Rube twisted to face the now fully alert ork. ‘What’s going on?’
Scian waved a hand flippantly, not taking his glare off Dybs. ‘A few hours ago I took a call from our employer. It seems he received a call from a concerned third party who had it on good authority that a certain trog was planning to betray us.’
Dybs made to rise to his feet but Hyde took a step forward, gun trained on his forehead and he sunk back down. ‘Look, clearly they were –’
‘Mistaken? I think not. They had a name. It was yours.’
One of the gangers pulled back the slide of his gun to cock it. The heavy noise made Rube’s stomach turn again. Her head was racing; between the confusion and adrenaline she felt almost nauseous. Betray us?
Dybs let out his breath in a hiss. ‘Fucking Tanaka.’
‘If you’re willing to call someone who’s been trying to kill me for the last few years an accomplice, certainly.’ He rubbed a hand across his forehead. ‘Look, clearly I’m being set up here.’
‘Funny, that’s exactly what the source said you’d say.’
‘Well I’m not about to just turn around and admit to something that I haven’t been doing, am I?’ the ork spat, returning Scian’s glare.
‘Given what’s at stake this run I’m sure you can understand why I’m not willing to give you the benefit of the doubt.’ He looked over at Rube. ‘Can you confirm if he’s lying?’
Before she could even nod her head Dybs snarled: ‘I’m not lying and she’s not coming anywhere near my head.’
‘That choice isn’t yours to make.’‘I’ll die before I let her read my mind. Can’t she analyse what I say instead? I’ve seen that done before.’
Scian considered it for a moment. ‘If it’s accurate, it’s acceptable. Rube can you –’
‘Stop.’ She raised a hand, palm to the centre of the room. ‘Just stop. Back up.’ She rubbed her eyes with her other hand and then looked to Scian. ‘You want me to do what?’
‘Analyse his words to tell if he’s lying or not.’
‘Without going into his mind.’
She wet her lips. ‘I can’t do that.’
‘What do you mean, you can’t do it? You can read his mind but you can’t tell if he’s lying or not?’
‘I can tell you if he’s lying or not, sure. I need to be in his mind to do it.’ She looked at Dybs.
He crossed his arms. ‘I’m not letting you in my head.’
Scian frowned. ‘She said she can’t do it without getting in there. So either you let her in or we’re going to have to assume you’re lying.’
Dybs looked at Rube plaintively. ‘Surely you know somebody who could verify without being intrusive?’
Rube thought for a moment. True, she did know another mage but this wasn’t his style. Jit was combative and sneaky; playing detective wasn’t his thing. ‘Not personally. I can see if he knows someone, though.’
‘Please, do.’ He looked back to Scian. ‘If that’s acceptable, of course.’
Scian shrugged. ‘It’s acceptable. Hyde, don’t take your gun off him for a second.’
Rube quickly pulled up Jit’s number, crossing her fingers that he’d still be going strong from the night before. It rang once, twice – ‘_Hey, this is Jit! If you’re a homie leave your name; if you’re a honey leave a number; if you’re neither of the above, you can fuck right off!_’ A raised middle finger danced across the screen as a beep sounded. She groaned but left a message. ‘Jit, man, this is Rube. Gimme a callback ASAP, got a bit of a situation. Peace.’
She killed the line and took a deep breath. ‘He’ll call back soon.’ I hope.
Fifteen silent and uncomfortable minutes later, a buzz sounded through Rube’s commlink and three heads turned to focus on her intently. She checked the caller ID and answered, sighing in relief. ‘Hey man, what’s up?’
‘Not much, homie, jus’ chillaxing out at the old house. You said you gotta situation?’
‘Yeah dude. Listen, you know anyone who’d be up for acting as a lie detector?’
‘Lie detector? Can’t just break his brain like you normally do?’
She winced. ‘Wouldn’t be bugging you if I could. It’s a… delicate situation.’
Jit paused. She could hear the crackle of a burning cigarette on the line. ‘I think I know a guy. Where you at?’
‘Edge of the Barrens, in a warehouse.’ She looked towards Hyde, trying to remember if she’d caught the name of his gang. She hadn’t. ‘It’s in whatsajigger territory. Y’know the skull and top hat dudes?’
‘Oh, yeah, I know the place. The Brotherhood might not like ‘im wandering about though.’
‘Tell ‘em to say he’s helping out a dude called Hyde, that’s H-Y-D-E. Should be all the clearance he needs.’
‘Awright. Need him now?’
‘Yeah, fast as possible. Thanks man; I’ll sling you something on the side next shipment.’
‘Radical. Shouldn’t be too long. Catch ya round, Rubes.’
She looked over to Scian, who had one eyebrow raised and a smirk forming on his face. ‘Someone’s coming. Won’t be long.’
He shrugged. ‘If you say so, dude.’
After another thirty minutes of awkward silence a knock sounded on the warehouse door. Hyde jerked his head towards the noise; one of his underlings lowered his weapon and stalked over to open it. A short, skinny elf swaggered in, dressed in grubby gangwear and several kilos of bling. He surveyed the scene in front of him with mild apprehension before shrugging and looking to Rube. ‘You Rube?’
Rube groaned inwardly. Fucking teenagers. ‘Yeah.’
