It was early morning on what was looking to be one of the rare nice days in Tacoma this time of year. The sun was just coming up, coloring the faint dusting of clouds with bright pinks and yellows, just beginning to dry up the few puddles that still remained from last night’s light rain.
Behind the row of tiny cinder-block houses, a black cat poked around in a dumpster looking for breakfast. The dumpster was, as usual, overflowing—it served the entire row, which at one point many years ago had been the components of an old-fashioned motel with individual self-contained units, but it had been converted sometime during the early part of the century into rental housing. Some of the units—the ones on the ends—even had small one-car garages now. The character of the place was somewhat rundown, but mostly respectable; it was the sort of place where the neighbors left each other alone, although it was hard to determine whether that was out of fear of what they might find out or out of a sense of propriety. Perhaps it was a bit of both. Either way, most of the residents liked it that way. Even better was the fact that the landlord left you alone as well, as long as you paid your rent on time and didn’t make visible trouble. At no time in the memory of any of the current residents had he ever shown any interest in what they were doing inside their units. Of course, that meant that they were pretty much on their own for repairs as well, but nobody minded that too much. It was a small price to pay for being left alone and not having the rent jacked up every year.
The cat looked up as the sound of soft quick footfalls caught its ears, rising over the background noise of traffic on the street a short distance away. It stiffened a moment, standing very still until it saw the figure round the corner, then returned to its business. As long as the sounds didn’t get any closer, it wasn’t worried.
The man responsible for the sounds that had momentarily disturbed the cat slowed from his quick jog as he approached the houses. Ocelot was barely breathing hard after his morning run. He hadn’t been out for heavy exercise, but just a half an hour or so of the feeling of the wind on his face and the ease of his muscles doing what they were made to do. He had always been a physical person, someone who didn’t like to sit still for long. He enjoyed the nearly effortless sensation of movement, of accomplishment, of the knowledge that his body was in top condition and would do without question nearly everything he asked of it. It was one of the few things anymore that truly made him feel alive.
He stopped for a moment at the entrance to the row of houses, looking down the long entryway that was half-driveway, half-street as he ran his towel across his face. He’d scarcely broken a sweat this morning. That was all right, though: later on today he would do his “real” workout inside, and he’d be sweating plenty then. Wrapping the towel back around his neck, he continued down the road toward his house. It was one of the few that had a garage—he had been lucky to find it. He’d been here several years already and had no particular desire to move. The place was small, but it had everything he needed and nothing he didn’t. He liked to live as he traveled: light.
Ocelot paused again at his door, fishing in the pocket of his sweatpants for the maglock key. It didn’t look like it from the outside, but the door to his place was a lot more secure than those of at least the majority of the other houses around the area. For that matter, so were all the windows. He might not have been as paranoid as ‘Wraith (then again, nobody was as paranoid as ‘Wraith) but he nonetheless did the best he could to make sure nobody uninvited found their way into his home without a whole lot of effort.
His hand closed around the key after briefly touching the small, cylindrical form of his monowhip. He always felt a little vulnerable when he went out running because it wasn’t practical to wear his armored jacket, but between his speed and his skill with the tiny but deadly weapon, he wasn’t too worried. Most of the people around here had already marked him as someone not to mess with, and he usually heard from somebody if there was anyone new and unfamiliar in the area. He had long ago deemed it an acceptable risk.
Opening the door, he glanced quickly around inside before entering, a habit he had picked up so long ago that he didn’t remember ever not doing it. Everything, as usual, looked fine. There was little in the place that you couldn’t see from the door—it had three rooms: a bedroom, which he had transformed into a workout room; a main area that contained a tiny kitchenette, a dining table, a bed, a couch, and two chairs; and a bathroom which was reachable from both the main room and the bedroom. Ocelot closed the door behind him and, after glancing into the bath and the workout room to make sure nobody was lurking, he peeled off his slightly sweaty T-shirt and tossed it on the floor in a growing pile of laundry next to the bed and flopped into one of the chairs with a sigh. Then he kicked off his shoes, got up again and headed for the kitchen, where he pulled a beer out of the nearly empty refrigerator. Returning to the chair, he dropped back into it and clicked on the trid unit. For about ten minutes he drank beer and stared half-seeingly at the sports news channel.
It had been almost a week since ‘Hawk, ‘Wraith, and Joe had left to go their various between-run ways. ‘Hawk had gone first, eager to get out of Seattle for awhile and return home to his manor house in England and his life of leisure. Ocelot couldn’t really say he blamed him. He’d finally gotten his mind around the fact that ‘Hawk did runs these days mainly for the mental stimulation and satisfaction of curiosity, but it was still damn nice to have a place like that to go home and decompress for awhile when it was over.
Joe and ‘Wraith had left the next day, the former heading off into the hills somewhere, the latter taking off on his bike and pointed east. As usual, Ocelot wasn’t sure where they went and he didn’t ask, just as they didn’t ask when he took off for parts unknown. It was just one of those unwritten things: no matter how close a friend somebody was in the shadows, you didn’t ask something like that. If they volunteered the information, as ‘Hawk had, then that was different. Otherwise you kept your curiosity to yourself. All Ocelot knew about where ‘Wraith went was that it was somewhere in New York.
Ocelot sighed, finishing off the last of the beer and tossing the can at the trash receptacle (which was currently the bag his latest pair of new athletic shoes had come in). He wondered, as he occasionally did lately, what Kestrel was doing these days, and as usual the thought made him somewhat morose.
His mind drifted back to that night two months ago when she had invited him over and broken the news to him that Gabriel was back in town after his month-long absence and that she was going to leave with him for awhile. When he’d asked where they were going, she had told him she didn’t know—that Gabriel wanted to get away from Seattle and see the world for awhile, he had invited her to go with him, and she had accepted. He’d asked her how long they would be gone, and again she had been forced to tell him (a bit reluctantly) that she didn’t know that either. It would depend on Gabriel. He had wished her luck—what else could he do?—and she had kissed him goodbye. Neither of them had suggested the possibility that he might stay the night. That had been the last he had seen of her for two months, except for a couple of postcards he had received: one from Cameroon and one from Scotland. The last had been more than two weeks ago. He had tried to call her once, about a week after she had left, but the message had come back that her phone was in an area not covered by the service. Knowing how few of those were left in the world, Ocelot hoped she knew what she was doing and left it at that. If she wanted to come back, she would. And besides, they weren’t exactly together anymore, were they?
He remained in essentially the same position for about the next hour, letting his mind continue to drift, not really thinking or paying attention to anything in particular. It felt good to relax—or the closest he ever got to relaxing, at least. His gaze flitted over the impressive array of weapons he had hanging from every wall, lingering the longest on the two newest additions to his collection: a manriki-gusari from Japan and a dah-dau from China. He had been meaning to get in some practice with those for awhile now, but the run they had been on, especially with the travel involved, had made that difficult. Now that the run was over and his time was his own again, there was no reason why he couldn’t get started. He decided that he would incorporate the manriki-gusari into his workout later today.
The sports channel had switched to live coverage of a golf tournament, so he flipped over to regular news. The talking heads were discussing a new trid movie that was coming out next week. He’d forgotten just how much nothing was on during the day. Clicking off the trid unit, he dragged himself out of the chair and headed in the general direction of the shower.
The phone rang.
Ocelot stopped and looked at it for a moment, wondering who would be calling him this time of day. Probably another telemarketer. He picked it up. “Yeah?”
There was silence on the other end.
Ocelot frowned. “Is somebody there?”
He shrugged, dropping the phone back into its cradle. Probably just some wrong number who doesn’t speak English. He continued into the bathroom and started up the shower without bothering to close the door.
The rest of the day passed uneventfully. Ocelot spent about three hours in the mid-afternoon at his workout, running through katas, practicing both armed and unarmed combat techniques, reinforcing the moves his muscles knew without his mind’s ever having to think about them. The last hour of the workout was spent with the manriki-gusari, and that was the hardest part because it was an unfamiliar weapon. Ocelot prided himself on knowing how to use just about every type of hand weapon that had ever been made, which meant that learning this new one wasn’t as hard as it would have been had he been less skilled. The manriki-gusari was very much like nunchaku, but with enough subtle differences that he knew it would be awhile before he would take this one out anywhere where his life or his friends’ would depend on his ability to use it as second nature. Every weapon, even different individuals of the same type, had a character all its own. Learning that character, becoming intimately familiar with every nuance of weight, balance, strike—that was the secret to being a fighter of Ocelot’s level of expertise. Even the short time he hadn’t been practicing during the run had resulted in a slight but noticeable decrease in his skill level. He knew it would take him a few days of workouts like this to hone his abilities back to their top form.
At the end of the workout, he was drenched. His dusty-blond hair, tied back with a leather thong into a long ponytail, was darkened by sweat until it looked almost brown; his light tank top stuck to his chest and back. He was satisfied. Now that was a proper workout. He carefully wiped off the weapons he had used and hung them back in their spots on the walls (the weapons always came first, and were always taken care of before he attended to his own comfort) and then headed off to take another shower.
When he emerged feeling human again, he realized that he hadn’t made any particular plans for the evening. He dropped down into his chair, clicking the trid back on and mentally going over his options. He wasn’t a party kind of guy. The closest he got when he wasn’t forced to attend such things for some run or another was a few small, smoky blues clubs scattered around greater Seattle. But even those didn’t sound like what he wanted to do tonight. Normally when he didn’t have anything better to do he might head down to the Wharf Rat and try to scare up a fight or two, or else call up one of his favorite purveyors of commercial affection and set up an evening’s entertainment. Oddly, neither appealed to him at the moment. He sighed, wishing for the first time this week that his teammates hadn’t already left town. It would have been nice to call up ‘Hawk for a beer, or ‘Wraith or Joe for some sparring.
The phone rang.
He reached over, stretching to pick it up. “Yeah?”
He glared at the phone, remembering the incident earlier in the day. He occasionally got wrong numbers, but rarely two in one day. “Hey—if somebody’s there, say something, willya?”
A soft, scratching sound, barely louder than and almost indistinguishable from the slight hiss in the line.
Inexplicably, Ocelot’s heartbeat began to quicken. “Who the hell is that?” he demanded. “Say something!”
But there was no response, except that the scratching sound changed, just a bit. It was hard to tell how, though. It just...changed.
