(c) 1993, Rat
Seattle hadn't changed much since I'd left, but I didn't find that too comforting. The skies were still gray, the air still bad, and the roads still crowded. We left the airport in a taxi, neither of us with much luggage: I hadn't brought much in the first place, and Winterhawk was having most of his stuff sent over later and put in storage until he found a new place to live. I guess he was a little paranoid too, especially after someone had managed to break into his old apartment and plant a bomb. A fake bomb, sure, but that would be enough to shake up anyone with an ounce of sanity left.
"So where to?" Winterhawk said. Somehow, his cheery disposition had stopped bothering me since the argument--a week had passed, during which time I had taught him some more swordsmanship and he had pronounced my mind sufficiently tough that he couldn't teach me any more. Apparently, even Aubrey had noticed the friction between us there for awhile--Winterhawk told me with some amusement after we had made our goodbyes that the caretaker had confided in him that he was glad we had worked out whatever it was that had been bothering us. We had left him standing there at the top of the steps, waving at us as the cab had pulled away. I imagined he would probably return to his solitary life of gardening, mowing grass and taking care of the house until Winterhawk decided he needed another vacation. Didn't sound like a half-bad life, really. It beat the hell out of running for your life from the corps.
"What?" I turned to him, startled out of my thoughts. "I didn't hear what you said."
"I said, 'What now?'" he repeated. "You know--what do we do now?"
In answer, I gave the cabdriver my address.
"Straight there, eh? You don't waste much time. But I suppose there wouldn't be any point in stopping off at my place--there isn't anything there anymore."
"Think of it as a fresh start," I told him. "You're leaving that all behind you now--the old Winterhawk doesn't exist for awhile."
"Why am I regretting this already?" He gave me an exasperated look that I knew was affected, then settled back in his seat.
"You volunteered," I reminded him. "Remember, this was your idea."
"Yes, well, temporary insanity isn't out of the question, is it?"
We pulled up in front of my place just in time to save me from having to answer. The place looked pretty much as I'd left it--a detached studio apartment in the shape of a small house. I liked it because it didn't share any walls with the neighbors--it was hard to find detached apartments, and even harder to find houses, in Seattle these days. Finding this one had been a combination of good luck and greasing several appropriate palms. It wasn't much compared to Winterhawk's grand estate in England, but around here it was pretty good, especially for somebody who didn't exist. It even had a little one-car garage where I could store my Aurora. "Here we are," I said, somewhat unnecessarily as the cabdriver drove away. I led him up the walk and toward the door.
"Wait a moment," Winterhawk said, touching my arm to stop me. For a moment, his eyes went glassy and he appeared to be looking at something a million miles away. Then he was back. "Can't be too careful, y'know," he said, shrugging. I didn't even have to ask what he'd done--I could be sure now that there was nobody waiting for us inside, at least not anybody with ill intent. I'd seen him do that before. I was pretty confident that nobody would bother the place anyway, but the extra measure of certainty definitely didn't bug me, especially after what we'd been through on our last job.
"Okay," I said once we were inside, tossing my duffel bag onto the bed (which didn't look any the worse for wear for the fact that it had been unmade for the better part of a month), "Now we have to get you ready. I wasn't kidding about you standing out like a sore thumb."
Winterhawk was looking around the place, wandering aimlessly about. There wasn't much to look at: most of what meant anything to me, I'd brought with me--read that, weapons. I'd never been big on furniture: the place had a bed, a little dining table, a couple of chairs, and a trideo unit--didn't need much else. Oh, yes, and the large, metal cabinet on the far side of the room, carefully locked. That was where the good stuff went, at least the stuff I wasn't carrying or displaying on one of the walls. Winterhawk turned away from inspecting a katana to regard me critically. "Okay," he said, "What are you going to do to me, then?"
I sized him up for a minute, then went over to my closet and dug around in the back until I came up with a jacket that looked like it had seen duty in at least two wars. It was leather, or at least it had once been. Now it looked frayed and stained, and the leather was stiff in many places. Altogether a sorry sight. Perfect. I held it up. "Here. Try this on."
He looked at it like it had crawled out of a hole and onto his dining room table. "You want me to wear that?" he said disdainfully, in that tone of voice only Brits can do correctly.
"You want to blend in, don't you? What do you think they wear in the slums--tailored armor longcoats? Here." I tossed it to him.
He caught it, but overbalanced and nearly tripped. As I had known, he hadn't expected the thing to be so heavy. "What have you got in here, lead?" He hefted it experimentally, then began feeling around at it. When he looked up, he was smiling. "You know, I didn't think you could get something this ratty made to order. Quite a good job of hiding the armor." He pulled it on. Since it was made for my rather buffed frame and not his slim one, he practically swam in it. "Well, I'll feel safe in this at least," he admitted. "I doubt they'll be able to find me. I'll just duck down and they'll think I'm just a pile of old clothes." For emphasis, he flapped the sleeves at me menacingly.
I had to chuckle--he did look rather amusing, with the crummy-looking jacket over his stylish suit. Since he was coming back to Seattle, he had swapped the conservative tweeds and elbow patches for one of his more familiar somewhat-flamboyantly-tailored outfits before we'd gotten on the plane. At least he wasn't still wearing the fedora. "Just roll up the sleeves," I told him. "Nobody ever wears anything that fits in the bad part of town. Most of what they get, they steal from somebody."
"Right," he said, complying. "I think this is all a plot to get me to look ridiculous."
"Oh, we're not done yet. Hang on a minute." I searched through my closet some more and came up with a pair of ancient, faded-green fatigue pants and an old sweatshirt, both holdovers from my pre-cyber days. "These probably won't fit right, but they'll be closer than the jacket. We'll have to stop by your place first, though--I don't think my boots will fit you."
He sighed in exasperation at what I was asking him to go through, but donned the clothes without further comment. When he was done, I looked him up and down. "Almost," I told him. "Almost. But we're going to have to do something about your hair."
"What's wrong with my hair?" he demanded indignantly. "I've seen lots of punks with strange hair."
"Yeah, but not that strange. Not black-and-white striped. That marks you as somebody who doesn't want to stay low, which means you're either hot stuff looking to go slumming, or you're an idiot. Either one will get you killed in that end of town. Besides, most of the punks with the hair are teenagers. It'd look real weird on a guy your age."
"All right, all right. You've made your point. So what shall we do with it, then?"
In the end, we decided to dye it dark brown. We'd go get the dye on the way over to Winterhawk's place to pick up some boots. "Okay," I said. "You're about ready to go. Just one last thing."
"Weapons. Remember? No magic? You've got to have something to defend yourself with, don't you?"
"So you expect there's going to be trouble, then. I can hardly wait," he said dryly.
"You always expect trouble where we're going. That's what keeps you alive. You don't look for it, but you always expect that it's going to be there, waiting for you around every corner. That way, you're ready when it comes."
"Right." He threw himself down in a chair. "This slumming thing's getting more complicated than I thought it was. And I don't suppose we can just do the easy thing and let me pick up my HK227 whilst we're over at my humble storage building, eh?"
