To The Knife
Even the New Gods had rules for war.
Never shed the blood of the innocent. Never whack a cop in cold blood. Never, ever, target the Speakers of rival gods.
But the Court of Shadows weren’t sticklers for rules.
The Speakers of the New Gods served many roles. They defined and codified doctrine. They communicated the will of the gods to believers and non-believers alike. They negotiated with the mortal authorities and rival gods. They were high priests, policymakers and ambassadors rolled in one, the closest the New Gods had to divinely-appointed rulers.
By targeting a Speaker, the Court was calling for war to the knife.
“At no time must we be prejudiced against the Court,” Pearce insisted. “As far as we can tell, the Cartel ordered the hit. Not the Court. Our target is the Cartel, and only the Cartel.”
Semantics and bullshit, Connor knew. There was no reason for a cartel to kill a priest; Chaudhauri had done nothing to offend them. But there were plenty of reasons for the Court to order the Cartel to rub him out.
Still, he understood Pearce’s position. Nobody, the PSB least of all, wanted to start a war with the New Gods. Especially the Court. Openly pointing the finger at the Lord and Lady of Shadows would trigger a conflict of genocidal proportions. Pearce might as well detonate a nuke in Babylon. It would be quicker and cleaner that way.
Regardless, the PSB couldn’t let the Court get away with organizing a hit on a Speaker. There was only one option left, one that would enforce the law without triggering a war among the gods.
Take down the Cartel.
Or, in Yamamoto’s words, keep killing until the rivers ran red.
Their first target was a dingy apartment complex in the outskirts of Riveria. Anonymous, dilapidated, forgettable. The kind of place the desperate went to live and where dreams went to die. The perfect place for sicarios to hole up before the war began.
But they were already behind the curve.
Inside their Sentinel gravtruck, the Black Watch readied for war. In the cab, Yamamoto and Tan flew the vehicle, the autopilot disabled. Fox hummed to herself, nodding her head to a tune only she knew. Wood monitored the radio chatter in his earpieces. Connor checked and double-checked his gear. Karim pressed his back against the hard pseudo-leather cushion, his eyes closed.
Abruptly, he awoke.
“There’s only one suspect inside the building. Apartment 608, in the bedroom.”
One of Galen’s many gifts was remote viewing. Mustafa could send his soul into the Aether and recon a building long before the STS had arrived. The first time Connor had seen it, he thought it was freaky. But now, he was used to it.
“Roger that, one suspect,” Yamamoto said. “ETA, one minute.”
One suspect, one team. That was the STS way. Not just a statement of bravado, but a reflection of the unit’s small size. At any one time, there were no more than a hundred and twenty operators in the STS.
Sending in six operational teams was overkill, even by STS standards. But the mission had demanded it.
There were eight apartments on the sixth floor. All owned by the Cartel, through front companies and false identities. It was likely that the tenants on the lower floors were sympathetic to the Cartel, if not low-level members or affiliates. Nobody wanted to get shot in the back.
Exactly one minute later, all six teams descended from the sky, ringing the building. Two teams secured the outer perimeter. Two more secured the lobby and the stairs. Teams Black Watch and Red Raven rushed to the sixth floor.
The stairwell reeked of stale urine and old blood and fluids best left unidentified. Leaky trash bags piled high. Graffiti scrawled across the walls. Black teeth dripping blood, a circle with a pair of crossed daggers, phrases in languages that weren’t native to Old Earth.
The Court and the Cartel.
Connor endured the olfactory assault, hunting for tripwires, sensors, cameras, anything that might compromise the op. Right above the door, Connor spotted a wireless camera.
“Camera on the ceiling,” Connor called.
“Step it up!” Yamamoto ordered.
Connor barged through the door and turned right. He was in a long, cramped corridor. At the far end, the point man of Red Raven burst out. They glanced at each other, long enough to confirm they were on the same side, and carried on.
Black Watch converged on apartment 608. The front door was plain protected, protected by a sturdy steel security gate. Connor stepped up and held out his hand.
“Hoolie up!” he called.
