**Winner of the Readers’ Favorite Award for Fantasy & Science Fiction Romance**
**Winner of the Colorado Independent Publisher’s Association’s EVVY Award for Science Fiction**
**Global Ebook Awards Honorable Mention for Science Fiction**
Some secrets are better left buried...
Kayla is a scavenger, driven to search the ruins of abandoned cities for artifacts in exchange for critical life-saving supplies. But, the rarest artifacts are found in the most dangerous ruins—those under control by the OmniLab traders.
Carl is one of those traders—and Kayla’s invaded his district. He’s determined to stop her and the best way to do that is to recruit her. The only problem?
Kayla hates traders.
When a powerful man intent on revenge starts hunting her, Kayla realizes the only way to save herself may be to accept Carl’s offer. But that would mean surrendering to OmniLab and giving up everything she knows.
Only everything isn’t quite what it seems.
And Kayla’s in a lot of trouble.
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Beneath the Fallen City © 2018 by Jamie A. Waters
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, or events, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
Cover Art by Deranged Doctor Designs
Editor: Beyond DEF Lit
ISBN: 978-1-949524-06-2 (Hardback Edition)
ISBN: 978-0-9996647-0-4 (Paperback Edition)
ISBN: 978-0-9996647-4-2 (eBook Edition)
Library of Congress Control Number: 2018906545
Second Edition *September 2018
The Omni Towers Series
Shadow of the Coalition
Also by Jamie A. Waters
About the Author
Ruins of Fate
Beneath the Fallen City
Shadow of the Coalition
Tremors of the Past
Drop of Hope
Flames of Redemption
Spirit of the Towers
The original story of Beneath the Fallen City was published in 2014 under the title The Two Towers. Like many authors, every time I read the book over (and I read it many times), I recognized places where rewriting would make it better. After several years, the publisher finally allowed the rights to revert back to me, and at that point I decided to revise the book. What you hold in your hand is the satisfying result.
Kayla knew she was in trouble the moment her foot touched the ground. Feeling the floor give way beneath her boots, she tucked in her arms, forcing her body to relax in order to minimize the impact. She crashed through the floor, bringing building debris with her. Landing hard on a lower level of the ruins with a loud thump, a cloud of dust obscured her vision.
A rough voice sounded from the earpiece attached to her helmet. “What the hell’s going on down there? I’ll kick your ass if you damaged any artifacts.”
Kayla shifted slightly. Thankfully, this level appeared stable. She moved her limbs to gauge the extent of her injuries. Nothing broken, just my pride. She’d have plenty of bruises tomorrow, and she was sure she’d never hear the end of it.
“Floor collapse in Sector Twelve. I’m fine, Leo. Thanks for asking.” She rolled her eyes at his lack of concern.
There was a moment of static before the angry voice came back over the frequency. “You’re supposed to be in Sector Four. Sector Twelve is still being mapped.”
Kayla recognized her spotter’s calmer tone when he interrupted Leo’s impending tirade. “Leo, this is Veridian. We detected Carl’s team on another frequency. It sounded like they were headed toward Sector Four. We thought it best to avoid them.”
“Dammit,” Leo swore. “They weren’t supposed to be back in that area for another few days. We’re working off bad information. Get out of that hole and get your asses back to camp. I don’t have time for this shit.”
“Understood,” Veridian replied. “Kayla, are you secure?”
She grimaced and glanced around the room, her helmet light shining through the dust as it settled. “Not yet. Let me get into position. You’ll need to lower the cable and harness about five meters.” Kayla paused, and then added, “I hope you’ve got some hydrating packs. I’m parched.”
She flipped open her wristband and switched channels on her commlink. Trusting Veridian would remember the code phrase indicating she wanted to speak with him on an unmonitored channel, she said, “Tell Leo the gear is jammed. I need at least ten minutes. If Carl’s crew is working this area again, I don’t know when we’ll be able to come back. Let me see what I can scavenge.”
Veridian huffed in exasperation, but he agreed. “Try to make it five, Kayla. Your vitals are out of sync, and Leo’s monitoring from camp. He sounds pissed.”
“That’s nothing new,” Kayla muttered and switched back to the main channel before flipping her wristband unit closed. She rolled over and got into a crawling position, wincing from the pain. Once she was confident the floor would support her, she stood and took a better look around the room.
The abandoned apartment building was several hundred years old. Neglect and the elements had taken their toll. Faded wallpaper peeled from the walls, and a thick layer of dust coated the floor. Most of the furniture had either been scavenged or had rotted over the years. It was easy to get disoriented in the ruins with the sloping floors, partially collapsed walls, and extensive structural damage. One of the tricks she’d learned over the years was to reconcile the current scene with the echoes of the past.
Kayla closed her eyes for a moment and visualized the way the room used to be. In her mind, she saw a large bedroom with an ornate bed against the wall in front of her. A low bookcase sat on the far wall with two overstuffed chairs. A strange painting hung over the bookcase and seemed to beckon her. On the opposite side of the room was a dresser with a large mirror where she imagined a woman modeling a silly-looking hat.
She shook her head to clear the realistic image from her mind. Keep it together, Kayla. It’s only your imagination. Even so, she trusted her instincts. Veridian often joked that the ruins spoke to her. In a sense, she guessed it was true. Her instincts never let her down.
Moving across the room, she focused on the dilapidated painting hanging over the bookcase. The painting was unsalvageable, rotted and covered with mildew. Something about it had drawn her attention though. Kayla pulled the painting off the wall and set it on the floor.
With gloved hands, she ran her fingers over the surface vacated by the painting andbit back a grin as she felt a niche in the wall. Pulling open the false wall, she stared at an old metal safe. It was tempting and probably faster to force it open or even pull it out of its resting place, but there was no way she’d risk damaging the structural elements further. The whole building was little better than a death trap. Fortunately, she’d been trained by one of the best.
Kayla opened her backpack and withdrew a long, wand-like instrument that also doubled as a handheld drill. With her other hand, she pressed her frequency detector against the door to the safe. Drilling a small hole, she then jimmied the cylinder inside the locking mechanism. Watching the detector’s display, she moved the wand until she heard a click. Tucking the tools back into her toolkit, she opened the door.
