her eyes blazing furiously. "So you fragging well should be! You almost killed her, you-" Her tirade broke off abruptly as Nadia placed a hand on her arm.

"Ease up, Jessica," she said quietly. "It was an accident." She lifted her face and Chris couldn't restrain a gasp.

Nadia was absolutely stunning. Shaken by the near-collision, her curly blue-black hair plastered down by the rain, she was still possibly the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Her skin was pale, a tone Chris suspected wasn't entirely due to the accident and her eyes were a sparkling sapphire. Rivulets of water ran down her delicately pointed ears and a shy smile graced her slim face as she looked up at him.

"I hope you don't mind me asking, but what are you lovely ladies doing out on the streets at this time of night?"

Chris glanced up in some surprise at the new voice. He hadn't noticed Andy approaching. The Russian's eyes were fixed firmly on Jessica as he stopped beside Chris.

Jessica jerked a thumb over her shoulder. "Not that it's any of your business, but our car broke down and we've been trying to wave down someone to help us." Chris looked at where she was pointing and saw an older model Jackrabbit, the hood up and steam pouring from the engine.

Andy whistled. "That looks pretty bad," he observed. "We're not very mechanically-minded, but we could give you a lift. We live at the Aztechnology Pyramid, just up the road. You could call a tow-truck and get yourselves dry while you waited."

Chris glanced up at Andy with a puzzled frown. "There's a phone in the car, Andy," he said and received a subtle knee to the ribs for his trouble.

"It's not working, Chris," Andy replied with a meaningful glance towards the women. "Remember?"

"Oh. Yeah." Chris looked at Nadia again and shiver ran along his spine.

Jessica looked rather doubtful, but Nadia nodded gratefully. "Thanks. That'd be great." She began to struggle to her feet and Chris leaned forward again, his arm going around her waist as he helped her up. She favoured him with a bashful smile as they hurried towards the Westwind. "You'll forgive me," she murmured, "but I don't like getting into cars with strange men."

Chris smiled as he battled to keep his jacket from blowing away. "Of course. I'm Christopher Nash and that's Andrei Troikov. He likes to be called Andy, though."

Nadia smiled. "Pleased to meet you, Chris. My name's Nadia Hyland. My friend is Jessica O'Hare."

"The pleasure's mine," Chris told her as he helped her into the car.

Ten minutes later, they were inside, out of the rain and heading towards Chris' apartment. Nadia was leaning against Chris' side again, her legs still shaky. Jessica might have had something to say about that, but she was quite distracted by the amount of attention Andy was paying to her. Which was not surprising, considering that she was very nearly as beautiful as Nadia.

As Chris unlocked the door, Jessica slipped past him. "Which way is the bathroom?" she asked impatiently. "I need to clean up."

"Down the hall and to the left," Chris informed her.

"Thanks." Casting a harried glance over her shoulder at Andy, she hurried in the direction indicated.

Andy looked at Chris, then shrugged and followed Jessica with a smile. "Don't you keep your towels in the bathroom, Chris?" he called over his shoulder. He didn't wait for an answer.

Chris shook his head with a wry smile. Andy could be very single-minded about women. Suddenly Nadia shifted against his side and he looked down at her. "Well," he murmured, suddenly very nervous.

"Well indeed," Nadia agreed. After a moment she smiled at Chris and he noticed her colour was coming back.

"I, uh...I know we didn't exactly get off on the best foot," he blithered, "but, uh..."

Nadia smiled again. "It's okay, Chris. It was an accident."

Chris nodded. "Still..."

Nadia held a finger to her lips and he fell silent. "I want to thank you," she told him. "It's very kind, what you've done for us. A lot of people wouldn't have even stopped."

Chris blushed. "It was the least I could do."

"Perhaps. Thank you anyway." Rising up on her toes, Nadia pressed her lips to Chris' cheek and he felt his heart pounding. Suddenly his vision began to blur and his legs wobbled. He turned towards Nadia with agonizing slowness, but a distant sensation of falling overcame him. Nadia's visage seemed to rush away before everything went black.

Chris moaned as he awoke. The first thing he became aware of was that he had a splitting headache. He winced, covering his eyes as blinding blue light flooded into them.

"Maybe that'll teach you not to chase after skirts."

