Swords or Humans
The operators of the STS lived a nomadic lifestyle. Each of them owned multiple safehouses, multiple vehicles, even multiple identities if the threat was high enough, all of them prepared and paid for by the Federal government. The moment they stepped outside the fortified STS headquarters, they played a shell game, switching from house to house at random, alternating between vehicles at the drop of a hat, never staying in one place for too long. When the mission was to capture or kill the favored of the gods, there was no security measure too strict. The one constant in their lives was their equipment—their clothes, their weapons, their gear.
And each other.
Yamamoto’s safe house of the day was an anonymous apartment in a high-rise, just one of many anonymous high-rises in a city block jammed with high-rises, the block itself situated in a sea of high-rises. Utterly ordinary and unassuming to the untrained eye. But as she studied the area, she noted security cameras, barred windows, multiple exits, balconies. The parking lot was enclosed on all sides by a perimeter of apartments, with just one road in and out.
During her second sweep, she looked for signs of surveillance. Drones, static vehicles, watchers lurking in the shadows. But this time of night, the streets were completely deserted. The only signs of life were the lights streaming from the windows, slowly winking out one by one.
She reversed into an empty parking lot, the one closest to the door. Scanning in every direction, she approached the entrance of the high-rise. The darkness seemed alive, teeming with unseen eyes, tracking her every footstep.
She wasn’t being paranoid. Many streetlights in Babylon were fitted with an integrated camera, microphone, motion detector, and a wireless Internet transmitter. The authorities had claimed the smart lights would monitor traffic and parking patterns, manage public utilities, and provide free wireless Net access to everyone. Fox knew the cameras were equipped with facial recognition and biometric tracking software, that the microphones could trace gunshots, that packet sniffers snooped on anyone foolish enough to use the free wireless Net.
And these were just the sensors she could see.
She kept her head down, a baseball cap pulled low over her face, her gloved hands in her pockets.
At the front door, she knuckled the buzzer, then entered 0303 on the keypad. A moment later, the door unlocked.
Two steps in, the lobby’s lights awoke. To her right was the elevator, to the left the stairs. On either side of the lobby were two doors, each feeding into an apartment. A final door right across her fed out into the main street. Looking up, she saw a camera and a motion detector mounted on the ceiling.
A sense of unease gripped her. No matter where she went, she left a trace behind. To him. If things didn’t work out…
She put that thought aside. One problem at a time.
She headed up the stars to the third floor. Walking up to unit 0303, she noticed that the doorbell was armed with a HD camera, an intercom system, and a fingerprint reader.
She pressed the bell, standing in front of the lens. A harsh buzz leaked from the apartment beyond. Behind the dark glass cover, the camera panned left to right, up and down.
A lock released with a soft click. Many heavy bolts retracted with heavy snaps.
And the door opened.
Angled off from the doorway, mostly concealed by the door and the frame, a man stood. Not a particularly tall man—in her boots she was taller than him—but every inch of him was lean, trained muscle. As he pulled the door open, he revealed more of himself. First, she saw his eyes, cold and hard, the color of gunmetal. They promised a blade to her throat, then abruptly softened, drawing her into their depths. His dark hair was neatly trimmed and close cropped. In his skin tone, his high cheekbones and wide chin, she saw his genetic legacy, the blood of warriors and explorers from two continents mingled in one man.
He wore a thick blue shirt over low-pro cargo pants. Over his clothing he wore a plate carrier, laden with kit. Around his throat, he wore a silver cross on a breakaway chain, dangling over his heart. A sling wrapped around his neck, leading down to an M83 carbine she was only now beginning to see, held low by his leg, hidden by his posture. A dark clip peeked out of his pants pocket.
And his feet were bare.
Yuri Yamamoto. Leader of the Black Watch, plankowner of the STS, and the deadliest man she knew.
“Kayla,” he said, nodding. “Glad to see you made it.”
“Thanks for having me here on such short notice,” Fox replied.
“Interesting look you’ve got there.”
