The Golden Mile Part 4

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May God Help Us All

They took the stairs.

There was one place in the arcology guaranteed to be nonsecure by design. No RFID readers, no cameras, no drones. No way to jam it either.

The emergency stairs.

The moment Tan shoved the door open, a fire alarm rang. But only on the lower floors. The bottom third of the Golden Mile. From the upper floors there was only silence.

It wasn’t right. But they had no time to wonder why.

From down below, through the scream of sirens reverberating crazily in the narrow shaft, Tan heard the distant pounding of heavy boots. He stole a glance at his argees; the QRF was still trapped in the elevators, halfway between floors, calmly breaking out equipment and preparing to extricate themselves. That meant the regular guards were coming up.

It was a cold comfort.

Yamamoto leading the way, they raced up the stairs. On the thirty-ninth floor, Tan peeked down the stairwell, keeping tabs of the guards hot on their heels. He saw flashes of black and white and gunmetal, but that was all. The security team were sticking to the outer walls, minimizing their exposure.

And aiming their guns high.

Tan ducked. Handguns barked, the narrow walls amplifying their thunder. Bullets whined and ricocheted off metal and concrete. Yamamoto continued his headlong charge upstairs. Marcie yelped and leapt for a corner.

“We have to move!” Tan yelled.

He grabbed her, forced her to her feet, and pushed her up the stairs. With one hand he held on to her left shoulder, tracking her progress; with the other he aimed the pistol down the narrow gap in the stairwell and blasted away at every target of opportunity.

He didn’t think he hit anyone. Long-range pistolcraft was not his strong suit, and firing down thirty-odd stories would tax the abilities of any handgun. But the muzzle flash, the thunder and the high-velocity bullets would give the enemy pause.

Or so the theory went.

The guards simply redoubled their fire. A bullet bounced off the guardrail an inch from his arm, whined past his ear and smacked into the concrete wall. Tan flinched away, but kept running.

Yamamoto halted on the fortieth floor landing and stacked on the door.

“Check what’s outside,” he whispered.

“Roger,” Tan agreed.

He called up the GuardNet console on his argees. With his free hand he manipulated the virtual haptic interface, holding it high to let the argees’ camera observe the motions of his fingers. His eyes flew to the list of security assets on the 40th floor.

Eight guards. Sixteen drones.

He checked the floor map. Twenty-four blue dots clustered near the lobby, arranged in a half-moon, most of them safely ensconced behind cover.

The team was caught between a hammer and an anvil. Rush out into the sky lobby and be gunned down, or stay here and be overwhelmed by the guards nipping at their heels.

But the Black Watch had a third option.

On his phone, Tan brought the team into a conference call.

“We’ve got twenty-four Tangos waiting outside the door to the sky garden,” Tan said. “They’re all behind hard cover.”

“That’s way too many to take out, even for me,” Fox said.

“I can thin them out. Once I get the party started, fire at will.”

“Roger that.”

“Farmer, get the gravcar warmed up,” Yamamoto said. “They’re catching up. Fast. As soon as we’re done here, we need to get the hell out of here.”

“Engine’s hot,” Wood reported. “Give the word and we’ll be there in five.”

“Copy that.”

Tan inspected the blue dots on the map. All of them were labeled. Again, the same alphanumeric jumble the Void preferred. But eight of them had longer names than the rest. He accessed one at random.

A Wolf drone. The feed from its sensors and computer streamed into his argees. Crouching behind a bench, it had a clean line of sight at a trio of guards. A crosshair aimed at the door to the emergency stairs.

The HUD reported it was armed with an M99 personal defense weapon.

And the drone was set to semi-autonomous mode.

Tan grinned.

He selected all sixteen drones and checked the dashboard. A list of commands and status reports popped up. He scrolled down until he found the mode setting and switched it to manual. Now they wouldn’t move without his say-so.

He checked the IFF settings. It was impossible to turn it off; it was hardcoded into the system, and the only way to disable it was to switch off the drones. But he could upload a new IFF code.

He generated a fresh one on GuardNet, randomizing every variable, and updated the drones with the new IFF code. Immediately the human guards turned red on the map.

“Deadeye, you ready?” Tan whispered.

“Scope is hot,” she replied.

“Don’t shoot the drones.”

“Roger.”

“Green light.”

He switched the drones to autonomous mode.

