Friday, August 31, 2018

The Green Bliss Part 7

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7. The Bargain

The cyborgs had been thorough.
As Fox and Tan watched the detainees, the rest of the team swept the plantation. There was nothing left but bodies and ashes. The guards had been gunned down on the spot, the house demolished with high explosives. Within the ashes of the house, the team found the charred remains of the workers.
The plantation was burning. Many trees had been blown down, and the rest were on fire. Wood guessed that the cyborgs had used thermobaric grenades to destroy the trees. Without any firefighting equipment, there was nothing the team could do to preserve the evidence. All they could do was alert the local firefighters and the PSB.
And deal with the prisoners.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Combat Frame XSeed Book Trailer

Dragon Award winner and nominee Brian Niemeier has a trailer for his new military science fiction series, Combat Frame XSeed. If you missed out on backing Reavers of the Void, but you're still on supporting #AGundam4Us, this is the next train getting ready to leave the station. Book your ticket as soon as you can, especially if you're a Gundam fan.

The Green Bliss Part 6

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6. A Lot More Complicated

“Samurai, Farmer,” Wood said. “Copy that. What kind of intruders?”
“The crawler spotted a large boat with thirteen individuals mooring at the berth. Both the boat and the subjects have chameleon camo. We’re tracking them with EM vision and Lycan’s blessings.”
The crawler had an electromagnetic imager, allowing it to see EM fields. Mustafa, an Elect of Galen the Wolf, could draw on the god’s power to enhance his vision and see the unseen. For everyone else, it would be nearly impossible to track the intruders.
At least, without being detected.
“Understood,” Wood said. “Be advised, Deadeye and myself are observing the Green Bliss regrowing on the trees, and we suspect this is how the subjects resupply themselves. This might be a counter-narcotics operation. I could contact the local PD and check what’s up.”
“Go ahead,” Yamamoto said.
Wood dug into his pants pocket, dug out his satellite phone, turned it on and dialed a number.
“Who is this?” Sheriff Kane said gruffly.
“James Wood, PSB. We spoke earlier today.”
Kane’s voice brightened immediately.
“Ah, Special Agent Wood. What’s the purpose of your call?”
“Is there anyone conducting a counter-narcotics operation in the vicinity of Grass River?”
“As I told you this afternoon, we don’t have any special ops planned in Grass River.”
A blunt THUMP-THUMP echoed in the night.
“Was that a shot?” Fox wondered.
“What about the New Gods?” Wood asked. “Are they doing anything there too?”
“Nope, not that I know of,” Kane replied. “Why? What's going on?”
“Just checking,” Wood said. “Thanks.”
Another THUMP-THUMP.
“Black Watch, Samurai,” Yamamoto radioed. “The newcomers just took out a pair of guards. No warning, no attempt to arrest. They’re not acting like cops.”
Wood dialed a second number. Deputy Frank Matthews picked up after two rings.
“Frank, it’s Jim,” Wood said. “Is SRT or anyone else pulling an op in Grass River?”
“No, not that I know of,” Matthews said. “Why?”
“I don’t just mean the SD. I mean the Network and the Guild. Do you have any knowledge of their operations.”
“No. The New Gods don’t tell us everything they do. What’s going on?”
Suppressed gunfire chattered through the night.
“I’ll tell you later. I’ve got work to do now.”
Wood put the phone away and hit the push-to-talk switch.
“Black Watch, Farmer. Local contacts tell me there are no law enforcement operations in the area, and they have no knowledge of any activities of the New Gods. Break. Samurai, what’s the call?”
“We stop them,” Yamamoto replied.
“Boss, they’re moving too fast. We’re not going to be able to intercept them in time,” Fox said.
As she spoke, red icons flashed across Wood’s smartglasses. The intruders. There were nine of them, dashing through the trees as fast as greased lightning, yet completely and utterly silent. In his regular sight, all Wood saw were blurry streaks.
“They must be cybered up,” Yamamoto said. “We’ll take them at the berth.”
“What about the objective?” Wood asked.
“We sweep the site after we take the subjects.”
“But there are people in there!”
Yamamoto sighed softly over the radio.
“None of them are innocents. None that we know.”
Wood cursed. Part of him wanted to rush in and stop the bad guys. But by the time the team waded across the water, the intruders would have finished the job—and the Black Watch would be caught in the open. And the subjects were so damn fast, there was no way they would take them in a fair fight.
Scanning for threats, Wood picked himself up and packed up his scope. Fox raised herself to a knee and covered him. Muffled automatic fire emerged from the house.
“Samurai, ZT,” Tan said. “We’re outnumbered, and those guys are cybered. Do we have to pick this fight?”
“We need information. They have some in their heads. We must do this.”
“What’s the plan?”
Yamamoto rattled off a series of movement orders, addressing each operator in turn. Wood tracked them all, modeling the plan inside his head, mapping consequences and if-then scenarios.
It was going to be a long shot. But they were the Black Watch. If anyone could do this, it was them.
