Alastair Stone awoke to two sensations: a splitting pain in his head and the feeling of water seeping up the back of his coat. For a moment he was disoriented, briefly wondering if he had passed out at the pub and someone had spilled their ale on him, but then the memories came flooding back. He groaned.
“Dr. Stone’s waking up,” came a female voice, close to him. A warm, damp hand settled on his forehead. “Don’t get up yet, Dr. Stone. It’s me—Gina.”
“Gina—? I—” More memories rushed back into his protesting head. He remembered the crash, and then hurrying around, herding people, dragging them, blood— He sat up, then groaned again and clamped his eyes shut, feeling like someone had just whacked him with a sledgehammer.
“She did tell you not to get up yet, Doctor,” another wry voice spoke.
Stone slowly opened his eyes again and was greeted by the sight of two tanned, muscular legs in front of him, about a meter away. Directing his gaze upward he saw that the legs belonged to Kevin Frasier. The parazoology student’s face was grim, but his eyes held faint amusement.
“Frasier...” Stone squinted and put his hand to the back of his head. It was feeling a little better now—he didn’t think he was hurt badly. Around him he could hear the sounds of the jungle—the calls of birds, the whispers of small creatures moving through the underbrush, a faint hissing that might have been a far-off river or waterfall. The rain had stopped, at least for the moment. He was sitting on a thin carpet of vegetation; it looked like someone had cleared a space. “What happened?” he asked, forcing his awareness to return faster. “How long have I been out? What about—”
“Hold on,” Frasier said. Gina Kane had already moved off; Stone didn’t see where she went. “We crashed. You remember that, right?”
“After we went down, you and I and Santiago got everybody off the plane—most everybody else was panicking or too hurt to be much help. You passed out after that—I think you hit your head on something when we hit and it finally caught up with you.”
Stone took a deep breath. “What’s our status?” He held out his arm, obviously asking the student for help in standing.
Frasier eyed him dubiously for a moment, then grabbed his arm and hauled him up, holding him there a few seconds to steady him. “You weren’t out long—we’re still evaluating. All we know for sure is that the pilots are both dead. The plane’s nose hit first at a shallow angle, and then we slid. I have to hand it to them, though: they saved our lives. They must have pulled it up at the last minute so we flattened out some. It was a bloody good landing, all things considered.”
“And the others?” Stone looked around again; from his new upright vantage point he could faintly make out the outlines of the downed plane among the greenery a few meters off, and other prone figures being tended. The air was heavy with mist, making it difficult to make out features.
“They’re all right—as all right as they can be, anyway. It’s a good thing some of us have healing spells, that’s all I can say. Dr. Whittaker was banged up right proper, Ram’s got a broken arm, one of Corazón’s legs is messed up, and everyone else’s got some injury or another. Nothing too serious, though, thank God.”
Stone shook out his coat and began moving toward the plane. “Has anyone checked the radio yet? Does the plane have any sort of homing device? Flares?”
Frasier looked at him oddly. “We’ve been down less than an hour, Dr. Stone. So far it’s all we’ve been able to do to tend to the wounded and get everyone away from the plane.”
Stone nodded, not stopping. “Why away from the plane? is there danger of fire?” He had a vague memory of suggesting the move away, but he couldn’t remember why.
“No, but it’s leaking fuel. It’s so damp around here that fire’s not likely, but we figured it would be best if we got the injured away to where we could heal them and let them rest. The plane’s not much use as shelter anymore.” Frasier followed along behind Stone, matching his long strides.
They broke through a curtain of vines and Stone saw what he meant. It was a wonder that they had made it through the crash with only the two pilots as fatalities: the plane was broken into three pieces, its belly ripped open, its skin hanging in great rent chunks. Most of both wings were missing, probably sheared off by the plane’s slide along the ground during the desperate landing. The odors of fuel and ozone and smoldering plastic joined the rich living smells of the jungle.
Undaunted, Stone headed for what was left of the cockpit section and began clambering up the side. His headache, along with all the other myriad aches in his body, were momentarily forgotten.
“Dr. Stone?” Frasier called. “What are you—?”
Stone ignored him, as he ignored the burned and bleeding bodies of the plane’s pilot and co-pilot, who were hanging from their seats suspended by their shredded safety harnesses. One fairly quick look told him what he needed to know, and it wasn’t good news. “Radio’s shot,” he muttered. It didn’t look fixable either, given the fact that the entire instrument panel had been ripped loose and now dangled on blackened wires in the pilots’ laps.
“Dr. Stone?” Frasier called again.
Stone dropped back down, slipped on some vines, and fell unceremoniously to the ground. Growling, he scrambled back up using the plane for support. “Radio’s buggered,” he announced, shoving his wet hair back off his forehead in frustration.
