Stefan was having the kinds of thoughts he was not accustomed to having, and it was disturbing him more than a bit.
He sat propped up against his pack, a position into which he had laboriously dragged himself, being careful not to re-open his side wound. It would only make things more difficult if he started bleeding again. He wanted more than anything to be able to change to dragon form, not to be hindered by this fragile body, but he knew that was not an option. There was no sense dwelling on it. All that did was waste precious energy, and he had little of that to spare at the moment.
Across the room, Maselli was stretched out on his side with his back to Stefan, his mostly steady breathing with only occasional hitches of pain indicating that he was either asleep or passed out. Nearer, in the middle of the floor, his brother Gethelwain lay with his head on his pack, his eyes closed, sleeping fitfully. Stefan watched him for a moment, contemplating how much things had changed in the past few days. If anyone had told him a week or two ago that he would be sitting in the same room with his brother—his hated brother—his currently injured, exhausted, and vulnerable brother—and that he would do nothing more than calmly sit by and watch him sleep, his reaction would have been one of scorn. Depending upon his mood and the person doing the telling, he might have laughed coldly, or had the messenger killed for his impertinence, or taken him as a midnight snack. In any case, he would not have believed it.
He looked at Gabriel again, trying to summon the rage, the hatred, the jealousy—but he could not. The vestiges were still there, certainly: he did not like Gethelwain any more than he ever had. The child was too naive, too willing to lower himself to play the games of the small ones, too—good. But yet—
Stefan sighed. The Enemy had changed everything. There was no going back now to the way things had been. Moving ahead was his only option—the only option for all of them. Once more—he had lost count of the number of times he had done so—Stefan cursed himself for having been taken in by the Enemy. The humans had an expression: "hoist with one's own petard." Much as he hated applying human expressions to himself (he considered it beneath his dignity), he reluctantly had to admit that this one had captured the situation all too well.
Gabriel stirred a bit, his handsome features contorting a bit as he jarred one of his wounds. He did not, however, awaken. Stefan continued to watch him as he considered his options. The child was not meant for situations such as this. The thought surprised him. As often as he himself had wished for his brother's injury (or, more often, his death), he found to his dismay that the thought of someone else having injured Gethelwain did not sit nearly so well.
A lance of pain in his side from his own injury took his thoughts away from his brother. He could feel a little trickling of blood starting up again under the bandage, and the pain was getting worse. He knew that it would do nothing but continue to get worse, especially since the bandages Gethelwain and Maselli had used to bind it were probably not sterile, given that they had been carried, covered only by flimsy wrappings, through miles of hostile terrain in a grimy backpack. He felt weak and light-headed; even though it was not at all warm in here, sweat trickled down his chest and coated his forehead. He wasn't familiar enough with being injured in human form to know how long this body was likely to keep moving, but he knew instinctively that it wouldn't be much longer—a couple of hours at most before he started getting feverish and losing what little strength he had left. If he was going to take any action, he would have to take it soon.
Moving slowly and carefully, he slid his arms into his fatigue jacket and buttoned it up, shivering. He levered himself over until he was sitting against the wall, gritting his teeth against the pain, and dragged his pack over into his lap. There wouldn't be much there that he would need, but he took a quick look anyway to make sure. With occasional furtive glances over to make sure that his brother or Maselli weren't waking up, he gathered the few things thought he would need and shoved them in the pockets of his jacket, then he pulled himself to his feet.
He almost didn't make it. The pain was excruciating, and the bleeding stepped up its intensity a bit. Wincing, he leaned against the cold concrete wall until the wave of pain passed. He wished he could risk some of the pain-deadening drugs that he knew were in the first-aid kits, but he knew that they would deaden his senses along with his pain, and he couldn't afford that. He already suspected that in this form his intellect was not up to his normal capacity as a dragon; he couldn't risk losing any more of it. He gritted his teeth again and forced himself to stand upright. I am a dragon. A simple thing such as this will not stop me from what I must do. My will is stronger than this injury.
Surprisingly, it helped. The pain receded a bit (though not much). Stefan looked at Gabriel again. He knew if his brother awoke there would be a confrontation, for Gethelwain would not want him to do this. He would insist on going himself—more folly from an idealistic child. I will not survive even if I remain here. You will. This has nothing to do with affection or sacrifice or duty. It has to do with practicality. I am not doing this for you, brother. I am doing this because I must.
