The watch on his wrist vibrated and he woke in darkness, raising his head only slightly out of the cradle of his arms to avoid hitting his head on the low ceiling of the vent. The glowing blue face of his watch read 2:00 AM. He shut off the alarm.

      The very first thing he did, automatically, was let his fingers play over the dials at the sides of his goggles, checking the air-conditioning vent with every pair of eyes he still owned. Green low-light, red filter, rainbow thermals, blue current sensors—he saw nothing he wasn't expecting, just the long dull metal corridor of the vent receding into the distance in front of him. It had looked just the same when he first crawled in here seven hours ago, after stashing his orange workman's coverall and toolbox in a damp janitor's closet. He relaxed imperceptibly and switched his goggles back to the greenish low-light display.

      He was stiff after his sleep, but not too stiff. Flexing the muscles of his legs, right leg first, then left, he listened intently; all he could hear was the faint whirr of the central air. It was only March, but Savi-Ten Industries was located deep in the South and it was already warm and humid enough to require the air conditioning. He'd enjoyed that gentle current of cool air over his face as he slept. Really, air vents were more comfortable than most people gave them credit for being, as long as you weren't claustrophobic, and you didn't get far in his business if you were.

      The muscles in his legs tingled as they reawoke, and he had to stifle a little noise. He repeated the process with his (much stiffer) arms, rolling his fists over in mid-air, then pressing his gloved palms to the metal of the vent. His neck and shoulders were next, the maneuver made tricky but not impossible by the lack of room. His neck responded with a soft crackle as he twisted his head, and again he had to bite the inside of his cheek to stop himself from groaning. Pressing the palms of his hands to the vent he raised up as much as he could, loosening his back and shoulders. The back of his head just barely brushed the vent's ceiling.

      Settling back down in the vent he slid two fingers into the little pocket on one sleeve and wriggled out a heavy chunk of ink-dark chocolate wrapped in waxed paper. He ate it over a cupped hand without much care for what it tasted like; it was caffeine and sugar and food enough to pacify his stomach into silence, and nine hours pressed against his warm bicep had left it just soft enough to be eaten without any trouble. The waxed paper went back into the pocket it had come from, and he sucked the few crumbs from the palm of his glove, grimacing at the taste of latex.

      By the time he was done, loose and ready and awake, it was closer to two-fifteen than two, and he still hadn't heard a sound. Not that he expected any. Savi-Ten's security force was entirely too dependent on its video cameras and motion detectors, especially this far out in the maze of employee cubicles. He'd been scoping this place out for close to two weeks, and not once had he seen one of the security guards do even a cursory walkthrough.

      No sense wasting any more time; he wanted to be out of here before four, long before the first of the technicians would arrive. Lashing one hand as far out in front of himself as he could he spread one latex-gloved hand out on the metal sheeting and used the friction to haul himself forward, the rest of his body slithering along behind as easily as if it were oiled. His shoulders were going to ache by the time he reached his goal, a mere five hundred meters away, but he was used to that.

      One, he thought, knowing that the length of his arm plus the length of the tilt of his shoulder was close to a meter. When he hit nineteen he'd round it up to twenty, and stop, and stretch his shoulder muscles again.


      It was all going according to plan. Smooth as silk.

      A little over an hour later he had the prototype safely stashed in the large padded pocket over the small of his back and was feeling pretty damned cocky despite himself. As jobs went Savi-Ten was proving to be almost laughably easy, the professional-league equivalent of cutting a cheap bike chain instead of picking the formidable lock. Whoever had installed Savi-Ten's security system hadn't had the faintest idea of how to keep a real thief out. He'd bypassed no fewer than three electronic locks and all of the cameras in the hallways outside by using the completely unsecured ventilation system, sloppy enough; the motion detectors were sloppily placed as well, almost two feet apart and low to the ground. Anyone with a pair of cheap infrared goggles could have crossed that room undetected, as long as they paid attention and stepped a little high.

      The security cameras in this room were an entirely standard model, one that he could bypass or short out blindfolded; they were all blind eyes now, showing each other fifteen pre-recorded minutes of old footage in case any of the security guards happened to glance at their monitors. The hideously expensive alarm system that Savi-Ten Industries had been using to lock up the prototype hadn't been much more difficult to defeat. It was technically excellent and very secure, in theory; in practice it was also mass-produced tech, available freely through half the security companies in the nation and thus available freely to anyone interested in learning how to hack it. Crowbar it open, fiddle with some of the wiring, and you could override any of these access panels with a frigging Palm Pilot. Granted, a Palm Pilot running a snippet of highly illegal code, but still, the ease of it amused him.

      So much money and no God-damned sense, that was America, and more to the point, that was Savi-Ten. They'd almost been asking to be taken advantage of.

      As quickly as he could he rolled up the stripped and cut wires, jamming them into the empty space behind the panel. He checked his watch. Four minutes left before the cameras came back on. No problem. Fetching a blob of clear putty out of his thigh pocket he glued the broken access panel shut with it, fingers darting in here and there to push escaping wires back in. He leaned his shoulder against the panel until the putty spread and set, then checked his handiwork. The crowbar marks were clear from here, but on the tiny screens of the security cameras the room would look pristine; by the time someone came in here and saw the damage he intended to be at least thirty miles away.

      Two minutes left. He padded carefully back across the floor, stepping high over the infrared beams of the motion sensors (really, what idiot had placed these? hopefully after this incident they would fire their current security consultant) and grabbed for the rope, climbing hand-over-hand up to the open vent in the ceiling that he'd come out of.