A pair of steady hands grabbed the Halligan tool strapped on his back and pressed it into his palm.
Connor wedged the adze end between the frame and the gate above the topmost hinge. Took a deep breath. Levered down.
Metal groaned, gave way, bent. He removed the bar, slipped it in below the hinge, and forced the bar down. The weld broke, wood cracked, and the hinge peeled off the frame.
Connor repeated the procedure until all three hinges were defeated, then pulled on the bar.
Gate and door crashed to the floor.
Stepping back, Connor dropped the bar and grabbed his carbine. Fox tossed in a flash-bang. Connor closed his eyes and looked away. A blinding flash of light, a deafening bang, and the Black Watch flowed in.
Inside the living room, Connor saw a ratty sofa, an ancient holovision, an enormous altar. No humans. He ignored them all, following the walls, following Yamamoto to the bedroom.
Edward Rodriguez lay in bed, wearing only a pair of boxers. As the operators piled in, he threw off his blanket, and his eyes goggled.
“PUBLIC SECURITY! HANDS IN THE AIR!” Connor yelled, aiming his carbine.
Rodriguez froze. Around Connor, the rest of the team piled in.
“HANDS IN THE AIR! DO IT NOW!”
“FUCK YOU!” Rodriguez yelled.
Black fur rippled down his muscled torso. Fingers and toes elongated into claws. Nose and mouth melted into a muzzle. He threw his head back—
The operators fired.
The room thundered with gunfire. Bullets shredded meat and bone, wood and cotton, steel springs and linen. When the guns went silent, there was nothing left of his face and chest.
“Clear!” Connor yelled.
“Clear!” Tan agreed.
The operators flowed back out, re-clearing the rest of the apartment. In a spare room, Connor saw a huge map pinned on a board above a desk, marked with red circles and childish handwriting. By the desk were locked cabinets filled with guns. Rifles, shotguns, pistols.
Interesting, but it could wait.
Working in tandem, the two teams cleared the remaining apartments. Dry holes. But they were stocked with dried foods, maps, computers, flash drives, burner phones, and weapons.
There were enough guns for a small army, enough ammunition to fight a war, enough explosives to send the street into orbit.
The teams slowed down. Now was time for sensitive site exploitation. Connor unhooked what looked like a small pouch from his belt. It unfolded into a large duffel bag. The other operators retrieved their own SSE bags from belts, plate carriers, and packs.
Back inside Apartment 608, the team methodically tore the place apart, searching for hidden stashes, and swept up everything of interest into the bag. The gun cabinets were locked, and so were the drawers, but they yielded before the hoolie bar.
On the way out, Connor glanced at the altar. A simple wooden table, covered with a red cloth. It overflowed with offerings: two vases of white flowers, lit white candles, white plates of fruits, shot glasses of strong-smelling spirits. In the middle of the table were the objects of adoration. On the left, a tall skeleton wearing a red robe, a wicked scythe held in his left hand, teeth bared in a perpetual smile. On the right, a woman wearing deep blue robes, her hood thrown back to reveal pale skin, red-painted lips, black eyes and a fanged smile, silver coins in her left hand and a knife in her right. Both wore intricately-carved crowns, studded with small skulls.
The Lord and Lady of Shadows.
Maybe it was just him, but he sensed a malicious presence flowing from the statuettes. He grinned back at them.
Be seeing you soon.
The second customer of the day was a Cartel money man. His tax documents said he was an accountant who ran his own firm. A firm that exclusively serviced Cartel front companies and organizations.
He lived in a penthouse at the top floor of Skyview Condominiums, the tallest luxury condos in Riveria. His home was his playground, his office, his residence. He rarely stepped out, and when he did, he traveled with a convoy of bodyguards. Even at home, he still maintained a cadre of armed security.
Intelligence said he lived with six close protection officers, all of them former military special forces, and his doxy of the year. Eight people in total.
Piece of cake.
The SkyBear had swooped down from the sky like a predatory eagle, the ferocious whine of its miniguns menacingly loud in the clear air. Up top on the turret, Connor clutched his machine gun.
