I was perched at the edge of a rooftop, looking down at a much shorter building down below. The one I was on was some random business, a software firm like dozens of others in this part of the city.
The building below us tried to pretend to be the same, but from our angle, it was easy to see the truth. Most of the satellite dishes on the ceiling were fake, as was everything within sight of the windows. People pretended to work, but they were just a cover for whatever was going on inside.
“Are you sure this is a Belian outpost?” I asked. “The workers don’t look drugged.”
“I’m sure,” Fimmtu, at my side, said. “They might like using addiction to ‘recruit’ people, but they know that a chain comprised of nothing but drugged-up idiots is a pretty stupid chain. For operations like this, they use clearer heads.”
I peered through the small high-tech telescope my father had given me for my last birthday. It was the same kind the asteroid miners used. Dad had imported it from Ceres, probably at some horrific expense. I didn’t want to think about it. The point was, the thing worked perfectly, letting me zoom in close enough to see their faces.
“They don’t have nighteyes,” I said. Most appeared baseline, but there were a few kemos and such scattered around as well. There was even at least one full angel. A Jegudiel, if I was reading the tattoos right. “Passers, or just not vampires?”
“A few passers, I’m sure,” Fimmtu said. “But the majority don’t know what’s going on.”
I put the scope down and turned to him with a frown. “I thought you said this whole operation was a fake. Are you telling me the people in there actually think they’re working for a software company?”
“They are,” he said. “And that fact makes them an excellent front for the vampires hiding inside.” He looked me in the eye, which was always a disconcerting experience, considering his big bird eye. “Don’t underestimate the Belians, Honored Magister. Not all chems enhance the physical at the expense of the mental.”
Mentats, that sort of thing. Yeah, I knew the Nobles and other high-ranking Belians were using those. I just hadn’t really thought very hard on the implications. I knew mentats had side effects, but couldn’t recall what they were at the moment.
I shook my head. Not important. “It’s just the outer ring of the building that’s real, right? Nothing past those doors that say ‘authorized personnel only.’” They were locked with digital handles; not actually that difficult to hack, but harder than using a standard electronic lockpick.
“Correct,” the ave said. He pointed a talon at the roof. “There’s only one camera up top, pointed at the door down. If we can hack that, we can get inside. If we’re really lucky, we can hack the rest through it.”
“I doubt we’ll be that lucky,” I muttered. “Remind me again how you found this place.”
“Followed a nightstalker who wasn’t paying enough attention.”
Flight did make that sort of thing easier. I still wasn’t sure this wasn’t a trap, but it wasn’t like I had much choice. What else could I do, just go home and twiddle my thumbs while friends were being tortured or worse?
It was tempting. It was far, far too tempting. But Silk said that confronting your fears was important. That you needed to look at the emotion calmly and objectively, and see whether or not you should be afraid, and what to do about it.
This was not a time to be afraid. I was just looking for excuses.
“Let’s go,” I said, stepping off the roof.
I floated down carefully, heading straight for the small half-floor that contained just one room and the stairs down. It was probably a security center as well; I landed as quietly as possible. Fimmtu landed a bit louder with a rush of wings a moment later, but still not too bad.
He held up a talon, indicating silence, and pointed to the camera at the edge. It was pointed down and away from us, as expected, keeping an eye on the door to the stairs, the single weak point in this fortress.
“How are your hacking skills?” the anthro whispered in my ear.
“Horrible,” I said. “But we’ll be fine.” I slipped a wireless transmitter onto the camera case and switched it on. The air was filled with the scent of burning plastic, and then it was in, attached to the wires inside.
I pulled out my phone. It had been on this entire time, so that she could listen and actually understand what was going on. “MC? You got it?”
“Yeah,” she answered instantly. “Already set up a loop. Got every camera in the building I could, but the ones on the interior must be on a different system. I can’t find any trace of them anywhere.”
Of course. “Just get us inside, we’ll handle the rest.”
“Both of you? One will be easier.”
I thought for a moment. If I sent Fimmtu in, I could stay out here where it was safe…
No. That wouldn’t work. He was too obvious. Aves in general were an oddity after Soaring Eagle fled, and an ave anthro would stick out like a sore thumb. He couldn’t go in, with or without me.
I took a deep breath, then another. “I’ll do it.”
There was a slight pause on the other end, but when she spoke, there was no sign of surprise. “Good. Follow my instructions exactly. First, drop down and open the door. Quietly. There’s a guard, he’s just facing the other way right now.”
