It was another half an hour before they were able to locate someplace where they felt comfortable stopping long enough to talk. Each of them had sat in silence in various parts of the RV, each alone with his thoughts. By unspoken mutual agreement, no one speculated about the possible topic of Dr. Hildebrandt’s talk; the RV thrummed along the road, driven now by ShadoWraith, who had been pressed into service as driver when he had proven to look marginally less exhausted than Winterhawk. The elf drove with easy confidence, giving Ocelot, who still sat in the shotgun seat, the opportunity to devote more of his attention to what was going on both outside and inside.
He glanced out his window, noting in the mirror that nothing was following them. In fact, there was very little light to be seen out here at all, with the exception of the rare light poles along Highway 101. There had been many more, he noticed; only about a fifth of them were functional now, but the skeletons of the others stood in mute reminder to the fact that this road used to be maintained much more meticulously than it was now.
Inside the RV, he watched each of the other occupants in turn. ShadoWraith did not seem inclined to talk at all; his body was still, though his eyes were always moving. The elf was tall, dark-haired, with dark-tanned skin. He wore a brown leather jacket over a plain white T-shirt, faded jeans (now bloodstained), and simple leather boots. Ocelot noticed that he kept his briefcase next to his seat, always within reach, but did not ask about its contents. He also noticed that ShadoWraith’s tan was streaking a bit in spots, especially where he had perspired heavily. Something else he didn’t ask about. Ocelot had learned long ago not to ask about things that weren’t his business. Apparently there were enough things he didn’t know about that were his business to waste time on stuff that wasn’t.
Behind him, Winterhawk sat at the far end of the bench seat, slumped into a corner and staring alternately out the front and side windows. He had his coat drawn up against the chill of the night, since the broken windows were doing nothing to keep the cold out of the cabin. He looked like a man who was trying to be deep in thought, but who instead kept being interrupted by insistent fatigue. Ocelot knew they were going to have to find someplace to rest for awhile; even he was starting to get tired, and he’d slept in the RV on the way down.
Dr. Hildebrandt, at the front end of the bench seat, had his attention fixed firmly on his feet. He looked neither up or to either side, but instead appeared to be concentrating hard on something on the floor. The expression on his face was of anger mixed with shame, though it wasn’t clear to Ocelot what he was angry and ashamed about. Ocelot shook his head, settling back down into his own seat and putting his curiosity on hold. Whatever revelations Dr. Hildebrandt was going to share would be revealed soon enough. Until then, the best activity for him was to keep watch for possible danger.
Without soliciting opinions, ShadoWraith pulled the RV off at an exit. Ocelot started to comment, then noticed that the only thing of any interest that could be seen off the exit was a closed gas station, which the elf seemed to be heading for. “‘Hawk?”
There was no answer from the mage, but Hildebrandt spoke instead. “I think he’s doing that astral thing. He leaned back a minute ago and konked out.”
To punctuate the ork’s words, Winterhawk’s eyes opened. “Nothing alive over there,” he said. “Except for a few small specimens of various wildlife.”
ShadoWraith nodded, pulling the RV in behind the gas station so it couldn’t be seen from the road and turning off the lights. “Turn off the interiors too,” Ocelot directed. “I think we can all see, right?”
When everyone nodded, the elf flicked off the RV’s interior lights, swiveling his seat around.
Ocelot got up and took a seat at the small dining table. “Okay, Doc,” he said evenly. “Out with it, whatever it is.”
Hildebrandt nodded, fidgeting a bit in his seat. He looked at each of the dim figures in turn, then back down at his hands in his lap. Taking a deep breath, he started to speak, then stopped. “I...I want you guys to know that I haven’t been...completely straight with you.” He waited for an answer; when there was none, he continued, “When I tell you what’s going on, though, I think you’ll understand.” Addressing ShadoWraith, he added, “You will, anyway.”
“Just tell us,” Ocelot said. His voice sounded like he was consciously trying to keep any emotion out of it.
“Yeah,” the ork said wearily. “Yeah. Did anybody tell you guys what kind of research I’m working on?”
“They told us you were a geneticist,” Winterhawk said. “No specifics regarding your area of research, however.”
Hildebrandt shifted in his seat. “Yeah, that’s right. I’m a geneticist. What I started to do, about two years ago, was to take a look at metahuman genetics. I’m sure you know that there are various diseases that affect only certain metatypes, or certain races. A lot of scientists, of course, are working on research to try to find out what the genetic causes of these diseases are, but they haven’t had much success with a lot of them. What I concentrated mostly on, was a group of fairly rare genetic diseases that primarily affect ork and troll kids. Most of these kinds of diseases are relatively harmless, but a few are deadly. I wanted to see if I could make some strides toward finding a treatment for the deadly ones. I don’t know if you know it or not,” he added a bit bitterly, “but study of things that only hit orks and trolls doesn’t tend to get the bulk of the research grants. You know, it’s all on the up and up, but somehow the money just isn’t there.” He paused, looking up at the three men again. “I wanted to make a difference.
“Anyway,” he continued, “what happened in the next year or so was better than I could have ever expected; I took my research in kind of a nonstandard way, following some hunches I had based on some earlier research by me and a few others. My colleagues laughed at me--they didn’t take my work seriously, because I wasn’t going down the established paths. But I had the last laugh, because about six months ago I made a couple of discoveries that shot my research years ahead of the others’. I kept going, sure I was on to something.” He sighed, looking down at his hands again. “I just didn’t know what else I was on to. Hey, are there any more beers in there? I could use one.”
Winterhawk reached around into the refrigerator, pulled out a can of beer without looking away and handed it to the ork. He glanced around at Ocelot and ShadoWraith, but they both shook their heads.
Hildebrandt popped the beer and took a few swallows before continuing. He did not look at his audience. “I wish I hadn’t even started that research now. Sure, I’m still on my way to finding treatments for some of those diseases--that’s why everybody’s so hot to get me on the payroll. They want to help people, but I’m no fool: those treatments are gonna be worth millions to whoever gets me to work for them. But there were some by-products to that research that I didn’t expect.” His voice roughened, grew harsh. “What’s curing a few kids with rare diseases compared to exterminating the whole race?”