Between Gods and Wolves
Kayla Fox loved the outdoors, but part of her heart remained in Babylon. Here, she had served in the Public Security Bureau. She had cracked the glass ceiling and became one of the few women to join the Special Tasks Section. She’d fought and bled and killed in the streets and shadows of Babylon, more than other corner of this godforsaken nation.
Most of all, here was where she’d met the men of Team Black Watch.
And Yuri Yamamoto.
But Babylon didn’t love her back. The government might have wiped the slate clean, but humans and gods had their own rules, their own agenda. When the STS shut down and the PSB underwent ‘reforms’, she saw the signs early and fled to the heartlands of Nova Babylonia. To the fields and the forests and the mountains, still untouched by the New Gods.
She would have stayed there forever, but when a brother called, you came running.
Which went a long way towards explaining why she was in a no-frills room in a no-star motel at the edges of the city.
There wasn’t much in this room. A bed. A table. Two chairs. A bathroom. A hopelessly obsolete television that went out of style two generations ago. The second she checked in, she went to work hardening the room.
Motion detector alarm. Door wedge. Portable security chain. Tiny spy camera in the exterior hallway. Cardboard flap taped over the peephole. Permanently drawn curtains and noisemakers attached to the handles. Common sense for travelers, barely adequate if the New Gods were in play.
Karim hadn’t mentioned what this was about. But after the STS dissolved, every former operator dispersed to the winds and went deep underground. Only one thing would prompt him to call her after months of silence, requesting an immediate meet in Babylon.
Ten minutes before the scheduled meeting, the doorbell chimed. Kayla whipped out her phone and called up the feed from the spy cam. The low-rez feed revealed one man, stocky and compact, waiting at the doorstep. She approached the door from an angle, lifted the cardboard flap, and peeked out.
She opened the door.
“Hey,” she said.
“Hi. Glad you could come at such short notice.”
“You look… different.”
The youthful operator she knew was once clean-shaven. In the past six months, he’d grown a thick but neat beard that flowed from under his nose to engulf his jawline. His olive skin was paler, as if he’d spent much time indoors, though he remained as sleek and muscular as ever. But his eyes…
She remembered clear chocolate eyes, once burning with purpose. Now they were dull, darkened, as though buried under thick layers of muck. The fire within remained, but through the darkness it was so hard to see.
Inside the room, Karim ran through his own security check. He glanced at the corners, peeked into the bathroom as she set his backpack down, sat with his back to a wall. She would have done the same in his shoes, had done something similar when she came in. But his movements were deliberate, purposeful, a wolf hunting prey.
“What’s eating you?” she asked.
“A… situation has come up. I was hoping the old team could help out.”
“Where are the others?”
Karim counted off on his fingers.
“Farmer is back home on Moreno Island. He says he can’t leave; his family is too vulnerable. Zen and Boomer are in Riveria, protecting Marcie Ngo. They can’t leave either. The Void Collective are hunting her and they’re keeping an eye on her.”
Marcie Ngo wasn’t STS. She was an ordinary PSB Special Agent, one of Zen’s… friends. After joining the Void Collective, she saw the truth of the Void. The team extracted her from the VC’s arcology, along the way recovering the evidence that would bring down a nation. Her testimony gave the Temple Commission the ammunition it needed to order mass crackdowns, though even Special Counsel Temple couldn’t take down the VC completely.
“And Yuri?” she asked.
“I don’t know where he went.”
“…He didn’t tell you?”
“Huh. After the last of the major raids, after the Feds were done with us, he caught a flight overseas. He didn’t tell you?”
“No. The rest of the guys were wondering where the hell he went. All he told me was that he was going underground. Did he say which country he went to?”
“Nope. OPSEC, he said.”
A strange light entered Karim’s eyes.
“Were you two… you know, close?”
Kayla blinked. Blinked again.
“No. Not… not like that.”
“Really? The first time I saw you two, I thought…”
Her cheeks flushed. She shook her head, looking away.