‘Jit says you got a job for me?’
‘If you’re right to play lie detector, you bet I do.’ She nodded towards Dybs. ‘He’s gonna tell us a little story and you’re gonna tell us if he’s being honest about it or not. Got it?’
‘Course I do,’ he said confidently.
Suppressing the urge to mind control the smirk off his face, Rube looked over at Scian. ‘Well?’
He looked to Dybs. ‘Start talking.’
With a heavy sigh, Dybs looked up and dully recited: ‘I am not planning to betray you. I am being set up. I probably know the person who called but I am not working with them or for them.’ He stopped and looked at the Wiz Kid. ‘Good enough?’
‘Dude’s all G.’ He looked expectantly at Rube. ‘That all?’
‘Yeah, that’s all. Hit up Jit in a couple weeks; I’ll send a sixer your way through him.’
Only mildly disappointed, the teenager shrugged. ‘Sounds sweet. Catch ya later, homie.’ He raised a fist in anticipation.
Mentally cringing, Rube bumped her fist to his and gave him a nod. ‘Thanks. See you round.’ When she could no longer hear his footsteps outside she looked over at Scian. ‘Yeah, Dybs is good. You can probably call off the firing squad.’
Scian looked like someone had slapped him.
Hyde lowered his gun, followed quickly by his cohort. He shrugged at Dybs in a ‘sorry, had to do it’ motion; Dybs inclined his head ever so slightly in acceptance before glaring at Scian. ‘Well. Now you’ve established that I was right the whole time, I believe an apology is in order.’
‘I apologise for valuing my skin enough to not trust you on your word.’ When Dybs rose to his feet, he sighed and raised a hand. ‘Look. I’m sorry. Precautions were necessary. How does a third of my pay sound?’
Dybs considered it, shrugged and nodded. ‘Acceptable. Kindly talk to me before you point guns next time.’
‘I’ll keep it in mind.’ He pulled up a number on his commlink. ‘Right. We need to talk to the Johnson before we can do much else. I didn’t get the chance to negotiate a pay rise earlier and I need to tell him that you’re not a filthy traitorous trog. Hello? Mr. Johnson?’
Rube wandered over to the wall, rubbing her neck and willfully ignoring the conversation between Scian and their current boss. Talk about a hell of a way to wake up. She brought up a virtual notepad and added two names to a list, followed by a nine and a six respectively, then quickly decided against it and changed the nine to another six. Profit was profit after all.
Deciding against joining in with Scian and Dybs she pulled up the game she’d been playing before the kidnapping and resumed progress, only half-listening to the conversation behind her. The phrase ‘ten thousand per drone’ piqued her interest; the Johnson sounded bored and frustrated in equal measure. Multicoloured critters exploded across her screen as she nailed a chain reaction and satisfied with the progress of negotiations, she returned to the level.
A few minutes later she realised that the voices in the background had become louder and more aggressive. She paused the game and looked up.
‘We just agreed to a raised rate, why on earth would we then sell the damn things?’
‘I don’t know; why would you decide to contact me and ask for a raised rate before going after the rest of them?’
‘Probably because oh, I don’t know, they’re worth paying us a lot more for?’
‘Exactly my point. How do I know you’re not going to say you’ve done your job, take your payment and then sell them off to someone else?’
‘I don’t know what else you want me to say!’ Scian said, exasperated. ‘We’re not interested in selling the drones, we’re interested in doing the job you’re paying us to do and destroy them!’
‘I’m sure you understand that it’s a little difficult to trust your team now,’ the Johnson replied. ‘I’m sorry but I need reassurance you’re not just going to grab them and sell them to the highest bidder.’
The conversation continued in the same vein for another four or five minutes before Rube couldn’t take it anymore. Oh, for fuck’s sake. She rolled her eyes and stood up, not particularly caring if her interruption looked rude. ‘Look, Mr. Johnson, if we were going to take the drones and run, don’t you think we already would have? If a quick buck is all we were after why would we bother risking our necks to break into a well-guarded lab for another seven when we could split, sell this one and still double what you’re paying us?’
The voice paused, turning over her words. ‘Hmm. I suppose so. Still –’
She groaned. ‘Hyde, do us a favour and wreck that drone.’
A few scant seconds later, nothing remained of the cage or the drone except a few scattered shards of metal. Scian stared at the mess. ‘So, you saw that? Satisfied?’
‘I suppose.’ A sigh. ‘Still, considering we already agreed to raise the rate per drone, I’d feel more comfortable if I could send an associate to accompany you.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Just a friend who’s expressed interest in seeing how things work on the other side. She’ll act as my eyes and confirm you actually did your job properly.’
‘We’re not running a babysitting service.’
‘I wouldn’t ask you to. They’re entirely capable of taking care of themselves. They won’t be there to help or hinder you; just to assure me you’ve done the job right.’ A pause. ‘Do we have a deal?’
Scian sighed heavily. ‘Yes. It’s a deal.’
‘Excellent. She’ll be there in half an hour.’ The line went dead.
He blew a stream of air between his lips. ‘Well. That went well.’
Rube sat back down. ‘So we’ve got at least another half-hour to kill, if not more. It’s probably a worthwhile idea to plan out our next move. Do you think you could pull the floor plans from his commlink?’