I nodded to myself, then turned to Fimmtu. “Keep watch. If something goes wrong, MC will call you. Other than that, stay safe.”
“And you as well.”
I dropped down.
The door wasn’t even locked; someone had held it open an inch with a rubber doorstop. Maybe he was planning on going out for a smoke or something, or maybe he was just an idiot in general.
The room was, as expected, a security room, with banks of computer monitors showing everything in the building. Why they had it up here instead of somewhere more defensible, I’d never know.
The guard himself was watching the monitors—in theory. He had earbuds in, and seemed to be reading a book on his pad. I didn’t stick around to see if he was going to turn and look back any time soon; I just headed straight down the stairs, clipping my own earbud on as I did.
“Stop!” MC hissed right as I was about to round a corner. “Hide!”
I didn’t stop to question. I slipped my phone in my pocket and backtracked, slipping under the cover of the stairs as a few baseline women passed. The one with the green hair seemed familiar… she looked a little like that Dagonite friend of Seena’s.
“Clear,” my half-sister said after a moment. I could barely hear her over my pounding heart.
She led me down the hallways, past more than a few doors that led into the interior. The problem was that these doors were mostly in full view of more than one cubicle. They’d notice the wi-fi transmitter before too long.
Finally, after going three floors down, we found a door that seemed like it would work. It was also in view of a cubicle, but this one was clearly unoccupied, with even the computer removed weeks ago, judging by the dust buildup.
I moved to the door, which didn’t even have a handle. It just had a small steel keypad, with no visible screws or anything else to make it easy to pop off, get to the wires, and reprogram. Not to mention that if I did find a way to pop it off, there was probably an alarm.
I paused before I put the transmitter on.
“Robyn?” MC whispered. “What’s wrong? I don’t see anyone nearby.”
“Is this going to set off an alarm? They have sensors, right?”
There was a pause.
I could almost hear her frantically typing on a keyboard, trying to find the answer before she got me captured by the kind of people who liked to pump their captives full of enough drugs to pickle a rhino.
“I need you to look at the bottom edge of the pad,” she said suddenly. “For a serial number.”
I felt under there with my fingers, and did indeed find something. I looked down and saw it inscribed in tiny script. “You ready? H-Z-U-eight-zero-one-zero-nine-four-two-one-three-two-five-seven-nine-zero-zero-eight-seven-six.”
There was a long pause.
“You’re sure about that? Absolutely sure?”
“Yeah. You want me to snap a picture?”
“No, no, I’ve found the model and everything, it’s just… nothing. Just a bit surprised because… nothing. Anyway, I’ve looked up the specs for that lock type, and it’s fine. There’s no alarm.”
Confused as to her reaction, but not having any better ideas, I put the small transceiver on the lock. It melted through with an acrid smell, and then a moment later the door beeped and popped open.
Beyond were dark hallways.
“MC?” I whispered.
“I’m here,” she said instantly. “Let me guess, you need night vision goggles?”
“No, I have those.” I wasn’t an idiot. I knew a secret vampire outpost wasn’t going to have convenient nightlights illuminating the place in red half-light. I slipped the goggles over my head, and suddenly the place was bright and well-lit. These were the type that worked the same way as vampire nighteyes, so they just made everything brighter rather than tinged green. “What I need is for you to tell me where to plug you in.”
“Oh. Well, I don’t have any schematics of the interior, but if you can find a camera without being seen, I can access the system through there.”
Easier said than done. A quick glance around told me that there were cameras pointed everywhere but the door itself; likely to keep them from being blinded every time the door opened. I had a flashlight, but blinding the cameras would just alert the security guards I was here.
There… might be an angle where I could sneak by, but I wasn’t sure how wide a field of view the cameras had. I had to get into the corner, close enough to reach up and plant the bug. On the ground, it was impossible.
Good thing I could fly.
I floated up slowly, until my back was against the ceiling. Then, I slowly, ever so slowly, slid forward, towards the closest camera, which was pointed down at the ground. I wasn’t worried about my reservoir. It was deep enough to keep this up for days.
Finally, after what felt like hours but was probably no more than a couple minutes, I was within reach of the camera. I slipped my hand into my pocket, grabbed the small transponder, carefully pulled it out so that I didn’t drop it, and—
A door slammed.
I almost fell off the ceiling.
“Any luck?” a female voice asked.