Ignoring the worthless stocks, bonds, and other papers piled in the safe, she pulled out a small box tucked in the back.
Kayla flipped open the lid of the box. A ruby necklace and a pair of earrings, along with several other valuable pieces of jewelry, winked at her under the light from her helmet. Not bad. On occasion, she’d found weapons or ammunition. Those that could be salvaged were more usable to her camp, but jewelry could be traded for other supplies.
She stuffed the box into her backpack before turning back to the safe. Rifling through the papers, Kayla discovered a small cloth pouch. She opened it and shook the contents out into her gloved palm.
A small green sculpture of a strange-looking creature with a long snout and a pair of wings sat in the palm of her hand. It was slightly larger than the length of her thumb, carved from a mineral she didn’t recognize. She shook her head in resignation. You people should have paid more attention to survival rather than collecting stupid trinkets.
Veridian spoke over her headset again, an undertone of urgency in his voice. “Kayla, time’s up. We’ve got company. I’ve got three bikes incoming on the radar. They’ve got trader camp signatures. ETA is about three minutes. Get up here now.”
“Dammit,” Kayla swore as she unscrewed the false bottom of her frequency detector. She’d never make it to the surface in time, but she wasn’t about to walk away empty-handed either. She pushed the small carving inside, snatched the jewelry box from her backpack, and dumped out the contents. Shoving most of the jewelry inside the secret compartment, she closed the opening. She unzipped her jacket and stuffed the ruby necklace into her shirt before tossing the empty box in a pile of debris in the corner.
Kayla zipped up her jacket and made her way back to where she had crashed through the floor. Climbing into the harness, she hit the indicator button to let Veridian know she was secure. “Ready, V. Pull me up.”
The engine came to life, and the cable harness slowly lifted her out of the ruins, giving her a chance to evaluate the depth of the building. Kayla had been scavenging several levels down, and she suspected there were at least a few more levels below her. Something big is down here. I can feel it.
A hand reached out to help her the moment she passed through the roof of the building. She gripped the offered hand and pulled herself the rest of the way out of the ruins. When she saw the owner of the hand and realized it wasn’t Veridian, she yanked hers back as if burned.
“You lousy, blood-sucking, rat-dicked bastard,” she spat as she pulled off her helmet. Tossing back her dark hair, she glared at the man standing in front of her. Veridian was standing a short distance away, and he shrugged as though to say there wasn’t much he could do. She should have come up to the surface sooner.
“Ah, Kayla, still as charming as ever,” Carl replied, his voice smooth. “We intercepted your transmission earlier. I’m sure you can imagine my surprise when I heard you and Veridian were in Sector Twelve. I thought it might be a good idea to take a short trip to see what you’ve been up to.”
Kayla scowled at the man. Easily over six feet in height, he towered over her much shorter frame. If she had to guess, she’d estimate his age to be several years older than her, maybe somewhere in his mid-twenties. His shoulders were broad, and his muscles were well defined in tribute to the time he spent navigating the ruins. His long, dark hair was pulled back into a ponytail and accentuated his incredible face. Dark, penetrating brown eyes focused on her, and his lips twitched into a teasing smirk.
Like Kayla, he wore the special UV-protective pants and jacket to shield himself from the harsh sun. The world had changed since the last war, and the environmental conditions were deadly without several protective measures. Even now, they stood under a portable UV guard that encompassed the area where Kayla and Veridian had been scavenging.
As good-looking as he was, Carl was a pain in the ass. It didn’t help that she’d mistakenly thought he was a ruin rat when they first met. Of course, he hadn’t been in a hurry to clear up the misconception either. If Kayla had clubbed him over the head with her wrench instead of flirting with him, she would have saved herself months of irritation. Instead, he kept showing up at different scavenging sites as an unwelcome reminder of their first meeting. Never mind that he seemed to get an almost perverse pleasure at cutting into their earnings. Yeah, if he weren’t so damn pretty, I would have clocked him months ago.
The thought was still tempting. Determination in her movements, Kayla dropped her pack on the ground and unhooked the harness. She might not have her wrench handy, but her fists would do well enough. When she yanked off her gloves and started to take a step toward him, Veridian made a small, pained noise. His look of warning stopped her in her tracks.
She pursed her lips and let out a long exhale. Okay, so maybe wiping the smug expression off the trader’s face wasn’t the best way to handle the situation. As though sensing her thoughts, Veridian gave her a slight nod of approval before packing up the metal cabling and the rest of the equipment. In an effort to calm herself, Kayla reached for a hydrating pack and took a long drink before turning back to the uninvited guests.
As usual, Carl wasn’t alone. He had brought two of his lackeys with him, Cruncher and Elyot. Cruncher was a short, stocky character with a knack for electronics. Kayla had admired his skill on more than one occasion when he’d dropped off deliveries to their camp. He was a former ruin rat himself, which was why she’d thought Carl had been the same. She never believed a trader would sully himself enough to visit a ruin rat camp.
Elyot was fairly new to Carl’s crew, and she didn’t know much about him. He had sandy-blond hair and a wiry build, leading her to believe he was one of Carl’s scavengers. It didn’t matter. She didn’t have much interest in traders or their crews. They were a necessary evil. Nothing more.
Kayla wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “Nothing better to do than listen in on other people’s conversations?”
Carl smiled. “I have to protect my interests, don’t I? You two are scavenging in a claimed sector.”
“You must be mistaken. We came here to tour some ruins and see the sights.”
He gestured to Cruncher, and the large man picked up Kayla’s discarded pack. He pulled out her frequency detector and other tools, giving them a cursory glance before putting them aside. Cruncher shook his head to indicate it was empty. “It’s only her equipment, Boss.”
“Like I said,” Kayla said sweetly, “we were touring the ruins.”
Carl raised an eyebrow. “With a frequency detector and hand drill? Take off the jacket, Kayla.”
Veridian, normally serene in comparison to Kayla’s more fiery nature, stood up. His long, light-brown hair fell in disarray around his face. He stood a foot taller than Kayla but met Carl’s eyes evenly.
Kayla often thought Veridian had been born during the wrong century. He seemed to lack the ruthlessness and cunning necessary for survival during these harsh times. But there was no questioning his loyalty or the sense of protectiveness he felt for Kayla. They’d been raised together, and Kayla would do almost anything for him. As far as she was concerned, she could be manipulative and deceitful enough for both of them.
