A Thunderstorm in Babylon
It never rains in Babylon. Usually she saw short spells of drizzles, over and done in an hour or less. But some days, like today, the heavens opened and poured out their sorrow and their wrath on the city of the damned.
Karim Mustafa gripped the cyclic with both hands, gently guiding the armored Sentinel gravtruck between skyscrapers and tenement blocks. The AI screamed proximity warnings in every direction. The Sentinel’s gravity mirror hummed soothingly in the cabin, reflecting the Earth’s gravity field to propel the vehicle through the air.
To his left and right were massive monoliths of steel and glass and concrete. Above and below him were streams of civilian gravcars screaming past at top speed, keeping a respectful distance from the Sentinel and its side-mounted miniguns. Huge rain drops struck the gravtruck a million times a second, every impact sounding like blunted machinegun fire, and his windshield wipers were barely keeping up.
Lightning flashed in the distance. Thunder rocked the Sentinel. Karim kept his hands steady, blinking through the jagged scar burned into his sight. His eyeshields, a pair of ballistic-grade smartglasses fitted with a camera, projected a bright green dot and a shrinking range estimate, pointing to his destination. Compass bearings whirled about at the upper edge of his glasses. Slipping between buildings, steering clear of the flyers around him, flying by the illumination of blazing white headlights, he made his final approach.
The Wren’s Nest was a twenty-story apartment. Large enough to occupy its own city block, so small it seemed the half-formed little brother of the skyscrapers behind it. Just one more high-rise in a city of high-rises, almost completely remarkable save for the dozen police cars parked right outside, their light bars painting the world in chaotic splotches of flashing red and blue.
Karim gently guided the gravtruck down to an empty space, and landed the vehicle on its road wheels with a soft bump.
“Smooth flying, rookie,” Kayla Fox remarked over the intercom. “Next time you can work on speed, eh?”
Karim sighed. No matter where you went, everybody always picked on the new guy. At least until he could prove himself.
Karim undid the seatbelt and completely switched the engine. The heavy rear doors slid open smoothly, and moments later, slammed shut. Karim unclipped his suppressed M83A1 carbine from the door storage compartment and stepped out into the rain.
A wall of falling water slapped his helmeted head and exposed face, dripped dripping down his eyeshields and cheeks and chin to chill his neck and gather in the folds of his utilities. He unfolded the carbine’s stock, extended it to the second position, and slung the weapon over his neck.
“Rookie, over here.”
Yuri Yamamoto beckoned Karim over. The other four members of the team were gathered around him in a loose wedge, weapons held low, eyes scanning out. The uniformed cops, dressed in their rain slicks and soft armor, shied away from them.
They were the Black Watch. The premier team in Nova Babylonia’s premier police tactical unit. When terrorists and violent offenders stalked the streets, when rogue magics or dangerous cybertech emerged from dark corners of the world, when a psi snapped and let a Dark Power hollow him out into a psychotic Husk, the Special Tasks Section got the call. When a situation was too heavy even for the STS, they called the Black Watch.
Karim hustled over to Yamamoto. Team leader, ace operator and manslayer with a body count who knew how high. Say what you want about him, but the man had presence. His blood was mixed, like so many people in Babylon, his genetic inheritance plain in his cold gray eyes and high cheekbones and wide chin. But that wasn’t his most striking feature.
The man had three blades. A folding knife in his right knife pocket. A small fixed blade worn horizontally on his belt buckle. And by his left hip, a huge curved knife, so long it was a short sword.
All this he carried in addition to his regular kit, a suppressed M83A1 carbine, a pistol on a drop leg holster, tactical vest and pouches festooned with magazines and pouches and kit, and combat suit fitted with a full set of plates. Looking at him, standing serenely in the storm, his spine erect, his posture perfectly balanced and neutral, Karim had the strange sensation that he wasn’t seeing a man; he was gazing upon a samurai of the streets.
The six operators strode into the lobby. Karim shivered under the relentless blast of the air conditioning. His utilities kept his body warm, but not his exposed face. Scanning, he saw a pair of uniformed cops standing dejectedly near the reception table, questioning a young woman who kept shaking her head.
They took the elevator up to the eleventh floor. The second he stepped out, the miasma of death hammered him.
It was a tangible force, a thing that permeated the walls and floor and polluted the air. In his mind’s eye he saw black and brown clouds clinging to the cops walking the narrow corridor. The taste of iron infiltrated his tongue.
A soft voice whispered into his mind. Beware. Murder lies ahead.
