Gabriel awoke in darkness.
Awareness fought for supremacy over the countless dull pains that had settled into various parts of his body as his mind struggled to ascertain where he was, what he was doing, why he was here.
I’m not dead—
—but what does dead mean here?
He was upright, in a seated position. His arms had been twisted around behind him, his wrists bound tightly with what felt like rough rope. He tried to stretch out his legs and discovered that they too were bound, this time to the legs of the stout chair in which he sat. Painfully he lifted his head, which had been bowed forward; his neck muscles protested this treatment with great vehemence, aching sharply from the base of his skull to the area between his shoulderblades. The pain lessened slightly when he got his head upright but did not disappear.
The left side of his head hurt more than the rest of him. He wasn’t sure because he couldn’t touch it, but the skin there felt slightly stiff, as if blood had dried there. He remembered someone striking him—
—It came back to him in a rush and he closed his eyes. Pearson was dead. The meet at the warehouse had been a setup, and his partner was dead. He himself had been struck by one of them—one who had been following him as he stumbled through the darkness, probably grinning at him all the way, letting him believe that he might have a hope of escape. The image of the grinning face was burned into his mind.
I have to get out of here. He opened his eyes again, trying to ignore the pain long enough to get his bearings. Unlike the warehouse, this room was not fully dark: a thin sliver of dim light shined in from what was probably a closed door on the other side of the room. As he remained still and waited for his eyes to adapt, he could pick out the locations of the walls directly in front of him and to both sides. There did not appear to be anything else in the room except his chair and the door—no furniture, no other people, no other doors—although he could not be sure because he couldn’t twist his head around far enough to see the wall directly behind him. As nearly as he could determine, he was tied to a chair in the center of an empty room about four by four meters in dimension. He wondered how long he had been here, and how long he would remain before anyone came to check on him.
As his eyes became a bit more accustomed to the minimal light, he looked down at himself. They had removed his overcoat, jacket, and tie; he could feel but not see that his shoes were gone as well. He could also feel that they had shoved up his shirt cuffs so they could tie him directly around his wrists; the area chafed painfully where the ropes bit into his skin. Under his feet the floor felt like hard concrete; it sent a chill up through his thin socks, but the way in which he was tied did not permit him to lift his feet.
Gabriel took a deep breath and considered his options. Gritting his teeth against the pain in his shoulders he tried to move his hands, twisting his wrists back and forth to try to find a place where he could loosen the ropes enough to allow him to slip free. After several minutes of trying he had not found such a place, and had only succeeded in digging the ropes more deeply into his wrists. He could feel a warm dampness on the ropes and wasn’t sure if it was sweat or blood; his wrists were so numb from the ropes that they barely even hurt anymore.
Abandoning that effort for the moment, he tried to do the same thing with his feet. This was more difficult and he realized much sooner that he wasn’t going to be able to get free in this way. Each of his legs was bound tightly at the ankle to one thick chair-leg; he couldn’t even move them, let alone try to wriggle free of the bonds. Whoever had done this had done a very good job of it.
He glanced at the door again: there was no sign (other than the light) that anyone else was here. No footsteps, no voices, no traffic sounds. He wondered briefly if they had just left him here to die, but that didn’t make sense. If they had wanted him dead, they had certainly had the chance to kill him while he was unconscious. Perhaps they’re holding me like Stefan, trying to use me to gain some advantage against the organization. It made sense—and if that was what they were doing, he knew he had to get out of here. He didn’t want to think about others being killed because of him. Pearson was bad enough.
Gritting his teeth, he tried to shift his weight back and forth, testing the chair to see how sturdy it was.
It didn’t budge.
He increased his efforts, again forcing himself to ignore the pain that shot through him as he threw his body back and forth trying to dislodge the chair.
Nothing happened. Evidently the chair was attached to the floor in some way—from his vantage point he couldn’t see how. It didn’t really matter anyway: the chair wasn’t moving, which meant trying to tip it over and break it was probably a futile effort.
He sighed, frustrated at his human body’s inability to cope with this situation. Had he had access to his dragon abilities—even in human form—he could have made short work of chair, ropes, and probably captors. Don’t do that, he told himself sharply. You’re here, this is the way it is, and you have to deal with it that way. Wishing for something you don’t have isn’t going to help you or Stefan or anyone else.
