Chapter 7, part 4
Ocelot struggled to consciousness slowly. He didn’t really want to wake up; it would have been much easier to stay asleep and not have to think about anything, but he didn’t have that option. For some reason he couldn’t put his finger on right now, his brain wanted to be awake and experience this utterly hopeless situation. Besides, his arms hurt.
Fighting his way up through layers of mind-fuzz, Ocelot gradually identified the reason for the sore arms: he was hanging from them. He shook his aching head and finally opened his eyes, fearing what he would see.
His arms were shackled in old-fashioned metal cuffs. These cuffs were attached to chains, which were in turn attached to the wall. He quickly discovered that he was not actually hanging; now that he was awake, he could get his feet under him and relieve the pressure on his arms, which felt like he had just lost a tug-o-war bout with a team of ten trolls. Looking down, he saw that his armored jacket was gone, as were his shoes and of course all his weapons. His back hurt where he had hit the machinery, but it didn’t feel like it hurt as badly as it should have, given the velocity of the impact. He had no idea how long he had been hanging here, but he didn’t think it was long enough for something like that to get better on its own.
He looked to his right and saw nothing, so he turned to his left. Winterhawk was in a similar situation, still unconscious, hanging from a set of shackles that looked exactly like the ones Ocelot wore. The mage was missing his armored coat, suit jacket, and tie; it also looked like all his weapons and magical foci were gone.
Ocelot tried to stretch his leg over to shake Winterhawk, but the two were shackled just far enough apart that they could not reach each other. “‘Hawk,” he whispered. “Wake up. ‘Hawk!”
Winterhawk stirred, moaned painfully, but did not wake.
“‘Hawk!” Ocelot said, a little louder. “Come on, man, wake up. You gotta stand up, and it won’t hurt as much.”
The mage moaned again, opened his eyes reluctantly, and mumbled something Ocelot couldn’t hear. He quickly got the same inspiration Ocelot did, twisting around so he could stand unsteadily up. He looked around, saw Ocelot. “This--isn’t just a bad dream, is it?”
Ocelot shook his head. “Nope.”
“I think I broke my bloody arms.”
“Really?” Ocelot asked, concerned. If that was true, getting out of here might be even harder than he thought it would be.
“No. But it certainly feels like it.” Winterhawk looked around again. “Are we alone here?”
“I dunno. I only woke up a little before you did.” Ocelot switched his cybereyes to thermographic vision. “No. There’s a body over there to the right. Looks prone.”
“But not dead?” Winterhawk followed Ocelot’s lead and scanned the area himself, coming to the same conclusion. “Looks humanoid. Not like that--say, I did see what I thought I saw, correct?”
“You mean the giant killer octopus made out of Jell-o?”
Winterhawk sighed. “That’s a relief. I thought I was going mad there for a minute. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by anything at this point. I trust it got you the same way it got me?”
“Yeah. Knocked me clear across the room. That damned thing was fast. Faster than me.” He turned his head to face Winterhawk. “If this is its weak version, I’d sure hate to see the strong one.”
“Well, it doesn’t seem to be here at the moment, unless it’s disguised as our sleeping friend over there,” Winterhawk said. “P’raps we should try getting out of here before it comes back. Can you pull these chains loose from the wall?”
Ocelot braced his feet against the wall and pulled with all his strength. The chains did not budge; all he managed to do was to hurt his arms. “No,” he said, wincing in pain. “No luck. These things are in there good.”
“All right, then,” Winterhawk said, “Let’s see if I can weasel my wrists out of them--” Closing his eyes, he directed his concentration at compressing his hand together so he could slide it through the shackle’s cuff. Using a slow, steady pressure, he tried to ignore the pain and force it through, but the cuff caught on the bone at the base of his thumb and stopped cold. Trying it with the other hand got the same result. He shook his head. “No luck there, either,” he said reluctantly.
“Can you do any magic?”
Winterhawk tried to concentrate on a simple spell: to levitate himself a meter or so off the ground. Nothing happened. “I think we have a problem,” he said.
“What, you can’t do it?”
The mage shook his head. “No, and that worries me. I should be able to do something.”
“But how can it--” Ocelot paused. “Look,” he whispered. “Our friend’s waking up, whoever he is.”
Indeed, the prone figure across the room was now stirring. Slowly, as if in pain, it rose to a sitting position.
“Shh,” Ocelot said very softly, and Winterhawk nodded. Both of them watched the figure intently.