The Wolves sprang to life. Their PDWs blazing, they ripped into the guards. Short, precise bursts stuttered in the night. Then came a sharp metallic SWAT that came from everywhere and nowhere at once. Fox, working her magic with her big iron.

Tan dove into a drone camera, saw a guard dashing for cover, firing away with his weapon. The crosshair teleported over his head. The PDW barked. The guard’s face erupted in a red cloud. The drone spun around, looking for targets, finding none.

A final SWAT.

Silence.

On the map, all eight dots representing the guards vanished.

“The sky garden is clear of human threats,” Fox said. “But the bots are still the move.”

The Wolves were operating in hunter-killer mode, ready to slaughter everyone in their path that didn’t have a valid IFF. The sixteen dots swarmed the lobby, ready to breach the stairwell doors.

Tan hit the kill switch.

The dots went out.

“The bots aren’t moving any more,” Fox reported.

“Roger that. Pack up and get ready to move.”

Tan and Yamamoto burst out into the lobby, Marcie right behind them. The pack of Wolves lay completely still, blocky PDWs deployed on metal robot arms sprouting from their domes. Tan knew they were inert, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that they were watching him still. Or something that watched through their eyes.

Silence.

On the map, all eight dots representing the guards vanished.

“The sky garden is clear of human threats,” Fox said. “But the bots are still the move.”

The Wolves were operating in hunter-killer mode, ready to slaughter everyone in their path that didn’t have a valid IFF. The sixteen dots swarmed the lobby, ready to breach the stairwell doors.

Tan hit the kill switch.

The dots went out.

“The bots aren’t moving any more,” Fox reported.

“Roger that. Pack up and get ready to move.”

Tan and Yamamoto burst out into the lobby, Marcie right behind them. The pack of Wolves lay completely still, blocky PDWs deployed on metal robot arms sprouting from their domes. Tan knew they were inert, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that they were watching him still. Or something that watched through their eyes.

The guards were all dead. The Wolves had drilled them all in the head with precise three-round bursts. With so many Wolves and so few targets, the security team were all overkilled. By now he was long inured to the gore; Marcie turned pale and looked away.

The sky garden was clear. In the center was a wide plaza, wide enough to fit a squadron of gravcars. As the men took up security positions, Yamamoto entered the group call.

“The area is clear. There’s a wide plaza in the center of the plaza. That is the LZ. Make your approach by the south, say again, south.”

“Copy that,” Wood said. “Coming in from the south. ETA, five minutes.”

The guards were still rushing up the stairs. And, no doubt, there would be more coming down the upper floors. They had to hold their position until backup arrived.

Tan positioned himself and Ngo by a planter, facing the east lobby, then returned his attention to the console controls and reversed the kill switch. This time, he set the drones to manual mode, selected half of them, and ordered them to gather at the east sky lobby.

The Wolf pack silently marched across the garden. Through their cameras, he saw crosshairs flash over faces: Yamamoto’s, Marcie’s, his. The PDWs swiveled, locking on to all of them. Targeting carets identified the pistols in the operators’ hands. The drones scanned Marcie, saw no weapons, and the crosshairs swung away.

A dialog box screamed two words.

TARGET LOCKED.

“Are they supposed to aim at us?” Yamamoto said.

“I can’t turn it off,” Yamamoto said. “But I can control whether they shoot.”

The drones lined up in a neat row in front of the lobby. Targeting software directed their guns to the doors. Tan switched them to autonomous defensive mode. The Wolves stayed put, guarding their arcs of fire.

“I’ve scrambled the drones’ IFF transponders,” Tan said. “They will fire on the guards—but they’ll shoot us too. Do not step in front of them, especially if you’re armed.”

“Are they supposed to aim at us?” Yamamoto said.

“I can’t turn it off,” Yamamoto said. “But I can control whether they shoot.”

The drones lined up in a neat row in front of the lobby. Targeting software directed their guns to the doors. Tan switched them to autonomous defensive mode. The Wolves stayed put, guarding their arcs of fire.

“I’ve scrambled the drones’ IFF transponders,” Tan said. “They will fire on the guards—but they’ll shoot us too. Do not step in front of them, especially if you’re armed.”

“Copy that,” Yamamoto said.

A shot rang out.

Tan tackled Ngo, covering her with his body.

More single shots rang in the air. Then a loud SWAT, and rapid strings of semiauto fire.

“They’ve deployed snipers on the roof!” Wood called. “We’re coming in hot!”

