“I can’t believe they offer tours of this place,” Kat remarked with a shake of her head as Hestia, Whippoorwill, Xander and her walked by the looming skeleton of a dinosaur. “It seems like a security risk to me.”
“At some point that risk became a status symbol.” Xander frowned as Hestia stepped past him in order to crowd closer to Kat. “The Field Tower used to be a museum, but as the Megalopolis grew they started adding floors on top of it. They kept the museum so that us commoners can come downtown and gawk at how rich and great they are.”
“Don’t worry,” Hestia purred, a slightly too-wide smile stretched across her face. “Only the first two floors are open to the public. After that we’ll have plenty of chances to melt and burn our way through the bad guys.”
“Just a second.” Kat held up a hand, “Exe and I need to change our faces.”
The four of them stepped out of the walkway, letting crowds of tourists walk past, snapping pictures of the fossils and rare mineral samples with their smart panels. Whip and Hestia shielded her and Xander with their slim bodies as she recast Mirage.
Xander’s features smoothed, his eyes moving a bit apart and changing colors as his nose grew slightly. Kat squinted at him appraisingly before nodding. Mirage wouldn’t let her make major changes, but with proper care it could change someone’s appearance enough to fool a guard or facial recognition software.
She pulled a compact out of her purse, flipping it open so that she had access to a mirror. A second later, she touched up her own appearance with Mirage, lightening her hair, and altering the bone structure of her cheeks.
With a snap, she closed the plastic lid of the compact and slipped it back into her purse, before turning back to the rest of their group.
“I simply must pick up light magic,” Hestia sighed, shaking her head. “It’s not fair that you can circumvent hours of makeup and plastic surgery with a snap of your fingers. That’s cheating.”
Behind Hestia, Whippoorwill nodded fervently.
“Mirage is an advanced spell. It’s meant for disguises and blurring your outline in combat,” Kat replied with a roll of her eyes. “It isn’t meant to give you smoky eyes and highlights.”
“But you did give yourself smoky eyes and highlights,” Whip said accusingly.
Kat blushed, opening her mouth to reply only for the museum loudspeaker to cut her off.
“It is 5:50 p.m. Visitors to the Field Tower should begin making their way to the exits as the Tower will be closing in ten minutes. Ten minutes after that, security will apprehend anyone still in the building with prejudice.”
“That’s our cue,” Xander chuckled, slapping Kat on the shoulder. “Let’s all head to the bathroom and wait for security.”
Xander led the way, doing his best to avoid the building’s visible cameras. One by one, all four of them furtively entered the men’s restroom, making their way to the toilets. Each of them took their own stall and climbed up on top of the porcelain seats. Once their feet were off the ground, they crouched concealing themselves from any potential patrols.
This was the riskiest part of the operation. Whip and Hestia were both wearing a lot of makeup, but in reality, all four of them were counting on the teeming hubbub of tourists to hide their movements.
Quietly, Kat pulled her wadded up infiltration suit out of her large purse and began slipping it on over her clothes. It didn’t fit perfectly, the outfit wasn’t designed to have something on under it, but she could live with a couple of uncomfortable lumps for the next hour or so.
The door to the bathroom opened, and Kat’s breath caught in her throat.
Heavy footsteps thudded on the tiles as someone began walking into the bathroom. Kat’s arm tensed, gripping her knife as she prepared to make a silent kill. Their plan didn’t include having to stash a body and race the clock against the inevitable alarm when someone came up missing, but-
The steps stopped outside of her door, the flimsy layer of metal and plastic all that separated her from what Kat could only assume was corporate security.
Her muscles burned as Kat kept herself coiled, ready to pounce on the guard the instant they noticed her. She tensed her body, hoping that the kevlar weave of her ‘street clothes’ would be enough to stop the bullets if the security officer opened fire through the door.
One second dragged into another as a single bead of sweat pooled on the back of her neck and began running down her back.
Then she heard the rushing sound of water as they turned on a faucet. A second later, they began whistling the chorus to a pop song as they washed their hands.
“Compulsion,” a thrill ran through Kat’s body as Xander’s voice echoed through the mostly empty room and the whistling stopped.
The steps receded away from her, and a couple of seconds later, the bathroom door closed. Kat held her breath.
After a moment of silence, Xander interrupted her anxious thoughts.
“Everyone get your masks on. Their sweep of the floor should be done in ten minutes, so we’ll head out in twenty.”
Kat pulled the fabric over her face before tucking it under the collar of her infiltration suit. Nearby, the other bathroom stalls creaked open, and she joined Hestia and Whippoorwill in the main room.
All four of them were dressed head to toe in the black suits, milling about aimlessly as they waited for the hallways to clear. Xander was himself, calm and somewhat bored, while Whippoorwill managed to look both excited and uncomfortable at the same time.
Hestia? She managed to make the outfit look good, somehow avoiding any of the uncomfortable bulges of bunched clothing that were visible beneath the rest of their infiltration suits.
Finally, Xander spoke up.
