EXIT POINT: Homeworld
Kas hardly dared hope they could escape without one last terrible surprise. So far the day had been one disaster after another. Yet the team reached the entry ramp without incident, emerging into the open air.
Just when the tight dread in his stomach began to uncoil, he saw the group of heavily-armed security personnel disembarking from the closest zipcar terminal and his heart sank. If it were an ordinary day, he’d assume they had nothing to do with him. Today, after having stolen some top-secret rebellion tech from the best-protected research facility he’d ever encountered, there was no way he’d believe they weren’t here in direct response.
Kas hesitated, but the others seemed untroubled as they continued toward the waiting zipcar.
The rushing security group slowed when they saw them coming, some falling into fighting stances, readying spells or weapons, others scowling or crossing arms.
“I’ll handle this,” Ziv said, glancing pointedly at Kas. Then she strode to the front of the group.
“Zivanka Doubek. Here’s my card if you have any questions.” Her tone was firm and final. She passed over a thin sheet of glass with her relay code imprinted in it, then continued past the group as though they were utterly unimportant. Kas tried to imitate her unconcern, but glanced uneasily over at the gathered reinforcements as they walked by. Nothing happened. The two groups passed each other in silence and continued on their way.
The zipcar had departed by the time they reached the terminal, but despite all their wounded and unconscious members no one seemed concerned. They sat down on benches to wait, some unequipping weapons and stowing them, others pouring extra patches over scrapes or cuts or bruises.
“How did you get them to leave us alone?” Kas asked softly, sidling toward Ziv.
“When you work in this business long enough, you get to know everybody,” Ziv replied. She looked up, met Kas' eyes with a tight glower, and he glanced away uneasily. “When we get back to the office, you and I need to talk.”
Kas nodded. He’d known this was coming, that he’d have to explain himself for holding everyone up. But today had taken more out of him than he’d known he had. His injured arm throbbed with subdued heat even through the numbing effect of the patches he’d poured over it earlier. Meanwhile, his other arm glowed with strange golden lines. He felt unsteady and exhausted, drained physically, emotionally, and magically. He felt like if he so much as sat down he would be asleep before he had time to realise it.
But the workday wasn’t over yet. Still had to file the paperwork, verify casualties, arrange for medical aid for those injured in the job. Transfer the item to the client. Easily another three or four sands of work before he could go home.
He should probably eat at some point, but right now the thought of food made him only more uncomfortable. He knew that in a few days once the excitement lingered and the pain and exhaustion had faded, he’d start to celebrate this as one of the great jobs of his life. Right now he couldn’t muster the energy.
The zipcar arrived, and the team shuffled and piled in, most looking as worn as Kas felt. This hadn’t been an ordinary job for any of them. The handful of prior passengers gave the group of battered mercenary-thieves plenty of space, clearly a bit unnerved by the obvious evidence of recent battle.
Most people knew fighting happened regularly, but not everyone had to confront it on their commute.
Kas knew he should smile, try to put on a public relations face like the Silverheart - who was signing autographs - or some of the senior employees - who smiled and nodded, though Kas could see the tightness to their forced expressions. Ziv had her relay orb out, making calls almost constantly.
They arrived at the changeover terminal uneventfully. A connected transit station held an emergency zipcar with lines of green light running down its sides to indicate its official medical status.
Ziv issued orders to move the injured and impaired professionals over.
Kas wavered, feeling he should go with them, but resisted the desire to put off talking to Ziv. It would worry at him constantly if they didn’t deal with it now. He knew his injury was bad, probably severe enough to keep him out of work for two or three days even with quality healers, but since he was the one carrying the goods they had to deal with transfer at least. Without another heavy storage available until the others woke up, he’d probably be needed all the way to the client dropoff.
Ziv stood off to the side, her relay orb hovering before her in clear indication that she was making a call. Then the emergency care zipcar pulled away and the opportunity was lost.
Kas shook off the thought. He’d made much greater sacrifices than this for his position here. He wasn’t going to give up now over something so trivial. Assuming Ziv was willing to give him another chance. They’d succeeded in the end, in no small part due to Kas' ingenuity. She’d have to take that into account. Even if he’d shown up late after she’d explicitly ordered him to be on time.
Kas winced internally. Very late. But even if the whole day had been one giant disaster, at least they’d come out of it with their objective intact. And dire news about the involvement of Maesik 3 with the rebellion.
He frowned at his arm, the golden glow of the strange relic undimmed.
He shook his head, dismissing the mental query. He wasn’t going to tamper with it any more than had already occurred. He didn’t like how it had named him the registered user. That would probably cause problems.
Then the next zipcar pulled in, distracting him from his worries. He stared out the window as they headed back to the office, letting his mind drift as the beautiful cityscape flowed past.
“Kas. Hurry up.”
The sound of his name startled him from his scattered thoughts, the fleeting dreams falling apart the moment he opened his eyes. He glanced around to see the zipcar attendant glowering at him impatiently while Ziv motioned him to disembark. He waved a sheepish apology to the former, then followed his team up the ramp toward their tower.
"Debriefing in twenty," Ziv said once they were inside. "Kas, you're with me."
Everyone else dispersed, some to the armoury to check their equipment back in, others to their desks to get started on the paperwork or jot down notes before the debrief. Kas followed Ziv into her office.
“Do you have the object?”
Kas nodded. “I think so.”
