Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Babylon Red Chapter 1 Preview



The IndieGoGo campaign for Babylon Red has reached 38% of its funding goal! To celebrate, here's chapter 1 of the exclusive novel!

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Movement was meditation.

Meditation was movement.

Embodying these twinned concepts, Yuri Yamamoto walked the streets of ArcoShanti. Designed in reverence of the human form, it was a town disguised as a neighborhood, tucked away in a small corner of Babylon, the greatest and most terrible city in the world.

He walked the streets in perfect awareness. His feet registered the rough contours of the hand-carved cobblestone through the soles of his minimalist moccasins. A tranquil silence filled the night. Warm amber streetlamps followed the curve of the street, casting pools of gentle illumination and soft shadows on the pedestrian-only path. Cool white light spilled from the windows of the mid-rises around him.

The world was quiet. He was quiet.

As his senses took in the street, his mind rested in the center of his being, perfectly still, utterly immovable, expanding to fill every cell of his body. He registered the play of muscles from foot to leg to hip, driving him forward. He monitored his breath, a steady six breaths a minute, deep and full, his belly expanding and contracting without a hint of strain. His joints rotated and articulated in harmony, totally efficient, totally free, his gait not so much a walk as a glide. His body reported the weight and texture of everything in contact with his flesh: the cool, still air; the tough, reinforced fabrics of his jacket and cargo pants; the tools stowed in his many pockets, hidden from view.

The blades.

ArcoShanti predated Babylon herself. Once called by a succession of names, now mostly forgotten, it had been swallowed whole by the capital city of the greatest superpower on the surface of the changed Earth, yet it had stubbornly retained its identity through the passage of decades and centuries.

Its present name blended ‘arcology’, a self-contained city with high human density and low ecological impact, and ‘shanti’, an Old World word for peace. Within this portmanteau lay the guiding principles of its design, established by the ArcoShanti Development Corporation in defiance of City Hall and the New Gods.

The paved streets welcomed humans and bicycles, and only grudgingly accepted the intrusion of ground cars and flying vehicles. Most buildings hovered between four and nine stories tall, none exceeded ten. The honking of horns and the whirring of gravity mirrors were rarely heard here. Instead there was the ringing of bicycle bells and the laughter of children, live music from roadside cafes and good-natured haggling at street carts. Within the city that never slept, ArcoShanti was an oasis of tranquility.

Until two weeks ago.

The moment he delivered his testimony to the Temple Commission two years ago, Yuri caught the first available flight out of Babylon. The New Gods rarely forgave and never forgot. After turning them all against each other, then testifying against them to the last incorruptible attorney in the nation, the men and woman of Team Black Watch had earned themselves a permanent place on their hit lists. As their leader, he was at the very top.

Wherever he went, the New Gods would follow him. So he took them away from Babylon. Away from his team. For two years he wandered the world, sharpening his martial skills and taking on short-term gigs, occasionally consulting when his team needed advice.

For two years, he bided his time. The New Gods would never let them live in peace. Even as Special Counsel Temple landed conviction after conviction, the New Gods scrambled to hold on to power, to grow their holdings, to beat back or co-opt the horde of lesser gods crawling out the woodwork. With the Special Tasks Section disbanded, there was nothing holding them back.

Nothing except for a few good men and women.

His team had clashed with the New Gods several times during his absence. He’d heard that other teams had done the same. He knew that some former STS operators had gone into the private military and security industries. A few, an exceptionally courageous few, shuttled back and forth across the country, piecing together a network of former operators and support staff, reconstituting the heart of the STS, readying for a future showdown with the New Gods.

There was no peace to be found overseas. Only an absence of war. In that absence he’d prepared for combat, along the way earning two instructor licenses in the martial arts of his ancestors, and kept feelers out. He’d always known that someday he’d have to return to Babylon. The only question was what would pull him back.

Two weeks ago he found the answer. A Dark Power clawed out from the shadows and threatened his family, He broke his self-imposed exile and came back to Babylon. To ArcoShanti. In doing so he risked the ire of the New Gods.

Instead, they let him go.

The New Gods had mobilized their forces to hunt down Zakir and its cult. But they despised each other too much to trust each other. At the same time, while they hated him, they also trusted him to keep his word. He targeted the Dark Power and its cult, and only them.

