Stone and Frasier didn’t speak until several minutes after they had faded into the jungle and gotten away from the remaining group. They moved as silently as they could, both invisible, keeping track of each other through astral perception. It wasn’t as easy as it should have been—everything around them was so alive astrally that they had to be careful not to be distracted by the vibrant colors and constantly shifting patterns. Stone still liked Amazonia, but his affection was getting a bit frayed around the edges at the moment.
He stopped and, after looking around to make sure there were no threats in the vicinity, shimmered back to visibility. Frasier did the same a few seconds later. “So,” the student said, barely above a whisper, “what’s your plan? You realize it’s going to be difficult to find this place out in the middle of this jungle, right? We could walk right past it fifty meters away and not see it if it’s small enough.”
“I don’t think it’s that small,” Stone said. “Juarez said they had permanent buildings, and although a test installation like this doesn’t have to be enormous, they need sufficient facilities to handle their operations—barracks, prisoner holding facility, labs, weaponsmithing, vehicles, security center, the whole bit. Plus, if it’s permanent odds are decent that it’s been here awhile.” He shrugged. “If we don’t find it we don’t find it, but I’d feel better knowing where it is in relation to us.”
Frasier nodded. He didn’t look inclined to question Stone’s words. Instead he looked at him. “You’re hiding a lot more than I thought you were, I suspect,” he said in a conversational tone, still keeping his voice very low.
“Probably,” Stone replied evenly. He looked around to check direction, then re-cast his invisibility spell and started off again.
Frasier did likewise. “Good idea or no,” he continued, “I don’t know too many university professors who would voluntarily want to get within ten klicks of a place like this.”
Stone chuckled. “I don’t know too many parazoology students who get this excited about danger, while we’re about it.”
Frasier made a touche’ gesture. “Actually, I didn’t tell you everything about me, either. Remember I said I was in Australia for awhile?”
“I was in the army at the time. I did a stint with one of the magical units before I decided to go to Uni. It was only a year, but they taught me a lot.”
“I’m surprised they didn’t teach you more combat spells,” Stone said, not sounding at all amazed by Frasier’s revelation.
“It was more of a support role—that’s part of why I didn’t stay. It was a test program, and I didn’t like it much. They don’t like to put mages in harm’s way if they can help it. I wanted to be where the action was. ”
“So you chose parazoology?”
“I like animals—especially challenging ones. I was thinking after Uni I might go into magical security. You know, training paracritters for security applications.”
Again, Stone chuckled. “Remind me to tell you some stories after we get out of here.”
There was a long pause. When Frasier’s voice came again, it was softer. “Dr. Stone—do you believe we are going to get out of here? All of us?”
Stone didn’t answer right away. He weighed his blunt opinions against his hopes and his approved sugar-coated professor response. Finally, he said, “I don’t know, Mr. Frasier. I think some of us will get out of here. I hope all of us will—but we won’t, will we? The pilots and Corazón are already dead.” He sighed. “All I can say is that I’m going to do everything I can to make sure every one of us gets home safe and sound. And if my watcher is successful in reaching my friends, our odds look a lot better.”
“Which friends did you contact? Can they—well, can they do anything besides try to fight through the Amazonian bureaucracy and maybe launch a rescue expedition sometime after all the right palms get greased? I don’t mean to sound cynical, but I know how things work around here, and I’d rather rely on ourselves than on outside help.”
Stone smiled even though Frasier couldn’t see it. “That’s a good way to look at it, and probably a hell of a lot safer. But my friends aren’t the type who wait for the bureaucratic wheels to turn. And depending on which of my other friends the one I sent the watcher to contacts—well, things might get interesting in a hurry.”
“Oh?” Frasier’s disembodied voice sounded intrigued.
“I wouldn’t count on it, but let’s just say that I’ve got friends in some pretty amazing places.” He paused, then added, “And no doubt even if my watcher isn’t successful, there will be people looking for us. I’m sure the University will have gotten worried when we didn’t report in and are already in the process of investigating. There’s the Amazonian authorities, though as you said I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for them. And there are all the parents, friends, relatives, significant others, and so forth of the other group members. I’ll wager that with all of that breathing down their necks, the authorities will have to do something.”
“It’s just a question of whether we’ll be around when they finally do it,” Frasier said.
They walked in silence for a few more moments, then Frasier spoke again. “Dr. Stone?”
“Do you know more than you’re telling about the ‘strange gun’ you found? Was there any other reason why you didn’t take it? I’d like to know what we’re up against, especially if they’ll be shooting at us with it.”
“I’m hoping we can avoid that, Mr. Frasier,” Stone said dryly. He took a deep breath. “I don’t know what it was, exactly. If I had to make a semi-educated guess, I’d say it was some sort of energy weapon. The man who carried it wore a backpack with a large battery, with a cable running from the battery pack to the gun itself.”
