Find your own truth

Robert N. Charrette


There Is No Surety

Mudder McAlister's blood stained the sandstone of Ayer's Rock a deeper crimson. Bright stars and smears of gore marked the spots where he had struck out-croppings as he fell, and a growing pool haloed his head. Among his twisted limbs, one arm hung as though it had an extra joint. If McAlister were still alive, he would surely be dead before anyone could reach him.

Samuel Verner turned his eyes away from the grim sight, lifting his gaze toward the cloud-dotted sky as he offered a prayer for the guide's soul. With a twinge of guilt, Sam knew that his sorrow was less for the end of a life than for the injury to his own quest. He had known Mudder McAlister for only a week and hadn't particularly liked him, finding the man ill-mannered, foul-mouthed, and abrasive. Nor was Sam amused, as was Jason, by Mudder's rages when Gray Otter physically rebuffed his clumsy advances toward her. Sam wouldn't miss McAlister's company, but he had been the only runner in Perth who claimed to know where to find what Sam sought. And Cog, that faceless fixer who seemed to have connections everywhere, had given him a high competency rating.

During their trek deep into the interior of Australia, McAlister had proven his skill and knowledge time and again, flawlessly navigating the pair of all-terrain Mules across the trackless, shifting wastelands of the Outback. Fifty years ago they wouldn't have had such problems, but Australia had changed since the Awakening.

In the days before magic had returned to the earth, the country had been well served with roads. Aircraft had flown high above the deserts and grasslands to connect the coastal population centers with the interior's scattered bastions of civilization. But with the Awakening, the land had come to chaotic and often malevolent life, swallowing roads and brewing vast, swirling storms of such violence that air travel was often too risky. The Dreamtime had returned as a Nightmaretime, and mankind had retreated before the unleashed fury of the wild magic. Only a few resource-exploitation centers belonging to megacorporations remained in the interior, and even their lifelines were tenuous.

Sam was sure that without McAlister the team wouldn't have survived the trip to Ayer's Rock. The guide had saved them from blundering into any of the treacherous landforms and had known which of the local paranimals they had seen were dangerous. He had even shown them how to spot an approaching mana storm and how to take cover from the manifestations of the uncontrolled magic. Now he was dead, and the Americans certainly had not had tune to learn everything Mudder McAlister knew about the Outback. They were all experienced shadowrunners, though. Besides, they still had Harrier Hawkins, the other Australian who had come with them. Though not as experienced as Mudder, Hawkins had run the Outback before. Sam thought there was a reasonable chance they could all get back.

He stared down at what was left of the guide's rap-peling line, which lay looped chaotically near its piton anchor. When the line's sheath and multi-stranded core had parted, the sudden release of tension had flung the loose end back. He bent to examine the end and found it frayed, as though cut. Neither Jason nor Gray

Otter for all of McAlister's harassment would have had reason to kill the guide. They knew as well as Sam that he was the only one who knew the way. As for Harrier, he'd had some history with McAlister and so might have had a reason, but he hadn't been near the line.

Holding the end, Sam shook out the rope and estimated the remaining length. It looked just long enough to reach the edge of the ledge where the team stood. He stepped to the edge and crouched. The rock was jagged where the line had gone over the edge, easily sharp enough to slice through the line as it sawed back and forth' under the weight of the descending McAlister. Before dropping over the edge, Mudder had said he wouldn't need an edge roller because the rock was smooth. Would an experienced climber like McAlister have made the mistake of laying his line over such a dangerous point? The jagged edge couldn't have been there before McAlister went over the rim.

Jason stood at the precipice, looking down at the broken body of the guide. The Indian's cyberware gleamed in the sunlight and 'made the blocky silhouette of his enhanced body look even less human than usual. He turned to Sam, the mirror lenses of his optic implants glittering beneath his dark brows. 'He's broke but good.'

The slender woman at Jason's side nodded in agreement. She wore gray leathers decorated with short fringe and panels of exquisite beadwork. The leathers were real, unlike her Amerindian features and skin color. Those were the result of cosmetic surgery and melanin chemoadjustment. Once, when very, very wasted, she had shown Sam the minute scars, claiming they were the marks of a ritual Sun Dance. Sam knew the signs for what they were, having once prepped information for a brief on radical cosmetic surgeries back when he'd been a researcher for the corp. But even on that night she had owned up to no name other than

Gray Otter. He was sure she hadn't been born to the streets, but she had embraced them and learned to live on them. As swift as her namesake and with a bite that could be as sharp, she usually saved her speech for important matters. When she spoke without being spoken to, Sam knew she was concerned. 'Bad karma.'

'Crimey,' Harrier exploded, dancing about as though ready to take flight. 'You blokes can't give up. Old Mudder wouldn'ta wanted that. He said you were real tough chummers. You can't quit now. Not when we's so close.'

'Nobody said anything about quitting,' Sam said soothingly.

'Seems like a good idea to me,' Jason said. 'Can't get where you're going around here without a guide.' 'But Mudder said we was here, that we'd made it,' Harrier whined.

'He made it all right. Maybe you'd like to join him.' Jason took a step toward Harrier and the little man danced back, dodging to put Sam between him and the samurai. Jason laughed. Sam faced him. 'We're going down.' 'Go ahead. I didn't come here to hump up and down rocks looking for something we won't be able to find.' 'You're here because I'm paying you. And because I'm paying you, you'll shut up and come along.'

Jason bristled at that. He cocked his wrists inward, and twin fourteen-centimeter blades slid from ecto-myelin sheaths embedded in his forearms. Sam's eyes were welded to the tips of the blades. Stomach churning, he watched the tips vibrate with the tension in the samurai's arms. Jason was arrogant and full of his own competence as a fighter, but Sam hoped the Indian would realize that it might take magic to handle some of the threats the Outback could throw at them before they could get back to the coast. And Sam was the only magician for a hundred kilometers. The samurai boiled with anger at Sam's tone, but Jason never threw away something that he might need. Sam was betting on that.

The blades slid back into their sheaths. Relieved, Sam turned back to Harrier and ordered him to rig another rappeling line to replace the remnant of McAlister's line. While the Australian worked at that, Sam shrugged off his pack and set it at the rim of the ledge. He took out a few things he thought might be useful, then closed it up and braced it in position with stones. As an edge roller it was pure improvisation, but it would have to serve for the real one that lay below with McAlister. When Harrier was ready, Sam tossed the line down and made very sure it passed across his pack. Hitching the line into his harness, Sam turned his back to the void. He stepped backward, balancing at the edge for a moment before slipping slack into the line and leaning backward over the drop. Satisfied that the line would fall on the buffer of his pack, he took the first few steps downward. Only after the line settled into place did he push off gently and allow himself two meters of drop. He landed smoothly. The second controlled drops went equally well. It wasn't till the fifth that rock crumbled under his feet upon landing and he twisted his ankle. Though he had to favor that foot for pushoffs and landings, the rest of the descent went without incident. When he reached the bottom of the drop, he was relieved to find that his ankle could bear his weight.

Jason was the next down, dropping in five-meter controlled falls. Gray Otter was less ostentatious, but her more cautious approach was not enough to ward off bad luck. Halfway down she had a bad landing, and slammed shoulder-first into the cliff face. She slipped a dozen meters down the line before she could brake to a stop. When she reached his level Sam saw that her leathers were abraded and torn, but the ballistic lining remained intact. Though she made no com 8

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