It was good to be home.
James Wood stepped off the ferry and into the relentless glare of the morning sun. A flock of seagulls squawked overhead, cutting above the low drone of the rumbling engines all around the docks. A gentle breeze carried the scent of the sea to his nose.
The air here was hotter and wetter than the mainland. Like the locals, he came dressed in a loose-fitting blue cotton shirt and comfortable gray slacks. He adorned himself with a hat and a pair of sunglasses, and liberally applied sunscreen to his exposed mocha-colored skin.
The people around him were tourists and small-time businessmen from Babylon. He could tell by the inappropriate clothing, either too hot and stuffy or too short and no sunscreen, and the simple fact that they took the ferry. A gravcar could easily cover the distance between Nova Babylonia and Moreno Island as fast and as comfortably as a ferry, and weren’t limited to landing at the docks. These days, the only people who took the ferry were those who wanted the authentic seafaring experience, or didn’t want to pay for a long-range taxi.
Or, in Wood’s case, people traveling incognito on the government dime.
Still, the ferry service was a dying trade. In his youth, the ferries ran four times a day, shuttling workers and visitors and traders between the mainland and the island. Today, the service only ran at dawn and dusk. Commercial fishing trawlers and pleasure yachts occupied docks once reserved for now-decommissioned ferries.
Wood melted into the mass of tourists around him, slowing down his steps, lowering his head just so, becoming just one more mainlander here to visit, and allowed them to carry him into the ferry terminal. Immediately a rush of cold air washed over him, temporarily banishing the heat of the day.
The terminal was almost empty. The morning ferry had come and gone, and there was no reason for anyone to stay. The only people here were new arrivals and the terminal’s elderly uniformed staff.
And Wood’s contact.
Standing at a pillar near the exit, hands held near his belt, a short stocky man awaited. He was dressed in the deep green uniform of the Moreno Island Sheriff’s Department, a short-sleeved shirt paired with cargo pants and low-cut boots. The colors had faded under a regime of harsh detergent and harsher sunlight, his chest-mounted star had gone dull with age, and a bit of softness crept around his belly. Still he held himself erect, and as Wood approached, he saw that his equipment was in immaculate condition.
The deputy keyed on Wood, his eyes furrowing. Wood removed his hat and sunglasses and smiled.
“Jim!” the deputy said.
“It’s been a while, Frank,” Wood replied.
Frank Matthews smiled, revealing a mouthful of gleaming white teeth.
“Damn, man, didn’t recognize you.”
“It’s been too long since we last met, eh?”
“Three years, man. Three years and all we had were emails and the odd phone call.”
Wood shrugged. “Work. You know how it goes.”
“At least we finally get to meet again.” Lowering his voice, Matthews added, “And work is why you’re meeting me, right?”
“Right,” Wood confirmed.
“C’mon. We can talk in the car.”
Matthews led Wood to the parking lot. Every vehicle parked here was earthbound. No lifting fans, no gravity mirrors, just good old fashioned wheels. Even Matthews’ department-issue cruiser was a road car, so old it went out of style a decade ago.
“You guys never heard of gravcars?” Wood asked.
“Only the Special Response Team has ‘em,” Matthews said. “The rest of us gotta make do with good old wheels.”
“And civvies? Anyone actually uses gravcars here?”
“Only the rich and famous.”
The men laughed. There were no rich and famous people in the island. Well-to-do families had long ago pulled up their roots and settled in the sprawling metropolis of Babylon, just across the water. They might maintain business or blood ties on the island, but they never stayed for long.
Matthews took the wheel, Wood had shotgun. There were no augmented reality displays here, just an old-fashioned terminal mounted on the dashboard, obsolete long before Wood joined Public Security. Wood barely remembered how to use one of those.
The engine coughed to life, then rumbled smoothly. Despite its age it still ran like a champion. Matthews pulled the car out the parking lot and drove it down a winding jungle road.
“Things haven’t changed much, have they?” Wood asked.
“It’s Moreno Island, man. The land Babylon forgot.”
He chuckled. “Well, we like it that way, to be honest. Besides, the government might have forgotten us, but the New Gods haven’t.”
“What do you mean?”
“Take a look around.”
The road fed into a highway. As the cruiser accelerated, Woods peered out the windows and beheld an urban jungle. High-rises painted in a hundred colors, squat brick buildings jostling up against their taller neighbors, tree-lined roads zigzagging between them. Here and there, glass and steel reflected the sun into his eyes.
This was Saint Lucile, the largest city on the island, and its administrative capital. It had been too long since he’d visited this part of town. His childhood memories insisted they were shantytowns, places where the desperately poor tried to eke out a living from the nearby seas, places that spawned razorboys and goodtime girls with depressing regularity. Somehow, over the space of three decades, the ramshackle towns had given way to the cityscape he saw today.
He wondered if that were a good thing.
“Saint Lucille’s changed a lot,” Wood said.
