Six months was a long time to live on the road. Even longer with the New Gods after you.
The Federal government had promised that they had nothing to fear. The men, and woman, of the Black Watch had offered their full testimony in exchange for blanket immunity. The crackdowns that followed would echo forever in the annals of Nova Babylonia’s history. Even now, six months after the Temple Commission hearings and the seemingly-endless raids that followed, the New Gods were still on the back foot, still recovering from the massive blow they’d been dealt.
But the New Gods never forgot and never forgave.
Karim Mustafa had nothing. No living family, no organization, no pack. Without a group, he was vulnerable. He was meat. If he remained static, the New Gods and their pet monsters would find him. He had to stay on the move, all the time.
The highway lights stretched endlessly into the night. Lonely taillights burned in the darkness before him. The growl of the engine filled the interior of the car, a soft undercurrent of white noise underneath the non-stop chatter from the radio. Karim kept both hands on the wheel, steady pressure on the gas, staring out into the night.
There was a time he’d have flown instead of drove. Driving was for people who couldn’t afford a gravity vehicle. But flying consumed huge amounts of energy. Fuel costs added up. Wheels were still more economical than gravity mirrors if you didn’t have to fly. If you had limited funds.
If you had no idea where the hell you were going in life.
Money. Without money a man couldn’t survive, much less live. Karim had savings, but without a source of income, he’d run out soon. He was down to a week before he’d have to live on the street. He had to get a job soon. No matter what.
Not that anybody would hire him. One look at his resume and they’d auto-reject him. Or run away screaming.
He couldn’t blame them. The magic words ‘Special Tasks Section’ had a powerful effect on anyone who saw them. Even with his short time in the STS—less than a year if you took out selection and training time—he was branded forever.
The STS defended the people from the excesses of the New Gods. That usually meant rolling heavy into inter-faction disputes, hunting down Husks, taking out deniable agents claimed to be Husks. They occupied the gray zone between cop and soldier, armed with a mandate to enforce secular law and military-grade firepower to back up their badges. Nominally part of the Public Security Bureau but in practice an independent paramilitary organization, they were the thin blue line between order and chaos.
Until the STS was disbanded.
The New Gods had won. The New Gods always won. Commander Joshua Gregory had gotten everyone blanket immunity, but even he couldn’t prevent Congress from disbanding the STS. The mouthpieces of the New Gods, public protests, corporate and cult pressure, it was too much for weak-willed politicians and a PSB gutted by a massive corruption scandal and the investigation of the century.
The STS had made too many enemies and too few friends. The snakes of the Senate had ordered the STS to wipe out their rivals, and after the dust had settled and the bodies were buried, they dissolved the STS and dressed it up as ‘wide-sweeping reforms’.
Karim crushed the wheel in a fierce grip. Those goddamn politicians had shaken his hand, thanked him for his service, then promptly destroyed his life.
Everybody knew the New Gods would retaliate. It was only a matter of time. When they did, nobody wanted to get caught in the crossfire.
The Babylon Police Department had rejected his job application, claiming intense competition with other candidates. Other law enforcement agencies had similarly turned him down. He’d even tried applying to the military, every service branch of the military, but they summarily rejected him without reason. While he had connections within those circles, even their reach couldn’t extend so far, not for one who has stood against the New Gods.
He tried his hand at other jobs. Bodyguard, security guard, private investigator, security consultant, the jobs where washed-up cops floated to when they had nowhere else to go. Of the hundred applications he sent, he received maybe ten responses. All of them were rejections.
He couldn’t blame them. The last thing a civilian wanted was for an Elect to smash his way into an office and slaughter everyone. The New Gods would disavow the attack, of course, claim it to be the work of a psychotic Husk. But it was a legal fiction and everyone knew it.
Everyone knew the New Gods were the masters of Nova Babylonia. With their occult powers, superior technology and massive wealth, they dominated the globe. No police force could stand against them. The military could try, but the New Gods would burn down the nation in the process. They’d made an example of the STS, snatching victory from defeat, and nobody would dare to try again.
The only reason the world wasn’t—yet—a hellhole was because the New Gods were always at each other’s throats, too evenly matched to dominate the rest. For now.
Karim was done with all that. He just wanted a normal life. But the New Gods had taken even that from him.
He sighed. By now he must have driven across Nova Babylonia, thrice, hunting for jobs and safe havens. If he were condemned forever to a life on the road, maybe he could become a trucker, make the best of what he had.
