The city pulsed and danced, with lights from the earth striking the sky with every color, and yet nothing about this seemed… well, alive. How can something so pretty be this empty?
I closed my eyes and breathed in to distract myself. As I did, just for a moment, the world seemed silent. Ultima City, a place known for its active and bright environment, day or night, took a long breath as if it was exhausted as I was. Moments like these were the best. Like the world were to stop talking and listen for once. To take a second to realize what really matters. If only-
Opening my eyes, I raised my hand to my forehead to find a drop of water. Rain. Just like that, as the rainfall began to build like a drum roll drowning out the silence, the noise of the city crescendoed to fill the void as well. Sirens wailing, cars honking, engines revving, and people hustling were all brought back to life.
Damn, just a bit longer.
But there wasn’t time. There was a job to do. Keep watch of the perimeter… I should probably think through how I should-
No, not yet. Focus on this first.
Quite the view, if you asked me. But even taller buildings were among the cityscape from what I could see; still making me feel small as ever. I looked off over the ledge of the building I was currently standing on. From this vantage point, I could see the opera house’s roof roughly four hundred feet below me. Usually, heights wouldn’t bother me as much. Only now, the rain would bring the risk of slipping off the edge of the building. But, of course, anybody could fall off if they weren’t careful enough.
My kind of profession came with an essential requirement: Be prepared for anything and wait in the shadows for the opening...
“Hey, kid. All clear up there?”
It was a woman. The voice came from the receiver inside my helmet. It was on the ground beside me for now so I could get fresh air.
Most likely Nix was speaking.
The communicator’s range could only go so far, so being able to tell who was speaking on the other end was tricky. Being so high up and having many others patched into this back-channel for the mission was probably the cause for it. Interference was to be expected.
Once again, she spoke, “Hey. You alive? Pick up.”
Before I could answer, a different voice joined the coms, this one male, “Think he got cold feet?”
“The prick probably turned tail and ran.” another voice said.
“Ooo- If that’s true, can we kill him?”
Jeez. It was the other members, but I couldn’t determine who each was. These guys were not to be taken lightly. If they could and found a good reason, they would easily dispose of me if they detected any hint of disloyalty.
“Apologies. Making sure everything’s all tight up here… skyline clear, heading down now,” I finally replied, with my helmet placed back on.
The opera house roof has a helipad; landing there would be the optimal choice. I took a breath. Not to calm nerves, but for tradition. To fall and take flight is something only fate can control. My legs took off launching me forward, and I leaped off the skyscraper into the darkness of the night. Wind and water enveloped my body. Even with the helmet, I could still hear the elements blowing against me as I fell.
Once at the right level, I pulled a cord on the left side of my chest and out popped webbed wings under my arms— an air-jet wingsuit hybrid. Simultaneously pressurized air from the side torso of my armor began to blow into the webs of the wingsuit. Similar air engines were lined along the sides of my legs to maintain a balance for the glide. Now acting as mini-parachutes, the fall stabilized, and I began gliding towards the opera house’s rooftop.
The stream of air let out a constant loud hiss from the engines. This entire spectacle would be easily noticed in a silent field in broad daylight. Luckily, I glided swiftly undetected, thanks to the night, rain, and noisy city atmosphere.
Before reaching the roof, I pointed my feet towards the incoming ground and pressed the inside of my palm three times. The wingsuit retracted, and the air-jet engines around my body gave a final powerful push downward, including from my boots this time. My body descended slowly, hovering above the concrete only a few feet below. With another three clicks, the jets shut off, and I landed with my feet hitting the landing pad.
No matter how often I perform that stunt, my brain shakes from the concentration and accuracy it takes. I mentally took a bow and hurried over to the other side of the roof. A group of three figures was standing near an elevator popping out of the top of the building. All were watching me, making my way towards them with cold eyes. A few members of the Skulls. The Midnight Clan.
A big brutish man from the bunch stomped forward as I reached them. His hair waved like a mane and moved against the wind like a lion. He wore a tactical vest over his heaping muscle of a body with twin pistols at each of his sides. The guy looked like a villain from one of those classic action movies.
