Sam awoke to an alarm blaring. He quickly grabbed pants, a few random bits of body armor in easy reach, and his rifle. The rest of the men in his unit in the barracks were in a similar state. He rushed outside, accompanied by a couple other men, to defend the base.
He hit the dry, dusty air of the southern Baghdad suburb as the early Mesopotamian sun rose in the east. Fucking hot here. Though thanks to Uncle Sam, Lock Corp. can afford air conditioning. It was Sam’s understanding that the military had contracted Lock Corp. to provide 25% more soldiers and material to protect the archaeological team than had actually been provided. Sam couldn’t bring himself to care, he got paid well and Lock Corp made sure it’s employees were happy. He chuckled quietly to himself at that.
They moved to their designated position, Steve and Emma already on a machine gun, firing at figures around two burning trucks stopped haphazardly on the street. If the civvies know what’s good for them they’ll be getting far away from here as soon as possible. Another technical fired on them from behind the burning wrecks. Sam moved on behind the sandbag wall, keeping his head low and scanning for any militia attacking on foot from nearby buildings. Will ran behind him, Jacob brought up the rear.
Their NCO, referred to as Little Man Tate, already in position, called them over. They reached their destination and began firing.
After an action packed five minutes, they settled into a ‘fire blindly in the direction of other guys while they do the same’ tactic for a couple hours. Just enough bullets to keep them alert, not enough to give them a target to kill, going both ways.
They settled down during a lull, Will keeping watch, fingering the trigger of his rifle. Sam and the rest got comfortable. Will possessed a limited warning sense, on top of the general survival instincts all people possess.
Powers. Sam didn’t have any, though his brothers did. He almost found it funny. Almost. All three prided themselves on their honesty. When Ben got himself kidnapped in Baltimore saying something stupid to the wrong people, Rob and Sam set out to find him. Mom didn’t care, she hadn’t cared for two years since Dad died. The kidnappers apparently maintained good connections in the police and government; not much happened when they went to the authorities. After much frustration, dead ends, and general hopelessness, Rob triggered. Sam didn’t.
Did this mean that Sam didn’t truly care? He thought so, but on the other hand, he couldn’t do anything supernatural. Then Ben triggered when he escaped, so powers were obviously in their genes. They were identical triplets after all. So apparently Sam lied to himself, about his own brother none the less.
Rob and Ben didn’t judge him for not triggering, they told him as much. None of that ‘trying to figure out people’s feelings bullshit for us. Sam still had self doubts. When they decided to go their separate ways, he said he would go mercenary, Lock Corp. to be specific. Gotta get away somehow, and fuck the regular military.
There were four major mercenary companies. The oldest, the Freeman Company, actually had a reasonable reputation. It rarely if ever broke contract, usually followed the laws given to it, and got the job done. Sometimes the job didn’t even involve killing. They maintained a simmering rivalry with the Blackguard, who until the last couple decades, had been known as the least scrupulous company.
Shadow Security & Solutions had come out of South Africa in the fifties; their past was a bit sketchy. Their abbreviated name, SSS, bore a striking resemblance to another scary set of people, which may have been intentional. They specialized more in private security than military contracts, and maintained a close relationship with de Beers.
Lock Corp. was the youngest, formed in the US in the late eighties. Lock Corp. didn’t care what you had done before, or usually what you did, so long as the job paid well enough. They took any contract, no questions asked. Business is easy without little things like human decency in the way. Besides, a little looting or organized crime never hurt anyone in the third world, right?
Sam’s unit had been contracted to defend some highly important archaeological dig. For whatever reason, the local militia didn’t like the idea of digging up some old Mesopotamian ruin; Sam didn’t know which civilization. I kinda want to know now. It’s not as though the research team talks to the plebes that guarded them.
“Whatcha smiling about now, Sam?” asked Jacob. An Afrikaner, Sam was mildly surprised he wasn’t working for de Beers or Shadow. Lock Corp. was an American owned company, a majority of their employees Americans. Recruits could come from anywhere, depending on the situation from nation to nation. Jacob had worked with Americans for five years since he was nineteen, so his accent was very faint.
