The gambler had a realization: that he craved the thrill of the hunt, no matter what the prey. It hit him suddenly, just as he disarmed the outer security for the tenth or twentieth time, or whatever it was, the repetition having eased him into a meditative state. He stopped for a moment, then he caught himself. If he stopped for too long the alarm would ring, and the room would fill with something lethal, and he’d die and have to try again from the top.
This particular prey was well-protected — all possible versions of it. But they would be all, soon, his. He was almost done.
“He shouldn’t have gone”, said the jockey. “We did not scan that branch.”
“He’s in the vault. How different can it be?”. The assassin looked at the dot projected onto the vault map. “And you know how hard it is to stop him when he’s so close.”
It was iteration 30. It took five iterations, and five deaths in five different alternate universes, before they could figure out how to enter the vault unseen. Eight more to detect and disarm the first layer of defenses. Then, twelve until they could find a flaw in the electronics of the inner vault door, the one place holy enough (and defended enough) to hold the sacred statues of this alternate version of Roman pantheon-inspired sacred idol worship, eight feet high, solid gold and gems. Pulling them out would be easy, if they managed to get a solid-state transponder on them. The hard part was surviving long enough, close enough to the idols, to place it.
They were so close. The jockey’s sneeze had triggered one of those stupid sound sensors, killing him just as he was about to neuter the last of the mechanism — a cable thought secure under a marble floor several inches thick. Once they could reach the spot, it took them just three attempts to figure out how to use localized resonant fragmenters to cut it without the sound waves traveling in the sensors’ direction. And with victory so close, it did not matter to the gambler whose turn it was or whose shift it was. His hands, once he wore the body to go, itched with anticipation.
Something caught the jockey’s attention. “Look at this”, he said, pointing to a graph. “This doesn’t look good. It’s diverging.”
“What? Since when?”
“Yesterday. Look! Swerve points all around the city.”
“Fuck”, she said through the moral equivalent of gritted teeth. She sprung into action. “Give me com, quickly. Honey! Honey, can you hear me?! We’ve got cops. Get out!”
The gambler did not fear death, but capture at the hands of those who know how to stop him — no, that wouldn’t do, he thought.
The alarm wasn’t there. In its place, a sensor, likely calibrated to trigger at the first sign of resonance spread; he’d been had. “Fuck”, he muttered through actual gritted teeth.
As the air vibrated all around him and the cops materialized, tranq guns at the ready, he dived for his physical com headset. He cursed his meatbag — a poor job, just organics, no built-in tech, but it was designed to be left behind in case of failure, just like the previous thirty-something times, and, yeah, one had to make do when the budget got tight. At least he had bioamped reflexes, and he hoped they’d be enough in such close quarters.
He sunk his elbow in one of them, then ripped the gun out of his hand, and in the same fluid motion also pulled the cop’s body on the line of fire of — if that shimmer he saw was artificial — yes, indeed, another cop materializing on his right. He shot the third opponent, a woman already materialized on his left, thanking all the deities when her fired dart missed him by just an inch.
The gambler screamed profanities in the headset and ran.
The assassin had worn a body as quickly as she could and transported herself down; she was armed for bear. She had made the temple entrance devoid of life; all she could do was clear the way, hoping the jockey would rope in some vehicle to get them both at the extraction point, a spot thin enough to make the cops’ jammers not matter.
Her headset screamed profanities at her in a familiar voice.
“Get out through the vent, honey. And stay back.” She never quite learned to emote, not through layers of muscle; her voice was level and her expression neutral as she planted bullet after bulled through the heads of the temple’s security guards. “I’m opening the door.”
She set the directional explosive down, then set it off. The vault door was thrown inside like so much paper, along with much of the wall on both sides, and of the room beyond.
On the far end of the vault, a familiar figure slithered out of a pile of sleek unconscious bodies in uniforms — some appropriate for this Earth, some not. He staggered a little, then looked at her with a face she took a moment to recognize as smiling.
They ran out together as the air around them began to shimmer again.
The jockey’s body was much thinner than those his peers liked. He had put it on quickly after she went, but hadn’t followed her on the same Earth; he didn’t have to be aboard to set up extraction, anyway, and, once he knew what to look for, it was easy to find a version of reality with the idols and with no multiversal cops waiting to ambush.
“When you want things to be done right…”, he thought, as fast as the sluggish meat-brain would allow.
The alarm cable was still there under the marble; he hijacked it with ease. His hand, slow and steady like a precision instrument, touched the glass cage that separated him from the idols, then tapped it a bunch of times. No alarm sounded, and he could not detect the now-familiar hiss of the nerve gas pumps. He picked up the headset again, turned it back on.
“We’re almost there”, the assassin shouted over the sound of gunfire.
The jockey smiled. “So am I.”