"Gold star for the man with the funny hair," I agreed. "You know what folks would think if you showed up with that kind of firepower down there? I mean, if they didn't just kill you and take it away?"
"Suppose you tell me," he said. "I'm on the edge of my seat with anticipation."
"Well, they might think you were a shadowrunner."
"Which I'm not supposed to be. Of course. Never mind that they'd be right."
"Or they might think you're a corp spy, or an undercover cop, or--"
"All right," he broke in. "I get it. So what am I supposed to carry? A zip gun? Perhaps a tire chain, or a switchblade with a comb in it?" He looked like those ideas appealed to him about as much as if I'd asked him to walk into the Stuffer Shack in his underwear.
"No, it's not as bad as all that. Not to worry." I went over to my metal cabinet, opened it, and pulled out a small gun, started to turn, then reconsidered and grabbed a survival knife as well. Both of these I handed to him. "Colt America L-36," I told him. "Nice little gun, as long as your opponent isn't wearing much armor."
He looked at it dubiously. "It hardly seems worth it," he said with distaste. Winterhawk was one of those kind of guys who liked hitting something with overkill, whether it be magic or firepower. I think it was because he wanted to be sure it wouldn't get up and plug him in the back.
"Well, take it anyway. Just in case. You've gotten too used to shooting at people who can take it." I tossed him a well-used leather holster for the gun, and handed him the knife. "Around my old neighborhood, a Remington Roomsweeper is a big deal." As a shadowrunner, if you showed up at a firefight with a Roomsweeper, you were likely to get laughed out of the fight. We knew--we were usually the ones doing the laughing, as some upstart group of punks committed suicide by attempting to assault us with them.
Winterhawk stowed the gun in the jacket, discovering with satisfaction the carefully-hidden pocket I'd had installed for just such an occasion. The knife, he stuck in the pocket of the pants.
"Okay," he said, "That's me. What about you? I take it you're not planning on taking your usual arsenal to this little party." He leaned back in the chair, drawing the survival knife back out and casually using it to clean his fingernails while watching me over top of his hand.
"Nope." Another trip to my weapons locker brought me a tiny gun, barely bigger than a child's toy.
"What the hell is that?" he asked, lowering the knife for a moment. "Looks like a little pop-gun."
"It's called a Streetline Special. Cute little thing. A lot of the gang types carry them, 'cause they're hard to detect and they do decent damage to unarmored opponents."
"Well, I wouldn't want to stake my life on that little nothing," he said doubtfully. Pulling out his own gun, he mused, "This thing is looking better by the minute. At least it looks like a proper gun."
"It's not looks that count, remember--it's punch. This'll do. And when used in connection with a couple other things, I'm not worried." I pulled out my old friend the monofilament whip and dropped it in my pocket. Winterhawk, satisfied that I hadn't suddenly developed either masochism or a death wish, settled back in his chair and resumed cleaning his nails with the knife. I was kind of sorry that, as Viper, I would have to cut back on my use of the whip--they were pretty rare, mainly because a lot of people died learning how to use them, and this one had become kind of a signature weapon for Ocelot. Wouldn't do to have anybody connecting the two of us. But I couldn't bring myself to part with the whip entirely--it was too good a weapon and I was too good with it for that.
"Aren't you going to take a knife?" Winterhawk asked when I began zipping up my own armored jacket.
"Who needs a knife?" I grinned and held up my fist. With a little snik, out popped a foot-long blade from the back of my hand. "The wonders of technology."
"Uh--yeah," he said. "Lovely. Remind me not to shake hands with you." He drew himself up off the chair and stowed the knife. "Well, let's go do it to them before they do it to us. I hope," he added.
"That's the spirit," I told him as I closed the door behind us.
A couple hours later found us in a bus heading for the Barrens. There weren't too many people on the bus: not too many folks want to go to that particular area unless they either had business there or lived there. And most of the people who lived there didn't leave. Winterhawk and I sat in the uncomfortable seats, each lost in our own thoughts. I was still getting used to him with his hair dyed--it wasn't as if he looked weird: it was more like he looked normal, and for Winterhawk, that was weird. Right now, he was leaning back in his seat, his hands stuffed in his pockets, appearing to be reading the graffiti that decorated the bus' inner walls. He looked up and caught me watching him. "Did you know that Ernie loves Wendy the Winch?" he remarked, pointing out a crudely-drawn heart with an even more crudely-drawn knife sticking through it. "You'd think if these cretins have to deface everything in sight, they'd at least learn a bit of proper spelling, wouldn't you?"
I shrugged, smiling a little to myself. If nothing else, the sight of Winterhawk trying to deal with the realities of lower-class existence would be fun to watch.
The bus stopped, and two large, smelly Ork men got in, followed by an Ork woman who didn't look like she belonged with the two men--mainly because her clothes were threadbare but clean and she seemed to devote some attention to personal hygiene. As we watched, the men muscled their way to the back of the bus, where they sat down and began talking and laughing loudly. The woman looked at them, looked at us, then looked back at them. The only other people on the bus at this point were three Human punker types with green hair; of the three groups, Winterhawk and I were closest to the front. "Do you mind if I sit here?" she asked rather hesitantly, as the doors closed and the bus lumbered off toward its destination.
I shrugged. "We don't own the bus," I said, not unkindly. It was one of the lessons you learned early on--don't get too involved, it can only lead to trouble.
The woman nodded gratefully and lowered herself into a seat two rows up from where we were sitting. From there, I could see a long scar across the back of her neck. Winterhawk must have seen it too, because he raised an eyebrow at me but did not comment. The bus continued to move. I sat back and looked out the window, watching as the buildings and the landscape grew bleaker and more depressing. Even after all these years of being out of there, it still came back to me; it always did when I went to the Barrens. We passed a group of ragged street people huddling under a blanket in a doorway, and a prostitute who was obviously trying to hide her age even from the distance from which I was looking. On one side of the street was a little restaurant, its front covered with graffiti, but which still seemed, somehow, to be hanging on. On the other side, a little further down, was what looked like it was formerly a convenience store. Several skinny children were poking through its blasted, burned interior, trying to find some treasure where there was none. I wondered which gang the store's owner had gotten on the wrong side of--apparently one with a little power, since the place had been hit with either a bomb or a grenade. Already we were moving on, so I couldn't get a better look at it.