Looking up, Tan saw a black boxy silhouette scream in from the south. The team gravcar. Shadowy figures leaned out the windows, firing away at threats high above them, illuminated in the muzzle flash of their short-barreled carbines.

Tan got up, pulling Ngo to her feet. Yamamoto dashed over, confiscated pistol in hand, and waved at the skycar.

“Do you see us?” Yamamoto called.

The car jinked sharply.

“I have good visual,” Wood said. “We’re coming in! Ten seconds!”

The lights of the Golden Mile washed over the gravcar, revealing a shattered windshield. Another shot, and the gravcar jerked.

“Come on come on come on,” Tan whispered.

And a black hole opened before him.

“What the hell…?”

It was a perfectly round, flat circle of pure darkness. A two-dimensional portal leading to utter nothingness.

No. The darkness was full.

Strange shapes writhed and danced in the discs, slightly brighter than the night. Tiny motes flashed through the dark, growing larger, faster, brighter—

A commando stepped out. Black uniform, black armor, black helmet, black carbine. A cloud of black smoke billowed off his body.

A second appeared.

A third.

The Void Collective’s QRF was coming.

“TAKE COVER!” Yamamoto shouted.

Tan snapped up his pistol, aligned the sights with a face, pressed the trigger. The gun barked. The sights settled.

The commando was still there.

He fired again.

The commando was still there.

His left hand found Marcie’s. He rounded the corner of the planter, dragging her with him, keeping his head low. Carbines chattered. Bullets ripped through bushes and flowers. Concrete dust and shrapnel pepped the floor. He pressed her down, keeping her away from the planter, away from rounds skimming the walls, and pressed his pistol into her hands.

“Take my gun!” he yelled. “Keep them down!”

Screaming, she poked his pistol above the planter and blindly fired at the commandos. He raised his phone and set the drones to semiautonomous offensive mode.

“Everyone! HEADS DOWN!” he shouted.

He picked six drones from the west lobby and sent them rushing for the plaza. Summoned six more from the east lobby and did the same.

The bots’ combat AI linked as one, forming a new pack, a hive mind greater than the sum of its parts, more intelligent at hunting and killing than Tan could ever hope to be. The pack AI plotted routes for each member, navigating the planters and the trees and the benches to maximize cover and concealment and eliminate friendly fire. As one, the Wolves rushed the QRF top speed. Scanners picked up targets, PDWs swung towards them, metallic fingers closed on triggers. All they needed was Tan’s approval.

Which he granted.

But only to the bots targeting the VC commandos.

PDW chattered. Bullets screamed all around. Ngo screamed too.

“NO MORE AMMO!”

He fumbled through his pockets with his free hand, pulling out a spare magazine, his attention still focused on the screen. The QRF, all twenty of them, had assembled in the plaza, standing tall in the metal storm, forming a wide circle. None had gone down.

Why the hell not?

He dove into the nearest Wolf and saw through its eyes.

It was advancing on a black-clad commando. The VC operative just stared at it, his eyes wide open, his posture completely loose and relaxed. The drone’s crosshairs were centered on its face, right between the eyes.

The Wolf fired.

The space in front of the commando’s face twisted. Subtle spirals cut through the air. Fast, tiny objects spun off.

“Samurai! They’re using magic!” Tan shouted.

Blackness rushed across the screen. A great ripping sound tore through the world, like the tearing of a gigantic canvas.

CONNECTION LOST

Debris sailed over Tan’s head. The ruins of a Wolf drone, shattered and fragmented by some incomprehensible power, separated into multiple parts, flying through the air.

Half the blue dots disappeared from the screen.

The world darkened.

“The LZ is too hot! We can’t land!” Wood reported.

“Oh shit,” Ngo whispered.

“AUM!”

The tearing sound halted. Light flooded back into the world.

And, off to Tan’s right, a bluish-white light glowed.

“AUM!” Yamamoto intoned again.

The commandos stood stock-still for an instant.

Long enough for Tan to order the other drones to attack them.

The second wave of Wolves swarmed the commandos, PDWs blazing. This time, they went down, red dots vanishing from the feed. Fox fired her suppressed sniper rifle, and the other Black Watch added their weapons to the weight of fire.

And a voice rose above the chatter of guns.

“AUM!”

