Ring of Steel
People said Babylon never slept. Here, it came closest to slumber. As the sun set, the district wound down operations. Lights extinguished by the scores. Cars and buses flowed out of the neighborhood, southwards to the suburbs, north to the town of North Valley. People abandoned the streets. By midnight, only ghosts walked the streets of the neighborhood.
Kayla and Zen had spent the intervening hours on watch. Thirty minutes on, thirty off, rotating shifts to maintain alertness. For hours they had lain in absolute silence and inhuman stillness, their attention focused on the streets below them.
Sweat drenched Kayla’s clothing. Her thighs and armpits itched. Stray strands of hair tickled her neck. Her bones ached. The chameleon camouflage blanket trapped heat under its heavy mass, and the still air offered no relief. The one comfort she allowed was scentless insect repellent, but it was starting to wear off. A curious fly buzzed around the hide, a harbinger of swarms to come.
All this she acknowledged and released. They were sensory phenomenon, no different from the loamy smell of the earth, the hard plastic grip of her railgun, the reinforced fabric of her clothes. Any perception of discomfort was merely that: perception, no more. She could choose to assign no importance to this perception, and so she did.
After New Operator Training School, she had trained alongside the snipers of the STS. While she hadn’t quite made the cut as a sniper herself, instead being assigned as a team sharpshooter, the instructors deemed her worthy of cross-training. Although the STS preferred to deploy dedicated snipers whenever it could, the dynamic nature of its operations meant that the team sharpshooter might be pressed into sniper duties.
Cross-training was no less rigorous. She’d spent long hours stalking across harsh terrain, longer hours lying in the wet and the cold waiting for a momentary target. Compared to that, this was nothing.
She took her eye off the scope. It was Zen’s time on watch again. She blinked, exhaled, tilting her head left to right. North Valley Industrial Park continued to snooze.
Alex exercised incredible light and noise discipline. No light leaked from the inside of his rented warehouse. Every gap had been closed off, every window blacked out with heavy blinds. The fuel cell stack was soundless, and what little noise the printers made remained inside the warehouse. From the outside, there was no sign of life.
Something prickled the edges of her hearing. Just beyond audible range. Her eyeshields dutifully amplified the noise, but only barely. A slight wind whispering through the leaves, maybe, but that sound felt… wrong.
She closed her eyes and listened.
Crickets sang to each other. A lonely frog croaked. A dog howled in response.
And there was that sound again, slowly growing louder and clearer.
“Do you hear that?” Kayla whispered.
“Hear what?” Zen asked.
“That sound. Coming from… above.”
A soft, rhythmic, mechanical purring, high in the sky, its regularity cutting through the organic chaos of the sounds around her, its cry achingly familiar…
A gravity mirror.
Her heart skipped a beat. Heat surged through her, dispelling built-up fatigue. Her eyes widened.
“Do you hear it?” she whispered.
“I hear it now,” Zen said.
“Possible. Gonna call it in.”
“I’ll watch the street.”
She went to glass and dialed it up to 2X. Enough to magnify her view without compromising peripheral vision too much. Starting with the warehouse, she brought her optics through ever-widening spirals, studying the lifeless streets.
“Alex, it’s ZT. We’re hearing a drone overhead. Stay sharp,” Zen whispered.
He listened to the response. She continued scanning, scanning everything within a three block perimeter. Four. Five…
“Contact,” she whispered.
Five blocks north of the warehouse, a pair of black trucks stopped by the side of the road. Men poured out the back, organizing themselves into a large squad.
“Two trucks five blocks north of the objective,” Kayla said. “Men are climbing out. Looks like—”
As one, they extended their hands.
“—they’re holding out their hands?” she finished.
She snapped up to 8X zoom, focusing on the closest figure. Illuminated in the streetlights, a tiny black circle materialized before his outstretched palm. It was a hole of perfect darkness, a hole in reality, sucking in the light, sucking in everything around it.
And sucked him in.
The man shrank into a tiny mote, a tiny flash of light, hurtling into the throat of the black hole. The hole gobbled him in and collapsed into itself.
She swept the scope through a circle. All the other men were gone.
“They teleported. They’re Void Collective!” she reported.
