Karman Tunnel ran parallel to the currently dry Paradise Aquifer, in which generally flowed the runoff and floodwaters from Iphigenia. The highway and the aquifer flowed on an east-west axis through Sanctuary City toward the old capital. Staring over the aquifer, using the highway lamps to see, a kneeling Commander Dante carefully watched for any sign that he should abort the night’s maneuvers. He followed the 5 minute rule by waiting an extra two minutes before making his way through the brush alongside Paradise Aquifer. He staid in the shadows of the great water oaks, the natural sound barrier was meant to dull the noisesome traffic but actually served as walls in a corridor for the winds rushing down from Iphigenia. The early evening brought a chill that intensified each gust of wind that cut through his jacket. For the umpteenth time that day, Dante cursed the unsavory politics forcing him take covert actions. The commander of Camp Polkner, the desert hell of Poterit Dan’s military-prison system, was sneaking through roadside brush on the way to a clandestine meeting on the outskirts of Sanctuary City. He ground his teeth, but kept moving. He had a schedule to maintain.
When he neared the rendezvous, he warily slowed his pace. In order to reach the abandoned shack, he’d have to move through a small overgrown meadow which would render him visible to passing vehicles. Since the meadow was the only break of the tree line, passing drivers’ were likely to glance over. If he saw approaching headlights, his best bet would be to duck into the waist high grasses. Once again following the 5 minute rule, he watched and waited. When nothing untoward revealed itself, he ventured to the stretch of open meadow. Though he desperately wanted to be inside the shack, he knew better than to chance running through the dimly lit field. Gophers, moles, snakes and Iphigenia knew what other manner of ground dwelling creatures had long since claimed this as their home. Which meant he could snap an ankle if he didn’t tread carefully. Ducking twice for passing vehicles extended the amount of exposure, though not significantly.
From a distance the abandoned shack appeared as wooden ruins harkening to a distant past where someone had imagined tending the land. Upon close inspection, the wooden ruins proved a façade. Cautiously, Dante pushed the front door which quietly swung open. He stepped into the shack and gently closed the door behind him. The tiny bit of highway light, reaching through the door, disappeared. When the door latch clacked, an interior light clicked. A dull red illuminated the living area, where sat a single table with five chairs. Silently sitting in a chair facing the door was a young man wearing the grey-blue uniform of the 69th Motor Corps.
“Were you followed?” Commander Dante asked.
The men gauged each other, their similar cold green eyes locked. “No time for games, Randy,” Commander Dante said.
Taking corners slowly to keep the van upright though fast enough to expedite leaving the warehouse district, Bonnie Taylor cautiously veered around the residential areas. It wouldn’t due for him to draw suspicion now. He didn’t know if the loaders had any kind of tracking device on the van, but he did know if Ambrosia’s Enforcement Officers caught him no amount of truth would save him from being arrested as a slaver. He couldn’t head directly to the boarding house where he’d meant to take the girl, not with a bullet wound and a van full of drugged up victims. Thinking of his wound caused the area around the entry hole to flare. He gripped the steering wheel and ground his teeth. Using every bit of energy he could spare he managed to keep his eyes from closing. The time for clear thinking was quickly coming to an end. He needed to get the cargo out of the van and somewhere safe, before he lost consciousness.
The Inquisitor charged down the stairs, though stumbling in the process, he somehow managed to skip the last three stairs without smacking his face on the concrete. “What just happened?” he growled at the stunned group of men.
“The van…” one of the loaders absently pointed to the empty dock.
“WHAT?” the Inquisitor shouted.
Jougs said to Vorant, “did you see that? The cargo drove off.”
Vorant stared, without speaking he gave Jougs a look that said quit being an idiot.
Before Jougs could respond, the Inquisitor was standing on the dock and waving them over. “You,” the Inquisitor pointed to the man who had fought Jougs, “call it in. Van got a beacon?” The loader shrugged. “Find out. If it does, tell’em to start tracking it. And, let me know.” To the rest of the movers, he asked, “see anything useful?” The men all shook their heads. “What a waste. Go commandeer a vehicle. Something big enough to fit all of you. Misters Jougs and Vorant, we’ve been compromised. One of you grab the area map out of the right top desk drawer, the other get our bags together. I’ll be right back.” The Inquisitor knew precisely where he could acquire a car. He’d passed a few only moments earlier while looking for a temp to replace his missing cargo. Though he was irritated beyond belief, he smiled as he left the warehouse. At least now, his team could not be blamed for the fuck up. In fact, if they couldn’t locate the load, the movers would take the fall. Obviously, someone followed them to the pickup. His men were professionals, were the other guys?
