Hi guys, Rob here. This story’s been bouncing around in my head for a loooong time. I hate to do this, but once again I can’t tell you much about it up front, other than it’s about a heist with two long-time professional thieves, and that their mission doesn’t go as expected.
Listen to the Audio (17.5 min):
Read the Story (2,800 words / 11-minute read):
Written and narrated by Rob Dircks
“I know! The chipset has a clock. I’m looking right at it.”
“God, shut up.”
They were bickering again, like a couple of old bitties. That was the only part of these heists Oscar hated. The guns, the chases, the occasional injury – he could stomach all that. In fact, that’s why he did it all in the first place. He wasn’t chasing the money, no, not if he was being honest with himself. He lived for that rush, that rush of almost getting caught, almost getting killed, all the almosts. It was the very edge. He was addicted to the edge.
And he loved doing it with Bruno. They’d been friends since, well, it seemed like forever, and he was a standout wing man. Keen eye, agile, great shot, great driver, excellent with logistics. Bruno put it all together. All Oscar had to do was bring the key.
But there was something wrong with tonight’s key. And whenever this happened, it was rare but unavoidable, Bruno would start losing his cool, getting all jumpy and annoying. Oscar hated that. He had told Bruno the three rules a thousand times: one – don’t lose your cool; two – solve the problem; and three – remember Plan B. But it looked like he was forgetting all three, scanning around nervously with his pulse rifle, expecting the worst.
“Hey. Bruno. Relax. Watch.”
Oscar reached down and tapped his little keyboard, connected to a five-line display on a chipset, which in turn was connected to thousands of microscopic antennae, which in turn controlled the thousands of nanobots that were swarming around inside the vault’s lock, wandering around like a hive full of bees who’d lost their queen.
“How many times have I told you to trust me? It’s not all zeroes and ones. Watch. I can still work a bit of magic…” and Oscar tapped one last key, and just like that the faulty line of code was fixed, or fixed enough, and the nanobots went straight to work, pushing the exact twenty-four pins necessary, and turning just the right dials, and doing it all so gently the vault wouldn’t know what had happened until Oscar and Bruno were long gone.
The vault door cracked open, just a hair, and Oscar pulled it with his fingernails, gently now, gently, until the two-foot square opening revealed its contents.
“Yeah. Wow. We’re over time, Oscar. Grab it.”
But Oscar needed to stand in that moment, that moment of victory, the moment where he knew what he was meant to do, and that was exactly this, and just relish that moment, before the shit hit the fan – because let’s be real, did the shit ever not hit the fan once he made the grab?
He grabbed the bauble, it was beautiful necklace, but it could’ve been made of glass, or rock candy even, for all Oscar knew. What made this particular bauble any more valuable than rock candy? The fact that the stones it was crafted from were rare? And were they really that rare? And was the designer really a genius, or was he a showman, that person that could mesmerize bankers and celebrities into believing this thing had actual, objective value? Or was its worth just based on the number of rich hands through which it had passed, and the number of vaults it had rested in?
None of it mattered, of course, to Oscar. He would get his cut, and share it with Bruno, and they would party like there was no tomorrow, probably in Vegas but maybe New York this time, or L.A. He liked that rooftop bar at the Nomad Hotel, where they were treated like kings.
No. He had almost forgotten. He had a new set of instructions. Damn.
He looked at Bruno, his friend for a long time, as they padded quietly down the hallway. “Well, how about that? Five seconds to spare, and no shit hitting the fa-”
But as the damning word passed halfway through his lips, Oscar stopped. Out of the corner of his eye he spotted a night guard down and around the bend, a young, clumsy, inexperienced, eager one – the worst kind. The only kind that ever actually walked the halls, instead of spending his shift watching America’s Got Talent or Simpsons reruns down in the monitor room in the basement. He almost laughed, as Murphy’s Law kicked in, and sure enough, he felt the uncertainty of the situation manifesting itself, and the adrenalin begin to pump into every capillary in his body.
Shit was about to get real.
Bruno glared at him, putting his finger to his lips. Yes, he was right, maybe the guard hadn’t seen them. They leaned back into the shadows silently and crept towards the elevator bay. Oscar had rigged number twelve to stay here on the twenty-fifth floor, doors open.
But the doors were closed.
The guard already knew.
They both turned back just as a pulse flashed in the darkness, tearing through Bruno’s shoulder. A second pulse caught Oscar in the right hand, severing his last two fingers.
While Oscar shot back, keeping the guard at bay, Bruno kicked elevator ten, and the tip of his boot exploded out into a laser array. Within two seconds, a person-size hole had been burned through the doors, and they jumped in without looking back.
This wasn’t the first time the two had found themselves falling down an elevator shaft – but the last time, Bruno had two good shoulders and Oscar had all his fingers. They flailed wildly until Oscar caught the middle cables, and Bruno grabbed him around the waist with his good arm.