The figure rose to its feet, unsteadily. It looked to be male, medium height, paunchy, wearing rumpled pants and an untucked white shirt. In fact, it looked very much like Harry. Ocelot glared at Winterhawk and shook his head, then turned his attention back.
The figure carefully tested its limbs, and when it determined it could walk, started moving slowly around the area. When it approached the door, it ran into what looked like an invisible wall a foot away from the door. Reaching out its hands, it felt the barrier, looking like a mime performing an invisible-box routine. It stopped for a moment, then raised its fist and hit the barrier. The fist contacted the barrier and bounced back. Winterhawk looked at Ocelot, raised an eyebrow, then he too turned toward the action.
The man turned away from the barrier and headed slowly back into the room, holding his hands out in front of him as if he expected to encounter another one in front of him. It was at this point that he saw the two prisoners. He stopped. “Is somebody over there?” he asked. It sounded like Harry--the voice was gravelly and tired. “Who is that over there?” When there was no answer, he moved closer at a somewhat faster pace and stared. “Shit,” he said under his breath. “‘Hawk? Ocelot? That is you, isn’t it?”
Winterhawk fixed him with his nastiest gaze. “Harry. How nice to see you again. And how amusing that you expected us to be fooled a second time by your little ruse.”
Harry’s face went totally perplexed. “Huh?”
“Stuff it, Harry, or whatever your name is,” Ocelot growled. “It ain’t gonna work again. Just do whatever you’re gonna do and get it over with.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Harry demanded. “I been out like a light for--” he looked down at his chrono “--hours. I want to know what’s goin’ on. Somebody grabbed me and dangled me off a building, and that’s the last thing I remember. I woke up here on the floor and here’s you guys hung up on the wall.”
“Yes, and I’m the King of England,” Winterhawk said sarcastically.
“Well, Your Majesty, you’ll forgive me if I don’t curtsey,” Harry grumbled. “But we gotta get outta here.”
“Well, then, why don’t you let us out of these lovely accommodations?” the mage asked, rattling the chains for emphasis.
“Yeah. Let me see what I can do...” Harry stepped forward, reaching out to Winterhawk. His hands stopped a foot short of him, knocking once again up against the invisible barrier. “What is going on?” he demanded. “I can’t get out the door, either!”
“Look, you’re makin’ me sick,” Ocelot spat out. “If you’re gonna kill us, do it. Get it over with. I don’t like bein’ screwed around with.”
Harry threw his hands up in the air in disgust, then pounded on the barrier. “Frag it, kid, I don’t know how I can prove it to you! Why do you think I ain’t Harry? How long we known each other, anyway?”
“You tell us,” Winterhawk said.
“I mean it. How long have we known each other?” The mage stared hard at Harry.
“‘Bout--what--six years, right?”
“And what was our first job?”
“The museum job.” Harry was looking at him like he was crazy. “You know that.”
“The one where we met Maria Mercurial, yes?”
Harry’s eyes widened. “You crazy, ‘Hawk? It was that lady clothes designer. The one you were datin’ for awhile. What was her name again--?”
Winterhawk looked at Ocelot. “Do you believe him?”
Ocelot shrugged. “I dunno. Maybe that thing knows all that stuff too.”
“What thing?” Harry yelled in frustration.
“That would be me,” said a new voice, silky-smooth and unctuous.
Harry and the two runners turned toward the source of the voice. A man stood there, grinning at them. Human, medium height, thin, with impossibly white teeth and slicked-back black hair. He wore a suit, shoes as shiny as his teeth, and spotless white gloves. “What do you think?” he asked, spreading his arms for inspection. “Does this look work for me?” He moved closer, and only then could the three prisoners see his eyes: the pupils were black, ageless pits with something eternal and unwholesome roiling at the bottom.
Instinctively, Harry shrank back against the barrier, his eyes so wide that the whites could be seen all around them. Winterhawk fixed the creature with a cold twin-laser stare. “I liked your other form better,” he said evenly. “More honest.”
The man’s grin widened. “Cheer up--I’m sure you’ll get to see it again eventually. But right now you’ll have to settle for my humble self. Sorry about that.” He began pacing around the floor. “I’m still amusing myself with the thought of how easy it was to get you here. You people are so predictable. Threaten one of your precious loved ones and I can lead you around like puppies. It’s almost criminal how easy it is.”
