Sean decided not to take his car to San Francisco—it hadn’t been running all that well since its cross-country trip anyway, and furthermore it just wasn’t worth the hassle of trying to talk his way past the notoriously humorless Tir Tairngire border guards.
He also decided not to take Jay, although part of this decision was based on the fact that when he returned to Crank’s apartment after his meet with Gretsch, he found the dwarf, along with Crank, the ork, and a couple of other people he hadn’t met, apparently dead to the world with their datajacks plugged in and their fingers twitching. Whatever they were doing, it looked like they’d been at it for awhile and probably didn’t want to be interrupted. He found a datapad tossed on a table near some pizza boxes and tapped out a note to Jay telling him where he’d gone (at least in a general sense; he didn’t reveal the location Gretsch had given him) and that he’d probably be back in a few days.
It wasn’t like they were parting company completely, after all: they both had cell phones and if Jay needed him for anything he could just call. He shoved his clothes into his bag, left the datapad propped on the case to Jay’s deck where the dwarf would be sure to find it, and left the apartment.
He slept most of the way on the bus down, leaning against the window. Apparently he didn’t look suspicious, because by the time he awakened his chrono indicated they were well on their way through the Tir. He turned to his seatmate, an elderly Asian human woman. “Did we cross the border yet?”
She smiled. “You sleep deeply. We crossed several hours ago and now we’re about an hour out of CalFree.”
Sean nodded. He knew the border patrols weren’t as strict as they used to be—the Tir had been having economic problems for as long as he could remember. Just as well. He smiled back at her; now that he was awake, he wouldn’t mind a bit of conversation. “Do you live in San Francisco, or just visiting?”
“Oh, I live there. I’m coming back from visiting my daughter and her husband in Seattle.” The lady stowed her magazine away in her shapeless bag and settled back in her seat. “What about you?”
“I’m trying to find somebody I’ve heard is there.”
She looked interested. “Oh, really? An old friend?”
“More like—a long lost relative, I guess.”
The old lady smiled. “That’s always a good thing to do. It’s important to keep in touch with your family.”
“Yeah, I guess it is. I just hope I can find him. This is my first trip here.”
“I’m sure you’ll be fine, dear,” she said. “It’s not that large a town, really, once you get to know it. Crowded, though. Lots of people, of all different types. Much nicer than the old days when it was all Japanese, except for the metahumans who came in to do the dirty work.” Her wrinkled features twisted into a look of delicate distaste. “I was so glad when that all ended. It was terrible there for awhile, under General Saito.”
Sean realized she was talking about things that had happened long ago, back when he was a baby. “You must be pretty familiar with the town, if you’ve been there that long.”
“Oh, I’ve been there most of my life. I’ve often thought about moving, but it’s such a beautiful town and, well—it’s home.” She shrugged. “It’s hard to leave your home, even when things get unpleasant.”
Sean nodded. For some reason, her words brought on a sudden wave of homesickness of his own. “Yeah...” he said softly. “Yeah, I guess it is.”
She gave him another of her birdlike smiles. “Good luck with your quest. I hope you find the one you’re looking for.” She settled back and closed her eyes, which Sean took to mean she either didn’t want to talk anymore or else she was tired.
That was all right with him. He sighed, leaning back against the window, and thought about Bainbridge. He wondered what Althea was doing, if she missed him—if any of them missed him. For the first time, it sunk in to him what he had done: taken off for the opposite coast on what might still end up being a wild goose chase, just because he’d found some papers in an old trunk in his parents’ attic.
Adopted parents’ attic.
He sighed. Even that he didn’t know for sure. Although it wasn’t likely, it was still possible that the whole thing was an elaborate hoax, that the Hunters really were his true parents, and he was in for a big disappointment if and when he found this Ocelot guy. And even if it was true (somehow he knew it had to be, since much as he loved the Hunters they hadn’t had much in common with him or he with them), what about his mother? There had been almost no link to her. Was she alive? Were she and Ocelot together? Would they even want to have anything to do with him after they’d given him up so long ago?
So many questions, and no answers. Sean hoped he’d find some in San Francisco, but he wasn’t holding his breath.
The bus pulled into the station early the following morning. Sean grabbed his bag from under the seat and got off quickly, waving goodbye to the old lady. Outside the weather was clear and sunny, chilled a bit by a cool wind coming in off the bay. He glanced down at the scrap of paper containing the address (even though he’d already memorized it) and decided he’d better get himself a place to stay before he went any further. Flagging down a cab, he gave the driver the address and asked if there were any motels nearby.
The cabbie punched the address into his onboard computer and shook his head. “That ain’t really tourist town,” he said. “Mostly residential, light industrial, that kind of thing.”
Sean nodded. “Okay. Then can you find me a something not too far away?”
Again the cabbie consulted his computer. “There’s some places a couple kilometers away, gettin’ closer to the tourist areas. That work?”
“Yeah, that’s fine. Let’s go there and I’ll decide.”