“What was the hold-up, Star?” he growled, “Any longer, and I would’ve had to drag you down here to beat you sen-
“Easy, Zhivago,” said the girl standing behind him. “He’s here now. That’s what matters.”
“Nahhh, ever since this little ant weaseled his way into this clan, I’ve had nothing but suspicions for him… gives me the creeps.”
“That’s too bad. I thought I made a good impression,” I jested.
“Listen, pipsqueak, we don’t screw around in this group, especially on the job. So either get here on time or answer when we call. Got it, runt?” he said, planting his sausage for a finger on me.
“I was busy, and I did answer. Sorry that you can’t trust me right now. I’ll be sure to earn it. But lay a finger on me again, and I’ll do more than ‘beat you senseless.’”
Zhivago took a step forward and was now towering over me, looking down. “This guy… Look, I’m not asking again. What were you up to?”
I haven’t said much to him over the months we’ve been together, but my quiet personality didn’t sit well with him. When I would speak, he would tsk or accuse me of something. So from the get-go, we weren’t exactly simpatico. I wouldn’t say the others got along with him either, but it was more along the lines of trust that emanated from their relationship with him—bonds thicker than blood, “honor among thieves,” and all that jazz.
However, Zhivago’s boastful and violent attitude always kept me wary of how I interacted with him. My thought process of how I would handle him in a fight would always come up whenever he would get more agitated than usual. In a fair fight, if I were to survive, I’d still have a hard time and come out with a few broken bones. One would think that keeping your mouth shut around him would help, but that seemed to piss him off even more. Of course, being new and all, the ‘silent-guy’ approach wasn’t helping. But he didn’t like it when I talked either…
Man, this guy sucks.
As I was about to answer, the same girl from earlier stepped in between Zhivago and me. She was also the same voice hailing me on the skyscraper. She went by the name Nix. She had a slim toned body, minimal gear, hair cut short, and a Bowie knife at her side.
“Alright, boys, enough with the measuring contest.”
“I, too, have my doubts,” spoke the third member of our trusty roof team who stepped forward. Crono. He wore a leather jacket and black jeans with no visible weapons on him or any gear of sorts for that matter. His outfit was a bit too casual for my taste; I would be underequipped and feel naked. To come unarmed would be more than crazy, but he didn’t come off as a risk-taker. I’ve never personally seen him in action, but I was willing to bet he has some form of arsenal under that jacket. Crono’s face was hidden behind a black mask with long hair reaching his ears. “What exactly were you doing up there?”
“Christ, we don’t have the time,” Nix groaned.
“We got plenty. Say I killed this ant right now. We could get this job without any trouble and with time to kill at that,” Zhivago said, still glaring at me.
“You know why we can’t. Not without the boss's approval. Besides, he’s not here cause we need him exactly-”
“Let him answer the question,” Crono interrupted, “What exactly were you doing up there.”
With this, the group awaited my reply, willing to put off this mission if it meant testing my loyalty. Would they even believe anything I said? To say I took a moment to breathe in the fresh air seems stupid- which was the truth. Makes it seem like I was slacking off- which I technically did.
But I did take care of my end with time to kill, so I took advantage of that. So should I lie, trying to pass it off, or be honest with a vague-sounding answer? It looks like Zhivago was ready to kill me regardless of what I said. The air was now tense and cold. I straightened my shoulders, went for a hail-mary, and removed my helmet.
Until now, no one from the Skulls had seen my face. I was never bothered with how I looked, but I made a point to keep my identity to myself. Even so, I used the helmet primarily for its interface to help with navigation, night vision, etc. So when I took it off on the job and if some random poor soul looked at my face… they wouldn’t live to remember it. But I had to make a bold move to show my resolve. I had to regain their trust.
“I checked the roofs and skies for hostiles—no snipers, men, aircraft, or drones. All was clear until some low-level security guard spotted me. But I took care of him easily as you were calling for me. That was the delay. Satisfied?”
Silence still remained, but this time it was different. The group’s reaction was more focused on my face reveal rather than my answer, which was a lie. Nix's eyes widened; she then gave a subtle smirk. Was she impressed?