“Can we fix it?” Peter Hsu was coming up behind Frasier. His formerly clean and pressed jungle-prep-style clothes were now muddy and covered with dried blood which might or might not have been his own. His spiked hair drooped in the dampness. He looked very tired.
Stone shook his head. “No chance. You’re welcome to take a look at it if you’re some sort of electronics genius, but—” he spread his hands to indicate he didn’t think it was going to happen. He looked back toward the other two sections of the plane as if trying to decide something, then sighed. “Come on. Let’s get back to the others. We’re going to have to decide what to do from here, and we should all be together when we do it.”
Hsu and Frasier exchanged glances, and both shrugged. At least for the moment it sounded like Stone knew what he was doing, so they followed him.
He found the others in the middle of a tiny clearing on which the place he’d awakened had apparently been the far edge. Dr. Whittaker, Ram Prakesh, and Diego Corazón lay in various areas of the clearing, while Catherine Merriwether, Gina Kane, and Gustavo Santiago knelt near them, tending their injuries. They themselves looked somewhat bloody and rather shell-shocked, but showed no signs of serious injuries. They looked up as Stone, Hsu, and Frasier came through.
“Dr. Stone!” Merriwether called. She was sitting near Dr. Whittaker, having propped his head on her pack. The professor looked pale but his eyes were open.
Stone’s eyes raked over the group, taking stock of who looked the most injured. “Has everyone been healed?”
“Not yet,” Merriwether said. “I healed Dr. Whittaker and Peter healed Ram, but it took quite a bit out of both of us. We were resting a bit before we worked on Señor Corazón.”
“I’ll take care of him,” Stone said. “Then I’ll be wanting a report on everyone’s condition. Once we know that we can go from there.”
Nobody questioned Stone’s taking over the little group, at least for the moment. He moved over to the two native guides and knelt next to Corazón. The man’s left leg was very bloody; it looked like Santiago had done his best to bandage it, but had only succeeded in stopping the immediate danger. At the moment he sat near Corazón’s side, using his hat to shoo away the cloud of insects that smelled a feast and were persistently trying to partake.
“His leg was slashed by a piece of metal,” Gustavo Santiago told Stone. “Can you help him?”
“I’m certainly going to try,” Stone murmured. “Just stay here and keep quiet so I can focus.” Without waiting for an answer he settled himself down in the damp vegetation next to the guide closed his eyes, and moved his hand over the man’s leg. His brow furrowed with concentration as he summoned up the healing spell and directed its energies at the bloody wound. He remained still and quiet for over a minute, the only sign of his effort the beads of sweat that stood out on his pale forehead. At last his shoulders slumped and he let his breath out. “There...” he whispered.
Santiago looked first at Corazón and then at Stone. “He is—?”
“Healed, for the most part,” Stone said faintly. “He’ll probably have a nasty scar, but I’ve stopped the bleeding and healed up the damage. It’s the best I can do in these conditions.”
Santiago nodded. “Thank you, señor.”
“We’re going to need everyone in the best condition we can get them,” Stone said, dragging himself back to his feet and fighting the wave of light-headedness that threatened to disrupt his equilibrium. His gaze sharpened a bit as he regarded Santiago again. “Have you got any idea where we are?”
The guide shook his head. “No, señor. I can make a few guesses, but I heard the pilots speaking just before the plane began to go down. They were blown off course by the storm, and the thunderstorm made their instruments malfunction—they could not get a signal out on the radio. When the engine failed, they simply tried to land safely without concern for location.”
“So the radio was gone before we went down,” Stone muttered. “Lovely. So here we are in the middle of bloody bugger-all and we don’t even know which way we were supposed to have been heading.” He didn’t expect an answer to that and didn’t get one, so he turned to the rest of the group. “May I have your attention, please?”
The others all looked up at him. When he swayed a bit on his feet Kevin Frasier silently got up and moved over next to him, not touching him but there if needed for support.
Stone took a deep breath and forced himself to calm—it wouldn’t do anyone any good if he gave in to his fears now. “All right,” he said briskly, hoping he sounded more convincing than he felt. “I think the first thing we need to do is take stock of our situation—where we are, who’s got what injuries, and so forth. After that we’ll need to come up with a plan of action and figure out where we need to be going.”
“Going?” Catherine Merriwether looked up, surprised. “I don’t think we should be going anywhere, Dr. Stone. We’ve got injured people here, and isn’t it best to stay with the plane, so they can find us?”
“Perhaps it is,” Stone agreed. “That’s what we need to find out. But as Señor Santiago has informed me, it’s possible that no one knows where we are. The thunderstorm that came before things began to go to hell most likely buggered the radio transmissions, and we were blown off course both by the storm and by the pilots’ attempts to land the plane safely.”
