Sunday, January 3, 2021

River of Blood Chapter 11

 

Alone

Cleaning up was easy.

He’d handled his gear and built his bombs with clean clothes and gloves on. The railguns wouldn’t leave behind forensics evidence worth a damn. Every player who knew he was in Riveria, and could prove it, was dead. Detective Nelson was the exception, but there were lines even he wouldn’t cross, and Zen’s meddling would keep him safe. He’d blown up most of the stray DNA fragments he’d left behind along with the Elects’ gravcars and erased the rest with privacy spray.

The bombs and the revolver was a strategic choice. A different MO from the railgun shots at Taylor’s house. The flechette fragments the cops could recover would be attributed to the bomb. Between the ball bearings and the 7.92mm rounds, the police might conclude that a different set of killers had slaughtered the men at the park. They might even be persuaded to view it was a revenge killing, organized swiftly in the wake of Taylor’s death.

With the New Gods breathing hard on the detectives’ necks, they would know not to ask too many questions.

Inside his motel room, Connor sanitized his gear. He scrubbed down his tomahawk with bleach and alcohol. He powered down his railguns and cleaned them thoroughly. He stripped down his revolver, wiped the barrel and the cylinder, then vigorously ran a steel wire brush down the barrel. The scouring would wear down the rifling, making it difficult, if not impossible, to match the death bullets to this gun. The cases would disappear into a sewer.

Just like that, he was home free.

The cops wouldn’t find him now. Neither would the New Gods. He’d return his car in the morning and get out of the city. Catch a long-distance bus, a taxi, maybe even a plane. And then…

Then what?

Where else could he go?

Back into the shadows? Back to a life on the run? Constantly on the move, shunned by everyone everywhere, with no one to watch his back? The team had pulled through for him this time, but what about the future? They couldn’t save him forever. He had to rebuild his life, put down roots somewhere.

But where?

He rubbed his temples and shook his head. Exhaustion crept into his bones. It had been a long week. He couldn’t think straight. He’d get a good night’s sleep, then in the morning, he’d—

Someone knocked on the door.

Twice.

Paused.

Twice more.

Connor scooted to the door, reloaded revolver in hand, and looked out the peephole.

Kayla.

Keeping the weapon low, he opened the door.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“We have a call.”

“A call,” he repeated numbly.

She tapped her smartglasses.

“Mystery man on the line. Says he wants to talk to us.”

“What does he want?”

“Don’t know yet.” She glanced both ways, up and down the corridor. “Let’s get inside. Turn on your eyeshields. I’ll patch you through.”

Inside his room, he cleared a space for Kayla to sit, then plonked himself on his chair, donned his eyeshields and powered them on. As he waited through the boot sequence, he tapped his fingers against his knee.

“What’s going on? How did he find you?” Connor asked.

“I keep multiple lines and IDs on my eyeshields. When I checked my civilian line, I found a message waiting. I called him, and here we are.”

“Did he say anything?”

“Nothing.”

She discreetly tapped her eyeshields again. She was an open line. The mystery man was still listening in.

She brought Connor into a conference call. He recognized her number immediately. The stranger’s number was a nonsense string with too many numbers. A VOIP number, he guessed, one-use-only.

“Mr. Connor,” the mystery man said.

His voice was the voice of a computer, sexless, monotonous, a half-dozen voices speaking ever so slightly out of sync. The voice of a machine legion.

“I’m here.”

“We are aware of your difficulties with the New Gods. We are also aware of recent events in Riveria, namely a triple slaying in Uptown, a home invasion in East Loop, and a mysterious bombing in Hatfield Park. We wish to assure you that we mean you no harm.”

“Who is ‘we’?”

“We have opposed the New Gods for years. We are not your enemies.”

Who?” he demanded.

“After the showdown at the BITE, we arranged to place you in protective custody, far from the reach of the New Gods. When you chose to cooperate with the authorities, we continued to protect you from the shadows. It is why the New Gods have not sought revenge against you.”

“Until now.”

“That wasn’t revenge.”

“What is it?”

“Let’s meet. I can explain it to you in person.”

