Hold The Line
The rest of the week passed in relative peace. But only around Hunter’s Heights.
The Pantheon surveillance team disappeared. With the police investigating the ambush outside the Temple of Galen, and stepping up increased patrols, it was no longer prudent to maintain the operation. While the Pantheon’s influence surely extended into top floors of the BPD, it would not do for some low-level cop to ask the wrong questions.
The Street Wolves kept their distance too. Leaderless and bleeding, they retreated to their home turf and consolidated their numbers. In the nights that followed, a few of their senior members were found dead or dying on the streets, ripped up with long-range gunfire.
The Wolves turned to the Court of Shadows for protection. The Court flooded their turf with their troops, an overt show of strength and a low-key power play. If the Wolves couldn’t manage their territory, the Court would do it for them. The Court in turn hunted for the ones who had sniped their representatives.
The Pantheon suffered the brunt of their attentions. The Court sent a mission to discuss the situation with the senior Pantheon leadership. The priests, one and all, kept stonewalling them. They promised to order a ceasefire until they discovered the truth of the situation, but alas, the Pantheon was a decentralized faith and many of its members were unaffiliated with any one guru or god. Those they could not exercise control over.
On the street, a group of Shadows encountered a gang of Pantheon worshipers. Harsh words followed, then fists flew, and then the guns did the talking. Just another iteration of the same old story repeated all over Nova Babylonia. Then came the reprisals, and counter-reprisals, all while the senior leadership publicly denounced the attacks and ordered restraint.
The Guild officially remained silent. But the sound of railgun fire continued to echo in the night. And bodies of Guild Elect started to appear in the morgue.
A steady stream of steak flowed from the neighborhood steakhouse into the Temple of Galen. If anyone noticed this newfound taste, they didn’t comment.
Five days after the hit at Jamal Wright’s home, Karim and Kayla met once again, this time in his motel room. On the laptop, over a video call, Harold Dahl joined in.
“You did well, all things considered,” Yuri said. “But realistically, all we’ve done is to buy you some breathing room. You need to more extensive security measures.”
“Galen and I have identified a few Elect candidates,” Dahl said. “We will stand up a neighborhood watch to defend Hunter’s Heights.”
By which he meant a militia, Kayla knew. Every god in Babylon needed human agents to carry out his will and to defend his holdings. Galen, despite being a warrior god, had pursued a policy of peace, maintaining only a minimal number of Elect. He’d wanted to avoid a confrontation with his much stronger neighbors. But the time for peace had passed long ago.
“More than a neighborhood watch, you’ll need allies. Other gods who will stand with you,” Yuri said.
“Galen says he has reached out to other independent Powers across Babylon,” Dahl replied. “He wishes to form a network of neutral Powers. Now that he’s been attacked, he can make the case that all the independent Powers are vulnerable.”
“I’m surprised this hasn’t happened before,” Karim said.
“Every few years the minor Powers try something like this,” Yuri said. “Inevitably the New Gods try to break it up or subvert the network. They will not tolerate any threats to their power.”
“But this time, with the New Gods weakened, things might be different,” Kayla said.
“We will make the most of this,” Dahl vowed.
“Karim, what did you do with the devices you took?” Yuri asked.
“I delivered them to a PO box in… well, outside Babylon. Zen will pick them up, download them, and feed us what he finds.”
The cracker had sliced his way through the Void Collective’s in-house data center. Compared to that, commercial devices were nothing.
“And your friends in law enforcement,” Kayla added.
“Yes. But only what they need to know.”
“Are there any signs the Court, the Pantheon or the Wolves will target Galen again?” Yuri asked.
“I’ve heard many interesting things from my friends in the PSB and BPD,” Karim said. “The Wolves must suspect Galen by now, but they’ve been bled dry. They can’t mount effective operations against us, at least not without the approval of the Court. The Court does not want to be dragged into yet another war with the Pantheon over a fight that the Wolves started. The Pantheon was unprepared for war, at least in this part of Babylon, and are struggling to coordinate and harden their defenses.”
“And the Guild?” Kayla asked.
“The BPD and PSB recovered railgun fragments from the shootings. They were puzzled. They had no idea what they were looking at. I told them that, so far as I knew, only the Guild had the ability to create railguns. I speculated that the Guild might have found out the Street Wolves’ attempt to shanghai Galen. It wasn’t as if the Wolves were subtle about it. From there, it wouldn’t be too difficult to engineer an incident between the Wolves and the Pantheon. Naturally, I told them to keep this top secret.”
Which, of course, meant that by now all the New Gods would have heard his whispers.
“Think they will buy it?” Kayla asked.
Yuri stroked his chin.
“The New Gods are all paranoid of each other. They believe that all the other gods are constantly trying to one-up them, that they are all engaged in a war of all against all. A situation like this plays into their biases. On the other hand, if they believe that Galen attempted to turn them against each other, there is nothing we can do.”
“Security cameras captured a werewolf fighting an elephant man,” Karim said. “Everyone knows that the Court of Shadows and the Street Wolves can shapeshift into wolves. As for the Wright hit, every external camera was blinded and there are no clear images of the hitter.”
