This can not be happening.

Juliana Harvath, more commonly known to her friends as Kestrel, sat on the edge of her bed in her small townhouse and stared across the room at her image in the mirror.

The image stared right back at her as if issuing a challenge: a trim, athletic woman in her early thirties, dressed in faded jeans with holes in the knees and a ratty U-Dub sweatshirt. Her reflection’s short, white-blond hair was tousled, its bright green eyes fixed on their counterparts in the real world. Her cheeks were slightly flushed, her hands gripping the edge of the mattress as if she were afraid she would tumble right off the edge of the bed if they didn’t.

The fear might not have been entirely unfounded.

No, no...this can’t happen. I’ve always been so careful—

With an explosive motion she pushed herself off the bed and began pacing around the room, kicking aside drifts of clothes that she had tossed on the floor and never bothered to pick up. There was a nice hardwood floor under there somewhere, but she rarely saw it.

As she moved around the end of the bed her foot caught on another pair of jeans in a heap on the floor and she savagely kicked them aside, not even seeming to notice when they flew up and knocked several things off her nightstand. Damn it, no! There is no way this could be true. There’s been some kind of mistake. That’s all. Just a mistake.

The thought comforted her for about thirty seconds. Then the doubt began creeping in again.

...but what if it is true?

Ceasing her pacing, she threw herself back down on the bed amid the tangleof sheets and the heavy down comforter. She wrapped her arms around one of her pillows and hugged it tighly to her, sighing.

What if it is?

I always thought it would be so easy, but—

She flipped over and stared up at the ceiling. Get yourself under control, she told herself sternly. This is nothing to panic about. Not yet. It’s got to be a mistake, and you’re not going to know whether it is or not until you try it again. One could be a mistake. Two—

She sighed again, knowing why she hadn’t tried it again yet—because she was afraid of the result. She was afraid of knowing for sure. Because if she did, then her mind would have to venture into areas she had absolutely no desire to approach.

If it was true, she wouldn’t have a choice.

It was the fact that not knowing for sure was about the only thing she could think of that was worse than knowing for sure that caused her to get a second opinion. She showered, dressed in something a bit more respectable (which for Kestrel meant a T-shirt and leather jacket over the same old ratty jeans) and headed out in her green Eurocar Westwind.

She didn’t know why she drove to a different part of town, but she didn’t bother asking herself those kinds of questions anymore. She got what she needed and returned to her condo. The waiting seemed interminable, but it really wasn’t all that long. And when it was all over, she had her second opinion.

It was the same as the first opinion.

Kestrel slumped down on her bed and flung her pillow across the room so hard it knocked a picture off the wall. It landed with a crash, its glass shattering and sending little shards skittering across the floor.

That’s fitting, she thought bitterly. That’s about the way my life feels right now.

The next day, she got a third opinion—a human one—in hopes that perhaps the more impersonal approach of her previous two methods had somehow been the cause of her current state of misery. I did it wrong. I never was any good at that sort of thing. I mean, it’s kind of like cooking, right? Mixing things together and hoping you get the right answer. Hell, I wasn’t very good at chemistry either...

She’d gotten straight A’s in chemistry, but that was beside the point.

She arranged an appointment with an old friend of hers, someone she’d met several years ago on a run and kept intermittently in touch with. Lucinda Santos could be counted on to be competent, thorough—and above all, discreet. They had lunch before the appointment. It had been Kestrel’s idea: make the whole thing look more like a social call and less like—

—like what it was.

They talked, caught up on old times, discussed trids they’d seen and books they’d read. By unspoken mutual agreement neither brought up uncomfortable subjects. After lunch the actual appointment had been quick, businesslike, and efficient. Kestrel waited, leafing through an old magazine without seeing any of its content, while Lucinda disappeared.

She was gone for about ten minutes. Kestrel’s head snapped up as the door opened. She didn’t have to ask what the answer was: she could see it in Lucinda’s face. “Yeah?” she asked glumly.

Lucinda nodded. “I’m afraid so.”

“You’re sure? I mean, there couldn’t have been any mistake?” She grasped at the straws of hope while feeling them slipping through her hands like wet eels.

“No. No mistake. I checked it myself.” Lucinda looked at her with compassion. “I’m sorry. I wish I could have given you the answer you wanted—” She paused a moment and met Kestrel’s eyes. “Have you given any thought to how you want to proceed?” Her voice was soft, professional, non-judgmental.

Kestrel sighed. There was so much she wanted to say, but the thoughts were jumbled in her head, racing around far too fast for her to catch any and bring them into a coherent pattern. “No,” she finally said, surprised at how normal her voice sounded.

Lucinda nodded knowingly. “Well, I’m here if you want to talk. You’ve still got plenty of time to make up your mind.”

“Thanks.” Kestrel stood up, dropping the magazine back into the rack next to the chair. “I guess I’ve got a lot of thinking to do.”

She spent the rest of the day walking around. Her movements were aimless; she had no particular destination in mind, so it wasn’t really possible for her to get lost. She just had to get away from everything she knew for awhile. She didn’t want to talk to anyone, see anyone, do anything. She wanted answers, but none presented themselves.

I thought it would be so easy. I thought it would never happen, but if it did, I’d know what to do. I’d know if I was ready, and if I wasn’t—then I’d just take care of it.

I’m not ready.

So why is this so hard?

It was early evening by the time she got back to her townhouse. She was no closer to an answer than she had been before. She thought she might still be in shock. Either way she knew she didn’t want to be alone tonight. She didn’t want to be alone with this knowledge that had descended upon her and threatened to swallow her up. She had to discuss this with someone.

Smiling a little for the first time that day, she picked up her phone and called Gabriel.

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Copyright ©2003 R. King-Nitschke. The Shadowrun universe is the property of WizKids.
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