River of Blood Chapter 4

Brain Trust

Kayla Fox had always known this day would come. The New Gods never forgave and sure as hell never forgot. Cross the rulers of the world and they will move heaven and earth to find you.

You could run. You could hide. But in the end, you had to fight.

It didn’t mean she had to make it easy for them.

After departing Moreno Island, she’d kept herself a moving target. Living out of her car, she wandered the length and breadth of Nova Babylonia, linking up with other STS operators in the wind, hiding out in small towns or suburbs far from the eyes of the New Gods, keeping her guns and gear close to hand. She took odd jobs when they came, worked gigs whenever they came up in her networks.

She waited.

She wasn’t sure what she was waiting for. She couldn’t put it into words. But deep in her soul, she’d sensed something momentous coming. Something huge. Something terrible. With every passing day, it drew closer, realer, edging ever closer towards manifestation. When it came, it would sweep the entire world with the violence of a hurricane. All she could do was be ready for it.

And wait for it to come.

When she received Connor’s email, she felt a twitch in her soul. That far-off event was drawing near. It wasn’t here yet, but it had taken a massive stride towards her. Or maybe it was the other way around, the world leaping ahead to that inevitable collision. She still couldn’t see its shape, only sense it vaguely, the way astronomers detected the existence of a black hole by the behavior of the matter being sucked into it.

But she did know that someone had targeted Will Connor.

And only one group dared to stalk the former members of the STS.

The New Gods.

Connor’s mail was characteristically terse. He’d described the attempted hit outside the club, his meeting with Robert Steele, his plans to hunt the killers in Riveria. He’d requested a video conference with the members of Team Black Watch. Kayla knew he’d need more than that.

After all, she was already in Riveria.

She’d spent the last few months in the central and southern deserts. She’d had all the heat and dryness she could stand for a year, for a lifetime. After a spell as a private security contractor, she’d headed north. Following the highways, she drove with deliberate aimlessness, giving the New Gods nothing they could use to predict her movements.

Her route had taken her to Riveria. This was just a brief stopover. Charge up her car, take a day or two off the road, plan her next step. Then Connor’s mail came in.

Call it fate, the universe, the hand of God—the God Yuri believed in but she had never seen. Whatever it was, it felt as if something had pulled her to Riveria, as irresistible and invisible as gravity, placing her here, in this moment, at a time when her brother operator needed her skills.

It was a call.

And she answered.

Both this call, and Connor’s email.

And now she was inside Connor’s cramped motel room, sitting on the only chair. Connor perched himself on the bed, his face a mix of relief, cheer, and grim resolve.

“Thanks for coming,” Connor said.

“Just happened to be in the neighborhood,” Kayla replied.

“I heard you’ve been busy.”

She shrugged, a small smile playing across her lips.

“I’ve been doing this and that. A girl needs to earn a living, ya know.”

Connor laughed. A genuine one, rumbling from deep in his belly, exploding out his mouth like a gale. She wondered when was the last time he laughed like that.

“James told me you helped him out at Moreno.”

“I was there.”

“And there was that business with Karim’s temple in Babylon.”

“We took care of it.”

“What else have you been up to?”

“Short-time contracts. The only kind of work I could find these days. Takes me all over the country. What about you? Working as a bouncer now?”

“Only job on the table.”

“I heard every STS shooter’s been blacklisted.”

“Got that right. We’re untouchables now.”

Independent of political, religious and corporate influence, staffed entirely by seculars or believers in minor gods, subject to stringent personnel security measures, the STS were immune to the New Gods’ influence. They were the untouchables, the incorruptible, the last line of defense between chaos and civilization.

And now they were untouchable again—in the other sense of the term.

Connor gestured at the black duffel bag at her feet.

“You brought toys?”

“Plenty,” she said. “Got a few for you too.”

She unzipped the bag, revealing a pair of long guns. The pouches on the side opened to reveal magazines, fuel cells, pistols.

Kayla lifted one of the black, boxy weapons from the bag and placed it on her lap. It was all hard lines and sharp angles, the quintessence of a gun, the frame and receiver and grip molded in a single integrated unit. A low power variable optic rode on the top accessory rail, an angled foregrip adorned the lower rail, a flashlight straddled the left-hand rail. A strange device, a short and fat cylinder, extended from the muzzle.

“That’s a railgun?” Connor asked.

“Yup. The very latest iteration, courtesy of the military-industrial complex.”

Connor grunted, casting a skeptical eye on it.

“It looks like a toy.”

“It’ll blow through a godman’s or a cyborg’s skull just fine. And it won’t leave much in the way of forensics.”

