Harlan stiffened. Well, shit. This is what he got when he didn’t plan their escape—trapped with only the hard way out. In the tunnel around him, water plopped then gurgled along the channels on the side. The air hummed with the energy of multiple stun-guns, aimed at him, no doubt. Too bad, he had his back to the enemy.
Looked like this escape was gonna hurt. A lot.
“Do exactly what I say and maybe, just maybe, your loved ones won’t have to scrape pieces of you off the walls.”
The low growl stirred the fringes of Harlan’s mind. Great. He’d met the bad guy before. Might explain why he wanted Harlan dead.
Eyes wide in her face, Sera pressed the blood-stained cleansing cloth against the gash in his hand.
He used the pain to focus, think. Dead ends branched off the tunnel and shadows danced in the light of the string of bulbs running along the sides—just how many bad guys were there? With one or tow, he might make five or ten feet before being shot in the back. Then they’d have a clear shot at Sera. Guess he needed to work on Plan B. That the bad guys hadn’t shot him meant he had a chance to save her.
How many? He mouthed.
She blinked over a dozen times.
Well, that was helpful. His crossbow would have helped even things up a bit, but he hadn’t packed for the journey. Leaning forward, he peered inside the first-aid kit perched on a rusting metal box. Neat white packages filled the interior. Throwing the kit at them would probably only give one or two a paper cut. Not exactly the impact he wanted. Still… He shifted his body, angling it so his torso blocked his hands from the bad guys’ view.
“Stop,” the bad guy growled.
Harlan froze. Could he pick up the kit and toss it before being shot? If he rushed them, maybe he could get a few weapons…
“Raise your hands, Westminster.”
Damn. Damn. Damn. Harlan knew that voice. He might see the light at the end of the tunnel today, but wouldn’t bet he’d still be breathing. Very carefully, he raised his hands.
“Step back. Slowly. No sudden moves.”
Harlan eased his left foot back then his right. Blood creased his palm, then a drop dotted the stone floor.
Keeping in step with him, Sera licked her lips. Her forehead wrinkled then smoothed. “Uncle Joseph?”
“No, I’m Santa Claus.” Joseph Dawson, head of Dark Hope’s Security Forces, stepped into the circle of light cast by the strings of bulbs illuminating the tunnel. Shadows cut deep into his craggy features. He scratched his blunt fingers through his close-cropped, graying hair.
Harlan swore under his breath. This was not going to end well for him.
Devilry glinted in the old man’s blue eyes. He didn’t order his men to lower their weapons.
Sera’s shoulders drooped, and she sighed in relief. “Good gravy, did you have to scare us like that?”
She turned back to the first-aid kit.
“Scare you? Scare you?” Dawson caught his niece by the arm and hauled her toward his men. “That, Miss Valedictorian of every-school-she-ever-attended, is a box of hundred-year old grenades. Those minor quakes that keep rumbling through Dark Hope are boxes of ordinance spontaneously exploding and you…you just plop your stuff on a stack of three of them.”
“Oh.” Sera paled.
Harlan reached for her. His fingertips skimmed her arm.
Dawson poked his gun in Harlan’s ribs and shoved his niece on his left side. “Keep your hands up. I still haven’t made up my mind to shoot you or not.”
Maybe if the two of them were alone, Harlan might believe the threat for a second. “I’m not the one who left dangerous stuff lying around for anyone to use as a table.”
Dawson’s blue eyes narrowed. “You’re just the idiot who cut himself because he couldn’t resist touching stuff when he should have kept his hands to himself.”
“No one objected.” Harlan grinned.
Spearing his niece with a glare, Dawson marched her down the tunnel. “And if someone did?”
Sera shook her head. “I’m right here and can understand subtext.”
Walking beside Dawson, Harlan waited for her to object.
Footsteps pounded. A half dozen men marched ahead of Harlan, Dawson and Sera. The other half closed rank behind them. The tunnel inclined up as it veered to the right. A rectangle of white appeared at the end.
Warm air brushed Harlan’s face and a spring filled his step.
Looking over her shoulder, Sera stared at him from a moment, pursed her lips then faced forward. “Why are you here, Uncle?”
“Because I knew you’d try to escape.” Dawson holstered his stungun. “Westminster’s been chafing since we brought him in, I knew you’d spring him.”
The hell they brought him in. “I came voluntarily. You wanted me to convince your Cabinet to know about the ‘Vider threat.”
“Yeah, that turned out well.” Dawson sneered.
Harlan should have just nailed his skull to the door, it would have made his head hurt less. Sure, the Cabinet listened with sympathy, but nothing had been decided.
Sera said the cabinet must consider every option.
He hoped they weren’t still considering when the ‘Viders arrived.
Sera checked over her shoulder. “What about the grenades? Shouldn’t someone stay behind and neutralize them?”
“Probably.” Dawson clasped his hands behind his back. “But the studies on how best to dispose of them are under review. Until then, we’re forbidden to touch them, and the mine is off-limits.”
Studies. He’d prefer his crossbow. Harlan’s fingers twitched. “You people ever done with your studies?”
Dawson’s lips twitched.
Sera crossed her arms over her chest. “I’m sure the Cabinet is concerned with everyone’s safety, preserving our past, and potentially even providing a home for us in the future. Why wasn’t there a sign at the entrance about the danger?”
“Because only you and I knew about that damn unlocked entrance.” Dawson squinted into the sunshine.