“Are you saying that nobody’s going to be looking for us?” Peter Hsu asked. His eyes showed fear.
“I’m sure someone will be looking for us when we don’t land in Iquitos,” Stone reassured him. “But depending on how far we are from there, it could take quite some time for them to find us. I think it would be best to assume that we’re on our own, at least for awhile.” He paused. “Before we crashed, I attempted to send a watcher spirit to contact a friend of mine. If nothing else, if the watcher was successful in reaching him, he will be looking for us. I am hoping, though, that the pilots were in contact with someone before the radio went dead.”
When no one answered, Stone continued. It felt strange to him to be taking charge of such an endeavor, since this was a situation more common to his life as a shadowrunner than his life as a university magic professor. In the group he normally ran with, he would have been the last choice to take the lead in a survival situation. Now, though, he could sense that most of the students were fighting off the ragged edge of panic and that something had to be done, even if it was just coordinating the efforts of those who knew more about jungle survival than he did. As the two professors involved, it naturally fell to either him or Whittaker to do something, and the parabotany professor was clearly not physically or emotionally up to the task. That left Stone.
He looked around the jungle. It was hard to tell if it was getting dark because the vegetation grew thickly over their heads, but a glance at his chrono (which was fortunately still functional) reminded him that it was late afternoon. “All right,” he said again. “Regardless if we’re moving or staying put, there are some things we need to concern ourselves with. Namely food, water, shelter, communications, injuries, available supplies, and security.” He looked around the group to see if anyone else had other ideas.
“Security?” Gina Kane asked.
Gustavo Santiago nodded. “He is right. It is not safe out here in the jungle. The danger is probably avoiding us temporarily because the disruption of the crash has frightened the predators away, but they will return.”
That elicited some fearful looks from several of the students. Although they had studied up on Amazonia and its flora and fauna before embarking on this trip, they had expected to spend their time here in a relatively controlled atmosphere, where the nastiest of the predators were kept at a distance. Low muttered conversations started up around the clearing.
“Please,” Stone called in his best lecturing-professor voice. “Your attention. We can’t afford to be fragmented now. We’ll be much safer if we have some plans in place and stick to them.” He looked around. When he saw he had their attention again, he continued: “Now. The good news is, food and water shouldn’t be a problem. One thing this place does have is both in abundance, and with two parabotany students and a professor, I’m quite confident that we can separate the harmful potential foods from the safe ones. Yes?”
Catherine Merriwether nodded. “I can already see some fruits that are safe to eat,” she said, looking up at the trees.
“Good. After we’re done here, those who aren’t injured too much will go back to the plane and retrieve what they can of everyone’s packs. I don’t know what’s still intact, but we’ll gather whatever clothing and gear we have so we can take an inventory of it all.” Unconsciously, Stone began pacing around as he spoke, just as he did when he was lecturing back at the University. He was surprised at how much survival information was coming back to him—he must have absorbed more from listening to his shadowrunning companions than he’d thought. “Does anyone have any kind of communication device? Cell phones, radios, anything?”
“The cell phones won’t work out here, Dr. Stone,” Peter Hsu said, pulling out his own and demonstrating.
“I assumed so,” Stone agreed, “but we have to check everything. What about radios?”
Gina Kane pulled a small combination radio-chip player from her waist pack. “I have this, but I don’t think it’ll be much good.”
Stone nodded. “Well, don’t run it more than necessary. Later we’ll see if we can at least pick something up. P’raps we can find out if they’re looking for us.” He paused a moment, then took a deep breath. “All right. The next thing we need to find out is what kind of magic we’ve got at our disposal. I think that’s going to be our best weapon, except for our wits, of course. Whatever we do, we can’t lose those or we’re in trouble.” Another pause. “When I call your name, I want you to tell me what spells you know that you think might be useful in this situation. I’m particularly interested in offensive spells.”
Catherine Merriwether looked shocked. “Dr. Stone—those are illegal!”
Stone nodded grimly. “We’ll discuss legality when we’re back home, Ms. Merriwether. Right now our survival might depend on being able to discourage the local wildlife from taking an interest in us.” He turned back to the group, his gaze falling on Dr. Whittaker first. “Henry?”
The spell situation wasn’t as encouraging as Stone would have liked, but it was better than he was afraid it would be. Two of the students, Hsu and Kane, had Stun spells (“for protection,” Hsu said with a slightly defensive look toward Merriwether when he revealed it) and the parabotany students both had Nutrition, which put the problem of emergency nourishment firmly to rest. Other assorted useful spells included Magic Fingers and Detect Life. By the time Stone’s inquiry reached Kevin Frasier they had a fairly good complement of useful magic in their arsenal.