Scian shrugged and got to work in silence. Hyde returned to milling about with his gang buddies; Dybs returned to his meditative stance, albeit with clenched fists. Rube sighed and pulled up the game again, idly wondering exactly who their mystery female guest would be. Hope for her sake she’s not one of those prissy business twats.
Almost exactly thirty minutes later a loud rapping sounded on the door. This time Hyde got up and ambled over to open it. He quickly backed up. ‘Uh. Hi.’
‘Hello,’ a voice boomed.
Rube looked up just in time to see something several feet taller than Hyde squeezing through the doorway. Welp. Definintely not prissy. Their new guest – a ten-foot troll in a skirted business suit – politely introduced herself as Ms. J before falling silent.
Rube got to her feet, suddenly feeling very small. ‘Pleasure to meet you. May I ask what you do?’
She shrugged. ‘Corporate mergers. Asset redistribution. That kind of thing.’
‘You should feel right at home, then,’ Dybs said. ‘I take it our mutual associate has explained to you the purpose of this run?’
‘Vaguely. I’m just here to report on your actions. I was told you’d provide the specifics.’
‘In short, we’re out to find and, ah, redistribute new toys a bit less than legally. Redistribute in this case being on the molecular level.’ Dybs looked over to Scian, who shrugged. ‘We’re still working out the finer details but won’t be too much longer. Do you have… more appropriate clothing?’
She flashed a toothy grin. ‘I can be back in forty-five minutes or so.’
The ork nodded. ‘If you could, please. We’ll meet you here. You won’t need a vehicle.’
With another round of polite nods, she folded herself back out of the door.
‘Business trolls. What will they think of next?’ Scian sighed.
Dybs shook his head. ‘Got the floor plans?’
‘Yeah.’ He pulled up a file in AR and expanded it into a three-dimensional model. ‘The location they’re holding the drones at is pretty small, only five levels of offices. There’s an underground car park one level below the ground floor; the labs are underneath the car park.’ The model zoomed in to focus on the back of the car park. ‘The labs are only accessible from this lift. There’s another set of lifts near the front of the building on the ground floor but only this one goes down to the labs. The security office is on the third floor –’ the focus quickly shot up three levels to a wide room near the lift shaft – ‘but they’ll probably have a few men downstairs.’
‘What’s the security in the labs like?’
Scian moved the focus to the lowest level of the model, indicating the long hallway surrounded by smaller square areas on both sides. ‘Ridiculously high for something in Renton. It requires biometric access to get into the main lab area and dual-swipe access to get into each of the individual labs.’
‘I’m going to assume you’re able to override that.’
‘Main lab area, no problem. The individual labs could be time-consuming. In both cases I’m going to need to be on-site to get access to the mainframe data banks.’
Dybs sighed. ‘We’ll deal with that when we get there. Right. So we need to get into the car park, get access to the lift and then get access to the labs. We hit the drones and then get out of there.’ He paused. ‘Can you hack the cameras in the car park at all?’
‘Of course. The guards up in the office will probably notice if they’re out for an extended period though.’
‘You can’t loop the footage at all?’
‘Not unless I break into the databanks of their security contractor, steal the relevant footage and then feed it on livestream through the camera.’
‘How about taking it offline briefly to let us get to the lift?’
Scian consulted the plans again. ‘Yes; I’m going to need to access to the lift physically to get us down, though. Both it and the labs are on separate networks. That’s going to take another few minutes though.’
‘I’m thinking disguises.’
Scian grinned. ‘I like that idea. Right. So we go in, park the disguised van, I get us access to the lift and take out the camera. We head down, hit the drones, get the lift back out and get the hell out of Dodge. Piece of cake.’
‘Hopefully,’ Dybs muttered. ‘Right. Go find whatever you’re planning to use to disguise yourself. Rube, Hyde, if you need anything, now’s the time to get it. We’ll meet back here in half an hour or so.’
Dybs supposed that he really shouldn’t have been surprised but it didn’t stop him from groaning. ‘How on earth did you manage that in half an hour at 5am on a Sunday?’
Scian stood beaming in front of the van, wearing a pair of oversize blue overalls with several rags dangling from the pockets and a matching blue cap. The van itself was now white and blue with a large sign on the side reading ‘Johnny Clean Janitor Services!’ in an obnoxiously colourful cartoonish font. ‘I have a large wardrobe and I like costume parties?’
He took a deep breath and counted to three before releasing it. Thankfully Ms. J had understood the aim of the mission and returned in a black operator’s suit, sporting a gigantic machine pistol in a hip halter. Neither Hyde nor Rube had bothered to alter anything; the only thing Hyde had done was paid and dismissed the hangers-on. Dickman had been left in the van. They’d considered leaving him in the warehouse but decided it wasn’t worth it; besides, his employee details would make it much easier to gain a stealthy entry. Hopefully.
Shaking his head, he climbed into the back of the van. It was a bit of a tight fit. Scian was the only one who could be seen in the front so the remainder of the team had crammed into the back, minus Rube. She’d decided sustaining an invisibility spell was well worth it in exchange for getting to use the passenger seat. Between the bulk of Hyde, the larger bulk of Ms. J and the floor space required by Dickman and Scian’s Doberman, Dybs was sorely pressed for room. He’d had to cram himself up behind the front seats with his chameleon suit on. When the back doors slammed shut, he tapped on the back of the chair. ‘Let’s go.’
