There was nothing routine about Goshawks over Babylon. Fast, stealthy, armored, each dropship could ferry a platoon of troops. It was the military’s heavy-lift aircraft of choice. The STS used them for long-range deployments, or to transport vehicles and armor. BPD most assuredly did not have any in their inventory.
These specimens had to be here for the Black Watch. The only question was which organization they belonged to: the military, the STS, or the New Gods. Regardless of the answer, Fox did not want to fight them.
“Acknowledged,” Yamamoto said. “We are moving. Heading out via side 1. ETA fifteen minutes.”
“You don’t have five. They are closing in,” she said.
“Buy us time.”
She gulped. “I’ll do what I can.”
From here she had a clear shot at the dropships. Blurry as they were, if she put enough fire downrange, a few rounds were bound to hit. It ran against her instincts and her training, but she didn’t have any other option. The camouflage defeated her ability to estimate range by eye, and if she used her laser rangefinder the beam would simply be bent around the dropship and redirected out into the sky. And, if she were truly unlucky, the Goshawks’ onboard laser detectors would pick up the beam, and then they would hunt her.
But even if she scored a hit, it wouldn’t achieve much. Goshawks were heavily armored. The cockpit window was constructed of ballistic glass, and the pilots were surrounded by a titanium tub. The gravity mirror pods were encased in lightweight high-strength metal alloys. The interior of the cargo bay was fitted with armor plates. The vital areas of the dropship could resist heavy machine gun rounds and high-velocity shrapnel from all angles.
Her 6.8mm GPC rifle didn’t come close.
As the Goshawks closed in, she ejected the magazine and stuffed it into her thigh pocket. Twisted to her right, grabbed a fresh mag from her plate carrier, and locked it in.
This mag was loaded with saboted light armor penetrators. Unlike the rest of the men, she preferred to run twenty-round magazines in her carbine. The twenty-rounder was much easier to shoot from the prone than with a full-length thirty-round mag. As the sharpshooter, if she had to fire more than a handful of rounds, she was either doing something wrong or things had gone to hell.
Things had surely gone to hell now.
And she only had one spare twenty-round mag of SLAP.
In her mind, she loosed a string of curses. She shouldn’t have left her ammo at the car, or at the very least, she should have loaded all her mags with SLAP instead of a half-and-half load. The hunters were pulling out all the stops, and she was way behind the curve.
If I get out of this, I am going to break out the heavy iron, she vowed.
She canted the rifle to the left, cupped her hand over the ejection port, popped the dust cover open, and worked the charging handle. The loose round spilled out into her waiting palm. She tucked the bullet into her thigh pocket, then took up her rifle again.
Reaching over with her left hand, she worked the SmartShot’s control buttons. A menu blazed bright green in the optic. She cycled through the options, reconfiguring the optic for her SLAP load. The reticle reset, jumping to a fresh point on the glass.
The Goshawks slowed to a stop. The one on the right hovered above an open-air courtyard in the middle of the estate. Its partner positioned itself at the northeastern corner of the block, right above a traffic junction, rotating in place to face Fortune City.
Placing its rear to her.
“Samurai, Deadeye. One Goshawk is hovering above the central courtyard. The other one is at the 1-4 corner. Designate them Goshawk One and Goshawk Two. They’re preparing to deploy troops.”
“Is there anything you can do?”
And the rear ramps dropped.
Now she had a clear view inside the cargo bay of the Goshawk Two. Illuminated in dull red light, it was jammed with men and machines, vague and indistinct. She turned on her thermal imager, and the view shifted to clear black and white.
A chalk of assaulters stood inside the cargo bay, ready for deployment. The cargo chief shuffled up to the end of the ramp, threw out a fast rope, then sat down by a mounted machine gun and waved the passengers forward.
The point man in the chalk wasn’t a man at all. It was a hulking figure, eight feet tall, with simian arms that reached down its knees, and bulky legs that bent the wrong way. Muscles bulged from all four limbs, bright white in her scope. Its gauntleted hands ended in three enormous claws. Its head was a smooth almond, ringed with eight unblinking eyes. Thick armored plates, hard and angular, covered its torso, seamlessly melting into flesh. More plates defended its elbows and knees, shoulders and forearms, groin and thighs, integrated into muscle and soft tissue.
