The Charnel House
Tan wasn’t going to march into the belly of the beast. Not with just a handgun.
But he didn’t have to.
Inside the trunk of the gravcar were two duffel bags. Go-bags, laden with mission-essential gear, one belonging to Yamamoto, the other to Tan. Tan took his, found an empty patch of ground, and unzipped it.
Ballistic helmet, reinforced with rifle-grade applique plates, and fitted with fusion goggles. Plate carrier, stocked with magazines, tools, front and side and rear trauma plates. War belt, weighed down with pistol, more mags, more kit. M83A1 carbine in an ultra-compact configuration, red dot sight paired with super-short barrel and suppressor. And as much spare ammo, batteries, food and bottled water he could shove inside the bag.
Every STS operator kept a go-bag near his person at all times for emergency rapid deployment, capable of keeping him supplied for 72 hours of high-intensity operations. The last thing the Black Watch did before leaving HQ was to take their go-bags with them. Bringing them out on an unsanctioned operation like this was illegal.
But if only they got caught.
His carbine was fitted with a brass catcher. No worries there. He picked a pistol off one of the QRF’s corpses, dumped his old mags into his bag and filled his pouches from the dead man’s ammo. Yamamoto did the same.
Five minutes later, Tan was dressed for war, carbine slung around his neck. Patting down his pouches, he saw Yamamoto rise to his feet, slipping an honest-to-God short sword into his belt on his left hip.
“Do you really need that blade?” Tan asked.
“Yes,” Yamamoto said simply.
“Can’t be a samurai without a sword,” Fox remarked.
Yamamoto chuckled. “Let’s move out.”
They took the elevator up. It was a risk. Everything about this job was a risk. But they had the tools at their disposal to mitigate that risk to almost acceptable levels. For regular humans, anyway.
Tan worked the elevators and the cameras like a virtuoso. Every camera on the forty-fifth floor and above blanked out. Every elevator that fed to the top twenty floors moved in total synchrony, marching up the upper face of the Golden Mile.
On the forty-fifth floor, they stopped. Climbed up to the forty-sixth. Stopped again. And on and on they went, starting and stopping and starting again, all in robotic lockstep.
There was no way the enemy could predict how the Black Watch was heading up. Their only option was to spread themselves thin, cover every possible avenue of approach.
On the forty-seventh floor of the west lobby, the Black Watch got out of the elevator and headed up the emergency stairs.
One hand on his carbine, the other on his phone, Tan took up the rearguard, muttering commands into his argees. Arcology security was finally playing catch-up, but he was burning too hot for them. They’d locked out the account he’d used to seize control of the drones downstairs, but he already had three more lined up. He burned one of them to program the elevators. As the VC’s techs attempted to override his commands, he used one of his hidden accounts to trace the sysadmin playing defense and dump a load of data-destroying viruses into his machine. He generated two more accounts and consulted GuardNet.
The top floor was neatly divided into two halves, with a single corridor running down its center to connect the two lobbies. Halfway down the corridor, another line bisected the northern half in twain, leading to the stairs. A dozen blue dots were crammed into the hallway.
All of them human.
The opposition didn’t want to risk him hijacking the drones again.
But there were other ways he could monkey with the system.
He set off a fire alarm on the forty-sixth floor. Canceled the general alarm, then activated more alarms up and down the Golden Mile. Sent requests for reinforcements to the non-alarmed areas. Enforced general lockdown on every floor but the sanctum and the sky lobbies. And when the sysadmins came for him, he unloaded his arsenal of cyberwar software.
As viruses and antiviruses warred in the Net, the Black Watch stacked on the doorway to the sixtieth floor. Connor took the lead, taking position by the door knob. Karim set up on the opposite side of the door. Yamamoto pulled a flash-bang from a pouch, held it out for Connor to see, then pulled the pin.
It was sickening, yet fascinating to watch. The human shrank away, while the wolf within emerged. Clothing melted and reformed as huge muscles and dense bone. Nose and mouth fused and elongated, forming a snout. Dense fur sprouted across his face, arms, legs. His fingers and toes remained, but now they terminated in retractable claws.
This was Galen the White, incarnate in Karim Mustafa.
Karim-Galen grinned a mouthful of gleaming razor-sharp teeth.
Connor flung the door open.
Yamamoto tossed in the flash-bang.
A flash of light. A peal of thunder.