The operators gathered their gear and regrouped at the base of the hill. The sound of gunfire at their backs, they donned their fusion vision goggles and rushed through the forest. Leaping over exposed roots, ducking under branches, they moved as swiftly as they dared. The sounds of battle erupted from the direction of the house, automatic fire mixed with screams and explosions and blood-maddened howls.
But it wasn’t a mad charge. There were three more icons on the lenses of Wood’s smartglasses, gathered near the berth. Three more living, presumably breathing, likely cybered, threats. Too much noise would give the game away.
Wood had grown up in the swamps and the forests. Moving quickly and silently through the woods was second nature to him. The other operators were only slightly less skilled, but he still winced at every errant crackle or rustling brush.
The drone appeared in Wood’s augmented reality as a bright blue shape. His eyes saw only a distorted blur through his night vision goggles. The operators formed up around the bot, three to a side, and crept to the woodline.
Lying prone on the moist forest floor, Wood shouldered his carbine and splayed out his legs, supporting his weapon with solid bone. He peeked over his optics and studied the three threats.
One Tango sat in the boat, within easy reach of the engine. The other two positioned themselves past the berth, attentively sweeping the forest before them. The bot detected the metal in their weapons, their limbs, their bodies and their heads, producing a trio of roughly humanoid figures.
Full-body cyborgs. All of them.
White numbers appeared over the targets’ heads. Yamamoto had assigned them to the team, setting up a synchronized takedown. Fox had the boatman, bobbing up and down in the water. Tan had the left-hand threat by the berth.
Wood had the last.
Wood turned on his combat optic. A bright red crosshair appeared in his field of view. He swiveled slowly but smoothly, aligning his crosshair on target. Ghostly green crosshairs appeared in his peripheral vision, showing where the other two operators were aiming.
They were all on target.
Wood breathed, rested his finger on the carbine’s frame, and waited.
The gunfire ceased. The targets stayed in place, staying true to their duty. The Black Watch lay in wait.
The targets weren’t run-of-the-mill hired guns. They had top-tier gear, with the discipline to make the most of them. Where most cybertech were simple limb replacements or conferred modest capabilities at most, they had tech that made them superhuman. Such tech was cost-prohibitive, even for the government—and exclusively the hallmark of the New Gods.
In the distance, something exploded. Wood twitched, slightly, but his finger remained still. More explosions followed, dozens of them. Ashes drifted into Wood’s nose. Still he maintained focus on his mark.
“I see fire and smoke to our ten o’clock,” Yamamoto whispered. “The bad guys are erasing evidence. We need prisoners. If possible.”
Against cybered threats with unknown capabilities, the only way to win was to hit hard, hit fast, and keep hitting. Going out of your way to take prisoners was a dicey proposition at best, and usually a fatal one.
They were the Black Watch. They’d find a way.
More threats abruptly emerged from the woods, appearing as if by magic. Once more, Wood’s eyes saw only blurry motion. Not even his cybertech could see through the cloak. The crawler detected nine more cyborgs, organized in a loose echelon. And a tenth subject, stumbling across the grass, a cyborg firmly controlling him with one hand.
A human.
A perfectly ordinary human, no camouflage, showing up in bright green and orange in fusion vision, with no significant metal in him.
The cyborgs gathered near the berth. A cyborg broke off from the main group, conferring with the security element. More crosshairs appeared, highlighting the cyborg with the prisoner, and three other cyborgs with heavy weapons. Wood made out the distinct shapes od machine guns and grenade launchers in their hands.
We’re going to rescue the prisoner,” Yamamoto whispered. “I have control. Stand by, stand by.”
A cyborg tensed, pivoting to face the team. A crosshair appeared over his face.
The crawler’s loudspeaker kicked up.
“THIS IS THE STS!” Yamamoto’s voice boomed. “DROP YOUR WEAPONS AND PUT YOUR HANDS ABOVE YOUR HEAD!”
The cyborg squad alerted. The hostage froze.
Silence.
Then the cyborg facing the team fired.
“Initiate!” Yamamoto ordered.
Wood pressed the trigger.
A storm of suppressed gunshots rang out. Wood’s target dropped, jerking like a puppet with its strings cut. Immediately he pivoted left, trained his crosshairs on the leader’s center of mass, got off a quick double-tap. The cyborg went down. Wood went hunting for more threats.
Switching to full-auto, the Black Watch hosed down the area with controlled bursts. Maximum firepower, maximum surprise, maximum aggression. The crawler joined in, shooting for exposed heads where it could.
The hail of steel cut down the cyborgs in the open, forcing the rest into cover. The hostage screamed and curled up into a ball. Automatic fire hammered through the trees. Wood saw a threat flee behind a thin tree and lit him up. The bullets ripped through the bark and into the threat, and as the cyborg fell he blasted it again in the face.
Water splashed.
Wood looked up.
A hazy form cut across the tributary, spraying water in a sharp V-shaped bow. Rising to a knee, Wood aimed and—
The cyborg was on him.
