Infiltration work is, almost by definition, full of surprises. You scouts into the places you don’t have intel on so that you can discover things before you commit your forces there. You send spies in to unearth the secrets your enemies are hiding from you. If you knew what to expect then you wouldn’t need to send in a specialist like me.
In the two years that I’d spent on the Horizon Breaker, I’d learned a lot of things. Captain Hanq had made it a priority that I learn about proper stealth, security and infiltration techniques from the best people he could connect me with. His theory was that, as with my martial studies, my magical abilities would be greatly enhanced if I had a suite of non-anima related techniques to fall back on.
Given that “Captain Okoro” was formerly “Warlord Okoro”, I expected my tutors in defeating security systems to be a bunch of outlaws and criminal scum. As it turns out though, most criminal scum don’t have the requisite knowledge or cleverness to defeat serious security systems. If they did, they would be making a lot more money than petty or violent crime can provide and would be living safer and more comfortable lives.
If you want to learn how to defeat security systems, the people you turn to are the ones who design them and the people who help test them. Those people are the really scary ones. Scary smart, scary prepared, and scary insightful, and I say that after hanging around with certified geniuses as my two best friends.
I don’t consider myself to be dumb (well, most of the time), but I was probably not the best student that I could have been while I was growing up. Learning from Captain Hanq’s friends though was the kind of schooling that touched a live wire in my brain. I don’t know if it was because my instructors were brilliant or because they had to be able to understand how people thought in order to create systems that could be used and remain secure. It might even have been because the subject matter was intensely interesting but, for whatever the reason was, I took to those classes like I’d been born to absorb the information.
Two years wasn’t a huge amount of time though. I had decades of study and work before I could consider myself a master. Coupled with my Void anima abilities though I was kind of a nightmare for most security systems to deal with.
Which isn’t to say, I didn’t run into nightmares of my own. For example; Abyz. The whole damn planet.
I turned invisible and ghosted out of the room, using a short range “Shadow Step” teleport spell I’d learned. Teleporting is difficult and risky but, by limiting it to moving from one shadow to another, the anima was constrained enough that I could manage it without too much worry. Most of the time. On this occasion though, as the spell faded away leaving me in the hallway outside the room, I discovered I was blind!
My first reaction was to cast a shield around myself. That’s pretty much my first reaction to any kind of surprise. It never (or rarely) hurts to be tougher than a battleship. When no attack materialized, I turned my attention to figuring out why a teleport spell, of all things, had blinded me.
I had a brief mental image of having left my eyes behind but it didn’t take long to discover that they were still in my head where they should be and not in pain or damaged as far as I could tell. Checking myself with a simple Physical spell I found that I wasn’t actually even blind. The problem wasn’t with my eyes but with the ley lines on Abyz.
Ley lines are pathways of natural anima that flow within a planet and through the vast darks of space. Some casters can manipulate them to produce incredible effects. I mostly tried to stay outside of the major nexuses where they met because having too much anima surging through a spell can be as bad or worse than having too little.
The problem I’d encountered was that there were even more ley lines coursing through the hotel than in the heaviest nexus I’d ever seen. Abyz wasn’t rich with magic, it was practically drowning in it.
That was a problem for me, because while I am under an invisibility spell, my own natural vision is cut off and I see through “Void sight”. It’s the one sort of magical sense that the invisibility cloak can’t block because they’re both based on Void anima.
With practice I’ve gotten to the point where I can see the physical world as a light shadow in my Void sight. Mostly what I perceive though is the presence of anima. People glow in the colors of the anima that they’re strongest in and material objects display a light echo of the Physical anima that is connected to them. I can see other animas as well. The Energetic anima of a fire burning for example or the mental energy of a spell web that’s active.
In the case of Abyz what I saw was Aetherial anima. A literally blinding amount of it. Everywhere I looked there was a solid wall of Aetherial anima surrounding me. It was the same effect as if the air itself became opaque.
“Well this sucks,” I whined and waited to see if Fari would chime in, but she’d been good and let our mental link drop.
Normally, we stayed connected during a mission so that she could coordinate everyone’s efforts but in this case any telepathic link we maintained would be a liability. While Fari was exceptionally talented with communication spells, any active link between us could possibly be detected merely by the presence of the anima that created it. It wasn’t common to scan for that kind of thing but in the high security areas I was going to be ‘visiting’ it was far from unheard of either. As bad as being detected would be for me, having the bad guys notice my rescue squad would be even worse, since Darius, Fari and Ilya couldn’t escape pursuit quite as easily as I could.
I wasn’t completely cut off from them though. I had a signal stick I could use to contact Fari in an emergency but that was more like sending up a flare that she was sure to notice rather than a direct connection to her. A flare that I could also destroy with a light brush of Void anima in case someone did manage to capture me.
With my friends safely out of the picture, I turned to solving my problem myself. Ultimately it was just an issue with my Void sight spell, so I tinkered with that a bit. Normally it’s set to show me all of the anima in line of sight. With a few quick tweaks I changed it to ignore the Aetherial anima that was around us and the world sprang back into view.
The modified spell was a little harder to maintain, but not perilously so. I was going to need a nice long bath and a head massage to ease away the fatigue of the extended spell casting I was planning to do, the little extra effort for the modified sight spell would just call for a little extra downtime.
