The scene shifted suddenly, catching the runners off guard. Wherever they were, it was pitch dark. They could not see even their hands in front of their faces.
The lights came up just as suddenly: red lights. Emergency lights. Their tense, angry faces looked demonic, bathed in shadowy crimson. They were standing in front of a featureless, formidable looking metal door set into an equally featureless metal wall.
“What the fu—?” Ocelot started to ask, but was startled immediately by the same thing his teammates were: “Our gear!”
Each of them was dressed as he or she would have been when preparing for a run: armored coats, dark clothing, leather boots and gloves, helmets. For a moment they did not speak to each other as they examined the changes: it appeared that each of them carried their accustomed weapons as well. Ocelot’s monowhip was in its usual place in his sleeve, his Dikoted katana slung across his back; Kestrel carried a light machine gun on a strap over one shoulder, an SMG hanging from a lanyard at her web belt, a knife in a sheath on her left leg, and a katana on her back; ‘Wraith’s Barrett sniper rifle was in his hands and he too had a katana; Joe had a medium machine gun on his shoulder, his combat axe in his hands, and a lumpy bag over his off shoulder; Winterhawk, who rarely carried firearms except for show, had no weapons but did notice immediately that his two strongest power foci, a pin and a ring, were back in place along with his black-bladed magesword.
“Okay...” Kestrel said, as she, ‘Wraith, and Joe began checking their pockets for spare clips and extra ammo. “So we’ve got our stuff back. What—?”
Laughter echoed around them for a moment, and then the elf’s voice spoke again, disembodied in the red hallway. “I see everyone’s arrived safely...shall we get to it, then? Here is your challenge:
“You’ll notice that I have returned all your weapons and tools of your trade to you, and so it seems only logical that the challenge will be related to this trade. Observe!”
Suddenly, an object was floating in front of them: a cube made of some glowing green substance, about ten centimeters on a side. It hovered above them, spinning in the air. “This item is the object of your search. You will find it in a locked cabinet in a research laboratory inside the building you will shortly be entering, but that is all I will tell you about its location. The facility is underground and consists of two levels. Your mission is to enter the facility, elude or otherwise cope with the security forces long enough to locate the cube, and bring the cube back to this location in no more than one hour. The door in front of you will open in a moment, and it will close again exactly one hour from that time. If you are still inside the facility when the door closes, it will be flooded with deadly gas and you will all perish.” The voice laughed. “Remember—only one person will have to make it out with the cube for you to be successful, although that won’t be much consolation for the ones who don’t make it, will it?”
None of the runners said anything, their gazes roaming tensely and restlessly around the hallway. The voice was silent for a moment, then laughed again. “I’ll make it easy for you: A running countdown of the time you have left to you will be continuously displayed on a wall of whatever room you happen to be in. That way you’ll only have to look up to see how long it will be before you die.” Another pause. “Remember—if you lose, you doom your young dragon friend as well, so try hard! I’ll see you in an hour—maybe.”
The voice faded, and as it did, the metal door slid open to reveal another featureless room. The runners could already see 59:57 displayed in large, glowing red digits on the wall opposite. The digits, brighter than the red of the ambient light, were counting inexorably down as they watched.
“Come on, let’s go,” Joe said, already moving into the room. “We need to hurry.”
“Split up?” ‘Wraith asked.
“No comm gear,” Kestrel said. “Better stay together.”
“Need a plan,” ‘Wraith said.
They looked around the room they were in. It had two doors but otherwise no furniture or decor. The walls were made of drab gray metal, as was the floor. The doors were not labeled.
“Let’s not lose our heads,” Kestrel said. “We don’t have much time but we’ll need to be careful. We need to get the lay of this place.”
“On that,” Winterhawk said, already preparing a spell. With his powers restored to their full capacity and no more of the stronger drain he had experienced back on the red plains, he knew his Clairvoyance spell should reach for a decent distance—assuming the place wasn’t warded.
‘Wraith and Joe were examining the room for weapons while Ocelot and Kestrel checked out the two doors. They both had standard industrial-style knobs; turning the knobs indicated that the doors were not locked. They didn’t attempt to open them yet. Ocelot was muttering curses under his breath, clearly not pleased with being forced into this run like some kind of rat in a maze.
The floating red digits read 58:47.
‘Hawk was staring at nothing. “What do you see?” Ocelot demanded. “Are you getting anything?”
The mage held up his hand for silence, examined the air for a few more seconds, then nodded. “Yes. Don’t have the whole place—can’t quite reach—but I think I’ve got most of it. Too dim to see specifics. Looks like that door—” he pointed to the rightmost of the two “—leads down a hallway toward the elevators. The other level is below us. No time to check all the rooms. The other leads to another hallway that ends after about ten meters.”
“Did you see any labs?” Joe asked.
Winterhawk shook his head. “No, as I said—too dark to tell for sure. Did see some large rooms, though. Mostly downstairs.”
‘Wraith had pulled out his pocket secretary—apparently he hadn’t been given his cyberdeck back—and was dashing off quick notes into it. “Start downstairs. Farthest and work back.”
Kestrel nodded. “Yeah.”
Ocelot looked at the open door behind them nervously, then turned to the one Winterhawk had indicated. “Can we mark this door somehow once we’re through it?”
“And prop it open,” Joe added. “I sure don’t want to not be able to find the way out.”
“I wouldn’t put it past that bastard to lock it,” Ocelot growled.
“Er—time is wasting,” Winterhawk said with a look up at the countdown display, which now read 55:32. “Shall we?”
“Anything on the other side of the door?” Joe asked.
“Not that I noticed.”
They approached the door and, weapons ready, arrayed themselves around it. Joe carefully turned the knob and eased the door open, shielding the rest of them with his massive, armored body. Tensely the others waited as he peered around it.
“Looks clear,” he whispered. “Elevators?”
Joe twiddled with his helmet. “I’ll run video of the route we take so we don’t get lost on our way back.”
They moved quickly but carefully out into the hallway. Ocelot found a small knife in one of the pockets of his coat and surrendered it to use for propping the door open as they could not find anything else. They hurried on.