Neon signs pierced the darkness ahead. The largest read ‘AB TRAVEL CENTER AHEAD’. Smaller signs promised fuel, restrooms, a diner, a motel.
Karim cracked a smile, the first this week. Speak of the devil and he appears. Maybe it was a sign from Allah—though among all the gods of Nova Babylonia, Karim had never seen this one.
Sign or no, he’d been on the road all day and night, and it was a quarter to midnight. Fatigue weighed down his eyelids and weakened his limbs. He needed to rest, to sleep, to figure out what to do tomorrow—and the rest of his life.
The travel center was an oasis of brilliant neon against the night. Fleets of trucks filled dedicated parking lots and fuel islands. Platoons of lesser vehicles languished in smaller lots nearby. Anchored by a convenience store, the center itself was a blocky one-story structure drowned in high—lumen lights. Across the parking lots was a double-decker motel shaped like a large horseshoe, the vacancy sign a warm, inviting red.
Karim wanted to crash. A lifetime of discipline commanded him to refuel his car. Standing by the pump, he casually rotated through a small circle, just another late-night motorist taking in the view of a place he’d never see again.
He liked what he saw. Bright lights, mirrors, security cameras. No blind spots, graffiti, trash. People looked after this place. Any criminal would have to walk across floodlit asphalt before going anywhere important, in full view of the world.
The pump shut off. The point of sales terminal beeped politely. He chose to pay by cash and the machine directed him to the convenience store. Karim took his time, walking around the back to use the washroom, in the process checking every side of the center and noting the exits and windows.
The convenience store greeted him with a blast of white light and cold air. Passing through the automatic doors, he instinctively swept his gaze left to right, logging the people around him. A tiny woman in an immaculate uniform stood at the cashier, fatigue plain on her face. A stout man with a thick neck and massive arms browsed the drinks selection. A young couple strolled through the gifts section, conversing softly among themselves. Off to the left, a door led to the diner. A handful of patrons occupied the tables, staring at screens and downing large suppers.
Karim’s belly growled. It was far too late for a full meal, but he could do with something small and hot.
There was a hot food section next to the cashier. Signs promised hot dogs, grilled food, bread. Behind the glass there were only crumbs and empty baskets. Shrugging, Karim wandered down the aisles.
At the far corner, he found a selection of cup noodles and packets of hardboiled eggs. And a hot water dispenser. Not exactly the height of cuisine, but better than nothing.
His recon complete, he shuffled off to the diner. If there was nothing on the menu he could stomach, he had alternatives. Not ideal, but—
Two men entered the store. Hoodies pulled up to cover their faces. Hands stuck in pockets. Baggy jeans. Cheap backpacks. Two steps past the door, they split up, one man making a beeline to the cashier, the other heading for the diner.
The cashier froze, her face turning pale.
The closer man quickly glanced around the room. Karim, peeking out around a shelf, caught a flash of blue. A bandanna tied around his face.
Adrenaline surged through his blood. His heart rate kicked up a notch. His face went cold but his body warmed.
He’d had a few close calls over the past few months. He’d always made himself scarce before they could escalate. He didn’t think he could run from this one. Not now.
Bandanna reached under his jacket and pulled out a handgun.
“Gimme all your money!”
The cashier squeaked in fright, shrinking into herself.
“Come on, bitch! Money! Now!”
The robber turned to the right, sweeping his gun across the room. The couple stared in shock. The big man, holding a huge bottle of water, froze, holding up his other hand.
His hand flew to his hip. Under his shirt, he felt the solid, reassuring handle of his pistol. An M99, tricked out to STS specs, loaded with thirty rounds of 7.62x28mm jacketed hollow points. Two more forty-five round extended magazines rode on his other hip. Two shots, bang bang, and it’ll be over. Easy shots.
But it had been too long since he had trained with his gun. Trained hard.
And, more to the point, was lethal force necessary here?
“Money! Now!” Bandanna shouted.
“Yes, yes, right away!”
The cashier unlocked the register. Bandanna shrugged off his pack, setting it on the counter.
“Put all the cash in the bag! Everything you’ve got!”
In the diner, the second robber yelled.
“Nobody move, nobody gets hurt!”
The suspect stood by the counter, a black ski mask hiding everything but his eyes. With one hand he waved his gun at the diners, with the other he set his pack down.