Thankfully Renton was still quite quiet for the time of morning and Scian made it to the carpark unmolested. Dickman’s credentials were accepted without question and he parked the van a row or two away from the back lift.
Rube spoke up. ‘Give me a moment to check out the astral.’ Being mindful not to let her invisibility drop, she slipped out of her body and carefully poked her head out of the van. There were no spirits or wards in sight. Rather than try to go down the lift shaft she decided to drop straight through the ground. She made it about twenty metres down before a white light filled her vision and she was forced to screech to a halt. Fuck. It’s warded. A generic block of offices in Renton, my ass.
Experimentally she placed her palm on the barrier. It was a fairly strong ward; not so strong that she couldn’t break through but strong enough that she wasn’t particularly keen on trying. Besides, the moment she broke it the mage who cast it would know someone was making a move on the labs. She began moving parallel alongside it towards the direction she thought the lift might be; after a few seconds she popped out of solid ground into an empty lift shaft. The ward hadn’t been extended to the shaft itself, rather it started in line with the outside doors. She frowned. This would make life difficult for her.
In a few seconds she was hopping back into her body. ‘No spirits that I can see but there’s a ward covering the entire lab area, starting from just outside the lift doors.’
‘And that means…?’ Scian asked.
‘It means I can’t see or cast through it.’
‘Can you break it?’
‘If you want the entire facility to know that someone’s breaking in, sure. I’ll be fine once we get in but for now there’s nothing I can really do.’ She fiddled with her ouroboros pendant, deactivating her focus in preparation for going through the ward.
Dybs shrugged. ‘There’ll be a camera feed or something. It’s not a problem.’ A muffled hissing sound came from behind him and he glanced over his shoulder in time to spot Hyde exhaling, shoving a small cylindrical object back into his pocket.
His mouth was suddenly dry. He unconsciously reached for the small bag that had been half-heartedly stashed with his weapons. Don’t do it, soldier! You’re on the job! He jerked his hand away a little faster than intended, earning a questioning glance from Scian. Dybs was surprised to find that his heart was racing. ‘Yes?’
A narrow glare. ‘Nothing. I’ll let you know when it’s safe to move out.’ The elf opened the door, whistling something that was probably intended to be a blue-collar jaunt but bore an unmistakable likeness to an orchestral movement.
Hyde began to clench and relax his fists in a quick, repeated cycle, every so often rolling his neck and shrugging his shoulders. Dybs groaned silently. Anything but Kamikaze or Nitro…
After a few minutes of surreptitious hacking under the cover of intensely polishing the lift doors, Scian straightened up, wiping his brow. ‘Okay. There’s two guards downstairs, five in the office on the third level. I’m going to move the cameras to create a temporary clear path from the van to the lift between here and here –’ two flashing green lines appeared in AR – ‘so on my mark, get out of the van as quickly as you can and get into the lift. Bring the Doberman.’ He paused for a few seconds. ‘Mark.’
A near to silently as possible the team exited the van and made their way to the now-open lift doors. Rube crammed herself into the rear right corner. Scian settled opposite her on the left, the Doberman trundling in to sit between them. Ms J squeezed herself into the front left corner. Dybs made his way into the front right corner and Hyde stood in the centre of the lift, facing back towards the doors. The doors slid shut with a soft hiss and Scian visibly relaxed. ‘Okay. We’re heading down.’
As the lift descended, Hyde spoke up. ‘You all got flash comp, right?’
Dybs raised an eyebrow. ‘Why do you ask?’
A deep laugh came from behind the mask.
Before Dybs could ask what was so amusing, three things happened in quick succession. The lift shuddered to a halt; the doors started to slide open; and Hyde reached over his shoulder, pulling out a minigrenade launcher.
Dybs opened his mouth to yell at Hyde to drop it but the doors slid open and Hyde pulled the trigger with a gleeful yell, the shrieks of his other teammates in the background. A bright flash went off with a muffled bang.
At least his aim was good, Dybs thought stupidly. Hyde’s grenade had been right on target, landing at the feet of the two guards about twenty metres down the corridor. They’d obviously stood and turned when they heard the lift doors opening but it hadn’t been enough. As he watched one of the two collapsed to his knees, clutching his head. The other appeared not to notice the blinding light. He mechanically grabbed the table behind him and flipped it onto its side for cover, throwing his body behind it before his teammate had even hit the ground.
Dybs automatically shoved the barrel of his pistol around the corner of the doors and fired off a short burst, the shot scattering wide in the haze. Something flew past him from behind. He caught sight of a flash of red hair and a panicked expression before Rube dove past him, landing on her stomach on the ground and instantly vanishing. The wheels of the Doberman began to grind as it started turning to face its gun to the door; Dybs groaned. Good job, Scian.
Ms. J quite wisely stood motionless in the corner, hiding a surprisingly amount of her bulk behind the protruding lift door.
With a yell Hyde threw his grenade launcher back over his shoulder and sprinted down the corridor, drawing his mace. Did he see Rube? Dybs hoped he hadn’t crushed the invisible mage. In a few seconds Hyde had reached the far end of the corridor. He swung the mace, catching the kneeling guard under the chin. A smear of red splattered across the ceiling.
