The woman walked down the narrow streets of Omega, on her way to the meeting. The night closed in around her; the heavy, polluted air seemed alive with her apprehension. In reality, it was a short walk; they had chosen the meeting place for her convenience.
But tension lengthens a walk of minutes to hours, and alertness creates many stops and starts.
Her fears were in vain; no man or automaton stopped her, and she eventually reached the Boulevard of the Opiate and entered into what was once a house of worship. A plain and beautiful thing, made of sandstone, with a mellow dome rising twenty feet into the black night.
No one comes here anymore. None but those the night hides from tyranny.
As the woman entered, she saw the others already assembled around a round table. She was overdue.
"You're late, Sarai," called a lean, dark-haired Asian man across the table. His eyes glittered with quiet amusement, his kukri on the table in front of him.
"Nice to see you too, Dorian," she retorted tiredly. She looked around; four others. Only four.
"Where's Old Jack? Where's Alistair? Where's the Mamluk?" she said, her heart sinking.
Dorian lowered his eyes, Jacinto grimaced, Jarred fiddled with his thumbs, and Dominic spoke.
Her heart skipped a beat. "Dead?" she asked dumbly, shock forcing her to hear the news again.
"They were ambushed in the wastelands. They had either the balls or the lack of brains to cross without protection. The Corporation took them down."
"How many platoons did they take with them?" Sarai asked with a grim smile. Dominic smiled back.
"2 platoons of soldiers, 3 R.I.O.T pods and a Scorpion. Apiece."
She nodded and sat down. It was a blow, a heavy one.
I can't let it get in the way.
"But you aren't here to reminisce about those old buggers. You're here to talk business," Dorian said.
Sarai nodded and seated herself next to him. "Do you want the short or long version, boys?" she asked.
No response. She sighed and continued, "To cut it short and safe, I want us to form another Resistance."
"Because the Demokratos are doing so well," Dorian said dryly.
She rolled her eyes and continued, "We can do better than the Demokratos if we learn from their mistakes. We have better men, trained soldiers! If we-"
"Who's 'we', Sarai? Me, Dorian, Jarred, and Dominic haven't said we'll join you," Jacinto said, his voice irritable with lack of sleep.
"But will you not?" Sarai retorted, hearing an undercurrent of desperation in her voice. "If we band together, we can do better!"
"If this is the best you can do, you're better suited to be a fighter than a saleswoman, Sarai. I'm going back to bed," he replied, standing up and walking toward the door.
He was about to grasp the handle when a black hand whipped into his chest, the blow like a wrecking ball to his chest. The mercenary flew back to the foot of the table with a surprised shout, hand on his gun.
Sarai had appeared in front of the door, her civilian clothes thrown away in a blur of motion, leaving behind a suit of snug black power armor. She had her hands up, ready to fight.
"You're not leaving until I've had my say, Jacinto," she said, her voice cool and impassive. She looked around at their unduly surprised faces, drew a breath, and resumed.
"Look around you. It's getting worse every day. Every day, more and more people are taken, killed, or arrested. Every day the world dies slowly under the grip of Jahansson Universal. How long do you think you've got? It may be tomorrow, maybe the next day, it might take years, but soon enough they'll find us. And we won't be prepared for what they send our way. No one ever is."
"If we band together, we can protect ourselves, we can keep ourselves safe. We have a combined strength of 50,000 men, professionally trained and combat-ready! Our cause will only attract more, especially if we do well early on!"
She sent a sweeping look across each of their faces; Dorian's, thoughtful and calculating, Jarred with his strange half-smile, Dominic's impassive stare, and Jacinto's flushed but attentive countenance. She had them within reach. It was time to draw the lure.
"Do what you want. I won't and can't stop you. But if we join together, we can make history. We can end their diamond grip, and be heroes rather than 'mercenary scum'. Or maybe you would prefer to wait until they locate you and throw you in a deep, dark cell. Your choice."
Nobody said anything for a long time. The men just stared at her, occasionally looking away to fiddle with something. But their eyes said everything they needed to.
Sarai knew what those looks meant.
Her shoulders sagged and she opened the door, stepping slowly out of the way.
Straight into someone she had never seen before.
The stranger stood like a wall, six foot three, face hidden in shadow. Sarai's eyes widened in surprise and she jumped backwards with a shout. Or rather, she tried to jump backwards; a hand flashed out and caught her by the arm.
His voice was clear and authoritative, resonating out from the blackness of the doorway.
