“Bugger!” Stone snapped. Then, louder: “Down!” When Peter Hsu merely stood, frozen in fear, Stone lunged at him and dragged him down. Another high-pitched whine signaled something zooming by above them.

Hsu’s eyes were wide. “What—?”

“Come on!” Stone hissed, shoving him back toward the second group. He was breathing hard, adrenaline coursing through his body. He didn’t know what had taken Corazón down, but he knew from the sound that it wasn’t an animal. All he could hope was that whoever had spotted them hadn’t seen the second group yet. He took a deep breath and made a fast decision. “Hsu,” he whispered, “Get back to the other group and tell them to get down and stay quiet. Hurry.”

The elf was almost in a panic. “What are you going to—”

“Do it!” Stone ordered. “And stay down yourself. Go!” He was amazed at how easily he had shifted from professor to shadowrunner—Alastair Stone would observe propriety. Winterhawk would not—not if it meant risking somebody’s life. He gave Hsu a hard shove and moved away from him.

He didn’t know what the hell he was planning, which was part of the reason he wanted to get away from the rest of the group. All he knew was that, of all of them, he had probably the best chance of dealing with the threat—that was, if he didn’t do something stupid and get himself killed. Corazón was probably dead. Santiago had his rifle and his jungle survival skills, but no armor and probably minimal combat skills. Frasier—he had common sense and leadership ability, but Stone doubted he’d dealt with this kind of situation before. He sighed. What he wouldn’t have given for even one of his teammates right now: Ocelot, ‘Wraith, or Joe. Or Kestrel. He smiled grimly to himself as he visualized a spell formula and faded into invisibility, thinking, Or Gabriel, as long as I’m indulging in flights of fancy. He’d make short work of whatever this is.

But none of them were here. Just him. He hoped the group wouldn’t panic at Hsu’s words and run in different directions into the jungle—if that happened, they were likely all dead. And that was assuming that Hsu himself hadn’t panicked before he even got to them.

He crept as silently as possible through the trees and vines, hoping that whoever had shot Corazón was either alone or part of a very small group—and that the group didn’t have any magic on their side. Right now that was the only advantage his side had, and he hoped they could keep it.

He froze as he heard a rustle nearby, followed by the low sound of voices. Stone quickly put a tree between himself and the sound (better safe than sorry: even if they didn’t have magic, they might have ultrasound targeting devices) and listened. His eyes widened as he realized they were speaking English! He couldn’t make out everything they were saying; he was trying to decide whether to risk a claraudience spell when the voices rose a little. He held his breath: they were coming toward him.

“—don’t see him,” one was saying. “I’m sure I hit him.”

“Don’t worry about it,” the other said. “This place’ll eat him up by tomorrow morning. Nothing but a few bones.”

“I wanna know how he got away from us that long,” the first said, sounding disgusted. “He was a fraggin’ peasant, and half-starved. We shoulda had him in half an hour tops.”

“Whatever,” the second said. “Come on, Hank—you heard the guy scream. He ain’t alive anymore, or if he is, he won’t be for long. There’s nobody out here but us to hear him. We already got B. Let’s go back. I could use a drink and some sleep.”

They were close now. Stone silently moved to once again put the tree between himself and the speakers. He could see them now: two humanoid figures in jungle fatigues, about ten meters away. They didn’t appear to have noticed him.

When the first one replied, he sounded louder still. “I’m tellin’ you, Zack—there was more than one. I saw at least two of ‘em together. We need to check it out before we go back.”

“Listen—this place can play tricks with you. You know that. It was probably a monkey or something, or a vine. Come on—we’ll report it, and they’ll send a patrol out tomorrow to make sure we don’t have any uninvited guests. All we were supposed to do was find the subject and neutralize him. You did that.”

Stone let his breath out slowly and held it again, waiting for the two to come to a decision. He could see them now: he wondered if he should take them out, or at least stun them and take their weapons. Better not. Not yet anyway. They don’t—

“What the hell was that?” The first man demanded, whirling around. He raised his weapon.

For a moment Stone thought he’d been spotted, but then realized with horror that it wasn’t he the man had reacted to—it was something in the direction where the rest of the group had been!