The hallway was wide enough that Joe could take point with Kestrel and Ocelot on either side and slightly behind him, Kestrel with her SMG ready, Ocelot with his hand on his monowhip. Winterhawk moved behind Joe and a bit to the left so he could see over Kestrel’s shoulder, and ‘Wraith brought up the rear shifted to the left so he could look over Ocelot’s. The elf held the Barrett with tense but practiced ease, his sharp eyes roving the entire corridor looking for threats. “What’s in the rooms?” Ocelot whispered back to Winterhawk.
“Couldn’t tell. Not much light here. They’re small, though.”
Ocelot nodded and moved on.
The hallway went on for about fifteen meters and then turned a corner to the left. “Elevators are down this way and then another right,” Winterhawk said.
“Stairs?” ‘Wraith asked.
“Didn’t see any.”
“Probably near the elevators,” Kestrel said.
“Who can tell?” Ocelot’s voice was bitterly sarcastic. “Knowing the bastard who put us in here, they might be inside the bathrooms.”
“Or there might not be any,” Kestrel added. “Somehow I don’t think Horrors worry too much about building codes or fire safety.”
The floating red digits were following them—now they were hovering eerily on the wall opposite the corner: 51:21.
“We’ve got to hurry,” Joe said. “It’s taking too long. We don’t have time to be this careful.”
“We want to get out of here alive,” Kestrel said. “Otherwise it doesn’t matter.”
“Doesn’t matter if we’re alive and don’t get out,” Winterhawk pointed out. “Much as I hate to say it, I fear I must agree with Joe in this case.”
“It’s okay with me,” Ocelot muttered. “Screw this slinkin’ around. Let’s just do it.”
Kestrel nodded reluctantly, as did ‘Wraith.
“Okay, let’s do it,” Ocelot said.
“Wait,” Winterhawk said, holding up a finger. The others looked at him oddly as he made a gesture in the air, but relaxed as the small, shimmering form of a watcher spirit appeared in front of him. He looked pleased. “Didn’t know whether they’d let me do that here,” he murmured, then addressed the spirit. “You. Nip on ahead of us down this corridor, turn right and look around, and then come back and tell us if you see anything living there. Go on.”
The little spirit saluted and drifted off. Winterhawk made an after-you gesture at Joe.
The troll peered around the corner. Satisfied that no one was lying in ambush for them he crept around it followed by the others. They had gotten only a couple of meters when the watcher returned. It hovered in front of Winterhawk for a moment and then the mage said, “It’s clear—for now. Let’s hurry.” He dismissed the watcher and followed his friends.
Around the next corner the hallway widened out. The elevators—there were two of them—were on the left side of this short hallway, which was bounded on the other end by a pair of closed double doors. “What’s beyond?” ‘Wraith asked Winterhawk, hooking a thumb at the doors.
“More hallways. This looks like the midpoint of this level.”
There were no other doors in the area. If there was a stairway it was obviously not here. “Should we look for the stairs?” Ocelot hissed. He did not like the idea of entering a tiny enclosed space when the Horrors controlled the game.
‘Wraith looked even less pleased about it, but the time was counting down. “Spare the time?”
“I’ll make it quick,” Winterhawk muttered. Once again he closed his eyes, cast a spell, and then stared at nothing. After about thirty seconds he shook his head with a sigh. “Not a bloody thing. If there are stairs here they’re hiding them damned well. I did take a look down below, though. Nothing apparent waiting for us, but it’s very dark down there so I can’t be certain. Nothing alive in the immediate vicinity. I’m going to leave the spell up until we get down there.”
Ocelot looked relieved by this.
“Let’s get going, then.” Kestrel pressed the button to call the elevator, and was immediately rewarded by a faint far-off rumbling noise. The digits, now hanging in space over the elevator doors, read 47:18.
After a few tense seconds there was a soft bong and the door to the left-side elevator slid silently open. Without any conversation, Joe held it open while ‘Wraith and Kestrel examined it carefully for traps. Seeing none, they waved the others inside. Ocelot guided Winterhawk, who was still looking at things far away.
It was a tight fit, especially because everyone except Winterhawk had a large and rather bulky weapon out and held as ready as possible inside the small space. The door slid closed with an air of finality. Kestrel, who was in front, pressed the DOWN button.
The elevator shuddered slightly and then began its descent. The runners stood tensely; it seemed as if the journey downward took forever, but according to the floating countdown, it was less than ten seconds before the elevator settled into place with a gentle thud.
Four weapons—two guns, one axe, and a katana—were brought to bear as the doors slid open.
Except for an empty hallway of the same featureless metal as the upper floor, there was nothing there. The countdown on the opposite wall read 46:03. The runners hurried out of the elevator, relieved to be out of the small and vulnerable space. Ocelot was the first to think of jamming another knife into the elevator door to force it to remain open, although Kestrel, Joe, and ‘Wraith had obviously been thinking of the same thing.
“Which way?” Joe whispered after that was accomplished. There were hallways stretching out on both sides of them past the elevator alcove.
“Don’t know.” Winterhawk looked back and forth. “There are large rooms in both directions here. This level is larger than the one above.”
“Okay, we’ll have to wing it,” Kestrel said. “Pick a direction.”
“Right,” ‘Ocelot said.
“Okay, right.” Joe started off that way. “I—”
“Shh!” ‘Wraith hissed suddenly.
“What?” Ocelot whispered, his gaze darting around.
The runners all fell silent and strained their ears to hear whatever had startled the elf. After a moment they all did: the far-off sound of a long, drawn-out scream. They could not be sure because of the faintness of it, but it did not sound like a noise made by a human or metahuman.
“Shit...” Ocelot whispered. “I knew it was too good to be true.”
Another scream sounded, closer this time, followed by the pounding of running feet and the far-off chatter of gunfire. A moment later an alarm klaxon went off.
“I think this is about to get interesting,” Winterhawk muttered over the loud buzzing.
“Come on,” Joe said. He brought his machine gun around to the front of him on its strap, so he could have both it and the axe ready to go. Kestrel did the same with hers but kept hold of the SMG.
They moved slowly off down the corridor to the right. It extended down for about fifteen meters, lined with doors on either side, and then ended in what looked like a T intersection. It was difficult to tell for sure, though, in the red light. “All the way to the end?” Kestrel asked.