“So now that we’re here, what are you gonna do with us?” Ocelot asked.
The man shrugged. “I don’t know yet. Maybe I’ll just keep you around until you starve to death. Or maybe I’ll pull your beating heart from your chest, and keep you alive so you can watch. You know, you two and your friends were quite a hindrance to our plans. Especially that infernal clown. But we’ll deal with him later. We can wait. Right now, it’s the small stuff we’re interested in. And you, my amigos, are the small stuff.” He laughed, the sound echoing to the high ceilings of the factory. “I think I’ll be off now, though--I’ve got some things to do. Don’t try to get loose.” He looked at Winterhawk. “And as I’m sure you remember, mage, there’ll be a nasty surprise for you if you try to reach the astral plane. Ta!” Without further comment, he turned on his mirror-shined heels and strode across the room, disappearing into the dim gloom that wreathed the far side of the expanse.
For a moment, no one said anything. Then Harry turned to face the two runners. “Who...the hell...was that?” he asked. The fear in his voice was obvious and unmistakable.
Winterhawk shook his head wearily. “You don’t want to know, Harry,” he said. All thought of mistrusting the fixer’s identity seemed to have departed from his mind.
Ocelot sighed, his head sinking down. “We’re screwed.”
“Look,” Harry said, visibly trying to get hold of himself. “If we’re gonna get outta here, we gotta come up with a plan. I can’t get out, but at least I’m mobile.” He paused. “I wonder why I’m not chained up there too.”
“That’s easy,” Winterhawk said in a dead monotone. “It doesn’t consider you a threat. Isn’t that wonderful?”
“It?” Harry said quickly.
“It,” Winterhawk agreed. “That’s not what it really looks like.” His voice had no volume behind it; it was tinged with the edges of despair. “I believe Ocelot here, in his colorful way, has said it correctly--we are screwed.”
Harry was getting some of his old gumption back in the immediate absence of a threat. “Hey, what kind of way is that to talk?” he demanded. “There’s gotta be something we can do. I don’t know about you, but I don’t plan on dyin’ here. Now come on--what can we do?”
More to humor Harry than anything else, Ocelot said, “Okay--where’s our stuff?”
“Stuff. Check. Good idea.” If he was aware that he was babbling, the fixer didn’t show it. He headed off to inspect the dimly-lit factory, returning five minutes later with his own look of despondence. “I found it all right--it’s all over there.” He pointed off the the left. “But it’s behind another one o’ those barrier thingies. I tried pounding on it, but nothin’ doing. It’s too strong for me.”
“Everything’s there?” Winterhawk asked, perking up a bit. “Even my sword?” He seemed very interested in the answer to that question.
“Yeah. That’s a nice pigsticker you got there, ‘Hawk, but it ain’t gonna do you any good if you can’t get to it.”
Winterhawk didn’t answer that.
“You checked all the way around for barriers?” Ocelot asked.
Harry nodded. “Yeah, I felt my way around the whole area. That’s a damn big barrier. Ain’t that hard to keep up or somethin’?”
Winterhawk nodded. “Normally, yes. It would take quite a ritual to put up something like that, even if it isn’t very strong, which I suspect it isn’t.”
“So you’re saying we could break through it?” Ocelot said.
“I don’t know. Possibly. But it doesn’t matter--I’m certainly not pulling my way out of these cuffs, and I don’t think you are either.”
Harry sighed. “Listen, guys--I gotta apologize for this one. I still don’t know what happened. I checked Johnson out personally. You know I wouldn’t’ve called you if I hadn’t. But this thing even managed to get into my place. Maybe you don’t know how hard that is, but trust me--it shouldn’t’ve been that easy.”
Ocelot shook his head. “Don’t worry about it, Harry. There ain’t no way you could’ve known this one. You were just a pawn, same as us.”
“At least you didn’t end up with a pole-lamp through your cranium,” Winterhawk muttered.
“Huh?” Harry asked, his head jerking up to look at the mage.
“That’s what happened to Johnson.”
“Just another pawn,” Ocelot supplied helpfully. He shook his head in disgust and rattled the chains again. “What the hell are we gonna do? We’ve gotta get out of here.”
“You think it’s just gonna leave you hangin’ there like it said?” Harry asked.
Winterhawk shook his head. “No chance. It will be back. Probably soon.”
“And we just have to hang here and wait for it,” Ocelot said.
