When the darkness cleared again, the dragon's lair was gone. Gabriel and Stefan took quick stock of their surroundings and then looked at each other, confused.
They weren't dressed as they had been before; in fact, there was no sign of any of the bloody injuries both of them had sustained in their fights at the lair. Instead, both of them wore olive-drab military fatigues, old-fashioned helmets, and heavy packs on their backs. Both were spattered with dirt and grime, as if they had spent a long time wherever they were.
The area that surrounded them was heavily forested, with a carpet of greenery beneath their leather combat boots and leafy boughs over their heads as far as they could see. The sky, barely visible, was overcast; a light mist hung in the air. "What is this?" Stefan demanded, head swiveling back and forth to try to take in everything at once. "Where are we?"
Gabriel shook his head. "I don't know." Noting the rifle slung over Stefan's shoulder, he added, "It might be a good idea to find cover before we spend too much time in speculation."
Stefan didn't move. "How did we get out of there? What did you know?"
Before Gabriel could answer, another voice split the air. Gravelly and insistent, it carried through the forest without rising too loudly. "Gabriel! Stefan! Where the hell are you? Get back here now! We're gettin' ready to move out!"
The two dragons exchanged glances, then turned toward the source of the voice just as its owner came crashing through the trees.
At six-five and two-forty (all of it muscle), everything about the man who burst into the clearing where Gabriel and Stefan stood screamed "sergeant" without his having to say a word. He was dressed much the same way as they were, except for the stripes on his sleeves; his helmet covered a regulation high-and-tight and shaded an ugly face with eyes that somehow managed to look kind and angry at the same time. The nametag on his fatigues read Sgt. Warner. "Where have you boys been?" he said under his breath. "You knew we were plannin' to move out five minutes ago. The enemy's all over the place. We gotta get goin' or we ain't gonna make it. C'mon!" Without waiting for an answer, he turned and headed back through the trees.
Gabriel and Stefan looked at each other again. It was clear from Stefan's expression that he wasn't pleased with the idea of taking orders, but it was just as clear that they weren't going to find out why they were here until they rejoined whatever group they were currently supposed to be part of. After a moment they followed the sergeant.
There were about twenty men waiting in the clearing beyond the trees, most of them shuffling their feet and looking around nervously as if expecting to be attacked at any moment. All of them were clad in the same weathered green fatigues, helmets, and packs that Gabriel and Stefan wore; all of them had rifles slung over their shoulders. A quick glance around revealed that they were all human, with representatives from most of the human racial groups. Almost as one their attention turned to the two dragons as they came in, but they didn't speak. "All right! Move 'em out!" the sergeant ordered. "We need to get within close range of that installation before tonight, so it's gonna mean some fast movin'. Keep an eye out, though—the further we go the more dangerous it's gonna get."
The men fell into position like they were used to this; Gabriel and Stefan got into the line toward the end. Once they were all arranged, the column set off. The men continued to look around with obvious apprehension, several of them unslinging their rifles and holding them at ready. After a few moments the soldiers separated slightly into small groups, allowing the two dragons to hang back a bit and converse in private. "I don't understand this!" Stefan whispered fiercely. "What does this have to do with our mission? And where are your friends?"
"I don't know where they are, but you know the Netherworlds as well as I do." Gabriel kept an eye on the group ahead of them as he spoke. "The sergeant mentioned 'the enemy'—perhaps that refers to more than he thinks it does."
"So then—we are supposed to defeat the Enemy here?" Stefan looked around. "Have you tried to change form?"
"Not yet. I thought it unwise with these others around. We can try to find a place later if we stop again."
Stefan's expression darkened. "Magic does not function here. I tried and nothing happened. Unless—" his gaze fixed on his brother. "How did you determine that we could use magic when we were fighting those hatchlings?"
"What hatchlings?" Gabriel looked perplexed.
"The ones we were fighting in the cave!" Stefan's frown grew deeper. "You must have seen them—I saw you fighting them too."
Gabriel shook his head. "I wasn't fighting hatchlings, and neither were you—at least from my perception. They were some sort of furred creatures."
Stefan started to say something, then nodded. "I understand now. It was making us see what it wanted us to see. But that still doesn't answer my question—how did you know?"
"I didn't at first." Gabriel paused to pick his way carefully across a particularly damp patch of ground before continuing. "It was difficult to think straight with all of them attacking me, but when I heard you calling for me I realized what the point of the test must be." Again he paused, turning his gaze on his brother. "It wanted us to cooperate."
Stefan mulled that over. "I don't follow."
"Yes you do. You just don't want to. I was calling for you, but you didn't answer. I doubt you could hear me, correct?"
"I did not hear you," Stefan confirmed. "Not until after I called for you."
