Contrary to Fox’s expectations, Alex didn’t work from home.
He had a computer in his home office, to be sure. It was a custom rig, sleek and sophisticated, radiating raw power. The tower was water-cooled, the pipes and processor visible through see-through panels. He had a silent mechanical keyboard and a complex-looking ergonomic mouse wired to the tower unit. The machine boasted three curved screens, a full one hundred and eighty-degree display, interrupted only by the bezels between them.
He used it for gaming.
And to remotely control his actual workstation.
Standing at the living room window, he gestured at a ten-story building across the street.
“I rented a private office on the fifth floor, to host my remote machine and servers. So far as the landlord is concerned, it is a small IT company. The girls go in now and then in disguise to masquerade as staff.”
“If you’re traced, the opposition will only find your remote machine,” Mustafa mused.
“Yes. My remote and this machine are connected via a secure data channel, separate from all other channels used by the remote. The data channel cannot be accessed from the outside; you must physically interface with either machine in meatspace to access it. The office is fitted with a surveillance camera and a motion detector, and the remote machine and the servers are equipped with small but powerful explosives. Should the police or any other entity attempt to seize the machines, I will detonate the explosives.”
“I’ve never heard of any hackers doing anything like that before,” Fox said.
“This is why I’m the best cracker in the business,” Alex said.
There was no pride in his voice, no emotional inflection, nothing but an unreadable monotone. He said it matter-of-factly, as though it were an immutable fact, like the sun rising from the east.
As Alex set up his machines, the team debated their own security measures. They were split down the middle. Yamamoto, Wood and Fox wanted to disperse, to take advantage of Electric City’s many short-time hotels and 24-hour media cafes. Tan, Connor and Mustafa insisted on holing up here, concentrating manpower and guns.
Alex provided the tiebreaker.
“You are free to stay here for as long as you need. Under my roof, you will be under my protection. I would urge you to stay off the streets whenever you can. The surveillance cameras in Electric City are equipped with facial and gait recognition software, and the hotels will not protect your privacy from the police or the New Gods. Sooner or later you will be noticed.”
“You can’t hack into the cameras?” Connor asked.
“I have. But altering the feeds in real-time is difficult enough. Should I attempt to do so, the system will notice. It is not something I wish to do outside the most extreme of circumstances.”
“Such as?” Fox asked.
“Such as an escape attempt, in the extremely unlikely event that the New Gods or the authorities find us.”
“Wait up,” Mustafa said. “You said the cameras were fitted with facial and signature recognition software. Have we led the cops to your door?”
“No. Cameras are not infallible. My remote monitors the police dispatch system. If the police had found you, the gateway would have flagged their alerts, and I wouldn’t have let you in. Nonetheless, you must assume that the police, and therefore the New Gods, are aware of your presence in Electric City. You must keep a low profile.”
There were probably a hundred other things they had to do. But they had to wait. Despite the caffeine surging through them, the team was drunk on exhaustion, barely able to remain functional. And Alex protested vociferously when Tan asked to borrow the sole bedroom. Instead, the team flopped over the sofas and the carpet and went straight to sleep.
Yamamoto had retained the presence of mind to crawl into a sleeping bag. Fox followed his example before fading out.
She wasn’t sure if she’d slept. She was unconscious, that much she was sure of. But it hadn’t felt long. She closed her eyes at the break of dawn; when she opened them again the sun was high in the sky, but her body insisted her eyelids were lowered only as long as a blink.
The bots had changed clothes. Now they were in modest jackets and jeans, the better to conceal their hardware. Except for the car-eared maid, who hid her tail under an ankle-length dress and smothered her ears under a scarf.
She knew robotics and AI tech had grown by leaps and bounds. Every year, scientists and corps affiliated with the New Gods rolled out increasingly sophisticated hardware and software. But behavior like this was extraordinary. AIs were narrowly specialized, superhuman in their area of focus, utterly useless outside it. She’d never heard of a bot that could seamlessly transition from servant to sex toy to soldier in the blink of an eye.
Unless these bots had artificial general intelligences. AIs capable of doing anything a human could.
AGI development was shrouded in rumors and shadows. Only the Singularity Network reported any appreciable success in creating one—the goal of the faction, after all, was the creation of a superintelligent machine god. But the Sinners would never share their latest and greatest tech with outsiders.
And yet, there was no other explanation for the bots.
Whoever Alex was, he was a very dangerous man.
And she was glad that he was on their side.
Alex was where the team had left him, glued to his chair, staring at the screens. Now and then his fingers blazed across the keyboard, or he navigated his cursor across the expansive display, but otherwise he was practically frozen to the spot. And he refused to be disturbed.
When the rest of the Black Watch came around, they tended to their personal hygiene. One by one, they took turns to use the bathroom adjacent to the kitchen. In the shower, Fox took pains to scrub off every last trace of dirt from her hair and skin. By the time she was done, she felt rejuvenated.