Connor pursed his lips.

“What else can it do?”

“At full power, it will launch a five millimeter flechette at two klicks per second, with a rate of fire of about ten rounds per minute. Half-power gives you one kps, ROF of twenty shots per minute. It’s semiauto only, though I hear a select-fire version is in the works. You can shoot it while the capacitors are still charging, but you’d get much lower velocity and power. It’s not worth it.

“The smuzzle—the muzzle device and suppressor combo—eliminates muzzle flash, diffuses the report, and redirects the blast to reduce recoil. With it on, it’s hearing-safe.

“We’ve got twenty rounds in the mag. Fuel cartridge is good for sixty full-power shots, double that for half-power. The cartridge is recharged with hydrogen. Dirt cheap, and we can make our own by using a solar-powered water cracker.”

“An electromagnetic battle rifle,” Connor said.

“One that can be built using a 3D printer and commercial off the shelf parts. It’s the future of warfare. Last I hear, the Guild is pushing them down to their guardians.”

“They haven’t showed up in Riveria yet.”

“Looks like we’re the first. This one’s yours, by the way.”

She handed it to him. He accepted the weapon in both hands. Automatically he pointed it up at the ceiling, finger off the trigger, and went hunting for the charging handle.

“It uses a different manual of arms than what we’re used to,” Kayla said. “No charging handle, open bolt design. Pop in the mag and the fuel cartridge, wait for a tic for the capacitors to charge, and it’s live.”

Connor’s eyes widened. He rotated the weapon and saw that the magazine and cartridge wells were empty.

“I’m gonna need some time to get used to this.”

“Don’t worry. It’s a gentle learning curve.”

“Tech like this is ultra-sophisticated. We use this, we’re leaving behind a calling card.”

“Only the Guild deploys railguns, far as we know.”

“There isn’t a significant Guild presence in Riveria. No way we can disguise a hit as one of theirs.”

“We can use that to our advantage. Tell the New Gods who bit them back, without out-and-out saying it. Warn them that we have the upper hand now, and they should leave us alone.”

“It’s not going to dissuade them. The Liberated aren’t going to leave me alone if they think they can access advanced tech through me. The Pantheon will be willing to sacrifice their own members if they can capture a railgun. The Shadow Court is just too crazy to care.”

She frowned, rubbing her chin.

“At least we won’t give the cops something they can use against us. Railguns still aren’t considered guns. They can’t arrest us just for owning them, registered or not.”

“For now. That’s going to change real soon.”

“Until then, we have the advantage.”

Kayla laid out the rest of her aid package on the bed. Spare magazines, fuel cartridges, boxes of flechettes, dividing them equally between him and her.

“Where’d you get all this stuff?”

“Friend of a friend.”

“Samurai?”

“Friend of his.”

His eyes glinted.

“Ah. Daniel Lamb?”

“You’ve met him?”

“Handful of times, mostly for testing and evaluation of prototype gear. He’s still in the game?”

“Yeah. He’s my sole source supplier for railguns and ammo. And other off-the-books gear too. Speaking of which…”

She unzipped a pouch on the side of the duffel bag and pulled out a pistol.

Or, at least, it looked like a pistol. It had a grip, it had a trigger, it had a handgun-shaped frame, and there all similarities to contemporary guns ended.

The grip was canted at a dramatic, almost absurd angle. Just ahead of the trigger guard was the barest hint of an accessory rail, practically undersized. The barrel and the upper receiver were one and the same, a stupendously thick cylinder that extended far forward like an alien snout. A low profile red dot sight sat above the grip, and a sharp post of a front sight stood proud above the muzzle end.

“What the hell is this? A rail handgun?” Connor asked.

“Yup.”

“Does it work?”

“It’s undergoing preliminary trials in the military. I’ve test-fired it extensively too.”

“But does it work?

“Well… It hasn’t been tested in the field.”

“We get to be the guinea pigs, testing it in live combat.”

“Part of my deal with Lamb.”

Connor shook his head.

“No way.”

“Don’t knock it. This is a silent gun. When you press the trigger, all you’ll hear is a soft click and a softer whoosh. The sound of impact is much louder than the shot. And there’s no muzzle flash.

“It recharges practically instantly too. It’s a covert close quarters weapon, complementing the full-sized railgun.”

“What’s it fire?”

“Cut-down five millimeter flechette at three hundred thirty meters per second.”

“What the fuck? That’s practically a peashooter.”

“You can click it up to seven hundred twenty meters per second, but it’ll break the sound barrier, and it needs a second to recharge. It’ll also penetrate body armor out to fifty meters, with penetration of up to fifteen inches in ballistic gel.”

