Silent Wars

Some wars are loud, obvious, and directly draw in millions. This wasn’t one of them. For one of the groups of belligerents, this war could only be won in silence.

Alpha Lead, Alpha Three and Alpha Five had known each other for around half a decade. The three men still didn’t know their co-worker’s real names in case one of them was captured. When Alpha first started, the group had been a DIA-controlled project. Every few months, however, it was shunted to a different intelligence agency and given a different name generated by computer. Then records in the previous controller agency would then be destroyed: paper records shredded then burned, hard drives magnetized, then smashed with a sledgehammer, then tossed on top of the paper pyre. The only surviving copies would go to the POTUS and most likely never be read again.

That was scheduled to happen today. However, before that could happen, Alpha team had something to take care of. As Alpha Three drove the team through the semi-affluent suburb on the US-Mexican border, Lead and Five checked the strange guns that they had received from Lead’s friend. They were unmarked except for the words “Uilon Mangchi Six Millimeter.” Eventually, they pulled up in front of a small ranch house with well-manicured lawn by a bus stop.  Just as Lead and Six got out, a Hispanic man exited the house.

The man suddenly looked up. Then, recognizing Lead and Six, he went for a gun in a concealed holster. He was too late. The world erupted in gunfire as Lead and Five dumped their mags. As the roar finished echoing, Lead could hear children crying and a dog barking. He slid the mag out, then pushed it back in when he saw he still had five bullets remaining, plus one in the chamber. Conscious of the fact that people were mostly still home, he walked over to the body. He didn’t see how the target could live, but he fired five more rounds into the target’s chest and two more into his head just to be sure.

Lead and Five then returned to the car at a brisk pace. Once they were both belted in, Three began to accelerate to a speed about five miles above the limit. While that was going on, Lead and Six inspected themselves for blood.

“So,” Lead asked after they were a safe distance away from the town, “who wants McDonalds?”

“Seconded,” Three said.

 

Their base was a two-story house that was so close to the border that it had nearly been demolished when the US-Mexico border wall was first proposed. When the cost to effectiveness ratio had been found to be… lacking, their outfit had bought the house.

“The bad informant’s been dealt with,” Lead said, “and we brought you some grub.”

Alpha Two who had been busy playing Xbox, looked up. “You know,” he said, “all this fast food’s going to kill us.” Five laughed in response. Two sighed. “I’m serious! You guys’re gonna die of a heart attack way before some whack job gets a bead on us. Anyway, new orders came in.”

“So what’re we being called now?” Alpha Three asked. “Is it as good as Clown Pants?” Everyone laughed. “Dying Death? Mistake Maker?” All of these names were ones that had happened in recent memory, and the men of what had recently been called Prosthetic Rooster found them hilarious.

“Naw, man,” Two said. “We got something boring this time. Silent Wars.”

“Shame,” Lead said. “Anyway, what’s the briefing? And are we getting a replacement for Four?”

“FBI,” Two said. “Apparently, a COINTELPRO operation got fucked up. They tried to infiltrate a mutie group and frame them for terrorism. We need to eliminate them before they go public.”

“They brought COINTELPRO back again?” Three asked. “Didn’t they learn their lesson when they tried to do that with the Civil Rights movement back in the Sixties? Besides, if we do this and get caught, the –”

“The difference is black people don’t shoot lightning out of their anuses! Parahumans do.” Two said. “Is what we’re doing wrong? Yeah. But if these guys talk about it in this election cycle…”

“That’s a bullshit excuse and you know it,” Three said. “If we were going to stabilize things, we’d…”

“Hey!” Lead said. “We’ve got a job to do. Stop talking about potentially fucking treasonous side projects and start planning.” Three and Two made murmurs of agreement, Three somewhat mutinously. Ignoring it, Lead then began to moderate the planning session.

As they began to work, no one noticed a blurry shape place something on the window. The figure waited until the five men inside finished their planning. When they got into their vehicle and began to leave, electricity fizzled, and the blurry outline turned into a short man wearing a black armored bodysuit that covered every inch of skin. His eyes were covered by a helmet, mask, and what seemed to be high-tech goggles.

 

As the car drove on, Lead ran over the plan in his head. Alpha Team would join Charlie and Bravo teams for the raid, which was scheduled for 1700. In the meantime, they had to do something first.

“Kill a Regenerator?” Five asked for what felt like the thousandth time. “We’re under-strength. How are we supposed to kill a Regenerator without AT weapons?”

Lead was sympathetic. Regenerators (or more scientifically, Homo Sapiens Regenerator) were Parahumans that, like Lupines, could heal various injuries at a decidedly inhuman rate. The difference between the two was that when Regenerators healed, their body parts came back different. For instance, if you shot a Regenerator and it didn’t die, it would become a bit more bullet-resistant than the average human. If someone repeated the process enough times, the Regenerator could become pretty much immune to small-arms fire. Also, as a Regenerator mutated, they would gain other abilities, like projectile-vomiting acid. This process was known as biological revolution.

There were, of course, limits. Despite some inhumane tests in the forties and plenty of misguided self-experimentation, there was a limit to how much of a juggernaut a Regenerator could become. Even at their apex, an anti-tank rocket to their chest would yield very impressive results. They also changed physical appearance drastically over time.

“Don’t worry,” Two said. “Intel says he’s still bipedal.”

“Oh, yes,” Five said bitingly. “Because intelligences is never wrong.”

“The problem I’m most worried about,” Lead said, “is if we can dispose of him before the cops come.” Dealing with a Regenerator could get messy. If you simply unloaded a magazine in the general direction of one, they could still get up. If you missed the heart or important parts of the brain, they would get up, and the next time you met, there was a good chance your weapon wouldn’t even penetrate. Currently, standard procedure was to douse a downed regenerator in thermite or sulfuric acid when it was necessary to be sure. However, that took time, and they weren’t exactly allowed to explain to police officers why they were trying to set a freshly murdered corpse on fire with a highly controlled substance.

“Thirty seconds til departure,” Three said. “Get ready.” Everyone else did a final check of their equipment and weaponry. Two had a compact pump-action shotgun loaded with solid slugs. Five had an HK417 battle rifle. Lead had his Uilon Mangchi and a device called a Yale gun. Looking slightly like a pistol, the Yale gun was designed as a kind of training wheel for lock pickers.

By the time the weapons were re-concealed, the car had drifted to a full and complete stop. The men got out of the car in front of a run-down house that was probably half the size of an average ranch house. All of the curtains were drawn. Moving quickly and confidently, they approached the house. Dressed in business clothes and concealing their weaponry under trench coats, no one would suspect a thing, at least until the shooting started. Upon reaching the door, Lead stuck in his Yale gun into the lock and pulled the trigger until he heard a click. He then turned the Yale gun in the keyhole and the lock opened.

When the door was open, they filed into a small hallway. There were five doors, two on the left, three on the right. From down the hall through the mid-right door, they could hear the sound of a washing machine. From the door to the immediate left, they could hear muffled voices. Lead quickly opened it and found a tiny kitchen and dining room combo. Mounted on the wall was a TV playing a person on some sort of soap opera monologuing.

After he checked the corners, he shook his head, indicating to Two and Five that everything was all clear. Then he heard a door open. Immediately, Two and Five opened fire. Lead got out just in time to see a strangely blobby man with odd gray skin stagger back and vomit something out, dropping his load of laundry as he did so. The vomit seemed to be a weird yellowish substance, and it traveled very far. Lead didn’t see it land, but he heard Five scream in pain. There was also the smell of flesh, Kevlar, and carpet burning.

Lead quickly opened fire with his Uilon. This time the gray blob of a man collapsed. Lead spared a half a glance at the rest of his team. Two had dropped his shotgun in disgust, a shell jamming the breech open. Five was crumpled on the floor. The highly caustic substance had eaten away his face and skull and seemed to be working on his brain now.

Turning back to the Regenerator lying on the floor, Lead considered things. If that substance currently eating  away at Five was any indication, it was, at best, a 50/50 chance that sulfuric acid wouldn’t work. “Two,” Lead said, “go out and get the thermite from the trunk.”

As Three left, careful not to step in the puddles of hazardous liquid, Lead advanced to the Regenerator. After putting a few additional bullets into it, he dragged what was hopefully a corpse nearer to where Five lay. He then collected the HK417, Five’s Uilon, and Three’s abandoned shotgun, as well as every other useful item from Five. By that time, Two and Three were back with the can of thermite. They could also hear sirens in the distance.

“Ok,” Lead said, “douse Five and the target in thermite. I’ll store the gear and pull security.”