He ripped off a burst at point-blank. The cyborg stumbled away, weapon falling from his hands. Wood aimed higher—
The cyborg pounced, his left arm whipping up and down—
Swerving aside, Wood smashed his weapon into the cyborg’s arm and deflected the blow, then stepped in and rammed his forearm into his throat.
The cyborg fell flat on his back. Wood trained his weapon on the cyborg’s face.
“STS!” he shouted. “Show me your hands!”
The cyborg spread out his arms.
“I surrender!” he shouted.
The firefight was petering out. Wood kicked the Tango over on his belly, knelt on his back and looked up.
The hostage was still curled up, still yelling incoherently. A couple of shots rang out, a cyborg dropped to the ground, and suddenly there was no more movement. Wood counted thirteen cyborgs down, including the one he had below him.
“Taking suspect into custody,” Wood reported. “Cover me.”
“Understood,” Yamamoto said. Raising his voice, he yelled, “We’re the STS! We’re here to rescue you!”
“SHIIIIIIIT!” the hostage yelled.
He flopped about on the ground, trying to pick himself up.
“Alpha, secure the hostage. Bravo plus crawler, secure the prisoner,” Yamamoto ordered.
Yamamoto, Connor and Karim forded the waters while Fox, Tan and the drone closed in on Wood’s position. Wood aimed his weapon at the prisoner’s back until he sensed footsteps to his left.
“Covering you,” Fox said.
Wood slung his carbine around his neck, then patted the cyborg down. The subject offered no resistance. Wood worked thoroughly and methodically, emptying out the cyborg’s pockets and pouches, checking places where he could conceal a tool or a weapon.
Wood piled the cyborg’s gear next to him. Carbine, pistol, spare magazines, multitool, grenades, camera, map, on and on and on. What he didn’t find was water. Or food. Or an escape kit.
Two of Wood’s bullets had struck the cyborg in his ballistic plate. The last had shattered his right hand, reducing it to a ruined wreck of polymer and metal. No blood. The cyborg didn’t even seem to care.
Wood grabbed the cyborg’s wrists and snapped on a pair of handcuffs. A full-body cyborg with superhuman strength could snap them—he’d seen it more times than he cared to count—but with so many guns on him any escape attempt would be quickly and decisively defeated.
“Who are you?” Wood asked.
“Superuser Iota Omicron Seven-Two-Eight of the Singularity Network,” the cyborg replied. “We wish to fully cooperate with the Special Tasks Section.”
“We could be anybody, for all you know.”
“Your voice print matches that of Special Agent James Wood, Special Tasks Section, with a confidence of ninety-two point eight percent.”
Wood’s breath caught in his lungs.
“How did you know?” Wood demanded.
“We are the Network,” the cyborg said. “We are everywhere.”
“Why are you here? What do you want?”
“Our mission is to destroy the Green Bliss plantation. During the mission, we discovered and detained Antoine Santiago. The younger brother of Raul Santiago.”
“Who put you up to this mission?” Wood demanded.
“I will answer your questions,” the cyborg said, “but you must take me to a secure holding facility.”
“Are you operating under orders of the Net?”
The cyborg paused for a fraction of a second.
“Yes.”
Wood exhaled sharply. Looking up, he saw the other three operators wade up on the opposite shore. The hostage was worming around, flailing about, still completely helpless.
“Samurai, this is Farmer,” Wood radioed. “This mission just got a lot more complicated.”
--
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Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The Green Bliss Part 5

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5. Grass River

The rest of the evening yielded no intel. Dad wouldn’t speak of what his grandfather had seen, only that it was something terrible and best left undisturbed in the forgotten corners of the swamp. Mom knew nothing of such unspeakable abominations, nor of the abominations that called themselves the Santiago Syndicate.
His parents had, at least, kept his room. It was dry and slightly dusty, but it had a small and little-used guest bed. It was good enough for him. Before hitting the sack, James Wood typed up his report on his laptop and mailed it to Yuri Yamamoto and Director Gregory.
When he awoke in the morning, Yamamoto had a new mail for him.
Thanks for the intel. The rest of the team will take the morning ferry to Saint Lucille. Meet us at the terminal at noon. We’ll prep for a long range recon of Grass River.
Wood returned to the city with time to spare. Standing outside the terminal building, he tracked the ferry as it approached. When it lowered its ramp and disgorged its cargo, he saw three dark green SUVs roll off the ferry.
Their reinforced suspensions hung low under the weight of low-profile armor, heavy equipment, and small gravity mirrors. The road wheels were run-flat bullet-resistant tires. Grab bars lined the roof and running boards protruded from under the doors.
They weren’t civilian cars. They were covert tactical vehicles.
Clambering into the lead vehicle, Wood found Yamamoto in the driver's seat. The second Wood closed the door, Yamamoto sped off.
“You worked quickly,” Yamamoto said. “Even the Director was surprised.”
“I’ve got friends and family here,” Wood said.
“Explains much,” Yamamoto said.
“Nothing they said constituted hard proof,” Wood said. “Do we have anything to go on?”
