Thursday, October 31, 2019

The Guns of Babylon

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When writing a tactical thriller with heavy action elements, you have to get around to talking about the hardware. Tools drive what the characters can and can’t do, and weapons are a big part of that.
Also, guns are cool.

When writing guns in fiction, a common approach is to simply drop generic terms like ‘rifle’ or ‘pistol’ and leave it at that. Some slightly more sophisticated writers drop brand and/or gun names: FN SCAR, Beretta M9, Barrett M82. It may well work for them. Most readers just want to get on with the action without being bogged down in too much detail. But I prefer a more sophisticated option.

A character’s choice of weapons reflects his capabilities, needs, preferences, and perceived mission and enemies. Weapons that are issued to him speaks to his organisation’s requirements, missions, policy, culture, and, most importantly, budget. A character’s weapon in a scene reflects his character and/or his parent organization, defines his capabilities in a scene, and drives his tactics.
When I write, I write weapons as though they are extensions of people and organizations. That’s because in real life, they are.

Your average American criminal doesn’t care about quality or range or whatever; he wants something that is concealable, readily available on the black market, and dangerous-looking enough to intimidate victims and blast away at rivals. Thus, we see that the most common firearm used by American criminals is the 9mm handgun, usually a Glock, due to its widespread availability.

In contrast, your average police officer must use either his department-issued weapon or, in larger cities, choose from a list of department-approved weapons. His weapons reflect the needs of the department. Any sound PD would place reliability as its top priority, quickly followed by (reasonable) accuracy: firearms are used in the gravest extreme, and they must work when called upon—and that may well mean taking a hostage rescue shot. But a department is also constrained by its budget, which means you won’t see top-end gear for the rank and file, only gear that is deemed good enough (and, to be fair, in modern times, ‘good enough’ gear from reputable manufacturers is actually excellent).

Uniquely to America, police departments are held liable for the actions for their officers to a far greater degree almost anywhere else, and as such department liability sometimes drive purchasing decisions. The NYPD infamously issues the ‘New York trigger’, a spring which increases the pull weight of its issued Glock pistols from five pounds to twelve pounds. Such a long and heavy trigger pull reduces the possibility accidental discharges, and therefore liability in the eyes of the police brass and politicians—but I repeat myself. At the same time, it makes it extremely difficult to shoot accurately under stress, leading to missed shots—and, perversely, increases legal exposure. The NYPD itself acknowledges that heavier trigger pulls reduces accuracy. But it hasn’t changed its policy. The most charitable interpretation is that it views the risk of a negligent discharge as greater than that of missing a suspect in a gunfight. Fundamentally, the NY trigger is a half-baked hardware solution to a training issue, mandated by politicians who either don’t know much about weapons or push to ban them altogether–but again, I repeat myself.

A gun is a gun. But in fiction, it is more than a gun. To readers in the know, a gun tells them something about the user, reinforcing his characterisation.

I, being cursed with such knowledge and an obsession to pursue it, dedicate a lot of time and energy into choosing weapons for characters and organizations. Babylon Blues, being an action-heavy saga, will features weapons and tactics prominently. Being the secondary stars of the show, choosing the weapons is a delicate and often frustrating process.

But, all things considered, it worked out nicely.

M83 Carbine

The M83 carbine is the standard weapon of the Special Tasks Section. In keeping with modern tactical police trends, the STS issues rifle-caliber weapons to its operators. Unlike regular SWAT in our world, the STS hunts down terrorists with supernatural powers, cultists who have fused with gods, monsters that wield lethal magics. Showing up with a lesser weapon is a recipe for failure. The carbine is the defining weapon of the STS, the one it uses most often, and therefore the one that I have to pay the most attention to.

Small wonder that it was also the most frustrating weapon to create.

The carbine originally began life as the LSW192. After watching the original Cyberpunk 2077 trailer, I had a vision of a futuristic rifle. It would be a compact bullpup with a 20-inch barrel, the better to navigate the tight confines of a megacity, with the option to use shorter barrels and handguards a la the Tavor. It would eject forward like the F2000, and its fire controls would be mirrored on both sides for one-handed use, allowing for full ambidextrous use.

Then I stopped to think about what the STS really needed.

The STS is a cross of BOPE and the FBI Hostage Rescue Team. They hunt down the most dangerous street predators of Babylon the way BOPE combs the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, but the mission is to save lives like the HRT. They need a hard-hitting weapon, but they also need an exceptionally accurate weapon, because they will be working within densely-populated areas.

Rifle accuracy is measured in MOA, minute of angle. A rifle capable of shooting 1 MOA can place a group within 1 inch at 100 yards. The US military’s acceptance criteria for its M4 carbine is 5 MOA. This will allow the carbine to hit a man-sized target at 300 yards. This may be adequate for general purpose use—but not necessarily for special operations. Contrast this with the HK416 carbine, designed in collaboration with the US military’s elite Delta Force, which has an accuracy of 2 MOA from a 16 inch barrel.

A bullpup rifle places the magazine and the firing mechanism behind the grip. This makes for a long action with multiple linkages, and a long action comes a long and mushy trigger pull—which tends to reduce accuracy. It’s telling that bullpup rifles tend to be less accurate than conventional rifles.
This problem of a mushy trigger can be solved with laser ignition. Indeed, the LSW192 called for one. This replaces the mechanical firing action with a computer, a laser, and a switch. Without mechanical actions, the trigger can be clean, crisp and light. It would have been the perfect solution.
Just one problem: the STS fights monsters, not men. Including monsters with the ability to manipulate light and electricity, as seen in the story THE WHITE CROSS, exclusive to the BABYLON BLUES collection.

More than accuracy, the STS prizes reliability. The gun must shoot, even in the face of monsters and madmen attempting to rewrite the laws of reality. That means the STS’ carbine must feature a mechanical-only action and must have backup iron sights.

In addition, the monsters the STS faces may be heavily armored and/or possess magical shields, so well-protected against small arms fire even armor piercing rounds can’t defeat them. The only way to stop them with man-portable weapons to shoot their weak points. And if these monsters have regeneration powers too, then the weapon must be able to put repeated shots into these weak points until the monster finally decides to die.

In practical terms, this means the STS-issue long gun must be capable of making headshots out to at least 300 meters, preferably 500 meters, with 95% confidence level or greater.

Can a bullpup rifle do that? Possibly, if combined with FUTURE TECH. We know today that the Steyr AUG A3, a bullpup rifle, is capable of 1.5 to 2 MOA accuracy with ball ammo. With premium match-grade rounds, it could even achieve sub-MOA accuracy, sometimes. This a comfortable margin for a headshot.

