4. The Prodigal Son
The meeting with Sheriff Kane was polite, formal, and an utter waste of time.
Over lunch, Kane and James Wood discussed the Santiago Syndicate, Moreno Island and the New Gods. While the great man had demonstrated ample deference to James Wood’s august position as a representative of the Public Security Bureau, and by extension to the power of the federal government, Kane revealed exactly nothing that the PSB didn’t already know.
Was the Sheriff holding out on him? Was the department’s resources and intelligence limited? Wood suspected it was both. He might have been an islander once, but he had been away for so long he was a mainlander now. An outsider. In places like these, outsiders were never to be trusted.
But there was still a place where he would always be welcome.
Hopton had changed. A backwater town in a backwater island, it was less a town than an arbitrarily-defined parcel of land granted to a loosely-knit collection of settlers eons ago. Its sole claim to fame was its farmland. Acres and acres of fertile black soil, able to bring forth anything a careful and hardworking farmer planted and nurtured. Over countless generations, the farmers had steadily increased their holdings and dispersed from each other, meeting only for special events or to sell their goods in town, the only place that could truly be considered Hopton proper.
Out in the backcountry, miles and hours separated neighbors from each other. A car was the only way to move quickly around here. A road car, not a gravcar. For one thing, there were few gravcar maintenance and charging stations on the island, and none in Hopton. For another, gravcars were high-profile, and this mission demanded a subtle touch.
Wood, rented a road car and drove.
Down winding forest roads bordered with untamed vegetation, cutting through unmarked trails that existed only in memories, passing by fields of sugarcane and tomatoes and corn, Wood drove on for hours, stopping only for the occasional toilet break and to reorient himself. During his first toilet break he sent a text message; he received a reply shortly after that. As the sun began to set, he rolled into Hopton.
Hopton was once a small, cozy farming town. He had spent countless hours running these streets with Frank Matthews and his friends. In their boyhood they played hide and seek and chased each other down unpaved roads; in high school they counted cars and courted girls; when they became men, Wood left Hopton behind to find his destiny in the bright lights of Babylon.
In the years between his departure and his return, the town had doubled in size. It had begun life as a giant market where merchants from the coastal cities could trade with farmers from the interior. Now he saw banks, chic cafes, electronics stores, even a cyber surgeon. They all bore the same brutal, utilitarian aesthetic that was the mark of the Maker.
The original open-air market was gone, replaced by a hypermarket like any other hypermarket in Babylon. Where a row of tenement buildings once stood, there was now a massive construction site, the signs promising a train station, connecting Hopton to the rest of the island within the next five years. Old brick and mortar buildings, painted in warm earthy tones and mellowed with thousands of sunsets, were slowly being replaced by LED and concrete and interchangeable prefab units.
At the town square, in place of the church that had cast a long shadow over Hopton, there was now a Shard of the Singularity Network. The church’s husk remained, but the wireless signals, the logos and the floating holo ads proclaimed the identity of the new occupier. Even the school was gone, the century-old edifice replaced by a modern imposter of straight lines and glass and painted panels arranged in abstract patterns.
This wasn’t the Hopton he knew. His childhood landmarks were all replaced or paved over, old roads fed to new ones, and there were so many new buildings he couldn’t recognize.
So much had changed. He wasn’t sure if it were a good thing.
He kept driving.
He followed the arterial roads that webbed across the town, watching residential buildings melt into markets and grocers and small-time commerce, in turn melting away into a high-tech commerce and medical area, before once again becoming yet another residential neighborhood, albeit newer than the one he had passed through. The last private home flashed past him, and then he was once again on the open road.
There were streetlights now, a welcome addition, but they graced only the highways running through the island. The moment he turned off into a side road, darkness swamped him, forcing him to rely on his vehicle mounted headlights.
As he drove, he kept his eyes peeled for animals, insects, anything that might spring out from the night or the woods around him. But there was nothing. No animal trails, no late-night calls, nothing that betrayed a sign of life. Not unusual, even in his time, but somehow the forest felt emptier than before.
Lonely farms appeared by the road. Most of them were isolated barn houses and small dwellings, surrounded by fields of crops. He knew them all: the St Pauls, the Luciens, the Clays. But there were a few farms whose owners he didn’t know. These had embraced technology, boasting climate-controlled greenhouses and grain silos, worker bots that tirelessly guarded and watered the fields, blocky homes and offices built not of wood and sweat but concrete and ceramic and strange alloys.
Too much had changed. He could no longer rely on his memories. Instead, Wood navigated by map and compass. Sure, the car had a built-in GPS, but only the New Gods knew if it were feeding unwanted data to them. The first thing he did after claiming the vehicle was to sweep the vehicle for trackers and disable the GPS. Civilians would call it paranoia.
In his world, it was simply good tradecraft.
Eventually he arrived at his destination. At least, the map said it was his destination. In his memories, he saw a white-painted three-story house with attached garage and toolshed, presiding over an acre of mixed-use crops and a small grazing area. Now, the farm had quadrupled in size. There were greenhouses and parking lots, animal pens and silos, a motor pool and smaller buildings whose purpose he couldn’t quite divine.