“We sent a Raider to recon Grass River overnight. At half past four in the morning, the drone spotted a convoy of small boats. Six of them. Two of them were moored at a berth, two more were heading downstream, and two more were waiting near the berth. The images showed men loading crates aboard the moored boats.
“A berth?” Wood repeated.
“Yeah. There’s a small trail leading away from the berth. It snakes inland for about a mile and leads to an unmarked swamp plantation.”
“The Bliss?”
“We don’t know,” Yamamoto admitted. “The Raider couldn’t get a good angle on the plantation. We need to get on the ground, penetrate the plantation, and determine what’s being grown there. If it’s the Bliss, we’ll monitor the location and gather evidence.”
“And raid the site?”
“Only if we have proof.”

Once they had left Saint Lucille behind, when they were surrounded by forest on all sides, the Black Watch took to the air.
They kept low, the gravity mirrors barely skimming the treetops. Engines humming, the cars cruised at top speed, heading deeper into the swamp forest. Now and then the operators made sharp turns, staying a minimum of five miles from every settlement and every house on their maps.
As they flew, Wood called Sheriff Kane. He claimed the department had no operations planned in the vicinity of Grass River, and had no knowledge of any other law enforcement or military activity in the area. When Kane asked why Wood wanted to know, Wood merely demurred and hung up.
At a quarter past two, they arrived at Grass River. Slowing down, they found a large clearing and set the SUVs down. Wordlessly, the operators disembarked, broke out chameleon cloaks, and covered their vehicles. The metamaterial lining bent light around itself, turning the SUVs nearly invisible.
The operators dressed up for the job. Utility uniforms, colored in forest camouflage. Tactical vest, with just enough pouches and kit for the job. Backpacks stuffed with more essentials. Smartglasses and radios and optics and electronics. No exoframes: they would leave heavy prints in the moist earth and betray their movement and positions. No armor either: this was a recon mission, not combat.
Out the corner of his eye, Wood saw Zen Tan wrestle a heavy boxy machine from the trunk of his vehicle. Tan set it down, stepped well clear and made a gesture. The machine smoothly and silently unfolded itself, sprouting legs from its main body. Its dome-shaped turret carried a suite of ultra-sensitive sensors and a carbine. It was the team’s drone, their crawler.
“Crawler is up,” Tan reported.
Wood retrieved his arms and ammo from a hard case in the trunk of the SUV. An M83A1 carbine, the workhorse of Babylon’s military and police, accessorized with optics and laser and forward grip. Three spare magazines—enough for self-defense. M22 pistol in a drop-leg holster. And a Bowie knife.
He re-checked his kit, patted himself down and refastened his pouches. Looking up, he saw Yamamoto put the finishing touches on his kit. A folding knife in his right pocket, a fixed blade tanto on his belt, and an honest-to-God short sword by his hip.
“This is a recon mission,” Wood said.
“In a swamp inhabited by a Dark Power,” Yamamoto replied calmly.
“Dark Power? You sure about that?”
“I can feel it.”
“I can’t.”
Yamamoto smiled faintly. “You’ll learn.”
One last thing to do: camouflage.
Wood remembered the days when the word meant camouflage cream, ghillie suits and harvesting nearby vegetation. Today the operators brought out man-sized chameleon cloaks.
The voluminous garments perfectly covered their entire bodies. To the naked eye, the operators were little more than shimmering blurs; to optoelectronics, they were effectively invisible. Every operator wore an IFF beacon transmitting his location, and in their smartglasses they showed up as bright blue outlines.
The cloaks had one drawback: they were hot.
The heat engulfed Wood. He began sweating almost immediately. Nothing he could do about it; he just bit on his hydration tube and sucked down a hit of water.
“Everyone ready?” Yamamoto whispered. “Yes? Let’s go.”

The map claimed their destination was three miles away. It felt like five.
The Black Watch circled around hillocks and dead trees, forded a trickling tributary and navigated animal trails. Most of all, they moved slowly and carefully, minimising the tracks they left behind, cleaning up where they could.
Moving in a diamond-shaped formation, the operators took turns to take point and watch the rear. The crawler stayed in the middle, obediently following the humans’ lead, while keeping watch for traps and hidden triggers. Sure, the crawler could be deployed as the point man—well, point bot—but everyone, Wood most of all, had no faith in the AI’s ability to stealthily navigate complex terrain.
The afternoon sun arced lazily across the sky. Insects buzzed all around them. Birds chirped to each other. Rabbits and otters and small deer rustled in the grass, and the operators took special care to avoid startling them. Once they heard a chorus of crocodile calls, and the Black Watch silently vacated the area.
The hours trudged past. The sun crept across the sky. The forest thinned around them, the air growing cooler and fresher. Frogs croaked in the distance. Wood moved carefully through the tall grass, feeling for unseen pits and watching for concealed predators.
Yamamoto led the team to a small hill. Bordered by shrubs and trees, it offered plenty of natural camouflage. As he approached, the strong earthy scent of the swamp assaulted Wood’s nose.
“We’re setting up here,” Yamamoto whispered.
