The Mission Remains
In Babylon, the city of skyscrapers, the Golden Mile stood apart.
In the heart of Downtown, in the business district named after itself, the Golden Mile was the city’s earliest arcology. From afar, the tower was a rounded column of pure golden light, looming high above the offices and commercial buildings around it. The first twenty floors were shopping, commercial and light industrial spaces. The next twenty stories were residential apartments. The top twenty floors were luxury housing for the elite of the Void Collective. In between each section was a sky lobby, partitioning the tower into equal thirds. It was a city within a city, a tower whose three thousand residents could live and work and play without ever stepping outside.
Designed by the Guild of the Maker, filled with cutting-edge tech from the Singularity Network, owned by the Void Collective, it was a testimony to the power of the New Gods and a statement of religious harmony.
It was also an abomination.
Five blocks away, in a small public park, six people gathered in a pavilion under the cover of night. Sited far from the streetlights that illuminated the running trail that cut through the park, the pavilion was shrouded in shadows, sheltered by the canopy of a copse of evergreen trees.
Even so, it couldn’t escape the glare of the Golden Mile.
Zen Tan sat alone on a rounded concrete bench. The rest of the team—his team—fanned out around him. In the darkness he could barely make out their faces. Only shadows and silhouettes. But he had served with them so long, he knew immediately who was who. He felt the weight of their gaze on him, heavy with anticipation.
He nodded. And spoke.
“Thanks for coming. I appreciate you going out of way for me.”
“No problem,” Yuri Yamamoto said. “Your message sounded urgent.”
“It is. But it’s a personal job. You don’t have to help.”
“It involves the New Gods, doesn’t it?” Kayla Fox asked.
“Then it’s professional.”
“Personal and professional.”
“Does it have anything to do the phones you recovered?”
In their last mission, Tan had surreptitiously cloned a half-dozen phones belonging to members of the Court of Shadows. Including one from a Speaker of the Court, a cross between an ambassador, aristocrat and high priest.
“No, it’s got nothing to do with this,” Tan said.
“Did you get anything out of them?” Fox asked.
“Most of them—the ones belonging to the sicarios—were burners. Nothing in the emails, and they were only used to call each other. They’re useless to us. The last one, the one belonging to DeMille, has military-grade encryption. I’m still trying to crack it.”
“I thought you’re a wizard with computers.”
“I don’t have access to government supercomputers. I’m using a cloud of virtual machines to brute-force images of the phone’s memory. It’s slow, but that’s all I can afford. And anyway this job doesn’t have anything to do with that.”
“Don’t tell me: it involves a woman,” James Wood said.
Tan sighed. “Yes.”
Karim Mustafa gently nudged Wood. “Told you so.”
“But it’s more than just a woman,” Tan said. “It’s… it’s big.”
“Quit beating around the bush, ZT,” Will Connor said. “Just tell us what’s going on.”
Tan clasped his callused fingers together and glanced about. His companions carried themselves with the loose, casual demeanor of alpha wolves. They were all relaxed, but they were also vigilant, constantly looking over each other’s shoulders, trusting everyone else to do the same for them.
The six of them were Team Black Watch of the Special Tasks Section. The finest collection of gunfighters and law enforcers in Babylon, arguably the world. When insane Husks preyed on the innocent, when magic-toting criminals stalked the streets, when the New Gods schemed in the night, they were there to stop them and set things right. The New Gods might be the true rulers of the world, but the Special Tasks Section held them to the law, and the Black Watch was the tip of the spear.
Up until six weeks ago, anyway.
After the three-way gang war in Riveria, the Black Watch was suspended until the Office of Professional Standards investigated their shootings and cleared them. The suspension was political and everyone knew it. Where the STS were concerned, Professional Standards rubber-stamped post-shooting investigations and let the STS continue to do its thing. They had to. The STS was the thin blue line preventing the New Gods from preying on the nation, and with so few operators and a demanding operational tempo, STS operators could not be benched for the weeks and months needed for a proper post-shoot investigation. The kind of monsters the STS dealt with regularly were too much for the regular cops. Even the Enhanced SWAT teams of the Public Security Bureau—the STS’ parent agency only on organization charts—could barely cope. Every STS operator was essential to the continued life of the nation.
