I shouldn’t have taken the job. I released this now. It was crystal clean in my mind as I crouched 50 feet up, perched against the ceiling like Spiderman. If Spiderman was a middle-aged balding man, well past his prime. I’d felt it when they came to me with the job. And I would have said no if anyone else has asked. But Zek had asked. Zek, my apprentice, my protégé, hell, practically my son. Zek had come to me and begged.
“Please, man, we can’t do this without you. You’re the only one with the skill to pull this off. Just this last job then we’ll leave you alone to your retirement in peace.”
So I’d come out of retirement. To help pull a job only I could pull. Which was true, if I was 20 years younger and 40 pounds lighter. Fuck, I should have said no. I should have turned them away, told them to find someone else. But I knew the truth: there was no one else who could help them.
I could have trained them on the use of the technique, but it would have been too late by then. The window would have closed and the job gone. And Zek, the young man had explained, needed this job. He’d gotten into something bad, Goddamn it. The kid was gifted in the craft but stupid in matters of business. Besides, teaching the technique wasn’t easy and if I was being honest with myself, I wasn’t sure Zek was ready for it. I’d teach the young man when he was ready, of course, but now wasn’t that time.
So I’d taken the job, against my best judgment, and now I wasn’t sure I could finish it. There was a reason I’d gone into retirement ten years ago; muscles were weaker and not as flexible, joints were stiffer. I could feel my age every morning when I got out of bed.
Fuck, bed sounded nice. I was too old for this crap.
Beneath me, an Imp continued on its stroll. Not everyone called them that, of course. Officially, they were called Sopterans. They came to Earth before I was born, leveled a couple of cities, and took over the neighborhood. Generally, after the sacking and raiding of prominent cities, and according to the history books I’d read in grade school, the Sopterans were peaceful. They gave humans technology and longevity. They had colonies on the moon, Mars, Titan, and a few of Jupiter and Saturn’s other moons where humans and Sopterans worked side-by-side.
Almost side-by-side, anyway. The Sopterans kept the best things for themselves, naturally.
But that wasn’t why I called them Imps. I called them Imps because they reminded me of Imperial soldiers from the ancient Star Wars movies that my grandfather loved so much. We’d spent hours watching those films when I was a boy. And the Sopterans, they dressed just like the Imperial Stormtroopers did in those old movies.
So I went into the business, calling the Sopterans Imps and thought of myself as some Han Solo hero working against the man.
But that was a long time ago. And here I was, perched 50 feet above the floor, a floor that would burn me to a crisp if I didn’t step exactly where the Imp stepped, snagging some Imp trinket so that my adoptive son didn’t end up buried up to his ears in fire ant infested territories.
The things I’d do for love.
I shook my head, clearing it of nostalgia and worry and focused on the task at hand. I moved my gaze back to the Imp, not really watching the Imp, but focusing on his path. I burned it into my memory, tracing it over and over again in my mind’s eye. Each step had to be precise; each placement of the toe and heel exact. The Imp’s had some way to sense it, some extra sense that allowed them to walk the path without fear. It’s how they kept humans from entering places they didn’t want humans to enter.
But I, I figured it out. That was my talent, my technique as the kids called it. The Imp left the room, continuing his rounds in the rest of the collection. I climbed down from my perch, every joint aching with the effort, my muscles straining. Carefully, ever so carefully, I stepped down on to the floor, matching my footfalls exactly to where the Imp has stepped. Any deviation would kill me.
My calves were killing me after being perched against the ceiling for so long. I wavered, almost tripped. Arms waving, I fought back, pulling my center of mass back toward the correct path. A step, almost outside the path. I could feel the heat of the tiles, but I stepped true.
Almost there. Another five steps then I would complete this crazy mission and be back in the mountains of Colorado, my feet up on my coffee table, a fire in my stone fireplace, my favorite cat in my lab and my dog on the carpet basking in the warmth. Four more steps. Three. Two.
I lifted the glass case. There were no alarms here. Imps didn’t steal from each other. It just wasn’t done. But they learned quickly that humans did. Thus the deadly floors. But for some reason they never installed alarms.