They’d tried to set him up, but he’d anticipated it, and streamed himself during the final takedown—Zakir’s and his own. Though his power was declining, Special Counsel Temple still held the sword of the Department of Justice, and the New Gods would not be able to cover up his arrest or disappearance. The New Gods, and Chief Jaime Reynolds, had allowed him to walk away.

But they were not done with him. Not by a long shot.

In the days after the hunt, the New Gods flooded the streets of ArcoShanti with their men. Though they were in plainclothes, Yuri spotted them a mile away. The marks of the New Gods were obvious to those with eyes to see.

The Singularity Network sent a pair of total body conversion cyborgs, equipped with a cybernetic third eye embedded in the center of their artificial foreheads. The Void Collective deployed a swarm of watchers, their faces totally smooth and blank, their eyes dark as the Void. The Liberated had dispatched Wardens with genetically-modified cat-like eyes, able to see equally well in day and night. The other factions—the Pantheon, the Court of Shadows, the Seekers of the Way—had sent less conspicuous operatives, but Yuri recognized the faces of the strangers who appeared at the same streets and shops, day after day, hour after hour.

They were sending a message: we are always watching you.

Or were they?

They were visible. They were everywhere. But they made no attempt to contact him or his parents. He had run full antimalware and spyware scans on his family devices, and they came up clean. Zen Tan, the best hacker he knew, confirmed the scan results, and secured the machines against hacking. Some of the bolder watchers acknowledged his presence when he passed, sometimes with a nod, others with leers, but they did not interact with him. Many of them didn’t even track him as he passed.

Most importantly: he was alone.

Completely, utterly, alone, in a quiet, narrow street, far from home.

Unlike most of Babylon, the streetlights here were old-fashioned, lacking the sensors and transmitters of their modern counterparts. No shadows moved at the lit windows, nothing moved behind the darkened windows to track him. The street offered little concealment and even less cover. He scanned the doorways, alleys and rooftops as he passed, and saw no signs of life. The bug detector in his jacket pocket, liberated from the STS’ stores, remained quiet. His phone snoozed in his pants pocket, stowed in an RFID pouch. He looked over his shoulder and saw nothing but shadows.

The New Gods were not watching him.

The further he traveled from his home, the fewer watchers he spotted. None repositioned themselves to follow him. Two blocks away, all surveillance stopped completely. He was alone when he stepped into the street, he was still alone as he walked, and he suspected that when he emerged at the far end, he would also be alone.

Were the New Gods finally shifting their resources to other priorities? Or were they watching someone else?

Something else?

That was the focus of tonight’s excursion. To see if he were still a surveillance target. The results were... mixed. They had established static zone surveillance around the areas he was known to frequent, but once he left the zones, they didn’t follow him. They weren’t too concerned with what he was up to when they couldn’t see him.

Why?

He had too many questions and too few answers. But he could ponder them at his leisure later. For now, he moved in complete awareness.

His teachers had taught him to sit in total stillness to gain awareness and clarity of his inner world. Others had trained him to bring his attention to his senses as he moved. There was no distinction between both. They were simply two sides of the same coin. A false binary to be breached and united by those who walked the Way.

He walked. He watched the world with complete clarity. He monitored his mind with utter detachment. When he sensed thoughts rising in his mind, thoughts that had nothing to do with the present, he gently released them and guided his mindstream back to the moment. World and mind were one and the same, for through the sense-organs the mind appends the world, and a disturbed mind distorts sensory input, created a distorted perception of the world.

He did not think. That is, no conscious, articulable thought arose in his mind. Instead, he accepted the constant stream of sense-data flowing into him, adjusting his body and brain to blend with the world.

There was a rough patch of cobblestone, so he stepped around it. Here was a shadow, so he stepped into it. Over there a doorway appeared around a corner, so he glanced at it. All these occurred spontaneously, naturally, without need for conscious thought, without his mind catching and stopping on a phenomenon. His mind was completely quiet, a pool of still water reflecting the distant moon.

Which was how he sensed it.

