“Mister Renolt?” The intern poked her head into her boss’s office. With barely two weeks under her belt she hadn’t even had her security badge processed for working in the senate. When Myrmidion’s government wasn’t slow it wasn’t working at all.
Her boss looked up, over his spectacles, stopping mid-sentence on a correspondence with the president. His beady eyes were dwarfed by the folds of his fat cheeks.
“What is it dear?” His voice was coated in sugar.
“There’s a Mister Argent requesting to see you,” she wasn’t so much stating it as asking it. She held up her clipboard with her jaw quivering.
“Show him in,” he bent down to finish signing his name, but was interrupted again.
“Mister Renolt?” she asked timidly.
He exhaled, “Yes dear?”
“He’s not on your itinerary.”
“Young lady, I make my own itinerary. Show him in,” he harrumphed. Before she exited he stopped her. “Gilda, there’s no need to update my itinerary for this meeting.”
Ben Argent smiled wolfishly beneath his crimped black mustache as he brushed past the secretary, purposely rubbing against her as he passed. On his heels, Kay tipped his hat to her, politely letting her escape the crowded doorway before entering.
The senator’s loathing wore heavy on his bulbous jowls. His bulbous cheeks bounced and danced as he waved a finger in Kay’s direction.
“Mister Argent, at least you dress the part. Your associate dresses like a hobo.”
Ben cast a glance at Kay as he straightened his purple tie. The kid was outfitted in jeans and a desert duster he stole off a bubber in Unsar a week ago. The bartender’s daughter chastised him for it, but he gave her the same uninterested smirk he gave the senator now.
“The wrapping doesn’t always do the gift justice, senator,” Ben was amiable to their new employer, his tone political. “I only employ the best.”
The senator harrumphed.
“Doesn’t matter to me, Mister Argent. You’re the one who’ll have to rely on this vagabond.”
He turned the silver knob on his desk radio. The contralto of a famous opera singer filled the office. Finally he finished signing his name, and shoveled the stack of paper into a drawer in his polished mahogany desk. His jowls swayed as he leaned forward, motioning for Ben and Kay to pull their plush chairs nearer so they could talk below the operatic overtones.
“When we spoke earlier you assured me that you were capable. Are you still capable?”
Renolt’s eyes darted back and forth between them.
“What we are doing isn’t officially sanctioned. The powers that be, and myself included, believe we can end the civil war in Sterling by supplying munitions to one army. Ending their strife would ensure the safety of our borders for the first time in twenty years.”
Ben smiled pleasantly, “Who?”
The senator looked at Kay uneasily, still not trusting the man who dared walk into his office dressed like a commoner.
“The Western Army of the Sterling Provinces.”
“WASP?” Ben chuckled. “Those are a bad bunch of berks, senator.”
“You assured me you could deliver the weapons.”
Kay was rubbing his chin, thinking the job over. Both he and Ben exchanged glances, a conversation spoken entirely through their eyes and posture. Kay shrugged.
“How much?” Kay asked.
Renolt looked to Ben, refusing to acknowledge the question.
“How much?” Ben repeated for him.
“Sell them for as much as you want. We only want cost.”
Kay and Ben exchanged glances again, underplaying the most profitable job they had snagged in years. Ben and Renolt shook hands on the deal.
The canvas top truck jumped and jostled down the cratered highway. Kay caught the dashboard before his face smashed into it. War fought by man and by the desert had destroyed the endless thirsty ribbon of asphalt. Sand dunes drifted over the sections that weren’t blasted by years of explosions and gunfire. Given another ten years the road would be hidden below the blood and sand, forgotten for eternity.
“Maker’s hell, Ben!” Kay spat as he balanced the corpse between them. Ben switched gears, his elbow jabbing their dead comrade in the stomach. Half of the man’s face was missing, a crimson sludge running down his neck and shirt.
“Couldn’t we have left his rotten corpse back ten miles?”