It only took a few minutes for the fire to start. Three and Two didn’t have to be told to run. Once Two was in the driver’s seat, Lead yelled, “Don’t worry about your seatbelt, fucking gun it!” In response, Two turned the key, put the car in drive, and slammed on the accelerator.

Neither the leaving team nor the arriving police officers noticed that on the roof of the house there was an odd refraction of light. It had been there before the black ops team had come, and it remained there well after the cops left.

 

Several hours and two stolen cars later, the remainder of Alpha got to the RV point. It was sunset when they finally arrived. There, four members of Bravo team and all six of Charlie were waiting impatiently. Lead supposed they had reason. After all, this was a highly sensitive mission and Alpha was five minutes late.

“What the hell happened to you guys?” Charlie Lead asked. “Why are you understrength? And why are you driving a convertible with bronco horns on the grille?”

Alpha Lead, wincing internally said, “We lost Five going after their Regenerator. The cops showed up and we had to change vehicles several times to avoid pursuit. The previous mission we lost Four and Six because a source turned out to be working for the target.”

“That’s fucked up,” Bravo lead said sympathetically. “Sorry to hear that.”

“Speaking of that,” Alpha said, “Where’s your other two guys?”

Another Bravo member responded, “They’ve set up sniper positions on their clubhouse and cut the phone lines. The target building used to be a roadhouse between two towns. Then vehicles became faster and more efficient, and there wasn’t really much need for anything here. Heck, there wasn’t much reason for either of the two towns. So the building got abandoned in the early two thousands, then got purchased by our friends a few years ago.”

“Anything else we need to know?” Alpha Three asked. Alpha lead looked over at the getaway driver. He was obviously very tired, and with very good reason. He had been dodging cops for most of the day. Alpha Two wasn’t looking much better if Alpha Lead was honest with himself. Sadly enough, this day had been more than typical of the past few months, and none of his men had had a break since the organization had been called Legume Wind.

Bravo and Charlie Lead both exchanged looks. Then Charlie Lead asked Alpha, “In all honesty, are your men prepared to fight?”

Alpha Lead, after bracing himself, replied, “In all honesty, we are almost combat ineffective. We need to be rotated out.”

“Then go home,” Charlie Lead said. “You got the Regenerator, right?”

“Yeah,” Alpha Lead said. Suddenly, he remembered seeing things the past few weeks. Patches of refracted light on roofs and behind windows, dogs staring at things that weren’t there, and the safe house’s infrared cameras picking up a large heat spike before going dead.

“Is there something else?” Bravo Lead asked.

“Not sure,” Alpha said. “I might just be too tired.” That was probably it. The first time any of them had gotten a full eight hours of uninterrupted sleep in the past two months was last night, and they had to break protocol and not post sentries to get it.

“Take our car,” Bravo Lead said, indicating one of two large SUVs. “Procurement can get it replaced. Those snazzy new pistols they bought were cheaper than expected, so they might be able to afford it. We can just double up in Charlie’s.”

“What about…” Alpha Lead began, but Charlie Lead cut him off.

“Go,” Charlie Lead said. “We’ll take care of your pimpmobile.”

Suddenly, Alpha Lead felt very heavy. He could rest now. “Well,” he said, tossing Charlie Lead the keys, “I guess I get to take a rest now.”

 

Lead and Two took turns driving. Three had been sitting in cars for almost half the day, so the other two had decided to give him a break. Eventually, though, Lead and Two were so tired (despite copious amounts of coffee) that Three had to wake up and drive the last leg of the journey.

It was the time of night (well, technically morning) that spawned the phrase “things are darkest just before the dawn” when the tire blew. They were in view of the safe house when everyone was jolted out of their sleep by a loud bang. Three swore as the car began swerving wildly. They eventually coasted to a stop directly in front of the telephone pole that connected their safe house to the electrical grid, phone system and internet.

“No!” Three said, getting out of the vehicle. “We were so close! Why’d those assholes in Charlie have to inflate the tires so much?” He then began cry.

Lead, disturbed, said, “Hey, Three… it can still drive, right? We can drive it back into the garage, can’t we?” Three was too tear-stricken to answer in anything other than unintelligible blubbering, but was able to shake his head.

“I think…” Two said, “he said that if we want to damage the axle, we can. Otherwise, we’ll need to change the tire.”

“Ok,” Lead said, “We can do that, can’t we? What’s another thirty minutes?” Three took a deep breath, then nodded.

“Hey boss,” Two said, “while you two are doing that, can I do my weekly bug check on the pole? I’ve been so busy for the past two weeks since Six died that I couldn’t get it done.”

“Sure,” Lead said.

“Besides,” Three said, “this is kind of a two-man job. We get three doing it, and we’ll end up fighting.”

They still ended up getting snippy. Just as they managed to get the third of the five lug nuts connecting the hubcap to the axle, Two said, “Hey, guys? I found something.”

Lead suddenly felt like his stomach had turned to ice. “What is it?”

“I can’t be sure,” Two said, “but since it was connected to our…”

Before he could finish, there was a thump and pieces of a black synthetic object and gore rained down on Lead and Three. Two fell from the pole and onto the roof of the SUV with another thump. The car buckled. That seemed to be Two’s cue to start screaming. Lead, slipping into combat mode, yelled, “Get him down!”

Together, Lead and Three pulled down Two. Once Two was down, Lead and Three saw that his left hand had been blown to bits. Everything beyond where his thumb met his hand had been removed. The top of the thumb seemed to be connected to the rest by a few strings of gristle and meat.

Making an executive decision, Lead said, “Fuck the last two bolts, we’re driving into the garage.”

“Agreed,” Three said. His eyes were huge. None of them had expected a bomb.

As they finally brought Two in to the living room, Lead said, “I can’t believe someone bombed our telephone line.”

“Not… not a bomb,” Two said.

“Painkillers and bandages are upstairs,” Three said.

“Well fucking go get them!” Lead said.

“Not a bomb!”

“Yes, sir!” Three said. He then spun on his heel and began to run up the stairs.

“It wasn’t a bomb!”

Lead, exasperated, tired, and completely burned out, turned back to Two and yelled, “THEN WHAT THE FUCK WAS IT?”

“IT WAS A BUG!” Two yelled back.

Lead stared at Two for a moment. “But…” he said… “but that was too much explosive to…”

“No,” Two said. “It was too little. Think about it: I only lost a hand. Plus, the wires are still up. I bet if you turned on the TV, booted up the net, or placed a call, you’d go through. Besides, why would you attach a bomb to a wire in order to cut those things? Why not just cut the cable further upstream? Or use an automated knife or something?” When Lead just stared at Two dumbly, Two continued, “I mean, yeah, technically, it was also a bomb, but that must have been to destroy the device. I mean, I’d literally seen nothing like it. Chances are, the guys who made didn’t want anyone looking at it too closely.”

“So how was it triggered?” Lead asked.

“All I could do is list possibilities,” Two said. “Could be anything from removal to someone directly observing the device. Same for how long it’s been there but I can narrow it down to when I last checked… Boss, you good?”

As soon Two had said “directly observing,” Lead had gone silent and began looking at the stairs behind him. When Two repeated his question, Lead said, “Three should be back by now.”

Instantly, both men went silent. Lead grabbed the HK417 and began heading towards the stairs. The stairs led to a t-junction. Lead could go left or right. To his right was nothing but the normal two rooms. To the left was the bathroom. Oddly enough, the hall lights, which Lead was certain Three had turned on, were off. Even weirder was the faint whiff of something burning. The bathroom lights were illuminating two dark shapes, one long with four long offshoots, and another that was semi-spherical. Lead went to turn on the lights. Nothing happened.

Cursing the lack of a tactical light on the HK417, Lead began heading towards the dark shape. He was unsurprised to see that the big shape was Three’s headless body clutching pills. He was about to turn around when he saw something flutter in the bathroom.

Moving carefully, Lead headed into the bathroom. When he was in, he saw that it was the window’s curtain wavering in the breeze. While it could mean that whoever had bugged them, snuck in, and decapitated Three had left, Lead wasn’t about to take chances. Just before he turned around, however, he felt an odd coldness in his chest and could suddenly smell a mix of ozone and burning flesh. He looked down.

A blade had been stuck through his back and out his heart. It extended almost half a foot in front of his chest, smoke pouring from the wound. He tried to scream, but only a wheeze came out. Then everything went black.

 

The Dragon’s Teeth soldier, a type called a Shinobi, sat down on a couch opposite its final victim, tending to his shoulder wound. The seat was wonderful, and the Ninja had never felt anything like it. When the Creators were overthrown, the Ninja promised himself then and there he would do his best to get a couch.