“How stupid this is,” he responded.
Will ducked as a single bullet whizzed overhead. Something, probably a car, exploded off in the distance. He fired three lazy shots in the general direction the bullet came from, and things quieted down once more.
“Why is that?” asked Little Man. He was short and in his late twenties. What did you expect with a name like that, a huge guy?
“I don’ really know. We shoot at ‘em, they shoot at us, an’ over what? Some old rocks, some old bits of metal. Who gives a shit?”
Iraq had seen better days. In 1993, Overlord staged a coup of the local dictator after the Gulf War, and ran the country as his own personal fiefdom. In 1997, a NATO coalition invaded after years of resistance groups providing massive amounts of evidence of a great variety of crimes against humanity Overlord perpetrated. Overlord went underground six months later, a democracy was set up, and the majority of the coalition troops left after three years. Then the whole thing collapsed into civil war.
People talked of another intervention, but nothing came of it. People stopped talking after 9/11 happened, perpetrated by extremists out of Afghanistan. Iraq was old news then. Eventually, the extremists spread to Iraq, followed by American troops in 2009.
“The people with money,” called out Will over his shoulder. Four ugly scars across his face and throat marred his pretty boy looks. He’d been caught in a feral attack in Brownsville, Texas, not the nicest place in the world. He was close to Sam’s age, having been dishonorably discharged from the Army after a year.
“Yeah, but why do they give a shit?”
“I don’t give a shit why they give a shit, so long as they pay and I’m not dead. Now, keep your eyes open,” said Little Man gruffly.
More shots came at them, none coming close to hitting anyone.
Jacob laughed humorlessly. “Almost makes me miss Somalia. All the skinnies did was get hopped up on khat, close their eyes, and shoot in your general direction.”
The attack let up after a couple hours, and another group relieved Sam’s. After showers, they went their separate ways, and Sam set about cleaning his rifle. Sand and dust got everywhere and would ruin equipment if you didn’t take precautions.
He’d gotten a good look at some of the excavated ruins during patrols. Ancient stones, carved in the shapes of winged lions, worn away by the elements. Apparently the site was an old religious complex, and therefore blasphemous for violent zealous idiots who happened to be Muslim.
The motives of the researchers were somewhat suspect. No one hired Lock Corp. to calm things down, and their contract was with the military. Nothing but good things can come from this. Except for all the inevitable bad things. He would have to patrol in an hour or so, which in and of itself was fairly easy, though the attack earlier gave him a bad feeling about the whole day.
Sam and the squad walked at a leisurely pace around the excavation site, save Little Man. He argued with Doctor White, a strange and angry man.
“…your men need to be more careful, Sergeant. This site is in remarkable condition, but time is of the essence. The locals do not appear to have taken a liking to our presence,” said Doctor White
“You worry about your dirt, we’ll worry about the locals. And you’ll want to talk to the lieutenant if you don’t want to replay this conversation again in a couple hours. Now, go back to your hole.”
Little Man made a dismissive gesture towards the aforementioned hole, then terminated the conversation by turning his back and returning to Sam and the rest. The doctor huffed and returned to where the researchers had dug with some haste a pit, ignoring the buried ceramics, a small sculpture, and what Sam thought appeared to be a semi-precious gemstone set in bronze.
“Hey doc,” called Sam, “How old is this shit?”
The doctor turned around and fixed Sam with an icy glare. Fool. Sam could maintain a grin indefinitely. Sam won. “Go do your job, mercenary,” said the doctor after a while.
“Hey, I jus’ wanna know. Answer an’ I don’ talk anymore.”
“Fine. It’s Babylonian, from around 600 BCE.”
Sam, true to his word, did not speak further. He inclined his head and the doctor returned to his site. Sam rejoined his squad, who had walked a small distance away. “What? Jus’ curious,” he said as they watched him approach. They rolled their eyes.
“What? It’s true,” he continued. They started walking, a lazy circuit around the excavation site within the perimeter they had defended before. They weren’t overly worried about being attacked here.