The operators went to work. They laid in their defenses, burying a ring of sensors in the soft earth around the hill. Connor and Karim pulled perimeter security. Yamamoto and Tan guided the crawler further downstream, setting up a secondary observation post. That left Fox and Wood to observe the target.
Slowly, carefully, the duo crawled up the hill, keeping their faces pressed against the tall grass and black earth. Three-quarters of the way up, they circled around to the forward slope of the hill.
Sweat drenched Wood’s clothes. A strange, soft, squishy hundred-legged segmented worm serenely crawled across his glove, and he waited for it to leave before continuing. He sipped at his water tube at regular intervals and kept moving, inching into position.
This close to the objective, he had to move at a glacial pace. He lifted his right hand from the ground, carefully brushed aside blades of grass, and set it down an inch away. Then his left hand. His torso. His right leg. His left leg.
He moved slowly and smoothly, becoming one with the hill, ignoring the insects and the heat and the pungent scent of the microbe-infested waters. The singing grew louder and louder still. Now and then, he paused and oriented himself, carefully twisting himself around and making minute adjustments. The chameleon cloak might render him almost invisible, but a nearby threat would still detect swift, large movements.
A geological epoch later, on the military crest of the hill, he was in place. Long, long, long minutes later, Fox settled into place next to him.
Carefully, smoothly, she set up her scoped rifle, resting its bipod on the earth. Wood kept his weapon close to hand and scanned the swamp.
Row upon row of thick, dark-barked trees spread out before him, their roots completely submerged in the hot, brackish waters. Their branches bowed under the weight of heavy fruit. Fruit that glowed a strange shade of green.
The Green Bliss.
There were people too, walking amongst the strees. Some armed, most not. Closing his organic eye, Wood rapidly winked his cybereye, activating the zoom function, and examined them.
A gang of laborers harvested the fruit. Armed with long pruning hooks and carrying huge wicker baskets on their back, they cut the ripe fruit off their branches and placed them in the baskets. Wood counted fifteen laborers in total.
Behind the workmen, a quartet of guards stood around, thigh-deep in the waters, watching the men at work and scanning the trees around them. Dressed in digital camouflage uniforms, they almost blended into the forest, but the bare black metal and the straight lines of their carbines gave them away. M83 carbines, the same weapon he carried. Their combat harnesses were festooned with pouches, but they wore no armor.
The guards looked bored. They chatted casually with each other, occasionally swatting at an insect or scratching their skin, but otherwise showed no sign of alertness. Here and there they yelled at a worker or two, but otherwise left them to their own devices.
Speaking in soft whispers, Wood and Fox went to work. As she tracked the workers, he scanned the plantation, looking for more people or objects of interest.
A flash of white poked out from between the trees. Wood adjusted the zoom and tried to make sense of what he saw.
It was a house. More properly, a mansion. Three stories tall, supported with thick columns, it occupied a small patch of empty land. He didn’t have a complete visual of the building—there were too many trees in the way—but he took copious notes of what he saw.
Long shadows crept across the land. As the last of the sunlight fled, the workers harvested the fruit of the final row of trees. The guards escorted them away.
The duo continued their vigil, whispering their observations over the radio, transmitting and uploading photos and videos as necessary. Until the other operators relieved them, they would stay in place. Fox focused her attentions on the house while Wood developed the big picture.
There was nothing to see here. Nothing but the swamp and the trees and a constellation of strange green lights. As the night deepened, the lights grew brighter, a constellation of alien stars growing from the trees.
Growing. That word stuck in Wood’s mind. He zoomed in on a branch and saw…
“I think I see something,” Wood muttered.
“Yeah?” Fox asked.
“By eye, go to the nearest tree in your field of view.”
“Contact.”
“Go to the canopy.”
“Contact.”
“Zoom in on the branches. What do you see?”
“Fruits.” She paused. “Wait a second. Didn’t the workers harvest the fruit already?”
“Yeah. Watch the fruit.”
“It’s… What the hell? It’s growing?”
“Yeah. I’m seeing the same thing here.”
A cluster of Bliss fruits filled the center of his view. With every heartbeat, they expanded little by little, glowing ever-brighter, so bright he didn’t need night vision to see them.
And he was certain the workers had stripped this tree bare mere hours ago.
“This ain’t natural,” Wood whispered.
“It’s God-touched,” Fox said.
“It’s the devil’s fruit.”
“Guess that explains how the Santiagos managed to flood the streets of Babylon in such a short time.”
“Yeah. I’m going to call it in.”
As Wood reached for his radio, Yamamoto’s voice cut into his earpieces.
“Black Watch, stand to. Intruders in the plantation.”
--
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Tuesday, August 28, 2018

The Green Bliss Part 4

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4. The Prodigal Son

The meeting with Sheriff Kane was polite, formal, and an utter waste of time.
Over lunch, Kane and James Wood discussed the Santiago Syndicate, Moreno Island and the New Gods. While the great man had demonstrated ample deference to James Wood’s august position as a representative of the Public Security Bureau, and by extension to the power of the federal government, Kane revealed exactly nothing that the PSB didn’t already know.