Accuracy and reliability aside, however, the STS has a third criteria: mission adaptability.
STS operations are highly dynamic. They may make multiple hits in the same job. Their target may be mobile, or even break free from a police cordon, requiring the STS to go mobile.

The situation may change rapidly over the course of a mission, and the team must adapt, as seen in THE BLACK WATCH.  The ability to rapidly reconfigure weapons on the field is a huge plus, and indeed when an STS team goes on a callout, they carry multiple parts kits with them in the field. An operator may have to transition from close-quarters assaulter to precision marksman in the same op.
The baseline accuracy standard for a modern sniper rifle is 1 MOA. Top-flight counterterrorist units that will be called on to make difficult shots (such as the STS) would demand sub-MOA accuracy. This level of accuracy is very difficult to achieve with a bullpup, due to the linkages in the firing mechanism and the mushy trigger. I’ve only heard of a couple of bullpup rifles capable of consistently achieving 1 MOA or better, versus the larger numbers of precision rifles with a conventional layout.

In the end, it boiled down to this: either have a bullpup platform and a separate dedicated sniper rifle, or a single family of weapons that can be reconfigured on the fly.

The STS would go for the latter. It is cheaper and easier to train on a single family of weapons than to maintain two platforms. Moreover, it is easier for the reader to track a single family of weapons than two platforms.

The new weapon system for the STS had departed so far from the original design that I gave it a new name: the M83. A boring, staid name, in line with American naming conventions, reflecting its conventional nature, instead of the exotic ‘LSW’.

This isn’t to say that the LSW name won’t show up again, only that this design doesn’t fit this universe.

The M83 drew inspiration from two designs: the LaRue Tactical Optimized Battle Rifle and Textron’s  Next Generation Squad Weapon – Rifle prototype. The LaRue Tactical OBR is a precision rifle that can be run like a battle rifle, capable of sub-MOA accuracy in hard use conditions. Exactly what the STS needs. The NGSW – R was taken because of its calibre: the 6.8mm General Purpose Cartridge.

The world of Babylon Blues is far more dangerous than ours. Heavily armored monsters walk the streets. Lightweight rifle-grade armor is commonplace. The traditional military answer to body armor is the generous application of explosives.

It is not an option for a hostage rescue team.

In our world, the US Army’s 6.8mm GPC was driven by a desire to defeat Level IV body armor out to 500 meters, a questionable design choice among gun guys. In the land of Babylon, the 6.8mm round was designed to kill giant armored monsters without causing collateral damage within a densely populated megapolis. Both military and law enforcement would push for the development of such a calibre, practically guaranteeing its adoption.

There are presently three main variants of 6.8 GPC: a cased telescoped round, a hybrid metallic-cased round, and a polymer-cased round. At the time Babylon Blues was conceived, the first was widely touted and the latter barely known. Indeed, the latter two emerged only through the NGSW competition, which provided the 6.8mm bullet but let manufacturers design the rest of the cartridge.

I chose the cased telescoped bullet because, well, it was SCI FI. But a cased telescoped cartridge doesn’t have a rim, so it needs a novel ejection system that pushes it forward out of an ejection port. This leads to the bulk you see in the Textron NGSW – R, the same bulk replicated and described in BABYLON BLUES.

Was it the right choice? I don’t know, to be honest. I threw in cased telescoped ammo into the manuscript without thinking about how it would affect the aesthetics and possible ergonomics of the weapon design – although, to be fair, I don’t think anyone outside the Textron design team understood how CTA would affect the design of a conventional weapon until the prototype was revealed.

Another challenge that emerged was the increased bulk of the 6.8mm cartridge. Textron’s NGSW – R’s prototype ships with a twenty-round magazine. So does its competitor from SIG. Contrast this with modern assault rifles, which have thirty-round magazines. A 30-round 6.8mm mag would be too long to be used comfortably when shooting from the prone. Once again, I didn’t anticipate this, and The Black Watch was written with carbines sporting 30-round 6.8mm mags.

And an automatic rifle with a 20-round magazine isn’t exactly suited for auto fire.

But, this being sci fi, there are two ways around this.

The simpler approach is introduce more powerful and efficient propellant. This allows the cartridge to be much slimmer than modern cartridges. These high-efficiency propellants do exist today, as prototypes, and offer up to 52% volume reduction, making it easy to squeeze 30 rounds into a 20-round mag.

The second approach, and the more intriguing one, comes from True Velocity / General Dynamics’ NGSW submission, which uses a 30-round magazine.

I don’t know how they did it. It could be a byproduct of the novel case design, which mostly eliminates the shoulder and neck from a conventional cartridge, thus reducing volume and length. It could be new propellant. It could simply be a magazine well and chamber mounted higher on the rifle than in a traditional AR-15 design. But it showed me that a 30-round 6.8mm magazine is possible, for a rifle that doesn’t look as ugly as Textron’s.

Will there be more changes to the M83? Maybe, maybe not. The basic layout, design and mission remain unchanged. But the rest deserves a second look.

M99 pistol

When I conceived of series protagonist Yuri Yamamoto, I saw his favorite pistol. A hammer-fired high-capacity handgun, derived from the CZ P-07 line of pistols.  I even had a line for it: “In a world of polymer striker-fired handguns, he believed in steel and hammers.” It reflected his main character theme, which is a seamless blending of old and new.

It even dovetailed with what I knew of HRT and Delta Force, the units I used as the model of the STS. They used customized M1911 pistols, ultra-accurate, supremely reliable, the finest fighting handguns ever designed.

Then I did my research.

It turned out that Delta, and to a lesser extent HRT, had transitioned to Glocks a while ago. The custom M1911s were, and are, superb, but they went through such a beating in high-intensity training and operations that they required constant maintenance and parts replacement. Glocks, in contrast, kept running and running and running.

Reliability is far more important than accuracy, from the perspective of the operator, the armorer, and the accountant. And if the pistol can confidently deliver a hostage rescue shot at expected combat range, it was good enough.

But.

Glocks are boring.

Imagine a plastic block with an angular plastic handle and a square hollow box. That is a Glock in a nutshell. It will never win any cosmetic awards, which, depending on your needs, may or may not be a good thing. When you’re writing cyberpunk, though, style is as important as substance.
And there are better designs out there.

I went with Laugo Arms Alien pistol. In contrast to the staid conventional design of the M83, the Alien pistol is a handgun of the future. It features a fixed barrel with interchangeable slide unit, a mounting for a red dot sight and ultra-low bore axis. It represents genuine innovation in the field of pistol design, and it looks like it stepped out of a cyberpunk movie.

