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That First Job

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything original.  I needed to jot something down to maybe get some creative juices flowing once more.  So I sat down and started writing a character I’ve haven’t visited in a while.  Hopefully it’s okay.

This is part of what is becoming more of a series than I though it would be.  There is no real order because each story is contained, but this is the third story I’ve shared with this character.  Enjoy.


That First Job

My grandfather always warned me to be prepared.  He would place his tanned and scared hand on my shoulder, locked his eyes, one bright and brown the other hazy and milky and blind, with mine and say in his booming voice, “Be ready.”  I was small, awed by what he had seen and what he had to say and what he had to show me still.  So I said, “for what?”  And he would look over my head, his one good eye seeing things I couldn’t dream of.  “For anything.”

I’m pretty sure this is not what my grandfather had in mind when he said to be prepared for anything.  I’m pretty sure he was thinking of long-gone battles and mostly forgotten thoughts of rebellion and war with the Imps.  I’m pretty sure he wanted me to be prepared for the day when humanity threw off our alien overloads/protectors.  He, sadly, is still waiting for that.

I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean that I should be prepared to hang by my fingertips off the side of building I was trying to rob while the security team looked for me.  Or maybe he did.  Sometimes it was hard to know with Grandfather.

My fingertips ached.  I deeply regretted opting for the cheaper climber gloves.  The upgrade had gecko pads which would have allowed me to cling to the side of the building in a, slightly, more comfortable position.  Lesson learned: don’t be miser when you are trying to steal from a high-rise.  Next time.

If there was a next time.

They, the nebulous they, always tell you to never look down when in a high place.  Of course, once that thought entered your head, there was no getting rid of it.  They were always right.  Never look down.

The street was really far away.  The people looked like the tiny robotic bees the Imps released after most of the real bees died off some twenty years ago.  They buzzed to and fro in their sleek motopods.  It was one of the first things the Imps gifted us with, as an apology for utterly destroying Guangzhou, the heart of world trade and finance, to teach us a lesson about trying to fight back.  The motopods were pretty neat though, sleek metal teardrop shaped pods that could communicate with each other seamlessly.  Apparently it eliminated something called traffic.  My teacher in school once said that people died by the tens of thousands in the automobiles they used before the Imps arrived.  Most people thought it was a fair trade.

My earpiece crackled and I almost lost my grip.  “Not on this floor,” the metallic voice came through.  The secretary team sent up the androids.  That was a blessing in disguise.  It meant they were less likely to double back to the floor they already checked; the floor I was currently dangling from.

“Circle back down.  He can’t have gone far,” the human controller replied.  Sweat was pouring down my face, but I couldn’t help the smirk.  Did no body read the classics anymore?

Now the hard part.  I trained for this.  I trained hours every day for a year for this.  I canvased the building, got in with the deliver companies that ran to this floor, knew where ever sensor and camera and floor monitor was.  It would do me no good if I couldn’t get in through the fucking window.

Slowly, ever so slowly, I shifted my weight on my feet and to a single hand.  My shoes, more high quality than the gloves apparently, held me fast against the slick-looking glass on the side of the building.  What most people didn’t know is that it wasn’t glass, but a porous material that helped trap carbon dioxide from the air and siphoned it through capillaries in the building to an underground plant that converted it into sugars.  All the old buildings from just after the Imps took over was built from it.  Their second gift was the material.  The best thing about it, though, was the fact that climber shoes found all the tiny pores and could cling to them.

My fingers on my left hand were sore.  I flexed them a few times before extending my arm up to grasp the lip of the window sill.  It held firm.  A few moments later, I had my other hand on the lip of the sill.  Slowly, I moved one foot than the other.  It would do no good to rush now.  I’d waited too long for this.  Rushing would only mean mistakes and mistakes meant getting caught.  Deep breath.

