[ Main ] [ Magespace ] [ Updates ] [ Fiction ] [ Character ] [ Campaign ] [ Commentary ]

It was full dark by the time we had reached the point beyond which Jean said she didn't want to drive.

My wrist chrono read 19:42. It had taken us awhile to get everything together, but we all thought it was worth it. Even the half-hour stop to pick up a quick dinner at a drive-through fast food place (we were all a little nervous about getting out of the van any more than we had to at this point) had been worth the time. At least my stomach had quit growling.

Jean had downloaded some information about Elysian Fields while we sat munching greaseburgers in the van's cargo area. There wasn't much to be had; all she could find was one slick brochure that was sent to the rich fatcat types who wanted to "get away from it all" for awhile, which by the look of the brochure was apparently a euphemism for what used to be called "exhaustion" in the previous century. You know, that catch-all term that could mean everything from chip addiction to alcoholism to malnutrition to advanced venereal disease, and just about anything in between. There was a little map of the grounds on the brochure, but it was almost useless. All it showed was one big square thing that represented the main house, another smaller square thing that was the garage, and a whole lot of land.

The house itself was pictured proudly on the front of the brochure: a huge, well-kept Victorian style place, painted a cheery yellow. They'd managed to pick the one nice day we have in Seattle every year to take their picture, because the sun shone in an impossibly blue sky beyond the house, where the tall green forms of trees could be seen. Everything in the picture had the look of health and vigor. I was certain the picture had been doctored heavily. Nothing much in Seattle had the look of health and vigor anymore.

I'd read through the brochure on Jean's tiny computer screen when she had finished with it. The copy was full of references to peace, relaxation, solitude, getting in touch with one's inner self. Of course, there was no mention of getting in touch (somewhat more intimately, my perverse mind added) with the inner selves of countless unfortunate Barrens slots, but that was kind of to be expected. After all, if the place was running a (meta)human chop-shop, the people who'd need to know about it would get informed, the same way all the sleazoid corpers made their deals about everything else: in the can, on the golf course, and over drinks in their expensive, exclusive clubs. I had quickly passed the brochure on to Winterhawk, afraid that I would work up another righteous rage. Couldn't afford that right now. He had glanced over it without comment and handed it back to Jean.

We were sitting, headlights off, at the foot of the hill leading up to Elysian's front gate. The van was pulled off the road about ten meters from the well-kept gravel driveway. Jean had informed us that it was about half a kilometer up through the trees to the gate, but she didn't know what kind of other perimeter boundaries they had. "I don't want to take the van through the trees," she had said. "I don't know what the terrain's like, or even if we can get through. I think we'll have to walk from here. This van's a tough old bird, but I don't think she's that tough."

"Want to scout the place out astrally before we go?" I asked 'Hawk, who was still sitting in the passenger seat, his gaze roaming over the darkened treeline.

He shook his head. "I'd like to, of course, but I'd advise against it. They've already shown that they've got at least one fairly powerful mage working for them, so I'd imagine they have one or more elementals patrolling astral space."

I nodded reluctantly. "Yeah, I guess you're right. I hate going in blind, though."

Jean was checking her pockets, stowing various gear and slinging her canvas bag over her shoulder. "He's right, though. Let's just keep our eyes open, and hope they didn't have enough advance notice to prepare a reception committee for us."

I didn't answer, but in my mind I didn't have a lot of faith that that was going to be true. I strapped my assault rifle over my shoulder, checked the clip on the SMG, verified that my monowhip, Predator, and stun baton were where they belonged, and looked at my companions. "Let's get this over with," I said. This was looking like a worse and worse idea all the time, even for the twenty grand we'd each be getting from Johnson. The sooner we got started, the sooner it would all be over, one way or another.

I hoped the way it ended up included us being alive. Right now, that was not a certainty by any means.

Jean opened the van's door. It slid on a silent track, though she did have to force it a bit past the dent made by our would-be assassins' grenade. 'Hawk and I slipped quickly out, followed by Jean, who closed the door behind her. All of us wore dark clothing; without our low-light vision, it would have been difficult to pick us out in the moonless night. Jean pulled a pair of what looked like sunglasses from one of her pockets and put them on, then plugged a wire trailing from them into a small module attached to her gun. Smart goggles, I noted approvingly. At least that meant she wouldn't be shooting us accidentally in the heat of combat. Her gun was a Predator like mine, a bit older and obviously lovingly cared for. A bit more punch than I'd expect for somebody her size, but maybe she was stronger than she looked. She was sure as hell tougher than she looked. She completed her preparations by shrugging into a black longcoat that she'd shoved under one arm before exiting the van. "Okay," she said. "You guys are in charge now. I'll follow orders until I need to start recording. What do we do?"

'Hawk closed his eyes for a minute and concentrated, then opened them again. "My spell for detecting enemies isn't picking up anything, but we should be careful anyway. It doesn't work against nonsentient enemies. Their defenses could be automated."

I nodded. "Okay. Let's move out. And keep your eyes open." My skin was still crawling at the thought of going in without any knowledge of what we were getting into. Normally, we had a map of the place we were trying to break into, or a layout, or at least some advance information about what kinds of security to expect. This time, it was just a wide expanse of trees, then God knew what else.

'Hawk's quiet voice broke the silence again. "Don't stay too close together," he told us. "If their mage is watching us, we don't want to be clumped together. Too easy for them to catch us all with an area-effect spell."

I nodded again. My mind rebelled against the idea of splitting up, but the thought of the whole group of us getting nailed by a spell was even less appealing. "Okay, let's split up. But not too far. Keep each other in sight."

