"In position, boss." The voice came back refreshingly quickly, crystal-clear over his headware radio.
One by one the team leader went through the numbers until he was satisfied that the other five members of his group were where they were supposed to be. He didn't doubt that they were ready, but it had been his experience that it was always good to double-check, just to make sure. Especially when you were talking about a job this big. In this kind of operation, one screwup could mean not only failure of the mission and the forfeiture of a whole lot of nuyen, but most likely a quick and nasty death for all of them.
Leaning back against the side of his camouflaged GMC MPUV, he coaxed a cigarette from the pocket of his armored coat, stuck it in his mouth, and lit it. Now, there was nothing to do but wait. It would be another hour at the earliest before anything would start to happen.
His name was Corey Burgess, but nobody ever called him that. To everybody who had ever served under his command, he was simply "Cutter." At thirty-two years old he was an experienced veteran at this game, having sold his services to the highest bidder in more operations than he could even remember anymore. He'd served in and commanded mercenary units on six out of the world's seven continents; he'd performed every sordid sort of duty that nobody else wanted to do, from covert operations to political assassinations, and he'd done them very well. Hell, he was still alive and they were still paying him, so that had to mean something. He was the sort of guy who would do anything you needed done, as long as the price was right.
He was scared shitless.
The price had certainly been right. If it hadn't, he wouldn't even have considered bringing his team into something like this. As it was, he'd done something he rarely did: he'd asked for their agreement before accepting the job. Normally they trusted him enough to take the jobs that they could handle and that would bring them the highest payment; the team had been together almost a year now and his judgment had not proven flawed so far. But this time the job was so out of the ordinary, so lucrative—but so potentially dangerous—that he had consulted them before giving the green light to the mysterious figure who had hired them, and who had, on securing their agreement, handed over six certified credsticks containing five hundred thousand nuyen each.
That had been half of their agreed-upon payment. The other half was payable when the mission was accomplished. It was the biggest single payoff any of them had ever received. And on top of that, the guy had provided them with some wiz gear to supplement their normal arsenal. If they pulled this off, he'd said, they could keep the gear in addition to the cred.
If they pulled it off. That was the sticking point.
It wasn't every day you got hired to assassinate a Great Dragon.
Cutter took another pull on his cigarette and tried not to think too hard about it. It was just another target. Sure it was a fraggin' big target, tougher than a tank and dripping with magic to boot, but it was still a target. Targets could be neutralized. Hell, the fraggin' President of the fraggin' UCAS had been taken out, and their shadowy employer had assured them that this one wasn't anywhere near as powerful as the Big D had been.
Cutter somehow didn't find that comforting.
He also didn't find it comforting, though he couldn't exactly put his finger on why, that their employer seemed quite casual about the whole thing. The way he had conducted himself during the meeting, it almost seemed to Cutter like the guy killed dragons as a recreational activity. It wasn't anything obvious; just something in the guy's demeanor that suggested that he was confident about the mission's outcome. Cutter hadn't asked questions: asking questions about the motivations of the people who hired him was not something he did. He didn't care about their motivations. All he cared about was the balance on their credsticks, and this guy's balance had been just fine.
He'd been over the plan several times in the two days since they had been hired, and he couldn't find anything wrong with it. They'd already taken the first steps last night. The guy with the nuyen had chosen the exact spot at which the job was to take place; Cutter was looking down at it now as he leaned on the side of the GMC. It was a lonely stretch of road on a route leading up to a stately old mansion about five klicks further on. Easier this way, the boss had said; no one else is likely to be coming up this direction, so we won't attract any attention.
"Won't he get suspicious?" Cutter had asked immediately. Of a naturally paranoid bent, he considered the concept of an ambush on a deserted road to be the sort of thing that would set off the radar of anybody with half an ounce of sense.
"Don't worry about that," the guy had said smoothly. "I have that part taken care of. You just do your job and let me tend to the details." He had smiled in a way that had made even hardened Cutter nervous—the smile had given his unremarkable elven features a look of macabre unwholesomeness.
Of course, Cutter figured, anybody who was seriously talking about offing a dragon had to have a macabre streak in there somewhere. Not to mention a masochistic streak.
Things had gotten a bit clearer when he and the team had showed up a couple of hours ago and prepared to set up their gear. To their surprise, their employer had been there waiting for them. Offering no explanation for why he was there, he had proceeded to instruct them as to exactly where they were to begin their attack. He had pointed out landmarks and nearly invisible demarcations on the road and near it, which Trent, the team shaman, had later uneasily identified as the makings of a very large and very subtle ritual circle.
Apparently there was more to their employer than he intended to reveal. By that time he had taken his leave, however, so they couldn't have asked him if they'd wanted to.
Cutter chose to take the philosophical view, though: if the boss was a spellslinger, that would just be more help they'd have in taking down the dragon. You didn't turn down that kind of help.
He had other thoughts that clawed at the back of his mind, but he submerged them. They had taken the job, and now they were going to finish it.
The plan was good, and as long as the wizworm didn't get suspicious, it should work. They had, after all, borrowed a few pages from the book of whoever had managed to off Dunkelzahn—if it had worked then, it might work now. Maybe even better, since the car the dragon would be traveling in (in human form, the boss had assured them) would not be armored. This wasn't some big important dragon with bodyguards and magical security and a whole herd of people surrounding him. It was just the dragon himself, not expecting any trouble.