The remaining guard, far too close to his now-headless teammate for his liking, shoved himself towards the far side of the corridor while firing frantically at Hyde. Dybs took advantage of his distraction to fire a long burst down the hallway. For a terrible moment he thought he’d missed again. Then the guard’s head jerked to the side and his arm dropped, body sliding to a crumpled stop against the wall.
Hyde glanced at the motionless body before turning back to the first guard and delivering a series of vicious kicks.
As Rube faded back into view and the team hurried out of the elevator, Dybs’ vision began to go red. ‘Hyde, what the fuck made you think that grenades were an acceptable option for a stealth attack?’
‘I only used flashbangs,’ he grunted, wiping his mace on the guard’s jacket with far too much care. ‘They’re not lethal and don’t explode. They’re stealthy.’
Dybs opened and closed his mouth four times before his brain could process the statement. ‘You – what –’
With a hiss, the lift vanished and Scian swore. ‘Fuck, they’ve isolated the lift.’
‘They saw us?’
‘No, they heard those guys screaming over their commlinks.’ He reached down to grab the second guard’s non-bloodied commlink but recoiled a few seconds later, rebuffed by the security programs. He snarled as a small black mark appeared in the corner of his view. Fuck. ‘Give me a second.’ He reached for the other, messier commlink and was rewarded with a birds-eye view of the security office. Two guards stood by a cupboard, unhurriedly passing out weapons and body armour; another two sat by the lift, one threading an optic cable over the edge and the other holding a gun. The last guard sat in front of the console, terminating a call. Scian grabbed for the outgoing records. The name he saw made his blood run cold. ‘Shit, guys, they’ve called in a high-threat response team. We need to move it.’
‘Which lab are the drones in?’ Dybs asked.
‘That one.’ He jabbed a finger towards the first block on their left, a small room with bulletproof glass windows and a solid metal cabinet on the back wall. Before he could attempt to override the door a large black padlock appeared in AR. Glancing down the hallway he saw identical padlocks appearing on all the other doors. ‘Fuck. They’ve locked them down. We’re going to have to break in.’
Dybs rapped on the windows. ‘That’s going to take far too long. Rube, can you do anything?’
‘Of course.’ Within a few seconds the hallway began to heat up as a small fireball appeared about a metre off the ground. It quickly enlarged, forming a head and two arms out of flames, stopping once it completely filled the space between the ceiling and the floor. Rube took a step away from the heat, giving a short, respectful bow. ‘Go into that room and destroy everything in that cabinet.’
The spirit vanished for a moment before reappearing on the far side of the door. It looked at the cabinet closely. For a second it appeared as if it couldn’t touch it. Then, much to their relief, it began feeding flames through the side vents and the cracks in the doors. Metallic sludge began to ooze out of the bottom of the door. Apparently satisfied, it vanished.
Dybs turned to Ms. J. ‘Satisfied?’
She grinned toothily. ‘Absolutely.’
He looked back to Scian. ‘You said they isolated the lift. Can you get it back?’
‘Not a chance. It’s gone down under the labs and they’ve shut down its network.’
‘Are they watching –’
‘Us? No, I took the cameras offline. They’ve got two guys watching the shaft.’ He linked the feeds to the rest of the team.
Hyde looked at the new video feeds, happily feeding grenades into the launcher. That shot had been perfect. Even better, now that there was no need to do that stupid stealthy stuff Dybs wanted, he could load up the launcher with real grenades. He glanced around the labs, wondering if he could somehow get a grenade into one without turning the team into chunky salsa.
Behind him he heard Dybs grumble and say something about climbing up the lift to let Rube cast something. He frowned slightly. Climbing up the shaft sounded like a slow and – more importantly – very boring plan. A thought came to him and a wide grin split his face. He started walking towards the still-open doors.
Having confirmed the plan to climb the shaft and give Rube enough cover to cast, Dybs turned to the lift doors just in time to see Hyde shove his grenade launcher into the shaft and pull the trigger. ‘HYDE!’
On the feed, Rube saw the guards by the lift shout a split-second before a white-hot flash filled the screen. It vanished as quickly as it had appeared, leaving the two men by the lift dead and the one by the console severely injured. Fuck it, this will do! She sprinted to the lift, skidding to a halt on the far side of the ward and quickly summoned another fire spirit. ‘Get up to that office on the third floor and torch the fuck out of everything in it!’
As the spirit vanished up the shaft, she turned back to the team. ‘Let’s go. I don’t know how long that’ll last.’
Glaring at Hyde, Dybs strode over to the lift doors. ‘Right. Everyone good to climb back to the carpark?’
Scian looked at him like he’d lost his mind. ‘Uh, definitely not. Can’t say Dobermans are known for their climbing ability either.’
Rube shook her head. ‘Count me out.’
Fucking elves. ‘Right. Hyde, take Scian. Ms. J, take the Doberman. Rube, you’re with me.’ He quickly pulled out several lengths of rope and began tying the two elves and the drone to their respective carriers. ‘How’s things up there?’
