The Observer

Agent Patrick Jones of the United Nations Investigations, eXtranormal was sitting in the cafeteria of the FBI’s headquarters in Quantico when everything went to hell. The croissant he was chewing was terrible by American standards, the coffee was swill, but the training sessions that week had been mutually beneficial.

As he sipped the coffee, he suddenly saw various people in the cafeteria pull out cell phones and quickly file out. Agent Jones soon realized that the only people in the room were the various foreign intelligence agents attending the conference.  Turning to Andre Beaucoup, a French Interpol agent, he asked, “Do you know what’s going on?”

Beaucoup shrugged. “None. Maybe they’ve gone off to find better coffee.” It was a joke, Jones knew. But the coffee the FBI served to its men was truly terrible. Not only was the taste horrid, but even a sip could cause the heart to race uncomfortably. Until they discovered the existence energy drinks, they had believed that it was the moonshine of caffeinated drinks. “In all seriousness, though, we can most likely discover it ourselves.”

“I suppose,” Jones said. “Your phone or mine?”

“Yours,” Beaucoup said. “Mine has no internet.”

Slightly shocked at a phone with no internet connection, Jones took out his own. He then went to Google News. “Oh bloody hell.”

“What is it?” Beaucoup asked.

“Well,” Jones said, “the first picture on the Google News international section is a picture of two Washington police officers dead on the steps of the capitol building.”

“Well,” Beaucoup said, “I guess the rest of the summit is canceled.” He sighed. “We are also going to be here for the rest of the year.”

“At least I’ve been transferred,” Jones said. “I’m supposed to be in the Boston office now.”

“Ah, a promotion! Congratulations, my friend. Our last case…”

“Ah yes,” Jones said, “What an honor… I get to work with Takeda and Brosnan.”

“Dear God!” Beaucoup said, horrified. Jones did not blame him. “Those… those… Did you know the reason they don’t work in France any more is because Takeda assaulted my partner? There were also some… questions about Brosnan.”

“Oh, I heard about that,” Jones said sagely. “That was after I had worked with you, correct? There’s been far worse from those two. Judging by their steady rise in pay grade, they’ve been rewarded for it, though.” Jones frown became a look of determination. “But I will get something on them, you mark my words. They will leave my organization in disgrace, if I have any say in the matter.”

“Well, good luck, mon ami,” Beaucoup said. “In the meantime, I will be looking to confirm the rest of the seminar is canceled.”

After the French detective left, Jones’ phone rang. It was UNIX’s American director, Director Sodhi. “Agent Jones,” the man began in his heavy Indian accent, “for some reason, Director Harris wants us to get identification on the people attacking the US capitol. Fingerprints, DNA, origination, equipment, everything. How he knew about it, I have no idea…”

“It’s all over the news…”

Suddenly, Jones had the sense that Director Sodhi wanted to tell him something. There was a long pause. “Sir?” Jones asked.

“Get it done,” Sodhi said distractedly. “Director Harris is…” There was another long pause. “Goodbye.”

 

The first thing to do, Jones decided, was to contact the FBI’s director of the Critical Incident Response Group. He knew that he would not be seen by the director that day (or even that month, if he knew crises,) but he could wait. After all, Sodhi hadn’t given him a time limit.

Needless to say, he was surprised that he got a call from the FBI that very same day as soon as he got back to his hotel room. “Agent Jones, UNIX,” Jones said, “Who am I speaking to?”

“Agent Hicks.” The voice speaking was an older man’s. He sounded pissed. “I’m just calling to tell you that the FBI is not going to be cooperating with you.”

“I’m sorry,” Jones said, “but wouldn’t it be in global interests to…”

“Share information, right?” Hicks said sarcastically. “Like how you gave us everything about the attempts on Director Harris’ life that have been happening every few months? Or how you gave us a heads-up on your Parahuman-slaving bust in New Mexico?”

Jones was speechless. First off, he had no idea that there had ever been an attempt on the life of a UNIX director, ever, let alone in the past few months. Second, he thought the New Dawn Laboratories Bust had been sanctioned. Agent Brosnan had… Oh. I took Brosnan’s word on something. That’s where I went wrong.

“You realize,” Hicks said, his calm voice hiding barely controlled rage, “that because of that last one, we were forced to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to extradite people who butcher children for a living?”

A dozen arguments from how hypocritical it was for an American agency to say that to pointing out that they didn’t have to do it jumped into Jones’ mind. Every single one, however, would probably  significantly lower the chances of getting a look at the body. Instead, Jones said, “I will refer the information to my superiors as requested. Shall I tell him to start packing?”

“Coincidentally,” Hicks said, “We’d need an act of Congress to make you leave. That particular bill was being discussed when the attack happened.  Ask your boss if he believes in coincidence, ok?” From his tone of voice it was painfully clear that Hicks, like any good investigator, did not. With that, he hung up.

Jones sat on his bed for a while, considering his options. Then he had flash of inspiration.

 

Two weeks later, Beaucoup met him at an American chain restaurant that, for some reason, had a decidedly Australian theme. They carried matching briefcases.

Beaucoup, sitting down, said without preamble, “Well, this has been nightmarish. I’ve been running around trying to get information from twenty different agencies, both in-town and out. Why this has anything to do with me, I don’t know.”

Actually, it had nothing to do with him, and they both knew it. Beaucoup was just doing it as a favor for Jones. As a result, Jones was buying.

“In fact,” Beaucoup said, “the whole incident reminds me of an incident that occurred at Petain’s this summer. It was a much smaller scale, and it was right around the time those Dragon’s Teeth bastards made their little announcement, so even the local media ignored it.”

“Oh, really?” Jones said.

“Yes,” Beaucoup said. “There’s this little bar in Vichy called Clouseau’s. Have you heard of it?”

“No,” Jones said. “But Vichy’s where UNIX’s headquarters is!”

“And Clouseau’s is where it’s rumored that Director Harris takes his evening drinks,” Beaucoup said. “Of course, it would be bad security if someone of my caliber knew his schedule.”

“Of course.”

“Anyway, some red-haired gentlemen with some peculiar weapons assaulted the building. They had a very distinctive gas. It made everyone for a block or two go completely mad. Luckily, a UNIX Quick Response Team was nearby and had the presence of mind to get their gas masks on.”

Beaucoup paused for a bit. “Now… these men… I think this is the first time I have ever encountered identical treisprezlets.” Upon seeing Jones’ blank expression, Beaucoup said, “They are like identical twins, except there are thirteen instead of two.”

“Are… are you sure they were identical?” Jones asked.

“We ran the DNA,” Beaucoup said. “Thirteen times, just to be safe. Twins actually have greater genetic differences. Mutations happen in the womb, you see.”

“Then… what were these guys?” Jones asked.

“Sorry,” Beaucoup said, “can’t tell you any more.”

The rest of the meal was more casual. When Jones left, he took Beaucoup’s briefcase. It was not a mistake. As he left, Jones desperately hoped this was the last time he’d need to do something like this.

 

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Track 20: A New Chapter

Nari and I were waiting at the airport a little after lunch for Andy and May to get back exactly one week later. The rain had slowly begun to be replaced by snow the entire week. Needless to say, we were waiting in the hangar.

“Did you finish the rifle bullet prototype?” Nari asked. We had been sitting around the terminal for quite a while.

“Yeah,” I said. “That part was pretty easy. Just make the rifle bullet, except longer.” I opened a bag. “I’ve got two alternate butt plates made and I’ve started on the rifle receiver.”

Nari looked at them. “Well,” she said, “one of them looks rather easy.” The one she was talking about was just a metal plate to fit around the two halves of the receiver. The only detailing it had was the holes at the top and bottom for the studs to attach and a loop for a sling.

“Yeah,” I said, “but the other’s going to be a pain. Not only did I decide to have it be collapsible, not only did I decide it had to take M-4 stocks, not only did I decide to have it be side-folding, but I decided it would fold to either side.”

Nari picked that one out of the bag. “I have seen standard M-4 stocks,” she said. “This is not one.”

“Well,” I said, “I decided to add an adjustable cheek rest. You can take that part off and put an M-4 stock on it.”

