Story Behind the Story
The team reconvened at their secondary rally point. Hartsock National Park, a thin strip of green that bifurcated Cape Rockaway, an arm of land that jutted out into Babylon Bay and gently curled back like a horn. Located in the shadow of Babylon International Airport, aircraft screeched overhead at regular intervals.
From here, the team had many options. Strike north to the airport and catch a flight out of Nova Babylonia. Follow the coastline south to Riveria. Hop over to one of the many islands and sandbars dotting the bay. Fly across the waters and disappear into the urban sprawl of Babylon, or head in the opposite direction for Moreno Island. They could get back into the fight or disappear forever.
But for now, they gathered by the beach and stared out into the waters.
The Black Watch had come through more or less intact. Connor sported a torn sleeve, and a thin line of blood cut across Wood’s left cheek, Fox had scraped a couple of patches of skin during her mad rushes, but otherwise they were well. Even so, they reeked of death and gunpowder, the odor cutting out the cold briny scent of the sea.
“Thanks guys,” Zen croaked. “You really pulled me out of the pits.”
“All in a day’s work,” Connor said.
“Are you okay?” Fox asked.
He patted himself down. Face and neck, chest and belly, arms and legs.
“Yeah, yeah. I’m… I’m good.”
He didn’t look good. He sat hunched over on the sand, feet flat on the ground, his body tense, caught between wanting to curl up into a ball and remaining ready for action. His arms were crossed over his knees, his chin resting on his forearms. It was too dark to tell the expression on his face, but she knew it wasn’t anything good.
Fox sat next to him. The rest of the men backed away, giving them room.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” she probed.
“I’m… fuck. I’m okay. They didn’t… they didn’t touch me. Not exactly.” He shook his head. “How about you? The guys said you drew away a shitload of Seekers. I heard the shooting while we were running for cover.”
“They were lousy shots. They didn’t even come close.”
“And you gave ‘em hell, eh?”
She heard the smile in his voice. Progress.
“We showed them what it’s like to be on the wrong side of the sights.”
He chuckled. And, just as suddenly, faded in a sullen silence.
The sea crashed into the beach. Insects chirped. A plane whooshed overhead, navigational lights blinking, descending for Babylon International. Fox waited until the air cleared.
“Do you want to talk about what happened earlier?” she asked.
“They…” He sighed. “They tracked me down to my safe house. I don’t know how they did it. One minute I was working on my computer, the next, a tactical team blew through the windows.
“They identified themselves as SWAT. They had the uniforms and the weapons right. I… I hesitated. For a moment. Long enough for them to haul me away, pat me down, cuff me.”
“Did you do anything?”
He shook his head vigorously. “I know the drill. Shut up, comply, and once you’re at the station, start making phone calls. No sense escalating a tense situation, right? Except that they didn’t take me to the station.”
“They took you to Fortune City.”
“Yeah. They threw a detention hood over my head. Right there I realized that maybe they weren’t SWAT after all. They marched me into their gravtruck and flew me away. About fifteen minutes later, they landed, pushed me out of the truck and handed me off to another group.”
“Did they use any names?”
“Just one. The SWAT leader called his counterpart ‘Mr. Yang’. Yuri, I think you killed him when you made entry.”
“Should I have left him alive?” Yamamoto asked.
Tan shook his head. “I’d have shot him myself if you hadn’t.”
“What did Yang do after the SWAT team handed you off?” Fox asked.
He and his goons—two of them, I think—frog-marched me through Fortune City. I didn’t know where we were at that time, only that they led me through a maze of corridors. I tried to fight back, but the goons were too strong. I tried stomping their feet and kneeing their legs, but they just laughed it off. One of them grabbed me and the other shot me up with something. Soon after that, everything went all blurry and fuzzy.
“I was still conscious. I could still move. But I couldn’t resist, and I was completely relaxed. I can’t remember much after that.”
“Sounds like they induced a twilight state with sedatives,” Wood opined.
“Yeah.” He shuddered. “Next thing I remember, I was strapped to this… chair. Like a dental chair, but with cuffs for the wrists, ankles and neck. I was inside this tiny apartment. It was just me and Yang, and his two goons standing by the door.
“When I came to, Yang smiled at me and said, ‘Good evening, Mr. Tan.’
“I went, ‘Who the hell are you, and what do you want?’
“Yang said, ‘We have many questions for you. All we want are answers. You will give them to us. And don’t worry: you won’t be able to resist.’”