“Me, I’ve got levitate, I’ve got confusion and a light spell...and I’ve got a Manabolt,” Frasier said boldly, looking Stone right in the eyes as if daring him to protest. “And a pretty good one, too.”
Not only did Stone not protest, he smiled. “Good man! I knew I could count on you.” He clapped Frasier on the shoulder. Someone else with a real offensive spell made things look even better. As he had listened to the other students reveal their magic he had been once more reminded just how broad the chasm was between his academic life and his shadowrunning life. Any shadow-mage with a spell list like any of those wouldn’t last through his first run, let alone live long enough to learn some useful magic.
Frasier grinned back. “I spent a year in Australia—there are places there that make this look like a picnic in the park. They practically make you learn something offensive or they won’t let you in.”
His explanation seemed to mollify Merriwether, who had been about to say something. She settled back into silence for a moment, then looked at Stone. “What about you, Dr. Stone?”
Stone took a deep breath. This was the moment he had been dreading. Did he reveal his impressive collection of spells—many of them both highly illegal and very deadly—and potentially put himself up for trouble when they got out of this, or did he act like a good little professor and only admit to those spells a good little professor would be likely to know? Finally, with all the students’ eyes on him, he took the middle route. “I’ve got the usual complement of useful spells. Plus enough nasty things to give the jungle beasties second thoughts about considering us for dinner.” Not giving Merriwether a chance to ask any questions, he pressed on: “One more thing: has anyone got any elementals with services left?” It was a shot in the dark, but every shot was worth it. It was getting dimmer now—soon they’d have no choice but to spend their first night here.
The students all shook their heads. Elemental summoning was a strictly regulated activity, usually permitted only under University control for purposes of study or spell research. Even if one of the students had been able to get the proper permissions to summon one in a non-laboratory setting, the cost of the summoning materials was prohibitive on a graduate student’s meager budget.
Stone nodded. “Henry?”
Dr. Whittaker shook his head. “Sorry, Alastair, but no. I hadn’t had need for one in awhile.” The parabotany professor was looking a little better now that he’d been healed: the color was coming back to his face and he was sitting up a bit more. He seemed grateful that Stone was taking charge, because it meant that he didn’t have to.
Stone sighed. “All right, no elementals, because I haven’t any either.” He found himself wishing that the trip had included at least one shaman—with their very useful ability to summon nature spirits wherever they happened to be, one would have been a welcome addition to the group—but there was no point in worrying about that now.
Stone looked around and saw Ram Prakesh trying to get his attention. The student was also sitting up now, cradling his healed but still painful arm in his lap. “Yes, Mr. Prakesh?”
“You said that you summoned a watcher as the plane was going down. Could you summon another one? Or one of us could?”
“Or someone could astrally project?” Gina Kane added. “Get out of here and find someone to help us?”
Stone leaned back against one of the trees, feeling his fatigue begin to catch up with him again as his initial adrenaline rush began to fade. “It’s a possibility,” he admitted, “but not one I’d be quick to try this early.” He looked around at the group. “How many of you have ever been to Amazonia before?”
None of them raised their hands, not even Dr. Whittaker.
“Well, I have, and one thing I can tell you about this place is that magic is buggered up here. Sometimes, depending on where you are, spells and spirits can turn out quite differently than you expected. Sometimes they don’t work at all, and sometimes they’re more or less powerful than you intended—occasionally significantly so. Add to that the fact that the astral plane in this area is far more alive than any place I’ve ever visited with the exception of the Dunkelzahn mana rift and what you end up with is that that sort of thing is far from safe here. You’ve probably read about all this, but believe me, if you haven’t actually experienced it you don’t know how disquieting it can be. If it comes down to a life-or-death situation I’ll attempt a projection, but I don’t think we’re there yet.” He looked around, challenging anyone to argue with him. No one did.
Stone let out his breath slowly. “All right, then. It’s getting dark, and regardless of whether we’re going to stay here until someone finds us, we’re going to have to stay here tonight.” He looked around at the group again. “We’ll need to retrieve our gear from the plane, and I need a couple of people to remain here with Dr. Whittaker and Señor Corazón. Preferably someone with an offensive spell. Volunteers?”
In the end it was decided that Gina Kane and Gustavo Santiago would remain with the injured while the others trekked back and forth to the plane and dragged any salvageable gear back. Santiago called Stone aside. “Señor, if I am to stay, can you retrieve my rifle if you can locate it? I have the ammunition here in my pack. Even with all of your group’s magic, it will be useful to have a weapon.”
Stone promised to look for it, nodding to Santiago and rejoining the group.
At that moment, Catherine Merriwether called to him: “Dr. Stone?”
“What about the pilots? We can’t just leave them there.”
