Saturday, December 26, 2020

River of Blood Chapter 3



Built upon the confluence of three rivers, Riveria dated to the earliest days of the Cataclysm. Here, three peoples thrown together into a strange new world set aside their differences and banded together to carve out a new home. Overshadowed by glittering Babylon to the north, Riveria was her own city, the second-largest metropolis in the nation but second to none.

Riveria was a city of global commerce and heavy industry, where the working man sat down next to the merchant, whose people organized their society around the rivers and the earth. Here were sprawling factories and nature reserves, street hawkers in the shadow of gleaming skyscrapers, wide open spaces and colossal bridges.

Connor knew every inch of this city. He was born and bred here, and once he thought he’d die here. His recruitment to the STS had relocated his body to Babylon, but his heart had remained in Riveria. When he rebelled against the New Gods and testified before the Temple Commission, he believed he’d burned every bridge back home. The New Gods knew he was a Riverian native, and they would never stop looking for him here. The second he set foot in this city, they’d come swarming all over him.

Yet he couldn’t completely break away.

Babylon was, and still is, a snake pit of intrigue and danger. Staying there, in the capital of the New Gods, was madness. The outlying islands held little appeal to him. He wasn’t an islander, and he’d stick out like a sore thumb, even in Saint Lucille, the largest of the small settlements outside the mainland. He had few connections and no network in the other cities of Nova Babylonia, and when the gods were after you, you could never have too many friends. And overseas, he had exactly zilch in friends and resources.

Following his appearance before Special Counsel Temple, he passed through the towns and suburbs surrounding Riveria, never quite entering the city, never able to break away either. Like an satellite caught in the pull of a gigantic planet, he orbited Riveria for weeks, months, always on the move, sometimes approaching closer, sometimes moving further away, but never making re-entry.

Until now.

In the end, he couldn’t escape the gravity of the three rivers that had given him life. All he could do was embrace it, fall into Riveria, do what he needed to do.

And not lose himself.

The second Steele left his apartment, Connor popped into his kitchen. In the bottom shelf of his fridge, he kept a mayonnaise jar. He opened it to find a thick wad of dollar bills. Some three thousand bucks in all, savings from his under-the-table income. He stuffed it all into his wallet.

Another jar, this one labeled as peanut butter, yielded a double handful of coins. All of them went into the coin pouch strapped to his belt, a thick leather holder with a handle sized for his hand. It didn’t look like a weapon, but it made for a great improvised sap.

That was all he could take with him. After Steele’s little stunt, he had to assume everything in his apartment was compromised. Clothing, computer, accessories, everything Steele might have touched, he could have bugged. He had no way to sanitize them. No way to know for sure. There was only one thing he could do.

Walk away forever.

His rent was paid up. His bills were settled. Nobody had a reason to go looking for him until the end of next month. By then he’d be long gone, dust in the wind, a shadow fading into the night.

He called Sal and begged for time off. He needed a break from the shooting, the cops were all over his ass, he’d heard that some heavy hitters might be after him. Sal was only too happy to agree. Connor promised he’d call back if he could. Not when he could.

Sal caught the meaning and didn’t press it.

He activated a privacy app on his eyeshields and scrambled its electronic identity module. Then he turned it off and stowed in his jacket’s RFID-blocking inner pocket. He’d back up the video later. Now he had to get off the X.

He left his car in the parking lot. That was some five thousand dollars down the drain, a goodly chunk of his savings from his STS days, but with the New Gods after him it would be used against him.

He caught a bus to the center of Lindon City. At an ATM, he drew five thousand dollars in cash from his savings account. He’d barely touched the money in the previous months. Every withdrawal gave the New Gods a data point. It didn’t matter now. He was leaving Lindon City for good.

He walked a short distance to the city’s sole public library. With his library card, he booked two hours at a computer. The first thing he did was to download an antivirus suite and scan the computer thoroughly. Then he downloaded a privacy browser and jumped over into the Dark Net. He composed a series of emails and fired them off simultaneously. When he was done, he wiped his history and hailed another cab.

Riveria was forty-five minutes and a world away. Tension built in his temples, skeins branching off to encircle his eyes. His head pounded. With the last of the adrenaline burned out, fatigue returned with a vengeance, seemingly redoubled. He knew he should nap, at least rest his eyes, ready himself for what was to come.

He couldn’t sleep. His brain wouldn’t let him. All he could do was stare out the windows in stony silence.

Low-rises and shopfronts rushed past. Sidewalks and suburbia flew far behind him. Evergreen forests rose before him, dense and impenetrable, flaking the road. The highway remained the one constant, stretching endlessly into the unseen distance.

On and on the taxi drove, winding through the forests and hills dividing Lindon City and Riveria. One last hairpin turn, and suddenly it was a straight shot to Riveria.

Forests of trees gave way to forests of signs. The largest among them welcomed him to Riveria. Smaller ones competed for attention, some stating directions, the rest advertising a chaotic mix of corporations, products, people, too many and too small for him to catch. Behind them, an army of skyscrapers stood like spears against the heavens.

He was home again.

He’d missed this city. He missed the dawns and dusks, when it seemed as if the sun set the city ablaze in cosmic fire. He missed the rivers and canals that wound through the city, and the many parks and plazas designed to complement their sinuous curves. He missed the nigh-religious reverence Riverians had for fine food and drink, and their insistence—not without justification—that here was the gourmand capital of the world. He missed the people, good humored and down to earth, loud and boisterous and not afraid to show it.