“I tried to fight my way loose, but the straps were too tight. The goons walked up to me and fitted some kind of metal helmet over my head. They wired up the helmet to a laptop. Yang sat by the computer and pressed a key.
“I heard a loud whirring sound. Then I felt something like a hundred tiny needles drill through my skull.”
He shivered and ran his hands through his hair. Looking closer, she realized his crown was wrapped in thick gauze.
“What did they do to you?” she asked.
“They were neural probes. For machine interrogation.”
“I wouldn’t want to go through that again.”
“Me neither. What did they ask you?”
“They started with baseline questions. My name, age, address, that kind of thing. Then they moved on to the meat. Your current locations, contact protocols, whether there was anyone else supporting us. I tried to resist, but…”
She patted his shoulder. “Easy.”
“I… I tried to keep my mouth shut, you understand? I said nothing. But the probes can read your brain activity and pull the answers out of your head. When they asked a question, the answer automatically came to mind, and then they recorded it. There’s no way to defend against it; your own brain is working against you.
“I tried empty mind meditation. Blank out all thought, refuse to respond to all input. But every time I tried that, Yang… he… he stimulated the pain centers of my brain. Made me feel like my fingernails were being torn off, or my toes were being crushed, or there was a white-hot needle in my eye.”
“Jesus Christ,” Yamamoto whispered.
“That sadistic son of a bitch,” Fox said.
“Yeah. I kept telling myself it wasn’t real, that they weren’t doing anything to me, but…” he sighed. “Anyway, that was just Yang being a sonofabitch. His goal was to distract me, to pull me out of meditation. Once I was out of it, he asked a question, my brain recalled the answer, and he moved on.”
“He didn’t have to torture you to do that,” Connor said.
“Yeah. He was one sick fuck.”
“What did you tell him?”
“Everything I knew. Phone numbers. Secure email addresses. Passwords and user ID for the apps I use to communicate with you guys. Contact protocol, including the all-clear and the duress code.”
“Didn’t you use the duress code when you called me?” Fox asked.
“Yeah. They told me to.”
Silence, for a heartbeat.
“They wanted to draw us out into an ambush,” Yamamoto said.
“Explains the firepower and manpower they brought to the party,” Fox added.
“Yeah. I’m… I’m sorry guys,” Tan said.
“We’re all safe, we fought our way out. That’s all that matters,” Yamamoto said.
“I heard the miniguns, the MGs, the Hellions. How the hell did you survive that?” Tan asked.
“I drew their fire away, then I ran like hell,” Fox said.
“Hellion?” Mustafa asked. “What’s that?”
“A top-secret experimental organic weapon,” Connor said. “A living tank.”
“You fought one before?”
“Unfortunately,” Fox said.
“Two years ago, before you joined us,” Yamamoto said. “In response to a military tender for next-generation assault armor, EvoTech developed the Hellion Autonomous Heavy Assault System. Unlike all the competition, the Hellion wasn’t just powered armor. It was armor grafted into a vat-grown monster.
“EvoTech’s key selling point was that the military could deploy Hellions in place of manned armor. They were fearless, powerful, ferocious, and completely expendable. After all, they weren’t human. The military downselected EvoTech as one of the finalists. They were rumored to be the favorite of the brass.
“Then disaster struck. A squad of eight experimental Hellions broke free from their lab at Santos Proving Ground. They were unarmed, but their teeth and claws and armor were weapons in their own right. EvoTech hit the killswitches, but they failed to fire. The Hellions went on a rampage, and attacked and occupied the town of Keystone.”
“I read about that,” Mustafa said. “It was a massacre.”
Yamamoto nodded grimly. “The local police called the PSB. The PSB called us. EvoTech realized they couldn’t contain the disaster, so they had to cooperate with us. Fortunately for us, the Hellions chose to roam the town instead of breaking loose.
“We corralled them back into the town from the air, while we evacuated citizens on the ground. It was… difficult. The ground teams ran into the Hellions a few times. Rifle and machine gun fire would drive them off, but not kill them. When the Hellions learned that their armor was too thick for our rounds to penetrate, they became more aggressive. And nothing we had on hand could defeat them.
“We—the Black Watch—got lucky. We only met the Hellions once, and we broke contact before they closed in. Others… Red Ravens took fifty percent casualties. White Knights was wiped out evacuating the school. But we got the civilians out. The survivors, anyway.”
“Ya Allah… What happened next?”
“I called down an air strike,” Yamamoto said flatly. “An AC-252 Wraith. We hit the Hellions with the big guns. By the time we were through, there was nothing left of them.”