"Well, there you have it, gentlemen. Concise and commanding! I couldn't have said it better myself."
"Let her go," said Dorian coolly, his gun raised and cocked.
"I will, once you have sworn me something," he replied amiably, drawing the struggling Sarai roughly against his chest and whipping a .45 to her temple. Dorian eyed it, then lowered his gun.
"Good. Now, there's no point in protesting what I'm about to ask, seeing as Sarai had you convinced already,-"
"Why shouldn't we kill you here and now?! Why should we let you put a gun to a fellow mercenari's head?" said Jacinto angrily, on his feet again.
"Cool down. I don't want to kill her, but I will," he said, soft as a breeze. Jacinto stared at him, then threw up his hands with a disgusted noise and sat.
"Now, as you may have guessed, I want you to join me. I want us to fight the Corporation. I want us to take back what's been stolen and bring down Elric Jahansson." he said, his tone polite, almost conversational.
"Straight to the point, eh? Why should we join you? Why should we put our lives on the line for an impossible cause?" said Dominic, his face seemingly carved of rock.
The others could sense the man's smile as he spoke.
"Fortune and glory. If we overthrow the government, I'll clear your names of all crimes that you have committed under the laws. I will make you some of the richest and most powerful people on Earth. Like Sarai here said, you have everything to gain…"
He whipped the gun off of Sarai's head and loosed 8 shots; two for each man. Not one hit completely, but all left a slightly bleeding mark. Half a second later, the gun was reloaded and cocked.
"…And everything to lose. Your choice."
There was silence for a while. Dorian was the first to stand. His eyes were cold and appraising as he spoke.
"I pledge myself and the men of the Viper Contingent to you, stranger. If you want to deliver the world from the oncoming doom, I'll fight beside you."
The man inclined his head. Dominic was next, his face still a statue. Jacinto next, glowering. Then Jarred, his face halfway between a smile and a grimace. And finally, only Sarai, still held tight against him.
"Will you swear?"
She twisted in his embrace, her anger sparks behind her eyes.
"I won't swear anything to a man who's not brave enough to show his face. Let me go and I'll judge your worth," she growled, barely controlling the rage in her voice.
The man was silent for a few seconds. Then he let Sarai go, sending her stumbling towards her friends, and burst into a gale of laughter. In a single flourish, he whipped off his jacket and bowed deeply to the others.
"Well, I guess you're right. I should have shown you my face at the beginning, not like you'd have recognized me. Now, Sarai Corwin, will you swear?" he asked, grinning ear to ear.
Sarai gaped, and suddenly the words were out of her mouth before she could control them.
"I pledge my men and my loyalty to you, stranger. The guns and blades of The Obsidia are yours. If I ever betray my oath, let me be shamed and hated by all of humanity."
The man inclined his head once more, and spoke to them all. "We will meet here again in two days. We have a lot to talk about."
Loud as a grenade blast, a gunshot resounded across the church and Jacinto's hand-cannon was out, smoking.
The man's skin was entirely grey around the area where the bullet glanced off his forehead.
The stranger vanished.
Jacinto looked around, puzzled. The gaze of all the other mercenaries followed him, searching for the runner.
And suddenly there was a blast of wind, a gale that swept Jacinto off his feet and into the table. He hit it hard, gun smacking against the strong wood, the barrel falling clean off.
Jacinto groaned and lifted his head slowly, eyes unfocused. His eyes found his shorn gun, his eyebrows shooting into the air with amazement. He let the weapon clatter to the table, then fell back against the wood and lay stunned.
Then the profile of a tall man filled the doorway and the stranger's voice rang out across the church. In his right hand was a ring of bright metal.
"I'll let that one go. It was a test. But in the future, never tempt me like that again. Goodbye."
The mercenaries stood there, shocked. In a while they began to file out, Jacinto staggering slightly as he walked. Dominic shot Dorian a look as he left, and Jarred's smile seemed slightly diminished.
Soon only Sarai and Dorian were left in the church. As he stirred himself and left, he grasped Sarai by the shoulder.
"I think we're in good hands. Are you alright, though? I've never seen that particular look on your face before."
Sarai was silent for a long moment, then said in a slow, distracted voice, "Yeah, Dorian, I'm fine. Go on home. Someone will have heard the shot."
Dorian nodded and walked out into the night. Sarai stayed for a while, thinking.
When friends lie to one another, it's not a good omen... no, I'm not alright, Dorian. I'm in love.