Chapter 2:

Everything That Can Go Wrong

EXIT POINT: Homeworld

The descent from tower-level skyway to storage-level streets wound in dizzying loops and always made Kas wish he had a stronger constitution. Grateful he hadn’t eaten much, he clung to the siderail and closed his eyes, focusing on breathing until the descent stopped and the zipcar levelled out into a straight line. The streets all had sharp corners requiring slowing the zipcar and advance switching to ensure the tracks were aligned properly, which made the lower levels altogether inferior.

The storage level was anything but sleek, everything from the zipcar tracks to the buildings looming up on either side rough and worn from uncountable years of use. The tower bases weren’t kept clean like the upper spires, allowing grime to conceal their brilliant colours and blur everything into greys and browns.

He saw a few more of those stupid ‘RISE UP’ posters plastered across the walls as he walked up the ramp to the warehouse, and dropped them into storage to dispose of later. There were people who enjoyed ranting on about the alleged class differences between those who lived in the upper floors of towers and those below, but Kas didn’t believe it could be as bad as all that.

If the posters were to be believed, there was a great rebellion growing in the shadows of the spires. But from what Kas remembered from his school days, playing at ‘overthrowing the tippies’ had never been more than childish ignorance and naive arrogance. Even if life was unfair to some people based on who their parents were, a call to violence was never going to solve anything.

The Elurium company warehouse sat in the eighth floor of a towerbase, and Kas definitely would never have been admitted without his ID if Bet hadn’t called ahead. He had to pass a rigorous inspection, comparing his mageprint to the one Bet had sent over, before being admitted. He’d have sworn the weedy man at the inspection gate dragged the process out deliberately, clearly uncaring about the urgency of the situation.

Finally the guard handed him a visitor pass, and Kas ran inside. Instead of wide curved windows to let in the multihued light from countless spires, the warehouse was lit by flickering light orbs hanging at intervals across the ceiling. Kas unrolled the requisition order and checked the quantities, helpfully labelled with their location in the seemingly endless shelving.

Each section of the warehouse had different wards, ensuring he couldn’t casually wander into the higher security storage. Even the ‘common’ items were expensive, and Elurium owned a lot of them.

Kas glanced at his requisition order as he reached the basic consumables section, filling half of each of his first three layers of his pocket storage with the 150 recharges allocated, then moved on to patches and feelers and surgers. He moved as fast as he could, but there was only so much time to be saved when collecting hundreds of items, and he felt intensely conscious of time passing.

What kind of security were they anticipating to need that many recharges for? Kas could break into almost anything he’d encountered on two at most. Add a few surgers to help confuse the wards, and ten should be enough to get through anything. Maybe he didn’t really understand high end security as well as he thought.

When finally he’d finished collecting everything, he hurried out. The guard stopped him, insisted on inspecting the visitor pass before finally waving him through.

Kas made it halfway to the zipcar terminal before someone barred his way.

“Excuse me, I’m very busy,” he said, surreptitiously tapping his pocket storage on in case he needed a weapon in a hurry. You never knew in the dark depths of the old city, where no security orbs patrolled.

“You just came from that storage depot,” the stranger said, voice low and rough, obviously exaggerated to conceal his identity. “So you must have something good in there.” He pointed to Kas’ arm, indicating the pocket storage.

“Not mine, only on loan,” Kas said. He dropped the AutoSlash into his waiting hand, letting the tug of its enchantments guide his hand into a guard pose. He relaxed into his stance, the blade gleaming white with power, starkly visible in the dimness.

The would-be robber backed up a step, clearly unnerved, but didn’t turn to leave. He glanced around, then seemed to draw courage from the emptiness of the street. “So you got a fancy sword. That doesn’t mean nothing. I can still drop you before you have time to blink.”

Kas snorted. “I doubt that. If you were capable of doing so you already would have.” Besides, anyone with that kind of skill would be in high demand. Perhaps not at a prestigious company like Elurium, but certainly at one of the lesser companies that worked mainly from the mid layers.

