by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Olina preached respect. Respect for the culture, respect for the people, respect for the problems that might lie ahead. She had headed dozens of recovery teams, successful and unsuccessful. The successful ones succeeded because they practiced respect.
She stood in the darkness at the end of a street filled with warehouses. What lights there were seemed to have a harsh white edge, which she had not expected. She had thought the lighting in this part of Vaycehn would be yellowish gold, like the lighting she had seen in the center of town.
That was the problem with a job like this. Planned in a hurry to be executed in a hurry. Those jobs always brought their own trouble.
She liked to say she hated them, but a challenge was a challenge was a challenge, although this job was more challenging than most.
Starting with the team. They surrounded her, except for the three she had already sent to a warehouse. A dozen people, all in environmental suits at her insistence.
They had argued with her from the start, because they didn’t know her. She didn’t know them either. They were all names and resumes, unproven, at least to her. A couple of them had military experience, but most did not. They were, like her, experts in raiding buildings and ships in a variety of cultures. Only some members of the team had very little expertise, which worried her.
They were the only people available when Khelan Māhoe contacted the Amnthran authorities. He’d discovered a cache of weapons so large that it scared him, and he needed people to recover them immediately. Normally, he discovered weaponry or stolen items, and he would purchase them.
Apparently, he had tried to do that here, and had been unable. The weapons were about to be scattered throughout the Enterran Empire. The Enterrans thought the items they had were ancient and collectible artifacts, not knowing that they were, in fact, weaponry that could destroy the entire city without a lot of effort.
Olina had no idea how much her team knew. She had briefed them and Māhoe had briefed them, but no one had ever worked together before. It even showed in how they stood.
They weren’t clustered in small groups, the way that a long-time team would have been. They stood apart from each other, backs to each other as they surveyed the area.
She had taken a few steps away from them, so she was as guilty as they were. She didn’t have time to unify this team. She had only a few hours to get this job done.
Right now, they were doing reconnaissance. By the end of the evening, she should know how much work it would be to remove the weaponry.
The way that Māhoe had described it, it sounded like it would take days.
Olina wasn’t sure they had days.
Māhoe had discovered this cache when an organization called Corporate Treasures had contacted one of his aliases with an invitation to a closed auction. Māhoe had lived in the Enterran Empire for two decades now, building up aliases and contacts, which had paid off here.
Usually, using the money from the Amthran government, he would swoop in and buy every artifact at a closed auction. But the owner of these had decided to give some to universities and museums and sell the rest piecemeal. No matter what Māhoe had tried, and he claimed he had tried a lot, he was unable to buy everything.
So he had sent for a team who needed to arrive immediately. And that was why Olina was here, leading a group of people she didn’t know at all.
Right now, Māhoe and Idil Palakiko orbited the planet in a cargo ship that didn’t have quite as much speed as Olina would have liked. She had asked for a getaway vehicle, not a vehicle so large that it could be seen on all kinds of technology, old-fashioned or not.
But, if Māhoe was to be believed, they also needed a reinforced vessel made for carrying vast amounts of weaponry in its hold. She had left the purchase of the vehicle to him, because he knew how to buy things in the Enterran Empire; he also had enough identities and money to make certain that the delivery would happen quickly.
She had emphasized speed. He had gotten her the fastest cargo ship built in the Empire, with a reinforced hull.
The man didn’t listen, which meant that he had less respect for her than she would have liked.
But she tried to chalk all of that up to his experiences with previous recovery teams. She had known some of them. They had been lucky in their work, returning to Amnthra with the bits of the Spire that he had found.
Or maybe they hadn’t been lucky at all. There was an argument to be made that what she considered luck on the recovery teams’ part was simply experience on Māhoe ’s.
Olina needed to respect him, too. He had found this amazing cache of weapons all on his own and had tried to purchase all of it. Corporate Treasures had thwarted him. Nothing Māhoe had tried had changed their course. He’d also done his best, in the two weeks since he’d discovered the cache, to track down the owner of it all.
