Kashi lowered his monocular and wiped sweat from his forehead with the sleeve of his thin black jumpsuit.
"Nervous?" asked Toru, bright eyes winking from behind crow's-feet wrinkles. The wind tousled a shock of graying hair that was peeking out from under his rolled-up balaclava. He took the monocular and peered down into the valley below.
Kashi shrugged his shoulders and slowly rolled his neck from side to side, stretching out the stiff muscles. It had been a long vigil, lying here in the grass for hours as they tracked the movements of the soldiers in the camp below. If this was how he felt, he imagined Toru must be feeling it far more. The man had at least 30 years on Kashi. And he was still smiling? "Of course I’m not nervous," insisted Kashi. "What’s there to be nervous about? Besides the dozens of armed soldiers standing between us and our target, of course."
"Well said," replied Toru, grinning. "No, nothing to be nervous about at all."
"What time is it?"
Toru checked the underside of his wrist, and a pin-sized sensor embedded there, detecting his eyes, activated a two-inch holodisplay. The softly glowing numbers read 11:58 PM. "Two minutes to go," he said.
"You know," said Kashi, triple-checking the buckles on his vest and gloves, "we should try to plan our next job for a time other than midnight."
Toru raised his eyebrows in bemusement. "Oh? Why’s that?"
"I guess... I don’t know, it just seems a little predictable, that’s all."
"Predictable? It’s not like we’re going to go waltzing up to the front door."
"That’s not what I—"
"Look, kid," said Toru, peering through the monocular one last time, "it’s got to be midnight. It’s always midnight."
"I know, and—"
"How do you think the Council would react if they found out we tried to pull a job at 4 AM? You know how much value they place on tradition..."
"Do you really think they’d consider your application if we violated one of the most central rules of ninjahood?"
Kashi sighed. "No, I know they wouldn’t. And I know this job is meant to end up on my record as part of the application process. But these kinds of traditions are so outdated. I don’t know why they were ever started in the first place. If the target knows we’re going to hit either at midnight or not at all, then they’re bound to be extra alert and ready for us. But if we went in at, say, 1:30, they’d have their guard down, right?"
Tucking the monocular into a pouch at his waist, Toru nodded to Kashi. "I understand what you’re saying, believe me. And maybe that’s just the kind of new thinking the Ninja Council needs. Fresh blood, fresh brains... But you’re not going to change things from the outside. For now, we have to follow the rules, and follow them perfectly. Once you prove to the Council that you’re able to fall in line, they’ll welcome you into the fold, and you can start revolutionizing millenia-old practices from there. Okay?"
Kashi sighed. "Uh huh."
The holoscreen on Toru’s wrist pulsed a pale white signal, then went out. Toru rolled his balaclava down and settled his mask over his eyes, and Kashi did the same. The world lit up in shades of green as the nightvision kicked in. Kashi twisted a knob on the side of the mask and shifted the colour spectrum to a less-harsh blue. There was a world full of amazing technology at his fingertips, and he was still being forced to use old relics like these monochromatic goggles. Ridiculous.
"Stay close," whispered Toru. He raised himself to his knees, waited for a spotlight to pass by as it scanned the hill in its predictable arc, then stole forward, Kashi on his heels. They advanced twenty-five paces and dropped to their stomachs in the grass just before the spotlight swept back over them. The sophisticated grasslike patterning of their camosuits disguised them well, and they resumed their advance as soon as the light had passed.
They reached the base of the wall, and Kashi drew a black sphere, about six inches in diameter, out of a pouch at his hip. Toru pressed a control on one side of the sphere, pulled a length of thin cable out of a dispenser on its other side, and held the sphere out in front of him. After a moment it began to hum very softly, then rose into the air, spooling out cable behind it. It hovered up a little higher than the top of the wall and stopped.