“Laser?” Frasier sounded puzzled. “Portable laser weapons exist already, don’t they?”
“Yes. I thought at first it might be a laser, but the barrel was oddly shaped—wrong for a laser weapon, unless they just did it for show. That doesn’t tend to happen. Ares goes for function over fashion in my experience.” He sighed. “I wish we could have had a look at Corazón—seeing what it did to him might have given us a hint about how it operates. But that’s not an option now.” Again he paused. “Don’t have too much confidence in my gun-related skills, though. I’m not terribly adept at either shooting them or identifying them. If my friends show up, they might have some better ideas.”
“So your friends are weapons experts, then.”
“Some of them are. As I said before, I don’t even know who will come. “
Frasier subsided into silence, apparently satisfied with Stone’s answers. They walked for a few more minutes, hearing only the soft sounds of their footsteps and the low murmur of the jungle noises. They were perhaps fifteen or twenty minutes’ walk from where they’d left the rest of the group now. One thing that was nice about walking in near-darkness, Stone decided, was that the humidity was marginally less cloying and the temperature cooled down enough that he wasn’t sweating constantly and making a good banquet for the ubiquitous flying insects. He was about to say so when Frasier stopped. “Odd...” the student mused.
“I don’t hear any of the predators. Jaguars, monkeys...not even the slither of snakes. For that matter, nothing seems close, not even the birds up in the treetops.”
Stone stopped. “And from this you infer—?”
“Don’t know. It might be nothing. It might mean that something around here is frightening them off.”
“You mean perhaps like our installation?”
“We should be quiet then,” Stone said, tensing. “If they’re near we don’t want them to hear us—and possibly we’ll hear something ourselves if we keep our ears open. I’m going to try a spell and see if I can’t get a direction.”
Ducking down behind a large tree, he dropped the invisibility spell and cast a long-range clairaudience in its place. “Keep an eye out,” he muttered to Frasier, then closed his eyes and concentrated.
The spell ranged out in a circle around him, bringing in far-off sounds. He tried to filter out the normal jungle noises and focus on anything that didn’t belong—they were far enough away from the group now that the spell’s range wouldn’t reach them, so anything unnatural was potentially suspicious. Everything he heard—the birds, the rustlings in the vines, the skittering of tree-dwellers—sounded far off and indistinct. He—
The crackle of static followed by the broken-up sound of a radio voice hit him suddenly, so loud to his magic-enhanced hearing that he clapped his hands over his ears and almost cried out in surprise.
Frasier was there instantly, looking worried. “Dr. Stone?”
Stone waved him off, dropping the spell. “No, no—I’m fine. It just surprised me, that’s all.” He closed his eyes and pointed in the direction the static had come from. “There. I heard radio static and a voice coming from that way.”
“Any idea how far away?” Frasier was already looking the way Stone had pointed as if expecting a patrol to be bearing down on them.
Stone shook his head. “No. Not too close—the range of my spell is a few hundred meters.”
“If you heard static and voices, it means somebody’s on a radio. You think they’re already sending out more patrols?”
“That’s what I’m afraid of, yes.”
“What should we do, then?”
Stone pondered. “We’re this close now—I still want to get a look at the place, if only to gauge how many men they’re likely to have.” He paused and looked at Frasier seriously. “Listen—I think it’s best if you remain here. I’ll sneak in and see what I can see, then come back and—”
Frasier was shaking his head. “No way, Dr. Stone. I’m coming with you. I know you feel as a professor like you’re responsible for my safety, but this isn’t exactly a normal situation. I’m responsible for my own safety, and I think we’ll both be safer if we stay together.”
Stone sighed, but couldn’t hide a small smile. “Somehow, Mr. Frasier, I thought you might say that. But don’t go getting yourself shot, all right? You can’t imagine the frightful amount of paperwork you’ll be setting me up for if I manage to get you killed.”
Frasier grinned. “I promise. I know how you deskbound professor types hate paperwork. I wouldn’t do that to you.”
“Good man.” Stone returned the grin, but got serious again in a hurry. “Stay with me, then, and stay low. You know as well as I do that there are things that can spot us even if we’re invisible. It still won’t be easy for them to get a shot at us, but I don’t want to give them the chance.”
Invisible again, the two of them crept forward toward the direction where Stone had heard the static. They moved slowly in semi-crouched positions, staying close to the trees. It was fortunate that there were enough of them around here that they would provide good cover—Stone suspected that the hit on Corazón had been a lucky shot. He hoped so. Even though Kevin Frasier was more competent than some of the professional shadowrunners he had met, he still didn’t relish the idea of leading a student into deadly danger. If Rodney Leifeld ever found out about this, he’d have Stone’s head—and probably deserve to.
