The conference room was small but cozy, befitting the intimate and confidential nature of this meeting. Executive Assistant Director Robert Pearce, wearing a bespoke blue suit of fine silk, leaned back in his chair and smiled at his three guests.
“I am pleased to report that the Public Security Bureau has smashed the Guzman Cartel in Riveria. We have rounded up their leaders, facilitators and soldiers, and have confiscated millions of dollars in illicit wealth, assets and weapons.
“We are continuing to pursue their remaining members in Riveria. However, their ability to conduct criminal operations have been significantly diminished. We judge they are no longer capable of anything more sophisticated than street-level crimes.”
“That’s wonderful,” Emily Anders said. “Please convey our thanks to the brave agents who made this possible.”
“Thanks. I will.”
“We—the Pantheon—are most delighted to hear of this development,” Nav Chaudhari said. “With that said, I understand there are some ongoing investigations that touch upon mutual interests.”
“Yes,” Anders said, nodding. “My congregation is traumatized by the demise of so many of our fellow members. We need answers.”
Anders steepled his fingers. “Of course. And you’ll have them.
“First, let’s discuss the deaths of Joshua Baines and Paul Wagner at Ringo Plaza. It was a most tragic accident during a chaotic situation. According to witness interviews, when they saw the Cartel gunmen retreat into the office, they believed innocent lives were at stake. They chose to use their powers to rescue the hostages.
“Coincidentally, and most unfortunately, the Special Tasks Section was conducting a hostage rescue operation at that time. When Baines and Wagner entered, they were mistaken for reinforcements, and were shot and killed.”
“Your men fired without warning,” Chaudhari complained.
“The STS confronts the most dangerous criminals in the country. They must use specialist equipment and tactics to survive. The operators involved interpreted their actions as a threat to the team and hostages, and acted within our rules of engagement. A terrible tragedy, but within policy.”
“You shoot Elect on sight? Without even warning them?”
“No warnings are necessary. If an operator judges that a subject poses a deadly threat to himself or others around him, he is authorized to shoot. Again, I must stress that this was a tragic accident, and the team leader on the ground took pains to prevent further misunderstandings and accidents.”
“Baines and Wagner were heroes. We will send a formal letter of protest.”
“As is your right.”
“What about the Liberated the STS killed at SafeKeep?” Anders asked. “Was that ‘within policy’ too?”
“The operators heard gunshots. They judged that the subjects on site threatened the lives of the hostages, and acted accordingly and within policy.” Pearce smiled mirthlessly. “Perhaps I should ask you what your believers were doing there in the first place.”
“I cannot possibly account for the actions of every member of the faith.”
“Yes, but we also note that half of the gunmen at SafeKeep were Elect. As Speaker for the Liberated, how do you justify and explain their actions?”
Anders simply shrugged and spread her hands. “I do not know them, and on this matter Namanah is silent.”
“How convenient,” Shane DeMille said.
She appeared none the worse for wear. Her hair was lustrous and full, her pale skin supple and flawless, her eyes dancing with hidden delight. Her rich red dress was no less elegant than Chandri’s orange robes or Anders’ emerald dress.
“How convenient that the STS discovered you in a previously-unknown basement in SafeKeep,” Chaudhari said. “Perhaps you should tell us what you were doing there?”
“We exercise ecclesiastical privileges and choose to remain silent.”
“Even so, I can speculate. The STS recovered four hostages from the basement. Two of those hostages were priests of the Pantheon.”
“And the other two were Liberated priests,” Anders said.
“Is that so?” DeMille said.
“You were there too. You and six other Elect. You were using them in a blood sacrifice, weren’t you?” Chaudhari said.
DeMille smiled. “I have no knowledge of this ritual, and what occurs in a recognized house of worship is covered under ecclesiastical privilege.”
Chaudhari turned on Pearce. “You’re letting her walk away like this?”
“The dead Elect in the House of Shadows were all members of the Guzman Cartel, with no connection to the legal entity of the Court of Shadows. We speculate that the Cartel members were attempting to use the hostages in a blood sacrifice. I’m sure you’ll agree justice has been served.”
