Babylon was always in a state of urban renewal. It tore down the old and threw up new edifices to ever-changing modernity. West of Wright’s apartment, a construction site promised a new condominium in two years.
Security was laughable. No human security, no alarms, just cameras with huge gaps in coverage. Karim confirmed there were no watcher spirits around either. Kayla blinded a camera with a bottle of spray paint and strolled right in.
On the fifteenth floor, within what seemed to be a hallway with no terminating walls at either end, Kayla lay atop her groundsheet, itself spread out across a floor of freshly-hardened concrete, and glassed the apartment.
Light spilled from windows and streetlights. Enough light to identify a person in the darkness. The reticle of her scope blazed red against the darkness, a bold horseshoe that drew the eye to a precision dot. Range lines fanned outwards under the dot, designed for a caliber much larger and far, far slower than the railgun’s. At max zoom, 8X, she had the entire apartment in her glass, plus a goodly fraction of the roof. Forward and below the scope, nestled in its little nook, the power indicator blazed green.
She wished she had a spotter. Or a drone. Someone or something to maintain situation awareness, to take the load off so she could focus her attentions on the objective area. But Karim was just five minutes out. She wouldn’t have to wait long.
Even so, she scanned the world through her scope. Doorway. Windows. Roof access stairs. Exterior stairs. The street.
She spotted Karim, a dark figure striding through the dark, a cap low over his face. Under his coat, he carried Kayla’s shotgun, the same gun that had put down the Street Wolves outside the temple. He’d added heel inserts to change his gait and his height, hunching over to reinforce the illusion and defeat Babylon’s infamous facial and gait recognition cameras. To guard against psis, he had placed a shadow ward on himself, erasing his presence, though she couldn’t see it.
Instead, to her eyes, he seemed like a liquid blur, a presence that threatened to slip out of her mind. It was as if she could see him only because she knew what he looked like, and that he allowed her to track him.
Karim fished out a pocket laser from his coat and lit up the security camera watching the stairs at the ground floor. At the landing, he removed a spray can from his coat pocket and fogged the lens with a thick coat of paint. Slowly, steadily, he climbed the stairs, blinding the cameras as went.
The flea-crab-thing, Karim explained, saw the world in the Aether and in the physical. The shadow ward would prevent it from noticing him on the Aether. Karim hugged the building as he climbed, keeping under shelter, crouching under the thick concrete guard, minimizing his exposure to the world.
Kayla maintained her vigil. There was no sign of activity inside the house. Behind thick shades, the living room lights continued to blaze brightly. The distant howling sirens had finally gone quiet. The streets were clear, and the air…
A thrumming sound filled the air.
It grew louder, closer, deeper, passing right overhead. Snapping up from the scope, she saw the unmistakable lines of a gravity car.
She wasn’t compromised. She had set up well away from the opening. Karim had cast a shadow ward on her too. And yet…
“Lycan, heads up. Incoming gravcar.”
On the fifth floor, Karim ducked into a doorway. Moments later, the gravcar swooped down from the sky, stopping by the curb outside Wright’s apartment. A man climbed out the driver’s seat and looked around.
It was close to three in the morning. Many clubs and bars would have closed, or at least turned off the taps. It wouldn’t be unusual for revelers to be returning at this hour. Still… she didn’t like his vibes.
A second man stepped out the passenger seat. Together, the driver leading the way, they headed to the stairs. The driver scanned as he walked, and so did the passenger.
Passenger was an important man. Important enough that he needed Driver to play bodyguard. But he was also trained, accustomed to violence, or both, and saw to his own safety too.
Acid gnawed in her belly. This might still be a coincidence, but…
“Contact,” she whispered. “Two men landed in a gravcar. They are switched on and are approaching the stairs.”
“Roger. Need me to assess them?”
Karim went still, concentrating the entirety of his being on the task.
She dialed the scope back to 1X, scanning the area. Where there was one threat, there might be more. Oblivious, the newcomers climbed the stairs.
“The subjects are Elect,” Karim whispered. “Court of Shadows.”
The ghost of an emotion rose in her heart. She breathed it out, cranked up the zoom to 8X, and brought her sights on the new targets.
“The Street Wolves must have called them,” Karim continued. “They’ve just lost five Wolves. They must be scrambling to find out what’s going on, and if it’s wrapped up with the Court of Shadows. Maybe they’re going to get more manpower, more firepower, more… oh shit.”
“Kumar. We staged it like a revenge hit. When the cops see me on camera, they’ll think the Street Wolves or the Court. But these subjects know they didn’t do him. If they talk about the hit, if they put two and two together—”
“They’ll conclude Galen did it.”
“They all have to die.”
Was it Galen speaking? Was it the warrior within him? It didn’t matter. They were committed to walking this path, all the way to the bitter, bloody end.
The door opened. Three men stepped out.
“Three males just left the apartment. Looks like they’re going to meet the Shadows.”
Karim was pincered. Caught between the Shadows coming up from below and the Wolves on the roof. Kayla brought her sights to the Shadows, to the greater threat.
“The Shadows are on level three and coming up,” Kayla said. “I’ve got my sights on them.”
“Roger. Hold your fire. I’m going to get behind the Shadows.”