He had still said nothing about himself, only hinting at his power, and the power of those backing him. Something about his voice sounded familiar, the cadence and the word choice, but the voice changer disrupted his attempts at placing him, leaving in its place a sense of deja vu.

“What do you want?”

“We could be allies. You and Ms. Fox.”

“A man told me that earlier this week,” Connor said. “When I met him in person again, he became my enemy.”

“He worked for the Liberated, didn’t he?”

“How did you know?”

“We are everywhere. But we are not part of the New Gods.”

“What are you, then?”

“As I said. We simply wish to be your allies.”

“You call us out of the blue, you don’t identify yourself, and you expect us to just take you at your word?” Kayla said.

“You certainly have reason to distrust us. I understand. If we meet in person, I can give you reason to trust us.”

“Or you could be talking us into a trap.”

“It is true. Let’s meet at the Church of the Lady of Seven Sorrows.”

The name swelled up from the depths of his memory.

“Why there?” he demanded.

“The last time you visited the church, along with Yuri Yamamoto, you arrested an Elect of the Shadow Court. The sicario couldn’t resist.”

Adrenaline jolted through Connor.

“How did you know that?”

“All will be explained when we meet.”

“Is Yuri with you?” Kayla asked.

“No. He is still overseas.”

“The Church of Seven Sorrows is in the only neighborhood in Three Rivers not under surveillance. Convenient, isn’t it?” Connor said.

“It is one of the few places in the city that the New Gods have not claimed for themselves. And cannot claim, without great cost to themselves. They cannot observe us through the city’s sensor net, and my men have already secured the area.”

“How do we know this is not an ambush?” Kayla demanded.

“You’re presently at the Rose Motel, South Side, second floor, Room 02-18. If we’d wanted to take you, we’d have acted long ago.”

Connor’s blood ran cold.

“How did you—”

“Your resources are not infinite, Mr. Connor. You’ve done well to survive thus far, but it is only because we have run interference for you. If the New Gods choose to turn their attention completely on you, they will find you. As we have.

“You need allies. Resources. Capabilities. Let us help you.”

“You’d better be on the level.”

“We are. You can choose not to meet us, of course. You are free to leave Riveria. We won’t stop you. If the New Gods pursue, we will hinder them as best as we can. If you do so, however, we will take your response as a no. We will not be in contact again.”

Kayla removed her eyeshields and looked at Connor. A frank, enquiring look, a look that bundled up a set of questions and expressed them as a twitch of the cheek, an arched eyebrow, a downturned lip.

This was suspicious as hell; he couldn’t deny that. On the other hand, the mystery man was right. There’d be no reason to lure them out into a meeting if they already knew where he was. Hell, he might have known they were operating from the motel right from the start, and allowed Connor, Kayla and Zen to act.

One path guaranteed a life in the shadows forever. The other promised grave danger. But also the hope of something more.

And a man had to live in hope, or not live at all.

“We’ll be there,” Connor said.

“We’ll be waiting.”

The man hung up. Connor took off his glasses, switched them off, and sighed.

“This could be a trap,” she said.

“But if it’s not…”

“What happened at the church?”

“Yuri and I chased a wounded Elect there. He tried to use his powers to heal itself. It couldn’t. There’s… something about the place that neutralized his powers. And Yuri, he… he muted the Elect. Suppressed his powers. That’s how we brought him in alive.”

“You’re confident the caller isn’t working with the New Gods.”

“They’d never willingly meet in a place that could cancel their powers.”

“Doesn’t mean it’s safe.”

“Never is.”

Kayla returned to her room. Connor swiftly reassembled and packed his gear. He fogged the room with liberal amounts of privacy spray, wiped down every surface he’d touched, and loaded up his rented car.

How had they found him? His car, his eyeshields, his electronics. The few things he owned that could be traced to him. With constant access to the city’s camera net, an electronic intelligence team, airborne assets and static surveillance… Yeah, it could be done. Resource-intensive, but not impossible.

He’d counted on the New Gods being too busy with each other to dedicate the resources needed to hunt him down. Even they weren’t omnipotent. But that had left a blind spot in his defenses. One he’d have to patch as soon as he got out of the city.

But first things first.

He drove. Kayla followed. As they navigated the winding streets, he pulled Zen into a call.

It took him three rings to answer.