“No, it’s… That man… He’s a lone wolf. It’s who he is and who he’ll always be. Nothing will change that. I don’t think he’ll ever be close to anyone.”
“He made an exception for you.”
“I…” Kayla sighed. “I don’t know. I don’t know what’s in his heart. I just can’t tell what he’s thinking. He’s always so… distant. So mysterious.”
“He wasn’t so distant with you.”
“To the New Gods, he is Public Enemy Number One. By leaving, he’s drawing fire away from us. At the same time, if something happened to him, if he needed help, he needed someone he could reach out to. Among the team, I’m the only one not on their radar. At least, I don’t think they see me as a priority target.”
Karim’s lips crept into a smile.
“Is that it?”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, nothing. But if you really want to, you could talk to him soon.”
“What do you mean?”
“He told me he couldn’t come to Babylon, but he could do a video call. Fifteen minutes from now.”
Heat bloomed in her chest.
“Let’s do it.”
Karim extracted a laptop from his pack and set it on the table. Kayla drew up a chair next to him. Her heart beat slightly faster in her chest. She breathed into it, letting the feeling pass. She wasn’t some hormonal schoolgirl. Not anymore. She was a professional, and she had a job to do.
Though it would be nice to see him again.
Using a Virtual Private Network, Karim set up the call and tested the signal, speakers and microphone.
“I’m bringing in a fourth party into the call. Harold Dahl, Priest of the Temple of Galen.”
“How is he involved? Is he your client?”
“He’s… a stakeholder. He’s at risk, yes, but he’s not the primary target. The primary client.”
“Galen the White.”
At the arranged time, Karim sent out the invitations for the video call. Seconds later, a face familiar yet different filled the screen.
Jet black hair, once close-cropped, now allowed to grow into a thick tapered fade. Fair skin bleached almost to white. A face carved from granite, softened with sandpaper, highlighting high cheekbones and a broad chin. Cold eyes, gray as gunmetal, simultaneously the points of twin daggers and paired wells drawing her in.
“Yuri,” she said.
A very slight pause. In that moment, it was just him and her in the universe, Yuri Yamamoto and Kayla Fox, a man and a woman who had seen the worst the New Gods had to offer and thrown that back. For a second, his eyes softened, widened.
Then he was all business again.
“Karim,” he added. “Good to see you both.”
“Same here,” Karim said. “Wish this was under better circumstances, though.”
“Yeah, well, you’re a hard man to get.”
She couldn’t tell anything else about Yuri or his location. Harsh electric light shone down on him from above, casting faint shadows across his face. Behind him was a flat, blank wall. She didn’t know if it were night or day, or where he was. Doubtlessly he’d have a VPN of his own, pointing to some godforsaken patch of the world.
There wasn’t any point asking about such details either. He wouldn’t reveal anything about that. It was just who he was, and what made him such an effective operator.
“What’s the situation?” Yuri asked.
That was all Yuri. No pleasantries, no small talk. Not that he was incapable of it, but this was strictly business. He’d flipped the switch, and there was no flipping back until it was over.
As if on cue, a new window appeared on the screen. This one showed a short man, mid-sixties at least, with a shining pate and a huge white beard. He looked small, but his neck was thick and his shoulders broad, and his eyes were as hard as any STS operator.
“This is Harold Dahl, Priest of the Temple of Galen the White,” Karim said. “We’ll explain the situation.”
For the next ten minutes, the men outlined the situation. Yuri and Kayla listened to in silence, letting the tale play out to the end.
“So that’s where we are now,” Dahl concluded. “Caught between gods and wolves.”
“Who are the Street Wolves?” Yuri asked.
“Street gang pledged to a wolf god,” Karim replied. “Strictly small-time. But that was in our time. Now, they’re powerful enough to threaten Galen.”
“Do they know the Pantheon is interested in recruiting you?”
“They do,” Dahl confirmed. “Last month, when the Pantheon paid us a visit, a pack of Street Wolves swooped down on us. Damn near started a brawl there and then.”
“Why would a minor Power tangle with the New Gods like that?” Yuri asked.
