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Guiding star Through the Keyhole

Adam threw his head back, drained the huge mug in a few decisive gulps, and wrinkled as if in pain.

— Damn it, Myers! — he shouted to the “Keyhole” bartender, who was sweeping fragments of dishware from under the table. — How can you poison people with this sour stuff?

— If you don’t like it, don’t drink it, — Myers replied calmly, continuing to use the brush. — You want a real one, make the Lunatics share it. And get us a couple of barrels, if you’re so brave.

— No, I’ll pass,— Adam replied sadly. He threw a quick glance at Florence and Steve sitting next to him and continued in a falsely careful tone. — Besides, we’re going on vacation. We’ll finally get some proper sleep! We’ll take a couple of easy jobs — at most, we’ll go with the Scavengers for a new batch of junk. Sell a few meters of cable, generator... You don’t have to be a hero forever, right?

— Adam, come on,— Stephen suddenly grumbled.

— Stop pretending like nothing happened, — Flo supported her brother. Crossing her arms across her chest, she sighed deeply. — Let’s face it, we got scared. Adam, this is the first time we’ve failed a mission. We got off the route and violated the contract!

— There goes the scope for my cannon...

—You’ll live,— Florence cut off. — To be honest, I’m glad: we got off just in time. As long as they don’t count it as our debt.

— That doesn't make sense, — Stephen said upset. — We’re supposed to be speeding at 200, digging the ground with our wheels, breathing gunpowder and gasoline, not warm our backs in the “Hole”… When did it all start? When did we start to fear a fight?

— When they saw who the Syndicate was sending us against.

Steve stared grimly at the mug. The tension above the trio was discharged by Adam’s whisper.

— Guys, I think someone’s eavesdropping on us. That lady in the hooded robe has been watching us for half an hour already... Don’t twist with your head, Steve! Well, congrats: you gave us away.

Flo was looking at a stranger sneakily, with her peripheral vision . The woman threw the hood of her loose garments over her shoulders, revealing a mound of lush, tightly twisted curls. She squinted her dark, slightly slanted eyes and with a slight, springy stride walked straight toward the puzzled raiders and casually sat down next to Steve. He instantly felt the aroma of burnt sugar and road dust coming from her.

— Emm… Have we met? — Adam raised an eyebrow in bewilderment.

— With me? I doubt it. With my associates? Probably.

Something dimly glittered in the long sleeve of the stranger. Flo saw a metal medallion clamped in her hand.

— The Order of the Fallen Star, — the mercenary guessed. — You’re an Explorer, right?

— Knowledge overcomes fear,— the guest answered and touched her forehead with a ritual gesture.

— Oh, you’re one of the “starred” ones!— Steve admired, quickly throwing aside sad thoughts about losing money and reputation.

— Myers! Bring your special “fuel” here, I’m buying.

— Don’t,— The Seeker shook her head, causing the cloud of thick curls to rise majestically. — As long as the unknowable exists, a clear mind is the only privilege of survivors. And the best compass for my search.

— And what are you looking for in the “Keyhole” exactly? — Adam clarified, having waited for a pause.

— News,— the Explorer turned to him. She didn’t wear a mask, and the raiders could see her swarthy face, with its unexpectedly thin features. — Time flows differently in the Wasteland: if you don’t keep track of it, you start the story from scratch. I haven’t been in these regions for a long time. When I returned, I saw a completely different Valley — not the one I knew.

— What’s there to know? — muttered Steve, dissatisfied with the refusal. — The “Mandrakes” are back in action, a roadblock has been blown up near the Eastern array once again…

— And there is a certain eastern Syndicate occupying a former metropolis — The Explorer added. — It recruits entire squads of survivors and sends them to the Wasteland in convoys. I heard you talking about it. So you work for it, too?

— Not anymore. There was nothing worth the trouble.

— Of course,— the traveler grinned.

She carelessly tossed a strand of hair behind her back, watching the company’s sour expressions with interest.

— Neon covers on your “veterans” look.… catchy. So I decided to find out who owns the most sophisticated armoured vehicles in the area. Professional curiosity.

The Explorer drummed her fingers on the table.

— The syndicate spares no expense for mercenaries. Why do they need so many people?

— Sorry, they forgot to tell us,— Adam grimaced. — What does the “starred” care about it?

— The Order of the Explorers studies the remnants of mankind, — the woman with a medallion said calmly. — We heard rumours of unusual activity of survivors in the lost territories beyond the Valley. Previously, only Nomads had wandered into this area – the place is too dangerous for an ordinary person. Now there are waves of Syndicate mercenaries coming there one after another. I want to know what they are planning. Maybe the Supreme Archon is giving us a clue? We need to add new data into the chronicles.

— Your Archon seems to have lost his mind,— Florence said in a hoarse voice. — I’ll tell you why they need people: the Syndicate is throwing them against an army of combat machines. Dirty work for strangers — loners, thugs, desperate settlers who really can’t even aim properly... No one from the Syndicate has ever come along with them.

— We didn’t understand the reason right away, — Adam confirmed reluctantly. — At first we only helped them recruit people. Until we got ourselves involved in one of these raids...

Florence gritted her teeth.

— I’m not a princess. I’m used to blood and soot, and I know what to do to survive. But this nightmare cannot be forgotten! The monstrous Ravager approaches the phalanx of armoured vehicles, unleashes a barrage of heated plasma on them... The air smells like burning flesh… The Syndicate buys cannon fodder.

— Ravagers with energy weapons? — The Explorer asked. — I’ve never seen a specimen like this. And I didn’t see any mention of them in the archives. Are you sure you’re naming the technology correctly?

— You know what? Go there yourself, — Adam rose from the table. — You know the coordinates. You may not believe us, but if you’re as smart as you think you are, you’ll figure out what the technology is.

Florence and Stephen moved the chairs too.

— Today, another squad of deadmen left for a raid. We had to go with them. But we are not “starred”.

Already on his way out, Steve turned around and repeated absent-mindedly for some reason:

— Write this down in your chronicles: we’re not that crazy to die for someone else.

Continued: part 2 >>