“Work our way back,” ‘Wraith confirmed.
They went on, keeping a wary eye on the doors. They were all labeled on tiny plates next to each door like numbers in an office building, but the characters on the plates were like no language they had ever seen. Joe made a point of capturing the plates on his video record as they went past.
They reached the end of the hallway and stopped again. Joe turned. “Still right?”
“Why not?” Ocelot gripped his katana more tightly as the sound of gunfire, barely audible over the alarms, came again from far away.
They edged their way around the corner in the same formation as before, but had barely made it when Joe stopped again.
“What?” Winterhawk whispered.
“I see something up there.”
The others moved around the troll, who was great at blocking hallways, to get a better look. There was a dark, huddled form lying in the hallway a few meters up.
They crept forward even more slowly. ‘Wraith was the first to recognize it: “Dead body.”
He was right. The crumpled form was that of a human male in what appeared to be a lab coat, though it was difficult to tell as his entire body was soaked in something dark. On a quick but closer examination it was obvious what had caused the soaking: his face and chest were mostly gone, his neck and back slashed by wicked-looking clawmarks. Ocelot swallowed hard and looked back the way they had come. “What—?”
He didn’t get to finish because at that moment Joe’s booming voice barked “Down!” and suddenly the hallway was full of the echoing budda-budda-budda of machine gun fire. The troll was already firing his own MMG at something down the hallway—he swore in pain as a round got through his armor and caught him in the upper arm, sending a spray of dark blood across the metal wall behind him.
Kestrel and ‘Wraith were firing as they dropped, but Joe’s barrage had taken care of the threat: the smoking remains of a small, tanklike drone with a machine gun mounted on its top squatted in the middle of the hallway, unmoving.
The runners quickly got back to their feet, breathing hard. “Damn,” Ocelot snapped. “Okay, I guess the reception committee’s figured out we’re here.”
“Must keep moving,” ‘Wraith said, a slight bit of urgency creeping into his normal monotone. “Probably being observed.”
“You’re just full of good cheer,” Winterhawk muttered, but his expression suggested that he too had considered that possibility. He looked at Joe, who was trying not to look pained as he dug around in his bag looking for something. “Let me take care of that—”
Joe shook his head, waving him off as he found what he was looking for and pulled out a wad of bandages. “No time,” he said. “It’s not bad. Come on. We have to keep going.” The countdown now read 43:18.
Winterhawk looked reluctant to leave the injury untreated but he knew as well as the rest of them how little time they had. Grimly he followed the others. As they edged their way with caution past the remains of the drone, Joe gave it a couple of hefty smacks with his axe to make sure it would not bother them again. He seemed as strong as ever despite obviously favoring his injured arm.
They passed two more dead bodies when they turned the next hallway. One was splayed out on his back in the middle of the hallway, his face frozen in a wide-eyed rictus of agony, his abdomen ripped open, his viscera spilled on the floor. The second was off to one side a few meters down, torn into two large pieces with a spray of blood extending halfway up the wall and halfway across the hallway. The installation’s ventilation system was not entirely successful in removing the appalling smell from the air.
“What the hell is going on in here?” Ocelot whispered. Then he tensed. “‘Hawk—remember Aztechnology?”
Winterhawk nodded grimly. “That’s probably where that thing is getting the memories to build this place.”
Surprisingly, that thought seemed to comfort Ocelot slightly rather than disturb him further. He held his katana ready in front of him and, along with the rest, moved carefully past the two bodies, trying not to slip on the blood.
“Guys, we’re going to have to try some of these rooms soon,” Kestrel said. “We don’t know where the end is. If we keep going too long and don’t find it, we’ll never have time to search everything coming back.”
“A bit further,” ‘Wraith said. “Think we’re close.”
“If we picked the right end,” Ocelot muttered under his breath. No one seemed to hear him over the klaxon.
They continued on, nervously watching the countdown tick down. When it read 40:11 they had not encountered any other opposition, though they continued to hear screams, gunshots, and the ubiquitous alarm buzzing in their ears. When Joe peered carefully around a corner and announced, “Two rooms and a dead end,” everyone allowed themselves a brief moment of relaxation.
“Okay, this is the end,” Kestrel said. “Check these two and then start back?”
“Yeah,” Ocelot said, and ‘Wraith nodded simultaneously. Winterhawk was looking back over his shoulder to make sure nothing was sneaking up on them. So far nothing was.
The two rooms around the corner looked to be both around the same size, one on each side of the corridor. Just like every other room in this installation, they had metal doors with metal knobs. Each had one of the unintelligible identification plates next to it. Without consultation the team moved over to the right-side door, which was technically the closest to being (at least as far as they could determine) the outer edge of the complex.
They glanced at each other, then Joe tried the door.
Locked, as expected.
He backed off and was preparing to attempt to batter it down when ‘Wraith touched his arm and shook his head. He moved in with his electronics kit (which was in his pocket exactly where he had expected it to be) and in less than ten seconds the maglock had been disabled.
Joe still took the lead, turning the knob and flinging the door open.
Nothing jumped them.
“Is it a lab?” Ocelot demanded, trying to see around the troll.
“Looks like it.” Joe was already moving inside.
The lab looked as if it had been ransacked. Tables were overturned, cabinets knocked down, chairs and stools tossed into untidy piles in the room’s corners. “Locked cabinet,” Winterhawk called, his gaze sweeping the red-tinged area. “Look for a—”
He didn’t get a chance to finish his thought, because at that moment a horrific shriek filled the air and suddenly the entire room was in motion. Erupting up from behind one of the larger piles of ruined junk on the far side of the room, a humanoid creature screamed again and staggered toward the runners. The figure was followed by two fast-moving four-legged beasts who immediately changed their focus to the runners as soon as they spotted them.
Everything happened quickly after that, because all the combatants were moving so fast no one got a good look at anything for several seconds. Two more of the four-legged creatures came from the other side of the room and leaped into the fight, which fast became a free-for-all melee of growls, sharp teeth, and flashing weapons. When it was over the four-legged creatures and the humanoid figure lay sprawled on the floor in pools of dark blood. The team themselves were breathing hard but otherwise unharmed.
