Chapter 1: The Karnati Job

Astal raced through the night, her boots splashing across the puddles on the street. Although the tram accident – its horses crashed through the front doors, courtesy of her friends at Urush – bought her some time, it was barely enough. One could never be too careful around the likes of Karnati Incorporated.

She quickly found the hole in the perimeter she was looking for – some guard who strayed too far from his station to see what that commotion was all about – and considered her possibilities. She could get to work on the wall right away, but there was no knowing how long the guy’s curiosity would last, and he was a bit too close for comfort at any rate. Eh, to hell with it, she decided, unsheathing her knives as she crept up behind him.

Fortunately for her – not so much for the poor bastard – he was distracted enough to let her walk right up to him. He was shifting around, trying to find a better position to peek at the front of the building, so Astal had to wait breathlessly until he settled enough for the path to the area under his chin to be clear. A quick double stab and scissor-cut – to chop his windpipe and any chance of calling for help with it – later, he was just a metal-covered sack of flesh to be dragged behind the garbage at the nearest alley. Goddamn idiots, she thought with a snort, they armor up every part of their bodies except for what really matters.

That obstacle out of the way, Astal turned to the imposing skyscraper. The Karnati building wasn’t among the tallest in the city of Harmony, but it was still a daunting climb, even more so under that rain, which made its glass façade dangerously slick. Sure, she deliberately picked a rainy night to avoid being seen and captured, which she feared even worse than a lethal fall… but that didn’t make her job any easier.

The thief soon found an exposed concrete column that made for good climbing and fastened her crampons. Intelligence from her employers placed her objective in the top three floors of the building’s east wing, necessitating a roof entrance. Not allowing herself time to ponder the madness of what she was doing, Astal launched herself up, clinging to imperfections in the concrete surface, drizzle streaming over the black leather of her clothing.

Minutes later, the young woman crept onto the rooftop, hiding behind an air vent to catch her breath and ponder her options. As she unfastened her crampons, she ran her eyes over the scene looking for guards, and found them atop a small tower, watching the skies. They were probably there to detect aerial threats, and would not notice a suspicious figure sneaking among the shadows on the roof. So Astal did exactly that, moving toward a service door, whose lock she easily worked open.

Once inside the building, the thief uncovered her lantern and began to walk the hallways in search of her target. Knowing how Karnati’s personnel worked, the object would probably be inside the office of one of the top local bosses, even if it wasn’t currently in use; they liked to keep a close watch on their possessions. The top floor didn’t seem very promising, mostly deposits and machinery, such as air circulators and food generators. Carefully, Astal made her way to the stairs and down a level.

In the next-to-last floor, the thief heard steps echoing across the dark corridor. Although that made things more difficult for her, it was also a good sign – after all, they’d hardly waste a night-shift watchman on a floor that didn’t have something important in it. She moved away from the sound, walking into a side corridor and looking for an unlocked door. After two tries, she opened a door into a storage locker, closing it after herself and hiding behind a cabinet.

The steps sped up and drew closer. “Is anyone there?” a voice echoed. Light from a lantern shone in under the door, reminding Astal to cover her own. After a few seconds’ hesitation, the person knocked on the door. “Hello? Anyone there?” he asked. The door opened, and lantern light shone across the small room, barely missing the woman concealed by the cabinet.

The steps continued, now coming into the locker, and the source of the light came closer. Astal slowly slid her hand toward one of her daggers. The watchman was approaching the end of the room, and she’d soon be within his view… and he, within her dagger’s reach. She silently pulled her weapon out of its sheath, and was prepared to pounce, as a snake trained on its prey, when the sound of a door opening drew the attention of both of them.

“Thranur?” a man called from afar. “Everything alright there?”

The lantern swung back toward the exit, once again plunging the back of the locker into darkness. “No problem… doctor Byrger? Didn’t know you were still there.” The watchman walked out, closing the door on his way out. Astal breathed a sigh of relief, as the two strangers exchanged distant words.

