That night, the three of them swept into the back corridor like wraiths, the fire door whispering shut behind them. Leopard held his breath and listened for one second, then two, and three.
No guards and no alarms, just like Sabra had said. Leopard wasn’t sure how that worked. Some part of him wanted to put it down to luck, but another part of him – the louder, sterner part – didn’t believe in luck. Still, despite the confidence that Sabra had spoken with, Leopard felt only trepidation.
It was not that he was breaking into a guarded facility – that was not new to him. But he was naked without his armorweave, exposed without his snarling helmet, and vulnerable without anything more potent than the handgun he wasn’t – again, according to Sabra’s new rules – supposed to use.
To Leopard, there was nothing worse than any of those feelings and here, clustered in the back corridor of some government office in Perth’s Subiaco district, he got to experience all three of them. But he had a mission, so, Leopard quashed those feelings and said, “We’re clear.”
“Seems it,” Tiger rasped, next to him. “Let’s not get comfortable. We know there’s a guard in the front lobby, but I bet there’s a few more in here. One per level, if we’re lucky.”
“For traffic data? Probably less.”
“Hey, you know our luck.”
“Yes,” Incarnate cut in, “Let’s not get comfortable.”
“Nowhere to get comfortable anyway,” Leopard said, moving down the corridor, and gesturing for the other two to follow. He’d taken three steps before he realized that, perhaps, the robot should’ve taken point.
The corridor looked like the inside of every other municipal building Leopard had seen during his life: several bland shades of tan and grey set stark through fluorescent lighting. A solitary potted shrubbery – probably fake – sat at the far corner of the hallway, like it was apologetic for the cold, ugly artifice.
Leopard paused at the first corner, then at the next intersection. Each time, he felt his hand drift to his handgun, hidden at his back, under his jacket, and pulled it away. Had to sweep the corridors, had to check the doorways, had to be sure. They didn’t have enough intel, not even a floor plan. Just the assurances of a teenage girl that this plan would work.
And where was she? In her armor two streets away, ready to drop the hammer if everything got fucked to hell and back. That didn’t sound like she thought the plan would work.
Just trust me, she had said, I know that’s hard for you, but if you trust me, everything will be okay.
Trust? It wasn’t a matter of trust. It was a matter of planning because, boy, could this little mission get fucked to hell and back. Infiltrating was easy, exfiltrating would be more difficult. They had to cross a bridge to get here. Leopard didn’t like that. If the bridge were closed, getting away would be a problem.
Tiger cocked her head, nudged him with her elbow. “We good, Jack?”
Leopard caught himself. He was just getting stupid, and jittery, and those both got you killed. “Yeah,” he replied. “We’re good. I’ve got eyes on a stairwell. The servers we need are going to be in the basement. Everything good always is.”
“Good money says it’s alarmed.”
“Probably,” Incarnate said.
Leopard gestured at Incarnate. “Probably? Can’t you, y’know, tell?”
She gave him a sardonic look that was so obvious he could read it behind her sunglasses. Where had she gotten those?
“Right,” Leopard said, turning to Tiger. “Go deal with the guard in the lobby. If anyone has an alarm button, it’s him. A place this small shouldn’t have much else in the way of security.”
“And, ah,” Tiger began, “What’re you basing that on, chief?”
“Not much, really. We’ll do this standard: stay off the comms unless we ask you a question by name, or you’ve gotten yourself shot.”
“Standard,” Tiger said, turning her eyes to the ceiling, “But with no killing. Got it.” She gave him a lackadaisical salute and slipped away from the group, moving so silently that it gave even Leopard a moment’s pause.
No matter what he had done, she was a very different beast. A lioness playing with the cubs.
He gestured to the stairwell and said, to Incarnate, “After you.”
The concrete stairwell led down to the basement level. The temperature dropped as Leopard and Incarnate stepped out into another bland corridor, hairs rising along his arms, under his jacket. Cooling for whatever computers and machines the government had down here.
“This way,” Incarnate said, leading off, although Leopard didn’t have the faintest reason why. But who was he to doubt a robot?
Every doorway they passed, he expected someone to come rushing out, weapon in hand, violence on their lips. Old notches worn into his brain, synapses aching to fire: survive or die. And yet his heart never rose beyond a steady, relaxed tempo. He was off-guard, but not afraid. He wanted – needed – the violence, just because it was more familiar than sneaking around.
Somewhere, Cometary chuckled.
