In another era, in another world, deploying assault armor on a drug bust was overkill. But in Babylon, where the streets were soaked in the blood of the innocent and the damned, built upon bricks fired in the forges of gods, assault armor was merely adequate.
As he waited, James Wood ran through his third system diagnostics of the day. Voice recognition software, good to go. Optics, check. C4I suite, check. Combat software, ready. M280 heavy machine gun, locked and loaded. The Vanguard series of assault armor had always been finicky, and while the manufacturer promised that the latest generation had worked out all the known kinks and bugs, Wood never quite trusted what the manufacturer had to say.
In this biz, what you didn’t know will kill you.
Inside the Sentinel gravtruck, the men of the Black Watch ran through their final checks. They patted down ammo and utility pouches, inspected the secondary weapon systems attached to their forearms, checked and re-checked the tool kits stowed on their upper arm pouches. Wood joined them in silence, one part standard operational procedure, one part devotion to the gods of war, one part ritual of defiance against Murphy, that dark saint of bad luck.
“All stations, Sierra One,” Kayla Fox radioed. “I have visual on a boat. Looks like the players are all here.”
Kayla Fox was the sole woman on the team, one of the few women warriors who had earned their places in the Special Tasks Section. As the team sniper, she was presently positioned on the other side of the Babylon River, on the roof of a long-abandoned smokestack, where she observed the target.
“Sierra One, Cherry. Roger that. Stream your feed.”
Cherry was the Special Tasks Section operator leading today’s op. Usually a veteran team like the Black Watch was the first through the door, but Yuri Yamamoto had argued for Cherry to take the lead today.
During the briefing, Yamamoto had spoken with the clear, unshakeable resolution of a man squaring himself to face impossible odds. He wanted the Black Watch on the supporting element. Given who they were up against today, the operators quickly agreed.
A fresh voice cut in. A male voice.
“Cherry, Sierra One. Copy that. Streaming now.”
It was Zen Tan, the team’s electronic expert, who also doubled as Fox’s spotter. He designated and observed targets, she pulled the trigger, a division of labor they were long familiar with.
A moment later, a transparent screen overlaid Wood’s visor. It was the feed from Tan’s spotting scope, set to fusion vision. The screen displayed today’s objective, a blocky two-story warehouse, colored in the brilliant greens and deep blacks of night vision. Bright red and orange forms gathered near the warehouse doors. Thermal signatures, six of them, all human. For now.
Nearby, a small floating dock jutted out from the riverbank. A go-fast boat, sleek and narrow, putted slowly to the dock. Two people sat in the aft of the large vessel; in the stern, Wood saw a tarpaulin covering a small hill of blocky objects.
“Sierra One, Cherry, I have good feed. Break. All call signs, stand by, stand by.”
The boatmen halted their boat and tied their vessel to the docks. The welcoming committee moved up to greet them. Jumping off the go-fast, the boatmen exchanged hugs and handshakes with the welcoming committee. After a brief discussion, the men pulled off the tarpaulin, revealing a collection of neatly-stacked crates. One by one, the men unloaded the crates, transferring them to a nearby forklift.
“The deal is going down,” Cherry said. “We’ll move in once they move the dope indoors.”
Wood approved. If the Special Tasks Section moved in now, the bad guys could simply dump the drugs into the water.
Lights flared up, washing out the image. The scope automatically transitioned to regular vision. The targets had turned on the lights inside the warehouse. As the forklift scooted into the building, the rest of the men followed. One of the boatmen remained by the dock, lighting up a cigarette.
“I don’t see any more crates,” Tan said.
“Me neither,” Cherry agreed. “Sierra Two, gimme your feed.”
A new window replaced the feed. This sniper team was positioned to observe the front entrance of the warehouse. A head-high concrete wall surrounded the building, topped with barbed wire. A sliding security gate controlled the sole road in and out, in turn controlled by a nearby guardhouse. White light leaked from the guardhouse window.
“No change,” the sniper reported.
“Roger that,” Cherry said. “All stations, I have control. Stand by, stand by. Go!”
The gravtruck whirred to life. The gravity mirror reflected the world’s gravity field, hurling the vehicle into the sky. Wood leaned back, M280 pointed safely up at the ceiling, and breathed deep.
His heart pumped a rapid tattoo in his chest. Cool recycled air caressed his face. He wiggled his fingers, the suit registering and mirroring his movements with zero latency and complete precision.
“Suit, combat mode,” Wood said.
The windows switched off. Compass bearings appeared at the upper edge of his visor, spinning with the gravtruck. Readouts and displays at the bottom of the screen showed his suit’s power levels, internal temperature, air and water supply. As he looked around, bright blue silhouettes highlighted the three other suits in his truck.