Ocelot’s hand tightened around the phone until his knuckles grew white. “Say something, damn you!” he yelled. When there was still no response, he slammed the phone down with a loud clatter. He continued to stare at it, eyes wide, breath coming in short sharp gasps, for several minutes.
It did not ring again.
Gradually, after several more minutes, he relaxed, settling back down in his chair. He glanced at the now-silent phone, allowing the tension to drain out of his muscles, his heartbeat to slow back down to normal, his breath to resume its usual rate. In the background the trid unit droned on, the talking heads, unnoticed, relating the day’s football scores. He reached across the table and snapped on the overhead light, bathing the room in its gentle illumination.
Suddenly he felt foolish.
He looked at the phone again, laughing under his breath, softly, self-consciously. What the hell had that been about?
The phone had rung. He had answered it. There’d been no one there. It wasn’t exactly an unheard-of occurrence. Why had it freaked him out so?
He let out his breath slowly, running a hand back through his hair. Maybe you’re just tired. Maybe this is your body’s way to tell you it’s time to just get some sleep.
Yeah. That sounded good. Sleep. Tomorrow was another day. He’d have another workout tomorrow, maybe run some errands. Hell, maybe he’d talk to Harry about picking up a little solo work while the rest of the guys were gone. Easy stuff: a little bodyguarding, a courier run maybe—nothing too dangerous. Just something to get him out of the house for awhile.
That decided, he hauled himself out of the chair, checked all the locks on the doors, stripped down to his shorts and climbed into his unmade bed. Before he turned the light off, he took one last look at the phone.
It was silent, just as he expected it to be.
He was awakened the next morning by the sound of a knock on the door.
His eyes flew open, his body immediately stiffening. His mind, instantly aware that something had happened but not aware of what it was, fought to make sense of whatever stimulus had caused it to be in that state. He sat up, listening.
The knock repeated.
He stared hard at the door and then leaped out of the bed in one smooth motion, landing cat-soft on the balls of his feet. He crossed the distance in two long strides, moving to one side of the door as he glanced at the monitor for the security camera he had set up to cover the area.
The tiny screen showed only an empty entryway. There was no one there.
Ocelot let out his breath, only then realizing that he had been holding it. People at the door were rarer by an order of magnitude than wrong numbers on the phone. Aside from the guys on the team, Kestrel, and occasionally a pizza delivery guy, nobody came to visit. There wasn’t much door-to-door salesmanship going on anymore these days—it was too dangerous for the salespeople to risk themselves by soliciting unfamiliar customers. Even the pizza guys usually wore armor.
Moving slowly and deliberately, he slid sideways until he was directly in front of the door and peered out through the peephole, taking care not to make any noise that might be heard on the other side. The door was armored, but even the best armor wouldn’t stand up to every attack. His muscles were tensed, a thin sheen of sweat beginning to form on his skin.
The street looked as it always did this time of the morning: gray and dingy in the overcast haze, with no signs of life except a delivery truck chugging by and Old Lady Yazstrcymski walking her Rottweiler, Fluffy, across the way.
Ocelot gritted his teeth. This was getting ridiculous. He snapped up his armored coat from where he’d tossed it over a chair, shrugged into it, and grabbed the nearest firearm—it happened to be his Defiance T-250 shotgun. With the Defiance held at the ready, he undid the locks on the door and flung it open, shoving the barrel of the gun out first and then following it, looking up, down, left and right.
Old Lady Yazstrcymski didn’t even look up. The elderly ork had seen stranger behaviors from some of the residents around here, and everybody knew you minded your own business if you wanted to stay healthy.
Ocelot remained outside for another several minutes, investigating the area around the front of the house including the roof. He switched on the thermographic vision in his cybereyes in case the unseen visitor had left any kind of heat-trails, but there were none. “Okay,” he muttered under his breath as he finally gave up and went back inside. He stowed the Defiance back in its place and tossed the coat back over the chair. Maybe there hadn’t been anyone there.
But that didn’t make any sense. He’d heard the knock. The first one might have been just a dream, but the second one had been clear as day. Somebody had been out there. He regretted not asking Mrs. Yazstrcymski if she’d seen anyone, but she was surely long gone by now. He’d ask her later if he saw her.
Still keyed up, he dropped into his chair, his imagination working overtime. This incident was giving him uncomfortable reminders of another odd series of events that had occurred at his place a few months ago—the events that had led up to the team’s first meeting with Gabriel’s brother Stefan. Ocelot looked around the room a little nervously, remembering how the weapons hanging on his walls had been moved around, even the ones inside his locked safe—only they hadn’t, really. It had all been an illusion perpetrated by a powerful dragon to lure his equally powerful brother into a confrontation. It had worked, but not before a lot of trouble had been caused for all concerned.
Ocelot shook his head in frustration. This couldn’t have been Stefan. For one thing, Stefan was dead. For another, the dragon had, prior to his untimely and unfortunate demise, experienced a change of heart that even Ocelot, the ultimate skeptic when it came to that particular dragon, had accepted as genuine.
So if not Stefan, then who?
“You’re bein’ an idiot,” Ocelot said aloud to himself. It was just kids. Or somebody threw somethin’ at the door. It happens.
“Maybe I oughtta get outta here for awhile,” he said, again speaking aloud. He considered. The idea wasn’t a bad one at that. Maybe he could head down to CalFree for a month or so, visit with Sensei, maybe get in some workouts with somebody whose skill level was higher than his. At least it would be a change of pace. It was certainly better than sitting here in his shorts, staring at the four walls, and waiting for his mind (or whatever the hell else it was) to play tricks on him.
He had started to get up out of the chair when the phone rang again.
Let the machine get it, he told himself angrily. If this is another wrong number, let ‘em talk to air.
But he was already moving toward it. With a combination of reluctance and a strange near-compulsion, he picked it up and held it to his ear. “Who’s this?”
The gentle scratching noises started right away this time. Ocelot’s eyes widened, his breathing increased in rate, and his heart began to pound in his chest. His grip tightened on the phone. He wanted to put it down, but he couldn’t do it. His brain wouldn’t send the message to his muscles allowing him to let go. Shaking, he stood rooted to the spot as the soft, strange noises continued, never rising far enough above the slight level of static in the line to be recognizable.
He wasn’t aware of how long he had been standing there until the eerie transfixed feeling left him—along with the scratching sounds, although he didn’t notice that fact consciously. The phone receiver slipped from his hand and clattered to the floor. He blinked a few times, looking around the room, shaking his head to clear it. As the haze lifted he was beginning to realize what was wrong, and it spurred him to action. He was surprised he hadn’t figured it out a long time ago. It was so obvious, after all.
I have to get out of here. Now.
Moving in a daze, he hurried around the small house, wadding up clothes and shoving them into his motorcycle bags. They’re coming. They know where I live. They’ve showed me that by the calls, by the knock on the door. That was just the warning. They’ll be here soon.
His movements were haphazard but efficient as he gathered up the things he needed. When he finished with the clothes he stowed his monowhip, ninja sword, stun baton, and tonfa in their customary spots, taking care to keep them well hidden and well padded. Without bothering to shower he pulled on jeans and a T-shirt, then slipped into his armored bike jacket and leather boots. All the time he was doing this his gaze was roaming nervously around the house, as if he expected someone to be sneaking in through a window. No one did, but that didn’t stop him from looking anyway.
Briefly the thought entered his mind that he should call someone—Harry, maybe, or one of his teammates—and let them know what was going on. If he was in danger, perhaps they were too. But no sooner had the thought touched his mind that something within him violently opposed it. No—you don’t know how they found out about you. The guys might have told them. If they did, then you’re in more danger if you let ‘em know you’re leaving. Just go. Get out. Now.
He checked the locks on the front door and the windows just to make sure; they were still secure. Then, slinging his bags over his shoulder, he exited through the door to the garage. Behind him, the phone, still off the hook, called out its electronic protest unheard.
Less than ten minutes later he was on the road, and not a moment too soon. As he had closed the garage door behind him and double-checked it to verify that it was locked, he had noticed Old Lady Yazstrcymski and Fluffy standing outside her house a few doors down, talking to a man holding the leash of a brown mutt. Ocelot didn’t recognize the man or the dog, but as he’d ridden out of the garage on his Aurora, both he and the old lady had looked over at him. Too late, the voice in his head told him triumphantly. You’re both too late. You won’t get me now. I’m outta here. He roared off into the morning traffic with a quick final glance back over his shoulder. They weren’t looking at him anymore; they appeared to have gone back to their conversation. But Ocelot knew better.
It wasn’t until he had broken free of the Seattle sprawl and settled into a fast, comfortable cruising pace on I-5 that he remembered that he’d forgotten to bring his portable phone, but in retrospect he determined that had probably been a good decision. He had already decided that he wasn’t going to call anyone in San Francisco until he actually got there—too much chance that someone undesirable might overhear and be waiting for him when he arrived, or worse yet, do something to Sensei to get to him—and he didn’t want anyone calling him. If they couldn’t reach him, maybe they wouldn’t be able to find him. He hoped that was the case.
He kept a close eye on the traffic around him as he rode. This time of the morning it had been quite heavy through Seattle, but once he got out of town it lightened up considerably. Not too many people traveling south in the middle of the week. Good. You can make sure nobody’s following you. As he passed each car he glanced across at the driver. Most of them he couldn’t see because a majority of the later-model vehicles had one-way glass all around; when he encountered this he sped up until he was past the offending vehicle. He couldn’t do anything about the crawling sensation on the back of his neck and his back (they’re watching me) so he tried his best to ignore it and get as far ahead of traffic as he could.
A few miles north of the Tir Tairngire border, he stopped to gas up the bike and get something to eat. He bought extra food and stowed it in his tailbag; he didn’t want to have to stop any longer than he had to in the Tir. He knew from experience that if you went straight through and stayed on I-5 they didn’t usually bother you, but if you pulled off very far you increased your chances of getting hassled by the humorless elven authorities. Especially if you weren’t tall and skinny with pointed ears. Humans they tolerated, mostly, if they minded their own business and didn’t stick around.
His fake IDs and a good-sized contribution to the welfare of the border guards got him across the checkpoint as it always had before, with the understanding that he was simply passing through on his way to visit San Francisco and did not intend to remain within the Tir borders any longer than absolutely necessary. He knew he would be watched and his progress tracked, but oddly this time the idea didn’t bother him. He was reasonably sure that the Tir authorities had more important things to do than to be in with them, so unless they reported him to the wrong people, he felt as safe as it was possible to feel (which still wasn’t very) within the borders.
