“Lycan, find Zen. Everyone else, security positions. Go dark,” Yamamoto ordered.
The team sprang into motion like a well-oiled machine. Every electronic device went into RFID-blocking pockets and pouches. Long guns emerged from cases and slung around necks. The Black Watch swiveled outwards, pulling three-sixty degrees of security, carbines at the ready.
Karim Mustafa closed his eyes and withdrew into himself.
His covenant with Galen the White granted him formidable powers. Normally the STS refused any Elect of the gods from joining the unit, but they had made an exception for Galen the White and his chosen. Galen was a minor tutelary deity, of little real influence and power in the grand scheme of things, and he had repeatedly proved his commitment to protect mankind from the depredations of Husks and gods.
Fox wondered what it was like, having the ability to send your soul out into the Aether at will. To wander the world as a disembodied spirit, passing through solid matter as though it were nothing, to fly to any point in the known universe and observe people and events over there in real time—and yet be unable to influence the world of matter. Would knowledge of hidden things and dark deeds forge a man, or break him?
Many psis had broken under the strain of their powers, transforming into Husks. But not Mustafa. He knew his limits. He knew how far he could go before losing himself.
Even so, staring out at the night, she heard his breathing grow heavier and faster.
Tension radiated from him, an intangible force she could feel on her skin. He grunted, softly, as though straining to lift a heavy load.
This hadn’t happened before.
Still, she fought the urge to turn around. She had her area of responsibility. She maintained a laser focus, scanning the trees, the skies, the roads, eyes peeled for any sign of the police or the New Gods.
“I got him,” Mustafa said.
“Where is he?” Yamamoto asked.
“Fortune City. But… the entire area is under a ward. A heavy one at that. I can’t get closer. All I can tell is that he’s somewhere inside the area.”
Fortune City. Two and a half hectares of ultra-dense high-rises squashed side by side, clumped so tightly together the roads were impenetrable to ground vehicles. Inside was a labyrinth of claustrophobic alleys and walkways, so dense the interior was twilight at high noon. The area was barely mapped, and unannounced renovation works took place inside the premises all the time. Accessible only on foot or from the air, it was a close quarters nightmare.
No STS operator willingly entered Fortune City if he could help it.
“Can you penetrate the ward?” Yamamoto asked.
“Even if I could, it’d sound an alarm,” Mustafa said. “Our best bet is to infiltrate Fortune City on foot. Once past the boundaries, I should be able to pick up his trail again.”
“If you can’t?” Connor asked. “We need a backup plan.”
“Fortune City is crawling with block gangs,” Wood said. “They ought to know what’s going on in and around their turf.”
“If the New Gods are in the area, they might prefer to keep their mouths shut,” Connor said.
“In which case, the New Gods will have enforcers on site,” Yamamoto said. “We could ask them instead.”
Connor nodded. “Yup, that’ll work.”
Yamamoto dug out his laptop, fired it up, switched it to airplane mode, and turned on NaviPro. The preferred map application of the Babylon military and police, it allowed the user to download maps and work in offline mode.
Yamamoto pulled up overhead imagery of Fortune City. Against a sea of gleaming white low-rise apartments, lush gardens and boutique strip malls, Fortune City was a dingy, mottled mountain range of filthy concrete blocks haphazardly slapped and stacked together like gigantic gray honeycombs. It was the housing estate that Babylon wanted to forget, the sovereign territory of the resident gangs.
Abandoned by the authorities, the residents had learned to use every square inch available to them. Ramshackle sheds and moldy tents occupied the roofs. Mounds of trash lay abandoned everywhere. Handmade water pipes ran up and down the walls, while chaotic assemblies of power cables and laundry lines were strung between buildings like failed spiderwebs. But amidst the decay, Fox saw potted plants at windows and balconies, tiny vegetable gardens and solar panel strips, a playground populated by moldering seesaws and swings and monkey bars.
“I don’t want to get caught in a running firefight in there,” Wood said. “We go in pairs, stay low-viz all the way until we reach the objective.”
“If the soldiers of the New Gods are in there, we’ll need firepower,” Mustafa said. “That doesn’t gel with low-viz.”