He had been unsuccessful. Or at least, unsuccessful from Olina’s point of view. Māhoe had information, but it was old, and it wasn’t possible to track down the owner in the time frame that the team had.
Her team had to recover all of the items before they were removed from a large central warehouse two city blocks away. That warehouse had been the subject of intense study for the entire team since they had arrived from Amnthra seven days before.
That was another problem. They were sliding into this operation with limited knowledge and research done by the two local agents, not basing much of it on research done by the team.
The third problem, though, was the one that worried her the most. The Enterran Empire was centuries behind Amnthra in its tech. The Empire believed that anacapa drives weren’t drives at all, but something it called stealth tech. They’d been trying to reverse engineer the stealth tech for decades, if not more, not seeing the other capabilities of the technology.
Amnthra had used anacapa drives for thousands of years. Amnthra’s tech had been based on the anacapa, left behind by an organization called the Fleet a long, long, long time ago. The Fleet had built a city and a sector base on Amnthra, and then abandoned it, as they did with all of their planet-based tech.
Amnthra’s research and study, based on Fleet technology, had placed Amnthra at the forefront of its sector on technological know-how, if not the forefront of the colonized universe.
Even the Armada, another culture similar to the Fleet (some say even derived from disaffected Fleet members), had failed to get their hands on Amnthran technology. There had been hundreds of battles fought over the tech, and each time, the Armada had lost.
At first, Olina thought perhaps this cache that Māhoe had found had been left behind by the Armada as it searched for a place to conduct research into Amnthran tech.
But Māhoe disabused her of that notion. He had shown her images of mummified dead bodies found near the cache. Those bodies wore ancient Amnthran uniforms.
Māhoe claimed there had been a theft centuries ago of Amnthran tech, by Amnthrans, who had taken it with an eye to selling it to other cultures. The items stolen had never been recovered.
He believed those items were what he had found.
Olina had no idea if any of that was true, since she hadn’t heard of that theft before she arrived here. Yet another thing she hadn’t had time to research.
No one on this cobbled-together team had any kind of expertise in the Enterran Empire. Half of them had never worked in the Empire before, and those that had had nothing but contempt for this backward militaristic culture that believed itself to be the strongest and most advanced power in the sector.
Not that the Empire had traveled far inside its own sector. It didn’t have the benefit of using a proper anacapa drive. So they couldn’t travel through foldspace. While the Empire’s drives were quick enough, they couldn’t handle the vast distances that the Fleet, the Armada, and the Amnthrans traveled often within days.
And that was pretty much what Olina knew about the Enterrans as well. She was as ignorant as her team, although she had spent the short trip here studying what she could. She had worked in the Empire before, but she had been a green recruit, following orders and avoiding the locals.
She was avoiding the locals now, as well, but now she was in charge—and not entirely happy about it. She was also worried about the local tech. Once again, it was all about respect. Her new team didn’t respect the Enterran tech.
Theory suggested that Amnthran tech would easily conquer Enterran tech. The team should be able to open any door, shut off any technology, and convince anything around them that nothing had happened during the theft itself.
But theory didn’t always work well in practice. And Olina had learned that just because other tech was outmoded or less advanced, that didn’t mean it was less effective.
Sometimes, in fact, it was harder to understand, which made it harder to overcome.
She had sent three of her tech experts (and boy, did she hope they were truly experts) to examine the exterior of the warehouse. They had already scanned it from the cargo ship, and Māhoe had readings from the space yacht he had used when he posed as a collector to examine and authenticate the collection.
Olina had also taken scans as she brought the skips to the surface. Māhoe had bought the best skips available. They traveled from the cargo bay of the cargo ship in orbit and were able to land anywhere on the surface. The skips were Enterran tech as well, but quite intuitive.
