“Seems like I’ve spent half my life on planes lately,” Ocelot commented sourly. He wasn’t speaking to anyone in particular, so he wasn’t surprised when nobody answered. He settled back in his seat, grabbed another magazine, and did his best to alleviate his growing restlessness.
It was a little after 3:00 that afternoon. They were on yet another private plane, this one bound once again for Los Angeles. All five of them had spent most of the flight in silence, thinking about what had occurred and what was scheduled to occur this evening.
Kestrel had, with more than a bit of nervousness, made the call that morning. She closed her eyes now, letting her mind drift back over the conversation.
She had punched the button to make the call with a shaking finger, afraid that the number she had was no longer valid, that they had changed it, that something would go wrong. As before, the deep tones of the spirit Uneki had answered the call. “Yes?” Also as before, there was no video.
“To whom am I speaking?” There was no sign of emotion in the tone—not even a slight curiosity.
She took a deep breath. “Uneki...This is Kestrel. Remember me—Gabriel’s friend? You helped him awhile ago, in Switzerland.”
“I remember,” the voice intoned. “Is there something further you require?”
Another deep breath. “I’d—like to speak with Neferet again, if I may. Gabriel—he’s in trouble again. We need to speak with her about it. Is she there?” She could feel her heart pounding in her chest, and couldn’t quite figure out why. This dragon was a friend of Gabriel’s—someone who apparently harbored an almost maternal affection for him. Why should Kestrel be afraid to talk to her?
“Please wait. I will consult the Lady.” There was a slight click followed by the silence of a line on hold.
Kestrel was conscious of the other runners’ eyes on her as she waited. The pause seemed interminable, but it was only a few seconds before the line was picked up again. This time, the voice was the woman with whom she had spoken previously. “This is Neferet. You have told Uneki that Gabriel is in trouble again. Has he experienced another similar episode?”
“No.” Kestrel spoke quickly, a bit taken aback by Neferet’s tone. It was calm and not in any way hostile—but it likewise held no warmth or encouragement. “No,” she said again. “He’s—gone.” She paused, unsure of where to go next.
“Explain, child. Where is he?”
“I don’t know.” She sighed, deciding that if they were going to get anywhere, she would have to just blurt it out and hope for the best. “He’s gone to the metaplanes to look for his brother. Stefan’s not dead—or at least Gabriel doesn’t think he is. We think he’s walking into a trap.”
There was a long pause on the other end. “I see,” the voice said at last. “And why do you believe he is in danger?”
Kestrel looked at the others. She wished one of them was doing this instead—they had more experience with the terms and concepts of the metaplanes than she did. But it couldn’t be helped. “When he was visiting you, did he tell you about what happened before? With Stefan, I mean? With all of us?”
“He has told me of his brother’s death and his sacrifice,” she said.
“And about the Hor—uh, the Enemy?”
“Yes.” For the first time there was some indication of emotion in the voice, but it was difficult to identify its nature over the phone.
Kestrel nodded. “Well, that’s why. We know they’re involved again.” She paused. “Please—would it be possible for us to meet you somewhere? I don’t feel comfortable telling this story over the phone.”
This time the pause seemed to go on forever. Kestrel glanced at the others as the phone remained quiet; she made a shrugging gesture to them and hoped she had not somehow angered Neferet. Finally, the voice spoke again. “It is not normally my way to invite humans into my home, but as I have told you before, I have grown deeply fond of the young one and do not wish to see him in distress. You must come to me, though—I rarely travel.”
Kestrel nodded even though she knew Neferet couldn’t see the gesture. “Yes, of course. We’ll go where we must. Just tell us what we have to do.”
And Neferet had done just that—or rather Uneki had. He had instructed them to land at a private airport in Palmdale, which was a small town near Los Angeles. Upon landing, they would be met by a car that would take them to their destination. Kestrel had merely agreed without question; she had no desire to offend the dragon or her spirit servant by questioning their terms.