We were getting close now--I was beginning to recognize some of the neighborhoods near where I'd used to live. The buildings were gray, weathered and old, their desolate uniformity relieved only by the bright, riotous colors of the graffiti. In some places, it looked like the graffiti was the only thing holding some of the structures together. There was nothing green to be seen: no trees, no plants. Even the vacant lots were bare and empty, except for the husks of old machinery left there to rot, or to provide treacherous playgrounds for the children. You never knew what you might find in one of those old cars--once, when I was eight years old, I had gone out there by myself to retrieve a piece of scrap metal for some project I was involved in, and had found a dead body in one of the cars. I was surprised at how vividly I remembered the body, now that I thought about it, although the incident itself was vague. The body was a Dwarf, and he hadn't been there long--his eyes had stared glassily up at me, rolled up in their sockets, just beginning to dry out. His tongue hung out of his mouth, dry and turning a mottled purple. His mouth wasn't smiling, but his neck was: the whole front of his body was covered with dried blood, all of it emanating from a wicked knife slash in his throat. I had assessed all this, wide-eyed, in about five seconds, and then done the only intelligent thing--run like hell. Later that day, when I had managed to convince two of the other neightborhood kids to come back with me and have a look, the body was gone. All that had remained were the dark stains on the ruined seat-back.
I looked over at Winterhawk, wondering what he was thinking. He still had his hands in his pockets, and was staring out the window, his face a mask. I could see his gaze roaming over the area, taking in the squalor, but he made no indication of his thoughts. I wondered if he really wanted to do this; it didn't matter now, though: we were here, and I knew he'd stick it out, just like I'd endured having all the wealth and privilege I'd never had the chance to have casually surrounding me like it didn't mean anything. I'd learned something, and I think he was going to learn something too.
The bus pulled off the road again, narrowly missing a group of children playing in the street. "This is it," I told Winterhawk. He nodded and rose, and together we stepped off the onto the street. The bus's doors slammed shut and it pulled off, almost as if it did not wish to stop here too long. I didn't imagine that was far from wrong.
Winterhawk just stood there for a moment, looking around him. Then, as if by conscious effort, he briskly turned to me. "Well," he said, "Let's get on with it, shall we? I assume if we wait too long, all the good flophouses will be taken."
"Something like that," I agreed, letting that one go by. "This place hasn't changed much."
"I can't imagine it could get much worse," he said sourly. Two men lurking in an alleyway were beginning to eye us strangely, so we moved on down the street.
It was now about two in the afternoon, and I was beginning to get hungry. "Want some lunch? Believe it or not, I know a place around here that isn't too bad. Little deli."
"Deli?" he raised an inquisitive eyebrow at me. "Didn't know you could get real food around here."
"Well it isn't, not really. Occasionally Hymie gets in some real pastrami, but not often."
"Hymie? How ethnic," Winterhawk said dryly.
"Actually, it's kind of a joke. His real name is Charles Weintraub. But the local kids started calling him Hymie, you know, 'cause he's Jewish--"
"I hadn't guessed."
I ignored him. "You know how kids can be. So instead of getting offended, he kind of adopted it as his name. Everybody calls him that now. Or at least they did when I left." I didn't say, I hope he's still around, but I think Winterhawk heard it anyway. "By the way," I continued, remembering something, "speaking of names, you'd better give me something to call you. I can't call you Winterhawk around here--somebody might recognize the name, especially with that accent. You got another name?"
I stared at him. "And you call Hymie ethnic? No, I don't think that will do around here at all. What about 'Al'?"
"Absolutely not," he said pleasantly. "I've spent the better part of thirty-five years trying to convince people not to call me Al--I'm not about to start allowing it now. Why don't you just call me Hawk--surely there are any number of animal-motif names around here. You know, like Weasel, and Hedge Toad, and Orangutan...I should fit right in, don't you think?"
"Hedge Toad? I've lived down here for a long time, and never once have I met anyone named Hedge Toad. You must have made that one up," I said, my face the picture of reptilian-eyed innocence.
"Yeah, right. Okay, Hawk it is. I doubt you'll be the only one around here." We continued trudging down the street, ignoring and, for the most part, being ignored by, the local denizens. We probably looked a little too healthy to really belong down here, but I imagined we could pass ourselves off as the recently-homeless. There were enough of them these days that that didn't look like anything too strange.
I was almost surprised to see the big Weintraub's Deli sign hanging above the familiar little shop on on the bottom floor of a tenement building. The place was covered with the same colorful coating of spray paint that the rest of the town was, but I didn't care. It was enough that it was still there, and still seemed to be in business. "Come on, " I said, pointing it out, "you'll like this. And it'll be nice to see Hymie again. When I was a kid, he used to slip me stuff out the back door sometimes. I think it was mostly 'cause he was scared of the gang, but we got along okay."
The place was deserted, except for one man sitting at a far table, munching a sandwich and drinking a cup of soykaf. A little bell on the door tinkled as we opened it and walked in. Behind the counter, an old man looked up from where he had been polishing a counter. I smiled--Hymie didn't look any different: he still had that little ring of white hair, the thin, wiry frame, and those same shrewd, kind brown eyes and never let us kids get away with anything. "Hymie," I said. "How's it going?" Winterhawk hung back, letting me have my reunion alone.
I wasn't prepared for what happened next. The old man looked at me with no recognition in his eyes. More than that, though--his face showed fear. Not blatantly, but I could tell. Old Hymie Weintraub was afraid of me. "Can I...help you gentlemen?" he asked, covering it well but not well enough. "Special's good today."
I looked at him hard, my eyes meeting his. "Hymie? Don't you recognize me?" My voice took on a faint tinge of worry--the old man had never had losses of memory before.
"Look," he said wearily. "I don't want any trouble, okay? Please--let me get you something. What'll it be?"
I started to say something, but then Winterhawk reached out and touched my shoulder. When I turned to glance at him, he shook his head, almost imperceptibly. It was at that point that I knew what was wrong. "Yeah," I said to Hymie. "The special sounds good. Sorry--I thought you were somebody else. Somebody I knew."
"Not to worry: happens all the time. How 'bout your friend there--you gonna have the special too?"
Winterhawk shrugged. "Sure, why not?" As Hymie bustled off to get our orders together, the mage said quietly to me, "He doesn't recognize you, does he?"
I felt stupid. How could I have made such a dumb mistake? I'd had plastic surgery to change my looks, gained about forty pounds of muscle, and changed my entire style of dress, and I expected a guy who knew me when I was a kid to recognize me. In between kicking myself, I felt a little sad, too--I was only now realizing that by changing my identity, I'd cut myself off from most of the few people who I considered friends. In fact, right now Winterhawk was the only person (other than the guy who'd done the surgery) who knew who I used to be. I'd been very careful to cover my tracks, and even paid a decker to plant a few false references to Ocelot down in the California Free State area. "Nope. He doesn't." I was disgusted, and angrier at the faceless corpers than I'd been for a long time. It was their fault--just another in a long line of ways they'd screwed up my life. "Oh well," I said with a certainty I didn't feel, "It's better this way. If he knew, he could be in danger. Or he could put me in danger. It's better this way," I repeated, shrugging and staring down at the table.
Hymie must have hurried with our orders, because he was back at our table in less than five minutes. He put them down, smiled at us, and quickly found business elsewhere. Winterhawk picked up the steaming hot sandwich, eyed it speculatively, and took an experimental bite. "Not bad," he finally pronounced. "Tastes like this might have at one time been an animal. I approve."
"I told you he sometimes got real stuff," I mumbled, still staring at the table, only now it was obscured by my plate.