Olina had used the skip sensors to examine the warehouse tech, knowing full well that the skip sensors might trigger the tech. She hadn’t told Māhoe she was going to do that.
He didn’t need to know.
Most people didn’t understand her methodology. She wanted to trigger early rather than later. If something set off the tech, then she wanted it to happen before her people were anywhere near the target.
The skips had landed on an empty field just outside the warehouse district. The skips came with floating carts that could travel the short distance, with some cargo. There was no way she could park the skips near the warehouse (nor would she, even if she had the ability).
Over Māhoe protests, she had also brought one of her own orbit-to-land vehicles, the Manu. She needed Amnthran tech. She needed a ship with an anacapa drive, in case she and the team needed to make a quick getaway.
The Manu was faster than anything built by the Empire. The ship could also open a foldspace window inside the planet’s atmosphere. The timing would be difficult, but Olina had done it all before.
She wasn’t going to lose a team member to the Empire, unless she had planned to lose a team member.
She had scanned the warehouse with the Manu’s sensors as well, and found a few . . . well, what she could only call holes. She didn’t know if that meant there were gaps in the security system—gaps that she and the team could use to their advantage—or if those gaps were some kind of tech she didn’t understand.
The scans done by all of the ships showed that the warehouse had extreme security, just like Māhoe had assumed. He had learned, through the course of his ruse, that this warehouse had been built by the Enterran military. The Empire was run by the military, and the military got the best tech.
It also had a lot of secret tech, the kind that wasn’t easy to research, the kind that every military in every sector guarded as jealously as it guarded its territory.
The theory (there was that word again) was that all Empire tech wasn’t as advanced as Amnthran tech, but since some of the Empire’s tech was secret, there was no way to verify this theory.
That was why Olina had sent three team members to scout. They each had different skills and were looking for different things.
What she didn’t tell those team members was this: she was using them as bait. If there was external tech that she hadn’t found, that Māhoe’s examination hadn’t found either, then these three might activate it.
The one thing she really feared, though, was that there would be eyes on the exterior. Older cultures often used people to back up the tech.
She had found, in her decades of doing this work, that people—some people, anyway; competent people—didn’t let a shadow on the tech go by without an investigation.
And then there was one other factor that she had seen over and over again: Military cultures were paranoid cultures. They had a history of assuming the worst and punishing the offenders. Some people liked finding an anomaly. If that anomaly was a person, then the anomaly would be investigated and punished, no matter what the crime or even if there was a crime.
So, this moment, while her people literally walked around the building, doing what they could to find tech that hadn’t shown up in the scans from orbit, she was probably the most nervous she ever got on a job.
She could lose three members of her small team right here, and then she would have to recalibrate everything she had planned.
She had already designed the recalibration, even though she hadn’t told Māhoe about it.
She hadn’t told the team about it either.
If they had been her usual team, they would have already known. A handful of them would have volunteered, thinking themselves invincible. Sometimes she had believed that they were.
That had bitten some of her teams, more than once.
She hoped this method wouldn’t bite her again.
* * *
Delores Lebede sat in her tiny tower on top of the apartment complex just outside the warehouse district. She called the little guardroom a tiny tower because it popped up on the roof, surrounded by the doors to the stairwell and another door to what the apartment manager ostentatiously called the “physical plant.”
All that area did was house the controls for heating and cooling units, as well as for the water that flowed through the building. The entire system was nearly a hundred years old, and Lebede worried that it would fall apart while she was here.
It creaked that much.
She had received this assignment three months before, when some gigantic shipment entered the warehouse in the very center of the warehouse district. She had been told that the center warehouse was to be the main focus of her entire attention.
So far, there hadn’t been a lot of activity. Sure, there had been some when the shipments were delivered. She’d actually had some representative from a pretentious auction house that was selling most of the items being stored in the warehouse join her for a short time.
That had been annoying.
The representative, a man in an inappropriately expensive suit that he had described as his “dressed down” look, had examined the interior of the tower with its four chairs, its open-door bathroom, and its one-table kitchen and had given Lebede a look of absolute horror.