“Why?” asked Will.
“Cause I told myself I’d find out. That guy seems to know smart people things.”
“Yeah, smart people things. That is definitely a commonly used phrase in the scientific community.” said Will. Jacob and Little Man had fallen back a bit in their own conversation.
“Yep. It’s not as though you’d know. Yer a bit of a dumb ass,” said Sam. You may laugh, Will, but it’s true. “You’d never get into those scientist only orgies that very probably happen in labs or whatever.”
Will laughed and mock shivered. “It’d just be a bunch of guys and nerdy chicks who wouldn’t know what the fuck they’re doing.”
“So? If we take this to its logical conclusion, you’d be the god of bonin’ there. If you didn’t spend yer alone time jerkin off inta tissues, that is.” Sam got a punched arm for that.
“Fuck you,” said Will with a grin. They walked for some time, then he said, “Hey, you said you had a brother in Westward, right?”
“Freedom Fighter’s attacking there right now.”
“Pft. I’m sure Ben’s fine.” Ben, I think I speak for both me and Rob when I say I don’t want to have to track down and kill F.F. if you go get yourself killed doing some dumbass thing.
“Oh yeah, no worries. Apparently F.F. got his arm torn off by a feral. Sucks for him,” Will laughed darkly. Sam smiled.
They were back where they started, near the entrance of the excavation site. Will opened his mouth to say something else, when a confused look crossed his face. “DOWN, NOW,” he yelled, throwing himself to the ground, followed closely by Sam. He’s never been wrong before. Jacob and Little Man, a couple paces behind them, followed suit. An RPG rocketed overhead, hitting a Lock Corp. truck parked near a building.
Something very large exploded near the main entrance. Sam, at the sight of the recently bombed out wreckage of a car, could practically hear the Allahu Akbars from the guy who just blew himself up. More gunfire, much more than before. The squad returned to their feet, rifles ready and aimed towards the entrance. Without a word they began getting off the streets and towards cover, firing at distant figures. They might be terrible people, and I suppose the term glass houses applies here, but they’re good enough squadmates.
After a minute “We’re gettin’ overrun. We get the research team. Move,” announced Little Man.
Jacob didn’t move, still firing at the advancing fighters. “Fuck that. I’m not risking my neck for those pricks.”
“And I’m not asking. Now move your ass,” barked Little Man.
Jacob got up with some grumbling. They ran towards the site, Will covering their rear. Some shouting preceded a man with some cloth wrapped around his head stumbling out a nearby building. Not one of ours. But fuck, they’re getting in. Sam fired, and they sprinted the last fifteen yards.
The doctor, along with a young man and an older woman, cowered in the shack thing they had set up. Little man was the first one in, the others in close behind. Will and Sam covered the door.
“Get the fuck up. We’re leaving,” said Little Man,
That prompted the woman to protest, “No, we’re so close. They’ll destroy everything…” she was cut short with a meaty clunk. Sam guessed that Jacob or Little Man had hit her in the head with a rifle. From his position at the door, Sam could see more and more militia. He had a sinking feeling they were surrounded. No idea when help is coming, or if. We probably don’t technically exist to the regular Army. He fired, killing one man who didn’t get to cover quick enough.
“You two, pick her up,” said Little Man to the two remaining scientists.
Will called out, “Hey, I don’t think they’re going to let us – grenades incoming! Out!”
They bolted for the back exit, Sam heard metallic clunks at their heels. He noted the scientists had neglected to grab the woman. With only one option that didn’t involve getting executed, they ran for the excavation pit. The mercenaries that is. Doctor White dithered once outside, taking a shot to the gut and going down with a scream.
The younger man had slightly better senses, throwing himself to the ground and covering his head a good distance away from the shack they had just exited. I almost wish that were an option, but the American public doesn’t care much about the life of a mercenary, so our lives are worth next to nothing to these guys.
They reached the bottom, slightly cramped. “Jacob, look for a way to go. The rest of you, shoot anyone who shows their face at the rim.” All they need is one more grenade at this point to kill us all.