Settling back to his former position, he let his breath out slowly and, using the new information he had obtained from his experiments, attempted to re-assess the situation. If he couldn’t get out of the chair on his own, then he would have to wait until someone showed up. He had no doubt that someone would—to gloat over his capture if nothing else. It was just a matter of time, and his transformation into a mundane human had done nothing to his patience. He could wait.
He didn’t have to wait long. He had just allowed himself to relax as much as possible, to doze a bit to conserve energy, when the door swung open. A figure appeared in the doorway and suddenly the room was bathed in light.
Gabriel tried to flinch back, clamping his eyes shut against the brightness.
The shadowy figure laughed. “Good to see you awake. I was beginning to wonder.” The voice was deep, cold, full of contempt.
Gabriel slowly opened his eyes. The light hurt, but that wasn’t as important as seeing his captor. He raised his head.
He didn’t recognize the man standing before him—tall, muscular, oily, dressed in an almost stereotypical gangster-style suit of gray pinstripes with black shirt and white tie—but he did recognize the eyes. They were dark and deep, pits leading down into something unwholesome. Right now they looked pleased, which made their appearance all the more disquieting. Gabriel said nothing; he merely glared up at the man, waiting. Above him, as he had expected, a bare light bulb hung at the end of a long cord suspended from the ceiling.
Two more figures slipped in through the open door, closing it behind them and taking up positions on either side of it. One was an ork, the other a large human; both of them were big and beefy and dressed similarly to the first man, although not as stylishly. Their hard flinty eyes stared straight ahead, but Gabriel could see the smiles quirking the corners of their mouths: they were waiting for a show.
“Well,” the first man said, chuckling. “Welcome to my humble abode, young Gabriel. We’re so pleased you decided to join us. I do hope you’re comfortable.”
Again Gabriel remained silent; he didn’t intend to give the man the satisfaction of a reply. Instead he fixed his gaze on the man’s eyes and continued to wait.
“Ah...a quiet one.” The man seemed amused by this. “That’s all right—you’ll have plenty to say soon enough, I’m sure.” He reached down and took hold of Gabriel’s chin, tilting his head upward. “You do know who I am, don’t you?” When he didn’t get an answer, he went on as if he had: “Well, let’s just be polite, then—never let it be said that I’m not polite. My name is Vincent Salazaro—I’m with the Salazaros. You might have heard of us.” When Gabriel still didn’t answer, Salazaro squeezed his chin tightly between two fingers and then yanked his hand away.
“All right,” he said, his voice more brusque this time. “You don’t want to be polite, that’s fine with me. It doesn’t matter much anyway. The bottom line is, we’ve got you and you’re gonna be giving us what we want. Understand?”
Gabriel continued to watch him silently.
Without warning Salazaro lashed out, backhanding Gabriel across the face. “You will answer when you are spoken to, boy! Do you understand?”
The two goons by the door smiled and leaned forward slightly.
Gabriel paused a moment, testing his jaw, and then nodded. “I understand.” His voice was soft and even, without fear.
Salazaro nodded, satisfied. “That’s better.” He inspected his hand for a moment, wiped it on his pants-leg, and regarded Gabriel again. “You know,” he said conversationally, “I didn’t think we’d get you so easily. The setup worked like a charm, and you two took the bait like prize catches.”
Gabriel remembered the scene at the hijacking: the gunfire, the blood, the cries of pain. “You had your own men killed to get us?”
“To get you, my boy,” Salazaro said, smiling. “That kid, your new partner—he was nothing to us. You should have seen the look on your face when we blew his brains out, though—that was priceless. Such loyalty to someone you’d only known for a day or two. I can see why they value you around there. Too bad you couldn’t save him, yes? But then, you do have a bad track record with partners, don’t you? It’s a wonder anyone wants to work with you anymore.”
Gabriel clenched his back teeth together to keep from saying anything. The vision of Pearson’s face exploding in a spray of blood haunted him. The rookie agent hadn’t even had time to scream—but he tried to warn me.