He hefted his rifle, shoved the bloodstained paper with the orders in his pocket, and moved silently until he was standing over his sleeping brother. Still, Gethelwain was extremely perceptive, even in human form. He stirred, opening his eyes, half-awake.
"I am sorry, brother," Stefan murmured, and brought the butt of his rifle down on Gabriel's head with a sharp thunk. His brother got only a split-second look of astonishment before lapsing into unconsciousness. "If I have broken my word to you with my actions, forgive me," Stefan continued in the same soft voice. "But this must be done."
It was not until he had moved back across the room, switched off the light, and slipped out through the heavy steel door that he consciously realized that he had not enjoyed injuring his brother. In fact, he felt remorse about it, hoping that he had not done any permanent damage.
What is becoming of me? he thought, but had no time to dwell on the matter.
The camp was almost fully dark, with only a few pale lights around the perimeter to illuminate it. Stefan crouched on the earthen stairway, watching for a moment to get his bearings before moving. It is fortunate that the camp is small. I would have no chance of this if it were not. But it was small: the object of his mission could be clearly seen only about twenty yards away, held up by its network of scaffolding like some sort of space vehicle being prepared for launch. This was no space vehicle, however—or any kind of vehicle at all. The delivery system, according to the orders in Stefan's pocket, would come later, if the enemy was allowed to complete their testing on this weapon.
He wondered how many people were still here. If the company that they had destroyed was similar in size to their own, then they had lost about twenty soldiers that day. That meant that they either had men to spare, or that they were now lightly guarded. Stefan hoped that the latter was true; even if they were expecting reinforcements tomorrow, it would not matter—tomorrow would be too late for them. He also hoped that they believed they had destroyed all of the intruders. They must, he thought, or they would have found us already. Or perhaps not—what predator would expect the prey to take refuge in its own lair?
A movement off to his right caught his eye and he quickly glanced up. A soldier, rifle on his shoulder, passed into his field of vision, marching a pattern around the scaffolding. After a moment, another soldier crossed into view. The two nodded to each other and continued on in opposite directions. Both of them looked nervously around as if expecting someone to jump them. Stefan watched for a few more moments and discovered that they returned to the same spot—completing the circle around the bomb—in approximately five minutes.
A look at the number of pre-fab housing units indicated to Stefan that the company they had annihilated today were probably the bulk of the unit guarding this installation; what had someone said earlier? That there could not be an extremely large military presence here if the place was intended to be a secret. Even taking into account that some of the guards (and the scientists working on the bomb) could be sleeping in the main administrative building, that still left room for only a handful of remaining guards. Stefan was sure that they would be getting reinforcements soon—this far behind enemy lines, it would not take long. Taking a deep breath, he waited for the two marching guards to move out of his line of sight, then rose slowly and painfully from his place and began to move toward the bomb. He checked his pocket to make sure that the two grenades he had placed there were still where they belonged as he crept through the shadows near the tree-line.
As he moved, fighting desperately to control the pain in his side as his bandages soaked through with blood, he wondered again why he was doing this. Why hadn't he let Gethelwain go, if that was what his foolish brother had wanted? He was in better condition. He was the heroic one, always willing to fight (and perhaps even to die) for some higher cause. Stefan was much more of a realist. One did what one had to do to survive. One made sure that one was at the top of the food chain. Whatever it took—and it didn't take much, dealing with the small ones, since they were so predictable it usually wasn't even a challenge—that was what you did.
He sighed quietly to himself and pressed on.
Gabriel stirred. It was dark. Even after he opened his eyes, it was dark, and his head hurt like someone had split it with an axe.
What was going on?
Gingerly he brought a hand up to his forehead and felt the sticky wetness of blood. It couldn't have been long, since the blood had not yet dried. "Stefan?" His voice came out sounding weak and shaky.
There was no answer.
"Stefan? Maselli? Are you here?" He rose to a sitting position and immediately regretted it, but there really wasn't much choice. One hand pressed to his forehead, he willed his vision to cut through the oppressive darkness. It didn't work.
There was a groan from the other side of the room. It took Gabriel a couple of seconds to process the fact that the sound had come from Maselli's last known position. "Maselli?"