The man clenched one fist, and then it was Kas’ turn to reconsider. Power flared to life around his hand, crackling like vibrant green lightning,

He wasn’t bluffing. Kas didn’t even know what kind of spell would give off so much energy, but he certainly didn’t want to be on the wrong side of it.

But he couldn’t imagine his life being anything but over if he surrendered any of Elurium’s supplies to a hoodlum. Ziv had made it clear how much they had to lose if this job went bitter, and Kas did not want to be the cause.

Sometimes he wished he’d bothered to pay attention in warding class. All he’d cared about was breaking them, not creating them. Even a personal ward was too slow and unwieldy to be worth learning, he’d thought. The constant drain of upkeep for something that you were unlikely ever to need? No thank you. But that did leave him without recourse when facing an opponent capable of flinging spells at a distance.

His arm vibrated as the AutoSlash tried to pull him to a new position, but he’d tensed up too much. Kas forced himself to relax, the sword aimed out at the stranger, its tip dancing in small cycles as it tracked the spell. Perhaps the enchantments on the blade could absorb or deflect the attack. That was his best hope now.

“Really, you don’t want to hold out on me,” the stranger growled. “Drop the sword and I’ll let you go.”

Kas felt the sword tug him and moved with it, striding into a quick lunge that forced the assailant to retreat. The blade flicked to the side, nicking the man’s hand and dispelling the magic gathered there. It hissed sharply as it dispersed, sparks of green light exploding in all directions. Kas danced backward, the sword’s guidance getting him out of the way before a single spark could touch him.

Kas glanced down at the sword with admiration. He’d used the QuickStrike regularly before, but this next generation was something else altogether.

“Last warning,” Kas said, taking a step forward. “Leave and don’t bother me or anyone else from Elurium if you value your life. Or your bank balance, for that matter.” After all, every good mercenary-thieving company knew a hit to the finances could hurt as much one one to the vitals.

That seemed to be enough. The man ran, clutching his injured hand, and disappeared into the shadows.

Kas dropped the AutoSlash back into the pocket storage, then took off running toward the terminal. Alas, the sandglass read 12:49; he’d have to wait for the 13:00. He paced anxiously, but nothing he did could make the zipcar come sooner.

“Hey, Elurium boy!”

Kas spun, the voice startling him from his worry. The mugger was back, this time with two friends. They spread out slowly, weapons at the ready, and Kas knew if they surrounded him even the AutoSlash wouldn’t be enough to save him.

“I really don’t have time for this,” Kas snapped.

Why today? He’d made pickup runs through this station dozens of times and never been accosted before. Why did everything have to go wrong the one day he was on such a tight schedule?

Kas pulled out the AutoSlash and backed against the nearest wall, hoping the zipcar would arrive before the thugs could do anything. He glanced up at the corner of the terminal, where a monitor orb ought to be hovering. It lay on the ground, dim and lifeless. Turning a relay broadcast on the trio would likely have deterred them - but no, even that option was out of reach.

Blud take them!

Unfortunately, the thugs were aware of their rapidly approaching deadline and seemed just as eager to get on with things as Kas was to delay. The original mugger brandished his hand, now sporting a patch, and power began to gather. This time he was too far away for Kas to disrupt the spell, and lunging for him would leave him vulnerable to the others.

The two newcomers spread out to either side, staying out of reach of his blade as they readied their own weapons.

“Why are you doing this?”

“Didn’t I say? For your stuff. Hand it over and you can go.”

“It’s not mine to give. I can’t afford to lose any of it.” Kas mentally scrolled through the pocket storage, trying to find anything he could use to get out of this. A surger might be enough to knock the spell out of control, judging by how easily it had fallen apart the first time. He’d have to reimburse Elurium, but that was a small price to pay. He glanced down the track. Still no sign of the zipcar.

“I know there’s no way to get items out of that thing so long as it’s tuned to you,” the mugger on the right blustered, pointing his heavy clobber stick in Kas’ direction, “but you don’t need much more than an arm and a head to make it spit out its goodies.”