“That’s not necessary, Carl,” Veridian said, jumping to her defense. “We’ll get out of your sector. Just leave her alone.”
“Stay out of this, V,” Kayla warned. Veridian frowned at her but didn’t raise any further objections. She didn’t want him getting involved in any altercation with Carl. Confident she’d receive more leeway if she played him right, Kayla shrugged out of her jacket and tossed it to Cruncher.
He grabbed it with one hand and began searching her pockets. She turned back to Carl, who was gazing at her with new appreciation.
Her short red tank top left her midsection bare. Dark, UV-protective pants hung low on her waist and clung to her curves.
“Jacket’s clean, Boss,” Cruncher informed him.
Kayla put her hands on her hips. “Are we done now?”
Carl grinned slyly and walked over to her. He wrapped one of his arms around her waist and pulled her against him. Kayla gasped in surprise.
Veridian made a lunge for Carl, but Cruncher grabbed him and held him back.
Carl leaned down and whispered into Kayla’s ear, “You can either hand over what you’ve taken, or I can go searching for it. The second would suit me fine.”
With a look of disgust, she pushed against his chest. He grinned and took a step back as she reached into her shirt to pull out the necklace. She tossed it to him. “Take it. It’s not worth having your hands on me.”
Carl caught the necklace and held it up to admire it. “I’m impressed, Kayla. You were down there for how long? Twenty minutes?”
“Twelve,” she retorted, crossing her arms over her chest.
He lowered the necklace and rubbed his chin in thought. “I have a proposition.”
“Forget it,” Veridian interrupted. “We’re not interested in anything you have to offer.”
Carl ignored Veridian and kept his focus solely on Kayla. He held out the necklace to her. “You gave this up way too easily. I doubt this was all you took. But I’ll allow you to keep this and whatever else you smuggled out today as a gesture of goodwill. In exchange, I want a small favor.”
Kayla considered him. Between the necklace, the rest of the jewelry, and the carving, she estimated Leo could probably bring in around two thousand credits. That amount would pay the camp expenses for at least a week and she’d have enough left over to finish fixing their auxiliary cooling system. It was tempting, but her past experiences with traders had taught her to be wary. “What favor?”
“I want a few hours of your time, Kayla. Nothing more. Come to my base tomorrow.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Why?”
“Because your talents are wasted on Leo,” Carl said. “He doesn’t have the resources or connections we do. Why waste your time as a ruin rat when there are other possibilities? Let me show you our operation. You can meet some of the crew.”
“So she can scavenge for you, Carl?” Veridian asked coolly. “You traders are all the same. You’ll screw over anyone and everything so long as it benefits your bottom line. Kayla’s part of our family. She can’t be bought.”
Carl spared the briefest glance at Veridian. “I appreciate the fact that your friend is trying to look out for you. Feel free to bring him along if it makes you more comfortable. It’s just a few hours of your time, and who knows? We might surprise you. I’m not asking for a commitment, only a chance to show you what we’re about.”
Kayla weighed her limited options. They were outnumbered and outgunned. If she refused and Carl found the jewelry, there was no telling how he’d react. It would be far too easy for her and Veridian to take an “accidental” dive into the ruins without a harness. The other alternative would be to give up the items and walk away empty-handed.
It was a possibility, but she’d already burned up a lot of Leo’s remaining goodwill. If she returned to camp without anything to sell, it wasn’t just her and Veridian who would suffer. The camp only had another two or three days of food supplies left. She had no choice. Leaning forward, she took the offered necklace. “Done. I’ll stop by tomorrow. Send the coordinates to my commlink.”
Veridian’s mouth formed a thin line, but he remained silent. Kayla didn’t miss the disapproving look on his face before he turned away to finish packing up their equipment. She quelled her initial impulse to reassure him she knew what she was doing. Instead, she focused on keeping her head in the game as long as Carl and his crew were still around. Traders would pounce on any sign of weakness.
Cruncher winked at Kayla as he handed her jacket back to her. “Notorious ruin rat considering going legit?”
She gave him a smug smile as she slipped her jacket on and stuffed the necklace into her pocket. “Hardly. But I’ve never been one to turn a blind eye to a profitable deal. A few hours of my time to get the grand tour and I keep my loot. It’s not my problem if your boss has a brain that fits in a gnat’s ass and still has room to rattle.”
Carl raised his eyebrows while Cruncher let out a loud laugh. “How much are you walking away with, Kayla?”
Kayla smiled cryptically. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. But I believe we might have some items we need to get prices on. I’ll see about bringing them with me tomorrow. Oh, and stay off our channels, Carl,” she warned as she recalled his earlier mention of intercepting their transmission. “Or you may end up hearing things you don’t like. I’d hate for your delicate trader ears to be forever scarred.”
Carl chuckled. “I doubt there’s much you could say that I haven’t heard before.”
“You might be surprised,” Kayla muttered. She picked up her helmet and walked over to her speeder. The other men followed her example and mounted their bikes.
Veridian hit the button to disengage the UV guard attached to his bike. A loud beep signaled the one-minute warning. Kayla put on her helmet and activated her bike.
Carl and his crew waited on their speeders, making it clear they didn’t trust her and Veridian to leave the scavenge site without their presence. She couldn’t help but smile at their lack of trust. It went both ways. Veridian held up his hand to let her know he was ready.
With a nod, she threw the bike into gear and took off over the desolate landscape. The war that had occurred over one hundred and fifty years ago had left much of the world a wasteland. Ruined buildings crumbled over onto themselves. Once lush areas had become barren.
Biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons had taken their toll, and a large portion of the planet was rendered uninhabitable. People lived differently in some places, either in areas less hard-hit or locked up in shelters that had been outfitted in preparation for the attacks.
Twin white towers stood in the distance, a constant reminder of the changes. A company called OmniLab had built them before the war. Kayla wasn’t sure how they’d managed to stay intact when much of the surrounding area was a wasteland. All she knew was based on what little information they’d found over the years and stories told by other ruin rats. Even the traders were tight-lipped when it came to the towers. Supposedly, entry into the fully self-sustaining towers had been permitted to several thousand individuals who met specific criteria, but if the rumors were true, the price tag for entry had been steep.
