Chapter 7, part 2

“You gonna do it, or shall I?” Ocelot asked. They were sitting at a rickety table in a dilapidated flophouse about three blocks from the bar, which was the first place they had seen after stopping by a disreputable open-all-night electronics shop to purchase a simsense player. The player sat in the middle of the table, next to a cigarette burn and a crude heart with the legend “BUBBA LUVS LUCY” that had been dug into the table with a dull knife.

Winterhawk was obviously completely interested in the contents of the chip, because he had not yet commented on the state of the accommodations. He hadn’t even made his customary sarcastic reply when the proprietor of the establishment had indulged in lewd speculation about why two men wanted to rent a flophouse room for an hour. “I’ll do it,” he said. “Remember last time we did this?”

It had been a long time ago, but Ocelot still remembered the last simsense chip they had slotted on a run. It had nearly killed Winterhawk--the only thing that had saved him had been his magic-trained mental disciplines. Sim was usually perfectly safe, but sometimes some bad people put some powerful juju on these things--the BTL trade was bad enough, but some of it was even worse than that. “Okay,” he said reluctantly. “But be careful. If you look like you’re in trouble, I’m gonna pull the plug on you.”

“I hope so,” Winterhawk said. He slipped into the simsense player’s headgear a little clumsily; his usual method of entertainment involved magical tomes, not Neil the Ork Barbarian. When he was ready, he sat back in the unstable chair. “All right,” he said. “Start it up.”

First, there was nothing. Blackness. Then suddenly the view switched on, as if the person doing the recording had realized that the recorder was not running. Then a disorienting sensation of vertigo, darting lights and shadows, and muffled voices.

The recorder was standing in the middle of a room, looking around. The room was furnished in expensive bad taste--its occupant obviously had a lot of money and the artistic sensibilities of--well, of someone with bad taste. Scattered around the room were masterfully-done paintings of nudes, a few small sculptures depicting the same subject, and heavy, comfortable-looking, utterly-ugly furniture that looked like it had been purchased primarily for the purpose of being able to survive a war unscathed. Winterhawk, seeing all this from the point of view of the recorder, wondered whose place he was looking at.

The unseen presence moved forward, reached out to open a door. The being’s arm (it was hard to tell if its owner was a man or a woman) was clothed in a nondescript long-sleeved coat and dark gloves. There was no sound, not even the stranger’s steps on the carpeted floor.

The door’s bolt disengaged with a soft click, then was flung open by the stranger, who moved swiftly into the next room. Inside the simsense rig’s helmet, Winterhawk’s eyes widened as he realized who was in the room.

It was a bedroom, furnished in much the same style as the one preceding it. The bed, enormous and rumpled, looked like it had not been made in weeks. Sitting on it was a balding, middle-aged man that Winterhawk recognized instantly as Harry. He was dressed in slacks and a wrinkled white business shirt; a tie lay tossed aside next to him.

Quickly, fear registered in the fixer’s eyes, followed immediately by anger. “Who the hell are you?” he demanded. “How did you get in here?”

“That isn’t important,” the intruder’s silken voice purred. Winterhawk felt a little shiver run down his spine; the voice had a strange, almost unworldly quality to it, but he couldn’t identify exactly what he meant by that.

Before Harry could protest further or grab something to defend himself, the intruder had crossed the room and grabbed him by the front of his shirt. The anger in Harry’s eyes was turning back to fear again, but he maintained his bluff demeanor. “What do you want?” he yelled. “Sit down--let’s talk about this, whatever it is. We can work it out--”

The stranger chuckled. “Yell all you want, little man. Your guards and all your precious security measures won’t hear you. You’re alone here. All alone...but soon you won’t be. Soon, you’ll have some friends to die with.” Hauling back, the intruder drove a dark-gloved fist into Harry’s gut. The fixer gasped, unable to even double over since he was still held by his shirt. Winterhawk winced in sympathetic pain, though he did not feel anything. He didn’t hear Ocelot ask, concerned, “Hey, are you okay?” but he must have looked all right because his friend did not yet switch off the simsense gear.

The view went black.

