“You seem well,” Yamamoto said mildly.
The cyborg nodded. “Yes. I replenished my stock of nanopaste and grafted a fresh arm to replace the damaged one. I am now at a hundred percent operational efficiency.”
“And you brought friends,” Yamamoto added.
“Of course. Someone launched a campaign of murder and terror against the Network. Such an insult cannot go unavenged.”
“Don’t worry. The Husks are all dead. Justice has been served.”
“Indeed, and on behalf of the Singularity Network, we thank you. However, we must take precautions against future assaults. We will claim the body of this Husk, and the other Husks you have slain.”
“What will you use them for?”
“Every Power leaves a trace of itself in their Elect. We will study the bodies, learn the identity of the Power, and take appropriate actions.”
Fox grinned. “You mean you’ll declare a vendetta.”
“We do not engage in such pointless trivialities,” the cyborg said. “However, we will not abide the continued existence of a threat to ourselves.”
“Lodge your complaints with the police and the PSB,” Yamamoto said. “We will be happy to act upon any information you can provide us. But we will be keeping the bodies.”
“They are empty husks, merely broken bones and shredded flesh, devoid of all value. What use are they to you?”
“I have heard of what your Network does to the bodies you recover,” Yamamoto said. “You upload their brain patterns in computers, and you torture these emulations until you get answers. Torture without end, without rest, until they break. And after. When you’re done, or if you can’t recover usable brain patterns, you’ll install implants and cybertech in the bodies and use them for your own ends.”
“We have many questions. We will have answers. And we will not waste flesh when given to us.”
“You do not deny this?”
“There is no benefit in lies.”
“You will not have the bodies,” Yamamoto said.
The cyborg smiled. There was no life in it, only an artificial stretching of the cheeks, a slight upward twist of the lips, a hint of perfect teeth. His biological eyes remained dark and devoid of life, but his cybernetic third eye flicked from side to side, studying the operators.
“I believe we can come to an arrangement,” the cyborg said.
“The STS handles the dirtiest and most dangerous missions in Nova Babylonia, but you are paid the same as ordinary police officers. Surely you should be rewarded for your service to the people.”
The team laughed.
“We fail to see the humor in this,” the cyborg said.
“We are the Black Watch,” Yamamoto said. “We stand fast against the demons that haunt the eldritch dark and reach into the world of the light. If you think, for one moment, that we are motivated by mere money, you are sorely mistaken.”
“Name your price. The Network is generous to those who have aided us.”
Yamamoto grinned like a reaper.
“We will not be bought. We will not allow atrocities in our presence. Leave. Now.”
“‘Atrocities’? They are murderers and terrorists. Why do you care for them?”
“Their souls were twisted by a Dark Power. They were, and are, still humans. I will not allow them to be reborn in a world of suffering.”
“A man of principles, I see. A rare sight in Babylon. Yet we, too, have our principles. We will accomplish our mission. No matter what.”
“If you walk away, I can give you the name of the Dark Power who orchestrated this campaign.”
“Only a name? We can get that ourselves using our own methods. But if you tell us everything we wish to know, perhaps we shall leave the bodies to you. If you can answer our questions, of course.”
“I can only give you the name. But you will not have the bodies.”
“Then we are at an impasse.”
The samurai and the cyborg went silent. The operators flexed their fingers, subtly shifting their weight. Cold sweat gathered in Karim’s armpits, mingling with old rainwater. The cyborgs continued staring impassively, their hands motionless.
“We have our orders,” Alpha Epsilon said. “We will carry them out. You cannot resist us.”
“We have our mission also,” Yamamoto said. “Do not test us.”
“You know what we are, and the Power who backs us. We are immortal, you are mere flesh, weak and soft. Are you not afraid of death?”
Yamamoto’s smile illuminated the room like lightning in a thunderstorm.
“This dewdrop world is an illusion, a daydream, as fleeting as a cherry blossom. What does it matter if I live or die?”
“I do not understand.”
“How could you? You have given your soul to the Deus Ex Machina, a god yet to be born, in exchange for mere bodies of metal and nanotech. You think of yourselves as beyond the reach of mere men, yet the heavens watch all, and a day will come when you will face the Supreme Judge. I am always ready to make my case before him. Are you?”