“None,” a male responded. “I don’t think this is working.”
“You need to try another tactic. Don’t always attack head on.”
Were they talking about questioning prisoners? Maybe I should follow them…
The man laughed. “This from you? You’re not exactly subtle either.”
“True, but at least I know I should be subtle.”
They were underneath me now. Two vampires, no obvious toys besides the eyes and fangs. If I looked closer I would probably be able to see signs of drug use, but I honestly didn’t even know what to look for.
I should follow them. I slid along the ceiling—
“I’m not even sure he’s gay.”
“He hasn’t said he isn’t.”
“He might just be polite.”
I let the pair pass, staying close to my chosen camera instead, and resolved to ignore their babbling. Once I was sure they were gone, I returned to my original task and carefully placed the transceiver on it.
Some burning later, and then MC’s voice was in my ear. “I’m in. There’s… wow, there’s a lot of cameras on this system.”
“Your bunker has roughly one camera per square foot.”
“I said they had a lot of cameras. Not enough cameras. And they’re not organized very well. They can’t talk to each other, just the security office, and even that’s one way.” There was a pause, likely caused by her sorting through the data. “Okay, got it. Mentats make people paranoid, but the wrong kind of paranoid. This system is weird, but not too difficult.”
“Does that mean I can get off the ceiling now?”
“What? Oh, I wondered where you were. Yeah, sure.”
I floated down to the floor like a feather and adjusted the bulky goggles over my eyes. “Which way do I go?”
“I’m not seeing any prisoners anywhere… or holding cells for that matter.” A short pause. “That part might be on another system. How many more of those transceivers do you have left? Please tell me you grabbed the whole pack.”
The transceivers came in packs of a dozen. “No. I just grabbed a handful. Five.”
“Two left, huh? Okay, we’ll have to do this another way. Head straight ahead. I’m looping the feed for the cameras you’re on, so you’re invisible and all that. Just be ready to hide if I tell you, okay?”
“This isn’t the first time we’ve worked together,” I chided her. “I know how it works, sis.”
“Yeah, yeah… okay, at the end of the corridor, turn right—”
“The corridor only turns right.”
“Well, yes, I know, I meant just—okay, good, like that. Now the security center is the third door on your right.” I strode forward and opened the door in question. “Just be careful, there’s no camera in there, so—”
“Crap,” I muttered.
The lone security guard turned around with a frown as the door squeaked open. “Did you idiots lose your keys again—” He jumped up when he saw me. My goggles were a dead giveaway that I didn’t belong. “Bleeding night—how’d you get in here!?” He reached for his radio.
I flew across the room as fast as I could, tackling the poor drake bodily into the monitors, which sparked as they broke and shattered. He gave a grunt of pain, but grinned with sharp fangs and kept a strong grip on my arm.
“Sorry, baseline,” he hissed. “You’re not the only one with a power.”
Electricity played over his fingers, and he reached out to grab me.
I flew up—too fast. I hit my head on the ceiling, but it worked. I dodged his grab. Before he could grab me again or call on his radio, I slammed down with all the speed I could muster, pounding him into the ground.
He must have hit his head on something, because he didn’t move when I got off him.
I… didn’t kill him, right? I couldn’t check. I couldn’t bring myself to check.
“Robyn?” MC hissed in my ear. “You all right? ROBYN!”
“I’m… I’m fine,” I managed. “Just had a run-in with…” Urp.
I ran over to the trash can in the corner and threw up.
After a few minutes of heaving my cheap breakfast up, I was finally able to settle down. MC was yelling at me the whole time, which didn’t help. “ROBYN! Should I call Artemis, or your dad? Robyn, answer me!”
“I’m fine,” I finally said. “Seriously, just… a little sick.”
She paused for a moment, but knew better than to dwell on something I didn’t want to discuss. “Okay. You need to plug that wi-fi transceiver into the mainframe. It’s probably below the desk or something.”
Wiping off my mouth, I searched around for the computer box. “I think this is it. But it’s inside a safe.”
I shook my head, even though she couldn’t see me. “Analog.”
“Shit. Uh, maybe… one second, let me think about this.”
I frowned. “Wait. It can’t be completely contained, right?”
“Uh, yeah. There are probably wires coming out the back or something. But you can’t put the transceiver on the wires. It won’t work. It needs an actual connection to the computer itself. And that little thing doesn’t have near enough thermite to burn through a safe.”
