Nobody fucks with the Guild of the Maker.
As the team flew back to the island, Wood reviewed what the STS knew about the Guild. It wasn’t a pretty picture.
The Singularity Network was obsessed with transcending the human form through cybernetics and with creating the hardware and software needed to upgrade the Will of the Net into a full-fledged Deus Ex Machina. The Guild took that same obsession and applied it everywhere.
Construction, biochemistry, cybernetics, weaponry, the Guild had members in every industry, driven to build and build and build. To them, the act of creation was an act of worship. Building things, inventing new things, discovering the processes that enabled creation, these were the supreme pillars of the faith. Unlike the Sinners, the Guild had a god. A god who listened.
Every so often, the Maker touched the most pious of his believers, inspiring them to feverish heights of genius and insanity. The Elect of the Maker secluded themselves in workshops and laboratories and factories, working day and night to manifest their vision of the divine, the Maker in the machine. Some burned out, died or went insane. Those who survived produced works of irreproducible and incomparable genius.
Wood had no doubt the Guild would haul out their godtech for this op. They knew the STS were in play, and everyone knew the STS had psis and Elect in their employ. Once the STS was on the case, there was nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. The Guild wouldn’t dare to snatch Santiago so boldly unless they were confident they could withstand the inevitable retaliation.
Already Wood saw the gist of the Guild’s plan. Karim, his eyes closed, manipulated his laptop, adding more details to the tactical map. The Guild had taken Santiago to an isolated house in the northern swamps of Moreno Island, so deep and so old it wasn’t registered any map. Karim had to draw in the house himself, and the subjects on site.
There were a lot of them.
The house was sited in a clearing by a river. No cover, no concealment, just clean arcs of fire for a hundred meters all around. Two men patrolled the outer perimeter of the house. Four cameras ringed the roof. A small berth granted access to the river, and a third guard stood watch here, protecting a pair of large boats. A fourth guard hung around a nearby generator.
Karim peered through the walls of the house and drew a floor plan. The house had two floors. There were eight more subjects scattered across the rooms of the first floor, all armed or positioned close to their weapons. The upper floor was a single large room, likely an attic, and there were three more subjects here.
“Santiago is in the attic,” Karim said. “He’s strapped to a chair of some kind and wired up to banks of computers. I don’t know what they are, but they don’t look good.”
“Machine interrogation?” Fox offered.
“Has to be,” Connor said. “They know what we can do. They’re rushing against the clock and they won’t have time for niceties. They’ll wring Santiago dry and dump him.”
Machine interrogation. Wood suppressed a shudder. Every STS operator knew how to resist torture inflicted by human hands. But machines burrowed into your brain and dug out your deepest secrets, willingly or not, and there was no real defense against it. Short of going mad.
“All this is assuming the Guild doesn’t have godtech that lets them fool Galen’s eyes,” Tan said.
“That’s not possible,” Mustafa replied. “Nothing can.”
“The New Gods are in play,” Yamamoto said. “Never discount the impossible.”
This was not a job for one team. The Black Watch had to make it work anyway.
Yamamoto had argued long and hard for more manpower. But Nova Babylonia was acting up again, and the STS’ ready teams were deployed all over the country, chasing a sudden crop of Husks. There was no one else left who could help out. No one who could return to HQ, re-equip and head back out in time. They had to do this by themselves.
They were the Black Watch. They would make it work.
Fox and Tan infiltrated the area ahead of the team. Setting up across the river, they covered the rear of the house, he with his spotting scope, she with her antimaterial rifle.
The rest of the team, plus the drone, set down their gravcar three miles away from the objective. Dressed in chameleon camouflage, they made their way through the forest in the orange blaze of the setting sun.
As the first shadows of the night descended, the entry team arrived at the woodline, their line of departure. The operators formed up in a skirmish line, the crawler and Connor on the left, Wood at the rightmost position, hugging the earth. Slowly, deliberately, Wood settled into a shooting position, taking up his carbine.
Under the faint starlight, he could just about make out the two men on patrol. They maintained a separation of about twenty meters, far enough that a single bullet or burst wouldn’t take them both, and they held their rifles low and easy.
The house they guarded sat fifty meters away. Faint white light poured out from behind heavy curtains. No shadows, no movement, not yet. Off to the right-hand side, there was a small outhouse. To the left, illuminated by glowsticks, was a softly humming generator. Wood just barely made out a tiny squatting figure.
It looked simple, but nothing was ever simple when the New Gods were involved. They could have electronic warfare equipment on site, ready to detect, jam and hack wireless tech. While the radios used secure burst transmissions to minimize the possibility of intercept, modern conveniences like augmented reality data feeds would create an unacceptably large electromagnetic signature.