But even those self-sustaining towers had their weaknesses. The inhabitants craved the lost memorabilia that had once been commonplace in their society. These relics were considered luxury items, and people like Carl were appointed by OmniLab to obtain artifacts from the ruins. In exchange for the items, traders provided necessary equipment, food, and other supplies critical for survival outside of the towers. If it weren’t for this bartering system, Kayla wasn’t sure how long her camp could continue to exist. Everything on her person right now—from her commlink to her clothing—was purchased with the artifacts they’d scavenged in the ruins.
The Omnis, as they were called, had little to do with the outsiders. Carl and a few others were the only ones permitted to trade directly with the elusive Omnis. This trading relationship granted them exclusive rights to certain ruined areas. Only once the traders abandoned an area were the ruin rats permitted to scavenge and sell any additional findings to the traders. If a ruin rat scavenged in an area actively controlled by an Omni trader, the trader could essentially blacklist them from selling their findings. More than one ruin rat camp had disbanded or died out from being blacklisted. The threat of blacklisting was every ruin rat’s bogeyman.
Leo and other ruin rats had tried to approach the Omnis directly over the years, but they refused to acknowledge them. As a result, the ruin rat camps were forced to work with an intermediary, usually Carl or another trader named Henkel. These traders usually took a cut off the top for negotiating with the Omnis, which could be significant depending on the item.
Leo was going to be furious when he found out about the incident with Carl. He was already ticked off that they’d been in a different sector, but Kayla knew he’d fly through the roof when he found out Carl had caught them.
Needing a distraction, she shifted into a higher gear and felt a slight thrill as the bike tore across the landscape. Veridian’s voice came over her headset. “Are you trying to kill us? Slow it down a bit before you fry another solar cell.”
With a disappointed sigh, she downshifted. Veridian was right. Her bike was going to need another overhaul soon. The tires were both growing worn, and a few of the solar cells weren’t working as well. Besides, they were approaching their base and she didn’t need to set Leo off any more than she already had.
As they pulled up, Kayla slowed the speeder until it came to a stop. She shut off the engine and went over to Veridian’s bike to help him unload the gear. They carried the equipment into the temporary base they’d set up a few weeks earlier.
Their lifestyle required them to move around periodically to locate new areas to scavenge. Usually, they stayed in a place for several months or even a year before they needed to move. The farther they were able to travel, the more they were able to scavenge without interference from the OmniLab traders, but they wouldn’t be able to trade for supplies as often. It was a delicate balance.
Kayla pulled off her helmet as Leo approached them. He was a tall, thin, balding man in his early forties and had been leading the camp for the past ten years. He was cantankerous, and his mouth seemed to be permanently fixed in a frown. The years hadn’t been kind to him, but Kayla supposed he hadn’t been kind to them either. He wasn’t a bad man. They just had different styles, and Kayla preferred her independence.
“Where the hell do you two get off scavenging in an unmapped sector? If you know Carl’s crew is headed to the planned sector, you pull out and contact me. You don’t just decide to do whatever the hell you want.”
She shrugged off her jacket, reminding herself Leo’s tirade was only temporary. Once he got a good look at their daily take, he’d be salivating. “Maybe you should wait to see what we found before jumping down our throats.”
Veridian put down a box of equipment with more force than necessary.
“You mean, what Carl let us keep,” he reminded her.
Kayla elbowed Veridian in the ribs, earning her a grunt in response. Leo looked back and forth between them. “What do you mean? Did something happen with Carl?”
She didn’t bother to reply. Instead, she pulled out her frequency detector, unscrewed the base, and dumped the contents onto a nearby table. Leo’s eyes widened at the sight of the jewelry and the carving.
“Mmmm,” he murmured as he examined some of the pieces more closely. “These are excellent.”
Pleased with his praise, she pulled the ruby necklace from her pocket and put it on the table with the rest of the jewelry. Leo frowned when he realized she had kept that piece separate from the stash.
“Why the diversion piece? What happened?”
She waved a dismissive hand. “Carl showed up. But the situation was handled.”
“Handled how? Dammit, we can’t afford any problems with him.”
Veridian folded his arms across his chest. “He’s trying to recruit her. She agreed to meet him at his base tomorrow to hear his offer in exchange for keeping what she scavenged today.”
Leo’s eyes narrowed on her.
“What’s the harm?” Kayla asked with a shrug, feigning nonchalance. “I go, pretend to listen, nod my head at the right times, and leave. I think we ended up ahead in this arrangement.”
Leo threw up his hands. “What’s the harm? Everything! Kayla, you know how these traders work. They’ll screw over every single one of us to get what they want. We’re trash to them. I don’t like it, and I don’t trust him.”
“I don’t either, but I already agreed to meet with him. Do you want me to break a deal with a trader?” Kayla gestured toward the back of the camp. “The auxiliary cooler is shot and needs to be repaired. If our main one goes down, we’re in trouble. Our food supply is low, and Mack said one of the computers crapped out again. You’re down one scavenger already from Johnny’s accident last week. We need the credits and you know it.”
“Fine,” Leo relented with a scowl. “At least take Veridian with you. Hopefully, he can keep you out of trouble.”
“That’ll be a first,” Veridian muttered, staring up at the ceiling as though seeking divine intervention.
Kayla gave him a playful shove. “I was planning on taking V anyway. But this visit isn’t anything to worry about. I can handle Carl. I’m more concerned he’s somehow managed to put a sniffer on our communication system.”
Leo scratched his head. “I thought you said your comms were clean.”
“Mine are,” Kayla insisted. “I can’t say the same for yours though. He keeps showing up in places he shouldn’t. No one’s luck is that good. I’m heading to the tech room now to run a scan.”
Leo grunted an affirmative answer and turned back to fully inventory the items Kayla had scavenged. She smiled inwardly at his eagerness. One crisis averted. Motioning to Veridian, the two of them headed back toward the tech room.
The tech room was a small room filled with computers, both working and non-working. Machines disassembled for parts were pushed up against the walls. Kayla pulled up a crate to use as a makeshift chair and took a seat in front of the communication system’s interface.
Veridian stood over her shoulder while she started the system scan. “Kristin ran a scan yesterday after she adjusted the antenna on the roof. She didn’t notice anything unusual.”
