Lex stamped a boot on a rear bench-seat of a cargo van. Her body seemed gyroscopically stable against the Alps’ rough roads. She tightened her laces while Rachel jostled absently beside her. Her eyes had been empty since they’d left Japan. Full-days of boat and car-rides had gotten them across the Asian continent and upward into central Europe, but in all that time, neither she nor Lex had said much. They merely ate, stopped occasionally to rest, resupply, or sleep.
Now the journey was almost over. After they took the vault, they would rocket back to Japan, finish what had been started. The way forward however, would be no easy task.
The Collective housed their vault in the basement of a castle once belonging to a Swiss Baron– a literal dungeon dated to the late fourteenth century. The Baron had been murdered in his sleep by Hitler’s Schutzstaffel while his other forces made their French push. The insurgency however, was thwarted by the Baron’s security forces before it could become a full-blown Casus Belli and drag the country into war. Switzerland remained neutral but the castle changed hands more times than Lex cared to count– all of them greased by dirty money.
She sank beside Rachel whom hunched over in her coat against cold that leaked in. The engine and transmission strained beneath them, urged onward by a heavy foot. Yang-Lee’s scarred face peered back from the passenger-seat, “We’re close.”
Lex readied herself at the rear-doors, “Pull off the road. We’ll walk from here.”
Minutes later Lex and her team, Rachel included, began to hike the final, long twist of road that led to the castle. They emerged on the far-side of a wide curve. Mountains loomed with an ubiquitous boldness to their right and in the background, but the spectacle ahead was curiously level given its craggy surroundings. Jagged, tooth-like ramparts and walls formed a wide barrier between a courtyard and the road with turrets every hundred meters. Gray and white patchwork prevailed through-out the weathered stone-walls. Off-center, but even with the road, stood the gate in all its impenetrable stubbornness.
A man with a rifle patrolled along the wall, security lighter here than it would be inside. The place would be filled with armed GSS Emergency Response Squads– the most elite of the elite not deployed to external security teams. They would bleed all the same.
“Kaz,” Lex said to the Japanese woman. “Go.”
She needed no further instruction. The man had yet to spot them, his mind fatigued to complacency by boredom. Kaz was behind him in a flash, her feet silent. The only sound was that of the blade as it pierced his back, cracked his sternum, and emerged from his chest. He fell face-first into the snow, dead and bleeding.
Lex and Yang-Lee were at Kaz’s side as she stooped to rifle through his pockets. Rachel and Ryo approached, their heads swiveling. The former was more paranoid than the strategic latter. Kaz rose, a key-card and radio in-hand, passed them to Lex. She stuck the radio’s ear-piece in to monitor the GSS frequency, moved them up to an arched, wooden door in the wall beside the massive gate.
The key-card touched a panel beside the door, scanned a magnetic stripe. The door eased open on a small, quiet hydraulic. Lex stepped in, nearly blind from the relative darkness.
She kept her senses honed, whispered at the others, “The rampart will lead into a tunnel. From there, we follow passages to the vault. Stay sharp.”
Rachel was silent, unsure why she was even there. Though Lex assured her she would be safe, there were more than a few doubts to her sincerity. More than likely, she would be looked to for any unforeseen developments that might arise. The only explanation Rachel could surmise verged on wafer-thin; she might know how the Collective think.
Whatever the real reason for her presence, she kept dead-center in the line of bodies that stalked the shadows beneath the ramparts. Centuries ago, this place would have been filled with the stinking bodies of medieval soldiers ready to fight and die for their home or Monarch. Now, it was desolate, empty. Its wide, arched passageways were more a curious, historical oddity than anything. Most certainly they were no longer necessary as secondary pathways to the turrets above.
They managed to find the cross-chamber that led to the vault unimpeded. The retro-fits became more obvious as the group dodged the sweeping gazes of security cameras. Old, crumbled stone transformed to restored brick work, finally morphed into steel plating that covered the walls, ceiling, and floor, reinforced them against whatever intrusion had been thought of. Evidently the Collective didn’t expect anyone walk through the side door, much less with minimal force.
They found another, circular cross-chamber with a pillar in its center. It led around to three, other pathways. From the database Andersson had given her, Lex knew two passages led to the upper-levels and the castle’s Great Hall. The third then, led to the vault and the first of its security measures. Casual footsteps echoed over the sound of voices. Lex and the others hurried to back up, out of sight.
A German voice spoke patchwork English, “Herr Steinsson hat arrived.”
“Yeh?” An Irish man’s accent asked. “What’s ‘e want?”
“Der Kommandant sagt es ist about die monthly inspektion,” the German replied.
The Irish man said something as his voice curved around the inner-portion of the cross-chamber. It began to fade away, trail off down the second passage that led to the upper-levels. Lex stealthed forward, double-checked the chamber, then urged the others back into place.
The first of the security measures began just inside the passage to the vault. It wasn’t immediately obvious, and in fact, Lex wouldn’t have known were it not for Andersson’s intel. The steel-plated floor was randomly pressure-sensitive with no external indication of triggers; a singular height and shined to a high-gloss.