Each forearm bracer mounted a stubby short-barreled gun, fitted with a horizontal magazine. Tactical pouches were strapped to its calves and thighs, heavy with kit. A general purpose machine gun was clipped to a D-ring high on its cuirass. An ammo chute ran from the MG’s feed tray to its backpack.
A Hellion Autonomous Heavy Assault System.
A living weapon.
“I have eyes on a Hellion inside Goshawk Two. Preparing to engage.”
As the words left her mouth, she suppressed a shudder. How the hell could she engage a monster like that?
But on the bright side, these guys definitely aren’t STS.
She could open fire without hesitation.
With speed and grace that belied its size, the Hellion clambered to the edge of the ramp, crouched, grabbed the rope, and heaved itself into clear space. The Goshawk oscillated, and the pilot sought to compensate.
And the crew chief drifted into her crosshairs.
She thumbed her laser. The SmartShot did its magic, and the reticle jumped to the left. She pivoted in place, saw the bright green triangle appear over her target.
The round caught him square in the face, snapping his head back and punching him down.
Working the trigger, she fired an extended string, ten shots into a tight circle describing the open cargo bay. As her scope bounced and jolted about, she caught glimpses of a second Hellion, a line of human assaulters behind it, a crewman at the far end of the compartment.
But she wasn’t shooting at the men.
She was shooting past them.
The tungsten carbide penetrators tore through the night, drilling through what little resistance they found, spearing the dropship lengthwise. Sparks flew, thin streams gushed, a cloud burst from a shattered panel.
And suddenly the Goshawk went down in a steep nosedive.
She grinned. Evidently the titanium bathtub didn’t protect the pilots from shots through the cargo compartment.
The Hellion on the rope held on for dear life. The dropship tried to compensate at the last moment, but it was too late.
It crashed nose-first into the street. Men flew from the open cargo bay, crashing into walls, streetlights, cars, windows, each other. Momentum flipped the downed dropship around, slamming it upside down against the asphalt. The rope whipped through the air, hurling the Hellion against the wall of a high-rise. The Hellion, still hanging on, fell like a rock, and abruptly went still.
“I’ve shot down Goshawk Two,” Fox reported.
A sniper. Shooting down a dropship. Unbelievable.
She didn’t dare to dwell on her feat. She just turned to the other dropship.
Goshawk One was still hovering over the courtyard, still deploying its passengers. An assaulter slid down the fast-rope, and a second waited for his turn. The crew chief on his machine gun swiveled in place, hunting for the sniper.
Fox shot the chief first.
Her second shot took the man on the rope, taking him through the armpit.
The third shot popped the waiting assaulter’s head.
And a minigun shrieked.
Bullets cracked all around. Mounds of dust and debris exploded in front of her face. She pressed herself into the ground, cursing under her breath, going as low as she possibly could.
These Goshawks were armed with retractable belly-mounted guns, stowed in the fuselage until it was time to unleash hell. A blinding cone of light betrayed the minigun’s presence. Small fires whipped around her, one-way tracers igniting vegetation and trees.
She was pinned. Nothing she could do but go flat.
Abruptly the minigun stopped.
And a barrage of high-pitched gunfire reverberated from within Fortune City.
She lifted her face from the dirt. The Goshawk was speeding away, ramp still down, rope trailing to the ground.
Between the suppressor and the chameleon suit, the bad guys wouldn’t have known where she was. Even with a shot detector, they could only guess at her general position.
Still… it was close. Too close.
“Deadeye, we’ve driven off Goshawk One,” Connor reported. “Are you still alive?”
“Yup,” she said. “Thanks.”
The Goshawk jerked in mid-air.
The fast rope strained taut.
She smiled. It must have caught on something.
A moment later, the rope fell free, and the dropship took to the air.
Fox picked herself off the ground, turned sharply to her left, and ran. She’d stayed at her old position long enough. Any moment now, the enemy would—
The minigun shouted.
Hot rounds washed over the world. Dirt exploded behind her. Trees shook and shivered. Bending over, rifle clutched to her chest, Fox sprinted.
“All callsigns, Deadeye. Relocating to new firing position.”
Her boots took her to a well-worn trail. She charged down the steps, gripping the guiderail with her left hand. In her chameleon suit, she was a wraith, a fuzzy blur flitting past the amber light posts. The Goshawk continued firing, lashing down her old position with short, sharp bursts.
The trail curved to the left. She followed it down, sprinting at full tilt. The machine gun abruptly went silent. But the humming of the massive gravity mirrors remained.