Kas was no stranger to threats of physical violence, but from what he could see these people moved with forced confidence, intending to terrify, exaggerated rather than genuine. It all felt like bravado, trying to show off how tough they were to each other, trying to shock the rich visitor into folding. Kas wasn’t easily shocked, and as far as thugs went these rated pretty poorly compared to most he’d seen. If they knew what they were doing, he’d never have escaped the first one.

But even if they were only second-rate at best, they could still hurt him. He could definitely hold off any one of them, probably two, but three was a bit much for a support thief. Ordinarily he’d be in a group with a dedicated guardian to protect the more specialised personnel. He simply wasn’t equipped to take on--

“And what exactly is going on here?” a strident female voice demanded, freezing all four men in surprise. Kas had never been so happy to see a mysterious stranger step out of shadow, hands on her hips. She was short, dressed all in grey apart from a black band strapped across her chest, with bare arms that clearly showed the strength of hard labour.

“Nothin’,” grumbled the mage, extinguishing his hand in a flare of green sparks. “Nothin’ at all.” He skulked away into the shadows, his two friends scurrying after.

“They’re getting bolder,” she said, walking toward Kas. “One more way our city is failing us. It’s not safe to wander alone.”

“I wasn’t wandering, I was waiting for the zipcar.”

The woman tilted her head. “Kas?”

Kas frowned, studying her face: scarred across the cheekbone; brown hair tied back tightly; eyes a deep red that could be mistaken for brown in the right light…

“Milena? What are you--” he gaped, struggling to connect this fierce confident woman with the timid girl he’d once known. “How…?”

“Someone has to keep the streets safe.” She tapped the black strip across her chest. “If tippers don’t care, then it’s up to us.”

Something teased at Kas’ mind, and he pulled the rebellion posters out of the pocket storage. RISE UP, printed in grey, with a solid band of black beneath, followed by the usual propaganda.

“You thinking about joining the cause?” Milena asked, misinterpreting his interest.

Kas shook his head. “I hadn’t imagined you as being the rebellious sort.”

“It’s not about rebelling, it’s about forcing them to listen. And unfortunately there are very few people down here with enough influence to make them care. So if we don't have the 'right' people, we'll have to make up for it in numbers."

"It'll never work."

Milena shrugged. "Never know until you try. Would you rather lie down and let them walk all over you?”

“No one’s walking over me. I chose the life I wanted. It’s a free world.”

“Then you’re fortunate. Not everyone can do that.” She tucked a page into his hand, a folded paper of the same bland style as the posters. “If you ever decide you’re ready to change the world, come find me.”

The zipcar pulled into the terminal, drawing Kas’ attention. By the time he thought to look back to thank Milena for saving him, she’d already gone.

Kas spent the return trip lost in thought. He almost didn’t notice the dizzying spiral as the zipcar climbed back up to the skyway. Milena had joined the rebellion. And she was seriously impressive. He’d never been interested much in the shy withdrawn girl who always hovered around the edges of his social circles. They’d gotten along well enough, but Kas had never seen her as someone with the right sort of potential. Now, she had more than potential. She had power and confidence and a certain sharpness to her he couldn’t help admiring.

If only she didn’t want to burn down the city, they might have gotten along well.

As lost in thought as he was, he almost missed his stop, jumping out at the last minute when the warning buzz of the back closing alerted him. Earning him a scowl and curse from the second zipcar attendant of the day.

“Sorry!” Kas called as he took the stairs two at a time down to the skyway’s walking path, sprinting for home.

The sandglass on his wall read 13:24 when Kas stepped inside. He winced. He’d lost track of time, and now there was no way he’d make it to the meeting on time.

Something squished underfoot. “Kkkkk!!” Miri snarled, her tails lashing as she tugged her paw free.