He realized he’d let his mind wander a bit when something touched his arm. Just in time he recognized it as Frasier behind him, so he wasn’t startled into dropping his spell. “What is it?” he whispered, stopping.
Frasier pointed. “I saw something over there through the trees. Only for a second, but it’s mostly in the right direction.”
“Something moving?” Instantly Stone was tense again, checking out the area in question.
“I don’t think so.”
“Let’s check it out.”
They shifted direction slightly, moving even more slowly, watching even more carefully. They both knew that if they were getting close, the danger had just gotten worse.
So thick was the vegetation in this part of the jungle that they almost stepped out into the clearing before they were even aware of it. They both pulled themselves up short as they broke through the trees, ducking back in so fast they almost fell over each other in their haste. “Holy shit...” Frasier breathed. “That was close.”
“Close indeed, my friend.” Stone had crept forward and was peering, still invisible, through the carpet of vines close to the ground. “Have a look at this.”
Frasier joined him, moving a few more vines aside so he could see. “I think we’ve found it...” he whispered.
His statement was, of course, unnecessary. What they were looking at was a large cleared area, maybe a hundred meters on a side. Several smallish plascrete buildings were clustered around the interior of the clearing, along with a few that looked pre-fab. Perimeter lights shone from the tops of the buildings, illuminating the bare area between them and the edge of the vegetation. A few meters away from where Stone and Frasier hid rose a heavy chain-link fence with the unmistakable symbol for electrification posted along it at intervals of about ten meters. Several individuals dressed in the same camo fatigues as the other men they’d seen and carrying assault rifles patrolled around inside the fence. The only other things they could see from their vantage point were the dark shapes of three vehicles parked next to one of the buildings.
Stone took a deep breath. “Well, now we know where it is,” he said. “Let’s get back to the group so we can get the hell away from here as fast as possible.” He made as if to back up, but stopped when Frasier didn’t move. “What is it?”
“Wait.” Frasier’s voice sounded half apprehensive, half excited.
Stone didn’t like the sound of that at all. “Frasier—”
“No, wait, Dr. Stone! Listen!” Excitement was beating out apprehension, though Frasier was still careful to keep his voice down. “This might be the answer to getting out of here.”
Stone glared at him, momentarily forgetting that the student couldn’t see him. “Frasier, if you’re going to suggest some wild-arsed scheme like trying to steal one of those jeeps—”
“Not the jeep,” Frasier said reasonably. “Think about it—what would you find in a jeep out here? What does everyone who didn’t come in on a crashed plane have with them in Amazonia, if they’ve got any sense at all?”
“Insect repellant,” Stone snapped, sounding a little more impatient than he wanted to. Right now his number one priority was getting himself and Frasier back to the camp so they could get away before the Ares patrols found them, and Frasier sounded like he was looking for more adventure.
“A GPS!” Frasier said. His tone was triumphant and he ignored Stone’s sarcasm. Then his voice turned earnest again. “Dr. Stone, imagine it—if we could get one of the GPSs out of the car, we could use it to find our way straight to civilization, or a river, or someplace where we can get out. Think about it—no more wandering around randomly. We can just pick a direction and go there. I know they don't always work right out here, but all we need is a quick reading and we're there.”
Stone took a deep breath. He was about to tell Frasier exactly what he thought of that idea when he realized that it actually wasn’t a half bad one after all. It was true that the jeeps probably did have portable GPS units, and probably true as well that the Ares personnel didn’t keep them locked out here. There was no point—anyone who infiltrated the installation would be after what was in the buildings, not the cars, and who else was likely to try to steal them—monkeys out for a joyride?
Frasier took his silence for interest. “Well? What do you think? I know we can’t get the car itself out of there, but with invisibility and levitation, we should be able to pull this off.”
“No, Frasier. “ Stone’s voice was even, resolute. “I should be able to pull it off. I still think it’s insanity, but I also see your point. If it’s done right the risk should be low. But I’m not going to let you put yourself in that kind of danger. Not while I’m in charge of this expedition.”
“But Dr. Stone—”
“No buts, Mr. Frasier. That’s it. I know you’ve been in the army, but I daresay I’ve a bit more experience with covert breaking-and-entering than you do. I’ll not say any more about it than that, but that’s the way it is. Either I do it and you stay here, or we both leave now. Which is it going to be?”
To his credit, Frasier accepted Stone’s words gracefully, knowing there was no arguing. He sighed. “All right, then. I’ll stay here and keep an eye on things. If I yell, run.”