Salazaro caught the flash in Gabriel’s eyes. He smiled. “Feeling guilty, are you? Don’t worry about it. These things happen. You have to look after yourself, you know. It’s the way life works. Nobody’s blamin’ you for it.” He paused a moment, then moved forward a bit, looming over Gabriel. “Okay, now it’s time for business. You can make this easy, or you can make it hard. It’s up to you.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Gabriel ‘s voice betrayed no emotion.
“I think you do.” Salazaro glanced at the two goons, then back at Gabriel. “Let’s start with the rest of your little band. Who’s the leader of your group?”
Gabriel shook his head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said again, with exactly the same inflection as before.
Salazaro backhanded him again, harder this time, snapping his head to the side. He tasted blood where the blow ground his teeth into the side of his cheek. “Don’t play stupid, boy! I don’t have the patience for it. Like I said, easy or hard. You tell us what we want to know, we can work a deal. You don’t tell us—” He let that trail off ominously. “Now—I’ll ask you again: who’s your boss?”
Gabriel’s mind returned to something from one of the old flatscreen spy movies he’d watched with Kestrel once. Name, rank, and serial number. That was all you were supposed to give out in situations like this. But he didn’t have a rank or a serial number, and they already knew his name. “Sorry. I don’t know.”
This time the hand caught him by the hair, yanking his head up painfully. The black roiling eyes met his. “Listen, boy,” Salazaro hissed. “We will get this information. That’s a certainty. The only thing uncertain here is what condition you’ll be in when we’re finished with you. Don’t be stupid. They’re not worth it. Your life is worth more than your loyalty to some do-gooder organization. Who. Do. You. Work. For?”
Gabriel glared at him. “Give up, Salazaro. I’m not going to tell you anything.”
Salazaro’s featured darkened, but he got himself under control quickly and smiled his unctuous smile. “Oh, I think you will. As I said, it’s just a matter of time. Gus, Carl—please assist me.”
The two goons moved forward, their postures radiating anticipation.
Salazaro took a step backward, indicating Gabriel. “Nothing permanent—at least not at first. I’ll ask the questions. If he doesn’t give the right answer, you know what to do.”
The ork cracked his knuckles.
The human grinned.
They took up positions on either side of Gabriel’s chair.
Salazaro smiled. “Who do you work for, Gabriel?”
“I don’t know.”
Carl’s fist caught him across the jaw. He stiffened, fighting not to cry out in pain. The blow wasn’t hard enough to break anything. He tasted more blood.
“Where was your last meeting place?”
This time it was Gus’ fist, slamming into his abdomen. He gasped, trying to double over, but his bonds prevented that. Struggling against a wave of nausea, he glared up at Salazaro, his breath coming short and sharp.
“What are the names of the others in your organization?”
“I don’t know.” This time, he thought with a sense of irony, he didn’t know. That, of course, wouldn’t make any difference to any of these people.
Carl this time, smacking him in the nose. He felt the blood running down his face, tasted it on his lips. Drops of it spattered the front of his white shirt. He swallowed hard, forcing himself to be calm. He remembered when they had been on the metaplanes last, when the Enemy had tortured him before he had volunteered to take Stefan’s place at the sacrifice. He had endured that by thinking about his friends, about Kestrel, about what they were fighting for. He was alarmed to find that it was not as easy this time, and it had not been easy before. Is it this human body? Is it because I am without magic?
—or is it because I am not as strong as I was then? That my dedication is not as strong?
He bowed his head, gathering his strength and his courage. There was no other option. He would not give in. Doing so would not save Stefan. He would wait, biding his time. As long as he was alive, there was a chance.
The questioning continued. As Salazaro continued to grill him and the two thugs continued their brutal punishment for the wrong answers, his consciousness began to drift. He thought he heard himself scream at several points, but it could have been only in his mind. He wasn’t sure anymore. The questions floated across his vision, the words spoken as if through water, their meanings only half-understood. He viewed the world through a thin red haze and wondered what death would feel like. The scar on his side ached. He did not answer the questions.
Finally, after what seemed like a very long time, Salazaro waved the two goons away and yanked Gabriel’s head upward again. There was something shiny in his other hand. Gabriel forced himself to focus, though it was not easy through the haze and the confusion and the pain. The object was long, silver, shining. A knife.