Stone hesitated. He hadn’t thought about that. “It will have to wait until morning,” he said at last. “The light’s going, and it’s more important that we get our gear together while we can—since we haven’t any guarantee that it’ll be there in the morning. Tomorrow morning we’ll—come up with something. All right?”
Merriwether didn’t look satisfied, but she realized that Stone was right. She nodded reluctantly and moved off.
Stone followed her toward the plane. In truth he didn’t like the idea of leaving the pilots’ bodies unburied either, and not only because it would be disrespectful to the memories of the men who had saved their lives. Dead bodies attracted nasty scavengers, and that plane was too close to their campsite for Stone’s liking. It couldn’t be helped, though. He hoped there would still be something left to bury in the morning. Smacking at the persistent insects that buzzed around his face, he continued on.
The others had already reached the plane by the time he arrived, and were busily moving among the ruined seats and bits of wreckage. There was a small pile of bags and other gear already gathered in a burned spot a couple of meters from the largest chunk of the plane; Stone recognized his own laptop bag in the pile. Immediately he set about joining the search.
He knew they were going to be in trouble, gear-wise. They had not brought with them any survival and camping gear, communication equipment, or provisions. The plan had been to pick all that up in Iquitos, where it was waiting for them, and then load it up in the group’s chartered boat for transport out to the study site. Even the site itself, while primitive by the standards most of these students were used to, was still a far sight more civilized than the middle of the Amazonian jungle. It had been set up for just this purpose and was used by various university groups as a base for studies just like this one, and was equipped with small huts, a firepit, and other primitive amenities. The decision to not load themselves down with gear on the plane had been a sound one—of course no one had expected the plane to crash. Now, though, that meant that they were in for some tough times.
Stone tossed another singed backpack into the pile and shoved his hair back off his forehead again. They had only the clothes they were wearing and a few extras in the form of sweaters and other layering items, plus whatever the students and the guides had seen fit to bring. He had already seen two bottles of sunblock—that would help. Both guides had carried large and well-stocked packs, and Kevin Frasier’s had been almost as big, but those would only be useful if they could be located. The wreckage was not spread across a large area but even a relatively small one could be difficult to search in this land of crawling vines and fast-growing ivy and cloying, sweet-scented flowers.
As they continued their search in the quickly ebbing daylight, the sounds of the jungle night began to rise. The cries of birds and the skittering of small creatures gave way to the far-off screams of predators and the rustling high in the trees of unseen dangers. Stone grimly tossed another pack in the pile and glanced at the students. They huddled closer together, looking around nervously every time one of the sounds split the low-grade rumble of normal jungle life. With another look up at the sky he made a decision. “Come on,” he said briskly. “Let’s pick up what we’ve got and get it back to the others. We don’t want to be separated after dark.”
“But I haven’t found my bag yet, Dr. Stone,” Catherine Merriwether protested. “I’ve got food, water, my datapad—”
“In the morning, Ms. Merriwether,” Stone said. “I’m telling you, it’s not safe out here at night.” He noted that the group had managed to discover Santiago’s pack (with his rifle hooked through one of its many straps) and Frasier’s as well, though they had not yet found Corazón’s.
“It’s not quite dark yet,” she protested. “Don’t worry—I’ll just be a moment. Just one last look.” She turned without waiting for an answer and headed back toward the plane.
Stone sighed, his gaze darting back and forth between the rest of the group—all of whom were following his instructions and picking up gear—to the retreating form of the parabotany student.
“She’s like that,” came an apologetic voice from behind him. He turned to see Ram Prakesh standing there, holding two packs over his good shoulder. His broken arm was held in a makeshift sling made from a tied-up sweater. “She does what she wants.”
Stone sighed. “Yes, I’m beginning to see that. Go on back with the others—I’ll go after her.”
“Do you want me to come with you?” Prakesh looked like he would much rather be following Stone’s advice, but he forced himself not to look nervous.
“No—go on, before they get too far away. I meant it when I said no one should be alone out here. I’ll find her and bring her back.”
Prakesh nodded. “Okay. I’ll tell the others. If you’re not back in ten minutes we’re coming after you.” He grabbed another pack from the nearly-empty pile and headed off.
Stone didn’t watch him go. He could no longer hear the sound of Merriwether’s footsteps over the calls of the birds and insects and the rustling of the vegetation. “Bother...” he muttered to himself, and started after her. She was going to get an earful when he caught up with her—he wasn’t crazy about being alone out here himself, even despite his collection of offensive magic. Having to chase after a stubborn student who should have known better was—
He only got a few steps closer when he heard the scream. Instantly he processed it as female and ahead of him. “Merriwether!” he called, already moving. He didn’t even notice his boosted reflexes kicking in, allowing him to run more than twice the speed of a normal person. Shifting his cybereyes to thermographic mode without a thought, he scanned the area for a heat signature. “Merriwether, where are you? What is it?”