“Why do you need an adjustable cheek rest?” Nari asked.

“Some of it’s a shooter comfort thing,” I said, “some of it is so we don’t have to pay money in licensing fees or so we don’t have to buy externally for parts. Some of it is to fulfil a market niche that isn’t being filled. Most of it is because I thought I was getting too much sleep.”

“I know the feeling,” Nari said earnestly. “I haven’t been here very long, I’ll admit, but I love being here. Sure, the politics seem even more pointless than North Korea, but I can do whatever I want!” She smiled. “The things I have to do are easy enough to finish quickly, but challenging enough to be fun, and when I get done, I can do things like make these guns and guitar things.”

“Really?” I asked, not mentioning that my work was done less for the joy of working and more to save the world. “Are you making guitars?”

“Well,” Nari said, “I made a guitar and an amp. Now I’m learning how to play. I have to learn how to actually play before I really know what a good guitar is.”

“Well,” I said, “that’s good to hear.”

“Plus,” Nari said, “Our outdoor test was pretty successful.” She was right. We had set up some targets up in the forest and given the current generation Uilon Mangchi and the Ballpeen prototypes to our usual testers. The response had been very positive. No jams or misfires caused by inclement weather, and the weapons were easy to use while on the move.

“The only goddamned problem,” Cross shouted outside an abandoned bunker after he and Doc had “cleared” it of targets, “is that the damned things are too loud.”

“Yes,” Doc said, also shouting, “the ear protection we brought was insufficient, especially where it can echo. The muzzle flash is also very bright. I do not like it.”

“You kidding?” Cross said, “Nothing says ‘Get the fuck down!’ like a nice big muzzle flash. Anything that reminds people whose boss gets my vote.”

“Yes,” Doc said, “but you can do that with an AK. You can do that with an M-16. Yet they don’t give away your position better than a flare when you shoot them. Using these are suicide in an ambush.”

Back in the present, Nari must have been thinking the same thing. “I examined out the Pilum. Thank you for lend it, by the way.”

“Not a problem,” I said. “After all, I’m making money from the project as well.”

“Anyway,” Nari continued, “The flash hider can be replicated without too much cost. However, it turns out the barrel actually doubles as a sound suppressor. Not as efficient as a normal one, but still effective enough.”

“How?” I asked. “I mean, it has to be, it’s too quiet otherwise, but the barrel’s too thin to be a suppressor.”

“I don’t know,” Nari said, her face setting in a determined frown as she talked, “but whatever they’ve done, I can’t figure it out. It’s all internal and extremely tiny. But I’ll figure it out. And I will replicate it.” She paused. “Unless its nanotech. Then we’ll have to make a workaround.”

“Even if it isn’t nanotech,” I said, “the process sounds like it will be way too complex for Andy’s machines. I guess we’ll have to reduce noise the traditional way.” Suddenly, I heard the whine of a jet engine. “Well, I guess May and Andy are back.”

Nari perked up. “Good. Hopefully, they bring news of our glorious financial accomplishments. Also, May said she could get me some guitar-related books.”

“Does that mean you and May have made up?” I asked.

Nari shrugged. “I’m not sure,” she answered. “We do talk occasionally, but never about my work.” She sighed. “I do still like her. When she isn’t being wrong, she is quite kind and knows all the good music.”

“I see,” I said, noting her Megadeath t-shirt. “I would have thought she’d introduce you to more rap and less heavy metal.”

“We have undertaken our glorious journey into the heart of all things metal together,” Nari said. “I am more open to the sounds of self-styled demon slayers, she is more interested in the lyricism of the proletariat as they rise up against their oppressor.” She looked up to see the plane’s nose had just started to enter the hangar. “Good. They are almost here.”

We waited until the plane’s loading ramp opened. Andy and May began walking out, a look of extreme tiredness on their faces. “Oh, there you are,” May said upon seeing Nari and me. She and Andy staggered over to us, dragging their luggage. They looked somewhat zombiefied. “The good news is we were totally, one hundred percent successful. The bad news is that we need to sleep for several hours before we deal with Tim.”

“Don’t worry about him,” I said. “He’s got some kind of stomach virus. Or nerves. He had to leave us when…”

“We don’t need to know,” Andy said. “Anyway, did you guys get any transportation back to campus? The weather looks like complete crap.”

“They told us they’d have a shuttle waiting for you guys when you got back,” I said. “It should be right outside. You guys want me to carry anything?”

“Thanks,” May said, “but we’re good. We’ll tell you about our plans when we get to Andy’s room.”

After we had got there, May and Andy dropped their suitcase among the half-dismantled automated assembly lines and fell down on the bed. While they leant against each other and the wall, Nari and I stood among the industrial detritus, unsure of what to do with ourselves. Eventually, I asked, “So… do you want us to leave?”

“We can brief you, you don’t have to go,” May muttered. Her eyes were closed, and if they were open, they would have been directed mostly into Andy’s armpit.

“Are you sure?” I asked. “You guys seem like you’re pretty done.”

“Yeah,” Andy said, “but we’ve got one last thing to do.” With what seemed to me to be a massive effort, he opened his eyes. “First off, the FDA approved May’s surgical glue for a trial distribution. It’s going to be limited scale, but we’re still going to have to move out of my dorm room and that lab we’re borrowing.”

“That’s cool,” I said, “Timothy would be pleased to hear about that kind of growth.”

“Power sludge needs more trials,” May said absent-mindedly into Andy’s armpit. He giggled. Apparently, he was ticklish there. “They think it works a lil’ too well…”

“I wonder what the cowards think could go wrong,” Nari said.

“Addiction,” May muttered, “withdrawal…” I laughed at that. They’d obviously never tasted the stuff. “And more importantly, cancer. Cancer everywhere.”

At that last point, remembering my first conversation with May, and how she wasn’t sure how safe Power Sludge was, I said, “Wait, do they have evidence for that last bit? Because I ate only that for an entire semester.”

“So did I,” May said sleepily. “And so did everyone in Hell Semester against my wishes.” She yawned. “Guess we’ll find out in five to twenty years.”

“But they don’t know?” I asked. “They haven’t confirmed it?”

“They just kept naming possible side-effects because the effects are so dramatic,” May said, and I could see herself sort of collapse in on herself. “They didn’t just stop with cancer, they think it could cause everything from indigestion to multiple organ failure.” She looked up at me. “Please… Nate, you have to believe me… I never wanted to give Power Sludge to anyone. Least of all the Hell Semester recruits.”

“Hey,” I said, “I’ll let you know if I start feeling funny. Until then, is there anything that rules out everyone who’s ever eaten it being completely ok? I mean, asides from being dumb enough to enroll at NIU?”

“No,” May said, “and that’s the thing that gets me. I don’t know if the people who’ve used my inventions are going to one day start getting sick.” She sighed. “Anyway, moving on to other things I’m involved with that are probably going to kill people, we had a meeting with the FBI director for procurement. At his office. Which was in the J. Edgar Hoover building.”

“So,” Nari asked, “is that a good thing or a bad thing?”

“Well,” May said, “he confirmed that the clients Krieger found are on the level. Also, we’re in the competition for the new FBI sidearm. For better or worse.”

“Definitely for better,” Nari said. “We have made the most powerful pistol the world has seen. Anything that points our weapons at The Dragon’s Teeth and other enemies of all peaceful peoples can only be seen as a good thing.”

“I thought you didn’t care enough about propaganda to translate it,” I said sardonically.

Nari shrugged. “I learned. It is an effective way to communicate.”

“We just have one more announcement,” Andy said. “Then we’d kind of like you get out so we can sleep.”

“Not a problem,” I said. “I actually have some things to be doing.”

“Me too,” Nari said. “I have some work to do, and Sunny is planning on having a movie night at her place. I think we are watching something involving over-muscled men with guns kill people. They sound like propaganda films from home… except they are American.”

“Is one of them called Die Hard?” I asked. “Or Rambo? Or Commando? Because those are kind of classics when it…”

“Hey,” May said, “focus.”