Over a light meal, the Black Watch discussed their next steps. The first item on the agenda was supplies and security. To whit, how to keep seven humans fed without arousing the suspicion of the authorities.
The debate was long and vigorous. They had to pull Alex away from his screens to participate. For the first time, she saw anger flicker across his face.
But at last, they came to an agreement. The robots would go to randomly selected grocery stores and supermarkets outside Electric City, purchasing just enough food or two or three people, staggering their departure and arrival times.
For their part, the Black Watch would stay indoors and maintain security. Now and then, they would leave the house in pairs under heavy disguise to patrol the neighborhood. It was high-risk, but they had to map the surrounding area and its atmospherics, create a baseline for what was normal in Electric City, and identify surveillance attempts.
The team had protested the last. Alex himself joined in. Yamamoto delivered the killer argument.
“This apartment only has one exit. If the New Gods come for us, we will have to fight our way through a flood of SWAT cops, Elect, Hellions, God knows what else. Or they’ll just fire a thermobaric rocket through the window. If they’re ruthless enough to deploy death squads in Fortune City, they’ll be ruthless enough to do this. We need advance warning, we need to map escape routes, and the only way we can do that is to walk the ground and pull static security of our own.”
“We agreed to stay indoors,” Wood replied. “Why didn’t you bring it up earlier?”
Yamamoto shrugged. “I only thought of it just now. Blame it on the lack of sleep.”
Fox was as up to date on countersurveillance protocols as the rest of the STS. But with street cameras, cruisers and New Gods hunting them, there was only so much she could do. And when the New Gods brought out their psis, it was only a matter of time before they found them.
But they didn’t have to make it easy for them.
Alex laid out the facts of street cameras in his characteristic cold manner. A street camera would read a person’s face and the way he walked, then calculate the underlying anatomical structure of his body. Within moments, it could identify his face and detect his joints, the precise angles he swung his legs and arms, the degrees of variance, the way he held his body. With enough data, gait analysis could identify walking patterns, suspicious behaviors, unnatural walking patterns. And the software had an accuracy rate of over 99 percent.
But there were defenses against that.
Fox replaced her boots with a pair of barefoot moccasins she kept as emergency footwear. She puffed out her jacket and hid her hands in her pockets. She fitted a privacy visor to her argees, designed to reflect visible and infrared light into camera lenses and confuse facial recognition algorithms, and pulled her hoodie over her head. She shortened her stride and leaned forward, almost as if she were running in slow motion. With the EyeMap app on her phone, she plotted routes that minimized exposure to known street cameras.
She couldn’t hide from the cameras, but she could bombard them with false data.
Defending against psis was easier. Mustafa taught everyone a basic defense against remote viewing. Simply visualize a dark cloak around your body, wrapping yourself in shadows. It would a hide a person’s aura on the Aether. Alternatively, visualize a cloak that bent light around itself, like a chameleon suit. It was trickier, but it would leave fewer traces on the Aether. And you didn’t have to be a Godtouched psi to pull it off.
It sounded crazy the first time she’d heard it. It still sounded crazy after the tenth time. But it had worked for Mustafa.
The psychic cloak also had unpredictable side effects. Walking the streets of Electric City, she was a ghost. Few people saw her.
Teenagers stumbled into her path. Touts—humans and robots—ignored her presence. Distracted adults walked into her. At a noodle store, it took sheer effort of will to attract—and retain—the proprietor’s attention long enough to take her order. And pay for it.
It wasn’t a perfect defense. More powerful psions, like Mustafa, could perform psychometry. They could read the energies imprinted into an area, reading the recent past for clues, and painstakingly recreate a target’s movements. But that would take time and effort. And follow-up investigations on foot.
Deny, delay, detect. It was the iron triangle of countersurveillance. And for the worst-case scenario, she kept her weapons close.
When night fell, maintaining street patrols became both easier and harder. Crowds of young adults flooded the streets, many of them dressed in crazy costumes. Walking about with a balaclava or a hoodie up was far less suspicious. At the same time, it was much easier for surveillance teams to hide in a crowd and mingle with vehicle traffic. And flying drones filled the skies in large, ever-shifting drones.
The team adapted. They took up static security positions by windows overlooking critical streets and junctions. They shifted their vehicles to new positions and stayed inside. They kept their faces down but their heads on a swivel, looking not at people but at behaviors, hunting for breaks and disruptions in traffic and crowds, for anything that deviated from what they knew as the baseline for Electric City.
As midnight approached, the streets cleared. The last trains were rolling into the subway stations, and anyone who missed them had to settle for expensive late-night taxis or cheap overnight rooms. The team took the opportunity to fall back into the safe house.
Fox and Mustafa stayed outside.
