“So it turns out,” says Dickens, as he uses a tiny mechanical handsaw and a laser to disassemble the safe door, “that there wasn’t really a diamond in the bird at all; he was just trying to play a sort of self-referential joke on me.”
“Because he’d just told you not to believe ridiculous assertions but then he made one himself, and in a way that would have, if you’d fallen for it, upset you, even though he’d also advised you not to get upset,” says Thackeray.
They’re in a huge dark room, up against the wall, getting into the safe. Red beams of light hang in the air, shining through the smoke that Dickens and Thackeray have pumped into the place to illuminate them. Thin black cables hang from the hole in the ceiling through which they came, and in the room’s corners little security cameras whir uselessly, their current output shunted and replaced, as is traditional, by a looped feed of nothing being wrong.
“But it was just dumb,” says Dickens, “because not only did his little thing not make any sense, but if I’d wanted to I could have stunned him with a secret move and then dissected him, fact-checked his little assertion either with my own mystic super-perception or by consulting any number of funny entities, or just, if I even wanted a big diamond, gone to a diamond mine or a safe or a jewelry store and either bought or stolen one, depending on my mood. So I didn’t really know what to say to the bird, who was pretty clearly expecting a little bit of a moralistic denouement or something. I don’t know. Jesus.” The locking mechanism pops softly as he makes a final cut, and Thackeray gently lifts it out with a funny spidery thing that makes good use of suction cups.
“Why were you capturing birds in the first place?” says Thackeray.
“It just seemed like something to do,” says Dickens, who, after checking around the edge of the safe door and having a look through the hole he’s made, pulls the whole thing open. He looks up sharply then, as does Thackeray.
“Well,” says Thackeray, “I think that was the silent alarm.” In a moment they can hear the patter of boots and barking of guard dogs through the walls, and in another moment a klaxon kicks on, hitting a regular three-second rhythm and accompanied by a flashing red light.
“Clearly,” says Dickens, “these people don’t waste any time.” The door on the far wall bursts open, and in jump a gang of paramilitary guards, dressed in bulky dark-colored plastic armor, faces covered by unpleasantly insectile assault gas-masks, all carrying compact little machine guns with snub noses and taped-on extra bits. They shout as they come, rolling along the floor and flinging themselves through the doorway, small barking shouts that sort of hang in the air, and whose meaning seems predicated more on punctuation than anything else.
“Whoah,” says Thackeray, putting his hands in the air. “We totally give up.” Dickens looks at Thackeray, then puts his hands up too.
“You know,” mutters Dickens, “we could probably have taken these people, no problem at all.” Thackeray just shrugs, then, after a quick glance at Dickens, does a neat little back-flip, landing inside the safe. Before the guards can react Dickens has followed him, pulling the door shut behind them, and then the guards open up with their little machine guns, filling the room with that distinctive booming rattle along with the clang of bullets hitting the safe door. Dickens and Thackeray look around the safe, and then Dickens grabs THE THING, which is on a shelf between a little ceramic bust of General Sherman and a very primitive wooden créche in which all the animals are represented by what are either giant agoutis or fairly smallish tapirs. Then there’s a hissing sound, and green gas starts pouring into the safe from vents near the floor.
“I’m not going to bother counting,” says Thackeray, backing slightly away from the safe door, then kneeling, shouting “Hawoo-Kih” and blasting the door off its hinges with a bit of a dragon-shaped collection of blueish energy. They jump back into the room, where, pausing, they notice that the paramilitary guards have stopped shooting, and are just standing around, shoulders fairly slumped and guns pointed at the floor, the flashing red light reflecting on their faceplates as dogs bark in the distance, barely audible over that damned klaxon.
Then Dickens and Thackeray have a longish talk with the guards, who, it turns out, have been overcome by a mixture of ennui, disaffection, and a profound sense of the uselessness of having to try to stop a pair of relatively omnipotent thieves who pretty clearly have access to a wide array of special moves. Dickens and Thackeray can sympathize, having felt, at times, plenty of ennui and disaffection of their own, plus a couple of the guards seem like genuinely pleasant people, even given the limitations of their funny context. So Dickens and Thackeray tip them all, then jump back up through the ceiling and navigate the ventilation system to the roof, where their ultralight blimp is still safely concealed under a tarp. But on the flight home Thackeray can’t stop worrying about whether he handled the tip business incorrectly. Did he insult the guards by tipping them too much? Or maybe he should have given them more, or, given the way they all seemed to come together as people, maybe he came across as an jerk by tipping at all. Maybe he should have kept the whole transaction personal, he thinks. It’s only back in the Andes, drink in hand and listening to a very loud recording of amateur marimbists playing Holst that he can finally get the thing out of his head, and even that doesn’t really do the trick, because then for years all it takes is a glance at a gas-mask or someone casually mentioning heavily-armed paramilitary guards to trigger another bout of extremely scathing self-recrimination and second-guessing.