The bullet wound was quite the annoyance. Somehow, the final man of the black ops squad the Shinobi had to observe had spotted the tell-tale refraction of light that indicated a cloaked Shinobi and had fired wildly. The bullet the black ops soldier had somehow manage to hit the Shinobi with had pierced the Shinobi’s thick shoulder plate armor.

The Shinobi was annoyed and concerned by that. While the bullet had missed any blood vessels and bones, it should not have been able to penetrate his armor twice. The second layer should have stopped it cold. He’d even had to fire his spring-loaded super-heated blade at his enemy before another bullet had hit him.

When the Shinobi was finished dressing his wound, he walked over to the gun, pried it from his enemy’s cold, dead fingers, and brought it back to the couch he was rapidly falling in love with. He then removed the magazine, revealing that the bullets were caseless with a screw-on back. Upon unscrewing the back, he was surprised to find liquid propellant. Somehow, someone had stolen the formula that The Dragon’s Teeth used for most of their ammo, replicated it, and gave it to an American black ops team. That was disturbing to say the least.

Deciding to multitask, the Shinobi had the satellite phone play its voicemail messages. Not only was that the only thing in the house the Shinobi hadn’t been able to bug in the past two weeks, but it was also the only way the cells of the organization kept in touch. “Hey, Alpha,” a hurried voice on the other end said, “when we did the mission, there was a weird ninja guy in the basement with a… a… cloaking field. The only reason we saw him was because Charlie Six had a thermal scope. We think you guys might be in danger. This… this could be bad. We know you guys probably aren’t back yet, but when you get here, call us back, ok?”

The next message was from the same man but more desperate. “Alpha, we looked over something in the ninja’s boot. It was a slip of paper with several addresses on it, including your safe house’s. If you don’t get back to us in the next ten minutes, we’re coming over. If everything’s secure, give us a call.”

Suddenly realizing the friends of the group he just murdered could arrive at any minute, the Shinobi stood up. It was time, as the locals said, to move it or lose it.

 

More Reports

Track of the Day

Track 15: Shot Through the Heart

Apparently, Eliza and I weren’t the only ones to see that vision. According to an email I read, a lot of other people on the island had seen the same thing and the TV in Sun Tzu had a report about psionically sensitive people seeing strange visions all over the world. I was worried, but I realized that there was nothing about it I could do. Instead, I spent all my spare time trying to do rough sketches of the next weapons.

Finally, it was time to go to the study group/weapons test. Saturday morning, I actually had managed to sleep until seven. Considering when I usually got to bed and how little time I actually spent sleeping, it was unsurprising that I was usually tired. I considered going back to sleep, then considered the nightmares I was likely to get. After those lovely thoughts, I began the process of getting ready without disturbing John.

After I got in, I noticed that he had gotten dressed while I was doing the same, plus showering and brushing teeth. “Did I wake you up?” I asked.

“No,” he said, “not really. Besides, I can sleep through all sorts of crap.”

“Also,” I said, “sorry about the other night with Eliza. I…”

“Hey,” John said, “it was much better than what you walked into when Bai was here. Besides, she kind of lives on the floor above us.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Yeah,” John said. “She rooms with Oro, but it’s functionally a single. Don’t ask where Oro goes, Bai never asks and I’d bet anything neither would tell.” He gestured at the door with his toothbrush. “Anyway…”

“Certainly,” I said.

Eventually he came back. For once, we actually talked a bit, mostly about classes. It was weird. Ever since we had gotten back to the island, we had stopped talking to each other. It was weird.

I thought back to what Eliza had said about Charlotte blaming herself for whatever happened in England over vacation. “John,” I asked, “do you blame me for what happened in Korea?”

“Which part?” he asked.

“Uh… the part where you got shot.”

“Ah.” John said nervously. “That part.”

There was a long, awkward pause. Finally, he said, “I don’t really blame anyone for what happened. I mean, I could blame you, but you never really forced me or even ordered me into that particular situation. I could blame the guy who actually shot me, but he was completely in the right to do so. I could blame myself, but honestly those things happen.”

“That’s good to hear,” I said.

“Is there a reason you asked?” John asked.

“It’s just…” I said, “…things have been weird between us since then, you know?”

“Yeah.” John said. There was another pause, then he blurted out, “It’s just… you’d do it again. Meanwhile, I’m convinced the next time I do something like this, I could die. I will die.”

“You don’t have to continue doing this,” I said. “You’re not on a tour of duty, and there’s plenty of other people who can do this.”

John cocked his head. “You really believe that?” he asked skeptically. “That we can sit back?” I hesitated. John sighed. “I thought so. Fuck me, right?”

Suddenly, our phones beeped. We both reached for them. It was Nari, sending out a mass text. Apparently, she was out in front of Sun Tzu. “You want to head out?” I asked John.

“Sure,” he said. “I kind of want to see how this gun you’ve been working on handles.”

“Actually,” I said as I unlocked my gun safe, “these ones are models that Nari’s improved.” I reached in and pulled out the prototype. “This is the one I made.” I held it for a moment, then put it in my pocket after making sure it was on safe. “Might be useful to give people an idea of how much its improved.”

“I call first dibs,” John said.

We walked down to Sun Tzu together, meeting Cross, Bai, Oro, and Eric’s crew on the way down. Ray-Gun, in particular was particularly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Cross, however, was quite grumpy.

“Listen, Ray,” he said as we got out of the elevator, “I know you like high-tech stuff, but I haven’t even had breakfast yet. Or my morning coffee. I need you to get the fuck outta my face with your tobacco and your chipperness for five seconds.”

“I’m sorry you are such a sad individual,” Ray-Gun said, waving his still-burning cigarette around expressively, “but I cannot control my excitement, and I have no wish to.”

“You are lucky,” MC Disaster said quietly. “At least they aren’t laser or plasma-based. Then he’d never shut up.”

The banter continued like this for the few seconds it took us to leave our dorm and see Nari, May, Sunny, and Andy waiting by the entrance to Sun Tzu. Sunny and Andy looked drained. May looked like her usual hyper self, albeit somewhat annoyed. Nari, meanwhile, looked like she had stolen the energy from the other three. She was also holding an ABS case and a cloth bag.

“Good,” Nari said upon seeing us, “you have made it.” She then turned around and beckoned imperiously. “Come on,” she said. “The range is only open for a limited time.”

Sunny, noticing that some of us (Cross) weren’t exactly thrilled to be ordered around by a ten-year-old, said, “Sorry. She’s a little…”

Eric interrupted by asking Nari, “So, my Queen,” he asked jovially, “what do you wish of your court today?” He had moved up besides Nari, and as he said this he made a parody of an obsequious bow.

“Don’t encourage her,” Sunny said, shooting Eric a venomous expression.

Nari, suddenly realizing what she had done, cringed slightly. “Sorry…” she said.

“Besides,” Andy said jokingly, “if anyone’s queen, it’d be May.”

Normally, May would either jokingly accept the title or cede it out of embarrassment, but today, she just made a noncommittal noise of recognition. Everyone else continued on as normal, but Andy and I noticed. I’m pretty sure that Nari noticed as well, but Eric was keeping her busy.

Eventually, Nari lead us into the room she had reserved. First, she opened the case to reveal six of the new pistols with two magazines each. These pistols were identified by stickers on the grip and barrel made by a label maker. As Andy had said, their aesthetic had been radically changed to a hybrid of the Berreta M-92’s long, double-cut slide and Desert Eagle’s triangular shape. The only bits of my original design that remained were the FNP-style sight mounts and the barrel that extended beyond the slide. Then she opened the bag to reveal that it had two plastic bags.

While she was doing that, I said, “Hey, Nari, John wanted to test out the first prototype, so I brought it along.”

“Did you bring magazines for it?” she asked. “I had to rework the magazines slightly. It wasn’t that big of a change.”

“Here you go,” I said, handing her the pistol and a spare mag.

She set the weapon on top of the newer versions. “Attention, please!” she called out. When she had everyone’s attention, she said, “In the case are prototypes of the Uilon Mangchi. Most of them are the second prototype, but one is the first. Do not get their magazines mixed up! Generation one has a different magazine than generation two, and I need to collect data on how they work.” When she saw that everyone had gotten this information, she continued, “In the white plastic bag, I have put tungsten-core rounds. In the other, I have bullets made out of a new compound taken from Grenzefrontier troops called seltsamemetall. Please make a note of which type of ammo you use and which gun you’re using on the sheets on the station, as well as any malfunctions. Mr. Jacobs, would you please instruct our guests in the operation of these weapons?”