I grabbed the device, some laser gun thing that would probably fetch a tidy sum on the black market. I tucked it a pouch I’d had made especially for these types of jobs and turned. And froze. There were footfalls in the other room, coming my way.
Shit. Twenty years ago, hell ten years ago, I would have ran for it. I could have retraced my steps exactly from memory and been up the wall before the Imp was anywhere near the room. But now… Shit. I was too old, too slow, and my memory was not what it used to be. I needed to retrace my steps slowly, wasn’t quite as sure as I would have been as a young man.
The footsteps were nearer now.
I had two options: risk it and run for it or hide and pray to – well fuck, I wasn’t sure who to pray to because I didn’t believe in anything other than myself. Guess that really left only one option.
I darted from the case and sprinted, and calling it sprinting was being very generous, across the floor. The side of my left foot stepped over the invisible line. Shooting pain laced up my leg, but I forced myself to ignore it for the moment. To be caught was certain death. The Imps did not take kindly to their things being stolen by humans.
I leapt at the wall, the leap hardly taking me three feet off the ground. But the material of my gloves, designed from studying gecko feet, allowed me to hold against the surface and I started to climb. It was difficult, the burn on my left foot melted the fabric into my flesh and it wouldn’t hold. Plus the pain. Jesus Christ, the pain almost made me black out. But if I blacked out, they would find me. And if they found me, they would certainly kill me. And if they killed me, well, Zek would have a plot next mine shortly.
Fuck, the things I did for love. When this was over, I would have a serious fucking talk with that kid about picking his jobs better.
The strange flashlights, more blue and indigo than white, swept into the room in front of the Imp. I was almost at the ceiling. If I could wedge myself between the ceiling and the wall, Spiderman-like again, I had a chance. The stupid Imps never had understood the concept of the old square buildings. Everything new they built was round, no corners to hide in. It’s like they didn’t think corners existed.
Made it just as the Imp’s head came into view, the weird light of the room gleaming off the white helmet and black eye slits.
We noticed at the same time. I hadn’t put the glass case back. Shit. Fuck. Damn. If I’d put it back, they might not have noticed anything was missing for at least a few hours. More than enough time for me to sneak back out and be on my way home.
Shit. Fuck. Damn. I was too old for this crap. That was a rookie mistake. I would have boxed Zek’s ears if the kid did something that stupid.
The Imps make this noise. Oh, they speak English well enough. Really, they could learn any language and speak it pretty well. I once met an Imp would spoke 14 different Earth languages (the Imp’s phrase, not mine) plus a dozen or more galactic languages as well. But their own language was… I’m never sure how to describe it. Some mix of a dog’s bark, a jet engine, and the sound a quick little fart makes. And then there was this noise they made. Not painful, exactly, but damn odd. Crunching and clacking and licking all rolled into one.
I knew I was boned if I didn’t move fast. Corners or no, they would find me soon enough. The vent I used to get in their warehouse was at my eye level. I just needed to readjust my hand. Flip my body so it faced the wall. Shit, needed to do something about that foot. It slipped and I lost a little purchase, sliding down an inch or two, but my hands were at the vent and it was – correction, it was not easy pulling my ass into the vent.
Goddamn that little bastard. I was definitely having a talk with Zek when we returned to my cabin. And maybe I should really think about losing a few extra pounds.
My backpack lay where I left it in the vent. Sweeting, panting, I pushed it in front of me and crawled back through the tunnel to the maintenance shaft I’d entered through only thirty minutes ago, hoping like hell that the Imps hadn’t called out the Sniffers yet.
Only people in the business called them Sniffers. Everyone else called them Trackers. They were giant jackal-looking creatures only, they weren’t jackals. Their joints were backwards, their noses too big, their eyes too big, their ears too big. Genetically modified specifically to hunt humans. And once they were on your scent, you were damned. Very little could remove them from your trail.
Luckily, there was something that could fool them. And I never left home without it.
