The steady drone of the small plane’s engine provided a fitting counterpoint for the much more unsteady thoughts of the five runners as they sped back toward Los Angeles and Neferet’s home.
Although none of them had discussed it, they had all taken seats about as far from each other as they could manage once they’d boarded the plane. Instinctively they all knew that it was the last chance they were going to get to think the situation over before they had to make a decision.
Kestrel sat slumped in a seat next to a window about halfway back. She leaned her head on her palm and looked out at the bright blue sky, at the wispy white clouds that flashed over the plane’s wings and then were gone. Far below them, the land was a patchwork of browns and greens; they were not high enough that roads and other man-made structures could not be seen, but from here they didn’t even look like tiny children’s toys, but rather like interlopers in the pristine natural beauty laid out below.
She had already made her decision, of course. For her, there was no other. Regardless of what kind of hellish and insurmountable situation Gabriel had gone into in an attempt to save Stefan from the Enemy’s hold, she had to try to help. Her friendship with Gabriel aside, she knew that without Stefan’s sacrifice none of them would be here today to sit here and consider these options. They were, in effect, living on time that had been purchased for them by his death. It wasn’t something she liked to think about, but it was true. Their battle with the minor Horrors would have come to naught if things hadn’t gone as they had. And if it were true that he was not dead, that somehow his fundamental essence had been diverted away from his body at the last moment to be forever tormented—there was no question in her mind. She could not live with herself knowing that she had allowed Gabriel to make the attempt alone.
That wasn’t it, though—at least not all of it. She knew that too. Her mind flickered over the course of her life, pausing a moment here and there before continuing on, presenting to her a brief summary of who she was and what she had been: corp kid, college student, disillusioned young woman, competent professional, friend, teammate, lover, warrior. So easy to conjure up words to represent a life, but each of those words had too many scenes, too many memories attached to it. And then there were the things she had never been, would likely never be: wife, mother, sister, old woman. The last thought made her shiver a bit, but it was true: in her line of work, most people didn’t make it to old age. It was just a fact of life. You accepted it and you moved on. Even now, when she had drifted away from the fast-paced and violent life of the shadowrunner and into the relatively more settled one of occasional fixer and world traveler, the danger was never far away.
So what am I telling myself? She sighed, slumping a bit more in the seat. Her body was tired from the trip through Gabriel’s lair, but sleep wouldn’t come even if she wanted it to. She was far too keyed up for that. What do I want? What am I?
Two rows behind Kestrel and on the opposite side of the plane, Winterhawk was staring out the other window. Unlike Kestrel, though, he was not paying any attention to the scenery. His eyes were open, his posture relatively alert, but his mind was far away.
Kestrel had described what she had seen of Gabriel’s ritual to them on the way back to the airport. She could not and did not describe it in great detail, of course, but it would not have made any difference since Winterhawk was not familiar with even the rudiments of the sort of circle she had described. Neferet’s words had chilled him: doubtless a place that they control. If they went ahead with this mission, the odds that they would succeed were so small as to be almost irrelevant to think about.
And if we don’t succeed, we die, he thought with no particular feeling one way or the other. I don’t want to die, but there are worse things out there than death. He shivered a little, mentally, as this thought returned his mind to—before. He forced himself away from the thought, or at least away from any specifics he could remember if he tried hard enough. That wasn’t something he wanted to think about ever again. If he managed to fool his mind long enough, perhaps the images would fade, the nightmares would fade—
He was somewhat surprised at how well he had been holding up since Gabriel had rescued him from his own hell. It seemed almost like another world now, something that had happened to him long ago. He realized that it had to be that way: he feared very much that this particular wound was one that, if probed too vigorously, might spring back and re-infect him once more. He would have cheerfully put a bullet in his brain before he allowed that to happen again. Whatever, if anything, was lurking at the core of that situation was not something he wanted to relive.
So what are you going to do then, a contemptuous little voice in the back of his head asked. Stay home? Stay safe? Let them go without you? Keep your precious head on straight while the one who saved it in the first place is in trouble?
Of course not, he snapped back. These little inner dialogues with himself could get tiresome sometimes.
Oh, really? Then why are you sitting here thinking about your own problems?
I’m going. I knew that all along, and so did you. What’s death anyway? We all should have been dead a hundred times over.