“A five millimeter tunnel isn’t gonna stop anyone.”

“The flechette uses a spoon-tipped design. It won’t affect ballistics or penetration capability, but it will tumble inside tissue. Causes damage comparable to a larger-caliber pistol round.”

“Have you done any organic medium testing?”

“No.”

“I’ll stick to my revolver, thanks.”

“How many rounds have you got?”

“Eight.”

“This holds fifteen.”

“Where’s the battery?”

“Integrated with the magazine.”

“I don’t have to recharge my mag after I’m done shooting my gun.”

“Does yours have AP capacity?”

He frowned.

“It’s not loaded with AP right now.”

“There you go. And I bet it isn’t silent either. You don’t have to give up your gun. Just treat this as a… a special applications pistol.”

He looked skeptically at the rail handgun.

“I don’t like new and untested tech.”

“I’ve tested it. It won’t blow up in your hands when you shoot it.”

“Will it go bang every time I press the trigger?”

“No guarantees, you know that as well as me. Guns are mechanical objects. They’ll break someday. You’re so worried, you can keep your own handgun.”

Connor grunted. And shrugged.

“Ain’t gonna look a gift horse in the mouth.”

“That wasn’t so bad, was it?”

“If it backfires and I die, I’m gonna haunt you forever. You hear me?”

She laughed and gave the gun to him butt-first. Then she pulled a matching pistol out of another pouch. Then more mags, more ammo boxes.

“In a pinch, you can use the handgun flechettes for the long gun. Won’t be as powerful, but you have that capability. Of course, if we get that far, we’ll be in deep trouble.”

“Do we have resupply?” Connor asked.

“Lamb delivers anywhere in Nova Babylonia within seventy-two hours.”

Connor looked at the weapons and munitions spread across his bed.

“We’ve got enough for a fight or two. I think we’re good.”

Connor placed his long gun next to his bed, his pistol on the night stand, and everything else in the drawers. Then he strode to the table and turned on his laptop.

“Video conference is going to start soon,” Connor said.

“It’ll be good to see the others again,” Kayla said.

“Especially Yuri, huh.”

Kayla pouted.

“What is that supposed to mean?”

Connor sniggered.

He booted up the secure video call app, then angled the laptop camera to capture the two of them in the frame. One by one, a set of familiar faces filled the window. Karim Mustafa. Zen Tan. James Wood.

Yuri Yamamoto.

“Hey,” Connor said. “It’s good to see everyone again.”

Yuri’s face lightened. His lips twitched. But his steel-gray eyes lit up like fireworks.

“Good to see you too. Shame it isn’t under better circumstances.”

“We try to get by,” James said.

“How’s everyone doing?” Connor asked.

“I’m in Moreno, helping the Sheriff kick out the remaining strongholds of the New Gods,” Wood said. “Need my help?”

“Naw, not yet. For now we need intel and ideas. Firepower can wait,” Connor replied.

“Farmer, you should stay where you are. When this is all over, we’ll need a safe haven,” Yuri said.

“Gotcha. Building one will take a while, but… I’m optimistic.”

“Glad to hear it.”

“Don’t know if I can leave Babylon,” Karim said. “The temple received a fresh round of threats. Might be nothing, but we have to take them seriously.”

“You should take care of your own,” Connor said.

“Sorry.”

“It’s all right. Just having you here in the brain trust is good enough.”

“I’m still watching Marcie,” Zen said. “We’ve gone to ground in… a safe place. We’re still getting established, still shoring up our defenses and tripwires. But I’ve got my machines set up. You need cyber support, just say the word.”

“Appreciate it, brother,” Connor said.

“No problem.”

“I’m still overseas,” Yuri said. “Last I hear, the New Gods still have watchers at every port of entry in Nova Babylonia. I can’t come home. Not yet.”

He kept his voice neutral, but Kayla felt the pain and sorrow in his voice.

“It’s fine,” Connor said. “Just hang in there.”

“Doing that every day.”

Kayla leaned in.

“You’ve lost weight.”

“I’ve been working out every day. Walking a lot every day too. Stripped out the last of the fat.”

“You’ve never had any fat.”

“Had to put some on. The winters here are brutal.”

And that was all Yuri would ever give away. Nobody knew where he was now, and that was for the best.

“Anyway, what are you doing in Riveria?” Yuri asked.

Kayla shrugged.

“Happened to be in the neighborhood. That’s all.”

“You sure get around, seeing the rest of the guys.”

