Chapter 1:

Opportunity Calls

EXIT POINT: Homeworld

 Kasimir Yadmic did not want to talk to his boss today.

He lay in his bed, Miri curled comfortably on his chest, late morning sunlight streaming in through the window... and his relay orb hummed insistently with Ziv's name glowing within it.

She wasn't giving up. If she thought it important enough to bother him on his day off, then it was important. But maybe if he ignored her, she’d bother someone else.

The relay orb continued humming.

“Fine.” Kas sat up and tapped the orb, toggling on the voice connection. Miri hissed in displeasure at her bed turning into a vertical surface and stalked away, tails swishing.

“Morning Ziv.”

“Kas! It’s your lucky day.”

He moved the orb away from his face and took a moment to position himself more advantageously. He ran a hand through his snow-white hair - a throwback genetic link to old Bozalosc heritage, not uncommon in these parts – and shifted to stand in front of his tower window. The influential city of Zha Doya spread out fetchingly behind him, its many colourful spires piercing the skies. A far more impressive backdrop than the modest lodging he called home. A lodging which currently had last night’s clothes and miscellaneous paraphernalia strewn across the floor.

Thus in position, he reached out to the hovering orb and tapped it twice to activate full broadcast mode. The magic blazed to life and a clear image of Ziv appeared in his head. She was dressed in full armour, of course, bristling with weapons and standing outside what looked like an expensive café. He saw her eyes dart to the side, even as her hand reached forward and adjusted her own orb, presumably to make way for a passing pedestrian.

“It’s nice to see you, too, Ziv. Even if it’s… somewhat unexpected.”

Ziv squinted at him, tilting her head on instinct as she tried to get a better look at his surroundings. It didn’t work, of course. Ziv had never been the best with magic. But as she would say, that was what specialists were for. Ziv was a planner and leader, tried and true, and that was what got the job done.

“A little underdressed, aren’t you?” She pursed her lips. “And is that ziga hair on your tunic?”

Following her eyes, Kas reached up and brushed his hand over the problem spot. From Ziv’s reaction, he gathered he must have just smeared the offending material further over his clothes. “Her name’s Miri,” he said a little defensively. “And she likes to sleep on my chest.”

“That’s… nice.” Ziv pursed her lips. “I’ll be brief, Kas. A contract just came in which would ordinarily be a bit above your paygrade. But Mirko’s down with a case of the nurgles, and the job calls for a roster of at least fifteen. Diverse skillsets required at urgent notice. Straighten up your professional appearance a bit, and you’re in. Handle yourself well out there and this could open up some further opportunities for you.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” he replied wryly. “I’d planned on visiting my brother today. What’s the job, and why so many people?” Fifteen was an unusually large crew.

“Standard retrieval. You’ll be visiting a research facility. Just one item, but it should be easy to find – look for the highest concentration of security. As for the numbers, I told you it was a higher paygrade. We’re expecting forcefields, mana traps, physical blockades, and almost certainly a fight. Good news is it’s private ownership, and they spent most of their cash on decoys and counterintelligence. We’re unlikely to face many reinforcements. Bad news is, we don’t expect it will be long before they catch wind and our window closes. We’re not worrying about stealth. We move fast, grab the goods and transfer to the client as quickly as possible. Once it’s in their hands, we’ve delivered our end of the agreement. Oh, and you will be getting a bonus.”

“Hmm. Are you sure Elurium is happy to risk a mid-tier on such a big assignment?”

Ziv shrugged. Kas watched in amusement as a small child approached the window behind her, pressed her lips and nose to the glass and began pulling faces in the direction of the relay orb. Catching his expression, Ziv frowned, turned around and rapped on the glass with one sharp knuckle, sending the girl scurrying back into the shop in a flurry of giggles.

“That’s what they pay me to judge,” she replied, turning back to the orb. “If I didn’t think we had the people to handle it, Elurium wouldn’t accept the contract. Turning down an opportunity is a small loss. Botching one could do far worse to our reputation as mercenary-thieves. And I don’t think you’ll botch it. You’re just a little inexperienced. Follow instructions and you’ll be fine.”

The girl in the café was making her way forward again, but only made it two steps before she was whisked off her feet by a parent. Kas found himself rather disappointed.

He sighed. He liked his job, he’d studied his way towards it for years. The work wasn’t everything he’d imagined – for one thing, the reality involved a lot more paperwork than the recruitment campaigns had led him to believe – but he enjoyed it. Once or twice he’d even gotten to use his safecracking skills under supervision from an experienced mentor. And he couldn’t argue with the money. It was the kind of job which had hundreds of eager graduates lining up each year to snag, only to be turned away disappointed.