“This isn’t the trideos, old boy,” Winterhawk said with a bare shadow of his usual cynical wit. “The cavalry isn’t going to show up and spring us. And since we can’t spring ourselves--”
“Oh, goody!” The man was standing in the center of the room, though no one had heard him approach. “Despair. I love despair. It’s almost as good as sheer abject terror. Maybe if you keep it coming, I’ll let you live for awhile!” He strode over, looking first at Harry, then at Ocelot, and finally at Winterhawk. “All right,” it said, turning back to Harry. “Go over there,” he ordered, pointing toward the spot where the fixer had awakened. “I don’t need you around right now. I’ll call if I do.”
Harry started to protest, but then got a good look at the man’s eyes and decided not to. Casting an apologetic glance at the two runners, he followed the Horror’s instructions and moved over to the far side of the room. If the Horror noticed that he was continuing to test the barrier as he went, it did not speak of it.
“Now then,” the Horror said, facing the two men. Its face, formerly jovial and cheery in a macabre sort of way, elongated a bit, emphasizing the hideous eyes. The effect was not so much frightening as it was jarring, like seeing a sheep using a simsense rig, or a dragon wearing a three-piece suit. “Let’s get to the fun, shall we?”
“Do we have a choice?” Winterhawk said sourly.
“You always have a choice,” the thing said. “But you don’t always like the choices you have, unfortunately.” Stepping forward as if the barrier did not exist, the Horror extended a long, pale finger and touched Winterhawk’s forehead.
He was no longer shackled in the chains. The landscape was strange, but also strangely familiar. The shifting patterns, odd colors, indistinct bodies--he was back on the astral plane.
He looked around him, afraid. The creatures were here somewhere. He should not be here. He couldn’t remember coming here, nor why he had done so--all he knew was that he was here now, and that he could not return until he accomplished his objective.
But what was his objective? He couldn’t remember. He searched his mind for the answer, but no answer was there. And the creatures were coming--
The creatures were here.
Larger, far more menacing than he remembered them: the scorpion-thing and the snake-thing were there, and this time they had brought friends. They surrounded him. Left, right, front, back--there was nowhere to run. He turned this way and that, seeking an exit and finding none.
The scorpion-thing was on him. He screamed as the barbed tail pierced his flesh once again, looking down in a horrific deja-vu as the point, wet with his own blood, emerged from his chest. The scorpion-thing lifted him from the ground, and he screamed again as he felt something tear inside him, but somehow the mercy of darkness would not come. Blood spurted from the wound in a bright red plume, covering the front of his shirt in an instant.
The snake-things with the humanoid torsos approached, one from each side. Hanging impaled on the scorpion’s tail, he could do nothing but flail ineffectually at them. They chittered and danced away from him, then surged forward, each one grabbing one of his arms and holding it still with a viselike grip stronger than that of the strongest troll. Then they began to move slowly backward, holding fast to his arms. No--no, they can’t be--
Reduced to inarticulate sounds of animal terror now, he fought to force his mind to spiral down into nothingness as two more snake-things grabbed his legs and he realized what the four of them were planning to do--
Winterhawk screamed again. The sound echoed through the warehouse, bouncing off the rafters until it no longer sounded human. Not that it really had to start with. Ocelot gritted his teeth, wishing he could clamp his hands over his ears and blot out the sound of his friend’s unseen agony.
The mage hung there from the chains, making no effort to prop himself up any longer. His face was dead white, his hair already dripping with sweat, his eyes alternately wide open and clamped tightly shut. His wrists were bleeding from where thrashing against the metal cuffs had rubbed them raw, but aside from that, he did not appear to have sustained any injury. The Horror stood back, watching the drama unfold. Its eyes were half-open, its lips parted and slack, its head thrown back. Sickened, Ocelot recognized the look on its face: the misbegotten thing looked for all the world like it was having a protracted and extremely pleasant orgasm. Then he remembered what Winterhawk had reminded him about these things: they fed off human misery and suffering. This monster was getting its astral rocks off by inducing some kind of psychic torture on Winterhawk, then sucking in the waves of pain its torment was causing. At this thought, Ocelot felt the beginnings of a rage forming. “‘Hawk!” he yelled. “‘Hawk, it’s me! Fight it! Fight it, damn you! It’s all a trick!” He strained against the chains, trying to reach his foot over far enough to kick the mage, but it didn’t work any better than it had before. Neither Winterhawk nor the Horror paid him any attention.
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.