The memory of that night still haunted Fox. There was nothing on Earth like an AC-252 strike. It had a 35mm autocannon, a 105mm howitzer, launch tubes with smart missiles, wing-mounted hardpoints for precision munitions. If it came for you, it was the end of your world.
In a sane world, it was overkill. But there was nothing sane about the New Gods.
And after that incident, overkill became the official doctrine of the STS.
“So that was the full story, huh,” Mustafa said. “The press just said it was a bunch of Class A Husks.”
“There’s always a story behind the story,” Fox said. “And until now, nobody knew how or why the Hellions escaped. EvoTech swore up and down that it was sabotage, but there was no concrete evidence.”
“EvoTech is owned and operated by the Seekers of the Way,” Wood said. “If any of the New Gods wanted the Seekers to look bad—which, face it, is all of them—this was a fine opportunity to do it.”
“Last I read, the Hellion project was suspended indefinitely,” Yamamoto continued. “Looks like EvoTech resurrected it.”
“They brought out the big boys just for us,” Connor said. “I don’t know if we should be honored or we’re just plain unlucky.”
“Both,” Yamamoto said. “Definitely both.”
“Are you able to exorcise a Hellion?” Mustafa asked.
Yamamoto was the secret weapon of the Black Watch, and the STS. He could exorcise the Elect of the New Gods, neutralize paranormal powers, even challenge the New Gods face-to-face. No one knew how, only that he had. And the only explanation he offered was the power of faith. His faith. Faith in a god no one had seen.
“I need to get up close and personal to perform an exorcism,” Yamamoto said. “It’s too dangerous to do that to a Hellion in full kit. What I do… it can’t neutralize a Hellion’s guns or natural weapons. And that’s even assuming a Hellion can be exorcised to begin with.”
“You haven’t tried?”
“Hell, no. Something like that, the only safe way to neutralize it is an air strike.”
“Do you think the Seekers sent the Hellions to neutralize your exorcism ability?” Fox asked.
“It’s likely,” Yamamoto said. “Everyone knows the STS has the capability to nullify the powers of the New Gods at close range, even if we’ve kept quiet about the specifics. And since I couldn’t exorcise any of the Hellions in that last fight, the Seekers will assume correctly that I can’t touch them at long range. If they find us again, they’ll send in the Hellions.”
“Goddamn. I wouldn’t want to face a monster like that ever again,” Tan said.
“Me too,” Fox said. “Was that all the Seekers wanted from you?”
“No. That’s not all.”
He slumped over.
“They knew we had dirt on the New Gods. They wanted it all. The cell phone I imaged, the one we took from the Court of Shadows, and the data we extracted from the Golden Mile. The info was stored on my computer. They… they made me tell them how to access it. Username and password. And I told them about my physical backup.”
“Fuck,” Connor whispered.
Fox’s blood turned to ice. By now the Seekers would surely have their hands on the dirt they’d dug up. The same dirt they were counting on to use as leverage against the New Gods and the government.
The Black Watch had nothing left to defend themselves against their hunters.
“Did they get everything?” Yamamoto asked.
Ten’s teeth flashed in the moonlight.
“Not everything. Yang didn’t get to ask about my second backup.”
Fox’s heart leapt.
“Where is it?” she asked.
“It’s encrypted and sharded on the Ether Swarm blockchain. If I have a computer with Net access, I can recreate the data.”
“Let’s go then.”
“Not so fast. I hadn’t made any headway with the data. Even if I download it from the swarm, we’ll still be back at square one. The data needs to be decrypted before we can use it.”
“What else can we do?”
“I have… a friend. A cracker. Not exactly an upstanding citizen, but he’s at least as good as me. Maybe even better. And he has access to the kind of hardware we need to decrypt the data.”
“You didn’t ask him for help with the data?” Connor asked.
“He’s a hard man to find. He operates under multiple aliases, and sometimes he goes off the grid for months at a time. I’ve only ever met him in person a handful of times. He resurfaced in Babylon last week. I was about to contact him when the Seekers came.”
“Can you set up a meet with him?” Yamamoto asked. “We’re going to need his help.”
Tan smiled. “I need a phone.”
Babylon Blues is the climax of a five-part cyberpunk military horror saga. But it’s not the end. If you want to read all five stories in a single collection, plus a bonus story starring Yuri Yamamoto, check out the Kickstarter for BABYLON BLUES REMASTERED here!
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