She grimaced. During the drive, she had cleaned up as best as she could. Her clothes were hydrophobic; the blood had beaded up and rolled off them, leaving only tiny splotches of red. She’d washed off the stains with cold water. It would have to do until she got to a laundry.
“I was working UC at a nightclub. Then things went to hell.”
“I see,” he said, his voice completely neutral.
Yamamoto took two fluid steps, floating through a ninety-degree turn, pulling the door open and clearing the way for her while still shielding himself behind it. She realized the door was a high security door, a thin panel of wood covering two and a half inches of steel, reinforced with a platoon of locking bolts on all sides of the door. And that was just what she could see.
As she walked past him, she heard him sniffing.
Suddenly she felt extremely self-conscious.
“I smell gunpowder,” Yamamoto said, closing and locking the door. “What happened?”
“I was in a firefight,” Fox replied.
“I see. Are you alright?”
“Yeah. Well, physically, anyway. But I need your help.”
“So I gather. Come, sit.”
The living room was sparse. A long sofa and two low cushions were arranged around a low wooden coffee table, aimed at a cheap television set. Two hanging scrolls flanked the TV, both covered in strange ideograms. Next to the balcony door, a tall gun safe lurked in a corner. The shoe rack held a single pair of tactical boots. Beside it was a backpack and a duffel bag. His go-bags.
“Should I take my shoes off?” she asked.
“Do you need them?”
She thought on it for a second.
“I prefer keeping them on,” she replied, wiping her boots on the welcome mat.
“Would you like something to drink?” he asked. “Water? Tea? Coffee?”
“Water,” she replied.
Anything stronger and she wouldn’t be able to sleep.
Yamamoto padded noiselessly to his kitchen. Standing in the living room, she realized that this was the first time she was inside his home. Any of his homes. It gave her a secret thrill.
There was a lot you could learn about a man by studying his living room. All she saw was a man dedicated to the art of war. No books, no plants, no personal touches, just gear ready to go at a moment’s notice. The sole decoration was the scrolls hanging from the wall.
It felt… sad, somehow. It was as if he had cut himself off from the world that he may protect it. She had an image of Yamamoto sitting in the dark in full gear, waiting patiently for a summons for his next mission. And, if necessary, eternally.
She walked up to the scrolls, examining the words. Each scroll held three characters, but the last two were the same. The calligrapher had written in bold, black, decisive strokes, as though he were wielding a sword.
“See something interesting?”
She startled. She hadn’t heard Yamamoto approach. Turning, she saw him with a glass of water in each hand.
“How do you read the words?” she asked.
“On the left, katsujinken. On the right, satsujinken. The sword that gives life, and the sword that takes life.”
“What do they mean?”
“The sword that gives life is a sword that protects the innocent from the wicked. But to save life, it must be capable of taking it. A sword that cannot kill is a sword that cannot save. Yet a sword that is wielded only to kill is an abomination in the eyes of heaven.”
“But a sword doesn’t have a will of its own. It depends on the user.”
“True. Are we swords or humans?”
She thought about it for a second.
Yamamoto laughed. “How true.”
“What language is it?”
“Japanese. Kanji, to be precise. But these days, you’d call Japanese Yashiman.”
“I see. Who drew it?”
“You?” She blinked. “A calligrapher?”
“The way of the warrior is the twofold way of pen and sword.”
He shrugged. “Also, I needed something to pass the time.”
Seated side by side on the sofa, they sipped at their glasses. Spine erect, Yamamoto kept his carbine between his legs, pointed straight down at the floor. Completely safe—yet ready for instant reaction.
One last sip, and he set down the glass.
“Do you want to tell me what happened?” Yamamoto asked.
She did. She started with the shootout at the hotel, recounting her steps, her actions, every shot she fired. She went back in time, describing the meeting at the bar and the circumstances that led up to it. Yamamoto listened intently, every fiber of his being soaking up her words, processing them all in complete silence.
When her tale spun out, Yamamoto spoke at last.
“You believe you shot up BPD cops and a PSB agent?”
“I… I don’t know,” Fox said. “But if I have… if we make enemies of them—”
“We don’t worry about what-ifs,” Yamamoto interrupted. “We focus on what we can do.”