Down the bald slope of the mountain squatted another city. In a layout of concentric circles stood buildings, green belts and the community center. The Mag-Lev train cut through the heart of suburban Dark Hope and disappeared in a silver ribbon, deep into the emerald mountains. People in colorful suits skittered like bugs along wide walks.
The lead security team headed up the mountain side. Slag clattered under their feet. A squirrel rustled in the grass before scampering down to a stand of pines. Fifty yards straight up, a cigar-shaped dirigible bobbed on the breeze. Security officers in black held the long tethers, while the blue-clad airship crew waited by the gondola.
Harlan swallowed the bitter wad in his throat. If he had to be returned to Dark Hope proper, he’d prefer it the way God intended—on his own two feet. “Maybe the traitor found out about the tunnel and used it to smuggle the weapons out.”
Two of the security detail surrounding him stiffened.
What? Like it was a secret.
Dawson rubbed the back of his neck. “We’ll find out soon enough.”
Sera clasped his arm. “Uncle?”
“We arrested one this morning.” Dawson stared straight ahead. “The other apparently killed himself before we could take him into custody.”
The skin between Harlan’s shoulders itched. Dawson’s eye contact was aggressive, and he never used words like apparently. What the hell had happened while Harlan had been on his picnic? And what did it mean for his plans to escape?
Most of the security detail branched off, joining their comrades at the tether lines. Four remained, Harlan recognized two of them—Blond Mayfair with a few perfect teeth that needed to be knocked out and dark-haired Kennedy who swaggered about. They’d served in the embassy in Abaddon.
They’d also seen Sera topless.
And Harlan would bet they were still picturing it. His hands fisted at his side.
“Who was it?” Sera shifted into the lead as they approached the gondola. “Who betrayed us?”
Dawson cupped his niece’s elbow as she mounted the metal folding steps. “Makepeace Ohmson.”
With one foot on board, she turned and frowned at her uncle. “Mike Ohmson?”
“The same.” Dawson set his hand on her back and pushed her inside.
“He wouldn’t. He’d never.” Sera’s voice bounced off the windows. “He loves Dark Hope. He wouldn’t betray her.”
Harlan climbed up after Dawson. White and green seats lined the edges of the oval gondola. A metal ladder filled the center and led to a hatch over his head. The deck bucked and swayed under his feet. His stomach threatened to return the sandwich and cookies he’d eaten. “Who is Mike Makepeace Ohmson?”
And what was he to Sera?
Her jaw thrust forward as she faced her Uncle. “He’s my friend. My first one from the Outlands. And he’s very loyal to Dark Hope. He’s not a traitor.”
“What he is, is not for you to decide.” Dawson cut a glance to Mayfair and Kennedy before pointing to the ladder leading to the upper decks.
Sera crossed her arms and stood her ground. “What does he say?”
Mayfair and Kennedy stood behind their commander.
Harlan stopped next to Sera.
“He’s just been brought in.” Dawson forced his arm to his side. “Now get to the ready room, Officer Tahoma, or I’ll relieve you of duty.”
Sera stomped to the ladder. “Let me talk to him. I know I can straighten this out with just a few questions.”
“Negative. Your job is to finish that documentary on the Outlanders.”
Harlan moved to follow Sera to the upper decks.
Dawson gripped his shoulder and held him still. “Mayfair, Kennedy, escort Officer Tahoma to the ready room.”
“Aye, sir.” The two men jostled each other to follow her up.
Bastards. Harlan’s attention cut to Dawson. Were all Outlanders to be treated with suspicion? Hell, maybe the good citizens of Dark Hope would just evict all the Outlanders and close the gate while they studied the problem.
Two airshipmen slammed the door and locked it. Metal rasped as they pulled up and stowed the steps. The two fresh-faced teens glanced from him to Dawson.
Dawson flopped onto one of the benches. “Tell Captain Saldana to get us out of here.”
“Aye, sir.” The one with the most pimples climbed first. His mate soon followed. The hatch shut with a soft thud then a thunk sealed them inside.
Pushing to his feet, Dawson checked the hatch then adjusted the communication badge on his chest. A little green light flickered once then fell dark.
Harlan sank onto the bench as the dirigible lifted off the ground. He swallowed hard and waited. This little impromptu meeting had a purpose. He just wished to hell he knew what.
“You’ll accompany Sera on her interviews.” Dawson paced the gondola. Six steps right. Turn. Seven steps. He clasped and unclasped his hands.
Harlan sat up straight, nearly reached for the ladder. “She won’t like being guarded.”
“She’s not being guarded. She’s doing her duty.” Dawson stopped by the back of the gondola and lifted up the bench cushion.
Not guarding her? Harlan’s fingers dug into the buttery leather. “Then why would she let me tag along?”
“I can’t spare any men at the moment. But she insisted on finishing the documentary in defense of the Outlanders. You’re her new camera man.” Dawson pulled out a bag. The formed leather box swung in his hand when he approached. “She may have to travel outside Abaddon to get the big picture.”
Harlan caught the bag. The fabric was cold to the touch. Pinching the zipper, he opened it. Three silver balls rolled across a black tablet. He lifted them out, juggled the two-inch spheres in his palm. “I don’t know anything about cameras?”
Reaching inside, Dawson lifted the tablet.
Harlan’s heart lodged in his throat. Holy shit! A snubnosed stungun lay on top of six clips, each of which held a hundred staples on steroids. Pushing aside one layer of clips, his hand trembled. There was another underneath. Twelve hundred rounds.
What army was he facing?
Or was he about to be offered up as a patsy? He opened his mouth.
Dawson silenced him with a look. “Operating the equipment is easy. Just point and shoot.”