“What about her, then? What was she doing there?”
“She has exercised ecclesiastical privilege. Without further evidence or testimony, we have nothing to work with.”
“This is unbelievable.”
“Unbelievable, you say?” DeMille said. “Do you know what is truly unbelievable? An avatar of the Destroyer running amok in Three Rivers. What was it doing there?”
Chaudhari shrugged with exaggerated nonchalance.
“I do not serve the Destroyer. I cannot speak for her.”
“I thought you spoke for the Pantheon?”
“Yes, but the Pantheon is simply an alliance of gods. I speak for all of them, but I do not speak for any one of them who chooses to act on their own without the knowledge of the others. This incident is outside the scope of my knowledge and authority. I do not know the ones responsible, nor do I speak for them.”
DeMille smirked. “Ah, of course, you are merely a priest of the Limitless One.”
DeMille turned her faze to Anders. “You, on the other hand, have no such excuse.”
“What do you mean?”
“Ringo Plaza. My men investigated the disturbance. The incident began when a group of individuals accosted a member of my Court in the lobby and threw racist language at him. The Courtman stood firm, until they tried to attack him. My man used appropriate force to end the altercation.
“However, everyone around him pulled weapons and turned on him. He fled for the safety of nearby businesses affiliated with the Court. And then the firefight started.
“The original instigators are members of the Liberated and the Pantheon.”
“Quite coincidentally, they were also the hostages we recovered from the House of Shadows,” Pearce said dryly.
“I was not aware of the fact at that time,” DeMille said primly.
Anders drew herself straight. “As I have said, I cannot possibly account for the actions of all my members of the Coven.”
“The gods are not responsible for what their believers do,” Chaudhari added.
“Likewise, the Court of Shadows cannot possibly be blamed for the deplorable actions of the Guzman Cartel,” DeMille said.
The other two Speakers exchanged a glance. Pearce simply sat and waited.
“In the same vein, the Liberated as a whole cannot be held responsible for the crimes of individuals who happened to worship Namah,” Anders said.
“The faults of believers who worship other gods cannot be pinned on the Limitless One,” Chaudhari said, “and the misdeeds of men are not the misdeeds of gods.”
“I’m glad to see we’ve sorted that out,” Pearce said.
“And so, once again, you have preserved the balance,” DeMille said.
Pearce simply smiled.
Connor backed away from the screen, shaking his head.
“Holy shit…” he whispered. “Did that just happen?”
“It did,” Tan said. “It really did.”
“My God… Hey, boss, what the hell was that?”
Yamamoto just stood there, stone-faced, his hands clenched his fists.
“Shit…” Connor said again. “After everything they’ve done, after all the blood they spilled, they just get to walk away?”
“They’re Speakers of the New Gods,” Yamamoto said. “They are held to different laws.”
“That’s fucked up.”
Pearce and the Speakers exchanged a few more pleasantries, and the meeting drew to a close. Pearce walked the Speakers to the outside hallway, where Fox, Mustafa and Wood awaited. The STS operators and the PSB Executive Assistant Director escorted the Speakers to the basement parking lot of the hotel.
Connor watched it all on the screen. Pearce and the Speakers laughing and making small talk, his team mates sweeping for external threats, the short walk to the representatives’ vehicles. One last round of bows and handshakes, and the Speakers drove off.
Just like that, they were gone.
“Pearce has some explaining to do,” Connor said.
“No doubt,” Yamamoto said. “Black Watch call signs, once Pearce is back inside, we’re going to brace him.”
Pearce and the escort team reversed course, heading back the same way they came from. Connor glued his eyes to the screen, tracking his every move. His return to the elevator. His arrival on the fifth floor. His slow walk down the hall.
His entrance into the STS ready room, the other three operators fanning out behind him.
“It’s finally over,” Pearce said brightly. “The Cartel is crushed, and the PSB field office can take of the rest. Good job.”
Tan crossed his arms. Yamamoto’s hands stayed close to his sides. Connor frowned.