She nodded. “Right.”
“It is well that you retained the presence of mind to get their IDs. Did you run them?”
“No time. On the way here, I had to change the license plate sticker and the transponder, run a surveillance detection route, top off my mag, set up this meet. Besides, my phone isn’t connected to the police or federal databases, and my laptop’s back at my safe house. We have to assume everything in my safe house has been compromised.”
“Agreed. I’ll fire up my laptop and run the badges. Stay here.”
Yamamoto rummaged through his backpack and produced an attaché case. Setting it on the table, he unzipped the main pocket and pulled out his laptop. A 13-inch model, thin and lightweight, like a folding blade of polished metal. He booted it up, touched his thumb to the fingerprint reader, and brought his eyes to its cameras.
The home screen appeared.
As Yamamoto worked the keyboard, Fox retrieved her phone and called up the photos she had taken of the hit team. He logged to the STS’ databases and held out his hand. She placed the phone on his palm, her fingers brushing against his calluses.
As he filled in the query form, he said, “You said Nick Malone introduced you to White, yes? Does he worship the New Gods?”
That question had roiled about in her gut during the long drive to Yamamoto’s home.
“He’s a secular. At least, that’s what he told me,” Fox said.
“Do you think they got to him?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know if he sold us out, or if the New Gods turned White instead, or there’s something else going on. There’s so much we don’t know.”
“The New Gods are escalating. They aren’t content with surveillance anymore. One way or other, they’re coming to a decision point.”
After the raid on the Golden Mile, the New Gods sent out their watchers, to watch and be watched. Fox had seen them, strangers lurking around her gym and registered home, cars trailing her on the streets of Babylon, faces in crowds turning to gaze nakedly and hungrily on her. They wanted to let her know that they were watching.
If it was an intimidation tactic, she wasn’t impressed.
She had stepped up her security measures. Cut her cards and memberships, moved her stuff to long-term storage, ran surveillance detection routes every day, rotated between her safe houses, carried her weapons wherever she went. Once, a watcher made the mistake of stepping from an alley to leer at her. He didn’t look so hot after she drew down on him. She had growled a threat in his ear, kicked him away, allowed him to scurry off to his masters.
Since then, the watchers had backed off. Overtly. But she knew they were still there, haunting the shadows of Babylon, waiting for her to slip up.
“Has anyone else been attacked?” Fox asked.
“Not yet,” Yamamoto said grimly. “We should call the others, sound Prairie Fire. Once we get the results from the database, we’ll meet up and discuss our next options.”
“Let’s do it.”
Yamamoto input the last name and hit the enter key. As the databases churned, he returned her phone and dug out his own—also in its own RFID pouch.
“I’ll call James and Will. You’ve got Karim and Zen,” Yamamoto said.
Her phone was a Zero, the world’s most secure smartphone. Standard issue for everyone on the STS, it was designed from the ground up for security, privacy, and rock-solid reliability. Encrypted peer-to-peer call functionality came standard, as did the ability to maintain multiple numbers and generate burners.
She selected her current number and dialed Karim Mustafa’s. Three rings later, a groggy voice came on the line.
“Lycan, it’s me. Prairie Fire.”
Karim instantly jolted to two hundred percent alertness.
“Prairie Fire? What happened?”
“I got hit. I’m fine, but you might be next.”
“Fuck! Well, okay, what’s the plan?”
“Samurai and I are calling up the others and developing the situation. Once we have more information, we’ll arrange an RV. Until then, pack up and get ready to move out.”
The second she hung up, she touched Zen Tan’s number. His phone rang. And rang. And rang.
The phone went to voice mail.
“What the hell…?” she muttered.
“What’s wrong?” Yamamoto asked.
“Zen didn’t pick up.”
That wasn’t supposed to happen. Every STS operator was on 24/7 alert. It didn’t matter if they were off-duty or on leave. If the phone rang, you picked up.
He furrowed his brow.
“Let’s not assume the worst just yet. Leave him a message. We’ve got hits on the names and badge numbers.”
