7. The Bargain
The cyborgs had been thorough.
As Fox and Tan watched the detainees, the rest of the team swept the plantation. There was nothing left but bodies and ashes. The guards had been gunned down on the spot, the house demolished with high explosives. Within the ashes of the house, the team found the charred remains of the workers.
The plantation was burning. Many trees had been blown down, and the rest were on fire. Wood guessed that the cyborgs had used thermobaric grenades to destroy the trees. Without any firefighting equipment, there was nothing the team could do to preserve the evidence. All they could do was alert the local firefighters and the PSB.
And deal with the prisoners.
There were no places on Moreno Island capable of holding a cyborg with mil-grade augmentations. The Black Watch settled for the headquarters of the Sheriff’s Department.
The police allowed the STS to use their sally port. The four-car garage allowed the swift and secure transportation of prisoners into the building. The team left their weapons in lockers by the entrance, then escorted the prisoners into central booking.
Under the watchful eye of two deputies, the team logged Omicron and Antoine Santiago into the system, then frog-marched them into the men’s holding cells and deposited them in separate modules. The second they were done, the chief called Yamamoto, insisting on meeting everyone to congratulate them on a successful bust.
Yamamoto took the hit for the team, claiming that his men were needed elsewhere. That freed Tan, Fox, Connor and Mustafa to leave the station and do everything else they needed to do. Wood, being the PSB’s point man, stayed with his team leader and helped answer the Sheriff’s many, many, many questions.
The Sheriff seemed polite enough, but hidden among his queries was the true intent of his fete.
“Why didn’t you contact us?” he asked. “Our SRT would have helped you.”
“We were sitting on time-sensitive information,” Yamamoto replied.
“We could deploy the SRT at a moment’s notice. They would have been glad to help.”
“We anticipated a recon mission,” Wood said. “Had it been a raid, we would have gladly informed you.”
“I know you boys are used to running the show on the mainland, but over here, I am in charge,” the Sheriff said. “If you’re running any ops on my island, you tell me. Clear?”
“Crystal,” Yamamoto said.
Wood knew Yamamoto had no intention of honoring this promise. The Network and the Guild had wormed themselves into the heart of the island, and the cyborgs had already struck a blow against the Santiagos. Telling the Sheriff about the STS operations was as good as alerting the New Gods themselves.
After another hour of banalities, the Sheriff finally released them. Deputy Frank Matthews was waiting for them just outside his office.
“The old man sure knows how to talk, huh?” Matthews said.
“That’s an understatement,” Wood said.
Matthews chuckled. “Well, I’ve got a message for you from the prisoner. The cyborg.”
“What does he want?”
“He says he’s ready to answer your questions at your earliest convenience.”
“Let’s get this show started,” Wood said. “Bring him up to the interview room.”
“There’s just one thing,” Matthews said. “He asked for the two of you by name. Special Agents James Wood and Yuri Yamamoto.”
Yamamoto’s eyes frowned. “I don’t believe we’ve announced our presence here.”
“You didn’t, but he knows who you are anyway,” the deputy said. “Something is fishy about this.”
“We’ve got to do our jobs anyway,” Wood said.
“May the Maker be with you.”
Wood and Yamamoto followed Matthews to the holding cells. As they passed Santiago’s cell, Wood peeked through the security bars. Santiago, lying on his tiny bench, looked up and glared back.
“Whatchu looking at?” Santiago demanded.
Wood didn’t bother to reply. After they were done with the cyborg, Santiago was next.
In a corner of his cell, Superuser Iota Omicron Seven-Two-Eight sat on the bed, staring into thin air, his hands folded on his lap, shattered right hand over his left. The cyborg’s wrists and ankles were shackled. In the absence of high-security holding cells, it was the only acceptable option.
The deputies had exchanged his uniform and tactical gear for a bright orange jumpsuit. On first glance he looked like a regular human, albeit with a wrecked prosthetic hand. But implanted in his forehead, in between and above his eyes, was a third eye. A white metal eyeball with a startling blue iris. It looked almost human.
It was a signature implant of the Singularity Network, granting the wearer enhanced vision, recording capabilities, everything Wood’s own cybereye offered. Plus at least one more ability: the ability to peer into the Aether and identify the agents and Elect of the New Gods.
The operators escorted him out the room, down the hall, and into the interview room. The cyborg kept his peace as they sat him down in a chair. But the moment they closed the door, Omicron spoke.
“We are glad you are here. We don’t have much time.”
“What do you mean?” Wood asked, sitting down across him.
“Elements in the Sheriff’s Department are loyal to the Guild of the Maker. They would have alerted their handlers. Likewise, other men loyal to the Santiago Syndicate would have informed their paymasters. I have much to tell you, but little time.”
“Is there a safety issue?” Wood asked.