The nice thing about high-rise condos is that nobody locks their windows.  Because why?  The window pivoted on a hinge, leaving just enough space for me to crawl through.  It was also the only window in the place without a camera on it.  Because, again, why?

I pulled myself up and eased through the space, careful where I placed my hands and feet as I crawled through.  There wasn’t a camera on the window, but there was a floor monitor about a foot away in front of the sliding balcony door.  Most people thought it was would be easier to scale the building and enter through the balcony, I guess.  Standing, I flexed my body, popping the creaks out and rolling the muscles.  All that training paid off.  I was sore, but I could still move to do what needed to be done next.

I carried a small hip pack.  I dug through it now, finding the remote device and pushing a button.  Hacking into the security system wasn’t easy, but I’d managed it.  The cameras, at least, would show the empty house.  The sensors and floor monitors were a different story.

I learned young that I was really good with patterns.  My grandfather and I would play this game for hours where I had to figure out the patterns in his code.  It was only after I saw my first Imp that I realized I could put my special skill to a different use.  Imps walk weird, but there is a pattern to their movements, and they like to put sensors on the floor that match those patterns.  If you can’t follow their walking styles, you trip the monitors.  The Imp who lived in the condo was no exception.  And I knew his pattern.

So I moved through the living room, through the kitchen, into the collection room.

There were several items that, by themselves, were worth a fortune.  I walked right past them.  There was only one thing that was priceless in that room.

The security system was a Z12-T34 LASER system.  It was one that studied and understood on a personal level.  I crouched at the base of the display and slide aside the panel.  The Z13-T34 LASER system.

Well, fuck.

Of course.

Deep breath.

Fuck.

The Z13-T34 was just different enough that I wasn’t quite sure what I was looking at.  But time was running out and I’d come too far to back out now.  I blinked twice rapidly and my digital display opened in front of my eyes.  Rapid eye moments back and forth quickly typed in a search for the new specs.  Of course nothing that I needed popped up.

Except maybe…

One site compared the old system with the new system.  It was enough.

For once, time was on my side.  The owner of the condo was away at the main Imp archive in Paris and the bots had already scanned this level of the building.  They were unlikely to research the area.  I pulled out my tools from my hip bag and set to work, referencing the website models as needed.

I thought I would be nervous, with sweat dripping from my temples like in the old Hollywood spy movies Grandfather watched with me when I was a kid.  Instead, I felt cold and calm as my fingers and tools made quickish work of the wires and security protocols in place that protected my query.  The new system was not that different from the old, luckily, and the few major changes were easy to understand with the help of the website I’d found.  It took only a handful of minutes longer than I practiced for, but the system lights flickered and died with the last press of a button.

I stood and just stared for a moment at the model in front of me.  It wasn’t very big, maybe the size of my hand.  For some reason, it was bigger in my mind.  Carefully, I lifted it from the display and cradled it.  It was lighter than I thought too.  I flipped it over.  There, on one of the landing feet were my Grandfather’s initials, just like he said.  Now that it was in my hands, I felt the nerves start to flare up.

Deep breath.  I still had to get out of here.  I pulled a small piece of cloth from my hip bag and wrapped the model as carefully as I could.  The Millennium Falcon was coming home.


Read the other adventures from our lovable burglar

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Love Stories

1:

He thought they would be together forever.  She never wanted to leave his side.  But some things were more important than love.  Some things couldn’t be ignored while they were safe in each other arms.  Neither of them would allow the world to crumble around them when there was something they could do to stop it.  So, on the night before she left, they held each other.  They made love like it might be the last time they ever saw each other, because they both know that was more than a possibility.  He stroked her hair, wondering how he could be so lucky to have spent time with her.  She breathed him in, glad that he was a part of her life.  And in the morning, there were lingering glances and long touches as they dressed.  There were whispered declarations and unspoken promises.  He stood at the gate with her, last words of a life they both wished they could have but both knowing it wasn’t for them.  His lips pressed firmly to hers.  And then she was leaving, one last look goodbye, her eyes sparkling with tears and the promise that she could return to him one day.  Even if it took a lifetime, he would find her again one day.

