Into Her Darkness: Part 6

6.

In the Field

The first few tests were less harrowing than Crystal expected. They amounted to running the course in its entirety, picking locks within a time-limit, and accuracy-based speed shooting. Angela had trained her well enough that pressure felt as natural as daily practice. At lunch, Angela’s personal gravity seemingly increased. Her stiff-lip hardened. Crystal soon learned why: all of her field skills were about to be tested in the field.

The pair took their lunch break, sat at the island counter across from one another. Angela’s sudden taciturnity kept her from saying much while they ate. Still, Crystal ate slowly, hoping to prolong a possibly untimely end of their partnership– and her newly-comfortable life. Angela downed a drink, fished for another in the fridge, then cracked the top on a can of soda.

She deliberately waited for the fizz to die before speaking, “You’ve done well.” Her tone was short, firm rather than cold. “Better than I’d anticipated, but there’s only so much we can learn with imaginary pressure. We’re going to put your skills to use.”

Crystal sipped autonomously from a cup, watching Angela beyond it.

She continued, “I’ve spoken to my Fixer, the woman that sets up my jobs. We call her Madame Curie. She’s lined up a job; a Museum piece is being transferred into town on a truck-full of others. The goal’s to nab it. Together. If you wish to continue, that is. This will be the final test. If the job goes as planned, you’re in.”

Crystal let the words sink in with an other drink.

Angela gave it a full minute. Then, on cue, “You in?”

Crystal didn’t want to make the decision in haste, but wasn’t sure she couldn’t. She guessed her answer would’ve proven the same regardless. If the options were repaying Angela or returning to stinking like a corpse, she’d attempt repayment every time. With that in mind, she nodded.

“I’m in.”

Angela’s eyes narrowed. “Then we’ll begin planning the job.”

The next hour was an exercise in focused listening. Every detail Angela gave was as important as the last. Every sentence was dense, packed full of information to warn, plan, or instruct. Not a single word was wasted. Before Crystal realized it, she and Angela were standing beside the BMW bike, fitting finger-less gloves. They were like digital-age warriors; clad in all black, beanie-caps, and loaded with guns, tools, and an empty pack for loot.

Crystal was floored. Yet beneath it all, her stomach churned inexplicably. She wasn’t sure why, the plan was simple: Await the delivery vehicle. Sneak inside to it. Grab the target. Run. The devil was in the details, but no matter what she examined, she found her fears rooted elsewhere. Even her minor fear of choking under pressure wasn’t the origin. Angela’s faith in her, she knew, would override that. Eventually she was left with no choice but to focus on the job and hope it worked itself out.

Angela stepped over with a small tin of make-up, began smearing her face. “All cameras have facial-recog software linked to central crime databases. If you’re spotted without this, they’ll peg you before you realize they’re there. It’s one of the most important tools we use. Never leave home without it.”

Angela stuffed the tin in a pocket of Crystal’s vest, then produced another to coat her own face. Metal flakes and gray, thermal paint made for a glittering, tight mask that smothered the skin. It was a small price to pay to keep them safe against the inevitable lawmen looking to stake claims. Crystal knew next to nothing about tech, but figured the metal flakes somehow confused the software. How, she couldn’t say, but all she cared to know was where Angela needed her.

Gear secured, they saddled up the bike. The engine ignited its high-performance growl, then bellowed a roar into the elevator. At street level, the roar repeated, echoing into the freshly risen night until it reached top-speed. Crystal’s HUD activated: Temperature and barometric readings appeared immediately, various metrics and calculations beneath them fading in and out as the bike angled around corners.

They glode along straights at top-speed. Ramshackle harbor-buildings turned to rundown ghettos. Vagrants and usual passersby whizzed past with futile readings. The ghettos turned middle-class– or as much as was left in their brave, new world. In truth, they galloped through what remained of the middle-class; slum-lord ghettos whose only difference from the lower ones were fresher coats of paint. Then, the upscale, downtown buildings began to appear.