The operators cut through the crowd, Yamamoto seemingly gliding and flowing around the cops, as though he were a river bypassing rocks. He halted ten paces away from a middle-aged man in a bloodstained white coverall and blue latex gloves and overboots, the hood drawn back to reveal a balding pate, a face mask hanging loosely from around his neck.
“Gil?” Yamamoto said.
The man smiled.
“Yuri. I figured you’d catch this call.”
“How bad is it?”
“It’s an abattoir in there. Six vics, best as we can tell from the wetware left behind. Hope you didn’t wear your best suit.”
Karim swallowed. Even from here, he could smell the iron-rich tang of blood.
“Any ID?” Yamamoto asked.
“The apartment is registered to Mr and Mrs Elias Potter. But the bodies… well, there’s nothing left to identify.”
“God damn,” an operator muttered.
He was Will Connor, the team’s breacher and heavy weapons specialist.
“Don’t disrespect the dead,” Yamamoto chided.
“C’mon, boss, it’s not like they’re still around to care,” Fox replied.
The detective chuckled. “I see you’ve got a new guy.”
“Yeah. Rookie, this is Detective John Gilbert, BPD Homicide. Gil, Karim Mustafa. Our new psi. He joined us last month. This is his first callout.”
“Good luck, rookie,” Gilbert said.
“Uh… thanks?” Karim said.
The detective chuckled. “Trust me, after you see what’s inside, you’ll understand.”
“Time of death?” Yamamoto asked.
“Unknown. But the 911 call came in at eight forty-two pm. We’ll work with that until or unless the coroner can narrow it down.”
“That’s about half an hour ago. Any leads on the killer?”
“Negative. We had a pair of K-9 units working the scene, but the rain’s washed off everything they could use. The dogs are still on the outer perimeter, but I’m not going to hold my breath.”
“Gotcha. One last thing: why is the suspect flagged as a Husk?”
“Trust me, buddy, once you’ve seen the bodies, you’ll understand.”
“Ho boy,” Connor muttered.
Yamamoto ignored the remark. “Thanks, Gil. Team, on me.”
The operators huddled around Yamamoto.
“Kayla and ZT, link up with the K-9 units, see if they’ve found anything useful. James and Will, talk to the unis and get witness reports. Rookie, you’re with me. We’re going in.”
The team dispersed. Kayla Fox and Zen Tan headed downstairs. James Wood and Will Connor cornered Gilbert.
“You got everything you need for a crime scene, rookie?” Yamamoto asked.
“Yup,” Karim replied. “It’s in my main pack compartment.”
Karim turned away, presenting his pack to the team leader. The pack itself was clipped to his chest rig; it was easier for someone else to take his stuff than to pull off the pack. Yamamoto unzipped the backpack, pulled out a large packing cube and set it on the floor. Yamamoto patted Karim’s shoulder, and allowed Karim to retrieve his crime scene kit.
Inside Karim’s packing cube was a loose white polymer hooded overall, a pair of floppy overboots and another of overgloves. Karim dug out his gas mask from a hip pouch, doffed his helmet, strapped on the mask, then took a deep breath and exhaled sharply. The mask’s seals held. He put his helmet back on, struggled into the overall, then zipped up, pulled the drawstrings tight, and slipped on the hood. Looking up, he saw his team leader waiting for him, already masked and suited up.
“Ready?” Yamamoto asked, his voice muffled.
“Yup,” Karim replied.
Yamamoto led the way down the corridor. A cop stood guard outside an open doorway, both sides of the hall sealed off with blue and white crime scene tape.
“Officer, we’re from STS,” Yamamoto said, his badge appearing in his hand. “We need access to the crime scene.”
The cop gestured. “Help yourself. And be careful: it’s wet.”
He chuckled darkly to himself. Nonplussed, Karim ducked under the tape. Through the open doorway, he saw a crime scene technician in a white jumpsuit.
“Hey!” Yamamoto said. “You guys the crime scene techs?”
The techie turned around. “Yeah. What about it?”
“STS. We’re here to help,” Yamamoto replied.
“We’re here to find the guy who did this. But we need to borrow your scene for a few minutes.”
“A’ight. We’ll take a quick water break. Go get the bastard.”
The techie shouted a few orders. Moments later, three men in coveralls filed out the door. Their boots and gloves and suits were covered in blood.
“Let’s go, rookie,” Yamamoto said.
Bracing himself, Karim followed Yamamoto into the death scene.
Gallons and gallons of blood, sprayed liberally across the living room, coating the walls and floor and ceiling with a thick red coat, slowly turning brown. Bits of gristle and bone and meat lay everywhere, as though tossed about by a hurricane. Among the gibbets were long stringy ropes spilling strange dark matter, and it took Karim a second to realize they were intestines.