I looked up to find Winterhawk looking strangely at me. "What?"
"You don't live here anymore, remember? This is your past. It's gone. That's what you wanted, isn't it?" His voice was quiet and sober.
I sighed, then nodded. "Yeah, that's what I wanted. It just takes some getting used to, that's all. It'll be okay--don't worry about it. You better eat up--it's probably the best meal you're gonna get until we're out of here. I don't think we should come back here anymore."
We finished lunch fairly quickly; somehow any desire I'd had to loiter over lunch and reminisce about my past had left me. I wanted to leave Hymie a really nice tip, but decided in the end that it probably wouldn't be smart--it wouldn't do to have the locals hearing stories about the two bums waving big nuyen around. In the end, we just paid for the meals and left a respectable but not eyebrow-raising five nuyen on the table before we left. I didn't say goodbye, and neither did Hymie. The door-bell tinkled with a certain finality as Winterhawk preceded me out and I closed the door behind us.
The rest of the afternoon, we wandered around the neighborhood, just basically doing nothing. We walked up and down streets, looking at the desolation around us: the shivering people in doorways regarding us with envy because we had jackets; the structurally-unsound buildings that were only still standing because nobody ever came around here to condemn them; the burned-out cars and the endless drifts of trash and overflowing dumpsters; the cynical children, already wise to the ways of the world, who hid like rats when we came by. I could tell Winterhawk was getting impatient with our aimlessness. "What are we doing?" he asked once. "We're just walking about. You haven't even showed me anything. Aren't you going to show me your childhood home, or whatever else one does on this sort of tour?"
I shook my head. "My childhood home was probably torn down years ago. After I got abandoned, I didn't really have a home anyway. I just slept wherever I could. And besides, you don't get it, do you? I wanted to show you what life was like around where I came from. This is it, dude. Wander around from place to place with nothing to do and nowhere to go. You see now why I didn't have much sympathy when you talked about boredom?"
He sighed. "I suppose so," he admitted. "But I think you've made your point quite nicely now. P'raps we could stop wandering around and sit down for awhile."
"What we'd better start doing is looking for a place to sleep."
"Sleep?" He started to look at his watch, then realized he wasn't wearing one. "It can't be more than, what, five o'clock at the latest?"
"That's about right." I kept walking as I spoke, and he followed reluctantly. "That comment you made about the flophouses wasn't as wrong as you might have thought it was. If we don't find a good place to bed down, we might have to sleep on the street. And believe me, you don't want to do that unless you absolutely have to. Being out on the street at all after dark is dangerous. Being asleep on the street is suicide."
"So, what then? Do we get a room somewhere?" He looked around as if he were trying to spot a handy motel. He looked quite indignant when I started laughing. "What?" he demanded. "Did I say something wrong again?"
I just shook my head and sighed, still chuckling. "What do you think this is, a vacation spot where you can just pop in and get a hotel room?"
"Well, no, but--" he paused and glared at me. "All right then, my intrepid slum tour guide--where do we go? And if you say I have to sleep in a doorway with a fat chap named Iggy, I'm going to hop the first bus for civilization before you can say 'hygienically challenged'."
"Come on," I said, grabbing his arm and propelling him along. "I think we can do better than that, if you'd stop complaining. If we don't get moving, Iggy could be a distinct possibility."
"All right, all right. I'm coming." He shoved his hands back into his pockets and resolutely set out after me, muttering something about barbarous accommodations and lack of common civilized amenities. I ignored him. Sometimes that was the best thing to do. And besides, I had a lot to think about myself.
Winterhawk stopped muttering, as I'd expected he would, soon after we started walking again. At least now we had a purpose. It took us almost an hour before we found a large warehouse building that looked like it might provide suitable sleeping space. Before that, Winterhawk had spotted a smaller abandoned building and pointed it out to me, but I'd nixed it, telling him that it was outside the neighborhood and therefore probably subject to a different gang. We hadn't seen any of the Predators around since we'd arrived, but I supposed they had to be lying low somewhere for a reason. I was counting on my jacket, with the snarling-cat motif of the gang, to keep us relatively safe from most of the local riff-raff, but all bets were off outside the Predators' area of influence. "So much to learn," Winterhawk had remarked sarcastically, but he hadn't pressed me to investigate the building further.
We stood in front of the warehouse: I was sizing it up for possibilities; Winterhawk was looking dubious. "You want us to sleep in there?" he asked. "It doesn't take a college graduate to figure out that if space is so tough to find around here, there's already been a whole mob of people who've taken residence, right?"
"Well, yeah. I don't like it either, but we don't have much other choice, unless you want to sleep outside."
"Iggy's beginning to look better all the time," he said under his breath. Then, louder: "Okay, so what's the deal--do we break in, or find an open window, or register at the front desk and give our bags to the bellboy--what?"
"Just come on," I said shortly, and started around the back of the building. I didn't like this at all: large buildings like this were usually pretty well-populated, and it wasn't too safe to sleep there. At least if you planned on being alive in the morning. I stopped. "You know, maybe we should keep looking. It's not too cold--maybe we'd be better off out here..."
"Oh come now," Winterhawk said contemptuously. "You're not afraid of a bunch of riff-raff, are you? You'd rather sleep out here and get rolled by some unwashed Ork than find a place with a roof over our heads? I said no magic, but I don't plan to get killed by the hordes of the downtrodden because they want my shoes." Under cover of his jacket, he held up his hand. Cracking energy flickered around it, and for a moment I saw the Winterhawk I was used to seeing on runs--cold and deadly. I could tell that he was nearing the end of his rope if that side of him was coming out. He lowered his hand and smiled acidly at me. "Besides," he continued in a conversational tone, "my feet are killing me and I'm freezing. How's that for the spirit of adventure?"
I sighed and rolled my eyes, but it was dawning on me that he was right: this was just an experiment. There was no law that said we had to continue it if things got ugly. If we got into trouble, I doubted that there was anyone around here who could stand against the two of us, individually or in groups. Between my enhanced reflexes that allowed me to move three times as fast as a normal man, and Winterhawk's "fried-minds-by-the-dozen, no-waiting" magical powers, I'd stake us against the locals any day. And I was worried about sleeping in a warehouse. Damn it, I wasn't a little scared kid anymore. "Okay," I said with certainty. "This is it. We're staying."
"About bloody time," Winterhawk replied. "Now if you're quite finished wrestling with your past, what say we get inside and stake out the area where the better class of rats live under the beds?"
"Beds? You want beds? You do have a lot to learn," I grinned at him as I hoisted myself up through a broken window. Boards hung at crazy angles around the frame, as if they had at one time been covering it. "Mind the nails, unless you have a 'Cure Tetanus' spell," I continued under my breath, so my voice carried only to him.
"Charming." He followed me up through the window and dropped down next to me, straightening his coat. "I suppose the rats collect the rent, as well."