The runners stared down at the dead in shock. The four-legged creatures appeared to be some sort of cross between dogs and panthers that hadn’t quite gone right: their fur was falling out in great chunks and large open sores were visible next to the slashes the runners had inflicted. Their faces had none of the beauty of either dog or panther, but instead had a sloped, widened and flattened look that made them ugly and fearsome-looking even in death.
The two-legger was even more shocking. It was a man—or it had once been a man. This one wore a lab coat like the unfortunate victims in the hallways, but half his face had been eaten away by what looked like some kind of acid, his hands were curled into claws, and blood seeped out from beneath his clothes even where there were no apparent wounds.
“Great...” Ocelot muttered, with the sudden urge to clean his katana after it had touched these monstrosities.
“Check,” ‘Wraith said, glancing around. “Cabinets.”
After that it took them less than a minute to check the two cabinets in the room and determine that the cube was not inside them. “If we’re gonna have to do this in every room, we’re never going to find it in time,” Joe said.
Winterhawk was poking around in the one of the piles of junk. “Wait a minute,” he called. “‘Wraith—come here.”
The elf hurried over and ‘Hawk held up a small console that looked relatively undamaged. “This looks like a dataterminal. P’raps if you can—”
‘Wraith was way ahead of him. He snatched it out of ‘Hawk’s hands with a look of triumph and hunted around for a place to plug it in. The other runners waited tensely for several seconds and then the screen came to life, showing an odd logo with more of the strange printing that had been visible on the door plates.
“Just a map,” Kestrel murmured. “If you can get us a map—”
That appeared to be about all ‘Wraith could get. Not being able to read the language and being in a tremendous hurry (the countdown was now showing 36:24), he flashed through the icons until at last in only a few seconds the small screen displayed what looked like a floorplan. It took only a few more seconds after that to identify where they were and locate the other labs on this floor. There were only five more, and one of them was across the hallway. They had been in luck: the direction they had chosen contained the bulk of this level. If they had taken the other turn, they would have discovered a dead end after traversing only two hallways. Naturally there was no indication of where the cube was located. ‘Wraith transferred the map to his pocket secretary while Kestrel and Ocelot kept a wary eye on the door and Winterhawk took the opportunity to heal Joe’s arm wound. When at last they left the room the glowing digits showed 35:02.
The lab across the hall did not contain anything alive, but it did contain a stinking pile of corpses that looked as if they had been torn apart by some large animal—larger by far than the dog-panther things they had seen before. It took the runners only a few seconds to rip open the doors of the two cabinets in the lab and determine that the object of their search was not there. “Next?” Kestrel asked.
“Right fork, that way,” ‘Wraith said, pointing when they got outside the door. “Two labs.”
The hallway the elf indicated proved to be longer than it had looked on the map. There were more dead bodies here, four of them strewn around the hall. Past the lab doors, which were at the far end of the hallway, there was another T intersection. As the runners crept forward as quickly as possible toward the doors, Kestrel and ‘Wraith simultaneously stiffened. “Someone’s coming!” Kestrel hissed, pressing herself back against the wall and raising her SMG. Across the hall ‘Wraith was doing the same thing with the Barrett.
The other three runners barely had time to get into position when the hallway was filled with the sounds of gunfire. Everyone hit the floor as a barrage of rounds zinged past them, fired from at least four barrels poking out from around the corners of the T. They got a brief glimpse of armored forms before the assailants ducked back behind cover.
“Shit!” Ocelot swore. “No cover! We’re sitting ducks!”
‘Wraith and Winterhawk glanced quickly backward: no one was coming from that direction, but the next bend in the hallway was far too long for them to make a run for it.
“We have to get into that lab,” Kestrel announced. “‘Wraith, if we give you some covering fire can you get the door open?”
The elf didn’t answer, but instead moved into position behind Joe and set to work. Joe stowed his axe and swung his MMG around, while Kestrel leveled her LMG. When two of the guards poked their heads and gun barrels around the corner again, they had to duck back quickly to avoid the return fire. “Hurry up...” Joe murmured as one of the guards tried blind fire. It didn’t hit anything, but not by much—a ricochet barely missed Winterhawk, who was behind Kestrel preparing a spell.
“There,” ‘Wraith called, standing up and turning the knob of the lab door. He opened it only a couple of centimeters.
Ocelot hurried inside, followed by ‘Wraith. Winterhawk paused to fire off a spell at the two guards who had once again attempted to get a shot, and pumped his fist triumphantly when they clutched their heads and dropped.
“Two more, I think,” Kestrel called, diving across the hall toward the door as Joe covered her.
“We’d better hurry.” Joe dug into his bag and heaved one of his few grenades down the hall before stepping last into the room. “They’ll call for backup and we can’t be here when they get here.” The sound of the grenade’s explosion was muffled by the door closing behind them.
This lab looked much the same as the others: its furnishings were ransacked and its smell was appalling. More dead bodies lay sprawled on the floor, some of them crushed under heavy tables that had been pulled down on them. Joe and Kestrel remained near the door, weapons ready, watching for threats while Winterhawk, ‘Wraith, and Ocelot examined the three cabinets. Other than office supplies and some unidentifiable things that looked like they had once been in jars on the cabinets’ shelves, there was no sign of anything else. Definitely no glowing green cubes. “You think this thing exists at all?” Ocelot snapped in frustration. “I think that fucking Horror thing is just getting its jollies watching us screw around in its little maze.”
“No choice,” ‘Wraith said dispassionately. “Only game in town.”
Ocelot blew air between his teeth and swiped his hair back off his face with the hand that wasn’t holding the katana. The countdown read 30: 02.
“Come on,” Winterhawk said, already moving toward Kestrel and Joe. “We’re half down already and not much closer to finding it. We have to pick it up a bit.”
‘Wraith came up next to him as he reached the two at the door. “Anyone there?”
“Can’t tell,” Joe muttered. “Hoping the grenade got ‘em.” He shoved the door open a little more and tried to get a look out. “Winterhawk, can you—?”