“Here,” Incarnate said, coming to a glass door. Behind it, there was a room filled with terminals, workstations, and server racks. Stenciled on the glass pane were the words: TRAFFIC CONTROL CENTER. Leopard frowned. A biometric lock, black and final, sat where the handle would be.
“That’s a problem,” Leopard said. “If there’s an alarm here, that’ll trigger it.”
Incarnate tilted her head, silent, and put her fist through the glass, splitting the air with a shattering cacophony, and opened the door from the inside. She glanced in his direction, read his incredulous expression. “It’s what Sabra would do.”
Leopard followed her in. Incarnate walked past the terminals and servers, studying them each in turn, but never breaking stride. “Doesn’t that bother you?” he asked, “That we’re taking orders from some kid?”
“Sabra is an adult.”
“Okay, I’ll give you that. Trust a robot to be pedantic. But like Fisher said, this isn’t like running a basketball game.”
Incarnate stood at one of the workstations, fingers dancing over the keyboard. “You do not have the best track record of recognizing good leadership. Sabra has better information than you.”
Sharp vocal processor. Still, he had to give her the point.
Leopard sidled up to Incarnate’s shoulder but kept an eye on the doorway. No word from Tiger yet, which meant she hadn’t gotten herself shot. Probably. “How long is this going to take?”
“Too long,” Incarnate stated. One hand still typing at a blinding speed, she reached around to the back of the computer and yanked a cable free. “Given the amount of data to analyze, a direct connection is necessary.” She adjusted her hair, popped a port open at the nape of her neck, and plugged herself in.
“This may take some time, Jack,” Incarnate said. “I will rejoin you momentarily.” And with that, Incarnate slumped forward, face blank, blue eyes dim. After a moment, Leopard waved a hand in front of her eyes, but she remained as still as a statue.
“Great,” Leopard muttered, “Just great.”
That was when the alarm sounded.
It took four minutes for the guards to find him. Leopard had shrugged off his jacket, setting his gun under it so he wouldn’t find himself using it. He didn’t want to kill – he certainly didn’t want to kill people who were just collecting a paycheque – but violence always risked that peculiar disassociation.
Three men stepped through the glass door, each of them wearing the drab olive and black uniform of a security guard. The three had stun batons, but no firearms. Thank God for Australia’s gun laws.
The guard at the head of the little vanguard – his nametag read BURKE – glanced past Leopard, to Incarnate, then back to him. “You, and her,” he said. “Get down on your knees and put your hands behind your head.”
Leopard held his ground, and a familiar fire began to kindle behind his sternum. “Listen, Burke. We’re just here to pay a traffic fine.”
“Funny man,” Burke said. “But the cops are already on the way. We can do this the easy way or the hard way.”
Shit. And how long until Incarnate was responsive? Three security guards were one thing, but cops were another. Especially without his armorweave. He was caught between stalling for Incarnate’s sake, and cutting his losses.
His mind wandered to Sabra and the others. Good people. Better than him.
“Let’s do this the easy way, friends,” Leopard replied. “Just walk away. I’ve taken stunner blows before, and you work up a bit of a tolerance. We’re not hurting anyone.”
“Tell that to my man upstairs. He’ll be eating through a tube.”
Ah, Tiger. What’d you do?
Leopard just shrugged, and the heat extended from his ribs to his fingers in a pleasant wave. “But he’ll be eating. It’s not worth dying for information like this, man.”
Burke reached for his stun baton. “Is that a threat?”
“More advice, really.” Another shrug. “A warning, maybe.”
“You heard him, boys. Take him down.”
The three men spread around him, stun batons in hand. Leopard licked his lips, smiled like he was welcoming an old friend, and let them come.
The guards were slow. Perhaps this wasn’t what they were signed on for, perhaps he had intimidated them, perhaps they agreed with him. Either way, they were slow, and Leopard leaped to meet them.
Leopard grabbed the closest man by the arm, twisting him around to put him between himself and the other two and slammed his head against the nearest workstation. The man cried out and then, louder, as Leopard dropped his weight onto the man’s right arm – and the edge of the table. Ulna and radius snapped like plywood, stun baton clattering away.
Leopard fought down the urge to stomp down on the man’s skull and whirled to face his second opponent instead, darting back from the sweep of his baton, and hammering him with three blows to the solar plexus. Leopard grabbed for his arm and, roaring, hurled the second man over his shoulder and across a pair of desks.
The third – Burke, Leopard noted, through that disassociative haze – tagged him with his baton, and burning static surged along Leopard’s nerves. He twisted away, fighting the spasming incoherence through pure grit, and staggered for space. The first man was curled around his broken arm, the second had decided that it was better to stay down than risk dying for goddamn traffic lights, but the third still had fight in him.