The Wolves continued to climb the steps, their heads on a swivel. On the fourth floor, Driver paused, and looked up. He turned to Passenger and gestured at the camera. The men tensed. And climbed.
“They’re moving up to level five. They’ve spotted the blinded cameras.”
Karim sprang up and sprinted to the guardrail. In a single, fluid motion, he grabbed the grain and vaulted himself over, hiding his body behind the thick concrete guard.
“The Shadows are reaching the landing,” Kayla said.
For a heart-stopping moment, he fell into empty space. Kayla’s fingers tightened around the grip. Her breath caught in her lungs.
Then he caught the guard on the fourth floor and hauled himself up and over and retreated into a doorway.
One floor above, the Shadows paused. Passenger examined the sprayed-down camera. Driver peered past the guard, looking up and down.
Karim went still.
The Shadows conferred briefly, then continued up.
“The Shadows are moving up to the top level.”
“Roger,” Karim said. “Once they’re on the roof, I’ll stage on level five. When the subjects meet, give the word and I’ll step out and drop them.”
One against five was terrible odds. One against five Elect was downright suicidal.
“I will initiate with sniper fire. When you hear the shot, engage,” she said.
“We’ve already used the railgun at the curry place. If we use it again—”
“I’ve loaded with tumblers. Besides, it makes it look like the Guild did this.”
In the end, it didn’t matter who the Pantheon and the Wolves blamed for the killings, so long as they believed Galen, and Karim, didn’t.
“Understood. Waiting for your shot.”
The Shadows stepped up on the roof. The Wolves waved. Both groups of men met in the middle, exchanging handshakes. One by one, the Wolves warily shook hands with Passenger. Driver hung back, watching everyone. And the roof access door.
Through her scope, she studied their body language, their postures, their feet, studying and forecasting their movements. The Shadows were sturdy, cool, collected, yet scanning left and right. The Wolves were antsy, two of them halfway turning towards the apartment, nervously scanning the roofs.
The Wolves were afraid. More than that, they might have heard stories of a shotgun-running sniper, and were even now hunting for a sign of her presence. But they didn’t, couldn’t, feel her silent scope running across their silhouettes. As for the Shadows—
The group tensed. Passenger thumbed behind him. The Wolves shook their heads as a pack. Clustering together, they headed to the stairs.
“The targets are approaching the stairs,” Kayla said. “Shadows must have told the Wolves about the cameras.”
“Roger. Initiate on your mark.”
The Shadows led the way, the Wolves trailing. She placed her reticle on Driver, on the man closer to the stairs.
The red horseshoe bracketed Driver, following him across the concrete. He kept one hand under his jacket, the other free, sweeping the world, keeping his charge behind him. Passenger followed, also scanning, looking where Driver wasn’t, trailing in his footsteps—
And lining up his abdomen with Passenger’s head.
A hard shot. At this range, the target was a tiny dot crowning a black smudge against dark concrete washed in amber. The red dot of her sight, optimized for rapid engagement, swallowed Passenger’s head whole. Still she tracked him, trusting in her subconscious to run the math and calculate the vectors.
The railgun screamed. The butt, a patch of flat, hard plastic, punched the pocket of her shoulder. The sight picture blurred out. Banks of supercapacitors discharged in a chorus of harsh cracks, dumping their stored energy into the weapon’s twin rails, transforming them into temporary but powerful electromagnets. Irresistibly drawn by the stupendous electromagnetic field, the flechette rocketed down the rails, encased in a rectangular armature, accelerating at a stupendous rate.
The flechette exploded from the muzzle at two kilometers per second, a cloud of star-bright plasma and vaporized metal flaring forth in its wake. The muzzle device, a smooth cylinder on the outside, stacks of baffles on the inside, captured the muzzle blast, capturing and smothering the blast within its strange geometries, diffusing its tremendous world-tearing report.
Moments after launch, the armature peeled off like a many-petaled flower, scattering itself in every direction. The flechette hurtled through the world, crossing streets in seconds, its fins keeping it true.
Urban environments generated their own weather, their own winds, threatening the flight path of such a tiny round. But its velocity was great and its momentum immense, and the air mostly calm. The high-velocity dart drifted slightly to the left, too little to be significant, its trajectory straighter and flatter than any rifle round had a right to be, and slammed into the Shadow’s head.
The tumbler exploded.
Fragments detonated in a chaotic spray. The shaft fish-hooked instantly, tumbling and carving through gray matter. Hydrostatic shockwaves radiated from the point of impact, pulverizing everything they touched, penetrating deep into the rest of the target’s body, transforming skull to shrapnel.
The flechette burst out the other side of the Elect’s rapidly-disintegrating head, much of its man-killing velocity still intact, and continued onwards to blast into the other Shadow’s groin.
It didn’t strike point-first. At such speeds, it didn’t matter. It pierced skin, tumbled through bowels, severed nerves, shattered vertebrae, burst out the small of the back and finally destroyed itself against the concrete roof.
Nanoseconds after impact, the fragmentation cloud arrived, bone and metal shard trailing in the projectile’s wake, tearing through viscera and the vertebral column, finishing what the flechette had started.
She saw none of this. Through the glass, she saw only both targets drop as one.
“Lycan! Go!” she ordered.
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