“Well, how do you know he’s dead, Ronin?!” A man stood just outside the edge of the light, lingering in the shadows of the room. His voice carried when he spoke, threatening to echo throughout the corridors. “Our contact hasn’t returned. Most of the Topsiders haven’t returned. How do you know that he isn’t just going to waltz through those doors and ruin this for everyone?”
Ronin stood calmly at the door, scrolling through the emails in his watch. “Oh, are you done now?” As always, his voice carried a very condescending tone. “You worry far too much. He’s dead. At some point, you’re really going to have to have some faith in my abilities.”
“Kai has a way of surprising people. He’s your brother. You should know that better than anyone. The last thing we need is for him to show up here and find out what you’ve done to his precious peasant girl. He’ll have all our heads.”
“Look, if it will make you feel better, I’ll send out some of my expendables to do a quick sweep a few clicks outside the doors. If there isn’t any trace of him, even if he is alive…which he isn’t…he’ll be running low on rations. The storms are quickly getting worse. It is highly unlikely that he’d have any chance at making it back, regardless of whether or not my associate was able to complete his task.”
“Send them out. We have to be careful.” The Chief Resident stepped into the light. “You may be rich, but you’re not untouchable. If Kai knows as much as we think he knows, we need to be sure he’s gone for good.”
With that, Ronin turned to leave the room. He absolutely abhorred taking orders from anyone, but the fact of the matter was that the Chief Resident and his political pull were integral to Ronin accomplishing his plan.
He had every intention of getting off this rock. In order to do so, he needed people in high places to pull certain strings. The Chief Resident had played his part by strongly suggesting to the Prime Minister that the Topsiders’ most recent mission should be of an individual nature, ensuring that few of them would return and making it possible for Ronin to get rid of the one person who could stop him, his brother, Kai. The Chief had earned his keep. The least Ronin could do was to offer him this small reassurance.
“Duncan, tell the others to gather in the living space,” he said upon entering his vast space. Duncan stumbled over himself getting to his feet and quickly went about gathering the other men. They all made their way to the living space where Ronin stood waiting.
“You, you, you, and you. The rest of you get back to work!” Ronin commanded the men with the authority of a totalitarian dictator. “You four, I have a special assignment for you.”
The men looked at each other, somewhat excited to have been chosen by their boss to carry out a “special assignment.” One of the men raised his hand shyly, wishing to ask a question.
“Oh, what is it, O’Brien?” Ronin spat out with disgust.
“Uh, will we be paid extra for this assignment, boss? Being that it’s so special and all?”
“O’Brien, if you make it back alive and bring me good news, I’ll pay you extra. I’ll pay each of you extra,” Ronin paused before adding, “If only one of you comes back alive, I’ll pay that person the other’s cut of salary for this assignment as well.” He knew what he was doing. Ronin had too many people on the payroll lately. Time to trim the fat.
The men shuffled their feet uneasily, avoiding looking into one another’s eyes.
“You four will be going Topside. I need you to look for any signs that my dear brother may still be alive. If you find anything at all, one way or the other, you are to report back to me immediately.”
“Uh, boss,” O’Brien spoke up again. “Uh, we’ve never been Topside. Will we have supplies? Better clothing? Weapons? I hear there are wicked things up there.”
“O’Brien, I don’t have time for this! If you all want to get paid, you’ll be leaving now! Get going!” Ronin nearly screamed at the men. He ran his fingers through his dark hair before letting out an exasperated, “I said now!”
The men scrambled in different directions before heading toward the door, picking up odd and end belongings. They were nervous and scared but more afraid of what Ronin may do to them if they didn’t comply with his orders. He had seemed especially on edge lately, and while they didn’t know what had crawled under his skin, they knew better than to cross him. Without hesitation, they all left the room leaving Ronin on the sofa with his head in his hands behind them.
The four men hesitated at the exit that separated them from their world; the only world they knew and the unknown world above them. If one believed the stories they were told, the Topside was filled with great beings who had tentacles for arms, and razor blades for teeth. Anything that survived had evolved into a killing machine that could not be reasoned with and would not be tamed. To make matters worse they were ill-prepared for the mission. No weapons, no armor.
“All we have to do is have a look around for a few minutes, say we didn’t see Kai anywhere, then return for that sweet, sweet money. I’m going.” And just like that, Smythe had burst through the door, leaving the others to stare at one another in disbelief.
One by one they filed cautiously out behind him, to find him gone. Not just in the distance, but it was as if he had completely disappeared. It shook O’Brien so badly that he ducked back in the door. He wanted no part of it. Ronin could yell, scream, have him beaten, but he was certain anything he could do to him would be far less painful than what was probably happening to Smythe at the moment. He shuddered as he imagined some monstrous beast ripping gleefully into Smythe’s flesh.
O’Brien huddled by the door, waiting for the others to return, paying close attention to his watch. When they had been gone four hours, he peeked his head outside, and only his head, to have a look around. There was no sign of the other three men anywhere. It was their misfortune, but his gain. For once, his cowardice would pay off. He was positive something had carried all three of the other idiots off, leaving him to be the one to return to Ronin with the news he wanted to hear, and collecting all of the money since there was nobody else to share it with.
“You’re sure?” Ronin all but barked at O’Brien.
“Positive. He wasn’t within a mile radius of this place, the weather is so bad that nobody could make it out there long, not even someone with Kai’s skillset. Never mind that the other three men you sent are gone.”
“I see they didn’t return, but they’re of no consequence to me. None of you were, that’s why I chose you. You must be made of smarter or tougher stock than I assumed, O’Brien.” Ronin’s words said one thing, but his eyes another. He was wary of O’Brien and would keep an eye on him. He didn’t like that he was the one to return. He would never have bet on him being the only one to survive.