They had to do this the old fashioned way.
“ZT, Samurai. In position,” Yamamoto whispered.
“Samurai, ZT. Copy.”
“Mister Boat is still by the boats, facing outwards. Powerboy is squatting by the generator. I think he’s resting his legs. No activity on the objective.”
“Roger. Deadeye, you have Powerboy. ZT, you take Mister Boat.”
“Acknowledged,” Fox said. “Scope is hot.”
“ZT copies. Sights are hot.”
“Roger that. Break. I have eyes on two armed subjects patrolling the perimeter. The one in front has a hat, the other one does not. Designate the first target as Hatter, designate the second as Baldy. Farmer, you have Baldy. The bot will take Hatter.”
“Acknowledged,” Wood whispered.
Reaching up, he turned on his weapon-mounted night vision sight and found his target. Wood cranked up the zoom to 4x. Baldy wasn’t bald, he simply had very short hair, but that was immaterial. Wood adjusted his sights, leading the crosshair just a mite ahead of his target’s temple.
“Farmer, on target,” Wood whispered.
“Bot, on target,” Yamamoto reported. “Execute on my mark,” Yamamoto said. “Three. Two. One. Mark.”
Wood pressed the trigger.
Four long guns spoke as one. Two muffled thunderclaps, two softer booms.
Baldy’s face exploded in a riot of blood. Scanning, Wood saw Hatter sprawled on the mud, his face burst open.
“Baldy down,” Wood said.
“Mister Boat down,” ZT reported.
“Powerboy down,” Fox said.
“Hatter down,” Yamamoto said. “Go for Cobra.”
That was Mustafa’s cue to rise to a knee and bring his multiple grenade launcher to bear.
“Smoke out!” Mustafa called.
Six loud cracks ripped out the night. Six small objects streaked through Wood’s sight and plopped somewhere in the grass.
“Millimeter radar active!” Yamamoto reported. “Go loud!”
Wood switched on his C4I suite. The bot fed its sensor take to Wood’s smartglasses. Red and yellow figures scrambled inside the house. The yellow ones were unarmed but unknown; the red ones were carrying weapons. On the ground floor, clusters of yellow figures flashed red. On the upper floor, two of the three yellows turned red.
Long bursts roared to Wood’s left. Connor was laying down the hate with his machine gun. In the distance, Fox fired her antimaterial rifle, the heavy 12.7mm rounds blasting through the walls to strike down targets.
The rest of the entry team opened up, loosing a furious fusillade of steel. Wood aimed at a red figure on the lower floor and ripped off two quick rounds. Switched to another, fired another double-tap. Third target, two more rounds. Fox fired once, twice, and suddenly the two red figures on the second floor vanished.
Tendrils of thick hot smoke played across Wood’s weapon sight. He kept up the fire, switching to a fresh magazine, firing on all the red figures he saw. They had all flattened themselves against the floor, dead or incapacitated, he didn’t know, he didn’t care, better safe than sorry.
As the smoke grew thicker, the team stepped down the fire, reducing their cadence to a more sustainable pace. Heat haze blurred out Wood’s optics. He slowed down, taking an extra moment to confirm the general vicinity of his target before firing again.
“Go for Python!” Yamamoto ordered.
Wood reached up and activated his smartglasses.
“Moving up!” Wood shouted.
“Move!” Mustafa called.
Picking himself up, Wood sprinted across the empty ground. Small fires crept across the grass, illuminating the smoke from within. The team continued firing, pumping bullets into windows and walls and the main door.
Still no movement from within.
Wood planted himself at the right-hand corner of the house and peeked around the corner. No threats. He rounded the corner and planted himself against the bullet-riddled wall.
“Set!” Wood called.
“Moving!” Mustafa shouted.
One by one, the rest of the entry team lifted fires and sprinted across the Wood’s position. Mustafa, Yamamoto, then Connor last of all, lining up next to Wood. The bot stayed where it was, providing overwatch.
There were no doors on this side of the house. Just a single large window. The operators formed up around it, taking a moment to recharge their weapons. In Woods’ eyes they were blurry wraiths; on his smartglasses they were bright blue silhouettes, courtesy of the bot’s radar.
“Gimme my ‘hawk,” Connor whispered.
Wood reached under Connor’s chameleon cloak, unsheathed the tomahawk mounted on the operator’s pack and placed it in his waiting hand. Angling off, Connor raised the axe high and swung.
Glass shattered under the terrific blow. As the rest of the operators covered him, Connor kept swinging, breaking the rest of the glass. With the flat of the tomahawk, he cleared away the remaining shards. He stepped aside and Yamamoto peeked in.