And the werewolf charged through the doorway. His carbine barked with every step, delivering a fusillade of precision semi-auto fire. More gunfire resounded from within.
Karim-Galen growled. The shots might have stopped a mere man, but in this moment, the guards faced the wrath of a minor god.
And the Black Watch.
The moment the werewolf cleared the doorway, Connor flowed in. He went rock and roll, stuttering out short, sharp bursts. The rest of the team piled in, advancing and firing. Tan followed them up.
Then positioned himself by the guardrail and aimed down the stairs.
His blood screamed at him to join the fight. But in a building full of hostiles, the Black Watch couldn’t afford to be flanked.
Ngo was next to him, armed with a stolen carbine, but she was an investigator. Not an operator. Not STS caliber, most definitely not Black Watch material.
Doors flung open. Boots pounded. Tan waited.
A team of security officers trooped up the stairwell. They weren’t blindly rushing up; they had their weapons up at their shoulders, aiming up the topmost floor, ready to engage targets of opportunity.
How did they know we’re here? he wondered, and fired.
The point man went down in a spray of blood. The others rushed past him, carbines stuttering, laying down suppressive fire. Ngo screamed, blasting away in their general direction. Tan headed down the stairs, pivoting as he went, making himself a moving target even as he rushed to greet them, stitching them up with short, precise bursts.
Rounds whizzed past him, smashing into concrete. Ngo shouted and the shooting stopped. He pushed on, swiveling and shooting, his rounds finding heads and throats and chests.
And suddenly, there were no more threats.
Just four broken bodies crumpled on the concrete.
Those guys were good, he thought. They didn’t hesitate when their point man went down. They didn’t fall back. They just pushed through the assault. That’s not behavior he expected from ordinary security guards. Hell, even top-tier operators had trouble maintaining the momentum without proper training.
The other Void operatives they had faced had fought like that. Constant forward momentum, utterly heedless of their own lives or those around them. What kind of training did it take to transform people into warriors like that? Was this what the Void did to its members?
He thought about the strange files he’d seen in the VC implants. VOID. Maybe it was a brainwashing program. It wasn’t out of the question; the Singularity Network used a similar, if smaller-scale, program to keep its members in line. And after they had exorcised Ngo and disrupted her implants, she seemed to be doing… if not, fine, then better.
He could ponder that later. He still had a job to do.
He patted himself down. No wounds. But there was a neat warm hole in his armor carrier, right above his belly. At the lower edge of his rifle plate. A few inches lower and the round would have struck him in the groin.
He headed back upstairs, swapping out for a fresh magazine. Ngo propped herself against a wall, pressing her left hand against her biceps, gritting her teeth.
“Marcy! You okay?” he shouted.
She peeled her hand away, revealing a bloodied furrow through her flesh.
“It’s a graze,” Tan said. “You’ll be fine.”
“Clear!” Yamamoto called.
“Clear!” Fox echoed. “Trailers, move up!”
Tan led her inside.
The sanctum was a charnel house. The Black Watch had blown in like a hurricane, knocking down everyone and everything in their path. Bodies lay strewn across the main hallway and the lobbies, behind overturned tables and potted plants, lying on a lake of blood and gore and expended bullet casings, all of them shot in the chest and the head. More corpses littered the corridor leading to the roof access stairs.
Without speaking, the team swung into action. Fox tended to Ngo’s wounds. Wood and Connor covered the lobby.
Yamamoto, Karim and Tan went up.
Neat rows of gravcars were parked on the rooftop, all of them precisely placed, perfectly aligned. The team inspected the cars with their weapon-mounted lights, checking between and under them, and regrouped at the edge of the roof.
“Clear,” Yamamoto declared.
“Clear,” Tan said.
Karim-Galen shook. And shrank.
His fur receded. His snout parted into a nose and a mouth. His clothes returned. Muscles and bone diminished to mere human proportions.
“Farmer, get the gravcar up here,” Yamamoto ordered. “Rest of you, on me. We’re strongpointing the lobby.”
Wood punched orders into his phone, sending orders to the gravcar’s AI. Back on the sixtieth floor, Tan consulted his map and headed to the Hierophant’s home, sited on the western half of the building. There were two doors, a side door and a main entrance, both of them thick and sturdy, no doubt capable of resisting shotguns and breaching rams. An RFID reader controlled access. Tan swiped his phone over the reader.
The reader flashed green.