“It is officially Six Twenty-five. Time for us to move out. Remember, the target is a security office on the tenth floor. Dorian and Merrimac have infiltrated independently and they’ll meet us there. After that, it should just be a matter of disabling the upper floor’s defenses and finding the secure storage center.”
“Stay between Hestia and I.” Kat turned to Whippoorwill and squeezed her shoulder. “Between the two of us, we should be able to keep you safe, but if someone starts shooting, dive for cover.”
“Thank you for the advice,” Whip’s defiant voice was a bit shaky, “but getting gut shot once was already enough for me. I could go my entire life without having to hear about intestinal grafting again.”
“Don’t worry,” Hestia purred. “Erinyes and I will keep you safe. It’s not often that two experienced elementalists work together. I doubt the corpos are going to know what hit them, and even if they did, we can always just burn the entire building down.”
Xander opened the door, popping his head out into the hallway to look around before turning back to the three women. Kat could almost hear him rolling his eyes.
“I would like to remind everyone that this is supposed to be a stealth mission. Any security we run into should be avoided if possible.”
“If you have to kill someone.” Xander stopped, pointing his black clad finger at Hestia, “I want it done quiet. No disintegrations.”
“As you wish,” she replied sarcastically, crossing her arms.
Xander just shook his head, pushing the door open gently and stepping out into the now empty hallway. Hestia followed him with Whippoorwill just behind her. Kat took up the rear, hand on her silenced pistol as she surveyed the empty building.
The halls of the Field Tower were different without teeming crowds of tourists. Naked except for the blinking red lights of security cameras and an exhibit on bronze age tool making that occupied the far wall.
Quickly, she cast Shadow twice, doing her best to extend the size of the spell. They had to crowd close together for it to work, but to outside eyes the four of them should look like more than a mobile cloud of murky shadow.
They made it as far as the electronically-locked fire door to the building’s stairwell before they encountered their first guard, a bored but alert man with a stun baton in his hand and a submachine gun strapped to his hip. His expression sharpened as he noticed the unnaturally dark section of the hallway that the four of them were hiding in, and the baton crackled to life as he stepped forward.
“Compulsion.” Before Kat or the guard could act, Xander stepped out of the darkness, a purple glow ominously outlining him for a fraction of a second.
Xander grabbed the man’s stun baton from his nerveless hand and jammed the crackling electrodes into the side of his neck. The security officer spasmed, eyes rolling back into his head as he collapsed bonelessly to the ceramic floor of the museum.
Kat cursed under her breath, looking down at the twitching man. Of course this would be a problem. Shadow was a great spell for fooling the eye in small, dark crevices. Instead, the huge area covered by the two concurrent spells was a bit of a giveaway to any guards with discerning eyes. It was better than standing in the open, but that was about all she could say for it.
Quietly and efficiently, Xander rifled through the man’s pockets. First he crushed the guard’s smartpanel, preventing him from calling for help. Then, with quick, sure motions he fastened the man’s hands and feet with a pair of zip ties. Finally, he ripped off a chunk off of his captive’s shirt to fasten into a makeshift gag.
After dragging the man behind a pillar of stone covered in cuneiform markings, Xander sauntered back out, flashing a green keycard between his index and pointer finger. Kat rolled her eyes inside her mask as he almost casually swiped the rectangle of plastic through the stairwell’s reader, opening the heavy steel door.
“Why leave him alive?” Hestia hissed as she stepped into the stairwell with them. “If he wakes up, we could be in for a world of hurt.”
Xander shrugged as he began to climb the stairs, craning his head over his shoulder to respond, “if he doesn’t wake up, that could set off an instant alarm. A lot of these places have biomonitors in their guards to track their heartbeat and location. Him not moving will raise a yellow flag, but if he dies, we’re looking at sirens and corporate security as far as the eye can see.”
Hestia grumbled something indecipherable back. Xander paused, his face hidden by his mask as he glanced back at her.
“I don’t do quiet,” she grumbled. “Immolating someone before they can call in backup is the closest I come to stealth.”
Xander just chuckled, shaking his head before turning back to the stairs. The team followed him.. At every landing, Xander would call a halt, pausing for a moment to inspect the walls and stairs around them.
Three times he found a button to disable a trapped landing, and one time Kat had to grab his shoulder to stop him from stepping on a field of translucent needles. After a minute of searching they found the release that pulled the tiny blades back into the floor.
Other than that things proceeded tensely, but smoothly. On each floor, Kat kept expecting to find a guard patrol smoking a cigarette, or for Xander to step on a pressure plate and have an automated gun to pop out of the cement.
Nothing happened. By the time the four of them reached the tenth floor, the clang of the gun at her hip against the metal railing sent Kat almost a foot in the air. When she came down, she was hyperventilating with her knife in hand.
A hand on her shoulder brought Kat around, knife at the ready. She let out a sigh of relief as she made out Whip’s black-clad form.
“I know how you’re feeling,” the woman whispered, tension in her voice. “I don’t want to jinx things by saying that it’s too quiet, but you know.”
“It's too quiet,” Kat sighed.