Thus the M99 was born: a futuristic, battle-proven Alien pistol, marrying the accuracy of a competition gun with the reliability of a service weapon—and built of steel, with an internal hammer.
Could the Alien pistol achieve this dream in our world? We know that its native accuracy makes for a superb race gun. We don’t know anything about police or military tests yet, if there are any at all. It could well be that the Alien is fit only for sport, unable to stand up to the rigors of extreme duty use.
Fortunately, I write fiction.

M585 Personal Defense Weapon

The STS doesn’t use submachine guns. Neither do many American police or military units, at least not as a default weapon.

In the late 1980s to early 2000s, an SMG offered accurate firepower in a compact package. Today, however, modern carbines are of comparable length to an SMG, sporting a more powerful calibre. Further, a 9mm SMG tends to penetrate interior drywalls much further than a 5.56mm carbine, an important consideration for police forces. With the increasing proliferation of body armor and active shooters, military and tactical LE units had switched to carbines long ago.

Given the mission of the STS, any weapon that cannot defeat body armor is a non-starter. SMGs were right out.

With that said, there is still a niche for a compact, high-capacity full-auto weapon, not necessarily in a rifle calibre but still capable of defeating armor. Babylon is a sprawling cyberpunk city, with claustrophobic rooms and corridors and small spaces. To search and clear such spaces, the usual response is to transition to a pistol. But missions can take place entirely inside confined spaces, as in the case of Fortune City in BABYLON BLUES and a cult headquarters in THE WHITE CROSS. Given the threats the STS faces, they will a weapon more powerful than a mere pistol.

Enter the M585.

Compact as a machine pistol, with the armor-defeating capabilities of a carbine, it was a personal defense weapon. Figuring out its design was easy: I just took the MP7, borrowed the see-through magazine and grip of ST Kinetics’ CPW, and called it good. After all, it wasn’t going to see much action anyway.

The tricky question was the calibre. The terminal performance of the 5.7mm and 4.6mm rounds is perfectly disappointing. The 5.7mm has a mixed record in police use, with some users reporting excellent terminal performance and others claiming poor performance. As for the 4.6mm, it is a truism among special operators wielding the MP7 that if you couldn’t nail a headshot, you had to shoot the threats lots of times.

Real-world PDW calibres aren’t acceptable to an agency that deals with berserk beasts in close confines. In the end, I bumped up the calibre to the 7.92x24mm. This is the calibre used by VBR Belgium’s PDW design, adapted for the needs of Babylon. This calibre offers the performance of the time-tested 9mm, but with increased magazine capacity and novel armor piercing designs.

Given the small size of this calibre, I also chambered the M99 in this calibre. An organization would seek to maintain as few calibres as possible to reduce logistics costs, and having a pistol and a PDW that fires the same ammo would be a godsend. And in the STS’ line of work, an armor-piercing pistol is a necessity.

Other Guns

A plethora of other firearms are mentioned in passing. Shotguns, submachine guns, other generic rifles and pistols. There’s enough firepower for the army of a small nation packed in the saga.
A gun fanatic would name and spec them all. The wise writer wouldn’t.

The weapons of Babylon are all fictional. If I say a character is holding an Erebus Arms LM1920 rifle, what does it mean to reader? Nothing more than a bunch of words. These words would only grow in significance if the story spends time exploring and describing the weapon and its capabilities.

If the story doesn’t require an in-depth exploration of a weapon, there’s no need to waste words describing it – not to mention the time and energy needed to research and craft it. If a generic ‘pistol’, ‘rifle’ or other such weapon word would do in a story, I’d prefer to just slot it in and continue writing.
Ultimately, the purpose of researching, crafting and designing fictitious guns is to entertain the reader. To create an emotional connection, to set up future scenes, to hint at the needs and circumstances of a character, his network and his mission. Anything more than that is superfluous.

Gearhead I might be, but many of my readers most certainly aren’t.



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Wednesday, October 30, 2019

The Music of Babylon Blues

Tokyo, Japan, Tokyo Tower, Night, Night City, Tower
BABYLON BLUES, my current cyberpunk horror saga, holds a most unusual distinction: it is the first story I wrote that was inspired by music.

The first time I heard 'Babylon', it was in Leonard Cohen's 'Dance Me to the End of Love'. One line goes like this:
Oh let me see your beauty when the witnesses are gone / let me feel you moving like they do in Babylon
Dance Me to the End of Love is filled with love, passion, sensuality. In these lines you can guess what Cohen really means.

And yet, while the song hints at a wedding and a life-long relationship, 'Babylon' colours the song in darker tones. The Babylon of the Bible is the greatest, richest and most powerful city in the world, but it is also a city of sin and vice. The Greek historian Herodotus describes sacred prostitution practiced in Babylonia, where a woman is compelled to wait in the temple of Aphrodite and have intercourse with a stranger before she is allowed to return home.

This idea of a great love shaded in doubt and the word 'Babylon', lodged themselves deep in my brain, and stayed there for close to a decade.

In early 2018, through the intercession of YouTube algorithms, I stumbled across the song YoiYoi Kokon by REOL.

Calling it 'crazy' is an understatement. The music video is a full-on sensory assault, contrasting the ancient and the modern. Traditional Japanese imagery of koi and fans and screen doors juxtaposed with psychadelic abstract shapes and colours. Archaic Japanese sung at a frantic tempo, accompanied by high-energy synth music. The singer sounds happy and joyous, but the lyrics suggest pain and misery and a headlong embrace of hedonism in the face of changing times.

This sharp contrast between old and new, combined with these observations of human nature, lingered in me. It's easy to enjoy the music for what it is, but to fully appreciate the song you need to dive deep. And I wondered if I could apply these concepts to my own work.

From Yoyoi Kokon, it's a short hop away to Oedo Ranvu.

As with YoiYoi Kokon, it is a high-energy song whose lyrics interspace lust and licentiousness with scenes of beauty, referring to a romanticised ancient Edo and its infamous pleasure quarters. Once again we see the contrast of the ancient and the hypermodern, in the combination of the lyrics and instruments.

Continuing the theme of a decadent Edo, I arrived at Tokio Funka.

As with YoYoi Kokon, it is energetic, fast-paced and deceptively upbeat. A close examination of the lyrics point to an Edo / Tokyo of corruption and decadence. It is an Edo filled with opium abuse, gambling, prostitution, incompetent government officials, and roving gangs wreaking havoc everywhere they go.

This line stood out:
okappiki babiron yowaki mono abandon
Translated, it means: “In this Babylon of thief-takers, abandon the weak."

The Babylon of Cohen's poem-song returned to mind in an instant. A city of corruption and degeneracy, the ultimate symbol of rejection of the Christian God.

A city not unlike the Edo described in Tokyo/Edo of Tokio Funka and Oedo Ranvu, in a period of rapid change and supreme hedonism described in YoiYoi Kokon.

