I plant my hand firmly on the curve of my waist and say, “Whoever sealed this opening did it in one hell of a hurry.” My repeater is slung over my right shoulder, its weight digging into my back. That's good, because I know it’s right where it should be. I can have it in my hands in well under a second if I need to.
Bron steps forward. Nearly three hundred pounds of raw muscle, but it's the robotic implants that usually draw most of the attention. Especially his arms, both polished chrome killing machines. “Looks more like a barricade to me.”
The others stir uncomfortably, and I know it doesn't have a damn thing to do with his thick Norse accent.
Pennies is fiddling with the cuff of his tunic. His eyes keep dropping to my breasts and I’m a second away from knocking his teeth straight into his nasal cavity. “What do you think they were trying to keep out?” he asks.
Ret, my second in command, is sitting on a nearby rock watching a dark patch of clouds roll in. He's wiry and handsome, and more than one fellow Mercenary has taken those traits as a sign of weakness. A mistake they’ll never have the chance of repeating.
“Have a look at the way those metal beams are welded together,” he says coolly, still watching those clouds low and heavy on the horizon. “They weren’t trying to keep anything out. Whoever did this wanted to keep something inside, and badly.”
There’s a narrow opening below the tangle of beams, no more than few feet high. Keeper Oleg braces a hand on his knee and bends down to study the hole. “This was where the Prospectors entered from,” he proclaims. “I'm sure of it.”
Yeah, no shit it is. That’s the thought running through my head, right along with a savage thirst that's been building from the moment we left Sotercity. But as long as The Keepers are footing the bill, I don't have much choice but to keep a lid on it.
Keepers of Knowledge. They’ve been around since long before I was born. Formed during the end times ― an era beyond memory now ― when an advanced civilization slowly self-destructed. They are tasked with gathering whatever scraps of knowledge and technology they can get their hands on.
As a child, I remember the Keepers telling stories about cities swarming with hordes of monsters. They’d swept across the planet like a plague of locusts with an insatiable appetite. A single bite was enough to kill you or turn you into one of them. The Keepers said it had been a chemical in the water that was supposed to calm the people down. But something had gone terribly wrong. It had taken years before the monsters had been destroyed, and by then there wasn’t much left to save.
Civilizations rose and fell, and great ones usually died by their own hands. That's about all I know of history. All that really matters, I suppose.
Oleg stands watching me then waves his hand dismissively at my men: Bron, Ret, Jinx ― my temperamental explosives expert ― and Sneak, my tunnel rat. “Hiring Mercenaries was Prior Skuld’s idea, not mine. Look around you. We’re surrounded by ruins just waiting to fall on people’s heads. A rescue mission requires the proper tools.”
Oleg’s name-dropping now. He thinks that because the Prior runs the Keepers and the Keepers run Sotercity, we’re supposed to be scared.
Bron clasps a massive beam in the jaws of one of his gleaming, metallic arms and lifts it with ease. “Is this tool good enough?”
I put a hand on Bron’s firm shoulder and he lowers the beam. Tact is in order, not quick tempers.
“Four Prospectors are missing,” I say, scanning the tiny hole that had been cut into the barricade, “and this is their last known location. Doesn’t look like much more than your run-of-the-mill, shake-and-bake operation. We do ‘em all the time. Head in, locate your boys and then hightail it out. One thousand USC each, ten for me since I’m leading this crew, and we all go our merry way.”
USC. Units of sodium chloride. Fancy talk for tiny pouches of salt. Just don’t get caught out in the rain with it or you’re liable to lose a fortune.
I pause to let this sink in, even though I’m sure he knows most of this already. “Besides,” I say. “Prior Skuld already signed the papers. If you think our fee is high now, just wait till you see what it costs to cancel. Now, as far as your partner goes, if you wanna bring Pennies along so he can keep an eye out for anything valuable, fine by me. But my team works fast and we work alone, so you all better keep up ‘cause Bron’s not gonna carry you.”
Bron flashes a mouthful of brown teeth.
Oleg is spearing me with his icy stare, and we hear a voice shouting in the distance.
“Wait for me! Please! Please, wait!”
Ret lifts a pair of binoculars. “Azina, we got company. Grinder from Sotercity by the looks of it.”
I grit my teeth. “Perfect.”
A Grinder is a term of endearment Ret coined for the hundreds of maintenance men laboring day in and day out to keep Sotercity from drowning in its own shit and dying of dehydration.
Apparently, since the world went sliding down the crapper, things have become much simpler. At least that’s what the billboards say.
Come to Sotercity for a Taste of the Good Old Days.
There’s something here for everyone. You got yourself a big brain? Join the Keepers of Knowledge. What’s that you say? You’re a greedy bastard? Become a Trader like Pennies. You got a fetish for squeezing into tiny holes looking for artifacts? I understand the Keepers are always looking for new Prospectors. Oh I get it. You like to work with your hands. Grunt work for little or no pay. Got it, not a problem, Public Works goes through Grinders like some people go through dirty tunics. But no, you want it all, don’t you? Then find yourself a trusty weapon ― they’re lying around all over the place ― and start freelancing as a hired gun.
Sounds like one of those damn brochures they’re handing out on every corner, I know. But it’s true.
Ret’s still got the binoculars to his eyes. “It’s Glave,” Ret says, snarling. “Rosaline’s husband.”
I snatch the binoculars, and watch the man stumble over a boulder and fall flat on his face. I turn to Oleg. “A panicked husband searching for his Prospector wife is the last thing we need. Send him home.”
Oleg chuckles. “Worry doesn’t suit you, Azina. You said so yourself this job is a cake walk. The Keepers are paying you a lot of money. I’m afraid you’ll just have to roll with the punches.”
I sigh. So much for tact. I wanna spit so bad, but my mouth is too dry.
Hive (No Man's Land Series, #1) available on Amazon