Gabriel nodded as if that was what he expected. "My willingness to cooperate with you apparently wasn't enough. You had to be willing to cooperate with me. Once you sought my help and we began to work together, suddenly magic became functional again. As long as we continued to work separately, we wouldn't get anywhere."
Again Stefan paused to think that over before speaking. "So then—my calling for your help was what made you realize that we could use magic?"
"Right. I realized that it wanted us to work together and would reward us for doing so." He sighed. "I wasn't certain, though—I was taking a chance."
Stefan nodded grudging approval, then looked away, concentrating on the slippery footing.
Gabriel too fell silent as both of them focused on trudging through the underbrush and keeping sight of the men in front of them. The weather was oppressive, the combination of heat and humidity stifling. Even separated as they were from the others, they could hear the heavy breathing of their fellow soldiers fighting their way along. Although both of them while in human form were tougher than an equivalent human would be, that didn't make much difference. After half an hour of marching at a fairly fast clip while carrying packs and gear, Gabriel and Stefan were nearly as tired as the other men in the group. The fact that they all had to keep constant vigilance for the unseen enemy only served to make things worse. By the time the sergeant called a halt and allowed half an hour to rest, everyone in the company was ready to drop.
Gabriel pulled the pack from his back, tossed it on the ground, and sank down on top of it. The back of his fatigue jacket was dark with sweat, and he could feel it soaking his hair under the clunky metal helmet. When he started to pull that off too, Sgt. Warner immediately came stomping over. "What the hell are you doin', son?"
Gabriel looked up at him, unsure of what he meant. "I'm taking off this helmet for awhile."
Warner snorted. "The kids I get these days!" he said to nobody in particular. Then, addressing Gabriel directly again: "You want the enemy to shoot off that pretty head of yours, boy? They might be hidin' in the trees right now, just waitin' for their chance."
"Sorry," Gabriel muttered, replacing the helmet. Stefan smirked a bit, but said nothing.
"I'm just tryin' to keep you boys alive." Warner's voice was gruff but not unkind. "You live through this, you'll know better for next time. That's what we're all aimin' for—to finish the job and go home. Remember that." Rising, he headed off to administer his wisdom to some other hapless soldier.
"It would be useful to know what the job is," Stefan said sourly as he too dropped down on his pack. He did not remove his helmet, however, even though he looked as uncomfortable as his brother did.
Gabriel nodded. "He spoke of an 'installation,' and said we have to get there quickly. But what is it that we have to do there?"
"You guys joined late, didn't you?" A voice spoke from their left. Gabriel and Stefan both looked up to see a young black man coming up to them. He dropped his pack down next to theirs and sat down. "You didn't get the whole briefing." Rolling his eyes skyward, he grinned. "Ain't that just like the Army—you end up sloggin' through this shit and nobody's even told you why. I'm Rodney Marcus, by the way." He offered his hand.
Gabriel shook it, and after a moment Stefan did too. "I'm Gabriel, and this is my brother Stefan. So what about this mission?"
Rodney Marcus didn't seem taken aback by the fact that both of his new friends apparently only had one name each. "Yeah, the mission." He lowered his voice. "Up ahead a couple miles is one of the enemy's most secret installations. They're developin' some kind of super-weapon there—a bomb of some kind, we think. It's a prototype—far as our intelligence knows, it's the only one that exists. We're supposed to get in there and destroy it before they get a chance to use it. If we can take out some of the scientists who are workin' on it, that's all the better."
"What kind of bomb?" Stefan asked.
Rodney shrugged. "Dunno. All they told us is that it's supposed to be way more powerful than a regular bomb. Somethin' to do with atoms or somethin'. Science fiction stuff, I thought, but I guess it just might be real after all."
Gabriel and Stefan looked at each other, but said nothing. After a moment Rodney continued: "The woods are crawlin' with the enemy, and there's more of 'em around the place we're headin' for. Not as many as you'd think, though, they said, since it's s'posed to be a secret. The lieutenant said that if they had too many guys guardin' it somebody'd get suspicious."
"Lieutenant?" Stefan looked around the clearing. "I was under the impression that the sergeant was in charge."
"Yeah—he is. Lieutenant Shirofsky got killed a couple days ago. Sarge says we have to press on, though—this mission is too important. Lieutenant Shirofsky said that before he died, too: it could be the fate of the whole world dependin' on whether we succeed or not."
Gabriel leaned back a bit, trying to find the elusive comfortable position on his pack. "The fate of the world..." he mused, half to himself.
"I don't know if I believe it or not," Rodney said, "but I'm gonna do my best. If it's really that important, I want to make sure that the folks back home don't have anything to worry about." He stood and grabbed his pack. "I gotta go talk to Sarge for a minute. I'll see you guys later."