Not that that wasn't plenty.
Ah hell, Cutter thought, finishing his cigarette and stubbing it out on the side of the MPUV before tossing it on the ground, I'm just tryin' to make this look better than it is. Truth is, we'll be lucky to get out of this alive, let alone cack a fraggin' wizworm. He was beginning to wonder why he'd taken the job, massive pile of cred or no massive pile of cred. Running a hand through his buzz-cut brown hair, he sighed and climbed up to begin checking over his weapons one last time. Since it was one of the few things over which he had control until things started to happen, he was determined that every bit of it was going to be checked and double-checked until he was 100% certain that it was ready to go.
T minus 50 minutes.
Back on the astral plane and once again freed of the confines of the repulsive flesh shell, the thing that had hired the mercenary team looked over the preparations and was pleased.
The circle was well hidden; it had spent more energy on hiding it than it had spent on constructing it, knowing that if the powerful one with his keen senses managed to pick up any taste of it then all might be lost. It was not concerned, though: concealment and duplicity were in the nature of its kind, and it had studied well at the feet of the Master.
Now all that remained was for its hirelings to perform their jobs without botching them. That was the weak link. It hated having to trust these puny and pathetic creatures with this most crucial of operations, but it had no choice. It did not wish to strain its control over the foolish one by luring him into becoming more involved, and bringing in others was out of the question. Anyone possessed of enough power to perform the task adequately alone would also possess enough power to destroy it; most would choose the latter over the former. Others of its own kind were also not possible, since the squabbling among those who served different masters might escalate to the point where it jeopardized the objective. It simply could not count on their loyalty to the higher cause.
Besides, if this worked, it did not want to share the glory with others. It, and it alone, would bask in the glow of the Master's praise.
The car hummed along through the sparse early-evening traffic, its powerful, well-tuned engine transmitting very little sound into the compact but luxurious cabin. The traffic had not been sparse up until quite recently: escaping Sea-Tac and getting out of Seattle had been a nightmare of snarled machinery and frayed tempers that neither the driver nor his passenger had any desire to repeat. Now, though, as they had broken free of the Seattle sprawl and headed northward on 5, things had calmed down considerably.
In the driver's seat, Henry Bialosky expertly piloted the mid-size blue Mercedes with only a small part of his awareness, supplementing his view of the road with occasional glances in the rearview mirror at his passenger. Apparently the guy was some kind of big noise who was supposed to be treated with utmost respect, and Bialosky was fine with that. As a freelance driver the dwarf had had his share of big noises in his vehicles, which ranged from a plain-vanilla Americar for those who wanted to be really discreet all the way up to a full-boat Nightsky for those who wanted to do it up in luxury. However, not only did this guy not look like anybody important nor act like anybody important, but the specific request for the Mercedes—luxurious but simple—had thrown Bialosky for a bit of a loop. Hey, though—the customer got what he asked for, especially when he was paying well for the privilege. Even if that meant that Bialosky in turn had been obliged to pay his mechanic a little extra to get the Merc out of the shop a couple days sooner than expected. Nothing but routine maintenance (have to talk to ol' Sid when I get done here, he thought. The thing's runnin' a bit sluggish) but he still normally didn't like having to pay extra.
Bialosky was one of a rare breed: a professional driver who wasn't a rigger. Sure, he'd thought about getting himself a rig a few times—he'd even had the nuyen saved up to do it—but something had always stopped him. Something, hell. Fear, that's what it is. Nothin' but fear. He knew it was true, though he wouldn't admit it to anybody else: he was scared of the kind of invasive surgery necessary to implant the rigging controls in his brain. He liked his brain just the way it was, and he didn't want anybody mucking with it. As a result, two things had happened: first, he didn't get the same kind of lucrative jobs as his rigged buddies; second, he'd been forced to become a better driver on his own. He might not have the jacked reactions or "one with the car-ness" of a real rigger, but Henry Bialosky would happily stack his pure driving skills up against just about any rig-jockey out there. At least in his own mind, his sheer love of driving went a long way toward making up for his lack of cyberware.
This was one of the reasons why he valued the jobs he got from one of his occasional employers, a young Seattle fixer named Gabriel. The kid hadn't been in town very long, but he'd made a lot of friends during the short time he had been around. Bialosky was one of those friends. The dwarf had met Gabriel only a couple of months ago, but the fixer had impressed him sufficiently (and paid him well enough) that he would often turn down other jobs if Gabriel had something he needed done. Those kinds of jobs didn't come very often but they always paid well and were usually more interesting than the run-of-the-mill stuff.
The guy in the back seat, bigshot or no, was more interesting than Bialosky's average passenger. The dwarf sneaked another look in the rear-view mirror: the guy still sat serenely on the right side of the rear compartment, watching the scenery go by with an amused half-smile on his face. "Mr. Teller" was what Gabriel had called him. Slim, mid-height, with long silvery hair tied back in a ponytail, he wore faded jeans, a pale blue shirt, and a scuffed brown leather jacket. His features had a vaguely elven look to them even though he was clearly human, and his eyes—they were definitely his most noticeable feature. Clear and aqua-colored, they skimmed over the scenery as if Teller was thinking about something a few million miles away. Bialosky wondered what the big deal was about this guy who was at the same time nondescript and very unusual looking, but it wouldn't have been good etiquette to ask. Drivers didn't ask about the affiliations of their passengers. Fact was, they didn't talk to their passengers, either, unless said passengers initiated contact.