Rube glanced at the feed. The spirit had successfully killed the guard by the console and was gleefully setting as much of the surrounding area on fire as it could; the two remaining guards had retreated to the main hallway and were having a frantic discussion. ‘Toasty. We’ve got a clear run. I might head up to get it to finish the job; probably easier for you if I’m unconscious while you’re climbing anyway.’
He tightened the last of the knots. ‘Sounds good. Be quick.’
Closing her eyes and slipping into astral, Rube quickly made her way up the shaft to the third-floor office. The room danced with flames; she couldn’t deny that the spirit had followed her instructions well. Good job. New job. She pointed to the two guards standing in the corridor. Kill them, please. Any way you wish.
The black voids she assumed were the spirit’s eyes lit up gleefully and it spun around. The auras of the two men immediately turned fearful and Rube couldn’t help chuckling; they had a wall behind them, a wall on their right, a narrow corridor perfect for channeling flamethrower shots to their left and a living firestorm advancing on them from the front. Sorry, guys; you fucked with the wrong team.
The two guards began sprinting forwards, angling past the spirit and parallel with the right-hand wall towards the lift. Something dark left the lead guard’s hand, bouncing down the open shaft. A surge of cold fear shot through Rube; Fuck. Should I go back? Then she shook her head. I’m tied to Dybs’ back. What good would it do?
She spun back to watch the carnage, biting her lip.
At the bottom of the shaft Hyde was preparing to climb up after Dybs, barely noticing the elf tied to his back, when something high above him flashed through the smoke. It took him only a second before he recognized the familiar shape. ‘Grenade!’ Acting on instinct, he yanked his revolver from its holster and fired off a round. A burst of pride shot through him as the bullet flew true, putting a neat hole through the middle of the cylinder, but it didn’t explode. Crap. He sprinted back into the labs area, nearly running over Ms. J.
Halfway up the shaft, Dybs heard Hyde’s warning and the revolver shot. If I survive this I swear I’m replacing every weapon that thing owns with tazers, he thought grimly. He shook his head. He needed to get out of the shaft. Calling on his magic he sprang up and out, reaching for the edge of the car park level opening. One glove landed true, gecko grip engaging. The other smacked against the lip of the opening and bounced off, sending him swinging wildly.
Nonononono! He gritted his teeth and scrabbled madly, pulling himself and the unconscious mage up and out of the shaft to lie panting heavily on the floor. Not a second later something whistled past the doorway and –
A wild yell echoed up from below and a video feed popped up from Hyde of a metal cylinder with a neat hole through its centre. ‘I GOTTIT!’
The ork shook his head. Okay, maybe just the grenades.
Rube’s body twitched on his back and he quickly rolled onto his side, reaching to untie the knots. ‘A warning might have been nice.’
‘Oh, so it was a grenade?’ She paused, looking at Hyde’s feed. ‘Looks like it wasn’t a problem.’
He resisted the urge to drop her back down the shaft. ‘I trust the guards were dealt with?’
‘Both dead and halfway to ashes.’ She decided not to mention that the leading guard had managed to rappel halfway down the shaft before the spirit caught him.
Threat gone, Ms. J and Hyde made short work of the climb. Hyde untied Scian and deposited him roughly on the floor. ‘Guards?’
He scowled under the mask, good mood swinging to annoyance. Stupid spirits.
‘Let’s move it before the HTR team get here,’ Dybs said. He glanced over at the garage door; it was unsurprisingly locked. ‘Scian, go open that and we’ll pick you up.’
Scian made a beeline for the door as the rest of them piled back into the van, Rube taking the passenger seat and Dybs behind the wheel. By the time the van had made it to the door Scian had forced it to open. He vaulted through the rear doors. ‘Move it!’
Rube’s body went limp for about thirty seconds before she straightened up again, shaking her head. ‘Guys, there’s a chopper heading our way.’
‘How far away?’
‘South. Maybe five minutes, if we’re lucky.’
Scian swore. ‘That’s nowhere near enough time to get out of the city.’
Dybs spun the wheel and began heading for the Barrens. ‘They’re professionals. They’re not about to start a firefight in the downtown. We’ll lure them out to the Barrens and take them down there.’
Rube rolled her window down and stuck her head out the window. A few seconds later she swore. ‘Heads up, there’s a fire spirit tracking us too, same size as mine.’
‘Is it going to attack?’
She paused. ‘Don’t think so. It’s about fifty metres up, couple hundred behind us. I think it’s just watching us.’
‘Good. Let me know if it does anything funny.’ He checked the rear vision feed; in the far distance he could make out something black moving towards them in the sky. ‘Damnit Rube, I thought you said five minutes!’
‘It looked slower in astral!’
As Rube and Dybs bickered in the front, Scian clenched his fists in the back, anxiety through the roof. When he’d agreed to this job it had been with the unspoken expectation that their contact with Evo would be minimal._ A high threat response team is not minimal!_ Visions of labs and pain danced before his eyes. He snarled._ What can I do?_ With Dybs driving the van (doing a measly five clicks over the limit and looking both ways before crossing intersections, he noted with irritation) and no real weapons to speak of, he felt useless. ‘Forget the damn spirit. Can’t you go any faster, Trog Boy?’
As he slowed down for the amber light ahead, Dybs’ stare swung to the rear camera feed, checking if the chopper had gotten any closer. It had. ‘If you’d like to get Lone Star on our case as well, certainly.’