The commandos reacted instantly. Their carbines blasting, they raced to cover. Bullets smacked everywhere. Tan commanded the Wolves to prioritize the commandos closest to Ngo. They shifted formations immediately, charging the commandos in a headlong burst of glory.

“AU—Ack!”

The light winked out.

Darkness descended on the world. Unseen hands ripped the cosmos apart. The sound threatened to split Tan’s brain. Metal screamed and disintegrated. The last of the Wolves crumpled.

And the commandos disappeared from the map.

And a flat black disc appeared in front of Tan.

He blinked.

Two black-clad commandos burst forth, aiming their weapons at him.

“RAAAAAAAAAAAH!” he screamed, springing to his feet, arms spearing at the right-hand commando.

The commandos fired.

His left arm smashed away a carbine. Bullets smacked into the concrete behind him. His right palm smashed into a helmeted head. Immediately he pivoted into the enemy, his palm whipping around to smack his spine. The enemy bent backwards, exposing his neck. With a savage shout, Tan drove his phone into his throat.

Cartilage crunched. The commando gagged. The blow sent him straight down. Tan oriented on the other threat—

He was gone.

“Behind you!” Ngo shouted.

Tan spun around—

A boot slammed into his ass, knocking him down.

Tan twisted with the blow, curling his spine, landing flat on his back, slapping the floor to break his fall.

The commando loomed over him.

Raised his carbine.

SWAT

THWOCK

Blood and brains and bone jetted out of the commando’s temple.

He went limp instantly, falling on Tan. Tan wrestled the body off him and got up on his knees.

“Give me the gun,” Tan ordered.

Ngo complied, handing it over butt first.

Tan pressed the muzzle against the other commando’s face, right between the eyes, and fired. Twice. Overkill for a human, par the course when dealing with the Elect of the New Gods.

“Did you have to do that?” Ngo whispered.

“Do you want him getting back up?” Tan asked.

The gravcar hovered above the plaza, slowly descending on a clear patch of ground. Fox poked out of the rear window, lowering her rifle.

Tan gave her a thumbs-up.

She nodded.

“Is the area clear?” Tan asked over the phone.

“Roger that,” Wood said. “Don’t see any more active hostiles.”

“Samurai, are you okay?” Fox asked.

Yamamoto coughed.

“I’m fine.”

“You sure? You don’t look so good.”

“Caught some frag. I’m okay.”

Yamamoto stepped out from behind a bench, holding his left hand to his forehead.

“How bad is it?” Tan asked.

“Superficial. Don’t worry about it. Regroup on the car.”

The gravcar was in bad shape. There was a wide jagged hole in the middle of the windshield. Bullet holes and scrapes marked the doors and hood. He had no idea how the hell it was still running.

The rest of the team stepped out the car, forming security positions around the vehicle. Yamamoto was the last to arrive, holding his left palm to his forehead.

“You sure you’re okay?” Fox asked.

Yamamoto lowered his hand. An ugly gash ran across his forehead, slowly dripping blood.

“Do you see bone?” Yamamoto asked.

“Nope.”

“Then I’ll be okay.”

Fox glanced at Ngo. “You’re the woman we’re here to extract?”

“Yes,” Ngo replied. “Thank you for your help.”

“All in a night’s work. Are you injured?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Check anyway.”

“We should all check,” Yamamoto said.

As one, the operators patted themselves down. When Tan touched his left cheek, pain flared across his face.

“How does my face look?” he asked.

“Not too bad,” Ngo said. “It’s a long cut, but shallow.”

Tan poked around his inner cheek with his tongue. More pain, but only on the outside. The wound could wait until they were out of here.

The rest of the team was fine. Minor grazes and cuts, nothing more. Yamamoto and Tan were out of ammo, but the job was wrapping up. But there was one major problem.

“The gravcar’s shot up,” Wood reported. “The engine is busted, but the gravity mirror is still intact. She can fly, I think, but she won’t drive.”

“So long as we can extract from here, I’m happy,” Tan said.

“Not so fast,” Fox said. “They’ve got snipers with large-caliber rounds on the roof. We need to get neutralize them or they’ll blast us from the sky.”

“Deadeye is right,” Connor said. “They’re good, or they have SmartShot. Their rounds missed us by a hair.”

“We’ll go upstairs and give them a piece of our minds,” Yamamoto said.

“We can’t take the elevator,” Tan said. “There’s no roof access. Not even with the express elevators.”

“I’m not going to fly up either,” Wood said. “Too damn risky.”