The scream came again, inarticulate and high-pitched. Stone broke through the vegetation and skidded to a stop, eyes widening.
Catherine Merriwether was in the middle of the clearing, thrashing and screaming and tearing at something around her neck. Stone could see her panicked expression as her hands snatched at the thing. “Get it off me!” she screamed. She dropped to her knees and continued to thrash and grab.
Stone moved in swiftly. “Hold still, Merriwether!” he snapped at her, but she wasn’t hearing him. The rather impressively-sized boa constrictor that had wrapped itself around what it no doubt thought was a nice warm meal had sufficiently freaked her out that any kind of reasonable voice was the last thing she was going to listen to.
“Get it off! It’s choking me!” She slapped at it, grabbing hold of its tail and trying to fling it off; however, the snake was far too strong and tenacious for that.
In an instant Stone was next to her, gathering the energies for a spell. He clamped his hand around one of the snake’s coils and released the energy, nodding in satisfaction as the creature went rigid and then limp, then slid harmlessly from around Merriwether’s neck. She slumped, coughing and sputtering, clutching her neck. “Oh—Dr. Stone—it was—”
“You’re all right,” Stone said rather curtly, hauling her up to her feet. “Come on, Merriwether—let’s get back to camp, shall we? P’raps now you’ll believe me about being out here alone, yes?”
For a moment the woman looked indignant, but when she paused to think about what had happened, she nodded. “Yeah,” she breathed, still rubbing at her neck with both hands. “Yeah—I guess I do.” She met his eyes. “Thanks.”
“We’ll need to stick together and look out for each other if we’re to get out of here with our hides intact,” Stone told her. He didn’t have time to say anything else because at that moment Ram Prakesh burst through the trees, followed by Kevin Frasier.
“What’s happened?” Prakesh demanded. “We heard a scream—”
“Everything’s—okay,” Merriwether got out between breaths. “I was—an idiot—I’m okay now.”
Frasier was eyeing the snake, then looked at Stone. He raised a questioning eyebrow, and Stone nodded. Frasier nodded back in understanding. “Come on,” he said, “Let’s get back to the others. They’re going through the packs.” With him on one side and Prakesh on the other, they led Merriwether back toward the campsite.
Stone followed behind, breathing a little hard. One good thing: the arrival of the other two students had prevented Merriwether from asking him what spell he’d used. He didn’t think she would have approved of something called ‘Death Touch,’ even if it had been used to save her life.
Back at the camp, the other students were settling in as best they could. The packs had been claimed by their owners, who were now busily rifling through them looking for useful items. As Stone and the others came through the trees they all looked up, relieved that their wayward group members had made it safely back. Catherine Merriwether slumped down near some of the others and was silent. Nobody bothered her.
“Looks like we’ve found quite a number of our packs,” Stone said approvingly, looking around. Only two students, Merriwether and Peter Hsu, weren’t currently going through one. “Before the light goes completely, let’s see to two things—Señor Santiago, can you see about setting up a fire? I don’t know the first thing about doing that in these kind of damp conditions, and I doubt any of the rest of us do either.” He looked questioningly at Frasier as he said this—he was beginning to rely on the Parazoology student as someone with level head and a good-sized store of useful knowledge.
“I’ll help,” Frasier said, nodding and getting up. He and Santiago moved off.
“As for the rest of us,” Stone continued, “let’s get an inventory of what we’ve got in our bags.” He pointed to various spots in the center of the campsite as he spoke. “Food and water there, medical supplies and things like sunblock and insect repellent there, electronics over there. Also maps, guidebooks—anything else you have that you think might be useful, put over here. Let’s see what we’ve got to work with.”
By the time everyone had complied with Stone’s request, Santiago and Frasier had managed to start a little fire. Everyone surveyed the piles of gear, realizing that it wasn’t going to keep them going for very long out here in the middle of nowhere. From the students’ packs they had a small pile of energy bars, three bottles of water, two mini first-aid kits, four tubes of sunblock, three bottles of insect repellent, and five packs of water-purification tablets, Kane’s radio and Hsu’s, Stone’s, and Whitaker’s cell phones, four pocket secretaries including one with an Amazonia guidebook loaded on it, various light sweaters, jackets, and other assorted clothing, three flashlights with one set of spare batteries, and three laptop computers, of which only one was functioning properly. When Frasier and Santiago finished with the fire they opened their own packs, adding, between them, two lightweight thermal blankets, Santiago’s rifle and two boxes of ammunition (both of which the guide refused to surrender—Stone wasn’t surprised), some more food bars and water, a heftier first-aid kit, a sleeping bag, a small mess kit, and two pairs of leather gloves.