He rode straight through as promised, maintaining a speed a bit on the high side of legal and stopping only twice for gas and rest breaks. There were a few gas stations located directly off the highway that catered to those doing exactly what he was doing; they were usually staffed by non-elves, as if the elven population of the Tir had better uses of their time than to deal with the riff-raff trying to get to Cal Free. That was fine with Ocelot. He didn’t talk to anyone and they didn’t talk to him.
It took him about seven hours to reach the Cal Free border, and by that point his mind and his body were thoroughly road-tired. The check to get out of the Tir was considerably less stringent than the one to get in (meaning that the bribe was not as large) so he wasn’t held up long at the border. By the time he made it through, all he could think of was getting off the road for awhile and getting some sleep. From many previous trips down he knew there was a small cluster of motels north of Redding that didn’t ask too many questions, so that was where he headed. He didn’t want to stop—it seemed a bad idea, though he wasn’t sure quite why—but he was smart enough to know that he was too tired to go on. The last thing he needed was to doze off on the bike and wind up plastered across the front end of a northbound semi. No—sleep, as ill-advised as it was, was still a better idea than the alternative.
By the time he reached Redding and checked into one of the grungy motels (this one was his favorite—it was a single story, so he could bring his bike into the room with him) he still had time to get a few hours’ sleep before sunrise, when he planned to leave. He quickly made a circuit around the room, checking for obvious bugs, broken locks on windows or door, and intruders hiding under the bed, in the closet, or inside the bathroom. With his thermographic vision he verified that there were no heat spots indicating invisible lurkers. Satisfied, he parked his bike inside the room in front of the door. If anyone was going to break in during the night, they were in for a surprise. The Franchi-SPAS he brought over to the bed, where he leaned it against the nightstand, loaded and ready. He rummaged around in the bike’s tailbag until he found the food he’d put there earlier that day and took that, along with the beer he’d bought on his last rest stop in the Tir, back to the bed. Kicking off his boots he sat down on the bed, propped the pillows against the wall, and switched on the battered trid unit to drown out the sounds of the people in the room next door (who sounded both drunk and very amorous). The trid only got four channels clearly and there was nothing good on any of them, but it was better than listening to the bump and grind going on on the other side of the wall. It was just as well anyway, because even with all the distractions he was asleep twenty minutes after he finished eating. The trid and the neighbors droned on but he no longer heard either of them.
He didn’t sleep very well. Most of his few hours of rest were spent thrashing around, haunted by dreams that he couldn’t remember but that seemed to involve someone in very deep trouble begging for rescue, and his own inability to do anything to help. By the time he awakened he couldn’t recall anything more about the dream except that it had disturbed him. He sat up, noticing that he had thrashed the sheets clear from their moorings and had them wadded up at the foot of the bed at his feet. It wasn’t sunrise yet, but he knew from past experience that he wasn’t going to be getting any more sleep that night; he might as well get an early start on the day. Moving in a slight daze, he gathered his things together and began re-stowing them on the bike. Behind him, the trideo (which he hadn’t ever turned off the night before) was playing an infomercial that had something to do with improving your car engine’s performance using magnets. Ocelot ignored it as he finished arranging his bags.
He was just about to open the door and push the bike out into the darkness when the room’s phone buzzed.
Ocelot froze. “No...” he said under his breath. They can’t have found me here. Not this fast—
He turned back toward the door, fumbling with the knob, trying to ignore the buzz. It rang several more times before his shaking hands were able to work the door and shove it open.
Barely getting the bike turned and pointed in the right direction, he threw his leg over it and fired it up, roaring off just as the sun’s first faint glimmerings could be seen in the sky. As he disappeared into the distance, the door swung lazily on its off-kilter hinges. The sound of the phone, which was not ringing, echoed in his ears and his mind long after it would have been possible to hear it if it had been.
He didn’t stop again until he hit Sacramento and cut over to Highway 80 toward San Fran. He didn’t like the idea of stopping in the Central Valley even for a short time, but at least he was human and therefore only looked upon with the suspicion of locals for a newcomer, not with the hostility of racist humans for anyone who wasn’t of their metatype. The junction where he stopped catered to travelers anyway, which meant that the most virulent of the racism wasn’t in evidence here—and even at its worst it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as the Chico—Oroville area, which he avoided like the plague. The whole concept usually bothered him, but not today—he was far too high on unease and adrenaline to think about anything but getting where he was going. He wolfed down a quick early lunch, gassed up the bike, and soon he was back underway, heading west on 80.
The fact that he had done this many times before allowed the whole operation to be completed smoothly, a fact for which he was grateful. He was having a hard time concentrating—his mind was full of weird formless fears and couldn’t seem to settle on a thought for very long, so it was a good thing that he had the routine down and could practically perform it in his sleep. West 80 to the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, south on 101 across the Golden Gate, and use his forged work ID to get past the Japanese guards on the other side. He was a bit worried about getting the guns through, but he had lucked out this time: he was heading in with the rest of the morning work rush. The fact that he was human meant that he got to slip through with a nod from one of the guards after having his card examined, while the troll and ork behind him were stopped for questioning. Again he didn’t like the racism, but this time he was guiltily grateful that it had worked in his favor.
From that point, it was simply a matter of riding carefully and cautiously (so as not to attract the attention of the authorities, who didn’t look kindly on gaijin in the first place, and even less kindly on troublemaking gaijin) until he arrived at Sensei’s hidden Chinatown dojo.
En route, though, he realized two things: first, he was hungry, and second, he still had not told Sensei that he was coming. It would be rude of him to simply show up on her doorstep, even though he knew she would welcome him as she always did with no questions. No, he’d stop somewhere first and call from there. It would be better that way.
He was passing through Fisherman’s Wharf as he had this thought, which was fortuitous. The area was still set up for tourists; that meant it would be fairly easy for him to lose himself for half an hour or so among the crowds. There was a little bar and grill nearby called the Grotto that he’d been to a few times before; five minutes later he had his bike parked out back and he was seated in the back near a window where he could keep an eye on it. A beer and a sandwich would improve his outlook, he hoped.
Sitting there gave him a little time to think, for the first time since he had left. Despite the length of the trip he hadn’t really done much thinking on the bike—he’d just set his mind on the kind of hum it needed to do that kind of mileage in such a short time. Now, though, as he settled back and sipped his beer, his mind began to relax a bit.
What was going on, anyway? Why had he run away so fast? What was he running from? Even now he wasn’t sure, but the thought gave him formless, uneasy distress. I should call the guys. Something’s wrong, and they’re—
A buzzing began in the back of his head, blocking out the thought. He shook his head back and forth quickly, his long ponytail whipping around behind him. Closing his eyes, he put his hands over his face and tried to remember what he had been thinking.
Ocelot looked up. A woman stood there in front of him. She wore jeans, a blue shirt, and a no-nonsense canvas apron. She carried a plate with a large, steaming sandwich and a pile of potato chips. His waitress. He nodded as she set down the plate in front of him. “Uh...thanks.”
Is she looking at me? Why is she looking at me like that?
The waitress, oblivious to his thoughts, smiled and turned away, moving back inside. Ocelot watched her go. As she disappeared into the crowd his gaze fell on two humans seated at a table a few meters away. They were both men, both dressed in the suits of middle managers. One of the men, dark-haired and middle-aged, happened to be looking at Ocelot just as he was looking at the two of them. The man nodded politely and returned his attention to the conversation he had been having with his friend.
Ocelot stiffened. From somewhere deep in his mind the thought came, almost as if it was coming from someone else: They’re in on it too. They’ve found me already. They know where I am.
All right. Stay calm. They can’t do anything to you in here. He looked down at the sandwich, then back at the two men. They were ignoring him now, thoroughly absorbed in their own business. That’s just a front. They’ve seen me—they’re probably reporting in. Have to get out of here, but have to do it subtly. If I run they’ll follow me. Have to make them think I don’t know.
Again he looked down at the sandwich. It had just arrived—if he left now without touching it that would be very suspicious. They’d certainly notice and have him before he made it out the door. He’d have to force himself to eat at least some of it before he left. Picking it up, he took a bite; his mouth was dry and the thing tasted like wet rubber between two slices of cardboard. He fought to slow his breathing, to get his heartbeat back down to normal levels. Focusing on the old-fashioned black and white framed fishing photos hanging on the wall next to his table, he took another bite and then another, washing them down with beer that now tasted more like weak acid than refreshing beverage. From the corner of his eye he sneaked another glance at the men: their food had arrived and they were both laughing. They’re getting ready. They’re happy they’ve found me. They’ll probably get some kind of prize for bringing me in.
Suddenly he had an idea. It was a long shot—if they caught on, he might be trapped—but if it worked, he might be able to get out without being seen. Checking to be sure the two men weren’t looking, he pulled out enough money (he always carried paper money in addition to his credsticks—easier and less traceable) to cover the cost of the meal and tip, and slid it under the plate with just enough sticking out so the busperson would see it. Then, deliberately leaving the rest of the sandwich untouched, he stood, glanced around for a moment as if looking for something in particular, then nodded in satisfaction and headed for the doorway marked “Restrooms.” He already knew where it was; the look around was for the benefit of his observers, who still didn’t seem to be paying any attention to him.
Once he was out of sight, he hurried down the hallway, passing the two marked restroom doors, and slipped in through the door to the kitchen. He had noticed earlier that there was a way outside from the kitchen, and the door had been propped open to let in some fresh air. At the time he’d parked there had been two busboys out back having a smoke, but they were gone now. Not quite believing his good fortune, he moved silently through the short distance to the exit door and made his escape, grinning. By the time they realize I’m not coming back, I’ll be long gone! Maybe I’ll finally give them the slip.
As he roared off down the Embarcadero, another less happy thought supplanted that one: Shit...if they’re after me I can’t go to Sensei. Don’t want to drag her into this.
This was bad. The buzzing was starting in his head again. He couldn’t even call her—he knew that if he did, she would want to help. An ex-shadowrunner herself, the Japanese ork now ran a successful dojo and still maintained contacts with her former team, but Ocelot knew that whatever this was, it was not only not her problem, but might prove actively dangerous to her and her friends. He couldn’t do that to his old teacher. He was on his own here, and he knew it.