Bialosky, a naturally gregarious fellow, had trouble with that last one. "We'll be there in an hour or so," he commented, figuring that if Mr. Teller really didn't want to talk, he'd just grunt something noncommittal and lapse back into silence. They had spoken briefly at the airport, but beyond that, he had seemingly been wrapped up in his own thoughts.
"Thank you," the man said. His voice was soft and had a slight musical quality—again, more elven than human. "How far is it from here?"
Bialosky took the question to mean that maybe Teller actually did want to talk. "About another hundred klicks or so," he said. "It's actually in the NAN lands. We'll be crossing the border in about five kilometers." He grinned, half turning around. "So if you're carryin' anything nasty, might want to throw it out the window now."
Teller smiled slightly in reply, shaking his head. "No. Nothing nasty." He switched his gaze over from watching the scenery. "Have you been here before?"
"Where? Up to the house I'm takin' you to?"
Bialosky shook his head. "Nope. I hear it's a nice spread, though. Your friend Gabriel told me some about it when he hired me to take you up here. He said you were gonna catch up on old times."
Teller nodded. "Yes..." he said with a small smile. "It's been a long time since I've seen him."
"Well, like I said, it won't be long now. Once we get past the border, which won't be more than a formality since I've got all the right papers, we'll be on our way."
Again Teller nodded, leaning back in his seat. When he resumed watching the trees go by, Bialosky interpreted that as a polite way of saying he didn't want any more chit-chat. That was fine. Shifting position to get more comfortable, the dwarf settled in for the ride. Another hour or so and he'd have delivered Mr. Teller where he was supposed to go, and then he was free. About the same amount of time to get back to Seattle—hell, he might even get back in time to watch Lone Star Squadron on the trid tonight.
The thing watched the car's progress from its hidden astral outpost and was pleased.
He is not at all suspicious. He expects nothing. It had not dared hope that the plan would go as well as it was going, but so far everything had transpired in exactly the manner in which it was intended to. Somewhere in a back corner of its mind, it allowed itself a bit of pleasure in anticipation of the final result. They were not there yet—not even close—but one of the most difficult hurdles had been surmounted.
It had watched as the foolish one had worked his magic, and it had to admit that he was very good at what he did. His initial contact with the powerful one had been a master-stroke: cloaking himself in illusion to disguise himself as the youngster, he had made contact and invited the other to visit him in a new retreat he had recently purchased. The thing had been almost proud, watching the foolish one play to the powerful one's protective instincts and strong affection for the youngster by confessing that something troubled him—something he would like to discuss with his old mentor. The powerful one had agreed; he had, after all, not seen his friend for some time, and a few days to spend together would be a pleasant diversion. He had agreed immediately to come, saying that he would arrive in human form to avoid unwanted attention.
Still disguised as the young one, the foolish one had contracted for the services of a driver often employed by the youngster, instructing the driver to meet his charge at the airport and drive him to the appointed place. He was to drive a specific car: one that had at the time been in the shop for repairs.
The thing had then taken its cue from the foolish one's deceptions, informing its team of small ones about the driver and the car and leaving the details to them. They, too, had made it proud. So careful were they in gaining entrance to the garage and making their alterations to the car that no one would ever know the difference. The driver, who was not a rigger and therefore not plugged in to every aspect of his vehicle, would never notice the extra few kilos spread out over the upper and lower parts of the car, and the thing's magical abilities had guaranteed that the garage owner would not be aware that anything was wrong.
Almost idly it watched the car as it continued on its course toward what was beginning to look more and more like the inevitable with each passing moment. All was in readiness: the small ones were prepared; the circle was finished and hidden; the foolish one had done his part.
There was nothing to do now but wait. Impatience at this point could mean nothing but failure.
With less than half an hour to go before the big show was due to start, the five other members of Cutter's mercenary team were, with varying degrees of success, attempting to keep themselves at the height of readiness while simultaneously preventing their overactive imaginations from dwelling too long on exactly what they were getting ready for.
They were a varied lot, Cutter's team were, and an unlikely one. About the only things the six of them had in common were that they were all very good at what they did and they were all willing to do anything for the right price. It was a testament to Cutter's leadership abilities that they had managed to remain a cohesive and effective team for the almost a year they had been together despite their wildly disparate personalities. With a less competent leader, it was entirely possible that they might have been at each other's throats by now; as it was, they performed their duties like a well-tended machine, putting aside their personal differences in the service of the cause.
The cause, of course, was nuyen. Lots of it.
That was the thought that was at the forefront of each of their minds right now, trying to drive out the fear of what they were about to do: they had a lot of nuyen in their pockets, and if they were successful, they would have a lot more. Maybe not enough to retire, but certainly enough to make a decent start at it. From then on, they could be even more selective about the jobs they took. If they managed to neutralize the wizworm, their reputations would go through the roof: not only could they choose only the jobs they wanted, but the jobs to choose from would be piling up in front of them in droves. The thought of that kind of reward was enough to spur each of their money-loving hearts into overriding their brains' rational objections.