When he left, Stefan looked at Gabriel. "Such blind devotion to a cause. I didn't think the humans possessed that any longer."
Gabriel shrugged. "Who knows what time period this scenario is intended to be associated with? My guess from looking at the weapons and the uniforms would be early to mid 20th century. Although I notice that everyone here has avoided mentioning any nationality in particular. Just 'us' and 'the enemy'."
"So we're meant to destroy an atomic bomb." Stefan started to remove his helmet so he could run a hand through his hair, but stopped before doing so. "That sounds like a suicide mission to me."
"That depends on the way they plan to do it."
"Regardless—I don't plan to die trying to save nonexistent people on a nonexistent world."
Gabriel sighed. "Stefan, I don't think we'll have to. We don't have all the facts yet. Obviously we're meant to do something, but we haven't seen what. I don't think we will until we reach that installation."
"So you're in favor of just following along with whatever they decide to do?" Stefan looked like he would be most unwilling to accept that.
"Not necessarily. It might be that we're meant to help them come up with a more workable plan. But as I said, we won't know anything until we've got more facts. So we follow for awhile and see what happens." His eyes narrowed a bit. "Don't forget why we're here, Stefan. Never forget that. Everything else is irrelevant."
"I know. I know. And you will continue to remind me if by chance I do forget." Stefan sighed and glanced up, then rose and began gathering his pack. "It appears that our leader is summoning us to press on."
He was right. "Okay, men!" Sgt. Warner called softly. "Let's move 'em out! We got a long way to go today!"
Grumbling a little but otherwise cooperative, the soldiers gathered up their gear, slung it on their backs, and resumed their positions. After a moment Gabriel and Stefan followed suit.
They marched on for another hour, continuing to fight their way through the thick ground cover and thread their way among the numerous trees. As the day wore on and the sun began to dip (though it was still hard to tell through all the foliage), the temperature lowered somewhat and conditions became marginally more comfortable. They were not moving fast now; since they were getting very close to the enemy's installation, Sgt. Warner passed back the word that stealth was more important than speed. The men broke up even more, keeping close to trees and trying hard not to make unnecessary sounds. Every one of their faces showed the strain the uncertainty about the enemy had engendered in their minds.
Gabriel picked his way along, his boots making almost no sound in the damp leaves. Stefan followed a few paces behind, tracing his brother's steps and also moving like a ghost among the trees. "I don't know how the humans can live like this," he whispered softly enough so only Gabriel could hear him. "No magic, no astral sight, no—"
The crack of a single gunshot split the air a few meters beyond their position. The soldier directly in front of them, who had become visible for a moment as he hurried toward another tree, did not even have time to scream before the left half of his head was blown off in a spray of blood and he fell to the leaves.
What followed was chaos. From somewhere off in the distance Sgt. Warner was yelling "Cover!" but nobody was waiting for that order. All around him Gabriel heard the sounds of his fellow soldiers diving behind trees and unslinging their rifles from their shoulders. Quickly he did likewise, catching sight of Stefan ducking behind another tree and fumbling with his own gun. The air was filled with more cracks as the hidden enemy continued taking shots at them. One round slammed into Gabriel's tree on the other side, startling him into bringing his head back from where he'd poked it out to take a look. He got only a brief impression of an olive-clad soldier retreating behind his own cover.
As Gabriel got his rifle unslung and was preparing to aim it, he heard a clatter followed by a muttered curse from his right. Glancing over, he saw Stefan scrambling to reclaim his own rifle, which he had dropped; the clatter had been the rifle banging into the tree on its way down. It didn't surprise Gabriel that Stefan was having trouble with the firearm: he doubted that his brother had ever used one. Stefan prided himself on his magic and his natural dragon abilities, and as such considered using human weapons to be beneath him. Gabriel himself was not doing much better, though for a different reason: since he did not like to kill, and had no need for a gun as self defense, he had never bothered learning to fire one. Still, he had seen enough of them (and Kestrel had explained their operation in detail to him, including once taking one apart and showing him how each component functioned) that he could at least manage to get the thing aimed and keep watch for a target. He just hoped that, with his senses severely diminished from their normal dragon sharpness, he didn't end up shooting one of his own company. Loath as he was to admit it, he was finding some sympathy for Stefan's wonderings regarding humans and how they managed to function in such limited bodies.
There was another quick scream off to Gabriel's left as another of the squad fell to enemy fire. Gabriel squeezed off several rounds at the enemy figure trying to get back behind cover and was rewarded with another scream as that man too fell. He felt a pang of regret at having to do it.