For the entire three nights he had “assisted” her in monitoring the warehouse, he had sat at the edge of his chair as if he feared getting his stupidly expensive clothing filthy.
He had worn more appropriate pants and a button-down shirt the following two nights, but even those looked like they would cost Lebede’s entire salary. He had barely spoken to her either, just monitored the deliveries on a handheld that he had brought.
She had had to keep her own screens shaded and not use the holographic imagery at all because of his presence. He didn’t have clearance to see all of the tech in the room, a fact she had argued when the big boss, Oliver Fernsby, wanted representatives from the high-end auction house inside the tower.
She had lost this fight, as had her daytime counterpart. She and her counterpart had actually had a discussion about this at shift change—outside the building, where they couldn’t be recorded.
Because the presence of the representatives, with their tiny and inadequate (but expensive!) handhelds, actually made the tower less effective rather than more so.
Lebede hadn’t been able to see half of what was going on while the visitor was in her tower, which, after the second night, she suspected was the entire point. She (and her daytime counterpart) weren’t supposed to see what was being loaded into the warehouse.
She didn’t really give a crap about items that rich people wanted to buy. She assumed it was either old military technology or some discontinued (but secret) environmental suits or something. Or maybe it was new technology, and they were sharing it with some private brokers.
She didn’t know, and she didn’t care. She just cared about doing her job and doing it well. No one had broken into the warehouses on her shift. No one had even lurked around them. No one had even pretended to visit them, or she would shut them all down.
Not that she’d had much of a chance to do so. She’d moved here from an outpost closer to the primary armory near Vaycehn to this dumb little tower. It had been, ostensibly, a promotion.
She was getting paid more, and she had been bumped up ever so slightly in rank. She had been told that six months guarding this sleepy little district would move her even higher on the food chain, maybe take her out of this kind of security altogether.
She couldn’t wait. Most people loved postings like this, where they had almost nothing to do, but she hated it. Lebede loved being in the middle of the action.
She had thwarted several theft attempts at the armory. The last one had been particularly notable because she had—singlehandedly, mind you—brought down an entire theft ring, which operated from inside the armory. They’d thought they were so clever, reworking the security tech and altering the delivery schedules.
They’d also changed some of the inventory and made it seem as if nothing was missing at all.
All of her predecessors in the previous four years hadn’t noticed that particular ring, but she had wondered why there had been so much activity at night. The activity had been small—the same people going in and out of the building—but that had been the problem: there had been no reason to go in and out of the building. Once someone had shown up for work, they had no reason to leave until the shift was over.
Of course, she had verified that assumption before deeming the activity as suspicious. And even then, she hadn’t told anyone, because to speak might have been to alert someone. So she hadn’t done that either.
Her investigation had been slow and methodical and had resulted in a lot of arrests and recovery of stolen weaponry. Her reward had been this tower.
That wasn’t entirely fair, of course. Her reward had been this tower, the promotion, and a chance to pick whatever job she wanted in the future. Or at least, that was what Fernsby was telling her right now. How it would actually end up, she didn’t know.
This night had started out like any other night. She had made herself some of the best coffee in the city, eaten a quiet dinner, and reveled in her alone time. Those few days with the representative from the auction house had been a nightmare, not just because of his attitude, but because of that open-door bathroom. They’d had to negotiate their bathroom usage, which also took eyes off the security equipment.
This night, though, had gotten strange early. She had a sense that something was off from the moment she arrived at work. Usually the neighborhoods around the warehouse district were empty. She might pass a pedestrian or an aircar, but rarely did she see other vehicles or even lights on in nearby buildings.
The apartment complex that housed the tower was one of the few in the area. Other apartment complexes had been developed closer to the foot of the mountains, after a death hole destroyed an entire city block not far from here.
