The Lotus Palace
The Sentinel howled through the storm-drenched night, its sirens blending with the background choir of a hundred scattered alarms. Karim hit the gas, pushing the armored gravtruck as fast as he dared, climbing higher and higher into the night.
Next to him, Yamamoto worked the radio, firing a series of orders.
“All BPD call signs, this is Black Watch, PSB STS. We’re taking the call at the Lotus Palace.”
“Black Watch, BPD Control. Roger that. Be advised, TAC is en route. Do you need backup?”
‘TAC’ was the call sign of BPD SWAT.
“Negative,” Yamamoto replied. “Pull back and cordon the scene. We’re coming in hot.”
“No can do, Black Watch. First responders have made entry.”
Pride swelled Karim’s heart. The unis always got the short end of the stick. They didn’t have the best gear or training, but if something went down in Babylon, be it a fleeing robber or an active killer, they would go. Outnumbered and outgunned, maybe, but they were never outmanned.
“Control, advise all first responders, suspects are to be considered armed and extremely dangerous. If they respond, they do so at their own risk.”
“Copy that, Black Watch.”
Yamamoto shook his head. “The unis will get slaughtered. Step it up, rookie.”
“Hang on,” Karim said.
He tilted the cyclic.
The Sentinel swooped down from the heavens, shooting past and in between glittering high-rises and tricked-out gravcars. The safety harness squeezed Karim’s chest. The road rushed up to meet him. Alerts echoed in the cockpit.
At the last second, Karim pulled up. The Sentinel responded instantly, killing her velocity and coming to rest two inches above an empty patch of road. He powered down the rotors, gently landing the armored gravtruck.
“Not bad, rookie,” Fox called. “Finally grew a pair, eh?”
Karim blanched. Yamamoto chuckled.
“Let’s go, rookie,” he said.
Karim donned his balaclava and up-armored helmet, grabbed his M83A1 and stepped out into the thunderstorm.
The Zhonghua District was unlike any other district in Babylon. Everywhere he looked, neon signs bearing strange ideograms shouted in gold and red and green. Lanterns strung across the streets bobbed and swayed in the wind. A ten-story pagoda towered over him, its eaves lit in gaudy scarlet and emerald. Right above the front door, a nameboard yelled ‘The Lotus Palace’ in English and other languages.
A window on the eighth floor shattered. Glass showered the sidewalk, accompanying a dark object. Karim leapt out of the way just as it hit the sidewalk with a heavy CRACK.
It was a cop. A uniformed cop, in vest and duty belt, one of the first responders. He was splayed on the drenched asphalt, limp and boneless, his eyes rolled up to the back of his head. Blood pooled around his skull. Ugly gashes ran down both arms.
Karim stepped out of the way. Fox brushed past him, kneeling over the body, touching a finger to his nose. She had, he realized, removed the trigger finger from her glove. Fox shifted her finger to the cop’s throat.
“No pulse, no breath!” Fox reported.
A primal, atavistic bellow issued from the Lotus Palace. It was a sound that belonged millions of years in the dim and distant past, a sound that surged from the belly of some thing that should not have been resurrected.
A thundercrack followed, furious and deafening, like the shout of an angry god. White-blue light flashed through the darkened windows. The thunderbolt had come from inside the building.
“On me!” Yamamoto called. “We’re going in!”
Yamamoto and Connor held the double doors open. The bot, its M83A1 now sporting a short barrel, burst into the lobby. The operators followed it, sticking to the walls.
Illuminated in dim red light, Karim saw shadows at every turn. Dragons and phoenixes adorned the walls and ceiling and decorative pillars. In nooks and crannies, he saw luxurious leather couches and dark wooden tables. Drinks and ash trays and empty syringes and pads lay scattered across the tables and floor.
A long stage and runway dominated the left-hand wall. Every piece of furniture was subtly oriented towards the stage. A booth stood at the far end of the room, next to the elevator and the stairs, serving as the reception counter.
Thick frosted glass protected the booth, but Karim borrowed Galen’s eyes and peered closer, and saw a green-gold-orange aura.
“Subject behind the booth,” Karim whispered. “Female, curled up under a desk.”
Wood approached the reception counter, Karim by his right shoulder. The others fanned out, covering the stairs and elevator and door, while Yamamoto updated BPD dispatch.