Kayla didn’t look away from the data flashing on the screen in front of her. “She would have only checked the transmission range for our commlinks and done some basic maintenance. She probably wouldn’t have thought to look for a sniffer.”
Veridian leaned forward to study the screen. “How could Carl have gotten one on this system? We have it locked down pretty tight. He would have had to manually install something.”
“I’m not sure,” she admitted, tapping in a few commands. A new set of data appeared on the screen. She scrolled through it, trying to find anything out of the ordinary.
“Wait a second!” Kayla grabbed Veridian’s arm and pulled him down next to her. “Here we go. Gotcha, you bastard. Sneaky son of a bitch.”
“You found something?”
Kayla nodded, drumming her fingers on the side console. “I think so. Some of these readings don’t add up. I may have to rethink my earlier assessment of him. The guy is an absolute genius, or he’s got geniuses working with him.”
She pointed at the screen. “Check it out. You were right. This couldn’t have been done remotely. We would have picked up on it otherwise. That jerk managed to get one of his crew close enough to our physical system to install this. From the look of it, he’s been monitoring Leo’s comm system for weeks. I’m betting they did it during one of their deliveries. No wonder Cruncher’s been so helpful lately.”
Veridian swore. “Can you remove it from here?”
“I don’t think I want to remove it,” she said with a wicked smile. “I think we should leave it alone, with one little exception. I’m going to reroute the sniffer to link with another file.”
Veridian cocked his head. “What file?”
Kayla’s eyes glinted mischievously. “If they want to eavesdrop on our comms, we’ll give them something to listen to. Remember that clip we snagged last week of Leo singing?”
Veridian laughed and bumped fists with her. “Brilliant. If that doesn’t get them to stop listening to our comms, there’s not much hope.”
She grinned and fell silent for a few minutes while she finished redirecting the file. It was a start, but they needed to be more proactive. Kayla turned back to him. “I have another idea, if you’re up for it.”
He eyed her warily and ran his hand through his hair, a nervous trait he seemed to use when he was worried. “Uh oh. I know that look. This isn’t going to be good, is it?”
“I want to turn his idea back on him,” Kayla began. “If we put together a bug or two to plant in Carl’s base tomorrow, we could get a jump on him and know which areas to avoid.”
Veridian frowned. “That’s pretty risky. You got lucky today, but it won’t go well if he catches us.”
“Then we won’t get caught,” she declared, standing up to sort through some of the boxes of old equipment. “I think we have what we need to put something together. I’ll need your help though. You’re better at building devices than me.”
Veridian hesitated for a moment, as though debating whether she would go through with it even if he refused. He finally shrugged in resignation. “Fine, I’ll help. But planting a bug in his base is going to be difficult. He’ll probably suspect something like this.”
“Don’t worry about that. I’ll make sure Carl will be watching me most of the time. He doesn’t trust me. I doubt he’ll be expecting you to do anything though. You’ve got that wholesome, innocent thing going on,” she explained, pulling out an old circuit board and inspecting it for damage. “I’ll distract him while you plant a bug near his communications room. If I get a chance, I’ll plant another one in his office. Even if we only get one planted, that’s better than nothing.”
Veridian picked up the soldering gun and magnification goggles. He pulled the goggles over his eyes and took the circuit board from her. “I hope you know what you’re doing.”
Kayla grinned. “What’s life without a little excitement?”
The coordinate navigation system flashed on Kayla’s bike monitor to indicate they were nearing their destination. She let Veridian know of their approach through her headset and slowed down.
Carl’s facility was substantially larger than the largest ruin rat camp. It was also a permanent fixture, built with specially treated building materials designed to withstand the climate’s effects. More than half a dozen bikes were parked at the front overhang. Kayla had a moment of speeder-envy, eyeing the bike closest to her. Both its wheels had the new bionic skin to automatically adapt its traction based on the traveling surface. Even the mounted solar cells were shiny, polished to a gleam and sparkling in the sunlight.
She wrinkled her nose and patted her bike affectionately. Sure, the other speeders were more than a little pretty, but they probably couldn’t keep up with her retrofitted transport. Hell, who was she kidding? She was tempted to steal those tires on her way out the door. With a sigh, Kayla disengaged her engine and climbed off, careful not to damage any of the scavenged items stored in her backpack.
Veridian pulled up beside her, hesitating before dismounting. He’d been upset about this visit, even going so far as to suggest they consider canceling. It had taken her a while to bring him around, but he still wasn’t fully on board. Hoping to lighten the mood, she gestured to the size of the base.
“Think he’s compensating for something?”
Veridian groaned and shook his head. “Kayla, that’s awful.”
Pleased she had cut through some of his nervousness, she grinned and stepped through the UV guard at the front entry. The sight of Carl and Cruncher waiting made it obvious Carl’s crew had been tracking them since they approached the facility. Unsurprised, Kayla pulled off her helmet and jacket and hung them on the rack by the entry. Veridian followed her lead.
“Glad you decided to join us,” Carl said, extending his hand in greeting.
“Yeah, yeah,” Veridian muttered but took the proffered hand.
Kayla stepped forward, placing her hands on her hips. “Let’s get this moving. I’m a busy girl. Business first, or the tour?”
Carl’s mouth curved into a slight smile. “And that’s one of the many things I like about you. You get right to it. Let’s go to my office. You can show me what you’ve brought to sell.”
“Suit yourself,” she replied and followed Carl down a long hallway. She noticed Cruncher followed a few steps behind her and Veridian, careful to make sure they didn’t stray. She’d have to find an opportune moment to distract them so Veridian could plant the bug. The other bug rested in her pocket. Although it was smaller than her fingernail, her awareness of it made it feel more like a large speeder.
Electronic dividers with the capability of blocking out light and sound surrounded Carl’s office. The costly technology gave the occupants a large measure of privacy. Despite herself, Kayla was impressed with the extravagance and interested to see what other gadgets they had in their camp.
Carl stepped over to his desk and waited while she opened her backpack. She spread out the jewelry and carving on the desk.
Cruncher let out a low whistle. “Holy shit, girl. Did you smuggle all of that out of Sector Twelve yesterday?”