2:

He knew he would break her heart one day.  She knew it too, but she would fight it for as long as she could.  She saw what happened to him when the spirit took over.  She saw what happened to him when the calling came.  Yet she stayed by his side, continued to fight for him, continued to fight with him.  Even after all he’d done, she stayed.  Nothing was more important than their love.  She didn’t care if the world fell apart around them, and it was, because he was by her side.  And he realized he didn’t care that he was crumbling with the world, as long as she was by his side.  Together, they would get through the worst of it.  As long as they were together.  He never suspected that she would break his heart.  She never thought it would be her sacrifice that saved them.

3:

She never thought she could love anyone, let alone a Templar.  She was never given that luxury in the Circle, too afraid and too aware of the consequences.  He once hated mages for what they could do, what they could become, what was done to him.  And yet here they were, him a former Templar, her a former Circle Mage.  A good old fashioned pair of star-crossed lovers.  They knew they would never be permitted to be together in their former lives.  But this was a new era, a new start, a new beginning.  He was no longer a Templar, no longer forced to watch mages, hateful and fearful.  Although he still watched one mage.  She was no longer a Circle Mage, no longer forced to be scrutinized and feared by the Templars.  Although she still enjoyed the attentions of one Templar; former Templar to be exact.  There were other problems they would face, but in that moment, none of it mattered.  For the first time in a long time, she felt like she could love.  Not for the first time since he met her, he felt like he could love her.


I’ve Got Her Back

Takes place in the Trooper storyline in Star Wars: The Old Republic before they take down the Gauntlet.

___________________________________________________________________________________________________

Lieutenant Aric Jorgan eyed the pieces of his disassembled weapon, making sure all were well oiled and ready to be assembled into his assault rifle. He picked up a piece, turning it over in his paw. His eyes drifted from the weapon to the captain as she spoke with Dorne. His sensitive Cathar ears could barely pick up the conversation.

“No need to worry. We’ll figure out this personal thing. Until then, I’ll continue to vouch for you.” Captain Dosna’s voice was low, smooth, and calm. He’d rarely seen her angry and never heard her yell. She was cool under pressure. She stuck up for her team. She was smart, creative, and stared danger in the face. She was the perfect leader for Havoc Squad.

He was head over heels in love with her.

Jorgan would never tell her, of course. She was his commanding officer. He was her second in command. They could never be together. He knew that. Still, he vowed that he’d follow that woman to hell if she asked him. He’d already followed her into more Imperial bases then he cared to count and he’d keep doing it as long as she kept him in Havoc.

The captain turned from Dorne and Jorgan lowered his gaze back to his weapon. Wouldn’t do to get caught starting.

Yuun, a Gand, popped his head out of the communication room, his compound eyes rotating around the command room before finding the captain. He spoke, his native tongue choppy but fluid somehow. It filled Jorgan’s translator and converted to common.

“Captain Dosna, General Garza coming through the holonet.”

“Thank you, Yuun.” The captain stood in front of the holocommunicator, her back and spikey dark grey hair facing Jorgan.  He placed his reassembled weapon back in the weapon’s locker and joined her.

“We expecting any new assignments, Captain?  I thought the Gauntlet was too important for anything else.”

“Not sure, Lieutenant.  But if the general is giving us something new, you can bet it’s important,” She replied with a brief smirk before she faced the holo, her back rigid and her shoulders straight.  General Garza suddenly stood before them, her uniform and neat white hair tinged with blue from the holo.  The captain offered a crisp salute as the other members of Havoc Squad formed up behind Jorgan.

“At ease, Captain.  I have bad news.  Jonas Balkar is missing.”  Jorgan could sense the captain tense next to him.  Balkar was an SIS agent they’d worked with several times.  He was a good agent, if a little too flirty with the captain, but he’d helped them out when he didn’t have to.