“Yeah,” Zen muttered groggily.

“Asleep?”

“Awake now. What is it?”

“We’ve been compromised.”

Fatigue melted from his voice.

“What? Who? How?”

“Don’t know. A mystery man called Kayla and I on our eyeshields. Said he wanted to meet us. And told us where we were staying. He might know where you are too.”

“Shit. Is he with the New Gods?”

“Don’t think so. All the same, we’re going to meet him.”

“Bad idea.”

“Probably. But he knew what we’d done. He didn’t stop us. He might not be an enemy.”

“Doesn’t mean he’s a friend either.”

“I need your help.”

“Shoot.”

“Go through the cameras around Three Rivers. Focus on the area around the Church of Seven Sorrows. See if you can find our mystery man.”

“Understood.”

***

This time of night, Riveria was a city of ghosts. Except for Three Rivers.

Neon lights illuminated the town in garish neon hues. Ferries plied the eponymous rivers, hauling tourists and cargo. Static signboards shouted brands, products, names, competing with holographic advertisements dancing through the air. Greeters called out to passers-by, all of them beautiful young women or robots pretending to be women. Jingles and pop music blended into a babbling background roar. Massive screens advertised movies, games, books, music, clothing, everything that could be bought and sold in Three Rivers.

 People surged through the streets. Young men and women seeking late-night entertainments in the bars, clubs, all-night eateries, and other, seedier establishments. Families hustling home after a long night out. Teenagers, some in school uniforms, drinking in the magic of this city within a city, the city that lived by night. Evangelists preaching to the masses at street corners and shrines, glaring at representatives from their rival faiths.

Connor had grown up here. Whenever he thought of Riveria, he thought of Three Rivers. Here was the quintessence of Riveria. Great food and drink, abundance of goods and services, nonstop hustle and bustle, the meeting place of ideas and peoples and cultures.

The gilded mask hiding squirming maggots.

At the edge of Three Rivers, Zen called Connor and Kayla.

“I have a possible. A car pulled up at First and Church fifteen minutes ago. Three guys got out and entered the neighborhood. The driver is staying back. They’re pros, all of them.

“When they got out of the car, they scanned the streets around them. Smooth and subtle. Almost missed it when I saw them. They formed up in single file, one guy leading the way, the other two hanging back. The chase man stayed close to the middle guy, looking back and forth in every direction. The one in the middle walks with a sense of power and confidence. They look like a VIP and his protection detail.”

“Got an ID on them?”

“Negative. License plate isn’t on the city database. They turned their faces away from the cameras. Once they walked past the entrance gate, they dropped out of sight. Sorry.”

“At least we have an idea of what we’re up against,” Kayla said.

The Church district was the oldest section of Three Rivers, the womb that gave birth to the sprawling city. Overshadowed by neighboring skyscrapers and shopping malls, its glory days were long gone. Few knew what it was named for, or the god once worshiped here.

Connor had made that mistake once. In his days on the run, he had rectified that.

They approached from the north, through a cobblestone cramped alley. Connor led the way, his hands close to his side. Kayla trailed behind, taking every opportunity to check their backs.

There was barely room to breathe. Bikes and personal mobility devices were propped up against the walls, squeezed between menus and signs. Vending machines glowed cheerily in the dark, singing bright tunes as they passed.  Utility poles stood at erratic intervals, anchoring a forest of overhead cables. Lanterns hung from wires stretched across rooftops, casting the streets in a patina of soft reds and yellows.

Cutting through side streets and narrow alleys, Connor passed by small bars and tiny convenience stores, food stands and liquor bars, a freestanding building that housed the neighborhood fabricator. He glanced at every window and every corner as he passed, keeping to the middle of the street, ready to react in an instant.

He realized he was retracing his footsteps from that long-ago chase. He found himself hunting for bloodstains, environmental damage, signs of an Elect’s passage. He reminded himself that he wasn’t hunting an Elect now.

He was… He wasn’t sure what, but it wasn’t a hunt.

It was infinitely more dangerous.