She emerged in a rest area, a terrace cut into the hillside. Benches lurked in pools of darkness between the light posts. Long-range binoculars were mounted on fixed posts by the guardrail that defined the edges of the terrace.
There was no cover or concealment. Just what she brought with her.
She planted herself by the guardrail, orienting herself towards Fortune City. Snapped the bipod closed, gripped the legs as though it were a makeshift forward pistol grip, and rested her fist on the rail. It wasn’t as stable as she liked, but it would do. And with heavy weapons in play, she didn’t want to spend an extra moment extricating herself from a bench if she came under fire again.
Through the sights, she scanned the disaster unfolding on the world below.
Many men lay motionless on the road, on the roofs, inside windows, atop cars, wherever else the Goshawk crash had thrown them. A few stragglers were slowly recovering, rising to their feet, crawling for help. A pair of Hellions rallied at the crash site, machine guns trained at the hill, teeth bared at the world.
A block to the northwest of Fortune City, the other Goshawk hovered at a traffic junction, facing the hill. She zoomed in to the max, but all she saw was a blurry mass, gently swaying from side to side, sandwiched between a pair of high-rises. At street level, a crouching Hellion leaned around the corner, hefting its GPMG to cover the Goshawk. The pilots had to be using the dropship’s armored bulk and the high-rises to shield a second attempt at fast-roping troops.
She had no shot.
“Samurai, Deadeye. Goshawk One may be fast-roping troops at the junction of Edmonton and Crowley. I’m going to draw their fire. Extract via side 3. Say again, side 3.”
“Copy that. Buy us as much time as you can.”
A lump formed in her chest, threatening to rise up her throat. She gulped it down and trained her crosshairs on the kneeling Hellion’s head. Thumbed the laser switch. Elevated the rifle, bringing the green triangle to bear on its face. Flicked off the safety.
The Hellion’s head rocked back.
A moment of stillness.
And the monster howled in fury.
She lowered her sights a smidge and fired again.
The bullet disappeared into its gaping maw.
It shut up.
And opened up.
Instinctively she ducked low. The GPMG roared at a slow cadence, so slow she registered every individual shot. A fusillade slammed into the dirt well below her with heavy smacks.
She displaced to her left. Two, three, four muzzle flashes illuminated the world below, betraying more Hellions and their machine guns. As she set up on the guardrail, the Goshawk’s belly gun spoke again. The hail of lead screamed high, chopping down a tree behind her to the right.
Her sights settled on the Goshawk.
The belly gun fired once more, a bright cone of light that chased the shadows surrounding the Goshawk, revealing a distorted visage of a smooth, almost organic-looking, fuselage.
She lased the muzzle flash.
Brought the reticle on target.
Again and again and again, working the trigger as fast as she dared.
And the minigun fell silent.
And the Goshawk dipped below roof level.
She grinned. The Goshawk might be armored, but not its retractable belly gun. She wasn’t sure if she’d hit the weapon itself, the optics or the ammo feed, but the gun was silenced and that was all that mattered.
The Hellions adjusted fire, sweeping their bursts towards her.
She sprang away from the guard rail, dropping to the dirt. Heavy bullets sparked against the rail and scorched the air above her.
She ejected the magazine, carefully stowing it in her dump pouch, then grabbed her remaining mag of SLAP, firmly inserted it into the weapon, and worked the forward assist. She backed up to a bench, rising to her feet, then rested the bipod on the table. She bent over, contorting herself weirdly, adjusting herself to suit her new shooting position, folding her left arm across her chest. It was awkward, but manageable, and far more maneuverable than sitting down.
She zoomed in on the nearest muzzle flash. A Hellion armed with an M83 carbine. Nearby, its GPMG and ammo backpack lay discarded on the road, next to a man sprawled across the asphalt, the receiver bent and broken.
It had to be the first Hellion, the one that had been on the fast rope when the Goshawk went down. It had survived the impact against the wall and the long drop, but its weapon hadn’t. She had no idea what kind of sorcery built the damned thing, but surely it had come from the darkest pits of Hell.
She trained her crosshair on its face. The headshot hadn’t worked earlier, so she lowered the sights a little more and lased its throat. Brought the reticle on target.
A thin stream of blood gushed from the wound. The Hellion snarled, adjusting its aim. It was still shooting wide, but not for long.