Toru gave the cable an experimental tug, and it held firm. He hooked the end of it onto his belt and gave Kashi a thumbs-up. Kashi took out the remote control and pressed a button. The cable began to retract, carrying Toru up into the air. When the elder ninja reached the top of the wall he maneuvered himself onto it, unclipped the cable from his belt, and let it hang free. Kashi used the remote control to unspool the cable again, clipped himself in, and repeated the procedure. Safely atop the wall, he reached for the hovering sphere.
"What are you doing?" hissed Toru.
"Moving it across the wall to let us down inside," said Kashi.
"You have to leave it there as our escape route!"
Toru shook his head. "We have to leave ourselves an active escape route. It’s—"
"A council-approved best practice, yes, I know," interrupted Kashi. "But if any of the soldiers come along here and see it they’ll know we’re here!"
"There isn’t a patrol due for 15 minutes," said Toru. "Leave it."
"Fine." Kashi left the sphere hovering where it was and nervously looked around, expecting a guard to show up at any second. Luckily, the guards were holding to their pattern. All was still and quiet.
Toru took another of the spheres from his own pouch and set it hovering in the air on the inside of the wall. He and Kashi took turns clipping in and making the descent.
Crouching at the bottom of the wall, Kashi looked up at the telltale silhouettes of the devices and shook his head. But Toru was right: he had to fall in line if he wanted to have any chance of becoming an official Ninja one day, and he’d been working towards that goal for too many years to throw it away now.
They pressed themselves up against the back wall of an old brick building—the mess hall, if the intel they had gathered was accurate—and peered around the corner into a gravel path that crossed the length of the camp. Toru checked the clock on his wrist and began counting under his breath. "Six, five, four..." He let the final three seconds pass silently, and on "zero" four soldiers carrying long-barreled machine guns appeared, striding in time with one another and turning their heads rhythmically left and right. The ninjas ducked out of sight while the soldiers passed.
When the coast was clear, the ninjas stole out from behind the mess hall and hurried across the path, their soft-soled shoes whispering silently over grass and the gravel alike. They ducked into the shadow of a large garage and edged around it, alert for any signs of detection.
"You know," whispered Kashi, as they waited in the shadows for another patrol to pass, "for how important you say this device we're stealing is, don’t you think it seems a little... underprotected?"
Toru flashed him a quizzical look.
"I mean, they don’t even have cameras or anything..."
"Do you want to get caught?" whispered Toru back.
"No, of course not."
"Then what are you complaining about?"
Kashi opened his mouth to respond—complaining? No, he was observing and thinking critically—but thought better of it.
The ninjas made another quick dash through an open space and threw themselves into the grass between two bunkhouses just before the next patrol arrived.
"That’s it, just ahead," whispered Toru, pointing out a small, squat building at the end of the row of bunkhouses, little more than a shack. "That’s where they’re keeping the device."
"Really?" said Kashi. "I would’ve thought they’d store it in one of the garages or warehouses, somewhere with a little more security."
"Well they didn’t," snapped Toru. "Come on." He led the way, advancing cautiously past the bunkhouses, until they reached the building.
"What’s our way in?" whispered Kashi. "Window? Roof?"
"Why are you constantly looking to overcomplicate things?" Toru gestured to the door.
"I thought you said we weren’t just going to waltz up to the front door."
"Enough talking!" hissed Toru. "Time is ticking."
Kashi rolled his eyes. Everything had worked out according to Toru’s plan so far, though... Maybe the elder ninja was right. Maybe he was just overthinking things. Kashi took a second to listen for nearby patrols, did a quick visual check, grabbed the door handle, twisted it quietly open, and ducked inside.
As soon as he was through the doorway a bank of lights burst on, blinding him through the nightvision goggles. He tore the goggles off and sank to his knees, grabbing at his eyes, expecting at any moment to be seized by guards, or hit over the head, or shot.
Instead, he heard, "Bravo! Good show, chap! Well done."
Kashi stopped, raised his head, and blinked heavily. Three faces swam into view, friendly faces with broad smiles and crinkly eyes. They were dressed in black jumpsuits with black bowties, and wisps of white hair peeked out from under their flat black hats. The man in the middle wore thin spectacles and had a tidy moustache. Kashi hissed, "What the... Who are you?"