“Shush, you two,” Xander called back. “We’re on the tenth floor. Stop cursing us, and be quiet. We’re almost to the security station and the rendezvous with Merrimac and Dorian, and that would only make blowing our cover now all the more embarrassing.”
They crept through the halls, ducking aside twice as patrols came into view, but the roving guards never came close enough to be an actual issue. Eventually, after getting turned around in the winding passages of the administrative wing three or four times, they came upon the metal door of the security annex.
Xander leaned forward, touching the door. It swung gently inward, letting a crack of light spill out into the hallway. With a shrug, he put his eye to the door only to take a step back and put his hands up.
“Its Exe,” Xander hissed. “Put the fucking cannon down, Merrimac.”
The door opened fully, revealing Davis in a dark grey outfit that vaguely resembled the ChromeDog infiltration suits. At his shoulder, Davis held a massive weapon at the ready. Kat didn’t recognize its make or caliber, but it was even bigger than the squad-operated fifty caliber machine guns she’d seen the ChromeDogs equipping their warehouse base with. Mentally, she confirmed her assessment that Davis must have some serious chrome or player levels hidden beneath his mild exterior given the way he freely carried such a bulky weapon.
Davis stuck his head out into the hallway and scanned back and forth before motioning their team inside.
“Get in here before a patrol wanders by,” Davis said, stepping to the side and lowering his weapon. “Dorian is already jacked into the network. He disabled the auto alarm for the dead guards, and trying now he’s trying to locate the secure storage.”
“Dead guards?” Whippoorwill asked as she filed into the room after Kat. “But we managed to make it here without-”
“Oh,” she finished lamely, taking in the bodies of four security officers.
At least what was left of them. None of the corpses were intact, all of them sporting gaping cantaloupe-sized holes in their torsos. Three of them missing limbs entirely, but Kat quickly located them by the blood and viscera covering a bulletin board on the other side of the room, the appendages in a twisted mess beneath it.
“Merrimac!” Hestia breezed past them and into the room. She ripped off her facemask and shook her head, letting her hair flutter in the recycled and air-conditioned air of the office building. “You’ve been having fun without me.”
“I was a bit upset over the boy,” Davis replied sheepishly. “I got a bit overzealous.”
“Not to break up this love fest,” Xander cut in, moving past them toward another network jack, “but I’ll help Dorian with the security. One of us can handle finding the vault while the other turns off the traps and alarms.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Andrew called out, waving Xander off. “I’m almost done. Just a little bit more and I’ll have the passcode for the storage center.”
“Two sets of eyes are better than none,” Xander chuckled, setting the stun baton he’d liberated from the guard on the second floor as he plugged himself into the wall. “The least I can do is double check the electronic records to make sure you didn’t miss anything while erasing all mention of us.”
His head whipped around, the gaze of this featureless black mask on Dorian.
“Wait, why the fuck are we surround-” Xander never got to finish the sentence as gunfire drowned out his words.
Time seemed to slow. Merrimac’s chest rippled as bullet after bullet thumped into him, Dorian’s machine pistol chattering as it spat out rounds.
Kat tackled Whippoorwill, bringing the stunned girl to the ground and out of the line of fire. Distantly, she heard Xander screaming something, but she was more focused on dragging the trembling girl behind a metal desk.
A blast of flame seared past her, practically melting her infiltration suit to her skin as Hestia practically ignited. Kat’s Sensory Dampening kicked in as the white-hot beam of fire slammed into the wall next to Dorian, filling the room with enough light to give exposed skin a sunburn.
The door to the security room slammed open, a guard shouldering her way inside with a rifle at the ready only to take a pair of bullets to the face as Xander popped up over the edge of the desk he’d taken cover behind.
A spray of gunfire drove Hestia out of cover and into the open even as a trio of blue balls, spitting flames and hotter than a stove even halfway across the room, zipped out the door. A second later they exploded, ripping the security door from its hinges and rocking the room. The lights flickered once and then died as the blasts ruptured something important.
Someone fired a shot into the room, the bullet shattering a smartglass display but coming nowhere near anyone inside. Then, the room lapsed into silence, the only sounds Merrimac’s wet, ragged breathing, and the crackle of flames as a chair burned on the other side of the room.
“Why Dorian?” Hestia begged, tears in her voice. “Merrimac has been like a brother to us for decades. How could you?”
“To Andrew?” Dorian’s voice responded from behind the metal cabinet he’d flipped on its side during the brief moment of combat. “Maybe. But Andrew’s been dead for weeks. Buried with a dozen other bodies in a hole outside of Beloit.”
“For a group that claims to be like siblings to each other,” he taunted, “none of you noticed me taking his place. I thought I was done for sure once you found out about Project Changeling, but no one even blinked at me being ‘too busy’ to show up to the meeting in The Tower of Somnus.”
Kat’s heart dropped as one of the guards outside the room sprayed gunfire wildly through the gaping hole where the door had once been. Their only exit was teeming with security.
It had been too quiet for a reason as they made their way up to the tenth floor. The entire operation had been a trap.
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Bio: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the streets at dawn looking for an angry fix of machine translated light novels, burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of the night