“We would be much safer in a federal detention facility.”
“We’ll be the judge of that,” Yamamoto said. “Tell us what we want to know and we’ll arrange a transfer.”
“You can’t transfer me immediately?”
“I need to justify it.”
The cyborg shook his head, but his third eye stared unblinkingly at the same spot behind the operators.
“Ask your questions,” Omicron said.
“What was your mission?”
“As I said: to destroy the Green Bliss plantation.”
“Who sent you?” Wood asked. “The Network?”
“The Will of the Net decrees that all threats to its existence must be neutralized. The destruction of the plantation is aligned to this purpose.”
“Why does the Net see the Santiagos as a threat?”
“One month ago, four Husks ran rampant across Babylon, targeting members of the Singularity Network. You are, of course, familiar with this incident.”
“Of course,” Yamamoto said wryly.
“The Husks were created and controlled by a Dark Power named Aruk. Aruk uses the Santiago Syndicate as its pawns. Thus, the Santiagos are a threat to the Singularity Network. The Santiagos draw their wealth and power from the distribution of the Green Bliss. Destroying the plantation erodes the Santiagos. Capturing Antoine Santiago is a bonus.”
“How did you discover the plantation?” Wood asked.
“We were running our own investigation,” the cyborg replied. “We have narrowed down the source of the Green Bliss to the island. Over weeks and months, through metadata harvesting and surveillance methods, we have uncovered a number of possible affiliates of the Santiago Syndicate. We planted smartdust on them and tracked their movements. The movement patterns betrayed the existence of the plantation.”
Smartdust. The most insidious surveillance tool ever invented. Composed of tiny sensors the size of dust grains, they could be sprinkled on a target without his knowledge. Once embedded, it would be extremely difficult to remove every single grain of dust.
“Why didn’t you inform the PSB?” Yamamoto asked.
“This is our vendetta. We have no desire for human authorities to intervene.”
“We are the principal law enforcement agency in Nova Babylonia. We would have done this for you.”
“This is a battle between gods. Mere humans like you would be crushed underfoot. We kept the PSB out to save their lives.”
“How very thoughtful of you,” Wood remarked. “But you understand this is a violation of the law.”
“Human laws mean little to us.”
“What about the Babylon Accords?” Yamamoto demanded. “Violating that would mean open war.”
The cyborg smiled mechanically. There was no mirth in it, no joy, just an attempt at mimicking a human expression. His third eye swiveled back and forth between the two operators.
“You labor under the impression that humans are the sovereigns of Nova Babylonia. An unfortunate assumption. But we are not here to discuss that.”
“We’re here to discuss your continued cooperation,” Wood reminded him.
“Indeed. What else do you wish to know?”
“Why are you cooperating with us?” Yamamoto asked.
“You are already involved. You have a stake in defeating the Santiago Syndicate. We have common goals, and at this stage, it is only rational to obtain cooperation.”
“You fired at us in the swamp,” Wood said.
“Only because you fired first.” The cyborg’s smile grew wider and faker. “Entirely in line with what we know of the STS. And you.”
“What do you know about us?” Wood asked.
“Everything. We know, James Wood, that you were born to Amelia and Kelvin Wood in Hopton. You have two siblings, Robert and Terry—”
Wood clenched his ham-like fists.
“Are you threatening me?” he whispered.
“Merely stating facts. Would you like to know what we know about you, Yuri Yamamoto?”
“How do you know so much about us?” Yamamoto demanded.
“We are the Network,” he said. “We are everywhere. Even the vaunted and, frankly, redundant security measures the STS employs does little to keep us out. But this is not what we’re here to discuss.”
“Of course,” Yamamoto said. “We’re here to discuss why Aruk has a beef with you.”
“We do not have insight into Aruk’s thoughts, but we have a conjecture.”
“Go on,” Wood prodded.
“When the gods descended, they took up residence in every corner of the new world. Some chose to spread their influence across the planet, while others were content to rule their little domains. Aruk must have been one of the latter. We believe he settled on this island and claimed it for his own.
“For decades, centuries, the gods had left Moreno Island to its own devices, focusing their struggles on the land now known as Nova Babylonia. Aruk in turn limited his ambitions to the island. The people began to worship him, calling him the Green Jack or the Green Giant, offering sacrifices in exchange for bountiful harvests, protection, and the chance of becoming one of his Elect.
“This couldn’t continue, of course. When the Singularity Network came to this island, we found a backwater stuck in the previous century. We introduced modern technology: medicine, sanitation, engineering, computers. We asked only for a fair deal, and for a chance to let others learn about us.
“But Aruk saw it as a threat. An open challenge to his dominion.