The glitz and glamour of a cocaine-nightlife surged around them. Sharks and prey of all types emerged from the crevices to take it all in. Drunk couples walked hand-in-hand. Lower-upper class groups queued for list-only bars and restaurants while the A-listers entered from Limos at the back. The homeless and poor pan-handled, or hid or ran from men in blue armor. The city was a surging, roiling organism awash in colorful light and a parasite called humanity that the bike passed as if an impulse along the nerves of its streets.

The further they traveled, the more sparse the land became. It turned from the ass-shaking gold and silver of downtown to the tea and crumpets of old money-uptown. Pristinely groomed foliage and parks cut swaths between lavish, high-rise apartments or gated communities. Verdant hues dominated bright-white flood-lights and neutral, newer-than-most skyscrapers with out-of-season beauty. There was no denying “uptown” varied wildly from its lower counterpart. Of course, that meant infinitely more to the two thieves sizing up a mark than anyone.

Angela leaned them onto a long, four-lane avenue, aimed for a central area of grounds. They twisted, turned. If Crystal knew anything about the city she’d inhabited her whole life, it was that this was the height of its cultural contribution. The raving, boozing downtown district may have been what made the news, but Museum Mile made the society pages. In the end, those were the ones counted.

The grounds were immaculate, assaulting to the senses. That was the point. Dirt and asphalt didn’t exist here. Everyone from the Groundskeeper to the Grand Curator worked to ensure the little bit that did was forgotten. The Mile was different from anywhere else in the city– even the world. The colossal museums looked as if some Roman architect had been sucked through time to design the largest, most luxurious forums ever seen.

The largest of the museums was no different; all domes, hard angles, filigrees and columnar supports. The place was cast in tastefully opposing shades of beige, white, and gray. Sculptures of Gods and Goddesses lined the apexes and column-bases, outlined the front and sides of the museum. Various depictions of rituals, historical events, or people, lined the filigrees in between. Truly, the place was a wonder of human engineering and ego.

And they were about to rip it off.

Angela killed the bike’s headlight and Crystal’s night-vision software engaged. Her HUD dialed up its contrast, lightening the area so she might focus on the task at-hand. They went quiet, as they sailed along a side-road for a Museum’s rear-lot. They passed wide around a fenced, compound of loading bays. A guard-house cast an imposing silhouette in the darkness near the gate, but was far enough that they’d passed unheard and unseen.

The bike banked around like a fighter-jet to come about. It cut through the parking lot behind the compound and came to a rest somewhere in the middle. The two women climbed off to watch the for the truck’s arrival and confirm its markings. This was the easy part. The next, entering the compound to nab the target, wasn’t. Angela had hinted it might be as simple as scaling the fence, but Crystal doubted as much. Only time would only tell.

They left the bike, sneaked to the half cement, half chain-link fence encircling the compound. They kept their gravity centered near their knees, and crept along to the far, left side for an ideal vantage point. The guard-house remained far enough to keep from being spotted, yet was close enough to watch the guard, the gate beside well in view, too.

“There’s only one delivery tonight.” Angela said, sweeping the compound with binoculars. “One truck. Driver and loader. Two people. Two guards near the door. Cameras. A guard in the shack.”

She handed the binoculars to Crystal, whom confirmed her assessment: A pair of uniformed security-guards stood outside the personnel door at the furthest loading bay. Cameras were stationed along the building’s corners, near the rolling doors, and through-out the lot on light-poles to capture roughly the entirety of the inner-compound.

Crystal couldn’t help but notice the coverage, “How do you plan to get past the cameras?”

“Stay covered ’til we’re ready to move. Once anyone knows we were here, we’ll be long gone.”

Crystal chewed her tongue, “Not much room for error.”

“Think on your feet. It’s what I trained you for.”

A truck lumbered up to the gate. Crystal handed the binoculars back. “Mark’s arrived.”

Angela watched the truck stop and the gate creep open. The truck rolled in. “Payday’s a– Shit!