"Gabriel?" A pause, and then: "Why's it dark? What's goin' on?" Another pause. "Hang on a second," Maselli continued, followed by the sound of rummaging around and then a tiny flame flicked into existence, barely illuminating the room.
Gabriel looked over where he had left Stefan, already knowing what he would see. "Stefan is gone."
"Gone?" Maselli dragged himself over toward Gabriel, grunting in pain as his injured leg protested the treatment. "Where?"
Gabriel sighed, closing his eyes briefly. "Stefan, what have you done...?" he whispered. Speaking so Maselli could hear him, he said, "I think he has gone to sabotage a bomb."
Maselli reached Gabriel, propping himself up against the wall. "He wasn't in any shape to do that. Hell, none of us are, but he was the worst of all." He eyed Gabriel critically. "Hey, you're bleeding. What happened?"
"Nothing. I—fell and hit my head in the darkness. I must have knocked myself unconscious."
The other man looked like he didn't believe that for a second, but he chose not to comment. "So—what do we do now?"
Gabriel dragged himself to his feet and approached the shaded window of the bunker. "We watch. And we wait. If we go out there now, we'll jeopardize any chance he has." Stefan, why have you chosen this time, after all these millennia, to do something like this? He leaned on his arms against the cool concrete wall and closed his eyes.
The tendrils of fever were already creeping into Stefan's brain as he hid behind some trees and watched the guards make another circle around the bomb.
Angrily he brushed the sweat off his forehead, feeling some of the stinging drops running down into his eyes. That in turn reminded him of his defeat at the hands of Gethelwain and his pets, and that almost brought the old hatred back.
It is the Enemy. They will not have me. They will not destroy me as they destroyed my father before me. I will not allow it! Compared to this, Gethelwain and his puppies are of no consequence. They want the hatred. They feed on the hatred. The only objective now is to play the Netherworlds' games and defeat the Enemy.
The only objective—
His hand closed around one of the two grenades in his pocket as he sighted on the tiny, machine-driven elevator platform that would take him up to the top of the bomb. So large...I do not remember even the early atomic weapons being this large from the pictures I have seen...The elevator, part of the scaffolding, would take him there. All he had to do was reach it.
He hoped this body was still capable of what he was planning to do.
He gripped the grenade more tightly, feeling the ridges and protrusions of its pineapple-shaped casing in his palm. His hand was slicked with sweat; he didn't know if it was from fear or fever, but it didn't matter. Taking a deep breath and summoning all his will, he wrenched the grenade from his pocket, pulled the pin, and flung it out into the forest.
The explosion ripped through the trees and echoed through the silence of the night. Immediately, the soldier closest to Stefan's side yanked his rifle down from his shoulder and sprinted off toward the edge of the clearing, yelling for backup. The other soldier, presumably on the other side of the bomb, was not visible.
His side burned with a white heat, the exertion re-opening the wound as he pounded across the clearing toward the elevator. His eyes were on his goal now; there was no room for outside distractions. He would either make it, or he would not. He forced himself to keep low even though it hurt worse, and to run in an erratic pattern. From somewhere a bullet zinged over his left shoulder; he ignored it. There was shouting from the other side of the bomb; he ignored that too.
Only a few more yards. Ten...six...three...
He nearly slammed into the scaffolding as he reached it, so intent was he on running and not stopping. His body screamed in protest, the pain nearly unbearable, his vision beginning to fuzz over from blood loss and fever.
No. Not yet. Cannot stop yet.
He leaped onto the tiny elevator platform, which was designed to hold about three people, and jammed his finger down on the button that would lift it upward. The soldier who had gone to investigate the explosion came running back; Stefan calmly pulled the second grenade from his pocket and flung it outward toward the man. He didn't even watch as it tore the soldier to pieces.
The elevator continued upward.
Inside the bunker, Gabriel and Maselli heard the explosion, muffled through the thick concrete walls. "Is that the bomb?" Maselli demanded, his voice pitching high and bright with fear. "Did he do it? Did it go off already?"
Gabriel struggled to pull the cover away from the bunker's narrow window. "No. That can't be it yet." He thought it was an odd question until he remembered that Maselli had had no comprehension of atomic bombs and their behavior—not even a historical perspective. To him it wasn't history—it was the present. "The explosion is far too small."