With my sight restored, I slipped out of the hotel and off to the local shuttle station. We’d selected Raddox as our destination because it wasn’t the city that Yael and Zyla landed in. They’d started in the capital city of Honji. Since we didn’t want to step into the same trap they’d been snared by, Raddox seemed like a safer base to work from. As far as we knew though, Honji was where Yael and Zyla disappeared, so I had to head there and I had to do it quietly since that seemed the most likely spot for our foes to be watching.
I entered the shuttle with another Shadow Step spell and spent the better part of two hours holding still and silent under an invisibility veil on the passenger ship. Even a very paranoid opponent would be hard pressed to detect my arrival since to all observation, I had landed in Raddox for a vacation and was still there.
The trip to Honji proved fruitful almost immediately when I arrived. The starport in Honji was right next to the inter-city shuttle station I arrived at. Ten minutes after I disembarked from the shuttle, I was in the records room for the starport and had the flight manifest that told me which ship Yael and Zyla arrived on. It was still docked and undergoing repairs, so I took the opportunity to check out the cabin the two of them had traveled in.
None of their belongings were present, which wasn’t a surprise, but I still got a sense of what the trip had been like for them. It was a plain cabin, not one of the “executive class” suites which the ship boasted, but also not the cramped quarters of a “worker transport bunk”. They’d been posing as low key travelers, not interested in a vacation (they’d have gone to Raddox or one of the other vacation towns if they had that in mind) and their entrance visa had listed them as having clearance for “archaeological exploration”.
Since neither Yael or Zyla had training in archaeology, that seemed designed to give them access to the museums and colleges that thrived in Honji.
From the travel records, I was able to glean the Interstellar bank account information they had used to pay for their arrival and acclimation fees. Unlike many worlds, Abyz had specific magical requirements for anyone who planned to stay on the surface longer than two weeks. There were a variety of rituals and ceremonies the prospective long term visitor had to take part in to acclimate themselves to the fate bindings that kept Abyz safe. Yael and Zyla had opted for that, probably because they expected their investigation to take longer than two weeks, and had paid the ritual fees from a bank account tied to a private research group.
The “private research group” may not have been enough of a blind to keep them safe, but it was effective in keeping me from figuring out what they were after. Fortunately though it was another breadcrumb to follow, and it led me to another hotel. Yael had checked Zyla and herself into two separate rooms and paid for them both from the private research group’s bank account.
I ghosted into their rooms to find that both had been cleaned and then rented to other customers. A little more invisible investigation and I learned from the hotel’s register that their belongings were “Shipped Out Per Customer Request”, next to an entry that showed them checking out several days earlier than their reservation was set for. I noticed no extra fee was charged for the early checkout and the rate wasn’t adjusted to reflect the higher, short term stay value. Most importantly though, their “check out” time was after the timeout on the message that Yael had set up for us.
So someone was cleaning up the traces of them after they went missing. In a sense that was comforting to know. It meant there definitely were bad guys out there and that they were still active, or at least had been as of a little less than a day ago.
The shipping on their baggage was more difficult to follow up on. The hotel shipping department had no record of the delivery, which appeared to mean that it was shipped by special courier, as many of the more important packages were.
I double checked the gate logs at the parking garage under the hotel and discovered that less than a handful of courier trucks had come in since the disappearance. Of them all but one came from the same shipping company with the last being a truck which the gate clerk had not recorded a company or identification number for.
I found a secluded area of one of the capital’s parks to rest in after that while I pondered my options. Holding the invisibility spell wasn’t getting any easier, but I thought I could still maintain it for a while longer. Pushing onwards didn’t seem fun, but speed was still critical and I wasn’t overextended so I decided to continue on a bit further.
On a hunch, I raided the offices of the largest local taxi service to see what their pickup and dropoff records were like for the time span when Yael and Zyla went missing.
That turned up another lead in the form of a payment from the research group’s bank account for a ride out to an industrial park. That smelled like a diversion to me, Yael wasn’t clumsy enough to leave a clue like that if she wanted to hide where she was going. Despite that,I was still curious where she would send someone who was following after them.
Unlike my missing Guardian, I couldn’t catch a taxi, so I had to get out there on my own. Another few hours of walking let me tired and drained but it turned out to be worth it. The industrial park was closed, not because we were after business hours but because there was an active police investigation underway.
I smiled and thought about how fun it would be to raid the police evidence room to see what they’d found. Yael might have sent their pursuers off on a aimless hunt, but she tended to play deeper games than that. If there was a clue to be found, this felt like the kind of place she would have left it.
I got up from my perch on a building across the street from the industrial park to head into the investigation area on the chance that they hadn’t found Yael’s hypothetical clue when a fresh pang of cold lanced through my chest.
I turned slowly, shield already in place, to find someone else cloaked in shadows, climbing over the edge of the building.
As they stood up I saw them put their wrist close to their mouth and Energetic anima flared around their hand. I braced for an attack and then saw that it was much worse. They were speaking into a communicator.
“I have a veiled intruder on the top of the Koshi building,” the shadow cloaked newcomer said. “Preparing to engage. Have the neural-inhibitors ready from when I bring them down to you.”