Each team member was currently checking over the part of the mission over which he or she was responsible; for now, there was no communication. There was no need for any, and most of the time they didn't like talking to each other anyway. The less said, the better it was for everybody.
Closest to the area they had dubbed "Ground Zero" was the team's samurai, Kresge. At nearly two meters tall and a little over a hundred kilos, Kresge looked and acted the part of the classic razorboy, down to his buzzcut white-blond hair, gleaming metallic cyberarm, and no-bullshit attitude. His cybereyes, which were solid red and could glow when he wanted them to, tended to intimidate anybody he didn't want to get too close to him; that made up a good 99% of the world's population. Rumor had it that he used to be part of a top-notch shadowrunning team a few years ago, until he picked himself up a good old-fashioned alcohol habit and they dumped him. Nobody on the merc team asked him about it, though, for various reasons: one, nobody cared as long as he did his job; two, nobody was quite sure what he would do if he didn't like the question; three, nobody really wanted their pasts looked into too strongly either. If Kresge wanted to spend his between-job time holed up in the local booze dives, that was his business. Just as long as he dried up before the bullets started to fly.
Right now, he moved like a silent ghost through the dense underbrush at the side of the road, his camouflage clothing and forest-hued facepaint making him nearly invisible in the fast-ebbing daylight. Pulling the tiny remote-control unit from the inside of his vest, he checked the operation of the two hidden sentry guns, one on either side of the road. The twin Vindicators rose as silently as the samurai had from behind the two small hills where they were concealed. Watching intently, first on one side of the road and then on the other, Kresge checked the firing angles of the two guns, then lowered them back down like sleeping predators until they were needed.
Kresge had never fought a dragon before, or even had any dealings with one. However, he had been involved in large numbers of operations where he had seen the effects of heavy weaponry on everything from armored personnel vehicles to fortified buildings to awakened critters. He was firmly confident in the abilities of technology to deal effectively with just about any threat, dragons included. Of the six mercenaries, Kresge was the least distracted by thoughts of what was to come. The assassination of Dunkelzahn—supposedly the greatest of the Great Dragons, with the possible exception of Lofwyr, the big cheese at Saeder-Krupp—last year had added more credence to Kresge's belief that anything could be taken down if you threw enough lead and high explosives at it. The key was speed and surprise—if they could get the first shot, he was sure, they would take the fight.
Heading back to where his small Jeep was hidden, Kresge checked his remaining arsenal: the microwave target designator mounted in the back of the Jeep and his heavy machine gun, which was loaded up with a full beltload of APDS rounds. They had not skimped on the outfitting in this mission—the gear had cost them big nuyen (not even counting the stuff that their employer had provided), but to make money you had to spend money. Kresge was hoping that he wouldn't even have to use the machine gun; as long as Cutter was firing his big bang-bang, all Kresge had to do was keep the target locked in. As far as he was concerned, the job was as good as done already.
About a kilometer further down the road, a tall, muscular figure checked out a line of drones spread out along a makeshift runway that had been laid out over a cleared area of the forest floor. The figure muttered and clucked to itself as it moved along the line, almost as if talking to a brood of strangely-shaped children.
Although it would have been nearly impossible to tell by looking from the rear, the figure was female. She was a huge, extremely ugly ork, and her name was PK. Nobody else on the team knew what "PK" stood for; one former teammate had made the mistake of asking her, and ended up with a broken arm and a dislocated neck for his trouble, accompanied by a heartfelt "None o' yer damn business!" If anybody had actually managed to determine what it stood for—which was, in fact, Priscilla Kinsley—and had referred to her by this name, chances were good that the unfortunate person would be in considerably worse shape than the guy who'd simply asked her what the initials meant. Priscilla Kinsley was fine with the fact that she was an ork, uglier than most orks, built like a linebacker and covered with scars. What she wasn't okay with was her name.
She was a rigger, and a good one. Her specialty was drone combat, which was why she was now moving up and down her jury-rigged runway, running various diagnostics on her four "babies" in preparation for their big night. She had only recently pulled the camouflage covering from them and maneuvered them into their proper positions—no sense taking chances of their being seen before it was necessary, after all.
The two Wandjinas needed room to take off, which was why she'd had to set up a long runway for them. They waited there side by side, their Vanquisher miniguns and wing-mounted heavy machine guns silent, loaded, and prepared. Behind them squatted two modified Pratt and Whitney "Sundowner" aerial sprayer drones; normally used for agricultural purposes, this particular pair of drones had been stocked with a considerably more deadly payload.
Satisfied that the drones were performing as expected, PK headed back to her Jeep, her heavy combat boots clumping through the underbrush. Stealth was not her thing, but it didn't need to be. If things were going right, she never left her vehicle, where she was plugged into not only its "brain" but those of the drones as well. If things were going wrong, how much noise she made as she got her ass out of trouble wasn't going to make a damned bit of difference.
