Sidewalker didn’t mind waiting. The peaceful moments in life were too few and too fragile to not enjoy while you had the chance. The rest of his team would have been itching to conclude the meeting with Heartless and be on getting back to “lucrative endeavors”, and that was Sidewalker didn’t invite them along to meetings with their clients all that often.
Herding his current team wasn’t bad, but none of them had the sense of timing and tact needed for building professional relationships. It was a shame. If he could offload the work onto one of them, make them the team’s liaison with the rich and powerful, he could focus on the tactical planning that he enjoyed the most. As it was, he tried to parlay the ability to be quiet and patient he’d learned as a sniper into the sort of demeanor that made clients think he was attentive and respectful enough to trust with the sort of jobs they were willing to part with large sums of money to see handled discretely. That it worked as often as it did was a continuing source of delight and amusement.
“My apologies,” Mr. Heartless said after going inactive for several minutes. “That was more critical than I’d expected.”
Sidewalker nodded, finishing up the last of his meal and wiping the corner of his mouth. Heartless hadn’t taken that long, and the break in the conversation hadn’t come at a bad time. From anyone else, the apology would have seemed out of character, but Mr. Heartless had always treated their business dealings as the meetings of equals rather than “lord and servant” arrangements many wealthy clients liked to believe they had with their hired guns.
“Need to call the meeting here to deal with the fallout?” Sidewalker asked. It seemed like a good stopping point anyways. There wasn’t much more to discussed since his team had rejected the notion of attempting a live capture on an NME. Even with the gear that Heartless had offered, the risks involved put the operation far outside their accepted mission parameters. Someone else could try for the “not impossible, but extremely likely to lead to vaporization” mission and enjoy the big win if they succeeded.
Sidewalker knew that, with Heartless’s backing, someone would eventually manage to take an NME in while it was still functional, but he was also certain it wouldn’t be the first team who tried it. Let one of the teams that were desperate to prove themselves rush in and provide data for the ones who followed them.
“Yes and no,” Heartless said. “I have another contract to offer you.”
“Not NME related?” Sidewalker asked.
The restaurant had emptied since they’d come in. Of the three other tables, only one was left finishing their food still. That was odd. Usually the lunch rush would have the place at least half full or better.
“I can’t promise that,” Heartless said. “But I can promise you that you’ll want to take this contract.”
“If NMEs are involved at all, I’ll have to discuss it with my team,” Sidewalker said. They had been adamant about not tangling with the techno-monsters and Sidewalker didn’t blame them. Even the military didn’t do well against those things and, for as well equipped as Sidewalker’s team was, they still didn’t have the combat strength of a platoon of soldiers.
“This isn’t a contract for them,” Heartless said. “This is a contract for you, right here, right now.”
Confusion swept over Sidewalker’s face and he started to protest but Heartless silenced him with a handwave.
“There are half a dozen or more Gray League agents outside this restaurant,” Heartless said. “Tython has employed the Gray League before so they’re most likely here for you and me. So far everyone they’ve engaged has been targeted with lethal force. This contract is to compensate for saving both of us.”
“But they can’t kill you,” Sidewalker said. “You’re not really here.”
“I’m not, but this tourism bot has communication logs and authentication information. They could use that as a stepping stone to find me. That’s why I wish to employ you.”
“You want me to get the bot out of here?” Sidewalker asked.
“I want you to get both yourself and this bot to a secure location,” Heartless said. “If you fall into their hands, they’ll most likely do a destructive scan of your bio-systems. That would give them more information to find me with, and it would be fatal to you, which would make it difficult to call on your continued services.”
As Heartless spoke, a contract appeared in Sidewalker’s in queue. He called it up and found a simple document with a large sum of money on the bottom line.
“Six agents you say?” He debated whether it was worth trying to haggle for more.
“Correction, eight, two more identified behind the building,” Heartless said. “This increases the likelihood of troops beyond that number to 90%. Payment has been increased to reflect twelve hostile combatants.”
Heartless’s voice always sounded synthesized, but his diction had become rigidly robotic in the face of stress.
“Count me in then,” Sidewalker said, tapping the button for agreement and subvocalizing his authorization codewords.
“The restaurant will be empty of patrons in one minute,” Heartless said. “That’s their most likely attack window.
“You said there’s two waiting in back? How many on the rooftop?” Sidewalker asked.
“One second,” Heartless said, apparently meaning it literally because he continued without missing more more than a single tick of the clock. “There are two on the roof as well.”
“Good, that’s our exit path then,” Sidewalker said.
“No!” Heartless said, hands surging upwards in exactly the sort of animation he never showed.
“What else is up there?” Sidewalker asked, trying to remember if Heartless had ever mentioned a fear of heights.
“In terms of active threats I can identify, just the two of them,” Heartless said. “But they’re encamped. The moment we climb up the ladder, they’ll have an open field of fire on us.”
“I can work with that,” Sidewalker said. “The important thing is that the two up there aren’t in a position for the other forces to assist them. They’re relying on surprise. If we take that away from them, they’ll be our easiest path out.”