Later in the song, another line goes like this:
sakase yo hana o ukiyo wa setsuna
Translated, it means this: “Bloom, flowers, the transient world is but a moment”.

This sentence captures the essence of Edo-era Japan. The nation was at peace, the arts were flourishing, commerce was king, samurai became bureaucrats and civil servants. Edo became the most important city in Japan, with the courtesans of the Yoshiwara pleasure quarters setting fashion trends across the nation.

'Ukiyo', the floating world or transient world, refers to the hedonistic urban lifestyle embodied in Yoshiwara.

At the same time, 'Ukiyo' is a homophone for ‘sorrowful world’ in Japanese. It refers to the endless cycle of life, suffering, death and rebirth in Buddhism, the cycle all Buddhists seek to escape. It is also an apt analogy for the dark side of Yoshiwara.

The life of a Yoshiwara prostitute is a steeped in sorrow and suffering. Held in debt bondage, thousands of prostitutes died from sexually transmitted diseases or failed abortions before completing or being freed from their contracts. Those who died were unceremoniously dumped at Jokan-ji temple. All together, an estimated 25,000 prostitutes were buried in the vast cemetary of Jokan-ji.

The secret to liberation from the sorrowful world is to realise that it is also a transient world. Pain and pleasure, glamour and suffering, joy and sorrow, they come and rise and fall away. Even the transient world is itself transient: Yoshiwara was damaged by fire in 1913, almost destroyed by the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, and finally lost its prominence after prostitution was officially outlawed in 1958 (although loopholes remained).

Call it confirmation bias, a message from the Universe, a nudge from the muses, a whisper from God, but after listening to three songs with similar themes in rapid succession, all of them tied to a line I heard so long ago, I decided to pay more attention to what I was truly hearing.

From these songs, Babylon was born.

A hyper-modern ultra-dense city, the richest and most powerful city in the world. A city that has embraced the world, seamlessly melding East and West. A city that chases desperate dreams of never-ending pleasure, leaving in its wake countless thousands and tens of thousands of burned-up souls. A city that openly rejects the values and faiths of the past, and yet cannot run from them.

Babylon is the distilled essence of every fleshpot, every financial hub, every technological centre, every human hive, concentrated in a single megacity. It is Las Vegas and Hot Springs, Yoshiwara and Kabukicho, New York and Shinjuku, Patapong and Paris. It is the fusion of ukiyo and Sin City.

I took the juxtaposition of timeless and hyper-modern and ran with it. Babylon would be a cyberpunk city, forever tearing up its past and building upon the ruins. Even so, there are still people in that city who keep to the old ways, hold to timeless truths, preserve pockets of the past in hidden nooks. They live in the world but not of it, lotuses floating serenely in the murky waters of the floating world. Babylon is poised on the brink of chaos, but the protagonist is a bedrock of calm.

From these concepts of Babylon came Yuri Yamamoto. Street samurai, Christian mystic, gunslinger and leader.

Babylon Blues is his story. The story of an elite operator and his team as they do battle against the princes and powers of the world. The story of a samurai who has mastered the Way of the hand, the blade and the gun.

The story of a man of the Cross in a world that has forgotten the Christ.