“Ya allah!” Karim whispered.
“Tough scene, isn’t it?” Yamamoto said mildly.
“Need a break?”
Karim swallowed. Hard. In his law enforcement career, he had seen horror upon horror, of all manner of wickedness men visited on men. But this, this was some fresh abomination even he had never seen before.
But he had a job to do.
He gulped down his bile and shook his head.
“Good man,” Yamamoto said. “Tell me what you can see.”
Karim forced himself to scrutinize the scene. Evidence markers sat next to every noteworthy object, each a silent testimony to the unspeakable brutality of the scene. At least all he smelled was the inert rubber of his gas mask.
Nestled among the gore piles, Karim saw something with straight lines and sharp angles. Several somethings, in fact. Karim carefully weaved among the markers, grabbed the closest object of interest, and delicately extracted it from wet slippery flesh.
It was an egg. A metallic egg bristling with fine golden tendrils, roughly the size of a large marble. Unusually dense, it was warm to the touch. Not physically warm, no; it was warm in the Aether, in the otherworldly realms neighboring this one, warm in the way only his strangely-wired brain could perceive.
It was the heat of the eldritch.
“Good find,” Yamamoto said.
Karim startled. Somehow Yamamoto had slid up beside him.
“What is it?” Karim asked.
“Mindgem. The brain implant the Singularity Network hands out to its initiated members.”
“The vic was a member of the SN?”
“Sure looks like it,” Yamamoto said. “See if you can find any more.”
There were six Mindgems. Three adult sized, three smaller ones designed for children. Yamamoto glared at the last.
“Sin likes to take them young,” he said, using the SN’s street name. “Parents are encouraged to initiate their children into the network.”
“All religions are like that,” Karim replied.
“Sin isn’t a religion.”
“I thought the Babylon Accords listed their deity as a New God.”
“They don’t have a god. What they do have is an immensely powerful decentralized supercomputer spread across their Shards. Their notion of worship is to continuously upgrade and expand the supercomputer network until they create a deus ex machina. A god from the machine.
“That Mindgem over there? It’s a computer. It gives every Sinner access to the Network’s intranet, performs parallel computing on demand, and, for their Elect, enables them to connect with the Will of the Net. A distributed artificial intelligence representing the collective desires of the network. An AI they hope to upgrade to a god.”
“Huh. I… I didn’t know that.”
“Yeah, that info isn’t for public consumption. But this job will take us into regular contact with the New Gods. You need to know this.”
“Enough yapping. Time to get to work, rookie. What do you need?”
“I need you to clear the room. It’ll be easier to read the space this way.”
Yamamoto retreated, leaving Karim alone with the dead.
Karim clapped his hands, holding them at chest height. Lowering his head, he reached out into the Aether.
Galen, hear my cry. Lend me your eyes, that I may look into the past, find the one who did this, and neutralize him.
White sparks flashed across his vision. Karim’s eyes throbbed and grew warm. A soothing male voice spoke into Karim’s eyes.
You shall have them. Good luck.
Images and sounds and smells and textures crashed into Karim’s mind. Men shouting and women laughing and children crying and food cooking and a hundred thousand senses. It was the timestream, raw and unfiltered, blasting his head with a complete record of everything that had ever occurred in this patch of space-time.
Karim navigated himself to the point a half hour ago and looked.
The living room was clean and pristine. No blood, no guts, just immaculate parquet. Six people sat at the dining table to Karim’s right. An adult male presided at the head of the table, a younger adult female on his right, another female to his left. The women seemed related, both sporting the same blond hair and blue eyes and soft jaws—sisters, perhaps. Three children occupied the rest of the table, two boys and a girl, the last sitting across the male. A huge pot of roast beef stew dominated the table, surrounded by smaller plates of vegetables and potatoes.
Everyone tucked in. The man was relaxed and unhurried, the women fussing over the children, the children awkwardly manipulating their child-sized forks and spoons and knives.
The door crashed in.
A huge fat man in a black coat ambled into the living room. The women shied away, the children shrieked, the man shot to his feet.
“Who the hell are you?” he demanded.
The intruder grinned and raised his arms.
The fat man’s skin turned a sickly mottled green. His eyes bulged, covering almost half his face. His teeth reformed into sharp points. The corruption spread down his neck, racing up his arms. His exposed hands turned scaly, his fingers compressed and elongated, more digits sprouted from his hands, and his fingers and hands transformed into tentacles. Tentacles lined with barbs and spikes, terminating in sucker-mouths with inward-pointing teeth.
He was an Elect, a chosen by a god to be a vessel for eldritch powers.
