When the New Gods and the government were after you, paranoia became your way of life.
Yamamoto led Fox on a long surveillance detection run. Following the textbook, they wound through alleys, stalled at green lights and sped through yellow ones, alternated their speed at random times. Yamamoto went one step further, hopping over rooftops, ducking under elevated highways, and generally violating every minor air traffic rule that didn’t require ascending to an attitude that rendered them visible to Babylon ATC.
They stopped twice. Once in a multi-story car park to thoroughly inspect their vehicles, switch identities, and message the team. Once more at their destination. Shoreline Park, at the southernmost edge of Babylon, where Babylon River flowed out into the sea.
Dazzling lights illuminated the adjacent marina, showcasing the private yachts and houseboats moored to the many berths. Dimmer streetlights marked the bicycle and running tracks that snaked through the park. Concealed in the shadows were a dozen benches and rest areas. The shore itself was rough and rocky, blocked off by tall fences. Wooden piers extended out into the waters, all of them empty.
From here, the Black Watch had many options. Flee across the waters to Moreno Island and hide out in the swamps and farms, or go island-hopping across the smaller inhabited island chains past Moreno. Follow the shore southeast to the neighboring city of Riveria. Hijack a boat and go pirate.
If all of Nova Babylonia turned against them, this was to be their final rendezvous point. The place where they made their final decision.
At the pavilion by the parking lots, Fox and Yamamoto set up for the meet. They messaged the team, reloaded their weapons and magazines, kept watch for innocent and not-so-innocent bystanders. He ran a police scanner on his phone, monitoring radio transmissions as he worked. She hauled out her go-bag from her car and pressed fresh rounds into her depleted magazines.
At midnight, the rest of the Black Watch converged on the park.
They came from the air, descending on empty parking spaces. As the gravcars made their final approach, the winked their headlights three times.
“There’s only three cars,” Fox said.
Yamamoto pursed his lips and said nothing.
The operators retrieved their gear from their trunks, kitting up in full view of Fox. There were only three men. In the semi-darkness she recognized their profiles; as they stepped out into the light, she confirmed their identities.
James Wood, the team second in command.
Will Connor, heavy weapons specialist and breacher.
Karim Mustafa, the team psi and rookie.
“Where’s Zen?” Mustafa asked.
“I don’t know,” Fox said. “I left him a voice mail and sent him a message. No response.”
“Maybe he’s still sleeping,” Connor said.
“No way,” Fox said. “Times like this, he’ll be plugged into his phone 24/7.”
“You think something happened to him?” Wood asked.
“There’s no news of him on any radio net or database,” Yamamoto said.
“Might mean they’re keeping it quiet,” Mustafa said.
“Maybe he’ll pop up later,” Fox said.
“Did you tell him about this meet?” Connor asked.
Operational security was paramount. Until she received a confirmation from him, she wouldn’t send any more info to his phone.
“Well, the rest of us are here, and you called the Prairie Fire,” Wood said. “Let’s get down to business.”
The operators gathered around a table at the pavilion. Fox and Yamamoto briefed them on the night’s events, seamlessly switching back and forth to share each other’s perspective. The newcomers listened for the most part, interrupting only to ask questions.
At the end of the brief, Wood sighed and shook his head.
“You’re saying that you’ve got the Seekers, the PSB and Babylon PD after you?”
“Not just that,” Fox said grimly. “The guy I shot in the parking lot? He was a total conversion cyborg. He’s from the Singularity Network.”
Total conversion was the holy grail of human enhancement technologies. Take an ordinary human being, upload his mind into a cyberbrain, then install it in a custom-built chassis. The Singularity Network maintained a total monopoly on mind uploading technologies, and with it, monopoly over the conversion process.
“They were all cyborgs,” Yamamoto added. “At least, the blocking team was. Had to nail them with grape shots before they went down and stayed down.”
“The New Gods don’t normally do joint ops,” Wood said. “This is out of character. For all of them.”
“What about BPD?” Mustafa asked. “If they weren’t working with the New Gods already, they would now that you shot up a bunch of cops.”
“I shot at them,” Yamamoto said. “But it was suppressive fire only.”
“What about the last guy?” Fox asked.
“I shot at the wall an inch from his face. He didn’t seem so hot after that.”
“Even so, shooting at cops isn’t the best of ideas to begin with,” Mustafa said reproachfully.
“It was them or us, and I made sure not to kill anyone who explicitly ID’d themselves as cops. And after what happened to Kayla tonight, we couldn’t be sure if they were actual SWAT or Seekers.”
“Where the Seekers are concerned, there’s no difference,” Connor said. “They’re going to tell the press that you killed cops tonight.”
“And all of Babylon will turn against us,” Wood said quietly.
“If they haven’t already,” Yamamoto said. “Did you guys spot any unusual activity lately?”
“The Liberated were keeping a close eye on me for the past week, but I gave them the slip,” Wood said.
“Liberated? How did you know?” Fox asked.
“Liberated Elect come in two flavors. Extremely beautiful, or extremely weird. I spotted them a mile away.”
“Maybe they were just the ones you were supposed to see, distracting you from the actual watchers.”
