Stone was the first to react. “Everyone stay where you are,” he ordered. “Corazón, Santiago—cover me.”
The two guides nodded grimly and adjusted the aim of their rifles as Stone moved with caution from behind his cover. He kept low, covering the distance in quick steps, and dropped down next to their visitor. “He’s not dead,” he announced after a moment. “But he’s in bad shape. Best if you all keep an eye out for anything approaching while I heal him up.”
Some of the others emerged from their cover; those who remained hidden watched from their posts. Kevin Frasier came over to stand near Stone as he wove his healing spell. Several tense moments passed, then Stone nodded. “There,” he said. “That should take care of him, at least enough so he’s not in danger of dying. It looks like he’s taken quite a few injuries, not all of them recent.”
When it became reasonably apparent after several more minutes that no one was hot on their guest’s tail, the rest of the party finally ventured from behind the trees. Gina Kane and Frasier helped Stone lay the injured man out next to the fire and make him comfortable while the others finished cleaning up the evening meal, stowing the remainder of the meat, and burying the refuse. When the work was done and the fire was burning cheerfully, everyone sat down around it and tried to settle in. It wasn’t easy—they were all nervous, and now it wasn’t just about the local flora and fauna.
“I wonder who he is,” Peter Hsu said, examining the sleeping man from across the fire.
“He looks local,” Ram Prakesh said. “I mean—like he’s from this area, not a tourist.”
“Dressed like a local too,” Kevin Frasier added.
“But what could have happened to him?” Gina Kane asked. “People don’t just go wandering around this jungle without a reason, especially not alone. I wonder if he was running from some animal, or—” She let it trail off, but everyone there knew what she would have said: —or if people were chasing him.
“There aren’t too many nasty creatures out here that couldn’t outrun a human,” Stone said, sounding grim. “And certainly not one in as bad a shape as this poor chap is.”
Everyone looked around nervously again. “So—” Catherine Merriwether said, spacing her words with care, “—you’re saying that you don’t think it was an animal that was chasing him.”
Stone shrugged. “I don’t have any idea. And don’t forget—if he was being pursued by people, those people might prove to be our salvation. We know nothing about this man. He could be an escaped prisoner, for all the information we have. I suggest we wait until he awakens, and then perhaps we can get some answers from him. If the authorities are after him, I’m sure we could prevail upon them to see us back to civilization before they take custody.”
The others exchanged glances and slow nods; that thought hadn’t occurred to them, but they knew better than to hope at this early point.
Nobody let the unconscious man out of their sight for more than a few seconds as they finished getting their camp ready. They were setting watches and preparing for sleep when the man stirred. “He’s waking up,” Prakesh, who had been watching him at that moment, announced.
Everyone crowded around, but Merriwether waved them off. “Give him some air,” she told them. “How’s he going to feel if he wakes up with the whole lot of us staring down at him?”
In the end Stone, Merriwether, and Santiago remained next to the man while the others moved a little distance off and waited. It wasn’t long before he opened his eyes. In the space of seconds they went from unfocused to terrified. He struggled, trying to get to his feet and muttering something in Spanish.
Santiago pushed him back down and replied, also in Spanish. Stone, who didn’t speak the language, felt suddenly out of his depth. “What’s he saying?”
It was Merriwether who answered. “He’s afraid about something. He’s not very coherent yet.”
Santiago continued speaking softly to the man, who appeared to be slowly calming down. After a few moments the guide looked up, his expression grim. “He says he is being pursued by men with strange guns. He does not know who they were. He says he was taken from the streets of Iquitos—knocked unconscious with some sort of stun weapon. When he awakened he was in a cell.”
Stone considered that. “Does he have any idea where he was? Or anything about these men?” Around him, he could sense the others looking around nervously again. If the man was telling the truth there was a good reason to do so. Before Santiago could relay his words, he added, “And ask him what he means by ‘strange guns’.”
“I haven’t heard any gunshots since we got here,” Whittaker said. “Wouldn’t a sound like that carry fairly well out here?”
“Not necessarily, señor,” Corazón said from behind Santiago.”The jungle can play tricks with sounds.”
Santiago was speaking to the man again. He waited for answers, then looked up at Stone. “He says he does not know where he was—he lost track of direction as he ran. Also, he was taken from the place where they were holding him, blindfolded, and left in the jungle.”
“Why on earth would they do that?” Whittaker sounded surprised and scared. “Anyone who knows Amazonia knows that leaving an unprepared man out here is signing his death warrant.”
“Ask him about the men, and the guns,” Stone said, cutting him off. His gaze had sharpened on Santiago’s face—he was beginning to get a very bad feeling about this.
The guide did as requested. “He says again that he does not know who the men were. There were some who might have been natives of the area, and others who were Anglos. They wore some sort of uniform, but he did not see any insignia or logos on it.”
“And the guns? Why were they ‘strange’?”
Santiago shook his head. “He can say no more—he only saw one of them for a moment, but he said it did not look like a normal gun, and it did not fire normal ammunition. He says he was released with one other man, and that man was killed by this weapon.”