A pang of sadness caught in his chest. His family must have done well for themselves. They had intimated as such over emails, phone calls, and the few times they met in Saint Lucile for day trips and meals. But he hadn’t personally seen it for himself.
While he was busy killing armed criminals and terrorists and horrendous things from Beyond, they were busy growing and feeding and cultivating new life in this world. Here they knew nothing of man-eating horrors and soul-destroying gods, and baring a catastrophe, would never need to fear such monsters.
Had he gone wrong? Had he made a mistake joining the STS? Why had he left this all behind to chase dreams of guns and glory in Babylon?
To protect everyone, of course. But he was only one man, and he couldn’t stop the infiltration of the New Gods. He felt like he was holding back the tide with a shovel. Was all the pain, the bloodshed and the sacrifice worth it?
Yes, he decided. It was worth it, because his family was safe and well. Because he kept the worst predators of Babylon from coming here.
Anyway, it was too late now for regrets. As Yuri Yamamoto had once told him, all he could do was walk his road all the way to the end.
Rolling up to the gate, he sounded the horn. A short, sharp blast, enough to announce his presence without overly-annoying everyone. The gate silently slid open of its own accord, allowing him in.
Wood blinked. His family was no stranger to technology, but even the gate had been automated. Interesting.
The door of the main house opened, revealing two figures silhouetted against warm white light. Wood parked his car at an empty lot just by the door and stepped out.
“Hey Mom, hey Dad,” he said.
“Jim! It’s been so long!” Mom said.
“Welcome back,” Dad replied.
The years hadn’t treated them kindly. The sun had blasted and crumpled their dark skins until they took on the texture of tough leather. Their hair, what was left of it, had gone white. But they were still strong and hearty, dressed in simple rugged clothes, and laugh lines graced their eyes and cheeks.
“Come join us for dinner,” Mom said. “I’ve got meatloaf.”
Nothing in the world compared to Mom’s meatloaf. It was moist and tender and juicy and firm and springy. It was the closest he had ever come to a slice of heaven on Earth.
“That sounds great,” James said.
The three of them gathered in the dining room. Under the warm light of a shining new chandelier, Mom served up plates of meatloaf and string beans and mashed potatoes.
James tried an experimental bite of meatloaf. It burst with flavor, ground pork and hardboiled egg and cornmeal and carrots exploding over his tongue and melting his belly.
“As delicious as ever,” James pronounced.
She smiled. “Thank you.”
“You should come by more often,” Dad pronounced. “There’s nothing in the world like it.”
“I try,” James said lamely.
“But it’s been eight years since you last came home,” Mom chided.
He shrugged. “Well, here I am now.”
Sure, he made a point to visit his family at least once or twice a year, but he only ever met them in Saint Lucile or in Babylon. Not at home proper.
“You seem to be doing well for yourselves,” James added hastily.
“It’s not just us,” Dad said. “Bob and Terry helped out too.”
His younger brothers. Where he had gone to the mainland, they had chosen to stay on the island and follow in their ancestors’ footsteps.
“Where are they now?” James asked.
“They’re overnighting in town with Dorothy and Velma. Their kids are upstairs, in bed.”
“Nah. Work. We’re going to upgrade our digital infrastructure soon. The boys say it will improve crop monitoring, control of equipment, bookkeeping, all that good stuff. They’re going to ink the deal with the Shard and learn how to use the new platform.”
“The Shard? You mean the Singularity Network?”
Dad nodded. “Yeah. They may be weird, but their tech is outstanding. They helped us with the greenhouse, showed us how to use farming bots, and how to use ecommerce and accounting software. All at reasonable prices.”
“You do business with the New Gods?”
“Of course,” Mom said. “Everyone does business with the Shard and the Guild these days.”
“Tell me more,” James said.
“Well, you’ve heard about the Shard,” Dad said. “The Guild sold us a new kind of new fertilizer and some seeds. We’ve seen a thirty percent increase in yields. They also built the new sheds, greenhouse and office outside.”
“Office? You have one now?”
“Sure. House is too small to do the paperwork, what with the kids running around and all. So we built a new office, close to the farms. We also use the office to monitor the bots, track our crop growth and inventory levels, that sort of thing.”
“I see. Do you actually worship the New Gods?”
“We ain’t much into that religion business ourselves, you know that.” Dad paused. “But your brothers, well… they’ve been attending meetings at the Shard and Guild pretty often these days.”
“Their wives are. Dorothy is part of the Network, Velma is a paid-up member of the Guild. But Bob and Terry, they say they go to meetings so they can network and gain business opportunities.”
“I don’t think that wise,” Mom opined. “You don’t go worship a god just to make money, you know?”
“No kidding,” James said.
“Well, the boys aren’t doing anything wrong and they haven’t offended anyone,” Dad said. “There are worse ways to live.”
“I guess…” Mom said. “But enough about us. How’ve you been doing? Still working in Public Security?”
“Yeah,” James said guardedly.
“What do you do?”
“Same as before.”
Mom’s voice dropped an octave. “STS?”
James nodded. “I’d appreciate it if you don’t spread it around.”