Luckily, the controls on the first generation were the same as the ones on the second, which made things much quicker. The problem was that as soon as I had walked everyone through the process of loading, unloading and putting the Uilon Mangchi on safety, there was a knock on the door.

I opened it. There, smiling brightly, was Eliza. Behind her were Jennifer and Charlotte. “Sorry I’m late!” Eliza said. “What’d I miss?”

“Well…” I said, somewhat sheepishly, “kinda everything.”

Nari looked over my shoulder. “I know the mutant,” she said, “sorry… I mean Lupine. But I do not remember meeting the other two.”

“Charlotte is Eliza’s adopted sister,” I said. “Jennifer is… Jennifer.” Jennifer laughed in amusement at this. It was the kind of laugh that wasn’t supposed to remind you she was a supervillain, but did anyway. “They’re both in the Rogue program.”

I’m not sure why I mentioned that last bit, but I could feel Nari light up behind me. “Excellent!” she said. “I think we could use a law enforcement or enthusiast perspective on our weaponry.”

“I’m a little more than…” Jennifer began.

At the same time, May said, “I would prefer to avoid the civ…”

“Details, details,” Nari said. I turned around to see her literally wave off my concern. “Brief them on the details of operation and data gathering, Mr. Jacobs. After the first round, join us for the shareholders meeting.”

After running through everything again, I sat back and watched the first wave go. Everyone with the second generation prototype got the hang of it pretty quick. John, who was using the first generation, got the operation down pretty quick. After he finished his forty rounds (by which time all the other shooters had finished theirs,) he said, “If the fucking thing didn’t keep jamming or feel like I was firing a magnum, I’d say it was really good. It has some really nice penetration on it, which would have come in handy in Korea.” I nodded, remembering the abnormally strong armor of the Dragon’s Teeth. Hell, I had even had trouble penetrating the South Korean SWAT officer’s hard body armor with pistol rounds. 6.5mm seemed to solve that last problem pretty handily, though.

The Monk spoke up. “The newer version has greatly improved on the recoil, but I still do not like it. I also dislike the trigger. It seems a little heavy.” He paused to consider. “Then again, the recoil is comparable to your SIG, so I suppose someone might like it.” As he spoke, I noticed Nari was scribbling in a notebook.

MC Disaster spoke up again, making it a personal record for speaking in a day. “My thoughts are very similar. I quite like the power, I can tolerate the recoil, and I dislike the trigger pull. However, to determine if I would carry it into battle, I’d have to spend a lot more range time with it.” He considered the gun for a moment. Finally, he asked, “Does it really have to look this hideous?”

“Personally,” Jen said, “I quite adore the looks. Also the clip…”

“Magazine,” several people said at once, including Nari.

“Whatever,” Jen said, rolling her eyes. “I like it. I just want to empty it a bit faster. It would also be nice to do it one-handed. That means a slight recoil reduction and a decreased trigger pull.”

“Me too,” Cross said. “But don’t reduce the trigger pull too much, ok?”

“It isn’t a revolver or a bolt-action,” Oro said. “That’s probably why I don’t like it. It is very accurate for an automatic.”

After a few minutes of somewhat contradictory advice and several near-arguments from the first seven shooters, Nari finally said, “I think that’s enough for now.” She grabbed me by the arm. “Please, continue shooting. Meanwhile, the board will have a meeting.”

“Speaking of that,” Bai asked, “what is your company called?”

“Olympus,” May said. “Olympus Incorporated.”

When we got out, I said, “Pretty cool name. Did you come up with it, May?”

“Yeah,” she said. “I’m also thinking we should name the divisions differently. You and Nari get the weaponry division, Mars Arsenal. You’ll also have a split between thirty percent of the profits of Mars Arsenal. How does that sound?”

“Pretty good,” I said. “What’s your division called?”

“I’ve got Hephaestus Industrial Solutions,” Andy said. “May has Caduceus Medical. Speaking of Caduceus, wanna tell them the good news?”

“Sure,” May said. “Basically, the changes to the student invention policy means I can get a grant from The President. Plus, he’s railroading Power Sludge and my surgical glue through the FDA. If things go as planned, Andy and I might be leaving the school in a few weeks. We even a site picked out in Massachusetts.”

“You don’t sound very happy,” Nari said.

May sighed. “There’s an FBI contest. Apparently, .40 S&W isn’t cutting it for dealing with Parahumans and criminals armed with advanced tech.”

“And?” Nari asked. “Isn’t that not a good thing?”

May took a deep breath. “Weapons entered in this kind of competition tend to sell very well with civilians…”

“Which is what we want, correct?” Nari said. “These weapons are deliberately designed to defeat The Dragon’s Teeth. If they invade, we want as many people armed with these as possible.”

May exploded. “And what do you think people are going to be doing with them in the meantime?” Nari flinched, but May continued.  “Yeah, sure, we’ll get rich, selling weapons to people like Cross and Jennifer as well as the cops, then selling medical supplies when they’re done killing each other. But people will still be killing each other before The Dragon’s Teeth show up. I don’t want to be responsible for that!”

Suddenly, May stopped, realizing that Nari was starting to tear up. “I’m sorry,” May said hurriedly, “I didn’t mean…”

“The Dragon’s Teeth,” Nari said, straining to speak through her tears, “are massacring everyone in my country. I don’t want to be responsible for them to do the same to another country. Whatever Cross and Jennifer and people like them are capable of is a rounding error compared to what I’ve seen from those monsters.” She then began to walk off. “I’m going to the bathroom. I’ll be back.”

“Well,” May said after Nari was out of sight, “not only am I a hypocrite, I guess I’m also a complete bitch.” She began to walk away. “I’m going back to my dorm. When Nari comes back, tell her I’m sorry.”

 

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Track 14: Stay the Night

I did my best to get out after that. After answering what felt like fifty of Bai’s questions, I asked, “Look, not that this isn’t fun, but can I go?” My stomach was feeling much better, and I had stopped vomiting, but I could feel myself shaking.

“One more question,” Bai said. “This Mubashir you mentioned. Where is his room?”

“Look,” I said, “Mubashir is one of the few UNIX people left. If you’re going to kill him…”

Eliza sighed. “She’s not gonna kill…”

“It won’t be for a long time,” Bai said. She glanced around to see the dirty looks we were giving her. “First off, I don’t know how to kill something like The Architect. Second, I’d need to wait for a good opportunity.” Noticing our dirty looks, she grudgingly added, “Also, it might not be Mubashir.”

“Plus,” Eliza said, “if it isn’t Mubashir, killin’ one of the Architect’s target’s a dead giveaway we’re on to ‘im or ‘er, innit?”

“Yeah,” I said, “whatever. Can I go?”

Bai shrugged. “I suppose you don’t know any more. You may leave.” Eliza cleared her throat dangerously. “And I suppose that there are no hard feelings anymore.”

I nodded, then got up. “Best I could have hoped for. If you’ll excuse me…”

Ignoring Eliza’s protests, I left the apartment. When the door had closed, I began to run. I only got to the next room before the flashback started. I was back at that alley… except this time the hands weren’t feeling me up. Instead, they just held me while the world rearranged. The walls fell, revealing a vast expanse of Arabic architecture and desert rising up from the ground.

However, I noticed that there was… something weird about the buildings out of the corner of my eyes. It was like texture pop-in in a video game, except instead of blurry textures, I could swear that they were different textures. Disturbingly, when I managed to focus on the areas, they were the bright, brownish yellow that they should be.

“Too soon…” a voice muttered. It wasn’t one of the Architect’s, but still, it sounded familiar. Yet it was so quiet I could barely make it out. “He’s coming too soon.”

I gasped, and abruptly I was back where I should be. “Nate…” It took me a few seconds to realize a) I was on the floor, b) I couldn’t draw either of my guns fast enough, and c) the person speaking was Eliza, so I was perfectly fine. “Did… did you see that?”

“If you mean the hallucination about the buildings and the girl hallucinating,” I said, getting shakily to my feet, “Yeah, I saw that.”

As I did, I noticed that Eliza was leaning on the doorframe, her face was paler than usual. She still seemed concerned about me. “Y’need any ‘elp there?” she asked weakly.

“I should ask you the same thing,” I said. I was almost up, but I was shaking so much I thought I’d fall back down again. I could also taste something salty and smell a weird coppery substance. I must have fallen harder than I expected. “You look almost as terrible as I do.”

Eliza laughed. “You sure know ‘ow to make a woman feel beautiful, Nate. Besides, if you’re well enough, I still ‘ave to buy you dinner.” She paused. “If you’re feelin’ well enough for it, that is.”

