The metal cable burned my palms as I dangled from the two-hundred-foot drop. Long strands of dark hair stuck to my sweat-dampened face, but I refused to loosen my hold on the cord.
“Sabine.” Cade’s voice cut through the static of my headset. “Fifty feet to go.”
“Understood.” I slid down an inch, then another. The lights on my helmet didn’t illuminate the cave’s floor. I could’ve been descending into the abyss of Hades for all I knew. There was a reason thieves had picked this place to mine cerecite—it was nearly impossible to access, which made me wonder how they planned to get their stolen ore topside.
“Almost there,” Cade said. “What do you see?”
“Rocks,” I answered.
I couldn’t find it in my heart to be polite to Cade MacDougall, who’d nearly killed me six months earlier. Though it turned out he’d had his reasons, I found it hard to trust him. And I wasn’t sure I’d ever get to that point.
My light shone on the granite stones enclosing me in their tomb. I breathed through the panic of claustrophobia tightening in my chest. My hands slipped on the cord, and I dropped a foot. My stomach bottomed out, and I cursed as I caught myself. The harness tightened around my ribs.
“You okay?” Cade asked.
I ground my teeth. “Fine. Lost my grip. Next time we do this, remind me to wear gloves.”
“Next time? This is the last time I’m doing anything like this. Sorry, but I’ve got better things to do than chase criminals.”
“Like plant flowers?” I asked.
“Exactly.” His voice held a hint of humor. “You know me too well.”
I couldn’t help but smile. He’d been the charming, unassuming palace gardener before I learned he’d been born in the future and worked as a miner on Ceres; he’d tried to sabotage the gateway; and he worked to keep Ithical a secret from Earth by murdering anyone who would expose his world. Despite it all, he managed to redeem himself and was now working to stop the thieves stealing cerecite.
Goose bumps formed on my arms, and I found myself trembling as the air chilled around me. The squeak of the cable running through pulleys echoed through the empty shaft running deep into the center of the dwarf planet Ceres.
Though I still had trouble believing I was somewhere other than Earth, coming back had filled a hole in my heart, and I couldn’t help but think I belonged. Ceres had become a part of me, and protecting it kept me moving downward into the abyss.
My feet touched bottom. Breathing a sigh of relief, I unhooked the carabiner from the cable, then I smoothed my sweaty palms over my nylon vest.
“Good. There should be a pathway directly behind you. Do you see it?”
I turned to face the wall, my light’s beam shining on a narrow sliver of a tunnel cutting through the rock. My combat boots splashed through puddles, and dripping water echoed as I approached the shaft and entered the passage.
Darkness closed in around me. I pressed my hands to the stone, its coldness helping to ground me. I ducked as the ceiling dropped. My shoulders brushed the walls. How had anyone fit through here? If they were planning to steal cerecite, how would they manage to smuggle it out? That was a question Vortech wanted answered, and somehow, I was supposed to find out.
“We’re sure this is the right cave?” I asked.
“Yes,” Cade answered. “Keep going. The tunnel will widen soon. Once you enter the main chamber, use extreme caution. That’s where the majority of the cerecite ore is located. If they’re here, that’s where they’ll be.”
“Remember. Don’t confront them. This is an information mission only. We need to know how they got in here, who they are, and who they’re working for.”
“No need to remind me. I’m not fond of confronting angry miners. One too many bad experiences with it, you know.”
“I remember,” he said, and I thought I could hear a trace of remorse through the headset.
As I turned sideways to pass through the tunnel, an image of Cade standing over me with his yellow cerecite blade flashed through my memory. Shuddering, I did my best to push away the thought.
“I had my reasons, you know,” he said. “Plus, I’ve apologized. A million times now.”
“I know.” I bit my lip to keep from saying anything else. This was a topic I’d rather not discuss.
The tunnel widened. Soft gray light came from up ahead. “I’m in,” I whispered.
“Good. You’ve got the camera?”
I reached inside my vest pocket and pulled out the slim metal case. A rock outcropping blocked my path, and I crept toward it. Voices and the clanking of machinery drifted from below. I peeked over the stones and peered down into a concave bowl at the bottom of the cave.
Floodlights illuminated the trucks running on track wheels. Yellow crystals glittered from the bed of a truck. Half-a-dozen men with shovels and pickaxes crowded around the cave. Clanging metal echoed through the naturally carved amphitheater. The air held the acrid scent of engine grease.
“I see them,” I whispered through my headset. “I count six men. Three trucks. One is fully loaded with cerecite. Cade, it’s yellow cerecite.”
Cade cursed. “They’ve managed to fill a whole truckload?”
“This isn’t good. That’s enough to wipe out half the capital.”
“Do you see any other access points?”
I scanned the cavern, focusing on the smallest details, allowing my ability to help in my search. Doctors said I had something called ECP. Extra Cognitive Perception. It helped me look for details others overlooked. It also made me obsessive, but I’d learned to live with it. My focus snagged on every detail, from the yellow crystals glinting from granite walls to the minute details of the pockmarks in the rocks, forcing me to count every pillar. I had to stop myself before it became an obsession, so I turned my focus to the thick walls of stone. There weren’t any openings except the one I’d entered through.