But at the same time, the long hours and stress of being on call had been getting to him. Lately it felt like more and more of his life was being eaten by work, leaving him drained even in his free time. So far the prestige and money had seen him through. And probably would for a while yet. But he didn’t know if that would last forever.

He sighed again and shot Ziv a small smile. Jarom would have to wait. “Happy to help. As long as I get the time back another day.”

Ziv beamed at him, wrinkles crinkling down the sides of her mouth. “Fabulous. You’re Supply. You’ll need recharges, pocket storage – heavy duty, please – and official liability waivers. Make sure the whole team signs them, or we’ll have to deal with angry relatives if they don’t make it. Single-handed weapons only. We can’t have you missing an order because you’re fumbling with a crossbow. Otherwise, standard package applies. We meet in three sands, so make sure you drop by the warehouse to pick everything up. And please, do brush up. You’ve gotten away with it so far, but higher levels come with greater client expectations.”

“I promise I won’t turn up covered in ziga hair.”

“And properly armoured, please. After this job I’m giving you the details of my outfitter. A consultation would be good for your professional development.”

“I’ll take it under advisement.”

She gave him a look that clearly conveyed he should give it more than his usual level of consideration, that she was serious, but didn’t belabor the point. “Don’t be late,” she said, and ended the connection.

Kas exhaled slowly, trying to mentally recalibrate his day. Forget a nice leisurely morning and a chance to catch up with Jaromir over lunch, today he’d be rushing from place to place on an even more hectic schedule than usual. Was it too much to ask for employers to consider waiting one day to rob each other?

But with the promise of a bonus and the potential of an opportunity to move up, doing this job right might be enough to reinvigorate his love for the job. Maybe if he were making more, if he were able to do more prestigious assignments and put his best skills to work more regularly, then he wouldn’t find the days spent doing everything else so unfulfilling.

He tapped on the tumble cube hovering above his laundry basket to open it, rummaging through in search of a clean tunic. Alas, anything professional lay strewn about in the general vicinity of his hamper. He’d planned to throw them in before leaving for lunch, but now there was no time. He glanced down at himself, rubbing at the patch of fur. Nope, he wasn’t going to get that out any time soon.

“Miri, you’re getting me in trouble again,” he called, checking his hamper for the tunic with the least offensive odour and tossed it in the washing cube, mentally activating the express setting. In his opinion it wouldn’t matter once he was properly armoured, but Ziv would notice. She noticed everything.

Kas glanced at the sandglass on the wall, running about a sand and a half before midday. If he left now, he could run to the office and pick up the paperwork by the time his laundry was done. He’d have to rush to fill out his own forms and requisitions for today’s job, head down to the warehouse for his assigned supplies, and still make it home in time to change, but he could do it as long as nothing delayed him.

“Be good while I’m away,” he called to Miri, who let out a softly dismissive ‘krsskrrr’ sound in reply. She was fully occupied with stalking a scrap of paper across the floor, her twin fluffy tails sweeping dust away and creating a wind that pushed the paper just ahead of her reaching claws. Kas chuckled fondly, then rushed out the door.

Three sands from now, he’d be back on the job. The thought would once have been thrilling, but years of experience had taught him that it was true what everyone said. No matter how much you think you love it, mercenary thieving is just another job in the end.

He loved searching out the defences and pressing against them in just the right ways to make the shield fall, the lock pop open, the trap dissipate harmlessly. Breaking into things, pitting his skill against the defences, teasing them open… that was his true love. But, alas, until he really impressed someone important, he’d be relegated to support roles, practicing at the training centers providing the only chance to truly test his ability.

His breath came heavier when he finally reached the skyway level after too many minutes of climbing stairs - the buoy lift in his tower was perpetually out of order - but he was used to the exercise by now and not too winded. He stepped out into the familiar bustle of Zha Doya in the morning. The nearest zipcar terminal was seven minutes away from his tower - three if he sprinted, which he did. He should be able to catch the 10:40.

Before he was halfway there, the zipcar roared by overhead, vibrating the walking lane suspended beneath its rails. The skyway snaked between spires in sweeping curves, supported and connected to every tower of importance. The threads of power holding it stable were a marvel of magical engineering - or so proclaimed the tourist information. To Kas, they were a way for the city to save money by combining the zipcar tracks with walking paths. Sure, no zipcar had ever broken through and killed the pedestrians below it, but it still made him uneasy every time one vibrated by overhead.