“Clear,” Yamamoto whispered.
Mustafa climbed in. As Wood reattached the tomahawk, Yamamoto followed Mustafa. Then it was Connor’s turn, and finally Wood’s.
The team swept the room, taking to the walls and corners. They were in a living room, with bullet-riddled sofas arranged around a shattered holotable. Metal fumes filled the air. Four men lay sprawled across the floor, weapons close to hand.
But something was wrong with this picture. Furrowing his eyes, Wood took a second look.
None of the men were wounded.
As one, the four men sat up and spun towards the operators.
They can see us through chameleon camouflage!
Wood snapped his carbine to the closest man’s face and fired a double-tap. Blazing blue-white light flared in the room. Something whined past his ear.
The Tango grinned and raised his carbine.
“GODTECH!” Wood yelled.
Twisting sharply, he threw himself off the line of fire and punched out his carbine with both hands. Metal clashed against metal. The gunman’s arm veered off and his weapon roared, the heat of the muzzle blast scorching Wood’s forearm. Sinking low, Wood slammed the butt of his weapon into the man’s thigh.
The Tango yelled and stumbled. Wood flicked the buttstock up, felt polymer crash against his chin, then rammed the stock into his chest. The gunman staggered away, bumped against a sofa, and rolled on his back. Wood leveled his carbine and fired.
The invisible forcefield flashed. The bullet whined off. The gunman pointed his weapon with one hand. Wood swatted it aside and rammed the muzzle into his throat. Once. Twice. Thrice. A fourth time, and Wood kept it there and pulled the trigger.
A muffled BANG.
Stepping aside, Wood scanned the room. Connor was busy putting the boot to a Tango, cursing as he went. Yamamoto stood up from a fallen threat, holding his signature short sword in his right hand, blood dripping down the blade.
Mustafa was rolling about on the floor, grappling with the last threat, limbs flailing, bumping everywhere. Wood stepped up, raising his boot—
Blood jetted through the air.
A terrible liquid gurgling filled the room.
Mustafa extricated himself, kicking the dying man away, and picked himself up. His fingers were claws, his teeth were canines, and his eyes glowed a terrible ethereal gold.
Throwing back his head, Mustafa howled.
His uniform, his helmet, his weapon, everything he had on him melted into his body. His muscles bulged out, his arms and legs elongated, a thick coat of pure white fur rippled down his body, and his face compressed and shifted and extruded a snout and became the visage of a wolf.
Karim Mustafa was gone. Here was Galen the Wolf.
A team of men appeared at the doorway. Galen howled, bounded across the floor and crashed into them, driving them back in a flurry of flailing limbs.
Yamamoto raced through the doorway. Wood followed. Over Yamamoto’s shoulder, he saw Galen pounding two men into the floor, one with each massively muscled fist. Two more gunmen slipped out to his right, ready to flank him.
Yamamoto bellowed a fearsome war cry, raised his sword and charged the Tangos still on their feet. The closer of the two spun to him and raised his weapon to block the blade.
Yamamoto drew in the blade and crouched.
Yamamoto lunged and stabbed him in the throat.
Wood jumped clear of Yamamoto, closing in on the last threat. Releasing his carbine, his right hand snaked down to his thigh, closed around the handle of his knife, wrenched it clear—
The threat fired.
The round punched him in his chest plate. Then a second. And a third. Wood stumbled, all his breath gone, the energy fleeing his limbs. The last threat raised his weapon—
Galen clawed his throat and smacked down the carbine.
The gunman’s jaw dropped open in surprise. He froze in place, as though not quite comprehending what had happened. His left hand flew to his torn throat.
Wood sucked in a breath and push-kicked him in the belly.
The Tango flopped on the floor, spraying arterial blood everywhere. Wood hacked and coughed, trying to suck down more air. Galen howled, raised his claws and—
“All clear,” Yamamoto reported. “Galen, stand down now.”
The werewolf stared at Yamamoto. An eternity later, he nodded.
The wolf shrank. Unnatural flesh and bone transmuted into synthetic fabrics and polymers and metals. As the man returned, so did his kit. Karim Mustafa patted himself down, checking that the wolf god had returned his equipment, and gave Yamamoto a thumbs-up.
Taking up their weapons, the operators cleared the rest of the first floor. Nothing but empty rooms, sleeping bags, mounds of prepackaged foods and assorted trash, and the remains of eight soldiers of the Maker.
Bracing themselves, the team headed upstairs.
“My God…” Connor muttered. “What the hell is this?”
A naked man sat strapped to a chair in the middle of the attic, his head shorn. His eyes stared sightlessly at the men. His jaws opened and closed, his lips trembled, but no sound emerged from his mouth.