“I don’t see any. But I barely managed to fit through the tunnel in here. How did they get in?”
“That’s what we’re trying to find out. You’ve got to get a photo of every person in there. We need to be able to identify them and hopefully find out how they got inside in the process.”
“Agreed, but I won’t be able to get any detailed pictures from up here. I’ll have to climb down.”
“Fine. Just be careful. Get in and get out quietly. If they see you, this mission is blown.”
“Got it.” I snuck down a path leading through the boulders. Crystalline pillars towered over me, casting their soft light on the rocky ground. I placed one foot in front of the other, staying close to the inside wall to block the miners from seeing me, which also meant I couldn’t get a good view of them.
The path trailed away from the wall. I pressed my body against the protruding stones and peeked around the edge. Some of the men shouted at each other in a foreign language. I didn’t recognize any of the words, but I paid attention to their inflections. An Arabic tone carried through their accents.
I didn’t know of anyone on Ithical speaking Arabic, which meant these men were most likely from Earth. Vortech had suspected the same thing, and now I’d be able to confirm which world they came from. Still, I had no way of identifying them or who they worked for.
Grasping the old-fashioned instamatic camera, I snuck around the wall and crept along the floor. I knelt on the stony ground and held the camera to my eyes, focusing through the lens, though I still couldn’t distinguish their facial features.
Gritty sand stuck to my palms as I continued down toward the cave’s bottom. Boulders rose around me, hiding me—at least partially—from view. I made it halfway to the bottom when I stopped again.
The ground sloped, and I propped against a rock to keep my balance as I focused the lens on the workers. My camera clicked every time I pressed the button, and shiny slips of polaroid paper reeled out like receipts from a cash register.
Vortech didn’t want anything digital. They’d had a massive data breach two months earlier, and hackers had taken maps of Ceres and mining locations. Vortech learned anything sent digitally through the wormhole portal was completely vulnerable to cyber-attack. Not even their top tech whizzes could create an encryption system that withstood the wormhole. Consequently, Vortech now demanded all information be on paper and hand delivered back to their headquarters in L.A.
Technologically speaking, it felt like stepping back half a century. But there was nothing I could do about my employer’s methods. I’d learned long ago I had to play by their rules if I wanted a paycheck, so I went along. For now.
“Getting anything?” Cade asked quietly through my headset.
“Pictures of four of the miners. Pretty sure they’re from Earth. They’re speaking what sounded like an Arabic language. Two are headed to the other side of the cave.”
I followed the movements of the two who walked toward a rocky outcropping hidden in shadows from the glare of the floodlights. I held the camera up, zooming in, but only got a view of their backs as their forms grew smaller.
“I’ll have to move in closer,” I said.
“Just stay invisible,” Cade said.
The path sloped to a near-vertical angle, and I held to the rocks to keep from falling. Stones slipped under my feet. Rocks clattered to the cave’s floor. I froze.
The men below me didn’t look up. The roar of their truck’s engines overpowered any other sounds.
“What was that?” Cade asked.
“A few stones fell. I’m fine.” My already blistered hands burned as I climbed down to the bottom. I stopped when I reached a boulder. Hiding behind it, I peeked over. The four men gathered around the track vehicles. They held shovels and piled yellow crystals into the back.
Discarded laptops lay on the ground near me.
My heart pounded with unexpected anxiety.
“Cade.” I spoke quietly into the headset.
“They’ve got laptops. I think I can grab one.”
“I don’t know. What if they see you?”
“They will if you stay too long.”
I hesitated behind the boulder, my gaze fixed on the laptop nearest me—a thick metal construction with lights blinking at the edges, tempting me to grab it. “What if I grab it and put it in my backpack? We can access it later. They’ll never know I took it. Plus, there’s a good chance it’ll have information on how they got in here. Don’t you think it’s worth a shot?”
“Fine.” He sighed. “But you’re taking the heat if this goes south.”
“All right. But you’ve got nothing to worry about.” I crept away from the boulder, making sure the men kept their backs turned as they shoveled yellow crystals. Five feet to the laptop, four, three…
The roar of engines quieted.
I held my breath, frozen to the spot.
“Sabine?” Cade’s voice whispered through my headset.
I didn’t answer, clenching my jaw as a man exited the cab of the loaded truck. Seconds ticked past before one of the empty trucks moved to take the place of the first.
The men continued shoveling as if automatons. None looked in my direction. I grabbed the laptop before overthinking it, the metal casing warm, then escaped back to the shelter of the boulder.
I unzipped my bag and stuffed the laptop inside. “I got it,” I breathed.
“Good. They didn’t see you?”
I zipped up my bag. “I told you. Nothing to worry about.”
He grumbled under his breath. “Just get the rest of those photos and get out of there.”
“On it.” A coating of sandy grit stuck to my fingers as I held my camera and took several more pictures. Photos spat quietly from the camera. After placing the metal device in my pocket, I edged along behind the rocks, heading toward the fissure where the two men had disappeared.