Unbidden, Chris' lips twitched, almost forming a smile. "Suzi?" he asked, forcing his eyes open painfully. He blinked in the glowing light cast by her manifest form. "What happened?"

Suzi shrugged, but Chris could sense the concern masked beneath her seeming indifference. "She kissed you, you fell over, she left."

Chris blinked owlishly. "I don't understand," he muttered.

Suzi sighed. "She must have drugged you or something."

Chris frowned. "Could it have been poison?" he asked. "I don't know. I didn't think you'd appreciate it if I waited around to find out."

Chris grinned wryly, his headache slowly beginning to subside. "Good call. So why am I awake?"

Suzi produced a handful of medicated slap-patches. "I'm continually amazed by what you keep in your bathroom, Chris."

Chris grunted. "You and me both, Suze. Where's Andy? And how long have I been out?"

"He's in the bathroom, out cold. Apart from that, he seems fine. And it's been about ten minutes, I think."

"Drek!" Chris bounced to his feet, his headache forgotten - but not for long. He groaned and doubled over, one hand coming up to his head as nausea shook his body, the other clutching at the wall. As the sudden bout of queasiness passed, he straightened up again. "I've got to find Nadia," he mumbled.

"What? Why? Are you crazy?" Suzi asked angrily. "She's obviously some kind of criminal! She could have killed you before and she might still. Why would you want to find her?"

Chris shook his head. "I gotta know." He pushed the door open and stumbled out of his unit. Suzi loosed an exasperated sigh before vanishing.

At first, Chris wasn't thinking clearly enough to do anything but wander through the corridors. After a few minutes, however, he realised he was getting nowhere. Only then did he recall a particular spell he had been taught during his initial training by Aztechnology, one that would allow him to detect any particular individual within range. It took him another minute to work up sufficient concentration to actually cast the spell. Eventually he succeeded, but even then he was frustrated as the spell failed to find Nadia. However, as he considered which way to try next, he felt a faint tugging at the edge of his consciousness and he began to smile. Found her.

For the next three minutes, Chris followed Nadia with the spell, heading up and down hallways as he slowly closed in on the elf woman. When he finally caught up, he found her standing at an intersection of corridors, back pressed to the wall as she peered intently around the corner. After a moment, she stepped away from the wall purposefully, turned and walked out into the intersection. Chris could see transparent surprise on her face as she glanced over her left shoulder. She smiled as she weaved around, tottering somewhat unsteadily up the corridor she'd just been inspecting.

Chris hurried forward as she disappeared from view, crouching down and looking around the same corner as Nadia, just in time to see her approaching a security guard standing outside a door marked RESTRICTED. The guard's hand rested on the butt of his pistol, but he didn't seem at all inclined to use it as his eyes drank in the vision before him.

"Stop," he instructed her finally. "This is a restricted area. State your name and business here."

Languidly, Nadia ran a hand through her hair. "I'm Charlotte," she informed the guard. "I think I'm lost."

The guard's expression tightened, but he continued to speak in a kind voice. "What are you doing here?"

Nadia giggled. "Looking for some fun." She took a step closer, eyeing the guard from head to toe. "I like a man in uniform," she purred.

Chris saw the guard gulp. "Look, you can't be here right now," he told Nadia. He paused then, his expression speculative. "You could wait in my room, though. My bunkmate's away and I get off-duty in an hour."

"Sure." Chris could hear the smile in Nadia's voice. "Let me just give you a little present." She stepped up to the guard and wrapped her arms around his neck. He leant towards her willingly.

Chris didn't see them kiss. His attention was suddenly focused behind him as he felt a cool, metal circle pressed against his neck. "Well, well, what do we have here?" A heavy thump from down the corridor punctuated the deep, masculine voice. "Get up and turn around."

Chris stood slowly, his hands over his head, then turned, stomach quivering with terror. Suzi was right. He never should have followed Nadia.

The man holding him captive was a head shorter than Chris. That didn't make him any less intimidating to the elven mage. The huge, silenced pistol trained on Chris' forehead seemed to double the gunman's size. "You picked a bad night to go sleepwalking, omae." Chris squeezed his eyes shut, his entire body tensing in fearful anticipation, as the gunman began to pull the trigger.