Good. So did Leopard.
“So much for your tolerance,” Burke sneered.
“So much for your men. And I’m not down yet.”
Leopard turned his head to look at Incarnate – still there, still as a statue – and that let Burke think he had an opening. He surged forward, straight into Leopard’s boot. Burke went down in a heap and Leopard kneeled down to police his baton, hit him once more for good measure, and Burke jabbed him in the face.
It was the surprise more than the pain that left Leopard stumbling, and then it was the pain as Burke brought the stun baton down on his chest. Leopard curled around the blow, limbs spasming, gritting his teeth, trying to fight it. And Burke hit him again, and again, and again.
The world vanished into static. Leopard lay there, not able to think, breaths coming in shallow gasps. In the corner of his vision, Incarnate drew herself upright. Burke saw it too, and he turned, baton raised and sparking.
Incarnate advanced, not breaking stride as she slipped past his first strike and snagged his arm. With horrifying casualness, she broke his wrist, then his elbow, then his shoulder. In another second, she had him by the throat, and she slammed his face against the nearest workstation.
Leopard groaned, rolled onto his front and pushed himself to his knees, then to standing. “Please tell me you got what we came for,” he said.
“I did,” Incarnate replied, already heading for the door.
Leopard scooped up his jacket and gun, jogged to catch her.
“And, for future reference,” Incarnate said, “Don’t do that.”
“Wave your hand in front of my eyes. It’s impolite.”
They raced for the fire exit in a mad sprint. Now, Leopard could hear the sirens.
“Tiger!” Leopard shouted into the comms, “Please tell me you’ve got the car ready!”
“Ready and inbound!” Tiger fired back. “This is going to be hot. Back door, don’t be late!”
They burst out of the backdoor, Incarnate leading, just as Tiger slammed on the brakes in the middle of the road, poked her head out of the driver’s side window. “Get your ass in gear!” Tiger shouted, “Move!”
Leopard clambered in after Incarnate. Tiger had the SUV moving before Leopard had sat down, slamming him back into the seat. He caught a flash of red and blue strobing through the rear window, just as a pair of sleek police vehicles slewed sideways around the corner.
“Hovercars,” Tiger said, eyes on the rearview. “Fuck.”
“We can’t outrun those,” Leopard replied.
“Rifle’s in the back! You know what to do! Don’t break my baby, Jack!”
Leopard turned in his seat, reaching for Tiger’s weapon – but Incarnate grabbed him by the wrist, her grip like iron. “No,” she said. “Do not.”
“Girlbot,” Tiger snapped, “Now is not the time!”
“If we escalate the situation, we will find it beyond our ability to control. We must maintain a low profile for as long as possible.”
“She’s right,” Leopard said. “Look, they’re coming after us for breaking and entering, accessing secure files. The moment we start shooting, they’re going to call in the capes. That’s not a fight we can win.”
“Shit!” Tiger clutched the wheel as she sped through an intersection. “Shit!” To Leopard, it seemed like agreement.
He toggled his comms. “Fulcrum,” he said. “Fulcrum, come in. We’ve got the package, but the cops are gaining on us. We need that support.”
“Did they get her?” Leopard asked. “Did anyone hear from Fulcrum?”
“She’s maintaining a low profile,” Incarnate replied.
Something slammed into the leading police car, slewing it about and sending debris flying through the air. There was Sabra for a fleeting second, armor illuminated by strobing red and blue, as she kicked in her jets and leaped for the nearest rooftop.
“And that’s low profile?!” Leopard snapped. But the second car slammed on the brakes, breaking off the pursuit to see to their compatriots.
“Sabra has better information than you,” Incarnate replied. “Samantha, head for the bridge.”
“You sure about that? They’ll track this car back to our safe house.”
“If it arrives at the safehouse, yes.” Incarnate reached under the shotgun seat and produced a pair of black masks, just large enough to fit over the chin and nose. Rebreathers, but not mil-spec.
Leopard stared for a moment, then put the pieces together. “We’ll dump it in the river.”
“Precisely.” Incarnate passed one to him, and another to Tiger. “The filters can operate for one hour. Swim upstream – they will assume we have been washed out to the ocean. Red light means five minutes of oxygen remaining.”
“Got it,” Leopard said, already reaching to down the windows.
