5. Grass River
The rest of the evening yielded no intel. Dad wouldn’t speak of what his grandfather had seen, only that it was something terrible and best left undisturbed in the forgotten corners of the swamp. Mom knew nothing of such unspeakable abominations, nor of the abominations that called themselves the Santiago Syndicate.
His parents had, at least, kept his room. It was dry and slightly dusty, but it had a small and little-used guest bed. It was good enough for him. Before hitting the sack, James Wood typed up his report on his laptop and mailed it to Yuri Yamamoto and Director Gregory.
When he awoke in the morning, Yamamoto had a new mail for him.
Thanks for the intel. The rest of the team will take the morning ferry to Saint Lucille. Meet us at the terminal at noon. We’ll prep for a long range recon of Grass River.
Wood returned to the city with time to spare. Standing outside the terminal building, he tracked the ferry as it approached. When it lowered its ramp and disgorged its cargo, he saw three dark green SUVs roll off the ferry.
Their reinforced suspensions hung low under the weight of low-profile armor, heavy equipment, and small gravity mirrors. The road wheels were run-flat bullet-resistant tires. Grab bars lined the roof and running boards protruded from under the doors.
They weren’t civilian cars. They were covert tactical vehicles.
Clambering into the lead vehicle, Wood found Yamamoto in the driver’s seat. The second Wood closed the door, Yamamoto sped off.
“You worked quickly,” Yamamoto said. “Even the Director was surprised.”
“I’ve got friends and family here,” Wood said.
“Explains much,” Yamamoto said.
“Nothing they said constituted hard proof,” Wood said. “Do we have anything to go on?”
“We sent a Raider to recon Grass River overnight. At half past four in the morning, the drone spotted a convoy of small boats. Six of them. Two of them were moored at a berth, two more were heading downstream, and two more were waiting near the berth. The images showed men loading crates aboard the moored boats.”
“A berth?” Wood repeated.
“Yeah. There’s a small trail leading away from the berth. It snakes inland for about a mile and leads to an unmarked swamp plantation.”
“We don’t know,” Yamamoto admitted. “The Raider couldn’t get a good angle on the plantation. We need to get on the ground, penetrate the plantation, and determine what’s being grown there. If it’s the Bliss, we’ll monitor the location and gather evidence.”
“And raid the site?”
“Only if we have proof.”
Once they had left Saint Lucille behind, when they were surrounded by forest on all sides, the Black Watch took to the air.
They kept low, the gravity mirrors barely skimming the treetops. Engines humming, the cars cruised at top speed, heading deeper into the swamp forest. Now and then the operators made sharp turns, staying a minimum of five miles from every settlement and every house on their maps.
As they flew, Wood called Sheriff Kane. He claimed the department had no operations planned in the vicinity of Grass River, and had no knowledge of any other law enforcement or military activity in the area. When Kane asked why Wood wanted to know, Wood merely demurred and hung up.
At a quarter past two, they arrived at Grass River. Slowing down, they found a large clearing and set the SUVs down. Wordlessly, the operators disembarked, broke out chameleon cloaks, and covered their vehicles. The metamaterial lining bent light around itself, turning the SUVs nearly invisible.
The operators dressed up for the job. Utility uniforms, colored in forest camouflage. Tactical vest, with just enough pouches and kit for the job. Backpacks stuffed with more essentials. Smartglasses and radios and optics and electronics. No exoframes: they would leave heavy prints in the moist earth and betray their movement and positions. No armor either: this was a recon mission, not combat.
Out the corner of his eye, Wood saw Zen Tan wrestle a heavy boxy machine from the trunk of his vehicle. Tan set it down, stepped well clear and made a gesture. The machine smoothly and silently unfolded itself, sprouting legs from its main body. Its dome-shaped turret carried a suite of ultra-sensitive sensors and a carbine. It was the team’s drone, their crawler.
“Crawler is up,” Tan reported.
Wood retrieved his arms and ammo from a hard case in the trunk of the SUV. An M83A1 carbine, the workhorse of Babylon’s military and police, accessorized with optics and laser and forward grip. Three spare magazines—enough for self-defense. M22 pistol in a drop-leg holster. And a Bowie knife.
He re-checked his kit, patted himself down and refastened his pouches. Looking up, he saw Yamamoto put the finishing touches on his kit. A folding knife in his right pocket, a fixed blade tanto on his belt, and an honest-to-God short sword by his hip.
“This is a recon mission,” Wood said.
“In a swamp inhabited by a Dark Power,” Yamamoto replied calmly.
“Dark Power? You sure about that?”
“I can feel it.”
Yamamoto smiled faintly. “You’ll learn.”
One last thing to do: camouflage.
Wood remembered the days when the word meant camouflage cream, ghillie suits and harvesting nearby vegetation. Today the operators brought out man-sized chameleon cloaks.
The voluminous garments perfectly covered their entire bodies. To the naked eye, the operators were little more than shimmering blurs; to optoelectronics, they were effectively invisible. Every operator wore an IFF beacon transmitting his location, and in their smartglasses they showed up as bright blue outlines.
The cloaks had one drawback: they were hot.
The heat engulfed Wood. He began sweating almost immediately. Nothing he could do about it; he just bit on his hydration tube and sucked down a hit of water.
“Everyone ready?” Yamamoto whispered. “Yes? Let’s go.”
The map claimed their destination was three miles away. It felt like five.
The Black Watch circled around hillocks and dead trees, forded a trickling tributary and navigated animal trails. Most of all, they moved slowly and carefully, minimising the tracks they left behind, cleaning up where they could.