Suddenly a somewhat familiar voice broke in. "Wall, wait." Chris' eyes snapped open in time to see the gunman raise his pistol with obvious reluctance. Chris stared past him as a woman eased around his shoulder. "Frag it, Chris," she said, disappointment lacing her tone, "what are you doing here?"

Chris frowned as he looked at her. She was nearly the same height as the gunman and quite skinny. Unremarkable brown hair dangled limply to her shoulders. Her face was strong, but plain. He didn't have a clue who she was. "Do I know you?"

The woman's lips twisted into a wry grin. "Maybe this'll help," she said, passing a hand over her face. As she did so, her appearance changed, becoming that of a beautiful, strawberry-blond woman.

Chris' jaw dropped. "Jessica?" he asked.

"That's as good a name as any," she replied, dropping the illusion.

"You're a mage?"

Jessica shrugged. "Why not?"

A third figure moved out of the shadows, a shock of unruly black hair masking his eyes, but not the broad grin on his face. Pale and stick-thin, the only remarkable thing about him was his T-shirt, which bore a logo for a place called the Hard Rock Café and a slogan saying 'Save the planet: Kill the people'. "Jessica?" he asked.


The skinny man burst out laughing, but slapped a hand over his mouth as the gunman glared at him. "She's not bad, she's just cast that way," he mumbled, drawing a wry smile from Jessica.

"So what do we do with pretty-boy?" the gunman asked Jessica, ignoring the other man now.

"It's Oblivion's call," she replied.

Dumbfounded and terrified by what was going on, Chris had nevertheless almost summoned up the courage to speak when a tinny voice emanated from a tiny speaker in Jessica's ear. "Clear. Send Hush around." Even with the poor quality he instantly recognised the speaker as Nadia and he felt his stomach knot.

"Oblivion, we've got a situation here," Jessica replied.

There was a pause, then Nadia responded, her voice tight. "Wall, bring Hush. You're covering him. I'll be there in a minute." It was actually only ten seconds before she arrived. Wall led the skinny man down the corridor as soon as she appeared.

Nadia was holding a pistol - an Ares Predator, Chris thought - that looked much too large for her delicate hands. Both the gun and her jaw dropped as she laid eyes on Chris. "Damn," she whispered. "What are you doing here? I dosed you with enough Narcoject to keep you out until tomorrow morning."

Chris knew he should have been angry, but instead couldn't help feeling embarrassed, as if he were a child caught stealing cookies. "An elemental of mine hit me with some slap patches," he confessed. "One of them woke me up."

Nadia shook her head disbelievingly. "Incredible. Why did you follow me?"

"I..." Chris paused, then drew himself up and faced her squarely. "I had to know why," he answered simply. He couldn't be sure, but something in her eyes told him she understood.

"Well, you're a nice kid, Chris, but I don't know if I can trust you to behave yourself. And I don't think you want me to kill you, right?" Chris shook his head emphatically and Nadia smiled wryly. "Good, because I don't want to hurt you if I don't have to. So I guess we'll have to take you with us. Hold still."

Chris did as he was told, but couldn't keep from flinching as Nadia pulled back her fist in preparation to strike him. She paused, then shrugged. "Oh well." Taking his face in her hands, she drew him down and kissed him. Startled, Chris felt her tongue part his lips, then a sting in the back of his throat. As everything faded, he fixed his eyes on Nadia's face. A rueful smile and a wink accompanied him into oblivion.

The next time Chris awoke he felt something hard pressing into his stomach and his body rocking back and forth. He cracked his eyelids open and found himself staring at what looked like a leather jacket. The next thing he realised was that his arms and legs were bound and his mouth was gagged. As his mind began to clear, two things clicked for him. The first was that he was being carried on someone's shoulder. The second was that these people were shadowrunners.

Chris had heard the stories about shadowrunners and had even seen the trideo shows. Everything he already knew and had learned so far this night told him he was in great danger. Unfortunately, he wasn't in a position to do anything about it...or was he? A desperate idea leapt into his mind and, compelled by fear, he decided to risk it.

With an effort, Chris willed himself free of his body and sprang forth into the ether.

The astral plane was bright as always. Brighter still, though, were the four shadowrunners. Chris saw that his body was being carried by Wall, while Jessica led the way and Nadia brought up the rear.