A prickling emerged at the edges of his consciousness. A soft, subtle sensation, like a tiny, jagged stone caught in his shoe. With every step, it grew larger, more insistent, seeking to penetrate the essence of his being. A cold lump lodged itself at the back of his chest. A ghostly chill ran down his fingers and up his arms, seeking his heart. The air itself grew thicker, heavier, an unseen force pressing down on his skin.

He breathed. He kept his mind still. He yielded into the sensation.

The invisible energies flowed around him, as if he were a rock in a river. His spirit was immovable, and in its immovability it was impenetrable. The lump nibbled away at his heart, but its teeth found only granite. He parted the air as he walked, a shark cutting through water, creating a bubble around him nothing could touch.

The sensation persisted. His face chilled. His heart pounded in his chest. His lungs contracted. The shadows darkened and lengthened, hiding wriggling things that disappeared when he turned to look at them. Doorways deepened and windows widened as he scanned them, then shrank when his eyes turned away. The edges of his vision melted away. His mouth dried.

His mind pieced the sensory input together and returned its interpretation.

Adrenaline.

He focused on the exhale, on relaxing and releasing tension. He swiveled his head back and forth, compensating for darkness and loss in peripheral vision. He acknowledged the heavy feeling on his skin and paid them no further heed.

The psychic pressure intensified. The lump grew heavier, its teeth sharper, scraping against his heart like sandpaper. Ghostly voices sent tiny ripples through his mind, registering as anxiety and dread, heralding full blown panic. His fingers twitched.

He breathed.

Spoke.

“Aum.”

He vibrated the word from his belly, resonating with the primal sound, sending it forth across the entire universe. It was the Unstruck Sound, the Cosmic Sound, the Sound of Silence, the Word that creates, sustains and dissolves, the Word spoken at the beginning of all things and at the end of all things.

It was God.

Energy rippled through him. Pure and purifying, clean and cleansing, a wave of liquid lightning rushing outward from the center of his being. It surged up his spine, it raced down his limbs, it scourged all in its path, renewing and recharging, debriding and destroying.

Behind that wave, secondary sensation followed. A sense of detachment and release, all along his chest. Thick ooze recoiling from his skin. Hooks pulling out from his lungs and heart.

“Aum!”

He brought his attention to the word. All his being became pure sound, a sound beginning in the back of his throat, gathering in his mouth, expelling through his lips. White light flashed before his eyes. His spirit resonated with the sound, reconstituting itself, once again becoming immovable.

He was under psychic attack. Something hidden in the night was trying to induce dread, horror, fear. He wasn’t fearless. He recognized it when it came. He simply did not let it stay. And so long as he maintained this mindstream, there was nothing it could do to him.

It redoubled its intensity. Cold waves crashed against his skin. Ghostly voices gabbled at the edges of his hearing. Tainted air infested his lungs and grew roots. A leaden weight threatened to implode his chest.

He breathed and spoke.

“AUM!”

He spoke from the depths of his being, the seat of his soul, the origin of his consciousness, the part of him forever and always connected to the cosmos, to the truth, to the living mind that permeated all creation. That mind spoke with him now, joining its voice with his, sending with it a pulse of love and tenderness and severity and firmness through him, a pulse that engulfed the anchor the creature had inflicted on him and rushed up the invisible line joining him and it to embrace the creature.

Something howled.

The thing withdrew. Unseen weights lifted off from his chest and rocketed into the night. Heat rushed into the gaps they left behind. Yuri repeated the Word, speaking from his being, speaking with the voice of the universe, seeking the aggressor and flooding it with the love and light emanating from God.

The God. God the Highest and Greatest. He who created and ended all things, he who laid down the laws governing man and earth and the heavens, he who reigned over even the New Gods. Against him, nothing and no one could stand.

And just like that he could breathe again.

His heart slowed to its regular pace. His breath became full and deep and regular. Cold air, regular, wholesome, normal, brushed against his skin and filled his lungs.

Thank you, he thought.

He was a man. Only a man. He refused to sell his soul to the New Gods for mere wealth and power. A poor price for the greatest gift of all, and the costs that came with that were grave beyond human reckoning. Nothing the New Gods offered came close to the power and majesty of the God who stood above all.