The thief waited a few minutes after the brief conversation ended before resuming her work. She would have to keep absolutely silent, now that she knew there were not one, but two persons nearby, but this was no problem for an experienced burglar such as herself.

With light feet and liquid movements, she hurried across the hallway, running her light over the plaques beside the doors. D. Kshatari, Chief Financial Officer. Seemed promising, but not enough. F. Langpur, Institutional Relations Advisor. Warming up. M. Baramunz, Head of Transplanetary Business. Now she was getting somewhere…

Y. Spusacky, Chief Executive Officer, 2514 Bhadrapada VI. That was it. If anyone had the clout to hold what Astal was looking for, it had to be Karnati’s biggest boss in this planet.

Looking periodically over her shoulder, the girl picked the door’s lock slowly and cautiously, carefully spinning the tumbler so it would not make a sound. As she opened the door, she shone her light across the luxurious chamber, whose enormous, finely polished furniture brightly reflected the lantern’s glare. Drapes and curtains gleamed red under her light, and a few crystal machines (a phonograph, a telegraph, and even a simpler artificial brain, sitting atop the imposing desk) glimmered and splattered pinpoints of light across the walls.

Astal didn’t bother with the brain on the desk – what she was looking for wouldn’t be in such an obvious place. She took her gloves off and ran her fingers across the ponderous table, searching for panels or false bottoms, but the desk was little more than a massive block of hardwood – mahogany, if she wasn’t mistaken – with no apparent empty spaces other than the drawers on the right side of the chair. She idly opened a drawer – there were a few loose papers inside – and, seeing the small lock on the next one, didn’t bother picking it open. A lock this simple wouldn’t hide anything really important.

Turning her attention to the wooden panel behind the large armchair, the lady started rapping on it with her fingers, very lightly, to avoid being heard outside the office. Her lips opened in a smile when she heard a hollow sound coming from a section of the panel; her intuition never let her down. Softly sliding her fingers across the wooden surface, she found a loose segment, which she pressed, making the plate pop open.

There was a safe behind it. Before picking it open, however, Astal thoroughly examined it; after all, one would expect someone in a position as high as that of this office’s occupant to employ additional security measures when guarding his most valued possessions. And indeed, shining her light from side to side over the safe’s metal surface, the thief saw a slight alteration in the way the light bounced off it – a soft contour, nearly imperceptible, but clear to her trained eyes. Recognizing the shape of the trap, which would cause a large psychic explosion right to her face if she wasn’t careful, she skillfully nicked the contour on its safe spots, thus undoing the psychic diagram that powered the trap.

Free to work the lock, the burglar picked it open with some effort, opening the heavy metal door. There were several shelves inside the safe, but the young woman barely saw what most of them held, as her attention was immediately drawn to a shiny object – a green, fist-sized oval crystal, embedded onto a metal base that was studded with several smaller crystals, and with several intricate patterns etched onto its surface. That was one of the most advanced brains out there, to be sure – but what motivated the folks at Urush (or whoever was behind them) to pay such a steep price for this item’s retrieval surely wasn’t its psychic capabilities. No, all the effort and investment showed that its true worth was in the information contained within this artificial mind. Industrial projects? Diplomatic secrets? Military plans? When it came to Karnati, anything was possible. Astal had no idea at all what this was about, though, and didn’t care. After all, she was a professional, used to knowing no more than what was necessary to go through with her mission.

The lady pulled from her pocket a small copper plate, inscribed with a complex diagram set in crystal powder. Concentrating on the plate’s psychic tracks – even with no psionic training, she understood this type of equipment enough to activate it – she managed to complete its pattern, releasing its energy onto the artificial brain and incapacitating it. There was no knowing which directives it had been given, and how would it react to its theft; maybe it would attack her, or use some sort of telepathic power to contact its owners.