“The New Gods have been weakened. There’s blood in the water. Minor Powers are rising up, testing what they can get away with,” Dahl replied.
“Yeah, but an open confrontation like this? They wouldn’t dare. Not unless they’re as powerful as the Pantheon.”
“And if they were, we’d have dealt with them in the STS,” Kayla said.
“In our time, if a minor Power attempted such a blatant show of disrespect, the New Gods would tear them a new one. They’d have to, to show strength to the other Powers. Why haven’t the Pantheon done this?”
“Maybe they’re weakened?” Dahl suggested.
“Or maybe there’s more going on.”
“I have buddies in the Babylon PD and the PSB,” Karim said. “They’re putting together a package on the Street Wolves for me. Maybe they know something we don’t.”
“Yeah, that’s a start. Something’s strange about this whole setup. Everyone knows that if you use force to press a god into service, especially a warrior god like Galen, it will not end well. I was expecting a lot more diplomacy and a lot less violence.”
“The Pantheon tried diplomacy, at first,” Dahl said. “Their mouthpieces went on and on about the benefits of joining the Pantheon, of being recognized as a New God, etcetera. They said we grow in wealth and status, we would increase our territory and pack, we would gain access to resources and power beyond our wildest dreams, and all we need do was to pledge ourselves to the Pantheon.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“Galen has no wish to entangle himself in the affairs of the New Gods. He desires only to live in peace with humanity and protect whoever he can. It was why you allowed Karim to join the STS, no?”
The STS had an inviolable policy of never recruiting anyone even remotely affiliated with the New Gods. The only psis they allowed in the organization were those pledged to neutral Powers like Galen, and only after a rigorous vetting process.
“That’s right,” Yuri said. “Galen, through Karim, has helped us protect the people from the New Gods, including the Pantheon. Which is why I find this offer interesting. Why don’t they see him as an enemy?”
“Yesterday’s enemy is tomorrow’s ally,” Kayla said. “The Pantheon is the weakest and least-organized of the New Gods. They’re just an alliance of minor gods. With the rest of the New Gods scrambling for wealth and resources, they have to do the same or be left in the dust.”
“Have any of the other New Gods approached you?” Yuri asked.
“I saw them sniffing around Hunter’s Heights, but otherwise they left us alone,” Dahl replied. “So far as we can tell, only the Pantheon and Street Wolves are involved here.”
“But if the dynamic changes, they might get involved too,” Yuri said.
“Bet on it,” Karim said. “If they think Galen will sign up with either side, they’ll have to act before that faction grows too powerful. If they think Galen is too weak, they will invade Hunter’s Heights. And if Galen fights with the Pantheon or the Street Wolves, or both, they will take the chance to fish in troubled waters.”
“It’s a complex situation,” Dahl said. “Complexity gets people killed.”
“Yup,” Yuri said. “Making matters worse, you escalated.”
“Karim, you laid hands on the Street Wolves.”
“That guy was transforming. They were about to gang up on me.”
“True. But up to that point, have they done anything physical?”
“No,” Karim and Dahl said as one.
“There you go. You humiliated the alpha in front of his pack. He can’t take that lying down. Not if he wants to remain the boss.”
“There’ll be retaliation?” Dahl asked.
“Count on it. And when the Pantheon sees it, they will make you an offer you can’t refuse.”
“Can Galen go to war against the Street Wolves, and win?” Kayla asked.
“Perhaps,” Dahl said, “but they are many, and we are few. Such a war will bleed us.”
“After this call, I’m going to get the intel package and run recon missions,” Karim said. “I need to know what we’re up against.”
“Is there any possibility of violence from the Pantheon?” Yuri asked.
“They prefer the carrot to the stick. But they made it clear that they will not tolerate Galen signing up with anyone else, or not signing up with them,” Dahl said.
“If you’re weakened by a war with the Wolves, and if you still won’t join the Pantheon, then you can expect them to attack you too,” Kayla mused.
“Sums it up.”
“But why? At the height of their power, they could have crushed you. Instead, they’ve left you alone. Now that they’re weakened, why would they do this? What changed?”