She snapped back to 1X and switched on her clip-on thermal imager. The world dissolved into stark shades of cold black and hot white. She swung back to the warehouse, a cold hand gripping her heart.
A dozen men surrounded the warehouse. They had popped out of thin air, without warning, without indication. Forming up into small groups, they stacked on the doors.
“The warehouse is compromised! Two teams of six shooters are stacking on each entrance!” Kayla said.
Curses echoed in her head. Alex had failed. The VC must have traced the hack here. To his laptop.
But that was alright. They’d anticipated this. They’d planned for it. Now they need only execute.
“Alex says he’ll deal with it. Look for the drone,” Zen said.
She snapped the zoom back to 1X, pushed herself up into a kneeling position, and turned her weapon to the source of the sound.
Explosions echoed in the street. Full-auto gunfire followed. Startled, she twitched, but her finger remained far from the trigger. She swept left to right, up and down, left eye closed, right eye staring at a sea of black.
A dot of white.
She returned to 8X. The dot became a bright white circle against a dim triangle. A flying wing, circling in a lazy orbit.
She clicked the fire selector up to full power. Let her brain run a thousand calculations, resolving questions of range, velocity, ballistics. She led the target by half a length, elevated her weapon by fifteen degrees, emptied her lungs, fired.
The railgun screamed.
The target picture jumped.
The flying wing wobbled.
She led the target again. The LED flashed red. She waited, tracking the flying wing, hearing a furious firefight filter from the street below. She inhaled, held her breath a tic, exhaled halfway, releasing everything she heard and sensed, everything that wasn’t the target or the light.
The LED flashed green.
The flying wing vanished.
She zoomed back out. The drone careened drunkenly through the air, fighting bravely but futilely against the forces of gravity, spiraling towards the earth, down and down and down, and struck the ground with a muted white flash. The sound of the crash followed a few seconds later.
“Drone down,” she reported.
“Nice shot,” Zen said.
“How is Alex?”
“Alive. They beat back the shooters.”
Heaving a sigh of relief, she lay back down, pulled the chameleon camouflage blanket over her head, and scanned the area around the warehouse.
Bodies lay broken on the sidewalk, slowly cooling. Shallow craters by the doors showed where small bombs had gone off. The windows had shattered, leaving tattered blinds. Light spilled out from the broken glass, staining the world white.
The Angels must have opened the windows and dropped grenades or explosives among the stack of VC commandos. After the bombs went off, they sprang out, gunned down the survivors, then retreated to safety. Exactly what she would have done. Still…
“The position is compromised. More VC commandos will be showing up soon. They must go. Now,” Kayla said.
“Roger that. I’ll pass it on,” Zen said.
She was the shooter, he was the spotter. He ran interference for her so she could service targets. As Zen spoke, she swept the streets surrounding the warehouse, looking for signs of threats.
Two blocks east, a black hole appeared under a streetlight. A hole of absolute cold, colder then world, showing up as a circle blacker than the background. A white spark flashed through the circle, growing larger and larger, brighter and brighter—
A man stepped out, fully formed, a carbine in his hands.
“Commando, two blocks east of the warehouse, streetlight by the stop sign,” she reported.
“There could be more of them,” Zen said.
More and more and more commandos stepped out into the world. Five, ten, fifteen, twenty, occupying the roads and intersections around the warehouse, forming a ring of steel.
“They’re cordoning off the warehouse,” she said.
“We’ve got to help them break out,” he said.
Zen whispered into his eyeshields. Then he turned to her.
“North,” Zen said.
“North, roger. Engaging.”
She dialed her sights to 4X. The VC commandos were bright blobs the size of her thumb. She bisected the closest target with her crosshairs, planting it on his center of mass, and fired.
The railgun roared. The stock punched her shoulder. The ultra-high-velocity flechette slammed into the target. He shuddered, went slack, and keeled over on his face.
She swiveled left, looking for the commando’s partner. He crouched beside the engine block of a parked car, frantically scanning the area. Good thinking, but wrong angle. He was completely exposed to her. Her shot caught him in the upper torso. He slumped over the hood and went still.
Aimed, single shots cracked off in the night. White flashes popped from the warehouse windows. The Angels, engaging other threats in every direction.