Its eyes glowed white-on-white, hotter than the rest of its face. She raised her sights, her unconscious mind running a dozen back-of-the-envelope calculations, pivoted slightly to the left, and fired.
The round blasted clean through its eye, exploding it in a gush of white.
It howled, swung right, and fired again.
It was still shooting wide, but it was bracketing her, slowly closing in on her position. The other Hellions joined in the act, their GPMGs thundering away.
A human would have run for cover by now. But Hellions weren’t human. Fear wasn’t in them. They were living tanks, proof against almost all small arms fire. With her puny rifle, she couldn’t scratch them.
But there was one last thing she could try.
She lowered her sights, resting the crosshair slightly above its center of mass.
A metallic cloud sprayed from its weapon. The monster jerked. Paused. Canted its carbine, inspecting the upper receiver. And angrily threw it down.
How about that, she marveled.
Snipers do not, as a rule, shoot guns. Especially STS snipers. Headshots were far more reliable at neutralizing Elect and Husks. Even if they disarmed one, an Elect was always armed with the powers of his god. There were very few situations where shooting a gun out of a threat’s hands was a viable option.
This was surely one of them.
The machine gun fire redoubled. She stepped through an arc, swinging her rifle to bear on the next muzzle flash. A Hellion taking cover behind the crashed Goshawk, spraying down the hill. The angle was poor and the crest blocked her view; she could only see the upper half of its body. But it was good enough. She made a few minute alterations and pressed the trigger.
The round smashed into the threat’s enormous hand.
It jerked away, shaking off the strike. Fox didn’t know if the bullet had done any damage, and she didn’t care. She adjusted her aim, going for the point where the ammo chute fed into the machine gun.
The weapon exploded, disintegrating in a cloud of shrapnel.
The Hellion looked down at its destroyed weapon, tossed the parts aside, shrugged out of its backpack, and went hunting for a replacement.
What does it take to kill these bastards?
Even as she framed that thought, a thunderous fusillade reverberated in the night. Muzzle flashes sparked from high-rises and the base of lamp posts. Small figures raced across the street, bounding forward.
The troops from the second Goshawk had rallied.
She retreated from the bench, going prone. Moments later, bullets ripped through the air where she once stood. They had her measure, and now they were closing in for the kill.
“Deadeye, Samurai. We’ve sneaked past the enemy and we are clear of the objective. What’s your status?”
“Still alive,” she replied. “But they’re bringing down the heat on me. Any moment now, they’re going to assault the hill.”
“Roger that. Mission complete. Extract now.”
She crawled away. The fire redoubled, heavy rounds searing high and low and all around her. A tree caught fire, throwing plumes of thick smoke. The flames leapt from tree to tree, threatening the woods. The Hellions roared out a challenge.
A switchback marked the end of the rest area. She picked herself up and sprinted away. Behind her, the shooting intensified even further, as though emboldened by the lack of return fire.
The switchback conveyed her to the other side of the hill. She picked up the pace, dashing downstairs, making a beeline for the parking lot. The concrete was slippery, and twice she lost her footing. Only her hand on the guardrail kept her from falling on her butt.
The gunfire petered out. Police sirens screamed. Blue and red lights illuminated the cityscape in the distance. Tiny black dots flitted through the air—drones, she suspected, converging on the area.
She wondered how the Seekers would explain themselves to the cops and the press this time. No doubt there would be backroom deals, closed-door conferences, cash flowing from one hand to another. Every time the STS put down a criminal Elect, the Speakers of the New God that granted them their powers would trot out some excuse or another, the police would accept the explanation, and the media wouldn’t dare to press the issue.
It was just the way things were done in Babylon.
In her years in the PSB, she had seen more than her fair share of cover-ups. Whenever the authorities exposed or disrupted a plot by criminal Elect, the New Gods deployed the finest lawyers money could buy to defend them in court, or quickly disavowed those who died. The New Gods acted as they pleased in Babylon, and all the PSB could do was attempt to contain the worst of their excesses. Even after the STS was stood up, nothing had changed.
The only difference was that now, the New Gods took far more casualties—and the humans, relatively less.
But this time tomorrow, the Black Watch would be fugitives. The Seekers, the BPD, the PSB, they’d find a way to pin this fiasco on them. She knew it deep in her bones. And there was nothing she could do about that.
In the face of the New Gods, there was only one thing she, a mere mortal, could do.
She kept running.
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