“There’s only one set of stairs to the roof, and it’s accessible only from the sanctum,” Ngo said.

“Where’s the sanctum?” Yamamoto said.

“Top floor. The east wing is the living quarters of the Hierophant. The west wing is the ritual hall. But…”

“But?”

“There’s an initiation ceremony going on tonight. It’s bound to be heavily guarded.” She paused. “Can you feel it? That… weight?”

Tan could, all right. A great alien bulk pressed against the fabric of the world, trying to come in. Skeins of tension rippled through the air, wrapping Tan in a tight web. If anything, it had grown larger, more powerful, more insistent. The commandos they had fought weren’t just its agents; they were a part of it, irrevocably bound to it, becoming a part of it.

It was the thing in the Void.

It was a New God.

“Do we have any other options?” Yamamoto asked.

Tan checked GuardNet.

“I’m not seeing any. There’s nothing on the roof I can use against them. We’ll have to clear them out ourselves.”

“Then we’re going to the sanctum,” Yamamoto said.

“Wait,” Ngo said. “If you’re going to the sanctum anyway… can you stop the ritual?”

“Miss, there’s only six of us here. We’ll need an army to stop the initiation.”

“But those people… you’re just going to abandon them?”

“The mission was to get you out. Not to throw our lives away.”

“You’ll let the Void take them?”

“They made their choice when they joined the Collective. We can’t save everyone.”

The conviction bled from Yamamoto’s voice, ending in a note of barely suppressed pain.

“But you’re STS! Isn’t this your job?”

“Marcie,” Tan said, “we’re STS, but we’re only human. We can’t stand against the New God.”

“I heard Yuri’s chant!” Ngo said. “He stopped the magic! He can do something, right?”

“That was not me. I merely allowed God to act through me,” Yamamoto said.

“Then you can fight the Void!”

“No. You saw what happened just now. But for the grace of God, we would all be dead. We are not going to pick a fight we don’t have to. We clear the roof and we go. That’s all.”

“Are you kidding me? We have a chance to take down the Void Collective once and for all, and you’re just going to walk away?”

“The job of the STS isn’t—”

“The Hierophant lives in the sanctum! If you search his quarters, you can dig up all kinds of dirt on the Collective! You can take it to the STS and bring down the VC once and for all.”

“You sure have a mad-on for the VC, huh?” Fox said.

“Yeah. I saw… I saw what was in the Void.” She gripped her arms, withdrawing into herself. “You saw it, didn’t you? Inside the portal? That… thing?”

“Whatever it was, it almost killed us. It’s not something mere mortals can fight,” Tan said.

Ngo whirled on a foot, staring daggers at Tan.

“Before you went for STS Selection, you told me you wanted to protect people from monsters. What the hell happened to you?”

Tan inhaled sharply.

“I was thinking Husks. Not a god.”

“It’s not a god. It’s… whatever it is, it’s no god.”

“It’s a demon,” Yamamoto said. “Fighting it is not our mission.”

Ngo turned to him. “I know who you are. Yuri Yamamoto. Everyone calls you Samurai, but you’re more like a priest. You don’t just kill Husks; you exorcise them too. Word is, you banished a Dark Power all by yourself. If you’re half the man I think you are, this is the mission you were born to do.”

“There are only six of us,” he repeated. “There are thousands of VC.”

“Boss,” Woods said quietly, “We can’t just settle for clearing out the roof.”

“What do you mean?”

“Keep quiet and listen for a second.”

Everyone shut up. In the night, distant sirens howled.

“The cops are on the way,” Woods said. “So is STS. And we just slaughtered our way through two dozen Elect of the VC. They won’t stand for it, and neither will Public Security. Even if we get away clean, even if the VC won’t call the PSB, it won’t be long before the VC catches up to us.

“We need a bargaining chip. Something we can use to cut a deal with Public Security, the Commandant and the Attorney General. Otherwise, they’ll just hand us over to the VC in the name of ‘preserving the balance’.

“Either we raid the Hierophant’s home and lift what dirt we can, or we stop the ritual and find out what the hell they’re doing up there. Or both. No matter what, we need leverage, or we’re just swinging in the wind.”

“Fuck,” Yamamoto breathed.

It was, Tan realized, the first time he’d heard Yamamoto swear.

“What’s the call?” Fox asked.

“We go up. May God help us all.”


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The Golden Mile Part 4
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