I shoved the backpack through the opening and squirmed my way through. I ripped the zipper down with one hand and unbuckled my special pouch with the other. In went the pouch, followed quickly by the gloves and one booty. The other, well, I’d deal with the other later. For now, I pulled a small canister out of the bag and sprayed the contents on my damaged foot. The foam cooled, formed, and solidified all in under ten seconds. It also, yep, the painkillers were kicking in. I could walk on it almost normally. I exchanged the canister for a ball cap, a ratty plan red shirt (the Imps had trouble seeing red), and an old pair of jeans that easily slide over the skintight black burglar outfit I wore. Old tennis shoes completed the outfit, making me look like any other tourist. Last, I pulled out a large spray bottle and doused myself and my bag with the contents.
The Sniffers wouldn’t find me.
I opened the door a crack and glanced into the dim hallway. No Imps or other personnel. The door shut softly behind me. I walked as calmly and normally as possible, but my foot still hurt despite the painkillers and I knew if someone spotted me now, I wasn’t sure I could talk my way out of it.
But no one came into the maintenance hallway.
I stopped at the end of hall and listened at the door. Controlled panic on the other side. Messages to stay calm rang out in a dozen languages.
I took a deep breath, let it out slowly, then pulled the door back just enough for me to peak out. People where being lead toward the exit. All bags were being searched by Sniffers.
But no Imps where by my door and this was the only way out. I closed the door again, doused the contents of my bag and myself with the liquid in my spray bottle once more for good measure and squeezed out of the maintenance hall and into the flow of pedestrian traffic.
Just another tourist come to visit the Sopteran Government mansion on Earth. I walked with the crowd toward the Imps with their Sniffers, trying to keep my breathing under control. Sweat dribbled down the back of my balding head and pooled at the collar of my shirt. I didn’t dare wipe it off.
I’d been in worse situations, of course. Twelve years ago, or was it thirteen?, I’d almost been caught by the Imps. There was a daring chase through Paris, always Paris. Back alleys and kitchens and hiding in the dark parks. I was a younger man back then. There was no way I was running through the streets of Beijing at my age.
My turn. The Imps, polite as ever, asked/demanded that I open my bag. One Sniffer, uglier up close than I remembered, stuck its bobble-head-sized nose into the backpack and took a long wiff. A second ran its snout up and down my body, taking huge gulps of my scent.
I didn’t tense. I swear on my mother’s grave that I didn’t tense. The Sniffer in my bag lifted its ugly head and turned to the next guest.
“Thank you for your cooperation,” one of the Imp handlers said in its almost metallic English. I nodded, not trusting myself to speak. To think, in my younger days, I would have made small talk with the Imp. Fuck, I used to be a ballsy idiot.
Down the steps and down the block. The painkillers were wearing off and every step lit a tiny fire over my arch. But I did not run. I did not look over my shoulder.
Three blocks straight and four blocks to the right and I was limping pretty badly.
A car pulled up next to me, a kid with bright blue hair was driving and a girl with a shaved head and hologram tattoos was in the passenger seat. The back door opened as the car back to a stop. I hoped in and they pulled away from the curb.
“Fuck,” a young man with cybernetic eyes breathed. He leaned back in the seat. “Fuck. I thought you were humped.” Lingo from an older age. I smiled as I pulled the sneakers from my wounded foot. I really enjoyed the hell out of all that retro crap.
“Shit,” the girl exclaimed. “What the fuck happened?”
“I’m old,” I replied, suddenly tired. “Not as nimble as I used to be. It’ll be fine once a doc looks at it.”
“Sure man, where’s a hospital?” the driver asked. I almost snacked him. Zek got there first.
“You stupid or something? Can’t do it here. Once we’re back in Greater California. We know a guy in Colorado.” The kid did know his shit, even if he didn’t know what jobs to take.
“But seriously. When I saw the Sniffers, I thought you were humped. How the fuck did you get away from them?”
“Kid,” I ask as I leaned back in the seat, “I haven’t taught you everything yet. Listen, did I ever tell you about this one job in Paris?”