The Dregs of Men and Gods
The women sneaked out the side exit. Normally reserved for staff, a quick flash of their badges earned them the right to use that door. A block away, Fox had parked her gravcar under the eyes of the club’s security cameras and in a circle of amber streetlight. Those precautions would only scare off ordinary criminals. If the New Gods of the government were involved, it was barely adequate.
Circling the vehicle, she checked the bumpers and the tires, inspected the underside, popped the hood and trunk, shone a light into the interior. She worked slowly, looking for packages, boxes, anything that hadn’t been there the last time she’d visited the vehicle, anything that was supposed to be there but wasn’t.
She removed her phone from its RFID-blocking jacket pocket and activated its security suite. First, she blasted the world with ultrasonic waves, disintegrating any surveillance smartdust or unwanted nanomachines caught in its area of effect. Then she turned on its audio jammer, flooding the vicinity with white noise and random sounds.
“You sure are paranoid,” White said.
“Better than copping a bullet. Or worse.”
Like the rest of the Black Watch, Fox had extensively modified her vehicle. Unlike most cars of its kind on the market, it was incapable of autonomous self-driving. All nonessential wireless connections had been severed, and the remainder defended by a government-grade network security program. The dashboard-mounted GPS was isolated from the car, set to automatically wipe its history whenever it was turned off. She had replaced her original license plates and altered her transponder; any cop or camera that ran her new ones would see only a vehicle that belonged to a car rental agency.
Fox drove. The journey would be quicker with a gravity mirror, but the moment she rose above a hundred meters her vehicle would pop up on Babylon Air Traffic Control. On the radar of the New Gods and the authorities. And it was much harder to follow a car on the ground, weaving through traffic and narrow streets, than a flying vehicle describing a clean parabola through the air.
Fox punched White’s hotel address into the GPS unit. A standalone model, completely isolated from the car’s internals. The machine recommended the shortest possible route. To its chagrin, she drove in spirals and serpentine patterns, as though intent on rounding every corner between the club and the motel. With every turn, she checked her rear cameras and the sky, logging all ground and air traffic around her, ready to react to signs of surveillance.
The Neumann Hotel was a low-end budget hotel, sandwiched between a laundromat and a noodle restaurant. No frills, no decor, just a ten-story block of painted concrete with a signboard over the entrance. Fox circled the block, checking for surveillance, then parked down the road.
A chill wind blew down the streets. The cars parked along the road were empty. Inside the restaurant, a handful of lonely men and women buried themselves in their bowls and screens, paying absolutely no attention to anyone outside. Ahead of Fox, a couple entered the hotel. He was dressed in the standard salaryman uniform of a wrinkled suit and bargain-bin briefcase. She had squeezed herself into a short-sleeved blouse and barely-there hotpants, accenting her legs with loose fishnets and strappy heels. He was tense and nervous; she was pressed up against him, arm hooked around his, whispering in his ear, gently leading him into the building.
They were too absorbed in each other to be a threat.
The receptionist at the front desk greeted everyone with a tired smile and a half-hearted ‘Welcome’. A discreet sign offered daily and hourly rates. The man cleared his throat and stuttered out a request for two hours. As the receptionist turned to get the keys, Fox and White slipped past and rode the elevator up alone.
On the eighth floor, they stepped out into a narrow, dank corridor. Doors to the left, doors to the right. A sharp slap echoed in the corridor, quickly followed by a feminine giggle. A second. A third.
White seemed discomfited. Fox had been in too many places like this one, serving warrants and hunting Husks, to care.
But as White led the way to her room, a skein of doubt twinged through Fox.
Why was White uncomfortable? If she’d served on Preternatural Crimes, she’d have witnessed the dregs of men and gods. A place like this was nothing. Was she soft? A paper-pusher? Or something else?
Three doors down from the elevator, White suddenly halted.
“Here we are,” she said.
The hotel was so ancient, or just so cheap, it used keys instead of keycards. As White fished hers out of her bag, Fox held out her hand.
“I’ll clear the room. You stay outside.”
White’s eyes widened. Her irises narrowed.
“Oh, okay,” White said.
Taking the key from White, Fox glanced at her unzipped bag. A huge purse, a foldable umbrella, a phone. And in the rear compartment, a holstered pistol mounted on a polymer panel.
“Step away from the door,” Fox said.
White backed up. Checking the hinges, Fox positioned herself at an oblique angle from the doorknob. In one smooth motion, she cleared her jacket and drew her M99.