Maybe it’s not death, the little voice insinuated. You’ve thought about that, haven’t you? That’s why you’re hesitating.
‘Hawk paused, stiffening a little in his seat. It was lurking there, of course, like a two-ton elephant trying to hide behind a lamp-pole—everyone knew it was there but they all pretended not to notice it. You had to bring that up, didn’t you?
Just trying to help. The voice wasn’t so smug now; it too was tinged with fear.
His hands tightened a bit on the arms of the seat. What if it wasn’t just death? Gabriel had said that Stefan’s essence was being held by the Horrors, and if the nightmares they had all experienced were any indicator of truth, they were doing more than holding him. They were tormenting him. If Gabriel died there would he experience the same fate?
If they died there, would they?
He didn’t know, and he couldn’t know. That was the worst part.
But even then, it didn’t matter. Whatever might happen, he knew that his choice had already been made.
Joe’s spot by necessity had been chosen for him, just as it had been on the previous flight. He sat leaned back in one of the two troll-sized seats at the back of the plane, his long legs stretched out before him. His legs were crossed at the ankle; he regarded his big boots as his mind went over the situation again and again.
He wished he could know Bear’s thoughts on the matter—that he could go back to Ben’s place so together the two of them could seek Bear’s wisdom and his path for Joe to follow. He wasn’t sure it would have done him any good, though, since he already knew the right answer. A talk with Bear would have given him confirmation, reinforcement of his decision, but that wasn’t strictly necessary.
Bear’s purview was about loyalty, about healing, about bringing order to chaos. Joe remembered the last time they had gone to the metaplanes with Gabriel, how that thing Winterhawk had called the Dweller had tried to test him by forcing him to choose between his loyalty to Bear and his loyalty to his friends. Of course no such choice could be made, because if his friends were true friends, there was no difference between the two. Joe had known that instinctively then just as he knew it now. Regardless of the apparent impossibility of the quest, it was a quest for the right reasons. Joe could no more refuse to undertake it than Gabriel could have refused to go after Stefan in the first place. If it ended in death, then so be it. At least they would have tried. Death held no fear for Joe—among his people, it was only a transition to another state. And to die in the pursuit of a noble goal was the most honorable way of all to go.
Joe’s gaze traveled over his companions: ‘Wraith, Winterhawk, Kestrel, Ocelot. He wondered if any of them would decide not to go. Kestrel wouldn’t, of course: she would go even if none of the rest of them did, and go down fighting at Gabriel’s side—if she could find him. Neferet had said she would help, so with the aid of a dragon Kestrel might make it. But the others? Joe thought he knew, but he wasn’t fully certain. They had all been through a great deal. He could tell even without any sort of magical senses that none of them were over the aftermath of the madness yet—they just hid it well because there was nothing else they could do. Joe himself was somewhat disturbed by what had happened to him, but because Bear’s protection had meant that the madness had never truly touched him, his situation was doubtless not the same as it had been for Winterhawk, ‘Wraith, and Ocelot. Would it be too much for any of them? Would they just say, “No, this is the end of the line?”
He would know—they all would know—all too soon.
Two rows up from Joe and on the other side of the plane, ShadoWraith had not moved perceptibly since the plane had taken off.
He sat straight and alert in his seat—no slumping for him—with his eyes fixed on some point in front of him. Although he could see Kestrel’s spiky blond hair barely poking up over the high back of a seat two rows in front of him, it was as if the two of them existed in different worlds for all he noticed her. ‘Wraith had a lot on his mind, and not all of it was by his own desire.
On one of the chair-arms, his hand shook slightly; he willed it to be still. No, he told himself sternly. I will not give in to it. I cannot.
The others weren’t letting it get to them, not visibly at least. Ocelot was as contentious as ever, Winterhawk his usual flippant self, and Joe—Joe was Joe. They were dealing, so he would deal. It was a conclusion that did not even require thought.
But are they?
He closed his eyes, trying to clear his mind, to attain the state of serenity that would allow him to stoically endure this flight and the trip back to Neferet’s home. This time, though, the serenity eluded him. The images flashed through his mind: the hotel room, the streets of Manhattan, the shelter, the attack (how could I have let them attack me? I am faster, I am stronger, I am more skilled—)
He did not shift around uncomfortably in his seat, but that was only by an effort of will.
