“You’ve got to be joking,” Dan spat, delivering his verdict on the device in the centre of the room after a long draw on the remaining stub of cigarette hanging from the side of his mouth. “You spent the rest of our money on this? I don’t think I’ve seen a more bullwanking piece of hardware in my entire life.” He spat disdainfully in its direction and rounded on Jonas, looking all too eager to shoot down whatever defence came from our tech expert.
“You’re disgusting, you know that Dan?” Jonas shot back, severely unimpressed at the globule of saliva now lying on the warehouse floor. “Don’t think anyone else is going to clean that up. And you can hardly tell the straight end of a sonic driver, so I’m not sure why you think your opinions are worth half a damn.” Satisfied with his rebuttal, Jonas leaned in over the table before him, holding his glasses in place so that he could get a better look at his new toy.
A big part of being good security is knowing when you’ve lost the battle - luckily, it was one of the few lessons Dan had learnt during his time with the special forces. He muttered to himself as he retreated back to his plastic chair on the edge of the room, leaving the rest of us in peace.
Sean was standing on the other side of the table, leaning in as close as Jonas and tracing his way along the curves of the robot’s exoskeleton, his finger a respectful distance away from the machine itself. He whistled his soft appreciation. “It’s awful shiny, Jonas. What can it do?”
Jonas adopted a satisfied smirk as he drew himself up - he’d clearly been waiting for the chance to make his recital for a while. “Anything you bloody well like, mate. She’ll hack her way through any terminal - wirelessly, of course - as long as its within thirty feet, avoid motion detectors with her infra-red sensors and set a surveillance camera to run a looped feed long before the poor bastard ever catches sight of her. She’s too light for pressure plates to pick her up, and even if she wasn’t she’s got an electromagnet that lets her levitate against the earth’s magnetic field. If there’re any guards around she’s got particle cloaking to make her invisible, and when she gets ‘the goods’ she’s got a suspension beam that’s good for carrying anything under two tons. In short, buddy,” he concluded, going around and slapping Sean on the back, “she’ll do everything except tying your shoelaces. You’ll still need to get Jeff’s help for that.”
Jonas danced out of the way of a punch thrown in response to the gibe, and Sean gave up on his revenge, opting instead to emit yet another admirative whistle. After a contemplative pause he added, “Awful bloody shiny... How much did it cost?”
Jonas dropped his eyes, no longer meeting Sean’s, and began to drywash his hands with a furious vengeance. Evidently this wasn’t a topic he was eager to discuss. “Enough,” he muttered, “we’re in a bit of debt. To Romano.” He put on a smile, visibly brightening up, and set about trying to reassure us. “There’s really nothing to worry about, though - with the kind of cash this baby’s going to rake us, that’s gonna look like pennies in weeks!” He gestured towards the ‘bot while he spoke, and searched the room for an encouraging face.
He found Dan instead.
“You put us in debt to a fucking drug-dealing loanshark?” He was on his feet now, striding towards Jonas all fire and brimstone.
“Dan, come on man, let’s not overreact,” pleaded Jonas.
Dan wouldn’t have any of it. “Don’t try and bloody well talk to me about overreacting - how do you think we’re going to afford this thing? What happens if Romano calls in the money early, or the heist doesn’t work or any of a thousand other things go wrong? Mate, look around you, we can’t afford the interest! Apart from your ‘bot all we’ve got is this warehouse, the clothes on our backs and a gear so low-tech we’ll be lucky to get pennies for it.”
“I really think you’re worrying too much,” Jonas began in earnest, “I’ve told you already - there’s practically no chance of anything going wrong, and if it works we’ll have so much cash we’ll never have to worry about anything like this again.”
Dan’s face was dark, his voice strained as thin as the ice Jonas was on. “No, mate, what you’ve told us is that you’ve bet everything on this one job, and if it doesn’t go off perfectly we’re all gonna get shot by Romano.”
“Alright, fine,” Jonas yelled, throwing his hands up in exasperation, “maybe it’s a bit risky-”
“A bit?” Dan scoffed.
“But,” Jonas said through ground teeth, forcing himself not to deign to respond, “our backs are against the wall - it’s not like we’ve got other options.”
“What are you on about? There are always other options! We could’ve spent our money - and not gone into debt - on new gear, new team members, bribing guards... anything, anything but robots!” He spat the last word out with so much venom that it seemed almost tangible - Jonas bristled accordingly.
“You don’t bloody well get it, do you? We can’t afford to do anything else - the cops have been hounding Sean ever since that jewelry job we pulled, and if we don’t get out of the game soon the rest of us are gonna get arrested with him. It’s all or nothing, man - that should be able to penetrate your bloody thick skull.”
That gave Dan a bit of pause. “I still don’t see how that means we have to use a robot...” he grumbled.
“It’s done, Dan. Live with it.”
“Alright. Fuck, alright!” Dan sat down, hand on his brow as nursing a headache. Nobody spoke, waiting to see if he was finished. “So what’s the plan, Jonas? How’s this hunk of crap going to stop us all getting shipped off to a detention colony?”
“It’s simple, really.” said a voice on the other side of the warehouse. Sure enough, there was Jeff - walking towards us from the doorway, rolling up his sleeves, calm and in control as ever. Beside him walked a figure none of the others had seen before. “We’re going to steal The Artifact.”
