One can’t challenge an Executive Assistant Director of the PSB without consequences.
Mere minutes after Pearce left, a barrage of orders came down from above. The mission was declared complete, with all operational duties handed over to the Riveria field office and local ESWAT team. All STS operators would catch the first flight back to Babylon. Team Black Watch would be suspended and placed on administrative leave to support a post-shooting investigation by the Office of Professional Standards and Ethics.
After every mission, if an STS operator fired shots, there would always be a post-shooting investigation. But unlike regular law enforcement agencies, STS operators weren’t pulled off the line during the investigation. Their operational tempo and small numbers simply couldn’t support it. What investigations OPSE performed for the STS never took longer than a week, rarely longer than a day or two, long enough to establish that, yes, the operators faced extraordinary threats in an extraordinary environment, yes, the operators were required to employ dynamic tactics and specialist weapons to meet these threats, yes, the operators acted within policy.
It took a major fuck up to be suspended.
And the Black Watch did not fuck up.
In the hours that followed, the team packed up their things and filled out the requisite paperwork. Connor went through the motions mechanically but meticulously. With his hands busy, he had no room to indulge the black roiling mass growing in his heart.
But even work had to end sometime. The team finished their chores at day’s end. After a team dinner in the hotel restaurant, Connor made his excuses and left.
He walked the streets of Riveria, riding the trains up and down the metro lines, taking in the sights, refreshing and updating his memories of the city. Or so he wanted to tell himself. But little registered in his brain, nothing more than geography and demographics and threat assessments.
His feet carried him to Three Rivers. In spite of the fighting, the killing, the dying, the district was back to normal. Seas of people washed into the arcades and eateries and shops, hunting for the best deals, the finest food, the hardest liquors. Priests and missionaries and volunteers and touts continued to do their thing at street corners and shops.
Life carried on.
The only difference was that the Pantheon, the Liberated and the Court kept their distance from each other. No overt provocations, no open disrespect, just frigid indifference.
But capitalism could only do so much. In the neighborhood where he had put down the avatar, many shops and houses were shuttered or boarded over. Black greasy spots marked where so many people and drones had died. Street altars, all of them dedicated to the Court, overflowed with offerings. There was little life here; only people passing through on the way home, and wolf packs roaming the streets or lurking in the shadows.
He had nothing to fear from the latter. He let his mask drop, let the wolves see who he truly was, and straight away they knew he wasn’t a man who could be fucked with.
He wanted to feel something. Rage, sorrow, anything but the gnawing black mass in his chest. But all he felt was a void in his heart and a hole in his brain.
Back in the hotel, he found Yamamoto seated at a corner booth in the bar, nursing a shot glass of clear liquid. No ice, no lemon, no lime, only pure alcohol.
Unbidden, Connor approached. Yamamoto nodded and scooted over, making room for him.
“What are you having tonight?” Connor asked.
“It is. Triple distilled, filtered ten times, ninety-five percent alcohol.”
“I haven’t tried that before.”
“Tonight’s a fine time to try one.”
“I think I will.”
Connor waved a waitress over and placed his order. She returned thirty seconds later with a smile and a glass of clear spirit identical to Yamamoto’s.
The chilled vodka carried a subtle yet potent scent, like rubbing alcohol. Going down, it was clean and pure and smooth, settling into a pool of icy flame at the pit of his stomach, leaving an aftertaste of creeping warmth.
“How is it?” Yamamoto asked.
“It fits you to a T.”
Yamamoto chuckled. “I’ve never heard anyone say that about a drink before.”
The men sipped at their vodkas in companionable silence. Sitting next to him, Connor was suddenly of just how… present Yamamoto was. He was fully in the moment, watching and listening to everything and everyone around him, partaking of the present in its totality, ready to receive anything the world could throw at him.
Connor gulped down a small mouthful, savored the burn, thought, what the hell.
“Do you think Pearce was on the level?” Connor asked.
Connor chuckled. “Me too. I don’t believe the Liberated showing up at SafeKeep was a coincidence.”
“Agreed. I think someone tipped them off. Someone inside the PSB.”
“No proof either way. Still… it’s odd. The TOC already knew we were running a stakeout. It doesn’t make sense for the Liberated to send in a raid team right in front of us.”
“Maybe the Liberated weren’t told of our presence. Only that there was a House of Shadows under the building.”
“Maybe, but why? It doesn’t make sense operationally. Unless…”
“Unless… someone wanted to give us an excuse to raid the House of Shadows without needing a warrant, and along the way knock the Liberated down a peg. And if we didn’t act, or if we died trying, the Liberated will take care of the problem anyway.”
“Man, that’s…” Connor shook his head. “I want to say that that’s impossible, but…”
“Is Pearce capable of that?”
“I don’t know. Only that from now on, we need to keep an eye on Pearce and his allies.”
“And blowback from the New Gods.”
“Without a doubt.”
By hunting down criminal Elect and Elect who posed as insane Husks, the STS made enemies of the New Gods. It was inevitable. Sooner or later, an operator or a team would disrupt one too many plans, slay an Elect too highly-ranked to be replaced, offend one too many clients of the New Gods. When that moment came, everyone in the STS knew that they would no longer be off-limits, and woe betide the man who had the New Gods after his head.