White stared at the weapon.
Fox held her finger to her lips.
White shut up.
Pistol in her right hand, Fox unlocked the door and dropped the key in her pocket. Paused. Breathed. Listened.
Another slap. Another giggle. She shut it out, focusing on sounds beyond the door.
Switching her pistol to her left hand, she leaned out, raising it to chest height, keeping her arm folded and tucked close to her chest, and turned the knob. Slowly, gingerly, she opened the door, ready to snap back at the slightest hint of resistance.
Light spilled through the widening gap, revealing… nothing.
Halfway through the door’s arc of travel, she slipped through the opening, turned, and checked the space behind the door.
She opened the door fully, letting light into the room. To her left was the wardrobe, to the right a door to the toilet. The passage opened out into the main room, but all she saw was an ancient wall-mounted television.
She switched her weapon back to her right hand, dug out the key, and inserted the tag into the reader by the light switches. A soft thunk, and the lights flashed back on.
She stood there a moment longer, scanning close to far, high to low, eyes and ears wide open. No tripwires. No mercury switches. The cheap carpet appeared undisturbed. A quick check of the wardrobe revealed nothing untoward. All she heard was breathing. Her own, and White’s.
She sensed a presence in the room. Multiple presences.
She felt her body reacting instantly. A slight squeezing over her chest, a caress down her arms that ended in her trigger fingers, a crackle down her spine.
Maybe she heard breathing. A change in air pressure. A sense of something that shouldn’t be here. Whatever it was, she’d learned long ago to trust her somatic markers.
She slid up to the bathroom door and flicked on the lights.
A nanosecond later, she felt a wave of energy pass through her, like radar reflecting off an aircraft, so subtle and so minute only her biofeedback training in the STS had allowed her to pick it up. It felt like surprise mingled with anticipation.
And she could sense its source, deep in the room.
In a single smooth motion, she pivoted in place, grabbed the knob and turned, and burst in.
A tall man stood by the sink, coiled up like a spring, dressed all in black. Black plate carrier, black elbow and knee guards, black overalls, black helmet. A pair of thick augmented reality goggles, no doubt ballistic-rated, guarded his eyes.
In his hands he held an M585 personal defense weapon.
She charged towards him, punching her pistol out. He was just slightly behind the curve, bringing his weapon up to bear, turning towards her, eyes widening, mouth opening to scream. Her M99’s red dot blazed bright in her field of vision, and her brain whispered that it was loaded with hollow points, no armor piercing capability, and she lowered her hands a touch and pressed the trigger.
The round punched clean through his philtrum, expanding like a deadly flower to shred skin and flesh and teeth and bone and brain.
The moment of the shot passed in absolute silence, her ear implants kicking in to save her hearing. Her finger reflexively touched off a second round. It wasn’t necessary; the first bullet had shredded his medulla oblongata. He fell nervelessly to the floor, blood gushing from his ruined face.
Pulling the weapon back into herself, she halted, scanned left and right—clear—and spun back around.
“COMPROMISED!” a man yelled.
The voice came from deeper in the room.
Boots pounded. Someone cursed. Fox brought her weapon to the compressed ready and crouched.
A pistol appeared to the left of the doorway. Then a woman’s hand. Then White spun around into the bathroom, her face a mask of rage, her skin glowing.
Fox fired two quick shots. Smoke puffed over White’s belly. She raised her weapon, fired another two shots. The rounds slammed into White’s weapon hand, and in her tunnel vision she swore she saw the bullets shatter into clouds of razor-sharp powder. Fox rode the recoil, touching off two more shots to the face. The rounds knocked White back a step—but there was no blood.
Fox sprang to her feet and lunged at White. White extended her weapon, but she was too late, too slow. Fox slapped the arm aside, rammed the web of her hand into her throat—a shot exploded behind her—and smashed her against the wall. White cursed, head smacking against the concrete, teeth clacking together. Fox stepped off, aimed at her mouth, fired.
Lots of it.
And the glow winked out.
“FUCK!” a man yelled.
Fox shot her knees to her chest, dropping to a crouch, turning to her right, extending her pistol in her right hand, saw two armored gunmen piling into the narrow hallway, aiming high.
A PDW chattered, rounds whizzing above her head. Muzzle flashes illuminated the shooter. Fox blasted him twice in the groin. He bent over, weapon still in his hands, exposing his partner behind him.