The mage nodded and began another clairvoyance spell. “Can’t see anything,” he said, a bit of surprise coloring his tone. “Not even the bodies. They—”
Ocelot, standing next to him, felt something touch his shoulder. He turned, expecting to see ‘Wraith there, but as he turned it registered somewhere in his subconscious that ‘Wraith was standing next to him— “Holy shit!” he screamed, whirling around and slashing with his katana like a madman.
The others spun at his cry, their eyes widening in terror. Standing behind Ocelot was one of the labcoat-clad researchers—the researchers whose dead bodies they had noted upon entering the room. Its eyes glowed redder than the ambient light, and it was raising hands tipped with long, twisted claws. It made no sound when it moved.
And there were more.
Every dead body in the room that hadn’t been crushed beneath furniture had risen up and was now shambling with a surprising degree of quickness in their direction. Even the ones who had been crushed were trying to get up, scrabbling ineffectually at the floor with baleful expressions in their glowing dead eyes. Before Ocelot could get his katana into position, the first zombie-thing slashed viciously at him with its claws, opening up three bloody stripes down the side of his chest. “Watch the damn door!” he yelled at nobody in particular as he swung wildly, sinking the katana into the zombie’s shoulder. It opened its mouth in a silent scream but did not fall.
Winterhawk and ‘Wraith had backed off along the wall, the former preparing a spell, the latter raising his Barrett and sending two perfectly-placed shots into a zombie’s chest. It ignored the shots and kept coming.
Kestrel and Joe remained near the door and attempted to ventilate the zombies with machine gun fire. It had the same effect as the Barrett: none. Grimly Joe drew his axe and Kestrel her katana.
Meanwhile, Winterhawk had gotten his spell off. It flowered around the head of the zombie nearest him. It screamed its soundless scream and staggered backward, oozy discharge running from its eyes, nose, and ears. It slowed but did not stop. ‘Hawk raised his mageblade, his jaw set grimly.
There were five zombies in all, not counting the ones that were trying to pull themselves apart to get out from under the heavy furniture. They continued to advance, their red eyes showing single-minded purpose, their clawed hands raised. ‘Wraith backed off to watch the door, allowing Joe and Kestrel, both better at hand-to-hand fighting than he was, to enter the fray. Winterhawk was preparing another spell.
They won the battle, but only at the cost of both injury and precious time. Once Ocelot figured out that chopping the zombies’ heads off “killed” them, the others made short work of their opponents. When the zombies all lay in a bloody heap in front of them and their heavy breathing was competing with the buzz of the alarm klaxon, the countdown read 27:41.
They paused a moment to take stock of their situation. Ocelot, Winterhawk, and Kestrel had been slashed by the zombie’s wicked claws on the chest, side, and arm, respectively. The wounds bled profusely and burned as if there had been acid on the zombies’ claws. “We have to take care of these,” Joe said, peering once again outside the door for a quick look. “You guys aren’t gonna make it bleeding like that.”
“Too long,” Winterhawk said through gritted teeth.
Kestrel nodded. She had already accepted some bandages from Joe and was wrapping them around her upper arm. “Have to keep going. No time to stop. Maybe—after we find the thing.”
“Three more labs,” “Wraith said.
“If it’s there,” Ocelot pointed out.
“If it’s not, we’re screwed,” Kestrel said quickly. “Let’s not think about that until we’ve checked the others.”
Joe carefully shoved open the door and glanced out. Nothing shot at him. “Maybe the grenades did get ‘em,” he told the others, looking at the other lab door across the hall. “Come on. I’ll cover ‘Wraith again—get the door open.”
They got the door open without incident and got inside the lab. There were more dead bodies there—this time they didn’t give them a chance to become zombies, but simply chopped their heads off to start with. As it was they still had to take out two of them that had been hidden behind a lab table and had started to animate before they could get to them.
There was no time for healing. Winterhawk had hoped to get a respite that would allow him to heal up at least Ocelot’s wound (Kestrel’s was on her arm and therefore not as threatening, and his own could wait until last) but between taking out the zombies, hunting for the cube, and watching the door to make sure no one tried to break in on them, it didn’t happen. They reconvened in less than five minutes by the door, looking dejected. ‘Hawk, Ocelot, and Kestrel were already showing signs of weakness. The countdown stood at 23:33.
“Okay.” Ocelot took a deep breath and steadied himself. “Nothing here. Two more, yeah?”
“Down past the T,” ‘Wraith said. “Don’t know how far. Map scale is odd. Adjoining labs.”
“Connected?” Kestrel asked.
“Appears so.” The elf held up his pocket secretary to show them. “Last chance.”
“Okay, let’s go then,” Joe said. “This is it. If it’s not here we’ll have to go back upstairs and take our chances with the labs up there.”
No one was waiting for them in the hallway. They moved very slowly this time, pressed against the metal walls on both sides, weapons ready. When they reached the end, they saw why no one had been shooting at them. Four guards in security armor lay in heaps, two on each side of the T. Two of them had been cut down by machine gun fire, and all four of them (along with the walls) showed signs of having taken heavy damage from a grenade.
“Chunky salsa,” Ocelot muttered, taking his victories where he could get them. His chest was on fire, and he could feel himself sweating under his armor. His legs felt slightly weaker than usual. He forced himself to keep going. It wasn’t bad yet, and if he could hold it together or another twenty-odd minutes, that was all that would matter.
“Take their guns?” Joe asked as they moved on past.
“Don’t trust them,” ‘Wraith said at once.
“Me neither,” Kestrel said. “But then, we’re already using the Horrors’ weapons in a way, aren’t we?”
Nobody answered, but they didn’t take the guns either.
They were in another long hallway. Like the previous one, it was longer than might have been indicated by the map. The hallway was lined with doors, but other than giving them a wary eye as they passed and taking more than a few glances backward, the runners ignored them. The object of their search was at the end of this hallway: two adjacent doors alone along a final T intersection. So far they had not seen it, but the way the corridor did gentle, sweeping turns, it was difficult to see too far ahead.
They heard the screams before they saw the doors. At first they seemed very loud, but it took the runners a moment to realize that the volume level of the klaxons had been steadily decreasing to the point where now it sounded as if the alarms were muffled behind more metal doors. The screams, on the other hand, sounded very close.