A sedan rolled in behind the truck, followed it through the lot with a wide berth to allow it to back up against a loading bay.

“Curie, you hag, you fucked us!”

Crystal’s adrenaline flowed. “What is it?”

Angela handed over the binoculars, “Security escort. Not unheard of, but not on the roster. The artifacts are private property. It’s the only reason they’d be here.”

Crystal watched the delivery truck settle into place. Its two occupants climbed out. Ahead of them, the Sedan’s four doors opened. Four, large men in suits climbed out. From her HUD, Crystal knew they were packing heat. They walked with excess weight to their hips, confirming as much. Her stomach bubbled and churned again: things were about to go completely sideways.

“Maybe it’s not our night,” Crystal whispered.

“No.” Angela dug in a vest-pocket for disassembled bolt-cutters and a cell-phone. She assembled the cutters, handed them over. “We’ve committed. We’ve got a client waiting. Stop now and we might as well write off our reputation– my reputation. Start cutting.”

Crystal took the cutters, hands near trembling. A breath forced adrenaline through them, and she began snipping apart the fence. Angela rolled it back in a large section, ushered her through, then followed her in. They skirted the edge of the lights, careful of the roving cameras. Light-yellow cones showed the camera angles on their HUDs– another useful tool of the trade Crystal was grateful for.

Angela stopped her mid-way through the lot. “There.”

Two, roving cones intersected periodically, a blind spot forming behind one as they did. The only problem was the glaring light all around it from above.

“We need to ensure no-one sees you.”

Crystal was exasperated. “Why me?”

“Because I have to draw them away,” she said, thumbing her phone.

In the distance, the bike started. Its engine revved. The faint silhouette of the performance-tuned bike raced for the gate. It angled around, stopped in front of it.

“Get ready,” Angela instructed. “One chance; get to the light. On my say, go for the truck.”

Crystal swallowed hard. Bile surged upward. Adrenaline flowed, knocked it down. The bike’s head-light flared on. It’s back tire began spinning. Burning rubber screamed with stinking, white smoke. The guard-house lit up and someone appeared at its side. Crystal was ready. Angela watched the guards near the truck halt mid-step, then turn to gawk.

“Go!”

Crystal bolted. The vision cones hit their first apex, began to swivel back. She dodged others, slipping in and out of shadows at the raised cement-bases of light-poles. The cones began to meet. The group near the truck headed for the smoking bike, weapons-out. One stayed behind, urging the driver and his comrade inside as he took a post at the truck’s rear.

Crystal ducked behind the target pole, glaring light all around her. All anyone needed was to look in her direction. She was literal deer in the headlights; eyes plastered wide, body frozen in terror.

All eyes were trained on the bike. The group approached the gate, guns drawn. The screeching tire went silent, and the light shut off. Smoke curled and wafted through the newly dead night, drifting away on a breeze to reveal the bike’s riderless form.

Angela’s voice piped in over Crystal’s comm-implant, “On three, make for the truck’s far-side. Don’t stop. Get inside it. I’ll handle the last guard.”

Her three count lasted an eternity. Time passed in flashes. Crystal found herself sprinting for the truck’s side. The bike’s headlight flared, strobed, incapacitating the group. Security was down, writhing, shouting in pain for help. The guard at the truck sprinted for his comrades. Crystal slipped behind the truck. The man stopped midway between the group and the truck to see the men shaking off the sudden attack. They groaned, rolled, rose to their feet one-by-one. The bike gave a pair of meeps and tore off into the night.

Crystal’s hands worked triple time, picking the truck’s padlock. Moments later she was in. She shut the door, found herself at the rear of a truck-full of crates, each stenciled with black painted lot-numbers.

“I’m in,” Crystal radioed.

“Lot 1-6-9-1.”

Crystal’s HUD flickered with an indicator, automatically searching as she skimmed the tight quarters. It located the lot number at an angle, highlighted it near the front of the truck. Crystal side-stepped, squeezed between two rows of larger crates, and centered herself before it. She fought for a grip on the crate, found it wedged in place.