“How many times do I have to tell you, the welcome mat is not your bed!” Kas grunted, running to the tumble cube to grab the clean tunic. Miri ran from him with an exaggerated limp, disappearing into his bedroom where he knew she’d make a mess while he was gone. “It was an accident!” he shouted, unbelting and throwing the dirty tunic in the general direction of the hamper as he did so. The replacement was still slightly damp, but that was the least of his worries.

He grabbed his company ID and clipped it to his belt loop, stuffed his relay orb - blinking with several missed calls - into his pocket, and stuffed his toolkit into the pocket storage, then paused only long enough to run his eyes across the room in case he’d forgotten something else. Nope, that should be everything.

He hurried back up the stairs to the skyway, pulling on his tunic as he ran.

“Not a good look,” he muttered to himself, scowling at the sky. “Your one big chance and you somehow manage to do everything wrong.”

As soon as he was safely ensconced in the 13:40 heading east, he pulled out the relay orb to see what he’d missed while he was out.

“Hey, Kas, it’s Jarom. You did say 11 at 1012 Blue Spire, right? See you soon.”

Kas exhaled slowly. He’d completely forgotten to inform Jarom of his change in plans, rushing off without a second thought.

“Hey Kas, Jarom again. You remember that we planned to meet today? Just checking. You’re usually good with schedules, but, well, you’re also not here yet. Rel soon.”

“Kas, what’s going on? This isn’t like you. Rel me.”

He squeezed the orb once, then mentally selected Jarom’s link. It hummed for almost a minute before his brother activated the relay.

“Hey, Jarom, I’m really sorry about today, something came up at work last minute.”

“Kas, you’re alive! Praise the Firebird.”

“Yes, yes,” Kas said, acknowledging the semi-sarcastic rebuke in his brother’s tone. “I’m sorry. I forgot my relay and was accosted by robbers, so I very nearly wasn’t alive.”

“Robbers? Aren’t you supposed to be the only robbers in town?”

Kas rolled his eyes. “Mercenary thieving is nothing like robbery. It’s entirely respectable, whereas robbery is crude and vulgar.”

“So you’ve said. Look, I won’t be in town past today, are you getting out of work soon?”

“Not likely. Big job.” He saw the eastern 42nd terminal coming into view. “Got to run. I’ll rel you after, promise.”

“Alright. Kas -” His brother paused, though only for a moment. “I was worried about you today. Be careful.”

“I will.” Kas ended the relay and tucked his orb back in his pocket just as the zipcar pulled into the terminal. He sprinted across to the connected track heading further southeast, which thankfully was running on time. Zipcars rarely diverged from their strict schedules, but given his misfortune today he would not have been surprised if it had.

He started slipping on armour pieces - again - as the vehicle hissed into motion, glancing uneasily at the sandglass. If he hadn’t needed to stop back at home, he could have been right on time. Of all the days to forget everything. He’d have been willing to show up covered in ziga hair if that had been the only issue, but he needed his tools and relay and ID.

As soon as he arrived at the nearest terminal to the meeting point, he set off jogging, wanting to sprint but resisting the urge. He’d be late no matter what he did, and showing up panting and out of breath would only make him look worse. He straightened his tunic, strapped the AutoSlash to his side, and turned the corner.

Meeting a client had certain protocols. While there was nothing wrong with hiring a mercenary thief crew to obtain something of one’s rival’s, it was considered in poor taste to be seen doing so. Therefore, meeting points had to be established for discrete handoffs. More often than not, a client would never even set foot near the licensed headquarters, but instead use relays and covert gatherings.

Likewise, when setting out to perform a job, one simply did not move straight from the office toward the target in a group. Targets with something to hide tended to invest in counter-surveillance. Obvious manoeuvres gave them warning and time to prepare.

Unluckily for Kas, today’s meeting point was over half a sand away from his home, which meant he’d kept the team waiting for almost a full third. He wasn’t sure where he’d lost all the time, between lingering in the armoury and the delay getting in and out of the warehouse, and waiting for zipcars… yeah, today had it out for him.

“Kasimir.” Ziv didn’t say anything more, but her voice and look spoke volumes. Kas' feigned confidence wilted immediately.

