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Ocelot stumbled out of the trees and nearly ran into the car they had left. Behind him, he could hear the crashing sounds of Hildebrandt forcing his large form through the forest, and behind that, Winterhawk's harsh breathing as he tried to keep up despite his broken arm. They'd both decided that it would be best to wait until they'd gotten some distance between themselves and the Hermes complex before he would take the time to heal it up, but it was slowing him down now.

Flinging open the car doors, Ocelot jumped into the driver's seat, and after a moment, Hildebrandt threw himself into the back. There wasn't a lot of room back there, but he could sit up if he slumped a bit. Winterhawk broke through the trees as Ocelot was firing up the engine. He threw open the passenger side door, but did not get in. "Are you driving?" he asked.

It took a moment for Ocelot, hyped on adrenaline, to realize why the mage was asking such a silly question. "You can't, can you?" It was now dawning on him that they might be in trouble if Winterhawk couldn't drive. Asking Hildebrandt to do it was out of the question.

"Get out," Winterhawk said through gritted teeth. "I'll manage." He turned to glance behind him as if afraid that the Hermes security guards would be on their tail any moment.

They had been lucky: they'd been able to get out the back door of the rec room and over the fence (with difficulty; it had taken Winterhawk two trips to get them all over) without alerting the guards. As they were running off into the forest, they heard the sounds of the guards entering the rec room, no doubt drawn by all the shooting, and figured that it would be at least a few minutes before the guards made sufficient sense of the situation to follow them. At least that's what they hoped would happen. The only thing they had on their side was that Hermes didn't appear to have any magical security.

Ocelot shoved over on the car's bench seat, letting Winterhawk drop down behind the wheel. The mage stepped on the gas and guided the car back out onto the road, leaving the lights off and relying on his low-light vision to see the road.

"Are we gonna make it?" Hildebrandt asked nervously, looking back through the rear window of the car for pursuit.

"We're certainly going to try," Winterhawk said without turning his head. "That was an unexpected surprise."

"Yeah," Ocelot agreed tightly. He shifted around in the seat so he could look back at the ork. "Are there any other companies interested in you? Just so we'll know next time a team jumps out in front of us?"

Hildebrandt looked contrite. "No. Not that I know of. Just the two." He sighed. "Man, I'm really sorry about what happened. If I'd known that there was gonna be this kind of bloodshed, I'd have stayed where I was. And poor Charlie..."

"This isn't a game, Dr. Hildebrandt," Winterhawk said quietly. "This sort of thing represents rather high stakes to the corporations involved, as you must well know. Extractions such as this can sometimes get a bit...messy."

Hildebrandt nodded. "Yeah. I guess I was just fooling myself when I thought it would all go easy. There was no way they were gonna let me out of there. Not this close to finishing my research."

"What about your notes?" Winterhawk asked. "Surely they can reconstruct your research from those."

"Yeah, maybe they can. But it'll take them a long time. It's all up here, in my head. I can have everything reconstructed in less than a week, once I get to the new lab. And besides that, I did a few selected deletions from my lab notebooks." The ork grinned, showing polished white tusks. "It pays sometimes to keep all your notes in hardcopy. That way, if they want to find their way into a convenient fireplace, it's a lot easier than getting them off computers, where they got backups of everything."

Ocelot sighed. "Okay. Well, then, I guess the next step is to get back to the RV, get all our stuff loaded up as fast as we can, and get the hell out of here. We'll be on the road for Seattle and with any luck at all, they won't know what we're driving."

"Yeah," Hildebrandt said, still casting nervous glances rearward. He looked at Winterhawk, who was driving with one hand at a dangerously high rate of speed, given that their headlights were off. "Are you gonna be all right? It looks like she messed up your arm pretty good."

Winterhawk nodded, still without taking his eyes off the road. "I'll be fine. Once we get a bit away from here, I'll take a few minutes to heal it up. It'll be like new, don't you worry."

Hildebrandt didn't look like he knew whether to believe that, but he fell silent for a moment. Then, quietly: "Could you have healed Charlie?"