Moving in a diamond-shaped formation, the operators took turns to take point and watch the rear. The crawler stayed in the middle, obediently following the humans’ lead, while keeping watch for traps and hidden triggers. Sure, the crawler could be deployed as the point man—well, point bot—but everyone, Wood most of all, had no faith in the AI’s ability to stealthily navigate complex terrain.
The afternoon sun arced lazily across the sky. Insects buzzed all around them. Birds chirped to each other. Rabbits and otters and small deer rustled in the grass, and the operators took special care to avoid startling them. Once they heard a chorus of crocodile calls, and the Black Watch silently vacated the area.
The hours trudged past. The sun crept across the sky. The forest thinned around them, the air growing cooler and fresher. Frogs croaked in the distance. Wood moved carefully through the tall grass, feeling for unseen pits and watching for concealed predators.
Yamamoto led the team to a small hill. Bordered by shrubs and trees, it offered plenty of natural camouflage. As he approached, the strong earthy scent of the swamp assaulted Wood’s nose.
“We’re setting up here,” Yamamoto whispered.
The operators went to work. They laid in their defenses, burying a ring of sensors in the soft earth around the hill. Connor and Karim pulled perimeter security. Yamamoto and Tan guided the crawler further downstream, setting up a secondary observation post. That left Fox and Wood to observe the target.
Slowly, carefully, the duo crawled up the hill, keeping their faces pressed against the tall grass and black earth. Three-quarters of the way up, they circled around to the forward slope of the hill.
Sweat drenched Wood’s clothes. A strange, soft, squishy hundred-legged segmented worm serenely crawled across his glove, and he waited for it to leave before continuing. He sipped at his water tube at regular intervals and kept moving, inching into position.
This close to the objective, he had to move at a glacial pace. He lifted his right hand from the ground, carefully brushed aside blades of grass, and set it down an inch away. Then his left hand. His torso. His right leg. His left leg.
He moved slowly and smoothly, becoming one with the hill, ignoring the insects and the heat and the pungent scent of the microbe-infested waters. The singing grew louder and louder still. Now and then, he paused and oriented himself, carefully twisting himself around and making minute adjustments. The chameleon cloak might render him almost invisible, but a nearby threat would still detect swift, large movements.
A geological epoch later, on the military crest of the hill, he was in place. Long, long, long minutes later, Fox settled into place next to him.
Carefully, smoothly, she set up her scoped rifle, resting its bipod on the earth. Wood kept his weapon close to hand and scanned the swamp.
Row upon row of thick, dark-barked trees spread out before him, their roots completely submerged in the hot, brackish waters. Their branches bowed under the weight of heavy fruit. Fruit that glowed a strange shade of green.
The Green Bliss.
There were people too, walking amongst the strees. Some armed, most not. Closing his organic eye, Wood rapidly winked his cybereye, activating the zoom function, and examined them.
A gang of laborers harvested the fruit. Armed with long pruning hooks and carrying huge wicker baskets on their back, they cut the ripe fruit off their branches and placed them in the baskets. Wood counted fifteen laborers in total.
Behind the workmen, a quartet of guards stood around, thigh-deep in the waters, watching the men at work and scanning the trees around them. Dressed in digital camouflage uniforms, they almost blended into the forest, but the bare black metal and the straight lines of their carbines gave them away. M83 carbines, the same weapon he carried. Their combat harnesses were festooned with pouches, but they wore no armor.
The guards looked bored. They chatted casually with each other, occasionally swatting at an insect or scratching their skin, but otherwise showed no sign of alertness. Here and there they yelled at a worker or two, but otherwise left them to their own devices.
Speaking in soft whispers, Wood and Fox went to work. As she tracked the workers, he scanned the plantation, looking for more people or objects of interest.
A flash of white poked out from between the trees. Wood adjusted the zoom and tried to make sense of what he saw.
It was a house. More properly, a mansion. Three stories tall, supported with thick columns, it occupied a small patch of empty land. He didn’t have a complete visual of the building—there were too many trees in the way—but he took copious notes of what he saw.
Long shadows crept across the land. As the last of the sunlight fled, the workers harvested the fruit of the final row of trees. The guards escorted them away.
The duo continued their vigil, whispering their observations over the radio, transmitting and uploading photos and videos as necessary. Until the other operators relieved them, they would stay in place. Fox focused her attentions on the house while Wood developed the big picture.
There was nothing to see here. Nothing but the swamp and the trees and a constellation of strange green lights. As the night deepened, the lights grew brighter, a constellation of alien stars growing from the trees.
Growing. That word stuck in Wood’s mind. He zoomed in on a branch and saw…
“I think I see something,” Wood muttered.
“Yeah?” Fox asked.
“By eye, go to the nearest tree in your field of view.”
“Go to the canopy.”
“Zoom in on the branches. What do you see?”
“Fruits.” She paused. “Wait a second. Didn’t the workers harvest the fruit already?”
“Yeah. Watch the fruit.”
“It’s… What the hell? It’s growing?”
“Yeah. I’m seeing the same thing here.”
A cluster of Bliss fruits filled the center of his view. With every heartbeat, they expanded little by little, glowing ever-brighter, so bright he didn’t need night vision to see them.
And he was certain the workers had stripped this tree bare mere hours ago.
“This ain’t natural,” Wood whispered.
“It’s God-touched,” Fox said.
“It’s the devil’s fruit.”
“Guess that explains how the Santiagos managed to flood the streets of Babylon in such a short time.”
“Yeah. I’m going to call it in.”
As Wood reached for his radio, Yamamoto’s voice cut into his earpieces.
“Black Watch, stand to. Intruders in the plantation.”
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