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Sunday, October 27, 2019

Babylon Blues Part 14



Beyond Truth and Lies

Deep in the desert at the heart of Nova Babylonia, sited at the furthest point from every inhabited city and settlement in the country, surrounded by sun-scorched dunes and barren mesas as far as the eye could see, there stood a curious structure.
It was a cube. A black, gleaming cube, five stories tall, perfectly equidistant on every side. Its exterior surface shone like glass, but in truth it was an amorphous alloy. Flat and smooth and perfectly featureless, there were no windows, no doors, none immediately visible to the external observer.
Three sets of barriers surrounded the cube. The outermost layer was a simple chain-link fence topped with barbed wire, twenty-one feet tall. The second barrier was composed entirely of razor wire, miles and miles of sharpened steel mounted on stakes as tall as the outer fence, six unbroken loops mounted one atop the other, so densely interwoven it was a forest of cutting steel. The final perimeter defense was a concrete wall, again topped with triple concertina razor wire.
There were twelve security towers. One at each corner, two more in between them. Every hour of the day, sharpshooters with high-caliber rifles patrolled the narrow catwalks, shifting their attention between the desert outside and the black cube. A remote weapon station topped every tower, armed with heavy machine guns, autocannons, lasers. The RWS platforms at the corners aimed outwards. The rest were aimed at the grounds of the cube.
The cube itself was an exercise in automation, efficiency, and control. The ground floor was earmarked for human staff. Here held the administration offices, the guard barracks, the kitchen, the storage areas, everything the facility needed for self-sufficiency. As close to self-sufficiency as its design would permit.
Populated by humans, it was the among most heavily secured areas on the planet. Checkpoints with biometric security systems, cameras and mirrors that observed every square inch of the interior, security doors rated against blasts and ballistics and other threats. Arms and ammunition lockers were in abundance in every sector, ready for immediate access. Every human who worked here was thoroughly vetted, subject to random audits and security tests, held to the most stringent security protocols ever designed by human minds.
For the inhabitants of the upper eight floors were not human.
At least, not until recently.
Inside the cube, there was the Box. Occupying the second to fifth floors of its host building, it was much smaller on the inside that its outward appearance suggested. Reinforced concrete, piping, shielded cables, sensors and security devices made up the difference. And, it was rumored, an army of secret things the government had enlisted to keep the peace, tucked away in unseen spaces and hidden rooms, waiting to be unleashed on the world.
The Box was hollow. A vast empty space stood in the middle of the Box. It was what passed for a courtyard, and in the center of the yard was a tower. Tinted ballistic windows peered out from every side, augmented by cameras and millimeter wave sensors. Sturdy steel doors, defended by a biometric lock, protected access to the tower and its exterior catwalk. Atop the tower was a laser turret, the most powerful, and most versatile, laser ever to be deployed in an indoor environment. It could dazzle a man, it could blind him, it could generate a single pulse powerful enough to knock him on his ass, it could cut him clean in half.
A bold red line painted on the floor ringed the tower. Diagonal lines cut through the enclosed space. On the other side of the line, stenciled words ordered unauthorized personnel to keep away. Elsewhere on the court, green lines demarcated running tracks with distance markers, a designated stretching area, a general workout space. The paint was scratched and faded, and rusty brown spots spattered across the pitted concrete.
Six levels of cells surrounded the tower and the courtyard, connected by catwalks and staircases. Every door was vault-grade, three inches of metallic glass and concrete, secured with a dozen deadbolts. Each cell was barely the size of a shoebox. Inside, there was a bed, a desk and a stool, all made of poured concrete, integral and immovable extrusions from the floor and walls. There was only one metal object in the room, the hygiene unit that combined a sink, a toilet and water fountain. Next to the hygiene unit was a small shower stall, just large enough for someone to stand. LEDs and camera domes glared unblinkingly from the ceiling, every hour of the day. Slots cut into the walls and floor housed microwave emitters and tear gas nozzles, ready to pacify any inmate who showed even the slightest hint of resistance.
This was the Box: the prison to hold the Elect of the New Gods.
And now, those who had hunted them.
The STS had transported the Black Watch here, straight from the BITE. No charges, no paperwork, no access to a lawyer. The staff in-processed everyone separately, locked them away in the Box, and forgot about them.
Even by the standards of the laxest court in Nova Babylonia, it was patently illegal. But here, the law held no sway. Through complex legal maneuvers, backed by reams of carefully constructed paperwork, the Box existed in a state of non-being, a space claimed by no nation on the remade world, and therefore a space ruled by no court or government.
The Box was Limbo on Earth.
The overhead lights dictated the time. When they were switched off, a darkness more than night overwhelmed the prison. Once turned on again, they were so bright they banished every shadow to the furthest corners of the complex.
Three times a day, the prison staff delivered meals through the food slots. There were just three options. A loaf of tasteless mush the color of human waste, a bowl of bland gruel, or a cold hard submarine sandwich. While designed to be eaten without utensils, each meal came with a one-use-only eating utensil baked from flavorless dough, itself designed to be edible should the prisoner desire it.
For twenty-three hours a day, the inmates were confined to their cells. There was nothing to do and nowhere to go. Any entertainment had to come from the depths of the inmate’s mind. The guards allowed stationery and books, but the inmate had to put in a special request, and none of those items could leave the cell. Or else.
In that last hour, they were allowed to exercise in the yard. It was a privilege, not a right, revocable at will. Yard time itself was carefully scheduled, preventing inmates from rival factions or gangs from encountering each other.
It was the only time the Black Watch could see each other.
During yard time, they were the only visible humans in their little slice of the world. There were guards hidden in the tower, of course, and a quick reaction force waiting in the wings. But for that hour, the six of them were left alone.
For that hour, they were allowed to be human.
Yard time carried the gravity of ritual. The first five minutes were for warm-ups, both ballistic and partner stretches. The next twenty-five minutes were for bodyweight exercises, a non-stop calisthenic routine that targeted every major muscle group without rest. Immediately after that came the run, an endless loop around the yard for another twenty-five minutes. Every day, they took turns to lead the group, and in that variation was their one means of rebellion against the system.
But the last five minutes never changed.
They talked.
It was simple conversation. How they were doing and feeling, anything interesting that had happened in the cell, a brief election for the following day’s exercise leader, a competition to see who could insult the previous meals in the most amusing way possible.
Then the guards came for the Black Watch and hustled them back to the cells.
Day in, day out, the regimen never changed. Fox tried to adjust to her new life. Tried. But the density of boredom weighed her down, and at all hours of the day and night, men and women and things screamed and shrieked and prayed and sang and whispered and muttered, grinding down her soul bit by bit.
It was inhumane. But the Box was not for humans. It was for the most dangerous creatures on the surface of the Earth, for those who had traded their souls for raw power—and had somehow survived their encounters with the authorities. To these inmates, anything could be—and was—a weapon. They were themselves weapons, the instruments of the New Gods, the will of their patrons made flesh. They were too dangerous to be set free, too inconvenient to execute.
So the Box slowly drove them mad.
And, she feared, it would do the same to her.
Yamamoto had faith. Faith in his God, whoever he was. A god that had never been seen on the planet since the Calamity that saw the descent of the New Gods. And yet, she had seen that god work through him too many times to doubt his existence. Had he manifested any actual supernatural powers, Yuri would surely have been marked as an Elect. Yet he hadn’t, and by staying under the radar of the authorities and the New Gods, he had accomplished more than any mere mortal. His faith had brought him to this point, and surely his faith would keep him going.
Mustafa, too, had faith. As the Elect of a minor Power, he enjoyed direct communion with his god. The Box might be designed to hold someone like him, but if he put his mind to it, he could surely escape from this place. Or go out in a blaze of glory. But he hadn’t, and wouldn’t. Galen the White would not approve of it. So Karim would obey the will of the White Wolf, even if it meant lingering in this limbo for the rest of time.
But what about the others? What about her?
She couldn’t speak for Tan, Connor or Wood. But her… she had nothing.
Nothing to see her through the hours and the days of nothingness. Nothing to fortify her soul against the howling and the screeching and the crying of those who had succumbed to the isolation. Nothing but her native skills to keep her safe in a place filled with the monsters she had hunted for years, controlled by humans who could, at any moment, engineer a moment of carelessness that would bring her face-to-face with a Godtouched monster in human skin.
She hadn’t thought much of religion in her life. It was nothing but pretty words and shallow doctrines that the New Gods used to control their followers and justify their insatiable lust for blood and power. And yet… here and now…
Maybe she was starting to see why Yuri was a believer.