“I considered that. But after losing the surveillance team, I didn’t see any more threats.”
“You had it easy,” Connor said. “I saw Pantheon priests popping up at my usual hangouts. They were just standing there, preaching away, but it smelled like static surveillance. I went deep underground after that.”
“My contacts reported seeing operatives from the Court of Shadows all around my neighborhood,” Mustafa said. “They were asking around for me, dropping the names of the Lord and Lady everywhere they went. I evacuated to another safe house.”
“In my case, the Void Collective and the Guild of the Makers were looking for me,” Yamamoto said.
“How did you know who they were?” Fox asked.
“The VC have creepy stares and lifeless expressions everywhere they go. The Guild were more proactive. Like the Court, they canvassed the neighborhood and identified themselves as Guild.”
“What did you do?”
“I let the Guild notice me, then led them to the Zhonghua District, and walked in front of the local Void circle. Once I confirmed both groups were following me, I sneaked into the back alleys and allowed them to run into each other.”
The operators laughed.
“They wouldn’t forget that easily,” Connor said.
“I never managed to ID whoever was following me,” Fox said, “but after I threatened one of them, they backed off. I thought it was the end of it. Until now.”
“I don’t think the New Gods ran joint ops before,” Mustafa said.
“They never had to face anyone like us before,” Connor said.
“Assuming this is a joint op,” Wood said.
“Why wouldn’t it be?” Fox asked.
“We don’t have any evidence that it’s a joint operation. Or if it were, any kind of cooperation is superficial at best. The New Gods hate each other’s guts. They wouldn’t let each other take turns to make a run at us, or split up the labor like that. They’d want to keep an eye on everybody else to make sure they hold up their end of the bargain.”
“That may be true, but if they see us as a common enemy, they may set aside their differences,” Fox said.
“But why?” Mustafa asked. “That is the question.”
“The STS has always challenged them,” Yamamoto said. “After what we did in Riveria and the Golden Mile, they think we might have obtained damaging information. The kind of information they would kill to protect.”
“That would explain why the Court of Shadows and the Void Collective are after us,” Wood said, “but not everybody else.”
“I have a theory,” Fox said. “Make that… three theories.”
“Let’s hear them.”
She raised a finger. “First theory: they think we either have dirt on them, or that we have gone rogue and are willing to take them all on. This is a pre-emptive strike, to take us out before we can do the same to them.”
“It’s ridiculous,” Connor said. “Why would we take on the New Gods? We’re barely keeping our heads above water as is.”
“It doesn’t matter how ridiculous we think it is, so long as they think it isn’t,” Wood replied.
“What’s the second?” Mustafa asked.
She raised her second finger. “They know we have dirt on the Court of Shadows, and quite likely the VC. Those two groups want their info back. Everybody else wants what we have to gain an advantage over the others.”
“If that’s true, then we’ll be seeing a free-for-all,” Yamamoto said.
“They don’t want to spark a war just yet,” she said. “They’re too evenly matched.”
“They wouldn’t sit back and divide the labor either,” Wood argued. “They’d be running heavy against us—and each other.”
“There’s always the third option,” she said.
“The Directors sold us out.”
The men went quiet. The air turned cold.
“Go on,” Yamamoto whispered.
“We opposed Pearce in Riveria. They must have suspected we raided the Golden Mile. They would have decided we’ve gone rogue. But they won’t dare to send the STS or SWAT after us; we’re too tight, and we don’t turn on each other. So they farmed out their work to the New Gods.”
“And the New Gods would salivate at the chance to grab whatever dirt we have on hand,” Wood said.
“But we don’t have any,” she said. “Last I heard from Zen, he still hasn’t cracked any of the data we lifted.”
“The New Gods have access to far more resources than we do,” Yamamoto said. “What we can’t do, they can accomplish easily.”
“This theory makes the most sense,” Connor declared.
“Personally, I think it’s all three,” Mustafa said.
“Regardless, we have to assume all of Babylon is after us now,” Yamamoto said. “The PSB, BPD, the New Gods.”
Connor sighed. “I always knew the New Gods would come for us some day. But the PSB? The PD? We’re supposed to be on the same side, dammit!”
“We were,” Yamamoto said sadly. “Now we have to make a choice. Do we stay in Babylon and go deep underground? Or do we run?”
The men looked around, waiting for each other to speak.
“Neither,” Fox said.
“Zen isn’t here. We’re not doing anything without him.”
Yamamoto smiled broadly.
Fox’s phone rang. Zen Tan was calling.
“Speak of the devil…” she muttered, and took the call on loudspeaker.
“Hey there,” Tan said. “Sorry I missed you. What’s up?”
Her blood ran cold. There was only one instance when he would use ‘what’s up’ on the phone.
“Prairie Fire,” she said slowly. “We were attacked twice today. Something’s coming for us.”
“Understood. Is there anything I can do?”
“Negative. Sit tight and wait for further instructions.”
“Roger. And, uh, make it quick, yeah? Would need to know the plan.”
He slurred ‘would’, turning it to ‘we’d’.
Fox hung up and took a deep breath.
“He used the duress code,” Yamamoto said.
“They have him.”
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