Climbing into the Jeep's front seat, she shoved the battered Ford baseball cap to the back of her head and snugged the plug into the datajack on her left temple. Immediately readouts appeared in front of her, providing her with constant updates and diagnostic information about the drones and the Jeep itself. For now, she mostly ignored them. She knew things were working right, and if anything out of the ordinary happened it would pop up to catch her attention. Instead she let her mind wander a bit as she considered what was to come. Down in the right corner of her vision, the digital readout said 18:32. A little less than half an hour before showtime.
She was scared, although she would have happily died before admitting it, especially to anybody in this group. A bit oversensitive to the fact that she was the only woman on the team, PK prided herself on being "more guy than the guys." With her muscular ork build, baggy leather jacket, and short-cut hair, she certainly looked the part. The only thing that gave her away was her voice, which, when she wasn't making an effort to add a streetwise growl to it, was actually a rather pleasant-sounding midrange alto. It was a source of pride to her that her male team members cussed her out (and were in turn cussed out by her) with the same level of fervor that they reserved for each other.
It was Cutter who had recruited her for the team, and it was he that she trusted more than any of the others. Despite the fact that she accepted them all as professionals and treated them as such, there was always the feeling in the back of her mind that they might cut and run if the going got too tough. She never got that feeling from Cutter, which was why she had agreed to sign on as one of the team's two riggers. He was the only member of the team from whom she would take orders, and his request (aside from the money, of course—never forget about the money) was the only reason she was here now.
A dragon. They had to all be fraggin' crazy. Even with all the firepower they had brought to bear and the advantage of both an ambush and an employer who claimed to be able to provide some sort of undefined magical-type support, they still had to be crazy. Dragons were one of those things that regular people didn't even interact with, let alone try to kill. Hell, most people would be lucky if they ever saw a real dragon in the flesh (in the scales?) once or twice in their lives. Except for ex-President Big D, who seemed to like having his toothy blue-and-silver mug on the trideo at every opportunity, dragons were a reclusive lot. Little people like PK didn't know what they did, why they did it, or even where they did it. Mostly the little people liked it that way. What was that somebody had once said? "Meddle not in the affairs of dragons, for thou art tasty and good with ketchup." Wise words. Even better than that other tired old proverb everybody spouted whenever the subject came up.
PK sighed, adjusting her position in the Jeep's seat and flicking her gaze off to check the readouts. She was here now, and she had a job to do. That was all that mattered. When they were done, she'd even spring for a round of drinks at Harv's back in Seattle. In less than an hour it would all be over.
Across the road and about half a kilometer from where PK had taken up her position, another camo-clad figure moved amid the underbrush, not paying too much attention to how much noise he made. It was a good thing, too, because he would have had a hard time avoiding making noise, given his three-meter frame and massive musculature.
The troll called Marko frightened everybody else on the team a little, and he liked it that way. He liked it especially that the breeders that made up the majority of the team usually gave him a wide berth, leaving it to Cutter to talk to him when things needed to be talked about. Cutter was a breeder too, of course, but he got the jobs that brought in the nuyen, so Marko was willing to look the other way as long as the money rolled in.
He was of mixed and indeterminate ethnicity, with dusty black hair, tiny intense black eyes, and a face that made PK's ugly mug look like a candidate for a Miss UCAS competition. The one misshapen horn that poked out from his equally misshapen head came straight out from the back, emerging from his long hair like a grotesque pointed nose; this forced him to have to sleep on his side, but it also meant that anyone who was in the way of one of his reverse head butts was in for a world of hurt. And since his personality was every bit as ugly as his face was, he wasn't spared opportunities to use his favorite form of attack.
It was probably a good thing that Marko wasn't too bright, because otherwise he might have had trouble reconciling why someone like himself—a raging bigot who hated anyone that wasn't a troll (or, occasionally when he was in just the right mood, an ork)—would allow himself to be a member of a team that consisted of only two trolls or orks out of six, with the other four being humans or elves. He was relentlessly aggressive in his bigotry, having dubbed himself "Humanis' Worst Nightmare" and spending most of the time when he was not working with the team prowling around whatever town they happened to be in and looking for people to hassle. Humans (fuckin' breeders, he called them) were his favorite targets, followed by elves (fuckin' daisy-eaters) and dwarfs (fuckin' halfers). Orks he only messed with when they seemed to be too buddy-buddy with any of the above undesirables, and any troll, from saint to serial killer, was his friend. Marko had a refreshingly uncomplicated view of life.
He had joined up eight months ago with his friend Burgie, an easygoing fellow troll with a penchant for mayhem and a talent for machine guns. He hadn't been happy about doing it, but one thing Burgie hadn't shared was Marko's hatred of other races. "Hey, buddy, money's money," he'd said a couple hundred times. "What diff's it make where ya get it?" By the time Burgie had met his reward four months later by stepping on a large land mine and blowing himself into tiny troll pieces, Marko had gotten used to the idea of a steady income, so he'd stayed on. He kept what little remained of his mental consistency straight by designating Cutter as an honorary troll and refusing to listen to anybody else. Since nobody else really wanted to talk to him, the situation worked out just fine for everybody.
Marko's niche in the team hierarchy was heavy-weapons guy. There were others in the group who could handle the heavy stuff (Cutter himself was an expert) but nobody else could employ assault cannons and rocket-launchers with such ease. Marko was big enough that he didn't use things like tripods and gyro-mounts—he considered them sissy accessories. Instead, he fired his Panther assault cannon from his shoulder, counting on his prodigious strength and massive weight to take up most of the recoil. One of the big thrills in his life was firing heavy rounds into targets and watching them go boom.