But here they were now.
The Black Watch hadn’t done anything wrong. They’d merely carved a bloody swathe through the ranks of the Court of Shadows and, to a lesser extent, the Pantheon and the Liberated. But in the process, they had learned the true mission of the STS. It wasn’t to protect and serve the public. It was to play the New Gods off against each other, to serve as a cat’s paw to all sides, and protect the balance of power among them all. Executive Assistant Director Pearce himself had admitted to that. And if—or when—Tan finally cracked DeMille’s phone, he might even find hard evidence of that.
But their crime wasn’t learning the truth. It was disagreeing with the mission. Strenuously.
For their sins, the Black Watch was removed from the field. Maybe even permanently. But that was out of their hands. Every operator was supposed to be sequestered from each other, officially disallowed from making contact. Officially. There were ways around that, and Professional Standards hadn’t exactly gone out of their way to enforce the rules. They might not have badges, uniforms or legal authority any more, but if anyone could do this job, it was them.
“I have… a friend. Marcie Ngo. Public Security, Criminal Investigations, assigned to the Babylon Field Office. We were close, once, but after I joined the STS she drifted away. A couple of years back, she signed up with the Void Collective. She paid her dues, attended the rituals, even got herself a place in the Golden Mile. But three hours ago, she emailed me and said she wants out.”
“She wants to quit the Collective?” Fox asked.
“I haven’t heard of anyone quitting the Collective,” Wood said. “Not while they’re still breathing.”
“Me neither. But she’s not initiated as a full member, not yet. She told me she’s learned the truth about the Void, and it scares her. She wants to leave. But they won’t let her go.”
“What did she learn?” Yamamoto asked.
“She didn’t say. But whatever it is, it shook her up, bad. And it’s something the VC don’t want the rest of the world to know.”
“Sounds like they’ll initiate her against her will,” Wood mused.
“Count on it,” Yamamoto said.
“Did she try contacting the police?” Mustafa asked.
“The Golden Mile is ecclesiastical property,” Tan said. “Above the twentieth floor, the VC enjoys extraterritorial authority. They have their own bylaws, their own security force, and from what I hear even their own courts and jails. Babylon PD can’t go in without VC permission.”
“Unlawful containment is a federal crime,” Mustafa argued. “If Babylon PD won’t act, the STS will.”
“Y’know, two months ago, I might have agreed with you,” Fox said. “But now? After Riveria? Why would they?”
“The Golden Mile is the heart of the Collective,” Yamamoto said. “Without evidence, without an invitation, a raid would trigger a war between the PSB and the Collective. And we all know what the PSB feels about that.”
The STS’ vaunted independence only went so far. Ultimately, even the Commandant of the STS had to answer to the Directors of the PSB.
“I’ve got neither,” Tan said. “Only an email.”
“How do you know this is legit?” Wood asked. “This could be a trap.”
“We haven’t done anything lately to offend them,” Mustafa said.
Among the New Gods, the Void Collective was the most well-behaved. They didn’t go out of their way to seize more turf and followers the way the more aggressive factions did. Which didn’t necessarily mean they weren’t up to no good, only that the STS hadn’t had cause to crack down on them recently.
“She… she called me ‘Z’. No one calls me that.”
Connor snorted. “Big deal. Pet names don’t count for nothing.”
“It’s not just that,” he sputtered. “The email she sent? It was cut off. Look.”
Tan held out his phone, opening his email and selecting the second-last mail she had sent.
I know it’s been years since we last talked, but I’m in deep shit and I need your help.
I don’t know if you’ve heard, but I joined the Void Collective two years ago. Last week, I finished my probation, and earned a place in the Golden Mile. They told me I was ready for initiation. One of the elders sat me down and explained to me what to expect.
