After The Fire
Twenty four hours on, twenty four off.
After dropping off the suspect at the PSB field office, Connor and Yamamoto topped off their ammo and hitched a ride back to Three Rivers. Until the shift was over, they couldn’t relax.
Even so, the massive gunfight had a chilling effect on the neighborhood. The Liberated, the Pantheon and the Court stayed put in their respective corners, all of them taking pains to ignore each other. As cops descended on the scene of the shooting, stores and pubs and restaurants shuttered early.
If they were regular cops or ordinary PSB agents, Connor and Yamamoto would have to spend the rest of the night writing statements and seeking legal advice. Instead, they prowled the streets in their civvies, their carbines stowed in their packs, still looking for signs of trouble.
The STS weren’t regular cops. Hell, they were PSB agents in name only. Their function was closer to military special forces. Once their watch was done, there would be a mandatory debrief, a write-up to explain and justify their actions, but after that, it would be back to the streets, ready for whatever fresh horrors the New Gods could spit out.
Connor wouldn’t have it any other way. Against Husks and Elect and the mil-grade firepower the New Gods could bring to bear, there was no way in hell the cops could survive. If the enemy offered war, you made war right back.
When dawn broke, Three Rivers was returned to normal. Normal only to natives, anyway. The streets were empty, many shops were shuttered, and the only traffic took the form of the odd delivery drone or passing gravcar.
The district was always quiet in the day. Most of the shops and eateries only opened at night. In the cold light of day, Three Rivers was a ghost town.
The first signs of life returned in the afternoon, when school let out and students from nearby educational institutions thronged the streets. The students were so young, so vibrant, so full of life. Had Connor ever been like that?
Yes, actually. When he was in high school, he wasn’t that much different from the teens around him.
Then came the Fire, and with it the end of innocence.
At dusk, a fresh pair of STS operators took over. Now relieved of duty, Connor and Yamamoto caught a taxi back to their hotel. Connor cleaned his gear, then indulged himself in a long hot shower. He found and patched up a number of cuts on his arms and face. He wasn’t sure how they’d gotten there, but they were small and shallow, nothing a band-aid couldn’t fix. As he waited for his hair to dry, he composed his report on his computer. The second he sent it in, he collapsed into his bed and sank into a long dreamless slumber.
In the morning, the team reconvened in a private room in the hotel restaurant for breakfast. They swept the room for bugs, set down their kit, and hit the buffet table. Connor piled his plate high with eggs, bacon and baked beans, the perfect breakfast trifecta. Over breakfast, the team held their after action report, going over everything they had done, critiquing their mistakes, offering suggestions to do better.
When Yamamoto and Connor finished their reports, Wood shook his head.
“Man, that sounded like a hell of a fight. I wish I could have been there.”
“We really could have used the extra guns,” Connor said.
“Sure sounded like it. I asked for permission to help, but Pearce didn’t allow us to leave. He said we had to cover our AOs, no matter what.”
“Seriously? There was a no-shit avatar running amok in Three Rivers last night, and right after that, the Court came down hard on us. We needed backup.”
“He said that’s what the QRF was for. We had to stay put and continue the patrol.”
“I understand where he’s coming from,” Yamamoto said. “The avatar could have been a distraction, or part of a larger offensive.”
“It was all quiet in my AO yesterday,” Wood said.
“Same here,” Tan said.
Fox leaned towards Yamamoto. “I followed the fight on the radio last night. Are you okay?”
“We’re good,” Yamamoto said. “Not too banged up.”
“You went and exorcised an Elect again,” Wood said. “Do you enjoy doing that?”
“The situation required it.”
“Sure, sure. I’m thinking you need a new call sign. ‘Samurai’ doesn’t cut it any more.”
“Oi,” Yamamoto protested weakly.
“How about ‘Priest’?” Mustafa suggested.
“Team White Knights already has someone with that handle,” Connor said.
“Nah, Samurai is good,” Fox said. “I mean, you’ve seen his blades, right?”
The team laughed. Yamamoto too.
“How the hell do you conceal your sword anyway?” Wood asked.
“I didn’t wear it last night. But I could attach a sling to the sheath and turn it into a shoulder rig. Disappears nicely under a cover garment.”
Mustafa shook his head. “A shoulder rig? For a sword? Man, now I’ve seen everything.”
“Rookie, every time someone on this team says that, something new pops up,” Connor said. “Always.”
“Amen,” Yamamoto said.
The team spent the rest of the morning handling paperwork, logistics and other administrative affairs. After lunch, Connor packed his pistol, donned his jacket, and left the hotel.
He was on his own time now. After a quick message to the rest of the team, he walked to the subway station. Five stops later, he got out and caught a cab. After a twenty-minute cruise, it dropped him off at the Torres Canal. He walked aimlessly among the lifeless trees and stunted shrubs of a nearby park for another ten minutes.