Salazaro smiled when he saw recognition and fear in Gabriel’s eyes. “Ah. I should have done this awhile ago. We might have gotten better results.” He held the knife up so Gabriel could get a good look at it. Idly, he used it to pick something from beneath one of his fingernails, then leaned forward and deftly sliced off the top button on Gabriel’s shirt. “Nice and sharp.”
Then, suddenly, the knife was at Gabriel’s throat. “Now...” Salazaro hissed, “Let’s start again. Who do you work for?”
A little of the driftiness dropped away at the presence of this new and very immediate threat. Gabriel tried to draw back a bit, slowly, but was halted by Salazaro, whose other hand still clutched his hair and held his head up. The knife moved in closer until it was touching his neck. It did not bite yet, but he could feel it there—he dared not even swallow, it was so close.
“One last chance, boy,” Salazaro told him. “Tell me. Who do you work for?”
Would it be so hard to tell him? a little voice said in his head. None of this is real. This is the Netherworlds. You wouldn’t be betraying anyone—all this has been created from your mind by the Enemy. Pearson, Wallace, Hector, all of them—created by the Enemy and the Netherworlds. Your friends aren’t here. You can’t help Stefan by refusing to answer. So easy, and then they might stop—they might leave you alone—
“Forget it,” he whispered through gritted teeth.
The black oily eyes lit with rage, and a low growl escaped from the back of Salazaro’s throat.
Gabriel closed his eyes and waited for the knife to slice him.
The moment dragged out.
Salazaro bit out an obscenity and yanked Gabriel’s head sharply forward as he let go of his hair. The knife’s bite did not come.
Gabriel opened his eyes. Salazaro was crossing the room away from him, his posture tight, tense, furious. He stopped at the doorway and wheeled back around, glaring at Gabriel. “We will see, boy,” he snarled. “I’ll leave you here to think about things for awhile. You will change your mind. I guarantee it.”
And then he was gone, sweeping out the door with Gus and Carl in tow, the door slamming so hard behind him that the sound itself was painful and the room’s walls seemed to rattle.
Gabriel watched the door for a moment, then allowed himself to relax the tension in his muscles. His mind was an odd mix of sluggishness and racing activity; he had the maddening feeling that there was something he should have noticed in that encounter, but between the pain and the weariness that was already beginning to settle over him, he could not think of what it was.
I’ll just rest for awhile...must be prepared when they return...must be—
His head slumped forward as consciousness departed.
When he awoke, he was being slapped.
He struggled to awareness, forcing his eyes open. Someone had hold of his hair again.
His first sight was the broad, piggish face of Carl grinning at him. The thug delivered one more slap for good measure, then announced, “He’s awake, Boss.”
“Good, good.” Salazaro moved into his field of view. “How are you feeling, Gabriel? Did you have a nice sleep?”
Gabriel didn’t reply. He was having a hard time holding his head up after Carl let loose of his hair; the soreness in his neck muscles from before had compounded itself significantly following his last bout of unconsciousness. His shoulders felt like someone was driving metal spikes into them. He tried to shift position but again the bonds prevented it.
Salazaro cocked his head. “You don’t look too well. How unfortunate that we have to resume our business now when you’re not feeling fresh, but you know how these things go.”
There was another chair in the room now. Salazaro placed it in front of Gabriel with the back facing him, then straddled it and leaned on his arms to watch his prisoner. “You’ll be pleased to know, though, that while you were sleeping I’ve changed my mind about what I want. At least for now. I’ve decided that you don’t need to tell us anything about your organization and who you work for. Sure, that information would be quite useful to us, but we can wait for it. We’ll get it eventually.” He smiled; it was almost a pleasant smile except for his eyes. “No, I’ve decided that instead, you’re going to join us. Switch sides. Work for us. Just like your brother did.”
Gabriel’s head snapped up despite the pain. His gaze was intense and fixed on Salazaro.
Salazaro chuckled. “I thought that might get a rise out of you. But it’s true. I know that you, loyal little brother that you are, never gave up on finding out what had happened to him. Even when the rest of your pathetic organization was trying to get it through your head that he’d turned, gone over the wall, thrown his lot in with the other side—you still continued to believe he was either dead or being held prisoner against his will somewhere. Touching, but naive.” He leaned in closer. “You see, boy, not everybody is as pure and good and...well...stupid as you are. Most people, when they see that they’ve only got one option to save their hides, they take that option. They don’t sit here and let themselves get beaten up and eventually killed.” He tilted Gabriel’s chin up. “You don’t want your precious agency to find your body in a trash bin somewhere, do you? What kind of an end is that for someone with your intelligence and...gifts?”