“I’m going to try,” I said. “There’s about half a bottle of honey-flavored whiskey I’d be happy to split with you, assuming I can get off work.” My cPhone beeped. “Apparently I can. My boss just canceled.”

The rest of the night was pretty good, albeit a little tough to remember. I vaguely remember John briefly opening the door, politely declining the offer of honey-flavored grain alcohol, then leaving as suddenly as he come in. I think he may have said something along the lines of “You two have a serious problem” before he left, but we didn’t care. Instead, we went back to playfully arguing whether it was bourbon or whiskey.

Around four in the morning, I woke up from a nightmare only to discover that I had a somewhat bigger than medium hangover and the lights were still on. Also, Eliza and I were lying against the bed, my head resting on her shoulder, her arm draped protectively on my shoulder. In front of us, lying on its side and completely empty, was the bottle we had been drinking. I could still smell the paint-thinner-like stink that came with it.

My dream, as usual, wasn’t something I really wanted to remember, which was good, because I felt it slipping away from me like water through a sieve. Still, I had the feeling that if I went back to bed, the dreams would come back. As much as Eliza’s firm grasp was comforting, I felt that if I wanted to maintain my sanity, I’d have to get up. Plus, there were things that I could be doing.

After I had carefully wiggled out of her grasp, I grabbed a sketchpad and turned my laptop on. I figured that now would be a good time to make some preliminary sketches for how I wanted the SMG assault rifle to look. As the computer was powering up, I heard Eliza grunt worriedly and mutter something. Her fox ears flicked back and forth, as if trying to find me, her face contorted with worry, and the arm that had been holding me began searching for me. In response, I walked over to my bed, pulled the comforter off, and draped it gently around her.

“Hey,” I whispered, “I’m ok. Don’t worry.” She relaxed, but I waited a bit to make sure she was fine before I went back to my desk.

I decided that the SMG would have an MP-5N/G-3K-style collapsible stock and would take Uilon Mangchi magazines to save parts, the assault rifle would use Pilum magazines and detachable barrels, and both systems would have M-4 style ergonomics and AK-based internals. I had written all that down and had made rough sketches of two versions of the SMG’s lowers (one with a forward magazine and another with a magazine in the pistol grip) when Eliza woke up.

At first I didn’t hear her. Then I heard her move around in a panic. I turned around in my chair to see that she had thrown off the covers. When she saw me, she sighed in relief. “Christ, Nate,” she said, breathing heavily, “you scared the livin’ piss outta me.”

“Sorry,” I said, my head still splitting, “I couldn’t sleep.” There was an awkward pause. “You want to get some breakfast with me?”

Eliza checked her watch. I noticed that a lot of the AMS and Shadowhaven people were more likely to carry watches than any other branch. These watches would also be very functional and sturdy looking, but were mostly cheap foreign knockoffs. The only other students in the school to use actual watches were Business majors, but much of the time their watches would be the kind of thing rappers would brag about owning, not the kind of thing that could take a direct hit from shrapnel and keep time. Eliza’s looked like it was the best of both worlds.

“Jesus Christ, Nate,” she said, “it’s six in the bloody mornin’! Sun Tzu don’t open for ‘bout another hour’n a ‘alf!”

“You can go back to sleep if you want,” I said. “Thanks for staying with me, by the way. You didn’t have to.”

“Come off it, Nate,” Eliza said. “You were sick ‘n all. ‘Sides, that was some nice bourbon you ‘ad.”

I gave a comically exaggerated stink eye for a minute, remembering our playful argument last night. She laughed. It was so infectious I had to join in. When we were done, I said, “Seriously, though, we should keep it down. Other people are sleeping.”

“Yeah,” Eliza said, giving her trademark mischievous smirk. “We don’t wanna piss off a buncha armed lunatics.”

“Wanna see what I was working on?” I asked. I hadn’t really showed anyone outside this company that May, Andy, Nari and I were working on, but no one else. If I was honest with myself, it was out of paranoia. But I figured I could show Eliza some sketches.

“Sure,” she said. “What is it?” I sat down and showed her the book. “So you’re the gunmaker May’s been talkin’ about, eh?”

“One half,” I said. “So far, I’ve been creating the first prototype and Nari’s been fixing them.” I considered that statement. “Actually, it’s probably more like a quarter. I’ve been mostly ripping off existing designs and changing them around just enough to not get sued.”

“Oh,” Eliza said. She then began to look at them. “Also, your art skills are a bit shit.” I elbowed her playfully. In response, she stuck out her tongue, then went back to looking it over. After a while she said, “So, what’s a Pilum? I mean, I know it’s usually some kinda spear, innit, but you aren’t using it that way?”

“Let me show you,” I said. I got up and walked to the weapon’s cabinet and got out the captured Pilum. “One of my souvenirs from North Korea,” I said, bringing it over. “Here. It’s unloaded and the safety’s on. From what I can tell, it uses sixty round magazines and hundred-round drums.”

Eliza took the gun. “Blimey,” she said, somewhat in awe, “it’s an ugly bastard, innit?” Carefully keeping her hands off the trigger, she aimed down the now dead sights. “An’ where’s the bloody iron sights? Or did the designer figure this fancy scope ‘ere’d never run out of batteries? And it’s fat. A bloody assault rifle’s got no need to be this wide!”

I shrugged. “I have no idea. This is the most technically impressive gun I’ve ever seen in my life, but whoever designed it had no idea how to make guns.” I paused, suddenly remembering that every death the recon team had suffered had been inflicted by Dragon’s Teeth. “That being said, their soldiers are way too good.” I looked up and saw that Eliza had turned her head and her ears had flattened. “Sorry to bum you out,” I said. “I guess your summer was better.”

“It actually ‘ad some weird parallels,” Eliza said. “Like the fact that I ended up getting’ shot trying to save Charlotte.”

“I didn’t…” I began.

“‘Course you didn’t know,” Eliza said. “We kept it kind of hush-hush, and I never told you. Char noticed something weird goin’ on in Father’s secret society thing and she decided she needed to get involved.” She leaned the captured assault rifle up against the bed, continuing her story. “I was ‘appy to ‘elp out with it, but Char blames ‘erself for me bein’ shot an’ all. Ever since, she’s been all weird.” She sighed. “I miss her. It’s weird, she lives in the same bloody apartment I do, yet I miss her.”

I sat down next to Eliza. Slightly cautiously, I draped an arm over her shoulders. She responded by cuddling up to me. “Everything sucks,” she said.

“What about last night?” I asked.

Eliza shook her head. “Becomin’ an alcoholic doesn’t bloody count, and you know it.” After a pause, she said, “I don’t mind bein’ here with you, though.”

“That’s good to hear,” I said. “We should do this more often… minus the part where we try to kill ourselves with hard liquor.”

“A-bloody-men!” Eliza said. “How about when Fight Night starts, we sneak away from all the ghouls ‘oo’re watching it and get a nice meal at The Veranda. I think those coupons we got for acing the driver’s test last semester are still good.”

“From what I hear,” I said, “that’s still going to set us back quite a lot. Don’t meals cost upwards of two hundred campus bucks or something? We have…” I brought up the phone and looked into the wallet app for the campus coupons. “Wow. They gave me a free meal for two, including an appetizer, entrée, drinks, and dessert. That must be, like, four hundred US dollars if you pig out.”

“I probably have the same…” Eliza said.

“Yeah,” I said, “but it sounds like you’ve got some stuff to talk out with Charlotte, and I don’t exactly have anyone else to take to a fancy restaurant.”

“So it’s a date, I guess?” Eliza said. “I mean, ‘date’ as in…”

In that moment, I made the smartest impulse decision of my life. I leaned in and said, “Yeah.” I kissed her on the cheek. Her face turned as red as her hair. “It’s a date.”

Eliza shot to her feet. “Oh my bloody God!” she said. “I ‘aven’t showered in two days!” She then began heading towards the door. “I… I… mean, that sounds wonderful, Nate. I just need to do a thing!” Just as she was about to close the door, she stuck her head through and asked, “See you at lunch?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Definitely.” As the door closed, I suddenly realized I had secured a date with the prettiest, funniest, smartest girl in my program. I leaned back against the bed, everything else completely forgotten. For the next five minutes, I was happier than I had ever been in my entire life.

 

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Track 13: The Final Prophecy

The next week was much the same, except I didn’t try and design a gun in my spare time. That meant way, way more sleep. The only problem was that “way, way more sleep” still translated to “very little.” I actually kind of liked it, though. Going to bed tired as fuck meant I could sleep without nightmares.