The runners could not be certain that these were the same screams they had heard before, but standing here, much closer to them than they had been previously, they were sure of two other things—
—the screams were human, and they were coming from one of the two labs that were their destination.
Ocelot slumped back against the wall, brushing sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand. “Now what?”
Kestrel started to say something, but her voice was cut off by another of the screams. It was longer, this time, and more drawn out—whoever was in there was obviously in agony.
“A trap?” ‘Wraith asked, glancing back in the direction from which they had come.
“Won’t know until we go in,” Winterhawk said. “It’s where we need to go.”
“It probably knows that,” Ocelot said sourly.
They rounded one more slight curve and the hallway forked into a T once more. A careful check around the corner revealed dead ends at both ends of the hall, and two doors, separated by about ten meters, in the wall directly in front of them. The screams were clearly coming from the right-side door. Another one rent the air as they tried to decide what to do. The countdown was on the wall between the two doors and read 20:07. “This had better be it,” Kestrel muttered. “We won’t have time to check many more.”
“Can’t see a damn thing inside,” Winterhawk said before anyone asked him.
“That might be a good sign,” Joe said. He was already up next to the door. The screams were coming more regularly now, as if whatever was being done to the victim inside had been increased in its intensity.
‘Wraith defeated the lock with hands that trembled ever so slightly. Weapons ready, they got into position and Joe flung the door open. The runners streamed in—
—and stopped dead in shock, silent except for Kestrel’s strangled cry:
He was there, and he was not alone. The lab, the largest one by far that they had yet entered at nearly fifteen meters on a side, looked like something out of a particularly gruesome horror trid. The overturned furniture had been cleared away, pushed up against the near and far walls. On the opposite wall, in the corner farthest from the door through which the runners had just entered, a metal table had been set up. It was tilted at an angle and surrounded by six of the zombie lab technicians. Strapped to the table by shining metal shackles was Gabriel. He did not appear to notice the runners’ presence; in fact, as they entered he screamed again, a long, wrenching cry of agony.
One of the zombies moved aside slightly and the runners could see why he was screaming. Ocelot looked away quickly, fighting to control his gorge: the zombies had made a ragged incision from the middle of Gabriel’s chest down to his abdomen, and were now busily probing at the bloody opening as if in preparation for something. Somehow he had not managed to pass out during this atrocity—or had not been permitted to—and now his screams echoed around the metal walls of the lab.
“NO!” Kestrel screamed. She started to move forward, but Ocelot grabbed her arm and pointed to the side by the connecting door. More zombies, along with some armor-clad security guards and two of the pantherlike creatures, were pouring into the room, the guards taking cover behind the strewn furniture, the zombies and creatures moving in for the attack.
Kestrel glanced over at Gabriel again but she knew they could not help him by getting herself killed. Grimly she leveled her machine gun at the guards and started firing, looking around for cover of her own.
In addition to the six zombies surrounding Gabriel’s table, who seemed intent on their work, there were five more zombies, four guards, and the two panther/dog things. Joe made short work of the four-legged creatures, cutting them in half with a full-auto blast from his machine gun, while Ocelot and Winterhawk went after the zombies and ‘Wraith ducked behind a broken desk and joined Kestrel in firing at the guards.
It was a surreal scene for the next several moments. Gabriel’s screams as the zombies continue to probe at him mingled with the staccato sound of gunfire and the occasional cry of pain from either the guards or the runners: ‘Wraith took one down with a head shot only to be grazed across the upper thigh by a shot from another, while Joe took another round in the arm from a second which was then dispatched by Kestrel. By the time the guards, the zombies, and the dogs were dead, every one of the runners had taken gun or claw damage. They looked around quickly for any further opposition and then turned back to the table.
Gabriel screamed again. The six zombies surrounding him began to take an interest in the rest of the room now—turning as one toward the runners, their expressions even more hate-filled than before, they advanced on them. They moved with surprising speed, even faster than the other zombies had. As the last one moved away from the table, a shimmering curtain of light flared up around it.
“Damn!” Winterhawk yelled, panting as he raised his mageblade again. “A barrier!”
“Kill these damn things!” Kestrel cried, already wading in, ignoring her own bloody injuries as she swung her katana.
More precious seconds passed as the runners slashed and hacked at the zombies with even more ferocity than before. Gabriel’s screams had quieted to moans of pain now as he appeared to be struggling for awareness of what was happening around him. When at last the last zombie went down under the runners’ combined blades and the barrier flared and died, the floating digits seemed to mock them: 18:41.
The soft words, the voice so full of pain and fear and desperation, reached them from across the room. Gabriel had raised his head slightly, his eyes haunted and desperate, pleading with them to do something. It was a wonder he was still alive given what the zombies had done to him. “Kestrel... please...help me...”
“Gabriel!” Kestrel did not hesitate. Spinning, she took off at a run toward him.
Later no one would be able to quite accurately reconstruct what occurred next. One moment Kestrel was running across the room toward Gabriel, and the next moment she was intercepted by an even faster-moving form that called “No!” as it ran. She screamed in anger that turned to terror, appearing to teeter for a moment on the edge of nothingness, and then she was flung backward where she landed sprawling. ‘Wraith, who had grabbed her, landed on top of her and quickly rolled off.
Kestrel glared at the elf, trying to scramble to her feet. “What the hell—?” she started to yell, and then she noticed that the others were not looking at her. She raised up to see what they were staring at and gasped.
The victim on the table was no longer Gabriel. Instead, it was some sort of hideous zombie-thing, rotting, falling to pieces, but still somehow alive. It was laughing, and as they watched, it faded from sight. Even that, though, was not what the other runners were looking at. Kestrel’s eyes widened as she saw that the area around the table for about a three-meter circle no longer had a floor. She crept nearer and saw the pool of greenish, bubbling, foul-smelling liquid filling the area between the table and the rest of the room. “My God...” she whispered.
“Yeah...” Ocelot was staring at the pool as if he could not look away.
“Bloody hell...” Winterhawk murmured.
Joe recovered first. “Guys,” he said urgently, “we have to get going. Look at the time.”
That snapped them out of their reveries. The countdown read 16:07. They hurriedly checked the lab, staying far away from acid pit in the corner. Kestrel, and to a somewhat lesser extent Ocelot, moved quickly but as if in a daze.