She had arranged for a plane to fly them there; they weren’t expected until later on that day so after the arrangements had been made the five of them took the opportunity to return to their homes, change clothes, and pack for the trip. When they reconvened at Winterhawk’s place around one o’clock, they all looked rather grim and determined. It was clear that all of them had been doing some thinking. “I called Harry,” Ocelot said.
“Yes?” Winterhawk finished zipping up his garment bag and tossed it across the couch on top of a small leather satchel. “And?”
“I told him we got ‘Wraith back and he’s okay. He was glad to hear it.”
“Did you tell him—anything else?” the mage asked carefully.
Ocelot shook his head. “No. Just that I thought we were all straightened out. I said we needed some time off before we were ready to get back into things.”
Joe nodded. “Good idea.”
“Do you think he suspects anything is wrong?” ‘Hawk asked. “Did he ask about Gabriel?”
“Nope.” Ocelot picked up his duffel bag. “He seemed like he wanted to just—put the whole thing behind him.”
“It’ll be nice when we can,” the mage muttered.
The flight was uneventful, even boring. Nobody minded; a little boredom wasn’t a bad thing after everything they had been through. Still, there was an undercurrent of tension that ran through each of them, not only because of what they were seeking to do, but also at the prospect of spending an indefinite amount of time in the home of a dragon who did not care for their kind. Each of them dealt with the tension in his or her own way: Winterhawk and ‘Wraith settled back in their seats and meditated; Ocelot read his magazine and tried to interest himself in the tiny trideo unit in the back of the cabin; Joe had a big lunch, tilted his seat back, and went to sleep; and Kestrel leaned against the window, staring out at the blue sky and clouds speeding by and trying not to think about Gabriel and whatever he was facing. By the time the pilot—a old rigger friend of Kestrel’s—announced that they were beginning their descent, all five runners were eager to get on with the next step.
There was a limousine waiting for them, a shining cream-hued Mitsubishi Nightsky with blacked-out windows. It looked a bit odd sitting there out in the far reaches of the airfield, but as the little plane taxied to a stop one of the limo’s doors opened and a figure climbed out.
Kestrel recognized the tall black man immediately as Uneki. Instead of the robes he had worn before, he was dressed in a simple, elegant business suit. He inclined his head in greeting as the five runners disembarked, then motioned them silently toward the Nightsky. “The Lady awaits,” he told Kestrel. He did not seem interested in the four men with her at the moment. Popping the trunk, he waited for them to stow their bags and then opened the rear door.
Kestrel nodded and climbed inside; after a moment her companions followed, ‘Wraith last. As soon as they were settled Uneki closed the door. A few seconds later they were moving.
The limousine’s interior was a study in understated elegance. Although lacking standard-issue limo accessories like a bar and a trideo unit, it made up for this deficiency by providing butter-soft leather seats in rich tan, luxuriant carpeting the same color as the car, and polished-rosewood paneling. The only thing that was slightly disturbing was the fact that the windows, which had appeared opaque from the outside, were equally opaque from the inside.
“Please forgive the inconvenience of the windows,” Uneki’s voice came from the unseen driver’s compartment of the limo without benefit of any visible intercom. “The Lady does not wish to reveal the exact location of her home.”
“Understandable,” Winterhawk muttered. He didn’t seem bothered by it, although Ocelot and ‘Wraith were looking a bit uncomfortable. Kestrel squeezed Ocelot’s arm and nodded.
“We will arrive in approximately one hour. Please make yourselves comfortable,” the spirit told them, and then was silent, presumably concentrating on driving.
The runners attempted to do that. The inability to see out the windows continued to make them uneasy, but they dealt with as best they could and did not try to thwart it in any way. If the dragon you were asking to help you didn’t want you to know where she lived, that was her business.
Wherever it was they were going, it was clear when they arrived that the occupant of the place valued her privacy.