"No, Limey--I do," came a voice from behind us. It was all I could do not to turn around using the full power of my jacked reflexes, but I managed to remain calm. Together Winterhawk and I spun around to see who was facing us, and came face-to-chest with one of the biggest Trolls I'd ever seen. He had to be a good nine and a half feet tall if he was an inch.
"Forgive me," Winterhawk said flippantly, "I wasn't aware we needed reservations. Perhaps we should try you again during the tourist season--"
"Shut up," said the Troll conversationally, and then he turned to me. "Your friend's a nut."
"Yeah, well, we have to get him out of the house every once in awhile," I said, elbowing Winterhawk in the ribs. I hope he got the hint. "You say you collect the rent?"
"Yeah. This here's my place. You got a problem with that?" The Troll glared at us menacingly. His tusks must have been at least four inches long. "Name's Mort. I run things around here. Two nuyen a night, each, to stay. Otherwise ya go back out the way ya came. Got it?"
Winterhawk drew breath to speak again, and again I elbowed him in the ribs. He kept quiet. "Two nuyen each--that's steep," I said, considering. "Two for both of us, how's that?"
Mort glared at us. "You a nut like the Limey, or you just deaf? Two nuyen each or yer out on yer ears. Pay up."
I waited just long enough to look like I was thinking it over, then dug in my pocket and pulled out a wadded-up five-nuyen note. "We get change?"
Mort laughed, a loud, rumbling sound that wasn't altogether pleasant. He grabbed the note and shoved it in his pocket. "Yeah, right. Price just went up to--" he thought about it a minute "--two-fifty per. Find a spot. No trouble, no guns, and no visitors. Got it?"
"Yeah. Got it." Motioning for Winterhawk to follow me, I went around the Troll and moved into the main floorspace of the warehouse.
"Pleasure doing business with you," Winterhawk said under his breath. "Bloody knothead."
"Yeah, but that's the way it works around here. And since we're supposed to be two guys down on our luck, we have to be scared of people who're bigger than we are. Oh, and by the way," I continued, grinning, "You owe me two nuyen."
"Yes, well, we'll settle up our finances later, when I've had a chance to consult with my accountant. Are rats tax deductible?"
I didn't answer him, but continued scanning the warehouse. It seemed that luck was with us: one of the corners was still unclaimed. At least we'd have two defensible sides, which made things easier. All around us, I could sense that we were being watched. It was going to be a long night.
Winterhawk was looking around, not looking at all comfortable. "I feel blind without magic," he muttered. "I can't tell if any of these people mean us harm. I don't know how you mundanes do it."
"Welcome to the real world," I told him. "And I'll give you a hint--almost everybody in here could mean us harm. But if that Troll keeps order around here, maybe we'll be okay. If things get too hot, he could lose his cushy little job as head guy around here, not to mention all those nuyen."
"So you were actually happy to see tall, dark and ugly there?" Winterhawk's tone was incredulous.
"Kinda. That way, all we might have to worry about is him. I think we could take him, don't you?"
"I doubt he even registers on the magic-resistance meter." He grinned nastily. "He bothers us, I'll take great pleasure in incinerating his poor, lonely brain cell."
I looked at him funny, settling down against the wall. It was beginning to get dark now. "You said no magic."
He sighed. "Yes, I know. And I'll keep my promise. But I can dream, can't I?" He sat down next to me, carefully arranging his jacket around him so he didn't have to sit directly on the dirty floor. He noticed me watching him and smiled, a little embarrassed. "Habit, okay?"
"Yeah. Anyway, I don't have a problem with Mort. He's just doing what he has to do to survive down here. He's big and tough, and he scares people. You gotta use what you have."
Winterhawk shrugged. "As long as he stays far away from us, I don't care."
The warehouse wasn't quiet, and it probably wouldn't be all night. All around us were the sounds of low voices, heavy boxes being moved around to form crude shelters, and the far-off, constant sound of machinery. In a way, it was better that way--it afforded the occupants a measure of privacy in their conversations. However, it also made it hard to tell if anyone was sneaking up on you. "Hope you're not too hungry," I said quietly.
"We're here for the night, and they don't have room service."
He shrugged. "I'll survive. Let's just say my surroundings aren't doing much for my appetite."
I looked around at the dim lights far above our heads that were the warehouse's only source of light, except for the trash-can fires some of the occupants had lit and were now huddled around. The firelight flickered eerily in Winterhawk's eyes as he stared out over the expanse with a faraway gaze. For a long time, we just sat there quietly, watching as more people came in off the street and settled in for the night. Mort must be making a pretty good living at this, I thought, if he's collecting two nuyen a pop for all these folks. There must be close to fifty in here now. A couple times, some chiphead or troublemaker would try to argue with Mort, and both times the offender was summarily tossed out on his backside by the big Troll, with a gruff admonition not to come back. Like everyone else, we minded our own business. A couple of hours passed; the darkness outside was now almost total.
"You asleep?" Winterhawk's soft voice barely carried in the dimness inside.
"No." I didn't tell him that I didn't plan to be, either.
"I'm kidding myself if I think I can fall asleep in here." He turned toward me and I could see his eyes glittering, still reflecting the flickering of the far-off fire.
"You should try. I'll keep my eyes open for trouble."
For a long time, he was silent. "How did you get out of here?" he finally said.
I turned to face him, readjusting my position slowly so as not to make much noise. "What do you mean?"
"You know, here." He waved his arm to encompass not only the warehouse, but the whole area. "What made you make the jump to get out?"
"It's kind of a long story."
"What, you think I'm going somewhere?" He leaned back, stretching his legs out in front of him. "I'm just curious as to how you went from big-eyed street waif to--well, to whatever it is you are now." He smiled a bit and shrugged. "So I'm nosy. If you're going to drag me down to this nasty, god-forsaken end of town for a few jollies, I've a right to be, yes?"
I didn't bother to tell him again that this had been his idea. It wouldn't have done any good. "You sure you don't want to just go to sleep?"
"Right, and become a main course for a collection of happy vermin? No thank you, I'll pass."
"Have it your way." I didn't say anything else for a long time, until Winterhawk had to ask me if I'd fallen asleep. "No," I said, not really talking to him. "I was just trying to figure out where to start. You know I used to be in the Predators, right?"
"Well, the jacket was a bit of a giveaway."
I ignored that. "By the time I was in my mid-teens, I was the leader of the gang. We used to do some little runs for a few corps--you know, nothing special: courier runs, a little protection work, that kind of thing. It paid pretty well, or at least I thought so at the time. If we were lucky, we might make two or three hundred nuyen apiece for a good job. That was big money around here. Things were going pretty well for us.
"Then this corp guy came to me--since I was the leader, I did all the negotiation for our jobs. I was about nineteen then. He told me he wanted some guys to break into a building and steal something, then bring it back to him. He said he'd heard we were good. Damn, what an idiot I was--I fell for it. I guess anybody would have, especially when he started talking price. He offered us a hundred thousand nuyen for the job." I paused for a minute and let that sink in. "We had been making two, maybe three hundred each for our jobs before. Even divided between all the guys in the gang, this would have added up to five or six grand each. That was more money than we'd ever had in our lives. The only catch was, he said he'd pay up when we brought the stuff. I should have realized then that something was wrong, but I just figured he didn't trust us with all that money. So I said yes."