“Hello?” Wood called out. “This is the STS! You can come out! You’re safe now!”
“Go away!” the civilian shouted. “How do I know you’re STS?”
“Ma’am, you can stay where you are, but we need to know what happened. Did you see the bad guy?”
“I don’t know anything! I just heard… Oh God, I heard screaming! Shouting! People dying and running and that, that awful roar!”
As if on cue, a saurian scream reverberated in the building, a roar filled with rage and hate. The woman yelped.
“Oh my God oh my God oh my God—”
Wood shook his head. “She’s not going be of help. Rookie, what can you see?”
Karim looked straight up.
Hundreds, thousands, of shimmering streams filled his sight with every color of the rainbow. There were so many he didn’t know where to begin. He pushed through the dazzling mess, looking back in time, looking for—
The dark, roiling, unnatural perversion that was the human crocodile. Karim focused, and the stream resolved into an image. The Husk had lumbered through the front door, shoved past everyone who tried to greet him, and headed upstairs. Locking on to the blob of color, Karim examined the Aether in real time. High above him, a brown blob blundered through a mist of faded energies, chasing a crackling blazing ball of incandescent blue light.
“He’s upstairs,” Karim said. “He’s chasing a second subject.”
“Which level?” Wood demanded.
“I don’t know,” Karim admitted. “Follow me! I’ll lead us to him!”
Carbine at the ready, Karim bounded up the stairs, hot in the Husk’s wake, going as fast he dared, not so fast he would gas out before the fight. The drone trotted ahead of him, sensors and weapon scanning, tracking him through his IFF beacon. As he followed the clockwise flow of the stairwell, out the corner of his eye, he saw Yamamoto right behind him.
Chaos greeted him at every landing. Blood on the floor and holes in the walls. Shattered bodies and severed limbs. People cowered in their rented rooms. Heavy perfume commingled with waste and death.
Someone had to pay for this.
Up and up and up he went, carbine aimed high. He stuck to the outer edge of the stairs, keeping his back to a solid wall, carefully angling and stepping to slice the pie and minimize his exposure. High above, the Husk roared again, and once again thundercracks answered him.
On the fifth floor, a fat old man blundered into his sights. Right behind him were a pair of nubile women. None of them had a stitch of clothing on.
“STS! Get clear!” Karim shouted, dropping his carbine and gesturing to his side.
The civilians froze, their mouths dropping. He brushed past the male and lightly nudged him down the stairs, just enough to signal that he should get going, then did the same to the closer of the two women.
“Keep moving!” Fox yelled. “Get out of here now!”
Karim spiraled around the stairs again, running in the Husks’s wake. On the eighth floor, the Husk stepped out into the landing and made a hard right turn.
“He’s here,” Karim said. “On me.”
Doors. Doors in every direction. The Husk had bashed his way through a door to the team’s right, leaving shattered wood all over the floor, but his soulstream veered sharply clockwise, passing through the wall into the next room. And the next. And the next.
“Where is he now?” Yamamoto demanded.
Karim couldn’t tell. In the timestream he saw men and women and courtesans and other things walking and swaggering and crawling and swooping through the material world and the Aether, he heard laughter and shouts and giggles and screams and crying, he smelled overly-strong cologne and subtle perfumes and stale sweat and other fluids, there was so much, too much to tell, and just parsing through it all was making his head spin.
“Gimme a sec,” Karim said. “He smashed his way through the walls. I need to—”
“ZT, go active!” Yamamoto ordered.
The drone’s sensor head rotated through a full three hundred and sixty degrees. Images flashed across Karim’s eyeshields. Blue auras surrounded his fellow operators. Yellow figures appeared, unarmed civilians hiding behind doors and inside the rooms, and winked out as they exited his field of view.
“Tango, black eleven!” Tan reported.
Karim oriented to his eleven o’clock. A hulking form, a hulking saurian colored in solid scarlet, materialized in his HUD, strutting towards a yellow figure curled up into a ball.
“Come out, come out, wherever you are!” the Husk shouted.
And that meant the Husk hadn’t seen his target. Or the STS team.
“Bravo, breach, bang and clear,” Yamamoto said. “Go on Zulu. Alpha, on me.”