“Do we know what happened?” the captain asked.

“He was in deep cover on Balmorra, but he had a drop point.  He’s missed two scheduled drops now.  The information he is collecting is vital to the Republic, Captain.  Of course, he isn’t officially on Balmorra so the Republic can’t send in an official rescue mission.  But there is an SIS agent on Balmorra with more information about Agent Balkar’s last known whereabouts.”

“I understand, General.  Thank you.”

“Garza out.”  The holo went blank.  The captain stared at it for a moment before she turned to face her crew.

“Looks like Havoc Squad has a mission.”

“Sir,” Dorne piped in, her Imperial accent filled with concern.  The captain put a hand up, stopping her before she started.  Jorgan’s fur bristled.  He already knew what Dorne was protesting.  They couldn’t officially go to Balmorra and rescue the SIS agent.  Jorgan didn’t think a little think like official orders would stop the captain.  Besides, they had the general’s blessing so any repercussions would be minor.

“I can’t order any of you to take part in this mission,” the captain started.  “If you want out, this is your stop.  But I’m going in.  I don’t leave people behind.”

Jorgan stepped behind the captain before she even finished the first sentence.  “I’m right behind you, Captain.”  She smiled at him.  Her ceremonial facial tattoos shifted, making her smile appear wider, brighter.

“Of course we do not leave people behind,” M1-4X stated.  His mechanical voice did little to squash his patriotic fever.  “Agent Balkar is a valiant hero of the Republic and must be rescued.”

“The path leads to Balmorra, so I will follow the captain there.”  Yuun added.  Jorgan wasn’t sure what the path the Gand referred to was, but he was glad to have the tech with them.  It would make it easier to slice into any computer terminals that needed to be hacked.

“Regulation 23-C81 states that any personnel with important information regarding the survival of the Republic be placed in Republic hands.”  Dorne might be a stickler for regulations, but Jorgan had to hand it to her: she knew how to twist the regulations when she needed to.

All eyes turned to the last of their crew, the Weequay Tanno Vik.  Jorgan did not like this solder, and he made no qualms about it either.  Vik was reckless, self-serving, and didn’t follow orders all too well.  He was also the best damn demolitionist in the Republic and they were probably going to need him to break Agent Balkar out of whatever prison he was held in.

“Will there be Imperials?” the pruney faced alien asked as he leaned against the frame of the command room.

“I can’t promise it, but most likely,” the captain replied, folding her arms over her chest.  “You come, though, you follow my orders.  We do this my way, Vik.”

Vik frowned and pushed himself from the door.  “All right.  If it means I get to destroy some Imperial prisons, I’m in.”

Captain Dosna looked around the command center.  She met every solder’s eyes, finding Jorgan’s yellow eyes last.  She didn’t need to say thanks.  She just nodded.  “All right, set course for Balmorra.”

*************************

Vik bolted for cover and covered his ears.  The door to the detention block blast open, setting off alarms and covering the ward in smoke and debris.  Captain Dosna stood and gestured to her team.

“Forex, Vik, watch the corridor.  Dorne, grab your med kit.  Jorgan, cover me.”

She didn’t bother to double check if everyone followed her orders before she ran toward the smashed door, Dorne at her heels.  Jorgan turned to the Weequay and droid.  “Tell Yuun to get the evac ship ready to go on my orders.”  He could hear blaster fire inside the detention block.

“Affirmative,” M1-4X replied.  “They approach.”  His blasters fired, each taking down an Imperial guard.  Jorgan saw several more behind the ones Forex shot down.

“This’ll be fun,” Vik shouted before taking off down the hall, his techblade drawn.  Jorgan hurried to the captain, his assault rifle pointed at the entrance to the detention block, ready to shoot down anything Forex or Vik let through.  As he backed into the room, he noticed a few Imperial guards lying face down on the floor.