He drew back behind the tree and pressed himself against it, holding the rifle tightly. There was a movement off to his left; he leaned out and then gasped sharply and sagged as a round grazed his upper arm. White-hot pain spiked through him, only getting worse when he hit the ground and landed hard on a rock, feeling it bite into his side. Fighting against the pain, he struggled to get back to his knees and get his rifle aimed as another soldier took out his assailant.
The gunfire continued, and the screams continued. All around him Gabriel could see and hear his comrades falling as they desperately tried to coordinate their attacks. The enemy seemed to be everywhere. He glanced over to where Stefan was crouched; his brother appeared to have gotten the hang of using his rifle, but he wasn't shooting at anything at the moment.
Then, suddenly, Stefan's body jerked sideways at the same time another crack erupted from the trees beyond him. He cried out in pain and dropped to the ground, writhing, gun forgotten. Savagely, Gabriel brought his own rifle up and fired a barrage at the retreating figure; this time he didn't feel any remorse when the figure fell and didn't get up.
There was silence.
He waited a moment to verify that no one else was going to shoot at him, listening to the eerie sound of the cessation of gunfire, and then hurried over to his brother in a crouching run.
Gabriel dropped down on his knees next to Stefan, his rifle falling unnoticed from his hand. His brother had either landed on his side or rolled onto it, and now lay in an uncomfortable-looking heap in the leaves. His eyes were open and he was still breathing—both good signs—although he wasn't speaking at the moment. Gabriel struggled to shove Stefan's pack from his back so he could roll him over, then wriggled out of his own, wincing as the straps raked over the flesh wounds on his arm and his side. His eyes widened in concern when he saw the blood on Stefan's fatigue jacket, down low on his side right above his belt. "Stefan?"
Stefan stared up at him. "Gethelwain—" Fear and pain, two things normally foreign to him, showed in his eyes.
Gabriel's gaze darted around, looking for others from the company. "Stay still," he said; he kept his voice soft both to be reassuring and because he was afraid there still might be wandering enemy patrols. "Don't move until I can figure out if anyone else is still alive."
"Gabriel?" A quiet voice called from somewhere nearby. "Stefan? Bollinger? Jimenez? Any of you guys over here?"
"Here!" His hand still gripping Stefan's shoulder, Gabriel indicated his position to the soldier coming through the trees.
The man hurried over to where they were, stopping when he saw Stefan. He was a short, powerfully built young man with dark eyes and close-cropped dark hair; a hasty makeshift bandage covered a spreading bloodstain on his upper leg. "We gotta move," he said urgently, casting glances back toward the area from which he had come. "Sarge got hit bad, but he's still alive. He says we're almost on top of that installation now. If we can sneak in before they realize their patrol is all dead, we might still have a chance. Otherwise we're goners for sure." He looked at Stefan again. "Can he move?"
"I don't know."
"I will—move," Stefan rasped through gritted teeth. "Help me."
Gabriel got down under Stefan's arm on his unwounded side, fighting to get his larger and heavier brother to an upright position. Stefan assisted as much as he could, though moving only caused his wound to bleed more. After a moment the soldier, still looking nervously around for stray enemies, came over and helped. Once the two were standing, he hefted Gabriel's pack and rifle and gave them to him, then picked up Stefan's pack. "Come on. We gotta get back to Sarge and find out who else is alive."
The trip to where the soldier (his name, it turned out, was Maselli) had left the sergeant was a slow, painful, and laborious one. Gabriel fought his way along with Stefan, who was doing his best to walk but having trouble; Maselli was only marginally faster, limping along with his own pack on his back and Stefan's in his hands. If there was anything positive about the situation, it was that nobody was shooting at them, at least for the moment. "I think we got 'em all," Maselli huffed.
"I—hope so." Stefan's voice came out with no force behind it. Gabriel did not speak; he tried to ignore the sight of the fallen comrades they were passing, but could not help feeling sorrow for the blasted, bleeding bodies that up until a few minutes ago had been living men. He had to close his eyes briefly as they pressed on past the body of Rodney Marcus, whose eyes were frozen open in terror, his chest and part of his head blown away. Sighing, he wondered how the humans (and metahumans, now) could continue such barbaric practices even into his own present time—surely there must be a better way to settle differences. He shifted his position under Stefan's arm and continued on, steeling himself against his pain.
Sgt. Warner was in bad shape. One look at him told Gabriel that he wouldn't live to see the evening—and the evening was not far away. He had been hit at least twice; one round had destroyed his right shoulder, which was nothing more than a mass of torn and bleeding flesh, while the second had all but blown off his left leg at the knee. He lay now, his head propped on his pack and his skin drained of color, looking around with shock-glazed eyes. Even through all that, though, he took his leadership responsibility seriously. "Gabriel. Stefan. Maselli," he whispered, motioning weakly for them to come in close so he could make himself heard.