“Hey, Karim, relax,” Yuri Yamamoto said.
Karim Mustafa, the team newbie, was sitting ramrod-straight, his posture unnaturally stiff. Behind the transparent visor, Wood saw an olive-skinned face locked rigid with tension.
Mustafa breathed out sharply. “Yeah. I’m relaxing.”
Will Connor nudged Mustafa in the side. “You’ve got a god in your corner. If anything, you’ve got less to worry about than us.”
Galen the Wolf, a minor power, had chosen Mustafa as his Elect. Gifted with supernatural powers, Mustafa was the team psi, and their trump card.
Well, second trump card, after Yamamoto.
The gravtruck swooped down. Wood’s suit bucked against his safety harness.
“Ten seconds!” the driver called.
“It’s show time,” Connor declared.
The gravtruck settled lightly on its roadwheels. The rear doors swung open. Wood hit the buckle and jumped out.
“Public Security! Hands up!” Cherry shouted.
Gunfire followed, a short, sharp barrage of multiple double-taps.
Wood scanned, long enough to see operators spilling from three more gravtrucks and a corpse sprawled by the guard house, then swung around and took his position by the engine block of the grav truck. M280 ready, he swept for threats. The M280’s sight fed a scarlet crosshair to his visor, indicating his point of aim.
A heavy hand slapped his ammo pack.
“Lycan, ready!” Mutafa called.
“Boomer, ready!” Connor reported.
“Let’s go!” Yamamoto ordered.
The four suited men dashed to the warehouse. Clad in one-tonne suits of power armor, every step was a thunderclap, a warning that an avatar of war was on the field. No handheld weapon could penetrate the suits’ nanocrystalline armor plates, no earthly camouflage could escape their optics and sensors, no man-portable armor could stand up to the awesome power of an M280.
The four-suit formation charged for the right-hand side of the warehouse. A demi-platoon of twelve STS operators trailed them. A second demi-platoon raced for the front doors of the building. Wood scanned his area of responsibility, his eyes and the suit’s AI hunting for threats.
No resistance, not yet.
Rounding the corner, stepping into the riverside loading bay, Wood snapped up his weapon. There was only one man in sight: the boatman guarding the go-fast.
“STS!” he boomed. “HANDS UP NOW!”
The boatman dived into his vessel, scrambling for the controls.
“Deadeye, Samurai,” Yamamoto said. “Scorpio.”
“Acknowledged,” the sniper replied.
Thunder cracked. The boat shuddered. A geyser blasted from the water’s surface. A second shot, and fire flashed from the boat’s stern.
The boatman fumbled with his console, but nothing happened.
“Boat disabled,” Fox reported.
Voices shouted in panic and anger. A crowd of men rushed out of the warehouse, right into the operators’ sights. Powerful flashlights illuminated them, forcing them to cover their eyes.
“Public Security!” Cherry shouted. “Freeze!”
Two men halted. The rest made for the boat.
“The engine’s dead!” the boatman shouted.
Obscenities and oaths floated through the air.
“There is nowhere to run!” Cherry continued. “Get down on the ground and put your hands in the air!”
A man burst from the crowd.
“Fuck you!” he shouted.
Threads of green light flashed under the surface of his exposed face. His eyes glowed an eerie emerald. His arms, legs, torso, face, all of him inflated and bulged and exploded from his clothes. His naked form melted, his flesh and bone migrating across his body. Naked skin transformed into hard scales, a thick blunt snout burst from his face, his limbs elongated and thickened, and suddenly he was a crocodile, a bipedal crocodile eight feet tall, muscled and armored.
The first 12.7mm round struck him dead center. Wood held the trigger and walked the recoil up, stitching him from chest to face. Every bullet smashed into him and blew him up from inside out, spraying gore and viscera in every direction. Five rounds later, Wood released the trigger, and saw nothing left of the creature’s torso and face.
The suspects transformed. Once human, they mutated into gigantic crocs with powerful teeth and killer claws and muscled tails.
As one, they charged.
The STS opened fire. Training his crosshair on the nearest croc, Wood saw sparks flash all over his chest and face—immune to small arms, dammit!—and fired.
No time for precision or subtlety. The Vanguards of the Black Watch laid down cones of withering fire, sweeping the field with autofire. Blazing orange tracers and enormous ball rounds ripped through the Husks. Across the river, Fox fired too, her 12.7mm sniper rifle exploding a monster’s head. Where the paltry carbine rounds had failed, the M280s made short work of the threats, tearing them up, mulching them down, reducing them to bloody explosions and severed limbs and decapitated heads.
The shooting smoke. A tense silence fell. Wood scanned for survivors. There was one: the boatman.
A score of flashlights trained on him.
“HANDS UP!” Cherry ordered.