“He’s in bad shape, Sir,” Dorne was saying from one of the cells.  Jorgan glanced around.  The detention block held six cells, three on the left, three on the right.  He found Dorne and the captain in the second cell on the right.  The captain was on her knees next to Balkar, her hand on his chest.  Dorne had her med kit out and was injecting something pink into his neck.

“Balkar,” the captain said.  He could detect a bit of panic edging into her voice.  .  “Hey, can you hear me?” she asked.  Jorgan couldn’t see the agent, but he heard a moan.

“Fey,” he whispered.  “Fey.  You have to leave.  They’ll get you.”

“Shhh,” the captain whispered.  “Dorne?”

“I’m not sure we should move him, Captain.”

“That’s not an option, so stabilize him so we can get out of here.  You hear me, Balkar.  I didn’t go through all this trouble to watch you die here.”

“You shouldn’t have come,” Agent Balkar whispered again.

“Specialist Vik is wounded,” M1-4X called from the front of the detention block.  Captain Dosna stood, unstrapped her blaster rifle ran forward.  “Grab him while I cover your,” she called back to Jorgan.  The Cathar didn’t hesitate.  He didn’t leave people behind, no matter how much he hated them.

Blaster fire filled the hall outside the detention block doorway.  The captain bull rushed the first Imperial, slamming the butt of her rifle across his face.  He crumbled to the floor, leaving an opening for Jorgan.  He charged ahead, pumping his assault rifle as he did.  An Imperial in front of him fell to the ground.  Blaster bolts whizzed by his head, cover fire from the captain and Forex.  An ion blast hit an Imperial to his right and he seized up as the electricity surrounded him.  Jorgan didn’t look to see if he survived or not.  The captain was watching his back.

Vik clutched at a wound on his side, but his free hand still swung his techblade, as he fought off two Imperials.  Jorgan pulled the trigger on his gun, releasing a charged up bolt.  One of the two Imperials stumbled to his death moments before Vik finished off the second.

For a brief moment, the hallway was empty of living foes, but Jorgan could hear the pounding feet of backup on its way.  Without speaking, Vik leaned against Jorgan and half walked, half limped back to the make-shift cover in the prison entrance.  Vik slumped to the floor, a kolto pack already in his hands. M1-4X stood over him, his blasters pointed down the hall.

Jorgan rejoined the captain and Dorne again.  “How’s he doing?” he asked.

“Almost stable,” Dorne replied.  She looked up at the captain.  “But it’s not going to be easy getting him out of here alive.”

“If it was easy, they wouldn’t have sent in Havoc Squad,” the captain replied.  Jorgan could tell she was tense.  There was a pitch in her voice that normally wasn’t there.  He’d been in hundreds of scraps with the captain, most of them life or death situations.  She was always optimistic about their chances of survival, but he could hear the worry now.

“Captain,” he said softly.  “A word.”

She led him a little ways away from Dorne and the others, but her eyes drifted back to Balkar.

“Captain, you know I don’t like leaving men behind, but-“

“We’re not leaving him.”  She turned to stare at Jorgan, grey-blue eyes hard behind her brown facial tattoos.  “We get our people out.”

“Yes, sir,” Jorgan replied quickly.  “But sir, if I may ask, why is Agent Balkar so important?  He’s in pretty bad shape.  He might not make it anyway.  Couldn’t we just get the information he retrieved?  Is his life really worth risking the lives of our whole-“

“He’s my husband,” Captain Dosna whispered, her gaze settling back on the wounded man.

Jorgan felt his heart drop into his stomach and explode all at the same time.  Her husband.  The captain was married.  She’d never-  He’d never-  Things clicked into place all at once: Balkar flirting with her when they were on Nar Shadda; Balkar’s sudden involvement on Tatooine; The hint of jealousy whenever Balkar teased Jorgan about being jealous of their flirting; Balkar’s willingness to help Jorgan, to help them, find the Deadeyes.