“Previously, Galen didn’t pose a significant threat to them,” Karim said. “Now, Galen could be a powerful asset, or a dangerous foe.”
“And if Galen signs on with another faction, they’ll have a significant threat at their borders,” Yuri mused.
“Yes, there is that,” Dahl agreed. “One way or another, they must deal with us, and soon.”
“Is violence inevitable?”
“I don’t know,” Karim said.
“Galen says he can taste it in the air. The time for war is not now, but soon,” Dahl said.
Yuri’s eyes narrowed. His lips tightened into a slash.
“What are you thinking?” Kayla asked.
“I’m thinking there is an opportunity to turn both sides against each other.”
“How?” Dahl asked.
“The New Gods and Dark Powers have this in common: paranoia. They are afraid that everybody else is out to destroy them. They can only trust themselves, their own believers, no more. If the Pantheon and the Street Wolves both believe the other is out to make war on them, they will turn on each other.”
“And leave Galen alone,” Kayla said.
“A sound strategy, but to the Pantheon, the Street Wolves are small fry,” Dahl said. “They could muster their forces and crush the Wolves if they wished. And then there’d be nothing to stop them from turning their attentions to us.”
“Which is why we need intelligence,” Yuri said. “The Street Wolves’ aggressiveness just doesn’t add up. You’d expect them to behave that way towards civilians, but not another Power. Not if they haven’t lost their minds.”
“I don’t know about this…” Karim said.
“I… I was BPD, then PSB, then STS. All my life, I’d fought to uphold the law and protect the innocent. This… What you’re proposing is illegal.”
“Will the law protect you?”
“No,” Dahl said bitterly. “When the cops showed up at the Temple after the fight, they just filed a report and dropped it in the folder with all the other reports I filed against the wolves and the gods. Until someone gets hurt, they’re not going to do a thing.”
“And by the time that happens, it’ll be too late,” Kayla said.
“Yeah, but… Kayla and I, we were law enforcement. Not soldiers. This… This doesn’t sit right.”
Yuri smiled gently. His entire face softened. Kayla had never known he could make an expression like that.
“Karim, Kayla… have you ever wondered why I chose you two for Team Black Watch?”
“Yes,” she said.
“The Special Activities Unit is Nova Babylonia’s premier counterterrorist unit. When the New Gods started throwing around tech, magic, Husks and Elect in their turf wars, we all thought the Unit would be called up to intervene. But the Unit was military. Domestic deployment without Presidential authorization would be a violation of Posse Comitatus, and by the time we got approval, it’d be too late.
“Instead, we were tasked to assist the PSB to stand up their own special operations unit, one that could go toe to toe with the New Gods. During our initial studies, we determined that the only way for the STS to take on the New Gods, and win, was to deploy heavy firepower and military tactics.
“Shoot first, shoot to kill, shoot until you know they’re dead. Armor piercing ammo, high explosives, machine guns. Hunter-killer drones, assault armor, miniguns. We couldn’t allow the New Gods to compromise the STS, so without Elect of our own, we had to count on big guns, the willingness to use them, and use them right. That required a special kind of operator. An operator who was highly skilled, but also highly moral. Someone who would do whatever it takes to do the right thing, while still holding true to the motto of saving lives. Someone who could wade into a dark world but remain untouched by it.
“That’s you. Both of you. Everyone in the Black Watch too.
“In a perfect world, the law reflects the values of the people, and is perfectly just. In the world we live in, the law and its enforcers have been thoroughly compromised. When the law fails, all that is left is natural justice.
“As warriors, we are charged with protecting and defending the innocent. To do that, we need to see the situation exactly as it is and respond with the most appropriate action—and only the most appropriate action. One that will resolve the incident without causing harm to anyone else.
“From what we know so far, what is the most appropriate action?”
Everyone went quiet.
Seconds ticked past. Minutes. Lifetimes.
“What you’re proposing… it’s illegal as all hell,” Karim said.
“We went rogue, didn’t we?”