“Well,” Stone said, “we’ve got what we’ve got, and we’ll need to make the best of it.” He looked around. It was fully dark now, the blackness seeming to press in on them, testing the power of their small fire to keep it at bay. With all the vegetation around them it was an oppressive feeling—even the sky was mostly obscured by overhanging branches and vines. “I realize it won’t be easy, but we’d best try to sleep if we can. Tomorrow will be a long day.” Pausing a moment, he considered the group. “There are nine of us, so that means six can sleep while three remain awake for watches. We’ll take two and a half hours each, and each watch should have at least one person with offensive magic.” He paused again. “Let’s see—I’ll take the first watch along with Mr. Prakesh and Ms. Kane. Second watch will be Mr. Frasier, Señor Corazón, and Ms. Merriwether. Third will be Professor Whittaker, Señor Santiago, and Mr. Hsu. Is that acceptable to everyone?”
There was a general murmur of agreement, and then Peter Hsu spoke up. “Dr. Stone?”
Hsu sounded a bit hesitant. “Uh—what exactly do we do on watch?”
Stone was silent for a moment as the reality of the situation caught up with him once more. He was treating these people like shadowrunners, falling into the familiar patterns he had followed with his team when they were forced to spend nights in dangerous territory. These people weren’t his team, though—most of them were graduate students whose idea of roughing it was spending holidays in youth hostels. He sighed. “Sorry, I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. Don’t stray too far from the camp—just keep your eyes and ears open for anything out of the ordinary, and if it seems dangerous, wake the rest of us up.” He smiled wryly. “I realize everything around here seems dangerous, but we should be all right with the fire.”
“Make sure you keep it going,” Frasier added, nodding toward the small pile of extra firewood next to the blaze.
“And stay within sight of each other,” Stone said firmly. “I don’t want to frighten you unduly, but there are dangers here, and they can strike quietly and without notice. We should be able to handle most of it if we keep our heads and watch out for each other, but wandering off alone is madness here.” His gaze fell briefly on Merriwether as he said this.
“Damn straight,” she added with feeling, rubbing her neck.
The next few minutes were spent with the six group members who weren’t on first watch arranging themselves around the campfire and trying to make maximum use of their single sleeping bag and two thermal blankets. Fortunately it was not cold even at night, so they opted to use the blankets as ground cover and bundle up as necessary in their spare clothing. With backpacks to use as pillows, it was still uncomfortable but not as bad as it could have been.
When everyone had settled in, Stone motioned Gina Kane and Ram Prakesh a short distance from the camp so they could converse without disturbing the others. Around them, the sounds of the jungle seemed to grow louder—insects cricked and skittered, night birds cried out, and the wildcat scream they had heard earlier sounded again from a different direction. Kane looked around nervously. “We won’t have to deal with whatever that is, will we?”
“Probably not,” Stone said. “Sounds like a jaguar. I doubt it would attack a group this large.”
“You doubt,” Prakesh said. He looked even more nervous than Kane did, but visibly forced himself to calm. “Okay, so what do we do?”
Stone considered. “Let’s just keep moving around the perimeter of the campsite. Just the sound of movement might be enough to keep most things away. You can sit down for a bit if you get tired, but don’t get too comfortable and fall asleep. And don’t ever wander out of the circle of the light.”
There was a long pause. “What if we have to—?” Prakesh began, a little embarrassed.
“Use the facilities?” At Prakesh’s nod, Stone again paused to think. “When that happens, we’ll establish a latrine area a little distance out. The price of privacy is that you’ll need to let us know you’re all right every few seconds. If we don’t hear back, we’ll come after you, so best not to forget.”
Kane smiled, but turned serious again. “And no astral reconnaissance, right? Not even perception?”
“Perception should be all right—just don’t project and don’t summon anything unless it’s life or death. I’m sure you’ve felt the strangeness around here. It’s about a hundred times worse on the astral.”
Prakesh and Kane nodded, and the three of them set off on their patrols. Inside the camp, the restless movement of the other six gradually gave way to soft breathing as one by one they dropped off to sleep, their exhaustion finally triumphing over their fear of the unknown.
Alone at last with his thoughts, Stone sighed softly and considered their options. He wondered if his hastily-summoned watcher had made it to Ocelot with its panicked message, and if Ocelot was even in any position to do anything about it if it had. He wondered too if he shouldn’t have tried sending one to Gabriel as well—the dragon would definitely be better equipped to deal with the situation and would doubtless do everything he could to do so, but the likelihood of a simple watcher being able to locate him was remote. No, Ocelot was the better choice—if he had gotten the message.