“We have repeatedly sought his permission to operate here. But the cult of the Green Giant has no priests or centralised authority. Expeditions into the swamps yielded no results—those that returned. In the end, when the Guild of Makers formally established a presence here, we accelerated our plans, lest the Guild seize opportunities from us.
“We thought Aruk was little more than a local superstition, a tutelary spirit at best. But when we penetrated the interior, reached out to the towns and villages in the swamps and the forests, things changed.”
“The Green Bliss?” Wood asked.
“Yes,” the cyborg said. “It appeared three years ago out of the swamps. Psis who ate the Bliss became slaves of Aruk, and targeted everyone pledged to the New Gods—but especially us.”
“Aruk created the Bliss?”
“We do not know. There is still no complete catalogue of the local flora and fauna. But it will not be outside the power of a god to create a new species.”
“Have you tried communicating with Aruk after it started targeting you?” Wood asked.
“We tried. We left messages at shrines and in the swamps, attempted to speak to its Husks, sought out members of the Santiago Syndicate as messengers, but to no avail. The Will of the Net authorized the use of brain patterning and resurrection protocols to interrogate Husks in the hope of reaching Aruk, but you prevented us from doing so in Babylon.”
The last statement was aimed at Yamamoto. The operator merely shrugged.
“I did not know what we were up against then.”
“Pity. But you are mere mortals, and the ways of gods and superior beings are unknown to you.”
Irritation flashed through Wood. He reminded himself to keep calm. Cyborgs pledged to the Network almost always condescended to humans, seeing themselves as a superior race. It would not do to lose his temper now.
“What are your plans?” Wood asked.
“We wish to end this conflict with Aruk. We project that the only way of doing so is to destroy the Green Bliss, dismantle the Santiago Syndicate, and flush Aruk out into the open, where we may discuss terms.”
“Or destroy him,” Wood said.
“We have no knowledge on how to destroy gods.”
“But you must have a plan.”
“I am not privy to such information.”
The operators asked a few more questions, double-checking the cyborg’s answers. His story remained consistent. When they stepped out of the room for a breather, they found Matthews waiting for them.
“Learned everything you needed?” Matthews asked.
“Yeah,” Wood said.
“If you don’t mind my asking, why are you hanging around the station?” Yamamoto asked.
“Sheriff asked me to stick around, see if I can help you with the special prisoners.”
“No thanks,” Wood said. “We’re good here.”
Wood gestured at Matthews’ holster. “Why are you armed? I thought you need to disarm before you can enter the detention area?”
Matthews licked his lips.
“I’m… I’m not handling a prisoner. I don’t have to secure my weapon.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” Wood said. “This place is full of prisoners.”
Matthews spread his palms. “It’s longstanding policy.”
“Uh-huh,” Yamamoto said. “Is there anything else you want from us?”
“Yeah. What’ve you got planned for the cyborg?”
“We’re going to transport him to Babylon for detention and indictment,” Yamamoto said.
As he spoke, Yamamoto sneaked a step towards Matthews.
“You can’t do it here?”
“No offense, but the cells here aren’t rated for cyborgs.”
“None taken. I understand where you’re coming from.”
“Glad to hear it.”
“Say…” Matthews shifted his weight. “Was the cyborg a Sinner?”
“Yeah,” Wood said. “Acting under orders of the Will of the Net.”
“Maybe this island’s just remote, but I don’t think I’ve heard much news about followers of the New Gods being charged in court, much less sent to jail.”
“The Elect never go to jail,” Yamamoto said bitterly. “No matter how serious their crimes.”
“The New Gods have pet cops, prosecutors, judges, journalists and politicians. It’s a wonder any case involving an Elect goes to court.”
“Damn…” Matthews shook his head. “I heard stories that the gods are all at each other’s throats in Babylon.”
“It’s true,” Wood confirmed. “You just don’t hear about it.”
“That’s why we have the STS, huh?”
“I thought the Babylon Accords stated that the New Gods were supposed to keep the peace, respect the law, something like that,” the deputy mused.
Yamamoto laughed cynically. And crept a second step towards Matthews.
“Sure they do.”
“But I thought Jim just said they’re at each other’s throats?”
“The New Gods only act through their proxies and their followers. Usually there’s nothing we can use to pin a crime directly on a New God. Nothing that can stand in court.”
“Damn. That must be tough,” Matthews said.
“That’s the least of it,” Wood said.
“Well, looks like whatever the New Gods do, we can’t touch them, huh.”
“Alright.” Matthews nodded to himself and looked up. “Come on in.”
“Huh?” Wood asked.
The door to the male holding cells swung open. Two deputies stepped out, taking positions next to Matthews. Behind Wood, two more deputies emerged from the other interview room.
All of them were armed with pistols and batons.
“What’s going on?” Wood said.
“Hand the cyborg over to us,” Matthews said.
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