The penthouse was a glasshouse topped with a concrete roof. Through the clear windows, Connor had a clear view of every room. The target sat at the main desk of his office, staring goggle-eyed at the SkyBear and its twin miniguns.
Connor grinned and aimed at the target.
“PUBLIC SECURITY BUREAU!” Yamamoto ordered through the loudspeaker. “WE ARE SERVING A SEARCH WARRANT! COME OUT WITH YOUR HANDS UP!”
The money man surrendered.
So did everyone else.
The operators strip-mined the penthouse of evidence, bundled the subjects into the truck, and prepared to depart. Easy day. But as Connor boarded the SkyBear, he heard the sound of gunfire float up from the city below.
Lots of gunfire.
Their third stop was an auto repair shop. A full service facility, it catered to ground cars, gravity vehicles, bikes, anything and everything that could fit inside its garage. Such a facility required a well-stocked machine shop in the rear.
A machine shop that churned out machine guns by night.
At least, that was what the PSB had said. They weren’t using the legal term either, not just guns that fired more than a single round per trigger pull. No, they meant the real deal, handmade crew-served bipod-mounted belt-fed machine guns.
No taking chances with this one. But the Black Watch never did.
The Cartel had gotten the word out, and were strongpointing their assets. Reinforced by a platoon of ESWAT operators, the Black Watch swooped down on the machine shop. Connor jumped out the vehicle just in time to see the shop roll down the shutters.
“Public Security!” Yamamoto called. “We have a search warrant! Come out with your hands up!”
“Screw you, pigs!” someone yelled back.
The Black Watch searched the perimeter, looking for entry points. No dice. Bullet-resistant blinds protected every glass window. A heavy rolling shutter defended the front door. The garage doors were so thick and heavy, Connor knew right away they would stop bullets and bombs.
But that was alright. The Black Watch was always prepared.
Connor met the ESWAT breacher and laid out his plan. It took them just thirty seconds to reach a consensus. Thirty more seconds to retrieve the gas rams from their vehicles.
A gas ram was an odd-looking device. A two-man breaching tool, it was a huge steel cylinder with a long spike on one end and a pair of curved handles on the sides. Connor grabbed one, Mustafa had the other.
“Black Watch ready,” Connor said.
“ESWAT ready,” his counterpart said.
Connor and Mustafa placed the spike at their strike zone. Swayed back, bringing the ram up as far as it would go. Exploded forward, throwing their body weight into the strike.
The ram punched through the wall.
The operators jammed in the ram as deep as it would go. Connor flicked a switch on the cylinder. A loud hiss erupted from the ram. The operators stepped back and took up security positions.
“Black Watch here. Ram is set,” Connor reported.
“ESWAT. Ram is good to go.”
“This is the Public Security Bureau!” Yamamoto announced over his loudspeaker. “We know you’re holed up in there! It’s time for you to come out! Unlock the doors and step out with your hands up!”
The operators waited.
Ten minutes later, the doors flung open, spilling choking men and thick clouds of tear gas.
“Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!” one of them shouted.
“We didn’t do nothing!” another yelled.
The operators dragged them away and proned them out on the sidewalk. There were eight of them, dressed in greasy blue coveralls. A thorough pat-down revealed no weapons, drugs or any other contraband.
“We just work here, that’s all!” one of them whined. “We’re not bad guys!”
Connor just laughed.
Off to the side, Mustafa shut his eyes. Connor imagined Mustafa’s soul stepping out of his body and passing through the walls. The team psi had never told the others exactly how he did what he did, and Connor himself wasn’t all that read up on psi. He couldn’t even begin to understand how it worked, only that it did—and that he would rather work with what he could see with his eyes and touch with his hands.
“There’s two more subjects inside,” Mustafa reported. “They’re in the machine shop in the back, pointing MGs at the door. And there’s only one door in and out.”
“The CS isn’t affecting them?” Tan asked.
“Nope. They shut the door and stuffed rags under it. I didn’t see any CS in there.”