She sat on the corner of the desk and feigned innocence. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Cruncher. These trinkets have been in my family for generations. I told you I was just taking in the sights yesterday.”
Carl gave Kayla a hard look before turning to assess the merchandise. He studied each piece carefully before moving on to the next one.
“I may have underestimated you,” Carl admitted. He pointed to the collection. “I’ll give you twenty-five hundred for the lot. That’s a final offer. There’s no negotiation on this one.”
“Done.” Kayla smiled sweetly. “I wouldn’t dream of trying to take advantage of your generosity.”
“Hmm.” Carl turned on his commlink and initiated the instructions to wire the credits to her camp’s account. When the transaction was complete, he scooped up the jewelry and put it in a lockbox behind his desk.
Kayla verified the transaction was final and hopped off the desk. At least something positive had come out of this trip. “Are we still on for the tour? Or have I worn out my welcome?”
Carl’s mouth twitched as though he were suppressing a smile. “You’re not getting out of here so easily. You just cost me a few thousand credits, and I intend to make sure you hold up your end of the deal.”
He pressed his hand against the small of her back to lead her out of the office. She stiffened slightly at the gesture but allowed the contact. Veridian frowned at her but remained silent when she shook her head. There was a fine line to walk when dealing with a trader. So far, Carl had kept his word. She’d give him some leeway, at least to a point. Besides, there were far worse things than having a gorgeous man’s hands on her.
As they exited the room, Kayla caught a glimpse of Cruncher still trailing behind them. Planting the bugs was going to be more than a little challenging if they kept watching this closely. Carl escorted them into a large, open room they used as a common area. A dozen chairs surrounded an elongated, conference-style table. Cabinets covered most of one wall with an expansive countertop. A state-of-the-art food preparation and storage machine sat in the corner.
Two people turned toward them when they entered. She recognized Elyot from yesterday, but the young woman was unfamiliar.
“Kayla and Veridian,” Carl began, introducing them to the new people. “This is Elyot and Lisia. He’s one of our scavengers, and Lisia’s one of our crew techs.”
Elyot smiled warmly. “Nice to see you guys again. I’ve heard quite a few stories about you, Kayla. You’ve impressed the hell out of some of us.”
Lisia, a tall, thin girl with a mass of blond curls on top of her head, looked at Carl and Kayla with open hostility. “I’ve got stuff to do,” she announced, pushing away from the table. “I’ll catch you later, Elyot.”
Without another glance, she headed out of the room. Surprised by the rude departure, Kayla peeked up at Carl for an explanation. His jaw was set, and he stared at the door where the young woman had disappeared. Elyot cleared his throat and offered weakly, “Uh, Lisia’s somewhat temperamental. Ignore her.”
“She’s a good tech, but Elyot’s right,” Carl elaborated on an exhale, rubbing the back of his neck. “She’ll warm up once you get to know her.”
Kayla shrugged. She wasn’t there to make friends or get caught up in camp drama. Leo’s camp had more than enough to keep her busy. Carl continued the tour by saying, “Through here we have the crew’s quarters and the tech room.”
The crew’s quarters consisted of a large room separated into individual personal areas with modular constructs. Each personal area had a cot, a small desk, and a storage locker. It was different than the setup at Leo’s camp, where the bunks were sandwiched together in an open room.
Kayla ran her fingers along the wall, admiring the privacy dividers installed in this area. They were reinforced to block out sounds and light from the outside, although someone could always leave the door open if they weren’t in the mood for privacy. She wondered what it would be like to have a place of her own, where she could shut out the world. The only place she ever felt a few moments of peace was down in the ruins. If nothing else, she had to give Carl credit for providing his people with some rather expensive comforts.
They moved to the tech room next. Carl paused outside the door, an expectant look on his face. “I think you’ll enjoy this room.”
Puzzled, Kayla moved past him and stepped inside. Realization dawned, and her eyes grew wide in excitement as she stared at the equipment Carl had recently acquired from OmniLab.
“No fucking way.” Forgetting her plan to act nonchalant, she moved across the room to pick up one of the underground sensors designed to identify rare metals. She ran her fingers across it with reverence, recalling what she’d read about it. Not only was it one of the prototypes unavailable to ruin rats but it was also capable of locating specific rare metals housed within other metals. It had the potential to detect artifacts hidden miles below the surface.
She looked up at Carl in disbelief. A knowing smile flitted across his face. “I picked it up a few days ago. There are some other prototypes in there too. OmniLab developed a new chemical monitoring kit and some other UV-protective gear. We were asked to test it out.”
“Oh man. I read about these, but to actually see them…” Her voice trailed off as she rifled through some of the other equipment, incredulous at the playground of toys around her. Veridian crossed the room to study some monitors mapping the topography of the area.
“This is amazing.” He gestured to the monitors. “You’re able to track all of this from here?”
Carl nodded and pointed to one of the screens. “That’s the IM-XL system. It uses our current geographical location to generate some basic topographic maps of the underground ruins. It uses the old-world maps as a basis for comparison and updates to provide new potential high-artifact ruin locations.”
Veridian whistled in appreciation and watched the screen. Kayla barely spared them a glance, clutching the sensor in one hand and digging through some of the other boxes with the other. It’d be interesting to find out how difficult it would be to smuggle the sensor out of Carl’s camp.
Carl cleared his throat to get Kayla’s attention. “If you can manage to put the sensor down, we picked up some new lock-cracking tools too. I’ve got Zane trying them out in the testing lab. I’ve heard you have an interest in locks. You’re welcome to take a look.”
Kayla jerked her head up, trying to decide if the man was serious or toying with her emotions. It would be an evil prank if it were the latter. “Really?”
Carl chuckled and nodded. It broke her heart a little, but she carefully replaced the sensor. Trailing her fingers over it in farewell, she gave it one last, longing look. “You’ve definitely got some cool toys in here.”
There was no mistaking the pleased look on his face at the compliment. Motioning for them to follow, Carl led them past what appeared to be the communications room and into the testing lab. Remembering their purpose, Kayla shot a meaningful look at Veridian. He returned a barely discernible nod.
The testing lab was only slightly smaller than the tech room and had a wide variety of different locking mechanisms set up like an obstacle course. Kayla recognized most of them from her scavenging expeditions.