“Anyway,” Andy said, “we’ve told you how the glue’s going to require us to move to the main factory, right? And you know that this factory is slightly farther away than Washington is, right?” Nari and I nodded. Andy, seeing that, continued. “Also, if we get the FBI contract, we’re going to need to set up that space for production of the Uilon Mangchi and the Ballpeen as well. This is gonna require a lot of my time, and probably a lot of May’s as well.”

“When are you going to do your schoolwork?” Nari asked. I didn’t bother to ask any questions. I could already guess where this was going. There was no way they’d be able to continue their education and run a business as ambitious as Olympus Incorporated.

“We aren’t,” Andy said. “We’re going to be taking a leave of absence. We’re leaving Nowhere Island University.”

 

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Track 19: Brace Yourself

The next week, May and Andy were gone off to Washington DC to finalize the FDA approval of May’s various inventions. Then they’d be off to the warehouse they had rented as a factory for Olympus Inc.

“It’s in Worcester?” I asked when I heard about the factory’s location. “You mean you were in Massachusetts all summer and didn’t contact me? I was only an hour away!”

“Well,” May said, “we didn’t exactly have a way to contact you.”

“What about the cPhone?” I asked. “It should work outside…”

“It’s kind of illegal,” Andy pointed out. “I mean, the way they work outside the campus is by pretending to be a phone on the strongest network. You AMS guys may be crazy enough to casually commit theft of service, but I’m not.”

That had been on Saturday as I had walked them to the island’s airport. Nari had wanted to come, but Sunny hadn’t let her. I stayed there in the surprisingly light drizzle (well, light for NIU in mid-October) as the plane taxied down the runway. I then started to walk back to the campus.

However, for some reason, I turned to look at the forest. I had run through those woods twice a day for a semester, and I’d also had my first firefight there. Oddly enough, except for the monthly run, I hadn’t visited it since then, even though I had been thinking about doing it ever since Hell Semester had ended. I had this idea in my head that going back to the part where the most deadly part of the battle had taken place, a crater probably formed in WWII when the US took the island from the Japanese, I would instantly feel better.

Walking into the forest, I began to feel a sense of unease. On the path, I noticed that something was… off. Along the path where years of vehicles and Hell Semester students had worn, the trees had begun to blossom. Most of the other non-coniferous trees farther back in the forest had almost finished losing their leaves, but these seemed to think it was spring despite the colder weather.

I didn’t need to think about what this meant for too long. The Architect had been through here. I considered my options. The newly awakened sensible side of me pointed out that pursuing whatever this was would be a bad idea. The slightly less sensible side was inclined to believe that I wouldn’t have a prayer of sleeping until The Architect was dead. This less sensible side also pointed out that The Architect had come after me first, with no warning or provocation. My sensible side countered that the weapons I had on me (my SIG and my Berretta, plus a switchblade) would probably be of little use on someone (or something) that could make space and time his or her bitch.

I was busy considering whether to walk away like nothing was wrong, or going down there and ending The Architect when Mubashir appeared ahead of me from a side trail. I sighed inwardly. That’s twice I’d seen him involved in Architect-related weirdness and zero times I had seen signs of The Architect without seeing Moob. Odds were looking better and better that Bai was right and he was The Architect.

Upon seeing me, Mubashir froze. As he did, I noticed he was clutching what seemed to be a prayer rug. Finally, after a long pause, I said, as casually as possible, “Hey Moob, what’cha doing out here?”

“I… I was just finishing up some prayers,” he said after another pause. I noticed that he was slightly flustered. “There’s a bunker up that path that keeps the rain out. Really peaceful.” When I didn’t say anything to that, he added, “I also have to get away from Salim.”

“Won’t he notice that you’re gone?” I asked.

“Not on Saturdays,” Mubashir said. “He’s usually trying to get other Muslims to join.” He cocked his head. “By the way, what are you doing here?”

“I was trying to see if I could find the crater,” I said. Seeing Mubashir’s confused look, I said, “It’s where most of the Hell Semester battle happened. There’s more than a few ghosts there that I need to burry.”

Mubashir nodded. It was hard to see at that distance, especially in the rain and mist. “I know a few things about ghosts,” he said. “Would you like me to walk with you? Make sure you don’t step on a mine or unexploded shell?”

“Sure,” I said. The mines and shelling were mostly around the Hell Semester side of the island, but the forest separated that area from the main campus. The crater in question had most likely been from a battleship. The likelihood some other shells had landed in the area was pretty high. I didn’t want to risk stepping on a shell big enough to make that kind of crater that had been waiting for me since the early forties. “You can’t be too careful.”

We crossed the distance between us, then began our journey. After a few minutes, Mubashir remarked, “You know, I don’t really ever think of that last day of Hell Semester as a battle. More like a final where I just sat around doing nothing.”

“It definitely was a battle,” I said. “Especially around the crater.” After another pause I said, “I know it’s probably nothing compared to what you went through, but that kind of fucked me up. That and the rest of Hell Semester.”

“About that,” Moob said, “I’m sorry about what happened after Fight Night.” I nodded. He was referring to an incident where Salim had ambushed me. It ended up with most of Salim’s crew dead and me sharing an ambulance ride with a girl Eliza had really messed up. It wasn’t a fun time.

We walked along for a little while more. “You know,” Mubashir said, “for a time I alternated between not believing in Allah and cursing Him, saying I could do a better job. A few months after being kidnapped by Al-Qaeda, in fact.”

“What changed?” I asked.

Mubashir obviously wished I had asked something else, but he answered anyway. “In difficult situations some people find God, some people lose him. In even rarer situations God finds them.”

There was more silence. During that time, we kept heading deeper and deeper into the forest. We had left behind the strange blossoming trees and were in a segment that I wasn’t exactly familiar with. However, I could feel we were getting close. Finally Mubashir asked, “So, how many of them were there?”

“A captive we had claimed around a hundred and fifty,” I said, “and a captured cPhone with a ‘Find My Friends’ feature led me to believe he was correct.”

“That many?” Mubashir asked. “Against eight of you?”

“The vast majority were worse than useless,” I said. “They panicked way too easily, they couldn’t tell a safety from a magazine catch, and until the very end, their leadership ranged from nonexistent to ‘Thank you sir, we couldn’t have done it without you.’”

“I’ve had experience with those kinds of leaders,” Mubashir said. “It’s almost funny when they meet on the field of battle and match ‘wits.’ Except so many are dying and each side had an obvious way to end it without that many people dying.” He sighed. “Of course, the war I’m fighting is completely unnecessary and one of the groups I’m fighting with is becoming less relevant every day. I believe the English language meme is dumpster fire?”

I shrugged. “Haven’t looked at the net much lately so I couldn’t…” I paused. We had just come into a clearing. A very familiar one.

“What is it?” Mubashir asked.

“This is where we had our second battle,” I said. I hurried out into the middle of it. “I came through the bushes…” I scanned around, then pointed to the spot, “…over there. Standing right here was an enemy patrol. We took them out…” I could almost see the last one. He had been playing dead as The Monk and I had advanced on him. Then his phone had rung and he had popped up. We had shot him. I remembered how he and his companions’ blood had soaked the snow. We had then looted the corpses after making sure all of them were dead. I somehow felt both ashamed and proud.

“Are you ok?” Mubashir asked.

“Moving on!” I said with forced cheer. Mubashir looked at me strangely, but he followed me down memory lane. “You know,” I continued in a non-sequitur, “It was really cold. And blizzarding. Visibility was complete shit and everyone’s teeth were chattering. Of course, you were back at camp, experiencing the same weather so…”

“I don’t remember any of it,” Mubashir said. “It was honestly just another day off for me once I set the tent up. Salim was ranting, and those of us who were still left were listening to him vent.”

“What does he talk about?” I ask.

“His family and how they got murdered by an American drone,” Mubashir said. “Just once, I want to point out my family was most likely killed or enslaved by Al Qaeda, but that would blow my cover.” He kicked a tree. “I work for UNIX!” He kicked it again. “I work for the CIA!” He kicked a final time. “I work for Al Qaeda! I work for three of the worst entities in the world, three entities who lie and abuse my brother and sister Arabs daily! Who abuse me daily! Why am I cowardly enough to work for them?”