****

Fourteen days after their incarceration, right after breakfast, the guards came for her.
Three heavy booms resounded from the door.
“Kayla Fox! Step up to the door!”
Her name. For the first time since she arrived, they had used her name. Not ‘inmate’, not ‘you’, but her given name.
That alone piqued her curiosity. She eased off the stool and walked to the door.
“Stop!”
She stopped.
Deadbolts snapped. The door silently swung open. Guards in riot armor, helmets and face shields stood by the door.
“Please step out, Ms. Fox,” the leader said.
She blinked.
“No cuffs? No shackles?” she asked.
He shook his head. “No, ma’am. Not unless you give us a reason to use them.”
She stepped out.
The eight-man team immediately surrounded her. The sole female on the team patted her down, checking for contraband, but when her hands lifted off her body, she did not cuff Fox.
“Follow us, ma’am,” the leader said.
She followed, walking as if in a daze. Slowly scanning to her left, she saw five other teams extracting inmates from their cells.
They were extracting the Black Watch.
“What’s going on?” Fox asked.
“Just follow us, ma’am.”
They marched her to the courtyard. None of them laid a hand on her, but through presence and sheer mass alone, they herded her down the catwalks and the stairs, taking her to the guard tower. The other cell teams rallied around her, and among them were—
“Yuri?” she whispered.
He smiled. “Kayla.”
Wood, Tan, Connor, Mustafa, the men of the Black Watch shuffled through spaces between the guards, rallying on her.
“A lot of guards for yard time, isn’t it?” Wood remarked.
“What’s going on?” Tan asked.
“You have a visitor,” a team leader replied.
“A visitor?” Yamamoto repeated. “Who?”
“I don’t know anything about that. Our job is to take you to him. Let’s go.”
Forming a phalanx around the Black Watch, the guards marched them away.
To the exit.
The exit.
She couldn’t believe it. Even after she passed through the double doors, cleared the security checkpoint, walked under the barrels of the ceiling-mounted guns.
Were they allowed to leave?
They took the stairs down to the first floor and wended through a labyrinth of narrow hallways and corridors. It was a different route from the ones they had used to march the team upstairs, but no less secure. Fox counted a dozen security gates, at least a hundred cameras, and a four-man team of guards standing close to arms lockers.
But there were no RWS platforms in sight, so maybe it was a less secure area.
The guards brought them to a conference room. The leader opened the doors and gestured inside.
“Go on. He’s waiting.”
Yamamoto went in first. Fox was right behind him.
A blast of cool, clean air hit her. Peeling away from Yamamoto, she saw a round table of polished glass. A dozen leather chairs surrounded the table. And at the head sat a middle-aged man in a black suit.
Commander Joshua Gregory.
He wore a smile. But dark rings surrounded his eyes, scraggly strips of white hair poked out from his chin and jawline, and deep lines etched across his weathered face.
“Gentlemen, lady, I’m glad to see you. Are you well? Were you mistreated?”
“How about you explain what the hell’s going on?” Connor said, crossing his arms.
“I’ll get to that,” he promised. “But first, I want to check in on you. Is everybody alright? Any complaints?”
“They treated us like we were monsters,” Fox said pointedly.
“Yes, well, there’s no getting around that. We couldn’t have rumors of a new batch of prisoners getting special treatment. If word about that leaked, it would attract the attention of the New Gods. We couldn’t have that. But all the same, I’m sorry you had to endure what you had been through.”
“Sir,” Yamamoto said quietly, “we’re as well as we can be, under the circumstances. But why don’t you start from the beginning and tell us the full story.”
“Yes, of course. But come, sit, you’ve been through enough already.”
Gregory gestured grandly at the tables. Everyone sat at the chairs closest to him. Yamamoto sat to Gregory’s right, within easy reach of his dominant hand. Fox sat next to Yamamoto.
“I want to start with an apology,” Gregory said. “Treating you like this wasn’t right. But it was the only option we had. The Box is the one place in the world the New Gods can’t reach. We didn’t put you here to punish you. We wanted to protect you.”
“Treating us like prisoners is ‘protection’?” Connor asked.
“I objected to it too. But my hands were tied. I burned a lot of favors to keep you off the official records. But I had to park you in a place even the New Gods can’t touch, or it wouldn’t matter at all.”
“We would have appreciated it if you had informed us in advance,” Wood said. “Or, at least, once we had settled in.”
“Sorry. We’ve been extremely busy over the past two weeks. We had to maintain operational security until it was all over.”
“What were you busy with?” Mustafa asked.
“Cleaning up after you.”
We left a hell of a mess at the BITE, huh,” Fox said.
“More than that. You took down the government.”
His words sucked the air out of the room.
“We… what?” Fox said.
“Right before we landed, someone posted terabytes of sensitive data on a half-dozen pastebin websites. Videos, audio recordings, minutes of meetings, bank statements, all of them proving improper relationships between the New Gods and key government figures. And text files with instructions to grow DNA solutions and how to retrieve information encoded in them. Sounds familiar?”
Gregory stared pointedly at Yamamoto. Then at Tan.
The men’s faces turned to stone.
It was the team’s final option. If the enemy breached their position, Tan would immediately publish everything he had on the Net, and damn the consequences. But nobody thought they’d live to see the consequences. At least, Fox didn’t.
“What happened next?” Wood prodded.
“While we were managing the fallout from the firefight, the compromising material spread across the Net. Once the alt media got their hands on it, there was no stopping it. The entire administration’s burning in the biggest scandal since the founding of Nova Babylonia.
“We—the STS—hit the ground running and didn’t stop. Our mandate is to save lives and uphold the law, and that was what we did. We arrested every corrupt individual implicated in the data. Sometimes in tandem with local law enforcement, usually by ourselves. At this moment, we’re still running ops and takedowns. As you can imagine, some of them don’t want to come in quietly. But you don’t have to worry about that.”
“Was anyone in the STS implicated in the scandal?” Yamamoto asked.
She knew what he was really asking: was Gregory implicated in it?
Gregory shook his head.
“No. We’re the only government agency not compromised by the New Gods. Yuri and I, we designed the STS from the ground-up so they could never influence us.”
Everyone turned to Yamamoto.
“Wait, what?” Mustafa exclaimed. “Yuri designed it?”
“He didn’t tell you?” Gregory said.
Yamamoto shrugged.
“The commander came up with the concept of the STS. He approached a number of… subject matter experts to stand up the unit. I was among them.”
Gregory laughed.
“Modest to the end, aren’t you? See, Yuri isn’t just a plankowner. Everything about the STS—the training, the operations manual, the gear, the supply chains, the mission set, the organization, the doctrine—he had a part in creating them all. Without him, the STS could never have existed.”
Yamamoto looked away uncomfortably.
“Sir, I just did what was asked of me.”
Fox smiled. He was normally cool and composed, even in the heat of battle. She’d never seen this side of him before. 
“And you did it to perfection,” Gregory said. “The New Gods have no leverage over us. That makes us the only truly independent law enforcement body in the entire country. The only ones who can drain the swamp and clean up the government.”
“We’re also the poor schmucks the PSB used to maintain the balance of power between the New Gods,” Wood pointed out.
“Yes, there is that perception. There are as-yet unidentified parties who are aiming to create that perception in the press, to paint us as the cat’s paws of the New Gods or the government or both, and cast our reputation in doubt. We are working on countering that. But right now, the people need heroes. They’ll turn to the one agency seen as incorruptible.”
Gregory sounded proud. Was it because the STS had remained true where others had fallen? Or was it something else?
“What’s going to happen now?” Yamamoto asked.
 “There are still some unanswered questions about the events at the BITE,” Gregory said.
The faces of the Black Watch went still.
“Really?” Yamamoto said. “Such as?”
“As the responders closed in, they spotted a civilian female fleeing the campus. She linked up with two other females a block away. We notified BPD, but the first responders had their hands full evacuating the area and providing first aid. The women vanished. Do you know anything about them?”
“No,” Yamamoto said.
“Not even the female inside the BITE when the shooting went down?”
“We cleared the fifth floor of all civilians long before the firefight. But I can’t speak for any other civilians who might have been trapped on campus.”
Cindy wasn’t a civilian. She wasn’t even human. Technically, Yamamoto hadn’t lied.
Gregory’s eyebrows arched. “I see. There is also the question of the data. We recovered thirty-two vials of DNA solutions in the lab. DNA solutions containing encoded data. But you only published the information encoded in three vials. What about the others?”
“We only had time to decrypt and publish the contents of those three vials,” Tan said.
“And the others?”
“Encrypted using DNA steganography. We don’t have the primers to decrypt them. Do you?”
Gregory shook his head. “The original owners, whoever they are, haven’t come forward to with the keys. I’ve been informed it could take decades, if not centuries, to crack the encrypted solutions.”
“Were there any other non-encrypted vials?”
“I can’t answer that.”
“Because you’re using them as evidence,” Connor said with a sly smile.
Gregory’s eyes twinkled.
“We have an unprecedented opportunity to excise the cancer of corruption in the upper echelons of society. We’re making the most of it. And on that note, Zen, have you sent the raw DNA data to anyone else?”
“Nope.”