Silence. Dan stared at Jeff, tranquilised by disbelief. Jonas adjusted his glasses, shifting from one foot to the other. Sean’s mouth worked furiously, but he didn’t seem able to form syllables. “You don’t... you can’t... you mean the one from the First Contact?” he managed once he found his voice.
“The very same.” Jeff replied, totally unphased. “It was Fly’s idea,” he told them, pointing at me.
(Fly, like ‘fly on the wall’. I do surveillance. I know, I know. It’s pretty weird. You learn to live with it, I suppose.)
“Are you out of your mind?” Dan demanded, rounding on me. “That’s the most secure object on the bloody planet! You’d sooner kidnap the Emperor while he’s on the toilet than get into The Museum and pull that off! And even if you did, who the hell would be dumb enough to buy it? They’d arrest the crap out of us as soon as the cops catch a scent of it on the market.”
I stepped back, careful to maintain a safe distance between myself and the aggressive technophobe, busy mentally preparing my response when the stranger came to my defence.
“I believe you should direct those sorts of questions to me,” he said in a distinctly post-Germanic accent. The others turned to regard him, properly realising his presence for the first time.
He was clearly a man trying to show that he had a lot of money, distinguishable from a man trying to seem like he has a lot of money by the diamond-studded, gold-wrought cufflinks (definitely real - you develop an eye for these sorts of details), handmade suit (I’d almost go so far as to say its real cotton) and matching, designer shoe-and-tie combination.
“And who the hell are you?” Dan quizzed.
“I represent the buyer,” the man replied.
“Alright, so, care to answer some of my questions?” pressed Dan, unaffected by the stranger’s display of aloofness.
“Firstly,” he replied, “the actual Artifact isn’t at the Museum. My client has a vested interest in featuring the piece in question at his personal gallery, and so we’ve procured the item’s actual location. Secondly,” he continued, holding up his index and middle fingers to illustrate his point, “we’re willing to pay an advance on the merchandise when you confirm you’ve got it. A drop-off can be arranged at a later stage, when things have cooled down a bit.”
Dan took a deep breath, clearly trying to calm himself down. “Ok, fine,” he conceded, “but if he’s as well-resourced as he says, why go after us? There are a hundred more well-established, better-qualified gangs out there. We’re more likely to bugger it up and get ourselves arrested than to actually pull it off.”
“Which is exactly why we went for you. You take the fall - there’s no collateral for me or my client. You aren’t big enough or experienced enough to be able to bring us down with you. So you see,” he concluded with a smile that seemed frighteningly sincere, “you’re perfect for the job.”
“Just one last terminal...” crackled Jonas’s voice through my headset. The robot on my screen stopped momentarily, its camera set on a triple-thickness, blast-reinforced set of steel doors before it. The rest of the team waited with bated breath to see what would be on the other side of those doors, giving Jonas’s keystrokes centre stage on the comms.
I was set up on the roof of the building opposite the warehouse they were looking for The Artifact in. Surveillance had never been easier. I had a full view of the extremities of the building, complete with both entrances and any approaches unwanted guests might take, along with three tab-screens arrayed before me, giving me all the visual feeds I could ever have hoped for - and then some. Hacked surveillance footage from the warehouse (granted, almost all of that was looped now) occupied most of the screen space, but I also had the first-person (or first-robot, perhaps) view from inside the building, the cameras inside the van Jonas and Jeff were conducting operations from, and the gun-cams on Sean and Dan, who were hidden on adjacent sides of the building, ready to run in if things deviated from specification.
“Aaaaand... we’re in - wait, what the fuck?” The swoosh of the steel doors opening from the bot’s audio feed was followed by more silence from the rest of the team.
“Jeff? Jonas? What’s going on?” Dan asked.
“Where is it, Jonas?” Jeff this time.
“I... I don’t know, boss. It was supposed to be in here.”
“Well, it clearly isn’t. Fly, this is your op, what the hell’s going on?”
“I don’t know,” I replied through the comms, doing my best to sound concerned, my fingers flying over the robot’s tab-screen as I spoke, “it was supposed to be in there!”
“I don’t like this,” growled Jeff, “Jonas, get that thing out. We’re leaving.”
“Boss,” replied Jonas, his voice an especially high pitch, “boss, this thing’s not responding.”
“What do you mean it’s not responding?” Jeff’s voice was icy slow.
“I can’t control it anymore. It won’t listen to-”
“Fuck!” Dan’s curse drowned Jonas out completely. “This is why we shouldn’t use robots. I bloody well told you this would happen. Bugger this, I’m going in.”
“Dan!” Jeff screamed, “Dan, don’t do it!”
Too late. There was a crash, and I watched from Dan’s gun-cam as he kicked the complex’s main door in. The building’s alarm screamed its opposition to the intrusion almost immediately; a loud, shrill whine which echoed off the concrete walls of the surrounding buildings. Right on cue.
“Shit,” Jeff said. “Jonas, get that thing out of there! Fly, how long do we have before the cops get here?”
“Five minutes,” I replied.
Sure enough, they arrived in two. Pretty soon the police were everywhere - storming the building in search of Dan, chasing Sean through the backalleys and streets of downtown Newer York and swarming Jeff and Jonas’s van.
They were everywhere - except at the air vent on the other side of the building where I picked up Jonas’s robot.
“Hello?” said a distinctly post-Germanic voice on the other side of my sat-phone.
“I’ve got it.”
“Very good - the money’s in your account. We’re coming to pick you up now.”