He acted without thinking, as the second man also spun and raised his gun. Shifting into combat-mage mode, he gathered magical energy and flung it at the two men. It blossomed around their heads and they both fell soundlessly, dropping the guns.

For a moment he just stood there leaning on the tree, finally allowing himself to breathe. He had no idea if he’d done the right thing, but he knew he’d had to prevent the men from going after the defenseless group. Noiselessly and still invisible, he moved toward the downed men.

They were stunned, not dead, but Stone knew from experience that they’d be out for awhile. The jungle would get them before they awakened, most likely. He didn’t feel guilty about that. Men like this knew the job was dangerous when they took it.

He hunkered down next to them and examined them for a moment. Both were human, both Anglo. As Gilberto Juarez had said, they wore jungle-camo fatigues, along with combat boots and heavy open-faced helmets. One wore a pack on his back. Also fitting with Juarez’s story, there were no visible insignia on the fatigues—nothing to mark them as legitimate military personnel. Stone glanced around—he didn’t know which he was more afraid of: that the rest of the group would get worried and come looking for him, or that friends of this patrol would be out looking for them. Either way, he knew he’d better act fast.

Quickly he rifled through the two men’s pockets, flicking his gaze to their faces every few seconds to make sure they weren’t waking prematurely. There was little to find until he got to shirt pockets: each man carried a holographic ID card of the type that permitted entry into locked buildings. It was hard to read in the low light even with his cybereyes, but as he caught a glimpse of the logo he tensed and let a long, slow breath escape through his teeth. “This is not good...” he muttered. Debating whether to take it or not, he finally decided not to—he didn’t know which pieces of the men’s gear might have tracking devices attached to them, especially in light of new information.

He did take their glasses, which he recognized as standard-issue low light/thermo. Somebody in the group could use them—Frasier, maybe, and Santiago. Then he looked at the guns.

There were two, each one near the man who had dropped it. Stone recognized one as a standard assault rifle of the type most of his teammates owned. The other looked odd. It was shaped mostly like an assault rifle, but the contours were all wrong and the barrel oddly shaped, with a flaring at the end. Juarez’s words came back to him, the ones about the “strange gun.” Yes, this would qualify. He didn’t touch it—if this was some sort of experimental prototype, it was the thing most likely to have a tracker on it, and his curiosity about its nature for once played second to his desire to keep his group safe. He did, however, notice that a thin cable snaked from the gun to the pack on the first man’s back. He flipped open the pack and saw that its entire interior was taken up by some sort of large battery. Laser? he thought idly, but then shook his head. Probably not. He’d seen lasers before, and they hadn’t looked anything like this. He wished he could examine it, but it was too dangeorus.

Instead, he turned to the other. Ripping a swatch from the bottom of his shirt, he picked up the standard assault rifle in it (so as not to leave fingerprints), removed the shells, and stuck them in his pocket. Moving more quickly now he patted down the men and found more shells, which he also took. He wished he could take the rifle itself. Can’t be helped, he thought grimly. He knew he was probably being overly cautious and his teammates would laugh at him if they were here, but at least he’d rendered the thing useless without someone going back for more shells. He wished he knew what the other gun was, and what kind of ammunition it ran on—if any at all besides the battery power. He had found no other ammo on the men.

He’d been here too long. The others probably thought he was dead already, and who knew what they’d do in that case—probably strike out on their own, or try to look for him. Either way would be dangerous for all of them. Stone rose, took one last glance down at the unconscious man, and then took off through the jungle toward the group’s last known position.

He found them by following their voices. They were making some effort to be quiet, but only in the sense that they weren’t shouting at each other. He was glad there were no more patrols nearby to hear them.

They were very jittery: he found this out by nearly getting shot by Santiago when he entered the clearing, forgetting he was still invisible. “Who is that?” the guide demanded, raising his gun.

Stone dropped the spell and shimmered into view, raising his hands. “Don’t shoot,” he said quickly.

Everyone stared at him, wide-eyed, and then they were clustered around him. “We thought you were dead!” Merriwether cried. “When Peter came back—”

“Why did you run off like that?” Whittaker demanded. “What were you expecting to—”

Again Stone raised his hands, this time in a calming gesture. It didn’t work very well because he didn’t look very calm. “Listen to me,” he said. “This is important.”