There was a low murmur of voices from the group hanging back, but Stone ignored it. He glanced over at Frasier and saw that he was looking thoughtful as well. “You say they were held somewhere out here in the jungle? Was it a permanent building, or some sort of camp?”
Santiago consulted the man again. Their guest was becoming more aware now, and thus more wary. “He says it was a permanent building. Not tents.” There was a pause where the man said something else, then Santiago smiled a little. “He asks if he might have something to eat. It was the smell of the deer cooking that led him to us.”
Behind them, some of the students hurried to get some of the meat from storage and deliver it, along with an assortment of fruit, into the man’s hands. He sat up slowly and ate with gusto, concentrating mainly on the meat. Stone noticed that every few seconds his eyes came up to glance around the clearing, as if he were waiting for something.
While the man ate, Stone motioned for Frasier to accompany him a few meters off, out of earshot. “I don’t like the sound of this,” he murmured.
Frasier shook his head. “No, I don’t either. Do you think he’s being purposely evasive? I didn’t see anything but fear in his aura.”
“Terror, I’d say,” Stone agreed. “Whatever was chasing him out there, it’s got him so scared he’s willing to risk running right into the middle of a large group of strangers to get away from it. The question is: is whatever’s following him dangerous to us?”
“I don’t suppose you’ve any idea what they mean by ‘strange guns,’ do you?”
“No. Not without a better explanation. If this man is a peasant, even a high-tech assault rifle could look strange to him, if he’s never seen one before. But even if that’s so, if the pursuers are hostile then any sort of gun isn’t good—we’ve no armor and a group of untrained people, any of whom might panic if someone starts shooting.”
Frasier considered. “It’s not for me to decide, but if it was, I’d say let’s move. Now. Even though it’s dark, I’m not sure I’d be comfortable camping here. He wasn’t making any effort to hide, which means he might have led them straight to us. I’d rather have a look at them before they get one at us, if that’s possible.”
Stone was nodding along approvingly. In another life, he was thinking, the parazoology student might have the makings of a decent shadowrunner. “I agree,” he said. “I just don’t know how well it’ll go over, asking everyone to move now after they’ve settled in.”
“Just remind them of what might happen if we stay,” Frasier said. “The prospect of getting shot at should be enough to rouse them.”
Stone nodded and moved back over to the rest of the group, some of whom were still clustered around the newcomer and the rest of whom were prowling the perimeter of the campsite. After a quick consultation with Santiago and Corazón to verify that they were in agreement, he turned to the group at large and called, “May I have your attention, please?” He didn’t have to raise his voice much—what conversation there was came out in low murmurs. When everyone was looking at him, he continued: “In light of what’s just occurred and the fact that we might be in danger if we remain here, I believe it would be in our best interests to move our camp.”
Most of the watchers looked astonished. “Now?” Dr. Whittaker demanded, eyes wide. “We’ve just settled in—”
Other voices added to the hubbub:
“—what about the fire—”
“—but it’s not safe to—”
Stone raised both hands to silence the objections. It took several seconds before they died down. “Listen,” he said patiently. “Señor Santiago and Señor Corazón agree with me, as does Mr. Frasier. We are paying for our guides’ expertise, and although this isn’t the sort of thing we were expecting, I trust their judgment and share it. If our guest has someone nasty on his trail, I’d prefer not to have him lead them straight to us.”
“We’re not going to leave him here, are we?” Merriwether protested, glancing at the man. He appeared not to be understanding anything they said in English.
Stone shook his head. “Of course not. We’ll take him along. We—” He paused, thinking. “Mr. Frasier, would you mind checking our friend’s clothing? Let me know if you locate any sort of small device—it might be sewn into a hem, or perhaps disguised as a button that doesn’t look quite like the others.”
Frasier seemed to get his meaning immediately, but the others looked at him blankly. “What are you looking for?” Peter Hsu asked.
“Tracking device,” Stone told him. “If this man was set free to be hunted by someone, they might not be playing quite sporting about it.”
They all stared at him like he had just sprouted wings. He sighed. More things to explain when we get back. University professors aren’t supposed to think of things like that. He couldn’t worry about that now, though—if Rodney wanted to sack him for this, that would just have to be the way it was. Right now they needed to survive, and leading men with guns into their midst because they didn’t think to check for the obvious wouldn’t be the best way to do that.
“I don’t find anything, Dr. Stone,” Frasier announced. “Of course, it could be very well hidden, but nothing too obvious.”
Stone moved over next to the man, who was still eating but looking at them with a mixture of fear and suspicion. “Señor Santiago, can you please find out this man’s name?”
Santiago nodded and spoke in Spanish. The man answered instantly: “Gilberto Juarez.”
Stone addressed Santiago again. “Would you please tell Señor Juarez that I’m going to scan him magically, and that it won’t cause him any discomfort?”
The guide relayed the message. Juarez looked nervously at Stone, but nodded. “Is it safe to assense here?” Gina Kane asked.
“I won’t be doing it for long,” Stone said. “Just a few seconds, to make sure they haven’t implanted anything subcutaneously without his knowledge.” He looked up and gave her a crooked smile. “If I start twitching or anything, smack me a good one in the head. That should do it.”