Something flickered across the cyborg’s face. Uncertainty? Doubt? Something else? Whatever it was, it was a lingering remnant of the cyborg’s humanity.
“A believer, I see.” The cyborg turned his eyes on the others. “And you? The rest of you? Will you stand in our way?”
“Yes,” Wood said simply.
“I prefer keeping my soul, thank you very much,” Tan said.
Fox mimicked a yawn. “You guys are seriously boring.”
“My trigger finger is itchy,” Connor said. “Are we going to throw down or what?”
Alpha Epsilon frowned, and looked at Karim.
“And you, Elect of Galen? What say you?”
Karim returned the three-eyed gaze. Something within him quaked. But Yamamoto had stood unflinching before an Elect of the Will of the Net, and Karim could not, would not, let him down.
And Karim would not abandon his new god.
“I am pledged to a Bright Power,” Karim said. “I do not recognize yours.”
The Superuser sighed. “It does not have to end this way, humans. This is your last chance. Walk away.”
“No,” Yamamoto said.
“You are outnumbered and outmatched. You cannot win this. When you fall at our hands, we will take your bodies and your brains and hand them to the inquisitors. You will die, and thereafter be condemned to an eternity of endless questions and interrogations, and for what? Dead meat?”
“Before you do anything stupid, consider your position,” Yamamoto said.
“What do you mean?”
“You may kill us today. But tomorrow, the STS will destroy the Singularity Network.”
“You threaten us?”
“No. It is a statement of fact. If an agent of a New God willingly harms an STS operator under orders from his Power, it will be seen as a declaration of war. Total war. It will not be a war you, your Network, or your never-born god will win.” Yamamoto paused. “And my argees are live-streaming this conversation to STS Headquarters.”
The cyborg stared at Yamamoto. Yamamoto stared back.
“Enough foolishness,” the cyborg said. “We have other means of obtaining what we need. Let us depart.”
The thirteen cyborgs turned around and walked away.
Karim heaved a sigh of relief.
Alpha-Epsilon looked over his shoulder. Karim tensed, gripping his weapon.
“One more thing,” the cyborg said.
“Speak,” Yamamoto said.
“You have crossed the Singularity Network. Consider yourself lucky that the Will of the Net chose mercy this time. But we will never forget this.”
“Neither will we.”
The cyborgs departed.
Karim sagged, exhaling sharply. Connor checked his weapon. Tan relaxed. Wood licked his lips. Fox grinned.
“Hey, Boss, you have ice water for blood, you know that?” she said.
Yamamoto’s lips twitched. “That would be biologically impossible.”
She punched him lightly in the shoulder. “You’re no fun.”
“Fun can wait,” Yamamoto said. “Now we call the coroner.”
The storm had broken.
The operators of Black Watch handed over the scene to the cops and went right back to work. Connor checked the heavy weapons and breaching gear, loading them back up on the Sentinel. Tan tended to his robot. Wood delivered the team’s report over the radio, while Yamamoto briefed and coordinated the cops. Fox stood guard over the corpse. Karim went back and forth, helping wherever he could.
Under Fox’s watchful eye, the coroners loaded up the body into their vehicle. The cops moved in to clear the hypermarket, gathering evidence and securing the crime scene.
As Karim loaded up his equipment and ran diagnostics on the gravtruck, he saw Yamamoto approach the cabin. Fox intercepted him along the way.
“I won the bet,” she declared.
“Oh? You’re the one who shot the turtle in the eye?” Yamamoto asked.
She flashed a grin. “Yes!”
“Well done. It helped the rookie with his fight.”
She clasped her hands behind her back and tilted forward just so.
“So? What do I get?”
Yamamoto patted her helmeted head.
“Hey!” she said. “That’s it?”
“What more do you want?” Yamamoto asked.
“You’re buying my drinks tonight.”
“Sure. We all know you can only handle two.”
The other operators laughed heartily. Karim joined in. He wasn’t sure what kind of relationship those two had, but it seemed that nobody in the STS disapproved of it.
“You done flirting yet?” Connor shouted.
“Flirting? Was that what it was?” Yamamoto said.
Fox sighed and shook her head. “You’re hopeless!”
Yamamoto walked over to Karim.