“I give up!” the boatman cried, throwing his arms up in the air.
But in that motion, a small object flew from his hand and splashed into the water.
“The subject threw something into the river,” Yamamoto reported.
“Copy,” Cherry said. “We’ll activate divers—”
“There’s something in the water!” Fox warned.
The river frothed and rippled. A cold shiver ran down Wood’s spine.
“To the water!” Wood yelled.
The Black Watch rushed to the river bank. The boatman laughed deliriously, his hands still raised.
“He comes! ARUK COMES! THE GREEN GOD COMES!” he yelled.
Wood activated his spotlights. Just under the surface of the dark waters, he saw something blacker than night. Something huge.
“Incoming!” Wood called.
An enormous thing breached the surface. Heralded in sprays of oil-slick water, it loomed over the boat, over the suits, over the warehouse. The light revealed massive curved plates covering the length of its serpentine torso. An array of armored legs lined its side, too many to count. Eyestalks sprouted from the creature’s head, and underneath it were enormous mandibles, as thick as Vanguard’s forearm.
Just behind the head, the thing sprouted a pair of colossal claws.
“FIRE!” Yamamoto ordered.
Wood’s reticle found the center of its body. He squeezed the trigger and rode the M280 up the length of the monster’s torso, the Vanguard’s artificial muscle canceling out the recoil. No blood, no sparks, no reaction. As his crosshairs crept to its face, it crashed its claws together, shielding its head. Bullets ricocheted off its arms, splashing into the concrete at his feet.
And the monster fell.
“RUUUUUUUUUUUN!” Yamamoto shouted.
Everybody ran. Karim dashed through the edge of the crowd, leading the mad flight. Connor was right behind him. But Yamamoto took care to stay behind the fleeing STS operators, lest he accidentally trample them. Wood followed his example.
A thunderous crash resounded behind Wood. The ground quaked, throwing him off balance. He stumbled and spun around.
The snake-lobster-thing had shattered the boat and the dock, and was crawling up on the riverbank. Its many legs scuttled across the wet concrete, propelling it faster than its bulk would allow in a sane universe. As Wood watched, it pulled itself up on the loading bay, its bulk still stretching into the waters.
Wood turned and ran.
The STS regrouped in the parking lot. As the snipers fired on the creature, Yamamoto stood by the gravtrucks, shouting orders.
“We have to stop this thing here and now!” Yamamoto ordered. “Crunchies, set up a perimeter. Snipers, fire at will. Gravtrucks, thunder run. Black Watch, on me. We stand and fight.”
“It’s here!” an STS operator yelled. “Behind you, on the roof!”
Gripping the parapet with its enormous claws, the creature lifted itself on the roof of the warehouse. Metal shrieked. Concrete crumbled. But the structure held. High-caliber gunshots erupted all around, but the monster shrugged it off. Legs scrabbled up the side of the building, and it hauled its enormous bulk on the roof.
Connor fired. Karim fired. Then Yamamoto and Wood joined in. Once again, the thing shielded itself with its claws. But it slowed down, buying the other operators time to rush out the gate. The three gravtrucks whined, spinning up their wing-mounted miniguns, and rose into the air.
“No good!” Karim reported. “Armor’s too thick!”
“We need to lure it down here and flank it,” Yamamoto said.
The gravtrucks swooped down on the monster, miniguns blazing. A blizzard of metal washed across the roof, tearing up everything it touched. The creature ducked its head behind its massive claws and leapt.
“SCATTER!” Wood yelled.
He sprang away with all his might. The suit’s sensors and muscles responded, carrying him through the air and to the far end of the parking lot.
And he crashed into a parked car.
The vehicle crumpled and shattered under the weight of the assault armor. Its alarm screamed futilely. Sprawled across the collapsed hood, Wood gulped and checked the readout.
He rolled off the car. The enormous monster was splayed across the parking lot, turning its attention on the other three operators. As the Vanguards fled, the thing lashed out with a massive claw and seized Karim.
“Not today, you son of a bitch,” Wood muttered.
Taking up his heavy machine gun, Wood dashed to the monster. Mustafa wriggled his left forearm out of the monster’s grip and dropped his wrist. The forearm-mounted shotgun fired.
Blood spurted from a massive leg.
“Shoot the legs!” Wood shouted.
Halting, Wood dropped to a crouch, placed the crosshair on the monster’s leading leg, and fired. He swept the gun to the right, holding down the trigger. Gore erupted across the monster’s side. Sawn-off legs soared through the air.
With an unearthly roar, the creature tilted on its wounded side. At the last moment, it caught itself with its massive claw.
“Black Watch, Vic Two here. You need to free your operator before we can make another thunder run,” a gravtruck driver advised.
“Understood, Vic Two. Moving in,” Wood reported.