Thankfully, “random” actually meant patterned in a non-obvious way. Much like a musical phrase, there were obvious repetitions with only mild variation, then wild variations on either end of the phrases that led into one another. Together, they formed a mental picture in Lex’s mind that would zig-zag her across the floor-tiles.
“Step where I step and nowhere else,” Lex said quietly.
She planted her foot on the first plate, reassured herself by putting her other down and standing still for a moment. She admitted a small relief to herself, then closed her eyes to envision the layout. Left two, up one, right one, up two, left two, up two, right two. She stepped through the first series of tiles. The others followed carefully. Their eyes darted between their own feet and those of the person ahead. Each step was a vise around their hearts that tightened the further they progressed.
At the right, ninety-degree angle the hall formed, Lex stopped, stared ahead. She knew what lay unseen, between her and the massive, three foot-thick, circular-door. She also knew what would happen if she blundered forward; the castle would go on lock-down. The vault’s entry systems would be isolated, locked out of the castle’s security network until remotely reconnected. Meanwhile all GSS assets in-country would be diverted to neutralize the threat while panels in the ceiling opened, emitted hydroflouric acid and methoxyflurane gas. In other words, they’d be awake just long enough to go into shock, then die from cardiac arrest while unconscious– or else live disfigured the rest of their lives in prison.
Lex breathed, prepared. She pulled a small, cylindrical emitter from a pocket, the size of a D-Cell battery, but black with a hard shell. Its bottom-half twisted to engage it. Then, with another, careful motion, Lex followed the zig-zag of free-plates to the center of an invisible laser emitter. She stooped down, placed another cylindrical-device that misted the air every few seconds.
Rachel watched faint outlines of red-lasers bowed upward above Lex. The others engaged their countermeasures, followed after her. The mist caught the edges of the next set of emitted lasers. They bowed upward, reshaped by the static-discharger in Lex’s hand as she approached. Rachel held her discharger, heart in her throat as they made a start-stop progression while Lex placed the misting canisters. At the line’s rear, Ryo retrieved each one, then proceeded forward. As the last of the mist settled and Ryo moved from range, the lasers relaxed, ensured the group they would be forced to leave as they’d entered.
Lex’s goal was within reach now. No-one would stop her– not even the men in the security room that monitored the vault from the cameras at either side of it. With a final, calculated step, she passed from the mine-field of pressure plates and onto a wide, singular section of floor before the vault door. It spanned at least as much of the door’s sweeping gait, more even, it seemed.
The others followed, disengaged their countermeasures. Kaz and Yang-Lee split for the cameras, cut open their insulated wires to splice small, box-like devices to them that magnetically latched to the cameras’ bodies. They backed away from their respective cameras; Yang-Lee stood sentinel at the edge of the lone plate, faced the way they’d come.
Kaz returned to Lex’s side, “We’re ready.”
Lex nodded, “Ryo?”
He stepped past for a large panel beside the door. A hand-print scanner was housed in a touch screen below a retinal scanner and voice-print lock. In addition, numbered keys said a code was necessary to breach the state of the art security. Ryo had none of those things. Instead, he produced slam-bore from his pack, punched through the panel’s half-dozen screws, then pried it from the wall. The panel came loose, caught by Kaz’s hands. It jostled as he fished through the wires, spliced them to a bundle of cable connected to a hand-held tablet computer.
A full minute later hydraulics hissed over a series of loud clicks. Giant, steel bolts grated metal on metal as they slid back, in. The group stepped aside for the vault door to ease open, reveal its innards and their bounty. They stood in awe for a moment– even Rachel’s eyes gleamed dully at the hundreds of tons of gold and platinum bullion. A smug, knowing smile crept across Lex’s face.
This was the bulk of the world’s economy. It made Fort Knox look like chump-change. Despite the comparatively small vault, the bullion here was two and three times as valuable as Knox in its heyday. What was more, it was the Collective’s only physical measure of wealth. Long before the Sleep paper money had become useless, but even digital currency required physical assets to remain fiscally solvent, its value relative to what backed it. With a well-placed explosive, Lex planned to destroy– or at least nullify– the Collective’s stock-piled wealth.
“Take only what you can without being weighed down,” Lex said as she entered the vault. “Don’t get greedy.”
They entered the marble-floored vault. Lock-boxes formed mausoleum-like walls around the massive carts of gold and platinum. Kaz and Yang-Lee went to work to hack more cameras in the room’s corners then joined in ransacking the carts. They filled canvas packs with as much metal as they could carry.
Lex took a wide path around the vault, set small, thermos-like devices in its corners: they could never destroy the vault, or indeed even the metal in it. What they could do was turn the room into a super-powerful magnet so strong it– and everything inside it– would deform. The devices would create a singularity of unrivaled proportions by building to critical mass. The vault would contract, re-fuse until no larger than an SUV. The molten ball formed wouldn’t cool for weeks, months even. The repository would be eradicated in one, fell-swoop, its value gone.