Satisfied that he wasn’t being followed, he headed for his true destination.
Riveria Central Cemetery hadn’t changed. Head-high brick walls topped with razor wire, imposing steel gates painted a deep black, neatly-trimmed trees that lined the roads, their branches warped and bent, as though bearing accumulated centuries of sorrow.
There was only one person in sight. The elderly caretaker, carefully sprucing an ancient grave. Nearby, a team of robots swept the road and mowed the grass. Perhaps someday, a robot would take the caretaker’s job too. And then only the never-living would tend to the once-alive.
His feet trod a path he knew well. It had been years since he’d been back, but some things never changed. The positions of the graves certainly hadn’t.
He halted before a large tombstone. A simple gray slab, solid and timeless, but time and rains had weathered the edges. A chiseled scroll bore the word ‘CONNOR’ in bold, bold letters. Beneath it were other names: Arthur, Mary, Raymond, Megan.
His parents had him late in life, and Mary’s pregnancy difficult. After his birth the doctors recommended that the Connors avoid having more children. To compensate, Arthur and Mary showered him with love and care the best they could.
His childhood years were normal. No different from other kids. Then, at the age of fifteen, the Fire came.
It started over a stupid argument, one lost to history. A member of the Court of Shadows quarreled with a priest of the Pantheon. One of the Liberated tried to mediate the argument. The Court member punched the priest, the priest punched back, the vamp transformed, both the Liberated and the priest morphed too, and suddenly the whole block was ablaze. All three factions threw their soldiers and supporters into the fray, starting a multi-way melee that burned down half the city.
He was in school at that time. He remembered the alarms, the panicking teachers, the lockdown. When the school finally lifted the lockdown, he returned home to ashes and rubble.
His memories got hazy after that. He recalled making his way to his grandparents’ home. Then a skip, and suddenly he was in the morgue, beholding his parents’ remains. A scream, a blackout, and the next thing he recalled he was living permanently with his grandparents.
They tried their best to be parents all over again. He could have been a better grandson. But the Fire had burned out something in him, and he took to the streets a raging hellion. It was a minor miracle he had survived his high school days. So did his grandparents.
But shortly after graduation, their duty fulfilled, they passed on. First Raymond, then Megan.
Lost and adrift, the only thing he knew was rage. Rage against the gods that had taken his family from him. Even so, back then he knew that fighting a one-man war against the New Gods was suicidal. He needed resources, manpower, firepower, training.
And the only organization that would stand up to the New Gods was the Public Security Bureau.
After the Fire, the Bureau launched a crusade, arresting and prosecuting everyone everyone remotely responsible for the destruction. For a while it seemed as it Riveria would be a secular city. But a year after the mass arrests, all three factions were back on the streets with a vengeance—and the Court of Shadows took the opportunity to expand their turf.
The only constants in this world were death, taxes, and the never-ending war between the New Gods. Connor scraped his way into college. Somehow he earned a degree in Criminal Justice. After paying his dues in the RPD, he joined the PSB, where he ran down criminals empowered by the New Gods. Arresting them was part of the job, but the gun was far more potent and final a tool than handcuffs. Three years later, he was invited to join ESWAT. Back then, there wasn’t a formal paranormal classification of paranormal threats; ESWAT simply took every call that involved monsters, magic, or men who used both.
He thought it was the big leagues. Then came another invitation, this time for a new super-secret unit, one part police, one part military, dedicated to taking down the biggest and baddest threats the New Gods could concoct.
He signed up.
And here he was now, five years later.
Belatedly he realized he should have brought offerings. Flowers, maybe. Religion wasn’t big in his family. The Connors trusted in basic human decency more than they did in the whims of gods or the dictates of scriptures. And yet, offerings seemed appropriate somehow.
He chuckled to himself. They were already dead. What good were offerings?
Still, it didn’t feel right to just stand in front of the grave. He racked his brains for a moment, then shrugged.
“I’m back,” he said.
He felt foolish saying it. The dead were already long gone. He didn’t think there was an afterlife. Just an eternal nothingness. But if there one, he hoped it would be better than this one. The New Gods, one and all, had promised heaven on earth, but they had only delivered hell. He would rather place his trust in humans. At least you knew they were flawed.
The exorcism nagged at him. It wasn’t the first time he’d seen Yamamoto conduct a field exorcism. But it was the first time he’d actively participated in one, seen him up close doing his thing. Seen the light from his cross. From him. Maybe there was something to his faith.
What was the name of the book Yamamoto wanted him to look up? It started with a B, he knew that. But the title? He couldn’t recall offhand. He had been too busy watching the subject to take it in then. He’d have to ask Yamamoto the next time.
His phone vibrated in his pocket. Yamamoto.
“Get back to the hotel. Pearce is calling an all-hands meeting.”
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