Thanks, I guess.
Crono kept his gaze on me unchanged, now trying to read between the lines. Zhivago’s reaction was probably the funniest. When I lifted my helmet off, his face gaped open, taken aback as if I had removed my own head. Now there was a flabbergasted expression on his face trying to make sense of the situation.
Nix began walking towards the elevator, seemingly refocusing on the task. “Well, that was uh- that should answer that. Let’s get going.”
Zhivago shook off the moment with a grunt and followed suit. As I stepped forward, Crono spoke his mind, “You really are just a kid.” He continued staring at me with his usual calm blank expression. I couldn’t tell if he was genuinely surprised or annoyingly disappointed at my age. However, for one second, I thought I saw a hint of sadness within his eyes.
And now my hair was wet. I’ll have to wait to put my helmet back on in the elevator so my head can dry for a second. A built-in hair dryer for the helmet will be the next feature to add. The rain continued pouring down as we called for the elevator and waited.
“Final convoy dropoff in approximately six minutes, they shut off their tracking system, so that’s the last reading I got. You should have time, but be quick,” a voice from our radios warned.
“Got it, on our way,” Nix replied, using an earpiece.
“Now remind me, we go in there, steal the gem from the crate, go back up the elevator, and meet the others at the side of the building while the convoy arrives to enter the storage room. Right?” Zhivago asked, scratching his head.
“If all goes according to plan, yes,” Nix said.”
“Great. Now you’ve jinxed us,” Crono mumbled.
“I didn’t jinx us.”
“If neither of you had mentioned the word jinx, we would’ve been fine,” I added.
“I think short-stuff is trying to say that by saying the word jinx, you jinx yourself a hundred percent guaranteed. But regardless, we’re fine. There’s no such thing as a jinx anyway,” huffed Zhivago.
“And there’s the nail on the coffin,” I chuckled.
“You drillbit. Now we’re done for,” Crono spat.
“I didn’t take you for the superstitious type,” Nix smiled as she checked her gear.
“Not really, but it's different on missions. I don’t leave anything to chance nor do anything to hinder our luck.”
“Hmf, I make my own luck!” boasted Zhivago.
“I just don’t get why we couldn’t steal it from the convoy.”
True. Nabbing it before reaching its final destination would’ve been the smoothest choice. But the ‘boss’ had just set his eyes on this particular prize recently. So we had to improvise real quick. And going in guns blazing was out of the question. All the container shipments were relatively the same size with no name displayed, so our next bet was the manifest.
Nix took a sigh and turned to the rest of us. “We don’t know which crate the gem would be in, so unless you wanted to attack forty or so trucks in broad daylight, we needed them grounded in one location. We also couldn't use a magnetometer since the crate themselves are made of an alloy too dense to search from afar. Using the manifest we just obtained will make locating it a lot easier. But once all delivered here, this entire place was locked down with a mini-army patrolling it like hoes on Santa.”
“Until now, when most of the guards are off to bring the final and most important piece for this auction,” I chimed.
“Exactly. Essentially leaving the nest for us to make our score.”
The elevator arrived had now arrived. We stepped in, then descended to the storage room.
“Why this gem? Wouldn’t the boss want this last piece? The best of the best?” Zhivago pondered.
“Who knows. I figure he has something in mind. His eyes see more than now. Even so, stealing this one is the stealthiest choice.”
“I just don’t like going through all this trouble to leave home with some second-best trinket.”
“Watch it, Zhivago. The boss knows what he’s doing. Don’t dare doubt him,” Crono said coldly.
“That’s not what I said. Believe me; he’s not the one I doubt.”
I was busy patting my head dry to place my helmet back on for the moment, but I could tell Zhivago was giving me the side-eye.
“So no cameras should be down there, right?” I asked.
“Yup. Not one. This building is owned by the same mafia running the auction. With the cops paid off, their own private military at guard, and no cameras or major security systems, they can guarantee their business goes undetected along with anonymity for their guests,” Nix answered.
“Well, that’s about to bite them in the ass. What a joke. No cameras, and then sending off most of the crew,” said Crono.