She parked her car at the corner of a T-junction on the east end of the street. She had rotated license plates again, drawing from her pool of spares in the trunk. She tinted the windows, lowered them just a crack, turned off the engine, and slid low in the front seat.
The cool air quickly grew warm and stale. Her eyelids drooped, her muscles melted. She pinched herself, trying to stay awake, and sipped from her thermos of hot coffee.
Her sleep schedule was shot. Her body didn’t know if it were fully awake or almost asleep, only that it had to stay alert. She fought the urge to turn on the engine and the air conditioner; she would show up bright as day on a thermal imager. Instead, to stay awake, she diligently jotted down every vehicle and pedestrian that passed by, war-gamed scenarios in her head, breathed deeply of the rapidly-stagnating air, and kept an eye on the clock.
Two and a half hours into her watch, a convoy of cars appeared behind her.
A fleet of four black SUVs, utterly identical, painted a matte black. They rode unusually low to the ground, betraying the presence of ballistic armor. Their windows were tinted, but as they approached, she saw silhouettes of men occupying the seats.
And, as one, they turned into the street.
Fox keyed her radio.
“Contact,” she whispered. “Four vics approaching the safe house. Black SUVs, possibly armored. Four pax each.”
“Roger,” Mustafa replied. “I see them.”
“I’m going to make the call. Maintain visual.”
Fox dug her phone from her RFID-blocking pocket.
The SUVs approached the safe house.
She touched her finger to the speed dial.
And abruptly they pulled perfect U-turns, crossing over to the other side of the road.
The cars rolled silently to a stop, halting outside—
She hit the call button and brought the phone to her ear.
Cindy answered on the first ring.
“Wake everyone up, then pass the phone to Yuri.”
Fabric scuffled. Soft voices hissed.
The cars lined up outside an unobtrusive concrete building. In perfect synchrony, sixteen men spilled out from the vehicles. In the neon and sodium lighting, she saw helmets, body armor, M585 personal defense weapons.
“Go for Samurai,” Yamamoto said.
“Four vehicles pulled up across the road from the safe house. Looks like an assault team.”
The assaulters worked in perfect silence. No words, no hand gestures, no visible communications. They simply rolled out to their positions. The teams from the lead and chase cars took up security positions, locking down both ends of the street. The other eight assaulters stacked on the door. One man broke off from the train, shotgun in hand.
“I see them,” Yamamoto said. “Z, tell Alex he’s been traced.”
“Roger,” Tan replied, his voice distant and muted.
The shotgunner stabbed his weapon downwards at the lock. Racked his weapon. Fired. Pivoted smartly in place. Pumped again. Blew out the top hinge, then the bottom hinge.
Stepping back, he slung his weapon. A second assaulter tossed in a flash-bang. The moment the stun grenade detonated, the entry team rushed past the breacher and streamed into the office.
Thundercracks reverberated within the building. Blinding light flashed out the windows, slowly climbing upwards. The security team remained completely still, braced behind vehicles and lamp posts, scanning the streets.
It was textbook tactics, Fox knew. And it was exactly the wrong playbook to use.
Flash-bangs had their place in the arsenal. But much of their impact relied on shock and surprise. Using them so many times so often inside a structure merely alerted the occupants, giving them time to prepare themselves. And the STS had, through long training, inured themselves to the effects of stun grenades. If she were in charge of this takedown, they’d go soft and stealthy all the way, waiting until the last moment to deploy stun grenades. If at all.
These guys weren’t in the STS’ league.
On the other hand, they were smooth and professional. They had at least some training. And manpower was a superpower all by itself.
Headlights appeared in the rear view mirror. A second convoy of vehicles approached from behind. Three trucks. Different makes and models, but they were all painted black, maintaining an even separation between them.
“Contact. Three trucks coming down the street. Stand by.”
The first truck sped past the T-junction. The other two turned into the road.
And the security team reacted instantly, training their weapons on the vehicles.
The armored trucks halted suddenly. The rear vic almost collided into the lead vehicle. Then the doors flew open and a dozen people climbed.
They were tall, lean, impossibly agile. But they all had a mishmash of kit. Plate carriers, tactical vests, chest rigs; shotguns, carbines, a pair of enormous pistols. They muddled about, forming a loose cigar around both vehicles, following the direction of a grizzled man shouting orders and waving knife-hands.
Their leader, an Amazon with her hair tied in huge buns, strode towards the security element, shotgun slung around her neck.
“Who’s in charge here?!” she boomed, so loudly Fox could clearly hear her.
An assaulter stepped away from the security team, held up his hand, and shook his head.
The woman yelled again. Fox couldn’t make out the words, but she was clearly furious. Her left hand was clenched in a tight ball, her right hand poking the assaulter in the chest. She loomed over him, attempting to dominate him with her stature. He stood his ground, visibly unimpressed.