Wood circled around the creature, calculating angles and vectors. An eyestalk swiveled around to track him. He raised his machine gun and—
Green light flashed.
A cosmos of pain, a pain so profound it froze the entirety of his being. An explosion rocked the suit, sending it crashing down. Alarms screamed around him. Pain throbbed and filled his brain. Liquid trickled down his face. He blinked, but there was something stopping his right eyelid from closing.
The eyestalk floated above the creature’s head, staring at him.
He gnashed his teeth.
“Do your worst,” he said.
A high-caliber rifle roared.
The eyestalk exploded.
Grinning, Wood sat up. The visor was shattered and he didn’t have a reticle to aim with, but the tracers mixed into the ammo feed was good enogh. Pointing the M280 at the spot where claw met body, he fired.
What was left of the suit responded, valiantly struggling to control the recoil. The world seemed slightly off, a little flat somehow, but he didn’t care. Loosing short three-round bursts, he watched the impact of the tracers, aiming at them at the thing’s joints.
No more ammo. But he wasn’t done yet. Pointing his right arm at its stalk, he dropped his wrist. The forearm-mounted personal defense weapon roared, loosing a hundred tiny armor-piercing bullets in a single deafening burst. More snipers fired, and just behind him, another M280 spoke.
Under the barrage of bullets, the claw arm dissolved in a flood of bright green blood, falling away from the body. The thing rolled onto its wounded side with a colossal shriek. The claw popped open. Mustafa fought his way loose and sprinted away.
“Lycan is clear!” Mustafa reported.
“Copy,” Vic Two said. “We’re going hot.”
The grav trucks lined up bore down on the monster. Miniguns screaming, they scoured the abomination with a second hail of bullets.
The thing tried to cover its head with its remaining claw. Many rounds bounced off. But there too many bullets and only one armored claw. The rounds passed through what openings they found and shredded everything they touched. With a final colossal roar, the thing went still.
Wood picked himself up.
Two Vanguards gingerly approached the monster. It didn’t respond. They grabbed the lone remaining claw and flung it aside. No response. They aimed their heavy machine guns at its face and loosed a final volley.
“Threat neutralized,” Yamamoto reported.
“Finally,” Connor muttered.
Wood heaved a sigh of relief. Thank God this thing had a weakness. If not, they’d have to call in the military, and that would not end well.
“Regroup on me,” Yamamoto ordered.
Wood’s head grew heavy and foggy. It took him a moment to remember how to lift his foot, then carefully plant in on the concrete.
“That was a Class S, wasn’t it?” Karim said.
“A-plus at the very least,” Yamamoto said.
“I swear, the next time we do this, I’m going to load up with heaps,” Connor grumbled. “And damn what the bean counters say about collateral damage.”
“Sounds like… a good idea,” Wood said.
“Yeah, that’s…” Yamamoto’s voice trailed off. “Jim, you’re wounded. You need to get out of the suit now.”
“Suit, extract,” Wood commanded.
“Hang tight,” Yamamoto said. “I’m going for manual extract.”
The rear of Yamamoto’s suit popped open. The operator climbed out and sprinted over, going for the emergency extraction handle at the rear. Gears engaged, air hissed, and the suitport fell open behind Wood.
“You can step out now,” Yamamoto said.
Steadily, carefully, Wood reached behind him and pulled himself out of the suit. He bumped his head against the frame, and something shuddered in his right eye socket. Pain burst through him and his breath spewed from him in an explosive gasp.
Steady hands gripped his back.
“Easy, easy,” Yamamoto said. “I got you.”
With Yamamoto’s help, Wood gently climbed out the rest of the way. The moment his feet touched the floor, his legs wobbled and his face went cold.
“I need to…” Wood began.
Yamamoto gently lowered Wood to the asphalt and rolled him on the side. All strength fled Wood’s body, and it took all the willpower he had just to keep awake.
“Jim, you alright?”
“I… don’t… Feeling cold.”
Yamamoto’s gloved hands expertly ran down his torso, checking for wounds.
“Understood. Any other wounds?”
Yamamoto keyed his push-to-talk switch.
“Cherry, this is Samurai. We have a man down. Shrapnel wound to his right eye. There’s still bleeding, and he’s going into shock. We need medics now.”
A thought flashed through Wood’s brain.
“Wait!” Wood gasped.
“Yeah?” Yamamoto asked.
“Aruk… The boatman said ‘Aruk’. Remember him?”
Yamamoto’s face hardened. “Yeah.”
A few weeks ago, a quartet of Husks had rampaged through the streets of Babylon. They had pledged themselves to a hitherto unknown Dark Power, one that called himself ‘Aruk’.
“It’s… not… over,” Wood whispered.
“It’s not,” Yamamoto agreed.
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