Kayla swung her weapon down, sweeping the length of her street. Two blocks south of the warehouse, a VC commando huddled behind a streetlight. A second teleported himself up on the roof of a nearby building and went prone by the parapet.
Her crosshairs found the roof shooter. She waited half a tic, saw the light flash green, fired.
The flechette dumped its energy within him, tumbling and fragmenting and exploding into a cone of destruction. He jerked. His head lolled to the side. He went still.
She swiveled left, looking for the other commando. He wasn’t at the streetlight. He wasn’t behind nearby vehicles. He wasn’t on the streets. He wasn’t at the warehouse.
He was gone.
Dialing down to 2X, she swept her sights through a large circle. The commandos were falling back, teleporting behind hard cover.
“The roads are clear,” she said.
“Roger, I… Fuck.”
“The trail cameras. VC commandos teleported into the woodline north of the clearing. A squad of them. They’re massing for an assault.”
How the hell had they found them so fast? Chameleon camouflage was undetectable. The railgun was suppressed. Ordinary humans would have a devil of a time finding them. Were the commandos carrying shot detectors too?
“We are leaving,” Kayla declared.
She rose to her feet. The blanket spilled off her. Zen got up into a crouch, covering her back.
“They’re holding position for now. Looks like they’re waiting for reinforcements,” he said.
She gathered up the chameleon camouflage blanket, working entirely by feel. She didn’t want to leave it behind and let a VC-aligned cop recover DNA fragments from it.
“Alex, ZT. Our position is compromised. We are leaving,” Zen reported.
She ran her fingers down one length of the blanket until she found a corner. Then did the same for the other end. She brought both corners together, gathered the material against her, and ran her hand down the hem, going for the far corner.
“The VC teleported again. Now they’re at the trees. Looks like they’re taking security positions,” Zen continued.
She found the far end of the blanket. She folded it once, twice—
“They found the cameras!” Zen called.
—thrice and now she rolled it up into a bundle and opened her backpack—
“They killed the feed. We have to go!”
And stuffed the blanket inside. She tugged furiously at the zips, squashing the bag and blanket down, compressing everything inside—
The zippers kissed.
“Let’s go!” she said.
“Alex, ZT. We are leaving. RV at Point Alpha,” Zen said.
Cutting through the light forest, they headed north, exchanging stealth for speed. The quarter-moon and light-drowned sky offered scant illumination. Kayla clicked on her eyeshields’ night vision cameras. Grainy black-and-white imagery filled her vision. Terrible for aiming, good enough for navigation.
She followed the lay of the land, dashing from tree to tree, depression to mound. Twigs and dead branches crackled beneath her feet. Crickets fell silent. The heavy backpack jiggled and bounced against her back. She scanned as she ran, sweeping the world ahead, weapon held at the ready.
Up ahead, black circles appeared between the trees.
She ducked behind a tree trunk.
Zen threw himself to the forest floor.
Zen stayed still.
Her heart pounded in her chest. Her hands gripped tightly around her weapon. She held her breath.
A leaf crackled.
Her respirocytes held over two hundred times more oxygen than a red blood cell. She could sprint for fifteen minutes on a single breath. She breathed only to keep the tiny cells recharged, ready for immediate use. She drew on them now, stilling her diaphragm, going completely, totally, still.
A boot scraped against stone.
Zen inched to his left. He lifted a hand, displaced it a little to his left, set it down. Then the other hand. Then his left leg. Right leg. Torso. Repeated.
Lying by the roots of a huge tree, he was almost completely exposed. Only an accident of angles and orientation had saved him from immediate detection. If the commandos had night vision, if they approached him and looked down at the roots, he was done.
Bit by bit, inch by inch, he pulled himself closer to the base of the tree trunk.
Kayla willed herself to become a living rock.
Four lines slashed through the world, hot and bright, splashing into small circles everywhere they touched.
Infrared aiming lasers.
They were coming. The lasers wobbled with every step. A twig crunched. Her heart drummed in her chest, in her head, in her entire body. She felt the blood pulsing through her, surging down vessels and capillaries, feeding organs and viscera, returning to her heart. Zen continued his agonizingly slow quest for cover, hand by hand, foot by foot, slower than a snail.
They were close. She sensed them now, a kind of energy approaching her, pressing up against her own. The air parted as they moved, betraying their movements. A pair of heavy boots shuffled closer, closer, closer.