“It’s stuck.”

Angela was running, panting, “Crack the box. We only need the contents. Terra Cotta warrior. Sixteen inches.”

Crystal fished out a few, small tools, jammed a mini pry-bar between the edges of the crates lid, and heaved her weight against it. Wood snapped. Metal groaned. Then, the slight cascade of packing materials and confetti-like paper spilled atop Crystal’s feet. She dug, felt her fingers clutch cool ceramic, and rejoiced internally. She yanked the artifact out, and stuffed it in her pack.

“I’ve got it,” Crystal said, edging toward the door. “Is it clear?”

No response.

Crystal hesitated, “Angela?” Her heart doubled its rhythm. “Angela?” She glanced around hopelessly. “Shit!”

With a deep breath, she pushed a door open and peered out to the right: where the guards should have been was nothing. She swallowed terror, crouched, and climbed out as quietly as possible. She rounded the rear of the truck, set her HUD to search for Angela. Nothing.

She hesitated to survey the lot; guards were still searching for the bike. The group roamed like ants swarming an insect carcass at the gate. Vision cones of the blind spot oscillated, beckoning her forward. She readied in a crouch to sprint. A loud click sounded behind her.

“On your knees, hands behind your head.” Crystal clenched her eyes shut. The voice repeated itself. “I will shoot you. Do it now!”

Crystal was torn. Where the hell was Angela? Why was this happening? Why was she even here? What was she going to do now?

“On your knees!

Crystal winced, chest deflating. She sank to one knee, then the next, “Don’t shoot. Alright? I’ll do what you say.”

“God damn right you will,” the man said, advancing toward her. “On your stomach. Flat. Arms out.” Crystal did. The man jerked the artifact from her pack. “Look what we have here. Guess it’s not your day. Get up. Hands up. Don’t even think about going for those pieces.” Crystal sighed, rose back to her knees then to her feet. “Good. Face me.”

Crystal turned in time to see Angela appear behind him. The next moments progressed in slow motion; Steel flashed. Disappeared. Crimson spilled, spurted. His jugular was pierced. He dropped the artifact, head forced against the truck’s rear-edge. It caved in with a bloody crunch. Angela was fast on the catch; the artifact was in her hand. He fell to a heap, gun firing randomly from a spasm.

Time resumed its pace.

Shit!”

Crystal was still frozen. Men rushing toward them were muffled by Angela tackling her into cover. The bike’s engine revved up again, was beside them seconds later. Crystal was still frozen, her eyes traumatized, stuck on the body. Angela jerked her toward the bike. Her legs worked autonomously to put it under her. More flashes. Moments formed vague pictures. They burned a trail toward the gate, gunfire aimed for them. Sparked colored the road, the bike’s extreme edges. Angela kept accelerating, weaving this way and that until they rocketed through the gate with a wide turn.

Muzzle flashes followed them down the Mile, but the bike soon left it behind. Crystal’s mind remained there, caught in the man’s lifeless eyes.

Short Story: Thousands and Thousands of Steps

The skies were dark gray, an ominous sign of an evil foreboding. When we reached the peak of the mountain, we had no idea what we would find. We merely followed the path from the village below that wound up and around the mountain. It was me– the museum curator–, Janice and Cameron. The latter two, an archaeologist and her intern respectively, were the most curious of those to climb the mountain. Even the villagers below had said so, though admittedly I only heard it through their interpreter.

I was there to ensure the museum’s investment was not in vain, nor squandered. I’d have been more scrupulous were it not for Janice’s own tendency to live on bread and water. It must have been the result of living a graduate-student’s life because Cameron took on a similar quality. This extended even to our private meeting at a high-end restaurant. We met to discuss the expedition, lunched at my expense, and either through courtesy or mere habit they each chose the cheapest meals on the menu. While Fine Divine’s chicken is always of the highest caliber, I must admit that if given the chance, I would not hesitate to gorge myself on their most expensive dishes. Even so, the Doctor and her student chose the meal of the fiscally meek.