“We’ve got to drag them out the hard way,” Fox said.
Back to the SkyBear. This time, Connor retrieved a gatecrasher. It was a specialized breaching charge, tamped with water, designed for blasting through reinforced walls. Connor peeled off the adhesive backing and fastened it the rear wall of the machine shop, propping it up with a long wooden beam. He inserted the detonator, double-checked it, and unspooled the clacker.
The team backed up around the corner. Connor held up the firing device.
“Three! Two! One! MARK!”
He squeezed the clacker.
A resounding BOOM shook the building. A pale gray cloud erupted from the wall. Concrete collapsed. The team rounded the corner, weapons ready.
The charge had blasted a man-sized hole in the wall. The Mastiff drone went in first, then Yamamoto, and then Connor. The team leader went left, Connor went right.
The dust cloud hung heavy in the air. Connor flicked on his light, dispelling the gloom. Through dancing dust motes he saw two men near the door, one on either side. They had braced machine guns on tables, pointing them at the door.
They were facing the wrong way.
Connor aimed at the one on the right.
“STS! STS! HANDS UP! HANDS UP!”
They remained frozen for a single, fatal, moment.
Connor fired. Two to the chest, face gets the rest. Blood and gore burst over the walls. He lowered his weapon, scanned, saw only a pair of dead bodies.
“Clear!” Connor shouted.
The STS fought the most dangerous breed of criminal on the planet. They ran by different rules. If STS kicked in the door and you were still armed, you died. Simple as that.
The team scoured the rest of the garage and the attached shop. No more subjects. But the floor was littered with knives, pocket pistols, and crappy homemade guns. The employees must have thrown them down before surrendering. If they had thought it would help them escape charges, they were dead wrong.
Half an hour after arrival, they pronounced the scene clear.
It was twelve minutes to noon.
There was still a lot of work to do.
As the day bore on, STS and ESWAT Sentinels shuttled back and forth from the PSB field office, dropping off prisoners and picking up intelligence and ammunition. The PSB’s target deck wasn’t complete, but better to act now than to wait until a Speaker got his head blown off. And the captives they’d taken would help fill in the blanks.
Under more regular circumstances, PSB prisoners were handed off to the local police for detention and interviews. When facing Elect, the situation was much different.
Every PSB field office held a small detention facility deep underground. These were dedicated to containing the Elect of the New Gods. The cell doors were vault-grade, half a foot of high-strength alloys. Surveillance cameras watched the prisoners twenty-four seven. No windows. Day and light was determined solely by the electric lights.
If an Elect tried to break out, the jailers could pump tear gas and detonate stun grenades from hidden ports within the cell. If someone broke out anywhere, a remote weapons system mounted at the end of the hall would make mincemeat out of him.
The cells were stuffed. Designed to hold only one prisoner at a time, there were just six cells. The PSB had made do by cramming three, four or five men in at a time. It was just a temporary measure, they said soothingly, until they were sure they were just ordinary humans and not Elect deserving of special attention.
But there was no easy way to tell the difference between humans and Elect. Sure, many New Gods marked their Elect with hardware, tattoos, other signs and symbols that proclaimed their status. But there were just as many Elect out there with no visible outward markers, whose missions required them to blend into human society to carry out their masters’ bidding—and whose powers were no less formidable than their visible counterparts.
Which was why the PSB had flown in Special Interrogation Teams.
The Black Watch escorted a fresh batch of prisoners into their cells, retrieved their weapons, and headed upstairs. Down the hall, they passed a group of eight heavily-armored guards frog-marching a shackled prisoner to the interrogation room.
Poor bastard, Connor thought.
He knew how Special Interrogation worked. Strap the prisoner down into a chair, so tightly he couldn’t resist. Inject an interrogation implant into his brain. Then, fire a barrage of questions at the prisoner.
Start with easy questions, questions to which the answers were already known, to establish a baseline of behavior. The implant would read his brainwaves and the changes in blood flow, compile a database of responses to stimuli, and feed the data to a computer. Once you know how he reacts, starting asking him what you need to know.