“The alleys are narrow, the corridors are cramped, and inside the apartments you barely have enough room to swing your arms,” Yamamoto said. “We won’t have space for long guns.”
“We’re running pistols?” Connor asked.
“And PDWs if you’ve got them.”
“I don’t,” Fox admitted.
Connor looked at her balefully. “Why not?”
“Unlike you guys, my job doesn’t require mixing it up in close quarters. Never thought to check out a PDW before… well, you know.”
“I don’t have one either,” Wood said. “Never really saw the point of one.”
“Place like this, we need lots of firepower in a compact package,” Connor said. “Which is why I brought my own.”
“I’ve got mine too,” Mustafa said. “Just in case.”
“We’re counting on you two to bring the heat,” Yamamoto said.
“You don’t have one?” Connor asked.
Yamamoto grimaced. “I had to leave it behind in my safe house. It’s probably in an evidence locker by now. Along with most of my specialist tactical kit.”
“That sucks,” Connor commiserated.
“We’ll just make do.” Yamamoto pursed his lips. “We’ll split up and infiltrate the area in two groups. James and Will, you’re Team One. Karim and I will be Team Two.”
“And me?” Fox asked.
“You’re on overwatch.”
“Where? Burnett Hill?”
Burnett Hill loomed to the east of Fortune City, the only feature—natural or otherwise—in the district taller than the projects. Densely wooded, it was a popular hiking and picnicking location. But most people preferred limiting themselves to the base of the hill, with its gentle slopes and floral gardens. Halfway up the hill, its flanks grew dramatically steeper, deterring all but the most dedicated of civilian visitors.
“You sure you don’t need me with you?” Fox asked.
“We need to maintain situational awareness,” Yamamoto said. “Once inside, we’ll be cut off from the world. We… I need you to monitor the area and cover our extract if necessary.”
“All right, but from the hill, I won’t have good lines of fire into the complex. The alleys are just too damn narrow, and we can’t count on me finding a spot on the hill perfectly aligned with one. Once you set foot inside Fortune City, I won’t be able to cover you.”
“Don’t worry about that,” Yamamoto said. “We can handle it.”
“Let’s do it.”
Three o’clock. The witching hour.
Snuggled under her chameleon suit, Fox wiped the sweat from her forehead, nestled the stock of her rifle into the pocket of her shoulder, and brought her eye to the scope. Fortune City filled her ultra-clear lens in all its splendor and squalor.
Forest of signs grew from the walls of the project, advertising everything from late-night eateries to dental clinics, kindergartens to bars, drugstores to fabrication units. The signs for daylight businesses were darkened, leaving only those that catered to what passed for the Fortune City nightlife.
Most of the ground floor stores she could see were closed. The ones that remained were twenty-four hour establishments: a pawn shop, a tiny take-out kitchen, a convenience store, an automated laundry. She ran her scope across the storefronts, seeing nothing out of the ordinary.
Alleys cut in between high-rises at irregular intervals. She scoped them too, but as she had predicted, she couldn’t get good sight lines on most of them. She saw maybe a foot at best into the alley before corners and walls cut her off. All she saw was mounds of garbage.
And a shadow.
She zoomed in. In the alley between the laundry and the convenience store, the shadow of a man leaned out into the street. A moment later, it shifted back and forth, and went still.
She kept watch.
The shadow remained.
“Possible,” Fox reported. “Alleyway between the laundry and the convenience store, 1-2 corner. I see a shadow, possible human.”
“Acknowledged,” Yamamoto said.
She was the last of the Black Watch to set up shop. By the time she was ready, the men had been waiting for over an hour. Not her fault; after departing Shoreline Park, she had an SDR to run and a hill to climb.
She had left her gravcar in a parking lot at the foot of the hill. Before her ascent, in the semi-darkness, she changed into more practical clothing. Out went the blouse and the leggings and the wide belt with the shiny buckle, on came a black gun belt of ballistic nylon and a midnight blue long-sleeved tactical shirt with matching pants. Once dressed for the occasion, she prepared her precision rifle.
