End in Fire
Even in Riveria, there were still oases of privacy, unobserved by the growing population of surveillance cameras. Among them was Hatfield Park.
Running along the banks of the Minato River, it was once a historic battlefield, in the pre-Cataclysm days when the peoples of the region made war on each other before finally agreeing to peace terms. Today it was a verdant stretch of green hills and pavilions, light woods and walking trails. The lamp posts were antiquated, lacking the sensors and transmitters of their modern counterparts. The few cameras here were mounted at the park facilities.
The parking lot was not among them.
At ten in the evening, the parking lot was practically deserted. Past the entrance, there were only a couple of cars and a single motorbike. Bushes lined the perimeter of the park. Trees rooted in little islands further segmented the park into columns.
Connor pulled up into the nearest empty lot. Dug out a burner phone from his wallet. Dialed a number.
Hit the call button.
“Yeah,” Zen said.
“I’m in position. Send it.”
In addition to the Cowan dossier, Steele had given him a phone number. He could be reached day or night there, Steele promised. While he kept the phone off most of the time, he checked his messages and mails frequently.
As Taylor fled his club, Connor composed a text message for Steele, requesting a call. Zen prepped it, inserting a surprise into the code. Now Zen sent the mail, masquerading the origin as Connor’s burner.
Holding the phone in both hands, Connor scanned the lot, now seeing it through the eyes of a killer. An ambush predator. He mentally divided the lot into three sections, near, center and far, and identified areas with good camouflage and low visibility. He thought about the approaches, how he would secure them, how he would eliminate—
The phone rang.
The caller was a long string of numbers. A virtual phone number. Might be Taylor, might be some rando. He took a chance and answered the call.
And said nothing.
“It’s me. You wanted to talk?”
“Steele?” Connor asked.
“I took out Cowan and his crew a few hours ago.”
“I read about a gunfight in Uptown. That was you? Congratulations.”
“It’s not over yet.”
“I only eliminated the hitters. The shot caller is still in play. I need help finishing the job.”
Amusement crept into Steele’s voice.
“The shot caller is Tom Taylor. Owner of the Prism nightclub, and a high-ranking member of the Pantheon.”
“How did you identify him?”
“I found a burner phone, traced the number in its call history, and hacked the device associated with it.”
“You’re sure it’s Taylor?”
“I listened in to a call. His friend in the PD called him ‘Mr. Taylor’. In his work emails, he signed off as Thomas Taylor. I tracked the device too, and placed it at the Prism. I’m positive.”
“Alright. Why do you need help finishing him?”
“His protection detail hustled him home. I just did a drive-by. He’s got two guards and a dog patrolling the premises. There’s at least two more bodyguards on his detail. He’s a hard target. I can’t reach him. Not with the resources I have at my disposal.”
“And you want us to help you?”
Connor sighed, the sound of a man swallowing his pride.
“You’re an extremely resourceful man. I’m surprised you can’t figure out a way to finish the job.”
“Taylor told his bodyguard to take him to his safe room. I’m going to need special tools to breach it. Tools I don’t have at my disposal.”
“You think we have those tools?”
“You’re the Liberated, after all. Oh, and I need backup too.”
He made it sound casual, as if an afterthought. Steele laughed into his ear.
“We have access to the resources you need. But I wonder, why should we help you?”
“You said you wanted justice. To avenge Sharon.”
“Cowan and his crew killed her. You killed them. Justice has been done.”
“No. They were only the trigger pullers. Taylor gave the word.”
“She was killed by accident, Mr. Connor. Taylor didn’t order her death. That meant the crew, and only the crew, was responsible for her death.”
“You’re going to cut me loose?”
“Our deal has concluded satisfactorily.”
“Not until Taylor is dead. And you said you’d protect me from my enemies.”
“Which is why neither the RPD nor the other New Gods are hunting you now, Mr. Connor. We have held up our end of the bargain.”
“It’s not over. Taylor is still alive.”
“But Sharon’s killers are not. Thus, we are done. However… I am open to making another deal.”
“Work for us, Mr. Connor.”
“Why should I?”
“The Liberated looks after its own, but outsiders… well, my authority only extends so far. But if you join us, you become one of us. You will enjoy our protection, and complete access to our resources.”
“I already told you what I thought about praying to Namanah.”
“You don’t have to if you don’t want to. Namanah is a generous goddess. She wishes only her children to be free. Likewise, you will be free to worship her, or not, whichever you prefer.”
“What do you want from me?”
“Nothing more than what I’ve already told you. I am simply offering you the opportunity to make full use of your gifts and abilities, and in exchange be amply rewarded. And, yes, protected as well.”
“You want me to kill for the Liberated.”
“Mr. Connor, you’re in a difficult position. The New Gods are hunting you, and you no longer have the protection of the state. Without a god or the government on your side, your enemies will find you, and destroy you. Or worse. It’s only a matter of time.
“Even if you kill Taylor by yourself, all you have done is made yourself an even bigger threat to your enemies. The Pantheon will bring out the big guns. They won’t rest until you’re dead. And all the other enemies you’ve made along the way will seize the opportunity to fish in troubled waters.
“You, a mere human, cannot hope to stand up to the fury of the New Gods. You don’t have to. Let us help you.”