“Oh Rudolpho,” Celatrix Verna whispered to the dead Kaiser. Her hand rested on his foot. She held back tears as she took in the room. Kaiser Imler lay on an exam table, a white sheet draped over his body. One of Mercury’s Elite Guardsmen maintained his post on the opposite side of the exam table. He watched her every move. If she wasn’t accustomed to having people watch her, she might have been creeped out. As it stood, lack of privacy was one of the unfortunate realities of her position. “Young man,” she said.
“How long have you been with him?”
“Since he was found.”
“Is anyone available to relieve you?”
“Why? What have I done wrong?” the guard asked defensively.
“Because, dear one, once I get started whoever is in here will be bound to remain throughout the entirety of the ceremony. No bathroom breaks. No relief. Based on how violently he died, I suspect we’ll be here until the wee hours, if not sunrise. That means you’ll have to stay on duty and attentive far longer than a regular watch.”
“Commander Felis never said anything about that.”
“He couldn’t have known, dear. He wasn’t present during the last ceremony.”
“There’s time. But, you must decide once my ministers arrive with the ritual equipment.”
“The decision is not mine. If I’m relieved before then, so be it,” he said.
“Are you sure?”
His chin lined up perfectly with his chest as he directly faced her, saying, “I will remain at my post until properly relieved.”
Nodding once, Celatrix Verna sighed. A determined Merc was practically unswayable; a Merc following orders was unmovable. “When we begin, you’ll need to remain at the back of the room.” As she turned to investigate the room, her hand dropped from the Kaiser’s foot. “Has anyone else been in here, since he arrived?”
“The Silvans,” he answered. “And, Ensign Osborne.”
“Good.” After making a circuit around the room, glancing here and there, occasionally tidying up a counter or shelf, she stopped in front of the door. “No one else may come in here, until I return. Understood?”
“Sergeant Caspian, when I get out of he—” the words stopped as suddenly as the slap delivered across Adonis’ face. His cuffed hands involuntarily rose to his stinging cheek, his mouth and eyes opened in shock, and he reeled backward from the impact.
“The prisoner will remain quiet until questioned,” Sergeant Caspian ordered. He had no intention of listening to a prisoner threaten him, regardless of who that prisoner had been. The basement of Goldie’s Revenge, a well-stocked supply room for the tavern, contained pickled and canned goods, shelves full of varied wines and spirits, tablecloths and extra seating. Caspian shoved a hand against Adonis’ chest, “the prisoner will remain here,” he pushed in emphasis, “until ordered to sit.” Caspian released Adonis who stood still, glowering at the soldier. Quickly crossing the room, Caspian grabbed two folding chairs from the stack against the far wall. He set up one in the center of the basement, the other he placed in front of the stairs. Motioning to the center chair, he ordered, “the prisoner will sit.” With murder on his mind, Adonis dropped his cuffed hands, and then slowly walked over to the chair. Before he sat down, he asked, “any idea how long we’ll be down here?”
“The prisoner will sit.”
“Fine,” Adonis mumbled. “There is no reason to treat me like this.”
“The prisoner will remain quiet unt—”
“Yes, I know,” Adonis hissed.
The two women, dangling their legs over the edge of Sander’s Plateau, enjoyed the town speckled view of the blackened valley below.
“It’s beautiful,” Praline whispered.
“I don’t know about that,” Carmel countered.
“Oh common, love,” Praline pointed, “those are lights. Which means people. And, way out here in bum fuck…no one knows us.”
“We’ve got to be more careful here than anywhere else we’ve been. We kype shit from the wrong person, they throw us in that work prison. I won’t do hard time,” Carmel said. “Not here.”
“So stay on your game and it won’t matter,” Praline drawled.
“Do you think those boys will come looking for us?” Carmel asked.
Thinking about it, Praline exhaled, coughed, and then said, “they might. But, right now? No You heard all those questions and saw where we found them. Besides, I think they’re looking for Jack. If he and Shadow made it to Divers City, then it’ll be a long while before we have to worry about them.”
Neither spoke for a few moments. Silently and carefully, both scooted back from the lip drawing their feet in. Once they were safely away from the edge, Praline turned on a flashlight with a red lens. It provided enough light for them to pick their way back to the dugout they’d made into a camp. Peak Darin gave way enough for the dugout to block the majority of the wind, while the handful of nearby trees and protruding rocks sheltered them from the rest. Though someone below might see an occasional flicker of the tiny campfire, that person would need a much higher altitude to glimpse the actual blaze and see the shadows moving on the cliff wall.
“Why do you think they’re after Jack?” Carmel asked.
“Remember the night we met him? He was injured and freaked. That wasn’t a hunting accident. Except. Maybe it was, what with those boys hunting him.” Praline shuffled half of the double deck of playing cards, dropped a quarter and then grabbed part of the other half. She repeated the shuffle with the last of the cards, put the whole in front of Carmel and rapped on the top card, “cut.” With the cards cut, Praline set most of the deck on their makeshift playing table, and dealt out 13 cards. “Rummy?”