"Who's Charlie?" Ocelot said.

"That would be the gentleman the troll hit with the shotgun spray?" Winterhawk asked.

"Yeah. He was another researcher. We usually ate dinner together. Nice guy." The ork's voice dropped a bit, resigned. "He had a wife and two kids."

Winterhawk took a deep breath. "I'm sorry, Doctor. I'm afraid there was nothing I could have done at that point." He didn't add that they hadn't had time to try, even if there had been anything he could have done.

Everyone stared out their various windows for several more minutes as Winterhawk steered the car down the narrow road. Ocelot concentrated on the side mirror, while Hildebrandt watched out the back window and `Hawk concentrated on the view ahead. He was concentrating so hard that he almost didn't see the RV pulled off to the side. "There it is!" Ocelot spoke up, pointing.

Winterhawk wrenched the wheel around, flinging the car off the road with a spray of dirt and gravel, skidding it to a stop behind the RV. "All right, everybody out," he said.

They quickly vacated the rental car and stowed all their gear in the RV. Ocelot looked critically at Winterhawk. "You gonna be able to drive this thing with that arm, or should we risk staying a few minutes?"

"I can drive for awhile," Hildebrandt said.

Ocelot looked back and forth between the two of them, very reluctant to let the object of their run drive the getaway vehicle, but `Hawk was looking damned pale, and the RV was a lot harder to steer than the car was. "Okay," he finally said grudgingly. "Take us down the hill. Can you hurry it up, though, `Hawk?"

"I'll do the best I can," the mage said from where he'd slumped on the back seat. "I'm definitely teaching you to drive before we go on another run."

Hildebrandt pulled the RV out onto the road and pointed it downward, back toward the main road. Taking his cue from Winterhawk, he left the lights off, glad he was an ork and had natural low-light vision. By the time they made it to the bottom of the hill, with Ocelot fidgeting nervously in the passenger seat, Winterhawk had finished his healing spell.

"I'll take it from here, old boy," he said in a tone full of fake cheer. He noticed that a large chunk of Ocelot's nervousness vanished when he was back at the controls and Hildebrandt was occupying the bench seat in the back. He switched the lights on and pulled out onto the main road.

"So now what?" the doctor asked. "We just go back to Seattle?"

Ocelot nodded. "Yeah. We'll drive through the night if we can, but we might need to stop for awhile so `Hawk can get some rest. Once we get a few hours away we'll probably stop for some food too, but other than that it should be straight through if we're lucky."

"Don't you have food in here?" Hildebrandt asked, looking around at the refrigerator and microwave.

"Some. We might be able to get by without stopping, but I don't think it'll be a problem once we get far enough away. I don't really want to eat the stuff in here if we don't have to. And the can in this thing is about the size of a phone booth."

"What about those people you knocked out? Do you think they'll follow us?"

Ocelot shrugged. "Don't know. `Hawk killed one of their team with a spell, so they're short some firepower. Don't know if they'll decide to come after us." He directed the next question at Winterhawk. "Can their mage find us?"

"Doubtful," the mage said from the driver's seat, "Unless they've got a ritual sample on the good Doctor here. You two didn't get hurt, and my injury didn't leave any blood behind. Once we get him safely delivered to his destination, we should be fine."

Ocelot noticed that `Hawk's tone sounded a bit too confident. Likely he wasn't sure either, but no need to alarm Hildebrandt unnecessarily. "Why don't you try to get some rest, Doc? There's not much else we can do for awhile."

"Yeah. Maybe I'll do that," the ork said. There was still an undercurrent of regret in his deep voice. Ocelot watched him stretch out uncomfortably on the narrow bench seat, then turned his attention back to the road.

They drove in silence for nearly an hour and a half. Their plan was to take 101 up most of the way through CalFree, then cut across to 5 once they got past the Central Valley. Neither Winterhawk nor Ocelot thought it would be wise to take Dr. Hildebrandt through that particular bigot's paradise, even if they intended to drive straight through. They had decided when making their plans that despite the extra time it would take, they'd have to do it. Visions of the RV breaking down right around the Chico area with a hot ork scientist in the back had not sat well with either of them. Besides, they'd have to get to I5 at some point, since that was the only way through Tir Tairngire allowed if you were just passing through. Pissing off that group of humorless elves was even lower on `Hawk's and Ocelot's lists than pissing off the low-watt bigots in Chico.