“You make it sound like I have no choice.”
“You are always free to walk away, Mr. Connor. But this is the last time I will extend this opportunity to you. If you refuse, I cannot help you anymore. You will be alone in the dark, with gods and monsters chasing you. You don’t want this, do you?”
Connor clicked his tongue and said nothing.
“I don’t envy your position, Mr. Connor. Let me ask you this: have you ever wondered why the Pantheon is after you?”
“They see me as a threat.”
“Yes, but why?”
“You should know why. When we roll, the STS doesn’t discriminate.”
“Exactly. You’ve made war on the New Gods. Including, yes, the Liberated, but we are willing to forgive that. The others… not so much.
“Your enemy is not merely the Pantheon. It is every one of the New Gods—except us, of course. They fear and hate you, but they also want you on their side precisely because the other gods fear and hate you.
“We are willing to give you a choice, Mr. Connor. We are also prepared to compensate you handsomely for your services. The rest of the New Gods will attempt to press you into their service, those that don’t have a kill-on-sight order on you. They won’t give you a choice. They’ll use their biotech and magic to brainwash you into becoming a mindless slave. You’ve seen it yourself with the Void Collective and the Singularity Network. I assure you, the other gods have their own methods of achieving the same results.
“We despise that. We believe in freedom for all people. But we are the only one among the New Gods who respects freedom. Your freedom. We will never ask you to do anything that goes against your principles, only jobs that benefits us both.
“This is the best offer you’re ever going to get. You won’t be able to run and hide forever. The Pantheon found you, we found you, and that means all the other New Gods will find you sooner or later. They will not extend the same courtesy to you as I did.
“Now is the decision point, Mr. Connor. Work with us, and we will protect you against the wrath of the New Gods.”
Connor pursed his lips.
“Just one question for you.”
“Was this why you reached out to me in the first place? To recruit me?”
“I won’t deny that my superiors are interested in you. Even Namanah herself is interested in you. However, in the wake of the Temple Commission’s activities, we found it prudent to… shall we say, prioritize critical activities over others. Hunting you was not among them.
“When we heard of the attempted hit at the bar, we saw an opportunity to reach out to you, and hopefully secure a mutually beneficial agreement. Which is why I’m talking to you now.”
“And if I hadn’t accepted the offer? Would you have killed me?”
Steele laughed humorlessly.
“I am a Warden of Namanah. My sacred duty is to protect her and her children. Anyone who poses a threat to the Liberated must be eliminated. When we met, you were not a threat. Thus I chose to stay my hand. Should the circumstances change, however, my calculations must change too.”
Roundabout way of saying ‘yes’.
“If you help me, what happens next?”
“I thought you said you only had one question?”
“It’s a follow-up.”
“We must strike against a member of the Pantheon. We will shield you from the investigation and possible retaliation, and when the coast is clear, offer you more work. But only if you accept our offer.”
Connor sucked in a deep breath.
Blew it out.
“Wonderful. Tell me, what do you need?”
“You’ve got pen and paper?”
“Don’t worry. Just tell me what you require.”
“Breaching explosives. Detcord, shock tube, water bladder, duct tape, a complete explosives method of entry kit. Vehicles, one to get to the site, another to get away. And backup.”
“At least five hostiles on site, all of whom could be Elect. Plus the dog. There’s no way in hell I can take them alone. I need a team of assaulters. Shooters who can be counted on to get the job done. Make sure they’re kitted up for an assault. Body armor, automatic weapons, the whole nine yards. Send Elect, too. Oh, and a crew of cleaners too, for when this is over.”
“You’re asking a lot.”
“You want this done or not?”
“You’re far more motivated to do this than us.”
“We do this right, we take out a Pantheon shot-caller. That leaves you free to muscle in on his legit business. But that means we need the right people and the right gear for the job.”
“You’ll join the assault team too.”
“I’ll lead it.”
“They’re not going to take well to that.”
“I’ve got more experience fighting the New Gods than any ten of your Wardens put together.”
“From any other man, it’s a bold claim. From you… an understatement.”
“Which is why I’m in charge.”
“I’ll let the team know about our arrangements. And that you’ll be joining the Liberated.”
“Understood. How long do you need to make this happen?”
“I thought you represented Namanah?”
“Yes, but making the necessary arrangements still takes time. Plus, I cannot guarantee we’ll have the explosives you requested. You may have to improvise.”
“Get me what you can. We’ll make do with what we can get.”
“Call me when you’re set. I’ll send you the details for our rally point.”
“See you tomorrow.”
Connor clicked off.
It was done. There was no turning back now. From here on out, this could only end in fire.
He climbed out of his car and popped the trunk. Inside was a collection of bags, recovered from his long-term gear storage. He switched on his flashlight, found the bag he needed, and slung it over his shoulder. Then he reached deep into the trunk and pulled out a folding shovel.
Never, ever, trust the New Gods. They trafficked in flesh and corrupted the soul. Sign on with them and you lose everything that made you who you were. The Liberated was no different. They merely made the choice feel like your decision, the only decision you could make. He’d seen it with his own eyes more times than he could count. When dealing with the New Gods, always have an insurance policy.
This was his.
In another life, Will Connor would never have cut a deal with the New Gods. Yet here he is now. Check out his story here!