“The Temple of Galen does not possess railguns, or indeed, any other guns,” Dahl said. “The police were very thorough in their search.”
“The railgun seems to have disappeared,” Kayla said innocently.
The operators chuckled darkly.
“Thanks for your help,” Dahl said. “I know you two are not… not followers of Galen, but we appreciate your advice.”
“No problem,” Kayla said.
“Galen has done much for us. It’s only right to return the favor,” Yuri said.
“You have done us a great service. If you ever need help, if you ever find yourself in Babylon again, call on us, and we will help you.”
“Thank you,” Yuri said.
“Hey, Yuri…” Kayla began.
What did she want to say? What did she have to say? There were a thousand things she had to say to him, a thousand words caught in her chest. But there was only one thing she needed to know.
“Will you ever come back to Babylon?”
He sighed. Went silent.
“I don’t know,” Yuri said finally. “The New Gods are hunting me. After what I’ve done to them, they won’t stop looking for me, ever. They’ll tear up all of Babylon to find me. But if I’m overseas… at least it’ll pull some heat away from you.”
Warmth bloomed in her chest. Even now, he was still thinking of them, drawing fire away from Team Black Watch. He had a god on his side. Karim was an Elect of Galen. But the others…
“I… I mean, we need you. You’re the only one among us who could challenge them directly,” Kayla said.
“This exile won’t be forever. Once the heat dies down, once the New Gods have something else to occupy them, I’ll be back. Until then… I have to keep my distance.”
“You made war upon the rulers of the world. They will never forgive this,” Dahl said.
“To follow my faith is to wrestle against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of the world, against spiritual wickedness in the high places. To seek the Kingdom of God is to stand against the Kingdom of the World.”
“A harsh religion.”
“It is the only way I know.”
“It is the way of warriors. Galen approves.”
“Be careful out there,” Kayla said.
“You too. What are your plans?”
“I’m staying in Babylon,” Karim said. “I have to defend the Temple, organize the watch, respond to any other incidents. If the New Gods come for us again, we’ll be ready.”
He spoke with conviction, with steel in his spine and iron in his voice. The wandering nomad was gone. The rookie she’d once known had matured. Here was the alpha, the warrior ascendant, the man and the wolf with a place and a pack.
“Good. Galen needs you.”
“All of Nova Babylonia needs you two,” Dahl added.
Kayla nodded. And sighed.
“I can’t stay in Babylon though. The New Gods are looking for a sniper. I’m on their blacklist, along with everybody else in Team Black Watch. I’ll need to disappear for a while.”
“A sound strategy,” Yuri said.
“Mind if I join you?”
Yuri chuckled. But beneath the good humor was an undercurrent of sadness.
“It’s best we stay apart for now. At least until I’m sure the New Gods aren’t watching me too closely. Besides, where I am, you don’t speak the language. None of you do.”
And what would be the closest he’d come to betraying his location.
Kayla understood where he was coming from. She’d expected as much. Even so, a knife of raw pain stabbed into her heart.
And the knife twisted.
“Could you do something for me?”
“What is it?”
“The New Gods will rise again. They will spread their tentacles, prey on the weak, corrupt the innocent. We’ve got to stop them from dragging the world into hell. Until I return, hold the line.”
The STS was shut down. They were all pariahs in the military and the law enforcement community. But the mission, to save lives and protect the innocent, had never ended.
Yuri wasn’t being dramatic. If anything, he’d downplayed it. All of Nova Babylon lay balanced on a knife’s edge. By pulling the Wolves, the Pantheon and the Court off Galen’s back, and leaving behind evidence that pointed to the Guild, they might have fired the first shots in a new war among the gods.
Kayla didn’t care. Let the New Gods fight each other all they want. But inevitably innocents would be caught in the crossfire. If they’d truly started a fresh conflict, then they had to take responsibility, to do everything they could to keep the violence contained.
It was what Yuri would have wanted.
“We will,” Kayla said.
The meeting adjourned. Karim walked Kayla to the door.
“Where are you going?”
“I don’t know yet.”
“Hey, if I don’t know, neither will the New Gods.”
“You’ve got a point there.”
Kayla patted his shoulder.
“You take care now. Galen, Dahl, and the rest of the community are counting on you.”
“Thanks. And stay safe. You mean a lot more to Yuri than you think you do.”
Her cheeks flushed. She smiled, looked away and said nothing.
Outside, under the warmth of the rising sun, the motel was quiet and peaceful. Past the parking lot, the highway beckoned. To the north lay the metropolis of Babylon, to the south lay the open road.
She had a full tank of gas in her car. In her pack she carried the sum of her possessions, everything she needed to live anywhere indefinitely. In the trunk of her car, among other ends, was her railgun, a set of spare rails, and two hundreds of ammo. She could go anywhere, do anything, so long as she kept one step ahead of the New Gods.
Hold the line, he’d said.
We will, she’d said.
She climbed into her car and drove. Away from Babylon, towards wherever the open road would take her.
She had her mission. She would carry it out, all the way to the bitter end.
Or, at least, until Yuri returned.
This chapter of Karim Mustafa’s life has ended, but more stories await in the wider Babylon universe. Check out the prequel BABYLON BLUES here!
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