Speaking of nightmares, they were getting worse and worse. I remember that once Alma told me that emotional distress was as real and legitimate as physical pain. I thought about that a lot as I lay in my bed, praying I wouldn’t dream, my ribs still aching from the bullets my plate had stopped in North Korea and my leg giving the occasional twinge from when it had been perforated by shrapnel in the Hell Semester final. Fun times.

After our radio show finished on Monday, Andy took me aside. “Hey,” he said, “we got your email. May wants to have a shareholder’s meeting to discuss what to do next.”

“When is it going to be?” I asked.

“After the study group,” Andy said. “Also… Nari’s been busy.”

“Really?” I said, intrigued by how tired and disgusted Andy sounded. “What’s she been doing?”

“More like ‘what’s she been making me do,’” Andy said. “She’s got me working on making a frigging prototype ammo factory in Nari’s basement. She even has multiple 3D printers to help make parts to build the factory. Meanwhile, she’s making several copies of the second prototype.”

“Really?” I asked. “How’s it coming?”

“Well, we haven’t tested it yet,” Andy said. “Mostly because I’m afraid of it and May and Sunny will kill us both if Nari fires it.” He paused, then said, “Also, I hope you’re not attached to its looks. Nari decided to take your notes about marketing to heart.”

“Really?” I said. “What did she do?”

“I hope you like how Desert Eagles and Jerichos look,” Andy said, “because she watched a few action movies and decided the slide needed to be triangular.”

“I’m a Jewish gun nut,” I said. “I’m required by the Talmud to think that’s totally sweet.”

“Understandable,” Andy said, “but she also extended the barrel beyond the slide.”

I stopped. “But… but why?” I asked.

“It’s got something to do with being able to add on accessories,” Andy said. “I tried telling her that would add to the final cost, but she keeps saying people will want to add flash hiders and suppressors.”

I remembered how loud it was and how bright the muzzle flash was. “Yes,” I said. “They will. Trust me.”

Andy nodded. “Yeah, I heard the stories. Nari’s lucky her concussion wasn’t a lot worse.”

“Is she alright?” I asked. “Probably should have asked sooner. She sounded ok at the time, but that isn’t always a good indicator.”

“May’s actually going to talk to her about that,” Andy said. “Should be fun.” I nodded in agreement knowing that what Andy meant was, “There’s going to be a huge fight, and we will wish we were elsewhere.”

Conversation moved on to other things. Apparently, some jackass outside NIU (or “the world” as Andy called it) was saying that game developers should work eighty hours a week. Due to my dad’s job in the tech industry and having worked one myself, I had a few things to say about that. Since Andy’s parents were also in the same industry, he raged with me.

However, just as we were about to enter the cafeteria, Eliza came up to us. “Oi, Nate,” she said. “Got a mo’?” She appeared agitated.

“I was actually about to…” I began, gesturing at the cafeteria.

Eliza cut me off. “I’ll buy you dinner after.” She then grabbed my hand and proceeded to drag me away.

We were deep in what I thought to be Rogue country when I finally worked up the courage to ask, “Hey, Eliza, what’s going on?”

“I’m fixing things between my friends,” Eliza growled. “I’m bloody tired of hearing Bai bad-mouth you all the time. I’m also tired of you not understanding what this five-‘undred year mess means to some people.”

Eventually, she led me right into a building that had apartment style dorm rooms. Our stop was apparently a dorm room on the second floor. Eliza opened the door (over the summer, most of the locks had been changed to use student’s cPhones as keys,) revealing a cramped hallway/kitchen and a common area inside.

As I walked into the common room, I saw Bai was sitting on one of the couches. Our eyes met at the same time. She nodded coolly as I sat down on the couch opposite from her that Eliza indicated. Eliza looked us both over, frowned and said, “Right. Now ‘ere’s the problem as I see it. The first part is that you, Nate, think the Final Prophecy is completely mad, and everyone ‘oo believes in it is a nutter.”

“That is more strongly than I’d put it,” I said as diplomatically as possible. Eliza cocked her head. I sighed, “But yes, I don’t really see any evidence to support that its coming true.”

“It’s real!” Bai exploded suddenly. I had never seen her this agitated before. “The signs are all there! The…”

“Oi!” Eliza said sharply, her foxlike ears flattening. “The fuck’d I tell you, Bai? And you,” she pointed back to me, “sit your ass back down!”

“I’m not going to…” I began.

“Down.” Eliza said, emphasizing her point by pointing at the floor. I sat down. Eliza surveyed us, her green eyes daring us to defy her. “Anyway,” she said when she was sure dissent had been quashed, “If I’m reading Bai correctly, not only has she been raised in a group that believes wholeheartedly in this prophecy, but she believes that she, single-‘andedly, can save the bloody world.”

“Do you think I’m an idiot?” Bai asked Eliza harshly.

“Frankly,” Eliza said, “Yeah. I think the two of you’d be tied for the bloody stupidest wankers in this school if it weren’t for my sis and your brother. You both believe that if you stick your limbs into enough meat grinders, you’ll end up saving the world. And because I’m also a bloody idiot, I’ve decided looking after Char wasn’t enough. And keeping you two imbeciles alive means making sure you don’t kill each other.”

“Sorry,” I said.

“Look,” Eliza said, “I like both of ya, if you haven’t already guessed. But I wasn’t trained to be some ‘ero of legend or raised in a comfortable suburb where no one’d even look at you funny.”

I looked away. Despite it being in my face on a daily basis, I’d somehow managed to push the fact that I was white, middle-class American male in a program that deliberately targeted the poorest people from the poorest countries. Also, before Eliza had been adopted, life hadn’t exactly been sunshine and roses for her. Looking up, I noticed that Bai was also looking at the ground.

“I think,” she said, possibly not realizing my thoughts, “that this calls for a meeting of the minds. Instead of jumping down each other’s throats, let me ask Nate a few questions. Then we might be able to continue this discussion in a friendly manner. Is that acceptable?”

It was obviously a rhetorical question. Eliza’s glare made that clear. However, to assuage her wrath, we both reassured her that we were fine with this suggested plan. I believe the strategy is known as the “let the Lupine win” maneuver.

“Alright,” Eliza said. “First question, Nate. Did you see anything in North Korea that might rule out The Final Prophecy is being realized?”

“No,” I said. “But that doesn’t really resolve anything, does it? I can’t really prove a negative, can’t I?”

“That leads me to my next question,” Eliza said.

“Let me guess,” I said. “You’re going to ask if I saw anything to indicate that The Dragon’s Teeth are really working for a death goddess.”

“Lord,” Bai corrected. “The Lord of Death. Masculine form.”

I considered my options. The most tempting was to just say fuck it and go on not believing in the prophecy. The other was to insist that it was really a female. I finally decided to just ask, for the sake of civility and my jugular, “Does it have to be male?”

There was a long pause. Bai and Eliza stared at each other long and hard. Finally Eliza suggested, “These dream thingys the Prophecy was revealed with weren’t specific, were they? And it was an age ago, comin’ up on five ‘undred years, innit? Could it be that no one saw the gender and assumed something that destructive ‘ad to be a bloke?”

“I would like to think the seers were more perceptive,” Bai said, “but I have heard of several Indian versions that use feminine versions for The Lord of Death. There’s also one European version, Italian, I believe, that thought of The Lord of Death as an abstract force. Of course, we neglected that version because it didn’t mention Death’s army.” After this exchange, they turned to me, Bai asking, “Any particular reason for asking?”

“We stumbled upon a Dragon’s Teeth prayer session,” I said. “They mentioned their Goddess, specifically mentioning she was female.”

“And you didn’t mention this because…?” Eliza asked.

“I thought they were messing with us,” I said. “I still think they are, but by us, I mean The President. All I know is that their Goddess, they call her Thanna, scares The President. I think he knows, or suspects, who Thana is.” I sighed. “The problem is, I have no proof. Even worse, I don’t have enough information to form my own theories!”

“The prophecy can guide us,” Bai said. “Do you believe us in that the Lord of Death’s army has arrived?”

“I’m less inclined to believe that you’re putting your faith in a fairy tale,” I said, “and I agree the Dragon’s Teeth are a huge threat, but I’m only fifty-percent convinced that this Lord of Death is an actual thing.”

Bai sighed. “What if I told you that The Architect will reveal himself, herself, or itself next? When… it shows up, would you believe me then?”

“Maybe,” I said. “What does The Architect do?”

Bai and Eliza looked at each other. “Manipulate reality, I guess?” Eliza said, shrugging. “That’s all I got, really.” I sighed. That was a little vague. If I stretched the definition, I manipulated reality every time I opened a freezer.

“We call him Bai Wan Shan De Emo,” Bai said. “In English, it means Million-Handed Demon. Does that help?”