This attack, though, this didn’t feel like it came from the New Gods. Only a few of them had the ability to mount a psychic attack like this, and this didn’t feel like it came from them. This was too... weak. Too immaterial. Even a mundane with sufficiently strong will could throw off something like this.

So what was this, then?

Only one way to find out.

The thing might have withdrawn from him, but he was still in its awareness—and it was in his. Through the energy wave he had sent it, he fixed it in his awareness. It was a writhing, monstrous mound the size of a truck, sliding at unnatural speed, rushing away from him.

Or towards something.

Behind its aura of dread, it radiated pure predatory hunger. Its alien thoughts agitated the minds of those around it, weakening it, luring it to them. It fled from danger and raced towards food.

And it was starving.

Yuri picked up the pace.

His left hand dipped into his pocket and came away with a palm-sized flashlight. He brought his hands over his belly, left over right, reaching under his jacket to touch a sturdy handle wrapped in paracord.

He wished he had a gun. Back in his STS days he could carry his choice of weapons. He was a civilian now, and having been terminated from law enforcement, he had to apply for a concealed carry permit. That was a ninety-day process, begun just over a fortnight ago.

Not that he couldn’t carry, of course. Just that when he returned to Babylon, the costs of carrying a firearm far outweighed the benefits of one. Now, though... the equation had changed.

The smart thing to do would be to turn around and walk away. Call in the attack. Let the professionals deal with it. On the other hand, Babylon PD was nowhere near capable enough to handle a monster with offensive psychic abilities. That left the Enhanced Special Weapons and Tactics team of the Public Security Bureau, and ESWAT needed hours to mobilize. Or there was the STS, but the STS was long gone.

He, however, was here.

He walked.

Towards the source of the attack.

He didn’t have to engage the threat. He just had to be a good witness. If he went to the cops now, they’d just laugh at him. But if he could get eyes on it, or better yet, photos and videos, they’d have something they could work with. And if the monster attacked him, he would greet it with cold steel.

The street arced through a gentle curve. The further he walked, the darker it grew. The last of the lit windows disappeared around the bend. Streetlights peered down from their perches. Invisible tendrils, soft and slimy, squirmed over his skin, seeking a fresh beachhead to assault his mind once more. With every breath, he vibrated the Unstruck Sound through his entire body, through the tendrils, through the thing that had sent them.

The creature slunk into deeper darkness.

The street opened into a footpath by the Alexander Canal. Marking the southern border of ArcoShanti, a row of brick five-story townhouses looked down upon the murky waters. Streetlights by the entrances bathed the sidewalks and flagstones in amber light. Cafes, restaurants and specialist stores anchored the ground floor of every building, all of them shuttered. On the other side of the street, metal tables and chairs clustered in the shade of lush trees. A chest-high wall kept children and animals from jumping into the water. Across the canal, the levee merged seamlessly with an unbroken stretch of tenement blocks.

A solitary man stood in the middle of the street, shrouded in shadow.

He emanated a weird aura. Roiling, unsettled energy rolled off him like ocean waves, lapping up against Yuri, gnawing at his edges like acid. Thick and powerful, it existed at a frequency just beyond the visible spectrum, registering to Yuri’s eyes as a buzzing, crackling, translucent field that extended for several feet around him, as if it were a coating of slime charged with electricity.

It felt similar to the energies of the creature that had assaulted his psyche. But it was too weak. Too small.

Yuri glanced over his shoulder. They were alone in the dark. The windows were all blacked out, the street was empty, the air completely quiet. An invisible blanket smothered the world, suppressing all signs of life, forcing those still awake and alive to flee or hide.

The man lurched towards Yuri. His matted hair ran down to his shoulders. Scrawny hands and wrists peeked out of puffy sleeves. His pants struggled to cling to his hips. He didn’t so much wear his clothing as his clothing wore him. He twitched with every step, an arm or leg spasming unpredictably, every movement jerky and uncoordinated.

His gaze was locked on Yuri.

“Hey!” Yuri called.

Ignoring him, the man continued his slow, shuddering shuffle.

“Hey!” Yuri shouted again.

The man sped up, taking wider strides. His arms swung erratically, out of sync with his feet, too far or too short but never in tandem.