“What about two—”
I peered at the dial. “What about the lock itself?”
There was a pause. “…that might work,” she said slowly. “But it’s a big might. And since the dial itself isn’t magnetic, you’ll have to hold the transceiver up to it as it burns. You might lose a finger.”
“Then Dad will just have to grow me a new one,” I muttered, trying not to think about how much it would hurt in the meantime. I crawled back to the front, dug out one of the little devices, and placed it on the dial. “Ready.”
I pressed the button, and held onto the little antennae to hold it in place while the thermite burned. It was far, far too hot, and the vaporized plastic washed over my hand and briefly stung like acid, but after a moment it was over. The thermite was gone, and my fingers were all in place.
I tugged on the safe. No luck.
“I’ve disengaged the magnet remotely,” MC said in my ear. “Pull it out and try the next.”
I did so, discarding the twisted transceiver covered in still-cooling molten plastic, and replaced it with the fresh one, then clicked it on as well. I wasn’t even sure what I was supposed to do if—
The transceiver fell inside the safe with a dull clang.
“Well, I guess that worked,” I muttered. I reached inside the broken lock and pulled at the lever, causing the door to swing open and reveal the beeping computer inside. Finally. Now all I had to do was place the transceiver—
“MC,” I said with as much calm as I could muster. “I’m now out of wi-fi transponders. How am I supposed to connect you to the mainframe?”
“Uh… grab the second one you used to burn through.”
I did as she asked.
“The thermite’s gone, but you can still use the actual transceiver. You just need to pop the case off the mainframe, and put it on something that looks important. The motherboard would be best, but even the video or sound cards would work.”
I frowned at the computer. “I need a screwdriver.”
My sister sighed over the earpiece. “Of course you do. Well, this is a security center. There should be something somewhere.”
Thankfully, it only took about five minutes to find a small maintenance kit in one of the drawers, including a convenient screwdriver. Ten more minutes later, and I got the face of the computer off, and placed the scorched transceiver on a big circuit board.
“Anything?” I asked.
“Give me a second…” she said, distracted.
My phone rang.
I pulled it out of my pocket, staring at the caller ID. “Who’s Drakela Sanguinas?”
“Corporal Sanguinas,” MC said. “Kelly, with the retinue. Should probably answer.”
Oh, her. I flipped the phone open and put it to my ear. “Hello, Kelly.”
“Miss Clarke,” she said, her tone clipped. “Have you had any luck with the search?”
“You told me to stop.”
“And if I expected you to actually listen to me, I wouldn’t have. Any luck?”
I sighed. “MC’s in the mainframe of a Belian outpost right now. Might find something.”
“Maybe, maybe not,” the vampire said. “Belians are paranoid. Good at compartmentalizing.”
“Eh.” I shrugged. “Any more luck on your end?”
“We spoke to the Dragon. He recommended checking Jealous Heart.”
I had no idea what that was. “And?”
“And the Paladins and George and Kat are in there right now, trying to get Ishtar to give up something useful. I don’t have much confidence in their success. Her domain isn’t called Jealous Heart for her generosity.”
“Wait, you’re not in there with them?”
“Ishtar and I… know each other. And we parted on bad terms last time. It’s better this way.”
“Got something,” MC said through my phone—presumably so that the vampire could hear. “Kelly, I need some quick help on Belian lingo. Strălucire refers to an angel, right? And tron means Phlegethos.”
“Yeah, that’s right. But you can’t mean that they’re taking Alex to Phlegethos. That just doesn’t make any sense.”
“That’s what I’m reading here,” she insisted. “Apparently they were in the outpost for a little while, and then got shipped off to Northwest Middle. They should be there by now, depending on traffic.”
The Belians might not be the most powerful or militant culture, but Phlegethos would still be a fortress. It was going to take time to find a way to infiltrate it. I turned to go, checking to make sure that the guard was unconscious—and just unconscious—as I did. “MC, I’m gonna meet up with the Paladins and the rest of the retinue. Self-destruct the transceivers once I’m out.”
“Agreed. I’ll send you a GPS to Jealous Heart.”
“We can make do just fine without her,” Kelly said.
“Maybe,” MC said. “But there’s something else that they called Alex.”
I could hear the confusion in the vampire’s voice. “What? What’s they call him?”
“What’s that mean?” I asked.
It was Kelly who answered.
Behind the Scenes (scene 259)
Rambled a bit on this one, but it came out well enough.