‘Well, you’re useful.’
‘Why don’t you be useful and change those lights for us, then?’
Grumbling, Scian quickly started working his way into the local grid system. Tweet: Why did we give the trog the wheel? #dybssucks #moveitgrampa. He considered brute-forcing for speed but checked himself before he could; attention from the G-men was the last thing he needed now. Instead he hopped onto the PAN of a nearby light, using it as a backdoor into the larger local system.
The light ahead stayed red for a scant few seconds before flashing back to green and Dybs accelerated. ‘Thanks.’
Scian nodded dismissively, switching set after set to green until he was happy they’d have a clear run to Redmond. Better cover that up. A few simple scripts later and several nearby sets of lights began turning green as well. His task complete, his attention turned back to the helicopter and its payload. If only there were traffic lights for choppers.
Suddenly a light went on in his brain. Why not just take control of the damn thing myself?
Brilliant hacker you are, boss, his paladin sprite piped up.
Scian frowned._ Shut up and give me a hand with this. We need the rigger driving the thing out and staying out._
Data Spike ‘im! it cheered, waving its digital sword towards the chopper. Knock ‘im offline and out!
Suppressing the desire to summon a hammer to flatten the excitable sprite, Scian began scripting frantically. Hope that bastard’s not hotsimming. Several cruise missile-styled weapons started to manifest in his VR feed. He forced himself to wait for a few seconds, then a few more, before launching his digital payload at the helicopter’s matrix icon with a smirk. The ‘missiles’ left no trail and exploded in grand fashion against the icon – Fuck!
The digital chopper didn’t even wobble.
What felt like something heavy smacked into his stomach, driving the wind out of him.
His sprite began giggling, filling his ears with an irritating bell-like sound. Brilliant hacker you are, boss!
‘Fucking useless paladin sprites,’ he muttered under his breath. Now what?
As Scian attempted his attack, Rube glared out of the window at the hovering spirit, trying to decide whether to attempt to banish it or not. On the one hand it wasn’t doing anything particularly devastating at that moment; on the other, once they stopped it would no doubt be a nightmare to deal with. Probably bound, too, she thought gloomily. Banishing spirits was one thing. Banishing bound spirits was another matter altogether, especially if the controlling mage was nearby.
She paused for a moment, brows furrowed. She could send her own spirit to fight it. While effectively removing the enemy spirit from the subsequent fight, two living fireballs duking it out over downtown Seattle was neither stealthy nor a guaranteed result for her. No. This particular situation called for something stealthier. Something they wouldn’t be prepared for. Something… stylish.
Like a living fireball manifesting on top of the chopper’s pilot and engulfing them.
With a gleam in her eyes she began giving her spirit orders, never letting her gaze drop from the elemental hovering behind them. After a scant few seconds it left the van and sped towards the chopper. Surprisingly the enemy fire elemental made no movement to intercept it, watching silently as Rube’s spirit made its way towards the chopper before turning to face the van again.
Gotta love overly obedient spirits, she thought gleefully. A few seconds later something cold washed over her as the link with her own spirit was severed; she shook her head reflexively and frowned. Damnit. Guess the mage was a bit better prepared than I thought. Consoling herself with the fact that the rigger would at a minimum be severely burned and more than likely relying on the autopilot to control the chopper, she shrugged and decided to summon up a water elemental instead. Get ready to say hello to my little friend…
High above them, the rigger piloting the chopper noticed two things in quick succession. Firstly someone was attempting to eject him from the matrix. A pathetic attempt, true, but still an attempt. Secondly it was starting to get rather warm. Most likely due to the swirling firestorm that had suddenly and surprisingly appeared in his cockpit.
A few manabolts, some impromptu screaming and a blast from the inbuilt fire extinguisher later, the firestorm was gone and the digital attack repelled, leaving him singed, covered in foam and more than a little grumpy. Whoever was down there was clearly not in the mood to let them land.
Joke’s on you, fuckers; I don’t need to land.
Under the nose of the chopper, the inbuilt machinegun started to whir into life.
Back in the van, Hyde was getting jittery. He’d been having such a good day. He’d managed to fire his grenade launcher twice, messily killed some thug with his club and shot a falling grenade to disarm it. Now they were being chased by a helicopter containing a high-threat response team, all of whom would need to be removed from the picture. His Cram was still holding up too. Yes; it was a good day to be Hyde.
In front of him on the floor sat his prized possession: a submachine gun, stuffed to the brim with APDS rounds, almost fully assembled and ready to fill bodies with lead. He could all but see the bodies of the HTR team being torn apart in a hail of bullets…
His attention swung back to the present as Rube’s voice trailed over the commlink. ‘…I’m going to summon a water elemental to get rid of it.’
He frowned slightly, the expression hidden by his ever-present mask. Get rid of it? The mage had already stopped him duking it out with the rest of the in-house team with her last stupid spirit. Was she hoping to kill this team with a new spirit before they could get close enough for him to fight? He might not even get to fire his gun! A surge of anger rose in his chest.
He clicked the last of the gun’s components into place and clambered to his feet, unconsciously delivering a hard kick the trussed-up form of Dickman as he did so. With a few steps he was at the back door of the van. Grinning widely he threw open one of the doors and braced himself against the van’s frame, moving both hands to the gun.