Yuri lifted his flashlight to his ear and clicked on the turbo button.

Two thousand lumens blasted the man in the face. In the circle of dazzling white light, Yuri saw a greasy, dirty beard, so thick it did double duty as a scarf; a bulky padded jacket over a threadbare shirt; ragged jeans held up by a length of dirty string; boots so aged and worn they were as thin as cardboard.

Unblinking eyes staring straight into his.

Light like this would blind anyone who looked into it. Even Yuri had to squint against the reflected light. The subject maintained his wide-eyed stare, propelling himself on unsteady feet.

And tiny things writhed in his eyes.

“Stop! Stop right there!” Yuri demanded.

The subject accelerated. His mouth fell open, revealing rows of rotting teeth, in imitation of a gorilla baring its fangs. His skin was drawn tight over his face, unnaturally smooth and thin. His aura flared, sending waves of diseased energies battering against Yuri’s.

Common sense said it was time to leave. Yuri had no wish to go hands-on with a guy like that. Even from half a street away, he could smell the reek of filth, alcohol, and God knew what else. But that aura... it was unnatural. And those eyes...

Yuri reached under his jacket, freed his necklace, and held it high.

“Do you see this?” Yuri asked.

It was a cross.

Two thin bars of pure silver, every tip ending in three lotus petals. Simple yet intricate, the shafts sturdy but the tips delicate, it was a statement of faith, and in this fallen world, as much of a weapon as a knife or gun. Maybe even more.

The man recoiled. With a pained hiss, he held his hands to his eyes, as if looking away from the light of the sun.

“Who are you? What do you want?” Yuri asked.

A bloodcurdling scream ripped from his throat. Equal parts pain and fury, it reverberated in the narrow streets, surprisingly powerful from so small a man. Yuri coiled his muscles, ready to react.

The man spun on a heel and fled.

His gait was steady and uneven, his arms flopped loosely by his sides, his shoulders torqued back and forth. It was like watching an overgrown child try to run. But run he did, away from Yuri, into the shadows further down the street. He rounded a corner and disappeared into an alley.

Yuri heaved a sigh of relief.

He hadn’t expected the man to run. But it was to the good. He didn’t have to expose himself to danger. More importantly, he didn’t have to hurt anyone. Whoever that man was, he needed help. Something had latched on to him, twisting him from the inside, hollowing him out.

He closed his eyes.

Dear God, please help this unfortunate soul, and all beings attached to him. Show them the way to your light and love. May they swiftly be liberated from suffering.

He relaxed his grip on the cross and breathed.

In the breath, he refocused his attention to his inner world. His heart beat in his chest, quickly but firmly, a steady sixty-five beats a minute. His fingers were cold and clammy, a side effect of the adrenaline in his veins.

The burning, gnawing, slithering sensation remained.

And a huge, hungering presence surfaced within his awareness.

He spun around.

A gigantic mass burst from the black waters of the canal, heralding its arrival with an ear-splitting screech from a hundred mouths that tore at his ears and sent shivers down his spine. The stench of rotting meat and wet mold flooded his lungs. Staggering back against the sensory assault, he turned his flashlight on the monster.

An enormous ball of blood-red flesh writhed in the waters, a globe of entwined tendrils shining wetly in the light. Huge yellow eyes with slitted pupils shaped like dumbbells blinked open in chaotic clusters all over its body. Longer tendrils unwrapped themselves from the mass, forming prehensile arms and fingers. The center of the mass split open, revealing rows of teeth shaped like sabers and claws, curving inward to face its hideous mouth, shaped for ripping and tearing. Lesser appendages split off from the main mess, ending in sturdy jaws and knife-like teeth. It was a crawling chaos of flesh and fangs and alien eyes, a monster that had no place in this world, a thing that could not, should not, be.

Every eye turned towards him.

Cold fear washed over him. Pressure built up behind his eyes and against his ears. Slimy ropes ran down his spine and wrapped around his limbs. Ghastly voices laughed and screamed and whispered in his mind. His heart hammered against his chest.

What the hell was this?

The monster screeched again. A huge tendril snapped towards him. Instinctively he leapt to his left. The dripping limb whooshed past his ear and slammed into a tree trunk. The tree rocked under the colossal blow, its buried roots erupting from the earth. The tendril coiled away and whipped out at him.