Instinctively, Oscar reached into his vest and pulled out the electronic pulley, another neat nanobot trick he always kept up his sleeve. The bots surrounded the cable and his arm, letting them glide gently down to the second – not the first – floor. He deactivated the pulley and wrenched the doors open.
Bruno pushed him into the hall. “Room 209 – second on the left!”
Oscar didn’t need the prompt, he knew Plan B just was well as Bruno, but there wasn’t time to argue or snipe – just keep moving. Oscar flashed his card over the lock, and the room they had rented last month opened and the lights flickered on.
“Wow. I didn’t know about that. Bruno, you’ve outdone yourself.”
Sitting right in the middle of the conference room, instead of a table, was something that Oscar thought might be the exact opposite of a table, something not meant to sit solid and stable and permanent like a table. Someting meant, instead, to fly.
It was a tiny jet, small enough to assemble quietly over the past month and fit snugly into this room, pointing out the window, on a little ramp.
Bruno looked down at his armband. “They’re coming.”
The next thirty seconds were chaos, fast-moving bodies, pulse flares, igniting engines, blood, and then enough crashing glass to litter the entire city block below, as the mini jet rocketed out of Room 209 and into the Chicago night.
“I was getting sick of the car chases, Oscar. It was time for an upgrade.”
“So you couldn’t upgrade to a two-seater?”
They laughed together, as Oscar shifted on Bruno’s lap, hitting his head on the tiny cockpit’s dome, avoiding the controls.
“The two-seater wouldn’t fit in the conference room. I tried. Hey, you’re getting blood on the dash, do something about that.”
In his last nanobot reveal for the evening, Oscar pulled out a thin sheet of what looked like duct tape. He rested it on his bleeding, fingerless hand, squeezed the edge, and instantly it clamped around his hand, stanching the flow of blood, and releasing pain relievers into his bloodstream. He exhaled, relieved, took a second bandage out, and pressed it into Bruno’s shoulder.
They landed a short while later in a field in the Orland Park Forest Preserve, a much softer landing than Oscar expected. He walked around the jet, admiring it. “Hey, I want one of these.”
“When we cash out our cuts, we can both buy a fleet.”
“Um, about our cuts.”
“What about our cuts?”
Oscar didn’t have the heart to say another word, not even “sorry,” as he lifted his handgun, aimed it point blank at his oldest friend, maybe his only friend, and blew half his face off.
“What the fuck, dude?!”
Bob jerked up from his recliner, tearing off his VR shades, and, against the specific instructions labeled in big red letters on the side of the FutureHeist console, tried to stand. He immediately fell on his ass, landing in a puddle of his own beer, which was spouting from the BudTrack intravenous beer delivery system that had just dislodged from his arm. The bartender reached up from his perch and tapped a button, stopping the flow.
“Hey. You. Bob. What the hell? You know you’re not supposed to stand up for five minutes. Now you got beer all over my floor. I’m charging you for the extra ounces.”
“Sorry. But this dickbag just killed me.” He pointed at Otis. “My own teammate.” He kicked the adjoining recliner and Otis twitched repeatedly, finally reaching up and removing his own shades.
Otis looked over at Bob, squinting. “Listen. I couldn’t tell you-”
“-that you were an asshole?”
“Listen! When the game started, the heistmaster took me aside and told me I had to take the full cut for myself. Otherwise, neither one of us would get it. He pointed to the tickers above the display. “Look.”
Bob kicked Otis’ recliner one more time for good measure and looked up. “You got three million points. I got zero. That supposed to make me feel better, dude?”
Otis rose slowly, one foot on the beer-slicked floor, adjusting his equilibrium to the real world. “Bob. Dude. How many times have I told you to trust me?” And Otis, still off-balance and not very sober, turned the dial on his own BudTrack to “off,” pulled out the beer hose, and tapped the “B” key on his side of the console.
They both watched as one and a half million points siphoned from Otis’ account into Bob’s.
“See? We’re even.”
Bob shrugged, groggy. “Whatever. You could’ve given me a heads up. You know how much that hurt? Getting shot in the face?” He rubbed his aching jaw, still quite pissed.
“Sorry, dude.” Otis turned to the bartender. “Hey, Jack. What’s with the update? It was pretty freaking intense in there.”
Jack waved them to the left as he talked, away from the console, so the next two in line could saddle in to FutureHeist. “More intense the better, I guess. There’s all kinds of new stuff in there. You seen the lines since the update? That machine’s finally turning a profit.”
Otis started to ask what other kinds of new stuff were in new version of their favorite game, but a fist interrupted his inebriated thought, smashing his nose and sending him to the floor.
He looked up, shocked.
“Now we’re even.” Bob rubbed his fist, realizing that punching someone in the face in real life came with its own punishment – in this case, at least two broken fingers. But it was worth it, to see Otis’ nose bleeding all over his shirt.
“Hey! I didn’t ask for the game to change, you ingrate!” Otis tried to rise, grabbing the rungs on a bar stool, half-drunk, still queasy from the game, and now with a broken nose. Eventually he found himself standing, and rushed headlong into Bob, sending three or four college kids off their stools, beer flying everywhere, he and Bob eye-to-eye on the floor, blood leaking out of Otis’ nose onto Bob’s chin.