We started into the trees, none of us being able to come up with anything else to say that would delay the inevitable. The short, uncomfortable silence before we began moving indicated that we were all trying, though.

I switched my cybereyes to thermographic mode and stepped into the underbrush. I was on the far right of our group, with Jean in the middle and 'Hawk on the left. I could see the familiar reddish glow of their heat-traces moving among the trees, each of us separated from our nearest neighbor by about five or six meters. At least their mage would have to be damn good to be able to get all of us at once.

The trees towered over us, their branches growing together to form a dense overhang through which the blackened sky with its dim stars could only occasionally be seen. I could hear the skittering sounds of night-creatures going about their business, and I tried to fight my nervousness. Nothing but mice and raccoons and owls. Nothing to be afraid of. Just keep walking, slowly and carefully, trying to make as little noise as possible. Not easy for me—my stealth skills extended more to sidewalks and alleyways than leaf-carpeted ground. Every crunch of my feet in the leaves was magnified a hundredfold to my ears; even though I knew it wasn't true, I felt every bit as subtle as Godzilla tramping through Tokyo.

To my right, Jean slipped through the leaves and underbrush with little sound. Even with comparable skill, her slighter form would make less noise than my larger one. 'Hawk I could hear from where I was, even though he was a good ten meters away. He could be sneaky enough in the city when he wanted to be, but I got the impression he hadn't spent a lot of time in the wilderness. I guess his parents had never taken him hunting. I heard him muffle a curse as he stepped on a twig, which broke with an audible crack!, but then he slowed his pace a bit and the sounds grew quieter.

When the spirit suddenly appeared in front of us, I nearly shot it. We were about three-quarters of the way through the trees; I could see where the forest thinned out and gave way to a wide expanse of what looked like grass when this thing winked into existence almost directly in front of Jean. It shimmered in the air, bloblike and bouncy, and begin to yell. "Stop!" it ordered. "You are trespassing! You are on private property! Turn back immediately! Stop! You are tres—"

'Hawk zoned out for a second, and the shimmery form disappeared. The three of us converged near Jean. "What the hell was that thing?" I demanded in a harsh whisper.

"A watcher," Winterhawk said. "No doubt ordered to patrol the area and warn off intruders. They can't very well shoot people who blunder into the forest, can they? But we'd better hurry a bit now—they're bound to be on to us after all that noise."

Quickly the three of us moved out of the trees, subordinating caution to haste. Everybody in the building must have heard that thing yelling. We burst out of the forest and into a wide swath of well-tended grass about thirty meters across; beyond that, we could see the tall form of the main Elysian house. There were lights on in the windows. "Go!" I whispered loudly. "Try to go as fast as possible, and don't make yourself a target. And keep your eyes open!" I had no idea what their defenses could be: snipers on the roof, buried mines, automated machine-gun nests hidden under the grass or attached to the house itself—it was too late to worry about it now. The best thing to do when you didn't know what was going on was to keep your eyes open and your wits about you. Versatility. Yeah, right. I ran.

Jean actually spotted the movement from the far side of the garage, off to the left of the house, before we did. "Eleven o'clock!" she called, pointing and ducking down to run in a crouched position.

My eyes followed her pointing finger and immediately saw what she was pointing at. Four guys were coming out from behind the garage, each one carrying a weapon. It was too far away to see what kind, but at least as big as the ones we carried. We had no cover out here; there was only grass and more grass. Not even a low hill to take cover behind. This place was a killing zone. "Split up!" I ordered. "And stay low!" I readied my assault rifle, took my own advice, and aimed.

Off to both sides of me, 'Hawk and Jean were keeping low as well. The four guys were all firing, but it was dark and they had three distinct targets. After their first volley (which, oddly, was silenced; why would they care?), I was still whole, and my friends seemed to be doing all right as well. I leveled the assault rifle at the closest of the four and let loose with a burst. Unlike his shot, mine hit. I was rewarded with a satisfying dance of death as the rounds slammed into the guy, and he dropped unmoving to the grass.

Around the heads of two of the others who were standing too close together, the bright light of a spell illuminated the area for a split-second, and two of the remaining assailants were staggered. Not down, but they might as well have been. Jean picked off one with her Predator, and I got the other one with my assault rifle before they could fire again. Damn, I liked these wired reflexes!

That left only one guy. He wasn't stupid: when he saw what had happened to his friends, he ducked low and tried to run back behind the garage. 'Hawk nailed him with another spell before he made it.

Quickly, not pausing to savor our victory, we looked at each other and sprinted for the house. No other assailants came out to challenge us. Not yet, anyway. Panting, we reached the house and stopped to catch our breath against the side that wasn't near a window. "That was too easy," I whispered.

"I think it'll be worse inside," 'Hawk said. "After all, this is supposed to be a hospital. Can't have loud security; it would upset the patients."

Jean nodded. "And remember, they didn't have much time to prepare for us."

"So what are we looking for?" I asked. "I doubt they're gonna have it out in the open for everybody to see."

"A lab, I'd guess," Winterhawk said. "Locked, most likely. Not on a floor where patients are likely to go."

I looked up at the house. It looked like it was three stories. "Start on the ground floor and work our way up?"

"Or down," Jean said. "Maybe there's a basement."

"Let's play it by ear," I said, pushing myself off the wall. "They're not gonna give us time to rest. They know we're here—let's just go in the front door."

'Hawk and Jean nodded agreement. In a moment, moving stealthily and keeping low, we stood before the Elysian Fields Hospital's ornate carved-wood double doors. I looked at my friends, and they nodded again. Here we go. This one's for all the marbles. Or something.

I aimed my assault rifle and blew the door.

[ [