“Where is Corazón?” Santiago cut him off. “Is it true that he is dead? Shot?”

Stone tried to raise his voice above the muttering and whispering. “Yes,” he said. “Now listen. Please. It’s life or death.”

That shut everybody up in a hurry. Stone took a deep breath, noticing Frasier near the back of the group with his eyes constantly in motion. “I found the men who killed Señor Corazón,” he said.

“Where?” Prakesh asked. “Why were they—?”

Stone cut him off again. He was beginning to suspect that blunt force was the only way to keep this group together and coherent. “Listen to me. We’re in grave danger here, so let me finish. The men were a patrol, chasing Señor Juarez. From what I overheard, it sounded like they mistook Corazón for Juarez. But the sticky part is, they know that Corazón was with someone else. I listened to them until they heard something over here and were coming to investigate, at which point I—handled the situation.”

“What did you do?” Merriwether asked, eyes wide. Her tone suggested she wasn’t sure she wanted to know.

“I knocked them out with a stun spell, if you must know, Ms. Merriwether,” Stone said, a trifle brusquely. Merriwether and her airy notions were beginning to get on his nerves, and he struggled not to show it. “What happens to them after that is none of my concern—I don’t tend to show a great deal of mercy to men who shoot at me. Now then,” he continued, “I examined the men. They were carrying guns, of course—including the ‘strange gun’ Señor Juarez referred to.”

“What did you do with it?” Santiago asked fearfully. He looked around as if expecting to see it in Stone’s hands, or strapped across his back.

“I left it there,” Stone told him, “along with the assault rifle.” He reached in his pockets and held up a handful of shells. “I did, however, take these, which might buy us a bit of time.”

“I don’t understand,” Gina Kane said. “Why didn’t you take the guns? Wouldn’t they be helpful to us, especially if someone is after us?”

“Normally I’d say yes,” Stone told her. “Except for the one thing I haven’t told you yet. I searched their clothing and found little, except the shells—and ID cards. Our two pursuers, and probably all their friends as well, work for Ares Macrotechnology.”

The students looked at him blankly, all except Frasier. Finally, Prakesh ventured, “I’ve—heard of them, of course. They’re a UCAS company...make weapons and armor, don’t they? But why—”

“Because they’re not supposed to be here. Am I right, Dr. Stone?” Frasier asked from the back of the group.

Stone shrugged, then nodded. “That would be my guess, yes,” he said. “My suspicion is that they’re testing out that ‘strange gun,’ and it sounds like they’re doing it on sentient targets. I’d bet a year’s pay that the place Juarez refers to, where he was held, is some sort of secret test installation. And I’d bet two years’ pay that it’s not far from here.”

Everyone stared at him in wide-eyed horror. “You mean—” Whittaker said slowly, “—they might be shooting at us?

Stone nodded again, his expression grim. “That’s exactly what I mean, Henry. I don’t know where the installation is, except that it has to be nearby. I also don’t know how many people they have there, or whether they’re planning to release any more prisoners for target practice.”

“But—” Gina Kane said softly, “we’re not prisoners. Surely they’ll figure that out when they see us, won’t they?”

Kevin Frasier answered before Stone spoke. “Maybe you didn’t hear Dr. Stone, Gina—they’re not supposed to be here.”

“So?” Catherine Merriwether asked.

“So,” Stone said, “that means we’re in a lot of danger. They’ve been using human targets for their prototype testing. Trust me, even in the ruthless world of megacorporations, that isn’t exactly looked on in favor. If they’re willing to kill these unfortunate prisoners, don’t think for a minute that they wouldn’t be willing to kill us as well to keep this location secret. Corporations don’t build secret installations in the middle of the Amazonian jungle because they can’t get enough of the heat and humidity.”

“They build them because they’re doing something they’re not supposed to be, and they don’t want it to be discovered,” Frasier added, just in case anybody was still straggling behind the point.

For a moment everyone was silent, digesting the words. Their faces were pale in the dim illumination of the single covered flashlight they were risking. Finally Peter Hsu spoke: “So—what do we do, then? How do we get out of here without them finding us?”

Yes, that was indeed the question. Stone took a deep breath and sighed, pushing damp hair from his forehead. When he spoke, it was reluctantly. “I think,” he said, “that as much as I hate to say it, we’re going to need to know where that installation is so we don’t blunder into it accidentally.”