“You’re lying...” Gabriel whispered. His throat felt raw, parched from thirst and screaming.
Salazaro grinned, sensing that he had struck a nerve. “You’d like to believe that, wouldn’t you? You’d just love to believe that your big brother, the man you’ve looked up to all your life, was as much above temptation as you’re trying to be. That he stood up to us, refusing to tell us anything, refusing to work for us to save his life—just like you’re doing. You’ve been out there trying to save him, when in reality he never wanted to be saved. A man with his smarts is a valuable asset to our organization, if properly... rewarded for his loyalty. You could have the same deal, Gabriel. All you have to do is say so, and you’ll have money, power, women falling at your feet—you’ll be part of the strong ones, instead of one of those pathetic do-gooders who think that their pitiful little agency is going to have any real effect on our activities.” He leaned a little farther forward. “Come on, Gabriel—doesn’t it chafe sometimes, someone like you forced to scurry around in the shadows like a puppy trying to attack a bull, instead of being out in the limelight where you belong? You could be quite a success, I just know it. All you have to do is say yes.”
Gabriel watched him in a detached sort of way, hearing his words but not really internalizing them. Instead, he concentrated on the pain in every part of his body, focusing first on his feet and then working his way upward. He remembered what he had told himself before, when the Enemy had tortured him last time: that pain was the way to know you were still alive. He embraced the pain, using it as a defense against Salazaro’s words.
Salazaro apparently sensed that his message wasn’t getting through. He stood up, sighing. “All right, Gabriel. I can see you’re going to be a hard nut to crack indeed. I knew it was going to take time, and that’s fine. I can wait. But I think I’ve got something that will help you change your mind a little faster, so we can all give up this sad little charade and get on with business.” He snapped his fingers behind him, toward the closed door.
The door opened. Carl stood behind it. He stepped aside as if to allow someone else to enter.
Gabriel gasped, his eyes widening in disbelief.
Stefan strode through the door and stood regarding his brother. He smiled. “Hello, Gabriel.”
“I’ll leave you two alone,” Salazaro said, backing out through the door. He too was smiling as he closed it behind him.
Gabriel stared. “Stefan?” he whispered.
Stefan’s smile grew a little wider. “Surprised to see me, brother?” He looked good—tall and powerful in a custom-tailored pinstriped suit and silk tie; a large diamond ring on his right hand caught the light from the bulb high above. He looked his brother up and down. “I wish I could say you’re looking well, but unfortunately—you aren’t.”
Gabriel took a deep breath, considering his words carefully before he spoke. “Stefan...you...”
“I’m alive?” Stefan put a foot up on the chair that Salazaro had vacated, leaning forward so his elbows rested on his elevated knee. “Good of you to notice.” There was something not right about his eyes—it was the look of the old Stefan, hooded and reptilian.
“How—?” Gabriel’s mind was still reeling from this new development; he could not get his thoughts to line up properly. All he could do was stare up at Stefan in disbelief.
“How is it that I am alive, you mean?”
Stefan smiled. “Simple, brother. I am a realist. As I am sure you know, I’ve always found your gold-plated idealism to be a bit...tiresome. I went along with it when it suited my purposes, but when it no longer did—I chose the course that offered the most advantage.”
Gabriel shook his head. “No...” he whispered. “Stefan... the Stefan I knew...would never join the Enemy.”
“The Enemy?” Stefan chuckled; it was an unpleasant sound. “A very high-blown name for the organization, I would say. They are simply a means to an end, brother. When they captured me, they gave me the choice between death— a rather slow and painful death—and...changing my allegiances. I was reluctant at first—apparently more of your idealism had rubbed off on me than I had thought—but I must say that it was one of the best decisions I have ever made. I have more of everything I have ever wanted here than I ever did in the agency.” He leaned forward again. “That is why I am here, brother. To offer you the same choice. You don’t realize how constrained you are, always following rules and upholding the law and rescuing innocent cats from trees. I’m offering you freedom, Gabriel. Freedom, money, power—they can be yours if you join us. We can be a team again.” He dropped his voice down to a conspiratorial near-whisper. “Between us, we can run this organization within a year. I am sure of it.”