In almost exactly an hour after Uneki had made his announcement, the car came to a smooth stop. The runners remained where they were until the door was opened, revealing the spirit. “Welcome,” he said. “Please follow me.”
Everyone got out and paused to look around a moment before claiming their bags from the trunk. The limo was parked in a large circular driveway. On the far side was a wall of light-colored stone; they had probably just come through the high wrought-iron gate set into it. In the center of the circular driveway was a large fountain—bright sprays of water shot upward and then fell back down into a pool inlaid with a mosaic of tiny colorful tiles.
“Long way out,” ‘Wraith said quietly to ‘Hawk, cocking his head toward the gate as the two of them retrieved their luggage.
The mage glanced in that direction and immediately saw what the elf was talking about: Aside from the road on which they had clearly arrived, there was nothing but desert as far as the eye could see.
Uneki waited until everyone had his or her bags (and notably did not offer to carry them), then inclined his head. “Come,” he said, turning to head for another smaller gate on the other side of the drive.
Beyond the second gate—which Uneki opened without difficulty but on which both ‘Wraith and Kestrel noticed evidence of an extremely sophisticated security system—the spirit led them down a stone path through a luxuriant garden that was somehow set up to allow the indigenous plants of this area to co-exist with lusher, greener vegetation that would have been more at home in a jungle than in a desert garden. As they passed by they noted paths crisscrossing the garden, leading to little pools, small sitting areas with stone benches, and tiny structures. The far-off call of birds gently broke the desert silence, although no birds were currently visible.
Eventually the garden opened up to reveal a large, rambling house made of the same sort of pale stone that had formed the wall outside. Although only a single story, the walls were not designed to the typical human- and elf-centric architectural standards of the day. Instead, they rose at least five meters up, set at frequent intervals with high, soaring windows that looked like they had been cast in liquid gold. The overall impression of the house spoke of a bit of Spanish influence, a bit of Mediterranean, and more than a bit of Egyptian. It was like nothing any of the runners had ever seen before. Above, the cloudless sky was a brilliant shade of azure blue as the sun began its descent toward twilight.
The pathway led up to two massive, ornate wooden doors carved in intricate patterns. Uneki mounted the tile steps to the entryway, put his hand briefly on the door, and then swung it open. “Welcome,” he said again. “The Lady has instructed me to show you to your rooms. She will see you in an hour, at the evening meal.”
Nobody argued. They followed the spirit through the house, silently marveling at the beauty of it. Everything inside fostered the same open, effortless impression as did the outside, from the magnificent statuary, paintings, and sculpture to the Egyptian-style wall hangings to the simple beauty of the tiled floors. Kestrel allowed her gaze to linger on the walls and the art objects as they passed by, wondering what Gabriel had thought when he first arrived here. This place did not remind her of Gabriel’s own—for one thing, she had not yet seen a room big enough for a dragon to be comfortable in it—but she could see the same sort of love for uncluttered spaces and simple elegance. Despite her trepidation, she was looking forward to meeting this dragon.
The rooms to which Uneki showed them were at one end of the house: three on one side of the hallway and two on the other. “The Lady hopes you will be comfortable here,” he told them. “We do not normally receive guests, but I hope that we have provided that which you might need. If there is anything else you require, please do not hesitate to call. I will return in an hour to show you to the dining room.” He inclined his head, turned, and moved silently off.
The runners just looked at each other for a moment. “O-kay...” Ocelot said, letting his breath out slowly. “I guess we unpack and cool our heels for an hour.”
“Looks that way,” Joe said. No one else had any better ideas, so they each picked a room and retired to it, agreeing to meet up again in half an hour in Kestrel’s room.
The rooms were all large, furnished in the same style of spartan elegance as the other parts of the house that they had seen. Each contained its own bath and a large window affording a spectacular view of the desert. Ocelot didn’t have much to unpack (he hadn’t brought any weapons with him; he hadn’t liked the idea of traveling without them, but all things considered he had decided on wisdom over paranoia) and so was settled in—including changing into his suit—in less than ten minutes. Crossing the hall, he knocked softly on Kestrel’s door.