Minutes later, she was on the roof again, preparing to climb back down, when she heard the service door booming open. When she saw who walked out of it, the girl abandoned all hope of escape, or even survival. It was an enormous man, over ten feet tall, with charcoal-black skin and fiery red hair and beard, wearing a finely-tailored dark suit, with a tie as brightly orange as his eyes. He was a dykhlun, one of the most powerful transhuman races… and he was furious at her.

“Stop right there!” roared the man, with a deep, powerful voice. Astal started running across the wet rooftop, but suddenly stopped when she raised her eyes and saw the creature right in front of her. “Going anywhere?” he asked, playfully. She turned around and bolted away in the opposite direction, only to see him materialize again in front of her with a flash of violet light, his arms crossed.

“You know, I can do this all night long,” he said. The lady looked around her, nervously, not spotting anything that could help her. “Or you could just return what you’ve stolen, and avoid an even bigger headache.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” she said, slowly stepping away.

“Come on… you’re telling me that now?” The giant just followed her with his eyes. “What are you doing here then? Enough with this nonsense. Let’s work this out now.”

Astal looked to her sides again. “I think we’re having some misunderstanding here. So, if you don’t mind, I’m going to– oof!” She was interrupted by a sudden blow to her gut. Her questioner was still a few paces away, though, his arms still crossed; it was as if she was punched by the air itself.

“Look, I’m running out of patience.” The dykhlun frowned. “Are we settling this the easy way or the hard way?”

Without thinking, the young woman dashed to the right, throwing a dagger at the charcoal giant. The blade hit his belly, tearing his expensive suit, but clattered off his skin, harmlessly. Before she could go very far, though, another telekinetic blow hit her back, knocking her to the ground.

The man looked down, his face twisted into an angry grimace. “Now you’ve pissed me off! You got any idea what this costs?” he screamed, pulling at his suit jacket. “It’s a custom-fitted Nandoladh!”

Astal struggled up, dripping with filthy rainwater, an agonizing pain spreading across her back. “Oh, I’m sure that was nothing. You look like you can buy a whole store with what you make in a month.”

“So you’ve started talking, huh?” he growled, stepping forward. “Then go ahead and tell me what you’re doing up here!”

“Oh, nothing,” she said, wiping water off her face. “Just a routine job. You know.” She shrugged.

He pointed a thick finger at her face. “Listen up, I’ve been pulled out of an important meeting in Chertan just because of you. I don’t step on this miserable little planet unless it’s absolutely necessary. So you’re returning what you stole to me right now, or–”

“Too late,” she broke in. “I don’t have it anymore.”

The thief’s arms were suddenly pushed toward her body. She felt a force pressing on her, crushing her, and then lifting her off the ground. She would have kicked if her legs hadn’t been pressed together by the same impulse. She was lifted into the air and brought closer to the giant, until her eyes were less than a hand’s length from his. “Do not toy with me,” he grumbled.

“I… mean… it,” she said breathlessly, straining out her words. “It’s… gone.”

Astal’s small backpack was rudely torn out from her back and ripped apart mid-air by an invisible force. Pieces of her jacket came apart and flew off in every direction. The man studied her at length with his burning eyes.

“Where is it?” Rage was stamped across the face of the huge executive, who tightened his telekinetic vise on Astal, crushing her organs and breaking a few bones. A trickle of blood started coming out of her nose.

Spitting out a pink foam of saliva and blood, she managed to squeeze two words out: “Don’t… know.” Her wry smile said that was probably true.

The dykhlun flexed his telekinetic tentacle, tossing the thief toward the watchtower. She loudly crashed into the wall, falling limply to the ground. That’s bad, the transhuman thought. They probably teleported the brain away already. That’s what I’d do if I was on the other side. He looked up, gazing at the rainy skies of 2514 Bhadrapada VI, better known as Rancent’s World. I think I’m stuck here in this humdrum world. God forbid I come back without any information on where’s that data.

With a sigh, he focused on the building’s main security office and opened a hyperspace fold, disappearing from the roof in a purple flash. They wouldn’t be of much help, but he had to start somewhere… and fast. If this knowledge fell into the wrong hands… he didn’t want to think about what that would bring.

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