“Is it time to go off-grid?” Connor asked.
“Better safe than sorry. The moment we return to Babylon, I’m going dark. You should, too. At least until we’re cleared and placed back on active duty.”
“That sounds like a great idea.”
Connor gulped down his vodka. A travesty, but he didn’t care.
“Y’know, when I was a kid, the PSB were my heroes. They were smart, they were powerful, they stood up for the little guy against the New Gods. They were the only ones willing to do that. When I joined the Bureau, I still believed that. But now…” He shook his head. “Up is down and black is white.”
“Amen,” Yamamoto agreed.
Connor ordered another drink. Whiskey on the rocks, this time. The Riverian working man’s drink. He needed it.
As the waitress left, Yamamoto said, “There’s one piece of good news.”
“What is it?”
“Zen cloned the devices we recovered from the Court at the House of Shadows. Including DeMille’s phone. If there’s any funny business between the Court and the PSB, we’ll know about it.”
Connor recalled Yamamoto whispering into Tan’s ear, and grinned.
“I’ll drink to that,” he said.
When Connor’s drink arrived, he flooded his mouth, filled his belly, and savored the golden burn mixed with peat and smoke. Whiskey was the first adult beverage he’d ever tried, the first drink he’d learned to appreciate. Yamamoto’s vodka was fancy, but days like this demanded whiskey.
“Do you think Pearce was telling the truth about maintaining the balance of power between the New Gods?” Connor asked. “About our mission being to save humanity?”
“I can believe it. I can understand where he’s coming from.”
“But…” Connor prodded.
“But if what he said were true, all we’re doing is damage control. We’re not stopping the war, we’re just trying to hold back the tide.”
“I feel that way sometimes.” Connor sighed. “But if we try to stop the war, we’ll have to take on the New Gods. All of them. At the same time. How the hell do we do that?”
“Damned if I know.”
“What a fucked-up world we live in.”
“This world is a dewdrop world. A peal of a bell, a bolt of lightning, a dream. No more.”
“The hell does that mean?”
“This world is illusory and transient. Everything changes, nothing stays the same, and it only takes a moment for the world to change completely.”
“I don’t see that happening.”
“We shattered the Cartel, didn’t we? Even the New Gods need human pawns. If we take out enough of them, we can defang them.”
“Kill until the rivers run red, huh?”
“If it comes to that.”
He chuckled. “Well, even if we take out the pawns, what can we do about the New Gods? We don’t even know where or what they are.”
“The New Gods aren’t gods. They are demons.”
The men shared a quiet laugh.
“But it’s true, isn’t it?” Yamamoto said. “No god will deliberately use humans as pawns and add to the ocean of suffering in this world just to achieve their goals. No god I’ll worship.”
Connor thought again about what Yamamoto had done in the church. How he had exorcised an Elect of the New Gods. How he had stared down the New Gods.
“I heard DeMille call you an Old Believer,” Connor said.
Connor knew the term. It meant someone who followed one of the old faiths that had existed before the arrival of the New Gods. He thought Old Believers were foolish. The New Gods walked the world and granted their favors to believers; none of the old gods had ever been sighted, much less dispensed miracles the way the New Gods did.
“What did she mean when she said your faith was impure?”
Connor chuckled. “You were raised in a household without religion, yes?”
A disproportionate number of STS operators came from similar backgrounds. Not that they didn’t believe in the existence of gods—one might as well declare that the world was flat—but they weren’t pledged to any god. To worship a god was to serve it, and there many people uncomfortable with that notion. For now.
“My parents are religious. In fact, my mother’s a scholar who specializes in the old myths and religions of the world that came before. They passed down their knowledge and their traditions to me. I practice what I found to be true.
“What the Court said about my faith being impure is true in the doctrinal sense. But you’ve seen the results of my practice firsthand.”
This was the first time Yamamoto had ever spoken of his parents to him. Connor wondered what it was like living in a household steeped in a faith few practiced. His own parents and grandparents had given the subject of the New Gods no more attention than the news of the day. Connor had turned out well—as well as he hoped he could have—but Yamamoto possessed a deep and abiding faith in something greater than he was.
Connor wondered what it was like to live with faith.
“I’m not much of a believer,” Connor said. “Why do you practice?”
“To sustain the cultural traditions of my ancestors.”
He laughed. “And one more reason.”
“We live in a nightmare world ruled by false gods. But if we seek the transcendent, the truth will set us free.”
False gods? Transcendent? The words grated at Connor’s brain. The only gods he knew were the same gods that made war on each other in a bid to control the world. The only transcendence he had seen was the raw power they granted to their followers, powers that the STS had painstakingly learned how to neutralize. But after what he had seen in the church, in the House of Shadows, maybe there was something more to it than that.
“What god do you worship?” Connor asked. “Yahweh, was it?”
“Where do I find out more about him?”
“The Bible. You’re going to read it?”
Connor chugged down his whiskey.
“I just might.”
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.