He stopped at a red light, lanesplitting up to the front as he assessed his options. He couldn’t go back to Seattle—too many people knew how to find him there. He couldn’t stay here, not like this. They knew he was here and without Sensei, he had nowhere to stay and no real reason to be here. But if not, then—
The guy in the next car was watching him. He hadn’t even looked in that direction, but he knew it.
His eyes darted sideways.
He was right.
It was a late-model Ford Americar. The man was its only occupant. The window was rolled down and the guy was smoking. His eyes glowed red. He smiled.
The light changed and Ocelot was off like a shot, flying across the intersection and turning on a side street before any of the cars could even get started.
I can’t stay here. Gotta go. Gotta get out—
But where? Where could he go?
He forced himself to slow down, to merge with traffic, not to draw attention to himself. That would be the worst thing he could do right now. Just blend in and think...think...
His mind raced over the possible alternatives. NAN? No, he couldn’t go there—he didn’t have the proper paperwork, faked or otherwise, and the Native American border guards’ sense of humor rivaled that of the Tir’s for nonexistence. Aztlan? Don’t be an idiot. Talk about out of the frying pan and into the fire! The Big Sur coast? Maybe, but the combination of unfamiliarity and lack of large cities made him reluctant. He was a city kid, and if he wanted to get lost somewhere, that somewhere had better have more concrete than trees if he was going to survive.
The second it popped into his head he knew that was the answer. L.A. was big, it was urban, it was varied—and it had an enormous population of SINless individuals like himself.
And best of all, nobody down there knew him.
He couldn’t put anyone at risk, and they couldn’t endanger him by talking to the wrong people.
He pulled back out onto Embarcadero and headed for the freeway, trying to ignore the couple on the corner who were both watching him.
I’ll be long gone before they get their report in.
The trip down to Los Angeles took him about six hours, including two very short breaks for rest and water. Now that he had made up his mind, he wanted to get there as fast as possible. He took Highway 101; he would have preferred 5 because it was in the middle of nowhere and it would have been less likely that someone would hassle him, but that meant cutting back across from San Francisco and he didn’t want to waste the time.
Like the Tir, getting out of San Fran was easier than getting in. The trip was uneventful except for a few times when he was convinced he was being followed and had to speed up to triple digits to get away from his would-be pursuers. They never followed him that fast—he figured they had instructions to keep him in sight but to be subtle about it. There was nothing at all subtle about a minivan doing 110 down 101.
It was late afternoon when he cruised at last into the Los Angeles sprawl and he was dog-tired. The lack of rest last night was beginning to catch up with him, especially after having been hunched in essentially the same position for several hours in a row. The Aurora was a good bike—fast, flickable and mostly reliable—but it was by no means a bike for long-distance touring. Shoulda brought the Triumph, he thought, picturing the dark green sport-tourer Winterhawk had given him a couple of years ago. But it was too late for that kind of decision now, and besides, he didn’t want the mage to be able to track him. The thought that ‘Hawk might be able to track him anyway using magic gave him a brief moment of panic, but he put it aside. There was nothing he could do about it, and if ‘Hawk came after him he’d deal with him. That was all there was to it. Same for any of the rest of the guys. It was probably they who had ratted on him in the first place—the reason why he had to run like this.
The reason why he had to hide.
He spent the next hour cruising around the freeways, trying to decide where to go. He had only been to Los Angeles a couple of times, and only briefly. Still, a city was a city, at least to someone who had spent as long in the shadows as Ocelot had. Instinctively he avoided anyplace that looked too clean, to pretty, too well-ordered (corpers, cops, rich fat-cats); he also avoided places that looked too rundown and blasted out (even with his unfamiliarity with L.A. he had heard some of the nastier rumors about places like El Infierno and Coast Town). Instead, after struggling with the freeway system for another hour, he opted to pull off at Harbor. The edges of the place, at least from his vantage point on the 405, didn’t look too bad. After he settled in, he would go looking for the shadow community. There always was one, and if you knew the right things to say and had the right balance on your credstick, they could help you with just about everything.
Just have to make sure they’re not working for them. That’s gonna be hard.
The buzzing in the back of his head had been increasing its intensity over the last few hours; he’d been able to ignore it—mostly, at least—while he was riding. When he became convinced that one of the cars was following him or watching him, it was a fairly easy proposition to speed up and get out of their way. The Aurora was narrow and Ocelot was a good enough rider (not to mention a crazy enough rider) that lanesplitting between traffic going freeway speed on a five-lane highway was not something he feared. At least not enough not to do it to get away from his pursuers. So far none of them had chased him on their own motorcycles, but he knew he had to get off the road and hole up somewhere before they figured it out. Their reach was long and their agents many. That had already been proven to him numerous times over the course of the trip.
He took the next exit and rode at random for the next half-hour, relying on his instincts to keep him away from trouble spots. He wasn’t quite sure where he was except that it was somewhere in the Harbor district; the buildings around here were mostly industrial and depressing, the people wary and watchful. Ocelot recognized the familiar gang markings spray-painted on the sides of some of the buildings, fences, and other landmarks; he didn’t know the actual gangs, of course, but their marks were unmistakable to someone who had spent the largest part of his youth in the culture. Maybe I can make a deal with the local gang to keep an eye out for them.
He shook his head as the buzzing increased. Maybe the gang’s in with them. Can’t trust anyone. I’m on my own.
It was starting to get dark. It took him awhile to find a place to stay; accommodations didn’t seem to be plentiful around here. He almost missed the tiny motel (it looked like one of those chain places that had lost its franchise and gone independent) because its main sign had been shot to pieces and taped up with duct tape. The “VACANCY” sign hung askew from two thin chains, one slightly longer than the other. Ocelot pulled in and, keeping his bike in sight, made arrangements for a room on the first floor. As he had hoped and expected, it was a cash-only, no-questions-asked kind of place. He filled out the required form with a fake name and address, and the clerk didn’t even look twice as he passed the key through the small hole in the bulletproof glass surrounding his work area.
Ocelot didn’t bother to fire the bike up again on the way to the room; instead he wheeled it silently through the parking lot, noting the chunked and potholed asphalt and the generally ratty appearance of the few cars in residence. Across the lot, two teenagers in leather jackets, both orks, lounged by the obviously nonfunctional ice machine, checking out both Ocelot and his bike. They didn’t approach, though. Damn! Not again! Not this soon! How do they know?
He jammed the key into the room’s maglock and shoved the door open, pushing the bike inside. The room was small and dingy, with a single ugly lamp on the nightstand for illumination, a bed with a stained spread, and one rickety chair. On the small dresser was something Ocelot hadn’t seen in years: a crummy old flatscreen television. He wondered idly if it worked as he put the bike on its stand and then did his usual security check of the room.
He couldn’t stay long, he knew that. They were on to him again. He didn’t know how they could be, since he hadn’t even known himself where he was going to be until a few minutes before he arrived. How could they know? Were they following him magically? He couldn’t do anything about that except to keep running. But what if there was another way? What if—
His gaze fell on the Aurora.
They must have bugged it somehow. They must have planted some kind of tracking device so they could follow him.
He grinned self-consciously, feeling like an idiot. Why hadn’t he figured that out a long time ago? He was slipping. But now he knew, so he could do something about it. He could find it and get rid of it, and then they wouldn’t be able to find him anymore. He’d have to move again, of course, but Los Angeles was huge. There were plenty of places to lose himself.
The buzzing in his head seemed pleased.
Forgetting about everything else, Ocelot sat down on the floor and began doing a visual inspection of the Aurora, starting with the front fender, working his way up the forks to the instrument cluster, around the tank, over the seat, under the back fender.
He increased the level of his scrutiny, peering at the engine (careful not to touch it—it was still quite hot from the trip, clicking sporadically as it cooled), getting down on his back to look underneath, checking the wheels, inside the exhaust pipe—
He sighed, sitting back and running a hand through his hair. This was going to be tougher than he thought. It made sense, though—they wouldn’t have put it somewhere obvious. They knew how suspicious he was; once he started looking, he would find it in no time if they’d put it somewhere easy. No, they must have hidden it well, sometime when he wasn’t looking. Had they sneaked into his garage?
It didn’t matter now. Whatever they had done, they had done it and now it was up to him to undo it. Grimly he removed the Aurora’s seat and dug out the small toolkit nestled there. He was glad he had replaced some of the stock tools with better and more useful ones—he was going to need them.
He thought about turning the television on to see what kind of flatscreen drivel was still broadcast over the ancient medium, but then decided not to. He needed to be able to hear if anyone was sneaking up on him outside the room. He wouldn’t give them the chance to surprise him.
They had indeed been thorough. An hour and a half later he stared at the bike: pieces of it lay all over the floor, but he was still no closer to finding the elusive bug. He had taken off the tank and the fenders, removed the seat, removed the back wheel and inspected the brake assembly, checked the battery, examined the shock absorber, pulled the cylinder heads and checked under the valve covers—nothing. “Where the hell is it?” he muttered under his breath, eyeing the rest of the engine. Did he dare try to tear that down? It would take most of the night to do it and get it back together again, and even if he had the time he was certain he didn’t have all the right tools in his little travel toolkit.
The bags. He’d go through the bags first. He hadn’t even checked them yet. If he didn’t find anything there, he’d do the engine tomorrow, when he had a chance to pick up the right tools. Maybe he’d even find a place that’d let him rent some space to work on the bike. Yeah, that was it.
He snatched up the tankbag and the tailbag from where he’d tossed them on the bed, unzipped them one at a time, and upended them on the floor. Methodically but with a certain mania, he rifled through the contents, checking each article of clothing for unexpected items in the pockets or small devices sewn into the linings. When he failed to find anything in the clothes, he stripped down his guns and checked them as well. This operation didn’t take as long as the bike had, because it was one he performed often. But despite his care, he found nothing in the guns, the clothes, or the bags.
Tossing the stuff back on the bed, he sighed again and dropped down next to it, eyeing the Aurora’s engine. No doubt about it—he was going to have to tear it down and check it before he could go on. He would—
He stopped, stiffened like a cat.
What was that?
Utterly silent, he listened.
Voices. Outside the window.
There were at least two of them, talking in hushed tones. It sounded like one male and one female. He couldn’t make out what they were saying, but there was an urgency to their voices that chilled him.