A fallen Elect who had become a Husk.
The tentacles split apart and shot from his arms, seizing the women and children and the man. The children screamed and squirmed and tried to wriggle loose, the women protested and the monster shoved tentacles down their mouths and into their ears and noses, the man grabbed a carving knife and slashed away but the scales turned the blade and a cluster of tentacles latched on to his face.
The intruder dragged his victims out of their chairs and into the living room. Karim heard soft chewing noises and muffled screams and blood dripped on the floor. A pair of smaller tentacles parted the monster’s coat, revealing a naked bloated belly of green flesh. The invader laughed and his belly split open to reveal a mouth. The mouth of a shark, with row upon row upon row of triangular teeth. He reeled the victims in and…
Karim winced. He could not look. He had to look. Bones crunched. Flesh tore. Blood gushed. Now and then the monster spat out a metal object from a tentacle-mouth.
The monster stopped abruptly.
“Uh?” the Husk muttered, cocking his head.
For a second, he went completely still.
Then he greedily shoved as much flesh in his belly and tentacles as he could fit in his many, many mouths. He tossed the remaining bits and implants aside and waddled down a hall.
Karim froze the timestream. With his human eyes, he navigated the living room, careful to avoid disturbing the evidence. The blood trail led down the main hall into the master bedroom. Keeping to a corner, Karim continued watching.
The monster shuffled into the room, stifling a yawn. He drew the curtains, flung the windows open, went down on all fours and transformed again.
His neck melted, his head fusing to his torso in a smooth contiguous arc. His face-mouth grew wider, wider, slicing across his cheeks. His legs rippled and twisted, growing huge and muscular. Bright orange horns sprouted from his head. The image reminded Karim of an unholy union of a squid and a frog.
The thing extended its tentacles out the window. Karim followed it, watching it adhere to the roof and clamber down. It paused for a second, and with its powerful hind legs gently closed the window. It looked up, paused again, and jumped.
It leapt clean across the six-lane highway, brushing past a passing skycar, and landed on the roof of the opposite building. It jumped again and again, heading for the horizon, and disappeared into the skyline.
“You’re not getting away,” Karim vowed.
Humans assumed that their perspectives were limited only to their mortal senses, but centuries ago the New Gods had revealed the truth: with the right training, guided by a patron deity, a human could access the infinite.
Karim closed out his view of the timestream and projected his consciousness up and out of himself. Now it seemed like he was looking down at himself from the ceiling. He rose through the ceiling, through the apartments above him, out through the roof of the Wren’s Nest. Then he expanded his view and looked into the Aether.
A stream of ugly green light betrayed the monster’s path, tracing its passage from rooftop to rooftop. He sent his consciousness forth, charging upstream, passing into and through buildings and skycars and billboards like a ghost, and presently found himself staring at another high-rise, a fifteen-floor construct. On the top floor, at the leftmost window, right by the fire escape, a window glowed with sickly emerald light.
Raising his hands to eye level, he saw a menu pop up on his eyeshields, represented by blue circles ringing his fingertips, each circle labeled with specific functions.
He folded the finger for navigation, and a street map of Babylon appeared across the glasses.
Karim’s hands flowed through a series of gestures, zooming out and dragging across the map, recreating the monster’s path. The Husk had headed in a straight line south by southwest, an absurdly easy path to trace. He reoriented Galen’s eyes, bringing it to the same elevation and scale as his digital map, and made a few more fine adjustments.
Both visual feeds meshed perfectly.
Karim dropped a pin on the location and closed the display.
Galen, thank you for your aid. I will bring justice to the wicked and avenge the innocent. Please continue to watch over me and my team.
A deep male chuckle filled his mind.
Evil prowls the streets of Babylon. You shall go forth and destroy them in my name.
Karim nodded. Understood.
Karim returned to the living room. Yamamoto was waiting by the door.
“Well?” Yamamoto asked.
“I got him,” Karim reported. “18 Harland Boulevard. Top floor, white side, window one.”
“Good job, rookie. Let’s get going.”
He turned for the door.
“Wait!” Karim said.
Yamamoto swung back with liquid grace. “Yeah?”
“I want… I need to be on the entry team.”
“Galen said so?”
“Yes. I… He said he wanted me to.”
Gods did not hand out their powers lightly, and the ones they chose must carry out their will on demand. Or suffer the consequences.
Yamamoto’s eyes narrowed behind his eyeshields.
“Don’t thank me yet, rookie. We haven’t even gotten to the hard part.”
If you like stories that blend sci fi, fantasy, horror and authentic combat, check out my latest novel HAMMER OF THE WITCHES.
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