Not a difficult shot. Take the one in the diner, then the one at the counter. Already his brain rehearsed the motions, calculating angles and actions, seeing a clear path to success.
He wasn’t in the STS any more. He wasn’t a cop any more. Press the trigger and it would tell the New Gods where he was. Was this worth it?
The smart play would be to keep his head down, let the drama play out, leave the robbers—
Bandanna turned his gun on the cashier.
“I’m sorry! The rest of the money is in the safe!”
He leaned over the counter, grabbing her by the hair.
“I don’t have the key!”
“Bitch! Who has the key?!”
“The manager! But he doesn’t come until the morning!”
He screwed his gun into her forehead, finger on the trigger.
“I’m sorry! Don’t hurt me!” she pleaded.
“Cigs! Alcohol! Give ‘em to me! Now!”
He shoved her against the wall, drawing his gun away.
The big man bellowed.
“You leave her alone!”
He threw the bottle in his hand.
Bandanna flinched, throwing his hands up, catching the bottle against his forearms. Roaring, the big man ran over, cocking his fist back for a huge haymaker. Bandanna backed up, bringing his gun around—
Karim rose and drew and fired.
The round cored Bandanna between the eyes, snapping his head back, dropping him to the floor. The second his face disappeared from his red dot sight, Karim swiveled to Ski Mask. There he was, still by the counter, staring at the drama, gun hand extended—
The barrier-blind bullet punched through a glass window and kept on flying, straight and true. It struck Ski Mask in the face and blossomed a deadly copper flower. He stumbled, falling against the counter. The window crazed over, and Karim lost his sight picture. But the robber’s body was still visible, just below the bullet hole. Karim lowered his sights, fired once, twice. Glass shattered, a man screamed, and he had no sight picture again.
Karim lowered his weapon and raced for the counter.
“Out! Out! Everybody get out now!” he chanted, kicking away Bandanna’s gun.
The couple rushed for the exit. The big man gave Karim a thumbs-up and followed them. The cashier ducked behind the counter.
“Miss, are you alright?” Karim asked.
“I’m fine! I’m fine! I’ve hit the silent alarm and I’m calling 911!”
Panic seized her voice, but she was still in motion. She snatched up the landline, brought the headset to her ear and hurriedly punched in three numbers.
Over in the diner, staff and employees screamed, abandoning their meals, rushing for the door. No sign of Ski Mask. Karim looked down at Bandanna and…
Bandanna lay on the floor, completely still. A burned black spot marked the spot he’d been shot. A shower of metal fragments glittered on the floor. By his neck lay a six-petaled star.
An expanded hollow point.
Karim blinked. His brain blanked. This was—
Bandanna sucked down a breath.
And sat up.
Howling, Bandanna swiped at Karim, his fingers barely brushing against the barrel of the M99. His other hand groped around, reaching for his fallen weapon.
And he changed.
His face glowed a pure white. Inky darkness spread from his irises, drowning the whites of his eyes. Power, raw and furious, burned from his body, so hot and intense it was like standing by a furnace.
He was an Elect.
“Fuck fuck fuck!” Karim shouted.
Backpedaling, Karim blasted away. The rounds smashed into his chest, his throat, his nose. The bullets expanded and crumpled and shattered, punching Bandanna back, but doing little else.
Bandanna picked himself up. Karim shot him in the head. Bandanna lowered into a deep crouch. Karim shot him in the spine. Bandanna rushed in, going for a tackle.
Karim sidestepped into clear space. Bandanna whooshed past, crashing into a revolving rack. The rack toppled over him, dumping magazines and pocket books over his body. Karim fired and fired and fired, tearing up the books, ripping up his jacket, but the son of a bitch just rolled over, flinging the rack aside, howling at—
Karim shot him in the open mouth.
The glow cut out. The darkness retreated. Bandanna went limp.
“Motherfucker…” Karim breathed.
Karim snapped his weapon up. A glowing white figure stepped out from the diner, eyes twin black whirlpools, a shiny revolver in his hands.
Ski Mask twitched and fired back.
Karim ducked. Bullets whizzed overhead. Glass shattered, lights popped, cans exploded. Karim scrambled to the dubious concealment of the nearest shelf, his heart hoping against hope that it would at least slow down the rounds, his brain counting off the shots.
One shot. Two. Three. Four.
Karim breathed. The gunshots had sounded like light, flat cracks. A .38, maybe. The bad guy had one, maybe two shots left. Karim had… double digits, at least. Enough for the fight.