“On the border? Are you addled, kid?” Ben sucked on a bent cigarette. The smoke helped lessen the stench of rot and decay. “Somebody’d find him and that’d be that.”
Kay pushed the lolling head back toward the driver’s seat. He wiped what bodily fluids he could off of his shoulder, wrinkled his nose at the sludge on his fingers and wiped it on the corpse’s pants.
“Stop. Let’s bury him below one of these dunes.”
Ben spoke from teeth clenched around his cigarette.
“Addled, kid. You’re addled! Johnny boy here turning on us was the best thing that could’ve happened.”
“I think he shat his pants.”
Ben thumped the corpse across the chest.
“Don’t you see? WASP is going to ask where we got the guns. Our story that we stole them is so much more convincing with a body in BDUs. Yea?”
They braced for impact as they struck another crater. The body fell across Kay’s lap, the half missing face staring back up at him. Bits of brain fell on the floor between his boots.
Carefully he pushed the body back up into a sitting position.
“Next time this happens I’m aiming for the chest,” he grumbled, fumbling around for a way to secure the man’s chest so he wouldn’t fall on him again.
“WASP isn’t profitable,” Kay said. “They’re also not that nice. No ideals. We might get shot instead of paid.”
Ben only flicked his cigarette out the window. He held his carton out to Kay, who gladly took two. Using a little gold lighter he lit both of them, handing one to Ben after a couple puffs.
“Hey, watch that next one,” he pointed ahead. Ben slowed down as Kay slapped the dashboard with an epiphany. “The Protectorate. Why don’t we sell to the Provincial Protectorate instead?”
“Ha!” Ben shouted. “The deal is to sell to WASP.”
“The Prov have morals. Maker as your witness, Ben, who would you rather run a country? WASP or the Provincial Protectorate?”
“Maker’s sake!” Kay cursed. “Those berks eat folks. I’m being serious. WASP or Prov?”
Ben cut the gas, letting the truck drift to a halt. The cab was silent as Ben mulled over his thoughts. As he nodded along to his conscience, he mopped the sweat beading across his face with a dirty white handkerchief.
“We’re being paid for WASP, kid. We aren’t being paid to make these decisions.”
“Technically, they aren’t paying us at all.”
Ben swatted Kay in the shoulder, “Hey,” he shook the cigarette in Kay’s face. “We don’t have to like it.”
It was midday when they turned off the road. Vegetation had long since ceased to exist. Endless tightly packed black rock carpeted the landscape from horizon to horizon. Low black ridges tented the desert pavement, serving as the only landmarks for them to follow.
The sun beat down mercilessly when they stopped in the middle of the escarpment to refill the gas tank. As Kay uncapped the red plastic cans and poured them into the tank he looked toward the sky. A sliver of light reflected back at him for the briefest instant. Reconnaissance drone, most like. These little white planes were the ones that supplied them the map to the WASP encampment mere hours away.
He reached into the cab and uncorked a canteen. Ben started the engine. Break time was over.
Seventeen tawny-skinned militants armed with automatic rifles rushed to greet them barrels first when they crested a plateau. The encampment was at least an acre of sullied green tents surrounded by a makeshift fence of rusted rebar and barbed wire. They slowed the vehicle as they rolled toward what appeared to be the gate. a series of barrels filled with rocks and sand wrapped in more barbed wire.
Ben pulled the parking brake, and as discussed, they held their hands in the air.
“Step out of the vehicle!” the tall man in the front shouted with murder in his voice. His face was hidden behind the stock of his rifle, the only visible feature being one bloodshot eye. The others surrounded the truck, rifles trained on the both of them.
The leader lowered his gun. He was bug-eyed, with a bulging scar from scalp to chin marring an otherwise perfect nose. He paced around them like a lion sizing up its prey as the truck’s radiator hissed and spat behind them.
“Who you work for?” his accent was thick, but understandable. His kind were those born in the desert and bred in war. The rifle swung back and from his long, thin, black pendulum arms.