Tan’s borrowed machine automatically backed up its data to a private encrypted cloud, one shared only with Alex. Tan had nothing to do with that.
“No? I’m reading reports of behind-the-scenes manipulations. Allegations of extortion by an unknown party, publication of fresh blackmail material, even a few suicides. Someone else out there has access to the data, and I’m not talking about the original owners.”
“Don’t know anything about that either. I mean, we were in the Box for two weeks. It’s hard to hear anything about the outside world in here, you know?”
Tan’s voice started light-hearted, but it concealed a bitter edge.
“And what about your machine? It conveniently bricked itself after you published the data.”
Tan’s eyes widened in a mockery of shock.
“Really? I had no idea about that.”
Gregory pursed his lips. “I was hoping you would know something about that.”
Tan shrugged expansively. “I didn’t even know the machine was bricked. I was too busy following your orders to stand down. Maybe a third party traced the upload and decided to kill it at the source.”
Alex, again.
“I see,” Gregory said, completely unconvinced. “It’s a pity the techs couldn’t trace the hacker who disabled your machine.”
“A pity,” Tan echoed.
“Anyway, that’s all the questions I have for you,” Gregory said. “And this isn’t a formal interview anyway.”
“What are you here for?” Yamamoto asked.
“To check in on you, see how you’re doing. And to update you on the situation.”
“What’s going on?”
“The people are furious. Everybody knows there’s at least some corruption in the government, but nobody knew it ran this deep. There are protest marches all over Nova Babylonia, demanding reforms and anti-corruption investigations. Not even the New Gods can do anything about it, not without risking a shooting war.
“The Attorney-General has appointed Special Counsel Robert Temple to investigate all allegations of corruption. Temple has issued subpoenas for all of us, myself included, to testify before the grand jury.”
“Which is why you’re here,” Wood said.
Gregory nodded.
“Indeed. The nation is gripped in crisis, but in every crisis, there is opportunity. We need to decide how it plays out.”
Wood stiffened. Connor frowned. Yamamoto’s face hardened. Mustafa blinked.
“What do you mean?” Mustafa asked.
“Once the testimonies begin, there are two roads we can walk.
“One, I tell the grand jury that you were on a special assignment. After the mission in Riveria, you uncovered evidence suggesting corruption at a massive scale, so massive even the PSB was implicated in it. Under the guise of an official suspension, I ordered you to conduct an undercover investigation. Your investigation bore fruit, but as the New Gods sent their troops to silence you, you published the information you gathered before they got their hands on it. The paperwork and the timelines supporting this narrative have already been prepared; stick to it and we all walk away as heroes.”
Mustafa blanched. “You want us to lie to the grand jury?”
“There is always the… alternative path.”
“Which is?”
“I tell the grand jury I had no idea what you were up to. This is the truth; Yuri kept me in the dark until the eleventh hour. When I received a report of a massive firefight on the BITE campus, I deployed the STS, who found you at the scene. That is the limit of my involvement. You will be free to tell Temple and the grand jury whatever you like.”
“How would you explain the air strike?” Wood asked.
“It was a massive firefight, as I said. In cases like these, the STS may exercise special powers to request help from the military. The military obliged. The AC-252 was the first to arrive on station, and engaged the combatants on the ground. When the STS arrived, it was all over.”
“That’s not what happened,” Fox said. “Yuri called in the air strike himself. You were working with him, weren’t you?”
“As I said, Yuri kept me in the dark. He only told me what was going on the night before the showdown at the BITE. That’s no lie.”
“But he wouldn’t have been able to call the air strike without your involvement.”
“The aircrew of the Wraith will testify that they received a lawful request for assistance from the STS, and that an STS operator in the area called down fire on the area around the campus,” Gregory said. “They have no knowledge of who, exactly, called the strike, nor would they be expected to.”
Fox’s blood went cold. “You wouldn’t…”
“Why not? That’s the truth. The aircrew wouldn’t know who ‘Samurai’ is, after all.”
Fox shook her head. She had always thought Gregory was fine leader, if somewhat distant. He was the driving force of the STS, the men who fended off the wolves so that the operators could get on with their jobs. Not the man who would throw his own to the wolves.
“This is bullshit!” Connor exclaimed.
“The only choice you’re giving us is the choice to choose what lies we want to be told,” Mustafa said.
“We’re at the point beyond truth and lies. All that matters is the narrative, and the consequences that flow from it.”
Sadness dripped from every word. Just yesterday, Fox might have believed that Gregory was remorseful. He might, even now, be capable of feeling it. But in the end, he was just like the rest of the New Gods: all he cared about was his own fief.
“No matter what happens, your ass is covered,” Fox said bitterly.
“I am in that curious position, yes. But I can help you. I want to help you.”
“How?” Connor demanded.
“Let’s say you pick the second option. You tell the grand jury your side of the story, and I won’t interfere. But that means you’ll have to admit to going rogue. You’ll have no official protection. The PSB will open investigations into every single one of your shootings up to this point, including the firefight at the BITE. You’ll have to explain your actions. Including what happened at the Golden Mile.”
“And the first option is any better?” Fox asked.
“I can tell Temple and the jury that I ordered you to investigate the Golden Mile and interview a witness. But the Void Collective discovered you and attacked you. To protect yourself and the witness, you had to fight your way to safety. Along the way, you managed to scoop up critical evidence incriminating many high-ranking government, military and police officials.”
“You got to Marcie?” Tan whispered.
“She was also a witness. She can tell the truth about how the VC turns would-be believers into mindless puppets. I mean, wasn’t that why you were there? To protect her?”
Tan clenched his fists.
“I suppose you have an explanation of how we collected the information from the servers.”
“Exigent circumstances. You believed the servers contained vital information pertaining to the VC’s criminal activities. If you had left without securing it, they would have destroyed it.”
“It wouldn’t hold up in court,” Connor said.
“Now that the information is out in the open, it doesn’t matter,” Gregory said calmly. “The public demands action. Heads will roll. The only question is whose, and how many.”
“And you don’t care if ours roll?” Tan said.
“I do. That’s why I’m willing to extend you a helping hand. But you must be willing to take it. Right, Yuri?”
Yamamoto said nothing. Since the moment Gregory offered his choices, he had sat in silence, presenting a stony facade to the world, his body utterly unreadable.
“What are you thinking?” Gregory asked.
Yamamoto looked away from him, facing his team.
“When I put together the Black Watch, I was looking a specific kind of operator. Someone with a moral code. Someone who would do the right thing, no matter what. Even if it meant defying the New Gods and the authorities of the world. Especially if it meant that.
“You, all of you, you did exactly that. Despite everything they threw at you, you kept the faith and stayed true to the mission. I’m proud to have known you. You are the finest bunch of shooters I’ve ever had the honor of serving with.
“Now we need to think of ourselves. If we testify before the grand jury, tell them exactly what happened and what we did, there’s only one outcome for us. We will be branded a rogue unit—and rightfully so. They will throw us back upstairs with the rest of the monsters. And this time, the New Gods will do everything in their power to ensure that we will have every opportunity to encounter their Elect.
“After everything we’ve been through together, after everything we’ve done, is this what you want? Is this what we deserve?”
“Yuri…” Fox whispered. “Are you serious?”
A pained expression crossed his face. “I just wanted to do the right thing by you. All of you. We’re all in this together. So I want to know: what do you want?”
“What’s the alternative?” Connor asked. “What if we play along?”
“You will be protected,” Gregory said. “I swear it. And when it all blows over, you’ll get your jobs back. Or you could start a new life, whatever you want. You earned it.”
“Well… fuck.” Connor sighed. “Hey, Yuri, in that Bible you told me about, there was this passage that says, ‘And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.’ I sure don’t see any freedom in this.”
“It said ‘know’, not necessarily, ‘tell,’” Yamamoto said bitterly. “We know the truth. We are already free. Free to choose what we want to do with the rest of our lives, and how we want to live.”
“It’s a simple choice, isn’t it?” Gregory said.
“It’s not,” Fox snapped.
“Let’s reframe it then,” Yamamoto said. “The New Gods are responsible for all the misery and the suffering they’ve piled on us and the innocent. Our mission remains unchanged: to save lives and uphold the law. Which option allows us to continue the mission and hold the New Gods to account?”
The men of the Black Watch frowned and looked away.
“Who are you trying to convince?” Fox asked. “Us? Or yourself?”
Yamamoto licked his lips. He worked his mouth, trying to form words. Then he sighed and looked up at her.
“Both.”
“I thought so.”
She reached out, taking his hand.
“Listen. All this time, we’ve looked up to you. You led us through the most difficult and the most insane missions of our career. I had no regrets joining up. None of us do. You’re our leader, always have been, always will. Whatever you choose, we’ll follow you. All the way.”
Yamamoto swallowed. And looked around the room.
One by one, the men nodded at him.
He nodded back.
And patted her hand.
“Thanks.”
He looked back at Gregory.
“I think you know our decision, then.”