She pressed herself against the tree trunk.
To her right, a man stepped past the tree. A commando. Helmet, night vision goggles, plate carrier, gloves, assault rifle.
The commando turned.
She released her railgun, grabbed his shoulder with her left hand, pulled him into a web hand throat strike. Cartilage crumpled under the blow. He fell to the ground, tongue clicking, legs flailing, fingers clawing at his injury.
“Contact right!” a commando yelled.
Lasers swept through the world, seeking flesh and bone. Carbines thundered. Kayla threw herself around the trunk. Bullets whizzed past her face. Peeking out, she saw a bright green line shooting from the darkness. She lifted her railgun, saw a white-hot figure hiding behind a trunk, brought up the crosshairs—
Green light washed out her sight.
A shot rang out.
Her vision cleared.
The commando dropped to the floor.
Behind her, Zen unleashed a string of semiauto fire, hosing down the trees, the muffled roar of his weapon louder than the VC’s suppressed shots.
“Deadeye! Break red! Break red!” Zen ordered.
“Moving!” she called.
She sprang off the ground and dashed to her left. Assault rifles chattered, filling the air with high-velocity steel. Aiming lasers darted to and fro. Zen’s UCW, suppressed and high-pitched, struggled to hold them back.
A beam of green light touched her.
She sank to her knees.
A shot rang out.
A bullet whistled past her ear.
She slid the final foot to a fallen log and stopped herself.
“SET!” she called.
“I’m pinned!” Zen called.
The closest commando leaned out around a tree trunk, sweeping his laser towards her. She ducked, shuffled three steps to her right, and popped back up. The commando was now aiming past her left shoulder. She rested her weapon on the rotting wood, clicked down to subsonic, aimed at the bright green light.
The commando went down with a loud curse. His laser went out. She swiveled right, one eye watching the world in night vision, the other in thermal view. She found another commando, kneeling by a rock, aiming with one hand, holding out the other—
Dread filled her heart. Torquing around, she threw herself down—
Green light flashed past her eyes—
Landed on her left bicep, saw a commando kneeling by a depression—
—clicked down to full power—
—He shifted his aim—
The flechette caught him in the center of mass. His trauma plate cracked. The flechette erupted into a shower of fragments, destroying everything inside his chest cavity.
And he dropped.
She exhaled. That was too close.
And a hailstorm of lead smashed into the earth, the wood, everything around her. Screaming, she curled into a ball.
“PINNED! I’M PINNED!”
Zen’s UCW answered with short, sharp bursts.
“BLUE BLUE BLUE!” Zen chanted.
Rounds tore through the world. Zen ignored it, his tiny weapon blazing away. One two three steps and his gun went dry.
“RED! I’M RED!”
He swung around a tree trunk. Gunfire shifted to him, chasing his shadow. Kayla forced herself up, to look for the shooters.
A forest of lasers. Ten, twelve, sixteen, searing through the night.
Enemy reinforcements had arrived.
“Smoke out!” Zen called.
A black cylinder sailed through a high arc, spewing a thick stream of smoke, landing in between a pair of tall trees. Thick smoke spilled out.
Smoke grenades needed time to deploy. In the forest, men yelled orders. Kayla scooted to her left, going for a thick tree—
Autofire broke out. A machine gun, loud and commanding, the bringer of death. It chewed up the log she hid behind, spitting out a cloud of splinters and sawdust.
She sighted down the laser. Clicked the railgun to subsonic. Fired.
Someone cried in pain. She swiveled, shot at another laser source, a third. Zen held fire, observing the firefight, staying away from the lasers.
The VC was a hive mind. Kill one and the others would come for you. They were all networked, sharing senses and information without needing to say a word. To escape them, you had to deny them sensory data.
That meant a silent gun.
The machine gun thundered, ripping out eight- and ten-round bursts. Rifles joined in, hosing down the forest. The commandos were shooting blind, hoping to pin them again with overwhelming firepower. But their shots were wide, tearing up everywhere and anywhere but her hide.
Kayla leaned out again, this time low and to her left, tracing a laser. The narrow circle of the thermal sight showed a short man behind a long bipod-mounted weapon, bracing it against a rock. Next to him, the assistant gunner managed an ammo belt. She zoomed in on the gunner, breathed, placed the crosshairs on his face, exhaled.