So the three shot at several enterprising individuals for a couple moments, until Jacob yelled, “We’re all dipshits. This way.” He held open a plastic curtain. How the fuck did we miss that? Beyond it was a stone hallway, illuminated with lights the researchers had strung up. The hallway ended in a staircase.
They ran. “This better not wind up bein’ the fuckin’ Mines of Moria kinda shit,” said Sam. A grenade went off behind them, too far away to do any harm. The stairs ended a fair ways down, Sam didn’t keep track of how far.
They wound up in what appeared to be some sort of antechamber for someone important and long dead. All other hallways were blocked off. They spread out as much as possible, and mentally prepared themselves for what were no doubt their impending demises. Soon enough, some militiamen came rushing up, and were immediately cut down. One, however, managed to throw a grenade, causing Will and Jacob to dive away. It went off, and Jacob screamed.
Will and Little Man dragged him back to them. His legs were a bloody mess. Jacob gritted his teeth and drew his pistol. More men came down the stairs, only Sam was covering them. He managed to drop two, when he ran out of ammo in his magazine. “I’m out.” Jacob fired, but his aim was off.
“RPG,” yelled Will. Fucking lunatics! An explosion, something crumbled, then the world went black.
A bright light hovered just outside of Sam’s eyelids. He coughed out some dust, opened his eyes, and found himself staring directly into a flashlight.
“Gah, fuck.” He put his hands over his eyes.
“Good, you’re alive.” That was Little Man, sounding somewhat worse for wear.
He helped Sam get upright. Sam assessed, reopening his eyes and forcing them to see beyond the massive spot in his vision. Everything appeared to be intact, nothing broken, though his shoulder hurt. His rifle was even still attached to his chest, somehow. Cool. I’ll take it. Little Man hadn’t been so lucky in that regard. In fact, Little Man otherwise looked how Sam felt, beat, dirty, and cut up.
Sam noticed the only light came from the flashlight in Little Man’s hand. Of course, of course. Sam had a tac light on his rifle, he turned it on. “The hell happened?” he asked Little Man.
“Not sure. The RPG hit the wall. Something important collapsed, everything shook and we wound up down here. Will broke his neck in the fall, Jacob’s very likely dead, if not now, then soon.” He pointed to Will’s corpse, half buried under rubble. “I just came around, don’t know where we are or how we get back.”
Sam removed the flashlight from the rifle and pointed it in the direction of the new hallway they were in. “Well, that’s a good way to start.” He left the rest unsaid, that the chances were slim to none that they were coming out of this alive. “Hey, any chance we stumbled on an ancient curse or some sort of horrible disease?”
Little Man chuckled (holy shit he is desperate), “Almost one hundred percent. Let’s go.”
They set off, and Sam soon noticed Little Man had a bad limp. He offered his support, and Little Man surprisingly accepted. The hallway went on for some time. How the hell is any of this intact after thousands of years? At one point there were two sets of stairs leading upwards, both unblocked. They flipped a coin and chose the one on the right. As well, there were occasionally rooms carved into the hallway. They forced themselves to not weigh themselves down with some golden jewelry found in one room. Apparently we are in a dungeon crawl.
Then he noticed one room, much larger than the others. He stopped.
“Hey, what gives?” asked Little Man.
“That,” said Sam, walking into the room. Little Man followed, still limping.
Little Man considered it for a moment. “Sure, that’s probably one of the weirdest things about this place, but we should keep moving.”
“No, you don’ understand. You remember me tellin’ you ‘bout my brothers, right?”
“They wear masks exactly like that one. An’ I mean exactly. I’m takin’ a look at it.”
It was true. At the opposite wall of the room was an altar of some kind. On it rested the grinning mask, right in front of a dull silver knife, the grip of which had long rotted away. There was nothing out of the ordinary otherwise about it.
“No, we can’t carry that,” said Little Man as Sam walked.
“I’m not going to take it, jus’ look at it.”
He grabbed the mask.