“Is it protected?”
Kas frowned, glancing at his arm. “I don’t think so.”
“There are no protections on it? No traps, no locks?”
“Oh, you mean the storage cube? It’s well-shielded.”
Ziv unfolded a glass case with a sliding lid, snapping corners on to hold it together. “Place it in here.”
Kas tapped the pocket storage to activate it, and the mental overview of the many storage boxes filled his vision. The enchanted constructs still stood in their spaces, and the heavily-protected cube sat unobtrusively in its slot. He deposited it into the case, and Ziv immediately snapped the lid closed as though she expected something to explode momentarily. Nothing did.
“Good. With that out of the way, we need to talk about you.”
“Kas. You need to take this seriously.”
“I do. This job matters to me--”
“You have so much potential. But you can’t flail about haphazardly and expect to get anywhere. You have to be purposeful with your life.”
“If it had been anyone else at your level, today would be their last day here. With jobs this serious, bungling the timing is unacceptable. Delays give quarries time to mount reinforcements. To shore up protections. Even to relocate the goods somewhere we might never find them again. We got very lucky today.”
Kas thought of the things he could say. That he’d only been trying to follow her instructions, that he’d gotten distracted selecting equipment, that he’d not realised just how long it would take to load so many consumables, that he’d been accosted by thugs and rebels. He considered, then discarded them all as pointless excuses.
He knew what she’d say. If he’d done his laundry when he started getting low rather than waiting until he had nothing clean to wear, if he’d not rushed out unprepared, he could have gotten everything done and still made it to the meeting in plenty of time.
“I understand,” he said, subdued.
“Do you? Because I feel like we’ve had this conversation before. I know you have it in you. You’re a great asset when you can get your act together. But you can’t assume someone else will always be able to clean up your mistakes.”
Kas thought of how he’d stupidly overpowered the trap by not waiting for Agneza’s warning. She was the trap expert; he was still in training. practising on his own, confident of his skills… but perhaps too confident. He’d made assumptions, ignored his team mates, and made everything worse. If it weren’t for that setback, they could probably have disabled it completely and gotten everyone out faster and with fewer injuries. If Lazlo didn’t make it, Kas doubted he’d ever forgive himself.
“I’m sorry. I know I’m impulsive and I’ll work to not make a mess of things so badly in future.”
Ziv regarded him for a long moment, then nodded. “I don’t know how much longer I can protect you. I believe in you, but I’m not the ultimate authority here. I can make recommendations and add explanations, but the ultimate decision isn’t up to me.”
“I understand. Thank you.”
“I like you, Kas. I really do. I think that in another five or ten years you could be exactly what Elurium needs. But it has to come from you. I can tell you what I expect, and as long as you think you know better it won’t do any good.”
Kas nodded. “I’ll do better.”
“Good. Is there anything else you need to tell me before the official debrief? Now, the client will be arriving in…” she checked the sandglass on the wall, “...seven grains to collect the cargo.”
“The client wants to dispense with anything that could cause delays and collect it immediately. There’s no way to conceal our presence, no way to prevent them from finding where we’ve stored it, especially after their trap left you glowing across half the city.”
Kas glanced down at his arm. He hadn’t considered the visibility factor.
Kas shook away the query and scowled. “The sooner the better. Stupid thing won’t leave me alone.”
Ziv frowned. “It’s communicating with you?”
“Yes. Notifications, like a relay interface, but more intrusive.” Kas paused thoughtfully. “I don’t think it’s a trap. Actually, I assumed it was the item we’re after.”
“You think it could be one more piece of the defence? To track whoever took the case?”
“What else would it be? It’s unusual, certainly, but so were many of the defences.”
Kas considered. Perhaps his assumptions were wrong. Perhaps his bizarre condition had nothing to do with the box’s contents, and its registry was only for its owners to track him more easily.
But that didn’t feel right to him. This was too sophisticated, too detailed, too weird to be a simple trap.
“When I put the box into storage, the glow didn’t travel with it. I didn’t get a clear look at it. It called itself a ‘Retention System’ and then absorbed most of my mana to scan for ‘Exit Points’. It… wants me to join the rebellion.”
Ziv’s forehead furrowed as she considered. “That doesn’t sound like any protection I’ve heard of.” She rummaged in her desk drawers for a moment then handed him a thick scroll. “Fill that out with as much detail as you can. You say it was left behind when you took the case?”
Kas nodded and glanced at the cube behind glass. “I’m pretty sure it’s empty now.”
“That doesn’t matter. You’re in no condition to interact with the client even if you had clearance. We’ll worry about the retention system later. See if you can disable it for now. I don’t like the idea of it having so much information about us.”
“Me neither,” Kas agreed fervently.
Ziv pursed her lips, gazing at the golden lines crossing and circling Kas’ arm. “You could be right,” she admitted. “I’ll have a talk with the client.” Then she glanced at his other arm, still held protectively against his chest. “You need to get that looked at soon.”
Kas nodded, hardly daring to hope.
“I’ll rel for a healer, but we’re going to need you at the debrief. You were the only one to get through the Delusion to the other side and the only who saw where this was held.” She tapped the glass case containing the warded and probably empty box.
Kas still wondered why its contents would have been left behind, why it would have attached itself to him so abruptly.
“Until then, check out a stability band from the armoury. That looks pretty bad and I don’t want you hurting yourself further.”