      He was already sliding his legs back into the ceiling vent and anticipating his retreat from the building complex when the putty holding the panel temporarily shut abruptly gave way and his smooth-as-silk plan went entirely and abruptly to shit.

      The jury-rigged panel sprang back open with a clatter, all the bits of spliced and mangled wire he'd painstakingly rolled up and hidden behind it falling free. He jerked and nearly fell out of the vent again, his hands closing compulsively tight on the rope. He spared a glance for the exploding panel, twenty feet away and ten feet straight down, and glanced at the watch nestled against the inside of his left wrist—less than a minute of prerecorded tape left on the security cameras. He'd never make it.

      "Jesus Christ," he hissed, and wriggled his hips into the vent. He'd leave it. The security here wasn't the best; he'd probably have enough time to make it out and get away before they looked closely enough at the cameras to see the mangled panel. Anything was better than getting himself caught on tape.

      He pushed hard against the rope and shoved himself backwards into the vent, the prototype an ungainly weight pressing against the small of his back. Twenty seconds now—he hauled the rope in after himself and reached down to grab the louvered vent cover, yanking it up. It caught with a soft click that was nevertheless loud enough to echo up and down the narrow air vent.

      Even with the spectre of the telltale console panel lurking in the back of his mind he spared a moment to take a long, deep breath, checking his watch again as he tried to quell his momentary panic. The luminescent face painted his cheeks and forehead an unearthly blue. Ten seconds to spare. He closed his eyes in relief. The blue light clicked off, leaving him in darkness.

      Fifteen minutes later, shoulders aching again, he had the black glass of his goggles pressed lightly against the louvers of a different air vent, scanning the deserted parking lot. He was burning with adrenalin, jumping at every sound, the image of the battered access panel continually in the forefront of his mind. How could they not have spotted it? And yet as far as he could tell they hadn't; the night was still and quiet.

      Maybe he'd make it out of here before the trouble started. He could only hope. His fingers played over the side of his goggles, flicking through the various lenses and seeing nothing of import through any of them. Time to go.

      Slamming the heel of his hand into the vent cover knocked three of the bolts free (he'd sheared them off last week) and they fell noiselessly into the shrubs that hugged the building's side. The cover itself shuddered for a moment, then fell to swing uselessly off the single well-oiled bolt that remained intact. Even as it fell he was already rolling over, writhing around inside the vent to lie on his back, the prototype's hard case pressing against his spine; the rough scrape of the vent cover chipping at the concrete barely registered as he grabbed the upper lip of the opening and pushed himself backwards.

      He shot out of the duct. Catching himself by his knees he hung upside down for a moment, like a child on the monkey bars, then reached up and grabbed the lower edge of the vent in both hands. Pulling his legs free, he dangled from the vent for a second before dropping into the bushes after the bolts, crouching instinctively and listening. Nothing. Nothing yet.

      The three cinderblocks lay where he'd left them last week, an arm's length away, innocent enough in and of themselves. Dragging them over he rebuilt his impromptu 'steps', the rough concrete snagging at the thin latex over his fingers and making him hiss "Christ!" again. One quick scan of the parking lot through the infrared lenses revealed nothing—quickly he climbed up on the cinderblocks and grabbed the vent cover, rotating it back up and into place.

      He'd just jammed the pencil into the empty lower bolthole and broken it off when the lights all snapped on at once, turning early morning into high noon. He dove for the bushes again, hissing a prayer; the pencil held and the vent cover stayed tremblingly upright, proving that someone up there had heard him. It'd hold long enough. Besides, now he had larger problems. Already he could hear voices, raised in alarm, and the slap-slap-slap of running footsteps.

      Leaving the cinderblocks where they were he bolted from the bushes, hugging the side of the building as well as he could, running for the back fence and the nearly invisible twisted coathanger he'd left hanging from one of the spikes, the coathanger with a loop just large enough for his foot to fit through. Every sound, including the ones he made himself, made him cringe and duck, expecting a yell or a shot or something—but the voices faded. A stroke of luck, they were running to check the front gate first, maybe he'd make it after all...

      The coathanger bit cruelly into the sole of his foot through the thin suede surface of his work shoe, but it gave him the impetus he needed to get his leg over the fence, and wriggling over the fence was a matter of three seconds' work. He was going to make it. Out of the compound and less than twenty feet to the alley where the car was hidden—high on exhilaration and adrenalin he burst round the corner without checking and nearly ran smack into one of Savi-Ten's uniformed security guards, kneeling by the back wheel of his car to clear off the mud he'd carefully spattered by hand onto the license plates earlier this morning.

      "What?" said the guard in confusion, struggling to get to his feet, turn around, and draw his pistol all at once, and thank God, thank God the man was older and heavy-set. Nerves screaming he grabbed for the gun hidden in his thigh pouch and shot the security guard on the upswing as he'd been taught, not pausing to aim, shooting from the hip.

      The bullet took the kneeling guard squarely between the shoulderblades and the man convulsed like he'd been electrocuted, crashing face-first to the ground by the car and flopping around on the gravel. He ran forward and slammed a foot onto the man's back, bloodying the sole of his shoe and not caring; it steadied the thrashing guard long enough for him to put a bullet in the back of the man's head. The security guard jerked once and stilled.

      Throwing himself into the car he grabbed the keys from the sun visor and keyed the engine to life with a roar, his bloodied shoe slipping on the accelerator as he got the hell out of there—