Karim scooted down the aisle, keeping his weapon close. Breathing softly through his nose, he pricked his ears, listening for something, anything, that would give away the shooter’s position.
“John! Where are you? Are you okay?”
Karim popped out.
There, at the corner, by the window. Ski Mask was aiming at the spot he’d last seen Karim. He swung his revolver around, bringing it to bear.
Karim’s gun was already on him.
Karim fired. And fired. And kept on firing, hammering his face with high-speed 7.62, burning him down in a hail of copper. Ski Mask twisted and jerked and screamed and went down.
Karim crossed the floor. Ski Mask lay in a crumpled heap. Most of the bullets had torn up his mask, doing superficial damage. But one round had blown clean through his left eye.
Karim punched his muzzle into the intact eye. No response. Kneeling, he felt for a pulse. Nothing. He hovered his fingers over his nose and mouth. No breath.
Rising, Karim relaxed into an exhale. It was over.
What the hell was that about? Elect didn’t just rise from the dead like that. If they had used magic or tech to reinforce their bodies, there’d always be a sign. Glowing lights, full-body transformation, heavy cyberware. If someone caught an Elect before he used his powers, he was as mortal as anyone else. In all his time in the STS, he hadn’t seen a power come for someone after being shot.
Unless… the robbers had already fired their powers before the job.
And the power, whatever it was, was so low-key there was no sign of it. Not until after they’d been shot.
He’d never seen anything like that before. If he’d used his Aethersight, he might have seen it, but it’d been a long time since he’d used his psi abilities. Since he’d tapped into the powers of—
A figure sprinted to the store.
The bright lights lit up him, clear as day. Gray hoodie. Blue jeans. Running shoes. Empty hands.
Karim snapped up his gun.
“STOP! DO NOT MOVE!”
He kept running.
Red dot to face. Finger to trigger. Pressure on—
If you shoot, you could be charged for murder.
And in that moment the man blazed a brilliant, glowing white.
The Elect lowered his head. Rounds burst through the window and smashed uselessly against his crown. Karim kept firing, the man kept coming, Karim stepped off-line and—
And the Elect smashed through the window and bulled into and through Karim.
The blow blasted Karim back, back against a shelf. Automatically he raised his left elbow to shield his face, holding his weapon by his hip and angling towards the Elect’s groin. Karim fired once, twice, and the Elect closed in, going around his side. Karim turned, pistol angling up—
The Elect lunged in, seizing the gun hand in a vice-like grip. Karim torqued, elbowing him in the face.
Pain, hard and shocking, ran through his joint, detonating down his nerves, thundering in his brain, stealing his breath. It was as if he had rammed bone against steel. Karim gasped.
The Elect pulled his arm into him, forcing Karim down. With contemptuous ease, he snatched the pistol from Karim’s breath. Gripped it in both hands. Aimed.
The Elect backhanded him in the face.
Whiteout. A pain so complete and total it blanked out Karim’s senses. It was like being struck with a tire iron. The force lifted him up and sent him flying. Karim’s back slammed against the doorway to the diner. His legs gave out, and he toppled to the hardwood floor. Automatically he curled up, protecting his spine and head, taking the fall on his shoulder.
He scrambled back, back, away from the Elect. But he was hurting, his left hand didn’t feel right, his right hand burned, his sight swam.
The Elect entered the diner. Grinned. Raised the gun.
And a voice, clear and ringing, entered his head.
Do you need my power?
“YES!” Karim screamed.
A wolf howled in his ears.
AWAKE! RISE AND FIGHT!
Invisible fire coursed through him, burning him from within. Liquid lightning lashed into him, from him, joining him with the world and the realms beyond. Fresh energy roared in his blood, banishing his pain, reinvigorating his muscles. The veil slipped, and he saw the truth.
The truth of matter, clouds of particles floating in space, attracting and repelling each other through subtle forces, forces which a wizard can harness to his will. The truth of the material and the immaterial, of the false division between the two, a division the psi defied. The truth of space and time, its unity across the cosmos, a unity that bound an Elect to his god.
In the unbound infinite Aether, Galen the White Wolf sang.
The song sank into his soul, healing him, changing him, becoming him.
Clothing dissolved into his body, transforming into fur and flesh and bone. He grew larger, taller, stronger, borrowing the matter around him and turning it into more of himself. Fingernails transformed into steel claws. His face elongated, growing ears, a muzzle, teeth. His eyes crackled, and now Karim saw this world and the Aether, the visible and the subtle, the real and the Else.