Million-Handed Demon. As soon as I heard those words, I could feel myself going pale. My lunch also began trying to escape my stomach and I felt the floor drop out from under me. I even had to check to make sure I wasn’t free-falling. I wasn’t, but looking down made my stomach feel even worse. It was a visceral sensation that any person who’s undergone a panic attack will instantly recognize.

“Nate,” Eliza asked, “you alright, Nate?”

I barely heard her. I was flashing back to my first day back and the… thing that had accosted me. My body shuddered, as if the invisible hands were groping me again. I remembered the entire ordeal… the distortion of reality, the way the hands had imprisoned me, their grasping of things that should not be grasped, and the… and the…

No. That wasn’t something that would happen to me, right? Not again. In fact, I doubted you could even call it that. That kind of thing doesn’t happen to people like me, right?

“NATE!” I jerked up. Eliza’s face was right in front of my own, and I suddenly realized I was covered in sweat. “Nate,” she asked, “are you alright?”

I suddenly realized that I was about to barf. “Bathroom,” I managed to choke out. Eliza pointed me in the right direction, and I ran, pushing the door open.

Five minutes later, I was done voiding the contents of my stomach. It was another three before I could stop retching. “Nathan,” Bai said from outside the room, “are you alright?”

“Yeah, mate,” Eliza said, walking into the room, “you look like you need a doctor.”

“The Architect…” I began.

“What would you like to know about…” Bai began, but I cut her off.

“The Architect’s on Nowhere Island.”

 

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Track 12: What’s in the Box?

John was unusually quiet as we exited the mansion. When we were in a suitably deserted section of the campus, he asked, “So, what did you two talk about?”

“The President warned us about Bai, Li, Charlotte and Eliza,” I said. “He seems to think that they’re going to get us killed.”

“And he isn’t?”

“Speaking of that,” I said, “he advises that we don’t poke around certain places at NIU. Especially ones that might have anything to do with the Dragon’s Teeth.”

“So all we have to do,” John said, “is not do the thing that makes the sociopath angry.” I hesitated. John sighed. “In case you were wondering, this is where you say, ‘You’re right, John, we’ll just leave it alone.’”

“You shouldn’t be surprised,” a cold, dead voice said. We turned around. There, wearing a dark red hoodie, long stringy hair falling out of the hood. The rain had probably soaked through her hoodie, but apart from her skin being as unhealthily pale as normal, she showed no signs of being cold. She regarded us with an unreadable expression and cold, dead eyes. “The entire reason Nathan came to this island was to save the world. It’s naïve, reckless and maybe a little egotistical, but he sees an opportunity to accomplish his goals.”

“Alma,” I said, “fancy meeting you here.” Alma Hebert was the former roommate of Eliza, Jen and Charlotte. She creeped everyone out, especially Jen. I wondered how much of that was because she was Psychic or because she was just creepy. “How much did you hear?”

“More than you think,” Alma said.

“Has anyone ever told you how creepy you are?” John asked.

“Once or twice,” Alma said. Maybe it was just me, but I could swear I heard a bit of wryness underneath her usual monotone. “But I do know that Nathan will pursue whatever it is that The President warned him about, no matter what you, I, or anyone else says.”

“Of course,” John said, “One of my friends has a death wish. Fuck me, right?”

While he said that, I watched him intently. When he paused for a breath, I said, “John, go on ahead. I’ll catch up.”

John, who looked like he was just about to get started, turned at me to stare for a moment. His brown eyes burned, but finally, he said, “Don’t bother.”

Alma and I watched John walk off. When he was finally far enough away, I turned back to Alma. “You know,” I said, conversationally, “I really wanted to talk to you. That facility you pointed out last year… the IRDF? Was that what you called it? It stood for Interdimensional Research Facility? It might tie into a few things I’m looking into.” I paused. “How do you know even know about that by the way? I looked into it, and every mention of it has appeared to have been scrubbed…”

Alma interrupted. “You’re asking the wrong questions.”

I was stunned. I don’t know why. “Excuse me?” I asked.

“You’re starting too small,” Alma said. As she spoke, I suddenly realized that she hadn’t moved a muscle the entire time. No adjustments, no blinking, she’d just stood there, hands in the pockets of her sweater. “This school was designed for one purpose, and one purpose only. You shouldn’t just be asking what IDRF One is for. You should be asking why a school is training future UNIX agents and Al-Qaeda terrorists. You should be asking why so few of its inventions leave its shores.” At this point, I noticed that Alma’s eyes hadn’t moved, either. She had focused on a point in between where John and I had been standing, and her gaze hadn’t shifted once. “Most importantly, you should ask… what is Anthony Carter Newton-Howell’s final goal?”

“Any reason you can’t just tell me?” I asked.

“I can,” Alma said, “but you wouldn’t believe me. Most days I can’t even believe it myself.” I could almost hear… emotion in her voice. She also shuddered. However, she quickly returned to her normal unreadable state. “Besides, the big question isn’t exactly difficult to answer.” She then turned and walked off. “Have fun opening Pandora’s Box, Nathan…”

I watched her leave. As usual, I left feeling disturbed and suspicious. Now, though, I was feeling somewhat used. I mean, why couldn’t she have just told me? Why the run-around? I mean, seriously, why wouldn’t I believe her? It wasn’t like The President had killed her and she’d decided not to die, or something.

Still, I had to get back home and get some sleep, maybe print out the plans for the Uilon Mangchi for Nari. However, as I walked back, the questions Alma had planted began to take up more of my mind. There was also another annoying thing: why was Al-Qaeda even in the school? They weren’t exactly the most well-behaved guests, especially in a Westernized place like NIU.

Even more galling was that I could have asked this question earlier. Then, I could have made use of the time I had spent with Mubashir. Instead, I had let him leave without setting up any method of communicating. There were so many reasons to do that: he might need an extraction, and I definitely needed information only he could provide.

Suddenly, as if thinking about him caused him to appear, I saw him stagger out of an ally almost right in front of me. Taking the opportunity, I grabbed him and forced him back behind the dumpster he had apparently been behind.

Understandably, he didn’t take that too well. When he was behind the dumpster, he punched me in the stomach and when I doubled over, he followed up with a knee to my face. I stood up just in time to see and hear him flip off the safety of a Makarov.

Obviously, despite the fact that I thoroughly deserved it, he didn’t pull the trigger. “Nathan?” he asked. “What in Allah’s name are you doing?”

“Hi, Moob,” I said, my breath short and my nose bleeding. “Sorry about that…” I took a quick break to cough, “…just needed to talk.”

“About what?” Mubashir asked, lowering his gun and flicking the safety. “What could be worth your life? I almost shot you!” He then said something in Arabic. I only caught the word Allah, so I assume it was something along the lines of “My God, I almost shot you, you idiot.”

“Sorry…” I wheezed. Damn, the guy punched hard. “There’s several things. One of the first things is… how come Al-Qaeda’s sending people to train… here.”

“I should think it’s obvious,” Mubashir said.

“Yeah…” I said, “…but the morals of this place don’t exactly match up… with the morals of Al-Qaeda. Then there’s also the question of how Al-Qaeda’s paying for…”

“Al-Qaeda isn’t paying,” Mubashir said.

“Excuse me?” I said.

Mubashir quickly looked around, then pulled me so I was fully in the alcove. He then continued in a hushed voice. “The reason I’m being shared with UNIX and the CIA is that the CIA is also curious about this deal. NIU trains and equips Al-Qaeda soldiers and even pays our airfare. In exchange… Well, we aren’t sure, but we believe Al-Qaeda, as well as other organizations from small criminal groups to certain government organizations provide NIU with favors.”

I suddenly felt a chill. “What kind of favors?”

Mubashir shrugged nervously. “Nothing big, from what I’ve been able to uncover. Mostly, from what I understand, you wouldn’t know they were acting any different. For instance, a former NIU student was trying to do some kind of charity work. I think women’s education. Al-Qaeda blows her up, using NIU-trained soldiers. Another NIU group of NIU students opened up a tech company in the US, developing some kind of advanced tech. A venture-capital firm buys them up. The person in charge? An NIU student. The tech being developed? Canceled.”

He shook his head, as if trying to make sense of what he was saying. “There is this pattern of NIU students that are truly ahead of the curve who go to market and end up dead, broke, or imprisoned. My CIA handler thinks The President might be stockpiling the tech.”

“But why?” I asked. “What does he…” Suddenly, something clicked in my head. “He’s behind the Dragon’s Teeth.”

“Nate,” Mubashir said, “that is crazy. What kind of leap of logic…?”