She sprang to her feet, lunging in with a left diagonal step, left hand seizing her pistol grip, driving her weapon to the other threat. He was still standing there, rooted to the spot, his partner’s body blocking his weapon, his mouth open in surprise, as though unable to comprehend how the situation had gone so badly, so fast. Her red dot found the perfect center of his open mouth and she fired, bang bang, and down he went.
Back to the number two man. He grunted in pain, still doubled over, bringing out his PDW to bear on her. She shuffled in, grabbing and twisting away his weapon hand, punching the muzzle into his throat. The man backed up, gagging. She retracted her pistol, bringing it back up to eye level, saw her red dot dancing between his glasses. She lowered her pistol a tad, fired once, twice.
He dropped atop his partner.
Fox jumped over the corpses of the gunmen, penetrating deeper into the room. She peeked around the chairs and under the bed and table. No more surprises, no more threats.
She recharged her pistol with a fresh magazine. Stepped out into the corridor and looked both ways.
The hallway was empty.
A tense silence fell. Gunsmoke hung in the air, mingling with the scent of blood and soap. Bright spots danced across her eyes. Bone fragments, covered in gore, lay scattered on the floor. Fox breathed deep, exhaling the toxins in her blood, bringing herself back to baseline.
Who the fuck where these guys?
First things first. Returning to the killing floor, M99 still in hand, she kicked each body in the throat. None of them responded.
Back in the bathroom, the dead man was slumped against the floor, legs splayed out, head resting on his chest. Blood dripped from his wound, splashing on the floor, his clothes, his plate carrier.
On the bold yellow ‘POLICE’ stenciled across his chest.
“WHAT THE FUCK!” Fox exclaimed.
Was it true? Had she just wiped out a team of cops?
She breathed, shaking her head. She had to get a grip. These days, any random asshole could walk into a fab shop, drop some cash, and walk out with authentic-looking police badges and kit. A uniform alone didn’t make a cop.
She set her weapon by the sink, reached into a jacket pocket, and extracted her tactical gloves. The second she had her gloves on, she regained control of the pistol. Crouching over the body, she grabbed his helmet and tilted it high.
The dead man stared lifelessly at her.
She jammed the muzzle into his throat.
Working swiftly, she patted him down. Spare magazines, first aid kit, flash-bang grenades, pistol, all of them Babylon PD issue. Unease grew in her chest. She found a small leather wallet in his left rear pocket and flipped it open.
A BPD badge stared out at her.
Behind the ID window, a police ID card with the dead man’s face glared into her eyes.
Fox whipped out her phone and photographed the badge, the ID card, and the dead man’s face. Back in the hallway, she patted down the other armored gunmen, and found their ID cases.
And the Velcro patches screaming ‘POLICE’ fastened to their plate carriers.
Once more, she photo’d their faces, badges and ID. As she worked, she pricked her ears, listening for sirens, footsteps, voices. All she heard was silence.
Babylon PD had a response time of fifteen minutes or less. She didn’t know how long had passed, only that the clock was still ticking. All she knew was that she didn’t have time to do more.
Finally, she checked in on White.
She was completely still. Her mouth was a cauldron of dark blood, spilling out on the floor. No breath, no pulse, but being an Elect, it didn’t necessarily mean she was completely dead either. When dealing with the New Gods, there was only one way to be sure.
She thumped White’s eye with the muzzle of her gun.
Okay, probably dead.
Fox photographed her face. Rooting around the bag, she found White’s ID case. She flipped it open and photo’d it too. As she put it away, she heard footsteps down the hall.
It was the woman who was giggling earlier.
Fox rose, weapon at the ready, angling off to the door.
“Is… is everything all right?”
Fox peeked out.
A woman stood in the middle of the hall, her shirt disheveled, her jeans torn artfully at the knees. Two doors down, another woman poked her head out an open door.
“Get back inside and call the police,” Fox said.
“I—I heard shooting,” the woman in the hall said. “Is everything—”
Then the civilian noticed the weapon in Fox’s hands. And gasped.
“Get inside,” Fox repeated. “Call the cops. Now.”
The women retreated into the room.
Fox holstered her weapon.
Returned to the lift lobby.
Ran down the stairs.
Everything was going to hell. If she were lucky, the killers were just hitters disguised as cops. But if she weren’t, if they were PSB or BPD or both…
She had no idea how to pull herself out of this mess.
But she knew someone who could.
Supercops, supervillains, and a city on the brink of chaos. If this appeals to you, check out my superhero novel HOLLOW CITY!
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(Image from Pixabay)