Gabriel gently propped Stefan against a nearby tree and then leaned in close to the sergeant; Maselli came up next to him.
"Listen." Warner's voice was barely audible; he was already fading. "You guys gotta get to that bunker. Maselli—did you find anybody else?"
"No, Sarge. Just these two. I think everybody else is dead."
Warner's eyes closed for a moment. "Just three left...out of twenty."
"Four, Sarge," Maselli corrected. His voice shook. "You're gonna make it."
Warner shook his head slowly. "Don't—be an idiot, Maselli. I'm done. But—I'm not important. None of us are." He coughed, his formerly tanned skin going whiter as he jarred his wounds. "The mission—that's important. You three—you gotta get to that bunker before they figure out—they didn't kill us all." His hand fumbled at his pocket. "Orders—take 'em. They'll—tell you what you need to do."
Maselli just stared numbly at Warner as he held out a bloodstained, folded paper. After a moment, Gabriel took it and put it in his own pocket.
Warner's gaze swept the three of them, the light in his eyes already fading. "Go. That's an order."
"That's an order, soldier!" Warner forced gruffness into his tone even though everyone present could see that he didn't want to stay here and die any more than they wanted to leave him. "All of you. Go. Now. Head north. It should be—only a few hundred yards away from here."
Gabriel and Maselli looked at each other; slowly Gabriel rose and bent to help Stefan up. Maselli took another long moment to regard Warner, whose eyes were now closed from the exertion of speaking. Wordlessly, the three of them shouldered their burdens and headed off toward the bunker. No one looked back.
Warner was right about the location, a fact which relieved all three of them. None of them at this point were in any shape to go casting around in the forest looking for a secret installation, so they were pleasantly surprised when, after a slow and painful march north for about two hundred yards, a long, low concrete form became visible. "Almost as if they want us to find it," Stefan murmured. Gabriel nodded.
"Huh?" Maselli turned back around from his position as point man, happy to have a moment to rest his injured leg.
The three of them hid behind the heavy growth of trees surrounding the installation and looked it over. Maselli dug in his pack and came up with a pair of binoculars, which they passed around until all three of them had gotten a good look. "They hid this place pretty well," Maselli whispered as he passed the binocs back to Gabriel and pointed. "But it's hard to hide somethin' like that."
Gabriel nodded agreement. The installation was not very large; in fact, "installation" was quite a grandiose name for the ragtag collection of prefab buildings, cleared land, and scaffolding that served as the enemy's secret base. The only structures that looked relatively sturdy were the small concrete bunker that was set into the ground only a few yards away from the treeline and the large cylindrical object raised up on heavy scaffolding that rose nearly to the tops of the trees. Other than that, there was one large building that looked like a central headquarters and several smaller ones that probably functioned as housing for the scientists and military personnel working here. Several vehicles, all of them painted olive drab and covered over with camouflage netting, were parked off to one side. Like the vehicles, all the buildings, the scaffolds, and the object they held up were all painted the same camouflage pattern. It wasn't very effective at close range, but Gabriel could see how it would be quite helpful in hiding this site from low-flying spy planes, especially with the dense forest that surrounded it.
There were no living beings in evidence; either the scientists and the remaining soldiers (if there were any remaining soldiers) were inside one of the prefab buildings or else they were in the bunker. There was no way to tell. "Damn this place," Stefan whispered to Gabriel. "If we could use astral perception, it would be simple to tell where they are."
Gabriel didn't turn around. "But we can't. We'll have to take a chance. If we can get into that bunker before anyone sees us, then we might gain some time to make our plans from there."
"What do we do?" Maselli asked dubiously. "They'll see us for sure if we just run over there. Especially as slow as we are. I doubt if we can run." He motioned toward his own injured leg, then indicated Gabriel's and Stefan's injuries with a brief head movement.
Gabriel nodded. "But if we can sneak in, staying close to the wall, we might blend in well enough that they won't see us."
"It'll be dark in an hour or so." Maselli looked around, nervous. "We might have a better chance then."
"They will—send someone to investigate soon," Stefan spoke up from his position propped against a tree. "We—must go now."
Gabriel looked over at him. He wasn't looking good; his skin was even paler than usual, and his face was slicked with sweat. "I agree with Stefan. Besides, we need some time to tend to these wounds."
Maselli shrugged. "There isn't really anybody in command now without Sarge, so I guess you two win. I just hope you know what you're doing. And I hope the door to that bunker isn't locked."
"It won't be," Gabriel said, sounding certain.
"Huh?" Maselli stared at him like he'd just sprouted wings. "How do you know that?"
Gabriel shrugged. Because we're meant to get in there, he thought, but to Maselli he said only, "Because if anything goes wrong while they're working on that bomb, they'll need to get to safety quickly. They can't waste time trying to get the door to their bunker open."