“I don’t think you’re a coward,” I said. “Honestly, I just don’t think you have a choice.”

“Apart from suicide,” Mubashir said.

“If you’ve found God again,” I said, continuing on my journey, “and if he’s saying the same thing to you as he is to me, that’s definitely a sin.”

Mubashir began following me. “Maybe our gods aren’t so different after all,” he said with a bit of a bitter laugh. “Which would make sense, since they’re the same.”

Eventually, we saw it. The memories of the events there caused me to stagger a bit, and for a minute, I could smell the fire and smoke. I could hear the gunfire and screams of the dying. It was so real I almost thought I was back there. Next to me, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Mubashir look at me in concern.

I took a few deep breaths, then said, “I’m ok.”

“To be fair,” Mubashir said, trying to sound casual, “You’re doing a lot better than I would if I went back to my village.”

“Thanks,” I said. “Anyway, if you look around, I think you can still see some signs of the battle. For instance, those shrubs along the sides of this path… I think you can still see how they got burned.”

After that, I led Mubashir up the path to the crater, keeping up a running commentary about everything that happened. How Doc, The Monk, John and I had to fight our way to the crater where Eric, MC Disaster, Ray-Gun and Cross had holed up. How the enemy had sent a recon team down what we had termed the funnel, and how The Monk and I had killed most of them. How the next attack was the rest of them, all coming down the funnel, and how we had massacred them with our guns and incendiary grenades, literally dismembering some and burning a few others alive. How we had decided (stupidly) to leave the crater and were ambushed by the few remaining enemies. How they had shot me, The Monk and Ray-Gun and could possibly have killed all of us if a relief force led by Eliza hadn’t shown up.

From the top of the crater, I stared at the now-swampy wasteland where I had been shot. “Hey Moob,” I asked, “Is it weird that I’m kind of proud at what I did here?”

“By ‘weird,’” Mubashir asked, “do you mean wrong?”

“Yeah,” I admitted. “I mean, I feel guilty. A lot of them died in pretty horrible ways. Sometimes because I pulled a trigger or threw a grenade.”

“I don’t know,” Mubashir said. “There is only one person who can answer that, and he hasn’t talked to me.” He smiled with a mixture of hope and cynicism. “I can say I hope God can forgive you, because I’ve been doing similar things and worse for much longer.”

“Well, I’ll hope he forgives you as well,” I said. “Mostly because I like your logic.” We laughed. It was genuine laughter. When we were done, I looked down at the bottom of the crater. “Someday,” I said, “I’d like to come back here with some other veterans, or some people like you who weren’t here but who’d understand what this is like. Cook some hot dogs or burgers, pop something to drown our sorrows, and just talk.”

“It can’t be with me,” Mubashir said. “I have to go back, and if they see me with you…”

I nodded. “Of course. Go on ahead.” I looked out to where I had been hit in the leg with shrapnel from a 40mm rifle grenade. “I’ve still got some reminiscing to do.” With only a short goodbye, Mubashir left. I watched him leave, then began to wonder how many more craters and North Koreas I would have.

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Track 18: Take the Psycho Bowling

After Timothy made his presentation, we shooed him out of the room. Once he was gone, we unanimously agreed to give him a temporary position as business manager for a small percentage of the profits. Surprisingly, he was happy with that. I honestly thought he’d push to make it permanent or get a bigger cut. Instead, he just smiled, and said, “You won’t regret this.” May didn’t seem too convinced.

Still, I had more immediate problems. Midterms were that week and I needed to do what felt like all the work. At this point, between my extracurricular weapons design, bar tending and actual school work, I was pretty much fueled by soda, candy, hot chocolate, and tea instead of actual sleep. At supper on Tuesday, May confronted me about it.

“Nate,” she said, “you’re falling asleep in your noodles.”

“What?” I said. Then I realized I was face-down in a plate of angel hair noodles. As I sat up, I was thankful that I didn’t put any sauce on the spaghetti. Being covered with parmesan cheese and olive oil was bad enough.

May sighed. “After you finish your food, I’m walking you home. You will go to sleep.”

“I…” I began.

“Did I make it sound like I was giving you a choice?” May asked. “Because if so that was a mistake, and I apologize.”

As she frog-marched me back to my dorm, I began making incoherent promises about sleeping more. May just rolled her eyes. “Don’t try,” she said, “do.”

I was actually able to do that for the rest of the week, mostly by putting the assault rifle design on the backburner. Due to how tired I constantly was, I actually managed to sleep better.

John, however, seemed to be doing better than me. When I’d wake up in the middle of the night due to nightmares, anxiety or simply needing a bathroom break, he’d be sleeping pretty well. I was kind of annoyed by this. If the guy who had been put into critical condition a few months ago could sleep, why couldn’t I?

There was also an awkwardness between us. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think we’d just had a huge fight. It had been that way for a while, but I was really starting to notice it. So on Friday I decided that I needed some air.

I had just finished all my midterms and didn’t have to go to dinner or my bartending job for quite a while. For the first time in months, I was feeling rested. Originally, I hadn’t planned on being outside long (the island’s weather was as rainy as usual,) but then I saw him.

Ulfric Trollbjorn was sitting down on the bench outside the building I had my class in. As usual, the people who knew him by reputation (I don’t think anyone actually knows him, except maybe Alma) were giving him a wide berth. Even sitting down, you could tell he was a giant. His AMS hoodie was soaked, hanging off him. This revealed that, while he was incredibly ripped, he was still surprisingly lacking in muscles for someone who could literally rip people apart with his bare hands.

At first, I considered walking away. Then I noticed that Ulfric’s normally smiling face was downcast and he was staring at the ground. I stood there for what had to be around two to five minutes, staring directly at him. During this time he didn’t once look up. Eventually, I decided to walk up to him.

“Ulfric?” I asked over the sound of the rain when I was standing right next to him, “You ok?”

Ulfric looked up at me in surprise, and I could see that his eyes were slightly puffy. He held my gaze for about a second or two, then, finally, he asked, his voice hoarse like he’d been crying, “Do you wanna go bowling?”

“Sure,” I said, out of a combination of fear of a completely snapped Ulfric and a genuine sense of compassion. I mean, he had killed dozens of people not too long ago, but even so, I couldn’t just leave someone sobbing in the rain. “I didn’t know they had a bowling alley on the island.”

Ulfric gave his wide, completely joyful grin and got up. He motioned for me to follow him. I did. He led me down the main street. Near the gate, we got to a building by the hospital. I had probably walked by it dozens of times, yet I hadn’t seen the bright neon sign labeled “Bryke’s Bowling,” complete with dancing bowling pins. As soon as I saw it, I realized that it had probably always been there. Well, it wasn’t like I was the biggest bowler out there.

Ulfric, moving with his usual disturbing speed and grace, walked up to the cashier, a pimply brown-skinned man and plopped down a piece of paper. The brown-skinned man turned almost as white as Ulfric. When Ulfric saw this, he made his high-pitched giggle. For a few seconds, the sounds of people bowling and conversing stopped. This caused Ulfric’s shoulders to sag.

To his credit, the receptionist managed to ask in a quivering voice, “I see that you have decided to use your ticked for two. Who…?” Ulfric pointed to me. I waved. “Ah, yes,” he said. “Would you gentlemen please hand over your shoes?”

We handed over our shoes to the receptionist, and he handed over some bowling shoes to the us. When the shoes were on, he pointed us over to an empty lane. I’m not a bowler, so I’m not even sure if we were doing it right. I just know that Ulfric was consistently knocking all the pins down with one ball, whereas I sometimes couldn’t even knock them down with the balls allotted to me.

After a few rounds, Ulfric asked out of nowhere, “Am I defective?”

I honestly had no idea how to answer that question. Up until this point, I had thought of Ulfric as a ruthless, highly intelligent killing machine. I had known he had feelings, but didn’t know that he was capable of introspection. He had always seemed so child-like, an impression that was cemented by his baby face and his usually joyful smile.

“Depends on what you mean,” I said. “I mean, what’s your idea of a functional person?”

Ulfic shrugged. “I don’t know. I just know that most people can talk whenever they want every day. I know people act the same every day.” He paused. “There’s also some unspoken rules I don’t get.”