"And what happened then?" Winterhawk prompted after I was silent for a long time.
I shook my head. "Everything went wrong. We broke into the building--about six of us went in. But I guess somebody must have tipped them off that we were coming, because they were waiting for us when we got in. Security guards with real guns and real armor, not these little toys we use around here. We tried to get out, but the other guys weren't as fast as I was. I knew it would be suicide to go back in after them, so I ran. Never saw them again.
"Now I had to go back and tell our Johnson that the job was a bust. I was hoping that he'd at least give us half for our trouble--boy, what a fool I was. I met up with his limo out at the place he'd told me to go. He asked me if I had the stuff, and I told him what happened. Funny, he didn't seem surprised to hear it. And he laughed when I told him I wanted partial payment, especially since five of our best guys had gotten aced trying to do his job. He just laughed, and waved the credstick at me. Then he died. I didn't even hear the sniper bullet from somewhere up on a building, but I saw what it did to his face when it hit him right between the eyes." I paused again. "I did the first thing that came to mind--I yanked open the limo door and grabbed the credstick, then ran for cover, afraid that the guy on the building would shoot me next. The driver burned rubber out of there--I guess he didn't figure a hundred grand was worth risking his neck for. So there I was, scared, angry, and holding a hundred-thousand-nuyen credstick. I hid out for awhile, until I was sure the sniper was gone, and then I took off. I knew that that hundred thousand was my ticket out of my dead-end life."
"So you stiffed your gang?" Winterhawk asked quietly. "That doesn't sound like you."
I shrugged. "I figured that the other guys who'd done the work were dead, and I wasn't thinking too straight. I went back to the gang and told them that we'd gotten stiffed by the Johnson. They believed me, especially when I told them about the guys who died. Then I left for awhile, taking the credstick with me. I went down to California and hung out there for awhile, got some surgery done, learned some martial arts, you know." Again, I shrugged. "I came back to the gang for awhile, 'cause most of my alterations weren't really visible. The cybereyes, I explained that I'd used some money I'd been saving to get 'em. The guys knew I'd been saving up for them ever since a guy shot out one of my real ones in a fight. Eventually, the whole gang thing got a little old, so I found somebody who could hook me up with a fixer. That's how I met Harry. And you already know the rest."
Winterhawk nodded. "I see. So that only leaves one question unanswered."
"Why 'Ocelot'? That seems rather a--lightweight--name for a typical gang type. I thought you chaps were supposed to invoke an image of being fearsome. Ocelots are rather cute little cats--I doubt that I'd be frightened by one. Perhaps subconsciously you wanted someone to take you home and feed you?"
"Oh, that." I smiled. "It's kind of a joke. I told you I was in the gang since I was a little kid, right? I started out as sort of their mascot. And since they were the Predators--the big cats--I was the little cat. I just kept it over the years because I liked it."
"Hmm. I see. Good thing somebody in that group had a bit of an education, or at least a proper thesaurus, or you might have ended up being called 'Death Kitten' or something."
"Oh, be quiet." I shook my head at him in exasperation. "So--now that you know my sordid past, what about you? How did you go from being the lord of the manor to slogging through sewers under the streets of Seattle?"
He chuckled. "My story's not nearly so interesting as yours. I imagine you'll find it rather anticlimactic, after your tale of betrayal and derring-do."
"Try me. We've got all night." I took a look around again; most of the people had settled down for sleep, though there were a couple of rather boisterous card games going on. Between these and the machinery noises, there was little chance that we would be overheard.
Winterhawk settled back against the wall, pulling up the collar of his jacket against the cold before speaking. "You know about magic, right? That you either have it or you don't, and it usually shows up about the time of puberty?"
I nodded. "Somebody told me once that I could have been a shaman, if I'd wanted to. I didn't believe them. They said Wolf wanted me."
I was quite surprised at what happened next. Winterhawk's hand shot out and gripped my arm. For a moment, he just stared at me, in that hard and unfocused way he looks when he's seeing things that aren't there. Then his eyes came back into focus again. "My God, man--why not?" he asked. "I see it--I see how you could have had the makings of a good shaman. But it's too late now, and there's nothing can be done about it. You've still got a little of the aura, but it's barely there anymore. You've mechanized it out of existence." He shook his head in dismay. "Such a waste."
I remembered that magic was one of the few things in the world that Winterhawk took deadly seriously. "You mean they were right?"
"Yes, you fool, of course they were right!" he whispered savagely. "No wonder your mind's so strong. I see it now. But at this point, as I said, you might as well forget about it." He shook his head again and let go of my arm. "All you amount to on the astral plane now is a couple of ears and a finger or two."
I sighed. At this point, I had no particular regret about it, although it would have been interesting to see what it was like to do magic. At the time when someone had told me that, I'd thought they were kidding. Magic wasn't for people like me. My key out was technology, not mumbo-jumbo. It was only after meeting Winterhawk that I'd realized just what a valuable ally magic powers could be. "You were telling me your story," I said in a tone of finality. "You said nothing could be done, so let's forget about it."
"Sure," he said, though he didn't sound convinced. It took him a few moments to get started again, by conscious effort. "Where was I? Oh yes--they discovered that I had the Gift shortly after my tenth birthday. That was a little early, but it happens. I was away at school when I was tested--it was a routine thing, though they didn't often expect to find anything. I was the only child in my class level with the potential to become a full mage; they turned up two or three physical adepts and a few minor powers, but that was it. From that point on, my schooling changed--the emphasis was on magic now, and developing my powers. I was taken out of my school and put into another one with other magical children. The whole thing was a lot of propaganda, mostly sponsored by the corps so they could be guaranteed a new crop of wage-mages when we graduated. I fell for it for awhile--the idea of working for a corp like my parents did, not to mention having power they'd never had--appealed to me. From the time I was eleven until I was fifteen, I was convinced that that was my lot in life."
"So what changed your mind?"
"A trip to London University. Even then, I wanted to see what all my options were before I made up my mind what I wanted to do. I visited the University and talked to some of the people in the Thaumaturgy Department, including a professor named Rodney Leifeld. He's the Head of the College of Thaumaturgy now, but at the time he was teaching some of the applied magic courses. By the time I left, I knew that the academic life was what I really wanted--I wanted to know why magic worked, not just that it did. I convinced Dr. Leifeld to let me apply to the University, even though I was only fifteen--my studies were getting dreadfully boring, and magic was the only thing that excited me anymore. He agreed, and I was accepted shortly before my sixteenth birthday. The corps weren't happy about it, but they figured that they hadn't invested much in me yet, and the last thing they wanted was a wage-mage who didn't like his job.