The group procured their metal, then readied to make the trek back. The vault door swung shut as the super-magnets’ timers engaged. In a little less than five minutes, they would activate, begin to build up their polar charges, and the chaos would begin. Lex moved quickly back across the safe plates, through the lasers, and into the central passageway.
The timer was already down four-minutes when they reached the pillared cross-chamber. Lex shoved her bag of bullion into Rachel’s hands, “Go with them, I’ll meet you in Tokyo.”
Rachel was suddenly irate, “What? Are you crazy? Where are you going?”
“Steinsson is here,” Lex replied with a knowing look to the others. “Viktor Steinsson is a member of the Collective. He can not be allowed to live.”
“Forty-five seconds,” Kaz said with a look to her watch.
Rachel argued over her, “You’re crazy, Lex, you can’t–”
“Get out!” Lex ordered with a caustic hush.
“Come on,” Ryo said, pulling Rachel along.
Rachel watched Lex as the seconds ticked down. She suddenly drew her blades, disappeared around the pillar. Rachel swallowed acid; as much as she’d been against Lex, she was the closest thing left to a friend. Between what the Collective would do, and her weariness at the others like Lex, she didn’t want to be without even the minor rapport they’d built.
Rachel’s safety was admittedly nearer in Lex’s mind than her own as she sprinted through the maze of main-passageways that curved around, back, straightened out, and widened again. Her blades gleamed while her feet beat a gallop along plated floors toward a pair of men. They turned in time to be cut down, cast aside from the passage’s center. Lex followed through without a missed beat. Her blades dripped trails along the zig-zag of stairs that led up to the Great Hall.
She exploded onto the marble floors just as alarms screamed through the castle. The magneto-bomb had been detected. In moments it would reach critical mass, destroy the world’s last repository of hard currency. Nothing could stop that now, but Lex wouldn’t have let it anyhow.
Orders were shouted all around the Hall, echoed through its expanse over boots that marched down toward the vault. Lex saw the castle’s blue-prints in her mind, knew Steinsson would be in the security room just off the right side of the hall. Her feet danced poly-rhythms near a door over a melody of steel cutting skin. She severed the jugulars of a pair of guards there. More began to appear, their attention directed elsewhere form the chaos downstairs.
She shoved her way through a heavy, wooden door. The narrow hall beyond was long, filled with doorways of various non-importance. Her goal lay dead ahead, behind an open doorway with bodies that moved every which way around chromed-out tech.
She made the door in a few steps, bolted inside with a flurry of movement. She whirled round, blades cutting. The commotion inside barely registered the deaths of three security techs. Steinsson turned, the glaring eyes accented the white of his thinning hair. His recessed hair-line made jagged points of already-angled features.
Lex’s blades thrust and sliced, incised and slit their way across the room. Her body followed, the entities inseparable in their blurred motions. Before Viktor could react, Lex’s brought the katanas’ hilts together in a deep lunge. The blades sank into him, pierced clean-through with a splatter of blood that painted an abstract on the wall and tech behind him. The blades slid out in time to spin, catch two GSS guards on either side beneath their helmets.
Blood spilled from freshly cut throats as she came about, blades in their downward-point. Three GSS officers stood across the room with raised rifles. They shouted commands in various languages over the wail of klaxons. She refused to flinch. A man fingered his trigger.
A burst of fire riddled his body from the doorway. A second cut down the man beside him. The third turned as Lex’s right-hand blade sailed through the air, into his chest at an angle. A third burst cut him down simultaneously. He fell, dead. The smoke of the gunfire cleared in time for Lex to catch Rachel in the doorway.
For a moment both women were too shocked to move. Lex shook it off first, sprinted forward, retrieved her blade then made for the door. She drug Rachel with by the shoulder until she regained her wits.
“I wasn’t going to come back for you,” Rachel panted, in-step with Lex.
“Not now,” Lex said as they entered the Great Hall for the castle’s main door.
Sunlight beckoned them forward from the open doors, kissed them with its frosty presence. The courtyard was empty. Distant metal grated, ground as something behind them exploded. Neither woman paused to look back. Instead, they rushed for a door in the wall they’d entered through, took the rampart’s interior in a few steps, then shoved their way back into the day-light.
Their chests heaved, feet slipped on icy snow, caught traction on the road. Limbs pumped with aching muscles to launch them down the mountain, around the winding corner toward the awaiting van. Kaz had already angled it around, the back-doors open and the engine running.
Lex shoved Rachel inside as she climbed in, “Go! Go!”
The van started into a gallop, assisted by the road’s steep grade. The rear-doors slammed shut as Lex and Rachel pushed themselves up from the floor, fought opposing gravity to re-take their seats over a wheel.
Rachel swallowed hard with a look to Lex beside her, “We… actually made it.”
Lex gave a long sigh to recompose herself, “Yeah. We did.” She glanced at Ryo across from her, “The metal?”
He looked sideways at the pile of bags that clanked and clanged from the road’s twists and turns. Lex threw her head back, relieved, and leaned against the van’s wall. Her head rolled along her neck to meet Rachel’s eyes.
Rachel winced, grimaced. Then, with a small nod she replied, “You’re welcome.”