He was looking forward to watching their current target go boom. He hadn't been lucky enough (that was how he put it in his own mind) to get to see the explosion that had killed Dunkelzahn in person, but he'd watched it many times on the trideo. When he'd found out that they were going to get to stage their own little dragon-dismemberment, he had been almost excited enough to forget that he was working with a bunch of breeders. Besides money and bigotry, Marko's other motivation was the desire to kill things in the most spectacular way possible. The more parts the target ended up in, the happier Marko was.
Right now, he could barely contain himself with excitement. He had checked his Panther, his spare rounds, his rocket launcher, and his extra rockets; then he had checked them again just to be sure. He was loaded up and ready to go. All he needed was the word, and that dragon was going to be history.
A short distance over a ridge on the same side of the road where Marko was currently salivating over thoughts of mass destruction, the team's other rigger was doing a final pre-flight check on his PRC-44 F Yellowjacket helicopter, which squatted patiently on another cleared area waiting to be called into service.
The thin, long-haired man moved around the 'copter's exterior with the familiarity of a lover, the long wire that snaked from its cockpit following behind him. Most of the checks were taking place inside his head, but he still liked the added certainty of the visual inspection, especially before something this important.
Pausing at the front of the helicopter, he ran his hands over the new acquisition, which his mechanic had just installed yesterday under his watchful eye. The Yellowjacket normally carried some pretty heavy weaponry—it was, in fact, currently equipped with two missile launchers—but this was something that he never thought he'd get his hands on. He couldn't wait to get the chance to put this baby through its paces.
An Ares Firelance Vehicle Laser. He had fantasized about being able to install one of these, to command the kind of firepower it possessed, but even at the rate at which the team was normally paid, something like this had previously been well out of his price range. Maybe if he'd been able to purchase one legitimately he might have been able to swing it, but that meant dealing with the military. That was something he absolutely did not want to do.
His name was Slyde. That was the only name anybody knew him by now, but unlike his teammate PK it wasn't because he didn't like his real one. Up until a year or so ago, he had been Donnie Lynch, hotshot up-and-coming young pilot in the UCAS Army. Back then he'd been destined for great things; his aptitudes for flying the big 'copters had been so high that the Army had sprung for a top-of-the-line vehicle control rig and put him into a training course that, had he graduated, would have placed him in a small and highly select group of elite pilots. It had been just the sort of thing Donnie Lynch had been dreaming about his entire life.
Unfortunately for him, he had been dreaming about something else for most of his life as well, and those dreams tended to get in the way even when he tried to put them aside and get on with business. Usually it wasn't a problem, but one night around this same time last year, it had changed his life.
They had been on a training mission near Charleston. The base was only a few miles from town, so that evening after training he and several friends had gone into town to have a few drinks and see if they could get laid. As the night wore on and their prospects for the latter began to look dimmer, their alcohol consumption increased to the point where even their normal limited amounts of judgment were impaired beyond their control.
It was then that Donnie began to get ideas. If the slitches wouldn't come to them, he told his buddies, let's go find 'em. Since Donnie was the closest thing the group had to a leader, the others went along with him. They adjourned to their vehicle and began to cruise around looking for companionship. Young companionship, if Donnie had anything to say about it. Normally he submerged his fantasies about making it with a young teen girl, but the alcohol had broken down his inhibitions to the point where he was thinking hard about indulging them.
In one of those instances of truly bad fortune for everyone concerned, Fate saw fit to place Donnie's downfall in his path in the persons of Penny Acosta and Millicent Harlow, two high-school freshmen walking home from a friend's house. When he saw them, Donnie smiled an unpleasant smile. "There we go, guys," he'd said, turning the Jeep toward the girls.
What happened next was a little different depending on who was telling the story, but the facts that the authorities were later able to piece together from the other squad members and the two girls told essentially the same tale: the men had surrounded the girls and attempted to hustle them into the Jeep. Millicent had managed to tear herself away and run, but Penny had not been so lucky. With Donnie in the lead, they had taken her out to a remote area on the edge of town. She was alive when they finished with her, but just barely. By that time some of the other guys were getting nervous, imploring Donnie to get back in the car and return to the base. As the effects of the alcohol wore off, most of them were having second thoughts about what they'd done.
Donnie wasn't having any twinges of conscience, but he was realizing that if he went back, he'd be court-martialed or worse. Pulling out the gun that he always kept in the Jeep, he had ordered the other guys out and taken off with the Jeep, disappearing into the night. They weren't going to catch him, he'd make sure of that.
And they hadn't. As soon as he could do so he had ditched the Jeep and stolen another car, somehow managing to get out of the area without being stopped by cops or military authorities. Always a streetwise kid (he'd grown up in one of the worst parts of St. Louis), he'd quickly found his way into the shadow community, using his rigger abilities to pull off a few smuggling jobs and make enough cash to keep himself going and to purchase a new identity. When he'd met Cutter in a bar a few months ago he was tired of running solo and ready to sign on as a member of another team.