The M83 was the workhouse of militaries and police agencies the world over. The basic design had been proven in battle for over a century, constantly refined and updated to accommodate new technologies, but never superseded. Fox had tinkered with hers over months and years in the STS, replacing so many parts until it had departed so far from the stock design it was almost a new species of rifle.
Two-stage precision trigger, pull weight of four pounds, crisp as breaking glass. Pistol grip custom-fabbed for her hands, sporting an aggressive yet comfortable texture. Monolithic upper receiver, the sides studded with negative spaces to keep the weight down, with a traditional 12 o’clock rail for optics. Aftermarket fixed stock, sturdy and durable, the cheek rest and butt plate carefully configured for maximum comfort. Heavyweight free-floating 16-inch barrel with a 2.5-inch long suppressor, long enough for most use cases without being unwieldy, capable of shooting sub-MOA with match-grade ammo.
With her multitool, she removed her angled foregrip from the carbine’s lower rail, installing a bipod in its place. That was all she had room for. The housing for the rising chamber mechanism forwards of the magazine well consumed half of the handguard’s lower real estate, leaving only enough space for one accessory.
She turned on her SmartShot optic. It was an amazing device, combining a laser range finder, ballistic calculator, compass and 1-8x telescopic sight in a single rugged module. In half a second, it could calculate for atmospheric pressure, angle, range, target movement, bullet drop and return a solution. Paired with homing ammo, it could guarantee first-round hit over ninety-nine percent of the time. It could even wirelessly stream imagery in real time.
Not that the Black Watch could use it. Their argees and phones were stowed safely in RFID pouches. For commo, they relied on secure radios. There was no way they were going to let the New Gods or the government track them.
She attached a clip-on thermal imager forward of the optic. The device was preset to white hot high polarity, her preferred setting, and it integrated perfectly with her SmartShot. With it, she could dominate the day and night.
Weight was the enemy for this mission. She’d left behind everything nonessential in the car, streamlining her loadout. She removed her weapon-mounted flashlight—where she was going, she wouldn’t need it. After careful consideration, she’d dumped half her ammo too. This mission didn’t call for high-intensity combat, and if the worst came to pass, marksmanship and the SmartShot would make up for the lack of ready rounds.
The one thing she could not leave behind was her chameleon suit. An evolution of the sniper’s ghillie suit, it was constructed from a weave of metamaterials and stiff fabrics. It would bend light around itself—visible and infrared—and suppress her thermal signature. With it on, she was practically invisible. And she had a matching chameleon cover for her rifle.
But in exchange, the suit was hot and heavy. The fabric was completely unbreathable, and the garment enveloped her like a glove. Barely five minutes after she departed from her car, she began to sweat profusely.
And there was the climb.
No powered exoskeleton. No time to take the leisurely route. Just raw muscle power, humping up the hill in the shortest possible time.
She was a woman in a man’s world, just one of five in the entire STS. Even with genetic therapy, muscle growth implants, respirocytes, cybernetics, and a high-protein diet, she had to push herself to the limit every day just to keep up with the men. Hell, after selection and training, she had graduated at the bottom of the class.
And yet, Yamamoto had seen something in her, picking her for his team.
She wouldn’t let him down. Ever.
Climbing the hill and finding a suitable observation post had taken over an hour and a half. She had settled down in a picnic area, nestled between a pair of shrubs, oriented to face Fortune City. She wasn’t particularly pleased with the timing, but she didn’t see how she could have done better. Not without sacrificing stealth on the insert.
She had settled down just five minutes ago. She was still sweating, her heart was still pounding, and her lungs were a little tight. Her respirocytes stored vast amounts of oxygen, enough to hold her breath for three and a half hours or sprint at Olympic speeds for ten minutes without drawing a breath, but they couldn’t instantaneously eradicate muscle fatigue.
But now, she had to breathe. To rest. To prepare for when she was needed.
“Deadeye, Farmer. Are you able to get eyes on the alley?” Wood asked.
“Not from my spot,” she replied.