“No. Things do not work out well on roofs,” Heartless said, frozen in place by some phantom of memory that Sidewalker couldn’t begin to guess at. The paralysis passed with preternatural speed though as Heartless resumed speaking in a steady, and unemotional voice. “There is a danger beyond the baseline capabilities of the Gray League agents. If we make a clear escape it is probable that one or more NMEs will be activated to pursue us.”
“Activated?” Sidewalker asked.
NME’s were supposed to be code degenerations, aberrant mutations that twisted basic combat bio-mods into hideously overperforming beasts of destruction.
“I’ve added an addendum to the contract,” Heartless said. “If we escape from this I will explain what I have discovered about NMEs and how you can ensure neither you nor your team falls victim to an activation.”
“I’d prefer to have that information now so that my team can be protected even if we don’t survive,” Sidewalker said.
“We don’t have time at present,” Heartless said. “They are starting to close in. The backdoor has been breached.”
“If we can’t go up and we can’t go out, then we’ve got to go down,” Sidewalker said.
“There’s access to a basement level from the kitchen,” Heartless said.
Sidewalker had no idea how someone human could be as prepared as Heartless was. Sidewalker always looked up the schematics for the locations they worked at, but looking up the plans for a restaurant you weren’t even going to personally be present at? That spoke to either an extreme depth of paranoia or the ability to parse information at a ludicrous rate.
“Can we get there before the strike team coming in from the back does?” Sidewalker asked.
“No,” Heartless said. “There’s a external window. They would have seen us earlier and they will be directly in our path at this point.”
“Then we risk the roof, and if NMEs show up, we pray for a miracle,” Sidewalker said.
As soon as they started moving, the team outside the front of the restaurant would be alerted. Sidewalker knew that.
“Pretend you’re pestering me, and follow me towards the bathroom,” he said, rising and throwing his napkin down onto the table as though their conversation had just come to an angry and disagreeable end.
Despite being in an only barely human-ish robot body, Heartless did a good job of selling a visual narrative that he was exasperated with Sidewalker and intent on getting the last word in.
Babbling near incoherent phrases the two of them stalked towards the bathrooms. Which also happened to be adjacent to the stairs leading up.
The tourism bot wasn’t as fast as Sidewalker was, but it also didn’t need to slow down for turns like he did. Where Sidewalker whipped himself from one set of stairs to the next, Heartless simply slammed into the wall and used the rebound to reverse his direction quickly.
They made it up to the roof access hatch just as they heard sound of feet beginning to scramble up the steps from the ground floor level.
“Which direction are the two waiting for us?” Sidewalker asked.
“Up there,” Heartless said, pointing at an angle to the southwest.
A data feed from an unknown source appeared offering an overlay projection and before Sidewalker could choose to accept it, his display system had connected to it and rendered the image on his vision.
It was a tactical visualization driven by the city’s EyeGrid. He could see exactly where their ambushers were waiting, and could call up multi-angle display windows to evaluate the overall environment.
“Uh, thanks?” he said, unsure about the casual breach of his internal security but grateful for the combat data.
“How do we get past them?” Heartless asked.
“Like this,” Sidewalker said and flipped the access open. Through it he tossed a black pellet that exploded into a cloud of noxious purple mist. His breath filters were pre-programmed to deal with the cloud, and Heartless didn’t breath at all but, more importantly, with the top of the roof engulfed in a vision obscuring fog, their ambushers couldn’t tell when Sidewalker leapt onto the roof.
Since they’d been staying still, he took a gamble and assumed they hadn’t moved from the last position he saw them in. His gun barked six times in less than a second, recoil compensators and inertial tracking systems ensuring each bullet found its mark.
He didn’t wait for the cries of pain, or the thud of bodies on the rooftop before turning to pull Heartless up. He didn’t need to though. With a single spring of his robotic legs, Heartless sailed up onto the roof on his own.
“Tourist bots don’t tend to be that agile,” Sidewalker noted.
“I paid for some extras,” Heartless said. “Can you slow the people pursuing us from below?”
“A grenade would do it, but I hate to think what it would do to the restaurant,” Sidewalker said.
“I can pay for the damages,” Heartless said.
“To the staff?” Sidewalker asked.
“We should find another building to be on,” Heartless said.
But things weren’t that simple for them. Sidewalker wasn’t surprised. Things were never as simple as he wanted them to be.
There’d been no a thud of bodies hitting rooftop. There’d been time for them to fall, but they hadn’t. The ambushers were still standing.
That was an unlikely outcome from Sidewalker’s point of view. Three shots each should have been enough to at least incapacitate the Gray League mercs. They might have survived the attack if their armor was good enough, and the Gray League did have a rep for fielding solid gear, but Sidewalker’s ammo was designed with armored targets in mind. Each bullet cost more than a typical Rusty would make in a year, and they were worth it precisely because they dealt with the targets that absolutely needed to be put down without being given the opportunity to fire back.
What they weren’t designed to put down though were NMEs. Not rampaging ones, and not even ones that were in the first stages of their transformation like the two that Sidewalker saw on the other side of the roof as his smoke blew away in the wind.