Slyde smiled again, giving the laser one last pat before climbing back into the cockpit of the Yellowjacket. He hadn't lost any of his appetites, but now he could afford to pay for them. You could get anything you wanted if you had the nuyen to pay for it. And this score—taking out this dragon and getting the other half of the million the weird elf had promised them—was going to assure that he could indulge whatever tastes he could come up with, no matter how bizarre.
Life was good, he thought, leaning back in the seat and lighting a cigarette. In less than half an hour he was going to get to pit his rigging abilities and his machine against one of the most powerful beings on the planet, and then, when they were done, he would go back to Seattle and...celebrate.
Up the road, on the leading edge of the group's perimeter, the final member of the team waited. Currently concealed high in the branches of a tall tree and without much that he needed to do in preparation, the man named Trent had plenty of time to consider the probable outcome of their endeavor. He didn't much like what he was considering.
Of all the team members Trent had the best reason for being concerned, because he was the only one among them who had any real comprehension of the magical danger they were in if their prey caught on to what they were doing. An Initiate shaman of the Wolf totem, Trent felt bound, since he had agreed to (and respected) Cutter's leadership, to go along with the plan. Like the others, he was largely motivated by the nuyen signs dancing before his eyes, but unlike most of them, this was more than just a job for him. When Trent committed his loyalty to a leader, a group, or a cause, he did not go back on that commitment lightly. He might have justified doing it if the plan the team had come up with had been a flawed one, but he had grudgingly been forced to acknowledge that, even with the magic wielded by the great wyrm, their plan had a small chance of success. Maybe even a little bigger than small. As long as that was true, he could not come up with a rational reason for deserting his chosen pack, so here he was. Like his other teammates, he knew that they would have to get in the first shot to have a chance, but if the dragon was really as oblivious to the danger as their employer had implied, then the first shot was a distinct possibility.
That was another thing that disturbed Trent: their employer. Ever since earlier that day when the team had arrived at the site and began setting up their gear, Trent had been feeling somewhat uneasy. He had attributed it to nervousness about the upcoming operation, but then the unassuming elf had appeared and briefed them on the precise location where the initial attack was to take place. The elf had seemed extremely adamant that the attack was to happen right there, since that was a vital component in his being able to help them deal with the dragon's power. Trent hadn't said anything just then, but he had become more and more certain as the briefing went on that he was looking at the largest and most unusual ritual circle he had ever seen in all his years of practicing the magical arts. Every time he got anywhere near it, he got a vague uncomfortable twinge, sort of like a mild upset stomach. Then the elf had grinned at him, made a few gestures, and suddenly the feeling had gone away like it had never been there. Trent had elected not to question the elf about it; he didn't really want to know.
His job in this operation was in more of a support capacity than he normally liked. Like his totem, Trent was a warrior who loved the heat of battle and the chance to pit his abilities against the enemies of the pack. He loved it when the madness washed over him, carrying away all his rational human foibles and replacing them with the undiluted voice of Wolf calling to him. He wasn't the sort of shaman who liked to sit up in a tree and cast masking spells, which was exactly what he was supposed to do in addition to his capacity as long-range lookout.
It didn't matter what he liked, though. He was a member of the pack, and as long as he accepted Cutter's leadership, he would do what was asked of him. There would be other jobs where he would be permitted to take a more active role, but first they had to finish this one. He settled himself back against the tree trunk and straightened out his long, armored deerskin coat.
Trent hoped that the other team members would take the same outlook about this job. Despite his loyalty to the team, he didn't completely trust all of them. Kresge was all right—he was a little unstable, but he did his job well and didn't let his personal problems interfere with his work. PK, too, wasn't anything to worry about in Trent's mind. The truth was that he rather liked the ugly ork woman because she was straightforward and spoke her mind, but had no malice in her. No, it was Marko and Slyde whom Trent didn't like to spend too much time around. He could sense the troll's enmity every time they got near each other, and Slyde was hiding something. Something unpleasant, from the impressions Trent got whenever he assensed the rigger. The unspoken rule among the group was that you didn't ask about people's pasts, but it was hard for someone like Trent, who saw so much more than the others, to be entirely comfortable with the things he didn't understand.
He sighed, looking down at his chrono. Twenty minutes. In half an hour, it would all be over for good or ill. Either the dragon would be dead or they would be. There was really no point in thinking too far ahead of that.
"Almost there," Bialosky said, swiveling around a bit to face the man in the back seat. "About fifteen more minutes."
"Good," the man said. "Thank you."
The dwarf nodded and turned back to the road.
The man smiled a bit to himself. He was glad that the dwarf wasn't the talkative type. Normally he would not have minded, but tonight he just wanted to be alone with his thoughts. He appreciated the fact that the dwarf seemed to understand this.
Perhaps this is why Gethelwain has retained his services, he thought. Because he understands the value of silence.
The trip had gone well so far; they had made it through the Salish-Shidhe checkpoint while barely having to stop, as Bialosky had flashed what had apparently been the right papers to get them through. The man was looking forward to seeing his young friend again, although he wondered what might be concerning Gethelwain to the point that he would call on his assistance. He had wondered briefly if the problem might have something to do with Sildarath, but had quickly dismissed that thought. Sildarath had sworn not to reveal the existence of the agreement he had made, and there had been no indication that the two had even spoken since the incident in Seattle six months ago.