He then went back to bowling. I tried to engage him in conversation several more times, but he went back to being his usual mute self. I had once noted in Hell Semester that he had days where he might literally not speak at all and days where he could string several sentences together in any language. However, this was the first conversation I had ever seen him have. It also seemed to physically exhaust him, because after speaking, he sat down and rested for a bit.

We continued to bowl until the machine stopped giving us balls. After we got our street shoes on, I asked, “You want me to walk with you for a bit?”

Ulfric nodded. We headed out the bowling alley and down past the hospital and into AMS/Shadowhaven territory. As we did so, Ulfric seemed to be getting back to his cheery self.

I wondered how he could still be happy. It’s not like I hadn’t noticed it before, but everyone seemed to be avoiding him, especially now that we were in an area where people were more aware of who he was. People would literally cross the street rather than come into range. They would also glance at his sweater, specifically around his armpits. Despite their small size (compared to Ulfric, that is,) you could still see the twin .50 AE Desert Eagles with their drum magazines.

Of course, most people here were armed. I, of course, had my Berretta and SIG-Sauer. The occasional Campus Security officers we saw would have their standard-issue FiveSeveN strapped to their hips. There was also the fact that many of the students and teachers who needed to brave the rain, usually the ones in the AMS and Shadowhaven hoodies, had their concealed carry weaponry revealed by rain-soaked clothes. A few also carried large, rectangular cases in addition to their backpacks that my experience told me were most likely long guns.

Here, everyone would know how to use their weapons. Yet they were still afraid of Ulfric. I wondered what that would be like, to live in what was the equivalent of a heavily-armed ghetto in a village full of people who hated and feared you, and were also highly armed and superbly trained. I would have been a wreck. Of course, I already was a high-functioning train wreck at that point.

After I considered this, I said to Ulfric, “You know, if you ever need to talk, you can call me.” Ulfric turned towards me and smiled gratefully. “Also,” I added, “from what I’ve seen, you could probably talk to Alma as well.”

At this, Ulfric stopped and turned completely pale. I stared at him. I never thought anything could scare him. I just didn’t know if it was because he was scared of Alma, me or both of us. Or why he’d be scared.

“Sorry,” I said, trying to pretend I hadn’t realized he was scared. “I just saw you two together around campus once or twice and…” I trailed off, then finally said, “Just forget it.”

“Forget you ever saw us together.” I turned to see Ulfric staring at me with the kind of fear in his eyes that made me think he would hurt me if I didn’t agree. He then placed a massive hand on my shoulder and added, “Please.”

Looking at the giant hand, I was reminded of how Ulfric had once ripped someone’s arm off and beat the victim and his friends with the soggy end along with a dozen other incidents.  Not wanting to risk that he’d avoid confrontation because we were in public, I said, “Sure. Don’t worry about it.”

Ulfric stared at me for a long, long time, trying to see there was any hint that I would go back on my word. Eventually, he let go of my shoulder and nodded, satisfied. We then began to continue our walk back to our dorm. It turned out that Ulfric had a room right across from my dorm building. It was a single, probably due to a combination of the fact that he was Ulfric and that Hell Semester had taken more lives than usual in our year. It was supposed to be a double, but Ulfric had dragged the two beds together and had gotten sheets and blankets big enough to cover both mattresses. There were probably other signs that he had the room all to himself, but he wordlessly shooed me out. I didn’t argue.

When I got back to the dorm I shared with John, the first thing I did was grab a change of clothes (I had been soaked to the bone from being out in the rain for so long) and a towel and head to the bathrooms. Deciding to get ahead of the laundry for once, I threw my soaking clothes into my laundry basket and took that to the basement.

When I entered the room for the third time, I said to John, “I saw Ulfric today.”

“What’d you do?” John asked, turning from his computer to look at me for what felt like the first time in weeks. “Go bowling together?

“I swear I’m not kidding,” I said, “but that’s exactly what we did.”

“You’re fucking shitting me,” John said, laughing somewhat.

“I swear I’m telling the truth,” I said. “I even had kind of a heart to heart chat with him. He said more in two hours than he has in the rest of his NIU career.” There was a pause. John’s look of amusement began to fade. “Just out of curiosity,” I asked, “have you ever seen him and Alma Hebert around?”

John sighed. “Look,” he said, “I’ve been only doing this for, like, a year, but I’m starting to develop a sense of when things are going to go bad.”

“Next time you say you have a good feeling,” I said, “I’m going to hold you to it.”

“Key word,” John said, rolling his eyes, “is starting.” He leaned in close and said, “Listen to me, Nate, I have no clue what connection you’re going to draw from this or what it might motivate you to do, but I’m going to tell you right now: leave. It. Alone. No good can come of you doing your thing.”

I was going to argue. I really was. Then I considered my track record and my current workload. “You know what?” I said, “I’m going to concentrate on not fucking up what I’m currently doing.”

“Really?” John asked skeptically.

“Yeah,” I said. “I’ve got enough to be doing. Besides, what would poking at it fix?”

 

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Track 17: Fix Yo Hustle

Looking back on it, I can’t believe I ever forgot about Timothy. I wouldn’t be reminded of his existence until nearly the second week in October. Sunday afternoon after lunch and the study group, the board of Olympus Incorporated had welcomed Professor Krieger to discuss the first order of business: the sale of the pistols and ammo to the mystery group.

“Our friends,” Krieger began, “find that your pistols live up to all your claims so far. They admit to over-ordering the pistols, but are offering around five hundred dollars per additional ten thousand rounds of ammunition.”

“Any critiques?” I asked, trying to ignore that May looked disgusted with Krieger and Andy seemed like he was about to vomit.

“These weapons,” Krieger said, “are somewhat controversial. But the objective fact is they can penetrate any material you could reasonably expect and its bleedin’ uncle. It’s also an objective fact that the little bugger’s very noisy, and if you aren’t wearing some armor, you might spend a good few minutes before realizing you’ve been shot.”

With this comment, Nari asked, “Do our honorable buyers know enough to aim for the center mass? Or do they prefer to aim for the legs and shoulders?”

Kreiger laughed. “Oh, they know where to aim, missy. Sometimes, though, you can’t always hit the heart or brain. In those situations, a few very small bullets won’t do as much damage as a lot of heavy bullets. That being said, apparently a third of the people who use it are in love with it.” Nari smirked in satisfaction. “The other two-thirds want it to be lighter, have less recoil, have a higher rate of fire, or some combination of the three.”

Nari gave Krieger a glower that almost matched May’s. “Do they realize that the only way to control recoil for that gun is to make it abnormally heavy? Even if I added porting, switching from steel to polymer or seltsametall would make it kick too much.”

Krieger shrugged. “Just giving you their words, girlie.” He considered this. “You know, a platform with a bigger form factor could potentially…”

“Allow for an effective counter-balancing system, which in turn would allow for controllable, rapid semi and full-auto fire,” Nari said, rolling her eyes. “We know. We’ve thought it through, much better than any of your friends.”

“They’d like to hear your musings,” Krieger said.

Nari, suddenly cautious, looked hesitantly to May, Andy and me. Andy and May shrugged. I guess it was my turn. “Between company politics, finances, and just plain old engineering,” I said, “we feel we should keep our speculations academic for the moment. That’s not to say it can’t happen in the near future, but it’s unlikely.”

As I said this, I tried to not even think of the two guns in the case we had spent the morning testing in the forrest. If you didn’t have anything to hold to scale, you could be forgiven for thinking it was an M-4/M-16 with an MP-5A3-style telescoping buttstock clone at first. That was because the receiver was designed to accommodate an M-4 barrel shround. Then, you’d notice it took its magazines through a pistol grip and the ambidextrous charging handles were very similar to a SCAR or AK. If you held it up to an UMP-45, you’d also notice that without the barrel, this gun was more compact, but with the barrel it was slightly longer.