Winterhawk leaned back a little more, preparing to remove the helmet, when the recording switched on again. Wild, disorienting swings. Sensation of wind rushing past him. The sound of his own screams, only they weren’t his, they were Harry’s. The feeling that something was gripping him by his right foot. None of the visuals were right--

He was upside down. He struggled to make sense of the rushing sensations, to sort out the inputs so he could orient himself. The grip on his foot tightened painfully. Below him, far below, the tiny glows of cars and streetlights could be seen, pitching wildly back and forth as the unseen stranger dangled him some one hundred stories above the street.

Harry screamed again, long and loud and piercing. The view went to black once more.

Winterhawk snatched off the helmet, breathing hard, eyes unfocused.

Ocelot gripped his shoulder. “You okay?”

The mage nodded. “Fine. But that was--not something I want to repeat. I’m feeling a bit queasy, I think.”

“What was it? Harry?”

“Yes. Harry. He was in a bad way. Whomever or whatever our new friend is, it’s got him. Or he’s dead,” he added grimly. He gestured at the simsense rig. “You might want to check it out yourself. I warn you, though--don’t do it if you’ve got fear of heights.”

“Did it tell you where he is?”

Winterhawk shook his head. “No. Nothing about that at all. Odd--if he’s trying to get us to do something, why just send us a teaser like this?”

Ocelot was already putting on the helmet. “Let me take a look, then we’ll talk.”

Winterhawk leaned back and watched his friend’s reactions as he went through the same sensations he himself had just experienced. Ocelot, too, winced at one point, and swayed in his chair as if disoriented. His breath came faster, and a light sweat broke out on the visible part of his face. About the time Winterhawk estimated the sim had ended, Ocelot continued to watch. He grew still and intent for another minute or two, then pulled off the simsense rig. “That’s it,” he said, panting. “You didn’t watch it long enough.” His voice had an odd, dead tone to it.

“Suppose you just tell me,” the mage said, not eager to go through that vertigo again.

Ocelot shook his head. “I’ll run it forward for you. But you gotta see this. Something definitely weird is going on.” Replacing the helmet on his head, he fiddled with the settings until he got it where he wanted it, then handed the helmet to Winterhawk. “Look at this.”

Reluctantly, the mage re-situated himself in the headgear, and Ocelot flicked on the switch once again. The scene was black as he remembered it. It stayed that way for a full thirty seconds but then, suddenly, he was looking at a figure sitting in a chair in what looked like a ramshackle warehouse building. The figure, slumped as if unconscious, was Harry. “Well,” said a voice that made Winterhawk’s skin crawl, “Here we all are. Or at least Harry and I are here. I think you should come and join our little party. It will be ever so much more fun with the two of you along, don’t you think?” A pause, then an inhuman little chuckle. “Oh, you do. How nice. Of course, you realize that if you don’t come, I’ll have your friend here for my evening meal, and then...let’s see! Whom shall I have to bother next? Aubrey, perhaps, or that nice little Japanese ork lady down in San Francisco? Oh, but that would be in such bad taste.” The unseen voice took on a threatening tone, a silky snarl. “We have some unfinished business to attend to, you and I, so you’d best not keep me waiting.” Another pause. “We’ll meet tonight. Yes, that would be nice. One hour, no more, I’m warning you. It’s, what, a bit after 21:00 now--be here by 22:15. What is the address of this charming little place? Let’s see--Front Street, I believe it is. You’ll find it, I’m sure. It’s a lovely abandoned machine shop. You come down and we’ll talk. Yes--we’ll talk!” The stranger’s voice dissolved into maniacal laughter, and for the final time, the view blackened.

This time, Winterhawk didn’t pull off the helmet. He sat in the chair, not moving, his arms hanging limply at his sides. “You know,” he remarked softly, “I rather wish I wasn’t agnostic right now.”

Ocelot stared at him. “Why?”

“Because it seems that ‘Oh, my God’ is the proper response to this particular little message.”

“Well, I’m not agnostic, so I’ll say it for you,” Ocelot said, reaching over to take the helmet from his friend’s head. “Oh, my God.”

Winterhawk ran a hand through his hair and slumped in the chair. “So what the hell do we do now?”