He continued running as he watched the 10:40 slide off into the terminal. Its back parted, opening like a massive glass beetle to admit its waiting passengers. By the time he reached the terminal, it had begun to close, but he didn’t slow. Ducking to avoid hitting his head, he slid inside and grabbed a handrail, grinning breathlessly in response to the stares of his fellow passengers.

The attendant gave him a dirty look in the mirror, but he pretended not to notice. You weren’t supposed to enter the vehicle once it had begun closing, but no one ever prosecuted anyone as long as they paid their fare.

The zipcar slid smoothly into motion, its interior mechanisms hissing with a sound that grew higher and higher in pitch until it became inaudible and the city blurred by outside.

The Elurium Professional Mercenary-Thieving Company’s main office was located in the semi-prestigious Veerak Square Towers, a collection of eight identical structures renowned for once being the tallest in the city, though modern construction had long since outstripped them. Still, they retained a classic charm and a reputation for quality which any new upstart company would be hard pressed to match, regardless of how much shinier their tower may be.

Kas reached for his waist, only to realize he’d left his company ID band at home. Grimacing, he tapped on the glass front door and smiled sheepishly at the receptionist. Thankfully it was Bet, not the new girl who was a complete stickler for the rules. She recognized him, smiled in an insultingly perfunctory way, but buzzed him in anyway.

“Thanks. I just need to grab some things. Do you have the requisition details for today’s job?”

“Didn’t you get the relay?”

Kas shook his head. “Just give me the forms, I’ll take care of it.” He’d left his relay orb at home as well, he realized, along with whatever text data had been transmitted after his call with Ziv. Mentally cursing, he forced himself to put it out of mind. It was a bad look but there was no time to go back and get it now. He’d just have to push on.

Bet shrugged and rapped a sequence of taps on the row of orbs floating at elbow height in front of her, just above the surface of the desk. A standard administrative array, only five or so, colour-coded for convenience and security clearance. Kas wasn’t privy to the information they beamed into her head, but he did see the output; with a final tap, Bet dusted her hands together as a scroll materialised slowly out of mid-air and dropped into her waiting palm. She passed it to him.

“You’re lucky,” she said, pulling a face. “That was the last of the ink supplies, and I can’t restock them without leaving the front desk unattended. I’d head up to the armoury soon, if I were you. All the good weapons are going fast.”

“Thanks,” Kas replied absently, already unfurling the document. Elurium’s official letterhead stared back at him, followed by a neatly arranged list of the job’s time, place and participants. Sixteen people in all, including himself and Ziv. His name sat tellingly last on the list, tacked on at the bottom with ‘Supply’ appended in brackets. “And I’ll need liability waivers for everyone. I’ll pick them up on the way back.”

She reached under the desk, sorting through the stacks of scrolls for the right ones, while Kas hurried to the buoy lift. He tapped the control for the armory and began to ascend.

Arriving at the armoury, he saw Bet had been right; most of the good weapons had been checked out already. Even the best of the best - the ones displayed in pride of place behind a deceptively fragile glass cabinet imbued with all kinds of devastating security wards - looked somewhat depleted. Ziv hadn’t been exaggerating - whatever this job was, it looked like they were bringing out the big guns. Not all of them, of course. No mercenary thieves worth their zlato would ever leave their headquarters unattended. But some. This job would likely pay a few salaries for the next several months.

A single AutoSlash™ sword remained for the taking, which he signed out immediately with a tap of the locking mechanism, registering it to his name until it was returned to its holster. It wouldn’t be long before its superior enchantments replaced the more traditional competition. There were still a few mercenary thieves who considered such things cheating, and there was a certain argument for it - there had been cases where automated enchantments had gotten stuck in endless, unwinnable loops and forced their users to abandon them, or arguments that it cheapened modern battles from feats of prowess to glorified games of stone, spell, sabre - but those voices were dying out with time. For now, the goods were still pricey enough that only the big companies could afford them.

He started for the basic armor section by default, then paused as he realized this job must have clearance for almost anything. He could try out some of the fancy stuff he’d never had the chance to touch, let alone wear. He double checked the scroll. Class B, difficulty 8. Bd8. He suddenly felt very out of his depth. He’d occasionally been along for a class C, most around difficulty 3, and once on a Cd4. If anything, Ziv had downplayed it.