"Why, we’re the Ninja Council, of course!" said one. "And you have passed your final practical examination!"
"With a very respectable score, I might add!" chimed in another of the smiling elders.
Kashi got to his feet. Toru was standing behind him with a subdued smile.
"You selected your pupil well," said the bespectacled council member to Toru. "He performed well within the acceptable limits for Stealth and did wonderfully with his Camouflage. We noted a few minor delays—he was 30 seconds behind the average completion time, I'm afraid—but overall, he performed quite acceptably. Yes, very acceptably indeed."
"Commendations all around!" said another of the old men.
"Commendations!" another agreed.
Toru gave Kashi a congratulatory slap on the shoulder.
"Wait, wait, just hold on a second..." Kashi looked around the room, at each of the grinning faces. "None of this was real? This was all just some test you set up?"
"Sorry I had to mislead you," said Toru, "but after all, deception is one of a ninja’s most important tools!" He winked.
Kashi took a moment to process this. "Huh," he said. "So... I’m a ninja now? Council-approved?"
"Yes, yes, wholeheartedly approved!" said the bespectacled one. "Here is your badge, young one. Wear it proudly."
Kashi took the shiny metal four-pointed star with the pin backing and held it in his hand. "What am I supposed to do with this? If I actually wear it, or even display it anywhere, everyone will know I’m a ninja."
"Of course," said spectacles. "Aren’t you proud to be part of such a prestigious order?"
"That’s not... But shouldn’t I... Isn’t secrecy...?" Kashi sighed. "You know what? I don’t think I really want to be a council-approved ninja anymore."
"What?" said the council members.
"What?" said Toru. "Why not?"
"Because this whole thing is a joke. Dodging spotlights, getting over a wall, hiding in the grass... Those aren’t the skills a ninja needs these days. A five-year-old could break into this place. Where are the infrared security cameras? Where are the alarm systems? The motion detectors, the trip-lasers? The door to this building wasn't even locked. And the core concept of this test is completely flawed! You don’t even know if I could’ve escaped!"
"Well you left your escape route intact, didn’t you?" said one of the council members, sounding very miffed. "As long as the wall-scalers were in place, there's no need for point deductions."
"Who cares about 'point deductions'? If these guards had any idea what they were doing, they would have seen the wall-scalers by now and would be swarming all over this camp looking for me. I don’t hear any signs of active searching out there..."
The council members exchanged resigned, disappointed looks. "Well," said one, "if you feel you aren’t ninja material, then I suppose it’s your choice."
"Oh, I didn’t say I didn’t want to be a ninja," said Kashi. "I said I no longer cared about being council-approved. Based on what I’ve seen here tonight, I think I’d probably be holding myself back."
"What!?" spluttered the bespectacled one. "How dare you! Of all the insolent, arrogant, ungrateful—"
Kashi interrupted him by darting forward and grabbing the spectacles right off his nose. "Thanks for the souvenir!" he said, and ducked around Toru and out the door before the others could react.
"After him!" bellowed the Ninja Council. "Cut off his escape route! To the rear wall, guards! The rear wall!"
Kashi rolled into the shadows and slipped his nightvision goggles back on. He took a moment to reorient himself as the world hazed back into shades of blue. The place where they’d scaled the rear wall was... that way. That meant he wanted to go this direction, instead.
Kashi edged along the base of the wall near the front gate, put the single guard that had remained at his station when the alarm was sounded into a quick sleeper hold, and escaped silently into the night.
Three weeks later, at precisely 2 AM, Kashi lowered himself from a rooftop, swung through an open window, and landed silently on the thick carpet of the council member’s bedroom. The old man was sleeping soundly. Kashi quietly withdrew a long, thin case from the pouch at his hip, opened it, took out the council member’s spectacles, and placed them on the old man’s nose.
Leaning down with his lips beside the council member's ear, he whispered, "Go on; tell them all this story." Then he climbed back out the window, took to the roofs, and was gone.