The machine gunner died in silence. The assistant gunner reacted instantly, rolling the body away. Kayla fired again, and the subsonic round blasted through his throat and spine.
All at once, the remaining lasers went dark.
And the shooting redoubled.
They’d finally figured out that she and Zen could see in infrared. Now they were trading accuracy for survivability, for weight of fire, hoping to pin them down. Any moment now, they would pinpoint their position and teleport to their flanks. If they hadn’t already done it.
“Smoke is up! Fall back!” Zen asked.
Sweeter words she had never heard.
“Moving!” Kayla shouted.
One thousand, two thousand, three thousand—
She ducked behind a tree.
“Moving!” Zen shouted.
The VC fired at the sound of his voice, but he bolted like greased lightning. Bullets dug divots into the dirt, furrows into the trees, almost but not quite reaching him. A wall of smoke plumed from the grenade, hiding him from the VC.
“Set!” Zen called.
To her ten o’clock, a line of four black circles appeared. The commandos were moving to flank them. She raised her weapon.
The commandos emerged.
She touched the trigger.
She wanted to fire. Every fiber of being demanded that she close her finger around the trigger. But a small part of her told her to stop, to wait, to hold.
The VC took cover.
Trained aiming lasers at her previous position.
They hadn’t noticed Kayla and Zen had moved on.
The flankers took security positions. The other two approached the sturdy tree, weapons raised.
Kayla brought her fingers up to her eyes. The cameras noticed her fingers. She closed the finger for text messages, then slashed her finger across the augmented reality keyboard.
I don’t think they’ve noticed us. Go ghost.
Zen answered with a single letter.
She went prone, pressing herself against the welcoming dirt. Slowly, carefully, she crawled backwards, eyes forward on the opposition, navigating by the soles of her boots.
Oblivious, the search party continued.
Her heels brushed against a thick trunk. She wriggled about, rotating to her right, and carried on.
The smoke screen filled her view. A stray green laser cut through the world, high and to her right.
She kept crawling.
She rounded the unseen tree, then rose to her knees.
The search party stood by their target. Now satisfied she wasn’t there, they rotated through a slow arc, looking for signs of her presence.
An explosion shook the world.
Birds flocked to the sky. Branches rustled. Glass shattered. The VC commandos recoiled, turning to the source of the colossal blast.
Zen was just a few steps ahead of her, also running at top speed. Together, they burst out the tree line, emerging into a steep and narrow trail.
They rushed downhill as fast as they dared. The serpentine switchback wended back and forth, zigging one way, then the other. As she ran, she glanced occasionally over her shoulder.
No one pursued her.
The trail dramatically leveled off, ending in a car park. A black gravtruck waited at the foot of the trail, the gravity mirror whirring. A short, scrawny man stood by the rear door.
“Come on!” Alex yelled.
He threw the rear door open. Kayla and Zen piled inside. Alex slammed the rear door and climbed into the passenger seat.
“Go!” Alex shouted.
“Roger,” the Angel in the driver’s seat replied.
The gravtruck shot into the air and spun around. Kayla and Zen bounced about. Scrambling around, she found a handrail and held on tight.
“Is everyone okay?” Zen asked.
“We lost five Angels.”
“Sorry,” Kayla said.
“Don’t be. They were only bots.”
Through the rear window, Kayla saw tongues of orange fire licking the night, rapidly retreating into the distance. She stared at the sight, trying to match what she was seeing with the map in the head.
And gears clicked.
“The warehouse blew up?” she asked.
“Yes,” Alex said calmly.
“And the biocomputer?” Zen asked.
“Blown up too.”
Zen slammed his palm against a wall.
“Please refrain from damaging the vehicle,” Alex said dryly.
Kayla slumped over. She was no stranger to failure, but defeat always left a bitter taste in her mouth. After all the trouble she went, the killing, the brushes with death… all that was for nothing?
“What happens now?” she asked.
“The mission is complete,” Alex said calmly.
“Complete? What do you mean?”
“I’ll explain later. First, we escape.”
And damn if he didn’t sound smug.
Want more stories of high tech and horror? Check out the prequel BABYLON BLUES!