With a sharp exhale, Yuri stepped into the arc of the swing, his right hand reaching under his jacket.

A second tendril darted towards him, coming from up high. He stepped forward and spun counterclockwise, pivoting on the ball of his feet, taking his entire body off the line of attack, and drew his primary weapon.

An o-tanto, forged by the master smiths of Williams Blade Works, twelve inches of matte black steel, honed to a killing edge. The huge knife soundlessly broke free from his shoulder-mounted scabbard, swung through a tight arc, and bit into the tendril.

Unnatural flesh parted before the sturdy blade. Bright red blood jetted from the enormous wound. The o-tanto melted cleanly through the limb, leaving only a strip of flesh.

The monster screamed, flinging its wounded limb aside. He turned to his left and pressed the attack, charging the other tendril, o-tanto low by his hip, light up by his temple.

A spearhead of sharpened bone burst from the tip of the tendril. Yuri halted in his tracks. The fleshy spear thrust at his chest.

He burst off his right foot, getting off the X, right arm snapping outwards to deflect the limb. The spear whistled past his ear. The flat of the thick blade slapped against the tendril. The tendril wrapped around it, seeking to gain his back. He torqued towards the limb, stepping his right foot back, and cut down.

Steel sliced through flesh.

The severed tendril fell away, flailing across the floor. Blood gushed from the stump. The thing howled. Yuri backed away from the stump, brought his o-tanto up to the guard, and turned to face the creature.

A thundering roar bellowed from its huge mouth. The noisome odor overwhelmed Yuri, driving him back into clear space. Its tendrils whipped back and forth, pulling back into itself. Drops of crimson blood splashed in wide arcs across the road. Yuri retreated to the road and spoke from his belly.

AUM!

The Word rushed through him and hurled itself against the creature. It recoiled against the sound, its tendrils flailing in distress, screeching in pain and terror.

Every eye, a dozen, two dozen, more, trained on him, drinking him in, burning every bit of information they could gather into every fiber of the monster’s being. A thought, powerful and overriding, burned into Yuri’s brain.

You shall be consumed.

It plunged into the water and disappeared into darkness. Yuri ran up to the levee and swung the light back and forth, hunting for signs of its presence. A dense, inky cloud marked the spot where it had submerged dove into the canal, slowly dissipating. The sensation of dread and fear dropped off sharply, fleeing down the waters to the east. Ripples pulsed through the churning waters. Within moments, there was nothing left but the cloud.

It was gone.

He heaved a sigh of relief. That was too close. He hadn’t had time to think. He just let his body react to whatever the threat presented him.

In all his years in the STS and the military, he’d never encountered anything like that before. Nothing he’d read came close to it. It was a Dark Power of some kind, a newcomer that had crawled out the dark corners of the world to claim a slice of land ceded by the New Gods. Or worse: it was only a creation of that Dark Power, a mere fragment of the power it had at its disposal, a small echo of the totality of its existence.

He shuddered. Whatever it was, he didn’t want to go up against it. Not alone.

Yuri shone his light on the tendril. It lay lifelessly on the ground, draped over a pair of fallen chairs. The bone spear gleamed wickedly in the light, black as obsidian, sharper than a razor. Blood spilled from the wound, forming a lake.

That had been close. Too close. The spearhead had been a hair’s breadth away from his flesh when he’d cut off the limb.

He shook his head. This was not a monster he could fight. Not by himself. Had the thing pressed the attack, had it deployed more than two limbs at once... He was only one man. Even he couldn’t defend against an attack from many directions at once.

This was a job for the PSB. His role in this was over. He wasn’t paid to fight monsters and demons, not anymore, and he sure as hell wasn’t equipped for this job. Let the pros worry about it. He was a civilian now.

Even so, as he reached for his phone, a sense of soul-deep certainty filled him.

This was not over.

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Babylon Red is a collection of five cyberpunk action horror stories. Most of the publicly-available stories focus on Kayla Fox and her adventures with the rest of Team Black Watch. In this exclusive novel, Yuri Yamamoto is back in Babylon, just in time for a fresh horror to come crawling out of the woodwork.

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