Maselli sighed. "I hope you're right." Standing, he picked up Stefan's pack and adjusted his own on his shoulders.
Getting into the bunker proved to be easier than any of them had dared to hope. Staying low and close against the camo-painted concrete walls (which stuck up out of the ground only about three feet), they crept up to the corner of the structure and peered around it. The door was closed, set down into the ground and accessed through hand-hewn steps cut into the ground. They had to move a bit faster than they wanted to in order to reach the door, since none of them wanted to be in the open any longer than they had to, but they reached it and practically tumbled to the bottom of the steps in relief. Gabriel grasped the knob of the heavy steel door and flipped the catch; all three of them held their breath.
The door swung silently open, accompanied by three soft sighs of relief. It was several inches thick, but moved easily on well oiled hinges.
Maselli went in first, tossing Stefan's pack ahead of him and holding his rifle ready. The small space was bathed in darkness. When he heard nothing moving inside he located the light switch and whispered, "Okay—come on in." He waited until they were all inside and the door closed behind them before snapping on the light switch.
The three blinked as the place was bathed in the harsh light of a single bulb hanging from the ceiling. It was not a large room—only about ten by twenty feet, made smaller by the fact that there were boxes piled up along the back wall. Its only features were a short, heavily shielded window just above ground level (this window was currently covered by flip-down metal cover) and a tiny crude bathroom in the far back corner. Other than these features the room was completely plain and unadorned.
Gabriel looked around, noting the disused quality of the bunker. "I don't think they come in here very often," he said. "That can work to our advantage."
"Would you?" Maselli regarded the place with distaste. "This place is depressing. That must be some bomb if it needs a place like this to keep you safe from it." He carefully lowered himself to the floor, heavily favoring his injured leg. It was soaked with blood now.
Gabriel privately doubted whether the bunker would be fully adequate in keeping anyone safe from an atomic bomb— even one as small and primitive as this one—at this close a range, but he kept that thought to himself. "All right," he said instead. "The first thing we need to do is take care of our wounds, and then when it gets dark we can determine where to go from here."
Stefan had not moved from where Gabriel had put him down with his head on his pack. Gabriel shoved his rifle through the handle on the bunker's door to keep anyone from coming in, then dropped down next to his brother and began carefully removing his jacket. After a moment Maselli came over with a medkit from his pack. "How bad?"
Gabriel winced a bit when he saw Stefan's side, but forced matter-of-factness into his tone. "Not too bad. We'll take care of this." In his own mind, he wasn't so sure. Stefan had taken a shot to his side, right near his lowest rib. It didn't look like a deep hit, but that didn't make it any less serious, just less immediately life threatening. Briefly he wished that his powerful healing abilities were available, but banished the thought just as quickly. There was no point in wishing for what he didn't have.
Stefan's eyes opened. "Truth, brother."
Gabriel met his gaze. "It's bad. But if I can get the bleeding stopped I think you'll survive until we can get you some help."
Maselli started to say something, but decided against it. Instead he busied himself helping Gabriel clean out Stefan's wound, tend it with the limited supplies they had, and wrap his side tightly in bandages. Stefan settled back on his pack, closed his eyes, and said nothing more.
Gabriel looked over his handiwork for a moment, his eyes troubled. Then, consciously pulling himself together, he turned to Maselli. "All right—your turn."
The other man started to protest that Gabriel should be next, but Gabriel wasn't hearing any of it. Reluctantly Maselli allowed his leg wound to be cleaned and bandaged. It wasn't as bad as Gabriel had feared; it too was a glancing hit to the upper leg and hadn't injured any major blood vessels. Maselli winced as Gabriel swabbed it out, but bore the treatment stoically.
After that they switched places, with Maselli becoming the doctor and Gabriel the patient. Gabriel stripped off his uniform jacket and allowed Maselli to patch up the relatively minor wounds in his upper arm and his side, both of which were painful but neither of which posed much immediate danger. As Maselli finished fastening the bandage around Gabriel's arm, he looked up, troubled. Speaking very quietly so Stefan wouldn't hear, he said, "You—uh—do know that there's no help anywhere near here, right?"
"What?" Gabriel moved his arm to give him a better angle.
"I mean—what you told Stefan—you know it's not true, right?"
Gabriel sighed. "How far from help are we?"
"We're about twenty miles inside enemy lines. I don't know what they told you guys when they dropped you in here, but that's the truth. Once we take out this place, we might be able to get out if we're healthy. You might make it. But me and Stefan—"
"No." Gabriel shook his head. "We're going to try." Again the doubts about the protective ability of the bunker came to the front of his mind, but again he didn't voice them. "We'll do what we have to do, and we'll try to get out."