He stepped out into an open-air courtyard. Oil lamps and paper lanterns illuminated a granite statue of a tall, fine-boned woman, wrapped in flowing robes. Standing with solemn dignity, she cast her eyes up at the heavens, face contorted in anguish. Seven blades stabbed into her back, arranged like a fan, piercing her heart. In her arms she cradled a baby to her chest, shielding it from the knives.

The Lady of Seven Sorrows.

She had many names. Queen of Heaven. Star of the Sea. Lady of the Immaculate Conception. The Ever-Virgin, the Most Holy, the Most Pure.

The Mother of God.

Not the New Gods. The God, the highest, the greatest, the exalted, the creator and the judge and the ruler of the world. The God no one had seen in this strange land.

And yet, the God whose hand he, Will Connor, and the men and woman of Team Black Watch had felt in their career.

A pair of metal cabinets flanked the statue, holding rows of melted and extinguished candles. An offertory box awaited before her. Connor thought about it, shrugged, and dug out his wallet. It was fat with the money he had taken from the men he had killed. He grabbed the bundle of stolen bills and dropped it into the box.

The wages of sin is death. Perhaps this would transform them into the gift of life.

Suddenly he grew aware of a presence. An awareness. An intangible energy that radiated from his right, next to a cabinet. As he put his wallet away, he widened his peripheral vision, studying its source.

The dim light bent around a shape, leaving a slight distortion.

Chameleon camouflage.

His breath caught. His heart stopped. Then he relaxed.

If he wanted to kill him, he’d be dead already.

He turned to Kayla.

“Stay here. I’m going to check out the area.”

As he spoke, he subtly cocked his head at the blurry form. Her eyes narrowed. Widened. Blinked.

“Roger.”

Built by hand from ancient lumber, the church had stood for hundreds of years. It was tiny, no bigger than the small shops crammed into the district. Only its arched roof and the small cross fastened above its doors revealed its true purpose.

Connor circled around the church. Alleys snaked away from it in every direction. Or perhaps it was the other way around: the entire district fed into the church. Around the back, vending machines sold bottled drinks and packaged drinks.

A second blurry form stood at the edge of the light, watching the alleys.

Connor returned to the entrance of the church.

“I’m going in,” he announced. “Cover me.”

“Roger,” Kayla said.

He walked up to the statue.

To the candle cabinet.

To the camouflaged bodyguard.

“Hi.”

The figure visibly twitched.

And sighed.

“Good evening, Mr. Connor. He will see you inside the church.”

“Thank you. And tell your buddy he’s too visible. Chameleon camo works best in the shadows.”

The bodyguard made a strangled sound, halfway between a grunt and a chuckle.

“Got it.”

At the doors to the church, Connor paused. Breathed. Sensed.

One person, standing at the altar. That was all.

He entered.

Armies of candlesticks lit the nave in a warm glow. Stained glass windows portrayed images of robed men, armored men, winged men. A simple wooden table, covered in a white cloth, served as the altar. Beyond the altar, a reredos loomed over Connor, bearing a painting of the Lady of Seven Sorrows.

Kneeling on bloodstained earth, face looking upon the heavens in despair, she held a dying man to her breast. Crowned with thorns, dressed only in a white loincloth, he bled from his forehead, his wrists, his feet, his side. Seven swords ran through her back. Behind them, a wooden cross stood on a darkened hill.

In front of the altar, a man turned to Connor.

“It’s been a while,” he said.

“Commander Joshua Gregory,” Connor breathed.

He was the essence of a gray man made flesh. Dark suit, white shirt, black tie and shoes, the salaryman’s uniform. Neither tall nor short, he occupied a comfortable middle. Though weathered with age, his thick neck and broad shoulders were as powerful as ever. His hair, what was left of it, had gone to silver shot through with white.

“Not anymore,” Gregory said. “I’m just a civilian now.”

Founder and commander of the Special Tasks Section, he was the first on the chopping block when the Temple Commission began its crusade against the New Gods. They had acknowledged that the STS had done good, but the violence of its methods had churned the politicians’ stomachs. They decided that the STS was collectively guilty of excessive force, and for its crimes dissolved the organization.

“A civilian wouldn’t have reached out to me the way you did,” Connor replied.

Gregory’s eyes glinted.

“A civilian wouldn’t have ripped through the Pantheon and the Liberated the way you did either.”