Was the Sheriff holding out on him? Was the department’s resources and intelligence limited? Wood suspected it was both. He might have been an islander once, but he had been away for so long he was a mainlander now. An outsider. In places like these, outsiders were never to be trusted.
But there was still a place where he would always be welcome.
Hopton had changed. A backwater town in a backwater island, it was less a town than an arbitrarily-defined parcel of land granted to a loosely-knit collection of settlers eons ago. Its sole claim to fame was its farmland. Acres and acres of fertile black soil, able to bring forth anything a careful and hardworking farmer planted and nurtured. Over countless generations, the farmers had steadily increased their holdings and dispersed from each other, meeting only for special events or to sell their goods in town, the only place that could truly be considered Hopton proper.
Out in the backcountry, miles and hours separated neighbors from each other. A car was the only way to move quickly around here. A road car, not a gravcar. For one thing, there were few gravcar maintenance and charging stations on the island, and none in Hopton. For another, gravcars were high-profile, and this mission demanded a subtle touch.
Wood, rented a road car and drove.
And drove.
And drove.
Down winding forest roads bordered with untamed vegetation, cutting through unmarked trails that existed only in memories, passing by fields of sugarcane and tomatoes and corn, Wood drove on for hours, stopping only for the occasional toilet break and to reorient himself. During his first toilet break he sent a text message; he received a reply shortly after that. As the sun began to set, he rolled into Hopton.
Hopton was once a small, cozy farming town. He had spent countless hours running these streets with Frank Matthews and his friends. In their boyhood they played hide and seek and chased each other down unpaved roads; in high school they counted cars and courted girls; when they became men, Wood left Hopton behind to find his destiny in the bright lights of Babylon.
In the years between his departure and his return, the town had doubled in size. It had begun life as a giant market where merchants from the coastal cities could trade with farmers from the interior. Now he saw banks, chic cafes, electronics stores, even a cyber surgeon. They all bore the same brutal, utilitarian aesthetic that was the mark of the Maker.
The original open-air market was gone, replaced by a hypermarket like any other hypermarket in Babylon. Where a row of tenement buildings once stood, there was now a massive construction site, the signs promising a train station, connecting Hopton to the rest of the island within the next five years. Old brick and mortar buildings, painted in warm earthy tones and mellowed with thousands of sunsets, were slowly being replaced by LED and concrete and interchangeable prefab units.
At the town square, in place of the church that had cast a long shadow over Hopton, there was now a Shard of the Singularity Network. The church’s husk remained, but the wireless signals, the logos and the floating holo ads proclaimed the identity of the new occupier. Even the school was gone, the century-old edifice replaced by a modern imposter of straight lines and glass and painted panels arranged in abstract patterns.
This wasn’t the Hopton he knew. His childhood landmarks were all replaced or paved over, old roads fed to new ones, and there were so many new buildings he couldn’t recognize.
So much had changed. He wasn’t sure if it were a good thing.
He kept driving.
He followed the arterial roads that webbed across the town, watching residential buildings melt into markets and grocers and small-time commerce, in turn melting away into a high-tech commerce and medical area, before once again becoming yet another residential neighborhood, albeit newer than the one he had passed through. The last private home flashed past him, and then he was once again on the open road.
There were streetlights now, a welcome addition, but they graced only the highways running through the island. The moment he turned off into a side road, darkness swamped him, forcing him to rely on his vehicle mounted headlights.
As he drove, he kept his eyes peeled for animals, insects, anything that might spring out from the night or the woods around him. But there was nothing. No animal trails, no late-night calls, nothing that betrayed a sign of life. Not unusual, even in his time, but somehow the forest felt emptier than before.
Lonely farms appeared by the road. Most of them were isolated barn houses and small dwellings, surrounded by fields of crops. He knew them all: the St Pauls, the Luciens, the Clays. But there were a few farms whose owners he didn’t know. These had embraced technology, boasting climate-controlled greenhouses and grain silos, worker bots that tirelessly guarded and watered the fields, blocky homes and offices built not of wood and sweat but concrete and ceramic and strange alloys.
Too much had changed. He could no longer rely on his memories. Instead, Wood navigated by map and compass. Sure, the car had a built-in GPS, but only the New Gods knew if it were feeding unwanted data to them. The first thing he did after claiming the vehicle was to sweep the vehicle for trackers and disable the GPS. Civilians would call it paranoia.
In his world, it was simply good tradecraft.
Eventually he arrived at his destination. At least, the map said it was his destination. In his memories, he saw a white-painted three-story house with attached garage and toolshed, presiding over an acre of mixed-use crops and a small grazing area. Now, the farm had quadrupled in size. There were greenhouses and parking lots, animal pens and silos, a motor pool and smaller buildings whose purpose he couldn’t quite divine.
A pang of sadness caught in his chest. His family must have done well for themselves. They had intimated as such over emails, phone calls, and the few times they met in Saint Lucile for day trips and meals. But he hadn’t personally seen it for himself.
