(Chris Note: This was inspired by a turn of phrase, used here as the title, by my friend, writer and author J.C. Hutchins on Facebook.)
Ricard pressed up against the spire of quartz that sprung out of the ground, one of hundreds in this area. A wave of sweat began to roll down his forehead, starting at the shoreline of close-cropped brown hair he currently sported and threatening to cloud his vision as it crested in his eyes. He turned to the left and snuck a look. No Realm Guards seemed to be around him, but the spires were packed so tightly together he could never be sure. Checking his wrist map he saw he was about 500 yards from the vault, but the going was so slow here it could take him the better part of a day to get there.
Tentatively, he moved in the direction of his goal. With his hair and clothes as they were now he looked like a Realm citizen but in truth he was a native of the Out Lands, a territory populated by the dregs of society. Not outlaws and terrorists, as the Realm news feeds would have its citizens believe, but those who had either willingly or not been excommunicated from Realm society. Sometimes it helped to be incognito in Realm-controlled areas, sometimes less so. Earlier parts of his plan called for him to blend in as much as possible, something to which Ricard could easily do with minimal effort. Now the time for subterfuge was past. If he were found by Guards here it wouldn’t matter. No one was permitted to be here.
The vault he was going toward had been placed here precisely because the spires, which could rise up to 50 yards, made this area particularly inaccessible. The natural protection meant Realm government could put minimal additional security on-site and still achieve maximum security. The spires were dull at the base but glimmered closer to the peak, sending off a natural yellowish light. Ricard had flown over here in a helo on several occasions and, despite his hard-fought cynicism, had to admit it was stunning.
Hours went by of Ricard stepping behind a spire, waiting and listening for any hint of other movement, tentatively moving out from his current location and moving to the next one. It was easy to get lost in this area – Ricard knew of a half-dozen traders who had come here and never been heard from again – but he had paid top dollar for the data that now fed his wrist map and kept him moving toward his objective.
He looked down and saw he was 150 yards from the vault. As he stood stock still for what seemed like the five thousandth time that day he heard a wisp of sound, the unmistakable movement of cloth against cloth. A guard, he thought. But he couldn’t tell from where, the way sound bounced around here. He stopped his breathing and listened again. There it was. He weighed the odds of running into the guard if he stayed where he was or if he kept moving and decided it was more prudent to continue on. The window for getting in the vault was tight and he’d timed his journey as well as he could, with a bit of a cushion, but not much. Based on his current progress he was almost in the middle of that window and if he waited too long things would just get more difficult to get out.
Out of the corner of his eye as he glanced around a spire Ricard saw the muzzle of a rifle. OK, he thought, there he is. Now let’s do something about it.
Standing still he saw the guard come into view, not yet aware of the trader. Ricard stepped toward him. Suddenly the guard turned, fully aware of the trespasser. The rifle was raised but never fully got into firing position. Ricard stepped toward him, a tranq dart already in his hand. He threw it underhand and it flew through the air, landing in the guard’s left thigh, a spot uncovered by the plasti-armor that covered his torso. The guard slumped down almost immediately, the toxin in the dart quickly moving through his system and rendering him unconscious. Ricard exhaled and grabbed another dart from the belt around his waist, listening to hear if there were another. After five long minutes – five minutes his schedule didn’t really allow for – he decided the immediate threat had passed. He looked again at the wrist map and continued on toward the vault.
Two and a half hours later Ricard could see he was within a dozen yards of the vault. Only a few spires stood between him and his goal before the landscape leveled out, with about five yards of flat land leading to the doorway, which rose slightly, barely a yard, as it covered the door that lay down a dozen steps. Ricard risked moving more quickly through the last few yards of spires, knowing that he was running out of time to get what he came for and make it out. He got the edge of the spire forest and looked out. No guards seemed to be about. Taking a deep breath he jumped out and sprinted across, moving quickly down the set of stairs and coming to the door. He pressed the key button on the right side of the door, lifting the cover and exposing the rest of the screen, allowing him to punch in the access code he’d memorized on the trip here.
The door slid open and Ricard paused. He glanced over his shoulder one more time and saw no guards. Man, he thought, security here really was as lax as advertised. This trip hadn’t been easy, but he wasn’t expecting it to be this trouble-free.
A hallway stretched before him. He began walking briskly, but not running, down the 50 yards he knew lay between him and the door he needed to access. Lights came on as he moved and he flinched each time the motion sensors turned them on, feeling more and more exposed the further he got. His nerves bristled as he continued down the narrow path, the metal of the slightly-raised walkway making more noise than he was comfortable with, but there was little he could do about that.