“I’m ready.” Kas looked around at the assemblage, the youngest of whom must have been eight years older than him at the least, and none whose equipment didn’t outstrip his own by several quality tiers. He swallowed, suddenly feeling very small and very insignificant.

“Target is Maesik 3, upper level. Officially, it’s a private research consultancy, but it’s owned by the head of Varknirtek.”

Kas stared out toward the Maesik Spires, stunned. Varknirtek held over 60% of magetech patents to have come out in the past decade. If its head researcher was conducting some private enterprise on the side, it had to be good. No wonder Elurium chose to bring such a big team.

“There are decoy facilities all across the city, but the client is certain the object we’re after is in this one. We have no idea what it is, so grab anything that looks heavily shielded. Kas, that’s where you come in.”

She waved over a pair of employees, a wiry woman in her forties and a well-muscled tank of a man decked out in an absurd number of glittering enchantments. Seeing Kas’ impressed stare, the man winked at him, tapped an unassuming brooch out of a custom pocket storage amulet, and pinned it swiftly to his belt. Nothing appeared to change, although Kas wasn’t sure why he remembered being so impressed just moments ago. Of all the crew, this person was the only one who seemed to be anywhere near his own level of experience -

- in stark contrast to the thoughts he remembered having moments ago. A suspicion ran through his head, and he squinted at the brooch. “That’s a PinDrop, isn’t it?” One of the top-of-the-line stealth enchantments, its primary function was to suppress extraneous traces of magic. It probably cost half his rent for a year.

The big man grinned. “For when your statements get a little too loud. And I, I think we can all agree, am very loud. Not bad at all. Kasimir, was it?”

“This is Lazlo,” Ziv stated, cutting short any incoming pleasantries. “And his partner Agneza, both Rank B16. They’re used to working together. You’re with them.”

Something in the way she spoke gave Kas the distinct impression the brief was mainly for his benefit; that the others had already heard it while the team waited out the delay he’d caused. He swallowed and tried to mold his face into an expression of appropriate gravitas.

“Agneza is your relay specialist and safecracker,” Ziv continued. “Lazlo’s speciality is infiltration. Although in this case, the emphasis is on a smooth exit, not entrance. They will determine where you need to go and when, and protect you while you do your job. Which is to say, provide support where needed and collect the goods. Since we don’t know exactly what we’re after, mobility is key. Follow orders, keep an eye out for anything suspicious, and make sure you communicate effectively as a team.”

Kas nodded. Despite his earlier misgivings, now that the time had come, he felt a thrill at the prospective challenge. Even if he wouldn’t be breaking the defences himself, he’d never seen someone of Agneza’s level work before. At the very least, he might pick up some new tricks.

“For the rest of the team, we have a mix of combat specialists and frontline wizards, enchanters, and conveyance. They will split into small groups like yours. The goal is to cover ground quickly, before a response can be raised. Your group will enter last once the way has been cleared. Teams will ask you for assistance; comply. Otherwise, stay back and let the heavy fighters deal with any resistance. Pick fights you can handle; otherwise let Agneza coordinate a targeted response. If you’re lucky, there won’t be any. But we never make assumptions. Assumptions are what lead to funerals.”

“Well, that’s a bit morbid,” Lazlo wisecracked, slapping a palm down on one of Ziv’s shoulders. Although she swayed slightly under the thump, her expression didn’t change. “If this is the pep talk you give your usual underlings, no wonder we’ve been having retention problems of late.”

“There are two kinds of retention problems,” Ziv replied flatly. She reached up to adjust her already-straight pauldron. “The kind incited by loss of morale, and the kind that comes from being dead. One of these is preferable to the other.”

Off to the side, Agneza smirked a little, only for her grin to widen once she realised she had Kas’ attention. “Can’t argue with that.”

“Speaking of funerals,” Kas mumbled, inserting himself into the semblance of becoming an active participant in this conversation, “and also morale loss, I have to ask you all to sign these liability waivers.”