Experts claimed this complex was fine, even though Lebede didn’t believe them. No one knew what made a death hole blow, so how could anyone predict that the complex was fine?
But her odds of getting trapped in a death hole were the same no matter where she was, as long as she was in Vaycehn—maybe as long as she was on Wyr.
The residents of the building seemed to have made the same calculation. It remained full of young professionals and families that weren’t certain which part of Vaycehn their employment would take them to. Lebede didn’t interact with them much because the tower had its own elevator. When that wasn’t working, though, she could take the main elevator, which she did once a week anyway. She wanted the residents to think she was a resident, too, in case something odd was going on in the neighborhood. She hoped she would learn something from gossip before whatever that something was became a problem.
She had come to recognize the locals’ vehicles and the rhythm of the public transport that would drop off children from their various schools and adults who chose not to own a vehicle.
The vehicles were parked beneath the building, several stories underneath. Because (and she thought this odd), despite the tendency to have streets collapse and energy explode outward from deep underground, the building designers around Vaycehn loved going deep into the ground as much as they loved going up.
On this night, she saw some things that really bothered her. At least a dozen people on foot heading into the warehouse district.
She couldn’t remember when she had ever seen a dozen people walking in this neighborhood, let alone doing so together.
But there had been a lot of strange activity around that warehouse ever since the auction house had loaded in its goods. So she monitored, and made note, but didn’t mark any of it as suspicious.
Finally, as she poured her very good cup of coffee and settled in her work chair, the holographic map of the area flagged a major change. She had zoomed in and was startled to note that the old landing strip built for the apartment complexes that had been destroyed by the death hole was back in use.
Three brand-new skips had arrived at twilight. And near them was a ship of a make that Lebede didn’t recognize.
Before searching for the make of the ship, she examined the skips. They belonged to some corporation she had never heard of, and it would take more digging than she had time for to find out who owned that corporation.
She did a quick scan, though, to see if the corporation had holdings in the warehouse district, and quickly discovered that it didn’t. She looked for holdings in the area, and found none.
She told herself that it didn’t mean anything, that corporations could be layered—one owning another, which then owned another. But she had seen corporate skips in the area only twice before. The first time had been when the big and important shipment arrived.
The second time had been when there had been some kind of viewing of that shipment. She had received a list of cleared vehicles, which was shorter than she had expected. Corporate Treasures preferred to bring in the participants on their own skip, far from the warehouse, and drive each participant in via aircart.
So the new skips and the strange ship bothered her. Not to mention the fact that no one local would have put heavy equipment on that old landing strip. Locals didn’t tempt fate. Yes, the death hole had blown several years ago, and yes, the engineers had come in to make sure all of the buildings (and roads) in the area were properly shored up, but locals had learned, maybe at birth, that doing anything near an old death hole could be a death sentence in and of itself.
She tried to tell herself that the death-hole destruction had occurred so long ago that locals would shrug off the danger, but she didn’t find herself convincing.
Something was odd about those skips. Not to mention the ship her system couldn’t identify.
She had reversed the various recordings, searching for more information. The ships had landed, one after another, as the sky grayed. Clouds had been moving in, making twilight even grimmer than usual.
Unless someone had been monitoring the area, no one would have noticed the skips’ arrival. She had only seen them because she had set up the system to flag anything that occurred within thirty miles of the district, something she was certain Fernsby would tell her was unnecessary.
It didn’t feel unnecessary at the moment, particularly when the recorded imagery showed more than a dozen people descending off the skips.
The number of people was suspicious, considering who was walking around the neighborhood. They were all dressed in black, and they had hoods covering their heads.
Lebede couldn’t tell if those hoods were part of an environmental suit or not. But the more she looked through all of this, the more uncomfortable she got.
Lebede couldn’t tell from this distance, though, and she didn’t scroll in. She was watching behavior first. She’d get the details of what had happened later.