Chris followed them long enough to determine they were on the 39th level, then turned and shot through the ceiling, climbing towards the main security office on the 64th floor. The experience was disconcerting as he flashed through level after level, each barrier upon him almost as soon as he'd passed through the last. He was not dissuaded, however, and soon found himself at his destination.

Three guards were in the room, two he didn't recognise and...Hernandez. The sight of the Aztlaner mage caused Chris to pause his headlong rush. That was why he heard them speaking.

"...bloody shadowrunners," one of the unknown guards, a man with a military buzz-cut, was saying as he stared at a monitor.

The second guard, a sergeant by his uniform, concurred. "I make four - and they've got some keeb hostage."

"So what do we do?" Buzz-cut asked.

The sergeant shrugged. "Geek 'em all."

Chris' eyes widened, but before he could do anything, Hernandez spoke up. "Wait. I recognise the hostage. That's Nash, one of the research mages. We really ought to try to save him."

The sergeant and Buzz-cut glanced at each other. "That'd be pretty risky," Buzz-cut suggested somewhat hesitantly.

"Too risky," the sergeant added firmly. "Let's not and say we did."

Hernandez looked over his shoulder at the two guards, then shrugged. "Why not? I never did like the slot."

If Chris had had a body at that moment, he was sure he would have been sick. Even without the limitations of his physical form he felt queasy and light-headed. His legs felt weak as he stared at the three men. He couldn't believe it! These men were supposed to protect him from people like the shadowrunners!

With an inarticulate cry, Chris fled the office, heading back to where he'd left his body. If Aztechnology didn't want to save him, maybe the shadowrunners would.

Fortunately, Nadia and her associates hadn't gone far from where he'd left them, as Jessica led them carefully through the maze of corridors.

Chris slipped back into his body and immediately began to kick and thrash, muffled cries emanating from behind his gag. All attention focused on him as the muscular Wall staggered beneath his suddenly hyperactive weight.

"Damn it, this is getting to be a habit," Nadia growled.

"Should I knock him out again?" Wall asked, holding up a fist covered with scars.

Nadia paused thoughtfully, then nodded. "If he doesn't shut up."

Chris went limp again as Wall eyed him ominously. He wasn't getting anywhere anyway. His eyes met Nadia's, but all he saw was sympathy, not understanding. After a moment's thought, he decided on another tack.

Again Chris leapt free of his body. Moving out ahead of the team, he suddenly manifested, appearing before them on the physical plane. Weapons rose, but he held his hands up. "Wait!" he called.

There was a pregnant pause, then Nadia spoke, her voice hesitant and unsure. "Chris?"

"Yeah. Listen to me. Security knows you're here."

Nadia needed no further prompting. "Wall, take point. Hush, the rear. Rose, go scouting. If they're out there, find them. Chris - back in your body. We don't need to draw anymore attention than we already have."

Chris returned to his body even as Wall dumped him none too gently and slipped away. Hush, too, was already gone by the time his head cleared, while Jessica knelt against the wall. Chris knew she'd gone astral as soon as her head drooped.

Stepping softly to his side, Nadia took Chris by the shoulders and pulled him closer to Jessica. Gently, she slipped the gag down and Chris spat out the piece of rag stuffed in his mouth. "How do you know?" she asked.

"I went to the main security office after I woke up."

Nadia's eyes were piercing, but her voice was gentle. "You were going to tell them about us, weren't you?"

Chris nodded somewhat hesitantly. "I didn't, though."

"What changed your mind?"

Chris' eyes filled with horror and loathing as he recalled the guards' conversation. "I overheard them talking. They're going to kill all of us, because it's safer that way. All of us - including me."

Nadia smiled at Chris sympathetically. "Welcome to real life, kid."

Chris couldn't restrain a grin. "Kid?" he asked. He was at least five years older than Nadia, if not more.

Nadia returned his grin. "It's all relative, Chris."

Facing back the way they'd come from, Chris was the first to see the guards. Even so, Nadia was moving before he could do more than register their presence. Spinning away from the wall, she brought her pistol to bear on the two men. The guards worked in tandem, the lead man hunching low to stay out of the line of fire as he ran forward, the other bracing his rifle against his shoulder.

Chris flinched as the corridor erupted with violence. Chattering bursts from the guards' rifles scythed through the air and Nadia returned fire, her silenced pistol whispering. Blood sprayed as two bullets punched through the rear guard's visor, a fraction of a second before a slug from the lead man's rifle took her in the shoulder. Nadia spun to the ground, the sound of her Predator striking the floor by Chris' foot lost in the cacophony.