This not to say that either of my comrades was without taste. To the contrary in fact. On our first evening in the village, the night before we were to begin our expedition, Cameron produced a bottle of twelve-year scotch that had come from one of the last distilleries in Scotland to bottle that particular brew. The three of us drank well that night, in good spirits despite the bitter cold that no bonfire could have properly fought.

When we awoke in the morning, it was without hang-overs, but that sky made us wish we had them. Mother Nature herself, it felt, had gifted us with an innate ability to overcome the liquor’s effects, ensure we would brave what was encamped for us above. I don’t believe we left the village with a single problem either, thereby cementing my feelings of some preternatural involvement in our later misfortune.

We were loaded to the gills with provisions, supplies, and oxygen. Although we were told the latter of these was unnecessary, we needed to be sure. We had one tent that would come in handy as we ascended the thousands of steps to the summit that required a night’s rest in-between. The mountain itself, you see, is unscalable by even the most experienced climbers. I could not tell you why even if I were one myself. I can only say what I have heard of the mountain; no one that has attempted to freely climb it by any way other than those thousands of steps has been killed or lost entirely.

To say that the place is not without its own lore or mythology would be gravely unfair. Indeed, it was this very lore that led Janice to petition the museum for expeditionary funds. Like many others, she believed that atop those thousands of steps was a lost city. In the very least, she knew that if we found nothing, we could put the rumors to rest in the academic community. Otherwise, she would return with what she could as compensation for the Museum. Afterward, it would be decided if we would pursue the matter further, or if she would be left to study the collected artifacts alone.

Looking back, I wish we had found nothing. At least then we could have returned home without the scrutiny that was later upon us. More importantly, had we kept our mouths shut, we would not have roused the suspicions of so many.

I can’t tell you what we found up there. Not really. I can only recount what happened:

It was the morning of the second day. We had made expected progress in the first day, were already half-way up the mountains steps when the first bit of misfortune struck. It was small, as if the single drop of rain before the downpour of a cataclysmic storm. We were walking up the three-thousand thirtieth step when Janice slipped. She’d been monitoring our progress and altitude on a GPS device. When she fell, the device was thrown. It disappeared over the edge of the cliff as Cameron and I lunged to keep Janice from the steps’ fatal twists and turns.

What seemed a small bit of misfortune only multiplied as time continued. First it was electronic devices; the GPS tracker, my digital compass, Cameron’s digital camera. One-by-one, as if the mountain rued their appearances, they were dropped, shattered, or tossed over the cliff’s edge. What soon seemed limited to the technological quickly escalated to the critical.

I can’t say how exactly, but I can tell you that by the four thousandth step we’d lost all of the aforementioned with the worst yet to come. It was at the four thousand fifth step that we began to hear a prolonged, angry hissing. At the altitude, we knew there was no possible way an animal could make the noise. Two steps later, Cameron began to scream. He tore his pack off his pack as if possessed,e whipped back and forth, Janice and I frozen in shock and terror. With a single, involuntary motion, he hurled the pack away from him, fell to the stairs writhing with screams.

We could only lament the loss of a third of our supplies and provisions for a moment as Cameron writhed. Somehow– and I’ve no idea how she spotted it– Janice saw something at a glance. In a moment she was atop Cameron, her knees in the small of his back as he fought against her weight. He twisted and shrieked beneath her while slow rumble began around us. She revealed his injury; a rapidly spreading frostbite from a punctured oxygen valve on the tank that in his pack.

The only solace I can take in what happened next is that Cameron was dead already. At that altitude, and with the windchill already well-below zero, he’d have frozen to death no matter what happened.

The rumble increased. My timely reaction allowed me to tackle Janice sideways, pull her from the path of a boulder that landed atop Cameron. The impact dislodged a few of the thousands of steps, the whole mass tumbled the countless meters toward the ground, the poor intern crushed beneath it.