They’re arguing over what to do with me. They found me and they’re arguing over what to do with me.
Feeling the bright edges of panic beginning to claw at him, Ocelot darted his gaze around the room. His clothes were tossed in a pile on the bed, his weapons next to them. The bags were on the floor. It would only take a couple of minutes to gather all of it up, but—
The Aurora. He stared at it in panic. It was in pieces. Even with the engine still mostly intact it would take him more than an hour to get everything back together again. Probably closer to two. He didn’t have that kind of time. He didn’t have two minutes, let alone two hours, if they were already on to him.
Breathing hard, he began pawing at the pile of clothes, shoving them haphazardly into the tailbag. That bag had a strap he could sling over his shoulder. The weapons went in next, followed by another pile of clothes. He could feel his heart pounding. The voices had stopped now, but he knew they were still out there somewhere. They knew they had him—they could afford to wait.
When he had everything he could fit into the tailbag, he shrugged into his leather jacket, slipped the bag’s strap over his shoulder, and moved with silent care over to the room’s single window. Moving the curtain aside slightly he peeked out, using his cybereyes’ low-light and thermographic vision to verify that the mysterious visitors were not currently in sight. But they’d be back. Time to go. Don’t wait—can’t afford to wait. Must go—
He took one last reluctant glance over his shoulder at the Aurora. He’d had the bike for years. It was like an old friend. It hurt him to leave it here in pieces for them to find.
Savagely he forced himself to swing his head back around. It’s just a thing. They’ve got it bugged. You can’t take it. Go. Go. Now!
He shoved the door open and hurried out, looking back and forth as if expecting pursuers to be accosting him from all sides.
There were none.
Good. They didn’t expect you to go now. Run. Run while you can.
Time after that became a blur. As the buzzing in his head grew progressively more insistent and harder for him to ignore, he gradually lost track of everything—where he was, where he was going, what he wanted. He ran until he couldn’t run anymore, and when he was tired, he found places to crawl into and sleep for awhile. He knew he couldn’t stay anywhere very long—they were on his tail, and the only way he could avoid them was to stay away from them. That became the focus of his existence. His shadow- and gang-trained instincts led him to hiding places, showed him how to steal food when he needed it, taught him that most people would leave you alone if you scared them. He was at the same time frightened and frightening. He didn’t know when he lost his bag, but he had vague memories of having to leave it when he became convinced that they had once more managed to sneak into his hiding place one night and plant another of their invisible devices. He held on to the weapons for awhile longer—a few days, perhaps—but the Franchi-SPAS and the Manhunter disappeared first, followed shortly afterward by the hand weapons.
He didn’t know where he was anymore. He alternated between running and wandering aimlessly, hiding and snatching food where he could. He woke one morning huddled behind a dumpster in a pile of cardboard boxes and found blood on his cyberspur; he didn’t know where it had come from. As hard as he tried to remember, the memory was not there. Should he be afraid or elated? Had he killed one of them? Would they leave him alone now? That thought had been quickly put to rest by the man who had been watching him as he emerged from his cocoon after spending about half an hour cleaning the blood from his spur. His breath quickening, he ran again. He had not stopped them. He would never stop them. There were too many of them.
He took to prowling the streets by night because he was afraid to sleep then. Better to be the predator than the prey, at least some of the time. He was always cold now, as he had lost his jacket: someone had grabbed his arm awhile ago and he had twisted around, screaming and writhing out of the jacket until the attacker had nothing but that.
They had tried the direct approach only a couple of times, attacking him as he shuffled his way down the street looking for his next meal and looking out for them. He didn’t know how he had missed them until they were in his face: a human and an ork dressed in gang colors, yelling something about tolls and protection. He hadn’t heard them. He didn’t hear much anymore, not much that could make it above the buzzing. He screamed something unintelligible at them and the next thing he knew his spur was extended, its tip poking out through the back of the human ganger. The kid hadn’t even had time to scream as his eyes bulged out and blood ran from his mouth and down his shirt. The other one had run. Clever ruse they had, disguising themselves as gangers, but he knew better. After that he ran again until his lungs nearly burst before crawling into another hiding place.
He was so hungry. The food he’d managed to steal had barely been enough to sustain him, and water—water was hard to come by in Los Angeles. It was even hard to steal, because the people in this end of the plex only had a few hours a day of running water and they guarded it more jealously than any of their meager possessions, including their food.
He got tired more quickly now—not only did he have to avoid them but also the sporadic police patrols that came through the areas. There weren’t many of them, but the ones that did come were not kind. He had watched from his hiding place as the men in the big armored vehicles had swept through, hurting people, carrying them off. Were the cops in with them? It made sense. They were probably paid off. Avoid them.
Just keep going. Keep running. Find food, find places to hide. They can’t keep this up forever. Sooner or later they have to move on to someone else. You just have to hold out—
They got him shortly after that, in Coast Town near the walls of El Infierno. He didn’t know anything now except run, hide, steal—the crowd had drawn him out because he was starving and thought that a crowd so large might have food. He moved among them, counting on the anonymity of the crowd to conceal him, hoping that their agents were not among this rag-tag group of people who had gathered here for some unknown reason. He sniffed almost like an animal, searching for food and water, muttering to himself about them and their agents. He sensed that these were people like him—people who were their prey—and for a moment he felt comforted. He would be safe among these people.
He was in the middle of it when the violence started. He couldn’t make out the point of the screams, except that the group seemed to be protesting something, but it didn’t matter. Everything had gone wrong. Must get out!
In front of him, an ork man hit a human in the face with a length of pipe; the human screamed and went down, blood spraying from his nose and mouth. Three more humans surged forward and brought the ork down, beating him into submission with chains, pipes, and fists. The ork’s scream joined the human’s, and both of them joined a growing cacophony erupting all around Ocelot. He jammed his hands over his ears and bulled his way in the other direction, trying to get out of the crowd, to run, to hide.
A small troll stepped out in front of him, his expression menacing, one of his huge hands wrapped around an enormous club made from what looked like a piece of telephone pole. He yelled something and swung the club at Ocelot.
Even now, instinct was hard to deny—especially instinct that had been trained as long as Ocelot’s had. He could run, he could hide, but he was not going to simply roll over and die. Something deep within him could not—would not — allow that to happen. He ducked under the swing, his cyberspur sliding from its sheath like a silent metal snake. “No!!!” he screamed, sidestepping the troll and slipping the spur in through the soft place under his ribs. Cruelly he wrenched it sideways and was rewarded by a fountain of blood and the troll’s shriek of agony. The club dropped to the ground, followed only a couple of seconds later by the troll himself. Ocelot didn’t wait to see it. He turned to run again.
This time he didn’t get far. So caught up in the crowd itself, he had not noticed the arrival of the Citymaster, accompanied by the blare of sirens and the sound of chattering gunfire. As he finally made his way out of the crowd and into the open, he was struck by something that stung hard, then buzzed in his head even more loudly than the subliminal sound that had been his constant companion for as long as he could remember. His body stiffened, he dropped to the ground, and everything went mercifully black. His last thought as he went down was that it had all been for nothing. They had won.
They had won...
When consciousness returned he was lying on something that wasn’t quite soft, but not quite hard either. His head felt like it was full of cotton, which was muting the buzzing somewhat. He blinked a couple of times and then opened his eyes slowly.
He was in a cell; that much was apparent right away. The not-hard, not-soft thing he was lying on was a cot with a thin, stained, blue-and-white-striped mattress. The floor was concrete with a drain; the only other furnishings were a stainless-steel sink and commode. Everything was bolted down to the floor or the walls. There was a harsh chemical tang to the air.
He realized that some of the smell was very close by. Looking down (without lifting his head much—he still didn’t feel like a lot of exertion) he saw that he was dressed in blue work pants, light blue work shirt, and black socks. The smell seemed to center around the clothes and his body.
Testing himself to see how much effort he was capable of, he tried to sit up. The foggy feeling was lifting slightly now. Except for a few muscle aches, he didn’t feel any different than he had before. He wondered how long he had been here, and what they had done to him.
With his back pressed against the cold wall and his feet hanging over the edge of the bed, he realized two things simultaneously. The first was that his head felt strangely light. A hand to it provided the reason: they had chopped off his long hair, rather crudely from the feel of it, fairly close to his head. The second realization was worse: there was some kind of metal device attached to his arm, down near his wrist.
“Wouldn’t try anything if I were you,” a voice spoke from the other side of the bars. “You try to pop that spur and it’ll blow your arm off. If you’re lucky that’s all that’ll happen.”
Ocelot looked up through narrowed eyes. A man stood out there in the hallway—human, uniformed. Cop.
“You understand?” the man asked. His tone was brisk, businesslike.
“Yeah.” His own voice sounded like a croak in his ears.
“Good. You know where you are?”
He looked around. “Yeah. Jail. Now what’re you gonna do with me?” He knew it wasn’t wise to anger them, but he didn’t care anymore.
“Don’t get smart with me, kid.” The man’s tone grew a little colder. “You ought to be grateful. You’re one of the lucky ones—you’re still alive. Can’t say that for too many of your buddies out there.”
“Ain’t my buddies,” he said sullenly.
The man shrugged. “Whatever. I don’t give a damn. Either way, you got popped with a Narcoject round when you tried to run, so now you’re here. I’m here right now ‘cause you’re gettin’ transferred. I was hoping to do it while you were still out, but—” He spread his hands in a gesture of apathy.
“Yeah. You don’t think street trash like you gets to stay in our first-class accommodations forever, do you? This is just the holding cell. You’re bein’ transferred to The Pit.”
“The Pit?” He’d never heard of it, but it didn’t sound good. Just the kind of place they would put their enemies before they...did whatever it is they had planned for them. He looked at the man again; on second look his uniform was wrong for a cop. Guard, maybe?
“You’re gonna love it. Trust me.” Sarcasm dripped from the guard’s words. “Now, we can do this the easy way, the hard way, or the really hard way. The easy way is that you get up like a good boy and come with me without tryin’ any funny business. The hard way is that I can Narcoject you again. You might like that now, but you ain’t gonna like it when we get to the Pit. There ain’t any private cells there, if you get my drift, and you don’t wanta be out of it when you arrive, that’s the truth. The really hard way is that you try something funny on the way outta here and you get blown away so fast you won’t know what’s hit you. That last way’s the easiest for me, so I wouldn’t advise you try it.” He leaned in a little closer. “You scan, chummer?”