“I heard STS members cannot worship any of the New Gods,” Dad said, “or have any kind of affiliation with them.”
“Our job is to uphold and enforce the law. Human law. To do our job properly, we cannot allow even the slightest bit of influence from any outsiders or foreigners, including the New Gods.”
“That makes sense. But Dorothy and Velma… they’re good people. Harmless. Not like the Husks we keep reading about in the news.”
“Sure they are,” James agreed, “but rules are rules. They’re not direct family and I don’t have contact with them much, so the brass is willing to bend the regs a little. But not much. I’d rather they not know too much about what I do.”
Mother and father sighed simultaneously.
“Very well,” Dad said. “Not that you can tell me much about what you do anyway.”
“It’s for the best.”
“Speaking of work, is that why you came home?” Mom asked.
James shrugged. “Well, I do have work to do on the island. I spent the day working at Saint Lucille, then I figured I had time to kill, so why not visit.”
She laughed. “Come on, James, you’ve been away for eight years and you came back on a lark? We know you better than that.”
He sighed. “Well, yes, it has something to do with work too.”
“You’re hunting Husks?” Dad asked.
“I’m hunting a source of Husks.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’ve heard of the Green Bliss?”
Dad’s face darkened. “Everyone’s heard of the devil’s fruit.”
“It’s made its way to the mainland. Fastest-growing addiction in recent times. But it has a side effect, one that isn’t publicly advertised.”
“What is it?” Mom asked.
“It turns psis into Husks.”
“Damn,” Dad said.
Mom just shook her head.
“From what I understand, there’s only one source of Green Bliss in the world,” James continued.
“The Santiago Syndicate,” Dad spat.
“You got that right. I’m trying to find more information about them.”
“You won’t find that in town, that’s for sure.”
“Oh? How so?”
“Son, they run the streets at night. In the daylight hours, they hide in their holes, but after dark, they flood the streets and push their dope. They’ve had more than a few dust-ups with the Sheriff’s deputies and the New Gods, but they keep coming back. The Santiagos have the townies scared. They know that if they spill the beans, the Santiagos will come for them.”
“Sounds like they’ve got a stronghold in the area.”
Dad pursed his lips. Mom shied away.
“The Santiagos aren’t just dope dealers,” James said gently. “The Green Bliss turns ordinary people into man-eating monsters. I’ve had to put down a few of those myself. I’m trying to stop the violence, but I need help.”
“You said the Bliss turns psis into Husks, huh,” Dad said. “You know, we haven’t had Husks around in Hopton, ever. Until three years ago, when the Bliss came here. The last time we had a Husk, it damn near tore up half the town before the Guild and the Shard put it down. If what you’re saying is true…”
“It’ll only get worse until the Santiagos are stopped,” James finished.
“We don’t know anything about the Santiagos,” Mom said.
“Every little bit of information helps,” James insisted. “If you don’t know anything, maybe you know someone who does.”
“I haven’t seen anything with my own eyes,” Dad began.
“But…” James coaxed.
“But the Clays, about two weeks ago, when I visited them for a beer, they had an interesting story for me.”
“What did they say?”
“Their youngest boy, Roy, he and his friends went fishing at Grass River after school. The catch was poor at their usual spot, so on a lark, they decided to go deeper into the swamp.
“Now, I’m not too concerned about those boys. They’ve grown up around the swamps and they’re familiar with it. But about two, maybe three miles down the river, they were ambushed.”
“A man carrying a rifle stepped out of the woods. He told them to stop and put their hands up. He forced them down on the ground and covered them. A few more men showed up, searched the boys, then told them they were trespassing on private property, and ordered them to leave and never come back. The boys ran off, and told their parents.”
“That’s… odd,” James said.
“Very odd,” Dad agreed. “The maps show there’s nothing but unclaimed swamp for miles around. And here’s the kicker: the guard they saw, he wasn’t no survivalist. He was wearing a military uniform. Camouflage and all. And he spoke into a radio. His buddies had the same kit.”
“Were they military?”
“There are no military bases in the area. And when the Army runs exercises around here, they make sure to tell us well ahead of schedule.”
“Interesting…” James muttered.
“Was it useful?”
“It’s more than what I had this morning.”
“Are you going to investigate?” Mom asked.
“I can’t comment on what I may or may not be doing.”
Dad sighed. “You government types… Well, whatever you do out there, you never heard it from me, ya hear? Santiagos have eyes and ears everywhere.”
“And you stay safe, okay?” Mom added. “You do what you have to do, then come back home.”
“Just one more thing,” James said.
“What is it?” Dad asked.
“Have you heard of ‘Aruk’?”
Dad’s face hardened.
“Where did you hear that from?”
“The mainland. Rumors and whispers, for the most part. What’s wrong?”
“Son…” Dad rubbed his temples. “My granddad told me a few things when I was little. There are old things in the swamps, things older than Babylon or the Cataclysm. It’s best not to speak their names too loudly.
“I haven’t seen any of them myself, but he has. And one of them is Aruk.”
While an ordinary man conducting an investigation has its charms, if you like superheros duking it out with supervillains, you’ll love my next book, Hollow City. Check it out on the Heroes Unleashed Kickstarter here.
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