He told me about the initiation ritual. I pressed him for answers, worked him over, used all my charms, and got him to divulge everything. Including what was in the Void. And what I had to give.
I didn’t sign up for this. I was looking for faith, but this… this is demonic. Pure evil. The VC lied to everyone about their teachings. The Void isn’t empty. It is full.
I told the elders I wanted to quit. They told me I’m committed and it’s too late to back out. Security confined me to my apartment and won’t let me leave.
I need help. Come to apartment #37-89. Please
The rest of the email was empty space. Tan gave the team two minutes to read the mail, then retrieved his phone.
“That’s not the only message she sent,” Tan said. “I received this ten minutes after the mail.”
He scrolled to the last email. Also from her.
Dear Zen Tan,
*All is well. I was under a significant amount of stress and suffered a mild psychological disorder. I have been treated by the finest doctors in the Void Collective and I am well again. *
Ignore my last email. I am able, ready and willing to participate in the Initiation. Do not come for me, unless you also wish to embrace the Void.
“Creepy,” Fox said.
“That mail is not convincing anyone,” Connor said.
“Agreed,” Tan said. “Something is up. At the very least, someone doesn’t want us going in.”
“But you want to,” Yamamoto said.
“Something terrible is going on inside the Golden Mile. We have to save her.”
“She made her bed, she can lie in it,” Wood said.
Heat crept into Tan’s voice.
“Look, in her previous email, she already said the VC lied to her. She didn’t ask for this.”
“I feel you, but there’s thousands of people in the Golden Mile, and just six of us. If we do this, it will piss off the VC big time. Is it worth it?”
“Our job is to protect the people from the New Gods.”
“We’re not STS any more,” Yamamoto said.
“But the mission remains.”
Tan stared at Yamamoto. Yamamoto stared back.
“You’re committed to this job?” Yamamoto asked, finally.
“Yes. I’m going in, no matter what.”
“I’m not saying I can’t do this,” Yamamoto said. “Only that it’s ultra-high-risk. There’s no margin for error, we could incur the wrath of the VC, and this time, the STS isn’t going to back us up.”
“And inside the tower, there’s a woman who needs us to save her.”
“You mean she needs you,” Fox said.
“Well, yes. If you’re not on board with this, it’s fine. Just let me know and I’ll do it myself.”
Fox glanced at Yamamoto. Yamamoto looked around at the assembled operators.
“What’s your take, guys? You in?”
“Is this gonna piss off the Void Collective?” Connor asked.
“Absolutely,” Tan said.
Connor teeth gleamed in the light.
“Count on you to make war on the gods when you can,” Mustafa said.
“The VC don’t worship any gods. Just the Void, whatever the hell that is.”
“A lie,” Yamamoto said. “Only a lie, nothing more.”
“You sound sure about that,” Mustafa said.
“I know what my god has to say about the Void. What about yours?”
Mustafa closed his eyes, silently communing with the minor god he had contracted with.
“I’m in,” Mustafa said.
“What’s wrong?” Wood asked.
“It’s the nature of my contract with Galen the Wolf,” Mustafa said. “He grants me power, I do his will. And it is his will to defend the innocent and destroy the evil at every turn. I can’t disobey.”
“You sound reluctant,” Tan probed.
Mustafa shrugged. “I have my duty. Thus, I shall go.”
“I have my duty too,” Wood said. “They might have taken our badges, but not the mission. I’m in.”
“I’m coming too,” Fox said. “Can’t exactly leave my spotter hanging in the breeze now, can I?”
“Well then,” Yamamoto said. “We’re all in this together.”
“Thanks,” Tan said. “I owe you. All of you.”
“Don’t mention it.”
“What’s the timeline for this op?” Wood asked.
“The sooner we do this, the better,” Tan replied. “Tonight, if we can.”
Connor folded his arms.
“An op like this, on such short notice? You got any ideas how to do this?”
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