She didn’t want to get up and move. From where she was, she had a good view of the entire eastern side of Fortune City and the sidewalk along the northern end. Including the artery road that led to the local police station. If she adjusted her position, she’d lose sight of the road. That wouldn’t do at all.
“See any other subjects?” Yamamoto asked.
“Scanning. Stand by.”
Fox slowly swept the world through her scope. She homed in on windows, balconies, rooftops, starting with Fortune City, then the surrounding buildings. She looked for anything that didn’t belong. Long, straight objects jutting from windows; discreet tactical or surveillance vehicles parked nearby; people paying too much attention to the streets; drones, aerial and wheeled.
She took her time, switching between thermal and regular vision. In clear black-and-white, she peeked through windows and curtains into the apartments beyond. She saw kitchens and dining rooms and little portholes into toilets. She observed a woman cooking a late-night meal, a man gulping down a cup of instant noodles while staring at a screen, a hint of a bathroom mirror. Her thermal sight was so powerful, it defeated clothing, curtains, tents even the thin wooden boards and scrap metal that made up the illegal rooftop shacks. In them she saw knots of adults and children huddled together for warmth, lonely individuals lying on hard ground, and in a shack a group of tiny figures pressed together but no adult.
She studied the roofs and balconies, peeking into the gaps between potted plants and trash bags. The only living thing she saw was a curled-up cat.
“All clear,” she reported.
“Understood,” Yamamoto said. “We’re going in.”
Fox breathed. Watched. Waited.
She’d spent most of her career in the STS doing that. Even now, on the verge of being declared a rogue—if she wasn’t already—she was still doing what she did best.
The STS had dedicated sniper teams, separate from the assaulters. After she graduated from NOTS, none of them wanted her. She knew she was a fine shot, but in every other aspect, she lagged behind the men. Nonetheless, Yamamoto had encouraged her to develop her talents, building her up as a designated markswoman. Which, in practice, meant lots of cross-training with the STS snipers to learn their craft.
In hindsight, it was awfully prescient of him. STS operations were highly dynamic, requiring operators to shift tactics on the fly, and with the unit’s operational tempo, snipers weren’t always available. Assaulters sometimes had to provide their own snipers. A year after she made her bones in the unit, the rest of the STS had followed Yamamoto’s lead, training up at least one man as the team sharpshooter.
Sweeping the street, she saw the men emerge from the shadows. They split up into pairs, Wood and Connor sauntering down the north side, Yamamoto and Mustafa going east, their kit concealed under zipped-up jackets.
The first team stepped into an alley and disappeared. Yamamoto and Mustafa continued walking, their vibe casual, just two men coming home from a very late night out.
Fox dialed up the magnification to 3x, just enough to get a clearer view without sacrificing too much peripheral vision, then slowly tracked across the street.
She wished she had a spotter, someone to monitor the world so she could focus on the shadow, but ordinarily that was Zen’s job. She’d have to bear the burden of two operators on her shoulders. She couldn’t say with any certainty that there weren’t any hostiles here, only that none had—yet—stepped into her scope.
She returned her attention to Yamamoto and Mustafa. The two had arrived at the convenience store, their features washed out in a spill of bright white light. She pivoted slowly, looking at the alley.
Just in time to see a man step out into the street.
He was tough and wiry, dressed in a black jacket and dark blue jeans. Tinted argees rested on his nose, hiding his eyes. With his left hand, he removed a gleaming metal stick from his lips.
He was clean. Too clean for Fortune City.
“Contact, alley, level 1,” she reported, not that the men needed it.
She planted her reticle on his chest, the crosshairs quartering his upper torso.
His face twisted in surprise.
His right hand went for his belt.
She flicked off the safety.
Then Yamamoto filled her scope, grabbing the man’s right arm, a knife appearing in his right hand like magic, the tip pressed into the soft tissue behind the man’s chin.
The threat froze.
A heartbeat later, Mustafa caught up and seized the man’s other arm. Together, they dragged him into the alley.
“Contact,” Yamamoto reported. “Wait one.”
“All callsigns, Boomer,” Connor said. “Contacted a suspicious individual. He cut in from an adjoining alley and ran at us with a handgun. I grabbed him and slammed him against a wall. He’s out cold. But still breathing. We’re going to pat him down and see if we can find anything on him.”