Ocelot dropped down into the other chair. “Any idea who that was?”

The mage nodded. “You don’t want to hear my speculation, though.”

“Yeah, I do. I don’t, ‘cause I’m afraid I know what you’re gonna say, but I do. You know?”

Winterhawk glanced down at his chrono. “21:10.” Looking back up at Ocelot, he said, “Anything odd about that time?”

Ocelot shrugged. “Should there be? Except that we’ve got a bit more than an hour--” He stopped. “How did he know?”

“Precisely,” Winterhawk said in the tone he would use to praise a student’s excellent leap of logic. “How did he know? He had no way to know when we would get to that bar, or how long it would take us to look at that chip. Or did he?”

“What are you saying, ‘Hawk? If it’s what I think it is, maybe we should just shoot ourselves now and save the trouble.”

“What do you think it is?” The Brit began gathering up the pieces of the simsense rig from the table and stowing them in their carrying case.

For a long moment, Ocelot didn’t answer. Finally, he said, “Somehow, one of those Horror things has made it over here, and it’s after us.”

“One point to the chap with the tiger eyes,” Winterhawk agreed, though he didn’t sound happy about it.

Ocelot spread his hands in defeat. “So what do we do? You remember those things, ‘Hawk. We barely beat them before, and we had Joe and ‘Wraith with us then. If we walk into its den, we’re gonna be pizza.”

“And if we don’t,” Winterhawk reminded him, “It will just continue to plague us. Not to mention the small matter of Harry. And Aubrey, and your friend in San Francisco. You don’t doubt that it can carry out its threats, do you?”

Ocelot shook his head. “No.” He slammed his fist down on the table, making the simsense case jump and nearly buckling the flimsy tabletop. “Damn it, no! But I hate being jerked around like this. There’s nothin’ we can do and it knows it. And who’s to say it won’t kill Harry and the rest anyway?”

“No one,” Winterhawk said quietly. “But I don’t doubt that if we don’t act, it will do just that.”

“So we just march in there and die. Is that it?”

“I don’t intend to just die.” Winterhawk got up and began pacing around the room. “Although we don’t have much time to make any plans. It’s been awhile since I’ve been to Seattle--how far are we from where we’re supposed to go?”

Ocelot hadn’t been in town for awhile, either, but he was more familiar with the bad ends of town than his friend. “That’s down by the docks. Maybe twenty minutes, if we hurry a little.”

“So we’ve got about forty minutes to make plans. That doesn’t leave many options, does it? I’d certainly like to have the time to summon up a few elementals to give us some help, but that takes hours.”

Ocelot shook his head. “You can’t even check out the area magically, because those things’ll nail you again.”

“Yes, and without our friend the Dog shaman, I don’t fancy trying, if you don’t mind.”

“You think we should try to get Fang and Striker back? Some more firepower--”

“No,” Winterhawk cut him off, shaking his head. “If this thing really is a Horror, it will go through those two like they weren’t even there. I’ve grown a bit fond of them, frankly, and I’d prefer not to sign their death warrant. Especially since they’ll be no help.”

Ocelot knew he was right. “Okay, then--maybe we could try to find someone else. Hire somebody, maybe?”

“Same problem,” Winterhawk said. “Besides the fact that we don’t have time. This thing planned it quite well. All we have time to do is decide whether or not to go.” He went over and stared out the room’s grimy window. “About the only thing I can think of that might go in our favor is that if this Horror really has managed to make it to our plane, it’s got to be expending truly massive amounts of magical energy just to keep itself here. I don’t recall that Seattle was a site of greater than average magical power, so it must have used a ritual of some kind to get itself here. If so, then we won’t be facing anything like its full power.”

“You hope,” Ocelot said.

“Yes, well, I can’t be sure of everything,” Winterhawk admitted. “This is all just theory. But I do find it a bit comforting, considering that we really don’t have a choice about going to it. Am I correct?”

Ocelot didn’t answer for awhile. He too got up and began pacing. Finally, he nodded, reluctance and disgust in both his words and his posture. “Yeah,” he said. “We’ve been screwed right and proper, to use your words.”

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Copyright ©1996 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.