They had also considered taking some of the smaller roads in the interests of being inconspicuous, but had voted down that idea when they had realized the possible consequences of getting lost, breaking down, or discovering that the roads weren't in as good a state of repair as the maps had indicated. Besides, what was more inconspicuous than an RV on a major interstate? As long as they didn't stop too many times, they should be fine. And Hildebrandt, in another garish Hawaiian shirt and jeans, certainly looked the part of a tourist. Just three buddies out to see the Free State. Yeah, right.

Ocelot was tilted back in his seat, his feet up on the dashboard. Staring out the window, he watched the scenery go by and wondered how many more problems they were going to have before they got back. On paper, this should be a textbook run now, assuming that the Hermes people weren't more persistent that Ocelot gave them credit for being. There was always that other runner team, but Ocelot was fairly sure that if they did decide to come after Hildebrandt, it would take them awhile to regroup before they could do it. The loss of one member of a three-member team wasn't an easy thing to recover from.

He glanced over at Winterhawk, whose attention was fully focused on driving. The dark-haired, well-dressed Brit looked utterly out of place behind the wheel of a vehicle better suited to being piloted by a guy in a Soyweiser T-shirt and bermuda shorts. Ocelot grinned a bit to himself, realizing that he was occupying the spot most likely usually taken by a woman in stretch pants, oversized shades, and a visor that read "Fabulous Las Vegas." Of course, the two personages he was imagining would undoubtedly gain a few gray hairs if they knew what kind of artillery was riding with them, and what kind of mission this prosaic vehicle was performing.

He sighed, his gaze traveling down to his chrono. Even if they drove straight through, it would still be a good twelve hours of driving at best. And there was no way they were going to drive straight through. After all the time it had taken to get down here, Ocelot wasn't relishing the idea of spending the next day cooped up in an RV with anybody. As driving companions went, Winterhawk wasn't bad--he was a rare combination of a good conversationalist who knew when to shut up--but Ocelot hated confinement. He liked to be out where he could climb around and keep an eye on things. Even with the mirrors, he felt like a sitting duck inside this rolling box. In truth, he was actually a bit glad that `Hawk was tired from all the driving, since it meant more chances to stop and stretch their legs on the way back. It couldn't be helped; there was no way they were going to trust this job to the unknown autopilot in this beast.

Hildebrandt had obviously not had much success in making his large form comfortable on the narrow space of his seat. He rose up and looked curiously out the window. "Where are we?"

"Getting close to someplace called Santa Maria," Winterhawk said, glancing across at the map displayed on the RV's nav console. "Why? Bored already?"

"Yeah," Hildebrandt admitted, scooting up closer to the front.

"You and me both," Ocelot muttered. "No offense, Doc, but this whole thing would have been a hell of a lot easier if we could have caught a plane back."

Hildebrandt shrugged. "I don't know why we didn't. I guess that's up to the guys on the other end." His eyes moved back and forth between the two of them. "How long you guys been at this?"

"Too long," Winterhawk said.

"Long enough," Ocelot said at the same time.

"Sorry," the ork said. "I guess that's not really the kind of question I should be asking. Just tryin' to make conversation."

"No problem," Ocelot told him, but didn't reply further.

Hildebrandt waited a moment, then got up, surfing his way back to the tiny refrigerator. Peering inside, he finally chose a soda from the meager stocks. "You guys want anything?"

Both declined, so he came back forward and settled in his spot. "How long are we going to drive before we stop somewhere?"

"I'm thinkin' a couple more hours," Ocelot said. "`Hawk, that sound about right to--"

"A moment," Winterhawk said evenly, intent on something.


"Is it just me, or are there a car and two motorcycles paying rather too much attention to us?" the mage asked in the same quiet focused tone.

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