While he was busy killing armed criminals and terrorists and horrendous things from Beyond, they were busy growing and feeding and cultivating new life in this world. Here they knew nothing of man-eating horrors and soul-destroying gods, and baring a catastrophe, would never need to fear such monsters.
Had he gone wrong? Had he made a mistake joining the STS? Why had he left this all behind to chase dreams of guns and glory in Babylon?
To protect everyone, of course. But he was only one man, and he couldn’t stop the infiltration of the New Gods. He felt like he was holding back the tide with a shovel. Was all the pain, the bloodshed and the sacrifice worth it?
Yes, he decided. It was worth it, because his family was safe and well. Because he kept the worst predators of Babylon from coming here.
Anyway, it was too late now for regrets. As Yuri Yamamoto had once told him, all he could do was walk his road all the way to the end.
Rolling up to the gate, he sounded the horn. A short, sharp blast, enough to announce his presence without overly-annoying everyone. The gate silently slid open of its own accord, allowing him in.
Wood blinked. His family was no stranger to technology, but even the gate had been automated. Interesting.
The door of the main house opened, revealing two figures silhouetted against warm white light. Wood parked his car at an empty lot just by the door and stepped out.
“Hey Mom, hey Dad,” he said.
“Jim! It’s been so long!” Mom said.
“Welcome back,” Dad replied.
The years hadn’t treated them kindly. The sun had blasted and crumpled their dark skins until they took on the texture of tough leather. Their hair, what was left of it, had gone white. But they were still strong and hearty, dressed in simple rugged clothes, and laugh lines graced their eyes and cheeks.
“Come join us for dinner,” Mom said. “I’ve got meatloaf.”
Nothing in the world compared to Mom’s meatloaf. It was moist and tender and juicy and firm and springy. It was the closest he had ever come to a slice of heaven on Earth.
“That sounds great,” James said.
The three of them gathered in the dining room. Under the warm light of a shining new chandelier, Mom served up plates of meatloaf and string beans and mashed potatoes.
James tried an experimental bite of meatloaf. It burst with flavor, ground pork and hardboiled egg and cornmeal and carrots exploding over his tongue and melting his belly.
“As delicious as ever,” James pronounced.
She smiled. “Thank you.”
“You should come by more often,” Dad pronounced. “There’s nothing in the world like it.”
“I try,” James said lamely.
“But it’s been eight years since you last came home,” Mom chided.
He shrugged. “Well, here I am now.”
Sure, he made a point to visit his family at least once or twice a year, but he only ever met them in Saint Lucile or in Babylon. Not at home proper.
“You seem to be doing well for yourselves,” James added hastily.
“It’s not just us,” Dad said. “Bob and Terry helped out too.”
His younger brothers. Where he had gone to the mainland, they had chosen to stay on the island and follow in their ancestors’ footsteps.
“Where are they now?” James asked.
“They’re overnighting in town with Dorothy and Velma. Their kids are upstairs, in bed.”
“Date night?”
“Nah. Work. We’re going to upgrade our digital infrastructure soon. The boys say it will improve crop monitoring, control of equipment, bookkeeping, all that good stuff. They’re going to ink the deal with the Shard and learn how to use the new platform.”
“The Shard? You mean the Singularity Network?”
Dad nodded. “Yeah. They may be weird, but their tech is outstanding. They helped us with the greenhouse, showed us how to use farming bots, and how to use ecommerce and accounting software. All at reasonable prices.”
“You do business with the New Gods?”
“Of course,” Mom said. “Everyone does business with the Shard and the Guild these days.”
“Tell me more,” James said.
“Well, you’ve heard about the Shard,” Dad said. “The Guild sold us a new kind of new fertilizer and some seeds. We’ve seen a thirty percent increase in yields. They also built the new sheds, greenhouse and office outside.”
“Office? You have one now?”
“Sure. House is too small to do the paperwork, what with the kids running around and all. So we built a new office, close to the farms. We also use the office to monitor the bots, track our crop growth and inventory levels, that sort of thing.”
“I see. Do you actually worship the New Gods?”
“We ain’t much into that religion business ourselves, you know that.” Dad paused. “But your brothers, well… they’ve been attending meetings at the Shard and Guild pretty often these days.”
“They’re believers?”
“Their wives are. Dorothy is part of the Network, Velma is a paid-up member of the Guild. But Bob and Terry, they say they go to meetings so they can network and gain business opportunities.”
“I don’t think that wise,” Mom opined. “You don’t go worship a god just to make money, you know?”
“No kidding,” James said.
“Well, the boys aren’t doing anything wrong and they haven’t offended anyone,” Dad said. “There are worse ways to live.”
“I guess…” Mom said. “But enough about us. How’ve you been doing? Still working in Public Security?”
“Yeah,” James said guardedly.
“What do you do?”
“Same as before.”
Mom’s voice dropped an octave. “STS?”
James nodded. “I’d appreciate it if you don’t spread it around.”
“I heard STS members cannot worship any of the New Gods,” Dad said, “or have any kind of affiliation with them.”
“That’s right.”