Chris focused on the pistol as Nadia bounced back to her feet. Gritting her teeth against the pain, she raced forward and wrestled with the surprised guard for possession of his rifle. Reaching out slowly, Chris took the Predator in his bound hands. He lifted the gun towards the melee, then hesitated. What do I do? he wondered. I shoot the guard; my life's over. I shoot Nadia; I get my life back. Working for a corp that was willing to kill me to stop her.

Suddenly the butt of the guard's rifle slammed into Nadia's wounded shoulder. She gasped and fell to the floor, her already pale skin turning dead white. Chris' stomach twisted as the guard brought his rifle into line with Nadia's beautiful face.

He made his choice.

Chris' snapshot took the guard in the throat and blew out the back of his neck. Even as the body fell, Wall pounded around the corner, his submachine gun at the ready. He took the situation in at a glance and aimed his gun at Chris. "Drop it, omae," he ordered.

White-faced, Chris was happy to comply. He couldn't take his eyes off the corpse of the guard he'd just slain. Wall stalked up behind him and jabbed him in the shoulder with the muzzle of his gun. "You'd better pray she's all right, slot."

"I am, Wall, thanks to Chris," Nadia said, sitting up painfully, "but I'm not so sure about Hush. Those guards came from his direction."

Wall glanced at Nadia wordlessly, then hurried past. Nadia climbed to her feet somewhat unsteadily and weaved her way across the corridor before dropping down beside Chris. "Where did you learn to shoot like that?" she asked him.

Chris turned towards Nadia, his expression blank. "Trideo games," he muttered dully.

Nadia's eyes softened. "First time you killed anyone?" She shook her head gently. "I'm sorry, Chris, but we don't have the time for you to deal with it. We need to move quickly." Reaching out, she took hold of his wrist. Her fingers sliced quickly across the cord binding his hands together and it dropped away. Chris frowned as she repeated the process with his ankles, catching a glimpse of something dull and black protruding from the tips of her fingers.

"They've cut us off from our primary exit and they're closing in around us, so we can't get to either of the secondaries."

Nadia and Chris turned as Jessica sat up, a worried look on her face. "Numbers?" Nadia asked.

"Too many," Jessica replied. "They don't seem to have figured out exactly where we're going, though. They're thinnest between here and the primary exit."

"Then we keep going forward." Struggling to her feet, Nadia gestured to her shoulder. "Little help here?"

With a wry smile, Jessica stood and placed her hands on Nadia's shoulder. When she took them away again about ten seconds later, Nadia swung her arm around, testing her injury. "Good as new," she reported with a grin.

"Then we should be going." Chris turned to see Wall walking towards them, Hush slung over one shoulder. "They caught him from behind," he informed them, "but they only knocked him out."

"Okay. We're out of here." Nadia took point once again, leading them swiftly along what Chris assumed was their escape route. A short few minutes passed before she called a halt. Silently creeping forward, Nadia knelt down and slid something around the corner, bringing some kind of eyepiece at the other end up to her eye. After a moment, she rose to her feet again and slipped back to join them. "Six men," she whispered. "They're ready for us, but they're not dug in, so I don't think they know we're here. We go hard and fast and don't stop for anything. Chris, you stay at the rear. Wall and I go first."

The group trotted forward quietly and, at Nadia's signal, burst around the corner. Everything seemed surreal to Chris as he followed along behind Jessica. The guards, taken by surprise, were cut to pieces by deadly accurate fire from Nadia and Wall. It seemed like the plan was going to go off without a hitch when one of the remaining men grabbed the other and plunged a knife into his arm. The guard's howl of pain and shock was drowned out by a triumphant shriek from the first man. The shadowrunners skidded to a halt as a shimmering field of force filled the corridor. Chris stumbled into Jessica's back as his eyes fixed on the grinning mage blocking their path. "Hernandez," he whispered.

"Take him down," Nadia ordered.

Without a word, Jessica stepped forward. She gestured towards Hernandez, but there was no apparent effect. She frowned, then a crackling ball of lightning shot from her hand, but fizzled out as it struck the barrier. Jessica paled, only partially from the drain. "That was my most powerful spell. I'm not getting through."