The late-night streets flashed past, and Tiger didn’t let up on the accelerator, even as they hit the bridge. “Get ready, ladies,” she called. “Because this is going to be rough.”
The SUV crashed through the barrier to Leopard’s left, slamming him back into his seat. Then there was a moment of freefall – glorious freefall – and the SUV crashed into the placid water, hard enough to give Leopard whiplash.
The car was already taking on water. Despite the plan, Leopard felt a surge of panic, the idea that this wouldn’t work, that they’d all drown. There was something primal in the fear. Every human knew that being trapped in an enclosed space with the water level rising was a bad idea.
“Wait,” Incarnate said. “You are not in danger of drowning.”
Well, she wouldn’t drown, of course.
Leopard toggled his rebreather on as the water reached his chin and then, soon after that, rose above him. The car sank into the dark depths, coming to rest on the bottom. Then, Leopard moved, turned in his seat and began kicking at the window. On the third, it gave, and Leopard hauled himself out.
He drifted with the current for a moment, just enough to orientate himself and know the direction to swim against. Tiger floated nearby, rifle in hand. Incarnate, however, with all of her metal frame, stood on the riverbed maybe two or three meters below them, a dark shape with two cobalt stars in the deep.
Tiger waved to him, raised her left fist, pumped it. Get moving.
Leopard nodded and turned, swimming against the current.
They swam until their rebreathers flicked red.
The group emerged from the water at a scenic park on the south side of the river, hair plastered against their faces, freezing in the post-midnight air. Tiger first, then Leopard, with Incarnate stomping her way out just behind. On the other side of the river, further downstream, a police VTOL hovered about, searchlights seeking.
Not out of the woods yet. Don’t get sloppy. But, God, the chill cut to the bone, and an hour of oxygen did little for the fatigue.
“So,” Tiger said, “Anyone want to call dad and let him know he’s not getting the deposit back?”
Leopard fetched his phone from his pocket and poked at it, more out of hope that’d work than any real expectation that it would. “No good,” he said. “I have to admit, I don’t have my bearings yet.”
“I do,” Incarnate said, “This way.”
“Just so you know,” Tiger grumbled, “I didn’t come all this way to get killed by pneumonia.” She wrung water and mud out of her hair. “What’re we going to do, hail a cab?”
They hailed a cab.
It made sense, here in Australia, where automation had taken root. After all, if there was no driver, then one didn’t need to worry about being ratted out to the authorities by them. The lack of forced conversation was just a bonus. Leopard inserted the credit card of a dead man, paid his money, said his destination, and that was that.
But still, just to be sure, Leopard directed the cab just a few blocks east of the safehouse. Sabra met them halfway there, helmet under her armored arm.
She asked, “Did it work?”
“We’re not being tailed,” Leopard said, “So that worked at least. As for the information…” He gestured to Incarnate.
“Monkey left the null zone twenty-four hours ago,” Incarnate said. “Footage from the traffic control signals indicates that he headed east. The registration number of his vehicle is AZ46W2.”
“So he could be halfway to the other side of the continent. And we’re without a vehicle. We need to abandon the safehouse, too. Once they pull our SUV from the river, the paper trail’ll lead them straight here. We need to go.”
Sabra nodded. “We do. We’ll leave tonight.”
They turned onto the street their safehouse was on. Leopard led the way through the gate, towards the front door, open and ajar. He reached for the handle, and paused, the realization colder than his freezing clothes.
Open and ajar.
Leopard glanced down. The lock was broken, a bootprint on the door. He reached for his useless, drowned handgun and drew it.
“We have a fucking problem,” Leopard hissed, and shouldered his way past the door.
The inside was dark and silent, furniture overturned and broken. The group spread throughout the house. “Careful,” Leopard said. “This place isn’t secure.”
To his right, Tiger nodded. “Did someone rob us?”
Leopard palmed at the kitchen light switch, flicking it back and forth. “No. Look, they cut the power. Whoever this was, they planned this.” He turned, taking it all in. Tiger stepped away, going through the rooms, sweeping them one by one.
Incarnate emerged from the basement. “Derrek Chambers is missing.”
Tiger, from the master bedroom: “Guns are gone.”
“This was a raid,” Leopard said, mostly to himself.
From Sabra, something like, I should’ve seen this, I should’ve been looking.
Leopard shook his head, gnawing at his thought like a dog with a bone. “But the cops couldn’t have tracked us back here, not yet.”
But someone had. And there was something else, something that Sabra – standing in the middle of the kitchen, dominating the space in her armored suit – said first. “Where’s Pavel?”