Chapter One

"Come on, mate, I've gone through this once. Don't make me do it again." The Sniper leaned back in his chair and crossed his long legs, frowning at the camera crew assembling a makeshift set in front of him. One of the spot lights was already threatening to trigger his migraine, not to mention the way the back of the chair bit into his spine.

The director smiled broadly at the Australian. "Ah, but this is different! This time we want to know more about someone else on your team. Think of it as… a service to your audience."

"You know as well as I do that none of these tapes will ever see the light of day, mate. My employer'll never let it happen."

For a moment, the director didn't reply, though he took a deep breath and rubbed at his temples. The crewmen exchanged knowing glances as they continued to erect the set – they knew that look well.

Just as Sniper thought he was in the clear, the director replied, his voice hard. "Your employment contract stipulates that you will perform a video interview-"

"One interview, mate. One."

"I'm not finished." The director leveled his gaze at the Sniper. "It also included follow-up interviews if necessary. Right here in the fine print." He thumbed through the stapled contract in his lap, found the page he wanted, and shoved it into Sniper's hands.

A warning shout resounded across the half-finished set, and Sniper looked up just in time to jump out of the way of a wooden light support that demolished the chair where he'd been a moment before. Apologetic crewmen rushed through the settling debris; the mercenary silenced them with a glare.

"You can take your contract and shove it," Sniper snarled. "I'm here to do one thing, and that's liberate brains from their skulls from a hundred meters away. End of story."

The director brushed bits of wood and dust off his coat and coughed. If he was unsettled by the six-foot chunk of plywood that nearly crushed him, he didn't show it. "If you violate the terms of your contract, your earnings are forfeit. That includes whatever you've already spent. Unless you plan to repay three years' salary, I suggest you smile and start talking."

Sniper stared at the man in front of him. His fingers twitched, itching for the machete that usually hung at his side.

"Cheer up, Mr. Mundy. You were the first one to meet the man. It only makes sense for you to be the first one we talk to."

A crewmember scurried toward the two men, a wheeled chair in his arms, depositing it in front of the Australian before disappearing among the people frantically working to get the set back in place. Sensing defeat, Sniper slumped into it and waved a hand in the air. "Fine."

The director smiled again. "I'm so glad you've seen reason, Mr. Mundy."

"Shut yer yap or I'll change my mind." With a wordless grumble, Sniper pulled

the hat off his head and ran a hand through his hair. "It started three years ago."

Seven days had passed since the mercenaries had first set foot on the godforsaken patch of land, and since he was the one with a high-powered scope rifle and a caffeine habit, he'd been chosen to stand guard that night. He pressed his back against the rough wooden balcony, wishing he had thought to bring something warmer than a thin shirt, vest, and jeans. More than that, though, he wished he was stretched out in the bed he'd fashioned in the back of his van.

Steam rose from the paper cup on his left. With a sigh, he rested his rifle in his lap and took a sip. The brew was weak but passable – and most importantly, it was warm.

Voices and the sound of shuffling feet came from the haystacks behind the balcony, the sounds of exhausted men too wound up by a day of bloodshed and adrenaline to sleep. Every so often, the voices would rise and Sniper could make out every word they were saying, but for the most part they kept their conversation to a dull murmur.

Sniper appreciated that. He'd been fighting a migraine all day, and he wished someone else had volunteered to stand guard. Surely he wasn't the only one capable of spending a maddening stretch of time staring at the shadows cast over the makeshift bridge that separated their fort from the one erected by the Builders.

Heavy bootsteps echoed down the corridor to his left. Sniper turned to see the Engineer appear around the corner. He held a toolbox in one hand and his indispensable pipe wrench in the other.

"Howdy." With a metallic crunch, the Engineer dropped the toolbox next to Sniper then settled so his legs hung off the balcony.

Sniper nodded. "Commotion gettin' to be a bit much for you, Conagher?"

"Nah. I got somethin' to show ya." With a grin – Sniper was never sure if his smiles were friendly or manic – Dale Conagher flipped the toolbox open. Inside it was a smallish square contraption, its front panel lit up with a flurry of blinking lights.

"What is it?"

"This, my Aussie friend, will eliminate our need for lookouts. I call it the Tripbot. I put it together from parts I scavenged in the intel room. It casts an infrared grid in any room you leave it in, and if anything crosses one of those grid lines or attaches a sapper to the main unit it screams like you wouldn't believe." The lights from the Tripbot reflected in his goggles like flames.

Sniper raised his eyebrows. "Does it work?"

The Engineer coughed. "Well, no. Not yet. I'm hopin' t'have it up and runnin' within the week, though. I just wanted you to be the first one t'see it, since you're always stuck up here."

"You know that Helen sheila won't like you building unauthorized machinery," Sniper said.

The Engineer rolled his eyes. "I could care less what that woman thinks. I hear enough of her as it is, screechin' in mah ear about intel and match points when I'm tryin' t'build and maintain four different machines all at once." He snapped the toolbox shut. "But in any case, this won't be used fer the fights. Just after dark, in case one of those Blu fools is tempted to sneak in while we're asleep."

"Well thanks heaps, Conagher." Sniper smiled. Of the eight mercenaries that had been hired by Redmond Mann, he liked Conagher the best. At least, the Engineer seemed the sanest of the bunch.

A furious roar resounded from the haystack behind the men, followed by the sound of metal meeting flesh and a high-pitched shriek. The Engineer sighed.

"Sounds like Heavy got ahold of Scout's bat," he said. "I don't understand those two. We're on the same team an' all, but it seems like all they want to do is egg each other on. You'd think after a week they'd either avoid each other or make amends."

Sniper shrugged. "I don't pretend to understand why any of us are here, mate. My main concern's the paycheck and the bungalow I'll buy once my contract's up."

With a groan, the Engineer stood and gathered his toolbox under one arm. He nearly had to yell over the sounds of Boston-accented anguish and throaty laughter. "I'm gonna try to get some shut eye. Wish me luck."

Alone again, Sniper returned his attention to the covered bridge and murky moat below him. He took another sip of coffee before bringing the rifle up to his eye once more, scoping from one end of the Builders' fortress to the other.

Then he saw something.

Sniper swung the rifle to the right, focusing past the impossibly high fence that separated the forts from an expanse of barren desert that stretched as far as the eye could see. The mercenaries weren't allowed past the fence; as far as Sniper knew, no one was.

But there it was. A flicker, bright against the moonlight sand. And as he watched, the flicker grew into a flame that illuminated the unmistakable silhouette of a head and shoulders.