“We have questions for you,” Connor said.
“Oh, they can wait—”
“You have answers. You will give them us. Now.”
“Hey, watch your tone, agent.”
Connor laughed. “You are surrounded by the finest gunfighters in Babylon. You watch your tone.”
Wood locked the conference room door. Pearce startled at the heavy CLICK.
“What’s going on?” Pearce asked.
“That’s our line,” Connor said. “You cut a deal with the Speakers, didn’t you?”
“Deal? What deal?”
“Drop the bullshit. All of us know what happened in the House of Shadows. Why does DeMille get to walk?”
“As an accredited Speaker of the New Gods, without firm evidence—”
“Bullshit. You’re just afraid of pissing off the Court.”
Pearce’s face flushed. “I’m warning you, don’t throw accusations like that, agent. Not if you—”
Connor snorted contemptuously and pointed at the bandage wrapped around his head. “The Court did this to me. There’s nothing you can do to me that can match this.”
“You wanna try, Connor? If I give the word, I can destroy your career just like that.”
Pearce snapped his fingers.
“What’s so funny?”
“Pearce, you understand that we recorded the entire meeting, right? A meeting that shows three Speakers of the New Gods lying to an Executive Assistant Director of the PSB with straight faces. And the EAD swallowed these lies with a smile. Imagine what the public would think if they saw it. You should worry about your career.”
Pearce fumed, then sighed and shook his head.
“Okay, maybe we got off on the wrong foot.”
“We sure did,” Yamamoto said. “You can make things right by answering our questions.”
“What do you want to know?”
“Why does Shane DeMille get to walk?”
“Speakers enjoy a host of legal immunities and privileges. That way they can carry out their work unmolested, no matter where they go. Before we can strip one of ecclesiastical privileges, we need to have a slam dunk case against—”
“Calling on the Lord and Lady to attack us doesn’t count?” Connor demanded.
“Can you prove it? All we recovered from the basement are just inert statues. It’s just your word against hers.”
“What about the vamps? The guns? The computers and phones? The hostages?”
“Their lawyers will argue that the Cartel was entirely at fault, not a Speaker of the Court.”
“She rushed me with a knife,” Yamamoto said. “How will they explain that?”
“No fingerprints, no DNA traces.”
“For fuck’s sake!” Connor exclaimed. “Then how are they going to explain her presence?”
“They don’t have to. She can simply exercise ecclesiastical privilege and remain silent. There’s nothing we can do about it.”
“You’re telling me that the Court gets to empower the Cartel and use them as deniable foot soldiers?”
Pearce sighed, and in that moment seemed to age a millennium.
“Can you prove it? Can you provide evidence that will hold up in court, that won’t disappear, and won’t be excluded due to ‘ecclesiastical privileges’?”
“Son of a bitch!” Connor exclaimed.
“Politics,” Fox spat. “Shit.”
“Exactly. It’s the kind of bullshit I have to deal with at my level. Just by taking down the Cartel, by rescuing the hostages, that’s a major win.”
“But DeMille gets to walk,” Connor said bitterly.
“The New Gods are powerful. They cannot be fought head-on. We have… other projects in the works, other investigations. That’s all we can say about it.”
“What about the Pantheon and the Liberated?” Yamamoto asked.
“What about them?”
“The Pantheon unleashed an avatar in a neighborhood. An avatar that indiscriminately killed everyone around it.”
“We’re investigating the situation.”
“Bullshit,” Connor said. “We followed the avatar around. We saw priests of the Pantheon activate it with prayers. And that avatar, it’s of the Destroyer. A known and declared goddess belonging to the Pantheon. What more proof do you need?”
“And one more thing,” Yamamoto said. “How exactly did the Liberated Elect learn of the House of Shadows?”
“To answer the first question, eyewitness reports aren’t enough to make a case. You should know that. For the second, there is no evidence that the suspects were acting on behalf of the Grand Coven of the Liberated, and you’re aware that there are many other groups out there with intelligence-gathering capabilities.”