With a glance at the sandglass on the wall, he forced himself to stay calm and keep moving. He still had to get out to the warehouse for the less personal supplies, ideally with enough time to get home and change before the meeting.

While it would have been more convenient for everything to be stored in one place, space in the Eight Towers wasn’t cheap. And the sheer quantity of recharges and patches and other relatively mundane supplies the company ran through would present a security risk if they were constantly being moved in and out. Only the most valuable and irreplaceable items were held in the armory.

Speaking of irreplaceable… with his job’s new clearance, Kas checked out the biggest pocket storage they had, the smooth glass of its interface fitting snugly against his forearm as it adjusted itself. He tapped the activation sequence and a grid appeared in his mind, spreading out like a massive tiptile board. Each grid section contained a recessed cube into which he could drop items. The front consisted of the standard hundred for common consumables like recharge or patch, then another fifty sized for medium-large objects - such as the AutoSlash which he deposited immediately. Unlike Ziv, Kas didn’t plan to wander the city fully armed.

Both of those were fairly standard, though the front section had additional layers he could cycle through with a thought, bringing its total slots up to a thousand.. But beyond those, as he mentally scrolled through the alternate-dimensional space, he found the storage area stretching on seemingly infinitely. There were sections large enough to fit any appliance, some big enough to fit the largest beds, then more so huge he thought you could probably set up a comfortable apartment inside. He probably had enough storage space to fit the entire tower, if it were deconstructed into appropriately-sized pieces.

“‘Scuse me,” growled an unfamiliar voice, snapping Kas out of his reverie. He blinked away the interface and glanced up to see a hugely muscled woman in tight silversteel armor, arms crossed. He was taller than her, but not by much, and he felt unreasonably intimidated as he backed out of the center of the aisle to let her by. It wasn’t until she tapped out the MasterBlade StarSpark and sheathed it across her broad back that his mind put together her appearance with the name on his list.

Darika ‘Silverheart’ Midovra, the sort of heavy fighter who could tear through anyone and anything. Classified for Ad20 missions, she only worked a few days a month and still made more than Kasimir did in a year. Not that he envied her or anything, of course. Her presence here made him feel even more out of place. No wonder they had him running supply, if they were bringing in people like the Silverheart.

Kas desperately tried to think of something casual and comradely that would make her see him as a fellow serious and valuable asset, but nothing came to mind.

“Hi,” he said feebly, his mouth strangely dry. He swallowed. “You’re coming on a Bd8?” He regretted it immediately. Stupid question.

“B teams are already booked out of the city today,” she said, strapping spiked pauldrons over her shoulders that gleamed with expensive enchantments. “Short notice, overtime pay, might be fun doing something easy for a change.”

“Right. Yeah. Same for me.”

She chuckled, not unkindly, but he felt his face heat regardless. “Yeaaah.”

“I mean, maybe not exactly the same,” he mumbled, turning away. “Nice meeting you.”

To his surprise, he felt a hand on his shoulder. “You’ve got potential, kid,” the Silverheart rumbled softly. “You’ll find your chance, and when you do, take it. No regrets, no looking back.”

Kas turned and stared as she walked away, too overwhelmed to know how to react. Then he noticed the sandglass and cursed. He’d have to run if he was going to make the 11:20 to the warehouse.

Accessories aside, armour was individually fitted - no difficult choices there. Kas raced across to the changeroom, checked out his Class C issue armour and strapped it on. No shining silversteel for him, just basic enchanted leather. He’d probably have to steer clear of being hit by spells - including, he thought with a gulp, friendly fire - but it would take a few hits from most non-magical defenses. Ziv would grill him about it, but a wax was out of the question.

“Hey, your waivers!” Bet waved a coil of scrolls at him as he raced past the front desk. He found himself skidding comically to a halt, almost tripping over his own feet. The danger of having enhanced speed spelled into one’s work boots.

“That… would have been bad,” he admitted, accepting the bundle and dropping it straight into storage.

“Heading to the warehouse?” Bet queried, eying the interface on his arm. “Exactly how are you planning on getting in without ID?”

Kas cleared his throat, making a concerted effort to still his twitching feet. “Um. The generosity and goodwill of the staff on duty?”

“Hmm. That would be nice. I’ll relay ahead and let them know you’re coming.”

“Bet, you are definitely my favourite person in the universe right now.”

It might have been his imagination, but he thought a flush of colour might have risen up the receptionist’s cheeks. “Multiverse.”

Yes, definitely a blush. “...what? No, nevermind. Have to rush. Thanks again!”