Maselli nodded, clearly wanting to believe Gabriel's words but not succeeding. "Yeah. We'll try." He looked around the bunker. "So—when we gonna do it? It better be soon, before they figure out that we're in here."
"We should wait until full dark. An hour or two longer to rest shouldn't reveal our position, as long as no one tries to come in here." Gabriel shifted position on his pack. "As long as they don't know how many men there were in our company, even counting bodies won't reveal that anyone got away. And I doubt that they'd expect us to come here even if we did escape. Not right away, at least."
"I sure wish we knew how many guys they still have guarding the place."
Gabriel sighed, shaking his head. "Well, we don't. We can try observing them through the windows, but I don't think it's worth the risk right now. Too much chance that they might see the light, and we need it right now. Before we go, we can turn it off and get a look then." He grabbed his jacket, which he hadn't put back on yet, and pulled the folded paper from the pocket, holding it so both he and Maselli could see it. "Let's see what they want us to do."
For a moment the two of them read the orders in silence, squinting to make out the small handwritten notes amid the grime and bloodstains. "One guy," Maselli said quietly. "Just one guy. "
Gabriel nodded. It made sense, though it would be very risky. The orders called for one man to sneak into the camp, get to the top of the scaffolding, and sabotage the bomb so it would explode. There were detailed instructions, undoubtedly obtained by their agents, describing how the sabotage was to be carried out. "So who's gonna do it?" Maselli asked.
"Let's rest a bit first," Gabriel said. "After that we'll decide."
Maselli looked around nervously again. "Not too long. I keep expectin' somebody to try to get in here."
"Just an hour or so. Try to get some rest."
The other man nodded. "Yeah." Picking up his pack, he moved a little distance away and lay down with his head on the pack.
Gabriel sat down next to Stefan. "Are you there?" he whispered.
Stefan nodded wearily. "I—heard everything you said." After a pause, he added, "Such an unpleasant way to die."
"You aren't going to die. Remember where we are. None of this is real."
"You hope." Stefan's eyes opened; he regarded his brother expressionlessly. "You always were too optimistic, Gethelwain. You know as well as I do that the Netherworlds are as real as our own, in their way."
"Yes, but I also know that death here doesn't mean what it does in our world. Not necessarily."
Stefan didn't answer that. For a long moment he was silent, then he looked up at Gabriel again. "What did you see in that cave, Gethelwain?"
The question caught Gabriel off guard. "Why?"
Stefan shrugged, wincing as he realized that had probably been a mistake. "Just—curious."
Gabriel considered the question for almost a full minute before answering. Then, reluctantly: "I saw Telanwyr."
Stefan's eyes held his gaze. "What—did he say to you?"
This time Gabriel had to look away. "He blamed me for his death. He said that I had betrayed him."
Stefan closed his eyes again. "Did you tell him of the Enemy?"
"I told him. He didn't believe me." A pause, and then: "That was when he set those creatures on me."
Stefan's eyes opened again. "You mentioned them before. I saw no creatures. What were they?"
Gabriel shrugged. "I don't know. Humanoid things with black fur and red eyes. I didn't recognize them." His gaze sharpened a bit. "You said you saw something else. Hatchlings. What else did you see?"
Now it was Stefan's turn to be silent.
"I saw my father." He stated it flatly; the shake in his voice could easily have been from the pain of his wound.
Gabriel's eyes widened. "Your father?"
"He wanted me to join him." Again the flat, emotionless tone.
"What—did you do?"
There was another long period of silence. "I cursed him. I told him I had nothing in common with him. I told him to go back to wherever it was he'd come from." He looked up at his brother, and there was something new in his eyes. Fear? Shame? "He told me that I was just like him. He praised me for finally accepting the Power." Now there was no mistaking the shake in Stefan's voice.
Gabriel shifted position to hide the fact that he could not think of any way to respond to that. At last he said quietly, "But you have not accepted it. You were tricked, not seduced like your father was. You didn't know what you were accepting. He did."
Stefan didn't meet his eyes. "I was tempted, Gethelwain. Only for a moment, but I was tempted. How can I fight against this when I cannot even be certain that I will be able to resist its call? It already has a hold on me. How can I be sure that it will not claim the promise I have given it?"
Gabriel glanced over at Maselli; he appeared to already have fallen into a fitful doze on the other side of the room. Then he looked back at his brother. "Stefan. Sildarath. You can fight this. You don't have to give in like your father did. You are stronger than your father. I will help you. All of us will. I know you do not consider my friends worthy of your notice, but there is something about them that confounds me. You heard Harlequin—Fate has chosen them before. They will help you because they do not wish to see the Enemy set loose in the world any more than we do. But in the end it will only be you who can make the final choice."