"Then what's he doin'?"
"Get the binoculars." Gabriel finally succeeded in pulling the thin metal covering away from the window. The window itself was a thin slit of very thick glass, measuring only about six inches from top to bottom but running about half the length of the bunker's front. He leaned against it, glad to have something to lean on, and tried to make out anything visible through the hazy glass. Good luck, Stefan. I don't know why you have decided you must do this, but everything is in your hands now.
Maselli returned with the binoculars, which he handed to Gabriel. "Why didn't he wait for us? There ain't no room for heroes in this thing. We just gotta get it done the best way we can."
"Perhaps you're mistaken about that, my friend," Gabriel said under his breath as he brought the binocs up and searched the installation for any sign of his brother. When the second explosion sounded, he flinched back involuntarily—there was a blinding flash of light and a brief scream quickly silenced. But where was Stefan?
It was then that he saw the elevator rising upward in the scaffolding. There was a single figure in it. From this distance Gabriel could not make out who it was, but he didn't have to.
The lights were coming on in the pre-fab houses now, although no doors were opening yet. Presumably the scientists were too frightened by the explosions to venture out. Gabriel glanced quickly over at the bunker door, noting that the rifle he had placed there had been removed. Of course. He could not replace it when he left. "Maselli—put that rifle back in the door before someone tries to get in here. If they realize what Stefan is doing, this will be the first place they come."
Maselli hurried off to do that as Gabriel continued watching the elevator's upward process. Too slow. He'll never make it.
This thing is too slow. Stefan's gaze raked the darkness below, looking for potential threats. The elevator rose at a crawling pace, or so it seemed, creaking and groaning in its ascent. Stefan crouched on the platform, pointing his rifle downward and taking random shots whenever he saw anyone approaching the elevator controls. He could not have them breaking the mechanism or stopping the platform—not yet. A quick glance upward told him that he had almost reached his goal; only about ten more feet and he would be at the top. If only this thing would move faster!
How ironic that I wish to hasten my death.
A bullet whizzed past him and hit the side of the bomb with a metallic spang. Stefan quickly ducked back, firing a couple more rounds downward. He was conserving his ammunition, because he did not know how many rounds he had or how to reload this weapon—even if he had any extra rounds for it. He had not brought any with him, deeming them unnecessary to his task. He was beginning to regret that decision, along with the one about only bringing two grenades. He could have used a few more.
"Don't, you idiot!" came a harsh voice from down below. "You want to hit that thing and set it off?" The voice was followed by the sound of a weapon being slapped sharply away from its aimed target. There were other voices, but Stefan wasn't listening to them. His head was pounding, the sweat pouring from his forehead now. His side felt like it was on fire. Must concentrate on what I must do. Nothing else.
The elevator platform stopped with a shuddering thud. Stefan teetered for a frightening second as he regained his balance, nearly dropping his rifle in the process. Re-establishing his grip on it quickly, he fired two rounds into the elevator mechanism and was rewarded by an electrical pop and smoke coming from the control panel. That should prevent them from coming up here—at least long enough for me to finish.
As he fumbled through his pockets for the things he would need, continuing to ignore the voices far below, his thoughts returned once again to his brother. Perhaps Gethelwain would have been a better choice to go. He had not been injured so severely, and it was in his nature to want to do things like this. The child would, no doubt, sacrifice his life—all his thousands of years of potential (there was that word again)—to save that human woman he had befriended. The thought was inconceivable to Stefan, but he knew it was true.
But Gethelwain was not the one who was taken in by the Enemy. That was true too.
Forcibly putting those thoughts aside, he pulled an emergency candle from his pocket and lit it with the cigarette lighter he had found earlier in still another pocket (the humans have such peculiar vices, he thought idly), setting it up next to the metal skin of the bomb so he could see what he was doing. A second thought struck him; he picked up the candle again and dripped wax on the sheet of orders, using the wax to stick the sheet to the side of the bomb where he could see it. Then he replaced the candle.
These actions reminded him of the ritual they had gone through to get here. As much as he had been against the idea of the painted elf Harlequin coming along on their journey, he reluctantly had to acknowledge that the elf's help would have been useful. But again there was no use pondering such things. Brushing sweat out of his eyes, he pried the panel off the side of the bomb with shaking hands and prepared to do what he had come here to do.