The people gathered in front of the unidentifiable ship. A woman, who walked with military precision, had emerged from the unidentifiable ship’s far side. She had stepped into the group of people and gestured.
The people were mostly vague figures, grayed and difuse because of the darkness and the misty rain that had started about thirty minutes after the skips arrived.
The people put packs over their shoulders. A few had long thin items under their arms—some kind of weapon, perhaps? Or something else? And some people walked slowly, heads down, as if they were monitoring the area around them.
She watched two holoscreens—the old one, of the events that happened not long ago, and the current one. The current one was even harder to see.
Darkness had fallen, and there wasn’t a lot of good light in the warehouse district. As far as she could tell, those dozen-plus people (and it irritated her that she couldn’t get a good count) had become about ten, all of them still diffuse due to the mist and the bad lighting.
She was going by shape now, not by any real readings. The group stayed outside of the monitoring area, away from all of the tracking equipment, as if someone knew where the holes in the tech were.
Surely, Fernsby would tell her that she was being overly sensitive. People stood in strange places all the time, and it wasn’t because they were trying to do something nefarious. It was because they were doing whatever it was they usually did.
But these folks seemed to be waiting and monitoring, not actually doing something innocuous.
The other holoscreen wasn’t moving quickly enough for her. She could fast forward through the imagery, but she didn’t want to. She wanted to see if she could figure out what this group had been doing.
She didn’t adjust what she was watching to make the group clearer. Not yet, anyway. So as they walked as a group toward the warehouse district, the people in the center clumped together into a gigantic blob. They didn’t quite walk in lockstep, but they didn’t separate themselves out much either.
They passed two different warehouses, the two closest to that old landing strip. The group didn’t seem to be in any kind of hurry. Nor did they look around much either, which caught her attention.
People in an unfamiliar place often swiveled their heads, trying to see what they could.
That argued for the hoods being part of environmental suits, which would give the wearer a 360-degree view, should they want it.
Which, again, made her a lot more suspicious than she had been earlier.
They reached the edge of the access road that separated the central warehouse from the warehouses that the group had passed earlier. The group stopped, seemingly without consultation (unless it was through environmental suits).
Then three members of the group peeled off, running in three different directions toward the central warehouse. One ran to the right, the other to the left, and, at least according to the imagery Lebede was getting, the third one went around to the far side.
So far, they hadn’t tripped any alarms. They seemed to know where the blind spots where, the spots she had complained about from the moment she’d started here.
Then very little happened. The remaining members of the group stayed stationary. She checked the time stamp and realized she was now watching the same imagery she had seen in real time.
So she shrank the hologram of the past to the size of her fist. She couldn’t see any of it, but she had it there, just to remind her that something odd was going on, and she was keeping track of it.
Then she looked at the main group.
She focused on the remaining image, clearing it up, getting rid of the fuzziness caused by what had become real rain. The exterior lights all had rings around them, caused by the moisture. She cleared up those rings first, as a way of making sure that her work was correct.
Then she went to the group. They still seemed diffuse. She could no longer blame that strange imagery on the rain or the twilight or the lack of excellent lighting in the warehouse area.
They had to be causing it somehow.
Her heart started pounding. This was definitely out of the ordinary. She weighed the options of what it could be. It could be a test, either by Fernsby or by Corporate Treasures themselves, just to see how good the security was.
But she didn’t think that was the case. Corporate Treasures knew as much about the security as it could, thanks to the monitors. And Fernsby usually did that kind of test early in someone’s tenure at a new office rather than later.
Plus, tests were not something this people-heavy. People cost money, and there were too many here for some kind of random test.
She had to try to count them. She adjusted the settings on her imagery as best she could, screening out the blurred edges, more or less, trying to separate each individual. She thought she managed. The group in the center still seemed like a blob, but she had the system track each individual by movement.
It took a few minutes, but she ended up with what she hoped was an accurate count.
She hadn’t expected that many at all. She had undercounted significantly. Counting the three that had peeled off, she had missed a full third of the group.