As I skulked behind the larger boulders, the roar of the engines faded again. A level field of smooth stones spanned toward the outcropping where two men stood talking. Their voices carried, and they spoke in English. Without the shelter of the boulders, I would have a hard time hiding. I scanned the place.
My only option was to edge along the back wall until I made it near the outer edge of the outcropping. I wouldn’t get a good view of the men from that angle, but what other choice did I have?
My heart quickened as I crept along the wall, pressing my back to the plane of cold stone until I neared the entrance. I stood in an alcove sheltering me from view of the two men, but also making it impossible to get any pictures, so I focused on their conversation instead.
“…back to Russia for processing.”
“That takes too long.”
“Of course, you can afford to be. You’re not the one depending on this.”
Their voices lowered to whispers, and I couldn’t make out the words. One of the men spoke with an accent. Not Arabic. Asian. Japanese, maybe? He also spoke quietly, though his words had a commanding presence.
“…if you didn’t return.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Too much knowledge is a dangerous thing.”
The smack of a slamming fist echoed. Screaming pierced the air for half a second, then abruptly cut off, replaced with gurgling.
I peeked around the edge. An older man with a hardened, leathery face pulled a knife from a sheath at his belt. He thrust it at the other miner—one with a braided goatee, who jumped back with the grace of a panther, light on his feet, as if he were a trained fighter.
The older man’s blade cut at the younger miner’s neck, nicking flesh, severing the necklace the man wore. Something gleamed and scattered across the floor, coming to rest near my feet.
A pyramid-shaped pendant glinted with facets of gold and black.
Cade wore an exact match to this pendant. He said he’d found it in a cave. I’d never found out its significance, if there was any. But this…. Didn’t this mean it was important?
I snatched up the pendant and stuffed it in my pocket.
The men fell to the ground, fighting and growling as they clawed relentlessly at one another.
I snapped three pictures before backing away.
The brawl had drawn the attention of the others, who raced toward the fighters. As they did, I searched for an escape. I couldn’t go back the way I came; they’d see me. Panicked, I spun around and peered up at the wall. Solid rock. A few handholds. Were there enough?
I didn’t have time to decide. Frantic shouts echoed, and several miners charged toward me. I sprinted, grasping at any handholds I could find. Muscles burned as I climbed up, one inch after another. My sweat-slicked palms slipped on rocks, yet I managed to dig my nails into stone and plant my feet firmly.
“They spotted me,” I hissed to Cade.
“Get out of there!”
My breath came in short bursts. My knees and shins bumped the unyielding rock, cutting and bruising my flesh.
A gunshot rang out. Stone chipped from the wall near my head.
Focus. Just keep climbing.
“Was that a gunshot?” Cade asked.
I ignored him, concentrating on climbing. Adrenaline pulsed through my blood. The top ridge of the wall appeared above me. Another shot blasted below me.
Shouts echoed over the chaos of the rumbling engines, though I barely heard any of it over the pounding of my heart.
I reached for the top, though my fingers were a few inches too short, and I was forced to find another handhold and maneuver upward.
Rocks crumbled as I grabbed the ledge and pulled my body over the top. I rolled away from the drop. Breathing heavily, I laid on my back, my pack pressing into my shoulder blades.
It only took a second before I got to my feet. Racing to the tunnel, I watched the cavern blur past. Voices echoed, and more gunshots fired, but I ignored everything to focus only on escape.
When I reached the narrow crevasse, I edged inside, my bag bulkier than it had been earlier. I took it off and held it with an iron grip.
Chancing a glance over my shoulder, I spotted several men’s heads peeking over the ledge.
I didn’t look back again. A bullet punched through the rocks above me, sending pebbles and sand raining down. Sharp stones pelted my head and shoulders, but the pain didn’t register.
“Sabine, what’s happening? Where are you?”
“Almost… back to the cable,” I breathed heavily, my windpipe choked by clouds of sand. I burst free of the tunnel. The metal cable glinted in my helmet’s light—a shining thread to freedom.
My heart thudded so fast I feared it would burst by the time I reached the dangling cord. My hands shook as I grabbed the carabiner. It took three tries before I got the harness connected.
“Stop!” a man’s voice yelled behind me.
“Cade! Pull me up,” I yelled.
The ground fell away as the cable yanked me up, so fast my breath stuttered. More shots exploded. I held the backpack tight to my chest, feeling the weight of the miner’s laptop inside.
The gunshots ceased abruptly, leaving my ears ringing.
I chanced a glimpse below me.
One miner stood looking up—the man with the braided goatee. I only got a moment to look at him, but the intensity of his gaze held mine. His angular face and dark, slanted eyes hinted at Asian ancestry. His gaze lingered on mine, and I felt a furious promise in his knowing glance.
“I’ll find out who you are.” His deep voice was calm, and he spoke with certainty.
I didn’t bother to reply. Any information I gave him would be too much.
He clenched his fists. “You’ll regret meeting me.”