"If I die here, I will not have to make a choice," Stefan pointed out. "Perhaps that is preferable."
Gabriel shook his head. "You aren't going to die here. And I won't allow you to simply give up. You're the reason we are here—and you are going to see this through." His eyes hardened, but more with resolve than with anger. "You started this, Stefan. You will stay to finish it, one way or another." He changed position again, and with it the subject. "What about these hatchlings?"
Stefan didn't reply; he looked like he didn't want to talk about it.
"Stefan, tell me. If we are to win over the Enemy, we cannot have secrets from each other."
Still Stefan paused. Taking a deep breath, he winced again. "Something was—wrong—with them. They were—diseased. Grotesque. He said they were my—brothers."
"Your—" Gabriel stopped as the implications of that sunk in. The tone of his voice altered, grew more soothing. "Stefan, it was nothing more than a test. They weren't really there. Your father wasn't there. Telanwyr wasn't there. All of this was designed only to sway us from what we must do. You have to remember that—keep it always in the front of your mind. There will be resistance. We must remain committed to what we're doing, and not allow ourselves to be distracted."
Stefan's features returned to a ghost of their old look of contempt. "Very stirring, little brother. You always were the idealist in the family, weren't you? But surely even you know that it is not so easy."
"I know it won't be easy at all. But that doesn't matter. We don't have a choice. Not unless you want to give in to it. I think you're stronger than your father was. Are you?"
"I would not have come to you if I were not," Stefan pointed out through gritted teeth.
Gabriel nodded. "I know. So enough talk of death and giving up. Rest for awhile, and then we have to determine where we go from here."
Stefan raised up a little bit on his pack. "Let me see those orders."
Gabriel handed over the bloodstained paper. "You heard us talking before—they want us to send one man out, to get to the top of that bomb and sabotage the wiring in it. They're quite clear about what needs to be done."
"This is a suicide mission," Stefan said, examining the instructions. "You did see that, did you not?"
Gabriel nodded again. "The chances of getting back to the bunker after getting to the top of that scaffolding and sabotaging the bomb are almost nonexistent."
"If this bunker will even provide any protection," Stefan pointed out. "But even if it does, there is no way to delay the explosion. Almost nonexistent is too optimistic. Once the sabotage is complete, the bomb will explode immediately."
Across the room, Maselli rolled over, trying to find a comfortable position propped up on his lumpy pack. Gabriel watched him for a moment, then turned back to Stefan. His eyes were quiet and resolute. "I know. That's why I will be the one to do it."
Stefan stared at him. "Gethelwain, you cannot. Loath as I am to admit it, if any one of us has a chance to defeat the Enemy, it is you. If you undertake this suicide mission and death is permanent here, then everything will be lost."
"What am I to do, then?" Gabriel matched Stefan's stare. "Send Maselli? He'll never make it on his injured leg. And you can't go. You're injured worse than any of us."
"That is precisely why I should go. I have been conserving my strength, and the bandages are holding. You know that we are tougher than humans are, even in these forms. But I can feel it already—the longer we remain in this scenario, the weaker I will become. I'll never make it if we have to leave here. I heard how far we are away from safety." He paused, his dark eyes fixing on his brother's. "I don't like this, Gethelwain. I don't want to do it. But there is no other logical option. I can keep myself moving long enough to finish it, but probably not much longer."
Gabriel regarded him silently for several moments. He was right about his condition: already his complexion was graying, his face and chest slicked with sweat. The bandage on his side was already soaked through with blood. Gabriel knew that they had not adequately tended any of their wounds; in these primitive conditions infection would set in and they had no way to deal with it. He and Maselli had checked their packs and found only the most rudimentary of antiseptics and nothing else to combat infection. They'd done the best they could, but they both knew it wouldn't be enough. Taking a deep breath, he let it out slowly. "Let's rest for awhile, and then we'll discuss it. We shouldn't go until it's fully dark anyway. If we can wait until most of the enemy are asleep it will be easier."
Stefan nodded. "Yes." He looked relieved to be able to lie back and close his eyes for even a short time.
Gabriel rose, covering Stefan with his fatigue jacket. Troubled, he moved over to where he'd left his pack and lowered himself back down. He had no intention of allowing Stefan to perform the mission, but he knew that telling his brother that would only get them into an argument that neither of them had the stamina for. As he had said, they would rest for awhile. When it was full dark he would sneak out, with luck while both of them were asleep. If he was extremely lucky, he would complete the job before they awakened. And if he died—
—if he died, then it would be up to Stefan to finish what he had started.
As he drifted into a light sleep, his last conscious thought was wondering if Kestrel was safe, wherever she was.
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.