Internally, it was radically altered from all its progenitors to accommodate a revolutionary counter-balancing spring made up of a shelved university project called BounceCore (a material with a high compression strength that could be reduced by running a current through it.) The act of firing the gun pushed back the barrel and the BounceCore spring instead of the entire gun as well as pushing the six-and-a-half millimeter bullet forwards. The only problem with BounceCore was that in order to have it stand up to the kinetic and thermal energy our ammunition created when it fired, we had to make it way too thick to be put in a pistol. Still, that allowed us to make the rest of this SMG out of Seltsametall and synthetics.

It was deadly, efficient and easy to use. Nari and I were both rightly proud. In short, it was everything May (and me) did not want falling into the wrong hands, which also made it the kind of thing Nari wanted to put in boxes of breakfast cereal along with her biography.

We called it the Ballpeen, and it was beautiful.

Krieger, not seeming to suspect my lie, said, “I’m sorry to hear that, lads and lassies. I’ll give you until Saturday to come to a decision. In the meantime, I’m going to get some sleep. I’ve got Hell Semester pukes to deal with for the next five days.”

With that, he got up and exited the borrowed conference room. In the split second after Krieger had exited from view and before the door began to close, I saw my waiter from the Veranda, Timmy, sitting at the conference room across the hall, consulting his laptop. Before I could really register, the door was blocking my view again. Oddly enough, he appeared to be wearing business formal attire. Even the stuffiest of the business majors wore business casual unless they needed to present.

We waited for a few seconds to make sure Krieger had really left. When we were sure he was gone, Nari asked, “So, why did we not sell him the Ballpeen?”

“Because,” May said through gritted teeth, pulling out a manila folder, “I’m not sure they are who they say they are.”

“And even if they are,” Andy said grimly, “they’re still pretty dang shady.”

Before either of them could elaborate, the door to our conference room burst open. “I’ll say,” Timmy said, striding in like he owned the place, much to our surprise. “I mean, they’re definitely stiffing you.” He paused, and flashed what he obviously thought was a charming smile. “I can help with that.”

“…Who the hell are you?” Andy asked.

“This,” I said, “is Timothy, I believe. You’re a business major, right?”

“Technically,” he said, “my name is Cheung Tao, but my English name’s Timothy Cheung.” He sat leaned down, looking oddly serious despite his hipster glasses and stupid widow’s peak. “But that’s not important. What’s important is how I can help you.”

“And how could you help us?” May asked.

“First of all,” Timothy said, getting up, “not only is this room bugged, but it’s also not soundproofed.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder, indicating the room he had previously been inhabiting. “Mine is. Plus I know how to baffle the bugs.” He got up. “If you would follow me…”

Andy, May, Nari and I consulted each other silently for a moment. Finally I said, “What the hell? Let’s humor him.”

“Ok,” May said.

We all got up. After we filed into the room, Timothy sealed the door. I noticed that his laptop, a MacBook of some sort, was plugged into the TV via an HDMI cable. The window shades were mostly drawn, except for a small sliver where what appeared to be a wireless speaker rested against the window.

“The cool thing about music,” Timothy said smugly, taking a gold-plated iPhone out of his pocket, “is that not only can it cut off room mics when played at the correct volume, not only can it disrupt laser mics if you put the speaker up to the window, but you can also impress your client.” He then pressed a button on his phone. “Aw yeah, it’s that dope shizzle, my nizzles!”

For one brief, shining moment, I thought I was listening to Under Pressure. Then Vanilla Ice started rapping. May, our hip-hop head, looked like she was in physical pain as soon as she heard the first few bars.

Sensing that Vanilla Ice hadn’t gotten him the points he had desired, Timothy said, “…I also have some Fetty Wap, Rick Ross and Limp Bizkit if they would be better.”

“How about if I put on some music?” May asked as tactfully as she could possibly could.

Once May had begun cleansing her palate with some Tupac, she asked, “So, Mr. Cheung, what proposal do you have for us?”

“Also,” I asked, “how did you find out about us?”

“Please,” he said, “Call me Timmy.” He turned to me. “Well, Mr. Jacobs, I discovered this company through you, when you were talking with your lovely lady about how many units you shipped.” He gave me a wink to let me know where he thought I had shipped that night and where it was delivered. I just stared at him. He continued on. “To be fair, you didn’t mention units of what, but I was intrigued. Then, at a recent study group for Black Market Econ at the Vulture Capitalist, I managed to get a bit more info out of Jennifer Kagemoto. Don’t worry, she didn’t say your name, just that she’d discovered someone working on some really cool guns. To be fair to her, she also had twice as many shots of tequila as you did of bourbon.”

I recognized the name Vulture Capitalist. Basically, it was The Drunken Mercenary for Business Majors, except instead of sub-par booze, it kept outsiders away via exorbitant prices. Any study group there would turn into a drunken revel.

“Are you offering us security?” I asked. If he was, I’d have to take it. I’d obviously messed up if he was here.

Apparently, I had accidentally implied I’d been insulted because Timothy quickly backpedaled. “No, no, no!” he said. “I just have some suggestions. For instance, I did some research. The closest analogue to your ammo I could find is .357 SIG. Would that be fair?”

“In terms of velocity and penetration,” Nari said, a little insulted, “.357 SIG is completely inferior.”

“Then why are you selling it for less?” Timothy asked. He pressed a button on his phone and the title Profitability in Weapon Deals appeared on the TV. He pressed another button and he went to a slide with two pie graphs. “These,” he said, “are what I estimate what the price of .357 SIG goes to. Since we’re selling wholesale, we’re going to look at the one on the right, which is cost to the end user per thousand rounds.”

He tapped on the screen. “As you can see, the actual cost of making and assembling the bullet is only about twenty cents per bullet. That means, of the six hundred and seventy-five dollars the consumer spends on, only two hundred dollars is actually spent on making the thing.” He paused for effect, but then moved from the red slice representing the cost to make the bullet, tapping the other slices. “Of course, the manufacturer spends money on marketing, design, benefits, royalties, most of which doesn’t concern you, since you only have shareholders at this point, or any need to market.” Finally, he got to the big green slice. “But this… this is the profit, or at least the gross profit. Now, can I ask… if the rules changed tomorrow, and you had to pay for materials yourself, how much would bullets cost?”

Andy spoke up instantly. “Fifty cents. If I budget in case of the machine breaking, possibly sixty. Most of that is due to the fact we’re in the middle of nowhere and we’re not producing a huge amount.”

“So,” Timothy said, “if you were to have to pay for materials, six thousand of the five hundred dollars you make would go to production costs. That seems a little off to me.” He shrugged. “Then again, if you’re running a charity…”

“If it’s a charity,” May said, finally opening the manila folder, “we need to review our cases. A few days after we shipped our first order, a Cartel middle-management guy living right on the US/Mexican border left his wife and kids for work. As soon as he closed the door, two men walked up and opened fire. A total of five rounds were fired, all of which passed through the man and the heavy oak door. Not only did he die almost instantly, but his wife, eight-month-old infant and fifteen-year-old son are dead. There are five other incidents I believe our gun was used in that ended in civilian casualties.”

“What was the goal?” Timothy asked. “Not your client’s, but yours.”

“Immediate goal?” I said. “FBI’s having a contest. We want in, and Krieger told us they could get us in.”

“Ok,” he said, “No shipments until we get proof they are who they say they are. We also need to find Krieger’s angle…”

“What about yours?” I asked.

“Simple,” Timothy said. “You guys are inventors who need a business guy to sell your products, I’m a business guy who’s looking for a job. Also, apart from the pistol, are you making any other things?”

“Originally,” May said, suppressing her bitterness, “this was supposed to be about just selling medical supplies and automated production.” She brightened up a bit. “Still, Power Sludge and my surgical glue have been approved by the FDA, so I’m going Washington in a few weeks. Andy’s going to be at the factory.”

“So we’re…” Timothy began, then realized that we hadn’t voted him in yet, “doing medicine and manufacturing. Cool. That’s something we can put sales of weapons towards.”

As May pondered this, Timothy asked, “Can I see the products you discussed?”

I put the case on the table. “You can look,” I said, “but you can’t touch, and you can’t ask how they work. Deal?”

“Sure,” Timothy said with a shrug. I opened the case. Inside was the second generation of the Uilon Mangchi and the two prototype versions of the Ballpeen.

