Several thousand miles away from where Gabriel and Kestrel were discussing their options, a small, elderly prop plane buzzed its slow and methodical way across the muggy skies over Amazonia.
In the back of the plane, in a patched and stained seat that was a far cry from his usual first-class travel preferences, Alastair Stone slumped against the cloudy window and idly watched as the verdant countryside rolled by beneath the plane’s wing. Contrary to what anyone who knew him might have expected, his expression was not one of disgust or discomfort, but rather of controlled excitement. He was tired now, but that hadn’t done much to dim the light in his bright blue eyes.
This was going to be fun.
He shifted, trying to get comfortable in a seat whose springs had most likely sprung before he was born, and checked his seat belt again. It had an annoying habit of popping loose when he twisted the wrong way, so he had developed the practice of tugging on it every few minutes to make sure it was still doing its job. He hadn’t wanted to take it off, as there had been a lot of turbulence in the last hour or so.
He noticed that the other passengers had likewise chosen to keep their belts on. There were eight in the passenger compartment in addition to himself: five graduate students, one other professor, and two local guides who had been hired by the University to handle the logistics of the trip. Two of the grad students were from Applied Thaumaturgy, two from Parabotany, and one from Parazoology. The other professor, a balding and rather bookish soul named Dr. Henry Whittaker, currently had his nose buried in a laptop computer and looked as if he was trying desperately not to get airsick.
Stone smiled to himself, glad that Whittaker had found something else to occupy his time for awhile. Stone didn’t know Whittaker—they had met only yesterday as they boarded the plane out of Heathrow that had flown them to Miami on the first leg of the trip, but he suspected that the little Parabotany professor knew him. Or at least knew of him, which might be worse. Whittaker had been casting nervous glances Stone’s way almost since they had gotten on the first plane, only at times when he thought Stone wasn’t looking. The trouble was, after the first couple of times, Stone pretended not to look but still kept close track of the number of glances.
He probably thinks I’ll come unhinged any second now and start tossing manabolts around the cabin.
Stone couldn’t completely blame Whittaker for that particular observation, assuming that it was true. It had, after all, only been a month or so since...the incident.
His mind drifted back to his return to the University after he and his friends had finally dealt with the situation on the metaplanes. He hadn’t called ahead or made any kind of appointment, but somehow Rodney Leifeld had known he was coming when he’d shown up in Leifeld’s office one afternoon. That sort of news travelled fast indeed.
Rodney, to his credit, had proven that his friendship with Stone had not been diminished by the recent events. He had asked few questions, but simply sat back and listened as Stone had explained as much as he could about what had happened. Stone had had to alter a bit of the story, of course—to do otherwise would have drawn in other individuals whose stories he had no right to tell—but in the end his old mentor had accepted the story of a metaplanar menace that had become particularly attuned to Stone after a nasty quest, and the fact that said menace had been successfully dealt with by some of Stone’s more powerful friends from America.
Rodney’s friendship was proven to an even greater extent when Stone had asked if there was something he could do—now that he was free of the unpleasantness, he wanted nothing more than to “get back in the saddle” and try to forget the whole thing as quickly as possible. Rodney had come through with just the thing: there was a graduate-level excursion to Amazonia planned to allow the students to study the indigenous flora, fauna, and magical phenomena, but the husband of one of the professors who had signed on to accompany the group had taken suddenly very ill and therefore the professor would be unable to go. They had been prepared to cancel the trip, but if Stone would like to take the professor’s place, then—
Stone had accepted readily, even though it would mean he would only have a few days at home before the trip was due to depart. “It might be just the thing I need,” he told Rodney. “A chance to clear my head a bit and get away from the familiar.”
“I was hoping you’d say that,” Rodney told him. He smiled warmly and his eyes showed more emotion than was normal for him. “I’m glad to have you back, Alastair,” he said softly.
“I’m glad to be back,” he answered in the same tone. Then he smiled rather impishly. “You didn’t think you lot could get rid of me that easily, did you?”