Gabriel stared at him for a moment longer, then dropped his gaze. He could feel his body trembling, his strength deserting him. The myriad aches and pains from the beatings seemed to intensify as his mind tried to process what was happening. No...Stefan wouldn’t do this. He called for help...He begged me to help him, to release him—
A sudden thought hit him, the force of it strong enough to cause him to stiffen visibly: Could it all have been a trick? Could it be possible that he did choose to ally himself with the Enemy to save himself? Could he have set this up for no other reason than to lure me here?
He shook his head violently back and forth, barely aware that he was doing it. No! It can’t be! I touched his mind—I saw his desperation, and his transformation. He—
—but he is not as strong as you are. He was already tainted by the Enemy. Perhaps they retained some form of hold over him, something he could not fight—
“No!” he cried aloud, surprised at the intensity of his voice.
Stefan regarded him like a scientist watching a prize bug. He raised an eyebrow and crossed his arms over his chest. “No?”
“This—isn’t—real,” Gabriel whispered between short sharp breaths. “None of this—is real.”
“Ah, but it is, brother.” Stefan smiled. “It doesn’t get any more real than this.” His expression changed, became darker, colder. “Now listen to me: you have two choices. You can join us and renounce your allegiance to the agency, or you can die.” He stood up and began pacing around the room; Gabriel tensed when he got behind him, but he only continued on and reappeared on the other side. “I don’t want to see you die, brother. It would be a shame and a waste. But it isn’t my choice. I am trying to help you to understand the situation. Salazaro can be rather...crude sometimes. He asked me to talk with you because he thought I might be able to make an impression.” He spread his arms wide. “See? I am well—better than I have ever been before, in fact. No more cowering in the shadows in fear because of inferior numbers. The Salazaros are the top organization in the city. What they want, they get. You can have this too, Gabriel. Join us.” His eyes took on the look of an entreaty.
Gabriel looked into his eyes. They were his brother’s eyes: dark and hard and glittering with intelligence and cunning—and yet, somehow, they were not. There was something...odd about them. It is the Enemy...they have taken over his mind. It was all a trap—
When he spoke, his voice was calm. “No, Stefan. I won’t join you. I won’t give up. If you intend to kill me, then you’ll have to do it, because I don’t accept your options.”
A low growl rose in Stefan’s throat. His hands lashed out and gripped both sides of Gabriel’s shirt at the neck, trying to pull him up out of the chair. “You...pitiful little whelp!” he hissed through is teeth. “How dare you? I give you the chance to save your worthless hide, and you mock me!” He shook Gabriel back and forth in the chair, digging his fingers into the younger man’s shoulders as the thin fabric of his shirt tore.
Gabriel winced as blood welled up from the wounds, but he did not waver. If Stefan was going to kill him now for his efforts, then there was nothing he could do about it except to accept death with courage and honor.
But Stefan did not kill him. After a few seconds his rage seemed to dissipate and he let go, drawing back with a contemptuous sneer on his face. “You weren’t worth the effort. I tried to help you, but you’re too good for that. You always thought you were too good for me.” He smiled thinly. “Well, you can see where that has gotten you. I am free and powerful, and you are a prisoner, at the mercy of the strong.” He took a step back. “I’ll try to see to it that they kill you quickly—but I would not count on it. Salazaro will not be pleased to find out that I wasn’t able to make you see your error. Farewell, brother.” Without another word he turned on his heel and stalked out, slamming the door behind him.
Gabriel bowed his head. “Stefan...” he whispered, watching the little runnels of blood flower out on the white fabric of his shredded shirt. Had he made a mistake? Had he been a fool?
He felt his eyes grow hot and was surprised when two meandering lines of moisture crawled slowly down his cheeks. He closed his eyes. Dragons don’t weep...but I am not a dragon now. The thought no longer elicited any feeling.
He hoped that if they were going to kill him, they would do it quickly. If he had failed, a quick end would be the best for all concerned. I am sorry, Juliana. I hope one day you will forgive me for not saying goodbye.
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.