“How did you know?” Winterhawk asked ‘Wraith as the two of them checked the last cabinet in the room. “That it wasn’t Gabriel, I mean.”
The elf took a deep breath. “Wasn’t sure. Eyes were wrong. Just for a second.”
‘Hawk let his breath out slowly. “Well, it’s a damn good thing you spotted it, that’s all I’ve got to say.”
They were all moving slower now. None of them were injured severely, but the cumulative effects of the claws and bullet-grazes, not to mention the nonstop adrenaline rush for the last three-quarters of an hour, were beginning to take their toll. They forced themselves over to the other door, the one connecting the two rooms.
“Anything there?” Ocelot asked Winterhawk. He had moved closer to Kestrel and didn’t seem inclined to go far from her.
The mage checked quickly. “I don’t see anything,” he said, “but I wouldn’t take my word for it, given what I’ve missed so far.”
The door between the labs was not locked. Surprisingly, when Joe threw it open, they were not met with any opposition. In fact, this room appeared not to have been touched by any of the madness that had occurred in every other lab they had investigated thus far. Pristine and unoccupied, it contained four lab benches with racks of instruments suspended above them, three cabinets, and an assortment of chairs, desks, and stools. Except for the hellish red light, the place could have been any normal corporate research laboratory.
“So this is what they’re supposed to look like,” ‘Hawk muttered.
They all peered into the room for a few seconds, examining it for traps using all their available senses. Finding none apparent, they moved inside. With Joe guarding the door to the outside hall and Kestrel the connector, the other three runners hurried to the cabinets. Three well-placed gunshots later, they had the doors open, and—
“Got it! Here it is!” Ocelot yelled. He threw the cabinet door fully open to reveal a glowing green cube, exactly like the one that had floated above their heads what seemed now like days ago.
“Grab it, then, and let’s go!” Winterhawk called back. “We’ve only got thirteen minutes to get back upstairs and out of here!”
Ocelot snatched up the cube; it was light, smooth, and slightly warm. As soon as he touched it, the klaxons, which had quieted, got loud again, reverberating through the lab. He held the cube for a moment and then tossed it to Joe, who caught it and stowed it away in his bag. Everyone headed back through the first lab and into the hallway.
They were almost surprised to see no opposition waiting for them outside the lab. There were no hordes of researcher-zombies, armored security patrols, disgusting hybrid animals, or killer drones—just featureless metal walls and the sound of the klaxon, to which they had by this point had become nearly accustomed. Almost surprised—but not quite. Nothing about this place made sense. It was a good bet that all of them were having variations on the same thought: the sooner we get the hell out of here, the better.
They made it back to the elevator without being attacked, but when they reached it they pulled up short.
It was closed.
“Damn,” Ocelot snapped. “I thought we—”
“One of those guards probably messed with it,” Joe said. “C’mon. If it’s the only way up we’ll have to climb.”
Nobody liked that plan, but since nobody could offer a better one, they immediately set about trying to get the door open. Or rather, Joe did. He wedged his axe between the two sections of it and applied his massive troll muscles to the task while the others kept a close watch on both sides of the alcove. The other set of doors, which had been closed when they arrived, was open now. That didn’t make them feel secure.
It took Joe several seconds before he was able to get good leverage on the door and pry it open. It slid aside with agonizing slowness: the other runners were keenly aware of the seconds ticking down on the floating countdown: 10:01... 10:00... 9:59...
Far off down the hallway they heard a loud THUD, followed by another a couple of seconds later. “Hurry... hurry...” Winterhawk muttered under his breath, his gaze flicking nervously back and forth between the doors on either side of the alcove and Joe pushing on the elevator door. By now Ocelot had moved in to help him. Both of them were bleeding harder from their exertions, sweat standing out on their foreheads and darkening their shirts beneath their armored coats.
The elevator car was in place on the lower floor, but it did not respond to input on the buttons. There was no time to wait: Joe quickly widened out the emergency exit shaft at the top of the car with his axe and the others scrambled upward until they were all standing on top of the car. Winterhawk, his features lined with the effort of lifting something so heavy, levitated Joe upward one level so he could repeat his performance with the door up there. By the time they had all climbed up, exited through the forced doors, and stood panting in the elevator alcove on the upper floor, the countdown stood at 6:42.
Then the gunfire started.
It seemed to come from everywhere at once, echoing eerily off the walls along with the sound of running, booted feet. “Come on!” Kestrel urged, already starting in the direction from they had come. “We have to hurry! It’s still a ways back to the way out!”
“Yeah, and the asshole might have closed that too,” Ocelot muttered, catching up with her. The others quickly followed.
They saw the shadows an instant before they saw the security patrol, and thus got the drop on them. As the four armored guards came rushing around a corner, guns drawn, the chatter of machine gun fire and the flare of Winterhawk’s spell cut them down before they could react. They crumpled into a sprawled heap across the corridor.
The runners paused for just a second to catch their breath, but tensed as another rumbling THUD cut through the klaxon, more on a subliminal level than actually audible. “What is that?” Winterhawk asked. They were moving again. “It doesn’t sound like guns—”
“Crap!” Joe yelled, suddenly shoving past him and ‘Wraith to surge forward, ahead of the rest.
The others looked at him like he was insane for perhaps half a second, then they realized what he was doing.
A section of the ceiling was coming down ahead of them: a thick, heavy metal door rolling down to block off the corridor and prevent them from moving forward. Joe threw himself forward and got under it, preventing its progress by sheer brute force. He cried out in pain as it slammed down on his shoulder, but it stopped moving. Everyone could hear the whine of the machinery’s protest. “Get something!” the troll cried in a strangled voice. “Can’t—hold—for long—” Indeed, he was trembling as they spoke, his knees already beginning to buckle under him as the door pressed down.
“There isn’t—” Ocelot began, but then his eyes fell on the heaped bodies of the armored troops. Yes there is! “The guards!” he yelled at the others, pointing. “Hurry!”