“You’re Fey,” he whispered back.

“Captain Feyree Dosna Balkar.”

“But, when?  How?  It’s not in your record or file.  I’ve combed through all your personnel records.”

A tiny smile graced her lips.  “Almost four years.  It’s officially an unofficial marriage.  We couldn’t risk someone using me to get to him.  Or vice versa once I was made the commanding officer of Havoc Squad.  As far as any one knows, we’re just an elite squad rescuing an important asset.”  She looked back to Jorgan then, her eyes pleading with him.

“That’s why General Garza told you.”

“Yes.  She and a handful of other brass know about Jonas and me.  I have an understanding with the general when it comes to my husband.  And I’m not leaving him here, Lieutenant.”

Jorgan paused for a moment.  “What would happen if the situation were reversed?”  He asked, but he already knew the answer.

“You should see what that man can do when he is inspired.”

Jorgan didn’t need to hear any more.  “Dorne, let’s get Agent Balkar ready to move.  M1-4X, Vik, be ready to lay down some cover fire on my mark.”  He hit his com.  “Yuun, we’re gonna need that evac ready to go.  We’re coming out hot.”

The captain nodded and put a hand on his arm.  “You’ve got my back?”

Jorgan snorted in reply.  Captain Dosna just nodded again.  She returned to Dorne and helped her get Agent Balkar to his feet.

“Dorne,” Jorgan snapped once Balkar was to his feet.  “Vik was wounded.  Check him out before we get going.”

“Sir?” she asked the captain.  The Zabrek nodded.  Jorgan deliberately turned his back on them, blocking them from the eyes of the other.  He couldn’t block out their whispered conversation.

“Fey, you shouldn’t have come.” A wince.  “What if something happened?  I couldn’t-”

“Shh.  I wasn’t going to leave you, Jonas.  We made a promise to each other.  I’m getting you out of here.  Now, come on.”  A grunt.  “That’s it, love.”  Louder, “Jorgan.”  He glanced back.  Balkar’s arm was slung over her shoulder and his other hand clutched her backup blaster pistol.  “Let’s move out!”

“Havoc Squad, let’s go!”

********************************

Jorgan opened the door to the medical recovery room the Republic assigned Agent Balkar.  The captain sat on the bed next to the agent, her hand firmly held in his.

“Captain,” he said, trying not to look at their joined hands or how Balkar was gently rubbing her fingers with his thumb.  “They’re shipping us out on assignment.  General Garza will have the details once we’re in the air.”

“Understood, Lieutenant.  You’re dismissed.”  Jorgan turned and closed the door softly behind him, but not before he heard a muted “I love you.”

With the door securely shut behind him, Jorgan allowed himself a small sigh.  He knew they could never be together while they were in Havoc Squad.  He planned on retiring in Havoc Squad, so he’d given up on the dream of them being anything other than CO and XO.  Still, in the back of his head, he’d always hoped that maybe, one day, when they’d both retired he could confess his love for her and she would return it.  He put his hands on his hips and shook his head.  Any fantasy about a life they could have growing old together was up in flames.  It had been a stupid fantasy anyway.  The Cathar sighed again and ran a pawed hand over his face.

He could always leave Havoc Squad.

He dismissed that thought immediately.  He wouldn’t leave Havoc.  He wouldn’t leave Captain Dosna.  So what if she was married.  He would still do everything in his power to protect the Republic at her side.

The door opened behind him.  “Ready to move out, Lieutenant.”

“Lieutenant Jorgan,” Balkar called from inside the room.  Jorgan looked back.  The two men made eye contact and Jorgan realized that Balkar knew.  The SIS agent knew that he was in love with the man’s wife.

“Keep her safe out there.  She’s something special,” Balkar called.  Jorgan nodded.

“I’ve got her back.”


That One Job in Beijing

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.

Shit.

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?”


 


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