He hadn’t heard any other planes overhead, which probably meant that no one else knew they had gone down. Sure, there would be inquiries when the plane hadn’t arrived at its destination on time, but such inquiries in this part of the world could move exceedingly slowly. Best to assume no one is looking for us and that we’re on our own, he thought. If that turns out not to be true, then all the better for us.
They would have to try to get out of here tomorrow. They could not simply remain with the plane. Stone knew how fast vegetation grew in Amazonia: he suspected that by this time tomorrow the plane would be completely covered and nearly untraceable from above by any but the most sophisticated equipment. If even that. This place played bloody hell with our GPSs last time. Further, he knew that even powerful mages would have a nearly impossible time finding them in the midst of the Amazonian jungle, which was more potently alive than almost any other area in the world. The aura produced by all the magically active flora and fauna here would effectively block out the relatively tiny auras of nine individual people, even if seven of them were magically active themselves.
No, they would have to take charge of their own fates if they had any hopes to get out of here alive. Stone closed his eyes for a moment, suddenly overwhelmed by the situation. Here he was with six graduate students who between them had three offensive spells and (except for Frasier) no combat experience, one timid professor whose significant experience was wholly in a classroom setting, and two guides who probably had combat experience but none with the sorts of things they were likely to have to deal with before they got out of here. Could he lead them? His natural leadership abilities were strong, but not in this sort of situation. His area of expertise was largely of the civilized world—he happily left the survival matters to his more skilled friends. Would he be able to take what he’d learned and lead these people to safety, or would he make a mistake and get them all killed?
“Dr. Stone?” A soft voice spoke near him, breaking into his thoughts. He looked up to see Kevin Frasier standing there, watching him worriedly. “Are you all right?”
Stone nodded wearily. “Yes, yes. Just—thinking.” He glanced at his chrono—fifteen more minutes remained in the first watch. “Shouldn’t you be asleep?”
“It was about time to relieve you. I woke up a bit early so I thought I’d give you some more time to sleep. I’m not really tired.”
Stone shook his head. “Nor am I. Why don’t you tell Señor Corazón to get some more rest—he can use it with that injured leg. I’ll take another watch.”
“Are you sure? That was no small bump on the head you got today. You should rest too.”
“It was nothing—I don’t even feel it anymore.” That wasn’t entirely true—he still had a slight lingering headache—but it was mostly so. “I think I’d rather stay awake awhile.”
Frasier regarded him silently for a moment. “You’re worried, aren’t you?”
Stone cocked a questioning eyebrow at him.
Frasier shrugged, motioning around the clearing. “About this. About us. About getting out of here alive.”
“Yeah. Of course. That’s why you should rest—you’re one of our strongest weapons. Without you, I wouldn’t put our chances at nearly as high.” He paused a moment, watching as Prakesh and Kane stopped to exchange a few whispered words before crossing and continuing their rounds. “Do you mind if I ask you something, Dr. Stone?”
Stone shrugged. “Go on.”
Frasier didn’t answer for a few seconds as if considering how to phrase his question. When he spoke, his voice was very soft so as not to carry to anyone else. “You’re—not just an Applied Thaumaturgy professor, are you?”
“What makes you say that?” Stone kept his expression neutral.
“Not sure exactly. Mostly the way you kept your head through this whole thing—how easily you took over, as if you’ve done this sort of thing before. And the spell.”
“Which spell is that?”
“The one you used to save Merriwether. I’d bet a year’s money that it wasn’t on the legally approved list.”
This time it was Stone’s turn to be silent for a long time. “What would you say if it were true?” he asked at last.
“I’d say I’m glad,” Frasier said seriously. “I think we’re going to need it to get out of here. If there’s anything I can do to help, just let me know.”
Stone nodded. “All right, then—yes, it’s true. But if you don’t mind, I’d rather not elaborate, and I’d rather it went no further than you. If we do manage to get out of here with our skins in one piece, I don’t want to deal with the consequences.”
“Didn’t hear a word,” Frasier said, but his voice held more than a bit of relief. “Not a word at all. I’ll go tell Corazón he’s got a couple more hours of sleep.”
Stone watched him go, wondering if he’d done the right thing by owning up to his extracurricular activities. It was too late to take it back now regardless—but on reflection he didn’t want to. It made him feel a bit better to have someone else around who might be able to handle this situation, and he realized having similar knowledge probably made Frasier feel better as well.
He just hoped that Ocelot had gotten the message. He didn’t like their chances at all if nobody was looking for them. Despite Frasier’s (possibly misguided) confidence in him and the presence of their two guides, he wouldn’t want to stake all their lives on his skills if anything went really wrong.
Copyright ©2003-2004 R. King-Nitschke. The Shadowrun universe is the property of WizKids.
No part of this story may be reproduced without permission from the author.