“You want to get closer to it?” Whittaker demanded, forgetting to lower his voice.

Stone glared at him. “Keep it down, Henry, unless you want to get us all killed now.” Then his voice softened a bit. “Not all of us. What I’m proposing is that I and one or two others go on a scouting mission, while the rest of you remain here, quiet and keeping watch for any patrols. It looks like they’re sending them out in two-man teams, and I don’t think they’ve got any magical support. If you keep your wits about you, you should be able to spot them and deal with them before they see you. We’ve probably got at least until the missing patrol was supposed to report in before they’ll send out another.”

The group wasn’t looking happy about the prospect of splitting up, even briefly. “There’s no other way?” Whittaker asked.

Stone shrugged. “We could pick a direction and hope for the best, but without knowing where they came from, we could encounter unexpected surprises. If we know where they are, we can make sure to pick a direction that’s away from them.”

“But they still might come after us,” Kane pointed out.

“They might,” Stone admitted. “But I think our only real chance for survival if they do is to be ready for them. We’ve enough offensive spells between us that if we can catch them by surprise, we can deal with them.”

There was low muttering, but nobody could come up with a better idea. “Who—who will go?” Peter Hsu asked.

“I will, of course,” Stone said. “And—Frasier? Want to come along?”

Frasier looked like only the gravity of the situation was keeping a grin off his face. “Couldn’t keep me away, Dr. Stone.”

“I thought not. I think unless any of the rest of you are eager to join us, the two of us might have a better chance. Señor Santiago, you’ll be in charge of the group here.” He reached in his pocket and took out the two pairs of sunglasses he’d taken from the patrolmen, handing one to Santiago and one to Frasier. “A little present from our friends.”

The two recipients of the glasses both knew what they were, and immediately put them on. Frasier nodded approvingly. “That’s a lot better.”

“What are those?” Ram Prakesh asked.

“Low-light glasses,” Frasier told him. “Help us see in the dark.”

“If we liberate any more we’ll bring them back with us,” Stone said. Then, to Frasier, “Thermo as well. There’s a switch on the temple.”

The student tried it and grinned. “Yes, these’ll do fine.”

Stone got back to business. “All right—Santiago, what I need you to do is keep the group together and keep everyone quiet. I’m betting they won’t send anyone else out for at least half an hour or so, but I can’t be sure.” He looked around, his gaze settling on Gina Kane. “Ms. Kane, you said you had a stun spell, yes?”

She nodded.

“All right—I’m putting you in charge of magical defenses. Coordinate with Mr. Hsu.” He addressed the rest of the group. “Everyone, I can’t stress enough the need to stay quiet. Voices travel a long way out here, and the patrols might have hearing enhancements.” He cursed himself for not checking to see if the men he’d stunned had cyberware, but it was too late now. Besides, having the group believe the patrols could hear them more easily would keep them quieter, and that couldn’t hurt. “Also, it would be best if you stayed low, close to the ground. The others will have glasses like these, which means they can pick out heat traces. It’s harder here in the jungle, but they can do it. If you stay near the ground you might be able to blend in with the plants a little. It’s not a great solution, but it’s better than nothing. You’ll have to make due without a fire, of course.” He paused, looking around at their nervous faces. “And stay alert. That’s the most important thing you can do. Remember, you’ve got the magical abilities here. Don’t project, but use astral perception. If you see them first, you can stun them before they can shoot you. You’ve got the advantage if you use it. All right?”

They all nodded slowly, reluctantly.

“Good,” Stone said. “We’ll be back soon—don’t worry if it takes up to an hour or even two. If it’s much further than that, there’s no point in finding the place because we should be able to avoid it. If we don’t return by morning—” he paused, thinking “—Señor Santiago, you’ll have to take your best guess and try to get everyone out.”

Santiago nodded. He was still looking a little shell-shocked from the loss of his partner, Corazón. “Do not worry, Señor. I will take care of them.” His expression was hard and his grip on his gun was steady.

Stone didn’t doubt it. He was glad Santiago was here—he felt secure leaving the students in his care, more so than he would if he’d had to leave them with Whittaker. “All right, then. Mr. Frasier, shall we?”

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