“That’s cause no one would be bold or stupid enough to attack these high-rolling crooks.”
“That’s us. Bold and stupid. BAHAHAHA!” Zhivago laughed.
“Ugh, you’re too loud,” Crono said, covering his ears.
“What was that?”
“Quite down some. We might be going through occupied floors,” Nix said.
“Wish we could steal some more shiny jewels to sell,” Crono said.
“Hopefully, there’ll at least be some guards to have fun with,” Zhivago grinned, cracking his knuckles.
“We’re here on business, not to have fun. Only if the situation calls for it will we strike them full force,” Nix said.
Suddenly a new voice breached our coms— one with the sound of a crowd in the background.
“I hope you didn’t forget about us,” a new male voice spoke, “People are starting to pour in, some guards out front and in the lobby, but nothing too dramatic. We also saw two patrol cop cars stationed out front. Most likely paid off, redirecting uninvited guests.”
“Almost there,” I alerted Nix.
“Stay sharp, Vic. We’re nearing the prize,” Nix spoke into the coms.
Instantly, the atmosphere changed. While placing my helmet back on, the rest of us began making our final prep and ammo count. Those of us with gear other than weapons checked our persons had them on and ready. I looked at the screen displaying the levels. We were a floor away now.
“Zhivago the light-”
In an instant, Zhivago literally punched out the light on the elevator's ceiling, now creating darkness to mask our presence. I tapped the side of my helmet, activating my night vision.
“The shipping number is Zero-Six-Seven according to the manifest. If labeled, the item name is 'Rotas Core.' However, a hundred and fourteen items are being auctioned tonight, so the crate we’re looking for should be near the middle,” Crono reminded.
“Star, give us the all-clear, and on my ‘Go,’ we move,” Nix said.
The doors opened to a dark room with small red dim lights on the walls, indicating exits and fire alarms. I could see the rows of metal crates right in front of us, and to the right, the stairs and service lift to the main stage of the opera house— nobody in sight. But just to make sure…
I grabbed an item from my belt; a black sphere with circular dimples all around its surface. I tossed it forward into the air, and the device began hovering silently, now zipping quickly all around the room. At the same time, an augmented screen in my helmet began to show further past what I could see even with night vision.
Mapping Orbs. They scan your chosen environment and provide a 3-D map for you to save and use. This made them far more accurate and versatile than x-ray-like readers. They work best in enclosed spaces, are undetectable by most sensors, and could be remote controlled to move where you’d like it. Mine is set to fly automatically, filling the entire room and searching for other pathways along with any armed hostiles. I also had it programmed to feed the map directly into my helmet’s screen, giving me an augmented view of the entire room and all its entities. The whole room was laid out in front of me like a hologram. All I had to do was turn my head, and I could see the corners of the storage area without poking my head out the door.
There were no guards, motion detectors, or traps of any kind. I look to Nix and nod, giving the all-clear. She responds in kind.
We all move out, scanning the room, crouching down for safe measure, walking through the crates towards the center. They each displayed a number, and we searched until eventually all arrived at the same one— a metal container with a big sixty-seven on top. I stepped forward and used an ultra-high-pressure cutting torch to break through the metal lock. At first glance, the torch looks like an oversized pen. But believe me, you did not want to be near the tip of this thing.
The lock fell open, and I opened the crate itself. The gem we were after was supposed to be relatively small and heavy, a tad smaller than a bowling ball. The color should appear as obsidian, with bluish hues when reflected with light. Its shape circular but jagged all around. What we got wasn’t that at all. We stared into the crate, looking down at some emerald tea set.
“Pretty,” said Nix.
“But no gem,” reminded Crono.
“This is the right crate, though. Zero-Six-Seven. Why isn’t it here?” Zhivago hissed.
I closed the crate's lid back to the top, glancing more carefully at the sticker with its number.
Wolfspear Opera House.
Lot. This sticker was placed here for the auction. I crouched down to the side of the crate to confirm my suspicions. I found another number, but this one was engraved into the metal of the container itself. Zero-Nine-Two. This second number has to be the one used for the manifest. So to find ours…
“Melody, Vic,” I spoke into our coms.