Wood, Fox and Tan peeled off, the drone right behind them. Connor and Karim gathered on Yamamoto.
“Rookie, which room did the target pass through before entering the one he’s in now?” Yamamoto asked.
Karim glanced into the past.
“There!” he said, pointing at the door to the left of the target room.
“Enter and clear,” Yamamoto said. “Go soft.”
The door was unlocked. Connor swung the door open quietly. Yamamoto glided in silently, Karim right behind.
Blood covered the carpeted floor and dripped slowly from the ceiling. A collection of body parts and offal covered the floor. Next to a plush bed, someone or something had carved a perfectly circular hole through the wall. At the far corner, right in front of Yamamoto, was another hole.
“I know you’re here!” the crocodile declared, his voice carrying through the opening.
“Zulu,” Yamamoto whispered.
“What was that?!” the Husk shouted, spinning around to face the hole.
A deafening blast resounded in the room beyond. A series of rapid suppressed cracks followed. Yamamoto stormed through the hole, blasting rapid double-taps. Entering the room, Karim went right and turned on his carbine's attached flashlight.
The room was an orgy of focused destruction. Spotlit in circles of dazzling white light, the Husk danced and twitched and shook under the impact of dozens of rounds, every hollowpoint bullet expanding on impact, tunneling through flesh, shattering bone, exploding gore everywhere.
Karim snapped up his carbine, thumb clicking off the safety, found his red dot bright and bold and clear framed against the monster’s chest—
The target vanished.
Lowering his carbine, he saw the Husk lying on its back, bleeding profligately from God alone knew how many wounds.
Suppressed carbines coughed. The body twitched. Its skull burst.
“Clear,” Yamamoto reported.
“Clear!” Fox agreed.
The HUD showed a civilian taking cover inside the bathroom. But he was no mere human; with his other eyes, Karim
beheld swirling flames of blue otherworldly energies emanating from a blazing white body, mingling with harsh bursts of static. The subject sat on the floor, propped against a wall.
His right arm was gone.
“Subject in the bathroom,” Karim said. “He’s an Elect.”
“Copy,” Yamamoto said. “Everyone, stand down and stay clear of the bathroom door. Boomer, ZT, Farmer, you’ve got exterior security.”
The three operators vacated the room. Yamamoto raised his visor and lowered the mandibles. The other operators did the same. Yamamoto warily approached the wooden door, right hand resting on his pistol butt, and firmly pounded the oak with his other hand.
“STS!” Yamamoto called out. “Can you hear me!”
“Yes!” a muffled voice replied.
“We heard a Husk was chasing you just now. He’s done. You’re safe now.”
The subject turned his head a fraction. Then his arm sagged to his side. But the eldritch energy continued flowing through him.
“He still has his power on tap,” Karim advised.
“Got it,” Yamamoto whispered. In a louder voice, he said, “Sir, do you need medical assistance?
“Yes,” the subject replied.
“We’re coming in!”
Yamamoto opened the door and stepped in. Karim peered over his shoulder.
The subject was once a man, but he had given up his humanity long ago. Hard metal discs protruded from his temples. His wide unblinking eyes glowed a cold gray. His right arm had been torn off, the stumps covered in a silvery paste. More paste covered scratches and slashes and gouges across his legs and torso. He wore only a pair of blue-striped boxers, ripped across the thighs, and an improbably huge ball bulged from his crotch.
And embedded in his forehead, above and in between his eyes, sunk deep within a metal-lined recess, was a spherical camera with an unblinking lens. A third eye.
“Sir, how badly are you injured?” Yamamoto asked.
“My medical nanopaste reserves are depleted, my primary energy cell is drained, and I have switched to my secondary cell.”
“But you’re wounded,” Yamamoto said.
“Do not worry about damage to my chassis. I have sealed the wounds with medical nanopaste. My vitals are stable, I have no broken bones, and my critical systems are operational or running on backup. Do not concern yourself with first aid; I have done more than anything you could possibly do.”
“Got it.” Looking over his shoulder, Yamamoto added, “Deadeye, contact Control, have them send for EMTs.”
“I do not require human aid,” the cyborg said dispassionately. “I hold a Dustoff card. An extraction team will be here shortly.”