“What’s that on the bottom of the machinegun at the top?” Timothy asked.

“It’s a collapsible foregrip, light and laser,” I said, resisting the urge to correct him that it was actually an SMG. “If you pull the trigger on the grip, you can switch between several settings.”

Timothy looked at the guns for a moment, smiling to himself. Finally, he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I do believe your products are Hollywood-ready.”

 

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Track 16: Tonight’s All Right for Fighting

After the awkwardness of Nari and May having to be in the same room for the tutoring session, I went to Krieger’s office to brief him on what I was using the various materials for. He was only available this weekend because he was teaching Hell Semester again. Luckily, Krieger is kind of a work machine and was able to meet me at his office.

The office was in Sun Tzu, which meant less walking. I knocked on the office door.

“It’s unlocked, boyke,” a South African-accented voice said behind me. “Just walk on in.”

I turned around. There, looking as lion-like as ever, was Professor Karl Krieger, his mane-like beard a little less well-kempt than usual. He had changed out of his drill sergeant uniform and was wearing cargo pants, Hell Semester t-shirt, and a raincoat. Judging by how dry the raincoat was, he had been waiting for me.

“Actually,” remembering about Mendez and Gupta, “I was thinking we could talk outside.”

Krieger raised an eyebrow. “Of course,” he said. “It being such a lovely day and all.” To punctuate this, there was a clap of thunder. Also, since we were on the top floor, we could hear the sound of rain pattering down on the roof.

As we entered the elevator, Krieger asked, “So, why were you requesting so much raw material? And why was much of it explosive?”

“Nari Lee and I are entering the firearm business,” I said. “May Riley and Andy Sebaldi are also in on it, May very reluctantly.”

“And the explosives?” Krieger asked.

“We’re making our own ammo,” I said. “I… saw a need for something that can reliably penetrate Dragon’s Teeth armor when we were in Korea. Our weaponry wasn’t quite up to par.”

“And your plans on advertising and distribution?” Krieger asked.

“Well,” I said as the elevator dinged open, “there was a contest for a new FBI firearm because…”

“Because .40 S&W was having trouble penetrating exotic armor,” Krieger said, rolling his eyes. “I heard. I also heard that you need a recommendation to get in. You also need to be able to produce a hundred for testing purposes, plus ten thousand rounds to put through each gun for testing purposes.”

“Oh,” I said. That was one plan down the drain. As we headed towards the door, I added, “the first part, I have no idea how to do. The second part, well, that’s why we have Andy.”

“Even if you did get a pistol out,” Krieger said, “and the Dragon’s Teeth invade, the program is limited deployment. Only a few agents will get assigned one, mostly Parahuman investigations, HRT and FBI SWAT. And even then, you realize it’s just a pistol?”

“I was kind of hoping that would lead to others adopting it,” I said. “And also building a following that I could sell the SMG and assault rifle I’m designing to.”

“Still,” Krieger said, “those are just personal weapons. They might kill a few of the foot soldiers, but how are you going to deal with their vehicles? I recall you were also quite impressed with them as well.”

I shook my head. “Someone else will have to deal with that.”

Krieger laughed. When he was done, he said, “You’re learning, boyke! In the meantime, I have some friends who have… an understanding with the FBI. They could use an armor-piercing pistol, caseless or otherwise.”

I looked around. No one was coming. “In other news,” I said, just loud enough to be heard above the rain, “if you’re still annoyed by the way things are going, Officers Gupta and Mendez might be sympathetic.” When I saw Krieger nod, I raised my voice. “In other news, I feel kind of bad for dragging you out here. Do you want me to get you a drink?”

Krieger accepted, and we got something called a Caribou Lou. Let me just say, if you like rum, pineapple juice, and getting pretty sloshed, you’ll like a Caribou Lou.

The next week wasn’t anything special. I had schoolwork, of course, and I was busy trying to make the SMG. Meanwhile, Andy was finding a place to put his assembly lines other than Sunny’s basement. He was also working with Krieger to get the first order completed.

It went on like this until Fight Night came. As I was putting on the suit I had brought (by the way, thanks, dad for making me bring it,) my cPhone beeped. I picked it up, seeing it was a phone call from Eliza. “Hello,” I said.

“I just realized,” Eliza said breathlessly, “it’s Fight Night, innit? And you work at The Drunken Mercenary. You can’t make it, can you? Oh God, I’m a right…”

“Eliza,” I said, interrupting her, “The Drunken Mercenary closes on Fight Night.”

“Really?” Eliza asked incredulously. “Why the bloody ‘ell’d they do that?”

“I asked Dmitri the exact same thing,” I said. “Apparently, the first Fight Night after it opened, a few fights broke out and there were pretty serious casualties. Think about it: you’re wasted and someone from Britain gets his head bashed in by Ulfric. Then you hear some… I don’t know, French people laughing at it. What would you do?”

Eliza paused for a bit. Finally, very grudgingly, she admitted, “…I’d fuckin’ cut ‘em up.”

“Apparently,” I said, “what finally caused The Drunken Merc to close on Fight Night was the Fight Night Riot of ’94. All I know was that it had something to do with the Rwandan and Bosnian Genocide and it… got ugly after that. Plus some Parahumans decided that they didn’t like other Parahumans and…”

“Say no more,” Eliza said. “I’ll just fix me makeup, then I’ll meet you there.”

The Veranda was on the border between Rogue and Business territory. A good decision, as the Rogues and Business majors were typically the only ones who could afford to eat there regularly. As I walked, I noticed that a lot of businesses, specifically the ones that distributed alcohol, were closed. Also, Campus Security was out in force around the AMS/Shadowhaven areas. I saw four Bearcats and several checkpoints manned by Security officers in combat gear. The last time I had seen Security carry such heavy equipment carried openly was when the Grenzefrontier had invaded the campus.

When I finally got into the building the Veranda was located, I saw Eliza was waiting by the elevator. She was wearing a beautiful dress that was a bright, soothing green to match her eyes. She was also tottering a bit on heels, and she seemed a bit nervous. Behind her, guarding the elevator, were two female Campus Security Officers. They weren’t in full combat gear, but they both had slightly heavier vests on, and one had a SPAS-12 and the other had a P-90.

“Oh, there you are!” she said, moving towards me as fast as her heels would allow. “Finally! These blokes ‘ere were gettin’ a bit nervous!” One of the guards, a somewhat tanned-looking woman carrying the P-90, waved awkwardly. She looked away when Eliza embraced me. “Apart from that, you’re actually a little early. I was just nervous because, well, I’ve never done anythin’ like this before.”

“Me neither,” I admitted. “I’m glad I’m doing it with you.” We stood there standing awkwardly. “Uh…” I said, motioning towards the elevator, “do you…”

“Yeah…” Eliza said. “Yeah! Let’s go do that.”

“If you’re going to go up there,” the guard with the SPAS-12 said, her voice tinged with amusement, “we’ll have to check you for weapons. This is the only place on campus tonight serving alcohol, so you can’t be armed here tonight.”

After surrendering our weapons (I had my Berretta and my SIG, Eliza had a CZ-75,) we took the elevator up to The Veranda. Oddly enough, it was quite empty. I guess, since the Veranda didn’t have any TVs, people just stocked up on booze and watched Fight Night with friends.

Speaking of The Veranda’s interior, it reminded me a lot of how the Blackmoor-Ward looked. It was, in short, expensive. Everything, from the scented candles on the tables and the romantic lighting, to the intricately carved, yet surprisingly comfortable chairs, screamed that it was expensive as it was tasteful.

The most wonderful thing about the restaurant, though, was the view. It was located on the top two floors of one of the taller buildings on campus, with only the hospital being taller. The Veranda made use of its prime location by having glass exterior walls and ceilings, giving the diner an amazing panoramic view of the island. The effect was lessened on us due to the torrential rain reducing visibility, but from where we were seated, I swear I could see the outline of the Hell Semester Barracks in the distance and the lights they were using to illuminate Fight Night.

“Fucked up, innit, mate?” Eliza asked, following my gaze. Her ears were flattened, and I could tell she was remembering something by the way the normally mischievous gleam in her eyes had disappeared.