Stone nodded, his mind already working on how he was going to do this. “Hold on—” He sat down against a tree and cast another spell, zoning out. After a few seconds, he smiled. “Well, you were right, I think—I can’t get a good look with clairvoyance because the jeeps are in the buildings’ shadows, but it looks like they do have portable GPSs in there. I was half afraid they were built in, in which case they’d be useless to us.” He stood up, brushing himself off. “All right, here goes nothing.” Taking a deep breath he moved off through the trees, leaving Frasier waiting and watching.
The fact that the lights didn’t illuminate the motor pool was an advantage, he realized. When he reached the edge of the clearing and turned the corner toward the back part of the complex, he could see that it looked clear. His heart was pounding so hard he was afraid the Ares men would be able to track him by it, and he realized he was sweating more than usual out here. This wasn’t the kind of thing he normally did, and certainly not alone. Once more he wished his team was here—or even just Ocelot. The two of them worked well together, and Ocelot was better suited for sneaking around in the dark. Stop stalling, he ordered himself. If you take too long, Frasier will come after you and then we’ll be in trouble for sure.
He watched from his hiding spot for several more minutes until he was sure the patrols only passed the jeeps infrequently, with large gaps when it wasn’t guarded. Then he moved out of the tree cover, still invisible, and cast his levitation spell.
As soon as he felt the familiar sensation of his feet leaving the ground he floated forward, making no sound while crossing the cleared area leading to the fence. Getting up and over was no effort—he made sure to go high, knowing they might have monowire up there, as invisible as he was and every bit as deadly.
He kept the spell up while crossing the compound to the jeeps, since the chances of them noticing magic were lower than the chances they would notice the footsteps of someone sneaking across the compound. He was right—no one came around the corner, no alarm was raised. Now if I can just get it out of the car without setting something off. I hope I don’t need any tools to get it out of there, or I’m out of luck.
He wasn’t out of luck. He couldn’t help grinning to himself as he drew close and saw that each jeep bore a small GPS module slipped into a housing in the car’s dashboard. All he’d have to do is disconnect it.
Floating up to the jeep nearest the fence (and thus furthest from the light), he reached carefully out and grasped the little module, rocking it back and forth to separate it from the housing and then slipping it free. He noticed with satisfaction that the thing looked like it could either run on the car’s battery power or its own self-contained battery pack, and it looked like it could handle Amazonian conditions without failing. Good old Ares and their military precision, he thought. He slipped the GPS into his pocket and glided away after taking one last check to make sure nobody was approaching. In less than a minute he was back over the fence and across the cleared area. He only realized he was holding his breath when he got back into the trees and was forced to let it out. No more time to rest now, though—he had to get back to Frasier so they could rejoin the others.
The parazoology student was right where Stone had left him. He was still watching, but he looked impatient and more than a little worried. “I’m back,” Stone said softly so as not to startle him.
Frasier whirled to face his invisible form. “Did you get it?” His voice held excitement.
“Got it,” Stone told him. “I’ll show you when we get back. We need to get out of here now. I don’t want to be around when they discover it missing.”
This time, Frasier didn’t object. “I don’t think they noticed anything. A couple of them went by while you were gone, but they were headed the other way.” He paused, silent several minutes as they walked. “You’d think they would keep a better watch on the place,” he said at last.
“Not too surprised, “ Stone told him. “Remember, they’re out here in the middle of the great bugger-all. It would take a pretty serious effort for anyone to get out here unseen, at least if they have any sense. The only reason they haven’t found us yet is that they didn’t expect anyone to crash a plane out here.”
“Do you think they saw the plane go down?”
“Probably. But they probably think we’re all dead. I doubt they’d waste their resources trying to locate the wreckage, not when they’re such a small operation.”
“Still, I’ll feel better when we’re out of here,” Frasier said. “I mean, completely out. This has been an interesting trip and all, but—”
“I understand,” Stone assured him. “Believe me, I understand. Right now I’d give half a year’s pay for a hot shower, a nice shave, and a dry bed.”
“Amen to that,” Frasier agreed.
They continued on, walking once again in silence. The darkness and the overhang of trees and vines covered them like a warm damp blanket, blocking out the light of the stars and the moon. The moist vegetation made little sound except for a faint squish-squish beneath their feet. “I think we’re about five minutes away now,” Stone whispered. “We should be—”
Frasier whirled. “Shh! I thought I heard—”
His words came too late. First came the far-off sound of gunfire. Then the familiar high-pitched whine split the silence. Stone tried to fling himself behind a tree, but in mid-dive all rational thought left him as his right arm suddenly lit up in an agony that felt like a thousand tiny knives ripping at his flesh. He screamed and went down, writhing.
Copyright ©2003-2005 R. King-Nitschke. The Shadowrun universe is the property of WizKids.
No part of this story may be reproduced without permission from the author.