“Look around the lobby. They should be handing out a pamphlet, program, or catalog of sorts for the auction.”
“Star, what’s going on?” asked Nix.
The rest looked just as puzzled, trying to understand the situation. “Look, there are two numbers, one of them for the manifest. The other was placed for the lot order,” I clarified.
“The order of the manifest was changed for the auction. So there’s most likely a list being given out for the attendees upstairs,” Crono realized. He checked with the coms "You get that?"
Victor’s voice returned, hopefully having found it, “Yeah, got it… Looks like it’s- ah- Rotas Core. Lot Fifteen. One-Five.”
As soon as we heard his answer, we moved closer to the front of the rows. Near the center, we found our box. Reading a fifteen at the top of the container and on the side: Zero-Six-Seven. Bingo. I quickly opened this one and found our gem, just as described. However, I knew just by holding the thing that this was the real deal: a peculiar item with more than meets the eye. Whether metaphorically or literally, it gave off those vibes. It was a gut feeling.
“Guys, we got it,” Nix smiled, letting the rest of our team know of our finding.
I called my mapping orb back, which was still scanning around the area for finer details. Then, before we had a chance to celebrate, the sound of multiple vehicles came from the loading dock door.
“They’re here,” Crono whispered.
“They’re early,” I added.
The storage door flew open, with armed men pulling in. There were more than thirty at first glance. A big truck followed, backing up to bring the big prize of the auction. All of the chatter and commotion was able to keep our movement muffled.
“What now? Shoot our way to the elevator?” Zhivago asked.
“That’s suicide. Shit. So much for stealth,” sighed Nix. She then spoke into the coms, “Melody, Victor. Turns out we’re going to shoot our way to the front. We’ll draw attention to the stage and house for the guards while you blend in with the panicked crowd and wait for the lobby to clear of any trouble. Plant charges along the stairs, pillars, and walls. Witcha, Silene. As soon as you hear the gunfire from outside. Take out the cops parked nearby. Anybody armed, for that matter. And Yuno, stay with the truck, ready to go.”
“Killing the cops. Think that’s a good idea?” I asked.
“What’s the problem?” Crono challenged.
“I get that they need to be dealt with, and we’re not one to worry about high bounties. But killing cops after a major heist might put them on our trail closer than we would like to. If they live, all the detectives would have to worry about is the corrupt aristocrats holding a black market auction with bought-off cops guarding them. They’ll just assume it's a turf war dispute between gangs and be satisfied from what they’ll see,” I said.
Why am I going this far to keep my hands clean? I can’t have them doubt me now. I’ve killed who knows how many before. It’s only four men. Men who broke an oath to protect and serve justice. Surprisingly Crono didn’t instigate my reasoning for caution.
“True. But we need the front covered, and we can’t risk four pigs, dirty or not, seeing anything significant. They could be scanned,” Crono argued.
He was right. Memory scanners were the new stand-in bodycams for the police force. Of course, they still recorded everything, but memories were accurate when accessed by a scanner and couldn’t be affected by any electrical interference. And the law prohibits the scanning of any citizen without consent, even in most criminal cases. Either way, I wasn’t winning this.
“You don’t want to risk the success of our mission or our lives, Darkstar?” Zhivago glared.
“Of course not. I only suggested sparing them for our sake,” I turned to him.
“Star, find a way to the higher seats to cover us from above while we go through the stage. Then, Crono, when we make it to the front entrance, help me plant more charges,” Nix ordered.
“Wait,” I grabbed small metal discs from one of my pockets and handed them to the three, “Place these on your shoulder; they’ll help track your location and assist with my aim to avoid shooting you.”
“Jeez, thanks,” Zhivago stared suspiciously at the disc.
“Just do it. We don’t have time,” hurried Crono.
We split up, crouching down to avoid detection while the loading crew was occupied with the dropoff. As the three went inside the lift to the stage, I went to the second stairway towards the left, which should lead to the side hallways near the box seats. At least, I hoped. Thanks to the orb’s map, and my memory of the building’s layout, I had a rough idea of how to get out of here.
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