If he told the truth, or what he thought was the truth, the implant would pick it up. If he lied, his brain would betray him. Even remaining silent was no defense; brain activity could not be suppressed. Not consciously.
Resistance was futile. Cooperation was inevitable. The only question was how long it took.
Rumor held that if the prisoner continued to hold out, SIT’s machines could rip the answers right out of his head. SIT officially denounced such methods and claimed they didn’t use them, but Connor knew for a fact that such technology existed. He’d seen it in person, and the sight had left him sick. The only question was whether SIT was telling the truth. For their sake, he hoped they were.
Their job complete, the team dispersed for additional duties. Mustafa inspected the SkyBear and its stowed kit, while Tan ran diagnostics on his Mastiff. Wood and Fox drew ammo and other supplies from the armory to replace what they had expended.
Yamamoto and Connor headed up to the operations center.
Under more ordinary circumstances, this room was used for briefings, lectures and conferences. Now, it was a hub of activity. Everywhere Connor looked, he saw screens and tables and agents milling about. A low buzz filled the air, a mix of air conditioning, computer fans, energetic conversation. Holographic windows displayed real-time video feeds, a clock, a large map of Riveria dotted with red and blue and green pins.
This was the brains of the operation. All the data the operators and agents generated flowed here, to be cataloged and processed and handed off as needed. From here, supervisors dispatched requests and orders and information as needed. At the heart of this digital kingdom, EAD Pearce sat on his throne, a workdesk with multiple floating holographic screens.
They weren’t here to see Pearce. Instead, Connor approached a familiar face.
Matthew Smith looked up from his screen and smiled. “Will! Damn, man, it’s good to see you. How long has it been? Eight years?”
“Eight years,” Connor confirmed.
“Time flies, eh? How the hell have you been? I heard you STS guys are superstars.”
“The ride never ends. You ever thought of jumping ship from ESWAT?”
“Nah, a man’s gotta know his limits, ya know.”
“That’s fine. Matty, this is Yuri Yamamoto, my team leader.”
“Pleasure to meet ya,” Smith said.
“Likewise,” Yamamoto said with a nod. “I take it you know each other well.”
“Yeah,” Smith said. “Will here used to work here in the field office. He was one of our best ESWAT guys too. Then you poached him for the STS.”
“He’s one of our best STS guys too.”
“I’m sure he earned his spot.”
“Thanks,” Connor said.
“No problem. So. What can I do for you today?”
“We’ve cleared our target deck,” Connor said. “I was wondering if there’s anything else we can do.”
“So fast? Damn. You STS guys are incredible.”
“We’re just doing our jobs,” Yamamoto said.
Smith chuckled. “Humble, too. Well, I don’t have anything solid yet. But there is something we could use your help with.”
“What’s that?” Connor asked.
“The guy you brought in some days ago, the Elect you captured in the church, he’s still singing. He mentioned something about a House of Shadows.”
“Fuck,” Connor breathed.
“It’s a secret church for the Court of Shadows.”
“I thought they don’t have churches. They just set up shrines and altars anywhere they please.”
“That’s for regular worshipers. The Elect of the Court pray at a House of Shadows to receive communion directly from the Lord and Lady.”
“Damn,” Smith exclaimed. “Sounds serious.”
“It is,” Yamamoto confirmed. “A House is one part church, one part safe house, one part barracks, one part headquarters.”
“About this House of Shadows you mentioned, is the info corroborated?” Connor asked.
“Yup. We have two other Elect in custody. They’re singing the same tune,” Smith replied.
“If we raid the House, we could find definitive evidence linking the Cartel and the Court,” Connor said.
“It’s what I was thinking,” Smith said. “But before we can get a warrant, we need someone to stake out the place and gather information.”
“Leave it to us,” Connor said. “Where’s the House of Shadows?”
If a brutal-yet-realistic dungeon crawler is right up your alley, check out the Kickstarter of Dungeon Samurai here.
To stay updated on writing news and promotions, sign up for my newsletter here.