Inside the bunker Gabriel and Maselli watched anxiously. "What's he doing?" Maselli demanded.
"I can't see him anymore," Gabriel, who had the binoculars, told him. "I think he's reached the top." Pausing for quick scan, he reported, "The lights are coming on in the quarters buildings—there are about five soldiers gathered around the bottom of the bomb. They look like they're not sure what to do." Please remain unsure. It will not be long now.
But it was not to be. One of the soldiers turned to his buddies and said something that caused all of them to shoulder their rifles and head toward the scaffolding.
"What are they—?" Maselli started; then, more quietly, "Oh, shit..."
The soldiers had begun to climb up the scaffolding.
"We have to get out there and help him!" Maselli said, already beginning to hop and limp over toward where he had left his rifle. "Come on, Gabriel! We can take 'em before they get up there. Let's go!"
Gabriel nodded and turned to follow when something caught his eye. Turning back around, he slumped with dismay against the wall. "We cannot go," he said.
Maselli stopped. "Why?" His voice was sharp and full of frustration; it was obvious that he had been glad to find something he could do to be useful to the cause, and now Gabriel was trying to stop him.
Maselli looked. "No..." he groaned, all the fight taken out of him. "No...not now..."
The doors to the quarters buildings had opened, and a crowd of pajama- and shorts-clad individuals were heading in a fearful herd directly toward the bunker.
Maselli's gaze darted around the room. "We can take 'em!" His tone was desperate. "Come on, Gabriel! He's your brother! They're in their skivvies! We can shoot 'em down and get out there! Come on!"
Gabriel watched the view out the window sadly and shook his head. How could he tell Maselli that it was obviously not meant to be? When the orders had specified one man, they had meant one man. The Netherworlds would see to that. He had little doubt that, if they did manage to get outside, more soldiers—with more guns—would materialize from inside those buildings.
The first of the scientists reached the door. The handle rattled, then rattled again, more insistently. Muffled voices cried out from the other side of the door, screaming hysterically for someone to open it.
Maselli looked at it nervously, watching Gabriel's rifle clattering in the door handle. Gabriel ignored them, his gaze riveted to the window. He was weakening, his head pounding and his legs trembling, but he ignored that too. All his energy was devoted to sending his strength to Stefan. He didn't know whether it would work, but it was the only thing he could do now. No one, not even a Great Dragon, could be completely certain how the Netherworlds would react.
"Gabriel!" Maselli's voice was even more panicked. "What do we do if they get in?"
Without looking away, Gabriel said with deadly calm, "Shoot them."
Stefan glanced down, but it was too dark and too far to see anything. He could hear, though: they were coming up. He redoubled his efforts, willing his shaking hands to be still, his befogged brain to process the instructions scrawled on the stained and torn paper stuck to the side of the bomb. He couldn't afford to make any mistakes.
Ironic again. I am trying to avoid making mistakes that will prevent an explosion, not those that will cause it.
Their voices called out to each other far below him as they struggled their way up the side of the scaffolding. The framework holding the bomb up was not meant to be climbed—that was what the elevator was for. Still, though, it was certainly possible. Stefan estimated that it would only take them a minute or two to get up here, and if they did, everything was lost. He was too weak to fight them all—he might be able to hit one or two with his rifle, but his aim had never been good and was getting worse as his body began to shut down. Aside from that, they were getting smarter: they were coming up from either side of him, out of range of his shots until they got to the top and began converging on him from two sides. He'd never hit them all before they got him.
So I must work faster, he told himself grimly. That is all. I am a dragon. I am more intelligent than these humans. I can process information faster, even in this form, and my will is far stronger. I must use these things. Do not think of the soldiers. Do not think of Gethelwain. Think only of the task and the Enemy.
The principle behind what he was attempting to do was a simple one: cut two wires and touch them together, sending an electrical spark down the wires and into the guts of the bomb where the spark would cause the chemical reaction that would detonate it. He wondered if this was truly the way one would detonate a primitive atomic bomb; he assumed that the procedure would probably be much more complicated, but this was the Netherworlds. Things did not have to conform directly to what he knew as "reality." It was not the specific actions that mattered, he suspected, but the willingness to perform them. The Dweller's test had indicated that it wanted him to cooperate with his brother. If that was what it took to keep the Enemy from the world (and from his own mind) then that would be what he would do.