There were two men in the room. One had rich caramel-colored skin with short, dark hair and eyes. He lounged against the wall and flashed a smile when they entered. Kayla had met him several months earlier when he’d helped Cruncher make a delivery to Leo’s camp.
Kayla didn’t know the other man sitting on the floor working with one of the locks. He possessed an average build and fair skin. His blond hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and he seemed to work the locks with an intimate familiarity Kayla recognized.
Carl cleared his throat, and the man on the floor looked up expectantly. “Xantham and Zane, I’d like you to meet Kayla and Veridian. Xantham is in communications, and Zane is another one of our scavengers and master locksmith.”
Kayla narrowed her eyes at Xantham. If he was a communications expert, he was likely the one responsible for planting the sniffer on their system.
As though guessing her thoughts, Xantham winked at her. “We’ve already met, Carl. Besides, I feel like we’re already intimately acquainted, given how often you’ve asked me to intercept her communications.”
Kayla crossed her arms and gave Carl a dark look. He offered her a sly smile in response. “I protect my interests, Kayla. You’ve caused a significant dent in my revenue over the past year.”
“Ah, sad but true,” Xantham lamented.
Zane stood and wiped his hands on his pants before offering his hand to Kayla in greeting. “Nice to meet you. I’ve heard a lot about you. Cruncher says you’ve got a knack for locks?”
Kayla shrugged, deciding the change in subject was a welcome one. It probably wasn’t a great idea to keep reminding Carl she’d been stealing from under his nose for months. She studied the lock Zane abandoned. “I’ve been called more than fair. That’s an 8600, right?”
Zane nodded. “Yeah. We brought it up a few days ago to let the others practice on it. It’s one of the most difficult in the series. I figure if they can crack this one, they should be good on most of the others in the line.”
“No one’s been able to beat Zane’s time yet. With the new equipment, he’s running at one minute fifty-four seconds,” Cruncher added.
“One minute forty-six seconds,” Zane corrected proudly.
Kayla cocked her head and said casually, “Is that so? Well, how about a friendly wager? I’d be willing to give it a shot.”
Zane looked interested. “Sure. How much are we talking?”
“A token. How about twenty credits?”
Zane nodded at the amount. Carl rubbed his chin and considered Kayla for a moment. “If you don’t mind, I’ll sweeten the pot. One hundred credits for the best time.”
Surprise crossed Kayla’s face, but she shrugged in response. It wasn’t an exorbitant amount, but it wasn’t chump change either. “Your money. V, would you mind grabbing my equipment for me?”
Veridian nodded and headed back out the way he came. Carl studied Kayla carefully for a minute and then motioned for Cruncher to follow him. Kayla flashed a charming smile at Carl, inwardly cursing his intuitiveness. “I’m sure your equipment is nice, but for a hundred credits, I prefer to handle something I know can get me where I’m going.”
Carl smirked. “There’s no doubt in my mind my equipment can take you well and beyond where you want to go.”
She arched a brow, scanning him up and down to assess his “equipment”. He might be right, but she damn well wouldn’t admit it. “We’ll see about that.”
When he grinned, she turned away to hide her smile and pretended to look over the equipment in the room. Veridian and Cruncher returned a few minutes later. Judging from Veridian’s demeanor, Kayla knew he had planted the listening device. He handed her the equipment, and she walked over to the lock, confidence in each of her steps.
“Start the timer, boys, and I’ll show you how it’s done.” Kayla knelt and placed her frequency detector on the safe. With practiced motions, she slid her lock-picking tool into the lock and easily worked through the combinations.
With a flourish, she pulled the handle and the door swung open.
“One minute fourteen seconds,” Cruncher said in amazement.
Xantham chuckled in amusement while Zane stared at her in disbelief. “I’ve never seen anyone work a lock that fast.”
Kayla sauntered over to Carl, holding out her hand and rubbing her fingers together. “I believe that’s another hundred credits you owe me?”
“Apparently so.” His eyes skimmed up and down the length of her body as though assessing and considering her in a new light. “If you’ll join me in my office, I’ll transfer the credits now.” He turned to Zane. “I’ll do your transfer as well. I believe you owe her twenty?”
Zane nodded sheepishly. “Mind if I take a look at your equipment, Kayla?”
She hesitated for a moment before handing her equipment to Zane. Motioning for Veridian to stay behind and retrieve the device when Zane had finished trying it out, she followed Carl back toward his office.
“Protective of your equipment, are you?”
“I like to keep my toys clean. Nasty things happen when they leave my sight.”
“But you left them with Veridian,” Carl pointed out.
“Yes, I did. They’re safer with him than they are anywhere.”
“You have that much trust in him?”
Kayla frowned, becoming uncomfortable with the personal direction of the conversation. “You ask a lot of questions, Carl. But, yeah, I do. Veridian is… I guess you could say he’s like a brother to me.”
“A brother then,” Carl mused. He nodded as though that cleared up some question in his mind. “He mentioned family yesterday. Is that important to you?”
Kayla shrugged. “Only Veridian. Most other people are a waste of perfectly good oxygen.”
“I see,” he observed, stepping back into his office. Kayla hopped back on the edge of the desk and watched while Carl initiated the credit transfer. So far, the day was turning out to be more profitable than she’d expected. When the transfer was complete, she verified the transaction.
He put down his commlink and leaned across the desk to study her. “Now that we have that settled, I’d like to talk to you about the reason I asked you to come here.”
Kayla tucked her hair behind her ear and cocked her head. “Is this the part where you try to turn me into a legitimate scavenger?”
Carl smiled. “Something like that. You’ve met most of my crew, except for Jinx. She’s out mapping some sectors right now. I asked the crew to stick around today so you could meet them. But we usually try to do two separate shifts. One group is on one day and the other on the next. It seems to work out well for us.”
Kayla nodded. Most crews scavenged that way. She was scheduled to be back underground tomorrow.
“I know what most ruin rats think of us, but we’re not bad people. In fact, the majority of trader crews are made up of former ruin rats.”
“Yeah.” Kayla blew out a breath. “Ruin rats who decided they’d rather sell themselves and live under OmniLab’s thumb.”