"Anyway, I finished the bachelor's program in Applied Thaumaturgy in three years, and Dr. Leifeld was quite pleased with my progress. He recommended me for the master's program--I would have been the youngest to ever enter it, if my parents hadn't been killed in that plane crash I told you about before. Had to go home and attend to things --the whole inheritance thing was snarled up in the courts, and it took the better part of two years before I was able to straighten it out and return to University. That was when things started happening.
"It was almost two years later--I was almost finished with my Master's--when Dr. Leifeld called me into his office. He introduced me to a gentleman whose name I won't tell you, and then left. The gentleman told me that he was with the British government, and that he'd heard some things about me that he'd like to talk about. I wondered if I was going to be arrested, but I couldn't imagine what for. Beyond a few pranks in college, I hadn't done anything illegal. I said as much, and he laughed--he said I wasn't in any trouble, and on the contrary, I might have something they wanted. To make a long story short, they needed a young, unknown mage to do a job for them. It was a dangerous job, but they were willing to pay handsomely for the right person. Apparently, they had gone looking at the University, and Dr. Leifeld had recommended me as a possibility.
"To make a long story short, I agreed. The hardest part was agreeing to let them install the cyberware, but I finally let them do that too. I took a leave of absence from the University--Dr. Leifeld set it up so nobody would be suspicious--and went with them. They taught me how to use a gun and a few other skills, gave me some equipment, and sent me on my way with my instructions. Luck must have been with me, because the job went better than I had a right to expect. They were elated with the results. They asked me if I wanted to stay on as an agent, but I refused. Told them that I wouldn't mind doing an occasional job for them, but I wasn't secret agent material. In payment for what I'd done, they did several things: they set it up so I wasn't bothered much by those terribly restrictive laws governing mages in Britain. They also set it up so I didn't officially exist. By that time, I knew I wanted to go to America--that was where the action was. I returned to University, finished my Master's, and came over here." He shrugged. "That's about it. I kicked around North America for a few years, then ended up in Seattle. You know the rest."
I sat back for awhile, thinking, before I said anything. It was interesting to see how two people with such different backgrounds had managed to get together and end up as part of a team. "So you could be a spy for the British government if you wanted to, huh?"
"I don't know anymore," he said. "That was a long time ago. But I'm certainly on good terms with them. That's good enough. They don't bother me when I go home. Do you know what a mage has to go through to get into Britain these days if he doesn't have connections? Believe me, the Brits may not have invented bureaucracy, but they've certainly raised it to an art form."
I nodded. That was probably true enough. The fires were burning low now as one by one, the occupants of the warehouse dropped off to sleep. "You sure you don't want to try to get some sleep?" I asked again. "It's gonna be pretty boring in here if you stay awake all night."
"I told you, I'll survive. I--" He broke off, holding up a hand for silence.
I gave him a questioning look but didn't say anything. In a moment, I could hear why he'd stopped: the hulking form of Mort stood in front of the door, which was halfway open. He was carrying on a low conversation with two men standing outside, and he sounded angry. As we watched from across the warehouse, Mort slammed the door in their faces, turned, and began stumping across the floor. Some intuition that had gotten me out of scrapes before told me he was heading for us. "Get ready," I whispered to Winterhawk. He didn't reply, but in a second, I heard the soft click of his gun being cocked in his pocket.
I was right: Mort made a beeline for us, stepping over sleeping bodies with more grace than a man of over four hundred pounds should be able to muster. He hunkered down in front of us. "You guys awake?" he said in a very loud stage whisper.
"Yeah," I said, affecting annoyance. "We are now. What do you want? We paid our rent--"
"Shut up and listen," Mort cut me off. "There wuz just two guys here askin' about you two. Looked pretty nasty. I didn't let 'em in 'cause I don't want any trouble in here, and they wuz packin' iron. You guys gotta get outta here. I think they know yer here, and I don't want 'em comin' back, got it?"
"Why Mort," came Winterhawk's suave voice from behind me. "I didn't know you cared."
"Shut up, Limey," Mort ordered. "I don't give a fuck about you guys. I'm lookin' out for myself. The folks in here, I see 'em almost every night, when they can afford ta stay here. You guys is new--new guys is dangerous." He turned and looked behind him, as if he expected to see the door opening. "You can go out the back way. Get yer stuff together and go."
I started to protest angrily that we'd paid our rent and we weren't moving; I thought about making a fight of it. But then I looked at Mort and realized that he was only trying in his own way to do what he had to do to keep himself and the others safe. Just like anybody with a shred of decency down here would do. If somebody was after me and Winterhawk, they could tear this place down looking for us. Maybe I was reading the Troll wrong, but I guess all those months of close association with Trolls was making me see them in a different light. "Okay, okay," I grumbled. "We're goin'. But you better give us back our money."
"Breach of contract, and all that," Winterhawk said helpfully. I considered decking him, but figured that wouldn't accomplish anything useful.
"Yeah, yeah." Mort dug in his pocket and pulled out five nuyen, which he handed to me. That more than anything convinced me that he was serious, and that he was scared. Guys like Mort didn't part with money easily. "Now get the hell out, willya?" He looked over his shoulder again.
Quickly, Winterhawk and I gathered up our stuff and followed Mort through the maze of bodies. Both of us ignored his whispered instructions on which way to go: we both had low-light cybereyes and could see just as well as he could, but we didn't tell him that. He led us back to the window through which we had originally entered, and watched nervously as we crawled through.
So there we were, standing under the window of a warehouse in the cold of the night, wondering what to do next. "You know," I said crossly to Winterhawk, "You really should do something about that smart-ass mouth of yours."
He shrugged. "Remind me later. Right now, we have to figure out where we're going to go now. If somebody's after us we can't stay on the street."
"Already you're getting smarter. We might make a ghetto dweller out of you yet."
"I'm enraptured. Now where are we going?"
I took a deep breath of the chilly night air. "I don't know about you, but I'm not tired anymore. Want to go get a drink somewhere?"
"You know somewhere? I don't fancy wandering the streets at this hour if you don't know where you're going."
"Yeah, I know somewhere. There's a little bar called Izzy's down a couple of blocks. The Predators used to hang out there."
"I could use a drink right now," Winterhawk admitted. "Actually, what I could really use is a hot shower and a warm bed, but I suppose one has to take what one can get."
I looked behind us more often than I probably should have on the way to Izzy's, and I noticed that so did Winterhawk. Apparently, though, whoever was after us had given up, because there was no sign of anybody unusual out on the streets. It was about eleven p.m., and most of the people who could afford to get out of the neighborhood for awhile had left to seek their pleasures elsewhere, leaving only the bums and the hookers and the street kids to fend for themselves. I consoled myself by thinking that they were probably more scared of us than we were of them.
Izzy's was still there; I could hear the music coming from behind its closed door a block before we actually reached it. The place was still as I remembered it--run down, dark and dismal on the outside, not much better on the inside. As I recalled, the place had a long bar, a few tables, and three old-fashioned pool tables which had seen better days ten years ago. As we opened the door and went inside, I could see that they were still there.
