The three men stared at him. Ocelot sat up a little straighter; Winterhawk leaned forward, gaze riveted on the ork's eyes; ShadoWraith remained impassive except for a slight widening of his eyes and a raised eyebrow. "Go on, Doctor..." Winterhawk said softly.
Hildebrandt finished his beer, setting the empty can down with far too much care on the dining table. "See," he said "When you're looking into what cures a disease, naturally you have to look into what causes it, too. And when you understand what causes it, sometimes you can see ways that you can make changes to the way it works. Before I really figured out where I was headed, I'd figured out most of the requirements for designing a new, even more deadly disease that zeroes in on genetic anomalies in certain systems--" He paused, looking up at them significantly. "--ork and troll systems."
Again, there was a long pause as the three listeners digested this information. "Let me get this straight," Ocelot said. "You mean, while you were figuring out what caused one of these diseases, you figured out a way to make a worse one?"
Hildebrandt nodded. "Yeah. And that's when I made a bad decision. I think all researchers are at least a little bit vain, and I'm not any different. I guess it's just human--or in my case, ork--nature. See, I still wanted to discover that treatment, and components of the new research were vital to that discovery. I didn't want to destroy the research until after I'd finished the other research on the treatment. But I was scared to death that somebody else would discover what I was doing and figure out how to apply some of this stuff."
Before anyone could speak up, the ork forged on. He looked like he was afraid that if he didn't get everything said, he'd lose his nerve. "So I had to make sure nobody found that research until I was ready. Three months ago, I took a vacation for a couple of weeks. I took the records, put them on three datachips, and took them with me on my vacation. Each of these chips, I left with a friend of mine in one of the cities I visited. I figured when I completed my work, I could go pick them up, put everything together, and destroy the parts that weren't directly related to what I was trying to do. For even more security, I hid the chips in items I left with my friends--they don't even know what they've got, and I hoped nobody else did either. As far as I knew, nobody even knew about the research and where it led."
"So..." Winterhawk said slowly, "Where do our pursuers fit in? You were about to tell us about that pin I found when we were attacked at the restaurant."
"Oh, yeah," Hildebrandt said with a sigh. "I guess you wouldn't know that symbol. Even a lot of metahumans don't. Most of 'em never hear about anything beyond Humanis, and they're bad enough all on their own."
ShadoWraith stiffened a bit. Every metahuman knew about the Humanis Policlub, dedicated to advancing the rights of what they called "real people"--humans--at the expense of "mutants" or metahumans. Humanis was mostly a political club, though, as their name implied; they rarely resorted to violence, at least not overtly, preferring instead to incite anti-metahuman sentiment using rallies, editorials, and like-minded political candidates. "If not Humanis, who?" he asked.
"You didn't bring that thing, did you?" Hildebrandt asked Winterhawk.
The mage shook his head, checking his pockets to make sure. "I think I left it on the table when we left."
"No matter," the ork said. "I don't want to look at the damned thing anyway. It was the symbol of a group called Hands of Five. They're one of the militant underground arms of Humanis. The ones who use guns and intimidation and terror to do what Humanis does with words." The hatred in his voice was obvious, but it drained out quickly. "When I saw that pin, I realized that I'd been an idiot. Somehow the Hands must have found out about my research. Maybe they've been watching me all along, and decided to use my extraction from Hermes as an excuse to grab me and make me reveal where I'd hidden my research."
"But how did they find out?" Ocelot asked. "You think they had a plant at Hermes?"
Hildebrandt sighed. "Maybe. But more likely, the more I think about it, I know what happened. I had this lab assistant--guy named Henry Booth. A human. He's not much of a scientist, and he's lazy...I didn't think he had the smarts to see what I was doing. But that's the only way I can think of that anybody found out. And why else would these Hands assholes be on my tail? Henry left Hermes about a month ago--my guess is that he either told them about me or else they beat it out of him. I never liked that kid; weaselly little snot, always tryin' to kiss up...you know the type. And I don't think it ever sat right with him that an ork was a better scientist than he was, y'know?"
He put his face in his hands with another loud sigh. "Anyway, that's the story. I'm an idiot, and now if I don't set things right real fast, before the Hands or Alamos 20000 or some other sicko outfit gets hold of those chips, there's gonna be a lot of hurt in the world."
Suddenly, again before anyone could speak, Hildebrandt's head flew up, his eyes showing hope for the first time since he'd begun his tale. "Hey, listen," he said. "I want to hire you guys."
"What?" Ocelot demanded. That was the last thing he would have expected to hear.
"Yeah," the ork continued. "I want to hire you. You were supposed to grab me and get me back to Seattle, right? But I gotta go get those chips and destroy them. Let me hire you guys to get me there, help me get the chips, and keep me safe 'til we get back to Seattle."
"Doctor, I--" Winterhawk started.