“We come to do business,” Ben said.
He looked at Kay. “Business?”
“Business,” Kay assured him.
“Sargay, who are these?” A masculine man in a sleeveless green jacket approached from the other side of the gate like a bald grinning devil. The man’s natural presence made him ten feet taller than the rest. He brandished a high caliber semi-automatic pistol in his left hand.
“They say they do business,” Sargay spat on the ground.
“This one’s dead!” a crony shouted from the truck. Another shouted from the back, holding out a shiny black rifle, announcing the truck was full of weapons. He threw the rifle to their boss, who cocked the weapon, checking if any bullets were in the chamber.
“You must be General Yakimba?” Ben asked, hands still clasping the back of his skull.
“And you in a lot of trouble,” Yakimba laughed as his men began unloading the cargo. “What this business you speak of?”
“Myrmidion guns at the lowest price possible,” Ben assured him. The general raised an eyebrow, casually glancing at his men who had two dozen rifles pointed at them.
“Free!” he ginned back. “I get these guns for free. Can’t get much lower than that, no?” He paced over to Kay, eyeing him suspiciously. “Does this one not speak?”
Kay smiled back at him with mischief, “General. I’m the insurance policy.”
“Insurance?” he feigned being impressed, signaling to his men to drop the corpse in front of him. “What good your insurance to this man?” He toed the body, holding a kerchief to his face as he squatted over it. He threw the man’s green vest open, reaching in his pockets. “Who this?”
“A Myrmidion soldier we had to shoot.”
“And why didn’t you leave him in the desert?”
“To let you know we’re serious.”
The general laughed aloud again, then shot the corpse through the head. He pressed the pistol into Ben’s ear.
“You lie. This man no soldier. If he’s soldier, where are the tags? You try to pull a wool over Yakimba’s eyes?”
“General,” Kay’s tone was high-pitched, warning him. “I wouldn’t do that. I’m the insurance policy.”
He cocked an eye at him, arching his eyebrow.
“What kind insurance?”
A small remote was in Kay’s hand. He held it in the air for all of them to see.
“General Yakimba, shooting my friend would be the mistake that costs you this war,” his thumb was set firmly on the detonator. “In the back of that truck you will find ten boxes of state of the art automatic rifles, five thousand rounds of ammunition, three mortars with fifty shells each, three crates of shotguns, and the icing on the cake is the seventy-five pounds of plastic explosives which I have armed and wired to this detonator.”
The general was expressionless, his chin held high in the air. Confident that he got the warlord’s full attention, Kay shrugged and continued.
“All of this can be yours for the low price of… Ben?”
“Twenty thousand,” he echoed back, “dollars. The Maker Himself wouldn’t give you a better deal than that. Seriously, Yakimba, what is the alternative? There is none. We promise that we will bring a truckload to this camp every month for the next year while business runs smoothly.”
The general lowered his pistol. Ben sighed in relief.
“There’s always an alternative.”
Kay shrugged again, “Yes. There is. The alternative is I press this button and the next time Myrmidion drones fly overhead they find a smoking crater. Or, maybe you let us go and we bring these weapons straight to the Prov.”
“Those scum?” he pressed the gun against Kay’s temple, shouting in his face. His finger hugged the trigger. “You’d dare sell to our enemy?”
“With these weapons you could wipe them off the face of the planet. What do you say? Do we have a deal?”
Yakimba’s scowl etched deep black gouges down his face. A deep guttural noise emanated from his throat, rising as he bared his large white teeth in Kay’s unflinching face. Then, right as Kay believed the warlord was going to pull the trigger he burst with laughter, his men a chorus of apes following suit, until tears dotted his eyes.
“You a funny man,” Yakimba’s hands were on his hips as he checked that every soldier laughed with him. “You a funny man to think Yakimba that stupid.” He waved them onward with his pistol in a jovial manner. “Come funny man. We do business.”