Heedless of the drama, the entry team continued working their way up, flash-banging their way up. They were on the sixth floor, two floors down from the top.
Fox dug out her monocular from the glove box and raised it to her eyes.
“Samurai, it looks like they’re playing for different teams.”
“Agreed,” Yamamoto said. “What can you see?”
Fox focused on the woman’s lips. Resting her fists on her hips, the Amazon shouted at the impassive assaulter.
“This was not part the agreement!” she shouted.
The assaulter shrugged. “The agreement only required us to provide advance notice if we found the targets.”
“It was supposed to be a coordinated attack!”
“The Will of the Net estimated—”
An explosion cut them off.
“What the hell?” Fox murmured.
“Alex just blew his remote machine,” Yamamoto said.
“I see. The first batch of assaulters identified themselves as Sinners. Nothing about the other group. They said they had some kind of agreement, likely to hunt us down. But they were supposed to coordinate their actions.”
“But they didn’t. Interesting…”
The Sinners glanced up at the blast, then resumed their duties. Their representative nonchalantly brushed something off his shoulder. The other team startled, frantically scanning in every direction. Their boss stepped back and looked both ways.
“Apparently my team activated a self-destruct device. No casualties, but I think we lost them,” the cyborg said.
The Amazon sniffed contemptuously. Her mouth fell into shadow, and Fox couldn’t read her response.
“It was a calculated risk. These things happen,” the cyborg replied. “We will—”
A two-dimensional circle of perfect blackness opened in the space between them.
The Sinner and the Amazon jumped back, reflexively raising their weapons.
A figure strode out of the darkness and into a pool of light. Squinting, she made out a hat, a coat and black pants. He raised his hands, and the portal closed behind him.
“Void Collective,” Yamamoto said. “Only they have powers like that.”
At the same time, the newcomer said, “Good evening.”
Their backs to her, Fox couldn’t make out what the Sinner and the Amazon said in response.
“I am from the Void Collective. I trust you two are from the Singularity Network and the Liberated.”
The cyborg lowered his weapon. The Liberated woman still kept hers trained on the newcomer.
“I am not a threat to you. Lower your weapon,” the VC operative said.
Slowly, reluctantly, she did.
“Thank you. To answer your question, I was watching the site. Through our own investigations, we determined that the targets were somewhere in Electric City. My mission was to ascertain their location, along with my brothers. Have you found them?”
The Amazon shook her head.
“Pity. But this is why we investigate before we attack.”
The Amazon rankled.
The assault team filed out of the building. The ones in the rear had expandable duffel bags slung over their shoulders.
“I see you found something. What is it?” the VC operative asked.
The woman glanced at the cyborgs, and her face caught the light again.
“Or were you planning to keep them from us?” she asked.
The Sinner kept his back to Fox.
“I trust you will,” the Void operative said. “The agreement only means something if you keep to it.”
The Liberated pivoted smoothly, facing her Sinner counterpart.
“You won’t go attacking ‘time-limited targets’ on your own again, will you?” she asked.
The Sinner shrugged.
“We’ll hold you to your word,” the Void operative said.
The Sinner tilted his head slightly.
“Certainly,” the VC watcher replied. “On the other hand, while the Singularity Network may be suzerain of Electric City, we hold significant holdings here. What you do could potentially affect us. Likewise, should the targets resurface in the domains of the other New Gods, we will coordinate with them too, out of respect and practicality. We hope you would keep that in mind. Both of you.”
The Sinner nodded. The Amazon dipped her head.
The SN assaulters pulled back to their vehicles. The Liberated retreated to their own. The Void operative stood his ground, watching them.
Abruptly he turned, staring at Fox.
Had he seen her? She couldn’t tell, but she sensed the heat of his gaze, burning through her lens.
She did the only things she could do.
An eternity later, a circle of darkness opened behind the VC watcher.
He stepped back, and the blackness swallowed him. An instant later, the portal vanished.
Fox sighed sharply.
Then saw the armored vehicles rolling down the street.
She slunk low in her seat, way out of sight, tracking the vehicles’ passage by their streetlights. When the last lights disappeared into the night, she slid her way back up.
“Looks like they’re gone,” she whispered.
“Roger that,” Yamamoto said. “Are you alright?”
“Yeah. I don’t think they saw me.”
“That’s a relief. Did you learn anything useful?”
“The New Gods have an arrangement to hunt us all down. But it doesn’t seem that they trust each other very much either.”
“It’s something we could exploit,” Yamamoto mused. “Come back inside and tell us in detail what you saw.
“Roger,” Fox said.
BABYLON BLUES is the culmination of a six-part cyberpunk horror saga, featuring a team of battle-hardened cops who march into Hell and back to defend the innocent from the depredations of the New Gods. To read their stories in a single collected volume, plus a bonus story, back the Kickstarter campaign here!
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