Ocelot glared at him and didn’t answer.
The guard smiled anyway. “Good. I’m glad you decided to see it my way.” He motioned behind him and two more guards—a beefy human and a beefier ork, both carrying assault rifles—stepped out of the shadows behind him. “Last warning,” the first guard said as he did something that opened the cell door with a snick. It slid open and the two other guards trained their guns on Ocelot. “Come on out, and put your hands out in front of you so I can cuff ‘em.”
Ocelot did as he was told. The buzzing in his head had lifted somewhat now, and he could clearly see that there was no point in making a stand here. They’d kill him before he could get them all, and the satisfaction of taking one or two of them down wasn’t worth his life. He could wait.
The guard nodded approvingly as he snapped the cuffs over Ocelot’s wrists. “Good boy.” He looked him up and down. “I don’t know what the hell the story is with you—you’re in too good a shape for me to believe you were on the streets for long, especially with the cyber you got in you. You musta pissed off the wrong people bad, huh?”
Ocelot didn’t answer. He followed along silently next to the guard. The ork and the human followed a few paces behind them, guns still ready. Nobody was taking any chances.
The processing out didn’t take long, which was probably part of the plan: don’t keep the dangerous ones standing around any longer than you have to. In less than fifteen minutes Ocelot had been loaded into the back of a heavily armored transport vehicle, with one of his ankles put in a shackle bolted to the side of the truck’s steel interior. There were two other prisoners in the truck along with three guards; one of the prisoners was a big troll who looked like he might cry at any moment, and the other was a hulking human giving the hairy eyeball to anyone who looked at him. The door slammed shut, there was the sound of several locks being engaged, and then the truck rumbled off.
The trip over was silent except for a few muffled moans from the troll. Ocelot glanced at him; he didn’t look any older than his friend (ex-friend, he reminded himself) Joe when he’d first met him—just a teenager. Wonder if they got him too. He also noticed that the human prisoner was watching him—specifically the odd mechanism attached to his wrist.
The truck continued on for about twenty minutes and then ground to a stop. Ocelot had been listening, and had heard the sound of several heavy gates slamming shut behind them. Wherever they were, the security had to be phenomenal.
One of the guards touched an earpiece he was wearing, then nodded and rose. “Okay. Everyone remain seated until we come to a stop. We’ll take you out one at a time. You first,” he said, pointing at Ocelot, who was closest to the door. Then he pointed at the troll. “You next, and then you,” he finished, nodding toward the human. “You do not move until you are told to do so. If you disobey you will be shot. Understood?”
Nobody answered, but the guard got the idea they understood anyway. The door to the back opened, revealing a squad of men wearing helmets and security armor and holding more assault rifles. They arrayed themselves around the opening and waited without comment.
Ocelot’s guard nodded to him. “Okay, up.” When Ocelot complied he touched something on his belt and the shackle popped open. “Out. Slowly.”
Ocelot glared at him but again complied. He moved carefully to compensate for the fact that his hands were cuffed and couldn’t be used for balance. Once he was down, two of the armored guards grabbed him by the shoulders and hustled him away. He didn’t get to see what happened to the troll and the other human.
As they crossed an open area toward a featureless building, Ocelot got an idea of what kind of place he had gotten himself stuck in. High plascrete walls, probably a good six meters up, rose all around; up on top, shadowy forms with rifles at ready patrolled between guard posts. He could see the razor wire up there, and the poles that undoubtedly had monowire strung between them to further discourage escape attempts. There were several more featureless buildings like the one to which they were now headed; arranged in a rough circular pattern, each of the buildings was about five stories tall. The open area extended for about a hundred meters between the buildings and the walls, and more armored personnel patrolled here. Some of them had leashed creatures that looked like large dogs. Hellhounds, Ocelot’s voice of experience told him.
Not a nice place at all.
The Pit’s administrative machinery operated with frightening efficiency. Ocelot was taken inside, searched using mundane and magical means, and given another set of clothes to replace the ones he was wearing. These were similar but there was a large number stenciled in black across the back and a smaller one across the front. A chip was implanted under his skin at the base of his skull—a further means of identification, he was told. A way for them to track me,he knew. All of this was performed under the watchful eyes of several armed guards. Nobody ever asked him his name. He got the impression that nobody cared.
As he listened to the snatches of conversation he was able to pick up, Ocelot began to figure out what was going on and why the excessive level of security was being brought to bear. This particular building was known informally as “the hardcase wing.” It got the worst and the most dangerous offenders of a very bad and dangerous lot. Anyone with offensive cyberware was sent here, along with trolls, big orks and humans, and anyone who had committed a particularly violent crime. Every face behind the desks and behind the guns here was cold, closed, distant. Nobody wanted to be here, and that fact did not by any means apply only to those on the wrong side of the bars.
After he was processed, Ocelot was led down a hallway and through several locked doors by two guards, one of whom seemed to enjoy prodding him in the back with the barrel of his gun. “Welcome to hell, drekface,” the other one muttered as they passed through one more door and it clanged shut behind them.
It was an apt description. The hall was wide and lined on both sides with small cells. All around there was yelling, screaming, and the sound of various things being banged against metal bars. The yells all blended together but Ocelot could occasionally pick out a few words: an obscene suggestion here, a bit of profanity there. As he moved down the hallway flanked by the two guards the yelling got worse. It appeared that the cells had been designed for two occupants but most of them had three and a few, four. Along with the bunk beds bolted to the walls there were mattresses tossed on the floor to accommodate the extra ‘guests’. The stench was appalling. Ocelot could hear the far-off sounds of more yelling and screaming from yet more levels above and below.
The guards stopped in front of one of the cells and opened it. “Inside.”
Ocelot looked into the cell. It was empty.
One guard grinned. “Don’t worry, you won’t be lonely. Company’s comin’ soon. Now get in and turn around facin’ this way.”
Ocelot took one last look at the guards’ assault rifles as if trying to gauge whether he could take them down before they got him. No. Not yet. You’ll get your chance. Don’t let them win. If they kill you, they win. With a glare he stepped into the cell and turned as ordered.
While one guard covered him, the other unlocked the cuffs. Then both backed off and slammed the door closed. “Have fun,” the first one called back over his shoulder as the two departed, ignoring the catcalls and obscenities being yelled at them from both sides of the hall.
Ocelot forced himself to tune out the noise and looked around the cell. It looked very similar to the one he had been in before except that this one was in worse shape. The mattresses on the bunks (and the one on the floor) were thinner and heavily stained; the walls had been chipped and carved by so many hands that it was impossible to read any of the inscriptions anymore, and the sink was backed up, its drain full of a clump of matted hair. He tried turning on the water and nothing happened—of course not. The prison, given its proximity to El Infierno, was probably last on the water rotation and only got running water for a couple of hours a day. This time obviously wasn’t part of those couple of hours.
Ocelot sighed and vaulted up onto the top bunk, which sagged a bit under his weight, and waited.
He didn’t have to wait long. About half an hour later, just as the din was beginning to die down, the door at the end of the hall opened again and he could hear the footfalls of more people coming down his way. Heavy footfalls.
He remained where he was and was surprised to see the young troll who had been one of his fellow riders in the back of the transport vehicle being given the same rundown as he had gotten only a short time ago. The troll stood silently, head bowed, throughout the lecture. There were three guards this time, including one very large ork. The two humans covered Ocelot while the ork shoved the troll inside and undid his cuffs. They slammed the door a little too quickly and exited.
The troll remained where he was, his massive hands gripping the bars. Ocelot watched him warily.
After a few minutes the troll turned and looked up at Ocelot. His eyes were wide, frightened, almost childlike. “Hoi,” he said. His voice was deep (it was hard to find a troll—even a female—whose voice wasn’t at least somewhat deep) but it too had a childlike quality to it.
“My name’s Tiny.” His lips quirked around his big tusks in a nervous smile. “Well...my real name’s Norbie—Norbert Evans. But everybody calls me Tiny.” He paused. “What’s your name?”
Ocelot closed his eyes for a moment. It was hard for him to trust anyone—who knew who could be their agents?—but this troll had been captured by them too. He made a quick decision. “Ocelot.”
Tiny tilted his head. “Ossa-lot? What’s that mean?” He moved slowly over and sat down cross-legged on the mattress on the floor, looking up at Ocelot like he was waiting for a story.
“It’s...a kind of cat.”
Tiny nodded solemnly. “Oh. I had a cat once. His name was Boots. But he ran away and got hit by a car.”
Ocelot didn’t answer.
Tiny didn’t seem to mind. “Why’d they put you in here?” he asked.
“They were after me for a long time. They caught me.”
“Oh.” The troll mulled that over for several moments, then looked up at him again. “They took me away ‘cause somebody was tryin’ to hurt my friend’s mama and I hurt ‘em.”
“That sucks,” Ocelot said. Made sense, though. Orks and trolls always got the short end of the stick, justice-wise. “What’d you do, hit him?”
“I pulled his head off.” Tiny’s voice didn’t change tone. “My friend and his mama’re human like you, and this guy was human too, ‘cept smaller than you. It was easy.”
Ocelot looked Tiny over. He wasn’t quite as big as Joe nor as wide, but he was still a troll and that meant big. He had mostly Caucasian features but the creamy light brown of his skin and his black hair spoke of some Latino blood as well. He wore the same outfit Ocelot wore, although with his size the numbers on the front of his shirt were almost as big as the ones on Ocelot’s back. His face was wide and open—not exactly friendly, but definitely not the hooded, secretive look of the typical street rat. “You...pulled his head off.”
Again Tiny nodded with the pursed-lipped seriousness of a child reciting his lessons. “Yeah. It was real gross. But he was gonna hurt Sammy’s mama. He was gonna...do bad things to her.” He lowered his voice when he said that, like he wasn’t sure if he should be talking about those kind of bad things. Then he bowed his head. “But then the cops came. They yelled at me. I tried to run away, but they hit me with something and that’s all I remember until I woke up in jail.”
Ocelot took a deep breath. It was a very lucky thing for Tiny that the cops hadn’t just killed him right then and there. “Tough break,” he said noncommittally, although inwardly something was stirring: he liked this young troll. The more they spoke, the more he became convinced that he was not one of them.