A pair of thick dark cables sprouted from sockets in his temples, snaking to a massive computer cabinet. More cables connected the cabinet to other machines, towers festooned with dials and blinking lights. A monitor on a case cycled through a surreal stream of images—a party, a car crash, stars in a night sky, the Green Bliss, then a storm of random dots and dashes in all the colors of the rainbow. If there was meaning hidden in the last image, he didn’t want to know what it was.
A dead man lay at the foot of the cabinet, the contents of his skull spilled across the floor. A second man lay by the prisoner’s feet. The captive took no notice; he was still transfixed in unseen horror.
“STS,” Yamamoto announced. “Are you Antoine Santiago?”
“Yes…” Santiago whispered.
Connor walked up to him and waved his hand in front of his eyes. No response.
“Can you see me?” Connor asked.
“See… See? See? SEE?!” he shouted. “I SEE!”
He buckled against the restraints. A machine beeped. He stiffened, and went still.
“Unplug him,” Yamamoto ordered.
Wood crossed the floor, wiped the blood from the computer cabinet, and tried to make sense of what he saw.
One screen showed his vital signs. Accelerated heartbeat, rapid breathing, and his brainwaves spiked and fluctuated unnaturally. Wood was no neuroscientist, but he was sure that wasn’t healthy.
Another screen showed a control panel. Slider bars and drop-down boxes and dialog boxes filled the screen. All of them carried different captions: adrenaline, noradrenaline, oxytocin, dopamine, and other words he was less familiar with.
A third screen showed more windows: images, taste, odors, sensations, sounds, memories. All came with a bevy of options, some custom, some pre-set.
These machines were designed to manipulate Santiago’s brain. His senses, his blood chemistry, his memories, every bit of him was left naked before the brain butchers of the Guild.
And there was no option to shut them down.
“I can’t turn it off!” Wood shouted. “There’s no option to do it!”
“Can you unplug him?” Yamamoto called.
“Negative! This thing is messing with his brain! We’ll need a specialist to normalize his brain chemistry before we can safely remove him.”
Connor swore vociferously. Mustafa just shook his head.
“Antoine, can you hear me?” Yamamoto repeated.
“Yes…” Santiago said.
The word ‘YES’ flashed across the monitor.
“Do you know who I am?”
The monitor flashed ‘NO’.
“I’m from the STS. Do you know what that is?”
Images paraded through the screen. The PSB logo, then the STS’. Black-clad men carrying heavy armor and long guns jumping out of vehicles, gravtrucks swooping from the sky, blazing guns, Husks, blood.
“Yes,” Santiago said.
“I think the monitor is showing us his thoughts,” Mustafa said.
“Interesting…” Yamamoto muttered. “Are you okay?”
“NO!” Santiago shouted.
“We’re going to get help for you. But there’s something we need to know.”
“Did you hear my last?”
“Where is Raul Santiago?”
A sprawling complex appeared on the screen. Wooden houses built on stilts by a river. Armed men in camouflage uniforms on patrol. Boats pulling up at berths, laden with crates. The Green Bliss.
“Is it a temple to Aruk?”
A mass of green leaves. Hidden among the leaves were blood-red eyes. A nose bleeding a pair of tendrils. An open mouth spewing vegetation.
“ARUUUUUUUUUUUUK!” Santiago screamed.
The operators startled. The monitor blinked. A storm of loud beeps reverberated in the room. The monitor turned green.
“Aruk,” Santiago whispered.
The machines calmed. The beeping stopped. Wood blinked. But the monitor continued to show a solid green screen.
“Where is the temple?” Yamamoto asked.
“Swamp. Near Hopton.”
On the monitor, a river cut through a neverending forest. The temple complex lined the right side of the river bank.
“Show me how to get to the temple from Hopton.”
The screen played a video. First Wood saw a pile of crates covered in tarpaulin, gently bobbing up and down, stacked aboard a boat. An engine rumbled. Then the camera turned to the right, showing a man seated at a console.
This was a memory, replayed in first person.
The boat roared to life, racing through the waters. The resolution was fuzzy, but Wood could clearly see the boat twisting and turning down the winding river.
“Take video,” Yamamoto whispered.
Wood was already in motion. Setting down his pack, he produced a digital camera and took a video of the monitor. They’d missed the first part, but they could get the replay later.
“You did good Antoine,” Yamamoto said. “We’ll get help for you. Just hang tight.”
“Okay…” Santiago mumbled.
Wood took a final photo and shook his head. Santiago looked like he was beyond help. There was only one thing Wood could do for the broken wreck strapped to the chair.
See this through to the end.
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