He continued searching through the bundles of wires behind the panel as he listened to the soldiers working their way up the scaffolding. It sounded like they were about halfway up now. There were so many wires! The instructions called for him to find a red wire in the bundle second from the left and touch it to a green one from the third bundle from the right. In the flickering candlelight, though, it was hard to identify colors; his fading vision wasn't helping matters, either. He leaned against the side of the bomb, his legs threatening to buckle under him, and squinted down more closely at the wires. Which one was it? If he got the wrong ones, he wasn't sure what would happen. He didn't want to find out.
The soldiers were getting closer.
Desperately, he reached down and snatched up the candle from where he had placed it, holding it up with one hand while he fumbled for the wire-cutters with the other. He knew he would give up his last chance at defending himself if he slung his rifle over his shoulder, but it couldn't be helped. He needed light, and he'd need both hands to hold the wires.
Pain lanced through his side, so sharp that it nearly caused him to drop the candle. Gasping, he steeled himself to ride out the wave, cursing the lost seconds. Damn this body! You must keep going! His entire side was soaked with blood now as it ran down his leg and saturated his fatigue pants.
"Hey! Get him!" cried a voice, closer than he expected. "Get up there! Hurry!"
Stefan grabbed the bundle of wires and pulled, holding the candle up close.
The door continued to rattle. "Let us in!" screamed the panicked voices again and again. "Open the door! For God's sake, open up! He's gonna blow the bomb!"
Maselli had stationed himself in front of the door about six feet away, his assault rifle trained on it, his face grim. So far Gabriel's rifle was holding. "Anything?"
Gabriel still didn't look away from the window. "They're about three quarters of the way up now," he said tightly. "If Stefan doesn't do it soon—"
"Yeah. I know. You don't have to say it." There was a pause, and then, hesitantly: "Do you think this thing will be safe? You know, when the bomb goes off?"
For a long moment, Gabriel didn't answer. "I don't know," he finally said quietly.
Where is that red wire? Stefan fumbled with the bundle of wires, moving them around between fingers that felt three times their normal size.
He was losing it.
He wasn't going to be able to do it.
Why did I insist? Am I to be tripped up by my pride once more?
The soldiers were almost at his level now. "There he is!" one called. "Hurry up! Shoot!"
He spun the bundle between his fingers again.
He had the red one!
Stop his hand from shaking—
There! One down!
Now for the other one. Three from the right. He had the bundle in his hands. Green wire—
Two of the soldiers brought their guns up, trying to get a bead on Stefan without hitting the bomb. Not quite there yet. Each of them moved toward the other, in closer to Stefan. Only a few feet should do it.
Sift the wires through his shaking fingers. Blue... white... yellow... "Where is it?" he whispered, feeling frustration and rage well up within him. He almost dropped the candle again, saving it only by gripping it so tightly that his fingers made indentations in its side. The hot wax dripped down on him, but he didn't even notice. He was almost beyond pain now.
The soldiers got into position, raised their rifles toward Stefan—
The green wire rested between his thumb and forefinger.
Again willing his hand still, he snipped the wire.
The soldiers fired.
Inside the bunker, Gabriel and Maselli heard the shots. Maselli stared at Gabriel, eyes wide with terror. "Do you think—?"
Gabriel did not reply, except to close his eyes and lower his forehead to his hands.
The bullets tore into Stefan with great wet sucking sensations. He clamped his jaws together to avoid crying out in agony as they ripped into his back and came out his front, carrying with them great chunks of bloody flesh that splashed into the camo-painted side of the bomb like some ghastly form of modern art. Blood splattered the wires in Stefan's hands, making them slippery and treacherous.
He felt consciousness slip and blackness come.
There was no pain, only a creeping blackness as he fell.
So this is what death feels like...
No! I will not fail! I cannot fail! I cannot—
Wrenching his unresponsive limbs by sheer force of will, he jammed the two wires together just as more bullets tore into him from the remaining soldiers.
As the black nothingness of death met the white brilliance of the explosion, Stefan felt something very much akin to joy.
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.