“Wait until you see the plane you’re going to be flying in,” Rodney joked.
Stone cursed softly under his breath as the little craft hit another pocket of turbulence and threw him sideways into the window. Outside it had begun to rain—in this part of the world storms came up and calmed down even faster than in England, and this one looked like it was shaping up to be impressive. Stone watched the heavy drops spatter into the window, the wings, the engines as the choking gray clouds roiled and fought with each other for their pieces of the sky. He hoped the storm would settle before they landed; although their first night was to be spent in a small hotel in Iquitos, the plan was to head out first thing the next morning. It would take them the better part of two days to reach the designated campsite.
In front of him, Whittaker was looking positively green now. One of the parabotany students, a young woman named Catherine Merriwether, had twisted around in her seat and was digging in a small backpack. After a moment she came up with something in a packet, which she offered to Whittaker. He took it gratefully, albeit shakily, and swallowed its contents along with some water. A few moments later he relaxed and settled back.
Stone smiled in some relief. Whittaker’s comfort aside, about the only thing that could have made this trip any worse was to have to share a small cabin with the aftermath of the professor’s airsickness.
“Something funny, Dr. Stone?”
Stone turned to find his seatmate, applied thaumaturgy student Peter Hsu, watching him. Hsu, a tall, slender young elf with spiky black hair, probing eyes, and an impudent grin, seemed completely unaffected by the turbulence. “No,” Stone said. “Nothing funny. Just wondering when we’re going to land.”
Hsu chuckled. “You like your planes a little more substantial, don’t you?”
“Well, if given a choice, yes.” Stone turned slightly toward him and adjusted his seatbelt again. “But for some things I’ll make an exception.”
Hsu nodded. “I must say, although I’m sorry of course that Dr. Zubinski’s husband became ill, I’m glad you’re going along in her place.”
“And why is that?” Stone asked, even though he already knew the answer. When Hsu didn’t answer right away, he added, “You think I’ll liven things up a bit, don’t you?”
Stone smiled and sighed in mock exasperation. He was pleased that he was popular with the students due to his unconventional methods, but the way some of them told things it wasn’t possible for Alastair Stone to get involved in anything that didn’t turn into an adventure. Occasionally a dangerous adventure. But then again, Dr. Martha Zubinski was not known for her ability to get students charged up about what they were doing. She was in her late forties going on sixty and preferred spending her time in the library rather than the lab. Stone suspected that she was probably glad to have the excuse not to go. Taking a deep breath, he shrugged. “To be honest, my friend, I would prefer not to liven things up too much this time. I’m sure you’ve heard that things have been a bit too lively even for my tastes of late.”
Hsu looked sympathetic as he nodded. “I’m glad to see you’re back and well, sir.”
“That goes for both of us,” Stone said, nodding in emphatic agreement. “That’s not the sort of thing I’d wish on my worst enemy.”
“But yet you’re turning around and shepherding a bunch of grad students on a field trip,” the young man teased. “Now that’s what I call dedication.”
Stone chuckled. “Dedication has nothing to do with it. It was either this or sit around at home with the caretaker of my house and an overly protective blackberry cat watching me for signs of incipient madness.”
“Still, I have to tell you I’m not the only one who’s glad you’re along. Gina and I were half afraid we’d spend most of the trip peering at magically active algae.”
“No worries about that,” Stone assured him. “I’m sure Dr. Whittaker has that—” He stopped as the plane took another stomach-churning dip and then settled itself again. Out the window to his left, a bright bolt of lightning split the sky.
“Weather’s getting worse,” Hsu said. He glanced at his chrono. “I think we’ve still got an hour or so before we land. I hope the plane holds together.”
“Indeed,” Stone agreed, checking his seatbelt again.
Hsu subsided into silence and settled back, leaving Stone to try to find something else to concentrate on so he could avoid thinking about the likelihood that the plane would not hold together until they landed. He wished he could pull out his laptop and get some work done, but that meant getting up and right now that wasn’t high on his list of desires. He sighed, leaning back. It wouldn’t be long now. Just another hour or so and they’d be on the ground.