We weren't alone, either. The place was currently occupied by a Human bartender I didn't recognize (it wasn't Izzy), two scruffy-looking and possibly-underage ladies of the evening, and six men, all dressed more or less identically in synth-leather jackets and military fatigue pants. Winterhawk looked like he'd rather leave, but he followed me when I moved into the room and sat down at the bar. "A couple of beers," I said to the bartender, shooting Winterhawk a look that clearly said, don't you dare order a nice glass of chablis, or I'll paste you one. He kept silent, his only comment was a slight wrinkling of his nose to indicate his displeasure. The bartender returned with the beers, and I paid him with the five-nuyen note Mort had given me. The beer was watery, but acceptable. We finished it in silence (well, I finished mine; Winterhawk took two sips and ignored the rest). "How about a game of pool," I said to him, indicating the tables.
He raised an eyebrow at me as if to wonder if I was serious, but shrugged. "Sure, why not? I used to be pretty decent at billiards in my youth." I guess he figured if I was going to ignore the other occupants of the bar, he might as well do the same. Together, we went over to the rack and picked out a couple of cue sticks, trying to find the least bent ones out of the collection. As I racked up the balls, one of the six men came over and leaned on the table next to me.
I could smell him just fine from that distance--I doubted that he'd bathed in the last month. Glancing at him with peripheral vision, I took in the emaciated-but-tough frame, mohawked hair, and numerous tattoos. "You're not from around here, are you?" he said. I recognized the tone and flashed Winterhawk a warning look.
"Used to be," I said neutrally.
"Musta been a long time ago," the guy said. I noticed out of the corner of my eye that the others were beginning to gather around. "You in the wrong neighborhood, kitty-boy. You know that?"
I froze a bit when he said 'kitty-boy'--did he somehow recognize that I used to be Ocelot? But then his next comment explained it all:
"This here's Reapers territory, catso. Heard there was somebody wearin' Predator colors hangin' around the neighborhood--guess you saved us the trouble of geekin' the Trog to find ya. You out of your turf." He reached out and grabbed my arm to punctuate his words.
I was sure I'd have time later to reflect on the balance of power between neighborhood gangs, and about the fact that somehow the Predators didn't seem to have the sphere of influence they'd formerly enjoyed. Right now, I just acted. Ripping my arm out of his grasp, I swung around with my pool cue and was treated to the very satisfying sound of end of pool cue meeting eye of street thug. The Reaper screamed, clutching his wounded eye, and the fight was on. Part of me was overjoyed--a good bar fight was hard to find these days, and here one had dropped right in my lap! I hoped for his sake Winterhawk would stay out of this: I could handle these guys on my own.
In the distance, I could hear the bartender yelling for us to knock it off as two of the other Reapers converged on me from two different sides. One of them had a small knife, and one had picked up another pool cue from the rack. With my reflexes, I was moving twice as fast as they were--I blocked the cue with one arm and brought my fist up into the other guy's face, rewarded with the crunch of my augmented fist driving into his nose. Blood sprayed everywhere as the guy screamed and went down. The other one with the cue swung me around and prepared for another shot, and I raised my arm to block him again.
"Down!" I heard Winterhawk's sharp voice then, and whirled around to see a shotgun pointed at my head. The pool table was between us; there was no time to get to him--
The Reaper smiled.
And then Winterhawk was there, diving at the shotgun, his momentum carrying the gun off its aim and propelling him forward onto his hands and knees on the floor. The gun went off with a loud and ineffectual bang as the slug meant for me tore into the bar's ceiling. The Reaper, spinning back around in a rage, brought the butt of the shotgun down on the back of the mage's head with a sickening crunch. Winterhawk went down in a heap.
All this happened in a split-second, but that was all I needed to act. Vaulting over the pool table, I finished being Mr. Nice Guy. Now it was personal. My hand sought the monofilament whip in my pocket, and it was there as I came down. The Reaper brought up the shotgun again, but this time it was too late for him. The whip, a single molecule wide, parted his head from his shoulders like he was made of butter. I didn't even wait for the twin thuds of the head and body hitting the floor before spinning to face the other gangers.
I needn't have worried--they were already running for the door, falling over each other in their haste to get out. I could have followed them, but it wasn't worth it. They wouldn't be back, at least not until they could find reinforcements. Turning back to the bar's interior, I stowed the whip in my pocket and surveyed the damage.
Three Reapers lay on the floor, two unconscious and one dead. I looked around for Winterhawk and found him lying half under one of the pool tables, next to the Reaper's shotgun. He too was unconscious, and the wound on the back of his head was bleeding profusely. I checked to make sure he was alive, determined that he was, and as gently as I could slung his arm around my shoulder and picked him up. I was surprised at how light he felt. Looking up at the bartender, I tossed fifty nuyen on the counter. "Sorry about the mess," I said, "But they started it. We're leaving now." The man just nodded, staring not at me but at the headless body on the floor.
Outside, the cold bite of the air seemed to revive Winterhawk just a bit. He moaned and tried to raise his head. "Just a minute," I said. "Let me put you down." I ducked into an alley and behind a dumpster, so we were not visible from the street, then lay him down propped up against a pile of boxes.
He opened his eyes and stared up at me, not quite focused. "What--what happened?" he whispered, bringing his hand up to the back of his neck. "Feels--like I've been hit--by a truck."
"Not a truck," I told him, "A shotgun butt. You saved my life."
He shook his head, then grimaced with pain. "No--I didn't. You'd have--handled him."
"He was gonna blow my head off. There was nothing I could've done. If you hadn't pulled that idiotic stunt--" That was a sobering thought: I could be dead now. Just another nameless, faceless statistic in the Barrens. In a way it would have been a fitting end for me, but I wasn't ready for the end yet. "Anyway, thanks."
"Don't--mention it. It was--the least I could--do to pay you back--for the wonderful time you've--shown me." His voice was getting weaker, but his cynical smile was in his eyes.
I tore off a piece of my shirt and pressed it to the back of his head. "Don't talk--we've got to get you out of here so you can heal that. You can heal it, right?"
He nodded, then thought better of that, and settled for smiling just a bit. "A little--hocus pocus and a good night's sleep and I'll be--driving you crazy as well as I ever was."
I decided not to answer that. But then something dawned on me. "Hey--why didn't you use magic back there? You could've toasted that guy without getting hurt, couldn't you?"
He shrugged. "Of course. But those--those weren't the rules. No--magic, remember?"
I had to smile at that. "Yeah, I remember. No magic. But next time, get out of the way, okay?"
Winterhawk glared up at me. "Next time? What--makes you think there'll be a--next time? I've--quite had it with the life of the underprivileged. D'you think--perhaps--we could go home now? I think I've--learned enough for one night."
"Yeah," I agreed, grinning. "Yeah, I think you have." I helped him up, slinging his arm back around my shoulder, and together we trudged back down the street toward the el station. He was right--I'd had about enough of reminiscing about the past too. It was about time to call the other guys in the team and get back to real life. Enough vacations for awhile.
Copyright ©1993 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.