He missed Riveria.

A pity that he couldn’t stay long. Not after what he had to do here.

The one thing he did not miss was the traffic.

It wasn’t as bad as Babylon, but it sure as hell came close. Buses and long-haul trucks shared the narrow streets with grumbling clunkers and robot vehicles. Fleets of drones and gravcars filled the skies. Though the city had long ago opened multiple aerial lanes to accommodate flying vehicles, it had done little to ease the near-constant congestion. The only consolation was that the morning rush hour was coming to an end.

Connor endured another thirty-minute drive as the driver navigated the packed roads. Finally, the driver dropped him off as Riveria Central Station. The public transport hub of the city, from here he could catch a train, a bus or a cab to anywhere else in Riveria. Or anywhere else in Nova Babylonia. Surrounded by shopping malls and office complexes, it was constantly deluged in a sea of people.

The perfect place to disappear.

Slipping through the crowd, he found a bank of vending machines, where he purchased a toasted club sandwich and a cup of orange juice, freshly made on the spot. As he munched on his breakfast, he checked the store directory and street maps, reorienting himself with the city he had left behind.

He popped into a barber shop, shaved his hair down to a near-crew cap, dyed it a deep reddish brown, and bought a cap to cover it up.

He rambled through a park, picked up a couple of pebbles, and dropped them into his shoes. Uncomfortable, but it changed his gait enough to fool gait recognition cameras.

At a sporting goods store, he picked up a travel backpack. Lightweight, waterproof, tear-resistant, clamshell opening with a thirty-five liter capacity, it was perfect. There was a time when he would have obsessed over tactical packs and nylons, but here he needed to disappear, and with this pack on he was just another urban backpacker.

He visited a menswear store and bought three sets of clothing. Then he visited two separate pharmacies to restock his first aid kit with fresh supplies. He picked up various odds and ends at a travel outlet: packing cubes, door wedge, portable alarms. Then he went to an electronics store, where he purchased a brand new thirteen-inch laptop, a laptop sleeve, and a replacement charger for his eyeshields.

It was the first time in a long time that he’d blown so much money at once. In cash, even. And still he wasn’t done.

At a car rental agency, he rented an anonymous black SUV. Rental gravcars had transponders, but ground cars didn’t. A long, winding route shook off any would-be pursuers and took him to SafeKeep Self-Storage. The main facility, not the Three Rivers outlet he’d raided a lifetime ago. Here he’d maintained a small self-storage unit, paid through an offshore bank account. Between the security cameras, armed guards and heavy-duty locks, even the New Gods would hesitate to raid the place.

His unit was about the size of a walk-in closet cut in half. Most of it was filled with junk. A folding bicycle, old clothing, packing boxes filled with odds and ends.

It was all camouflage.

He lowered the shutters behind him, then cleared a path through the trash. Heavy-duty shipping boxes were piled up near the rear. He arranged them in a circle around him, the opened them all.

Weapon cases. Ammo boxes. Pouches. Hard armor. Explosives. Enough guns and gear to fight a war all by himself.

The STS had seen their end coming. As the bureaucrats battled it out in the halls of power, the operators saw to their own protection. Under the guise of winding down operations, everybody squirreled away all the gear they could cart away from the STS’ stores and arsenal. The quartermaster, armorers and logistics staff were in on the conspiracy, helping themselves to whatever they wanted as well, then cooking the books to justify a much-reduced inventory. If the government wouldn’t look out for the STS, they had to look out for themselves.

This wasn’t a time for heavy work. Not yet. Not until he’d established a base of operations and knew what he was up against. If engaged, his priority would be to break contact and disappear.

He rummaged among the gun cases until he found what he was looking for. An M638 revolver, a hammerless snubby the size of his palm. Fitted with a custom-made laser grip and a huge fiber optic front sight, he could fight with it night or day. With eight rounds of 7.92mm in the cylinder, it was enough to defend himself. The cylinder would retain fired cases, making evidence disposal easier.

Best of all, if he had to fire it, the cops would be looking for a man with a pistol. Not a revolver.

He shoved the revolver into his waistband, right over his appendix. No holster, no spare ammo. If he had to toss or cache the gun ahead of a stop and search, he wouldn’t have anything else on his person that hinted at its existence.

This was nowhere near heavy enough for a firefight. But it would do. He wasn’t looking for trouble.

Not yet.

He loaded everything else aboard his car and drove off. At the city’s edge, he pulled into an underground car park. He checked for witnesses, then opened one of his cases, retrieved a pair of license plate stickers, and carefully pasted them over the license plates. One last check for witnesses, then he drove off.

Three blocks south and two blocks east, he checked into a motel. Paid cash, with a little extra for the privilege of signing in under a false name without the clerk running an ID check.

The second he entered the room, he set up his security. Alarms on the window handles, curtains drawn, door wedged. He charged his devices. Brushed his teeth. Placed his revolver in the nightstand drawer.

Then, and only then, did he crash into the bed.

He was done. He needed sleep. The job could wait.

And when he awoke, it would be time to hunt.

Before he was an outlaw, Will Connor was an operator. Read his story here!

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