“We run the ragged edge.”

“Always have. Right from the beginning of the STS, we’ve always skirted the boundaries of the law, of what the bureaucrats and the politicians felt was acceptable.”

“Push the New Gods hard enough, they push back.”

“That they did. In spades. But now… now we have an opportunity.”

“What kind of opportunity?”

“Call in Ms. Fox. She should hear this too.”

Connor tapped his smartglasses.

“Deadeye. Come inside,” he said.

Half a minute later, the door swung open to admit Kayla. A spectral form closed it behind her.

“Commander Gregory,” she said with a nod.

“It’s ‘Mister’, now,” he said.

She laughed humorlessly.

“Always wondered where you went after the STS was disbanded,” she said.

“Making arrangements. Gathering allies. Pulling strings in the shadows. You made my work much harder, you know.”

“Oh?”

“A year and a half ago, I heard about a sniper taking out members of the Pantheon and the Court of Shadows with a railgun. After that, railguns turned up again at Moreno Island. That kind of tech is restricted. I had to call in favors to keep the police from looking too closely at the sequence of events.”

“I didn’t say I was responsible for that.”

Gregory chuckled.

“That you didn’t. And you also didn’t say anything about the recent violence that plagued Riveria.”

“You’re planning on pinning it on us?” Connor asked.

“Blunt as ever, aren’t you? But, no, we don’t. Only the soldiers of the New Gods died in the violence. A not-undesirable outcome, where we’re concerned.”

“Who is ‘we’?”

“A network of like-minded people. Unofficial, unsanctioned, unaffiliated with any of the New Gods. Sounds familiar?”

“You want us to join you,” Kayla said.

“Yes.”

“Why?” Connor asked.

“Why did you join the STS?”

“To make a difference.”

Another laugh.

“Come on, Connor, I read your psych profile when you joined up.”

“To strike back at the New Gods.”

“There you go. What happened to your family was a tragedy. But it propelled you to become the man you are today.”

Connor clenched his fists.

“The New Gods can kill each other all they like. But when they drag innocents into the mix, someone has to stop them.”

“Exactly. And what about you, Ms. Fox?”

“The challenge.”

Gregory sounded disappointed.

“Really.”

“It was billed as the top-tier law enforcement tactical unit in Nova Babylonia. The only unit with the firepower and the willpower to challenge the New Gods head-on. They would hunt the cultists and the Husks that preyed on the innocent. They were modern-day monster hunters. I wanted to be a part of that, to keep the New Gods from enslaving humanity.”

“That was our motivation too, Yuri and I. We just went about it the wrong way.”

“What do you mean?”

“We thought we could work within the system. But the system itself is corrupt beyond redemption. We underestimated the reach of the New Gods, and how much influence they had over the secular authorities.

“We were too visible. Too high profile. Too organized. We gave the New Gods a target they could take down. They agreed to its existence only because they thought they could use us to keep their rivals in check. The politicians in turn believed we would help maintain the balance of power among the New Gods.”

“Instead, we took the New Gods down a notch and exposed the corruption to the world.”

“Exactly. We became too large, too capable, too powerful. Our successes won many allies in the establishment. They had to take us down or risk everything. And did.”

“They left us alive,” Connor said.

“A grave miscalculation on their part. They thought that if they dismantled the STS, the operators would be scattered to the winds. Alone, without allies and resources, the operators would be vulnerable and unable to cause significant damage. The New Gods could afford to leave them alone. If they acted against the New Gods again, they could swat them like flies.”

“But they couldn’t,” Kayla said.

“As recent events demonstrated. They don’t have any hard evidence of your involvement, but there is plenty of circumstantial evidence suggesting that former STS operators disrupted their affairs across the country. The New Gods won’t take kindly to that.”

“I just wanted to be left alone. But they went after me. After us,” Connor said.

“And it’s only going to get worse from here,” Gregory said.

“Why are they targeting us?”

“Because you got in their way.”

“What do you mean? I didn’t do anything to them recently.”

“Not you, specifically. ‘You’, meaning the former STS.

“It began in Babylon, when a street gang tried to force a tutelary deity into joining the Court of Shadows, and the Pantheon attempted to press that deity into joining them. The same patron deity of an STS operator. When the dust settled, the Court, the Pantheon and the Guild of the Maker had a small fracas, one that almost exploded into a full-blown war.