She chuckled as the tension was broken. “It’s not every day you get to smack your professor without flunking. I’ll keep that in mind.”
Stone grinned. “Can the rest of you please start striking the camp and putting out the fire? I’d like to be ready to go as soon as possible.”
There was a moment’s pause, but then most of the group moved off to do as he asked.
The assensing did only take a few seconds and went off without incident. “Nothing,” Stone said, sounding relieved. “Apparently whoever is pursuing Señor Juarez has at least some sense of fair play.”
“I don’t know if that’s a relief or not,” Frasier said. He had been scanning the perimeter the whole time. “Seems to me like if they were still chasing him we’d have seen them by now, don’t you think?”
Stone shrugged. “Who knows? There’s always the possibility that our friend is delusional, or making the whole thing up. His aura seems truthful, but with delusions you can never tell—they believe they’re telling the truth, and that’s hard to spot.”
“I’m still glad we’re moving. Delusions or no, we won’t last long against armed opponents unless we see them first.”
With almost everyone else helping it didn’t take long before the camp was struck and the fire was out. The people with flashlights had them out but hadn’t turned them on yet. “All right,” Stone called. “Let’s get moving.” He wished that Juarez knew more about where the mysterious installation was located so he would know they wouldn’t be walking right into it, but it couldn’t be helped. “I’m going to take point, along with Mr. Corazón—the two of us won’t need the flashlights. The rest of you—”
“I don’t need a flashlight either,” Peter Hsu said. He sounded almost reluctant. “Do you want me up there with you?”
“Do you want to be?” Stone asked him.
“Would it help?”
Stone shrugged. “Having someone else to spot potential threats couldn’t hurt. It’s up to you.” He could tell Hsu was scared but willing to do what was necessary.
The elf considered for a moment, then nodded and moved over toward Stone.
“As for the rest of you,” Stone went on, “form a group. Those who don’t have flashlights, hook up with those who do. Mr. Frasier, will you lead the second group? And Señor Santiago, perhaps you could take up the rear with your rifle?”
Santiago nodded, making Stone feel like he might have made the right decision.
“Let’s try to keep it quiet,” Frasier said. “We aren’t going to be able to hide the flashlights, but if we keep our voices down we should be all right.”
“Are we going the same direction as before?” Ram Prakesh asked. “We still don’t know if it’s right—”
“Same direction,” Stone said firmly. “Unless Señor Juarez here has any ideas.” He looked questioningly at Corazón, who relayed his words in Spanish to their guest.
Juarez thought a moment and shook his head, looking rueful. “He says he is lost,” Corazón told them. “Between being unconscious when they brought him here and being blindfolded when they released him, his sense of direction is confused. He apologizes.”
Stone waved him off. “Tell him it’s not a problem. I didn’t expect any help, but it couldn’t hurt to ask. All right, then: let’s go. We’ll travel for an hour or two, and after that we’ll look for another campsite. With luck we should be able to settle down again before midnight.”
Everyone looked relieved at that; some of them had been wondering if Stone intended to have them walk all night.
They set off. It was eerie and more than a little frightening walking in the darkness: the flashlights illuminated the mist that floated ominously over the ground, and the sounds seemed to be louder. Stone, Corazón, and Hsu separated themselves from the rest of the group by a few meters, and Stone noticed that the ork guide held his rifle in a ready position at all times, his gaze darting constantly left, right, up, and down. Off to the side of their path they heard rustlings much louder and closer than those they had encountered during the day—at one point, Stone was sure he heard something large padding along parallel to them, only a few meters away but invisible through the thick jungle. He glanced at Corazón and saw that he had heard it too and was looking very frightened. “Jaguar?” he mouthed.
Corazón nodded. “Almost certainly,” he whispered back, tightening his grip on the rifle.
“Almost certainly what?” Peter Hsu asked. His voice shook a little.
Stone shook his head. “Heard something out there—he was confirming it’s an animal, not a person.” He didn’t see any point in frightening the already jittery student by revealing the true nature of their follower. Although more than a little fearful himself, he was confident that if the jaguar attacked their group could handle it, but he didn’t think it would attack such a large assemblage.
He was right. After about fifteen minutes more, the padding sound receded into the jungle. A moment later there was a loud growling roar and the sound of vegetation being pushed aside. Both sounds faded into the distance. “What was that?” came a frightened voice from the second group, loud enough for the first group to hear. That was followed by a sharp “shhh!” and a few seconds of silence before they resumed walking.
Stone’s nerves were on edge. Despite the fact that the jaguar had probably not been a threat, he couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something out there, something dangerous. He glanced over at his companions: Corazón looked resolute and alert, moving nimbly over the carpet of damp vines. Hsu hung back, and Stone could tell the sweat on his forehead was not entirely the result of the humidity. “Mr. Hsu, do you want to go back with the other group?” he asked calmly. “I think Señor Corazón and I can handle things up here if you’d feel more comfortable—”
Hsu shook his head quickly. “I don’t—”
A high-pitched whine split the air. Corazón screamed and dropped to the ground. He writhed for a moment and then lay still.
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.