Now he saw the Elect’s true form, a man wearing a globe of burning flame over his head, globes within globes, thousands of smaller fireballs becoming a larger one. Tentacles drooped from the mass, sinking deep into the man’s soul. Even as it granted him power, it sucked him dry, turning him into more of itself, an ever-hungry flame that consumed everything it touched.
The Elect and the god yelled as one, their voices blending into a dissonant chorus, a chorus of crackling and popping and roaring fire twisted with the voices of the damned.
Karim and Galen spoke with one voice, man and wolf uniting to become something more, the physicality of mortal man married to the raw power of a deity, an avatar that embodied the twinned wills of Galen the White and Karim Mustafa.
Screaming, the Elect aimed. Torquing around, Karim-Galen kicked up with a long, long leg. His clawed foot slashed against fingers and steel. The handgun discharged harmlessly into the ceiling. Another kick, and this time Karim-Galen flowed with the momentum, kipping up to his feet.
The Elect swung the gun back down. Karim-Galen rushed in, slapping the gun hand away with his left hand, then the right. The Elect fired again, missing completely. The fire deity screamed, igniting its Elect, turning him into living flame. Karim felt only a slight increase in temperature.
Karim-Galen grabbed the man’s head and wrenched him down into a crashing elbow. Bone crunched against bone. This time the Elect screamed. Karim-Galen seized his face with both hands and dropped, bombing the back of his skull against his knee. Another crunch, louder this time, the crunch of breaking bone. Karim-Galen seized the Elect’s chin, bared his throat, and bit.
Iron teeth sank into reinforced flesh. Magic met magic, steel against fire. For a moment, the Elect’s skin held. Then came a flood of saliva, saliva infused with Galen’s presence, extinguishing the flame wherever it touched. Suddenly there was just bare skin, naked flesh, and Karim-Galen ripped right through it.
Hot and salty, rich with iron and nutrients and Aether, gushed into his mouth. He tore out a huge chunk of flesh, unleashing a geyser of blood. Blood sprayed all over him, his fur, his nose, his face, his teeth. The Elect shuddered, twitched, spasmed, his spine visible through the enormous wound. The fire god screeched, withdrawing his presence, fleeing from the dying man. The light faded out, leaving only a mortal shell. He chewed, savoring every morsel, the taste of hot blood ripped from worthy and dying prey, prey ready for—
He went still.
And spat out the meat.
You deny me? Galen the White demanded.
He’s dead already. I have to explain this to the cops, Karim Mustafa replied.
A soft chuckle filled the air.
I forget. The world of men is ruled by the laws of men.
The power fell from him, returning his body to the world of men. Muscle and hair sloughed off, becoming clothing. His ears receded into his head, his muzzle become a human nose and mouth. His fingers shrank and his claws vanished, his paws became hands and feet.
The blood vanished, leaving him completely clean.
I will have my due. The police will not notice such a small amount of missing blood, Galen said.
Karim chuckled. And sighed.
He peeled his handgun from lifeless hands. Reloaded with a fresh magazine. Holstered it. Stepped out into the mart.
Police sirens screamed in the distance. Liquids leaked and mingled across the floor. The cashier poked her head above the counter.
“Is it over?” she asked.
No, Galen said.
Of course. There was always a price. The gods lent their powers in exchange for doing their will. He understood this when he agreed to become Galen’s Elect. If Galen had offered to save his life, then it meant Galen wanted something from him.
So cynical? Your time in the STS has changed you.
It had. Too much.
Warmth flooded his chest. A lingering touch of the divine.
Though you have wandered the wilderness for months and months, you are still of my pack. We have need of you now.
What do you want me to do?
Return to Babylon. Return to the temple. We need you there.
Blue and red lights flashed through the windows. Cops emerged from the vehicles, long guns and shields in hand, racing for the door. Karim unloaded his pistol and laid it down on the floor, retrieved his wallet and opened it to reveal his driver’s license. Behind it was his concealed carry permit.
I need to deal with this first.
The cops swarmed through the door, weapons ready, flowing to fill every corner of the room.
“POLICE! HANDS UP!”
Karim knelt and raised his hands. Galen sighed.
Want to know the story of Karim’s STS days? Buy the prequel BABYLON BLUES here!
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