“Then in Monero Island, an upstart detective tried running for sheriff. The New Gods tried to stop her. Two former STS shooters protected her, exposed the corruption of the local sheriff, and got the Temple Commission involved.

“From their perspective, you were interfering with their affairs. A violation of the unspoken peace treaty between you and them.”

“They started this mess. We cleaned up,” Kayla said.

“Yes, but they only care about getting what they want, and who wants to keep them from getting what they want. Some of them think the former STS operators would oppose their future plans. Others believe that there is a resistance movement forming, with the STS forming the nucleus.

“They are not entirely wrong.

“The only thing the New Gods fear more than the STS returning to arms is the STS serving their enemies, be it their rivals or the government. To protect themselves, they are changing their attitudes towards the STS. Any operator who may threaten them and their interests must be monitored, and if necessary, suborned or destroyed.”

“They didn’t bring their A game,” Connor said.

“Not yet. The New Gods are still divided among themselves. There are factions within the factions that think they should simply continue to leave the STS operators alone and focus their resources on their rivals. But with every strike against them, these groups are more likely to change their mind.”

Connor gritted his teeth. Hunting the hunters was the natural course of action. The only course of action he had. But in doing so, it would merely attract more attention. It would dig him deeper into the hole.

He couldn’t kill them all.

“Where do we stand now?” Kayla asked.

“You have two choices. You can leave Riveria, leave the country, go underground and hope to ride this out. Or you could join us.”

“Your network,” Connor said.

“Yes.”

“Who is part of it?”

“I’ve been reaching out to the surviving STS operators around the country. Many of them have signed on.”

“What’s the mission?”

“The same mission as the STS. To keep the New Gods from destroying and dominating humanity.”

“And how do you propose to carry it out?”

“The flaw of the STS is that it was centralized. We are setting a decentralized network. Small cells of operators scattered across the country. Agile, highly-trained and well-equipped, they could strike at the New Gods whenever they rear their heads and disappear into the shadows.”

“That’s not everything, is it?”

“Oh?”

“How did you find us?”

“Ways and means.”

Kayla shook her head.

“That’s not an explanation. How do you know the New Gods won’t uncover the network too?”

“You two were hard to find, I’ll grant you that. We tapped into surveillance networks all over the country, kept an eye on the STS in the fallout of the shutdown, monitored your electronics and finances, used machine learning software to predict your next movements. Once we had a bead on your location, we sent in teams to watch over you. Not to harm you, but they were ready to intervene if something went wrong.”

“That’s a lot of resources for an unofficial network,” Connor said.

Gregory grinned.

“We still have many allies in the establishment. Including the President.”

The President?” Connor exclaimed.

“The President has appointed me as a special adviser on preternatural affairs. Behind closed doors, he has given me carte blanche to defend Nova Babylonia from the New Gods.

“The STS was years in the making. Yuri and I had to fight tooth and nail to convince the higher-ups that this was something worth fighting for. Now, for the first time, we have an administration that is committing to fighting the good fight, to purging the corrupting influence of the New Gods.

“The STS is dead. From the ashes, the STS is reborn. No name, no organization, nothing the New Gods can use to track us down. We do not exist in any government database, we operate in the shadows, we borrow the machinery of government to acquire the resources we need to get things done.

“I’ll take care of the politics. I need operators on the ground to gather intelligence on the New Gods, and where necessary, take the fight to them. Riveria is a key battleground, second only to Babylon. Connor, that makes you the perfect man for the job.”

“This sounds too good to be true. How do I know the New Gods haven’t compromised your network too?” Connor asked.

“The operators are all former STS. Same for most of the support staff. The rest are handpicked and heavily vetted. We use the same personnel security protocols to weed out the New Gods’ moles.”

“Is it just me in Riveria?”

“For now. But I’m arranging more meetings, more partnerships. You won’t be alone.”

“What do we get out of this?”

“Protection. Resources. Allies. As part of our network, we can give you cover identities, safe houses, all the resources you need to survive in the shadows. We can run interference for you when the police and their puppet masters come sniffing. We can get you the equipment you need to defend yourselves and those around you. Whatever you need, we’ll get it for you.”