Everyone understood instantly. They rushed over to the four guards and dragged their bodies quickly over, arranging them one on top of another so they made a stack a little over a meter high. The guards were wearing heavy armor—the runners hoped it would hold long enough for them to get through. “Go!” Joe rasped. “Get through, then I’ll let it go!”
The runners didn’t need a second invitation. They threw themselves two at a time underneath the barrier, sliding out on the other side and leaping back to their feet. As soon as they were through Joe began letting the barrier down, dropping to his knees and then slowly bending forward. The bodies took up the slack and performed as they had hoped, although the heavy metal door began slowly and inexorably crushing them down almost at the instant it touched them. Joe let out a mighty cry of pain as he rolled the rest of the way out, dragging his bag and his weapons with him.
There was no time to savor their victory. The glowing red numbers almost seemed to dance mockingly in front of them: 3:01... 2:59... 2:58...
“Come on!” Kestrel cried. “Run! We need to get there before any more of those doors start coming down!”
The others needed no urging. Despite their injuries, they picked up their pace, hurrying down the hallway in a kind of shambling jog-trot. Joe’s arm hung almost limply at his side, his shoulder nearly useless now after having taken the brunt of the last door’s weight. All of them were pale and sweating—the zombies had no doubt had something on their claws that had affected them, but they all knew now that to stop, even for a moment, was to die. They were all focused exclusively on the hallway up ahead, at the turns and bends they had memorized so as not to get lost on their way out. Their harsh breathing rattled in their throats, each one of them hearing his or her own rasping breath over the sounds of the alarms, the thuds of the doors behind them, and the gunfire.
They rounded the next-to-last corner and started down the hallway. One more corner, they knew, only fifteen meters or so, and they would be in sight of the way out. “Not far now!” Joe called, encouraging them on. “Come on—we’ve almost got it!” The countdown stood at 2:35. The klaxons seemed to be picking up tempo, blaring faster than ever.
At that point came another moment that none of them would be able to reconstruct later. Winterhawk, who had dropped behind a bit, took that moment to glance back over his shoulder. What he saw there made him react before any of the rest of them could even move. “Down!” he yelled, diving forward, slamming into Ocelot with enough force to knock his startled teammate off his feet. After that, three things happened simultaneously: the budda-budda of machine gun fire filled the hallway, a crack and a thud accompanied an unseen metal barrier that came thundering down directly above where Winterhawk was sprawled, and Winterhawk screamed as the machine gun rounds tore into him an instant before the barrier smashed down, crushing his legs beneath it.
“‘Hawk!” Ocelot yelled, scrambling half-up and skidding to a stop next to the mage’s prone form.
Winterhawk wasn’t screaming anymore: he was clearly too far gone for that. Instead, he moaned inarticulately, his eyes clamped shut, his face dead pale even in the red light. The rounds had torn up most of his shoulder and left side; a pool of dark blood was already forming beneath him. The barrier had almost reached the floor—the unarmored flesh and bone of the mage’s lower legs had not been even the impediment offered by the armored guards before. Another pool of blood formed around them, seeping under the door to mingle with that which was undoubtedly already on the other side.
Kestrel, ‘Wraith, and Joe were staring in wide-eyed, horrified shock. They moved closer but seemed unable to determine what to do.
Ocelot was oblivious to them. He gripped Winterhawk’s undamaged shoulder. “‘Hawk... just... just hold on. We’ll—we’ll get you out of there—” His voice shook, and so did his hand.
Winterhawk opened his eyes and looked up at him, his torment showing in his eyes. “Go...” he forced out.
“‘Hawk, we can’t—Not without you—”
“Go,” he said again, more strongly this time. He struggled up fractionally onto his trembling arm. Ocelot leaned in so he didn’t have to speak loudly. “Not... much... time...”
Joe had shaken off the shock and was already down on his knees next to the door, trying to force it open. Kestrel was helping him. They were having no effect. The clock read 1:22.
“No... ’Hawk... Al... we can’t just—”
“No... choice... Terry...” Winterhawk whispered. “Already... dead... You can’t... all... all of you... Gabriel... Not... not for me...” That speech seemed to have exhausted him because his head lolled slightly to one side, his eyes closing again.
Ocelot shook him. “No, damn it! You can’t—”
A big, gentle hand fell on his shoulder. “Ocelot... We—we have to go.”
He looked up to see Joe there. He hadn’t seen the troll get up, but he was now standing over him, his face full of sadness and compassion. Ocelot gestured ineffectually at Winterhawk. “We can’t just leave him—” he whispered.
Someone else was just as gently hauling him to his feet. ‘Wraith’s face was more of a mask than it had ever been before. “Not much time,” he said softly.
Ocelot allowed himself to be pulled up, looking down at the still form of his best friend. “Damn you, you fucking bastard!” he screamed at the ceiling of the hallway. “I’ll get you for this! I’ll kill you!”
He went with them. None of them looked back. The countdown was at 0:42.
They ran. With the last of their strength, they ran. It didn’t matter that each step shot bolts of agony up their spines; it didn’t matter that their bones and their muscles were exhausted beyond the point of continuing. None of that mattered now. All that was important was that they make it out that door in time—that they had not left a friend behind to die in vain.
They reached the door when the countdown read 0:13. All of them, in the backs of their minds, were sure that the door would be locked—but then again, they had all been equally sure that the door would not be there at all, that somehow the Horror had played some kind of sick joke on them and rearranged the layout of the complex.
Neither was true. ‘Wraith reached out a trembling hand and tried the knob—he seemed as surprised as the others were when it turned freely in his hand.
No precautions now. It was too late for that. If anything was waiting for them in the room it would take longer than they had to fight it, so they didn’t worry about it. ‘Wraith threw the door open and they ran, pitching themselves headlong into the featureless metal room and toward the rolling metal door that was even now beginning its slow descent. If there was anything else in the room, none of them saw it.
0:07... 0:06... 0:05...
Kestrel and ‘Wraith flung themselves over the threshold and disappeared.
Joe followed them and he too disappeared.
With one last, quick, anguished look back over his shoulder, Ocelot threw himself through the doorway.
The scene faded from view.
Copyright ©1999, 2000 R. King-Nitschke. The Shadowrun universe is the property of FASA Corporation and Wizkids.
No part of this story may be reproduced without permission from the author.