Chris bit his lip. If they were trapped, then they were all dead. Unless...

"Fragging blood mages," Nadia snarled. "I guess we do this the hard way, then." Before she could do anything, however, Chris reached out and took her arm.

"I might be able to help."

Nadia stared at him. "You're kidding, right?"

Chris shook his head. "I've got a spell that can bypass his barrier. If it works, the...the explosion should fry them both." Chris gulped heavily at the thought. Nadia watched him thoughtfully, then shrugged and stepped aside.

As Chris moved forward, Hernandez's gloating expression gave way to surprise. "Nash? Don't tell me you're helping those scum," he called. "Stevens won't be pleased."

Chris ignored him, as he began to prepare himself. This was not going to be easy. He just hoped the tweaks he'd made to the spell would make the difference. As he began to focus on its intricacies, a burst of gunfire from behind caught his attention. "Chris!" Nadia yelled. "Your buddy's called in reinforcements! We'll hold them, but you take him down now!"

Chris groaned. No time for anything fancy now. "Suzi!" he called.

Almost instantly, the air elemental appeared before him. "About time," she snapped. "Are you done getting yourself into trouble yet?"

"Don't start, Suze," Chris growled. "I need your help."

Suzi glanced down the hall at the battle raging between the shadowrunners and the security guards and nodded once. "What should I do?"

"I'm trying an experiment," Chris replied with a surprising burst of wry humour. "This is going to wipe me out, so I need you to sustain the first spell until I can get the second off."

Suzi reached out and entwined her delicate fingers with his. "You cast, I'll catch," she murmured.

Chris smiled gratefully and threw himself into the task. The details of the transformation spell he'd been researching came readily to mind and without a second thought, he cast it. His brain seemed to swell to the point of exploding as energy surged out of him. He staggered and almost fell to his knees, but Suzi's firm grip on his hand kept him upright. Her form shone brighter as she poured her own being into maintaining the spell and Chris' mind cleared slightly. "Quickly, Chris," she whispered. "I can't hold it for long."

Chris shook his head, sending fresh stabs of agony through it. He knew what he was supposed to do, but he couldn't concentrate. His thoughts were fuzzy as he struggled with the unexpectedly complex formula of the ignite spell that would trigger the blast.

Suddenly a spray of bullets screamed past Chris' head. The resulting surge of adrenaline and fear that coursed through his body cleared his mind and he saw what to do. With a cry of terror and desperation, he threw his hands out towards the confident Hernandez.

Blackness closed over Chris' vision as pain wracked his mind. A blinding flash was the last thing he saw.

A terrible, pounding headache told Chris he was awake again. "I have got to stop doing this," he mumbled, one hand coming up to cover his aching eyes.

"Nice job, Nash."

Chris frowned. He thought he recognised that voice, but it sounded odd somehow. Blinking painfully, he opened his eyes a fraction to see Wall seated by his side, looking at him with an expression that was not quite, but almost, a smile. "What? Where are we?"

"Oblivion's chopper. We're out. You're safe." Wall shrugged. "For now, at least."

That was what was unusual about Wall's voice. For the first time since he'd captured Chris he sounded...happy. "Did...did the spell work?" Chris asked hesitantly.

Wall shrugged again. "Not exactly, but when a flash nearly as bright as a nuke burns out your retinas, you tend to get distracted. That mage sure did. Oblivion geeked him when he dropped his spell and we hauled hoop." Wall grunted approvingly and clapped Chris on the shoulder. "You did good, kid."

Chris nodded, but his attention was drawn to the front of the helicopter. Hearing their voices, Nadia turned around and met Chris' eyes. She favoured him with a smile before facing front once more. "Wall," Chris asked, "is her name really Nadia?"

Wall glanced at him sidelong. "Who knows?" He paused, then squeezed Chris' shoulder. "Be careful, Nash. She's not the kind of girl you want to fall for."

Chris looked at Wall sharply. "You sound like you're speaking from experience."

Wall's eyes turned bleak and his lips set into a hard line. Chris sighed and turned away. Unbidden, his gaze fell on Nadia again. A soft smile flickered over his lips as Jessica said something to her and Chris felt his stomach flutter. He wondered if he was looking at his fate...or his doom.

©1999, Rand Ratinac - used with permission