Tiny slowly got up. “How long you think they’ll keep us here?” he asked. “D’you think my mama will come for me, and take me home from here? I only did it ‘cause he was gonna hurt her. Don’t they understand that?” He moved over to the sink and tried to turn it on, nodding philosophically when nothing happened. “No water. Maybe later, huh?”
“Yeah. Maybe later.” Ocelot leaned back and stretched out on his uncomfortable bunk, looking up at the concrete of the ceiling a meter or so above his head.
An hour or so passed—it was hard to tell just how long it was because the cells had no windows—but it seemed like about that long when the door opened again for the third time. It was just like the others—the screams, yells, obscenities, followed by the arrival of the guards with another prisoner. Four guards this time. Ocelot sighed when he saw who the prisoner was. Should have known. It was the hulking, ill-tempered human who’d been the third occupant of the transport. The guards went through their routine again with three remaining in the hall and the fourth installing the human in the cell. Ocelot and Tiny watched from their respective vantage points as the man grabbed the bars and tried to wrench them free. When that failed, he joined in the clamor of profanity that echoed around the halls. That lasted for several minutes and then at last he wheeled around to face his cellmates. “What the fuck are you lookin’ at?” he yelled. His hair was cut short, his muscles bulging under his prison uniform. Tattoos peeked out from beneath his shirt-cuffs.
Ocelot glared right back. So the guards had decided to put one of them right there in the cell with him. He was tired of running. If they were stuck here, then so be it. “You don’t have to yell, asshole. We’re right here.”
The man stalked over and glared at Ocelot. “Smartass, huh? Why don’t ya come down here and say that, cyber-boy?” He grinned nastily. “Oh, yeah. I forgot. The Man took yer toys away. I know your type. Can’t fight worth shit without yer ‘ware.”
He didn’t get much further before Ocelot’s foot lashed out and connected with his jaw. He reeled back as an audible thud echoed through the cell, and staggered into Tiny’s arms. Big troll hands clamped around his biceps. Tiny looked down at him with wide, serious eyes. “Don’t do that,” he said. “Ossa-lot is my friend. Don’t you hurt him.”
The man glared up at Tiny—it seemed like he only had two expressions, the glare and the sneer—and started to say something, but thought better of it. Instead he grumbled something under his breath and tried to shake loose of Tiny’s hold. Tiny let him go. He staggered over to the lower bunk and rubbed his jaw.
Ocelot pulled his legs back up onto his bunk and looked at Tiny. For the first time in at least three weeks, he smiled.
Tiny smiled back and lowered himself back down to his mattress. And thus the way of things within the cell was established, at least for the next couple of hours.
Prison routine was as mechanical and indifferently efficient as the processing procedure had been—or it would have been if the guards had been robots instead of humans and metahumans with emotions, prejudices, and, preconceptions. It became clear to Ocelot early on that the guards came in two varieties: the ones who didn’t want to be here and had been assigned to the Pit because of some transgression or failure in their jobs, and the ones who liked being here just fine because it allowed them to give free rein to their baser and more sadistic impulses with relative impunity. The guards weren’t supposed to kill anyone without clear provocation, but beyond that anything went.
The prisoners’ days were divided into distinct periods: from 22:00 until 06:00 the lights were turned out and they were expected to sleep and be relatively quiet. In the morning around 10:00 there was a rotating hour-long exercise period in the yard: each cell block got two such periods a week, Ocelot found out—the next one for his block was scheduled for three days from now. Anyone not on exercise remained in their cell for the morning. There was no breakfast. Lunch was served at or around noon, and was singularly unappetizing. Each prisoner got a tray containing some kind of soy glop and a largish paper cup of water. Ocelot learned quickly from the prisoners across the hallway (they were the only ones he could see besides his own cellmates) to hang on to the paper cup and use it when the water in the sink was turned on. This happened at random intervals and it was a high point of the day for the thirsty prisoners.
Showers were once a week—this part of L.A. didn’t get enough water to justify wasting it on scum like the Pit inmates. Other than that and the exercise period, the only other time the prisoners were let out of their cells was for nightly dinner, served at 18:00. Dinner wasn’t any more appetizing than lunch, but at least it was outside the cell.
The parts of this that he didn’t learn on his own that first day, Ocelot found out secondhand by listening to their newest roommate, whose name apparently was Max, talking to another prisoner across the hall who shared his proclivity for mayhem and his dislike of metahumans. Max was in for multiple murder and was quite proud of that fact. He spent the better part of the day yelling conversation at his new friend, ignoring Ocelot and Tiny.
For the most part the next couple of days passed in the same way. Ocelot mostly kept to himself except when Tiny wanted to talk; both of them avoided Max. Max, for his part, seemed like he wanted to start something, but even for someone as belligerent as he was, the prospect of tangling with a troll and a guy who was faster than he was and a better fighter wasn’t a pleasant one. He settled for rolling up his sleeves to show off his large collection of obscene and grisly tattoos as a silent attempt at intimidation. It didn’t work.
It was hot, it was dry, it was boring. Ocelot lay on his bunk and listened to the near-constant murmur of voices, a murmur which was occasionally broken up by a sudden yell as someone got angry, then died down again. He wondered if this was what they wanted: to simply warehouse everyone here until they died of boredom or dehydration or disease. He’d only been here a little over two days and he’d already seen the guards, dressed in different armor that was completely enclosed, dragging the body of one of the prisoners unceremoniously down the hall. Again Max’ conversation with his across-the-hall buddy yielded an explanation: the guy had been sick for quite awhile and had finally died last night for lack of medical care. Max’ friend figured his body would probably be sent off to the morgue to be cremated that same day. Tiny spent the rest of the morning moping around the cell after this.
There had been thus far no opportunity to even think about trying to get out. The only time they were let out of their cells was during the dinner break, which was always supervised by far too many guards carrying big guns and wearing security armor. Ocelot heard some of the other prisoners talking at the table about less obvious security measures in force as well: at the first sign of any trouble the control room could pump the mess hall full of knockout gas and clean things up at their leisure; also, for anyone who thought it would be a wiz idea to try to waylay a guard and relieve him of his gun, it would be smart to remember that all the guards carried signature guns coded for them and them alone. They wouldn’t even work if somebody else picked them up. The old hands told these stories in the tones of men who had long ago resigned themselves to their fate.
Ocelot dejectedly picked at his food as he listened to the stories. They had done it this time. There was no way he was going to get out of here.
“Hey,” Tiny said from next to him. He had already finished his meal; trolls didn’t get much more than humans, so he was always hungry. “You okay, Ossa-lot?”
“No. I’m fucked, and so are you, and so is everyone else in this shithole.”
Tiny regarded him silently for a moment, then nodded. “Oh.” He paused, then sighed. “I’m sorry.”
Ocelot shook his head. “Don’t be. Ain’t your fault. They won, that’s all. They got us and there ain’t a damn thing we can do about it.”
Again Tiny nodded, picking up on Ocelot’s mood. “We’re not gonna get outta here, are we? I’m not ever gonna see my mama again.”
Ocelot looked up at him. “It sure doesn’t look that way, Tiny.” He shoved his plate, which was still half full, over toward the troll. “Here. I ain’t hungry anymore.”
Tiny looked at the plate, then at Ocelot, then back at the plate. He was having a hard time hiding the hope in his eyes. “You sure?”
“Take it. Better than lettin’ them throw it out.”
He didn’t need a second invitation. “Thanks,” he said, picking up the plastic spoon which was the only utensil the prisoners were allowed and digging in. “You know, I’m glad I got a friend in here.”
Ocelot sighed. He wasn’t glad for much of anything right at that moment, but he didn’t see any point in ruining the troll’s meal by telling him that.
He got his first inkling that something was up at the exercise period the next morning. The prisoners were lined up and escorted out into the yard by a group of armed and armored guards; Ocelot went along without protest because it would be the first time he’d gotten to see the sun and move around since he’d arrived at the Pit.
The prison yard was about thirty meters on a side, bordered on two sides by the high plascrete outside walls and on the other side by two of the buildings with a high, razor- and monowired fence between them to prevent anyone from making a break for it. In the center of the yard was a concrete slab with ragged rubber mats and battered weight equipment; the area around the slab was hard-packed dirt with a few heavy stone benches scattered around. There was nothing hospitable about it, including the sky which was so choked with smog that the sun was barely visible, but at least it was outside.
The guards stationed themselves around the perimeter of the yard, guns out and held casually at the ready. “Awright,” one of the guards yelled, “You got an hour. When I blow the whistle you get back into formation and get ready to go back in. Anybody who disobeys gets plugged. Got it?”
Nobody bothered to answer. Instead, most of the prisoners began to spread out. A group of orks immediately took over the weights, while a few small groups moved off near the walls to get a chance to talk to people they didn’t get the opportunity to see during the day. Max and his friend took off toward one of the benches and met up with another couple of humans.
“You wanna do that?” Tiny asked Ocelot, pointing toward the weights.
Ocelot shook his head. “Nah. I gotta move around some. You go ahead if you want.”
Tiny looked at him as if trying to decide if Ocelot was trying to get rid of him, then nodded. “I don’t wanna either, but I saw another troll at dinner last night. Maybe he wants to talk.”
“Good idea.” Ocelot clapped him on the arm and moved off.
He didn’t feel like running—not with as little water as he’d had and as little energy as he could summon up—but just being out walking in the air felt good. He’d taken freedom for granted before. Even on the streets with them following him he’d been free to make his own decisions. Being confined in a tiny cell was approaching unbearable.
He was wondering if he could manage to kill himself without Tiny finding out and stopping his attempt when his gaze fell on two men over near one of the walls. They were close together and talking in hushed voices; Ocelot couldn’t hear what they were saying from here, but there was a certain urgency about their words. He kept walking, making the pretense of ignoring them as he moved on by, but watching them out of the corner of his eye. There was something familiar about them. Something in the way they carried themselves, the way they moved—
Then it came to him.
He stopped and leaned back against the wall as if resting, but he was doing anything but. He hadn’t recognized the men, but he had recognized their bearing, because he’d seen it many times in his past, back before they had taken their interest in him.
The men were shadowrunners.
Ocelot lowered his head, pretending to breathe hard at his exertion, and strained his ears to hear what they were saying. They were both human, about his age—one black and one white. Ocelot caught the telltale hint of wires like his own in the fluid way the black man moved.