Dustoff International was a new breed of private ambulance service. The second a cardholder activated his panic button, or if his biomonitor went critical, a gravtruck would come screaming to the rescue, laden with highly-trained, well-equipped paramedics. No place too dangerous, no zone off-limits. And every medic was heavily armed and armored. For self-defense, of course.
“The EMTs are for the other casualties,” Yamamoto said. “Sir, what’s your name?”
“Alpha Epsilon Eight-Two-Two of Shard Seven, Babylon, Superuser of the Singularity Network.”
That explained the hadware. And while the cyborg was looking at Yamamoto, Karim had the uncanny feeling that its third eye was staring right at him.
“What’s your birth name?” Yamamoto pressed.
“A fleshly attachment. I have discarded it when the Will of the Net appointed me as Superuser.”
The cyborg stared past Yamamoto, fixing Karim with an unblinking glare.
“You are an Elect,” he said. “I see Galen the Wolf in you. Why do you serve on the Psycho Squad?”
“It is my calling,” Karim replied.
The man-machine laughed. But his voice was hollow and shallow, not quite matching the awkward flapping of his lips.
“I see the Psycho Squad isn’t entirely prejudiced against the New Gods. Merely the most powerful.”
“Sir, barely an hour ago, a Husk slaughtered a family of six in their homes,” Yamamoto pressed. “A family belonging to your Network. Another Husk attacked you just now. What enemies has the SN made?”
“We seek to give form to the Deus Ex Machina and ascend to the heaven that awaits us in the melding of realspace and cyberspace. Regrettably, there are so many who wish us to remain imprisoned in mere flesh.”
“You’re a Superuser,” Yamamoto said. “You’ve got direct access to the Will of the Net. And there are at least two more Husks on the loose. If you or it can’t give me answers, more of your fellows will die tonight.”
“My access to operational information is limited. However, I can tell you that this attack caught us completely by surprise. There have been no indications of an offensive from the other Major Powers of Babylon.”
“What were you doing here anyway?” Karim interjected.
The cyborg blinked.
“To discard the flesh, I must first know it.”
“The Husk who attacked you knew you were here,” Karim said. “He came here directly from his hideout. Someone, something, has been watching you and your Net. You don’t know who?”
“I am unaware of such a threat.”
If he were human, he was lying. His voice was monotonous, his face flat, his eyes fixed forward. It was the sign of someone dampening his natural body reactions. But this guy was a cyborg, and cyborgs didn’t play by the same rules. Hell, Karim was sure Alpha Epsilon Blah-Blah-Blah wasn’t even breathing. Not the way humans did.
“Best get the word out,” Yamamoto said. “A Dark Power is targeting members of the SN. Get them to safety.”
“The Network has sent a citywide sanctuary order thirty-six minutes and eighteen seconds ago. All members of the Network are reporting to their nearest Shard for… Oh.”
“What is it?”
“Shard One reports a pair of Husks are attempting to break in. You should hurry.”
“Where’d you get that from?” Karim asked.
The cyborg tapped his temple. “The Grid connects us all. It is our greatest strength. Greater than any pack you may belong to.”
The SN had its own intranet, accessible only through their unique implants, which they called the Grid. It was completely opaque to outsiders, but Intelligence suspected it served as a parallel Internet to the public Net.
Fox’s muffled voice carried into the room.
“Dustoff! Dustoff! Do not interfere!”
“This is a security operation! DO NOT MOVE!”
“It’s time for you to go,” the cyborg said.
“Black Watch, stand down,” Yamamoto radioed. “We’ve got bigger fish to fry.”
Karim followed Yamamoto out the room. The rest of the team was waiting for them. Heavy boots pounded up the steps, revealing a quartet of gunmen in solid green utilities. Karim tensed, until he saw the Dustoff International logo patches on their arms.
The medics wore massive backpacks mated to plate harnesses, and were no less armed and armored than the STS team. They were operators in their own right, no doubt as skilled at taking life as they were at saving it.
Yamamoto thumbed over his shoulder. “Your client’s over there.”
They brushed past him without saying a word.
“You’re welcome!” Fox yelled at their backs.
“We’re done here,” Yamamoto said. “Let’s go.”
If you like stories that blend sci fi, fantasy, horror and authentic combat, check out my latest novel HAMMER OF THE WITCHES.
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