Other images, other thoughts: the people at the shelter, the kindness they showed him, the pleasure he felt when he discovered there was something he could do to truly repay them for their hospitality, the sense of belonging—he found himself, here in the middle of this grave situation that would probably result in his death and the deaths of all his friends, wondering how the shelter was doing. He had missed the presentation he was slated to have given the day Gabriel and Joe had found him.
Why does that matter to me? I am not Jonathan Andrews. He is dead. I am ShadoWraith.
He closed his eyes again and once more patiently attempted to reach the state of calm that would drive all of this away for a few hours.
Ocelot was having a hard time sitting still.
The only reason that he was managing this well was because of his position: by virtue of the fact that he had been the last one to board the plane except for Joe, the only open seat that wasn’t too close to anyone else was directly across the aisle from Neferet. As much as Ocelot wanted to get up, to pace, to do anything to work off his restless energy, he did not think that doing so in front of a dragon who didn’t particularly approve of them in the first place would be his best idea of the day.
So instead he sat, like Kestrel staring out the window at the blue sky and the clouds and the land far below. Ocelot didn’t like planes much; he never had. For one thing, they were too confining. Having grown up on the streets with the city as his backyard, being stuck inside a metal tube where he couldn’t get out (at least cars had doors that, unless something was very wrong, opened to allow for a quick exit if need be) always made him a little twitchy. Add to that the fact that most airline personnel took a dim view of the kinds of things he routinely included in his carry-on bags and the end result was that given a choice, Ocelot would stay on the ground where he was in control of the situation.
That wasn’t really what he was thinking about at the moment, though. The tension on this trip wasn’t caused by the plane itself, the lack of weapons at his disposal, or even the sense of confinement.
He was tense because he knew what he had to do and he didn’t like it.
Ocelot was not a particularly altruistic individual, but he was a realist. Whether or not they owed it to Gabriel to make the attempt to go after him on the metaplanes was not very relevant to him: in his mind, Gabriel had brought a lot of his problems on himself, and the team had more than done their bit to help him out. The first time they’d been dragged into the middle of something they had no wish to be part of. The second time the fate of a lot more than two dragons had been at stake. Sure, Gabriel had saved them from the madness, but indirectly he—or more specifically, Stefan—had been responsible for it in the first place.
But none of that was relevant either. What mattered was that Ocelot didn’t believe Gabriel when he said that the Enemy wouldn’t bother them anymore. The young dragon had no way to know that. Ocelot had dealt with the Horrors enough times to know that they rarely did what was expected and they never did what they promised. So unless someone defeated this particular threat, all of them would have to look over their shoulders for the rest of their lives—and possibly beyond that. This in itself was enough to cement the decision for Ocelot, and that was why he was restless.
He turned slightly, silently, and looked back at Kestrel. She wasn’t looking at him; her head was turned away. He sighed, his gaze lingering on her hair, on the slump of her shoulders, the weariness in her posture.
Horrors aside, he wasn’t going to let her go on this trip alone.
Settling back, he jammed his hands into his pockets, bowed his head, and did his best to get some sleep before the plane landed. He didn’t think he’d have the chance again in a long time.
The trip back to Neferet’s home, like the trip to the airport, was not made in secret. Apparently Neferet had decided to trust them with the location of her home, but the ironic thing was that the runners no longer cared to notice it. Not that it would have mattered anyway: the house was hidden behind illusions every bit as powerful as the ones concealing Gabriel’s lair, so even if they had been able to reach the location on their own, getting in would have been another story entirely.
They took the limo back, with Uneki once again driving, and convened around the table in the dining room. Neferet had said nothing on the trip back; she spoke for the first time after settling herself into her seat at the head of the table. She regarded them with an expression that was at the same time imperious and understanding. “Have you made your decisions?”
The runners nodded, some more slowly than others.
“I’m going,” Kestrel said firmly.
“As am I,” Winterhawk said.
“Me too,” Joe added, nodding.
There was a brief pause, and then ‘Wraith simply nodded.
Another pause, this one a little longer than the last. All eyes were on Ocelot. He sighed. “Yeah, count me in,” he said at last.
“How long will the ritual take?” Kestrel asked. She was mindful of how long Gabriel had already been gone, and another long ritual would only stretch out the time even more. “Will you be able to lead us to the place when we get there?”
Neferet turned her calm golden eyes on Kestrel. “I fear you have a misconception, child. I am not accompanying you.”
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.