He leaned back in his seat and watched the town go by as the cabbie drove. It really was a pretty town, very hilly and full of old buildings in various states of repair. As the old lady on the bus had said, it was crowded—a lot more than Bainbridge, that was sure. But Sean was no stranger to big cities, and he liked the vitality provided by lots of people. I could get to like it here, he thought idly.
After maneuvering his way through snarled traffic for several minutes, the cabdriver turned onto another street and pulled over. Sean looked out the front window, noting that he was facing the ocean. The Bay Bridge was visible in the distance. “Here we are, “ the driver said. “There’s about five places to stay along here, and it’s a decent area. Okay?”
Sean nodded. “Yeah, great. Thanks.” He slotted his credchip, including a nice tip for the extra service. He got out and hefted his bag as the car drove off.
After looking over the offerings available, he finally decided on a small place that specialized in longer-term accommodations. It was all on a single story, arranged around a nice little courtyard. Sean arranged for a room for a week and the clerk showed him where it was, around the back side of the complex.
He tossed his bag on the bed and dropped down next to it, feeling good to be stretched out after the cramped bus seat. He thought about his next options. It was only eight o’clock in the morning, which probably meant that if the address he had was a dojo, there wouldn’t be anybody here this early—and besides, if Ocelot was anything like most of Sean’s friends, he wouldn’t even be awake this early. He decided to wait until at least noon, which gave him four hours to have a nap (despite the fact that he’d slept on the bus he didn’t feel refreshed: the seats had been far from comfortable), get a shower, change clothes, and make himself presentable. That was important to him, he realized. He wanted to make a good impression on this guy.
He shrugged out of his jacket and started removing things from his pocket in preparation for a nap. When the cell phone came out, though, he stared at it for a moment. Three hour time difference...might be enough. He flipped it open and hit one of the speed-dial buttons.
She picked up after two rings. “Sean?” The voice was a bit groggy, but sounded happy. After a moment the video pickup turned on, showing her looking all tousle-headed like she’d just gotten up.
“Hi, Althea. Yeah, it’s me.”
“How are you? Where are you?”
He chuckled. She sounded a lot more animated than her usual cynical drawl. “Miss me, eh?”
“Of course not, silly.”
Again he laughed. “Well, I missed you. I miss everybody, actually. Except Jay. I haven’t been away from him long enough to miss him.” He paused. “I didn’t wake you up, did I?”
“It’s only eleven. You know you did. But that’s okay. Where are you? Have you had any luck?”
“San Francisco, and maybe. I’ll let you know after today.”
She smiled. “That’s great. I was afraid you were going all the way out there for nothing. How’s San Francisco?”
“Dunno. I just got here.” He turned his phone so the video picked up his spartan little room. “Gorgeous, isn’t it?”
She stuck her tongue out. “Not exactly House Beautiful. Oh, that reminds me: your house is fine. I drive by every now and then. Somebody’s mowing the lawn.”
“That’s good.” For some reason it did make him feel good, knowing he’d have a home to go back to if he wanted it. “So everybody’s okay?”
“Yeah, fine. Sensei misses you. He doesn’t say it, but I can tell.”
That made Sean feel good too. “Well, tell him I’ll be back one of these days. But he’ll have to get himself a new star student once I go off to college.”
She nodded. “It’s good to hear from you, Sean,” she said softly.
“Yeah...” he said in the same tone. Then he grinned and pulled out the little dragon she’d given him. “Don’t worry, though—your little spy is keeping an eye on me.”
Althea nodded gravely, but there was a glint of mischief in her eyes. “Good. He’s been reporting back to me, so you be good.”
“Scout’s honor,” Sean assured her.
“Yeah, right—you as a scout. Got any more good jokes?”
He laughed. “I’ll have to get back to you on that. Right now I think I hear a nap calling. Tell everybody I said hi, will you?”
“Yessir.” Again her expression grew serious, just for a moment. “Be careful, okay?”
As he hung up, he stared at the phone for a long time. Then he put it on the nightstand and lay back on the bed. His last conscious thought before drifting off to sleep was that he hoped he could keep his promise.
He was in a dark cavern. It was neither damp nor musty, but it smelled...old. Like it had been here for millennia, unchanging and unchanged. There were voices up ahead. He started toward them, exiting the cavern and moving into a narrow tunnel, but they remained naggingly just out of his reach. Many voices, male and female. They muttered back and forth at each other, but he could not make out the words.
Then there was someone behind him. He whirled in time to see a shadow disappear around one of the bends in the tunnel. He tried to call out but no sound came from his lips. He ran, retracing his steps back through the tunnel. When he reached the turn, he stopped.
No one was there.
Pausing a moment, he waited. The voices were still behind him, still indistinct but no softer or louder. Of the shadow, though, there was no sign. Sighing he turned back and once more headed toward them, faster this time.
He burst into another cavern. The walls were alive with shadows here: Big shadows. All around him they moved and writhed against the stone walls. He got brief impressions of long necks, of wings, of sharp teeth. Everywhere, the voices whispered and muttered, but remained maddeningly indistinct. Something was new, though: even though he couldn’t understand what they were saying, he somehow knew they were discussing him.