"Wait a second, before you say anything else," Hildebrandt cut him off. "Look. I know this is weird. I know that my new company is payin' you a lot of nuyen to get me back there safely. But I can't let this go. I won't. Do you realize what kind of trouble there could be if the Hands get hold of this research? As far as I've been able to determine so far, there's no cure for this disease I discovered. Maybe I could find one, given time. But do you really think that if they get my research, they're gonna let me live? Give me the time to find a cure for their little holocaust?" Ocelot took a breath to say something, but Hildebrandt continued on. "And I haven't even looked into what kind of mutations this little bug could go through once it actually gets into a metahuman host." He turned pleadingly to each man, one after the other. "Don't you get it? And it could even get worse. Orks and trolls aren't really that different genetically from elves and dwarves and humans. If they got good enough talent on their side, they might even be able to take what I've done, make some changes to it, and tailor some nasty stuff that's aimed at other metahuman races." He focused his attention on Winterhawk and Ocelot. "Don't you guys have any metahuman friends? Orks? Trolls? Anybody?" His voice burned with passion, his hands shaking. Rounding on ShadoWraith, he added, "You said they were after you, so you must not have any love for them."
"No," the elf said, somehow imparting more emotion into that single word than he had into any of his previous utterances.
"Yeah, I didn't think so," Hildebrandt said. "So what do you guys say? I've got money. I can pay you well. But I gotta do this, and I gotta do it soon."
"I'll do it," ShadoWraith said immediately. His eyes came up to challenge Winterhawk and Ocelot, almost as if to say, if you don't go along with this, you'll have to get through me to get to him.
"What about you two?" Hildebrandt asked the two remaining runners.
Winterhawk looked at Ocelot, then back at Hildebrandt. "I think we need a moment to discuss this," he said.
The ork nodded as if he had expected that. "Please, guys. Think about it," he begged.
Winterhawk motioned Ocelot out of the RV. Once outside, he started to head off a bit, but Ocelot grabbed his arm. "Not too far," he said. "We shouldn't leave Dr. Hildebrandt alone."
'Hawk nodded, moving around to the front of the vehicle, where they could keep an eye on the occupants (and the occupants could keep an eye on them) but they couldn't be heard if they talked quietly. "What do you think of this?" he asked.
Ocelot took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I think we should do it. Don't you?"
"Why do you think so?" the mage asked without answering Ocelot's question.
"A lot of reasons. One is because we're bein' paid to take Dr. H. back to this other company, and I think that there's something implied there, namely that the Doctor's gonna work for them willingly. Do you really think that even if we drug him and haul him back there--and it's gonna take that to get him to go, I think--that he's gonna stay very long? That company won't be very happy to get an unwilling researcher."
"Any other reasons?" Winterhawk said, leaning back against the front of the RV and crossing his arms.
For a long moment, Ocelot didn't answer. Then, softly: "Yeah. If he's tellin' the truth, and he sure as hell didn't look like he was lyin' to me, then I gotta do something to make sure that doesn't happen. One of my best friends is an ork. She was my teacher...my sensei. She took me in and taught me most of what I know about martial arts, back when I was just a kid getting started at this." He looked hard at the mage. "You're askin' a lot of questions. Don't you want to go along with this?"
"Do you trust ShadoWraith?" Again, Winterhawk ignored Ocelot's question.
Ocelot shrugged. "Again, got no reason not to. He saved your ass back there. In fact, it looked like we all saved each other's asses at least once. I've trusted people for less before. Still gonna keep an eye on him. But you still haven't answered my question. You don't want to do this, do you?" His eyes narrowed. "Don't you even have any metahuman friends?"
"Of course I have metahuman friends," the mage snapped. "But that's beside the point. I didn't say I didn't want to do this. I just want to be certain that you're deciding with your head, and not your emotions. Dr. Hildebrandt is quite a stirring speaker."
"Look, 'Hawk," Ocelot said, pacing, casting occasional glances inside to where Hildebrandt and ShadoWraith looked like they were sitting in silence. "I'm not gonna go all weird. I don't do that, and you ought to know that by now. But this is something big. Something important. I think there's really only one right answer. Besides, Johnson didn't tell us how long we had to deliver Dr. Hildebrandt. If it takes an extra week or so, well, then at least we'll be delivering a happy scientist instead of an unhappy one."
"And if he gets killed in another one of these ambushes?"
"Life's full of chances. Sometimes you have to do what's right, you know? It sounds like he's willing to take the risk."
Winterhawk sighed, shaking his head. "Of course he is. He doesn't know what the risk is." He ran a hand back through his disheveled hair and pushed himself off the RV's bumper. "Right, then. If we're going to do this, we'd best get on with it. I suggest a new vehicle, a change of clothes, a long hot shower, and several hours of sleep."
"I think we can do the first two," Ocelot said as he started back toward the door. "Don't know about the others, though."
"I was afraid of that," the mage said. "And I don't imagine we'll discover that the doctor was considerate enough to conceal his research somewhere balmy and restful, like Hawaii--his taste in clothes notwithstanding."
Ocelot didn't answer.