“—dinner—gets in—signal—” The white man’s words were carried off by the wind and the sounds of the other prisoners. Ocelot barely caught those small snatches.
The black man didn’t say anything; he just nodded. Then he noticed Ocelot. Touching the white man’s arm, he nodded in the other direction and the two of them moved off quickly.
Ocelot watched them go, his mind spinning. Was something going to happen? If so, what? What signal? He resumed his brisk walk around the yard, glaring at anyone who approached him with any challenge in his eyes. He wasn’t in any mood for that right now. He had to think.
At the edge of the concrete slab, two prisoners had gotten into an altercation over who would be next on the bench press machine. They began shoving each other, yelling obscenities. Immediately the other prisoners backed off. Tiny had found another friend, an ork, who took the troll’s arm and moved him back with the rest. The next actions were swift and brutal. Two of the guards swooped in and pulled pistols off their belts, each one firing at one of the combatants. The two men dropped like stones. After another moment more guards showed up and dragged them off.
Ocelot drifted over toward Tiny and his friend. “Shit...” he said under his breath.
The ork glared at Ocelot but Tiny shook his head. “Zak, this is Ocelot. He’s my friend.”
Zak’s demeanor changed immediately. “Yeah,” he said. “You don’t get in fights around here or they nail your ass to the wall. Those guys were fuckin’ idiots.”
“Did they kill ‘em?” Ocelot asked, not really caring.
“Nah, but they might as well’ve. That stuff was some kinda DMSO cocktail with neuro-stunners in it. Frags up your brain, y’know? Sometimes you come back, sometimes you don’t. But they don’t give a damn. Gotta control the animals.” His tone was bitter.
Ocelot didn’t get a chance to answer because at that moment a whistle sounded stridently across the yard. “Okay assholes, that’s time! Back in line!” the guard yelled. “Step it up!”
They were rounded up and taken back to their cells. No one protested—after the incident in the yard, nobody was feeling like messing with the guards. When the doors slammed shut, Ocelot jumped back up on his bunk and lay down. He was still thinking about what the two shadowrunners had been talking about. He knew they were on his block or they wouldn’t have been out there, but he’d never seen them before. He decided he would look for them at dinner. Maybe nothing would happen, but if something did, he wanted to be aware of it.
For awhile he thought nothing would. The prisoners were lined up and marched into the mess hall at the usual time, seated at their usual places at the bolted-down metal tables on bolted-down metal benches. Ocelot had gotten his tray and sat down to eat (dinner tonight was soy glop that tasted vaguely like chicken if you used your imagination, a cup of water, and a blob of greenish stuff that the long-term prisoners called ‘Soy-lent Green,’ which they thought was funny for some reason), looking around for the two men he’d seen during the exercise period. He found them without too much trouble—they were at the next table, across from each other, both on the end of their respective benches. As Ocelot feigned being very interested in his soy chickenish glop, he noticed that the two of them both seemed to be doing the same thing he was: being very watchful while pretending not to be. He smiled slightly to himself. Maybe he was right. Maybe something was going to happen.
But half an hour passed and nothing did. The meal period was only an hour, and they’d taken a few minutes of that just getting their trays and getting settled at the tables. There was no clock in the room, but Ocelot’s innate time sense told him that they probably only had fifteen or twenty minutes left. He took a sip of water and glanced over at Tiny, who was talking to Zak. Fifteen minutes wasn’t enough time to—
The lights went out.
Chaos descended almost immediately. There were no windows in the mess hall, so the place was cast into total darkness. For a few seconds everyone remained still, holding their breath, waiting. When it became clear that no emergency lights were going to come on, the pandemonium began.
The guards were yelling, but nobody was listening to them. All around Ocelot bodies were moving, scrambling over tables, shoving each other aside, whooping and screaming. A couple of small shafts of light split the darkness as two of the guards managed to locate their flashlights, but in a room this size it barely made a difference. Shots rang out for a moment, and then the guards were overwhelmed by charging bodies and went down. The feeble glows vanished.
Before the light disappeared Ocelot caught a glimpse of the two shadowrunners from the next table: they were already moving, heading for the door with a sense of purpose none of the other prisoners were showing. He dropped low and hurried in that direction as Tiny’s voice called out in fear behind him. “Ossa-lot? Where are you? What’s happening?”
“Come on,” he hissed. “Follow me if you want to get out!” He kept moving without stopping to see if Tiny followed. He wouldn’t mind the troll’s help and wouldn’t mind getting him out of here too, but he wasn’t going to sacrifice what he saw as his one chance.
Another shaft of light cut through the room for a moment, long enough for Ocelot to see that the runners had almost made it to the door. There were no guards there, and the door, surprisingly enough, was swinging open. Ocelot put on another burst of speed to get there before they slipped through. A big body jumped in front of him, and he sensed rather than saw the threat. Throwing himself sideways, he lashed out with his foot and was rewarded by a loud oof! followed by a string of profanity. The figure dropped and he went on. Behind him he could hear more gunfire, but it was tapering off now. The guards’ screams were barely audible over the sound of the riot: “Where’s the fuckin’ gas?”
“Turn it on! Turn it—AAUUUGGGHHHH!”
“They got Central! Ah, fuck, they—”
Ocelot didn’t hear any more. He slid through the door and felt someone else—someone big—slip through behind him. “Tiny?” His voice was quiet and tense.
“Yeah. I’m here. Where we goin’?”
He had to risk stopping for a moment. “Tiny, I gotta get outta here. This is my only chance. If you’re comin’ with me you’re gonna listen. Got it? If you ask questions I gotta go without you. Scan?”
Tiny nodded. “Yeah, I got it. I wanna get out too. I’ll follow.”
“Then come on.” Without waiting for an answer Ocelot hurried down the corridor. The emergency lights were on here, but only about half-strength, giving the hall an eerie and faint reddish glow that made the place look even more hellish than usual. The runners were rounding a corner. Ocelot followed them. From far off in the distance he could hear the sound of alarms going off. Closer, running footsteps echoed in the concrete halls. Doors slammed open and closed. What the hell was going on? He kept running. He knew if he lost the others he was hosed.
I might be hosed anyway. But at least this way I go down fighting. Maybe I can take some of them down with me.
He skidded around a corner and nearly collided with the two runners, who had stopped there. Tiny pulled up short behind him.
Ocelot realized why they had stopped: two guards lay dead at their feet and they were shrugging into the guards’ armor at a high rate of speed. The black man glared at the two newcomers, helmet in hand. “Why the hell are you following us? Hit the road, chummers.”
“We’re coming with you,” Ocelot snapped.
“Like hell you are,” the white guy muttered. “This whole job is going to shit and you guys wanna tag along?”
The black guy was looking back behind him as if expecting more guards. “Come on, Kraft. We have to go or we’ll never make it. Louie’s only gonna be able to stay in for another few minutes. If we’re not out by then—”
A meaty hand locked around his arm. “Ossa-lot says we’re comin’ with you,” Tiny said placidly. “So we’re comin’. Or you’re not goin’ nowhere.”
Ocelot looked at him in surprise, very glad now that he’d trusted his instincts and let him come along. “You heard the kid,” he said. “We won’t slow you down. They're everywhere. We want out as much as you do. We ain’t gonna let ‘em have us again.”
The black guy looked at Tiny’s hand around his arm and then at Kraft. “I’ve seen the way this guy moves. He’s got wires. And a troll—”
Kraft nodded. “Yeah. It ain’t going like we planned it. Maybe some extra muscle might help.”
“Okay, you’re in,” the black guy said. “I’m Michael, this is Kraft. Our chummers outside set this up so they could get us out of here, but we’re a little more on our own than we expected. We have about twenty minutes to get out before our decker expects to get kicked out of the system. So we have to move.”
Ocelot nodded. “You got it. I’m Ocelot. This is Tiny. Let’s go.”
Kraft and Michael finished putting on the guards’ armor. “C’mon. Stay behind us. We can’t use their guns, but we might be able to fool ‘em long enough to nail another guard and get his stuff.” Michael looked up at Tiny. “Sorry, no troll guards.”
“That’s okay,” Tiny said. “I’m real tough.”
Together they made their way slowly down the hallway, listening to the far-off yells and gunfire and alarms. The area where they were was deserted. “Where we headed?” Ocelot whispered.
“There’s a delivery dock not too far from here. With the doors all opened, shouldn’t be hard to get to it. From there we gotta get over the wall somehow. Our decker might be able to help with that, but we can’t count on it.”
It didn’t seem like a terribly well thought-out plan to Ocelot, but it was all they had. If it meant getting away from them it was worth a shot.
As they neared an intersection, Kraft held up his hand. In a moment, the sound of pounding feet could be heard heading toward them, accompanied by yells of excitement. Kraft pointed toward the intersection and held up four fingers. A few seconds later four prisoners came around the corner. They were spattered with blood and one of them wore a guard’s bloody helmet. They were screaming and yelling in insane glee.
It took the four would-be escapees only a few seconds to deal with them. Kraft turned out to be a physad—one chop to the throat took down his opponent. Michael was a more conventional wired fighter, much like Ocelot. The two of them weren’t far behind, and Tiny simply brought a fist down on the fourth man’s head. They didn’t stay to survey their handiwork, though. Kraft pointed forward and they kept going. “It’s not far from here,” Michael whispered. “Only—”
There was a very loud, metallic thud ahead of them.
“Oh, shit...” Kraft whispered sharply. “Michael—”
Michael muttered something under his breath and pounded his fist into the wall.
“What?” Ocelot demanded, fighting to keep his voice low. “We’re close. What—”
“That was the big door between us and the dock,” Kraft said. To verify his words, he peered around the next corner, then pointed. “See?”
Ocelot looked, and so did Tiny. A huge, thick metal door had come down and settled into place in what looked like a deep indentation in the floor. “What’s it mean?”
Michael hit the wall again. “It means they’re on to us,” he said. “They must have got Louie. They’re locking the place down.”
Ocelot stared at them. No...it couldn’t be...they were so close... He ran over to the door and pounded on it, then tried to lift it with insane strength. The door didn’t budge.
“Ossa-lot...” Tiny’s soft voice spoke behind him.
“What?” He glared at the troll.
Tiny shook his head. “Nothin’, I guess.”
Behind them, Michael and Kraft slumped against the wall.
Their one chance, and they had blown it. Now they were all stuck in here with the rest of the residents of Hell.
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.