“Yeah,” Matthews agreed. “We’ve got the New Gods to thank for that.”
“Oh? How so?”
“They’ve been around since forever, but they’ve dramatically expanded their presence here in the past ten years or so. Since then, they’ve played a huge role in modernization, construction and development projects.”
“Which gods are those?”
“First you’ve got the Singularity Network. Yeah, yeah, the cyborgs don’t have a god—yet—but their Will of the Net counts as one for all intents and purposes, and they’re building their Deus Ex Machina. The other one is the Guild of the Maker.”
The Guild proclaimed a belief in a World Maker who created this world and everything in it. To honor their Maker, they moved into construction, manufacturing, everything that had to do with building or creating new things. In the days after the Cataclysm, when the world rearranged itself and flung disparate peoples all over a reformed Earth, the Guild led reconstruction and rebuilding efforts.
The world saw them as mostly benign. Wood knew otherwise.
“What about local spirits and tutelary gods?” Wood asked.
“They’ve faded away,” Matthews said. “You might find local gods in small towns and deep inside the swamps, but the New Gods rule the cities and influence the island.”
“Do they get along?”
“Sure. The Guild handles construction and public development, the Network brings in high tech, and they collaborate where their interests meet.”
The New Gods collaborated often, even in Babylon and the other cities of Nova Babylonia. On the surface, they projected an image of harmony and goodwill. But Wood knew the truth: the New Gods all had competing agendas, and they would collaborate only to the extent necessary to pursue their own interests. Whatever they may be.
“Seems like the New Gods are bringing progress to Moreno Island,” Wood remarked.
“Yeah. Praise the Maker.”
Wood raised an eyebrow.
“You’re a believer now?”
“Sure,” he said.
“I was admitted to the Guild last year.”
A touch of pride colored Matthews’ voice.
“I didn’t hear about that,” Wood said.
“Guess we never got around to talking about it.”
“Why’d you join up with them?”
“They’ve done so much for us. As you said, they brought progress to Moreno Island. Housing, hospitals, business, tech. Everything you see outside the window, they built it. One day, we’ll be just as developed as Babylon.”
Wood didn’t know if it was a good thing. Glancing out the window again, he saw a brown and gray mosaic of concrete edifices bordered by shrinking green woods. The buildings were all blocky and functional and soulless, created with an eye towards rapid construction and nothing more.
It was the preferred aesthetic of the Guild. Boxy, boring, utilitarian. But now and then some god-touched architect or engineer swung in the opposite direction, producing a masterwork that combined cutting-edge tech and radical design principles, so distinct and unique and impossible that only the Guild dared build and use them. These structures weren’t just ordinary buildings; they were tributes and shrines to the Maker himself. Wood saw none of those god-constructs here. Nor did he want to.
The brick-and-mortar tenements and shops of his youth might be old, but at least they had character. They had life. What he saw now was indistinguishable from Babylon, or any other major city where the New Gods held sway.
“You signed up because of what they’ve done?” Wood asked. “What about their beliefs?”
“After I learned about what they did for the island, I started looking into their beliefs, and I found that I just clicked with them,” Matthews said.
“Clicked? That’s an interesting choice of words.”
“Well, take a look out there. We live in a world that obeys constant, reproducible, universal laws. These laws are the same everywhere you go. All of creation is orderly and rational and logical, explainable entirely by these universal laws. How can there not be a Maker that set down these laws?”
“The other New Gods claim they can shape reality as they see fit.”
“They can only manipulate the universal laws, or perhaps bend them in ways we can’t explain. But they did not establish these laws and they can’t break them.”
Wood wasn’t a follower of the New Gods. All his life he’d been raised to rely only on himself, his family, his tribe. They were the only ones you could count on for support. The benedictions and miracles the New Gods dispensed always came with a price, and woe be upon he who caught their attention.
Wood chuckled. “You know, I’ve got a friend who said something similar to me once.”
“Really? Is he a believer?”
“In his own way. But he’s a strange one.” Wood shook his head. “Anyway, speaking of gods, have you ever heard of a spirit named Aruk?”
“Nope. Who’s that?”
The answer came easily and naturally. There was no deception in Matthews’ eyes, only curiosity.
“Babylon PD says the Santiago Syndicate worships a Dark Power that calls itself Aruk. Know anything about that?”
“Ah. The Santiagos.” Matthews licked his lips. “You’re in Public Security now, right?”
“Yeah,” Wood replied.
It was the truth. The Special Tasks Section fell under the ambit of the Public Security Bureau. Sure, in practice, STS usually acted semi-independently of the rest of the Bureau, but every STS operator was a fully-accredited PSB Special Agent.
“What do you do now?”
“Now? I’m working a narcotics investigation, targeting the Santiagos. Why’d you ask?”
“Just wanna know how well-read you are into them.”
Matthews’ eyes flickered away, and his voice trembled slightly.
“Pretend I know nothing,” Wood said. “I mean, you’re the guy on the ground, right? Us poor, dumb Pubes don’t know shit.”