****

For the first time in two weeks, Fox saw the sun.
It hung high in the sky, a fireball that blessed the world with light and warmth. She stood with her arms outstretched, basking in its glory, chasing away the chill of the Box.
Behind her, the low-profile doors of the cube slid shut, recessing into place. The Black Watch, now dressed in civilian clothing, stood around her, chuckling softly.
“Are you photosynthesizing?” Yamamoto asked.
“Yup!”
The men laughed again.
Seven close protection details and seven gravcars waited in the parking lot. One for each member of the Black Watch, plus Gregory. The bodyguards were all STS operators, kitted up in tac gear and armed to the teeth. They waved at Yamamoto and the men, and they waved back.
The cars would take them in seven separate directions, to seven separate safe houses scattered across the country. It was too dangerous to return to Babylon, or to gather in a single location. They would hunker down in their respective safe houses, and spend the following weeks rehearsing and refining their stories for Temple and the grand jury. The next time they saw each other would be in court, if at all.
“This is it,” Yamamoto said. “It’s time to go.”
“I respect the choice you made,” Gregory said. “I know it wasn’t easy. But it was the right thing.”
The operators just glared at him with icy stares.
“We’ll hold you to your word,” Yamamoto said.
“Count on it.”
Gregory was the first to go. He climbed into his car without looking back.
Everyone else turned inwards, forming a loose circle.
“Well, guys,” Yamamoto said, “it was a hell of a ride.”
“That it was,” Mustafa agreed.
“I can’t believe we got this far,” Fox said.
“But we did,” Wood said.
“More than I can say for so many others,” Connor said.
“I guess this is it,” Tan said. “See you on the flip side.”
One by one, the men grabbed walked to their designated cars. Tan, Connor, Wood, Mustafa, they found their vehicles and linked up with their drivers.
Leaving Yamamoto and Fox by the entrance.
“You’re staying?” he asked.
“You’re not leaving?” she replied.
“Figured you wanted to say something.”
“Don’t you?”
He chuckled. And sighed.
“You know, this isn’t the end of it. Not by a long shot.”
“What do you mean?”
“The New Gods are the rulers of the world. We might have removed their puppets, but so long as they remain, they can simply install new ones.”
“You’re saying what we did didn’t matter?”
“It did. But there’ll always be people willing to take what the New Gods have to offer. There’ll always be people willing to trade their eternal souls for temporal power. They’ll cut loose everyone implicated in the scandal, then elevate new ones to replace them. It’s how they’ve always worked. How they remained in charge for so long.”
“But in the meantime, we’ll be able to change things. Make it harder for the New Gods to seize power. Make it easier for people to do what’s right.”
“I hope so too. And yet, so long as the New Gods are still around…”
“What about them?”
He shook his head. And as he completed the gesture, he cocked his head in the direction of the security camera behind them.
“What more is there to say? In the end, it’s just Babylon blues.”
She nodded.
“I understand. But you faced them once. You can face them again.”
“Of course. But we’re not going to do that standing around here.”
“You’re going?”
“Are you?”
“Yeah. I… I just…”
“Yeah?”
She looked down. Clenched her fists. Took a deep breath. Looked back up.
“Thank you. For everything.”
He nodded. “You’re welcome. And don’t worry. This isn’t the end. We’ll see each other again.”
“When?”
He smiled.
“Have faith,” he said.
And pointed at the sky.
She laughed.
He walked to his car.
She walked to hers.
They didn’t look back.
 
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