“They needed help, I came running, that’s all.”

“Don’t worry, Yuri, we’re not going to touch her,” Connor said.

Yuri chuckled and looked away. Kayla crossed her arms and glowered.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothin’,” Connor said.

The men laughed. She sighed.

“Let’s get down to business,” Yuri said. “What’s your situation?”

Just like that, everyone sobered up.

“We’re secure in a motel at the outskirts of Riveria,” Connor reported. “We’ve kitted up, we’ve got our gear, we’re ready to roll.

“Our target is Chris Cowan. Young Buck, the kid with the fake ID and the getaway driver. According to Robert Steele, he lives at Fitzgerald Apartments, a housing project in Uptown, deep in Shadow Court territory.

“First we need to verify if Cowan’s one of the hitters, or just some poor schmuck Steele wants whacked. Assuming the former, we work our way across his network and up the chain. When we identify everyone responsible for the hit, we roll heavy and take them out at once.”

“From what you’ve told us of the hit, the hitters are small fry. They aren’t even trained soldiers. Pros wouldn’t make the mistakes they made. They’re just disposable trigger pullers,” James said.

“Name makers or expendables, or both,” Yuri said. “We need to find their handler.”

“And we need to know why he sent them after Connor,” Kayla said.

“We know why. After what we did to them, they’re not going to forgive us,” Connor said.

“We also need to know if this is just one mid-level manager working on his own, targeting you specifically, or if it’s a campaign,” Yuri pointed out.

“And if the other New Gods are gunning for the rest of the STS,” Zen added.

“Times like this, they can’t risk scrutiny from the Temple Commission. They won’t carry out hits unless they’re sanctioned at the highest level. Maybe even by the New Gods themselves,” Yuri mused.

“Maybe they’re shifting strategies,” Connor said.

“Or it could be a personal grudge,” James said.

“I haven’t done anything lately to piss off any of the New Gods. Most offensive thing I’ve done is to eighty-six a couple of assholes from the club, and that’s not worth killing over. At least, not worth arranging a hit as sophisticated at this.”

Yuri rubbed his chin.

“Have any of you guys heard anything about the New Gods hunting former STS members?”

“Not me,” Karim said.

“Me neither,” Zen replied.

“The Sinners and the Guild have it out for me, but that’s because I’m helping the Sheriff, not because I’m former STS,” James said. “Well, that, and I slagged a few of their guys while protecting the Sheriff.”

“Could be both,” Kayla said.

He shrugged. “Could be. On the other hand, they haven’t touched my folks, and in my recent interactions with them, they haven’t gone to guns. They hate me, but they don’t want to kill me. Or can’t.”

“Yet.”

“Yet,” James agreed, “but we don’t see any signs of a hit in the works.”

“Same here,” Karim said. “The Court and the Pantheon have been sniffing around, but they’re not actively casing the area or sending in killers.”

“None of the guys on the other teams told me anything about death threats or attempted hits,” Kayla said. “Have you?”

Yuri shook his head. “Nothing.”

“Maybe only one of the New Gods are after you,” Kayla said.

“Yeah, but which? Steele wants to imply that it’s the Shadow Court, but I’m not going to act without evidence,” Connor said. “Shit, there’s no hard proof that the New Gods are involved in the hit in the first place. We need to find it or explore other possibilities.”

“A wise choice,” James said. “We have to consider the possibility that Steele wants to use you as an expendable shooter, the same way the handler is using Cowan and his crew.”

“There’s a lot we don’t know about the situation. We have to know what’s going ton before we act. When we do, it’s going to shake things up with the New Gods. Permanently,” Yuri said.

“We’ve already tangled with them twice in the past year and a half,” Kayla said. “The first time, nothing could be attributed directly to us. The second time, they know James and I were protecting the Sheriff. Now… We pull the trigger again, we can’t pin the violence on internecine warfare, and the Liberated will know we’re responsible.”

“You can bet Steele was recording your conversation,” Karim said.

“I was recording him too,” Connor said.

“Send me a copy. I’ll back it up on the Swarm decentralized storage blockchain. They won’t be able to make it disappear,” Zen said.

“Roger that,” Connor replied.

“No matter what we do, we have to act carefully, but decisively. If this is going to bring down heat on us, on every STS operator, we need to protect ourselves,” Yuri said.

“And make it worth it,” Connor added.

“Of course.”

“What’s our next step?” Kayla asked.

Connor smiled.

“I’ve got a few ideas.”

In their glory days, Team Black Watch was a force to be reckoned with. Check out their stories in BABYLON BLUES!

River of Blood Chapter 4

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