“Listen,” I said, “I was in North Korea, I only got out a few days before the media finally took notice that The Dragon’s Teeth existed. I also have some idea that the reason the Grenzefrontier came back to Earth is because The Dragon’s Teeth are kicking them out of the planet they come from. Also, the IRDF building that Alma showed us last semester? I’m pretty sure that’s where they came from.”

Mubashir continued to look at me like I was crazy. “Dammit!” I shouted, causing his hand to move back to his pistol. “Where the hell else could a place get cloaking cloning, and advanced robotics?”

“But why would he build an army?” Mubashir asked. “Why would he hoard technology?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe he wants to take over the world. His clone army comes marching back to Earth, kicks the ass of every major government, and the only weapons that can stop him are sitting right under his feet. Alternatively, clone army comes stomping in, then he uses his superior tech to defeat them, people declare him a hero, he then uses the good will to declare himself the supreme ruler of the world.”

Mubashir shook his head. “This… theory of yours is based on loosely strung-together observations and guesswork. But you are right about one thing. The likelihood of The Dragon’s Teeth having something to do with Nowhere Island… well, your logic there is sound.”

“So you’ll look into it?” I asked.

Mubashir suddenly looked uncomfortable. “I could try,” he said, “but I’ve… I’ve been drawing attention. Plus, people have been watching us.”

“By us you mean…?”

“Al-Qaeda,” Mubashir said. “Our techie noticed some non-standard code on our devices, and we’ve been followed. They are starting to suspect me because…” He paused, then said, “We should leave separately. You go out the way you came in, I’ll go the back way.” He then began heading down the alley, saying over his shoulder, “Next time, I will contact you.

I nodded in acknowledgement and waited for him to leave my line of sight. I then walked back to my room, suddenly that I had a headache. I wasn’t sure when it had started, so I wasn’t sure if it was the lack of sleep or trying to shoot the new gun. I also noticed that I was kind of wobbling a little bit as I walked.

However, when I got back to my dorm, after putting my weapons away and storing Nari’s external hard drive in a safe place, I decided to check out my computer. I wanted to see the policy for student inventions. I had remembered that they had been extremely draconian.

The thing is, as soon as I looked at it, the policy had completely changed. Instead of threats of lawsuits and deadlines for implementing ideas outside of NIU, there was talk of funding and free networking to help find clients.

I paused, suddenly becoming alert again. I quickly (and quietly, because John was fast asleep beside me) opened the desk drawer and pulled out a copy of the student handbook. Flipping through the pages, I found the section on inventions and ownership thereof. It was even less giving than I had remembered it being. I looked back at the website’s version, trying to reconcile the difference. Then I saw the date. Apparently, the last time it had been updated… was ten minutes after I had left The President’s mansion.

I smiled, then went to email Nari, May and Andy news of the change. Looking back on it, it was actually kind of a rambling letter with no point. Then, I considered doing something else. The problem with that was due to lack of sleep and my headache, I forgot what it was. So I decided (finally) to do the sensible thing and go to sleep.

 

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Thank You, July 2016 Patrons

We at NIU would like to give special thanks to the people who supported us during the month of July 2016 on our Patreon page. We would like to take a moment to thank you for all your support.

 

Pledge-for-Pledge donors:

  • Jerry Banfeild (Became donor in March of 2015)

 

Students (Pledged $2 or more this month):

  • WorldOfHurt (Became a donor on May 25th, 2015)
  • Michael N. (Became a donor during July 2016)

 

Honors Students (Pledged $10 or more this month)

  • Christopher Hubert (Became a donor on June 1st, 2015)

 

 

 

Happy Birthday To Nari

It was the second month of my first semester an NIU. There were so many things to get used to. For instance, in the classes I had in Chinese, I would write my name as normal. However, in the classes taught in English, I would have to write my name as Nari Lee.

Sunny, my guardian and one of the people who had rescued me from North Korea, said that she still wasn’t used to the Western way. Eventually, I asked her, “Sunny, why are there no classes in Korean?” The reason I had asked this was because my first Cultural Communication essay (which was an English language class) had come back riddled with grammatical and spelling errors. The essay for my Chinese class was in similar shape.

Sunny looked up from the papers she was grading. “Well,” she said, “we teach on a tiny island. While it is true we have to teach many students who speak a… staggering variety of language, we just can’t support every single spoken language. So we have classes in what are deemed to be the four major languages.”

I sighed. “At least I get to work on my language skills.”

“See,” Sunny said, “there’s a bright side to almost everything. By the way, you said your birthday is next week?” I nodded. “Want to do anything for that?”

“Not really,” I said. “My family never gave parties, they were too poor and my old school did not really go out of its way to promote individualism. Besides, I would like to test my guitar.” I had been working on a guitar and amp combination using various blueprints I had found online. It should have been ready by the time of my birthday.

“Let me rephrase that,” Sunny said with a note of amusement. “Is May going to hang out with you? Because I think she might like to.”

“Is it an American thing or a May thing?” I asked.

“She hasn’t been very vocal about it,” Sunny said, “but she would like it. If you don’t want to make a big deal out of it, you might want to ask.”

I did ask May over, but I didn’t tell her it was my birthday until we were down in the basement. We were sipping on some ginger tea and eating some kimbap Sunny had cooked for us and I was just getting ready to turn on my amp when I told May, “So, today is actually my birthday.”

“Really?” May asked. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“It seemed the kind of thing you would make a big deal of,” I said honestly. As I spoke, I fiddled with the knobs on the amp. To be on the safe side, I turned the volume and gain down. “My other nine birthdays weren’t really that big.”

“Totally get it,” May said. “I understand not wanting to attract attention.”

I looked at her, trying to hide my incredulity. May’s blond hair was possibly not a natural blond and the purple highlights on the tips of her pigtails were even less convincing. To top that off, there were her mismatched eyes, one green, one blue. “I see,” I said. “How long ago was this?”

“I was a little younger then you when I decided to stop giving a shit,” May admitted. “Of course, the reason was that I had realized that whatever I did, they’d keep coming after me. Plus, the stakes weren’t as high as yours were.”

I thought back to how some of my fellow classmates at my previous school had been removed at odd times with no explanation. “The stakes may have been higher for me,” I said, “but I’ll always wonder if the attitude was similar.”

There was a pause. I’m not sure what May was thinking, but I know I was considering what had happened (and what was happening) to all the people I left behind in North Korea. I then flipped the switch of the amplifier.

Despite the gain and the volume being low, we were assaulted by the sound of massive feedback. As May covered her ears, I desperately tried to turn the volume and gain down. “Sorry! Sorry!” I said, as I fiddled with the knobs.

“Shut it off! Shut it off!” May yelled. Seeing as both knobs were at zero, I decided to follow her advice. The harsh screeching stopped.

“You know,” I said, after our hearing began returning, “I think the problem might be a software problem.” That was the problem with using a completely solid state amplifier. The arduinos might have been easier to get than tubes, but my programming skills were not exactly up to the task.

“So,” May asked, “how long will it take to fix it?”

“Quite a while,” I said, an unintended note of glee in my voice. “The programing is probably going to be the trickiest bit, then I’ll probably have to replace the speaker.”

“Sounds like you’ll be having fun,” May said, sounding amused.

“Well,” I said, going over my code in my head, “I would hardly be doing something like this in my free time if I didn’t like it.” I turned to face her. “Surely that’s how you feel about medicine? After all, you lived your entire first semester off one of your creations.”

“Kind of…” May said. “Yeah, I love the actual creation part of my work sometimes. But… the more I think about it, the more I want my work to change the world for the better, y’know?”

“I don’t really think that,” I said. “Honestly, if I worry about how my inventions are used, I’ll eventually go insane.”

“In other words,” May said, seemingly quoting someone, “you only make sure your rockets go up, and you don’t care where they come down.”

“I guess…” I said. “But it’s better than being bored.” I was suddenly angry. “None of the projects I’m supposed to be doing here are interesting.” I gestured at the amp. “This won’t last the rest of the month. Then what am I going to make? I’ve already made a dozen different radios.  In fact, if I hadn’t discovered Metal music, I’d be done making audio equipment.”

“You… you’re bored.” May seemed shocked by this statement.

“I’m surprised that more people aren’t,” I said. “I’m tired of being limited.” I picked up my guitar. It was a triple-humbucker Jazzmaster clone. “Well, at least this works. Want to hear the opening rift to ‘Enter Sandman?’”

As I played, I reflected on the opportunity I had come across recently. With musical instruments, I had no idea what made a good one. However, one of the other people who had rescued me seemed to want to design a gun. Based on what I knew of him, I could guess his requirements would be demanding. And maybe I would stop being bored.

 

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