Just as I was about to agree, a voice said, “I take it that means you’ll want something to drink to start off?” We turned around to see a very trim Asian student with plastic-rimmed glasses and over-gelled hair arranged in a peak. He was wearing a tuxedo and an apron, obviously part of his uniform. Something about his attitude suggested that he definitely wasn’t an AMS, Rogue or Shadowhaven student. It was probably that when we turned to stare at him, he flinched. “Sorry,” he said hurriedly, “kind of a stupid joke…”

“But accurate,” Eliza said, obviously forcing some of her normal cheer into her voice. “If you’ve got any scotch, I’d like a double.” I noticed that her ears were still drooping.

I probably wasn’t looking very happy myself. Remembering the certificate included two free drinks, I added, “I’ll have your best bourbon.” Suddenly realizing our waiter hadn’t introduced himself, I asked, “By the way, what’s your name?”

“Oh!” our server said, suddenly realizing his mistake. “Hi! My name is Timothy, and I’ll be your server this evening. Would you like to order some drinks to start off your meal?” I noticed that when flustered, he had gone from a neutral, if somewhat clinical American accent to a slight Chinese accent. Still, his English was very good.

Eliza, however, was probably too busy laughing at Timothy’s mistake to notice his accent shift. Eventually, after Eliza stopped chuckling, we made our order again. This time, we were more specific about the kind of booze we wanted.

After Timothy was done taking our drink orders, he asked, “Hey, weren’t you one of the guys who killed Eric and James Roberts?”

I pointed at myself, a feeling of dread. Timothy nodded. “When was this?” I asked.

“Last semester,” Timothy said, “during the break-in at the hospital’s Secure Records section.”

“First off,” I said, “I might not have killed him. There was another person with me. Secondly…”

“I know,” Timothy said, a note of unrepentant glee in his voice. “But you might have killed him, so I should probably thank you. The guys were in my Project Management and Accounting classes. Even the other Nazi sympathizers hated them.” He then pocketed his pen and pad. “Anyway, your drinks will be right out.” He then hurried off, nearly skipping for joy.

“Bit of a sociopath, isn’t ‘e?” Eliza remarked when he was out of earshot.

I nodded. I was a little disturbed at how happy he was two people he had known personally were dead. Still, when he came back with our drinks, I noted that ours were filled to the brim, while our neighbors who ordered shots only had theirs filled three-quarters of the way. Timothy sure knew how to suck up.

Conversation was mostly light between Eliza and me. We did exchange drinks for a few sips just to see if we could tell the difference. We could. Timothy, however, made sure that they were filled up. When I mentioned that my certificate only covered three drinks, Timothy assured us that it was on the house. We still switched to water, me after my fourth shot, Eliza after her fifth. Needless to say, when some old acquaintances of mine came in, we were feeling pretty good.

“…so, those clients Krieger got us want five prototypes,” I was saying to Eliza as Timothy removed the plate my steak had been on. “They also want…” I paused. The group that had been drinking shots had left and the tables they’d occupied had been split apart. Sitting at one of them were Agents Takashi and Brosnan. As I stared, Brosnan raised his glass in a mock toast, a patronizing smirk on his face.

Champagne, I thought. The bastards are drinking champagne while people are beating each other to death only a few kilometers away. As soon as I thought that, though, I reminded myself, Hey, the only reason you’re here is because you’ve just eaten the most expensive steak you’ve ever laid eyes on. Don’t judge.

“What’s wrong?” Eliza asked. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“Takashi and Craig are here.”

“‘Oo?” Eliza asked, cocking her head. Then, her ear closest to where Takashi and Craig were sitting twitched. “Wait, they’re the blokes near us oo’re drinkin’ bubbly and laughin’ it up, right?”

“Well,” I said, noticing Takashi now was directing a murderous stare at me, “Takashi’s not exactly happy.”

“Are… are they the guys ‘oo got you to…” Eliza began, “…to… to, y’know…? Then bleedin’ stiffed you?”

I nodded, desperately trying to keep myself from causing a scene. Takashi, however, was under no such restrictions. He stood out of his chair with such force that it fell over. In response, Eliza’s triple claws shot out of her hands. Before she could launch herself at Takashi, I grabbed her wrists, nearly setting my hair on fire from the candle.

“Eliza,” I said, staring into her pale, shaking face, “it’s not worth it.” The look on Eliza’s face was downright murderous. According to what I knew about Lupines (and Eliza in particular,) when the claws came out, that meant violence was extremely likely.

From his table, I could hear Brosnan call out warningly, “Takashi…”

Takashi, meanwhile had appeared at our table, and he was livid. “You…” he said.

I ignored him and kept staring straight into Eliza’s eyes. While Takashi’s expression was a little scary, Eliza was utterly terrifying. Her face completely white with rage, she was trembling with the rage only a berserk Lupine could muster, and blood was dripping from her extended claws onto the expensive white tablecloth. Her attention rested evenly between me and Takashi, ready to spring into action if he made a move.

“Eliza, look at me,” I said. “He isn’t worth it.”

“Do you know every person you killed?” Takashi asked, his voice quivering.

“Takashi!” Craig yelled. “Don’t aggravate the bloody Lupine!”

“Eliza,” I said, still ignoring Takashi, “repeat after me: he isn’t worth it.” I’m not even sure she could even understand me at that point. From my grip on her wrists, I could feel her vibrate with rage.

“Your little playdate in North Korea,” Takashi said, “somehow managed to kill a few of my close friends.”

At the word playdate, I almost let go of Eliza’s wrists. Yet somehow, I instead found the self-restraint to say, “He’s. Not. Worth. It.”

“Do you want to know how I know?” Takashi asked. Behind him, I could see his partner get up and begin to move slowly towards us, making obvious effort to appear non-threatening. Takashi was as oblivious to this as he was to the berserk Lupine. “I know this because the nine-year-old girl they were supposed to bring back miraculously ends up in your custody. She’s also carrying my best friend’s side-arm in footage you provided to us!”

That explained the team that wasn’t NIU, North Korean or Dragon’s Teeth. They were UNIX, and they were there for Nari. John was right. Ironically, he had figured it out when Takashi had shoved the barrel of his pistol into my eye.

At the moment, I had bigger problems to worry about. Takashi’s impassioned shout hadn’t just attracted the eyes of all the diners, but it had also pushed Eliza too far. She began to struggle violently to break free of my grasp. I knew the first thing she would do would be to rip Takashi to shreds. After that, I had no idea what she’d do, other than that it would most likely be extremely violent. The last time I had seen her even close to this, she had literally spilled someone’s guts. I had the pleasant experience of being in the same ambulance as that victim. Eliza had been much calmer in that situation.

Before she could break free, Brosnan grabbed his partner and flung him away from us. “YOU BLOODY GIT!” he yelled. “YOU FUCKING SHITSTAIN!”

“What fu…?” Takashi asked. He made a loud squeak instead of finishing his curse because Brosnan had kicked him in the balls.

“You fucking moron!” Brosnan shouted. “Now, I have to hurt you, or a Lupine goes on a bloody rampage.” Takashi yelped as Brosnan’s foot connected again. Brosnan continued, “You should know better than anyone what a Lupine can do when pissed, especially a Fighter-type female!” He stomped on Takashi. Hard. “You endangered a room full of civillians over a fucking vendetta.” He reached down and pulled Takashi up. “Get out of here. And be thankful I’ve not yet washed my hands of you.”

Takashi began to walk off, his suit rumpled and his nose and lips bleeding. For a second, it looked like he was going to say something, then he thought better. Eliza watched him leave. I was glad to note that the color was returning to her face.

After Takashi had left, Brosnan turned to us. “I apologize for the interruption,” he said. “Please, have a pleasant evening.”

“Oi,” Eliza said as Brosnan turned to leave. She was whispering in an out-of-breath, yet scarily controlled whisper.

“Yes?” Brosnan asked, turning around.

“Control your partner,” Eliza said, still in that quiet, yet dangerous voice. “Or next time, I will.”

“Of course.” Brosnan said. “I can assure you, of the two of us, it is not my partner you need to worry about.” He bowed and walked off.

 

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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.

 

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