“Why?”
“Our job is to uphold and enforce the law. Human law. To do our job properly, we cannot allow even the slightest bit of influence from any outsiders or foreigners, including the New Gods.”
“That makes sense. But Dorothy and Velma… they’re good people. Harmless. Not like the Husks we keep reading about in the news.”
“Sure they are,” James agreed, “but rules are rules. They’re not direct family and I don’t have contact with them much, so the brass is willing to bend the regs a little. But not much. I’d rather they not know too much about what I do.”
Mother and father sighed simultaneously.
“Very well,” Dad said. “Not that you can tell me much about what you do anyway.”
“It’s for the best.”
“Speaking of work, is that why you came home?” Mom asked.
James shrugged. “Well, I do have work to do on the island. I spent the day working at Saint Lucille, then I figured I had time to kill, so why not visit.”
She laughed. “Come on, James, you’ve been away for eight years and you came back on a lark? We know you better than that.”
He sighed. “Well, yes, it has something to do with work too.”
“You’re hunting Husks?” Dad asked.
“I’m hunting a source of Husks.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’ve heard of the Green Bliss?”
Dad’s face darkened. “Everyone’s heard of the devil’s fruit.”
“It’s made its way to the mainland. Fastest-growing addiction in recent times. But it has a side effect, one that isn’t publicly advertised.”
“What is it?” Mom asked.
“It turns psis into Husks.”
“Damn,” Dad said.
Mom just shook her head.
“From what I understand, there’s only one source of Green Bliss in the world,” James continued.
“The Santiago Syndicate,” Dad spat.
“You got that right. I’m trying to find more information about them.”
“You won’t find that in town, that’s for sure.”
“Oh? How so?”
“Son, they run the streets at night. In the daylight hours, they hide in their holes, but after dark, they flood the streets and push their dope. They’ve had more than a few dust-ups with the Sheriff’s deputies and the New Gods, but they keep coming back. The Santiagos have the townies scared. They know that if they spill the beans, the Santiagos will come for them.”
“Sounds like they’ve got a stronghold in the area.”
“Well…”
Dad pursed his lips. Mom shied away.
“The Santiagos aren’t just dope dealers,” James said gently. “The Green Bliss turns ordinary people into man-eating monsters. I’ve had to put down a few of those myself. I’m trying to stop the violence, but I need help.”
“You said the Bliss turns psis into Husks, huh,” Dad said. “You know, we haven’t had Husks around in Hopton, ever. Until three years ago, when the Bliss came here. The last time we had a Husk, it damn near tore up half the town before the Guild and the Shard put it down. If what you’re saying is true…”
“It’ll only get worse until the Santiagos are stopped,” James finished.
“We don’t know anything about the Santiagos,” Mom said.
“Every little bit of information helps,” James insisted. “If you don’t know anything, maybe you know someone who does.”
“I haven’t seen anything with my own eyes,” Dad began.
“But…” James coaxed.
“But the Clays, about two weeks ago, when I visited them for a beer, they had an interesting story for me.”
“What did they say?”
“Their youngest boy, Roy, he and his friends went fishing at Grass River after school. The catch was poor at their usual spot, so on a lark, they decided to go deeper into the swamp.
“Now, I’m not too concerned about those boys. They’ve grown up around the swamps and they’re familiar with it. But about two, maybe three miles down the river, they were ambushed.”
“Ambushed?”
“A man carrying a rifle stepped out of the woods. He told them to stop and put their hands up. He forced them down on the ground and covered them. A few more men showed up, searched the boys, then told them they were trespassing on private property, and ordered them to leave and never come back. The boys ran off, and told their parents.”
“That’s… odd,” James said.
“Very odd,” Dad agreed. “The maps show there’s nothing but unclaimed swamp for miles around. And here’s the kicker: the guard they saw, he wasn’t no survivalist. He was wearing a military uniform. Camouflage and all. And he spoke into a radio. His buddies had the same kit.”
“Were they military?”
“There are no military bases in the area. And when the Army runs exercises around here, they make sure to tell us well ahead of schedule.”
“Interesting…” James muttered.
“Was it useful?”
“It’s more than what I had this morning.”
“Are you going to investigate?” Mom asked.
“I can’t comment on what I may or may not be doing.”
Dad sighed. “You government types… Well, whatever you do out there, you never heard it from me, ya hear? Santiagos have eyes and ears everywhere.”
“Yes Dad.”
“And you stay safe, okay?” Mom added. “You do what you have to do, then come back home.”
“Yes Mom.”
“Good boy.”
“Just one more thing,” James said.
“What is it?” Dad asked.
“Have you heard of ‘Aruk’?”
Dad’s face hardened.
“Where did you hear that from?”
“The mainland. Rumors and whispers, for the most part. What’s wrong?”
“Son…” Dad rubbed his temples. “My granddad told me a few things when I was little. There are old things in the swamps, things older than Babylon or the Cataclysm. It’s best not to speak their names too loudly.
“I haven’t seen any of them myself, but he has. And one of them is Aruk.”
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