A pair of harsh clicks filled the earpiece. Someone had mashed his push-to-talk switch twice, nonverbally acknowledging the transmission.
Fox breathed, scanned, waited.
“All callsigns, Boomer. We’ve recovered a pair of argees, a pistol, two spare mags. That’s it. The argees went into lock mode the second I pulled them off. The subject has no ID on him.”
Team Two squelched twice again.
“Boomer, Deadeye. Any indication of how he found you?”
“Negative. Didn’t see any cameras. Maybe they sprinkled smartdust all over the place.”
Which meant the infiltration was already blown.
“Callsigns, Samurai,” Yamamoto said. “I’ve questioned and restrained the subject. He claims he’s from Death Dragons, one of the local gangs. He and his men were hired to pull security for the area and keep an eye out for us. Their boss has a line with the client, who has an Elect monitoring the local ward. The second we got here, the Elect made us. Now the rest of the Death Dragons are coming for us.”
“Where is ZT?” Fox asked.
“He doesn’t know. He’s just muscle.”
“I do,” Mustafa said. “I sense him. I can lead us there.”
“Let’s go,” Yamamoto said. “Deadeye, green light.”
The men spoke among themselves, coordinating a linkup. Fox swiveled left to right, looking for gangsters, hostiles, any sign of threats.
The street was quiet. No activity at the windows. The shacks and tents remained still.
A pair of gunshots rang out.
Amplified by the tight confines of Fortune City, the blasts shattered the night air.
A discordant chorus of gunfire followed. Tightly-grouped controlled pairs, short bursts of focused full-auto fire, the M99s and M585s of the Black Watch. Now and then, sharp high-pitched cracks cut through the sound, punctuated by random multi-round strings.
Fox breathed, watched, waited.
It was all she could do. She had no shot, no angles, nothing to work with. And she had a job to do.
The Black Watch were the finest gunfighters in Babylon. If anyone could pull through, it was them. All the same, she yearned to be in the fight, to watch their back, to bear her gun to bear and face the Death Dragons. Extreme close quarters combat wasn’t her thing, but a fight like this needed all hands on deck.
She hoped they would be safe.
Abruptly the shooting petered out. The only guns she heard came from the Black Watch, just the occasional double- and triple-tap.
“Deadeye, Samurai. We’re outside ZT’s position. See any threats?” Yamamoto asked.
“Negative,” she replied.
“Copy. Breach, bang and clear. Go mechanical.”
Twenty seconds later, a thunderous bang erupted from the bowels of Fortune City. A stun grenade.
A flurry of shots followed.
“Deadeye, Samurai. Area clear. Previous cargo secured. He’s conscious and mobile. We’re extracting on foot.”
She heaved a sigh of relief.
A faint whirring crept into her ears. A curiously familiar sound.
Lifting her eye from the scope, she scanned left to right, up and down, hunting for the source of the noise. It was maddeningly nondirectional, as if it had come from every direction at once, slowly growing louder by the second.
In her peripheral vision, she caught a hint of motion. A fast, sleek object rushing through the night, growing larger with every heartbeat.
Peering her thermal imager, she saw only cold darkness extending into the heavens. She frowned, got off the scope, relaxed, kept her eyes wide open and scanned an ever-narrowing region of space—
And then she saw it.
Her mind grasped something large and angular, with a pair of projections on either flank. But that was all. She couldn’t see it directly; when she craned her neck, it vanished from her sight. It was just how the human eye was made: the cones concentrated in the center of the retina granted high-resolution vision, but the rods surrounding them were far more sensitive to light and superior at detecting motion. All she could do was to track the object’s movements in her peripheral vision.
Then she saw the other one.
There were two of them, flying directly for Fortune City.
Something in her mind clicked.
And her heart turned to ice.
“All callsigns, Deadeye. Two Goshawk dropships incoming from the west. They are running dark, with chameleon camouflage. You have to run. Now.”
Want more stories of supercops, superheroes and supervillains? Check out my novel Hollow City!
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