Matthews chuckled. “Right, well, the Santiagos are the most powerful crime syndicate on the island. They have the most men, money, guns and juice. They specialize in narcotics. If you name it, they’ve got it.”
“I heard they’re moving out of the dope biz to focus on Green Bliss.”
“You heard right. They’re dumping their stock at cut-throat prices and letting their competitors take over the dope biz.”
“They hold a monopoly on the Bliss. People will pay through the nose for a single piece of fruit. With profits like that, everything else is a sideshow.”
“The Bliss turns psis into Husks, right?”
Matthews sighed. “Yeah. There’s been… thirty of them in the past three years.”
“Holy shit. So many? How come I haven’t heard of them?”
“We keep things quiet here. Besides, the New Gods help us with Husks.”
“They have a contract with the SRT. If something’s too dangerous for the SRT, their in-house security will assist.”
“You don’t sound too happy about that.”
“Not really. The Elect have access to firepower and training above and beyond what the SRT can muster. If we’re talking about Husks, they’re the right people for the job.”
“Aren’t they undermining your authority?”
“No, not at all. They’re like… subcontractors. Specialists. They come in when SRT can’t take care of the problem. They’ll deal with Husks and other paranormal situations; we handle everything else.”
“Isn’t STS the nationwide response unit for Husks?”
“How long does it take for STS to come here? Three, four hours? More? A Husk can do a lot of killing in that time. But the New Gods’ Counter Assault Teams? They can be on site in a half hour or less, and still do as good a job as the STS.”
“True enough,” Wood said. “But back to the Santiagos.”
Matthews relaxed slightly.
“What do you want to know?” Matthews asked.
“I’m here to shut down the Green Bliss at the source.”
“You’re taking on the Santiagos? All by yourself?”
“I’m the advance party. I’m just here to gather all the information I can. Someone else will do the door kicking.”
“Ah. The first thing you should know is that the Santiagos aren’t in the cities.”
Wood sat up.
“They have distributors and pushers in the cities, sure, and we know they ship Green Bliss to the mainland from Saint Lucile. But these guys are all small fry. Middle management at most.”
“Where’s the big fish?”
“We don’t know exactly. We do know the Bliss is grown deep in plantations in swamp country, processed in a hidden facility, and distributed to the cities and towns via the rivers and backwood trails. The big boss, Raul Santiago, must be somewhere in swamp country.”
“Nobody you picked up knows where the processing facility is?”
“No, not even the mules. The Santiagos use one-time only dead drops to stash the Bliss. All the mules know is that every now and then, they receive a text message telling them to go somewhere and pick up the Bliss.”
“Sounds like a sophisticated operation.”
Matthews blew out sharply. “It is.”
“What can you tell me about Raul Santiago?”
“His childhood is the same as most other kids here. He was born in Saint Lucille, went to school, found a talent in chemistry, then went to the mainland to get a degree. When he came back, he went to work as a high school teacher. Or at least he tried.
“Twelve years ago, he dropped out of sight. As best as we can tell, he built a dope grow in the swamps and started pushing narcotics in Saint Lucile. We picked him up a couple of times, but all for chickenfeed offenses. He kept working at his drug business, slowly expanding and cutting deals with other suppliers, until he became the king of the island’s narcotics scene.”
“Until the Bliss appeared.”
“Yeah. Once it hit the streets, he dropped out of sight. He hasn’t been seen in public for three years and counting.”
“We’re tracking many of his friends. But his family and his closest associates have disappeared.”
“That’s not how a drug kingpin typically operates. Why go through all that trouble of making illegal money without spending it?”
“Exactly. We can’t understand it ourselves. It’s like the swamp swallowed them up.”
“Did he find religion or something?”
“Not that we know of. I mean, he’s still running his empire.”
“I mean a Dark Power.”
“Is it that Aruk you mentioned earlier?”
Matthews shrugged. “Maybe. Anything’s possible if the gods are involved. Haven’t heard of this one before, but I’ll ask around.”
“Thanks. One more favor?”
“What is it?”
“Are there any Santiago hotspots on the island?”
“The Sheriff could tell you that later.” Matthews paused. “You are going to see the Sheriff, right?”
“Sure, but since we’re talking about the Santiagos and all, I might as well tell you too.”
Matthews pursed his lips and shifted slightly in his seat. “Well…”
“This is outside my jurisdiction, you understand? I just patrol Saint Lucille.”
“There’s a ‘but’ in there, right?”
He nodded. “But now and then I hear the investigators talking, and sometimes deputies elsewhere in the island talk to me too. It’s a small department, you understand.”
“They say the Santiagos have recently set up shop in the midlands. They’ve spotted a number of known Santiago mules and distributors in the area. The investigators think there might be a distribution or supply hub in the region.”
“Sounds like a lead.”
“Yeah, well, you’re going to love the next part.”
“What is it?”
“Most of that activity is centered on Hopton. Our hometown.”
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