Again he drew breath to speak, but again nothing came out. He had no voice here. The whisperings were starting to get to him now, to work their way into his brain. Even after he clapped his hands to his ears to shut them out, they continued. It was as if they were inside his head instead of all around him.
They were moving now, drawing in closer to him, their voices growing louder. He spun around and saw that they surrounded him, moving in from all sides. And then he realized that the shadow from the tunnel was there too, blocking the exit, and it was one of them...
Sean awakened with a start, letting out a quick sharp breath of surprise. He often had vivid dreams, but not one that unsettling in quite awhile. He sat there, waiting for his heart rate to go back down to normal. Already the dream was fading—not that it had been all that distinct in the first place. Something about shadows—
“Guess somebody’s telling me it’s time to get up and get on with it,” he said aloud, shoving his sweat-dampened hair back off his forehead. He was glad to comply, since he didn’t relish the idea of going back to sleep and picking up Part II of the dream.
He took a long shower, the first hot one he’d had since moving in with Crank, whose apartment had only had cold water. Letting the water roll over his body and carry away the stresses of the last few days, he thought about what he would do. He had no idea how he was going to approach Ocelot. Could he just show up on the guy’s doorstep and announce, “Hi, Dad! You don’t know me, but I’m your long-lost son”? Somehow that just didn’t seem like the way to go. He sighed, pulling on a fresh pair of jeans, a black T-shirt, and his leather jacket. He’d just have to play it by ear, that’s all. He’d always been good at that.
The first thing he did was get a map from the motel office and then rented himself a nondescript cheap car, not wanting to be at the mercy of cabs and buses. He stopped at a diner and ordered breakfast, using the time to pore over the map and figure out where he was going. As he was getting ready to pay his check and leave, his phone rang. Wondering if it was Althea again, he pulled it out and snapped it open.
It was Jay. “Oh, so you are still alive,” the dwarf said, half relieved, half sarcastic.
“Why wouldn’t I be?” Sean slotted his chip to pay for breakfast, then headed out of the diner, still talking.
“What’s the idea of giving me the slip?”
Sean shrugged. “You were busy, and I didn’t want to interrupt you.”
“So you couldn’t have waited?” Jay sounded almost offended.
“Sorry—I got some good information, and I wanted to follow it up right away. I’ll be back in a couple of days.” He paused. “So how’d your job go?” He was moving down the street now, to where he’d managed to find a place to park a couple of blocks from the diner.
Jay’s bad mood couldn’t last once he started talking about decking. “Great! We ran into a little trouble, but that system was ripe for the taking. Crank even cut me in on the take, so when you get back up here I’ll buy you dinner.”
“Great. McHugh’s,” Sean teased. “I can hardly wait.”
Jay snorted. “Hey, I’ll spring for the double McHugh burger.”
“Okay, big spender. You do that. Like I said, I should be back in a couple of days.”
“So did you find this guy?”
“I’m on my way there now, or at least to where he’s supposed to be. We’ll see how it goes.”
“Okay, then I’ll let you go. It’s sounding like we might have another little job coming up, and Crank’s got some utilities he’s gonna let me have cheap.”
“Whee.” Sean chuckled, as always amused at how he and Jay could be such good friends when they had almost nothing in common.
“Yeah, right. Go beat somebody up or something.” Jay was grinning as he broke the connection.
Sean had just about reached the car, so he put the phone back in his pocket and was reaching for the magkey when something tickled the back of his neck. It wasn’t a physical feeling, as if someone had touched him, but yet it felt as if it was. He turned around quickly—
—just in time to see somebody disappearing around the corner at the intersection he’d just passed less than a minute ago.
He stiffened: he couldn’t be sure, but he could have sworn that the brief impression had been of the slender Asian he’d seen back at the bar in Seattle. He acted without thinking, taking off at a full run back toward the intersection.
He knew it would be useless, and it was. When he skidded to a stop at the corner and looked down the street, he saw no one except a woman pushing a baby stroller in the opposite direction.
He let his breath out. What the hell was going on here? Was he going crazy? Seeing things? Or was somebody following him? He turned in disgust and started back toward his car, his mind racing.
Why would somebody follow him? If this was the same guy, he’d tracked him from Seattle. The only people aside from himself who knew he was in San Francisco were Jay and Althea, and he’d stake his life that neither of them had anything to do with this. So who?
Are you sure it’s anybody at all?
He sighed, reaching the car and getting in (after checking the back seat—his paranoia was stepping up a bit despite his best efforts to keep it under control). Whoever the Asian man (or the figment of his imagination) was, he didn’t have time to deal with him right now. He had a dojo to find, and one of the most important meetings of his life coming up.
Still, he was glad he’d bought the map. Paranoia or no paranoia, he decided that taking an indirect route to the dojo was just good common sense. If nobody was following him then it wouldn’t make any difference, and if somebody was—well, maybe he could make sure they weren’t still on his tail when he reached his destination.
Copyright ©2001-2003 R. King-Nitschke. The Shadowrun universe is the property of Wizkids.
No part of this story may be reproduced without permission from the author.