Around the cabin, the others appeared to have come to similar conclusions. Dr. Whittaker was clutching the arms of his seat so hard his knuckles were whitening, but he looked calmer than before. Next to him, Catherine Merriwether looked like she did this sort of thing every day. Behind them, the other Parabotany student, Ram Prakesh, was deep in conversation with the second Thaumaturgy student, Gina Kane. In front of Stone, Kevin Frasier was reading a magazine, oblivious to the pitching and rolling of the tiny plane. Stone suspected that Frasier would be oblivious to just about anything frightening: tall, muscular, and a little too fearless for his own good, the lone Parazoology student had a reputation for getting himself into—and out of—scrapes that would get other students killed. Stone liked him.
Finally, up at the front of the cabin and looking somewhat nervous, were the two guides, ork Gustavo Santiago and human Diego Corazón. Both were battle-hardened, capable-looking men in their mid-thirties, although at the moment they both looked like they’d rather be on the ground dealing with some of Amazonia’s more virulent flora and fauna than imprisoned on this rickety plane several thousand feet up. Currently they were talking in hushed tones to each other and casting furtive glances toward the closed door leading to the plane’s cockpit.
Stone leaned back in his chair, tightened his seatbelt again, and closed his eyes. There was no chance he’d sleep on this roller-coaster of a flight, but perhaps he could at least rest. Once they landed it was going to be a whirlwind of gathering equipment, finalizing arrangements, and preparing to set out again from Iquitos the next morning, so he figured it would be wise to get his rest in when he could. Besides, with the sky darkening to a resolute slate gray outside the windows, there wasn’t much to look at anyway. Just a little rest—
A loud crack rudely broke through the low hubbub of conversation, accompanied by a flash of bright light. Stone’s eyes flew open as the plane lurched sharply to the side, smacking his head against the window. He yelped in pain but the pain was soon forgotten as more important considerations claimed his thoughts.
Around the cabin the passengers, even the stalwart Frasier, were looking around nervously as the plane continued pitching crazily back and forth. The sky outside was choked with dark clouds, and a hard rain pattered against the small craft’s skin. The ominous sound of thunder crashed all around them, accompanied by another bolt of bright lightning.
“What’s going on?” Stone demanded. He realized that one of the guides, Santiago, wasn’t in his seat anymore and looked around for him. “Where’s Santiago?”
“He went up to talk to the pilots a couple of minutes ago,” Peter Hsu told him. “You were asleep.”
“Is there a problem?” As if to punctuate his words another peal of thunder rolled across the the sky and the plane dipped to the right.
“Nobody knows yet. I—”
“Shh.” Stone put his finger up for silence and listened. There was something subtly wrong, a sound, but he couldn’t place its location. It was—
It was one of the plane’s engines. The low comforting drone of one of the props was off somehow. The note was wrong, the discord between it and its counterpart just enough out of phase to attract Stone’s notice.
“What is it?” Hsu demanded in a harsh whisper. “What do you hear?”
Stone didn’t answer. He looked around the cabin at the faces of his fellow passengers and saw only unfocused fear—except on Frasier’s. Their eyes met for a moment and the young man dipped his head in a slight nod, his eyes cutting meaningfully toward the left side of the plane.
At that moment two things happened: the door to the cockpit opened and Gustavo Santiago emerged, looking pale under his deep tan, and the prop whose subtle wrongness had just claimed Stone’s attention sputtered and stopped.
“Oh my God!” Henry Whittaker cried as Santiago quickly dropped into his seat and fastened his belt. “We’re going to crash!”
If anyone was hoping for comforting words from Santiago to refute Whittaker’s near-hysterical claim, they got none. “Everyone strap in,” the guide called, his voice hoarse. Already all the passengers could feel the plane losing altitude. “The pilots are going to attempt an emergency landing before the second engine fails.”
Copyright ©2003 R. King-Nitschke. The Shadowrun universe is the property of WizKids.
No part of this story may be reproduced without permission from the author.