“In exchange, you want me to fight a one-man war against the New Gods in Riveria,” Connor said.

“Yes.”

Madness. There was no other word for this offer. The New Gods had armies of monsters and believers at their command. The authorities bowed to their every whim. The media repeated the lies they wanted to become truth. The corporations existed solely to serve them. How could he, a mere mortal, fight them?

How could he not?

He would always be a target. The only question was how high up he was on the hit list. How much time, energy and resources the New Gods would spend on him. He could try to run, but sooner or later they’d catch up with him. He could hide, but they’d find him again.

He had to fight.

But he didn’t have to fight alone.

He had friends. His brothers and sister from Team Black Watch, and the STS. Gregory was promising even more allies, more resources, everything he needed to strike back and make the New Gods pay. Riveria was his home, and within Team Black Watch there was none suited for operations here than him.

And besides…

You will never be alone. We will always be with you.

He blinked.

That thought wasn’t his. It had come from… somewhere else. And it was a woman’s voice.

He looked up at the reredos. At the Lady of Seven Sorrows.

She remained silent. The man in her lap said nothing. But maybe… just maybe… their eyes had turned to look on him.

On them.

He exhaled sharply. This was a land where gods walked alongside men. Stranger things could happen.

“I’m in,” Connor said.

“Wonderful. What about you, Fox?”

“Is Yuri in this?” she asked.

Gregory shook his head.

“He’s still overseas. But this network was his idea.”

“You’re in contact with him?”

“Sporadically. But I haven’t told him about it.”

“Then why do you say it’s his idea?”

“In the early days of the STS, we’d war-gamed this very scenario. What would we do if the New Gods pulled strings to shut us down. Yuri understood that the New Gods would never, ever, leave us alone. They would crush every attempt to restart the STS. The only option we had left was to go underground.

“This was meant to be a contingency plan. The contingency is here, and I’m putting the plan into motion.”

“I never knew that about him,” she said.

“He keeps a lot to himself, doesn’t he? You know, the STS was his idea too.”

“But you’re the founder.”

Gregory shrugged.

“Another time, another life, when I was in ESWAT and he was in spec ops, we cross-trained together frequently. After training we got around to talking shop.

“Our greatest concern was that the New Gods would take their battles from the shadows into the streets. It was a shadow war, but the politicians treated it as a law enforcement issue. The military wouldn’t be allowed to intervene.

“ESWAT was good, but not good enough for the powers the New Gods had at their disposal. They could handle Class C and Class B Husks by themselves, but once we’re dealing with Class A threats and high-powered Elect, they’d need military hardware.

“The response to the New Gods had to be seen to come from within the law enforcement community. It was the only way the Federal government would accept its existence. I led the push, it’s true, but Yuri worked behind the scenes. He secured buy-in from the military community, developed the operational doctrine, created the table of organization and equipment… all the behind-the-scenes work. He was as much the founder of the STS as I am.”

“How did he become a team leader?” Kayla asked.

“I offered him a place as second-in-command. He refused. He wanted to build the unit’s capabilities from the ground up, from the smallest squad up to the level of the organization. Back then, we only had an inkling of what the New Gods could do. The only way to learn was to face them in combat.

“He put together a team of handpicked operators to do just that. With every mission, he refined our tactics, techniques and procedures. He developed training plans to counter the New Gods’ capabilities. Most of all… he was preparing everyone for the day we might have to fight in loosely networked small cells. Or alone.”

Connor shook his head.

“He saw that far ahead? Unbelievable.”

“Believe it. He was a superstar in the Special Activities Unit. He could have become a general, even the Chief of Staff of Special Operations Command. Instead, he chose to prepare for the war he knew was coming. The war against the New Gods.”

“Why haven’t you told him about this network of yours?” Kayla asked.

“Operational security. By running around overseas, he’s drawing fire away from all of us. The New Gods have deployed significant resources watching him. That frees us to do what we have to do.”

“That’s just the kind of man he is,” she said.

“Exactly. In case something happens to him, we still have to carry on.”

“And for the time being, you need to build up the network.”