Where was everyone, he wondered. Was this installation completely unmanned? His source hadn’t been clear on that so he’d come prepared for what he assumed would be a standard deployment, including not just an administrative staff of curators and exports on the material housed here but at least a small squad of guards. There didn’t seem to be anyone about, though, which made Ricard all the more nervous. All anticipation, no payoff.
Finally he saw “V436” on the door on the left and he knew he was where he needed to be. Opening the door required another passcode and, briefly searching his memory, he punched the necessary keys. The door creaked open as if it hadn’t been accessed in years and Ricard wondered about that. Silence unnerved him and that’s all this installation seemed to contain. He’d seen no one, he’d heard no sign of anyone in the base. He began to think there was something sinister going on.
Ricard walked through the door and, turning his head to the right he saw his objective. It was otherwise nondescript but, knowing what he came there for he was able to quickly find it amidst the various items strewn across the room. With machinery and more sitting in transparent cases on shelves around three of the room’s four walls, the item he was after could easily have been overlooked. Instead, he moved directly toward it.
His long stride crossed the room in a mere four strides and he stood in front of the shelf it sat on. It was thin, barely three centimeters thick, and the size of a small brick. Transparent, he could see nothing remarkable about it and it looked for all intents and purposes like a piece of material from a construction or repair project, a shard that should have been collected and discarded by a maintenance crew.
According to Ricard’s source, though, this was a magic sheet of glass, capable of interfacing with almost any network or system within a 1,000 yard radius. That made it a powerful tool for the Realm, something that would allow them to eavesdrop on the transmissions and activities of any citizen, Out Lander or Nether Worlder. In the hands of anyone with less legal motivations it could tip them off to Realm Guard presence, giving them warning that someone was coming. Or it could monitor Realm governmental transmissions, opening up reams of data that could embarrass officials at least if not do more political damage.
That it was here in this vault made sense. But now Ricard needed to get it – and himself – out of here. He moved back into the hallway and still saw no one in either direction. Nor did he hear any other activity in the base. Curiouser and curiouser, he thought, but there was no time for investigation, though he made a note to ask around to see if anyone in the Out Lands knew why it might be abandoned, which was certainly the impression he got.
He moved down the hallway even more quickly than he had before. His window for getting out was closing, though he still had some time. He got to the outside door and pressed the button on the communicator he wore on the vest inside his over jacket that would signal his transport. As soon as he did so he heard a ship in the distance, far too soon to be his own. He turned his head briefly in the direction it seemed to come from but then sprinted for the cover of the nearest spire. Light was sparse this late in the day and there was no illumination in this area, part of the vault’s secrecy.
He barely made it, his breathing quick but controlled, before he saw a Realm ship land on the pad behind the slight bulge in the land that formed the doorway. As the engines shut down 20 Realm troops, the real deal, not just the lightly-armed guards like the one he’d encountered on the way here. Each one, Ricard saw, carried a fire pack on his back and they walked quickly toward the doorway he himself had just exited. There was no way he was getting out of here now, he thought, and reached once more to his communicator and canceled the remote call to his ship.
The spires loomed over him and he considered alternative exit strategies. He had enough supplies on him that he could walk out the same way he came in, though it wasn’t the ideal. Looking behind him he was coming to peace with that option since in another 10 minutes his window would close for the ship to get out undetected, taking advantage of a weakness in Realm monitoring he’d been briefed on.
Suddenly his head snapped back in the direction of the vault as he heard a series of loud pops, a sound that was unmistakable to him as belonging to those fire packs sported by the Realm troops who had entered the base. The door remained open, though all the troops were inside and through it he could see orange and yellow hues coming through it. They were burning the inside? What was going on? What had he just barely escaped? The Realm wanted this place to disappear, he thought, and he was almost among the damage.
There was no time to mull this further and he didn’t have the time to wait until what seemed to be a mop-up operation was completed to investigate on his own. He needed to move, and move now. He looked at his chrono and thought a curse on this whole operation. The guard he’d encountered before and drugged into sleep should be out for another six hours, he calculated, and if luck favored him he wouldn’t cross the same path he’d taken on the way in. His attention turned away from the fires being started in the vault and the mystery of what exactly the Realm wanted to make disappear and began the long trek back through the spires.
Once clear of them on the other side he’d be able to call his ship again and get out undetected. This wasn’t ideal, but he now knew the alternative was being captured or killed by Realm troops, so he decided luck was on his side. Ricard knew this activity, whatever it was, would never make the official news feeds. This was a secret installation, after all, but he thought to ask some of his less-than-official contacts what they had heard when he got back to the Out Lands. With a mental sigh he looked at his wrist map and began the long walk out, the item he’d plucked from the vault safely tucked in an inside pocket, waiting to be sold for a reason he ultimately didn’t really care about.