No, it must be something else. Gethelwain was a highly self-reliant and intelligent youngster, but the fact remained that he had not been long in this new world. There were things he had yet to learn, and who better than his old teacher to approach for advice?
This was the first time he had ventured far from his lair in many months. Unlike Gethelwain, who seemed to enjoy it, he did not gain much from the company of humans and metahumans. It was not that he did not like them—on the contrary, he had met many individuals that he liked enough to consider them friends—but rather that given a choice he preferred to spend his time either in solitary contemplation or in dealings with his own kind. He did not like to take human form, and did it only when it was necessary to avoid revealing his true nature to prying eyes. The name, "Teller," was a necessity too; like most of his kind, he did not reveal his own name when moving among the small ones. He would be glad when he could shed this form and go back to being himself—Telanwyr.
It amused him to watch the way Gethelwain chose to deal with the world, especially when it was contrasted with that of his brother. While Sildarath had, upon awakening, immediately set about gaining power and influence by installing himself in a position of corporate authority, Gethelwain had been more interested in discovering all there was to discover about this strange new world into which he had been thrust. Telanwyr did not spend a great deal of time watching Gethelwain—it would have been a severe breach of etiquette to do so without being invited—but he did check in on the youngster occasionally to see how he was doing. He smiled a bit, reminiscing: Gethelwain had such promise, but he had a long time to realize it. It was satisfying to watch him exploring his world, sampling everything it had to offer, and trying in his way to make a difference. Telanwyr found his attitude to be admirable if a bit naive, in much the same way as an adult might be amused by a child's desire to save the whales or protest the fur trade or bring about the end of a war. Still, though, children were meant to have grand dreams and unattainable goals. If Gethelwain could harness the power of his dreams as he grew older, Telanwyr had no doubt that he would stand among the greatest of their kind.
Until then, though, he had certainly gotten himself wrapped up with an interesting group of friends, a group over which he exhibited a fierce protectiveness. Telanwyr wondered if one of those friends—the woman, perhaps, the one who had saved his life—was the source of his concern. It disturbed Telanwyr a bit that Gethelwain had allowed himself to get so close to a group of humans and metahumans, but again he indulged it because it was another fact of youth. Besides, he supposed, he was looking forward to seeing Gethelwain. The reason for it was not terribly relevant. If it was because of his friends then he would attempt to counsel the youngster as he always did and that would be the end of it.
It suddenly caught his attention that the dwarf was slowing the car. "Is something wrong?"
Bialosky shook his head. "Nope. Just looking for the turnoff. It's up here some—there! Got it!" Expertly, he swung the wheel around and turned the Mercedes onto a smaller road off to the left.
Telanwyr nodded and settled back. He was in no way suspicious, and his astral scan of the dwarf had reinforced his lack of suspicion. Bialosky's aura was purposeful, cheerful, and utterly unconcerned.
"Sorry 'bout that," the dwarf said. "Turned a little sharp there."
"No need for concern," Telanwyr replied. Hands folded in his lap, he leaned his head back and closed his eyes. It wouldn't be long now.
"One, this is six." Trent's voice came over Cutter's radio. "Target sighted. Just entered the road."
"Roger that, six. Sit tight." Cutter stubbed out his third cigarette and swung himself into the rear of his MPUV. Flipping the switch that allowed him to speak to everyone at once, he said crisply, "Okay, people. They're on their way. Time to rock and roll."
Unseen, the thing watched from the astral plane as the blue car turned onto the small road and proceeded inexorably toward the trap that had been laid.
He still suspects nothing.
It was pleased. This one was something of an anomaly among his kind: a being with no enemies. In his position as wise counselor and mostly neutral observer, his tendency to avoid conflict and seek accord among those who approached him for advice meant that as far as he knew (and he did keep his ears open for such things—he had not lived this long by being a fool) none of his kind had any quarrel with him. Certainly not enough of a quarrel to warrant a call for his assassination. Though he might suspect his young protege's brother, that one was young too and did not have the power to do such a thing even if he wanted to.
Or did he? The thing smiled. Anyone, after all, could be an enemy if they had the right "friends" on their side. It wondered what the powerful one would think if he were allowed to know the reason for his destruction. It almost regretted that it would not be able to tell him.
But at least he would die thinking that his dear young friend had betrayed him. That was even better!
Its excitement grew as the car drew closer.
"It's just up the road," Bialosky said. "Another five klicks or so."
Telanwyr nodded without opening his eyes.
"Ready to go, Boss."
The thing wriggled with glee. Almost—
Just a little further—
"Got the headlights on visual, boss. Ready."
"Okay, everybody: places. Go on my signal."
Bialosky hummed almost silently to himself, his hands relaxed on the wheel. He was happy. The trip had gone off without any problems more pressing than the snarled traffic out of Sea-Tac, and pretty soon he'd be on his way back to Seattle for a couple of beers and some trid. Grinning, he realized he was humming the theme song from Lone Star Squadron. He—
The thing leaned closer in anticipation—
The car surged forward—
"...NOW!" Cutter jabbed his finger down on the detonator.
Copyright ©1998 R. King-Nitschke. The Shadowrun universe is the property of FASA Corporation.
No part of this story may be reproduced without permission from the author.