“Hell of a first op, isn’t it?” Yamamoto said.
“Yeah,” Karim replied. “Even ESWAT wasn’t this crazy.”
“You gotta keep up, rookie. For us, this is just another day on the job.”
This was the craziest op he had ever executed. Yet the operators of the Black Watch handled it as though it were routine. Hell, it probably was. Any lesser—or sane—man would back out and no one would think the lesser of him.
But Karim was an Elect of Galen the Wolf. It was his duty, his calling, to prey on the evils that stalked the night. And the STS hunted the biggest game of all.
“I will,” Karim said.
Yamamoto turned to go.
“Wait,” Karim said.
“I heard that no one who worships any of the New Gods is invited to join the STS. Is that true?”
“What’s the primary mission of the STS?”
“To apprehend violent criminals and to resolve critical incidents, including terrorism, hostage situations, and supernatural threats.”
“Textbook. But that’s not the answer.”
“No. The primary mission of the STS is to be a bulwark against the New Gods.”
Karim reeled. The wolf within raised his hackles.
“What do you mean?” Karim asked.
“The Elect gain their powers from the New Gods. But this power comes at a price: the steady erosion of their soul, and a permanent obligation to serve their gods’ purposes. When they lose their souls, they become Husks. But what’s the difference between a Husk and an Elect?”
“A Husk has lost control of his powers. And his mind.”
“Correct. Or is claimed to have gone insane.”
Karim took a moment to consider the implications.
“Are you saying that the New Gods use the Husks as deniable killers?”
“You saw it for yourself, didn’t you? What happened earlier tonight isn’t the work of crazed lunatics. True Husks go on a killing and feeding spree until they are put down. But a Husk directly controlled by a Power, or an Elect ordered to act like a Husk, retains the ability to plan, to think, to adapt.”
“But that means… the Husks we neutralized tonight, were they…?”
Yamamoto raised a finger to his lips.
“We have no evidence. But think carefully about what the Husks did, and how the cyborgs reacted to it. And in my entire career, I’ve never heard of a Dark Power named Aruk.”
“Is it a new one?”
“Or an old one crawling out the shadows.”
“My God… Are STS missions as heavy as this?”
Yamamoto grinned grimly. “Welcome to the STS.”
“I…” Karim shook his head. He wanted to speak, had to speak, but words had abandoned him.
“It’s a hell of a first op,” Yamamoto said, “but you survived. That’s what counts.”
Karim wanted to thank his team leader. Then an unpleasant thought floated into his mind.
“You said the STS is a bulwark against the New Gods. Where does that leave Galen? And me?”
“By your deeds today, you proved that you will stand with us against the Dark Powers… and the New Gods.”
There was something in his voice, some strange light in his eyes, that made Karim wonder if Yamamoto were referring to him or Galen. Or both.
“Here we are now,” Yamamoto continued. “You’ve pissed off the cyborgs, and if you stay, you’ll piss off every one of the New Gods. And the Dark Powers, known and unknown. You sure you want to continue to serve in the STS?”
In the grand scheme of things, Galen was a minor Power at best. To a baseline human he was a god, and he could stand toe-to-toe with a Husk, but in the face of the New Gods, the true powers of the world, Galen was but a fly.
And Karim was only a man.
But someone had to stand against the Dark. Someone had to stand up for the innocent. Someone had to ensure the New Gods did not treat people like playthings.
And he had already sworn an oath to protect and serve.
“I’m in,” Karim said. “All the way to the bitter end.”
“Correct answer. You’ve earned your place here. And on that note…” Yamamoto raised his voice. “The rookie needs a callsign.”
“Wolfy!” Fox said.
Connor burst into derisive chuckling.
“Hey, it’s cute!” she said.
“Lycan,” Yamamoto said. “Short for ‘Lycanthrope’.”
“Sounds cool,” ZT said.
“What’s ‘lycanthrope’?” Karim asked.
Yamamoto shook his head. “You don’t learn these things in school anymore?”
“I’m good with ‘Lycan’,” Wood said.
“No objections here,” Fox said.
Connor grunted. “Same.”
“So be it,” Yamamoto said, and extended his hand. “Welcome to the team, Lycan.”
Karim shook. “Thank you.”
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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