She was feeling deeply uncomfortable about this. She now faced something new for this job. She was going to have to decide whether or not to flag the suspicious activity.
And she was going to have to figure out how to flag it. As an emergency? Something she could handle? Something she needed assistance on?
She had a two-pronged risk. The first was that she didn’t respond quickly or strongly enough, and this turned out to be something serious.
The second was that she responded with too high a call—an emergency when this wasn’t serious at all—and got a reputation as an over-reactor.
But she had just gotten a promotion. She had a reputation already for being someone who found thieves.
And what was she protecting here? A job that marked time in the tiny tower, watching empty warehouses with the occasional jerk at her side?
She scanned the third file, compared it to the events that occurred at the same time the night before. The file showed nothing different yet, but she had a feeling she would see something soon.
Lebede took a deep breath and let it out slowly, making herself think. They could demote her for doing too much or doing too little.
She would rather be demoted for doing too much.
She rubbed her hands together nervously. Her palms were sweating, so she dried them off on the front of her uniform.
Then she launched into the emergency system.
Immediately, it gave her a choice—a silent alarm and increased monitoring while she waited for back-up, or an audible designed to scare off intruders.
She doubted the audible would scare off this group. It might embolden them.
She was going with the silent alarm. She made her choice, and watched as another screen lit up.
More choices. More to do.
She wiped her sweaty palms on her uniform again, and settled in for a long, and possibly consequential, night.
* * *
The door was old-fashioned, with an actual lock and a pull handle. There was an automated lock as well, and some kind of code panel on the right. The light above the door shed pale white light on the rust-colored metal surface.
Iokua slid his laser rifle over his shoulder, hoping the damn thing would stay on his back. He hadn’t wanted to carry a weapon, particularly since Khelan Māhoe had said there were probably bits of a Spire inside this warehouse, but Olina had insisted—and right now, she was the head of this mission.
Iokua had run dozens of missions in the past two years, and was as qualified as she was, if not more qualified, since he knew most of this team and she didn’t.
But she had been on missions in the Enterran Empire, and he hadn’t. For that reason, she got to lead this team.
He thought of Māhoe as the leader of this mission, though, and Māhoe knew the Empire better than Olina did. Iokua would have preferred to have the knowledgeable one—the one with decades of experience with the culture—as the overall head, while someone who could run missions was on the ground.
Iokua wouldn’t have had the team in full environmental suits with the individual shields on. He would have thought that such clothing would have seemed suspicious to anyone in the nearby community.
Not, he had to admit, that they had seen anyone in the community since they had arrived.
He would have also done more to hide the skips, and he certainly wouldn’t have brought an Amnthran ship with its advanced tech—even though Olina had explained her reasoning. She had thought they would need a quick getaway vehicle.
He had figured the skips were enough, but she hadn’t listened.
So he had (angrily, he had to admit) decided to volunteer to be on the first team. That way, he could see what was inside, and he could decide if they needed more time.
Olina had decided to hang back. Olina was waiting, something that he believed team leaders should never do.
And now, the door. He hadn’t realized there would be an actual physical handle and a physical lock. Māhoe had said nothing about that, and neither had the schematics.
Physical locks would slow the team down. They didn’t carry the equipment to pick one of those locks, which meant either using the rifle (not a choice, in his opinion) or somehow figure out how to jiggle the damn thing open.
He didn’t use the comms to contact Olina. He wouldn’t do that until he had a chance to try the lock.
He was going to ignore the physical part first. That keypad was probably the security part of the entrance. Even if he managed to make the physical lock work, he’d have to contend with the keypad at one point or another. Or, if he failed to deal with the keypad, he would probably end up setting off some kind of alarm.
The environmental suit aided him in all that he needed to do, much as he didn’t like wearing one on a job like this. He didn’t like wearing it because it was skin-tight and made him feel like he was being compressed all over, a sensation he didn’t have when he wore the suit in zero gravity.