For just a moment after this, all was quiet.
And then Otis and Bob smiled at each other, a strange smile, and now chaos reigned in their real lives too, the chaos of a full-on bar room brawl, as one of the college kids grabbed a pool cue and broke it in two over Otis’ head. Bob grabbed the nine ball and sent it flying back at the kid, and it suddenly dawned on both Otis and Bob how big this group of college buddies actually was, and within thirty seconds they were being beaten bloody.
If they weren’t bleeding from every orifice, this freeze-frame scene of blood and beer and broken bottles would have been hilarious to Otis and Bob. Every single person in the bar looked suddenly sober, like statues, peering towards the front door, towards the authoritative yell that filled all their ears. It was like a painting of a bar fight, caught at the exact climax. It was perfect.
But only for a moment.
As two figures entered the bar, any perfection that moment had captured slipped away, replaced with: fear.
No. Not fear. Absolute terror.
Because the two figures were Oscar and Bruno from FuturHeist.
Bruno, with only half a face, tried to speak, but just a gurgle and a spittle of blood came out of his throat.
Jack the bartender started to say “What the fu-” but was silenced by a bullet from Oscar’s handgun.
It was a rhetorical statement, no one was about to move, had any thought of ever moving a single muscle again, after watching Jack the bartender’s body fall to the floor.
Oscar stepped over to the FutureHeist console and pulled the plug. The game dimmed.
Then he turned back to the twenty or so bar patrons. “Okay. Which one of you assholes shot my friend’s face off?”
Otis and Bob stayed as still as possible, but their eyes found each other, searching. This wasn’t possible. Oscar and Bruno were their avatars from FutureHeist. They weren’t real. But damn, they seemed very real at the moment. Was there some other explanation? If these avatars weren’t real, were Otis and Bob… still somehow inside the game? Was that part of the update? No. It couldn’t be. This was real life! How could the game designers know what this bar looked like? Or what Otis and Bob looked like? It didn’t make any sense, these two ghosts, or whatever they were, existing here and now. But… what if-?
“I’ll ask one more time. Which one of you did this to Bruno?”
One by one, the college kids pointed to Otis.
And Oscar smiled, a knowing smile, like he recognized Otis from some past life. He raised his handgun. Bruno did the same. “Well. Here we are.”
Otis and Bob had a secret. They had lived quite an interesting life so far, and made a few enemies, and gotten into scrapes like this more than once, so a few years ago they had bought handguns of their own, along with ankle holsters, for that just-in-case moment.
And now that just-in-case moment had arrived.
They looked at each other, and almost imperceptibly, nodded.
But as their bodies began to tense for the lunge, they heard another voice.
“Tapioca or chocolate?”
The patrons in the bar, including Oscar and Bruno, looked around for the source. The voice seemed to be coming from everywhere.
“Tapioca or chocolate?”
Otis and Bob shook their heads.
“Now, now ladies. Bingo time’s over. Tapioca or chocolate?”
And all at once, Otis and Bob were gone, as Nurse Donna removed their VR shades, and Olivia and Beatrice stared up at her, squinting.
“Ladies. Do you know how long you were playing Bingo? You were under for two hours!” She laid the shades to the side and held out a tray of pudding cups, half tapioca and half chocolate.
Silently, Olivia and Beatrice each picked a cup, it didn’t matter what flavor, and set it on their recliner trays. Olivia patted the nurse’s hand. “Thank you Donna.”
“Yes, thank you Donna. Now, if I may, Olivia here was just one number away from four corners! Might we play just for a few more minutes? Pretty please?”
Nurse Donna looked around, unsure why it was so important to the administration of Sunny Hill Nursing Home that VR time be so limited. So she leaned down, tapped a few keys on the console and whispered, “All right. I snuck you five more minutes. I’ll be back to pick up the shades. Good luck.”
Nurse Donna walked away, smiling, thinking how crazy it was that these two old bitties could be so into VR Bingo, unaware that Olivia, in a previous life, had been a game designer and a master programmer, and over the past twelve years at Sunny Hill had commandeered the facility’s VR Bingo console and secretly transformed it into FutureHeist Barroom Brawl.
Olivia winked at Beatrice. “So. How’d you like that update?”
Beatrice winked back as she raised her shades to her temples. “Bitchin’, Olivia.”
And together they jumped back in.
I hope you enjoyed that short story. Thank you again for tuning in to Listen To The Signal. I’m Rob Dircks, author of the science fiction novels Where the Hell is Tesla?, Don’t Touch the Blue Stuff!, The Wrong Unit, and my latest release, an Audible Original titled You’re Going to Mars! You can buy Volume 1 of the collected Listen To The Signal stories on Audible and Amazon, and find my other books there too, and get in touch here on the contact page or at RobDircks.com.
Copyright ©2019 Rob Dircks