Fox called again. Again, the phone went to voice mail.
“ZT, it’s Deadeye. Prairie Fire. Call me back once you get this message.”
She put the phone on the table. It felt like a huge risk, leaving it unguarded from hackers and signals intercept like that, but the RFID pouch would block all incoming calls.
He’ll call back soon, she thought. Or at least leave a message.
She steadied herself with a breath and looked at the screen.
Yamamoto opened four tabs. One for each member of the hit team. Her stomach squeezed into a ball of acidic dread. She breathed, willing herself to relax. What’s done was already done. She couldn’t change the past, only prepare for the future.
The first tab showed Tessa White. Supervisory Special Agent, Public Security Bureau, Preternatural Crimes Division, Ecclesiastical Liaison Section.
“Well, shit,” Fox muttered. “I killed a Peeb. Fuck!”
“Steady,” Yamamoto said. “We don’t know the full picture yet. You ever heard of this Ecclesiastical Liaison Section?”
“No. Have you?”
He shook his head. “Me neither. Let’s go look it up.”
Both operators turned to their phones, hunting variations of the name on secure search engines. The result was the same.
“‘Liaise with representatives of the New Gods’,” Fox quoted. “That’s all I could find on the PSB’s website.”
“That’s more information than I could find anywhere else,” Yamamoto said.
“Job description like that could mean anything. It could be a dirty tricks section for all we know.”
“Exactly. Let’s keep digging.”
The other three tabs showed the dossiers of three Babylon PD officers. Thomas Perkins, Jude Wheeler, Barry Hoyt. They were all detectives.
From Gangs and Narcotics, Hate Crimes, and Homicide.
“They’re not SWAT?” Fox wondered. “This doesn’t make any sense.”
“They’re not even from the same squads,” Yamamoto said. “If Babylon PD were after you, they wouldn’t send three random detectives from three different units. They know what we can do. They’d deploy the Special Investigations Division.”
The sidewalk artists of SID specialized in stakeouts, surveillance, and dynamic takedowns of violent offenders. They were world-class. The people Fox had shot… weren’t.
“The last man in the stack froze when the shooting started,” Fox mused. “SID wouldn’t do that. They train to SWAT standards.”
“And SWAT would have gone in hard, with a full team, armored vehicles, air support,” Yamamoto said.
“Something’s hinky here. BPD brass ain’t stupid. And if the PSB were on the case, they wouldn’t cut in BPD at all. They’d deploy their own SWAT or ESWAT teams.”
“Exactly. Let’s go through their profiles again, see if there’s a common denominator between them.”
They pressed up against each other, shoulders touching, breath intermingled, staring at the small screen. It took them just five minutes to read all four profiles. And find the thread that joined them.
“They are all Seekers of the Way,” Yamamoto said.
“That’s just weird. We haven’t done anything lately to piss them off, have we?”
“Nope. If I recall correctly, the first and last time we tangled with them was two years ago.”
She shuddered at the memory. “Yeah.”
“Why were they after you?” Yamamoto asked.
The Seekers of the Way was a mess of paradoxes. Their influence was everywhere—yet little was known about them. They pursued research into occult powers and cutting-edge technology, going so far as to sign deals with the gods—but drew the line at swearing allegiance to any kind of higher power. They claimed to abide in harmony with the Way of the Cosmos—but they were as ruthless and domineering as the rest of the New Gods. Despite their status as New Gods, they worshiped no gods—they desired to become as gods.
The Seekers traced their roots to the early days of the Calamity. The long night that reshaped the old world and saw the descent of the gods. Where others feared the New Gods or blindly worshiped them, the Seekers sought to understand them—and become like them. They had the fewest Elect among the New Gods, but made up for the deficit with raw firepower and financial support. Today, the greatest number of their adherents came from megacorporations, the military, and the police.
“Someone ordered them to attack me,” Fox said. “We find him, we find answers.”
“That’s a plan,” Yamamoto said. “Now the next question is, how—”
The door boomed.
“POLICE! SEARCH WARRANT! OPEN UP NOW!”
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)