Tan smiled, putting his phone away. The VC were careless. Or maybe they hadn’t expected anyone to penetrate their innermost sanctum. He steeled himself with a breath and entered the apartment.
Tan had expected the Hierophant to live in the lap of luxury. It was just how things went: the top cat always got the cream, everybody else got the dregs. Instead, the Hierophant’s home was as clean and minimalist as Ngo’s.
A large living room with sofas and tables. A small dining area paired with a spotless kitchen. A walk-in wardrobe filled with ceremonial robes and ritual tools. A tiny bedroom and an even tinier bathroom.
That was all. No computers, no holovision, no library, nothing a regular person used. This was just a place to sleep, to bathe, to eat, and nothing more. This wasn’t a place for living; just for existing.
Back outside, the Black Watch was busy. They had rearranged the furniture, setting up a barricade of overturned tables just past the main doors of the Hierophant’s home. Half the team locked down the main hall, the other half watched the lobby. Ngo sat against a wall, her wounded arm bandaged.
“Found anything?” Ngo asked.
“Nothing,” Tan replied.
“Maybe there’s something in the other room,” she said.
“There’d better be,” Connor growled. “Any second now, the rest of the arcology will come rushing up at us.”
Tan hustled. Once more, he lifted his phone to the reader, and once more, the door yielded.
A server room.
Packed wall to wall with server racks locked behind secure cages, the cavernous room sucked warmth and light and humidity from the world. The cold penetrated Tan’s skin, sinking into his muscles and bones. Miles of cables ran between the bars of the cages, connecting every server to every other machine. Faint blue light strips revealed a maze of aisles and corridors. LEDs blinked on and off at random. A faint hum filled the world.
As he walked the room, he had an uncanny sensation that someone, something was watching him.
No, that wasn’t it.
The computers were watching him. Judging him. Somehow.
He couldn’t quite describe it. It was like a subtle weight pressing his skin, lines of force and tension radiating outwards from the server banks and the cages. The flickering lights reminded him of eyes. In the dim light, he thought he saw tendrils of shadows snaking across the world.
And it was too quiet. No whirring of cooling fans, no machines running, just the hum of the AC. Unreal.
This place was getting to him.
As he navigated the maze, he saw a door set into the left of the room. A secondary exit out to the hallway. Next to the door was a simple switch that controlled the lock. He noted its position and moved on.
At the rear of the room, he found what he was looking for.
A terminal server. A massive machine that connected every server in a single hub.
He opened the rack, revealing black, blocky electronic modules. A holographic window appeared at eye level, demanding authentication.
Ignoring the window, he studied the modules.
The machines were custom-made for the Void Collective, but they still used industry-standard ports, plugs, indicator lights and other equipment.
He set his backpack down, pulled out his laptop, and turned it on. With a long ethernet cable he connected his machine to the terminal server. Then he turned his cyberwar arsenal on the server.
It didn’t matter how good their defenses were. Every virus and utility, every rootkit and bootkit, every last line of code was written and compiled by the best in the business. Including himself.
If there was anything stored in here, he would own it.
Gunfire rang out.
“CONTACT! CONTACT!” Connor yelled.
Tan charged for the exit, hit the lock switch, opened the door—
“What the shit?!”
It was a… a thing. Its body, if it could be called that, was a dark, oily mass whose surface shimmered in iridescent colors. Motes of sinister light danced within its body, illuminating it from the inside. Polyps and bulbs blossomed across its body, forming and melting and reforming. Glowing red slits opened and closed alongside the odd growths. The lower half of the central bulk rolled along the floor, propelling it forward, yet the rest of it remained utterly still. Arms splayed out from its top like a damned crown, creeping along the ceiling and the walls, branching towards him. He tried to count the arms, but they seemed to intersect with each other in weird ways, passing into and through each other, spawning a fractal army of increasingly-smaller limbs. Just looking at the thing churned his insides and spiked his temples and clawed at his eyes.
And whatever it touched—the floor, the walls, the ceiling—shimmered and wavered, as though reality itself was losing its grip on mere matter.
He stared, transfixed by the sight of the shuffling abomination. A sense of mounting dread crept over him. He’d been trained to fight Husks and Elect, yes, and in the STS he had put plenty of them into the ground. But this, this was a whole different breed of horror.
And, from the open door to the ritual hall, more of them vomited forth.
If action, adventure and horror are right up your alley, check out my latest novel Dungeon Samurai Vol. 1: Kamikaze!
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