But the suit had a lot of built-in tools, including the comm units that the team used on this mission. He did appreciate not having to carry scanners or any kind of pad, as well as lights and stun weaponry, which were built into various parts of the suit. He was carrying enough in his belt. He was one of the few who chose not to use a backpack.
He had a few doorjammers, and a knife, and a handful of other practical items, should something physically go wrong, but little else.
The suit weapons, lights, and scanners were activated with either a look or a code word or a quick touch. He preferred the code word, so his suit was set up that way. Which meant he had to keep his comms toggled off much of the time, otherwise the team (and anyone else monitoring) would hear him mumble a bunch of nonsense phrases.
He mumbled one now, as he held his gloved hand over the keypad. The phrase activated the scanner built into the fingertips and palm of the glove. The slight blue light it sent to the keypad was undetectable on systems built by the Armada or with any kind of security on Amnthra. But he had no idea how this would register here in the Empire—or if the light would register at all.
The mechanisms behind the keypad were simple. They showed up on one side of his visor, as a schematic with recommendations about what to do next. He had no idea what the recommendations were based on, only that they existed and that they had rarely failed him in the past.
One thing that did catch his eye, though, were the wires that extended along the back of the keypad and down the side of the doorframe.
Could he be that lucky? Could the door open when the keypad was disengaged?
He didn’t ask for more clarification from the computer system built into his suit. If he had been working with a large crew and a team that remained on board a ship, he would send the schematic to them for a second opinion.
But the bulk of the team here was on the ground, waiting to find out what he and the other two team members discovered.
He inhaled slowly. The reason he and the other two were sent out was to scout, yes, but also to trigger the security systems around this warehouse. If the systems could be easily triggered, then the mission would either be called off—or it would become bloody.
The direction this would go wasn’t his call. He just had to make the best decision he could, using his own judgment.
He moved his hand away from the keypad, keeping the scanner on, and let it penetrate the doorframe.
He had been right: the wire went all the way to the back of the lock, which was on the wall-side of the doorframe.
So the physical lock had two mechanisms, one in the door and one in the frame. And unlike some physical locks he had encountered, this one’s locking mechanism was in the frame.
Or so it seemed.
Only one way to find out.
He shut off the scanner in his gloves but left the recommendation and its instructions on his visor. If the recommendation was correct, he wouldn’t have to do a lot. He would simply have to push a few buttons on the keypad and step back.
He let out a slow exhale, then followed the instructions before him. He pressed six keys in the order that the scan recommended, biting his lower lip as he did so.
The keypad gave him no hints as to whether or not what he was doing was correct. The keys didn’t seem more or less sticky as he worked them. They felt like normal keys.
He pressed the larger key at the bottom, which he assumed was some kind of final key—an enter key or an “OK” key or something—and pulled his hand back.
Nothing happened. The light above him did not change color. Nothing indicated that anything had changed at all.
He was about to turn his scanner back on when he decided to try the door handle.
He grabbed it with his left hand and tugged down.
And the door popped open.
He leaned his head back slightly, second-guessing himself. Should he have tried the door first? Or did the keypad give him permission to try the door without activating anything?
He had no idea, and he wasn’t about to do another scan to find out. Instead, he pulled the door toward him.
A light went on inside, but it wasn’t much of a light. More of a companion to the thready white light that was currently illuminating the exterior.
If anything, the interior light masked what was beyond it, which, at the moment, looked like a lot of inky darkness.
This was the moment he could make a decision that might impact the team. He could call for more team members to come here, or he could step inside and explore a little, just to see what they were facing.
That wasn’t much of a decision. He wasn’t a call-for-backup kinda guy.
He pulled the door open as wide as it went, and, not willing to use one of his jammers, braced the door with a small rock that seemed to be set near it for just that purpose.
Then he stepped inside.
Copyright © 2023. The Break-In by Kristine Kathryn Rusch