We were about half a klick along when a leanly-built black man with short, cropped hair wearing rumpled green fatigues and a gear belt with a holstered pistol stepped out from the treeline five meters away on our right, planted himself in the middle of the road, and said, "Stop right there and put down your weapons."
Mouse and I trained the MP5s at him.
"Don't think so," I said.
Then Cutter stepped forward, the AK held down at his side. "Okay--which of you numbnuts shot down my aerodyne?"
The line of trees to our right exploded in a spray of wood chunks and leaves under the rolling burst from a machinegun hidden further up the road.
"Shit," said Mouse.
The man folded his arms across his chest. "Weapons down."
"Putting them down," I said and set the MP5 on the ground.
Mouse gave me a sidelong look as she did the same then slid off her back scabbards. "Is now a good time for your plan?"
I unholstered the Twins and set them next to the submachinegun. "You mean the one I don't have yet?"
"That's that one."
Cutter took another step forward. "Kyle? Is that you? You wanna tell me who the hell shot me down?"
The man--Kyle--turned to Cutter and pointed a finger at him. "You," he said. "Wait." He swung the finger at us. "You. Take two steps back."
Mouse and I complied.
"I'm waiting, Kyle," said Cutter.
"Back off, Cutter," said Kyle, "and put the damn rifle down."
"This is bullshit," said Cutter and he put the AK on the ground and stepped aside. "I wanna talk to Mac."
Kyle ignored him, pulled a walkie-talkie from his gear belt, and spoke into it.
Trees and bushes around us rustled and six figures emerged, all wearing the same green fatigues, all armed with AK-47s. They stood in a semi-circle, rifles trained at us.
One of them--a petite black woman with copper hair pulled back in a tight ponytail--slung her rifle, stepped forward, and patted me down. Then Mouse, smiling every time she pulled a knife from some hidden sheath, and set those down on the ground. When she got to Cutter, she gave him a lascivious grin.
"Be nice, Tina," Cutter said, his brow furrowed..
Tina's grin grew wider.
She took her sweet time with him.
When she finally finished, she swatted him on the ass, stepped back, and turned to Kyle. "They're clean."
Kyle looked us over, eyes narrowed. He spoke into the walkie, listened to the reply, then looked at the others. "Where's Bishop? I thought he was at the site?"
"Is Bishop big and bald with a mustache and nasty b.o?" I said.
Kyle turned to me. "Why?"
"If he is, he tried to feel up my partner." I indicated Mouse.
"Yeah," Mouse said. "It's true. I stabbed him in the neck for that. He won't be joining us anymore."
Tina fought back a snorted laugh and turned away.
A hook-nosed Claw member grunted and said, "Asshole deserved it."
"Enough," Kyle said, then looked at me and Mouse. "Thirty seconds to explain what you're doing here. I don't like it, we grease you."
"What about my aerodyne?" said Cutter.
"Dylan's orders," said Kyle. "Said you were running for Capital."
"That's bullshit!," said Cutter. "What does he know anyway. And what did Mac say?"
"Is this Mac in charge?" I said to Cutter.
Cutter snorted. "Supposed to be."
"Hey--!" said Kyle.
"Take us to Mac" I said to Kyle.
"Why don't I just shoot you two right now?" Kyle said.
I popped optics to thermo and raked my gaze across the Claw members, saw what I needed, popped back to norm viz. Gave Mouse a slight nod.
Her eyes smiled.
I said to Kyle: "Tell you why not."
A subvocalized command filled my body with adrenaline stimulators and the world slid into slo-mo.
I bolted forward, bent, scooped up Bonnie from the pile on the ground, and closed on Kyle. His eyes just started to widen when I reached him, grabbed the back of his shirt with my left hand, shoved Bonnie up under his chin, spun us both so that he was between men and the others.
Out of the corner of my eye, ahead and to my right, Mouse had Tina in front of her in a modified headlock, one hand cupped around her jaw, exposing her throat, while the edge of a Bowie knife lay against the other woman's throat.
I dropped boost, heard my pulse thudding against my chest and my temples, took a couple of slow deep breaths through my nose. Then I angled Kyle slightly so he could see Mouse and Tina. "See why not?"
Beyond, the other Claw members swept their rifles between me and Mouse, confusion on their faces.
"Well?" I said to Kyle.
He turned head toward me, his expression gone dark, his eyes narrowed. "My man's got a light MG aimed at your back," he said.
I dug Bonnie's muzzle further into the underside of his chin. "I get you first," I said, "and my partner slices your girl." I gave him a humorless grin. "Wanna chance it?"
Kyle's nostrils flared a couple of times. Then he swallowed. "Okay," he said. "I'll take you to Mac."
* * *
Mouse and I surrendered our weapons--again--then fell into line with the other Claw members and we headed up the dirt road.
After fifteen minutes of walking, the road rounded a bend and led into an open area. Ahead of us, four outbuildings--shacks, really--stood in a semi-circle beneath a stand of trees, most missing planks from their walls and roofs. On our left was a one-story building, its two front windows missing glass.
The road went around the outbuildings along the left, past the remains of some large building, toward a two-story house. A set of stone steps led up from the road to a covered wrap-around porch. Tree-studded hills rose up around the house and open space.
I spotted a figure in the house's front window looking out from behind curtains. Before I could get a better look, the figure stepped away and the curtains fell back into place.
"I thought there was a mine here?" said Mouse.
"Back side of the house," said Cutter.
"How many in the house?" I said.
"Dunno," said Cutter.
"Doubt there's fifty-plus people in a two-story," said Mouse and shook her head. "Was me, I'd kill someone pretty quick."
"The way you snore," I said, "they'd kill you first so they could sleep."
She stuck her tongue out at me.
(to be continued...)