“It’s not that bad, Kayla,” Carl insisted. “The benefits far outweigh the negatives. I’m prepared to offer you a salary with an added percentage of whatever you scavenge. This percentage would be directly from an OmniLab trader with no negotiation fees attached. It would be far more than you’ve ever seen working with Leo.”
“How much?” Kayla wasn’t really interested but was trying to hurry the conversation along.
Carl walked around the desk to stand next to her. “Five hundred credits a month with a twenty percent bonus to whatever you bring in. I’ll pay for all of your equipment and living expenses, and you can spend your credits on whatever you want. Send it back to Leo, for all I care. I want you, Kayla.”
Kayla was momentarily taken aback. She hadn’t been expecting such a generous offer. But either way, there was no way she’d accept the offer of a trader. The thought of working for OmniLab left a bitter taste in her mouth.
“No, thanks. I wouldn’t ever leave Veridian.”
Carl studied her for a long moment. “If you want him, you can have him too. He’ll have a salary of two hundred fifty a month. No bonus, though, since he doesn’t scavenge.”
Kayla’s eyes widened, her fingers gripping the edge of the desk to prevent her from falling off. She hadn’t expected Carl to want both of them. Veridian was skilled, but he wasn’t a scavenger. Most trader crews had plenty of techs, but there was a high demand for people who were actually willing to navigate the ruins. “Holy shit. Um, wow. Uh, I guess I’ll think about it and get back to you.”
“Of course,” Carl said easily with a trace of a smile on his face. He tapped a few instructions into the keyboard on the desk and pulled up a contract. “I’d appreciate it if you could read through this. I’ve outlined the salary, bonus percentage, and other benefits. The contract is for a year. At the end of the year, we can renew it for the same terms or renegotiate. Veridian will have a separate contract.”
Kayla sighed as she glanced at the lengthy document. “You want me to read through this now?”
At Carl’s nod, her shoulders slumped in dejection. Resigned to her task, she pulled her hair into a ponytail to get it out of her face.
Carl froze, studying the side of her neck. “Is that from yesterday?”
“Huh? Is what from yesterday?”
“You’ve got a particularly nasty bruise back there.” Carl frowned, his gaze fixed on her neck. She reached up to touch the area in question and winced when her fingers brushed against a painful bruise that crept up from her shirt.
“Yeah. Guess so,” she said with a shrug. “It happens when you fall through the floor.”
“I heard about that. I’ve got something that can help.” He moved around the desk. “You should take a couple of days off to heal. Your muscles won’t be relaxed, and you could injure yourself even more if you try scavenging too soon.”
Kayla scoffed at his statement. “Some of us don’t have the luxury to take days off. I’m amazed people aren’t lining up at the door if you treat all recruits like this.”
“Not all,” Carl admitted and reached into a drawer to pull out a bottle of dark-colored liquid and two glasses. “Just the promising ones.” He opened the bottle and poured a small amount into each glass.
She accepted the offered beverage, sniffed it apprehensively, and grimaced. “You want me to drink that?”
Carl didn’t reply. Instead, he lifted his drink and took a long sip, savoring it before putting his glass back on the desk. Kayla looked at his beverage and then considered her own. It seemed harmless enough. Raising it to her lips, she took a drink, making a face at the unfamiliar taste. Her eyes watered from the burn in her throat.
“Hell’s balls. What is that?”
He chuckled at her reaction. “It’s an old-world drink OmniLab recreated called scotch. It helps relax the muscles.”
“Hmm.” She licked her lips. “It’s not too bad once you get past the burn.”
She reached over to confiscate the bottle, poured herself a slightly larger amount, and took another drink. This time, it went down a little easier. She examined the bottle while Carl watched her in amusement.
“Be careful,” he warned. “It packs a hell of a punch, especially if you’re not used to drinking it.”
Carl reached into the desk drawer and pulled out a small tube of cream. Kayla recognized the OmniLab medicinal cream used to promote healing. It was extremely expensive and, in Kayla’s experience, should only be used in dire emergencies.
He tried handing it to her, but she pushed it back toward him with a look that clearly let him know she thought he was nuts. “It’s a bruise, not a gaping wound.”
“Use it. You ruin rats don’t take care of yourselves and wait until someone’s near death before trying to fix the problem. If you use it, you’ll heal faster and it could help prevent further injury.”
“If you say so,” Kayla huffed. She put a tiny amount of cream on her finger and rubbed it half-heartedly on her neck before handing the tube back to him.
Carl sighed at her lackluster display. “Well, there’s not much point if you’re going to do it that way.”
He flipped open the cap and squeezed a generous amount of the cream onto his fingers. When he touched her neck with the cream, she yelped.
“Hey! That’s cold.”
“Shh. Don’t be such a baby.”
She scowled but kept silent. Gentler than she thought he’d be, Carl massaged the cream into the back of her neck and shoulder. She relaxed against him and closed her eyes as his fingers caressed her skin.
He pulled his hands away far too soon and closed the cap on the cream. Kayla opened her eyes in disappointment and watched as he dropped it back into the drawer.
“That’s much better. You looked like you were falling asleep. I can’t let that happen when you’ve got important reading to do.”
“Yeah, right,” she grumbled and turned back to the detailed document. She was relatively quiet for several minutes while she skimmed the monotonous legalese, making occasional, colorful mutters about boring contracts. When she finished, Kayla pushed the tablet away and hopped off the desk. She pulled out her ponytail and shook out her hair.
“All done. Is that it?”
Carl nodded and crossed the desk to stand in front of her. “For now.” He looked down into her eyes, and a tingling feeling crept into the pit of her stomach.
Yep, I should have clocked him yesterday when I had the chance. He’s too damn pretty for his own good.
“Ah, looks like I missed some,” he added when he spotted a tiny bit of cream still on her shoulder. He ran his hand along her shoulder and gently massaged it into her skin.
Yeah, too damn pretty, and I’m a sucker—a sucker with a bug to plant. Kayla placed her hand on Carl’s chest, curling her fingers into his shirt. With her other hand, she discreetly slipped the listening device out of her pocket and attached it to the underside of his desk.
Leaning closer to him, she closed her eyes and tilted her head back. That was all the invitation he needed.
Carl lowered his mouth to hers, capturing her lips with his. He tasted like the scotch—warm, spicy, and surprisingly soft.
Damn, the man can kiss. Might as well enjoy this.
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