“That’s right. We’re still in the capability-building phase. We won’t expect to go fully operational for at least a year. If you join us, it’d be a great help.”

“I’m interested. But I’m not staying in Riveria.”

“Where are you going?”

“…I don’t know yet.”

“Why not?”

“Yuri asked me to hold the line until he comes back. My plan is to stay mobile and go to wherever I’m needed.”

“There’s a role for that too within the network.”

“Then I’m in too.”

“Wonderful.”

“What about Zen? Going to bring him aboard?” Connor asked.

“I’ve been trying to find him. You’ve got an in?”

“Yeah. We can reach anyone in Team Black Watch.”

“Great. We’ll arrange for a meet-up with everyone and talk more about the network.”

“First things first,” Kayla said. “We gotta blow town.”

“Yes. Riveria is heating up. We’ve prepared a safe house outside the city. We’ll lie low there until things cool off.”

“Let’s go,” Connor said.

“I’ll pass,” Kayla said.

The men turned to her.

“You sure?” Connor asked.

“I’m headed elsewhere,” she said.

“Where?”

“When I figure it out, I’ll let you know.”

Gregory shook his head.

“It’s safer with us.”

“After what we’ve done tonight, the New Gods might retaliate. Maybe not against us, but people we know. I’d rather stay mobile. Just in case someone else needs help.”

Gregory fished out a card from his pocket. On it was scrawled a phone number and an email address.

“I’m not going to stop you. But take this. If you need my help, you can reach me here.”

She kept the card.

“Thanks.”

“You did good work out there, both of you. I hope we can work together again.”

“Someday,” she said.

“Someday soon.”

***

Riveria Station was an oasis of light in a city of shadows. Few people took up what little it had left to offer.

The last train had departed long ago. A handful of cabs idled at the taxi stands, waiting for the rare late-night traveler. The surrounding shopping malls and offices had closed for the night, leaving behind skeletons of glass and concrete.

The buses still ran.

Her car was known to the New Gods. She had to leave it behind. Gregory promised that his men would take care of it. With her ID flagged, the only way out of Riveria was the long-haul red-eye buses.

From the bus interchange, Kayla could catch an overnight bus to any other major city in the country. The waiting area was quiet, with small knots of travelers widely spread out across the benches. A team of cops prowled the hall, more interested in rough sleepers and shifty-eyed solos than a well-dressed woman with a rucksack and duffel bag. She pulled a cap low over her face and turned away from the cameras.

Any moment now, once the Liberated figured out that Connor and Kayla had turned against them, they’d mobilize men to watch every point of exit. The faster she got out of here, the safer she’d be.

She walked up to an automated ticketing machine. She opted to buy a long-haul bus ticket. The schedule filled the screen. She checked the clock, checked the schedule, and smiled.

The next bus left in five minutes.

A sense of foreboding had brought her to this city. Now, after the job, she felt it again. The irresistible call of the cosmos. In the not-too-distant future, she had a date with destiny.

She still couldn’t describe it. She didn’t know what lay ahead of her. All she knew was that she was running on instinct. On hope.

On faith.

She had her guns. Her gear. Everything she needed to go anywhere in the world and take the fight to the New Gods. To hold the line until Yuri returned. Wherever she went, there she needed to be. She trusted that the universe, that God, would take care of the rest.

She paid for the ticket in cash. The machine spat out a small coin-shaped token. She retrieved the token and walked to the bus bay. The bus pulled up just as she arrived. She melted into the short queue forming up at the doors.

Aboard the bus, she dropped the token into the token reader. The machine beeped green. The driver barely looked at her.

She stowed her bag of gear in an overhead bin, careful to keep it from clanking, then grabbed a seat at the rear of the bus, far away from her fellow passengers. None of them so much as looked at her.

The bus pulled out of the bay. Looking out the window, she saw only neon against darkness. No police cars, no angry Elect, no pursuers closing in for a last-minute intercept.

She was free and clear.

She placed her bag between her legs. Covered herself with a heavy jacket. Rested her hands close to her handgun, tucked over her appendix. Leaned back. Closed her eyes.

Next stop, Babylon.

This story may be over, but there are many more waiting to be read. Check out the previous book BABYLON BLUES here!

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