It was time for fun.
Despite Hyde’s amazing display of understanding and appreciation for the concept of stealth, despite having a grenade thrown at him while climbing up an elevator shaft with an unconscious mage on his back and despite being followed by a high-threat response team through downtown Seattle in a helicopter, Dybs was feeling pretty good about things. We might actually get a stealthy resolution this time! Visions of an efficient, quiet demise for the helicopter and its crew danced before his eyes. They had a clear run out of the city. Rube was sober. Scian was too busy muttering about paladin sprites to be whining at him. Hyde was… what was Hyde doing? Something most un-Hydelike, judging by how quiet things were. Such a nice change.
Beside him, Rube shook her head. ‘No point in keeping my fire spirit around while theirs is following us. I’m going to summon a water elemental to get rid of it.’
‘Not worth keeping it for when we get them on the ground?’
‘Not unless you’re volunteering to go orko-a-mano¬ with the bastard twin of the one that melted the drones. I can only do one at the moment.’
Dybs considered it, then shook his head. ‘Fine. Just keep an eye on it.’
Rube nodded again. Something large and wet-looking began to materialise just outside the corner of his vision. He tried not to look at it too much.
Suddenly a loud bang sounded from the back of the van. What the hell? He glanced at the rear camera feed, or rather tried to; something large and black kept blocking the lower half of his vision. It almost looked like a door. Just as he opened his mouth to yell for someone to fix it the van began shaking as if being punched by a thousand tiny hands. An awful series of shrill screams and thunks began to sound and a second later a dozen large holes appeared in the windshield, the dashboard and the seat around him.
Dybs watched in horror as his stealthy escape – and the van’s windshield – shattered before his eyes. ‘HYDE, WHAT DID YOU DO?’
Oddly enough, neither of the elves saw any reason to correct him.
Stealthy resolution forgotten, Dybs floored it and started trying to drive evasively. This proved harder than he expected thanks to the van’s new aerodynamics and he only nearly missed barreling into several buildings. Scian clung onto the back of the seats for dear life and started calling up more digital missiles, hoping against hope that they’d do something more damaging this time – despite his sprite firing its own salvo as well, not a single scratch appeared on the virtual chopper.
Forgoing her neutrality, Ms. J stepped over to the door and let loose a short burst from her troll-sized machine pistol. The rounds pinged harmlessly off the armoured underbelly of the chopper and she flung herself back behind the door in the hope it would provide enough cover to save her from the next hail of bullets. Dickman, still bound, gagged and blinded, could only be flung around the floor of the van helplessly, wondering where he’d gone so wrong.
Ignoring her newly-summoned spirit in favour of removing the more immediate threat, Rube leaned her whole upper torso out the window and took a deep breath. A microsecond later the chopper disappeared into a swirling ball of fire and black smoke and she began to grin. Her good mood was soon cut short when the vehicle reappeared, smoking and shaking, gun still tracking their every move. Cursing, she started to call up another fireball, hoping against hope that she could cast before the guns had found their target again. In her heart she knew she wouldn’t be fast enough. With horror in her eyes she watched as the smoking barrels begin to spin up to speed—
Suddenly a stream of bullets tore through the gun, the gun mount, the underbelly of the chopper and the cockpit, shattering the windscreen and sending chunks of metal flying from the vehicle. A booming laugh echoed from the rear of the van as flames spouted from the rotor housing and the blades began to slow.
Rube laughed in relief and pulled herself back into the van, watching Hyde’s feed of the helicopter plunging towards the ground. Thank the planes for Ugly and his guns. Then she frowned as something yellow flashed past her in astral. Something unbearably hot began to materialize in the console between her and Dybs.
Dybs’ head jerked to the side and his eyes grew to the size of platters. ‘Oh, shit!’
A very large and angry-looking fire spirit turned to glare at Rube. In her mind’s eye, she saw the charred carcasses of the heavily-armoured guards her spirit had engulfed a few minutes ago and remembered she was wearing nothing more than a long jacket and her street clothes. ‘Oh, SHIT!’
The van started to screech to a halt as Dybs slammed on the brakes. Hyde twisted around and grabbed the top of the door frame, preparing to leap out once the vehicle stopped and riddle it with the remains of his magazine. Scian desperately grabbed at the taser he’d stashed in his pocket, hoping that it would do something, anything against the angry fireball. As he pulled it out to fire he felt his grip slip and in horror watched the weapon go flying out of his hands. It passed straight through the spirit and hit the dashboard as a melted lump of plastic.
Water elemental completely driven from her mind by the inferno raging beside her, Rube released her own seatbelt and scrabbled for the open window, not caring that the van was still careening down the street at close to sixty kilometers an hour. I’ll take the fucking gravel rash over being torched ali—
Her thoughts stopped as a burning white heat began to envelop her from the legs up.
Before she could even scream the searing heat had reached her chest, superheated oxygen burning her lungs as she gulped for air. She tried to open her eyes but couldn’t, tried to scream but her mouth wouldn’t open; dimly she realized that they had been fused together and a chilling realization came over her: without magic, her teammates wouldn’t be able to fix the damage in time.
The last thing she was remembered was a smell like burned pork and trying to scream one last time through a melting mouth.