“Come in,” she called softly.
She was sitting on the edge of her bed, staring out the window. “You okay?” he asked, moving over to sit down next to her.
She sighed and turned to look at him. “Yeah—I’m okay.” Her tone was odd—quiet and very tired. She too had changed and was now dressed in a pants-and-jacket outfit of thin, soft green leather.
“You want to talk?” He glanced at the closed door, then at his chrono. They had about fifteen minutes before the others would arrive.
For a long moment she was silent. “I don’t really know if there’s anything to talk about,” she said at last. She drew her legs up gracefully under her, leaning forward to prop her elbows on her legs. “We’ll do what we have to do, and we’ll either succeed or we won’t, right?”
“Looks that way,” he agreed in the same tone. He took a deep breath and looked out at the desert. Nightfall was approaching in earnest now; the sunset was shaping up to be spectacular. “There’s something else on your mind, isn’t there?”
She looked up a little sharply at him. She started to say something, then let it go and shrugged instead. “How can I answer that? I think we’ve all got a lot of things on our minds. We just haven’t had a chance to deal with it all yet.”
Ocelot nodded. “Yeah...you’re right about that. But look at it this way: at least until we settle down, maybe it’ll keep the bad stuff away. It’s harder to get wound up about something when you know there’s stuff you have to do.”
“Yeah.” She was restless; pulling herself back further onto the bed, she sighed again. “What if she won’t help us?” she asked suddenly.
“You heard me.” She fixed her green gaze on him. “What if we tell her what’s going on and she says No way, José, you’re on your own?”
“Why would she do that?” In truth, Ocelot had been wondering about the same thing earlier, but he didn’t think this was a good time to tell her that. “I thought you said she was a friend of Gabriel’s. Why wouldn’t she want to help him?”
She shook her head. “I don’t know. She’s a dragon. Dragons don’t make sense to us puny humans sometimes. I just keep remembering something Gabriel said when we were at his lair and we couldn’t get hold of you or any of the rest of the guys. I asked him why he didn’t ask his friend for help, and he told me he didn’t want to do that yet because it would mean he’d be liable for obligations he didn’t want to grant. And she’s his friend. He told me they’d gotten rather close over the time he stayed here—that she kind of treated him like a surrogate mother would, since his mother is gone. So what’s she going to do if we show up here and ask her to help us find him? Will she just agree to it like that, or will she want us to do something for her first? Or worse yet, is this going to make it so Gabriel owes her something he never even agreed to?”
Ocelot didn’t have an answer, and he didn’t like the sound of that obligations part. Still, he was determined to remain neutral. “We’ll just have to see what she says,” he told her. “That’s really all we can do.” He put a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Is that it?”
She chuckled. “Isn’t that enough?” Before he could answer, she shook her head. “That’ll do for now. I’m sure things are lining up to be noticed, but right now I’m going to focus on what’s here now. If she won’t help us, we’ll have to find someone else who will.”
“Let’s worry about that if it happens.” Ocelot squeezed her shoulder and then pulled his hand back as there was a knock at the door. “Looks like we’ll know soon enough.”
The others arrived, all dressed more formally than before. Nobody seemed particularly inclined to talk about anything important, so they killed time for the remaining half-hour until Uneki was due to return by discussing neutral topics like the rooms’ decor and the beauty of the desert at night. When the soft knock came, no one was surprised that it was on Kestrel’s door.
“Here we go,” Ocelot muttered.
Uneki waited patiently outside the door. He was once again clad in elegant robes, this time of rich dark brown silk embroidered with patterns in golden threads. He inclined his head in his odd not-quite-a-bow as Kestrel opened the door. “The Lady requests your presence in the dining room.”
Copyright ©1999, 2000 R. King-Nitschke. The Shadowrun universe is the property of FASA Corporation.
No part of this story may be reproduced without permission from the author.