“The suspects’ arrived soon after I sent my report,” Yamamoto said. “They even knew to ask for a basement we had found, a basement that not even the civilian staff knew about. Rather convenient, isn’t it?”
“Regardless, there’s no proof.”
“Pearce, we all know you’re just bullshitting,” Mustafa said. “You’re not convincing anyone, us least of all. Just drop the act and tell us what’s going on.”
“It’s not an act. It’s the official line of the Public Security Bureau.”
“And all those ‘investigations’ and ‘evidence’ will quietly disappear,” Tan said.
“Agent, that’s not how things work in—”
“That’s exactly how things work. I was a regular agent before I joined the STS. I saw it happen with my own eyes. I came to the STS to make a difference, and now I’m seeing this all over again. We’re not buying the official line.”
“You said the New Gods can’t be fought head-on,” Yamamoto said. “What are you going to do about it?”
“I’m going to have to explain to my commandant why, exactly, EAD Pearce of the PSB allowed multiple suspects, people we believe to have committed conspiracy and mass murder, to walk away. You understand that the STS specializes in direct action against people empowered by the New Gods, and those who support them.”
Connor threw up his hands.
“Okay, fine. But this doesn’t leave this room, you understand?”
“We’ll be the judge of that,” Fox said.
“Here’s a question for you: what’s the mission of the STS?”
“To save lives,” Connor said.
“Yes, but what is it that you do? You take down dangerous criminals, terrorists, Husks, and Elect. Yes?”
“Yes,” Yamamoto agreed.
“No. That’s just what you do on the tactical level. Where the boots hit the street. At the strategic level, at the level of society and civilization, what do you do?”
“How about you skip the appetizers and go to the main course?” Fox said.
“You, me, the PSB, we maintain order. We safeguard society. That means we enforce the law. But to enforce the law, we require a monopoly on legitimate violence. The New Gods, though, their existence and their actions undermine this monopoly. They are free to act however they please, and human laws and norms mean nothing to them.”
“They signed the Treaty of Babylon,” Connor said.
“Yes. Because the alternative is a war of all against all.”
“You’re exaggerating,” Mustafa said.
“I wish. You should know by now that the New Gods are constantly battling each other for supremacy. They don’t want to control just Riveria or Babylon or the country. They want to control the whole world.
“Left unchecked, their power struggles will destroy all of human civilization. You’ve seen what just one of their Elect can do. The Treaty of Babylon is a compromise. It laid down a set of rules for everyone, held them all to the same standards of behaviour. And in doing so, it averted global collapse.”
“Plenty of loopholes in those rules,” Fox said.
“Yes. But without those loopholes, they would never have agreed to the Treaty. And this is the genius of the Treaty: it encourages and requires the New Gods to check and balance each other, by giving them all special privileges and the responsibility to protect their followers and property.”
“These ‘checks and balances’ merely drove their war into the shadows,” Yamamoto said.
“But it’s a war that you—the STS—can contain. If they step out of line, you go in and smack them all down, without fear or favor.”
“How about we just stop the war altogether?”
“Can humans stand up to the New Gods?”
“Well, okay, you aside? If the New Gods poured out their wrath on humanity, can the rest of us survive? I don’t think so. Humans can’t fight gods. But humans can fight humans. The humans and organizations the New Gods use as pawns and foot soldiers in their war.”
“Every time we take down a soldier, a dozen pop up to take his place,” Yamamoto said. “We’re just mowing the grass over and over again.”
“What’s the point of it all?” Wood asked.
“Balance,” Pearce said.
“Balance?” Connor repeated.
“If any one faction grows too weak, the others will pounce on it and tear it apart. If any of the New Gods becomes too strong, they will dominate the others and prey on weaker powers. In either scenario, there will be war. War unlike anything we’ve seen before. The only way for humanity to survive is to maintain the balance of power and prevent a war between the New Gods.
“That is the mission of the STS. The survival of humanity.”
Pearce abruptly spun on his heels, unlocked the door, and walked out.
No one pursued him.
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