“And we saw how that turned out,” Karim snapped. “We blew up our country, our lives, and for what?”
“To give everyone a fighting chance,” Yuri said. “We didn’t knock out the New Gods, but we gave good people the time and space they need to claw back some sanity in this world.”
“I…” Karim massaged his temples. “I don’t know about you guys, but I’ve been on the run for months. No job, no income, no support…”
“You are always be welcome in the Temple of Galen,” Dahl said. “If you had but come back to us—”
“I would have called down the wrath of the New Gods on you, too.”
“We are pack. We ride and fight together.”
Karim made a sound. It began like a snort, but it transformed into a sigh.
“Karim,” Kayla said gently, “if you had to do it all over again, to go rogue and challenge the New Gods alongside us, would you?”
He closed his eyes. Breathed. Looked away.
“It was the right thing to do. The only thing to do.”
“Here we are now,” Yuri said. “What is the right thing to do here?”
“Things were different six months ago. The Void Collective was abducting and brainwashing people, the other New Gods were itching to start a war, all we were doing was protecting people and carrying out our mission. Now—”
“What’s the difference?”
Karim said nothing.
“Nothing’s changed,” Kayla said. “Dark Powers are still preying on the innocent. The world still needs people like us.”
“If the laws of Man are powerless to protect us, then we must act in accord with the law of Heaven,” Yuri said. “We must always do what is right, even and especially when the New Gods and their puppets oppose us.”
Karim bit his lip.
“If we do this, innocent people might get hurt in the crossfire.”
“Both sides will know that if they allow the violence to spread, the authorities and the New Gods will get involved, so they have an incentive to keep it focused and surgical.”
“There is always that risk,” Kayla said.
“Always,” Yuri said quietly. “But given our resources, intelligence, and manpower, what else can we do?”
“When… if this kicks off, it’ll be like lightning a fuse,” Karim said. “We won’t be able to put it out. We might not predict the consequences either.”
“Yes. So if you take this path, you have to be committed. You have to see it all the way through to the end.”
“What would your god do?” Dahl asked.
“Yours, Yuri. I see the presence of a god in you. What would he do?”
“He would extend his hand to smite the wicked. Or else direct a believer to act in his stead.”
“Did he attack the innocent?”
For a moment, a troubled expression crossed his face.
“He drowned the Old World in an enormous flood, sparing only enough to repopulate it. He hardened the heart of a wicked ruler, then visited pestilence and plague upon a nation, and took the lives of the firstborn of an entire kingdom. But it was a different time, a different place, a different world. Everything was different then, and I cannot pretend to know the mind of God.
“I only know this: we cannot control what the opposition does, but we can control what we do. We target only those who need to be destroyed, and do what we can to protect the innocent and control the consequences. It is all we, as mortal and limited humans, can do.”
“Galen has never knowingly harmed the innocent,” Dahl said.
“Galen is also a tutelary spirit, with dominion over a small patch of the world. His actions are limited to the micro level. At the macro scale… Some things are too complex for us to predict.”
“There was once an Old World leader who said, ‘You cannot make an omelet without breaking eggs’,” Karim said.
“He was also a monster who used it to justify absolute power and endless terror. We are not doing that. We are safeguarding Galen and the innocent from the depredations of the Pantheon and the Street Wolves. That intention, that goal, guides us. Our strategy, tactics, everything we do. That is the difference. But we must act in alignment with it, or we will be lost.”
Karim looked down at his hands and said nothing.
“I… I was a cop. This, though, it’s… I don’t know.”
“You were always a warrior.”
“Yeah. I get it. But I can’t… I won’t do anything that will harm anyone who doesn’t deserve it.”
“Good. Keep that in your heart, always.”
“But there’s another problem.”
“I don’t have any hardware. The State Police took my gun.”
“I have weapons, but for what you have in mind, we can’t use personally-owned firearms,” Fox said.
“I have a friend.”
Before they were rogues, Karim, Kayla and Yuri served in the top-tier tactical unit of Nova Babylonia. Find their stories here!
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