I comforted Janice as best I could, but Cameron’s fate was both a freak accident and largely his own doing. Even then I knew his screams had caused an avalanche and rock-slide. He’d inadvertently killed himself from the freak injury without need of the Mountain’s seemingly malicious spirit. While you couldn’t blame the man for it, I still found it difficult to deny the truth.

For a long while we sat, huddled beside the newly opened chasm. We contemplated our options: our losses made the trek seem of no further value– nothing could quite make-up for Cameron’s death, no matter what we may or might not find. Even still, we concluded that we must press on, if only because the path down seemed too perilous now that a piece of it was missing. We continued upward, steadfast in keeping our minds from Cameron’s untimely death.

It was almost nightfall when we crossed the six thousandth step. The air was supremely thin, but we feared our oxygen canisters. They were like little cylinders of death at our backs. Each step we’d taken had been careful, laid out so as not to disturb our packs too much lest we suffer the same fate.

That was when we saw it; the summit. I had to keep Janice from sprinting toward it, my arm wrapped ’round hers to ensure her wits were not stolen from her. To her credit, my presence grounded her. After a look of gratitude, she breathed relief. We ascended the last steps arm in arm. Even at night the summit’s snow glistened with an unmatched brilliance and unnatural beauty. The last step led to the edge of a wide, open expanse.

We only saw that openness for a few seconds. What came next… as I said, I can’t tell you what we found, only what happened– no matter how wondrous or unbelievable it may seem.

The clearing suddenly dissolved into a bright, golden light. Distant structures appeared with leaved trim as if carved in stone. A whole city seemed laid out before us in a stair-stepping architecture with its lowest edge a walled precipice. The wall there seemed to looked down from an unearthly height, as though we’d left the planet altogether. Meanwhile, a pyramidal temple at the horizon’s apex reached even further into the clouds. Small figures came and went in the distance, paying no notice to the dots on their horizon.

This was undoubtedly an ancient city of stone, but formed in a strange, golden light that infected our bodies– our souls even– with warmth and comfort. How long we stood transfixed, I’m not sure. It may have been mere moments or hours even. Eventually we felt information flood our minds– something Janice and I later corroborated. It was as if all the Universe’s secrets were revealed to us at once, but due to our mind’s primitive nature, we couldn’t comprehend any of it.

When we felt that perhaps we might access some, a whisper on the wind– with as much indifference– spoke to us with an indistinct voice, “You do not belong here.”

The light flared so brightly around us we were blinded. Then to our relief and bemusement, we were suddenly at the bottom of the mountain, transported there by some unseen force. What was more, Cameron was beside us, unharmed and as confused as we. He later recounted that he remembered dying, saw the boulder falling before he felt it crush his bones beneath it. The next thing he knew, he was beside us at the base of the mountain.

To put it all into words makes it feel more surreal than it was even then, but I know it happened. There is no proof but my word of course, but then perhaps that is all that is needed. The mountain saw to that on our way up, and whomever occupies the summit seems to have sated our curiosity somehow. We’ve no desire to return to the mountain’s summit, not a one of us. It seems there’s not enough money in the world to change our minds either. We’re content in what happened, the fruits of our labors.

Some have theorized that’s the real secret of the summit: that whomever resides there can control the mind with thoughts alone. I’m not certain of that. All I know is what I experienced and how I feel now. It did happen, I know that– as do Janice and Cameron. I also know that we climbed thousands and thousands of steps along a path that has no rightly reason to exist, only to emerge once more at the bottom as if we’d never taken the first step.

Perhaps that is the real moral of whatever the mountain seeks to teach; no matter how many steps we take, we never truly progress. Then again, perhaps that is just the rambling of a half-insane man. I’ve no doubt there will be subscribers to either theory, but even so, I’ve grown tired of telling the tale time and again and so have simplified it to its purest form: I took thousands and thousands of steps, but never moved an inch. That simplicity, I feel, is best befitting of the mountain’s moral.